The Vecchio File

Shay Sheridan

Among the many who have given time and advice to me while betaing this story are Ardent Muses, Sihaya Black, Beth H. and Lynnmonster. Their assistance, patience and occasional nagging have been invaluable to me. I apologize for taking so long to finish, but the only reason it's finished at all is because of them. Sincere thanks to all!


Tuesday

 

"The lair of the great detective," a familiar voice said, and I looked up from my monitor. Raymond Anthony Vecchio. He leaned against the doorjamb, trying for casual, the kind of casual I remembered all too well, but right now it was pretty obvious it was just an act. His shoulders pulled at the flashy suit, and his smile was too tight. Yeah, he was tense, all right, and the instant I laid eyes on him, so was I; we recognized it in each other.

"Can I come in?" I didn't respond, just stared at him. He came in anyway, and closed the door. "Been a long time."

Not long enough, maybe. "Yeah," I said, pleased at how smooth and even my voice sounded under the circumstances.

"I wanted to talk with you," Vecchio said. "I know I should have come before, Ray–"

I swiveled to look at him straight on. "Only my friends call me Ray," I said, annoyed with him for being there and myself for letting it bother me. I'd been done with Ray fucking Vecchio for five years.

"If you prefer, I can call you 'Stanley.'"

Damn it. There was a hint of a leer on his lips, those lying Italian lips, but I was not going to let him see even a flicker of response. I did the best I could holding down my temper, but maybe I did snarl a little. "Why should I talk to you?"

"You shouldn't, I guess."

Crap. "What the hell do you want, Vecchio?"

He walked over to my desk. "Desk looks the same as your old one," he said, poking a long finger at some papers. "Except for the computer. You finally know how to work that thing, huh?" Shithead. "Still got crap all over. Look at you – you run your own operation, and you're still a slob."

"That some kind of left-handled compliment thing?"

"A left-handed one? That what you mean?"

"I mean what I say I mean." Too sensitive. Shit.

He noticed, damn him. "Touchy, touchy." He was looking at me through half-lidded eyes, his patented "I’m too sexy" look. That was familiar, too. "Yeah, maybe. I mean, sure, it's a compliment. So, you got your name on a door, finally. Good. You look good, Kowalski. You doing okay?"

I was starting to get pissed off. Very pissed off. I didn't need to have him here. Didn't need to see him. Sure as hell didn't even want to think about him. "I asked what you wanted."

"You asked me what the hell I wanted." He pulled out the chair and sat down. "May I sit down?"

Still an arrogant S.O.B. "Help yourself," I said, though part of me just wanted to kick his ass out of my office.

"Like I said, it's been too long, Ray." He was needling me like we used to always do, like a pair of kids, and in spite of myself the corner of my mouth maybe went up a little. "And I know that's my fault, after what I did."

I kept quiet, but I stared at him, and his gaze slid away.

"You know I wasn't real motivated to be a great cop."

I didn't disagree.

"No killer instinct – not like you." He looked up. "No offense."

I shrugged. His killer instinct worked just fine.

"You know what I mean," he said, wrinkling his forehead, like he was concentrating. Or had a toothache. "I used to think you could smell out the truth, you know? You’d question those lowlifes and hang on like a pit bull until you juiced out every last drop they had to give. It’s your thing, and I admire that, really. You know me. I'd get bored, take the short cuts, wouldn't listen. Okay, so you were sort of a mess everywhere else, Kowalski, but in the interrogation room, you were a fucking genius. Times like that, I wanted to be you, you know?"

I snorted – couldn't help myself. I didn't even want to be me, most of the time.

But Vecchio was rolling on, and I let him. "I guess I didn't have the taste for that part of the job, the down and dirty–"

"–Nah, you liked the shmoozing and the mind fucks and the chase at the end." I shook my head. "Especially the mind fucks."

He waved his hands at me, some Italian code that meant who the hell knows what. "No matter what you think of me, Ray, you know that’s why we were such good partners. You beat ‘em up, I put the last nails in their coffins."

"Oh, right," I said, disgusted. "A regular duet."

"Look. I'm sorry. He was killing kids, Ray, and the brass was screaming. You were out cold in the hospital, and I was freaked, and then I found the notes – your notes – and went straight to the Lieu. It was wrong, but I would have told if it hadn't gotten so crazy – I wanted to tell."

"Uh-huh."

"Things just got out of hand. I meant to make it right, but then everyone was slapping me on the back and joking about promotions and the thing took on a life of its own. By then I didn't know how to stop it."

"You didn't want to stop it."

That brought him up short with his mouth open. He paused for a couple of seconds, taking it in. Then Vecchio let his breath out slowly. "You're right," he admitted, looking me in the eye for once. "I was a coward, and a cheat, and doing it made me feel lousy afterwards. Happy?"

"Oh yeah. Delirious. Especially when they promoted you."

"I fucking hated it, which I deserved."

"Of course you hated it. I could've told you you would."

"Maybe if you were still speaking to me."

"No chance of that." Couldn't help feeling smug. Vecchio walked the walk and talked the talk, and was slicker than satin – or Satan – when he wanted to be. He could have been a great cop, but his head wasn’t really into it; he'd lasted less than a year after being promoted to Lieutenant before giving it up for bigger and better things. Higher profile stuff.

Me, I liked cop work. But of course, by then I was long gone from the precinct, since the last thing I'd wanted was to stick around to watch him get rewarded with the job I deserved. I was too bitter and too angry over him and me. A couple of years and transfers later I called it quits on the whole shebang.

Vecchio looked at his hands resting on my desk, nice hands with a goombah manicure, that were only fidgeting a little. "It killed me when we stopped being friends, Ray," he said quietly.

"Me, too." Wished I could take that back, but it was already out of my mouth.

"But you're right, of course. Back then I didn't try to stop it. Maybe I believed the lie myself, after a while." He shook his head. "Never understood why you didn't tell them what I’d done."

He looked pretty sincere, so I cut him some slack. "So now you're a politician," I said. "You get to lie for a living." Okay, not too much slack. "That seems to fit you okay."

He narrowed his eyes, but his mouth curled up again into a sort-of smile. "Yeah, I guess so."

I looked at his Armani suit. "That fits nice, too." Good thing I'm not into clothes, at least not status clothes, because that suit probably cost more than two months rent on this office.

"I've been pretty lucky."

"Lucky? I hear you won a couple of big endorsements, Councilman.."

"Not elected yet. Still have to beat Orsini, Stanley."

Ignored that. "Shit, what’s this city coming to, coupla Eyetalians running against each other? Daley Senior woulda had a fit. Well, at least you got Donnelly money behind you." And Frank Zuko’s, an old pal of Vecchio's whose money wasn’t even close to clean. Well, that was in keeping with the long tradition of Chicago politics. I didn't say so, though. Not a cop any more. None of my business.

He tried to look modest. "Yeah, got some people behind me."

"So. Your life sounds great, Vecchio. You just come to reminisce about old crimes?"

He shifted a little in the chair. "Actually, Ray, the reason I’m here is. . . I guess I need your help."

"Yeah? So what else is new?"

"Christ, Kowalski." He made an exasperated sound.

"Just call me by one of my names." I can be a smartass too.

He snorted. "You never change, do you?"

"You should talk." I leaned back in my chair. For some reason I was beginning to relax. Maybe it was his humble act, or me knowing I was holding the upper hand for a change. "You better not be looking for a favor."

"I’m not."

"So? What is it? You come here to hire me, or something?"

"If you’ll let me."

I shrugged again. "Money is money." Hoped he didn’t know how much I needed some. "What’s the problem?"

He took a breath. "You know I’m engaged?"

Shouldn’t have relaxed. "Hey, I read the papers." Stella Murphy, daughter of Sean Michael Murphy, the big developer. Another backer.

"She’s great."

"I bet."

He looked at me, that piercing look, the one like it's about to burn right through you. Cyclops from the X-Men. "I love her."

Little defensive, there. "Well, of course you do. Only reason for a confirmed bachelor to tie the knot is love, Vecchio, ain’t that right?"

He took a breath. "She's pregnant."

I raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's one problem you don't get when you fuck men."

"Ray–"

"–So what’s the problem? You got a rich wife-to-be, gonna be a father, gonna be a Councilman, life is good."

"I’m being blackmailed."

My gut churned. This better not have anything to do with me, with what we used to get up to. That was the last thing either of us needed. "What do you need me for? Go to the police."

"C’mon, Ray." He sounded exasperated. "I can’t."

"Why?"

"There’s this guy. . . " He licked his dry lips and swallowed so hard I could see his Adam’s apple bob, and I had to look away from it, because the way his throat moved made me think of things I’d locked away and marked Do Not Open.

I shook off the memory, annoyed with myself. "What guy?"

"A Canadian guy, liaising with City Hall and the police. We met over somebody’s visa status. He’s assigned here to work with their Consulate, exchange programs, anti-terrorism, security, all sorts of stuff. It was right after I started working on the Mayor’s Security Task Force, and he was sort of my counterpart. My opposite number, like. Great guy, name of Fraser. Good at his job."

"Oh. ‘Good at his job.’" Pardon my smirk. "Just that?"

He didn't respond for a second, and when he did, his voice was low. "No. Not just that. I’ve been seeing him for a couple of months, since just before I got tapped to run." He slumped in his chair, looking miserable. "It's hard to explain how it happened."

Not really. I know how that stuff happens, when one minute you have your life figured out, and then – surprise, something kicks you in the head. But this was insanity. "Not smart, Vecchio. Not too good for your career."

"No, it’s not. It's stupid. Stupider than you know. He’s an ex-cop, too. A former Mountie, if you can believe that."

"Oh, that’s cute. ‘Mount-ee.’ Or is that you?" He sent me a cold look. "Come on. It’s a pun, or something."

"Pardon me if I don’t laugh." His face was sour.

"So you love him, and you love Stella Murphy. My, aren’t we flexible."

"I didn’t say I love him."

"No, you never do that, do you? Guess little Stella must really be special, if you love her. Or didn’t you tell her either?"

His hands came up in fists and clenched there for a second before they fell back to his sides. "Okay, maybe I deserve that."

"’Maybe?’ So you’re running for office and fucking a cop? Well, that last part’s nothing new to you, is it? Oh, wait, a Canadian cop. They better, north of the border? Guess he’s special, too, huh?"

"Yes, he is," Vecchio snapped, glaring at me. His mouth was rigid.

"Well, great. Greatness." My face was getting hot. "You come here, to my office, and dump this on me? You have some goddamn nerve, Vecchio, after everything you put me through, to come in and give me pity compliments, and tell me about your perfect fucking life and your sleazy backers, and your Gold Coast girl and, oh, yeah, your special Canadian piece-of-ass -on-the-side, and you expect me to care that someone caught you? Well, good for them, Vecchio, because you fucking deserve whatever you get."

Five years ago he would have punched me. Now he looked like I’d punched him. And it was no fun at all, because it felt too much like I’d gut-punched myself.

"This was a bad idea." He stood, scraping the chair against the floor. "I’m sorry about what happened on the job, Ray. I’m sorry about us. I’m sorry for it, all of it, though I know an apology doesn’t count for much this late in the game. It doesn’t matter anymore."

Damn it to hell. "Wait."

"Forget it."

"Fuck, Vecchio. It does. It does matter. It did."

He was headed for the door, but that stopped him, though he didn’t turn around. "It mattered to me, too, Ray. You mattered . I just. . . I fucked up. All over."

"Yeah, you did," I said gruffly. "Now sit down."

He turned then, looking at me like I was unhinged, and frankly, maybe I was.. Don’t know what I was doing. Sure as hell don’t know what I was feeling. "You’ll do this?" he asked.

"Maybe."

"Then. . . thanks." He sat.

"Don’t thank me yet. If I do it, it won’t be for you."

He wrinkled his brow. "No? Then why–"

"–Because I’m not an asshole. Not like you. And I need the money." Well, now, that slipped out easy, didn’t it? He was smart enough not to comment. "Okay. Tell me about the blackmail.. What is it – phone calls? Letters?"

He took a moment to study me, like he was stuck or something. Then he leaned forward, his elbows pushing aside the clutter of papers on my desk. "Letters. With pictures, descriptions of where I’ve been with Ben."

I flipped open a notebook. "Ben Fraser’s his name? Benjamin?"

"Benton, actually. He’s a special assistant to the Consul General. A political appointee."

"Makes strange bedfellows, huh, Vecchio," I murmured as I wrote that down. "Politics, I mean."

"I know what you meant."

"Who else knows you’re seeing this guy?"

"No one. We had a few dinners, but we were doing our ‘business dinner’ routine. Discreet. What we did, we did in private."

"Not at your house, I hope."

"Gimme a break. Mostly out of town, arriving separately. I was never tailed – you know I’d see it, if I was. Or I’d come over to the Consulate after hours. He has an apartment on the top floor. I have a key."

I looked at him, my mouth gaping. "Are you an idiot? You’re doing this where he works? And, by the way, he lives where he works?"

"Yeah, it came with his job. What’s the problem? It’s a free-standing building and no one’s there when I come over."

"You ever hear of surveillance cameras?"

"Sure I have, security task force, remember? He turns it off when I’m coming over. No one’s ever seen me, Ray, I promise you."

Except someone had, somewhere.

"Hmm." I’d take him at his word about the surveillance; he was no fool. But even sharp guys can get blindsided. "How long you been seeing him?"

"’Bout three months. Told you, we met at City Hall. Six months ago there was an Iranian guy the Feds were watching who set off a security alert by staying past his student visa. Got deported, came back through Canada, you know, so it set off bells. Benny and I were working on it and we just hit it off. He’s from way up north, near the Arctic Circle. Interesting guy, I just felt a connection–"

The last thing I wanted was to hear him get all mushy. "Yeah, yeah, so you and Eskimo Joe started banging each other."

"Christ, Ray."

"There you go, calling me Christ again."

"Jerk. Yeah, it took several months of dancing around it, but then we both figured out what we wanted, and started, you know, fooling around for real."

I looked up at him. "You safe, Vecchio? Not doing anything dangerous?"

He looked up, and I though he was trying to be smug again, but there was something else entirely in his face. "You almost sound like you care."

Don't know why I pushed; don't know why I had to know. But I did. "Are you doing anything that could kill you, Ray?"

"No. No. We practice safe sex, okay?"

"Safe sex like you do with Stella? Or did I miss that day in biology class when they explain how girls get pregnant."

His face closed tighter than hurricane shutters in Florida. "That's different. Leave her out of it."

"Fine. Sure. Whatever." I shrugged, in case he missed my indifference.

"Fine." He relaxed visibly. "You satisfied now?"

"Me? I’m never satisfied."

"So I remember." Now he was leering at me.

Okay, I had to get this conversation back on track, which meant I had to go with that killer instinct he said I had. " You know, Vecchio, this guy, this Canadian – he’s in the best place to do the blackmailing."

The leer left his face. "Not a chance."

"You’re sure of that."

"Completely. He’s not. . . He couldn’t. It’s not in his nature to do things like that."

I gave him my most critical look, but he didn’t blink. He seemed to believe in this Ben Fraser totally. Utterly. But love, not that that’s what it was, is blind, most of the time. "Why not?"

"Because he’s. . . You’d just have to meet him, Ray, and you’d know. I mean, sure, we’re doing the nasty, but this guy, he’s like untouched – no, not physically, so keep your mouth shut. He’s like snow, Ray. Not the Chicago stuff, the clean stuff you see on mountains. He’s one of the good guys. He’s honest." He was blushing a little, which was a pretty rare sight on Raymond Vecchio.

Wow. I blew out a breath and sat back, unsure of what to say. I was impressed. And I guess I was a little jealous, too, which scared the hell out of me and was the last thing I expected after hating him all this time. Still, I’d have to meet this Fraser before I could believe Vecchio. Have to trust my own instincts, because right now Vecchio’s didn’t sound so steady to me. "Okay. You, ah, got the letters?"

He reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out some envelopes. "Tested for prints, but there was nothing usable."

"What'd you tell them at the lab?"

"Nothing. Grabbed the stuff and did it myself. Made up some excuse." His eyes met mine. "That's why I need an outside person, Ray. Can't risk too many questions."

Made sense to me. There were two letters, pretty standard blackmail threats, as these things go, "I know what you did, and I’ll tell unless you pay up, and by the way, here’s a sample photo and some details" type. Both ended with the promise, or threat, that the writer would be in touch with payment details. That seemed a little odd, unless the blackmailer was trying to build up anxiety.

The two photos were nothing special, no naked bodies or anything, but they did show Ray and this guy standing a little too close, looking at each other in a way that just looked suspicious.

But this guy. . .

Jesus, he was good looking. Perfect jaw, dark hair, blue eyes, I think, a to-die-for smile, with a nice build, from what I could see in the picture. The way he was looking at Vecchio in one shot almost made me want to adjust myself.

"He’s uh. . . not your usual type, Vecchio."

"What does that mean?"

"Nothing. He’s better looking than the type you usually attract."

He gave me a look from under his lids, and chuckled a little. "I don’t know about that. I do okay."

"Yeah, you do, I guess. Stella Murphy is nothing to sneeze at, if her pictures do her any justice."

"No, I meant. . . " He shut his mouth and shook his head. "Yeah, Stella. I always did have a thing for blondes."

I let that pass. "Yeah, well, I can see why you made an exception for him. He’s one damn fine hunk of Canadian beefcake, Ray." I read the letters again. Nothing jumped out at me. "He know about this?"

"I had to tell him. He deserved to know."

I nodded. "He getting letters, too?" He shook his head. Interesting. "Can I keep these?"

"So I guess you’ll take the case."

"I’m pretty busy right now," I started to say, which wasn’t complete bullshit, but he stood up and leaned over the desk.

"Look. . . I owe you a lot and you don't owe me anything, but please, Ray." He was begging in earnest, desperate, the way I'd always wanted to see him after he betrayed me, but it didn't make me feel good. It made me feel lousy. The guy had been my. . . I don’t know. Well, we’d been close a long time, and clearly he was freaked out.

"Yeah, okay."

"I won’t forget it, Ray," he said quietly. "And if I get elected, trust me, I’ll make sure it's good for your career."

Oh, yeah. Favors. The Chicago way. "I never thought too much about that," I said. "Just wanted what I deserved."

"You deserved a hell of a lot more than I could have given you, Kowalski."

"Give me a break," I said, but still I was embarrassed by his words. I think he knew it, because he ducked his head and gave me a second.. "I'll see what I can do, see what I can find out. Make a couple of calls, do some checking, all right?"

"That's great, just great, Ray," he said with relief. "You’ll be, ah. . . "

"Discreet?" He nodded, but now he was embarrassed. He should be. "Don’t you think I learned how to do that a long time ago?"

"Yeah. Sorry."

"Should be."

"Uh–"

"What now?"

"About your fee. . . ?"

"You’ll get a bill. I don’t negotiate."

"Okay."

Not even a slight pause. Good. I liked having the upper hand. Didn’t happen all that often. "I won’t cheat you."

"I know."

"And I'm not making any promises."

"Sure." He straightened up. "I'd better go tell Ben. He'll be grateful. We're both grateful."

Dammit. "Don’t. Don’t tell him, Ray. I want to meet him first."

His expression darkened. "He’s not behind this."

"Fine. But let me meet him first, okay?" He didn’t say anything, and my voice got sharper. "It’s my way or the highway, pal."

Finally Ray nodded, his shoulders slumping a little. He stood there, looking like he couldn't decide whether to stick out a hand, wondering if I'd take it or not. The moment passed and our hands stayed put, neither of us ready to take the initiative. "I'll call you if I find out anything," I said.

"Thanks." He walked to the door, and turned to face me. "I owe you, Ray."

"Like I said, what's new?"

Ray grinned, a little grimly. There was less tension in both of us now, but there was something more I had to say.

"Five years ago," I said, "I didn't tell them because you were my friend. That’s what friends do."

He didn’t say anything for a minute, but his face slowly slid into sadness. "We were a lot more than friends, Ray."

My face was probably a mirror of his. "Yeah, we were. That’s why it sucked so much."

"Yeah," was all he said, and he went.
 



If you think about it, me getting involved with Ray Vecchio in a more-than-just-partners way was a really dumb idea from the start, but like most dumb things I get myself into, it happened because I wasn’t thinking with my brain. Because areas a little further south than my brain were doing the thinking, Ray Vecchio and me went from being friends and partners to humping each other in dark alleyways and bumping uglies on the brown couch in my apartment.

Of course it didn’t happen like that, that fast. It took years of up close and personal, of him being there when I fell for women out of my league, and me being there for him while he dated trashy bimbos and married women, years of hopeless, pointless relationships for both of us that ended as you might expect. It also took me getting past being shocked at his occasional trips to the boy side. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that Vecchio played for both teams; after all, like Woody Allen said, it doubles your chances of scoring on Saturday night.

Ray was into scoring. Balding and big-nosed, the guy wasn’t what you’d call handsome, but he dressed nice – obsessed about clothes, almost – and he had this voice he could turn into velvet when he wanted to charm you. Plus there was his "Rico Suave" attitude, which he had down pat, which actually worked on more people than you might suppose. It’s not that everyone dropped at his feet, but when he went after you, he was like something out of one of those nature documentaries – you know, "Observe the hungry cheetah as it fixes on one particular antelope and runs it down until he gets it." Sure, sometimes the antelope got away, but more often than not that particular Italian cheetah would end up with some nice hot antelope for dinner.

So I figured it was just part of who he was, hunter of both girl antelopes and boy antelopes, and I just shrugged, because who cared who he was doing, as long as it was never serious enough to come between us as friends or partners. In fact, Vecchio never did serious, and if his equal-opportunity charm helped him get over on suspects of both sexes, well, so much the better for me.

And who was I to judge, anyway? It’s not like I was this big virgin; I mean, I’ve done my share of circle jerks, and I’ve always had a creative fantasy life, particularly a recurring one that kept me hard through half the eighties, involving me, Chrissie Hynde and David Bowie, who in my fantasies always blended into the same person. And if my real sex life up till then (involving an actual person other than myself, I mean) was less than thrilling, pretty much limited to Angela Battista, the class slut, Mary Catherine Kmetko, the good girl who ran home afterwards and never spoke to me again, and flings with women I didn’t miss when they left, well, in my past I also did have one quick b.j. from Andy Volpe, because he blew everyone.

Oh yeah, I did almost sleep with Vecchio’s sister once, but seeing how things turned out with me and her brother, it’s just as well she decided I wasn’t good marriage material. She told me so, got out of the car and went home. And here I’d thought we were just on a first date.

The night things changed for me and Vecchio followed a day that left me strung out and sick to my stomach. There was this case, a woman on death row for killing her husband, and she’d been my first big collar back when I was a rookie; it was a case that was in all the newspapers, because her husband was a cop. I rode the coat tails of that arrest right into the Detective division, and didn’t think too much about it, but eight years later, on the day of her execution, I completely fell apart, suddenly realizing I’d been the first link in a long chain between her and that needle. Knowing she was guilty didn’t help much; neither did believing in the death penalty, which I always had, until then. But it was somehow too close now, and I got overwhelmed. After my third shouting match at the station, Vecchio hauled my ass out of there, threw me into his car and drove me out to the lake.

We just sat there, him being quiet for once, not his usual sarcastic self, and me pissed at him for dragging me out here. I bolted out of the car and started walking along the shoreline. Had no idea where I was going. But after a while I stopped being so angry at him, and at me, and then I started letting the sad stuff come through, and then I was on the grass crying like a baby, and Ray Vecchio was telling me it was okay, and his arm was around me, which seemed okay, too, because he was my buddy, my partner.

We got back to the car, me still all messed up, and he took me home, brought me upstairs, and somewhere between his third and my fifth shot of Chivas he was kissing me, and damn if it didn’t feel just fine to me. And then his hand on my dick felt even better, then his mouth around it was near paradise, and by the time I was coming with him deep throating me and his finger in my ass, I felt so damn good, I couldn’t even remember that I’d killed Beth Botrelle earlier that day.

For a couple days afterwards, I was a little freaked out, but he didn’t push himself on me, just let me know he was there if I was interested. In fact, he apologized for taking advantage of me, said he’d realized how attracted he was to me, but knew his timing sucked. Meanwhile, I was remembering what else sucked, or at least got sucked, and the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that I had been thinking about him that way for some time, too. So I finally told him that, and he gave me one of those heavy-eyelid looks, like he was really pleased and turned on, and we went to my place and I performed the sloppiest blow job on record, which was effective anyway, as it turned out.

After that, it was no holds barred. We grabbed what we could get, when we could get it. We steamed up the windows of his car and mine. His house was off limits because of his mother and sisters (who he still lived with, for some reason) but my couch saw plenty of action.

We never had sex in the bedroom, something which didn’t seem odd until later.

It also never occurred to me to consider myself some big queer, now; I was just having sex with my partner. Didn’t count. This wasn’t any sort of life-changing, sexual-identity altering romance, no way. At least that’s what my brain was telling me. What my heart was telling me was that I felt way more for him than I had felt for any of the women in my life. And my stupid-o-meter was busy convincing me he felt the same way about me.

Later, of course, after the big bust-up over collaring Geraghty, I finally understood that the guy Ray Vecchio loved best was Ray Vecchio.

After that, I spent a few months trying to blame him for "turning" me. Took me a while, and some serious thinking, to accept that it wasn’t true; he didn’t have that power – nobody does. You want who you want, and Jerry Falwell to the contrary, people can’t decide to be gay or straight. I reconciled myself to the fact that I was born to hunt both types of antelopes, too, which in the long run seemed kind of all right.

Big talker. I hadn’t been with another guy since then, though I’d looked plenty. I’d reverted back to my half-assed pursuit of women, and though I’m not Brad Pitt or whoever women want these days, I clean up okay. But no one had really turned my crank in a long time.

Of course, nobody would give a rat’s ass whether Ray Kowalski was banging some Jane Doe or all five Backstreet Boys. I was nobody, just a guy trying to make a living; I worked for myself, and for clients who didn't spend enough time with me to know which way I tilted. Unlike Vecchio, my sex life wasn’t tabloid material.

I thought about that while I was driving over to the Canadian Consulate to meet Vecchio’s new boyfriend, because I had to wonder what possessed my old partner to court disaster. I mean, if Vecchio wanted to get elected, he should go with Plan A, pretend he was totally straight, and just marry Stella Murphy. Her dad was funding a lot of his campaign, after all, and it seemed pretty uncool to screw around behind his fiancée’s back, no matter who it was with. Or he could forget her, be honest and say he had a boyfriend, make his lifestyle and honesty a campaign issue. Possible he’d still win, I suppose – I mean there are out gay people in office. But to risk getting caught like this, well. . . there had been times I’d wanted to see Vecchio suffer, but the image of his whole life hitting the fan in a blur of shit wasn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy.

And I guess he wasn’t really my enemy.

The Consulate was some old Addams Family mansion, and there was a guy outside in a bright red uniform, like something off a Christmas tree. He didn’t even look my way as I went up the steps and pushed the door open. If he was supposed to be security, he sucked at it.

Inside was all dark wood and tiled floors, the smell of furniture polish and musty wallpaper. A very tall man in a very red jacket behind a very small desk stood up and greeted me with an ear-to-ear smile. He looked so happy to see me, I wondered if I was the first visitor they’d ever had.

"Good morning, sir! Welcome to Canada!"

Last time I checked I was still in Chicago, Illinois, US of A, but the guy was so happy I didn’t want to ruin his day by letting him in on the secret. "Uh, thanks."

"My name is Constable Turnbull. How may I direct you?"

"Is Benton Fraser here?"

"Do you have an appointment with Mr. Fraser?"

"No." I fished out a card, one of my collection. "If he’s here, maybe you could give him this?"

"Certainly, Mr. – Raymond. Oh, my, you’re a journalist. How very interesting!"

"Not really." This chirpy guy was about to drive me nuts. "Look, uh – could you find out if Fraser can see me?"

"Of course. So sorry. Won’t you have a seat?" He gestured me to a small waiting room. "Would you care for a beverage? Water? Coffee? Tea? We have a nice Sri Lankan–"

"–Nothing, thanks. Just, uh, Fraser?"

"Certainly. I’ll be just a moment." And he disappeared up the hall staircase. I shook my head, feeling like I’d been attacked by the politeness police. Couldn’t be a Canadian thing; I’ve been to hockey games.

A couple minutes later I was learning how to become a Canadian in ten easy steps, courtesy of a cheerful red and white pamphlet I’d found on a table, when a baritone voice inquired, "Stanley Raymond?"

"Yeah, that’s me," I said, standing, and looked up to see a capital-H Handsome Guy.

Ben Fraser in the flesh looked better than he had in the photographs, and that was saying something. He was about my age and height, which made him mid-thirties and just under six feet. He had nice shoulders and hands, and yes, I’d guessed right from the photo, blue eyes, eyes that probably looked bluer than they actually were because of the shirt he was wearing under his dark grey suit.

"How do you do." His smile was nice and his handshake was firm and warm and I really didn’t want to let go, but I did. "And how may I help you?"

"Could we. . . go somewhere a little more private?"

He looked around the empty waiting room, then back at me, but didn’t challenge my request. "Right this way."

Fraser had an office on the second floor, halfway back, a fair-sized room with curtained windows and a leather couch. Bookshelves lined three of the walls; the overall effect was of entering a library. As I got to the door, I happened to glance to my left and through an open door I saw a ritzy bedroom. "You running a bed and breakfast out of this place?"

"Well, no, that would require a cooking staff and more than one bedroom." Good Christ, did he have a sense of humor? "Ah, I see what you’re looking at. Actually, that’s the Regal Suite. It’s kept ready in case we have important dignitaries visiting from Canada."

"You mean, like hockey players and stuff?" I was laying on the rough guy attitude because it suited sleazy Stanley Raymond.

"Well, I don’t think we’ve actually had any of those, at least not since I’ve been here. We don’t have the kind of facilities most sports figures require."

"Right, right. I mean, if they want to trash their suite, it wouldn’t go over too good here, would it?"

Fraser looked at me like maybe I’d lost a few marbles. "Not really, no." He crossed behind his desk and waved me to a chair. "Now, Mr. Raymond, how may I be of service?"

Let’s see just how good this paragon of virtue really was. "Well, Mr. Fraser, I’m a freelance writer and I’ve recently come into some information that sounded like it might lead to an interesting story."

"Indeed. And this story concerns Canada?"

"Not exactly, no, though it does involve a Canadian export." I thought that was pretty damn clever. "And it’s also timely, because it has to do with Chicago politics and the upcoming election."

I thought I saw a slight movement in his eyes, but his pleasantly bland expression didn’t change. "Can you be more specific, Mr. Raymond?"

"Well, yes, Mr. Fraser, I can be. It concerns one of the candidates running to fill the vacancy left when Councilman Gardino died so suddenly. Ray Vecchio. Nice guy, good candidate, engaged to the Murphy girl. I believe you know him?"

Now his face really was different: there was a definite glacial look to his nice blue eyes and his jaw was stone. "I know him. Would you please get to the point?"

"Sure, sure, sorry. Just heard somewhere that the future Mr. Stella Murphy might have a secret. And that you might have special information about that secret."

Now he just stared at me.

It was actually kind of unnerving, that stare, so I went on, trying to keep to my script, but it was tough. "So, anyway, I thought I might check on that with you. The secret. The secret about the two of you, you know?"

Benton Fraser leaned forward slightly, his hands calm on the desk, but his mouth was a line straight enough to have been made by a ruler.. It was a shame, really, because he had a nice mouth. I’d noticed that right away, and I’d had the quick thought that it might be a good mouth for kissing. But right now it wasn’t smiling, and it wasn’t kissable. He was silent a few seconds longer, then rubbed his eyebrow, the first nervous gesture he’d made. He got finished looking into my eyes, and that was a relief, because it had taken everything I had not to look away, and finally he said, "What is it you want from me, Mr. Raymond?" His voice was pretty steady, though not too loud.

"Well, I thought you might be interested in a business deal."

"Ah. And that would entail. . . ?"

"'Entail,' that’s good. Good word. That would entail one of two things, Mr. Fraser. I could write a real nice story about the cooperation between the USA and Canada, you know, talking about the international relations between you and Ray Vecchio, with footnotes and photos and everything, and let you tell your story, from your point of view, and then sell it to the Chicago Tattler, and I bet it would be a real page turner for the people of this great city. Not to mention there’d be a few bucks in it for you, as the uh, consultant on the story. On the other hand, you could decide not to cooperate, and I could end up with a crappy story, so I might have to lean a little more or my own creative writing skills. You might not come out looking so, uh, sympathetic. The Tattler might even like it better that way – they got no morals, so who knows? Look, either way it gets written. So. This is where I need your help, Mr. Fraser. I need to know what kind of story to write." On a whim I threw in something else. "Of course, if you need some time to think, we could go somewhere for dinner, or maybe even to a nice bed and breakfast, and work it out. Might even convince me not to run the story. You look like you might be up for that, and so would I." I tried out a flirtatious smile, but it felt weird. Should have stuck to the script.

I leaned back in the chair and waited. If he wasn't loyal to Vecchio, he'd go for the deal. If he was a creep, he just might offer to get together with me, too. The next move was his, and I just wanted to watch to see what he did.

"I see. Well, that’s an interesting proposal, Mr. Raymond."

"Glad to hear it."

He pushed back the chair and stood up. "If you will excuse me for a minute, I just need to arrange something." Without waiting for a reply he crossed to the door, stuck his head out and called, "Diefenbaker!"

I didn’t have time to wonder if he was calling for reinforcements or for his secretary, because he stepped aside, saying "Hold!" and a gray blur came through the door and landed with force against my chest. The air got knocked out of me, and my first reaction was to push whatever it was away, but I realized with a sinking feeling that the blur was an enormous dog with its paws on my lap and its bared fangs inches away from my throat.

"Hey, nice, nice doggy, real nice," I panted, but the thing just opened its mouth more. Big teeth. Very big teeth. Fuck you, Vecchio.

"I suggest you not move, Mr. Raymond, or my wolf might not take it kindly." Wolf? "I’m going to reach inside your coat now and remove the weapon you’re carrying." Shit. His hands slipped inside my jacket and pulled my gun free of its shoulder holster. He looked at it with interest. "Fine weapon. Well cared for, I see." Well cared for? "Now, if you’ll please remain seated calmly, I will return in a few minutes." And with that, the bastard strolled out the door, shutting it behind him.

Those next few minutes were sheer hell. I’ve always liked dogs, had a crazy little mutt growing up, but this thing was a wolf, for Chrissakes. I didn’t like the way it looked at me, all hungry and wild, like I was a particularly juicy sandwich and it hadn’t eaten in a week. It was close enough for me to feel its hot breath on my face, which did nothing to inspire confidence that I might make it out of here with all my parts intact. I couldn’t remember if you’re supposed to stare wild animals down or play dead. My body wanted to do the second, but I was frozen in that chair, afraid to do so much as twitch. Of course, because I couldn’t move, my nose began to itch like crazy, and a drop of the cold sweat that was collecting on my face began to roll down my cheek like the Chinese freaking water torture. I raised one hand a few inches to see if I could manage to wipe my face, but the wolf made a noise and moved a paw to my chest, and I put my hand back down, real gentle-like.

It felt like hours, but it probably wasn’t more than a couple of minutes before I heard the door open. "Down, Dief," Fraser’s voice said, and I felt so much relief, I thought I might pass out. But the damn thing didn’t move, and Fraser said, "I mean it, Dief, down!" and when nothing happened, he actually came over and grabbed the animal’s snout, pulled it to the side and said in a pissy voice, "Are you planning to obey me, or shall I assume you have no understanding of the words 'down' or 'alpha,' as in, I am the alpha male here and I am telling you to get down?"

The wolf whined, as if he was answering him.

Okay, I was in the middle of a sitcom from hell. I almost laughed, except the wolf still had big teeth and they were still within Ray-killing range. A second later, he moved his paws and got down, but not before he licked me across my entire face in one disgusting swipe.

"What the hell was that?" I sputtered, wiping wolf spit off my mouth.

"Maybe you should tell me, Mr. Kowalski," Benton Fraser said, sitting in his chair.

I was so busy dabbing and wiping that it took a second before I heard what he’d called me and looked up.

"There’s no need for further pretense. I just hung up from speaking with Ray Vecchio. I described you to him, and he told me who you are." He steepled his fingers together in front of him. I noticed my gun was there, the clip unloaded.

"Oh, did he. And did he tell you he–"

"–Hired you? Yes, and he said to tell you that you’re a dumb. . ." Fraser colored suddenly. "Well, he used an ethnic slur which I would rather not repeat."

"Polack. He said I was a dumb Polack. It’s okay, Fraser. I call him the greasy Eye-talian. It’s sort of a joke between us." Used to be, anyway.

Fraser shook his head. "I’m afraid I don’t approve of ethnic remarks, no matter what one’s intent is in making them."

Jeez, Louise. Could this guy be any straighter? I mean. . . well, not that way. But it was hard to imagine someone who took offense so easily having a relationship with Ray Vecchio. The only person with more crude words at his disposal than Vecchio was me.

Fraser was looking at me with a little more interest, or at least without that ice-field glare he’d frozen me with before. "Ray says you didn’t tell him what you were going to do, Mr. Kowalski. Is that correct?"

"Do you usually doubt the guy you’re sleeping with?"

Another red flush passed over his face. It was actually kind of attractive. "Of course not. It’s just that he’s been under a lot of strain with this unfortunate business."

"And you’re not?"

Okay, the flush was turning into something darker, or maybe that was just Fraser’s expression. I liked getting under his skin; it was a kind of payback for the scare he'd given me with that wolf trick. That made me turn around to look for the animal. He was curled up next to the desk, yawning, and didn’t look too dangerous at the moment. Maybe he wasn’t even really a wolf.

"Do you always answer questions with questions, Mr. Kowalski? It’s not a very attractive trait."

"So you’re saying you don’t find me attractive?"

"Mr. Kowalski–" There was an exasperated edge in his voice and I decided I’d had enough of deliberately irritating him.

"Look, Fraser, Vecchio hired me to look into the blackmailing business. I insisted that he not tell you he’d done it until I met you. He really had no idea I was going to do this, so don’t be mad at him, okay?" I reached over for my gun and clip.

"Okay." He looked like it might not be okay, but he dropped the subject. "So, have you made up your mind whether I’m involved in the crime?"

I looked at him sideways while I put the weapon away. No fool, that Benton Fraser. I guess I knew that much about him already.

I also knew, or thought I knew, why Ray Vecchio figured he wasn't sending the letters. I mean, there was no actual proof, and maybe he was the best actor in the world, but I doubted it. It's hard to make yourself blush on cue. Though I didn’t have his number quite yet, the way he behaved – no fake indignation, no lying, no taking the bait – made me pretty sure he was no blackmailer. "No, I don’t think you’re involved."

"Did Ray think I was?"

I studied him. He sounded a little insecure, like maybe he expected that Vecchio had doubts. That was funny. Well, that’s relationships for you. Brings out insecurities by the bucketful. "Vecchio trusts you."

He relaxed visibly, and I realized Fraser was in fact a little frazzled by the situation; he just showed less frazzle than the rest of us do. He released a long breath and turned his attention to me again. "Evidently he trusts you too, Mr. Kowalski. He said you were partners when he was with the Chicago Police Department."

"Partners, yeah." I snorted, then covered it up by clearing my throat. "Look, how about if you just call me Ray. Unless you think it might become confusing." I made a mental note to try to do something about this sarcasm problem I seem to have.

"I think I can bear up under the pressure." Okay, he had his own sarcasm issues. Oddly, that made him more interesting to me. More appealing–

Careful, Kowalski. Do not go there. This guy is seriously unavailable, and unavailable due to the last person in the world you want to tangle with again. Unavailable to the nth power. Just get it out of your brain.

My brain is never the problem.

The wolf made a noise and I turned, partly to retreat from territory I should not be visiting. Dief – or whatever his name was – was grinning in a doggy way and flapping his tail at me, like the nicest pet in the world. Weird. "What’s with him? He really a wolf?"

"Part wolf, actually." Fraser looked at him and frowned. "Really, Dief, you might at least pretend." The wolf yipped and grinned, and Fraser turned back to me, shaking his head in disgust. "Why do I even bother?"

"Would he have ripped my throat out for real?"

"Not unless you'd attacked me. He likes you."

He liked me. His dog, I mean wolf, liked me. I felt like Sally Field. "Does he like Vecchio?" Christ, not too competitive there.

"Very much so. I'm afraid Ray doesn't – I mean, Ray Vecchio – doesn't always feel the same."

"Probably afraid of getting fur on his pants."

Fraser laughed softly. "Yes, Ray is rather meticulous."

I nodded to the animal. "If he's part wolf, what's the rest of him?"

"Well, dog, obviously, though I’m not altogether sure what breed." He leaned closer, like he didn’t want the thing to overhear. "He’s a bit sensitive about that, actually."

Okay, Fraser was definitely strange. Good thing he was so hot, because otherwise he’d probably freak the hell out of people.

"May I ask what your course of action will be in this investigation, Mr. – ah, Ray?"

Even though I couldn't absolutely rule him out as a suspect, I figured I might as well tell him in general terms. "I want to know what you and Vecchio have been working on, where you've been, places you've stayed, restaurants you've gone to, people you have in common, the whole ball of wax." I fished around in my inside pocket and came up with a photo. "For example, where was this taken?"

"That's. . . good heavens. I hadn't seen that. That's outside the Murphy's farm, well, really a country house, in Barrington Hills."

I never knew what it meant to "goggle" at someone, but right then I'm pretty sure that's what I was doing.. "Sean Murphy, as in Stella Murphy's father?"

"Well, yes. They were having a barbecue."

"And you came as Vecchio's date?"

He rolled his eyes. "Please. I was there with the Canadian ambassador, who was visiting from Washington. She is an old friend of Mr. Murphy's. My being there had nothing to do with Ray."

"Fraser. Don't lie. Look at your expression in the photo. It has everything to do with him."

"I’m not lying." Yes, there was the flush again. "It was a surprise. I hadn't expected to see him there." I was shaking my head at him, and he stopped. "What?"

"He's engaged to Stella Murphy and you hadn't expected to see him there? C'mon. You're a lousy liar, Benton Fraser, and I suggest you quit doing it." His mouth was clamped shut, so I went on. "This looks like it was taken with a telephoto lens. What sort of place is it, their farm?"

He looked relieved to be back dealing with simple facts, and rattled them off with the precision of a trained observer. "It's a large property, I would estimate over two dozen acres, with a fifteen-room house situated a tenth of a mile off the road, pool, pool house, stables for six horses, exercise yard. Across the road is another pasture that belongs to the Murphys. There's a freestanding six-car garage. The entire property is fenced, and there is a gate from the road. The party was held around the pool and in the property to the rear of the house."

"Neighbors? Trees? Anything that could have been used for cover?"

"Just the buildings themselves. The closest trees are too sparsely grouped to afford cover and the others too far for that photo. The property has no hills or depressions. The closest house is several kilometers away.."

I turned the picture over and looked at it. "Where were you, exactly?"

"There's a gazebo at the rear of the property. From the angle of the shot, I would speculate that it was taken from the pool house."

Gazebo. A nice, romantic place to meet "by accident" during a party.. "Tell me what the event was like."

"It was primarily a thank you for some people who had contributed to the political party, friends of Murphy's and his daughter's, and a few dignitaries – Ambassador Thatcher, for one, the Deputy Mayor, plus an Irish Trade Minister named Le Fanu. I saw Marian Tibbits and Rex Harper, who I believe are some sort of newspersons–

"–Anchors, Channel 8. They were guests, or were they working?"

"Guests. Mr. Harper seemed to drink quite a bit."

"Any other press?"

"Not that I was aware of, but I wasn't introduced to everyone. Though. . . Good Lord!"

"What?"

"There was a photographer there. Taking pictures of the guests. You know, for press releases and the like. Private. A man in his late forties, I would say."

I made a note on the notepad I'd been scribbling in. "Tell me more."

"There were about fifty guests in all, caterers, and a quartet playing Celtic music. The area behind the pool was tented, with tables and chairs underneath. Sean Murphy spent most of the party with the Deputy Mayor, and another man, Gilbert Wallace, who I believe is in business with Mr. Murphy. There was a third who seemed to be around every time I saw Mr. Murphy. He looked like he might be a security officer."

"Bodyguard, you mean?"

"Possibly."

"What, he looked like a cop? A side of beef?"

Fraser thought, his teeth worrying his lip. Nice lip. "No, more of a wariness about him. He kept his eyes moving, as you might if you were concerned about security."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. Stella Murphy acted as the hostess, as her mother is deceased, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I am not a liar."

Whoa. "Fraser–"

"No, Mr. Kowalski." His voice was sharper, harsher. "I told you I didn't know Ray Vecchio was going to be there, and I didn't. He told me he would be out of town. That's why I asked the ambassador if I could accompany her. I wanted to find out what she was like."

My brain was struggling to catch up. "Who, the ambassador?"

"No, I am well acquainted with Ambassador Thatcher. Stella Murphy. I wanted to see. . . " He stopped suddenly, his mouth closing, eyes dropping away.

But I got it. "You wanted to see the woman Vecchio is going to marry. You wanted to know why."

His eyes stayed where they were.

"Want to talk about that?

"Um, no. It's rather. . . embarrassing, really. Stupid. Ridiculous." There was a noise in the hall and the big guy from downstairs crossed in front of the doorway, carrying a feather duster. More weirdness. "Actually," Fraser went on, his eyes on the door, "I'm rather uncomfortable discussing any of this here."

I nodded. Sure, no need to dissect his personal life at the office. I wondered if he was "out" to his co-workers. "It's almost five," I said, checking my watch. "Would you be willing to discuss this somewhere else? Like my office, or if you're not comfortable there, a bar or something?" He looked startled and I put up a hand to stop him before he came to the wrong conclusion. "I know I made a pass at you before, but that was me trying to see what you were made of. That's not what this is, okay? I just need to get the ball rolling on this investigation."

"Understood. I didn’t think it was an improper suggestion. And yes, I, too, would like to start making headway on this."

"So. . . "

"If you can wait a few minutes while I finish up here, I wouldn't mind an early dinner, if that suits you. I need to be back here later for a meeting."

"Sure." Interrogation to dinner date in one fell swoop. Interesting. But, I forced myself to remember, this was not a date, Benton Fraser was Ray Vecchio's boyfriend and I was working for Vecchio.

There's always a catch.
 



"You ready to talk about personal stuff now?"

Benton Fraser put down his water glass. "I suppose I must."

I had been going to take him to Gino's, because the food is good and they leave you alone as long as you want to sit there, but as we pulled up to it I'd gotten a weird vibe. Vecchio and I used to hang out there. I already felt like a patsy for agreeing to work for him; I didn’t need to be reminded of that fact while I pumped Fraser for information. Plus there was that attraction thing I was fighting against with the guy. I could feel my jaw clenching, so I made a U-turn, figuring this would go better on my home turf. I drove him over to Slupska's, which is the kind of hangout famous for its home cooking, assuming your home is somewhere between Gdansk and Wroclaw.

"Ah, Polish," was all Fraser had said as we stepped inside and he took a deep sniff.. He smiled. Points for him. Clearly he had an appreciation for fine cuisine..

So there we were in a back booth, with dark wood partitions hemming us in. I figured we could use the privacy. By now we'd covered his actual business relationship with Vecchio, the other people who had been involved in the joint investigation during which they'd met, and the fact they had no other people in common. I hoped Fraser felt comfortable enough to unload now about the other stuff.

"You went to the Murphy party to see Stella in the flesh, so I take it you never met her before."

"No."

"Were you seeing Vecchio before he got engaged?"

"Yes. The engagement was. . . a surprise. Though I understand such a match makes sense politically."

Underneath the calm he was sarcastic as hell. And something else, too, maybe a little bitter. "When did Ray tell you he was getting married?"

Fraser's eyes were steely. "Well, that's just it, you see. He didn't. I read it in the paper."

That shithead Vecchio. "Ouch."

"Yes. Ouch indeed." He poked at his food, but looked like he'd lost interest, where just moments before he'd been chowing down happily on his bigos and noodles.

"So you confronted him. And did Ray say he wanted to stop seeing you?"

He shook his head and pushed a piece of cabbage around the plate in a creative pattern. "I asked him that, and he seemed shocked I'd think that way. No, he seems to have every intention of continuing our relationship even after he's married."

Jesus, Vecchio had a pair on him. "Yeah, but is that okay with you?" Somewhere along the line this had turned into a real conversation. I actually felt sorry for the guy and mad as hell at Vecchio – again.

"No, it's not okay," Fraser said. "I told him no."

"You gave him an ultimatum? Choose you or Stella?"

"Not at all. I told him that for his own sake we should end our liaison."

Liaison. Fancy, formal word for doing the horizontal hula, but then Fraser was a funny, formal guy. "You broke up with him?"

He made a face. "I certainly tried to. He wouldn’t accept it, and I. . . well, I suppose I didn’t fight him very hard. He's rather, uh–"

"Forceful? Single-minded? Pig-headed?" He laughed, though it was a sad kind of laugh. "Yeah, Vecchio can be stubborn. He's being an idiot though. Making a big mistake."

Fraser was watching his hand twist his fork, and I heard what I'd said. "Jesus, I don't mean that seeing you is a mistake, Fraser, he'd be lucky, anyone would be, to be in a relationship with you, it's just with him trying to get elected and getting engaged and being public, and, well, you know, it's tricky." I stopped babbling, finally.

"Thank you."

"Welcome," I murmured. There was a long pause as I took another pull on the beer and he continued to spin his fork in the remnants of his dinner.

"I know this probably makes me a suspect again," Fraser said, finally.

"Well, it might, if I actually thought you'd do something sneaky like blackmail. Which I don't. In fact, I'm guessing that going to the party in order to meet Stella Murphy is about the sneakiest thing you've done in a long time."

"Not sure if I should find that a good thing, but thank you again."

"And again, you're welcome. So, what'd you think of her?"

"Stella? She's lovely, and gracious. A perfect wife for an ambitious politician."

"And Vecchio's nothing if not ambitious." Our eyes met, and we both chuckled. The tension drained some.

"Oh, yes," Fraser said, "Ray knows what he wants. It's one of the things I find most attractive about him. That and his persistence."

"He's persistent, all right." My smile got a little fainter. "Welcome to Wild Kingdom." Fraser shot me a curious look. I changed the subject.. "Fraser, have you asked yourself why you haven't gotten any blackmail letters? I mean, you're in a high-ranking position, too, aren’t you?"

"I wondered that too," Fraser said, "but I assume it's because my superiors already know my sexual orientation."

"And that's not a problem for them?"

"They may or may not approve, but it's irrelevant professionally."

"Would they feel the same if you were part of a scandal, though?"

"No, they wouldn't," he said grimly. His voice had turned to gravel, and I crooked an eyebrow at him. "I've caused one before, you see. That's how I ended up here."

"Really?" Fraser just kept shedding layers like an onion. "What did you do?"

"I fail to see how that is pertinent." Snippy.

I gave him snippy back. "Well, I don't know if it is or isn't. And I won't know, will I, until you tell me."

He let out a long breath, then took one in through his nose. It might be a painful subject to him, but when he spoke, he sounded matter-of-fact. "When I was in the R.C.M.P. I was involved in a long pursuit of a gang of bank robbers. I tracked the getaway driver into a remote area of the Yukon, had her in custody, and let her go."

"That's it? I mean, there must be more to it than that, right? What was it – it was her first crime, she was a single mother, her boyfriend was threatening her family? You must've had a reason, Fraser."

"Of course I had a reason," he said, his voice flat. "While we were stuck in the wilderness, a storm overtook us and we were trapped for three days. During that time we became, uh, intimate. I thought I was in love with her."

Okay, back up. I thought he was gay. He must have read the question in my eyes. "She was the first and only woman for me." Still matter-of-fact, but edgier.

"Gee, Fraser, you make it sound like Romeo and Juliet."

"Hardly." He didn’t like me ribbing him about this. "Suffice to say when I turned myself in to the detachment, they were displeased with–"

"–You turned yourself in? They didn't know about it and you ratted yourself out?"

"Well, of course. It was the only honorable thing to do, and since I'd behaved so dishonorably up to that point, I thought they deserved my respect at least. It was my duty to turn myself in."

Holy shit. Honor and duty. Bent and straight. Prissy and reckless. Benton Fraser was a lot more than the pretty face I'd taken him for. In fact, the more time I spent with him, the less I understood him, and the less I could see him with Ray Vecchio.

"My superiors, I suspect, felt as you did, Ray. They wished I hadn't told the truth, because they didn't know what to do with me. There was talk of reprimands, suspensions, and I would have welcomed any or all of those. But out of respect for my father," his mouth twisted in distaste, "my superiors decided to sweep it under the carpet."

"Your father?"

"My father is well-known throughout the Northwest Territories, Ray. He's considered one of the greatest Mounties in R.C.M.P. history. He's rather a national hero."

From the look on his face, I was glad my father was only a nobody meat packer, well-known throughout the neighborhood as a pain in the ass. Must've been hard for Benton to follow in his dad's snowshoes, and I told him so.

"It has been. . . difficult, sometimes."

"So how'd you end up here?"

"Well, I couldn't bear the thought they'd ignore my behavior. It wasn't right. I decided to resign. My father thought I should stay and learn a lesson from it, though what that lesson was, I am still not entirely certain. He and I had a fairly strong disagreement over that."

I nodded. "Knock-down, drag-out kind of disagreement?"

"You might put it that way. He managed to impugn my morals, my patriotism, and my taste in sexual partners. Little did he know." He smiled, but it wasn't a happy smile. "When I told him Victoria was the aberration, that I usually preferred men, I did manage to render him speechless."

"Nice." I understood. "Had a few of that kind with my dad. Like when I decided to quit the force and go into business for myself. I think his exact words were, 'You're not smart enough to do that. Stick with the police, where you don't have to think too much.'"

His eyes were fierce. "That's appalling."

I shrugged. "That's Damian Kowalski."

"You strike me as being very smart, Ray."

I waved a hand. "Yeah, I'm a regular Einstein. So – Chicago?"

"Right. Before my resignation was accepted, I received an offer – quite out of the blue, or so it seemed, from a friend of my father's. One of his many friends in Ottawa. One of them, named Gerard, asked me to join his staff. I recognized the offer for what it was, but I had few options and convinced myself there were worse things to do than go east and work for the Ministry of the Environment. Unfortunately, it was not a good fit. I had the misfortune to discover massive corruption on a proposed dam project." He rubbed his eyebrow. "I think I was offered this posting in Chicago to get me out of Canada altogether. Or perhaps just out of my father's sight."

"They catch the guys? The ones with the dam?" When he gave me a sideways look, I got the picture. "More rug sweeping, huh?"

"Yes."

"Could have been worse. Could have sent you to Cleveland."

"Well, they do have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame there, or so I’m told."

I sputtered on my beer. "I cannot believe you even know that, Fraser."

"I didn’t grow up in an igloo, Ray."

"Color me shocked." Time to change the subject. I asked him what I'd asked Vecchio. "Anyone else know about you and Ray?"

"I don't believe so. Well, Turnbull – he's the R.C.M.P. constable at the door – stumbled onto us once when we were out to dinner. But Turnbull is, well. . . "

"Say no more. I met him."

"Then you understand.. Oh, and Ray's sister Francesca was at the Art Institute when Ray and I were coming out of a meeting about the traveling Inuit exhibit, and she nearly caught us, um–"

"Do not tell me you were having sex at the Art Institute, Fraser."

"Good Lord, no!" The thought seemed to horrify him, and I grinned, to show him I was kidding. "We were just behind a door and rather close together. I think Ray intended to kiss me. Francesca walked in, but I don't think she really saw anything. Ray said she hadn't broached the subject with him."

"Well, if you know Frannie, then you know she would bring it up if she suspected anything. She is not shy."

"Ah. You've met her."

I snorted. "Met her? I dated her."

"Oh." He put down his fork. "I see. I didn't realize you were. . . well, that close to the family."

"Close. Interesting word." Stop it, Ray. Do not parade your history in front of Vecchio's boyfriend.

But was he, in fact, still with Vecchio? He seemed to still carry a torch for him, but it sounded like he'd be willing to break things off with the Great White Hope of local politics. That is, if said G.W.H. was willing to let go. Which it didn't sound like he was. History had taught me that Vecchio could be ruthless about what he wanted, and he wasn't good at sharing.

Besides, if Fraser was out there stalking Vecchio's fiancée, he sure as hell wasn't ready to move on.

It struck me that well-mannered Mr. Together Benton Fraser was a lot more needy than I would have guessed.

"–Ray. Ray?"

"What?" I jerked my head back to see Fraser staring at me, his forehead wrinkled so that a little crease showed up between his brows. "Did you say something?"

"Well, yes. I repeated your name several times, trying to get your attention."

"Hey, I was thinking."

"I don't mean to disturb your thoughts, but I should be getting back."

"Right. Your meeting. That with Ray Vecchio?"

I said it to provoke a blush, and he didn't fail me. "No. The Consul General is still in Calgary, and I have a conference call with him and Ottawa at eight p.m."

"Okay. Just let me pay and we'll–"

"–Oh, no, Ray, I couldn't possibly let you–"

"–Fraser. Vecchio's paying. This is work, so he pays."

"Oh. Of course. It's work." He wiped his mouth and gave me a small smile. "I, er, actually I forgot for a bit."

So had I. And him saying that gave me a warm feeling in my stomach. Because I liked him. And he seemed to like me, and maybe that makes me sound like a school-girl, but it made me glad.

Glad and very, very fucked.

 


Wednesday

 


Next morning I dumped my one open case, an adultery snoop, which I hate anyway, onto Huey & Dewey, a pair of decent P.I.s who I'd shared a few cases with in the past. Jack Huey was the brains of the outfit, so it figured only his partner was in when I stopped by. I had to put up with Dewey’s lame jokes for a few minutes before I could get away.

I got the name of the caterer for the Murphy party from Murphy’s office by lying to his assistant, saying I’d been a guest and thought the food was great. She also gave me the name of the combo that played there, and their agent’s phone number. She said she'd find the photographer's name and call me back, so I thanked her and hung up. Lying for a living. Sometimes I really get off on that. Maybe I should be a politician, too.

I left a message on Ray Vecchio's phone to get me a list of party guests, if he could wangle it.

By ten-thirty I was on the road, headed north, the blackmailer's second photo in my pocket.

I hadn't asked Fraser where this one was taken, because I already knew the answer. In the photo he and Vecchio were sitting at a table with the lake behind them and at the end of a short pier that jutted out into it, half a sign was visible, saying "SunR." Right up near the Wisconsin border there was a place on the water called The SunRise, spelled that way. It had great seafood and an open view of Lake Michigan, plus outdoor tables so you could relax and watch boats go by, if that sort of thing turned your crank. If you had a boat, you could tie it up at the pier.

It also had a small inn attached to it with guest rooms. I knew that because I’d been there for a wedding – some cousin or other – and some of the out-of-town relatives had stayed there.. It was a quiet, out of the way spot, and I guessed it was one of the places "out of town" Vecchio had talked about, where he and Fraser would go.

Every time I drive out of the city I miss my old car, a vintage GTO, a real muscle car. But when I left the CPD and opened up my office, I had to get rid of it. There were a couple of reasons, the public one being that it was so recognizable it made it tough to shadow a suspect undetected. That was true enough, but the main reason was that it always needed a lot of work, and I didn't have the money to keep it up the way it needed. So I sold it to a collector, which broke my heart and put up yet another wall between me and my dad, since we'd worked on that car together, back when we were actually speaking to each other. Now I had a '94 Camry I'd bought used, and it was nondescript, and drove okay. It just didn't feel like my car, even after three years.

Thinking about my dad made me think of Fraser, and what he'd told me last night about his father. What I hadn't shared with him in return was that my dad and I were on the outs for a lot more than just me leaving the police department. Like Fraser, I'd been in a confrontation with my old man about my job, and we’d reached the "Oh, yeah?-Yeah!-Well screw you!" stage. Then I'd upped the ante by dropping into my witty repartee that not only was I changing my job, but that I'd also taken to screwing guys. There'd been an endless moment while ol' Damien froze where he was, still holding a greasy rag and oilcan from where he'd been changing the oil on his car. And then the can was thrown too fast for me to duck, and I was on the floor nursing a bloody cut on my head. He looked at me, barked that he "Didn't raise no cocksucker," and threw the rag at me, too. Then he left the garage, and it was the last time he spoke to me, or looked at me, for a year. Of course, over my mother's grave we'd made up. Sort of.

A little past eleven thirty I found myself pulling into the SunRise parking lot. It was a cloudy day; the lake looked like melted nickels and so did the sky, blending together where the horizon should have been. I hate the lake when it looks like that. Gives me the creeps to drive along it and see nothing out the passenger window but nothingness. Never did like any body of water larger than a bathtub, which sucks when you live on one of the Great Lakes. Maybe I wouldn't feel that way if I could swim better than a dog paddle, but. . . I dunno.. Probably not.

The restaurant was just opening for lunch, but I skirted the hostess and walked around to the deck. I was the only person back there and the lake loomed over me even more, but I pulled my jacket tighter and shoved down the shiver that empty horizon always gives me. I looked at the photo again, trying not to dwell on how Fraser's eyes lingered on Vecchio, and how Vecchio's hand was just grazing Fraser's. No wonder the blackmailer had used this photo.

Instead, I focused on calculating which table the two of them had been at, until I figured out they'd been seated at the very point of the deck, practically hanging out over the water. I tried to see the table from the same angle as the camera, and when I had it fixed, I turned around.

There was no way it'd been taken by someone at the restaurant; the angle was wrong. But across the parking lot, a little way down the road, was an old wood house. Between it and the deck was no cover, no place to hide. That had to be the place where the photographer had snapped the picture, using a long lens. I jogged toward it, happy to have all that gray behind me.

It had been turned into a store sometime in its past, but now the building was boarded up and starting to fall to ruin. I stepped around the obvious soft spots on the front stoop, and tried pushing on the door. Sure enough, the boards were loose. It was easy to get inside.

There was light coming through the spaces between the shutters, enough to see my way around. The front room was set up with a counter and several tables – it might have been a cafe some time in the past, but clearly no match for the SunRise. I was looking for a staircase, and I found it through a doorway. It looked sturdy enough; the place hadn’t been abandoned all that long. Up I went.

At the end of a little hallway I found the vantage point I was looking for, something above ground level and facing the inn’s deck. And there on the windowsill was evidence that someone had been waiting: burn marks where a cigarette had rested, ashes, and rings from a leaky coffee cup, new enough to have disturbed the dust. There was a pile of butts under the window, too, brown ones, from some kind of skinny cigar, and I pocketed a couple of them.

From here, with a decent lens, it would have been a cinch to get the photo. The angle matched. It was a good discovery, but it also led to the conclusion that whoever had taken it had had advance warning that Vecchio was going to be here. He’d been waiting when the two arrived – which was a whole different wrinkle from the idea of them being followed.

When I stopped back in the restaurant, I found the hostess again, and shared some of the famous Kowalski charm, which got me exactly nowhere, like always. She looked at the photo, didn't recognize either man, though she did ask if Fraser was married.

Since I wasn't staying for lunch, she lost interest pretty quickly. But on the way out, on a hunch, I stopped in front of the register where the world's oldest cashier was nodding off behind her machine. For some reason the old broads take to me better than the young ones; I think they want to feed me or something.. But we had a nice chat, and when I showed her the photo – and twenty bucks – she remembered the two nice young men who stayed at the inn a few weeks back. And no, nobody else had asked her about them. Don't know if it was worth the nose full of lily of the valley toilet water and a pinch of my cheek to find that out. Not to mention the twenty bucks.

When I got back in the car, I was a little antsy. Didn't like the idea Vecchio was keeping stuff from me, but he must have told someone where he was going.

Or maybe Fraser had.

I liked that even less.
 


"If you’re lying to me, Vecchio, you can shove this whole thing up your–"

"–Jesus fucking Christ, Kowalski! How many times do I have to tell you, I did not tell anyone we were going to the SunRise!"

I was on the outskirts of Chicago, on the cell phone to my client. "Then how do you explain somebody waiting there for you? And how did that person know you were gonna sit on the deck out back?"

That last part came out of my mouth without me expecting it. I guess my brain had been processing things without me knowing it, which was a little eerie, but by no means the first time it’s happened. I wish my brain would talk to me before it goes off on its own. "Well?"

"I’m thinking, okay?"

"Take your time. I get paid by the day."

"Funny guy." There was a little pause. "I called the place. To reserve that specific table. I like sitting there."

"Do it a lot? Take all your dates out there?"

"What’s it to you if I do?"

I gritted my teeth. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Where did you make the call from? Your office?"

He sighed heavily. "C’mon, Kowalski. What do you take me for? I used my cell phone, and I didn't even use my real name."

"Were you alone when you called?"

"Of course. And I wasn’t in my house, either. I was in my car, okay?"

I got a funny feeling – call it a hunch. "Where are you right now?"

"I’m on the street, outside my office, why?"

"Good." I'd bet a C-note on my hunch. "I think you better check your car, Ray, because you’ve got a bug somewhere."

He drew in a breath. "Shit."

My thoughts exactly. "Talk to you later." I hung up before he could ask any more questions.

I closed the phone and sat there a minute. Bugs. This was rapidly turning from a simple blackmailing job into something much more sophisticated. And what was that about the letters not saying how much the blackmailer wanted? While I waited for a light I took out the letters and read through them again.

The first one was dated two weeks ago. Dear Mr. Vecchio, it said:

I thought you might find this photo of interest, as might a number of your future constituents. You and your charming dinner partner certainly had a good time last weekend, didn’t you?

Don’t get me wrong, Councilman.. You don’t mind if I call you that? I certainly want to see you get elected, and will do everything in my power to assure that that occurs. Including forgetting everything I know about your friend.

I will leave you now to consider that I have the power to help you or harm you. Watch the mail; I’ll be in touch.

Yours sincerely.

Yours sincerely. That was nice. Polite.

Polite like–

No, no, I will not go there, I thought. This is not something Fraser would do.

What about other polite people, though? Like that strange dude at the Consulate – Rumble, Trumble, Turnbull? Right. He was polite. And he’d accidentally run into them at dinner once. If it had been an accident.

The light changed and I hit the gas.
 


"Welcome to Canada! My name – oh! Hello again, Mr. Raymond!"

He bounded to his feet like some eager-to-please hound, practically panting with delight to see a familiar face. I looked at his big grin and all those teeth, and thought of Fraser's wolf. I hoped Turnbull wouldn’t lick me, too.

"Actually, it’s Kowalski, Turnbull. Ray Kowalski."

"What about Mr. Kowalski, Mr. Raymond?"

"No, you see, I’m Ray Kowalski. Not Raymond."

"That’s extraordinary! You look exactly like Mr. Raymond!"

"No! There is no Raymond!"

He wrinkled his brow. "Isn’t 'Ray' the diminutive of Raymond?"

"Well, yes, it is. Raymond Kowalski."

"But what about Stanley Raymond?"

"No, you see, that’s Stanley Raymond Kow–"

"So there are three of you? You, Mr. Coe and Mr. Raymond?" He considered me while I sputtered. "Triplets! How fascinating. Were you raised separately?"

"Forget it," I grumbled, pushing past him.. "Let me see Fraser."

"Oh dear, you shouldn’t really go up there without–"

I tuned him out and took the stairs two at a time. As I rounded the corner, I could hear Fraser hanging up the phone, so I didn't stand on ceremony, just walked on in.

"Hi, Ray." Maybe I was imagining it, but he looked happy to see me.

"Fraser," I said sharply, cutting off the pleasantries. He opened his mouth to say something more, but I put up a hand to stop him. There was a notepad on his desk, and I pulled it over and scribbled on it. When I held it up to show him, his mouth closed..

We spent the next fifteen minutes making small talk about hockey. I think we covered how the Hawks rule and the Leafs suck, but I could be wrong, because most of my attention, like his, was focused on searching his office for bugs.

We didn’t find any, and we were pretty thorough, both being ex-cops and all. Finally I was satisfied and I sank down on his couch. The wolf dog appeared from somewhere and jumped up next to me, harmless as could be. Fraser came over and stood in front of me a few seconds before settling on the other end of the couch, Diefenbaker between us. "Care to tell me what that was all about?"

"Sure. Vecchio’s car was bugged. Had to be, because the guy who took this–" I pulled out the photo from the SunRise, "–was waiting for you. Vecchio told me he called the place from his car. Which made me wonder where else was bugged. I want to check his office, too."

"Ray, that’s in a government building. And this is the Canadian Consulate."

"I know where I am, Fraser.. Though you might tell that clown downstairs, who seems to think he’s still in the Great White North."

"Well, actually, Ray–"

"Save it. What about this guy Turnbull? He on the level?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," I said, unfolding the letter and passing it to him, "whoever wrote this has nice manners, for a blackmailer. You said Turnbull stumbled onto you and Ray at an intimate dinner. He’s pretty well placed to find out stuff about you, so I wondered–"

I stopped, because Fraser was laughing. Really laughing, hiccupy, out-of-breath laughing, and I had to pound him on the back to get him to stop.

"Sorry," Ray," he gasped. "It’s just, the idea of Turnbull, ah, hah–" and he was off again. This time the wolf joined in, grinning and yipping. I folded my arms and waited, a surly expression on my face. "Oh, dear.. I’m sorry. Quiet, Dief." Fraser wiped his eyes, taking in my annoyed expression. "What?"

"You know, Fraser, detectives don’t like having their brilliant deductions mocked, especially by foreigners."

"I'm terribly sorry, Ray, really. It's just that Turnbull literally stumbled onto our dinner. Fell through a glass window from the sidewalk.. I think he was trying to avoid a woman with a walker."

"Sheesh, that’s a mutant klutz you got downstairs."

"Indeed. I’ve known his family for years, and I can unequivocally assure you that he is honest as the day is long, but the man has an IQ somewhere between a house plant and a brick."

Okay, I had to give up my pissed off-ness, because I was laughing, too. Dief put his muzzle on my leg and looked up at me with happy dog eyes. Fraser lowered his own head and looked up at me through thick dark lashes, grinning back.

I got a funny feeling when he did that. Funny. Scary. Sexy.

Hello, down boy.

But there was something going on in the air between us that I couldn’t ignore, something that reminded me of when I was six and on a dare licked the wall socket and then found myself across the room with my body tingling and my mother staring down at me. She was screaming, and my dad was shouting, and my cousin who dared me was laughing, but somehow I felt really, really alive right then, like every inch of my skin was vibrating in a different way. That’s what this was like.

And the thing was, whatever I was feeling, Fraser was feeling it too. I could tell, because he was leaning toward me like I was Magneto and he was a bunch of metal shavings. He blinked a couple of times. Then the wolf yawned, and Fraser sat back, fast, and it was over, whatever it was.

"So," I said, clenching my fists to make the tingling stop, "I should, uh, be checking on things."

"Yes, of course." His voice had a rough edge to it and he cleared his throat. He stood up. So did I. The wolf stayed where he was. "If you need anything, Ray, please let me know. I’d be happy to–"

Anything, Fraser, touch me, fuck me, make me beg for it–

"–you know. Help any way I can."

"Sure. Thanks." I stood there. "So. I’ll be going."

"All right, then." He looked at me, and I looked back.

He was still looking when I finally got out the door.
 


Back at the office I checked my answering service for messages. Elaine, my favorite operator, picked up the phone to give them to me. We've never actually met, but usually Elaine's velvety voice gives me all sorts of thoughts about how nice it might be to get together, go out for drinks, maybe go dancing at the Crystal Ballroom. Sometimes I ask her, but she always laughs like she thinks I’m kidding.

This time I just got the info, thanked her, and hung up, without the idea of a date crossing my mind. Guess my fantasies were busy elsewhere.

Murphy's secretary had come through with the name of the photographer, who worked out of a studio on Division. When I checked my watch I saw it was only three, so I figured I had time to catch him, if he was in. My stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, but after a call to the studio, a lie about wanting to hire a photographer, and an appointment made, I was back in the car, fishing for stale cheese crackers in the glove compartment. Lunch could wait. This couldn’t.

There was a reason I was so antsy to get my hands on some actual proof, some concrete lead that would clear up the mess and get this case over and done with, but it was a pretty bad reason. Pathetic, really. The more involved in the case I got, the more I wanted out, precisely because what I really wanted was in. I wanted what Vecchio had, and it was annoying the crap out of me to feel that way again after five years. Here I’d thought I was over and done with the jealousy thing, but it turned out I was wrong. So, yeah, I was chomping at the bit to find the blackmailer and wrap things up. Get paid. Get away. Get far, far away from Vecchio. As long as Vecchio was my client, I wasn't going to even try to mess around with Fraser.

Now, the moment the case was over. . .

I steered the car into traffic and sneered at myself. Firstly, it's not like I could pretend I had high morals. Sister Mary Rodzina and the rest of the holy penguins at St. Stanislau's tried for years to teach me not to break any commandments, but trying to steal a guy from another one certainly qualifies as coveting your neighbor’s ass. Besides, the objective is to end up in the sack with the other guy, so you might as well just punch my one-way ticket to Hell.

Two, other than a little electricity, there wasn't any actual indication Fraser would be interested in me, even if he was free, which was by no means a sure thing. Third, Vecchio wouldn't have any scruples about going behind my back, if the situation was reversed. Of course, if the situation was reversed, I wouldn't be screwing one person while engaged to another. I may sniff around after anything that moves, but I tend to do it one warm body at a time.

Huh. What do you know? I was morally superior, at least to Ray Vecchio.
 


"Sorry. I have no idea what you’re talking about."

Damon Cahill was a runty weasel. He had a little pip-squeak face, a pip-squeak voice, and the fluttery hands of a nervous gerbil. His hands were what gave him away; he actually had the innocent eyes thing down pretty good, but his stained fingers shook as he lit another skinny cigarillo, completely oblivious to the one already burning in the ashtray. I'm no forensic scientist, but the butts lying around the studio looked a lot like the ones I'd found at the SunRise.

We'd made a little small talk, but I hadn’t wasted any time coming to the point, which was that, contrary to what I’d told him on the phone, I was not looking to hire a photographer for a fancy wedding, I was looking for the guy who snapped the damaging photos of Ray Vecchio.

Flat up against Flashtastic Fotography’s fake wood paneling, where I’d shoved his runty carcass, Cahill was shaking like a leaf, his beady eyes flicking back and forth while he lied to me. So far I hadn't had to use real force, just a little bit of drama like I used to use in the interrogation room, trying to work his nerves. Problem was, he was working mine just as hard. I really, really wanted to punch him.

He didn’t argue the point that he’d been at the Murphy event, because on the phone I told him I'd been a guest there, that I’d seen some of the photos and they were great. Before I got up close and personal with him, he’d started to brag about his skills, and I actually got him to bring out a bunch of sample photos that included the whole set from the Murphy gig.

Gotta say the guy really was good with a camera. He had nice ones of Murphy and his guests, and I got to see The Fiancée in color, and frankly, she was quite a dish. So I oohed and aahed over the photos, while Cahill smiled and basked, and then I whipped out the one of Fraser and Vecchio at the gazebo and dropped it on the pile. Clearly they'd been taken by the same camera – you could even place the shot chronologically with the others.

After that, things got a little testy.

But he seemed determined to bluff it out, and my patience was wearing thin. Besides, I hadn't eaten a thing in hours and my stomach was rumbling, and I am not the picture of politeness when my blood sugar gets low. Right now I wanted a candy bar, a coke, or an excuse to smack him silly. I figured he'd take all day if I didn’t do something.

The second photo, from the restaurant, was in my hand, shoved right up in his face. "So what about this one, asshole?"

"I tell you, I have no idea what–"

"Really? Too bad. You left your butts all over. Can you say 'DNA testing?' Besides," I lied, "the hostess at the SunRise saw you. She can identify your car."

"No way! They weren't even open when I–" Panic flared in his eyes as he caught himself, and all the cockiness disappeared, leaving the shrimp to sag against the wall. "Damn."

"Yeah, Damon, damn." I let him go, and he put as much space between us as he could. "So. You gonna cough up who hired you?"

"Can't."

I sighed with disgust. "Come on, buddy. Don't make me call the cops. I used to be one, you know, and they don't like blackmailers."

He looked up, alarmed. "I didn't blackmail anybody! I got hired to do the party!"

"Uh-huh. And that’s why you sneaked around the pool house to take this picture." I grabbed him again and tightened my grip on his shirtfront. "Do not make me mad, Damon."

Cahill’s pointy face shriveled up in terror, all except his eyes, which got big. "Don’t hurt me!" Whine, whine, whine. I was unimpressed. "Okay, okay, okay." He gave up, so I released his shirt front. "He showed up a day after I got the call. He told me what he wanted, showed me a picture of the guy I was supposed to shoot. I mean, he threatened me." My expression must have said, "Yeah, sure," because Cahill got even whinier. "He did! Honestly, I had no idea what he wanted it for!"

"Uh, sure, and I'm Elliot Ness. Damon, you are in deep doo-doo here. Go on – spill."

He shook his head again. He was scared, and not of me.

"Who's the guy, Cahill? If you're afraid of him, I can get you protection. And I can keep you out of it, maybe. I want to take care of this privately, you know? So maybe the cops don't have to get involved. Whaddya say?" His rodent eyes were shifting back and forth, his tongue wetting his dry lips while he thought about it. "Okay, let's try this. Who hired you to do the party? You can tell me that much."

"Mr. Murphy's secretary. I was recommended. I do a lot of society events."

"All right. And the person who showed up later – he got a name?"

He clammed up again.

"Name, Damon!"

He shook his head violently, and covered his eyes.

A sigh of disgust escaped my lips, and I tapped him on the chest. "Damon, just because you can't see me doesn't mean I'm not still here."

He jumped at the touch, but slowly his hands lowered. "Maybe, maybe I could show you without actually telling you? Because if I tell, he'll kill me, but if I don't actually tell, but maybe just show, maybe he won't want to."

Sheesh. "Show me how?"

He gestured limply, with one shaking paw, to the stack of photos on the table.

"Huh?" He gestured again, a little impatiently. "You mean he was there? At the party?" He nodded, a miserable expression on his face. "In the photos?" Cahill closed his eyes and sighed. He was taking this "no telling" thing to extremes. "Okay.. Great. I'll show, you point, okay?"

He nodded again, and I took his elbow to lead him over by the window, where the light was good.

And that's what we were doing, him watching and shaking his head as I flipped through the pictures one by one, me waiting for a nod from him, when the blast blew the window inward and Damon Cahill twisted and fell into my arms.

My senses reacted in a weird order: touch, sight, sound. Something warm splashed my neck, my arms were suddenly heavy with the weight of Cahill's body; I saw the window, the glitter of glass shards flying through the air, the arc of red from the front of Cahill's shirt, and finally heard the sounds, a muffled clap no louder than a backfire, the cold chime of glass and a dull thump as the projectile buried itself in the wall, the distant growl of a motor, the squeal of tires.

There was only the one shot, but it was enough. I staggered with the limp form, lowering him and myself to the floor, then reached for my gun and moved to the door, heart pounding. Too late. The car was turning a corner, too far away for me to get anything except the impression of a dark sedan.

There was red oozing from Cahill's mouth, a stain blossoming on his chest. It occurred to me in a distant sort of way that if I'd been directly in front of him, the bullet would have hit me, too.

Cahill's mouth was working, but no sound was coming out. From the size of the hole in his chest, it was a miracle he wasn't dead yet. His hands were clenching my jacket as I reached for my cell phone. "Hold on, Cahill," I said, but I knew it was useless. I started to dial 911, but he made a noise and I leaned down. "Who, Damon, tell me who it is."

He was struggling to breathe but he squeezed out a word. A useless word. "Kill–" he said, and then his little ferret hands relaxed and he went still.

I looked at his vacant eyes and shook my head. "Yeah, Damon, they killed you. Whoever they are." I picked up the phone to dial, but stopped myself. The photos. I had to get them secured before the cops showed up.. And if I was here when they came I'd have a lot of questions to answer, questions that couldn't do me or Vecchio any good. My only option was to bail before they got there.

The good thing about no longer being a cop is that you don't feel so bad about doing that sort of stuff.

I didn't bother to sort out the photos and just take the ones from the party; instead I dumped all of them into the first thing I found – a trash can – and pulled out the liner, turning it into a huge sack. I wrapped it in my jacket and went out the side door. Somebody else must have called the cops, because as I put the car into gear I could hear sirens, so I turned down an alley and took the long way around to avoid the street in front of the studio. I almost got away clean, except for an old guy walking his dog who cursed at me for driving too fast.

The question was, where to go. Vecchio's office was out, and so was his house, since as far as I knew his mother never left there. I could hardly go to the Canadian Consulate, and my office was no better, since it's in a commercial building with a lobby and too many people. The best I could come up with was my own apartment. I caught myself gripping the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles were white; I didn’t want to admit how shaky I was, even though I knew it was just the aftermath of all the adrenaline. When I looked down at myself I was shocked to discover I was covered in Cahill's blood, which made me look like either a trauma victim or mass murderer. Probably the police would assume the second.

My cell phone was in my hand, my thumb punching Vecchio's cell number. A couple of rings, too many, and then I heard his voice. "Vecchio."

"Where are you?"

"Who is this?"

"It's me, Kowalski. Where are you?"

"In my office. Don't worry, I swept it. It's clean."

"Meet me at my place. I need you to look at something."

"You sound funny. What is it?"

"Just – get there, okay? Bring Fraser."

Pause. "Why? What's going on?"

"Don't fucking argue with me! Get over there as fast as you can."

I hung up on him shouting my name.

I caught a break at the garage behind my building; no one was outside, so I quickly ditched the car and threw on my jacket again to cover up the bloodstains on my shirt. The ones on my face and neck I wiped off as best I could, and folded up the plastic bag of photos before walking to the entrance of my building.

There my luck ran out. My landlady, Mrs. Henke, was in her usual place, leaning out the window to watch the world. And watch for me, too. Like I said, older women take to me a lot better than the young ones do, and Mrs. Henke has some sort of idea that she's my mom or something. Or maybe my girlfriend, though that idea makes me queasy. Whatever she thinks she is, she's pretty damn nosy, and this was no exception.

"Mr.. Kowalski! You're home early."

"Uh, hi, Mrs. H." I had my key already in my hand, and I kept my head down.

"Hold on there, I'll come let you in." She started to retreat from her perch.

"No! I mean, no, that's okay, I got it." I waved the key at her as I passed under the window.

"Are you all right, Mr. Kowalski? You're not home early because you're feeling sick, are you? I could bring you some soup, or–"

"–No, no, Mrs. Henke, I'm fine, thanks. Gotta go now." I made a dash for the door and got inside before she could head me off.

By the time I got through my door I'd stripped off my bloody shirt. I tossed it and my jacket into a heap, wiped Cahill's blood off my face with a dishtowel and grabbed the bottle of scotch from the cabinet, because I really needed it. I'd barely downed a shot and emptied the bag of photographs onto my coffee table when I heard the door buzz.

"What the hell's the problem, Kowalski?" Nice greeting. Vecchio pushed through the door. Fraser was a pace behind him, concerned, and unlike his boyfriend, not rude.

"Hello, Ray."

"Fraser, come on in."

"Is that blood?" Fraser gestured at the neck of my undershirt. "Are you injured?"

I wiped at it. "Not mine, don't worry."

Vecchio paused at my refrigerator, in the process of introducing himself to my beer, and gave me one of his laser looks. "So what's going on?" I noticed he didn't get anything for Fraser, but maybe all that meant was that he knew Fraser didn't drink. When I caught Fraser’s eye he flicked down to look at my neck again.

"I found the photographer."

"Really? Hey, great! Where is he?" Ray came around the couch.

"I guess by now he should be on his way to the morgue."

"What?" Vecchio sat, twisting the cap off the bottle and tossing it on the table.

I relayed the story in as few words as possible.

"Did you speak to the police?" That was Fraser, sitting down on the couch himself. I guess that left the chair for me.

"No, I booked out of there so I could salvage the pictures."

"Oh, dear." Fraser looked unhappy. "You fled a crime scene." Vecchio snickered. Fraser's lips tensed.

"I know, Fraser, but I needed you both to see them. Cahill told me the guy who hired him to take photos of you two is in at least one of the photos. He didn’t get a chance to say who, so I want to go through them and identify everyone you recognize."

I offered Fraser water or iced tea, and he chose the tea. I brought a glass over and Fraser moved to make room for me on the couch, so I sat down, all too aware of his leg pressing against mine. I held onto the groan inside me. Wasn’t bad enough I’d had a dead guy in my arms; the live one I wanted there was squished between me and the guy he actually was fooling around with.

Most of the photos were of political campaign donors Vecchio knew, the rich and not so famous, and both he and Fraser recognized the so-called dignitaries. I picked out a horse trainer who shows up in the winner's circle a lot for the Triple Crown. There were a few surprises in the pile, though. Turned out Vecchio knew the name of the only female on the catering staff, which drew a look from Fraser, and Fraser evidently had managed to learn the name of the butler, the maid and the musicians, which made Vecchio shake his head. Fraser’s Canadian Ambassador turned out to be young and quite a babe.

Vecchio and I had finished the six-pack and Fraser had had two glasses of iced tea by the time we'd compiled the list of the ones he knew. It looked like this:

Murphy Household
Sean Michael Murphy
Stella Murphy
Mary, maid
Teresa, Murphy's secretary
Byron (first or last name?), butler
Earl Stanley, gardener

Great Entrances, Caterers
4 waiters
Shelley, waitress, catering coordinator

The Keltones, Musical Ensemble
Paddy, Pat, John Patrick and Mike

Dignitaries
Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Ambassador
J. S. LeFanu, Irish Trade Minister
Deputy Mayor Kellerman & wife
City Commissioner Leonard Elmore & wife
Catholic priest, Father Brown

Assorted Guests and Campaign Donors
Mr. Gupstra and Mr. de Gier, Rotterdam Shipping Co.
Gilbert Wallace, Illinois Lake Freight
Lee Dannay, Owner, Queen of the Lake Restaurant
Ann & Tony Boucher
Mr. & Mrs. Charles, horse breeders
Mr. Watson
Mr. Goodwin
Ms. Vane
The Chestertons, neighbors
Spencer & Sheila Van Dine
Rae Chandler
Richard Francis, horse trainer
Colin Willkie & spouse
Rex Harper, Anchorman, Channel 8
Marian Tibbits, Anchorwoman, Channel 8

One face made both me and Vecchio pause. He poked a finger at the picture. "Isn’t that–"

"Yeah. Gus Fillion. Didn’t know he was back in town."

Fraser shifted on the couch. "Who is Gus Fillion?"

I leaned back and handed the picture to him. "Local quote 'legitimate businessman.' Almost did time a while back for trafficking, but we couldn’t nail him. Had some questionable dealings with overseas groups–"

Vecchio snorted. "Questionable? Try ties to the IRA. We knew he was funneling money and arms, but couldn’t prove it. Wasn’t even our case and–"

"–drove us nuts anyway," I finished. "Thinks he’s some sort of poet–"

"–artist."

"Right, artist. I remember him in the station, with Dooley and Hernandez going at him, and he–"

"–whips out a sketchbook, and starts doing caricatures of them."

Vecchio and I laughed. Fraser looked at Ray, then at me, then at the picture. He got up and went to put his glass on the counter.

"What's Fillion doing at your future father-in-law's party?" I asked.

Vecchio looked at me sharply, all the humor gone.

Fraser's head came back up. "Perhaps he's using blackmail to get back at Ray, uh, Ray."

"Could be," I said. "Though Ray wasn't the lead detective on the case. We were both pretty loosely involved."

"Maybe it's just a coincidence," Vecchio offered. "During his trial Fillion presented himself as some kind of Irish-American hero. Enough people bought it to get him off. Hey, it's no secret Sean Murphy is a fan of 'Give Ireland back to the Irish.' He was born there, maybe he bought Fillion's line."

"Maybe. So Murphy has Irish friends, Irish music at the party, even Irish criminals at his party, how come he's letting his daughter marry an Eye–" I looked at Fraser. "–An Italian?"

"As long as I’m Catholic, he could care less." Oh, yeah, Vecchio, you’re a real religious guy. Maybe he caught my thoughts, because he snapped, "Besides, Stella’s over thirty. It's none of his business who she marries."

Except Vecchio was marrying into Murphy's pocket, and through Stella, Murphy was marrying Ray's politics. So in a way they were all going to end up in bed together. Where did that leave Benton Fraser? I had a feeling he might be thinking the same thing. Then my brain coughed up another idea, totally out of the ozone. "I wonder. . . "

"What, Ray?" Fraser prompted.

"Just struck me. I wonder if I misunderstood what Cahill said, you know, right there at the end. I thought he said 'Kill,' but maybe he was trying to say 'Fillion.'"

The two other men looked at each other. "Possible," Vecchio said. "Fillion started out as an enforcer. And he's unpredictable enough."

"Who's this guy?" I pointed to a big man who was in the background in a number of shots, usually near Murphy. Couldn't really see much of his face; he was in shades and mostly turned away. The best shot I had of him was a profile.

"That's the fellow I told you about before, Ray – I believe he does security for Mr. Murphy."

"Oh, yeah, the bodyguard."

"Name's Brian something," Vecchio added. "Sometimes he drives Stella around."

I added the name to this list, then thought back to the first conversation Fraser and I'd had, at the restaurant. "You said Murphy hung around with his partner, what's his name–" I shuffled the pictures and stabbed a finger at one. "Him."

"Gilbert Wallace." Vecchio again. "Owns Illinois Lake Freight, but they're not exactly partners. Sean's an investor; his main business is his realty company. They're pretty close friends, but the shipping is just a sideline for Sean."

"Pretty big sideline."

"Yeah, that's how the other half lives, Kowalski."

"So what do you know about Wallace?"

"Why?" Vecchio looked at me with suspicion.

"Ray is just covering the bases, or so I believe the phrase goes," Fraser put in quickly. "I would imagine anyone close to the Murphy family, and therefore to you, would be under suspicion. Am I correct, Ray?"

That last question was to me. "Uh, sure. Why not. Though. . . " I turned the picture around. "Mainly I was asking because I think I've seen him before. A long time ago, when I was on the job."

"You think he has a sheet, or you think he was a cop?"

"Either. Neither. Don’t know. Maybe I can check it out tomorrow." My stomach started grumbling so loud both Fraser and Vecchio stared at me, though only Vecchio laughed.. "Hey, I'm starving, like you couldn't tell. I could order a pizza and ask some more annoying questions."

"Can't." Vecchio shoved back his sleeve and looked at his watch. Gold. Expensive. I rolled my eyes – what else would he wear? "Meeting Stella. Have a fundraiser in a couple of hours for the Friends of the Zoo. One of Stella's projects. Gotta go get ready." He stood up.

"That's too bad," I lied.

Vecchio looked down at the photos. "You know, tomorrow night there's a political bash at the Hightower, and some of these guys'll be there. You want to come check it out, Kowalski? I can bring you in."

It wasn't a bad idea. "What time?"

"Eight." He gave me a critical look. "It's black tie, but I guess you can get away with a suit, if you have one, that is."

Good thing my gun was across the room. "I have a tux, asshole."

He grinned. "Let me guess: powder blue?" He put up a protective hand. "Kidding, kidding. Use my name at the door. Hey – I'll introduce you to Stella." Vecchio crossed to the door, and had his hand on the knob before he acknowledged Fraser for the first time since he mentioned leaving. "Coming, Benny?"

Fraser's face was calm but I did notice his right hand was clenched. "No, Ray, I'll get home myself. I want to ask Ray a few more things."

Vecchio's green eyes glittered, but his smile didn't waver. Why should it? I was no threat to him. I was his employee. "Great. I'll call you tomorrow, then. Ray – good work, but next time try not to get the witness killed, huh? Later."

"Sure. Later." The door closed. I turned to my remaining guest. "He treats you like shit, Fraser."

"Please, Ray." He crossed to the couch and sat, sorting through the pictures as if we hadn't been doing that for an hour. He picked out the one of him and Vecchio and sat looking at it thoughtfully, which gave me a twisted feeling in my stomach.

"No, I mean it. Why do you let him get away with it?"

"You know, this really is none of your business." He pocketed the picture and I didn't stop him.

He wasn't wrong about it not being my business, so I dropped it. An idea tickled my brain. "You want to come?"

"What?"

"Tomorrow night – you want to come? No reason you shouldn't, and you know these dudes better than I do. Whaddya say?"

He looked like he thought it was a bad idea. "I don't know. . . "

"Look, Fraser." I sat next to him. "You can come as my, well, I guess, date. Vecchio won't stop you. I could use another pair of eyes, and I sure as hell would like someone mostly normal to talk to."

"I'm flattered. I think."

I grinned at him. "Nah, really I think you're a freak, but compared to a bunch of hoity-toity types, you might pass. Like me." He looked pointedly at my spiked hair. "Hey, I did say mostly normal. Besides, it'll be fun to yank Vecchio's chain."

First he looked a little shocked, but then a spark lit up his blue eyes. "All right. I believe I will accompany you."

"Thought you might. You're not really as nice as you seem, are you?"

His face was innocent. "I assure you, I am motivated only by a deep desire for justice."

"Uh-huh. Me, I'm motivated by a desire for deep-dish pizza. Tomorrow night it’ll be all carrot sticks and quiche."

"Real men don't eat quiche, Ray." Good. Sarcastic playful Fraser was better company than depressed silent Fraser.

"They don't? Huh. So, pizza, and then I'll drop you at the Consulate?"

"Fine."

I called Tony's and ordered my usual. Fraser twitched a little when I mentioned the pineapple, but it's not like Canada has this big pizza tradition, so I figured it was my duty to be his tour guide. It was the least I could do.

It still felt like I had Cahill's blood on me, so I pointed Fraser to the iced tea and left him with the photos while I jumped in the shower. The downstairs door was buzzing as I came back into the living room in clean sweatpants and tee shirt. We didn't say a word until we were sitting at the counter having our way with the pie.

Fraser swallowed a big bite, commented on the combination of ingredients, took a gulp of iced tea and turned to me. "May I ask you a question? You needn't answer if you don't want to."

I finished my own bite. "Shoot."

"Were you and Ray Vecchio ever anything more than just partners?"

Fortunately I wasn't drinking when he asked. I finished swallowing. "Why do you ask?"

He dropped his eyes and considered his half-eaten slice with the same concentration I'd seen him give the food at Slupska's. "I just thought I picked up a, a – what would you call it? A familiarity."

"A vibe?"

"Yes. A vibe."

"Are you asking me if Vecchio and I were fuck buddies?"

"Well, I, I wouldn't use that term, no, Ray." Being fussy actually looked good on him. "Though I suppose, in essence, that is the question I'm putting to you." The look faded and was replaced by a blush. God, I liked those blushes. "Of course, I may have been mistaken, and I don't want to be impertinent, and I certainly don't wish to jump to a hasty conclusion or make an improper judgment based on faulty interpretation of data, and I do know that partners, ordinary partners, can reach a point of easy familiarity where they can almost finish each other's thoughts, and of course, seeing as you told me you dated Francesca Vecchio, I am more than likely completely incorrect in my–"

"You're not incorrect, Fraser." I took another bite.

He recovered pretty well. "I'm not?"

"No. I dated Frannie, I never slept with her. I slept with Vecchio, but I never 'dated' him. Didn't know I liked guys until him. Kinda surprised he didn't tell you about us, though."

"Ray doesn't talk about past affairs of the heart." Really? That was news to me. Fraser went on. "So you were. . . involved."

"That's one word for it, I guess. It's been over with a long time, so you don't have a thing to worry about, at least not that I want him back. Because I don't, not even a little. I don't even like him much any more."

"That's a shame. Clearly – professionally speaking – you must both still respect each other."

"I'm the best detective he knows. Damn right he better respect me."

"And do you respect him?"

I wished I had another beer. This conversation did not lend itself to iced tea. "What I don't respect is him walking all over you, Fraser. It's just wrong."

"I assure you, he doesn't walk all over me."

"Then what do you call it? You have to find out from the papers that he's engaged? He expects you to stick around after he's married? He rubs it in that he's off to the party with Princess Charming? So what does that make you – Cinderella?" I was beginning to get really hot under the collar. For the life of me I couldn't understand why Fraser didn't get it. "Are you some sort of big-time maso-whatsis, or something?"

"I am not a masochist. It's just not a simple issue, my relationship with Ray Vecchio."

"Yes it is! People don't treat people that way. Not the ones they care about."

"I really don't want to argue about this, Ray. He has certain responsibilities he must–"

"–He's got responsibilities to you, too, Fraser. He has no right to string you along, and frankly, the fact that you take it kinda creeps me out."

Fraser wiped his mouth and started stacking the paper plates neatly. "I see. Well, perhaps I'd better go." He stood up, his spine stiff.

Aw, don't! I said to him, in my head. Out loud, I just mumbled, "Whatever. Leave that stuff there. Let me get my jacket and my keys."

"You don't have to drive me home."

"Yeah, I do. I told you I would." He started to open his mouth, so I added, "I want to, okay?"

He looked a little reluctant, but nodded. "Okay."

We didn't say anything until I got him in front of the Consulate, and then I figured I better make nice. He was right; his relationship with Vecchio was none of my business, and as much as it twisted my guts to see it, I needed to shut up. I turned off the ignition. "So, are we still. . . " I didn’t know how to end that sentence. "You still wanna come tomorrow?"

"Of course, Ray."

My entire body relaxed. "Great. Greatness. I'll pick you up at seven, okay?"

"Seven it is. Good night."

"'Night, Fraser."

I watched him go into the big brick building, and when the door closed behind him, I rested my head on the steering wheel. Get a grip, Kowalski.

Unfortunately, the next grip I got was a big, hammy fist grabbing my collar through the open window of my car. I didn’t have time to do anything; there was a gun two inches from my forehead.

"Chicago PD! Keep your hands where they are, buddy!"

My heart was jackhammering and I was a little short of breath, but I still had enough wits about me to understand that it was a cop, and not the killer from this afternoon trying to finish me off. I kept my hands on the steering wheel and tried to make my face neutral. "Okay, okay, be cool. No problem here, Officer, uh–" I peered at his badge. "Ford."

"Shut up!"

Oh, one of those kind of cops.

And that was how I ended up at the 27th Precinct for the night.
 


Thursday

 


"Hey, Sleeping Beauty, wakey wakey!"

Ow ow ow ow–

It was hard to tell which was worse, the deafening echo of metal as something was dragged across the bars of the cell, or the stabbing pain in my neck from having slept on the bona fide worst mattress in the universe. Maybe it was a toss-up, but the butter on my muffin was the sarcastic tone of Vecchio’s voice.

"Nice work, Kowalski, I must say. Glad to know my money isn’t being wasted."

I opened bleary eyes. Vecchio was outside the cell, alone. In his hand was a scotch-tape dispenser; I guess that was what he’d used on the bars for my charming wake up call. "What the hell took you so long?" I growled at him, sitting up and hearing my back crack in ways a back shouldn’t. Vecchio flinched at the sound.

He folded his arms and scowled at me. "You’re in a lot of trouble."

"Right, I need you to tell me that.." My neck wanted to crack, too, so I let it. Vecchio flinched again, the wuss. "They kept me here all night, and no one even talked to me yet. It’s all a mistake."

"Mistake? They fucking think you killed Cahill!"

"Uh, yeah, earth to Vecchio, I know this already." I looked around. "You got anything to eat?"

"Don’t be a clown. This is serious. They have a witness." He threw the tape dispenser hard as he could against the wall and grabbed the bars with both hands. "And why did you call me? Christ. It's bad enough I'm in this mess to begin with, and you have to drag me down here!"

That got me off the cot and up in his face. "You're the one who hired me. Go ahead, fire me – you'd be doing me a favor!"

"Jesus, Kowalski, why don’t you–"

"–Look, Vecchio. I told you what happened at the studio. If they say someone saw me kill Cahill, then he’s a liar, or they are. And if you don’t believe me, then we’re done, you and me. Kaput. Finito. Capeesh?" I plopped down on the lumpy cot and rubbed my sore neck. "I musta been outta my mind to throw in with you again."

"Easy, easy." He had both hands up, in a calm-the-fuck-down gesture. "I’m on your side, God help me." He glanced around the lockup, but we were still alone. "Look, I just. . . " He let out a big frustration-filled sigh. "I shouldn’t have to be wasting my time this way. You’re supposed to be helping me out. That’s what I’m paying you for." I started to mouth off at him, but he kept going. "I’m getting you out, moron. At least I’ve still got pull at the department."

"And if I don’t, whose fault is that?" I muttered as he walked to the outer door. Maybe he heard me, maybe not.

He stuck his head into the hall and a cop I didn’t recognize came through the door and unlocked the cell. There was no reason I should know anyone there, I guess. I’d been off the job for a few years and had never been assigned to the 27. For all I knew the whole CPD had turned over. But as I started down the hall, a voice called "Kowalski!" and the familiar abrasiveness in it made me turn my head.

Harding Welsh stood at the end of the corridor, arms folded. It was so recognizable a pose that I had to smile despite myself. "Lieutenant."

He gestured around. "Welcome to my domain."

My smile got bigger. "When’d they move you over here?"

"Nine months ago." I put out a hand, but Welsh’s thick fingers came up to close around the back of my neck and steer me along with him. "Kowalski," he said, and I’d like to think I heard a little affection in his voice, "I see you are still a master fuck-up."

Behind me Vecchio chuckled, a dry superior rattle that turned my smile into a frown. "You two know each other?" I said, feeling the familiar stings of jealousy in my gut. Welsh had been at my last precinct, after Vecchio left for the private sector. Welsh was mine, goddammit.

But it looked like Vecchio had a piece of this, too. "Oh, yes," Welsh said, guiding me into his office, a glass-enclosed box in the middle of the bullpen. "The future councilman and I are well acquainted. His sister is one of the valued and diligent civilian workers here."

Couldn’t be Maria, she was a stay-at-home mom. "Not–"

"Francesca," Welsh supplied. "She works in the morgue."

"Get out.You serious?"

"Yeah. She’s the records clerk there." Welsh seemed amused.

"Oh, brother." I shook my head.

"Tell me about it," Vecchio said, mirroring my movements. We caught each other’s eye and stopped.

"Frannie in the morgue. Huh. Well, I guess she can talk all she wants down there and no one will tell her to shut up."

Vecchio snorted at my joke. "Nah. She figured she’d meet guys."

"Yeah, dead guys."

"No, you idiot, doctors. Cops."

"Gentlemen, if we have finished with the pleasantries?" Welsh gestured to the chair and I sat. He looked deadly serious, which wiped the smile off my face. Too bad, too, because despite myself I’d actually been enjoying the banter, nearly forgetting why we were there. "Ray–" That was me Welsh was talking to– "I gotta ask you about yesterday. You want a lawyer?"

"Do I need one, Lieutenant?"

"You know better than to ask that.. You’re entitled to one. Maybe it would be a good idea."

"Look," I said, leaning forward, "I did not kill Damon Cahill."

"Ray." He shook his head, like he didn’t really want to go on with this, but when I didn’t move he sighed and his eyes came up. "A guy walking his dog saw you leaving the scene, pedal to the metal, and he ID’d your license plate. He thought he saw blood on your face."

I dropped my head and took a deep breath. "Cahill fell on me. The shot came through the window and almost nailed me, too. Must have been a rifle, or something. Probably hollow-point ammo, from how the poor guy looked. Sadistic bastard, the guy who did this." I had to swallow at the memory of Cahill's bloody chest. "Look, they took my gun – can’t they run a test in ballistics and prove I’m not lying? I never even fired it, Lieu. Besides," I thought of something and got excited. "The glass blew in, that would prove where the shot came from, wouldn’t it?" I ran a hand through my hair, but it was too dirty to stand up like it's supposed to. I felt grimy and probably smelled from sweat and the disinfectant they use to clean the cells. But I was jittery, too, and couldn't stop my fingers from drumming on the arm of the chair, so I stood up and tried pacing.

Welsh made a "calm down" gesture. "Okay, okay, relax. Sit down, okay?"

"Okay." As I sat again, it struck me that Vecchio was still there. "Don’t you have somewhere to be, Vecchio?"

He snorted. "That’s gratitude."

Yeah, right. If I wasn’t trying to save his skinny ass my own wouldn’t be in this mess. But then again, because it was his ass, or at least his career, on the line, I guess he figured he had the right to make sure I didn’t spill about his troubles. Well, I’ve never broken a client’s confidentiality, and I wasn’t about to start with him, no matter how much I hated the fact he didn’t trust me to keep his name out of it. "Okay, thanks, Vecchio. Now beat it."

He gave me one more look that could kill and shook his head at me. "Lieutenant Welsh," he said by way of a goodbye, and sauntered out the door cool as can be. He was a good actor, anyway, I'll give him that.

I turned to Welsh. "So. Now what?"

"Now, Ray," Welsh said, leaning back and lacing his fingers over his gut, "now we check your story."
 



If I was religious, which I'm not, I might petition the Pope to make Harding Welsh Saint Harding. Once I'd told him what little of the story I could without implicating Vecchio or Fraser (which boiled down to me being on a blackmailing case and Cahill being involved) he didn't waste any time; he bellowed out the door for one of his men, and just like that they were checking into my version of the events surrounding the photographer's murder.

I got fingerprinted, and someone went over the studio and found that yes, I had been inside the place, and yes, the shot had been fired from outside. Welsh got ballistics to push through the testing of my weapon. The slug that killed Cahill got dug out of the wall.. The nosy guy with the dog got interviewed again. The crime scene unit swarmed over Cahill's place like soldier ants, leaving nothing behind.

Of course, they also swarmed over my place and my car, since the witness gave them enough on me to get a warrant. They were looking for anything to incriminate me, and they got my bloody clothes, all right, but I knew they wouldn't find a rifle. If they searched my office, they’d find nothing since I hadn’t written anything up yet on the case, and my notes wouldn't mean anything to anyone except me. For once, the fact that I postpone paperwork until the last possible moment was a plus.

What they did get, though, were the photos.

Which sucked.

"Care to explain these?"

I was back in Welsh's office, after spending most of the day in Interrogation Room 1, the john or the break room. They gave me a pretty long leash, also courtesy of the Lieutenant, but I was aware that one of Welsh's detectives was always hovering nearby. I did get to see Frannie, though, and she gave me a hello kiss, complimenting me on having my own business, and acted real friendly until she found out I was maybe a murderer, at which point she looked smug, like she'd always expected that of me. What can I say? She was still annoying as hell, but also still just as cute. Besides, her skirts were even shorter than I remembered, so at least I got some ogling out of our little reunion.

I looked at the photos spread out on Welsh’s desk, and decided to come as clean as I could. Welsh would know if I was lying – he’d always been like a human lie detector. "These were photos Cahill took of a party that the victim attended. It was at the Murphy estate."

Welsh pondered this. "Is Murphy the target?"

"You know I can’t tell you, Lieu."

"Okay, but I think you’re makng a big mistake there, Ray."

"Probably am. Won’t be my first."

"That's for damn certain." Welsh pushed the photos around a bit, examining them, and I was relieved all over again that the photo of Vecchio and Fraser together was safely tucked away in Fraser’s possession. Don’t know what made me let him keep it last night, but it had been a good impulse.

"Don’t I know this guy?" the lieutenant said, pointing.

"Gus Fillion."

"Ah. Right. This one?"

"Don’t know. Think he's Murphy's bodyguard. Name of Brian."

"Looks familiar. Could be an ex-cop, I suppose." Welsh grunted. "Some heavy hitters here, I see."

"Yeah. Chicago’s Most Loaded." An idea sprang to mind. "Hey, uh, Lieutenant, I know I’m not in a great position to ask for favors right now–"

"You are a master of understatement, Detective."

I had to grin at him calling me that. "Yeah. Anyhow, is there a chance I could run some names and see if some of these jokers have sheets?"

Welsh leaned back and shook his head. "Chutzpah. You know what that means, Kowalski?"

I grinned again. "Sure. I got it in spades."

"That you do." Welsh sighed heavily. "All right. Anyone in particular?"

Like I said, St. Harding.

By four o’clock th e results came back that my gun was cleared, and I was officially free to go, with a warning that I was to stay in town and available; at the very least I was a material witness. I promised everything they asked for, then climbed into my car in need of a shower and sleep, but with a paper in my pocket with info on a couple of partygoers.

Turned out Sean Michael Murphy had a number of friends with records. Fillion we already knew about. Gilbert Wallace, who owned a big shipping company, had once been arrested for assault and battery on a union organizer. There was also a note about a charge, later dropped, stemming from a possibly illegal shipment of liquor. Dannay, the restaurant owner, had done time for tax evasion. Murphy's neighbor, Mr. Charles, had a couple of DUIs and had had his license lifted after a major accident. The gardener had a theft conviction. The leader of the Keltones, the combo that had played for the party, was an Irish guy named John Patrick Shanahan. He had marijuana convictions on the other side of the Atlantic, but somehow he'd managed to get into the US and stay here.

The Keltones. . . Just thinking the name made me wonder about what Cahill had actually said to me with his dying breath. Had it been "Kill" – or "Kell?" Or had he meant "Fill," as in "Fillion?" That seemed pretty remote, since F and K don't have anything in common other than a familiar four-letter word. And if he said "Kell," as in "Keltones," did suspicion also fall on Deputy Mayor Kellerman, who, frankly, looked more like a rabbi than either a politician or a murderer.

And maybe it was d) none of the above.

There wasn’t time for sleep, but I had time to run home and clean up the mess the cops had made of my place before throwing myself in the shower and getting ready for the party.

I wondered, as I was drying myself off, if Fraser knew what had happened to me. Maybe I should call him.

The phone rang six times and no one answered. Damn. I looked at my watch, and it was nearly six. Even if the Consulate offices were closed, Fraser lived there. If he wasn't answering, maybe he'd changed his mind about coming along. Maybe he'd decided he didn't want anything more to do with me. Well, wasn't that a cheery possibility! I'd really gotten to enjoy his company, even if we'd ended last evening on a less than happy note. But I'd had a really crappy day; the one thing that I’d been looking forward to was seeing Benton Fraser.

The phone jangled. "Yeah?"

"Uh, Ray?"

Fraser! "Yeah, it's me."

"I heard the phone ring but I was just coming in the door from walking Diefenbaker. Was that you?"

"That was me. You, uh, still wanna come with me tonight? I thought, um, maybe you'd changed your mind after our argument–"

"–Now that's just silly, Ray. Of course I'm coming with you. That was the plan." Matter of fact, without a whisper of anything negative.

I was still grinning when he got into the car in front of the Consulate.
 



Okay, so this was how the other half lived.

The last time I was in the Hightower I was serving a warrant on a chef, and they'd made me wait in the employees' lounge. It was different, very different, being a guest at the private club, even if I was essentially undercover. Still, all the marble and crystal and oil paintings and oriental rugs made me wish I'd scrounged around for a tux after all, though none of the indentured servants offering me champagne and caviar and what-have-you looked at me with anything other than a poker face.

And by the way, there wasn't a quiche or a carrot stick in sight.

Fraser and I walked right in, no funny looks or anything. Vecchio'd been true to his word; my name was on the list in black and white, and all I said was, "and guest," and the guy nodded us both through. I made a mental note to call the Hightower when this was over and offer my (paid) services to fix their lousy security.

The room where cocktails were served was decorated with miles of velvet curtains and ferns in big pots. With all the frou-frou hanging around, and the soft pillows on the chairs, it looked more like a cleaned up version of a New Orleans cathouse than an "Arabian Nights" fantasy, like the fancy sign said over the door. One look around netted me a congressman, a TV actress and a couple of society do-gooders, and other than the politician, I doubted they'd go for a prostitution theme. Still, you never know with these trust fund types.

There was a hand on my shoulder. Fraser. "Shall we split up?"

It was a good idea and I would have said so if I hadn't looked at him right then. A chandelier directly above him was sprinkling gold and red highlights in his hair. He looked smooth and handsome in his perfectly fitted tux, and with that face of his and the fiery halo, he was like James Bond, if 007 was played by an archangel.

"Ray."

Damn. An angel. Where'd that image come from? I took a deep breath and looked again.

"Ray?"

No, Fraser was too solid not to be from Earth. But I had to hand it to him – jeans, tux, suit, didn't matter. The guy was fucking gorgeous.

A frown line creased his forehead. "Ray?"

He was pretty insistent this time, and I felt stupid getting caught staring at him. "What?"

"Shall we split up, to cover more of the room?"

"Uh, yeah, split up, that's good, Frase."

"All right, then. I see Deputy Mayor Kellerman. I'll start there."

"Fine." Over Fraser's shoulder I saw Vecchio talking to a stocky red-haired man who I recognized as Sean Murphy. Might as well say hello to the host. I indicated my direction with a twitch of my chin and Fraser nodded. He turned and melted into the party.

Vecchio really was in his element. Glad-handing the public and stuffing their money in his pockets turned his crank, apparently. I had to give it to him; he looked good, sporting a tux tailored to make the most of his height and beef up his skinny shoulders. He was smooth as cream, shaking hands with the well-wishers, laughing comfortably, leaning in to listen as if he really gave a damn what they were saying. He was good, a born politician.

So of course I had to bust up all the love. "Ray!" I said, shouldering into the crowd around him. "Nice party."

His eyes slid over to me as he finished up with some old lady, holding onto her hand as if he didn't want to let go. She giggled and patted him on the arm as she moved away. Finally it was my turn for the smile. "Hello, Ray. Glad you could make it." Smooth. Real smooth.

The red-haired man shifted a little and Vecchio put a hand on his shoulder. "Sean, this is an old friend of mine, Stanley Raymond Kowalski." Fucker. "A couple hundred years ago we were at the CPD together." He gestured to the other man and nodded at me.. "Our host, Sean Murphy."

"How do you do." Murphy's smile was practiced but friendly, his lightly-accented voice deep and his grip strong but not competitive. He had worker's hands, despite a manicure. "May I call you Stanley?"

"Uh, no, please, call me Ray. Everyone does." I looked at Vecchio and raised an eyebrow. "Well, everyone except Vecchio."

Murphy rumbled out a deep chuckle. "Yes, our Ray is a bit of an instigator, isn't he?" p>"Oh, yeah, our Ray certainly is."

Murphy looked at Vecchio, then back at me, probably wondering what his pet project had in common with a guy with no couth. "So you worked under Ray at the police department."

Vecchio smirked behind Murphy's back. "No, uh, actually we were partners."

"I see." No you don't, Sean me boyo. "Well I certainly hope you'll be supporting your former partner in the coming election."

"Of course he will, won't you?" Vecchio said, smiling with a lot of teeth.

"Oh, yes, of course." I showed mine back.

Someone came up on my left and Murphy turned. "Ah, good. Perfect timing. Stella, meet an old friend of Ray's, Ray Kowalski. This is my daughter Stella. Ray's fiancée, as I'm sure you know."

My mum once told me that I'd never be able to keep a secret, because whatever I was thinking would be written all over my face. It took a lot of years and a lot of concentration, but I'm pretty sure that by now I have control of my expression and can play poker with the best of them.

But not right then. Not when I got my first in-the-flesh look at Stella Murphy.

The vision in pale gray chiffon turned slightly in my direction, held out a white hand and put it in mine. "Another Ray," she said, smiling. Her voice was a velvety purr.

Wow.

Two thoughts came into my head: One, What a knockout! Two, I fucking hate Ray Vecchio. "I think I hate Ray Vecchio," I said, out loud, oh, Jesus! "I mean," I managed, "he's a lucky man."

Stella Murphy's eyes were laughing at me, but it was nice laughter. And they were nice eyes, a color somewhere between gray and green, like the lake gets sometimes, and framed by dark lashes and light brows. Her hair was dark blonde, streaked lighter on top where the sun got to it, or more likely some expensive hairdresser. She came up as high as my collarbone, perfect height for dancing. Her and me at the Crystal Ballroom. . . I realized I still had her hand in mine and gave it back before I looked like too much of a doofus.

"I'm very pleased to meet an old friend of Ray's," Stella said. "I'd love to sit down with you some time and hear all about the two of you."

That would be some discussion. "Sure. Anytime."

She gave me one more shy but playful smile with those beautiful pink lips and then turned to her fiancée. "Ray, please excuse me. I have to find Charlotte Gaines and ask her about the Nutcracker benefit."

"Of course, honey," Vecchio said, and kissed her lips lightly. His eyes stayed on my face while he did it, and I'm sure he saw my look of pure jealousy.

Sean Murphy was already talking to other, no doubt richer people, so I murmured some excuse and slipped away. Dammit. I had to get to work, and all I could think about was how that balding, big-nosed, bullshitting Vecchio had managed to nail the two best looking people on the planet. Okay, maybe he had manners and charm and a big dick, but. . . Aw hell. My life sucked. It just really sucked.

I wandered around, keeping my face neutral, my eyes open, and my hearing turned up as far as it would go. At first no one paid the slightest attention to me as I poked my nose into their business. Sure, heard all sorts of things, mostly about the campaign, some upcoming mergers and marriages, who was doing who among the rich and political, and a lot of talk about Ray and Stella and when the wedding would take place. But after a half hour or so I was on the verge of cashing in my chips and writing off the whole evening as a huge waste of time, so I decided to try a more active approach. I went up to a group of folks and hung around the fringes until I could get a word in.

"I'm awfully glad Stella's finally settling down," a woman in black velvet was saying.

There was general nodding and agreement, and I saw my chance. "Ray too.. I mean, if you're going to be a politician, you need a wife." The entire group looked at me. "The right kind of wife, I mean."

"Stella is certainly a girl of quality," another woman said in a sniffy voice. Her face-lift was so tight it was a wonder her nose worked well enough to sniff.

"Oh, yes, she certainly is," I agreed. "You know, when I was working with Ray at the CPD, I never dreamed he'd end up running for office."

Of course that grabbed them and they started asking me about Ray’s Cop Adventures. Ray Vecchio, that is. No one asked the obvious question, how it had been for me there, working with him. I just didn't rate a blip on their radar, which was made perfectly clear by Black Velvet, who looked me up and down and asked, "Are you someone?"

"Probably not."

"Frankly, I was surprised he was tapped to run for Gardino's office," put in a guy a little younger than me, whose gold watch probably cost more than my total income last year. "But Sean was really behind him from the start – quite the cheerleader. And I have to say Vecchio's won me over. He seems very progressive, within reasonable limits."

They all laughed like there was an inside joke, so I laughed with them.

"It really was a shame about Councilman Gardino," sniffed Face-Lift. "Such a dreadful accident."

I couldn't exactly remember Gardino's death. "How'd that happen again?"

Gold Watch grabbed the ball. "That fire in his home. I'm surprised you don't remember," he said in a snotty voice. "It was in all the papers. Some sort of gas leak.."

"Such a dreadful accident," Face-Lift repeated. "Though, mind you, he was quite rough around the edges. Not polished like Mr. Vecchio."

"No one's polished like Ray Vecchio," I agreed. "Good thing he was here to step in."

"Indeed," said another guy, a short fat man with a bald head. "Sean was absolutely broken up about it. He felt awful he never got to make up with Louis."

"Oh, I know he did, Harold." Black Velvet again. "Such a lovely person, Sean Murphy."

"’Make up?’" I put in.

"Well, you know," Fatty said conspiratorially. "After that unfortunate row of theirs at the kickoff dinner."

"Oh, that."

They nodded and agreed again, like a bunch of bobble-head dolls. The conversation turned to the décor and I backed out of the group.

I tried to get near the congressman, but he was surrounded. Fraser was covering Kellerman, and I didn't see anyone else from the pictures except a couple of girls that Ray had identified as friends of Stella's. Their conversation pretty much focused on the men in the room, especially Fraser, who would not be a good candidate for undercover work unless he wore a mask. A really ugly mask.

I figured I deserved a break before I went in search of him, and took a glass of champagne from the bar, a couple of the world's smallest stuffed potatoes from a passing waiter and then went in search of a quiet corner. I’d just stuffed food in my mouth when I caught sight of a woman I recognized from the photos. Murphy's secretary, Teresa something, was in conversation with her boss, and it didn’t look like a happy one. I sidled a little closer, pretending to examine a painting, and caught her slightly panicked tone.

". . . running out. I thought we had enough champagne, but we’re a bit short. Would you like me to–"

"–How the hell did that happen, Teresa? Answer me that!"

I risked a look. Murphy had her backed up against the wall, where she cowered before him. He wasn’t a tall guy, but he was thick through the neck and shoulders and his big hands were pretty close to her face. No wonder she was nervous.

"I’m not certain. Perhaps Mr. Wallace misunderstood the order?"

"Gil don’t misunderstand things, Teresa, and he’d never stiff me. If we’re short, it’s because the staff’s been stealing."

"Oh, Mr. Murphy, I don’t think that–"

"Listen, girl. Take your lazy ass downstairs and check again. Go!"

She scurried away, tears in her eyes, and I took a good look at our host, at his not-so-loveliest. Manicure or not, Sean Michael Murphy had never left the docks.

He pulled cigarettes out of his pocket and lit up, then crumpled the empty pack and tossed it as he walked away. The guy should’ve played for the Bulls – it landed smack in my champagne. I fished it out, disgusted.

I was about to hurl it onto an empty tray when something about the pack caught my eye. It was just a soft pack of Winstons, and I turned it over and over, trying to figure out what I’d seen that bothered me. Nothing. I even sniffed it, but it was just tobacco, and all that happened was I got an incredible urge to smoke, which was a bitch, since I gave up the habit not too long ago.

Then I got it. It wasn’t what was there; what bothered me was what wasn’t there. The pack had no tariff stamp, like the government puts on every pack of cigarettes sold in the United States.
Every legal pack.

Interesting guy, Sean Michael Murphy.

"You look good. Color's good on you."

When I turned, Vecchio was taking in my gray shirt and darker gray suit, letting his hungry cheetah eyes roll over me like I was tonight's antelope and he'd missed lunch. Oh, yeah, he looked a hell of a lot hungrier than he had when he'd been kissing his fiancée. It was hard to tell if he was sincere, or full of it, and the fact that I couldn't tell which it was didn't sit too well with me. Either way, it felt weird. I swallowed the last of the potato and drained the champagne. "Sorry I couldn't find the powder blue tux you wanted." I ditched the glass.

He flashed a toothy grin. "Hey, you know I was kidding about that, right?"

"Yeah, sure."

The green glint from his half-closed eyes flickered over me, and then darted over my shoulder. His eyes scrunched up and he frowned. "What's Benny doing here?"

"Benny?" Insert innocent blink here. "Oh, you mean Fraser? I invited him."

"You invited–" Vecchio was ticked, I could tell, so score one for me. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"

I shrugged. "Oh, I dunno. Inviting a former Mountie to help me in my investigation? Heard he was free tonight – hey!"

My smirk evaporated as Vecchio dragged me behind a curtain and pushed me up against a wall. "What are you playing at, Kowalski?"

"Me? Wow, that's like calling the kettle, uh, whatever the pot calls it."

Vecchio's not that much bigger than me, maybe an inch taller, but he pinned me anyway because of the angle. His hands were flexing on my upper arms and his mouth was twisted into a snarl. He was really pissed.

Which of course pissed me off. "What are you playing at, Vecchio? Fraser's a great guy, and you treat him like shit. Jesus, dump him or be with him, but stop jerking him around."

"You his mommy or something?"

Christ, what an asshole. "I'm his nothing, Vecchio. I'm nothing, okay? So get over yourself. But he's a good guy, you said so yourself. Why not show him a little respect?"

"Don't lecture an Italian about respect. We fucking invented it."

"Well 'scuse my Polish ass, Don Raymundo. Act like it, then."

The eyes frosted into ice chips. "He told you to say this to me?"

"Fraser? Shit, no. He thinks you walk on water. I'm telling you this, me, Ray Kowalski. Don't treat him like you treated me."

"Or what?" Vecchio's weight still held me against the wall. "Or what, what'll you do?" His face was so close I could smell both the expensive cologne and the even more expensive whiskey. The Ray Vecchio I used to know preferred wine.

Suddenly I was too damn tired to bait him anymore. What was the point, anyway? "Just. . . don't do it, Ray. Not to him."

He looked at me, and his face got an expression I couldn't figure out, but before I could make a stab at guessing he pushed forward and kissed me.

For one stunned second I stood completely still, overwhelmed by the familiarity of it all, the full lips working against my mouth, the heat of his hand as it burrowed under my jacket to grab my suspenders. I got hard in an instant. He moved closer, holding me in place against the wall with his body in full contact with mine–

–and I got mad, really mad, and shoved him hard. He staggered and almost fell down.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" I panted with a mix of rage and, yeah, I admit it, arousal, though I was way more mad than turned on. "Don't fuck with me, Vecchio."

He straightened up and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'm not." His voice was calm.

"No? Then what do you call that?"

"I just wanted–"

"–Shut up!" Anger spiraled up inside me. "You wanted. Jesus fucking Christ, Vecchio – what is it with you? You taking super-strength Viagra or something? You try this here? With me? When Fraser's right over–" I stopped and lowered my voice, because I was aware, even if he wasn't, that not only were we around the corner from Fraser, but also from some of the most influential people in Chicago. Not to mention his fiancée. "I don't get you. Are you trying to get caught? You want your career to go up in smoke? You start groping me here, you nearly get caught kissing Fraser at the Art Institute – what the hell's wrong with you?" I had to stop because I needed to breathe, but Vecchio didn't say anything, just stood two feet away and watched me out of the corner of his eye. Christ.

My brain feinted left and my mouth went right and started talking without me thinking. "Do you want to be stopped? Is that it? You want to get caught? You want to be punished?"

Ray's head shot up, and his eyes finally came to mine, but he wasn't furious, like I would have been if someone said that to me, he wasn't even angry, or surprised. He was empty. I stared at him, at the hollow expression, and I knew, I knew. "Damn, Vecchio. That's it, isn't it?"

The Ray Vecchio mask slammed back down, the eyes went flat as stone, and a laugh barked out of his twisted mouth. "You're a shrink now, Kowalski, that another one of your talents, like taking it up the ass?"

"Look who's talking."

"Fuck you."

"Been, done, got the tee shirt."

His finger poked me in the chest. "You think you know everything, do you? What's my problem – I hate myself and it's all my parents' fault and mommy and the priests at St. Anthony's made me a faggot, right? That what you think?"

"That's not–"

"–You know what I think? I think, Stanley, that you don't know shit about dick. You never did." He took a few steps away, then turned back, his jaw tense and his mouth sneering. "I think you're fucking jealous. Yeah, that's what I think."

Oh, what the hell. "I am. So what?"

He gave that news a fraction of a second, during which his body stilled completely and his face froze, startled. Then his jaw tightened a notch more, and he went on, his voice low and harsh. "Don't try to analyze me, Kowalski, just do your job like I'm paying you to, and stop trying to screw things up between me and Benny."

"I don’t have to lift a finger, there, Vecchio; you're screwing up all by yourself."

As parting shots go, it wasn't bad, except it wasn't me who left. He turned his back on me and slammed through the curtain. I leaned against the gilt wallpaper feeling like a bug splattered on the front grill of an 18-wheeler. What the hell just happened here?

"Ray."

I jumped. "Jesus, Fraser, give a guy a heart attack, why don't you?" Oh please, please, let him not have heard me and Vecchio talking.

"Where did Ray go so suddenly?" He was looking off into the crowd, where Vecchio's back was slowly disappearing. "I haven't had a chance to say hello."

"Do yourself a favor there, Fraser, let it go." I shrugged in response to his raised eyebrow. "Ray's in a mood."

"I see." Yeah. Sure he did. "Ray, I've had very few interesting discussions this evening, even fewer that you might find enlightening. Mr. Kellerman, unless I am mistaken, is very much under the thumb of his wife. He does not strike me as dangerous, except possibly to himself. Unfortunately, I got caught in a conversation with an actress who’s playing Lady Macbeth at the Goodman, named Melina–"

"–Later, okay, Fraser?" I moved past him, listening with half an ear, but only just half, because Gus Fillion had just come into view. "How long has he been here?"

"Who?" He followed my line of sight. "Fillion?"

"The one and only. You hear anything about him tonight?"

"I did hear him talking to that fellow Brian, the one from the photos. It sounded as if they were quite friendly." He seemed to be studying my clothes. "Did you have some sort of trouble?"

"No." Maybe I said it a little too harshly.

"Perhaps you’d better fix your tie. It's a bit askew. And your shirt tail is pulled out."

I shoved the shirt where it belonged. "You want something to drink?" He shook his head. "Well, I'm gonna get something. Keep an eye on Fillion for a while, okay?"

"Well, I could, but. . . "

"But what?"

"But if you'll watch where he's headed, and the way he's shaking hands with Mr. Murphy, my guess is he's leaving."

Sure enough, Fillion was saying his farewells, which included a couple of handshakes with Murphy and his buds. And then he was heading towards the coat room attendant.

"Not very polite."

"How so, Ray?"

That surprised me. "C'mon, Fraser. I'm disappointed in you. He didn't say goodbye to the hostess. Should have gone looking for Stella."

"Well, that might take some doing, Ray. She left the party almost an hour ago."

That must have been right after I met her. Which made for a pretty swift exit from the party. I filed that away. "Listen. I'm gonna follow him. Nothing's happening here, and he's as good a suspect as anyone else. You okay getting home yourself?"

That perfect brow wrinkled a little. "Of course, Ray, but perhaps I should come with you."

"What for? I'm just gonna see what he's up to. It's not a two-man job."

I turned but his hand was on my arm. "It might be dangerous, Ray. From what you tell me, Gus Fillion was involved with a number of illegal dealings, most of them involving arms and violence. You may need backup."

"Thanks a bunch, Fraser," I said dryly, "but I’m a big boy now. You're a civilian, anyway."

"Allow me to point out that so are you, Ray. If you're concerned that I might not be able to hold up my end if there is trouble, let me assure you I was trained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and I–"

"–Okay, Sergeant Preston, point taken, but you're still not coming. Stay here and find out more stuff. Talk to Vecchio if you want your head bitten off. I'm going."

"Ray!" He looked frustrated, but he quit talking. I shook my head as I left. Might want Fraser to tuck me in at night, but that was a whole different thing than having him act like my mother.
 



Later, as I sat outside Fillion's apartment, I wished I'd brought something to eat, or at least some coffee, but mostly I wished I'd taken Fraser up on his offer to come along. I knew why I hadn't: first of all, this was my case – I was the detective, after all, and he was the victim's boyfriend. The responsibility was mine, and it was kind of weird to involve him like he was my partner or something.

Second, and this was by far the more important reason, I wasn't sure that I could keep my hands off him if he tagged along.

Which somehow seemed less important now that I was sitting in a chilly car all alone. What a waste of time. Over the past few hours, Fillion had visited a liquor store, stopped to shoot a game of pool at a bar and finally gone home. I would have, too, except that I'd watched him from the shadows of the pool hall as he made a cell phone call, and though he hadn't named the speaker, I'd distinctly heard him say, "Gotta go home first. See you later," before he hung up. So now I was waiting for "later."

At about eleven thirty Fillion finally came out the front, whistling. He'd changed out of his tux into casual clothes and dangled a leather jacket over his shoulder. He crossed the sidewalk and got into his car; I followed at a distance as he threaded through the narrow streets. As always, I missed the feel of my old GTO, but accepted, also as always, that my dark gray Camry was a lot less obvious when I was tailing someone.

Fillion led me into the warehouse district near the lake, and my pulse quickened a little at the thought of some sort of deal going down, but at the last minute, as he slowed, I realized we had arrived at a new club, one of a handful that had sprung up there in the last few months. Great. The phone call had probably just been to a date.

He handed his Porsche over to the valet parking kid and took a moment to gesture to it, point his finger and wave it at the kid. I sympathized with the car jockey; I'd done my share of valet parking as a teenager, and there was always some asshole threatening me with death if I scratched his baby. I bet the kid would treat it like spun glass and Fillion wouldn't even tip him that good.

Fillion went inside and I hastily jammed my own car in front of a hydrant right across the street from the club and stuck my old police ID in the front window, keeping my fingers crossed that the worst that would happen would be a ticket. I almost grinned at the thought of charging that to Vecchio's expenses.

The sign over the door advertised the fact that the place was called "Touch E. Feeley's." Oh, how cute, pardon me as I puke.

A wall of heat and noise assaulted me as I entered. Somebody should have told the owners that they left a lot to be desired in the subtlety department, not only the name of the place, but the front door, which had etchings on the glass of two women kissing, two men dancing, and a huge-breasted woman thrusting her two points of interest towards a man's outstretched hands. Something for everyone, I guess. I shuddered and let the door whoosh closed behind me.

The inside of Touch E. Feeley's was worse.

I hadn't been in a place like this since – well, had I ever been in one? Okay, maybe back in the eighties, and the scene was worse than ever, or maybe just now I was older and more jaded. I’d left my suit jacket in the car and outside it had been a chilly dash to the club, but inside the sheer number of people generated their own humid weather system. Everywhere I looked, bodies posed, pressed and rubbed against each other, while people of all ages and all sexes yammered over the din. I waited on the landing, not ready to face the snake pit below. Fillion had sunk into the mass of people and I cursed the fact my glasses were in still in my jacket. It took a while to pick him out near the bar.

The bar was three and four deep with customers. Fillion was at the far end, gesturing to the bartender for a drink. It wasn't worth trying to shout "excuse me" or "pardon" as I waded into the crowd, since no one seemed to care, not that they could have heard me being polite. I found about six square inches of space at the other end of the bar from my target, where I could look down its length and watch him, then grabbed the opportunity to order a draft, once the bartender decided it wasn't beneath him to make eye contact with me.

While I waited I scanned the people around me. A linebacker of a woman with big hair and an unflattering pink sweater was just coming in, followed by a model-thin girl who couldn't be more than seventeen and a guy who looked like a holdover from a seventies hair band. That pretty much summed up the range of types: a few looked to be my age or older, while most seemed to hover around the mid-twenties mark, and some looked distinctly underage. It didn't take a detective's eye to see drugs being sold over a table in the dark corner. No one was checking ID. No wonder the place was hopping.

"Pardon me, honey." The heavyset woman in the pink sweater excused herself in a whiskey-tenor voice and shoved herself between me and the bar just as the bartender delivered my drink, and for a moment I thought the broad was going to grab my beer. I took in her giant red hair-do, sequined sweater and weirdly pale eyes ringed by too much makeup and figured there wasn't enough beer in the world to make you drunk enough to take this chick home at closing time.

She completely blocked my view and finally I had to poke her none too gently to get her to move aside. She didn't even look my way, just shifted slightly. I grabbed my drink from around her, tossing a bill on the counter. The bartender took it, brought no change and did not look at me again. What a rip-off. I took a big swallow of my drink. Oh well, Vecchio would have to pay for this, too.

I checked on Fillion just in time to see him push off from the bar, and when I followed his line of sight, I got jolt of electricity that went right to my instincts as Wilson Warfield appeared at the railing of the upper-level dance floor. Well, well, well. Don't it just figure.

Warfield was one of the drug dealers who got away, one of the guys so big that no matter how hard Vecchio and I had chased him, he always found someone to take the rap for him. Money's like that; there's always some poor schmuck willing to do the time for rich low-life like Warfield, if the price is right. He'd had a string of clubs over the years, the last of which had burned down in a suspicious fire, giving him a shitload of insurance money. I guess it was no surprise he had a new place in the warehouse district, where the hip and wanna-be-hip now gravitated to for dancing and drugging.

Fillion nodded to Warfield, who came down the steps and kept going down to a lower level until I couldn't see him any more. Fillion followed. I pushed my way back through the throng, and had almost reached the top of the down staircase, when a tap on my shoulder caught my attention. I turned around.

"Fancy this," Stella Murphy shouted into my ear.

Shit. Why the hell did she and Vecchio have to be here now?

Except he wasn’t, not that I could see. "Vecchio?"

She shook her head. "Not tonight, sweetie. All on my lonesome. Lucky for you, huh?"

Okay. Why in hell would a classy broad like Stella Murphy come to a sleazy place like this?

"Get a table," she ordered, and turned her back, like she was certain I'd do her bidding. She had changed from her soft gray chiffon number into a barely-there halter top and very tight leather skirt, so it was not painful to watch her sashay away into the crowd. Once she disappeared I toyed with the idea of blowing her off and going after Fillion, but the problem with that was no one was supposed to know I was following him. Now that I’d run into Stella, I had to shift gears. Okay, whatever. Besides, I was curious to know what she was trolling after. She wanted me to find a table? Fine.

For once luck was with me. As I approached the table furthest in the corner, the couple occupying it suddenly got up and left, the man gesturing wildly and the woman cursing creatively. I slid into the seat, earning a glare and some four-letter words from a butch brunette and her two lipstick-lesbian friends who also had their eye on the table. "Screw it, sister," I shot back. "It's like hailing a cab – first one with a hand on the door gets the ride."

"Fuck you."

"Any time."

I sat back and drank beer. The intense desperation of the scene was beginning to freak me out, and as I waited for Stella to come back from wherever she’d gone I found myself against my better judgment pondering my life. Sure, I liked being independent, without having anything or anyone to tie me down; that much was okay, since I like my own company more than most other people's. But what was beginning to be not okay was feeling lonely, and I’d been feeling it more and more lately, sometimes even when I wasn’t alone.

Not good, Kowalski. This was a hell of a time to be thinking about shit like this. Very uncool. "Lonely" was the Big-L word even worse than the other one. At least I could think "love" without wanting to smack my head against the table.

I scanned the room and drank. There was this weird feeling of tightness to the place; tight clothes, tight smiles, tightly-wound people gurgling out their neediness from tight throats. My temples felt pretty tight, too, and I rubbed them. Over the pounding music I thought I could hear strangled, desperate cries in every slick line, every rehearsed gesture, every phony laugh. The players and the losers, they were all alike. The mass of people stoked a wave of claustrophobia, and I squeezed my eyes shut for a second to block them out.

When the choking sensation faded I looked again at the faces and reconsidered. It was remotely possible, I guess, that some of them actually enjoyed being here. Maybe there were people who truly loved the mating dance, the flirting and touching and game-playing. Maybe that desperation I sensed wasn't coming from them at all. Maybe it was all inside me. The thought made me want to puke.

Stella was coming back, slithering between bodies like a serpent. Now that she wasn't hiding behind yards of gray chiffon I could appreciate the curvy shape her party dress had hidden. Her legs were long for her height, and the skirt, cut up to here didn't leave much to the imagination. I followed the roundness of her breasts, enjoying the fact she wasn't stick thin. It was easy to imagine what she'd feel like pulled up close against me, my hands sliding around her waist, the swell of her breasts against me.

I wondered, suddenly, and completely inappropriately, if she was curvier now that she was pregnant.

The thought snapped me out of my fantasizing. All of a sudden I was annoyed. She was pregnant; she was engaged. What was wrong with this picture? How did a high-class gold coast girl get away with running around without her fiancé, in a shithole dive like this, wearing a dress cut up to her ass? Maybe I'm a male chauvinist pig, but there was something wrong about it.

She had glasses in both hands and I waved my beer at her. "All very women’s lib of you, but I already have a drink." I may have sounded a little surly.

She reacted by laughing at me. "What makes you think it's for you?" She put the glasses on the table and pushed my shoulder down as, a little late, I started to get up like the gentleman I’m not. She pulled out her own chair and sat, leaned towards me, cleavage first, and dissected me with her eyes. She was already slightly drunk, and I thought about making some remark like, "Maybe you shouldn't drink so much since you're pregnant," but no matter what I thought about it, it really wasn't any of my business. By now I was in such a lousy mood I was prepared to believe she wasn't even pregnant, but had trapped Vecchio with a lie.

Her eyes raked over me, cool and hot all at the same time. I got the distinct impression she was waiting for me to hit on her.

Wrong. She wasn't going to wait for me to make the first move. Her hand was in my lap before I knew it. The sudden movement caught me off guard, and I actually jumped. She laughed, and moved her hand away, lifting my beer away from the edge of the table. "Relax, honey. I wouldn’t want you to get all wet on my account."

Jesus. This Stella Murphy was Ms. Hyde to her society girl Dr. Jekyll. Hidden depths wasn't exactly the term I was thinking. Hidden agendas, maybe.

I took a drink. "How come you're here without the fiancé?" I practically had to shout to be heard.

"Are you checking up on me?"

"Nope."

"Well, good. Had a hell of a time ditching my nursemaid." At my quizzical look she sighed. "Daddy says Brian's his assistant but he's always following me around." Her eyes swept the room and she leaned closer, like she was sharing a dirty secret. "Lost him. Now we can have some fun."

"Fun, huh?"

"Any objections?"

"None at all, Stella. Like to ask you something first, though."

"I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours. You want to go somewhere quieter, like my place?"

"This is fine. Are you in love with Ray Vecchio?"

She looked over her drink and licked her lips. "You're protective of him."

"We're friends." Lying is my business.

"Everybody needs friends. Will you be my friend, Ray?"

"Sure. You didn't answer my question."

Big sigh. "Who told you I love him?"

"So how come you're marrying him? You could have anybody."

"Damn right I could."

"So. . . why Ray?"

Her narrow shoulders raised and lowered in a casual shrug. "Everybody seems to think it's a good idea."

"Everybody?"

"Yeah, you know. Ray. Me. My father. Especially my father." She got a funny look in her eye as she said that.

"No accounting for tastes. So he likes him enough to want you to marry him."

Her eyes narrowed. "'Wants,'" she said, and curled her lip. "There's a word."

She was joking. She had to be. I laughed. "What, your father told you to marry Vecchio?"

She took a drink. "Ray's okay. Might as well marry him."

Surreal, that was the word for this conversation. A cigarette had materialized in her hand. Great, smoking and drinking; her kid was getting some head start in life.. She sat there waiting for me to light it. "Sorry," I said, showing a palm. "Quit a month ago."

"You'll start again," she assured me, and leaned over to the next booth, where she stuck her cigarette into the face of the leather-covered brunette I'd beaten out for this table. "Light me up, sugar?" Stella said in a voice I hadn't heard her use before. The woman smiled, and flicked the lighter. Stella cupped the woman's hand as she lit her cigarette, her eyes staying locked on the brunette's until the end of the cigarette glowed. She let her hands trail along the woman's leather sleeve before letting go.

Okay. I got the picture. "You like girls, Stella?"

"Sometimes." She looked up at me through mascara-darkened lashes. "Why, don’t you?"

"Sure."

"Really? I wondered if you were queer."

"Why? Trying to start a club?"

She laughed out loud at that. "I like you, Ray Kowalski." Before I could reply with a witty comeback, her lips were on mine, and her hand got personal with my fly again. She felt soft but kissed hard, her kisses Scotch-flavored.

"Stella," I said, pushing her away gently, before my dick could offer an opinion.

"Coward." Her voice was mocking. "I don’t think you like girls at all."

I ignored that. "So. Stella. Your father pushed you to marry Vecchio. How'd you feel about that?"

"Swell. Wanted to celebrate."

"You’re a big girl. Why'd you agree?" I smiled at her before I asked the next question. "Is it because of the baby?"

Her smile flickered. She took a long swallow and a drag on the cigarette. "The baby's got nothing to do with it. Turns out I like the idea of having four hundred million dollars. Maybe you'll think I'm shallow, but I like the style to which I've become accustomed. If I have to marry somebody and pop out a male heir for my father–" She shrugged.

"Stella. Come on, level with me. Your father didn’t really threaten you, threaten to disinherit you."

She tilted the glass up, letting the last amber drops roll down her throat. "My father. . . Dad's a great man, a fucking success story. Started out on the docks, you know that?" She licked the rim of the glass while her eyes smoldered at me. "I'm a great disappointment to him, or so he likes to tell me." She picked up the second glass. "Time for me to start making babies. Boy babies, preferably. He can hardly wait for me to find out for sure what it is." The snide smile dropped away and I watched her face change.

"What?"

She turned the remaining glass around and around in wet circles on the table, then drained it in a long swallow, flinching as it hit home. "A great man." Her voice was low and husky with liquor and emotion, and I said nothing, waiting. "Paid for everything I could want, right? Private schools, riding lessons, my own sports car, an account at every goddamn designer–" She paused and swallowed, the back of her hand against her mouth.

"Doesn't sound like a bad life."

"Doesn't it?"

"Why not? Get whatever you want–"

"'What I 'want'. . . " She made a little noise in the back of her throat, like the start of laughter. Or a scream. "I begged him to let me go away to college. I just, I just needed to get out of there. But 'no,' he says, 'I need you, my lovely colleen. Your mother's not doing well, you've got to be here for me. Got to be my First Lady, darlin.' Got to take your momma's place.'"

"That's a pretty good impression."

"Yeah, isn't it. I can do him, all right." She didn't smile. "Not like if I were a son of his. He'd have gone to the ends of the earth to send a son to any college he wanted. But me? Just a girl. Girls stay home. Girls are wives and mothers. Girls are breeders. That's the plan, the Sean Michael Murphy plan. Well, I'm smart. I was very smart. I could've been, I don't know, a lawyer, a, a brain surgeon, a goddamn city councilman, his Councilman, instead of Louis Gardino or Ray Vecchio or–" She stopped and violently jabbed out her cigarette. "I could've been any goddamn thing I wanted to be. But he wouldn't think of it. Wouldn't think of me like that. Just a stupid girl, that's all. Just his darlin' colleen.."

"Maybe he's afraid. To let you go, you know? Might be his only way of showing he loves you."

"Oh, he loves me." She caught my eyes. "You ever wonder what it might be like, never having to work?"

"Sure.. All the time."

"I bet you think you'd like it that way." I shrugged. "Sure you do. But what if you couldn't work. Weren't allowed to? Had to live your life in a cage with someone else in control? Think you'd like that?"

"Nah. I'd hate being told what I could or couldn't do."

"Ten out of ten, Kowalski."

I studied her, wondering how terrible it really was, how much of it was just drama, just her being a spoiled brat. "But what about your mother? Didn't she have–"

"My mother. . .. " Stella's face contorted in pain and her eyes got shiny. And then they got hard. Real hard. "That son of a bitch. He actually said to me that I killed my mother. She had cancer, you know? She died of cancer and he – my father – says to me at her funeral, 'You put her in that coffin,' and that I could consider myself disinherited unless I did what he wanted. Cold. Right out loud there in the church with my mother lying in front of us." Stella looked up, and though her eyes were like granite her chin quivered.

"Fuck."

"Exactly. So I might as well play the role. And wait. Sooner or later he'll be dead."

Cold Stella was back. I actually felt sorry for her, but it was clear from the wall that had just risen in her eyes that Stella had finished sharing her innermost feelings. My lust for her wasn't even a memory. I found myself, oddly, worrying about Vecchio. "So, what happens to Ray, then?"

"Whatever he wants. I’ll have my interests, he'll have his. You know what his interests are, don’t you, Kowalski." It wasn't a question. I was too startled to answer, and she went on. "Like I said, I like him well enough. He actually can make me scream when he goes down on me. First man I ever knew who could do that. Though I bet you could, too, with that mouth on you. Want to try?"

Under other circumstances, I'd probably have gone for it, more to wipe the smug look off her face than anything else. Hell, she was gorgeous, and part of me was ready and willing, but another part, the thinking part, saw how screwed up she was and wanted to cut and run. For once that part was in charge.

I drained my beer and stood up. The air in the club was stuffy, making me light-headed, and I felt the need to get away from her. Besides, there was Warfield to follow up on. "Nice talking to you, Stella. Gotta go."

"I'll miss you." She threw me a kiss.

Yeah, right.

There was a sign at the staircase saying it led to the rest rooms, but no doubt there was some other area where Fillion and Warfield had got to.. That big woman from the bar cut ahead of me again going down the stairs, and following her I wondered how women in high heels could navigate the journey without breaking their necks. The entire structure was a lawsuit waiting to happen. Even with rubber-soled boots and one beer I clung to the railing like a drunken sailor, the damn rickety stairs swayed so badly.

Dammit. Dammit! Warning bells were clanging in my brain, but I didn’t have time to listen to them, not if I wanted to find out what Warfield and Fillion were up to.

A door squeaked shut as I reached the bottom, a windowless hall lit by a single yellowish light. The woman was nowhere in sight. Doors on either side of me were labeled "Guys" and "Dolls," and one at the far end said "Private." On the right wall was a shiny new phone with a hand-lettered "out of order" sign, a bit of an understatement since there was no wire running to the receiver. Everything seemed fake and cheesy in this place, and my darkening mood didn't make it look any better. I stuck my ear up against the "Private" door, but pulled away as a skinny androgynous something with the eyes of a thirsty vampire emerged from "Guys" and shuffled by me. He, or it, looked me up and down and licked his lips. I pushed past him into the "Guys" room, hoping that cold water might shock me awake.

A wave of dizziness pushed me against the cool tile wall. I couldn't exactly hear the music from upstairs as much as feel it reverberate with dull thumps through the wall into my body. My head ached and I felt sweaty, as though I'd been dancing my ass off instead of just sitting with a drink. Get a grip, Kowalski.

Darkness hovered at the edges of my vision, and the growing knowledge of what was wrong with me had my heart pounding and my nerves fraying. I didn't know what she'd used, but it was getting pretty clear that Stella must have drugged me, and I thought I knew when she'd done it, though I had no idea why. Jesus, I hadn't expected that. I'd been caught with my pants down, all right. Forget Fillion and Warfield; I needed to get my skinny ass out of the club before I passed out.

But there was more than my jittery pulse and cottony head going on here. I was upset and depressed, too. Why? It couldn't just be Stella – a gorgeous fruitcake she might be, but a pathetic one, when push came to shove. If it was because the place depressed me then I was a hopeless case. Was it Vecchio – or Fraser – who was nagging at me?

Shit. I needed to get hold of myself, get out or at least get some help. I tried to push them all away, Vecchio, Fraser, Stella. Fraser stuck. No matter how much, how often I tried to beat it into my thick skull that he was part of a case, that he was off limits at least until this whole thing was wrapped up, that it was stupid to shit where I ate, I kept seeing him, and damn, kept wanting him. Stella Murphy might have stirred things up, groping me like she did, but it wasn’t her hands I wanted on me right now.

The music throbbed through me, and the smoky air felt thick in my lungs. I thought I was reaching for my cellphone, planning to call someone, anyone for help. I didn’t even know my hand was on my dick until I felt a shiver run through me as I started to respond. This was stupid, stupid, there was no time, but somehow I couldn’t stop. My hand moved, almost by itself, and I leaned back against the tile and opened my legs a little for balance. I closed my eyes and let my other hand run down my chest, feeling the sweaty fabric of my shirt as it clung to me. One thumb rolled a nipple and I heard myself make a little needy noise. And then there was a cool draft on my face and a little hiss of noise. I opened my eyes.

The skinny guy who’d licked his lips at me in the hallway was standing in front of me, half in the door. His mouth was open, wet and red; his lips looked like maybe he’d used lipstick and had worn most of it off. There were smudges under his eyes, from makeup or bad diet or too many drugs, and though he was pretty young, the eyes themselves were much too old for his face. He stared at me with this knowing look in those eyes and when I didn’t move or yell at him or say anything, he lowered them to the bulge at my crotch, raised them to mine and licked his lips again. Fuck. Get the hell out of here, Kowalski.

I didn’t move.

And then he was closing the door and turning the lock, and kneeling down in front of me. His hand pushed mine away. I looked down at the dark head in front of me, heard the slow zip of my fly being opened, felt cool hands reach inside and pull me out and again I told myself bad idea, just go, go, but it was too late. I didn’t have Fraser and I didn’t have Vecchio and I didn’t want Stella and I didn’t have the will to leave. I was dizzy and depressed and lonely and angry and oh fuck oh fuck a hot wet mouth was closing over me. I leaned back against the dirty wall and let the nameless stranger’s tongue do what I wanted someone else’s to be doing, let his cold hand reach down and roll my balls when I wanted a warm hand, Benton Fraser’s hand, to be touching me that way, to be closing on me rhythmically like that, yeah, just like that, Fraser, while his tongue ran around the head of my cock, yeah, right there, tonguing the little slit in the way that made me crazy, uh yeah, that’s it, and then that hot mouth was sucking me, taking my cock all the way down, taking me deep inside that beautiful throat, god, yeah, do it again like that, Fraser, the hand touching me behind my balls, looking for access, jesus jesus god–

My eyes shot open and the fantasy shattered. The reality was a skinny punk with his mouth wrapped around my dick, and I shoved his shoulders, hard, knocking him onto his ass on the dirty tile floor.

He stared at me. "Hey, man, wha' the fuck's wrong with you?"

He wiped a sleeve over his mouth and I saw his teeth were crooked and stained. I just barely held back the urge to vomit.

"Go," I growled, wrapping my arms around myself. Cold. I felt cold.

"Yeah, okay. We'll go somewhere else." He smiled; he’d missed the point.

I hammered it home. "Go on – get out of here. Leave me alone."

"Asshole," he said, glaring. "I bet you shoot off too fast, pussy." The door swooshed closed behind him. I barely made it to the toilet before I puked up my guts.

I zipped myself up with shaky hands and went to the sink. The cold water felt like needles on my face, but my head still throbbed dully and I couldn't shake the feeling of stuffiness. When I leaned in to look at my reflection through bleary eyes, my face had an unpleasant grayish tinge to it. What I'd just let happen disgusted me, and I'd wasted too much time. I was beginning to lose feeling in my fingertips. Touch E. Feeley's had turned out to be worse than a bad idea; I hadn't found anything in here but a sense of how fucked up I was, and if I didn't get out of here soon, I might just be fucked up for good.

As the "Guys" door shut behind me, I saw that big woman standing at the phone, in shadows, speaking in a muffled tone into the receiver. The hallway was darker than before; when I looked up, I noticed the overhead light had gone out. The music blaring from above was trapped in the well at the bottom of the stairs, and it throbbed in my head. I swayed a little as the noise and darkness made the door to Warfield's inner sanctum seem to recede. This was not good. I was dimly aware of the woman moving up beside me, as if maybe she saw I needed help, but I didn't remember hearing her hang up her call–

Her call. Hadn't the phone been out of order? Hadn't the wire–

There was no time for further thoughts on the subject. The woman's right arm came around my throat, squeezing me, while a solid body pinned my left arm behind me against her scratchy sweater. The arm around my throat was huge, strong and muscular, forcing the air out of me, and I clawed at it with my other hand. I struggled, but felt detached, as if I was watching the scene unfold in front of me. Shout for help, I told myself, looking up into the lighted stairwell, for crying out loud, doesn't anybody see what's going on? but most of me seemed to have lost interest. My lungs screamed for air but the pressure at my throat didn't stop. I was being dragged back, deeper into the shadows, being turned until my face pressed against the far wall. I was falling down a well, the last bits of light and hope disappearing. My eyes closed, shutting out the light.

And then something heavy slammed into me, knocking my face painfully into the plaster. But the pressure on my throat disappeared, and I flopped ungracefully down to the floor, my mouth gaping open like a fish out of water.

There was noise behind me, thumps and groans, but I was past caring, really, feeling numb, happy to lie in a crumpled heap on the dirty floor at the foot of the "Dolls" room.

Somewhere, far, far away, I heard footsteps pounding and someone shouting, and then I let everything drift.
 



Something warm and wet was dripping in my eyes.

Something wet was trickling into my nose, making it itch. I sneezed, and the wet something sneezed too, and my face got fanned with something humid and hot that smelled like yesterday's lunch and that was just plain disgusting, so I forced my eyes open. Six inches from me there was a big toothy mouth panting and grinning with doggy happiness. Diefenbaker.

I grunted and tried to wipe my face but the stupid animal closed the distance and slurped me again. Someone's hand appeared with a clean white handkerchief and began to mop up some of the drool.

"Welcome back," Fraser's voice said.

I squinted back at him. I'd been having a kind of dream in which I'd gotten tangled up under a pillow, and when I first opened my eyes, I'd sort of expected to be in bed; it didn't seem particularly strange at first to find Fraser in bed with me, since we’d just had mind-blowing sex. . . And then, suddenly, it did seem strange, and we hadn’t had sex, and anyway I sure as hell hadn't bargained on the wolf being part of a ménage a trois.

My eyes tracked left and right; I had no idea where I was. It seemed natural to ask, but my voice came out in a scratchy whisper so I tried again. "What are you doing here?" I squeezed out, just as I sneezed again. Fraser had been leaning in to try to hear me, so I got him in the spray.

He ran his sleeve across his face. His face – it looked, well, there were too many things going on at once in that face. Somewhere I registered that his lip was split. "Can you sit up?"

"Of course I can," I said, annoyed at the stupid question. Then I tried to do so, without much luck. Fraser stuck his hand under my shoulder, leveraging me into a sitting position. I looked around, suddenly cold. To my amazement, I was on the sidewalk, sitting on someone's coat. People stood in bunches near me; a police car was parked by the curb a few feet from where I was sitting, its lights rotating. Muffled, staticky voices burst at intervals from walkie-talkies. Somewhere behind me, music was playing. "Where is this?"

"You really don't remember?"

"If I knew, I wouldn't ask." And back over to you, Mr. Sarcasm. Damn, my throat hurt.

Fraser sat back on his haunches and looked at me, pulling on an earlobe, which was red with the cold. He was in a dress shirt and tuxedo pants, with his tie untied. When I felt under me I found a jacket. His? "You're outside the club, Touch E., er, Feeley's. You were attacked, remember?"

That was news to me. My head felt stuffy and the lights on the street were doing a drunken cha-cha. And then I did remember, and put up a shaky hand to touch my throat. It felt bruised on the outside, and sandpapery when I swallowed. Hello. It hadn't been a pillow smothering me, it had been that big–

"–Woman, some big woman, with really strong – what?"

Fraser was shaking his head, and I stopped croaking. "It was a man," he said. "Dressed as a woman." He licked the cut on his lip, and I saw that the skin under his left eye was beginning to turn a little purple, and I suddenly understood what had happened.

"You were in there."

"I saw her choking you and so I, well, that's not important, but I don't think I've ever met a woman who could hit quite that hard. Well, maybe June Kayakjuak, but then her mother wrestled bears–"

"–Fraser! Why were you here?" I hadn't meant it to sound that way, like I was accusing him of something. What I really was thinking was, you saved my life, but the other thing was already out of my mouth.

"I–" He looked embarrassed. "You were going in without backup."

"So you decided that was your job? You followed me? You're not a cop." He was going to answer me, but I didn't let him. "I need to stand up."

Fraser kept his mouth shut, and I thought he was avoiding making eye contact as he took my arm and straightened us both up. I started to rise, but my legs wouldn't work quite as well as I expected, and the people and cars and Fraser were suddenly swimming in circles. "Sit –" I managed, and sat down hard, jamming my spine. I lay back, dizzy and in pain. Somebody was yelling, and someone else was looking in my eyes and speaking to me through a loud waterfall that was rushing through my ears. After a while the waterfall went away, but I lay still with my eyes closed to make the street stop spinning.

"Ach, drugs," the Someone Else was saying in an accent, and an annoyed person was protesting, "No, he does not abuse drugs," which made me want to laugh at the thought of Fraser protecting my delicate reputation. "No, you misunderstand." The first voice again. "I mean to say he was drugged. Gamma hydroxyl butyrate, or Rohypnol. You wouldn’t believe the things that go on in these clubs. Silly young people."

That opened my eyes. I had to tell them – "Stella, Stella drugged me." Neither man responded and I realized I hadn't said it aloud. I struggled to rise again, but both Fraser and an old guy with gray hair and the face of an undertaker put out hands to stop me. I made myself audible. "Look, you have to stop Stella–"

"–She's long gone, Ray."

"Shit." This time when I struggled to my feet I found I could stay upright, sort of, but the two men supported me and hustled me into the passenger seat of a car before I could mount a protest.

The old guy kept clucking "Ja, ja, that’s the way, be calm and let Dr. Mort take care of you. Good thing you called me, Benton, ja?"

"Yes, thank you very much, Mort."

It was easier to give in than fight them off like I wanted to. Then Fraser's jacket was over me, and Fraser backed out of the car, still in his shirtsleeves. "Thanks, Mort. Please say hello to Bella."

"Always, my friend. Goodbye. Goodbye to you too, poochie." It took me a couple seconds to realize he was talking to Dief, not me.

The voices faded as the two separated. Fraser walked over to speak with a uniformed cop. The car seat was cold, but I leaned against it anyway, closing my eyes, my mind trying to un-jumble itself. Stella had had the opportunity to drug me – I remembered her moving my drink – but by then, hadn't I already been feeling a little odd? And did I really think she was going to drag me to her place in a drugged state? Impossible. What would the purpose have been, then, for Stella Murphy to drug me? Punch me for messing around in her life, sure, but knock me out?

I struggled to concentrate. Thinking hurt. If not Stella, then who, and how?

No, not Stella. . . the woman. . . or the man dressed as a woman. . . whatever. He/she at the bar, blocking my view of the bar, blocking my view of my beer, just as the drink was delivered. That hadn't been accidental. So much for assuming I was so irresistible that Stella Murphy wanted to force herself on me. Whoever had arranged this wanted me to be so out of it I couldn't put up a fight. Which meant whoever it was wanted me dead.

That thought snapped whatever it was that was still holding me together. The last thing I saw before checking out was Fraser looking at me through the windshield.
 



The next thing I saw was some dame in a fancy dress with lots of jewelry and a tiara on her head staring at me through the shadows. There was enough light to tell she wasn't pretty – more like attractive in an equestrian sort of way, if you know what I mean. She looked familiar, though, like someone I might have seen on TV, or maybe my Aunt Polly from Kenosha, who actually looks more like Janet Reno, but who likes going to that Renaissance thingy they have up there, dressed up like some sort of queen–

Oh, okay, got it, the woman was a queen. The Queen. Of England.

My eyes closed while I considered why she’d be in my apartment. In the dark behind my eyelids there were quick flashes of wood and wallpaper, snapshots of the inside of a car, my car, but I was in the wrong seat. In my nose was the smell of furniture polish, and on my skin the sensation of moving with something big and warm wrapped around me. That flash was nice, made me feel good, despite a headache. My head buzzed like a hangover, only more spacey, less painful.

With my eyes open again I checked the landscape. There should have been a window on the right, but it was to my left, and there was no light coming through it, so with my great detecting skills I deduced it was night. A small lamp across the room shed enough of a glow to reveal dark blue walls with white trimming, a bureau, bookcases, a few small framed photos and a big round something on the wall by the door. My relief that the horsey woman was in a picture and not actually present was offset by the conclusion that this was not my bedroom, and this was not my bed.

Bed. I was in bed, alone, a big bed with wooden posts in the corners and a comfy, if firm, mattress. I was covered with a blanket with stripes of different colors all over it. When I tried to remember who the hell I went home with last night, I got the image of a small blonde woman with pale eyes and a killer smile. In a second I had a name for her: Stella. Shit – did I sleep with Vecchio’s fiancée?

Maybe another time I would have felt smug, but somehow it freaked me out a little. I rolled my feet out of the blanket and covering sheet, over the side of the bed, and sat there a minute while my head caught up with the rotation of the earth. When I pushed up to my feet I discovered I was wearing my underwear, which is more than I usually wear to bed, except I didn't remember going to bed, and I sure as hell didn't remember doing it either with Queenie over there or Stella.

The big round thing on the wall, when I staggered over to it, turned out to be a hat, but one like I've never seen up close before – huge, flat-brimmed, crown evenly pinched in a couple places. It was a pretty weird thing to have for a wall decoration. Not at all the sort of thing you find in a chick’s room, unless it was a trophy she got banging Smokey the Bear. Then, too, I didn’t think Sean Michael Murphy would have a big picture of the Queen of England in his house, so not Stella’s room.

I began to shiver.. My shirt was nowhere in sight, but my pants were hanging neatly over the back of a chair, so I pulled them on. My tie was rolled neatly on the table. Okay, clearly I did not do the undressing of myself last night, because I don't usually worry about neatness unless I’m expecting company. And I never have company. In fact, the whole room screamed neat. Too neat.

There was another blanket folded at the end of the bed, a dark blue one with some sort of crest on it, so I wrapped it around me and waited until the shivers stopped, then went to the door. Outside was a light illuminating a bathroom next door, and a staircase heading down, which I followed. I was still literally and mentally in the dark, but at least there was a light in the stairway, so I held onto the railing so my rubbery legs wouldn’t pitch me forward. The whole thing felt unreal, like I was underwater, or in a dream. Where the hell was I?

The answer came on the floor below. There was a lamp lit in the far corner, and I saw a ruffled bedspread through a door. What was it he’d called it? The Regal Suite? On the right another door opened onto an office lined with bookshelves. Fraser’s office. The Canadian Consulate.

Oh.

Yeah.

Right. Fraser. Rescue.

He was stretched out on the couch in his office, one sockless foot hooked over the arm because the couch was only slightly longer than a loveseat. The wolf dog was curled up under the desk, snoring like a buzz saw. Fraser was still in his white shirt and black pants, though his tie was gone; an arm was flung up over his head, and his dark hair was a little ruffled. The weakness in my knees intensified and my stomach did a little flip, not the kind of flip it did before I lost my lunch in the club bathroom, but the I’m-so-happy-to-be-alive flip that routinely comes right before life kicks me in the head. And just like that I understood the flashes I’d had before, especially the happy flash of me pressed against something warm. The memory washed over me and I closed my eyes, weaving a little.. There was a quiet little sound in the room and too late I realized it came from me. Fraser's eyes blinked, and he sat up in one smooth motion, wide awake in an instant.

He was holding my shirt tight against him.

Another, stronger rush of warmth went through me, even though my skin was still cold, and it was a warmth that had nothing to do with the room temperature. Maybe I was still a little drugged; maybe I had no barriers left after the day I'd had, but I watched him yawn and stretch unconsciously, the shirt falling to the couch, and I felt so light-headed I could barely hear him when he began to speak. "Ray, are you all right? It's the middle of the night.."

"You're on the couch," Zombie Ray said.

"You needed the bed more than I did. I often sleep on the couch." That last part was a lie, I could tell; he was lying so I wouldn't feel guilty. I was really touched.

"Why don’t you sleep in the Royal Suite?" Not sure why I was pressing the issue.

"Regal. I can’t. It’s reserved for dignitaries. But that’s not important. How are you feeling?"

I took a deep breath, taking in the smell of sleepy Fraser, trying to calm my pulse, because I felt shakier now than I had on the sidewalk, though it didn't have a whole hell of a lot to do with the drugs I'd been doped with. "Like 'Dawn of the Dead.'"

He stood up so we were face to face, just one pace apart, while he worked out what I meant. His hair was mussed up. My hand had the impulse to reach over and muss it up more, but I gripped the blanket and my hand stayed put. "You certainly were out of commission," he went on, still sounding concerned. "You couldn’t even walk when we got here." His hand was on my shoulder. Warm. Firm. Christ. Were other parts of him as firm and warm? "It's only four. No need for you to get up, unless – would you like something? A cup of tea, perhaps?"

There was no universe in which I would want a cup of tea. No, tea was not what I wanted. I shook my head, because for the moment I couldn't form words.

"Are you cold?"

Sure I was. He had my shirt. I shook my head again.

"Then what is it, Ray?"

You couldn’t even walk. "This place have an elevator?"

"No, though there is a dumbwaiter."

"How’d I get up to the third floor?" I figured I knew, but I had to hear it from his lips. Those lips. Those damned lips, the real thing, not the faded lipstick lips of the punk in the men’s room. I flinched a little at the memory, then looked at his lips again, and his tongue flicked across them. My insides did that flip thing again.

"Well, I had to, that is, carry you part of the way." He looked at me from the corner of his eyes. "And may I say, you are heavier than you look."

"And you looked."

He rubbed an eyebrow. "I'm not sure what you.. . . All I mean is, your body type is. . . Well, lean but muscular. And muscle is denser than–"

"–When, when you were undressing me? You looked then? You like that? You like the way I look?"

Eyebrow again. Lip lick. "Ray."

"You find me attractive?" It was the second time I’d asked him that.

"Ray, please." His voice had a warning in it, but it shook a little.

"Please what, Fraser?" I moved into his space, and the blanket fell off as his hand moved off my shoulder. Him moving his hand would have been bad except it just slid down my arm, until he was gripping me just above the elbow. "Please what?" I caught his other hand on its way to his damn eyebrow, and felt the tremble in it.

That was it for me. I was beyond caring what he was to Vecchio or what Vecchio meant to him, or that he was part of a case and there was the possibility, remote, but there, that he was one of the bad guys. Screw the whole "doing the right thing" crap. This was primal: Tarzan want. "Fraser. You know. Do not tell me you don't know. You've been giving me signals since the first minute we met. You came after me. You carried me up three flights of steps. You – you have my shirt, Fraser. You were sleeping with my shirt."

"Two flights."

"What?"

"It's two flights to the third floor."

"I swear to God, Fraser, you are–" I stopped because I was panting hard and rocking on my feet. For a split second it was a tossup whether I would hit him or pass out. Instead I grabbed the back of his head, pulled him to me and kissed him, hard.

He didn’t fight me, but he didn't really join in, except to let his lips stay relaxed as I smashed my mouth against his. After a few seconds of tasting him and feeling myself get harder and harder I pulled back, panting. Looking at him I couldn't tell what the hell was going on in his mind, whether he wanted to run or analyze me or call Vecchio for reinforcements. Me, I was teetering on the edge of something wild and uncontrollable, and if he had said almost anything, had asked how I was again, or if I was cold, or who I liked for the Stanley Cup, I would have popped him one.

But he didn't. He licked his lips and said, "Yes."

"Yes, what?"

"I'm attracted to you. To the way you look. To the way you talk. To the way you think. I'm attracted to everything about you, Ray. When I saw him choking you, I–" He stopped talking, except with his eyes.

If I was in my right mind, maybe I would have shut up, too, but I was too far gone, and the need was obvious in my voice. "Fraser. Please. You have to know how much I want you."

"I. . . Ray, you know this is complicated. Ray Vecchio–"

"–No, it’s simple. He's not here. Not right now. I know you probably love him, but he doesn't love you and you know that's true, because he treats you like crap, like he treats everyone. I know, I know that, believe me, because I was where you are right now, and he didn't even screw me over for a rich broad, just for a lousy job. He – oh, shit, I don't want to talk about Vecchio, not here and not now when it's just us."

His eyes were bigger than normal, and the look in them was something like alarm. My voice got tight, and this time it wasn't because I'd been half strangled, but there wasn't anything I could do about it, and I was too tired to try. "Please. I've had a couple of days from hell. I've been shot at, covered in blood, had a guy die in my arms. I’ve been arrested, groped by Stella Murphy, my house has been tossed, I've been drugged. I've been strangled by a transvestite. I’m in no mood to argue. So say yes. Do it out of pity if you have to, just. . . don't say no, please, not right away. I don't think I can take that right now. If you're going to say no, wait until tomorrow, okay?"

"Stella groped you?"

"For Chrissakes, Fraser, I swear I'll tell you about that but not now. I just want, I want–"

"–I know what you want." His voice dropped. "I know, believe me, I know."

"And do you–?"

"I. . . "

"Fraser!"

"Yes, Ray. I want it too. Yes."

Thank God. "Then can you please hold onto me, because I think I might fall down."

"Of course," he said, almost matter-of-fact, and stepped in, his arm coming around me, the other gripping my shoulder. "Better?" His breath was warm on my face.

"Other arm." His right arm curled around my back to join the left one. Now I was truly, completely enveloped. "Yes. Better." He was so close he looked blurry. I put my face in his neck and breathed deep and kissed him there. Much better. We were about the same height, so I had to bend a little to get comfortable against him, but it didn't matter. We just stood there and I closed my eyes. I felt Fraser sway gently, and it was sort of like being a baby, rocking with him, but babies do not get erections while being rocked. So I rocked against him in a slightly different way and oh, yes, better and better.

"Ray."

"Mmm."

"Ray?"

"Mmmm."

"Ray. . . can you hear me?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Can we sit down? My leg is tingling."

"Mm-'kay."

Without letting go, we sat on the couch, well, more like fell down. My head was still dopey but the rest of me felt more awake, and I put my full weight on him and over we went, until we were lying down more than sitting, me almost on top of him. Fraser made a little noise when my dick hit his hip and my mouth found his neck again. "Oh, that's nnnnn, Ray. Oh." He shifted his hips and took his leg away from my groin. "Uh. Ray. Wait. I'm not sure this is a good idea." His voice was ragged.

"Tell me you don't want this, Fraser." I continued to suck on his neck.. Silence. "Thought so."

"Don’t be smug."

"Okay." I straightened my spine and moved to kiss his mouth.

At the last second, he reached up and cupped my face, keeping me from his mouth. "Ray. I can't. Not now."

"No fair teasing, Fraser." I licked his palm.

"I'm not teasing, Ray. I can't do this now."

The bottom dropped out "But I thought you wanted, you said–" Frustrated, I slid my hand over and found his dick. His very stiff, very interested dick. "You want this." I tightened my hand around him and he let out a small gasp, almost a sigh.

"I do, I do want this. Believe me, Ray." Very gently he removed my hand and pulled away slightly so he could sit up against the sofa's arm. "But not until I talk to Ray, tell him things have changed. I owe him that, at least."

My face must have fallen pretty far because I felt his thumb stroking my cheek, like you do to a kid. "Why? Why do you owe him? He takes what he wants, Fraser. He doesn't act like he owes you the time of day!"

"I won't talk about him that way, Ray. There are things you don't know. But consider that maybe I owe it to myself. To you. Do you want me to be like that, like you say he is?"

"Unfair, I just want you to. . . " The frustration welled up, and anger, too. "Dammit. I just want you, Fraser. That's it plain and simple. So is it yes, or no? You're acting like a frigging virgin."

Wrong. Wrong thing to say. "I'm not a virgin, Ray, as you well know. But I don't take these things lightly." He frowned at me. "Do you? Because if you do, I don't see how that makes you any better than Ray Vecchio, or whatever you think Ray's like."

My head was starting to hurt again. My dick was already giving up, and the way my jaw was clenching, there was an ache shooting up my cheek to boot. I started to answer him, shoot back a quick "of course I don't," but I stopped myself, because all of a sudden I wondered what the answer really was. All I had to show for my whole life was a history of brief flings and shallow affairs with the wrong person. The one time I let my heart really get involved, it turned out the other guy’s heart wasn't in the same place mine was, maybe not even the same hemisphere. That was Vecchio.

Which made me suspicious of myself now. Sure, Fraser was hot and gorgeous and funny as hell in a freaky way, but there were a lot of good looking, great-personality guys out there; girls too, for that matter. I never fell like this before, and it felt strange, weird. Not-me. Why was I so intent on getting it on with Fraser? Hell, I'd taken one look at Stella and had almost the same reaction, and they were nothing alike. All they had in common was Vecchio. So what did I want, really want? And the biggie: was it honest attraction or just competition with Vecchio that was driving me?

All the air went out of me. I sagged back, rubbing my forehead. There was so much I wanted to say, but I just couldn't muster the energy any more. Didn't matter, anyway, "Forget it, sorry," I mumbled.

Fraser moved out from under me, and it was a sign of how far I'd dropped that him slithering around didn't even make me twitch. He pulled himself up until he was sitting next to me, and he put a big warm hand on my shoulder, like he had when this whole damn scene started. "It's okay, Ray. Come on. Let's get you back to bed."

A couple of minutes ago that would have sounded sexy to me, but right now I was drained of all energy and pretty much any desire. I wasn't even mad at Vecchio, not right then. Just depressed as hell. I let Fraser help me up the stairs, back to the blue bedroom. I didn't look at him again, just crawled in, turned my head away and closed my eyes. It was a little while before I heard the door close behind him, and a much longer time before I fell asleep.
 


Friday

 



Tap.

Tap. Tap.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Enough with the tapping.

Tap tap-te-tap tap, tap TAP.

Pull. Pillow.. Over. Face.

"Mr. Raymond?"

Oh, no.

"Um. . . Mr. Kowalski?"

Annoying. Cheerful. Annoyingly cheerful.

"Are you awake?"

Jeez, can't a guy pretend he's still asleep without being bothered? "Yeah."

"Oh good, you're awake. Good morning! Ordinarily I wouldn't dream of bothering a guest, because that's not the image we of the Canadian Consulate wish to project, seeing as we are, in a way, ambassadors for our country. Of course, our actual embassy is in Washington, D.C., as is every other country's embassy, as it is your nation's capital, but I like to think of the Chicago consulate as a little island of Canadian hospitality all by itself. A thirteenth province or territory, if you will. Oh, dear. I should say a fourteenth province or territory, now, as Nunavut is about to achieve official status. I'm not sure if you are aware, Mr. Kowalski, that our Northwest Territories are about to be–"

Yank door open, not gently. "Turnbull."

A big, broad, dopey smile lit up Turnbull's happy-puppy face. "Ah, Mr. Kowalski! Did you sleep well?"

My hand scrubbed over stubble. "No."

"Of course, I shouldn't wonder. Mr. Fraser told me you were taken ill last night. May I offer you something? Aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, bromide, Pepto-Bismol, cough drops–"

"No, Turnbull. I'm fine now." Yeah, sure, fine. I looked around the room. My clothes were where they'd been at four a.m., but now my shirt, neatly folded, lay on top.

"Well, then, would you like some breakfast? I have toast, and boysenberry preserves, and eggs – oh, I could make waffles if you prefer, with authentic maple syrup from Ontario, which my mother sent me for my last–"

"–What time is it?"

"A bit late, Mr. Kowalski. Practically nine a.m. Oh!" He hit himself in the forehead, which saved me having to do it to him. "I nearly forgot. I also have coffee, tea, or Ovaltine, which is a particular favorite of–"

"Nothing." Jesus, he was like some big dopey dog that shows up at your back door and won't go away. I started to shut the door, then had a Canadian moment and remembered my manners. "Thanks, Turnbull." I rubbed the stickiness out of my eyes. "Fraser here?"

"No. He left about half an hour ago." Good. I could get away clean. If only Turnbull hadn't kept yakking. "He had a breakfast date with Mr. Vecchio."

Yep, there it was, the good morning stab of jealousy.

"Are you certain you don't want anything? I could send out for–"

"No, nothing," I said. "Gotta go."

I went back to being American and closed the door in his face only to find the big round hat on the wall staring back at me. I stared back for a few seconds before sitting down on the bed. Can't say I still felt groggy from the drugs, just depressed from the way things had ended afterwards.

After a couple of minutes enjoying my patented "I feel so fucking sorry for myself" wallow, I got dressed.
 



I didn't go home. I'd ignored my office long enough, and had some clean clothes there I could change into. It was kind of a relief to walk into the impersonal building, to not see anyone I recognized, to know I was there for business, not some stupid-ass personal reason. No, no way, nosiree. It was back to business on this case. No more bullshit. Over and done. Finito.

There was an almost-new plastic razor in the little bathroom off my office, and by the time I'd shaved and washed, thrown on clean jeans and a tee-shirt, and sat down at my desk to drink the bad coffee I'd snagged on the way over, I almost felt human, and was ready to work. Time to write down some notes, get a handle on all the info I'd absorbed since I started on this cockamamie case.

Yeah, more work, less thinking about Fraser, that's the ticket.

I cranked up the ancient computer and started typing.

Not too long afterwards, despite my lousy typing, I had everything entered. First off:

Cahill Murder Suspects

1) Deputy Mayor Kellerman
2) Keltones (John Patrick Shanahan)
3) Gilbert Wallace, (Murphy’s partner in shipping co.)
4) Gus Fillion (Friend of Murphy’s? What is that about?)

That covered pretty much anyone whose name Cahill might have been trying to say. Didn't think much of the first two, since I had to figure the murder was connected to the blackmail, and really, even for a dope possession, Shanahan was a stretch. And Deputy Mayor Kellerman? Or Mrs.. Kellerman? Please.

On the other hand, Wallace and Fillion each had long sheets, and I wouldn't put it past either one to be involved in blackmail and murder. But. . . why?

I looked at the short list, and added

5) Wilson Warfield (alleged drug distributor/club owner/mobbed up)

This time it wasn't so much for the name as the reputation, and the fact that Warfield and Vecchio actually had history. But Warfield hadn't been at Murphy’s barbecue, and Cahill had said he was hired by someone shown in a picture he'd taken there. Not that Warfield couldn't have hired someone else to hire Cahill. He liked keeping out of sight.

All very confusing. I put the list aside for a moment and typed a new line:

Sean Michael Murphy

What exactly did I know about him?
1) Has a screwed up daughter. Insisted she marry Vecchio
2) Has four hundred million dollars
3) Vecchio’s mentor/sponsor
4) Some illegal importing? (see Cigarettes) Liquor? Is Wallace supplying?
5) Docks connection
6) Fillion at party
7) IRA contacts?

Okay. Moving on:

Stella Murphy

1) Marrying Vecchio to get dad's money?
2) Pissed off about the arrangement but going through with it
3) Would she blackmail Vecchio to get out of marriage?

Seemed a little extreme, but then again, she'd already proved to be more fucked up than I would have guessed when I first saw her at the reception, all dolled up like an angel. I considered the two lines, remembered what Stella had been like at the club, and got a quirky thought:

4) Does Stella have a jealous ex?

That was worth looking into. All it would cost me was time; Vecchio would foot the bill.

Vecchio, crap. I sat back and pushed myself around in the chair, swiveling to make a full circle, and then another one. My mind was going in circles, too. There was something I needed to write down, and I was resisting it. With a big sigh, I stopped the circling and typed a name on the computer.

Benton Fraser

Time to face up to it.

1) Is in best position to blackmail Vecchio
2) If so, what for?
3) Why doesn't he give Vecchio the boot?
4) Does he or doesn't he want me?

Dammit.

I went back and deleted number 4.

That was it for a while, and when I looked it over, it didn't look like much for all the footwork I'd done – and that didn't even mention the drugging-and-suffocating hijinks.

I took a break and called Elaine for messages. She answered in her usual velvet voice, and I made myself flirt with her. Made myself. Shit.

There was a couple of days' mail waiting to be opened. Most of my mind was on what I was doing, but right in the middle of paying my gas bill a little worm that had been eating its way into my brain finally began to itch. Shoving the paperwork aside, I pulled the keyboard over.

Under "Sean Michael Murphy" I added:

8) Louis Gardino, deceased former councilman – what's the Murphy connection?

Ever since that cocktail party, a couple of my brain cells had been working behind my back – if that isn’t twisting one of those metaphor things until it cries uncle – wondering about that last argument between Murphy and Gardino, the one the fundraiser guests had mentioned. Pretty interesting that it'd occurred right before Gardino died. It struck me that I knew jack about Councilman Gardino. His was the position Vecchio was running for, after all. I wanted to hear more about how he died. I fiddled through my desk, found a number and dialed the 2-7.

Welsh took my call, the first thing that had gone right in what felt like days. His deep voice was like a warm blanket, though his words weren’t nearly as comforting. "Ah, Ray. So you’re in more trouble. I find that doesn't actually surprise me."

"Yeah, hey, Lieu."

"What’s this I hear about you getting KO’d in a fight last night? Down at some club by the river?"

Oh, brother. "Sorry, your informants got it wrong. I got knocked out all right, but someone slipped me a mickey."

He couldn’t completely hide his chuckle. "Dammit, Kowalski. ‘Slipped me a mickey.’ You sound like bad Philip Marlowe."

"The cigarette people?" I joked.

His chuckle deepened. "Where'd you get that smart mouth?"

"It came with the office."

He laughed this time, a rumble of good-natured thunder. "You been down to fill out a report yet?"

"Nah. Not worth the time." Or the embarrassment of having to say I was knocked out by a transvestite.

"If you say so."

"I say so. Say, how’d you hear what went down at the club?"

"One of my beat cops was there with his girlfriend."

"He know the place's owned by Wilson Warfield?"

"Warfield? Jesus. That's a piece of crap that keeps floating to the surface."

"That he is. So, Lieu, you got a minute?"

"One, maybe." I could hear the squeaks as he settled his big body into his leather chair.

"You know anything about City Councilman Louis Gardino?"

"Gardino? Sure. He died a couple months ago."

"Yeah, well, I was wondering if you knew how he died. I mean, more than that it was a fire."

"And I should tell you this because. . . ?"

"Old times? My pretty face and angelic personality?"

"Try again."

"Because you'll save me time and shoe leather and I might help you solve the Cahill case?" I waited. "C’mon. We both want that. And you know I can do it."

"Christ on a crutch, you are one cocky bastard. If you wanted to be a cop, why didn't you stay one?"

"A little too complicated to go into right now."

"Yeah. Okay. It's just that you were a real good cop, Ray. I hated to lose you."

I was touched. "Thanks. I liked working with you, too, Harding."

"Call me that again and I'll get your license yanked."

"You would, too, Lieutenant. So.. . . Gardino?"

Welsh sighed. "All right. Look, it wasn't my case, but Tony d'Incenzo worked it. I suppose I could give him a call. He owes me a big one for a favor I did his brother-in-law. . . " he sighed again, even bigger. "Which you really don't need to know about."

I bet he could hear my grin. "That would be greatness, if you could. Then I'll owe you, too. I mean it."

"Kowalski, shut the hell up and go play Sam Spade."

"Who's he, again?"

"Shut up. I'll call you if I find out anything."

"Thanks."

"If I have time."

"Sure."

"And if I don't have any real police work to do."

"You're the boss, boss."

"Oh yeah, sure. Be respectful now you don't work for me." He hung up.

For the rest of the morning I finished sorting through my mail, got an update from Jack Huey about the adultery case I'd handed to him and his partner, took care of boring matters like trying to get my landlord to fix the heat in the office before winter arrived, made some notes about the security holes at the Hightower for when I pitched my services to them, and attempted to glue together the bits and pieces of information I had about the Vecchio case. First I had to separate facts from guesses. The Gardino angle was one of the guesses.

While I waited to hear from Welsh I made some calls, trying to follow up on the Keltones lead singer, John Patrick Shanahan, and to establish if Stella had a jealous ex-lover, of either sex. I got the skinny on the Shanahan drug bust, strangely enough, from Huey. Seems Jack knew a guy who knew a guy who worked for INS. I called him, dropped Huey’s name, and he turned out to be a bored civil servant more than willing to help me out in between playing computer games. He checked his files and came up with the info that Shanahan was strictly small potatoes, had been a user who got caught with a small amount of weed coming into the U.S. His old man had some connections, so Johnny Patrick got clearance to come back into the States despite the bust. So the kid was lucky, and a stoner, but it didn't exactly suggest he was Public Enemy Number One.

As for Stella, since I didn't run in her circles, I didn't have access to gossip at that level. I knew I had to talk to Vecchio, but I really didn't want to. Between his weird come-on to me at the party and Fraser's devotion to him, Ray Vecchio was one person I had no desire to talk to at the moment. And frankly I didn’t want to have to revisit the question of whether I wanted Fraser because Vecchio had him.

But I had an idea of someone who had an opinion on everything, who made a religion out of gossip and who might have something to say about Stella Murphy. It was a long shot, sure, but I had nothing to lose but time. The question was, did I want to open that particular can of worms? I thought about it, figured the worst that could happen was Vecchio would get so mad at me he'd fire my ass from this case, and that didn't sound like the worst idea in the world right at that moment. So I squared myself and called the 2-7 again, but this time I didn't ask for Welsh.

Me and my great ideas.
 



"I only have an hour, you know."

"I know."

"Because I have a very important job."

"I know."

Francesca Vecchio screwed up her face until everything came to a point. "Are you mocking me?" She narrowed her eyes even more. "Because if you are, Ray, I can just go back to work right now."

"Frannie, I don't know why you'd think I'm mocking you." I passed her a roll.

"Hmph."

"I respect you, Frannie. I like you. Hey – you were the one who didn't want to date me, remember? I was interested."

"Sure you were. What did you expect? You were just some dopey friend of my brother's. How was I supposed to know you'd end up owning your own business?"

I smiled as sweetly as I knew how. "You couldn't. And I was a dope back then.."

"Now Ray, I didn't really mean–"

"I know. Hey, it's all in the past."

She sized me up real good, looking disturbingly like her big brother as she did so. "You're not still accused of murder, are you?"

"No, Frannie. They pretty much cleared me. Which is a good thing, since I’m innocent."

"Well, that's good, at least."

"I like to think so."

She munched on her salad for a few bites. "So why did you invite me to lunch? You don't still want to date, do you?"

Good God, there was a thought. I switched the smile to charming. "The other day, when I saw you at the station, we didn't really have time to talk. I just thought. . . well, I thought it would be nice to catch up a little." I went on, real quick, before she interrupted. "So. Tell me. What's new? How's your mom? How's, uh, your sister and uh, what's his name, her husband?"

"Tony and Maria? They're okay. They moved out."

"Really?" I didn't even remember they'd lived in. "And what about you – how come you haven't been snapped up by some guy yet?" Flattery couldn't hurt.

She flushed. "Well. . . "

"Frannie! You met someone, didn't you!" Okay, I was laying on the flattery a little thick, which wouldn't get me too many points toward saving my soul, but basically she was a nice kid, and, like I said, easy on the eyes. There wasn't any reason she wasn't married already. Well, except for her personality.

She looked up at me through her long dark lashes, evidently the official Vecchio "I'm so sexy" look. It looked better on Ray. "We haven't set the date. In fact, we're not engaged. Actually. Yet. Okay, I only met him a couple of times, but he seems interested."

Typically romance-novel Frannie, and I couldn't have cared less, but I figured I had to get through the small talk before I opened up the subject of Ray and Stella. "Tell me about him."

"Okay, but you have to promise not to tell Ray. He's a friend of Ray's, and you know how he gets."

"Um, sure." A friend of Ray's? "Who is it?"

"Oh, he's wonderful. So handsome! And, smart, too."

"Uh-huh."

"And he's foreign, so that's exciting."

"Uh-huh. . . "

"And he's important. A diplomat."

"Uh-huh. . . " Uh oh.

"Benton – that's his name – was a Mountie! Can you believe it? A Canadian Mountie! That's like, a cop, you know. What? Why are you making that face?"

Took an effort, but I rearranged my expression. "Um, Frannie, where did you meet this guy?"

"Well, I take a class over at the Art Institute in Art Appreciation, through the Community College – did I tell you I'm going for an Associate's Degree? You know I've always, like, liked art. I'm very artistic. You should see the needlepoint I did of Mr. Frank Sinatra."

"Well–"

"But I haven't actually decided yet. I could major in Criminal Justice, I mean I work in a police station, for heaven's sake! And I could be a cop, I know I'd be a good one, though I'd have to do something about those uniforms, ugh–"

"–Frannie? How you met?"

"God, you're so impatient. Just like Ray. Anyway, it was such a funny coincidence. My brother was over there, at the Institute, for one of those social things he has to go to now, not like he'd ever invite me or Ma to go, no, not Ray, thinks he's so important–"

"Frannie!"

"I’m getting there, have a little patience! I came out of class and there Ray was, talking to this incredible guy, I mean, I just looked at him and I knew we'd click, and they obviously were good friends, so I said, 'Ray, so here you are with a friend of yours I haven't met,' which to anyone with half a brain means 'introduce me to him,' but you know how Ray is. It's like they say, you can lead a horse to order, but you can't make him think."

"Drink, Frannie, drink."

"What? No thanks, never at lunchtime. Fortunately Benton, he’s so sweet, and he has such good manners, not like the guys in the neighborhood, present company included, he introduced himself. He is so, so. . . he’s perfect."

"I’m sure he is, Frannie." Except for the fact he’s been screwing your brother. "So. . . are you two, um, dating. . . "

"Well, not exactly. I mean, we’ve had some wonderful heart-to-heart talks, you know, like about our future."

"Really?"

"Sure. Just because he wasn’t actually there when we had them doesn’t mean. . . "

Okay, I got the picture and let myself zone out while Frannie gushed away. I was relieved that I didn’t have to reset my reality-meter about Fraser, but at the same time I felt bad for poor deluded Frannie, even if she did bring this stuff on herself. I let her ramble on for a couple minutes, then dragged the conversation back where I wanted it to go.

"So, sure, I'd go with cream lace for the wedding dress, Frannie. But speaking of weddings, I met your brother’s fiancée, this Stella Murphy. She’s quite a catch, I hear."

She made a face.

"What? You don’t think so?"

"Depends what you’re trying to catch."

“Wow.” I took a big slug of coffee. "You wanna explain that?"

"Ray." Her brown eyes were serious and focused. "You know I want my brother to be happy."

"Sure. I mean, he deserves it."

"No he doesn’t," Frannie snorted, "but I love him anyway." She poked at her food. "Stella’s. . . weird."

"How so?"

"For one thing, she laughs too much."

"So she likes to have a good time. Nothing wrong with that."

"It’s phony. She’s never even been over to our house. And the one time I met her father she would barely let Ray introduce us. She just hung on his arm the whole time."

"Well," I offered, smiling, "they are engaged, after all."

"Not Ray's arm. Her father's, I mean. Don't you think you should be with your fiancé at a party?"

"I would think so, yeah."

"And I don’t like the way she is with Ray."

"She seemed pretty devoted at the party the other night. They looked lovey-dovey to me." I decided it was best not to talk about how she was at the club afterwards. Why spoil Frannie's lunch?

"You men."

"What’s that supposed to mean?"

"You think because some girl’s good looking and has money she’s got to be great, right?"

"It doesn’t hurt."

"Really." She tossed her fork into the salad bowl and leaned over the table. "Well how come Ray sits up in his room drinking when he comes home from being over at her place? He never did that before. If she’s so great, how come he’s not happy?" She shook her head and looked sad. "The other night he came home and he was so drunk already he almost passed out. You know him, Ray. He doesn’t really drink that much, just wine. He walked through the door and sort of fell onto me and just shook. I was so afraid, Ray. I thought he was falling apart."

Funny that Frannie could be so dense about her own life, and so sharp about her brother’s. I could tell her my own theory of the fucked-upness of one Ray Vecchio, but I doubted she’d believe me.

She gave me a razor-edged once-over. "How come you’re so interested? I didn’t think you liked Ray all that much. I thought you two were mad at each other. Because of, you know what. Well, I mean, you liked him, but not as a friend, exactly."

Something sounded funny in how she said that. "What do you mean, 'not as a friend?'"

She snorted at me like I was an imbecile. "Come on, Ray."

"What’s that supposed to mean?"

"Don’t act like you don’t know. I mean. . . I used to see the way you looked at him."

"What way?"

"Stop answering me with questions! I know you wanted to. . . you know. With him. Why do you think I didn’t want to date you, really?"

My mouth fell open. "You think I. . . wanted to date your brother?"

"No, silly. I don’t think you wanted to date him. I think you wanted to sleep with him. I figured that's why you two stopped talking to each other. You had a fight about it."

"Jesus, Frannie!"

She reached over and patted my hand, like she was consoling me. "I’m sorry Ray isn’t interested in guys. I mean, I’m glad for him that he isn’t, because Ma would have a fit, and of course it's a sin, and you’ll go to hell, but I’m sorry because you’re an okay guy, Ray, and you should be happy. I sort of wish you were straight. Of course, we still couldn't go out, because now I have Benton, so, you know. . . "

Okay, clearly I had reached some other universe, Frannieverse, in which Ray and Benton were straight, Fraser was going to marry Francesca, and I was pining after Vecchio. Most of it was meaningless bullshit, but that last part. . . that really stung. Meanwhile I hadn’t learned a damn thing about Stella I didn’t already know, and the only crumb I’d gotten was that Vecchio came home and drank himself into a stupor after being with his fiancée.

I'm not sure what I would've said next, because I was saved by the ringing of my cell phone. It was Welsh. I excused myself and went to the hallway by the restrooms for a little privacy.

"Kowalski, I just had a chat with Tony d'Incenzo about the Gardino case. They're stuck. They've shoved it into the dead file, for the most part."

"After only six months?"

"What can I tell you? They're out of leads for the moment, and they don't even know if it was a homicide or not. In fact, the coroner thought it was an accident, but he left it open because the arson squad felt something about Gardino's death smelled.”

"He tell you why?"

"The fire spread really quickly, and the timing was just too perfect. The guy goes to a meeting, comes home, makes a call to his mother without any mention of gas leakage, or funny smells, goes to bed, and bang. Nobody else in the neighborhood sees or smells anything. Fire was limited to his house. The investigators got hung up trying to prove propane was the accelerant, because somebody thought Gardino had some in his basement. Lead went nowhere. Truth is, they can't identify what the arsonist used, so it's probably something unique, a special m.o. Find that, they'll solve the case. "

"But they still haven't officially ruled out an accident."

"Sure, but that makes me twitch. Gardino was no shrinking violet. Pissed off a lot of people. His seat on the Council put him on the Governor's Commission on the Port Authority and he'd been noisy about cleaning up the docks. Lot of mob action out there, don't have to tell you that. He was a cop before, you know that?"

"No, I didn't. Gotta admit I don't pay too much attention to politics, Lieu."

Welsh chuckled. "No, I don't see you as another Vecchio."

"No, I'm no Ray Vecchio." Unclench teeth. "So, you think he upset somebody?"

"Could be, though the last year or so he’d gone soft, or something. Dropped the ball on some investigations. Who knows why? Maybe he was just tired. Or maybe,” Welsh said, his tone getting grim, “Maybe he was being paid off.”

“Yeah, maybe.” That had been my thought, too.

“Trouble is, Ray, all I got is a suspicious nature and no proof. All I know is, if the dock bosses hadn’t killed him before, there was no reason why they should when he wasn’t going after them.”

"Yeah, the timing sounds wonky."

“My hands are tied, right now, and frankly I don’t have time for extra-curricular activities. Now if you happen to come across anything, Kowalski, I’m sure you’ll share your brilliant insights with me.”

“I’m sure I will.” I was grinning. I liked Welsh. I missed working with him.

“Oh, and listen, before I forget. We got an ID on one of the people in the photos. The one you said was Murphy's bodyguard. You still interested?"

Had almost forgotten about it, but, okay, small details, and all that. "Okay, go ahead."

"Thought he looked familiar. Turns out he is a former cop, like I thought. Remembered him from the Spender case – that stoolie that almost got offed by his brother, remember? I think that was one of your cases."

"Spender, Spender. . . oh, yeah, yeah. Wasn't my case, but I provided cover while it was going down. When we were trying to move him to a safe house. Remember? All that fucking rain?"

"Not likely to forget it, Ray. I was wringing out my socks for days."

"Wasn't the guy's brother FBI?"

"Federal marshal. That's the one. Turns out your guy in the picture was the brother's partner, a security and wiretapping expert. Wasn't involved with the attempted murder, but bungled the case so bad they forced him out. Guess he's working security now."

"So that's 'Brian,' huh?"

"Yeah. Brian Kilrae. Don't know what he–"

"Kilrae?" I took in a breath "Kilrae?'" Kill-rae?

"Kowalski? You still there?”

"Yeah, yeah, Lieutenant. I’m here." My mind was going a million miles a second. "Listen, uh, I'm gonna come down there after all, okay?"

"Sure." He cleared his throat. "But I can't let you see the file, Ray. You're not official any more."

"'Course not. Wouldn't ask you to." Lying.

"Though. . . " I could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. "I might not be at my desk when you get here. Might be in the john or something. So you just come in and have a seat on the couch. I'll tell the civilian aide to let you in. To sit on the couch."

My face split into a grin. "Thanks, Lieu. Be right there."
 



The file was on the couch, just where he’d left it for me to see. God, I love Welsh.

Frannie was down in the morgue, having insisted on entering separately from me. I guess she'd decided I wasn't good for her image. I didn't care. Right now my only interest was Brian Kilrae. Kilrae. Dammit, another "Kill."

I flipped open the file and started to read. Nothing very illuminating, except that Kilrae had started out as a patrolman before joining the feds. There was a note in Welsh's handwriting listing a couple of cases that had gone south on Kilrae, including the Spender mess, and the date he'd quit (or been dropped from) the Federal Marshals. Somewhere Welsh had come up with Kilrae's PD photo, and though he was younger, it was easy to recognize him as the guy from the Murphy party. He was tall, kind of well-built without being fat, with a smooth face and light gray eyes. He looked tough, and really familiar, more so than he had in the party photo. I knew it was going to nag at me until I figured out where I knew him from.

And then I did a real shitheady thing, considering how accommodating the Lieutenant had been so far. With a glance through the window between Welsh's office and the bullpen to make sure I wasn't being observed, I slipped Kilrae's photo into my pocket, along with the sheet containing his personal information.

Which would have made me enough of a bad boy, but then even more powerful temptation beckoned, or rather reached over and grabbed me by the balls. There on Welsh’s chair was the Gardino file.

Shit. I never could resist temptation.

Case notes from the Gardino file stuffed inside my jacket, Kilrae’s photo and address tucked away nicely, I quietly closed the door to Welsh’s office and left the station. I didn't wait to stick around to thank the Lieutenant, because frankly I didn't want to get caught. So call me chicken. Call me a lowlife, I'll cop to that, since Welsh was going pretty far out on a limb for my undeserving ass. Sure, I intended to return it as soon as I could; even so, I did feel a little lousy about what I was doing.

But it was just a little lousy, and like I said, lying is my business.

It was late afternoon by the time I got back to the office, and the building was almost deserted. Right – Friday. I'd almost forgotten what day of the week it was, my life was so turned upside down.

My key went into the lock of my office door, but as I opened it, a shadow moved inside and instinctively I dropped my jacket and reached for my gun.

The shadow moved again. "Stop right there!" I barked.

"Hi, Ray." Fraser untangled himself from the darkness.

"Fraser." My heart did another flip thing in my chest with all the different feelings churning there. "How'd you get in?"

"Well. . . " he held up a credit card.

"Don't leave home without it?"

He blushed. "I’m sorry, I know it was rude.. However, you should do something about that lock."

"I could’ve plugged you." I made a show of putting my gun away. "How’d you know I’d be here?"

"I didn't. I tried your apartment first." He handed me an envelope. "Here's your rent statement."

Now that just made me angry. "Let me get this straight. You break into my home, my castle, you read my mail–"

"–Good heavens, no, Ray. I’d never read your mail!" Fraser sounded completely shocked that I'd even suggest it. "That would be extremely inappropriate, not to mention illegal. Your landlady was kind enough to let me in. You know, she’s very fond of you."

"Yeah, I know."

He crossed to the doorway I’d just vacated and I was reminded, uncomfortably, of Ray Vecchio lounging in the same place a few days earlier. That had been Tuesday, and now it was Friday. Just four days since this thing started. Four days I'd known Benton Fraser. "Where's the wolf?"

"I left him with Turnbull when I went to see Ray. They're not very compatible. Ray and Diefenbaker, I mean."

"And here I was missing the drool."

"How are you feeling? Any after-effects?"

I shrugged. "I’m fine. Thanks for the bed."

"You’re always welcome to my bed, Ray," he said, and then, I swear, he turned red. "I mean–"

"–Yeah, I get you. Don’t worry." I pressed a button on the computer and listened as it revved up. "I would've thanked you before, but you left early."

"I had breakfast with Ray Vecchio."

I turned my back on him and went to the window. Since it faced a brick wall there wasn't much to pretend to look at. "That's nice."

"No. It wasn't." He slowly crossed to me and leaned heavily against the battered file cabinet, his face turned away. "It wasn't nice at all. It was. . . quite painful."

A tiny match of hope lit up, but I stepped on it. "Who for?" I tried not to sound sarcastic. I may not have been completely successful.

"It wasn't pleasant for either of us, Ray."

"So, what? You two kiss and make up? Or are you quits?"

"I don't think we've said everything we have to say to each other yet, no."

"So you're still not finished with him." The flicker died. Standing there talking to him suddenly was too damned hard. I slouched to my desk and sank down heavily on the edge.

"Ray."

"No." I wasn't even sure what question I was answering.

"I need to straighten things out with him. I told you that."

"'Straighten?' Ho, that's rich."

"Ray. Please. Please listen." I looked up into eyes that were unhappy but didn't shy away.

“I'm listening."

"It has crossed my mind," Fraser began, then frowned and shook his head. "No. More than that. I have come to realize that I tend to be. . . obsessive, and cling to things and people long after I should let them go. Evidently I find it hard to accept when relationships are over, when they have become meaningless or even destructive. Not that Ray Vecchio was ever destructive, that's not what I mean, because he never promised me more than he could give."

"Look, Fraser, I don't need you defending–"

"–I would appreciate your letting me finish." His jaw was really tight.

I shut my mouth and gestured for him to go on.

"What happened with Ray Vecchio is just the latest example of what I've done my whole life. I could give you chapter and verse of people I've driven away by my obsessive need, and a companion list of those I've hung on to, deluding myself that there was something profound between us. I. . . " He dropped his eyes again. "I'm not saying this properly."

"Just say it, Fraser. I'm listening."

He squared himself, and moved away from the file cabinet, came closer to the desk. It was growing dark but I still hadn’t put on the overheads and his face took on an eerie glow from the computer screen. "I know I have an attractive appearance, though that's hardly representative of character or worth. I've garnered attention. It doesn't take much for me to delude myself when someone shows interest. If they want me, even though it may only be that they're attracted to my looks, it's almost like. . . " He laughed bitterly. "I was going to say, to me it almost feels like love."

Ouch. Guilt. When we first met I’d taken one look at him and started to drool, which made me as bad as everyone else, I suppose. Obviously I’ve never had to worry about looking so perfect that people hit on me all the time, or having to wonder if they cared at all about who I really was. Funny, I would’ve thought I’d sell my soul to have people fall at my feet like that. He made it sound like that might be worse in the long run.

Fraser’s hand came up to rub at his eyebrow. "Sometimes, Ray, sometimes I think I'm close to understanding what people want from me. But I'm always wrong. I can't figure out when someone is using me, or letting me use them, until whatever was between us has burned itself out and there’s nothing left but ashes. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. I don't know. Maybe I expect too much from other people. It's just. . . " He trailed off. His forehead wrinkled up and I wanted to rub it for him, smooth away the problems, but that's not the way it works.

"Fraser," I said, "everybody gets confused. Everybody gets hurt. That's the way it is."

"Is it?" His eyes came up to mine, and I thought for a second that he was pissed. "Does everybody make the same mistake over and over again? Because that’s what I’ve always done. Good God, Ray, three times, three times, I thought I was loved. I was so sure. And I was wrong. Ray was better than most. At least he was kind to me.” He snorted. "At least he didn't try to kill me."

Vecchio was the person who’d been kindest to Fraser? Shit. And then my brain caught up with the other thing he'd said. "Someone tried to kill you?"

"Yes, Victoria, but that's not important."

"Jesus, 'not important,' Fraser?"

He ignored me. "You accused me of being a masochist. What if that’s true? What if other people can sense that?"

"Fraser, I didn’t really mean–”

"–Do you know what really terrifies me, Ray? What if I become so certain of failure I pull away too far in the opposite direction? What if the possibility of something real is staring me in the face and I don’t recognize it and let it go by? The sad thing is, I can't tell. I can't tell the difference." His eyes took on a haunted look. "Maybe it is better just to be alone."

My God, he really was terrified. I know I’m remedial in the emotions department myself, but Fraser’s raw pain twisted my guts like a knife. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to actually live with it.

He raised a shaky hand and ran it through his hair. And then I watched him stack himself back together, bit by bit, until his face was calm. He cleared his throat, and when he started talking he sounded like he was reciting a case history. "It's no excuse, but I believe there is an explanation for this, though only a psychologist could say for certain. I could probably point to a series of childhood slights from an absent father, or my knowledge of how I disappointed him as an adult. I could try to tug at your heart by any of a number of self-indulgent ploys, up to and including mentioning my mother's untimely death, to try to explain why I think I behave this way. But frankly it's not going to do me, or you, or us, any good."

No, I wanted to shout at him, don’t, don’t do that! Don't give up! So I pushed. "Is there an 'us,' Fraser?"

His voice cracked a little. "Do you. . . would you like there to be?"

"Don't be cute, Fraser. You know what I want. I made that pretty damn clear last night. I need to know what you want."

There was so much pain coming off him I was afraid he might shred into confetti right in front of me, but he held it together. I didn't pull him into a hug, which my body wanted to do. He still hadn’t answered my question.

Fraser took a step towards me and I put up my hand, which surprised him. "Look. Maybe you’re nuts, maybe you’re not. I don’t know, I don't care. So what? I got big holes where my own brains should be. But there's only one thing, Fraser. One big thing. Everything else we can deal with, a little bit at a time. This thing with Vecchio, though, whatever it is. . . Is it over? Really over? ‘Cause I might be able to share you with someone else, but not with him. Not with Vecchio."

It wasn’t cold in the office, but I shivered anyway, because I felt naked, like he’d just been. And as I stood there, watching him for his reaction, my body shaking a little with a chill that just wouldn't go away, it hit me, the answer to my own doubts about my motives. Maybe this had started because of Vecchio. But that's not what it was now, not even close. "No. I take it back. I won't share you with anyone. I can't share you. I won't."

His eyes glimmered.

My fingers were drumming on the desk top next to me, and I made them stop, but then my leg started twitching. "Maybe you think I’m a freak, like maybe I pull this all the time."

"I don’t think you’re a freak, Ray."

"Shows what you know. I don’t though. Fall for people this fast. This is not me, okay? I don’t do this. I know it’s four days, that’s all it’s been, but I don’t care. Yeah, okay, so you’re gorgeous, like perfect–"

"I'm not–"

"So what? That’s not this. I mean, not what it’s about for me." I shook my head, hoping the right words might come. "Shit. I can’t even explain it to myself, so there’s no chance in hell I can make you understand."

"I do understand."

There was something about the way he said it that made my twitching leg stop and my hands go still. I looked at him hard, concentrating, almost, because if I didn’t make myself clear it might be the last time I saw him. "You don’t know me. I’m chickenshit about this relationship stuff. I suck at it. I’m just as scared as you. But I’m willing to give it a try, for you. For us. So you tell me, Benton, is there likely to be an 'us,' or not? Because if there isn't, if there can't be, if you’re not done, not sure, if you can’t take the risk – then there's no point in talking."

"I'm tired of talking." His shiny eyes got. . . How to describe them? Soft, maybe, like his voice. He reached out, put his hands on my face. "Ray. I don't want to talk." And then he leaned in and kissed me.

Nothing was settled. He was upset. I was still angry. But damn, damn. The kiss was all about hunger and despair and hope and rescue, for both of us. It took all the bad and made it not matter to me, not right then, maybe not ever again. It blotted out everything and just was. I sank into that kiss and let it take me over.

Set loose, Fraser's mouth was like a wild animal, hunting, hungry, wanting, wanting me. My own lips opened under all that need, and his tongue leapt into my mouth, wet, wild muscle sweetly having its way with mine. I let it. I damn near threw out a welcome mat.

He moved in on me, pressing his body between the V of my legs as I sat on the desk, and under my hands his body flexed with the effort he was putting into kissing me. Almost right away I started getting drunk on him, lightheaded and woozy, the heat from him against me making me shiver again, as if lightning bolts were dancing inside my skin. Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.

The kiss got sloppy, but it didn't matter. Wet all over my face, and all I could think was that I could drown for all I cared, as long as he kept kissing me. His hands still held my jaw, thumbs stroking lightly on my cheekbones. To have someone hold your face, keep you in place, so they could have at you, attack your mouth, the way Fraser was attacking mine – why hadn’t I known how hot that would be? My own hands came up around his back, bunching in the fabric of his jacket while I held on for my life. If I'd let go I might have been sucked right into him, into his beautiful mouth, and I would have gone, oh yeah, willingly.

He was hard against my inner thigh as he rocked into me, and every time he did it I got a jolt of electricity way stronger than that zap in the air between us two days ago. It was such a big jolt I knew if he did it too much longer I was going to come right in my pants, before we got much further. So I pushed him gently, to try to stand up, maybe get a little control back.

Fraser wasn't having any of that. He made a sound of protest, and his lips stayed connected to mine. His hands left my face to stroke down my neck and shoulders, until they came to rest on my back. Suddenly there was even less distance between us, and the room was tilting. I heard a swoosh and a crash as he swept an arm across the desk and knocked everything on it to the floor, and then he pushed forward and I was on my back, my head on the keyboard. Something beeped in the computer but I didn't care, because he was lifting my legs until they circled his back, and I could feel his cock against mine. I nearly lost it right there.

Our lips came apart and both of us gasped for air, like we'd been under water for hours. His wild animal mouth raged against my neck, my ear, my throat and I groaned out loud. Good thing the building was practically deserted, because we were noisy. He muttered as he bit and sucked at me, grunted low, throaty sounds, and then started chanting something that sounded familiar, and with a rush I realized it was my name, and he was crooning it over and over, RayRayRayRay

Never, in my whole life, has anybody made me sound so necessary.

His hot tongue landed in my ear and I yelped, not an unhappy yelp, Jesus, no, but he stilled, panting, his dark blue eyes hot and unfocused.

"You good, Frase?"

"Yes, God, yes, Ray, good.. You, good?"

"Yes. Good." I tugged at his arms. "Come back down."

But he didn't move, just kept staring at my face. "God, Ray, I want.. . . I want–"

"Me too, me too.” My back spasmed suddenly. “Couch?" I asked hopefully.

His eyes narrowed and a sly smile stole across his mouth. A dangerous smile. A wolf smile. "No, Ray."

Intermission over.

He pounced. Oh, sweet Jesus Lord. He growled. The big broad hand holding my ribs slid around to my stomach and shoved up my shirt, and then stroked down to my fly to loiter there with intent. The sound of the zipper coming undone nearly undid me. Everything below my belt was turning to jelly – jalapeno pepper jelly – except my dick, which was making a spectacle of itself. When Fraser's hand closed over it I jerked so hard the keyboard slid off the desk to hang by its cord, but frankly I didn’t give a damn about that, or about the way my back was getting bruises from slamming against the wood, or how my leg muscles were aching. Because Fraser’s thumb was rubbing the head of my dick, and somehow he was also pumping me in a firm-gripped rhythm, while his mouth, his incredible mouth, found the pulse at my neck and bit, sucked, licked in time to his strokes. For a stupid second or two I tried to resist, tried to keep it together and make the feeling go on forever. But I couldn’t. I'm not that much of a tough guy; I don’t think any human could have held back right then. With that hungry mouth on me, with that iron-hard palm driving me, with Benton Fraser's whole Fraserness focused on me, there was only thing that could happen. I felt it happening, that sweet, sweet build up, and I jolted, threw my head back, shouted "Fuuuuuck!" and came all over his hand, my stomach and probably Vecchio’s file, too.

My brain was blurry, my shorted-out nerve endings still sputtering, but I had enough sense left to reach for him, because I hadn’t heard him come and I didn't want to leave him hanging. I propped myself up on my other elbow, heard grunting and popped my eyeballs open in time to see Fraser, teeth biting his lower lip, wrap his hand, still slick from me, around his own dick, jack a couple times and spurt out his climax to mix with my mess. Jesus. Mary. Joseph – what a sight. What a sight. Fraser, all flushed and panting, coming, saying my name, his mouth wet and slack–! When his jizz hit me, my dick twitched like it wanted to get back in the action, though there was no way it was happening, not for a while.

Fraser twitched once or twice himself, groaned, spilled out the last drops and collapsed heavily across me, his mouth making an attempt to reach mine. He missed, slurping my cheek instead, but I didn't care, I didn’t care a bit.

Fraser. Me. This. This was real.
 



The old couch in my office was a leftover from the last tenant. It was green, purple and muddy shades of brown, and though sometimes I used it to catch a few zzzs, mostly it functioned as a desk extender to catch extra paperwork. Far as I knew it'd never been intended to hold two guys stretched out side by side. But there's a first time for everything, I guess.

We'd kissed our lazy way over to the couch after making a mess of the desk, but by then we were so zonked we'd collapsed there, scattering loose papers all over the floor. After that, things got a little blurry. I dozed off for a bit. Came back out of a fogbank worthy of Lake Michigan to find I was wedged into the back of the couch with Fraser lying half on top of me. My right leg was tingling, almost completely numb, and my right arm was stuck between us at a weird angle, plastered to my chest, which made my armpit really sweaty. His body was bigger than mine, broader, anyway, and his weight was like a couple of Kevlar vests with some sheepskin thrown in for good measure. It was really hot and a little bit claustrophobic on that couch. And for those first groggy moments I was in heaven.

Fraser's hair, thick and dark, was in my face. I nuzzled it, rubbing against him like a cat in heat. He smelled great, piney shampoo, sweat and spunk. Not exactly cologne, but a smell that wrapped up everything good in one neat package. For those magic few minutes I just lay there, holding him, being squashed by him, trying to remember ever feeling this good before. I couldn't remember anything like it, not with any of the women I'd slept with. Not even with Ray Vecchio.

Sex with Vecchio had been swell – hot, sure. Needy, desperate – okay, maybe. But we never lay around like this afterwards, just basking in that afterglow thing you read about. After I'd finish fucking him, or him me, more likely, Ray would pull himself together and go either directly into the shower or out the door. Ray Vecchio had Issues, though at the time I didn't understand that. Back then I'd thought he and I–

Back then I guess I was as much of a patsy as Fraser.

On one hand, being skeptical is a good quality for a detective, because it helps you separate truth from bullshit. But on the other hand being skeptical sucks when your own heart is on the line. That whole deal with Vecchio had ruined the part of me that wanted to believe in love and hearts and flowers, the part that didn't want to doubt any more. Huh, silly me. Now I didn't trust anything, especially the good things.

Like I said, the peaceful feelings only lasted a couple of minutes. Thinking about Vecchio snapped me out of the happy place I'd been in and suddenly my arm was too sweaty and my leg was going numb and I was suffocating under Fraser's weight. Because it's my nature to look a gift horse in the mouth, my brain started to hunt for something,anything that was wrong with the picture, and when nothing came to mind, it began replaying the events leading up to our ending up on the couch. Who wants to second-guess great sex? But I couldn't stop myself. A voice in my head reminded me that sex doesn't solve everything. Not even the best sex can do that. This had been as close to best as I could imagine, but that last speech from Fraser had raised a bunch of questions I didn't have answers for yet, and suddenly I needed to know. All the crap about the case, about Vecchio and Fraser, Vecchio and me, me and Fraser – that hadn't vanished into thin air just because Ray Kowalski got laid. Maybe it was real between us. Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was just sex.

Fraser must've felt the distance creep into my body, because he gave a little jerk of his head. "Ray?"

"Still here." I said, trying to stay level.

"Mmm." He lifted his head and looked into my eyes from really close up. I was in no rush to let go of him, no matter what hinky things my brain was up to, so I leaned up to kiss him. My mouth landed above his ear, on his hairline. He liked that. "Ray," he growled, gravelly and low.

What the hell. Maybe sex doesn't solve things, but at least it postpones them. If I couldn't see answers, at least I could make myself blind with lust.

We were kissing, starting things all over again, when my cellphone rang, a muffled call from inside my coat pocket across the room. I barely heard it, but Fraser turned and looked at the source of the sound. "Ray, aren't you going to–"

"Nope." There might be a lot of unsolved issues, but I was in no hurry to address them. Moving meant facing reality.

It rang a few more times, then quit. "Good," I said. "Kiss me more."

The phone on the desk jangled. Once. Twice. "Maybe you should–"

"Maybe, but I won't. Come here."

Three times.

"The service will pick up."

Four times.

Five times.

Oh right, I’d told Elaine I was in the office. She wouldn’t pick up.

Six times.

Click. The backup machine kicking in.

"Kowalski, not here, talk, beep. Later."

"That's a. . . unique message, Ray."

"I'm a unique kind of guy."

"That you are."

Beeeeeeep. "Kowalski, goddamn it, if you're there, pick up. I already tried your house and your damn cellphone, so where the hell are you?"

"Oh dear."

"Fuck."

Fraser moved and I got up to grab for the phone, not bothering to shut off the speaker. "What?"

"You asshole," Vecchio spat at me in stereo through the receiver and the console. "You fucking asshole. Just couldn't stand that I was better than you, that I had somebody like Benny, right? You couldn't stand me beating you, could you–"

"Shut up, shut up, Vecchio, he's standing right–"

"Shoulda known you'd try something like this, you–"

"Will you shut the fuck up!" I didn't know which was worse, my own anger or the look on Fraser's face, but I knew I wanted both of them to stop. "What do you want?"

"What do I want? I want to – the hell with it. The case is over."

"Whaddya mean, it's over? I–"

"It means, Kowalski, it's done. Over."

"What do you mean?"

"It's over for you. You're done. Finished. Finito."

"You firing me, Vecchio? That what you're doing? Because you–"

"Yeah, sure, that's it, asshole. You're fired."

"What about the letters? The blackmailer?"

"What do you care?"

"Yeah, why do I care? I don't give a rat's ass what you do with your own life, Vecchio, but you got Fraser into this mess–"

"You shut up about Benny, you got no right–"

"Screw you, Vecchio. You'll get my bill in the morning."

"Shyeah. I'll be in a real rush to pay that."

"You better not try to stiff me, because I–"

"Go to hell, Kowalski!"

"Yeah? Well you can go to hell!" I yelled back and slammed the phone down, but I kept ranting. "What an asshole. Let him get caught. Let him lose his fucking election. I don't fucking care."

I was so angry it took me a couple of seconds to realize Fraser was standing close beside me, still as a statue. Dammit. Dammit. He'd heard the whole thing. I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "Sorry about that. Sorry you had to hear it. That Vecchio can be such a–"

"The blackmailer's made his move."

His voice was so quiet I almost kept on ranting. "What?"

"They've come out into the open and made their demands. That's why he's called you off."

"No way. He fired me because he's sore about you and me. He'll get over it."

"Will he?" A stubborn look had come over Fraser's face. "You know Ray Vecchio. Whatever is going on with us, he's smart enough to know we can help him. You can help him; that's why he came to you, despite your history. I know what you think of him, Ray, but I know him, too, and he wouldn't change horses in midstream just because he's angry. He has a very strong sense of self-preservation."

I snorted. "Right. Look out for number one, that's Ray Vecchio. But if he has been contacted by the blackmailer, and they're asking for their payoff, why didn't he ask for backup? He can't be using the cops; that's exactly what he doesn't want to do." Something struck me. "Wait, wait – what about that payoff? Vecchio goes through money like he does aftershave. Does he have some kind of stash I don't know about? I mean, he may've cut corners, but he wasn't a bad cop. He never did anything that illegal–"

"Ray." Fraser shot me a disapproving look. "Ray has no money. He implied one of Stella Murphy's attractions is her financial status. I think he believed that would mollify me, hearing he was only marrying her for her money." His eyes went down to focus on his hands. "I didn't believe him at the time, but perhaps I was mistaken." He shook his head. "But I doubt this is about money, Ray."

"Right, right. They didn't ask for money before. Which is weird. Blackmailers like to tell you what they want. They don't just hang around; they want the money, as fast as possible." I thought about that. "That really is weird." I paced over to the window and back. "It's kind of like they were waiting for the right time. But why now? And what did they ask for? I don't get it."

"Nor do I," Fraser admitted. "Unless there's something they want only he can give them. Or someone he cares about more than himself. Someone he doesn't want to see hurt."

"A threat? Nah. He doesn't love anybody as much as himself," I muttered, but it was just my mouth working. "You think they're threatening his family?"

"They didn't initially." Fraser scratched at his eyebrow. "Why start now? Perhaps. . . perhaps it's Stella who's in danger. After all, she's carrying his child." His face and voice were perfectly calm, which had to have taken an enormous amount of control. I cursed Vecchio silently. Fraser went on, talking it out more for his own benefit than mine, I thought. "No. It's the same as the money; we're just complicating the picture unnecessarily. The threat was exposure. That's never been in doubt. No, Ray," Fraser said, looking at me. "The question is – what are their demands?"

"Dammit, I wish I knew. Okay. Let's assume they asked for something only Vecchio's got. Whatever that is."

"I wonder," Fraser said slowly. "What would he be able to offer once he was elected? What would he have, then, that no one else would have? Power?"

"Well, some, I guess." I shook my head. "It's not like he'd be President of the United States."

"Hmm. There must be something he'd control, though, or have final say over."

"The Commission." I blinked. That was my mouth talking, and my head was struggling to catch up. "Gardino. Gardino."

Fraser stopped moving. "What?"

Things were lining up, connecting. "The Port Authority. Cleaning up the docks. . . " I looked up. "Welsh said if Vecchio's elected, he inherits Gardino's appointment to some kinda docks commission."

Fraser ran his fingers through his hair. "Ray. That may be the key to the whole business."

"I'll get the rest of the details from Welsh.. But what I want to know is–"

"–why Vecchio would stop fighting them now."

"Right. Right! Unless–"

"Unless," Fraser said, "unless he knows who the blackmailer is. And he has to back off for some reason."

"Because it's somebody who complicates the situation."

"Exactly." He looked at me. "Someone close to him. It might even be someone he cares about."

"Fraser," I said, "if you're waiting for me to think it's you, forget it."

He smiled, but it was a sad kind of smile. "If Ray Vecchio thought I'd betrayed him, he wouldn't hesitate to take action. I don't harbor illusions any more about the depth of his affection for me."

I didn't say anything. I thought maybe in this case Fraser had it wrong. Ray might treat him like Cinderella, but I'd seen the look on Vecchio's face when he told me about Fraser that first day. He wanted him, but more than that, Vecchio believed in him. In his own way, Vecchio had it bad.

Damn him. Damn Vecchio, I wanted him to be the bad guy, I wanted things black and white when I thought about him. But this time I couldn't make him fit into that box. Because Vecchio was right. No matter what else might be truth or a lie, the one thing I knew was that Benton Fraser would never – could never – betray anyone.

I walked away and rested my head against the wall. Fraser came up beside me so quietly I jumped when his hand touched my arm. "Ray."

"Look, Fraser. We don't know if the blackmailer's somebody Vecchio cares about. That could be a whole different person caught up in the mess. Hell, we don't even know if we're right that he knows who it is at all. We know, he knows, we know he knows – who the hell knows anything?" I turned around finally. "Anyway, what does it matter? It's all over. Vecchio doesn't want me anywhere near him, and if you're smart, you'll admit this whole dumb goose chase is finished. Let him do whatever he damn well pleases."

"Ray–"

"Fraser–"

"Please, Ray." Fraser ran a thumb over his eyebrow, and with so much determination in his expression, I thought all he needed was a big hat to be a poster boy for Mounties getting their man. "I know I'm right about this. Trust me.."

"Trust you, Fraser?" I looked at him with the full force of my skeptical self. "I don't even know if I trust myself."

Fraser smiled a little ghost of a smile. "We're not talking about the case, are we?"

"No." I cleared my throat. "Not totally."

"Ah." I waited for him to say more, but he didn't. He took a couple of steps away and started straightening up my desk.

"Leave it."

"I can't." His big blue eyes came back up to mine, then dropped back to the papers. His hands kept busy, moving papers into piles, evening up the piles, placing the piles the exact distance apart–

I couldn't watch him do that any more. Talk about avoiding issues. Christ, the pair of us! I started pacing, to the window, to the desk, back again. "Okay. So let's say you're right. Vecchio knows the blackmailer, and for some reason he's not telling us. So what?"

"So what? Ray, surely he can't accept being blackmailed. He'll confront the person himself. We have to find him and see what's really going on."

I shook my head. "Vecchio's made it clear he doesn't want our help."

"Ray. He's going to take on the blackmailer alone. Alone. I can't allow that."

"You can't–"

"We can't. We can't quit the case."

"What do you mean 'we,' paleface?" I quipped, but I wasn't joking. "This is my case to quit, not yours."

He set his jaw. "No, Ray. I'm involved."

"Involved, like 'involved,' or involved, Fraser?" Couldn't help myself; I was born to niggle things to death. "You mean with me, or with–"

"Ray," he said, in a Ray-you-incredible-moron voice. "Don't be so–" and then he leaned over and kissed me.

Eventually, when my breath and my pulse settled down, I found myself nodding and saying, "Yeah, okay."

"Good." Fraser stepped back. He had a truly dopey grin on his face, his hands still full of papers from my desk. His shirt was untucked and his hair was still going every which way from our time on the couch. It was a sign of how far gone I was that I thought he looked beautiful just the way he was. "Ray, I, I think–" He stopped and colored a little. "About us, I, um, feel, I, uh–"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. And, uh, you know."

"I know?"

"Yeah, you know, Fraser. . . Me too."

As declarations went, that one was pretty lame, they both were, but he understood, and so did I. We understood so well that after a few seconds he started to giggle, which was a really funny sound coming from a big buff guy like Fraser. So, what could I do? I started laughing, too, at how dumb we two grown men were, how neither one of us could say the real words. But it was enough. It was enough. I felt like that weight you hear about, the one that's always on your shoulders, really did lift off and fly away. I felt as light as air. I felt. . . free, somehow.

Maybe skepticism is overrated. It's possible.

After a minute Fraser walked back over to the desk to drop the papers he still clutched. And then something came over him, a pause, a funny look on his face. He was concentrating like you get when you try to do a hard crossword puzzle. There was a picture in his hand, the picture I'd swiped from Welsh's office, and he stared at it, then turned it over and read the name on the back. "This is Brian Kilrae."

"Yeah. Another 'Kill.' You know him."

"Yes." He held the picture out so I could see it too.

"Uh-huh, he was at that party at the Murphy's. He's the bodyguard."

"Yes.. But no," Fraser said, rubbing a finger over his eyebrow in that way I was beginning to recognize. This time around it meant he was trying to scratch at his brain, shake something loose. "I mean, yes, he may have been there, but I've seen him somewhere else, definitely."

"He's got that kind of face. Looks familiar to me, too, but damned if I know how." I shrugged. "I mean, we both saw a photo of him at the Murphy party. But you're right. There's something about his eyes, and–"

"Ray!" Fraser turned to face me, his own eyes wide open. "Look at him. I've seen him recently, and so have you. The other night at Warfield's Club."

"What, he was in the crowd outside, or–"

"No, Ray." Fraser smiled, a dangerous smile that made my insides flip. "He was trying to strangle you."

"No, that was a. . . the woman– Kilrae was the woman?" I couldn't quite believe it, but Fraser held the photo right under my nose and, dammit, if those eyes, those pale gray or water-blue eyes, weren't the ones that had been staring at me out from under mascara and a giant wig. "Shit. When you're right, you're right." Pieces shifted, fell into place. "Fraser. We got Cahill's killer here."

"All right then!" Fraser looked excited and happy, and who was I to rain all over that? "Ray. I think – Look. Warfield, Fillion. Wallace. Kilrae. Even the photographer–"

"Cahill?"

"Right. Cahill. Hired for the party. All of those people, plus Commissioner Gardino and the docks. What do they have in common?"

"Not counting Gardino, they're all sleazebags. Some worse than others."

"Ray. Who do they have in common, including Gardino?"

Our eyes met. "Sean Murphy."

"Exactly. It's what we call, in curling, a bonspiel."

"A what? In what-ing?"

"Bonspiel. Curling. You know, the sport? Played on the ice, very popular in Canada, played with–"

"Fraser. Hockey is the only thing normal people play on ice." I pulled out a quarter. "You call it: We go after Vecchio or Murphy?" I flipped the coin high into the air.

Fraser snatched it away so fast I didn't even see the blur of his hand. "Murphy, don't you think?"

I couldn't help but agree. Anything was better than a face-to-face with Vecchio.

We were going out the door when I realized something. "Hey! My quarter!"

Fraser just smiled.

Huh. Tricky.

But finding Sean Murphy wasn't all that easy. He wasn't home at dinner time on a Friday night, but he wasn't out at dinner with his daughter or with anyone else his staff would admit to. Like all well-trained servants of rich people – whether it's out of loyalty or fear – nobody wanted to tell us anything. I tried charm, threats, bribes – nothing. I wrote it off as a lost cause and resigned myself to plan V for Vecchio. That's when Fraser noticed the secretary, Teresa, lurking in the corner, the one Murphy'd been bellowing at during the fundraising party. I started toward her, but Fraser put up a hand. "Let me, Ray." So I did.

In the time it took to walk six steps to her, Fraser stopped being merely a good-looking, sincere guy and turned into Mr. Shy, Sincere Guy in Need of Help. If I hadn’t seen it happen right in front of my eyes, I wouldn't have believed how he picked and chose bits of the truth to tell her, never exactly lying, just not letting her know the whole story, and giving the impression she was the only person in the whole of Chicago who could help him. It took about three seconds and Teresa was eating out of his hand, happily spilling the beans that Murphy'd gone over to the docks to Gilbert Wallace's warehouse.

Like I said, he's tricky.
 



Cold. Fucking cold.

It was a cool night midtown but down at the docks the wind was whipping off the lake, cutting through my jacket like it was tissue paper instead of leather. I pulled the collar up the moment I got out of the car, and danced around a little trying to keep warm. I could've used the wolf for a little warmth, even with the bad breath and drool, but Fraser hadn't wanted to chance him blowing our surveillance. He – Fraser, that is – wearing just a wool jacket, was radiating heat like a kerosene stove – must've been some kind of industrial-strength blood he'd developed up there on the frozen tundra. Hunkered down shoulder to shoulder behind a dumpster, I noticed the way he crouched close to me, even though all his attention was on the Illinois Lake Freight warehouse.

My own attention, other than the part digging Fraser's heat, was also on the warehouse, but my right hand was having its own love-fest gripping the gun I'd slipped into my pocket. When Fraser saw me do that back at the office he'd made a face that I read as disapproving, but he hadn't said anything to stop me. Not that I would've been stopped; there's no way I was going to leave my gun at home with Murphy, Vecchio, and the end of everything so close at hand.

The day I took the job I'd told Vecchio he was the kind of cop who loved the end of the chase. Turned out I was that way, too. My pulse was racing, my senses were on overdrive, and I felt more alive than I'd felt in months – years maybe, probably since the last time Vecchio and I staked out the bad guys. Damn. I'd missed that. Now, with Fraser by my side, I felt the thrill again, though the two of them couldn't be more different. Truth was, I didn't much like working for myself, by myself. I'd missed being part of a team, and not just in the sack.

There were lights on in the warehouse, but so far no movement outside. For about the sixtieth time since we'd arrived I scanned the dock, noting in particular a couple of cars parked alongside the warehouse wall. There was nobody inside the silver Cadillac, but the windows were blacked out on the limo beside it, so I couldn't tell if anyone was inside. I looked for Vecchio's green Riviera, but didn't see it. Didn't even know if he still drove the ugly thing.

My eyes snapped back to Fraser as his hand closed on my biceps. He nodded to the left. Murphy and a big guy in a hat were exiting the warehouse, followed by a stocky bald man, and when they stepped into the light I recognized Murphy's companions. "Wilson Warfield," I whispered in Fraser's ear. "And Wallace." He nodded at me and grinned. I grinned back. My heart rate shot up a few beats. Oh yeah, oh yeah. I had it bad all right.

"I don't care what the hell you do," Warfield was saying, his voice carried to us by the wind off the lake. He sounded pretty agitated. "I just don't want another Gardino, get it? Cost me a lot of money and trouble, that one."

"Gardino had scruples," Wallace put in. "Sean says Vecchio don't have any."

"Hmph. Says you." Warfield turned away, tapped his foot. "I have to tell ya, Sean, I don't like it. He's a cop, for chrissakes!"

"Was, Willy. He's not a cop now. Relax. Once he's in place he'll do whatever I say." Murphy's lips parted in a toothy grimace that passed for a smile. "Dear boy's got a lot to lose.. He can smell victory. He won't turn against us."

"You better be right, Sean. Listen–" Warfield buttoned his overcoat. "Gus'll be bringing in the merchandise on the twelfth. That's only a week after the election.. He'd better–"

"Jesus, Willy, stop worrying. It's all set," Murphy said, and slapped Warfield on the back. "Now go home to your lovely wife."

"Sure, sure." Warfield finished fidgeting with his coat, nodded and hurried off to the Caddy. He peeled out of the space and disappeared down the dock.

"Nuts," said Wallace, and spit onto the dock. Murphy just watched Warfield go. After a moment or two he crossed to the warehouse and pulled open the door, but didn't go in. He called to someone inside, something I couldn't catch, and made a gesture I read as "hurry up." When no one came out immediately, he turned his attention to a large crate parked by the door that Wallace was prying open with a crowbar.

I moved closer to Fraser. "What's in the crate?"

"Based on what we know," Fraser whispered, "I would surmise liquor or cigarettes."

"Or body parts?"

Fraser blinked. "Now Ray, I seriously doubt–" He caught my expression. "Oh. You were joking."

"Duh."

We crept closer, using crates and trash bins as cover. Fraser got ahead of me, moving closer to the door, while I hovered near a pile of lumber near the edge of the dock.. We were both maybe ten yards from Murphy and Wallace when I heard it, a shuffling sound close behind. There was a change in the air at my back, too, as if something were blocking the wind. My ears and muscles processed things fast, faster than I could think. I was turning, my hand on my gun, before my brain knew what was happening.

It wasn't fast enough. A booted foot kicked the gun out of my hand, hitting me right on the bone of my wrist and sending the weapon skittering across the dock. My right hand went numb with the shock but as the guy's fist shot out I managed to duck so he barely grazed my jaw. My left hand was still in working order, and it came up hard under the guy's jaw and connected with a ropey neck. He made a choking, gurgling noise and fell backwards, crashing into the lumber and to sprawl there coughing. I saw his face: Gus Fillion, of all people. I didn't know the guy did his own dirty work.

Should've realized he didn't work alone.

"Ray!"

I turned at Fraser's shout, narrowly missing getting a meaty fist in my face from another direction. Fraser couldn't help, because Wallace had heard the commotion and was rushing at him with the crowbar raised. Dammit! I wanted to help, but I had troubles of my own. My moment of hesitation had been enough for the second guy to whip me around and pull back, ready to throw a juggernaut at me.

Kilrae.

Jesus. Fraser had been right on the money: Murphy, Warfield, Fillion, Wallace, Kilrae. What did he call it? This was a fucking bonspiegel, all right.

There was murder in Kilrae's weird eyes, and a lot of power winding up in that fist, but I was lighter and faster than he was. I danced away from him, going into a boxing stance. Kilrae cursed and came after me. I was trying to get closer to Fraser so we could take these two out together, but I tripped over a piece of wood and came up short against some crates, caught between them and the edge of the dock. Somewhere to my right I heard Wallace cursing, and the clang of iron against brick. A wave of relief swept over me that at least for the moment his crowbar wasn't hitting Fraser's flesh.

Kilrae took a swing at me. I ducked under and hit him, one-two, in his gut. Nothing. The man had abs of steel, like on that video. He responded by punching me in my stomach; it turned out he had fists of steel, too. Completely stunned, I staggered away from him, trying to gain my balance, trying to breathe, but suddenly my right foot landed on nothingness. There was that terrible feeling in the pit of my sore stomach of the earth not being solid under me. And then I was falling, ass over eyeballs, into Lake Michigan.

The lake wasted no time grabbing me and sucking me under – if I hadn't just had the breath knocked out of me by Kilrae's punch, I would've taken in a lungful of water on impact. Somewhere above and behind me Fraser shouted my name, but there was nothing, absolutely nothing I could do. I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't swim, and there was only Lake Michigan to grab onto.

Panic clutched me by the heart. I'd always been uneasy about the lake; now I knew why. The water was cold and dark; I could have been out in the middle of the lake, a mile or a hundred from shore. There was no horizon in sight for me. Like a monster from a film, the endless stretch of ugly water came after me, and latched onto me tight like it wanted to keep me.

I flailed once back at the surface, forcing my eyes open but seeing nothing in the blackness but a dim glow from the docks. Once more I heard a distant call that might have been Fraser, and I gasped in a little air. But the lake wanted me, and down I went again, despite my kicking feet and waving arms. Funny; I didn't think about how maybe I should've taken swimming lessons, like my dad suggested. I didn't think about how I should've feinted left instead of right when Kilrae threw that killer punch. I'm ashamed to say I didn't even think about Fraser, or have regrets about everything I was going to miss. No, all I thought was This is it, Ray. You've had it.

There's a point when you're drowning where holding your breath is no longer an option. At a certain point your lungs constrict with so much pain that you have to breathe – water, toxic gas, sewage, anything, rather than feel the pain. It's beyond your control. The human body has certain reactions – wanting to breathe is one of them.

That point came for me.. My body relaxed. My arms stopped moving. My legs stilled. I started to sink. I opened my mouth to breathe. I started to drown for real.

And in that moment, that second where I was bordering on life or death, something came up next to me and grabbed me, and there was a body against mine, and lips against mine, and air, warm, human-scented air blowing into my lungs. For one blink I opened my eyes, but the water was too dark for me to see. It didn't matter. I knew who was saving my life. My body knew who it was, too; I became instantly hard, even with that dark, cold water all around, trying to kill me.

Let it try. Fraser wouldn't allow it.

A strong arm came around my back. I stopped sinking, and instead began to rise, still cradled by him. The water parted above my head, his lips left mine and I breathed on my own for the first time in what seemed hours, and I took in my fill of the cool, polluted, perfect Chicago air.

Fraser hauled me to the dock, and pulled me by my jacket until I flopped beside him like a landed walleye. To my surprise, Steel-abs Kilrae was sprawled face-down on top of Fillion, neither of them moving. "Fraser," I choked. "What–?"

"He tried to kill you. I objected."

"What about–"

He pointed. Wallace was upside-down in the open crate, his legs sticking out the top. "Impressive," I acknowledged between gasps. One more thing. "Um. . . in the water. What was that?"

"Buddy-breathing," he said, not panting, perfectly calm, but his eyes were not on me, they were looking over my shoulder. I turned. Sean Michael Murphy stood a few yards away, holding a gun, pointing it in our direction.

Fraser was already on his feet, and I struggled to mine. Murphy didn't like that. "Easy, boys. Not so fast."

I stood up slowly, holding as still as I could. There was nothing I could do about the coughing and shivers shaking me like a blender. Beyond Murphy was Stella, framed in the doorway of the warehouse, looking a little shell-shocked but not hysterical. Well, she wouldn't be the hysterical type, would she? For all I knew, this whole thing was her idea.

But it was her father who did the talking. "You boys keep getting in my way," Murphy sneered, drawing my eyes back to him. "I've had about enough of you."

"So, what? You gonna shoot us?" I tried for a snort, but there was too much lake water in my nose, and I sneezed instead.

Murphy curled his lip. "Can you think of something better to do with you?" His eyes flicked to his left. "Maybe I should make you do it."

I followed his eyes. Ray Vecchio stood a little ways down the dock, not a dozen feet from me.

I admit I was shocked. Not to see him with Murphy, but to see how nonchalant he was about what was happening. Vecchio was immaculately dressed, as usual, in a long trench coat that made him seem taller than ever. He didn't move a muscle.

"Go ahead, Raymond," Murphy coaxed, showing his teeth. "Show me how you'll help me out when you're my Commissioner."

"Sean," Vecchio said, real soft, "this isn't in our agreement."

"What? You'll balk at a little housecleaning?" There was real disgust in Murphy's voice. "You pervert. You'd let a man fuck you in the ass, and you think this is, what – 'distasteful?' What kind of man are you, Raymond?"

"He's your lapdog," I said bitterly.

"Ray," Fraser said quietly, his hand on my arm.

I shook it off. "Forget me, Vecchio, I know you hate my guts. But are you willing to let this asshole kill him?" I gestured toward Fraser with a flick of my head. "Over what, a goddamn election? So this douche bag can get his illegal cigarettes and liquor?"

Murphy laughed once, a cold nasty bark.

"Mr. Murphy's not just interested in liquor and cigarettes, Ray." Fraser stepped up next to me. "It's illegal drugs for Wilson Warfield. And guns, isn't it, Mr. Murphy? Guns for Gus Fillion." He gestured to where Fillion was still out cold on the dock. "And it's people, too." He looked even calmer than Vecchio, but I could feel the tension coming off him.

"Help me out here, Frase. People?"

"People neither your government nor mine would want entering our countries. People who can't get here through legal channels–"

"–but who can through illegal shipping," I finished, catching on. "Through Murphy here and his pal Wallace." I turned. "That right, Vecchio? You helping him bring in criminals? Terrorists? You'd do that?"

"Oh, now, you've given away my surprise. I hadn't let him in on that little fact yet. But he'll do it soon enough, won't you, Raymond?" Murphy's oily voice was full of sarcasm. "That's why I picked him; he knows how to keep illegals out of the country. He knows the loopholes, too – how to get them in. We've made an arrangement, Raymond and I. He'll do anything I say, so long as I get him elected and don't tell people about his dirty little secret." He sneered at us. "Of course, that dirty little secret is your companion there."

Vecchio stayed quiet and still, almost too still..

Somewhere in the background I heard sirens. Maybe it was a fire, but then again maybe it was Welsh. If it was the cops I didn't know who had called them, but anyway they were too far away to help.

"So let me get this straight," I said, stalling. "You're blackmailing Vecchio and he's willing to help you. . . for what? Your money? Or is it to get–"

"Shut up. That's enough." Murphy jerked the gun. "I hear the sirens too, boyo. I'm afraid that's all the time I have to waste on you." He glanced briefly to his right, and put out an arm. Like a trained dog, Stella came to his side and he grabbed her upper arm. Her hands were white-knuckled on the clasp of her purse. Murphy looked back at us. "It's getting late and we've got to be going."

Vecchio's head came up sharply.

Beside me, Fraser let out his breath.

She'd told me everything, and I hadn't understood, not until now, not until I saw his hand on her arm, saw her hand clutching the purse. Things shifted and clicked into place – ugly things. Sure, Murphy'd wanted a candidate he could control, who had a position of authority over the Port of Chicago, one who knew how to get past border checks, but it was more than that. Murphy wanted a son-in-law who wouldn't get in his way with Stella. What was it she said he'd told her? Got to be the First Lady, darlin.' Got to take your mother's place.

He won't be happy until he has a son.

Jesus Christ. Maybe it wasn't Vecchio's child after all. Maybe Murphy just wanted a husband for his daughter while he bred little mini-Seans. My stomach turned over until I thought I might puke. And he called us perverts.

I looked at Vecchio, who stood rigid, his eyes nearly closed, as if he wanted to shut us all out. Wanting to win the election, wanting money and power, sure, that I understood, but the Vecchio I knew, no matter how far gone he was, wasn't the kind of man who could stomach something so twisted and sick. Maybe he hadn't known. Jesus Christ, I hoped he hadn't.

Whatever plans Murphy had for the evening were moot, as they say, because at that moment he released his daughter and brought the gun up again. The black eye of the barrel turned in my direction. I didn't stop to think, just tensed, ready to lunge away, not that there was any cover. But the barrel kept crawling past me. Murphy's cold eyes narrowed. The gun stopped, pointed straight at Fraser. "I wonder if I still need you," Murphy said. He looked at me. "Now you–"

They say that time stands still in moments like these. Not true. What happens is, reality begins to unspool frame by frame. Frame: Fraser freezes, completely out of options. Frame: Murphy's finger tightens on the trigger.

Frame: I start to jump in front of Fraser .

Frame: Something shoves me out of the way.

Frame: I hit the pavement, hard.

Gunshot.

Frame: Fraser falls.

"Fraser!" I started to yell, but the word changed in my mouth. "Vecchio!"

With my shout time came back in a rush. I'd fallen on my side, winded again, unable to launch myself at Murphy. I crawled to Fraser, who was stunned but unhurt, lying under the limp form of Ray Vecchio. Face contorted with desperation, fear maybe, maybe even anger, Fraser shifted and tried to pull Vecchio onto his lap. Vecchio didn't move. "Why, Ray?" Fraser said in a choked up voice, and it was a question meant for the man in his arms. He turned an anguished face to me. "Why, Ray?"

Blood was pumping out of a hole in Vecchio's side, soaking the gray silk of his suit. Fraser pressed his hand over the wound, hissing between his teeth, "Ray, you fool, you damn fool." He wasn't talking to me. Probably forgot I was there.

As for me, all I could think right then was Vecchio will be furious his suit is ruined, stupid, maybe, but my brain had reached meltdown stage.

In any case, there wasn't any time for anything else. Murphy wasn't done with us. He took a step toward our little Pieta group, waving the gun like the madman he obviously was. "Stupid!" he shouted. "Fucking– Why couldn't you stay out of it! Damn you! Damn you!" Everybody was mad at Vecchio.

With Murphy so obsessed with the ruin of his plans I had a chance, so I took it. I was halfway to my feet when Murphy finally noticed me. "No!" he shouted, turning in my direction, raising his weapon to fire point blank.

Dammit. This was as bad as the lake, and it was going to be a hell of lot more painful. I wondered if Fraser would hold me, like he was holding Vecchio. I wondered if he'd miss me.

"Look, Murphy," I began.

A gunshot put an end to whatever I was going to say.

I flinched.

I felt nothing.

Sean Murphy opened his eyes wide in surprise and lowered the gun. He turned his head to look at Fraser and Vecchio. "Perverts," he spat, his mouth full of disgust. And then his mouth was full of blood. Slowly he dropped to his knees. His eyes rolled up and he fell face first onto the concrete, a neat round hole in the center of his back.

"No more, Daddy."

I looked up. Stella Murphy held my gun in a hand that did not shake a bit.

"Stella." She turned to me, her face blank. I put up my hands. "Stella. Please put down the gun."

The blankness disappeared into a coquettish smile; at least it would have been coquettish if I hadn’t just seen her shoot her old man in the back. "Ray Kowalski," she said, as carefree as if she'd just returned from a cruise. Maybe she had; wherever she was, it wasn't any place on this planet. "Oh, take this." The gun arced through the air towards me, smoke still curling from its barrel. I caught it one-handed. She glanced down at her father's body, the blankness creeping in again. "I told him not to hurt Ray." She blinked, shook her head, and smiled up at me again, this time a strange little half-smile that froze my blood. "I liked Ray."

"Sure, Stella."

Stella pushed a curl of hair back from her forehead and tugged her coat even, before turning that angelic, perfectly calm face back toward me. "So long, Kowalski. See you around, maybe."

"Yeah, maybe."

Stella Murphy turned on her heel and walked back down the dock, hips swinging, chiffon dress curling around her legs, just as the first police cruiser arrived.

"Ray."

I dropped back down. Fraser was pressing his handkerchief against the gunshot wound in Vecchio's side. I put my fingers on Vecchio's throat. He looked gray, but he still had a heartbeat. "He'll survive," I said. "Vecchio doesn't give up that easy."

Fraser managed a small smile. "No. He doesn't." He gathered him closer. My heart did a little drop. No, I thought, Vecchio won't die. He'll make sure to live, so Fraser can take care of him, nurse him back to health or whatever. Anything to fuck me over once again.

But I didn't say that, none of it. We were still huddled there, the three of us, when the EMTs arrived and started to work.

 


Saturday

 


"I should pull your license!"

"Yeah, you should," I barked back.

Welsh slammed his fist into the wall. "You – are in so much fucking trouble, Kowalski!"

"Sir, please. This is a hospital."

Welsh turned a laser eye on Fraser, but unlike me, Fraser didn't flinch. "And you, I have no idea how you're involved– "

"Well, Ray Vecchio and I– "

"–and I don't want to know. But you, Kowalski, you have some fucking nerve. Stealing files. Sticking your scrawny neck into police investigations, screwing up– "

"Whoa, whoa. I don't work for you, Lieu, remember?" I rubbed a hand over my bleary eyes. "Sorry about the file, okay?" He growled at that so I gave up trying to charm him. "Look. Can we just table this shouting match till after I've had some sleep?"

"You can sleep when you're dead," Welsh huffed, but I could tell he was winding down. "Tomorrow–" He looked at his watch. "Christ. Today. In my office. Eight sharp."

"Make it noon, okay? I've had a rough week."

Welsh glared at me one last time, and it was a tossup there for a minute whether the top of his head was going to blow or he was going to forgive me. He let out a breath. "Nine-thirty, and not a minute later. I don't know why I let you get away with this crap, Kowalski."

I grinned at him. "Must be my winning personality."

"Gah. Fuck you." He turned and slumped down the hall.

"And you too, Lieu," I called cheerfully as he rounded the corner.

"A good man," Fraser said approvingly.

"The best." I yawned. "Fuck, I'm tired."

"It was Ray, you know." I stopped rubbing my eyes and looked up at him. "He was the one who called the Lieutenant, told him what was going down on the docks."

That was news. "He did, huh?"

Fraser nodded. "In the end he'd had enough. He couldn't–" He broke off. "God, Ray, what if he dies?"

I didn't have any words to fix what Fraser was feeling. I didn't even know what I was feeling. So I said nothing. It got quiet between us after that. I paced a couple steps, trying to vent my jitters. Jeez, but I hate hospital waiting rooms. On top of that I was soaked, frozen, bruised and so tired I could barely see. Fraser perched on the edge of an uncomfortable-looking chair, his damp clothing squeaking against the vinyl every time he shifted. He wasn't outwardly as much of a disaster area as I was, but he was pretty ragged around the edges. Left on his own I knew he'd camp out in the waiting area all night.

No way was I going to let that happen. "Come on." I tugged on his arm.

"I think I should–"

"No, Fraser. Right now you can't think. They won't let us see him. The docs got him stabilized, and that's good, right?" He nodded, but looked miserable. I moved my hand to his shoulder. "It's after midnight. What say we get some sleep?"

"What if they call–"

"Then we'll come back. Come on. We'll see him in the morning, Fraser. I'm taking you home."

He scratched at an eyebrow, looked down the hall in the direction they'd taken Vecchio. I thought he might argue, but in the end he came quietly.

But I didn't take him home, not to his home, anyway, if you can call his room in the consulate a home. He was silent in my car, not saying a word when we turned into the alley behind my building; he just looked at me as if he hadn't noticed where we were going until then. Maybe he hadn't. Maybe he was thinking about Vecchio, how much he loved him.

I ushered Fraser inside, muttering an apology about the mess, and piloted him towards the bathroom. If he was half as chilled as I was he needed to get warm. And still he was quiet, almost brooding, and though I wanted to wash his mood away, I doubted there was enough water in the whole building for that job. We'd barely been communicating since the hospital, a word or two here or there, a gesture, and my own mood had settled into a dark funk. Fraser wasn't over Vecchio – that was totally clear and completely depressing. Trust Vecchio to be in the right place at the right time to end up a hero and ruin my life.

Yeah, unfair, maybe, but that's the mood I was in.

The taps made their usual grinding noise as the water cranked up to full. At least I had clean towels to give him – they lay unfolded in the basket from the last time I'd done laundry. It felt like weeks since I'd done anything as basic as laundry, or made something as simple as soup for dinner. The whole crazy trip from Vecchio walking into my office to getting plugged on the dock felt like it'd taken a year. Hard to accept it was less than a week.

While Fraser undressed I grabbed the towels, stripping down to my underwear while I was at it because I was sick of feeling clammy. If I was lucky, the hot water would last through my own shower.

The bathroom door opened into a cloud of steam. "Here, I brought you some–"

Fraser was already in the shower, water cascading over him, and for the first time I saw him, all of him, and my heart clenched so hard I had to catch my breath. He had definition in his muscles, but not like a body builder's, and his chest was broad and perfectly proportioned. His legs were powerful. The water turned his hair into black satin, his pale skin into marble.

He looked up at me then, his face wet, his eyes desperate. "Ray." His voice was full of pain. He held out his hand.

And so I stepped into the shower with him, not stopping to discard my shorts. His arms came around me, and mine around him. The shower was hot and Fraser's cool skin was rapidly warming. So was I, just from the sight of him. I pressed close, absently noting I wasn't completely naked, but much more aware of how his wet skin felt against me, how our bodies fit together. There were no words; our mouths just found each other.

The anger, frustration and despair that had been eating me up exploded with an intensity that had no outlet but action. I grabbed at him, needing to touch him all over. In turn, I couldn't get enough of Fraser's hands stroking down my back, sliding against my sides, touching my chest, cupping my face. They were strong hands, good hands, and every place they touched came alive. My hands traveled, too, and when they slid down to his cock Fraser grunted and pulled back a moment, his eyes glittering with his own intensity. With an abrupt yank my soggy shorts were pulled down, and I shimmied and stepped out of them. I was hard for him – that hadn't taken more than a glimpse of his naked body – and he was clearly the same.

The man I'd come to know as kind, considerate and polite shoved me back against the wall, not gently. I felt tile against my skin, and flashed back for just a second to that awful night in the club, to sleazy sex in the men's room. But this was nothing like that night. Fraser was intent, ferocious, nothing like the polite former Mountie I'd met a few days ago. This was passionate Fraser, and angry Fraser, and desperate Fraser, and I understood completely, because right here, right now, I was all those things, too.

We'd been near death tonight. I'd felt shock, anger, terror and confusion, and it was a good bet those same feelings had gone through Fraser, too. And mixed up in all the crazy shit, looming over it all, was Ray Vecchio, lover of both of us, screwed up, arrogant, wounded – shit, maybe dying. He was all around us, between us. What would happen if he died?

What would happen if he lived?

That's what was in my mind, and my heart, and I'd be willing to bet it was in Fraser's mind and heart, too. All the pain and terror and passion and anger surrounded us as we slid against each other in the steam and water. Fraser was in charge, taking command, and I let him. I wanted him to – my body wanted him, too. His big, sure hand rolled down my body and grasped my cock, and wrapped around his, too, and my own hands reached around and grasped his ass, pulling him close. He stroked us together a couple of times until I began to see stars in my vision, and make noises that at another time would've embarrassed me.

But the angle was wrong, and finally he let go and just let our bodies slide together, with the slickness of water and soap to ease the friction. He pressed and moved and panted in my ear and soon, too soon, I was coming long and hard, and from his shudders I knew he was, too.. His mouth returned to mine, ravenous and desperate, seeking comfort. We kissed, comforting each other.

And so I stood there, shaking, holding onto him, not thinking of anything but Fraser, Fraser, and how I loved him, and how I didn't want to give him up, until the hot water gave out, and a while longer after that.

 


"Excuse me. Mr. Kowalski and Mr. Fraser?" A pretty dark-skinned nurse was standing there, clipboard under her arm.

"Yes, ma'am," Fraser said, looking like he'd tip his hat if he had one.

"You're Mr. Vecchio's friends?" We nodded; it was too complex for me to explain our actual relationship. "Miss Vecchio has gone out to make a phone call to their mother, and Mr. Vecchio is asking for you."

"Go ahead, Fraser," I grunted..

"I believe," the nurse said, "he wanted both of you."

"Probably wants to fire me again."

"Ray."

"But only for a few minutes. Understand?" The nurse gave a look that said things could get ugly if we didn't agree, so Fraser nodded again. I grunted.

Vecchio was pale under that tan he maintained year round, and there were deep circles under his eyes. The sheets were drawn up to his armpits; white bandages looped over a shoulder and under the covers. Still, he wasn't hooked up to an oxygen tank or anything, though there was plasma or blood or lunch or something dripping into the crook of his left elbow from a suspended bag. All things considered, he didn't look too bad for a guy who'd been shot in the side.

But I wasn't happy about how his eyes lit up when we entered, Fraser first. Fraser pulled over a chair, right away, and sat down, his eyes at Vecchio's level. Fraser had good sickroom manners. I stayed near the door.

"Ray," Fraser said, his voice concerned. "How are. . . did they. . . that is. . ." Funny to hear him stumble over words. "I was worried."

"Yeah, me too," Vecchio said, twisting his mouth into one of his trademark smirks. "I thought I was dead." His voice was raspy, like he had trouble catching his breath.

"I'm relieved you're not," Fraser said, and patted Vecchio's hand. I though maybe he squeezed it a little, too. I felt like an intruder.

"Oh, there you are, Kowalski. I'm not contagious, ya know."

"I know, I know." I slouched to the end of the bed. "You look like hell, Vecchio."

"Ray" Fraser's exasperated voice.

"How you feeling?"

"I'll live."

"Good." And suddenly it came home to me I really meant that. I actually was glad Vecchio wasn't dead. To cover up my surprise, I threw out a little sarcasm. "Forget your cop training? What the hell were you thinking, jumping in front of a bullet?"

"Asshole." Vecchio coughed and both Fraser and I shifted nervously as pain flashed across Vecchio's face. Getting shot is no picnic. "I was just trying to–" He coughed again. "Dammit."

Fraser flashed me an annoyed look, then reached over to give Vecchio a sip of water through a straw. "We can talk later. You should rest." He clasped Vecchio's hand tightly. "Anything you need, just tell me."

"Yeah, get some rest." I took a step closer and looked Vecchio in the eye. "Don't mess with the nurses, okay? They don't get paid enough to put up with you."

He gave me a weak smile. I smiled back and then headed to the door. "C'mon, Frase."

"Benny." Vecchio cleared his raspy throat. "I need to talk to you a minute."

"Oh, of course." Fraser looked back at me apologetically. "Ray, would you. . ."

"Sure." I gestured to the hallway. "I'll be, uh. . ."

"Thank you, Ray." He smiled at me in passing, then turned back to Vecchio. I shuffled out the door.

The coffee from the machine was just as lousy as it was last night. Man, I wanted a cigarette something bad, the first time I'd craved one in months. Scowling at the half-empty cup of java, I'd been sitting with my feet propped up less than five minutes when Fraser's footsteps roused me. First thing I noticed was the serious expression on his face. My heart did a little flip thing. "So?"

"He's sleeping now. Fell asleep while I was there."

"Being around you is very calming." I threw him a lopsided grin. "Not."

"No, I hardly think so." He wasn't really listening. Fraser looked tired, and his eyes were funny.

Alarm ran through me like electricity. "Fraser, you okay? I know the guy's been shot, but if he said something weird–" My stomach churned; I felt nauseous. "What did he say to you?"

"It's okay." Fraser's eyes came up to mine, and I saw his expression wasn't sad, or serious like I'd thought, it was calm. "It's okay, Ray. He wanted to talk about us. . . about you and me. And me and him."

"Oh yeah?" Here it comes. Here comes the big finale. "What about us?"

"Ray Vecchio wanted…well, to say goodbye. He wanted to tell me he was glad we're together. You and I, Ray. He said he was happy for me. For us."

When they say someone's jaw drops open I never believed it. But right there in that hospital corridor, that's what I was doing, gaping at him slack-jawed. "He said what?"

"He was, I suppose, giving us his blessing." Fraser looked back down the hall. "Ray Vecchio may have done some shady things in his life, but he's a good man. I've always known that. I suspect you know that, too, down deep."

"I. . . wow. Ray Vecchio, giving the Godfather's blessing to our union. That's one for the books." It occurred to me I might have to give the guy some credit. "Well, I suppose he must've really loved you, Frase, to let you go like that, if you know what I mean."

"Ray," Fraser began, "I'm not sure you understand–"

"Just look at the way he threw himself in front of the gun to save you," I continued. "Suppose that should've clued me in. He had it bad for you, no matter how crappy a boyfriend he was. To risk his own life to save–"

"No, Ray, you're wrong."

The force of that finally stopped me. "Look, Frase, I'm agreeing with you. Ray Vecchio's a good guy. He offered his own life for yours. Why are you arguing with me? Tell me, Fraser: how am I wrong about–"

"Shut up. Please."

I shut up.

"Ray could never give me what I wanted, and I never knew why, But I do. I do now. Don't you understand, Ray? The way Murphy was aiming. I could see it. Ray Vecchio could see it, too, even if you couldn't." Fraser shook his head, and smiled at me, and his smile was strange, happy and sad all at once. His hand clasped my neck and he pulled me in until my head rested next to his, his lips against my ear. "It wasn't me Murphy was aiming at, Ray. It was you. Ray took the bullet to save you."

"But. . ." All sorts of things were flying through my brain. I pulled back until we were eye to eye. "Why would he–"

"Oh, Ray." That exasperated voice again, but gentle, too.. "And I though I was thick. How can you not know?" Fraser pressed his forehead against mine. His hand on my neck was so warm. "How can you not know when someone loves you?"

 


Today

 


Life continues. Wallace and Fillion are on remand waiting on their trial for smuggling, assault and battery and a whole passel of other felonies, including attempted murder of yours truly. The murder of Cahill the Feds think was planned by Murphy and executed by Kilrae, but they’re working to connect the other two up to it, since Kilrae and Wallace have links that go way back. Right now they're working on a deal with Kilrae which, while it doesn't thrill me, at least makes sense to the D.A. On the other charges they're pretty sure they’ve got an open and shut case, and while I don't think too much of the Feebs, I think they might be right for once.

Wilson Warfield lost his empire, and probably his freedom for the rest of his life, when Welsh uncovered the drugs. Just today they identified the torch who did both his club fire and the one that killed Gardino, linking them through the accelerant – perfume, of all things! – so they’re probably going to be adding arson and murder to the charges.

Lt. Welsh got a commendation, and a promotion to Captain, which he rolled his eyes at but accepted, and though he made noises about retiring, my guess is he's still got quite a few years left behind that desk.

Stella won’t be tried for killing her old man. A troop of psychiatrists agreed she was mentally unfit, after a smart lady lawyer started yelling about incest and childhood abuse, so Stella ended up at a ritzy private hospital where her four hundred million dollars will buy her hot and cold running shrinks for as long as they say she has to stay. Nobody knows if she'll ever get out. She has a lot of odds stacked against her despite her money, but she just might be tough enough to make it. I hope she does.

Fraser and me, well, we're stronger than ever. I convinced him that whether or not it came with the job, he needed to move out of his apartment at the Consulate. Which of course meant move in with me. Funny, a couple years ago, if you'd told me I'd end up living with an ex-Mountie and his wolf, and be crazy about both of them, I would've laughed my ass off, right before I punched out your lights. Now it seems the most normal thing in the world, even though we disagree on just about everything, from food (what is pemmican, anyway?) to sports (Leafs still suck, Hawks still rule) to whether or not Dief should get donuts for breakfast. Fraser probably thinks he's won that one, but Dief knows I'll always sneak him stuff under the table.

On second thought, maybe I ought to rethink the word "normal.."

The important stuff we agree about, though, like the fact if he ever gets recalled to Canada we'll go together. No ifs, ands or buts. Of course, he's a big hero right now, and I'm guessing he can name his post, though he's too modest to push it yet. Me, my business is huge these days, what with having my mug plastered all over the dailies, and I wouldn't mind having him as my partner there, too. But if he wants to go back to Freezerland, there’s nothing to keep me here, nothing that compares to him. I know he wants to show me where he comes from; we even joke about going on some kind of Arctic adventure next summer. Besides, Fraser says one of these days they'll legalize same-sex marriage in Canada, and I'll bet you dollars to Dief's donuts that that won’t happen anytime soon south of the border. So at the risk of being mushy, all I look forward to now is Fraser and me, doing whatever it is we end up doing, wherever we end up doing it. Together. For as long as we'll have each other, which I'm guessing. . . hoping. . .betting, is forever.

And Ray Vecchio? Well, he got out of the hospital a big hero himself, and the next day outed himself to the Tribune, laying out the truth about his life, including his sex life, though without naming names. You got to give it to him; once he decided to be honest, he went for it in a big way, a way you don't often see in politics, Chicago or anywhere. He's got his style of doing things, and while it's not my style, it looks good on him. And who am I to judge, anyway?

Meanwhile it's a week to the election today, and though the polls still have him as an underdog, the gap's been closing. It wouldn't surprise me if he pulls it off. That's the way he is; once he decides he wants something bad enough, once he sets those canny cheetah eyes of his on the prey, you might as well just surrender the antelope and let him have his way.

Hell. He's got my vote.


redchance @ aol.com
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