This was the first Due South story I wrote, and though some of the writing makes me wince, I think it holds together plot-wise. It dates from those innocent days when I wrote only gen... but it is the story that had slashers predicting I was headed down a slippery slope. Time has proven them right. Warning: violence and angsty!Ray Kowalski ahead.
"Ow! Owowowow — Jeez! Ow!!"
"Ow! Get it out! Get it out!"
"If you'd just relax, Ray, you'd—"
"—Relax?! It hurts like hell! I can't believe I let you talk me into this! Just get it out!"
"Ray, you're exaggerating. It can't possibly—"
"Fraser! Get! It! Out! It hurts! It's in my eye and it hurts!"
"Of course it's in your eye, Ray, it's a contact lens. It's supposed to be in your eye, and I doubt if it really can hurt that much, seeing as, ha - pardon the pun, seeing as it's an extremely thin piece of supple plastic designed expressly for the purpose of—"
"You ever wear contacts?"
"No, Ray. I have 20/20 vision in both eyes."
"Then shut up!"
Constable Benton Fraser tried not to sigh as he straightened up and clasped his hands behind his back, waiting. The only other occupant of the precinct men's room continued to paw at his reddened eye, muttering and cursing as he bounced up and down in front of the mirror. The sink was littered with bottles, receptacles and Kleenex, and as Ray Kowalski lurched in again to examine one slitted eye, an elbow brushed a plastic bottle and sent it toppling to the floor.
"Shit! It won't come out! It's gonna go up into my brain!"
"Don't be ridiculous. I doubt if—"
"Don't argue with me. I know what's gonna happen. I'll go blind, that's what!" Fraser held his tongue, with difficulty. "Ow!"
Enough, Fraser thought. "Look up and pull down, Ray."
"Look up and pull the lens down with your finger. That's what the optician said."
"I'm trying to, but it won't—"
"Oh for heaven's sake. Hold still." Fraser grabbed Ray's chin and forced his face towards him. "Look up at the ceiling, Ray."
"How can I, when I can't open...oh. Okay, okay." For an infinitesimal moment Kowalski achieved stillness, and with a smooth motion, Fraser pulled down the lower lid and slid the lens out of his partner's left eye. "Here." The offending soft lens glittered on his fingertip.
"Better. Better. Yes. Better." Ray mumbled, hunching over the sink to splash cold water on his face.
"Honestly, Ray, a casual observer would think you took a bullet in your eye, not a contact lens."
"I've taken a bullet, and it felt better than this." Ray shook his head free of the water (rather like Diefenbaker, noted Fraser idly), and groped for a towel.
"Here's the lens. Make sure to disinfect it."
"Screw it!" Ray whipped the tiny lens off Fraser's finger, walked to a stall and tossed it in the toilet, then flushed it with a look of triumph.
Fraser watched the water swirl down the bowl. "Was that absolutely necessary?"
"Yes, Fraser, it was necessary. Absolutely. Screw the whole thing. I can't wear contact lenses, they're too much trouble. I told you that." He swept the rest of the paraphernalia off the sink into the garbage can.
Fraser stooped to pick up the bottle of saline solution that had hit the floor. "I can't believe you'd let a little piece of flexible plastic defeat you, Ray."
But Kowalski was already banging through the door into the squad room towards his desk, so Fraser followed, bottle in hand. At the cluttered desk, Ray perched himself on the end of the chair and grabbed a file.
Ray didn't look up, merely continued to flip through the papers. "Of course I'm squinting, I just pulled a piece of glass out of my eye."
"They're not made of glass, Ray."
"Okay, okay, they're not made of glass. I know that, I know that." He looked up at the Mountie. "That was hypothetical."
"I think you mean 'hyperbole,' Ray."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Hypothetical, hyper-space, hyperbol-thingy."
"Hypochondriac," murmured Fraser.
"Give me a hand, willya?" A file was thrust into Fraser's hand.
"Actually, I'm going to have to go soon."
"Ice Queen troubles?"
"Well, not exactly." Fraser shifted. "And please, Ray, I'd really rather you didn't refer to Inspector Thatcher by that nickname." Ray shrugged. It really did no good to make such a request. His partner and his superior had mutual disaffection for each other, and Ray would continue to call her that if he so chose. Fraser smiled inwardly. He, Benton Fraser, was one of the few, possibly the only person in Chicago, who know the "Ice Queen's" much warmer side. He pushed aside the memory of her lips on his and shook himself back to the present. "Actually, Ray, I'm going to be in sole charge of the Consulate for a few days next week, and the Inspector wants to prep me."
"Huh. Is that what you call it? 'Prepping' you? Heh."
Ray looked up with a smirk. "Where's Turnbull?"
"He'll be on vacation — the Inspector didn't see any reason to interrupt his holiday at Dollywood."
Ray blinked. "Dollywood?"
"A theme park created by Country Music legend Dolly Parton, I believe renowned for her extremely large—"
"—following, and plentiful Grammy awards. Anyway, the Inspector has a security meeting in Ottawa that came up suddenly, and she is of the opinion that I can be responsible for the Consulate in her absence."
"Nice of her."
"I thought so."
"Yeah, but it means you don't get any time off."
"Well, Ray. One must do one's duty."
"One must, Fraser. Indeed."
Fraser looked down at his friend to see if he was being mocked, but just then a slender hand intruded between them, holding a folded paper. "Hi, Fraser," cooed a female voice.
"Uh, hello, Francesca."
The petite brunette inserted herself between Fraser and the desk. "How are you, Fraser?" She tilted up her face to him, bestowing a loaded gaze from large brown eyes. The nostrils of her rather strong nose flared slightly.
Fraser twitched under the gaze. "I'm, uh, well, well, Francesca—"
"You look well, Fraser. Very well." She flashed a smile at him and fluttered her eyelashes.
"Uhhhh, good, nice, and you?" He fought the urge to run a finger under his collar, but lost the battle. Francesca Vecchio made him extremely nervous. Her interest in him was so very obvious! Women made Fraser nervous enough anyway; when said woman was overtly forward, it shook him loose of his normal composure, turning him into a red serge-encased stammerer. At times like these he lamented growing up virtually isolated from human females.
"Did you want something, Frannie?" Ray's acerbic tone cut through the waft of estrogen. Francesca turned towards the desk.
"Yes, 'bro,'" she sneered. "Lt. Welsh wanted you to hear about this right away." She shoved the paper at him and watched, arms folded, as he opened it up.
Ray squinted at the handwriting. "Whatssis? Mart...Mark... Does this say 'Marcus Welby?'"
"Wow, I knew you were remedial, but I thought you could actually read."
"Ray has just suffered a bullet to the eye, Francesca."
"What?" Frannie jumped and stared at Kowalski.
"Very funny, Frase, ho ho ho."
Francesca shook her head. "Don't joke about things like that." Muttering, she sauntered away, undulating for Fraser's benefit, though his full attention was on the message in Ray's hands.
"Ray, if I may—" Kowalski shrugged and handed over the paper. "Hmmm."
"Is that a good 'hmmm' or a bad 'hmmm,' Frase? Inquiring minds want to know."
"Well, Ray, it says that a Marshall Webber escaped during a prison transfer yesterday, and all those involved in his capture, arrest and conviction are put on notice that he is believed to be in the Chicago area."
"Great. Just great." Ray leaned back and made a face.
"You know him?"
"Yeah, yeah, I was one of the arresting officers, me and Pete Spivak, and Donny Cohen. Back at the One-Three. Guy's a murderer, a real head case. Carved up his girlfriend and set her on fire before she was dead."
"You got that right. I cannot believe they let him escape. What a bunch of morons. This is getting to be like New York, where they lose like a hundred prisoners a month."
"Actually, Ray, I believe it's only 16 escapees since the first of the year, according to the New York—"
"Ah." Fraser examined the paper again.
"Let me see that."
"You know, Ray, you are holding that paper awfully close. You really should do something—"
"My eyes are just irritated from those freakin' lenses." He fumbled inside his jacket and came up with his glasses. He slid the heavy frames onto the bridge of his nose.
"Yeah, a little. They're for distance, though. Not too good for up close."
"Catholic, actually," said Ray absently. He sat back and rubbed his eyes with his forefingers.
Kowalski and Fraser looked up at the new voice. Jack Huey stood by Ray's desk. "What?"
"Laser. Laser surgery. My sister had it done and she's really happy. She was way more nearsighted than you, and she has perfect vision now."
"Yeah. A little slice here and there and, presto, she's 20/20."
"Interesting. Ray, you might want to look into that. Huh. 'Look into.' Another pun. Huh."
"Very punny, Fraser. Yeah, well, slicing and dicing my eyeballs is not an option, okay?" He put his glasses on again.
"Whatever." Huey turned to Fraser. "Ask him how he's doing on the target range these days, Fraser."
Fraser turned a quizzical eye toward his partner. Ray merely grunted and picked up the paper again.
The streetlight at the far end of the cul-de-sac was out, and deep shadows filled the alley that ran perpendicular to it, making odd monster shapes of the cars parked across its entrance. The man was happy in the shadows; they suited him. They echoed the shadows that filled his mind.
His attention was on the building at the far end of the block. The 13th Division building, red brick and stone, mirrored other precinct houses across town. Inside police went about their tasks, solving crimes, not solving crimes, interrogating prisoners, filling out endless forms, drinking bad coffee. They had done so for as long as there had been police in Chicago, and undoubtedly they would continue as long as the city existed.
The man in the shadows didn't ponder the fact — the noisy shadows in his head were too busy singing a name over and over in a kind of chant. Donny, the voices sang, Donny Cohen, Donny Donny Cohen, come out and play.
His eyes caught the glint of movement as the door, and he squinted into the distance. Several people were walking out the front of the building, a couple of men and one young woman. For a moment the man's eyes slowed, his gaze fondling the woman. It would be nice, so nice, very, very nice to take her—
No. Not now, he told himself, forcing the thought through the chant and the shadows, not yet, but soon, soon, there will be time for the ladies, the women, the betrayers. But first, business. Yes, he'd come to do business. His eyes shifted from the woman as more men exited the building, walking off in twos, in threes, alone, taking cars or walking away, heading towards home. End of shift.
His eyes flicked back to the door as several others left, and now he saw him, he had him fixed in his sharpening sight, a youngish man with shoulder-length brown hair, in khakis and sweater, Donny Donny Cohen, come out to play, I'm waiting for you, Donny, waiting for you and the man was walking down the steps, waving, calling to another as their paths diverged, See ya later, Tim, but he wouldn't, would he? He wouldn't be seeing Tim later. He wouldn't be seeing anything.
The man backed up further into the shadows, inserting himself against the alley wall, deep in the darkness cast by a late-model Ford, color leached by the lack of light. At night all cats are gray, the man chanted inside his head, suppressing a chuckle. The long-haired man was closer now, coming to the Ford under the broken street light at the edge of the alley, and of course it was broken, hadn't he broken it himself, he giggled to himself, and now his friend was in his hand, his shiny-bladed friend, that had fixed the bitch, that had silenced her yammering, he'd fixed Alison-the-Bitch all right, and now he'd fix the others.
The man in the khaki pants whipped a key chain out of his pocket and reached for his car door. He was whistling, and the man in the shadows didn't like that, it clashed with the singing in his head, and he was up and over the car in a blur before Detective Donny Cohen had time to react except with a startled oof. The attacker's weight threw him to the ground, and he was pinned, looking up with adrenaline-filled eyes into the shadowed face of madness, and into the dim glint of a knife.
"Hello, Detective," the shadow crooned at him. "Miss seeing me?"
And then the screaming began.
Ray Kowalski closed his eyes and ran a hand over them before pushing back his chair and rising. Whatever Welsh wanted, he sounded pissed about it. What a way to start a Monday morning.
Without undue haste he strolled to the Lieutenant's office and stuck his head in the door. "Yeah?"
"I mean, yes, sir." Welsh gestured to him and he came into the room.
"Vecchio. What's up with you?"
"Up? In what way, sir?" He couldn't control the cheekiness.
Welsh growled. "You were out with Huey and Dewey at the range last week to recertify?"
Shit. "Uh, yes sir?"
"And what, sir?" He blinked innocently. Welsh's mouth tightened.
"Vecchio — were you drunk?"
"Then can you explain this?"
The Lieutenant shoved a large paper at him, bearing the silhouette of a man. He smiled cockily and pushed it back toward Welsh. "It's a target. Sir."
The big man frowned. "Not just 'a' target, Detective, Your target. Notice anything special about it?"
"Vecchio." The Lieutenant sat down heavily. "I see only one bullet hole here—"
"There's another one over by his hand—"
"—and not even remotely near the center. Were you wearing your glasses?"
"Yeah. Yes." Now that Ray knew where this was going, the cheekiness was gone. "I guess I must've been tired after all, or something."
"Or something. Well, this is not an acceptable rating, Detective. They won't pass you. You need to retake the test."
"Aw, come on, you know my aim is good. This testing is a crock of—"
"Can it, Vecchio." The Lieutenant gazed at him shrewdly. "This is not like you, I agree. Get sleep. Get an eye test."
"Right, right..." He frowned again at the younger man. "I thought you said you were getting contacts."
Ray shook his head. "Tried. They suck."
"Well, your score sucks, so do something about it."
"Sure." Ray put one hand on the doorknob.
"Ray. Don't make me put you on desk duty. Take care of this."
"Yeah, yeah, I will. I will."
He walked out of the office, wallowing in negativity, and shuffled back to his chair. He tossed the paper target onto his desk.
"What's this?" Before he could stop her, Francesca had picked it up. "O-ho! Nice work, Ray."
"Not now, Frannie."
"Okay, Mr. Cranky." She stuck her finger through the single bullet hole and waggled it at him like a pink worm with a shiny lacquered head. "Look on the bright side, you can reuse it."
"Give me a break, Frannie," he said, snatching it back, crumpling it into a ball, hurling it at a nearby wastebasket. He missed the basket and it rolled under Huey's desk.
"And he scores - oops, guess not."
"Do you mind?" Ray snarled, his control on the brink of fail-safe.
The joke apparently over, Frannie flounced to her desk.
Ray shook his head to clear it, but the pall of impending doom wouldn't dissipate. He picked at the papers on his desk, seeing nothing, while his brain percolated with worst-case scenarios. No doubt about it, he wasn't seeing as sharply through his glasses as he had been, and it only had been a matter of time before someone noticed. Well, the prescription was pretty old, he just needed a new one.
All well and good, but what he was trying desperately to forget was that the optometrist at Kracus Optical had informed him that new glasses probably wouldn't fix the problem. His astigmatism was the problem. Glasses had lenses that sat too far from the eye to have much effect, and at a certain point, the guy had said, only contact lenses, and rigid ones at that, not even the soft ones, would give him the visual acuity he needed.
Actually, what the man had said was that contact lenses PROBABLY would solve the problem. He shrugged away the "probably," filing it away for future self-torture. He'd barely tolerated the exam and took the soft lenses as a compromise without bothering to test them in the store. Well, what had transpired in the restroom the other day had proved to him what a weenie he really was.
He knew that, uncorrected, his vision was marginal at best when it came to requirements for his job...but the alternative was not an option and he refused to consider it. Desk duty? Another job? "No way," he said vehemently.
There was a sudden burst of noise from Welsh's office, and he looked up to watch Welsh, on the phone, suddenly bolt up from his seat, then sit down heavily. Detective Tom Dewey had been in the office, and as Ray watched, he leaned in over the lieutenant. Dewey's partner, Jack Huey, rose automatically as Welsh said something and Dewey's head dipped. Whatever was going on, it was definitely not business as usual, if he could judge by the intense expression on Dewey's normally fatuous face.
Ray stood up, too. Welsh hung up the phone and dropped his head into his hands, rubbing it, hard.
Ray's feet carried him to the doorway, Huey and Frannie at his shoulder. "What is it?"
Welsh let out a deep breath. "Cop down. They're bringing the body in to the morgue downstairs." Around him, Ray could hear cursing and muttering from the others. He muttered a curse himself. At times like this, they weren't co-workers, they were a huge extended family. Welsh looked up, picking him out from the others. "Ray. You knew him - he was from the One-Three."
"Shit." He walked in and sat across from the lieutenant. "Who?"
"Donald Cohen, who—"
"Donny?" Ray grabbed a handful of his spiky hair, unaware he was doing so. He had a flash in his mind's eye of the sleepy-eyed prankster he'd partnered with at his previous assignment. "What, where did it, do they know who—"
"They have an idea. Listen, it's not pretty. Cohen was leaving work last night and someone took him out right next to his car. They didn't find him until the shift began this morning. Across from the precinct, if you can believe it."
"And no one saw anything? Heard anything?" This was beyond imagining.
"Yeah," Dewey interjected. "Takes a pair of brass ones to do a cop across from a station."
"Shut up, Dewey."
"What, were they all deaf and blind?" Ray persisted, furious at the cops who hadn't heard or seen. Anger was much easier to access, much, much easier than sorrow.
"Blind...huh. Weird you say that, Vecchio," Dewey said, without flipness but with a tone that said I know something you don't know. "The bastard didn't just kill him, he—"
"That's enough, Detective Dewey, you are dismissed." Welsh's tone was harsh, and Ray narrowed his gaze as he regarded the lieutenant. "All of you," Welsh continued, softly. "Dismissed. I'll give you information as I get it." There was a muted shuffle as the cops moved away. "Not you, Vecchio."
Ray waited until the others had filed out. "What?"
"Detective, the killer did a number on Cohen. He sliced his throat, but before he did that, he..." Welsh swallowed. "He cut out his eyes."
A wave of nausea washed over Ray, and he closed his eyes and tried to push it off. The image of Donny with gaping sockets was instantaneous and sickening, and he gripped the edge of Welsh's desk until the vertigo passed. "Jesus."
"Yes." Welsh regarded him with sympathy. "I wanted you to know for two reasons. One, I don't want you going downstairs to see him and finding that out by accident. I know how you are about these things under normal circumstances, and—"
"Yeah, yeah, what's the other reason?" he said crossly. He was biting hard on his lip now, the discomfort forcing the image away.
"I don't need to tell you who they think did it. You got the memo."
"Marshall Webber." Ray stood up. "I need, I need to work this, Lieutenant."
"No, you do not, Detective."
"The hell with that! Donny was my friend!"
"Exactly why you can't. You are involved in this, Ray, in fact, overly involved. If Marshall Webber did this, if he's targeting the others, then that includes you, and you most definitely do NOT need to work this."
"I'm not clueless, Detective, I know you're gonna get involved in this, someway, somehow. But do it here, in the building, or do it at home. Anywhere, but on the street."
Ray goggled at him. "You're taking me off the street?"
Welsh put up a patient hand. "No, I am not, but I am telling you, do not pursue Marshall Webber. Do your other cases. Retest on the target range. Hang out with the Mountie. There's plenty of work to go around. Make yourself useful on the case, by all means. But do not go after Webber. Do you understand me?" He returned Ray's sullen stare with a glare of his own. "Do you?"
Ray looked fiercely at him, but Welsh won the staring contest. "Yes."
"You better damn well understand me, Vecchio, or by God, I will pull you off the street. Are we clear?"
Ray released his pent-up breath. "Crystal."
"Good. Dismissed." Ray put one hand on the door and stopped as Welsh continued. "I'm sorry about your friend."
"Yeah." He walked out of the office, head down.
Welsh stared at Ray's retreating back for a moment. "Be careful, Detective," he said under his breath.
The Lieutenant dragged his eyes back to his desk, and to the file he'd been engrossed in when Dewey interrupted. The file said WEBBER, MARSHALL, and he flipped through the sheaf of papers inside, beginning the arduous process of tracking a cop-killer. His eye flicked down a column of names, a list of officers and law enforcement personnel who had in some way crossed paths with the perp. "'Cohen, Donald S., Detective,'" Welsh muttered, "Poor kid. 'Owens, The Hon. Clark Robert, Judge; Spivak, Peter J., Arresting officer; Kowalski, S. Raymond, Detective; Kowalski—'"
He stopped abruptly and stared at the page. "'Kowalski, Stella D., Assistant State's Attorney.'" He closed his eyes in resignation. "Good Christ, that's all we needed. "
"And on Thursday, I expect the liaison officer from the British Consulate to send their Consul General's topic for the Security Meeting. I expect you to fax it to me immediately."
"Not that I understand why Sir Hugh can't just bring it to Ottawa himself. No, no, I'm the scheduling officer so he has to make Canada take the extra step by sending it here, even though I'll already be there. Hah. No doubt he'll structure it so he gets to make the keynote address, too, mark my words!"
"That blowhard! 'Sir Hugh,' indeed! Huh. Give a man a knighthood and see what happens. Hot air, lots of hot air. Blowhard."
"Has no idea how to run a consulate. Really, I'd expect more from him, given their resources, but the man's a disaster! Handing out rooms as if it their Consulate were a bed and breakfast, jockeying for position whenever the press is involved — did you see him at the Lake Shore Festival? Disgusting! Absolutely disgusting!"
Why he even—" Inspector Margaret Thatcher paused in her rant and stared at her subordinate. Constable Fraser stood as rigidly at attention as always, his face an impassive mask, but she thought she detected a glint in his eye that was decidedly insubordinate. "Perhaps I am veering slightly off the subject, Constable."
"Not that I noticed, sir." His eyes shifted from a point somewhere above her head to meet her gaze, and she was struck as always by the intense blue of his eyes.
"I know," Thatcher continued, suddenly feeling a bit flustered by all that blue, not the blue of a glacier, but a warm blue like— oh stop it, Meg! "— that we are not really in competition, the British and Canadians, I mean, we serve the same Queen, after all—"
"So I don't want you to think I'm speaking this way out of, ah—"
"Consular envy, sir?"
She squinted at him, trying to detect the slightest hint of sarcasm, but of course Benton Fraser seemed as always a sarcasm-free zone. "Just see that I get the memo."
Thatcher turned away from the constable, back to her cluttered desk. "This is a serious responsibility I am giving you, Fraser, and I expect you to perform your duty with all the zeal and tenacity that Canada expects from a member of the R.C.M.P. We have 46 hours before my departure, and I intend to make use of you thoroughly in that time."
"Uh, yes, sir." Fraser twitched.
Thatcher reddened, swallowed, and recharted her course. "By that I mean, I expect you to understand fully all of the workings of my position. So that we can, in effect, come together on—" That still didn't sound quite right, but she pressed on feverishly. "It is a shame that Turnbull's absence coincides with mine. I suppose he could have been helpful to you."
Fraser caught her eye. A look passed between them. "Well, perhaps not," Thatcher looked away, a smile quirking her lips.
At times like these, Benton Fraser almost caught a glimpse of the Meg Thatcher he preferred. That Meg Thatcher had warmth, and humor, and an attractive strength that bore no relation to her domineering alter-ego's need to overpower every man within reach. He found her not only attractive at these moments, but likeable as well, and in some ways that was more important. As for the attraction, well, it was there, between them, every day, but nothing would come of it. Nothing could; she'd made that clear.
He realized she was still speaking, and his mind had wandered. "—lunch, we'll discuss errata in Canadian passports, and how to detect fabrications therein."
"Dismissed." Thatcher sat down and opened the Consulate checkbook, and he took that as his cue.
In a way it was a shame that Turnbull was away, cavorting in Heaven-knew-what way at a country music theme park. With the other Mountie present, Benton would have felt at liberty to leave the Consulate for more than a few minutes at a time, perhaps even join Ray Kowalski over at the 27th Precinct. He pondered his duty as he headed towards his tiny office, stepping over Diefenbaker, who had sprawled across the entrance. He took his duty seriously, of course he did, but he couldn't help but feel that the time he spent with the Chicago PD was closer to the work he preferred — police work. Here at the Consulate his duties were largely ceremonial, and while he recognized their importance, still he longed for the thrill of the chase.
"Ah yes, the wide open spaces, tracking the miscreant through a crust of new snow, your lungs freezing, near exploding with the agony of breathing sub-zero air, your firearm empty, nothing but your wits between you and destruction — that's the life, all right."
Benton flinched as the familiar voice bellowed behind him. "Dad, I wish you'd stop sneaking up on me."
"Oh, pish-tush, son."
"Now, now, don't quibble, men don't quibble."
"And yet you do, often enough."
"I'm allowed to quibble. I'm dead, you know."
"Hard to tell sometimes." Benton sat behind his desk and stared at his father. "Why are you dressed like an Athabaskan tribal elder?"
"Been invited to join their moon festival. It's a great honor."
"I'm sure." Benton shook his head. Sometimes he knew for a fact his sanity was leaving him.
"You know, you really should get out of this office. There's a whole world of criminals outside, son, waiting to be caught."
"Well, that's all very well," Benton said crossly, "but right now I have obligations to meet inside."
"All right, but make sure you're ready when opportunity knocks."
Benton opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment there was a loud banging at the front door. He glanced towards the hallway as he rose, but when he looked back, Bob Fraser was gone.
Inspector Thatcher of course did not get up to open the door, although her office was closer to the front of the building. So Benton strode down the hall briskly, his boots clacking on the wooden floors in a contrapunto to the insistent rapping. He grabbed the knob and flung the door wide.
"Jeez, Frase, how come you locked the front door?" Ray Kowalski breezed past him into the foyer.
"To keep out the riff-raff."
"Ha ha." He peeked around a corner. "Ice Queen here?"
"Ssh, Ray, yes." He gestured to the detective that they should move back towards his office. "I asked you not to call her—"
"Okay, okay." Ray's tone was light, but the lightness didn't extend to his eyes. In fact, Benton saw that his partner had a tightness around his eyes that bespoke a fair amount of tension.
"What is it, Ray?"
"I've got a problem, Fraser. A big one." Ray was pacing slightly, and Benton put out a hand to stop him.
Ray looked at him sideways, apparently reluctant. "Listen, it's about, well, it's...it's Stella." When Benton opened his mouth to reply, Ray continued. "But it's not what you think."
His heart was racing. Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha, it sang in a gleeful roar, the blood pumping through it, pounding. I gotcha! He lay on the filthy bed in the sordid remains of the apartment building, the charred bed where he'd finished her off, finished what he had to do with Alison-the-Bitch, and sang to himself as the knife pared his nails. He breathed in deeply, wondering if the scent in the air of the ruined building still bore motes of charred flesh, boiled blood. He closed his eyes and tried to separate the smells.
After a time, his eyes opened again, and he contemplated the shadows in the corner. One down, one down, he crooned to himself. With slow deliberation he drew the blade across his own arm, leaving a trickle of blood in a thin line. He didn't feel it, not a thing. He hadn't felt anything for some time, not after the time in prison. He'd felt plenty there, abuses to every part of his body, abuses to what remained of his mind.
The shadows lengthened. Come out and play, Petey, you of the hard fist and the kick in the groin, Come out, Clark, Your dishonorable Honor Clark, come be my playmate! Come out, come out, play with me, Ray, Ray, go away, gonna die some other way! Play with me, Stella, Stella, Stella by starlight...
Time to go to work.
"—don't understand why—"
"—this time, of all times—"
"—you won't help me out."
"I just don't get you!"
"Ray. Ray. Ray—"
"Don't 'Ray, Ray, Ray,' me, Fraser, not this time!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."
"I hate when you do that! 'Ray, Ray, Ray,' all the time! What does it mean—"
"I understand your fears, Ray, really I do."
"—anyway? 'Ray, Ray, Ray,' repeating my name—"
"—over and over again, like I'm not listening or something—"
The blond head finally snapped towards him, and Benton sat back in his office chair, the thumb rubbing a gouge in his eyebrow his only sign of impatience. Kowalski at least had stopped his endless pacing, two steps in each direction being his limit in the cramped space. "I didn't say I wouldn't help you."
Ray shot him a turbulent look. "Fraser, you just-"
"Be patient. I do believe you that Marshall Webber may be after those of you who helped put him behind bars."
"No 'may be' about it."
"Hear me out, Ray. The death of Detective Cohen would seem to point to Marshall Webber as the perpetrator, if one considers the means of death, the brutal nature of the crime - that is to say, his methodology - and the choice of victim. It clearly warrants brisk attention by law enforcement to ensure that his continued liberty does not present a real threat to those remaining at risk."
"Look, he did it and he needs to be caught before he kills anyone else."
"So I said."
"No you didn't."
"Right you are. To summarize, you say that Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski was the prosecutor of the case and at the time of his conviction, Webber made very specific threats against her, as well as against the judge."
"Yeah, yeah, you're a great summarizer, Fraser, but time's a-wasting."
"Hold on. My point was, Ray, that all of you are in equal danger, and that the most prudent course of action would be for all of those involved to secure protection until Marshall Webber is apprehended. That includes Ms. Kowalski. Surely the State's Attorney's office can provide round-the-clock security for her."
"Yeah, surely, you'd think it, wouldn't ya, Frase? If they're willing to pay for it. If they're as prudent and as good at summarizing as you are. But we're dealing with a freak who kills a cop twenty yards from a police station. You think some 25-buck-an-hour bodyguard is gonna keep him from climbing in through her window or crossing a roof to her terrace or, I don't know, shinnying down her chimney like some fucking perverted Santa Claus? No, Fraser, we have to go after him, get him, STOP him before he comes close. Understand?"
"I understand that you are concerned for her."
"Concerned—!" Ray stopped and shook his head. "I just...I just can't..." He sank onto the tidy cot and looked at his hands. "I can't stop thinking about what he did to Donny. Then I think about Stella, about her eyes, those green eyes, with the little gold flecks—" He stopped and swallowed. Benton thought he saw him shiver.
He examined his friend with a critical eye. Ray looked pretty forlorn; even his hair, that normally had a life-force of its own, seemed depressed. He considered the fact that it wasn't really the threat of a deranged killer or the death of a friend that caused Ray's state of being. The only person who could reduce the detective to this condition was his ex-wife.
Benton didn't hate Stella Kowalski, though it was hard to watch her behavior with his partner. It was a complicated relationship, that much was evident, even to a Mountie raised in the wilderness with little enough experience with the opposite sex. When he observed Stella and Ray in the same room, it seemed to Fraser that Stella went out of her way to insult her ex, to beat him down with words as effectively as a sadistic dog owner might beat a pet with a rolled up newspaper. That was unpleasant enough, but the really disturbing part was that Ray always rolled over and took it. Benton Fraser wasn't a fool, nor was he ignorant. It was clear that both Stella and Ray still had feelings for each other, feelings that ran so deep and were so complex that the two of them were bound together in a cycle of abuse and obsession. Fraser sighed. Maybe it was just as well that he didn't have a relationship to maintain. Things could so easily go from affection to destruction.
An image flashed through his mind of a dark, curly-haired woman with sensuous lips, who had... He pushed her away. He was not going to think of the one woman who had driven him to the brink of his own ruin. "Ray," he began, regaining his footing.
"You gonna help me, Frase?" There was a pleading tone in Kowalski's voice that Benton had heard only once before. Stella had been the cause that time, too. He looked at his desk, at his watch, and then at his friend.
"On Wednesday morning," he began, slowly and quietly, "commencing at 0600 hours, my duty will compel me to be here at the Consulate, in charge of all it contains, to fulfill the responsibilities inherent in the position of Chief Consular Liaison Officer."
"So—" He leaned over the desk. "That gives us 45 hours to find Marshall Webber."
"Are you...Benito Mussolini?"
"No. Uh, who's that?"
"You really don't know? Dewey, you really are one ignorant son of a bitch."
"Am not. You made that name up."
"Did not! Why would I waste one of my twenty questions on a made-up name?"
"I don't know. Maybe you wouldn't."
"Damn right I wouldn't." Pause. "What number question is that?"
"It's sixteen, Jack. Actually, it's seventeen now, because you just asked me what number question it is."
"What are you talking about?"
"Aha! That's eighteen!"
"I'm not playing this anymore. You cheat."
"I give up, Dewey, I just give up!"
"Ha ha! I win."
Jack Huey sighed with disgust and rubbed his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at his partner for another moment. Sitting in a car with Dewey could often lead to philosophical theorizing, but more often than not it was fertile ground for migraine headaches.
"I won, I won, I won, I won!"
Jack opened one eye to see Dewey doing a little happy dance. At least his upper body was doing one; the rest of him was still behind the steering wheel. Jack closed his eye again and rubbed his brow.
"Up and at 'em, boys! What, you sleeping?"
Ray's grating voice jolted Huey's eyes open again. The spiky blond head was poking through the passenger seat window, Ray leering at him. "Don't do that, Vecchio."
"You guys really fill me with confidence, ya know? Sitting out here, plain as day and large as life in front of Judge Owen's house, zoning out, while anyone could creep up on him and slice him in half. Some lookouts you are. Lallygagging, that's the word for it, right, Frase?"
Dewey snorted. "Yeah, right, Ray. Like you don't stand out walking around with a big red stop sign." He smirked in the direction of the red-suited Mountie standing by the driver's window.
Benton tugged his ear. "Well, Detective Dewey, ordinarily I wouldn't be in my dress uniform, but I'm not really supposed to he out of the Consulate, and I thought remaining in uniform might allow me a few extra moments in the field, as I wouldn't have to change into civilian clothes and then change back when I return."
"Where's your dog?"
"Diefenbaker? Ah." Benton scratched his eyebrow. "My wolf is a little miffed at me for being so cavalier with my duties, so he's staying at the Consulate out of spite."
"You're playing hooky? Isn't that like a capitol offense up in the Provinces?" Jack offered snidely.
"Not really, Detective. The death penalty is rather your particular province here in the States." Benton smiled and inclined his head. "Gentlemen. Let's go talk to the judge, Ray."
The Hon, Clark Robert Owens owned a spectacular apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, but from all evidence, he wasn't planning to stay in it too much longer. A call to the precinct from Ray's cell phone had ascertained the whereabouts of all the likely victims, and the fact that the judge was in complete terror of Marshall Webber. It seemed the news of Webber's escape had spurred the jurist to get out of Chicago as quickly as possible and remain away from his home until the murderer was captured. The information had altered Ray's plan to immediately check on Stella, who, for the time being at least, was at work, surrounded by armed colleagues.
"Do you mind telling me where you're headed, Judge?" Ray inquired.
The distinguished-looking man with the fringe of gray hair and aquiline nose continued to bustle about, collecting necessities and ordering around a harried secretary and impassive valet. "I do mind, Detective," Owens boomed He had a lush baritone voice, a voice that had lingered over each syllable when he'd sent Webber up the river for life. Right now the voice showed his strain. "I would prefer not to. My secretary here and my daughter in Phoenix know how to reach me, and I will be in contact with the Chicago PD. But I plan to move around a bit, in case Marshall Webber has an urge to travel."
"Okay, so you're doing the Salman Rushdie thing, Judge, fine, I just need to know if you've received any kind of warning from Webber, or noticed anything suspicious so far."
"No, Detective." Owens stopped moving. "Detective, I admit I am not a brave man. Not physically brave, anyway. But you and I both remember what Webber said that day, to all of us, in the courtroom. Frankly, I've never forgotten it, though I haven't had to think about it while he was in prison. No, I've had no warning since that day. But knowing he's free is warning enough." The judge drew his eyes away from them, took his coat from his valet and walked towards the door. "And now, gentlemen, I must leave. My plane is in an hour."
Fraser stepped forward. "Would you like us to accompany you to the airport, sir?"
"No, the policemen outside will accompany me, at least until they know I'm not being followed. My chauffeur is also licensed to carry a weapon."
They stepped into the service elevator, Kowalski and Fraser checking to make sure they were safe from ambush along the route. They passed through a short corridor, and from there to the back entrance of the building that opened onto a service alley. Fraser saw that the Duck Boys had pulled their vehicle up to the corner. A gray-liveried chauffeur had already opened the trunk and the valet dropped in the judge's suitcase. The chauffeur stood by the rear door of the car, and once the judge was inside, wasted no time closing the door, jumping in the front seat and wheeling away.
Ray and Fraser watched as Dewey and Huey followed in the unmarked police car.
"Well, I guess we don't have to worry about him," Ray said.
"Ray—" Fraser looked pensive. "What exactly did Webber say in the courtroom when he was sentenced?"
Ray got a far-away look in his eye for a moment, then turned to his partner. "He said, 'you won't see me coming.'"
Without further conversation they walked back into the building.
The departure had happened so swiftly that neither had noticed the crumpled heap under the blanket in the trunk of the car, a heap of what looked to be old clothes and shapeless junk, but was in fact the limp body of the chauffeur, clad only in his underwear.
"Is that music absolutely necessary?"
"Yeah, Frase, it is."
Fraser flinched. The loud bass reverberated through his body as if he were a drum, and the squeal of guitars made thinking nearly impossible. "Is this actually music?"
"In civilized circles, yes it is, Fraser."
"Perhaps I might change the station—"
"Hey! Driver's choice." Ray smirked at him, then grabbed at his inside pocket, which was vibrating.
One hand still on the wheel, he yanked the phone out of his jacket pocket while simultaneously trying to turn down the radio. The GTO swerved as he did so, and Fraser couldn't stop himself from instinctively grabbing for a bar mounted on the dashboard. "Good heavens, Ray."
Ray sent him a mocking glance as he spoke into the phone. "Yeah? Uh-huh, Frannie, yeah... Yeah? OK, thanks."
Fraser let go as the car straightened, and adjusted his hat on his lap. "You know, Ray, I believe that in several of the United States talking on the phone while driving is considered a misdemeanor. In your case it's more of a felony."
"This car is specially equipped, Fraser." Ray ended the call and gestured with the phone towards the dashboard. "That's what the Jesus-Fucking-Christ-Ray Bar is for."
"You know, when I take a corner, you grab it and yell 'Jesus Fucking Christ, Ray!'" He grinned maniacally and looked away from the road as he stuck the phone back in his pocket, simultaneously screeching the car into a U-turn. Around him other drivers honked and shouted obscenities.
Fraser grabbed for the bar. "Good heavens, Ray!"
"'Good heavens,' but you're a freak, Fraser."
"So you've said. What did Francesca want?"
"The One-Three got a hold of Webber's last cell mate. He's been released on parole. Maybe he has some idea where to find Webber."
"Ah. Good idea. Is your other partner still at the 13th?"
"Yeah - he's about to retire after the first of the year, but he's still there." Ray wrinkled his brow as a sudden thought struck him. "I should check on Stella." He started to fumble for his phone again, but Benton stopped him.
"Please, allow me." He reached over into Ray's breast pocket and withdrew the cellular. "What's the number?"
"It's... It's on speed dial. Number one for her office, two for home."
"Speed dial." Benton caught Ray's embarrassed grimace at this evidence of his obsession. "Office, I think." He pressed buttons and waited until a voice answered. "Yes. Assistant States Attorney Stella Kowalski, please...who? Well -" He looked over at his friend, wondering if Stella would take a call from her ex-husband. "Please tell her it is in regard to the Marshall Webber case. Thank you kindly."
There was a sizeable pause, during which Ray's eyes were more on Fraser than on the road ahead. "Well? Is she there or not?"
"Shh, Ray, be patient. I'm sure they're very busy and it's - ah, hello, Ms. Kowalski? Yes. This is Constable -"
"Gimme that." Ray grabbed the phone away. "Stella? It's me. Me. Me, Ray. Are you- I know, I- I was just- But I wanted to- Yes, you told me never to- No. I realize that it's- Look, I was worried, and Webber- How can you think that? I'm not, I'm not, Stell, I swear. I- But- You- Right- No, I- Okay. I- I- Sorry- I'm sorry, Stella." Ray's shoulders had hunched up nearly to his ears during the conversation. Now he forced out a long breath as the phone went dead. "Goodbye."
Fraser watched as his friend silently dropped the phone on the seat between them, "I assume she's..."
"She's fine." Ray compressed his lips.
Nothing more was said, or had to be, until they reached the 13th Precinct.
"Ray! How's it hanging?"
"Ah, Stevie, still the class act, I see." Ray punched the arm of a beefy cop, who reciprocated by grabbing Kowalski around the neck in a fond version of a choke hold. Ray and Fraser had been moving through the police station in a series of starts and stops as the detective's former cronies stopped to greet him. The building could have been the twin of the 2-7, but for the different faces peering at his uniform as if he were the creature from the red serge lagoon.
"Where's Pete?" Ray extricated himself and rubbed his neck.
"In Two. There's a Fed with him."
"Great, just great." Ray curled his lip. "C'mon, Frase."
Kowalski led the way down the hall and opened the door to Interrogation Room 2 without preamble. Inside, a red-faced man was leaning over a clearly terrified individual, who was tilted so far back in his chair he was nearly parallel to the floor. Fraser's eyes flicked to a third man, a dark-skinned man in a black coat, who leaned against the wall. He didn't know any of them, but the one in the corner could not have more easily been identified as FBI if he'd worn a sign to that effect.
The interrogator stood up, recognized Kowalski, and came around the table to shake his hand. The handshake turned into a bear hug, ending when the older cop cuffed Ray playfully across the chin. It was an old camaraderie, Fraser noted, and he envied the easy physicality between the two men. Pete Spivak's hair was even redder than his complexion, though the white roots suggested the man dyed his hair. "Ray. Strange times, huh, buddy?"
"Strange indeed. Listen, I heard about Donny—"
"I know. I keep looking for him in the bullpen. Jeez, I miss him."
"Yeah." Ray blinked a couple of times, then jerked a finger towards the man in the chair.
"Cubby DiSouza. Bankrobbery, assault, coupla' E felonies. He was Webber's last cell mate before the escape."
"You can't hold me here!" The man at the table had a whiny, squeaky voice, and his attempt at defiance was almost laughable. He sniffled deeply and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
"I'm sure we can find a parole violation somewhere." Pete turned back to Ray. "We thought we'd pick his brain, tiny though it is."
Ray laughed briefly. "Does he have anything?"
"Remains to be seen." Pete jerked his own finger towards Fraser. "Who's this?"
Fraser stepped forward and put out a hand. "Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, sir. Detective Spivak?"
"That's right." The older man looked Fraser up and down. "What are you doing here in—"
"Uh, don't ask him that, Pete," Ray said.
"Well," Fraser said, ignoring his partner's long-suffering look. "I first came to Chicago on the trail of my father's killers, and—"
"Find them?" Spivak interrupted.
"Well, yes, I did, and-"
"Good." Spivak turned his back, and after a moment Fraser closed his mouth. "So, wanna join in, Ray?"
"Excuse me." This time the interruption came from the Fed. " Who are you?"
He was looking at Ray. "Who wants to know?"
"Special Agent Fernando. Are you..." He consulted a piece of paper. "...Detective Raymond Kowalski?"
Ray's eyes flashed to Fraser, who was thinking exactly the same thing he was — protect Vecchio's cover. "I'm Ray Vecchio," he said nonchalantly. "From the Two-Seven." Behind him he could feel Pete Spivak start, and he turned around and flashed his eyes at him in warning.
Luckily Pete had a good poker face, a fondness for his former partner and a deep need to screw with the Feds, so he played along. "Yeah, Ray's giving me a hand in the investigation."
Benton Fraser stepped up to the plate. "I suppose, Agent Fernando, you're also investigating the escape of Marshall Webber?"
"That's right. I don't see what the Canadians have to do with it, though. Do you have information that he's trying to leave the country?"
"Well," the Mountie said, taking Fernando by the elbow and steering him towards the door,"that depends what you mean by 'information,' Agent Fernando. Perhaps we should leave this minor interrogation to the local police and pool our more internationally-focused information to advance our understanding of the current situation. And speaking of international information, I assume you're well aware of the fascinating new policies concerning..."
Pete and Ray looked at the door as it swung closed behind the red uniform. "How did he do that? I been trying to get rid of Fernando all day."
"Dunno, really. Think it's some kind of hypnosis or something."
Pete shrugged and narrowed his eyes at Kowalski. "You're going by 'Vecchio' now? Can't say it's an improvement."
Ray shook his head. "Not in front of the children. Tell you later." He turned towards the table. "So, Cubby."
"I don't know nothin.'"
"Yeah, yeah. Didja like having Marshall Webber as your roomie?" When the man didn't reply, Ray kicked his chair and Cubby jumped. "Hello? You in there, Cubby?"
"I don't know what you guys want from me," the man said sulkily. He rubbed his nose and wiped his fingers on his sleeve.
"What we want from you, scumbag, is anything you can tell us that helps us get Marshall Webber off the street." Pete scowled ferociously in Cubby's face.
"Look, I on'y was wit' him a coupla' days, ya know?"
"Yeah, the last couple of days before he was transferred and got away," Pete barked. "We thought maybe he said something you happened to overhear."
"He din't say nothin'about nothin.'"
"You better not be holding out on us Cubby, or I'm gonna make your life even more worthless than it is now," Pete threatened. The man in the chair quivered.
Ray swivelled Cubby's chair around to face him. "Okay." He assumed a placating tone. "What did you talk about?"
The other man shook his head. 'Din't like ta talk ta him. Creeps. He gave me the creeps. Always lookin' at me, like, you know, I was lunch."
"Not much of a meal," snorted Pete.
"He talk about any one?" Ray asked mildly. "Anyone at all? Friends?"
"You think a guy like dat has friends?" Cubby screwed up his face in an exaggerated pose of thinking. "He din't talk much, like I said."
"Well, when he did talk, what did he say?" Pete was getting exasperated, Ray could tell, and while he felt the same way, he maintained at least an outward semblance of cool.
"He din't talk...but he used ta sing."
"Sing?" Ray leaned in. "Webber sang?"
"Not sang, really, more like nursery rhymes, dat sound, ya know? Sing-song, like. Gotta tell ya, I din't really wanna know."
"What, like, Mother Goose of something?"
"Yeah, but not like Humpty-Dumpty or nothin.' Different names. He had one he did a lot, about some chick he called 'the Bitch.'"
A cold finger went down Ray's back. "Got a name?"
"Nah. He just called her that."
"Maybe his girlfriend," Pete said to Ray. "I remember when we picked him up, he kept going on about how she ruined his life, like it was all her fault he did that to her."
"Maybe. What else, Cubby?"
"Something about the stars."
Ray and Pete looked at each other."'Twinkle twinkle little star?'"
"Not that. Star...light. By starlight...someone named Estelle?" Cubby beamed at them, eager to please.
The cold finger got colder up Ray's spine. "Stella?"
"Dunno, could be, I toldja, I din't wanna know." Cubby looked at them shrewdly. "You're the Ray and Pete he talked about, right?" He snorted. "Thought so. He got real mad one time."
"You kidding? If he was mad at me, I'd prob'ly be dead."
"Then what was he ticked about, Cubby?"
"Well..." A conspiratorial note had crept into Cubby's voice. "I think somebody came to see him, just before I got out. He came back to the cell and boy, was he pissed off!" He looked at the two detectives, who were listening intently. "Prob'ly nothin'," he finished casually.
Ray sighed. "Cubby," he said, close to the man's face, "in case you haven't noticed, I'm playing the Good Cop here, but I got to tell you, it ain't my role of choice. If you want to see me in my favorite role, keep jerking us around. If you want our relationship to remain kinda buddy-buddy, then give." He reached over and rapped Cubby on the skull with his knuckles. "Am I making myself understood?"
"What's that, Cubby?"
Uh, I mean, yeah."
"Well, good then. So?"
"I think it was his lawyer. Something about an apartment, they was gonna tear down a building, something like that. He came back talking about ashes, like ashes to ashes, and he got real agitated. Maybe someone was dead and he wanted to go to the funeral? I don't know."
The detectives exchanged looks. "What else, Cubby?"
The man shrugged. "I'm tapped out, that's it. Next day I got released. Okay?"
They ignored him. Ray gestured with his head and Pete and he went into the hallway, shutting the door behind them. "Ashes?" Pete said.
"Know what I'm thinking? That place, where he killed his girlfriend, over on..."
"Ridder Avenue," Pete supplied.
"Hey!" Cubby's voice came through the door. "You guys gonna let me go?" They ignored him.
"Right. The fire pretty much burned up the place. Think it got condemned?"
"No idea." Pete flipped through his note pad. "The lawyer was...McCorkle, Janice McCorkle, public defender. I'll have someone give her a call. Where you going?"
Ray was pulling on his jacket. "Over to Ridder Avenue."
"Why not wait to hear from the lawyer?"
"Come on, Pete - what if Webber's hiding out? If there's nothing there, so what? Whoever calls this lawyer can call me on my phone."
"You haven't changed, Ray."
Ray grinned at him. "Wanna come? Be like old times."
"Nah, I..." Pete let the words trail away. Ray stopped and looked at him. "Ray, I would, it's just...you know, my retirement is in a couple months, you know..."
"Sure. No prob, Pete. Good to see ya." Kowalski turned and went in search of Fraser. The look in Pete's eye had told him all he needed to know. Cops didn't necessarily want to admit they were afraid. Pete Spivak was afraid, and he wanted to live to his retirement. Nothing wrong with that.
Someone fell into step beside him and he looked over at the familiar red serge. "What'd you do with the Fed?"
"Well, we explored possible routes into Canada from Chicago, and then I endeavored to explain to him the difference between the justice system of Canada as opposed to that of the United States."
"So...he's still asleep?"
"I'm afraid so, yes," Fraser said ruefully.
"Come on, then."
"Over to Webber's girlfriend's apartment, if it's still there."
"He has a girlfriend?"
"The one he killed." They exited the building and Ray unlocked the car.
"Ray, shouldn't you call in to inform Lt. Welsh? You told me he didn't want you to—"
"No, Frase, I am not calling Welsh." He got in behind the wheel as Fraser sat down and closed the passenger door. Ray had a belligerent expression on his face. "I can't just sit around, Frase."
Fraser merely nodded, understanding. "All right, then."
The two-story husk that had contained Alison Cara's apartment was surrounded by a wooden fence bearing hand-lettered signs stating the building was condemned and that it was to be torn down in a week's time by Fleetwood Construction. It was easy to push through the fence next to the locked site-access door, and the two men approached the building without any difficulty. The windows had been replaced with panels of gray metal, giving the place a blind look. Sooty stains feathered up from the empty windows onto dirty red brick. No work had been started, and no equipment or people were inside the fence.
The downstairs still had one large window, partially boarded up. The site had been occupied by a convenience store with Spanish signs in the windows. Inside everything remained as it had been the night of the fire, except that the store had evidently been vandalized before the fence went up.
Kowalski and Fraser moved wordlessly in sync, as they had dozens of time before. Inside the building they opened doors and listened with care, but heard nothing. Ray had his gun out, and let it precede him around corners, but nowhere on the ground floor did they find evidence that anyone had set foot in the place since the day of the fire nearly two years earlier.
They moved to the steps. "Ray."
Fraser's voice was quiet but intense, and Ray stopped, one foot about to go onto the dusty staircase. "What?" he whispered hoarsely.
Fraser's response was merely to point to the step. It was dim in the vestibule, but when he squinted, Ray could see what the Mountie's sharper vision had picked out clearly. A footprint. He looked up the steps. Footprints, disturbing the soot and dust.
The two men looked at each other, communicating. Ray gripped his gun more tightly.
Upstairs was a shambles. The fire hadn't destroyed the lower floor, but it had done a pretty good job on the top one. Holes punctured the roof where the fire had burned through, and daylight filtered inside, enough to see by. There were, or had been, two apartments on the floor, front and rear - Alison Cara's had been in the back. They checked the front first; the firefighters who had responded to the fire had done a number on the door and it stood open. Ray could tell when Fraser moved from behind him to check a room to the left, while he in turn went right. They moved in sync through the apartment, Fraser exploring every possible corner with dogged determination, Ray coiled tight, expecting any moment to have Marshall Weber leap at him from out of the dusty dimness.
The rear apartment still had a door, though the lock was splintered. Ray pushed it slowly, gritting his teeth against the agonized squeal. Ray thought his heart must be pumping so loudly that Fraser surely could hear it - it echoed in his own ears, drumming loudly as the adrenaline pumped through his system. A pigeon flew out of the shadows up through the open roof and Ray nearly emptied his weapon at it, refraining from pulling the trigger by a supreme effort of will. If Webber is here, he thought, I'm gonna shoot him, no question about it.
Light from the roof filtered into the dark apartment, and Ray could see thick dust in the air. He didn't want to breathe it in.
No one leapt out of the shadows. But in the center of what had been the bedroom, the remains of a bed stood as an eerie monument to the crime. It was disturbing to look at the burnt bed and remember that that was where he and Pete and...Donny had stood while the remains of what had been a beautiful young woman were charted, photographed and manipulated into a body bag. Even now the memory of all the blood, the ashes, the smells, brought the bile into Ray's throat. That was the day he'd stopped being able to look at corpses.
"Ray. Ray. Ray—"
"What?" he said, snapping out of his memory-induced trance. Fraser was next to him, in the here and now, red serge and silly hat and reassuring familiarity.
"I found food wrappers, fairly fresh." He drew Ray away from the bed, to a pile of trash near the window. Whoever had been here had been nourishing himself, if it could be called that, with Twinkies, Ho-Hos and bags of chips. "I suppose it could be teenagers or squatters. Or, judging by the menu, you."
Ray ignored the barb. "Nah, there are nicer abandoned wrecks to squat in." He had a thought. "Any beer? Booze?"
"No evidence of alcoholic beverages, though I found quite a few empty bottles of water and soda."
"Webber doesn't drink alcohol," Ray recalled.
"I see. Someone's been using the bathroom to, ah, relieve himself, though of course the toilet won't flush."
"That explains the aroma." Ray wrinkled his nose.
"So it would seem. He's been here recently. It's rather fresh."
Ray regarded his partner with disgust. "Clearly that's some new meaning of the word 'fresh.'"
His partner moved back to the bed. "Oh, dear. I think...hmmm."
Ray didn't really want to go near the bed again. "What?"
"I think whoever has been here has actually been lying on this bed. Look, see the shape disturbing the burn marks — and, wait a minute."
Ray closed his eyes for a moment as Fraser bent over to run his finger over the floor, and then sniffed what he'd touched. "What did you..." He swallowed. "What is it?"
"It's blood. Much fresher blood than the crime scene."
Kowalski's stomach rolled. The sudden ringing of his cell phone startled him, jolting his heart all over again. He fumbled for the button. "Yeah, what?" he panted. "What? Yeah, this is Detective Vecchio." He drew the phone away from his ear and held it out to Fraser. "It's your boss. She doesn't like the way I answer the phone."
Fraser took the phone. "Yes sir? No, I'm not. Yes sir, I was planning to. Right away, sir." He clicked the phone off and handed it back. "Ray, I'm afraid I've been recalled. We should let the Lieutenant know what we found here, so he can set up a stakeout."
"Yeah, right, right," Ray said absently.
"So, if you can give me a ride back to the Consulate—"
"No can do."
"No?" Fraser seemed puzzled.
"Look, could ya walk, Frase, just this once? I don't wanna leave—"
Ray's head jerked up. "No? You always walk. She in that much of a rush to 'prep' you again?"
"She is, yes, but that's not it."
"Well, what, then?"
"I'm not leaving you here."
Ray scoffed. "Come on."
"No," Fraser said firmly. "Call the Lieutenant, request a stakeout, and then we'll go. I will not leave you alone here, even if it's just for a few minutes."
He watched Kowalski's mobile face as he digested that statement. He wasn't being entirely candid with his friend. He knew, with crystal-clear certainty, that Ray Kowalski was more than likely to wait for Webber in the ruined building without calling the Lieutenant. And while there was no corresponding certainty that Marshall Webber had been occupying the place, Fraser was not about to trust to chance. "Go ahead, Ray, make the call."
Kowalski opened his mouth to protest, but there was a look in Fraser's eyes that made him close it again. He could argue til he was blue in the face - he could even punch Fraser in the jaw, but the stubborn Mountie wasn't going to let him stay here.
Ray hit a number on the speed dial.
He got through to Welsh quickly. "Listen, Boss, I think I found where Webber's been hiding out. I need some guys to stake out 2410 Ridder. You know, the place he carved up Alison Cara. Look, I know I wasn't supposed to...What?"
Fraser heard Kowalski take in a sharp breath. His eyes went to Ray's face, and he saw him lower his head and pinch his forehead between thumb and fingers. "When?" Ray was saying. Fraser could hear the buzz of Welsh's baritone through the phone, but it was too low to make out the words. Ray said nothing more, simply turned off the phone and stuck it in his pocket, His brow was deeply creased. Fraser waited. "They're sending a team here. I have to go." Ray started towards the exit, but Benton put a hand on his arm to stop him.
"Something's happened," Fraser said.
Ray looked at his friend with glittering eyes. "They just found Judge Owens' car on the service road to the airport. With two bodies in the trunk. The judge was shot through the eyes."
Fraser stared at him. "I thought Huey and Dewey were with them."
"They were following, but the chauffeur waved them off at the airport turnoff. And the Duck Boys left. They left, Frase!"
"No, you don't. None of us did. The second body, in the trunk, was in its underwear. The valet just identified it as the chauffeur. The real chauffeur." Ray's eyes were burning now. "Don't you see, Fraser? We were standing right next to him in that alley. Right next to him. We watched him drive away, and we didn't see him." He stared at Fraser, hollow-eyed. "We didn't see him coming."
He stripped off the black wig and moustache and tossed them into the dumpster on top of the visored cap. The jacket followed, and the tie. The white shirt had a small stain at the neck - a ring around the collar of rusty blood from the chauffeur's wound - and he unbuttoned it, unhurriedly, folded it neatly and dropped it over the side of the bin. The tee-shirt underneath was nondescript, and its presence made the gray pants ordinary, not recognizable as part of a uniform. The soft cap in his pocket went over his matted brown hair, and he was complete.
The alley by daylight was less shadowed, but it might as well have been pitch black. No one thought of looking for him here. They never looked; they never saw. Webber suppressed a laugh. Ten feet away from the dumpster he'd slit Donny Cohen's throat. He could see the remnants of the bloodstain on the pavement, yet now, here, he was invisible again. I showed you, Donny, didn't I? He lounged against another cop's car, slowly lighting a cigarette, smoke filtering up past his dark glasses as he watched the door. Petey...c'mon out and play. Let me play with you like they did with me at Joliet.
But the first person he recognized was not whom he expected. His eyes widened slightly as he took in the slight figure who paused on the stone steps to swipe messily at his nose with his left sleeve. Smiling slightly, the man in the sunglasses pushed off from the car and began to follow the other down the street.
Cubby DiSouza muttered to himself as he walked along. He was well and truly pissed at having to spend nearly an entire day with cops. That wasn't what parole was supposed to be about. It was supposed to be about avoiding cops and planning your next heist. That fucker, Spivak, he was a piece of work, getting in his face. The other one, screw him too, he'd made him talk about Webber, and the one thing he didn't ever want to think about again was Marshall Webber.
He pushed through the outside door of his tenement, and was reaching in his pocket for the key to the inside door when he felt someone enter behind him. He swivelled, unwilling ever again to turn his back, no way, not after years in the pen. The person was silhouetted against the door, and it took a second or so for his eyes to adjust enough to see who it was.
Cubby DiSouza thought he was going to faint.
Marshall Webber took off his sunglasses and smiled warmly at his former cellmate. "Well, hello there," he drawled. "Imagine seeing you here."
Fraser watched Ray speed away from the Consulate. The detective hadn't said a single word in the car and the silence left Fraser with an uncomfortable feeling that there was something he should have said, something more he should have done. He berated himself again for not noticing that something had been wrong in the service alley. He knew intellectually that it wasn't his fault, but even knowing that he could hardly be responsible for recognizing someone he'd never seen before, he was still angry at himself for letting the killer pull off his masquerade right in front of him. He watched the black car until it disappeared from view. No doubt Ray was beating himself up even harder right now.
Fraser dawdled on the sidewalk, not wanting to go into the building. He wanted to be in the car with his friend, but his actual sworn duty had a way of intruding on his desires. He turned and climbed the steps.
Inspector Thatcher was standing in the foyer, hands on hips, when he walked through the front door.
"Constable Fraser." Her voice was raspy with fury. "In my office." He followed her trim figure into the main office. Down the hall Diefenbaker glared at him, made a disparaging sound and with deliberation turned his furry tail towards him before sauntering away. "Some friend you are," Fraser muttered.
Thatcher's indignation was a palpable thing, and Fraser knew better than to confront her in this mood. Better just let her lead and try to follow where he could. He stood stiffly at attention, but it seemed to him that Thatcher's spine was even more ramrod straight than his. This did not bode well.
She stood before him, practically hissing with each word. "Do you know...do you understand the meaning of 'lunch?'"
"I...what?" This was hardly the opening statement he'd expected. He cleared his throat."I beg your pardon, Sir?"
"When you left this consulate at 11:46 this morning, Constable Fraser, did you not tell me you were just going out to lunch with Detective Vecchio?"
"Oh." Fraser stood at attention, but one finger instinctively reached up, wanting to connect with his eyebrow. He clenched his hand to stop it. "Well, Sir, I suppose I did...do that. I assure you I fully intended to return prior to—" He looked at his watch —"sixteen hundred hours. Ah, I see. My apologies, sir."
"Your apologies are not good enough, Constable." Thatcher moved into his space and Fraser blinked against the intensity of her glare. "Perhaps you have forgotten, Constable Fraser, that I am about to entrust this entire Consulate to you. Had you returned in a timely fashion, you would have learned that I will be leaving this evening instead of Wednesday morning."
Fraser could feel his face flush. "This evening, sir?" he parroted.
"Yes, it seems I am to give the keynote address at the conference."
"Well deserved, sir."
"Yes, thank you, Sir Hugh came down with a case of — That is not what I am talking to you about!" She breathed heavily several times. "Had you returned in an appropriate interval of time, or, even better, ignored your worst instincts and the promptings of your disreputable associate, and had you remained at your post as I asked you to do, you might have had the opportunity to learn and comprehend the rest of my instructions to you, vital instructions, I might add."
"But instead you spend the day racing around in that, that — death-wish-fulfilling metal macho machine that your reckless sidekick calls an automobile, wasting your time and mine, and as a result, abandoning your post!"
"Sir, we were investigating—"
"I don't care!" She slammed her fist on the desk, winced and flexed her fingers. "Had you done that, Constable Fraser, you would possibly have escaped the written reprimand that I am about to put in your personnel file." She swept a piece of paper off the desk and waved it under his nose. "Do you have any idea how disgraceful a report of dereliction of duty will look in your permanent record?"
Fraser had a strange sensation, one that he very rarely experienced. He realized that his flush, his discomfort, were not due to guilt, or embarrassment, but to the fact that he was becoming angry, very angry indeed. The thought fascinated him, even as he felt his control slipping. "Sir, if I might explain—"
She missed the edge in his voice. "There is no possible explanation that will satisfy me! Your responsibility is to this Consulate, to Canada, to the Queen, and dammit, Fraser, to me, not to the United States of America—"
"—not to the Chicago Police Department—"
"—and certainly not to some feckless idiot who can't solve his own cases—"
Thatcher's jaw dropped open. She made a slight strangled noise. "You—"
"I'm sorry sir, I had to."
"You...you called me Margaret." The slight note of wonder in her voice darkened. "That's insubordination!"
"Yes, yes, I know it is, but I needed your attention, Sir." Thatcher snarled. "You have it now, Constable." "Thank you Sir. I'm sorry, Sir, Inspector — Margaret, Sir—" He took a breath. "But you're wrong."
"Sir, my responsibility is to the Consulate and to Canada. But surely you would agree that my duty — our duty — first must be to protect those in need of help, whomever and wherever they may be. We are police officers. As members of the RCMP, do we not all have a motto that demands we 'Maintain the Right?' And if Right, and Justice, are being abused, if crimes are being committed and people are suffering, should we not make every attempt to stop the malefactors before they can hurt others?" He lowered his voice. "And as human beings, sir, don't we also have the duty, the obligation, to help our friends? Yes, I have made myself useful to Detective Vecchio, who may be reckless, not to mention a little unorthodox, but who is a fine policeman. But it's not just because criminals must be stopped. I help him because he is my friend. He needs my help, and I give it freely, give anything within my power, to help him. Know, Sir, that I would do the same for you. And if that's insubordination, so be it. But it is not dereliction of duty." Fraser exhaled. "Sir."
Thatcher's mouth had closed during Fraser's little speech. She let the silence grow for a few moments, and he chafed with discomfort, wondering if she were considering dismissal. Or suspension. Or locking him in chains and deporting him to Newfoundland.
"I see." Thatcher folded her arms. "That was quite a speech. Do you fancy yourself some sort of comic book hero?"
"No, of course not, Sir."
"Then you must think you are the only person in this city who can solve crimes."
"That's good, because if you thought so, it would be rather arrogant of you."
"I know, Sir. I've...been called that before."
He shifted uncomfortably, suddenly chagrined by his outburst.
She walked around her desk and sat in her chair, regarding him. "Nevertheless, Constable, I confess a certain...admiration for you."
Fraser blinked in surprise. "Sir?"
"I'm not heartless, Constable."
"I never thought you were. In fact—"
"I just fear that sometimes your impulses get in the way of your better judgment."
"No doubt they do, Sir. I'm sorry."
Thatcher sighed, deeply. "Fraser. I have to know that when I leave, you'll be here, and won't go running off somewhere. Right now I'm not convinced."
"You have my word, Sir."
"And are you now...finished with your little investigation?"
Fraser thought for a moment. Was there really anything else he could be doing? Half the Chicago PD was out looking for Marshall Webber. Perhaps it was arrogant and presumptuous of him to think he'd be the one to succeed where all others would fail. Others more familiar with Webber's habits were certain to find him in the end. The question was when that end might come.
"Yes, Sir, I am finished."
"Good." She stood up, the reprimand in hand, and tore it neatly in two. "My taxi is coming in an hour. In that time we have a lot to cover. I hope I can count on your undivided attention until then."
"Yes, sir, I'm all yours." Two sets of eyes shot up together. "That is...thank you, Sir."
"Don't thank me. Just follow my instructions."
"And no taking in strays while I'm gone."
"No Sir." There was a movement beside him and he felt a familiar wet nose bore into his hand. "Thank you for your belated seal of approval," he murmured to Diefenbaker as he moved toward the desk.
The whole thing was a fiasco.
At the murder site, Ray found a carnival atmosphere, with cops, feds, medical examiner and a remote TV crew all jockeying for position around the abandoned limo. Over by a police car, Detectives Huey and Dewey were getting new assholes ripped by the Lieutenant. Ray ignored them. If they survived Welsh, he planned to shred what remained of them.
He arrived just as the bodies were being loaded. From behind the medical technicians he could see the bloody remains of someone who undoubtedly was the chauffeur, and for a moment he thought he'd been wrong, this was the guy he'd seen opening the door for the Judge. He forced himself to take a closer look. No, despite the moustache and curly black hair, this was someone new. The chauffeur's neck had been sliced and copious amounts of blood stained his undershirt. Ray swallowed and turned away, unexpectedly coming face to face with the corpse of Judge Owens.
It was worse than he'd imagined, seeing someone whose eyes had been shot out. Gaping bloody wounds stared back at him, mocking him and his crappy police protection. Ray staggered back a step, nearly tripping on the tall grass, and turned away to gag. I will not puke, he told himself, and managed not to by the narrowest of margins.
He wiped a hand across his eyes and looked up to see Welsh glowering at him.
"This is fucked up, Detective."
"I know. I know." He dropped his head. "I don't know. I don't know how I didn't recognize him."
Welsh ignored him. "In fact, Vecchio, the fucked-upness of this mess is only compounded by the particular fucked-upness of my best detective."
That cranked up Ray's anger so much he missed the implied compliment. "Hey, I'm not the one who drove away and left Webber with Owens!" His head jerked toward the Duck Boys. "What the hell was wrong with them?" He hoped the two heard him loud and clear.
"If you figure that one out, Vecchio, let me know. But I'm not talking about them. Right now I'm remembering a little conversation we had this morning about you. I particularly remember telling you not to get involved in this. Do you remember that far back, Detective Vecchio, or does your brain suck as much as your shooting?" Before Ray could reply, Welsh pushed on. "What's the first thing you do when I tell you not to do something? Well, let's see - you go get Big Red and do exactly what I told you not to do! Then, then, I gotta hear from the One-Three that you're across town jamming some con about Webber. But that's not all. You mess with the Feds, go looking for a guy who wants to julienne you, without calling in or taking armed backup, and for the cherry on top, I get to field three calls from Princess Where-the-Hell's-my-Mountie!"
"Heh, good one, boss, 'Princess Where's—'" He trailed off at the look in Welsh's eye.
"I've had it, Vecchio," Welsh growled. "You're grounded."
"Grounded? What are you, my dad? I'm 'grounded'? Is this fucking high school?"
"More like kindergarten, looks like." Welsh poked a big finger into Ray's chest. "Go back to the station. There's a lot of paperwork I need cleaned up."
"Whoa, whoa, you can't—"
"Yes, I can, and yes I have. Go now, or keep on going and don't come back."
Marshall Webber wiped his hands on his handkerchief. The tenement door swung shut behind him as he stepped into the twilight. He scanned the street, but no one seemed to notice him. His invisibility was secure.
How easy it was to remain unseen! He believed that his sheer will made him invisible, though a part of him was clearly aware of the benefits of disguise and behavior that blended into one's surroundings. But in the part of him that might still be called a mind, he believed what he'd said back in the courtroom; they would not, could not, see him coming.
He glanced back at the building from which he'd emerged. The little man with the runny nose had been an unexpected wrinkle. The fool, to get picked up by the police, then to babble about his lawyer, to mention the ashes. He'd spilled out the entire interrogation to Webber, once he'd started applying the appropriate pressure.
It was too dangerous now to return to the hiding place, to the burnt apartment that was his special lair, where he could relive over and over again the joy and passion he'd experienced when he'd killed Alison-the-Bitch and been reborn in her blood as the superior being he was now. He'd been torn apart and reassembled that night, and now he had powers and strength he'd never imagined before. His new powers had kept him alive in prison; they made him invisible now. But he must revisit the font to keep from reverting to his lesser form.
He frowned a little. That lawyer, the bitch they'd sent him, who'd come to tell him the apartment was to be destroyed — he hated her almost as much as he hated the Assistant State's Attorney who'd prosecuted him. Women, all women. All bitches, each and every last one of them. He felt his hands clench and looked at them. There was still a little bit of blood under his thumbnail, where the little man's eye had bounced against his hand as he squeezed it out of its socket. Gently, delicately, he used the handkerchief until his hand was clean again.
I guess you won't spy on me any more, will you? A singsong rhyme played on his lips, but he held it in. After all, he didn't even recall the little man's name.
Kowalski sat sprawled at his desk in an attitude of stillness that was entirely bogus. Underneath the desk his right boot tapped out a staccato rhythm of annoyance, while above one finger traced endless circles against his temple as his jaw clenched and unclenched with frustration. He rubbed his tired eyes and pushed aside the papers he'd been pretending to read.
He glanced at his watch, squinted, and looked again, waiting until the numbers started to make sense. It was after 9:00, more than four hours after his shift had officially ended. He wasn't going to get any further on the seemingly endless mountain of paperwork tonight, not with the way the words kept swimming in front of him. His stomach was sour from too much bad coffee, and despite the addition of some stale pizza he'd found in the canteen fridge, noisy rumbles were drawing his attention to his growing hunger. He looked around to see if anyone was around with whom he could grab a bite. No one he felt like talking to. Maybe he should just get something to go and take it home.
He didn't really want to go home. He wasn't spooked by the prospect of Marshall Webber ambushing him; it was more that he had the feeling that too many things were being left undone.
Well, make that one thing, one very big thing.
He'd called Stella's office three times since returning to the station, and each time she'd refused to speak with him more than to say she had protection and would have more people at home watching out for her. The last time he'd tried her at home, and gotten her machine. It left him feeling unsettled and more than a little frustrated. Stella was too damn stubborn for her own good. Almost as stubborn as he was. No wonder they were divorced.
He looked around again. Damn, this was one of those times he could really use Fraser's company. But the Ice Queen had him sequestered in the Consulate and there was no way he was going to get time off for good behavior. Well, if Mohammed can't come to the mountain
He dialed a number he knew by heart.
"Canadian Consulate, Constable Benton Fra—"
"Yeah, yeah, yadda yadda. Fraser, listen, I was gonna grab something to eat and bring it over, so what do you want? Bark tea and moose droppings don't count."
On the other end of the line, Benton sighed. "Sorry, Ray, not this evening."
"What? You got a date there or something?" Ray chuckled, trying to imagine a universe in which the Mountie would invite a chick over with the housemother gone.
"Well, no, but I..."
"I promised Inspector Thatcher I wouldn't have unauthorized people in the Consulate during her absence."
"I'm not unauthorized. I'm your partner!"
"Well, Ray, not formally."
"I can't believe this."
"Sorry, Ray, I gave her my word."
"Yeah," Kowalski said with some heat. "And your word's more important than me."
"Not at all, Ray, I—"
Ray hung up.
In the Consulate, Benton Fraser looked at the receiver wordlessly. He'd been about to suggest they meet on the front steps to eat and talk - after all, that would obey the letter of Thatcher's instructions, if not her intent. But it was too late. His unofficial partner had already ended the call.
Ray grabbed his jacket and was out the door within thirty seconds after ending the call. His phone rang and he reached into his pocket and shut it off. If he sat around any longer he might end up sleeping in a cell, and that was just too pathetic to consider. Right now he felt abused, friendless and impotent. Darkening thoughts accompanied him as he made his way to the car, unlocked it and slid behind the wheel. Fine. He didn't need Fraser. I was a cop before I met him, and a damn good one, too. Who needs his fucking help, anyway? He revved up the car and peeled out, leaving rubber in his wake.
A while down the road he realized he had no destination consciously in mind. Fortunately his subconscious was working overtime to provide one.
Stella lived in a glass-fronted high rise, and as Ray pulled up outside it a liveried doorman hastened to the curb, to point out that he was in a no parking zone. Ray flashed his badge and bounded out of the car. He took two steps to the door before the doorman asked, "Shall I ring someone for you?"
Ray stopped in his tracks, pivoted and grabbed the doorman roughly. The man yelped and tried to pull away, but Ray held tight as he examined the man's face. A tense moment passed, then Ray let him go. "Just checking," he said, by way of explanation. The doorman retreated to his station, eager to get out of the detective's reach.
There was a big man sitting in a chair in the lobby he recognized from Stella's office, a security guard. The man didn't so much as look up as Ray stepped into the elevator. Great. Greatness. This was how people got killed by Marshall Webber.
He stepped out of the elevator. He knew the way to her apartment all too well. The fact that there was no guard outside the door did not improve his temper. He paused, gathering his thoughts before knocking.
A curly-haired man with a broken nose opened the door. It took him a moment to realize the man was a bodyguard, to squelch a sudden negative thought that this was Stella's current squeeze. "Yeah?"
"Kowalski, Two-Seven." He showed his badge. Dammit! After all this time he'd forgotten to say "Vecchio." Well, too late."Lemme talk to her."
"Kowalski?" The guard narrowed his eyes and smiled a knowing smile. "The ex, huh?"
"This ain't Jerry Springer. Just get her."
"Chill, man." The door closed again. Inside he could hear voices, one male and one female, and then the clear words, "Tell him to leave me alone." Ray's heart turned over. This was not good, not good at all. Didn't she understand he was there to check up on her, help her — protect her?
"What are you doing here?" She was there in the doorway, suddenly, indignant and flushed. She had no makeup on and was wearing sweat pants and a tee-shirt, her hair askew. She was frowning and had the look of murder in her eye.
God, she looked beautiful. "Hey, Stella."
"Go home, Ray."
"Don't be mad, I just wanted to make sure that—"
"What, Ray? That big strong you is here to protect little helpless me? Give it a rest, this act is getting old."
"Come on, it's not like that, it's—"
"It's what? It's you not trusting me to be smart enough to figure out how to protect myself?"
"Look, I was afraid—"
"Well, I'm not! Christ, Ray, you're smothering me, just like you used to do!"
"Puh-leeze. Get a hobby. Get a pet. Get a Mountie. Get out of my life. The dance is over."
The door slammed in his face.
He leaned his forehead against the door, trying to remember how to breathe. She doesn't even see me. I'm not really here. Invisible.
The security guard still sat in his chair, snoring now, as the blond man emerged from the elevator, shoulders hunched, and moved toward the exit. The doorman gave him a wide berth.
Ray got in his car, started the engine, then stopped it again. He didn't want to drive; driving helped him think and he didn't want to think about the vast emptiness inside him that had nothing to do with lack of food. He gave a final look toward the door and settled down in the seat to keep watch.
Ray made his entrance the next morning to the dissonant music of Welsh's voice. He tossed his jacket on his desk and veered to the right, heading to the Lieutenant's office. His back was sore from sitting against the door of his car all night and his neck seemed to fit awkwardly on his shoulders, creaking from the chill that had seeped in during the night. He felt out of sorts, tired and hungry, and he thought he probably smelled a little, too. He cracked his neck, then winced and rubbed it as he reached Welsh's office.
He stood in the doorway and rubbed his bleary eyes.
Welsh looked him up and down. "Detective Vecchio, would you be so kind as to close the door and take a seat."
Welsh's quiet, polite voice was far more ominous than his loudest bellow. Kowalski did as he was told.
Welsh stared at him for at least ten seconds before speaking. "Now then, Detective. Are you comfortable?"
Ray narrowed his eyes. OK, this was weird.
"Because I'm sure sitting in your car is not the most comfortable way to spend the night."
"Shut up. Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski was rather upset to find you outside her building this morning, particularly because she told you to scram last night."
"I can't believe she'd tell people..." Ray closed his eyes in embarrassment. When he opened them again Welsh was staring at him with folded arms in an attitude of extreme annoyance. Ray set his jaw."Yeah, okay, I was there. The guy they got to watch her was sleeping in the lobby! Anything could have—"
"I said shut up, and I mean it! Her office called here and have formally requested that you, let me see, how did they put it? Oh yeah—'keep the fuck away from her.'"
"That bunch of clowns—"
"It comes right from the top, which includes Ms. Kowalski." Ray was silent. "Do you like being a detective?"
"What, is that one of those ret, rhet, one of those questions where you don't want an ans—"
"I am this close to busting you, Vecch — aw, fuck it, Kowalski!" Outside the glass a few heads turned at the increase in decibel level.
"What did you expect, Lieutenant?" Ray was on his feet. "I can't help it that I'm worried about her!"
"I don't give a rat's ass about your feelings, and frankly, I don't care about hers, either. I do, however, get pissed off at not having my orders followed." Welsh twisted his mouth and banged a meaty fist on the desk "You think this is some sort of democracy, detective? Wrong! I give orders, you take them! I give, you take! Follow me?"
Ray glared, but nodded.
"This whole thing with your ex-wife has gotten out of hand. She's protected, and it's none of your goddam business how it's done. You need to spend more time worried about the job."
"Screw the job."
"Oh really? Do not push this." Welsh got up and came around the desk. "Listen to me, Kowalski — Ray. I haven't known you all that long, but it's long enough for me to know a couple things about you. One, you're mostly a good cop."
"Yeah, when your head ain't up your ass. Two, your head, the one that's up your ass, is made of granite so hard that evidently no new thoughts can enter. This is a problem. I have given you ample opportunities to do the right thing here, and so far I'm batting zero. I don't like batting zero, detective. In fact, I'm thinking of using a bat on your head. But I digress."
"'Digress.' Jeez, you talk like Fraser."
"So I'll go wash my mouth out with soap. You talked to him today?"
Ray shook his head. Truth was, his voice mail registered three calls from his erstwhile partner. Ray had no intention of listening to them.
"Why don't you go over there and hang out? He's a good influence on you."
"Don't want to."
Welsh's eyebrow quirked up. "Since when?"
"Since he told me I'm persona, ah, not gratis."
"Yeah, whatever." Ray shrugged. "Anyway, that's what I am over there."
"Kowalski. I find that hard to believe."
"Yeah, like I said, whatever." Ray shifted. "Ok, then. Anything else?" The look in his eye somehow managed to convey massive insubordination, though his face was expressionless.
Welsh set his jaw. "Detective—"
Whatever Welsh was about to say was interrupted by Jack Huey, who pushed the glass door open without knocking. Welsh stood up, ready to rake the intruder over the coals, but something in Huey's face made him keep silent.
"Lieutenant. Just got a call from a guy on foot post. Ray, you interviewed some dude named Cubby yesterday?"
"Yeah, Cubby DiSouza." He looked over at Welsh. "Webber's cell buddy." A tingle was starting in his scalp. "What about him?"
"He's dead, for one thing. Landlady just found him in a stairwell in his building."
"Tell me it was a heart attack."
"Nope. Got sliced up, bled out, looks like. And his eyes were, um..." Jack suddenly looked queasy. "...popped out."
"Christ in living color," Welsh grunted. He looked up to see Ray's eyes on his. "No. No. Before you say it, no. You stay here, understand me?" He grabbed his jacket off the hook and bolted the office.
"Lieutenant!" Ray tailed him out into the bullpen.
"Grounded, Vecchio," Welsh shot over his shoulder as he followed Huey. "Look it up if you don't know what it means."
Ray followed them in frustrated silence until they exited the building. Calmly, he turned away from the door, balled his hand into a fist and punched it savagely into a locker.
"Stop looking at me."
"No, I mean it, stop it at once."
"You have some nerve, you know, after how you've been treating me."
"Does the concept of 'alpha' mean anything to you? As in, I am the alpha male here?"
"All right, look at me all you want. You're just embarrassing yourself, you know, not me."
Benton Fraser glared at his half-wolf one last time, shook his head, and reached for a clipboard. He avoided looking back at Diefenbaker, but he could feel the animal's eyes on him, scornful, judgmental. He looked down the list and made checkmarks with a black pen next to each item. File reports. Check. Call Ottawa. Check. Locate art restorer to repair painting of the Prime Minister, check. Estimate next month's budget. Air out guest quarters. Check, check. Iron shirts. Check. Iron hat brim, check. Refill forms in front room, check. Sharpen pencils. Check. Order bathroom tissue. Check, check, check, check—
He frowned at the page. Missing from the list was Call 27th Division station. Check, call again, check, call again, check.
Talk to Ray.
Fraser tapped the pen against his teeth, putting into that small action the sum total of his frustration. Or, to be honest, his frustration and guilt.
Dief whuffed reproachfully. What, was Dief reading his mind now?
It wouldn't be the first time.
Fraser replaced the chipboard neatly on a corner of the desk, lining up the pen perpendicular to the edge. He silently surveyed the office from where he sat, noting that everything was in its place, flag, phone, chairs, sofa, rug. He stood and walked to the hallway, letting his eyes go to the front door for perhaps the hundredth time that day.
With a grimace he physically shook off his vague unease and crossed the hall to check the conference room that ran the entire length of the building. The long wood table gleamed, and every chair was in its appropriate place. He sighed, walked back to the tiny pantry and poured himself a cup of the tea that had been brewing a little too long in the plug-in teapot. The bitterness of it made his mouth purse a moment, and he scooped in sugar to make it drinkable. He took the mug with him, crossing the hall again by way of the passage under the service staircase, examined his own cramped office, checking his perfectly made-up cot, then completed the circuit past the office and into the front room, with its neatly arranged rows of chairs. Here people requiring assistance gathered, but currently the room was devoid of visitors. He looked out the bay window and sipped his tea thoughtfully. The sun was shining, glistening off cars and reflecting from the huge cross atop the church caddy-corner to the Consulate. All in all, a nice day. A day to be active. A day to be outside, working at what he did best.
Fraser rubbed an eyebrow and blew out the breath from his lungs, unable to shake the sense of being trapped. He was bored. He was unbelievably restless. He moved away from the window and sat down in one of the folding chairs.
He'd never thought it possible, but he actually missed Turnbull bumbling around the place. At least another person would've provided human conversation, bizarre as it might have been. And if only Inspector Thatcher - Meg - were here, his mind would be occupied trying to please her, or at least placate her. He found her more of a distraction than he let on, and her nit-picking manner with him, he knew, masked her own awareness of him. It was profoundly disturbing to both fear her and desire her. Ben wondered idly if that made him as masochistic as Ray with Stella.
Ray. Benton's brow wrinkled. That was really what was bothering him. Last night he knew Ray wanted to talk about this case that was pressing on him. And he, Benton Fraser, had obeyed the rules and angered his friend as a result. No, more than that, he'd disappointed him. Would the hot-tempered Kowalski ever call him back? Really, what was so important here that he couldn't have broken rules, bent protocol a little, and let Ray come over and talk? It seemed ludicrous now that he hadn't immediately said, sure, come on over. But he'd faltered, and the result was that he was shut up here without even a phone call from his friend to tell him what was going on. Diefenbaker whuffed from the doorway. "Yes, yes, go ahead, you were right, I was wrong," Fraser said. "I admit it."
"You know, son, that's not normal, talking to dogs. Dogs don't talk."
Fraser jumped at the sound of his father's voice. "As if it's normal to talk to dead people," he muttered.
"Well, there you are."
"So it would seem."
Bob Fraser leaned over the podium at the front of the room and regarded his son with narrowed eyes. "Something wrong, then?"
Benton snorted. "You mean, other than losing what may be left of my sanity?"
"I wouldn't worry about that."
"I'm sure you wouldn't."
"Of course not. I'm dead, it hardly matters any more. Well, except for Big Joe Yudway. He's crazier now than he ever was when he was alive, and I don't mind telling you he still scares the scat out of me."
Benton looked at him, unable to form a response.
"But go on, son. You were saying?"
"Did you ever..." Benton shifted and looked down at his hands. "Never mind."
"Did I what, son? Spit it out."
"Did you ever feel like your duty got in the way of what was really important?"
"Good Lord, duty is a fine thing, son. An honor."
"Yes, I know, I know it is. It's just that I think, sometimes...I use it as an excuse."
"Why would you do that?"
"Maybe...to stop myself from getting too close to people."
"You mean, like that fine Inspector who's always trying to get into your jodhpurs?"
"Well her, but also—"
"My goodness, Benton, you don't have to salute her all the time — try a little more 'at ease'— just take her in your arms and grab her—"
"Dad. Please." Benton shook his head in frustration. His father clearly did not understand the problem.
"You know," Bob said, shifting gears without warning, "once Stinky Renfrew and I were bringing a couple of smugglers back to the airport at Whitehorse for extradition to Juneau, when he got a tremendous case of foot fungus and couldn't go on. He asked me to help him get to the clinic, because he really couldn't walk on his own. But of course I had two prisoners and a plane to catch. It was my duty to bring them in. It was quite a conflict in my soul, help my partner or do my duty."
Benton stared at his father, once again struck speechless by the surrealism of the conversation. "And?" he managed.
"And nothing, son. Far as I know he never got that problem taken care of. Why do you think we called him 'Stinky?'"
"Thanks, Dad," Benton said, dripping sarcasm. "That really helps."
"Don't mention it."
"Believe me, I won't."
"All right, then." Bob got a faraway look on his face. "I always regretted it, you know."
The phone rang and Benton got up and crossed to the doorway. He turned back to look at his father, but Bob Fraser was gone.
The phone rang a second time before he reached the desk. "Canadian Consulate, Acting Liaison Officer Benton Fraser speaking —" Be Ray, his mind commanded the person on the other end.
He let out a disappointed breath. "Yes, yes, ma'am," Fraser said at length."We do celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada, but not when you do in the United States. No, it's not because we weren't invited to dinner with the Pilgrims..."
Ray paced the station like a caged cat.
Frannie Vecchio leaned back and watched him wear a path in the floor between his desk and the door. "Ray. Ray. Ray."
"Fraser rubbing off on you?" he groused, eyes still on the door.
"I wish." She leaned forward and pointed at him with her pencil. "Could you stop doing that? You're making me sea-sick."
"Too bad." Ray frowned at his pretend sister, but quit pacing and went to his desk. He flung himself into the seat and glowered at the mess.
Frannie considered Ray's posture and got up. She stood by his desk, but he didn't look up, and eventually she settled herself on the corner of it, smoothing her minuscule skirt as primly as if it were calf-length. "Ray."
"What, Frannie." He didn't even check out the expanse of thigh presenting itself to him. Frannie frowned. Usually Ray was good for an ogle or two, which kept her spirits up between Fraser sightings. "Wow, this must be serious."
"Leave it alone, Frannie. I have work to do."
"Oh, ha! Sure! And you're working really hard at not doing it, I see. You know, Ray, I know what's going on."
"You know, Welsh knows, everybody knows what's going on except me," Kowalski grumbled.
"Hey, I have eyes, 'bro.' And ears too, and frankly everyone around here—" she gestured around the bullpen "—knows you're stuck here because Welsh won't let you tag after your ex-wife."
Kowalski looked up, skewering her with his furious look. "Do not — do not go there, Frannie. I don't 'tag after her.' I'm trying to do my job, trying to protect her, and what part of this is your business, anyway?" He shoved her leg and she slid off the desk.
"Look, Ray," Francesca said, dropping the abrasive tone in her voice. "You're not my brother, but you're an incredible jerk all the same, just like he is, and I feel, I don't know—" She searched vainly for the words to express herself. "I just...don't like seeing you trail around after a bitch like Ms. Stella Kowalski."
"Don't call her that!"
"Why not? You do all the time."
"Yeah?" Ray's eyes glittered angrily at her. "Well, I can. She's my bitch. Wait. I mean—"
"No," Frannie said harshly. "That's the problem. She's not, and you don't realize it yet."
The phone rang and Frannie moved away. Ray's hand reached automatically for the receiver. Don't be Fraser, he commanded the person on the other end.
It wasn't. He felt strangely disappointed.
A woman's voice, high pitched and a little tight, spoke in his ear. "May I speak to someone working on the Marshall Webber case? Please?"
Kowalski perked up. "Uh, yeah. Yes. This is Detective Vecchio. I'm working on it. How can I help you?"
"This is Janice McCorkle. I was Marshall Webber's—"
"Lawyer," Ray finished. "I know. I remember."
"You remember? Were you involved in the case against him?"
Ray remembered in time that she knew him as Kowalski, and cursed silently. "Um, no, but I know all about it. You calling back about your visit to the prison before he escaped?"
There was a slight pause. "No, I just got that message. I was out of town yesterday. I was calling because...God, I don't know if I'm crazy—"
"What is it?"
"It's just - I thought I saw him this morning, on my street, and — Oh, I shouldn't say this, he was my client, but..."
Ray clenched the phone tightly. "You saw him? Near your place?"
"Yes, I think I did. I'm afraid of him. I hate to admit it, but he scares me, and I know I defended him, but he's not normal, not really—"
"Where are you? Right now?" Ray said, cutting her off.
"My apartment. Wayburn and Clemson. 321 Wayburn."
"Is there a neighbor, someone on your floor, you can go to right now?"
"No, no one."
"Doorman? Elevator operator?"
"No, it's not that big a building. You — you're scaring me, detective."
"Good. You should be scared. Stay scared, it could save your life. What's your apartment?"
"3B. Oh my God, oh my God."
"I'm coming over...I mean, I'm sending Ray Kowalski, remember him?"
"Sort of. Kind of a punk look? Weird hair? Obnoxious?"
"Yeah, that's him all right." Kowalski made an obscene gesture at the phone. "Just...lock your door and don't open it until I — he — gets there. Check your windows, too. Listen here's his cell phone number—" He barked the number at her and got up, reaching for his jacket. "Use it if you want to, or need to. He'll be there in—" he checked his watch "—ten minutes. You'll be okay."
"All right. Thanks. Thanks."
He cradled the phone and swivelled to accost Francesca. "Frannie! Call Welsh and Jack right now. Tell them 321 Wayburn, 3B, Janice McCorkle, Webber's lawyer. Webber may be in the vicinity." He turned for the door.
"Ray! Welsh told you to stay here!"
But he was already gone. Frannie shook her head and reached for the phone.
The phone rang on the Consulate desk.
Benton Fraser did not pick it up.
Four minutes earlier he'd opened the door to let Dief out and looked up at the sound of screeching brakes just in time to witness a fender bender directly in front of the Consulate. When the phone rang, he'd been in the street, trying to separate Mr. Ibrahim Al-Salel, cab driver, from Mr. Bedros Paradeghian, limo driver, while both shouted angry invectives at each other in languages Fraser could not begin to identify.
"Now, gentlemen, please, if you will just exchange driver's licenses and insurance information—"
The two motorists instead exchanged colorful phrases about parentage and national origin, and traded picturesque hand gestures. Merriment ensued.
It took Fraser eleven minutes to restore order, by which time a traffic patrol had arrived on the scene. He turned, called Dief, and returned to duty. He checked for messages, but there were none.
Ray glared at the phone. It had taken an argument with himself, much consideration and an realization that he really, really needed Fraser with him on this for him to give in and call the Consulate, even though he was still feeling angry and abused. He couldn't believe it; he'd finally, out of desperation, called Fraser, and nobody was home! Here he'd believed that Fraser was stuck at the Consulate, and evidently the Mountie had been shitting him. Well, that pretty much said it all about their so-called partnership. He disconnected without leaving a message.
His radio was spewing static at him. "Vecchio!"
"Yeah, I'm here."
"Do not go in there, Vecchio. Wait for backup!" The car radio distorted Welsh's voice but the words were clear enough.
"How far out is it?" Ray shouted into the mouthpiece.
"Just wait there. It's coming."
"Yeah, so's Christmas, Easter and my birthday." He glanced out the window as he pulled the GTO up to a hydrant. 321 Wayburn. He looked at his watch. It had been twelve minutes since he took the call from Janice McCorkle, and if Webber was, in fact, in the building, there wouldn't be much time.
"Do you hear me, Detective?"
Ray looked at the radio, then at the building, felt for the familiar bulk of his gun. "I'm just going to check the perimeter, that's all."
Welsh continued to rant, but Ray was out the door, his gun in his hand, his glasses already on, just in case, just in case—
He took inventory of his surroundings as he covered the distance across the sidewalk and strip of lawn: walkway around to rear of building, blank wall on building at left, garage across the street, two-story commercial building on right, furniture store at 5 o'clock, three floors of windows facing the street, two windows open, one front door
He pressed himself against the side of the building and made his way to the rear. Nothing, no one. The walkway dead-ended in a paved area with garbage cans, no rear escape from the property. The back door to the building was locked. No walkway on the other side. Ray retraced his steps, eyes darting left, right, up and down, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Just checking the perimeter, that's all I'm doing. He turned the corner to the front again, seeing his car, door still open. I'll just check the perimeter...
And then he was climbing the steps and going inside the front door.
His training, his orders, echoed in his head. Welsh's voice bellowed at him this was a huge mistake, bad procedure, don't go in there, detective — Danger, Will Robinson! But another, even stronger voice egged him on. I can't stand still and do nothing. Have to do something. If I can't protect Stella—
His feet were on the first floor landing.
He swept his gun around the hallway, a short hallway, one bend to the left at the end. No one lurked there. The place seemed empty. The second floor seemed the same, then an old woman suddenly exited her apartment, saw the gun, gasped, dropped a bag of garbage, scurried back inside, all before Ray could put up a placating hand. Her sudden appearance rattled his nerves; the normal hypersensitivity he felt in situations like these intensified to the point of discomfort. His skin prickled with the tension. His hair hurt. His foot fell on the stairs to the third floor.
He wheeled out of the stairwell, crossed the hallway, gun in front of him, moving to 3B and past it, checking the jog to the left in the hallway, the next staircase, then back. No one was wandering the hall, though he couldn't shake the feeling that someone could be watching through a peep hole. He banged on the door. "Ms. McCorkle?" He knocked again. "Janice McCorkle!"
"Yeah." Through the pounding of his heart he could hear a scrape as she pulled back the peephole cover. He stood still, waiting for her to recognize him, but his eyes kept darting towards the stairs. After an eternity, he heard a chain being removed and the door opened a crack. "It's me. Remember me?"
"Yes, yes, come in." She opened the door, casting a nervous glance at the hallway, and he stepped inside.
Now that he saw her, he remembered the tall, attractive black woman who had put on a pretty strong defense, considering her client came across like the psycho he was. In court she'd been supremely well put-together and unflappable even when her client threw tantrums. Now she was flapping, all right She seemed to be vibrating with nerves, and her disordered hair and jittery voice told him she was petrified. He put a calming hand on her arm and felt her shake. "You okay?"
"Yes." She took a deep breath. "I haven't seen him again. I watched you from the window. I saw you go around back."
"Yeah, well, that wasn't too smart. Keep away from the windows." Somewhere in the background he could hear a faint sound that he recognized as a siren. Good, good. "Stay here a minute." He let his gun lead him into each of the rooms of the small apartment; it was only a onebedroom, modest in size but done in pleasing furniture and soft colors, but he hardly noticed, focusing instead on opening closets and peering surreptitiously out the windows. The sirens were louder as he returned to the living room. Janice was literally wringing her hands. He didn't think he'd ever actually seen anyone do that before. "Listen," he said. "Have you had any contact with Webber since he went away?"
"I, I—" She was threatening to become hysterical, and Ray forced a quieter tone into his voice.
"Look, sit down and try to calm down. More cops are on the way, can you hear them?"
She tilted her head and listened. "Yes, I think I do."
He smiled at her. "Good. So it'll be okay, I promise."
"Okay, yes, thank you."
So, have you seen him or talked to him?"
"I went to the prison a couple of times, to deliver papers, once to tell him when the building was going to be torn down, you know, where he—" She coughed a little.
"Why did you tell him that?"
"He kept calling me and asking me, bugging me about it. I was just going to call him when I found out, but I also had to deliver some books to him he wanted. I didn't want to go, but I had promised."
"You didn't have to, you know."
"I know. But I confess I was glad he got convicted, and I guess I was a little guilty that I felt that way. Well, he totally freaked out on me, said it was my fault about the building." She shivered, holding herself. Ray put a hand on her shoulder. "I shouldn't tell you what he said, I mean, it was in confidence."
"I won't tell if you don't." Damn these lawyers, Ray thought.
He waited impatiently for her to finish the internal debate between saving her ass and facing the possibility of an ethics review. "He told me it was his 'birthing chamber.'"
"What does that mean?"
"He thinks he was reborn there, somehow."
"Like 'born again?'"
"Yes, in a way it was like talking to someone about a religious experience. Or about, what was that place Superman had, at the North Pole, or somewhere?"
North Pole? For a moment the only connection Ray could make to the frozen north was a certain Mountie. Then he remembered. "You mean, the 'Fortress of Solitude?'" He regarded her with new interest; she read comic books.
"Yes. Alison Cara's apartment is like that, in Webber's mind." She turned her face to him and he saw, again, how scared she was. "Detective, never in a million years did I think he'd ever get out."
"None of us did, don't feel bad." You won't see me coming. "So where did you see him? Today, I mean."
"Down the street, after I parked in my garage. I thought for a minute I saw him leaning against the wall of the furniture store across the street. I did a double take. When I looked back, he was gone. It was only for an instant, but I'm pretty sure. He was looking right at me, with that, you know, that look."
"Yeah," Ray said, feeling like shivering himself. "I know it. What was he wearing?"
"I'm not sure. Blue jeans, maybe? White shirt, maybe a tie? Honestly, I don't really remember, not once I saw his face." She was beginning to relax with him there. "Listen, Detective, thanks for coming. You're really great to do it, to come here."
"Guess I'm not too obnoxious, then," he murmured, and she looked up, startled, but he wasn't talking to her any more. He went to look out the window again. The sirens were right outside, and as he watched, two police vehicles pulled up onto the curb, spewing uniformed officers. Right behind them came Welsh and Huey, in Huey's Taurus with the red light on the dashboard. "You'll be okay now," Kowalski said.
There was a noise of pounding feet on the stairs and Ray crossed to the door to open it before some big cop foot kicked it in.
Suddenly the hallway and small apartment were flooded with blue uniforms. Ray held up his badge and holstered his gun so no smart-aleck looking for a promotion would decide he looked like a perp and take him out. He glanced back at Janice and grinned. "It's the whole damn cavalry." She smiled back wanly.
And then Ray was practically lifted off his feet as two huge hands grabbed him and dragged him into the next room, where he was slammed up against the wall so hard the air was driven out of his lungs. He staggered a little and reached for his gun, but one of the hands grabbed his and held it like a vise. He opened his mouth to shout and brought his head up to look into the scowling face of Harding Welsh.
He had the fleeting impression that steam was coming out of Welsh's ears like in some Disney cartoon of a charging bull, but his bony back hurt where he'd hit the wall and he was pissed off. "What the hell, Lieu—"
"Do not speak. Do not say anything! Do not make a sound. You listen to me, Kowalski, listen good! You've been running around like the CPD is throwing a goddam private party for you, and it's over. Over. You're lucky this turned out to be a false alarm, because I swear to Christ, if anyone had gotten hurt here, even you, I would kill you myself. I would bring you back from the dead and kill you again. I have never wanted to shoot someone as much as I want to shoot you right now, Kowalski!"
Welsh's rage was so palpable it blew all the words out of Ray's head, and he stood pressed against the wall devoid of thought. Behind Welsh he could see a faceless throng of police officers dealing with the situation, checking the building, talking into radios. Jack Huey seemed to have affixed himself to McCorkle's side and was speaking with her in a corner of the living room, though Janice's eyes were fixed on Ray and the Lieutenant. A uniform stood in the doorway, back to him, within listening distance, and Ray was sure at least several others were straining their ears to hear what was going on between him and Welsh. No doubt tomorrow the story would be all over Division 27, if not the whole CPD. He ignored the invasion of privacy and pulled himself together.
"Lieutenant," Ray began, "I had to make sure—"
"Shove it, Kowalski. I'm done with you." Welsh stepped back, releasing Ray's hand from his grip.
Ray's wrist tingled as sensation came back into it, and he sagged a little as he came off the wall. "'Done with me?' What the hell does that mean?"
"It means you are now, in addition to the Canadian Consulate, also persona non grata at the station."
"Don't come in. In fact, let me make it an order. Stay. Away. From. The. Station. Stay away from the detectives on the Webber case. Go to the target range and stay there until you pass the recertification test, at which time I will decide when — and if — I want you back in my division."
Ray's entire face went dark as he felt a storm rise inside him. "You think you can do that to me? Hell with that - what about Vecchio? You gonna pull me, and maybe get him killed?"
Welsh shot him a look full of contempt. "I replaced him once. I can do it again," he said icily.
Ray gaped at him
"The question, Kowalski, is what you want to be doing with the rest of your life." Welsh stared at him another moment. "The range. Now. Or do not pass Go, Do not collect your pension." The lieutenant shouldered past the uniform in the doorway and was gone.
Ray stood, stunned, as if a concussion grenade had gone off inside him. Then he was out the door himself, pushing though the police, uniforms a blur beside him, his face a mask, and he was descending the stairs and shutting himself up inside his car.
Upstairs, Huey was helping Janice McCorkle gather some things so she could be moved to a safe place until Webber's capture. There would be no mistakes this time; a number of uniformed patrolmen accompanied them as they moved downstairs and into Huey's car. Slowly the crowded apartment emptied out, the apartment building vacated except for a few officers left to question residents, and a couple on the street to canvass the neighborhood.
Marshall Webber adjusted the checkerboard-banded policeman's hat on his head, straightened his tie and left Janice McCorkle's apartment, closing the door behind him. A cop at the other end of the hall looked up and waved at him. "See ya."
"Maybe," Webber chuckled.
Or maybe not.
Ray was jostled out of the pit of deep, deep blackness by the friendly voice of the aging cop at the desk of the firing range. He looked up. "Uh, hi, Sammy."
"Back again, huh?"
"Yeah. Back again." The old cop raised a bushy eyebrow at Ray's tone but said nothing. Ray was wearing sunglasses, though it was pretty dark in the check-in area, and he couldn't see what was going on in the younger man's face. It didn't matter. In his time Sammy O'Shea had seen and heard every possible tone in a person's voice, and this one told him Ray was here to take out a shitload of frustrations on his poor paper adversary.
Sammy pushed the sign-in clipboard across the table, and Ray picked up the pen. R.- he scrawled, then paused. Who was he certifying for, Kowalski or Vecchio? Or was he Vecchio after all? Or both? He tightened his lips. Welsh had made it clear that the identity was fragile. Maybe the answer was "none of the above." Frowning, he finished the name anyway, underlining the V with a flourish.
"Take position 5. I'll set up the target. You tell me when you're ready to test, okay?"
Sammy went through a back door and Ray entered the active area. There was only one other cop there at the moment, in the first booth, and Ray nodded to him as he passed, then did a classic double-take, pulling off his shades. "Pete?"
Pete Spivak was looking at him, too, and removed his protective ear covering, scratching his red hair. "Whaddya know! Kowalski! Imagine that."
"Yeah, twice in two days. Amazing."
"Yeah," Ray said, bluffing it out, "just warming up."
Pete looked at him shrewdly. 'Uh-huh."
Ray held his gaze for a moment, then looked away. "Nah. I screwed up the test last time and have to re-certify."
"That bites. Hey, how come you're not out chasing Marshall Webber?"
"Screwed that up, too."
"Too bad, kid." Pete's voice had gone all paternal, which Ray had to smile at, despite his discomfort. "Well, so we'll do this, you'll pass your test, then we'll celebrate with a beer, whatcha say?" He patted Kowalski on the shoulder and left his hand there.
Ray nodded. Pete was Pete, and it made him feel better just hanging out with the guy. Pete was the right kind of partner - never dragging his ass into sinking boats, or facing criminals unarmed so Ray'd have to risk his own skinny neck. Not like — Ray pushed the thought of the Mountie away. "Sure. That would be great. I gotta ask, though, how come you're here? Just come by for some laughs?"
"Nah," Pete said. "Strangest thing. I got two months to go before I retire, and I get a call just now that I have to have an 'exit review' on my targets. Can you imagine? They never stop giving it to ya."
"Guess not," Ray said. "Does it have any effect on your pension? I mean, if you don't get a good score, they won't—"
"Not so far as I know." Pete laughed. "But don't worry about that, kid. I can still shoot rings around you."
"Yeah? We'll see. Loser buys the beers."
"You're on, Kowalski...or are you still Vecchio?"
Ray's smile faded a little. "Who knows?"
He went over to station 5 and set out his gun, ammo, stripped off his jacket and put on the ear protection. He got out his glasses, whatever good they were going to do him, and took a look down range. Sammy had set up the target already. Ray braced himself and took some practice shots.
Despite the protective earmuffs he could hear Pete firing from a few stations back. Another cop came in and set up down the far end, and soon another target waved to his left with the impact of bullets. Ray squinted at the black silhouette down range, willing it to focus sharply, but it wouldn't comply. Shit, he thought, and squeezed off a few rounds.
The volume level picked up considerably around him. Pete was punching out round after round, and the guy down the other end was seemingly massacring his paper target, and Ray set his jaw and went on. Heart, heart, center of the body, focus on the heart, not the head, focus — His concentration was so intense that he didn't notice Pete's gun had fallen silent, nor that the person on his left had stopped firing down range.
He reloaded and let loose at the target. Fuck this, Ray thought, as he set about venting everything he'd been carrying around with him for the past couple of days. Maybe it was the wrong frame of mind for trying to be accurate, but it felt good anyway. He thought for a moment about making Welsh the target, no, maybe Fraser, but he was kidding himself, because all he could see down there, sharper than the silhouette, was Webber, Webber, fucking Marshall Webber.
Something, a fly maybe, tickled his arm, and he batted it away, reloading and firing again. The fly was back, buzzing by his ear, but it wasn't a fly, was it, he knew that sound, and his hand came up to his ear and he could see a thin line of red creasing his arm where the fly had been and no, it wasn't a fly, someone was shooting at him, that was a bullet, what the hell is going on—
Another bullet burst by him into the wall and Ray was backing up, out of the booth, eyes searching for where the shots were coming from. Behind him, no, on the range; he caught a blur of blue and white behind the paper targets, and Christ, it's a cop! He fired two rounds in the general direction of the figure, but it was moving too fast.
Ray darted back into the area behind the booths, racing down to the first position — get Pete, we'll take this asshole down together, like old times. Adrenaline rushed through him, making the top of his head feel like it was about to pop off. His skin was bristling, like it had in the burned apartment building, like it had at Janice McCorkle's, and he knew, he knew it was Webber down at the end of the range, it was fucking Marshall Webber, dressed as a cop, invisible as water.
"Pete! Pete, for Chissakes, Webber's here, get out here—"
But Pete wasn't going to answer, he wasn't ever going to, and he wasn't ever going to buy another beer, because he had a hole in his head that brains were spilling out of, in fact half his fucking head was gone, but the earmuffs were still in place, and Ray thought that was really pretty fucking funny. The world turned itself inside out for a moment, and then nothing was funny, he felt like he was going to pass out, but he was moving, still moving, but tripping over Pete's outstretched hand, and he fell hard, his glasses flying off his face and sliding away. Then Ray was sliding too, into the wooden partition, smacking into it with a loud oof! He struggled to stand up, gun still in his hand, looking for a sign of movement—
Wood exploded next to him in a shower of splinters as a bullet connected and Ray barely had time to register the sight and sound of it when the powdery splinters hit his eyes and sent him into a world engulfed by waves of pain, agonizing pain that radiated from his eyes through his brain and into his gut. He retched and dropped his weapon and sank to his knees, pawing at his eyes. He wanted to pass out but the pain was too much, red-hot and sharp and intolerable. He heard movement behind him feet, voices, but could do nothing, nothing but curl into a ball and lay there, panting and blinded, moaning my eyes my eyes my eyes
"—one dead over here—"
"—looked like a cop, had ID, didn't know, I didn't know—"
Taste of sawdust
"—guy's Vecchio, Ray—"
"—you open your eyes, sir?—"
Fabric. Clutching. Fingers slippery
"—okay, sir, it's okay—"
Pain, pain, pain
"Canadian Consulate, Acting Liaison Officer Benton Fraser Oh, Lieutenant Welsh, how are you —"
Benton froze, the color draining from his face.
He barreled through the automatic doors of the Emergency Room. It had been a bad day in Chicago, evidently. All around people sprawled or hunched in chairs, wandered aimlessly or leaned against the walls and counters in distress. Harried medical staffers in rubber-soled shoes wove through the crowd, evading some, helping others. There was a steady thrum of moaning, talking, laughter, complaining, crying, equipment buzzing, elevator dinging, news blaring from the ancient television in the waiting area. Fraser paused in the midst of chaos, frozen by the acrid odors of medicine and human suffering and the sudden rush of memory. He closed his eyes and felt, for the first time in many months, a twinge in his back.
He shook himself free of the sensation. This wasn't about him, not this time. Slowly he swivelled, peering into the sea of faces, seeking a familiar one.
It was a voice that caught his attention. His sharp hearing picked up the low rumble of Harding Welsh, and he turned towards the voice, threading his way through the crowd until he saw the Lieutenant against the wall, talking to a nurse. As he approached the woman patted Welsh's arm and walked away.
"How long have you been here?"
Welsh crumpled the empty coffee cup in his hand and chucked it at a garbage receptacle. "Since about six. It happened around five."
"You've been here three hours?" Welsh nodded. "Why didn't you call me sooner?"
Welsh looked at the Mountie appraisingly. "It was my understanding you and Vecchio had a falling out. I wasn't sure if he'd want you here...or if you'd want to come." He regarded the other man, trying to read Fraser's expression. "Then I decided it didn't matter what either of you wanted. You should be here."
"Yes, I should," Fraser said quietly. "Thank you for calling me. What happened, exactly?"
Welsh shook his head. "Frankly, we're just piecing it together. Ray went to the firing range and some sort of attack happened, we think Marshall Webber. There was gunfire, another cop was killed."
"Detective Spivak, from the—"
"Ray's former partner. I met him yesterday." Fraser frowned. "Were they planning to meet there?"
"I doubt it." Welsh looked away for a moment. "I...ordered Vecchio down there, sort of spur of the moment. We were on a call — someone thought they saw Webber. Actually, Ray crashed the party, and I got pissed at him. You know how he does that to me."
"Yes, sir, I do. You get that little vein throbbing in your temple—"
"You're very observant, Constable Fraser."
"I'm sorry, sir. I really can't help it."
"I'm sure you can't. Anyway, as far as Pete Spivak goes, his lieutenant says he took a call ordering the detective to the range late this afternoon. From what we can assume now, it was a set-up. The call to Spivak came after I sent Ray to the range."
"But..." Fraser looked perplexed. "How could Webber have known Ray was going there?"
"That's what we all want to know. We think he was at the incident site and followed him there...or maybe was close enough to hear me give Vecchio the order."
"How could he have gotten that close?"
"That's the million dollar question, Constable. Maybe we all need our eyes checked." Welsh sighed and pushed himself further into the corner, looking glum.
Fraser considered the information, but his mind was on the more pressing issue. "When you called, you said Ray had been hit, but not by a bullet."
"Just a crease on the arm. But he got wood splinters in his eyes when a bullet hit too close to him. He was in a lot of pain, but I don't know how serious it is. That nurse said they had an ophthalmologist looking at him. A corneal specialist." Welsh looked towards a door marked No Admittance. "I haven't heard anything else."
"But he wasn't shot." Fraser let out a relieved breath. All the way over here in the taxi he'd imagined scenarios that involved copious amounts of bloodshed.
"No, he went down just as some other cops came in. They heard the noise and called the EMTs and the guy at the desk called me. Webber, if it was him, beat it out the fire exit. I think Ray was mostly stunned, and of course it must hurt like hell. They had to give him a stiff shot to make him get his hands away from his eyes. He was pretty out of it when they brought him in."
Fraser rolled his hat brim in his hand. "Ray was right about this Webber. No one sees him. No one knows where to look."
"True enough. But none of this would have happened if Vecchio wasn't such a hothead." He frowned. "Or if I weren't such a horse's ass."
Fraser looked at Welsh with bleak eyes. "I think if I..." Welsh raised an eyebrow, but Fraser shook his head. "I could have stopped this, I think, or at least protected—"
"Now you sound like your partner, Constable. Don't make the mistake of blaming yourself."
They passed a moment in silence.
"Listen, Fraser - if they release him, can you...take charge of him tonight? Tomorrow we can arrange for an aide, or something, but it's so late—"
"Would the Consulate be all right?"
Welsh considered this. "Yeah, I guess so, though he may not like it. Well...you can argue with him, Constable. I doubt he's gonna want me talking to him tonight. Oh, listen — one of the guys brought over your partner's car. I told him you could use it, and I'm sure Ray'll want to know where it is."
"You were certain I'd do this."
Welsh smiled faintly. "I am never wrong, Constable. Haven't you learned that yet?" Fraser nodded. "Here are the keys. It's in the No Parking zone out front."
"Was that judicious? I hope it hasn't been ticketed, sir."
"If it is, someone will have their ticket pad shoved up their—"
"Very vivid, sir."
"Listen, Fraser, now that you're here I feel better about leaving him. I have got to go back to the station and head up the search. We can't let Webber keep getting away, and right now Huey's in charge, which does not fill me with confidence, considering what went down with Judge Owens."
"Good, good. But if he needs anything, you call me. Anything, you understand?"
Welsh cast one more uncertain look at the door to the inner sanctum, sighed again and pushed off from the wall. "Anything, you call me, Constable."
Time passed with excruciating slowness. Fraser moved to an open chair and sat stiffly watching the inner door. It was hard not to give in to the impulse to push through the door and find out for himself what condition Ray was in. He gritted his teeth. Patience, Benton.
The thought made him smile. Ray, habitually impatient, no doubt would find his friend's current agitation amusing.
Eventually he relaxed, leafing through the closest magazine (one with an agreeable picture of a singer named "Beyonce" on the cover). He found it hard to concentrate, and the pictures of her skimpy costumes made him somewhat uncomfortable. He restored the magazine to its place and leaned back.
He tried not to think about how he was abandoning his post, and the part of him that was fatalistic fully expected that Inspector Thatcher had chosen the occasion of his absence to call and check up on him. Oh well. There was nothing he could do about it. Some things were more important. His partner's life, for example.
He closed his eyes.
He must have dozed off, for when he opened them again and checked his watch, an hour had passed. Benton got up and went in search of a water fountain. He was coming back to the chairs when he saw the nurse emerge from the restricted area.
"Pardon me, I wondered about Ray, Detective Vecchio—"
"I was talking to a Lieutenant Welsh."
"He had to go. I'm Ray's partner, Constable Benton Fraser, R.C.M.P."
The nurse looked at his uniform with frank curiosity. "I see. Well, he's on his way out. They're almost done."
"How is he?"
"I'll get the doctor to talk with you." She disappeared through the door again, and after an eternity that probably only lasted a few minutes, a man in scrubs came out and called his name.
"I'm Constable Fraser, sir."
"Very perceptive, sir. How is Detective Vecchio, Dr.—"
"Speaker. There was a shallow cut on his right forearm, which didn't require stitches. The detective sustained corneal abrasions in both eyes, with a partial tear in the right eye. I repaired it for now, though he might need surgery later. I noticed he suffers from kerataconus."
"Oh, dear." Fraser flipped through his mental file cabinet, but couldn't remember ever hearing the word before.
The doctor smiled. "Don't worry, it's not serious. It's a common disorder, genetic. It only means his corneas are a bit misshapen. Causes distortion, astigmatism. He's probably been getting worse since his twenties."
"He wears very thick eyeglasses. Well, when he chooses to wear them, which is rarely, probably because he thinks women might—"
"We can correct it with special contact lenses or a corneal transplant—" Dr. Speaker put up a hand before Fraser could interrupt again. "—which is also not as big a deal as you may think. But that's at a later date, if at all. Right now his vision will be blurry for a few weeks, and he'll have some discomfort, but there's nothing to worry about."
Fraser relaxed noticeably. "Are you admitting him?"
Dr. Speaker shrugged. "No reason to. He's fine, except that I've bandaged his eyes, and they should be kept covered for a day or two. I have an office here at the hospital, and he should come by in about three days, so I can see how he's progressing. Are you the person who'll be taking care of him?"
"All right. He already has a prescription for Tylenol with codeine to relieve some of the discomfort. If it doesn't work, call me and we'll change it. Other than that, keep the coverings on, no strenuous exercise, no rubbing his eyes." He smiled conspiratorially. "Good luck with that one. Your partner is a little groggy, but he's been a royal pain in the—"
"—No need to tell me, Doctor."
As if on cue, the door opened and the nurse appeared again, pushing Ray in a wheelchair. White gauze pads were taped across his eyes, but Fraser was overwhelmed by the simple fact Ray was alive.
The doctor nodded to Fraser. "Nice meeting you. So long, Detective Vecchio. I'll see you in a few days."
Ray didn't say anything. It was unnerving not to be able to see his vividly expressive eyes, Fraser realized. With bandages covering them, he seemed to be wearing a mask.
Ray seemed startled. He turned his head at Fraser's voice. "You," he said after a pause. "That's you, right, Fraser?" There was a hint of incredulity in his voice.
The nurse patted Ray on the shoulder. "End of the ride, cowboy. Or do you want me to wheel you to the curb?"
"No, I'll walk." Ray stood up a little shakily.
The nurse patted him again. "So long. Take care."
"Here, let me take your arm." Benton wrapped his fingers around Kowalski's biceps, but the arm quickly was pulled away.
Ray's lip curled. "I can walk. I'm not a fucking invalid, and I don't need a guide dog!"
"Of course not."
They had stopped dead. Ray jammed his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, and Benton realized for the first time that Ray was wearing the top half of a pair of hospital scrubs. "What happened to your shirt?"
"It had Pete's brains on it," Ray said in a flat voice.
"I'm sorry." He put his hand on Ray's shoulder, but again Ray shook off the touch.
"Just tell me — what are you doing here, Fraser?" He twisted his mouth. "Does the Ice Queen know you're out?"
"I'm taking you to the Consulate."
"Just take me home."
"You can't stay alone in your apartment."
"I have other places I can stay."
"—are visiting friends in Florida. Do not, I repeat, do not call them, Fraser, understand me? I don't want them to worry."
"Where, then? How about Francesca?"
"No, God, no. Jeez. I'd be dead by tomorrow. Or wish I was."
Pause. He's thinking of calling Stella, Fraser realized. "Ray?"
"Fine. The Consulate." He sounded weary.
"Good. I'm sorry, Ray, but in the interests of expediency it will be easiest if I lead you. Is that all right?"
Ray shrugged. "Whatever. Lead on, Macduff."
"You know," Fraser said, taking Ray's arm again and this time meeting no resistance, "not many people realize that the actual line from Macbeth is in fact 'lay on, Macduff,' meaning that Macbeth is ready to face single combat with Macduff, and fight him to the death."
Ray said nothing, not even a smart-ass remark. They walked in silence out the emergency doors.
"Here we are." Benton frowned as he realized his voice was a little overly cheerful, and a little too loud, the kind of voice you use when you talk to children or sick people. Or the blind. That's no good, he thought, Ray will hate that. They had reached the GTO and Fraser released Ray's arm to unlock the passenger door. "Watch your head."
Ray felt the hand on his head."Right. Make me feel like a perp." He bent down and felt his way in.
Fraser came around the driver's side and got into the car. Ray's forehead was scrunched in concentration, and he took several deep sniffs. "Wait a second." His hands groped in front of him until they connected with the dashboard bar. "This is my car."
"Very good, Ray!" Fraser reached over and clapped him on the shoulder. Ray jumped. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." Ray's mouth was a thin line. "You see, your other senses are weighing in to help you out."
Ray didn't seem pleased. "Who said you could drive it?"
"Would you like the keys?"
"Fine, Fraser. Go ahead and be sarcastic. You drive. I'll just sit over here being blind." He slumped a little more into the seat. "Ray Kowalski, world champion blind guy."
"The doctor assured me that this is temporary, and your vision will return to normal. And he has ideas of how to make it even better in the future."
"We'll see." Ray bit his lip. "Huh, 'see.' Funny, Kowalski." He didn't make it sound funny to him at all.
"I'm sure you will, Ray. Just give it time." He started the car and looked at his partner again. Kowalski was feeling his eyes through the bandage. "Don't do that."
"Well, don't touch them."
"You're worse than my mother."
"She seems a sensible person."
"Pain in my butt."
"There's always Francesca—"
"Shut up and drive." Ray turned his face to the passenger window, ending conversation. All Fraser could see of his friend was the edge of the gauze and his pale hair blowing as air rushed through the half-opened window. Benton wondered what it must feel like to drive in a car when you couldn't see where you were going. Claustrophobic, possibly. No doubt it was doubly hell for Ray, who didn't like to be a passenger under the best of circumstances.
He parked the car carefully at the curb in front of the building, came around again and helped Ray out, then steered him up the few steps and into the Consulate.
"I fucking hate not being able to see."
They were sitting in the front office, Fraser in the straight-backed desk chair, Ray sprawling on Thatcher's couch. Ray's boots, jacket and holster were near the desk. Fraser sipped strong tea, while Ray ignored the cup on the table next to him.
"Try not to worry."
"You try not worrying that your eyesight will be permanently damaged, and that you'll have to go on disability—"
"—end up flying a desk, or some dead end—"
"—boring job, or sitting with Dief on a street corner, selling pencils..." He paused. "Well, where is it?"
"Where is what?"
"I'm waiting for another 'Ray.' You're fucking predictable, Fraser, don't start improvising on me now."
"All right. 'Ray.'"
"Better." He settled further into the sofa, raw-nerved and depressed. He was no longer stonewalling, but he was far from his usual self. His finger kept tapping on the arm rest, and his face, what Fraser could see of it, was drawn. Despite the banter, Ray looked defeated.
Fraser considered him. It must be galling, he thought, to feel helpless when all you want to do is rescue the maiden and kick the evildoer in the head. "I know it's frustrating to be in this situation."
"You 'know.'" He toyed with the bandage on his right forearm.
"All right, I don't know. But you really have to trust Welsh and the others. After everything that's happened, they're taking the threat to your ex-wife seriously, Ray, so you should relax and try to get some rest."
Ray shook his head impatiently, then put up a hand to his eyes. Movement hurt.
"It's not just about Stella, Fraser. Not completely."
"What is it, then?"
Ray released a breath. "I don't know if you can understand this."
"I know that. I know that. I know you will. It's just — you never lost a partner, did you?"
"Well, I guess in a way I lost Ray Vecchio...the first one, I mean."
There was a pause, and Fraser wondered if somehow he had insulted the man in front of him. But in a moment Ray continued. "Yeah, I guess you did. But it's not the same, not really. Not like when a partner dies on you." Ray swallowed. Fraser waited. "And now, now, I got two of 'em. Donny and Pete, bam, bam! Both dead. Pete, he wasn't just a partner, he was like a—" Ray stopped.
"Like a what, Ray?"
"Don't know. Was gonna say like a dad, but I don't mean that, not really. There to show me the ropes, teach me all his tricks, listen to me whine when Stella was killing me — do you understand what I mean?"
"I think I do. You looked up to him, and he looked out for you."
Fraser pondered what Ray was saying. Was there a hint of reproach to him in the words, because he didn't give Ray advice, at least not very useful advice, particularly where Stella was concerned? But Ray was speaking again, and he forced aside his own worries.
"And Donny Cohen, well Donny..." Ray's grin flashed as he remembered. "He was a crazy man, you know, always kidding around, kinda wild. We were quite a team."
"I can only imagine."
"Not in your wildest dreams. He made me look normal."
"Good heavens, there's a thought."
"Yeah. Yeah." Ray sighed. "Donny was like a brother, kinda. Like an annoying kid brother. Or my evil, nutty twin. But I loved him, you know?"
"Yes. I do."
"Yes, I think I do, Ray."
"Good, that's good, Frase." Ray sounded relieved. "Sometimes I didn't see either of them for months, especially after I took this assignment. It was tough getting together, making time. It's just, it's just I can't believe — I can't believe they were both here, and now they're gone, dead, I'll never get to talk to them again." He swallowed again, his mouth working.
Fraser said nothing, waiting, and after rather a long time, Ray turned his head a little in his direction, and he could almost believe Ray was looking at him through the layers of cotton and gauze. "So...you and me—"
"Are we okay, now, Fraser?"
"Yes, we're okay."
"Good." Pause. "Frase?"
"Don't ever die, okay?"
"I promise, Ray."
"Okay. Okay, then." Ray relaxed back against the leather. "Eyes hurt."
"Maybe you should try to sleep." Ray didn't reply, just nodded wearily. Fraser stood up. "I'd give you my cot, but I'm afraid you might bump into something and hurt yourself if you tried to find the bathroom in the middle of the night. And the bedroom upstairs is, well—"
Ray smiled. "I know, what if the Queen shows up and needs a place to crash. No, the couch is fine, great. Comfy."
"Say, you and the Ice Queen ever 'prep' each other on this couch?"
"Because if you did, I might need a damp cloth or something to wipe—"
"Are you on drugs?" Fraser asked with exasperation.
"Right. I'll get you a blanket." Ray unbuttoned his jeans and made himself comfortable, listening to Fraser's footsteps as they faded down the hall. The sense of isolation was almost physical; he waited nervously until he heard the steps return. He felt a rush of wind as Fraser unfurled a blanket above him, then a soft warmth as it was draped it over him. "Do you want to use the bathroom?"
"Nah, I'm good."
"All right. If you need it, just follow the wall to your left and you'll find it. Or call me. I can get you a glass of water now if—"
"No, I'm great, Fraser. Thanks. I just want to sleep. I think the painkillers are kicking in again."
"Good. If you need anything—"
"I know, just shout."
"Right." Fraser crossed to the desk and turned off the lamp, more as a symbol of bedtime than to dim the light for Ray, who couldn't see it in any case. "Come on, Dief." There was a pause, a gentle rrrruff, then, "All right then, if you insist on it, you may stay with Ray." The wolf whined happily. "Ingrate."
"Hey, Frase..." Ray pulled himself up again, and tilted his head towards Fraser's voice. "I just want to...look, I know you're breaking the rules, having me here—"
"You're my friend, Ray," Fraser said with some intensity. "The hell with the rules."
Ray cocked his head.. "Wow. Profanity." He couldn't say more, because he felt suddenly, absurdly touched, and was afraid his voice would betray him.
"Good night, Ray."
Fraser stepped into the hall, leaving the door open, snapped off the hall lights and started towards his office.
On the floor next to the couch, Diefenbaker yawned.
Ray was drifting away on a codeine-powered dream flight when the phone shattered his serenity. He bolted upright, not sure where he was, thinking he should get up, stop the noise, do something, but even as he fumbled groggily with the blanket and tried to get his legs under him, he heard someone come into the room and cross swiftly to the desk where the phone jangled relentlessly. "Hello, Canadian Consulate," Fraser was saying in a stage whisper, clearing his throat before going on. "Constable Benton — oh, well he's...no, he's awake, I see. Whom shall I say — all right, one moment."
Ray struggled to get his muzzy brain in gear. "For me?" His voice sounded thick.
"Yes, an Officer Newly."
"No idea. Do you want me to take it?"
"No. No. I'm awake." He pushed on the seat to leverage himself up, and felt Fraser's hand grasp his upper arm. "Thanks." The receiver was pressed into his hand. "Hello. Officer Newly?"
"Well," a voice rasped, "newly an officer. Hi, Ray. Know who this is?"
"Who—" Ray's body understood before his brain did. His pulse began to race and his breath tightened as if he were strangling. "Who is this?"
"Ray, Ray. Go away. Marshall wants to play and play."
"Webber," Ray breathed hoarsely. "What do you want? What do you want, you freakin' psycho?"
He felt rather than heard Fraser move next to him, then Fraser's hand was on the receiver, too, and the Mountie's ear was pressed to the other side of the earpiece. "Sorry, Ray, sorry I missed you, know what I mean? Close only counts in Horseshoes."
"You sick fuck!"
"Just wanted to wish you a speedy recovery. Meanwhile, while you're laid up, me and your old lady are going to spend a little quality time together."
Adrenaline sliced through him, jolting the drugs out of his system. "Webber! If you—"
"She got home, oh, half an hour ago. Her guards are both downstairs. She's all alone right now." The low voice chuckled. "She'll never see me coming, Ray. No one sees me. It'll be easy. I'll give her one for you, shall I? The unkindest cut of all, like how she cut out your heart. Stella wasn't very nice to you, Ray. Those bitches are all alike. Maybe, maybe I'll cut out her heart and give it to you. Would you like that?"
"Webber!" He was shouting now, cold sweat beading up on his forehead, in his armpits, his eyes throbbing under the gauze. "I'll kill you if you fucking touch her! Do you hear me, you fucking psychopath! I'll kill you!"
"No, Ray, I don't think you will. But if you try, who knows? You might just get here in time. Whaddya say, Ray? Race ya. Well, look at the time. Gotta go."
"Webber! Webber!" But the phone was silent in his hand. Ray spun toward Fraser, holding out the receiver. "Call her! Call her and tell her to get out, that we're coming, let me find my boots and we'll—"
"No, no, Ray, you call her, I'll go."
"No way, Frase! I'm going!" He dropped the receiver, turned and staggered, tripping over Dief.
"And do what, exactly?" Fraser's hands gripped his arms, steadying him. "What can you do like this? Bang into the wall, fall off her terrace, walk into Webber's knife?" Fraser's voice was forceful; worse, Ray knew he was right. He couldn't help Stella, not in this state, not when he couldn't help himself.
"Fraser, I can't just stay behind—"
"You have to. I can't protect her while I'm looking out for you."
Ray felt his cellphone being put into his hand, and his thumb instinctively sought out the speed button. He heard the jingle of keys.
"Call her. I'm taking your car."
"And call Welsh."
"Drive fast. Break speed limits. Run red lights."
"Understood." The Mountie's footsteps moved to the doorway. "Stay."
"Okay, I will."
"I was talking to Dief."
"Right. Just go, Fraser," Ray pleaded, pressing the button on the phone. He heard the door open, felt the draft, registered the slam of the heavy wood. The phone was ringing. "Come on, come on, come on—"
"Hello—" Her voice, her voice.
"Stella! It's Ray! Don't hang up! Webber is on his way to kill you! Call—"
"This is Stella Kowalski. I am unable to come to the phone right now—" Shit! Shit! Her answering machine. She wasn't there! "But if you leave a message, I will call you back. Sooner or later." Ray's temples throbbed as he waited for the beep.
Beeeep. "Stella, it's Ray, you—" Click.
Click? What the fuck? Either I've been disconnected or her message tape is full. Yeah, that could be it. Or someone cut the line — No, no, don't think that. Wait, maybe she's at the office. "What time is it?" Ray mumbled to himself, instinctively lifting his left wrist to look at the watch he couldn't see. "Dammit. Office—" He felt for the button, pressed it.
"You've reached the office of Assistant State's Attorney Stella—"
Not there! Christ, where was she? He called the apartment number again.
Message. Beeep. "Stella, pick up—" Click. Shit, shit shit—
Twice more and he hurled the useless phone across the room where it banged into the framed picture of the Canadian flag, and bounced onto the hardwood floor. Ray backed up until he felt the couch behind his knees and lowered himself, dropping his throbbing head into his hands. Diefenbaker whined and licked his nose.
Fraser, Ray thought. Save her, for God's sake, save her.
There was something about Ray's car that invited you to jam your foot on the accelerator and throw caution to the wind. Before, on the few occasions he'd driven it, Fraser had been deliberately careful, with Ray watching him like a vulture. Funny; Ray had always seemed exasperated that he drove so slowly, but he suspected the detective would have had a stroke if Fraser had simply gunned it.
Like he always secretly wanted to.
Well, now he had an excuse, not that it mattered at the moment. He floored the gas.
It was after midnight, and the drive to Stella Kowalski's building took only a few minutes because traffic had thinned out to a mere trickle. Fraser squealed up to the curb, dashed out of the car and ran inside.
He waved away the doorman — the man was happy to avoid him, having been shoved up against a wall the night before — and he caught an elevator, pressing the button to her floor.
Stella's apartment was the end one, affording her windows on three sides — a luxury apartment that no doubt was paid for by her private wealth, rather than just her government salary. Fraser didn't know much about Stella except what he'd learned from Ray. He wondered, as he approached her apartment, if Ray had had to pay her alimony.
He wondered what the straw had been that drove her and his partner to separate.
He wondered if they really were separate.
Pointless thoughts, mental babbling. Better concentrate on saving her life.
He listened quietly to the door, hearing nothing. Was Webber inside? Had he killed her already? Or was he lurking in her apartment? Or in the building? Fraser got a prickle on his neck and swivelled. Nothing, the hallway was empty.
There was a noise inside. "Well, little lady, looks like I win," a man's voice said. He heard male laughter. He turned back to the door, set himself, and threw his entire weight into it.
The door burst inward, the lock splintering. Fraser went into a tuck and rolled with the momentum, letting it carry him into the center of the living room. As he rose into a crouch, he heard the familiar sound of a gun being cocked, and ducked behind the sofa, peering up to see—
—four men standing at a round table, guns out of their holsters, all pointing at him. And one very shocked, but very much alive blond woman. Stella.
Fraser couldn't bring sense out of the scene, but he was jolted out of his confusion as Stella Kowalski stood and screamed at him, "What the hell are you doing here?"
The men were moving towards him now, but Fraser held still. "Are you all right?"
"Hey, buddy, what is this, a costume party?" A beefy man with curly hair and a broken nose was scowling at him, looking like he wanted to take him apart.
"Nah," said one of the others, and Fraser realized he was looking at Detective Dewey. "Hey, Fraser. Joining the party?"
"Detective?" Fraser stood up slowly and blinked.
"Who is this clown?" one of the others asked, not putting his gun away.
"This is Constable Fraser, from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," Dewey said, holstering his weapon. "He first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father—"
"Yeah, we know, we know," muttered broken-nose. "We heard of him. Stella was telling us all about him before." He grunted to her. "You're right, he is a freak."
The men all returned their weapons to their holsters, and a couple sat down again. Fraser looked at the table; it was covered with cards, drinks, and money. "Pardon me," he said slowly, "but what is going on here?"
"What does it look like, you idiot?" Stella snapped. "We're playing poker."
"Yeah, and I won the last hand, so give," broken-nose said.
"Playing for money? Isn't that illegal?"
Stella bolted away from the table and invaded his personal space. Fraser took a step back without registering how much smaller than he she was. "I asked you what you're doing here, Constable. Is this some game? Or is Ray trying a new way to harass me?"
"Not at all, Ms. Kowalski," Fraser managed. "We got a call at the Consulate, from Marshall Webber. He said he was coming to kill you, so we were naturally concerned—"
"There's nothing natural about it!" She pushed him on the chest, and Fraser backed up until both of them were out of the living room. When she spoke again, her eyes still flashed with anger, but she had dropped her voice, perhaps to assure some sort of privacy. "I cannot believe Ray is involving you in his stupid fantasies now! I mean, what's wrong with him? Can't he get it through that stupid head of his that I don't need his help? I don't — I don't need him, I don't want him!"
"I assure you, the call was real—"
"So what? I told him I can take care of myself. Look out there: four men protecting me. Four. Cars patrolling the neighborhood. No one gets in or out."
"I got in."
"And if you'd been Webber, you'd have four bullets in you right now. But that's not good enough for my idiot ex-husband. He hasn't got a clue. No, he's got you, his trained Mountie, egging him on, buying into this conspiracy theory or whatever he has going on in his head!" She stood back and gave Fraser the full effect of Stella Rampant, face contorted, eyes spearing, voice husky with fury. "They need to lock him away — he's a goddamn menace!"
For the second time in as many days, Fraser felt the heat of anger, and did not even try to curb his tongue. "Pardon me, but why must you always do that?"
"What did you say?" A deep flush was creeping up Stella's neck.
"Sorry. It's none of my business." What was wrong with him, he wondered, that he was misbehaving so? He just felt fed up, that was all. He'd almost lost his partner tonight.
"No, no — go ahead, what were you going to say?" Stella pushed, a pugnacious look on her face.
Oh well, in for a penny... "I just don't know why you behave this way."
"About Ray. I know he can be annoying and intrusive...well, and rather a loose cannon in some ways, and heaven knows he makes me want to throttle him from time to time, not that that's relevant at the moment — but he's single-minded where you're concerned and he just wants to make sure you're protected. He cares about you."
"You're right — this is none of your business!"
"Understood. But there's no need to be cruel to him. That's all I want to say. He ties himself up into knots and gets himself into trouble worrying about you."
"I never asked him to—"
"—But surely you must expect it by now. Why do you keep supposing he'll behave otherwise? You know what Ray's like; everything is 110% with him. He's come close to being suspended over this, yet I don't think he cares. Even injured he's thinking of you first, so you might consider—"
"Injured? Ray's hurt?"
"He'll be fine. As I was saying, you might consider that—"
"What happened? Where is he?"
"He's at the Consulate. He got splinters in his eyes, but the doctor assures me he'll—"
"I have to see him. I'm coming with you. I'll drive." She started to push past him toward the door, and he stopped her, a solid object unyielding against her momentum.
"No, you won't. You need to stay here for your own protection."
"You goddam stubborn—"
"Yes I am, and you're not leaving."
She flashed angry eyes at him. Oh dear, Fraser mused, Stella and Ray together in full fight mode must be a terrifying force of nature. "You bastard." She shoved him, but he didn't budge. Stella fumed at him silently for a few moments, sensing the futility of trying again. "All right. But tell Ray I was worried about him."
"That's none of my business," Fraser answered without sarcasm. "You'll have to tell him yourself at a later time."
She bit back an angry reply, and suddenly the tension drained away. Underneath the bluster Stella clearly was barely holding herself together. "Fine. You win."
"I didn't realize it was a contest."
"Sure you didn't." A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, and Fraser looked at her with new interest. Without her pose of anger, Stella seemed smaller, almost fragile. He wondered if that was how Ray always saw her.
"At least tell him I'm all right. Please." She looked away, suddenly seeming a little embarrassed. "I know he does this out of some sort of misplaced...uh..." She seemed to be searching for a word.
"Love, perhaps?" Fraser supplied.
She looked up sharply. "Love? I...don't know. He gets under my skin. I know I'm horrible to him. I don't know why."
Fraser thought he knew, but kept silent.
"Just...tell him thanks. Will you do that?"
"So...who's staying with him?"
"Well, Dief is—"
"Your wolf? That's all? Doesn't he need a doctor with him?"
"He'll be fine. He was just worried about you." But there was no need to worry, was there, Fraser suddenly realized. She'd never been unprotected. Marshall Webber had lied about that...
Why had he lied? He must have known I'd check on her.
A sickening wave washed over him and he turned a blank face toward Stella. He must have known I'd come here...
"What?" There was concern in her voice. He felt her hand on his arm.
"Ray," he said numbly. "It's Ray he's after."
Hurry, Fraser, get there, get there—
His eyes were burning, itching, and Ray struggled with the urge to rip off the bandages and rub them. The sensation was maddening. Instead, to occupy his hands he laced his fingers through his short hair and held on tightly. It hurt, but it distracted him from the itch.
If only there was something he could do — the forced inactivity of his situation coupled with the worrying was going to drive him insane. He knew it. He felt it. And if anything happened to Stella, he—
Way to go, asshole, think about that some more. Make yourself fucking crazy.
He tightened his grip on his hair until the desperate thoughts were fogged by the pain.
Something nagged at Ray through his despair.
Something Fraser had said. What was it? I'm going, he'd said, keys, Stella, stay here, call her— oh, shit. Call Welsh. He hadn't called Welsh. In his panic to reach Stella, that helpful, useful, critical order had slipped his mind.
Ray let go of his hair, itch forgotten. Dammit. How long has it been since Fraser left? How long had he been sitting here, wallowing? There was no way to find out, not unless he found a radio, or stumbled on a clock by dumb luck and felt the hands. He curled his lip at the thought of being so helpless. That was something he'd seen in the movies - blind people groping their open-faced watches. He hoped he wouldn't have to get one of those.
"I won't, the doctor said I'll be fine." Ray gritted his teeth and pushed away the negative thoughts. Dief whimpered at the sound of his voice. "Yeah, right, Dief. What I really need to do is find my phone." He stood up.
What had he done with it? Thrown it away! "Nice going, Kowalski, you moron, you suck, suck, suck!" he mumbled, moving in the direction he hoped was the correct one. "I so suck. I suck big." He thought he'd heard it hit the wall, and then crash to the floor. He started moving forward, hands outstretched in front of him.
"Ow, fuck!" His leg connected with something hard: chair, the desk chair, Fraser had moved it, damn him. Behind him Dief whined in sympathy — and when had he started interpreting the wolf's whines? Probably another damn "sense" kicking in to help the poor blind man. He set his jaw and groped his way forward, by luck finding the edge of the desk with his palm, sparing himself a bruise on his nuts to match the one now swelling on his shin. "Kowalski, you idiot, screw the cell phone — use the desk phone!"
He swept his hands over the desk, trying to remember where he'd seen the phone. On Thatcher's left, he thought. That's your right, asshole. He leaned forward, and his fingers glanced off something large — an in/out tray? — and fumbling around it, knocked it off the desk. Papers fluttered by him and something hard and metallic clattered to the floor, landing half on his naked foot. He cursed again and kept moving his hands along the surface.
Cord. He felt a cord and wound it through his fingers, pulling gently so that the phone would come to him. Instead, he found a receiver on the end. Damn! Clearly neither he nor Fraser had bothered to replace it in its cradle. The line was dead from being off the hook so long. Well, he could fix that. Slowly he tugged on the cord, pulling in the other direction and, like a fish struggling on the line, the phone came to him, pushing unknown objects before it, most of which hit the ground.
Dief barked twice; was he complaining about the mess? Ray heard the scrabble of toenails on the wood floor as the wolf bolted out of the room. 'Lassie, get help," Ray murmured sarcastically, "find Timmy." But the phone, both parts, was now in his hands, and he forgot about Dief. He depressed the button for a moment, listened, and was relieved to hear the dial tone.
Finding the correct buttons was much more difficult than he expected, which frustrated him deeply and made him curse again. It didn't help when on the first try he reached someplace called "Ling's Tattoos" instead of Division 27 headquarters. He grunted something appalling at the innocent person on the other end and hung up to dial again.
He was inventing new invectives as he dialed again. This time he got through. A male voice answered, "Chicago Police, Division—"
"This is Detective Jack Huey," a surly voice barked. "Who's this?"
"Jack, it's Ray." An enormous wave of relief washed over him.
"Hey, Vecchio! How ya doing?" Huey sounded pretty relieved himself.
"Never mind. Welsh still there? I have to talk—"
"Yeah, sure. None of us is going home, he says, until we find Webber. You sure you're okay?"
Ray moved away from the desk, groping for the chair. "Listen, this is important. You got to get over to—"
"Huey?" Nothing. "Huey, Jack, you there?" The receiver was dead in his hand. "What the fuck?" What had happened? Ray retraced his steps, following the phone cord again to the receiver. He pressed the button, waited an agonizing few seconds and lifted his hand. Still nothing.
Shit! Had he, when he moved, pulled out the cord? "Fuck!" He banged the receiver on the desk. "Okay, Kowalski," he said, trying to get a grip, "screw this phone. Find the cell phone." He felt his way around the desk and got to his knees. It had sounded like the phone landed here. He groped around on the floor for a while, sweating, cursing, panicking, banging his head on the wall not once but twice. All too soon he realized he'd lost his bearings as to where he'd flung the damn thing. He pulled himself upright, feeling dizzy and disoriented. His eyes ached with the change in position. "Give it up, asshole. You need a seeing eye—"
No way. Well, maybe... Hell, it worked when Fraser asked him. Might as well look like an idiot. "Dief! Find the phone!"
It took a moment before he remembered hearing the wolf run out of the room. As if to drive home the point, Dief barked once, twice, somewhere in the building - back towards Fraser's office, he thought. "Dief, here boy, come here —" Okay, now he really felt like a loser. The stupid animal was deaf, after all.
Ray felt his whole body empty of energy. It was no use. He just had to trust that Fraser would get there in time. The alternative was unacceptable.
Slowly he shuffled forward, hands in front of him, finding the desk again, feeling his way around it, stumbling over the detritus on the floor, getting his foot stuck in his jacket and holster piled next to the desk, tortuously crossing the room to the couch. He tried not to let the hopelessness and despair take him over completely, but it was hard not to list everything that was wrong, or going wrong, or possibly would be wrong in the near future. I'll never see again. I'll never see Stella. Stella's dead—
No, no, that was going to make him go insane. He took a deep breath, then another. Stella's would be fine. Fraser would get there. Fraser always got places in the nick of time. Fraser'd probably called Welsh, he'd remember to—
Damn. Fraser didn't have a phone.
Phone. The sudden thought struck him that maybe there was another phone in the place, though he didn't remember ever seeing one. Maybe in the conference room across the hall, or maybe in the visitor room up front, or the Queen's bedroom. They'd give the Queen a phone, wouldn't they? It wouldn't hurt, it couldn't hurt to try searching; it was better than sitting here feeling miserable and trying not to rub his eyes. At the very least he could find Dief and yell at him face to muzzle.
Dief barked, whined, and barked again.
He felt his way to the wall and moved towards the doorway. The carved wood of the door jamb slid under his palm, and he moved into the hall, standing still there for a moment, wondering where to go. Then he moved forward, hands outstretched, until by chance his left hand touched Constable Turnbull's desk. He groped behind it, found the chair, and from there the staircase bannister.
He stopped still. Something had tickled his nose and stirred his hair, and an unexpected coolness caressed his skin. What was that? What does that mean? he wondered, then understood.
Air. Cool air, gone as quickly as it came. A breeze from somewhere. Where? If there was a breeze, a door must be open. But how...
"Fraser?" No, that was ridiculous. Why would he be back? It was too soon. There was no answer. Ray turned back towards the hall.
Something had opened. Not the front door, though, he was standing near it, and the wind wasn't strong enough; besides, he would have heard it. The back emergency entrance, then? "Turnbull? You there? Inspector Thatcher?"
Still nothing. Dief barked again.
Dief — was it possible the wolf knew how to open doors? True, he could do all sorts of unusual things, but..."Yo, Dief, you here with me?"
Dief was whining, far away, insistently noisy now. Stupid wolf, I bet he—
No, wait, the door to the back was opened by a heavy bar. A window, then? Could the wolf open a window?
Ray felt a chill that had nothing to do with wind. Could Dief open...and close a window? Whatever was open had been shut again. And no matter how smart the wolf was, that was beyond the capabilities of creatures without opposable thumbs.
There was a sudden noise, a peculiar noise, far back in the Consulate. Dief...a threatening, feral growl, but overlaid with some sort of buzz. And then he heard the clear sound of Dief howling, a howl that stopped abruptly.
The hair on the back of Ray's neck prickled to life, rising and making his skin tingle. His right hand was up by his left armpit without him consciously willing it, but you asshole, you don't have your gun—
And then there was another sound, a small sound that crept through the noise of his own breathing and the gathering panic in his head.
"What?" Welsh rubbed his aching forehead and looked up to see Huey in his doorway, frowning slightly. "What is it, detective?"
"Dunno. Was just on the phone with Vecchio."
"Jeez, what's he doing awake at this hour? I thought they knocked him out."
"He sounded pretty awake to me. Kinda weird, though."
Welsh snorted. "Weirder than usual?"
"Hard to tell. He's with Fraser, right?"
"Yeah, I made Fraser take him home for the night. Why?" Welsh looked back at the papers in front of them, trying to find a clue that would point him to Webber's next appearance.
Jack came into the office and crossed to the desk. "We got disconnected. I tried to call him back at the Consulate, but all I got was a weird busy signal — too fast, you know, like when there's some sort of trouble on the line?"
Welsh looked up again. "And?"
"And, I don't know, he seemed to want to talk to you pretty badly. I can't get through to his cell phone either. " Jack released a breath. "Probably nothing, right? Probably shut it off for the night."
The lieutenant caught the hopeful look on Huey's face. "Yeah, probably. That's probably all it is."
The two men regarded each other.
Gun. I have to get my gun.
No, run for the front door.
No, no, go upstairs, find a place to hide, look for a phone—
In the fraction of a wacked-out second his brain had to weigh his options, Ray tried to picture where the gun was and could only come up with a sketchy idea. He knew roughly where the front door was, but if a gun was trained on him, his back would be an inviting target. He couldn't remotely picture what the upstairs looked like, as he'd only been there once, for a brief moment or so.
Somewhere off to his right he heard the sound of metal scraping on metal.
It was too late to consider choices. He stopped thinking and let instinct take him, and found himself moving back across the hall before he could consider what he was doing. He moved fast, blind or not, and connected hard with the wall, snapping his left wrist back at a wrong angle, and he stifled a groan. He groped his way along the wall with his good hand — that WAS where the doorway was, wasn't it? Yes! One second, two, all too aware of his vulnerable position, and then he was inside Thatcher's office.
Gun, gun, it was in the holster, and the holster was — where? By the desk, by the desk. His thigh slammed into the arm of the couch and he caught himself on his bad wrist but maintained his balance. He staggered forward a few more steps and — Watch out, the chair must be in front of you. This time he found it with his hand before he bashed into it. He went down to a crouch, ears straining to hear, and found the desk, patted the floor and moved, found the pile of boots and jacket, and there it is, there was his holster, there was the comforting feel of his weapon.
He struggled with the gun, breathing heavily now, unsnapping the holster guard. The gun tangled itself in the leather before he could get it out. And then he had it, solid, cool to the touch, his second-best friend.
He stayed low, crawling towards the couch, trying to picture where everything was in the room. Where the door was. He was sweating and freezing at the same time, his heart pounding. He tried to listen, but his pulse was roaring in his ears. Where was the intruder? No, name him. It was Webber. It had to be. The chances of an anonymous burglar choosing this place to break into tonight was beyond remote.
Where is he? Can he see me? Ray shuddered. Maybe he's in the room with me right now—
His heart lurched. The voice was coming from the hall, somewhere back in the Consulate. Ray crouched lower.
"Ray, Ray, don'tcha want to play with me?" There was a chuckle. "You're not mad at me, are you, just because I played a little joke on you?"
There was a muffled scraping sound now, wood on wood, it sounded like, but he couldn't tell what it was. He wanted to yell out, curse at Webber, but instinct told him to stay silent. No good could come from pinpointing his location. Not that he had many options. He was trapped in the office, without any escape except the doorway. And if Webber got into the room...
"Come on, Ray, I went to a lot of trouble so we could see each other tonight. Oh, oops, not 'see,' I guess, sorry, that was mean of me. Mustn't mock the afflicted." There was a final squeal of something moving. "Guess you couldn't see me at the hospital either, could you? And that big car of yours is so easy to follow." Webber's laugh came, low, maniacal, closer now. Ray got a firmer grip on the gun, propping his right hand on his throbbing left one.
"Guess I'll have to see Stella later. When I'm done with you. First things first, that's what I always say."
Ray held onto a shred of sanity. Stella was okay, Stella was fine, Stella's alive—
There was a creak that sounded so near now, right in the hallway. He tensed his muscles and readied himself.
"Oh, there you are." The voice was in the doorway.
His tight muscles released and he sprang upwards from the crouch, firing once, twice, three times at the voice. Somewhere he heard the dull thud of the bullets, but no sound from Webber, no telltale thump of a body.
Ray swept his arm around, firing again, but still there was no answering sound except the echo of the gun, no signal that he'd hit Webber. Suddenly fingers were grabbing his hair, yanking him sideways, while another grabbed the wrist that held the gun. He brought his elbow back, hard, and was rewarded with a satisfying grunt of pain from Webber as the other man let go and hit the floor. Something clattered onto the wood, too light to be a gun, but metal — a knife? Webber cursed and grunted, shifting noisily on the floor and Ray fired at the sound, but didn't wait to find out if he'd hit him. He pushed away, moving quickly, knowing now where the couch was, where the doorway was. He found the entrance, and he was in the hall.
Door, get to the front door—
He turned right, bolting for the entrance, but there was something blocking the way, something large and wooden and square, and it caught him in the stomach, sending him sprawling. He crashed into something hard and realized too late the sound he'd heard had been Webber pushing Turnbull's desk against the door.
Adrenaline flooded him, and he rolled painfully to his feet, trying to draw air into his lungs. The desk was behind him, too heavy to take the time to move. He had to keep moving, had to get away from the front hall—
The rear door — it was a fire exit, with a bar set across it for easy exit. If he could make it there, he could get out into the back, draw attention, get help. Ray let his left hand trail lightly against the wall as he moved back into the Consulate, but cracked his shoulder against a doorway that unexpectedly jutted out into the corridor. Cursing under his breath, he grasped at the wood, flinging himself further back, finally coming up against the rear wall. He felt the fire door under his hand, cool metal, safety, escape. He grasped the push bar and threw his entire weight into it.
He jarred into it heavily, banging his bruised shoulder and rattling his teeth, but the door wouldn't budge. That wasn't right, it had to open, Fraser would be sure it was in working order—
He ran his hand along the bar, panting now, wondering how close Webber was, and then he felt something strange, something alien in his fingers.
Chain. The door had been chained shut.
Metal scraping on metal, that's what he'd heard.
Panic was gripping him now, deep in his gut, and logic was flying out the window.
No, no, think, Ray, think like Fraser. Fraser. There's a window in Fraser's office, probably where Webber got in—
He turned, knowing the office was immediately to the left of the exit door. Yes, there it is, there it is! Ray lurched inside, trying to remember where everything was in this crowded space he'd seen dozens of times. Small desk — Fraser's desk, yes, there it was, and Fraser's cot under the window.
His foot connected with something soft, something that made a small noise, and even before he lost his balance and fell on it, he knew he'd found Diefenbaker. The wolf was unmoving under him, whining softly, and as Ray discovered, drooling rather a lot into a small puddle around his muzzle. Jesus! What had Webber done to him? There didn't seem to be blood, but there wasn't time to check — sorry Dief, I need to get out of here — and Ray was crawling up from the floor, finding the cot, the sash, the window.
His hands scrabbled at the frame, but they were wet with the wolf's saliva, slippery with his own sweat and sliding on the wood. With growing desperation he ran his fingers around the window frame, finding the lock at the top, but something was jammed in there, something he couldn't dislodge. Webber had done a good job of sealing him in.
There was a noise behind him and he turned, bringing up the gun, but something knocked it out of his hands, a foot, a hand, and as his hands flew away from his body, he felt something brush roughly against his ribs, cold, no, hot, no, no...Christ! It burned. His hand went to the spot and came away with sticky warmth.
"You have a lot to answer for, Ray."
"Cops are on the way, Webber," Ray sneered, mustering bravado. His side was on fire.
"I doubt it. I cut the phone lines. Now don't interrupt me again."
"You think you're invulnerable, Webber? You're nothing. You're not even fucking human."
"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" The icy-hot shock sliced across him again, his chest this time. Ray gasped and staggered, nearly falling on Dief.
"That's for when they gang-raped me in the shower," Webber's voice hissed in his ear. Ray swung out with his fist but met only air. The action threw him off balance and he half-fell against Fraser's desk. Again, again, there was the cold/hot scrape against his upper arm, his back. "And that's for the guard who liked to put out his cigarettes on my body." The voice was behind him this time, and Ray turned sharply to face it. This time he felt the wind, sensed the movement of Webber's arm, and he backed up, putting up a hand. The knife missed its intended target but drew across his palm, and he breathed in sharply against the sudden pain. He backed up again and found to his surprise that the doorway was behind him, that somehow Webber and he had switched places. He kicked out in front of him, his foot catching Webber in the knee. Webber screamed a curse and Ray felt a sudden wave of pleasure at returning pain to his tormentor. The door was clear behind him. He turned and ran, his bloodied palm leaving a smear against the wall.
He ran and tried to assess his injuries. They burned like crazy but he hoped Webber wasn't doing much damage, just making him bleed, playing with him. But the odds were in Webber's favor. He was blind, bleeding, locked in. It was only a matter of time before his luck ran out completely.
"Hide and seek, Ray? Or is this Blind Man's Bluff? You can't get away that easy, my friend."
Webber's voice was raspy with pain, and Ray was glad he'd hurt him. He wanted to hurt him, painfully, slowly, torturously. The desire for violence, extreme, primal violence, coursed through him. He ran unsteadily back down the hall, using the anger to pump his flagging energy. He grasped the bannister and flung himself left instead of right, barreling through the conference room door and into the table before he could stop himself. His momentum catapulted him across the polished surface and down the other side; a chair and a flag overturned with him and he hit the floor hard, the air knocked out of him. Through a haze of pain and lack of oxygen, Ray heard the creak of footsteps, but there was nothing he could do, nothing except lie there and wait for Marshall Webber.
The wind tugged at his hair as the big car slid through the city streets like a panther. Fraser was gripping the steering wheel hard enough to make his knuckles white, but he risked looking at his watch again. Ten minutes. Ten minutes and he'd be at the Consulate.
There was a soundtrack running in his head, not music but a barrage of accusations, all delivered in a familiar voice: his own. You stiff-necked fool, he yelled at himself, you idiot, you stubborn dimwit, you couldn't see what was happening, you blinded yourself to the situation, you looked only at the surface, you call yourself a policeman, you couldn't solve a misdemeanor! The chastising continued in that vein, punctuated with And you call yourself a friend, some friend, who puts his partner's life in jeopardy! First you cut him off, then you abandon him, he doesn't deserve to have such an arrogant fool as a partner— On and on the voice droned in his head, as the streets rushed by in a blur.
"Easy there, son."
Fraser's neck cracked as his head turned sharply to the right. His father was sitting in the front seat next to him.
"Dad, I don't have time for this!"
"I haven't come to argue with you, Benton."
"Then why are you here?"
"Don't be so hard on yourself."
"You're joking." Fraser's mouth was a tight line. He looked back at the road.
"Not at all. The Yank's resourceful."
"He's blind, Dad."
Bob Fraser closed his mouth and nodded. "I know. I was just trying to make you feel better."
"Your timing leaves a lot to be desired."
"Better late than never."
"Not really. If I'm late he could be—" He couldn't say it, didn't want to think it.
"So you have to ride to the rescue? You think a lot of yourself, son."
Fraser clenched his jaw. "Not really," he said quietly.
Bob looked at him thoughtfully. "Then you might want to take the next left."
"What are you talking about?"
"It's a short cut."
Fraser looked over at his father, but Bob was gone. He braked, took the left and floored the accelerator.
Ray lay on the floor behind the table, trying to breathe. He heard Webber come up next to him, and even in his helpless state he felt a thread of pleasure at Webber's uneven footsteps. Clearly he'd hurt him when he kicked him.
Then he heard another sound. A weapon being cocked, right above him.
His mouth tightened with anger, anger that blocked out his fear. "You're a freak show, Webber," he panted. "Nothing. Just scum, a perp. So just fucking do it. Shoot me."
"Shoot you? How dull." Webber laughed, but it sounded forced.
"What? Did I hurt your feelings?" Ray was playing for time, waiting for the chance to try to get up again, maybe take Webber down.
"I thought about shooting you with your own gun, Ray. But I changed my mind."
He heard the click as Webber released the clip. It rattled to the floor, followed by the empty gun, tossed far away, across the room. "No, I've been planning a slower death. A mythic death. A fun death. Well," Webber giggled, "fun for me."
Ray got to his stomach and started to rise. Webber's foot caught him, and pain exploded in his ribs. He rolled over and folded up into a fetal position. He felt the flag under his face. Fraser would give him hell for messing with the symbol of Canada.
"Just give me a minute, Ray." Through a curtain of pain Ray heard Webber's footsteps fade away down the hall. He tried to get up, but couldn't summon the energy. And then he heard the steps return and it was too late.
There was a metal sound, something being twisted...unscrewed, and then he heard the distinctive sound of liquid splashing. What the—?
And then he smelled it, strong, powerful, recognizable.
Horrible images filled his mind, the burnt out apartment, the blackened bed, the charred corpse. Ray felt a wave of vertigo as he realized Webber meant to burn him. Alive. "Webber," he croaked, "don't—"
"Fancy a Viking funeral, Ray? I know, I know, you're just a dumb Polack, but you've been doing so well as an Italian lately, why not branch out? Be a Viking, too! A man for all countries, that's my Detective Ray. I'll make an exception for you because you've been so much fun tonight." His voice was giddy as he limped around the room splashing gasoline. "More fun than Donny, more fun than Pete, I must say. Two tries, it took me, to get you. Very good. Very, very good."
The gas can banged against the wood floor as Webber tossed it away. "Now where did I leave my matches?" His voice faded as he limped back into the hall, mumbling and singing to himself.
There was no more time. Ray pushed off from the floor, ignoring the pain in his ribs, launching himself away from the table and towards the rear of the room. He collided with a chair, pushed it away and kept moving. He had to find a weapon, anything, before Webber lit a match.
He slipped in gasoline and pulled himself up again, lurching into the back wall, feeling his way into the kitchen. Knife, he said to himself, Fraser's got to have a knife here—
He felt in front of him and let his hand run along the pantry counter. Something... His fingers closed on a bottle, felt like a full bottle of wine, but his other hand hit something hot and he recoiled at the burn. What was it?
And then he figured it out. It was that damned electric tea pot that Fraser kept plugged in all the time, making that noxious, bitter tea he was always drinking. Ray felt around and pulled out the plug, took off the lid and hefted it. It felt heavy, and he smelled the strong tea inside. He pressed himself against the wall, heart beating, sweat and blood collecting on him.
"Come on, Ray, where'd you go? Don't make this so hard on yourself."
Webber was back in the conference room. Ray gripped the handle more tightly. The footsteps were closer. "Ray, Ray, come and play," Webber chanted.
"Ray, where'd you—" Webber was in the doorway. "Oh, there you are."
No more time. Ray hurled the pot of hot tea at the voice. There was a scream, then another, then the sound of something heavy falling, Webber shrieking and babbling and cursing. And then Ray was groping for the bottle, going down to the floor and finding Webber flailing there, and then he was hitting him, feeling the soft thud as the bottle came down hard on Webber's skull, again and again and again, for Donny and for Owens and for Pete and Alison and Cubby and Janice and Stella and for himself, until he couldn't remember who it was for any more and the figure under him stopped moving and the bottle was slippery in his hand.
Something was blocking the door.
Fraser grunted as he shoved against it, and it gave enough for him to squeeze part way through. "Ray!"
The silence echoed deep within him and he shivered. "Ray!"
There was no answer. He peered into the Consulate hallway, and even in the dim light saw things that made him gasp. Streaks of blood ran haphazardly along the wall, spent bullet casings were underfoot, papers were everywhere. "Ray? Answer me!"
Nothing. He started to flip on the light switch by the door, but there was a smell in the air, the acrid smell of gasoline, and he thought better of it. Fraser's nose wrinkled as the odor wafted towards him and filled him with dread.
He shoved the desk a little further and forced his way completely into the room. There was no sign of any life. Dief — where was Diefenbaker? If there had been an attack, as the signs indicated, surely Dief would have protected the detective with his very—
Fraser went numb. Dead, Dief was dead, he'd die before he'd let anything happen to Ray. He swallowed a painful lump in his throat. No, he refused to believe both his friends were dead, not until he saw the proof. "Ray!" His call was becoming desperate.
He picked his way through the rubble, checking the rooms as he moved mechanically down the corridor. Nothing in the front room, nothing but disaster in Thatcher's office. His gaze paused on Ray's empty holster. Ray had his gun. That was good, wasn't it?
He took in a sharp breath at the staircase; there was a smear of blood on the bannister. He had a sudden flash, a premonition of finding both bodies in the Queen's Bedroom, and the ludicrous incongruity of death in that opulent suite almost undid his control, bringing him close to hysterics. He thrust the thought away and forced himself back down the hallway towards his office.
The smell of gasoline was fainter here. Probably he should open a window, or the door.
He was horrified to find a thick chain wound around the exit door escape bar. Webber, Webber, damn him, had planned this so well! He'd played them all, and they'd fallen for his games. With a grimace he turned away, into his office.
Dief lay before him.
The wolf was still lying on his side, but he whimpered and tried to wag his tail as he caught Fraser's scent. Fraser went to his knees, looking for injury, stroking the animal, softly comforting him as he tried to find what was wrong. His eyes moved to the side and he saw a small object lying nearby. Fraser leaned over the animal and picked it up, understanding. He pressed a button and the object buzzed, a spark sizzling. Some sort of stun gun, a tazer. Dief had been shocked, probably several times.
"You'll be okay, boy," Fraser murmured. "Just rest, Dief, you tried, it wasn't your fault. You'll be fine soon." The wolf seemed to understand him, at least somewhat, because his eyes closed and his whimpering faded, though his tail continued to thump weakly.
Fraser straightened, tossed the weapon onto his desk with disgust and went back into the hall. He hoped he wasn't lying — Dief had clearly received a stiff jolt and he'd take him to a vet as soon as he could, but right now he needed to find Ray, or find out what had happened to him. If he'd been tazered too, it was possible Webber had taken him somewhere else to finish him off.
He passed under the back staircase and through the doorway into the tiny service kitchen, and nearly tripped over Webber's body lying in the doorway to the conference room.
He stared at the limp figure for a moment, his mouth open in surprise. He hadn't expected to find Marshall Webber, not here, certainly not in this condition, certainly not — dead?
He bent over to feel the pulse. It was hard to tell at first, but he detected a light heartbeat. Webber was unconscious in a pool of dark water, red welts on his face and hands, huge amounts of blood on his scalp and face, but alive. He looked like he'd been pummeled with a hammer.
The gasoline smell was much stronger here and seemed to originate in the conference room. Fraser stuck a finger in the liquid, raised it to his nose, sniffed, and then tasted it. Not gasoline — tea. The liquid on the floor was tea. He poked at a tea leaf floating near Webber's unconscious body. Curious.
But where was — "Ray!" He called loudly but silence was his only answer. He stood up and entered the conference room. There was a bloodstain on the floor near the wall, another, larger, on the overturned flag. He crouched down. The clip from Ray's gun lay against the wall next to an upended chair. He looked around and saw the weapon near the doorway. His head pounded with frustration and worry. Ray's gun, but where was Ray?
There was a loud crash as the front door banged open. "Chicago PD!"
Fraser stood up from behind the conference table as Lieutenant Welsh pushed his way into the Consulate, followed by Detective Huey. Huey caught the movement of red in his peripheral vision and swung around, bringing up his gun. "Freeze!"
"Detective Huey, please lower your weapon," Welsh said in a low growl. "Constable Fraser is our friend."
"Sorry, Fraser," Jack said contritely and complied. "Guess I'm a little jumpy."
Welsh cast his eye around the place and sniffed deeply.
"I would suggest you refrain from lighting any matches, sir," Fraser suggested.
Welsh grunted in assent. "What in hell happened here?"
"Webber," Fraser said quietly.
"I knew it. I knew something smelled. Kowalski called me and got cut off. Jack and I were worried."
"As am I, sir," Fraser said, his face troubled. "Webber's unconscious near the pantry. Someone should call the paramedics."
"Huey! Get on the horn and call the EMTs," Welsh barked, and Huey stepped away to make the call. "You bagged him?"
"It seems likely Ray did."
"You don't know?" Welsh sounded incredulous and Fraser dropped his eyes.
"I...wasn't here, sir. We thought Stella Kowalski, was—" He squared himself. "Well, I made a mistake and left him here."
"I see." Welsh considered the other man's obvious distress. "How's Ray doing?"
Fraser rubbed an eyebrow. "I...don't know sir, I haven't found him yet."
"I can't explain it. I was about to look upstairs."
"I'll go check." Welsh moved with uncharacteristic speed, heading for the staircase.
Fraser turned, fretting. Ray had to be upstairs. He had to be alive. Clearly he'd managed to knock Webber out, though Fraser suspected he'd done more than that, given the amount of blood on the unconscious man. He filed that conclusion away under "to be worried about later," and turned back through the conference room towards Webber. He knelt again by the body, belatedly looking for weapons, cursing himself for not checking earlier. Webber was full of surprises, and it was wise not to underestimate him, even if he appeared unconscious.
He found a bloody knife under the man's shoulder and put it in his pocket. As he rose he saw the tea pot half hidden behind the long curtain. Fraser nodded in admiration. "Brilliant, Ray."
There was nothing more to be done until the paramedics arrived, so Fraser headed back to check on Dief. He crossed the tiny kitchen and reached the back stairs. And stopped.
He turned around slowly, his pulse rattling, retraced several steps and looked down.
Ray was wedged into the dim corner between the sink and the garbage can, his long legs drawn up tight. Fraser gaped at him. He'd walked by him twice without seeing him..
He knelt down quickly, unable to overcome a certain amount of shock. There was blood all over his partner — clothing, bandaged eyes, hands, even in his hair. There were rips in his shirt that were crusted with drying blood. His head was down, his mouth slack, and he was holding something, a bottle, that still dripped a dark puddle onto the floor. Fraser felt the chill again. "Ray. Ray. Ray."
There was a pause and then Ray's head lifted slowly and turned towards him. "Hi, Frase," he said in an oddly conversational tone.
There was a heavy pounding somewhere near as Welsh clunked down the rear stairs.
Welsh's face appeared in the doorway in response. "Constable, I couldn't find—"
"Right here, sir."
Welsh let out a low whistle as he crouched down. He took a brief look at Webber, then turned back. "Kowalski. I see you've been busy." His gruff tone masked his relief. "You doing okay?"
"Sure, fine." He didn't sound particularly fine and Welsh shook his head at Fraser and rolled his eyes. "Webber—" Ray gestured weakly with the bottle and it began to slip from his fingers. Fraser took it from him. It was covered in blood. "Did I..."
"Kill him. Did I. Webber."
Fraser shook his head, then remembered Ray couldn't see his response. "No, he's still alive."
"I tried to, Frase, really wanted to."
"Don't worry about it."
"No one will blame you for that, detective."
But Ray was shaking his head. "Not worried. Wanted to." He put a bloody hand up to his eyes. "Itch. They itch."
"Don't rub them."
Welsh leaned in. "Can you get up, Ray?"
"Yeah, sure. Let's get up."
The two men lifted him to his feet and Ray wavered there a moment. Together they moved slowly into the hallway, where Jack came running up to them, cell phone in hand. "EMTs will be here in a minute. Hey, Ray."
Welsh found the chair from Turnbull's desk and brought it over, and Fraser lowered Ray into it.
"Right here." Fraser pulled them from his pocket and pressed them into his friend's hand.
"Good," Ray said faintly, and slid sideways.
Fraser caught him as he fell.
"Will he get any better, Dr. Wallace?"
The fluorescent hospital lighting illuminated the silent form on the bed with stark clarity. On the other side of the glass window that separated him from the ICU, Benton Fraser considered the array of tubes and monitors attached to the man inside and frowned.
The doctor next to him shrugged a little. "Honestly? We don't know yet. We're keeping him under observation, but he's been the same since the surgery, three days ago. Now it's just a question of waiting."
Fraser shifted his feet and rubbed the brim of his hat. "So it's possible he may remain in this state."
"Is he in a coma?"
"Yes. Right now his brain is trying to reroute itself, make connections and restore function." Wallace shook his head. "The brain is still a great mystery to us, Constable. Sometimes things work out...sometimes they don't."
"And his vision...?"
"His optic nerve was damaged. Even if he comes out of this, I doubt he'll see much of anything again."
Fraser felt a little ill. "I understand."
The doctor leaned back against the door and took a long, hard look in his direction. "Does that bother you?"
Fraser regarded him quizzically. "Well, of course it does, doctor. He is a human being, after all."
"Not much of one, from what I gather. Didn't he kill a police officer?"
"Yes, several of them, but that's not the point." Fraser considered not saying anything more, but that went against his nature. "I confess I am a bit surprised that a doctor such as yourself would be so callous about the welfare of a patient."
"So sue me." The doctor sighed. "Of course, you're right, Constable, and I'm happy to care for Mr. Webber to the best of my abilities. But don't ask me to care about him. Whatever condition he ends up in, he's going to spend the rest of his life in a prison or a mental ward, and frankly, that's fine with me. Sorry. I'm afraid I'm only human, too."
"If I may make a point here, Constable," Dr. Wallace said, moving away from the wall, "I'm amazed you can look at Marshall Webber and worry about him at all, after what he did to your partner."
Fraser looked once more through the glass wall and considered the unmoving, unseeing body within. "When I look at Webber, doctor, it's my partner I worry about."
"Is that right?" No response. "Come on, I know it is. It's E. Isn't it?"
"You tell me."
"No, nuh-uh. E." Pause. "No, wait, it's H. Is it H?" Pause. "Oh give me a break, doc."
Dr. Speaker chuckled. "It's an E."
"I knew it. I knew you were yanking my chain."
"Can you read the next line?"
"No, seriously, Ray, what can you see?"
Ray squinted at the far wall. "Um—"
"And try not to squint."
"Hey, I only got one eye working here, okay? Awright. Looks like...N...C — no, G. It's a G."
"Good, good. Go on."
"Look at it again."
"5. It's a 5." Ray grinned. "You're tricky."
"Great. Next line."
"More? Shit. T, N, B, no, wait, it's a 3 — F, Z, C." Ray sat back and took a breath. "Well?"
"That's not bad, and it'll improve as the cornea heals. When we take off the bandage from the right one day after tomorrow we'll see how it's doing, too, but honestly, I'm not worrying. And you shouldn't either."
"Easy for you to say," Ray shot back, but inside he felt relieved. "Everything is still a little blurry. And it takes a while to focus."
"I know. Give it time." The doctor looked at his watch. "I have to go. Next time I see you we'll talk more about those contact lenses I mentioned."
"Look, Doc, I don't know..."
"Detective. Ray." The doctor moved into his vision so Ray could see his face fairly clearly. "You can get used to them, if you give them a little time and patience."
"Huh, patience." He made it sound like an obscenity. "They really hurt, last time."
"Look, can you honestly say they hurt that badly? How do they hurt compared to, let's say, getting cut with a knife or having wood splinters in your eyes?"
Ray looked at Speaker as if he wanted to bite him. A moment passed, and then his mouth curved into a grin. "I guess it wasn't too bad, if you look at it like that."
"Let's look at it like that, then, what do you say?"
The doctor patted him on the shoulder. "Thank me now. When you get my bill you may not be so happy."
Ray snorted. The doctor patted his shoulder again and left the small examination room. Ray leaned back against the headrest and closed his left eye, touching his fingers gently to the padding still taped over the right one. It didn't hurt any more, just ached a little. So did his ribs, where Webber had kicked him. The shallow knife cuts were itching a bit as they healed, but all in all, three days after the attack in the Consulate he felt pretty good.
Which was better than the condition in which he'd left the Consulate. Fraser had told him they'd had to fumigate and repaint the whole first floor, as well as replace the conference room carpet, and yet the smell of gasoline still lingered. Diefenbaker refused to go in the building, and in the meantime he and Fraser were camping out at Ray's apartment.
And of course Fraser'd had to replace the stupid tea pot. God forbid the Queen might arrive unexpectedly for a cup of tea.
Inspector Thatcher had not exactly been pleased. Amazing that Fraser was even allowed out of the doghouse to chauffeur him around, Ray thought, after what happened while he was in charge. Next time evidently the Inspector would have to "prep" her subordinate a little more thoroughly. Ray chuckled to himself at the thought.
He opened his eye and a red blur slowly swam into focus. "Hey, Frase. I'm all done."
"Good. Well, are you ready to face them?"
"Yeah, now or never. Me, I'd choose never, but what the hey." He slithered out of the chair, grunting a little as his ribs changed position. Suddenly his flippant attitude seemed to cave in on itself. "How is Webber?"
"I want to see him."
Fraser frowned. They'd been through this before. "You don't have to, Ray."
Ray set his jaw. "If I'm going to talk to Internal Affairs, I have to."
"Yes. I do."
"Are you sure?"
"How many ways do I gotta say it?"
"Very well." Fraser gestured with his head the direction they had to go, and led way down the hall towards the ICU.
In the end, IA couldn't seem to care less about Marshall Webber.
Maybe it had to do with the fact he'd threatened an Assistant State's Attorney, killed a judge and two cops and tried to kill a third, though Fraser suspected the Internal Affairs officers didn't care as much about what had happened to Ray as they did the possible PR nightmare if a hero cop were prosecuted.
He watched through the window as the two IA men questioned Ray about the events leading up to Webber's hospitalization, and when Welsh came up beside him and activated the intercom, the Mountie didn't quibble...and he didn't leave. Maybe it was prying, certainly it was unethical to listen, but Fraser wanted to know if his friend was in trouble.
Ray sat next to his PBA lawyer with his eyes down, much the way he'd been since they left the hospital. For once in his life he didn't try to be a smart-ass. Fraser regarded him carefully, saw the slump of his shoulders, the languor of his movements and listened to the low, almost monotone pitch of his voice. Oh, dear. Ray, Fraser concluded, felt guilty, and was doing nothing to prevent IA from seeing it.
Astonishingly, the IA boys didn't pick up on that. Or more likely, Fraser thought, they decided not to pick up on it. It wasn't in their interest to rake Ray over the coals for trying to kill someone they, too, wanted to see dead.
They didn't exactly hand him a medal either. After a mercifully brief interrogation, they just stopped talking, left the room and went to find Welsh, who stepped into the hall to talk to them. A few sentences later Welsh relaxed and actually shook their hands.
Fraser waited outside the interrogation room until Ray's lawyer came out.
Ray was still sitting at the table, apparently lost in his thoughts, as he entered. "Ray?"
"How did it go?"
Ray squinted at him. "Okay. I guess. But you knew that, Fraser. You were listening in."
Fraser crooked a finger under his collar. "Oh, now, Ray, I — How can you say that?"
"Come on, Frase. Haven't I taught you anything?"
"Well, I suppose I did happen to overhear...just a little."
Ray chuckled. "So you know it was no big deal."
"Evidently. You must feel relieved."
Ray's smile faded and he blew out a breath. "I wish I could, Frase." He leaned down and propped his chin on his left hand, his forefinger lightly stroking the bandage over his right eye. "I just feel kinda, uh..." He bit down on his lip and held his mouth closed.
Fraser sat down. "Ray—"
"No." His hand moved to his forehead and rubbed it, which blocked his left eye from Fraser's view, possibly deliberately. "It's just, I felt so...I can't feel like that again. I can't. I mean, I know I can get nuts, but that was—" His hand came away and he looked up. Fraser waited. "I wanted to kill. I wanted to, Frase, so help me God, I wanted to hurt him. And I couldn't stop."
"He'd hurt you, Ray, he'd threatened Stella."
"No!" Ray sat up and shook his head savagely. "Don't, Fraser, just...do not try to make me feel better."
"If that's what you want." Fraser leaned in a little, his calm gaze holding Ray's turbulent one. "But I think you need to be a little kinder to yourself."
"Kinder." Ray tried on the word for size and rejected it.
"Ray. You're right not to forget what happened. You lost yourself for a moment. But you stopped him killing anyone else. Other people can forgive you for what you did. Maybe in time you can, too."
Ray's visible eye suddenly glistened a little too wetly, and both men looked away.
"Is this...a bad time?"
Stella was in the doorway.
Fraser stood up. "I'll, uh, shall I — I'll be outside — well, you know," he said, and left the room to the two of them. This time he didn't listen in.
"I had to come see how you were doing."
"Thanks, thanks. That's nice. Glad you did." He caught himself babbling and stopped. "You wanna sit down?"
"Thanks." She sat on the edge of the table, looking down at him.
"Are you..." He swallowed and clamped down on what he was going to say. She hates it when I ask her how she is. I don't want to get her started all over again.
Surprisingly, she smiled. "I'm fine, Ray. You look like hell, though."
He shrugged. "I'm good. Can almost see you."
She reached over to push a strand of hair off his bandage. "That's good, Ray. Still...when I heard about Webber, I was..." Now it was her turn to lack words, so she dropped her eyes. "God, Ray. He almost killed you."
"No way, Stell. I was too smart for him." He kept it light.
"Shut up, Ray," she said gently. "You're not that smart. You were lucky."
"Lucky, smart, all the same."
"Please don't joke about it. I was afraid I would, um..."
He looked at her and raised his eyebrow. "What? Lose me?"
She made a little derisive noise. "Fat chance, huh?"
"Huh. No chance in hell, Stella. You'll never get rid of..." The phrase suddenly had too much meaning and Ray let it drift away. Why couldn't she put her arms around him and make it all better?
Come to think of it, why couldn't he do the same for her? He thought about it, about just reaching up, wrapping his arms around her, burying his face against her.
His hands remained where they were.
"That Mountie really worries about you," she said suddenly, frowning at the door.
"Fraser? Well, we're partners." Why on earth was she talking about Fraser?
"He's really irritating."
He had to smile. Stella was the only woman he knew who didn't immediately want to throw Fraser down and hump him. Someday, if he was lucky, he'd find another one impervious to the Mountie allure. "Tell me about it," Ray quipped.
Stella seemed to want to take him literally. "The other night, the night Webber — when Fraser thought he was rescuing me...he got in my face. He...basically told me I act like a bitch to you."
Ray goggled at her. "He did? Fraser said that?"
"Well," Stella tossed her head, "not in so many words. He was a little more polite about it."
"Yeah, I bet." They exchanged amused looks. "Look, I'm sorry if he—"
"No, Ray. He was right. I do treat you that way. And I'm sorry about it, I really am."
Ray said nothing, so Stella went on, not looking at him.
"It's just that it's so hard sometimes, to know you feel like you do, when I'm...I don't know. I don't know what I feel." She turned her face to him. "God, Ray, I know what I want, what I've always wanted, but things get so muddy sometimes. And then you show up, and things get stirred, and — well, I just react."
"I love you, Stella."
She took a breath and narrowed her eyes. "Why?"
"'Why?' What does that mean?"
"What it sounds like."
"'Why?'" Words were finally coming to him, and he let them pour out in an angry rush. "I just...love you, Stella. I just do. I always have. I don't want to smother you, and I'm sorry if it makes you mad, but I love you. I can't help it, and I'm not ashamed of it!"
"Is it love, really, or is it just habit?"
"Come on, Stella—"
"No, Ray, it's a legitimate question. Because it's too much, Ray. Too much and not enough. We're stuck in something that won't let either of us move forward. I've told you I love you, too, Ray, but don't you know, don't you feel it's different now, than it was before?"
"Not to me."
She leaned in and pressed her lips to his forehead. He'd hoped for more. "I don't want to hurt you Ray. You know how I feel about you."
"Love you. Sometimes I do wish we could go back..."
"Maybe we can."
"No. That's not an option."
"Who ya trying to convince here, Stell?"
Her warm lips pulled away from him. "I should go. Just wanted to see you." Her crisp tone was back.
Ray didn't say anything.
"So...I'll call you, Okay?"
"No, I mean it, I will." She was off the table and in the doorway.
"I know. I know you will." Sure I do.
And she was gone.
Ray pushed himself up from the table, out the door and down the hall towards his desk. He felt tired, tired in his bones and in his heart. He saw the red of Fraser's tunic in the corner of his eye. Probably talking to Welsh. He didn't much care. He flopped into the desk chair to wait and rubbed his forehead.
A soft hand touched his shoulder.
Stella. She's back. She came back.
He snapped out of his reverie, but the face that swam into view and resolved itself was not pale and heart-shaped but dark and oval, framed by black hair swept back into a sleek twist. Ray found himself looking at eyes not cool green but warm chocolate, and at crimson lips curving into a generous smile.
He fought to push away his disappointment. "Oh, hi, Ms..." he said, starting to rise, but the hand on his shoulder pressed him back gently into his chair.
Janice McCorkle shook her head and smiled warmly at him. "Please don't get up, I'm just passing through."
A memory twinged. "'Streetcar,'" Ray muttered.
"Nothing. Nothing. That 'passing through' thing. It's a line from—" He shook his head.
"'A Streetcar Named Desire.'" She blinked in surprise. "You know that play?"
"Trust me, every word," he sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. "My dad's favorite movie."
"Really? God, I hate it."
"You do?" He squinted at her, interested.
"Well, I'm from New Orleans originally, so everyone does it for the school play. I played Blanche DuBois in twelfth grade. 'I shall die from eatin' an unwashed grape.' Puh-leeze."
He looked at her critically. "How'd you do?"
She snorted. "Great, if you can believe me as a coo-coo Southern Belle."
Ray chuckled, and Janice laughed. It was a low and rich sound, filled with merriment, a very nice laugh, indeed. She certainly was in better shape mentally than when he'd last seen her. "Come on, I bet you were great." Flirting. Funny he remembered how to do it.
She inclined her head in a little bow. "Not too bad. Boy, I haven't thought of that in years. So, Detective—"
She looked pleased. "Sure, call me Janice. Listen, I came because I heard you took on Webber single-handed. I'm so sorry for what happened. Are you okay now? I mean, I see your eye is still—"
"Uh, no, I'm fine. I'll be fine. But, um, sit, okay? It does still kinda hurt to look up."
"Oh! Oh, I'm so sorry." She sat down in the chair next to Ray's desk and slid her long, red-tipped fingers towards him, and to his astonishment, took one of his hands in hers. "I came by the hospital to see you."
"Wednesday afternoon. You were asleep, so I just stuck my head in for a minute. Didn't that Mountie tell you?"
Ray shook his head. "No, he didn't mention it. I'll kill him."
"I was very worried about you, when I heard what happened, the shooting and all...the Constable told me everything else that happened." She made a face. "He's awfully peculiar, isn't he?"
"Huh. Don't have to tell me." He did a little double-take. "You really think he's peculiar? Not, uh, really good-looking or anything?"
Janice chuckled. "Honey, he's way too stiff." Ray laughed and she squeezed his hand tighter. "I had a hard time finding you. They seem to have you mixed up with someone named Vecchio."
"We could be twins."
"Oh. You know, Ray...you really were amazingly brave."
Ray waved away her praise. "Nah, I was just—"
"Let me gush, okay?"
Okay, just go with the embarrassment, Kowalski. "Sure. Gush away, I guess."
"I just wanted to..." She took a moment, then started to speak again. "The other day, when you came to my apartment, all by yourself—"
"Yeah, I caught hell for that from my Lieutenant."
"Never mind him, Detective."
"Ray. You came right over, no discussion, no argument, you took me seriously, you helped. You probably saved my life, you know."
"Oh, I don't know, I—"
"Janice, I was just being a cop."
"Maybe." Her voice was firm and Ray stopped talking and just looked at her. "We were adversaries in court, Ray, but you rescued me, without a word. And I feel like crap, because I called you obnoxious." She covered her eyes. "That was you on the phone, when I said that. I realized later. I am completely mortified."
"Don't be. I am obnoxious."
She looked up through her fingers and saw his grin, but shook her head. "No. No. I was — panicked, and I was terrified, but you made me feel so much better, just by being there, talking me down from my panic. Then I heard you got in trouble for it, which was bad enough, and then you'd been hurt and I couldn't stand thinking about how a person I defended, someone I got life in prison for instead of the death penalty, might have murdered you, too. That was just impossible to imagine. You were so comforting, and you didn't have to be. We didn't even really know each other."
Ray didn't know what to say. He didn't remember ever being called "comforting" before — irritating, perhaps, annoying, certainly. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "You needed help, Ms. McCorkle. I just—"
"Janice. You were just there. I know. It's just, it occurred to me that you went out on a huge limb. For me." She blinked, and her long lashes rested a moment on her cheek before her eyes looked up again. "You know, I'm a public defender, kind of the low rung on everybody's ladder, and I'm a woman, a black woman, to boot. In my life I've seen more rudeness from cops than selflessness. Unlike Blanche DuBois, I can't always depend on the kindness of strangers."
"No, I guess you can't." He looked at her thoughtfully, but his mind flicked to Stella. "Sometimes you can't even depend on it from people you know." He shook his head, and was back in the room, regarding the woman across from him. Something glittered in his eye. "Hey, 'Blanche'...want to know a secret?"
"Love to, sugah." He grinned at the sudden Southern drawl. Her face was inches from his.
"My real first name isn't 'Ray.'"
"No? Pray tell, Detective Kowalski. What is it then?"
He looked at curious expression, smiled wickedly, and leaned his fair head close to her dark one to whisper in her ear.
She listened, coughed, and gasped with incredulity. "Are you serious?"
"Shh, not so loud."
"Oh, my Lord." She started to laugh and amazingly Ray found it funny, too. He caught a glimpse of Fraser in the doorway, which for some reason made him laugh harder.
There was a movement behind the red-coated figure of his partner, and Fraser stepped aside to reveal Stella standing there. She'd come back after all, and the laughter died in Ray's throat. She stood uncertainly in the doorway, as if she wanted to come over but couldn't make herself take the final steps.
He fixed his sight on her, blurry, but clear enough to read her expression. Stella, he thought, why could you never take those steps?
But the woman seated at his desk was saying something, and he turned to her. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I just wondered...how're your eyes doing?"
He glanced once more at the door, and Stella was gone. And then he turned toward the kind concern on Janice's face and felt something move, shift inside of him. "I think," he said, slowly, testing the words, "I think I'm starting to see things clearly, now."
"Good, I'm so glad!" Janice said, her eyes crinkling with genuine pleasure. She looked at her watch suddenly and squeezed his hand again. "Due in court. I...hope I'll see you again, Ray."
Ray smiled at her. "Sure. That would be great."
"Okay, then, I'll be going. Glad you're okay. 'Bye. Thanks again."
Ray stood up with her. "Later, then."
"Yeah." She seemed rooted to the spot, but then pulled something out of her pocket and pressed it into his hand, before turning and walking into the corridor, brushing by Fraser without so much as a look. Ray watched her shapely silhouette until she turned the corner, then idly looked at what was in his hand. Her business card. He considered it for a moment, a little surprised, then laughed at himself and stuck it in his front pocket.
"Ready to go, Ray?"
Fraser was at his elbow, hat in hand. "Uh, sure, yeah, I'm ready." Ray slid his jacket off the back of his chair, put on his sunglasses and without planning to, turned towards where he'd last seen Stella. He waited to feel the familiar sense of loss, but when it came, it didn't hurt as much as he expected. He let out a long breath. It seemed he'd been holding his breath a very long time.
"No. Nothing wrong." He started to go, then stopped. "No, wait."
"What is it, Ray?"
"You talked to Stella. About me."
Fraser looked as if he'd been caught in church in his underwear, and Ray opened his mouth to let him have it. Oddly, his mouth didn't obey him.
"Thanks," he heard himself say.
"Oh." Fraser looked as surprised as he. "Well, you're welcome, Ray."
Ray sighed. "Don't do it again."
They walked side by side to the parking lot.
"Ms. McCorkle seems nice."
"You look good together."
"Drop it, Fraser. I'm not looking for anything."
"Well, maybe you should be." Fraser unlocked the passenger door.
"Are you my mother?"
"What sort of question is that?"
"A good one."
" Do I look like your mother? No."
"Do you sound like my mother? Yes."
"I just wondered, Ray, given that she seems interested in you, and with the amusing coincidence of her playing Blanche DuBois in High School—"
"You heard that? Jeez, Radar, can I get some privacy?"
"And of course the fact that your name is actually Stanley Kowalski—"
"I'm warning you, Fraser!"
"I couldn't help wondering if, well, if perhaps you and Ms. McCorkle 'have had this date from the beginning.'"
"Want to die, Fraser? Just keep it up!" Ray plopped down onto the leather. "Stop laughing, I'm not kidding!"
Fraser slid into the GTO's driver seat, as he had for the past four days. He turned the key with a little satisfied grunt, as if he were enjoying himself, and it occurred to Ray that maybe Fraser was enjoying driving his car a little too much. The car started with a throaty roar and Fraser jammed down on the accelerator. The car screeched out of the parking lot, just missing a tow-truck.
"Hey!" Ray said.
"What?" Fraser looked over at him, flashing what looked to be an angelic expression. No, make that some sort of dopey, giddy look. A somewhat drunken look, in fact.
"Freak," Ray muttered.
Fraser smiled beatifically. He wrenched the car around a corner a little too fast and Ray found his own white-knuckled hands clutching the dashboard bar. "Jesus Fucking Christ, Fraser!"
"What was that, Ray?" Fraser's smile was blissful and Ray narrowed his eyes. The damned Mountie looked stoned, for Chrissakes!
Ray jammed his hands into his pockets. "Nothing. It was nothing. Just...not so fast, Fraser. She's delicate. Drive her slow."
"Understood." Fraser hummed a happy tune.
"See? That was a red light! No need to be reckless."
"Possibly." Fraser's finger shot out and punched a button on the dashboard, and loud music suddenly filled the car.
"What IS that? Shut that off!"
"It's Beethoven, Ray, Symphony Number 5."
"Classical music? You changed my stations? There will be no Beethoven-fucking-classical music in my car!"
"Sorry, Ray, driver's choice," Fraser said, pumping up the volume.
"Fraser, I'm warn — Hey, stop sign! Stop sign! Fraser!"
"Ray, my friend," Fraser said soothingly. He turned to his partner and grinned with self-satisfaction as he gunned the engine."You know, you really must try to relax."