Warning: there are general spoilers for both seasons one and two, a few swear words, and a little violence in the later parts of the story.
All standard disclaimers apply. These characters are not mine, did you really think they were? No copyright infringement or harm is meant by their use. The story, however, is mine, and may not be reproduced without permission.
Comments and constructive criticism are very welcome, I'd love to know what you think of this, my first ever piece of fan-fic. Email can be sent to email@example.com
Hope you enjoy it!
"But what exactly *is* it, Ray?"
"It's good for you, Benny; just eat it."
"Ray, I find it difficult to believe that something bright pink, undoubtedly due to artificial additives, that appears to consist entirely of some type of sugar substance, can be all that good for me."
"Of course it's good for you. Don't you know how important sugar is for the body? It's essential to your energy supply. It keeps everything in balance. They've done studies on it."
"Have they studied the effects of huge quantities of sucrose on animals that normally only ingest raw meat?" Diefenbaker, in the process of finishing Ray's ice cream sandwich, was careful not to make eye contact with him.
Meg Thatcher shook her head in disbelief. "I can't believe you've never had cotton candy. Or snowcones. Or even caramel popcorn. What did you *eat* when you were growing up? Didn't you ever have dessert?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, my Grandmother had quite a collection of recipes for, um, wholesome desserts that were quite satisfying."
Ray was having none of that. "Benny, your grandmother was the worst cook in seven counties. You told me even the wildlife ran away when she was cooking."
"Ray, you're exaggerating. I told you that once she attempted to make a certain rather spicy dish, and that the rather... pungent odor from that attempt did appear to have a somewhat worrying, if temporary, effect on the local fauna in the region, but that--"
"Never *mind* Benny--just eat it, would you? You don't know how to enjoy yourself properly so you gotta rely on my judgment when I tell you that *this* is what people do to enjoy themselves."
Actually, Fraser was enjoying himself very much. He couldn't just go ahead and say such a thing of course, that would take away all the fun Ray was having from bullying him into enjoying himself.
He'd been surprised when Ray had suggested the amusement park. It hadn't seemed like a "Ray" sort of thing. A sporting event perhaps. Maybe a car show. But Ray had insisted that the Palos Heights Annual Carnival was an event not-to-be-missed. Fraser had just about gotten a handle on this concept and agreed to accompany Ray, when Inspector Thatcher had entered his office to check on a report. Fraser had been floored when Ray, with a glint in his eye, had turned to his superior officer and invited her along as well. That had almost been as big a shock to his system as the shock of Thatcher's immediate acceptance of the invitation.
"Sounds great! When do we go?"
Fraser's mind had fretted itself in circles, calculating all the potential uncomfortable situations, conversational difficulties, and outright disasters that could arise from the unprecedented combination of himself, Ray, and Inpector Meg Thatcher, R.C.M.P., on an informal outing. None of them had arisen. They'd never had a chance. Ray and Meg, dressed almost identically if accidentally in jeans, blue tee-shirts, and jean jackets, had approached the carnival the way commandos would have dealt with a military operation. They'd acquired a map and two pens, and proceeded to outline and execute the most effective route for hitting as many rides while eating as much food as possible.
They had been unimpressed by the Haunted Tunnel Ride. They had jeered mercilessly at a group of (rather poor) sidewalk performers. They'd made him ride *three times* on some type of spinning machine that went around with such force it suctioned you to the side, completely unable to move. He'd been extremely grateful at that point that he had not partaken in the multitude of previously unknown food items they had been consuming all morning, and quite frankly amazed at their apparently iron constitutions, as all around them people were losing their lunches, and even he was feeling rather queasy. They had admired, from behind a glass wall, the Heinberg Ruby. ("Do you know what you could BUY with that? Something like 270 mint-condition Rivs!") They'd all taken turns winning stuffed animals at the sharpshooters booth, until the man's voice rose from its low muttering to a querulous shriek of insistence that they must somehow be cheating, and what kind of people completely depleted a man's livelihood by stealing stuffed animals when they were all adults anyway?! Benny had made Ray and Meg distribute the toys among the crowd of small children that had gathered to watch in awe as they took down target after target with no apparent difficulty. The proprietor of the booth hadn't been particularly appeased by this action, and had glared at them until they moved a sufficient distance away.
Now, eleven rides, three bags of popcorn, two ice cream sandwiches, four snowcones, five hot dogs, and two bags of french fries later, Benny was feeling good enough about the day to take Ray's word for it and attempt to consume something that looked as though it might more properly be used for insulating a house. He stuck his tongue out and tasted it tentatively.
"If we go now, we can get in two or three trips on the river rafting ride before they close it down for the night." Thatcher was doggedly repeating this statement to Ray, who was shaking his head as though it had been inappropriately placed on his neck, and he was trying to remove it.
"The line's too long. We'll be standing there forever and they'll probably close it down before we reach the front. They always close the water rides down early."
"That's why we should go NOW, so we don't miss our last chance. There's plenty of time. The line's not that long," Meg insisted.
"You know, this really isn't that bad," commented Fraser.
"What we should do is get in line for the mile-high roller coaster. Then, by the time we're done with that, the sun will just be finished setting and we can go up in the Ferris wheel. The fair always looks great from up above, with all the rides with their lights turned on." Ray's face had lit up with the memory.
"The sun will be down all night long. That's the way it works you know. And the rides stay open till one a.m., except for the water rides. We've got plenty of time to get back to the coaster and the Ferris wheel." Thatcher wasn't backing down.
"It just sort of melts away in your mouth, doesn't it?" Fraser continued.
Ray crossed his arms over his chest stubbornly. "The Ferris wheel is the best ride in this place. I've just been saving it for last."
"I'm not saying we're not going to ride on the Ferris wheel, just Not Yet. Do you listen to anything anybody says to you?"
"I can see how one could acquire a taste for this sort of thing."
"You can tune the whole world out up there. I never even minded when Ma insisted Frannie ride up with me, chattering her head off the whole way. Never heard a word she said up there. Pure bliss."
"Not that that excuses any addictions which may have arisen lately, mind you."
"If that's your way of saying you're not listening to me, it's not going to work. The river rafting ride is *my* favorite ride, you know."
"Because this kind of thing might be all right for a treat, but it's a totally inappropriate basis for a diet." Fraser's voice had taken on its standard lecturing tone.
Ray changed tactics. "I mean, where's the thrill in a ride like that when you've done the real thing? Did I ever tell you how I steered us down that river after the plane crash we were in? Right through rapids, too. The real thing! Not some hokey ride."
Fraser leaned back against outer wall of the House of Mirrors, carefully tearing small portions of cotton candy off the cone and popping them into his mouth. Diefenbaker was begging unashamedly at his feet. A look of fondness settled on his face as he watched his friends heatedly discussing the respective points of their favorite rides with the conviction of religious zealots defending their faith. Ray had been right. This had been a good idea. His eyes swept out across the crowd. The sun was just beginning to set. Strings of lights were being turned on, shining through multicolored tents and casting rainbow shadows on the walls, ground, passing people. The hum of noise was a comfortable mix of conversation, children's shouts and giggles, and the occasional cheer in the background as someone won a prize. As he watched, a pair of children chased their golden retriever down the path. A small child perched on her father's shoulders tugged at his hair impatiently and pointed to the destination her parent was obviously taking too long to reach. A large group of teenagers was cutting across the field, and just behind them a woman stepped from behind a booth, heading in the opposite direction.
Suddenly, Benny couldn't breathe. The world had stopped, gone completely silent as though someone had abruptly turned the volume off, and he could hear nothing but his own heart beating in his ears. Diefenbaker was right by his face--which was wrong, he shouldn't be that close--and he couldn't get his voice to work, his lips to move for Dief to read them.
"Benny, what's wrong!"
Both Ray and Meg turned simultaneously from their argument at the sound of Diefenbaker barking. Fraser was on the ground, doubled over. Diefenbaker was ignoring the cotton candy, which had fallen to the side, his face in front of Fraser's, whining desperately.
"Benny, what happened! Talk to me!" Ray was crouched by his side, trying to push Dief away and peer into his face.
"Where's he hurt? I don't see any blood. What happened? There's no one even near here." Thatcher sounded only slightly frantic, keeping her calm and trying to evaluate the situation.
"I don't know. I don't see anything. Benny, can you sit up?"
"I'll call a doctor."
"NO!" The word burst out of Fraser's mouth. He made a convulsive movement and struggled to sit up, gasping for air.
"Hey! Take it easy. You're shaking! Where are you hurt?" Ray grabbed his shoulder gently, eased him up against the wall.
"I'm not hurt. I'm fine. Let's go home."
"What?!" The exclamations burst from both Ray and Meg. They crouched in front of him, their faces twin images of confusion and concern.
Fraser used the wall to lever himself into standing position, pushing their hands away from him.
"I'm fine. I'd like to leave now." He took a step forward and swayed. Hands grabbed and supported him on either side. There was a pain like a clenched fist right below the center of his rib cage, his breathing was ragged, the trembling was getting worse.
Ray and Thatcher exchanged a look behind his back. What was this? Fraser was definitely *not* all right.
"Okay, Benny; we'll go home now. But why don't you sit down on this bench and catch your breath for a minute first?" Ray suggested.
Fraser didn't answer him.
"Keep him here, I'll go get help," Thatcher instructed. Ray nodded.
"I don't need help. I want to leave." Fraser forced the words out painfully.
"Stay put, constable! That's an order!" Thatcher took off at a run.
"Here, Benny; just sit down. Do you need some water or something?" Ray steered Fraser to the bench, peering anxiously into his friend's face. Benny's eyes were squeezed shut. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. His lips were pressed together, his whole expression one of pain. Fraser went suddenly still. "Benny?" As Ray watched, Fraser took a deep, shuddering breath. His face smoothed itself into one of concentration, and he began to breath in careful, even lungfulls. Ray sat silently, feeling absolutely helpless. He put his hand on Dief's head, trying to reassure the wolf who was sitting at his feet watching every movement intently. He was scared to even talk, as it was obvious that Fraser was using all his concentration to get his breathing back under control. He opened his eyes.
"I'm fine now, Ray. Let's leave."
"We're not going anywhere, Fraser."
"I'm sorry if I worried you, Ray, but there's really no need for concern. We can go now."
"Fine. We'll go. We're just going to wait for Thatcher to get back first. It would be rude to leave her here, you know. What kind of Canadian would you be if you did that? You wanna be careful they don't revoke your citizenship."
Fraser didn't respond.
"Actually, all of his symptoms are perfectly consistent with an anxiety attack. Do you know if he has any history of them?" the park's on-staff doctor said, starting to put his equipment back into his bag as he spoke.
"Fraser?! What, are you crazy? Impossible!" Ray all but snorted in distain.
"We weren't even *doing* anything!" Thatcher protested. "He was just standing there eating cotton candy! He's a Mountie! He's been in situations a thousand times more stressful. What could be less stressful than that?"
The doctor surveyed the two individuals in front of him, who seemed rather stressed themselves, and shrugged. "Not everyone is upset by the same things. Personal problems are often more stressful than professional ones."
"Well, what are we supposed to do now?" Ray demanded impatiently.
"Take him home. Make him get some rest. See if you can get him to tell you what upset him. Something must have triggered that attack, even if he doesn't consciously realize what it was." The doctor shrugged.
"Well, that was helpful. Thank you so much. Let's go get a second opinion, Vecchio." Thatcher was even less impressed with the doctor's diagnosis than Ray had been.
Irritated, the doctor turned to her. "He's in perfect physical health. This was some type of psychological trauma."
"You don't know this man. We do. It wasn't a panic attack."
"Just because he's extremely capable at his job doesn't mean isn't subject to such an attack. Everyone has something in their life they find difficult to deal with." The doctor turned and surveyed Fraser, still sitting on his bench. "If it were something physical and not emotional, why is he reacting like that? Surely this is not his normal behavior?"
Fraser sat, straight as a board, staring face forward. All of his answers to the doctor's questions had been short, abrupt, robot-like. He had refused to volunteer any information other than what was demanded by the doctor, and had not reacted to any of the comments put forward by Ray or Thatcher. Ray had to admit it was peculiar behavior, even from Benny.
Ray and Meg approached Fraser as the doctor climbed into the electric golf cart that had delivered him to the scene and signaled the driver to return him to the main office.
"Hey, Fraser! You got a clean bill of health. That doctor's got some strange ideas but he says he couldn't find anything wrong with you." Ray's voice was full of false cheerfulness.
"Fraser, the doctor suggested you might have had an anxiety attack of some kind. Did anything upset you right before you fell down?" Thatcher had never been one to hedge around an issue. At least, not when a matter concerned someone under her command. *Your manners aren't going to win you any prizes in life, Meggy.* She could still remember her Mother shaking her head at her while lecturing on the "polite" way to ask someone a question.
"I told you I was perfectly fine, Ray. No, I can't say that anything in particular disturbed me before I tripped, inspector. It was just an unfortunate incident. I'm sorry if I alarmed the two of you. We can be on our way now."
"Tripped???" Ray demanded, in disbelief.
"Fraser, why don't you take tomorrow off? You can take a sick day; heaven knows you got enough of them accrued," Thatcher offered.
"I assure you that won't be necessary, inspector."
"Fraser, if I have any reason to believe your condition is going to affect your work, I can't put you on any assignments."
"I am quite capable of performing my duties at the consulate, inspector. Nothing that happened today will in any way affect my work." Fraser's expression was the same emotionless mask it had been since the doctor arrived.
"I'll drive us all home. We can stop and pick up a pizza or something, right?" Ray was shifting uneasily from foot to foot.
"You should probably take Inspector Thatcher home now, Ray. It's getting rather late. I can take the bus."
Thatcher made a disgusted sound. "You drive *him* home, Detective. I can take the bus."
Ray swiveled his head back and forth between the two of them, trying to decide what approach to take to the situation. Fraser decided for him, getting up and walking briskly away from the two of them. Ray gave Thatcher a hopeless look, and dashed after him.
Fraser was re-organizing his office. When he had first moved into the small space, it had been crammed with odds and ends from different departments around the consulate that had somehow found their way into the room as various employees searched for the few remaining pockets of empty storage space. Since then, Fraser had managed to arrange a system to his own ordered liking. Inspector Thatcher had refused to assign him any work when he came in this morning. Not even paperwork. There had been several less-than-veiled hints that he should take the day off. He was desperate for something to occupy his mind. The old system had gone by the wayside. Everything had to be completely redone. The old system was chaos anyway, he failed to understand how he could have allowed such inefficiency to continue for so long. Now, with all the papers stacked, boxes labeled, desk drawers cleaned out, coffee cups washed, dried, and arranged by color, he had moved on to greasing the gears in the filing cabinet.
Ray, watching him through the open door to his office, wondered if he'd organized the paper clips in his desk by size. He entered the small space, closing the door quietly behind him, and stood silently for a moment, watching Fraser's back.
"Benny, have you completely lost your mind? More so than usual, I mean."
Fraser swung around to look at him. He opened his mouth to respond and discovered that he was, for once, completely without an answer.
"You know, Benny, I would hope, if there was a problem...?" Ray was uncomfortable. You shouldn't have to say things the other person already knew. He scowled. Fraser hadn't said one word to him during the entire car ride back to his apartment last night, other than toneless "Yes's" and "No's."
Fraser felt terrible. Worse than he had a few minutes ago, if that were possible. Ray was his best friend and shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable about talking to him. His best friend, and he owed him. Not just an explanation, but a warning. Fraser took a deep breath. He focused on a spot of wall just behind Ray's left ear. "I'm afraid I rather spoiled our outing yesterday, Ray. I was enjoying myself very much. Quite a festive event."
"Well it was to begin with, anyway. What happened, Benny?" Ray's attempts at getting Benny to make eye contact were failing. He moved a few feet to the left.
"Sometimes the smallest things can catch you off guard. Cause you to lose your balance, trip and fall, because you failed to pay attention to where you're going. Take you completely by surprise until you realize you were mistaken." Fraser seemed to have acquired a fascination with the doorknob.
"Trip and fall. Right, Benny." Ray was nodding, not bothering to hide his disbelief, but encouraging him to continue.
"I mean, you're in a crowded place, and you see someone, and you think they look like someone you used to know, and by the time you realize you were mistaken, you've fallen over and scared your friends and ruined their day, which was certainly not the intention."
"You saw someone you knew? Who was it?" Ray was frankly puzzled by now.
"A total stranger of course, but by the time you realize this fact, it's too late and you wouldn't want to mention it anyway, because you were mistaken."
"Benny, you stopped making sense right at the beginning of this conversation. Who did you see?"
"Because of course, it wasn't her." *Wasn't her.* Wasn't her glancing back over her shoulder at him, walking away from him across the field. His eyes had lost their focus. He blinked rapidly. "If it had been, of course, I would have had to report it to the local authorities." He could feel Ray's eyes on him. "That would be *you*, in fact. And I would have had to tell you anyway. So that you could be prepared for any potential problems. If it had been her, that is."
"Victoria was at the Carnival." Ray spoke very, very softly.
"Possibly some woman who looked like her. It wasn't her. Because if it had been, of course, I would have to tell you all of this. But it wasn't her, Ray. So there's nothing to be concerned about at all is there? I'm sure you can see that now."
Ray was looking at him. Fraser stared at the oil can he had set on the table in front of him, but he still knew that Ray was looking at him.
"Well, Ray; I must say, I'm glad we sorted all of this out. Again, I'm truly sorry if you were concerned. There's obviously nothing to be worried about." Fraser picked up the oil can, turned back to the file cabinet.
"No, Benny; you were right. There's nothing for you to be worried about at all."
Ray's steps were very light, the door closing behind him barely made any noise at all.
Thatcher moved through the darkened office mainly by memory. *I spend too much time here,* she thought. *Yesterday was going so well... well, until Fraser passed out. The first time I really enjoyed myself like that in a long time.* She was unhappy with the way she'd handled that situation. She hadn't felt as though she knew him well enough to ask a lot of personal questions about whatever it was that could have upset him. As his commanding officer, she had to insure that he was actually fit for duty. She'd come off sounding like a total bitch. Wonderful. And Constable Turnbull had come to her in desperation this afternoon, begging her to do something about Fraser, who was apparently completely reorganizing his filing system.
"Hey, inspector." She nearly took the head off the man who had crept up behind her with the electric pencil sharpener before registering that it was Ray's voice.
"Detective Vecchio! What are you doing here? Do you know what time it is? Do you usually lurk in the dark in consulate offices all night long?" Fear made her voice sharp. She reached over the desk and snapped on the light.
"Hey, hey! Take it easy. I needed to talk to you after Benny had left."
"Did you get him to tell you what had happened? What went wrong?"
"Actually, he told me what wasn't wrong."
"So he didn't tell you anything."
"Of course, he didn't tell me anything. He denied everything that happened. I know exactly what happened now."
"He didn't tell you what happened, but you know anyway?"
"He told me what *didn't* happen. It's the same thing in a situation like this."
Thatcher was becoming irritated. "If you actually have a point to make here, I wish you'd get to it."
Ray hesitated. "Of course, since he didn't actually tell me anything, anything I told you would just be speculation, hearsay, totally unofficial and off the record, and just hypothetically speaking, you realize."
Thatcher looked at him. "If he didn't tell you anything, I don't see how you could be reporting anything to me."
Ray nodded. "That's right. If Benny thought he saw, say, a hardened criminal at the carnival yesterday, but then decided that his eyesight was failing or something, he just saw an innocent bystander, there would be absolutely no point in making a report."
Thatcher lips quirked. "If Fraser had seen a hardened criminal at the fair, he wouldn't have keeled over and hit the pavement. He would have left us in his dust, chased him across the length of the fair grounds if necessary, and arrested him."
Ray hesitated again, looking Thatcher over speculatively. *Yeah, well; what the hell. Just say it right out, she can take it.* "How much do you know about Victoria Metcalf?"
Thatcher's eyebrows shot up and she frowned. "I have a report in my file cabinet that details a good deal of information about the woman. I recall she was the reason you ended up shooting Constable Fraser in the back?"
Ray nodded. Thatcher's frown grew deeper.
"According to the reports, Fraser was attempting to stop her from escaping by train when he stepped in front of your line of fire. If he was taking such action then, why wouldn't he try to do so now? Surely you're not suggesting he's afraid of the woman."
Ray's palms were sweating. He didn't know if he knew her well enough to trust her, but he needed her help to pull this off. *This better be the right thing to do.* "He's scared to death of her. But not that way. Not everything makes it into reports, you know."
"He's in love with her."
"He might have been. Maybe he thought he was. I don't know about now."
"And so he failed to arrest her?"
*Think fast, Vecchio.* "He feels guilty about her. He thinks it's his fault or something that she is the way she is. He's got it into his head that he can help her. He wants her to turn herself in."
"Detective Vecchio, why exactly are you coming to me with this?"
"Look. Fraser thinks he's got to deal with this his way. He's not going to let anyone help him. What he's going to do is try to talk to her, bring her in on his own. He thinks everyone can be redeemed, no matter how rotten they are. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that this woman is a snake. Nothing she does just 'happens,' this is some plan of hers. If Fraser saw her at the carnival, it was because she *wanted* him to see her. The last time I ended up in the middle of one of her plans, Fraser and I were both accused of robbery and murder. So, I gotta let him deal with this his way because I didn't let him do that last time. But I don't have to let him end up dead. So what I want to do is follow him. Make sure she's not setting him up. And if it is another setup, I want someone impartial who can back us up on the details."
"And if this does turn out to be some plot on Victoria's part?"
*Then I'll shoot her.* "Then we nab her, of course."
Thatcher was still frowning at him. "Considering what you've told me about her, don't you think it's probably safe to assume she's up to no good, and just go ahead and 'nab' her?"
Ray had thought this more than once, his mind going 'round and 'round like... like the merry-go-round they'd all had more than one turn on yesterday: *Just find her first--don't let her get to Benny to begin with. If he's not around, he can hardly get in the way when you shoot her this time, can he? ...but if you do that, you take away his choice to be with her *again*. It's gotta be his decision this time. If he goes with her, he goes with her, and you gotta distract Thatcher somehow. If he comes to his senses and decides to forget about her, you still have to distract Thatcher somehow... and then you shoot Victoria any way you can.*
He shook his head. "We won't find her unless she approaches Fraser, or has him come to her. And Fraser won't tell us if she contacts him, or go near her if he even suspects we know what's going on. He thinks he betrayed her. He *still* thinks he owes her. He'll go all noble, believe he can convince her to turn herself in if he talks with her about it." That last part was a fib. Ray was under no misconception that Fraser would ever try to get Victoria to turn herself in, Benny had learned *that* much. But he needed Thatcher's help. Tell her just enough of the truth and the lies will seem truthful, too.
Thatcher considered the situation that had just been laid out before her. *Do I really want to get involved in all this? I don't need this. I really don't. I knew that man was going to be trouble from the first minute I saw him.*
She looked back up at Ray. "You seem to be certain that Fraser can't handle this situation on his own, Detective."
"Are you serious? She laid him out cold just by showing up where he could *see* her. That conversation I had with him this afternoon? He was in complete denial. He took a bullet in the back because of her. He loses his grip on common sense when she's around."
There was silence. Ray cleared his throat. Shuffled his feet. "Look, it's probably nothing really. Maybe he did just see a woman who happened to look exactly like Victoria Metcalf. You can look on this as practice to recapture all those rusty Mountie skills--staking out another Mountie, what could be better?"
She looked up at him and he gave her a huge, sunshiny, puppy-dog-of-a-pleading grin. She made an exasperated sound.
"All right, detective. But at the first sign of trouble, all bets are off. We reel them both in. For Fraser's own protection, of course."
"Of course, inspector."
The apartment was too small. That had been obvious to most of the people who had come to visit him before, why had he never noticed until just now? There just wasn't enough space to *move*.
Dief whined anxiously as he watched his human companion relentlessly circle the apartment yet again. He lay a foot away from his food bowl, guarding it protectively. Fraser had already moved its location three times earlier as he rearranged the apartment furniture.
*Don't think about it and you don't have to deal with it.*
It was like what his Grandmother had taught him about manners, both directly and indirectly. Someone has done you a terrible wrong, but it would be wrong to respond with anger or haste. But some things can't be forgiven. How do you get around these problems if you have to associate with that individual, hold a conversation with them? Benny's solution was, and had always been, complete denial. That incident? I'm sorry, what incident would that be? I really don't know what you are talking about. If you don't know what they're talking about, you can hardly discuss it with them, can you?
It didn't seem to work as well when the person you weren't talking to was yourself.
*I can't believe I reacted in that manner.*
Fraser considered the windows. Did they need washing?
*What would Dad think if he had seen that? Rendered completely incapable by the mere sight of her.*
Stop right there. He wasn't going to follow that line of thought a second further. It's not as if it had been her in any case. Trick of the sunlight. He glanced over at Dief. Dief nosed his food dish suggestively. Fraser blinked.
"You're exactly correct!" he exploded. "Of course, I should have realized it. That's exactly what it was. An allergic reaction. To the cotton candy. I knew that substance couldn't really be good for you. I mean, consider the chemicals that must have been involved in creating that confection. That's all it was." Dief looked more than a little doubtful. "We're going to have to get you off of that sugar-laced diet you've been subsisting on sooner than we have been. Cold Turkey, Diefenbaker. God knows what it's doing to your insides." Dief looked positively miserable.
There was a shuffling in the hallway, a knock at the door. Fraser lunged for the handle, threw the door open. Mr. Mustafi stood there, poised to knock again, a startled expression on his face.
"Uh, Fraser? You uh, got a call on the phone for you--"
He was already down the hallway.
"We should have brought some coffee or something with us. We stopped for practically everything else along the way."
Thatcher made a noncommittal sound. Ray peered up at Benny's window.
"Look at that. His light is *still* on. Do you know how long past his bed time it is?"
Thatcher looked at him. "He's not an eight-year-old, Ray. It's only eleven o'clock. Perhaps he's watching television."
"A lot you know. He doesn't *have* a television. He goes to bed at eight, nine o'clock tops. At least we know he's still there."
Ray had been frantically worried that by the time they got to the apartment, Benny would have already heard from Victoria and left. They'd had to stop at Thatcher's apartment so she could change. She had refused to stakeout Fraser's apartment in her work clothes. Then there had been the issue of the car. Ray knew Fraser would spot his Riv if it was within a mile radius of the apartment. Thatcher had refused to take one of the consulate cars out for something that was unofficial business, and had pointed out that Fraser would probably spot the diplomatic plates anyway. They'd ended up renting the pathetic excuse for a motor vehicle that they were currently sitting in. Ray hadn't even realized they *made* cars this small. It was like a cardboard box on wheels, he thought he could probably put his fist right through the door if he put a little effort into it. Then, while he was arguing with the rental manager, trying to convince him to give them one of the larger vehicles that was reserved for a next-day customer, Thatcher had swiped the car keys and comandeered the driver's seat. With her in control of the steering wheel, it had been impossible to stop her from going back to the consulate to pick up a bag of equipment she had thought might be useful, including binoculars and flashlights. But no coffee.
Ray started picking at the peeling plastic seat cover. He glanced sideways at Thatcher. "So. Um. You like sports or anything?"
The door to Fraser's apartment building flew open. Fraser came down the steps three at a time. Ray and Thatcher both threw themselves down, or tried to do so. Ray tried to move his head and ended up with Thatcher's knee in his face. Fraser charged down the block.
"Okay! This is it! Go, go, gogogo!"
"Why doesn't he get in a cab? Why aren't there any cabs around here? He's going to notice us if he stays on foot. We look just a little conspicuous here, the only car on the street, following him down the block at five miles an hour. There's no way he's not gonna see us." Ray was frantic.
Fraser was loping down the street about half a block ahead of them.
"Would you be picking up fares in this neighborhood at this time of night if you were a cab driver?"
"He's going to *see* us."
Thatcher yanked the wheel hard to the left, and headed down an alley.
"What are you doing? We're going to lose him!"
"Take it easy. We'll get a few blocks ahead of him and wait for him to catch up with us." She took a hairpin right.
"Uh, Inspector, I don't think this is an alley."
"Sure it is. We're going down it, aren't we?"
"It's just a space between the building the planners forgot about! It's too small to be an alley."
"That's okay. This is a small car. We'll fit."
They hit a fence. There was a scraping, dragging metal-on-metal sound. Ray yelped.
"Watch where you're going! This car is rented in *my* name!"
"You took out insurance on it, didn't you?"
Ray sat in stony silence. Thatcher ripped down the block, through the next two, took another right, and turned the engine and lights off as they reached the entrance to the street.
"Do you see him?" She twisted her head around in the direction they had come from.
"He's a block down," replied Ray. "He's making good time. Look, look! There's a cab! Get it, Benny!"
Fraser signaled the cab. The cab continued its course without taking any notice of him.
"He's not going to stop for him," Thatcher noted calmly. "It's this neighborhood."
"He has to! Come on, what kind of a cab driver are you anyway?"
As they watched, Fraser sped up, swerved off the sidewalk, and ran directly in front of the path of the oncoming cab, arms waving. The cabbie gunned his engine.
"He wouldn't really run him over, would he?" Thatcher sounded slightly worried.
"Nah, he'll swerve, or stop, or something. The cabbies around here aren't that crazy."
The cabbie sped up. Fraser ran directly at the oncoming car. Ray and Thatcher let out simultaneous yells of warning. Fraser stepped to one side of the vehicle just as its front bumper reached him, hooked his arm into the open window, and somehow managed to cling to the side of the vehicle as it continued down the street. Tires squealed. The car door was flung open, the cab driver erupted out of the cab, arms flailing and shouting oaths. Fraser could be seen gesturing slightly more calmly. After a minute, the cab driver began to calm down. Some sort of arrangement was evidently reached, involving, Ray suspected, a far too expensive fare. Ray and Thatcher sat in silence for a moment, allowing the cab to gain some ground on them.
"He does that sort of thing a lot, doesn't he." It was a statement on Thatcher's part rather than a question.
"No, no," Ray responded. "Only when he's awake."
"Vehicles are not allowed on the fairgrounds." The park security guard was adamant. They weren't getting past him. Ray couldn't believe it. All the way across the city, and as far as he could tell Fraser hadn't spotted them. Once they had moved out of Fraser's neighborhood and into some traffic, he had to admit that Thatcher had done a decent job of tailing the cab. Now here they were back at the carnival, and they were going to lose him because of some rent-a-cop on a power trip. He'd tried everything, even waving his badge. The guard had eyed it like he suspected it was some cheap plastic toy and Ray was some kid playing games with him.
"So you're here on duty, sir? This is official business?"
"Of course I am! Extremely important international affairs. Back me up here, inspector." Thatcher was rummaging around in the bag she had brought with them. Ray craned his head over the wall trying to follow Fraser's rapidly vanishing figure.
"Here Vecchio, take this." Thatcher was pressing a walkie-talkie into his hands.
"We don't have time to argue with this idiot, detective, or we really will lose him. Take the walkie-talkie, follow him on foot, and I'll stay with the car. You can direct me where to meet you if it looks like he's going to leave the fair grounds. Take a flashlight with you as well. Hurry up, already!"
Ray grabbed the proffered flashlight, pushed past the still-suspicious guard, and entered the park, weaving his way through the crowds.
Fraser scanned the crowd lined up for the sky lift. People of all types, shapes and sizes. No one he recognized.
"Excuse me, sir, are you, uh, Mr. Frazier?"
Fraser turned. A blotchy-faced teenager in a uniform that marked him as a park attendant stood behind him, a look of worry on his face.
"Your friend is waiting for you over here, sir." He led Fraser over to the last of the sky cabs currently on the ground. Fraser peered into the interior, which was, in contrast to all of the other well-lit cabs, completely dark.
Her voice came out of the darkness.
"Get in, Ben."
Ray watched the sky cab tilt, lift, and vanish upward. She'd had one waiting for Fraser. By the time he made it through the line for another sky cab, they could be anywhere in park. Even if he pushed his way into the next cab, they were all well-lit, and Fraser would see him from where he was sitting. He collared a pimply-faced park attendant.
"Where does this ride end?"
"What? Uh, over by the petting zoo, sir. But that's all the way on the other side of the park, sir."
Other side of the park. Right.
The sky cab tilted, lifted upwards. Fraser closed his eyes, counted to ten to allow his pupils to adjust to the new lighting, and opened them again. He took careful, even breaths.
"You're not going to fall over again, are you?" The voice was calm, amused... possibly the slightest bit worried?
"No, I don't believe I am." He looked at her. Illuminated from behind and below by the carnival lights, she looked almost as he remembered her in candlelight.
She shifted her head slightly. "How are you, Ben?"
Fraser was silent. He continued to stare at her fce, trying to see her eyes more clearly in the darkness. "I'm fine, Victoria. Is that what you came here to ask me?"
She shifted again, leaned forward. "I came here to see how you are. To see if you were... okay."
"I have completely recovered from my injuries."
"That's not entirely what I meant. You're not going to help make this any easier, are you, Ben?"
"Detective Vecchio, are you there? Can you hear me, detective?" Thatcher's voice, high and tinny, but perfectly clear, came over the walkie-talkie.
Ray was moving too fast, was too out of breath to even try to respond.
"Detective Vecchio, can you answer me?"
*Well obviously, no.* He was never going to make it. The park was too big. His lungs were on fire. He barreled through the crowd, knocked a container of popcorn flying, a cry of protest going up behind him. *I hate this. A park this big, they shouldn't expect you to get everywhere on foot. They should have those moving conveyor belts they have at airports.*
And there, like a prayer answered, came one of those little electric golf carts, careering down the path under the guidance of a park attendant. It was even going in the right direction. Ray put on another burst of speed, grabbed hold of one of the back poles as he reached the cart, got his right foot onto the back bumper, then his left. The driver never even looked back. He gasped for air, caught his breath, and congratulated himself.
"You could have come back sooner. It's been some time since I was released from the hospital."
"If I had come back then, Ray would have killed me."
"Ray wouldn't do that."
"Ben, Ray would do that in a heartbeat. If he were here now, he'd kill me."
"But you came back now. Why is this different?"
She turned her head away from him, looked out the window at the revelers below them. "Because now you have had time. Time to recover. Time to think about what happened."
"And I want to know what you have decided."
"About *us*, Ben. What have you decided?"
He remained silent, looking at her.
Her voice grew harsh. "In case you don't remember, Ben, the last time you saw me, you were going to leave with me. You had made that decision, and you were acting on it. The only thing that stopped you was your so-called friend, shooting you in the back."
"That was an accident," he defended Ray. "He was aiming at you."
"That's supposed to make me feel more kindly towards him?"
"He thought you were armed. He thought you were going to shoot me."
"Or maybe," she said bitterly, "he just saw an easy way to solve everyone's problem."
"He isn't like that, Victoria. He felt terrible about what happened."
She looked back up at him. "You're avoiding my question, Ben."
"You want me to leave with you?"
"I want to know if you still *want* to leave with me, Ben."
He looked down at the lights below, watched them blur into streams of color. Very softly he replied, "I don't know."
"Detective Vecchio, I realize you may not be able to respond to this, so just listen." Thatcher's voice was back, giving him orders over the walkie-talkie. "There's a button below the volume control on the walkie-talkies. You can use it to signal me in Morse code if you can't speak out loud. Of course, you probably don't know Morse code. Just signal one for yes and two for no."
He hooked his right elbow around the cart's pole for support as he reached down for the walkie talkie with his left hand and located the "send" button. "That's okay, Inspector, I can talk now. You're gonna need to get the car around to the rear exit of the park."
The driver of the golf-cart started at the sound of his voice, tried to slew his head around while still driving to see what was going on.
"Okay, I'm on my way there now. What's happening?"
"Hey! What do you think you're doing, mister? This cart is for official use only, no hitchhikers!" The park attendant was outraged at the sight of Ray perched on the back of his vehicle.
"He met her in a sky cab, and it's carrying them across the park. Just watch your driving buddy, this is none of your business."
"What was that? Who are you talking to? Did you actually see her meet him?"
"Never mind who I'm talking to," Ray responded. "And, no, I didn't actually see her, but some park employee came and took Fraser to a sky cab. Watch it!" The golf-cart driver came far too close to hitting an elderly couple.
"Get off of my cart, mister! I'll call security!" The driver frantically twisted between facing forward and trying to watch what Ray was doing. Ray was just glad it didn't seem to occur to him to actually stop the cart.
"What are you doing, Vecchio? Are you going to be able to make it across the park in time to follow him on the ground, or should I leave the car and try to follow them when they get off the ride?"
"No! Stay with the car, I'm gonna make it there, no problem. I *am* security, you idiot! See the walkie-talkie? I'm undercover. Just keep driving and mind your own business or I'll put you on report."
"You don't know if you want to come with me, or you don't know if you want to stay?"
Fraser answered her with silence.
"Was I wrong in thinking you wanted to come with me before, Ben? Have your feelings changed that much?"
"No." Fraser shook his head. "I was coming with you. I would have regretted it otherwise...."
"But you have no regrets now? Or does it have to be a spur-of-the-moment thing for you to decide?.
"Perhaps it would be better if I actually did take some time to decide this time, Victoria. It might help me avoid another unfortunate... accident."
She regarded him for a moment, then nodded. "Believe it or not, I thought you might say that, Ben. Understand, I want you to come with me. But I want your decision about whether or not to come with me this time to be *your* decision. Not mine, because I forced you with blackmail. Not your friend deciding for you with a bullet. I want to know that the decision you made on the train station was what you really want. So you think about it, think about what you really want, and what you can live with for the rest of your life. I'll be in town for few days. I'll get in touch with you."
"Victoria...," Fraser hesitated, then nodded. "A few days may be just what I need."
Ray leaned against the wall, carefully standing away from the light. His eyes were glued to the descending sky cabs. Had he missed them? Should he have told Thatcher to meet them here after all? A group of teenage girls spilled out of a cab that had just set down. He scanned the remaining cabs. There! Two cabs back, a cab with no lights. It settled to the ground. Fraser stepped out, then Victoria. Ray was astonished at how quickly the old anger returned, the intense hatred he felt at the sight of her. It took everything he had to remain where he was. He clenched and unclenched his fists. They were talking to one another, standing a few feet apart. Ray swallowed convulsively.
*What are you saying to her, Benny? Tell her to get lost. Tell her you don't need her.*
As he continued watching, Victoria stepped back, turned, and began walking away from Fraser who watched her retreating back. Ray let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. That was more like it! What now? Should he call Thatcher and tell her to pick Victoria up, or should he talk to Fraser first? Victoria's figure was growing smaller, he had to decide quickly. Just then Fraser started running--running after Victoria, zigzagging his way through the crowd. Ray felt his heart leap into his throat.
*Benny, don't! Not again!* He lunged from standing still to a full run, little bits of gravel crunching and spraying from beneath his feet. He had to stop Fraser after all, talk to him first... But Benny was not going after Victoria, at least not directly, he realized in confusion, as he slowed down and tried to comprehend what was happening. Fraser had veered off to one side, then another, was stepping behind trees, carnival stands, groups of people, while keeping Victoria just within his line of sight. Ray felt a huge grin blossom on his face, the tension that had knotted his guts only a few seconds ago releasing itself all at once.
Benny was tailing her!
"Over by the left gate! The left gate!" Ray's staticky voice shouted at Thatcher. She could see the gate now. And she could see Ray, standing on top of one of those stone trash cans the city installed everywhere so they couldn't be tipped over or vandalized. He was waving the flashlight over his head in one hand, the walkie talkie in the other, like he was attempting to audition for the job of an air traffic controller.
*Does he think I can't see him? The whole fair ground can see him. He's been telling *me* to be discreet?* Thatcher turned the corner, swerved around a startled pedestrian, hit the curb, rolled up onto the sidewalk, and nearly hit the trash can Ray stood on. She let go of the wheel, leaned over to fling the passenger side door open, and slowed down only enough for Ray to hurl himself into the still-moving vehicle.
"What are you doing?! You drive worse than me! You drive worse than *Fraser.* We're going to lose them! Hurry up."
Thatcher glared at him, hit the accelerator, and opted to drive over a corner of lawn rather than take the sidewalk.
*I wasn't being dishonest, really. I do need a few days to think about things.* Things like whether this was another set-up or not. Had she really come back for him after all this time or had she come back for other reasons? His emotions were somewhere between hope and fear, doubt and anger. He had to admit there was a part of him that wanted to believe every word she had said, believe that this time they would be making decisions on an equal setting, with neither of them owing the other or wielding the past like a weapon.
But he wasn't going to take that chance, or make the same mistakes twice. Her hatred of Ray had been perfectly clear, the timing of her visit had obviously been well thought out. If there was any chance this was going to end up hurting the people he cared about again, he had to find out now. He watched her climb into a cab, then he turned and flagged down one for himself.
"So you actually saw her?" Thatcher questioned him. "What did they say?"
"I wasn't close enough to hear. They were in the sky cab most of the time." Ray kept his eyes on Fraser's taxi. The traffic created by the crowds now departing the carnival was making it relatively easy for them to tail both Fraser and Victoria, but the area was packed with taxis that all looked alike to him.
"But he didn't arrest her. We should move in and pick her up."
"He's tailing her. He may know something we don't. We can't go rushing in without knowing the situation. We gotta trust him on this."
"If we trusted him on this, we wouldn't be tailing him, we'd be discussing it openly with him," Thatcher pointed out.
"It doesn't matter now. We gotta find out what's going on before we do anything. We've got time, we know where they are. We've got plenty of time." Ray hoped he sounded convincing.
He could hear Victoria's voice, and the voices of at least two other men. From the sounds of movement and background noises, however, Fraser suspected that there were at least four or five individuals in the room, even if they weren't speaking at the moment.
He supposed he hadn't really expected her to be staying at a major hotel, or anywhere people might remember or recognize her, but he hadn't expected to end up in the warehouse district. The building she had entered looked as if it should be condemned and had clearly been closed to the public for some time. She locked the door behind her, slowing him down momentarily, but he had managed to pick the lock, follow along down a hallway, and duck into a room adjoining what appeared to be the main floor of the warehouse. The walls were thin, with sizable gaps and holes in them. Fraser knelt on the floor in the dark next to one well-positioned gap, which gave him just enough of a view to see the legs of people moving around a table and not much more. Their voices were low, but clear enough to hear for the most part. The more he listened, the worse he felt. They were planning a job. More specifically, they were planning to rob the carnival. The targets were the last night's receipts and the Heinberg Ruby. As he listened, Victoria outlined the times the guards arrived and their procedure for transferring and transporting the fair's valuables. Her instructions were clear and precise, crisp and efficient. She sounded, he thought, right at home.
"What do you think is going on in there?" Thatcher was restless and bored. They'd found a good location to watch for their quarry but there was nothing to see. Victoria had entered the building first, with Fraser close behind, obviously moving carefully. Ray had left the car and scouted the building, reporting back that the entrance they had taken appeared to be the only portion of the building not boarded up. Now their rental car sat at the end of the alley, nestled between a wall and a dumpster.
"Ya got me. This is a strange place for her to be staying," Ray admitted in response to her question.
Thatcher gave Ray a sideways glance. "How long do you intend for us to stay here?"
"As long as it takes." Ray stared steadfastly forward.
"It's been quite a while already."
"We'll wait as long as we wait. It's one night of your life. The worst thing that happens is you end up bringing in a wanted murderer, and getting a medal for it. You had better plans for this evening?"
Thatcher climbed out of the car and surveyed the alley.
"Hey, where are you going," Ray asked anxiously.
"We're too visible here, even with the dumpster to hide behind," came her response. Thatcher considered the dumpster for a moment, then jumped up, caught hold of the edge, and shinned her way up and over the top.
"Oh, no! What are you doing?!" Ray climbed out of the car after Thatcher. The response to his question was a bag of garbage which came hurtling down at him. "Hey, watch it!" Several more bags came flying down, forcing him to duck to the side. "Stop that!"
"We'll use the garbage as camouflage, detective. Make the car look like a derelict. Start piling it around and on top of the vehicle."
It's not bad enough we're spending the night in this shoebox, you want us to spend it covered in *garbage*? I suppose I should be used to this by now. Tell me something inspector, is this infatuation with trash some kind of Mountie thing?"
"What?" Thatcher's head peered over the edge and down at him. "What do you mean?"
Ray shrugged. "Seems like any time I go anywhere with Fraser, I always end up covered in garbage, one way or the other."
Fraser eased himself around the corner of the hallway. He felt cold, a terrible numb feeling both inside and out. A jewel heist. Another jewel heist. How had he dared hope she had really come back for him? That would have been such an emotional thing to do, and everything she did was so logical, so well-planned. It was time to leave. He turned around to walk away, and there was Victoria.
"Ben." She was furious. She wouldn't allow it to show on her face the way most people would have, but he could see it in the tightness of her lips, the wrinkles around her eyes. Her voice was flat and chilly.
"Victoria." He was shocked at his own voice, the hatred and anger he hadn't realized he felt audible there. How could he have been so foolish? Again. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise. "I was just leaving."
"No." She stepped in his way, put her hand on his arm. "You have to listen to me, Ben."
"Actually, I was just listening to you. You have quite a gift for oration. And for planning." He felt incredibly bitter. Why did he keep falling for this type of thing, believing everything people told him?
"I don't have time to fight with you Ben, you have to do what I tell you."
"Not this time I don't. Get out of my way, Victoria, I'm leaving." As he tried to push his way around her, she hung onto his arm.
"Victoria, who is this?" Fraser froze. The voice came from behind him, blocking his way to the entrance. He hadn't been paying attention, he had been too upset. Now there were two more men in the hallway, with a third approaching. He looked back at the figures blocking his path, then back at Victoria.
Victoria's face paled, then tightened. Her chin came up, and she looked past Fraser towards her compatriots in the hallway. "This is a cop. He knows everything. Take him."
Ray was very uncomfortable. The car seat wouldn't push back any further. The leg room was too small, or maybe his legs were too long. He couldn't stretch out, and cramps were developing in various parts of his body he wasn't about to go near with Meg Thatcher sitting next to him. She seemed to be asleep, but you never knew. Wonderful. In a car with an attractive woman for over eight hours straight, and not a bottle of cologne in sight. He smelled terrible. He smelled like someone who'd been in the same clothes for twenty-four hours, while spending the last eight of them in a car made mostly of cheap plastic, covered in garbage. He was surprised she wasn't sleeping with her head out the window. How was she managing to sleep at all? Well, she *was* shorter than him. More leg room that way. He could get some sleep if he could just stretch out his *legs.*
Thatcher attempted to shift positions in her sleep. Her head hit the window. She came awake with a gasp, and then a strangled gargle. Her hand flew up and clamped itself to her neck.
"Are you all right?" Ray asked, slightly alarmed.
The look Thatcher gave him was one of pure malice. "I've got," she hissed between clenched teeth, "A very bad crick in my neck." She attempted to reposition herself. Her knee hit the steering wheel column, her funnybone the door handle.
"Ow!" exclaimed Ray. "That had to hurt!"
Thatcher closed her eyes and started counting. *Dontkillhim. Justdontkillhim.* She grabbed the door handle, opened the door, grabbed hold of the vehicle's roof and managed to lever herself out of the car.
"Where are you going? We have to stay out of sight!"
"I am going," she was the very picture of calm reason, "to find a bathroom. I have been in that shoebox you choose to call a car all night long, and there are some things in life that just cannot be avoided." She paused. "Why you *don't* need a bathroom at this point is of course your own personal business, and something I'm pretty sure I don't want to know about." She left, kicking her way through the piles of garbage.
Ray grinned at her disappearing back. Ya gotta love the Dragon Lady.
Noting that the night sky was slowly growing lighter with the on-coming dawn, he swivelled around to stretch his legs where Thatcher had been sitting moments ago. Aaaah... that was better.
Fraser was extremely uncomfortable. He supposed he should be grateful that he had survived the night to be uncomfortable. Only Victoria's intervention had stopped them from killing him. He lay on his side on top of a piles of crates, arms tied painfully behind his back, ankles bound with a rope attached to an exposed iron pipe that ran down the side of the wall. His head throbbed, and the left side of his face felt huge and swollen. He was pretty sure that at least two of his ribs were broken. He lay with his eyes closed, keeping track of the residents of the next room by sound alone. Their voices were only the occasional low murmur now, the tread of footsteps and the creak of boards as they walked back and forth across the warehouse. It was a distinct change from last night. Last night, their voices had raged, furious male voices shouting, accusing Victoria of betraying them, of placing them in danger, of being foolish. Victoria's voice; her cold, even, logical responses. Continued insistence on the part of her four partners that they kill him. Victoria's voice rising in volume but not pitch, growing threatening in its own right, reminding them of who was making all of this possible, who was necessary to this plan and who was not. They needed her and they knew it. She never lost control. She knew all the right words to use, the right phrases, explanations, the right well-timed threats. Fraser was a problem, she admitted, but he could prove useful. At the worst, they had an extra body to bring unwillingly along with them. At best, if needed, they would have a hostage. So Fraser was still alive, for now at least.
He attempted to adjust his wrists again, testing the ropes, trying to find the slightest bit of slack. Goon number one appeared to be capable of tying knots even his father would have admired. He considered the image of the room in his mind, wondering how much noise it would make if he attempted to kick apart the pipe to which his feet were tied. He kept his eyes firmly closed.
"Let me borrow your cell phone, would you?" Thatcher requested, glancing at her watch.
"What do you need it for?" responded Ray.
"Don't worry, I'm not calling in backup, but if we're going to sit here all day long, I need to let the consulate know I won't be coming in today." Now that she had accepted that the plan consisted of nothing more than waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more, Thatcher appeared to have decided to just go along with things and stop arguing. Ray had to admit most people would probably have left long ago. It was ten thirty a.m. already, and not a soul in sight.
"I don't have it with me." Thatcher raised her eyebrows at him. "I don't. My sister Frannie stole it." That last part was said with some venom "She denied it, of course, but she's the only person who could have taken it. She waited till I put it down, then she snuck in and stole it. I just know it. My phone bill is gonna come back with thousands of dollars worth of calls to God only knows where, she's probably out there right now talking to family in Florida and laughing her head off because I'm gonna end up paying for it. Anyway, where's your cell phone?"
Thatcher sighed. "I made a mistake," she admitted. Ray raised his eyebrows in turn. "I lent it to Constable Turnbull. You should never," her tone became grim, "lend anything to Constable Turnbull if you want it back in less than twenty-seven pieces."
Ray peered cautiously around the corner. "I'll go see if I can find a public phone. We should really know where one is, in case we need to call for help. It doesn't look like anything's happening here. Anyway, I'll be quick."
Thatcher nodded. "Take a walkie-talkie with you in case I need to reach you. And see if you can find something to eat or drink while you're at it, I'm starving."
How are you doing, Ben?"
"I could use some water."
Victoria's footsteps retreated across the room, returning a few minutes later.
"Open your eyes, Ben."
Fraser opened his eyes. Victoria, sitting in front of him, expressionless, with a glass of water in her hands. He shifted his gaze away from her face, struggled to sit up. Victoria put the glass down, helped him up.
"Just say what you're going to say, Ben."
"You didn't have to do this. You could have started over."
Her dark eyes flashed with anger. "Started over as what, Ben? Do *what* with my life, now that half of it is over, wasted?"
"It isn't--" he started.
"I *had* a plan for starting over!" she spat the words at him. "I had everything, everything I wanted. No one was looking for me. I had the funds to start a new life. And I had you, Ben. You were coming, you would have left, if *he* hadn't shot you. And then what did I have after that?" Her voice was shaking. "My name on the ten most wanted list, my diamonds scattered all over a train station platform, you dead. I thought you were dead, Ben. I really did." Her voice caught and he searched her face, as if trying to catch hold of the regret, the humanity he saw there, but she grew hard and cold again as he watched. "So now I have to do a bit of planning again, to get myself back into a position where I can live again. It's your fault I'm having to start from scratch, Ben; so just keep quiet, don't do anything stupid, and let me handle things."
"Is this all you got?" Thatcher was disbelieving, and a little desperate. "This isn't food!"
"What did you expect?" Ray waved a plastic-wrapped package at her. "It was a convenience store, not one of those hippie health food chains. They don't sell anything that isn't either wrapped in some type of smooshy cake or carbonated."
"They must have had *something* remotely edible. Go back and get us some real food! I'm not staking out this damn warehouse all day on nothing but HoHo's and Diet Dr. Pepper!"
"What's wrong with HoHo's? I thought you'd appreciate the Dr. Pepper being Diet." He knew the words were a mistake the second he said them. *Oh, I am just soooooo stupid. And there's no place to hide.*
"Are you saying," Thatcher's voice was so cold it could have frozen lava in its tracks, "that you think I need to go on a *diet*?"
"Well, what about the phone then, did you find one we could use at least?"
Ray was still alive, although it had been a close call. He shook his head. "All the phones in this area are vandalized. I searched for blocks."
"How about the convenience store? There must have been one there," Thatcher pointed out.
"He said he didn't have one."
"And you believed him?" Thatcher was incredulous.
"Of course not. But he told me if I didn't leave him alone he was going to call the cops."
"You *are* a cop. Why didn't you just show him your badge?"
"Then he knows we're here. What if Victoria goes around to store to buy something, and he says, hey, there's a couple of cops hanging out around the corner?"
"That's a little farfetched, don't you think?"
"I'm not taking any chances with this chick," was Ray's stubborn reply. "We know where a phone is if we really need it. The consulate will just have to survive without you for one lousy day."
"Ray, it's been too long. We have to find out what's going on." Thatcher's voice was not irritated, or demanding, but low and serious. And she had a point, it had been far too long. The sun, which didn't set until quite late these evenings, was already low in the sky. Ray shifted uncomfortably. He'd had no idea the waiting would take this long. Had he been wrong? Had Benny followed Victoria because he wanted to be with her after all? What the hell could they have been doing in there all day, and did he really want to know the answer to that question?
Ray nodded, relenting. "All right, so what do we do?"
Thatcher opened her mouth to respond, and the door to the warehouse opened. Two men in dark clothing stepped out, and Ray and Thatcher both slid down in their seats as far as the limited space would allow. "Who on earth are they?" Thatcher hissed at him.
"I have no idea." Ray was genuinely surprised, and now more worried than ever. Fraser alone with Victoria for a day was bad enough, but Fraser in a warehouse with Victoria and a bunch of strange men? What was going on?
The men walked to the opposite end of the alley, and disappeared around the corner. Thatcher grabbed her consulate bag and started rummaging through it. "That's it, I'm going in."
"All right then, let's go," Ray agreed.
"No! You stay here. Or better yet, go to the convenience store, and call for back up. This is out of control, we need to know we have help if we need it."
"What, you're just going to waltz in there by yourself? I don't think so! I'm going."
"I'm not planning on letting anyone see me, but if I do, well, I'm just a lost stranger. She knows you, Ray; you can't take the chance of her seeing you or she'll know she been discovered no matter what anyone says."
"No, you can't--"
"Look," Thatcher turned to him, "We've been doing this your way for almost twenty-four hours, now we are going to do it my way. If I get caught, it will be better if they think I'm alone." Thatcher finished stuffing her pockets with items from the bag, climbed out of the car, and was down the alleyway before Ray could say another word. He cursed to himself, watching her as she slid along the side of the building, reached the doorway, and vanished inside. Should he go after her? Should he call for backup like she wanted, or wait in the car? He hesitated a moment, waiting to see if either she or the men would appear, then climbed out of the car, and ran at top speed for the convenience store.
Thatcher crept along the hallway, thankful that she had made Vecchio stop back at the consulate for a change of clothing and sneakers. She could hear voices in the room she was passing by, at least one man and a woman. The man was not Fraser, but she assumed the woman was Victoria. She came to the next door, braced herself while listening for a moment, then gently pushed the door open and peered around the corner. A small battery-powered lantern sat on top of a box, spreading dim illumination through the room. Benton Fraser lay across the top of a large crate, looking terrible. Thatcher felt her stomach knot. The entire left side of his face was a deep purple and black, with yellow and green beginning to show up around the edges. His lip was split, his eyes shut, and his arms tied in an obviously painful position behind his back. Worst yet, from where she stood, it did not appear that he was breathing. She crossed the room and knelt by his side. "Fraser," she whispered. His eyes shot open, a look of pure surprise crossing his face, followed by a grimace of pain the expression had caused.
Fraser opened his mouth, attempted to speak, and found his throat was too dry. He swallowed, and tried again. "Inspector--"
"Don't speak. It's all right, just hold on." Thatcher moved behind him, fished out her pocket knife, and examined the ropes.
Footsteps creaked towards the door. Thatcher leapt to her feet, pressed the knife into Fraser's hands, and sped across the room to hide behind a stack of boxes.
The door swung open, and Victoria entered the room. "All right, Ben." Her voice was determined. "It's time to go."
Ray stood on the sidewalk and swore. He couldn't believe it. The store had closed! The owner was gone for the day and, in the spirit of a proper Chicago native, he had rolled a chain link fence down over the front of the building. He couldn't even break a window to get at the phone! Ray stood and cursed himself, the store owner, and the neighborhood for about thirty seconds, then turned and flat out ran back to the car. He arrived barely in time to slide into the driver's seat and get his head down before a large dark van came around the corner, maneuvering itself so that the back end of the vehicle opened in front of the warehouse doors. The warehouse door swung open, and a third man stood there with a box in his hands. As Ray watched, they began loading boxes into the back of the van.
*I should never have let her go in there. What's happening in there? Should I go in?*
A discussion appeared to be taking place. The man in the doorway disappeared back inside, while his two companions each walked to opposite ends of the alley. The first of the trio approached the car's hiding place, and began scanning the street in either direction. Ray curled up on the floor, holding his breath. Did they know he was here? What were they looking for? This man looked huge and dangerous, and he was now standing only a few feet away. He released his breath carefully as he heard retreating footsteps, and then peered over the dashboard. All three were back by the van, and goon number one was signaling to the man in the doorway. As Ray watched, a fourth man came through the door, an awkward bundle slung over his shoulder. *Benny!* Ray felt his heart stop, then start back up at a jackhammer tempo, as he watched them load an unresisting Fraser into the back of the van. Victoria stepped out of the warehouse and climbed in after them.
*That bitch!* Ray felt his face flush with rage. *What was I thinking? I should never have let him get anywhere near her again!* He shook with rage, ready to get out of the car and take them all on by himself--they were all in the van by now, at least everyone he'd seen. Should he block the exit to the alley with his car? They could just back out the other side. Perhaps he could ram them on their way out. The van, of course, exited the alley in the opposite direction. Ray turned the ignition, hit the accelerator, and drove right over the trash bags surrounding the car, shedding garbage as he brought the car down the alley. The warehouse door flung itself open as Thatcher threw herself out of the building, and Ray had to yank the wheel to the side, slamming the breaks on to avoid hitting her. He had completely forgotten she was in there.
Thatcher snatched the door open and climbed in. "Don't lose them!" she shouted at him.
"I'm not gonna lose them! I'm going to run them right off the road!" Ray shouted furiously back.
"No! Don't let them see you! There are five of them and they've got Fraser!"
Ray relaxed his grip on the wheel the slightest bit, and looked over at her. "Was he okay?"
"Well, it looked like they beat the hell out of him, but he's still alive if that's what you're asking."
His shoulders came down the slightest bit more. "Where are they going?"
"I don't know. I barely had time to find Fraser before they came in and took him. The police won't know where we are when they come to the warehouse now. Did you describe the van and give them the license number when you called?"
Ray shook his head. "Backup isn't coming, the store was all locked up."
It was Thatcher's turn to start swearing.
"He's just going to get in the way. He's already getting in the way. We should get rid of him," complained the man Fraser had mentally pegged as goon number three. Fraser, lying discretely across one side of the van's floor, was apparently taking up more room than the goon was willing to spare.
"Be quiet, Terrance," ordered Victoria tensely. "He's fine where he is. We're almost there, so just get ready and remember what you have to do."
"You've only made us go over it about a thousand times," grumbled goon number four... *Terrence?*
"I know. I was hoping to work with people who wouldn't need quite that much practice to get things right," Victoria snapped at him.
He flushed slightly and dropped his head. "Aw, we know what were doing. You laid it out real well. This'll be a snap."
Fraser tightened his grip on the cold but comforting feel of the pocket knife in his hands.
Thatcher and Ray watched the van pull up to the back entrance of the fairgrounds with some puzzlement.
"What are we doing back here? The carnival's over, the gates are all locked up, they won't be able to get in. Why would they want to?" Thatcher voiced Ray's questions for him. As they studied the van, a park attendant came towards the iron gate, unlocked it, and walked up to the van's window. As they watched, a short conversation took place between he driver and the park employee.
"I know that kid!" shouted Ray. "That's the kid who held the sky cab for Fraser and Victoria! She must be paying him off!" As if to confirm Ray's words, the driver handed the boy an envelope, and he proceeded to walk back to the gates, holding them open wider for the van to pass through.
"Ray, drive through! Quickly!" Thatcher urged him forward, but it was too late. The gate had been locked and bolted behind the vanishing vehicle. Ray pounded his fists on the steering wheel in frustration. "That's okay! Drive around to the other entrance! They don't have a fence there, just a guard station!"
Ray floored the accelerator again.
Fraser had been left in the back of the van, the doors locked from the outside, a gag placed in his mouth to keep him quiet. Apparently everyone was needed to carry out Victoria's plan. Now that he no longer had a rope attaching his feet to an iron pipe he had a few more options. Fraser slid his arms down behind him, around the bottoms of his feet, then brought his arms up in front of him, gasping at the pain the maneuver caused his ribcage. He slid Thatcher's pocket knife from his palms to between his fingers, and pulled the blade open. It was not a very large knife, but it was sharp. He leaned over, holding his breath against the pain, and began sawing at the ropes tying his legs.
Officer Sullivan stood a little ways in front of the armored vehicle, carefully inspecting the fairgrounds around them. There had been no problems the previous six nights, and he wasn't really expecting any tonight, but since they were transporting the Ruby as well as the day's profits from the fair, he was extra-vigilent tonight. He was a good enough cop to know better than to take anything for granted. He looked back at his fellow officers. Maury was behind the driver's seat, Thompson stood a little ways in the rear watching for strangers, the same as he was doing, and the three remaining officers were overseeing the process of transferring the money from the booths into the vehicle.
"How's it coming, then?" he called back to them.
"Almost done here, the cash is bagged; we've just got the display with the stone in it left to move," came the reply.
Off to Sullivan's left came a woman's scream, followed by a man's voice shouting. He swung around and peered into the darkness. Two figures were struggling by a now-closed confectionery stand. "Hey you! Over there!" He placed his hand on his weapon, and jogged over to the scene, closely followed by Thompson. "The fairgrounds are closed! What's going on here?"
"Just stay out of this! It's none of your business," replied the man. His hand gripped the woman's arm firmly, and she looked terrified.
Sullivan hesitated, suspicious, but Thompson did not. The younger man ran forward. "Take your hands off her!" he ordered.
"She's my girlfriend! Just back off, buddy!" the man warned Thompson. *A domestic. Just great.* Sullivan started towards them, placing his hand more firmly on his gun, and began to draw the weapon. The man saw him coming and turned, shoving the woman away from him and towards Sullivan with great force. As she flew towards him and staggered, Sullivan let go of his weapon and brought his hands up to keep her from falling. She stumbled into his chest with a cry.
"Arrest him, Thompson! Hey, are you all right, miss?" He looked down, and felt something cold and hard pressing him in the chest. She no longer looked frightened. She looked very, very determined, and she pointed a gun at him and whispered, "Shhhh. Not a word, please."
"There! There's the entrance!" Thatcher was pointing the way. A small guard box and wooden rail was all that stood between them and the park. Ray never even thought about stopping, but simply brought the little car hurtling through the barricade with a splintering crack and a squeal as half the board scraped against the underside of the vehicle.
Thatcher had climbed up in her seat with her head out the window, and called back to the guard who had come out of his box and was running after them, "We're the police! Call for back up! There's a robbery underway!"
"There's a *what*?" Ray demanded, surprised.
"Robbery, Detective; there must be. They'll be after the money collected by the fair. Or maybe after that ruby you were admiring so much."
"Of course they are!" Ray agreed. "Victoria's got this thing for precious stones."
Fraser climbed stiffly out of the van. The lock had not been that difficult to deal with from the inside, but his arms and legs were cramped and painful from having been tied for so long in one position. He stamped his feet, trying to get the circulation going again, while scanning the area. They appeared to have parked the van a distance from where the action must be taking place in order to avoid being noticed. They were quite near the cashier's office, and only a short distance from the precious stones display. He headed in that direction, then heard Victoria's voice come out of the darkness.
"Have you got him?"
"Yeah, no problem," Terrance's voice responded. "He went right down."
"Help me drag him over here with the other one. We don't want them to be found right away. The longer they think the transfer went according to schedule, the better."
Fraser eased himself off to the side, careful not to come too close to where their voices told him they were standing. Where were the other three? He approached the office, and found his answer. Of the remaining guards, three were on the ground, unconscious. Goons one and four had just removed the driver from the front of the vehicle where he had locked himself in, by the method of detaching the door from its hinges with some very professional looking construction tools. Now, as he watched, they held a white cloth over the mouth of the struggling form until he too dropped to the ground. Fraser continued to move silently forward. Goon number two was standing at the back of the vehicle. The bags containing the day's earnings were still in the back of the armored car, and one goon had just removed the ruby from its case and was admiring it. "This is gonna buy us a nice trip to the islands!" he called out to his associates. "Keep your voice down!" came the reply.
Fraser hesitated, then sprinted forward. He hit the man from behind with the full force of his weight, and they both went down, the ruby spilling from his hands to the ground. Fraser jumped back up, ignoring the pain this manuever had caused his ribcage. He quickly slammed the back doors closed and twisted and removed the key, locking the cash inside. Goon number two was climbing back onto his feet now, and was about to start shouting. Fraser kicked out and caught him in the stomach with his foot, but lost his balance in the process and went down as well. He gasped again in pain, and tried to pull himself up. Surely the others had heard this commotion by now! His hand stretched out and he found... the ruby. He pulled himself up, ruby in hand. The goon was on his knees now, a murderous look on his face. As Fraser watched, he reached into the back of his pants and started to pull his gun out. Fraser was too far away to get to him before he fired. So he turned and ran.
He pelted across the open space, heading for the cover of trees. Behind him he could hear the gun firing, and the sound of bullets passing far too close for comfort.
"You idiot! Stop! What are you doing!" Victoria yelled.
"He took the ruby!" came the response. With a cry of pure rage, Terrance thundered past his fallen friend and into the woods after Fraser. The other two came around the side of the van to see what was happening.
"Terrance wait! We don't need him, we still have the cash! Aaron, get up and start moving the bags! We have to hurry."
"No, we don't," said Aaron, climbing back to his feet. "He took the keys. All the keys. We can't even drive this thing out of here to open it up later."
Victoria swung around and threw her arm back as though she were actually going to hit him. Aaron flinched. "Get up, you fool! Get after him! All of you!"
"Did you hear that? Those were gunshots! Drive faster!" Thatcher had her flashlight in one hand, the other hand resting on the door handle.
"Of course I heard that! I...," Ray never had a chance to finish his sentence. Fraser came out of the woods, another figure close behind him, and dashed across the road in front of the car. Ray yanked the wheel hard to the right. The little car went head-first into a tree, the front end crumpling like a tin can. Ray and Thatcher were already climbing out before the engine had time to die. Three more figures shot out of the woods, two of them grinding to a halt at the sight of Thatcher, Ray, and the now-mangled car, the third continuing undaunted on the trail of Fraser and Terrance.
"Freeze right there!" yelled Ray, drawing his gun. "Police!" The response to this order was for both the men to pull guns and start firing.
Thatcher threw herself around the side of the car next to Ray. "Nice job, Vecchio!" Ray fired off a volley of shots in the direction of their enemies. The return fire punched holes through both sides of the car. Both Ray and Thatcher tried to press into the inadequate amount of space behind the tree. "You never answered my question. Did you take out insurance on this car, detective?"
The House of Mirrors had not been a good idea, Fraser considered. He had ducked inside, expecting the mirrors to help confuse and bewilder his enemy, to allow him the chance to sneak up on him. Terrance hadn't bothered to become confused or bewildered, he'd simply started shooting at anything that moved, including his own reflection. By the time he'd destroyed twelve sets of mirrors, there was glass flying everywhere, and Fraser was running for the door.
"Vecchio, can you distract them for a minute?"
"You want me to blow up the car?"
"What? Blow up the car? Are you insane?"
"Never mind. Habit. Hold on a sec." Ray grabbed the door handle and started to pull the door open. The metal groaned, and the door came off its hinges and fell on his foot. Ray closed his eyes, muttering under his breath, and climbed into the vehicle to retrieve Thatcher's bag of equipment.
"What are you doing?" Thatcher was puzzled.
"Just watch this." Ray grabbed the two walkie-talkies, switched them both on, and turned the volume up to its highest level. He waited for a pause in the firing, then leaned back, and heaved one of the walkie talkies across the road about twenty five feet from where he estimated their attackers were standing. He took a deep breath and shouted into his walkie-talkie, "You're right in my sights! Neither of you move!" A grin of pleasure covered his face as he heard his voice echo across the road, and the answering volley of shots as the men aimed at where they believed he was now standing.
Ray turned to Thatcher, "Hey, you'd better...." He was talking to thin air. She had already vanished.
There wasn't much time to decide which way to go. Terrance was definitely a shoot first, ask questions later type of fellow. Fraser paused. His choices appeared to be divided between running across an open field, or heading for a hill and scaffolding structure that made up the back side of the amusement park's log ride. Fraser ran for the structure. The hill climbed upward on one side, turning into a metal and wood tower that allowed the ride to be monitored at the top, sloping downward into water on the other side. Fraser grabbed a rung and started climbing. Twenty feet up, he heard Terrance arrive at the bottom and start following him.
"Hey, Terrance!" a voice called out.
"Over here, Aaron! He's climbing up here! I'm going after him!"
"I'm right behind you."
Fraser paused at a platform located halfway up the tower, holding his ribs with one hand and looking down at his pursuers. In the distance, he could hear gunfire.
"It would really be better for you in the long run if you turned yourselves in now," he called down to them.
Aaron fired off a shot in his direction in response, and Fraser started climbing again.
Thatcher had sprinted across the road, but now she was creeping through the brush at a much more careful pace, trying to locate the enemy.
"You guys must be the worst shots ever born! What's wrong, something the matter with your eyes?" She could hear Ray's voice taunting them through the trees, and the answering cries of frustration as the men attempted to locate where the voice was coming from and failed. "I don't get it. Where *is* he?" a voice grumbled near her.
"You're both pathetic! You couldn't hit the broad side of a...." There was a squawk and squeal as a bullet hit the walkie-talkie and it died.
"I think I got him! Did I get him? What the hell was that?" came the victorious, then perplexed voice of one of the two men.
"I dunno. Something strange is going on here." She could see them both now standing a few feet apart from each other, only ten feet away from where she was standing. The second man began scanning the area suspiciously, and spotted her. His eyes widened, and he began to raise his gun. Thatcher flung her flashlight, and it caught him square in the forehead, sending him to the ground as though he'd been pole-axed.
"Hey Rob, what's wrong?" His companion saw her now and was coming her way. "Hey, you there!" Thatcher, now empty handed, prepared to run. A shot sounded, Thatcher flinched, and the man fell screaming to the ground.
"Ooooooowwwwwwwwww! I been shot! I'm dying! They'vekilledmesomebodyhelp!" he shrieked.
Ray's figure appeared through the trees. "Hey, inspector! Nice aim with that flashlight!"
"Thanks, detective! How badly is he hurt?"
Ray picked up the flashlight and leaned over the man to examine him. "Hold on, hold still; would you let me see what we've got here...."
"You shot me!" the man was blubbering. "I'm gonna die!"
Thatcher joined Ray. "Where's he hit? I don't see anything?"
"There in the leg. He's barely scratched! It's a freakin' paper cut! What are you crying about?" Ray demanded, exasperated.
"I'm gonna bleeeeeeeed to death," wailed their captive.
"Oh, for pity's sake. What do we do with him now?" Thatcher demanded.
"Well, we could shoot him again to make sure he doesn't go anywhere...." the goon started shrieking hysterically. Ray shrugged. "Okay, let's lock him in the trunk."
"That trunk isn't big enough for a hatbox. We'll handcuff him to a door."
"Are you serious? He'll just tear it off and walk away with it."
"Well, what do you suggest then, detective?"
Fraser had reached the top of the structure. There was a small hut for park personnel to sit in as they watched the ride to make sure there were no problems with the passengers or mechanism. He stood on a wooden pathway with the hut to his right, the water flowing over the top of the ride and down to the pond below on his left. He ducked under a large triangular boom that jutted out and across the river of water. It was meant to stop the ride at the top, giving the previous set of passengers time to clear the bottom. A clatter of noise alerted him to the arrival of Terrance at the opposite end of the platform. As he watched in dismay, Terrance heaved himself over the edge and climbed to his feet. "Hand over that ruby!" he shouted, raising his gun.
Fraser grabbed onto the boom and heaved. It swung through the space separating the two men in a half-circle, catching Terrance in the chest, and sending him back over the edge. He could hear the clatter as Terrance landed back on the platform at the structure's midpoint. He started towards the edge to check on the fallen man, when another pair of hands appeared, another form pulled itself onto the platform. Aaron stood up, one hand resting on the boom which now resided at his end of the platform. He turned to spare a look down at Terrance, but the gun he pointed at Fraser's chest never waivered. "I knew we should have killed you. You've caused us a lot of trouble."
Fraser glanced around the platform. There were nothing left to duck behind or throw. "Well yes, I do realize that, but I'm afraid you left me very little choice." He considered jumping. It looked very high from here, even for him.
"All right, lissen up. I want you to throw the keys and the ruby over here now. And do it carefully," Aaron gestured at him with the gun.
Fraser shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't do that."
"What? I'm the one with the gun here, buddy!"
"Yes, I can see that, but these items are not yours, and I cannot simply turn them over to you...."
"Just give me the ruby and the keys!" Aaron cut him off. "What is your problem! You do realize I'm gonna shoot you here if you don't do what I tell you, don't you?" Aaron was losing his cool demeanor, beginning to color with rage.
"Yes, actually, I am aware of that fact."
"Well, I can shoot you now, and take them both after you're dead, so you better give me a reason to want to leave you alive!" Both of them could hear sirens approaching in the distance, and Aaron was becoming more and more agitated. "Hurry up!"
Fraser raised up his hand holding the ruby and key, looked calmly into Aaron's face, and tossed them gently over the side of the structure. In the absolute stillness that followed, they could clearly hear as both items struck the water in the pond below, and sank to the bottom.
Aaron raised the weapon and aimed it at Fraser's head. "Fine then. If that's how you want it. We'll do this your way." Fraser braced himself, and then watched in amazement as Aaron fell silently to the ground. Victoria stepped around the corner of the hut, a short piece of metal pipe in her hand. She shook her head sadly. "He meant well, but he's really not all that bright."
Ray and Thatcher surveyed the body lying on the platform above them, listening to the low voices coming from the top that were barely audible from where they were standing.
"They're definitely up there," said Ray. He rolled back his sleeves, grabbed a wooden slat, and prepared to start climbing. Thatcher laid her hand on his arm. She pointed to a door about twenty feet away.
"Why don't we just take the stairs?"
"I don't have the ruby or the keys anymore, if that's what you're after," Fraser stated tersely.
Victoria shook her head. "It would have been nice to have a safety net, Ben. Something to start over with. I'm must say I'm not too pleased that you decided to dispose of them like that. But I'll get over it. The only really crucial element to starting over is you. The rest were mainly luxuries."
Fraser couldn't believe it. "You still want me to come with you?"
"Why do you think I did all this? I went to a lot of trouble planning this, I hope you realize. But I knew you didn't have the ruby or the keys when I took out Aaron, here. Financial security is very important to me, Ben; but that can wait if necessary."
"You cannot be serious."
"I think you know that I am."
He did know. It was amazing, but he understood that everything she had done made sense to her, and that she had actually done much of it for him. Even more amazingly, he was still tempted. She was still Victoria, and he still felt every hurt she felt, or imagined, as intensely as if they were his own feelings and emotions.
Very, very slowly, he shook his head. "I can't."
"Why not? You can't change? Or do you think I can't?" Victoria was challenging him.
"You could change. Or I could change. We both could, Victoria, but then neither of us would be who we really are." He looked into her face, her eyes. "And I don't think that either of us really wants the other to be someone other than who they are. Who did you come back for, after all?"
Victoria was absolutely silent, staring at him. "I came back for you. I don't want anyone else."
The silence stretched for another endless moment. "You're not going to take me in, Ben."
"No, but *I* am. And I'm going to enjoy doing it." Ray stepped through the hut's door, Thatcher one step behind him. "Put your hands up!"
"Ray." With that one word, Victoria's voice had gone back to its cold and sarcastic tone. "I wish I could say it's good to see you again, but the fact is, I could have lived the rest of my life very happily without ever seeing you again."
Ray's voice was just as hard and cold. "Do you remember what I said to you at my house, Victoria? Why don't you put your hands up and not give me a reason to keep my word."
Victoria raised her hands... and grabbed onto the boom. It came flying back across the platform, catching Fraser painfully across the chest. He grabbed on to the metal rungs and clung as he felt himself lifted and carried out into open space. Behind him, there were shouts, shrieks, and a sliding noise that ended with the sounds of splashing. Hanging in midair, he caught his breath and tried to see what was happening. The platform was completely empty. No Victoria, no Ray, no Thatcher. He craned his neck around. Far below, there was the sound of water churning. Two sets of voices came floating up to him. Thatcher and Ray were apparently engaged in a competition to determine which of them had the more colorful vocabulary.
"Oh, dear." He looked back at the platform, then at the surrounding landscape, searching for her, but Victoria was nowhere. He looked back down at the small forms of Thatcher and Ray, swimming to the side of the pond. "Well, I suppose they can't be seriously injured if they're making that much noise."
There were police everywhere. All of the carnival's lights had been turned back on, and a few more had been brought in by the local police, propped up around the log ride's pond. Several officers with flashlights stood in the shallow end with their pantlegs rolled up, while a diver searched the deeper sections of the ride for the ruby.
Sitting wrapped in a blanket and shivering, the sounds of Ray's complaints filled the night air. "I can't believe it, half of the Chicago PD is here and no one can find her. I mean, there are only so many exits to this place, what's *wrong* with these guys, do we have to do everything ourselves? I can't believe she's getting away *again*! They've brought every piece of equipment known to man out here, you'd think *somebody* would think to bring a thermos full of coffee or something, I'm freezing to death and do you know how long it's been since I've had anything to eat, I can't believe this...."
"Vecchio, If you don't shut up I'm going to throw you back in that lake," snapped Thatcher. She was also wrapped in a blanket, standing a few feet away from the paramedic who was examining Fraser. All of the chloroformed guards had been led groggily into ambulances that had already left the scene, and the second batch of ambulances was now transporting Victoria's goons to the hospital, each with their own police escort.
"I thought there were four of them. Ow." Fraser squirmed under the paramedic's examination.
"Just hold still, I'm almost done." The paramedic looked over Fraser's shoulder to Thatcher. "That's a nasty bruise on the face, but I don't think it's too serious. He's going to need to have his ribs bandaged, however, and he should definitely go in to the hospital to have a doctor double check for any internal damage."
Thatcher nodded. "We'll make sure he gets there, you obviously need the space in the ambulance for those who are unconscious. Fraser, would you listen to the woman and hold still?"
Fraser was standing on his tiptoes, trying to see what was happening to the men being loaded into the vehicles. "I'm almost positive there should have been four of them. Perhaps we should begin another sweep of the fair grounds."
"What are you talking about, Benny?" Ray had come over to stand next to the rest of them.
"Victoria's, er, *ow*! Victoria's henchmen, Ray. When we left the warehouse, there were four of them. There only appear to be three present at the scene now." Fraser was pulling his shirt back down to the disapproval of the glaring paramedic.
There was a short, uncomfortable silence. "Oh, yeah. Right. Er, inspector...?" Ray turned to Thatcher for help.
Thatcher turned red, then turned to locate the ranking officer on the scene. "Sergeant Grant! Can you come over here for a moment, please."
Sergeant Grant hurried over, beaming at her. "Inspector Thatcher! I must say, this is going to look good in the morning papers! Robbery foiled in the act, no one seriously injured, and only one criminal who got away, but we've got a good description of her. You've certainly made my job a lot easier tonight."
Thatcher blinked. "Um, well; I'm pleased we could be of assistance, Sergeant, but I'm afraid we've forgotten something." Grant furrowed his brow at her questioningly. "One of the men involved in the robbery. We left him locked in a coffin."
"You did *what*?" exclaimed Fraser and Grant in chorus.
"We didn't have anywhere else to put him. We locked him in one of the coffins in the House of Horrors using Detective Vecchio's handcuffs as a lock. Vecchio, give him the key," Thatcher instructed.
"He'll have suffocated!" Fraser protested.
"Nonsense; we thought of that, constable. Detective Vecchio shot a hole in the side of the coffin before we put him inside." Thatcher frowned. "I hope the park management isn't too upset about that."
"Don't worry about it, we'll sort it out with them," Grant assured her. "Where exactly is he located? Will he be easy to find?"
Ray snorted as he handed over the key. "You don't have to worry about that, you'll hear him a mile away. He was screaming at the top of his lungs about police brutality when we left him." Grant nodded and hurried off. "I almost feel bad about tellin' him we were gonna bury him alive," Ray muttered to himself with a small smile.
Thatcher turned to face Fraser, who had been abandoned by the disgruntled paramedic.
"Er; yes, sir?"
"Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm sure I'll be fine, ma'am."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, since your behavior has been completely disgraceful."
"There are procedures to be followed when you suspect a known criminal is in the area and at large, constable."
"Oh, yes. Um...."
"Of course, I realize that in this situation there were certain... unusual circumstances. However, I hope I make myself clear when I tell you I expect you to make sure this sort of thing never occurs again."
Fraser looked at her. "I truly cannot imagine the circumstances involved here ever repeating themselves, ma'am."
"Well, good. That's what I wanted to hear." She paused. "Because I certainly never intend to spend another twenty-four hours in a car with Detective Vecchio. No offense, detective."
"Well, gee; none taken, inspector." Ray was trying to wring the water out of one of his socks.
"Good. Fine. I'm going home now. I really need a shower. And no one's fed the cat in over a day. He's probably destroyed the apartment by now out of revenge." Thatcher turned and made her way purposefully towards the nearest patrol car. "Make sure he goes to the hospital, detective!" she shouted back at them.
Ray looked at Fraser. "If her cat's destroyed her apartment, just imagine what Dief's done to yours."
"He should be fine. I left a message with Mr. Mustafi for Willie to come and watch him if necessary. Of course, that doesn't mean he's going to be gracious about the matter. I'll probably be hearing about it for days, if not weeks."
There was another moment of silence.
"Um, Ray, I'd like to thank you. I'm not sure how much you heard...."
"I heard what I needed to hear, Fraser. Did you mean what you said?"
"Are you satisfied with the decision you made?"
Fraser nodded slowly. "I made a decision I felt I could live with, Ray. I made a decision I needed to have the chance to make."
"That's what I thought."
"I certainly appreciate how much you did for me here, Ray, making sure everything turned out all right." Fraser turned to him with a look of true gratitude on his face.
"How much do you appreciate my making sure your hide got out of this intact?"
"Well, Ray, I'm not sure if you can put a figure on such a concept--"
"Because I've got this car problem."
"Something happened to the Riv?" Fraser looked alarmed. Ray shook his head.
"Nah, if something had happened to the Riv, that would be a tragedy, not a problem." Ray took Fraser by the arm, and began leading him to a patrol car that had been assigned by Sergeant Grant to take them to the hospital. "But you see, Benny, in the course of making sure you didn't do anything really stupid, Thatcher and I incurred some damage to this car we rented...."
"Serious damage, Ray?"
"Oh, now; I'm sure it's nothing you won't be able to handle, Fraser. After all, I think you've really been needing to own your own car for a while now, and I think that buying this car may be cheaper than having it repaired in the long run, so you can think of this as an investment opportunity. And I can think about how my insurance rates won't go right through the roof."
"What kind of car is it, Ray?"
"Well, I'm sure it gets great mileage, Benny. I mean, it would have to, wouldn't it? Don't worry about it. Just think, I can teach you all about the art of owning a car, Fraser; now there's a whole area I know more about than you...."