Disclaimer: This story is written for the private entertainment of fans. The author makes no claims on the characters or their portrayal by the creation of this story. Fraser, Vecchio, et.al. belong to Alliance. No infringement of any copyrights held by CBS, Alliance, CTV or any other copyright holders of DUE SOUTH is intended. This story is not published for profit, and the author does not give permission for this story to be reproduced for profit.
Call of the City
By Cassandra Hope
(Copyright May 2000)
Armando Langoustini stared at the reflection in the bathroom mirror. If looks could kill, he'd be a dead man. Fortunately no one could see the look of hate and loathing he directed at his image. The hazel eyes raked scornfully over his thinning hair down his patrician nose to the thin mustache that lined his upper lip. The corner of his mouth twisted with derision at this reminder of the life he now lived--a life he thoroughly hated.
With a growl of suppressed rage, he rifled through the drawers in the spacious bathroom searching for a razor. Maybe if he removed that narrow shadow on his upper lip he could remove the larger shadow on his soul. Cursing loudly, he yanked a drawer from the vanity, spilling its contents across the floor. A second drawer followed. 'Ain't there a damn razor in the place?' he snarled to himself as the third drawer fell to the floor.
"Boss?" the beefy voice from the doorway questioned.
Armando straightened and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. Several deep breaths and he was ready to face his manservant, Nero. Flicking some nonexistent lint from the sleeve of his silk shirt, he prodded a drawer on the floor with his foot. "Get this mess cleaned up, Nero." He pushed past Nero into the large, well-appointed bedroom grabbing the glass of buttermilk as he passed.
"Sure thing, Boss. Anything else?" Nero followed Armando from the bedroom into the sitting room.
"No." Armando gulped down the rich drink and placed the glass on the corner of the table beside the worn recliner. He reached for the dark charcoal suit jacket that matched the slim trousers he wore. Pulling the jacket on, he straightened the subdued grey and rose tie about his neck. Armando was very conscious of maintaining a certain look to the clothes he wore. Only the best was good enough for him.
Nero pivoted on his heels and headed back to the bath to begin the clean up. He stopped in mid-stride when Armando spoke. "Have Sal bring the car around and tell Tonio and Vinnie to meet me downstairs in, " Armando glanced at his Rolex, "fifteen minutes."
A short nod of his head and Nero was gone, locating Armando's chauffeur and his bodyguards.
* * *
The cigarette bobbed in his mouth as he talked to the man in the chair. Georgio Bonotelli liked a good smoke even though his doctor had warned him about its deleterious effects on his lungs. Shit, he only had one life to live and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to enjoy it. He'd cut back on the number of cigarettes he smoked in a day but more than that he was unwilling to do.
"Like I told ol' man 'Fredo, it don't take no smarts to see what's goin' on down there. Those Pollocks been making noises for years an' now they figger they can just waltz in, what with that hit on Cuzio and all. If it was up to me, I'd send them a message loud and clear that we don't want their kind down there. Whatdaya think, Mr. Langoustini?" He carefully unwrapped the moist towel from the face of the man in his barber chair.
Affecting an air of boredom, Armando made as if to brush something nasty away from himself. "I think vermin are best left to the exterminators."
Bonotelli chuckled sharply. "Vermin. That's a good name for them. I'll have to remember that."
"Fine. Could you do it some other time, Georgio? I got a business to get back to."
"Sure thing, Mr. Langoustini. The usual?" he asked as he spread a rich soapy lather across the cheeks and chin of his client.
"The moustache goes," Armando said as he leaned back and closed his eyes.
The lathering stopped. Shave the mustache? In all the years he'd been Mr. Langoustini's barber he'd never touched the mustache except to trim it. Shave the mustache? Unheard of! "You want I should trim your mustache?" The voice edged up in confusion.
Hazel eyes slowly opened and stared at the barber. "The mustache goes, Georgio. I'm tired of looking like a weasel. Capice?"
Now that he'd mentioned it, the pencil thin mustache did give Langoustini the appearance of a weasel--shifty and beady-eyed, a not-to-be-trusted kind of look. Bonotelli nodded his head and lathered the upper lip. A few swipes back and forth on the strop and the straight-edged razor was ready for use. Tipping the chin back Bonotelli set to work.
The skilled scrape, scrape on his neck was almost hypnotic. Armando closed his eyes once more, enjoying one of the perks of being a part of 'la familia'. A good barber was hard to come by in these days of unisex hair salons where your barber could easily be a blonde bimbo with an attitude. One slip of the razor and an accident could cut short a productive life. The Iguana family knew the value of a good barber--a barber that could be trusted.
Georgio Bonotelli had barbered the Iguana family for most of the past forty years. His daughter had married into the family. Life was good to Georgio Bonotelli.
All too quickly, the rasp of the razor across his face ended. Armando waited as Bonotelli wiped the remnants of the lather from his face and splashed a soothing aftershave on his cheeks. Finally, he opened his eyes and stared into the mirror gauging the effects of the shave.
He slowly smiled. Ray Vecchio smiled back at him.
* * *
Ray leaned back in the high-backed, over-stuffed office chair, its contours fitting nicely around his lean body. This was definitely a luxury he would hate to leave. The rest of the stuff associated with this sham life of his held no claim on him but this chair definitely did. Idly chewing on the eraser end of a pencil, Ray tried to bring his thoughts back to the business at hand but the open newspaper on his desk drew his attention once more. Leaning forward, he flipped to the entertainment section and quickly scanned down the page to the advertisement in the lower right hand corner. The Musical Ride was in town. There were Mounties in Las Vegas.
Ray pushed his chair back and rose, heading over to the large window that graced his office. Hands clasped loosely behind him, he stared unseeing into the distance. Mounties in Las Vegas but not the Mounties he wanted to see. What he wouldn't give now to see that damn red coat. Chuckling mirthlessly he admitted to himself that he would even be glad to see that klutz, Turnbull, but it was Fraser he wanted to see the most. Somewhat surprised, an image of a woman clad in red forced its way to the forefront of his thoughts. Damn, he even missed the Dragon Lady. Forcing that thought to the back of his mind, he tried to focus on his friend but the image wouldn't leave his thoughts. 'Okay, dammit, I miss her. I miss her cutting remarks. I miss that smile that I've only seen a couple of times. I miss her self-assuredness. I miss her...' Ray ran his hands across his face, shocked by what was filtering through his mind. How could he possibly miss the woman that made his best friend's life miserable? Nothing made sense anymore. Why should it surprise him to find himself lusting after Fraser's boss?
'Damn, Benny, I miss you. I thought I could handle this stinking job. I thought it would make you proud of me, but I can't. I can't take this kinda life anymore,' he thought as he tried to think of a way to extract himself from this undercover job. Maybe when he could resume his own life he'd have a chat with Inspector Thatcher and see if there was anything to what his mind kept imagining.
Ray whipped around. Resenting the interruption of his thoughts, he spoke abruptly, "What is it, Ellen? It had better be something important."
"I'm sorry, sir, but this gentleman was most insistent." The words were barely spoken when a middle-aged man with faded brown hair pushed his way into the office.
Ray studied the man who now stood less than three feet away from him. With the mood he was already in, this man better have a good reason for interrupting his day unannounced and uninvited.
"Mr. Langoustini? I'm Cal Watkins." He extended his hand in the centuries old gesture.
Ray slowly took his hand and shook it. Conscious of Ellen hovering in the background and feeling particularly surly, he asked, "What can I do for you Mr. Watkins?"
"I've just spoken to Mr. Saldana." Ray's eyebrows rose at the mention of the nominal head of the southwest branch of the Iguana family. "I decided not to wait for an appointment." He motioned with his head toward the secretary.
"Of course not, Mr. Watkins." Never taking an eye from his visitor, Ray spoke to his secretary, "Give Mr. Saldana a call, Ellen. Find out what's going on. Hold everything until you get back with me...and find Tonio."
"Yes, Mr. Langoustini." Ellen left the office closing the large doors behind her.
Strolling over to his desk, Ray motioned with a hand. "Have a seat, Mr. Watkins, I have a feeling you're going to be here for awhile."
Watkins settled his ample body in one of the chairs then fished inside the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Withdrawing a small card, he leaned forward, presenting it to Ray across the expanse of the large desk.
Ray took the card--a simple business card--and gasped. In the corner of the ornately decorated card was a small nondescript symbol, a circle with a V overlain. Ray recognized the symbol--a symbol he'd memorized before taking this job. Drawing in a deep breath, he asked, "Does this mean..."
Watkins quickly interrupted, "I'm simply a dealer in," he paused searching for the appropriate words, "shall we say, unique merchandise."
Ray glanced down at the card once more finally reading the inscription:
Fine Antiques and Other Collectibles
"You Want It, We Can Find It"
"My company is in the middle of a very large and delicate transaction and find ourselves in need of a broker," Watkins spoke as he withdrew a pen and a small pad of paper from the same breast pocket that had housed the card. He wrote a single word on the tablet then passed it across the desk to Ray.
Bugged, Ray read then nodded his head in understanding. How could he have forgotten the almost paranoid mentality of 'la familia'? Not entirely sure where this conversation was headed, Ray asked, "And this transaction would be...?"
The buzzing of the intercom interrupted Ray's question. He lifted the receiver and listened as his secretary relayed the information he had requested. Replacing the handset, he steepled his fingers and half-smiled at the man across from him. "It seems your story checks out, Mr. Watkins."
"Of course it does, Mr. Langoustini. Would I be stupid enough to come here with a story like that if it weren't true?" Watkins withdrew a cigar case from another breast pocket and opened it before glancing at Ray. Holding the case open he offered it to him.
Ray waved it away and watched as Watkins took a cigar from the case, snapped it shut, and replaced it in the pocket. The tip was efficiently clipped and disposed of, a flick or two and the lighter, and the cigar blossomed to life. "Cuban...sure you don't want one?" Watkins queried as he inhaled deeply.
Ray shook his head. "No, never picked up that habit."
"That's too bad. It's one of the few indulgences I allow myself. Now to the business at hand." He glanced around searching for an ashtray.
Ray pointed behind Watkins to the tray on the table near the door of the office. He waited while Watkins rose and leisurely strolled over to the table then returned with the ashtray, placing it on the corner of Ray's desk. He waited while Watkins contentedly pulled on his cigar. If this was to be a war of nerves, Ray could wait with the best of them. He'd learned patience during the time he'd been undercover. Why, he bet he could be as patient as Fraser ever was.
Finally, Watkins spoke, "My company was approached by a sister company over a deal they were brokering between a supplier of unusual military ordinance and a collector of the same. Unfortunately, both men sent by our sister company seem to have met with untimely demises."
Ray leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands in front of him, and smiled. "You mean the parties you are dealing with didn't trust these men and eliminated them."
"In a word, yes, and the man we sent was unsuccessful in establishing contact with the supplier. The meeting was interrupted by an outside interest." Watkins wrotecops on the slip of paper.
Ray nodded in understanding. "And what do you want from the Iguana family?"
"I've already discussed this with Mr. Saldana and he has agreed to lend us your services."
"The services of Armando "the Bookman" Langoustini. We need you to broker our deal. We feel that neither side in this negotiation would question a member of the Iguana family nor be foolish enough to cross it."
"And what does the family get in return for my services?" Ray leaned forward placing his clasped hands on his desk.
"That has already been discussed and finalized with Mr. Saldana. A mutually satisfactory settlement has been arrived at. All that needs to be done is to brief you on the details of the transaction."
Ray glanced down at the card lying on his desk. Tapping his finger on the small symbol, he asked, "What about this?"
Watkins eyes shifted slightly then returned to Ray's face. "The situation remains the same. There are no plans for a change in the near future. However, there might be a chance for some interaction on a local level while you are in Chicago brokering our deal."
Chicago? The deal was in Chicago? And this local level interaction could only mean that he might get to visit his family and Benny while there. But, as far as ending this masquerade, there was nothing in the near future. Ray nodded his head. "It will be good to visit Chicago. Who knows, I might just swing by Canada on my way back."
"That might not be wise, Mr. Langoustini," Watkins knew exactly what Ray was referring to and it would be unwise for their undercover agent to have contact with a Mountie.
'Maybe not,' Ray thought rebelliously, 'maybe not. But that doesn't mean I won't give it a try!' He needed to see Fraser but a secret part of his mind also reminded him that he wanted to see Thatcher as well.
Watkins remained with Ray for little over an hour discussing the deal and what to expect when he reached Chicago. Ray snarled at Watkins' parting shot.
"One more thing, Langoustini. Muldoon is a queer duck. He's expecting Armando Langoustini--all of Langoustini including his moustache. It's common knowledge that he killed a man because of his bad breath. I suggest you do something about that before you leave."
* * *
Ray climbed down the steps of the family's Learjet inhaling the cool, damp scent of a late Chicago evening. From Chicago Midway Airport he could see the skyline of the downtown area lit with its familiar nighttime glow. A pang of homesickness washed over him and he gasped as it reached his heart. Now more than ever he regretted the decision that had taken him away from all of this.
It was good to be home.
Sal, Vinnie, and Tonio preceded him to the black limo that waited on the edge of the tarmac. Settling into the back seat, Ray spoke to the driver, "Hotel California," then leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes.
"You okay, Boss?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, Tonio, just a little homesick."
"Gotcha, Boss. I miss Las Vegas, too. It's too cold here for my tastes."
Ray simply nodded letting his man think that he longed for the desert as well. It wouldn't do to let him know that it was this cold, blustery Chicago evening that called to him.
The traffic was cooperative as the limo threaded its way toward the heart of the city finally pulling into the private parking garage of the imposing structure that housed the Hotel California. Maybe it was imposing by Chicago standards but it couldn't hold a candle to the hotels in Las Vegas. Tonio closed the door behind Ray and the four men, Vinnie in front, Ray in the middle, and Tonio and Sal in the rear, entered the hotel. Glancing around, Ray spotted the elevators and headed toward them. His small group made a slight detour around a lanky man with spiky blonde hair. The man turned to stare at them as they passed.
"You want I should teach him some manners, Boss?" Tonio muttered.
"Not worth it, Tonio, just typical Chicago hospitality." Tonio grunted in understanding.
They continued their journey toward the elevator. Ray shivered, feeling the hair on the nape of his neck rise as a cold frissen of fear raced up his spine. It felt as if someone had stepped on his grave. As he entered the elevator, he half turned searching for something that would explain his sudden apprehension. A blur caught his eye as he once more saw the blonde man that had stared so boldly at them. He was talking to someone but who that might be was lost as the elevator door closed. 'Get a hold of yourself, Armando, can't afford a slip-up now.' Ray ruthlessly submerged Ray Vecchio under the persona of Armando Langoustini.
Ray watched the buttons light and dim as the elevator made its journey upward casually listening to the conversations flowing around him. A night at the opera, dinner at La Ciara, Aunt Clare's new boyfriend, and the pathetic showing of the Bulls that evening wafted around the confines of the small elevator car. Ray basked in it, inhaled it, absorbed it through the pores of his skin, committing the sights and sounds of Chicago to his memory. Maybe he could give his family a call after this meeting. No, there was no maybe about it--he would give his family a call this very evening.
A ding and the doors opened onto the 24th floor. Ray and his entourage exited the elevator. After the doors closed the silence of the floor seemed magnified after the lively conversations of a moment ago. "Which room?" Ray gruffly asked.
"2409," Vinnie supplied.
Glancing at the small, engraved plate that showed room numbers, Ray turned left and strode purposefully down the corridor. Room 2409 appeared on his right and he nodded to Vinnie. Stepping out of the line of sight, Ray waited while Vinnie knocked on the door. The door opened, introductions were made, and Ray followed his men into the room. He ran a measuring eye over Holloway Muldoon noting the glint of something feral in his eyes. He instinctively knew that this was one dangerous son-of-a-bitch.
Before he could speak, another knock sounded on the door of the room. "Housekeeping," a squeaky voice called.
Ray glanced back at Muldoon before opening the door. The same blonde man with the spiky hair that had annoyed him earlier in the foyer stood on the other side. Next to him stood--'Oh, my God, Benny!'
Fraser started at him, disbelief plain on his face. Then slowly a smile lit his features. "Ray!" he cried.
Puzzled, the blonde man glanced from Ray to Fraser. "Ray?" he asked.
Ray's eyes grew wide with fear. Was this what he had felt earlier in the elevator? Had his unconscious mind picked up on Ben's presence here? He shot Ben a pleading look and barely shook his head.
Fraser was blind to the slight shake of Ray's head. He was too thrilled to see his old friend once more. He glanced quickly at his companion then answered, "Ray Vecchio." It was only after Muldoon stepped up behind Ray that Ben realized that things were not as they seemed. "Oh dear," slipped quietly from his lips as the smile slowly died.
* * *
Ray carefully and meticulously removed his heavy winter coat, placing it over the back of a chair. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, shocked at the look on his face. He quickly schooled his features to a mask of blankness before turning to face Muldoon.
"What's going on here?" Muldoon demanded. He nervously leaned against a table, flanked by two of his goons. Fraser and the blonde guy were seated on a sofa. Turning his head he addressed Ray. "I was under the impression I was going to meet someone called Armando Langoustini from the Iguana family, southwest branch."
Affecting an air of indifference, Ray calmly replied, "You are." Inside, he was shaking like a leaf in the wind. He just hoped his nervousness didn't show through his carefully constructed facade.
"So, who the hell is Ray Vecchio?" Muldoon accused.
"How the hell should I know?" Ray accused back.
"Perhaps I should explain..." Fraser began but was quickly cut off by Ray.
"Perhaps you should shut up." Ray spared Fraser a glance before turning his gaze back on Muldoon. If anyone needed watching it was that bastard.
"Perhaps he should talk," Muldoon overrode Ray. Turning his attention back to the man on the sofa, he asked, "Don't I know you?"
Fraser glanced briefly at Ray, realizing that this probably wasn't the best of time to reveal his connection to the man known as Armando Langousitini. Dropping his gaze, he replied, "Not directly, no. I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my.."
Kowalski softly butted in saying, "Fraser, not now." Ben glanced briefly at him and stopped.
Muldoon caught Kowalski's soft utterance. "Fraser?" he asked.
Alarmed at the intense scrutiny that Muldoon was giving Fraser, Ray quickly addressed the blonde man, "Who are you?"
Kowalski glanced up from his fingers. "Who me?"
Huffing ever so slightly, Ray pressed, "Yeah, you!"
Kowalski continued to stare at Ray his eyes shifting away then back to the Italian. So this is the man he was supposed to be imitating. No wonder Fraser was rattled. "What do ya mean?" he asked.
A trace of anger entered his voice as Ray again asked, "What do they call you?"
Spreading his hands in a gesture of bafflement, Ray asked the room at large, "Am I not speaking English here or what?"
"Yes, Boss, beautiful English," Vinnie quickly replied.
Skewering Kowalski with his eyes, Ray drew his gun and pointed it at him. "What's it going to be, funny guy?"
Staring down the muzzle of the gun, Kowalski answered, "Oh, ya mean my name? Oh that." He dug in the pocket of his jeans then handed his ID wallet to Ray. "Here!"
Ray took the small wallet not sure what he would read when he opened it. He was little prepared to see his own badge but a completely different ID card inside of it. He read over the information, then carefully assessed the blonde man. In a voice devoid of color, he said, "Ray Vecchio. Chicago PD." He tossed the wallet back at the interloper.
Muldoon sprang to his feet, his own gun out, and pointing at the two men on the sofa. "You bring cops to a meet?" he accused. The other men in the room drew their guns as well.
Not even sparing Muldoon a glance, Ray countered, "It's your room, pal." With everything he had he tried to telegraph a message to Fraser. 'Just play along with me, Benny. I'll get you out of this.'
"They followed you in," Muldoon continued.
Fraser stared at Ray shifting his gaze to Muldoon for only a moment then staring back at his friend. Fraser's eyes moved back and forth between Ray and Muldoon. He had to trust Ray in this matter. Kowalski remained quietly beside him, waiting for the move he knew must be coming.
Ray continued to point his gun at Fraser. Memories of another place and time crowded into his thoughts and he swore to himself that this time no harm would come to his friend. A hint of anger crept into his voice as he asked Muldoon, "Meaning what?"
Explosively, Muldoon answered, "Meaning this whole set up smelled from the get go." Cocking his gun, he stuck it in Fraser's face. "Who are you, buddy? I've seen you before," he spoke in a voice as sharp as a knife.
Ray knew that this was the moment when he had to take control of the situation before Muldoon lost it and something happened. Steeling himself, he stepped into the breach. "Yeah, dead guy, get up," Ray demanded. Fraser slowly rose to his feet. Ray spoke to Kowalski, ""Let's go, get up!" Kowalski rose to his feet as well. Ray motioned with his head. "The bathroom." The two men in front of him, they marched the short distance to the bathroom and inside. It was the longest march any of them had ever taken.
Ray quickly pointed his gun at the juncture of two of the walls of the room. There should be plenty of support there to prevent the bullet from entering the adjacent room. Firing the gun, he motioned to Fraser. Fraser obediently dropped heavily to the floor moving slightly to make room for Kowalski. Another shot and another body dropped to the floor. Ray grinned at his friend sitting on the floor and offered a helping hand up. He leaned closer when Fraser motioned to him.
Fraser's hand came up and gently flicked something against Ray's cheek. "For looks," he whispered to Ray. Standing back out of the line of sight, the two men watched as Ray left the small room.
Closing the door firmly behind him, Ray was not surprised to find Muldoon waiting for him. He spoke to Muldoon. "You want to play hard ball with the Iguana family, you'd better have hard balls. You still in the game?"
Muldoon smiled approvingly. "I'm always in the game. Okay, back up location, 9 PM. Remember what I said before, I don't wait." He pushed past Ray and left the hotel room, his goons following behind.
Tonio motioned to his cheek. "Hey, Boss, you've still got a little blood..."
Blood? "Yeah, right. Clean up the bodies," Ray quickly answered Tonio. Not even waiting for his men to acknowledge the order, he headed over to the mirror he'd viewed his image in earlier. To the sounds of an altercation in the bathroom, Ray took a spotless linen handkerchief from his pocket and removed the spattered blood from his cheek. 'Now where in hell did Benny come up with that blood?' he thought then grimaced slightly. He was talking about Benton Fraser, Superman in a Mountie uniform. Why should it surprise him that Fraser had some blood to spare? With a sigh, half of relief, half of frustration, he stared at his image in the mirror. "So long Armando Langoustini, it's been good knowing you." He peeled the fake mustache from his upper lip and turned his back to the mirror. Continuing the turn, he came face to face with his friend, Benton Fraser. Kowalski threw a punch into the bathroom then joined Fraser who stared at Ray with a silly grin on his face.
Running his tongue over dry lips, Ray snarled, "For a full year I'm deep undercover, never waiting in line, always getting the best tables at the best restaurants." Hands gesturing wildly, he continued, "I live in a nine thousand square foot adobe house at the edge of the desert, with a butler named Nero who brings me buttermilk night and day. And everywhere I go, I sit in the back of a black limousine, my elbow on the gangster lean and all this...all this, you wipe out with one word?"
Fraser's grin grew broader. "It's good to see you, Ray."
Ray stared in amazement at Fraser then let his pent up breath out in a huff and grinned to match Fraser's. "It's good to see you too, Benny." He enveloped his friend in a hug, patting him on the back as he finally realized that his undercover ordeal was over. He was back in Chicago with his best friend, Benton Fraser.
"Oh, Benny, that's cute," Kowalski muttered under his breath as he turned away from the sight of his best friend hugging the Italian. Now that Vecchio was back where did that leave him? He settled onto the arm of a chair.
Self-consciously, Ray dropped his arms and stepped back from Fraser. "You realize you could have got us all killed," he said and strolled across the room to the phone.
Fraser spoke to Ray's retreating back, "Well, I'm sorry but I was so pleasantly surprised to see you that I..."
Ray fumbled with the phone, then turned to smile at Fraser, cutting across Fraser's apology, "Said something stupid?"
"Yes." Ben gave a quick nod of agreement the broad smile never leaving his face.
Ray turned back to the phone and chuckled as he dialed a number he'd memorized 'just in case'. "Yes, this is 317, we need a clean up unit at 2409." He listened for a moment then replied, "Right." Dropping the handset onto the cradle of the phone he turned to stare at Kowalski. He sighed heavily then asked, "So you're me?"
Kowalski came to his feet, self consciously aware that Vecchio seemed to be handling their meeting better than he was. "And you're not you!" he fired back at the Italian.
Ray forced a chuckle and ran his eyes up and down his doppelganger. "That's a good one, unlike the clothes."
Kowalski glanced down at his leather jacket and faded jeans. "Something wrong with them?" he asked.
Ray gestured with his hands and snidely commented, "Well nothing," his eyes raked over Kowalski once more, "if you're a bag lady." Kowalski rolled his eyes.
Placing a hand to his chest, Ray continued, "You see, I had a rep--I was a slick dresser."
Stung by the putdown, Kowalski retaliated. "Oh yeah, oh yeah, like a," he searched for the right word, "like a, a style pig, ya mean."
Ray again forced a chuckle. "You kill me, funny guy. I see it's going to take a lot of work to get my reputation back in place." He glanced at Fraser for support but all he received was that stupid grin on the Mountie's face.
Back in place? What did he mean by that snide remark? "What place was that?" Kowalski asked.
Ray was all too willing to tell this upstart what place he meant. All laughter removed from his voice, he said, "Well, you see these three goons are going to get one call each. They're going to call Vegas and when they do, Armando Langoustini is going to go up like flash paper." Smugly, he added, "Time to get my life back."
"But that's my life!" Kowalski protested.
Taking pity on the man that had been him for the past year, Ray agreed, "I'm afraid it is." Glancing over at the Mountie, he noticed that there was a definite gleam in Fraser's eyes. "What are you grinning about?" he asked.
Fraser stepped up to the two men and slapped each on the back. "I knew you two would hit it off."
Ray glanced back at the man that was pretending to be him. 'Hit it off? When hell freezes over!' he thought as he shrugged the hand from his shoulder. Running a hand over his face, Ray's stomach lurched and he felt suddenly faint. The hands he brought to his face trembled with a palsy he couldn't control. Stumbling to a chair, he dropped heavily into it resting his face in his hands. Bile rose in his throat and he fought to keep it from rising farther. He didn't want to hurl in the wastebasket because there was no way in hell he was using that bathroom.
"Ray? Are you all right?" Fraser asked as he knelt beside him.
Tilting his head slightly, Ray answered, "Yeah, Benny, I'm fine. Just delayed reaction. Man, you don't know how close you came to buying the farm. That Muldoon character is..."
"I'm quite familiar with Holloway Muldoon, Ray."
The tone in Fraser's voice elicited an immediate response. Ray straightened and quirked an eyebrow.
"He was a friend of my father's before turning to a life of crime."
Ray snorted in disgust. "Now how did I know something like that was bound to happen?"
"Probably because things like that happen around Fraser," Kowalski added.
Ray glanced at Kowalski. "They do, don't they?" Kowalski grinned and nodded his head. Maybe they did have something in common after all.
"Now, Ray...Ray, I'm hurt!" Ben spoke to both men.
"Yeah, I just bet you are!" Italian response.
"So what else is new?" Polish response.
* * *
"Now, Vecchio, you understand that ya gotta stay outta sight until we get this thing taken care of," Kowalski intruded on his thoughts.
"Yeah, I know all about the program. So..." he stared boldly at the blonde man, "what do they call you?"
"Me? What do they call me?"
"Yeah, you. You do have a name, don't you? I mean a name other than my name."
"Yeah, I gotta name. It's Ray...Ray Kowalski."
"Ray?" Ray tilted his head and questioned Fraser, "His name is Ray?"
"Yes, Ray. This is Ray Kowalski, the man formerly known as Ray Vecchio." Turning to Kowalski, Fraser introduced his old friend. "Ray, this is Ray, the man now known as Ray Vecchio."
Ray threw up his hands. "I give up."
Kowalski rolled his eyes. "Me, too."
The elevator doors opened and the three men entered. Ray shifted his gaze locking eyes with Kowalski in the mirrored reflection of the same doors. "What's with the hair?" he asked.
Not missing a beat, Kowalski replied, "At least I got hair."
Fraser simply rocked back and forth on his heels, the broad grin still in place. He just knew his two best friends were on their way to become friends themselves.
The cold air of the March evening smote them as they exited the hotel. Ray drew his coat closer about himself thinking longingly of the desert heat but that was behind him and he'd better get used to a Chicago spring once more. Not that he was complaining, mind you. He'd missed the humidity, the wind, the unpredictable weather, the occasional bouts of pollution, but most of all he missed his family and friends.
Kowalski led the way to his black GTO. Ray smiled in admiration. He had a keen appreciation for a fine set of wheels and if he hadn't already declared his love for the '71 Buick Riviera, the '67 Pontiac GTO would have been one of his next choices. "Nice car," he said as he ran an appreciative hand over the hood. "I have a '71 Buick Riviera," he glanced across the hood at Kowalski, "but you already know that."
"Uh, yeah, let's go." Kowalski quickly unlocked the door and slid in behind the steering wheel. Reaching across he unlocked the passenger side door. He groaned slightly when Fraser pulled the seat back forward and flowed into the back seat. Staring straight ahead, he asked, "Where to?"
Ray situated himself on the leather seat and stretched his legs out. There was only one place he wanted to go. "Home...I want to go home."
Fraser leaned forward in the seat and spoke to Ray over the back of the seat. "Perhaps this isn't a good time to do that, Ray. After all it is rather late and your family will be asleep..."
"I don't care, Benny, I haven't seen or spoken to any of my family in over a year. I have got to go home. Besides, Ma will still be up."
"At this hour?" Kowalski asked.
"Yeah, she'll be sitting in the kitchen at the table reading her Bible and praying for my safe return. She did that while my brother, Nicky, was in Nam. She prayed for him every night up until the day we got the letter from the government. Ma took it real hard; Pop just went out and got drunk."
"You've never spoken of your brother," Fraser spoke in a subdued voice.
"What's to tell, Benny. He got drafted and sent overseas. He came home in a box."
"Uh, I hate to break up this moment of reminiscing but I think ya should break the news to him," Kowalski spoke to Fraser.
"What news would that be?" Fraser asked not sure what Kowalski was referring to.
"Yeah, what news?" Ray's ears perked up.
"You know, Frase, about Motherwell."
"Motherwell? Zoltan Motherwell? Why would I be interested in news about that firebug?" Ray leaned his head back on the seat and closed his eyes.
"Well, Ray, you see, when I returned from my trip north..." Fraser paused, not sure how to broach the subject of Ray's house. "You remember calling me and telling me that you wouldn't be there to pick me up?"
"Ummm." Ray nodded his head.
"Well, Dief and I walked home and discovered our apartment had burned to the ground."
"What?" Ray sat bolt upright and turned to stare at the man in the back seat. "I thought Motherwell had been committed for good! How'd he get out?"
"He didn't," Kowalski interjected.
"Zoltan Motherwell maintained a relationship with a woman...' Fraser began.
"He had a girlfriend named Greta Garbo." Ray interrupted once more.
"She changed her name. Anyway, Ms. Garbo became Motherwell's protege and took up where he left off." Fraser continued the story.
"Yeah, she was one sick puppy--all 5 foot 6, 180 pounds of her."
"A big woman, it seems," Ray commented.
"Yeah, and a face that would stop a clock."
"Ray, Ray, I really don't see how Ms. Garbo's physical features are pertinent to this story."
"Well, ya would if she'd shot you!" Kowalski complained as he brought the GTO to a stop at a light.
"She shot you?" Ray asked.
"Yeah, right after we climbed out of the lake."
"Lake Michigan? What were you doing in there?"
"Well, Ray, you see, we needed a spot that was safe..."
"Safe to corner the arsonist," Kowalski quickly finished Fraser's sentence. Now definitely wasn't the time to mention why they had driven into the lake and especially not in what car. Hitting the gas, Kowalski sped through the barely changed green light.
"Okay, so what does Motherwell and his girlfriend have to do with my going home?" Ray brought the subject back around to the beginning.
"I just thought you ought to be prepared, ya know, everything has been repaired but ya might notice some differences. Frannie has a bigger bedroom and..."
"They torched my house? Why didn't you say so? Was anyone hurt? Is everyone all right? Is Ma all right?"
Fraser placed a hand on Ray's shoulder. "We got there in plenty of time, Ray. Only Tony and Frannie were in the house and we got them out." Dragging a thumb across his eyebrow, Fraser apologized, "I'm afraid, however, that Carla's pet goldfish did not survive."
"Boiled? That's cute," Kowalski quipped.
"No, I'm afraid not, Ray. Lord knows I've tried explaining it to him but he never listens. I'm sure he regrets what he did but in the heat of the moment it just happened."
Ray was totally confused. Kowalski simply grinned. "Okay, Benny, what happened?"
Gripping the brim of his Stetson, he slowly rotated it as if searching for the words to explain Dief's deplorable behavior and the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the goldfish. "I'm sure he was just thirsty and the aquarium was convenient and it must have been an accident but..."
"The wolf ate the goldfish," Kowalski butted in when it became apparent that the Mountie was having difficulty finishing the tale.
"Dief ate Carla's goldfish?"
"I'm sure he's sorry, Ray, and he did pay to buy her a new one and he has promised not to drink from any more aquariums..."
"Your wolf ate my niece's goldfish?"
"Yeah, and I have to watch him around my turtle," Kowalski added.
"Your turtle? You have a turtle?"
"Yeah. You wanna make something of it?" Kowalski half turned on the seat.
"No," Ray quickly answered then thoughtfully added, "Benny has a wolf and you have a turtle. Next thing you know Frannie will have a poodle."
"How did you guess?" Fraser asked.
"You're kidding me, right?" Ray half joked with Fraser. When Fraser's expression did not change, Ray blurted out, "Where in hell would Frannie find a poodle?"
"Well, there was this lady gambler who spent some time in Fraser's underwear..."
"Fraser's underwear?" Ray cut Kowalski short. Images of all sorts flitted through his mind as he watched the red creep into his friend's cheeks.
"It wasn't like that, Ray," Fraser quickly added as he tugged at the collar of his shirt.
"Like what, Benny?"
"Like, like, like you're thinking. She had nothing to sleep in and I simply loaned her my long johns."
"I see." Ray pursed his lips. "So, she slept in your long johns. Were you by any chance still in them?"
A short bark of laughter drew Ray's and Fraser's attention to the other man in the car. Kowalski shifted his eyes toward his companions and said, "He's got ya there, Frase."
"For the record, Ray, I was not in the long johns nor did we have physical contact of any kind..." his voice sputtered to a halt at the memory of a certain back massage.
"No physical contact?" Ray tilted his head, his eyebrows rising in inquiry.
"None to speak of."
"So there was some!"
"No! I mean yes, I mean, it was nothing."
"Yeah, nothing," Kowalski muttered.
Ray glanced from Fraser to Kowalski. The look on the blonde detective's face brought a smile to his own face. Turning his attention back on his very brightly hued friend, he requested, "Define nothing."
"I had a crick in my back and she gave me a quick massage. Nothing more," Fraser spit out.
Ray faced forward for a moment then broke into gales of laughter. After a few minutes, he wiped the tears from his eyes and, between chuckles, said, "That doesn't explain how my sister ended up with a dog."
"After Lady Shoes was booked, Frannie felt sorry for her dog. That poodle has your sister wrapped around her paws," Kowalski answered.
Ray shook his head in resignation. "I bet Dief isn't happy about that."
Kowalski grinned. "Actually the wolf had a crush on the poodle."
Ray's eyes grew wide as he whipped around to face the Mountie once more. "I hope that doesn't mean we're going to have wolf-poodle puppies all over the place!"
Fraser hastily defended his wolf. "Of course not, Ray. Diefenbaker is the model of decorum around Ante."
"Ante? The poodle's named Ante? No, this is not happening." Dropping his face into his hands, Ray muttered, "No, no, no," into the palms of those hands. "I'm gone for a little while and everything goes to hell in a hand basket."
"Things aren't quite that bad, Ray," Fraser spoke in a conciliatory tone of voice.
Kowalski glanced at Ray and grinned evilly. "No, Ray, things aren't that bad. After all, yur sister could be a Civilian Aid at the station."
Ray glanced at Kowalski over his fingers. What he had said made sense. At least that scenario would never happen. His eyes slid to Fraser's face noticing that the Mountie had difficulty meeting his eyes. "Benny?"
"Uh, Ray, about your sister..."
"What about her?"
"She really is quite capable and has become an integral part of..."
Ray turned back and faced forward in the seat. Suddenly spineless, he slumped, dropping his head back on the seat, his mouth hanging open. "Shoot me, just go ahead and shoot me! Are there any other little surprises I need to know about?"
"Well, there is the matter of your car," Fraser began.
"My car? My car? Where is my baby?"
"Yur car's fine. It's in a place where no harm can come to it. I understand how it is with a classic car like that," Kowalski continued to ramble hoping to shut the Mountie up before he spilled the beans. Now was not the time to tell Ray about his car. "Maybe ya should ask Frase here about his sister."
Car forgotten, Ray turned wide eyes to Fraser. "Sister? Since when do you got a sister?"
"Since last fall," Kowalski answered.
"You've got a sister? How come you didn't know about her? Who is she? How did you find out about her?" The questions flew fast and furious.
"Her name is Constable Maggie McKenzie and she first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of her husband and, in the course of our investigation, discovered our mutual parentage."
"Yeah, Fraser's father shared the fire with Maggie's mother."
"That's certainly one way of putting it," Ray dryly commented.
"It's not like that at all, Ray...Ray. My father had suffered a great loss and Maggie's mother was a good friend."
"Sounds like she was more than a good friend, Benny."
Fraser shifted uncomfortably in the back seat. "Oh look, we're home. I bet you are eager to see your family, Ray," he brightly suggested as the car turned onto Octavia Street.
Kowalski pulled the GTO into the drive of the Vecchio home. Ray stared through the windshield at the brick structure searching for any signs of the fire. Finding none, he let the pent up breath flow slowing from him in a lingering sigh. Opening the door of the car, he climbed out and approached the steps leading to the front door. With a foot on the bottom step, he stopped and turned a worried eye to the two men following behind him. "I don't know what to do. I can't just burst in there. Ma would have a heart attack."
Kowalski pushed past the Italian, trod the steps, and knocked on the door. Fraser climbed the steps as well then turned to look back at Ray still at the bottom of the steps.
The porch light flickered on then the door opened a crack and a familiar voice asked, "Ray, Benton, what are you doing here at this hour? Come in, come in, don't stand out in the cold like that. I'll fix you some hot cocoa." She held the door open for them.
"Mrs. Vecchio? We have something for you," Fraser said. Ma Vecchio's face creased in puzzlement. Kowalski and Fraser stepped aside as Ray came up behind them.
A hand clutching a rosary came up to flutter in the region of her heart before, she whispered, "Raymondo? Mi bambino, is it really you? Mi cara," she cried as she drew him into her embrace.
"Ma," Ray choked on his emotions not caring the least that tears flowed freely down his face. He was home, sheltered once more in the arms of his mother. The dam that held back all the pent up fears, worries, regrets he'd accumulated over the past year broke. He sobbed like a little lost boy in his mother's arms.
Ma Vecchio drew her only son into her house motioning with her head for Fraser and Kowalski to come in as well. She cradled Ray, whispering words of comfort, words of love, ancient words that connected all mothers with their children.
Kowalski and Fraser shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, not wanting to intrude on the prodigal son's return to the bosom of his family. A scuffling sound from the direction of the stairway drew their attention. Frannie sleepily descended the stairs. She ran a hand through her hair and clutched at the front of her robe when she recognized the visitors. "What is it, Ma? Hello, Benton, Ray." She smiled at the two men before turning her eyes back to her mother. Her eyes grew wide as a lean form separated itself from her mother.
"Frannie?" Ray's voice was little more than a guttural whisper.
Frannie's hand flew to her mouth, her eyes widening further. "Ray? Oh my God, Ray? Ray?" she squealed as she flew into his arms. Her tears of joy joined those of her brother's. She hugged him fiercely not wanting to chance his leaving once more. "You're home, Ray," she cried against his neck.
"I'm home, Frannie, and I promise you I ain't ever leaving again," he whispered into her hair.
"Ray?" floated down to them from the stairs. Maria and Tony slowly descended. Maria once more questioned, "Ray?"
Ray pried himself free of Frannie's stranglehold and quickly moved to the foot of the stairway. "I'm home, Maria."
The baseball bat slid from her nerveless fingers and rolled, clattering down the stairs unnoticed by all except Ray who expertly dodged the lumbering juggernaut. If there were any Vecchios still asleep in the house it was only by the grace of God.
Maria flew down the stairs and flung herself onto her brother almost knocking them both to the floor. Ray staggered then returned his sister's hug. What Maria lacked in finesse she made up for in strength. For the second time in less than five minutes, Ray pried himself free of a sisterly stranglehold. With an arm draped over Maria's shoulder, he extended a hand to his brother-in-law. "Hiya, Tony," he said.
"Welcome home, Ray," Tony answered as he pumped Ray's hand.
* * *
It was a anxious group of officers gathered in Lieutenant Harding Welsh's office. Although Fraser leaned against the doorframe, everyone knew he was tense as well by the death grip he had on his hat. Kowalski lounged on the dilapidated sofa that occupied a good third of the office. Huey and Dewey stood slightly behind Welsh who sat in his accustomed place at his desk. Ray occupied the chair in front of the desk. The only person in the room that seemed at all at ease was Frannie. She half-sat, half-reclined on the corner of Welsh's desk. All attention was directed at Ray.
"Muldoon has weaponry for sale and a buyer. He just needs somebody to broker the deal. So the ATF places two agents, a Colill and a Cartwright." With sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows, Ray's hands moved in classic gestures of communication as he continued his recitation. "Muldoon makes the agents and kills them both...so, the ATF suspects an inside leak." He shrugged slightly. "They turn to the FBI who turns to me, Armando Langoustini. The Mob brokers the deal," Ray finished with a flourish.
Welsh rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "How does the deal work?"
Ray answered readily, "Two stages--the first is the nerve gas that you stumbled upon and all I know about the second is that it's big and it's scary."
Welsh leaned slightly forward, staring at his newly returned detective. "And who's the buyer?"
Ray barely shook his head. "Again don't know, very cagey, very secret." He let that sink in before continuing, "The basic idea was that I would broker the deal and then we'd nail Muldoon and the buyer." Ray's hands seemed to have a life of their own.
Huey spoke for the first time, "Which doesn't work out..."
"Because Fraser and Ray show up and blow the whole thing out of the water," Dewey finished the thought.
"Bada shing," Huey ended with an imaginary drum roll. Fraser dropped his eyes knowing all that had been said was the truth.
Rolling his eyes, Welsh glanced at the Duck Boys wishing they would leave the nightclub routine somewhere else. "So what now?" he growled.
Unaware of the Duck Boys latest hobby, Ray answered Welsh. "The meet with Muldoon's set for 9. My cover should hold until then. That's our window," he emphasized.
Welsh nodded. "All right! We've got to move." He glanced briefly at Frannie then turned his full attention on the Duck Boys. Motioning with a hand, he directed them, "Huey and Dewey, you run down everything on the location--the whole layout. All right?"
He waited for their nod of agreement and, with a look, dismissed them. Glancing at the woman occupying the corner of his desk, he again brought his hand into motion. "Francesca, pull everything on Muldoon--any possible connection." Fraser was his next target. "Fraser, you run it from your end." Fraser straightened and nodded. Welsh rose to his feet. "All right, we got six hours, let's use them."
Everyone headed toward the door, the Rays in the rear. Welsh strolled around to the front of his desk and as an afterthought called, "Oh, Ray... "
Both Ray and Kowalski stopped, blocking the door of the office. With a singular voice they said, "Yeah?"
Welsh pointed at the two men. "No, I mean, oh I can see this is going to be confusing, huh?" He scratched his chin thoughtfully. Kowalski glanced downward not wanting to meet his superior's eyes, afraid of what he might see there. Welsh pointed to Ray. "Look, you be Ray Vecchio cause you were Ray Vecchio to start with..."
Smugly, Ray said, "Right."
Inwardly flinching, Kowalski asked, "And who am I?" not quite certain he wanted to hear the answer.
Welsh stuffed his hands in his pockets. He knew exactly what Kowalski was going through. "Good question," he glanced sideways not quite wanting to meet Kowalski stare. The identity Kowalski had had for the past year had just been thoroughly and irrevocably yanked out from under him. He was a good man, a good officer, and Welsh had no intention of letting him just disappear--he was too good an officer for that. But right now, he had to re-establish the lines of protocol that had been upset with Vecchio's appearance. He shrugged expansively and addressed the blonde man, "You can be Stanley Kowalski."
Ray's eyes widened in surprise. "Stanley Kowalski?" he asked disbelief plain in his voice. He grinned broadly at Kowalski's obvious discomfort.
In an offhanded voice, Welsh explained, "His father had a big thing for Marlon Brando."
Kowalski had had enough. Ignoring the Italian, he spoke to Welsh, "So...uh...I just...uh..." He waved his hand in a continuing motion. Welsh repeated the motion with his hand and nodded his head. Kowalski glanced at Ray who continued to grin smugly at him stroking his nose as if to stress the point that he was Italian and Kowalski wasn't. "Okay," Kowalski said as he turned and left the office.
Ray couldn't resist a final parting shot. "Later, Stanley," he called to Kowalski's back. Kowalski spun about and glowered none too friendly at Ray. Oblivious, Ray stepped back into Welsh's office, his attention all for his superior officer. "Sir?" he asked.
Welsh motioned for him to close the door. Ray complied then came to stand in front of the Lieutenant where he leaned against the desk. "Ray, contrary to what those FBI guys may have told you, you are still a member of this police force. If the situation should arise, I expect you to follow my orders."
Ray ran a hand over his thinning hair before exhaling explosively. "Gladly, sir, I just hope you'll tell them that."
"I will," he motioned toward the door dismissing Ray. At the last moment, he said, "And Ray, ease up on Kowalski."
Ray stopped facing the door. Placing his hands on his hips, he slowly turned and said, "It's my life, Lieutenant, and I plan on taking it back."
"You'll get no argument there, Vecchio. Just remember that Kowalski did more than an adequate job covering your butt while you were off gallivanting with the FBI in Vegas." He rose to his feet and stalked to stand nose to nose with Ray. "If push comes to shove, Detective, it won't be his tail that gets transferred out of here. Do I make myself clear?"
Stunned, Ray nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Good, now haven't you got something you should be doing?" He motioned toward the bullpen with a hand.
A final glance at the resolve on Welsh's face and Ray spun about and quickly left the office careful not to slam the door on his way out. He stalked through the room avoiding desks and milling personnel with a practiced expertise which was all for the best since his mind wasn't on where he was going. The words of Welsh echoed in his mind especially the part about the transfer. He shook his head wondering if he might have misjudged his doppelganger. Maybe he was just jealous that Kowalski had lived the life he himself had given up and if Benny considered the man a friend, there had to be something there. He silently vowed to give Kowalski a chance.
Unerringly, his feet carried him to the corner that housed his desk. He stared in disbelief tinged with repugnance at the scattered papers, file folders, empty paper coffee cups, and gum wrappers that were strewn across the surface of his desk. Seething, he gathered some papers together and made a pile. More papers were stuffed into a folder and placed atop the pile. A coffee cup, three gum wrappers, and a half-eaten candy bar went into the trashcan. He scooped some more papers together and added them to the growing pile.
Unnoticed, Kowalski sauntered over catching Ray in the act of rifling through his files. Angrily, he asked, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"How can you work in this mess?" Ray growled as he loudly slapped another file onto the growing pile.
"No worse than the piles of crap ya left all over the place." Kowalski spread his hands in emphasis.
"Yeah? Well my piles of crap were organized," he sneered, dropping another pile of papers with a thud. He momentarily forgot his vow to try to get along with this guy.
"My mess is organized," Kowalski defended as Ray added more files to the teetering pile.
"Well why don't you just organize it some place else?" Defiantly, Ray straightened and placed his hands on his hips. He glared across the expanse of the desk at the interloper.
Kowalski sighed heavily, "Okay," and with one fluid motion swept the tottering pile from the desk, sending it spraying across the room. Glaring defiantly back at Ray, he snidely asked, "Is that good?"
Irritated, Ray pushed harder. "Have you got a problem?"
Anger and a touch of panic boiled just beneath the surface as Kowalski placed one hand on the desk and punctuated his speech with the other. "Maybe, just maybe, I don't like the way you're sashaying around trying to take over everything."
Ray paused only a moment before placing one of his hands on the same desk and quietly enunciated, "This is my desk, it's my life." His finger stressed each point. Kowalski dropped his gaze to follow that finger. Ray wasn't finished. "Now you get over it," he added with emphasis.
A mirthless snicker slipped past Kowalski's lips. " Well, you get over this!" he snarled as he grabbed the neck of Ray's vest with one hand and drew the other back in a fist. Ray, in turn, grabbed a piece of Kowalski's vest more than willing to accommodate his wish for a fight.
Passing by the desk, Frannie spotted the brewing tempest immediately. It was kind of hard not to see the fists and the angry grimaces. Dropping the file she carried, she quickly interposed herself between the two men. "Okay, okay, all right!" she barked. Ray grudgingly dropped his hold on Kowalski. Glaring at Kowalski, she continued, "Back off, Kowalski." She motioned with her hands, "that's my brother you're talking to so just stay out of his face."
Kowalski reluctantly relaxed his grip on Ray. He pivoted away from the duo swiftly tossing a hand as if to say, 'I've had it!'
Turning her attention to her brother, Frannie stared at him until he dropped his eyes. "And you!" she demanded, "They give you testosterone shots in the mob or what?"
Ray stared at the floor resting his hands on his hips. He was surprised at how easily Kowalski could get under his skin. With a start, he realized that if he were still in Vegas, the man would be playing hardball with Tonio or Vinnie by now. Was Frannie right? Had his time with the mob changed him?
Frannie stared first at Kowalski then back at her brother. Satisfied that she'd averted a major brawl, she made mixing motions with her fingers. "WORK!" she ordered the two men then left them to finish the job they had interrupted with their macho display.
Kowalski settled onto the edge of a table. Placing his hands on his knees, he leaned forward and stared at his boots.
Ray cleared his throat then apologized. "Listen, I uh..." He took two steps toward the other man.
Kowalski's hand flew up. "Hey! Forget about it," he said as he glanced first at Ray then away. Sighing heavily, he spoke in a softer voice, "It's just uh..." His hands made circular motions, "you know, so sudden." He rolled to his feet gesturing wildly. "I mean, I knew...look, I knew ya were coming back. I just..." Unable to meet Ray's eyes, his voice faltered. "Didn't think it would be so soon, so.... " He turned away from the man that was taking away the life he'd grown to love.
Ray understood all too well what Kowalski meant. "I know," he said, "I mean, it feels as though you died and you didn't get everything done."
Surprised to hear something resembling understanding in Vecchio's voice, Kowalski slowly turned around and nodded his head. He reached for some papers and began picking up the mess he'd created.
Ray moved closer to Kowalski. In a reasoning voice, he continued, "You know that's how I felt when I walked out of here."
Kowalski gathered together another pile of papers and folders, placing them on the table. He glanced at Ray. "How's Vegas been?" he asked wanting to learn something of the man Fraser considered his best friend long before he'd ever shown up on the scene.
What could Ray say that would convey the fierce loneliness, the constant dread that his cover would be blown, the hatred for the life style of the mob that ate at his guts, his longing for his family and friends? What could he possibly say that would say all of that? "Undercover's lonely." He shrugged, wagged his head, and began gathering papers together as well.
Recalling his own situation, Kowalski murmured, "That it is." He continued picking up loose pieces of paper and placing them on the table.
Ray heard the soft words. Standing at one end of the table, he studied Kowalski. Only then did he realize that he wasn't the only one that had spent the past year undercover. This man had taken his place to protect his butt. Did it really matter that in the pursuit of that goal he'd also established himself as a good officer? Did it really matter that his family had accepted him? And his best friend, Benny? "Well, you got Fraser," he quipped with a smile in his voice.
Kowalski straightened and stared across the expanse of the table at Ray. Something passed between them--something on a gut level, something that shook them both. Unsure of what had just happened, Kowalski nervously chuckled. "Right," he drawled.
Ray's laughter joined Kowalski's as they both cleaned up the mess.
Ray stretched his back and motioned toward the coffee room. "Care for another cup?" he asked as he pitched a crumpled one in the trash.
Kowalski nodded. "Yeah, black."
Ray nodded once and headed toward the coffee room. As he rounded a corner, he collided with someone. Reflexively grabbing the woman's arms, he stared down into Inspector Margaret Thatcher's face.
Thatcher nervously licked her lips before saying, "You can release me, Detective." She glanced pointedly down at the fingers crushing the lilac colored sleeves of her suit.
Ray uncurled his fingers from around her arms. "I'm sorry, Inspector. I apologize for not seeing you." Why did his heart rate suddenly speed up?
"That's quite all right, Detective, I wasn't watching where I was going myself." Thatcher ran a hand through her hair, not quite understanding why she hadn't bitten his head off.
"I was just getting a cup of coffee. Could I interest you in a cup? Perhaps a cappuccino? I hear we have machine now." Ray waved a hand in the direction of the coffee room.
Moistening her lips once more, Thatcher nodded shortly. Ray motioned for her to precede him and she led the way to the coffee room.
Entering the room, Ray headed straight for the cappuccino machine. Making two cups, he carried them over to a small table and invited Thatcher to join him. He was surprised when she settled into the chair across from him. Content for the moment to just gaze at his companion, Ray felt a smile crease his face. "You've cut your hair."
Thatcher's hand flew to her hair. "It's easier to take care of," she said as she tucked a strand behind an ear.
"It looks good." He continued to stare at Thatcher, the smile settling on his face.
"May I ask what you find so entertaining, Detective?" Thatcher asked in a voice edged with ice.
"No so much entertaining as pleasing, Inspector."
"And what do you find so pleasing, if I might ask?"
Ray lowered his eyes to stare into the cup of cappuccino, his smile fading slightly. "I was just thinking how nice it was to see you again," he spoke in a barely audible voice.
"In what way, Detective?" Thatcher pushed. She recalled all too well the many times that Vecchio had called her the 'Dragon Lady'. Had his stint with the Mob changed him or was he still the overbearing braggart he'd been before?
Ray cleared his throat before glancing away from Thatcher's piercing eyes. "I seem to have found myself in a difficult position and the prospects are intriguing as well as rewarding--if I play my cards right."
"This sounds interesting, Detective." She coolly replied as she sipped her cappuccino.
"Call me Ray," Ray invited.
Thatcher locked eyes with Ray then slowly smiled. "Ray...about this situation?"
"This situation, hmmm," Ray pondered for a moment, "I know this fellow that has been...away for some time."
"A little over a year?" she asked.
"About that," Ray agreed.
"And this fellow has..." her voice rose in a question.
Ray stared at his fingers as they cradled his cup of coffee. "This fellow discovered while he was gone that he thought often of a certain woman--a woman he felt was unattainable, a woman he'd been unkind to, a woman he discovered he wanted to get to know better." He lifted his eyes to Thatcher.
"And this woman, does she think of him?"
"I don't know, Inspector..."
"Meg," Ray agreed, "I don't know if she thinks of him at all except as a royal pain-in-the-ass." He shrugged helplessly. "During the time he was gone he often wondered if she ever thought of him."
Thatcher took another sip. "I would image that this woman had probably thought of this fellow over the course of their separation."
"Did she think kindly of him?" Ray held his breath.
"At first, I imagine, she was a bit perturbed, leaving the way he did. His friends missed him and he hadn't even said a word," she spoke softly, hinting at something in her voice.
"This fellow didn't know that this woman would miss him. How could he tell her that he was leaving when he didn't even know if she cared?"
"She cared," Thatcher whispered.
Ray set his cup down on the table and lowered his face into his hands. "Damn, if he'd known that he would have never left."
"Does your fellow wish to approach this woman?" Thatcher casually asked.
"Yes...yes, he would." Ray whispered as he stared into Thatcher's dark brown eyes. A slow, secretive smile spread across her face.
"So, where's my coffee?" Kowalski demanded as he hustled into the coffee room.
"Sorry, Kowalski, I got distracted," Ray answered shifting his eyes from Kowalski back to Thatcher.
"Uh, hi Inspector," Kowalski said as he headed toward the coffee machine.
"Kowalski?" she asked.
"Yeah, his father had a thing for Marlon Brando," Ray supplied.
"I see," Thatcher replied.
Kowalski pulled a chair out from the table and after turning it around, straddled it. "Look, Ray, I've been thinking."
"Should I be scared, Stan?" Ray quipped and shot Kowalski a glance. Something passed between them--not as frightening as before but strange nonetheless.
"Hardy har har," Kowalski cracked as he pulled a package of Smarties from his vest pocket and dumped a handful into his cup of coffee.
"Um, if you gentlemen will excuse me?" Thatcher spoke as she rose from the table. "I am supposed to meet with Lieutenant Welsh shortly."
"I'll talk with you later?" Ray queried as he rose from his place.
Thatcher shifted her eyes to Kowalski who was watching them intently. Sliding her eyes back to Ray, she shrugged. "I'm sure I can fit you into my schedule somewhere." Turning on her heels, she strode toward the door of the coffee room.
"That's one cold woman," Kowalski murmured.
Before Ray could reply, Thatcher stopped then turned back to face him. "Detective, your friend needs to make that approach before too much time elapses. If he waits too long he may find that circumstances have transferred what he seeks back to where she came from." She nodded slightly then left the room.
"Whoa! What was that all about?" Kowalski asked as he sipped his coffee.
"We were discussing...what does it matter what we were discussing?" Ray growled before swallowing the last of his cappuccino.
Kowalski's eyebrow rose a fraction but he refrained from stating the obvious. Just 10 minutes earlier he had almost come to blows with this man. He wasn't quite in the mood to start another fight over something that involved the Ice Queen. He did, however, have another matter to clear up. Setting his coffee cup on the table, he splayed his fingers on its surface. "For the record, Mr. Ray Vecchio, the name's Ray, Ray Kowalski. Only my mother gets away with calling me Stan or Stanley. So get used to it!" Staring intently at Ray, he spoke each word bitingly sharp.
Ray stared at the blonde man sitting across from him. Shrugging expansively, he replied, "That's fine by me, Ray, although having two of us might confuse the Duck Boys."
"Well, it don't take much to do that anyway!" Kowalski grinned over the rim of his coffee cup.
"Not if this new guy--Dewey?--is anything like the last one," Ray confided and returned the grin.
Chugging the last of his Smartie-enriched coffee, Kowalski wadded the paper cup into a ball and one-handedly tossed it into the trash bin. "And he scores!" he crowed, then slapped his hands down onto the surface of the table. Rising to his feet, he said, "Let's go catch us some bad guys!"
Not to be outdone, Ray wadded his own cup and lobbed it over his left shoulder. It hit the rim of the trash bin then fell into it. Rising to his feet, he cocked an eyebrow at Kowalski.
Kowalski grimaced slightly before nodding his head. "Nice shot, Ray! That's gotta be a threebie."
"Nah, only a twofer, Ray." Motioning toward the door, he continued, "You said something about bad guys?"
Kowalski's teeth shone in a broad grin. "Pitter patter, let's get at 'er!" he said as the two men left the coffee room.
* * *
The parking garage looked just like any other parking garage. There were cars scattered about, a few trucks making deliveries, an occasional pedestrian, nothing to mark this particular garage as something out of the ordinary--not even the fact that some of those cars were occupied and not by shoppers. Lieutenant Welsh patiently waited behind the wheel of a nondescript sedan mentally strangling the two men in the back seat. Unaware of their superior's thoughts, Detectives Huey and Dewey practiced several comedy routines. In another car not too far away, Kowalski sat behind the wheel while Inspector Thatcher occupied the passenger seat. Conversation between the two was desultory and sparse centering mainly on how self-assured each of them were. The third car of this unlikely trio contained a Mountie, a cop, and a deaf wolf sharing what they had once had over a year ago. Somewhere else in the depths of the garage lurked an unknown number of FBI and ATF agents. They all waited for 9 PM and the arrival of Holloway Muldoon.
"You know, Benny," Ray confided as he glanced around the wolf's head to his friend in the passenger seat, "the desert's okay and Nero does have a great buttermilk, but this is the stuff I miss!"
"Like old times, eh?" Fraser nodded slightly before turning his gaze back to the windshield in front of him.
"Yeah." A smile slowly played across Ray's face. "You remember that time you locked us in that vault?"
Fraser chuckled. "Yeah, and the water kept rising until we," he motioned with his hand, "we almost drowned?"
"Yeah," Ray sarcastically admitted. "You know...what I just said about missing all of this?"
Fraser turned his head to look at Ray. "Uh huh."
"Forget I ever said it."
Fraser smiled. "Understood."
Ray dug through the pocket of his coat pulling forth something that looked suspiciously like a fuzzy caterpillar. Adjusting the mirror, he carefully applied the fake moustache to his upper lip. He sneered slightly at the sight of Armando in his rear view mirror. Glancing quickly at Fraser, he said, "Wish me luck."
Fraser shook his head. "You don't need it."
Ray opened the door of the sedan and rose to his feet, his overcoat flapping about his legs. Closing the door behind him, he leisurely strolled away from the car containing his friend. When he reached the appointed spot, he stopped, surveying the area around him. He didn't have long to wait. Muldoon was nothing if not punctual. Placing his hands in the pockets of his coat, Ray closed the distance between himself and the group with Muldoon. Before a word could be passed between them, squealing tires and wailing sirens bore down on them in the shape of two late model sedans. Ray drew his gun along with Muldoon and the gang. Gunfire erupted and everyone scattered.
Ray crouched low, finally catching sight of Fraser and Kowalski following Muldoon and some of his men through a door of the garage. Moving quickly, he followed his friend through the door. He found himself in a long, dark corridor. He followed the sounds of voices coming from the darkness at the end of the corridor. He approached a T where another corridor joined the one he was in. With his gun at ready, he carefully stepped into the corridor. Kowalski and Fraser were about ten feet ahead of him. "Where'd they go?" he asked in a stage whisper.
"Huh?" Kowalski jumped and swung around pointing his gun at Ray. Fraser glanced over his shoulder.
"Jumpy," Ray snickered as Kowalski and Fraser turned back to face the other end of the corridor.
"It's this place," Thatcher said as she rounded the corner.
"Hey!" Ray barked. All three men stared at Fraser's superior. Only Ray's face spread into a smile.
Smugly, Kowalski snickered, "Jumpy." Ray glared at him but said nothing as the group slowly moved down the darkened corridor. Ray made sure that Thatcher was behind him at all times.
Motioning with his head, Fraser noted, "The corridor branches off."
Diefenbaker shot past them. With his gun at ready, Kowalski followed closely on his tail. Ray came next while Fraser and Thatcher brought up the rear. At the intersection, Kowalski glued himself to the wall before cautiously peeking around the corner. Gunfire erupted lighting the corridor like strobe lights. Kowalski ducked back and the valiant quartet huddled against the wall out of the line-of-fire. Ray's eyes locked with Thatcher's briefly then he turned his attention back to the other men. With a nod to the others, Kowalski nosed his gun around the corner and returned fire. The return fire was sporadic as Muldoon and his men used the gunfire to cover their retreat through another door.
The foursome hurriedly covered the distance to the door and burst through it into a stairwell. Echoing footsteps marked the departure of Muldoon and his men. Glancing up the open space of the stairwell, an occasional hand or arm could be seen. The small group raced up the stairs catching sight of their quarry on the level above them. Muldoon and a couple of his goons continued up the stairs while several men went through the door on that level.
Reaching that level, Ray and Kowalski both spoke up, "They split up. We'll take these guys." They glanced at each other sharing a look of disbelief with a touch of disgust and worry. They were starting to think alike. Ray was the first to break eye contact. He eased through the door, gun at ready. Kowalski followed him.
Before the door closed, Ray head Fraser say, "Muldoon's this way, sir." Briefly he thought about following Fraser and Thatcher but discarded that idea almost immediately. Kowalski needed backup and Fraser and Thatcher were both quite able to handle whatever they came across. They were both police officers--Canadian albeit--but police officers nonetheless.
Ray and Kowalski followed the sound of running feet down the dimly lit corridor. They paused when they reached the end. Glancing around the corner, they quickly sprang back from the ambush. The four felons opened fire. Taking turns Ray and Kowalski fired at their opposition.
Ray noticed with some apprehension that his nominal partner was having problems. "It's your shooting--your aim is lousy!" he yelled between spates of gunfire.
"I need my glasses," Kowalski explained.
Sighing in exasperation, Ray snarled, "Forget it! Let's go."
Shoulder to shoulder, they left the protection of their corner, and firing continuously, strode confidently down the corridor. The gunmen panicked in the face of their determination, scattering down the corridor and out of sight.
The corridor exited into what could only be the inner workings of several carnival rides. Empty cars rolled by the two men on tracks that led into other dim corridors. Several Ferris wheel cars were parked against a far wall while bumper cars were stashed wherever there was space. A single workman stared at them. Kowalski flashed his badge. "Which way did they go?" he yelled. The man pointed toward a tunnel where a group of empty cars was just entering.
The two men jumped onto the track and followed the cars through the tunnel and out into the shopping mall. Moving cautiously forward, they glanced both left and right but saw no one--at least no one that they wanted to see. Coming fully out of the tunnel, they followed the empty cars as they started across a small bridge. Both men ducked as several bullets smashed into a barricade on their left. Realizing how exposed their position was, they dove off the bridge and cowered beneath its fake rock supports, knee deep in chlorinated water.
Glancing over his shoulder at Kowalski, Ray dug in a pocket of his overcoat retrieving a clip of bullets. "How's those glasses coming?" he asked as he reloaded his gun.
Kowalski edged closer to the opening of their hiding place. Digging through the inner pockets of his jacket, he produced a pair of glasses. "I got 'em. They were stuck in the lining of my coat." Settling the glasses on his face, he in turn reloaded his gun.
Ray followed Kowalski out as the blonde man threw himself across a pool of water, firing as he went. Muldoon's men dove for cover and returned fire. One of them, in a burst of stupidity, rose to his feet and took aim at Ray. Kowalski nailed him sending him flying backward to land on a train as it chugged along behind him. Ray quickly dropped down beside the pool of water; Kowalski rolling over the lip to join him. Water splashed over them as they huddled against the side of the pool.
Ray glanced sideways at Kowalski. "Nice job," he whispered.
"Thanks." Kowalski returned the glance. As before, something passed between them. This time, however, it didn't frighten them. It felt almost familiar. A spate of gunfire peppered the edge of the pool above them and the something was forgotten as the two men returned the fire.
Ray fired over the rim of the pool then ducked back down to join Kowalski. His brief glance over the rim of the pool had shown him the men on the move. If they didn't do something quickly, the gunmen would disappear into the crowds of people in the mall. Motioning with his head, he yelled, "Go!" to Kowalski.
Kowalski's head whipped around. "Huh?"
Sighing heavily, Ray motioned toward himself. "You want me to go?"
"No, no, I can go."
"All right, go!"
Both men rose to their feet, Kowalski climbing over the lip into the pool of water. As he splashed across, Ray warily trod around the perimeter of the pool. The three men they pursued continued to retreat occasionally stopping to fire at the two detectives following them. One of them suddenly collapsed into the pool of water, a victim of Kowalski's aim. The other two finally escaped from the water traps and scurried into the mall proper. Ray and Kowalski hot on their trail. Not too far ahead of them, the two remaining men met up with Muldoon. Neither Ray nor Kowalski witnessed the exchange of guns.
"How the hell did we ever work this with Fraser?" Ray asked as he covered Kowalski's advance, then waited for Kowalski to do the same for him.
"Don't know," Kowalski answered. Checking ahead, he motioned with his hand, "Go," he said as he covered Ray's advance. Reaching an open area, they split, Ray going left after Muldoon and Kowalski going right after the two remaining gunmen.
Ray slowly tracked Muldoon. Each doorway was investigated, each potted plant scrutinized. Movement off to the side caught his attention and he thought he caught a glimpse of Muldoon. Inching forward, Ray tried to draw a bead on the man but Muldoon backed out of sight. Glancing over his shoulder, Ray caught sight of what had drawn the man's attention. A Ferris wheel spun nearby with two Mountie's tangled around the framework. They seemed to be occupied with something attached to a crosspiece. Ray's head whipped about. Muldoon had had his gun pointed at the Ferris wheel. He was aiming at Benny or Meg.
Sprinting forward, Ray tried to get another line on Muldoon. His heart almost stopped when he spotted him, legs akimbo aiming at his friends. Frantically, Ray interposed himself between Muldoon and the Ferris wheel, getting off a shot at Muldoon. Almost in the same instant a burning, tearing, consuming pain shot through him and, as he collapsed between the guardrails of the Ferris wheel, he knew he'd been shot. He clung to the guardrail, searching for Fraser or Thatcher. Catching a glimpse of his friends, he let himself slide to the floor. He'd kept his promise. Benny hadn't been shot again nor had the woman that haunted his dreams been injured. "Meg," slipped from his lips as his eyes closed.
* * *
Ray floated in a hazy grey monotonous landscape of strange sensations. He'd been here before and he recognized the aseptic smell of a hospital room long before his other senses verified his current location. Touch was the next sensation that greeted him. The hard hospital bed with its too flat pillow (make that two flat pillows) prodded his back. His hands felt the heavy softness of a standard hospital blanket. Without moving, he also knew that he wore one of those detestable backless hospital gowns. Hearing came next, although he questioned what he was hearing.
"Why didn't you tell me?" The question hung on the air. Ray knew he should recognize the voice but it momentarily escaped him.
The voice continued in what Ray realized was a one-sided conversation. "He killed my mother. I would have done the same."
Ray cracked his eyes, blinking rapidly at the brightness of the room. A hazy shape solidified into his friend. Ray smiled to himself. He was suddenly fiercely glad some things hadn't changed while he was gone. Moistening his lips, he spoke, surprised by how weak he sounded. "Still talking to yourself, Benny?"
"Ray!" Fraser spun to face the man on the bed, surprise in his voice. He moved closer to the bed and leaned over his friend.
Ray smiled tightly and shrugged as best he could. "It's just a flesh wound." The movement was painful and he winced with the effort. After a shuddering sigh, he whispered, "God, I've been waiting all my life to say that. It's not as much fun as I thought it would be." Fraser smiled and chuckled briefly. "Just like old times, huh?" Ray softly asked.
Nodding his head in affirmation, Fraser replied, "Unhappily, yes."
"Do you Mounties still always get your man?"
"We try to."
"Go get him, Benny." With that one sentence Ray dismissed Fraser from having to remain by his side. He knew that Fraser and Kowalski were the ones to catch Muldoon and finally put an end to his reign of terror. He also let Fraser know that it was all right with him for Benny to work with the other Ray. He was an okay guy. Any friend of Benny's had to be.
Fraser nodded his head reading the complex messages that Ray sent with that simple request. He would honor them and bring down Muldoon--not only for his parents but also for his friends. "I'll be back, Ray," he whispered.
"I know you will, Benny. I know you will."
* * *
During the night, Ray's condition deteriorated and he was rushed into surgery to remove the bullet lodged in his lung. Placed in a narcotic coma, his body teetered on the brink of life and death not quite sure which way to go.
Ray awoke to strange sensations. The hospital smell and the hard hospital bed were gone. He fingered the flannel sheets and the heavy wool blanket that covered his lean frame. Slitting his eyes, he cautiously glanced around the room. A large pot-bellied stove sat off to one side, a couple of rocking chair waited patiently beside it. A large well-worn desk occupied another portion of the room. Log walls and rafters overhead completed the alien scene. It looked like he'd taken a step back in history to the days of the Wild West. Just where in hell was he? Pushing himself up on one elbow, he ran fingers through his sparse hair.
"Finally awake, are you?"
Ray's head snapped around to the door of the room where a heavily coated man carrying an armful of wood had entered. Dropping the wood in a bin, the man pushed back the parka and removed his gloves. Unbuttoning the coat, he drew it off and hung it over a peg beside the door. He then strolled across the room to stand beside the bed where Ray now found himself.
"Where am I and who are you?" Ray asked, his voice weak and raspy.
"All in good time, Yank, all in good time. Right now you just need to rest and get your strength back. You've got a long uphill battle in front of you and you're gonna need all the rest you can get." Bob Fraser gently pushed Ray back down onto the small bed. "You rest awhile and I'll fix us some ptarmigan stew."
Ray allowed himself to be eased back down. He hated to admit it but he just didn't have the strength to fight the elderly man. Weakly, he complained, "I thought it was supposed to be chicken soup."
"Chickens are a might hard to come by here," Bob replied then chuckled slightly. "We make do with what we have, son."
Ray waved a hand indicated the rough interior of the cabin. "Just where is here?"
"Oh, this? This is my office," Bob supplied as he stirred a pot that simmered on the stove.
Ray followed Bob's image wondering where the pot of stew had come from. It didn't really matter as the aroma wafted across the small confines of the room. His stomach growled as he realized just how hungry he was.
Ladling a bowl full out, Bob carried it over to Ray. Helping the injured man into a more comfortable position, he spoon-fed the stew to Ray. Ray weakly protested but when Bob handed him the spoon, he realized he was too weak to feed himself. Bob reclaimed the spoon and fed the stew to his son's friend.
Bob laid the bowl aside and helped Ray recline once more. "You need to take it easy, Yank. You can't heal overnight."
Grumbling, Ray agreed with the man. "Just answer one question..." he said.
Bob straightened, then nodded his head. "Go ahead, son."
"Who are you?"
"I'm Bob Fraser."
"Bob Fraser? Bob Fraser?" Ray's brows drew together in puzzlement. Something clicked and Ray half rose from the bed in a panic. "Bob Fraser, Benny's dad?"
"One and the same," Bob agreed as he gently prevented Ray's precipitous movements.
"But you're dead!"
"Have been for nigh on four years now."
"Then I must be...dead?"
"Not quite, son, although you've given the doctors and your family quite a scare there. Nope, you're not dead yet."
"Then where am I?" Ray queried as he once more glanced around the confines of the log cabin.
"This is what we call the Borderlands--that place between life and death."
"What am I doing here?"
"I brought you here."
"Those doctors and that hospital can take good care of your body but what about your mind? Laying there unconscious, the mind tends to wander and if you're this far into the Borderlands it might just wander in the wrong direction."
"So you're looking out for my mind so that it doesn't go the wrong way?" Bob nodded his head. "So I'm just imagining all of this?" Ray's hand swept out in an all-encompassing gesture.
"Well, there's a bit more to it than that but yes, this is all in your imagination. Now you rest here while I go and check on Benton and Ray...the other Ray." Bob patted Ray's shoulder then straightened once more. Smiling paternally down at Ray, he said, "I'll tell you all about it when I get back."
Ray nodded slightly. His impassioned outburst had robbed him of his strength. All he wanted to do was sleep. He closed his eyes and was asleep before Bob had a chance to pull on his parka.
* * *
The tinny sound of a Victrola invaded his dreams of grilling suspects and hitting on a blonde attorney. Ray slowly opened his eyes again surprised to see the cabin and not a hospital room. Bob Fraser knelt in front of the stove adding wood to its fiery interior. Glancing over his shoulder, he smiled at Ray and shoved the last log into the stove. Closing the door, he brushed his hands off and rose.
"How are you feeling, Yank?" he asked.
"Like I've been hit by a bus," Ray muttered.
Bob chuckled and, when Ray struggled to his elbows, lent a helping hand to get him to a sitting position. Plumping the pillows behind the Italian, he asked, "Are you hungry? I'm fixing me a bite of breakfast."
Ray ran a hand over his face. "Yeah, I guess I could eat something."
"Good," Bob said and smiled. Straightening up, he strode over to the stove and filled two bowls from a pot that had mysteriously appeared there. By the time, Bob returned to Ray's bedside, a banana had joined the bowl of oatmeal. Once more Ray tried his hand at feeding himself and discovered, much to his relief, that he could do it--if he took it slow and easy.
Bob pulled a chair up next to Ray's bed and ate his own breakfast. In between bites he filled Ray in on the activities of his son and his friends.
"You mean he just pushed Ray out of the plane and then jumped?" Ray's voice rose in disbelief. Bob nodded and took another bite. "What about the other Mounties--what's their names, Thatcher and Turnbull?"
Bob quirked an eyebrow before answering, "Inspector Thatcher has joined the pursuit in the Yukon." Thinking of Buck and his small detachment, he added as an afterthought, "Although she might not find it to her liking." He patted Ray's arm, "Don't worry, Yank, Ben will make sure nothing happens to her."
Startled, Ray dropped his spoon. It clattered rather loudly in his now empty bowl. "I don't know what you mean," he stammered.
Bob simply nodded his head and continued eating his oatmeal. When he was finished, he took his bowl and Ray's over to the small cabinet-bench that now occupied the wall beside the open door of a closet. A couple of dress uniforms along with three brown and one blue uniform hung there. Ray could see the legs of a pair of red long johns as well. In the spaces between the clothing he could also see what appeared to be the outlines of another door.
"There now, that's done," Bob declared as he wiped his hands on a tea towel then hung it on a hook behind the pot-bellied stove. Turning back to Ray he noticed the intense scrutiny that the detective was giving his office. "I know it's not much but it's home," he said as he came to stand over Ray. "Do you feel strong enough to sit up in a chair for a bit?" he asked as he motioned toward a rocking chair that sat beside the stove. "I've made us a pot of coffee."
Ray glanced at the chair, the stove, and the blue enamel pot with white speckles sitting on the edge of the stove. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted to him and he nodded his head. If it took sitting in that chair to get a cup of that coffee then he'd gladly do that.
Bob smiled encouragingly as he opened a wooden footlocker and pulled forth a large blue and green plaid comforter. He carried it over to the rocking chair and draped its considerable bulk over the seat, back and arms of the chair, letting a portion of it settle onto the floor. Turning back to Ray, he said, "Well, let's get you up."
Ray tossed back his covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed. With Bob's help he shakily rose to his feet and tottered toward the chair. Glancing down at himself, he realized that he was clothed in a man's nightshirt--one that was several sizes too large for him. At least it wasn't opened in the back. Bob eased him around and he dropped into the chair.
Bob fussed around him, tucking the comforter around his feet and legs and wrapping it across his chest. "That'll do you, Yank. I'll get us some coffee now. How do you take it?" he asked as he poured two mugs full.
"Black, two sugars," Ray replied and accepted the mug when Bob handed it to him. He sniffed the aroma then took a small sip. It was hot but not too hot--just the way he liked. Bob settled onto the other chair in front of the stove. Together the two men sipped their coffee.
"This is good," Ray finally broke the silence.
Bob nodded his head in agreement. "Learned how to make a pot of coffee in most anything. In fact, when I first became a Mountie all they gave us was a paper bag and a stick." Ray's eyebrows inquiringly. "The stick was to kill our food with and the paper bag was to boil water in and if you lost either one, you had to pay for it."
"They gave you a stick and a paper bag and expected you to live off the land with only that?"
Bob nodded. "Nowadays, these young whippersnappers have it easy."
"A stick and a paper bag? What if your bag caught fire?"
"Been there, done that. I was a green recruit out on my first case." Bob chuckled slightly. "Not only did my bag catch fire but I mistook my stick for some kindling and burned it, too. I thought I was never going to live that down."
Ray chuckled as well.
"Now, Benton, on the other hand, never had to worry about his bag and stick. By the time he joined the RCMP things had changed." Bob sighed deeply. "Those were the good old days."
Ray's eyes roamed about the cabin once more finally settling on the open closet. "That looks like another door in the back of your closet," he motioned with his head.
"Oh, not quite, Yank. It's more the other way around. That's Benton's closet and I usually leave my door open so he can visit me whenever he wants."
"You live in Benny's closet? I should've guessed those were his clothes. That blue uniform kind of threw me. I thought he hated it."
Bob glanced at the offending garment and said, "Oh, he does, but just like that stick and paper bag, it's RCMP issue and if you lose it..."
"They make you pay and pay and pay," Ray finished with a wide grin.
"That they do, son, that they do." Bob grinned back.
"So, through that closet is Benny's apartment?"
Bob shook his head. "Benton lives in his office at the Consulate."
"He what?" Ray almost choked on his sip of coffee.
"After his apartment burned down, he never got around to finding another one."
"He lives in his office? Must be kind of tight in there."
"In more ways than one, son."
"Isn't he afraid that someone might walk in when he's, you know, changing or something?" Ray's shoulders moved up and down in a shrugging motion.
Bob cocked his head as he spoke, "Oh that's already happened more than once and it's usually that pretty Inspector of yours."
"Meg, I mean, Margaret Thatcher?" Ray stammered in surprise. Bob sipped from his coffee mug and smiled across its thick lip. Ray frantically glanced around the room searching for something else to talk about--anything except Margaret Thatcher. "What's out that door?" he finally asked as he motioned toward a door he'd not seen before.
Bob leaned back in his chair and cradled his mug in both hands. "That's the doorway back to your hospital room. When the time is right, I'll take you back through there."
"What? We'll come out of the closet in my hospital room?"
"Something like that," Bob replied. "More coffee?" he asked as he rose from his chair.
Ray studied the contents of his mug deciding that he'd had enough coffee for the moment. "No, thanks, I think I've had enough. Don't want to have to get up in the middle of the night and go pee. By the way," he turned his head back and forth, "where's the john? Don't tell me it's outside!"
"Don't have one. Got no use for them here in the Borderlands. Haven't had a good pee since I died. As long as you're here with me, you won't have to worry about those midnight trips," Bob said as he grinned broadly.
"In that case, I'll take another cup." Ray handed his mug to Bob. "You know, I had some strange dreams last night."
"Strange?" Bob asked as he returned with the now filled mug.
"Yeah, I dreamt I was back at the precinct interrogating a suspect. I finally got him to talk when I let it be known that I was the 'Bookman'."
"Good use of a bluff."
"But that wasn't the strange part."
"What would that be?" Bob asked as he settled back into his chair.
"There was this blonde attorney, I think her name was Stella, and I started hitting on her."
"Kowalski?" Ray straightened in his chair.
"Is there an echo in here? You're repeating everything I say, Yank."
"Sorry. It was so real. But...thinking back on it, I don't know what it was I saw in her. She's not my type."
Bob's eyes strayed to the door he'd said led to Ray's hospital room. "Most likely, she came to your hospital room to ask you some questions and you must have heard her."
"You think so? It sure gives me the willies just thinking about it. What if she comes back?"
"You'll probably dream about her again." Bob wagged his eyebrows. "Maybe you'll run off to Florida with her."
"And open a bowling alley."
"You've gotta be kidding! A bowling alley? I don't even like it much less know how to bowl!"
"You can never tell with dreams."
"Sounds more like a nightmare, if you ask me," Ray muttered under his breath. Bob quirked an eyebrow and chuckled softly.
A few minutes later, Bob helped a tired Ray back into his bed. Tucking the woolen blanket up under his chin, he said, "I've gotta leave you now, Yank. Gotta check on Ben and Ray."
"They'll be all right, Sir. Benny can take care of himself."
"It's not Benton I'm worried about."
"He's like a fish out of water up there. I gotta keep my eye on him at all times." Bob gazed kindly down on Ray. "Don't you worry none, son, I'll do my best to bring them back to you. You just get better." He patted Ray's shoulder then straightened and crossed the room to the row of pegs where his coat hung. By the time he'd fastened all the catches and pulled the hood up, Ray had fallen asleep. "I promise," he whispered before leaving his cabin in the Borderlands.
* * *
A wracking cough shook him into wakefulness. He felt another one rattle around inside his chest before making the journey up his windpipe and out his mouth. It was like liquid fire that spread across his chest and ate at his lungs. Ray knew that if he coughed once more he would surely die. He had never experienced pain like this before--not even the shot from that crazy doctor that he'd taken for Ben while he was in the hospital recovering from the bullet he'd put in his back. He thought he knew what pain was then but there was no comparison to what he felt now. He moaned deep in his throat and for a moment felt the touch of something that tickled the edges of his consciousness. Moaning once more, he begged the presence to end his pain.
Was that his mother's voice he heard? 'Ma? Is that you? Ma? I'm afraid, Ma,' he whimpered. Surely that was his mother's hand that stroked his forehead and kissed his cheek. Surely that was his mother's voice that whispered words of comfort and love. Surely that was...the cessation of pain as the morphine took effect. Ray gratefully slipped back into his deep sleep only to awaken moments later in Bob's office.
He lay very still waiting for a cough to squeeze his lungs once more. When one did not happen, he cautiously levered himself up on one elbow and glanced around the room. Nothing had changed. Willing strength into his weakened limbs, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and forced himself to a standing position. Placing one foot in front of the other, he staggered over to the closet and pulled a blue-checkered robe from its depths. Taking careful breaths, he slowly slid his arms into the robe then tied the belt. He looked for a pair of slippers but finding none decided he could do without. Besides, the wooden floor seemed plenty warm to his bare feet. Placing a hand out to the wall, he began a slow circuit of the room. Each step he took seemed to be easier and by the time he'd reached the door that led to his hospital room, he felt almost back to normal.
"Don't over do it, Yank," Bob called as he bustled through the door to the Borderlands.
A vista of stark white split by a tall mountain range was all Ray could see before the door closed behind Bob's rugged shape. He slowly made his way over to the rocking chair in front of the pot-bellied stove as Bob removed his coat and hung it on a peg. Settling into the chair, he waited for the older man to join him.
Bob filled two cups with coffee from the pot that appeared on the stove. Handing one to Ray, he dropped down into the other chair. Sighing deeply, he swallowed a large mouthful of coffee then leaned back in the chair resting the cup on his stomach. After another sip, he spoke, "I'll be heading back out in a little bit, Yank. Benton and Ray have got themselves in quite a pickle."
Ray lowered his cup. Concerned for the safety of his friend, he queried, "What happened? Did they get caught in a blizzard or something?"
"Not quite a blizzard but dangerous enough. They're camped on the side of a cliff with only a blanket between them. I don't know if Ray will make it. He doesn't look good."
Ray thought about the man he'd barely met and realized that he was worried for his safety as well. Although not sure that the two of them would ever see eye-to-eye on a lot of things there were other aspects of their relationship that definitely held possibilities--but only if Kowalski made it back alive. "I hope he makes it," he whispered into the depths of his coffee cup.
Bob leaned forward and patted him on the knee. "He'll manage, just as we all manage. If he survives this, I have a feeling that he'll discover that there's more to him that he gives himself credit for. That's one insecure young man."
"Insecure? He seemed to be a little over-assured to me."
"That's just a bluff, son, just a bluff." Bob settled back in his chair and finished his coffee. A few moments later he rose and stirred a pot simmering on the back of the stove.
"How do you do that?" Ray asked.
"Huh?" Bob glanced over his shoulder at Ray. "Do what?"
"Make food appear like that?"
Bob chuckled heartily. "Don't really know, son. It just is. Never figured it out, never saw the need to ask either. I do surely wish someone would provide a user's manual on the hereafter."
"No rules or regulations?"
"Nope, nothing. We just have to play it by ear. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it don't."
"I never knew being dead could have so many problems."
"You don't know the half of it, son," Bob grimaced and turned back to the pot of stew. Soon, both men greedily ate the rich fare. Ray was pleased to note that his expertise with the spoon had improved. Bob noticed it as well.
"Looks like you're about ready to return to your life," Bob said and motioned toward the door that led to Ray's hospital room. "Maybe, when I come back, we can see about getting you back where you belong."
"I think I'd like that, Mr. Fraser."
"Bob...call me Bob," he invited.
"Sure thing, Bob. Call me Ray."
The smile split Bob's weathered face. "Ray." An awkward silence fell between them before Bob rose from his chair and took the now empty bowl away from Ray. "Let me attend to these and we'll get you back to bed."
Ray nodded feeling the tiredness seeping into his body like a river in flood. He watched Bob tend to the dishes and rose to his feet when Bob approached him. "I think I can make it to the bed by myself, Bob."
Bob stood aside and let Ray totter to the bed and slowly ease his body down onto its surface. Ray stared up at the older man. "You haven't said anything about the other Mounties out there. How are Turnbull and Thatcher making out?"
Bob helped Ray remove the checkered bathrobe and settle into the bed. Pulling the wool blanket up under Ray's chin, he answered the question. "Constable Turnbull and Inspector Thatcher made it to Buck Frobisher's post."
"Does he still have..."
"Yes," Bob said. "Stubborn ol' coot. Won't lay off the moose hock wrapped in Gorgonzola cheese."
Ray chuckled sympathetically. "Those poor men!" Bob could only nod his head in agreement. "What about Thatcher and Turnbull?"
"Last I saw of them they were sharing a bed with Buck."
"What?" Ray bolted upright in the bed.
Bob gently pressed Ray back into the bed. "Now don't get your knickers twisted in a knot, Yank. Everything is above board and no one is taking advantage of the Inspector. Although..."
"Ah, she might think twice about bathing facilities in a small posting."
"What?" Ray's motions were stopped once more by Bob.
"That's a story for another time, Yank. You just take it easy and get some sleep. Tomorrow is a big day for you." Bob watched the indecision on Ray's face. It warred with his need for rest. The indecision won.
"You'll tell me the story?" Ray tiredly asked.
"We'll see, son." Bob gently patted Ray's shoulder.
Almost asleep, Ray wheedled, "Promise?"
A far away look entered his eyes but was quickly swept away as Bob glanced once more at Ray. "Let's see how things work out...then we'll talk."
Ray bobbed his head once then closed his eyes. The faraway look returned to Bob's eyes as he once more felt that tenuous call that had plagued him for days. It was almost as if someone were calling to him. Bob watched as Ray relaxed and drifted quickly to sleep.
* * *
Ray awoke to darkness. The interior of the cabin was lit only by the glow cast from the pot-bellied stove. Feeling much stronger, he levered himself up until he was sitting on the side of his bed. Tentatively, he stretched his arms above his head and indulged in a big yawn. That was a mistake. He began coughing.
"One step at a time, son. You're trying to rush things!" Bob rose from his seat behind the large desk. The room brightened as if several lamps had been turned on.
"It's...a little...late for...that," Ray ground out between coughs.
Bob handed him a cup of bark tea. "Try this, son."
Accepting the cup, Ray gratefully swallowed a few sips. The tea seemed to settle the tickling in his chest. Another sip and Ray smiled at Bob. "This stuff works!" he exclaimed in delighted surprise.
"Bark tea is great for what ails you," Bob replied. He watched as Ray finished the cup. "Would you like some more?" he queried.
Handing the cup to Bob, Ray replied, "Not now, maybe later?" His voice rose in a question.
"Always keep the teapot going--never know when a cup of tea will be needed," Bob added with a smile in his voice.
Ray smiled tentatively at the older man. He realized that he liked Ben's father. Too bad he was dead. He could definitely see where Ben had gotten many of his traits. Thinking of his friend, Ray was curious as to the latest happenings in the far North. "How're Benny and Ray doing?" He finally asked.
"Oh, they survived the mountain although I was real worried about that young man. Benton can handle himself but..."
"Kowalski's like a fish outta water?" Ray repeated Bob's estimation of the previous day.
"Precisely," Bob readily agreed.
"So, they made it off the mountain okay? What happened next?" Ray pushed himself to his feet and, grabbing the robe from the foot of his bed, headed in the direction of the rocking chair.
Bob followed and settled into the other one. "They made it off the mountain just fine, Young Ray slung over Benton's back like side of meat. Young Ray actually celebrated when they reached the summit. Not much, mind you, but a little bit. Good to see him taking it so well."
'Young Ray?' Ray thought. 'Does that make me Old Ray?'
"Anyway," Bob continued as he drew deeply on a pipe that had appeared in his hand. The smoke wreathed about his head as he rocked back and forth in the chair. "Anyway, they were doing right well until Young Ray got spooked and hightailed it out across a glacier. Fell in a crevasse, naturally, and pulled Benton in with him."
Ray's eyes widened in alarm. "Fell in a cravasse? Don't men die like that?"
Bob puffed on his pipe and nodded his head. "Found them about 15 meters down pinned in a narrow spot. There was no way they were getting outta of there without help."
"They found help, didn't they?" Fear rose to choke Ray's throat.
"You have to realize, Yank, that there are mighty few people out there. Maybe one or two in 10 square kilometers but, yes, they got some help. I tell you, it is nigh on impossible to move a handkerchief in blowing snow."
"A handkerchief?" Ray squeaked.
"Yep," Bob blew a smoke ring, pleased with himself, "finally managed to wrap it across young Delmar's face. He helped Benton and Ray out of that crevasse and directed them toward Buck's group."
"One of Benton's playmates."
'Playmates?' Ray thought. He was certainly learning a lot about his friend that he knew Ben would rather he not know. He chuckled slightly when he imagined the look on Ray's face when he shared his newfound information with him. They would both get a kick out of teasing the stoic Mountie.
"Anyway, after a thrilling sled ride, they made it to Buck's camp in time for dinner," Bob finished with a flourish. He decided against telling Ray about the 'contact' between Benton and the Inspector. It was just a goodbye kiss after all. He narrowed his eyes and gazed across at Ray. "Any more peculiar dreams?" he asked.
Ray started slightly. How did Bob know that? "I don't know if you'd call them peculiar but I had another dream about Stella. I made a real ass of myself playing up to her. Boy, am I ever glad it was only a dream. If it was real, I'd seriously considered checking into a looney bin to have my head examined."
Bob chuckled. "Now, it couldn't be that bad, son."
"Oh, yes, it could," Ray averred.
Before Bob could comment, a knock on the door of the cabin resounded through the room. Bob rose to his feet but the door had already opened and a small figure, muffled in furs, strode purposefully into the cabin. Tossing the hood back, the elderly woman fished a pair of spectacles out of the front of her parka and placed them on her nose. "Good, he's up and about," she declared as she removed her parka and hung it on a peg next to Bob's.
"What are you doing here, Mother?" A note of resentment echoed in Bob's voice.
"He's going back today, isn't he?"
"And you've got a case to finish," she interrupted. Bustling over to where Ray sat, she bent down and peered into his face. "How are you feeling, young man?"
"I'm feeling fine," Ray stammered.
"That's good. I'm Martha Fraser." She extended her hand.
Ray took the proffered hand and shook it. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Fraser. Ben frequently mentions you..." Ray's voice trailed off. What did you say to a 'paragon of virtue'? She was much smaller than he'd imagined.
"Such a good boy--a little headstrong at times but still a good boy. Now let's see about getting you back to where you belong. You don't want to stay too long here in the Borderlands. It just makes it harder to get home." Casting a glance at Bob, she spoke sharply at him, "Are you still here? Time's a wasting, Robert, you've got a job to do. Don't let Benton make the same mistake you made. Now go...go!" She shooed him off with a wave of her hands. "I'll take care of Ray and get him back where he belongs. Go!" she ordered.
"Yes, Mother," Bob acquiesced. Leaning down, he whispered to Ray. "She means well, son." Straightening he strode across the room and shrugged into his parka. With a hand on the door, he turned and spoke one last time to Ray, "Take it easy, son."
"You, too, sir," Ray answered.
"Bob, call me Bob."
"Take care, Bob."
Bob smiled then saluted Ray and opened the door.
As Bob exited the cabin, Ray thought he heard "Oh for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage and find the Hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea..." but he might have been mistaken.
"Come on, young man, no time to dawdle," Martha clucked.
"Could I have one more cup of bark tea before I go back?" Ray wheedled.
Martha rested her hands on her hips then smiled thinly. "One cup," she agreed.
Ray smiled in return and quickly downed the cup handed him. Rising to his feet he shuffled in the direction of the door to his hospital room. Martha followed behind. "So, do I just go through?" Ray asked as he reached for the doorknob.
"Something like that," Martha spoke in an odd, yet gentle tone.
Ray grasped the knob but something held him back. Hesitating, he glanced over his shoulder and spoke to Martha, "I...I'm...I'm..."
"I know, Ray," Martha called him by name, "there's no need to be afraid. Listen...you're mother's calling to you. Can't you hear her voice?"
"Could you open the door for me?" Ray softly asked.
Martha gently shook her head. Softly she said, "I can't do that, Ray. You have to make the decision to go through that door. You have to decide to live."
Ray sagged against the door. With his forehead resting against the door, he whispered, "You mean if I stay here I'll die?"
"You're mother's calling to you, Ray. Open the door and answer her," she encouraged.
"No buts, just do it!"
Ray turned the knob and opened the door. A long dark hallway stretched before him. "Where..." he began but was unable to finish.
Martha watched Ray open the door and hesitate once more. 'Goodness gracious! Guess I'm going to have to give him a little push!' she thought as she planted her hands in the middle of his back. Her slight frame belied the strength of her will. Ray flew through the open door into the dark hallway; the door slamming shut behind him. Martha brushed her hands together and smiled.
* * *
Ray floated in a hazy grey monotonous landscape of strange sensations. He'd been here before and he recognized the aseptic smell of a hospital room long before his other senses verified his current location. Touch was the next sensation that greeted him. The hard hospital bed with its too flat pillow (make that two flat pillows) was back. His hands no longer felt the flannel sheets nor the heavy softness of the wool blanket. Without moving, he also knew that the oversized nightshirt had been replaced by one of those detestable backless hospital gowns. Hearing came next, the soft litany of the Rosary in his mother's voice.
"Maria di Grandine, pieno di grazia, il Signore è col thee, l'arte benedetta tu tra le donne e benedetto è le frutta di tuo womb, Jesus. La santa Madre di Maria di Dio, prega per noi i peccatori adesso e all'ora della nostra morte. Amen." Sylvia Vecchio leaned forward, her head bent as she recited the Hail Mary. The carved carnelian beads flowed over her hands to the crucifix that dangled below her clasped fingers. Imperceptibly the beads shifted and another prayer began.
Ray relaxed as the voice of his mother continued her prayers. There was just something about being surrounded by his mother's love that calmed his fears. He listened as she repeated the Hail Mary, then began the next prayer. The Our Father rolled softly off her tongue flowing easily into the next prayer.
"O il mio Jesus, ha la pietà su noi. Perdonarci i nostri peccati. Risparmiarci dai fuochi di inferno. Portare tutte le anime nel cielo, soprattutto, quelli più nel bisogno di tua pietà. Amen."
Opening his eyes, he blinked against the light. Love flowed from him as he softly called, "Ma?" When there was no response, he tried again. "Ma?"
Mrs. Vecchio paused in her recitation of the Rosary. Something as soft as an angel's wing had brushed across her. She glanced quickly at the bed where her son lay. The hand with the rosary flew to her mouth and she rose from the chair and hurried to stand beside the bed. Grasping Ray's hand in hers, she brought it to her lips. With her other hand she brushed a nonexistent strand of hair from his brow.
"Raymondo, can you hear me? Potete sentirli, il mio ragazzo piccolo del bambino? Say something to your poor old mama," she gently implored.
"Ma," Ray started but was stopped by his mother.
"Shush, child, let me call the doctor." She pushed a button summoning the nurse on duty then turned back to her son.
"Ma?" Ray blinked his eyes finally settling for a squint. As his eyes adjusted to the light in his room they opened wider. The formless blob resolved itself into the careworn features of his mother. Smiling contentedly, he whispered once more, "Ma."
"Shhh, Raymondo, I'm here." Carefully she slid an arm behind his shoulders and hugged him.
A grandmotherly woman in white quietly entered the room and came to stand on the other side of the bed. "I see he's awake. I'll call Dr. McKenzie."
"Thank you," Mrs. Vecchio replied.
A few minutes later, a tall, sandy haired man in hospital scrubs bustled into the room. Seeing him, Mrs. Vecchio gently released her hold on Ray.
Suddenly frightened, Ray whimpered, "Ma?"
Taking his hand in hers, she patted it and leaned closer to whisper, "The doctor is here to check on you, Raymondo. I'm right here, I won't leave." Glancing at Dr. McKenzie, she motioned for him to proceed.
"Hello, Mr. Vecchio, I'm Dr. Robert McKenzie. I've been looking after you since you were brought in here." Taking a small penlight from a pocket, he shown it first in one eye then the other. "How are you feeling?"
Ray let a ragged sigh ooze from him before he answered. "I've felt better."
Chuckling, Dr. McKenzie replied, "I bet you have." Stepping back, he glanced at the chart he'd brought with him. "You've been through a lot in the last few days, Mr. Vecchio. The best thing right now is rest." Flipping the chart closed, he continued, "I'll check back with you later this afternoon. Before I leave do you have any questions?"
Ray carefully shaped the words before letting them emerge from his mouth. "When...?"
Reading the unspoken question, Dr. McKenzie smiled. "Once we move you from ICU, it all depends on how quickly you heal. I imagine a week to two weeks tops."
Satisfied, Ray closed his eyes and was instantly asleep. He didn't see the tears of relief in his mother's eyes nor the concern shown her by Dr. McKenzie. All he knew was when he awoke once more his mother was gone and in her place was his sister, Francesca.
"Hey, Frannie!" he called wishing his voice was stronger.
Frannie dropped the magazine she was reading and hurried to his bedside. "Hi yourself, Ray. How ya feeling? Can I get you something? A drink maybe?"
Ray nodded his head and gratefully sipped at the straw placed in his mouth. The ice water tasted like nectar and he took several swallows before turning his head slightly. Reading his signals, Frannie removed the glass and placed it on the table beside the bed.
"Thanks," Ray whispered.
Frannie smiled and nodded her head in acknowledgement. "Is there anything else you need?"
Ray shook his head slightly then asked, "Where's Ma?"
"The doctor sent her home last night. Maria stayed with you last night and I took over this morning. Ma will be back around lunch."
"How did he get Ma to go home?"
"He told her that he would admit her to the hospital if she didn't go home and get some rest. He also told her that she needed to be at her best for you and you know Ma..."
"Yeah," Ray sighed. "So why ain't you at work?"
"The Lieutenant said I could spend the mornings with you until you get out of the hospital. I work a longer shift in the afternoon."
Ray's eyes began to droop. Struggling to keep them open, he asked one last question, "What about Fraser?"
Frannie's expressive face clouded slightly. Moistening her lips, she said, "We haven't heard anything in almost a week." She smiled brightly although the smile did not reach her eyes. "You know Fraser, he can take care of himself. I'm sure he's all right." Her voice trailed off.
Ray watched her through narrowed eyes. It sounded more like she was trying to convince herself rather than him. Could she honestly care for him? What had happened in the time he'd been gone? The questions circled in his mind as he once more surrendered to sleep. An hour or so later, he could have sworn he heard Frannie yelling at someone but he must have been mistaken. Frannie wouldn't do something like that.
"I don't care who you are and what you got! You're not bothering my brother until the doctor says he's up to it. Just what kinda person are you? He's barely conscious and you're on him like a buzzard on a piece of roadkill! Back off, sister, before I call the cops on you!"
"That will not be necessary, Miss Vecchio, I can..."
The rest was lost to Ray as he recognized the voice...Stella...Stella of the bowling alley. So, Frannie was running interference for him. Smiling to himself, he slipped back into his healing sleep knowing that he needn't worry about waking up married to a blonde harpy and chained to a bowling alley in Florida.
* * *
"Hey, Yank, you awake?" Ray moaned slightly and rolled away from the voice. "Come now, Ray, I don't have much time."
Ray slitted his eyes finally focusing on the image of Bob Fraser. Rolling to lie flat on his back, he rubbed his eyes then spoke, "What time is it? What are you doing here?" He yawned widely.
"It's late and I don't have much time, son. I really shouldn't be here at all but I have something I need for you to do."
Interest piqued, Ray yawned once more then motioned for Bob to continue.
"I just stopped by to let you know what's happened since you returned here."
"Did Benny catch Muldoon?" Ray asked the question that was uppermost in his mind.
A smile of paternal pride spread across Bob's weather beaten features. "Yes, he did and he did a far better job of it than I did thirty years ago."
"Thirty years? That's a long time to be chasing someone."
"I haven't been chasing him. I thought he was dead. I thought I'd killed him." Bob's voice was filled with recriminations.
Ray rose to his elbows. "You tried to kill him? But you're a Mountie! Benny said you always brought your man in alive. Why would you try to kill him?"
Bob dropped heavily into the chair normally occupied by one of the Vecchio females. Burying his face in his hands, the answer, when it finally came, was muffled. "He murdered Caroline--shot her. I nearly went crazy with grief. I tracked him down and I shot him. He toppled over the cliff edge. I was certain he was dead."
Stunned, Ray could only ask, "He killed Benny's mother?" Bob nodded his head. "I can understand why you tried to kill him. But he wasn't dead?"
"No, but Benton stopped him. Did it right and legal, not like me. Although I must admit to a certain sense of satisfaction when I felt Muldoon's nose crumple under my fist." Raising his head, he let a sigh slowly flow from his body. "I've finished my last case."
Ray's brows furrowed with confusion. "Your last case? What does that mean?"
"It means that I've come to say goodbye."
"You're leaving? But Benny..."
"Tell Benton...tell my son that I've always been proud of him and that I hope that someday he can be proud of me."
"But you can't go, sir! Benny needs you."
Bob rose to his feet. "I was never there when he needed me, son. He doesn't need me now."
"He needs you!" Ray pleaded.
"Tell him...tell him that nothing lasts forever. He'll know what I mean."
"But you can't just leave like this," Ray continued.
"Why not?" Bob waved a hand in the air and Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt suddenly replaced the heavy fur coat and arctic trappings he normally wore. "Even a spirit needs a vacation once in awhile." He smiled broadly then vanished.
"A vacation? You're taking a vacation?" Ray asked the darkness.
"Of course not! As long as you're in the hospital, we're postponing our vacation," Maria insisted as she closed the door to the room. "Who were you talking to or were you just having one of those dreams?"
Guiltily, Ray squeaked, "Dreams?"
"Yeah. By the way, who's Stella?"
* * *
Ray leaned back on his pillows and stared at the screen. The baseball season was off to a shaky start. He'd just spent the most unsatisfying 3 hours watching the Cubs drop one to the Marlins. Flipping channels, he searched for something to remove the bad taste in his mouth. Golf, nope...This Old House, nope...Martha Stewart, not on your life...Terminator 2, hmmm...Lethal Weapon 2, yeah. Ray settled back with a smile on his face. He'd caught the tail end of the opening chase scene, once more admiring the handsome good looks of the young police officer betting on the outcome of the chase. 'He should get a starring role in his own TV show,' Ray mused. So engrossed in the movie was he that he didn't hear the knock on his door. The second rap was much louder and, annoyed that his movie was being interrupted, he called out sharply, "Come on in and get it over with!"
The door opened slowly and a head appeared around it. "Is this a bad time to visit?"
Ray's mouth dropped open and all thoughts of the movie disappeared. "Benny!" he cried as he motioned for his friend to enter. "Damn it's good to see you. Where have you been? What happened? Where's Kowalski?" He paused as he watched the Mountie stroll across the room to stand beside his bed. "Benny, " he said, "I knew you'd come back."
Ben smiled and nodded his head. "I always keep my word, on my oath as..."
"...as a Mountie, yeah, I've heard that before," Ray finished for him. Flipping the TV off, he motioned for Ben to take a seat in the chair beside the bed. "Tell me about everything."
Ben sat in the chair indicated. "I'm quite sure that you do not wish to be bored by the tiny details of..." he began but Ray again cut him off.
"Tell me everything and I mean everything. I want to hear it all." He paused then continued in a lower voice, "You know, Benny, while I was gone I missed listening to you explain everything. Why, I even missed your stupid Inuit stories. So, I don't care how boring or how long it takes just tell me everything you can about capturing Muldoon."
"You're sure, Ray?"
Ray nodded his head. "I'm sure," he added for good measure. He leaned back and listened as Ben cleared his throat then began telling him about the things that had happened since leaving him to chase Muldoon.
"And so we fell into the abandoned mine shaft and I was able to subdue the suspect," Ben finished.
Ray smirked to himself before saying, "That's not quite how I heard it."
"You've already heard this story? But..."
"I heard that your Dad punched that bastard in the nose before turning him over to you."
"My dad?" The surprise made his voice higher than normal.
Recalling the promise made to Bob, Ray nodded his head. "Yeah, I spent some time with him in his cabin in the Borderlands."
"Is there an echo in here?" Ray asked with humor in his voice.
"I'm sorry, Ray, but I never..."
"...expected me to say that I'd met your dead father?"
"Ah, no, I mean, yes, I mean..."
"I know exactly what you mean, Benny. I never expected to meet him either! But I did and he gave me a message to pass on to you."
"A message? I think I already know what it is, Ray. He told you to say goodbye to me, didn't he?" Ben's voice thickened with sorrow.
"He said to tell you that nothing lasts forever and that you'd know what that means."
"Yes, Ray, I do. He told me that nothing was permanent and then he left with my mother."
"You got to see your mother?"
Ben nodded his head sadly. "Then they both faded away."
Thoughtfully, Ray said, "That would explain his visit."
"Visit?" Ben queried.
"He stopped by here to give me that message then he took off on vacation."
"Vacation? In all the years my father was a Muontie, he never took a vacation."
"Well, I'd hate to think of your father patrolling the Borderlands in Bermuda shorts and that ungodly shirt he was wearing."
Hope shone in Ben's eyes as he leaned closer to Ray. "So, you think he'll return?"
Ray shrugged nonchalantly. "Couldn't say, Benny, I couldn't say but there's always the chance. After all, he did say that nothing lasted forever. Now tell me about Kowalski. Where is he? I kinda expected him to come with you."
"Ray...the other Ray, I mean, said he was going on an adventure."
"An adventure? He doesn't strike me as the adventuring type." Ray folded his hands as he considered the other Ray. "He just took off in the middle of the frozen north and you let him go?"
"No, Ray, he didn't just take off. He called his family and then he told me he was going hunting for the Hand of Franklin."
"What? He's hunting for someone's hand? That sounds mighty strange." Ray shook his head in amazement.
"Actually, he said his father mentioned Franklin's Hand and he wanted Ray to join him."
"So, Ray's off in Canada..."
"Arizona, hunting for the Hand of Franklin with his father." Nodding sagely, he cocked an eyebrow at Ben. "That's some adventure, Benny, some adventure. Are you sure he said Franklin's Hand? About Franklin's goldmine or maybe Franklin's Hand is a slots machine in Vegas. You know...the kind that has a lever you pull down on. That'd make more sense."
"You may very well be right, Ray. Ray, the other Ray, was not forthcoming with what his adventure would entail."
"I tell ya, Benny, if he's gonna stick around here, we're gonna have to figure out this name business."
"I agree, Ray, and I've given some thought to this."
"You have? And what have you come up with?"
Sheepishly, Ben bowed his head. "Well, since Ray has made it abundantly clear that we are not to call him Stan or Stanley, we can either call you Ray1 and Ray2 or RayV and RayK or OldRay, NewRay, or..."
"How about Vecchio and Kowalski?"
"That lacks a certain sense of...of..."
"Yes, familiarity. In a professional sense, Vecchio and Kowalski would suffice but on a familiar level, I prefer to call you Ray, and Ray, Ray, I mean the other Ray, Ray..." Flustered, Ben tried again, "This is most confusing."
"You're telling me?" Ray grinned and soon Ben grinned as well. "Actually, I've given it some thought as well," he said.
"You have? I certainly hope your ruminations have produced something more productive than mine."
"I think so. You can call me Ray and Ray can be just Ray."
"I don't see how that will solve our problem."
"Maybe that's 'cause I don't see a problem. My name is Ray and Kowalski's name is Ray not 'the other Ray'. I think I know how he feel's being called the other Ray."
"How's that?" Ben asked as he leaned forward in the chair.
"I know what it's like not to be yourself--to live under another name. All you want to do is be yourself but you can't. I didn't think this would bother me as much as it has until I returned and..."
"Someone else was Ray Vecchio."
"Yeah, then all I wanted was to have it back. All I could think about was getting back what was mine then I realized that Ray was in the same shoes. Here I was taking away everything he had. I even tried to take his name away from him--called him Stanley. So, as far as I'm concerned, I'm Ray and he's Ray. Everyone can just get used to it!"
Ben settled back in his chair. It seemed to him that his old friend, Ray, was discovering the merit of his new friend, Ray. He smiled to himself. He just knew they would become good friends. "So, Ray, now that that's settled do you have any more questions?"
Ray thought a moment then moistened his lips and asked, "What happened to the Dragon Lady?"
"Inspector Thatcher has flown to Ottawa. She should get a transfer as well as a promotion from this affair."
"And what about you?" Ray asked as his heart lurched in his chest. Ottawa?
Ben bit his lip, raking a thumb across his eyebrow before answering. "I've been requested to take the exams for Corporal. That's why I took so long in returning to Chicago."
"You took the exams? How'd you do?"
Ben rose to his feet and proudly displayed the corporal stripes on the arm of his tunic. "I passed."
"Congratulations, Corporal Fraser," Ray teased.
Blushing, Ben reseated himself. "Thank you kindly, Ray."
"So, are you getting transferred, too?" It was hard to keep the fear from his voice.
"No, Ray. I was offered a posting to Caribou Flats but I declined it. I have unfinished business here in Chicago."
"Unfinished business? What kind of business?"
Ben cleared his throat unsure of how to broach this subject. Finally deciding on the direct approach, he cleared his throat once more.
"Whatever it is, Benny, you know I'm with you 100%." Ray watched as the Mountie fidgeted.
"With most things I know you are but with this one, I'm not sure."
"Well then just spit it out and let's see. It can't be that bad," Ray suggested.
Taking a deep breath, Ben schooled himself. "Ray, I would like your permission to court your sister, Francesca." There, he'd said it.
Ray stared at Ben, stunned by what had come from his mouth. "You want to do what with Frannie?" he finally growled.
Rising to his feet, Ben unconsciously assumed his sentry position. "I am formally requesting your permission to court Francesca."
"That's what I thought you said." Ray collapsed back against his pillows. Benny wanted to date Frannie? He stared at Ben noting the ramrod straight posture, the determined expression on his face. Benny and Frannie? Benton and Francesca? The mouse and the cat? The lion and the lamb? The squirrel and the pickup truck? His sister and his best friend?
Sighing deeply, he replied, "Okay, Benny, you have my permission. Just remember that she's my sister and I don't want to see her hurt."
Ben heaved a sigh of relief. "I would never do that, Ray. I care for Francesca too much to hurt her."
"I'm glad to hear that, Benny. I hope you realize what you're getting yourself into."
"I'm fully cognizant of Francesca's exuberant behavior. In fact I find it rather endearing."
"Oh brother," Ray gagged. "Now let's discuss something more to my tastes."
"And what would that be?" Ben smiled as he reseated himself.
* * *
"And I've already turned in my resignation at the 27th and I start my new job at the first of next month," Frannie finished as she packed the last of Ray's things in the small bag she'd brought to the hospital.
"You really want to do this?" Ray asked as he buttoned his shirt.
"Yeah, I really do. Father Behan says with my experience as a Civilian Aide I should have no problems running the daycare center. You know we've needed something like that in the neighborhood for many years. The Immaculate Conception Daycare Facility is a dream come true for many of the mothers in the area and I helped set it up." Her voice was filled with wonder.
"You'll be great, Frannie. Who knows? You might start a chain of daycare centers and be on the cover of Newsweek one day."
"Who knows maybe I will!" she retorted.
"I was only..."
The door burst open and Kowalski rushed into the room. "Am I too late?" he asked.
"Late for what?" Ray tucked the tails of his shirt into his slacks.
"To drive ya home. Fraser's getting you a wheelchair then we can boogey outta here."
Ray stared at the jittery blonde man. What could he say to the man who had destroyed his car, incinerated his baby, touched his Riv? "I guess I'll have to depend on someone else's wheels until I can find a replacement for my Riviera," he muttered under his breath.
"Look, I said I was sorry, man. What more do ya want?"
Ray was saved from answering the question by Ben's entrance into the room. A nurse followed behind pushing a wheelchair. Sliding first one arm then the other into his suit jacket, Ray grumped only slightly as he settled into the chair.
"Look, I'll go ahead and pull the car around to the front entrance. Okay?" Kowalski asked. He shot out of the room as soon as Ray nodded his head.
"Listen, Bro, you better cut Ray some slack. He's apologized enough over that barge you used to drive. It wasn't his fault that that arson person blew it up. If you're going to blame someone, blame Mothergood. It was his girlfriend that did it."
"Motherwell," Ray corrected.
"Motherwell, Fathersick, Brotherstupid, whatever, get over it!"
Ray grinned suddenly. "I will, Frannie, I just want to needle him a bit."
Frannie stood in front of Ray. Leaning over, she stared into his face. Satisfied with what she saw there, she smiled conspiratorially, "Okay, and while you're at it you might ask him about my copy of Sword of Desire. He never returned it to me."
"Sword of Desire? Ray reads romance novels?" He chuckled as he envisioned how to use this new ammunition in the war of the Rays.
"Shall we go?" Ben asked after shaking his head at Ray and Frannie.
"Yeah, let's get this show on the road." Twirling his finger in the air, Ray said, "Head 'em up, move 'em out!"
Ben pushed the wheelchair to the elevator and stood aside as Frannie held the doors. Maneuvering the chair to the rear of the elevator, he turned just as Frannie slipped into the car with them. She bumped up against Ben and stumbled back. He caught her before she hit the wall.
"Be careful, Francesca, I would hate for our dinner date at Huey and Dewey's new club to be postponed due to an unfortunate injury."
"I'd hate that, too, Ben," she softly replied.
"All right, all right, don't make me sick! I wanna get out of here!" Ray made gagging noises secretly pleased that Frannie seemed to have settled down. Ever since Ben had asked for permission to court her, she'd taken to wearing more stylish clothing and not being so pushy. The Mountie was definitely having a beneficial effect on his sister.
The elevator dinged and Ben pushed him out of the car. The doors of the hospital beckoned with their promise of freedom. He could almost taste it. Closing his eyes, he inhaled the fresh air as they passed through the doors. Chicago, the smell of rain on the air, Chicago, automobile fumes, Chicago, home.
He listened to the sounds of Ben chatting with Frannie as they waited for Kowalski to bring his car around. He listened to the sounds of cars passing on the street. One sound in particular caught his attention and his eyes flew open. Pulling to the curb in front of him was a 1972 candy apple red Buick Riviera.
Kowalski climbed out of the driver's side and strolled around to the group waiting for him. Holding aloft a set of car keys, he offered them to Ray. "Here, I know it ain't green but this is the best I could do."
Ray rose from the wheelchair and approached the car. He circled the car studying it from all directions. Laying a cheek against the hood, he ran a hand over the paint job.
"Uh, here," Kowalski thrust a cigarette lighter into his hand, "We salvaged this from yur old car." He again offered the keys to Ray.
Ray finally spoke. "Where did you find it?"
Kowalski scratched his head and shrugged slightly. "My dad knows this guy, Franklin Hand, who restores old cars. After I made peace with my dad, I asked him to help me find a replacement. Franklin found us one at a place called Auto Adventures. He and my dad have been working on it for almost a year."
"You went to all this trouble?"
Shrugging once more, he dithered, "'S no trouble. I know about cars. I'm just glad it was ready for ya today."
"Thanks, Ray," Ray spoke around the lump in his throat. He opened his hand and Kowalski dropped the keys into them. Glancing back at the car then over at Ben, he commented, "I think I can get used to red."
Kowalski smiled broadly. "Yeah, but it does take some getting use to, doesn't it?"
"At least it's not dating your sister," Ray joked as he leaned against the car and stared at Ben and Frannie.
"She was my sister for awhile." Kowalski joined him against the car.
"What? What?" Frannie demanded.
"Oh nothing, nothing at all," both Rays said. They glanced at each other and began to laugh.
"Give me those keys, Ray. You are not driving home!" Frannie grabbed the keys from his hand and handed them to Kowalski. "You drive!"
Still laughing, both Rays complied.
* * *
Ray stood before the door and raised his hand to knock. Before his hand could connect with the wood, the door flew open and Margaret Thatcher barreled through it plowing into the man poised with raised hand. The impact sent both sprawling onto the carpeted floor of the hallway.
"I'm sorry. Are you hurt?" Ray reached for Meg.
"I'm fine, Detective." Meg drew her legs together and tried to stand. Pain lanced through her ankle and she collapsed back onto the floor. "Damn!" she hissed.
Ray inched closer and cautiously reached for her ankle. "Let me check it."
Meg glared at Ray but said, "Oh, all right," in a voice tight with suppressed anger--anger at herself for not watching where she was going, anger at Ray for seeing her in a moment of weakness, anger at herself for noticing how gently he handled her ankle, anger at Ray for not making that approach he'd mentioned over a month ago, anger at herself for caring that he hadn't followed through. In general, she was just angry.
"It doesn't appear to be broken but I'd rather not take the chance. I'm taking you to the hospital to have it X-rayed. And I'm not taking no for an answer." Drawing in a deep breath, Ray slid an arm beneath her legs and the other behind her back. In one fluid motion he rose to his feet with Meg in his arms.
"Ray, Inspector?" Ben spoke from the office on the other side of the hallway.
"Hiya, Benny, can't talk now. Your chief customs and excise officer has had an accident and I'm rushing her to the hospital." Ray strolled toward the door. He realized now that this had been a mistake. The muscles in his chest screamed at the unnatural strain placed on them.
"You most certainly are not!" Meg growled. "Put me down! Now!"
"May I be of assistance?" Ben queried. "You know you shouldn't be lifting heavy objects, Ray."
"Yeah, you can catch the door for me," Ray called over his shoulder. If he did anything other than the walking and holding Meg in his arms he knew he'd regret it. He was already regretting his impulsive move to sweep her into his arms.
Ben hurried to open the large, heavy doors of the Consulate. "Ray, you've only been out of the hospital a little over a week. Maybe I should accompany you?" he asked as he followed Ray down the steps.
"Nah, Benny, I can handle it. You go back to your liaisoning." He'd gotten this far; he could handle the rest on his own.
"Corporal Fraser, I order you to stop this man from abducting me this instant!" Meg waved at Ben over Ray's shoulder.
"Could you catch the door of the Riv?" Ray called to Ben one last time, the strain beginning to show in his voice.
"Of course, Ray." He opened the car door and stood aside as Ray gently placed Meg onto the passenger seat.
"We'll be back as soon as we can, Benny. Can you hold down the fort while we're gone?"
"He most certainly cannot!" Meg squeaked as she tried to slide out of the car. "Let me out of here!" she fumed as Ben closed the door.
Moving quickly, Ray hurried around the car and slide behind the driver's wheel. The keys turned in the ignition and the motor roared to life. Pulling away from the curb forestalled any further attempts on Meg's part to escape.
"Now, Chief Inspector Margaret Thatcher, I'd like an explanation."
"An explanation? You've got a lot of gall, Detective. You're the one abducting me!" Meg crossed her arms across her chest and stared out the window.
"I want to know why you didn't tell me that you had returned to Chicago. I want to know why I had to learn it from Benny." Ray glanced sharply at the woman beside him before continuing, "I want to know why you came back."
Meg swiveled around until she was facing Ray's profile. "Well, I want to know why you didn't contact me while I was in Ottawa. I want to know why you haven't contacted me since my return. I want to know why I should answer your questions."
Pulling into the parking lot of Cook County Hospital, Ray quickly found a space and pulled the red Riv into it. Turning the engine off, he turned to face Meg. "Look, Inspector, can we call a truce until after we get your ankle taken care of? We can continue this conversation after that."
The lack of strength in his voice coupled with the way his hands shook as they gripped the steering wheel effectively cut off her angry retort. "Very well, Detective, a truce."
An hour later, Ray wheeled Meg out of the Emergency Ward. Meg sat stiffly in the chair holding a set of crutches before her. Anyone with an eye in his or her head could tell she was not pleased.
"The doctor said you are to rest your ankle for at least 24 hours before going back to work. Now, you've got two choices--your place or mine?"
"I cannot afford to take any time off this early in my new position," Meg answered.
"My place it is," Ray agreed.
"No! I mean... very well, Detective, take me home. Please," she added as an afterthought.
Ray helped her into the car and stowed the crutches in the trunk. The drive to Meg's apartment was short but it seemed like it took forever. Neither one spoke as the silence simmered between them. Ray drove the Riv into the parking garage quickly finding a vacant space. He retrieved the crutches from the trunk and met Meg as she levered herself from the seat.
"It would be easier if you just let me carry you up." Ray's voice held a tinge of exasperation.
"Detective, I am well aware of the strain your earlier helpfulness placed on your person. You really are not well enough to be doing what you are doing. I can manage just fine on my own." Meg reached for the crutches then hobbled in the direction of the elevator. Ray followed along behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, she remarked, "I don't require your assistance, Detective. You've done quite enough as it is."
Ray shook his head tiredly. "Huh uh," he said. "We've got some things to clear up and I'm not leaving until I get some answers."
Meg stopped and glared at him. "You are one of the most irritating men I have ever known but you are right, Detective, we do need to talk." Spinning on her crutches she continued her journey.
Summoning the elevator with her key, they rode together in silence, neither one knowing what to say that would not result in an argument. As the doors opened on the fifth floor, Meg led the way out and down the hallway to the left. Turning a corner, she stopped halfway down the hall and inserted a key in a pale green door. Ray followed her into an eclectically furnished apartment.
Removing his suit jacket, Ray tossed it across the back of a chair. Meg had dropped onto the sofa and buried her face in her hands. "Here, let me help you," Ray spoke softly as he seated himself on the coffee table in front of the sofa.
Meg's head shot up at his gentle voice. "I can manage..."
"...on your own. Yeah, I've heard that one before. Why don't you stop fighting me for one minute so we can get you settled? If you haven't noticed, I'm about on my last legs here!" Maybe he could play on her sympathies.
The 'too close to the truth' ploy worked as the tight expression on Meg's face was replaced with concern. Biting her lip, she acquiesced. "Very well, Detective..."
"Ray." He stared deep into her eyes daring her to deny their exchange of given names.
"Very well, Ray." The corner of her mouth twisted with exasperation.
He smiled his mercurial smile before pushing her back against the cushions of the sofa and, placing a cushion on the table beside himself, set her injured ankle on it. Glancing toward the kitchen, he asked, "Do you have anything to drink? Some bark tea?"
Meg looked askance at him. "Who do you think I am? Fraser?"
Ray chuckled and reluctantly Meg joined him. "Don't all you Canadians drink bark tea and eat moose steaks?"
"I can't speak for other Canadians but I prefer Earl Grey and grade A prime beef--porterhouse in particular."
"Really? I know this great little place that serves a melt-in-your-mouth steak with all the trimmings..."
"Detec..." She stopped when he tilted his head and glared at her. "Ray. We did not come here to discuss dining establishments."
"We can get to that later. Right now I'm going to fix you a cup of tea so you can take your pain medication. No arguments!" he finished as he rose from his seat on the table. "How do you take your tea?" he asked.
"There's honey in the cupboard."
Ray nodded his head in acknowledgment. "While I'm gone why don't you take off any of that stuff that is uncomfortable. I mean, having that jacket up around your ears cannot be the most comfortable thing and those shoes...sheesh! It's a wonder you can even walk in them."
"Suit yourself, Meg. Me--I've about had it with this tie." So saying he loosened his tie and tossed it over the chair where his suit jacket rested. Whistling softly, he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt as he disappeared into the kitchen.
Rummaging through the cabinets resulted in a tin of Earl Grey tea, a half empty package of double chocolate chip cookies. As the water heated on the stove, he delved into the depths of the refrigerator coming up with a basket of strawberries, a small bag of cherries, and a mango. Cleaning the fruit, he sliced the mango and placed them on a plate. Further searching discovered a tray. The plate of fruit, a bowl with the cookies, a honey bear, and two cups of steaming tea were placed on the tray before Ray carefully carried it into the living room.
Ray noticed immediately that Meg had done as he'd suggested. The pale rose suit jacket was tossed across the coffee table, the shoes teetered forlornly beneath it, and what could only be a pair of pantyhose was partially stuffed beneath the sofa. Meg now half reclined, her leg stretched out the length of the sofa.
He carefully placed the tray on the table and handed a cup of the tea to Meg. As she took a sip he retrieved the vial of tablets from his jacket pocket. Opening it, he proffered a tablet to her. She hesitated briefly before accepting it. Once more he settled onto the coffee table beside the tray and they drank the tea and nibbled on the fruit and cookies in silence. Neither one quite wanted to breach the truce they'd established.
Finally, Ray cleared his throat. "I have a few things I want to say to you then I'll get out of your life."
"No, Ray, I mean..." She paused, gathering her strength, and straightened as much as she could from her half-recline on the sofa. "I mean, I have some things that I want to say as well."
"Ladies first," Ray offered.
Meg bit down hard on her lip. "I don't really know how to start so why don't you start for us."
Ray nodded his head slowly. He knew exactly what she meant. He really didn't know how to start what he wanted to say. "Maybe be if we tried to answer those questions that arose earlier, we could get started?"
"That sounds like a equitable idea."
"Good, then you start."
"Very well, Ray." She paused as she tried to frame a question. "You mentioned something earlier about a friend that wanted to approach a woman. I believe I warned you that he needed to make his move before she was transferred."
Ray nodded his head as he recalled that conversation. It seemed like ages ago. Was it really only a month? "I remember."
"Why didn't your friend make his approach?"
"Let's drop the friend crap, Meg. We both know I was talking about me. Why didn't I approach you? Well, there was this business with a bullet and a smuggler named Muldoon. I never got the chance to talk to you 'cause by the time I came to in the hospital, you were gone."
"You could have contacted me in Ottawa."
"And say what? Please don't take your transfer 'cause I need to talk to you?"
"It would've been a start."
"Why didn't you take the transfer?" Ray digressed.
Meg glanced down at the now empty cup. "I don't know, Ray. I was offered a transfer to CSIS, something I thought I always wanted but I couldn't take it. I just didn't appeal to me anymore. So, I opted for the other offer."
"To establish a Customs and Excise Program here in Chicago."
"And just what is that?"
"The mandate of the Customs and Excise Program is to enforce laws within Canada and along the uncontrolled Canadian/U.S. border, governing the international movement of dutiable, taxable, controlled or prohibited goods; the manufacture, distribution or possession of contraband products including tobacco and spirits; the illicit traffic of critical high technology and strategic goods and Acts or regulations that impose non-tariff (permit) controls on the international movement of commodities." She slipped easily into the governmental jargon.
"Sounds a lot like the Muldoon affair."
"I think that was what precipitated the offer. I would be responsible for instituting the first Customs and Excise Office in one of our consulates. It is a big promotion for me."
"And with you moving up, Benny..."
"Corporal Fraser was promoted to fill my vacated post. He's now the Senior Liaison Officer."
"Which suits his purposes just fine!" Ray reflected on just why the Mountie had remained in Chicago.
"And what does that mean?"
Realizing that Meg probably had no idea what was happening right under her nose, he replied, "He's courting my sister."
Meg tilted her head slightly, before answering, "Ah, that would explain the change in demeanor I've observed since returning. He seems less...isolated."
"Yeah, Frannie is different, too. I hate to admit it but I think there may actually be something there. On second thought, I can't think of a better man for my little sister to marry."
An awkward silence settled between them once more. Both reflected on the changes that were occurring around them. At last Ray spoke in a voice so low that Meg had to strain to hear him. "That doesn't explain why I had to learn from Benny that you were back in Chicago to stay. Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's not that I didn't want to, Ray. Everything was in chaos with the new stuff and the changing of positions and the crap I had to deal with. The time got away from me and before I knew it, Fraser had told you. Believe me, I meant to..." her voice trailed off the plea in her voice all too evident to Ray.
"Yeah, I know the feeling..." Ray was interrupted by the mercurial shift in Meg's reasoning.
"But that doesn't explain why you didn't contact me earlier. You've had plenty of time since you left the hospital."
"Yeah, but you gotta understand how it is in the Vecchio household. The only time I've had to myself is when I locked myself in the bathroom. There was always someone hovering over me. There was no way to make a call without everyone knowing about it before I even got the number dialed. And I wasn't going to call you while I was in the john." Ray blew out a stream of air before continuing. "As soon as the doctor would let me out on my own, I came over to the consulate to see you."
Meg's eyes widened with the implications of what he'd just told her. "This is your first venture out?" Ray nodded his head. "Why didn't you say so? You should have never carried me. You could have reinjured yourself." Meg swung her leg over and struggled to a sitting position facing Ray. She grimaced as her ankle twinged in retribution for its unkind treatment.
"I'm fine, Meg, just tired." He ran a hand over his thinning hair. "I guess I reacted without thinking."
"I guess you did. Which leads us to the last question. Why?"
Ray nodded his head. Clasping the hands that were now so close to his own, he asked, "Why did you come back to Chicago?"
Meg dropped her eyes briefly, then lifted them to regard the darkly handsome features of the man sitting so close to her. "I guess I hoped that there was something more for me here." She spoke in almost a whisper, dropping her eyes once more.
"Meg?" Ray tilted her chin up until he could gaze into the dark pools of confusion that were her eyes. His hand caressed her cheek as he slowly lowered his face to hers. Feather soft, his lips brushed against hers then withdrew. He studied her eyes once more and smiled as he read his answer in their depths. His lips descended once more and he kissed her with a hunger that was only equaled by hers.
* * *
Ray's first day back at the precinct was much like every other day at the precinct. The only difference he noticed was the corner where his desk had set for many years. Now there were two desks facing each other. Ray Kowalski sat at one, his back to Ray. Ray tiptoed up behind the blonde detective. "Boo!"
Kowalski jumped a foot if not more. "Shit fire and save the matches! I'm gonna make you regret that!" he yelled as he rose to his feet and turned to punch the joker who had startled him. His hand wavered then dropped. He raked his hand through his hair causing it to stand even more on end than usual.
"Hell, Ray, don't do that! Ya nearly gimme a heart attack." He dropped back onto his chair and watched as Ray strolled around and plopped down at his desk.
Ray rifled through the papers on his desk, opened a couple of drawers, and checked the location of his file cabinet. The last thing he looked for was the chair that had always sat in front of his desk--Benny's chair. "Where's the frigging chair?" he asked.
"Well, ya see, we kinda had a disturbance last week and it kinda got broke."
"Benny's chair got broke? How'd that happen?" Ray ran his hand over his face, dragging it down across his mouth.
"Uh, it kinda got used for a suspect."
"You hit a suspect with it?"
"Huey hit a suspect with it?"
"Nah, lemme finish. Huey had this suspect that was being uncooperative and when he pushed him down on the chair, the chair just broke." Kowalski's hands supplied the appropriate motions.
"You're telling me that the chair broke because some perp sat in it?"
"Well, he musta weighed in at close to 400 pounds."
Ray's eyes widened dramatically. "That'd do it, all right. So what do we do when Benny shows up?"
"I got that all covered. See that chair over by Dewey's desk?"
"Well," Kowalski leaned closer to Ray, "he got that outta Interrogation Room 2. Now I been checking out all the interrogation rooms and the viewing rooms and the lunch room."
"I mentioned to the Lieutenant the fact that we got no chairs for suspects and he said that we'd have to make do with what's available until they could order some more."
"That could take years!" Ray complained.
"Don't I know it. ' Yur taxpayer dollars at work.' Anyway, I know for a fact that they got several chairs stashed down in Viewing Room 3."
"Exactly." Kowalski winked. "And those chairs are just the kind we want--straight backed, wooden, no cushion, hard as a witch's heart--the perfect chairs for suspects."
"Or Mounties." Ray slowly grinned.
"My thoughts, too." Kowalski shared the grin.
Ray slapped his hands down on his desk. "Let's do it!"
In no time, two straight backed, wooden chairs appeared beside the formerly naked desks. And just in time, too, as a figure in red entered the bullpen.
Ben threaded his way over to the corner and the two men who grinned up at him. Grabbing one of the chairs, he turned it around so he could face both men. "Ray, it's good to see you here!"
"Why, Frase?" Kowalski asked at the same time as Ray did.
"Oh, dear, I knew this was going to be a problem." Ben ran a thumb across his eyebrow.
"What problem?" Kowalski asked.
"The name thing, Ray. The other Ray," he motioned toward Ray, "said there wouldn't be a problem. However, I..."
"I agree with Ray. I don't see no problem."
"But Ray, Ray...oh dear, I'm repeating myself."
"And doing a damn good job of it, Frase." He snickered and glanced at Ray glad to see a smile on his face as well. "Anyway, I got a solution."
"You do?" Ben asked relieved. "What, may I ask, is it?"
"Ray here has been Ray longer than I have so I thought ya could both call me by my nickname."
"I hope you were referring to the fact that I've been at this precinct longer than you have and not to the fact that I'm older than you are." Ray interposed before Kowalski could continue.
"Whatever greases yur wheels, Ray," Kowalski smirked.
"Ray, Ray, please, I'm having enough difficulties keeping the names straight without having to play referee for your discussions." Both Rays glared at him but he persevered. "Ray," he looked directly at Kowalski, "you said you had a nickname we might use."
"Do you think you might share it with us?"
"Well what?" Kowalski needled.
"Would you just tell us your frigging nickname?" Ray interjected.
"Bud." Kowalski let the name drop into the conversation.
"Yeah, ya wanna make something of it?"
Before Ray could reply, Welsh's voice bellowed across the room. "Vecchio, Kowalski, get your butts in here."
Both Rays shot to their feet and hustled across the bullpen to Welsh's office. Moments later they exited the office and returned to their desks.
"First day back on the job and do I get any slack?" Ray dropped heavily onto his chair.
"Yeah, and this case, why this one? Why can't we get something interesting?" Kowalski dropped onto his chair as well.
"Well, Bud, it looks like we're partners."
"Yeah, Ray, I guess we are. Shall we?"
"Yeah, but I still hate stakeouts!"
The two Rays rose to their feet and headed out of the bullpen arguing all the while.
Ben remained seated until it became evident that the two men had forgotten about him. 'Oh dear!' he thought as he rose to his feet and hurried after the two Rays. "Ray...Ray, I mean, Bud, wait for me!"
Copyright May 2000 by Cassandra Hope
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