Ray turned up at the station just after ten, clomping uncomfortably in the heavy boots, and still not one hundred percent convinced that the whole deal wasn't a cruel practical joke. If it was, no one let on. The half-dozen people striding up and down the corridor, carrying files and cups of coffee or manhandling scruffy-looking suspects, barely spared him a glance.
A blonde stranger's face peered over the banister from the second floor, and then disappeared. "The Mountie's here," Ray heard her say to someone.
"Fraser? Oh, he's cute," came the excited reply.
Ray straightened his shoulders and was about to push through the squadroom door, but he remembered just in time to let the cleaner through first with a gallant gesture and an "After you, ma'am." He followed her in, glancing around for familiar faces. Huey and Dewey were arguing over the sports pages by the water cooler, and Ray started over to say hi when there was a blur of tight-fitting uniform and he found himself with an armful of warm soft Vecchio.
She draped herself on him like an affectionate octopus. Ray's arms closed around her automatically and, jeez, it was good to get a hug out of someone, but then she said, "Fraser! Welcome back!" and he slammed back into character.
"Ah, Francesca," he said, disentangling himself firmly. "I trust Chicago has been treating you well?"
Her bright smile slipped a moment. "Sure," she said. "How about you?"
"As you're aware, I haven't been in Chicago," said Ray, carefully.
"I know that." She eyed him up and down, and added softly, "You look like hell. How are you really?"
"Fine." He didn't want to have this conversation. He turned toward his—Vecchio's—his old desk. It was deserted.
Frannie followed him. "Ray's been called out to a murder scenario. Can I get you a cup of tea?"
Ray sighed inwardly. "No, I'm good."
She stared at him, waiting, one neatly shaped eyebrow climbing her forehead.
"Thank you kindly." He said it grudgingly, and she shot him a mischievous look, before hooking her hand through his arm and swinging him around so they were heading to the break room. "So, Fraser, tell me about the Northern Territories."
Ray tried to free himself, but her grip was determined, and Fraser would never publicly struggle with a woman, not even Frannie, so he gave in. "Northwest Territories, Francesca," he said. "The Northern Territories are in Australia."
"Whatever." She pushed the door open with her free hand, and led the way to the coffee machine. "How was it?"
I nearly died there, thought Ray. "As you know, it's my home. So it was, uh, delightful." Nah, that wasn't a Fraser word. "I mean, most enjoyable." Ray poured coffee, to wash away the bitter taste in his mouth. "Cold."
Frannie nodded, like this was profound or something. She stepped close and didn't seem to notice when he backed into the counter. "It's okay," she said under her breath. "I know it's weird, but it'll get better. Trust me."
Ray didn't know if she was talking to him or herself, but he nodded back, trying to school his face to the right shade of Mountie bland. They walked back to the bullpen, Frannie jabbering about her family and her brother, and how the 2-7 really needed a popcorn maker to go with the cappuccino machine. Ray made like he was listening and kept his eyes peeled for a lifeline, finding one in the form of Welsh, who was standing in the doorway of his office.
Ray scowled at him, daring him to laugh at the uniform—at Ray in the uniform—but he didn't so much as glimmer. "Constable Fraser," he said. "Welcome back to the fold."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Welsh." Ray said it like Fraser would. "I look forward to being of service to this precinct and the City of Chicago. Uh, again."
"Good," Welsh said briskly. "There's plenty to do. Vecchio's checking out a homicide—won't be back till after lunch, I imagine. In the meantime, the Consulate tells me your dog's out of quarantine."
"Yeah?" Ray's ears perked up.
Welsh sent him a measured glance.
"I mean, 'yes, sir?'"
"Yes, Constable. You can collect him from this address." Welsh handed over a slip of paper. "Get Miss Vecchio here to drive you."
* * *
Ray snatched the keys from Frannie in the parking lot, and took the driver's seat before she could stop him, ignoring her threats and reasoning, and shouts of "Fra-ser! You don't drive!" No way was he riding shotgun to a girl. Even so, by the time they arrived at the City Pound, Ray was hoping like hell that Vecchio didn't have too much in common with his sister. If Ray had to work with someone who talked nonstop all the time—and wasn't telling First Nation folktales—he might as well off himself now, and save them all the misery.
The Pound distracted him from that train of thought. The bell on the door jangled when they came in, and the woman behind the counter looked up, glanced down at a piece of paper on her desk, and then looked up again and smiled. "Constable Benton Fraser?"
Frannie bristled, for no good reason that Ray could figure out, but he ignored her and took off his hat. The woman seemed nice enough. "That is I. I first came to Chicago on the trail of—it's not important."
He'd spent the small sleepless hours of the night rehearsing Fraser's spiel, before deciding that really, no one cared, and he could shorten it down to the bare bones. After all, it was his spiel now. No one else was using it.
Ray reached out, gave his best sincere friendly Fraser-smile, and shook the woman's hand.
"Well, welcome to Illinois. Your dog's through here." She lifted the counter and walked through, as Ray suddenly twigged that someone else had already chosen his dog for him.
"Oh, I was going to—" he started, gesturing with his hat toward the barks and howls echoing down the corridor.
"Diefenbaker will be so pleased to see you," said Frannie, pulling him in the other direction. "You know how he hates to travel."
The door opened and Ray stopped in shock, all the wind taken out of his sails. "Oh."
The room was large and unfurnished, except for a number of empty cages and one occupied one. The occupant was clearly part Malamute—he was the spitting image of Dief.
Ray dropped his hat on a nearby cage, and crouched down next to the dog. "Hey there, boy."
The dog pressed his nose against the bars of the cage and whined.
"Actually, she's a girl," the receptionist said. "A three-year old Malamute bitch. Good-natured. Her previous owners were killed in a car crash."
Ray swiveled on his heels, but didn't get up. "What's her name?"
"Diefenbaker," said Frannie, quickly. "His name is—"
"Yeah, I know," said Ray. "She's undercover. I know that." He turned back and stuck his fingers through the bars, and the not-a-wolf licked them cautiously. "What's her real name?"
The receptionist glanced at Frannie, but answered him. "Marlene."
"Like Dietrich?" Ray stood up. "Cool. Okay. Is she gonna answer to Dief?" He looked down and met Marlene's eyes. "You gonna be a good dog? You like hockey and donuts? You gonna come when I call?"
She tilted her head at him, her ears twitching forward.
Ray tried again, using his rough sled-dog voice. "Dief!"
Marlene yawned and lay down, her nose on her paws.
Ray shook his head. "Okay. Okay, we can work on that." Training his dog actually sounded kind of fun. Something to do on those long winter evenings, which was just as well. His whittling sucked.
"So, are we good to go?" said Frannie, checking her watch meaningfully. "Let's whack the road."
Ray took off his lanyard. He unlatched the cage, and looped the string through Marlene's collar while she tried to sniff his hands. Then he stood up. "Understood."