Thanks: I'm so very grateful to Miriam, story consultant extraordinaire, for the work she put into this story. She suffered excessive pestering and saved my ass. If the plot makes sense, it's all thanks to her. Special mention must also go to Serial Karma, who not only betaed this several times over, but also checked it for egregious cultural faux pas. Huge thanks, too, to Lyra Sena, who carried me the last couple of hundred meters across the finish line and was unfailingly calm and gracious in the face of my crazed obsessiveness. And with huge colorful bouquets of thanks and admiration to my other betas, Lynnmonster and Estrella.
Notes: This story features Native American characters and references to Native American culture. Many apologies for any inaccuracies. Absolutely no offence is intended.
It was early in the morning and there were sounds coming from the Consulate kitchen. Fraser stood in the hallway, the floorboards cool against his bare feet, and forced himself to be specific. It was three seventeen, and he could hear—what was it? Plastic bags rustling. The chink of glass against glass. Footsteps.
He turned the corner and, yes, indeed, a pale light was slicing through the doorway, temporarily disabling his night vision. He waited while his eyes adjusted, and then, just as he was about to move forward, the beam of light narrowed away to nothing and he heard the soft plastic thud of the refrigerator closing. Ah.
Blinded once more, this time by darkness, he reached through the doorway to the light switch and flooded the room with a diffuse peach glow. His father jumped, spattering mayonnaise across the counter. "Good morning, son."
He was bent over the counter, smearing the condiment onto two slices of bread with a Swiss army knife. He had cheese and pastrami, a few crisp lettuce leaves spread out before him, and a plastic carton of milk. His hat lay on the table behind him, exposing his grizzled hair to view.
Fraser rubbed his eyes and regarded his father balefully. "It's the middle of the night." He knew he should be grateful that his father had stayed in touch, despite his premature demise, but he was quite prepared to admit to himself that sometimes he would prefer a good night's sleep to a parental visitation. If his father wasn't rummaging through the bookshelves in Fraser's room, he was borrowing the typewriter, or cross-country skiing down the hall, or redirecting a stray herd of lemmings toward the front door of the Consulate. Diefenbaker, being deaf, would sleep on, oblivious to these nocturnal happenings, but Fraser was a light sleeper, easily roused.
Fraser Senior gestured to the array of foodstuffs. "Do you want one? Your mother was particularly partial to havarti." He turned back to his task, swiftly piled filling upon filling, and closed the sandwich, pressing down hard.
"Dad." Fraser retrieved a paper towel from the cupboard and wiped up the spilled mayonnaise, its sweet tang tickling his nostrils. "What are you doing?"
Fraser Senior glanced up. "My icebox is broken." He poured himself a glass of milk, and picked up his supper in both hands, carefully preventing the tomato slices from escaping.
"Your office is surrounded by snow drifts. Can't you keep your perishables outside?" Fraser knew he sounded brusque, but he didn't want to be awake now. He wanted to be lying in bed, tangled deep in intricate dreams of—of—love. He'd been dreaming of arms encircling him, and—
"Ah." Fraser stood there a moment, the sticky paper towel still clutched in his hand, trying to recapture the dream. No, it was useless. He shook his head, scrunched up the towel and threw it neatly into the rubbish bin, and turned to the door. "Well, good night."
"Good night, son. I'll turn out the light when I'm done." His father raised one hand from his sandwich to wave farewell, and a slice of tomato fell onto the clean white counter.
Fraser padded back into the dark, along the familiar hallway, and into his room to his cot, where his pillow had cooled and his bed was oddly unappealing. The dimensions of it—long and narrow, built for one—only reinforced the sense of isolation that engulfed him, in marked contrast to his dream.
He was being foolish. He scolded himself into bed, and lay there, unable to sleep. He turned over the McInnes case in his mind. Tomorrow would be a long day—they were leaving early to track down Hugh Packard at his place of employment, and the drive alone would take nearly two and a half hours each way, depending on traffic. Fraser wondered whether he should pack a picnic lunch. "If there's any bread left," he muttered to himself. He rolled onto his side, and slept.
Ray was still trying to find the good radio station—the one with less ads and real music—when they passed through a crossroads and onto the gravel road that led to the development site, so he had his hands full. When Fraser reached over and picked something off of his sleeve, it was just distracting.
"What? What is that?" He swatted Fraser's hand away and tried to clean off the GTO's windshield.
The wipers left curved streaks through his field of vision. Ray could barely see. "Lint." Ray shook his head. "You're kidding me." He needed new wiper blades. Ray pushed the button to squirt more water on the window and tried again.
"No, Ray. You had a piece of lint on your shirt. It may seem like a small thing, but kingdoms have endured or fallen based on a person's grooming. King Seleucus of Mesopo—"
"Fraser." That was better. Now he could see. He looked over at his partner, and caught up with the last few moments. The guy had been picking stuff off of him. "Maybe in Canada it's okay to behave like a herd of monkeys—"
"A what?" There was something going on with the engine. Ray listened to Fraser with half an ear while he tried to figure out if the vacuum hose was coming loose again.
"The correct collective noun for monkeys is tribe. And, Ray, grooming is one of the social behaviors by which scientists have determined that monkeys have a remarkably sophisticated culture."
Ray forgot the engine and frowned at Fraser. "I don't care. In America, we do not groom each other like animals. We do not pick fleas off each other, okay? Maybe I like my lint. Maybe I put it there for later." Ray's foot twitched on the gas pedal, making gravel spurt up against the undercarriage.
The corner of Fraser's mouth twitched. "Of course. I'm sorry. How foolish of me not to see its inherent worth."
Ray settled back in his seat. "Exactly. But you're a small-town boy, right? And foreign to boot. You can't be expected to know these things."
"It's true. I've got a lot to learn about the value of lint. Perhaps later you could give me a demonstration of—" Fraser twisted his head to see up past the trees, and seemed to lose his train of thought. "Oh dear. It looks as though we may be in for some inclement weather."
"Inclement? Oh, rain? No, it's gonna be fine. I checked the forecast before we left. Rain's not due till this evening." The sky looked ready to fall, but hey, if the TV said it was good, who was Ray to disagree?
Fraser, on the other hand, was a compulsive arguer, especially when it came to meteorology. He opened his mouth to explain, probably, a scientific theory of rain clouds, but Ray cut him off. "You gotta stop leading Frannie on like that," he said, breaking his Third Rule of Fraser. Hell, he was always breaking his Rules. Number 1, he reminded himself firmly: don't do anything to fuck up the partnership. Number 2: don't let Fraser do anything to fuck up the partnership. Number 3 was really just number 1 again, but he'd read Fraser's file and he figured it deserved its own number: stay out of Fraser's love life.
And here he was. Again. He knew he'd regret it later but, god, he could see Frannie getting her hopes up—he knew how that felt—and if he couldn't intervene on his own behalf, due to the Rules, well fuck it, he could at least stick up for Frannie.
Fraser was staring out the side window watching the trees now, so Ray couldn't see his face.
"Okay?" Ray pushed it.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Ray. I don't do any such thing." Great, the Mountie was either clueless or lying. Ray squinted at him and tried to decide which it was.
"Oh come on. She's all over you like, like wolf hair—and you never say 'no' to her."
Ray swerved to avoid a pickup hurtling in the other direction, leaned on the horn, and bounced them through a series of shallow potholes. "Asshole," he said to the rear view mirror. And, yeah, definitely something hinky going on under the hood. Not urgent, though, probably. He'd take a look when they got back to town.
Fraser had been quiet for more than five seconds. Something was up. Ray looked over to see him anxiously scanning his uniform.
Against his better judgment, Ray grinned. "Imaginary wolf hair, Fraser. Whassicalled. Hypothetical."
"Ah." Fraser breathed out a sigh and relaxed. "'No' is a very blunt word, Ray. I say 'no' in a manner of speaking."
'No, you don't, Frase." Ray scanned the landscape, looking for signposts. They should be nearly there by now, and he'd had this argument with Fraser in his head enough times, he didn't even need to think about it. "You say 'Thank you kindly, but—' or 'I'm flattered but—' or 'I'm afraid I'm in a slight hurry, maybe next week'. Doesn't cut it. a) She's got the hots for you, big time, and 2) she's pathologically optimistic. She's not going to hear any of that as 'no', my friend."
Ray pulled off the road onto a dirt drive, and started winding up the hill. They were nearly there.
"Ray, it's unseemly for us to be having this discussion."
Ray shrugged. "Maybe so, but it's necessary." Admission, attack. It was a one-two punch. Fraser frowned, and Ray stopped at the gate, wound down his window and flashed his badge at the security guard. "Chicago PD. We're here to see the site manager."
The guard barely looked at him. "No visitors allowed on the site."
"We're not visitors, we're cops. I got a warrant." Ray pulled it out of his jacket pocket and waved it at the guy. "Check with the site manager."
The guard sighed and went into his booth to make the call, while Ray recovered his train of thought. "You're gonna hurt her, Fraser, and since her real brother isn't here to stop you, I guess I'm next up to bat."
The guard poked his head out. "Go through to the parking lot. Mr. Nichols will meet you there."
Fraser bent his head forward so he could see out of Ray's window. "Thank you kindly."
The gates swung open, and Ray followed the fancy curved driveway. He switched off the ignition and got out of the car to see what there was to see.
The Last Hunting Ground Retirement Reservation was like Disneyland without the subtlety. Ray blinked at the totem poles with cartoon animal heads that lined the parking lot, and glanced around to see how Fraser was taking it. He was staring with a pained expression at a bunch of brightly colored fiberglass teepees stacked on a tarpaulin, and a big sign encouraging "Wise Old Braves and Squaws" to invest in a "two-bedroom architecturally-designed Indian-themed home with all modcons." Ray grimaced sympathetically.
Fraser let Dief out of the back—the wolf seemed as disgusted with the tacky theme as Fraser—and leaned against the car next to Ray. "I'm sure Francesca's affections aren't as seriously engaged as you're implying, Ray. Certainly, I admit, there's a strong likelihood she finds me attractive." He seemed to be having trouble even saying it, so Ray gave him some credit. At least he hadn't gone back to talking about monkeys. "But I have no cause to believe that her emotional well-being is at risk."
Ray turned on him, credit all used up. "Then you're blind as a doorpost, Fraser. She's got it bad."
"How can you be sure? She seems very resilient."
"Trust me." Ray looked him in the eye for just a second too long, and Fraser raised his eyebrows a little, his face suddenly intent. Shit. Ray'd known he'd regret this, but he hadn't realized how soon. He was giving way too much away here. He blinked and looked away.
When Fraser spoke, his voice was bland. "No, tell me, Ray. How can I know when someone feels—that way—about me."
Whoa! That swing from Frannie to someone—which meant, like, everyone—was a helluva jump. "In this city—" Ray bit his lip for a moment and thought about what he was saying, then figured in for a penny, in for a buck fifty. "In this city, Fraser, it's like endemic. Like breathing. Someone's talking to you, chances are they're in love with you, okay?"
Thankfully, just then a bulky bald guy with pencils in his breast pocket and a walkie talkie hanging from his belt turned up, stomping across the tire-tracked mud. "I don't have time for this," he barked, before Ray even had a chance to introduce them. "What do you want?"
"Detective Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD. This is my partner, Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, acting liaison from Canada. You Nichols?"
"Yeah." Nichols glanced rudely at Fraser, then turned back to Ray, arms folded, eyes narrowed. Ray sighed inwardly. Jerk alert.
Fraser stepped sideways to join in the conversation. "We're looking for one of your employees. A Mr. Hugh Packard," he said, too politely. He must've taken a dislike to the guy, too.
"Packard. He one of the security guys?" Nichols quickly glanced back the way he'd come. "Wait here. I'll get him."
"It would be best if we could accompany you," said Fraser, firmly.
Ray nodded. If Packard heard they were looking for him, he'd skedaddle, no question.
"Shit." Nichols sneezed, and wiped his nose on his jacket. Fraser offered him a starchy white hanky, but Nichols waved it away. "'Snothing. Hay fever." He ran his hand over his bald head and looked at Ray. "Okay, fine. Packard's on the perimeter by the watering hole."
Nichols led them to a prefab office nearby, took two orange hard hats from the floor under a pile of raincoats and tarps, and handed them over. "This way. Don't touch anything."
Fraser hesitated, then took off his Stetson and put on the hard hat. It clashed violently with the Mountie uniform. Ray bit back a grin and followed suit. Then he looked around.
The construction site was pretty much like every other building site Ray had ever seen: frames jutted out of the ground, wood was stacked neatly in huge piles, and men in hard hats yelled at each other over the sounds of bulldozers and hammers. The only thing was, all the angles were off-kilter. Frames bent and skewed like they were drunk. On top of that, a couple of guys were digging wet concrete out of a foundation, and dumping it in a barrel.
Ray shrugged. Maybe that's how they did it these days. He was hardly a building expert, and Nichols didn't seem like someone who'd take kindly to questions.
"What's that idiot gone and done, anyway?" Nichols asked, taking them along a gravel path between a bulldozer and a pile of warped window frames.
"I'm afraid we're not at liberty to disclose that," said Fraser.
Nichols snorted, and Fraser hung back a couple of steps. "He doesn't seem to hold me in great affection," he said to Ray in a low voice, continuing their earlier conversation. "You said everyone."
"Lesbians and straight guys excepted," said Ray, stepping over a sack of concrete mix. "Mostly."
Fraser threw him a sharp glance, and then stopped, distracted by a big painted sign that said Watering Hole and showed a herd of buffalo drinking. Under the buffalo, in neat type, it said Heated Outdoor Swimming Pool. He bent down to pick up a black and white striped feather from where it was lying in the grass, and smoothed it absent-mindedly between his fingers. "Even so. That's not a particularly comfortable view of Chicago, Ray."
Ray tore his eyes from Fraser's hands, and surveyed the bulging gray clouds and the mud, and the skeletons of houses that weren't built yet. "Yeah," he said. "You know what? You're right. Forget I said anything." He scratched the back of his head. "But still, in my official capacity as Frannie's brother, you gotta let her down easy. Maybe next time she corners you, I won't come to your rescue."
Fraser seemed about to reply, but Ray led the way to some orange plastic netting that fenced off a ditch from the rest of the site, just in time to hear Nichols shout, "Hugh!" to a couple of blue-suited guys talking by a tree. "Cops to see you."
The guys spun around and Ray winced, hoping that for once their suspect wouldn't take off running a mile a minute. He wasn't in the mood for some stupid chase through a construction site, and Nichols looked ripe for murder if they disrupted his gig.
Luckily, there were enough guys watching so that, though Packard looked longingly over his shoulder, he stayed put. Even if Ray hadn't seen the security video, he would've known this was Packard. He was tall, lean and sweaty-looking, and had guilty written all over his weasely face in invisible tattoos. Plus he looked almost exactly like Abe McInnes, right down to the birthmark on his cheek. "Aw shit," he whined. "How'd you find me? It was Maria, right? Fucking bitch." He didn't sound that upset.
Fraser showed him the security camera pictures, and Packard gulped out some lame excuses but he didn't have an alibi, and that was enough for Ray. "We're taking you in for questioning," he said, slapping cuffs on Packard's trembling wrists before he could back away.
"Okay, okay." Packard started towards the parking lot before Ray'd even had a chance to thank Nichols for his cooperation.
"Ah shit," Nichols grumbled, following on behind. "I knew I shoulda gone to Gurman's for security. You guys are a fucking mess. Where'm I gonna find a replacement guard now?"
"I'm sorry, sir," said Fraser. "Mr. Packard is wanted in connection with twelve counts of fraud and identity theft. We have no choice but to take him in."
"It's just a building site," added Ray, trying to make it better. "How much security do you need?"
"Don't even go there, man," said Packard over his shoulder, before Nichols shut him up with a glare.
Ray shrugged, and didn't. They trudged back across the site, returned their hard hats, and took Packard to the car. Ray put him in the backseat with Dief, got into the car, and put the key in the ignition.
"Y'know, I'm glad you guys found me," said Packard. "That place is fucking creepy."
Ray glanced out the window at the angled frames. "Creepy how?"
"Ghosts, man. Magic shit. The concrete fucking melts." Packard shook his head, wide-eyed. "We should get outta here."
"Right," said Ray, not believing a word. The guy was a con, after all. "Ghosts." He caught Packard's eye in the rear view mirror. "You know, you're sitting with a werewolf back there." Dief growled in protest, making Packard jump and scoot over to the corner of the seat, where he huddled against the window.
Ray smirked and was just about to drive off when he realized Fraser had gotten distracted and was standing twenty feet away from the car, by the edge of the parking lot. His head was tilted and he was wearing an intense frown like he was listening to something far away.
Ray leaned over and knocked on the passenger window. "Fraser?" But Fraser didn't seem to hear.
Ray rolled down the window and tried again. "Hey, Fraser! C'mon!"
"Is he really a Mountie?" said Packard, peering out the window. "Man, I never met a Mountie before." Dief yawned, and the kid scrunched even harder against the side of the car.
"He's a were-Mountie," said Ray. "Shut up." He got out of the car to see what was going on. Fraser was standing on the bank of a small stream, holding something in his crisp white handkerchief. When saying his name didn't work, Ray tapped him on the arm. "Hey. What is that?"
It was a dead bird.
"Oh, gross! That's just gross!" He tucked his hands in his armpits, shut his eyes, and tried to keep cool because Packard was watching. "What are you doing with that? You don't know where it's been. It could be diseased, Fraser! You don't know." He looked at Fraser in horror, and held up a hand to keep him at a safe distance. "Tell me you did not lick that bird!"
Fraser didn't answer, which was the worst kind of incriminating. "Ray, do you smell anything?"
"Jeez, I can't believe you." Ray shut his eyes, trying not to freak. The air smelled like Aunt Kathy's house. "Sick cat smell? 'Cause I'm telling you, we don't have time for playing Vet Rescue, and I'm not letting some incontinent stray in my car. The wolf's bad enough. Not to mention dead Polly, there."
"It's a woodpecker, Ray. One that has died prematurely. I'm hoping Mort will conduct an autopsy. And I suspect the odor is some form of contaminant—probably ammonia. There's no plant life in this stream."
Now that Fraser had pointed it out, it was obvious. The water was shallow and brownish, and there was nothing growing in or near it. "You know, if it's a pollution thing, we should notify the EPA."
"True enough, but it wouldn't hurt to collect some evidence while we're here, to give them something to go on." Fraser pulled a small jar out of his belt pouch and started down the bank to the stream. "If we have time, that is." It was barely a question.
Ray looked at his watch and the swollen sky, and then back at Fraser. He sighed. "Yeah, okay. Scoop some water and let's get outta here."
Fraser filled the jar with stream water and tucked it into his pouch, along with the stripy feather he'd been holding. He shook water off his hands, and then dried them on his trousers. "Actually, Ray, I was hoping to scout around a little and—"
"Fraser!" said Ray, semi-scandalized and semi dying to get back to the city and get coffee. "The warrant doesn't cover that. We can't just—"
"Well, of course not, Ray. I wasn't suggesting that we trespass onto the site." Fraser sounded indignant that Ray had even suggested it. "I was merely proposing that we briefly explore the adjacent woods. I believe it's primarily public parkland."
Ray sighed again. Great. Hiking through the wilds in search of toxic waste. That's what happened when your partner was Canadian. "Sounds like a blast. What about Packard?"
"I'm sure Diefenbaker can be relied upon to monitor Mr. Packard." Fraser glanced around, distractedly, and handed Ray the bird corpse. "Thank you, Ray." He set off toward the gate without looking back.
Cursing, Ray detoured back to the car to put the stiff in the trunk and let Packard and Dief know about the delay.
Fraser followed the boundary fence up a slight rise, enjoying the chance to stretch his legs as he looked for evidence of chemical dumping and mulled over the earlier conversation with Ray. He felt unsettled. It was ludicrous to think that the entire city of Chicago was in love with him—there were a dozen counter-examples at the station alone—so why had Ray even suggested it? And the peculiar addendum regarding straight men and lesbians had struck a false note, too. It wasn't like Ray to be so—categorical.
He took off his Stetson and smoothed his hair as a pretext for assessing the lay of the land. The four security guards stationed along the perimeter were deep in conversation and didn't appear to have seen him. Ray was a few moments behind and had veered slightly northwest, away from the clump of trees that Fraser was approaching. Fraser's gaze lingered on him longer than was strictly necessary, trying to puzzle him out from his manner. Then Fraser straightened his hat back on his head, and returned to the matter at hand. Someone had poisoned the land.
The crashing and growling of digging machines and bulldozers swelled as he neared the trees, jangling his senses into disarray. Despite that, he could detect the odor of anhydrous ammonia, faint but still distinct. By the time he stepped into the small wood, which straddled the boundary line, he was sufficiently close to the construction that the ground trembled. A large spider ran in front of him, and then another, and he placed his feet carefully to avoid them, moving off the path.
He surveyed the land around him. Yes, the vegetation was suffering, leaves sparse and brown, although that might simply be due to the constant vibration. Fraser pushed aside the humus and collected a handful of earth into an evidence bag, just to be sure.
There was another striped feather in amongst the fallen leaves near a tall bush, and Fraser picked it up, wondering if it had any significance. He turned to go back and find Ray, but was startled when a bird—he only just had time to identify it as another woodpecker—swooped suddenly in his face. Arms raised, he stumbled, and his left foot caught on a root and sent him toppling sideways. The trees around him blurred.
He managed to relax just before he thumped bodily onto the leaf-softened ground. Then there was no ground beneath him at all. He was plunging down—a bank? A cliff? Gravity yanked him hard for a long moment, everything jumbled and chaotic. And then the slope gentled slightly, and he banged into it, grunting, and rolled and bumped over sticks and stones. Dead leaves crunched and were gone.
He splayed his limbs, and finally came to rest lying on his back at the foot of a large oak. He felt bruised, and his hands and uniform were painted with dry earth, which he brushed off assiduously, before becoming aware of the quality of the place.
It was quiet. Had the construction suddenly taken a break? Given Nichols' rude impatience, it seemed unlikely. In fact, the air was heavy with silence, no birdcall or insect noises, the light twisted and wrong. Trees loomed.
Fraser's heart banged in his chest. He sprang to his feet and turned three-sixty, trying to establish why this place was so disconcerting. There was nothing in particular—simply a veil of peculiarity, and the blanket of calm.
"Well, this is eerie. What're we looking for?"
Startled, Fraser looked up to see his father standing next to a black oak, carrying a plastic shopping bag. "Clues," said Fraser. "But I slipped." He approached the bank, meaning to climb back up. There were wooden markers in the ground, so this was still part of the construction site.
"It's no good dallying with a girl's affections," his father said, behind him. "When I was fifteen years old, Joe Cotton threatened to chop me into pieces and feed me to his fish if I didn't take his daughter Jessie to the Christmas hop."
"His fish?" Fraser spied a third feather on the ground. Perhaps the bird had been molting.
"He owned a trout farm. Cotton's Trout and Laundry Supplies. Those were the days." Fraser Senior lifted his chin and stared at the sky. "Looks like rain."
"Firstly, Frannie's father is dead and, by all reports, wasn't especially attentive before his demise. Secondly, I am not dallying with anyone's affections." Fraser questioned his own veracity, even as he said it. If Ray did have feelings for him, Fraser could arguably be called to account for not holding him more stringently at a distance, but— "And thirdly, it is not going to rain. The forecast was most promising." He reached down and picked up the feather. Now he had three. He extracted the first from his Sam Browne and compared them. Identical.
"Woodpeckers." Fraser Senior pointed at two small shapes sitting on a branch high above them. He disappeared behind a tree, then peered back at his son. "There it goes. I felt a drop."
"It is not raining." Fraser was perversely determined to stand by the Weather Channel, however much evidence was presented to the contrary. He smoothed the feathers between his fingertips.
His father extracted a small umbrella from his shopping bag, and opened it with a flourish. "Here. Your uniform will get wet."
"You do realize that's an imaginary umbrella? It won't keep me dry." Fraser took a tentative step up the bank, but the dead leaves were piled up so high it was like climbing a scree slope. They slid under his feet, and he staggered back.
"Here's a clue." Fraser Senior pointed at a small wooden carving on the floor of the clearing. "It looks like a traditional artifact." He reached down and tried to pick it up just as Fraser bent down to examine it. Fraser Senior's ghostly hands sunk easily into Fraser's flesh ones in the most disturbing manner.
"What—?" All the air rushed out of Fraser's lungs. A wave of heat and dizziness swept through him and he stumbled forward, catching himself on a northern red oak. His head was exploding. He was rushing through black space. He was cold, lying on the ground. And then he was sprawled on the grass with a purple umbrella in one hand and a handful of feathers in the other. Rain pattered on his face but, oddly, he didn't feel wet.
He looked around, confused, having lost his bearings. The trees, the markers, a Mountie. The Mountie was leaning against a tree and certainly wasn't his father. Fraser continued scanning the clearing. "Dad?"
The Mountie pushed himself upright. "What happened, son?" he said, and then he swung around and his eyes widened in shock.
Fraser felt a similar expression spread across his own face. Except that he could see his own face. The Mountie was wearing his face. "Oh dear."
"Benton." The Mountie—his father—bent over him. "I'm alive."
"Yes, dad." Fraser sat up stiffly, twinges shooting down his back, and clambered to his feet. Inside him confusion warred with alarm, but he swallowed them both down and forced himself to stay calm. "You're me."
"I most certainly am not. I feel entirely myself. Even more so than usual." Fraser Senior reached into his—Fraser's—belt kit and extracted the compass. "I'm—" He looked in the mirror. "Oh, I see what you mean." He frowned, grimaced, and waggled his eyebrows, watching his expression change. "Well, now we're in a pretty pickle all right."
"Precisely," said Fraser, exploring his leathery new face with his fingers. "And I, it seems, am you. What the hell happened?"
"It must be this carving." Fraser Senior held the wooden object up to the darkening sky. Thunder rumbled. "It seems to be some kind of canine."
Fraser stretched so that his joints creaked and popped. He was vividly aware of his stiffened knees and the fact that his backache was higher up than that to which he was accustomed. He peered at the carving in his father's hand. "A coyote. Well, quick, let's change back. What do we—"
He was interrupted by a shout. "Security! Who's there?" The sounds of bulldozers grew, as though someone had turned up the volume dial on a radio.
"Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police," called Fraser automatically, raising his hands to show he was unarmed. "Dad!" he hissed. He leaned over and closed his fingers around the figurine in his father's hand, hoping that the soul transfer would be reversed. Nothing changed except for a horrible pinched feeling in the pit of his stomach. He closed his eyes a moment, wishing with all his might that things would return to normal, then opened them again to see his own features gazing back at him. They were stuck.
"Who's there?" called the security guard again, sounding nervous. His footsteps grew louder, and he seemed to be trampling through the undergrowth far more noisily than was necessary.
"We have to find Ray," said Fraser, spinning around and leading the way back to the bank. "Ray!" he shouted, before continuing, to his father, "We have to tell him what's happened."
His father jutted out his chin obstinately. "We can't tell the Yank, son. He'll think we're crazy."
"He may well be correct."
"That's as may be, but when Henry O'Toole tried to have me locked up for loss of sanity, I fought it every step of the way. I didn't go handing him evidence willy-nilly."
"Times have changed." The guard was nearly upon them. Fraser lowered his voice. "Ray isn't O'Toole. I'd trust him with my life."
"Men get antsy when it's a question of marbles. Trust me on this, son. It's best we try to solve this ourselves."
"Don't be ridiculous. Even if we don't tell him, he'll notice in seconds. He is a detective, after all."
"And I'm an experienced government agent," said Fraser Senior, and smiled confidently. "Remember the time I went undercover as a snow-shoe repairman? Even your mother didn't recognize me then."
Fraser gritted his teeth. "Yes, well, that might have had something to do with your ridiculous bearskin toupee."
The guard called out a third time, and then burst into the clearing. He had a gun in his hand and the three silver crosses he wore around his neck were stuck to his sweaty skin. "Who's there? Identify yourself."
"Of course. Sergeant Fras—"
"Constable," corrected Fraser.
"Ah, yes. Constable Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. How can I help you?"
The guard squinted at Fraser's father, looking relieved. "A Mountie," he said, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "Long way from home, ain't ya? You realize you're trespassing? This is a closed site."
"Yes, you do seem to have a lot of security," said Fraser Senior. "Though, taking that into account, it was remarkably easy to breach your defenses."
The guard groaned. "Don't tell the boss. He'll have my guts for garters. You ain't an Indian, right? Ain't here to cause trouble?"
"No, indeed," said Fraser Senior breezily. "We were simply taking a walk through the park when we inadvertently descended that bank."
"We?" said the guard, looking around as though Fraser was invisible. "You and whose army?"
Just then there was a crashing sound, and Ray slid down the bank and landed behind a fallen log. "Fraser?" he called. "You find anything?"
"If you don't tell him, I will," said Fraser to his father. He waved and called out, "Yes, as a matter of fact."
Ray didn't respond. He climbed to his feet and made his way to Fraser's father. "Chicago PD," he said to the guard, showing his badge. "Frase?" The rain was falling steadily now, flattening Ray's hair. "You okay?"
Before either of the Frasers could answer, a small yellow bulldozer swerved around a tree and growled into the clearing. Nichols was at the wheel. "Gunther! What's taking you so long?" he yelled, and then he saw them. "What are you still doing here? You've already arrested one of my guards. You leave Gunther in peace. I got enough problems without you—"
"Fell down the bank," said Ray. "It was an accident."
Fraser Senior nodded, then looked thoughtfully at Nichols. "What kind of problems?"
"Nothing." Nichols flushed an angry red. "Nothing you need to know about. Just some stupid Indian activists vandalizing the development. I've got it covered."
"You haven't called the authorities? Have you seen these vandals?"
"I don't need to see them. I know who they are. They're my freakin' cousins." He shook his head. "Forget about it. Gunther, take these guys to the parking lot and make sure they leave this time."
"Ray," said Fraser, as they followed the security guard back through the site. "Ray, Ray, RAY. RAY!" There was no response. Fraser felt helpless and invisible. Which, he supposed, was apt.
"He can't hear you, son."
"I gathered," said Fraser, crossly.
"Who?" said Ray.
"Who?" Fraser's father coughed. "The wolf can't hear you. He's deaf."
"I know that," said Ray, squinting at him, puzzled. "He's in the car." He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Did you find anything?"
"Tell him," Fraser insisted.
"No," said Fraser Senior.
"Yeah? So what's that?" Ray pointed to the carving.
Fraser Senior looked startled, and shoved it unceremoniously into his belt pouch. "Nothing."
"You're holding out on me now?" Ray hunched his shoulders, and they stopped and faced each other, while Fraser looked on helplessly. They were just a few feet from the car, now, and Diefenbaker barked when he saw them, and jumped out through the open driver's side window.
"At least show him the carving," said Fraser, exasperated. "It may have some bearing on the case."
"Trust me," his father said, waving him away. "I can handle this."
Ray frowned. "I thought we were a team, Frase."
"Yes, we are, detective," said Fraser Senior cheerfully. "We have been since late last year when that other Yank jumped ship."
Diefenbaker whined and trotted over to sniff Fraser's hand. "I know exactly what you mean," said Fraser in despair. Even if his father miraculously managed not to provoke Ray into committing homicide, there was no way he could sustain the partnership. This was a disaster.
But although Ray lifted his chin aggressively, his voice stayed calm. "Yeah. Funny." He wiped the rain from his eyes. "So anyway, we got Packard, it's raining like all kinds of pet-life—cats, dogs, one or two turtles—and I need coffee. We should hit the road." He went to open the car door.
Fraser Senior nodded. "Whatever you say, detective."
Fraser clenched his fists. "His name is Ray. Ray. Haven't you paid any attention to my relationship with him at all?"
"Now, now. Don't get your sealskin in a snit." His father's voice buzzed and faded, and went silent.
The earth slanted suddenly, tilting everything off balance. Fraser flailed, trying to grab onto his father for balance, but his hand swept through Fraser Senior as though he wasn't there. The sky, the building site, his father, Ray, and Diefenbaker all swirled and faded and disappeared. Then he was hurtling through an ice cold cavern, sliding down ever steeper slopes until he was falling, his face and fingers numb with cold. He fell so fast that he dissolved into particles.
Ray was feeling pretty grim. They'd driven hours to get here, it was raining and, sure, they'd got Packard, but they'd also gone out of their way to piss off Nichols in their search for god knew what, and Fraser was being an even bigger freak than usual.
He stomped over to the GTO. Behind him, Fraser said something incomprehensible and infuriating.
Ray whirled round, raindrops flying off the end of his nose. "Get my what?!" He went back to where Fraser was standing looking around like he'd lost something. "What's gotten into you, Fraser? You're acting screwy."
Fraser looked shifty. "I apologize, Ray. I was away with the fairies. You know how I get."
They got into the car with Dief—Packard had fallen asleep in the backseat, which wasn't too surprising, given he'd been working security all day, and waving McInnes' credit cards around all night for the last two weeks—and started back along the unsealed road, which was turning into quicksand. Mud. Quickmud. Whatever. "The fairies, huh?" said Ray, trying not to take that personally.
"Yes," said Fraser. "Yes, indeed. I was thinking of the time in eighty-five when I single-handedly carried a whale carcass from Tuktoyaktuk to Old Crow—"
Ray stared at him. He'd completely flipped out this time. "Fraser, that was your dad."
There was a pause. "He told you about that?" Fraser seemed confused and, also, crazy.
"No, you freak. You told me. I never met your dad, remember? He died before I—" Ray stopped, feeling bad. If his dad had been murdered, maybe he'd have a screw loose, too. "Sorry."
They drove on in silence. Ray stole glances in Fraser's direction, and every time he did his heart sank a little further. Fraser was tense and careful. There were no side remarks to Dief, no little smiles or raised eyebrows. He paused before he said anything, like he had his inner censors working overtime, and he told continual anecdotes about his dad that were even more irrelevant than usual. Their camaraderie seemed to have evaporated, melted like—like something that melts. One of those big lacy snowflakes, maybe.
And it was all Ray's fault. He'd broken his Fraser Rule and, because of that, he'd given away too much. Everyone loves you, Fraser. Every single person in the whole fucking city where, in case it's not incredibly obvious, I happen to live. Big mouth idiot! You break the Rules, you pay. Would've thought a cop would've figured that one out already. And now Fraser had figured Ray out and he was obviously not dancing the cha-cha about it, and just as obviously trying not to "lead Ray on". Except it was too late for that, and the last thing Ray wanted was to make Fraser uncomfortable. Fuck.
"So what's going on with the cat pee?" Ray asked, once they were back on the highway.
Fraser hesitated. "Cat pee? It's hard to say. Barry Osborne of Thunder Creek once told me he was abducted by aliens after he fell off the roof of his chicken coop. Of course, the coop was six stories high and—"
"Fraser." Ray waited until the freak Mountie was looking at him. "Shut up about aliens." Jeez. The guy had no tact anymore. "Nichols is up to no good."
"Yes, well, that's obvious. He seemed remarkably bothered by our presence, particularly given we're officers of the law. Of course, it's possible that he's like my old friend, Xavier Hutch. He was a downright surly fellow, especially that time he fell unconscious in a rotten whale carcass and we didn't find him for a week."
And that was how it went, the whole journey. No straight answers. No connection.
Dief was acting weird, too. He wouldn't settle. Kept turning and walking along the backseat, picking his way over Packard's sprawled knees so he wouldn't wake him, and back again like he was pacing. By the time they reached the main road, Ray was going crazy, what with the randomly-babbling Mountie in the passenger seat and the stressed-out wolf in the back, so when Dief barked right in his ear, Ray swerved, leaned on the horn out of habit, swore, and pulled over to the side of the road.
He turned around, remembering to speak clearly. "You trying to get us killed? What is your problem?"
"What's going on, man?" said Packard, sleepily, and then fell straight back asleep again.
"Just ignore my dog," said Fraser calmly, not even bothering to look. "He probably has worms."
But Ray ignored Fraser, and let Dief out of the car so they could have a private conversation. If anyone had told him a year ago he'd be having a one-on-one chat with a deaf wolf in the pouring rain, he would've punched them in the head. And if anyone had told him this morning that he'd prefer Dief's company to Fraser's, he would have maybe humored them and not believed a single word. But here he was.
Dief ran around in circles for a while, then barked and jumped up against Ray, and put his paws on Ray's shoulders, whining in his face. Ray figured it meant something like Fraser's half-baked donut has one too many holes, and all his marbles have fallen out, knocking his screw loose.
"Yeah, I know," said Ray, pushing Dief down. Sheesh, the smell of wet dog was overpowering. "What do you want me to do about it?"
Dief didn't seem to have an answer to that, so they got back into the car.
"Did he go?" asked Fraser.
"It wasn't a toilet stop."
Fraser was fiddling with a wooden doohickey, but he put it back in his belt pouch when Ray looked over at it. Ray suppressed a frustrated growl and accelerated dangerously just for the hell of it. They drove in silence. Fuck, these wipers were next to useless. "Fraser."
"Yes, detec—Ray." Fraser folded his hands primly, and looked at the dash.
"What are you—? Shit. Would you quit watching the speedometer? Jeez. I'm driving here."
"You're speeding." Fraser could load a heap of disapproval into two words.
"I'm a cop. We're supposed to speed."
"During a pursuit. One time I was driving a snowmobile through the backwaters of Inuvik when a party of school children sprang from no—"
Ray sighed and slowed down to seventy. "Fraser. You know what I—What we were saying earlier?"
"You know. Earlier. About Chicago."
"Oh yeah," said Fraser, staring straight ahead, his expression blank. That was definitely it.
Ray glanced over. "It didn't mean anything, okay?" He patted Fraser's shoulder reassuringly. "You can relax."
Fraser fiddled with his hat. "All right." Ray waited, but there was no change.
"Fraser. I didn't mean it, y'know? I wish I hadn't said it. Just—please be yourself." Ray was practically begging. He took a deep breath and tried for cool. "I mean, just forget I said anything."
"About what, Ray?" And yeah, there was the clueless Mountie look, but not even a glimmer of Ray's partner underneath.
"Nothing." Ray punched in the cigarette lighter and then wished he hadn't. It was a nervous tic he'd picked up lately, but he didn't want Fraser to know he was smoking. No way would Fraser let that pass without a lecture, and he'd be right, and that would just drive Ray crazy. So, he'd reasoned, secret smoking. This in spite of the fact that Fraser definitely already knew, because he'd even noticed when Ray had changed brands of soap, and tobacco smoke was like a billion times stinkier than soap. But Fraser hadn't said anything and Ray wanted to keep it like that.
But here, Ray had punched in the lighter—a telltale sign if ever there was one—and not a word from the Mountie. The lighter popped out. Nothing.
Ray shoved a cassette into the player, and sank into a Eurhythmics trance, feeling oddly lonely.
When Fraser opened his eyes, he was in his father's office, standing just inside his own closet door. For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, he thought, ironically, I remained in Chicago attached to the Consulate.
He willed himself to return to the site, to at least keep an eye on his father even if he couldn't intervene directly, but the concentrated effort merely made his head swim.
The office was exactly as he remembered it, with a fire flickering brightly in the log burner, and a lantern lit on the desk. Fraser hung his Stetson on the back of the door and searched his father's chest of drawers, in need of more comfortable clothing. He found little that wasn't regulation, but in the bottom drawer, along with an unopened packet of mothballs and a bat stuffed and mounted by a taxidermist whose technical skill had far exceeded his or her aesthetic judgment, there were an old gray sweater and some blue twill trousers, which he vaguely recalled from his memories of his father's earlier years. He changed carefully, his new body stiff and achy, and sat down in an armchair to think.
The situation was plain: he and his father had transferred their essences and were now trapped in each other's bodies, probably as a result of interacting with the carved wooden coyote. This meant that, technically speaking, he, Benton, was dead. Well, it wasn't so bad, after all. He grasped one wrist with the other and checked his pulse. As he'd suspected, it was silent, his whole body stagnant. He stood up and paced the office to disguise his circulatory failure. As long as he was moving, surely some blood would have to flow from limb to limb.
What else, then? His father had been let loose in Chicago, and was likely to alienate all of Fraser's friends and acquaintances at his earliest convenience. Fraser winced at the thought. However, this concern was alleviated by his strong belief in Ray's powers of deduction. Ray would recognize something was amiss, would delve to the bottom of the mystery, and would ensure that both Frasers were returned to their proper places. The natural order of things must be restored.
Fraser wondered how long it would be before Ray burst down the door with a plan to put things to rights. He checked his watch. They would still be on their way back to the city, so it would be unreasonable to expect any action for several hours. In the meantime, Fraser decided to take this opportunity to haunt the Consulate, to experience life—or afterlife, as the case may be—from his father's perspective, and maybe learn something about the old man in the process.
Turnbull was sitting in the State Room watching the Strauss Canada finals on television. Fraser hesitated in the doorway for a moment, then went in and sat down. Turnbull ignored him completely. Even when Fraser forgot himself so far as to clap at a particularly skilled hit and roll, the other man remained oblivious. It was soothing, really. Fraser relaxed, leaning back into the chair and crossing his legs.
The next second, there was a sharp rap on the door, and Inspector Thatcher barged in. Fraser sprang to attention, acutely aware of his lack of official attire, but she too seemed unaware of his presence. In fact, her first words, addressed directly to Turnbull who was also standing but had yet to drag his eyes from the screen, were, "Where's Constable Fraser?"
Thankfully, a commercial break commenced, and Turnbull was able to transfer his interest to his superior. "Good afternoon, Inspector Thatcher. Constable Fraser is out with Detective Vecchio, no doubt bringing some villainous rascal to justice as we speak."
"Well, then—You." The Inspector was thrown only briefly. "Turnbull. I need you to order me a consignment of live salmon from British Columbia. You'll have to clear it with US Customs. Chef Henri Bonappetit is insisting that the fish be live until the second he ignites the oven on Thursday evening for my—the Consulate's—dinner party."
"Yes, sir," said Turnbull, smiling. "I'll get right on it. In fact, I'm currently working on a fish-themed quilt, comprising thirteen catfish, two silver lamprey and a white sturgeon. I fully intend to set a salmon in pride of place."
"A live salmon?"
"No, Inspector. An embroidered salmon, by the renowned fish embroiderer, Marcus Wiley."
The Inspector seemed bewildered by this information. "Well then," she said, backing toward the door. "That's—very good."
"Thank you, sir. Fish quilts are very popular this year, as I'm sure you can imagine, what with the move away from drift netting."
Fraser was hardly listening. The experience of being ignored, of barely existing, was refreshing. Had he thought about it previously, he supposed he would have expected to feel a certain amount of chagrin or anxiety at his incorporeality but, in fact, the immediate circumstances struck him as blessed: Turnbull would deal with the snarl of US bureaucracy, and Inspector Thatcher could not find him.
He sighed with relief, and turned back to the television as the commercial break came to a close.
Ray was feeling old and tired by the time they reached the city limits. He just wanted to go to the station, process Packard, and get this day over with.
"Drop me off at the Department of Planning and Development, would you?" said Fraser, blander than a glass of water, no ice, when they reached the city limits. "I can walk to the station from there."
Jeez, the rain was so heavy the sky was practically falling. "It's hell in a hand basket out there. I'll drive you, but I got to take Packard to the station first."
"I'm perfectly capable of hoofing it. In fact, if you let me out here, I'll make my own way." He put on his hat before Ray had even slowed down, like he was going to jump out of the moving car.
Ray grabbed his shoulder to stop him. "Fraser. I've got a guy in the back." It sounded whinier than he'd intended, so he glanced over to make sure Fraser hadn't taken it the wrong way. Fraser was just staring out at the street and the rain, like he'd never been here before. Ray's skin prickled uncomfortably. He glanced in the rear view, and okay, so Packard was still asleep. They could afford a half hour. "Fine, I'll take you. But we have to be quick."
"All right." It sounded more like giving in than gratitude.
If Ray hadn't been at the wheel in heavy traffic, he would've walked away. He settled for glaring at the Mountie instead. Fine. If Fraser was going to act weird and not tell him anything, that was just fucking fine. He pulled a one-eighty to piss Fraser off, and ten minutes later they were parking on North LaSalle.
Fraser put his hand on the door latch. "I'll just be a few minutes."
"Oh no." Ray was out of the car before Fraser's feet hit the ground. "I'm coming with you."
He was glad he did, too, despite his collar getting soaked in the short run up to the main door. Their wet feet skidded on the shiny floor, and the girl at reception hung up the phone when she saw them approaching.
"Welcome to the Department of Planning and Development. How can I help you?" she asked.
"Chicago PD. Need to see the planning permissions," said Ray, flashing his badge.
She ignored him, of course. "Who are you?" she asked Fraser. "Is the Pope in town?"
Ray leaned on the counter and tuned out for the usual explanation, but blinked back to attention when the half an ear that was listening heard "—Chicago to hunt down my father's murderer—who, incidentally, was hired by my friend Gerard—and bring him to justice, but, what with one thing and another, I've stayed working for the Canadian Consulate."
Hey, that wasn't the drill. What was going on here? Plus there was none of Fraser's charm. He was like a dull, gruff copy of himself.
The receptionist just nodded. "But why are you here?"
Fraser frowned. "Ah." He turned to Ray. "Why do I work with you?"
"I'm starting to wonder. Did you get hit on the head or what? " Ray grabbed Fraser's head, batted the hat onto the floor, and ran his fingers through Fraser's hair looking for head wounds. "You got a concussion? You're like a whole 'nother person."
Fraser shoved back, shoved so hard Ray staggered into the counter. There was no warmth on his face, and his tone was cross. "There's nothing wrong with me, detective."
"Hey, I'm trying to help here," snarled Ray, caught off balance in more ways than one.
"It's really not necessary." And if Fraser got any stuffier, they were going to need portable air conditioning.
Ray gave up. He laced his hands on the back of his neck and said to the girl, "He's a liaison. Don't worry about it."
They spent nearly an hour going over Nichols' planning consent application, which was a bundle of maps and forms and building plans and diagrams, packaged together in a big slick folder with Nichols' logo on the front. The front page was date-stamped four months ago. Fraser studied the map for, like, fifteen minutes while Ray shuffled through bits of paper, scanned architectural plans for bathrooms, and thought about pizza and a hot shower.
"I need copies of these," said Fraser, at last gathering up a couple of aerial photos, the map and the site plans. He didn't explain why. "Then we can be on our way."
"Sure." Ray started tidying the papers back together, then something caught his eye. He pulled the piece of paper—the land survey—out of the stack and stared at it, alarm bells going off in his head. It was like— There was something— He waited for the recognition to solidify. Oh yeah. "Hey, Frase. Check this out."
"What is it?" Fraser stood behind him, looking over his shoulder, but there was none of the usual prickle of awareness that made Ray's life so interesting. Ray tried to shrug that off.
"Look at this signature." He pointed to the land survey report. "And now look at this." He dug around and found the planning consent application.
Fraser looked from one to the other. "Yes," he said. "You're right. It's the same handwriting."
"Different name," said Ray, cautiously.
Fraser shook his head. "Same person. That report is a fake." For a brief moment, they smiled at each other, pleased with their discovery. Then Fraser coughed and looked away, and the moment passed like it'd never been.
The rain had eased a little by the time they finally reached the station. Ray killed the ignition and listened to the patter on the windscreen blending with Packard's snores. After a minute, he shook himself, and cut off Fraser's story about outwitting a band of desperate salmon rustlers. "Don't forget your parrot, Frase. You're not leaving that thing in my trunk."
Fraser looked at his hands. "My parrot," he said carefully.
"Bird. Woodpecker. Whatever. And no, I'm not coming down to the morgue with you. Not for a dumb bird. I hate that place. You're on your own." Ray shook Packard awake, helped him out of the back, and took him inside for processing.
The station was crawling with crazies—must be full moon. Ray left Packard in a cell and threaded through the surging crowd of fat-bosomed opera singers and little tiny jockeys, past three slab-faced undertakers, and finally made it to his desk, where he sprawled in his chair and tried to do some work.
Fraser turned up again an hour later, by which time Ray was tearing his hair out trying to write up the identity theft case in a way that made sense. "What did you do? Detour through Mexico City? How can it take you an hour to dump a bird in the morgue?"
Fraser's back straightened like he was being hounded by the Ice Queen. "I was talking to Mort. He's developed an interesting method of extracting mucus from the nasal—"
"Yeah, whatever." Ray waved that away. "Did he have any answers about what killed the bird?"
"He'll conduct the autopsy later tonight, but we already know the likely cause of death." Fraser relaxed into parade rest and looked annoyingly sure of himself, given Ray had no idea what he was talking about.
"We do, huh? And what's that?"
"Well, given the strong odor of anhydrous ammonia at the site, it's most likely that the woodpecker died of a drug overdose."
Ray gaped. "The bird was a crackhead?"
"The bird was a red-bellied woodpecker," said Fraser. "But I believe it had probably ingested untenable levels of methamphetamines."
"Speed. You're kidding me. Where does a bird get speed?"
"Or the byproducts thereof." Fraser clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "But we should wait for the autopsy to be sure."
"Okay. Good. Listen, this report can wait till later. Gimme the water sample and then we can go to lunch."
"Water sample." Like he was figuring it out. Like he'd forgotten everything that'd happened that morning.
"Earth to Fraser. Yes, water sample. For the EPA. From the stream? Remember? You put it in a jar in your belt thing."
"Oh." Fraser rummaged around in the leather pouch and pulled out a piece of string, a Swiss army knife, a compass, the carved doohickey—which he immediately tucked away again—the jar of water, a bag of dirt, and a whole bunch of other stuff Ray couldn't identify. It was amazing how much he carried around with him.
"You got a real bag of tricks there, huh?" Ray said, trying to sound friendly. Wishing they could get back on an even keel.
"It's all regulation," Fraser said, sounding offended. "Except for the reindeer ointment."
"Which, let me guess, I don't want to know what's in it." Ray picked the water and dirt off the desk. "Frannie!"
Frannie looked up from the fax machine. "No need to yell my head off, bro." Her tone softened. "Hi, Fraser. What can I do for you? Neck rub? Anything?"
"We found these at the Nichols' construction site this morning," Ray answered for him. "They stink of cat pee and they need to go to the EPA."
Frannie held up the fax she'd just sent. "What do I look like, the UPS guy?"
"No," said Ray. "You look like the dolphin trainer at Sea World. Just do it."
Frannie sighed heavily, dropped the fax on Huey's desk, and picked up the jar and the bag with her fingertips. "I coulda been a florist," she muttered to herself, carrying them away. "Coulda spent all day making pretty bunches of roses. But nooo—"
"Okay," said Ray, eyeing Fraser thoughtfully. "Lunch." Maybe food would melt the ice.
Or maybe not. It was like having dinner with Stella's parents. They ate in the break room, in a bubble of silence, while people bustled and joked around them. Fraser seemed to have run out of boring stories, and was sitting there like a Mountie action figure.
Ray decided to pretend everything was normal. "So here's what we got," he said, munching his bacon and egg sandwich hungrily. "Woodpecker that ODed. Stinky water. That's all EPA stuff. Then there's the faked land survey report, so maybe Nichols knows about the pollution?" He glanced at Fraser, who nodded agreement. "Okay, good. Plus there's all the security guards, which is way over the top for a construction site."
"Nichols said the site was being vandalized by Native Americans."
Ray nodded. "Which, given the fake totem poles, who could blame them."
"I propose we make contact with the relevant tribe in the area." He said it like he was expecting an argument. Ray still wasn't convinced he hadn't had some kind of head trauma.
"Yeah, that's what I'm saying," said Ray.
"Well, good." Fraser poured himself a coffee—a coffee—and gazed into the distance until Ray finished eating.
They got Frannie to look up the right tribe for that area—the Potawatomi—and an address for Karin Wandahsega, one of the listed tribal contacts. South side.
Fraser said "Thank you, miss" with more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary, and Ray snorted and snatched the address out of Frannie's hand, and he and the Mountie headed out again, jogging through the rain to get to the car.
Ray was still damp from before. Good thing it wasn't real cold yet, or he'd be sneezing already.
An old-fashioned bi-plane buzzed up the runway and wobbled into takeoff, and Ray stood on the tarmac and thanked his lucky stars he didn't have to be on it. If there were places to be going, he wanted to be the one driving. In a car. On the ground.
Or maybe Fraser could just go without him. That would solve a heap of problems right there. He looked over his shoulder, and Fraser was disappearing into a hangar with Dief, so he hurried after them, entering the shelter just in time to hear Fraser greet a short stocky woman. She was wearing coveralls with patches on the knees, and had a wrench sticking out of her pocket and a can of oil in her gray-grimy hand. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and was starting to turn gray, but her eyes were clear and quick. "Karin Wandahsega?" said Fraser.
"That's me," she said. She must be in her mid-sixties.
"Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD." Ray smiled down at the woman, who seemed nice and respectable and harmless, not like someone who'd play pranks on a construction site in the middle of the country.
She crouched down and patted Dief. "Nice wolf," she said. "Is he yours?"
"He's mine." Fraser leaned over to shake hands. "Constable Fraser, RCMP. Liaison. Call me Bo-Benton."
Ray swung around sharply and stared at him. He'd corrected himself. Ray was sure of it. Ray grabbed his arm and said to Karin, "Would you excuse us a minute?" and then dragged Fraser to the other side of the hangar, and pulled him behind an old glider.
"What the hell is up with you?" he hissed. "You can't remember your own name?" The memory struck him of Fraser talking about Barry Osborne falling off his chicken coop, and— "Did you see aliens out there at the site or what? Maybe you are an alien. What've you done with Fraser?"
"There's nothing wrong with me," said Fraser, all high and mighty. "Your imagination must be—" He rubbed his eyebrow—a typical Fraser gesture, but even that was off. Clumsy, like a left-hander faking right-handedness.
"Right," said Ray. "Right. My imagination." He stared at Fraser's face, same as it ever was, and his suspicion swelled. Not a hint of amusement on that face. Just a firm stubborn jaw and a hint of alarm in the lines around the eyes. Ray knew Fraser's face well enough that he could see the alarm. "Tell me something only Fraser would know."
"I am Fraser." And, see, now that sounded true. Honest. So maybe Ray was wrong. Maybe it was Ray who had a head injury, was losing his marbles, had finally unhinged. But still, he had to be sure.
"Okay. For sake of argument. Fine. Tell me something only you would know, then." Ray took a deep breath and held it, half hoping that this wasn't Fraser. That maybe the real Fraser, the nice one, had been snatched up into a spaceship for a day or two, and he'd be coming back soon.
"All right. When I was eighteen months old, my father and his partner, Buck Frobisher, arrested a band of rogue lumberjacks who later—"
"Fraser!" Ray held up his hands in the international symbol for stop now before I have to tear your head from your limbs. "I mean something only you and me would know. That's how this works."
"Oh, I see." The Mountie frowned and looked down and to the left. Yeah, left meant remembering, not just making stuff up. Ray knew that from a seminar he went to years ago. Then Fraser met Ray's eyes and said, "I realize logic doesn't always work."
"Yeah, well, that doesn't—" It took a moment for Ray to figure it out. "Oh." It was that thing Fraser had said on the Bounty. Plus it was sort of an apology, too. Ray licked his teeth, and relaxed a couple of degrees. "Okay, then. Well, instinct don't always work either," he said, echoing his reply from back then. Maybe everything was okay. Maybe it was his imagination.
Fraser nodded. "Good. We should get back to work, son." And he disappeared around the plane to find Karin. Ray leaned his head against the cool smooth fiberglass behind him and counted to ten.
Karin had removed the engine covering from the nose of a small prop plane and was making adjustments, but she stopped when they came back over. "How can I help you, Benton?"
Dief, who'd been lying under the wing of the plane, jumped to his feet and started barking.
"What's up with him?" said Karin.
"I don't know," said Fraser, and then said to Ray, "Can't you make the damned wolf calm down?"
"Hey, he's your wolf." But that kind of bitching didn't solve anything, and just made Ray feel sad, so he turned to Dief. "Yo! Yo, Diefmeister! Go wait in the car!"
Dief barked a couple more times, and whined, and then turned and trotted off, radiating frustration from every hair.
Fraser sighed with relief, and turned back to Karin. "You're listed as a tribal contact for the Potawatomi tribe," he said, looking at her enquiringly. She nodded, and he smiled and continued. "There've been disruptions on a site out toward Kankakee, and reports indicate that there might be Native American activists involved. We wondered if you'd heard anything about it?"
The way he said it made it sound like he thought the idea was ridiculous. Like he was— He was— He was smiling at her warmly and— Ray stood back and crossed his arms and tried not to think that Fraser was scientifically testing the Chicago Theory of Everybody Loves a Mountie with a nice possible-witness-type person in her sixties.
Karin looked concerned. "Don't think so. What kind of reports?"
"Well, the developer seems convinced. He also says they're his cousins."
Karin paused and put down her oil. "Is that other Nichols boy giving you trouble, now?"
"Is he a friend of yours?" Fraser moved closer, until he was practically in Karin's personal space.
"Wouldn't say that. His mom was my brother-in-law's third cousin. She married a white man forty years ago, died ten years later of pneumonia, left some land. I met the Nichols boys a few times when they were kids—at family functions, you know—but they were never too keen on finding out more about their mom's side of the family after she died. And now—" She wrinkled her nose.
"Have you seen the development?" Ray asked, trying to break up the little tête-à-tête Fraser had going with Karin. He picked up a screwdriver and pressed the point of it against his index finger, twirling it gently.
She turned to him. "Nope. Heard about it, though. A lot of people get angry when their heritage is exploited like that. It's disrespectful. Doesn't matter who's doing it."
"Angry enough to commit vandalism?" said Ray.
"Rex has been calling people up, throwing around threats and accusations, but no one I talked to knows what he's on about. Last I heard, there was talk of picketing the site, or going to the City Council. There's always talk. Some say the land can look after itself, though."
"Is that what you think?" asked Fraser.
"Me?" She scratched her nose and smiled. "Sure. It knows what it's doing."
"Okay, well, thanks for your time," said Ray, handing Karin the screwdriver. "Call us if you hear anything." He gave a quick wave and started for the door, then realized Fraser wasn't behind him. He doubled back.
"—was wondering if I could trouble you to look at this," Fraser was saying, digging around in his belt pouch. He pulled out that carving he'd been fiddling with on the drive back to the city. "I found it on Nichols' site, and I think it might have—"
"Fraser, what is that?" said Ray, barging into their conversation, staring at the little statue thing Fraser was holding.
"It's a Coyote totem," said Karin. "You found this on the land? May I—?" She reached for it, and Fraser hesitated, serious now, like he was going to pull it away, like it was his, and then he shrugged and handed it over.
"The Potawatomi do recognize Coyote, then?" said Fraser, hovering over her as she examined the carving.
She glanced up at him. "Sure. We have our own sacred creatures, but Coyote is—let's just say, everyone needs a trickster."
"Indeed." He nodded and held out his hand for the little statue.
She didn't give it to him.
"Thank you," he said, pointedly, and wiggled his fingers impatiently.
"Sacred creatures," said Ray. "You mean, like, magic bears that eat the moon and stuff? Seals made out of fingers?"
Karin was still holding the statue, still examining it. "Woodpeckers," she said, absently. "And spiders. No moon-eating bears. Benton, can I take this? I'd like to show a friend. He has a lot of history, might recognize it. I think it's pretty old."
"Sorry," said Fraser, and practically snatched it from her. "It's evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation." He opened his fingers and looked at it, in the palm of his hand. "We'll make every effort to restore it to its rightful owner once the investigation's complete."
"You better," said Karin, seriously.
Fraser coughed. "Yes, of course. In the meantime, why don't I make you a sketch to show your friend?"
Without waiting for a reply, he tucked the carving into his pouch, pulled out his notebook and pencil, and drew a rough picture of the Coyote statuette. It was a pretty good likeness, from what Ray could tell, but scrappier than any drawing Fraser had done before. More like a sketch, and less like a polished work of art. Ray squinted at Fraser suspiciously, but there was nothing more he could do.
"So, Fraser," said Ray, once they were back on the road. He kept his voice as casual as he could. "What's with the carving thing?"
"What's 'with' it?" Fraser straightened his uniform, and smoothed down his hair.
Ray turned the heat up in the GTO. "Yeah, you know. With it. Going on with it. What is the deal?"
"There's no deal, detective," said Fraser, sounding annoyed. "I found it at the construction site."
"And you just decided to take it." Ray sped up to get through the lights before they turned red.
"Evidence in what? There's no case here, Fraser. We don't even know if there's a crime." Ray glanced over, trying to gauge Fraser's reaction, but then horns were blaring around him, and he slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid smashing into the cab in front of them. "Come on, come on," he muttered, then said to Fraser, "This is not some file that landed on my desk, and you can't just wander around people's property stealing their stuff." The street was jammed with cars. Stupid rush hour. "You of all people—"
Ray blasted the horn, and Dief, who'd been drowsing on the backseat, woke up with a hungry whine.
Fraser didn't even seem to notice. "We're investigating—"
"And if it's evidence, how come you didn't show me? How come it's not tagged and bagged?" Ray reversed a few feet, and then rode up onto the sidewalk and took a shortcut he knew down a nearby alley. "What the hell is going on here?"
"Nothing is going on." Fraser paused, then went on with a sly look on his face, "You know, I once found a man caught in a bear trap in the woods outside Fort Good Hope. His name was Locky Bowdler and he'd been tricked into stepping in the trap by his associate Scarface Jefferson, after they'd argued over the rightful ownership of a crate of cheap rum. Locky was spitting tacks, of course, by the time I found him, and wailing like a banshee. The iron teeth of the trap had cut right through to his bone. As I carried him into town, cursing and wriggling the whole way, he bled all over my uniform, ruining it completely. I know it isn't fair—he was in a helluva lot of pain, after all—but he was such a bad-tempered ungrateful bastard that I held it against him. That uniform had served me well for fourteen winters and he wrecked it utterly. I never forgave him for that."
Ray blinked. "You never forgave him."
"Nope." Fraser shook his head. "Too late now, of course. He died of alcohol poisoning the next winter. And then, quite by coincidence, two weeks after Locky died, Scarface Jefferson was convicted of theft and assault with an antique spinning wheel."
"Fraser, what was the point of that story?"
Fraser shrugged. "I honestly can't remember."
Great. Ray felt like his train of thought had been permanently derailed. "I'm beat," he said. "You want to get something to eat?"
"All right," said Fraser with all the enthusiasm of a wet sock.
"Or d'you want me to drop you off at home?"
"I think that would be best." Fraser's relief was like a hammer, hitting Ray right between the eyes and killing him dead.
He pressed his lips together in an angry line, and drove to the Consulate in silence. "See you tomorrow."
Fraser nodded, got out of the car and turned away.
Ray leaned over and rolled down the window. "Hey, Fraser!"
The Mountie bent over and looked in the window, water spilling from the brim of his hat onto the upholstery. "What is it?"
"You forgot your wolf." Freak, added Ray silently, but for once he didn't say it out loud.
Fraser stood by the window, his fingers on the glass for once not giving off halos of condensation, and watched Ray's car jolt to a stop at the curb. His own body emerged and stomped gracelessly up the Consulate path, and then retraced its steps to let Diefenbaker out of the car. The obstinate set of its shoulders did not bode well.
Fraser returned to his office, where Dief found him and indicated that Fraser Senior had retired directly to the showers.
"How did it go?" Fraser asked. The wolf lay down on his side and went limp, then lifted his muzzle dolefully and huffed.
"Oh dear." Presumably Ray had not discerned the root cause of "Fraser"'s sudden change in behavior. If only Fraser could explain.
It occurred to him, then and there, to write Ray a letter. Perhaps he could find some way to deliver it—possibly via Diefenbaker—and if not, it would at least help him to clarify his thoughts. His father need not know, if Fraser wrote it before he had finished showering.
He hastened back into the inner office and sat at his father's desk, pushing aside chapters of his father's memoir and stacks of tax records, sparing a moment's contemplation to the framed photograph of his mother. He found a clean sheet of paper, uncapped a fountain pen, and began to write.
A knock on the door made him jump and spray ink across the page. Well, it was for the best. His words had come clumsily and, after their talk in the car this morning, he found he was uncertain of the appropriate tone to take with Ray. Face to face it would have been easy to judge whether his level of familiarity was correct, but given Ray's rebuke, his suggestion that Fraser flirted with all and sundry, and the subtle implication that Ray had taken this flirting to heart, he found his phrases had become inhibited and stale.
He folded the letter hastily and pushed it into a pile of other handwritten notes. When he looked up, his father—in Fraser's own body—was coming into the room, leaving the door ajar so Fraser could see past him into his own office at the Consulate. "I hear you haven't yet informed Ray of our predicament."
His father looked at him disapprovingly. "What have you done to my uniform? I hope you haven't spoiled it. The laundry service in these parts is irregular, to say the least, and the last thing you want to be doing at this time of night is firing up the stove to boil water. Gathering the wood, alone, leaves you wide open to a sneak bear attack—"
"Dad." Fraser sidestepped the desk, wanting nothing more than to take his father by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. However, he knew he couldn't, so he restrained himself from attempting it and merely said, "What are we going to do?"
"Why, change back, of course." Fraser Senior seemed surprised at the question. "Here, it's a simple enough thing. We'll both touch the wood carving, and we'll be right as rain in a sea breeze."
"The wood carving's the key?" Fraser held out his hand. "All right."
His father extracted the figurine from his belt pouch and studied it a moment, then pushed it and his own hand through Fraser's palm with a jovial wink.
Nothing happened. Oh dear.
Fraser ignored a small, inexplicable twinge of relief. He raised his eyebrows at his father, who harrumphed loudly and said, "I suppose there must be more to it, eh. What were you saying at the time?"
"At what time?"
"When we made the exchange." His father waved his hands in the air, presumably to illustrate the phenomenon.
"Ah. I was—" Fraser closed his eyes and tried to remember. "I was talking about the rain."
"There, you see? Native Americans are famed for their rain dances. Probably not a good idea to insult the outcome. Perhaps if you apologize to the—"
Hopeless. "Dad, it's not going to work. We have to get Ray's help. He has access to resources, he can get information." He said it as firmly as he could, but his father disregarded him as always.
"He's suspicious enough of your sanity without dragging him into all this. Now then. If you apologize to the rain gods, and we try again, we should be fine."
Fraser sighed. "Oh Great Spirit of the Sky," he said, as sincerely as he was able given his irritation. "I beg Thy forgiveness for my insult and complaint. I was mistaken. I assure Thee of my gratitude. Please, I beseech Thee, restore my father and me to our rightful places."
"Oh, very good, son." Robert Fraser held the Coyote carving while Fraser reached through his hand with due ceremony. Nothing. They waited a minute to be sure. Still nothing. "Ah well. We'll think of something."
"Like what? You know, dad, now that you're alive again—and in an American city, what's more—you have access to a dazzling array of psychiatric help. I think you should take full advantage of this opportunity—"
"No need to panic, son. There's more than one way to club a seal."
"Thanks, dad. That's very reassuring."
Ray was too restless to go home straight away. Weird things were afoot, and going home meant the day was over and couldn't get any better.
He went back to the station instead, thinking maybe he could get some work done, but ended up sitting at the computer, randomly checking the criminal records of whoever came to mind. Stella didn't have one, of course. Fraser had an arrest for murdering Jolly Hughes, which yeah, Ray had read about when he'd been studying for the Vecchio gig. The notes had been confusing—the previous Vecchio hadn't been Shakespeare by any standard—but Ray thought he had a pretty clear picture of what had gone down. That had been the basis of his Fraser Rule number 3.
Fraser had a couple of other notations on his record, but no other arrests, although—hey, what was this? He'd done time for stealing Milk Duds. Ray shook his head sadly. Milk Duds. "You are not cut out for a life of crime, my friend," he said out loud to the picture on the screen, and tried not to think about 1) how crazy it was to be talking to a photo, and b) how much he and Fraser were or were not still friends.
He was just about to turn the computer off when, on a hunch, he looked up "Nichols, R". The computer chugged away for a minute, and then a file came up. Huh? It said here that Nichols was in prison for drug dealing. Large scale, too. That made no sense. Hey, wait a minute. The photo wasn't right—close, but this guy had hair, and a tattoo on his neck. Duh! This guy was Ryan Nichols, not Rex. Must be a brother.
Theoretically, that didn't mean anything. Rex could be squeaky clean, as upright and wholesome as a Mountie. But Ray doubted it. He'd seen wholesome, and Nichols wasn't it.
The first thing Ray did when he got home was pour himself a drink. He stood in his kitchen, still wearing his jacket, keys tucked in one hand, and he drained a glass of single malt. God, that was better. His brain finally stopped bitching at him for breaking one of his Fraser Rules, and he breathed out a long sigh.
He poured another drink and set it on the counter along with his keys so he could take off his clothes. Jacket in a damp pile on the kitchen floor. He shrugged off his holster and dropped that, too, then peeled his sweatshirt, t-shirt and tank top over his head, and stood bare-chested, one hand braced on the edge of the sink, the other nursing his drink. He sipped.
Okay, newsflash. He wasn't in love with Fraser anymore. Fraser, having decided to stop leading Ray—to stop leading anyone on (because Ray wasn't sure how personal he could take this), barring Native American senior citizens—had dropped his charm like the whole courtesy polite smile nice act had been just that. An act. Had dropped it like it had never meant anything, and what was left? A stupid uniform, boring anecdotes, and a prissy, grumpy, information not-sharing partner.
One single conversation and Ray had turned Fraser from the guy of his dreams into a stuffed shirt who seemed suddenly—old. Genius. Real Midas fucking touch there. He'd turned Stella from a bright-eyed glowing kid into a hard-bitten bitter professional, and now he'd done a number on Frase. At least Stella had taken years.
Ray emptied the glass and went to take a shower.
As the steam fogged the room, he thought maybe it was just temporary. Maybe Fraser was messing with him, and tomorrow they'd be back to normal. But while he dried his hair, Ray figured probably not. It was like a light had gone out in Fraser's head. Like he just didn't care about Ray anymore. That crack about "the other Yank", and the way he kept calling him "detective". It sounded like the end. Yeah, to Ray, it sounded like divorce.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. Ray rooted around in his drawer and found a clean pair of sweatpants, pulled on yesterday's t-shirt, shuffled back into the kitchen and stared blindly into the fridge. His life was a mess. His fridge proved that his life was a mess. There was nothing. A couple of beers, some pizza from, oh, maybe December, a tub of anchovies that he didn't know where from, and all these jars of stuff: curry paste, coriander, crushed garlic, hoisin sauce—left behind by Stella, and then carted apartment to apartment because he couldn't bear to throw them out. Because they were what separated his pathetic bachelor fridge from a blank slate with no history, no fucking anything to show he hadn't always been a total loser.
He slammed the fridge door shut, and poured another glass of whiskey. Yeah. That was better. That was warm. Then he found a jar of peanut butter in the cupboard, and got a teaspoon. Peanuts were food. They had actual nutritional value. This would be his dinner.
He strolled over to the window, leaned his shoulder on the frame, and stared out at the night, resting his forehead against the cool pane. Okay, so. It wasn't like he had any choice here. He'd tried to take it back. He'd begged, and that was a bad sign right there. This was the way it was. He just had to live with it.
Maybe it was even a good thing. After all, lusting after Fraser had nearly gotten Ray killed a dozen times easy—zoning out during interviews with psychos, getting distracted while he was driving by the thought of reaching out and touching his leg, forgetting to dodge bullets because he was looking at Fraser's ass. Perhaps this was the universe saying, "For chrissakes stop! Keep your skin in one piece!" He could jive with that.
Maybe this was the dawn of a new era of Fraser/Ray crime-solving. One where they got the job done and got out. One where Ray, for want of anything else, got himself a life outside of work. Maybe a girlfriend. Or a guyfriend. Yeah, a guy—kind, with dark hair and—Well, whatever. But the whole working partnership thing was due for a change.
It was progress. Stupid crush. Over it. Moving on. Bam, bam, bam.
Ray ate some more peanut butter, and sloshed the last of the whiskey into his glass. It was gonna be good, he repeated, lying down on his couch. He smoked a cigarette, and stared sadly at the crack on the ceiling. It didn't have to be fun.
Ray woke with a jolt, his heart pounding. What was it? He sat up, and listened carefully. Nothing. He was still on the couch and his mouth had the gross sour taste of not having brushed his teeth. He could smell soap and whiskey, and his fingers were trembling like he needed a cigarette, but he didn't need— Wait. There was a piece of paper on the coffee table. That was new. It was folded in thirds, and was unfurling, and Ray could see Fraser's handwriting clear as day on the flap that was lifting up.
Ray scrubbed at his face and tried to kick his brain into gear. Okay, so Fraser had broken into his apartment and left a note on Ray's coffee table while Ray was asleep. That was the most unlikely thing ever, even before Fraser had shelved his personality in favor of winning first prize in the Mr. Stuffed Uniform Awards.
Plus, there was something about the note that gave Ray the heebie jeebies. He hadn't even moved to pick it up yet, just found himself staring at it like it was a snake.
He got up and drank a glass of water. Went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth. Shut the window that he couldn't remember opening. Came back and stared at the paper. Fraser'd used thick black ink, like it was written with a proper old-fashioned pen.
Ray took a deep breath, told himself to quit being such a wimp, and picked it up, knocking a long black feather onto the floor. He smoothed the paper open against his knee. The ink-spattered writing covered two thirds of the page, and broke off mid-sentence. The word "death" jumped out at Ray, and he bit his lips together to stop from freaking out entirely, and started reading.
I wish I could talk to you. There is so much to be said—of the case and my predicament, and also—well, I'm loathe to presume, but from our conversation this morning, I can't help but suspect that it is not merely Francesca for whose emotional well-being you're concerned. Frankly, I'm surprised to find myself committing these words to paper, or even entertaining them as thoughts, but we are such good friends, Ray, that, if I have misunderstood, I know I can rely on you not to take offense. At least, in the long term.
Regardless, my father is determined—wrongly, I believe—to keep you in the dark, and I have not yet discovered a way through the metaphysical barriers that separate us. Aside from the lack of communication, however, now that I've had a chance to experience death I find it not so very different from living in Canada. I have been subsisting on borrowed time for so long—ever since Ray Vecchio's bullet pierced my skin at the train station—that
The letter stopped, like he'd been interrupted. Ray brushed his thumb across the Dear Ray, and the words smudged a little. The ink wasn't totally dry. He dropped his head a moment, trying to think, wondering how drunk he still was. Then he sat up again, and reread the letter carefully. It was Fraser's handwriting, no doubt about it, but it didn't sound like this afternoon's Fraser. Really, it didn't sound like Fraser at all. Usually he just said, "You're my partner and my friend" and left it at that. This sounded like a Fraser who might—well, might at least consider thinking about Ray like more than that.
And a Fraser who'd "experienced death" and was talking to his murdered dad. Ray phoned the Consulate, but it went straight through to the answering machine, with Turnbull explaining their opening hours at confusing length. Shit. Ray had to get over there ASAP. Was he sober enough to risk the GTO? He decided it was an emergency, and went for his keys.
He screeched to a halt outside the Consulate and apologized to the Goat. "Oil, new transmission, paint job, whatever. I'll make it up to you," he said, slamming the freshly-dented door and running up the path. Hopefully no one would ever connect the broken mailbox on State Street with him.
He picked the lock of the heavy Consulate door. It was nearly four, and the building was completely dark and empty-looking. Maybe Fraser was dead. Maybe all the Canadians were down at the hospital or the morgue, looking at Fraser's corpse, and no one had bothered to tell Ray because Ray had broken one of his Rules.
He felt his way down the corridor, quieter than he really needed to seeing as he was here to wake up the only non-deaf person on the premises. But there was something off-putting about the gloomy wood paneling, especially at night.
Light glimmered around the edges of Fraser's office door, and Ray leaned on it for a moment to catch his breath, which the whiskey seemed to have stolen.
Fraser was talking. In fact, Fraser seemed to be arguing with himself. "Of course we will, but not until we've exhausted the other options," he said sounding annoyed. "I'm sure it's a perfectly simple process. Jimmy Craeburn always said, if you can't find the tree, just look for the apples. And as to the names, there ought to be something in section twenty-nine of the handbook."
After a minute's silence, he said, "I know it isn't standard procedure, but we don't have any choice. I can hardly introduce myself as the late—"
Without shifting his weight, Ray turned the doorknob, and almost fell into the room. He righted himself just in time, and found himself face to startled face with Fraser, still in full dress uniform. "Hey," said Ray. "Good to see you're not dead." He waved the letter in front of Fraser like a flag.
"It's three fifty-two, detective," said Fraser in that tight voice that made Ray want to throw stuff. "And you're trespassing. You'll have to come back tomorrow."
"No way." Ray looked around. Dief was curled up on the floor by the cot. Fraser must've been bitching to his dog. Bitchin' to his dog. Ray grinned blearily at his partner. "I got your letter."
"What letter?" Fraser asked. "What's he talking about?"
"This letter." Ray looked at the piece of paper in his hand. It was a crumpled receipt for the new windscreen he'd had installed in the GTO after Bluey Thompson had shot out the last one. Ray frowned. "I had it right here."
He marched up to Fraser anyway and prodded him in the chest. "We gotta talk. You were right. It's not just Frannie."
"If you left it in the OUT tray, I suppose the crow took it," Fraser snapped. "No, well, I don't want to either. The man's clearly pissed as a newt."
"What?" Fraser looked at him, face blank, blue eyes cold. "How can I help you, detective?" He frowned. "Yes, yes. Ray."
Ray shook his head. "Nothing. Never mind. I thought—" He patted Fraser's cheek sadly, then stepped back toward the door. "I thought you were someone else. Doesn't matter."
"I'll see you tomorrow." Fraser herded Ray out into the reception area, and opened the door.
"Yeah, okay." And the door shut behind him. Ray started to walk to the car, remembered the dent in the door, and decided he couldn't face driving anymore in this condition. He sat on the bottom step. He felt small, and everything seemed far away. It had stopped raining, at least. The air was warm and wet, like a steamy bathroom. Ray wished he could find a mirror, and write secret messages in the condensation like he had when he was a kid.
Messages. Ray looked down at the receipt in his hands. He'd had the letter when he left the apartment. Where had he—? He staggered down to the car, and reached in the passenger side. There it was on the seat, under his jacket. He leaned against the car and unfolded it, tilting it toward the streetlight over the road. I wish I could talk to you.
Okay, that was practically an engraved invitation. Ray pushed himself upright, filled with renewed determination, and broke into the Consulate for the second time. This time he stomped down the hall, knocked once on Fraser's door, and barged in without waiting.
"Listen, Frase—" He stopped.
There was an old guy there, who definitely hadn't been there before, and he was lying on Fraser's bed. He had a gray sweater on, and his head propped up on one hand, and he was running his finger down the page of a large book. "There's nothing in the RCMP manual about mystic—" he said, and then he looked up and saw Ray staring at him, and trailed off.
There was a tense moment, while everyone eyeballed everyone else.
"Who's he?" said Ray at last, trying not to feel jealous. It had to be completely innocent and, besides, the guy was old enough to be Fraser's father.
"He's the ambassador of Paraguay," said Fraser, shoving past to stand between the two of them. "His hotel was infested with woodlice so—"
The old guy interrupted him. "Ray! You can see me!" He climbed to his feet with difficulty.
Fraser frowned reprovingly at the guy. "He's my father," he told Ray.
"Your father's dead," said Ray, looking from one to the other. "What's going on?" He advanced on Fraser, threateningly. "Enough with the secrets."
"Ray," said the stranger, trying to butt in. "Ray, Ray, RAY!"
"Fraser?" Ray was so busy being angry at Fraser, he hardly realized that— "Fraser!" He whirled round and stared at the old guy for about a second before the old guy swept him into a suffocating bear hug—or what would've been suffocating if the guy's arms hadn't gone right through him in a cold prickling sweep.
Ray stepped back in alarm, and the guy tried unsuccessfully to grab his hand with his knotty phantom fingers. "You got my letter."
Ray turned to Fraser. At least, the guy who looked like Fraser, and said, "One of us is going fruit loops here and, at this stage, I honestly couldn't say who."
"There's nothing untoward going on, son," said Fraser firmly, and that was when Ray started feeling dizzy and weird, and had to sit down.
"Ray," said the old guy. "Are you all right, Ray? You look terrible."
Ray sat on the bunk and buried his head in his hands so he didn't have to look at either of them. "'Son'? What's happening, Fraser?"
They both started talking at once, one denying it, and the other spouting a lot of crap about ghosts and Indians. "Shut up!" said Ray. "Dief." He leaned over and shook the sleeping wolf, who woke slowly, yawning to show off his big pointy teeth. "You're not scaring me with those," said Ray, firmly. "Which one of these guys is Fraser?"
Dief barked, and looked around, then back at Ray.
"Benton Fraser," said Ray.
The wolf got to his paws, and went over to sniff the old guy's knees.
"That's him?" said Ray, just to be sure.
Dief whined, and curled up on the guy's feet. Well, sort of through his feet. That was Fraser.
They started up again: "Ray, I tried to tell you, but—"
"You'd believe a wolf over the evidence of your own—"
"You two, shut up!" said Ray again. "I'm trying to get my head around this, okay?" He picked a pencil off the desk and tapped it thoughtfully against his hand. "Okay." He turned to the guy who looked like Fraser. "Who're you?"
The guy sighed. "Sergeant Robert Fraser, RCMP."
"Dad. Would you give us a moment in private?" said the old guy, and this time Ray let him go for it, because Ray was having a serious worldview problem.
Robert Fraser snorted. "I wouldn't, son. Remember O'Toole."
The old guy stepped forward. "Ray is not going to have me incarcerated. Or you. Please."
"If you insist." Robert Fraser went to the closet door and paused. "I'll be working on my memoir."
"Thank you." Relief was written all over the old guy's face.
"Just call if you need me, son."
"I will." The old guy—Fraser—seemed to be forcibly holding himself back from stuffing his father into the closet and slamming the door. Ray wondered whether ghosts could work doors. Luckily, Robert Fraser went of his own accord.
"He's in the closet," said Ray, trying to get his ducks lined up.
"Not exactly." The old guy tried and failed to push aside the books and papers that littered the cot, and sat down on top of them anyway, next to Ray. "You got my letter."
Ray held up the crumpled paper. "You wrote this?"
"Yes, Ray." Fraser—old, wrinkly and kind of gnome-like—smiled at Ray like he was the best thing since moose pudding. "You can see me."
"For what it's worth. Spill, Fraser." Ray felt like he didn't have long before his head was going to explode.
"Well, Ray. It's rather a long story." Fraser shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not sure you'll believe me."
Ray sprawled back on the bed and let his eyes droop shut. This all made a hell of a lot more sense if he couldn't see the face that was talking. Sure, the voice was wrong, too, but he still talked like Fraser. Enough that it didn't matter, anyway.
After a moment, Fraser got up, and started pacing the small room. "When I first came to Chicago—"
"On the trail of your father's killers—"
"Yes, well." He cleared his throat. "My father has been haunting me for some years now." Fraser held up his hands. "I know that sounds implausible, but I assure you, in the intervening time I've had a number of psychiatric tests applied to me, and I have passed them all—more or less. I've pinched myself at least a dozen times, and I can say with full confidence that I'm not dreaming. And I rarely eat rich foods before bedtime."
"Okay." Ray nodded. The cot was surprisingly comfortable. He shifted the RCMP manual out of the way, and lay on his side, fiddling with the pencil while he listened.
"Yes," said Fraser. "Well, this morning at the Nichols development, my father and I were having a discussion in a clearing in the woods when we both touched a carving of the trickster god, Coyote, which apparently caused us to transfer our essences between bodies." He was silent for a while. "The net result of this is that I am now a ghost. We've tried to change back, with no success."
"Okay," said Ray. He was only a few minutes from sleep. "So this afternoon. That wasn't you."
"No, Ray." The voice was very close now. "That wasn't me."
"That's great. For a while there I thought you and me were on the rocks."
There was the small dry sound of someone inhaling through their nose. "I apologize if my father drove you to drink." That little hum of affection, that was pure Fraser. Ray smiled.
"Don't worry about it."
"Ray." Fraser's voice was low, his breath was cool on Ray's ear. Was that possible? To feel a ghost's breath? "This may not be the best time for you to fall asleep."
"I know." Ray couldn't move. Almost asleep. Almost—
He felt a brush of fingers, faint and fuzzy like static electricity against his forehead, but even that couldn't wake him. Sleep was a slow relentless train about to carry him away.
Fraser looked at his sleeping partner and sighed. He knew he shouldn't have caressed Ray's face—it would qualify as 'leading him on', no doubt—but the warmth and familiarity of his features had proved irresistible. The brief touch had been distant, as though his hand had pins and needles, but real nonetheless, and that fact alone was comforting after his previous attempts at contact had proved so unsuccessful. Anyway, now Ray was asleep he'd probably assume it had been a dream and expect no more. Which was all for the best.
Fraser clambered to his feet and went to see his father.
Fraser's body was standing with one of his father's drinking glasses wedged between his ear and the wall, Fraser Senior having evidently decided to eavesdrop on the entire conversation.
"Congratulations, dad." Fraser took the glass away from him and put it on the bench, next to the gramophone. "You nearly cost me my partner."
"Can't rely on other people, son. A man has to be self-sufficient to survive."
Fraser turned to face him, leaned back on the bench and crossed his arms. "That assertion would have more weight if you had, in fact, survived."
"Even more so when you're dead," his father declared. "Now, we need to discuss this case."
Fraser shook his head. "How did Ray get my letter? I was writing it at the desk, and—"
"I expect you tidied it into the OUT tray," said his father. "Damned nuisance, sometimes. I once sent a whole volume of my memoirs to Queen Victoria by mistake. She was remarkably gracious about it, too." He straightened his lanyard. "Suggested some structural changes to chapter twelve. Invited me to tea."
Fraser sighed, and rubbed his eyebrow. "Tomorrow you and I are going to find a way to switch back to our own bodies. Then Ray and I will discover what's going on at Rex Nichols' site in our official capacity as extant officers of the law."
"You won't find anything, son. Trust me. The land's protecting itself, and it needs my help. I have a chance to save the site—help those tribesmen put in their injunction, make sure the courts adhere to the proper processes." Robert was lit up with enthusiasm. "I just need more time."
"Dad—" Fraser stopped, forcibly struck by the realization that not once, looking in the mirror, had he ever seen his face so animated. He rubbed the muscle at the base of his neck, more from habit than necessity, and clamped down on a sudden wave of unease.
"I've been here before, son. Dodgy developers with no respect for the land. I'm not going to let them churn it into mud. Besides, I want to try pop tarts before I die again."
"Pop tarts," parroted Fraser, testily, but his exasperation was quickly drowned out by a wave of self-reproach. Why shouldn't his father experience the finer things in life while he had the chance? Was he himself so mean-spirited, so lacking in filial regard that he'd begrudge his father this small opportunity?
His father rubbed his hands together. "Pop tarts. They're harder to come by than you'd think."
Fraser closed his eyes for a count of ten, then looked up at the painting that hung on the office wall. It portrayed the aurora borealis over the Bathurst Inlet, using lurid blotches of color. It was poorly executed, yet it still strongly evoked the beauty and solitude of the far north.
Fraser felt his spine straighten. Perhaps his father hadn't always been there for him, hadn't given him what he'd needed, but Fraser—who'd been raised to higher standards by his grandmother, who prided himself above all on rescuing those to whom life had dealt unfairly—was suddenly determined to provide for his father. To lead by example. His father needed more time, and to give him that time was Fraser's duty, however high the cost. If the prospect of remaining in this form for longer than was strictly necessary unnerved him, well, that was mere foolishness.
His father was watching him with his head tilted, an odd expression.
Fraser sat stiffly in one of the armchairs, feeling old and impossibly heavy, and dug his fingertips into its rough stubbly fabric. He would let it pass for another day. It wasn't as though they knew how to change back, anyway. "All right," he said, when he could speak. "Yes."
"It could be tricky," said Fraser Senior, unrolling a sheaf of photocopies. "The clearing isn't marked on the maps."
"Why on earth would it be?" He was pleased how even his voice sounded. Light and vaguely annoyed, betraying none of the effort he was making to sit here quietly and focus on the conversation.
"It's a sacred place. Clearly has spiritual significance."
"I doubt cartographers have a symbol denoting 'ill-defined mystical area', dad." Fraser got up, feeling restless, and poured himself a glass of water from a pitcher on the counter.
"They generally record burial grounds, though, and someone's buried there. Couldn't you feel it?" Robert wagged his finger reprovingly.
"What are you talking about?" Fraser frowned, taken aback. "Who's buried there?"
"I've no idea, but it's a horrible sensation. My ears were buzzing and all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. It was just like that time the moose drowned in my water tank and I didn't notice for three weeks. Turns a man's bowels to water." Robert shuddered, and then scratched his head. "Never did find out how it got there in the first place. Well, I'll need to find some way to officially categorize the site for the courts. Maybe Karin will be a help there. She might know who died in the area. I've got her looking into the Coyote totem already."
"You told her about the exchange?" Fraser felt a surge of fury that his father would trust a stranger over Ray, and gulped down the water to hide it.
"Of course not. I've still got all my wisdom teeth, you know. I simply drew her a picture of it."
Fraser took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "As for the courts, it might be of interest to you that Ray has a contact in the State's Attorney's office."
"Good, good. But right now—" Fraser's father yawned and stretched. "It's time for some shut-eye. I haven't been this sleepy in decades."
"Take the bunk," said Fraser, who was wide awake. He watched as his father removed his hat and lay down, otherwise fully dressed. In a formal, and somewhat funereal posture, the old man in Fraser's body closed his eyes and slept.
Fraser observed his motionless muscles and bones for a long while, then turned down the lamp so the office was lit only by the orange crackle of the fire. He crossed to the window and looked out, contemplating the cold dark night.
It wasn't as though natural orders were set in stone. If they were, Diefenbaker would never have accompanied him to Chicago, and Fraser himself would have died a dozen times over by now. There were more important things than life, he reminded himself: duty and honor. Family.
And after all, you could only cheat death so many times. He himself had tempted fate so often that with each close shave he'd grown incrementally more expectant of the slip, the fall, the crack of the bullet that would end it. Was surprised each day that he returned to his residence unscathed. His father, on the other hand, had never been resigned to anything in his life.
Fraser leaned his hand against the rough wooden windowsill. No doubt he would quickly grow accustomed to his lack of physiological responses, his inability to touch real objects and people. He clenched his jaw. It couldn't be helped.
Ray woke to a hangover, the smell of shoe polish, and an old man's voice saying, "Ray, wake up." It took a few moments before the jigsaw puzzle pieces clunked back into place: the old guy was Fraser, who was a ghost and therefore dead. And Ray wasn't dead, although he felt like he was because of the nearly-full bottle of whiskey he'd drunk the night before. He groaned.
"Ray," repeated Fraser in his old voice.
"The Yank still sleeping?" said someone else in Fraser's voice.
"His name is Ray."
Ray sat bolt upright and pried his eyes open with his fingers. "I can't think of you both as Fraser," he tried to say, but it came out gibberish because his tongue had doubled in size while he'd been asleep. He swallowed and grimaced, and tried again. "My brain is tied up in knots, here. Okay? So here are your new designations. You." He pointed at Fraser's body, which was standing by the door like a Mountie statue. "You are Robert. And you." Fraser was bent over the desk reading something. He was in Mountie uniform, too, which made Ray feel like his eyes were broken. "You are Benton. Any questions?"
"Ben," said Benton, glancing up.
"Ben? Okay. Ben," Ray allowed.
"What if you say Fraser?" asked the statue.
"Then that's whoever I'm pointing at at the time, okay?"
"Very well, Ray." Ben stood up. "Dad, this note will leave Turnbull utterly confused—not that that's any great achievement. Is it really necessary to say we're on a top secret mission for the Paraguayan Embassy?" He sighed. "I suppose that's not important right now. Ray, we have to get moving. Turnbull will be here in a few minutes and it wouldn't do for you to be seen staying here. Particularly not in your current condition."
"What time is it?" Ray stumbled obediently to the door, closely followed by Dief.
"Six-thirty." The Consulate was dark. Robert folded the note and left it on Turnbull's desk, and opened the front door. The sky was still dark, mostly. Six-fucking-thirty.
"Don't you sleep?" whined Ray, feeling like he was going to puke, and trying to wait until he'd left Canada to do it.
"Apparently not," said Ben.
"Your car seems to have suffered some kind of misadventure." Robert crouched down in front of the passenger door, checking out the damage. When he stood back up and Ray saw the ding for himself, Ray couldn't hold it in anymore. He hurled in the gutter, hitting the front tire and feeling scummy and pathetic. He'd banged up the Goat. He'd hit rock bottom.
"Oh dear," said Ben, and Ray couldn't tell if he meant the mess or the car or Ray.
"Doesn't seem like you're in a condition to drive," said Robert cheerfully. Ray wanted to punch his lights out. "And Ben's a ghost. That leaves me." He snatched the keys out of Ray's fingers before Ray knew what was happening, and let himself into the driver's seat.
Dief whined nervously and Ray and Ben exchanged glances. Then Ben gave a resigned little shrug, and since Ray just felt like shit on a stick and there was nothing else to do, they piled in, with Dief and Ben in the back, and Ray in the passenger seat, holding his head with both hands.
Robert was an even worse driver than Fraser, in a completely different way. It was like he thought he was driving a dogsled over the frozen arctic wastes. He seemed oblivious to the other traffic, and even more oblivious to Ray's pain. Ben gave directions from the back seat, because Ray was too busy focusing on keeping it together, but they had to stop twice on the way to the station, anyway, so Ray could throw up more. By the time they arrived, Ray didn't even want coffee. "Water," he said, lurching down the hallway. "Water and a dark quiet place. I wish I was dead."
"It does seem to have its advantages." Ben nodded, following him into the break room and waiting while he rooted through the dishwasher for a clean glass.
Luckily it was way early and the bullpen was deserted, so Ray wasn't throwing his career down the toilet along with his peanut butter dinner. He pulled out a chair and sat in the darkest corner of the floor, by the photocopier, and drank four glasses of water till he felt almost human again. Fraser—Ben—stood by and watched, with a concerned expression on his lined face.
Robert sat at Ray's desk, and went over Mort's autopsy report on the woodpecker.
"Okay," said Ray at last, when he'd stabilized. "Here's what we do. We log into the nutcases database and see if there's anyone there who might be able to help."
"The nutcases database?" Ben raised his eyebrows. "I don't believe I'm familiar—"
"You're probably in there." Ray reached out automatically to pat Ben's shoulder, but stopped just in time. Ghost. Right. He dropped his hand and tapped out a short drumbeat on his thigh instead. "Kidding." He went over to the computer, explaining on the way. "All the crazies who ring in—UFO abductions, possessions, talking animals, all that X-files stuff—they go in this database. Law says we have to keep records of all calls, but we don't want them cluttering up the regular system, you know?"
"I see." Ben sat down beside him and watched as he fired up the machine, but he seemed sort of distracted. Maybe it came with the territory. Being dead.
"So we just got to find out if anyone else has had a soul transfer, like you and your dad, and go talk to them. See if they know anything." Ray frowned at the screen. "Why's it doing that?"
"What does it usually do?"
"I don't know. I never used it before." Ray scowled and randomly hammered some keys.
The system was stupid and difficult and most probably broken, so they were still messing around an hour later when the others trickled in for the start of the working day.
"Hey, Vecchio," said Huey. "You been up all night?"
They'd finally got to grips with the search function, so Ray just waved that aside. "Fuck you."
"Yeah," Dewey chimed in, coming closer and making a face. "You get caught in a shoot out in a liquor store or what?"
Ray ignored him, nobly, feeling too borderline fragile to come up with a smart comeback. Dewey was calling him stinky. This was a new, previously unimagined low. "Do I smell that bad?" he muttered to Ben.
"Not at all, Ray," said Ben, "although I'm hardly in a position to judge."
"Talking to yourself, now, Vecchio?" asked Welsh as he passed on his way to his office. He paused and squinted at the screen. "I hope you're putting yourself in there."
"Har har," Ray told the computer, once the Lieutenant had shut his office door. "I'll be right back," he mouthed to Ben, and slipped out to the men's room to wash as best he could. Couldn't do police work smelling like a wino.
When he came back ten minutes later, sanitized and, as far as he could tell, less whiffy, there was no sign of Ben. Ray had a brainwave and searched the database for "body swap", coming up with three listings. Relieved, he printed out the details, only needing to whack the printer a couple of times to get the job done.
"Fraser!" Frannie called from across the room, and Ray looked up automatically.
She was wearing one of her little semi-regulation tops and long red nails, and she had Fraser cornered by Ray's desk, backed up against the wall. Ray got to his feet, ready to go to Fraser's rescue, but he was too late.
"—gave me two tickets to Bagpipes in the Park," said his so-called sister. "This week they're playing—" She paused, looked at a brochure, and read out: "Symphony number six by Tchaikovsky."
Ray froze. Say 'no', Fraser, he thought. For fucking once, just—
"That sounds lovely, miss," said Fraser. "The sound of bagpipes always makes me think of Bannockburn."
Shit! It wasn't Fraser. It was Robert. Ray had forgotten for a second, the evidence of his eyes overriding everything he'd seen and heard in the last five hours. Ben appeared at Ray's elbow, just in time to hear Robert add, "I'd be delighted."
"Really?" said Frannie, sounding like she couldn't believe her ears. She pressed her advantage—and her cleavage—against him. "Six o'clock, Friday. Don't forget."
"Oh dear," said Ben, looking worried.
"'Oh dear' is right," said Ray. "She's got you now." He stalked forward, practically shouldering Frannie out of the way, and dragged Robert out into the hallway. "What are you thinking?" he yelled, as soon as the double doors were shut.
"Bagpipes, son." Robert had a dreamy-eyed look. "I haven't heard bagpipes since my own funeral. That's nearly three years now."
"Yeah. Right. Whatever." Ray couldn't shout at Fraser's dead dad. It was too weird. He shook his head. "Frannie's gonna take that as a sign."
"Who's Frannie?" Robert asked, and then seemed to instantly forget the question. "I need to talk to the State's Attorney's office."
"Later," said Ray. "We got to get you two switched back. I got names." He waved the printouts in Robert's face, and then leaned into the bullpen and beckoned to Ben. "Let's rock 'n' roll."
"I prefer the box step," said Robert, trailing along to the parking lot. "My father taught me the box step when I was six, and I've never forgotten. You know, one time I actually captured a hardened criminal, Betty Ann Parker, wanted in three provinces for aggravated assault, by luring her out of range of her cohorts with an invitation to dance the box step. The piece was a Viennese waltz, I believe."
"What happened to her cohorts?" asked Ray, absently. What he was thinking was that Fraser's body wasn't nearly half as attractive without Fraser in it. Sure, he was still pretty, but Ray just didn't go for him. Not that old-guy-Ben was any great prize either, but at least he was Ray's friend.
"They couldn't dance. They didn't have the shoes for it." Robert nodded, and got in the driver's seat.
Ray folded his arms. "Out! Out, okay? I'm driving." It took some bitching and tussling, but he finally got his way, thank Christ. He pulled out onto the street and checked the rear view. Ben was alone in the back. "Where's Dief?"
"Apparently he and Elaine had some kind of wager, and he's gone to collect." Ben pursed his lips. "No doubt the winnings are comprised of unhealthy foodstuffs. What have we got?" He leaned forward and Ray pulled the printouts from his top pocket, and dangled them over his shoulder so Ben could read them. "Oswald Daniel, Tina and Merv Turver, and Bart Benchly. The Benchly one is from 1992, Ray."
"Yeah, well, they're all the leads we have."
"I knew a man called Turver once," said Robert. "He was obsessed with the battle of Trafalgar. Whenever he—"
"You!" said Ray, pointing at him. "Can it. No more stories. If you got nothing to say about getting back into your own body—ghost, whatever—then don't say anything. Didn't your mamma ever teach you that?" It was hard enough getting Ray's stupid sozzled head around the day, without listening to the entire folk history of the arctic.
"Manners of a musk ox, son." Robert wagged his finger in the air. "You wouldn't last long in a crowded bivouac at sixty-below."
"Ray, please. You two have to work together, and things will go significantly better if you could at least try to—" started Fraser and, oh, great. Now it was a fucking free-for-all, with Ray's head keeping time in painful hangover throbs.
"Fraser! No, I just—" Ray looped his hand in the air, and tried to calm down and navigate the car at the same time. "Tired. Gotta stay focused. Turvers. The Turvers?"
"The Turvers called in 1995," said Fraser. Ray glanced at him in the rear view, and wow, it was weird how familiar that disapproving frown was, even on that old face.
"Like I say." Ray pulled out of the parking lot. "First stop, Benchly."
The Benchlys had moved, and Ray had to call Frannie for a new address. "Is Fraser there?" she asked.
Which one? thought Ray, but he just said, "Yeah. You can't talk to him. What's the address?"
Benchly's little sister was the only one home, and she was a real smart aleck, too young to have paid much attention to her older brother's shenanigans. From what she could tell them, though, it wasn't too promising.
"They may have interpreted his unusual experiences as pranks and delusions," Fraser pointed out, once they were on their way to door number two.
"Yeah, or the boy could've been messing around. Either way, he's not much use to us now. If he's just gone away to college, he can't have been more than eleven or twelve when the calls were made. Jeez, he probably don't even remember. Why the hell isn't his birth date on the file?"
"Ray, perhaps we're not supposed to—"
"Shut it, Fraser. We're gonna solve this. Next stop, the Turvers."
Tina and Merv lived in a third-floor apartment in downtown Chicago. Merv answered the door wearing a black tracksuit with a silver chain. He was tall and skinny, with long hair tied back in a ponytail. He was wearing eyeliner. Plus his shoes had three-inch heels. Bingo.
"Detective Vecchio, Chicago PD," said Ray. "This is my partner Constable Fraser. He's a Mountie. Long story. We're hoping you can help us with a small problem."
"Oh look, honey," said Merv, nastily. "The cops want our help, now."
"Fuck 'em," said a woman's voice from the next room. "The game's about to start."
Ray looked at their sheet. "You gave us a call in 1995 about a, uh, a body swap—"
A tiny woman in heavy black trousers, workman's boots, and a tank top showed up in the doorway. "Yeah, and you didn't do squat."
"Yeah, well. What did you want us to do? We're law enforcement, not the psychic hotline." Ray backed out into the hallway and leaned against the far wall. They hadn't switched back, which meant they didn't know how, so they were no use. Plus the guy's perfume was making his headache worse.
"What happened to you?" asked Ben, but the Turvers apparently couldn't see or hear him.
"It must be a fascinating story," said Robert. "You know, there was once a fur trader in Yellowknife who had hair just like—"
"We ain't got a story," said the woman. "We got switched over by a crazy gypsy lady, and when we called the cops they sent us to a loony bin."
"What did I tell you, son?" said Robert.
The guy took over the story. "We got passed on to counseling, and you know the diagnosis? Advanced co-dependency." He rolled his eyes. "I know co-dependency, baby. My mother is co-dependent hell. And she never woke up with a dick stuck to her front."
"We got released. End of fucking story," said the woman. "Anything else we can do for you, officers?"
"Ah, no. Thank you kindly," said Ben, only to be ignored once more.
"Have a nice day," said Robert, tipping his hat.
"Yeah, right," said the woman. "Fuck you, too."
Ray put the key in the ignition, but didn't turn it. "That was fucking depressing."
"They've been transferred since 1995, Ray. It's possible there is no way to switch back." Ben seemed weirdly calm about it. "In fact, I'm starting to wonder whether—" He glanced at the back of Robert's head, and trailed off. "It's not important."
"We got one more name." Ray leaned his forehead on the steering wheel and said a prayer to whoever was listening. "Cross your fingers."
"That woman's perfume put me in mind of my one and only encounter with a skunk," said Robert, launching into yet another tale of glory. Ray thought that if they didn't manage to switch the Frasers back, he'd deafen himself somehow and keep his hearing aid battery run down low.
The next address turned out to be a hairdressing salon called Ahead of Hair. Fraser was torn between relief and disappointment: as long as they didn't know how to reverse the body swap situation, his decision as to whether or not to allow his father to continue in his body was rendered moot, and the prospect of making the decision was singularly unappealing.
Ray scrubbed his face with his hands when he saw the salon's sign, but threw his shoulders back and barged in anyway, with Fraser Senior hard on his heels. "Chicago PD," he said, displaying his badge. "Looking for an Oswald Daniel."
The three hairdressers and five customers in the establishment (two sitting on a long low couch, reading magazines and sipping cups of coffee) looked up in unison, and then two of the hairdressers looked at the other: a small, thin young man with a green Mohawk and runes tattooed around his wrists.
His eyes widened, and he dropped the scissors and clips he was holding so they clattered to the floor, and then he spun on his heels and disappeared through a rattling beaded curtain, and into the back of the shop.
Ray drew his gun, presumably instinctively, since there was no actual threat, and he and Fraser's father pushed through the curtain after him, tangling as they went.
"Would you stop doing that?" Fraser heard Ray say in annoyance, before Fraser turned and stepped through the door—through the glass of the door—back the way they'd come, and moved to block the alley on the side of the salon. The young man soon came hurtling toward him, dodged around Fraser and whirled around the corner. Fraser grabbed at his arm without success, phantom fingers meeting no resistance, and Daniel shot down the street, into the greengrocer's six doors down. Surprised, Fraser watched him vanish, wondering whether it was at all possible that Oswald Daniel had avoided him by design, rather than chance.
Ray and Fraser Senior rushed up a few seconds later, tension obviously flaring between them, and Ray yelled, "Where'd he go?"
Fraser briefly considered prevaricating, but decided instead to let events take their course. "Meena's Market," he said, leading the way.
They raced in. Ray skidded on a piece of discarded banana peel by the door and flailed wildly, overturning a display and sending citrus fruit sprawling across the floor before he regained his balance. A quick search of the store revealed Daniel crouched down behind the cabbages, his thin-rimmed glasses slipping down his nose as he gasped for air. "Just like your Uncle Tiberius," Fraser Senior told Fraser.
Fraser smiled a half-hearted reply, and busied himself trying futilely to pick up the oranges and lemons, and reconstruct the display, but his fingers couldn't make contact with their solid forms.
"It's okay, kid," said Ray, and offered the young man his hand. "We just need to ask you some questions." Then he proceeded to introduce them, cutting off Fraser's father in a manner that Fraser was finding increasingly troublesome.
Fraser knew from experience that the majority of people found his father's company genial. Like Fraser himself, he was very much a man of the wild north. He had the eccentricities of an outdoorsman, a loner—even parenthood hadn't changed that—but he could spin a yarn, share a drink, and was always willing to go the extra mile to help out a friend (especially if that extra mile took him away from home at Christmas).
Enough time in Chicago and perhaps some of his rough edges would be knocked off. There was a precedent: although Fraser, himself, was still an outsider in many ways, he'd learned to get along well enough in America. The assistance of both Rays had, of course, been invaluable.
But how on earth could his father and Ray hope to work together if Ray wouldn't even allow Fraser Senior to speak his mind? It was impossible. Fraser wondered uneasily whether his own presence was serving to exacerbate the situation, by reminding Ray of the unusual circumstances by which Fraser Senior had entered the mortal picture. Ray had always been protective of him; perhaps he—not inaccurately—considered his father a threat to Fraser's well-being.
Regardless, Robert Fraser was due as much courtesy as the next man, thought Fraser, deliberately ignoring his own hypocrisy, and when one factored in the rather sensitive issue of his being prematurely deceased—well, Ray had clearly not received the relevant memorandum.
Once Oswald—or Ozzie, as he asked to be called—was assured that he wasn't under threat, he poked his head through the salon doorway and made an excuse, and then invited them upstairs to his apartment. "Come in," he said. "It's a mess."
The bookshelves were stacked with mythic and mystical texts and piles of notes in small neat writing. There were a number of statues and carvings on the windowsill: Hermes, the Celtic horse goddess Epona, Anguta, Anubis, and others—all of them, Fraser realized, either tricksters or psychopomps or both. "Sit down," said Ozzie.
Fraser started when he realized the man was talking to him. "Oh. I'm, ah, I'm quite all right, thank you," he said, holding his hat behind his back and standing at ease in front of the bricked-up fireplace.
"Hey, you can see him?" said Ray, glancing from Ozzie to Fraser and back again. He looked pale and relieved. Fraser wasn't certain how much the pallor had to do with Fraser's own situation, and how much it was a biological consequence of Ray's consumption of hard liquor the night before.
Ozzie nodded in reply, and cleared a variety of books and musical equipment from the couches. Fraser's father went and stood at the window, looking out. Fraser wasn't sure whether or not his dad was offended by Ray's manner.
"You called in a situation, August last year," said Ray, consulting the paper printout from the 'nutcases database'. "A body swap. What happened?"
"Oh." Ozzie shrugged. "It was my ex-girlfriend Gina and me. There was some gizmo in our breakfast cereal that caused the swap, and by the time we'd tracked them down, the company had vamoosed. I called you guys. Gina hit the road as soon as she heard me dialing, which was pretty smart, it turned out. I got packed off to a mental hospital."
Ah, that explained the man's attempt to flee. In Fraser's experience, a history of unjustified incarceration tended to make people jumpy.
"Which, by the way, was no help whatsoever," added Ozzie. He curled his lip distastefully.
Ray was assessing the man's clothing. "But you switched back, right?"
"Yeah. When they finally let me out, I did some research. Worked out what to do. I had to find Gina to make the swap, of course, and once we were back together, well, we had a lot of nookie before we switched back." He shrugged again and slouched back in his chair with his legs splayed casually, discussing his love life with complete strangers in a way that Fraser considered entirely foreign. "It was too good an opportunity to pass up, you know? See how the other half lives. But I got sick of getting my period, so—"
Ray nodded, carelessly pushing Ozzie's adventure aside like so much red tape. "So how'd you do it?" he asked intensely.
"It was sort of complicated. Had to do some detective work. Turned out there was a girl working in the cereal factory who'd been experimenting with voodoo. She cursed her boss after he refused her medical benefits, and the gizmo got caught up in the whammy. That meant she was the only one who could break the curse. Once we found her, she did this really intense ritual—swirling lights and chanting and stuff—and then wham! We were back."
"And Gina?" asked Fraser.
Ozzie took a sip of his coffee. "She missed being a guy. She's taking the medical option. I think she's due for her op in a couple of weeks, actually. We keep in touch."
"A fascinating tale," said Fraser Senior, turning from the window and adjusting his lanyard, "but I really must be going. God knows when Nichols plans to finish digging out that swimming pool—"
"So," interjected Ray, doggedly overriding him. "We've got a situation here."
"With the ghost." Ozzie squinted at Fraser with evident curiosity. His free hand fidgeted with a safety pin that was securing a tear in the knee of his jeans.
"Exactly. He's not supposed to be a ghost, okay? This guy's the one who's meant to be dead. The two of them swapped bodies at a construction site a couple of hours out of town. Got any ideas how we can switch them back?" Ray was leaning forward, eagerly.
"Ray," Fraser said. "I think you're ignoring the wider picture. There's no reason to—"
"Technically speaking," said Fraser Senior, "it wasn't so much the site itself. I mean, when they accidentally built an ice cream factory on the body of Denver Johnson—"
"You," said Ray, turning on Fraser's father and stabbing the air with his hand, "are not helping, here. You are supposed to be post mortem. You ever heard the expression 'silent as the grave'? Huh? Yeah? Well, do that."
"Ray," insisted Fraser. "If you'd just listen—"
"It's all right, son," Fraser's father said stiffly. "I can stand up for myself." But he didn't. He simply stood glowering at Ray, spots of color on his cheeks, his prim indignation almost as infuriating as Ray's attack.
"Oh yeah," said Ray, throwing his hands in the air. "You can stand up for yourself. That's how you ended up shot in the first place."
"I was doing my job!" Fraser Senior's eyes sparked angrily. "I'm certainly not the first officer to have been brought down in the line of duty."
"Yeah, but you're the only one I met who wouldn't stay down. And you know what else? While you were doing your stupid job, you missed out on the one thing that would've made your life worthwhile." Ray gestured wildly at Fraser, and stormed on. "You weren't even around long enough to notice his existence when he was a kid, and now you're making up for that by taking his body. Maybe you haven't heard this, being dead and all, but if you're not part of the solution, you're the whole fucking problem."
"Maybe I wasn't the perfect father," snapped Robert, his eyes flashing angrily, "but at least I had a family, and I provided for them, too. I put a roof over their heads and food on their table. I think it's fair to say I did the best I could under the circumstances. The law is a jealous mistress."
"Bullshit!" yelled Ray. "You sucked! You should've been around and you weren't. And now you shouldn't be here and you are. You have the worst timing of anyone I ever—"
Fraser closed his eyes. He couldn't listen to this, to the two of them fighting over him like wolves over a caribou carcass. He had to leave. It was a wrench but it was really the only acceptable course of action. If his presence was an impediment to Ray and his father forging some kind of bond, perhaps his absence would serve to bring them together.
Fraser steeled his resolve, focused his energy on vanishing, and quickly felt the same plummeting sensation he'd experienced the day before. The room liquefied and ebbed, and he was sliding through the icy cavern, falling, dissolving.
He was on an airplane. A six-seater, flying over an unfamiliar landscape of pine forests and lakes.
The plane was empty except for himself and the pilot. Fraser tightened his seatbelt. "How much further?" he wondered aloud.
"Not far." The pilot turned around and Fraser noted with interest that he—or she—had no face. There was the suggestion of a face but no actual features. It was disconcerting rather than horrible. "I need to see your passport," the pilot said.
Fraser patted his pockets and checked his belt pouch. "I only have these," he said, offering his father's compass, a contour map of the Yukon, and a pair of clean socks folded into a ball.
"They won't do." The plane banked steeply. The door swung open, a ferocious gust of wind sucking Fraser out into the sky. He fell again, fighting it helplessly, and dissolved. And then he was back in his father's office. "Oh hell!" he said.
"What triggered the switch?" asked Ozzie, looking up from his books. "Any idea?"
Ray glanced down at him in surprise—the punk barely seemed to have noticed the shouting—and then snarled in disgust at Robert, at the whole fucked up situation, and retreated to sprawl on the couch.
Robert sniffed disapprovingly, but appeared to take this as a truce, and pulled the carving out of his belt pouch and held it up. "I showed him this totem of Coyote."
"Native American, huh?" Ozzie looked at it a moment, carefully not touching it, and then went over to his bookshelf and scanned the spines of some paperbacks.
Ray looked around. "Hey, where's Fraser?"
"Here," said Robert, raising his hand, and Ray thought If only.
"Ben," said Ray, adding, for the punk's benefit, "This one's his father."
Ozzie nodded. "That explains the uniforms." He went back to leafing through a thick book with a picture of a dog on the cover.
"Ben!" Ray got to his feet and yelled, looking all around. "We got to find him. What if he's gone to, I dunno, heaven or something?"
"No need to worry," said Robert. "The first two weeks I was dead, the only person who could see me with any reliability was Dougal Dearmont, a chicken farmer just outside Calgary." Robert shook his head sadly. "He ran the worst operation I've ever seen."
"So?" Ray threw his hands up in the air and wished Dief was there. Even the wolf was more use than—
"It takes a while to learn to control your manifestations, son. That's all I'm saying. And a lot longer to defend your land. We should be helping the Potawatomi to protect the construction site from any further development, before it's too late." The guy was a fucking broken record.
"Yeah, well, what I'm saying is we've lost Fraser, and we got to find him."
"Got it," said the punk, from where he was sitting cross-legged surrounded by books. "You just have to reverse whatever happened. Reverse it exactly."
"Okay," said Ray, slowly. "We can do that."
"It probably happened on a sacred area, like a burial ground." Ozzie flipped back a few pages, and ran his finger down the writing. "An exchange of mystical items?" he confirmed.
"Yeah?" Ray asked Robert.
Robert frowned. "I simply showed him the carving." He turned it over in his hand, staring at it with disapproval.
Ozzie nodded firmly. "Coyote. That'll be it. Did he give you something?"
Robert shook his head. "The last thing he gave me was a pair of whale-bone cufflinks for my fifty-seventh birthday. I lost them to a grizzly bear three days later."
"Fraser'll know," said Ray, confidently. "We just have to find him."
It had stopped raining, but the sky was still overcast and unpromising, and the ground was damp, its earthy scents hanging richly in the air. Fraser sat on a green-painted park bench and watched the wind move through the trees as the citizens of Chicago passed by.
Over by the fountain, where the foot traffic was heavier, a teenage girl was expertly picking pockets, but there was nothing Fraser could do to stop her. Ozzie may have been able to see him, but he was merely the single exception that proved a near-universal rule, and even in that case, Fraser had been unable to stop him when he'd run past.
It was unbearable to be so useless. But then, how much use was he anyway, stuck here in Chicago, which seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of petty thieves, and was also well enough equipped with its own police force. Fraser's efforts were barely noticeable, he thought, aware that he was being self-pitying and irrational, and unable to stop himself. At least his father had made a difference where it mattered—where he belonged. He'd worked untiringly to protect the Territories and their people, dedicated above all to defending the environment and bringing outlaws to justice.
Fraser averted his eyes from the thief and turned his attention to a cluster of trees on the other side of the lawn instead. There, a woman in a long red skirt was awkwardly maneuvering through the branches of a Norfolk pine, trying to dislodge a kite that had tangled there. At the foot of the tree, a boy of five or six was bouncing up and down in a purple jacket and bright yellow Wellington boots, shouting shrill encouragement. The impulse to help was overwhelming.
Fraser watched the sky instead. His situation was plain: if his father wanted another chance at life, and fate had so conveniently handed him one, Fraser could not deny him. It was his duty. Fraser's jaw clenched automatically, and his muscles tensed in a facsimile of his accustomed stoicism. Robert Fraser had been betrayed by his friend, but he would find that he could, at least, depend on his son.
Fraser considered his other obligations: the Consulate would barely miss his presence; the 27th Precinct would either have his father as a replacement or, more likely, would soon find another officer to pick up any slack; Diefenbaker had always been a free agent; and Ray would—
Fraser paused. He closed his eyes and a barrage of echoed sensations flashed through his mind: the dazzle of blue skies and sun bouncing off a Chicago pavement; the pulsing rush of chasing after a criminal; the feel of Dief's coarse fur, and the wet rasp of his tongue on Fraser's hand; the warmth of Ray's smile, the weight of his hand on Fraser's shoulder. All the small amenities and pleasures, the moments, the jokes, the shared teasing and understanding. Ray.
Fraser swallowed his despair, and tried to think logically. It was his duty. His own needs were, as always, of secondary importance.
"You know," said Robert, once he and Ray were back on the road. "We haven't officially done any work on the case for over fifteen hours. How about you find Ben, and I'll go and see whether the SA's office has any suggestions on how to classify—"
"No way," said Ray. "We find Ben, we go to the site, we switch you back. Boom, boom, boom. No getting sidetracked. The case can wait. I do not care about the case. There is no case."
"That's ridiculous and irresponsible. We're officers of the law. Give me a fulcrum and a lever long enough, and I can have an injunction filed by lunchtime. Drop me off at the station."
Ray refused, so Robert, who was turning out to be more like Ben than Ray had thought, opened the car door and jumped out.
"Fuck!" yelled Ray and swerved to a halt, narrowly missing a guy on a moped. He twisted around to see what had happened, and Fraser—Robert—was rolling, then bounding to his feet. Ray reversed wildly and wound down the window. "Okay, okay! You win! Jeez! You can call the State's Attorney from the station. Call whoever you like. Just don't fucking kill Fraser's body, okay?"
"Language, son," said the Mountie, smiling like he wasn't a crazy guy.
Robert got back into the car, and Ray dropped him at the front entrance of the station. "Do not leave this building. Okay?" He emphasized every word with a stab of his finger. "Do. Not. Leave. This. Building."
Robert nodded like he hadn't even heard and strode up the steps, looking every inch like Fraser. That made Ray's throat hurt. "Do Not Leave This BUILDING!" he yelled after him.
Ray knew he should've gone in, too, but nah. Let Robert drive someone else bug-fucking crazy for a change. Besides, everyone already knew Fraser was a space cadet. They wouldn't think twice if he asked dumb questions and looked confused when he got back perfectly sensible answers.
Ray drummed on the steering wheel for a minute, listening to the engine knocking around, and watched the traffic stream past. Where would he find Fraser? Did he have to go into a mystical karmic voodoo trance? Find a ouija board? He shook his head slowly and bit his lip. He had a hunch.
But when he burst into the Consulate—"Yeah, hi Turnbull. Yeah, I know he's not here. I just need to get something from his office. A, um, a book. No, thanks. No, I've read it. Wuthering Heights? No, not my cup of—No, thanks, I had coffee already. Turnbull, would you just— Please. Please. Please. Thank you." —and finally got into Fraser's office, and opened the closet door, there was no one there.
Fuck! Ray slammed his hand painfully against the doorpost and then sagged there, looking around the freaky, impossible, weirdly Canadian office that was taking up more of Fraser's closet than could possibly exist.
Illusion or not, it was definitely a clue. Ray took a step inside, sort of expecting to bump his head on a bunch of coat-hangers and crash into the back wall, but no, it just kept going. There were a pair of scruffy armchairs, and a desk with papers in neat stacks. A photo of a pretty young woman with Fraser's eyes. A pen.
Ray picked up the pen and drew a line on the blotter. This was definitely it. This was the letter-writing pen. Okay. So, here was progress. Fraser had at least been here before.
Of course, he could be fucking anywhere now. Ray drooped, and decided to go home. He'd think clearer after a quick shower and a change of clothes, and there was always the chance that Fraser was looking for him.
But his apartment was empty, too. He changed and had coffee with extra candy, and sat down on the fire escape for a smoke so he could think. There was something he was missing. He fished in his pocket for his lighter, and found a crumpled piece of—the letter. Idiot, he told himself. Okay, here it was. Blah blah Francesca blah blah friends. Blah blah metaphysical barriers blah blah train station. Ray sat bolt upright and tucked his unlit cigarette back into its packet.
He was there. Ray almost missed him. He'd got a leather jacket and jeans from somewhere, and he looked like any old guy you'd pass on the street, arms hanging at his sides, staring at the cold empty train in front of him. But the hat was a dead giveaway, and Ray walked past, swung around, and went right up to him.
Ben looked like he hadn't moved in hours. Ray followed his gaze, and maybe it was contagious or something, because he could almost hear the gunshot. Could almost see Fraser bleeding, dying, and Vecchio with his smoking gun. Could almost hear a woman screaming Fraser!
"Fraser!" Ray snapped his fingers in Ben's face. "Ben! We got the cure."
A lady with two suitcases and a stuffed full garbage bag passed by and gave him a funny look. Right. He was standing here talking to no one. He leaned back casually on the wall beside Fraser, and stared into space, pretending to be waiting for someone or something. "Hey!"
It was like Ben came out of a trance. "Ray," he said, hoarsely. He cleared his throat. "I was just coming to find you."
"Yeah, well, I been looking for you. What're you doing here?" He caught Ben's eye and forgot about everything else. Ben had this shut-off batten-down-the-hatches sort of look. "How long have you been here?"
"Metaphorically or literally?" Ben smiled, but it was sort of sad. "There've been one or two reprieves."
Ray squinted at him, worried, then shit, a guy with a broom swept right through Ben's feet. "C'mon," Ray muttered. "Let's talk someplace private."
"Yes. I need to ask you something." Ben settled his hat more firmly on his head.
"Okay, then." Ray took a couple of steps backwards, watched Ben heft a bag onto his back, and led the way through the crowds to the car. His pulse thudded. Ask him something, huh? Were they going to have The Talk? Now? With Fraser all ghostly and old? Ray scratched his neck and tried to stay calm—maybe that'd make it easier.
"Where's Dad?" Fraser looked in the back, and felt under the passenger seat like his father might be curled up under there.
"He wanted to talk to the State's Attorney's office. I tried to stop him, but—" Ray was desperate for a cigarette. He licked his lips, trying to get residual nicotine from the last one he'd smoked, and braced himself for whatever was coming. Fraser didn't seem in any hurry to broach the subject, though.
"Well, he's a grown man in a free country, Ray. We can hardly curtail his movements just because he's wearing my body."
Ray waved that aside. Right now he didn't give a rat's ass about Robert. "You want to ask me something."
"Ah. Yes." The set of his mouth made Ray want to reassure him: still partners, still friends. No question it was Ben in there. Ray had never had a thing for older guys before, but no question did he have a thing for Ben. Ray was suddenly desperate to bring about the switch now, to get his own Fraser back, body and soul, all in one gorgeous package. This whole situation was too fucking creepy. In the meantime, though, he was going to quit hiding. If Ben asked, Ray would admit everything.
Ben coughed. Here it came. "If it wouldn't inconvenience you too greatly—" And then he ran out of words.
Ray blinked. "A favor. You need a favor." He reached for Ben's shoulder, his hand falling easily through the leather jacket and touching the seat before he snatched it back and ran it through his hair. "Uh, no problem."
Ben raised his eyebrows at him. "You don't even know what I'm going to ask."
"It could be anything, Ray. I could ask you to assassinate Shirley MacLaine."
Ray snorted. "What is it?"
Fraser lowered his gaze. "I want you to look after Diefenbaker."
"Why? You going somewhere?" The image of Fraser on the train platform with a bag flashed through Ray's mind, making his stomach clench uneasily.
"I'm dead, Ray." He said it matter-of-factly, like the answer to a puzzle or some fact about monkeys, but he still wasn't meeting Ray's eye.
"Yeah, well, not for much longer," said Ray, pulling the magic rabbit from the hat. "The punk came through. We found out how to switch you back. We just need to—"
"—take you back to the—What?!" Ray skidded to a halt, shocked.
Ben looked out the passenger window. "I'm sorry, Ray. I'm not going to change back." The words were stiff, like he knew they were going to fight about it, but it wouldn't make any difference because it was already all sewn up. His knuckles were white where they stuck out of the edge of the seat.
Ray stared at him a moment, trying to make this make sense. Then he curled his fingers tightly around the steering wheel to steady himself, when what he really wanted to do was grip Ben's bony shoulder through the jacket and drag him around to face him. "Look at me. Look at me!" He shoved hard on the wheel, rocking the car. "What the fuck are you talking about, Fraser? You can't choose to be dead," he said, knowing his voice was too loud, too harsh.
Ben didn't move. Ray reached out helplessly, trying to get through to him, but his hand went straight into his shoulder, just like before, and Ben didn't seem to feel a thing. Fuck!
"Are you insane? Are you out of your fucking head?" Ray yelled, desperately trying to get a reaction.
Ben looked at him then, a wry bitter curve to his lips. "Well, yeah. Technically speaking, I—"
"Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up! Fraser, we know how to fix this." But Fraser just sat there, looking at him now, pain and regret all over his lined face. "We know how to fix this! You just got to reverse whatever happened: give each other whatever you gave each other—the Coyote totem and whatever you gave him—in the same damned place. It's simple."
"Ray." And now Fraser reached out a hand, tried to grip Ray's shoulder, and it was the same deal. No contact. There was nothing there. "I'm not going to switch back. You don't know what you're asking."
"So tell me. Tell me. Jeez, I can't—" Ray wanted to hit him, shake him, blow his mind wide open. This was insane. Fraser wasn't suicidal. Fraser would never—
Ben clutched his old man knees, and stared at his hands. "His friend betrayed him, had him shot. I should have—When I heard, all I could think was that if I were a better person, a better son, if I'd tried harder to make amends with him, I could have been there and I could have stopped it. I can't—" He looked up with big, dark eyes. "I can't let him die again, Ray. I can't kill him. He's my father."
"Jesus Christ." Ray felt sick and horrified. "It's not like that. It's not killing him if he's already dead."
"But he isn't dead. Not anymore. He's got another chance," said Fraser, thickly. "He deserves the opportunity to make the best of it."
The steering wheel bit into Ray's fingers. This was all wrong. Too wrong. Fraser's logic was a death sentence. Ray slammed his hand against the wheel, BAM, BAM, BAM, the jarring pain pushing aside his panic, sending him into overdrive. He glared at Fraser. "That is absolutely the dumbest thing I ever heard, bar none. No fucking way. I am not gonna let you throw this. I can't. You know why? Because as long as you're a ghost I can't smack you in the head for being so goddamned stupid. How the fuck am I supposed to shake sense into you if I can't touch you?"
"I'm truly sorry, Ray." Fraser sounded choked up, which just made Ray madder.
He couldn't get through. He wasn't getting through to the stupid bastard. He scrubbed his face and tried a different tack. "What about you?"
"Me?" Fraser's face clamped down. Oh yeah, he didn't want to go there. Well, Ray was gonna make him.
"You, Fraser. You didn't die here." Ray pointed through the windshield at the train station. "Your friend shot you and you survived. That's what happened, so that's what's supposed to've happened. So what about what you need, huh?"
"Ray, it's not like I want to be a ghost. Not now of all times. I want—" he broke off, frustrated, then lowered his voice and added, passionately, "My God, you have no idea what I want." He took off his hat and fingered the brim. "But this is my duty, Ray, and I've tried to avoid my duty in the past. I know how that works. People—people I care about—get hurt."
Ray shook his head in disbelief. "Don't give me that shit," he growled. "Do not tell me this is for my own good, you asshole."
Fraser held up his hand to stop him, opened his mouth to reason with him, and, fuck, if he hadn't been dead already, Ray would've killed him.
Ray lurched out of the car, needing to stand, to move, his voice raw and accusing. "When exactly did you decide this, anyway? You spend all morning watching me chasing around like an idiot trying to find a way to switch you back, and now you tell me? Jesus fucking Christ. You're the one who's always saying partners, Fraser. Ben." He changed gears, suddenly, instinctively switching from attack to persuasion, pushing the anger down. "You're the one who says friends. You telling me you're just gonna give up on that? You telling me you're going to leave?"
Fraser had gotten out too, stood facing Ray across the hood of the car, looking dogged like a crusty old man. Looking like his father. His eyes narrowed. "Admit it, Ray: our friendship isn't enough for you. You want more."
And there it was: the challenge, the question, the chance to say it. Nothing like the way Ray had hoped it would happen, but there nonetheless, and he couldn't take it. He couldn't fucking give Fraser the ammunition.
Ray stormed around towards him, waving his hands. "Did I say that? Did I say it isn't enough? I'll take what I can get. I'm not the one checking out here."
"Perhaps you should be." Fraser looked angrier than Ray had ever seen him. "You can do better, Ray. You deserve better."
"Fuck that! Just fuck that!" Ray stood toe to toe and looked Fraser right in the eye. "I deserve you."
Fraser flinched like Ray had hit him. He breathed heavily for a long moment, then he turned without another word and walked away, leaving Ray clenching his fists, on the balls of his feet, desperate to go after him, terrified he'd just make things worse.
A security guard came over and eyed Ray cautiously. "Everything okay, sir?"
"No!" yelled Ray, incensed, and then realized who he was talking to, and shook his arms out, trying to calm down. "Oh. Yeah. Fine. Sorry." He must look like a nutcase, shouting to himself. Ray waved the guard away with trembling hands, and set off after Fraser, keeping his voice down this time. "Listen to me. I can't make you do anything, Fraser. I can't even touch you. Just listen to me. You're my partner."
Fraser stopped and turned, his bag dropping to the ground. "I'm his son."
The hat hung from his fingers, and for a moment, Ray thought he was going to throw it away, toss it on the train tracks and change his mind. For just a moment, he hoped everything would be miraculously okay. But then Fraser looked up, his mouth twisted with regret.
Ray was gearing up to try again, to say the thing that would make all the difference, to say I love you, when the guy with the broom came around the corner and swept his way right through Fraser.
Fraser closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, looking away, it was over. "If—when you see Ray Vecchio, tell him I said goodbye."
Fuck! Ray growled, and turned to leave, he couldn't do this anymore—but Fraser was behind him. Fraser was dead and leaving. So he walked in a circle instead, coming back to stare at Fraser face to face. Round two, gloves off. He had to convince him—
One look at Fraser's face and he deflated before he even opened his mouth. Fucking stupid Mountie. He never listened. He never would listen. Fraser would do whatever he thought he had to do, and if he couldn't see that this was the most fucked up thing ever, nothing Ray said was going to change it.
Ray felt something clang inside him, like the bell at the end of a boxing match, but no one had won this round. No one was winning. Frustration coiled tight inside him, pushing him on. He stabbed a finger at Fraser, and said, "Don't you come haunting me. That's all I'm saying. I'm not doing that again, and I am not gonna go all crazy psycho Fight Club, not even for you."
As soon as he said it, something broke inside him and he wanted to take it back—don't leave—but the words choked him.
Fraser looked shocked. He hadn't been expecting that. God only knew what he'd been expecting. But after a second, he folded his arms tight across his chest and nodded grimly. "Understood."
And there was that bleak, determined expression, just like it really was Fraser's face. Ray's rage dissolved into helplessness. He wanted to take care of Fraser, to break down the barricade and fucking talk about this. Find the key. There was something going on here, something he wasn't getting. He could feel it, he just couldn't—
Everything he said was making it worse. And he couldn't even hold Fraser. Couldn't say goodbye. He shoved his fists hard into his pockets. He hadn't known till now, hadn't got it, but what he needed more than anything was to watch Fraser get old slowly, naturally. To live with him, see him wrinkle and go gray as the years passed. To be there with him, looking out for him. Not like this. Not real one day, dead the next.
"Freak." His throat hurt when he said it.
"I know, Ray. I'm sorry," said Fraser, as if he'd heard all the things Ray couldn't say. His lips trembled, then tightened, and Ray realized he was hanging on by a thread.
Ray clenched his teeth and swallowed. He couldn't leave it like this. "Don't be. It's—I'm glad I knew you." God, if only he could touch him. He reached helplessly for Ben's cheek, and there, just there, it was almost like he felt something—not a human touch, but a gentle resistance, like a soft electric shock. Something to remember, at least. Something to say this was them, the two of them together for the last time.
"Okay," said Ray, finally, taking a deep breath and stepping back. Any longer and he'd be thinking about killing himself just so he could follow Fraser into the great hereafter, and Ray wasn't going to go there, not even for Fraser. They stood facing each other. "Dief."
Fraser reached out a hand toward Ray's neck, then pulled back and folded his arms again, firming up, turning his attention to the matter at hand. "Yes," he said, scratchily. He cleared his throat. "He's my responsibility."
"I get that." Ray folded his arms, too, and took a small step back. "You should ask your dad."
Fraser shook his head, not even considering the suggestion. "I'm asking you."
"You don't think it'll look strange?" Ray asked. He leaned against a pillar, hurting too much to stand. "Dief comes to live with me. You—your body—still walking around? People'll talk."
"If you don't want to—" Jeez, now he was pissed.
"I didn't say that." Ray stared at Fraser, finally working it out. "You're mad at him. Why are you so mad at him?"
"Diefenbaker? I'm not."
"No, not the wolf. Your dad."
"Right," Ray interrupted, roughly. "You're fucking imploding here. You're choosing to be dead. But you're just fine. What did he do?"
"He didn't do anything. I'm not angry." He sounded tense, like a bomb about to explode.
Ray persisted. This was it. "What did he do, Fraser?"
Fraser looked him in the eye, said blankly, "He didn't do anything." And then—no explosion. He just fucking disappeared again, silent as a shadow. Great fucking party trick.
After forever, Ray went back and sat in the scraped-up Goat. He leaned his head on the steering wheel and tried to breathe. The last twenty-four hours had—the last twenty-four hours, he'd broken all his Fraser Rules, and now Fraser was dead by choice, and Ray was never going to see him again, and Ray's life was basically down the toilet.
Ray bit his lip hard, and tried to tell himself this was better than divorce—at least it was final. Done, kaput, over. He didn't have to wonder who Fraser was with, who had replaced Ray. Fraser was a ghost. Dead.
And they'd never got it together, so at least Ray didn't know what he was missing. That ought to have made it better, maybe, but, god, it didn't. They'd been so close, so fucking close, and this hurt more than his separation papers ever had.
Ray cast around for what could possibly make the day any worse, and then realized his new partner looked exactly like his old partner, only a couple hundred times more annoying.
The smug coziness of his father's office was beginning to grate on Fraser. Even the Canadian Mounted Police wall-hanging, which should have filled him with pride and belonging, left him empty.
He sat at the desk and tried to compose a letter to his father, but found he had nothing appropriate to say. Ray's accusation that Fraser was "imploding" stung—Fraser was doing his duty, the only acceptable course of action. Ray had never understood the importance of duty.
You're mad at him, Ray had said, but that simply wasn't the case. The sting Fraser felt was merely a reflexive defensiveness. His father wasn't always an easy man to get along with, seemingly compelled to set Fraser's teeth on edge, and many children had strained relationships with their parents. It was traditional. Ray must have mistaken Fraser's natural irritation for a deeper anger, that was all.
Anyway, none of that mattered now. Fraser was off to explore the afterworld, leaving his father and Ray to muddle along as best they could. Who could tell? Perhaps they'd make a go of it and forge an unlikely friendship, or maybe Fraser Senior would decide to brave the wrath of the RCMP and return to Canada, to his destiny of meting out justice to the rogues and malfeasants of the north. Either way, he'd be alive.
Fraser crumpled his latest effort at a filial epistle and threw it into the waste paper basket. His father was an experienced government agent: he could figure it out. It was time to go. Fraser picked up his bag, pocketed the cigarette lighter he'd borrowed from Ray's glove compartment, and wrenched open the back door, fighting the howling blizzard outside to stop it from slamming straight back into place.
Ice chipped at him from every direction. There were no landmarks, not even a directional source of light by which to find his way. The cold drove deep into his old bones and froze them solid, so that he moved like a man made of sticks. The door crashed shut behind him, the slam almost drowned out by the storm's ferocity, and he trudged forward, every step a battle, certain that better things lay ahead. Not the precious things he was leaving behind, of course, but the afterworld, in all its infinite variety. At least it was bound to be interesting.
The bag was tugged from him, pulled first right then left, and he clung on grimly as long as he could, but then surrendered it to the blizzard.
He was thrown to his knees by—it felt like an explosion of freezing cold air. His fingertips, which he could see only if held directly before his face, were blue. His ears burned, his hat long since having been snatched away by the wind. Realizing that struggling to his feet would be futile, Fraser crawled.
After three more shuffles forward, his jeans soaked and cracking with ice, his hands aching and protesting, he fell, sliding down an invisible bank. For a moment he thought it was the now-familiar fall through time and space, back to his father's cabin, and he almost wished it so, but the descent slowed rather than quickened, and Fraser found himself in a hollow of the snow, wind wailing terribly overhead. This would suffice for now. Yes. He could get lost here.
With shaking hands so frigid his fingers would barely move, Fraser delved into his pocket and brought out the lighter. He had so little dexterity it took over forty attempts to elicit a flame but, after all, there was nothing else to do.
When it was lit, he cupped his spare hand around it, its faint warmth painful on his frozen flesh, and wondered how long it would be before he, please God, ceased to feel.
Ray arrived back at the station feeling like his life was crumbling into little mushy heaps. Like wet cereal. The hangover wasn't helping any, and neither was the fact he was kicking himself for telling Ben not to haunt him. The end had been too sudden, no chance to go back.
Anyway, he had work to do, and an unhinged Mountie to control. The world kept turning, however much he wished it wouldn't. Plus, he had a wolf now. His very own wolf. Some would maybe see that as progress.
He reached over to get a smoke from the glove compartment only to find his lighter was missing. Huh. He could've sworn he'd left it there. No matter. It was time to get back to the station and find out what kind of mayhem Robert was stirring up, anyway.
"What do you mean, gone?" he yelled at Frannie. "I told him not to leave the building."
"Since when do you tell Fraser what to do? Huh? And stop shouting at me," Frannie yelled back.
"You two, keep it down," growled Welsh from the door of his office.
"Sorry, sir." Ray raked his hands through his hair. Robert was AWOL and there was work to do, and yeah, he should sit down with the guy and fill him in on all the undercover stuff he needed to know if he was going to take Fraser's place. The thought made Ray tired and heavy, longing for the cool rumpled sheets of his bed. He turned back to Frannie and bitched, "Did he at least say where he was going?"
"Yeah, which I would've told you if you hadn't started picking a bone with me," Frannie huffed. "He's at the State's Attorney's office."
"Thank you kindly," he said with all the sarcasm he could dredge up, and left, kicking the door on the way out.
"Vecchio!" Welsh's voice boomed down the corridor behind him. Ray U-turned reluctantly, and came face to face with the Lieu in the entrance to the bullpen.
"You planning on doing any work sometime this summer? Or are you on some kind of vacation I don't know about?"
"Uh, no, sir. I just—" Ray fidgeted restlessly with the hem of his t-shirt. Who knew what trouble Robert was getting himself into.
"What's happening with the McInnes case? You get Packard?"
"Yes, sir. He's in holding cell two. But I—"
"Well, take his statement and close the case. We can't just lock people up and forget about them. It makes the guys upstairs nervous, and when they get nervous—" Welsh's voice softened dangerously and he showed Ray a frightening smile. "—I get indigestion. We wouldn't want that now, would we, detective?"
Ray shook his head firmly. "No, sir."
"You have no idea how much it delights me that we're in accordance about this. Packard. Sort it out." Welsh didn't wait for a reply. He stomped back to his office and slammed the door so hard that the blinds inside clanked loudly against the windows.
Ray looked at his watch and sighed. Packard.
"I wanna do a deal," said Packard. "I got information."
His lawyer, Jenny Craig, paused halfway through smoothing down her powder pink suit, and looked pained. "Hugh, I strongly advise you not to admit to any—"
"What kind of information?" interrupted Ray. "You gonna incriminate yourself? Don't waste my time. This case is sewn up tighter than a sack of rice."
"I know stuff about Nichols," said Packard. "About that crazy development."
Ray leaned casually against the wall, and stuck a toothpick in his mouth, rough and sharp against his tongue. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
Jenny groaned, and sat down on one of the metal chairs, resting her folded arms on the table. "Hugh!" she said. "Shut up!"
"Like it weren't vandalism on that site, man. It was ghosts."
"Uh-huh," said Ray, unimpressed. There was only one ghost he cared about, and that wasn't who Packard meant. Ray bit down hard on his toothpick, splintering it.
Jenny rolled her eyes and said, "Even if you do know—"
"Yeah. They made the concrete melt, and all the nails disappeared and shit. It was spooky."
Ray bared his teeth. "So? You think I care about weird shit? I look like David Duchovny to you?"
"—material information, it's usually not a good strategy to reveal—"
"Okay, uh. But I know other stuff. Nichols' brother is in prison on drug charges."
"Yeah, I know. You want me to arrest him for having a brother?"
"—until after you've struck the deal."
"The site's contaminated from byproducts of the brother's drug lab," said Packard, desperately. "Nichols faked the land survey."
"Yeah," repeated Ray. "I know. Let's talk about you. What did you fake?"
"Nichols is leaving the country as soon as the building's finished. His brother's gonna be real mad about it."
"Why?" said Ray, coolly, hiding his interest.
"They co-own the land." Packard looked hopeful. "Does that count? Can I do a deal?"
Ray sat down opposite him. "No. We're not investigating Nichols. Tell me where you were the night of the 16th."
Ray missed Robert at the State's Attorney's though he did manage to have a quick word with a very prickly Stella.
"Tell your partner I can't pull paperwork out of my ass on demand, and I can't do favors for every Canadian with a stupid hat," she snapped at him, when he poked his nose in her office door.
"Whoa, easy." He put up his hands and sighed. "Rob—Fraser's been here, huh?"
"He's been pestering me all afternoon." She hitched her hair behind her ear, and pulled a file off the top of the stack in front of her, opening it pointedly.
"Stell, it's only a quarter past three."
"Yeah, well, he was annoying." She glared at Ray like it was his fault. Ray wondered if she'd even noticed that Fraser wasn't Fraser.
"He's got a bee in his bonnet about this land development. It's real important to him. It's making him act a little weird."
Stella tilted her chin impatiently.
"I'll have a word with him, all right?" Ray made gentle placating noises and, for a wonder, they actually seemed to work. "I'll make sure he knows how busy you are."
"Okay," she said with less heat. "Good." She glanced down at her open file, then back up at him. "I gotta get some work done."
The snow had built up around Fraser until he was nearly enclosed in it. Snug as a bug in a rug. The cigarette lighter had run out of fuel and died, and Fraser held it tight in the palm of his hand. It seemed symbolic of Ray's rebellious side, the parts of him Fraser could barely admit even to himself that he longed for.
Fraser thought back to Ray's desperate pursuit of Stella, long after she had moved on to other men. Fraser would not emulate that, would not haunt Ray against his wishes, nor try to convince him to change his mind. Fraser would be strong, would respect Ray's decision, however much he wished to do otherwise. He would disappear. He had a whole new world at his feet, all his very own.
The wind died down, leaving an eerie silence. It was dark, the snow glowing faintly under a billion stars and distant galaxies, none of which held the slightest interest for Fraser. His eyelashes were icy, anyway, refracting the light so he could barely see. Nothing moved.
After an extremely long time—perhaps half an hour, although it could just as easily have been a year—during which Fraser tried and failed to bully himself into moving a dozen times or more, he heard the faint crunch of footsteps breaking the snow. Not human. There were four feet—or paws, more likely—coming toward him. It had been so long since other sounds had reached him that he found it impossible to judge the proximity or weight of the creature.
A dark nose poked through the crust of snow around him, sniffed, and then the creature emitted a low growl. Fraser suppressed a startled grunt. He stayed utterly still, speculating almost detachedly about whether a polar bear would be able to scent him. This was the afterworld, so presumably the bear was also deceased, but no doubt this wouldn't prevent it from tearing him limb from limb. He was far too immobile by now to defend himself. He wondered whether anyone—whether Ray would ever know what had become of him, then realized the thought was ridiculous. He was already dead. His fate no longer counted for anything.
The bear growled again, and Fraser relaxed, surrendering himself to this wild creature of the afterworld. "I apologize," he told it. "I didn't know. All I have is this." He held out the empty lighter, to the bear's evident disgust.
"Yes, well, in case you didn't notice, there was a storm," said Fraser, curtly, a spark of rebellion flaring. "My hat and my bag were lost."
The bear yawned widely, ignored the lighter, and backed away into the darkness.
"Sorry to be such a disappointment," muttered Fraser. He curled sideways and tried to sleep.
Ray didn't catch up with Robert until four when he dropped by the Consulate to leave a message. Robert was sitting at Fraser's desk, the phone pressed to his ear. "—the last of the great explorers. The ice floes were never the same, of course. My old friend, Antoine de Saint-Exupery always said that the machine doesn't isolate us from the great problems of nature, but plunges us more deeply into them." He paused and listened, and then said, "Oh well, if it's a work permit you want, you'll need to phone between the hours of 2pm and 4pm on Thursday. Thank you for contacting the Canadian Consulate." He hung up before the person on the other end could reply, and wiped his brow. "Never was much of a one for deskwork," he told Ray. "I'd rather be out in the wilderness, bringing the lawless to justice."
Ray sighed. "Where have you been?"
"State's Attorney's office, the Chicago Department of the Environment, three graveyards, two embalming specialists, the City Council, the Mayor's Office, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, the Department of Courts, the Chicago Genealogical Society, the University of Chicago, and Sita's Kwiki-Mart." Robert tapped the side of his nose. "Lending a helping hand, son. The Potawatomi lawyers seem very capable, but they're still lawyers. I never did trust a solicitor, ever since Sandra Deeson fell into the—"
Ray perched wearily on the edge of Robert's desk and crossed his arms, enduring at least five minutes of the story before he couldn't take it anymore. "What's with all the graveyards?"
"—got her out, minus the second and third fingers on her right hand. Well, we're trying to establish how to classify the site. It's something of a gray area. The Nichols land's not a burial ground because it's not registered or formally recognized as such, but if there's a body buried there then certain procedures have to be—"
"Wait a minute. What body?"
"I've no idea. A very old one, I suspect. Didn't you feel it when we were at the site?"
"No, I did not—" Ray took a deep breath and rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "No," he said. "Okay. There's a body."
"I can't believe you didn't notice it. Doesn't anyone pay attention these days? Once the injunction's come through, we'll have to—"
They were interrupted by a firm rap on the door. "Benton?" It was Karin Wandahsega, smiling, wearing a long woven jacket over her coveralls.
"Karin, good to see you." Robert stood politely and waved her to his visitor's chair.
Ray held up his hand in greeting, keeping his arms folded.
"Hey." She nodded at him as she took the seat, then turned her attention back to Robert and got down to business. "Showed my friend Marty the sketch you drew. He reckons it's a totem that belonged to Notawkah Manitou. Coyote symbols're more common amongst the Pacific Northwestern tribes, so it's pretty rare. Valuable." Her expression was neutral.
"Who was Notawkah Manitou?" Robert was polite and just as unreadable. It was like they were playing high-stakes poker.
"Rex Nichols' mother's great-great-great-great-grandfather. Cranky old bastard, they say. Real stubborn. Guess it maybe runs in the family. Marty says he ran away when he was a kid, and saved and stole enough money to buy a piece of land. Stayed there ever since. Got married there, settled down there. Marty says he was even buried there."
"The construction site?" said Ray.
Karin nodded. "It's been handed down for nearly two hundred years. Can't believe the boys are prepared to let it go." She shook her head in disgust. "The totem hasn't been seen in generations. Word got passed down, but no one knew what'd happened to it. Marty just assumed Notawkah had taken it with him when he died. He'd really like to take a closer look."
"Of course," said Robert, calmly. "Once our investigation's complete. Thank you for letting us know."
"Yeah, thanks," said Ray. "Come on, Rob-Benton. Let's go pay our friend Mr. Nichols another visit."
Karin leaned forward in her chair. "Wouldn't mind visiting the site myself."
"It's private land," said Ray, doubtfully. "We don't even have a warrant yet."
She smiled. "It's okay, detective. I'm not gonna mess with anything. Just want to have a word with Rex."
"Okay, then. Good. Let's get moving." Ray pushed off from the desk and pulled his car keys out of his pocket, feeling groggy but determined.
The phone rang.
"Leave it," said Ray. "It'll be dark in a few hours. We got to—"
"Fraser!" The Ice Queen barged into the room, glanced at Karin and Ray, and then ignored them both. She glowered at Robert until he got the hint and jumped to attention. "Constable, I need you to run an errand. Turnbull's on sentry duty, and Henri is insisting that all the ingredients be sourced fresh from wholesale suppliers."
Robert stood even straighter. "Yes, ma'am."
Thatcher frowned at him, and Ray mouthed sir. Robert didn't seem to notice either of these reactions.
"All right, then," said Thatcher hesitantly. "Make a note. Six kilos of fresh watercress, one crate of lemons, four dozen eggs—make those free range eggs, Constable—ten kilos of unrefined sugar, and three ounces of ground mustard seed. Have you got all that? Why aren't you writing it down?"
Robert tapped the side of his head. "I've committed it to memory, ma'am. Never you worry."
Thatcher stared at him a moment, then sighed and said briskly, "Well, good. And I hope Detective Vecchio's here on official business. We have a consulate to run, Constable, and I expect to see it staffed to the highest professional standard. That means I need you to have completed validating the requisition orders through to April by the time I get back from my appointment."
Thatcher left, shutting the door behind her, her high-heels clicking down the hall.
"You call her 'sir'," said Ray. He might as well start now with training Robert to be Fraser.
"Oh yes. I remember," said Robert, vaguely. He reached for his hat. "I'd best be off before the markets close."
Karin got to her feet. "Okay. Sounds like you're busy, so I'll get gone, too. Let me know when you're heading to the Nichols', okay?"
"First thing tomorrow," said Ray, biting down his impatience. "Tomorrow we go to the site, talk to Nichols, follow up the injunction." He shifted nervously at the thought of leaving it so long. Nichols had been rushing the development, and if Ben ever changed his mind about being dead, he'd need the site to be intact. Not that Ben ever changed his mind about anything, but Ray needed to know that he could.
"All right, then." Robert nodded and ushered Karin out of his office and down the hall, thanking her again for the information about the carving. Ray heard the front door thunk shut and thought Robert had left too, hurrying off to market, but no, he poked his head back through the door. "By the way, did you find Benton?"
"Uh, yeah." Ray looked at the paperweight on Fraser's desk. It was a globe. Inside it, a family of Eskimos were clustered around an igloo, and when Ray shook it, flurries of fake snow collected on their heads and clothes. "I mean, uh, no. I didn't find him."
"Not to worry," Robert said, clapping Ray on the shoulder and heading for the door again. "I'm sure I can work out these requisition thingies on my own."
Ray shoved his hands in his pockets and followed him out into the gloomy hallway. "Okay, well, I'm just going to—Hey, listen, have you got everything you need? You okay? Like, maybe you need some food?"
"I'm all right, son. The refrigerator here's always full of tasty treats, even if they are shop-bought, and I picked up a packet of pop-tarts and some hundred-year-old eggs on the way back from the embalmers."
"Oookay." Sounded gross, but whatever floated the guy's boat. Maybe once you'd been dead a while, you liked weird shit like that. Ray pulled open the heavy Consulate door and started down the steps, then turned back suddenly. "You know that, like, old eggs, they get that salmon thing?"
Robert tilted his head, looking exactly like Fraser. "You mean salmonella?"
"Yeah, that's what I said. Salmonella. Makes you barf." Ray was already backing away down to the street.
"I'll be all right, son. Don't worry about me. I've got a cast iron stomach and shoes to match." Robert grinned, looking happier than Ben ever looked. Happier than—how would Ben put it?—than a woodchuck in a snowdrift. Or something stupid like that. Yeah.
Ray got home with a headache, a subdued wolf, a bottle of juice and a takeout salad. He hoped that maybe some healthy food would make him feel better, help him bounce back. I survived The Divorce, I can survive this, he told himself. But after a couple of bland mouthfuls he pushed the salad aside, too tired to make himself finish it. Dief treated it with the scorn it deserved, too.
"Yeah, I know," Ray told him, giving him a dinner plate of dog kibble and a dessert bowl of water instead. "It sucks." He sighed deeply, and slumped against the wall, knocking the dartboard off its hook and sending it clattering to the floor. "What can you do?"
Dief ignored the kibble. He flicked his ears back and forward, and whined.
"Don't!" Ray slid down the wall till they were nose to muzzle. "It sucks," he repeated, closing his eyes, and when the wolf stopped protesting and licked Ray's face instead, Ray didn't push him away. He sunk his fingers into Dief's thick neck fur and pulled him into a weird human-canine hug. "Yeah, you and me both, boy," he said into Dief's shoulder, not caring that the wolf was deaf. "You and me both."
They stayed like that a really long time, until Ray's back hurt enough to drive him to his feet.
He was too wrecked from the night before to even think about getting hammered, however much he wanted to, so he put Lhasa on the stereo, gave the wolf a blanket—"Goodnight, boy. Uh, if you want anything, just, I dunno, help yourself, I guess"—and went to bed, even though it was only six-thirty.
The bed was uncomfortable. It dug into Ray's back and pressed against his ankles, driving him further and further awake, no matter how tired he was. The CD ended, and then Ray listened to the sounds of his neighborhood winding down for the night. Car alarms and shouting. He kept thinking about the first time he'd met Fraser, how Fraser had been so determined to find out the truth. He wouldn't just play along—stupid stubborn Mountie. He'd insisted Ray spill the beans and then, when Ray had broken the rules and protocol and everything, Fraser had been too distracted climbing all over the Riv to listen. Their timing had always been off, right from day one.
Ray thumped his pillow and turned onto his back. Times had changed. Now Fraser didn't want the truth. Maybe his anger toward his dad was the one thing he'd been fighting all this time.
By eight-thirty, Ray had concluded that this was the way it was: Fraser didn't love Ray. If he did, he would've found a way. He would've chosen for them to be together. So, going by the evidence, Ray was on his own here, in more ways than one. Deaf half-wolves excepted.
He got out of bed, grabbed a pillow and a blanket, and padded into the living room. Dief was curled up in the middle of the couch, eyes open. "Move over," said Ray, shoving him down to one end. Dief grumbled, but did what he was told, and Ray propped his pillow on Dief's hindquarters and lay down. There wasn't room to stretch out, so he kicked the coffee table sideways, and put his feet up, tossing the blanket over them. Finally, in a cloud of secondhand wolf breath, he dozed off.
Fraser awoke to the whoosh of a sled coming to a halt beside him, the stamping and whuffling of a dog team, which reminded him achingly of Dief—and how could he have left his friend without saying goodbye?—and the light jingle of small bells on a harness. He rubbed his face with icicle fingers, breathing hotly into the palm of his hand to melt his crystallized eyelashes so he could open his eyes.
His vision hadn't yet cleared when a voice nearby said, "Yes, I see him. Stop pushing." It was a woman's voice, lightly exasperated, teasingly familiar.
He shook his head and tried to scramble to his feet, but fell, his joints stiff and frozen.
"Bob? Can you hear me?" She sounded briefly surprised and pleased, before the exasperation crept back in. "For crying out loud. How long have you been out here?" the woman asked. "You look like hell." She took his arm and pulled him upright so he was sitting out on the open snow, a smooth white blanket stretching to the edges of his blurred vision.
"Not Robert," he rasped. Now he could see, he recognized her smooth brown hair and wide eyes from the photograph. She raised an eyebrow in query, and he shook his head again, this time in shock. "Mum?"
She frowned, the corners of her eyes wrinkling, aging her so that she looked about the same age as Fraser. "Ben?" she said in disbelief. She squinted. "Benton! What are you doing here?"
He couldn't answer. She waited a moment, then held out a gloved hand. "Let's get you somewhere warm."
With evident difficulty and some mild cursing, Caroline Fraser helped her son onto the sled, tucked a thick blanket around him, and drove over snowy fields, along a rough jutted lane through dark woods, and out to the edge of a lake where a log cabin overlooked a bay. The journey took perhaps an hour, and Ben spent the entire time listening to the team panting, and trying to stop his eyes watering from the cold.
"Go inside and get warm," Caroline said when they pulled up at the door. "I'll see to the dogs."
Fraser protested, but she cut him off. "Inside!" she ordered.
Her voice rang in his ears, faint chimes of memory. He obeyed. Crossing the cabin's threshold was like coming home. He ran his hand along the interior wall, feeling the knots and grooves in the wood, and looked around at the bright cushions, embroidered with various Canadian flora. A shelf of detective novels hung above the kitchen counter. The place smelled of fresh-baked cookies, as though this were an idealized dream. Fraser shook and rubbed his hands until they were once more articulate, and then turned up the lamp and stoked the fire, before setting the kettle to boil.
While the water heated, he turned to the far wall of the room where two framed photographs hung. One was a wedding photo: his mother and father standing side-by-side holding hands. They were both smiling, their faces illuminated by sunlight and happiness, but the angle of Caroline's neck suggested a recalcitrance that Fraser had never associated with his mother. He turned his attention to the second picture: a snapshot of Caroline a few years later, holding a baby boy bundled in a large Fair Isle sweater upon her knee. This image was unexpectedly familiar, as though the photo had been tucked away in the back of his mind all these years. The sight of it here in his mother's home made the base of his throat ache.
He spun around as Caroline bustled in. "I—ah, I put the kettle on," he said, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.
"Good," said Caroline. "Now take off those wet clothes. I'll find you something to change into."
Undressing in front of a parent he hadn't seen in thirty years—even if he wasn't wearing his own body—required all of Fraser's hard-won stoicism, but Caroline paid him no mind. She produced a large pair of striped Indian cotton trousers and an over-sized pink t-shirt with long sleeves, and then she handed him a pair of fluffy white socks which turned out to be rather on the small side, and shooed him into a chair while she made tea and produced a tin of cookies from the cupboard.
At intervals, while all of this activity took place, Fraser glanced over at his mother, wondering how they would speak to each other, what they'd say once they were finally at rest. Sometimes when he looked, he caught her watching him with a grave expression.
She poured milk into their tea, offered him sugar, which he refused, and then sat down with a sigh. "Ben." She shook her head, a lock of hair escaping from its tie. "What happened?"
He opened his mouth to answer, but changed his mind, not sure whether she'd understand. Instead he asked, "How did you find me?"
"Ursula said someone was caught in the drifts." Caroline tucked the loose hair behind her ear and rubbed her temple, her eyes steady on his face. "She didn't say it was my son."
"Ursula?" Fraser asked.
"My guide. She's a polar bear. I believe you met?"
He nodded, thinking of the dark nose sniffing him out, and changed the subject again. "How long have you lived here?"
"Oh, ever since. You know? It's damned cold, of course, but you acclimatize, and Ursula grumbles if there isn't snow." Caroline shook her head wryly. "You probably won't believe me, but she's the best companion I've ever had, present company excepted."
Fraser thought of Diefenbaker, and nodded. "I have a wolf."
"Well, that's wonderful, Ben. Now, why are you here? And in your father's body of all things?" She took a bite of cookie and passed him the tin. "Don't tell me any fibs, young man. A mother knows."
"You, ah, you know about dad?" Which was a foolish question. She'd been exasperated but unsurprised when she'd found him. Fraser broke off a corner of cookie and dunked it in his tea.
She nodded and gestured with a strong slim hand. "I visit him now and then. He can't see me, of course—thinks I'm a rat or something—but really, it doesn't make a vast amount of difference. He's always been preoccupied, you know."
Fraser frowned, confused. "Surely if you're both here, he should be able to—"
"Well, there's dead and there's dead. You know Bob. He never was one to take things lying down." She tapped the side of her nose with her forefinger. "We'll get there one day, you can count on it."
He smiled at her, feeling suddenly at ease, and proceeded to tell her, briefly, the story of the soul exchange. "Dad seems happy with the situation, but my partner, Ray, hasn't taken it very well. Understandable, I suppose, especially when one isn't used to being haunted."
"Well, there are worse things." Caroline chewed her lip, thoughtfully, and poured another cup of tea.
"He has my wolf," Fraser said, feeling slightly defensive. "I'm sure they'll keep each other company."
"Oh, Ben." His mother looked grave, and leaned forward to pat his hand. "So, all right, you decided to let Bob have his day in the sun. I'm sure your intentions were good, but no, you can't arrange things like this. That's not how it works. Besides, he's no doubt driving your partner to distraction. You know, I nearly burned the kitchen down once because Bob insisted on telling me the correct method for working the pressure cooker." She sighed and made a face. "He'd been gone for three months! What did he think we'd been eating all that time?! And then, of course, I had to do it differently to spite him, and—well, the insurance covered it, but Bob was intolerable after that. In the end I sent him away, you know. I suppose he's told you. 'You can visit,' I said. 'But only two weeks at a time.'" She smiled ruefully. "It was that or take a shotgun to him in his sleep. And we did all right, you and me."
"I didn't know," said Fraser, taken aback by this version of events. "I always presumed—"
"What? That he chose to leave?" She inclined her head. "Well, I like to think it was a mutual decision, eh. Neither of us were much for company, in the end, though the visits were enjoyable, most times. Thank God we weren't squashed together in a city, is all I can say, in some cramped apartment, at each other's throats night and day. At least in the Territories there was room to breathe."
"Yes, indeed." Fraser tried to assimilate this new information, his history rewriting itself as he watched. He got up and walked over to a fish tank, looking at the Siamese fighting fish darting among the weeds. "It wasn't me?" he blurted out, knowing that such fears were childish, but needing to be certain.
His mother looked shocked. "Oh, baby. Not at all! We both loved you to pieces, always have. Surely you knew that?" She came over and took him in her arms—a young woman giving comfort to an old man. It must have made a misleading picture, he thought, even as her embrace soothed him.
He leaned his cheek on her head. "I missed you," he admitted. "I blamed dad." As he uttered the words, he realized how true they were. His father, the legend, working day and night to defend the dominion of Canada from wrongdoers, had failed to protect his own family.
"Well, you can stop right now," she said, matter-of-factly, patting his back before she pulled away from him and returned to her tea. "None of it was his fault. None of it. You have to cut him some slack, Ben. He is who he is, as are we all. Of course, try telling Ursula that." Caroline rubbed her eyebrow. "She's a little territorial, I'm afraid."
"Mum, please, I—This whole state of affairs started as an accident," he said, the words spilling out. "But I can't help feeling that perhaps it's the right thing. Dad—"
"No! Absolutely not! Not while there's breath left in my body. Metaphorically speaking, of course." She flashed him a quick smile, then grew stern. "Ben, you have a good many years ahead of you yet, and you're not throwing them away on your father. I know you think it's your duty or some other damned fool thing—you wouldn't be a Fraser if you didn't—but I won't let you. And I'll tell you another thing, you're going to take those years and make something of them. I'm not too dead for grandchildren, you know."
Fraser looked at her reproachfully, and she nodded briskly, but there was a twinkle in her eye. He felt his lips curve in response. "You never, ah, you don't visit Chicago?"
She shook her head. "I can't. I've been dead too long. The world's well out of my reach now. It faded fast. Besides, it takes a certain knack, a sort of obliviousness—if you'll pardon the expression—to the fact of one's death."
"Dad's always saying he's dead," objected Fraser.
"Well, but I don't think it's really sunk in," Caroline said dryly. "Drink up. I'm taking you back."
"But." Fraser tightened his hands on his teacup.
"The longer you're here, the harder it is to return. You have to go back, Ben." She tossed him another cookie before she put away the tin. "You don't belong here. Not yet."
Fraser looked down at the leaves in his teacup, telling his fortune. So all right then. He couldn't stay here, even though it was the first place, barring Ray's apartment, that had felt like a refuge in a long time. But whatever his mother said, Fraser knew his duty.
To swap back would make a murderer of him—a crime of patricide, no less—and now that his mother had proposed it, it would also make her an accessory. The thought was untenable. However much he wanted to, he could not.
Bang, bang, BANG!
Ray snuffled sleepily into Dief's fur, and then sat bolt upright. Someone was banging on his door. "Fraser?" he said, and then remembered that it wouldn't be—couldn't be Fraser. He slumped against Dief for a moment, and then hauled himself to his feet and went to investigate.
It was Robert. "Ah, you're awake. Good. Let's go."
Ray leaned against the doorjamb and rubbed his face. "What time is it?" He checked his watch without waiting for a reply. Just before ten. "What are you doing here? Where are we going?" If it'd been Ben, he would have been out the door already, but with Robert who knew what the big emergency was. Could be anything. Could be something to do with moose.
"The construction site, son." Robert pushed past Ray into the apartment.
Ray stayed where he was, gazing blearily at the whitewashed wall across the hallway. Maybe if he pretended Robert hadn't come inside, he'd go outside again, and leave.
"I would have been here sooner," continued Robert behind him, disproving that theory, "but it's much harder to find fresh watercress than I'd anticipated. No doubt that's one of the disadvantages of living in a metropolis. Anyway, I had a phone call from that Kowalski woman—the blonde one. She said she was having drinks with David Pearson—"
Ray swiveled so his back was flat to the wall. Robert was picking Ray's jacket up off the chair where it was slung. "No way. She hates Pearson. She says he's a stuck-up two-faced rat. Why the hell was she drinking with him?" The jealousy was automatic and brief. "Never mind, never mind. What did she say?"
"Well, earlier today I asked her about possible classifications for the site, and I mentioned the Nichols brothers, and she said she was having drinks with Pearson, and they were talking about drug dealers when—"
Ray circled his hands in the air to move things along. He was stoned from sleepiness and he desperately wanted to lie down again and close his eyes.
"—he said that Ryan Nichols was released on parole this afternoon." Robert shoved the jacket in Ray's face.
Ray let his eyelids droop. "So?"
"So we need to go to the site." Robert gave up on trying to get Ray to take the jacket, and hooked it over his own arm. "Where will I find your firearm?"
"Listen, just 'cause the brother's out, doesn't mean anything about the development. Get out of here. I have an important appointment with the Ambassador of Paraguay and a deaf half-wolf."
Robert ignored him and collected his holster from the floor by the telephone. He checked the gun was loaded.
Ray shook his head to wake up, and snatched the gun off him. Then he growled, and went to the bathroom.
When he came back, Robert was on the phone. "What about the watering hole? I see. Well, tell him that the EPA has applied for an injunction stopping further construction until a formal investigation is conducted. I'm also trying to get a classification on—"
Ray stalked over, plucked the phone out of Robert's hand, and hung up. "What the hell are you doing?" he demanded.
"Nichols is working the site," said Robert, urgently. "There's just the swimming pool to go."
"The swimming pool." Ray slumped. "That's where you switched, right?"
"Exactly." Robert walked through the still-open door. "We'd best hurry if we want to find Notawkah Manitou in one piece."
Ray woke Dief and found his glasses and his keys, and caught up with Robert by the front entrance of the building. "We'll never get there in time."
Robert smiled grimly. "It's all right, son. I have a plan."
"This is your plan?" Ray was wide awake now, simmering with anger and nerves. "This is the stupidest fucking plan I've ever—"
"She's very reliable," said Karin, flicking off the fuel pump and securing the cap on the tiny airplane's gas tank.
"No," said Ray. "No, no, no! It's dark, and I don't know how to drive this thing."
"I do," said Robert. "Come on. It's the only way we'll get there before Nichols digs out the pool."
Dief barked and jumped into the body of the plane, curling up on the back seat to demonstrate how cozy and safe it was.
"Traitor," snarled Ray.
"Better come and check the charts, Benton," said Karin. "Find somewhere to land."
Ray watched the two of them head into the office at the far end of the hangar, and went outside to talk to his car, his real car with the wheels and the gravity.
Ben was leaning against the passenger side, watching planes take off on the light-studded runway. He was back in the Mountie outfit.
Ray blinked, wondering if maybe he was hallucinating now. He was pretty sure he hadn't taken any drugs, so chances were good this was for real. God it was good to see him, droopy old face and all. Some of the tightness in Ray's chest eased, and his heart started pounding with hope and confusion, making him dizzy. The things he'd said at the station—
Dief darted out of the hangar, his legs a blur, and raced up to Ben. He danced around a little, then sat, staring up at Ben, letting out little indignant barks.
"Good evening," Ben said to him gravely. "Yes, I know. I owe you an apology."
Dief whined and jumped up to paw Ben's shoulder, his feet slipping through the red serge. Ray winced at the scrape of wolf claws on black paint, but figured the GTO needed some work anyway. A couple more scratches wouldn't make much difference at this stage.
"Well, I would," Fraser was saying to Dief, "but I'm not certain they have donuts in the afterworld. I'll make enquiries."
That didn't sound too promising. Ray leaned against the car next to Fraser and stared blindly at the blinking taillights in front of him. "Hey," he said, trying to keep cool. "You're back."
Ben shot him a small smile, and Ray breathed again. Okay, good. They were good. That was something. "So, did you, uh, change your mind?"
Ben shook his head and raised his hands to stop Ray saying anything else. He launched straight into what sounded like a prepared speech. "I've been talking to my mother, Ray, and well, to be honest, it's been highly revelatory. Do you know the story of the lemming who wished he was a tern?"
"A turn of what?" said Ray, stupidly.
"A tern with an e. It's a seabird. You see, the lemming had grown rather too big for his boots—metaphorically, you understand; I'm fairly certain that lemmings don't actually wear boots—and had decided that lemmings were a distinctly inferior species."
"So he made some wings out of leaves and he tried to fly. Of course, it was a complete disaster: the musculature was all wrong, and frankly mammals just don't have the necessary lung capacity. The lemming's father found the lemming lying bruised at the bottom of a cliff, with tattered leaves stuck to his forelegs, and do you know what he said? He said, 'You'll never be a first class tern, my boy, but if you focus on your strengths, you have the makings of a very fine lemming.'"
"Fraser," said Ray, utterly lost, "what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that unless I stop struggling not to turn into my father, I'm never going to be free to be myself." Fraser turned so he was facing the car, his elbows resting on the roof. He looked thoughtful for a minute, then he licked his lip and looked away. "I know you asked me not to haunt you, Ray, but I've been thinking," he said, earnestly. "I want to make a place for myself in the world. I need—I don't want to be alone."
"But you're still—"
Ray turned to face him, his side resting against the passenger door, and Fraser mirrored the action and looked him in the eye, his cheeks slightly flushed, his tone less assured now that he was talking about people instead of animals. "I'm convinced that if I exert myself, we can seem to have substance to each other."
"We can touch." He reached out, his face focused and intent, and stroked Ray's upper arm. There was a whisper of pressure through Ray's jacket and shirt, and he felt a faint zing shoot from the contact through to his whole body.
"Uh," said Ray. "Yeah. Sort of."
Ben nodded, encouraged. "I'm certain that with practice—" He trailed off and scratched at his eyebrow in a gesture so typically Fraser-y that Ray was mesmerized. "I'd like you to consider the possibility of—"
"What?" Ray met his gaze. "A partnership?"
Ben nodded. "In a manner of speaking. I was thinking more along the lines of a relationship."
Ray bit his lip. "What kind of a relationship are we talking, here?" he asked carefully.
The sky was dark and clear. There were even some stars, scattered beyond the city light haze.
"A personal relationship, Ray. A, ah, duet." Ben's hand was back on his arm, resting there like a phantom bird. Ray squeezed his eyes shut for a second, and tried to think.
"A duet. You mean like making beautiful music together?" he said, when he'd found his voice.
"Yes, Ray." Ben sounded hopeful. "Making—music."
Ray was pretty sure that wasn't what he'd been going to say. He swallowed. "And you'd still be dead? You'd still be this guy you are here?"
Ben nodded. "Yes. Ordinarily I wouldn't consider it ethical to co-opt someone else's body for, ah—" Even in the dim light, Ray could tell his face had gone pink, but he soldiered on and said it. "—physical relations, but given the circumstances are of a permanent nature, it seems only fair to—"
"Yeah," said Ray, not sure what to think. Not sure what he felt about this, the idea of getting naked with Ben's dad's body. The idea of dating a ghost. Hard to say which was freakier. "I gotta think about it."
Ben went quiet, so Ray looked over. "What?"
"What happened to 'I'll take what I can get'?" Ben sounded weirdly upset. Ray frowned.
"Yeah, well, what happened to 'you don't know what you're asking'? Right now I got to put my life in your dad's crazy hands and go save some dead guy from the bulldozers of doom. You want to come?"
"Very well." Ben glanced at him, then down at the ground, looking thoughtful.
"Hey." Ray reached over and let his fingers hover in the warm tingly air near Ben's arm, trying to reconnect. "I said I'd think about it."
Ben gave him a small sad smile. "Thank you kindly, Ray."
"Yeah, well. First we got to rescue this grave, which, if you ever change your mind, is the only way for you to change back to being you."
"I'm still me, Ray. This is who I am now."
Ray shook his head. "You know what I mean."
Robert was too busy getting instructions from Karin to notice Ben climbing into the back of the plane with Dief, which was probably just as well. If Robert started talking to thin air, Karin might change her mind about lending them her plane.
"Okay," said Ray, to the two with the map. "Here's the deal. I will risk my life and limb flying in this crazy contraption with you, but only once. I figure we'll have beginners' luck or something. So what I need you to do," he said, taking Karin's hand and staring fiercely at her, to make sure she fully understood the importance of this, "is to drive my car out to the site. We'll meet you there, you can fly back. Okay?"
Karin went to the hangar door. "Your car the black GTO?" she said, a smile creasing her face.
"Yeah, that's the one. You treat her good, okay? She's an only child."
"I can do that." Karin nodded confidently.
Ray gripped the keys for a moment, then forced himself to give them to her. It was playing with fire, but it was for the greater good, after all.
"Okay," said Ray, before he could chicken out. "Let's get this show off the road." He and Robert climbed into the cockpit, and Robert handed Ray the map, and started the plane.
"You sure you know what you're doing?" asked Ray as they taxied up the runway, the wind gusting and pushing them over the string of lights.
Robert corrected their path. "Relax, son. I've seen it done a thousand times."
Ray felt Ben's ghostly hand brush the back of his neck—either for reassurance or restraint— making the hairs there bristle, and then they were juddering into the air.
"Throttle, dad," murmured Ben helpfully.
Robert glanced over his shoulder, curving their flight path in the process. "Hello, son. How've you been?" He didn't wait for an answer, but he did at least adjust the throttle.
Ray twisted his hands together in his lap, and thanked god Ben was here. If Ray was going to die in a freak light aircraft accident, he wanted a witness.
The flight took forever, and Ray's knuckles were white the whole way, so tense that his fingers cramped up.
He wished he had a stereo. What he really needed now was some Joan Jett, good and loud to drown out his nerves and Robert's anecdotes. That way, when Ben took an unnatural interest in his dad's stories of the Yukon in the sixties—asking questions and everything, which to Ray's mind was just encouraging the guy—Ray could have tuned out and just nodded and smiled now and then. Instead they were floating like a fucking tin can, cruising at a hundred and fifty miles per hour, with no distractions from the plane's weird vibrations.
Finally Ray, desperate for something to think about other than crashing and burning, turned to Robert and said, "So, Robert dad of Fraser. Tell me about Ben. What was he like as a kid?"
Robert broke off a story about arresting an infamous bird smuggler called Chet Wildman. "Ben?" he said. "He was always a strange boy. He liked to talk to things: animals, trees, his dolls."
"I'm right here," said Ben from the back. "I can hear you."
"Very intelligent, of course," continued Robert, ignoring him. "Scared the pants off the local Pastor once during a theological discussion when he disproved the existence of hell using the Heisenberg principle and a sextant."
"The higher bird principle. What's that?" said Ray, trying to follow this.
"Well, Ray," said Ben from the back seat. "Werner Heisenberg was a German physicist who discovered something called the Uncertainty Principle, which states that determining the position and—"
"Never mind, never mind. Tell me later." Ray waved his hand at Robert to continue. "Was he happy?"
"Heisenberg?" asked Robert.
"No." Jeez. Talking to these guys was like wading through treacle sometimes. "Fraser. Ben. Was Ben happy?"
"Ray," said Ben, with a warning bell in his voice.
Robert ploughed on. "Of course he was. What child wouldn't be happy with the entire Northern Territories to explore?"
"Me, for one," said Ray. "I'm a city kid, through and through."
"Naturally, after his mother died there was a period of adjustment," Robert continued. "But we got there in the end, eh son?"
"Here, there and everywhere," said Ben, calmly, a small smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "Yes, we did."
The site was ablaze with floodlights, the glare bouncing off machinery and hard hats as workmen lugged stuff around, dug trenches and mixed concrete. A crane hauled down the last of the trees at the swimming pool site. Most of them had already been felled and towed aside, and the earth was bare and scarred. Bulldozers waiting to start digging. Ray figured they had ten minutes, tops, to get down there before it was too late. Machinery boomed so loud that the soles of Ray's feet itched. The perimeter was dotted with security guards.
Maybe because of the deafening noise levels, none of the little figures on the ground seemed to react to the aircraft over their heads.
Robert circled the plane around at a sickening angle, over-corrected when Ray yelled, and then straightened up and turned north for landing. As Karin had suggested, they touched down on the green of Lenny's Family Restaurant and All-Night Golf Course half a mile from the site. Drunken holidaying couples and white-haired retirees screamed as they staggered and stumbled out of the way.
"Sorry," said Ben. "We're terribly sorry." But, of course, they couldn't hear him.
Ray was in too much of a hurry to apologize. "Chicago PD," he said, flashing his badge, and requisitioning a golf cart.
Robert stopped only briefly to correct someone's grip. "If it were me, I'd use a nine iron here," he pointed out.
"Come on," yelled Ray.
Dief threw up on the fifth hole—Ray guessed he wasn't too keen on flying either—then sniffed the cart scornfully and bolted off on foot, cross-country, disappearing into the night in seconds. The rest of them rumbled along the dark country road as fast as their little red cart could carry them.
Five minutes later, Ray pulled over, swearing.
"What's the matter?" said Robert. "We're nearly there."
The construction site looked like a rock concert, lighting up the sky. The ground shook from the bulldozers and diggers. The air was full of grit.
"Faster to run." They piled off the cart and hurtled up the road. When they reached the foot of the slope up to the site, Ray looked around, gasping. Ben wasn't even short of breath. Robert had disappeared. "Where is he?"
Ben pointed toward the half dozen remaining trees. "I suspect he headed straight for the clearing."
"Did he see there are armed security guards everywhere? He's not even carrying a gun." Ray shook his head in frustration. "Does he know he's got no jurisdiction?"
"Oh, he knows in theory," said Ben, "but I don't think it's quite sunk in."
"Great, that's just great." Ray took off again, veering over the long grass toward the boundary line.
Ray's long black shadow striped the grass behind him. Fraser raced after him, overtaking him before they reached the edge of the site. The security guards were gone. Fraser peered through the bright lights, trying to see what was going on.
The graunch of machinery made him feel unstable, as though he would slip and dissolve at any second. He tensed all over to stay manifest. His father needed him. Ray needed him. He was concentrating so hard on not yielding, he almost missed the crack! of gunshot. "Ray!"
Ray had his cellphone to his ear. "I need back-up!" he shouted. He jammed his hand against his other ear to improve audibility. "Back! Up!"
"It came from the clearing," Fraser told him, and he lunged ahead, acutely aware of his lack of physiological reaction: there was no adrenaline, his blood wasn't pounding, his skin wasn't damp with sweat. He wasn't alive.
The ground was ripped and shredded carelessly, trees roughly flattened. Crack! Another gunshot, and then, at last, silence. For a split second, Fraser was relieved. He could hear himself think, at least. And then the implications hit him, and he scrambled to the steep drop, and kept going, forcing through space as fast as he could, acutely aware that the twigs and leaves and dirt around him were unaffected by the rush of his body as he passed.
He fell and came to rest face down on the floor of the clearing, then bounded to his feet. Behind him, fearful moans and the familiar growl of an angry wolf. Before him, a tense tableau, lit by the dazzling ethereal glow of the floodlights:
A deep gouge in the earth—the far end squared off. Nichols astride a digger, which had frozen, mid-chomp, half-way along the trench. Nichols pointing a gun.
Another man with similar features also held a gun. He stood on the lip of the trench, cocking it in a reciprocal gesture.
Equidistant between them stood Robert Fraser, a young man radiant in his RCMP reds. His arms were outstretched in a gesture of disarmament. "Now, men," he said, holding out his hand. "Give me your guns before someone gets hurt."
That's what I do, thought Fraser. No wonder it makes Ray so angry. From where Fraser was standing, the move seemed unjustifiably confident and intolerably dangerous. He stepped forward. "Dad, you don't want to do this."
Robert shot him a glare. "Generally speaking, you try to talk the criminals down, son, not the arresting officer."
"The criminals can't hear me. Just stop and think about what you're doing. You don't want to die. I can't let you die, dad." Fraser positioned himself between the second man and his father, even though he knew his presence would make no difference.
"I'm already dead, Ben. This is just a curtain call. Think of me as Barbara Streisand, performing one last charity concert."
Fraser grimaced. "Do I have to?"
Behind him a deep voice moaned, "Who's he talking to?"
"Me," said Ray, crashing down the bank in a rush of leaves and dirt.
Half a dozen security guards in matching blue uniforms, including their old friend Gunther, jerked nervously at his sudden arrival. They were huddled like a Greek chorus, muttering and backing away from the clearing. The ground around them was churning with huge fucking spiders, as big as Ray's hand, which were starting to swarm up the guards' legs. They were like devils' hands, shoving out of the dirt and grasping their legs, like they were trying to yank the guards down into hell. Ray shuddered.
Out of nowhere, a bird exploded from the undergrowth and darted at their heads. A tall skinny guard screamed.
"Chicago PD," said Ray to them, climbing to his feet and trying to stay cool. The spiders left him alone, thank god. "Get outta here. I'll take care of this."
Guards turned and bolted, stumbling over sacks of concrete and stacks of wood, scattering spiders behind them as they fled.
Ray yanked his gun out of its holster and whirled around to see what was happening with the Frasers and the Nicholses.
The man, who must be Nichols' brother, thrust his gun into the side of Robert's neck, snapping his jaw up, and wrenched him roughly off-balance. "No cops!" he shouted. "Rex, look how fucked-up you've done it."
"Fuck you, Ryan," yelled his brother. "You weren't around. You already fucked up the property anyway. We were gonna have to get rid of it."
"I had plans. I was gonna clean up." Robert grasped at Ryan's arm, apparently trying to drag his wrist down away from his throat. Ryan shook him violently. "Was gonna start one of those anger management centers, you asshole. Now what're we gonna do?"
"I imagine once your parole officer hears about this, you'll be going back to jail," wheezed Robert. He slumped back against his captor and caught Fraser's eye. "Arrest this man on charges of conspiracy to—"
Fraser tried to pry away the weapon digging into his father's throat, to no effect. His hands slipped right through as though the gun didn't exist. "You're forgetting that not only do I have no jurisdiction in this country, but I'm also a ghost."
"Dead or not, I never let that stop me. Why, only last year I was hard on the trail of—"
"Are you trying to get yourself killed?" Fraser said, exasperated.
"Not until after the arrest," said Robert. "This is my last case. I always meant to retire at sixty."
"Shut up," bellowed Ryan Nichols. "Who the fuck're you talking to?"
"He's talking to a ghost," Ray told him, bracing his gun with both arms and training it on the glimpses of Ryan that stuck out from behind Robert. "Haven't you heard this place is haunted?"
"Bullshit," said Rex. "It's being vandalized by fucking activists, that's all. Trying to spook me." He shook his fist angrily, pounding the air. "Get outta here or I'll shoot the lot of you. Line you up at the bottom of the pool and bury you in concrete. I got a contract to fulfill and I'm running out of time." He swung his gun wildly toward Ray.
Ray hit the ground with a grunt, and rolled to cover behind a tree. A second later, Ben flopped down beside him.
"Jeez, get back here, get back here. The guy's got a gun." Ray gestured frantically, and scooted over so there was room for them both.
"It's all right," said Ben breathlessly. "He can't hurt me, Ray. He can't even see me."
Ray shut his eyes. It was true. He dragged himself up so he was sitting with his back against the tree trunk, and rubbed his sweaty hands down his thighs, and said, quickly, softly, "I know you already decided, but if I don't ask, it's gonna be one of those things I regret my whole life."
Ben flinched and shook his grizzled head. "I'm sorry. I can't do that to him."
"Yeah, well, I had to try." Ray sat there and let sadness settle into his bones, just for a second, then twisted around to see what was going on. Back to business.
Fraser took a split second to relax into the closeness with Ray, then snapped his attention back to the scene before him, just as Rex Nichols' bulldozer roared to life and began to clank and grind deeper into the trench, the bucket lowered to scratch at the earth.
"Drop your fucking weapons!" yelled Ray beside him, over the snarl of the engine.
Ryan Nichols still had Fraser's father clamped to him, with the gun barrel bruising his throat. From Robert's posture, Fraser knew he was alert, awaiting his chance. Perhaps a distraction would help. "Ray! The bulldozer!" he shouted, hoping to solve two problems with one stone. Thankfully, Ray understood at once, and fired.
The bullet pinged into the controls, diverting the bulldozer from its course, so that it thumped toward Fraser, lurching into the side of the trench, gouging away a clump of turf and showering the surrounds with dirt and debris, before Rex could correct it.
At the same time, Diefenbaker growled and darted across the clearing.
Robert took his chance. He elbowed his captor smartly, walloped him in the solar plexus, and whacked his hand down, knocking the gun loose against his knee until it fell to the ground. Then he wrenched Ryan Nichols' arm behind his back and shoved him to the ground.
"I arrest you in the name of Canada and the Queen—" he said.
Fraser sighed with relief, and was about to go over and lend assistance when a deep crotchety voice spoke. "Morning." The word came from every direction.
The other sounds—the bulldozer, shouts and machinery—all faded, leaving only the serene hum of night insects, the soft rustling of wind in the trees.
Fraser turned three-sixty, feeling time drag to a halt. In his peripheral vision, he was vaguely aware of Dief barking angrily at the bulldozer, his father arresting Ryan Nichols, Ray shouting at Rex Nichols and brandishing his gun. But Fraser was overcome with the conviction that now, for these moments, he himself was but a ghost, and the real world could attend to its own concerns.
An old man with dark wrinkled skin sat cross-legged on the ground near the trench. He was puffing away at a long pipe. One of his hands was a skeleton, bare bones.
"Good morning," said Fraser politely. "Although, actually, it's evening. It's bright because of the floodlights."
The man bowed his head briefly, then squinted at Fraser with gruff amusement. "Time is like the wind. It comes and goes." He sucked on his pipe.
Fraser sat down across from him, on the edge of the trench. When he glanced down, he saw a skeletal hand protruding from low on the side of the trench, where the earth had been gouged away. As earth crumbled away and the wrist bones were exposed, the flesh from the man's arm vanished, too. Apparently the man's ghostly form was dependent on the integrity of his buried body.
"I try to rest for eternity." The old man sighed. "It's hard to sleep with all that machinery hammering away."
Fraser focused and could feel the vibrations of the digger, muffled and softened as though through a mattress, but intrusive nonetheless. "I imagine it would be." He glanced up. "You're a relative of these men?"
The old man snorted. "Might as well not be. These boys have powder in their veins. They're exhuming me with a machine." He gestured with his pipe. "Your time is up, Constable Benton Fraser. You must return to the living."
Fraser shook his head, about to explain, but the man dematerialized, and the world rushed back. A shadow fell over Fraser and he instinctively rolled sideways, along the edge of the trench, just as his father staggered to a halt precisely where he'd been sitting.
Ryan Nichols lay on the ground a few feet away, his feet still raised from the attack on Robert Fraser.
A deafening crack rent the air. Fraser watched in horror as his father fell slowly onto his back. Shot. His hat rolled and came to rest a few feet away.
Fraser was down. Fraser was fucking shot. Dief had sprung for Rex Nichols' arm just a second too late. Rex had had time to squeeze off a couple of shots. Had hit Fraser. Hit him square in the center of his fucking chest.
"No!" yelled Ray, his heart in his mouth. He heard an echo behind him, a different voice, but he didn't care. He didn't care. He dove across the dirt, skidding to his knees and clutching Fraser's shoulders. "Don't die!" he said. "Fraser, don't you dare fucking die."
"A bit late for that, son," said Fraser, and shit, yeah, that's right. Son. This wasn't Fraser. Wasn't Ben. Ray had forgotten, had seen Fraser go down and thought This is it! Like he'd known would one day happen, because there were too many risks, too many chances for things to go wrong. This wasn't Ben, but, god, it might as well have been. And Robert—Robert was going to die again. Ben's stupid sacrifice was all for nothing.
There was no blood. Why wasn't there more blood? Did that mean a clean exit wound? Internal injuries? Ray couldn't remember, couldn't think. Robert was blinking at him. Ben's blue eyes. Dying.
Behind Ray, the other voice—Ben's old voice—said, "What do I do?"
"Pressure," said Ray, ripping off his jacket and bunching it into a pad, shoving it against the bullet hole. "We got to apply pressure to the wound. Take my cellphone. Call for help." He glanced over his shoulder. "No, they won't hear you. I'll call."
Dief had his teeth clamped around Rex Nichols' arm, and was sprawled across him growling furiously, while the gun lay smoking on the grass. Ben was crouched down, staring into the wolf's eyes. "What do I do?" he said again.
Ray's stomach buckled painfully. "No. No fucking way. Fraser!"
But Dief whined a reluctant answer, and Ben nodded "Thank you" and reached into his belt pouch. He pulled out three stripy feathers—of course, the feathers, the fucking feathers—and strode determinedly toward his dying father.
Ray sprang up and tried to tackle him, tried desperately to wrestle him to the ground, to kick his feet out from under him. What if Ben swapped back and he died died? What if Ben's body didn't know how to be a ghost? Ray didn't know how that shit worked, but he knew he couldn't let Ben vanish forever. Couldn't lose him again.
But Ray's arms swung right through. There was nothing to hold. Nothing. Just his determined face saying, "Ray, I have to."
Ray shook his head urgently. "No!" He dove forward and tried again, grabbing for Ben's wrists. "He's dying. I won't let you."
"It's my body." Ben ignored him, and Ray fell back, sprawled panting on the grass.
He watched with dread as Ben knelt to rummage through Robert's belt pouch, obviously using all his ghostly strength to pull out the carving.
His father's chest rose and fell. It wasn't too late. Fraser put the statue in his father's hand. "Give it to me," he said.
"Yes," said Robert, lying back and smiling as though nothing in the world were amiss. "I got him, Ben. It's time." He raised his hand above Fraser's ghostly one, and dropped the totem into Fraser's palm. Fraser closed his fingers around it, giving his father the woodpecker feathers at the same time.
The sensation of return was different—almost the inverse of the first exchange. Fraser expanded and solidified. He felt cool and heavy and translucent, like glass. He knelt back on his heels, feeling energy rushing into him. And then he was soaring through black space. He was lying on the ground, heart thumping, a deep ache in his chest.
He stared at the leaves silhouetted against the gray sky, and tried to think what to say to Ray. He'd apologized too many times in the last few days. He needed new words to express his regret. It had been the inevitable outcome, the only thing he could have done once Nichols' bullet had driven into his body: he had had to claim it, to be here for the end. But Ray wouldn't understand, would see it only as a betrayal.
"Ray," he said, breathless but remarkably lucid, considering he was in death's grip.
"Ben?" Ray came over and gripped his hand tightly. Fraser nodded and wished Ray would kiss him, but no, there were too many people here: the Nicholses and Dief and, no doubt, the ghost of Robert Fraser.
At that moment, his father stepped into view, his face barely visible in the shadow of his hat brim. "Well, Ben. What're you waiting for? Get up and arrest that man."
"What?" Fraser surprised himself by rising up on one elbow. "I'm dying."
"You're talking to your dad, right?" asked Ray.
"You can't see him?" Fraser sat up. He felt fine. He loosened his lanyard and began unbuttoning his tunic.
"No," said Ray. "Hey, what're you doing? You got to keep pressure on—"
"I'm wearing a vest, Ray." Fraser pulled aside the red serge to reveal a gray-green Kevlar vest. His heart sang with joy and throbbed with guilt, all at once. Life. Ray slumped back on his heels in relief.
"Well, of course," said Robert smugly. "Once bitten, twice prepared. Contrary to popular belief, I can learn from my mistakes. Last time I tried to stop a corrupt development, it killed me."
"Dad." Fraser pulled the vest off, and scrambled to his feet, wincing as his bruised muscles protested. He approached his father, whose chest was puffed out with pride. Behind him, Fraser could hear Ray half-heartedly shooing Diefenbaker off Nichols, and reading the man a threat-heavy cuss-ridden version of his rights.
"Well done, dad," said Fraser around the lump in his throat. He wanted to embrace his father, for the first time in years, or at least shake his hand, but it couldn't be done. He reached out and patted the air near Robert's shoulder instead, a low buzz up his fingers. "You got your man."
"A Mountie always does." Robert stood gazing serenely into the trench where the skeleton hand dangled out of the dirt. "We found Manitou's body, too."
"You realize I didn't mean to—" Fraser bowed his head, unable to look his father in the eye. He concentrated on refastening his tunic. "I'm sorry. You don't deserve this."
Robert nodded abruptly, and turned to survey the site. "We don't get what we deserve. That's not what we're here for." He straightened his hat and smiled. "Besides, it's far too early in the day for you to be toasting all your alligators."
Fraser raised his eyebrows and looked at him sideways, Caroline's voice echoing in his ears: He is who he is, as are we all. Never a truer word. Impossible to live with and a great man. A legend. "What the hell are you talking about?" Fraser asked mildly.
His father stopped, and looked bemused. "I've no idea, son."
"Well, good." Ben grinned at his dad. "I'm glad I'm not the only one."
"You did all right. When the time comes, I think you'll handle death just fine." Cough. "The uniform inspections are always a bit of a trial, though. Hard to find good Neat's Foot Oil."
Ray came up behind Fraser, manhandling Nichols with perhaps more force than was strictly called for. "Give me a hand?"
So Fraser took charge of Ryan Nichols, and the five of them headed through the site—now mostly finished—toward the parking lot, with Diefenbaker running ahead playfully.
"You want my advice?" Robert asked his son, when they'd nearly reached the lot.
"Yes," said Fraser, surprising himself. "Yes, I do."
"Get bigger trousers." Robert nodded positively. "Those ones pinch at the crotch."
Fraser suppressed a smile. "I like them snug."
"Yes, well, there's snug and there's vanity, if you know what I mean."
"Rarely, if ever." Fraser turned. "Dad?"
His father was nowhere in sight.
Ray looked back over his shoulder. "Gone, huh?" he said, presumably noticing Fraser's searching gaze. "I wouldn't worry if I was you. I got a feeling you can't keep a good Mountie down."
Fraser smiled, and strode faster to catch up. "That does indeed seem to be the case."
The police helicopters carrying their backup arrived ten minutes later, the GTO fifteen minutes after that. Ray cuffed the Nichols brothers to a couple of fake totem poles and passed the time smoking behind the site office—having filched some cigarettes from Ryan Nichols—and trying to get his shakes to go away. Fuck Heisenwhatsit. That had been hell: the gunshot and then the Mountie lying there with a hole in his heart. At that moment all the crazy goings-on of the last couple of days had evaporated from Ray's head, and all he could see was Fraser—his Fraser—dying.
So he had to keep his distance now, until they could be alone. He had to stay cool, get it together, because there was still work to be done, and once Ray touched Fraser again, he wasn't sure he could ever make himself let go.
He peeked around the prefab building and saw Fraser sitting on the lawn amongst the stupid fiberglass teepees, talking seriously to Dief.
Frase was okay. Ray could wait.
Finally, finally the others had gone, and Fraser and Ray were back in the Goat, just the two of them. They grinned at each other.
"You're okay," said Ray, just to be sure.
"Tip-top," said Fraser, happy as Larry. "The Nichols brothers are in custody. Karin Wandahsega's going to arrange to have Manitou's body relocated to a proper burial ground. And all construction will be halted until the EPA can determine the level of contamination on the site. Where's Diefenbaker?"
"He got a lift with Elaine. Something about a bet." Ray started the car and revved the engine. Two and a half hours back to the city, and he hadn't had coffee in forever.
"That wolf's speculative ventures are getting entirely out of hand." Fraser threw his hat in the back and leaned his elbow on the window ledge, letting his hand hang loosely.
"Your dad here?" It was weird to think that the ghost of Robert Fraser could be watching and Ray would never know.
Fraser scanned the back seat. "No, Ray. It's just you and me."
They drove in silence till they hit the highway. Companionable. Ray switched on the radio for a while, but it sort of made the car too crowded, so he pushed the off button. "Jesus," he burst out, out of nowhere. "When I saw you there." He shook his head, and then looked Fraser in the eye. "Tell me it's good to be alive."
Fraser smiled at him, something in his eyes making Ray shiver. "Absolutely. In fact, I was wondering whether you'd care to help me celebrate."
Ray turned back to the road, just in time to swerve around an abandoned golf cart. "Sure thing," he said. "What kind of celebration are we talking? Cake? Balloons? Those little party hats with the elastic?"
"Ray. Are you going to insist on making me say it?"
"Say what, Fraser?" Ray said, keeping his eyes on the road and his face solemn.
"You don't seem to be paying me your full attention, Ray."
"I can't give you my full attention," explained Ray reasonably. "I'm driving. Plus, if I give you my full attention I go crazy."
Fraser shook his head. "No, Ray. That's my father."
"No, Fraser. That's you." There was silence from the passenger seat. Ray glanced over. God, the Mountie was all but pouting, his full lips— "You distract me to pieces, Fraser. I have to distract myself from your distractingness to keep from dying."
Fraser tilted his head and raised his eyebrows, and Ray threw his hands in the air, and then grabbed the wheel again before they ran off the road. "You want me to crash into a ten car pile up in a ditch, and land us both in the hospital?"
"Even so." Fraser's lips twitched. "You pay more heed to your car than you do to me."
Which was when Ray twigged. "My car?" He grinned at Fraser. "That's what this is about? You're jealous of the Goat?"
There was a pause, while Fraser seemed to run this through his internal computer, and then he started to smile. "Apparently so, yes."
"Yeah, well, fair enough. I love her like no other." They passed a closed gas station and crossed a couple of intersections, and then they were on a straight empty piece of road. "Okay, you have my complete and undivided attention. What's up?"
"I was merely going to suggest we could celebrate by, ah, making some music."
Ray's stomach clenched hopefully, and he raised his eyebrows. "Oh you want to make music." He lifted one hand off the steering wheel and made air quotes. "A little razzmatazz, huh? A little rock'n'roll?"
"Precisely, Ray." And Fraser reached out and touched Ray's neck, running his fingers softly along the collar of Ray's sweatshirt until Ray thought he was going to maybe burst into flame. He caught Fraser's hand, kissed it hard—the skin warm and real and sweet against his lips—and gave it back to him.
"Yeah, see, this is why I don't pay attention to you. We got two more hours of driving back to Chicago, and now I don't even know if I can steer straight."
"Perhaps you should pull over—" Polite and serious. Yeah, like Fraser was all concerned for their safety or something.
"Fraser, we're in public," said Ray, pretending to be scandalized. "This is a state highway."
"You didn't let me finish. Perhaps if you were to pull over beneath those trees coming up on your left." They were reasonable words, maybe, but Fraser was starting to sound impatient.
Ray pretended to consider. "Gee, I dunno, Fraser. The Goat doesn't do off-road. She's gonna hate me."
"I guarantee I can make it worth your while."
Before Fraser had finished talking, Ray veered under the trees, dodging fallen branches and rocks—stupid low undercarriage—until they were well out of sight of the road.
"C'mere, c'mere." Ray killed the ignition and reached for Fraser. His hands lighted on Fraser's neck and shoulder, and pulled him close into a dizzying kiss, which only got better when Fraser's arms came up to hold him. They stretched to be together, twisting sideways, and Ray wanted to turn, to drape himself across the seat and all over Fraser's lap and body, but the steering wheel was in the way, and his own fucking legs were too long, and the whole car was stupidly not designed to give people access to each other's anatomy.
"I hate this car," he murmured into Fraser's mouth, and felt him smile.
Fraser kissed his way along Ray's jaw and sucked Ray's earlobe into his mouth. "Shhh. She'll hear you," he said, his voice sending heat down the column of Ray's throat and into the pit of his stomach.
"Oh jesus..." Ray buried his face in Fraser's neck, breathing in the smell of leaves and gunpowder, and a faint hint of wolf. "Hey!" He pushed Fraser away a couple of inches—not too far. "Did the wolf lick you here? Am I smelling wolf breath on you?"
Fraser laughed, the edges of his eyes crinkling. "Well, Ray, he is a wild animal. He has limited means to express his affection, and bestowing his saliva upon me is one of them."
"Yeah," Ray leaned his forehead against Fraser's. "I get that. Just so long as he hasn't got any, y'know, communicable diseases." He ran his hand up Fraser's thigh to his hip, tried to pull him further around. "Christ! This car is making me insane. Come in the back, Fraser. Will you get in the back seat with me?" His hands bunched the serge at Fraser's chest.
"It would be my very great pleasure." Fraser shucked off his tunic, unbelievably fast, like stop-motion Discovery Channel watch-the-orchid-open-in-ten-seconds fast, and hopped into the back using one of those magic Mountie moves that meant he didn't get tangled up and snagged and awkward. Just, one minute he was in the front, the next he was sitting in the back, in his white shirt thing with the suspenders, looking at Ray expectantly.
Ray parted his lips and scratched the side of his mouth, and tried not to drool. "Yeah, okay," he said, and he climbed and tumbled head first over the seat, sprawling and stupid and shimmying to get his knees over because they didn't really bend that way. It didn't matter, though, because Fraser was under him, was hauling him upright, pulling him around until Ray was straddling Fraser's lap, bent almost double over Fraser's body because the roof was low, but fuck it, in his arms at last, their bodies as pressed together as they could get. Ray held Fraser's head against his chest and breathed deep, feeling protective, and kissing the top of his head like he couldn't stop. The soft hair smelled sweet and dusty. And then Ray's hands slid lower and bingo jackpot fucking sweet Jesus. The soft white cotton was hot from Fraser's skin, and Ray was dying, he was dying here, needing this so much that even though it was happening it hurt.
"I believe you said something about rock and roll," Fraser managed to say, through his gasps, while Ray's fingers were groping his arms and chest, and the nape of his neck, and the edges of his back that weren't pushed up hard against the seat.
"Yeah," said Ray, trying to pull off his jacket and banging his head against the car roof. "Help me out here, would you?" Between them, they got it off, and the holster, and the rest of his layers, and Fraser was licking and sucking his shoulders and chest, and almost growling. "Anyway," panted Ray, as Fraser somehow got his head low enough to nibble on Ray's ticklish spot, just below his ribs. "I believe you guaranteed me some satisfaction."
Fraser raised his head and looked up at him, surprised. "This isn't enough for you?" His lips were swollen and his hair wild. "It is only our first date, Ray. I wouldn't want you to think I was easy."
Ray smacked the back of Fraser's head with the flat of his hand, and then held him and felt him breathe laughter against Ray's skin. "Asshole," Ray said into the top of Fraser's head.
"As you wish," said Fraser, and now the humor was gone, and there was need and seriousness and hunger. Fraser unbuckled the both of them, unbuttoned Ray and somehow—Ray didn't know how, didn't care—got his own pants open, got them down, and then Fraser's hands were all over him in a whole new way, one stroking him, one splayed at the base of his spine. Ray twisted wildly and hung on as the world fell away. There was nothing else, nothing, but the two of them, Fraser's hand on him, skillful and tight and urgent, bringing him closer until he was there, he was so there, he was right here, with Fraser's arm around him, curved over Fraser's body, trembling and sweating and oh god seeing fucking stars as he came.
"Whoa, Fraser." Ray pulled Fraser's head back so he could kiss him properly, mouth to mouth. "You definitely know how to rock." Their stubble rasped with a scritchy sound Ray found infinitely hot.
"You taste of cigarettes," Fraser said, out of nowhere, as his fingers mapped out Ray's lower back.
Ray ducked his head. "Oh yeah—That's just—" He waved a hand in the air, trying to wave away the subject, the inevitable lecture.
But Fraser nuzzled him and said, "I like it." And Ray just melted. He slid down as best he could—along the seat, into the foot space, whatever—and found Fraser's cock, hard and wet and waiting, and Ray gave it all of his careful, dedicated attention, channeled all his feelings and relief into the movements of his mouth and tongue, and his hands gripping Fraser's thighs, thumbs stroking his balls. This was Fraser, moving under him, moaning and saying Ray's name. This was Fraser and they were alive and okay and together now, thank Christ. He was thinking that, thank Christ thank Christ thank Christ, when Fraser buried his hands in Ray's hair and pushed up and came in Ray's mouth.
Ray waited a moment, savoring, then crawled up onto the seat so they were sitting side by side. He wanted to tangle their legs or something, plait their bodies together, but there was no room. Now even the backseat was too small. They kissed, breathless, until Ray said, "This is great, you know. Don't get me wrong. But I think you should know I haven't had any coffee since this morning."
To which Fraser, his lust apparently dealt with for the time being, smartass replied, "That's practically a national emergency, Ray. We'd best get back to town."
"Funny," said Ray, kissing him one more time for luck. "C'mon."
It took far longer to extract themselves from the back seat than it had taken to get there, but they made it, lined up semi-respectable in the front, Fraser amazingly tidy, all things considered.
Ray backed the GTO out of the trees, onto the road, and swung around to face the city. "We got to try that on a bed sometime," he said, feeling content and happy and just maybe a bit sore. His back was too old for this high school stuff.
Fraser straightened his spine and looked at Ray, nodding politely. "An excellent plan, son."
Ray nodded back and then did a double take, and glared so hard at Fraser his eyes were in danger of popping out, until Fraser gave up and laughed out loud. And then Ray had to thump Fraser's shoulder. "Don't you ever do that to me again, you sick perverted asshole freakish Mountie." He braked hard, squealing to a halt in the middle of the empty road, so their mouths could reconnect, hard and briefly punishing, and then soft and appreciative, and then breaking off. "Ever," said Ray. "This chain does not want to be yanked, you got me?"
Fraser grinned. "Understood, Ray."
Fraser sat in the passenger seat, reveling in a warm glow of satisfaction and endorphins, and watched Ray drive. He'd noticed the way Ray's long fingers curled around the steering wheel a thousand times, the way that when he tilted his head up to check the rearview mirror the movement was led by his chin, lending the gesture an air of youthful intransigence, the occasional rhythmic play of Ray's hand against his thigh, and the heavy-lidded squint as Ray scanned the road ahead. But this was a revelation. Now his perspective was colored, enhanced by not just an awareness, but by a recent physical knowledge of Ray's warmth, his laughter and passion. Ray's taste and scent were in Fraser, were part of him, forever committed to memory, whatever happened.
Fraser felt utterly certain that whatever happened would be good. Logic and reason threw up objections—it was unrealistic to suppose that love could drive out all complications, all faults and dangers—but the conviction held. He was happy.
Half an hour later, Ray pulled over to the side of the road. Fraser's heart leapt, and he raised his eyebrows hopefully, even while informing himself that operand conditioning generally required more than a single event to take hold, and that if his pulse was going to react thus every time Ray stopped the car, he should not be surprised if he had a heart attack before he turned forty.
Ray laughed at him and patted his shoulder. "Oh no," he said. "You had your turn. I got to check under the hood. Shouldn't have left it so long, and that knocking is driving me crazy."
It was true, the car had been running rough for a number of days now, but still. Ray's priorities seemed entirely backward. Fraser opened his mouth to protest and, even as he did so, an image of a polar bear flashed before his eyes. Ah yes. Ursula, vying for his mother's attention. Fraser shut his mouth again, and got out of the car to help.
"So, Fraser, you wanna see a movie tomorrow? Want to sit in the back row and, I dunno, hold hands or something?" Ray's tone was casual. He glanced at Fraser out of the corner of his eye.
"You mean a date, Ray?" Fraser was moved. They had yet to establish the parameters of their relationship—well, and it was early days yet. The possibility of dates and outings whirled in his head.
"Yeah, like a date. You want to?"
"Very much so, but I'm afraid I can't. Besides, don't you consider that putting the horse after the cart?" Fraser looked at Ray as innocently as he was able.
"Hey, it's not just to get you into bed. I'm counting on that sooner, I'll have you know. And what do you mean, you can't?"
"I, ah, my father has left me in a rather awkward position. I have a prior engagement with Francesca tomorrow night."
"You're kidding me. You're two-timing me already?" Ray shook his head, feigning disappointment. "That's not buddies." Then he looked at Fraser seriously. "Don't go."
"It would be the height of rudeness to cancel. Particularly at such short notice."
"Don't go. One date and Frannie's gonna be picking out china patterns. If she hasn't already."
"Ray, I have to."
Later, in bed, Fraser exulted in Ray, who was sprawled beneath him, stretched out luxuriously on the cotton sheets, sated. Fraser kissed him everywhere, marked out the length of him with his fingers, and licked sweat and semen from the pale warm skin of his belly.
Ray's lower abdomen was scattered with soft-coarse hairs, which tickled Fraser's nose and brought a lump to his throat. How close he'd come to walking away from this. His life seemed now a cornucopia of riches, purely due to the man beneath him, whose hand was lazily caressing Fraser's shoulder.
Ray was humming a melody from the compact disc that had ended an hour ago. Fraser shut his eyes and pressed his ear to Ray's ribcage, taking pleasure in the tune, the vibrations, the sounds of a relaxed and happy Ray. He trailed a hand over Ray's hip.
Ray's hand paused on Fraser's arm. "I bet this is better than being dead."
Fraser buried a smile in Ray's solar plexus, then lifted his head and said, "You know, Ray, being dead wasn't as bad as you might suppose. Actually I found it rather peaceful."
Ray groaned and put his hands over his eyes. "It was a yes-no question, Fraser."
Fraser moved up so they were face to face, and prized away one of Ray's hands. "Actually, it wasn't a question at all."
"God, you're killing me." Ray glared and poked him in the clavicle. "Is this or is this not better than being dead?"
"I can't answer that without over-simplifying."
"Fraser!" Ray growled threateningly, and Fraser had to smile.
"Yes," he said, and trailed kisses along Ray's cheekbone. "This is better than being dead. Much better. Infinitely better."
"See, now you're just making fun of me, you big freak." Ray rolled Fraser onto his back, and wrestled him into submission. "That's better. Now I got you right where I want you."
Fraser stretched his legs out on the wide, welcoming bed, and gazed at the man above him, so taut with passion and energy, so full of life. "Yes," he said. "And I, you."
The bagpipes swirled to a triumphant finish and the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause. Francesca was clasping her hands at her bosom, apparently transported by the music. Ray had his hands clenched into pained angry fists, and was tapping his foot to his own internal beat. Robert was nodding off in the seat beside Ray. And Diefenbaker had firmly indicated that this was the first occasion on which he'd ever been glad of his disability.
Fraser smiled around at them all. "Well, that was bracing."
Ray looked at him. "Fraser, why are these people clapping? Tell me it's just that they're glad it's over? Because that was the worst thing I think I ever heard—and I lived through the eighties."
"In many cultures it's traditional to congratulate the musicians on their performance via a spontaneous round of applause." Fraser joined in the clapping, and used the movement as a cover for resting his leg against Ray's own splayed limb, creating a subtle and pleasing friction.
"Musicians?" Ray was apparently disgusted by the designation.
"What else would you call them?" Fraser half-smiled at him, and politely turned his attention to Francesca, who was glaring at Ray with considerable animosity.
"Who asked you?" she said to Ray.
Ray bared his teeth in reply, and Fraser hastily intervened, turning to her and blocking Ray out for a moment. He felt his cheeks heat up, but was determined to finally make his intentions clear. "Francesca," he said in a low voice. "As much as I greatly value your friendship, I have to tell you that I'm unable to offer you more than that."
"Yeah," she said, looking down at her hands. "You didn't have to bring a champion, Fraser. I get the picture."
"I'm terribly sorry if I've misled you."
She sighed, and threw him a small tight smile. "Hey, you can't help it, right? You have to be polite. It's part of your job."
"Yes, well. That's very understanding of you." Fraser cleared his throat and sat back in his seat. "You know, Francesca, when I was undergoing basic training at the RCMP Depot, our Commanding Officer, Sergeant Stamp, encouraged us to carry a small bottle of turpentine with us at all times, in case of forest fire—" He kept talking until Francesca's eyes glazed over. There. Perhaps that would alleviate any regrets she might be harboring. "We clung to the ledge for thirty-six hours," he concluded, "before the Whitehorse Community Choir found us and were able to throw us a line comprised of all their shoelaces tied end to end. Still, all's well that ends well, and the choir then went on to give a very creditable a cappella performance of Voices of the Klondike."
"I bet they didn't sound like an underwater tunnel of tortured geese," said Ray, whose grimace had not yet relaxed.
"I hardly think that's an appropriate way to describe one of the great composers, Ray," said Fraser mildly.
"Yeah, bro. Piss or get off the dope." Francesca was apparently not in the best of moods.
"Pot," said Ray. "It's piss or get off the pot."
"Pot, dope, weed, ganja mon. Whatever." Francesca shrugged, and retreated to the kiosk for a drink.
Fraser shifted in his seat, feeling horribly guilty. It seemed so unfair that his own happiness should cost Francesca hers.
"Hey," said Ray, patting his arm, comfortingly. "You did good. You made it so she can move on. She'll be okay."
Fraser nodded, and was about to reply when he was interrupted.
"Dratted animals. Can't do a thing with them."
Fraser sat forward and looked at his father, who had apparently just woken up. "I beg your pardon?" he said. Diefenbaker looked up reproachfully, and Fraser gave him a reassuring smile. "I'm certain he didn't mean wolves."
Robert stuck his chin out, like a man resisting an insurance sales pitch. "You know how it is with polar bears. Always shooting first and asking questions later."
"I hadn't heard that," said Fraser. "Are they armed?"
"Who you talking to?" said Ray, and then caught on. "Oh." He waved at the seat next to him, which he evidently saw as empty. "Hi."
Robert nodded at Ray, and replied to Fraser, "Claws, son. It's a damned nuisance."
"Have you tried strudel?" suggested Fraser, remembering Ursula's dark hungry nose.
"What's that?" Robert seemed struck by the thought.
"Apple strudel," said Fraser. "I find that generally speaking, the way to a wild animal's heart is almost invariably via its sweet tooth."
"Works for me," said Ray.
"I haven't tried that," said Robert. "An excellent thought."
Francesca came back to her seat, carrying two cans of soda. She handed Fraser the second can, and watched with disapproval as he thanked her kindly and passed it straight on to Ray.
Ray took a couple of mouthfuls. "Can we go yet?" he said. "I think I can walk again. Although I may have sustained permanent nerve damage to my self-respect."
"But Ray," said Fraser. "The second set is about to start."
Ray looked at him in horror. "No way. No way, Fraser. Maybe in Canada you think it's fun to torment people with scary noises made by men blowing plaid octopusses, but here in civilized countries we invented guitars and drums so we don't have to do that. And saxophones."
"It's a tribute," said Fraser. "They're going to play a selection of songs popularized by Frank Sinatra."
"Yeah," said Francesca, wearily. "There's once piece called Fence-Crashing the Party."
Ray grinned at her, and then leaned back in his seat so that only Fraser could hear him. "Okay, here's the thing. I will do this for you, on one condition."
Fraser looked straight ahead and tried not to smile. "What's that, Ray?" he murmured.
Ray's hands had been resting on his thighs, but now his nearest little finger came out and prodded Fraser's knee quickly, and then retreated. "Later on we make some real music. Like an antidote. Some razzmatazz. Maybe some rock'n'roll."
"Absolutely," said Fraser, promptly. "As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Without music, life would be a mistake.'"