A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. But one man is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions: Benton Fraser, RCMP.
It was a dark night indeed in the Windy City. Chicago had been cloaked in darkness for three days (well, three nights, really, but that’s neither here nor there) due to a sudden and unexpected power failure, the reasons for which need not be explored at this juncture. I was sitting in my small (but quite adequate) office/bedroom at the Canadian Consulate, staring into a candle flame and pondering life’s persistent questions, such as why the six was afraid of the seven and whether toilets really do flush backwards in the southern hemisphere.
I was just about to snuff out the candle and prepare to retire to my lonely cot when suddenly my office door flew open and a whirlwind disguised as a man blew in, sliding across the floor and landing on his knees in front of me.
To say he was magnificent was like saying the Taj Mahal is a pretty building. His short blonde hair was gelled into spikes so sharp I thought I might lacerate myself should I be brave enough to touch one. Behind thick, awkward glasses shone eyes that for all their lack of focus danced with intelligence, their aquamarine irises as deep and as bright as the Beaufort Sea under the Midnight Sun. He was dressed in tattered blue jeans with a rip across one thigh and a T-shirt so tight I thought he must have donned it on the first day of grade six and not taken it off since.
Although my candle was an RCMP-issue 741-B/subset S12 Heavy Duty Jumbo Emergency type and therefore provided more than adequate light, the man was feeling his way with both hands as if blind, hauling himself up onto the chair in front of my desk only after banging his head twice into its arm. He gave me a quick, embarrassed smile that lit up his face like the Northern Lights on snow on a frigid Arctic night in January.
“Kowalski. Ray Kowalski. You Noir?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You know. Guy Noir, the famous P.I. Geez, doesn’t anyone listen to public radio anymore?"
Although I knew by his speech that he was not inebriated, I wasn’t entirely sure that he didn’t have a gaping hole somewhere in his bag of marbles. “I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else.”
“Isn’t this the twelfth floor of the Acme Building?” He stood up and began pacing, but after nearly knocking over a coat rack in the corner thought better of it and flopped back into the chair with a thud.
“No, I’m afraid not. It’s actually the first floor of the Canadian Consulate.”
“Wait. I’m in Canada?”
“No. Well, actually, yes, you are, but that’s just a technicality.”
“Wait. What?” Kowalski looked confused, as if someone had just told him that black was white or up was down. As if the Leafs had just won the Stanley Cup. His eyes were wild, like a bronco at the Calgary Stampede trying to throw off its rider. I had to find a way to gentle him. I moved from my position behind the desk and went to stand in front of him.
“I think we should begin again, Mr. Kowalski.” I offered him my hand in what I hoped was a friendly gesture. I wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t bite. I wasn’t entirely sure I wouldn’t let him.
When he didn’t address my gesture in any form whatsoever I deduced that he was either a) still in shock from his international location crisis or b) that his eyesight was abysmal to the point of not being able to see more than a few centimetres in front of his face. I took his hand and shook it firmly; the charge between us could have lit up the Eastern Seaboard.
“Allow me to introduce myself. Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, at your service.” At your service, indeed, Mr. Kowalski, I thought to myself.
“RCMP. So you’re a Mountie, huh? What the hell is a Mountie doing in Chicago?”
“I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father, and for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture I've remained, attached as liaison with the Canadian Consulate.”
“Oh. So you don’t know Noir, I guess.” His eyes looked less wild and more glazed over. I counted this as improvement.
“I’m afraid not.” Even if Mr. Noir had been Canadian, it was unlikely I would have been acquainted with him. Canada is a big country, after all.
“Oh. Okay. I’ll, um. I’ll just be going, then.” He stood and turned to walk out the door—and out of my life—but fate and severe myopia intervened and he missed the doorway entirely, instead colliding solidly with the jamb. There was a grace in his clumsiness, and although I couldn't explain it I was transfixed nonetheless.
“Ow,” said Kowalski. That kinda hurt.” Ray Kowalski was apparently a master of the obvious.
“Look, Mr. Kowalski—“
He turned back toward me, and in a brief flight of fancy I wished he could see my face clearly. Not for the first time I was thankful for my bright scarlet uniform, which individuals sightless from birth have anecdotally reported being able to see. At least there was something of myself that could be seen by this unfocused yet entrancing man.
“Ray. Perhaps I can be of some assistance? I fear for your welfare if you attempt to continue your search.”
“Uh. Yeah. Yeah, maybe you’re right.” He leaned in closer, peering at me through lenses thick as bottle caps. “So, Mounties. They’re cops, right?”
“Indeed we are.”
Ray groped for the chair and settled back down. “I was looking for Noir because he has a rep for not knuckling under to the Mob. I didn't want to go to the cops, but since you’re a Canadian cop, I can trust you, right?
“I give you my word, both as an officer of the RCMP and a citizen of the Dominion.”
“Good enough for me. Okay, here’s the deal.”
Ray Kowalski’s tale took up the better part of two hours. He spoke of finding his beautiful, ambitious wife Stella in the arms of Armando Langoustini, the cold, heartless capo of the infamous Iguana family. “At least I thought it was Langoustini. I mean, heck, it coulda been my buddy Ray Vecchio from 32B. They kinda look alike, and I don’t see too good.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a picture of himself and another man who did indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the famous gangster.
“Even after that, I still thought Stella loved me. She said she thought the other guy was me, and yeah, that sounded pretty messed up, since I’m the one who’s supposed to be visually challenged, and all. But I loved her and I wanted to believe her, so I called up Vecchio and asked him to pretend to be Langoustini and spy on Stella for me. Just to prove that she wasn’t lying.”
I knew right then and there that something was rotten in the state of Denmark—or at least in the city of Chicago—because there was no way anyone in their right mind could confuse Ray Kowalski with Ray Vecchio, or Armando Langoustini, for that matter. They simply looked nothing alike. Stella Kowalski was up to something, as sure as the ice breaks up each Spring in Tuktoyaktuk.
“Did your friend discover anything pertinent?”
“Yeah. Stella sang like a bird to Vecchio about all sorts of mean, nasty, ugly stuff that she was up to. And he only had to sleep with her three times to get her to talk.”
“Only three times?”
“Yeah. Who knew she was such a pushover?”
“Not I.” A traitorous part of me was elated by the fact that Ray didn’t seem to find this revelation traumatic in the least.
“So here’s why I need help. Stella’s been feeding information to the Iguana family since even before we were married. She only married me because I'm a cop.”
“Dear God, Ray!” Anyone who could take advantage of such a treasure as Ray Kowalski deserved to be severely reprimanded. Or worse.
“I guess I was a pretty big chump, huh?”
“You mustn’t blame yourself. Stella Kowalski is an evil woman.”
“And that ain’t the half of it. I found out why my vision sucks. She’s been putting these drops in my eyes every morning—says it’s to help me see better. Turns out she’s been doing it to make my eyesight even worse.”
Seemingly out of nowhere (but more likely from his jeans pocket), he produced a small brown bottle. I removed the cap and touched the tip of my tongue to the dropper. “Ah, of course! The active ingredient is a derivative of anametyl parabolic coaxial monopolypeptide compound infused in grain alcohol. Constant exposure to the eyes over time can cause debilitating nearsightedness, especially for those of Polish extraction. Fortunately there are no permanent side effects, and upon cessation of exposure normal eyesight is generally restored within a day or two.”
Ray gave a low whistle. “Damn, you’re good.”
“Why thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Anyway, what I need help with is I found out that Stella ain’t the only player in all this. She’s got these cousins, Victoria and Angie, see, and Vecchio found out that they’ve been trying to make Stella wipe me out once and for all. And Vecchio, he thinks he’s gonna get offed too on account of Stel’s been getting suspicious about him being a wiseguy."
“Damn straight. I dunno if Angie could whack Vecchio, though. She’s always had a thing for him, even since high school. Victoria, though, she’s a real psycho. She’s done everything--bank robbery, extortion, you name it. She even did time once, up in Alaska. I tell you, that one’d kill off her own sister if it suited her. And she’s smart and gorgeous, so she gets away with murder, literally.”
I tried to keep my face neutral as I desperately attempted to keep from jumping to conclusions. After all, just because Mrs. Kowalski had an ex-con bank robber cousin with the same name as my ex-con bank robber ex-girlfriend did not mean that the two were the same person. I could hear my father’s voice in my head, as plain as day. Get over yourself, Benton, for God’s sake, he said. You are a *Mountie*.
“So I need someone to help me catch her—hell, catch all three of them, without letting either the cops or the Iguana family finding out we're after them. Think you can do that?”
He looked at me then, and his face was filled with such hope and trust that I couldn’t turn away. I took his hand in both of mine and vowed to make his cause my sacred duty and that I wouldn’t rest until the evildoers were brought to justice. I also offered to let him stay at the Consulate until his eyesight improved, and that I was sure I could find appropriate clothing for his stay.
His smile was quick and full of mischief. “Cool.”
A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. But one man is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions:
Benton Fraser, RCMP.