It had been one of those nights. It had been one of those nights for a week now. Fraser was a light sleeper at the best of times, but every now and then he'd find that he couldn't sleep at all. That didn't generally bother him too much... but when one such night followed another, and another... well, then he started to worry.
For the last week his sleep had been deteriorating, and by his reckoning he'd had no more than six hours sleep out of the last seventy two. He was beginning to feel the effects. Normally he could have countered with some meditation or relaxation techniques... but they weren't working.
Perhaps, he thought, as he walked toward work, it was just the recent changes at the Consulate that had him on edge. His new boss wasn't making his life any easier. Irritated with himself he dismissed the possibility. He'd been in far more stressful situations. Surely it wasn't, as his friend kept implying, that he resented taking orders from a woman? No, it wasn't that. But there was no getting away from the fact that he was stressed. And at this precise moment Ray was not helping matters.
"Look, Benny, I don't care who she is, or who she thinks she is, but she's got no right pushing you round like this. Collecting her dry cleaning... she's not the boss of you."
Fraser tightened his lips, "as a matter of fact, that's exactly what she is," he corrected his friend. "She's my superior officer, and as such she is indeed the boss of me."
"Awh, Fraser, I hate to see you whipped like this. You should do something to sabotage her, so she stops asking you to collect the dry cleaning. Couldn't you crumple it up or something, or put tomato ketchup on it while she's not looking?"
Despite himself a smile twitched on the corner of Fraser's lip at that piece of advice. Then he shook his head. "Even supposing I wanted to do something like that, I really couldn't."
"Yeah, that's right, we're talking about someone who can't even steal a bar of candy."
"It wasn't a bar, it was a box of milk duds, and I'll have you know that I could have stolen it too if..."
"If it hadn't been for those pesky detectives. Yeah yeah, I know... you're squeaky clean. Bet you've never broken the law in your life."
"Well, Ray... you know that's not true. I once exchanged stolen money for diamonds in an attempt to aid a bank robber..."
"It's okay, Benny, that was different... you were trying to help a friend."
There was an awkward silence. Ray was frankly surprised that his friend had referred to Victoria at all. The woman had more than broken his heart, she had nearly destroyed him, and Ray had been sucked into it in the most painful way, nearly killing his best friend in the process. It was an unspoken agreement between them that they'd never mention it again. They'd put it behind them and made a fresh start... what was Fraser thinking of?
Fraser himself was thinking the same thing. What on earth would he bring that up for, knowing what Ray had gone through? It had just blurted out of him. Stupid, stupid Fraser, he thought, Victoria's gone.
Ray broke the silence. "Look, all I'm saying about this boss of yours is that... well, she's just like any penny ante bully. She wants to see what she can get away with. If she can get you to do her laundry she'll want to see if she can get you to carry out her trash or dust her office. You're not a chamber maid for heaven's sake."
Fraser said nothing. He'd already been required to dust and vacuum Meg Thatcher's office, but he didn't want his friend to know about it.
"Hey, Benny.. what's going on in that noggin of yours?"
He shook his head. He'd gone blank for a moment.
"Sorry Ray, I'm just tired. That's all."
"What, you not been sleeping well?"
He hadn't been sleeping at all, but rather than say that and worry his partner he presented a watered down version of the truth.
"Spot of insomnia. I'm sure it will sort itself out."
"Well, if you can't sleep put the tv on, grab a beer and watch a game..." Ray trailed off as he realised who he was talking to. "Sorry, just realised you don't have a tv... that wasn't much help, was it?"
"No, not really." Fraser sounded uncharacteristically short tempered.
Ray shrugged. "Well, if you want to unwind, come round to mine tonight, watch something asinine on the tv and eat pizza." He left out the beer part, since he was pretty sure his friend wouldn't partake. "If we watch something stupid enough you're bound to relax and fall asleep."
"Is it going to be possible to relax at your place Ray?"
"You mean is Frannie there?"
"Well, um... that's not quite what I meant. I just meant, your house is often quite full..."
"Yeah, full of the Chicago branch of the Mad Mounty fan club." Ray laughed. Then he looked at his friend with a spot of concern. "But I told you already... I've got the place to myself." Fraser looked blank, and Ray wondered if he was feeling quite all right. "Remember? My sisters have gone to Disneyland with the kids, and that meant Ma was lonely, so she's gone to not talk to her brother."
Fraser smiled. This had become a running joke, since Ma Vecchio was always falling out with her various siblings, then making up at joyous reunions. In fact, the fallings out seemed to provide them with an excuse for profuse apologies, declarations of eternal family devotion, and heroic efforts in the kitchen, finishing up with everyone feasting to excess around a laden table. Quite how Ray managed to be so skinny with such a profligate cook in the house remained a mystery.
"Alright," Fraser nodded. "If you pick the asinine show on television Diefenbaker and I will eat the pizza."
"Great," Ray grinned. He didn't like to admit it, but sometimes he got lonely. He couldn't quite figure out why, and he had the obscurely guilty feeling that he should have grown out of it, but even with the whole house full he could feel lonely. It would be nice to kick back, eat pizza and laugh at Schwarzenegger or whatever action hero they found themselves watching.
They reached the foot of the consulate steps. Fraser rolled his shoulders, and repressed a sigh, while smoothing the dry-cleaning over his left arm. He'd been trying not to think about the contents of said dry cleaning, and had arranged the various garments in such a way that he didn't have to look at the more frilly and ridiculously feminine items. He was a stickler for cleanliness and neatness himself, but even he could not see the need to dry clean a brassiere. He suspected that Meg Thatcher was attempting to embarrass him. "Thank you kindly for the invitation. I'll see you after work, Ray."
"Yeah see ya later. And remember... ketchup on her best ball gown next time. Just the tiniest smidgen... that happens often enough she'll start asking Turnbull to do it for her."
"Do what for her, Ray?"
Ray looked at his partner, and noticed the ghost of a smile. He could not be certain, you never could with Fraser, but he suspected his friend of making a joke. He went with it, and laughed. "You've got a dirty mind Benny. Okay... later." Lifting a hand casually he continued to walk, chuckling to himself as he went.
After running several more pointless and demeaning errands for Meg Thatcher (who was increasingly living up to her namesake's soubriquet of "Iron Lady") Fraser was released for his lunch break. He was to take the afternoon shift standing guard outside the consulate, and therefore had decided that he wasn't going to risk eating lunch at a nearby café, for fear of dropping food on his red serge suit. Ray had once referred to him as "Teflon Mounty" after emerging from yet another dumpster covered in garbage, only to discover Fraser emerging from the same dumpster looking like a model from a clothing's catalogue. Even so, Fraser was particularly tired, and didn't feel as fresh as usual. He decided to eat the sandwich at his desk. He unwrapped his lunch, stared at the unappetising concoction he had put together that morning (food preparation in any form not being one of his strong points) and surprised himself by promptly falling asleep.
He knew he was asleep because he was standing next to himself, watching his eyes close and his head sink slowly to the desk. Deeply annoyed with himself he noticed that his forehead landed right on the sandwich, and mustard squeezed out between the slices of bread.
"Wake up," he shouted at his sleeping body. "Ben," he said, "Ben, Ben, Benny, BENTON." He stopped, embarrassed, realising how ridiculous he was being. The Ben Benny Benton mantra might have worked when his Grandmother did it, but he didn't quite have her ring of authority. Besides, he knew he was asleep, it wasn't as though he didn't want to wake up. Sleeping at work wouldn't look very good if someone came in. He could just imagine Meg Thatcher's reaction if she found him sleeping at his desk... even on his lunch break. In desperation he tried pinching himself. "Ouch," he said, then rolled his eyes heavenward. Okay, so apparently you could hurt yourself in dreams, but you couldn't wake yourself up.
"Benton," a voice came from behind him, and he turned.
"Oh, hello Dad." He looked about him, admiring the Arctic splendour in which they stood. He looked back at his body, sleeping at his table. His sleeping self didn't seem to notice the fat flakes that had started tumbling out of the sky. The serge suit of the figure slumped at the table was dusted white with snow. Fraser held his hands out and looked at them. The skin under his finger nails was turning white in the bitter cold. They would be blue soon, and then...
This was a very realistic dream, he told himself. He was actually feeling the cold.
"Hello son." His father looked a little concerned. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine... why do you ask?"
"Just that you're looking tired."
"Well, I've not been sleeping."
"You're sleeping now."
"Yes, I know that," Fraser voiced his irritation. "I'm trying to wake up."
"Well, try harder son. You can't sleep on the job."
"I'm aware of that, Dad."
"Why do you have a sandwich stuck to your forehead?"
"You have a sandwich attached to your forehead..."
"Oh, I fell asleep on it." Fraser blushed, thinking what a ridiculous sight he must be, standing in a frozen wasteland with a corned beef and mustard sandwich stuck to his head.
"You don't mind if I eat that do you?"
"No, not at all."
Bob Fraser reached out and unpeeled the sandwich from Fraser's head. Taking a bite he pulled a face. "Can't say it's one of your best offerings."
"Sorry Dad, I didn't realise I'd be making food for you."
"Well, thanks anyway. Most food tastes of nothing here, at least this tastes of something, even if it does have too much mustard."
"You're welcome Dad. Can I ask what you're doing here?"
"I was going to ask you the same question. What are you doing here?"
"I'm allowed to be here. It's my dream."
Bob Fraser gave him a very strange look. "No son. It's my afterlife."
Fraser sat up with a shock, blinking. The sandwich fell from his forehead, scattering crumbs and mustard across his uniform. Fraser pushed his chair back, and stood, brushing bits of bread from his lap, wishing that he could occasionally bring himself to curse. The occasion seemed to demand it.
The door swung open, and Inspector Thatcher stepped in, handing him a piece of paper.
"Constable Fraser, I was looking for you. When you've finished your guard duty I want you to pop down to the supermarket and buy the items on this shopping list..." her voice trailed off, and she looked at him with disdain. "You have mustard on your head."
"Yes Sir, sorry Sir."
"Don't apologise," she snapped. "Just clean yourself up. And..." she clicked her tongue and shook her head dismissively. "Your uniform's a disgrace."
Fraser swallowed, ashamed. She looked at him for a moment longer, registering complete disgust, then shut the door.
"Oh dear," Fraser muttered, and began to clean himself up. By the time he felt himself presentable he had no time to eat. Besides, the sandwich had never looked that appealing anyway, even before he'd squished it into a flattened mess.
Never had he felt less like doing his duty. It seemed that everything he did was going wrong. Nevertheless he made his way to the bottom of the consulate steps and took up his post. Since his banishment "down South" he was often given menial and seemingly useless tasks. On his worst days he suspected this was part of a concerted effort to punish him and crush his spirits. Despite the fact that he had uncovered and avenged serious injustices while solving his father's murder the fact remained that his actions had embarrassed the Canadian authorities. They seemed to be taking great pains to let him know about it. However, no matter how useless his tasks were, nor how small his superiors tried to make him feel, duty, as always called.
Taking up his post he stood in the hot sun, with the beginning of a headache, and waited.
Ray bumped into his friend at the supermarket.
"Hey Benny, I didn't know you'd started shopping here..." Ray had attempted to introduce Fraser to the joy of supermarkets a while back, but on discovering that illegal horse meat was finding it's way onto their shelves supermarkets had, as far as the Mounty was concerned, lost their allure.
Fraser glanced sideways at his friend, then away, as though he were embarrassed at being caught out. Ray sighed.
"You're doing that woman's shopping, aren't you?"
"Yes Ray," Fraser admitted, "I've just finished."
"Well, so have I. So, pay up, give the wicked witch her basket of hellish ingredients, and come back to mine to eat some garlic so she can't come and suck your blood in the middle of the night."
Fraser looked a bit bewildered by Ray's flight of fancy, but said nothing.
"What, no Inuit stories?"
"About vampires? Not that I can think of... though my Grandfather told me stories about Chinese vampires. Apparently they're not so clever as their European counterparts, and if you scatter rice in front of them they have to stop to pick up every grain before they can hunt you down. Which means they don't get a chance to drink a lot of blood, since China has a great deal of readily available rice..."
"Well, that's fascinating, Fraser, as always. I'll remember that next time I have to arrest a Chinese vampire." Ray paused in his sarcasm for a moment to register a surprise. "Hang on, your Grandfather told you a story? Normally you're talking about Inuits, Shamans, your Dad or your Grandmother..."
"My Grandmother wouldn't tell me stories about vampires or other supernatural beings. She didn't hold with that kind of thing."
"She didn't believe in telling lies, and she didn't believe in monsters. Hence no Father Christmas, fairy tales, ghost stories, etc."
"No Father Christmas?" Ray shook his head. That explained a lot. "But your Grandfather believed in monsters?"
"Well," Fraser said as though it were self evident, "he was married to my Grandmother."
"I heard that," his father's voice butted in. "That's my mother you're talking about."
Fraser glared at his father to be quiet. His father ignored the hint. "Of course, I know exactly what you mean, and there's nothing wrong with monsters, but even so, it's not polite to speak ill of the dead. I should know, son."
Biting his tongue Fraser paid for Meg Thatcher's goods, and packed them promptly and neatly. Ray meanwhile was struggling to cram everything into his bags, and cursing under his breath.
"Let me help you Ray," Fraser offered, and over Ray's protests started to reorganise his groceries more logically.
Between one blink and the next he wasn't in the supermarket any more. He screwed his eyes up, dazzled by the silvering sun as it swept across the snow. Random flakes struck his face as the wind blew sheer towards him.
He was standing, with a loaf of bread and a quart of milk in his hands, surrounded on all sides by thousands of miles of winter.
"You're in my afterlife again, son."
With a blink he was back, standing by a counter in a supermarket, being stared at by Ray, the supermarket teller, and his father.
"Stop visiting my afterlife," his father said.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to. It just happened."
"What, what just happened?" Ray was looking very concerned.
"I..." Fraser didn't know what to say. He was aware of all eyes on him, and that he was holding up a queue of increasingly irritated customers. "I'm just tired."
"You're dead on your feet is what you are. Come on Benny, let's get that stuff to the consulate, then you come and veg out at mine." As opposed to pass out, Ray thought. He put his hand on his friend's back supportively as they exited the store. He's probably coming down with something. Don't think he's had a cold since he's been here... you can't be that lucky forever.
"So, he's beginning to show signs is he?"
"Yes sir. I thought at first that it wasn't working, that he'd caught on to us somehow, but he's definitely showing the effects of it now. Just slightly, but as you know it's cumulative... it has to be gradual to look natural.
"I see. Well, keep an eye on him, and keep me up to date. And put in as much detail as you can. I want to know that he's suffering. I want to see his life fall apart."
"I can do that, sir."
The man's mouth stretched in a cold rictus, an approximation of a smile. "I know you can. That's why I hired you."