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Life in Freefall

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Butch: We'll jump.
Sundance: Like hell we will.
Butch: No, it'll be okay, if the water's deep enough and we don't get squished to death. They'll never follow us.
Sundance: How do you know?
Butch: Would you make a jump like that if you didn't have to?
Sundance: I have to and I'm not gonna.
Butch: …All right, I'll jump first.
Sundance: Nope.
Butch: Then you jump first.
Sundance: No, I said!
Butch: What's the matter with you?
Sundance: I can't swim!

—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969

 


 

 SOMEWHERE IN NORTHERN ALBERTA, 2017

Fraser has picked up the mail on his way home from town, and Ray has the usual letter from his mom, telling him all the shit he doesn’t need to know about all the people who stopped giving a damn about him years ago. He skim-reads it like he always does, this never-ending soap opera whose characters he can barely remember anymore. His mom means well, though, and he loves her for not giving up on him, even now.

Something new this month: she’s enclosed a handful of photos from a classic car rally his dad dragged her to. Ray flicks through them, pausing at a few. She’s scrawled a note on the back of one of them: “Look, Stanley, this is just like your old car!”

He flips it over. It’s a shiny black 1967 Pontiac Gran Turismo Omologata, parked bang in the middle of the busy showground, and he doesn’t need to fetch his reading glasses and check the reg to know it’s his. Hurts like hell to see it, even though he knows he couldn’t have kept it, not up here. It wouldn’t have survived a single winter. He fetches his glasses anyway and examines the photo. New redline radials, new left rear fender where some asshole scraped it in the precinct parking lot, way back when. Not much of the interior is visible, but he’s willing to bet there’s not a bloodstain left. Whoever has the GTO now, they’re keeping it in better condition than he ever did, and somehow that hurts even more.

He folds the pictures, shoves them in the envelope, and tosses them in the trash. He’ll call his mom and say thanks for them later. The letter he adds to the pile on his desk, the ever-growing heap that he transfers to boxes under the bed when it gets too big. He should throw the lot out, use them for firelighters or something, but he doesn’t. Sometimes he needs a reminder of what he’s missing.

“Everything okay?” Fraser asks, in the carefully neutral tone he uses for things-in-Chicago.

“Yeah,” Ray says, settling back into his dip on the couch and flipping the TV channel until he finds an old black and white movie Fraser might like. He toes the dogs out of the way and thumps the sofa cushion beside him. “Yeah, come sit down, Frase. Everything’s fine. Everything’s A-okay.”

Fraser hums and goes to hang up his coat, as if he’s not sure Ray’s telling the truth but he’s decided to believe him anyway.

A-okay. The funny thing is, all things considered, it’s pretty much mostly true.

 


 

CHICAGO, 1999

Ray scrambled through the skylight and slammed it shut behind him, looking wildly around until he spotted Fraser crouching at the far end of the roof. He sprinted over and skidded to a halt by the parapet.

“The hell do we do now?” he panted. “You got a plan, right?”

Fraser looked up; he was breathing kind of quick, too, but he beamed at Ray as if he had everything under control. 

“Well, Ray,” he said, “it would appear that we are in luck.”

“Seriously? We got half a dozen armed goons chasing us, and we’re forty feet up with no exits left. I’m not feeling the luck here.”

“Perhaps not,” Fraser said, gesturing with his hat at the street far below, “but if you stop to consider all the dangerous and potentially lethal items a dumpster might contain, I’m sure you’ll agree it is in fact extraordinarily fortunate that the one below us appears to be filled with nothing more hazardous than shredded paper. You see, Ray, recycling really is worth that little extra effort.”

Ray stared down at the narrow alleyway, with its dented metal bin full of trash. “You’re kidding me! I’m not jumping into that. No way, no fucking way. Not doing it, nuh-uh. Nope.”

“Okay, I’ll go first.”

“No!” He grabbed Fraser’s arm and tried to pull him back. “No, no, no, don’t—”

“Fine, you go first.”

“No!”

“Well, now you’re overthinking it.”

“Damn right I am!”

Fraser disentangled himself from Ray’s grasp and turned toward the edge. “Don’t think about it, Ray,” he said. “Just go with your instincts. Take a deep breath and jump.”

“God damn it…”

Ray glanced toward the skylight and then down at the dumpster again, a pinprick target surrounded by acres of skull-smashing concrete. They’d had this conversation (or something very like it) more times now than he could count, and always, always they jumped, because Plan B was to get shot to death or mauled to death or somethinged to death. And sure, there’d probably be a Plan C, a real good Plan C, if only he could catch his breath and have more than a half-second to come up with it, but by then the damn Mountie would be throwing himself into thin air, shouting “Come on, Ray!”, so Ray would go right ahead and follow. He wouldn’t think, he’d just do what he had to do: he’d take a deep breath and he’d jump. Every damn time.

He scooped up a handful of gravel and tossed it over the parapet, watching it fall toward the dumpster. Most of it missed the heap of wastepaper and bounced off the metal sides with a distant ping–ping–ping. He sighed.

“I hate you, Fraser.”

“I know you do. Ready?” Fraser held out his hand for Ray’s glasses and tucked them into his breast pocket. “Deep breath. On the count of three. One, two…”

And they jumped.

 


 

There was dust in Ray’s eyes, dust in his mouth, dust in his ears, and—ugh! He sneezed and wiped his nose on his T-shirt—yup, definitely dust in his nose. He lifted a cautious hand to his scalp and found it stiff with some kind of bizarre dust/gel cocktail.

“Fraser, this stuff’s in my hair.” He paused, scrubbing his fingers on his jeans. “Fraser? Frase? You there, buddy?”

There was a rustling in the heap of shredded paper beside him, and Fraser sat up and shook his own head, the paper dust sliding right off him as if he were Teflon coated.

“You do look a little grayer than usual, yes,” he said, giving his hat a quick spin and putting it back on.

“Grayer than—hey, wait, I’m not going gray!”

“Oh? I stand corrected.”

“I’m not! Not a single gray hair. Not one.”

“Right you are.”

“Don’t talk Canadian at me, Fraser, I’m fluent in Canadian. I know when it means ‘fuck you’.” Ray thumped at his clothes and grimaced. “God, this is gross. I need a shower ASAP.”

Fraser got to his feet and looked over the side of the dumpster. “It’s only paper dust, it’s not toxic. Although admittedly the ink could—well, that’s not important. What’s important is that our pursuers should, if I’m not mistaken, have completed their search of the building, including the loft and the basement, and be about to exit via its south door into this very alleyway right about—oof!

He landed flat on his back on the heap of paper and glared up at Ray, who’d kicked his feet from under him at the word “alleyway” and was holding him down with a knee to his chest.

“Shhh!” Ray hissed, his gun ready in one hand, the other clasped tight over Fraser’s mouth. Beyond the metal of the bin, he could hear a door clang and footsteps approaching. Several hoarse voices called to one another, and there was a clattering that sounded like wooden pallets being knocked over. The men came closer and closer, their shouts distorted as they echoed off the alley walls. Ray’s breathing seemed shockingly loud to him in the enclosed space of the dumpster, his ribs aching as he leaned over Fraser and tried to take shallower breaths, battling panic and the urge to hyperventilate.

Finally the footsteps receded, and around the corner of the building a car stuttered into life and roared off. Ray let a couple more minutes go by in silence before he took his hand away and got to his feet, pulling in deep lungfuls of dusty air that made him wheeze and cough.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “I’d kinda reached my dicing-with-death limit for one day.”

Fraser wet his lips and drew the heel of his thumb across his mouth, where the skin was mottled pink from Ray’s grip. “That’s understandable, Ray. Confronting those men would have been unlikely to have provided us with additional information in any case.”

Ray had already turned away and started digging in the heap of trash, looking for something to stand on. That broken office chair would do; he used it as a foothold to scramble up to the dumpster’s edge. Balancing on the rim, he hauled Fraser after him.

“Additional information?” he said, jumping down to the concrete. “Additional to what? All we got here is a biotech startup flagged for making money hand over fist. Maybe it’s trading illegal shit—drugs, explosives, whatever—but it could just as easily be legit. Narcotics got nothing, the Organized Crime Task Force got nothing. We sneak into the company’s offices, we still got nothing. Plus, you know what all this crap is?” He picked at the whitish shreds covering his T-shirt and held them out.

Fraser had gone over to the building’s back door and was examining its threshold, but he turned back to Ray. “Recycled paper?” he said, in the bright, helpful voice that always drove Ray bugnuts.

“It’s recycled evidence, Fraser, that’s what it is. Paperwork’s not so incriminating once it’s been chopped into a million little bits.”

“Well, perhaps, but given that Xenitec’s most advanced research compound is still only in phase two trials, the company must have undeclared revenue sources of some sort. Our best course of action might be to…” Fraser scratched at the doorstep’s brickwork and touched his finger to his tongue. “Hmm.”

“Hmm, what?” Ray said, watching him lick his fingertip again. (He probably shouldn’t watch. He always watched.)

“It’s syrup, Ray. The footprints of at least one of Xenitec’s security guards taste distinctly of maple syrup.”

Ray laughed. “Great, so now we’re looking for a pancake house.”

“Ah, no, I don’t believe so. This is only a trace amount, of course, but it’s sufficient to detect the savory, herbal tang of genuine maple syrup, whereas most of the cheaper eating establishments in Chicago serve only the ersatz type.”

Ray crouched down next to him and squinted at the doorway, where there was nothing to be seen but a few obscure scuffs. “The what type?”

“So-called ‘table syrup’ or ‘pancake syrup’. A blend of cheap imitative substances of inferior taste. The genuine sort, by contrast, isn’t greatly amenable to industrial-scale production, which accounts for its having a value approximately ten times that of crude oil, liter for liter.”

Ray whistled. “Okay, so we’re looking for a real high-class pancake house.”

“Exactly so,” Fraser said, slapping him on the shoulder, raising a small cloud of dust.

Ray grinned back at him. “Have I told you today that you’re a freak?”

“I don’t believe you have, Ray, but thank you kindly for the reminder.”

“You’re welcome.” He stood up, digging his car keys from his jeans pocket. “Look, we got nothing here. We should go check in with Welsh, see what we can dig up on Xenitec’s business connections. Pharmaceutical companies, chemical suppliers, explosives manufacturers, gotta be something there. We just need to find the link. Okay?”

 


 

Murders and snowstorms. Abductions and snowstorms. Angry gods and snowstorms. Getting lost, in a snowstorm…

Ray shifted in his seat, waiting for the punch line. He and Fraser were a paltry eighty-three minutes into their stakeout, and Fraser’s Inuit stories had already hit all the usual bases, bam bam bam. Diefenbaker, relegated to the back seat, had done the smart thing and gone to sleep, filling the car with his peaceful wheezing.

Checking out Xenitec’s background had gotten them nowhere fast, and they’d been glad to sling the CPD files aside and spend their Saturday scoping out a marital infidelity case for Vecchio’s PI agency instead. Not that that was turning out to be real exciting either. Casanova and his mistress might be up to all kinds of hijinks behind those tacky magenta drapes, but all Ray had was old stories and stale coffee.

Fraser had his head craned slightly to the side now, keeping an eye on the townhouse in question through the GTO’s passenger side window as he spun a forefinger in vague circles—blizzards, swirling blizzards, yeah, got it—and sent the poor dumb hero of his latest tale to his doom. Starvation, in a snowstorm. Great. His stories always had a point, but fuck if Ray could figure this one out.

“We should just get you a checklist,” he said, shoving back against his seat, trying to find a comfortable angle (which there wasn’t one, because he would have found it by now and damn well stayed there). “Or maybe a set of those symbol things, like a talking chimp. You could hold up a card that means you’re cold, you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re homesick, you need to piss, you need to get laid.” He tossed his Styrofoam cup into the footwell and stomped down on it, just to hear it crack. “God, I need to get laid.”

“Lexigrams,” Fraser said, without shifting his gaze from the townhouse’s front door. He’d dropped the storytelling cadence, though, and his voice was shot through with uncharacteristic weariness. “The symbol things, they’re called lexigrams, although in fact most of the chimpanzees in such experiments were taught American Sign Language. And yes, I’m cold. It’s cold in here, Ray. You could have deduced as much from the bluish tinge of your own hands. I’m also tired and hungry and homesick, and I probably do need to get laid, assuming that that would in some way alleviate my other issues.”

Ray stared at him, waiting for the climb-down. No climb-down. Silence from Fraser, nothing else at all, not even a blink, and when Ray opened his mouth to say whatever the hell he was going to say, all that came out was a strangled laugh, one that wouldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop until he was lightheaded with it, hunched over the wheel and wheezing in the cold air, with Fraser’s hand on his back smacking the last of the breath out of him in a way that was definitely, definitely not helping.

“Jesus,” he muttered at last, sitting right back so that Fraser had to take his hand away or else. “Okay, ixnay on the flashcards, check. We got another two hours here before Vecchio swaps us out, assuming our Romeo in there doesn’t sneak away sooner. Then how about pizza, my place? ’Cause I got, uh, heating. And plumbing. And”—don’t say couch, don’t say couch, don’t even THINK about Fraser and the couch—“y’know, plates and mugs and stuff. It ain’t Canada, but it’s kinda homey anyway. I mean, it’s, uh…”

“Thank you, Ray,” Fraser said. “That would be lovely.”

And Ray shut his mouth real fast before he could mess things up again. Because, okay, he might not have all the words right there at the tip of his tongue, he might not even have the lexi-whateverthefucks, but if he could get a smile like that out of Fraser, who gave a damn about language anyway?

 


 

Sunday, blessed Sunday. Ray groped a while on the nightstand for his glasses before giving up and bending close to check the clock: only ten a.m., and the whole day ahead of him. He stretched himself starfish-like across the mattress and shut his eyes.

Most of his Saturday had been a write-off, tailing the two-timing sleazebag husband of one of Vecchio’s clients. Not that Ray really minded, even if he wasn’t going to come right out and say so. He and Fraser had been doing a lot of that kind of thing lately, a few hours of surveillance here and there, weekends and evenings. The business was booming, and he figured Fraser owed Vecchio the favors. He wasn’t sure how many, exactly, but even judging by the official CPD files it had to be a shitload and then some.

He didn’t even care—not care care—that Vecchio himself had spent the afternoon at the bowling alley with Stella. At this rate, the two of them might as well buy the place. Weird that she liked him, but she liked him, and she’d still be glowing with happiness down at the precinct on Monday, so it was kind of a win-win.

And maybe Ray should’ve been pissed at their assumption he’d play tag-along on the stakeouts, but he wasn’t. Not much, anyway. Yeah, he could have pretended he’d had a hot date lined up, big plans for his Saturday night, but Vecchio wasn’t a PI for nothing; he knew Ray didn’t have anywhere better to be than two feet from wherever Fraser was.

But today—today was Ray’s day off, the one time in the week he had to himself. No case files, no surveillance, nobody bugging him. Today’s to-do list: lounge in bed, doze, watch TV, eat Pop Tarts, doze some more. Maybe take a shower at some point, maybe not. Laundry? He stuck his nose in his pillow and took an experimental sniff. Yeah, laundry might be wise. And if he was going to wash the sheets anyway, no point in keeping them clean now.

He rolled over on the warm, rumpled cotton, sliding his hands under the covers, trying hard not to think about anyone in particular, anything that would make it weird or wrong or skeevy, anything he’d blush to remember tomorrow. No names, no faces. Just a mouth: a hot, wet, anonymous mouth, with soft, mobile lips that could be anyone’s lips, sucking at his bare skin. A tongue that could be anyone’s tongue, licking a slow, burning trail down his belly to his thighs. Strong square hands, deft and sure, grasping at his hips and sliding across to grip his—

The phone rang, its shrill electronic summons shattering the morning peace. It buzzed four times before clicking over to answerphone.

“Ray, I’m sorry to interrupt your day off,” Fraser’s voice said, “but I was wondering whether you might be free later to assist me with something. Perhaps you could call me—”

Ray yanked his hands from the bedclothes and lunged for the phone, the sheets tangling themselves round his legs and trapping him, leaving him dangling half-on, half-off the bed as he snatched the handset from its cradle.

“Yeah, I’m here, I’m here,” he said breathlessly.

“Ah. Good morning, Ray.”

Ray wrenched himself free and slithered out of bed, dropping naked into a crouch on his heap of dirty clothes. “Yeah, whatever. What do you need?”

“I’ve, uh, received a message from an old neighbor of mine who wanted my help,” Fraser said, sounding tentative now, uncertain, as if he could tell that Ray had been otherwise occupied. “She asked whether I might drop by her apartment so that she could explain the matter, but there’s no particular hurry. It could equally well wait until tomorrow, if you—”

“Nah, s’okay. You need a ride?”

“That would be very kind of you, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Ray sighed. “Yeah, it’s trouble, Frase. Trouble’s what I do. See you in thirty.”

He punched the receiver and let his head fall back against the nightstand. Thirty minutes. His laundry would have to wait.

 


 

Ray drummed on the wheel, waiting for the stop light. It flicked to green, and he slammed on the gas, streaking left across the intersection in front of a UPS van.

Fraser rescued his hat as it slid sideways across the dash. “I do apologize for the distance, Ray,” he said. “I could have walked, but my old apartment was chosen for its convenient proximity to the previous consulate, not to the current one.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Ray said, overtaking a garbage truck and cutting back into the traffic. “I needed some air. Got great air, this part of town. So what’s this chick’s name again?”

“Ms. Medina, Ms. Alejandra Medina. She and her family moved to the empty apartment above the laundromat when our original block burned down. Right over there, on the corner.”

Ray swerved into the curb, ignoring the honking from the garbage truck. This whole district was nothing but a slum, half of its buildings boarded up and the burnt-out shell of Fraser’s old tenement block fenced off with high mesh panels. No one had bothered clearing the rubble in the two years since the arson attack; clearly the rental prospects weren’t worth the expense of rebuilding. Ray got out and slammed the GTO’s door in mounting irritation. It pissed him off that anyone had to live like this, and pissed him off more that Fraser used to.

Fraser himself was smiling, nodding pleasantly to the teenager on the corner as if he didn’t know the kid was a gangbanger. He greeted the homeless woman camped in the entrance by the laundromat and held the stairwell door open for Ray, who zipped his jacket up tight and went in, trying not to brush against the walls where they were running wet with condensation.

Upstairs a middle-aged woman ushered them into her apartment, insisting on taking Fraser’s hat and then fussing over where to put it. Eventually she hung it on the corner of a kitchen chair and turned back to them, twisting her sweater cuffs in nervous hands.

“I guess you must be wondering why I called,” she said.

Fraser inclined his head, with a level of gallantry no one else in the twentieth century could have pulled off. “It’s delightful to see you under any circumstances, Ms. Medina, but you did say you needed help. I’ve brought my partner, Detective Kowalski. Ray, this is Ms. Alejandra Medina.”

Alejandra nodded briefly at Ray and tugged back a makeshift curtain that was screening off one corner of the room, where a gaunt, exhausted-looking man lay on a rusting iron bedstead, his lower leg encased in plaster.

“This is my brother Camilo,” she said. “They laid him off, can you believe it? Fifteen years he slaved away at Grunelli Logistics, never a day late, and then the minute he breaks his leg and can’t make it to work, they sack him.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Fraser said. “I know how close you were to paying off your loan.”

“Oh, we’ll cope,” she said, tying back the curtain and pulling her brother’s bedclothes straight. “We always cope. But it won’t be easy, finding a new job with a bum leg, and they ain’t got no call to be laying off Camilo like that! If they were on the up-and-up, they’d give him leave until he was better, but they didn’t like him asking questions, so they just let him go. It ain’t right, I'm telling you. Something stinks. That’s why we called you. ‘Camilo,’ I said, ‘remember that crazy Canadian guy from the old apartments? I’ll call him, he helped everyone, so he’s bound to help us.’ You’ll help us, right?”

Fraser nodded and approached the bed. “With your permission, sir,” he said, lifting the blanket and examining the bandage on the man’s thigh. “You know, this could really do with being seen to by a physician. There’s still a wound here above the cast, with an odor suggestive of active infection.”

He pulled a tub from his belt pouch, gesturing at the bandage, and Ray looked away, swallowing hard. Whatever was in that tub, it was disgusting even before it got mixed with whatever the hell was making that guy’s leg stink. Odor of infection was right; Ray could smell it right through the fog of cigarette smoke filling the place.

“Nah, it’s okay,” Alejandra said. “The doc’s seeing him again tomorrow, and she’s already put him on antibiotics.”

“Well, if you’re sure I can’t—” Fraser began.

“Put it away, Frase,” Ray said. “The guy’s had a tough enough time already.”

Fraser raised an eyebrow. “I don’t remember you objecting when I treated that cut on your forehead last week, Ray.”

“Yeah, well, I’m a born risk-taker. You can’t go doing that kind of thing to civilians.”

Fraser held his gaze a moment, entirely straight-faced. Then he put the little tub back in his pouch and turned to Camilo. “So, perhaps you could tell us how you got hurt, Mr. Medina.”

“Forklift truck,” Camilo said slowly, in a voice as rusty as the bedstead. “Some barrels fell on me, trapped me by the leg.”

He shrugged, and his sister cut in again, giving the impression she generally did the talking for both of them. “It was an industrial accident, that’s what they called it, except they made out it was his fault. Of course it wasn’t his fault! He’s always so careful, he knows what he’s doing, and if they hadn’t—”

“Hey,” Camilo said in a low, warning tone, “this guy’s a cop, Ally.”

“Nah, I’m off the clock,” Ray said quickly. “Plus I’m Major Crimes, so I don’t give a crap about the, uh, small potatoes. Right, Frase?”

Fraser tugged at his earlobe. “Well, I think what you mean is that we would welcome any chance to investigate industrial negligence or malpractice, and that whistleblowers could be assured of their freedom from police harassment regarding any minor misdemeanors they may have committed.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

Alejandra and her brother glanced at each other, and then she jutted her chin and turned to Ray with a determined expression.

“His supervisor claimed he lied,” she said. “But I know my brother, and he ain’t no liar. He knew the job was dangerous—there’s always risks in that line of work, you have to accept that—but the barrels that fell on him, they should have been empty. They were listed as empty.”

Camilo nodded, lighting up another cigarette, and Fraser frowned.

“You know, sir,” he said, “tobacco use is the single most important risk factor for postoperative complications in bone fracture patients. This might be a good time for you to—”

“Fraser, he just lost his job, okay?” Ray said. “The last thing he needs right now is a lecture on smoking.”

“Ah. Understood.”

Camilo cleared his throat. “The one good thing about being laid off,” he said, “is I can smoke all I want.”

“They didn’t let you at work?” Ray asked.

“Nope. Too many chemicals, fire risk. People snuck out back, though. Propped the fire exit open.”

“I bet they did. It was Grunelli Logistics you worked at, huh?” Ray scratched at his stubble, trying to remember why the name sounded familiar. “That the place they got that big warehouse down on West 43rd?”

Camilo shifted, wincing as the blanket caught on his plaster cast. “Yeah, by the railroad. It runs six days a week, eight a.m. till midnight, with two shifts.”

“Just take a look at it, detective,” Alejandra said. “My brother’s a good man and a good worker, I swear he is. For them to get rid of him, to pay him off like that—something ain’t right. We don’t want any trouble, don’t wanna get tagged as whistleblowers, but half the stuff going in and out of the place ain’t what it says it is.”

Ray retrieved Fraser’s hat from the kitchen chair and tossed it to him. “Okay, okay, fine. We’ll check it out. C’mon, Fraser, let’s make tracks.”

Fraser followed him to the door, but at the threshold he paused, hat in hand. “Rest assured, sir, ma’am,” he said, “we’ll do our best to get you justice.”

 


 

They left the GTO parked two blocks from the Grunelli Logistics warehouse an hour before dawn, the dead zone when nightshift workers were at their most exhausted. The building was an uneasy mixture of old and new, as was its security: modern steel railings, twelve feet high, bolted to an ancient brick wall running along two sides of the compound.

The neighboring factory had long since been abandoned, its windows boarded up and its graveled parking lot now a wasteland reverting to primeval forest. Ray shook its chain link fence and looked at Fraser with eyebrows raised, waiting for the inevitable lecture on trespassing. Fraser examined the mesh, pulling at the rusting wires.

“Hmm. Well, we needn’t mention how we gained entry,” he said, his voice perfectly level. “No names, no pack drill, as the saying goes.”

Ray ran this through his head a couple of times. Finally he shrugged. “Works for me.”

Two minutes with his bolt cutters, and he’d clipped a man-sized hole in the fence. He yanked the mesh aside and gestured for Fraser to go first.

“Good work,” Fraser whispered, wriggling through the gap. He headed for the perimeter wall, where he shook a sturdy young tree by its trunk. “This one should do it.”

Ray waited for him to clamber into its branches and then followed, climbing steadily until he was level with the top of the wall. Fraser leaped over like a cat and scrambled down in the corner, where the railings were fixed to the wall. Ray didn’t even attempt that; the fixings were several feet apart, and he wasn’t Spider-Man. Instead he took a firm grasp of the wall’s capstones, swung his legs over, lowered himself until he was dangling full-length in midair, and let go, dropping lightly onto the wet pavement below. He’d had a lot of practice at falling.

Fraser nodded at him, a dark shape against the predawn sky, and Ray nodded back, wiping his muddy hands on his jeans. They ran across the open ground to the warehouse, their footsteps soft splashes in the empty lot, and pressed themselves against the crumbling brickwork either side of the fire exit.

Ray tried to breathe through his mouth as he waited; the air was fetid with cat piss and stale tobacco and rotting bricks. All was silent within the building, no sign of life. His back began to grow cold as the damp seeped through his clothes, and when he twisted his neck he caught the gleam of greenish slime oozing from the broken guttering above. Damn it, his jacket was going to be a mess.

Another five minutes passed, and the security guard came out of the fire exit right on cue, shaking a cigarette from his pack. He smoked it slowly and religiously, his cupped hands shielding it from the breeze, its tip glowing in the twilight. At last he sighed, flicked the butt into a puddle, and went back inside.

Just before the door could snick shut, Ray darted forward and grabbed the edge of it, sliding his fingers into the gap. He waited for the guard’s footsteps to fade out and then levered the door open, sticking his head through.

The space beyond was cavernous, two or three stories high, and filled with rows of metal staging, dimly lit by overhead strips casting just enough light to show him the security guard disappearing through a passageway into the adjoining warehouse.

Ray crept through the fire door and motioned Fraser to follow him. Stacked up on the staging were gray and white and blue plastic barrels by the thousand, in uniform blocks that smelled strongly of ammonia but with something slightly sweet overlying it. The roller doors taking up most of the far wall were sealed shut, and there was a small fleet of forklift trucks lined up by the loading bays. Everything looked tidy and organized, with nothing amiss as far as he could tell.

He went to the nearest stack and peered round it, checking the passageway he’d seen the guard go into. No sign of movement there, until he heard a toilet flush and saw a light flick on in an office alongside the passage. The guard wandered into the office and sat down, flicking the pages of a magazine, making a brightly lit target of himself in the otherwise shadowy building.

“Go, go!” Ray whispered, gesturing over his shoulder. He flattened himself against the nearest barrel, a solid blue-plastic lump that stank of something chemical and didn’t give an inch under his weight. In the dimness he could just make out its warning stickers: toxic, flammable, corrosive. All the good stuff.

Fraser was creeping up and down the row of barrels, with a tiny Maglite glowing orange through his fingers as he examined the labels. He passed Ray, tapping him on the arm and shaking his head as he did so, and slipped into the next aisle.

A flash of movement from the guard: he’d gotten up and moved out of Ray’s line of sight. Ray held his breath until the guy reappeared, holding a mug and sitting back down at his table.

Fraser finished circling the lowermost stacks and began clambering up on the staging, pushing at the barrels to see if they weighed what they should. Ray grimaced and tried not to watch, though he couldn’t help wondering what would happen if any of the containers tumbled to the ground. Fraser had better have a damn good Plan B, because there was no way Ray could talk them out of this one.

More movement in the office, and this time the guard didn’t sit back down, heading instead toward the passageway, his footsteps ringing on the concrete.

“Hey!” Ray whispered, waving frantically at Fraser, who was clinging to a steel joist twenty feet up as he reached for the next level of staging. Fraser’s head jerked up, and he slid to the floor in one smooth movement and sprinted for the nearest cover: two cracked plastic barrels lying empty on their sides behind one of the forklift trucks. Ray, half a second behind, shoved him headfirst into one barrel and dove into the other, pulling what was left of the lid over the gap just as the overhead lights flared into full brightness. He crouched there panting, his arms braced against the sides of the container as it rolled slightly, turning through a few degrees. It came to rest against its neighbor, and he shifted his weight to keep it there, praying it wouldn’t rock.

The footsteps came closer, and tiny flickers from a flashlight beam darted through the gaps in the lid, glancing over the barrel’s interior. Ray lowered his head between his knees, getting dizzier and dizzier as he tried not to breathe. Twenty seconds passed, then thirty, until the footsteps were growing fainter again. Don’t breathe, don’t breathe. Maybe he was imagining it, but his skin was starting to smart, too, almost like burning. Traces of some kind of sticky liquid were dripping onto his head and the bare skin of his neck, presumably whatever chemical the barrel had held. Toxic, flammable, corrosive? Whatever it was, it was freaking him the hell out, and he found himself wishing he hadn’t dragged Fraser to that Alien double bill the previous month.

There was a distant clank from the overhead lights, and the warehouse sank back into its original shadowy dimness. Ray waited another minute and then slid the lid open a crack. No sign of the guard, who must have headed back into the next warehouse. Ray pushed the lid aside and crawled out, scratching at his arms and neck where the barrel’s contents had left a sticky coating.

Fraser had swung himself out of his own hidey-hole—an old bleach container, by the smell of it, but well sluiced—and crouched down beside Ray, his eyebrows raised in question. Ray touched his index finger to his thumb to make the “o” of “okay”, but before he could finish the gesture, Fraser grabbed his hand by the wrist, turned it over, and licked a wet stripe across its palm. Then he paused thoughtfully for a second before running his tongue across it again.

“What the…?” Ray hissed, snatching his hand back and staring at the clean patch left across the grime. By the time he’d snapped out of his shock, Fraser was already halfway to the fire exit, and Ray could only scramble to his feet and follow, wiping his hand on his pants and scowling at Fraser’s retreating back.

They snuck out of the building, shutting the fire door gently behind them and darting across to the perimeter wall. Ray boosted Fraser up to the lowest bracket of the railings and got hauled up in his turn, his muscles burning with the effort. He dropped over the wall, an easy fall onto soft leaf mold, and crawled through the hole in the chain link fence, twisting the wire closed behind them.

Back at the GTO, he tossed his ruined jacket into the trunk and covered the driver’s seat with the protective sheeting which two years of working with Fraser had taught him to keep ready in the car. He climbed onto the crinkling plastic, slammed the door, and rested his head on the steering wheel, breathing hard.

God, he needed a cigarette. He’d quit two years previously for the Vecchio undercover gig—goddamn clean-living flatfoot freak—but now he really needed one. Needed something, anyway, to keep his hands busy. Feeling in his pockets, he came up with a toothpick and stuck that in his mouth instead. Better, though his fingers were still twitchy. He glanced across at Fraser, who was regarding him calmly, his face unreadable.

“Do not—do not say anything about sticky situations,” Ray snapped, “because if you do, I will punch you in the head, I swear to God. And what was that thing with the hand? That was not buddies.”

“No, Ray, it was maple syrup.”

Ray sniffed his fingers. “Maple…?”

“Syrup, yes,” Fraser said. “Not only that, but I believe it came from exactly the same batch I tasted in the alleyway behind the Xenitec offices, based on its characteristic viscosity, translucency, and ratio of vanillin to ligneous compounds.”

“Seriously, you can tell that? Wait, no, dumb question, of course you can tell that.” Ray shook himself and straightened up. “Okay. Okay. Xenitec, huh? Pharmaceutical company, they’re gonna need chemical suppliers, distributors. I guess we could go check whether they got any ties to this place, business links or whatever. Maybe pharmaceuticals aren’t the only thing they’re trading.”

“That sounds like a reasonable plan, yes, and I would suggest we start with this.” Shifting in his seat, Fraser reached inside his jacket and pulled a sheaf of paper from the back of his pants. “It appears to be a spreadsheet of the deliveries in and out of the Grunelli storage facility for the last month.”

Ray took it and flicked through the pages, looking for anything out of place, but nothing caught his eye. “Think they’re gonna notice this is gone?”

“Well, there were a dozen other copies of it, hung on clipboards by the loading bay controls. Besides, I don’t think they’ll miss this particular one.” Fraser pointed to the corner of the top page, where it was marked “Camilo Medina”.

“Huh, guess not.” Ray tossed the list back onto Fraser’s lap and looked around at the industrial park, coming to life now as its various day crews arrived for work. “Okay, daylight’s burning, we gotta go. I’m gonna head back to the Two-Seven, fill Welsh in. You coming?”

Fraser nodded and set his hat on the dash. “Ready when you are, Ray.”

 


 

“Maple syrup? Please tell me you’re kidding, detective,” Lieutenant Welsh said wearily, returning his meatball sub to its greaseproof wrapper and leaning back until his chair creaked in warning.

Ray glanced at Fraser and shifted from one foot to the other, wondering how he got himself into these situations. Performance arsonists, treasure maps, ghost ships, syrup heists: they all sounded quaint, wacky, maybe even fun, until he had to deal with the wrecked lives they left behind, the bodies lying on the slab, the families left homeless, the quiet, resigned workers with the broken legs and ruined livelihoods. It was always the small fry who caught it: the laborers and the goons and the kids on the corner.

He scratched his scalp, feeling syrup ooze slowly down his neck. “It’s valuable stuff, sir,” he said, shrugging. “Worth more than you’d think, anyway.”

“And, as I see it, Lieutenant,” Fraser said, “the most likely reason for storing it in mislabeled barrels would be to conceal an illicit shipment, perhaps one stolen from FPAQ’s stockpile or sold off-quota without their authorization.”

Welsh looked blank. “FPAQ?”

“The Fédération des Producteurs Acéricoles du Québec, sir. The official organization controlling syrup production and sales. You might not think so, but within Canada it is in fact a highly regulated industry.”

“Okay,” Welsh said, “but why store it here? Why Chicago? We got nothing to do with any of that Canadian stuff. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken, sir. And although it may appear counterintuitive at first glance, the city’s central location would make it ideal for secondary distribution to the southern and western states, while its decline as a centre of the meatpacking industry has left a large number of industrial properties standing vacant, properties whose owners might not be inclined to look too closely at the credentials of their tenants, nor at the contents of their storage facilities.”

“Yeah, a lot of empty buildings in that part of town,” Ray said, running a finger inside the neck of his T-shirt, where the sugar had started to crystallize and itch. “Hard to know what shit’s going down there. We don’t have the manpower to watch it twenty-four seven.”

Fraser nodded. “Meanwhile, Chicago’s lack of obvious connections to the syrup trade might actually work in its favor, making it unlikely to be a focus of investigation even if FPAQ auditors did suspect fraud.”

Welsh held up a hand. “Fine, fine. So what’s the plan here?”

“Well, if I might make a suggestion, sir,” Fraser said, “it might be a good idea to advise FPAQ to check their inventory and audit the Quebec central repository, looking for empty barrels or adulterated contents.”

Ray fished a post-it with the contact details out of his pocket and passed it to Welsh. “I’d make the call myself,” he said, “but we gotta be real careful who we speak to here. No one can shift that kind of stock without being seen, so it has to have been an inside job—bribes, kickbacks, whatever. The call’s probably better coming from you.”

“Right,” Welsh said, peering at the scrawled note. “Plus we don’t wanna start World War Three. Goddamn Canadians hate being told what to do.”

Ray glanced at Fraser, who’d opened his mouth and lifted a hand in polite protest. Ray snagged him by the elbow and tugged it down again.

Welsh had stuck the post-it on his phone handset, and he picked up his sandwich instead, glaring at it meaningfully. “I believe we’re done here, gentleman,” he said. “If you’re looking for the door, it’s right there.”

 


 

Ray was bending over the sink in the Two-Seven’s restroom, trying to get the syrup out of his hair, when the door creaked open and someone cleared his throat. Fraser, had to be Fraser.

“Ray? Are you okay?”

Ray looked up, blinking through a cascade of soapy water. “Nah, I’m drowning here. I need…what was that thing called? Buddy breathing. I need some of that.”

“Ah. So I see.” Fraser pulled a wad of paper towels from the dispenser and came over to the sink, where he stood with his back to the counter, passing them to Ray one by one.

Ray wiped his face with a sticky hand and tried to blot at his eyes and neck. His hair was a mess, and there was no way he could fix it now, not without gel. Grabbing a handful of the towels, he mashed them to his scalp, trying to slick the whole lot back.

“Ray, wait, it’s going down your… Oh dear.”

“What?” Ray straightened and looked at himself in the mirror, his eyes stinging from the soap. There were dark blotches all over his T-shirt, and his hair was…his hair was not good.

Fraser hesitated, making a sketchy gesture toward Ray’s back, which, okay, yeah, had to be a mess too. Then he cracked his neck briskly to each side as if he’d come to some sudden decision, the taut tendons stretching with an audible pop, and stepped behind Ray, his face obscured in the mirror. Ray felt careful hands lifting his T-shirt away from his back, and scratchy paper scraping down his bare skin, and he hissed in a breath and kept very still, his fingers clenched tight on the cold porcelain of the sink.

“Ray?” Fraser said. He was standing way too close, so close Ray could feel the heat coming off him, with one hand at Ray’s waist, the other at his collar, motionless now, like a tin soldier waiting for orders.

“What?” Ray said cautiously.

“Did you…did you still need that air?”

Ray laughed, a sudden sharp exhalation. His chest hurt.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I could use some of that air right about now.”

Abruptly Fraser let Ray’s T-shirt fall and tossed the towels toward the counter, half of them missing it and tumbling to the floor in a welter of puddles and sodden paper. Ignoring the mess, he tugged at Ray’s shoulder, hauling him away from the sink, stumbling with him across the wet floor until he had him backed into one of the stalls and up against the partition. The cubicle door slammed shut behind them, leaving them in shadow, and even as Ray tried to find words to ask Fraser what the hell he thought he was doing, he felt Fraser’s mouth on his mouth, Fraser’s tongue slick and hot on his tongue, and this wasn’t buddy breathing, this wasn’t buddy breathing at all, not the way he remembered it, anyway, but he didn’t give a damn about breathing, not when he had Fraser’s whole body pressed hard and insistent against his, and Fraser’s strong hands sliding down his sides, grasping and stroking and skimming across his pants, and he was so turned on he couldn’t think, couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but—

Wait, no, wait.

He pulled away, panting. If Fraser wanted this, then Ray was good with it—he was all over it—but they should take it slow, they should definitely take it slow, because Fraser was gonna freak out at some point and he really didn’t want Fraser to freak out. But Fraser wasn’t taking it slow, he was leaning forward again, shoving Ray against the door with both hands, pushing his tongue into Ray’s mouth, his eyes dark and heavy-lidded, and Ray let him, pushing back, sucking and biting at Fraser’s lips, because this was Fraser’s call, and Ray couldn’t be the one to stop it, not now. His T-shirt had gotten rucked up to his armpits somehow, and Fraser had a hand down the back of his jeans, cupping his ass, and Fraser’s mouth was trailing down his neck, tracing his collarbone, sucking at a nipple, hot and fierce, with a sharp scrape of teeth that set Ray’s nerves singing. He knotted his fists in Fraser’s shirt and hauled him closer, shoving urgently at his thigh, trying and failing to take it slow, because he couldn’t take it slow, not this, not now.

Fraser pulled back just enough to slide his other hand between them, stroking Ray’s jeans, squeezing him through the denim, making him groan and push into the touch, the friction just the right side of painful, and fuck, Ray wasn’t going to last, not at this rate. He was way too old to come in his pants, but he was going to anyway, if Fraser didn’t, if he didn’t…

Ray jerked his head back, connecting with a thud on the cubicle wall. Fraser looked up, questioning, and raised his hand to Ray’s waistband, where he hesitated only a moment at the jeans button before yanking at the corners and popping the rest open with a single tug; thank God for button flies. He got Ray’s shorts shoved down a few inches, good enough, and then his hand was on Ray, bare skin on bare skin, stroking him hard and fast, no hesitation now, and Ray was groaning into Fraser’s mouth at the pressure of it. Hard and fast—too fast. He needed this to last, needed to slow it down, stop the intensity, stop the energy building, but he couldn’t stop it; it was bigger than him, stronger than him, and he could only bite down on Fraser’s collar and thrust into Fraser’s fist, over and over, until he was arching and shuddering and coming all over himself.

Shit, shit… He leaned against the door, panting up at the ceiling and trying to marshal his thoughts through the fog of arousal and dizziness. His legs were shaking, and he could feel Fraser propping him upright with his full weight, hear Fraser gasping raggedly beside his ear. He should’ve…he’d meant to…

Shit.

He took a deep, shocky breath and tried to push Fraser back enough to reach for him like he’d meant to do in the first place. Fumbling with clumsy, uncoordinated fingers, he managed to get Fraser’s jeans undone, but Fraser growled and batted his hands away and ground his hips into Ray’s, sliding against the slickness there, thrusting three or four times before his rhythm broke and he convulsed hard, coming hot and wet onto Ray’s wet skin.

Ray held him through the aftershocks, murmuring meaningless endearments and stroking his back while he heaved for breath. Fraser’s head was heavy on Ray’s shoulder, his breathing hoarse and jagged. Ray ran his fingers gently through Fraser’s hair, smoothing it into place with all the patience now that had eluded him before, trying to give Fraser enough time to pull himself together.

At last Fraser raised his head and loosened his grip on Ray’s torso, stepping back and allowing some space between them. Ray looked down at his stomach and snorted.

“Okay,” he said, “now I’m sticky.”

Fraser gave him a tentative smile, his face still flushed, and reached for the toilet roll with unsteady hands. He unwound a wad of paper and made as if to clean Ray off with it, but then he hesitated, holding it out awkwardly for Ray to take instead.

“I’m sorry about the, uh…” he muttered, with a stiff little gesture encompassing everything from Ray’s ruined shirt to his crumpled shorts.

“Nah, it’s fine, don’t worry,” Ray said quickly. Not quickly enough, though. He could see Fraser’s smile becoming tight and uneasy, his eyes evasive, and Ray knew exactly what would come next: dismay, panic, guilt, denial—the usual parade—and then silence, because there was no way they’d ever be able to talk about this. He’d watched it happen with every guy he’d ever slept with, and he couldn’t bear to stand here and watch it again, because this time it was Fraser, and because he’d barely gotten started on the things he wanted to do to Benton Fraser, the things he wanted Fraser to do to him.

He yanked his jeans up, swiped at the stickiness on his belly, and chucked the paper into the toilet. Words were running in a loop in his head: Don’t think, just go with your instincts. Take a deep breath and jump.

“Okay, yeah, I stink,” he said, as lightly as he could. “Wanna come take a shower with me?”

Fraser blinked slowly and then reached out and smoothed Ray’s T-shirt down so that its hem was covering the worst of the wet spots, his hands lingering warm and shaky on Ray’s hips. “Yes,” he said, his voice cracking with relief. “I would like that very much, Ray, yes.”

 


 

“A full set, uh-huh, twenty bucks,” Frannie said into the phone, spreading her fingers wide and admiring her nails. “She’s booked up all next week, but I can probably talk her into… Yeah, I know, it’s a steal.”

Ray slouched against the wall by Frannie’s desk, head down, resigned. There was zero chance he could navigate Major Crimes’ crazy-assed filing system by himself, and less than zero chance Frannie was going to help him until she was done giving Darlene from Accounting the full lowdown on her manicure, so he had nothing to do but wait. The Grunelli warehouse records had thrown up a whole list of suspicious entries—drug precursor shipments allegedly sent from holding companies in Maine which on investigation lacked any facilities for chemical manufacture—but finding evidence of the real provenance was proving a pain in the ass. FPAQ had no jurisdiction outside Quebec, and even with Fraser sweet-talking the RCMP into tracking cross-border tanker movements, the trail had gone cold in New Brunswick. What Ray needed was dirt on the Xenitec and Grunelli executives, and he needed it fast.

“Uh-huh, that’s just what I said to Janine,” Frannie said into the phone, curling a lock of her hair around one finger. “Yeah, blush pink, exactly, shading through tangerine. I know, it would really bring out your highlights.” Leaning toward Ray, she covered the mouthpiece and hissed, “Don’t touch anything.” Then, back to Darlene, “Sorry, sorry. Sheesh, these guys...”

Ray snatched up the paperback from the corner of her desk and perched there in its place, drumming a foot on the desk’s modesty panel. He checked the book’s cover: High Plains Hearts. Hmm. Not as shitty-looking as last week’s In the Billionaire’s Secret Harem, at least. The hero of this one was rancher Chase McCall—tall, dark, ruggedly handsome, good with a lasso, and yeah, kind of cute. Chase might be hetero, but there was no way the cover model was. Ray wouldn’t have minded getting roped in by him, especially if he kept the Stetson on.

Frannie rapped on the desk, and Ray glanced up guiltily.

“Is Fraser here?” she demanded.

“Nope, just me. I need—”

She silenced him with another death glare and returned to Darlene and the acrylics and blush-pink whatevers.

He snorted and went back to flicking the pages. Frannie and Fraser, ha, that was a funny one, and not just because of the obvious things, either. Girl versus boy, short versus tall, airhead versus walking encyclopedia: none of that stuff mattered, not when the chips were down. Ray of all people should know that.

The real difference was, Frannie actually believed her own bullshit, or some of it anyway. She wasn’t dumb—he’d been her stand-in brother long enough to have gotten that one figured out—but in spite of her smarts and her cynicism and her bitching about men and their failings, underneath all of that she believed that if she waited long enough, if she was a good girl and always said her prayers and picked fuchsia instead of tangerine or whatever the fuck the magic combination was, in the end she’d win a prince or a billionaire or a Chase McCall, bulging pecs and Stetson and all.

And Fraser—hell, Ray wasn’t sure Fraser believed in anything. Bullshitter extraordinaire, yeah, but only because it worked. If he could convince someone that he believed in the essential goodness of humanity, that he really thought they could be a better person if they tried, sometimes they’d go right ahead and do it. Okay, sometimes they’d screw him and the horse he rode in on, but if he could spin the lies just right (and Fraser was a world-class liar, an Olympic champion of evasion), he could get them onside often enough to be worth the bluff.

All of which was fine by Ray. Frannie could sit and wait for her perfect hero all she liked, just as long as Fraser was happy to settle for a total fuck-up instead. A total fuck-up like Ray.

Frannie hung up the phone at last and turned to him, folding her arms defiantly. “Don’t give me that look,” she said. “I’ve gone through everything you asked for already. Xenitec Inc and Grunelli Logistics, right? No rap sheets on the senior execs, no overlap on personnel, nothing on the national crime database. I called Shona from the Organized Crime Task Force and she says they got nothing either. Only thing I found is this.” She pulled a couple of pages from her in-tray. “Check out the educational sections on their résumés.”

Ray skimmed through the sheets: one for Cara Grunelli, head of Grunelli Logistics, and one for Beth Fisher, Xenitec CEO. “What, they went to the same college?”

“Yeah, and they’re about the same age, see, so they could’ve met. So I called up the college bursar and pretended I was Cara Grunelli. Simple, ’cause I had her date of birth and everything. I said I was thinking of sending my daughter there, y’know, had to check she was gonna be safe—”

“Uh, Grunelli’s kid is six years old, Frannie.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, like I was gonna tell the bursar that. So she said yeah, my kid could share a room, all the rooms were still doubles like in my day. I said yeah, my old roomie and me were still friends, and guess what she said then?”

Ray was toeing the wastepaper can, watching it tip and right itself. “I dunno, just spit it out. Time’s money.”

Frannie gave him the patient look she’d honed on her three-year-old nephew. “She said, ‘Oh, that must be Beth Fisher.’”

Ray knocked the trash can over, spilling candy wrappers across the hallway. “Seriously?” he said. “Xenitec’s CEO and Cara Grunelli were roommates?”

“Yup. It’s all in here, background and everything.” Frannie waved a cardboard file at him. “Knock yourself out.”

Ray grabbed it and headed for the front doors, pulling his car keys from his jacket pocket.

“You’re welcome!” Frannie called after him, and he spun back, holding the file up.

“I’ll, uh, tell Fraser it was you that found this, okay?”

That got a smile from her, a real pretty smile that made him feel kind of a heel.

“You better,” she said. “And, Ray, dinner at Ma’s tonight, remember? Try to turn up before we finish eating, this time.”

 


 

Ray ignored the usual Vecchio family squabbles as he poked at his salad, picking suspicious bits out. Tomato, radish, fine, those he could deal with. Cucumber and arugula, nuh-uh. He piled the rejects on a lettuce leaf and slid it across to Fraser’s plate when Mrs. Vecchio wasn’t looking.

“You really ought to be grateful for those,” Fraser murmured, frowning in mock reproval, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Do you realize how difficult it would be to obtain fresh salad greens in a Yukon winter?”

“Nah, that got filed under Shit I’ll Never Need to Know.” Ray took a long swig of his Coke and licked his lips slowly, so that Fraser had to blink and look away. Ray had made himself designated driver, which meant that once they’d dropped off Frannie’s latest shell-shocked boyfriend of the week, he and Fraser could swing by his apartment on their way to the consulate. Swing by and damn well stay there a couple of hours, because hurried fumbles in the consulate’s restroom or up against Fraser’s office door, yeah, those were good, those were way better than a kick in the head, but somewhere with a bed and lube and condoms and privacy, that was greatness. He hadn’t talked Fraser into staying the night yet—hadn’t asked him, wasn’t planning to—but they could spend a couple of hours at Ray’s place without anyone thinking it was queer.

Best of it was, Fraser wouldn’t say no. The more they did, the more he seemed to want, as if he had a lifetime of wanting to catch up with. Okay, so he’d probably tire of it soon. He’d figure out he didn’t need Ray, that he could have anyone he wanted. All the more reason to make the most of it now.

Ray took a bite of his beef cannelloni, burning his tongue on the cheese sauce, and eyed the dish of garlic bread. It was Mrs. Vecchio’s own recipe, hot and fragrant, loaded with butter and crisped golden at the edges. Fraser was halfway through his own slice, his fingers shiny with grease, and he’d already helped himself to a second, so that was okay: they’d both stink. Ray reached for a piece and caught Vecchio smirking at him from across the table.

“What?” he said defensively.

“Y’know, Ma probably put half a head of garlic in the cannelloni too.”

“So?”

“Just offering you helpful dietary advice, little bro.”

Ray shot him his best fuck-off glare and aimed a kick at him under the table, hitting Frannie’s bare leg instead and making her shriek. He sighed. It was going to be one of those evenings.

 


 

In the event, Frannie was distracted by Fraser asking her boyfriend about his new Weimaraner puppy, and the dinner went on smoothly enough, by Vecchio family standards. Weimaraner stories led inevitably to wolf stories, which led to Arctic adventure stories, and after a while Ray left Fraser to it and went to wash the dishes, just him and Ray Vecchio and a mountain of dirty plates.

“So, Frannie told me you’re looking into Grunelli Logistics,” Vecchio said, as soon as the kitchen door had swung shut behind them.

Ray flipped the faucet on and stuck his thumb under the stream. The house’s plumbing was old, inefficient, and it always took a while for the water to run hot. “Maybe we are, maybe we’re not,” he said. “Ever heard of a thing called confidentiality?”

“Wind your neck in, Kowalski. I get it, I left the firm, I’m not family anymore. You want the skinny or not?” Vecchio fetched a pile of dishtowels and flipped through them slowly, making a show of it, until Ray scowled and gave in.

“Okay, okay, yeah, we’re looking into them. We think they might be trading something under the radar. So?”

So,” Vecchio said, “a Mr. Gene Grunelli turned up in my office last week, wanting his wife tailed to see if she’s screwing around. The guy’s a skeez, and he doesn’t give a hoot about her, as far as I can tell, but she’s got all the dough, and he’s scared she’ll keep the house and the kid and he’ll end up being the divorced loser dad who can’t afford to buy his little princess a pony for her birthday.”

“Gene Grunelli—that’s Cara Grunelli’s husband? Did he say who the other guy was?”

“Nope, he didn’t know, but he’d caught his wife out in a bunch of lies, saying she was gonna be someplace when she wasn’t, plus a couple of phone calls she hung up on too quick when he walked in. The usual crapola. I dunno if she’s cheating on him, but something stinks in the whole situation.”

“Huh,” Ray said. “Are you gonna tail her? ’Cause me and Fraser, we could do that. We were gonna do that anyway, only we didn’t have enough juice for the Lieu to sign off on it. Anything we can turn up on this case, it’s golden. You get what you need, we get what we need, everyone wins, right?”

“Right. Except maybe the kid.”

Ray winced. “Yeah, well, there’s always collateral damage.”

There was a loud whooping from the living room as someone reached the punchline of a story, and they both paused, listening to the muffled laughter that followed. Vecchio finished stacking the plates and crouched to put them away in the cupboard.

“So,” he said casually as he stood up again, “you and Fraser, huh? I guess I shoulda seen that one coming.”

The glass bowl Ray was washing slipped into the sink, splattering him with foam. He shot a look at Vecchio.

“Me and…?”

“Hey, watch it, knucklehead! You break Ma’s pannacotta dish, you break her heart.” Vecchio took a fresh dishtowel and wiped the splashes from the kitchen counter. “And I’m not blind, Kowalski. Fraser looks at you the way Frannie looks at tiramisu. He always did.”

Shit, SHIT. Ray glanced over his shoulder at the door, swinging loose on its hinges. “Do the rest of them know?” he hissed.

“Nah. Maybe. No one’s said anything.”

“So keep your voice down!”

“Fine, whatever, Mr. Out and Proud.”

“Shut up! Jesus Christ.” Ray dredged the bowl from the suds and flipped it over, checking for cracks. He set it on the draining board and leaned against the counter, sagging until his forehead was almost touching the bubbles. His pulse was hammering in his ears; at this rate he’d be dead of a heart attack by forty and it’d be too late to care which way he’d swung. Vecchio wouldn’t say anything, though, right? Right. Probably.

He exhaled and straightened up. “Okay, yeah. Me and Fraser, it’s…whatever. It’s a thing. Didn’t mean it to be, but it is. So you, what, you don’t mind? Not that I give a shit, but he maybe does, so…”

Vecchio was silent long enough to dry a heap of silverware and lay it all back in the cutlery drawer, piece by piece. “Do you mind that I’m seeing your ex-wife?” he said finally.

“Yeah, I mind, asshole.”

“Then you get where I’m at.” He shrugged, his hands spread wide. “Just don’t mess it up, okay? Fraser’s had enough fuck-ups messing with him already. He doesn’t need you.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m not a fuck-up.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

Ray tossed a handful of suds at him, most of which landed on his own shirt. “Screw you, Vecchio. I’m not gonna mess this up. Not with him.”

“Great,” Vecchio said, flicking his wet dishtowel at Ray’s ear. “Then I won’t have to sic Stella on you.”

“You wouldn’t—Ow!”

“Boys, boys!” Mrs. Vecchio snapped, shoving the door open. She waded into the fight, pulling them apart with practiced ease. “Raymondo, give me the towel. You, biondo, go sit. Children, Dio mio, who’d have them?”

Ray retreated to the corridor, wiping his hands on his pants. “Not gonna mess it up, though,” he muttered to himself. “Not this time.”

 


 

Ray heard about the letter in the shittiest way possible. Inspector Thatcher must have called Welsh right after she told Fraser, because the Lieu summoned Ray into his office, grim-faced, and yanked the blinds closed and told him to take a seat—which Ray didn’t, because whatever had gone down, he could see it was bad. Bad enough he needed to be on his feet, ready to fight if fighting was called for, which in his experience it generally was.

Welsh tapped his pen on his message pad, where a scrawled note read ‘Fraser—two months.’

“Look, Kowalski,” he said, “this thing with the constable, it was screwy anyway, but it worked, so I let it go on way longer than I shoulda done. Solve rate like that, who gives a damn?”

Ray eyed him warily. This thing with the constable, what did that mean?

“But it was temporary, right?” Welsh said. “They were always gonna send him back eventually. Don’t worry, though, I’ll get you a real good partner. I was thinking maybe Katrina Silva, she’s transferring back from Philly in a couple months, their loss. Smart as a whip, good police, you’ll like her.” He paused. “Detective? You hear me?”

Ray turned to the door and then back to Welsh, his hands clenched. “Uh…”

“Look, take a while to think about it, okay? Take the rest of the day off. You don’t gotta decide right away.”

Ray stared at Welsh, at the weirdly apologetic look that was all wrong for his craggy face. Weirdly sympathetic, too, as if any minute he was going to start telling Ray how sorry he was for his loss, if Ray didn’t get his damn mouth in gear and say something—anything—first.

“Right,” he said blankly. “Right, yeah, I’ll think about it.”

He left Welsh’s office, shutting the door behind him real carefully, and walked down the corridor at a steady pace and made it all the way round the corner and down the next corridor and into the locker room, where he stood and waited for the door to click shut before he let any of the words filter through to the part of his brain where sounds were turned into sense.

Then he turned and pounded his fists on the wall of lockers and kicked at the doors again and again, smashing at the metal until it buckled inward and the hinges snapped and his knuckles ran crimson and the toes of his boots were gouged too deep ever to be fixed. He slumped down against the twisted steel, arms wrapped defensively around himself, waiting for the world to level out, for his mind to grasp that “temporary” meant “over”.

Five minutes he crouched there, maybe ten. No one came in, no more sympathy, and after a while he found he could breathe steadily again, more or less. He raised his head and checked his knuckles, which were still bleeding sluggishly, oozing onto his jeans. They’d mend; they always did, though the scabs healed a little more slowly each time. Fraser was right: Ray was graying, getting old, and his skin knew that, even if he didn’t.

Stupid thing was, it was Vecchio’s locker he’d broken. It’d been his for a while, but he’d had to switch six months ago, and he hadn’t bothered switching back when Vecchio left again. He got to his feet and tried to bend its door into shape, but he couldn’t get a good grip on it, managing only to rip his palm open on its jagged edge. More blood on the metal now, and that made him feel kind of better, the pain and the mess, both.

No one said anything when he went out through the bullpen. No one was even looking except for Frannie, but she eyed his hand where he’d wrapped it in an old T-shirt, and she snatched up a bundle of paper napkins and headed for the locker room, giving his arm a brief squeeze as she passed.

 


 

Ray lay on his couch all afternoon, staring at the shadows moving across the ceiling, as he waited for Fraser’s shift at the consulate to finish. None of this was Fraser’s fault, he knew that. There was nothing Fraser could do about it, either. It could have been worse. They’d gotten around to fucking, at least, and that was something, given how long they might have danced around each other and done fuck-all. Two months, the note had said, so Ray had that much left.

By the time Fraser turned up, the streetlights were on. He ignored the fact that Ray had given him duplicate keys and knocked politely as he always did, as if it were a normal day and nothing was wrong. Ray checked the corridor was clear and pulled him into the hallway, slamming the apartment door behind him.

“I, uh…” Fraser began, and for a moment Ray thought that he might not mention his meeting with Thatcher at all, that he might just let the time run down and get on a plane and go. He’d always been a coward that way. But he hesitated only a second before fumbling in his coat and pulling out a folded sheet of paper, the transfer notice that Ray didn’t need to see. Ray grabbed it and tossed it onto the breakfast bar, wincing at the pain in his bandaged hand.

“Forget it,” he said. “Welsh told me already. Nothing else to say.”

Fraser clearly wasn’t going to leave it at that. “I’m sorry, Ray,” he said, the words sounding stiff and formal, as if he’d been rehearsing them the whole afternoon, which he probably had. “I didn’t know about this, truly. I would never have…” He trailed off, rubbing hard at his neck.

“Never have what?” Ray demanded.

Fraser reached for the letter but stopped short and backed away instead, retreating into the kitchen. “I would never have…led you on in the way that I did.”

“Led me on? What the hell? Not a chick here, Fraser! You don’t have to marry everyone you screw. No one ever teach you that?” And Ray laughed aloud at the shock on Fraser’s face, because, yeah, Fraser would probably have felt obliged to sign on the dotted line if he could, because he was Mr. Old-Fashioned Chivalry all over, and wasn’t that the dumbest thing ever? “Relax, okay, Frase?” he said. “My dad’s not coming after you with a shotgun anytime soon.”

“Perhaps not, but—”

“What did you expect, anyway? White picket fences? Newsflash: not gonna be any of those. Not with me.”

“I do realize that, but it was hardly fair of me—”

“Yeah, well, you picked the wrong planet for fairness, Space Boy.” Ray blew out a breath and ran a sweaty hand through his hair, letting the cool air reach his scalp. “Look, forget it, okay? Not your fault, whatever, doesn’t matter. You’re here now, so just c’mere, will ya?”

Fraser blinked and stayed exactly where he was, and after all the things that might have pissed Ray off, that was the one that really got his goat. He advanced on Fraser, backing him into the fridge door.

“Come the fuck here, Fraser.”

Fraser flattened himself against the metal, his hands held out an inch from Ray’s chest as if to fend him off without touching him. “I really am sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I should—”

“Shut up, just shut up!” Ray took another step, crowding into Fraser’s space, all the rage he’d spent the afternoon trying to beat down gripping him now in a wave of hot fury. He knocked Fraser’s hands aside and shoved up against him with enough force to hurt. The transfer might not be Fraser’s fault, but this, this was. “Don’t tell me you don’t want this,” he spat. “You want this.”

“I don’t, Ray. Not like this.”

“You fucking liar, you do, I know you do. Take your coat off.”

Fraser’s body was steady against Ray’s, unmoving, and Ray was starting to shake now.

“Take it off,” he said, ducking his head so Fraser wouldn’t see the wetness in his eyes. “Your coat, your shirt, take it all off. Goddamn it, just take it off!”

He yanked at Fraser’s tunic, trying to loosen the mess of belts and straps, fumbling with the buckle he could never get undone. He couldn’t, it wouldn’t, and Fraser still wasn’t moving. Ray’s bandaged hand caught on the metal, making him hiss, and he gave up on the belt and leaned his forehead on Fraser’s shoulder, breathing in the sharp, hot scent of wool.

“You think you owe me, you stupid fuck?” he said, his words coming back to him muffled and deadened by the cloth. “Okay, you owe me. You owe me this. For fuck’s sake, you have to… you gotta… Christ, please, Frase, please…

Fraser shook his head, no, no, but then his rigid stance slackened and crumpled, and his arms were around Ray and he was holding him close, stroking clumsy, desperate fingers across his back, over his shoulders, through his hair, with his cheek pressed against Ray’s, his breath harsh in Ray’s ear, and maybe he was crying, too, or maybe it was just Ray.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, Ray, you have to believe me. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

 


 

The kitchen at the consulate was in mismatched sections: industrial-scale steel units for event catering, plus one domesticated corner full of tea canisters and cookie jars and half-empty juice bottles, all initialed and dated in Constable Turnbull’s over-precise handwriting. A box of English Breakfast teabags stood open by the kettle, along with a jar marked “Det. K, 09/10/99.”

Ray threw his coffee spoon in the sink and sat astride a kitchen chair, propping Cara Grunelli’s case file in front of him. There was a whole sheaf of papers that he needed to catch up on, two weeks’ worth since he’d last had time to look at them, but he found himself fidgeting with them instead, tapping them sideways and lining them up again with the table’s edge. So many cases, so much work, and he was so tired of trying to fight it all. It never stopped, none of it ever stopped, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to get a time-out just because his own life was in freefall.

He shoved the file across the tabletop, knocking it into Fraser’s teacup to make him look up. “So, the Grunelli case,” he said. “You gotta update me here, Benton buddy, ’cause my eyes are fried. The only person she’s been seeing much of is her old friend Beth Fisher, that right?”

Fraser sighed and put the file aside. “There’s no evidence of her having regular meetings with anyone else, no. Ray Vecchio has been monitoring her for some time without result, and I haven’t been able to identify any suspicious phone calls or unusual transactions in her bank records, so it seems improbable she’s having an affair, however discreetly managed.”

“Unless it’s Beth she’s sleeping with.” Ray caught Fraser’s look of surprise. “What? Two people keep meeting up, same line of work, same gender, and everyone assumes it’s just business?” He gestured between himself and Fraser. “Ain’t always true, is it?”

Fraser looked away, the corners of his mouth twisted down. “I suppose not. Nevertheless, as far as extramarital liaisons go, there’s no particular evidence for Ray Vecchio to report to Mr. Grunelli, and nothing for us to take to Lieutenant Welsh either.”

“Great. Another dud.” Ray leaned forward on the chair, cradling his coffee and watching Fraser rub idly at the rim of his teacup. It had been a shitty day, one of those days when they arrived too late at every scene to stop people getting hurt, and lab tests came up blank, and witnesses swore blind they’d been elsewhere the whole time. Fraser had stood ramrod straight, listening politely to all the lies and offering incident report numbers and victim helpline details as if that could fix things, and only now, late into the evening, was he slumped in his seat, dog-tired and despondent in a way he wouldn’t allow anyone but Ray to see.

And it struck Ray then, with a sudden flare of anger that had him shoving his chair away and stalking over to the window, his shoulders hunched, that this—this was what he really wanted. Okay, yeah, and sex too, because he was human and Fraser was hot and it couldn’t not be about sex on some level. But this—Fraser sitting at the shabby pine table, exhausted and unselfconscious, with his Henley rumpled up and the too-long hair at his temples softening and crinkling in the steam from his tea—this was what Ray needed, what he couldn’t have, and the sheer unfairness of it made him clench his hands into fists on the aluminum counter, with no one to blame but craving a fight anyway.

He stared out at the city, with its dark blocks muscling in on the sickly orange glow of downtown, and reached for the cigarette pack that should have been in his shirt pocket. Finding his glasses instead, he put them on and watched the smudged rectangles beyond the consulate grounds resolve into stark silhouettes bristling with aerials and masts and AC vents.

This—what he had here now—this might have been enough, if it had never changed, if Fraser never left. For a crazy moment, Ray imagined bringing a custody suit against the RCMP, getting Stella to take the case pro bono: the State versus Benton Fraser’s private life, demanding access every other weekend, plus spring break and two weeks in the Arctic every summer. Even in the real world, the uncrazy world, he would probably still get to see Fraser now and then. Vacations twice a year, Christmas, birthdays. See him, get hypothermic, get laid. Maybe that would be enough.

He let his gaze blur and refocus on the surface of the glass: a dimly lit kitchen, with his own weary reflection staring back at him, and in the background a man in a soft, battered leather jacket watching him with unguarded wistfulness.

He could do this. He could do this. Or if he couldn’t do this, maybe there was Canada after all.

 


 

“But you hated Canada!” Stella said. “You’ve told me that, like, a hundred times. You never quit bitching about the cold and the darkness and the freezing your ass off and the, the, being made to eat weird shit. You hated it.”

Ray poked at the food on his plate. It was tepid and congealing already, every bit as appetizing as subarctic rations. He’d known this conversation would be a bad idea. Why the hell did he keep starting things that were a bad idea?

“Yeah, I know,” he said, “but—”

“And what about your job? It’s not like you can get a transfer to the RCMP. Fifteen years I gave you grief for the crazy hours you worked, and I couldn’t get you to quit. Now you walk out just because Fraser tells you to?”

“He didn’t tell—”

“Plus, what about your mom? What about—”

“I know, I know!” It came out way too loud, and Ray ducked his head, glancing around the restaurant. No one was watching them, but he lowered his voice anyway. “I know all that, okay? My job, my family, every damn thing I got. I stay here, I get to keep all of that. It’s just, I get to keep it by myself.”

That earned him a sharp look, a worm-in-the-witness-stand kind of look, and yeah, it sounded pathetic. It was pathetic. It was true, though. Stay in Chicago and he’d be staying alone. (And since when had “without Fraser” started to mean “alone”?)

“Look, I’m the one with the choice,” he said, trying to keep his tone level and reasonable, just a nice, normal guy having a nice, normal conversation with his ex-wife here, folks. “Fraser did his time, but now his tour’s up. Whole bunch of people want the consulate gig, and most of ’em got more seniority than him, so he’s out on his ass, no green card, no nothing. Not his fault, none of it’s his fault. So yeah, I happen to be the one with the choice.”

“Jesus, Ray!” Stella’s eyes had gone wide, and she put down the forkful of food she’d been about to take.

“What?” he said, instantly defensive. “What did I say now?”

“You’re going, aren’t you? You’re actually going!”

“No, I probably…I mean, I haven’t decided…”

“Christ on a crutch, of course you have! Wait, no, don’t...” She reached across the table and laid a hand on his forearm, the old familiar gesture she’d tried to calm him with a thousand times, just before he slammed the apartment door and went looking for a brawl. “Sorry, I don’t mean to yell at you, Ray. It’s just, you must have decided, because it’s not really a choice, is it? There isn’t really a choice, because you’re not the kind of guy that backs down. You never were. It’s one of the stupid things that made me fall in love with you in the first place.”

He was shaking now, his hands visibly shaking, and he couldn’t seem to stop. He pulled away from her grip. “Yeah, right,” he said. “Made you divorce me, you mean.”

She laughed, the sound oddly close to normal. “Probably. I’m right, though, aren’t I? I knew you liked him, I just didn’t think… I mean, Canada, jeez.” She paused a moment and then leaned in for the kill. “Does he even know you’re going? Does he know why?”

He shrugged, defeated. Yeah, no, maybe. Way too many questions, and Stella had always been way too perceptive, and, wait, why was Canada the sticking point?

“But this is what I think it is, right?” she asked, sounding suddenly unsure. “You and him?”

“Yeah,” he said, his face hot. “Yeah, I guess, only I didn’t… We haven’t… I haven’t said anything, but he probably, uh...”

“Oh, sweetheart.” She reached for his arm again and squeezed it gently. “You really don’t take the easy option, do you? Look, never mind, none of my business. God, it’s weird, though. I mean, no, it’s fine, I’m not freaking out. It’s just weird that it’s you, you know?”

He nodded. Fair enough, weird that it was him.

“You just…just as long as you’re happy, I guess,” she said. “Because that I do give a damn about, believe it or not.”

He nodded again. There weren’t a whole lot of ways to say “I fucked him but I didn’t tell him I meant it”, so he didn’t try. Stella didn’t need to know any of that, anyway. There were things you could tell your smart, gorgeous ex-wife and there were things you couldn’t.

She waved the issue away. “Okay, so, practicalities. Lemme see. How long before his transfer goes through, before he actually has to leave?”

“Uh…” Ray floundered, his mind reeling. “Uh, six weeks. Six weeks, three days, give or take.”

“Give or take, not that you’re counting. God, I’m so dumb. Why on earth didn’t I catch this sooner?” She drummed her forefingers on the table. “So how much notice do you have to give?”

“At work?” he said stupidly. “I dunno, a month? I, uh, I probably gotta speak to Welsh about it.”

“You need to make an appointment with HR, you mean. Do that ASAP. Make sure you check your start date, your early pension deductions, your undercover allowances. Don’t work a part-year if you can help it. Call your union rep, too. And who’s your financial advisor?”

“Uh…”

“Jesus, Ray, you’re not still with that clown you had for the divorce? Here, call mine.” She fished in her purse, took out a card, and scribbled a checklist in quick, neat bullet points. “Don’t argue, just do it. If you’re moving abroad, you need to get your shit in order. Seriously, I mean it.”

He took the card, running his thumb across its creases. He could feel her watching him, watching the tremor in his fingers as he flipped it over and over, his future sketched out for him on a dog-eared business card.

“Hey,” she said, her voice softening, “it’ll be okay, I promise. Well, no, it won’t be, it’ll be a shitstorm, but we’ve done shitstorms before, you and me. At least this time round I got your back. And forget what I said about not having a choice. That’s bullshit, you can change your mind if you want. First time for everything, right?”

He nodded again. Any minute now he’d force himself to look up, meet her eyes. This was probably the most support he was going to get from anyone, ever, and he hadn’t even said thanks.

She pushed her plate away. “Look, I gotta go, I’m due in session, but I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? You need me to run interference with your mom or whoever, let me know. And don’t panic, okay? We got time to work this out.”

He took a deep breath but couldn’t think what to say. “Yeah,” he managed. “Yeah. Thanks, Stell.”

“Any time, kid.”

He did smile at that, or almost smiled. She’d been the best friend he’d ever had, once upon a time. Still kind of was. The one who’d had every right to hate him, but who’d let him do all the hating instead, back when he’d needed it most.

She patted his arm one last time and tossed some bills down for the check. By the time he raised his head, she was picking her way between the tables, heading for the door.

So that was that. If he couldn’t make a decision to save his life, Stella could, and she’d meant everything she’d said, because she always did. All he had to do now was talk to Fraser.

 


 

Ray waited for the commercial break and muted the TV. He poked at the stack of magazines on the coffee table and cleared his throat. No more excuses, no more delay.

“So,” he said, staring hard at the commercials, because if he looked at Fraser he wouldn’t be able to say any of what he needed to say. “Canada. You, uh, got a job lined up there yet?”

“Well, no, not lined up exactly,” Fraser said, and Ray could tell from his poker-stiff posture that he was staring straight ahead too. “But there are several postings currently available for which I could theoretically apply, assuming that the RCMP doesn’t simply allocate me to one of them in the meantime. Mostly in the far north, of course, but one or two in more considerable conurbations which they might also think suitable, given my recent experience.”

Ray waited a moment for his Fraser-to-English auto-translator to catch up. Conurb…right.

“Towns,” he said. “You mean towns like actual towns, or towns they got more polar bears than people? ’Cause I’m thinking—not that I’m the expert on visas and stuff, you’re the consulate guy here, you tell me—but I’m thinking they’re not gonna let me stay up there and cash welfare checks, right? Long term I’d need some kind of work, and work means towns. Towns of the actual real people sort. So if you have to choose a place, you could maybe choose one of those.” He paused. “If you want to, I mean, ’cause you never said…”

He trailed off then, because Fraser had jerked round and was looking at him funny, and then because Fraser had grabbed hold of him and had his arms round him and was holding him tightly and not letting go, and not letting go, and not letting go. Ray sat stock-still a while before he hugged Fraser back, stroking tentative circles on his shoulder blades until Fraser had stopped making the weird, soft, keening sound that was freaking Ray out and gone quiet instead, his head buried against Ray’s shoulder.

“Thought I was staying here, huh?” Ray said.

Fraser mumbled something inaudible, something sob-like that twisted itself mid-breath into laughter, an unsteady, hiccupping laughter that hurt to hear. At last he loosened his grip and sat back, searching Ray’s face, tipping it to the light as if looking for a flaw that was bound to be there, a twitch or a tell that would prove Ray hadn’t meant what he’d said. And Ray was twitchy all over, but he’d meant every word, and it must have shown because Fraser bit his lip and nodded and looked away. For a moment Ray thought he might start up with the obvious things, all the shit they both already knew, but he didn’t bother with any of it. No “thank you, Ray,” or “you don’t have to do this, Ray,” or “you don’t understand how difficult it will be.”

Instead he took Ray’s hand and led him wordlessly to the bedroom, where he threw back the sheets and flipped out the lights. And yeah, maybe he clutched at him more fiercely than usual and fucked him more desperately and held him more tightly afterward, until at last he heaved a great sigh and unlocked his fingers as if it hurt him to do so, but he slept more soundly than usual, too, pressed to Ray’s back, his breathing soft and steady and peaceful.

One thing about Fraser that nobody could fail to spot: he owned jack shit. No apartment, no car, no nothing. Even the wolf didn’t belong to him, at least not so as he’d admit to it. Complete list of all his stuff: one foot locker, a couple of uniforms, a pile of jeans and shirts, a borrowed cot, a stack of library books. He didn’t even own the damn books. And Ray had never really gotten any of that before, that compulsive need to not possess things, to let them go. Not until he was lying awake in his own bed in his own apartment in his own city, tracking the shifting patterns of Fraser’s dreams in the rise and fall of his ribs against Ray’s back, in his gentle breathing against Ray’s neck.

For a while Ray lay watching the clock on the nightstand, its digits too blurry for him to read but glowing softer or brighter red as the minutes ticked past. When the soft clunk of doors on the landing marked the return of his next-door neighbor from her late shift at the hospital, he thought about shaking Fraser awake, driving him back to the consulate, keeping their cover clean. Then he burrowed further into Fraser’s arms and shut his eyes.

When he awoke next morning, Fraser was already gone, his shift that day starting an hour earlier than the Two-Seven’s, but he’d placed a clean bowl and a spoon and a box of cereal next to Ray’s coffee mug on the breakfast bar. He’d stopped short of leaving a red serge placard saying “Eat something, Ray,” but hell, Ray could read Froot Loop-based signals as good as the next guy. And if this was possessiveness Fraser-style, he reckoned he could live with that.

 


 

“What time did you say Benton was getting here?”

“Six o’clock, Mom, and you can call him Fraser. Everyone does.”

Ray’s mom clucked her tongue and turned the oven up another notch. “And he won’t be upset that your dad’s gone to the game instead? It was a courtside seat, so…”

“Nah, he’ll understand.” Ray wondered how long his parents had argued about it before his dad went out and bought the ticket, and what else his dad had called Fraser. “Damn queers” was about the politest term Ray had heard, growing up, and that was before his dad knew family was involved.

His mom was still fussing with the oven dial, hesitating between temperature settings. “And zrazy are Benton’s favorite?” she asked, for the third time.

“Yeah, don’t worry, Mom. Everything’s his favorite, provided someone else cooks it.”

Which was pretty much true, because Fraser could skin and butcher road-kill, sure, and create meals from bits of twig, but in the un-tundra world, the world of supermarkets and choices whose only alternative wasn’t starving to death, he wasn’t so hot at the haute cuisine. He could make pancakes, spaghetti, and beefaroni, enough to earn himself a Boy Scout badge, but then he was done, game over. He could maybe boil up a pack of wieners, but that was it. So if Ray was going to end up in a place that didn’t do takeout, and if he didn’t want to eat Kraft Mac & Cheese for the rest of his life—which he didn’t—he was going to need to up his game.

None of which he’d said to his mom, of course. He’d just gotten real interested in how she’d made the Sunday dinner, and how much of x to put in y, and how long to cook it for. And of course she hadn’t asked why. She’d just raised a warning finger at his dad when he muttered something that started with “No son of mine’s gonna…”, and she’d begun making Ray a notebook of basic recipes, stuff she thought he couldn’t get wrong.

“Grate the potatoes fine, okay?” she’d said. “Dip them in seasoned flour and cook three minutes each side. You got that, Stanley? Say it back to me.”

And she’d made him repeat it again and again, as if it were a talisman, as if it would keep him safe. Maybe it would. At least he wasn’t going to starve.

True, the first time he’d told her he was moving to Canada, she hadn’t taken it so well. She’d shut the door in his face, and that hurt more than just about anything ever, the divorce included. For two days she wouldn’t speak to him, but then she’d called him up, and all she’d said was “I guess we’d better have this Canadian friend of yours over to dinner. What sort of food does he like?”

Ray crouched down now by the oven and opened its door a crack, blinking as the rush of hot, spiced air fogged his glasses. He shut it again hurriedly and smiled up at his mom.

“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks, Mom. It’s perfect.”

Which maybe wasn’t exactly what he meant, but there were some things—a lot of things, as it turned out—that didn’t need saying out loud.

 


 

Nope, nada, zilch.

Ray tossed the file back onto his desk and grabbed the next one from the stack. Cross-checking endless statements and rap sheets would, as usual, have gone a lot more quickly without Fraser right there in front of him, being…distracting. Not that it was Fraser’s fault, of course. He’d turned up in the squad room with Diefenbaker trotting at his heels and taken his usual chair by Ray’s desk, where he sat turning his hat in his hands, waiting patiently for Ray to finish the morning’s paperwork. His expression was blandly attentive, his hair combed neatly back, his uniform pressed and immaculate; he looked, in short, as if butter wouldn’t melt, as if he hadn’t blown Ray once already that morning in the shower and wouldn’t do the same again now, if Ray dragged him to the supply closet and wedged the door shut and turned the light out and—

Damn it, damn it, this was not the time and place. Pulling his sheaf of papers closer and thanking his stars for a desk in the corner, Ray reached for his coffee cup and took a scalding gulp, then another.

“I didn’t know you were drinking takeout coffee now, Ray.”

Ray glanced up sharply, but Fraser’s face showed nothing but polite curiosity.

“Yeah, from Jamal’s over the street, for the extra jolt of caffeine,” Ray said. “Y’know, hits you right here.” He thumped his chest. “Plus, station coffee sucks ass. Smells like motor oil, tastes like death.”

He wasn’t going to tell Fraser that Dewey had grabbed his break-room mug off him that morning and spat in it, or that Seligman had poured the rest of the pot down the sink. Ray wasn’t crazy, hadn’t said a word to anyone at the Two-Seven about him and Fraser, and he didn’t think Welsh or Frannie would have done so either, so it must have been some bean-counter down in HR who’d seen his resignation letter and put two and two together and come up with queer, or maybe someone at the consulate had ratted them out, although he couldn’t think who. Didn’t matter. Somehow or other the news had reached Major Crimes, and its detectives were rallying round, shoulder to shoulder, with him on the outside, as he’d known they would.

Huey had set a new coffee brew going, hadn’t met Ray’s eyes, hadn’t said anything. Huey was an okay guy. Ray used to go round to his place with the rest of them, some Saturdays. Shoot the shit, watch the game, play poker. The others still did that, he knew, only with one guy less. It wasn’t as if they’d miss him.

Fuck it. Didn’t matter. Another six weeks and he’d be free of them all. Shoving his cup aside, he dove back into his paperwork. Witness statements, lab reports, overtime forms, booking forms, forms in duplicate, forms in triplicate, a crapload of them littering his desk. This part of the job he was going to miss like a hole in the head.

He yanked open his desk drawer and rooted around in it, looking for Smarties. None there, but he found a half-eaten box of Milk Duds hiding behind the hole punch: score! He shook out a handful and held out the box to Fraser, who jumped back as if he’d been offered a rattlesnake.

“S’matter?” Ray said, nettled. “Seen a ghost?”

“Er, no, not recently,” Fraser said, apparently taking the question literally. “No, it’s just that there was a certain Milk Dud related incident that…well, I suppose I still feel somewhat guilty about. It was before your time, of course.”

Ray tipped another dozen candies onto his timesheet and divided them into two heaps, counting under his breath. “Yeah, yeah, I read about that, but it was a set-up, Fraser, it was a staged theft. You can’t be guilty of a staged theft.”

“Perhaps not, but as you may have gathered, I have an enhanced capacity for feeling guilty about things that aren’t my fault.”

Ray snorted. “Yeah, I figured. It’s like a mass…a mass…”

“Masochistic compulsion?”

“Yeah, that.” He scooped up half the candies, chewing them fast to get the sugar rush. “And hey, you don’t have to look all disapproving at me, Frase. This is food, real food. It’s got all the major food groups covered. It’s got your vitamins, it’s got your minerals. It’s energy, pure energy, like maple syrup, only better, because this is America, my friend, so we’ve worked out how to make it solid and put chocolate round it and keep it in vending machines so hungry detectives can get to it when they need it and—oh, hey, look at this.” He pulled an envelope from between two lab reports and waved it. “Your Syrup Regulation folks sent us a status update. Dated a week ago, ’cause they sent it through the mail. You guys not heard of fax machines up in Canada?”

Fraser opened the letter and scanned its top paragraph. “Dear Lord,” he said, sitting back and passing a hand across his forehead. “They say they have ten thousand barrels missing from the strategic syrup reserve.”

“Ten thousand barrels—wait, ten thousand?

Fraser nodded. “About twenty million dollars’ worth,” he said, unfolding the rest of the letter and staring at it dazedly. “They say it’s been siphoned off and replaced with water, and that the chances of recovering it are…let me see…‘unlikely at this point’.”

“What, they’re just going to let it go? You’re shitting me! Just like that, it’s gone, and they don’t even care?” Ray knew he sounded pissy, but he’d worked hard on that case, real hard. For two pins he’d go up to Quebec and knock some heads together himself, jurisdiction or no jurisdiction. For no pins, even. Pinless.

Fraser rubbed at his brow again. “Well, once the product has entered the supply chain it’s virtually impossible to trace, and it doesn’t pose any risk to consumers, so I suppose it’s reasonable that FPAQ concentrate their resources on finding the perpetrators. The use of tankers to siphon off the syrup certainly suggests an inside job, someone who knew how the system functioned and how to circumvent it. And to that end”—he took a second sheet of paper from the envelope, a grainy printout of a driver’s license—“they’ve sent us the ID of one of their QC analysts who went on vacation six weeks ago and hasn’t reported back. Not proof of wrongdoing, admittedly, but it does look suspicious.”

Ray checked the name on the license. “Wendell Forshaw, huh? Wendell, Wendell, Wendell. Where did I…” He rummaged through the mess on his desk and pulled out a folder. “Here it is! Xenitec CEO Beth Fisher, blah blah blah, one younger sister who married Wendell Forshaw in Auburn, Maine, April twenty-fourth 1996.” He thumped the file. “The bastard’s her brother-in-law!”

Fraser laid the picture next to the folder and looked slowly from one to the other. “Bingo,” he said, lifting his head and smiling at Ray. “As I believe the expression goes.”

 


 

Ray sat at Frannie’s computer desk, staring at the blurry mass of pixels on the screen and absentmindedly petting Diefenbaker’s ears. Dief had been following him around all week in a way that was kind of infuriating, kind of endearing. Fraser could be unpossessive all he liked, but the wolf had apparently claimed Ray as Canadian property and wasn’t letting him out of his sight.

Ray tapped the screen, making the image jump and flicker. “See, this is why I hate man-hunts. We’re on, what, day five of Where’s Wendell, and the best match we got so far looks more like Dan Rather than the FPAQ’s Most Wanted. And this one—this is the best freeze-frame Border Patrol could give us?”

“Those clowns?” Frannie said. “You’re lucky they hadn’t wiped the tape already.”

Ray glanced at Forshaw’s license and back at the screen. “Could be him,” he said, tipping his head to one side. “Lose the hat, add a mustache...”

Diefenbaker snorted. So did Frannie.

“Sure,” she said, “and there’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis. It’s not him, Ray. We got a couple possible sightings in from Buffalo, though. You should check those out.”

The light on her phone flashed, and she reached for the handset and listened in silence for a minute before hanging up.

“What was that about?” Ray asked.

“Wiretap on Cara Grunelli.” She frowned, flicking a fingernail against the phone. “Are Ray and Fraser still watching her place?”

“Yeah, why? She was meeting Beth Fisher there at half-ten.”

“Because she’s just phoned Beth and said she’s going to the warehouse down on West 43rd instead. Said it was urgent.”

“Shit. I gotta get moving.” Ray pushed Dief away and jumped to his feet. “Uh…call your brother, okay, Frannie? Tell him I’m on it.” He headed toward the back doors, Dief in tow.

“Ray?” Frannie called after him.

“What?”

“Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

He hesitated and then nodded before pushing his way out of the squad room. He didn’t really have a smart comeback for that.

 


 

The warehouse, when Ray finally reached it after breaking every speed limit in the Chicago Metropolitan Area, had its loading doors half-raised and three cars parked out front, but the main gates were shut. He cursed softly and turned to Dief, who was riding shotgun as usual.

“Sorry, buddy, you gotta stay here. The back way in isn’t Ray-friendly, let alone dog-friendly.” He took Dief by the muzzle and pulled him nose to nose, enunciating the way Fraser did. “Stay here, okay?”

He slammed the GTO’s door and ran to the neighboring lot, where he climbed over the security wall via the same route as before, skinning an elbow on a tree branch this time. As he crept round to the front of the warehouse, he could hear voices raised in argument: a woman yelling, another one crying, loud and frightened, and then a third voice shouting them down, this one male. It sounded kind of like Gene Grunelli, although Gene was supposed to be out of town, taking his kid to see her grandparents.

Ray frowned and scooted closer, his back tight to the brickwork. He was maybe six feet from the opening when a gunshot rang out, then another, echoing off the nearby building. Swearing under his breath, he edged up to the entrance, rifling his pockets in search of his cell phone. Charging in without backup would be crazy, but instinct was yelling go, go, go. His radio was back in the car, and his cell phone was—where the fuck was his cell phone? Lodged in the damn tree, probably. He drew his sidearm instead and ducked under the loading bay door, breathing hard.

One—two—three targets inside, plus a fourth he hadn’t counted on. He spun round fast and locked his aim on the only one still standing: Gene Grunelli, who was poised over a man curled motionless at his feet in a spreading pool of crimson, a man instantly recognizable from his license photo: Wendell Forshaw in the flesh, minus the mustache, plus gunshot wounds to the gut and chest.

“Chicago PD!” Ray yelled, closing half the gap and halting a few yards from Gene, his feet spread wide. “Drop your weapon!”

Two more targets to his left, shifting in his peripheral vision: Cara Grunelli and Beth Fisher, clutching each other, unarmed. He ignored them, zeroing in on Gene, his lips moving in a silent chant. Torso, torso, headshot. Torso, torso, headshot.

Gene didn’t even seem to notice him. He was staring at the women, his face twisted in pain. “Was this the guy?” he shouted, gesturing at Wendell. He raised his gun and pointed it at his wife. “You little bitch, was this the guy?”

“Drop your—” Ray yelled, but even as his mouth formed the next word he was in motion, lunging forward, trying to grab the taller woman—Beth Fisher—before she could spring up and launch herself bodily at Gene. Too late, too late to stop her, and Ray half-heard, half-felt the gunfire as he skidded and collided with her and fell, landing hard on something warm and yielding.

He scrambled upright, swayed, and fell again, scrabbling on the concrete, his fingers slipping in the wetness. Blood was everywhere, all over his clothes and running down his arms, and it took him longer that it should have to realize it couldn’t all be Wendell’s, that there was too much of it, and it wasn’t just dripping from his shirt but welling up under it.

He fought his way to his hands and knees and crouched there, panting, until he’d managed to lift his head and shake off some of the dizziness. Reaching for his ankle piece, he found it gone, and shook his head again, disorientated; he must have drifted off there for a while, hadn’t felt Gene search him. How long had he been lying here? There was a weird howling in his ears—gunshot damage, too loud and too close—and below that a quiet, desperate sobbing.

He caught a sharp click as another round was chambered, and he looked up to see Gene standing over him, pale and sweaty, gripping his gun in unsteady hands. Ray’s own weapons had been kicked to the sidelines, and Beth was tangled under his legs, whimpering, with blood running out across the floor in a thin, bright stream. God, please let none of that be hers. Please, please…

“Drop your weapon,” he gasped, trying to shield her body with his. “Drop…”

His head was too heavy; he slumped to the ground and leaned his forehead there, then his whole face, the cold concrete leeching the last of his strength. He knew he had to get up, knew he couldn’t. Blood was coating the ground thickly now, coating his lips too, sticky and sharp and sweet as syrup, and he almost laughed, because if he had to die, it made sense he was going to die in a puddle of syrup. He’d always kind of hoped Fraser would be there too, but he guessed it was better this way, better—

Except, wait, that was Fraser, wasn’t it? That blur of red and black and fury at the edge of his vision, that was Fraser, could only be him.

Ray turned his head, blinked. Tried to raise himself and couldn’t. He blinked again, his lashes wet and tacky. That was Fraser, yanking Gene’s arms back, holding the gun to Gene’s head and—oh God, oh God, Fraser was going to—

“No!” Ray shouted, but it came out no more than a whisper, drowned out by the shrieking in his ears. “No, I’m okay, I’m okay, Frase, don’t…”

Blood was bubbling under his lips, and he was muttering into the ground now, his breath too fast and shallow, his head too heavy to lift the inch it might have taken for Fraser to hear him. The world howled and swayed around him, crimson clotting into gray upon gray, and then the darkness closed over him and he remembered nothing more.

 


 

The leather was warm and damp beneath Ray’s cheek, the liquid oozing out across the seat, dripping onto the GTO’s upholstery. He squirmed away from it, trying to scoop it up before it could soak in, but bright red blotches were already blooming across the fabric, smearing everything in sight. He must be bleeding somewhere, he thought groggily as he tried to sit up; he must be bleeding badly, and there was no way he’d ever be able to scrub out the stains. Something else was lurking at the edge of his thoughts, too, something important he’d forgotten about. Something about the blood and the pain, the sudden sharp pain that stabbed at his side as he lurched sideways on the bucket seat.

He lashed out blindly in retaliation, trying to kick the door open, but iron hands grabbed at him: Fraser’s hands, streaming with crimson and holding him down, and Ray’s mouth opened in a silent scream as he—

“Hey, hey!” His hand was yanked away from his side, and someone shook him gently by the shoulder. “Hey, that’s just your chest tube, you idiot. Quit messing with it!”

A familiar voice, grouchy but not panicking. Ray counted slowly to three and blinked his eyes open. Stark, unadorned walls on all four sides, and bone-white hospital sheets twisted round his waist. Above that, the incongruous cornflower pattern of his surgical gown, and Ray Vecchio’s homely face scowling down at him.

“You awake now?” Vecchio said. “Safe to let go of your arm? I swear to God, Kowalski, these nightmares are gonna kill us all if you don’t stop with them. And yeah, Fraser’s here, before you ask. He went to buy junk food while you were out of it. He’s got this theory you’re physically dependent on it or something.”

Ray breathed out hard and pulled his sheets up until all his bandages were out of sight. He was fine, he was safe, and Fraser was here. Okay. Good. He closed his eyes again, waiting for the dream to lose its immediacy and for his memories to kick back in. He had only a handful of real memories, although maybe Fraser driving him to the hospital in the GTO was one of them. It had actually happened, at least, so it was possible he remembered it.

The rest he only knew because they’d told him over and over, repeating it patiently every time he woke up. Gene Grunelli had been remanded into custody, charged with homicide and attempted homicide. Beth Fisher was still in the hospital, two floors up from him, and would be charged on her release. The paramedics had worked on her brother-in-law Wendell Forshaw but without much hope, and the poor bastard had been declared dead on scene. And Ray—Ray was going to be just fine, if he would only lie still and stop trying to pull out his damn chest drain. The docs had told him a bunch of medical babble—collapsed lung, some kind of shock, hemo-pneumo-whatever, something for Fraser to practice his enunciation on, anyway—but Ray didn’t care what it was, as long as everything healed up and they let him out in time to make the flight north.

The rest of what had happened at the warehouse, he didn’t remember at all. He knew (because Fraser had told him) that Vecchio had totaled his new car, driving it repeatedly at the main gates to smash them open and let backup in, and he also knew (because Vecchio had told him) that Fraser had slung him over his shoulder and hauled him out to the GTO rather than wait for an ambulance. He didn’t know, because no one had told him and he didn’t want to ask, how Vecchio had managed to talk Fraser down from shooting Gene. He would have added it to the list of things they owed Vecchio, except he figured they were past the point of keeping score.

He glanced at where Vecchio was sitting in one of the visitors’ chairs, absorbed in the October issue of Road & Track. It was two, maybe three weeks since the shootout, so the car insurance payout had to be burning a hole in his pocket by now. He wasn’t much of a grease monkey—Ray got the impression he could talk forever about sleek flowing lines and gleaming chrome without ever itching to pop the hood the way Ray did—but he did know his shit. Ray was going to miss this, in a weird way; just lying here, quarreling with him over which models they’d buy if they had the chance. He kind of wished he could have left him the GTO, but his dad had picked it up from the hospital parking lot already, just gotten the keys from Fraser and taken it away, and somehow Ray knew that was the last he’d see of it.

(If his dad had visited him at all, it hadn’t been while he was awake. Other people had visited, though: his mom, and all the Vecchios, and Stella. One bloodstained old car couldn’t hurt that much in comparison. Not if he didn’t let it, anyway.)

“Hey,” he said, sitting up a bit, “is Stella here too? Today, I mean?”

Vecchio looked up from his magazine, smiling. “You properly awake now? Yeah, she’s here. She went to the cafeteria, but she’ll be back.”

His expression softened as it always did at the mention of her, and Ray, watching him, wondered whether he was that transparent with Fraser, whether people at the Two-Seven had seen it. Maybe that was how they’d known about him. Maybe nobody had said anything after all. Maybe it was just written in his face.

“You got it bad, huh,” he said, grinning. “You gonna ask her to marry you?”

“That is one hundred percent completely none of your business, asshole.” Vecchio lowered his voice as if Stella might somehow overhear. “Do you think she’d go for it, though?”

Ray shrugged. “Hell if I know. I didn’t think she’d say yes the first time round. Know what you should do, though? Candlelit dinner, serenade, down on one knee, the whole shebang. I didn’t do any of that, wasn’t my style. I had that bad boy thing going back then, and she liked that. I thought she liked it, anyway. Now I look at her and think, yeah, I should’ve done all that romantic crap. Made her feel special.”

“Yeah, well, don’t beat yourself up about it, Kowalski, ’cause I’ll do it better. I’d send you a wedding invite if I thought they’d let you back in the country for it.” Vecchio poked at the IV stand by the bed and cleared his throat. “So, uh, what about you?”

“What about me, what?”

“You know, with the Mountie.” He put on a mocking singsong. “Candlelit dinner, serenade, blah blah blah, the whole shebang.”

Ray laughed. “Yeah, that’s not legal, even in Canada.”

“Not yet. And here’s me thinking you were a closet romantic.”

Ray scratched at his bandages and considered this. Vecchio was just teasing, sure, but whenever Ray thought about having to fill out all that damn paperwork again, except with Fraser’s signature next to his on the dotted line this time, he couldn’t think of a good reason not to.

“Dunno,” he said. “Maybe. If he wants.”

Vecchio’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?”

“Yeah. Not sure about the ring, though. They mine gold up in the Yukon, and it pollutes the rivers or some shit. It’s a big deal with him.”

“So make a ring out of, I don’t know, plaited polar bear fur or whatever. Gotta be something up there you can use.”

“Free-range tundra grass?” Ray suggested.

“Yeah, or narwhal whiskers, maybe.” Vecchio went and stuck his head into the corridor. “Hey, Benny,” he called, “do narwhals have whiskers?”

Fraser came in, carrying an armful of snacks from the vending machine, and stood at the foot of the bed, smiling at both of them. “Well, not really, Ray. They’re essentially smooth-skinned, like most cetaceans. There are several species of seal with considerable vibrissae, though, if you particularly needed whiskers for some reason.”

“See,” Vecchio said, nodding wisely at Ray. “Told you there’d be something.”

 


 

A porter took Ray up to Beth Fisher’s room in a wheelchair and left him there, just inside the doorway. He could probably have walked, but hey, it was his last day in the hospital and he might as well milk it. Plus, the visit wasn’t even his idea. He would have turned down Beth’s request if Fraser hadn’t suggested it might be—what was the word? Cathartic. Cathartic for him to talk to her. Yeah, that was a Fraser word, all right.

It did kind of cheer Ray up that she looked worse than he did. Okay, so she’d lost a bunch of internal organs (they’d told him which ones, but he hadn’t listened), whereas he’d only lost half his blood volume plus whatever kept his lungs inflated, but still, maybe his healing powers weren’t that crappy after all. He shuffled his chair closer to the bed.

“Um, hi,” he said. “How’re you doing?”

Beth pulled herself up on her pillows, her gaze flicking over him from his crazy bed-head to his even crazier bed-socks. “Huh. So you’re the hero cop,” she said, her voice scratchy and strained. “You were on the task force investigating me, right? That’s what they told me.”

He poked at the floor with one toe, swiveling the chair side to side. He hadn’t quite gotten the hang of steering it. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, we were looking into the whole syrup theft thing, and your name came up, so, uh...”

“Right.” She stared at him until he looked away. “You stuck your nose in my business, you trespassed on my property, you interfered with my private affairs, and then you saved my life. I guess that does kinda balance out. So thank you, Detective…”

“Kowalski,” he muttered.

“Kowalski, right. Thank you for taking a bullet for me. You might be an asshole, but you’re a brave asshole, I’ll give you that.”

“Nah,” he said, fiddling with the dressing on his wrist where the IV had been. “It’s only brave if you have a choice, which I didn’t. And yeah, we looked into your business, because it needed looking into. You got a problem with that, you should take it up with your lawyer. You do know the Feds are gonna arrest you as soon as you’re discharged, right?”

She sniffed. “Yeah, I kind of figured.”

“You say that like you don’t care.”

“I don’t. I really don’t. All of this, I did it for Cara.” She sat up further, yanking the sheets loose as if they were trapping her. “You cops are all the same. You go poking into people’s lives like you’ve got a God-given right, but you only ever see what you want to see. You don’t know what it was like for her. We had to get rid of Gene somehow, pay him off if necessary. I don’t have a damn thing to be ashamed of. You want to talk about choices? Everything I did, I did because I had to.”

Her anger hit Ray like a physical blow, and he leaned back in his chair, suddenly exhausted and glad of its support. He wasn’t sure what catharsis felt like, but he didn’t think this was it.

“You did this for Cara?” he said. “Great plan! Now her husband’s in jail, you’re in the hospital, and the Feds’ll press charges against her the minute they make a case.”

“For what, supplying transport?” Beth scoffed. “They can’t prove a damn thing against her. Even if they do, she’ll serve, what, two-three years? They can’t confiscate her assets—everything’s in her daughter’s name. Three years and she’ll be free. Free for good.”

Ray studied her face, trying to figure out what was firing that blaze in her eyes. Courage, or bravado? Perhaps it was just love. “So, what, you think this was all worth it?”

She nodded. “It will be. It has to be.”

“Go down to the morgue,” he said, his voice hotter and louder than he’d intended. “You go down to the morgue, and you stand there and tell your brother-in-law it was worth it.”

This time it was Beth who looked away. “That wasn’t my fault,” she said. “The scam was his idea in the first place. I just did what I had to do.”

He stared at her a while longer, at the pallor of her face, her peeling lips, the skin drawn tight over her cheekbones and gathering in bruised blotches under her eyes. “Yeah,” he said at last. “Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

He shuffled his chair over to the door and nodded for the porter to take him away. He didn’t look back.

 


 

Ray and Fraser spent the evening before the flight sitting on Ray’s couch in his otherwise empty apartment, eating takeout from the cartons and taking turns to slip tidbits to Diefenbaker. Ray had shipped a couple of boxes of his stuff north, but most of it he’d sold or given away, piles and piles of junk carted to the Goodwill. Funny how small a space his life could be packed into, once he was forced to sit down and figure out what he couldn’t do without. The TV, though, he missed that. He was going to treat himself to a new one as soon as they touched down.

He pointed the imaginary remote control at where his old set used to be and flipped the imaginary channel.

“Aha,” Fraser said. “Well picked, Ray. This looks like a good one.”

“Nah, seen it before,” Ray said. “They catch the bad guys, move to Canada, live happily ever after.”

“Well, now you’ve given away the ending.”

“Mmm. Maybe it’ll turn out different this time. Never can tell with TV.” He took a mouthful of moo shu pork and wriggled onto his back, resting his head on Fraser’s thigh and hooking his legs over the side of the couch. Another thing he was going to buy in Canada: a bigger couch. “Hey, Frase, can I ask you something?”

“Certainly. Fire away.”

“Why didn’t you just jump me out on the ice, when we were on the Franklin thing? Must’ve been obvious enough I wanted you to.”

“On the contrary, Ray, your natural physiological response to the proximity of another warm body was hardly an indicator that any sort of, uh”—Fraser waved his chopsticks—“counter-response from me would have been welcome, or indeed appropriate.”

“Counter-response? Jesus Christ! Sex Ed one-oh-one: if a guy’s got a hard-on for you, it’s okay to fuckin’ respond.”

“Ah.” Fraser leaned back into the cushions and balanced his takeout on Ray’s shoulder, carefully avoiding his chest, where a couple of areas were still covered with dressings. “Well, as you know, I was of necessity homeschooled by my grandparents for some years, and it appears they may have omitted certain segments of the curriculum.”

Ray snorted, making the carton jerk. “Yeah, right, and nobody told you since?”

Fraser looked away, chewing at his lip, and Ray grimaced, cursing himself for running his mouth off. Stupid, stupid, because there had been someone—hell, there might’ve been a whole bunch of people, for all he knew, but there’d been one in particular that Vecchio had told him about, and it was real obvious he hadn’t told anywhere near the whole story. He hadn’t said much at all, beyond “Don’t ask Fraser about her, okay?” and “Most of it isn’t in the files, because I needed to keep my job, and he needed to keep his job, and we needed to stay friends. Don’t mention her, Kowalski, end of. Got it?”

“Look, forget it,” Ray said, reaching to tug at Fraser’s knee, to drag him back from whatever memories he was staring into, there in the middle distance. “You’re right. You were just doing the right thing like you always do. I wanted something else from you, I shoulda said so.”

Fraser was silent, and for a long time there was no sound except the staccato dripping of the kitchen tap, echoing through the empty apartment. “It’s rather like termite mounds, I suppose,” he said at last.

“What is?”

“Doing the right thing. One’s moral compass. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of them, Ray, the colonies of Amitermes meridionalis, the compass termite? They build these great tall structures flattened on a north-south axis to minimize absorption of heat from the midday sun. Thousands upon thousands of tiny blind workers toiling away, each placing its single mouthful of mud in such a fashion as to create a complex, intricate interweaving of nurseries and galleries and ventilation ducts; an architectural marvel built by creatures living in complete darkness, guided only by gravity and their innate sense of the earth’s magnetic field.”

“Okay, great,” Ray said. “So you’re like a termite?”

“Very like one, yes. I can tell north from south, and up from down, and right from wrong, purely by instinct, without any need to think about it, or perhaps any capacity to do so.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not seeing the problem there, buddy, as long as you keep doing the right thing, which you do.”

“Under normal circumstances, yes, it all functions perfectly,” Fraser said. “Perfectly, that is, until a meddling zoologist comes along and places electromagnets around the developing structure just to see what happens when the switch is flicked.”

“Aw, shit. I take it that’s not good.”

“No. No, it isn’t. The unfortunate creatures continue to labor, unaware that their north is no longer true and that their placement of building blocks has become random and uncoordinated. The results are chaotic, the architecture mutilated and dysfunctional, the colony plunged into disarray.”

Ray stabbed his chopsticks into his takeout box and came up empty. He set it on the floor for Dief to hunt down the last few scraps.

“Okay, so, moral of the story,” he said, “stay the hell away from zoologists?”

Fraser acknowledged this with a wry smile. “Quite. Or, if you happen to be a human being rather than a termite, try to avoid becoming so fixated on any particular person that your need for them overrides any sense of your own moral compass.”

Fuck. Damn it. Fuck. Ray was pretty sure he knew who that particular person had been, if only from the evenness of Fraser’s tone, the emotions he wasn’t showing. Don’t mention her, Vecchio had said, and Ray wasn’t about to. He didn’t need to hear about it, anyway. They’d all done stupid shit in the past, they all had regrets, and none of it was worth dragging up, not at this point.

“You don’t ever have to do the wrong thing because of me, though, Frase,” he said. “Never gonna ask you to.”

Fraser exhaled in a long slow sigh, and the muscles of his thighs shifted under Ray’s shoulders as he relaxed. He set his egg foo yong aside and rested both hands on Ray’s shirt, caressing the fabric, his fingers slipping between the buttons, warm on the bare flesh. “I know you won’t, Ray,” he said, stroking gently along the edge of the surgical dressing, making Ray’s skin tingle. “I do know that.”

“Damn right I won’t. In spite of my magnetic fuckin’ personality.”

That made Fraser laugh aloud, and it was like magic, it was like solving a case and watching the sun rise over the mountains and finding the Hand of Franklin all at once. Ray grinned at him, his world turning head-over-heels as it always did with Fraser this close, any sense of up or down lost in the overriding need to be with him, to hold him and stay with him and be part of him. And yeah, maybe Ray was kind of fixated, and maybe he’d mislaid his moral compass too (assuming he’d ever had one), because he sure as hell didn’t give a damn about north or south anymore either.

The past could go fuck itself, for all he cared. The future, that was gonna be just fine.

 


 

ALBERTA, 2017

They’ve moved several times over the years, tracking Fraser’s transfers farther and farther away from the city, and by now it’s an hour’s drive to anything you could call civilization.

Ray’s got the day off, but there’s a ton of errands to do in town, and he’s busy hauling stuff from the porch to the pickup when their neighbor Logan Healey pulls up in front of the cabin. Turns out he’s called round with a batch of frozen moose meat, something he’s been promising to bring Fraser for a while, although he obviously reckoned without seeing Ray. He gets out of his car and walks over to Fraser, keeping his back to Ray all the while so he doesn’t have to notice Ray’s there.

“So, like I was saying, you got your two-three kilos of diced chuck there,” he tells Fraser, and Ray stops eavesdropping at that point and kind of zones out, because he knows it makes sense to share out road-kill, at least when it’s that big a kill, but he doesn’t need to hear the gory details. When he tunes back in, Logan’s saying, “And then you got the sausages Annette made, okay? Here you go, Sarge.”

“Thank you kindly,” Fraser says, taking the bag and passing it to Ray, who shoves it into the cache and locks the door to keep the dogs off it.

“So I guess I’ll see you at the potluck, Saturday?” Logan asks, directing the question solely at Fraser. He still isn’t looking at Ray, still hasn’t acknowledged he exists.

“Yes, we’ll be there,” Fraser says, stressing the pronoun slightly and stepping closer to Ray, his hand hovering at Ray’s elbow.

Logan grunts and gets back in the car and drives off without looking back. Ray raises a hand and waves anyway. They’ll have to be polite to each other at the potluck supper. Plus, Logan will tell his wife Annette he’s seen them, and she’ll come over with brownies in lieu of apology, and she’s a cool lady and a real good cook, and she’ll tell Ray all the neighborhood gossip he needs to know before the potluck, so it kind of balances out.

It does still piss him off, people being assholes, but not as much as it used to. It’s more the little things that get to him, the stupid little things, like when he has to call the car insurance people every year to switch coverage: maybe one year he’ll be able to say “Second driver, yeah, my husband Benton, B-E-N-T-O-N” without flinching at the sales assistant’s hesitation and sudden embarrassed gabble, but maybe not.

People are mostly okay, though, given enough time to get their heads round it. For every guy like Logan there’s someone like the clerk at the feed store, who greets Ray by name whenever he picks up Fraser’s dog-food order, or the town librarian, who’s long since stopped asking for his library card and just hands over Fraser’s stack of books with a smile. There’s always going to be a few fuckwits, but Ray doesn’t give a damn what they think anymore.

Fraser, though, Fraser’s taking it personally. He always has. He’s still trying to make the world perfect, and he’s still hurt by its failure to live up to that. He stands and watches Logan’s car pull away, his lips pressed thin, and he goes on staring into the distance a while before he looks across at Ray. “Sorry,” he says, and Ray knows he doesn’t just mean about their neighbor. There’s twenty years of apology in that one word.

“Not your fault,” Ray says quickly, shrugging. And it’s true, none of it was ever Fraser’s fault. Plus, Ray’s pretty sure that if it weren’t for the whole RCMP sergeant deal, folks would be way shittier to him than they are, so he’s not going to stand there and listen to Fraser apologize. He stamps over to the pickup and shoves the last of his boxes into the back. “Come on, Frase,” he says. “We gotta get to town.”

Fraser’s still hesitating, fidgeting with his mittens. “Ray, do you ever…” he begins.

“Ever what? Come on, we gotta move. I got stuff to do.”

“Do you ever regret things? The way things worked out?”

Ray pauses, scraping a finger through the crud on the side of the pickup and wondering what the hell he can say to that that’s worth saying. It’s a long list, all the things he regrets, the things he never got to have. The big white wedding, with a blushing bride on his arm. Kids, of course, tow-headed kids, a whole string of them. Friends he could trust. Family who still spoke to him. The GTO sitting proud in his own driveway, not left with his dad and sold on like junk. All the other muscle cars that he would have saved up for, even though his wife would have scolded him and told him to think of the kids and buy a family car. Making lieutenant, because he would’ve done that one day, he knows he would.

“If I had the time over, you mean?” he says.

“Yes,” Fraser says, and his poker face isn’t working for shit anymore; he just looks miserable. “If you had the time over. If you had to choose again, knowing everything you know now.”

Ray flicks the icy muck off his hand. There’s a dent there in the truck’s side panel that needs fixing before the rust gets any worse.

“Didn’t choose this, Frase,” he says, yanking the door open. “Didn’t get a choice. Just did what I had to do. Give me another fuckin’ rooftop, I’d do the same.”

There’s a long pause, but then Fraser gets it. “You’d take a deep breath?” he says, climbing into the passenger side, a slow smile breaking across his face.

“Yup. Deep breath and jump. You taught me that.” Ray slams the door behind him and peers out of the grit-spattered windshield at the snowbound road ahead.

“Really? No regrets? You’d do exactly the same?”

Ray revs up the engine and starts wrestling with the gearstick. “Nah, not exactly the same,” he says. “I’d probably take a deeper breath.”

Fraser laughs aloud at that and swats him on the leg. Ray’s grinning now; he can’t help it. He leans across the handbrake and shoulder-bumps Fraser back, tipping his head so it brushes against Fraser’s silver-white hair. He does have regrets, he knows he does, there’s a whole list of the fuckers, but he can’t remember why he ever gave a damn about any of them.

He shoves the truck into gear, cursing at it until its engine settles to a steady roar. Then he nods at Fraser, and Fraser nods back like he always does, and together they start up the snowy track into town.