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A Single Bullet

Chapter Text

My hands grip the wheel of my Riv tightly, the knuckles turning white. So white my hands are probably hurting but the pain just doesn’t register with me yet. I glance up at the rearview mirror, making sure that I’m not about to hit someone as I weave in and out of traffic. I’ve gotta get to the train station . The thought runs circles in my head. Benny said she’d be there. I’ve gotta get there before she kills him .

The heat of anger rises in my body, crawling up my face. I writhe my head and neck around, the collar of my shirt threatens to suffocate me. To think I had congratulated him on bringing that woman into his apartment. To think I had been so proud of him, the straight-laced Benton Fraser skipping work to finally get some. I smile ruefully at the thought. I shoulda known that something so un-Fraser-like would be his downfall.

I’m not even sure the spot is legal, where I manage to park my Riv in front of the train station, but I don’t care. I see Benny running towards me, arriving as soon as I’m out of the car.

“Backup’s comin’. She better be here.” I say briskly. We can’t waste time. Both of our careers are on the line.

“She’s here,” Fraser replies quickly, his body twisting in the direction of the station. His legs are swifter than mine and I strain to catch up to him, the blood boiling now. I glance over at Benny as I pull even with him, racing up the steps into the station. A pain and indecision I’ve never seen in him before gives him a stony expression. This look had clouded his eyes ever since she wormed her way back into his life. I can’t wait to drive the final stake in this witch’s heart and get my friend back.

Benny points over in the direction of a stand of lockers and we both see Victoria arguing with some guy over a suitcase. The yellow box goes flying open, money falling like snow over the floor. Victoria spots us a moment later, her gun poised in our direction, firing three shots before disappearing down the corridor toward the trains.

I emerge from behind a sign, gun brandished in front of me, making a beeline for the suitcase. People descend like vultures on the cash. Can’t let that evidence get away.

“Put it down, put it down! Put it down!” I yell, knowing my gun is doing more of the talking than my voice ever will. The money falls back to the ground and the people split. Good.

“Wait for them, I’ll go after her,” Fraser mumbles as I kneel to pick up the cash. God I hope he knows what he’s doing, I think. Normally I’d have full confidence in him, I mean heck, the guy could kill a bear with his teeth. But the way he’s been acting lately? I’m worried.

Another crowd of people has gathered around, obviously drawn by the appeal of money and the smell of gunsmoke. I look up in disgust. “Get outta here!” I wave them away and they comply, probably because of the security guard who has taken notice and is walking in my direction.

“I’m Chicago PD,” I explain, flashing my badge quickly. Out of the corner of my eye I see Huey, Gardino and Welsh hurrying toward me. “Be sure you bag this,” I tell the guard, then focus my attention on my counterparts. “She’s armed.”

We take off in the direction of the platforms, my legs moving faster than they ever have before. She’s got a gun and she is going to kill him. It’s the thought that keeps my legs moving faster and faster. She is going to kill him.

There’s only one train in the lot and it’s pulling out. I see her standing on the steps outside of one car, hand outstretched. Benny’s running toward her. What does he think he’s going to do? Pull her off the train?  

I move in closer, following the movement of the train with my gun, eyes squinted, focusing on Victoria’s outstretched arm. I see a glint of something metal in her hand. It’s all I need. “She’s got a gun!” I yell, my finger poised on the trigger. I squeeze and the bullet flies...  just as Benny grabs her empty hand and jumps onto the train steps.

Oh my God. Oh my GOD! My arms drop and my legs move as he falls to the platform below. Oh God, Benny. Oh God.

It seems like forever before I’m finally falling to my knees by his side. His eyes are wide, his face white as a ghost.

Oh God, please , I beg. Please don’t let him die.

I faintly hear Gardino mentioning something about stopping the train and calling 911 behind me.

“I should be with her,” Fraser’s eyes are still wide and though my face is right above his, it’s like he’s looking through me. As if he’s looking through me and down that stretch of track at her.

“What did he say?” Welsh’s voice is practically in my ear. I can’t let him know what Fraser said.

“He said ‘Get me to a hospital.’” If Benny survives, I don’t want anyone to connect him with her any more. If he survives, he’s going to go back to being Super Mountie. He’s going to go back to ruining my suits and licking dog poop to catch criminals.

Benny’s lips are moving again, but his voice is practically inaudible. “I can’t understand you,” I say, moving my ear toward his lips, getting sick as I see the pool of blood peeking out from behind his right side.

“He’s reciting a poem,” Welsh says. I can hear the sirens now.

The only thing I had to hold on to was the sound of her voice which never wavered. She recited a poem… It is a shadow of a memory, filtered through the haze of sleep. I don’t remember anything else after that, my eyes had been too heavy and my will too weak. But I remember that. It had been her he was talking about.

It feels cold. So cold…like I’m in the arctic. But it can’t be, it’s almost summer. The winter chill is long behind us now. My eye catches a flash of brilliant white. Like a fracture of glass or... ice. Ice like Fortitude Pass, where he met her . Is it snowing? God, I know I must be in shock because it finally clicks in my brain that I’m looking at a diamond, one of the many diamonds scattered like snow on this platform.

Hands grab my shoulders and pull me backwards. Welsh. I fight against the pressure of his grip as the paramedics rush in.

“Let them do their job, Vecchio,” Welsh’s voice grates against my eardrums.

“No, NO!” I jerk my elbow back. Welsh lets go in time to get out of the way. “I’m going with him,” I say. “I should be with him.”

The paramedics have strapped Fraser to a backboard and lift it up to begin navigating their way through the platforms to the waiting ambulance in front of the station.

Why aren’t they moving faster? I fight to keep the emotions from clouding my vision so that I can concentrate on following the paramedics. But they’ve gotta hurry up or he’s going to die. I saw the pool of blood he left behind when they lifted the backboard up. It’s big. Oh God, it’s big.

A gurney awaits us in the station. They lay the board on it and strap him down again, mumbling some medical mumbo jumbo I don’t understand. I try to join the team in the ambulance, but I’m pushed back by a worried looking medic. No wonder she’s so worried, hell the gun’s still in my clenched hand. Welsh is talking to them now, explaining that Benny and I were working the same case, it was friendly fire. He takes the gun from my hand and pats me on the back as the paramedics move back to let me climb in.

The life is draining out of Benny’s wide-eyed stare and though I can see how fast the ambulance is moving when I look out the windshield, it doesn’t feel fast enough. God, if they’d let me drive, we’d be there by now.

“Alright we’re almost there. We’ve gotta move fast,” one of the paramedics comments as we careen around a turn.

“A team will be waiting right by the door,” the driver says. “They are going to take him up to surgery right away.”

Thank You, God , I sigh.

The ambulance squeals to a stop and the paramedics jump out. I wait for them to pull the gurney out before jumping to the ground. The ER team is there at the door as promised and I run toward them.

“You fired the shot?” the doctor asks as we begin sprinting as fast as we can down a hallway.

“Yes, I was trying to shoot a criminal we were both going after. He jumped in the way,” I explain, my thoughts running together. The doc doesn’t need to know those details. He just needs the basics.

“Caliber?”

“Nine millimeter,” I answer.

“Range?”

“Uh, fifty yards.”

“Angle?”

I wrack my brain. “I don’t know!”

“There’s no exit wound,” a paramedic says. “The bullet probably hit something.”

“Like what?” I ask. Oh God, it was probably something vital.

I can’t process the medical terms they are using, but I do hear someone ask if he’s a drug user. “Negative,” I say. Only time Benny has ever touched drugs of any kind would have been during a bust. He doesn’t even drink, really.

“Any next of kin?” the doc asks.

“Why!?” It’s that bad. Oh God it’s that bad. I’m going to be sick.

“You might want to call somebody.”

I reach out for any small fraction of hope I can. “He’s okay, right?” I ask. “He’s okay, he’s breathing, right?”

“When we know, you’ll know,” the doc says, motioning with his head toward the double doors in front of us. This is as far as I go.

“He’ll be fine,” another voice reassures.

“Benny,” I look into his vacant eyes. “I’ll be right out here.”

I’ll be right out here.

 

……………

 

I don’t even know how long it’s been since Fraser went into surgery. I look at my watch. Nearly midnight. I sigh. The time might actually help if I would have looked at the damn thing as soon as I sat down. I take a ragged breath, and as I do, Pop’s voice echoes back from the past.

“Don’t cry kid,” he’d say. “Don’t be such a pussy.”

Yeah, great language to teach your five year old after he scraped his knee, Pop.

I don’t even know why I let his memory bother me. The guy was the biggest prick on the planet. A terrible husband, a terrible father. Why I should subconsciously take advice from a man who would hit his own wife and kids doesn’t make sense.

Then again, Ma always put on a happy face. I’d still be able to see the red on her cheek, the imprint of his wedding ring embedded just below her eye. Her eyes would be wet, and she’d lift up the hem of her apron to try them, tenderly pressing around the red area.

“What’s wrong, Raimondo?” she’d ask. “Don’t worry about your ma. I’m fine. Go play outside.” Or “Go play in your room.” And then I’d hear her muffled sobs because I’d always leave the room, but I’d never really leave .

Maybe I can’t cry because she wouldn’t let herself cry in front of us. The thought makes me feel better until I realize she wouldn’t cry because she wanted to be strong for us kids. That bastard. I should be able to show I care and I can’t. And it’s stupid.

I shift in my seat. The padding on these seats have long since flattened out, carved by many posteriors that have gone before me. For a moment I consider going to the chapel to pray, but my place is here. I want to know as soon as possible that Benny is okay. He’s gotta be okay.

God, I couldn’t take it if my bullet killed him. And now I can visualize it, Benny’s funeral. All the guys from the 2-7. Welsh shaking his head in disbelief. My Ma and Frannie stricken with grief. Those tears Ma never sheds in front of us - she’ll shed them at funerals. She considers Benny one of the Vecchios. And Frannie? She’s in love with him. She’d never forgive me.

And then there’s Benny himself, his face pale as a porcelain doll dressed in his best uniform and…I lose it. I dig the heel of my palms into my eyes to stop the tears from falling. Gah, Ray, he’s not dead yet! But it’s my fault if he does die, and that thought kicks me in the gut.

For a moment I wonder if this is how Benny felt when I was laid up after tripping the bomb in Chinatown when we were working his father’s case. And my family would have been out here, too. Ma would have clung to her rosary, fingertips holding each bead tightly as if to press her prayers into them.

“God please,” I can hear my voice waver faintly. “Please don’t let him die. Please God, I need… I need him to make it.”

I cling to those words and repeat them over and over again. Prayers, serious prayers, haven’t crossed my lips in ages and I want to be sure God hears me.

“Any news, Vecchio?” Through my tear-blurred vision, I see Welsh lowering into the seat next to me.

I attempt to dry my eyes on my jacket sleeves, but the tears don’t stop completely. “No. Not yet.”

Welsh gives my shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. “He’s going to be okay, Vecchio.”

“You don’t know that.”

“He’s still in surgery,” Welsh offered. “That has to be a good sign.”

“Not necessarily,” I shrug, swallowing a lump in my throat. “I got him in the back somewhere. I might’ve hit his spine for God’s sake and he’d be paralyzed for the rest of his life and it’d be….” My voice is so strained from trying to talk over the emotions that it finally quits.

“It’s not your fault,” he begins. My head snaps in his direction.

“Not my fault? I shot the damn gun! My bullet is in his body somewhere. If he dies or comes out of this maimed in any way, it is my fault !” Every head in the waiting room has turned in our direction. I don’t care.

“Vecchio, listen to me,” Welsh’s voice is low and strong. “It was an accident. You thought she was still armed and you acted on it. You had no way of knowing the gun had fallen on the platform. I would have taken the shot, too.”

“Yeah.”

A few moments of silence pass between us before Welsh speaks again. “Have you called your family yet?”

“No.” I hadn’t even thought about it, but I continue with, “I wanted to wait for some news first.”

Welsh nods. “Good idea.”

The doors to the Emergency OR open and the doctor I spoke with earlier steps into the waiting room. I’m up out of my seat and in front of the tall man in only a moment. “Well, how is he?” My mind is spinning with a million questions, all jumbled together.

He takes a breath before beginning. “The important thing is that your friend is alive.”

Oh no . “What’s the bad news, doc?”

By the searching look in his eyes, I can tell he’s either trying to figure out how hand me some really bad news or say that he doesn’t know.

“The bullet lodged in his T-8 vertebra. From what we can tell on the x-ray, it’s very close to the spine. We’ll be consulting with a spinal specialist tomorrow, but at this point, it’s too risky an operation for me to try.”

“So what does this mean for his recovery?”

“Can’t be certain until we talk to the specialist. What we can be certain about is nerve damage. We won’t know how extensive that damage is until he wakes up.”

“So basically what you’re saying is, we don’t know anything yet.” It’s a rude response and I know it, but I don’t bother apologizing.

The doctor opens his mouth to respond and pauses for a moment as if to choose his words carefully and begins again. “We don’t know as much as we would like to. His situation is still very critical and there’s the possibility that he could die. There’s also a good chance he’ll be just fine.”

“Yeah unless he’s paralyzed. Can I see him?” Again, rude.

The doctor must realize I’m more upset with the situation than with him because he answers with a calm voice. “Typically we only allow family in the ICU.”

“I’m all the family he’s got,” I say. “He has no one else.”

“That’s true,” Welsh confirms.

“Alright,” the doctor nods. “You’ll have to go to the main desk for the ICU and check in there. Have a good night.”

“Hey thanks, doc,” I call out after his retreating frame. He turns around and gives me a sympathetic smile before disappearing down a hallway.

I walk up to a nurse at the desk and ask directions to the ICU. Welsh tags along. For all the crap I’ve given him over the years, I have to say I’ve never served under a better superior.

“You gonna call your family soon?” Welsh asks as we navigate the sterile white hallways.

I sigh. How would I even begin to explain all this to Ma? “I, uh, not tonight. It’s late and everything. Wouldn’t want to wake them up from their sleep especially since we don’t know much.”

Welsh nods and says it’s a good idea. After a few more turns, we reach the ICU main desk. A tired nurse looks up at me, not moving from her position with one arm propping her head up while the other hand covers a computer mouse. “Visiting hours have been over for quite some time now,” she grumbles.

I don’t have time for this. I wave my badge in front of her face. “Visiting hours still over?” I’m surprised Welsh doesn’t say anything. Usually this behavior would merit his ‘don’t abuse the shield’ speech.

The nurse straightens up and sounds more alert. “What can I do for you, officer?”

“They just brought a patient in not too long ago. Benton Fraser? I need to know where his room is.”

She nods slowly. “The gunshot wound, yes. He’s in 508, but I’m afraid he’s not conscious and may not be for a while… I don’t know when he’d be able to talk; he’s intubated….” She lets the sentence trail off.

“I’m not here to investigate. He’s my partner.”

“Oh he’s a cop. Okay, well usually we don’t permit anyone other than family especially with the ICU cases. We don’t want to stress the patient.”

“He doesn’t have any family!” I bark, causing her to jump in her seat. “Look- I’m sorry I… he doesn’t have anyone else. Please.” My voice breaks on please which apparently strikes an empathy chord somewhere in the nurse’s soul because she looks around the room as though checking for the administrative staff. Maybe she’ll sneak me in.

“If it helps, I’ve been here before, when he was stabbed a couple of months ago. Check the records, I should be on his visitor’s list,” I offer, trying to help her out.

“Well, even if you’re on the list, usually only family is allowed in the ICU,” she says as the computer keys click. “What’s your name?”

“Ray Vecchio.”

“Ray Vecchio,” she echoes softly. “He’s got no family? Says here you’re his next of kin. It’s down this hall and to the right,” she points.

My mind is reeling. I’m his next of kin? When did this happen and why didn’t he tell me?

“Your name, sir?” she asks, turning toward Welsh.

“Oh no that’s okay. I’m leaving now. Vecchio?”

“Yes?”

“You call me if you need anything, that’s an order.” He eyes me carefully as if trying to make sure I’m okay.

I nod and turn down the hallway the nurse had gestured at. I scan the room numbers until I come upon the door marked 508. There’s a big window next to the door. The room is dark but I can see the glow from the machines. I take a deep breath as I place my hand against the door and push.

“Oh God,” I say out loud. He’s hooked up to a lot of machines and there’s a tube in his mouth. “Oh God, Benny.” I’m crying again. “God Benny, I’m so sorry.”

There’s a chair on the opposite side of the room and I walk carefully to make sure I can avoid stepping or pulling on any cords. Reason tells me that hospital staff would not be stupid enough to leave vital cords just hanging out in the middle of the floor, but I’m paranoid I’ll somehow hurt Benny more than I already have.

I lower myself into the seat by Benny’s side. “Your next of kin?” I ask, as if he can hear me. “You made me your next of kin ?”

And what a crummy next of kin I’ve turned out to be, Benny. I can hear the gentle hiss of air from the breathing machine and each beep of the heart monitor kicks me in the gut. The tears well up in my eyes again. I bury my face in my hands and the tears trickle through the spaces between my fingers. I mumble prayers and beg Benny for forgiveness over and over again until a nurse drops in to check vitals. She’s a pretty little thing from what I can tell in the brief moment I look up, petite and blonde. Normally I’d play the flirt with her, but even a beautiful woman can’t distract me right now.

A hand rests on my back for a shadow of a moment and then the door clicks shut and I know she’s gone. I reach for his right hand and clasp it between my own. I realize they’re still wet from my tears.

Noi siamo una famiglia ,” my voice wavers. “ Tu sei mio fratello.

For some reason, I expect him to wake up right then and understand my blubbering Italian. But he doesn’t. If this were some TV show, he’d be awake by now and everything would be resolved by the ending credits. Only, there are no credits. His eyes are still closed and he’d almost look angelic in the glow of the machine lights if it weren’t for all the tubes hooked up to him.

“I don’t ever tell you this, Benny -” the words get caught in my throat. I swallow hard and try again. “My pop, well, he… he never liked all that touchy-feely stuff,” I look around, half convinced the old man is standing right behind me, but I don’t see him.

“He’d say, ‘Ray, a real man never shows his true feelings. It shows your weaknesses. That’s why you get beat up. That’s why Zuko’s kid never gets beat up.’” I laugh bitterly. Frankie never got beat up because kids were afraid his dad would kill them. But maybe the old man is right, maybe I am weak.

“You saved me, you know that? You know that Benny?” I ask.

When he came busting into that holding cell, man, my career had been spiraling downward. Though he knows I’d been on some hard times, he doesn’t know how it happened. It’s not like I’ve been able to talk about this to anyone-- not even Benny. At least I could try....

“You know, Benny,” I begin, “My father never liked the cops. He always said the only law that works is the law you make yourself.” I take a deep breath and close my eyes. Even though Benny probably can’t hear me, this is still hard to say. “After he had put Ma in the hospital for the third time and she told them she’d tripped down the stairs,” I squeeze my eyes shut, shaking my head at the memory. I’ve never told anyone about this.

“That’s when I made my mind up,” I smile at Benny, and blink back wetness. “I was going to be a cop and put creeps like my Pop in prison. Show him that the letter of the law really did work.”

I open my mouth to speak, but I’m not sure how to continue. I want to tell him about why I want to see the mob dismantled so badly. I want to tell him about all that I’ve seen-- about the time I got beat up by Frank Zuko because I kissed his sister, Irene, at the winter formal senior year. I want to tell him about how her old man used to hit her the same way my pop hit me. I want to tell him everything.

“I used to be like you, Benny. I used to have all these ideals and then,” I look heavenward. “The mob just kept getting away with everything,” my voice breaks and I pause for a moment.

“There’s always that one case,” I say, nodding. “The De Luca case was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Neely De Luca - sometimes when I close my eyes I can still see her half-naked and battered body lying in the snow. I thought she was dead - Sometimes, I still hear her voice, rasping as though her chords had given out from too much screaming. “Don’t hurt me, please,” she said as my fingers hovered over her neck to check her pulse. “Don’t tell anyone,” she warned. “They’ll find me.” I didn’t listen.

After that - yeah. After that I lost my faith. Work continued, but I just didn’t care anymore. I can’t explain that to Benny, not even now. How do I tell him that I’d become the kind of cop who resorted to devious tactics to catch criminals at any cost? How do I tell him I’d almost stopped caring and that the only thing that kept me going was the fact that I needed to provide for my family?

“Thank you, Benny,” my voice breaks. “Thank you for showin’ me that there’s still an honest-to-God good cop out there. Thanks for being my friend, Benny.”

I squeeze his hand. “Thank you, Benny.”

Chapter Text

An unexpected rough hand on my shoulder shakes me awake. My eyes slowly focus on a nurse, a different one from earlier in the night. This one is tall, gaunt and harsh-looking. Her skin seems stretched thin over sharp bones, like a walking skeleton.

“You Raymond Vecchio?” she snaps.

I give her a look. “Yeah, what’s it to ya?”

“A man named Harding Welsh is out in the waiting room for you,” she checks the monitors on the machines, furiously writing things down on a clipboard as she speaks. She writes with such a rough hand that I think she might just break the thing in half.

“Yeah thanks,” I say, still a bit annoyed with her tone. I stretch as I stand up, rubbing some of the kinks in my neck.

The nurse sighs impatiently and looks from the door to me and to the door again. Okay, lady, I can take the hint. I grab my coat and make sure to give her a dirty look as I walk past.

“The doctors will be in and out frequently,” her voice is as sharp as a dog’s bite. “Don’t come back until this evening.”

It’s like she knows I shot him or something. “Hey, that man is my brother,” I growl. “I’ll come back whenever I damn well want to!” Despite my anger, I close the door gently as though I’d wake Benny out of some dream about the tundra if I slammed it.

Welsh is sitting in the waiting room outside of the ICU, just as the nurse said. He’s staring out the window on the opposite side of the room and doesn’t even notice that I’ve entered the room until I lower myself in the seat next to him.

“How’s he doin’?”

I shake my head. “He’s alive.” I leave it at that.

“Your Riv is still at the train station,” he comments casually. “Figured I’d come pick you up and take you over there instead of you calling a cab.”

“Thanks,” I say, feeling for the keys in my pants pocket. Good, they’re still there.

We sit in silence for a few moments, looking out the window but not really seeing anything. At least - I’m not seeing anything but a vision of Benny’s body lying on the platform with a big pool of blood pouring out from under him. I have no idea what Welsh is looking at.

“Haven’t caught her yet,” Welsh says, as if to answer a question. Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about her, which is funny considering she’s the whole reason for this mess. “Police from here to New York have been notified to be on the lookout for her. The FBI are also involved.”

I laugh outright. “They’ll never catch her. She won’t be caught unless she wants to be caught. She won’t be caught unless she comes back for revenge, and believe me, I’ll be the first to put a bullet in her.”

“Don’t talk like that, Vecchio,” Welsh’s voice has a hint of warning to it. “We will find her and she’ll be locked up for a long time.”

He doesn’t get it. If Victoria could fake her own death and pass under the radar like this, she can get lost again. Who knows how many other crimes she committed in between the time of her release from prison and this situation with Fraser? They’re never going to catch her.

Welsh shifts in his seat. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I stand, stretching again, trying hard to work the neck muscles loose. I follow him through the maze of hallways out to his car. It’s a junky Honda. You’d think a Lieutenant would have a better car than this, and he does, but he lets his wife drive it. That is something I will never understand.

The drive to the train station is shorter than I remember it being last night. Welsh parks right behind my Riv, the sun glaring bright off of the rear window. I squint.

“You gonna be okay to drive?” he asks, looking at me seriously. “I can drive you back.”

“The whole point of you picking me up was to avoid a cab situation,” I say, unbuckling my seatbelt. “I’ll be fine.”

Welsh ignores my rude response, and asks if I’ve called my family yet.

I shake my head. “No, not yet.”

“You’d better do it today. Don’t put it off, it will only make it worse, especially if they come up here and find out for themselves.”

He’s right. “I’ll call them.”

“And Vecchio, I’m serious. If you need anything, let me know.”

I nod and a thought pops into my head. “When do you need me back at the station?”

“You’re on suspension while the board investigates,” Welsh says calmly. “Standard procedure.”

“Right,” I say. “See ya.” I shut the door and walk over to the driver’s side of the Riv.

Bracing myself for what is to come, I whisper quietly, “Well, here we go.”

…...

 I push the heavy front door open and stumble over items strewn across the floor. My eyes scan the room, growing bigger at each thing on the floor. A broken flower pot here, throw pillows on the stairs. And this is just the living room. Do I dare even take a look at the rest of the house?

The guilt keeps me from the anger I’d feel at any other point, like when Benny messes up my suits. And then I remember to direct my anger at the right person. Victoria. Those four syllables churn my stomach to the point I might just be sick. If I ever, EVER see her again, she’s dead.

If you hurt him, I’ll kill ya…

I can’t blame Benny for being transfixed by a beautiful woman who should be off-limits. Hell-- that was me and Irene. I’d nearly gotten myself killed for the love of her. Only, Irene isn’t a criminal. She is a victim of cruel circumstances and, like a fool, I thought I knew better. I thought I could save her. Just like Benny thought he could save Victoria.

“Some friend you have,” the old critical voice calls out. “Completely destroyed your family’s home. My home.”

“This ain’t your house anymore, Pop,” I look up and there he is, propping himself up against the banister on the stairway. Solid. Plain as day, no see-through phantasm like all those ghost stories you hear as a kid.

“Hey, I bought this house,” he growls. “I worked hard for that money.”

“Oh yeah? And who did you have to kill for it?” I ask. My mouth opens, but my voice dries up as a memory springs back. I used to get nightmares as a kid. I’d wake up and sit on the stairs, waiting for Pop to come home, still thinking he’d make it all better. And one night he came home with blood all over his shirt front and hands. At first I thought Pop was the one wounded.

“Don’t tell your Ma,” he said quickly. “I’m fine. Just don’t tell your Ma or else you’re going to wish you didn’t have a mouth.”

I haven’t even thought about that in thirty years. I focus back on the present and clear my throat.

“It’s not like you were here enough to enjoy it anyway.” I start picking up a few things.

“I did what I had to do to provide for my family, which is more than you’ve ever done,” his eyes stare daggers into my soul. If only I could wring the man’s neck. “Look at you, putting your Ma, Maria and the kids, and Francesca at risk for being out on the street.”

“Shut the hell up!” I whirl around. “You may have bought this house, but you did not provide for the family other than in bruises, broken arms and hospital bills.”

“I did what was needed to keep you in line,” I can almost smell the bourbon as he leans in to my face.

“Go to hell,” my voice sounds cold, almost like his and my muscles shudder. I look back down at a cracked picture frame. Ma and Frannie just after she was born. Funny how a terrible man like my pop could create such a cute kid. I smile and by the time I look back up, my pop is gone.

I concentrate all my efforts on cleaning up the house because as soon as I call my family, they’ll be on their way back. Frannie’d probably even hop a plane, if Ma would let her. Oh God, what is she going to think of me when Ma tells her it was my bullet? What is Ma going to think of me?

It was an accident, Ray , I tell myself. They’ll understand .

They’ll never forgive you, Pop’s voice enters my thoughts. I look around, half expecting him to be standing somewhere else in the room. He’s not. I shake my head violently to silence the voice. I’d almost rather see his ghost than to have him invading my thoughts like this. For some reason, I feel like I could ignore the ghost better.

I get the living room and stairway done, but become overwhelmed when I see the upstairs. Every single room has been torn apart up there. At least he didn’t ransack the kitchen and break my mother’s wedding china.

The drive back from Florida would take around 24 hours or more, even if they drove straight through, so I decide it’s time to make that call. I put my face in my hands and take a deep breath. This is not going to be easy.

I walk back down the steps slowly, as if prolonging my agony is going to make things any easier. Finally I’m standing in front of the telephone with my hand hovering over the receiver. C’mon, Ray. Don’t be such a kid . This time, my own voice is taking a shot at me.

It takes me two tries to actually remember the number Ma had posted by the phone. Somewhere in Benny’s frantic search, he’d knocked it down and I must have thrown it away. I curse myself for not being more careful because getting two wrong numbers in a row has worked my nerves up into a frenzy.

“Hello?” Ma’s voice croons through the receiver.

“Hey Ma, it’s Ray,” I say.

“I know. Is everything alright, Raimondo? You sound strange.”

God, she’s picking up on it already. “Uh,” my throat closes off as I hear Frannie call out ‘What’s his problem?’ in the background. This is going to kill them.

“Raimondo?” Ma sounds a little more anxious. “Are you still there? What’s wrong?”

“I gotta go, Ma. Don’t worry about it…just wanted to hear your voice.” I hang up as she starts spouting off in Italian. The phone rings and goes to the answering machine three times, each message becoming more frantic.

I lean against the wall and sink to the floor. Of all the stupid things I could have said, I tell Ma ‘I gotta go, don’t worry about it.’ The same way Pa would brush her off.

I know they’ve gotta find out, but I can’t be the one to tell them. I push myself back to standing and make another call.

“27th Precinct. This is Elaine.” Elaine’s voice sounds fake cheery. She knows.

“It’s Vecchio. Is the Lieutenant in?”

“Ray?” her voice becomes serious. “Are you alright?”

“I’m just peachy, Elaine,” I bark at her. “I shot my friend, my house is a damn mess, and…” the weight of the emotions hit me again. My voice breaks,” Put me through to the Lieutenant, please.”

“Okay,” her voice sounds hurt.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. I want to say something else but I can’t think of any appropriate words.

“It’s okay, Ray,” her words are sincere. “I’ll put you through.”

“Vecchio?” Welsh’s voice breaks through after a few moments of silence.

“I can’t do it.” I say, simply.

“Can’t do what?”

“Tell my family,” I breathe. I can’t cry on the phone to Welsh of all people. “The house- it’s a mess and I just can’t do it. I can’t tell them. Could you call them and explain things? It’d sound better coming from you.”

“I think they’d rather hear it from you, detective, but if that’s what you want…” Welsh trails off.

“Look, boss. I tried and I just couldn’t do it. Now Ma’s all worried and thinks I’m going crooked,” I stop before I divulge any more information. Welsh doesn’t need to know all the skeletons in the Vecchio family closet.

“I’ll do it,” Welsh says. “What happened to the house? Did the guys leave a mess?”

“The b…Victoria must have hidden the key here when she was at my house,” I say. “Benny did it. He called me from here to tell me to meet him at the station. Said she’d hidden the key here.”

“How bad is it?”

All I need to do is sigh and Welsh follows up with, “I’ll ask Elaine if she’ll come over and help. I’ll have her head over there as soon as I finish with this call. What’s the phone number?”

I tell him.

“See you soon, Vecchio.”

The dial tone buzzes in my ear and I put the phone back down. Welsh isn’t such a bad guy, especially considering all the crap I’ve put him through over the past few years. I make my way over to the couch and wait.

About 15 minutes later the phone rings. I sigh and grudgingly get up, the dread churning my stomach. I know it’s Ma and that she probably just got off the phone with Welsh. Steeling myself, I reach down, pick up the receiver and slowly bring it to my ear.

“Vecchio.”

Raimondo! ” Ma’s voice practically bursts my eardrums. “ Perche non me l’hai detto? Are you alright? How is Benton?” The words pour out of her mouth a mile a minute.

“Ma,” I say, but she keeps talking. “MA!”

She goes quiet.

Perdonami mamma ,” I stumble over the Italian. “I’m sorry. I just- - I just didn’t know how to tell you. It was an accident, I swear.”

“The Lieutenant explained everything to me,” Ma says. “Well, just as far as you thought a criminal was going to shoot Benton and so you tried to shoot him and Benton got in the way and you aren’t in trouble.”

So Welsh hadn’t given her all the details. I’ll go on letting Ma think the criminal was a ‘him’ for now. And when Elaine gets here, we’ll get the house cleaned up and Ma will never have to know how badly the place was torn up. I could blame the broken flower pot on Gardino’s clumsy elbows or something. I just hope not too much else is broken or missing.

“Raimondo, is he okay?”

Ma’s voice breaks me out of my thoughts. “Ah, well, he’s alive. They don’t really know the extent of the injuries right now. I’ll find out more when I go back later today and I’ll let you know, alright?”

“Well, we are going to be home soon,” Ma says, soothingly. “Everyone is packing their things now. We will be on the road soon.”

Hopefully Elaine and I can get this place cleaned. It should take about two days for them to get back, knowing the way my family travels, but this house is an awful mess.

Ti amo, mi figlio ,” she says.

Ti amo, mamma, ” I say and hang up.

I go back and sit on the couch for a while and wait. And wait. Finally, I get up and pace around the room as thoughts swirl in my head. What is Benny going to think about all of this when he wakes up? Is he going to forgive me?

Oh God. What if he doesn’t forgive me? What if when he wakes up and sees me there, he tells me to get out and that he never wants to see me again? My stomach has worked up such a frenzy that I taste acid in my mouth, but I can’t vomit because I haven’t eaten anything since noon yesterday.

I know I should eat something, but the taste of bile in my mouth warns me against adding to the fray in my gut. Instead, I go for a glass of water. I take my time with it, drinking slow and steady as I look up at the clock. Gah, Elaine, where are you? I wanna get back to Fraser as soon as I can.

And as much as I dread seeing him wake up and having him hate me forever, I just want to see those eyes open. I want to see his smile. I want to hear some stupid Inuit story that makes sense to know one but him. I just want my friend back and I want to forget any of this ever happened.

But it will be impossible to forget. Even if they can get the bullet out eventually, there will always be that scar in his back. There could be nerve damage. He could be paralyzed. There’s no going back to normal after this, and the realization sends me running to the sink in time to lose all the water I’d managed to drink.

……….

 

Elaine arrives at a quarter to four with another civilian aide in tow. I try very hard to greet them with as much civility as I can muster because I know they’re trying to help and they’ve got jobs to do, but damnit I wanted to be at the hospital by now.

“I’ve got most everything down here and in the stairway clean,” I say. “The upstairs hasn’t been touched yet.”

I turn and head up the stairs, listening to the light tread of Elaine’s footsteps. Anything to keep me from thinking about Fraser right now, which is difficult considering he created this mess. No…Fraser’s hands might have been the tool, but it was Victoria who created this mess. Place the blame where the blame is due, Vecchio.

“Oh my….” Elaine whispers. “Ray, what exactly happened here again?”

“Victoria hid the key to the locker with the money in it in my house,” I say. “At least that’s what I’m thinking. I don’t really have any proof, but this is where Fraser called me from and said that he had the key so….”

Elaine squeezes my shoulder, a look of genuine empathy and compassion in her eyes. This is a look she’s never worn when she’s looked at me before. Disgust, contempt, frustration, sarcasm—sure. Empathy or compassion? Not so much. I’ve really got to start treating her better.

“Hey, uh, thanks for helping me out,” my eyes start to water. I blink and swallow hard. An uncomfortable moment of silence passes. I hate them seeing me like this, especially since I don’t even know the other aide’s name.

I clear my throat. “Anything that’s flashy or pink is probably Frannie’s. Anything else in a similar size that looks a little more matronly is Maria’s. The kids’ stuff goes in there and anything like this,” I hold up a dress of my mother’s, “is my Ma’s and goes in there.”

 Without another word, we go to work. I notice the simple glances of sympathy that the two pass in my direction every now and then. It’s frustrating because it makes me want to be at the hospital all the more. At the same time, I dread going back because who knows when Benny is going to wake up and who knows what the hell he’s gonna think about all of this. If he even wakes up. He’s not out of the woods entirely.

“Ray, I think we can take it from here,” Elaine speaks up after a time. “You got a spare key so we can lock up?”

I could hug the gal right now. “Under the big flower pot in the backyard by the door.”

“But before you go, Ray, you should really shower and change those clothes.”

She’s right, I haven’t changed since I got home. I shower quickly and throw on a simple long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I don’t remember the last time I wore jeans out of the house, but I figure they’ll be more comfortable for an overnight stay at the hospital than any of my suits would be.

Elaine stops to give me a hug before I go and it takes me by surprise. Though definitely more emotional than I, she’s not usually given to big displays like this. Especially not to me. Great, now I am crying because she’s being so nice even though I’ve been terrible to her. But I don’t really know what to say so I kind of choke on a ‘Thanks’ and head out the door.

Autopilot gets me to the hospital because I’m blinking so hard to hold the emotions back that I can’t see all that well. Apparently I haven’t run any red lights judging by the absence of honking. Or maybe I’m just not hearing anything. I don’t know which.

I manage to compose myself before arriving at the ICU. A doctor is in there when I arrive, discussing things with a nurse. They both look up as I clear my throat.

“Is everything okay?”

“Who are you?” the doctor raises an eyebrow.

“I’m the next of kin, smart guy.” My hand reaches instinctively in my jacket pocket for my shield. I must have had the presence of mind to put it in this jacket before I left the house because it’s there. And considering I’m on suspension, it’s also surprising Welsh hasn’t taken it from me.

“Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD,” I say. “Now answer my question.”

The doc seems a little rattled, but continues. “I’m Dr. Travers and I’ll be handling Mr. Fraser’s case.”

“Constable. He’s a Constable with the RCMP,” I say.

“Ah yes, Constable,” Dr. Travers mumbles. “Well, I’ve had a look at the x-rays and the surgery is definitely too risky. I can show them to you, if you’d like.”

For some sick reason I say sure.

Dr. Travers flips on a lightboard to the left of Benny’s bed. The nurse, the pretty one from last night, hands him a folder. He pulls out the x-ray sheets and sticks them up. I immediately wish I wouldn’t have agreed to see them. You don’t have to be a doctor to know where the spinal column is and where the bullet is at.

“Now this here is his T-8 vertebra,” the doc explains. “This bright spot here is the bullet. See how close it is to the center?”

Yes. Or at least I did. The tears are back so it’s kind of hard to see now.

“To do an operation would risk permanent paralysis or even death,” he continues. “Now, there is still the risk of paralysis without doing the operation, but I think it will only be temporary. Given a few months and some good physical therapy, he should be fine.”

I breathe a sigh of relief. “Has he woken up yet?”

“Not yet, he’s still under heavy sedation and he’s not quite breathing on his own yet, but I anticipate him waking up in the next few days. Quite possibly even tomorrow.”

Oh God.

Dr. Travers smiles and I notice he has a gap tooth. “He is one very lucky man. Just a hair further and he probably would have been permanently paralyzed or dead.”

The doctor and the nurse walk out of the room. The easy way the doctor spoke those words just a hair further causes the room to spin. I place my hand against the wall to steady myself. Just a hair further and I would have killed him. Or, he might have lived, but I would have killed him. A person like Benny relegated to a wheelchair? It would have killed him.

And it’d be all my fault.

Finally the spinning stops and I can move again. I walk over to the chair next to his bed and resume the vigil I had left this morning. That was this morning? It seems forever ago. Benny’s hand feels warm in mine and I realize I’m shivering. Whether it’s from guilt or from the air temperature in the room, I have no idea.

I listen to the sounds around me: the soft beeping of the heart monitor, the whoosh of the breathing machine (it almost makes me laugh after a little bit, remembering how Benny solved that case in Chinatown with the sound of a whoosh), the drip of the IV. Okay, the drip doesn’t really make any sound, but I can see it drip in a rhythm.

What am I going to tell him when he wakes up? What do you say to your best friend after you shoot him? Oh, ah, well Benny, I’m really sorry I accidentally shot you in the back. I was merely trying to kill your girlfriend who was going to end up killing you in one way or another…

What if he never forgives me for this? It’ll kill me . I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for him and…I couldn’t take it. But visions of him sending me away or refusing to talk to me take over.

“You’re better off without him anyway, he was makin’ you soft.”

“Get out of here, Pop,” I growl. “You’ve got no business here so just leave.”

“I have business wherever I want to have business. After all, I’m your pop and you’re my son. A poor excuse of a son, yes, but you’re still my son and I can visit you whenever I want.”

 My muscles tense and my grip on Fraser’s hand increases. I swear he’ll be able to feel this, I’m squeezing so hard. I speak low, fearful I’ll somehow knock Fraser out of his drug coma and have to explain why I’m talking to thin air. “Leave.”

 I can hear the smile in his voice. “He’ll never forgive you.”

“You don’t know him like I do.” I say.

“You don’t know him like you think you do,” Pa says. But before I can respond, he’s gone.

He’s right, though. Maybe I don’t know Fraser like I thought. I certainly didn’t see this one coming. How do you get over shooting your best friend?

Chapter Text

My eyes don’t leave Benny’s face the entire night. I keep expecting those eyelids to flutter open and I dread it as much as I anticipate it. Somehow I know if he just opens his eyes, he will get better, but at the same time I know I’ll have to face him when that happens and I’m no closer to figuring out what to say than I was yesterday night.

The grouch is on duty again and when she comes in to take vitals, I decide to head to the cafeteria. I’m not hungry, but I know I should eat something. I finally decide to nibble on a blueberry muffin that tastes more like cardboard, and drink some stale coffee. I distract myself from the blandness of the food by watching the people around me.

There’s an exuberant man shouting that he’s just become a father to anyone who will listen. Thirty-six hours of labor, apparently. Poor woman, and I thought Maria’s twelve hour labor was bad enough. She certainly screamed like it, and that was before we got her to the hospital.

Most of the other people in the cafeteria look tired or anxious, but they share in the man’s excitement. All except me and one other person. A woman to my left looks to be in utter despair. Red eyes wet with tears, her head propped up by hands clenching the top of her scalp, the cup of coffee beneath her going ignored. She’s got a bandage on her forehead and she’s got some scratches elsewhere on her skin and another bandage on her right arm. If I had to guess, car accident. I see the ring on her left and finger and figure it must be her husband who’s the worse off of the two. Maybe falling asleep at the wheel.

I watch her until she gets up and throws her coffee in the trash and take that as my cue to head out of the cafeteria and make some calls. Well, just one. I know my family’s gotta be on the road by now, so it’s no use to call them. I’ll call Welsh and see how far they got. However far it was, it’s going to have to be good enough because I’ve decided I’m not leaving this hospital unless I have to until Fraser wakes up.

Another civilian aide picks up and patches me through to Welsh.

“How is he?” Welsh asks right away.

“Well, he’s not awake yet, but the doctor,” I pause, “the doctor seems optimistic about Fraser’s chances to walk again.”

“They take the bullet out?” Welsh sounds hopeful.

“Uh no, it’s too close to the spine to risk operation, but not close enough to cause anything permanent. Or that’s at least what the doc thinks.”

“Well that’s....” Welsh trails off and switches gears. “Elaine told me your Ma called the house yesterday evening. They’re on their way. She’s worried about you, Ray. No one told her anything.”

“Did she say when they’d get back?”

“Sometime tomorrow afternoon.” Welsh goes silent for a bit. “The board called to tell me they started their investigation. I expect your hearing will be coming up in the next week or two.”

I nod and then remember Welsh can’t hear me nod over the phone. “Understood,” I mimic a typical Fraser response because it seems appropriate and I don’t know how else to respond. “How’s the house looking?”

“Elaine and Amanda stayed until they got it clean. From what I understand, everything should be in order. There were a few broken items that they put in a box just in case anyone thinks they could be salvaged.”

“Thanks boss,” I say with genuine emotion. They’re regular saints. “Tell them thanks for me, too.”

“I’ll pass it along. Keep me updated.”

Click.

 When I get back to the ICU, it doesn’t look like Benny’s woken up, so I just sit and watch. And sit. And watch. And avoid planning my words for when he wakes up. I figure maybe I’ll just wing it when he wakes up because it’s too painful running scenarios. Each one I can come up with ends with Benny hating my guts.

 At some point in the afternoon a nurse mentions that his vitals seem to be getting better at least as far as the oxygen goes. “We may be able to take the tube out soon,” she says.

“Doesn’t he have to be awake for that?” I ask.

“Oh no,” the nurse says. “It actually might be better for him if it’s out before he wakes up. It can be kind of traumatic for a patient when they wake up and realize they’ve got a tube in their throat. Don’t worry though, even if he does we’ll give him some numbing medication and take it out. At most he’ll have a sore throat for a few days.”

 I nod. “Well, that’s good I guess.”

 The nurse gives me a sympathetic smile.  This is a different nurse than the other two I’ve met, short and plump, but nice like the younger one that comes in at night. “He’s going to be just fine.” She looks back and forth between Benny and me, as if comparing us. “This might come off as rude, but how are you related?”

“Adoption.” I say.

The afternoon turns into evening. Evening turns into night. The only movement I make is to alternate which hand holds Benny’s simply because I lose circulation if I don’t. Haven’t even moved to go to the bathroom or eat since the morning which can’t be healthy, but at this point I don’t really care.

At about three in the morning, his hand moves in mine. I’ve gotta be dreaming , I think, but no, there it moves right in front of my eyes. I shoot my gaze up at his face and wait for his eyes to open, but they don’t. They don’t even move beneath the surface of his eyelids. And in fact, after that movement, his hand doesn’t do anything again before the pretty nurse comes in.

“His hand moved,” I tell her.

Her eyes get big. “Just now?”

“No, a little while ago.”

“Really?” she asks. “You should have let us know right away.”

I feel dumb for not telling them. “Well, he didn’t open his eyes,” I try to excuse myself.

“Do you realize how good this is?” she continues. “It means he’s got some movement in his limbs. Or at least that one hand.”

I didn’t think of it like that.

“If he makes any more movement, whether he wakes up or not, let us know. But you really should get some sleep,” she advises gently. “You look terrible.”

Gee, thanks , I think as the door closes behind her. I know she’s right, but it still hurts what little of my normal self still remains. My hand scratches against the beginnings of a beard on my cheeks. I’ve only ever grown a beard out once, for an undercover thing early in my career. Angie always said I looked better clean shaven, and I never argued with her.

I drift off into a troubled semi-consciousness. I can still hear the beeps from the monitors, but that doesn’t stop the nightmares.

……

Benny’s still not awake when the sunlight comes streaking in, but I can tell that both hands have moved now. I reach for the buzzer to call the nurse. I did not look forward to having to tell The Grouch about it since the pretty nurse was now off duty. Surprisingly, Grouch had shown some pleasure at the news. Her eyebrows had raised and she had said “good” without biting my head off.

My family will be getting back at some point today, and I hate to leave Benny, but I know I’m going to have to at least make an appearance. Ma was to call the hospital and leave a message for me when they arrived and I’m torn between hoping they get here soon and hoping Benny wakes up first. I just wish he would wake up while I’m here. For some reason, I feel that things will be better if I’m there when it happens.

Rumbles in my stomach signal that I’m hungry for the first time since the night I shot him. It feels like it’s been an eternity, but it’s really only been about two days. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in window glass as I make my way to the cafeteria. The night nurse was right, I do look terrible. Change of plans. I’ve gotta get home and clean up before I’m mistaken for a psych patient and someone chains me to the bed.

Elaine and the aide really have done a great job with the house. I owe the both of them--, huge. I don’t know exactly how, but they deserve something for this. There isn’t a single thing out of place. They’ve even gone to the trouble of replacing the pots for the plants that had gone crashing to the floor. Elaine must have done this because I don’t imagine anyone else would have thought of it.

I go to the kitchen first and grab a bowl of cereal because it’ll take the least amount of effort to put together. Must be hungrier than I thought , I think as I look at the empty bowl. I pour myself another and head up the stairs after I’m done. I’ve got to get a shower – I can practically feel the germs crawling all over me.

The water is turned up as hot as I can stand it and I just relax in the flow for awhile, imagining all the events of this week running off of me along with all the dirt and grime. A harsh knock at the bathroom door crashes through my thoughts. Who the hell is in my house? Immediately my muscles are tense, ready to fight as my mind races. It’s not like I can do anything, though, being stark naked.

“Raymond Vecchio, you get out here RIGHT NOW and tell me what happened or else I will bust through this door and KILL you!”

Frannie . Her voice alone could break through that door. It’s so loud that I’m not even quite sure she’s not actually in here with me right now. I think I locked the door…

“He’s in the shower for Christ’s sake,” this comes from Maria. “At least let him get out and get dressed before you start grilling him.”

“Shut up, Maria!” I peek out of the curtain tentatively, almost convinced Frannie is in here with me. She’s not, but I can see the doorknob turning.

“Ray!” she shouts again. “I know you’re in there!”

“And I know you’re out there, Frannie,” I retort as I wrap a towel around my waist. I can feel my blood beginning to boil. Though I know they’re concerned, I really don’t want to deal with all the yelling right now.

“I’m not saying anything until I put some clothes on, so you’d better move out of the way,” I say as I put my hand on the knob. I hear the sound of her heels clicking back away from the door. My muscles relax and I step out into the hall only to be met by a barrage of slaps on my back.

“What did you do , Ray? How could you do that?” There are tears in her voice. I’d feel bad for her if her stupid nails weren’t digging into my back right now.

Francesca, smettila! ” Ma’s footsteps quicken up the stairs. “Can’t you see he’s had a bad week? Leave him alone, let him get dressed.”

She steps in between us and nods for me to head to my room. I know she’s only wanting me to get dressed because she wants to make sure I’m okay, but now all I want to do is get back to the hospital. I’m so frustrated I just don’t even want to deal with any of this right now.

I try to calm down as I get dressed, but it’s not working. My stomach twists violently and I feel like the cereal I ate might just make another appearance. For Christ’s sake, doesn’t Frannie get how bad I feel about this? It’s not like I did it on purpose and she’s acting as though I’m some sort of criminal. God, the fact that he’s in that hospital bed is killing me—doesn’t she realize this?

Maybe I can slip out of here without them knowing it , I think for a moment and then scold myself. The family doesn’t deserve that and even though I’d like to put Frannie in a straightjacket right now, I know she’s only acting this way because she’s really upset.

Ma’s waiting for me right outside of my door, arms wide open. “ Mio figlio ,” she says, wrapping her arms tightly around me. “Are you alright?”

I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. “I’m fine,” I say after a few moments of silence. “I’m okay.”

She doesn’t look as though she believes me, but she leaves it alone for now. “How is Benton?” she asks instead as we make our way down the stairs to the family room. Frannie is sitting there, glaring at me. Tony must be out back with the kids, working out some pent-up energy because Maria’s the only other person sitting there. Her face is one full of sympathy.

“He’s doing well. They were going to take the breathing tube out sometime today, I think.”

“Is he going to be paralyzed?” Frannie’s words sting more than she realizes.

“They don’t know yet,” I say. “They’ll know more when he wakes up.”

If he wakes up,” Frannie says. “He’ll probably be a vegetable for the rest of his life.”

Now my blood is really boiling. If I weren’t a better man…

Francesca! ” Ma’s voice is like steel and Frannie shrinks back in her chair, but she doesn’t apologize.

“Sit down, Raimondo ,” Ma says, gesturing to a spot on the couch.

“I really should get going,” I begin, but I see the hurt look in Ma’s eyes. I can’t leave, not yet.

For the next two hours, I try to ignore Frannie’s comments and answer Ma and Maria’s questions without giving too much detail.

“Someone broke into the house?” Ma gasps, hand moving to her rosary.

“Yes, but they didn’t really take anything,” I rub my forehead, trying to plan my words carefully. “I brought cleaners in. Things might still be a little messed up but nothing should be missing.”

“No wonder my closet is a wreck,” Francesca snaps. “How could you let someone just break into the house?”

If I were not a better man ....

“Frannie!” Maria shouts angrily. “I’m sure Ray didn’t just let someone waltz in here and mess things up. Houses get broken into all the time.”

“Does it have to do with the case?” Ma asks.

“Uh, I don’t know,” I lie, and I can see in Ma’s eyes she knows I’m lying but she doesn’t press for more. She just sighs.

“I’m going to go see Benny,” I say, standing up. No one but Francesca objects, but I ignore her protests and insults and head out to the car.

I can’t shut the door and turn the key quickly enough. I just hope Benny wakes up soon and then we can move past all this....

 

......

 

Where the hell is Benny? The room he’s been in for the past few days now sits empty in front of me. What happened? Oh God, he better not have taken a turn for the worse. For the second time today, my stomach is threatening revolt and this time it might actually happen.  I make my way back to the nurses station, but I don’t really recognize anyone up there.

“What the hell happened to the guy in 508?” I ask. It’s harsh and it scares the nurse in front of me. God, I’m a jerk.

The nurse is taken aback but she regains her composure and replies,“Are you family?” She looks at me seriously.

Really, am I going to have to go through this all over again? Who is this nurse, anyway? But before my blood boils too much, the grouch comes walking around the corner.

“Oh, you’re here,” she says evenly. “They’ve moved your brother to the first floor.” I don’t like the way she stresses the word brother, but I decide not to comment back.

“I’m sorry,” the first nurse apologizes after hearing the exchange. “They moved him to a regular care unit because he woke up...”

I don’t let her finish. “He what ?”

She looks at me as if I’m an idiot. “He woke up, so the doctors decided it was time to move him to one of the regular units.”

“Can you tell me what room he’s in?” My head is reeling. Benny awake? Oh God, and I missed it. Oh God.

“Ah, 156,” she says after typing some things into a computer.

I merely nod my head and make my way down two floors. When I reach the nurses’ station at the new unit, I tersely ask “156?” and the nurse points to the left. Either she’s heard about me, or she doesn’t really care who gets in. Then again, the rules are a little less strict when you’re not in intensive care.

Another nurse is checking vitals when I walk into the room. God, all these nurses. How many more of them am I going to have to get to know? This one has long, curly dark hair. Kind of like Victoria...

I don’t like her.

“Oh, hello,” she says as she turns to face me. At least her face is different, more round. Fuller cheeks. “You must be the cop they told me about.”

“What’d they tell you?”

“Only that you’re family and that I’m supposed to tell you he’s doing great. He woke up this morning shortly after you left...he’s still pretty out of it from all the medication.”

Did he ask for me? I want to ask, but I’m afraid of the answer. “Is he, uh, talking?”

“Not really,” the nurse said. “His throat is probably still a little sore from the breathing tube, but he was able to answer some yes or no questions by nodding his head.”

“Good.” It’s all I can think of to say. The nurse smiles.

“Well, I need to be finishing my rounds. Nice to meet you,  Mr....”

“Ray. Call me Ray.”

“Yes, Ray, well, I’m Jade. Have a good afternoon!” She smiles pleasantly and heads for the door.

“Uh, Jade?”

“Yes?”

“What’s the policy on pets in the hospital?”

“Well,” she begins slowly, “If it’s a service animal...”

I take a look at Benny. “I gotta go make a few calls. I’ll be right back.”

……..

“Alright, Detective. From the beginning, explain to us what happened the night of April 23 rd .”

I take a deep breath and look at the row of faces across the table from me. It’ll be painless, Ray , I tell myself. Painless. Ha. It’s not like I’m worried I’ll lose my badge or anything, but I really don’t feel like going to relive that day yet. Especially since Benny hasn’t really been all that responsive.

“Any time now, Detective,” the man speaks again, annoyed. It’s near lunchtime and I’m not the only who’s going before the shooting team today.

“Constable Fraser and I were in pursuit of Ms. Metcalf to apprehend her before she could skip town with the diamonds,” I begin. “Once we got inside Union Station, we both saw her arguing with a man over a suitcase and she pulled a gun. The suitcase came loose and opened in the struggle so Constable Fraser went after Ms. Metcalf and I stayed behind to make sure none of the evidence was taken.”

I pause. As I’m speaking I can see everything again, smell everything again.

“What happened next?”

I breathe. “As soon as backup arrived, Detectives Gardino, Huey and I went to go give backup to Constable Fraser. The train was pulling out and he was…”

I should be with her…

“…he was running after it. I saw Ms. Metcalf pointing a gun at him, and I fired my weapon.”

The shot rings out in my memory as plain as day. I prop my elbows on the table and steady my head against my hands for a moment before looking back up. “He swung up onto the train at the same time I fired my gun and the bullet hit him instead.”

The shot rings out in my memory as plain as day. I prop my elbows on the table and steady my head against my hands for a moment before looking back up. “He swung up onto the train at the same time I fired my gun and the bullet hit him instead.”

A balding man seated on the left of the panel speaks up next. “Wasn’t a gun found on the platform?”

“Yes sir. We did find a gun that she had used on the platform.”

“So you can’t be certain she had a gun when you took that shot.”

The hair on the back of my neck stands up. “She had already killed one person, and she had fired a weapon inside the station right after we arrived,” I explain, trying to control my voice. “I saw a glint of metal in her hand. I took the shot.”

“Thank you, Detective. You’re free to go. You’ll be notified when we’ve concluded our investigation.”

I take a deep breath as I exit the room. It’ll probably be a couple of days before they come back with their report. I’ve been through these things before. Anytime an officer is involved in a shooting, the team has to make sure that it was the only reasonable course of action so the department doesn’t get sued. Even then that doesn’t stop some folks from trying.

It’s been a week and a half since that terrible night. I walk out to my Riv and head towards the animal hospital to check on the wolf. The vet says he should be cleared to leave today, but that’s probably because he’s tired of hearing the whining coming from his kennel day in and day out. I’ve been making about as many trips to the vet as to the hospital because I’ve never seen an animal so distraught. As annoying as Diefenbaker is, the mutt’s growing on me.

“Mr. Vecchio, nice to see you,” the vet is standing by the front desk as I walk in.

“We good to go today?”

“Yes indeed, and here’s the paperwork you asked for,” he smiles, handing me a manila envelope. Diefenbaker got Chicago’s first wolf license, now he’s Chi Town’s first service wolf. An assistant leads Dief out from the back. He’s sniffing at a small bag in her hand.

“Donut,” the vet explains. “We won’t put a collar on him just yet, we don’t want to rub the wound raw. We couldn’t find any other way to lead him around.”

I laugh slightly. “Some things never change.” I scratch at my collar. “Uh, doc, how much for all this?” The last thing Benny needs to worry about is how to pay for Dief’s stint at the vet.

“It’s on the house,” the vet smiles and pats my shoulder. “Have a wonderful afternoon, and give the Constable our best.”

“You’re a good man,” I tell him as I take the donut from the assistant. “Ready to go, Dief?”

The wolf yips and starts pawing at the donut bag. “Yeah, yeah. First we get to the hospital, then we get the donut, all right?”

I don’t make him wait until the hospital though. I couldn’t even if I tried. He’s licking the remains of the donut from the paper bag by the time I get the key turned in the ignition. Luckily I don’t have to do much to get him to follow me once we arrive at the hospital. He seems to know exactly why we’re here.

Benny’s asleep when we get up to his room which is good because for some reason, I don’t want him to know that it was me that brought Dief here. The docs say he’s gonna make a full recovery, that he has movement in all his limbs but he’s going to have to re-learn to walk. Ma tells me what a relief and an answer to prayer that is, but I still feel like garbage.

I sit down in the chair and watch as Dief jumps up on the bed and curls up beside Benny. He whimpers as he sticks his nose in Benny’s hand. The hand moves up to the top of the wolf’s head and scratches his ear, but Benny doesn’t open his eyes.

He smiles a little in his sleep and it gives me hope that maybe having Dief back will make things better. Sometimes when I’m here I can tell he’s having nightmares. He’s called out Victoria’s name more than once. And even when he’s awake it’s not much better. He just stares into space and doesn’t say much of anything. I’ve apologized to him and he says he forgives me, that he knows it was an accident, but the words seem hollow. Reason says he’s so drugged up of course he isn’t gonna sound like his old self. But I can’t help feeling like he’s never gonna forgive me for this.

Chapter Text

Dr. Renate Sweet, Psy D. The department’s psychiatrist. She’s a tall, thin rail of a woman, dressed in a blue long sleeved blouse and a pencil skirt, her long, grey hair pulled back in a French twist. Her blue eyes size me up from behind her narrow framed glasses. “Are you going to have a seat, detective?” she asks.

“Nah, I’ll stand, thanks though.” It’s a routine session, always recommended when an officer is involved in a shooting. But this time it’s anything but routine. I don’t want her getting in my head about all of this. I’m tired of everyone telling me everything is okay when it’s not okay.

“Well, I have you for 90 minutes,” she says, “but if you want to stand, suit yourself.”

I sigh and sit down, leaning forward with my elbows propped on my knees, facing her evenly. Neither of us say anything for a few moments. We just sit there staring at each other.

Finally she breaks the silence. “I know this is a bit of an unusual circumstance for you, Ray.” It’s more of an invitation than a statement.

“Unusual.” I scoff.

“Why don’t you tell me about that night?”

I scratch the back of my neck. “It’s in your file, isn’t it?”

“You know how this works, detective. I’d rather hear it from you.”

“What’s to hear? A revenge-crazed woman from Benny’s past comes and tries to screw his life up. And instead of bringing her in, I end up shooting my best friend in the back while she gets away.” I pause. “I saw her pointing a gun at him, you know? And I thought ‘I can’t let her take him down. I can’t let her destroy my best friend.’”

Dr. Sweet nods. “That’s perfectly reasonable.”

I place my palms together, still propping my elbows on my knees, leaning forward. “Only thing is, we don’t know for sure if she was holding a gun or not.” I smile ruefully. “I swear to God I saw the flash of metal in her hand. Maybe I just wanted to see it. I don’t know.”

Her eyes get big, but there’s no surprise in her voice when she asks, “Do you think he was trying to go with her?”

I shrug. “Y’know, there was a time when I would have laughed at that question, but Victoria had him so messed up in the head. I’ve never seen him like that. So like I said, maybe I just wanted to see the gun because I couldn’t let her ruin his life. And instead it’s my bullet that ends up ruining everything. And…I don’t know that he’ll ever forgive me for it.”

“The shooting team cleared you, that must have been reassuring” she stands up and crosses toward the coffee pot in the corner to the left of the desk. She crosses back. “How is he?”

“They found the bullet,” I say, trying to avoid the question. “In the T-8 vertebrae, wherever that is.”

“The thoracic region,” she says to my back as I walk toward the window, looking out past the trees toward a tall, brick building. Funny how her office is in the medical complex across the street from Benny’s hospital.

“It’s too close to the spine. They didn’t want to risk taking it out.”

“I’m told he’s expected to recover fully,” she offers.

“Yeah,” my tone is too sarcastic, but I don’t care. She’s too damn good at her job and she’s cutting right to the heart of the matter. I don’t like it.

“Have you talked to him about any of this?”

“He’s barely conscious.”

“Then you don’t know how he feels.”

I whirled around. “Look, what’s to know? Okay, I shot him, alright? He’s fine, I’m fine, we’re all fine, alright?”

Dr. Sweet continues to eye me evenly, unwavered by my outburst. I cross back to the window and brace myself against the ledge biting my lip. I will not cry like a baby in front of the therapist. I’d lose my shield for sure.

“You’re feeling guilty, that’s perfectly normal,” she offers after a few moments of silence. “But it was an accident. There were three other cops there. Any one of them could have fired their weapons. Any of their bullets could have been the one that ended up in his back.”

“Yeah, but that one, single bullet was mine,” I grit out. “That bullet was mine.”

“He’s your best friend?” she asks.

“Like a brother.”

“Like a brother,” she echoes. “You have family, right? Has any member of your family ever wronged you?”

“More than you know.”

“And you forgave them, didn’t you?”

All except for Pop.

She ignores my non answer and continues, “And has the constable ever done anything to make you angry?”

I know where she’s going with this. “He’s never done anything even close to this. It’s not anywhere close to the same thing, alright?”

The doc sighs. “You won’t know until you talk to him. Now I can’t speak to exactly how he is feeling, but I imagine he’s also trying to process everything that’s happened. He’s going to need his best friend to help him through it. Talk to him, Ray.”

I shrug. “Fine.” But she doesn’t understand. Yeah, Benny’s barely conscious, but I don’t know, I can just tell when he’s awake that he doesn’t really want me there. Almost like every time someone walks through his door he wants it to be Victoria and when it’s not, he blames me for not being able to be with her.

When I leave the psych’s office, I leave with the clearance to go back to work, but not without the recommendation to come back for an additional visit in two weeks so that I can ‘continue to process my emotions’. I toss the appointment card in a garbage bin just outside the building as I head across the street toward the hospital.

……

 

It seems like all of Chicago knows Benny and knows he’s laid up in the hospital. At least all the flowers and the giant bear Frannie got him are putting some color into this room. I watch as one of the hospital’s maintenance techs installs an already broken TV. Took me days to convince Benny he needed it. But it was really more for me anyway. Something I could look at or discuss with him that doesn’t involve Victoria. Something to fill the awkward silences.

But I can tell he wants to know where the investigation is going. Every day he mentions I don’t have to be here, I could be at work. How is work? Almost as if he’s begging me to bring her in. Whether he wants me to bring her to justice or just simply to have her back in his life- I haven’t been able to determine. And there isn’t really much to tell, but I know I can’t leave the elephant in the room dancing around for too much longer, so I decide to broach the subject.

“They haven’t found her, you know.” I say, glancing sideways at him, trying to gauge his reaction.

“The investigation?”

“Officially it’s still open. Unofficially, it’s on the back burner. The diamonds were recovered and the murder victim, he’s a convicted felon. For all we know, she could be in Afghanistan.”

“I still see her,” Fraser says, matter of factly.  “I’m not sure what I see actually.” He reaches for a plastic cup with some little pills in it.

“Well you know, those painkillers- they can do it to you.” I say as he gets ready to take the pills. Had to take some after getting my wisdom teeth pulled while I was married to Angie and kept seeing Irene Zuko. Angie didn’t appreciate it much. Fraser considers this for a moment, then tosses the pills in the trash.

Dief whines in the corner and nudges at my hand. Wolf’s been begging for my chips the entire time I’ve been here.

“What? Look, no more, okay? It’s gonna make you fat.” I look back at Benny. How he handles this mutt day in and day out is beyond me.

“You’re in his chair,” Fraser says, a colder, more faraway look in his eyes. It’s the kind of response he’s been giving me lately when he wants me to leave.

“Oh…okay,” I can take a hint. “I’m gonna get outta here. Can I get you anything?”

“No, you’ve done more than enough already.”

Perhaps he really meant it, I mean he’s a Canadian. But right now it almost sounds like an accusation. As I leave the hospital, I curse myself for bringing up the investigation or lack thereof to him. Maybe we would have been able to joke again. All I know is that we can’t keep letting this devil ruin our lives.

……..

 

“Hurry up in there, you’re gonna take all the hot water,” I yell as I pound the bathroom door.

“Why don’t you shove it up yours, Ray,” Frannie yells back. I swear to God she’s been in there an hour, getting ready for a night out with the girls. And when Frannie’s goin’ on a night out, the rest of us aren’t seein’ any hot water for the next week and a half.

I mumble a few choice words and lean against the wall next to the bathroom door. What a day. Spent the first part of my shift working a back alley crime scene, digging through trash and then had to spend the rest of the time at my desk trying to clear the mountain of paperwork, ruminating in the filth. Kinda glad that Benny was in PT by the time I got to the hospital. Probably would have given him some sort of disease.

“There you go, your majesty ,” Francesca barrels out of the bathroom, hair wound up in a towel.

“Yeah, hope you left some hot water for the rest of Chicago,” I sneer at her back. The steam in the bathroom is so thick I can hardly breathe. My towel is probably gonna be damp from the condensation by the time I’m finished. The water coming out of the shower head is warm for about two seconds before going ice cold and for the second time in five minutes I’m breathless.

You know Ray, in times like these, the Inuit…

Oh my God, now I’m hearing Fraser’s Inuit stories in my head. I’ve only felt this cold twice in my life. Once when we were locked in that meat freezer and had to wrap ourselves in horse carcasses to stay warm, and then when I was up north at Fraser’s cabin chasing down Gerrard. And now that cabin is gone.

Benny’s mentioned going up there to rebuild it a couple of times. Says he’s gonna go up there as soon as he’s recovered. Now I’m no expert on survival skills or building cabins, but I’d imagine doing that by yourself would be hard enough to do when you’re healthy let alone when you’re recovering from a massive injury. He’s not going to be able to do it alone. He’s going to need help.

Suddenly I have an idea. I finish my shower as quickly as possible and throw on a fresh shirt and pants. I barely have the shirt buttoned when I stop in Frannie’s room on my way to the stairs. She’s at her vanity, mouth agape as she’s putting her mascara on. I plant a quick kiss on her cheek.

“You’re a genius, Frannie, thank you,” I say, and then I’m off.

“What?” Frannie’s voice calls after me. “What did I do?”

“You took all the hot water,” I yell back over my shoulder as I reach the front door.

….

 

I’m nervous as I ride the elevator up to Fraser’s floor. He should be getting back from PT any minute now, if he’s not in his room already. I probably look like a goof with this big box, but I’m hoping it does the trick and Benny can finally forgive me. He’s not back in his room yet, but the door is open, so I take a seat next to his bed and wait.

“You think you can buy forgiveness with some power tools?”

Pop is leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. I roll my eyes and look back toward the wall. “You certainly tried to buy Ma’s forgiveness on more than one occasion.”

“And it never worked, did it?”

“That’s because you never backed it up with your actions,” I pick up the box and push past him back into the hall. As I’m walking back toward the nurse’s station, I see Fraser and his physiotherapist coming down the hall.

“Yo Benny! Got something for ya.” I walk over and hand him the box, keeping the binder of fixtures tucked under my other arm.

“Well thank you kindly, Ray,” Fraser eyes the box and places it on his lap. Looks like someone from the Consulate must have stopped by and dropped some of his clothes off. Today he’s dressed in RCMP sweats instead of the grey hospital issue stuff. Good for him , I say to myself. That hospital issue stuff is itchy as all hell.

“Mind if I take it from here?” I ask the physio, Jill Kennedy, and I wonder where she was when I was recovering after that bomb blast. She’s a tall, pretty blonde, and you can tell she can hold her own.

“Not at all,” she says. “Remember what I told you, Ben.” A look passes between them that I can’t quite read. Something is going on there, but I’m too anxious for Benny to see my gift to ask any questions on that front. I push him the rest of the way to the room, set the binder on the bed and take a seat.

“Can I open it now?” Benny asks as I sit down and I nod for him to go for it. He lifts the lid slowly and pulls out a beautiful new Craftsman circular saw. “What is it?”

“It’s a power saw. Top of the line, guaranteed not to rust with a lifetime warranty.” I say as he inspects it.

“What’s it for?”

“Your dad’s cabin,” I begin carefully. “I thought we’d go up there together and rebuild it.”

“Ray, you hated that cabin,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Ah, no I didn’t,” I interject. “I just hated leaving it to go to the can which brings me to this.” I hand him a binder of bathroom fixtures that I picked up from Builder’s Square. “Pick one, my treat.”

“You know, you really don’t have to do this,” Fraser’s voice is sincere as he thumbs through the pages.

“Oh trust me, I do.” I say. Fraser glances at the bed and then at me. “Okay,” I say as I stand up and push the chair out of the way, making room for Fraser to wheel over.

“So, uh, I figured we’d go up there for maybe two, three weeks. You get back your health and I kill maybe three, four thousand mosquitos,” I ramble on as I push the busted TV out of the way. I grab the pulley bar over and help Benny back into bed, placing the binder and the power saw on the chair.

“Want me to go?” I ask tentatively, hoping that I haven’t crossed a line with inviting myself up to rebuild the cabin.

“No.” Fraser responds to my question, smiling slightly.

Thank God . I smile back and sit down in the wheelchair, trying my hand at moving it around. “You know, I think it’ll be good if we go up there for a while. Try to put Victoria behind us. You know, it’d be like a do-over, you know? Like a fresh start. Right?”

See, back when I was a kid, my best friend Joe and I got into a huge fight at school. Frankie Zuko had been threatening him, putting him up to things like putting worms in my lunch bag, slashing my bike tires, and I had finally had enough. After school one day I block Joe’s way out of the building and we start having it out in the hallway.

So we both end up in Saturday detention, assigned with the task of organizing the equipment closet in the gym. By the end of detention, the closet was in order and so was our friendship. I’m hoping this does the same for Benny and me.

“Right.” Benny answers, a little absentmindedly and I curse myself for saying her name because I can tell he’s thinking about her again. I’ve got to get his mind off of that.

“Hey, where do you by lumber up there?” I ask, wheeling closer.

Fraser snaps out of his trance. “You cut it.”

“What, like from the forest?”

“Yeah,” Fraser nods knowingly.

“You’re kidding me, right?” Of course I know he’s not kidding, but if there’s one thing that can get his mind off of you-know-who, it’s talking about survival in the frozen north.

“Nnn-nnn,” he shakes his head no, playing along.

“Wow! You know how to do that?” I ask and he nods. “How?”

Benny puts his hands together and swings them, making chopping noises and we both laugh.

“Well, I don’t have an axe,” I say.

“I have an axe,” Benny says, nodding.

Thank God he has an axe because it didn’t even cross my mind that we’d need one. “You have an axe for me?”

“Yeah, I have two axes,” Fraser smiles again. “Two.”

We laugh again and for once it feels like Benny is laughing again. Like really laughing for the first time since this whole thing happened. With every breath his eyes get lighter and the weight lifts from my chest. And I think, maybe we’ll actually make it through this.

…….

 

I can’t believe I’m doing this , I mumble to myself as I walk down the hallway toward the surgical wing. It was a slow day at the office, so I didn’t mind when Fraser called and said he might have a case for me. What I forgot is that he’s been cooped up in beige-topia with a busted TV for a month and a half. He’s probably going crazy enough as it is and then he’s got Nancy Drew the physiotherapist egging him along.

Still, I feel I owe it to him to check it out. I believe that he saw something happen, but I’m just not sure it was what he thought it was. It’s almost too perfect a mirror: a woman with long, dark, curly hair and a gun taking revenge on a lover who wronged her? It’s almost as if he’s determined to see Victoria in everything.

I spot her just ahead at the nurse’s station, dressed smartly in a pencil skirt, vest and blouse. She looks to be in her mid-40s, slim and short, despite the heels she is wearing. I breathe deeply and sigh, weighing exactly how I am going to approach her. Well here goes nothing .

“You Dr. Carter?” I ask as I reach the desk.

She looks up from the chart she’s reading, startled. “Yes, I’m Dr. Carter. And you are?”

“Detective Ray Vecchio, Chicago P.D.,” I extend my hand and she takes it. Firm grip. “Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Not at all,” she says, motioning down the hallway with her hand. “What can I do for you, Detective?”

“I’m just here on behalf of the department inspecting gun permits. It’s my understanding that you have a handgun?”

“Yes I have a handgun, which I have a permit for,” she answers.

“And is that permit current?”

“Yes. Is there something wrong?”

“No just routine,” I begin. “Sometimes the computers spit out the wrong registrations. One of the many potholes in the new information highway. May I see it?” It’s total bullshit, but she seems to buy it.

“Yes, it’s here in my office.” Dr. Carter motions toward a door to the left. As we enter the room the first thing I notice is that it has a perfect view of Benny’s room across the courtyard. He and Nancy Drew are very obviously gawking at us through the window. I mutter to myself silently, hoping Dr. Carter is distracted enough with rummaging through her file cabinet that she won’t notice.

“Here you are, Detective,” she hands me the paper. “I just had to renew back in February.”

“Great,” I say as I scan the document quickly and notice her first name is Elle. “May I see the gun?”

“Yes, of course,” she walks over to her desk and pulls a silver case from the top right hand drawer. “I work nights.”

I half-heartedly scan the serial number on the permit with what’s on the gun “Okay, thanks very much.”

“Is there anything else?” She asks politely, but I can tell she’s ready for me to beat it.

“You do know how to use that, right? I mean, you take lessons?” I ask.

“Well of course! Why?” she snaps the silver case shut again and shoves it back in the drawer.

“Well it’s always good to be prepared and women tend to be easy targets. We get a lot of reports of harassment and assault. You haven’t run into any trouble like that, have you?” I’m pressing now.

“No.” She shrugs.

“But if you did, you wouldn’t hesitate to contact us, right?”

“Oh, I’m sure I wouldn’t. Hesitate.” She adds the word hesitate as a reassuring afterthought, but I sense there’s something else behind that comment.

“Good. Well that’s why we’re here.” We’re awkwardly silent for a few moments as I reach for my next move. I spot a picture on her desk. A man in his 40s and a girl of about 15 and Dr. Carter seated on a park bench, probably some studio family portrait. “Nice family.”

“This isn’t about my permit, is it?” Elle Carter sits slowly, looking at the floor. Now I’ve got her.

“No it isn’t, doctor.”

She swallows, then meets my gaze evenly. “Well?”

“We got a report about a disturbance in your office last night. Something about photographs. You and a gentleman arguing? A gun was displayed?”

Elle looks all around the room before finally fixating on the window that has the view of Benny’s room. She crosses to it quickly and closes the blinds and I silently pray that she didn’t see them across the way, staring like pigeons on a ledge.

“I swear this hospital has eyes,” her voice falters a bit. “I…like I said, I work nights. There have been some guys hanging around the parking lot lately and I asked Daniel if he’d just go scare them a bit. I know it’s wrong, but I was scared.” She sits on the corner of the desk, looking down and to the left, arms crossed and hugging herself close, as if she’s cold.

“And who is Daniel?” I ask.

She looks back at me. “A surgical intern.”

I raise an eyebrow. “You asked an intern to go scare off some goons hanging in the parking lot? Doesn’t seem like a duty a surgical intern would normally have.”

“If you must know, we had been seeing each other. But it’s been over for a little while now. That’s what the argument was about. It wasn’t really an argument, it was just me begging him to do this one last thing for me.”

She isn’t looking at me at all when she says this and I’m sure she’s lying about some of it. Maybe Benny was right. “Is that why you burned the pictures?”

She looks up, her eyes betraying her surprise. “Ah-yes. My fr-friend took them last year at an orthoscopic surgery convention,” she stammers. “It’s where we started getting pretty close, and you could tell in some of the pictures. Well, I started feeling really guilty. My husband and I have been together for 20 years. So I broke it off with him. I didn’t want my husband to find out, so I burned the pictures.”

I purse my lips together and cross my arms. “I’m not buying it, Doctor. It kind of looks like blackmail to me. Maybe someone was going to go to your husband and show them the pictures? Maybe you wanted Daniel to go scare ‘em up a bit, so you gave him the piece?”

“Absolutely not!” Dr. Carter’s voice raises an octave. “Forgive me,” she grabs a Kleenex from the box on her desk and pats her brow.

“You okay?” I ask.

She pulls back the sleeve of her blouse, sporting a silver MedicAlert bracelet. “Diabetic dog tag,” she smiles weakly. “I’m just getting a little low on my blood sugar.”

“Mind if I take a look at your insulin?” I ask.

Her eyes get as big as saucers. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she mutters as she pulls open another desk drawer and starts lining up the bottles for me, one by one. “Would you like to take one for testing?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

The look on her face definitely says she does mind, but she shoves a bottle in my hand. “Would you like the negatives of the pictures from the convention?” she asks, pointedly. “I’m sure my friend still has them.”

“That won’t be necessary, Doctor. Thank you for your time. I’ll let you know if we need anything further,” I hand her my card. “In case you have any questions.”

She holds it lightly in between her fingers, as if it’s burning her skin to touch it and just motions with her head toward the door in dismissal. Benny is right, something is definitely off about this situation. But without any concrete evidence, there’s not much I can do. A quick call to Elaine at the precinct confirms Dr. Elle Carter is registered in the DMV as a diabetic. I sigh as I push the antenna back into my cell phone and head off to give Fraser and the physio the bad news.

Jill is obviously unhappy about the news, but Benny seems even more let down. It’s as if he thinks cracking this case will make up for what happened with the Witch. She is a con, and a damn good one at that. And what he doesn’t get is that this happens to all of us. We all get duped eventually. Even super mounties like him. “Victoria was not your fault,” I begin carefully. “You were blindsided. It could have happened to anybody.”

“I was going with her, you know” Benny says, matter of factly.

“I know,” I say. And after that, there isn’t much else to say because it’s the truth no matter how ugly. I pat his shoulder and leave him alone with his thoughts.

Chapter Text

“Vecchio, how’s that paperwork coming?” Welsh stands over my desk, hands on his hips. “Any other rabbit trails you need to go follow, or is that report going to get finished?”

How quickly things go back to normal around here . “Ah, no more rabbit trails, sir. I’m just about done here.”

Gardino snickers from his desk across the room. I shoot him a look as soon as Welsh’s back is turned.

“I want that report on my desk by noon tomorrow,” he tosses over his shoulder as he heads back to his office.

“Yes sir,” I answer and Gardino snickers again. I mouth a few choice words to him before turning my attention back to the report. Everything seems to be in order, but I’ll take one more look over it in the morning before I turn it in. Right now I’m starved. I grab my jacket and start heading for the door.

“Ray,” Elaine looks up from her computer as I walk past.

“What is it?” I sigh.

“That doctor you had me look up earlier. Something just isn’t sitting right with me about that. She registered as a diabetic three years ago, not too long after a car accident she and her husband were involved in.” She looks up at me, chewing on her bottom lip. “Just something I thought maybe I should tell you?”

I think about that for a moment and nod. “Thanks, Elaine. Let me know as soon as we get the results back on that insulin bottle, alright?”

The evening air is crisp with just the slightest edge to it. It might be early June, but that doesn’t mean that the nights don’t still get a slight chill when a front is on the way through. And being next to a lake, you can get the offshore breezes. It’s my favorite time of year, just before the summer air gets too sultry and thick.

I leave the windows down on the Riv as I make my way into homeward traffic, the radio tuned to the classic rock station. Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising. I laugh to myself slightly remembering Frannie trying to sing it when we were kids: There’s a bathroom on the right. She still thinks those are the words.

Static from the scanner brings me back into the present. “Attention available units in the area of 30 th and Freemont, we have a deceased male victim. Element Portraits Studio, above Janzen’s Consignment shop.”

A feeling begins twisting in my gut. Could be nothing, but what harm would it do to check it out? “Copy,” I say into the receiver as I make an abrupt left hand turn, tires screeching. By the time I pull up on the scene, a few uniforms are taping the area off and CSI has arrived. I head up the stairs to see what I can see.

The stairwell is lit by a single bulb, but that doesn’t hide the grime and grit on the walls, nor the dust balls moving along the baseboards. The loft itself is a decently big open space, exposed brick walls. There’s a setup on the far wall with a backdrop and lamps. To the left there’s a couple partition screens set up as a changing area. Behind me and to the right is a lofted area with a ladder, and under the loft is walled off, save for a door, which has been thrown open. Probably the darkroom.

In between me and the far wall is a sitting area with couches creating a square around a dark blue rug. The dead guy is in the middle of this area, on his back, eyes still open, a shocked expression on his face and a bullet hole in his chest. A forensic photographer is taking pictures of the position he’s lying in and I can’t help but find a little humor in the irony of the situation.

I walk up to the CSI bagging small items near the seating area. “Who’s our vic?”

“David Ramirez,” she says, holding up a bag with the ID in it. “36 years old. Photographer…if you can call him that. From the portfolios we’ve found, looks like he’s one of those types that likes to lure in aspiring models and get them to take their clothes off.” She wrinkles her nose in disgust.

“Who called it in?”

She nods over towards the kitchenette area where a uniform is awkwardly trying to comfort a hysterical blonde. “One of his ‘models.’ She had a session scheduled for tonight. When she got here, the door was open. Body’s still warm, so it couldn’t have happened too long before she got here.”

I thank the tech and look back at the body. He can’t be more than 5’10”, maybe 170 pounds, but it could be the tight button down he’s wearing making him seem a little more muscular than he actually is. I turn back towards the entrance as a tech comes down from the loft. “Anything up there?” I ask him.

“It’s been ransacked, so has the darkroom,” he says. “Robbery if I had to guess, but that’s what you’re here for.” He pats me on the shoulder and I continue out the door all the way outside the building. I dial Benny’s hospital room as the medics head up the stairs with a stretcher. Busy. That can’t be right , I mutter to myself and dial again. Busy again. I give up and call the hospital’s main number and get patched through to his room. This time it works.

“Fraser, it’s the damndest thing. I’m on my way home and this call comes over the radio. Robbery homicide. The dead guy’s in a photographer’s loft. So I figure, what are the odds?”

“And?”

“Ramirez, David. Photographer. Not too tall, medium build.” I smile. We have a case.

“Jill Kennedy is in Dr. Carter’s office,” Fraser says in a calm, but urgent tone.

Oh shit . “I’m on my way,” I say before flipping my phone shut. As I’m running toward my car, I see Huey and Gardino exiting theirs.

“Follow me to Memorial,” I shout at them.

“And why should we follow you?” Huey asks. “We’ve got a murder scene to process.”

“You’re going to have another one to process if you don’t follow me right now,” I slide into the Riv and throw my light onto the roof of my car. “Remember the rabbit trail I was going down earlier today?” I shout into the radio. “Looks like the fox is still on the loose.”

“Copy,” Gardino’s voice comes over the radio. “Care to fill us in, Vecchio?”

I’m barely through explaining the basics of the situation before another call comes through. Active shooter situation at Memorial. Huey responds that two units are en route and responding. I press down on the gas pedal and the Riv’s engine roars with the effort.

I motion for Huey and Gardino to follow me as I ready my weapon. “Police,” Huey calls as we rush past the main reception area and I assume he’s flashed his badge. We head for the stairs and I sprint up them two at a time, my pulse pounding in my ears. We stop at the door and I peek through the window. From here we have a view of one end of the nurse’s station. A gentleman whom I take to be the intern is standing, hands up. A few feet in front of him is Dr. Carter, gun out at arm’s length.

I put my finger to my lips and push the door open gently. Huey and Gardino head off down the hall to the right to circle around behind Dr. Carter. I move slowly down the hall towards the intern and Dr. Carter, gun drawn. I can hear Fraser talking, he must be just behind the intern. As I get closer, I notice Jill off to the side. She opens her mouth to speak, but I silence her with my hand. If she gives me away, someone is going to get hurt.

I flatten myself against the wall and from this vantage point, I can see Dr. Carter’s forearms and the gun on one side, the intern and Fraser on the other. Benny is gripping the handrail on the wall with everything he’s got and I wonder for a brief moment where his wheelchair went.

Benny is still talking but I can tell it’s not calming her down at all and her hand begins to tighten around the trigger. He takes a step away from the wall as I hear Gardino’s voice calling for Dr. Carter to drop the gun. Fraser is almost a step in front of the intern. I see her hands tighten again and hell if I am letting Benny take the heat a second time. I launch into the air towards Benny as time slows down.

Pain rips through my shoulder as I sail towards the ground pulling Fraser with me. The force of our collision with the ground knocks the air out of my lungs and for a moment I can’t breathe. Fraser hears my gasping and pushes me onto my back.

“Ray are you alright?” he looks over in Dr. Carter’s direction and then back at me. “Ray?”

My mouth opens but I can’t force any words out. It hurts. Oh God it hurts.

“We need a doctor, please,” Fraser calls out. Looks like he needs a doc too, his forehead is bleeding and I hope to God that wasn’t my fault, too. The room starts to spin and I close my eyes against it.

“Ray…RAY,” Benny’s voice is panicked. I open my eyes again for a brief moment, but the spinning hasn’t stopped.

“He’s in shock,” a woman’s voice floats over the air. It’s gotta be Nancy Drew. I hear footsteps running this way, almost like I’m in a tunnel.

“What’s his name?” a voice asks.

“Ray Vecchio,” Benny’s voice vibrates above me.

“Ray, can you hear me?” the first voice asks again. “We’re just going to lift you a bit so we can get the backboard under you, alright?”

The motion jars my left shoulder, sending fire through it. I want to curse but the only thing out of my mouth is a moan.

“Alright on three,” another voice says. “One, two…” I’m lifted through the air and jarred again as they settle me on the stretcher. The dizziness begins to subside, so I try to take a look at the damage, but moving only makes the pain worse so I just lay back down and let them carry me into darkness.

….

 

“Well look who we have here this morning. Just couldn’t stay away, could ya?” Nurse Jade takes a look at my chart and jots a few things down on it.

“Eh, well I saw Benny’s livin’ the high life here, so I thought what the hell?”

She smirks and hangs the chart back on its hook. “How are you feeling?”

“Much better now,” I answer as she walks around to the side of the bed. “Course, I’m still in a lot of pain.”

“Naturally,” she smiles. “You did lose quite a bit of blood, so we have to take it easy and be careful, but I can take you over to visit your friend if you want.”

“I’d like that,” I say. She disappears down the hall to grab a wheelchair. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if you just pushed me around the ward all day , I think to myself. She is right though. With the loss of blood and the pain meds, I’m still pretty woozy on my feet, so I’m grateful she’s offering to wheel me over.

“I’m told you’ll be cleared to go home tomorrow,” she says as we get out into the hallway.

“Oh I’ll still be back. You know. Until Fraser’s cleared to go home.”

“Well,” Jade begins, “I hope that maybe I’ll see you again even after that. If you’re interested.”

“I’d like that.” You still got it, I say to myself as she slips a piece of paper into my free hand. Getting shot isn’t turning out too bad after all.

“Ray!” Benny’s voice calls out. I turn to my left and there he is, wheeling excitedly down the hall. “You’re awake!”

“We were just on our way to see you,” Nurse Jade says as he pulls even with us.

“Mind if I push him the rest of the way?”

“If you think you can manage it,” I can hear the smile in her voice. If anyone can manage pushing someone in a wheelchair while in their own wheelchair, it’s Benton Fraser.

“Thank you kindly,” he says as she moves out of the way.

I instantly regret my decision to let him do this, because with every jerky push, it’s shooting daggers down my arm. “Hey now stop jerkin’ it. Be careful! Okay, okay, OKAY!” We finally reach the infamous window. Dr. Carter’s blinds are closed. They’re probably still processing the place, if I had to guess.

“Well, does it hurt?” Fraser asks after a moment.

“Of course it hurts!” I reply. It doesn’t feel like daisies and sunshine, that’s for damn sure.

“Thanks,” Fraser replies.

“For what? Gettin’ shot?”

“Yeah,” he shrugs.

“Yeah, figured you’d like that.” Irony at its finest.

“Well I’m not proud about that, but I’ll admit I did get certain perverse pleasure out of it,” Fraser admits.

“Aha! See, you were mad at me,” I say it like an accusation, but I’m mostly joking.

“Well, you shot me in the back,” he counters.

“Well that was an accident!”

“Well I know, so was yours.” A beat. “I mean it was an accident?”

“Of course it was,” I assure him.

“Well there you go. Enough said. Even Steven.”

Even Steven? ” I can’t help but laugh. Sometimes I swear this guy walked straight off the set of some 50’s black and white family series. “Just give me those binoculars, will ya? Even Steven. Nobody says Even Steven anymore.”

“Really?” Fraser seems surprised.

“Yes!”

“Why?”

“It’s juvenile.”

“Oh dear.”

I smile as I put the binoculars up to my eyes, scanning the courtyard. As the sun breaks through the clouds and warms us through the window, I remember a quote I read somewhere. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places . But those it will not break, it kills . Well we’re still here, Benny and me. And we’re gonna be alright.