Welsh needed to drink about this. He flicked his gaze up to the window blinds. All were securely down, and closed. With a heavy sigh, he pulled the bottle from his bottom desk drawer. This time he remembered to check his coffee mug for dregs before splashing a healthy two to four fingers into it.
Damn Feds. God, he hated them. Arrogant bastards, the lot, always taking everything. Taking the 27’s time, space, credit, and now their people. No two ways about it, this was a shitty situation.
Vecchio’d gone from a decent cop with occasionally questionable ethics to a downright effective detective with one of the station’s best solve rates during his time with the Mountie. Constable Benton Fraser was a right pain in Welsh’s sizeable ass, but damned if the man couldn’t sniff out a lead like a bloodhound and hold onto it with the irritating tenacity of a terrier.
At least they’d agreed to let Welsh deliver the news. At least there was that. He looked at his watch. Christ, it was almost midnight. He downed the dark, stinging liquid in two gulps before picking up the phone again. It wasn’t going to get any earlier. Or any easier.
Someone picked up on the second ring.
“Vecchio,” Ray snapped into the receiver. He didn’t sound happy. Well, he was going to be plenty more unhappy soon.
“Detective,” Welsh said, using his brook-no-argument voice.
“Lieutenant,” said Ray, suddenly less rude but much more wary. “Good evening. It’s a wild guess, sir, but I’m thinking you’re not calling with good news.”
“And nothing I’ll discuss over the phone, either.” Welsh confirmed. “You need to come to the station.”
“Right now, Detective.”
There was a short pause.
“Sir, is this about Fraser?”
The concern in Vecchio’s voice hit Welsh in the middle of his chest. He closed his eyes. Vecchio had changed a lot under Canadian influence. He wasn’t going to have an easy time with any of this, but Welsh could reassure him over one thing.
“This is not about Constable Fraser, or his animal companion, or anything remotely connected to our northern neighbors, no. Just get your ass to the station, Detective. And, uh, bring a bag.”
This time the pause was significantly longer, and fraught with incomplete understanding.
You don’t, Welsh thought. Not even close. He pulled an extra coffee mug out of the drawer and waited for Vecchio to arrive. No sense dealing with a shitty situation stone-cold sober if a body didn’t have to.
Footsteps eventually echoed through the empty bullpen and into his now-open door. Vecchio must’ve driven like a bat out of hell to get here so fast. That ridiculous car of his had some advantages. He pretended to be absorbed in some paperwork until Vecchio knocked on the office doorjamb.
Welsh knew the look too well. It said a guy knew bad news was coming and had preemptively pushed down all emotions in a last-resort defense mechanism. Welsh had worn it himself more than once—a lot more. He hated being the reason for someone else looking like that, but it all came with the job. Too much, and not enough, came with this damn job.
“Close the door and sit down, Detective.”
Vecchio’s face shifted from pretended calm to a blank mask and he did as instructed.
Welsh pushed the second mug, a quarter-full with whiskey, across the desk. He hated being the one to do it, but he was ultimately grateful that the Feds agreed to let him deliver the news. He’d had to fight them about it, but he didn’t want to think how things would have gone if one of those stuffed shirts had tried to liaise this.
“Drink up, Detective,” Welsh said, pouring himself another in solidarity. “You’re gonna need it.”
“I still have to drive back home, sir.”
“One shot’s not going to put you over the limit, Detective. Drink.” He clinked their mugs together, Vecchio’s still sitting, untouched, on the desk. Raising his eyebrows, he looked back and forth between the mug and detective.
Vecchio shook his head, grabbed the mug, and downed it in a single shot. It wasn’t sipping whiskey, anyway. No point in delivering the news slowly. Better to rip that bandage right off.
“Well done, Detective. That’s the last order you’ll need to take from me if you take this new assignment.”
“Sir, whatever it is, I don’t want it.”
Welsh ignored the interjection.
“Armando Langoustini, known in Las Vegas as The Bookman, won’t be resuming his previous job duties due to an unplanned and rather permanent vacation.”
Vecchio’s face took a quick journey from impassive to worried to confused. “What does that have to do with me? He buddies with Zuko or something?”
Welsh opened the folder in front of him, EYES ONLY stamped across the front, and removed a photo. He slid it across the desk to sit next to Ray’s empty coffee cup.
“The Feds think you’re a good candidate to step into his shoes.”
Vecchio didn’t pick up the photo, but he stared for a long moment, then nodded.
Yeah, now he did.
What was left of Welsh’s bitter, jaded heart felt for the guy. It might be a fight to get there, but he already knew how this was going to play out. Vecchio didn’t have a wife and kids, and even though he’d protest it, he was devoted to his family. But his feelings about the mob weren’t a secret. There was a reason he’d become a cop in Chicago. When push came to shove, the man would do what he could to bring down a mob outfit—or at least score a good punch on them. He’d lay himself on that wire if he had to.
He poured another sizeable shot into Vecchio’s mug.
A hard and cruel mirror image looked back at Ray from the photo. Except for the ridiculous pencil mustache, he and Langoustini were identical twins. A nauseating understanding filtered through his brain. Still staring at the picture, he raised the refilled mug to his lips and swallowed the contents down. He’d be fine on two shots. Some things deserved extra liquid comfort, and damned if this wasn’t one of them.
“I’ve never gone deep undercover, sir.”
It was a weak protest and they both knew it was merely a delaying tactic. Welsh tilted his head in acknowledgement, but didn’t respond. Ray didn’t like that much.
“You’re not gonna try to convince me to take it?”
Welsh sighed. “It’s my responsibility to deliver the news, Vecchio. Not make it happen.”
Ray’s head was spinning. A little over half an hour ago he was brushing his teeth, moving Frannie’s god damn fancy soap dish away from the sink edge for the third time in a week. He’d fantasized about life with a bathroom he didn’t share with his family. Now he was faced with the prospect of an entire life without them. Be careful what you wish for, he supposed.
Recalling the justice building rooftop conversation with Benny after the Bolt brothers, he slumped in the chair. He’d probably brought this on himself with that stupid conduit metaphor. Sometimes you have to be a conduit and let the world come to you, indeed. Well, the world sure as hell had come to him, sat down on his doorstep, and taken a massive shit. Conduit, his ass.
This is what happened when he tried to use fancy words and metaphors. Shoulda left that stuff up to Benny—leave that stuff up to Benny. What the hell, he’d have plenty more conversations with Benny. He hadn’t left for Vegas, yet. Hadn’t even made a decision to take the assignment.
He reached for the folder, but Welsh put a single, meaty finger on it.
“Not supposed to let you see anything else until you agree to take the job.”
Ray’s blood pressure, already climbing, shot sky-high. “That’s bullshit, sir, and you know it.”
Welsh tipped his head in acknowledgement again but he met Ray’s eyes and lifted an eyebrow. After tapping the red EYES ONLY across the front, he silently pushed the folder across the desk. Ray got the message loud and clear. If he did this, he’d need to get used to living life surrounded by bugs and wires.
If? He hated himself but he already knew it was really a when.
Taking care not to rustle any of the papers, he opened the folder. Making a “go on” gesture with his hand, he began to scan the contents.
“Look, Vecchio, I know this isn’t ideal.”
“No, sir, it isn’t.”
“The Feds have confidence in you.”
“Not a comfort, sir.”
“We’ll make sure your family stays safe.”
“Thank you, sir, I appreciate that.”
Ray also appreciated Welsh’s softball statements—nothing that required Ray’s actual attention or anything beyond formulaic responses. He met his lieutenant’s eyes for a moment and nodded thanks before waving his hand again, a little more vigorously. Welsh nodded in understanding and continued to speak slowly, with long breaks between his sentences, giving Ray time to read.
“I know the guy who’ll be covering for you here. Known him for a while, known about him for longer. He’s a good man, a good cop. Has a good, clear record and a few citations for bravery. Real experienced with undercover. Reliable, if a little...well, strange. He’ll be an interesting match with the Mountie, but I think they’ll work okay together eventually.”
Ray took a deep breath. He couldn’t think about Benny right now.
“That’s good to know, sir,” he said, his voice rough and dry.
He’d skimmed enough of the file to know he had to take the job. God damn it. He could bring down the organization's entire Vegas operation. The Bookman wasn’t just a conduit, he was an entire damn switchboard. Ray could get a host of scumbags—most of them probably Zuko’s buddies—behind bars where they belonged. He couldn’t say no to this. He could do the job. He just had to do it alone.
Shit. How was he going to tell Ma? Or Frannie? Or, God help him, Benny? He closed his eyes, closed the file, and took another deep breath. Handing Welsh the file back, he gave a slow, single nod. He’d do it. Welsh had known he would.
“So when do I leave, sir?”
Welsh looked at his watch. “In about four hours. Your flight leaves at 5am.”
Since Ray had effectively just resigned his position at the 27, he felt no compunction at showing his outrage now.
“Are you fucking kidding me? Four hours? I gotta pack, sir. Tell my folks. Figure out where to store the Riv. I’m supposed to pick Benny up on Saturday.”
“You’re not packing anything, Vecchio. You’ll be living Langoustini’s life in his clothes, not yours. You’re lucky you even get to say goodbye to your mother. I had to fight for that, so you’re welcome. Have fun waking them up with the news.” Welsh’s harsh words were softened by a sympathetic look. It wasn’t an expression Ray was used to seeing on his mug. It unsettled him more than he already was.
“Constable Fraser has legs. He’ll walk. He’s done it before.”
Ray allowed himself a moment to recall the memory. That outrageous red serge on the other side of the holding cell, undoing Ray’s sting operation, being a nuisance, Ray putting his massive foot in it. Feeling stupid, angry, guilty. God, he’d do anything to go back there right now.
“I need to call him, sir.”
“Trust me, he’s awake. Probably torturing his superior with some cockamamie reason for chasing a, I don’t know, a litterbug through hundreds of miles while he’s supposed to be on vacation.”
Welsh stood behind his desk, the conversation at an abrupt end. “Well, you can call him while you’re cleaning out your desk. Oh, and…” He held out his hand.
Ray felt like he was moving through molasses in a Canadian January. He stood stiffly, every movement a struggle. With unfeeling fingers he handed over his badge and turned to leave before he had to watch Welsh throw it in a drawer. He didn’t want to think about walking into this office a cop in the 27 and leaving as a federal undercover agent.
Setting the bag down by his soon-to-be-former desk, he picked up the phone. He still had four hours of the old life left and he’d be using them, thanks. He dug through his wallet for the phone number Benny’d given him when they parted ways at the airport. Looking at the paper with tidy numbers written across it in neat script, he let his mind spin briefly, wheels digging into loose dirt and mud on a tractionless surface.
Focus. He had to focus. He’d become a cop to get slimeballs like Zuko off the streets and to prove his dad incorrect about Ray’s intelligence and abilities. This was a chance to do both those things on a massive scale. He could do more good as the Bookman than he could as Detective Vecchio, even if he had to do it without anyone’s help, or support…or friendship.
Things weren’t going to get easier or earlier. He dialed the number and waited. Waited a lot more after someone answered. When Benny finally answered, his voice was a warm spot of light in the dim office.
“Hey Benny, how’s the vacation going?”
“Everything a Mountie could ask for, Ray. Lots of fresh air, plenty of exercise. How are things in Chicago?”
Ray wouldn’t be able to answer that question this time tomorrow.
“Aw, you know Benny, Chicago’s Chicago. Listen, I’m just calling to let you know that I might not be there at the train to pick you up.”
“Well that’s no hardship, Ray, I have legs. I can walk.”
Ray bit back a snort of laughter. He hadn’t expected to hear the same sentiment come out of such two different men and used the bitter humor to lighten his tone.
“I know you have legs, Benny, that’s not the point. I’m just calling to let you know that …you may be on your own for a while.”
“Is something wrong?”
Had he ever outright lied to Benny before? Surely he had. He’d be living a lie soon enough. Might as well get used to it.
“No, why would anything be wrong? I’m just calling to let you know that I’d like to be there to pick you up, but if I can’t be there it’s not because I didn’t want to be, it’s because something came up.”
“You sure everything’s all right?”
Ray didn’t try to hide the huff of laughter this time. Nothing about this was all right.
“Look, Benny, I—I don’t know if they have a similar thing up there in Canada, but down here in America we have this thing called friendship? And this is something that a friend would do. Like, for example, if one friend calls another friend and he’s supposed to meet him at a certain time and a certain place and he can’t be there? He usually calls him to let him know.”
“So everything is…all right, then?”
He sighed. Leave it to Benny. The man was a terrier when it came to letting things go.
“Yeah, Benny.” He sat down at the desk, suddenly too tired for this. “Everything is all right.”
“Well, that’s good to hear, Ray.”
“It’s good to hear your voice.” God, he was exhausted. Dealing with Ma and Frannie’s freak-outs was gonna be a cakewalk after this. “Listen, um. I want you to have a safe trip. And I will be in touch.”
“All right, Ray.”
He willed Benny, thousands of miles away, to hear the message behind his words. Read between the lines, Benny. Please understand what I’m telling you.
“You understand that, uh. I will be in touch.”
“As a friend?”
Not as a partner, not as a liaison. He smiled in relief. Benny might not get the full message now, but he would.
“Yeah, Benny. As a friend.”
He hung up before either of them could say goodbye. Ray wasn’t about to say goodbye to Benny. Not now, not ever. He looked at his cluttered surroundings in the disgusting office and blew a sigh through puffed cheeks. No point delaying the inevitable. Standing, he glanced at the last photo still on the desk before putting it in his bag with a sense of finality.
Knowing Welsh had heard the phone call, Ray couldn’t bring himself to look at the man. Too many feelings were flying around the room and neither of them was comfortable with that sort of thing. He hoisted the bag of personal items and gave a casual wave over his shoulder as he left the bullpen.
He’d never left Chicago for anything more than a rare, and usually resented, vacation. He loved this city. He loved a handful of people in it. He’d planned to spend his entire life here. But sometimes you had to be a conduit and let the world come to you.