"Watch out, asshole!"
I do a quick sidestep and keep an eye on the coffees I'm balancing. They slosh up to the Styrofoam rims, but thanks to Arthur Murray and some fancy footwork, I manage not to spill any. Good thing, too; it's fucking hot.
"Playing mother again, Vecchio?" Smirking, Dewey grabs the tattooed arm of the biggest drag queen I've seen this side of the midway. His- her- his dress is torn, and someone should let him know that Tammy Faye has quit the makeup business. "Okay, let's go, buddy."
"Nice date." I give them both a nod. "Meeting the gang at the malt shop, Dewey?"
The guy looks down at Dewey and curls his lip. "I don't date guys who smell like dead mackerel."
I laugh, and Dewey's face goes as red as a '65 T-bird.
"C'mon, Tinkerbell," he says.
Shit. The guy's stupider than I thought. I look around for a place to dump the coffee if there's going to be a rumble, but big drag queen just gives Dewey another look and flips his long hair over his shoulder. "After you, Wendy."
I snicker as I push my way into the bullpen and cross to my desk. Fraser jumps up like someone's poked him in the butt and moves a pile of paper to the side of the blotter.
"Ah. Ray. You're back. I'd like to ask you a question."
He looks like he's feeling guilty about something, but Fraser's the type of guy who'd feel guilty about warming up my chair for me.
"Sure thing." I hand him the cup in my left hand. "Here you go. Light, one sugar." We do our little dance exchanging places, and I sit down, making sure I don't step on Dief, who's wedged under the desk. "Careful, it's hot."
"Hey, bro." Arms full of files, Frannie slinks up to Fraser and gives him one of her do-me smiles. "Hi there, Fraser." Good thing Fraser's immune; he puts down the cup and turns around, and of course, since she's practically stuck to his side, his arm hits hers and the files slide to the floor with a thump.
"I beg your pardon, Francesca." Fraser's all stiff and flustered - par for the course - and Frannie bats her eyes as he squats and starts stacking the files into a pile.
"Frannie?" I scoot my chair over and bend down to help. "You ever hear of something called personal space?"
"For your information," she says, squatting down next to Fraser. More in his lap, really. "*Certain* people are welcome in my personal space."
"Who? Ralph the Wonder Dog?" Dief sticks his nose out and I give the top of his head a scratch. "Nah, I don't mean you, fur-face." I turn back, add a couple more files to the pile and look at Fraser. He's staring at a piece of paper, completely ignoring Frannie superglued to his side.
"What's the matter, Fraser?" I pick up the pile of folders and dump it on my desk. "You find something interesting?"
"Yes." He stands up, sounding like he's a million miles away.
He must be, because he didn't even notice that Frannie was leaning against him. She squeaks and topples over onto her side. Fraser's still got his nose buried in the paper, so I roll over and give her a hand.
"Thanks." She brushes off her skirt and looks pretty skeeved. "Guess I'll go do my filing now."
Before she can take the files, Fraser looks up. He's got one of those huge smiles on his face, and Frannie gasps and stares. I know how she feels. Fraser's pretty good looking even when he's all beat up and hurting. When he lets go with one of those light-up-my-life smiles, he reminds me of what I always figured an angel looks like. Not one of the fat kids with wings, but a soldier angel, complete with a flaming sword and shiny armor, the kind who mixes it up with the bad guys and then leads the good guys into Heaven.
What the fuck am I thinking? Fraser as an angel? My face goes hot, and I lean back and prop my feet up on my desk, trying for the casual. Good thing no one can read my mind.
"What's so funny? You find a memo that gives Chicago to Canada?"
Fraser's smile doesn't dim one watt. "Don't be ridiculous, Ray. Canada doesn't want Chicago. Now Sarasota, perhaps..."
"Can I have my paper back?" Frannie holds out her hand.
"Of course." Fraser gives it back without sparing Frannie a glance. She looks like she might cry. "It's a list of participants in the International Cooperative Policing Conference, which is being hosted here in Chicago this year."
"I noticed the name of a fellow member of the RCMP on the list. We were at Depot together, and haven't seen each other for years."
"Greatness." I let my feet fall to the floor with a thump. Some old Mountie friend gets the smile, but not me. "Maybe you two can get together sometime. When's the conference?" Dief slinks out from under the desk and yawns, then stretches.
Frannie looks like she's gotten her second wind and is back to being Fraser's Girl Friday. "Tomorrow through Saturday. Most of the participants are flying in tonight." She flips the top paper back and shows Fraser the next page. "I've got a list of their flights and arrival times, if you want me to look it up."
"Thank you, Francesca." Fraser glances at the page, then looks at me. "Air Canada, arriving at 5:47. Perhaps we might drive out to the airport after work, Ray?"
I shrug. There's hockey on tonight. No way do I want to spend the evening driving out to O'Hare and hanging with Fraser's old Depot buddy. The caribou stories'll be flying fast and furious. "Why don't you take the car? Just return it in one piece. And without any scratches or dents."
Dief gives a little woof, and Fraser shakes his head. "Your presence won't be necessary. I'm sure I can find my way to the airport without your help."
"So, what's this guy's name?"
"Toni Blair," Fraser says, smiling again. "Inspector Antonia Blair."
Dief yelps and for a second, I think I can almost understand him.
"No," says Fraser. "You've never met her."
"Antonia? Your friend is a *woman*?" Frannie picks up the files and looks like she's going to cry again. "What's a girl got to do to get her man..." She turns and walks away.
"Antonia?" Don't know why a woman Mountie surprises me. After all, the Ice Queen's a woman. Sort of. But Fraser's not friends with her. And he doesn't smile like the cat who's eaten the canary when he thinks of her. "Is she like you? Or Turnbull?"
Fraser takes a sip of his coffee and sits in the chair beside my desk. "Not at all. Toni was always a very spirited young woman. One might even call her feisty."
"Sounds like the Ice Queen."
Fraser's mouth gets all prissy. "Although they share the same rank, Toni is nothing like Inspector Thatcher."
Suddenly I don't want to hear any more. Not about Inspector Feisty Blair. Not when Fraser's face lights up like a beacon every time he says her name. "Enough with the socializing, Fraser. We've got crooks to catch."
"If I might ask you a question first, Ray."
"Fire away." I grab a pen from the drawer and start sorting through the stuff in my inbox.
"If I were to say the word courtship, how would you respond?"
The pen slips from my fingers and I look at him. "Courtship?"
"Yes." He tugs at his collar. Damn. He's serious, all right. "If you wished to court someone, how would you go about it?"
"Depends on the woman, I guess." I don't want to talk about this, but he gives me that wide-eyed, Bambi look and I have to suck it up and help him out. "I mean, some women are impressed by expensive presents - jewelry and stuff. But I think going for the personal is your best bet. If you were a betting man, that is."
I wait for him to take the bait and run with it - our usual back-and-forth - but instead Fraser's eyebrows draw together. "What do you mean by going for the personal?"
My heart does a back flip. Damn. This Blair chick's obviously important to him, and it looks like he's planning out his future. One that doesn't include me. Shit. I was expecting this sometime or other. We're partners, but it's not like we're joined at the hip or anything. Partnership's not like a marriage, after all.
Did I just think marriage? Okay. This is getting out of hand. Back to courting. "Finding out what kind of flowers she likes, and candy, and perfume. That sort of thing. Taking her out for a romantic meal, with her favorite foods and wine. Dressing up, making an effort."
"Ah." He nods and the frown disappears. "Your suggestions accord with my own thoughts on the matter."
"Yeah, well, that's good, Fraser. Now, can we get back to work?"
I'm, like, *dancing* down the street, taking air punches at the parking meters, imagining Dubinski's ugly mug on the dial. Bam! Bam! Two right jabs, would've hit him right on the jaw, taken him out, out, out of the game. Dief growls and trots alongside.
"See that, Fraser?" Uppercut, roundhouse, he'd be down for the count. "That's what scumbag's like Dubinski deserve. Not freakin' *lawyers* lined up like pawns, ready to go down for him."
"I agree, Ray. But I'm afraid you had no choice. Retreat was the only option."
I almost trip over this little sausage dog on a long leash. The old lady walking it yelps and I lower my fists. "Sorry."
She lets loose with a couple of words I'd never say in front of my mom and jerks the dog's leash.
Dief turns and starts to follow them. "Hey, back here, Dief." I take a deep breath, shake out my arms, hands. Get a grip. Dubinski was just trying to rattle me. "So no joy with questioning him directly." Fraser doesn't chime in right away; he's staring across the street at... a flower shop?
"I'll just be a moment, Ray." And before I can open my mouth, he's crossed the street and walks into the shop.
So of course Dief and I follow him. The shop's dark after the glare outside, and it takes me a couple seconds for my eyes to adjust. Bunches of flowers all over, and the place smells sweet, but with that little hint of decay underneath. Fraser's at the back, already deep in conversation with this old guy who looks like he could be Bela Lugosi's cousin, except that his accent is pure southside.
"...been in the family seventy years," the old guy says, sweeping his arm around and almost knocking a vase off the table. The table's covered with bits of leaves and stems and that green tape florists use in bouquets.
Fraser nods, looking impressed. "Your advice is exactly what I'm looking for, Mr. Abel. In the case of a romantic prospect, which flowers would you consider the most efficacious?"
"Roses." He doesn't even stop to think. "Some people swear by orchids or tulips, but in my experience, you can't beat roses for romance."
"I suspected as much, but it's always good to have the advice of an expert." Fraser turns to me. "Do you agree that roses are the premiere romantic flower, Ray?"
What the... I can't believe this. We've just been dissed by one of the slimiest corporate shills out there, and he's talking about flowers. "Fraser, some of us are trying to conduct an investigation here, and not of how good roses are for romance." I start back out.
"Ray, I apologize for the delay." Fraser ducks his head a little, but he doesn't make a move toward the door. "This will only take a moment."
"Thought you'd had enough of the florist stuff with Dief," I say, but I keep it low, since Dief's sitting just outside the front door. "I'll be outside, waiting to get back to work."
I don't have to wait long, though. In less than a minute Fraser joins me, tucking a business card into the band in his hat. He puts the Stetson back on and steps to one side to let a guy pushing a stroller pass.
"Thank you, Ray. I'd still like your opinion about the roses, but... Excuse me."
And I'm looking at Fraser's back again. This time he disappears into a shop two stores down, and I stare at the name on the awning, feeling kind of sick to my stomach.
"Fine Belgian Chocolates." I look at Dief, who bares his teeth and then growls. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
Dief sticks to my side as we walk down the sidewalk, and I poke my head in the shop door. The smell of concentrated chocolate almost knocks me over. Fraser's at the counter, talking about heap fermentation and tempering and cocoa butter content with this skinny chick in glasses. She laughs at something Fraser says, and leans against the counter, squeezing her arms against her sides, trying to generate some cleavage. Not that Fraser would notice.
No, he's thinking about Inspector Feisty, and I can just see Fraser handing her a box of chocolates and this huge bouquet of red roses and she's smiling and he leans forward, his head tilted like he's going to kiss her...
Dief and I look at each other. He nudges my leg. Yeah, I'm down with that. "Fraser," I say, making the chick jump, "Dief and I are going back to the station to work some more on the case. You want a ride, or are you going to hang here for a while?"
"I'll be right there, Ray." He takes the card she hands him and puts it in his hatband, with the florist's card. "Thank you for your forbearance," he says as we walk outside.
Dief and I both snort. Forbearance, my ass. Fraser squints at the sky. "Just out of curiosity, do you prefer milk or dark chocolate, Ray? Or white chocolate, which isn't, of course, technically chocolate at all, but-"
"Me? I'm definitely a milk chocolate guy."
Dief yips, and Fraser nods. "Yes, we are all well aware that you can't eat chocolate, and no, this is no time to stop for a cruller."
We pass a bank, and I check the time. Almost five. Where'd the afternoon go? "If you want to get to the airport in time, we'd better get a move on." I want to stop there, but my mouth opens again. "Want to watch some hockey tonight, after you bring back the car?"
Fraser's steps slow, and he smiles like I've handed him a present. "Thank you, Ray. I'd enjoy that."
We get to the car and I let Dief and Fraser in. "I'll drive to my place, and you can take it from there. I'll expect you when I see you."
"I don't know what Toni- Inspector Blair's plans are for tonight." Fraser clicks his seatbelt into place. "If she's free, we might have a bite to eat first."
Dief groans in the back seat and Fraser turns to him. "I'm sure Constable Turnbull will feed you when I drop you at the Consulate, so there will be no need for me to bring you any dinner."
I almost offer to go with Fraser, just so I can meet this chick, suss out whether or not she'd be good for Fraser or if she'd treat him like shit. But I don't. Call me a coward, but I don't want to meet her or watch Fraser make goo-goo eyes at her. So I drive home and stand on the sidewalk, watching Fraser carefully pull away from the curb.
The car disappears around the corner. I trudge up to my apartment, wondering what I want for dinner. I'm not hungry, though, and end up vegging in front of the TV, pretending I'm not checking the clock every ten minutes.
Eight o'clock. No Fraser. If they're out for dinner, it'll be at least another hour before he gets back.
Nine o'clock. No Fraser. It's still pretty early. The game starts, and I get caught up in the action for a while.
Ten o'clock. No Fraser. Too bad, ‘cause he's missing a good game.
Eleven o'clock. Did something happen? An accident? I reach for the phone. Hang on. What if they're just having a good time together? I try to get interested in the game again.
Midnight. Something's happened, I know it. Dammit, I *knew* I should've driven to the airport. I didn't think to ask where she'd be staying, and if I called Frannie at this time of night, Ma Vecchio'd rip me another one.
I put my head down on the sofa arm. I'll wait here, so I can hear Fraser's knock when he comes back. My eyes are burning, so I close them, just for a minute, until Fraser gets back.
I don't remember anything after that.
The knocks aren't loud, but they keep on and on, and when I raise my head I groan. "What the...." Why am I sleeping on the sofa? I groan again, because the knocking just won't stop. "Hang on," I call out, and roll off the cushions.
I am *way* too old for this shit.
When I open the door, there's Fraser, and he's holding...
"Coffee," he says, lifting a box and a lidded cup, and sounding way too chipper for whatever hour it is, "and an assortment of pastries."
I stumble back, rubbing the back of my neck, which has the Mother of All Cricks, and Fraser walks in, looking like he's had twelve hours of sleep and been mercerized to boot.
"It's morning." I scratch my belly.
Fraser holds the box in front of him like a shield. "And a lovely morning it is."
Fraser. Perky. First thing in the morning.
I may have to kill him.
Except that my hands are suddenly full of coffee cup, and the smell makes my eyes go big, and the steam's drifting right up into my face.
I'll kill him after I finish my coffee.
Half-a-cup later, I'm sitting at the kitchen table, full of Danish and donuts, powdered sugar making my fingers sticky, feeling awake, at least. Dief sneezes; I told him he'd get sugar up his nose if he went for the custard-filled one, but he didn't care.
"Okay. What'd you do to the goat?" I stick a finger in my mouth to get the last of the sugar, and Fraser scoots back in his chair, eyes wide.
"Goat?" His ears get all pink. "Oh. The Gran Turismo Omolagato."
I squeeze my eyes shut and pinch the top of my nose. Fraser doesn't want to tell me. It's gotta be bad. "You get a ding in it? Wreck it? God, Fraser." I open my eyes. "Tell me you didn't set it on fire and drive it into Lake Michigan."
He looks like he wants to smile, but doesn't. "No, Ray. I didn't set it on fire and drive it into the lake they call Michigan."
"Then nothing." He does smile. "Your car is untouched, Ray. Except by me, of course. And... Inspector Blair." He stumbles a little over her name. I don't like the sound of that, but I'm sure as hell not going to ask if they had a good time together.
"Then why the coffee and crullers? And why didn't you show up last night?"
"I apologize for not bringing your car back sooner. We were... reminiscing after dinner, and when I finally realized the time, it was too late to disturb you. I hoped that bringing you breakfast would compensate for the inconvenience of not returning your car last night."
"Yeah, okay." I run my fingers through my hair. Feels disgusting. "Lemme grab a quick shower and I'll take you back to the Consulate."
Fraser stands. "Please don't bother. Dief and I could use the walk."
Dief whuffles, like he's got something to say about Fraser's decision. Or like *I* should say something.
"You brought me coffee. I'll take you back." I dump my plate in the sink. "Don't argue, Fraser."
He doesn't answer right away. I pass him on the way to the bathroom, and he's looking at the couch. All the smooshed pillows make it pretty clear that someone was stretched out there.
"Ray, were you waiting-"
"Hockey ran long." I shrug. "Must've fallen asleep during overtime."
I'm showered, shaved and dressed in ten minutes. Fraser's pretty quiet on the drive over to the Consulate, but Dief's twitchy, moving around and making those muttery sounds that I can almost understand.
I pull up to the curb in front of the Consulate and Fraser and Dief get out. Fraser bends down and pokes his head in the passenger side window. "Thank you again for the loan of your car, Ray."
"Sure. You coming by the station later on?"
"If that is amenable with the Inspector."
"Yeah. Tell her that we're close to cracking the Sebastian case."
Fraser raises his eyebrows. "That's not strictly true, Ray."
"Well, it will be by this afternoon."
"You're probably right." Fraser gives me a nod, and he and Dief disappear into the Consulate.
I need to check out a couple leads before we stomp some heads this afternoon, so I hightail it to the station. There's a list of names and phone numbers on my desk - I know, because we were putting them together yesterday before the whole Miss Mountie mess came up. I grab another cup of station sludge, which is the opposite of the good stuff Fraser brought me, and sit at my desk, staring at the piles of paper. What a load of crap.
So I search through the stacks, which, of course, Fraser made all neat. I swear, if you could make hospital corners on a pile of paper, Fraser would do it. I push a couple of piles around, and under one of the piles, there's a corner of... Well, it's paper, but real thick, like the kind people write fancy invitations on. Stella's folks used to get lots of them. I pull it out and stop breathing for a minute.
Written on the paper, in neat letters, is my name. *My* name, not Vecchio's. "Ray Kowalski," it says. Then underneath that's "Stanley R. Kowalski," and finally "S. Raymond Kowalski."
"Frannie!" I yell, because this is serious shit. Someone knows about me taking Vecchio's place, and what's worse, they want *me* to know that *they* know. "*Frannie*!"
I can't sit still, not with my gut churning and my fingers twitching, so I jump up and almost crash into Welsh. He's holding a toaster, and I really don't want to know what *that's* about.
"Is there a problem, Detective?"
"Yeah, you could say that, sir. I just found this on my desk." I show him the paper, and his eyebrows almost crash into his hairline.
"This is indeed disturbing." Welsh shifts the toaster to his other arm. "Does Constable Fraser know about it?"
"Nope. I just found it. I was going to ask Frannie if she's seen anyone at my desk."
"After speaking with Miss Vecchio, you should consult with Constable Fraser."
What? Doesn't Welsh think I can handle this on my own? All of a sudden, I need Fraser to hold my hand? Forget that. He's too damned busy with Inspector Feisty. I can deal. I start to tell Welsh that, but then just shake my head. "I don't think that'll be-"
"You heard me, Detective." Welsh checks his watch. "Keep me informed."
I stick the paper in a plastic cover and find Frannie in the supply closet. "Hey, I've been yelling for you."
"Did I answer?"
"Don't be a smartass. This is serious."
She puts down the stapler and crosses her arms over her boobs. "Why have you got a beetle in your bonnet?"
"'Cause I found this. On my desk." I show her the paper, and the smile drops off her face. "Have you seen anyone hanging around my desk since yesterday afternoon?"
She thinks for a minute, then shakes her head. "Just you and Fraser." Her forehead wrinkles and she leans toward me. "Do you think this means Ray's in trouble?"
"Don't know, but I hope not." But look at it, my name, over and over. It doesn't mean anything *good*.
"What's Fraser think?"
"Hey, what's with you and Welsh? I don't need to check in with Fraser. I'm the detective, here." I was a good cop before Fraser got here - hell, I've got citations. And I'll be a good cop after Fraser's gone. My heart does a flip flop when I remember where Fraser was last night. Him leaving may not be very far away, and man, doesn't *that* thought suck.
"Ray!" Frannie grabs my shirt and gets right up into my face. "Ray, if anything happens to my brother because you got on your high chair and wouldn't talk to Fraser about it, I'll make sure you sweep with the fishes."
What can a guy say to that?
It's no good going over to the Consulate this early; the Ice Queen's probably got him alphabetizing the books in her office or cleaning the stairs with a toothbrush. I stare at the paper for a while, but it's not telling me anything new. I should send it over to the lab, find out what they can tell me, but there's something about it that seems so familiar. Might as well hang onto it for a while, maybe something'll jog my memory. So I get on the phone and work the Sebastian case until lunch, but no way can I eat. Not with that damn paper sitting on the corner of my desk. Face down, of course. I'm not stupid.
But there's enough to get going with, so I figure I'll head over to the Consulate and see if I can spring Fraser from the Ice Fortress. Turnbull's sitting at the little desk in the hall when I walk in, and he gives me a smile like I'm Ed McMahon, getting ready to fork over a prize.
"Welcome to Canada, Detective Vecchio!"
"Hey, Turnbull. Fraser in?"
Turnbull's smile disappears faster than a hooker at a convention. "He's with the Inspector at the moment."
"Think he'll be there for a lot of moments, or only a few?"
The Ice Queen's voice, but not her words, comes through the closed door. She doesn't sound happy.
"I couldn't say." The phone rings, and Turnbull reaches for it. "Why don't you wait in Constable Fraser's office?"
Fraser's office is pretty neat, considering it's a glorified closet. Dief's curled up in the corner, taking a nap, but he opens one eye when I walk in and thumps his tail on the floor.
He yawns and closes his eye.
I don't want to sit in Fraser's chair - the damn thing's hard as a rock - so I lean against his desk. No way would I snoop through Fraser's papers, because, hey, they're boring as hell, but on the top of the blotter's a receipt from the florist we, well, he, stopped by yesterday.
So I'm curious. Bite me.
The receipt's for two dozen roses, for Saturday delivery to the Hotel Montague. I've heard of it, one of those boutonniere hotels right on the Lake. Shit. Fraser must've worked fast last night if he's getting ready for a romantic Saturday night at a fancy hotel. Underneath that's another receipt, and I'm not surprised that it's from the chocolate shop. Also for a Saturday delivery to the hotel.
Roses and chocolate. A fancy hotel. That's the sort of thing I'd do if I was getting ready to pop the question or...
Fraser's going to propose to Inspector What'sherface.
My hands are shaking, and I'm ready to tear the receipts into confetti, but then I hear Fraser's voice, he's talking to Turnbull. I drop the receipts back on his desk and take a deep breath. We've got work to do.
I get in the car and close the door quietly. Slamming it wouldn't be cool, and right now, I need all the cool I can get. Fraser and me, we've been talking to Sebastian's girlfriend for the past hour. When I say ‘we've been talking,' I really mean ‘she's been talking.' When does she breathe? Or has she grown gills or something, so she doesn't have to?
However she does it, she makes Frannie look like one of those Caramel nuns, the ones who don't talk.
We waste an hour, listening to Viola babble on about her clothes and her cats and where the fuck Sebastian's taking her to dinner, when finally she decides she likes us enough to tell what she knows about Sebastian's deals. Only she doesn't like me, just Fraser. She'll only talk to Fraser. Alone.
So I join Dief in the car, where he's been banished because Chatty Cathy didn't want him to traumatize her cats. I told him he didn't miss anything, and we sit there for about five minutes. I'm playing the drum riff from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on the steering wheel, while Dief pants into my ear and drools on my shirt.
"Get off, wolf." I push him away. He lifts his muzzle and makes a kinda half-yelp, half-whine.
"No, I don't know how long it'll take." I turn around and face him. "Maybe she's putting the moves on Fraser."
"So what if she is? Won't be the first time. Fraser's a big boy. He can handle himself."
Still, I'm just about ready to go back in when my phone rings.
"Hello. May I please speak with Constable Benton Fraser?" A woman's voice, but she can't be Fraser's Inspector. The Texas twang's a dead giveaway.
Who am I? Fraser's secretary?
"He's busy right now."
"Would you please ask him to phone Mary Sue Kirkland at the Hotel Montague? I have a question about which room he would prefer: the Romantic Getaway Suite with the circular bed and heart-shaped bathtub, or the Lakeview Suite. It has a-"
"Hang on a sec." Fraser's coming down the steps, looking like he's trying hard not to run. And I really don't want to hear about his choice of suites.
I roll down the window. "Fraser! You got a phone call."
He nods and circles around to the passenger side, loses the hat and slides in. "I'm sorry, Ray, I-"
"It's the hotel." I shove the phone into his hands and stare out the windshield. If I could stick my fingers in my ears without looking like a dork, I would.
She must be repeating what she told me, because all he says for a while is "Ah" and "I see." Then he says "just one moment, please," and covers the mouthpiece with his hand.
"Ray, the Hotel Montague is offering me a choice of two suites. Which one-" He cuts off, clears his throat, and starts up again. "Which one do you think is the more romantic: the suite with the... luxury appointments, or the one with the view of the lake?"
He's asking *me*? Oh, great. But I have to answer, and I can't jerk him around. "They both sound good. It depends on the person, I guess. I mean, if you're there with someone who likes to be pampered, go for the fancy bed and bath. A nature lover'd like the view."
He tilts his head and frowns a little. "But which one would *you* choose?"
I start the car because I've got to *do* something instead of sitting here thinking about Fraser and... her. "Baths are nice, Fraser, but you can't beat a good lake view for romance." Dief yelps, like he agrees with me.
"Thank you." He tells the clerk that he'll take the Lakeview Suite and hangs up. "I'm sorry about that. I didn't want to use the official Consulate number, so I presumed on your good nature."
"Sure, Fraser." My good nature, my ass. My good nature's as worn as junked tires. I peel away from the curb, heading back to the station. "So, what did Lady Can't-Shut-Up have to say?"
We talk about the case on the way back. Sounds like Miss Viola, as Fraser calls her, came up trumps - she's given us a couple of good leads. My cell phone rings again as I sit down at my desk.
"Hold that thought, Fraser." I punch the connect button. "Vecchio."
"Hello, Detective Vecchio. This is Toni Blair."
Damn. No Texas twang here. She's got one of those deep, smoky voices. The kind that makes a guy's toes curl.
"Uh. Hi." I wince. Real smooth, Kowalski.
Before I can say anything else, she goes on. "I wondered if I could leave a message for Benton. I'd like-"
"He's right here." I hand the phone to Fraser, who's looking at me like one of those terriers, waiting for a command. "Your... It's Toni Blair."
"Good afternoon, Inspector." He smiles, and it's like a punch to the gut. "Toni. What may I-"
Dief edges over to me and puts his head on my thigh. I scratch him between the ears and pretend to read the papers Frannie's put on my desk, but I can't help listening to Fraser.
"Yes, the hotel confirmed the room change." He laughs. "No, it was no trouble at all. Very well. Yes, I look forward to it. Goodbye."
He hands me back the phone. "Again, I appreciate your forbearance, Ray. Inspector Blair..." His ears turn red. "Toni, had a question about-"
"None of my business." I already know more than I want to about the hotel on Saturday. "Listen, Fraser. This is my official business phone. I'm supposed to only use it for official business."
Dief yips and Fraser nods. "And calling for pizza."
I give them both the eye. "Don't we usually talk about cases when we're eating the pizza? That makes it official business."
"Except when we're watching hockey."
Dief makes a sound like he's laughing. I glare at him. "Another sound out of you, buster, and you'll be stuck with kibble for the rest of the month."
Fraser does the thumb/eyebrow thing and looks serious. "Speaking of food, do you have any plans for dinner tonight?"
"Dinner?" Oh, shit, I know where this is going, and it's not a place I want to be. Not sitting at a table with Fraser and his girlfriend. "Uh, I got a thing tonight."
"But Ray, I thought you were free all this week."
"Not tonight. Because of the thing." I swear Fraser looks disappointed. But I don't want to meet this Toni chick, and if that means disappointing Fraser, well, that's the way it's got to be. "Sorry."
He looks down at the desk, his shoulders slumping. "As you wish."
I feel like five kinds of heel, because Fraser really wanted this. I sigh, and open my mouth to say something stupid, like "I'll cancel my thing," or "Where do you want to meet?" when Dief whuffs.
"I hadn't forgotten," Fraser says, all snippy, but when he turns to me, it's like his mouth gets all soft and... Dammit! Stop thinking things like that. Fraser just leans forward. That's all he does, right? "You *are* free on Saturday evening, aren't you?" Saturday? Before I can think what to say, Fraser goes on. "You mentioned on Monday that you had no commitments on Saturday. I assume that is still the case?"
He's looking at me, eyebrows raised in that hopeful-puppy way that makes my insides do things I do *not* want to talk about. So I do the only thing possible.
"Yeah, Fraser. I'm still free Saturday night."
"That is wonderful news, Ray." And then he gives me one of those Fraser-special smiles, and now my insides are doing a two-step, all bouncy and going round in circles.
"Right." I rub the back of my neck. I am getting in such deep shit, here. "Back to work. Gimme the names again, and we'll figure out who to tackle first."
"So I'm stuck having dinner with him on Saturday, which would be just fine if that Toni person's already on her way back to Canada." My throat is dry from talking. I take another swig of beer from the bottle, not caring that the sweat on the outside is dripping onto my tee-shirt. The cold feels good. "But if *she* goes back, *he's* going to go, too, and that, my friend, sucks so hard it's turned inside out." I poke a bit of lettuce with my finger. "And the worst part is that there's not a damn thing I can do about it. Unless you got any brilliant ideas..."
Speedy just blinks slowly and takes a bite of the lettuce.
"Nah. Didn't think so."
Yeah, I'm talking to my turtle. How sad is that?
At least he doesn't try to cheer me up with bullshit.
The doorbell rings - it's about time. I open it, and Sandor's there, pizza box in his hands.
"Hey, Ray." He comes in and puts the pizza on the coffee table, looks around. "Where's Fraser and the wolf?"
"Out." I check my pockets. No wallet. "Hang on." It's on my dresser. I pull out a ten and take it back to him. "Here."
Now he's giving me one of those gypsy eye looks. "What's up with you?"
I cross my arms and try to act all casual. "Nothing."
His head tilts the other way. "Ray, the last time I saw you this bummed out, was when you were going through all that crap with Stella. What is it? Is some chick bugging you?"
"Yeah. Some chick's bugging me." Just not the way he thinks.
"So, what're you going to do about it?"
"Nothing. Nada. Zip."
Sandor shrugs and leaves. I open the box, close it again. The sight makes my stomach turn. I don't even know why the hell I ordered it.
Yeah, I know why. Because it's what me and Fraser and Dief *do*.
I grab the bottle and finish it.
The next one goes down easy. And the one after that.
I end up on the couch, finishing up the six-pack and staring at the pizza box. Once Fraser leaves, I don't think I'll be able to eat pizza again.
A hellacious crick wakes me up at some God-awful hour, and I know I'm not going to get back to sleep. Not with the thought of Fraser leaving. And that damn paper with my real name all over it, like I'm a cross between Pinocchio and the Velveteen Rabbit. I roll off the couch - gotta stop making a habit of this - and take a shower so cold it feels like my balls are trying to hide back by my spine. No breakfast, not even coffee - my gut's churning, and I don't want to have to clean puke out of the goat.
It's still dark as I drive to the station, but over in the east there's a little crack of light. Wish I could stop the day from coming, because all it means is that Fraser's going to be gone faster.
Christ, Kowalski, get a grip.
I survived my marriage falling to pieces. I sure as hell will live through Fraser leaving.
I'm just not sure I'll like what's left behind.
The bullpen's almost deserted when I get there, so I pull out the paper with my name and stare at it for a while. Expensive paper, good pen and ink. My name three times, three different ways. But no clues about who wrote it, or why. The damn thing mocks me.
So. What would Fraser do?
For one thing, he wouldn't just stare at it. I pull a corner out of the plastic and sniff it. Smells kind of dusty and plastic-y. Big surprise. I check the bullpen. All's quiet, so I stick out my tongue. Tastes like... paper.
Guess you need super senses for that to work. And I'm no super-sense guy. I just feel stupid.
I close my eyes so I can think better. I'm still sitting at a desk, but it's not my work desk ‘cause it's way too small. The top's covered with papers and books, my knees hit the underside, and Stella sits next to me, writing something. She looks over at me out of the corner of her eye and grins. I lean over and look at the paper.
"Stella Kowalski. Ray and Stella Kowalski. Mr. and Mrs. S. Raymond Kowalski."
Fingers touch my cheek, the back of my neck, good, so good...
"Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray."
"Huh?" My head comes off the desk so fast that my chair scoots back and makes a quarter spin. "Fraser?" I rub my eyes. Where the hell am I? Something's stuck to my cheek. I peel it off. A Post-it note, sticky with drool. Gross.
"Good morning, Ray."
Shit. I must've fallen asleep at my desk. I stare at Fraser, feeling sandbagged. His mouth is moving.
"...missed you at your apartment, so I took the liberty of bringing your coffee and pastries here." He puts a cup of coffee on the desk in front of me.
My hands move on their own, like Thing, my fingers curling around the cup. The smell and the taste ground me.
I close my eyes, so I can feel the caffeine rush down my arms and legs and settle in my gut. "Marry me, Fraser."
"Ray?" He makes a spluttery noise, and Dief yips.
What the fuck did I just say? "Symbolically, I mean." The words catch in my mouth, but I force them out. "For bringing me coffee and food."
"Ah." Fraser's shoulders slump a little, and he looks at my desk. Then he goes stiff - total Ice Man freeze, almost cracking into pieces - and stares. At the paper sitting in the middle of the blotter. "Ray? Where did you-"
"I found this under some papers on my desk." Damn. I didn't want Fraser to know about it.
"My God, Ray." He sits down with a thump, and pulls on the collar of his tunic. "I had no idea..."
"Yeah." I drink more coffee and grab a danish. I'm going to need all my strength. "Surprised the hell out of me." Take a bite and swallow. "The question is, who knows my real name, and why the hell would he let me know he knows?"
"Who knows..." Fraser looks confused.
"Wait a second." I hold up my hand and Fraser closes his mouth. And then I remember. Stella. Stella writing her name - *my* name - in school. She'd stopped by the bullpen Wednesday. Maybe she'd doodled my name...
Nah. Stupid idea.
Where'd she get the paper? And it was way too neat to be her handwriting. Stella's scrawl takes over the whole page.
I'm back where I started. Fraser frowns and then it hits me: I'm going to have to do this by myself soon. No Fraser to lick stuff, no Fraser to talk things over, no Fraser to come up with weird-ass solutions. I'll be on my own.
Might as well get used to it.
"Ray, you should-"
"No, Fraser," I say quickly, and drop the danish back into the box. Wipe my hands on my Dockers. "I've got everything under control."
"Hey, listen. When I say I'm dealing with it, you've got to believe me." I shove the paper into my inbox and pick up the list of Sebastian's contacts. "Trust me. Now, how're we going to-"
"If you'd just stop for a minute and listen, Ray. I-"
"Fraser!" I bang my hands on my desk, and the whole bullpen goes quiet. I don't need to turn around to know that everyone's staring this way. Damn bunch of busybodies. I look Fraser right in the eye. "Drop it, or I swear I'll..." I manage to stop the next words, but my hand aches with the memory, and Fraser's eyes get big anyway, just as if I'd said them.
He opens his mouth, closes it, and nods. "Understood." He sounds as miserable as I feel right now. Dief curls up into a ball and closes his eyes, just like I used to do when I was a kid and my folks were arguing.
"Okay." I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders. Dammit, I didn't want to fight, not when everything's going to hell in a handcart. So, suck it up, make nice, make like nothing's going to change. "Good. Here's Chatty Cathy's list. Who're we going to lean on first, and how're we gonna get them to roll over on Sebastian?"
It takes Fraser a while to loosen up again, but pretty soon we fall back into our usual back-and-forth, trading ideas.
"From what little pertinent information Miss Viola shared, it would seem that Mr. Benjamin E. Dick would be our most sensible choice." Fraser picks up the empty danish box and dumps it in the trash. "He appears to have the closest connection to Sebastian and Dubinski."
"And if we can find him and talk to him, maybe make it clear that he'd be a lot happier cooperating..." I grin.
Fraser smiles back. "Then we might be privy to sufficient information to warrant further investigation."
"Give the man a kewpie doll." At Fraser's blank look, I shrug. "That's a good thing, Fraser."
"I'll take your word for it."
My phone rings, and when I pick up, Frannie appears, batting her lashes so hard at Fraser I'm surprised she doesn't fly away.
"Vecchio." It's personnel - some question about my vacation hours - so I roll my eyes at Fraser, who's nodding like a bobble head while Frannie chatters on.
I answer the personnel chick's questions, and then she puts me on hold while she goes to look something up.
Frannie's got her hand on Fraser's arm. "So you got together with your Inspector friend. What's she like? All manly, with short hair and big... muscles?"
Fraser's eyes light up in a way that I don't like, and from the look on her face, Frannie's not too happy about it either. "Inspector Blair has an athletic build, rather than one I would strictly characterize as muscular. Physically, she reminds me of Janet Morse. Without the children and divorced husband, of course. Although she is seriously considering settling down and marrying."
Frannie drops Fraser's arm like he's suddenly turned into Dewey. "Marrying? Who?"
Fraser licks his bottom lip. "I'm afraid I spoke out of turn, Francesca. No definite engagement has been publicly announced, and it would be presumptuous, if not actually irresponsible, for me to say anything further on the subject."
I don't hear any more, because personnel chick's back on the line. But Frannie walks away looking so down that I feel sorry for the poor kid.
Broken hearts suck.
It takes us a while to find this Dick guy, but after an hour or so we track him down to a diner on the south side.
We're totally in sync - Fraser sets him up, I knock him down. We're smoother than ice, dancing a duet so fine it would make Jesus weep. When we leave, I've got another list of names, and a guy on the inside who wants to take down Dubinski as bad as me.
"That was... invigorating, Ray."
Dief whuffs and bumps against my knee.
"Yeah." I give Dief's head a scratch. "We did good. Now, how about some lunch before getting back to the doing goodness?"
We grab sandwiches, and on the way back to the station, Fraser suddenly turns and looks out the window.
"Stop here, please, Ray. There's a legal parking space at the end of the block."
"What's up?" I pull into the space, and Fraser's out the door in a flash.
"We won't be but a minute." He lets Dief out.
We? But I don't complain as Fraser steamrollers me out of the car and into this chichi store, with walls of little bottles. I don't know how much longer I've got with Fraser, and I'm going to enjoy every second. Even if it kills me.
"A perfume store?"
Crap crap crap. If Fraser wasn't so damn polite, I'd think he was rubbing my nose in the fact that he's got a girlfriend and I've got... nothing.
Dief sneezes and goes back outside. Don't blame him - the smell's making me dizzy. But Fraser's already talking to the clerk behind the counter. She looks like something out of Rocky Horror, and not in a good way, but when Fraser waves me over, I go.
I am *so* pathetic.
"Ray, I'd like your opinion about these scents."
"I don't know anything about scents, Fraser. Unless there are dollars, as well." I try to laugh.
"Of course you do."
He's jollying me along, so I sigh and lean against the counter. "Okay. Hit me."
Fraser backs up a step and hides his hands behind his back. "Ray?"
The clerk laughs and I glare at her. "Whatcha got, lady?"
She's still giggling when she pulls out a bunch of little bottles, and I have to spend the next ten minutes smelling them and telling Fraser if I like it or not.
"I don't know why you don't do this, Fraser." I sniff and rub my nose. "You can smell stuff a million times better than me."
"I seriously doubt that," he says, kind of under his breath, looking at the four little bottles we set aside.
Fraser squares his shoulders and stands at parade rest. "I value your opinion in this matter."
"Yeah, fine. Relax. Don't sprain anything." And then I start thinking about what he could sprain, and that's not a good idea. "We about done here? ‘Cause I'm going to keep Dief company."
Dief sneezes again when I come out of the store, and makes this funny yowl in the back of his throat. "He's almost done. And I know I stink. You'd stink too if you spent all day sniffing little bottles."
Another yowl and then Dief looks down the street. "No. No hot dogs. You just had half of my ham sandwich."
That gets a disgusted snort.
Fraser pops through the door holding a paper bag. "Thank you for your patience, Ray. And Dief, that sort of behavior is entirely unnecessary."
"Cut it out, Dief." I start back to the car. "Let's see what we can come up with now that Dick's ready to roll over."
"Diefenbaker! Put that down! You are disgrace to the species. I'm taking you to the park tonight as an attempt to counteract your excessive urbanization."
I stop and wait for Fraser to catch up. "You're taking Dief to the park? What about Inspector Blair?" Just to prove to myself that I can say her name without choking. "Aren't you two going to dinner?"
"No." He stares into the store window beside me. "Tonight is the official banquet, and she will be occupied all evening."
"A banquet, eh? I thought that would be right up your alley." We get to the car and pile in.
"Although I'm certain that the addresses by the representatives of the law enforcement organizations participating would be edifying and interesting, banquet attendance is restricted to conference participants."
"So you're free tonight?" I know I sound eager, but I don't care.
"Apart from the possibly vain attempt to reacquaint Dief with his inner wolf, yes, I am."
"Want to have dinner?"
He tilts his head to one side and touches the brim of his hat. "Dinner? Just the two... excuse me, Dief, three of us?"
"Yeah. Just us." I'm not going to think about how there won't be an us very much longer. "We can go somewhere new, if you like. Somewhere different. Make it seem like you're not stuck with me." I try to keep it light, but Fraser must hear something because he turns in the seat and frowns at me.
"I would never characterize being in your company as being stuck with you, Ray. On the contrary, I find you a... pleasant and enjoyable companion."
That makes me smile. "Damn right. Back atcha, Fraser."
He grins. "Back scratcher to you, too, Ray."
I laugh all the way to the station.
Welsh corners us as we make our way to my desk. He's got a sandwich in his hand, eating lunch on the run, which means he'll be cranky with indigestion all afternoon. "Well, Detective, Constable? Have you made any progress in discovering the culprit who put the paper on your desk?"
"We're working on it, sir." Get that in quickly, before Fraser can open his mouth.
"Don't take too long, and keep me informed." Welsh nods and turns back to his office.
I work the phone while Fraser searches on the computer, but after the fourth dead-end, I get up and stretch. "Need coffee. You want anything?"
"No, thank you, Ray." Fraser keeps typing.
I'm back in five, and as I get to the corner, I hear Fraser talking quietly. "...you should be aware of this."
I stop and listen. Okay, it's not kosher, but I don't care.
"I can't say that I'm entirely surprised, Constable." That's Welsh. "Sometimes a man's got to do what a man's got to do."
Why can he talk to Welsh and not to me? Who the fuck's his *partner*?
"An admirable and accurate sentiment." Fraser again. "And you recommend?"
"I've always been partial to Ravel's Bolero. The driving beat, the intensity..."
Fraser clears his throat. "Understood."
I wait half a minute before going back to my desk. Fraser's not there, but Dief raises his head. "No, nobody brought in donuts."
Dief makes a disappointed noise and sniffs my trousers, then sneezes.
"So." I look at him and he cocks his head to one side. "Fraser's asking Welsh for music advice." I shrug and Dief cocks his head to the other side. "I got to weigh in on the flowers, candy, room and perfume. I guess it's okay for him to ask someone else about music, even if Welsh likes something that sounds like clothes."
I spot Fraser across the bullpen, talking to Huey, who's nodding. Dewey's there, too, a smirk plastered on his ugly mug.
I'm well into another call, and making some progress, when Fraser gets back.
Dick's list of names and businesses that Dubinski uses as fronts lead us to a paper trail that takes all afternoon to follow up on. I stare at the paper piled high on my desk and lean back in my chair, rubbing my eyes.
"I'm beat, Fraser. If I have to look at another list of figures, my head's gonna explode."
Dief nudges my leg and yelps.
"I realize that it's after six, Dief." Fraser sounds... tired. "And yes, Ray. Perhaps it's time to call it a day."
I open my eyes. Fraser's frowning at a piece of paper, and there are circles under his eyes.
"So how about dinner?" Worry makes my voice rough. "Where'd you like to go?"
Fraser nods. "I thought we could eat at Christian's."
"Suits me." I push back and stretch. God, I feel like I've been beaten with sticks.
Dinner's good, dinner's fine, except that I don't know what to say. Hey, Frase, are you really thinking about getting hitched, leaving Chicago, leaving *me*? Yeah, that would go over well. So I make small talk about the food, the other diners, and then grind to a stop because I just can't do that anymore.
Fraser puts down his fork. "Is everything all right, Ray?"
You tell me. But I just say "Yeah, everything's fine."
He's not buying it. I can see that. "When one half of a duet is troubled," he says, talking soft and intense, "it naturally affects the other. My father says... said that when he and Buck Frobisher were partners, they had to have a commitment to each other in order for that partnership to run smoothly, to work at its optimum capability."
What the fuck's he talking about? I'm not the one running away with some Mountie-ette. "Commitment's gotta come from both sides, Fraser."
"I know that." He sounds pissy, and he looks right at me.
I meet his eyes. Not going to give an inch, here. "Do you?"
His jaw sets, which, in Fraser body language 101, means he's getting pretty ticked. "Yes, Ray. I do. In fact, I-" He presses his lips together and takes a big breath. Then he looks away, and I know I've lost. I'm history as far as Benton Fraser's concerned.
I sigh and push away my plate. I might as well be trying to punch fog. There's no way for me to win.
I pay the check and get up, but Fraser doesn't move. "C'mon, I'll drive you to the Consulate."
"Thank you for dinner, Ray." Mr. Formal-voice, and when he stands, he's as stiff as a board. "And for the offer of a ride. But Dief and I are going to the park."
"I forgot." I run my fingers through my hair. Fraser's had enough of me, I get that. One thing I'm not going to do is ask to go with them. That's too much like begging. "I can do the park."
Okay, I'm begging. So what? If Fraser's not worth begging to hang out with, then nobody is. And time's running out.
Fraser heads for the door. "It's not necessary, I assure you."
I follow him out onto the sidewalk. "Did I say anything about necessary? ‘Cause if I did, I don't remember." Dief comes up to me and licks my hand. I wipe it on my Dockers. "See? Dief wants me to come with."
"I believe he was licking your dinner's residual grease from your fingers, Ray." He looks at Dief, and Dief whuffs. "You and I are perfectly capable of-"
"C'mon, Dief." I head down the street toward the park. If I let him, Fraser'll spin this out until one of us loses our temper. I've gotta keep it cool, enjoy our time together. "Coming, Frase?"
The park is good. No, I'm not the biggest nature lover, but I've done my share of camping. I know my way around a pup tent. I can make stew and cook eggs and biscuits on a campfire. It's just... better with Fraser around.
He and I walk on the path while Dief shoots off into the trees and does dog-wolf stuff. We don't talk, because I'm afraid I'm going to say something to break the peace and quiet we've got going between us. The longer we walk, the more Fraser relaxes. His spine loosens, he walks more like a tracker and less like a guy with granny boots on, and I can tell he knows what's going on in the woods around us.
So when a woman's voice lets out a yell from the trees, he's off and running before I can figure out where exactly the shout's coming from.
I crash through the bushes, my gun in my hand. With our track record, I'm not taking chances. Fraser's ahead of me, I can hear him. And the woman yells again - more to the right - so I head that way.
Through a gap between some trees, then I scramble up a bank and I'm getting close, I can hear a guy, too. He's grunting and swearing, and I'm gonna pound his fucking *head* when I find him. Almost there, by the sound of things...
A white streak, right under my feet, makes me lose my balance.
"Dammit, Dief! Fraser, watch out!"
I hit his back so hard he stumbles into a little clearing. There's just enough light to see that...
"Chicago PD." I grab Fraser's sleeve and push in front of him. "Are you okay, ma'am?"
She pulls her sweater down and glares. "I'm fine."
The guy's butt is so white it's glowing in the dusk. He tries to get his jeans up, but Dief's got his teeth into the seat, and keeps tugging them down again. "Jesus! Call off your damn dog!"
"Technically, he's half wolf," says Fraser.
"Wolf?" the guy yells. "What the fuck's a *wolf* doing-"
"Yeah, so if you don't want to lose something important, hold still." The guy stops struggling and I turn back to the lady. "We heard you shout. Are you sure this guy isn't-"
"He's my *husband*, officer." She tugs down her skirt and sits up. "He wanted to try something *different*, something to spice up our sex life." The look she gives him tells me he's going to spend a long time paying for this.
"Next time, try dressing up or renting a hotel room." I step back, bumping into Fraser again. "Okay, Dief. Let him up."
Dief gives a half-hearted growl and lets go the guy's jeans.
"Give a guy some warning! I coulda hurt myself here!" The guy rolls over and gets himself covered. Not that he has anything to be proud of. Of course, it's chilly out, so I should cut him some slack. So to speak.
Fraser coughs. "Consider yourself fortunate that Detective Vecchio doesn't press charges for public indecency."
"Yeah. *That* would put a real crimp in your sex life."
"Yes, Detective." The lady starts to get up, and Fraser's there, offering her a hand. She looks at him and does a double-take. "Why, thank you... Detective?" I think the uniform confuses her.
"Constable, ma'am." He touches the brim of his hat.
"Let's go, Fraser, Dief. Our work here is done."
"It is indeed, Ray."
Dief yips, like he's agreeing with us.
"For God's sake, Harold," says the woman, behind us. "I've never been so embarrassed in my life..."
We get back to the path and I catch Fraser's eye. His mouth twitches.
"Our work here is done, Ray?"
"Well, *something* is done, and I'll bet it's Harold's chances of ever having sex again." I can't help thinking about that guy's bare ass, and the way the woman looked, like we'd walked in on her in the can. I can feel the corners of my mouth curling up, and then we're both laughing.
"Have you had enough of the park?" I say at last, rubbing my jaw.
"Dief! We're going back to the car."
Fraser has to call him twice, but finally Dief races up to us and heads back down the street.
We're passing the drug store when Fraser says "Excuse me for a moment, Ray," and disappears inside.
I should be used to this by now.
"Wait here," I say to Dief, and follow Fraser. What's he buying? Shaving cream? A going away card? Bubble bath? I check out the aisles, but Fraser's way at the back, talking to this little old lady behind the pharmacy counter.
"...preferable to latex?"
I look at the box in Fraser's hand. "Fraser, what are you doing?"
He gives me that innocent look. "Buying condoms, Ray."
The little old lady smiles and winks at me.
Oh, shit. Fraser naked and hard, gloving up... My face gets hot, and I lean over and whisper in his ear. "Yeah, I can see that. But don't you, like, make your own or something?"
"It's true that an early form of penile sheath was made of sheep intestines," he says, not lowering his voice at all, "but it was understandably thick, reducing-"
"Fraser!" I glance at the old lady, who's still watching us.
She nods. "That's right, son. But the loss of sensation was a problem until the development of-"
"Hey! I do not need to know this!"
"But Ray, it's really very interesting."
I grab Fraser's arm and drag him down one of the empty aisles. "Maybe so, but right now I do not want to be discussing prehensile sheep with someone who could be my grandmother."
"Very well. I'll make my purchase and we'll leave."
I stick my hands in my pockets and hang back while Fraser picks up a box of condoms and hands it to the old lady. She shakes her head, puts it down, and picks up another box. "There's nothing medium about you, son. You're going to need large." She grins at me. "Your boyfriend, too."
But she's not listening, and puts a tube of KY and another one of Preparation H on the counter. "You'll need these, too."
I can't watch this.
Before Fraser sets her straight about who the rubbers are for, I'm outta there. The cool air feels good on my face. Dief whuffs.
"Condoms," I mutter.
A yelp. Yeah, Dief gets it.
I'm back to being cool by the time Fraser comes out of the drug store. He's carrying a bag, and I don't want to think about what he's going to be doing with what he's got in there. Nope. Not going to think about-
"Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray."
"What?" We're at the car, so I unlock the passenger door and go around to the driver's side, while Dief and Fraser pile in.
"Would you mind if I borrow your car for a while tomorrow?"
Fraser? Wanting to use the goat twice in a week? It fucking must be love.
"Sure. I was just going to go into the station anyway." I know it's hopeless, but that doesn't make me feel any better. And if I'm going to be miserable, I might as well be miserable catching up with my paperwork.
"Thank you, Ray. Perhaps I could pick it up from the station around nine?"
"Yeah. I'm not going to be sleeping in."
We're quiet on the drive back to the Consulate. I want to say something, tell Fraser he's been a good partner, made this whole undercover gig easier and better by sticking with me after Vecchio left, but the words get stuck in my throat. So I just drive, and way too soon we get to the Consulate.
"Good night, Ray. And thank you for dinner."
"Night, Fraser. See you tomorrow."
And how many days after that?
I'm at the station way before nine. Every time I closed my eyes, I'd see Fraser turning, walking away. I figured that if I wasn't going to sleep, I might as well get started on the shit-load of paperwork sitting on my desk.
Fraser's there right at nine, and I can't help grinning when I see him.
Dief barks softly and looks at me, waiting.
"Yeah, I'll share."
"Ray, you needn't-"
"I know." I pull a glazed donut out of the box and set it on a napkin on the floor. "But Dief's a pal." And besides, I won't be able to do this much longer. Might as well spoil him while I've got the chance.
I fish the keys out of my pocket and toss them to Fraser. He catches them neatly. "Thank you, Ray. I'll ensure that your car is returned to the station later this afternoon."
"Take your time." I shrug, and smack my hand on the papers on my desk. "From the size of this pile, I'm not going anywhere soon."
Fraser opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, Huey's there, holding a garment bag. "Here's my tux, Fraser. I just had it cleaned, so it should be in good shape."
Fraser's face turns red, like a steamed lobster, when he takes the bag. "I appreciate the loan."
"No problem." Huey winks and turns away. "Just don't get it too dirty."
"Uh. No." Fraser sounds really rattled.
"A tux?" I got a bad feeling about this.
"Ah. Yes." Fraser starts to hook his finger in his collar, but since he's wearing jeans and a flannel shirt instead of the uniform, he just looks surprised and rubs his neck. "I have need of a tuxedo for a formal engagement, and Detective Huey was kind enough to offer the loan of his again."
A formal engagement.
Fraser must be getting married tonight. That's why he wants me there - bet I'm tapped as the best man.
Great. A best man who wants to elope with the groom.
What a fucking joke.
I mumble something and Fraser seems satisfied. "Thank you again for the loan of your car," he says, and carefully folds the garment bag over his arm. "Adieu, Ray."
That sounds like something out of one of those 50's romantic chick flicks that Stella used to watch when I was working late. I'd come home and find her crying. "It was so beautiful," she'd say. Give me a break.
"See you later, Fraser."
It's harder than usual to keep my mind on forms and reports. What's Fraser doing now? What's he got planned for tonight? Will this Toni be good to him? When will he leave Chicago? Why the hell didn't I *say* something when I had the chance? Will they expect me to make a toast to the happy couple, and can I lie good enough to fool Fraser?
I can lie. I'm good at lying. It's what I do.
I can see most of the top of my desk when I check the clock - almost six. Fraser should've been back by now. I drum on my desktop - lots of coffee with no food makes me jittery.
What'll he say? "Thank you kindly, Ray." Yeah, that's a given. But will I get a real smile, or is he already thinking ahead to tonight with Miss Mountie? And what the hell am I going to say? Well, it's not like Fraser expects me to be Mr. Smooth. He knows what I'm like. He probably knows me better than anyone else in the world.
So, play it cool.
"Turnbull?" Seeing him out of uniform is... weird. Looks like Fraser and him shop from the same catalog, ‘cause their flannel shirts look like they match. "Where's Fraser? What're you doing here?"
"Constable Fraser is currently engaged." Turnbull smiles and holds out a set of keys. "I'm here to return your car on his behalf."
My gut goes cold. So Fraser *is* engaged. But also... "You... You drove the goat?"
He blinks. "There were no goats involved, Detective. Unless, of course, you count the half-dozen sheep that-"
"Never mind." I stand, grab the keys, and start for the door. "I mean, *you* drove my car back?"
"Why, no." Turnbull lopes along beside me. "Miss Roxanne, who owns the detailing shop where Constable Fraser left your car, very kindly agreed to convey the car, and me, to the 27th Precinct."
I stop. "Fraser had my car detailed?"
Turnbull does a double-step, almost gets tangled in a chair, and then turns. "Indeed. I must admit it was a fascinating process to watch, and although I offered my assistance, Miss Roxanne declined my help after the unfortunate incident with the toothbrush and the carpet shampoo."
"Yeah, okay." Fraser's so busy he can't even bring the car back. The detailing's a nice thought, though. A couple weeks ago I'd mentioned that I wanted to do it, but then Maggie showed up and knocked that thought out of my mind.
"Constable Fraser asked me to give you these."
He hands me an envelope and a small tube. On the front of the envelope is printed ‘SRK,' in some flowy letters.
To Fraser's wedding.
Everything inside me turns to ice. "Thanks, Turnbull." I shove the invitation into my pocket and look at the tube. Smarties. I feel like someone's stuck a knife in my gut.
"Aren't you going to open the invitation, Detective?"
"Sure." I rub my face and hope to God that Turnbull doesn't see how much my hands shake.
"Well?" He raises his eyebrows and looks hopeful.
I've got to get out of here. Right now. "I'll do it in a bit. I've... I've got to go and... change."
"Of course." Turnbull smiles and taps the side of his nose with his finger. "Enjoy your evening, Detective."
I slam out the doors. Right. And pigs'll fly.
I make it as far as the car. It looks great, and the inside smells really clean. I run my hands around the steering wheel and remember all the times Fraser and Dief sat in here with me. We were good together, Fraser and me. Partners. A duet.
My fingers cramp from holding the wheel so tightly, but I can't let go. Stella would say that's the story of my life - I never know when to let someone go. Feels like I'm bleeding out right here, in my car. Like I'm losing the stuff that makes me *me*, and not just some guy who's taking Vecchio's place while he's inside the mob.
Shit. I haven't thought about the paper today. I need to find out who wrote it, and fast. I've fucked around for too long. Vecchio's counting on me, and no way am I going to let something happen to him because I got too upset over Fraser leaving to act like a cop.
I scramble out of the car, but can't resist stepping back and taking a good long look at my clean, detailed GTO. Wow. I run my fingers over the shiny black blackness of the hood, then sigh and turn away.
The paper's still in the top drawer of my desk. I pull it out, look at my name, three times, three different ways. There's something so familiar about it. I can't put my finger on it, but it's there, right on the edge of my mind. I stare at the paper for a while.
I'll send it to the lab, ask for a rush job, have them check for fingerprints, identify the manufacturer of the paper and ink, maybe even tell me something about the handwriting of the guy who wrote it...
I drop the paper, startled. Welsh stands beside my desk, all dressed up, holding a box wrapped with bright pink paper.
Crap. Did I just say ‘shit' in front of him? "Sorry, sir. You surprised me."
"You surprise me, Detective. What are you doing here?"
I poke the paper. "Working on finding out who sent this."
Welsh gives me a look like I'm nuts. "Have you spoken with Constable Fraser?"
"Yeah." Hey, I'm not the one who's nuts. "This morning."
"No. Have you spoken with Constable Fraser about who wrote your real name?"
Damn. Busted. "Well, not really. But that's because we've been really busy with the Dubinski business, and then there's Fraser's... engagement."
"Constable Fraser, engaged?" Welsh shakes his head and shifts the present to his other arm. "Vecchio, I believe you have officially taken leave of your senses."
Wish I had. Then at least this wouldn't hurt so much. "No way, sir. He's pretty much told me so."
Welsh sighs. "Did Constable Fraser send you an invitation?"
"Yeah." I pull it out of my pocket and drop it on the desk.
"And you haven't opened it." He sets the invitation beside the paper with my name. "Do you notice anything unusual here? Or do I have to re-evaluate your abilities as a detective, Detective?"
Right. Paper on left, with ‘Ray Kowalski,' ‘Stanley R. Kowalski,' and ‘S. Raymond Kowalski.' Invitation on right, with ‘SRK.' The ink's not quite black, there's some dark blue in it. The shape of the pen tip looks similar. The letters...
The letters are the same.
I mean, the S in Stanley's got the same funny little squiggle as the S in SRK. And the foot of the R swoops down, and the angle of the K's kind of knotted onto the vertical line.
"So the same guy who wrote my name wrote my initials on the invitation."
Welsh rolls his eyes. "Which means..."
"That Fraser wrote my name on the paper..." I rub my eyes. Fuck. This doesn't make sense. "Why?"
"You'll have to ask him that. And may I suggest that you open the invitation? Now."
Dammit, I'm not usually so slow on the uptake. "Yessir."
I rip open the envelope and pull out a plastic hotel keycard and the paper inside. Which is pretty much identical to the paper on my desk. On it, in the same flowy handwriting, are the words:
Constable Benton Fraser requests the pleasure of your company for dinner at seven p.m. tonight at the Hotel Montague, room 309.
"But..." I look up at Welsh. "What about Inspector Blair?"
"From what I understand, Constable Fraser drove her to the airport this morning."
"He took her to the airport? That means- Shit."
I look at the invitation again. *My* initials. Fraser wrote *my* initials. So it didn't have anything to do with Toni Blair, except that she showed up and made me think... Fuck, I was all sorts of idiot. Of course Fraser was practicing writing my name. My real name, because - proper preparation and all. He must've gotten distracted and left the paper on my desk. I stand up and check the clock. It's almost eight.
"Shit. I mean, dammit, sir, he's... it's..." Oh, shit. I so suck. "He thinks I've stood him up."
"I suggest you drive carefully, Detective. After all, you wouldn't want to be stopped for speeding."
"No, sir." I grab my jacket and head for the door. "Thanks."
His "you're welcome" gets cut off as the door slams behind me.
I don't get stopped, which is the only break I've been cut so far. Park the car, run into the hotel. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I should've seen it, figured it out. Some detective, right?
I'm panting a little by the time I walk down the hall and stop in front of room 309. Maybe Fraser's given up and left. I scrub my fingers through my hair. I'll worry about that if it happens. Right now I've got to open the door.
Knock first. My mom raised me right, even if her lessons didn't always take. Then I key the door open and step inside.
The room's big, a suite. A table, all set out with flowers, unlit candles, table cloth, china and glasses with stems, sits over by the window. Lake view. Fraser's sitting there, back to me. He's got his head in his hands, and I've never seen him look so... beaten. God, I've totally fucked this up.
"Thank you. You may take the cart now," Fraser says, his voice all muffled. "I'm finished here."
My throat's so dry I have to swallow before I can trust my voice. "I dunno, Frase. I'm pretty hungry."
He raises his head, but doesn't turn around. Shitshitshit. I've got to fix this now.
"Sorry I'm late." I take off my jacket and dump it on a chair. Go up to the table and stand next to the empty chair - my chair. "I screwed up."
Fraser doesn't move, and I don't know what to say, how to explain. But I have to try.
"I thought you were getting engaged to Inspector Blair and I didn't... couldn't... watch you be with her."
Fraser finally turns to me, and I swear I'm going to kick myself all the way down Lake Shore Drive for making him look so breakable. His hair sticks up, his tie's undone, and if he didn't have that defeated look in his eyes, I'd like the way he looks. An imperfect Fraser. Perfect.
"You thought I was getting engaged to..." He blinks and wipes his hand across his face. "She's already engaged, Ray. To a member of Parliament. They hope to marry next year."
"I'm sorry." One thing I learned with Stella. When I'm wrong, say it loud and say it a lot. "I'm a dickhead."
"You said," almost a whisper, "you couldn't watch me be with her."
"Because..." Oh, fuck, this is hard to say. Don't know if I can get it out. "Because I wanted... to be the one *you* wanted."
"You didn't come." He slides his chair back and slowly stands, like an old man. Our eyes meet, and I don't look away from the hurt.
"I'm here, Frase. And I'm-"
He licks his bottom lip, and my nerves sizzle. I want him. I need him. But Fraser's made an effort to set all this up. Hell, Fraser's made a bunch of efforts. So I tell my body to chill, because there's something a lot more important going on here than us getting our rocks off.
"The food..." Fraser looks at the cart, full of covered plates. "It's cold, I'm sure."
"What's on the menu?"
"Filet mignon, haricot vert, a salad, bread..." His voice trails off.
"Nothing that isn't good cold as well as hot." I pick up a bottle of wine. "Nice." Pour two glasses, then check out the covered plates. They're still warm, so I serve us both. "You going to sit down, Frase, and eat your dinner?"
I wait for him, trying not to fidget. My heart's somewhere in my throat, all squeezed and thumping hard. He won't throw me out, not Fraser, but he could go all icy polite, and that would be even worse.
He looks at the table, out the window, and then finally turns to me. "I had music planned."
"Then turn it on. I'll get the candles." I light them, one on each side of the big bouquet of roses in the center of the table, and stand by the chair until Fraser comes back. The music's soft, something jazzy.
"Please, have a seat, Ray."
The food's good, even lukewarm, and we're both hungry. We don't talk much as we eat, but Fraser starts to relax a little. I grab a roll and sop up the juices on my plate, and Fraser smiles. A real smile. The fist squeezing my heart eases up a little.
"My mom always taught me not to waste good food." I push back my plate and finish my wine.
"Your mother is a wise woman."
"Fraser, I really don't want to talk about my mom right now."
He gets all serious again. "Nor do I."
I look at him in Huey's tux, and remember the last time I saw him dressed like this. What I did to keep him safe. What I'll always do to keep him safe. "I still owe you that air."
Fraser nods. "Indeed you do."
I get up, surprised at how shaky my knees feel. "I don't welsh on my bets."
"I..." Fraser swallows hard and stands. "I hoped you wouldn't."
"Nope. Never have done, not going to start now." I take a step toward him and stop. His turn.
"Ray, I...." He rubs his eyebrow. "This is more difficult that I had expected."
"Yeah." When he doesn't move, I wave my hand toward the table. "Just so you know, I really appreciate all the effort."
"Thank you. I wanted tonight to be perfect."
"And then I go and screw it up. Sorry."
His ears get red. "I thought I was being so obvious, asking you about the flowers and the choice of suites."
I laugh a little. "Don't forget the condoms."
"Ah, yes. I may have been unduly optimistic there."
My patience is suddenly gone. Vanished. I take another step, almost bumping into him. "Nah. I don't think so." And I curl my fingers around his shoulders and lean forward.
This time he meets me half-way, and we almost fall into our kiss. There's no water, which is good, and no drowning, which is better. His hands come around my waist, and he pulls us together and holy *shit*, Fraser's hard and hot against me.
Fraser's got great lips, and he kisses like it's the only thing he wants to do for a while. I'm down with that, because I like kissing. I'm good at kissing, at least Stella always said so. From the noises he's making, Fraser seems to agree. And Fraser's no slouch, either. He's got an incredible tongue, and he knows how to use it.
I finally pull back, because dammit, I'm going to pass out if I don't breathe. Fraser gasps into my ear, and I kiss the smooth skin on the side of his neck.
"You smell good."
He groans as I lick under his jaw. "I should hope so, Ray. You chose the scents that were combined into the... Oh. Oooh."
I grin as I nibble on his earlobe. That sounds promising.
"And you look good." I run my hands down his chest and tuck my fingers in the cummerbund. "But I don't think Huey would appreciate it if his tux gets..." I lower my voice and pull him close. "...dirty."
Fraser makes a noise in the back of his throat. "I'm certain he wouldn't." And now *his* voice is low and rough.
"Then let's do something about it." I untuck my fingers and slide the jacket off his shoulders. Toss it onto the sofa. He reaches for the bow tie, but I knock his hands away. "Nuh uh. It's my turn to do something for you."
He gets it. Clasps his hands behind his back and just fucking *looks* at me as I pull the tie off and go to work on his shirtfront. His skin's smooth and warm and I can't help kissing the bits of his chest I see as I open his shirt. His stomach shakes when I make it down to the cummerbund.
"Cuffs." Get them undone, and then the shirt follows the jacket.
"Ray, I..." He reaches for me, but I grab his hands and push them down to his sides.
"Later. Right now, bed."
I get him into the bedroom and over to the fucking enormous bed. Shoes, socks, cummerbund, trousers, boxers, all end up on the floor, and Fraser's standing in front of me, buck naked, flushed and breathing hard. His cock stands at attention, and I want it, want him. I rub against him, and it feels weird to be dressed while he's not, but I like the feel of Fraser's skin under my hands, and the sound of Fraser getting turned on makes my cock strain against my chinos. Push him back onto the bed and he goes, no argument, which tells me how much he wants this.
I don't have a lot of experience with men, and I don't think Fraser does, either, but I know what I like. Lean across his thighs and curl my fingers around his cock, all friendly, and his hips buck up. Good thing I'm holding him down. He strokes my arm, my hair, and it feels good.
Move my hand down to the base of his cock and lean over, sliding the top of it into my mouth. The taste is okay, but it's Fraser's reactions that I'm going for. He yelps and his hips buck again. Lucky for me he grabs the bedspread and not my hair or ears. I settle in for some serious licking and sucking. Fraser tries to be a good little soldier and keep the noises down, but I can tell when he likes something I do, so I do it again. And again.
I change hands on his cock and use my free hand to cup his balls, give them a little squeeze now and then. He likes that, too, and tries to spread his legs.
I'm not sure if he's really trying to tell me what he wants, or if he's just moving ‘cause he needs to move, but I slide my finger down behind his balls and rub.
"Please, Ray! Oh, God, please!"
That's a go, Houston.
Down a little farther, and I skid like I'm on ice.
Well, fuck. Fraser's already got himself greased up.
My cock throbs, and I almost come in my chinos at the picture of Fraser, fingers all wet with lube, reaching behind him and...
I rub along his crease as I suck, and he moans and squirms and all of a sudden, his hands are on my ears and he's pulling *hard*.
I let his cock slip out of my mouth and my eyes are watering. "What the-"
"Ray, please," he pants. "I want you to..." His butt clenches, squeezing my fingers, and I almost come in my pants again.
"Okay. Hang on."
I scramble to my knees as he lifts his legs and spreads them, holding himself wide open for me.
Fuckfuckfuck, I can't get the goddamn zipper down and I've got to hurry because I'm about ready to burst something here. Finally get the fucking zipper open and shove my trousers and pants down.
"Rubber and lube?"
I'm shaking by the time I get gloved and greased, but I grab a pillow and get it under Fraser's ass. Oh, God, I'm going to fuck Fraser.
"You ever done this before?" Gotta know what he can take, how fast I can go. I can feel my pulse pounding, making my cock twitch, and hope I don't stroke out before Fraser comes.
Okay, I'm surprised. But... "Recently?"
He pauses. "No." His face goes red. "But I've used... To loosen the muscle..."
Jesus. I'm more than surprised, I'm shocked. And so damn turned on that I can't wait, not a second longer. I press against him, not too hard, but he wiggles his hips and I slip inside and slide until I'm resting right up against his ass.
Fraser moans and closes his eyes. His cock's softened a little, but I pull out and then push back, and he gets hard. I do it again and he hitches his legs back more, so that this time I go deeper. I lean forward and shift my hips and push and he yells and his cock jerks and this is so damn good that I could die happy right here, right now. I balance on my knees and grab his cock and stroke him once, twice, and then he's coming all over my hand and his stomach and he squeezes my cock and then I'm coming, hard, all the air in my lungs gone, the small of my back aching, my butt clenched.
I wipe the sweat from my face, my hands shaking, and take a deep breath. Fraser's shiny with sweat, his stomach and chest messy from coming, his lips red and swollen where he's bitten them, and his eyes... They're like a mirror, because I know he can see the same thing in mine.
Time to dump the rubber and use the corner of the sheet to wipe Fraser's belly, then I fall onto the bed beside him. His arms come around me, and I pull him close.
We drift for a while, but curiosity gets the better of me. "So, what else did you have planned?"
Fraser smiles and kisses my cheek. "Finishing a bottle of champagne and a dozen chocolate-dipped strawberries. And dancing."
"Good plan." I run my hand down his back and pat his ass. "Mind if I make a suggestion?"
"Of course, Ray."
"Eat, drink, and by then, you should be recovered enough to fuck *me*."
He pushes me onto my back and kisses me long and hard. We're both well on our way to hardness when he pulls away. "Better plan."
"And then tomorrow?"
Fraser goes still, wary. "Yes?"
"You and Dief'll move in with me."
He swallows and blinks, looks away for a minute.
I can't breathe - did I go too far? Maybe we should take it slower, not jump in with both feet.
Then Fraser looks back at me and his eyes are shiny and he sniffs once. "That's the best plan yet, Ray."