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Being Ray Kowalski

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When the phone rang, way too early in the morning, Rae Kowalski buried her head under the pillow and tried to go back to sleep. Ben would get it; he was probably up already. If it was important, he'd come and wake her.

The phone rang again. And again. Fuck, thought Rae blearily as she fumbled for the receiver on the bedside table without opening her eyes. Had she slept so long that Ben had already left for the Consulate? She'd had strange and unsettling dreams, dreams of running through Chicago and not getting anywhere, and she didn't feel rested at all. She felt numb and a little dizzy, like she'd had too much to drink last night (had she been drinking? Oddly, she couldn't remember) and needed a whole lot more sleep than she had managed to get.

Her hand found its target, and she pulled the phone to her face, stretching the cord to its full extent. "Yeah, this is Rae," she said, and whoa, her voice sounded weird. Maybe she was coming down with the flu. Her whole body felt leaden. Just moving her arm enough to get the phone was like picking up a fifteen-pound dumbbell.

"Good morning, Detective," said Welsh's voice in her ear. He sounded more alert and cheery than anyone had a right to be at this hour. Whatever this hour was. "Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep, but we got a vandalism report down at Grant Park. Guy who called it in said it looked like a ritual, or something. Why don't you pick up Fraser on the way—as I recall, he's good with that hocus-pocus stuff."

While Welsh spoke, she opened her eyes—and nearly dropped the phone. What the hell was she doing in her old apartment? She'd moved out over a year ago, when she and Ben got the house together. Christ, had she gotten so drunk that she'd gone to the wrong place? Wait a minute—in that case, how had she managed to get in?

She squeezed her eyes shut again, trying to fight through the fog in her brain. Had she even been drinking last night? Or was it whatever she was coming down with that made her feel so hung over, that made her chest ache and her stomach….

Holy shit.

Involuntarily she shivered, despite the warm weight of the covers. Something was seriously wrong here.

"Vecchio, you there?"


She swallowed hard, opened her eyes again. "This is Rae Kowalski." Not that anyone could tell, listening to her, she thought. And she could feel something between her legs, something resting against her thigh that wasn't supposed to be there…something very, very, very wrong.

"I know who you are," said Welsh. His sigh was clearly audible even over the phone. "Now get moving."

She was only too happy to hang up the phone, because there was no way she could concentrate on talking to her boss. Not with all the alarm bells in her brain going off like this. Part of her wanted to push back the covers and find out what the hell was going on; part of her wanted to pull them back over her head and go back to sleep, and maybe when she woke up again everything would be normal.

She compromised by looking around, turning her head in a slow sweep. From the way the sun slanted weakly into the room, she could tell it was later than she had thought. Maybe Ben had already left for work. But he didn't seem to have been here; there was no dent in the mattress next to her, no smell of him on the pillow. She had been the only one sleeping in the bed. He had probably spent the night at home. Which still didn't explain what she was doing there in her old apartment.

Which, she realized as she scanned the room, still had her stuff in it. The old bureau she'd picked up at a yard sale, the dumbbells in the corner that she never used because she preferred going to the gym. And Welsh had called her here.

Something freaky was going on. And it started with whatever had happened to her body, and she totally did not want to think about this, but it was time, she was going to have to face it, so she took a deep breath, threw back the covers, and swung her legs to the floor.

Whoa. Maybe she was still drunk, if in fact she'd been drinking, because her body felt all uncoordinated, like she was going to stumble and fall at any moment. Instinctively she glanced at her feet, and as she did so her glance took in her whole body.

Which wasn't her body.

Okay, she'd figured that out a while ago. Or at least, it had been uncomfortably clear that something was pressing in her groin area that was not supposed to be there, and her chest felt weird and—okay, stop it, Kowalski, stop it, chill out, she told herself as she took a deep breath that ended in a nervous shudder. It was the booze, or the flu, or whatever was making her head spin and her skin numb. But she'd been trying not to think about it, because as long as she pretended everything was normal she could put off the freak-out that she felt lurking right at the base of her throat, all tight and scared and confused.

So much for that idea, she thought, as that ball of tightness started spilling out. Her teeth started to chatter and her hands shook, and she grabbed at the nightstand just for something solid to hold onto.

Because this was not her body. Her body did not usually wear boxer shorts to bed. More importantly, what she'd been feeling at her crotch, pressed against the fabric with the need to pee, was not something she associated with her body at all. And now that she could see the bulge that should not have been there, damn it, she couldn't keep pretending.

She had a dick.

Apprehensively she pulled the waistband away from her waist. Holy fuck. That was a penis, all right. And she was looking down across a flat chest, which, okay, she didn't have big breasts to begin with, she called them A+ because they were just a little small for a B-cup, but she was not as flat-chested as the flat chest that was there, just above her stomach and her boxer shorts and her dick…

She raced for the bathroom and retched into the toilet, dry heaves, nothing coming up, but she felt weird, she felt sick, she was in a body that was not her own body, and that was even freakier than being in her old apartment. She was in someone else's body, and that someone else was a man.

Suddenly a horrible thought struck her. Welsh had called her "Vecchio." She couldn't possibly have turned into him somehow, could she? Taking a deep breath, she took three shaky steps to the mirror.

It wasn't Ray Vecchio who stared back at her, thank God, but it wasn't Rae Kowalski, either. It was…it was kind of like her, but it was definitely a guy. Her hair looked almost the same, a little shorter in the back and on the sides. She ran an appraising hand through it. A little mousse and it would look almost like hers. Her eyes were the right color, but they were shaped just a little different, under eyebrows that had never been plucked. Her lips were thinner and her chin a little more prominent. Thoughtfully she rubbed the back of her hand across the stubbled (stubbled!) line of her jaw, and the chain on her wrist slid down her arm, a cool line of metal.

Which didn't make any sense at all. It wasn't her face, it wasn't her hand—too big, too broad—but that was the same chain she always wore around her wrist, the cheap fake-silver chain she'd been wearing for years. If this was somebody else's body, how come it was wearing her bracelet? And then her eye caught sight of a flash of red and black on her right shoulder, and she turned so she could see it in the mirror.

Holy shit. That was her tattoo. The Champion logo, because the Lakeview Lions had kicked ass and won the statewide trophy, not despite having a woman on the team but because of it, because she was the best goddamn left halfback in the league. Except she'd had it done on her back, just above the right shoulder blade, and here it was on her arm.

She lowered her lashes halfway and let her eyes go out of focus, and the reflection in the mirror looked sort of like her. But then she opened her eyes again, and whammo, there he was, not-Rae. So maybe she'd turned into a guy somehow. But if she'd turned into a guy, how come her tattoo was in the wrong place, and how come she was in her old apartment, and what was with Welsh calling her Vecchio, and where the fuck was Ben?

Terror gripped her, and she ran back out into the bedroom, her legs feeling like they might tangle up with every too-long step. "Ben!" she rasped. "Ben, are you here?" No answer. She opened the door to the living room, and was hit with a fresh wave of disorientation. It was her apartment, like it was when she'd lived here…only not quite. The couch was in the wrong place. The bike hanging on the wall was the wrong color. And was that a terrarium with a turtle in it?

It was like her face—if she squinted and overlooked certain details, it kind of looked right. But it was wrong. And the wrongest thing was that there was no Ben in it. "Fraser, get your ass in here!" she tried, but her voice didn't sound familiar and it didn't sound convincing, and the last word hung weakly in the air. It wasn't a very big apartment. If she didn't see him, he wasn't here.

Okay, think, she told herself. Deep breaths. Focus. She could do this.

Welsh had told her to get down to Grant Park. She'd better take a shower, get dressed—hopefully there would be some clothes in the closet that would fit this body. Stop by the house and get Ben, and hope he didn't freak out when he saw what had happened to her.

She went back into the bathroom, pulled off the boxers, then stared critically at her dick. If she was going to have one, at least it looked like a decent one: not embarrassingly small, not inconveniently large. Guess I'd better figure out how this thing works, she thought, and lifted the toilet seat. Fortunately it was like what's-his-name's dog; the body knew what to do, even if it felt strange to her, and she flushed the toilet with a completely ridiculous sense of accomplishment.

Shower next. That was easy enough, but she still couldn't shake the weird feeling of not quite fitting in her body. Everything was just a little off: her legs were too long, her hands moved oddly, and what they moved over was totally unfamiliar. Bigger biceps. A flat, muscular chest. And she almost dropped the soap at the unexpected sensation of her slippery hands on her own cock and balls.

Jesus. She had a cock.

She cupped her hand experimentally around her balls. Huh. Then someone else in the building must have turned on a shower, because the water cooled just that much, and that brought her mind back to things with a jolt. Got to get going, got to find Ben. Got to figure out what's going on. Got to get to work.

When she slid the soap down her legs it was almost as if she felt every single hair. Need to shave, she thought absently, and then snorted out loud. Yeah, she needed to shave her face. That would be an adventure.

Looking in the mirror as she toweled off, she decided it didn't look too bad. Lots of the detectives at the 27th got away with stubble. Besides, it would take too much time. At least makeup was out of the question. Reflexively she opened the bathroom cabinet and hey, there was her hair stuff. Right brand and everything. She squirted some on her fingers and ran them through her hair to spike it, then went back into the bedroom to look for clothes.

The clothes in the bureau and the closet were guy clothes, buttons up the wrong sides and boxer briefs instead of her hi-rise bikinis, but they fit, anyway. Stuffing the new equipment inside clothes felt strange, too; how did guys deal with it every day, the cloth against their skin, the bulges against their legs? The shoes in the closet were guy shoes, looking absurdly huge, but they fit the absurdly big feet at the end of her legs. Her shoulder holster was hanging on its usual peg, and her gun was in the right drawer, next to her badge case. The eyeglasses on the nightstand were these big clunky things, totally different from her own glasses—but when she tried them on, they were the right prescription. Weird. She slipped them into her pocket and stepped back out into the living room.

There was a half-open box on the kitchen counter with three donuts in it, and she grabbed one as she headed out the door. Not too stale, she decided as she took a quick bite of it; too bad there was no time to make coffee. Hopefully the Goat would be parked where she usually left it—at least the keys on the counter looked right. She'd go to the house, try to explain things to Ben, and maybe they could figure out what was going on while they headed to the crime scene.

The gray-haired woman frowned. "Did you say Ben Fraser? I'm sorry, there's nobody here by that name. Just me and my daughter Louise—she's still asleep," she added pointedly. As if her bathrobe didn't already send the message that Rae had no business knocking on her door that early.

"That's all right. Must have gotten the wrong address," Rae told her, and she nodded and closed the door.

Except it wasn't the wrong address, thought Rae as she slowly walked back to the car and got in. She and Ben had been living there for more than a year. When his apartment building had been burned down, she'd invited him to move in with her—they'd been seeing each other for a couple of months, and okay, that was moving kind of fast, but they were both in their thirties, and they'd each been through enough relationships to know what they wanted. But her apartment was too small for the two of them, and anyway Dief really needed a yard to run around in.

They'd started looking for a house almost immediately, although it had taken nearly two months to find the perfect place: bigger than the apartment but not too big, a reasonable commute, rent they could pay on a what a couple of cops made. It was great having all that room, especially now that they were married and talking about maybe having kids…


She looked at her left hand, on the steering wheel. No ring. Of course no ring, she was a man, a man wouldn't be married to Fraser, but still, it was kind of weird to look at her hand (which still looked totally wrong, too big, too lumpy) and not see a ring. Not that she'd even gotten used to wearing the ring, yet. But it was just another item on the list of things that were not the way they were supposed to be.

As she maneuvered through traffic she rehearsed what she would say when she got to the Consulate. "I know I don't look like myself, but I'm actually Rae, you know, your wife…" No, she decided, that would freak him out. "Hi, I know you don't know me, but can we talk for a minute?" Yeah, that might do it. Get him alone, get him quiet, explain things.

A parking spot almost in front of the building opened up just as she arrived; she pulled in, turned off the ignition and took a deep breath. Okay. Get out of the car, Rae, you can do it without tripping over these stupid big feet. Walk down the sidewalk, turn, up the stairs. Open the door.

Oh, Christ, Constable Turnbull was at the reception desk. On the other hand, thought Rae, this might not be a bad thing. Nothing seemed to faze Turnbull—or maybe it was just that nothing managed to penetrate his thick skull. She swallowed and began to speak. "Hi, I know you don't—"

"Ah, Detective Vecchio! You must be here to pick up Constable Fraser. I'll just ring him for you, shall I?"

"Uh, yeah. Okay," said Rae, stunned. Turnbull had recognized her—the body she was in, anyway—and called her Vecchio? And so had Lieutenant Welsh, on the phone. A sudden thought struck her, and she pulled out her badge case and flipped it open.

The face in the picture on her identification card was the same face that had looked back at her out of the mirror this morning. And the name on the card was Ray Vecchio.

She shook her head, trying to clear it. This made no sense at all. The man she'd turned into didn't look at all like Ray Vecchio. She knew him—she'd worked in the same station with him for the better part of a year, after she'd transferred in to work with Jack Huey after his partner had been killed, until Vecchio got tapped for some undercover work. That was how she had met Benton Fraser, who had first come to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father, blah blah blah, as he'd go on to anyone who didn't shut him up in time.

And as though thinking of him had conjured him up, there he was, striding down the hallway with Diefenbaker at his heels. She closed her badge case and put it away.

"Hello, Rae," he said, walking up to her, and she felt a leaping in her chest, a quick burst of happiness, because he knew her. He had recognized her despite her changed appearance—no, she suddenly realized, and her elation evaporated. Turnbull had called her Vecchio. So he had probably said "Ray," not "Rae." He thought she was Ray Vecchio, like everybody else. Hell, Dief probably thought she was Ray Vecchio.

But still. This was Fraser, after all. So as they left the Consulate and started down the sidewalk, she said, "Okay, I want to ask you a dumb question. You know who I am?"

He seemed to take it in stride. "Yes, of course. You're Ray."

"Ray Vecchio," she said flatly. She opened the passenger door for him and Dief, and then went around the car to get in on the driver's side. As she put the key in the ignition, Fraser spoke again.

"Well, that is your alias at the moment, yes."

Her hand froze. "Alias?"

"Ray, are you quite all right? Has someone perhaps kicked you in the head?"

"Yeah. I mean, no. I'm just a little, you know, disorientated this morning."

"Ah. Of course, "disoriented" is the more common usage in—"

"Whatever. It's early in the morning and I haven't had any coffee yet. So pretend like I don't know what's going on. Why do I have an alias?"

"To protect the real Ray Vecchio, of course, while he's undercover. He went to Las Vegas, you came to the 27th District, and in order to preserve the illusion that Ray Vecchio is still here in Chicago, you assumed his identity and his unofficial partner. That is, me."

Rae blinked. Of all the weird reasons people might be calling her Ray Vecchio, that one had never entered her mind. And with good reason, because that story stank like a load of cockamamie bullshit. Vecchio went undercover, yeah, Rae knew about that, although Welsh had never said nothing about Vegas. But the whole idea of someone having to go undercover as Vecchio was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard. Especially the guy she'd turned into. He wouldn't fool a blind man—well, maybe a blind man, but that would be about it.

"So, okay," she said slowly. "If I'm just pretending to be Vecchio, who am I really?"

He frowned. "I'm not sure what you're getting at. I haven't forgotten your real name, if that's what you're asking."

"Yeah. I'm asking."

"Your name is Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Although you go by Ray." He shook his head. "Are you quite certain you haven't received a head injury?"

Rae stared at him for a moment. Stanley? "And I'm a man. I mean, I'm not a woman."

Fraser looked at her as though she was nuts, which she guessed it probably sounded like she was. Then he nodded slowly. "I think the stubble on your chin, the result of your neglecting to shave this morning, amply demonstrates that indeed you are a man."

She started laughing. Only Fraser would say something like that, so totally deadpan earnest. God. She started the car and pulled out into traffic, heading for Grant Park. "What would you say if I told you that I was a woman? That my name is actually Stephanie Rachael Kowalski? Although I go by Rae."

Dief barked, and Fraser turned around in his seat. "Don't be rude, Diefenbaker. Even though…well…yes, that's true." He turned back to Rae. "I suppose I'd say that you probably have a hole in your bag of marbles."

"Yeah," said Rae. "I kind of thought you'd say that."

Shit. She stared out through the windshield and drove more by instinct than anything else, her thoughts wildly circling around the crazy and contradictory things she'd just been told. Fraser didn't know her. Or rather, he knew her as a man who had almost her name and almost her face, a man who worked for the 27th with a badge that said Vecchio. Which meant he didn't know her.

Somehow she'd ended up in a freaky world in which she was a guy. What the hell was she going to do?

The guys from Forensics were there already, taking pictures and samples while the uniforms strung crime-scene tape across grass which was still wet with dew. An older black man in a city uniform paced nervously, watching them, and Rae figured he was the one who called it in. "Chicago P.D.," she called, striding toward him, holding out the badge that wasn't hers, with the photo that wasn't hers, with the name that definitely wasn't hers. "You the gardener?"

"Groundskeeper," said the man, in a voice that sounded too cultured to belong to someone in a city uniform holding a rake. "George Carver."

"Okay, Mr. Carver. Tell me what happened."

"I came in to work this morning—it's time to get the mulch down for the winter, you know—and the first thing I noticed was the smell." He looked at Rae expectantly, so she inhaled, trying to detect what Fraser had scented.

"Smells like a park. Grass and stuff."

"Smoke," said Fraser. He was walking toward the tape, smelling the air as he went. He looked almost as though he was following a trail. "Burnt…wax, I believe. Ah, candles." He sniffed the air again. "And blood, of course."

"Exactly," said Carver, looking approvingly at Fraser. "I came over here as fast as I could, and I saw this." He gestured toward the taped-off area.

Rae frowned. With the forensics guys walking around, measuring and photographing and sampling, it was hard to tell exactly what it was that Carver had seen. But blood, that couldn't be good. There was a big splotch of it, the size of a small child, perhaps, which was a creepy thought. "Did you see any people? Any bodies? Anyone leaving the area in a hurry?"

"I thought I saw a white girl running off, but she was too far away for me to see her face. No dead people. Just the blood, and the candles and other things on the rock slab next to it, there."

"To its east, actually," said Fraser, his eyes following Carver's gesture. "Some cultures attach special significance to the east because it's where the sun rises. And the way the things are laid out on the rock makes me think that it's intended to be a sort of altar." He ducked under the tape and headed for the rock, Dief at his heels.

"Whoa, Fraser," said Rae, following as quickly as she could. "That stuff is evidence. Better not mess with the chain of custody."

Fraser squatted down next to the rock, craning his neck for a closer view but not actually reaching out for the things on it. Which Rae was relieved to see, although the woman nearest to them, who was taking pictures, frowned at him. "It's okay, he's with me," said Rae.

The woman rolled her eyes. "He's always with you, Vecchio. Just don't let him touch anything. The dog, either."

"He knows what he's doing," Rae muttered. Apparently the woman knew this Stanley Ray Kowalski guy, and probably knew the whole Vecchio story Fraser had told her; shit, was Rae supposed to know her? What if there were different people at the 27th in this world, people that Ray Kowalski knew but that weren't there in the 27th she was used to? It was going to be a minefield.

At least it was easier to think of Ben as Fraser and not Ben while they were in working mode; that was natural, that was the way they always did it, so she didn't have to worry as much about screwing up. It had been weird in the car, because she had wanted to blurt out everything, had wanted to lean her head on his shoulder and just be held. But the look on his face when she'd said "Stephanie Rachael Kowalski" had said it all. He wasn't her Ben. He was someone else's Fraser, and she had to pretend to be that someone else, at least until she could get back to where she belonged.

For a moment she watched him silently. The way his nostrils flared when he sniffed at things, the way his hand shaped the air around the stuff he wasn't supposed to but obviously wanted to touch. Kind of like the way she was feeling right now about him. She took a deep breath, tamped her feelings into place. Concentrate on the case, Rae.

She squatted beside him; Dief nosed in beside her, and reflexively she buried her fingers in his fur. "Okay, what have you got?"

"The candles, first of all. Note that the black one appears to be in the shape of a female, and the white one is in the shape of a male."

"They're in the shape of lumps of wax, Fraser."

"Well, yes. But if you look here, at their bases, you can distinguish the shapes of feet and legs." He pointed at the bottoms of the candles, which were surrounded by puddles of wax that had melted and re-solidified on the rock. "The angle of the legs on this black candle suggests a figure with wider hips compared to the white candle. In other words, it's likely that this one represents a female and the other one represents a male."

Rae squinted at them; kind of hard to tell, considering they were burned halfway down. But she could make out feet and legs and yeah, the black one had hips and the white one didn't. "Okay, one's a guy and one's a girl. So what does that mean?"

"Well, in the Vodun religion, white candles are generally used for protective and spiritual cleansing rituals, while black candles are used for banishing spells and revenge spells, as well as for reversing other spells."

"Oh, no. Please don't tell me this is more of that Voodoo stuff," said Rae. They'd just finished that crazy case, beginning with getting her car stolen and ending with the grass growing all over the station. If she never went back to the Voodoo community it would be too soon.

"Vodun, Ray," said Fraser reprovingly. "I don't know. The other items seem to incorporate different traditions. The flowers, for example, which would be an appropriate offering for a Hindu god. I'm not sure what the ring is intended to symbolize. And then there's—hmm."

"Hmm, what? What hmm?"

"Hmm." Fraser peered closely at…it was a feather, the lower part light with a pattern of dark splotches, the tip dark. "Do you remember the dreamcatcher I gave you?"

Rae couldn't help but smile. "Yeah, of course."

"Where is it?"

"Hanging over our bed." Ben looked at her sharply, his brows drawn in confusion, and suddenly it hit her, what she'd said. "I mean, my bed. My bed, yeah," she said, even though she didn't remember seeing it there when she'd gotten up. Of course, she'd had other things on her mind. "Why?"

"I believe this is an eagle feather. The possession of eagle feathers, as you may recall, is very tightly controlled. I'm just surprised to see another one in Chicago."

"There are almost three million people in Chicago. So one of them has an eagle feather, okay?"

"I'm sure you're right, Ray. But we can find out for certain easily enough. You see, feathers, like all biological material, are made up of molecules containing carbon, and the ratio of isotopes in any given feather can be used to identify the bird that that particular feather came from."

Rae frowned. "You're losing me, Fraser."

"Just think of it as a sort of fingerprint."

"Okay, fingerprints. So you can identify the bird. What good does that do—wait a minute. You think this came from my dreamcatcher? You think I did this?"

Fraser looked shocked. "Of course not. But it may provide a clue."