by Lea Barrett
Disclaimer: Alliance owns everyone that you recognize. The new faces are mine.
Author's Notes: Special thanks to Sasha for excellent beta. She was invaluable during this process. And to my sister, Sandy who saved me from some horrifying mistakes and allowed me to read this to her, twice.
Story Notes: Sequel to Duty and Choices. It's not imperative that you read that first but there are references to it. Kudos to anyone that spots the George Carlin joke.
Stuart Rutledge checked his calendar one more time before he lifted the phone receiver. He hated to make this call but he couldn't think of anything else to do. The phone rang a few times before a gruff sounding voice answered.
"Detective Vecchio, this is Stuart Rutledge, Ms. Vecchio's secretary."
They had met once in Stella's office. The detective had complimented him about his taste in suits and then Stuart overheard him make a disparaging remark to Stella about his acne scars.
"Yeah, Stu, I remember, what can I do for ya?" He asked.
"Have you seen Ms. Vecchio today? Has she been at the station?"
"Stella? No, I haven't seen her. Hang on a second." Stuart heard him place his hand over the receiver. A muffled exchange of voices followed before he came back on the line. "Nope, the other ex hasn't seen her either. What's going on, Stu?"
"I'm sure it's nothing but she didn't come to the office today. I can't find any reason why that would be the case."
"You call her at home?"
"Call her cell?"
"Yes, sir." Stuart answered, wanting to remind the detective that he wasn't stupid.
"Try her pager?"
"She stopped carrying a pager. She felt the cell phone was more than enough."
"Really? She didn't tell me. I'll have to cross that number out of my rolodex."
Getting nowhere with this conversation, Stuart said, "Well, I suppose I should..."
"Hang on a minute, Stu. There's nothing in her calendar and she's not answering her phone?"
"That's right, Detective Vecchio. It's unlike her."
"Yeah, it is. We'll head over to her place and take a look around. If you hear from her, have her page me."
Ray Vecchio hung up. His partner sat across from him with wide blue eyes, waiting for an explanation.
"What?" Kowalski asked.
"Stella didn't show up for work today. She's probably home sick but I thought we'd go take a look."
Ray Kowalski stood up. Vecchio took an extra moment to close their current file and place it on a stack at the corner of his desk before he stood up to face an impatient glare.
"It's probably nothing," Vecchio said as he stood.
"It's not nothing. It's Stella."
"That's not what I meant." Vecchio scowled.
Vecchio learned early that his partnership with Kowalski was going to be one long argument. The two managed to attain a grudging respect for each other but they were different species. Where Vecchio liked order, Stanley liked chaos. Where Vecchio formed hunches based on information, Stanley formed hunches based, apparently, on wind direction. Vecchio liked nice clothes and good food. Stanley prided himself on a grunge look that was outdated and lived on candy, pizza and coffee. And of course where Vecchio liked to call him Stanley, Stanley liked to be called Ray. Vecchio considered this his one torment that Kowalski could not top.
Two months earlier, Kowalski transferred from his previous station back to the 27th. In a fit of twisted humor, Lieutenant Welsh paired them as partners. Together with Constable Benton Fraser, they had the best solve rate in the station and probably in Chicago. But it came at a price, namely that Vecchio was bordering on an ulcer.
The early argument over who would drive in their partnership was solved easily enough. They took turns. Every other week they switched vehicles and drivers. Stanley drove a black GTO and it was his week. He climbed in the driver's side, Vecchio climbed in as passenger and they were on their way.
Kowalski hummed when he drove. At first, Vecchio wanted to strangle him over it. The humming, the tapping on the steering wheel, the constant moving was enough to drive him crazy. The man never held still. But he soon learned that humming was preferable to the radio at ear crunching volume. And a still Stanley was a dangerous one. The more still he became, the more volatile he would become later. Vecchio had enough experience with past partners that he knew how to adjust and for the sake of peace and sanity, he tried not to argue about every annoying thing his partner did.
They pulled up in front of Stella's building. Ray felt a sick feeling in his stomach when he saw the two squad cars already parked there. He looked at Kowalski and could see they were sharing the fear. They had both been married to Stella. Kowalski for most of his adult life and Vecchio for about three months. Kowalski loved her; then, still, probably always. Vecchio liked her. He supposed he loved her at some point but their marriage was a hurried, passion filled mistake that became clear to both of them almost instantly. After the divorce was final, Ray moved back to Chicago while she decided to test the shark infested waters of the Florida legal scene for awhile.
Apparently unhappy in Florida, Stella had returned to Chicago about a month earlier and finagled her job back. Vecchio had taken her to dinner once since she returned and was happy to find they were friends.
The two detectives flashed badges at a patrolman standing near the door.
"What happened?" Kowalski asked, his voice betraying his fear.
"Assistant State's Attorney Vecchio is missing. Are you the detectives we're waiting for?"
"No. She's my wife," Kowalski answered.
Vecchio didn't bother to correct him. Some guys never seemed to let go and Kowalski was one of them. Stanley skirted past the patrolman to go into the elevator. Ray followed him in and stood to one side, trying to lessen the impact of the tension emanating off his partner. Stanley pounded lightly on the lift door as they went up.
"Come on, come on," he insisted.
Vecchio watched him, feeling his distress, wishing he could say something to calm him down. Kowalski slipped through the half open door as soon as the elevator stopped with Vecchio following.
Both badges out again, they got to the apartment where three other patrolmen were waiting outside the closed door. Another man dressed in business attire stood firmly planted in front of them.
"What's going on?" Kowalski asked.
"This is Mr. Schuster," one of the officers answered. "He's the manager. He won't let us in without a warrant or Mrs. Vecchio's permission."
Vecchio read the officer's badge identifying him as Miller.
"I'm her husband, open the door," Kowalski demanded.
Schuster took a look at the jean clad, t-shirted detective and frowned. Another glance at the displayed ID in his hand confirmed the manager's suspicion.
"No, you're not. Mrs. Vecchio is divorced and your name is not Vecchio."
"Mine is," Ray interrupted, tired of the delay. "Open the door."
"She is still divor..."
"Just open the damn door," Vecchio demanded.
Schuster frowned. Standing in the direct path of two determined and hostile detectives as well as three uniformed police officers finally wilted his over-developed sense of propriety.
Vecchio followed his partner into the bedroom. They made a quick search for her with Vecchio praying they wouldn't find a body. He started looking through her closet to see if anything obvious was missing that might suggest a trip while Stanley went back to the living room.
He wondered if this place screamed "Stella" at Kowalski, the way it screamed at him. Plush carpeting, soft furniture, all in muted earth tones and set off with expensive accents and plain green plants. Vecchio could smell her perfume. He imagined her coming home to this place, opening her briefcase and scattering files over the coffee table. She always liked changing into shorts, settling on the floor and working. And he liked watching her, until he stopped liking it and started resenting it. He shook off that thought, jumping when the phone rang.
The cradle for the cordless phone beside her bed was empty so Vecchio went into the livingroom.
Stanley was holding the phone wrapped in a Kleenex and he shrugged at Vecchio as he said hello into the receiver.
"Stella, are you all right?" He asked, obviously relieved to hear her.
Vecchio sighed, relieved as well until his partner waved frantically at him. He darted across the room and Stanley tilted the receiver so they could listen together.
"Ray, I'm...I'm sorry." She was crying. Stella never cried and Vecchio stiffened with the sound.
"Where are ya, Stell?" Kowalski asked. A short scream followed and he yelled her name.
"It's all right," came a man's monotone reply.
"Where is she?" Kowalski demanded.
Vecchio fought his own inner battle to keep from just ripping the phone out of his partner's hand.
"She's dead, Ray. Just for you." A single gunshot exploded across the receiver.
"No! No! No," Kowalski begged. "Don't you touch her. Jesus, Stella. Don't you do it. Stella, Stella, Jesus, Stella, please put her back on, please, please, please."
Vecchio backed away, too stunned to speak.
Lieutenant Welsh arrived to find his two detectives reacting like the polar opposites that they were. The blond, with his spiked hair and ragged jeans was pacing like a caged animal. The green-eyed Italian sat on the couch with closed fists.
He passed two uniformed officers on his way in. Two others were standing outside Stella Vecchio's door.
"Kowalski, come over here and sit down," Welsh said, standing in front of the couch.
"I...I can't, Sir."
"Then at least stand still for a second and tell me what's going on."
"It's Stella, Sir," Vecchio answered, his voice soft and trembling. "She's dead."
"We don't know that," Kowalski lashed out, spittle flying from his lips. Vecchio held up his hands calmly.
"Okay, okay, we don't know anything for sure."
"She's missing," Welsh said.
"Her secretary called me. Said he couldn't find her. We came here to check on things but by then the uniforms were already here."
"Who called them?"
Officer Miller, the senior officer of the four original respondents stepped up to answer. He had been checking badges and ID's at the door. By this time, the room was starting to hum with participants in the investigation.
"The apartment manager, Lieutenant, Mr. Arnold Schuster, called 911 because he found her purse laying near the elevator. It was emptied and the contents were scattered around. When she didn't answer her door, he said he had a bad feeling about it so he called us."
"Did you find anything?" Welsh asked.
"Just that Mr. Schuster decided the purse laying there might upset the other tenants, so he put her stuff back inside. He handed it to me when we arrived. Then he refused to let us in the apartment."
"Great, that's fucking brilliant," Vecchio said and Welsh had to agree. Schuster handled the only possible evidence they had so far. He turned his attention back to his detectives.
"What about the phone call?"
"I took it," Kowalski answered, his voice fighting him. "It rang and she was...he said she was dead and there was a gun...a gun...fuck...I gotta get outta here."
Kowalski skirted around Welsh and out the door.
Vecchio stood up. He walked over to the lieutenant, his hands hanging limp at his sides.
"He said she was dead and it was just for Kowalski," he said, closing his eyes for a moment.
"Oh, God," Welsh muttered, rubbing his forehead.
"Yeah. The shot was the last thing we heard before he hung up."
"You were listening?"
"We shared the receiver once Kowalski realized there was something wrong."
"All right, look, there's a lot of people here now. Huey and Dewey will be here as soon as they finish with a statement on the O'Brien case. I want you to find Kowalski and try to keep him calm for a while. Call the Mountie if you think that'll help."
He missed Ray's frown at first but when the man started muttering to himself, his attention was piqued.
"Two, Sir. First, Kowalski is never calm. At least I've never seen him that way. And second, Huey and Dewey? Jack's okay but you know how Dewey is with Kowalski."
"They're the best I have available, Vecchio. You two can't work it."
"Look, Ray, I know this is hard. But you were married to her and so was he, so there's no way I'm assigning you two to investigate. Huey does a fair job of keeping his partner in line and if Dewey gets to be a pain in the ass..." Vecchio scowled. "More of a pain in the ass, I'll deal with it. So just do what I told ya. Find Kowalski and look after him for awhile."
Ray fought the urge to remind Welsh that he was married to Stella last before he walked out. She had divorced Kowalski almost five years earlier so, technically, Ray should be the one that everyone was worried about. But he was being petty and he knew it so he left Stella's building trying hard to concentrate on finding her alive.
He found his partner sitting on the front of the GTO with his palms pressed tightly to his forehead rocking slowly in a motion reserved for swaying trees or the insane. Ray leaned with his back to the car, folding his arms in front of him.
"We should go back to the station and get our statements on paper," he said. Kowalski continued to rock silently. "We don't know anything yet. You need to get focused."
"You heard her scream."
"Doesn't mean anything. She was scared. He pulled the phone away or her away from it, she was startled and she screamed. It doesn't mean anything more than that."
"He killed her." Kowalski's voice sounded flat.
"We don't know that. He could've been screwing around with you. Let's just wait and see how it pans out."
"I can't do that. I gotta find her."
"No. You can't start that. You and I are not gonna get this case. We are not gonna be allowed anywhere near it. Just fix yourself around that right now."
Ray scooted off the edge of the car. "That's not good enough."
"Stanley." Vecchio got his attention even if he did feel like stepping away from the killer glare. "We don't have this case. Welsh'll suspend you in a second if he thinks you can't stay away."
"He can fire me. He can't stop me from looking."
"Shit, you're a pain in the ass, you know that?"
"It's Stella," Kowalski pleaded.
Vecchio rubbed the back of his neck trying to ease some of the tension knotting up his muscles.
"I know. I want her back too. But running around blind isn't gonna find her. We have to be smart and we have to stay focused. Let's call Fraser so at least one of us is objective. And let's go to the station and file our reports."
Kowalski started to argue again, stopped and looked at his partner. He handed Vecchio the keys to his car wordlessly. Going around to the passenger side, he slumped down.
Vecchio dug his cell phone from the inside of his blazer while he maneuvered the car into traffic. He punched in a speed dial and was soon connected to the Canadian Consulate. What seemed like a five minute greeting from Constable Turnbull played out while he spoke English, then French for each phrase. Ray tried to interrupt but the man was too involved in his own voice. Finally he droned to a stop.
"This is Detective Vecchio, let me talk to Fraser."
"Is there more than one?" He regretted his sarcasm immediately.
"I would imagine so. Fraser is a reasonably common name. Do you have a first name?"
"Turnbull, let me speak to the Constable Benton Fraser that works in your building before I reach through the phone and strangle you."
"One moment, Detective."
He heard the start of something that might have been "God Save the Queen" before the sound cut off abruptly.
"Hello, Ray," Ben said, cheerfully.
"Benny, we got a problem. Can you get away and come to the station?"
"I would think so. What sort of problem?"
"I'll tell you when ya get there, it's a little complicated. Listen, uh," Ray glanced at his fidgeting partner. "This is serious."
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Not hurt. We gonna play twenty questions here or are you gonna catch a cab?"
"I'm on my way."
Ray sighed as he hung up. Kowalski was twitching next to him like an overloaded circuit.
Ben arrived at the station a few minutes after the two detectives with his wolf beside him. They encountered Kowalski first as he came out of the cafeteria carrying a styrofoam cup of coffee. Ben started to greet him until the other man looked up and gray was the first word that came to mind. Diefenbaker rubbed against Ray's legs.
"What's happened?" Ben asked.
"It's Stella," Ray answered, stepping past him and the wolf and going down the hall towards the bullpen. "She's missing. We're gonna find her. You wanna help?"
Ray turned around frowning, his voice coming fast while he scratched his head with one hand.
"Keep up, Fraser. Missing. She's not where she should be and we gotta find her. No time to waste, buddy, so you gotta be in...all or nothing, right?"
"Slow down, Ray," Ben said as Ray started to walk away.
"No time. Time's what we don't have. Duck boys got some video from her place. Said we need to see it. Vecchio's in Welsh's office. They're coming now and we'll see it and then we'll find her, right?"
Fraser reached out, putting his hand on Ray's shoulder. The other man turned around, yanking back viciously. Dief moved between the two of them protectively.
"Do not do that."
"We can not slow down. You hear me? You wanna help, help. You wanna get in the way, then don't. I mean it, Fraser." Ray's eyes were deadly and Ben had to remind himself not to step back.
"Well, I see he's charming you as well," Vecchio said, coming out of the bullpen. "We're a little on edge here, Benny."
Kowalski was stopped from delivering a no-doubt blistering response when Francesca Vecchio called to him from the detectives' room.
"Take a message," he growled back at her.
"He says it's important." She held out the receiver. He stalked over, yanking the phone out of her hand.
Fraser felt Vecchio stiffen beside him and knew he didn't like seeing his sister treated badly but she seemed unaffected and apparently that was sufficient for the moment.
The sound of snapping fingers drew his attention and Fraser looked up to see Kowalski waving his hand and pointing at the phone.
"Stella, are you all right?" Vecchio ran to pick up another extension. Fraser followed his lead. They both heard the scream, then the gunshot. Kowalski threw the phone away as if it was burning him. "Jesus, did he kill her? Jesus. What's going on?"
Fraser stared at the phone in shock feeling a chill run through his body. He looked at Vecchio as he lowered the phone slowly into the cradle. They both turned to Kowalski who was running shaky hands over his head.
"Frannie," Vecchio yelled for his sister. She was standing to one side, looking as unnerved as the rest. "Call the phone company and put a trace on Kowalski's line, start with the five closest area codes. Any calls that come in for him, you transfer to this phone. I want everything traced."
"Good. Stanley," both Kowalski and Fraser looked at him in surprise. "Let's go, Interview 2 is open. Fraser, you coming?"
The three men and the wolf managed to get down the hall and into the small room. Kowalski kicked a chair proving how much he hated confined spaces. Dief dodged the sudden projectile and settled under the table with a whine. Kowalski slammed his fist into the nearest wall.
"Stop it," Vecchio said. "Settle down."
"What is going on? What does he want," Kowalski demanded, flipping himself around so he was leaning against the wall with both hands pressed firmly into fists and pounding softly against the paneling.
"I don't know. But he didn't kill her the last time so maybe not this time. This is about you, not her."
"One of you needs to fill me in," Ben interrupted.
Vecchio gave him a short synopsis of the morning. They both kept their eyes on Kowalski while he continued his steady beat into the wall.
"Did you hear her voice on the second call, Ray?" Ben asked.
"Yeah. She said my name. Twice. Then she screamed. And...you heard it."
"It's all right, Ray. We'll figure it out," Ben said.
"I don't wanna calm down, Fraser."
"I know. But you'll be able to think more clearly if you do."
"I gotta find her."
"We all do. We'll work together, Ray. No one will let her down."
Kowalski took a few calming breaths as he turned back to face the wall. Slowly, he regained his composure while Fraser encouraged him.
He turned back around. He didn't look good but a calm determination replaced the wildness in his eyes.
"Are you all right, Ray?" Ben asked.
"Yeah, I'm good."
"Are you ready to talk about this now?"
"He says he's doing this for you. Is he terrorizing you, or doing you a favor?'
"What do you mean?"
"Does he think he's hurting you or helping you," Ben persisted.
"I...I don't know."
The phone in the room rang, startling all of them. Kowalski picked it up.
"Frannie's got him again," he announced, dropping the phone back on the cradle.
They all ran back to the bullpen. This time, Ray timed his lifting of the receiver to that of Fraser and Vecchio.
"Ray," Stella sobbed in his ear.
"Hang on, Stella, I'm coming to get you. Just hang on." A startled scream followed.
"You don't really want to find her, do you? She's bad for you," the monotone droned.
"Shit," Kowalski yelled, slamming the phone back down when the line went dead.
Fraser and Vecchio looked at each other. In an expression known well between them, they read each other's minds.
"Frannie, watch him," Vecchio said to his sister.
Ray and Fraser walked down the hall, around the corner and into the storage closet. Ben tugged on the light string while Ray shut the door.
"I have only heard the one call completely, Ray. Is it what I think?"
"It's a recording. Stella's a recording."
"If he's recorded her voice..."
"Then she's already dead. Shit." Ray buried his face in his hands. "Shit. Shit. Shit." Ben stood across from him. He placed one firm hand on his shoulder, offering the only comfort he could. "Kowalski's gonna lose it."
"If it's true, it'll be difficult for him."
"Dammit, I can't believe this. I just...I talked to her. Two days ago. We were gonna do dinner. I can't believe she's..."
"It isn't confirmed, Ray. We only have the suspicion."
"Yeah, but we're right. And we gotta tell him."
"Perhaps we should wait. It is only a theory."
"Nah, we gotta tell him, Benny. He's thinking this guy is putting a gun to her head every couple hours. We can't let him go on like that."
Ben considered for a moment. "I suppose you're right."
"What if we're wrong?" Ray asked.
"Well then we'll all be grateful later."
"But, we're not wrong, are we?"
Ben shook his head. "I don't think so."
They emerged from the closet slowly. Both dreading their responsibility. On coming back to the detectives' station, they saw Kowalski standing in Welsh's office. Huey and Dewey were parked on either side of him while Welsh stood behind his desk.
When the lieutenant spotted Vecchio and Fraser, he called them in, then noticing the large number of people in his small office, suggested they go use a VCR in one of the conference rooms upstairs.
"Kowalski, you stay put with the phone," Welsh said.
"Stay here. He's only talking to you so you're our best chance of getting the ASA back."
Ray didn't argue with the lieutenant's logic but was obviously unhappy about being left behind. He stalked over to his desk, flopping down like an angry puppet.
The rest of the group climbed the stairs. By silent agreement Vecchio and Fraser decided to wait to tell Kowalski their theory until the three of them could be alone.
"Called twice more," Detective Tom Dewey asked, glancing back at Vecchio on the way up. He straightened his starched white shirt and tugged at his tie. "If she's alive, she's gotta be scared to death."
Ray winced visibly and Ben frowned at the other man's insensitivity.
"Put in the tape," Welsh said as soon as they were in the conference room. Dewey slid the first videotape into the machine. He rubbed a hand through his shorn hair. The week before he came to work with a marine style buzz cut that left him hairless from the ears down.
"We already looked at this so I'm gonna fast forward to the time she leaves her apartment. First camera catches her from then to the time she reaches the elevator."
He stopped about two minutes before that point. The five men watched the monitor while the hall stood empty. From the right a shadow appeared and then the tall, slender frame of Stella Kowalski Vecchio stepped out. She was wearing a pantsuit that Ray recognized so despite the black and white video he saw it as burgundy. He noticed that her hair was longer than when she first returned from Florida. She carried a brief case in one hand and a purse over her shoulder. She walked away from the camera so all they could see was her back as she reached the elevator and pressed the button.
"The camera inside the elevator is broken," Huey said. Vecchio and Fraser looked at him. He shook his head at their unasked question. "No, it's unrelated. Arnold Schuster, he's the apartment super, said it's been broken about two months."
Dewey popped the first tape out, returning it to its casing then laying it on the table.
"This one is on the ground floor in the same position as the one on the ASA's floor. It looks like it was manipulated because we can't see the elevator where she would have gotten off. It's faced just a few inches off," Huey said.
Dewey pressed play. He didn't have to press the fast-forward. Apparently they queued this one ahead of time.
They could all see what they were missing, as Huey suggested, the camera had been moved just enough to give Stella's abductor a few feet of unrecorded maneuvering room.
"Right next to the elevator there's an emergency fire exit. The alarm was tampered. Right here you can see where he opened the door." They all saw the hall grow lighter against the wall, then a flash of shadow, then the previous lighting returned. "He probably grabbed her and took her out that door." Dewey said, pointing at the shadow, then tracing a line with his finger to illustrate his theory.
"Then it was a planned abduction," Ben said.
"Yeah, I'd say so," Dewey answered as if he was pointing out that the sun is hot.
"The timing of the videos, does it allow for the elevator to have stopped during its descent," Ben asked.
"Possibly," Huey answered. "The tape doesn't show us the numbers on the elevator display so we're timing the descent to see how it corresponds. We do know that it's a quick drop from her floor to the bottom."
"She doesn't hesitate before entering the elevator so she must not have felt threatened at that point. She does look up as she enters which could indicate there was someone inside. That person could be the kidnapper or it could be a possible witness."
"Or she could've been watching where she was going, Sherlock," Dewey said, flippantly.
Ben cocked his head, surprised by the sarcasm.
"Hey," Vecchio warned him, following the word with a glare.
"That's enough," Welsh growled causing both men to subside.
Dewey popped the tape out while Huey turned to the lieutenant.
"You two head back over to her building. I want to know if anybody saw anything," Welsh said.
"We left uniforms doing that, Sir," Dewey said.
"It's a big building, Detective, I have no doubt you can keep yourselves busy."
"Yes, Sir." Huey cut off his partner before he put them both in trouble.
He turned to Vecchio.
"I'm really sorry about this Vecchio. We'll do all we can do, you don't have to worry about that."
Huey nodded before heading out the door with his partner following.
When Welsh turned his attention back to the remaining members of their group he found Fraser and Vecchio sharing worried expressions.
"What is it?"
After Fraser and Vecchio explained their theory that Stella was already dead and the reasoning behind it, the three men walked back downstairs. Ben dreaded facing Kowalski; afraid he would see the knowledge on their faces before they could tell him.
When they entered the bullpen, Kowalski was sitting at his desk with his head down. Francesca hovered nearby looking around the room helplessly. When she spotted her brother, she said,
"He got another call."
"What happened this time, Detective?" Welsh demanded gruffly.
"Same thing. Her voice first, the scream and the shot. He said it was for me, that I didn't know what was good for me. Said he was protecting me from myself."
Kowalski stood up, putting his hands in his pockets.
"She's dead, Lieutenant. She has to be. Her voice, the words, they're always the same. He must've recorded her or something."
"We don't know that, Detective. This is still a kidnapping," Welsh said.
"I know. I just...it's the same every time." He sat back down putting his head in his hands.
The vigil with the phone lasted another eight hours. The calls increased gradually until they were coming nearly every half-hour. The content of the calls changed slightly each time but always ended the same. The variation lent a slim hope that Stella was still alive.
By the time early morning arrived, Kowalski was near collapse. He took each call and kept his voice steady and his questions simple but each time the sound of the gunshot fired through his chest and sucked his breath away.
The final call came at precisely four in the morning. Vecchio had his head down, the only sign that he was affected. Welsh stayed near his office door. Fraser sat in his customary place between his partners' desks dividing his attention between them.
Huey and Dewey had returned from the apartment building a few hours earlier. Huey had stripped off his suit jacket and spent the time at Francesca's desk running the names of the apartment building staff through the computer looking for criminal records. Dewey was assembling a timetable from their interviews of the residents, looking for possible witnesses and inconsistencies.
When the phone rang, Kowalski held up his hand silently counting to three. All of the men picked up his extension simultaneously.
"Ray, I'm...I'm sorry," Stella's voice squeaked over the line.
"It's okay, Stell, I know you are," Kowalski whispered back.
"I love you," Stella said, her voice shaking with tears.
"Forever, Stell," Ray agreed.
The startled scream, so familiar now, followed and Fraser held his breath waiting for the shot.
"She won't call again," the voice said.
"I know," Ray answered, blocking his face with one hand while he held the phone with the other.
"You don't know me, but I know you need my help. I'm trying to help you."
"I don't understand. Why're you doing this?"
"No one should hurt you, not someone like you. I'm going to make sure no one hurts you ever again."
"You're not making sense. I love Stella."
"Sometimes people love things that are bad for them. Don't worry, Ray. I'll be watching out for you."
The line clicked off.
"Oh, God," Vecchio said, closing his eyes.
Kowalski stood up slowly. He looked at Fraser and found the horrible sympathy on his face too much to look at. He nodded at him, expression frozen and pale, before he walked out.
With nothing left to do except either wait for another phone call or wait for the body to be found, Welsh sent Huey and Dewey home for a few hours. No one expected another call and at this point everyone was too exhausted to accomplish anything. Kowalski didn't like it but he understood his reasoning. The calm after the horror had settled on him for the moment.
After the last call, he vacated the office for a short time but after a few minutes, he returned with fresh coffee and a damp shirtfront that advertised that he had been in the bathroom splashing cold water on his face. He flinched when the phone on Vecchio's desk rang. Vecchio was leaning over Huey's desk flipping through some papers in a folder so Ray answered it.
"Ray...I need you." The familiar voice exploded from the phone.
"Stella? Oh God, Stella, is it you," Ray asked, gripping the receiver and turning his knuckles white.
"I need you...one of you," she answered. "I'm at a bar, Ray. Uh, it's called...it's called," her voice faded as she asked someone the name, "it's called the Post Time, please come and get me."
"It's gonna be all right, just stay inside with other people. We're on our way."
"Ray...I was kidnapped...I..."
"I know, I know, we're on our way. Just hang tight, we're on our way."
Fraser and Vecchio were already on their feet when Ray handed the phone to Welsh.
"I'll keep her on the line until you get there," he promised.
The three men and the wolf made a reckless trip across town to the bar Kowalski knew from long nights of missing his wife a few years ago.
"Ray, getting us killed won't put us there sooner," Fraser scolded when Kowalski ran a red light.
"Light was yellow."
"The light was red and you know it. Now please slow down. She's safe for the moment."
Kowalski didn't slow down and Fraser stopped arguing with him. That gave Ray time to focus on the facts they had at the moment. Some psycho kidnaps her and makes a dozen phone calls telling him she's dead only to release her? What the hell sense did that make?
They pulled up in front of the bar and both Rays exited without a glance back to their third partner or his wolf. Fraser told Diefenbaker to remain in the car and followed them inside. He found them easily enough since the two of them had surrounded their ex-wife who had apparently abandoned the payphone and was now sitting at a small table near the bar.
"Let's get you out of here," Vecchio said, putting his arm around her shoulders as she stood.
Ben stood near the door waiting for them. He noticed Ray Kowalski still planted near the bar, his eyes closed and his mouth a tight line. After a moment, he opened his eyes again, and glanced in Ben's direction. He gave a slight shake of his head with a forced smile that Ben returned sympathetically as Vecchio and Stella passed him. Then like a puppy with its new master Kowalski followed them outside. Ben trailed along after knowing it was illogical to be annoyed with Stella Vecchio but somehow not able to stop it.
"Vecchio's gonna take her to the station. She says she was in a trunk and the car's supposed to be down here," Kowalski said, walking a few paces past the bar.
"Are you all right, Ray," Ben asked as he followed him to the entrance of an alley.
"She's alive, Fraser, that's all I wanted," he answered without looking back.
Both men wandered a few steps down the alley. There was nothing there but the usual alley litter. Ray swore under his breath before he pulled out his cell phone to call Welsh and request a forensics team.
Vecchio drove Stella back to the station while Fraser and Kowalski waited for Dewey and forensics at the bar.
Huey was already prepared with a stenographer and a tape recorder. He allowed Vecchio to observe through the two-way glass, but insisted he stay out of the actual interview room while Huey took Stella's statement.
Stella draped her burgundy jacket over a chair and sat down cradling a cup of coffee and looking near collapse. Huey sat down across from her.
Huey began the questioning by identifying himself and then describing the purpose for the interview. Once that was accomplished he looked at Stella and smiled at her.
"Assistant State's Attorney Vecchio, you were reported missing by your secretary early yesterday afternoon. Can you tell us where you've been?"
"I was taken from my building early this morning...I mean yesterday morning. I was, um, I was blindfolded all the time."
"You were abducted?" Huey asked, clarifying.
Stella glared at him before answering.
"Yes. I was getting off the elevator in my building around six-thirty or so. There wasn't anyone around but that's normal. I'm always up and around before my neighbors. I remember getting into the elevator and looking in my purse for my car keys. When the doors opened, I stepped out. I remember feeling a breeze and then someone grabbed me from behind. I don't know what happened next exactly but I felt like I was suffocating, something was pressed against my face. I remember my purse getting knocked out of my hands and being irritated about having all my things laying on the floor. I don't really remember anything else until...I woke up in a trunk."
"Wait...wait...you were unconscious? Drugged or something?" Huey asked, his hand hovering over the tape recorder but not stopping the tape yet.
"Yes," Stella answered, pushing her hair behind her ears.
"Have you been to a hospital?"
"No, Ray tried to take me but I wanted to..."
"Ms. Vecchio," Huey interrupted. "You need to go to the hospital and get checked out before we continue."
"No," she argued. "Look, I want to get this out, all right? I'll give you my statement now while it's fresh and then I'll go to the hospital. We can go over the details again tomorrow to make sure everything's in order."
"I really think you should let us take you now."
"Detective Huey, I am not hurt and I'm willing to give a statement without prior medical attention. Now you have it on tape. Please ask your questions."
Huey glanced into the mirror knowing that Vecchio was on the other side. He sighed.
"All right. But if you want to stop at any time, you just say so and we'll stop."
"You said you were in a trunk. A vehicle trunk?"
"Yes, a car trunk. I could smell exhaust and oil and rubber, from the spare tire I suppose. My wrists were tied behind me and something was digging into my back."
"Your wrists were tied? Do you know what was used to bind them?"
"No. I have no idea. Something rough and thin. Maybe twine," she suggested.
"Are you injured?"
"We've already been through this. My arms are a little sore but I'm fine. No blood loss, no life threatening injuries, all right," she answered, irritably, tugging her sleeves down to cover the redness around her wrists.
"All right," Huey continued. "How long were you in the trunk?"
"I don't know. I felt very confused and the odor from the car made me nauseous."
"Was the vehicle moving?"
"Yes, it was definitely moving. I could feel the turns and the bumps and jarring from the road. I could feel a breeze around me. And there was the noise from rushing air."
"And then what happened?"
"The car stopped and there was a voice, a man's voice, it didn't sound disguised or anything and I didn't hear any real accent. He said he was going to open the trunk and untie me. He said I should count to ten after that and then I could take off the blindfold and climb out. He said I'd be in an alley and if I walked down to the end of the alley, there'd be a bar on my right. He said there was a payphone in the bar and there was thirty-five cents in my pocket and I should call someone to pick me up."
"And what did you do?"
"Exactly what he said. As soon as the trunk lid opened, he pushed me on to my face. I felt something cold and metal, I assume it was a knife, against my arms and then a tug and my hands were free. He reminded me to count to ten, which I did. I took off the blindfold and I climbed out. My God, how stupid was that, I could have gotten a description."
"You did the right thing, Ms. Vecchio," Huey assured her.
"I told Ray...both of them about the car. Did they send someone to dust it?"
"There was no car there when they looked. Whoever grabbed you must have come back for it."
"He was there all the time," she said, hugging herself and showing the first sign of tears.
"That's it, we're done for now. This interview is concluded until ASA Vecchio is examined by a physician," Huey said, snapping off the tape recorder.
After he left her alone, Stella rested her forehead against her hands. She flinched when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Sorry, Stell, it's just me." She glared at her first ex-husband, with a shiver from being startled.
"Ray, what are you doing," she asked in that breathless sort of annoyance she reserved for him.
"Just making sure you're okay. I got back from the alley a couple minutes ago."
"Did you find anything?"
"No, not yet. They're all still there. We're gonna take you over to the hospital, get you checked out now, okay?"
"Do you know what this is about? Ray said someone was calling you all night." She said, ignoring his question.
Ray walked around the table to sit in front of her. He took her hand across the table and held it.
"He says he wants to protect me. I don't know. It doesn't make sense."
"Protect you? From me? What does that mean?"
"I don't know but don't worry, we'll keep you safe. Now we know he's out there, we can protect you."
"Ray said the security camera was moved. And the emergency exit was open. It's never open."
"We think he took you out that way. So far, we haven't come up with any witnesses."
Ray Vecchio walked in and pulled the chair out next to Stella. He sat down, running a hand over his nearly bald skull.
"How you doing?" He asked his ex-wife.
"I don't know. I'd like to go home and change clothes," she smiled as she answered, tugging her hand back from Kowalski.
"How about going to visit your parents instead?"
"Ray, I can't just leave town."
"This is the computer age, Stella. You can do almost everything on-line. Until we know what's going on, you'll be safer out of Chicago."
"I can't conduct interviews or appear in court via the computer, Ray. And you're going to need my statement on this."
"You can use the phone for interviews and you can get someone to cover court. I know you, you're thorough, anyone can read your notes and know what needs to be done. As for your statement, you just gave one. We'll get the lab to run your clothes and anything else we can find out by phone."
Stella gave a token argument against leaving but she was obviously afraid and it didn't take long to persuade her to go. Vecchio offered to escort her to the hospital then she could stay at his house for the night and fly out the next day.
Several hours later, Ray Vecchio climbed the steps to his bedroom. He changed into his black silk pajamas, put his unloaded gun inside the dresser drawer and the clip in a box. He locked them both. Pulling the covers back he settled under the blankets. Lying on his back he stared up at the stucco ceiling and thought about Stella.
When they lived in Florida, they ran a bowling alley together for about a month. She grew bored with it almost immediately and started looking into getting her Florida license to practice law. Ray continued managing the alley, handling customer service and chasing after the accountants. He lasted another month before he wanted to run screaming from the building. By then, Stella was nearing her goal to being an attorney in the Sunshine State. He supported her, but jealously. He wanted his own career back regardless of the bullet wound.
When he decided to move back to Chicago, Stella was relieved. She admitted that she married him in a whirl of emotions but none of them equaled lifetime love. He confessed that he was only searching for stability when his life had spun so far from his control, he doubted he would ever regain it. She cried, she held him and then she let him go.
Thinking of her now, sleeping down the hall in the guest room, he was grateful to her all over again.
Ray Kowalski didn't know that Stella's parents had been called when she disappeared. Consequently he didn't know that Stella's mother had phoned his own parents. When he arrived at their trailer he found his mother in tears thinking the worst and his father refusing to look at him.
He held his mother while she cried, her body trembling against his while he whispered to her. Finally, unable to take her sadness anymore, he tugged away from her. She ran light fingers over his warm cheek.
"It's all right, Mum. She's all right," he said, leaning into her touch slightly.
"When her mother called, I just..."
"I know. I should've known they'd check with her parents, I just didn't think about it. If I did I would've come sooner or called you from the station."
"It was a shock, Stanley, a terrible shock. Belle and Tom were so afraid. Your child disappears like that and you just have to think the worst."
"I know. It was scary for awhile."
She hugged him again, looking over his shoulder at her husband. He knew his father was glaring and if he knew his mother, she was glaring right back.
"Come on in the kitchen. I'll fix you some hot chocolate," she said, taking his hand.
Ray settled silently in his mother's Formica and pressed wood kitchen. She took milk out of the refrigerator, then a saucepan from beneath a cupboard. She poured some milk in the pan, set it on the stove and turned it to warm.
"You're the only one left that makes hot chocolate with milk," he commented.
"It's the only proper way to make it, dear."
He had to smile at that.
She turned around with her arms folded around herself and studied him. He knew she was cataloging the new lines on his face.
"It must have been terrible for you, thinking she was dead like that," she said.
He nodded, looking at the table.
"I know you still love her."
"Yeah, well, that's not gonna change. But, I'm okay. I'm not waiting for her to come back or anything. This was just a close call, ya know. Scared me a little."
"You look so tired," she said with so much concern in her eyes that Ray fidgeted under her gaze.
"S'okay, just need to get some sleep before I go in tomorrow."
She walked behind him and put her arms around his shoulders. "This isn't your fault, I promise," she said. "You take so much on yourself that isn't your doing. Please try not to take this. It just can't help to blame yourself."
She hugged him gently before standing up and muttering about the milk getting too hot. She turned off the heat and pulled the canister of chocolate out of the cupboard. The warmed milk followed three heaping scoops of powder. She stirred it quickly and left the spoon in the cup as she set it in front of Ray.
"Will you be all right a moment? I need to call Belle." She asked.
Ray nodded. He knew he should call Stella's parents too but he couldn't face them. They never liked him much and nearly threw a party when Stella left him. He couldn't listen while they hurled blame at him, whether he deserved it or not.
He sat at his mother's kitchen table and sipped at the hot chocolate. She always heated it to just the right temperature so he could drink it without burning his tongue. She knew him well enough to know he would never wait for it to cool.
Ray looked up when his father entered. Damian Kowalski stood shorter and stockier than his son but their coloring was the same. They shared the same blond hair though Damian's was brassy with age. They shared the same pale blue eyes.
"Just getting coffee," his father announced.
Ray only nodded at him. His father had managed to say nothing when Ray told them about Stella but he knew the fall out was coming. He didn't have to wait long. Damian stuck a cup of tap water with a spoon of instant coffee in the microwave and set the timer. When the machine beeped, he removed the cup and stirred it. He hadn't turned away from the counter once.
Finally he turned to look at his son and found Ray looking back, waiting for whatever he was going to say.
"I'm glad that Stella is safe," Damian said, looking into his cup.
"You say some person called you, said she was dead?"
"Yeah, a few times. He had a recording that sounded like her. We don't know how he did that yet."
"But he called you, not the other guy, her other husband, I mean."
"He called me."
"It makes me sick, Ray."
Ray nodded, agreeing. He felt sick too.
"You could've done anything with yourself but ya did this. You went against sense and you did this and now...you put the family in danger...makes me sick, son."
Ray pushed his cup away. The milk tasted rancid all of a sudden. He sat back, trying to catch his breath, feeling like his father gut punched him.
"I'm sorry for scaring you. You don't know how much," Ray said.
"Doesn't really help, does it? She could have died, son."
His father walked out with his coffee but instead of settling back in the living room, Ray watched him go into the bedroom.
"I know, Belle," Barbara Kowalski said into the phone, but she was looking at Ray, not paying attention to the call. "It's such a relief. You give her our love, all right?"
She hung up just as Ray reached the living room. His hands were shaking and he was afraid he might get sick. He didn't want to vomit in his parent's home, didn't want to show that weakness. She started to reach for him but he held up a hand to stop her.
"Thanks, Mum, I gotta go," he said, not looking at her.
"No, it's okay, I just gotta go. I'll call you tomorrow."
"Did your father say something?" She asked but he knew that she knew the answer.
"Listen, you guys gotta be careful, okay?" He deflected. "Whoever this guy is, he called me. It was about me. Maybe you should go visit Brandon for a few days. He'll be glad to see you. Talk to Dad about it. I'll make sure there's extra patrols through here but it'd make me feel better."
"Your brother may not want a surprise visit, Stanley."
"Sure he will. Him and Dad are tight and you haven't seen him in a few months."
"What happened between you and your father?"
"Don't matter. I just want you to be safe, okay? Call Brandon...or I will, if you want. Can you do that for me? Just leave town for a little while?"
"Stanley, please tell me what happened with your father."
"I," Ray had started to tell her but he shook his head instead. "Don't matter. Just please do what I ask. I'll call you tomorrow."
He walked out of the trailer and closed the door behind him. It took awhile to get back into Chicago but not long enough so he drove over to the park near his house and circled it a few times. Probably more than just a few because at some point the sun started to rise and he knew that Stella's plane was taking off and his car drove him to Vecchio's without his consent.
Vecchio drove home after dropping Stella off for a 5:15 flight. The hospital had found traces of a sedative in her system but no other injuries. They released her to him and as promised he took her to his house so his mother could pamper her for the night. Kowalski called to check on her but didn't stop by or offer to go to the airport with them. Vecchio couldn't fault him for that. Stella was clinging to him instead of Stanley and that had to be hard to watch.
He pulled into his driveway and found the GTO parked out front, still occupied by its driver. He frowned and walked over.
Kowalski looked at him through sunglasses despite the still darkened sky.
"You all right, Kowalski?" Ray asked.
"No." A pause. "She get off okay?"
"Yeah, she's on her way to Iowa."
"You okay?" Kowalski asked, pulling the glasses down on his nose and looking out the windshield.
"I don't know what I am. Stunned, I guess. Relieved she's okay. Really confused about all this."
Kowalski closed his eyes behind the sunglasses and leaned back in his seat. His hands fidgeted over the steering wheel.
"I feel like a yo-yo," he said.
"Why don't you come in? Ma's probably cooking up breakfast. She always turns into the Galloping Gourmet after a crisis."
"I shouldn't. This is your family, your ex-wife."
"Hey, she's our ex-wife," Ray said. "We both have a stake here. And Stella is safe now so you might as well come in for breakfast and relax."
"I can't go home," Kowalski said, his voice strained with the admission. "I just keep thinking."
"You haven't been home all night?"
"I just...I don't know what..." He started shaking his head. Ray opened the door for him.
"Come on in," Vecchio invited.
He stood back watching as Kowalski climbed out of his car. He moved like he'd been beaten.
Vecchio led him through the front door and into the kitchen. Mrs. Vecchio wiped her hands on her apron and hugged her son. Then she held out her arms to Kowalski. She patted his back gently and kissed his cheek before letting him go.
"You poor things, how terrible this has been. I swear I aged ten years. Thank God our Stella is all right and going to stay with her ma. I don't care how much our children grow, they still need their mother, don't you think? Come and sit while I finish making breakfast."
"Thank you, Mrs. Vecchio," Kowalski answered. She tousled his hair as if he were ten and turned back to the stove.
"I gotta shower and change," Vecchio said. "Be back in twenty."
"Hurry, Raymundo, I told you, you should shower before you left."
"It was 3:30, Ma."
"And now you have to hurry your breakfast."
"All right, all right, I'm going."
Mrs. Vecchio sang softly to herself while she scrambled eggs in a big cast iron pan. Ray could smell bacon sizzling too and a soft hint of onion that promised to be hash browns. His stomach growled softly. Watching Vecchio's mother happily moving around the kitchen made him remember the disastrous visit with his own parents the night before.
Mrs. Vecchio interrupted his memory by setting a plate of food in front of him and ruffling his hair again. He wondered briefly why she felt the need to pat him like a little boy and why it didn't bother him when she did. She went back to putting plates in the oven to keep them warm for the rest of the family. And Ray went back to remembering.
Ray Vecchio came into the kitchen, all pressed and dressed and damp from his shower. He kissed his mother on the cheek and sat down across from Kowalski. His mother placed a potholder in front of him, then a plate of warm eggs and bacon on top of it. Vecchio thanked her and glanced at Kowalski who was just pushing his own food around. Mrs. Vecchio must have noticed because she hit him lightly on the side of the head.
"I go to the trouble to cook, you can take the trouble to eat."
Kowalski laughed even while he blushed.
"Sorry, I'm all over this."
"Good. Breakfast will make you feel better."
Kowalski ate the food thinking that his own mother would like Mrs. Vecchio. They both used real butter and lots of salt in their cooking. He almost asked if she used milk to make hot cocoa but thought better of it.
Once his plate was empty he picked it up and rinsed it in the sink. Vecchio had shoveled his breakfast in like a starving man, then just watched him eat. He would have told him to stop staring if he weren't sitting in Vecchio's kitchen, eating Vecchio's food that happened to be prepared by Vecchio's mother. But once he was done, he was ready to leave.
"I should go. Thank you for having me," he said to Mrs. Vecchio.
She told him to come back any time and she kissed him on the cheek. His partner stood up with him and handed his empty plate to his mother.
"Thanks, Ma. It was good." Vecchio said, politely and Kowalski thought it sounded like a mantra. He would bet Ray said that after every meal and Francesca probably did too.
They walked through the house together then out on to the porch. The two men stared quietly into the cool October sun. Kowalski spoke first.
"Thanks for letting me stay awhile."
"Ma likes you."
"Yeah, okay," Ray answered with a smile. "I like her too. I gotta get a shower and change. I'll see you at the station."
"You've been up all night. I could cover for you."
"There's no reason. I'll see you there in an hour."
That same morning found Ben standing on the street outside the Consulate, letting cold air coat his lungs while Diefenbaker examined the local foliage. He shivered slightly, wondering, not for the first time, if Chicago was making him soft. The wolf snuffled at him as if reading his thoughts before he bound past him, through the gate and up to the front door.
"You are a disgrace to your heritage," Ben scolded. The wolf cocked his head and scratched on the door. The Mountie rolled his eyes in defeat.
He gathered his clothes and shaving kit from his office and made his way to the shower.
Ben stood in the steaming water longer than necessary feeling a strong need to wash away the ugliness of the city. He scrubbed extra hard until his skin glowed red with the effort.
After the shower, he took care of his teeth, shaved the thin stubble from his face and dressed in blue jeans and white undershirt before returning to his office. Knowing the temperature would not rise much more that day, he put on a white thermal shirt and covered it with a red Henley.
Once he was ready, he called to Diefenbaker and the two set out for the walk to the 27th District Police Station. Since it was not yet 7:30 in the morning, he expected to be the first person to arrive in Lieutenant Welsh's command area. He was surprised to see Ray Kowalski's black GTO already parked and even more surprised when the green Buick Riviera pulled up beside him.
"Morning, Benny, what're you doing here?" Ray asked as he stepped out of the car.
"Good morning, Ray. I took a few days off to assist with the investigation. I thought I would start with Ray Kowalski's case files."
"Sounds good but I doubt Huey and Dewey are gonna welcome your help."
"Surely, an extra set of hands can't be unwanted since we're working towards the same goal," Ben stated, opening the door for his friend.
Ray entered with a backward glance at him.
"How long you been in this city?"
"I assume that's a rhetorical question."
"Yeah, it is. You know we fight for our cases, Benny. And we've never worked well with the Duck Boys."
"Well, yes, Ray, I understand that. But I am hardly a threat to their getting credit for the bust, I believe is the expression."
"You know damn well that it is."
"Furthermore, they can hardly investigate this without Detective Kowalski's assistance and as you are his official partner, I would imagine you'll be involved. By extension, the investigation is likely to draw me in as well."
"You devious little Mountie you," Ray teased.
They both stopped short when Kowalski waved at them and pointed at the phone.
"What do you want now?" He spoke into the handset as Vecchio and Fraser lifted one receiver and punched into the line.
"I knew if I killed her then you would never understand that I'm your ally. But, at the same time, I had to make you see that I'm serious about protecting you."
"You make me think you murdered my wife and you make me listen to it a dozen times and you call that protecting me?"
"It's like heroin, Ray. If you quit all at once, you can die. A little bit at a time, that's the best way. Just cut down and cut down until you don't need it anymore. I gave you almost a whole day to get used to her death because it was best for you that way. And besides you won't forget me, will you? You can see how strong my commitment to you is."
Kowalski shook his head silently.
"And it's all worked out so nicely," the voice continued. "You've sent that traitorous harlot away and she'll never be unkind to you again. I think she was quite frightened by the whole affair and she'll be far more courteous in the future. If she's not, well, I'll be watching. That's what I do for you."
"If you're so bent to take care of me," Kowalski said. "Then come out and meet me. Maybe we can have a drink or something and you can tell me why you wanna do this."
"We're not ready for that yet. You still haven't realized that I can help you. I can hear the resentment in your voice."
"No, it's not that, I just don't understand why you picked me."
"We have other things to talk about now. Take a breath and settle that wonderful energy of yours for a moment. I'm very concerned about your partner." Kowalski closed his eyes against the panic rising from his belly.
"Why's that? He's my best friend. My buddy," he answered, steadily.
"He treats you badly."
"No he doesn't. Not ever."
"Oh, you think I mean Constable Fraser. I don't, of course. I know he's your friend. In fact, my understanding is that he may like you a bit too much."
All three men exchanged surprised looks. Fraser pulled at the neck of his shirt.
"I mean Detective Vecchio, of course," the voice continued. "He's all right as a police officer but he needs some re-training. He doesn't know how to respect those that are superior to him."
"And you think I'm superior?" Ray asked.
"Well, see, I don't get that. Maybe we can meet and you can explain that to me."
"Not yet, Ray. Soon, but not yet."
The line cut off. Kowalski shook his head and gestured confusion with his hands. Vecchio hung up the receiver.
"You're everything," Vecchio asked.
"You need protection," Kowalski answered.
"Let me see if I understand this," Lieutenant Welsh said, sitting forward at his desk and clasping his hands. "Vecchio, you need to be...re-trained, is that it? Like some sort of puppy? Kowalski, you're some sort of God. And Fraser...well, we'll leave that for the moment."
"I'm sure I don't know why he would think...." Fraser said, rubbing his eyebrow.
Welsh held up his hand.
"It's all right, Constable. We know he's got a screw loose."
Fraser sighed. "Thank you, Sir."
The two detectives and the Mountie stood in front of the lieutenant's desk at various stages of attention. Detective Huey flanked Fraser while Dewey leaned against a file cabinet at the back of the office. Welsh shook his head internally. This particular case was odd, even for Vecchio, Kowalski and Fraser.
"Where are we on this?" Welsh asked, turning his attention to Huey.
"We've canvassed her building and no one saw anything. We have maybe three people left to talk to. One guy who's out of town, one guy that works some kind of swing shift so we haven't been able to catch him and one woman that lives part time at the university. We're still tracking her down," Huey answered.
"What about physical evidence?"
"Time consuming process, Lieutenant. They gotta identify all the prints in the elevator and on the emergency door handle against all the residents. It's gonna take some time." Dewey answered.
"And he probably wore gloves if he was careful enough to move the camera," Huey added.
"Did you have the camera dusted?" Welsh asked in a tone usually reserved for pre-schoolers.
"Uh," Dewey stumbled.
"Yes, Sir, we did," Huey answered, glaring at his partner. "It was clean. No prints at all."
"He must've wiped the camera," Dewey said, ignoring the disgusted look Kowalski shot at him.
"Well, I'm glad to see you didn't order that detective's shield from a cereal box," Welsh said, sarcastically.
"All right," he continued. "If everybody's comfortable, we have the recording from this morning's call. Let's see what we can figure out from it."
Vecchio and Kowalski settled on Welsh's couch with Fraser joining them by sitting in the middle and folding his hands in his lap.
Welsh pressed the play button on the tape recorder. There was a short pause before the stalker's first words were heard.
"Hi, Ray, it's me," the voice said.
"What do you want now," Kowalski responded on tape.
The men listened to the conversation entirely before rewinding the tape and stopping at intervals to make comments.
"He's trying to show off that he's smart, doesn't want Kowalski thinking he made a mistake," Vecchio said.
"'Traitorous harlot' is harsh," Dewey said.
"He's searching for Ray's approval at the same time that he insists that Ray doesn't know his own mind," Fraser commented.
"We have other things to talk about now. Take a breath and settle that wonderful energy of yours for a moment. I am very concerned about your partner."
"Why's that? He's my best friend. My buddy."
"He treats you badly."
"No he doesn't. Not ever. He's..."
"Oh, you think I mean Constable Fraser. I don't, of course. I know he's your friend. In fact, my understanding is that he may like you a bit too much."
"Jeez, Kowalski, who is your partner anyway? And how many ways are we defining that?"
"Shut up, Dewey," Kowalski said.
"Good idea," Welsh agreed.
"He says 'my understanding'. That may indicate that he's getting his information from a source," Fraser said.
"I mean Detective Vecchio, of course. He's all right as a police officer but he needs some re-training. He doesn't know how to respect those that are superior to him."
"Re-training, instead of murder. He doesn't feel threatened by Vecchio's presence. He thinks he can control him," Huey said.
"'You're everything' suggests strongly that he believes he has found his personal savior. It's interesting that he also believes that Ray is unable to look after himself. As if, despite being perfect, he's still flawed," Fraser said.
"No, it's not Kowalski that's flawed, it's the people around him. He needs to protect his king," Vecchio said.
"Quite so," Fraser agreed.
Another round with the tape confirmed their general suspicions regarding the kidnapper's psyche but did not seem to put them any nearer to finding him.
"All right, gentlemen," Welsh said. "Kowalski, Vecchio and Fraser, I want you three to go over Kowalski's old cases and see if you can figure out who this guy is."
"He says we never met," Kowalski said.
"I have heard that criminals will lie from time to time, Detective. Let's go with that wacky notion, shall we?"
"Yes, Sir," Kowalski answered, rolling his eyes.
"Huey and Dewey, find those last three interviews and jump on the lab to hurry up with the fingerprint analysis."
"Yes, Sir," they answered simultaneously.
"Got a admirer there, Kowalski?" Dewey asked, nodding towards Fraser as they came out of the office. He kept his voice low so that only Ray could hear him.
"Jealous?" Ray needled him back just as quietly.
Dewey scowled then called out to his partner to wait for him. Ray ran a hand through his hair with a satisfied grin. When he turned towards his desk he found Vecchio and Fraser watching him. He dumped the smile and settled into his chair.
"Going through files is a waste of time," Kowalski said.
"Yeah, it is," Vecchio agreed.
"Lieutenant Welsh does not share that opinion."
"Yeah, but I gotta feeling this guy's telling the truth. And if I never met him, then I sure never arrested him."
"He could be someone involved in a previous investigation without being the criminal," Fraser suggested.
"Still would've met him."
"We can not ignore the lieutenant's orders," Fraser pointed out.
"No, we can't," Vecchio said, leaning forward, "but we could get Frannie to start narrowing the search a little before we jump in. We don't need to look at every case file, right? This guy's a few bricks short so we can have her get us a list of the guys that needed a psych consult. That'll save us time in the long run."
"We're disobeying a direct order," Fraser said.
"No, we're not. We're interpreting the order," Kowalski pulled his hands apart for emphasis.
"Let's get her started, then head over to Stella's office," Vecchio interrupted. "I wanna know how he knows so much. No one else knew she was leaving town so how come he did? And that bit about me not respecting you... and Fraser...well, I guess respecting you too much. Where's he getting all that?"
"I wanna talk to her secretary too. Maybe he's seen somebody around," Kowalski added.
"I'm quite sure that Detectives Huey and Dewey have already interviewed Mr. Rutledge."
"It's not the same as us doing it," Kowalski said.
Fraser followed his two partners out the door. He reminded them that they needed to speak with Francesca and was told, in stereo, that they would call her from the car.
Once they were all settled in the GTO with Fraser and Diefenbaker in the back, Ben continued his argument.
"It is possible that the stalker was involved in a non-violent encounter in which he was neither a criminal nor a victim. A traffic accident, for example. In that case, Ray may not have met him but was observed by him. Or perhaps it was a situation where you were a contributing officer in which case..."
"Fraser, he could've seen me in the grocery store and liked my hair gel. We know nothing about this guy."
"Yes, and that's my point."
"You lost me."
"He's saying we can't leave any stone unturned," Vecchio translated.
The three men continued to banter ideas between them as they drove to Stella Vecchio's office. No one felt the chill air with all of the body heat and warm breath being expelled on the drive.
"Here we are," Vecchio said, pointing out the parking garage next to Stella's office building.
"I thought she worked at the Office of the State's Attorney," Fraser questioned.
"Overcrowded there. They moved a couple juniors over here," Vecchio answered as Kowalski pulled into the garage.
He pressed the parking ticket button, snagged the receipt and dumped it on his dash. He searched three levels before finding a parking space.
The three men climbed out of the small, black car. Vecchio straightened his gray suit jacket and tie while he waited for Fraser to explain to Dief that he could not go inside with them. Kowalski popped open his trunk and pulled a tan blazer from the back. He shook it out as if that would take care of the wrinkles and put it on over his gray t-shirt and jeans.
Since Vecchio was the only one to visit Stella in her new office, he led the way back to the elevator then down two floors. They flashed badges and walked around the metal detectors at the entrance, taking Fraser with them.
Fraser noted that the office building smelled musty and damp with an overtone of some sort of pine cleaner. The walls were cracked wood paneling. Their feet clattered against yellowing tile. On either side of them were heavy glass and oak doors, all advertising the office's occupant. Stella Vecchio was posted in block letters at the end of the hall.
Going inside they found a square room with plush carpeting, expensive leather chairs and dark oak furniture. Stuart Rutledge stood up in surprise when they entered. He slammed closed the book on his desk crushing some papers inside.
"Doing a little studying there, Stu?" Vecchio asked.
The younger man looked down at his desk and sighed in defeat. He stood up looking thoroughly chagrined.
"I'm sorry. I was studying for an exam. I know Ms. Vecchio doesn't like to have me study during office hours but since she's out of town and I've completed most of the work she gave me via e-mail this morning, I just thought...I'm sorry."
"Don't let it happen again. I won't mention it this time but no promises if I catch you again," Vecchio said sternly then glanced back at Fraser with a small grin.
"Thank you," Stuart said, snatching a piece of lint of his blue, silk trousers.
Kowalski rolled his eyes, walking past Vecchio with an irritated scowl.
"Look kid, I'm the first ex and we need to talk to you."
"Again? I spoke with two detectives yesterday when she was missing."
"How'd you decide she was missing, Stu?" Vecchio asked settling in the chair in front Stuart's desk.
"It was the fly."
The three partners glanced at each other.
"What fly?" Kowalski asked.
"In her coffee cup. Ms. Vecchio found a dead fly in her cup the day before yesterday. She asked me to take care of it for her because she was late for court and she didn't want to come into a dirty cup in the morning."
"And?" Vecchio encouraged.
"I forgot about it. I was in a hurry myself and it just slipped my mind. When I came in yesterday afternoon and found the fly was still in the cup I realized that Ms. Vecchio had not come into the office."
"She wouldn't have simply used a different cup?" Fraser asked.
"No. Not Ms. Vecchio. She's very particular. She won't use Styrofoam because it's bad for the environment and she only has the one cup in the office. Besides, I would have found the second cup on her desk if that was the case."
"And she wouldn't have skipped coffee yesterday?"
"No." Vecchio and Kowalski answered simultaneously, then glanced at each other.
"Very well then," Fraser said. "So it was the dirty coffee cup that alerted you to her disappearance?"
"I didn't know she was really missing. I just didn't know where she was and since I was late yesterday morning, I thought I should find out."
"Why were you late?" Vecchio asked.
"I had a test. She doesn't like it when I miss work for school but in an emergency, she'll give me the time off as long as I make it up later."
"Did you call me as soon as you came in?" Vecchio asked.
"Yes. Well, no. I mean, I watered her plants, I tidied up her office, I checked with some of the other secretaries to see if they had seen her. It was probably an hour after I came in before I phoned you."
"So the fly in her cup bothered you but not enough to panic?" Vecchio asked.
"Of course not. Have you ever heard of a flat tire, Detective? An unexpected emergency? I wasn't worried when I phoned you, I was just looking for information."
Vecchio sat forward, his green eyes glinting and a small smile playing at his lips.
"And you were probably the last person to see her before she disappeared," he said.
Stuart opened his mouth, then closed it again without speaking. Kowalski stepped forward blocking the view between Stuart and Vecchio.
"Okay, that's good enough for now. We're gonna take a look around her office," Kowalski said.
"You need a warrant," Rutledge said, sounding more confident.
"The other guys showed you a warrant, didn't they?" Kowalski persisted.
"Works for us."
"No it doesn't, Detective, you would need a second warrant or at least an extension to the first."
"Relax, Stu. Trust me on this," Vecchio said.
The two detectives passed his desk while Fraser hesitated with an apologetic nod before following them inside.
Once in the office they started searching for recording or listening devices. The initial findings from the police lab concluded that Stella's voice did not match the tape. But there was still the problem of the stalker's inside knowledge of her whereabouts and Kowalski's life. They hoped to find something to explain how he obtained so much information.
An hour of going over surfaces and drawers and pulling apart the phone, the stapler and the tape dispenser produced nothing but dust. They decided to try her apartment next.
Fraser thanked Stuart for his cooperation but the boy merely glared at him before returning to his work.
Once they were all settled back inside the car with an annoyed wolf, Fraser suggested they stop for an early lunch before proceeding to Stella's apartment. Both Rays had to be convinced but a long, mournful whine from Diefenbaker convinced them.
"You ever feed that wolf?" Vecchio asked.
"Hey. Dief just likes a good snack, don't you, buddy?" Kowalski said, putting his hand back to be nuzzled. The wolf didn't disappoint him.
"You like getting all that slobber on your hands before you eat?"
"Dog's mouth's cleaner than a person's, right, Fraser?"
"There are less germs, Ray."
"Maybe, but people don't lick themselves," Vecchio argued.
"Cuz if they could, you'd never get them out of the house," Kowalski said with a grin.
It took about two seconds for his companions to follow his joke. Fraser barked out a laugh while Vecchio chuckled.
He drove to a nearby Chinese smorgasbord called the Desert Moon. Predictably, Vecchio whined at his choice of restaurants but Kowalski defended it with, "okay food, all you can eat and cheap."
They were just about to go through the door when Vecchio's cell phone rang. He stepped away from his companions with a frown. They waited a few moments before he flipped the phone closed and tucked it back in his pocket.
"You two go ahead and eat. I need to borrow your car, Kowalski."
"What's wrong, Ray?" Fraser asked.
"Maria was in a minor car accident and I have to go get her."
"Is she all right?"
"Yeah, the cop said she was a little shaky is all. I guess she blew a tire and lost control, bottomed out the car."
"We'll all go," Kowalski suggested.
"No need. It's just a few blocks from here and all I have to do is bring her home. The tow truck's already been called."
"You think it's safe to be out on your own right now?" Kowalski asked.
"I'm armed, I'll be in your car and I'm doing something he couldn't know about. I think I'm safe enough."
"Ray, would you at least phone us when you reach Maria and then again from your house?" Fraser asked.
"Yeah, all right, Benny."
"And Diefenbaker can accompany you."
"You're pushing your luck now." Ray rolled his eyes at the wolf. "Come on Dief. And you two owe me lunch."
"Thank you, Ray," Fraser answered, amusement flickering in his eyes.
Kowalski handed his keys over reluctantly. He hated having anyone else drive his car. But Vecchio thanked him and even looked somewhat grateful instead of smug. Even Fraser gave him a look that said he was proud of him for not grousing about it.
Both Ray and Ben loaded two plates full of cheap Chinese food and settled in a red vinyl booth. Ben found an absurd pleasure in watching his partner eat since that nightmare business with Nicole Riazzi a couple of months earlier. He had to admit that Ray was back to acting like himself. Ben knew that he still went to the gym to work out his frustrations periodically. But, the outlet of a heavy bag or sparring in the ring seemed to keep his nightmares at bay.
Ray shoveled his meal with relish. Ben ate more slowly, barely able to consume the grease laden offerings he found on the serving table.
"See, cheap and not bad," Ray said around a mouthful of something passing for chicken chow mein.
Ben only nodded at him, not wishing to argue the difference between edible and not bad food. He decided to change the subject instead.
"It's interesting that the kidnapper chose Stella as his victim. He could have taken someone closer to you."
"The only people closer are you and my folks."
"In that case, why Stella over your parents or myself? You've been divorced several years, it makes little sense that he would think she was the best target."
"Don't know. Maybe that's how he knows me. Something to do with her."
"You've had no contact with her since her return from Florida."
"Maybe he's been stewing about this awhile. Could be Stella coming back was what set him off."
"Perhaps, but she has been back for several months."
"Could've been in jail or sick or something. Maybe this was his first chance to do anything."
"Perhaps we should be looking at cases that you worked on with Stella."
Ray's cell phone rang. He leaned back in the booth and snatched it out of his pocket.
"Kowalski....she all right?...good...okay."
He put the phone back.
"Vecchio's got Maria. She's okay but the car is a mess," he said, standing up. "I'm getting more, you want anything?"
"No, thank you kindly, I should think this will be sufficient."
"Ya know the whole point of all-you-can-eat is to eat all you can."
"I believe I have, thank you."
Ben watched Ray dig into the various concoctions filling the buffet. He seemed to have little difficulty in choosing his entrees. Ray Kowalski introduced him to the concept of buffet/all-you-can-eat smorgasbords. Ray Vecchio seemed to have stricter standards for nourishment.
Ray came back to the table with another full plate and proceeded to consume it as quickly as possible. Ben watched him fondly thinking he looked like a boy in a pie eating contest. Without the horrible mess to go with it, of course.
"Why do you think he kept calling and pretending to kill Stella?" Ray asked around the crunchy end of an egg roll.
"To keep you, all of us, off-balance and on edge. We couldn't be sure whether she was alive or dead so for that time period he had our undivided attention."
"It doesn't make sense to want that."
"It does to him. He needs your focus. Wants you to be thinking only of him. He accomplished that admirably with his actions."
"Because I'm everything."
"Well, you are to me," Ben teased.
"Yeah, well, you're gay," Ray threw back.
"Funny how that keeps coming up. You should date more, Fraser."
Ben sat quietly for several minutes mulling over the psyche of Ray's stalker while his partner ate. Ray glanced at his watch when he pushed his second plate away.
"Hey, shouldn't Vecchio've called by now?"
Ben was nodding his agreement when Ray's pocket rang again. He growled about not leaving it out the last time. Ben watched the color drain from his partner's face leaving a sickly gray color in its place. He felt his hands squeeze into fists as he leaned forward, trying to hear.
"Yeah, yeah, it's uh," Ray stuttered. A moment later he hung up without speaking again then pressed in a speed dial.
"What do you want?" He asked, staring into Ben's eyes while he spoke. "Where are you?...Let him go....tell me where and I'll come and get him."
The following pause nearly left Ben climbing over the table to hear.
"He's good the way he is," Ray said breathlessly. "We work good together. You don't gotta do anything."
Ray stood up, practically yelling now.
"No, no, you don't understand. I like him the way he is. I don't want him different...no, don't hang up...don't hang up....shit!"
Ray looked at Ben, the panic written plainly in his eyes.
"We gotta get an APB out on my car."
His phone rang again and Ray popped it open with shaking hands.
"Kowalski...Maria...okay, I get that...Stay in the house, Maria, we're on our way...Just get the kids in the house and lock the doors...I don't know yet...I don't know, Maria, we're on our way."
Ray speed dialed the station and Francesca answered. There was no way he was going to tell her about her brother over the phone so he asked for Welsh.
"Lieu, looks like Vecchio got grabbed...Yeah, it's the same guy... he called my cell and now Maria says my car is at their house and Vecchio's not around...cuz he took my car to go get her...look, I'll tell ya everything, just send a car over to the Desert Moon...the one by the station...we'll meet you at Vecchio's house."
Ray hung up, shaking his head to Fraser's unasked question. Noticing that others in the restaurant were watching them he jerked his head towards the exit and stood up. Ben followed him outside.
"What did he say?" Fraser asked.
"He has Vecchio. The first time he called, he told me to hang up and call back Vecchio's cell number so I'd know he wasn't lying. The second time, he started in about how he took him to make him better for me, pretty much what he said this morning."
A cool breeze blew in from the lake bringing the slight odor of decay with it.
"Is there any chance that this is another trick? He lied about killing Stella, he could be lying now," Ben said.
"How'd he get the phone, then?"
Ben shook his head, as his faint hope scattered.
"Did he say anything else?"
Kowalski shook his head as he answered. "Said we'll get him back in a few weeks but he'd be better than he is now, whatever that means."
"Re-training," Ben answered, balancing his calm against Ray's frantic pacing.
"How will he do that? Will he hurt him?"
"I don't know. There are several schools of thought on the concept of thought reform."
Ray frowned at him.
"Brainwashing. Mind control," Ben explained.
"That's like science fiction, right? I mean I know they said the CIA used to do stuff like that but it isn't like real."
"It's not science fiction, Ray. The practice of thought reform is neither new nor imaginary and it's accomplished in a variety of ways. And it's not..."
"Dief," Ray interrupted, apparently remembering that the wolf left with Vecchio.
"Yes," Ben acknowledged.
"Jesus, I forgot. God, I hope nothing happened to him."
"Diefenbaker would have attempted to protect Ray if he could."
"I should've asked him. I'm sorry, Fraser, I didn't think."
"You had more pressing matters to deal with, Ray. We'll find them both."
When Ray Vecchio opened his eyes he found himself face down staring at a dirt floor. He lay still for a few moments, trying to remember why. He ached all over and as he put his hands under him to push up he found he could only roll onto his back. His vision blurred at the motion so he didn't move until he could see again.
He was definitely in a cellar. The foundation walls were cement block. The floor was hard packed dirt. The air smelled damp. The ceiling was high, at least twelve feet or more and made of cement.
A slow perusal to keep his head from spinning proved there were no windows. He did notice two televisions tacked into the corners as well as several outdoor spotlights mounted sporadically near the ceiling.
Carefully, Ray pushed himself to sit up. This time his vision stayed clear though he felt some dizziness. It was nothing compared to his initial waking so he flipped on to his knees and stood. The change in altitude caused him to stumble a few steps backward until his back met the hard wall. He leaned heavily, catching his breath and waiting to stabilize.
He jumped when the televisions flared to life. Kowalski appeared on the screen. He was sitting on a bench talking, lips moving, no sound, then the film jumped and he was walking down a street. The walking scene lasted several minutes while Ray tried to figure out where it was shot. He recognized some of the storefronts and soon identified the neighborhood around Kowalski's apartment building. The film jumped again and Kowalski was sitting on the hood of his car, lips moving, arms waving, obviously upset. When the scene changed again, Kowalski was back on the bench and the film repeated itself from start to finish.
"This is Ray Kowalski," a voice echoed from the ceiling. The sound came from several directions and Ray soon found the bullhorn type speakers mounted near the spotlights.
"I know who it is," Ray said, sarcastically.
"Ya only speak when I ask a question," the voice said. "I'm Ray Kowalski, his voice, his eyes, his ears."
"What's that suppose to mean?"
A foghorn blast burst from the speakers and Ray yelled in surprise, slapping his hands over his ears.
"Only speak when I ask a question," the voice repeated. "Now, when ya look at the screen and ya see him, you'll hear my voice but you'll know it's him. You will learn to obey him, to respect him, to respect me. You'll learn that he, that I, am your superior. That compared to me, you're nothing."
"Oh, gimme a break," Ray argued, angrily.
The foghorn blasted. He gasped at the noise, covering his ears again.
"Doesn't have to be a short burst, Vecchio," the voice informed him. "You have not been asked to talk." The voice paused and Ray wondered if he was letting the information sink in or going for a dramatic effect.
"Now, let me explain your life to you. First and most importantly, yer meaningless. I don't care whether you survive. Second, your privileges are gifts from me. You may keep what ya have as long as you obey me. That's important because I can take away anything that you have from the toilet to your clothes to your life. They're all mine and not yours. Third, ya can earn additional privileges. Ya may find yerself needing things later and if you obey me, you may receive them. Fourth, food and water are necessities, not privileges, but I will decide when, what and how much. You're completely dependent on me. Now, do you have any questions?"
"No, a comment. That is the worst Chicago accent I've ever heard."
The voice ignored that and said, "Sleep is a privilege you haven't earned. Stay upright. No sitting, no lying down and no sleeping until I give you permission. I'll speak with you again soon."
Ray almost dared the voice to stop him but he managed to stay quiet with the foghorn noise still echoing in his skull. He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked around. How exactly was he supposed to deal with this? The voice's attempt to imitate Stanley was laughable. But there was nothing funny about this situation.
The video stopped in mid-frame, then was replaced by a photograph of a young Stanley. He looked about college age.
A few deep breaths to regain his calm and Ray decided to explore the prison. Narrow fluorescent lights shown from the ceiling providing a dim light. The walls and ceiling appeared solid and seamless and he wondered how he got in and how anything else would come in or get out.
Thick cement pillars stood floor to ceiling at various intervals through the room making it impossible to see everywhere at once.
Ray located his bathroom. It was a toilet set in one of the far corners. There was no stall or door and it reminded him of a prison set up. Deciding that modesty was unproductive he used the toilet before moving on.
Other than the bathroom fixtures, the room was empty. He found two more televisions mounted near the ceiling with spotlights and speakers flagging each one.
Ray continued walking the floor, searching for anything that might help him escape or at least help him deal with whatever the voice had planned. He rubbed his arms absently and for the first time wondered what happened to his suit jacket. Currently he was wearing his white button down and black slacks only. He still had his shoes and socks.
Ray shivered slightly from the cold, knowing he was probably experiencing some delayed shock. It wasn't freezing but there was chill enough for his body to react. His stomach growled as well and he frowned at himself.
Ray Kowalski walked around his beloved car, searching for anything that might give a hint to Vecchio's location. He knew instinctively that there would be nothing. The kidnapper grabbed Stella out of her apartment building and didn't leave a trace and he took Vecchio right out of his driveway without a sound or a witness. The odds were good that he didn't leave any evidence either.
Fraser searched the surrounding ground, crawling underneath the car as he did. Deftly scooting back out, he started looking at the tires, tasting a bit of the dirt left in the tread.
"That isn't gonna help, Fraser. He was with us when he was driving."
"It's all we have at the moment," Fraser said seriously.
Lieutenant Welsh paced nearby impatiently while the forensics team went over Kowalski's car, the driveway, the yard and the front walk. Finally he ordered the car be taken to impound and searched more thoroughly by the lab techs.
He motioned for Kowalski and Fraser to ride with him. Ben asked them to wait while he spoke to Mrs. Vecchio and Maria who were standing on the porch watching grimly. He squeezed Maria's hand and Mrs. Vecchio hugged him before he excused himself to join Welsh and Ray.
"They're very frightened," he said when he rejoined them.
"I'll bet," Ray said.
The three men climbed into Welsh's car to ride back to the station together. Kowalski took the backseat.
"When was the last time you talked to Vecchio?" Welsh asked, already knowing the answer.
"I told you. He called from the Heritage Mini Mall," Ray answered. "Maria had a car accident so he picked her up and called to say he was heading over to the house. He was suppose to meet us back at the restaurant."
"Well, I got uniforms combing his neighborhood. Somebody must've seen or heard something."
"His own family didn't hear anything," Ben said.
"Doesn't mean someone else didn't, Constable. I also have an APB out on him. I'll take you two to the station so you can take a car from the motor pool. Then you can go back and help interview the neighbors. Talk to anyone you can find. And Kowalski, you need to stay available for when this guy calls again."
"He's got my cell number. He wants me, he can get me."
"You get information, Ray. Whatever you have to say to get it. But don't do anything stupid like going to meet him without backup."
"He doesn't want to meet me, Lieu. Says I'm not ready."
"At some point he's going to change his mind."
"If we find Diefenbaker, then he may be able to lead us to Ray Vecchio's location," Fraser said, trying to interject some hope into the situation.
"Unless they're together, Fraser. Then he's kidnapped too."
"I don't give a rat's ass about the wolf," Welsh barked. "You go out there, you go look for Vecchio."
"Of course, Lieutenant," Fraser answered softly, looking out of his window.
Welsh shook his head. He spoke more gently.
"Look, you need to accept that the wolf might be dead."
"I am, Sir."
Ray sat back in his seat. He didn't believe that Dief was dead but he didn't want to raise Fraser's hopes. He didn't think Vecchio was dead either. He tried to push back any thoughts of what might be happening to his partner. He hoped that if the kidnapper continued to contact him, then he might be able to control some of that. Although he had to admit it was a faint chance.
Welsh dropped them at the station garage. Kowalski collected the keys to a gray Ford Taurus and they drove back to the Vecchio house. They started driving around the neighborhood talking to anyone who was outside hoping they heard or saw something.
They started their second circuit of the neighborhood looking for fresh tread marks or oil leaks or anything that Fraser might be able to turn into a real clue. But, there was nothing obvious or even questionable.
Once they covered several blocks and had returned to their starting place, Fraser said, "I'll get out here and start searching on foot while you..."
"No," Ray interrupted. "We are not gonna do that."
"Ray, if we split up, we can canvas more area."
"No. We are not splitting up."
Ben wanted to argue. He wanted to find Vecchio as quickly and efficiently as possible and Ray was standing in the way of that. But, Ben could understand why. The kidnapper managed to abduct an armed police officer in the space of less than half an hour. He could likely accomplish that goal twice.
"Very well. Shall we go left?"
"Anyway you want," Ray said and turned left at the first intersection.
A few minutes of silent searching followed. The air was cool around them as afternoon edged towards evening.
"Wish Dief'd show up," Ray said.
"As do I."
"Bet he's okay. Just turned around or something."
"I doubt that he's lost. He may be following the kidnapper in an effort to rescue Ray."
"Never thought of that," Ray answered, hopefully.
Ray Vecchio looked around his current location. The dirt floor led him to the obvious conclusion that he was in the ground. Being able to see a twelve-foot ceiling above his head meant he was buried. Buried alive. He shook off that thought.
Benny will be here, just hang on awhile.
He remembered leaving Stanley and Benny at the restaurant. He followed the directions the cop on the phone gave him and pulled into the parking lot of the Heritage Mini Mall and scanned around for Maria. He found her standing inside a convenience store looking angry. He waved at her and she came out and climbed inside. As soon as she was settled she started ranting about how the tire blew and her idiot husband was supposed to have replaced the tires a month earlier and the brakes were soft so she couldn't slow down fast enough and that led her to run into a tree and, yes, she was fine but now the car was being towed to a service station and the towing charge would be huge and she tried to get Tony to pay the extra insurance to include towing but he refused.
Ray listened to the whole thing silently growing angrier by the moment that Maria's husband was such a lazy bastard and that Maria hadn't come to him to take care of things for her. By the time they pulled up to the house, Ray was yelling and Maria was defending Tony. She stomped off into the house while he pounded Stanley's steering wheel before laying his head on it to take a breath. Diefenbaker growled in the backseat.
A man dressed in jeans and a gray blazer startled him by knocking on the window. The guy was just under six feet with light brown hair and square glasses. Clipped to his belt hung a gold Chicago detective's badge. Ray rolled down his window.
"Vecchio," the man had said.
"Yeah. What's going on?" Ray had responded still not sensing any danger.
"Your neighbor, Mrs. Carlineo, got robbed. She's real upset and asking for you."
Ray only had a moment to wonder why she would be asking for him when as far as he knew, Mrs. Carlineo thought he was brain damaged. He was just about to ask about that when he heard the passenger side door open and Dief growled again. Just as he started to react he felt a smooth prick against his neck. He slapped his hand over the injury as he looked around to find the man outside his window holding an empty syringe. He heard a final growl turn to a whimper.
He remembered the strange sensation of losing control over his arms. He had slumped forward, his body tingling and still numb somehow. He couldn't put up a fight as the two men worked together to slip him out of Kowalski's car and into the trunk of another vehicle. His mind worked well enough to wonder why they would try this in the middle of the day in front of his house. He expected the family to see them and call 911. He didn't know if they had but either way the police hadn't come to the rescue.
Ray managed to retain some clarity for a while before the injection started working in earnest. He admired their precision. The whole abduction took almost no time and their vehicle was silent as it pulled out of the driveway. He didn't even hear it pull up. He passed out wondering if Dief was whimpering or if he was.
Looking around his dank prison, Ray shuddered. The enormity of his situation settled like a weight around him. Trapped by someone that he had almost no knowledge about except that he kidnapped his ex-wife and terrorized him and his partner for several hours. Someone who was obsessed with Stanley for reasons they could not begin to guess at yet. He found the nearest wall and slid down next to it, resting his back and legs.
The sound of clanging bells flared out like he was jammed inside the church tower at noon. Flashing lights followed quickly from the ceiling. Ray cried out in surprise and pain. He rolled back into the wall, hands pressed over his ears and eyes closed tight as he leaned into the cement. The noise stopped but the strobe lights remained, blinding with every flash.
"No sitting, no lying down, no sleeping," the voice commanded at the same volume as the bells. The voice repeated until Ray pushed shakily to his feet, his eyes watering from the sudden pain. Then the room went dark for a moment before normal lighting resumed.
It took a few minutes for the echo to die and his eyes to see without blobs marring his vision. When he could look, he saw the television screens were active and running the continuous tape of Kowalski. Across the bottom, a tag line read, "No sitting, no lying down, no sleeping."
Shoving his middle finger up, Ray told the voice to fuck off in the only way he could. He still expected the bells and the lights to start again and braced himself for it. When a few moments passed without a reaction, he exhaled with relief. Apparently gesturing was not the same as speaking.
He started pacing again, cursing the mild cramping in his legs. The room was getting colder and he hugged himself while he walked. Where are you, Benny?
Ray Kowalski sat at his desk brooding. They had too little to go on and time was passing too quickly. The longer the kidnapper remained silent, the more likely it became that Vecchio was dead. Nearly three days with no contact and the strain was showing on the staff.
When the phone rang, Ray picked it up with the same mixture of hope and dread that accompanied every phone call.
"Ray, it's Stella." Like I don't know your voice, he thought irritably, then mentally berated himself for putting his miserable mood on her.
He was still annoyed with her obvious affection for Vecchio. This was the husband that dumped her instead of the other way around. But she was still all sweetness to him while she just barely stayed civil when she spoke to Ray. He did his best to put those thoughts to rest knowing they had no business in his head. Stella had just been released after being kidnapped and drugged so if she reached out to husband number two then she had a right to want who she wanted. Besides, with Vecchio missing, being uncharitable about Stella's affections was just wrong.
"Ray, I don't know if this will help," she continued. "But I remembered something this morning. It's probably nothing but at the very least you should check into it."
"What're you talking about, Stell?"
"You remember when Ray left me? Of course you do, what I mean is, you know that he left and I was alone in Florida for awhile."
"Not likely to forget that, Stella."
"Well, I was pretty miserable. You know what I mean...another marriage in the toilet. I was just unhappy and...well, I started going out a little bit. By a little, I mean I only did this for a couple of weeks before I realized how stupid it was. I'm not the bar type but it was nice for a while to just get out and lose myself with strangers. I wasn't drinking a lot, just enough to take the edge off a little bit. I used to go to the same bar all the time because there was this bartender that was nice and I could sort of trust him. As I said, this went on for maybe three weeks at the most. But it was the same bar and the same bartender and I remember I used to talk to him. It was nice to have someone to talk to that didn't know the whole story, you know? I had pretty much forgotten all about this, Ray. I swear. But I was just talking to my mother and she reminded me how I was in Florida and that made me remember."
"You gonna tell me what you remember?"
"The bartender...I showed him photos of you and Ray. He used to say that some people are golden and special and some people are ugly and wrong. I didn't think it meant that much, didn't read anything into it at the time. He knew I was a prosecutor so it just didn't strike me as particularly odd. Anyway, I showed him the photos and I asked him what he thought of you two. He studied the pictures and then he pointed to you and said you were golden and innocent. I remember that so well because I laughed about it. I mean, Ray, it was ludicrous, you know? But then he said that Ray was dark and ugly and inferior. He said that I was lucky to be rid of him."
"Stella, I understand what you're saying but...."
"Let me finish, Ray," she said harshly. "I told this man everything about us and everything about Ray. I treated him like my priest. I had forgotten how much I actually confessed but for the last day or so I just keep remembering more and more. I told him things I shouldn't have been telling anyone. I even told him I thought that you and Fraser were...a couple, I suppose. I was so angry at everything, Ray, I just...."
"Jesus, Stella," Ray said, rubbing a hand through his hair.
"I know. I know. I don't have an excuse. I just think you should look into it. See where this guy is. Maybe I'm being paranoid but looking back now, it all seems so wrong. The things he said, the way he spoke about you and Ray, it suddenly seems very sinister."
"It's probably nothing," he said automatically, still reeling from her confession.
"Please check into it, Ray. I can give you the name of the bar and they should be able to tell you who he is. I remember his name was Harry. I don't think I knew his last name."
"I'll look into it," he agreed.
"I'm so sorry this didn't occur to me sooner. If it's...if it's him...my God he's had Ray for days and I could've...."
"Don't Stella. Do not do that. We don't know anything yet, okay? I'll call if it pans out to anything."
"I need you to promise."
"What do you think I just did?" Silence dragged between them for a couple of seconds.
"I know, I'm sorry, I know you wouldn't...I know you're looking as hard as you can."
Ray filled in the unspoken words. It actually occurred to her that he might not try to find Vecchio because of his jealousy over her. Another good reason they were divorced, he thought. She gave him the name of the bar, said her good-byes and hung up.
Ray leaned back reviewing their conversation. The fact that Stella suggested that Fraser and him might have more than a friendly relationship bothered him. The kidnapper suggested that very thing and there really was no evidence to support it. Could he just be parroting what she told him?
He put a call into the bar in Florida. The manager remembered Harry well. He was a good bartender, good with the customers, fast with the service and then he just stopped coming to work one day. The manager said that wasn't unusual since apparently, bartending is a transient job. But he did say he was surprised when Harry quit without notice. Harry's full name was Harry Orwell and the manager supplied his social security number too.
Ray put a trace on the number hoping to find his current place of employment.
Fraser returned from the cafeteria with coffee for Ray and tea for himself. He sat in his usual chair and Ray told him about Stella's phone call. Fraser didn't hide his irritation at her recklessness but Ray didn't feel like defending her. He was still bruised by her hate talk to a stranger.
Diefenbaker licked his pant leg and Ray patted his head. The wolf's return provided their one bright spot in the last few days. He had shown up the night before at the Consulate looking tired and hungry but unhurt. A blood test at the veterinarian's office found traces of drugs in his system confirming that he had been given a potent sedative. Dief gave Ray a last nudge before settling under Fraser's chair.
Ray and Fraser tried to brainstorm a clue while they considered the likelihood of Stella's bartender being the kidnapper. They both agreed it was a remote chance but the "gay" comment and the level of knowledge the kidnapper had did lend support to Stella's concern.
Ray risked a glance at Francesca and found her chewing the end of a pencil. She noticed him looking and stood up. Walking over to them she stood close to Ray's desk, the pencil held between her fingers. He sat forward in his chair with his hands closed in front of him.
"I want my brother back," she demanded, her eyes round and glassy.
"We're doing what we can, Frannie, you know that. We can't make stuff up."
"Did you put signs on the street for your stitches?"
Ray gave her a fond smile.
"It's put the word on the street and I have snitches, not stitches, Frannie."
"You know what I mean," she said, seriously.
"Yeah, I do. I've called everybody I can think of. If anybody knows or finds out where he is, they'll call. And Fraser and I are still going through my old files trying to dig up something. We're looking at Stella's cases too, just in case."
"Ma's a wreck. And Maria thinks it's her fault cuz he wouldn't have been at home if it weren't for her."
"He would have come home eventually, Francesca. There's no reason for Maria to feel responsible," Fraser said.
"I keep telling her but she's so scared. Ma too. They're thinking that maybe..."
"No. He is not dead, Frannie. That bastard would call to brag about it if he was," Ray said.
"I keep seeing him in my head. And he's all alone and he's scared like he used to be with Pop. The way he'd just curl up and wait for it to stop hurting, you know?"
Neither man had an answer for that. Ray stood up and wrapped his arms around her. She struggled at first but the need for comfort overwhelmed whatever other thoughts she was having. She leaned into him, resting her cheek against his chest.
Ray Vecchio leaned against his cement prison, shuddering at the cold and fighting a body that demanded relief. He hurt. Aching and weak and just to add to the fun, hallucinating. As he watched the endless looping broadcast, sometimes he could hear Stanley's voice telling him, "No sitting, no lying down, no sleeping."
Ray had tried to sneak some rest. He tried leaning with his back to the cameras and closing his eyes but the sound of clanging bells would start or the horn would sound and the lights would flash until he thought his head was splitting. He tried sitting on the toilet for a while, just to rest his legs but after only a few moments the horn would blast again.
He couldn't think anymore, couldn't get passed wanting sleep. Even the constant rumble of his empty stomach and his barren throat were forgotten with the desire to lie down.
Ray blinked in surprise when his two assailants from the house walked towards him. He figured he must be hallucinating or maybe he had accidentally fallen asleep. But the rough hands on his arms convinced him otherwise.
"Are you tired?" The voice asked, interrupting Stanley's favorite litany.
He didn't answer at first, trying to process the words through the fog in his brain. He received a solid shaking for the delay.
"Are you tired?"
"Yes," he answered, resentfully.
"I'm going to help you."
Ray kept his "thank God" to himself, hoping that one of the two thugs brought a pillow and blanket with them. He paled when he saw the syringe come out of the brown haired guy's pocket. He struggled violently and was soon pulled into a tight headlock by the blond while his partner drove the needle through his shirt and into his arm. The chemical burned at the tip then spread down to his hand. He moaned clutching his arm while the blond let him drop to his knees.
"That will help you stay awake," the voice informed.
"Stay awake? I thought you were gonna let me sleep."
"You haven't earned it yet. And I believe you spoke out of turn."
No lights, no raging noise for his error, just a swift kick to the belly. Ray rolled on to his side, gasping for air.
"Now, get up. You know the rules."
Another defiant gesture with his finger led to another kick. He yelled out his frustration and pain even as he struggled to his knees. It occurred to him that if the thugs got in, then there must be a way out.
While he worked at getting to his feet, the burning sensation cascaded through his bloodstream. By the time he managed to stand, the burning was replaced by a tingling in his fingers and toes and lips. An uncomfortable energy built inside him. He grew nauseous as his skin and scalp broke into goose bumps.
He looked for the thugs and found them disappearing through a sudden opening in the wall ahead of him. Ray sprinted towards it and unable to stop on his wobbly legs, he drove straight into solid cement. He used his arms to stop himself but he still bounced back from the wall, stunned by the sudden introduction of a door.
He trembled with the surge of energy and noticed his vision was keener. He could clearly make out the lines in the cement that outlined a door. When he first examined his prison he mistook them for foundation cracks. He ran his fingers along the markings. Through that door lay freedom, his life, fresh air and food. He choked back the exhausted tears and another jolt of energy hit him. He paced, no longer feeling his aching muscles. Unable to think or feel, he just walked like a caged lion patrolling his artificial home.
The speaker crackled to life and Ray stopped to look at the television. He watched Stanley move through the film contentedly and waited for the voice that would follow.
"In ten hours, the drug will wear off. I might let ya sleep then, Vecchio, but you'll have to earn it." The voice hesitated long enough to make Ray wonder if that statement actually constituted a question. "Very good. Yer learning. No talking is important. Now, every two hours the horn will sound one time. Yer to kneel down in front of the television and apologize to me for a wrong that you've done. Big or small makes no difference. But, every two hours, you apologize on your knees and ask me to forgive you."
"I don't even know you."
Just a short blast of the horn and Ray was scrambling to cover his ears and eyes.
"I am Detective First Grade Raymond Kowalski," the voice said.
Ray hugged himself. Great, kidnapped by someone who wants to be a skinny, short-tempered geek with bad hair. Perfect.
Ten hours. Ray didn't think he could do another ten hours like this. The horrible jolts felt like electricity forced through his body. He couldn't think like this and he couldn't stop thinking. His mind tumbled and tossed in widening bands of confusion. He had to apologize to Stanley? For what? What was he going to say in two hours? Sorry he forgot to finish last week's expense report?
Ray knew he could get on his knees. There was a time when pride would have stopped him but he let that go the first time he met Franco Iguana. Franco made it real clear that Armando Langostini might be an honorary member of the Iguana Family but he was definitely not Family. Ray had almost blown his cover the first day over that discussion. Apparently, he'd overstepped his position by asking Franco's son to fetch him a drink. Ray learned a serious lesson that day. A little heartfelt humility could save your life.
He prayed for the first two hours to end. Every minute led towards the promise of sleep. Ray blinked at the image of Stanley sitting on his car. Ray remembered that day and shuddered with the knowledge that they were being watched. Stanley was yelling at him because he had threatened to drive the GTO into the lake if Stanley didn't drive more carefully. This was after a far too thrilling car chase through the warehouse district.
Okay, that's two things to apologize for. Come on, horn, blow baby blow.
When the horn finally sounded, Ray's frayed nerves almost sent him burrowing through the nearest wall. He sighed, walked to the closest screen and knelt down. He looked up at the monitor with as much earnestness as he could muster.
"Eyes down," the voice said.
Ray almost asked for a repeat but he caught himself.
"Yer not good enough to look at me directly. Keep your eyes down when you speak. And don't look at the monitor again. You should get used to not looking at me."
Ray sighed again. He was tired of hearing about his lowly status in the greater scheme of Kowalski.
"I'm sorry I left last week's expense report for you to finish."
"Now ask for forgiveness."
"Please forgive me, Detective Kowalski."
"Do ya ever want to sleep again? Do ya ever want food or water? Think carefully, Vecchio."
"All right, all right. Please forgive me, Detective Kowalski. And yes to all three of your questions."
"Good. Now get off the floor and wait for the next blast of the horn."
Ray stood slowly. His mind might be running but his body was refusing to follow. His nerves jangled under the skin but his legs felt heavy and exhausted.
Eight hours. Just eight hours and I can sleep.
He wanted to scream at the freak behind the speaker. Did this guy really think these parlor tricks were going to work on him? Ray had stared down some of the worst killers in organized crime. He had a firm grasp on his identity. Lack of basic comforts and necessities wasn't going to make him suddenly become Stanley's lap dog. He could pretend to follow, even pretend to believe but the bottom line was obvious. He was still pretending.
Raging in his own mind against the injustice of his imprisonment made the next two hours go quickly. When the horn blasted, he hit his knees, looked at the floor and spoke as clearly as he could around a dry, aching throat.
"I'm sorry for threatening to hurt the GTO, please forgive me Detective Kowalski."
"That is nearly unforgivable."
Let's hope not.
Ray started his pacing again. Despite the hard packed dirt, he was starting to see signs of his route. He decided to vary. He started throwing punches in the air as he shuffled across the floor. The extra push of adrenaline felt good. He sent another volley of punches out, glad that he and Stanley had started sparring together from time to time.
Exercise. That sounded promising so he decided to start with sit-ups. Just as he crouched, the voice in his head shouted at him. That would mean sitting down. He revised his plan. He shadowboxed for a while, then jumped into a rousing series of jumping jacks. He considered that he had been awake and walking for days and probably did not need exercise but he did need to kill time. He just had to get through the next six hours.
The horn blasted, startling him again. Breathless and sweaty, he settled on to his knees, carefully keeping his eyes down.
"I'm sorry for letting the heavy bag bounce back and hit you. Please forgive me, Detective Kowalski."
He didn't wait for encouragement. He climbed back to his feet and was surprised when his knees gave out on him. He fell hard against the dirt. He stayed still, gathering his breath, wondering if he could rise again. It no longer mattered how fast his head was buzzing, his body was literally collapsing on him.
Instead of the horn, the sound of clanging bells combined with the strobe light. He screamed, crouching against the floor, covering his ears. The deluge lasted longer than any before. His jangling nerves lighted on the noise as if the sound were crashing through his body instead of around it. He screamed again when the room turned black and silent. He rocked slightly, keeping his ears covered and his eyes closed.
"It's all right, Vecchio. Just stand up slowly and I won't hold this incident against you."
"I...I...." Ray stumbled over his plea.
"Don't compound your mistake by speaking. Now stand up. Just put your legs under you and start walking again."
Ray didn't move, couldn't move. His body felt like a lead weight.
"If you want another injection, I can arrange it, but then it's another ten hours. Do you think you can do another ten hours?"
The threat was enough. He gathered his courage and yelled out loud as he pulled himself up. Trembling with the effort, his brain and vision spinning, he nearly toppled over but he held on.
"I won't forgive you a second time," the voice said.
When the horn sounded again, Ray was barely conscious. He moved stiffly, automatically but he was shutting down from the inside. He was afraid to kneel, afraid he wouldn't be able to get up. But he was afraid of the voice too and the punishment.
Ray fell on to his hands and knees. Slowly, he managed to rock himself backward to sit up. For a terrifying moment, he had nothing to say. Then, almost without thinking, the words fell out.
"I'm sorry I threatened to let Mickey Cavallaro kill you. Please forgive me, Detective Kowalski."
That one hurt. It was too honest and too private. Ray apologized to Stanley for this once before but he still felt badly about it. Kowalski had been helpless at the time, completely dependant on Ray for protection and Ray had let his temper override his sense.
He stood up slowly, still regretting it and wishing he hadn't admitted to it here. This time his legs held up. He dragged himself forward. He had to keep moving.
The drug was wearing off. Nothing kept him on his feet now except willpower. He just had to get through a little bit longer. He lost count of the number of hours. It might be two or it might be six. He didn't know anymore and he knew it didn't matter. He was going to collapse soon and no amount of needles, sound or light could change that.
The horn sounded. Ray knelt without hesitation. He bent over at the waist, so his face was nearly in the dirt.
"I'm sorry for making fun of your clothes."
Ray finished with asking for forgiveness then he stayed where he was. Nothing was going to get him off the floor now. Shivering from the cold, trembling with the strain, he stayed huddled to the ground, his eyes closed tightly and his arms over his head, protecting himself from the clanging bells or the foghorn blast.
"You did well. You can sleep."
A week passed with no new leads on Vecchio's disappearance. Jack Huey sat in Fraser's chair watching Kowalski study the newest editions to the file on the investigation. Ray pushed through the papers and photographs, silently backtracking through the old material and the new. Huey initially intended to hand over the file, per Welsh's order, and go home but Ray had asked him to stay in order to fill in any gaps in the reports. Jack was tired and considered refusing but one studied look at Kowalski and he agreed.
Kowalski's eyes were rimmed with dark circles, his skin carried the gray tint of someone who was ill or too long dealing with great stresses. And while no one could say Kowalski dressed well, a stained and wrinkled gray sweatshirt covered his blue t-shirt. That was low-end dress even for him.
They were the only two left in the office and Jack was getting impatient. He was worried about Vecchio and he wanted to help Kowalski but he and Dewey had been working overtime for the last week and he was tired. He couldn't make himself think coherently any longer.
Using a trick he learned in college, Ray had started at the back of the file and moved forward. By working backward he had to concentrate harder and his mind stayed focused despite his exhaustion. However, so far, nothing significant had presented itself and he was frustrated. He knew Jack felt the same way. They had been working at this for several hours and Ray overheard Tom Dewey dumping this session on his partner.
He rubbed his eyes while he held the suspects' list. They had mostly exhausted their search for bad guys in Ray's past as well as Stella's so now they were concentrating on a list of some serial offenders provided by the FBI. Ray wanted to prioritize the suspects.
"All right, this one. Wendell Spinks. He just follows guys right? Hangs out outside their bedrooms and jerks off. I don't see this guy as our guy. And he's got like no education, dropped out of high school. He doesn't fit for anything we've talked about."
"He stalks only men," Huey said. "Only strangers and his interviews indicate that he idolizes the men he follows. He fits that much of the profile at least."
"Not enough," Ray said. "Bradley Bagnato sounds closer but there's a note somewhere...Yeah, in here...says he's never left Utah."
"But, he's missing now. As soon as the hospital released him into a group home, he disappeared. We don't know where he is."
"Yeah, bugs me though. Illinois is a long way from Utah. And he never got violent. Just liked to follow people and find out stuff. He only got busted for trespassing. Kidnapping is a stretch with this guy."
"He does have the education behind him. He was something of a boy genius but by college he was showing signs of schizophrenia. He's been in therapy for years."
"Okay, we'll keep him in the maybe stack. Hey, Fraser," Ray interrupted himself when he saw his partner.
"Hello, Ray. Detective Huey," Fraser answered.
Huey started to stand. Thinking simultaneously that he was in the Mountie's chair and why did the Mountie have a chair?
"That's all right. I'll just sit over here," Fraser said.
"We're going over the FBI's list of possibles. Vecchio's old contact, Bill Morris, sent them over," Ray explained. "Trying to get them in some sort of order."
"By probability," Huey said.
"Anyone stand out from the rest?" Fraser asked.
"Not really," Ray answered, handing the file over and sitting back. "But this guy kidnapped a cop so I can't believe he doesn't have a record. He must be on somebody's radar."
"It's possible that whatever arrests he's had, had nothing to do with stalking or abduction," Huey said. "The FBI sent us suspects based on the information for this incident. If this is a new thing for him, he won't be on the list."
"Yeah," Ray agreed. "Listen, Jack, thanks for staying with me on this."
Jack stood up and said his good nights. After he was gone, Ray stretched his aching body unused to sitting still for so long.
"Did forensics come up with anything from the driveway?" Fraser asked.
"Nope. Nothing we could use. I went back over there today but there wasn't anything to see and I think I just made Mrs. Vecchio nervous. We matched my tires tracks on the pavement but that didn't give us shit, I mean, crap...we already knew the car was there."
Whether it was a premonition or dj vu, both men stiffened when Ray's phone rang. Fraser leaned forward over the desk. Ray kept his eyes on him as he lifted the receiver.
"Ray, it's good to hear your voice," the kidnapper said.
"Where you been? Thought you'd forgot about me," Ray answered while nodding at Fraser to pick up the other extension.
"I've been busy with my new toy. He's coming along nicely, Ray. If he continues to do so well, I'll be able to release him soon. You'll like him so much better when he comes back. He's learning to respect you, Ray. To show humility. It's a slow process but so satisfying."
"I don't want him respecting me. It'll ruin our whole partnership," Ray argued.
"Now Ray, wait until he comes back and then tell me that. I think you'll be very pleased."
"What'd please me now is to talk to him. I wanna hear his voice."
"Oh no, I can't do that. He's far too deep in his studies right now. But I did anticipate that you might ask so I have a tape instead. I think you'll like what you hear."
"It don't tell me he's alive," Ray said furious.
The kidnapper did not acknowledge that he heard. A pause followed, then a slight crackling on the tape.
Vecchio's voice came through clearly. "I'm sorry I threatened to let Mickey Cavallaro kill you. Please forgive me, Detective Kowalski."
Ray slumped in his chair as if the air had been sucked out of him. He couldn't speak for a moment. A quick glance at Fraser told him they heard the same thing. The Mountie's face had faded to white. Fraser pointed at the phone and nodded.
"Look, that's good, I guess," Ray said, trying to keep his voice steady. "I mean we been kind of not talking about that but, uh, that about covers everything. He can come back now."
"Not yet, Ray. He's only just started learning his lessons. I promise you'll be glad you waited."
"Maybe I could come and see him. See how things are going in person, ya know?"
"I don't think that's a good idea. Everything is under control here. I have to go now but I'll call again soon."
Ray slammed the receiver down in front of him. Incensed, he grabbed the stapler on his desk and heaved it across the room where it slammed noisily into the wall behind Huey's desk.
Fraser placed his carefully back in the cradle.
"Did you hear that?" Ray raged.
"How Vecchio sounded? Like...like..."
"Yeah, like that. Like a robot."
Ray leaned his forehead over his hands on top of a file cabinet.
"Like it's not him, like there's nothing left," he said, quietly.
"We have to get the tape pulled and checked, Ray. If they separate the words from the background..."
"They already did that with the other tapes, Fraser." He lifted his head, furious again. "The guy's got air conditioning. That's all they're gonna tell us."
Fraser looked at him seriously. His gray eyes turning slightly translucent.
"We have to try."
A look at his friend and Ray calmed. If this was hard for him, it must be killing Fraser.
He agreed by picking the phone back up and making the appropriate calls. A half-hour later he hung up, feeling steadier after taking the familiar actions. He noticed Fraser's face had returned to its natural color and his expression had snapped back to neutral.
"Welsh and Huey are on their way back in."
Pushing the air out his lungs, Ray left to make fresh coffee. Ben watched him leave, then closed his eyes. He squeezed his shaking hands into fists. Diefenbaker stuck his head out from under the desk laying his snout on Ben's lap. Ben patted his head, the simple gesture helping him to keep his thoughts in order.
"You know what he's doing to him?" Ray asked softly, from the doorway.
Fraser looked up at him with a dread in his eyes that Ray had never seen before. When Fraser turned away, he clenched his hands together, then stared down at his fist.
"No, not the specifics."
"What do you know?"
"Yeah, Fraser, tell us what you know," Dewey said.
Ray turned around, startled to have both Huey and Dewey standing behind him.
"I wasn't home yet so I just swung over and picked him up," Huey explained with a shrug.
Welsh came in a moment later. "We got the tape yet?"
"Not yet. They said they'd bring it up," Ray answered.
"Well give us a rundown. What'd he say this time?"
Ray tried to repeat the conversation as close to verbatim as possible. Fraser helped with some of the phrasing. When they finished, Welsh was leaning against the glass wall of his office with his arms folded over his chest. Dewey had pulled a chair out from behind his desk and was sitting nearly in the center of the room. Huey had shoved back his blotter and calendar and was sitting on his desk, his legs dangling above the floor.
"He was alive to be recorded," Huey said.
"Might be a fake, like the wife's," Dewey offered.
"No, I don't think so," Ray said.
"I agree with Ray, he hasn't killed Detective Vecchio. He's trying to prove something to Detective Kowalski and he can't accomplish that if Ray is dead," Fraser agreed.
"So, what is he doing? What's that about studies and learning his lessons and all that?" Welsh asked.
"Tell us what you think, Fraser," Ray encouraged.
"I believe the stalker is attempting to brainwash Detective Vecchio." Dewey snorted his disbelief but Huey leaned forward with interest.
Fraser continued. "There are many methods towards mind control. The purpose is to weaken someone's beliefs in an effort to force him into different or opposite beliefs. In order to accomplish this you have to attain control over that person. You control their behavior. You control their information so only your message is received. You control their emotions both by preventing the outward release and by causing the reactions you wish. And you control their thoughts."
"That's not possible. How could you do that?" Ray asked.
"Drugs are often used. Methods of conditioning."
"They're drugging him?" Ray asked as he started pacing.
"His words were slurred. As you mentioned, he sounded monotone or robotic. I think it's likely."
"Jesus," Ray sighed, stopping for a moment, processing the information. He started walking again between Welsh's office and the entryway. "What else?"
"The conversion process has been essentially defined into three components: deception, dependency and dread. He'll keep Ray isolated and then feed him information and ideas that may seem impossible to us but will become more believable when there's nothing to refute them. He'll keep Ray dependent, controlling his nourishment, his environment, his health. This will also make him more susceptible to unusual ideas, particularly if he's undernourished and sleep deprived. Fear and intimidation will likely play a part as well. All of these things will combine to break down the usual defenses so that, in theory, Ray will begin to accept whatever truths he's told."
"Yeah, but this is Vecchio. He's not gonna just kneel down and start believing I'm God."
"Under the correct circumstances, everyone is susceptible, Ray."
"That's an interesting theory, Constable, but maybe we could stick with reality for a minute," Welsh said. "This is downtown Chicago, not Communist China. Vecchio is a Chicago Police Detective, not some prisoner of war in Korea. And this guy, whoever he is, is not some expert at mind control and interrogation, he's just a fruitcake with a lot of ambition."
"Actually, we have no idea what he is or who he is. Therefore, the only possible assumptions must be based on the information at hand. And all of that is coming from the kidnapper."
"Wouldn't something like that take money?" Dewey asked.
"Ideally, I would say yes, but it wouldn't be precisely necessary. It would depend a great deal on how elaborate the kidnapper wishes to be."
"But we think he's educated and he has that high brow talk going. I'll bet he's got money and that'll narrow the suspect list quite a bit."
"We don't know that," Ray yelled. "You can't throw people off the list cuz of some fucking theory!"
He grabbed some files roughly off his desk and threw them in a drawer slamming the desk shut.
"Ray, we're trying..."
"We're all trying, Fraser. I'm going to get that tape."
Ray stormed off, leaving silence in his wake.
Ray Vecchio tried to remember. He needed to put the events in order, give them some sort of perspective before his mind mixed him up too completely. Hunger gnawed at him, exhaustion colored his thoughts. His sanity was tenuous at best. If he could just put things in order, then he could deal with them one at a time.
He remembered the first few days of not sleeping, of apologizing to Kowalski for whatever wrongs he could think of. Then he had slept. The sleep period had lasted for three hours (to the dot, according to the voice). Then he had been shaken awake by the two thugs still feeling heavy and groggy and not quite able to open his eyes. The two of them had spoken to each other while they forced him to wake but, judging from their conversation, Ray thought they must have assumed he was mostly still asleep.
"...pretty ruthless for a cop," one of them had said.
"I know a lot of nasty cops," the other commented.
"Yeah, but this guy's his partner."
Ray had had only a moment to think about those words before he was flipped onto his stomach with his arm bent out straight for another injection.
He had spent the next several hours curled into a ball of agony from horrible stomach cramps. He must have lost consciousness because the next thing he could clearly remember was food.
Sitting on a plate a few feet from where he lay, Ray had found half a cantaloupe, one half of one slice of dry toast and water. His stomach had still hurt but he didn't dare to let the gift go without eating it. He couldn't know when or if there might be more coming. With no silverware to use, he had gnawed at the open fruit after downing the toast in two bites. His throat and stomach protested the assault. He had to concentrate just to keep from vomiting but he had managed to eat it all including scraping the melon all the way to the rind.
Ray remembered that some time after eating, the blond thug had come in alone. He had held a baseball bat in one hand and a spiral notebook in the other. Ray could still feel himself scrambling backward across the dirt, terrified that the tiny meal was meant as his last. The blond had looked bored as he slapped the bat lightly against his leg for a moment before dropping a notebook at Ray's feet. Then he had pulled a pen from his pocket and dropped that too. Without a word he had walked back out while Ray hugged his knees.
Ray remembered staring at the new materials, wondering what he should do with them before the voice gave him a choice. If Ray wanted to eat again, he had to fill a notebook with every memory he could think of regarding Kowalski. He would be allowed to sit or lean but he couldn't sleep without permission and he had to stand whenever he was addressed. Ray needed the food and he needed to rest even if sleep was denied. Despite the pain that still resonated in his belly, his sense of survival urged him on.
Ray had tried faking the writing for a while. He wrote nonsense and fiction and exaggerations but as the hours and days ticked by, as he grew more fatigued and his hand cramped, he was surprised to find reality on paper. It was too difficult to continue lying and making things up. The real memories crowded his mind until all that was left was the truth.
He didn't know how long the writing had been going on. It filled spaces of time that he couldn't grasp with any clarity. With no watch, no sunlight or sky, no set periods of sleep or food, time had become meaningless.
But, while time passed and as he wrote, he couldn't help thinking about the conversation he overheard. He couldn't believe Kowalski would betray him like this but...that is what it sounded like. He dismissed the idea knowing they were setting him up. They had to be.
But Benny hadn't found him and Kowalski might be the reason. Who would be better to keep the investigation floundering than the lead investigator? And Benny...Benny would never suspect Kowalski.
Ray could pinpoint his next memory as a day or two after the delivery of the notebook. Lost in a blurry haze of lines and words, Ray had flinched in surprise to find his personal thugs standing over him. He had wondered what they used on the door to keep it so damn quiet. The brown haired one had snatched the notebook out of his hand while the blond threw clothes at him. They didn't speak to him. Only the voice spoke and when the video started again, Ray had known he was about to be addressed.
"Those are my clothes. Yer going t'wear them and know they're mine, just like yer mine."
Ray could still feel the cloth in his hands as he examined the clothing. Even as he turned them over in his hands, he had spared a thought to the sound of the voice. More and more it did sound like Kowalski and less like a cartoon and how was that possible?
He had been given a pair of blue jeans with a tear in the right knee and several other small rips and holes along with a light blue t-shirt. He had stared at the jeans, thinking and remembering. He recognized them as clothes that his partner changed into after he and Fraser had rescued Kowalski from jail and took him home. The coloring and the tearing were too close not to be the same pair of jeans. The t-shirt looked familiar too.
Kowalski's clothes. Not fakes.
The blond had dragged him roughly to his feet when he hesitated and Ray had lost his temper in a flash. He threw an awkward punch, putting his entire body behind it and lost his balance for the effort. The brown haired thug had caught his fist before it could land and the blond wasted no time in sinking a deep blow to this abdomen. Ray had sunk to his knees hoping he wouldn't vomit.
"Do you need help dressing?" The voice had asked, while Ray caught his breath. His already strained stomach muscles throbbed intensely from the added assault.
"No," he had managed, "I can do it."
It was a struggle but he had dressed in Kowalski's clothes. His own pants and shirt were filthy and he welcomed the soft clean fabric against his skin. His fingers had left grimy prints on the edges but at least the inside was clean and smelled of soap.
"Thanks, Stanley," Ray had murmured without thinking.
The blond had grabbed him by the shirt before he could finish with his shoes. He found himself slammed facedown on the floor with one shoe on and untied, his other foot covered by a pungent sock and his face pressed firmly into the dirt.
"He doesn't like to be called Stanley," the blond thug had whispered against his ear. Ray struggled but he was about as effective as an upturned beetle.
The brown haired thug had spoken next. He was louder, obviously speaking for the sake of the voice.
"You call him Detective Kowalski and nothing else. Nobody calls him by his given name except his own mother. Say you're sorry."
"Fuck you," Ray had growled. The blond let him go and the brown-haired thug kicked him in the side.
"Say you're sorry."
"Fuck you," Ray repeated, fury passing all logic. Another kick and he was lying on his back, gasping and holding his side.
"No," he had gasped and tried to roll on to his knees. He got kicked low on the hip and Ray heard himself cry out.
He lost count of the number of blows he took. Each one preceded by the demand for an apology followed by his refusal. The beating was relentless until finally, choking and barely breathing, Ray had given in.
"Sorry," he rasped, holding his side, his hand bruised from trying to block one of the kicks.
"Say all of it, Vecchio," the voice had demanded from the loudspeaker. "You owe me this."
"I'm sor...sorry for calling you... Stanley. P-Please for...forgive me, Detective Kowalski."
Ray had thought it was over for now. He remembered thinking that they would go away and leave him to suffer through his humiliation. But he was wrong.
"Who do you belong to?" The voice had asked.
Ray was lying on his back, eyes closed, trying hard to concentrate. It had only taken a nudge from a boot before he was frantically curling up.
"Who do you belong to?"
"God... I don't know," Ray had screamed back at him.
"You belong to me. To Ray Kowalski. I am your better. We are not partners. You answer to me. You belong to me. Now say it."
"Fine. I. Belong. To. You," he spat, raging inside his weakened, hurting body.
"Say it again and use my name."
The last flag of defiance fell in a heap when the blond had laid a steel booted toe against his genitals. Ray froze at the slight pressure. No injury yet but the threat was clear. His sanity had started slipping into a fog of pain and terror. The voice persisted through the welcoming dark until Ray finally moaned the words he needed to say.
When he woke sometime later, those words were playing through the speakers. A weak, broken sentence but it was still his voice, his declaration.
It had played continuously since that day. Only stopping when the "Kowalski" voice spoke to him.
Ray had lost more than the battle that day. He had lost water privileges. With a battered body, malnourished and dehydrated, he felt his mind slipping with his will.
Threatened with the loss of food or clothing or the bare heat provided, Ray had found himself reading the notebook out loud while the voice demanded explanations and details. The voice examined each word, each thought, criticizing and berating him. And then promising that if Ray pledged himself to Kowalski, all would be well.
At first, Ray had participated just to avoid any punishment. Keeping his thoughts guarded, measuring his words had taken all of his concentration but he succeeded for a while. His inner thoughts reminded him repeatedly that he was just humoring the voice. But the interrogation continued for days. Only brief breaks were given for sleep or food and those were filled with his own voice giving himself over to Kowalski.
He had grown more confused and less able to keep his inner battle inside. Even while he knew that it was the sleep deprivation combined with the hunger that propelled his disorientation, he felt powerless to stop it. And still the discussions went on. He couldn't escape the demands for truth even as his words were used against him over and over.
He didn't want to relive his most recent memory but he knew he needed it. He needed to place it with the others and remember that it was just another tactic.
After another day of being ripped open from the inside and another brief sleep period, Ray couldn't take anymore. His throat was swollen and aching. His voice had been reduced to a dry rasp. He couldn't stand being the rat in the maze, couldn't stand capitulating to every demand and whim.
Defiance and despair had combined to bring him to stand in front of the screen, waiting to be noticed, waiting to be acknowledged. He had planned to tell the voice that he would not participate in the discussions any longer. They could kill him but he was done being their entertainment.
His own voice had continued pledging allegiance to the false God but he could almost tune it out. Adrenaline pumped through him while he waited, knowing that his life would likely end with this stand.
When the voice had crackled to life through the speakers, interrupting his recorded litany, Ray flinched with fear. He swallowed air against his dry throat and clenched his shaking hands into fists.
"I think you've earned your water rights back," the voice had said. "You've participated well in our discussions so we'll count water as your reward. In fact, I'm feeling generous so what else do you want?"
Ray's breath had hung suspended in his chest. The sudden kindness confused him enough to make him sway. He hadn't expected that and now his determination to force a confrontation seemed less important than accepting a slightly better existence. He leaned against the nearest pillar.
"Well," the voice asked and Ray thought he could hear amusement.
"A...a blanket," Ray answered without thinking. He had cursed himself for not asking for more food, for a shower, for clean clothes. He was just so tired and so tired of being cold.
"All right. Water with your next meal and a blanket for your sleep period. Cooperating is good. I told you that you could earn privileges."
"You also said water was a necessity," Ray had blurted out, then slapped his hand over his mouth in shock. Please, please, please, don't change your mind.
"It's all right this time. I told you I was feeling generous."
The voice went away. Ray had sunk to the floor, burying his head against drawn knees.
Awhile later, the two thugs had come in. The brown haired one stayed close to the door. The blond carried a thick brown comforter. Ray had just finished drawing a stick figure family in the dirt with his fingers. Since he wasn't allowed to sleep he had to occupy himself in any way he could.
With shaking fingers he had taken the offered blanket. The blond teased him briefly, holding on to the edge tightly, making Ray tug it out of his hands. Weak and tired, Ray had stumbled back a couple of steps when the blond let go. But, he didn't think about that. He wrapped the comforter around himself, inhaling the fragrance of soap and laundry softener. He moaned happily, sinking to the floor and wallowing in the gift. Within moments he was warm, an almost forgotten feeling. He couldn't stop the tears filling his eyes. It was like heaven to feel the softness, the comfort. He forgot they never brought food or water.
Ray remembered being vaguely aware that the two thugs didn't leave immediately. They were still standing near the door, watching him. They're voices were soft but sound traveled well inside his prison.
"Surprised he gave it to him," one of them had said.
Ray didn't bother to look up to see who was speaking. He didn't care.
"Prob'ly feels guilty working with the Mountie all day."
"Guilty? Him? Yeah, right." They both laughed at that before they left.
Ray had rocked slowly, wrapped in his blanket and barely aware of his surroundings. The warmth after being cold for so long undid him. The words of the guards were the only thing he could concentrate on.
Is Kowalski really behind this? I know it's not his voice over the speaker but...they keep saying it, like...like he is. And they don't think I'm listening so why would they say it? No, there's just no way. I don't believe it.
Kowalski would have to be a psychopath. He was pretty messed up after that business with Nicole. Maybe this is payback. Maybe he never really got over it.
And where is Fraser? The man that could track a dog by its piss can't find his best friend? Is it Kowalski keeping him away?
Ray had curled up as small as possible, covering every inch of himself. He snuggled into the softness and closed his eyes, hoping they would give him more than the three hours and knowing he should be grateful for that.
He dreamed of Benny standing in a cemetery in full dress reds pointing a gun at one of the headstones. The wind was high and his Stetson blew off to bounce wildly across the tops of the other markers. Diefenbaker jumped out of an open grave and chased after the hat across deep green grass. Benny stepped back from the grave so the name was revealed. Stella Kowalski Vecchio. He stepped back a few more paces before he started firing into the headstone. Just as Kowalski came running towards him...Ray woke up.
The two thugs stood over him holding baseball bats. Ray was tangled in the blanket. He had tried to crawl backwards his heart pounding through a sleep-fogged brain. The brown haired thug slammed his bat against one of the pillars. The blond stroked his bat menacingly.
"What?" Ray had screamed. "What's wrong?"
"Did ya think I didn't know?" The voice asked. Brown Hair slammed his bat again. Ray flinched, drawing his legs tighter against his chest.
"Did you?" The voice repeated.
"No. I don't know. I don't know what's wrong."
The blond swung his bat viciously, barely missing Ray's skull. Ray cried out, rolling on to his side and curling into a fetal position, even as he felt the air move over his head. Another explosion sounded when the bat hit the pillar again. Ray tried to make himself smaller inside the comforter.
"You've been very bad and you have to be punished."
He felt the end of the bat nudge him in the side. Ray whimpered. Then the blanket was pulled. He grabbed at it with both hands, desperately holding the fabric. It was ripped off him and he was plunged into the chill again, his skin puckering at the exposure.
"Please," Ray had begged. "I'll be good." The familiar words struck low in his belly. How many times had he pleaded like this with his father? Hurt, afraid, trying desperately to protect himself from another blow.
"I'll be good," he repeated.
"It's too late. You can live with the cold. You're lucky I don't take your clothes as well."
"Please," Ray had grieved as his tormenters left him alone in the cold.
Now, as he remembered, he still had no idea what he did wrong to lose the blanket. The voice never explained and he had been too shocked, too desolate to ask. He wrapped his arms around his middle, reminding himself that each incident was just an event, a splash in time. Meaningless. Pointless.
He was still okay. He had to be.
Ray Kowalski put the key in his apartment door and pushed it open. The front room was dim, lit only by a single lamp near the couch. He took off his jacket and dropped it over the diningroom chair. He walked into his bedroom, stripped off his shoulder holster and gun. The holster was put over a hook in the closet. The gun went into his nightstand drawer.
Going back in the livingroom, he checked on his turtle, rubbing gently against the shell with his knuckles before he went into the kitchen. He looked in the refrigerator, not expecting to find anything. He wasn't disappointed. He grabbed the phone off the wall, dialed the pizza parlor and ordered a medium for delivery.
The pizza guy gave him forty minutes to shower and change before he could expect his dinner. Ray returned to his bedroom, stripped down and went into the bathroom where he turned the shower to hot. He brushed his teeth while the water warmed hoping the after taste would be gone before the pizza arrived.
He stepped into the shower, exhaling gratefully as the hot water pummeled his skin. He turned his face into the stream until he needed to breathe, then turned away with his eyes closed. He found the soap by touch and lathered his body, washing away the city's dirt with the tension he carried like armor.
Ray rinsed the soap from his body, washed his hair and rinsed again. He stepped out carefully, thinking he should invest in a shower rug and being careful not to slip on the cold tile. His towel was still damp from the morning but it was sufficient to dry off with.
Going back in the bedroom, he opened his jeans drawer and tunneled through his work clothes for the pair he kept for comfort. Slightly baggy and torn, they were his most comfortable clothes without resorting to sweats. And they weren't there. He searched through the stack again with no luck and wondered if his Mum took them in the laundry. He couldn't remember the last time he wore them.
He would have to compromise so he grabbed a pair of navy sweats instead. Opening the shirt drawer, he looked around for his gray sweatshirt. He actually owned three gray sweatshirts but the one he wanted was old and frayed and soft. Ray nearly cursed his mother when he found that missing as well. He took a white thermal out of the drawer and slipped it over his head.
Timing being perfect, he heard the expected thump as soon as he went back in the livingroom. Ray grabbed a twenty out of his wallet and opened the door. He didn't recognize the acne covered delivery boy but he was polite so Ray let him keep the change.
His stomach growled at the smell coming from the box. Unexpectedly, the aroma depressed him. Ray wondered what Vecchio was eating, if he was eating. Three weeks passed and not a peep from the stalker and not a clue to Vecchio's whereabouts.
Francesca and the rest of the family were losing hope. He was having some bad moments as well. The stalker could easily have found someone new to worship. In that case, Vecchio was dead and he doubted that the stalker would bother to inform them.
He startled when the phone rang but as he set the pizza on the coffee table he was glad for the distraction.
"Hello, Stanley, it's your mother."
"Hi, Mum. What's going on?" Ray asked.
"Well, your father is getting a bit anxious staying at Brandon's, dear. How much longer do you think we'll need to be here?"
"I don't really know. Until we get this guy, I'd feel better if you stayed there."
"Is there any word on Detective Vecchio?'
"No, not yet," Ray answered softly.
He suddenly felt like crying but he choked that back. There was something about talking to his mother that just made him emotional.
"I'm sorry, Stanley. I'm sure you're doing everything you can."
He didn't have an answer for that so he waited for her to continue. He listened while she covered the receiver, then heard her muffled voice, followed by his father's.
"Ray," his father said.
"Hi, Dad," Ray said, stiffly, sitting on the arm of the couch.
"We can't stay at your brother's house indefinitely. We're going home this weekend."
"I'd rather you stayed there, Dad."
"I won't have my life moved around because you can't get yours in order. I doubt very much that this person is going to bother with us. Brandon's been more than hospitable but it's time to go home."
"Dad, it might not be safe."
"Then I'll dig out my old hunting rifle and I'll take care of the family."
Ray couldn't miss the rebuke. He was a police officer and his family was in hiding because of it. He started to argue further when his mother returned to the line.
"All right, son, you heard your father. I hope you'll come by for dinner on Saturday. Maybe you could spend the night."
"Yeah, all right, Mum, I'll see you Saturday. At least I can pick up my laundry."
"Your laundry? I don't have any of your clothes. You asked us to leave the day before I usually come over to pick up your things."
"Well, where's my ripped up jeans, the ones you hate so much?"
"Top drawer, left side, on the bottom. Right where they belong," she answered.
"No, they're not," Ray disagreed.
"Stanley, don't argue with your mother. I know where I put things."
"Good then, I'll see you Saturday."
Ray hung up the phone and sat on the couch. He opened the pizza box, stared at the sausage and pepperoni and wondered who was eating his order now. He sat back with his eyes closed for a moment, deciding whether to return this or eat it, when his mother's voice came back to him. She didn't have his clothes. She did his laundry and took care of his clothes so if she didn't have them and they weren't in his drawer, where were they?
He picked up the phone, dialing Welsh and pacing. A gruff voice answered.
"Lieutenant? It's Kowalski. I think, maybe, someone broke into my place."
Several hours later, the empty pizza box lay on its side by the trash. Ray said good night to the last of the lab techs. He turned away from the door to find Welsh taking a beer out of his refrigerator while Fraser scolded Diefenbaker for stealing someone's slice of pizza. Ray's stomach growled jealously since he hadn't eaten. The fingerprint team, Welsh and the other investigators finished off his dinner before he got the chance.
"Besides the jeans, you're missing a gray sweatshirt and a couple of t-shirts," Welsh said, taking a drink from the bottle.
"I think that's it. I got a lot of t-shirts but there's a couple that I only wear off duty. I've had them awhile so I know for sure that they're gone. Same thing with the sweatshirt."
"I put everybody on overtime so we'll have the results on the prints by morning."
"Shouldn't take long. Nobody's prints but mine and my mum's should be in the bedroom."
"Sorry to hear that Kowalski," Welsh teased him.
"No luck with the bartender," Welsh asked.
"No, not yet. Social Security doesn't have him employed anywhere. I can't find a credit card on him, no credit checks have been run so he probably hasn't rented a place to live or tried to make any large purchases."
"Well, it's a long shot, anyway."
"Perhaps not, Lieutenant. Kidnapping Stella in the beginning always struck me as odd since she and Ray have been divorced for such a long time. And his information regarding Ray seems a bit intimate. This could very well explain how he knows what he knows. And the fact that he has effectively disappeared also lends credence to the possibility."
"Stella was back before Vecchio and I got partnered. How'd he know about that," Ray challenged.
"Observation, eavesdropping. I don't imagine it would be difficult to gain the details of a person's life with just a bit of perseverance. The police station is a busy place, strangers come and go at will."
"You're getting ahead of yourself, Constable. This guy could be a dead John Doe for all we know. He could've left the country to find himself. He could be a hermit," Welsh said.
"Yes, sir, you are quite correct," Fraser allowed.
"You got my parents covered," Ray asked Welsh.
"Extra patrols were the best I could do."
"Lieutenant," Ray started to argue.
"Your parents are at your brother's. We don't have anything to indicate that this guy knows where your brother lives. They've been there for weeks and nothing has happened. I'm sorry Ray, but I can't put a twenty-four hour guard on something like that. It's not even my jurisdiction out there."
"But you got some extra patrols?"
"I managed to get some extra drive-bys and they're gonna knock on the door periodically to check in with them. And Francesca Vecchio is gonna call every couple of hours for the same reason. It's the best we can do. Now, do you need a ride home, Constable?" He asked, ending the conversation.
"No, sir. But thank you kindly."
"Good night then, gentlemen. I'll see you first thing in the morning."
After the lieutenant left, Ray went back in the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, rummaged around until he found a bottle of green olives and opened the lid. He popped a couple in his mouth, grimacing slightly at the taste. He was worried about his parents but he couldn't help but feel good with the adrenaline buzz coursing through him. This was the first break they had in weeks. He knew that Fraser felt it too. The Mountie was actually pacing.
"This is good, right. It's a shot," Ray said.
"We'll have to see," Fraser answered.
"Come on, admit it, this is good."
"It's certainly a new avenue to investigate."
"It's good," Ray persisted.
"Fine. Yes, Ray, it's good."
"Are you planning to eat that entire jar of possibly rancid olives?" Fraser asked.
"They do not smell entirely fresh, Ray. How long have they been in there?"
"Don't know. Bought them for a party or something, I think."
"If you're hungry, we could go and get something to eat. I must confess I'm a bit too invigorated to sleep."
"Invigorated, huh? I like that. Let's go."
Fraser convinced Ray to walk to a nearby hamburger place. The cold night air felt good as did the breeze off of the lake. Both men were feeling their first pangs of hope that they might find their partner. Neither one wanted to admit that the odds were good that whoever broke into Kowalski's apartment wore gloves.
Ben held open the heavy glass door at the entrance while two large, trucker types walked out. Neither thanked him. When Ray walked in, he said thank you and Ben smiled at his back. They found a booth and settled in.
"Thought he'd call more often," Ray said suddenly and Ben thought it must have been on his mind for some time. "Thought he'd check in, give me regular updates."
"The suspense, the not knowing may well be part of the excitement for him," Ben suggested.
"He didn't do that with Stella."
"No. But he did torment you for several hours with her voice and her pretend death. There was a great deal of suspense in that."
"But he can't get off on it if he doesn't talk to me, right?"
The waitress, a small older woman wearing a nametag that read Mary, interrupted them. She looked about fifty but was probably older. The two men ordered cheeseburgers, french fries and drinks.
"He's likely building his own suspense, Ray," Ben answered the earlier question. "The payoff will come when he releases the new Ray Vecchio and sees your reaction to him."
"It's been weeks."
"Yes it has."
Ben sipped at his water for a moment. His mind flashed on a memory of Ray Vecchio. They were sitting in the hospital after Irene Zuko's death. Ray had finally returned to himself after the fever of Louis Gardino's murder. He was terribly fragile that night. Talking about Irene one minute, his troubled childhood the next and crying in brief silent moments of anguish. Ben stayed with him through that night and the next day, just listening to him and looking after him. He felt he became Ray's protector that night. He never wanted to see his friend hurt so badly again, never wanted to be a contributor to that pain.
Ben was terrified for his friend now. Wherever Ray was, he was alone, at the mercy of someone else with no one to protect him, with no one to help him.
"We got a lead tonight, Fraser. We're gonna find him," Ray Kowalski said, reading his mind.
"We have to find him soon. There's no way of knowing what's being done to him and it's been far too long."
"We will, we gotta keep the faith here, right?"
Fraser leaned forward in the booth. He wanted to take a more aggressive tact in finding Ray Vecchio but he knew that this Ray would be difficult to convince.
"I have an idea that might accomplish what we need. It's not going to be easy but I think if we assume that the kidnapper is still watching you, then we can succeed."
"What idea?" Ray asked suspiciously, sitting back.
"The kidnapper wants to protect you. What if we gave him reason to believe you needed protection from me? Isn't it likely that he would come after me next?"
"No, no way, Fraser," Ray said.
The waitress placed their food in front of them. Hunger outweighed the start of the argument and Ray ate three quarters of his hamburger before he spoke again.
"I am not losing two partners to this psycho."
"That won't happen, Ray. We have to draw him into the open. Get him to take action on our terms."
"He grabbed Vecchio out of his driveway. We are not using you as bait, Fraser."
"Ray, I'm not suggesting that I go out with no protection. With the Lieutenant's assistance, I'm quite sure I can be watched adequately so that when he comes, we'll be able to arrest him. It would put the control back in our hands and away from his."
"We don't have to do that. We got a good lead tonight. The fingerprints are gonna get us this guy and they're gonna get us Vecchio."
"Ray, our lead is slim at best. Even if someone did break into your apartment, it may have nothing to do with Ray's abduction."
"Oh, yeah, it's just coincidence that my place is broken into and they don't take the TV or the stereo, they take my clothes. And not even decent clothes either. They take my grubbiest, oldest, shabbiest clothes."
Chewing on one french fry and pointing with another, Ray continued to refuse the idea. He argued through dinner, through the walk home and then on the drive back to the Consulate. No matter how many arguments Ben gave, Ray dismissed them.
Ben decided to bring the idea to Lieutenant Welsh in the morning. Perhaps Ray's superior officer would be more receptive.
The following morning, his idea became a moot point. Ray picked him up at the Consulate and when they arrived at the station, Welsh was waiting for them. He called them into his office.
"There were three sets of prints in the bedroom. Yours," he pointed at Ray, "your mother's and a set belonging to felon named Brice Noise. He's a muscle for hire out of New York. Been in Chicago for the last couple of years. Huey and Dewey called in fifteen minutes ago. They picked him up at home and they're bringing him here."
Welsh's phone rang. He made short work of the call.
"Huey's got Noise in Interview One. You wanna take it?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, I do," Ray answered.
Brice Noise was a forty-six year old bruiser with too much experience and too much attitude to be intimidated. Ray knew as soon as he walked into the interrogation room that this guy was not going to be manipulated or bullied. As it turned out, neither tactic was necessary.
"You got my prints in your place so you got me," Noise said. "But, I got something you want so let's make a deal."
"What do you want?" Ray asked, just to keep the game in play.
"You let me off on it. Don't wanna go down for a B&E. Stupid of me not to wear gloves but who's gonna do prints for a ratty pair of jeans and some old shirts? Should've known there was more to it than some fairy missing his boyfriend."
"What can you tell me?" Ray asked.
"We got a deal?" Noise demanded.
"If your information pans out, we'll drop everything right here."
"All right. The guy's name is Tom Magnum."
"That's it, you're done," Ray said, furious that he was being played with.
"Wait, wait, settle down. I know his name's not really Magnum but that's what he said. I checked around a little and I found out he goes by a bunch of TV detectives. Cops, PI's, whatever. I heard he called himself Joe Mannix for a while. I also heard he went down hard in Florida last year for felony assault and would've done time but his lawyer got him in the nuthouse instead."
"What else?" Ray asked.
"That's it. But, jeez, a guy with a TV fetish and at least one count of assault oughta do it, don't ya think? You're a detective, go look for him."
"Why did you take the clothes that you took?"
"He gave me a picture of you in a t-shirt and the jeans. Said I needed to get that stuff. Said he needed them to sleep with cuz they're your favorites. Then I grabbed some other clothes too cuz some of the shirts looked alike and I wasn't sure which was which."
"All right. You're getting booked until I check this out. We'll drop the charges when I find him."
Fraser was already giving Francesca the information when Ray reached the bullpen. She found him easily once she backtracked through the aliases and searched for the Florida arrest. Arthur Malone's picture popped up on the screen with several aliases below it.
"Stella was right all along," Francesca said, surprise in her voice.
"What? Why do you say that?" Ray asked, still glancing down the rap sheet.
"Harry Orwell, Ray, 'Harry O'... was on maybe a year in the seventies. Starred David Janssen. I was just a little kid but I remember it."
"Get me his last known address, Frannie."
"It's on the sheet but its in Florida," she answered, sounding disappointed and anxious.
"Yes, but look at the address for his parents, it's only an hour away," Fraser said.
"We gotta get out there," Ray said.
Ray took it to the lieutenant.
"His name is Arthur Malone. He got busted in Florida for kidnapping and assault. He stalked some guy and his wife and ended up kidnapping the wife for three days. Should be in prison but he's nuts so they stuck him in a hospital and they let him go after six months. He was supposed to get outpatient therapy but he jumped town first chance he got. His family's from here."
"All right," Welsh said. "You two go and check it out. I'll get hold of the locals and get them out there."
"Make them wait for us," Ray said before he and Fraser headed for the car.
Arthur Malone stared at the television monitor and observed his pet. It knew its place now, knew to fear Kowalski, recognize his power. He wished he could spend a few more days in reinforcement but the arrest of Brice Noise prevented it. He knew the worthless street thug would have revealed all to the police by now. The man was beyond any sort of loyalty.
He watched the monitor as Bill and Kyle entered the cellar carrying the twine to bind his pet. He picked up the phone and dialed the number of his golden innocent.
"Have you found my address, Ray?"
"What do you mean," came the coy reply and Malone smiled at the sound of his voice.
"So you have. That's all right. I would have given him back in another day or so, anyway. He's ready for you now. He understands who he belongs to and he'll be everything that you need."
"You gonna stick around and introduce us?"
"I don't think we're ready yet, Ray. And your other partner's with you, right? When we meet, it will just be us, Ray, it will be just for us."
Malone remembered warmly when the pet had been tied before. How he had struggled against it so viciously that Malone worried he might kill himself trying to escape. It was playing that same struggle again, kicking, screaming, fighting with all the animal strength it had left. It wasn't much but Bill and Kyle were performing some amazing feats to avoid getting struck. Malone watched the battle with the volume lowered, feeling a pleasant rush through his veins.
"He's okay, right? You've been saying how perfect he'll be so that means he's not hurt, right?" Ray asked.
"He's not permanently damaged. That would be counterproductive."
Helpless now, the pet curled up on the floor, arms secure behind his back, ankles tied together. This was so like the last time but this was not quite as sweet. The last time its eyes had been wide with helpless fear while Bill drew the blade against pale skin. It had held its breath, enduring the blade, watching as beads of red bubbled to the surface.
Malone knew that it was thinking of the blade again, remembering its unanswered pleas for help. If not a doctor, it compromised, then a bandage or ice or aspirin, anything to ease the pain. Malone had ignored its begging, pretended not to hear while he reveled in the first moments of terror that followed in time with acceptance.
Later, when it was sufficiently punished, Malone had allowed its release. The pet had clumsily taken off its shoe, then the filthy sock and wrapped the wound. Malone had marveled at the beauty of its suffering, knowing they were reaching its surrender.
He never ordered it to be bound again, wanting to save its fear for this day, its day of freedom. When Kowalski arrived, it would be far too terrified to forget its lessons. The pet would belong to Kowalski as it should, as all those in his circle should.
It would have been better to keep it for a few more days but Malone was confident. It had failed the knife test but it had been obedient since. He trained the pet well and the final bits of reinforcement would come from Kowalski.
"What's that mean? Is he hurt or what?" Ray asked.
"You'll see soon. Good-bye for now, Ray. I'll be in touch."
Bill Smith came in his office, holding a cardboard box of videotapes. Malone rubbed his blond hair affectionately.
"You've done an admirable job," Malone said.
"Thank you, Sir. Are you ready to leave?"
"It's so hard to leave the family home," Malone answered softly, looking around his small office. "I didn't get to spend much time here. My father preferred to ship me off to relatives but I still think of this as home."
"Yeah, I guess ya would. You said the police are coming, though, right? You got our money?"
"Of course. You and Kyle need to leave town. There's plenty of cash to start over someplace else. I will miss you though."
"We know the deal," Smith said, becoming impatient.
Malone handed an envelope thick with cash to his employee.
The drive to Malone's house took nearly an hour even with Ray's recklessness. Ben tried to talk him into slowing down or at least hesitating at the stop signs but Ray ignored him. The phone call from Malone had created a frenzy in both of them and Ben didn't argue with any conviction.
They arrived at the address without crashing into anything. Ray parked in front of a cruiser. A single uniformed officer pulled a set of binoculars away from his face and turned away from the narrow opening in the trees that revealed a small, brown house. Ray and Fraser stepped out of the GTO with Ray showing his badge.
"Detective Kowalski." Ray said. "Anything going on out here?"
"Joe Burandt." The young officer introduced himself. "I haven't seen anything. After my captain got the call from your lieutenant he told me to head out. I got here maybe thirty minutes ago."
"Thirty minutes? Your captain got called more than an hour ago," Ray complained.
The officer only shrugged at him. Fraser stepped up next to Ray.
"Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," he said. "There's been no movement since your arrival, is that correct?"
"Yeah, nothin'. I don't think anybody's in there."
"All right, then. If you'd be so kind as to provide back up from here, we're going to search the house and premises."
"You got a warrant?" Burandt asked.
"We got probable cause. We think our partner is being held in there," Ray answered.
"Well here, take this," Burandt said, going around to his car and lifting a hand held radio off the seat. "It's on the right frequency so just call if you need help."
Ray took the radio and started through the path of trees that led to the highway. Across the two-lane road lay a driveway and then the house. Ben advised him that "probable cause" would not likely hold up in court in this instance but Ray just shrugged.
"It doesn't matter. If Malone is in there, he's not making it to court and if Vecchio is alone in there, no one's gonna ask how we got him out."
As soon as they were through the trees, Ray drew his gun. They walked up the driveway, carefully watching the house and grounds for activity. The house was a single level, square box with very little to make it appealing. About two hundred feet of grass separated it from the highway. A rusted mailbox poked out from the edge of a cement driveway with weeds overgrowing the cracks.
There were no cars visible and despite the darkness from storm clouds above them, there were no lights.
The two men walked towards the front door. Ray spun slowly from time to time to keep an eye on their perimeter. They reached the front door and Ray knocked. When no one answered, he knocked again. He didn't try a third time. He started to kick the door when Ben stopped him. He reached past Ray and turned the door handle. It was locked. Ben held up his hands in mock defeat and they both kicked the door open.
Ray kept his gun in front as they searched the small house. Inside they found a square and barely furnished living room with tattered carpet. While Ben checked the kitchen, Ray checked the side rooms. The first one held a double bed and small cardboard dresser. Inside the second room, he found an abandoned computer table with wires and phone lines lying around. Hanging from the wall were three active television monitors. The left one showed Ray Vecchio lying on his side, arms and legs tied together.
Just as Ray yelled for Fraser, Fraser yelled for Ray. They met in the living room.
"Come here," Ray said, leading his partner back to the computer room. He pointed Vecchio out and Ben flinched at the sight.
"How do we get down there?" Ray asked.
"This way, I think," Ben answered and led him back to the kitchen.
"Burandt, get an ambulance and a forensics team out here right now," Ray said into the radio. The officer acknowledged the call.
Like the rest of the house, the kitchen was sparsely furnished. There were no obvious appliances and the refrigerator door was open, apparently defrosting. Ben pointed out the cellar door. A large padlock was attached to a hasp on the outside. Ray put his gun against the lock and turned his head while Fraser backed away. He fired and the lock disintegrated.
"Kowalski, come in," The radio crackled.
"S'okay, Burandt. I was shooting a lock off. Just get the lab guys out here."
Ray flipped on the switch by the door. Both men walked down the narrow steps carefully, expecting a trap but not finding one. At the bottom of the steps was a wide entryway guarded by another door and another lock. Ben retreated up the stairs a few steps while Ray spoke into the radio again.
"I'm shooting another lock," he said just before he fired and the door fell open.
Ben followed Ray in carefully. They hadn't seen anyone else but they couldn't be sure that Vecchio was alone.
"Oh, God," Ray whispered when they reached him.
Vecchio had rolled to his side, his eyes were wide with fear. His face was nearly black with dirt. Ray recognized his own clothing, hanging loosely off the skeletal body, grimy and stained with sweat. When he stepped forward, Vecchio tried to jerk his way closer to the wall. Ray looked to Fraser for help and found the Mountie moving forward slowly, speaking so softly Ray could barely hear him.
Ben walked towards his friend, whispering encouragement while taking in the cold, empty room with its dirt floor and wide pillars. The monitors at the ceiling were frozen with a photo of Ray Kowalski when he was markedly younger. A tape was playing over the speakers.
"I belong to you, Detective Kowalski," it repeated.
It was Ray Vecchio's voice, halting and weak, but there was no mistaking his voice. Ben shivered with the words.
"It's all right, Ray. You're safe now. We'll take care of you," he said as he reached Vecchio.
Slowly, he placed a gentle hand on one of his legs. Vecchio cried out, his eyes squeezing shut, his head curling down against his chest. Ben snatched his hand back and reached into his pocket for a small camping knife. He took a closer look at the leg finding a darkened patch on the jeans that was probably blood.
"I'm sorry, Ray, I didn't realize you were hurt. It's going to be all right now." He held the knife, still closed in his palm, showing it to Vecchio. "I'm going to open this and cut the twine now. I'll be very cautious. I won't cut you."
Vecchio closed his eyes again for just a moment. His body was frozen beneath Ben's hand but when the ropes broke free, he curled up with a faint whimper.
Ray forced himself to look away from his partner and completed his search of the cellar. Convinced Vecchio was alone he called Burandt again and told him the suspects had vacated the premises.
Fraser turned to Ray looking as helpless as Ray had ever seen him. He turned back, rubbing Vecchio's arm, speaking softly, trying to calm him. Ray moved in closer to take a better look. Vecchio looked like a third world mental patient with his filthy, ill-fitting clothes.
"Ray, I need your help," Fraser said, startling a shiver out of him. "He's injured and I'd like to take a look before we move him. Can you hold him, talk to him, while I do that?"
"Yeah," Ray answered.
Vecchio watched Ray with wide, wary eyes, but he didn't move away.
Kowalski settled on the ground. He kept his movements small and slow so as not to startle him. Vecchio flinched away from his touch, then scrambled closer to Fraser. Vecchio was shaking hard enough that his teeth were chattering.
"It's all right, Ray, we just want to help," Fraser said.
"No. No." Vecchio answered, holding one filthy hand up in Kowalski's direction.
"Okay. No problem. I won't touch you," Ray agreed, keeping his voice low. "Just let Fraser take a look, all right?"
"Benny," Vecchio sighed.
"Yes, Ray, I'm right here with you. I just want to make sure you're all right."
As soon as Fraser started to touch him, Vecchio curled his body up smaller, nearly sitting in Fraser's lap but keeping his legs tucked beneath him. That must have hurt because he whimpered again and leaned his head into Fraser's shoulder.
"Transport's on the way," Ray said, unable to think of anything more encouraging.
Fraser nodded as Vecchio snuggled against him. Fraser rubbed his back slowly in firm circles promising that he was safe.
The police arrived before the EMT's and Vecchio clung to Fraser like a frightened kitten as they worked around him. Kowalski briefed the officers but most of them had seen photos of the missing detective from the APB reports circulating since his disappearance.
When the medics finally arrived, they wanted to sedate Vecchio but he was so panicked by the needle they decided to transport only. Fraser half-walked, half-carried his friend up the stairs, encouraging him with each step while Kowalski followed at a discreet distance. Fraser helped Vecchio to get inside the ambulance then climbed in after to sit on the gurney beside him.
Kowalski waved at them as the transport drove away and he saw Fraser nod at him. Once his partners were safely on their way, he sought out the local lieutenant.
An hour or so later, Kowalski was free to leave the scene. He had already spoken to Welsh to give him the news, now he wanted to get to the hospital to check on Vecchio's condition.
The skies had finally let go with a freezing downpour. The rain turned to ice in a matter of moments and Kowalski had to drive slowly in order to keep from sliding on the roads. When he turned into the parking lot, the car lost its grip on the asphalt and slid sideways for several feet before he regained control. Kowalski cursed as he parked, wishing he brought a warmer coat and wishing he put snow tires on the GTO.
When Ray reached the inside of the hospital, he was shivering. The building looked more like a clinic than anything else but he figured as long as there was a doctor inside, then Vecchio was in the best possible place. He approached the nurse's station, angry at his near accident, angry at the sudden cold and furious at Vecchio's reaction to him.
"I'm looking for a patient," Ray told the man behind the desk. "Raymond Vecchio."
"He's still being examined," the man answered flashing a fake smile with too-white teeth.
"Yeah, I figured. I need to know how he's doing."
"I'm sure someone will be out momentarily, Sir," the man answered, smiling again.
"I'm sure you can find out for me, right?" Ray said, snatching his badge out of his pocket and slamming it on the desk.
"I can do that," the man agreed with his grin faded.
He disappeared through a set of double doors near the back of the building. A few moments later, Fraser appeared through the same doors looking grim.
"How is he?" Ray asked.
"We have a problem, Ray," Fraser answered.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Well, it's not so much a problem as it is a decision."
"What are you talking about Fraser?"
"Ray's injuries aren't life-threatening. His leg was slightly infected but they've cleaned and treated the area and provided stitches to seal the cuts. He's also bruised over most of his body and he's dehydrated and malnourished. On the positive side, there's no sign of concussion or broken bones. No internal injuries. He's suffering from extreme exhaustion but even at that he's alert and able to answer basic questions from the doctor."
"But," Ray said.
"But the doctor wants to keep him here and he wishes to go home. He's asking us to take him home."
"He's confused. He doesn't know what he needs right now," Ray argued.
"He's been a prisoner for weeks. Can we, in good conscience, allow him to be a prisoner here when we have the power to free him?"
"We're not leaving him a cell, Fraser. This is a hospital where they'll take care of him."
"He doesn't see it that way."
Ray waved his hands, dismissing the argument.
"Come on, Fraser, you know we gotta leave him here."
"All right, Ray, I can see you feel strongly about this. But I'm afraid he's going to release himself against medical advice and I can't leave him to fend for himself."
"Against medical advice? That's just stupid. You should be convincing him to stay, not talking to me about springing him."
"I can't do that. I can't force him to do something he doesn't want to do. Not after all he's been through. He needs our support, not our interference."
"You know he's afraid of me, right? You get that?"
"He's calmer now. They've..."
"Constable?" Both men turned around to face a small, Asian woman wearing scrubs.
"Ah, Doctor Yoo. This is Detective Kowalski."
"Detective," she acknowledged, then turned to Fraser. "Your friend has agreed to spend the night. He's refusing any sort of IV and he won't let us draw blood so there are limitations to what I can do for him but he is willing to take oral antibiotics and he's not opposing liquids. The preliminary tests on his urine have come back negative for drugs which only means..."
A loud buzzing sounded through the building startling all three of them followed by a yell for the doctor.
They turned to find the receptionist standing in the doorway.
"He went out the fire door," he said, clearly exasperated.
"Who?" The doctor asked.
"Vecchio," Kowalski answered, sprinting for the exit as he saw his partner pass the front doors. Fraser followed close behind but it was Ray who reached the outside first.
"Vecchio, stop," he yelled and it was like time itself froze.
Ray Vecchio stopped in place with the icy rain splattering down on him, creating a muddy sluice from his clothes. He turned around slowly, hugging himself and shivering. Kowalski stopped as well while Fraser approached their partner slowly with his hands held out and open.
"It's all right, Ray. Let's go back inside and get warm."
"I don't want to stay, Fraser," Vecchio said.
"I know," he acknowledged as he placed a hand on his shoulder. "It's too cold to talk out here. Please come inside with me."
Vecchio nodded. Kowalski stood a few feet from the doorway, hands buried in his pockets. The doctor stood beneath the overhang staying dry if not warm. She turned and yelled for someone to find a maintenance person to cut off the alarm as well as getting someone to cancel the fire department. Then she called for blankets. Vecchio refused to enter the building until the fire alarm stopped ringing. Luckily, it only took a few moments then Fraser led his friend past the doctor and Kowalski and into the hospital waiting area.
Once they were seated, with the doctor and Kowalski maintaining a discreet distance, Vecchio said,
"Benny, please, I can't stay here. I wanna go home."
"I know. It's all right. We'll take you home."
"Constable, he really should stay," Doctor Yoo argued.
"Thank you for your assistance, Doctor, but he doesn't wish to stay. We'll sign whatever documents are necessary."
A nurse draped a blanket around Vecchio's shoulders while the receptionist put together the release forms. The doctor warned them they were leaving against her advice but Fraser remained firm.
Once the signatures were recorded and Fraser was laden down with antibiotics and ointments and bandages and instructions, they were ready to leave.
Bundling their patient back up and using the wheelchair to get him to the car, Vecchio climbed in the backseat and Fraser followed him. Vecchio moved to the far side of the car folding his arms around himself and watching the front seat. Ray had to shift the rearview to see him and he had the uncomfortable idea that Vecchio wanted to hide away from him.
The ice storm was in full force now so Ray turned on the radio. He knew the roads would be seriously dangerous and he worried about getting back to Chicago. Just as he feared, two police cruisers blocked the road he was on. He pulled up beside a uniformed officer covered in plastic.
"I'm heading to Chicago," he said.
"Then you have a long drive ahead of you, Sir."
"What's that suppose to mean?"
"I'm afraid the interstate has been closed down as well as several of the back roads."
The officer made the only suggestion possible to get them back to Chicago but that would leave them on traitorous roads for four hours or more and that was assuming there were no other closings.
"The roads are ice and there's been some flooding. We already had one bad accident. Frankly, sir, I wouldn't even try getting there before tomorrow."
Ray thanked the officer and rolled up the window. He did a u-turn and narrowly managed to avoid a tailspin. Once the car was back under control and he could breathe again, he asked,
"What do you wanna do?"
"I think our decision has been made, Ray. While this is a fine vehicle, without snow tires and more weight, we'll likely end up in a ditch if we try to drive now. We'll have to find a hotel."
"He tried to run from the hospital, what's to say he won't run from a hotel?"
"He won't risk of all our lives, isn't that right, Ray? You understand that we will take you home tomorrow but it's not possible today."
"I understand," Vecchio answered stiffly, looking at his hands and then out the window.
"There you are then, we'll find a place for the night," Fraser said.
Ray pulled into the parking lot of the first hotel he found. There was a family there already trying to rent two rooms, one for the parents, one for the kids. The clerk working the desk announced that they lucked into the last two rooms in the place.
"Hey, wait, I need a room too," Ray interrupted.
"I'm sorry, Sir, but with the weather, we've had a number of unexpected visitors. Did you have a reservation?"
"No, I'm one of the unexpected. Look, I'm a cop. You must have something left."
"I'm sorry, Sir. I can phone around for you and see if there's anything else available."
"That's all right, miss," the father of the family interrupted. "We'll go ahead and take the one room. If you could arrange a cot for my son, then we'll be fine."
Ray was clearly surprised and the man smiled at him.
"We have to pull together in an emergency, officer."
Ray didn't bother to correct him on his title. "That we do. Thanks a lot.''
"It's a good lesson for the kids too," he whispered conspiratorially.
Ray nodded his agreement glancing at the two blond heads busily working a hand-held electronic game.
Ray rented the last room available and was lucky enough to find that it had two double beds. He returned to the car and drove to the back of the building. After unloading Vecchio and Fraser, he announced that he was walking across the street to a convenience store to purchase some supplies.
After Kowalski left, Ben started the shower and went to get Ray into it. He found him perched on the edge of the bed, shivering. Ben crouched down in front of him.
"Would you like to have a shower," he asked.
Ray blinked at him as if he didn't understand. Then slowly, he nodded.
Ben took off his red flannel but left his undershirt on as he helped Ray undress. He held his breath to keep from making any sound at his horrible condition. Emaciated was the only word to describe him, bone thin with his ribs showing grotesquely above his shrunken belly. Fresh bruises covered healing ones all over his body.
Taking the clothing as evidence, Fraser placed them in a plastic laundry bag and tied it shut. He didn't know what he would dress him in after the bath but there was no way he could wear those clothes again. Until other arrangements could be made, Ben knew he could wrap him blankets to keep him warm and covered.
The hospital had cleaned Ray somewhat but the sponge bath had only made a small dent in his condition. Ben wrapped one of the plastic dry cleaning bags over Ray's bandage, then helped him step into the tub. Dirt sluiced off in muddy gobs and Ben worried the drain might clog. He held Ray carefully to keep the weight off his bad leg and because it seemed the slightest upset might topple him. Ben washed Ray's hair twice while Ray rubbed soap over his body and sighed happily at the feel of the washcloth. Ben washed his back gently and then helped him out of the tub. He had turned on the ceiling space heater so the bathroom was stifling.
While Ray sat on the toilet seat, wrapped in a towel and staring into the tile, Ben washed out the tub, then sealed it and filled it with hot water. He helped Ray lie back in the hot bath and left him to soak, his injured leg hanging over the outside of the tub. He was hoping any remaining dirt would come off this way. He didn't dare rub much more with the washcloth, since Ray's skin was already raw from being in filth for so long. Satisfied that he was safe for the moment, Ben left the bathroom to escape the heat.
A few moments later, Kowalski returned, dripping and shivering and carrying several bags.
"I found a thrift shop next to the Seven Eleven. I picked us up some dry clothes. Stuck with sweats since I was guessing at the sizes."
"That was good thinking, Ray," Ben said, earning himself a smile from his partner. "You should get changed before you catch cold."
"I'm all over that," he agreed, shedding his wet jacket, then his jeans. "I got some pudding and applesauce and Gatorade. All bland stuff like the doctor said. There are some bananas in there too."
Ben set about emptying the bags. The first items he produced were the clothes. He found a few pairs of sweats and sweatshirts that were likely for either of the Rays as well as some undershirts. There were also clothes in a larger size, presumably for him. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, disposable razors, shaving cream and shampoo rounded out the purchases as well as some ice packs and a bottle of pain reliever. In addition to the items that Ray said he purchased, Ben found another bag filled with cookies, chocolate bars, pop, water, and crackers.
Ben took the clothes for Vecchio and the toiletries into the bathroom finding Ray nearly asleep in the graying water. Ben helped him to his feet and gave him a fresh towel to dry off with. Ray sat down on the toilet again, looking like a child in spite of the bristled beard.
"I have some ointment from the hospital that I'd like to use on some of your sores. The ointment won't hurt but the touch might so you can do it yourself if you'd like. I can help you."
Ray nodded his agreement. Together they managed to clean and bandage the abrasions on his torso and legs. Ben gave him the fresh sweats and a new t-shirt before he started cleaning out the tub again. He turned at the soft sound of sniffles and was surprised to find Ray crying while he dressed. The tears came down silently while he awkwardly pulled on the sweats, then put the shirt over his head, wetting the collar slightly. Apparently tired from the exertion of the shower and dressing, Ray sat back down on the closed toilet. Ben sat on the edge of the tub, patting his leg gently and speaking softly until he gained control of himself.
"Would you like to shave?" Ben asked when Ray seemed settled.
"God, yes," he answered, showing a small smile when he did. Ben smiled too, grateful to see a glimpse of his friend in this stranger. This was the first real inflection he had used since they found him and Ben was glad to hear it.
Ben handed him the can of shaving cream and Ray managed to cover his face despite his shaking hands. Ben considered the razor in those hands.
"I'll shave you," he said, gently. "Just try to be still for a few minutes."
"I can be still," Ray answered, stuttering slightly.
Ben spoke in a soft voice while he shaved off the coarse beard. Ray didn't seem to hear the words but he responded to the tone and relaxed into the process. It took about twenty minutes until his skin was clear and clean of the harsh bristle.
Once they were done, Ben helped Ray to his feet and they went into the main room. Ben was sweating from the heat in the bathroom and relieved to escape the small space but Ray stopped short when he saw Kowalski. He shuddered and looked at the floor.
"It's all right, Ray," Ben said. "Why don't you get into bed where it's warm and we'll see about some food."
"Don't touch me," he said, eyes still on the floor, arms wrapped around himself.
"Okay, I won't," Kowalski agreed gently.
"Bed, Ray," Ben said, pulling the blankets back and Vecchio obeyed him like a recently punished child.
Kowalski studied him as Vecchio climbed into the bed. His eyes were sunken, his skin was pasty and he had some bad bruises peeking out from beneath the t-shirt. He remembered Francesca's description of Vecchio as a battered child and he shuddered.
"I'm gonna grab a shower," he said and escaped to the bathroom.
After the door closed behind Kowalski, Ben turned back to Ray with a mixture of fondness and sadness. He still seemed wary as he lied down but once he got there he sank into the soft pillow and blankets, breathing in the scent, burrowing deep into the warmth. A moment later Ben noticed the blankets shaking. He sat down next to his friend and found him crying again.
"Ray," Ben said softly, touching his shoulder.
"Can I stay here? I don't wanna go back. Please, can I stay here? I'll be good, I promise, I just...it's feels so good and I just..."
"Shsh, Ray, it's all right. You're safe now. You don't have to go back there. Everything's all right."
"What if I'm not good," he whined.
"You have nothing to worry about now. You're perfectly safe. I promise."
He seemed to settle at Ben's words but he still clutched the blankets.
Ben pulled a pudding cup out of one of the packages handing it and a plastic spoon to Ray. Vecchio sat up slowly to eat it but soon his hunger took over and he devoured the pudding quickly.
Kowalski emerged from the bathroom dressed in the fresh sweats. Ben had the impression he was deliberately avoiding looking at Vecchio as he filled a plastic cup with ice, then snatched a warm Coke off the dresser and a bag of cookies before retreating to a high backed chair near the door.
Ben couldn't worry about both of them so he opened one of the plastic water bottles. Ray took it from him eagerly. He guzzled the fluid down in a few greedy swallows, then sat unmoving while he licked the remnants of moisture from the top. Ben worried that he might become nauseous but he appeared all right and he was eyeing the package of pudding cups on the dresser.
"Do you want more to eat?"
Ray nodded, then looked at the blanket embarrassed.
"It's all right. You can have as much as you want. Anything you want."
Ray finished a second pudding and another bottle of water, handing the empties to Fraser before he snuggled back down into the blankets. He curled up tightly with his knees to his chest. A few moments later his breathing evened into sleep.
They decided that given Ray's nervousness, Ben should sleep with him and Kowalski should take the empty bed. It was still early for sleeping though so Ray went out to the car to call the station and check in with Welsh. The rain had stopped for the moment but he scrambled to turn on the heat as soon as he was behind the wheel.
"Roads still closed," Welsh asked, confirming their earlier conversation. Ray had called him when he was out shopping for supplies.
"Yeah, we can't get back before tomorrow."
"I called his mother. She's anxious but she's glad you two are with him. How's he doing, anyway?"
"He's okay. Tired. Hungry. Fraser's taking care of him," Ray answered, hoping he didn't sound as unsure as he felt.
"He really tried to sneak out of the hospital?"
"Sure did. Don't know where he thought he was going. Fraser thinks we should back him up on this though, since he was so hell bent to leave."
"And what do you think?"
"He really didn't want to stay there, Lieu. He wants his family. If the Interstate wasn't closed, I would've risked the roads. But maybe this might be better anyway. He's kind of...kind of out of it. Saying crazy stuff, real unsure of himself. The doctor said sleep and food might make a big difference...might be better if his family doesn't see him until tomorrow."
"It might be better for him professionally as well," Welsh suggested.
"Yeah, I thought of that. I don't want anybody else in the department to see him until he's stronger."
"I trust you, Ray, I know you'll do what needs to be done. But you need to be careful. Don't confuse loyalty to your partner with good sense. And let's not forget that Malone is still out there."
"Anything new on him?"
"Forensics is still going over the evidence from the house and we're circulating his picture. We did identify two sets of prints besides Malone and Vecchio. A William Smith and a Kyle Brennan. They mean anything to you?"
"No, never heard of them."
"They both have priors, mostly minor stuff but they've both done time for assault. Brennan's been busted for possession of narcotics and Smith did time for trafficking in stolen goods."
"Hired muscle," Ray said.
"That's what it looks like."
"How are my folks and Brandon?"
"No problems. Francesca spoke with your mother just before you called."
"That's good. Thanks for, you know, looking out for them."
"We take care of our own, Detective. You just get Vecchio back here."
Ray sat in the cold car for a while after Welsh hung up. He stared into the darkened parking lot, watching a light flurry of snow commit suicide as it hit the ground. He turned on the radio and leaned back, listening to an old Bob Seger tune. "Sunspot baby, she sure had a real good time".
He tapped his fingers against the warming steering wheel. His mind refused to obey him as he tried to push out that first sight of Vecchio, plastered against a cement wall and looking like the white mouse Ray had watched his cousin feed a pet snake when they were kids.
He switched the car off and flung open the door. He couldn't breathe right, trapped behind the wheel. Standing in the cold, sucking deep freezing breaths into his lungs, Ray slammed his fists against the top of the car.
Fraser came out of the room to stand beside him. Neither man spoke for a long while, each lost in their thoughts. Fraser turned around to lean over the roof of the car and Ray joined him. They lasted only a few moments before the icy metal invaded their clothes. Both men stepped away.
"He'll be more coherent when he wakes. He's exhausted," Fraser said, folding his arms over his chest.
"God, Fraser, he's like...I don't know...looking at him, I don't know how he survived."
"Where there's life, there's hope, Ray. I'm sure he did the best he could."
"He's so messed up. Like a stranger. Like he's got nothing left inside."
"He's going to be all right. It may take some time but he will recover," Fraser said firmly.
"He's afraid of me," Ray said in frustration, pacing and trying not to shiver.
"That will pass. He'll be better in the morning."
"You sound like a broken record," Ray commented, disgustedly.
"What would you like me to say?" Fraser asked, suddenly angry. "Yes, he's afraid. Someone has been playing with his mind for weeks and he's fragile and he's afraid. I've never seen him like this...so...vulnerable. So, what would you like me to say...that everything's all right? Should I hold your hand as well?"
Ray stopped pacing. He leaned with his back to the hotel door and folded his arms. For the first time since they found Vecchio, he looked at the Mountie. His pale skin looked nearly gray. His eyes were sunken and dark.
"I'm sorry, Ray," he said, obviously embarrassed by his outburst.
"No, s'okay. My fault. I wasn't thinking," Ray admitted.
"There's no reason for me to lash out at you. I realize how difficult this has been."
"It's been tough on both of us. We have him back, that's all that matters."
Fraser looked up into the thickening snow and took a breath.
"Ray Vecchio is the strongest person I know," he began softly. "With barely knowing me at all, he followed me to Canada when he figured out that Gerard was my father's killer. He left a hospital bed to do that. He never deserted me during those horrible days with Victoria. Even when they offered him a deal to save himself and his career. He stood by me when I lost my memory. He allowed me to fill a locked bank vault with water while we were inside. I can't say that he trusted me but he must have, at least somewhat to allow me to risk everything, don't you think? He's never wavered. Not for an instant."
"He told me he ditched you after Gardino got blown up," Ray offered.
"A minor breach in an otherwise solid showing. He had other, more dire considerations during that time. And, frankly, mentioning it now is entirely inappropriate," Fraser finished, angry again.
"You're right. Sorry. I know he's a good friend to you. Like you said, once he's had some sleep, he'll be better."
Ben only nodded. He didn't mention his fear that while Vecchio might be more alert, he would likely remain traumatized. Whatever was done to him happened over several weeks. The fear, the shyness or more precisely introversion, the skittishness seemed practiced and natural as if he wasn't fighting his reactions, as if he accepted them. Much the way children accept that sugar is bad and broccoli is good or that looking both ways before crossing a street is always necessary. Brainwashing is an every day occurrence in most lives and many of the lessons last a lifetime.
Ray led the way back inside the hotel room, shivering and glad for the warmth in the room. Fraser had turned off all the lights except the one in the bathroom. Ray stripped down to boxers and t-shirt, laying his gun and holster in the chair beside the bed for easy access, then settling under the covers while Ben stripped as well and lay down in the bed with Vecchio. Their patient had been sleeping soundly for more than two hours and Ray smiled to himself when Fraser staked out the narrowest section of bed he could manage. He figured the Mountie would sleep on the floor if he thought he could get away with it without an argument.
Just as Ray closed his eyes, a high pitched keening filled the room. He jumped up startled and found Fraser doing the same thing. Vecchio was screaming in his sleep, yowling like an injured cat while he thrashed helplessly in his dream. Fraser went around to the other side of the bed. He didn't touch him at first, instead he repeated Vecchio's name in a semi-loud, firm voice. It took a long time for his voice to reach through the nightmare. Slowly Vecchio started to calm, he whimpered softly while his body settled. Once he seemed to be past the horror, Fraser knelt beside the bed and stroked his forehead in a firm and steady rhythm until finally Vecchio's breathing returned to normal and his eyes stopped darting beneath his eyelids.
"My God, Fraser, what...." Kowalski started to ask.
"Shsh," he answered but Ray didn't know which one of them he was speaking to.
After another few moments to make certain Vecchio was sleeping, Fraser indicated for Ray to follow him into the bathroom. The small room was still humid but Fraser closed the door behind them anyway.
"What the hell was that?" Ray asked, knowing the answer but shaken by the whole event.
"He has a lot to fight, Ray. Some battles are going to be taken by the sub-conscious."
"He should be in a hospital. They could sedate him."
"Ray, we have the sedatives the doctor prescribed. He went to sleep before taking them but we have them if he can't sleep. We don't know what else he may have been given over the last month and I don't want to pollute him with anything unless there's no choice."
"The urine test came back clean."
"There's still no way to know with clarity how much time passed since his last injection but there are marks on his arm and to my knowledge, he's never feared needles before."
"I know that, I mean, I don't know that, but, I...I know they stuck him, I just...Fraser, he needs more help than we can give him."
"What do you suggest then? That we commit him, perhaps? Some nice hospital where he can take pills to stay calm all the time and learn to play cards and listen to a doctor give vague answers and...."
"All right, all right, I get it. Christ," Ray rubbed his face with both hands. "Do you think he's down for the night or...." Fraser cocked his head with a bland expression and Ray sighed. "How would you know? Fine, okay, we'll see what happens."
"Let's try to get some rest, Ray. The worst may be over for the night."
They checked on Vecchio as they left the bathroom. He was still sleeping but he had returned to his tightly curled fetal position. Ray whispered a good night to Fraser and settled back into his bed, lying on his back, eyes wide and heart still pounding. He wanted to turn on the television. It might be bedtime for kidnap victims and Mounties but for him it was too early. He felt tired before but now the adrenaline was rattling around inside him and besides, he could use the distraction. He didn't switch on the set though. He couldn't risk waking Vecchio. Rolling on to his side he stared into the heavy window drape until sleep came.
Ben watched Ray struggle for a while until he finally turned over and his breathing evened out. He lay on his back and folded his hands over his chest, staring at the ceiling. He wondered how much longer it would take to fall asleep? He wanted to sleep, needed the reprieve from the day. His utter joy and relief at finding Ray Vecchio had toppled to despair when he saw how badly his friend had been treated and how markedly different he was to the man Ben knew. Intellectually, he could convince himself that Vecchio would recover, would leave this nightmare in his past and move on. But, emotionally he felt that Ray's spark, his irrepressible attitude was missing.
Still lying awake sometime later, Ben flinched in surprise when Vecchio sat up suddenly. He was clutching the edge of the blanket to his chest, looking around the room as if he was lost. Ben pushed himself up slowly to keep from startling him. Ray squinted through the dim light, studying his shape before he sighed and climbed out of the bed. Ben watched him limp into the bathroom and close the door.
Complete darkness encompassed the room as Ray turned off the bathroom light and came back to bed. He curled back up in the blankets, drawing his legs to his chest again, classically defending himself from the outside.
Ben scooted back down, keeping only the sheet over him in the too warm room. His mind was still full but his body admitted defeat and he followed it to sleep. Three hours later he woke to Ray rising again for another trip to the bathroom. This time he did not return immediately and Ben almost got up to check on him but just as he started to push the sheet off, Ray came back, relaxing more this time. His legs stretched out, not fully, not in complete release but more so than before. Ben sighed, shifting on to his back and closing his eyes again.
Three hours later, nearly to the minute, Ray woke a third time. This time he sat on the edge of the bed, facing the wall. For several minutes, he sat completely still. Ben watched him silently, not letting his wakefulness be known, just observing his friend. Ray made no sound, no move, not even the exhalation of air could be heard.
From the other side of the room, Kowalski woke with a groan. Ben could hear him scratching skin and rubbing his eyes. He glanced away from Vecchio to see Kowalski get up in a near sleepwalk. Glancing back at Vecchio, he found him moving, slowly, like a wary cat, turning, slipping back under the covers, his eyes closed tightly until finally he was lying in rigid stillness with the blankets pulled to his chin.
In his sleepiness, Kowalski noticed none of this as he passed the second bed to the bathroom. It wasn't until his way back that he looked in their direction. He couldn't see well but he noted that Vecchio was not curled up anymore and he marked that as a good thing. He climbed back into bed hoping to get another hour before Fraser sounded the morning alarm.
Vecchio waited silently, eyes tightly closed, hands hidden beneath the sheets. He waited until the soft sigh of sleep came from the other side of the room. Then he still waited, his heart beating an anxious dance in his chest until he was certain.
Once he was sure, sleep no longer muddling his thoughts, Ray sat up again. A few feet away lay his goal. He was desperate to reach it, hoped he could obtain it, then hide the evidence. He cursed himself and his need but it was instinct and Armando Langostini had taught him that instinct is all that matters.
He stood up slowly, glancing at Kowalski, just making sure one more time. If Kowalski was awake, he would go into the bathroom instead, perfectly innocent. A quick look at Benny confirmed he slept as well. Ray crossed the room quickly, snatched the box of crackers near the television and hugged them against his belly. He would have preferred the cookies but the packaging rattled too loudly. He forced himself not to run as he went into the bathroom and locked the door behind him.
He crouched on the floor with his back to the tub and opened the package slowly with shaking hands. His stomach contracted with the aroma, cramping from hunger. Ray couldn't remember when he ate last. He thought that Benny gave him something the night before but he couldn't remember for certain. He thought he had been to a hospital too and the bandages on his leg seemed to confirm that but his memories were vague and broken.
The wax paper crackled loudly under his hands and he held his breath waiting for the punishment.
He flashed back to the day he hid in his own closet at home when he was eight or nine years old. His father had stormed through the house, searching for a wrench that Ray held tightly in his hands, hiding it and himself from his father's wrath. He had forgotten to replace it and he knew he was going to get beat if he was found with it.
Ray held his breath just as he had then, waiting for the door to fly open and the pain to start but this time nothing happened. Slowly, fighting his panic and his nearly animal need for food, he finished unwrapping the package. He reached inside and grasped a handful of round, salty crackers, then set the box down between his legs. He popped one whole cracker in his mouth and chewed it as quickly and quietly as possible. He knew if he ate them whole, then there wouldn't be crumbs to hide. He swallowed and popped another in, chewing, swallowing, praying that he wasn't caught too soon. By the time he finished the first handful, his throat was clogged and dry and he knew he would choke if he continued. His stomach hurt less and the immediacy of the hunger was abated so he stole one more cracker, then carefully resealed the package.
Ray stood up slowly, he was a bit dizzy and tired and his leg hurt but it felt better than before. The sink was outside the door but if he flushed the toilet and made sure there were no crumbs or oil on him, then he could wash his hands and no one would question it. The trick lay in replacing the box without being caught with it. He had to hope that they both still slept because hiding a box of crackers under his sweats would only work for a short time if at all.
He turned off the bathroom light before he unlocked the door and pushed it open. Moving more quickly than before he went straight towards the television, pulled the scratchy box from under his clothes and set it down. Just as he started to pull his hand away, Benny spoke up.
"Are you all right, Ray?"
Ray jerked in surprise, knocking the box of crackers on to the floor along with the hotel placard and the cardboard container of pudding cups. He turned around, eyes wide and hands clenched at his sides.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"What's wrong?" Kowalski asked softly as he sat up, rubbing his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Ray repeated, more forcefully.
"It's all right, Ray," Fraser answered, standing up and walking over to pick up the fallen items. "A small mishap, nothing to worry about."
"I didn't mean it," he said, rubbing his arms, his stomach tensing.
Fraser continued cleaning up, either not noticing or not calling attention to Ray's skittish behavior.
"Would you like to turn on a light now that we're all awake?"
"Speak for yourself, Fraser. I am definitely not awake," Kowalski said, grumpily, covering his head up with a sheet.
"Come now, Ray, its full morning. I'll put a pot of coffee on and you'll feel better. Why don't you take the first shower?"
"You're too damn cheerful in the morning," Kowalski complained. "At least Vecchio is as cranky as I am when he comes to work."
Ray remained standing near the bathroom sink. Fraser switched on the light that Ray had still not touched before finishing up with the mess on the dresser. Kowalski groaned.
"Fine, I'm up, I'm up," he said, climbing out of bed.
Vecchio exhaled and stepped away, limping harder after forgetting to protect his sore leg. He sat down on the bed, listening to his inner voices fighting for control and not knowing what to believe.
He wanted to trust Kowalski. They were partners for months before all of this. He had known the guy for a long time before that. Hell, they were even married to the same woman for a while. Benny trusted him and defended him and cared about him and Ray trusted Benny.
But, Ray was scared of him too and that made him furious. Afraid that maybe he did plan the kidnapping, that maybe all the crap the voice had told him was true. What if Kowalski was the voice? Was it possible that he actually lived some sort of dual life where he was superior to everyone else? Maybe everyone did and Ray just never knew about it until now. It seemed more plausible when he was in the cellar. Sitting there in a public hotel room, it sounded ludicrous in his head. Like night fears fade out as soon as the sun rises, he knew that none of it was real. But still, the fear persisted. It ached inside him like a cancer growing unchecked in his belly.
Ray could look at Benny, look at Kowalski, look out the window at families packing up on their vacations and know that there is no secret wrinkle in society. But, he had begun to accept it as truth and now it was hard to let that go. If it was true, then the danger lay in dismissing it and if he had to go back to the cellar, back to re-training, it would kill him. He would do anything to prevent that. He'd kill to stop it.
After Kowalski padded past and shut the bathroom door, Ray stood up to look out of the window. He peered through the curtains at the pattering rain and wind feeling an overwhelming need to feel it against his skin, to smell the cold and mud and wet.
"Open the door, Ray. The rain is refreshing."
"It's cold," he answered, imagining Kowalski emerging wet and half dressed to a chilly room. What would that cost him?
"Yes, it is. Winter is fast approaching and I, for one, am looking forward to it."
"I wasn't sure I'd make it home for Thanksgiving."
"Your mother mentioned that. That she was afraid her family wouldn't be together for the holidays. She's been terribly worried about you. Would you like to phone her?"
Ray turned around, hopefully. "Can I?"
"Of course. The number hasn't changed and the phone is right there." Benny nodded towards the telephone sitting on the bedside table as he stripped Kowalski's bed dumping the blankets over the empty holster on the chair.
Ray picked up the receiver. He almost forgot to make the call collect and had a brief moment of panic at the thought that he would make a charge on Kowalski's credit card.
He could feel Fraser watching him as he waited for someone to answer. Like the perfect Mountie, he was straightening the sheets to strict military standards when Ray said hello.
"Ma? It's me. No, no, don't cry. I'm okay."
When Ray Vecchio's voice broke into a sob, Ben finished up with Kowalski's bed and stepped into the bathroom nook to give him some privacy. Ray Kowalski came out of the bathroom with one towel around his hips while he rubbed his hair dry with another. He was damp and pink, stubbled with a day's growth of beard. He jutted his chin at Ben in question.
"Speaking with his mother," Ben answered.
Ray turned to the mirror to finish drying his hair then moved on to brush his teeth and slather his face with shaving cream to shave.
Ben went past him to take his shower while Vecchio finished his call. The bathroom was damp and muggy and warm. Ben stripped off his clothes and turned the water on as hot as he could stand it. He stepped into the spray with a sigh, rubbing his arms for warmth and wondering why he felt so cold. Slowly, unthinking, he leaned his forehead against the cool tile of the shower and closed his eyes.
In the main room, Vecchio hung up the phone and returned to staring out the window at the rain. He could hear Kowalski getting dressed behind him and the shower still running with Benny inside. There wasn't going to be a better time than now but he had to decide if he could do it.
Looking inside himself for courage netted the armor of Langostini. He had seen precious little of the Bookman since he got locked up but he found him easily this morning. As far as he was concerned, Kowalski had pretty much asked to be ambushed when he left his gun in the open beside the bed. Picking it up had been easy as Ray stood by the window, meekly watching the rain and talking about Thanksgiving. He took the weapon from its hiding place under the elastic band of his sweats and turned around just as Kowalski was buttoning his jeans.
Kowalski stepped back instinctively when he saw his gun in Vecchio's hands. Carefully, he held his arms out from his sides, fingers pointing down. Vecchio could see him calculating, trying to figure out how to contain the threat.
"What're you doing?" He asked, taking another small step backward.
"They said it was you," Vecchio answered stiffly.
"Said what was me?"
"Did you do it? Did you do this to me?"
"You're not thinking clear, Vecchio. I didn't do anything except look for you."
"I can't go back and I can't take the chance so..."
"So you're gonna kill me," Kowalski asked, genuinely disbelieving.
"Yeah, maybe. I don't know. I'm tired of being scared. I hate it. And right now, you're the one scaring me."
"You got the gun, Vecchio."
"I need to feel like me again. I can't do that if I'm worrying about you all the time. It wasn't like this before you came. It was just me and Benny and I wasn't scared all the time."
Kowalski took a breath, pausing to think. Warily, he said, "You didn't used to be scared of me, right? Wanted to clean my clock right after you got back, remember? I was the outsider, hands all over your life. You didn't like it but you weren't scared, were you? You were pissed."
"I hated it. Hated you." His hand pressed tighter around the gun.
"I know. But you don't hate me now, right?"
"I don't know. They talked about you. Everything was about you. The threats, the picture, the video...God, the voice...I said I belonged to you...I said it out loud. I just...I couldn't take getting hit anymore."
Vecchio watched him recoil at the words. He was surprised as he felt the tears on his face. He didn't realize he was crying. He continued gripping the gun like salvation itself and trembling hard enough that he was worried he might pull the trigger accidentally.
"It's not real, Ray. Whatever they said, whatever they told you about me, about you, it wasn't true," Kowalski said softly.
"God, I wanna believe you. But, you're just...you're just trying not to get shot."
"Well, yeah, but I'm telling you the truth. Reality check, right? I wouldn't ever hurt Stella. She got kidnapped, remember? And we're partners, you and me. The last month was just fucking around in your head."
"I'm so tired," he breathed. "I'm just so tired."
"I know," Kowalski answered, stepping forward slowly. "You get some rest and this is all gonna make a lot more sense, I promise."
By now, the gun was drooping, pointing towards the floor. He was too tired to hold it anymore. Kowalski reached out, taking it by the barrel and turning it away from himself as Vecchio released it. Once Kowalski had the weapon, he emptied it and put the clip in his pocket before laying it on the dresser. Vecchio was standing frozen in place, his eyes shiny with new unshed tears.
"Go lay down, get some rest."
Vecchio nodded, feeling stunned. He curled up under the blankets, sealing his eyes behind tightly clenched lids and folding into himself.
Ray Kowalski sat down on the floor between the beds with his knees up. Swallowing hard, he breathed through the trembling. Vecchio wasn't sleeping. He could tell by the shuddering breaths and the tightness in his face. But Ray knew that he wanted to and he could relate to that. How many nights after that nightmare with Nicole Riazzi had he lain awake just praying to escape into sleep? Uncomfortable in his own body and needing any escape from his mind and fears but unable to let go and rest.
Fraser came out of the bathroom tucking his shirt into his jeans. He only glanced in the direction of the Rays, then stopped short at the scene before him. Ray looked at him from his place on the floor then at Vecchio who was wrapped so tightly into himself he looked more like a small child than a grown man.
"What's happened?" He asked.
"Finish getting dressed and meet me in the car," Ray answered, rolling gracefully to his feet and heading out the door.
Fraser appeared by the car a few moments later. He tugged on the door handle and it snapped back in his hand. Ray leaned over and pulled up the lock. Fraser climbed in looking curious.
"He pulled a gun on me. My gun, Fraser. He picked up my gun and pointed it at me."
There was only a moment's hesitation before he asked why.
"Hell if I know. Said I scared him."
"He's afraid of you."
"He's a fucking psycho, Fraser. He was gonna shoot me."
"What precipitated the incident?"
"I don't know. He just...he said he was tired of being scared and he couldn't go back...Malone's house, I guess...said he couldn't take a chance that I was the one behind it."
"Then he thinks you arranged his kidnapping?"
"I don't know. I guess so. Maybe."
"It makes sense. Malone wants him to fear you. It's a way of accomplishing the actions that make up respect even if it does not conjure the respect itself."
"You think Malone wanted him to kill me? Maybe all that respect crap was just smoke."
"Possibly," Fraser allowed but he didn't sound convinced.
"He needs more help than we can give him, Fraser. He's dangerous."
"He's not dangerous. He would never have shot you."
"You can't know that. God, Fraser, he stole my gun. You weren't there, you didn't see how scared he was."
"Well, that's the point, isn't it? He's afraid, Ray. He just wants to feel safe. A hospital won't do that for him."
"But home will," Ray said, already knowing where Fraser was leading him.
"Yes, I think so. Rest, food, time and his family, Ray. That's what he needs now. Not strangers and uncomfortable surroundings."
"He could've killed me, Fraser. He's not cowering in fear, he's screaming at it."
Fraser leaned back, closing his eyes and rubbing his eyebrow. When he opened them again, Ray didn't like the sadness he saw in his friend's face.
"Yes, I understand that. And I know that it goes against good sense, but I simply can not force him into a hospital. He trusts me. I can't betray him by ignoring his wishes."
"Even if he might hurt somebody? Might hurt himself," Ray asked gently.
"He won't. I know he won't."
Ray leaned his head against the steering wheel and closed his eyes letting the steady sound of rain wash through him, soaking in the blasting heat that was making it too warm and remembering the desperation in Vecchio's eyes while he held the gun on him. He didn't think he could do this. He didn't think he could trust Vecchio the way Fraser did. Maybe his time would be better spent looking for Malone. But he couldn't desert his partners either. And really, how often was Fraser wrong? Especially about Vecchio. He leaned back with eyes still closed for just a moment longer before he faced their decision.
"All right," he said, finally. "Let's get him home."
Ben left Ray in the car so he could radio the State Police. He shivered going from the heat of the car to the cold rain and into the heat of the hotel.
Glancing at Ray Vecchio, he found him still wrapped tightly under blankets and facing the wall. Ben sighed softly at the rigidity of his form.
A few moments later, Ray Kowalski entered, complaining colorfully on the way in after confirming that the interstate was re-opened. They packed up the department store bags and settled in to wait for Vecchio to stir.
He sat up a short time later, rubbing his eyes and yawning but keeping a tight hold on the blankets with one hand. He looked around the room at his companions and surroundings before he turned his gaze downward. He made no attempt to stand up.
"We'd like to drive back to Chicago now, Ray. How does that sound?" Ben asked, cheerfully.
"He tell you," Vecchio asked ignoring Ben's question and nodding towards Kowalski who was watching a silent television. Kowalski glanced over at him, confirming that he heard but then went back to watching a dark-haired woman wearing a breastplate pummel several men with spears.
Ben admitted that he and Kowalski had discussed the "gun incident".
"I couldn't kill him. I didn't really think I could," Vecchio said, fingering the top blanket absently and still not looking up.
"I'm glad to hear that, Ray."
"Me too," Kowalski agreed without looking away from the television.
Vecchio shrugged. "I wanna shower before we go. Ma was upset and I don't want to make it worse. Sounded like Frannie and Maria are pretty upset too. Dief keeps following Frannie around and getting underfoot. He's driving her nuts."
"He senses that she's upset and wants to comfort her," Ben explained.
When Vecchio made no move to get up and go to the shower, Ben leaned back against the dresser. He studied him for a few moments before asking if he wanted to go home.
"I don't know," he answered, honestly. "I do. I mean...I miss everybody and I wanna sleep in my own bed. But I don't feel like me and I don't know if I can stay with them feeling like this."
Ben waited for more. He pulled the chair away from the dresser desk and straddled it, resting his arms over the back.
Kowalski was forgotten as Vecchio spoke softly to his friend. "Armando was never scared, Benny. He always knew what he was doing. Sometimes Ray'd get scared. You know, laying in bed at night or just before he'd walk in a room but not Armando. He was always right there, sure of himself. I tried really hard to do that when I was locked up. Just let him take over. But I kept getting screwed up."
"In what way," Ben prodded gently.
"The voice, I don't know what else to call him. He had a lot of rules. Big rule, never talk unless you're answering a question. He'd spend hours telling me what a screw up I am. Wouldn't let me sit down for it either. I started to feel a little like you pulling guard duty." He gave a small smile that faded as quickly as it appeared. "Just had to stand there and listen to all the ways I fucked over Detec...you know. The more tired I got, the less I could channel Langostini. Soon as the going got tough, the bastard bailed on me."
"So it was your own fortitude that kept you going."
Ray laughed bitterly. "No. It was him, the voice, that kept me going. Whenever I got too close to really losing it, he'd send in food or he'd let me sleep. He just knew the line. He was watching me all the time so I guess he could tell when things were getting too much."
"He didn't want you to die," Ben offered.
"Where's the fun in that, right? I had to come back and be nuts."
Ben leaned forward slightly without responding while Ray paused to pull the blankets closer.
"It's like nothing makes sense," he continued. "I could hear Kowalski's voice through the speaker. I could see him talking on the damn video. They kept talking about him when they thought I wasn't listening, talking about how he set this up, how he did it all."
"But they did know you were listening, Ray. They did that on purpose to confuse you, to make you question what you know to be true. You were manipulated into seeing and hearing things that you know can't be true."
"I know that...some of me knows it. And some of me can't shake the feeling that he's gonna just change." Vecchio gave a shuddering glance toward Kowalski. "That you're gonna leave us alone and he's gonna get even for that gun or looking him in the face. I just...I know that's what'll happen."
Ben shook his head. "That's just silly, Ray."
Vecchio looked up with a surprised smile. A quick glance at Kowalski to confirm he was still watching the TV, and he folded his arms around himself as if keeping out a chill.
"Silly? That the best you can do?" He asked, softly.
"You've known Ray Kowalski for nearly two years. And I've known him for four. I can assure you that if he were some evil villain bent on turning everyone into his personal admirer, I would've noticed. As you would have."
"I guess," Vecchio answered, serious again and still sounding uncertain.
"That's fine for now, Ray," Ben said, standing up and putting the chair back. "You don't have to worry about anything, I promise. Are you hungry?"
He sighed, pushing the blankets away then slowly standing with a silent grimace. His hands played nervously against his belly while his shoulders stiffened visibly. "Yeah, you know, if...whatever you say."
Ben frowned, surprised by the change in Vecchio's attitude. He glanced at Kowalski who shrugged at him as he clicked off the television.
"It's not up to me, Ray. It's up to you. I'm hungry and I'd like to get breakfast before we leave for Chicago. Would you like to join me?"
"I...I don't know," he answered, rubbing his face then running his hands over his sparse hair.
"Why don't you have your shower and then perhaps you'll feel more hungry."
"I'm sorry. I know how nuts I sound," Vecchio said with a sigh. "He, uh, the voice... sometimes he'd send food in but then I'd do something stupid and he'd take it back. I keep expecting..."
"Son of a bitch," Kowalski breathed, shoving his hands in his pockets.
"That's over now, Ray," Ben said with a warning glance at Kowalski to control his temper. "That's simply not going to happen. If you're hungry, you just eat. You're perfectly safe and in control of your own decisions, all right?"
"I know...I guess I know. It's just...it's my head. I'm losing my mind."
"No you're not. You're tired and things are a bit confusing right now. That's all. Now, we're all packed. Have your shower and then we'll go down to the restaurant for breakfast so we can get home."
Ben handed him a plastic bag to wrap his leg in before showering. He offered to help change the bandage but Ray assured him that he could do it himself.
Breakfast occurred in relative silence at Ben's table while the rest of the restaurant hummed with overly excited and far too many patrons. The camaraderie that exists in unusual circumstances had the customers talking too loud and eating too much and finding some semblance of comfort in each other. Ben understood the dynamics but it still surprised him that a bit of snow and ice could cause so much excitement. In the Territories, the weather would be far more severe and daunting and the people would still just accept it as part of their lives without the nervous titter underlying this gathering.
Vecchio moved his scrambled eggs around with little interest though he plowed through his toast and home fries ravenously. He complained feebly that his throat was sore, then looked uncomfortable with the admission. Ben assured him that his throat was raw due to the lack of water in his diet and encouraged him to drink as much as he could.
Apparently feeling more relaxed, Kowalski pointed a fork at Vecchio companionably as he said. "You need to eat."
"I did eat," Ray answered, glancing at his plate to confirm and shifting nervously.
Kowalski gentled his voice and smiled. "When my clothes are falling off you, then you're too skinny."
Vecchio looked up, then back to the table wincing silently as if the act of turning away was painful. Ben wondered if it was. Did Ray feel like he was surrendering with every downward glance?
"Your clothes?" Vecchio asked softly.
"The jeans and t-shirt you were wearing yesterday. Don't worry, I don't want them back," Kowalski answered.
"I thought they were yours," Vecchio said, nodding but still focused on the table.
Ben pushed his plate back. He heard the suspicion in Vecchio's voice and he wanted to be ready for whatever form that suspicion took.
"Yeah. They got stolen right out of my place. I didn't notice until a couple days ago. That's how we found you. Got some prints of the thief, picked him up and he copped to Malone."
"Who's Malone?" Vecchio asked, leaning forward, hands gripping into fists at either side of his plate.
"Arthur Malone is the guy that grabbed you. We only got a chance to scan his sheet but he's done some stalking before and he kidnapped a woman about a year and a half ago. Didn't hurt her, just spent a few days trying to convince her to leave her husband. Once he was sure she would go, he released her."
"But how did you figure out that he was the one?" Vecchio asked.
"Scumbag named Brice Noise," Kowalski interrupted. "He's the one that stole my clothes. We grabbed him and he fingered Malone. The house you were in belonged to Malone's parents. That's how we ended up there. Once we had his name it was easy to..."
"I don't understand," Vecchio interrupted, his voice shaking.
Ben reached over and put his hand over Vecchio's wrist while Kowalski continued his explanation.
"He's nuts. Gets obsessed on one person and starts looking into their lives, looking for problems he can fix. The wife he grabbed was married to some guy that Malone liked. Malone didn't think she was good enough for him."
"But he was so committed," Vecchio whispered. "The things he did, that he said. He can't just be...It can't just be...I gotta..."
Vecchio darted for the bathroom, barely reaching an empty stall before he lost his breakfast over an already sore throat. Pointless. The word played over in his head while he heaved until his stomach admitted defeat. Pointless.
He looked up from the floor where he had slid expecting the bells to clang or lights to flash at his audacity. How could he question the voice? How could he discard so easily what the voice had so painfully planted?
Meaningless. Useless. If Kowalski was telling the truth, then all of the...the activities over the past month were just...pointless. Ripping apart his life and proving he was wrong at the core until finally, with his mind tearing at the center, his every instinct raging against him, he started to question, he started to listen, he started to believe. Nerves sheared raw and mind dulled to nothing, he released a lifetime of knowing to embrace the new, horrible knowledge he was being given. Because believing didn't hurt as much as fighting. Believing saved him from starvation and dehydration and beatings and, God help him, the knife and the needles.
Vecchio didn't realize he stopped breathing until the room started to grow dim around him. He barely heard Benny's voice before he faded into darkness.
They were still in the bathroom when Ray woke. Benny was kneeling beside him when he opened his eyes. Above him he focused on the dotted tiles of a white, partitioned ceiling. Gradually he grew aware of something cool against his face. It felt good, soothing against his warm skin. The floor beneath him felt smooth and hard and he knew he was lying flat but the vulnerable position didn't frighten him. Benny was close. Whatever else that meant, he knew he was safe.
The memories came slowly, his mind protecting him from too much. He understood more now than before. He had given in too easily to the voice, surrendered himself to escape the pain and nearly gave his sanity as well. The sound of rain pattering outside greeted him next as he struggled slowly from the cocoon of his mind.
"How do you feel, Ray?" Benny asked softly.
He thought about that. How did he feel? Sick? Disgusted? Afraid?
"Better," he answered, hoping Benny didn't realize he was trying to evade the question.
"Would you like to sit up?"
"Yeah, probably should," he said, against a scratchy throat.
Fraser supported his back and helped him sit, not moving away when he leaned against him. Ray winced at the pain in his stomach, closing his eyes for a moment to let the room settle. Something damp brushed his hand so he glanced over to see Fraser holding a folded and wet paper towel. He must have used that against his face, Ray thought idly.
"Ray's gone to phone for a transport. It's time you went back to the hospital."
"Why?" he asked, genuinely surprised.
"You vomited and you fainted, Ray. You should be examined by a physician."
"I really wanna go home, Benny."
"And you will. After the hospital," Fraser assured him.
Ray pulled himself up, putting more weight on himself and trying to look steady. The movement caused another blur to his vision but he just closed his eyes again.
"That'll take hours. I haven't seen Ma or the family in weeks, Fraser. Please, just let me go home."
Ray hated this. Begging again to get what he needed. And Fraser making him beg. Benny making him plead for the one thing that would keep him from losing his mind.
"Please," he said again. The door creaked open and Kowalski walked in to the bathroom. Ray glanced a few faces behind him but Kowalski kept them out by leaning against the closed door.
"All right, Ray. No one's going to make you do something you don't want to do. Of course we'll take you home."
"Fraser," Kowalski started and Ray knew he was going to argue.
"He'll be all right. We should cancel the medics," Benny said, getting to his feet then reaching out a hand to Ray.
Ray accepted the offer and mostly managed to hide his dizziness. He covered his stumble by cursing his leg. Benny caught him easily, steadied him, then let him hold on as they made their way through the restaurant and into the cold rain. Ray didn't dare look at Kowalski as they passed him.
Ray climbed into the back, shivering and limping and generally feeling lousy. He longed for his own bed, the warm blankets that smelled like soap and some fragrance that his mother swore was the same as the scent of a mountain spring. He wanted to hear Frannie and Maria bicker while his mother sang Italian opera from the kitchen. He wanted to hear Maria's kids sliding across the smooth wood floor in the hall outside his room.
Please, he thought, don't let Kowalski change Benny's mind. He needed to be home not in a sterile hospital surrounded by strangers. He watched Kowalski close the door behind him and then the animated argument began outside the window. He heard snatches of words and sounds but no real bits of conversation. He knew what they were arguing about so he didn't strain to hear.
Kowalski flailed his arms and stomped around while Fraser remained still with the exception of a calm hand gesture or a tilt of his head. In a matter of moments, Kowalski shoved his hands in his pockets to listen stiffly to words he clearly didn't want to hear until finally his shoulders sagged just enough that Ray knew he surrendered to Fraser's unshakeable logic or faith. A few moments later both men climbed back into the car, dripping and silent.
Kowalski pulled on to the narrow two-lane road leading to the interstate. He wasn't talking and neither was Benny. Ray curled up on the backseat, wrapping his arms around himself, trying to regain some of the lost heat. There wasn't much room in the back of a GTO but Ray had grown used to making himself small.
Kowalski's cell phone interrupted the quiet drive. He fumbled it out of his pocket, pulling the antennae out with his teeth. The car seemed to grow colder when he spoke.
"Yeah he was at your house just like we figured," Kowalski said evenly, giving Benny a knowing look. Ray sat up, pushing back into the corner of the seat and pulling his knees up.
"Yeah, you're right, he's a lot better," Kowalski said, glancing back at Ray and shaking his head. "You know, it's kind of weird but...sure, I guess it's okay...how'd you do it anyway," he laughed but he was looking at Fraser seriously. "Trade secrets, huh?...Still kind of like to meet you, never had anybody take an interest like that, you know?" The silence deepened in the car and Ray hugged his knees closer.
"My dad," Kowalski said, his hand curling tight around the small phone. Fraser put a hand on his shoulder and Kowalski jerked away.
"You stay away from him, you sick fuck. You hear me...Fuck you...Fuck you...I'll kill you, you go near him...you hear me...God damn it," he yelled, flinging the phone at Benny's feet.
Ray held his breath. He didn't understand what was happening but his stomach hurt and he was shaking again.
Ben picked up the cell, giving a quick look in the back, then across the seat. Vecchio was nearly white with fear. Kowalski had turned bright red.
"Lieutenant Welsh, please," Ben said after dialing. He covered the mouthpiece speaking apparently to the car in general. "Ray, try to stay calm...Yes, Lieutenant, Constable Fraser. Arthur Malone is threatening Ray's father...yes, sir, I think it's imperative that he is placed in protective custody...yes, sir..." He placed his hand over the receiver, "Ray, he wants to speak with you."
Kowalski yanked the phone from his hand, barely watching the road. Ben half-expected them to end up wrapped around a tree.
While Kowalski expressed his fear by expressing his outrage, Ben turned his attention to Vecchio. Ray had folded into himself, arms around his knees, green eyes shiny and wide and watching Kowalski like a bird eyeing a cat.
"It's all right, Ray," Ben said.
"It was him on the phone," Vecchio said, stiffly.
"Yes. He's threatening Ray's father so, of course, Ray is very upset."
"But he was talking to him...about me...encouraging him."
"Playing along, Ray. Trying to draw him out. We've been unable to find him thus far so Ray is attempting to arrange a meeting in an effort to make the arrest."
Vecchio nodded and seemed to relax slightly.
Kowalski slammed his phone on to the seat and cursed for several minutes. His foot pressed hard against the accelerator until they were not only speeding but going far faster than was safe in the icy rain.
"Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray."
"Slow down, please. The lieutenant will call as soon as your family is safe. I'd rather him reach us, than the State Police."
"My dad, Fraser. He says he's gonna take him but he's too old for re-training. He's just gonna kill him."
"We won't let that happen, Ray."
"I'm not there. I can't protect him if I'm not there."
"Another valid reason not to kill us on the journey."
Ben thought Kowalski would explode with that comment. Instead he shook his head and eased off the accelerator.
"Good. Thank you," Ben said. "Now let's wait for the lieutenant's call, shall we?"
Kowalski managed to stay quiet for about thirty seconds. When he spoke again, his voice was softer.
"My dad is gonna have a stroke over this. Started singing the same tune soon as he had an excuse. If I just stayed in school, didn't become a cop...shit. Now, he and mom gotta go into protective custody? I'll be lucky if he doesn't file a reckless endangerment on me."
"It's unlikely your father would go to such extremes."
"Ah, yes, of course."
"And stop playing all innocent with me. You knew what I was saying, you're just screwing around so you can distract me."
"How am I doing?"
"You suck, Fraser."
"I didn't mean that."
"Just...my dad, you know? He knows about...bout what Dad thinks of me and everything. Why would she tell him about that? I mean, I get that she was pissed at me and Vecchio but...that's just private, you know?"
"I'm sorry Ray. Perhaps she didn't. He's obviously been following you. It's not entirely clear if there are other sources for his information. I find it difficult to believe that his level of knowledge...."
"It was me," Vecchio spoke up from the back with a shaky voice.
"What was you?" Kowalski asked.
"He wanted to know everything about you. I had to...to write a journal. About you and me. I didn't wanna tell him anything but...I couldn't...I tried to...I just...I told him about you and your dad. About him not speaking to you over the cop thing. I'm sorry. I know I folded and I'm just...I'm sorry."
Ben flinched when he caught the reflection of tears in Vecchio's eyes.
"It's okay," Kowalski answered stiffly, his hands twisting around the steering wheel.
"Please, I...I didn't...I mean."
"Stop it. You didn't do anything wrong, you got it?" Kowalski snapped.
Like a scolded child, Vecchio pulled his knees back up and focused at the passing traffic.
A few tense moments later, Kowalski's phone rang. Welsh confirmed that his family was safe and being transported to the 27th.
Vecchio jerked awake, shivering with cold, his legs cramped from lying rigidly in the small backseat. He stretched out as much as he could, groaning silently with the effort. The rain still pounded on the outside mixing with the voices on the inside so that he had to strain to hear them.
"He's still like a scared little kitten," Kowalski said.
"But not so frightened of you. That's a good sign."
"Just for the record, Nicole Riazzi had me for ten hours and I still have nightmares. If she weren't dead, I don't know if I could keep getting up in the morning. I'm not sure the scared wouldn't stop me dead, you know? Vecchio's been gone a month."
"We need to have confidence in him if he's to have confidence in himself."
"You sound like a greeting card," Kowalski said, then added sarcastically, "Sorry you got messed up. Have a sunny day."
Fraser sighed, rubbing his eyebrow and searching through the rain at bleary car lights.
"Perhaps I've expressed this badly. Ray is fragile now. He needs to believe in himself and he'll be looking to us for encouragement. We have to show that we trust him."
"He didn't pull a gun on you, Fraser."
"Then you don't trust him? Can't trust him," Benny accused.
"I didn't say that."
"Then what are you saying?"
"He's right, Benny," Vecchio said. "You got heat in this thing?"
"Jeez, give a guy a heart attack," Kowalski answered. "Yeah, it's on. I'll put it on high for a while. Just tell me when you're warm."
"Right about what, Ray?" Benny asked.
"Not to trust me. I really don't know what I think right now and that's just dangerous," he said, rubbing his eyes and leaning back. "There's a lot of things rolling around in my head and they're opposites like...I can trust Kowalski but he's behind all this. Like I'm a cop but I'm useless. I'm still fighting that stuff, still hearing his voice in my head. Just now, I didn't want to eavesdrop, I wanted to tell you I was awake but you didn't ask me a question and I'm only suppose to talk when you ask me a question. It took a couple of minutes before I could interrupt and my hands are still shaking over it, like...like you're gonna stick a needle in me or blast me with those damn speakers or send your goons in to...cuz I spoke out of turn."
"You're safe with us," Benny said.
"I should know that, shouldn't I?" Ray agreed. "We almost home?"
"About twenty kilometers outside of Chicago."
Ray didn't bother to ask for the English translation. He knew they were close to home. "Good. I wanna see Ma and the rest of the family. I lost all track of time before. Until Ma said something I didn't realize it'd been a month."
"At what point did you lose track? Do you remember," Benny asked, turning around as much as possible to watch him while he worked out the answer.
"When I stopped thinking that I wanted out," Ray answered finally. "And I stopped waking up and wondering how much longer it could go on. When I gave up, Fraser and just did what he wanted."
His voice flowed with such a profound bitterness he could have been spitting as easily as speaking. He stopped looking forward, preferring his own lap and tightly clasped hands to Fraser's intensity.
"You didn't give up," Kowalski interrupted. "You survived. There's nothing wrong about that."
Kowalski pulled into the Vecchio driveway. Ben opened the door and pulled the seat up so Ray could get out. He sat up, blocking his eyes from the faint glare of the interior light and looking around as if he was lost. Ben had that sense of him being a child again as he held out his hand to help him. Ray accepted the offer, using Fraser for leverage to get on his feet. Kowalski hadn't moved from his place behind the wheel.
"Ray," Francesca called from the front porch. She was rubbing her arms and squinting through the rain. Diefenbaker didn't wait, just bound across the lawn and laid two wet paws on his found packmate. Ray stumbled back startled while he tried to keep the wolf from licking his face.
"Ray," Francesca yelled. "Ma, come out here, Ray is home!"
Frannie rushed off the porch, into the rain, nearly knocking her brother over when she slammed full body into him. Dief leapt out of the way before he got stuck between them. She pulled Ray against her while he seemed to go limp in her arms. The rain drowned their mingled tears.
Ray's mother came off the porch in the same hurry as Frannie though her body was bigger and more awkward. Frannie released him reluctantly and soon Ray was buried in his mother's arms. She stroked his back and petted his hair while she whispered in Italian with a shaking, tear-filled voice. Ray didn't speak. He just held on to her, eyes closed and head cradled on her shoulder.
"It's cold out here. I'm taking Raymundo inside, Benton. Thank you so much for bringing my boy home," Mrs. Vecchio said, her voice thick with tears.
"Of course, mam."
"He needs his family now, you understand? I'm very grateful to you but I need to care for him now."
"I understand completely. I'll be back tomorrow."
Ray glanced at Ben over his mother's shoulder, giving him a weak smile as she tugged him towards the house. Frannie stepped into Ben's view, tears glinting in her eyes.
"There's nothing I can say, Benton. To either of you. You saved him. I can't tell you how much...." her voice trailed off as the emotions overwhelmed her.
"There's no need," he answered, surprised by the shaking in his own voice. He cleared his throat before thanking her for taking care of Diefenbaker.
"He followed Ma and Ray inside so I guess I'm still doing that," she said with a shrug.
Ben glanced around realizing she was right about the wolf.
"Yes, I see that now," he said.
He nodded at her finally then waited until she was safely inside before he climbed back into the GTO. Ray only glanced at him before he started the car, flipping the heat back on.
"You look like a drowned rat."
"Thank you for noticing, Ray," Ben answered, sarcastically.
Ray grinned at him before turning his attention back to the road.
"Welsh is sending a couple uniforms over to watch the house. I don't think Malone will go for Vecchio again, but why chance it? We gotta get to the station as soon as they show up though. Welsh called on the cell, said my folks and my brother are there. Said they are not happy."
"At least they're safe, Ray."
The squad car arrived in good time relieving them so they could drive to the station. Ray spent a moment in the car staring at the doors before Ben suggested they go inside. They were both wet and dripping in the hallway so by silent agreement, they went to the men's room before they dared the bullpen. They took their jackets off then used paper towels to pat dry their hair. After a few moments of straightening up their disheveled appearance, they headed out to face Ray's family.
Welsh spotted them as he was coming around a corner carrying a small cardboard tray laden with coffee.
"Ah, welcome back, Detective, Constable. I understand Detective Vecchio has been returned to his proper home?"
"Yes, Sir," they both answered simultaneously then glanced at each other.
"Good, good. Because now we have a more pressing issue to deal with. Namely, your family. I was just bringing them coffee in Interview two. Care to join me?"
"Uh, how bad are they," Ray asked.
"They're here, Detective. That in itself is quite a success. Shall we?' Welsh nodded in the direction of the interview room.
Ben took the tray from Welsh's hands then followed them down the hall. All three went through observation before going into the actual room. The two way mirror showed Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski sitting at the table while the third person, Brandon Kowalski, apparently, paced the room looking very much like his brother while he did. He was built closer to his father, shorter and stockier than Ray and his hair was darker, more like his mother. But the way he paced, the way he cocked his head slightly and clenched his hands was perfectly Ray.
His voice carried through the speaker while he complained about their predicament.
"...as usual, catering to Ray. You've been doing it since he was born, Mum."
"This is not his fault, Brandon. I've told you that over and over."
"Nothing's ever been that boy's fault, Barbara. It's that kind of thing that's got us here," Damian said.
Ray looked at Welsh and Fraser and shrugged. He knew his family pretty well. Being on the outside watching them was more or less a full time occupation.
"Well, this should be fun," he said, pushing the door open.
His brother stopped pacing and his mother stopped defending him. Damian Kowalski scowled at him and stood up.
"How're you all doing?" Ray asked.
"Now he's after your family? It was bad enough that you put Stella and Vecchio in danger," Damian answered.
"One time, Dad. I'm just gonna say this once. I am being stalked. I did not arrest this guy. I never met this guy. Now all I wanna do is keep you safe."
"So, you're trying to tell us that this has nothing to do with your work," Brandon said, shoving his hands in the pockets of his khaki slacks.
"Yeah, that's right. Now if you'll just sit down, maybe we can work out some details so we can...."
"You have any idea how much you're upsetting them," Brandon swept his hand towards their parents.
"They're okay. See, they're here, they're okay. All I'm doing is trying to keep it that way."
"They've been living in fear for a month at my house. No peace with all the police that have been by in the last two days. Now when they're finally ready to go home, they're practically arrested and brought here and told they can't leave because someone is after you. Does that sound okay, Ray?"
"Brandon, we're fine," Barbara said.
"No, it's not okay that this happened or that Stella and my partner got kidnapped but I can't change it. Can we just stick with keeping them safe and leave the family crap out of it?"
"Oh, crap, is it," Damian said.
"Christ. Fine. You know what...this is what we're gonna do. All three of you are going to a safe house. Fraser is gonna stay there with you along with some regular cops because he is the only one I trust to do it. I'm gonna find the fu...the guy who did this and I'm gonna arrest him. In the meantime, you all get to live on Chicago's dime for awhile so enjoy yourselves."
"Uh, Detective, may I see you outside, please?" Welsh asked.
Ray frowned before following him into the observation room, closing the door behind him.
Ben smiled at Ray's family.
"So nice to see you again, Mr. Kowalski. Mrs. Kowalski," he said, before turning his attention to Ray's brother. "And we haven't been officially introduced, I am Constable Benton Fraser and you, I take it, are Brandon Kowalski."
"Right. You're the Mountie he works with."
"Yes. I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father and...."
"Fraser," Ray said, peering in the room. "Could you come out here, please?"
"Certainly, Ray. Pardon me."
The door closed behind him, leaving Ray's family staring confused into the mirror.
"They're not protected witnesses," Ray said.
"No, they're potential victims," Fraser answered.
"We can't put them in a safe house, Constable," Welsh said.
"But it's likely that..."
"I know. I know the danger they're in," Welsh interrupted, holding up his hand. "But, there's no way the City of Chicago can look after them 24 hours a day when it can't expect anything in return. They're not witnesses, they're not bait."
"Then what do you propose?"
"Stashing them at the Consulate," Ray answered. "I wanna stash them at the Consulate, Fraser. My family at your Consulate. What do you say?"
"I think we can assume that Arthur Malone knows where I work. Why do you believe they'll be safer there?"
"I don't know if they will. But we gotta put them somewhere. During the day, you got at least three cops on site. You, Conrad and, okay, I know I'm counting Turnbull, but he is a cop, right? He's gotta be better than nothing. And at night, you'll be with them. And we can swing some additional patrols in the neighborhood. Right, Lieu?"
"Yeah, we can do that," Welsh agreed.
"And I'll be there too when I'm not here. I have to swing home tonight and check on the turtle, get some clothes and stuff, but..."
"It's a good solution, Ray," Fraser assured him.
"Do I dare ask what the Inspector will say?" Welsh asked.
"I'm quite sure Inspector Conrad will be amenable. He's shown himself to be more than willing to work with Americans in the past."
"Okay then, let's get this show on the road."
The three men went back inside the room. Both Damian and Brandon were now pacing while Barbara had her head against her arms on the table. Ray pulled the chair out next to his mother and rubbed her back slowly. She sat up and hugged him while the rest of his family watched without bothering to hide their annoyance.
"We're going to the Canadian Consulate. It's real nice so you all should be comfortable. I stayed there a couple days once and it wasn't bad if you can get past Turnbull's curling on TV."
"For how long, Stanley?" Barbara asked.
"I don't know. Not long, I hope. Maybe a couple days. We don't flushed him by then, we'll do something else."
He gave his mother one more hug before standing.
"Everybody got what they need? Change of clothes and stuff?"
"The officers that picked us up told us to pack a bag so we should be fine for a day or two," Barbara answered.
"Lieutenant, can we get Huey and Dewey for escort?"
"They're off duty. I'll go with you and help get them settled. We should be all right between the three of us."
"It's not just Malone. We got Smith and Brennan out there too."
"I doubt they'll risk anything with all of us together. Malone has been meticulous and cunning to this point. It's unlikely he'll change his methods now," Ben said, trying to reassure him.
"Okay, then, pitter patter."
"I got a life, you know, Ray. I can't just disappear for days like you do," Brandon said, folding his arms.
Ben recognized the stubborn expression. He had seen it on Ray's face many times.
"You're not a hostage. You wanna go home, go ahead. This guy is a nut and I got no way of knowing what's he's gonna try next but you wanna risk it, then you go right ahead."
"Stanley." Barbara said, sharply.
Ray looked at his feet, obviously embarrassed.
Welsh handed Ray the file on Malone. Malone's photo had been enlarged and clipped to the front. Ray held it up.
"This is the guy you gotta..."
"That's what guy," Brandon interrupted, looking suddenly pale.
"What's wrong with you?" Ray asked, sharply, then regretted it when his brother blanched and sat down.
"I worked with that guy. He worked in Tech Support. Name's Ken Hutchinson. We're friends, we used to have lunch together all the time. And then, he, uh, about a month ago or so, he, uh...he quit."
"How long did he work there?" Ray asked.
"I don't know. Six or eight months, maybe. Less than a year. He's got a brother who's a cop. We kind of fell in together during the Christmas party last year. That was right after he started."
"You two had a lot in common, huh? Talked about me with him?"
"Yeah." Brandon answered, softly, looking at the table. "We did."
"His name is Arthur Malone. He's the stalker and you been used," Ray stated stiffly.
"I didn't know, Ray. I'm sorry. I...."
"Let's go," Welsh interrupted. "We'll get your statement at the Consulate."
Getting the Kowalskis settled at the Consulate took little time and effort. Inspector Conrad welcomed them then took Welsh into the kitchen for coffee. Fraser showed them to two guestrooms that used to act as storage under Inspector Thatcher's tenure. After her departure, Inspector Conrad had them emptied and filled with a bed and dresser each for unexpected guests.
It was nearly two in the afternoon before Ray finished questioning his brother. Welsh suggested they go back to the station as soon as they were done. Ray thanked Ben and the Inspector for looking after his family. He looked paler and more exhausted. Ben hoped Welsh would send him home early to get some rest. He watched from the door as the two men waved down a patrol car as it was driving by. Welsh leaned inside the window, then drew his badge to identify himself. He waited until Welsh and Ray walked away from the car, then climbed into the GTO.
Still feeling tense and unsettled, Fraser went to the kitchen instead of his office. Inspector Conrad stood near the sink emptying the coffee pot.
"Thank you for allowing the Kowalski family refuge, Sir."
Conrad flinched and nearly dropped the pot.
"Good God, Constable, you could sneak up on bull moose in heat," he said, turning his large body around and leaning against the counter.
"I apologize, Sir, I didn't intend to startle you."
"No, of course not. A little jumpy I suppose."
"If you don't mind my asking, Sir...."
"Why am I here and where's Turnbull? Well, it's nice someone notices these things. It's a fair bet that Ottawa never will. I was just finishing up some paperwork. Your absence of late has left Turnbull a bit overworked. The boy tries, but...well, you know Turnbull. At any rate, I sent him home for the afternoon."
"I'm sorry, Sir, I didn't realize my leave was causing such difficulty. I've been preoccupied with Detective Vecchio's kidnapping and I know my duty should come first but...."
"Duty's an important thing, Constable, but it's not the only thing. Vecchio and Kowalski are your partners and you have a duty to them as well. Turnbull and I will manage until you're ready to come back. I wouldn't have granted the leave if I didn't think we were capable."
"Thank you, Sir, I hope...."
"Am I interrupting?" Barbara Kowalski asked, sliding between Fraser and the doorjamb.
"No, no, the Constable and I were just talking. I'm quite sure that he'll show you every courtesy that Canada can offer as I'm going back to my office to finish up some reports."
"Thank you so much for putting us up," she said as the Inspector passed her.
"Not at all. It's important to keep those diplomacy wheels turning, eh, Mrs. Kowalski?"
She smiled at him then turned her attention back to Ben.
"May I get you something," he asked.
"Company, if you don't mind. Damian is already sawing logs, hasn't missed a nap since he retired. And Brandon...well...Brandon is lying down too. He's upset. It's hard to imagine that he's been friends with the very person that Ray's been looking for."
"He shouldn't feel badly. There was no way for him to know Malone's true purpose."
"I told him that but...well, it's difficult for him. He likes to think he's savvy. And he's embarrassed, I think. This Malone was making him see a more positive side to his brother and now he finds that it was all a ruse."
"It's unfortunate that he doesn't see that side of Ray more readily."
"Yes, it is," she agreed as she sat down at the table.
"Would you like some tea?" Ben asked her.
"That would be nice. Just regular old orange pekoe if you've got it."
"I have. It will just be a moment while I warm the water."
Ben filled the teapot with cold water and set it on the stove to heat. He took two mugs from the cupboard, both bore maple leaves and were emblazoned with "Welcome to Canada". Inspector Conrad purchased several dozen to distribute to tourist groups that came to visit the Consulate.
"You know, um, Damian does love Ray. He's just never understood him, really. Ray is so much his own person that Damian was never able to...I don't know...reach him, I suppose. And then Ray is so sensitive that he just gets very hurt and very angry when he's rejected and all his father sees is the anger. He's never seen the hurt that goes with it."
"You seem to have a good grasp on both of your sons."
"Well, Brandon was easy. He's his father. I've been dealing with that for nearly forty years." She smiled but her eyes retained a sadness. "Ray is harder. In a way, I'm closer to him because he needs me to be. Brandon doesn't. He's always been harder inside than Ray. Not that Ray, my Stanley, is soft, just that he has a soft spot...inside...that's terribly fragile. And he works so hard to keep it protected that he fools people into thinking that it isn't there."
"As I said, an excellent grasp of both," Ben said, leaning with his back to the counter.
He placed a cup of tea in front of her and sat down with his own. They both toyed with the bags for a few moments. Ben was starting to feel the exhaustion overtake him as the last few days registered in his mind and body.
"How's Detective Vecchio?" Barbara asked.
"Healing, I think."
"Stanley's lost weight since I saw him and I just know this is killing him. He takes everything on himself. Been doing that since he was a child."
"It's been a trial."
"You know he wouldn't come and see me after he was hurt a few months ago. I wouldn't have known at all except for Stella. He wouldn't talk to me about it but when he finally came to visit he was nearly skin and bones. I knew he'd been vomiting again, the way he did when he was a boy."
"It was a difficult time," Ben admitted carefully, not wanting to betray Ray's confidence.
"Has he been doing that again?"
"No, I don't think so," Ben assured her. "He's just been working hard and not eating properly. Not getting enough rest. With Detective Vecchio's return, I hope that will improve."
"It won't. Not until this...this person is arrested."
Ben raised his eyebrows at the bitterness coming from Ray's mother. She didn't seem to notice his reaction as she sipped her tea. She set the cup down and stood up to look out the kitchen window into the small courtyard behind the Consulate.
"Do you know that I have no pictures of Stanley from when he was in college? Damian threw out the only one I know that was taken. It was his freshman picture and he was only eighteen, I think, maybe just nineteen. I think Stella might still have a copy. God, I wish I didn't let him push Stanley away like that."
"I think Ray is just happy to have both of you back in his life, Mrs. Kowalski."
"I hope so." She picked her teacup off the table, dumped the remainder and rinsed. "I think I'm going to lie down for awhile. I'm getting too old for all this excitement. I'm sorry my mind has been so scattered, I just... I'm just jumbled with so many things. I really am glad that Stanley's partner is going to be all right. Thank you for sitting with me, Constable. You've been very nice."
"It's been a pleasure, mam. Sleep well."
Fraser put his own cup in the sink and went to his office.
Ray spent the afternoon at the station, talking with the FBI and trying to get a lead on Arthur Malone. The address he used at Brandon's workplace was phony and no one there recalled ever visiting him at home. As Welsh was leaving for the day, he invited him to get some dinner but Ray declined. He wanted to do some more research into Malone's background, hoping that would provide a key to his whereabouts. Welsh turned the invitation into an order and the two of them went to a diner near the station.
They both ordered the special of Yankee Pot Roast with mashed potatoes, gravy and carrots. They both had beer, eating and drinking in companionable silence. Ray figured that Welsh knew he was tired and frustrated and unable to make small talk. He was glad not to feel pressured into it.
When they finished eating, they walked back to the station parking lot. Welsh told him to go home.
"Lieu, " Ray argued. "Malone's not gonna walk in here and give up."
"He's also not going to jail if a tired cop misses something important in the investigation. Now go home, come back early tomorrow with a fresh eye."
Ray didn't have a reasonable argument for that so he climbed into his car and drove home. He pulled up in front of the building and bounded upstairs. In his pocket, he carried a new rock for his pet turtle. His mother found it in a streambed near Brandon's house and slipped it to him before he left the Consulate. It was shaped almost like a pyramid with bright orange streaks against gray. He reached the door thinking home sounded like a good place after the hotel. He wanted a shower before going back to the Consulate to sleep. Tomorrow he'd find Arthur Malone. With Vecchio safe and his family protected, he didn't have to be as careful.
He unlocked the door, entered then locked it behind him. He headed towards the turtle's bowl stopping a foot from it when a shadow from the bedroom caught his attention.
It looked like a curtain blowing from the breeze of his overhead fan but his heart didn't believe it. He froze for a second, remembering the horrible night when he was caught unaware in his own home. It wasn't going to happen again. He pulled his weapon with one hand and picked up the phone with the other. Cradling the receiver he dialed 911.
"Officer needs assistance," he said and set the phone on the counter, leaving the line open so they could trace his address. He ignored the insistent sound of the operator's voice.
"I'm armed. Come on outta there," Ray yelled.
He stepped back, startled when the photo of Arthur Malone was suddenly a man and coming out of his bedroom with his hands held out at his sides and a grin on his face.
Malone was taller than Ray by a couple of inches and bulkier though not fat. He wore his brown hair past his shoulders and thick, square glasses on a smooth face. He was dressed in a pair of faded blue jeans and a white t-shirt covered by a gray sweatshirt. The sweatshirt was snug and Ray recognized it as one of his missing items.
"Get on the floor," Ray said, evenly.
"I'm so disappointed in you, Ray."
"Get on the floor or I'll blow your head off."
"Oh, you don't need all this posturing. I'm not armed and I'm not close enough to be a threat so..."
"I'm gonna blow your fucking head off if you don't get your belly on the floor right now."
"It would be immoral to shoot an unarmed man. Would you please stop pretending that you're some sort of Dirty Harry? You're not going to hurt someone that isn't a threat to you."
Ray needed him on the ground but he knew that he couldn't just shoot him. Probable cause or no, he couldn't shoot an unarmed suspect. Besides without his glasses on, he might kill him or miss him completely. The man was bigger and heavier and crazier than Ray so he didn't want to invite a physical confrontation. He had no back up so if Malone bested him, he'd be in serious trouble.
"Fine. Stand there. You move one inch and I'll kill you, got it?"
"This is so exciting. I've dreamed of this, of how you'd be just like this. All tough and official until you remembered how much I've helped you. It's such a pleasure to bring peace to those that deserve it. People like you who are just...golden."
"You know what? You're right. Lunge at me."
"Make a move. Anything'll do. And I'll have a nice, clear conscience to kill you with. Come on, you wanna do something for me. Lunge at me."
"Now, really, Ray, that isn't very hospitable. I'm your protector. I'd do anything for you. Look at all I've done."
"Fuck you," Ray said.
"It's customary to show the protector some respect," Malone said, his eyes growing serious and dark with the words.
"What the fuck do you think? This isn't Dragons and Dumpsters, asshole."
"Dungeons and Dragons, Ray."
Sirens filled the silence between them. Malone cocked his head to one side, then the other like a cocker spaniel tracking noise.
"Playtime's over," Ray said.
"You phoned the police."
"You're going back to Psychos-R-Us. I'm sure they missed you."
"You're going to hell."
The second passed like a puff of air. One moment Malone was still with his arms away from his sides, his palms facing out, the next moment his hand was filled with a silver pistol so small it could have been a toy. Ray didn't blink or flinch or breathe. He fired his weapon with a thunderous retort that was followed by a small pop, then the clattering of Malone's body as it stumbled back, then lunged forward, landing face first into Ray's end table and lamp. The lamp shattered, destroying the small light in the apartment while tiny shards of glass pattered against the hard wood floor.
Ray kept his gun firmly aimed at his suspect, ignoring the mild sting in his hip. Several uniformed police officers swarmed into the apartment. They relieved Ray of his gun and his sentry and surrounded the suspect.
Malone was pronounced alive and an ambulance was ordered. Two officers that Ray knew, lead him into the hall and told him to sit down until the EMT's arrived to look at his wound. Ray didn't understand that since he wasn't injured but he stayed on the floor anyway.
"Is he dead?" He asked Wilcox, a guy he remembered from his last post. The other man knelt down beside him and Ray wondered why he was staring at him so intently.
"Give him an hour, he'll be hollering for a lawyer," Wilcox answered, still searching Ray's face until Ray shifted under the scrutiny.
"What's your problem?"
"You're in shock, Kowalski. Stay put while I hustle up a blanket. Think you can give me a statement after that?"
"I'm not in shock."
"Yeah, okay, just stay put. You're cold, right?"
"I...I guess so. I'm half drowned. Been out in the rain all day."
Of course, he wasn't wet now. The rain stopped hours before. But he still felt cold.
Wilcox looked away from him. "Trevor, get Kowalski a blanket and find out what's keeping the transport. And check on the guy in there and give me an update."
"Will do," the other officer answered.
Some time passed but Ray couldn't decide how much before Wilcox wrapped a blanket around him. He had to admit that it felt good to get the extra warmth. He just couldn't figure out why Wilcox insisted on playing with his leg. He was starting to get uncomfortable with it when the sirens from more emergency vehicles interrupted his objection.
One set of EMT's showed up and Trevor showed them into Ray's apartment, which irritated Ray. Why were there so many people wandering around his place while he was relegated to the floor in the hall? The next set of medics were directed to him.
"Looks like he caught one in the hip there," Wilcox said.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Ray demanded, then squeaked in pain when the female medic pushed him on to his side.
"Relax, Sir," she said, then started cutting away at his jeans with a vicious pair of scissors.
"Hey," he managed to object but didn't get another word out when cold hit his skin and the sudden pain made him dizzy.
"He'll be fine," the woman said before she started doing something that made Ray's head feel like it was turned upside down.
He closed his eyes trying to escape the tilted, fading people that surrounded him.
Just before the phone rang, Ben bolted up from a dead sleep, feeling his heart thumping in his chest and gasping for air. Cold sweat dotted his body as he lied back remembering the dream. He wondered if the images of Ray Vecchio in that dank cellar would ever fade. In the nightmare, they had been too late. He needed to remember that they did reach him in time, that they didn't find an emaciated and beaten corpse.
The phone trilled beside him but it wasn't startling. He was well passed being jarred. He scrambled to his feet when the second ring came, meaning that the answering service didn't intercept the call.
"Thank you for calling the Canadian Consulate," he began.
"Fraser, it's Welsh. Kowalski's down here at General. Malone broke into his apartment."
"He'll be okay. Got shot by a low caliber just below the hipbone. Missed everything important. They're gonna let him go sometime tomorrow."
"Kowalski shot him. It's a pretty serious chest wound but he's still breathing."
"I'm on my way, Sir."
"No, no, don't do that. There's no reason. He's all drugged up and sleeping. Just let his family know. Come by tomorrow and you can take him home when they release him. Maybe you or his folks could look after him for awhile."
"Sir, I really think...."
"Fraser, he's sleeping. What are you gonna do except get his whole family out of bed and have them arguing down here instead of there."
"Yes, sir. Of course, you're right. I'll tell them when they wake."
"With Malone under arrest, the danger's over so everybody can go home. I'll call Stella Vecchio next. I imagine she'll be glad to get out of Iowa."
"Yes, I would imagine so, Sir."
Barbara Kowalski moved in with Ray against the token objections of her husband and both of her sons. She stayed until she was sure her youngest could care for himself, which lasted about two days.
Ray's injury wasn't serious, just painful. He walked with a cane and a limp and a sour attitude. Ben visited cheerfully, bringing magazines, videos and candy with him each day. He didn't stay long, not wishing to be abused by his partner's foul mood any longer than necessary.
From Ray's apartment, he would go to Ray Vecchio's house. He couldn't shake the feeling that when he wasn't with Ray, then Ray was in danger. He knew it was silly but he just felt better staying close. Diefenbaker apparently agreed. The wolf simply refused to leave Ray's side so Ben had no choice but to leave him each day and that provided a secondary excuse for his daily visits.
On the third day after Malone's capture, Ben arrived at the Vecchio's in the early afternoon. Inspector Conrad had assigned him the early shift at the Consulate so, consequently he was able to visit both Rays daily and still return home at a decent hour. He rang the doorbell as was usual but Mrs. Vecchio opened the door instead of Ray and that was somewhat unusual. She held a dishrag in her fist and tears glinted in her eyes.
"Benton, I'm so glad you're here. Ray is sleeping. He had a very bad night last night and he just hasn't been himself all day. I don't know what to do for him." The torrent of words came before he was even in the door. She tugged him inside, then held his hands sandwiched with the rag.
"I'm sure you're doing the right things, Mrs. Vecchio," he assured her. "What was the difficulty last night?"
The older woman didn't have time to answer. Ben recognized the horrible yowling as soon as he heard it. The sound was much fainter carried through the walls of the Vecchio house but Ben would never forget the high-pitched wailing from the hotel room. He didn't wait for permission. Ben ran up the stairs two at a time to reach Ray's room.
Upon opening the door he found Ray sitting on the floor with his back to the bed frame. His knees were drawn to his chest but his eyes were closed while his head jerked from side to side. He was fighting to scream but the paralysis of sleep kept him from a full voice. Instead a strangled siren issued from his throat while he fought off the demons in of his nightmare.
Ben didn't know what to do so he let his body make the decisions. Kneeling next to his friend, he drew him into his arms, holding him tight, talking to him to a firm, steady voice while they rocked slowly. As Ray responded to him, he also started to wake. In a fluid transition he re-entered the waking world crying into Fraser's arms. Hearing the anguish choked out in harsh sobs was horrible but Ben just held on, rocking him, talking to him, rubbing a firm hand over his back.
A long time passed before Ray gained control of himself. And when he did he was exhausted and barely able to stand. Ben just helped him up, noticing for the first time that Mrs. Vecchio was standing in the doorway with her fist jammed against her mouth. Ben gave her a weak smile while he put Ray to bed and covered him.
"Don't leave me," Ray said in a raw, washed out voice before he slipped seamlessly back to sleep.
"I won't," Ben answered, not knowing if he was heard but needing to make the oath.
Once he was certain that Ray was comfortable, he followed Mrs. Vecchio back into the hall.
"That's the third time, I know of," she said. "He screams like the devil himself has him and then he cries and sleeps. He's inconsolable, Benton. I can't reach him."
"Has something happened since yesterday?"
"No, nothing. But he's so quiet when he's awake. My Raymundo is not a quiet man."
"It's very soon yet. He has to sort through some of the...the things that he went through."
"I've never seen him this way. Ray was a strong boy. He grew to replace his father in this house. I don't know how to help him like this."
"You're helping just by staying close."
"He won't talk to me. Just like when he was a boy. His father was a hard man and he expected so much of his son. Ray tried...but...he was just a boy. And I knew...I knew things weren't right between them but Raymundo...he never told me. He kept everything inside. I wanted so much to help him just like now but he won't let me in."
"Perhaps he's working things out in his own way."
"I just...he's my son, Benton. Please...you must get him to talk. You must. You're a police officer like him. You're his best friend. If he doesn't talk to you, I don't know who else to call."
Ben smiled at the round, pleading woman in front of him. He didn't feel confident but he put his confident mask on.
"I'll talk to him. I promise."
"You'll find out what frightens him so much?"
"You said the man who hurt him is in the hospital. God forgive me, but I wish he was dead. But you said...so he can't hurt him, isn't that right? There's nothing more to fear."
"Yes, he's in the hospital. His accomplices were also arrested late yesterday as they tried to cross an Arizona border into Mexico. But, Mrs. Vecchio," Ben said softly. "The danger may have passed but the memories remain. It's been such a short time since we found him and he's still processing a great deal."
"I know you're right. But this isn't like him. Even when he came home after that terrible assignment, he wasn't like this. Today it's as if he's been broken."
"No, I don't believe that."
She looked to the floor helplessly then back into Ben's eyes.
"You'll stay with him?" she asked.
"Then I'll go finish in the kitchen."
She walked away a few steps until she reached the top of the stairs then she turned back around.
"Ray's lieutenant said he needs a doctor. I don't know how medicine can cure him."
Ben stopped himself from explaining that Welsh didn't mean a medical doctor. He didn't want to give her more to worry about or have to consider. If Ray needed counseling, then Ben would talk to her about it and help make the arrangements. But for now, he thought it was a bad idea. Ben didn't want to fuel Ray's concern that he was losing his grip on sanity.
A small whimper rose from the bedroom so Ben went back inside to sit on the edge of Ray's bed. Ray moaned softly, twisting his fists in the blankets and turning his head from side to side. The sounds were quiet and pain-filled but gradually Ben could hear the words as Ray repeated them.
"It hurts," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Please, it hurts."
Ben laid his hand over Ray's forehead as he reassured him with words and touch until finally he slipped deeper into sleep.
Ben stayed by his friend's side for a long time before Ray woke up. Night filled the windows, darkening the room and leaving long shadows from the hall. Ray opened his eyes slowly, closed them with a sigh then opened them again. He glanced around his bedroom for a moment before finally settling on Ben. A small smile graced his lips while he pushed himself up, keeping the blankets around him.
"You stayed," he said, closing his eyes again for a moment.
"How are you feeling, Ray?"
"Tired. Beaten up. Tired," he answered.
"Your nightmares must have been most vivid."
Ray frowned, shaking his head and rubbing his skull.
"Don't waste time, Fraser, just jump right in," he said sarcastically.
"I'm sorry. But your mother's worried, as am I. We just want to help."
"There's not much to do, Benny. Most of the time I'm okay. I've seen Malone's file. I know Kowalski shot him. I'm not having any trouble separating what he told me with what's real so you don't have to worry about that brainwashing crap. He got in my head but most of the time, I feel like I'm getting him out."
"Most of the time?"
"Today's been bad, you know? Just a lot of stuff that's close to the surface. When I go to sleep, my head can't tell what's real and I get a little crazy but it's not as bad as it seems."
"You were screaming in your sleep, Ray."
"Look, it's not all the time. Just today, I can't stop thinking about stuff and I can't shut down. When I wake up, I half-expect this to be the dream. But I didn't feel like this yesterday or the day before that. It's just today."
"What's different about today then?"
"I don't know. Maybe because it's the anniversary of my dad's death. Maybe I'm overtired. Who knows?"
"Your father died on this date?"
"Wrapped himself around a tree maybe three blocks from here. Tree's still standing."
"I'm sorry, Ray."
"I'm not." He looked away from Ben's surprise. "Look, the guy was crap. He hurt everybody here and he didn't care about nothin'. He thought I was useless, thought I deserved every rotten thing that ever happened. He'd be blaming me for Malone if he was here and that's a fact. So, no, I'm not mourning the son of a bitch."
"That's perfectly valid, Ray, I do understand."
Ray took a breath and looked towards the curtained window of his room. He rubbed his eyes and took another breath before he spoke again.
"Look, I, uh, I haven't mentioned this to Ma, but, uh, I think maybe I should talk to somebody. A professional, ya know? I'm not really convinced that it'll help but, if I wanna go back to work, Welsh is gonna need some kind of assurance and, I don't know, maybe I do too. I don't know if I can get Malone out of my head otherwise."
"You think an outside party may be able to help you sort through things," Fraser said.
"You think I'm nuts?"
"Not at all. It takes a clear and rational mind to reach that sort of decision."
"But you do think I need it, right?"
"I think you've survived an extremely difficult situation. It's only natural to have some residual effects."
"I'll call Welsh after dinner. He said he could recommend somebody outside the department."
Ray uncovered and stood up. He was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and Ben cringed at the baggy fit.
"I know I'm not unbiased or a professional in the field but you do know you can talk to me, don't you?" Ben asked.
Ray smiled at him.
"Yeah, Benny, I know. There's just something I'm not ready to talk about. When I'm ready for your help, I'll let you know. I'm not blowing you off, I just don't wanna dredge this up right now."
"I hope so. Come on, Benny, Ma's been cooking for hours and I think I smell cannolis."
Ben followed Ray down the stairs, wondering if he should feel optimistic or more worried than before.
"Hello, Ray, how are you feeling?" Ben asked as he followed Ray Kowalski into his apartment.
"Tired of doing nothin', how do you think I'm feeling," Ray growled back.
"I see your disposition hasn't improved."
"You want nice, go visit my mum."
"You know, Ray, this antagonistic attitude is becoming tiresome. What exactly are you so angry about?" Ben asked.
"Hey, if I'm not happy enough for you then turn around. Door's in the same place."
"You don't want me to leave, Ray. Then you'd have no one to be rude to."
Ray stretched out on the couch and closed his eyes.
"Jeez. Why are you staying then?"
"Because I want to know what the problem is. I realize your wound is painful and you are not the sunniest of patients but really, it's been several days. Surely it must be less uncomfortable now."
"Yes, it's healing fine. Thanks so much for your concern," Ray shot back, sarcastically, still not opening his eyes.
"Are you going to tell me what's bothering you?"
"Yes, you are. You might as well get to it."
"God, you're a freak."
"So I've been told."
Ray sat up slowly, favoring his uninjured hip and placing his leg carefully on the coffee table.
"It's Malone, all right? Breaking in here. Do I have a welcome sign out there for every psycho in America, Fraser? I can't leave the house because it's like there's some nutball behind every tree waiting to get in here."
Fraser perched on the edge of Ray's easy chair, waiting for him to continue.
"It was almost the same, Fraser. Just like when that Riazzi chick broke in. Christ, I even had a rock for the turtle. I was...I saw the shadow and it was like...oh, shit...uh, crap, they're back."
"And what did you do?" Ben asked.
"What do you mean?"
"You saw the shadow from your bedroom and what did you do?"
"I pulled my gun and called 911."
"And then what?"
"I yelled at him to come out."
"So you were never actually out of control of the situation. You called for backup. You were armed. You didn't walk in your bedroom to be ambushed. And the only reason you were shot is because Malone had a spring mechanism running from forearm to palm that literally slid a gun into his hand in a millisecond. Even at that, you fired first, probably saving your own life."
"Yeah, that Jim West gig was pretty cool, even for a bad guy."
"Jim West?" Ben asked.
"Wild Wild West." Ray sighed at Ben's blank expression. "Never mind. So what you're saying is people can break in here all they want because I'm getting better at arresting them?"
Ben smiled. "No. I'm saying that you're a capable police officer and you can deal with whatever situations arise. No one wants their home invaded but perhaps you can find peace of mind in knowing that you've survived and, in fact, conquered."
"I got shot," Ray pointed out.
"I got shot."
"You overcame adversity."
"You're still a freak."
"As you say."
Ray Kowalski limped up the sidewalk with a warm sun against his back despite the chill air. He wasn't supposed to be using the cane this much yet. He wasn't supposed to be walking this distance but he had something to do. Even if driving hurt more than he expected and he already felt tired.
He rang the doorbell and leaned against the cane, trying to take some of the pressure off his hip. When Maria answered the door, he smiled at her and asked to see Vecchio. She invited him as she set the toddler in her arms on the floor. Ray tousled the boy's hair and looked towards the steps to find his partner standing there.
Vecchio limped down and Ray thought they made an interesting pair of "walking wounded".
"How are you doing, Kowalski?" Vecchio asked when he reached the bottom.
"Sore, if you want the truth. You got someplace we can sit?"
"Let's use the den. Kids won't come in there," Vecchio suggested.
Maria glanced at the two of them, then took her son by the hand and left them alone.
Ray followed Vecchio down a short hall and into a room he didn't know existed in the big house. Vecchio waited by the door until he entered then closed it behind them. He pointed towards a fake leather chair with tape running across a crack on the seat. Ray settled into it with a silent groan and propped his cane beside him. Vecchio went around behind the cheap wooden desk and sat down.
"Still hurts, huh?" Vecchio asked nodding at him and meaning his hip.
"Yeah, it's at a weird place. Every time I move it tears on the stitches. How's your leg?"
"Better. The deepest cuts are still giving me some trouble."
Ray nodded that he heard and realized he didn't know what to say next. Vecchio leaned forward, putting his elbows on the blotter lying across the desk.
"You come here to exchange war stories or you just wanna compare wounds like a couple of old men?"
"Neither, actually. I just wanted to see you, make sure you were okay."
"You could've called," Vecchio pointed out.
"You don't want me here?"
"I want to know what you want."
"We're partners, Vecchio," Ray answered irritably. "That's what I'm doing here. You got hurt and I wanted to check on you. You don't wonder about Fraser coming over, do you?"
Vecchio sat back with a sigh.
"You're right. We're partners. I just don't want you coming over here because you feel obligated or you feel guilty."
Ray shook his head, running his fingers over the top of the cane. He looked Vecchio in the eye before he spoke.
"I'm sorry about what happened to you, about Stella and my family and the whole bit. But I don't feel guilty. I wish I didn't let you take my car by yourself to pick up Maria. That was a mistake but we all made it. I'm sorry we didn't figure out Malone sooner but we did the best we could. I do not feel guilty."
"That's good," Vecchio said, nodding. "I don't blame you."
"All right then. We're good, you and me."
"I'm sorry about the thing at the hotel," Vecchio said, sitting forward again. "I don't remember all of it but I know I pulled a gun on you."
"You're not gonna do that again, are ya?"
Vecchio shook his head with a laugh. "No."
"Then we're good. You know I'm not going to hurt you, right?"
"Yeah, I know. Like you could," Vecchio answered.
"Yeah, like I could," Ray said, accepting the teasing with a smile of his own.
The small sports bar looked exactly the same as the first time Ben entered it with neon signs littering the front and an eight foot door with iron rods for handles. They had visited several times since but he always felt the same sort of "strange man in a strange land" sensation. Vecchio pulled open the door for Kowalski to limp past on his cane and Ben to nod politely at him as he entered. The long wide bar was filled to capacity with a construction crew all dressed in dusty jeans, work boots and khaki shirts advertising their company. The two large screen TV's suspended above the bar were tuned to a football game.
The three men waited near the door until a pretty woman with long hair bleached nearly white greeted them.
"Hey Detectives, Constable, you want your usual?"
"Yeah, thanks, Mary," Kowalski answered.
"Got a bum leg there, honey?" she asked.
"Line of duty," he bragged.
"Really? You'll have to tell me later, okay. A little busy now with the big boys."
They went to their usual booth and Ben slid in first so he could face out towards the room. Kowalski and Vecchio followed in on either side making sure they had clear views of the other large screens TV's spread out through the restaurant.
"Wings and poppers?" Kowalski asked.
"Onion Rings also, Ray. They were quite good the last time."
"Man, you're turning into a junkfood junkie," he teased the Mountie.
The waitress showed up a few minutes later dressed in faded blue jeans and Chicago Bears jersey with a low cut v-neck. Her brown hair was streaked with blond and pulled back in a loose ponytail. She pulled a chair out from a nearby table and pulled it up beside Vecchio. Ray smiled timidly at her before he turned his attention back to his hands that were clasped in front of him on the table.
"Evening, Rays, Ben. How's everybody doing tonight?" she asked.
"Need a little down time, Jeannie. How are you doing?" Kowalski answered.
"Oh, you know, Buddy moved out again. He'll be back all sorry and pathetic in a couple days."
"You oughta dump him, Jeannie."
"Yeah, I know, but a girl doesn't let go of 12 inches easy." she said with a smile.
Ben felt himself blushing to the root and focused on the only television he could see from his position. He heard Kowalski laugh.
"What's wrong with you, doll?" Jeannie asked and Ben froze, looking back at her and relaxing when he saw she was talking to Ray Vecchio.
"Nothing. Nothing, I'm fine," Ray answered.
"You feeling okay? You look a little pale."
"Sure, I'm okay. Thanks for asking though."
"How about some Irish Coffee tonight instead of beer. It'll take the chill off."
"Sounds good, Jeannie, thanks."
"You guys want wings tonight?"
"Yeah. Three dozen, hot. A couple orders of poppers and a couple orders of onion rings," Vecchio answered.
"Okay, Irish Coffee, beer and water, right?" she asked.
"You're why we come here," Kowalski flirted.
On the monitor, the Chicago Bears scored a touchdown and the construction crew let out a huge yell of support. Vecchio jumped, then glared in their direction.
"So, Fraser, how're things at the Consulate," Kowalski asked, ignoring Vecchio's reaction to the noise.
"I heard from Inspector Thatcher today. She's between assignments and is taking leave in Toronto."
"Not coming down here?"
"No. She indicated that she has no fondness for Chicago and is not planning to return for any reason."
"Huh. Yeah, some people can't hack a real city," Kowalski commented as he folded up the menu he had been playing with and replaced it behind the salt and pepper shakers.
"Stella came by the house," Vecchio blurted out just as Jeannie arrived with their drinks.
They waited until she served them and left before Kowalski asked irritably,
"Wanted to tell me about Malone. Her part in it," Vecchio answered, blowing on the hot coffee.
"Yeah, well, she couldn't have known he was crazy," Kowalski defended.
"I know. That's what I told her. I wish she hadn't talked to him but I'm the one who left her in Florida. I really didn't know she was so messed up after I left. I thought we were on the same page back then."
"Nah. Stella wouldn't have married you if she didn't love you."
"I guess not. But you know, I thought I loved her. I was planning on forever when we did it. Bowling alley, Florida sun, pretty wife. I thought it was what I wanted."
"Sounds pretty good right now," Kowalski commented.
Kowalski and Vecchio finished their drinks at the same time that Jeannie brought the food. The both ordered seconds and dug into the appetizers. When she came back to check on them Kowalski ordered more wings and another beer. Vecchio asked for another coffee.
"How are things with your family, Ray?" Fraser asked.
"Mum calls a lot. Talked to my dad yesterday and he told me to come over so we can do a tune-up on the car. That's his way of saying he's not mad anymore. Brandon's been calling too. I think he feels guilty."
"He's no different than Stella. He couldn't have known about Malone," Vecchio said.
"I know, I know. But, honest? I kind of like him guilty. It won't last but at least he's not bitching at me for a change."
"Ray, you're not encouraging his remorse," Ben chastised.
Kowalski just laughed and tossed a popper in his mouth, followed by another drink from his glass.
"So, when you coming back to work?" Kowalski asked after he swallowed. His voice was slightly slurred but he sounded happy.
"Two weeks," Vecchio answered in the same tone.
"You gonna be ready?"
"I don't know. What do you think, Benny? Am I ready to go back to work?"
"In two weeks, Ray," Ben answered.
"Yeah, I gotta go ride a desk starting tomorrow," Kowalski said, draining his glass, then pouring another one from the pitcher that Jeannie left.
"Can I use that," Vecchio asked, reaching for Fraser's water glass. Before Fraser could answer, Ray had the glass and was covering the ice with the remaining beer in Kowalski's pitcher.
"You're not gonna work the street without me anyway. Especially gimping around. Hell, I'm walking better than you now."
"True," Kowalski allowed. "You know, you never said how you got cut up."
"Malone had his buddies tie me down and then they sliced my leg up."
The matter of fact tone Vecchio used sent a shiver through Ben.
"Jesus," Kowalski breathed, setting his glass down.
Ben sat back in the booth, his hands tensed into fists on the table.
"I was supposed to cut myself but I couldn't do it. So they did it for me. Just kept telling me to be still."
Ben shuddered remembering Vecchio sitting in the hotel bathroom saying, "I can be still."
Vecchio drained his glass and stared into the ice.
"Why for God's sake?" Kowalski asked.
"Obedience test," Vecchio answered softly. "He figured if I mutilated myself on command then I must be all his. Well, all yours I guess."
"Nightmares?" Fraser asked quietly.
"Yeah. That one sticks out. They sliced me up and left me bleeding. I was damn near unconscious when they untied me."
"And he didn't provide any medical...." Fraser began.
"What do you think? I used my socks for bandages and I spent the next twelve hours or so freezing my ass off while my body caught up with the blood loss."
Vecchio waved at Jeannie for the check.
"It's okay. It's over, right?" He asked. "That's what the shrink keeps telling me. I have to remind myself that it's over and I survived."
"That's right," Kowalski agreed.
"Two weeks. Then we're back to normal," Vecchio said, pushing his plate away.
The three men settled into their own thoughts for a few moments. Then Vecchio laid money over the bill and stood up. Kowalski followed and Fraser scooted out after him.
"You meeting me at the gym on Saturday?" Kowalski asked.
"Make it early. Ma wants me to do something for her. I can't remember what right now."
"Keys, Ray," Fraser said, holding out his hand.
Vecchio dropped the keys in his palm and shook his head.
"Someday, one of us'll be the designated driver. You gotta loosen up, Benny."
"I'll say," Kowalski agreed.
"Someday, perhaps. Shall we, gentlemen?"
They walked outside. Vecchio and Kowalski shivered at the cold night. Light flurries floated around them from an overcast sky. Fraser smiled into the freezing air. He didn't need the drink. He was satisfied just being here with his friends and knowing they were all safe.