Better Man

This story first appeared in the fanzine

"Hawk & Handsaw" Feb. 2004 and is still in print.

Better Man



Main fanfic page
by Morgan Dawn



Rain.  It always rained during these things.  Vecchio nodded at a vaguely familiar sergeant and eased towards his table.  The food on the plate threatened to slide — lasagna, salad, a roll, and something Jell-O like.  The same food he’d eaten at dozens of other memorial services.  Must be in some rulebook somewhere, he thought resentfully, and then sat down.  Luckily, the table was empty and he felt a brief moment of relief. 

His table backed up against a window and he could hear the rain, tapping now as it patterned down the glass. His shoes were still damp along with his trouser legs. He had had to park five blocks away and hoof it to the Police Officers’ Association Hall.

He heard more tapping, louder this time, and looked up.  It was Robertson, fumbling with his tableware as he too balanced a roll on his plate. He tumbled into the nearest chair and grunted at Vecchio.

“Good food, lousy bar.”  Robertson was a large man whose suspenders wore him rather than the other way around.  A permanently pink face and blunt blue eyes offset his graying hair.  Vecchio frowned, then caught himself. He had worked with Robertson years ago at the — 15th Precinct?  Whatever, he was a good cop. 

“It’s a funeral.  Of course the bar will be lousy.”  Vecchio said. He took a bite and swallowed roughly. Never stop eating or drinking at a funeral, otherwise you’d start thinking too much.

Robertson slathered butter over his roll and then reached for the salt.  “Well, we’ll be at Russell’s Bar later this afternoon, so no need to load up now.”

Vecchio nodded and took another bite.  The trip to the bar too was tradition.  Memorial service at the hall, then the real wake, the one without the wives and the kids, would be later at Russell’s.

He doubted he could handle it.  Too many old timers boozing their way past another death. Too many stories and too many memories. 

No need to alienate anyone by telling them so.  “Good,” he took another bite.  “I’ll try to stop by.” 

Robertson peered at him, seemingly satisfied. Ray had the distinct impression that the invitation had been the whole reason for Robertson’s visit.  Cops were supposed to look after each other.  Since he’d returned from Florida, and tried to pick up the threads of his old life, he’d known he needed help.

Not like he could ask. Here he was, a 35-year-old, twice divorced man, living with his mother. Back in his old job, grinding away at catching crooks and wondering where his life had gone.  Not the kind of thing you could saunter up to your buddies and start talking about.

Still, he appreciated the fact that Robertson had bothered to stop by.  He heard the whine of microphone feedback and looked up.  Someone had approached the podium and was speaking.    Something about the dead man, his years of service. 

Ray was grateful that there had been no family to sit pale and tight-lipped near the podium, bravely weathering the condolences.  Like himself, Officer Patrick Finley had been a divorcé with no kids.  His family— a brother — lived far away, and his parents had both died a few years back. 

Solitary, listening to the rain, among the living and the dead.  A fragment of something he had once heard flashed through his mind.  He pushed the congealed food around his plate in irritation.

“So you back at the 27th precinct?” Robertson was doggedly determined to keep the conversation going. 

“Yeah, been back for five months now.  I’m up to a full case load.” 

“Good. They assign you to a partner yet?”  From the way Robertson phrased the question, Vecchio thought he could see the direction this conversation was going. 

“Next month,” he lied.  He had told Welsh he’d do better without a partner, and for now Welsh was letting it slide.   No need to give a busybody like Robertson any ideas. Guys like Robertson were from the old school – cops needed each other to watch their backs, keep an eye on each other.  Vecchio had always known that was bullshit.  And now, without Fraser as his partner —

“Whew, ducked that one!,” Dave Bremer crashed into an open seat next to Robertson, gesturing dramatically at a table of women across the room. His bushy eyebrows waggled in counterpoint to his mustache. He was one of the few cops still sporting one, a holdover of the 70s. 

Robertson smiled, his eyes twinkling. “Come on Dave, you know you like it.  Besides you know what they say about weddings…” Robertson trailed off suggestively.

“And funerals, thick with sad and lonely women. Amen to that,” David replied, leaning back in his chair and cradling his beer.  “Hi Ray, you been back long?”

“Five months, 27th precinct, no partner yet.” Robertson summed him up in one breath.  Ray felt more relieved than annoyed.  Small world meant few secrets.

“Ah, then you must have heard about your doppelganger.”  Bremer beamed, still toying with his beer glass.

Puzzled, Ray pushed his plate away and reached for his own drink. He shook his head.

“You know, that other cop — the one they brought in to cover for you while you were-”
 Bremer paused and looked around. Old habits of secrecy were hard to shake.  “You know,  away.” 

“He’s back, I know. So what of it?” Ray tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice. 

“Well he’s in deep shit.”  Bremer paused dramatically, trying to gauge Vecchio's reaction. 

Ray shrugged and took a sip of his drink.  Some cops would try to look for a fight even if there wasn't one.  His opinion of Kowalski was hardly a secret, but that didn’t mean he was going to sit around gossiping about him. 

“What he do, bang someone’s sister?”  Robertson asked laughingly and Bremer joined him. Some inside joke, Vecchio could tell from their tone.  He really didn’t care.

“No, no," Bremer clarified as soon as they stopped sniffling.  “It’s just he goes off to some frozen tundra, stays away two years, they gave away his job.” 

“Man without a job, hardly makes news.”  Vecchio shifted his chair back from the table.  He had been away almost as long and was still digging through the paperwork trying to get fully reinstated.  He could still hear the rain striking the windowpanes, more faintly now.  This was getting boring, but he tried not to show it. No need to give them any more food for gossip. 

“Well that’s just it,” Bremer leaned forward, lowering his voice.  “They put him back on probationary status and rather than going along for the ride, he’s raising holy hell.  Even pulled in the ombudsmen and, boy, is brass pissed off.”

Robertson snorted in amusement.  “Well then maybe we should give him a medal.  It’s a good day when the brass is pissed off.” He  raised his glass in a  toast. 

“Amen to that.” Bremer replied and raised his own glass in return.  “But now that the Canadian Consulate is in on it too….oh, boy, are his balls about to be toasted.”

Vecchio looked sharply at the two men. And saw that they caught his reaction.  So this was the punchline — the real reason they’d stopped by. It was a small world.  A petty world.

“Canadian…” Bremer mused loudly, sneaking a peek at Vecchio’s face.  “Hey this wouldn’t be that Canadian cop you used to work with?  I thought he and Kowalski ran off together didn't they?”

More chortles of laugher, this time with an edgier undertone.  Vecchio felt his eyes grow cool and hard. 

“Fraser, Canadian Mountie assigned as a liaison to the consulate?  Good cop.”  He smiled, feeling his teeth stretch over his lips.  “Pity he couldn’t carry a gun here in the US.  He is one of the best shots I’ve ever seen.” He paused a moment and then added.  “Wasn’t Kowalski your division champion for target shooting a few years back?”

The two men looked at each other, puzzled.  Ray’s grin grew a bit broader.  “Yeah, heard he is one top pistol.  Pity about his temper though. Hate to be on the wrong side of that one.”

Robertson flushed a bit as the meaning sunk in. Picking on cops from your old precinct, just for the hell of it, was plain stupid.  You never knew when you’d need someone to back you up – or cover for that extra break.  And as far as Ray knew no one had a real beef with Kowalski.  You got no brownie points for being petty.

Roberston understood. Ray could tell by the way he started intently digging into his plate. Vecchio almost felt sorry for the older cop.  He was just following someone else’s lead in this little skirmish.  Bremer, on the other hand, glowered back, too stupid to pass up a chance to knock someone else down.  Ray kept smiling coldly until he was certain even an asshole like Bremer could get the point.

“Well gentlemen, I need another refill. Can I get you anything?”   Both men shook their heads, and Vecchio stood and smoothed his jacket. He picked up his glass and headed towards the bar.  He lost himself in a small crowd and then slipped out the back of the hall, leaving his empty glass on the counter.

The rain had dissolved into a fine mist, but there were puddles everywhere.  He tried to step around them, tried to avoid the floating oil and scum, but after the third block he gave in and just ignored it.

He really had no idea what was up with Fraser.  He had left messages for him as soon as he returned from Florida.  Kowalski and Fraser had arrived in Chicago a few months before Ray’s marriage had failed. When Ray had returned and learned they were back in town, he felt a great weight lift.  But that weight had re-settled after weeks and then months had gone by without any real contact with Fraser.

Oh, they had left messages for each other— long and sometimes rambling. Him painfully explaining his break-up with Stella and asking if he could stop by. Fraser, telling him about their return from the north, his reinstatement to the consulate, and apologizing that the date and time would not work, but how about another?  And so it had gone, with Ray growing more and more puzzled and more and more hurt.  It wasn’t like they were at different ends of the continent any more.  It used to be so easy, his friendship with Fraser.  What the hell had happened?

He tried to slip in through the back, but his mother’s eagle ears caught his faint tread on the hall floorboards. 

“Ray, so early?”  She was working at the kitchen table, sorting socks and underwear.  As Ray entered the room, she looked up and smiled.  “Come, sit, tell me, how did it go?”

He poured himself a cup of coffee but stayed leaning against the counter. If he sat, it would be hours before he could return to his room.

“Fine, Mom. As fine as one of these things can be.”

She nodded making a sympathetic noise and reached into the clothes hamper.  Ray suppressed a wave of irritation — she meant well, but she really couldn’t understand how cops felt at funerals of their own. The haunting sense that it could have been any one of them, the guilt at the relief it wasn’t.  Cops deserved more than that.

The coffee was cold but he swallowed anyway.  His sharp-eyed mother caught his slight grimace and snorted.

“If you’d stayed with Stella, there’d be no need for old coffee.  She'd have taken good care of you, Ray.” 

Ray felt his face grow warm with irritation.  Same old shit.  “Why did you leave her, Ray?  Why couldn’t you two have made it work out?”  And the dreaded —  “your father and I were married for 35 years.”  But he couldn’t rehash it all here. Not today and certainly not now.  He kept his mouth shut and sipped his bitter coffee.

The ceiling creaked above them softly.  He could hear Franny and her kid stirring from their nap.  His mother sighed, then started on the second basket of clothes. She looked tired and pasty faced.  Franny's daughter was really wearing her down.  The kitchen lights glinted shallowly off her graying hair.  Last week she had fainted and fallen but refused to see the doctor.  Now she had to fold clothes sitting at the kitchen table.  The smell of baking wafted from the oven. Ray looked at the clock guiltily and realized she must have started dinner alone while Franny was resting.

“Mom, let me call the cleaning service again. You can tell them to do it exactly the way you like it.  And I can even ask for someone who speaks Italian.” 

“I don’t need anyone to do chores I’ve been doing for 55 years.”  She pointed her finger at him accusingly.  “You trying to hurt my feelings, Raimondo?”

“No, ma,” he replied softly.  She glared at him a bit longer and then pointedly turned back to her folding.   Ray stifled his impulse to sit down and help.  It would only be seen as another form of criticism.  He should have just pitched in from the beginning.  Now it was too late.

He heard the shriek of his niece and Franny yelling something about putting something down, then a loud thump.  Using it as his cue, Ray nodded to his mother and headed towards this room. 

Franny’s door was closed when he reached the top of the landing and he slipped gratefully into his room.  The door clicked shut behind him and the din lessened.

When he had returned from Florida, his room had been left untouched. Almost as if they expected me to come back home, he had thought and then shoved that thought away.

He sat on his bed and watched the rain begin again, sliding across the window. It was growing dark, an early October afternoon falling rapidly into night.  They said it might snow next week.  He wondered what it would be like to live in the Yukon where the snow came as early as September and left as late as May.  Florida had felt unnatural — the sun and heat beating down on him, unrelenting, until he felt there was no end to the summer.  The Yukon was probably as unnatural as Florida — from one extreme to the other.

He lay flat on the bed, listening to the afternoon sounds mingle with the rain.  The single lamp next to his bed had a yellowing shade and at night it cast soft shadows on the textured ceiling.  When he was little and had finally been given his own room, he used to imagine shadow plays across its white surface. Now all he saw was cracks and lines and remnants of fading wallpaper.  

The comforter was soft beneath him and he felt his arms and legs grow heavy and full, sinking until he could feel it along the length of his body.  He could feel each breath, each pulse of his heart thrumming deep in his chest.  It was at this time of day that he became aware of the absence of Fraser.  Something as simple as a warm hand on your shoulder, the lift you’d get when you heard a familiar voice before you turned the corner. Funny how you could miss some people even years later, while others, like Stella, you didn’t seem to miss at all. At least not as much as everyone seemed to think you should. 

He reached for the phone and dialed the Canadian Consulate, the numbers familiar under his fingers. He doubted they’d answer this late on a Saturday afternoon.  He felt a surprising shot of fear when a live voice answered:  “Canadian Consulate. Constable Fraser. How may I assist you?” 

Ray took a deep breath against the tightness in his chest.  “Fraser, it’s me.  Wow, I got you live.” 

There was only the briefest hesitation and then Fraser said:  “Why yes, you do have me live.  It’s good to hear your voice, Ray.”

Ray’s mind went blank.  “You working?”  He leaned back into the headboard, welcoming its comforting solidity. 

“Yes, I am.  Are you calling in an official capacity?”  Ray wondered if he heard tension in Fraser’s voice. 

“Um, no.  Look, Fraser how the hell are you?  How — I mean when —….” So many questions tumbled from him and he felt his thoughts cross-circuiting. The phone couldn’t be pressed any closer to his ear and still he was afraid he wasn’t hearing clearly enough.

“I am still working, Ray, but will be off in a few minutes.  We’re doing fine.  And we've been back for six months.”  Fraser’s voice seemed to perk up a little.

“Right, sorry. Should I call you back?  I’ve been back almost the same time, about five months.”  His thoughts kept circling. Fraser knew all of this, why was he repeating the same things?  He repositioned himself against the headboard, which suddenly no longer felt so comfortable. 

“No need.”   Ray could picture Fraser tilting his head slightly as he delivered his words with precision.   “I will be off duty shortly.  There’s no one waiting here, and my phone has two lines, so there is a line free should anyone call.”  He paused, and for a moment there was an awkward silence. 

“Well, then.” Ray stopped himself from clearing his throat.  “So, you doing the same job?” 

“Not exactly. I am working on a new position that will — one moment Ray.”  Fraser seemed to cover the phone and Ray heard muffled conversation, then a laugh.

“Sorry Ray. I actually do need to go.  Ray — I mean Kowalski — is here and he just received a lead on one of our cases.”

I thought he said he was alone, and then Ray tried to refocus.  “Right, I understand. But I was actually calling in an official capacity.”  He heard Fraser pause almost uncertainly and quickly amended his statement.   “I mean semi-official. I was hoping you could stop by tomorrow — you must get some time off, right?  Help me on one of my cases?  It’s a pretty nasty murder and I really could use a fresh look at the evidence.” He heard an impatient voice calling, echoing tinnily through the receiver. 

Ray knew there really wasn’t any delay between his asking and Fraser’s answer, but it seemed to last minutes.  “I'd be happy to help you Ray.  How about 2pm at the precinct?” 

He closed his eyes.  “Sure Fraser. I’ll leave word at the sergeant’s desk to buzz you in. Thanks.”

“It is good to hear from you, Ray,”  Now Fraser’s voice sounded rushed, as if he was trying to convey something important, but Ray wanted the conversation to be over.  

“You too,” he whispered into the phone and slammed it down.   His face burned.  What the hell was going on?  He felt a cold ache begin in his belly as he rose from the bed.  “This is fucked,” he said loudly to the walls.  He looked around his room, feeling trapped.  No way could he go downstairs. Franny would start talking about looking for a new job, the baby would be crying, his mother would start up again.   And God, he didn’t want to fight with his family again.  Not now, not today.

Even so, he briefly envied Patrick Finley.  His death had neatly bypassed all of this shit.  Not that death really solved anything.  Even so, he carefully removed the bullets from his revolver and made certain it was locked tight before lying down on his bed again.  Sleep was a long time coming and he ignored the knocks on his door telling him dinner was ready.  He had no appetite for any of this.   

Ray banged his knee against the desk and swore. It was too small for him, the pencil drawer scraped against his thighs, but he knew he’d never find another one after the recent budget cuts.  He pulled out a set of folders and files and neatly stacked them to the left.  The desk’s obsessive precision was the object of many jokes at the precinct.  His stint as the Bookman meant it was kept tidy and nearly clear at the end of the day.  This was one habit he was glad he kept.

He glanced up at the room clock and then reminded himself that Fraser was always on time.  He reached for the top file and pulled out the recent crime photos.  The Kenneth Fitzhugh murder had a few puzzling features. There was a bloodstained basement carpet, but no tracks upstairs along the killer’s only exit route. This all pointed to a trip-and-fall, an accidental death, just like the husband’s version of events.  And yet there was a single shoe tossed in the husband’s SUV with traces of the wife’s blood.  Mr. Fitzhugh said he had stepped in the blood when he found the body and then had changed his clothes at his friend’s house before the police arrived. He could not remember how the shoe got from his friend’s house into the SUV.  And, if he were the killer, where were his bloody tracks, running up the stairs, into his car and through the foyer of his friend’s house?  It didn’t add up.

Ray made certain the witness statements were in order and then pushed the files back in place.  It was 1:55pm and he decided to head downstairs to greet Fraser at the sergeant’s desk. It would be friendlier. He ran into Fraser on the stairs, his familiar face swinging upwards in greeting and a warm smile crossing his face.  Ray felt a familiar surge of recognition and felt himself grinning uncontrollably in return.  Without thinking he grabbed Fraser by his arms and gave him a happy tug.  Fraser felt stiff and tense under his uniform.

“Fraser, you look just the same. Except —” he stepped back critically, eyeing him with exaggeration, “you’re wearing that brown suit thing.  You still in the doghouse?”

“Not really.  I no longer have to wear the beaver hat, Ray.  I do miss the red suit, but we’re trying our best to fit in right now.”  

Ray looked more carefully and noted that Fraser still had a very dark tan. For the first time, small wrinkles had formed under his eyes and at the edges of his mouth. Laugh lines, they were called. He had added more muscles across his chest and arms. It made him seem older and more mature.  Fraser looked like a man who finally had found his path in the world.

It didn’t matter.  Ray couldn’t stop smiling.  “You?  You’d never fit in. That’s what makes you special.”  He waited for Fraser to respond, but he stood there awkwardly in the hallway and Ray felt his smile slip a little.  Give the guy a break, he thought tightly,  it’s been two years, and gestured Fraser towards his desk. 

He heard Dewey call across from the room. “Fraser, hey, you’re back.  Still working with Vecchio?  Guess you couldn’t shake him?”    

Fraser smiled and nodded back. A few more voices chimed in, all welcoming Fraser and joking how Vecchio's arrest rate was sure to bounce back.  It felt like old times.

A small figure crossed the room, her blue uniform a blur.  The officer’s dark hair was neatly tied back into a ponytail that flapped excitedly behind her.  She came to an abrupt halt in front of Fraser and stared, her mouth open but no sound emerging. 

“Well, hello, Elaine,” Fraser reached out and took her hand.  Elaine moved her mouth a few more times and then squeaked “Fraser?”  She straightened and put on her best game face and said more forcefully, “Fraser, welcome back.” Then her face broke again into a smile and she leaned into Fraser to give him a hug. 

Ray was surprised to see Fraser carefully return her hug, his face softening slightly with genuine warmth.  Why wasn’t Fraser this relaxed around him?

The pair separated and they chatted briefly, catching up.  Vecchio stood by his desk feeling that he had suddenly been forgotten.  But after a brief exchange of information, Fraser said good-bye to Elaine and walked over to Ray. 

“Let me grab these files,” Ray said, shoving  a smaller stack towards Fraser, “and we’ll duck into one of the rooms where we have more space.”  And fewer interruptions, he thought.

“Sure, Ray, but I feel I should tell you I only have a half hour.”

His arms full, Ray tapped one foot against the first interrogation room door and went in when he heard no response.  “I’m sorry, Fraser, what was that?”

He dumped the files on the table and shoved a chair to get around the back. 

Fraser leaned forward and put his set of files next to Ray’s. His eyes were somber and dark.   “I am so sorry Ray.” Fraser  said.  “I had planned to spend more time, but it seems I only have thirty minutes today.  Kowalski and I have this case that we need to straighten out.”    He took a shallow breath and then rushed on.  “But it was important that I keep my promise. To you.” He waited, apologetically, almost guiltily, his shoulders slightly lowered and braced.

Ray felt a flush of irritation.  Keeping promises was something neither of them had been very good at.  He fumbled with the papers, flustered, trying to buy himself some time.  The files flipped through his fingers coolly, reminding him that there was a dead woman and a possible killer to catch.  He squelched his annoyance.  No need to rush this.  They’d have more time later.   “Well then, sit down, Fraser, and let me brief you. It won’t take long.” 

Fraser nodded shortly and Ray began by outlining the case.  The only other person who had visited the house that day was a cleaning maid.  No, she had heard nothing usual.  No, she had seen nothing usual.   No, she could not verify when Mr. Fitzhugh came home, or how long it had taken the husband to notify the police.

“You see Fraser, the maid was the last person to see the wife alive.  I still think she is the key.” Ray forced himself not to look at his watch.  “I know I’m not asking the right questions.” He paused, reliving the same nagging frustration he had felt all week.

Fraser tilted his head to one side, his thumb briefly brushing a photograph of the basement crime scene.  “And the fact that there was no blood trail makes it seem like the wife fell and hit her head.  Just as the husband claims.”

Ray felt a small thrill of eagerness.  Trust Fraser to cut to the chase. All  of  their comfortable mannerisms were slipping back into place. Fraser’s erect posture had relaxed fractionally and he leaned over the table to get a better look at the photos.  Ray peeked up to find Fraser moving his head intently as he read with a small furrow of concentration.  It felt like coming home. 

“Right, so there’s what I thought you could do.” The words tumbled out of Ray with a rush of enthusiasm.  “Could you look over the maid’s witness statements and the info on the crime scene and maybe bring a fresh angle to it?  I’ll drop off the copies tomorrow at the consulate.”

Fraser agreed and then stood suddenly.  “I may still be in the field tomorrow, but you can leave them with Turnbull.”  For a moment, Ray was confused and then he remembered Fraser’s appointment.  He barely had enough time to give Fraser the briefest amount of background — how the heck was this going to work?  He felt a repeated surge of annoyance at Fraser, but he said nothing. 

Fraser picked up his hat and moved into the hallway.  Ray followed him down the corridors to the front entry desk, wondering if he had made a mistake.  They stood awkwardly near the doorway, and then Fraser made to put on his hat.  Instinctively responding to the gesture, Ray reached out and grabbed Fraser’s hand tightly.  Ray felt a shock of warmth travel across their bare skin, sliding up his arm and down into his belly.  But then Fraser was roughly pulling away, the hat swinging out and up in a graceful arc until it rested on his head.  As Fraser tugged down the rim,  Ray followed the movement to catch  Fraser’s gaze.  Longing, fear, confusion and something Ray could not identify played across Fraser’s face.   And then it was Ray who was looking away, and Fraser moving through the doorway, walking silently and quickly.   It wasn’t until Fraser had disappeared through the doors that Vecchio remembered that Fraser had forgotten to ask when they could next meet. 

It was raining again the next day, mixed with sleet.  The path to the consulate was crowded with protestors.  They were a fairly civil group, marching neatly in place holding their signs: “Investigate the Corruption” and  “They Shouldn’t Have Died In Vain.”   A blond man jogged up and tried to hand Ray a flyer but he glared at the man’s feet until he scooted away. “Never make eye contact” was the first rule of any Chicagoan.

He had to flash his badge several times before he was allowed to bypass the police cordon.    As he passed, he heard one cop mutter, “Damn Canadians, why don’t they protest up north where it matters?”  Ray ignored him and pushed his way through. 

The consulate was cool and dark, just as he remembered.  But the main desk had been moved, and he hesitated before heading further down the hall where he thought he heard voices.  The Queen and random Canadian dignitaries still lined the hallway, staring stiffly ahead. As he approached the first room, he saw a small sign saying  “Please check in here,” but froze when he heard Fraser’s raised voice.

“You are aware, sir, that you are required to cooperate with our investigation?  Three Canadian civilians have died in this country. Yes, we have an officer assigned from the Chicago PD.”

“Let me have the damn phone, Fraser. Just because they're Feds doesn't mean they can jerk us around.”

Fraser must have mumbled something, because he heard Ray Kowalski's voice lifting into a string of curses. 

Ray almost turned and left but he could hear the click of the phone hitting the receiver.  Gripping his file folders a bit tighter, he walked into the room.

Fraser stood by the desk, his head slightly lowered with a thoughtful expression on his face.  Ray Kowalski was pacing the small room, hands tightly fisted.  Vecchio noticed that Kowalski’s face was weathered like Fraser’s and his hair had grown bleached.  More of that healthy lumberjack life.   He still moved like a low-rider on springs, Ray thought sarcastically, wondering how long it would take both men to register his presence.

“Christ, Fraser, this isn’t some petty theft we’re dealing with. The Feds know that. They also know that if this pans out, we might find a shitload more than drugs and smuggling.”

“I am aware of that Ray.  But the family killed wasn’t involved in any of it. In fact —” Fraser stopped, finally catching sight of Vecchio.

Vecchio nodded curtly. He hated hearing his name being used on someone else. It felt like a yank on an invisible leash that suddenly went slack.

Kowalski shook his head in return and then threw his hands up.  “Fuck it, Fraser. I don’t know what I’m doing here.  I’ve got no federal contacts left. Oh, hi, Ray.”

Kowalski’s pacing was making Vecchio dizzy, so he stepped further into the room and handed the files to Fraser.  “Here’s the witness statement.”  He felt the briefest touch of Fraser’s fingers as the files passed across the space between them.  Ray was flooded with a confused sensation, as if he was simultaneously falling and standing still.  Disturbed, he pulled his hand back. He thought he saw something flicker in Fraser’s eyes, but he turned away, his chest suddenly thumping. 

The room seemed small and confining.  Ray walked over to a white board covered in photos and littered with notes.  He squinted but could not read the handwriting. Must be Kowalski's chicken scratch, he thought, and then looked back at the two men.  Kowalski was watching him with a puzzled air.  Fraser held the files loosely, but was focused on Kowalski.  Ray felt another small shift in gravity and then gestured at the board.

“I heard about this case.  Poor family, found dead in their SUV in Wrigleyville.  All indications are that they were killed right after they crossed the border and then dumped there. I heard there were drugs in the SUV.”

Kowalski shook his head fiercely and stepped up to the board. He glared over Vecchio’s shoulder as if confronting an unjust world.  “Nah, those were planted.  We don’t know on which side of the border.  That’s why Fraser and I are working this one together.”

Vecchio frowned and glanced over at Fraser. His files were gone, teetering on the stacked desk.  Fraser nodded in confirmation and Ray felt confused.  “You mean they’ve just assigned the two of you?  On something this size?”

“In the interest of containing any possible contamination to the investigation and reducing bureaucratic entanglements.” Fraser’s voice held only the slightest edge. 

“Bullshit as usual. Still it’s a great idea, this cross — cross — what’s the word Fraser?”  Kowalski rubbed his hair and it stood up wildly.

“Cross-agency cooperation and liaison efforts.” Fraser smiled and Kowalski's scowl lifted a fraction.  

“Well, I still don’t think it’s a cop.” Kowalski went brittle again. “I think the drugs were left there by the killers.”  Fraser shook his head in disagreement.  Kowalski leaned back slightly and Ray recognized the signs of an ongoing argument. 

“Well, don’t let me stop you two.” He heard the sarcastic tone slip out and could have snapped the words back as two sets of eyes refocused on him sharply. He had no desire to be caught in the middle.  He thought of just walking out, but the thought of Fraser seeing him like this — he wasn’t sure what he was like right now, but whatever it was, it was embarrassing.

“What I meant — I mean, you’ve reached an impasse, right?”  He frantically groped for the right words.  Fraser was waiting for him, Ray could tell by the way he rested his head slightly to one side, the way he leaned fractionally forward.  Ray could still read him.  And then realized that Fraser could still read him back. It felt right. 

Then Kowalski cut in.  “So, you got a point, Vecchio?”   The moment shattered and his muscles bunched to carry him out the door. 

“Ray, wait.  Let’s hear him out.”  Ray swiveled towards Fraser but realized he was addressing Kowalski instead.  Fraser’s misuse of his name startled, and once again Vecchio felt off balance. He stared resentfully at Kowalski.  He could see the signs of strain – fingernails bitten down, tenseness in the neck and shoulders and shadows under the eyes. He has a lot to prove, Ray thought.  He shouldn’t have called in the ombudsmen. Now they’ll only make it harder for him.

Kowalski shrugged and strode over to Fraser. They stood, shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the overflowing desk, waiting for Ray to speak.  Ray tried to grab his thoughts, only to see his goodwill vanish the instant his files hit the floor.  Why the hell had Fraser tossed them there?

He stepped forward, dancing around Kowalski, and knelt to help Fraser pick up the scattered witness statements and photos.

“I’m sorry, Ray.  Were they in any particular order?”

Ray shook his head, tired of his variable feelings.  Why was this so hard?  He snagged a sheet that had almost landed under Kowalski's foot and shoved it back into the file.  He and Fraser stood at the same moment and he felt again the dizzying sense of smooth, unified motion.  By the time the files had been replaced on the desk, Ray had his emotions firmly under control. 

“Look Fraser, I’ve got a few names in the Justice Department I can call.  You need a list of any federal agents or reports that were filed in the area that night?”

Fraser nodded solemnly, almost as if he knew how hard this was for Ray.  “Yes, that’s what we were looking for.”

“No problem. It’s what I’d be looking for.”  He stole a glance at Kowalski. His wiry frame had eased back from his tightly wound stance.  He met Ray’s eyes, then he looked away.

“I’ll let you know.” Ray paused and then forced himself to ask.  “”Benny, about my case….”  He could feel Kowalski’s sharp eyes boring into him.

“Yes, Ray. I did make one call to the witness. I called information and she was luckily listed . She was not in, so I left a message with her roommate.”

Ray puzzled over this. It made no sense. Why call a witness before you read her statement?  But he trusted Fraser to know what he was doing, so he nodded. He had almost reached the consulate front door before he turned around and marched back down the hall.  They’d both forgotten to set an appointment for their next meeting.   By the time he reached the door, Fraser was deeply embedded on the phone again and Kowalski was nowhere to be seen.  He scribbled a date and time on the bulletin board, nodded and left.

Over the next few days, the phone calls to the Feds netted only a few more inventive excuses.  Ray sat at his cramped desk and felt tired.  He had hated working with the Feds.  When he was undercover he always felt like he was their trained monkey.  They only told him enough to get by. 

Luckily, he was even more inventive than they were. That was something else he had picked up from the Bookman.  If someone screws with you, you don’t have to screw them back directly.  The chair creaked slightly and he unlocked a desk drawer where he kept his coded contact book.  He had started the book while working undercover. The mafia was big on secret codes and handshakes. They were like overgrown eight year olds with guns and drugs.

He thumbed through it looking for the name of a federal attorney he had met at one of Stella’s interminable career-building parties in Florida.  Yeah, she had retired, my ass. 

Gary Renck.  He studied the coded notes — worked in the Department of Justice, a middle-aged, paunchy man who loved golfing. Or maybe it was rolfing.  He shut the drawer, amused by his own inability to read his handwriting. One day he’d be calling the wrong guy if he didn’t remember the cipher.

The call to Gary was quick. He had already heard about the break-up with Stella, so they kept it business-like.  Lawyers, like cops, lived in a small world, and you learned to keep your nose out of other people’s personal affairs.

Gary couldn’t comment on anything directly.  But he thought the roadblock would most likely come from the regional level.  The local feds were supposed to be scrutinized by the regional manger, but, even after a few well-publicized screw-ups, the Feds had not fixed their lack of regional oversight. 

Ray took careful notes, his hand cramping as he juggled the conversation and the code.  When he hung up, he tried calling Fraser again, but he found himself navigating through the Consulate’s new voicemail.

“Yeah, Fraser, well, I had no luck from the Feds. But a little bird suggested you try calling the regional office and mention you’ve been having problems getting a hold of the Illinois branch.  You know the drill — you must have misplaced the number and perhaps they can help you with the right office number.  Once words gets back you’ve been nosing around, Illinois should come around.  Anyway, it’s uh, Friday and I’ll be here the rest of the day.  So, give me a call. Oh, you can call me at the house, too, this weekend.”

He hung up the phone and looked over his desk.  The surface had old coffee stains and something that looked like ink.  The bottom drawer stuck and could not be closed.  His stack of open files loomed on the left. He peered at the top file, straightening it suspiciously. The green folder looked like a file he’d seen on Dewey’s desk just last week.  He looked around and casually swept the top four files under his arm. 

Welsh kept the assignment log on the top shelf of the large file cabinet next to his office door.  Vecchio pretended to lean against the cabinet, opening and staring intently at the top file.  When he left the squad room, he had the file assignment book tucked neatly along with the rest of his orphan files.  From there it was only a matter of some creative forgery (again, thanks to the Bookman) and some help with whiteout to dump the files back on their original owners.  It was a time-honored tradition to recycle small, non-violent or petty theft cases between the detectives.  They must think he was still too brain-dead not to remember that.

He smiled broadly as he turned left and entered the small lunchroom.  He dumped some change into the vending machine and waited for the chips to fall.  I wonder how Kowalski is handling that?  Or maybe they don't swap files in his precinct?  he thought, and then pulled the door open with more force than he intended.   It was still weird to think of someone pretending to be him, living his life and then dropping it as if were a pair of bad fitting shoes.  Knowing Kowalski had lived his life for two years was like having an unwelcome roommate permanently underfoot. And now that Kowalski was gone from his life, there wasn’t a cleaning lady in the world who could wash away the memory of those missing years. 

Vecchio froze, his thin fingers holding the half-opened bag of chips.  The husband and his best friend, Robert Brown, had both hired the same maid. He remembered that from the file. In fact, the maid was living as a part-time nanny at the best friend’s house.  So if Fraser had called over to Robert Brown’s house and left a message, the husband might find out something was up. Fraser should have known better than to tip off a suspect.  But Fraser hadn’t read the files, had he, before he made the phone call to the maid?

Vecchio crunched down savagely on the first chip. The vending machine blinked slowly, the display light buzzing annoyingly while it flickered.  He doubted the maid was in real danger.  She was just a witness, one who had seen nothing.

He licked his fingers and stared at them in surprise. He had eaten the entire bag of chips, standing mesmerized in front of the vending machine.  He tossed the bag into the garbage can.  But his feet pointed themselves towards the parking lot and he found himself fumbling for his keys.

There was no answer at Robert Brown’s house and he could see nothing by peering inside. The driveway was empty, still slick with morning rain, so she must have been gone for some time.    He looked up and down the street hoping to catch some neighbor coming or going, but the street was deserted of people. Everyone was either at work or tucked snugly inside their homes.

He stood next to his car and let his mind drift.  She was a cleaning lady. She cleaned for several houses, plus she provided occasional baby-sitting for the Brown child.   She could be anywhere.   Even her name, Jean Kim, was unremarkable and hard to trace.

He remembered the Brown’s baby — it was the same age as Franny’s, and when he’d taken Mrs. Kim’s witness statements it had made the same annoying grab for his pen.   If it was Franny's day off he knew where she’d be — story time for toddlers at the local library.

He blinked rapidly and reached for his cell phone seconds before it rang.   He heard the crackle of bad reception and rotated his body to see if  it improved the signal.

“Allo?  Allo?  Please help me?”  The voice had a faint Asian accent. The static intensified. 

“Who is this? How did you get this number?”

There was a pause and he suppressed the urge to shake the phone. He moved a few feet away from the car and the voice came in much clearer.

“You gave it to me.  Remember?  When you left your card?” The woman’s voice sounded sharp and afraid.

Vecchio took a deep breath and then exhaled.  “Mrs.  Kim.   I was hoping to find you.  In fact, I’m at your employer’s house right now.”

He heard a child cry in the background and a shushing noise.  “Ah, I know.  I am looking at you.”

Ray shifted his gaze toward the house windows but they remained shuttered. There still was no car in the driveway, so she hadn’t just arrived. Why hadn’t she answered his knocks?

“Okay, well I’ll be right there then.” He started moving across the lawn to the porch when her voice came blasting through the receiver.

“No, No, No.  You cannot come in. I cannot come out. He’s waiting for me.”  There was obvious fear in the woman’s voice and it set the child off into a loud wail.

“Right,” he turned instinctively away from the house and started walking back to his car.  “Mrs. Kim, please calm down and tell me who is waiting for you.”

“Mr. Fitzhugh.   He knows I saw him.  And he has been waiting for me.”

“Why would he be waiting for you?”  Ray pulled out a note pad and pen and started jotting down notes on the hood of his car.  The wind picked up and briefly rustled the pages until he smoothed them with one hand. He wished he had put on his gloves before he answered the phone. His hands were freezing.

“I saw him. The day of the murder, I saw him change his clothes. Earlier when I was cleaning at his house, he and his wife were sitting in the kitchen and she was asking him why he was wearing fishing overalls. It was too cold to fish, she said. Then they started arguing.  When he came over to Mr. Brown’s house, he was wearing different clothes.  And new shoes.”  She was getting incoherent and Vecchio frowned impatiently.

“So he changed his clothes — well, maybe he did go fishing.” 

“No it was — what’s the word — rain ice that day. I had to keep the children inside.  When I saw him again, he was so calm.  He’d been driving around trying to decide what to do.  It was Mr. Brown who told him to call the police.”

“OK. So what was Mr. Fitzhugh wearing when you saw him leave?”  He tried the question again, but with a different approach. 

“I don’t — that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Her voice was shrill and spiked.  “When they started to argue, Mr. Fitzhugh, he sent me home.”

Ray pushed down hard with his pen and underlined the last bit of her statement. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?"  He waited and listened to the sound of static.

“I was afraid,” her voice came softly and Ray sighed. The same story all reluctant witnesses told themselves.  He kept circling the same spot on the notepad.  “Fine, Mrs. Kim.  Do you remember what time it was when you saw Mr. Fitzhugh at Brown’s door?”

“Only if you promise to protect me.  He knows.  Mr. Brown said you were looking for me. When that policeman called, Mr. Brown asked me why they wanted me again and I got afraid.  I heard him telling Mr. Fitzhugh this morning.” 

Ray pressed down harder with his pen.  “Mrs. Kim, we’ll help you,” he answered impatiently.  “We can even find you a safe place to stay if you need it.  But I need to know what time you saw Mr. Fitzhugh again.”

“It was 2pm.” She started crying, and her tears drowned out the rest of her speech.

Ray paused thoughtfully, looking at his notes.  The call had come in from the Brown house around 2:20pm.  The coroner put the death around 10:00am. The husband said he had left in the morning before the cleaning maid had gone home.  He claimed he'd been running errands and came home around 1:30pm to find his wife dead.  Perhaps Mrs. Kim’s statement, combined with the forensics, would be enough for an arrest warrant.

He shook his head uncertainly.  He felt ridiculous, standing in the middle of the street arguing with a woman who was only feet away.   He felt ridiculous until he opened his car door, got in, and angled his rear view mirror.  Ray saw him then, sitting a block down the street, behind the wheel of a Ford Taurus. It had new license plates and Ray bet it was a rental car.  He had no idea how long the husband had been there, but he was there now. Watching.

Ray kept his movements even and slow as he dialed the precinct’s dedicated line.  If he hadn't shown up when he did, if he hadn’t paused by the car before driving away, he might have left the poor woman alone with a killer outside.  Ray felt the cool chill surround him as he made the right calls. And then he waited, his breath coming out misty in the unheated car, until the time came for him to escort Mrs. Kim to safety.

As he drove her to the precinct, she kept thanking him over and over again for saving her.  At one point, she started crying. Ray kept nodding without saying much. What could he say to her?  He felt stupid and knew he’d only reply with something dark and inappropriate.  The guilt made him drive faster than he normally would with a frightened civilian in his car, but luckily Mrs. Kim didn’t notice.

 After leaving the station, he found he was still driving angrily.  He grabbed the wheel like it was Fraser’s neck.  What had the hell had Fraser been thinking?  What had Ray been thinking relying on Fraser?   He parked illegally at the corner and slammed into his house, nearly tripping over his niece’s small toys.  He kicked one back down the corridor while stripping off his coat.  The house was unbelievably hot.

“Who cranked up the heat?” he yelled up the stairs but got no reply.  The kitchen was empty, but his mother had left out some cold cuts, bread, and a glass of milk.  He scanned her note.  She had gone to play Pinochle with Mrs. Mitchell two doors down.  He grabbed himself a sandwich and ignored the milk.

On his way up the stairs, he carefully balanced the sandwich on his napkin and nudged the thermostat back down a notch. He could hear the old oil furnace wheeze as it clicked off.  They’d need to get it looked at soon.  He looked up the stairwell, noting the dark wood still scarred by the fire.  A wave of depression swept over him.  Another thing he’d fucked up.  Great idea to go undercover and leave his family to nearly burn alive.   Pop had left him the house, the only smart thing his old man had done.  Mom really wasn’t too good at managing money and the rest of his brothers and sisters were equally clueless.    Ray knew what Pop would have said about Fraser nearly burning down the family house.  Losers both of you. You gonna let that loser ruin your life?  Ruin your family?  That’s twice you trusted that bastard and both times he let you down. That’s twice too many. Loser.    Ray glared at the wood resentfully and clomped up the stairs towards his room.

Franny's door whipped open, nearly upsetting his carefully balanced sandwich.  Her face loomed in the dim doorway like a road hazard warning sign. He tried to step past her but she reached out with one arm and blocked his path. With her other hand, she waved frantically at him. He stared, mesmerized until his sandwich slipped off his napkin and fell to the floor. 

With a soft curse, she clicked the door shut and scowled up at him. 

“Stop. Your. Stomping. You’ll. Wake. The. Baby.”  She exaggerated her enunciation to offset the whispering.   Her hair was freshly washed and Ray could see it dripping through the towel and onto his dinner.

Without thinking he replied.  “Maggie isn’t a baby. She’s a toddler.”

“What do you know about babies, Ray?”  Franny’s voice was deadly soft.  “You can tell me all about your baby-raising experiences when you spend nine months carrying one. Oh, and don’t leave out the cleaning, feeding and changing parts. Those are my favorite bits.”

Ray knew better than to say anything when Franny discussed her daughter.  She still hadn't gotten over that idiot of a boy who had enlisted in the Navy as soon as he learned about Franny's pregnancy.  If Pop had been still alive he’d have pitched a fit.  When he was drunk he used to call her and her sister sluts.  Another reason to be thankful he was dead.

Ray shoved the memories away.  He only nodded, hoping Franny would be pacified by ambiguous agreement.    She sighed, stepped awkwardly backwards, and slipped on Ray’s sandwich.

Without thinking, Ray grabbed her, only for them both to clatter to the hard floor. Ray tried to get up, but the super-sized towel wrapped around Franny’s neck snagged him. Jerking back, he heard his elbow whack into the doorjamb and with it he felt numbing pain exploding out in all directions.  Another crash, and he realized that Franny’s feet were shooting out from under her, followed by the now very flat remnants of his cold cuts.  She hit the floor again, the impact snapping her mouth shut with a sharp click. They stared at each other, Franny’s face pale with fury.  Ray felt his own eyes grow wider and he took a deep breath to brace himself against his sister’s outburst.

The baby’s scream was stunningly loud, erupting through the closed door and rattling down the hall.  Ray was certain that it bounced through the front door, tumbled down the street, turned left and was last seen traveling down Belmont Avenue towards Lake Michigan. 

Ray looked at Franny and was surprised to see her looking silently back at him, her mouth wide open. The baby kept crying, each wail punctuated by a sharp slide from one octave to the next.  It hesitated slightly like a car sputtering, catching and finally roaring back upwards in full force.

At the same moment, Ray and Franny both burst out laughing.  The baby had now reached an opera-worthy crescendo, and still they kept laughing, their voices syncopating to the baby’s wails.  Ray flung his good arm out to steady Franny as she almost tipped over on her side with convulsive giggles. 

“Franny,” he gasped. “You should have named her Ethel.”  Franny choked, her laughter mutating into a series of sharp coughs.  “You mean Merman?  No, I should've have named her after Aunt Sophie.”

This set them off again. Their Great-Aunt Sophie had been 4 feet 8 inches tall and almost as wide. She would bellow loudly in Italian while lifting her nieces and nephews into great bear hugs. This would go on and on until they begged for mercy. 

Ray helped Franny to her feet with one hand and scraped up what was left of his sandwich with his other.  As they balanced themselves shakily in the hallway, Ray experienced a connection to his sister he had not felt in a long time. 

Again without thinking, he blurted out the first thing that came to him  “Look, Franny, I may not be a good baby uncle.  But I’ll be a great kindergartner uncle. And an even better elementary school uncle.  And wait until I hit my stride when she’s in high school.”  He nodded towards the closed door willing Franny to understand.  His family was important to him, even when they pierced his ear drums and knocked him down in hallways.

With a brief sniff, Franny bent to retrieve her towel.  She deftly twisted it up and around her damp hair.  When she turned to face Ray, he could see her eyes twinkling.

“You will be, Ray.  Or else Maggie will stand in the middle of the street and scream you to your knees. She is,” she added, straightening her shoulders and pushing herself to her full height, “her mother’s daughter.”  With that Franny slipped back into her room  and firmly shut the door.

Ray looked down at the sandwich pulp in his fingers and headed towards the bathroom to wash it off.  Just before he reached the first turn he heard Franny's door open again.  “Oh, and Fraser called for you.  There’s a message on your bed.” The door shut again before he could even turn to look, let alone ask her when the call had come.

After rinsing his hands he trudged — softly this time — to his room.  The message was brief, just an unfamiliar number and Fraser’s name.  Ray angled the note against the light spilling in from the hallway to read it.  No update on the case.  Not that there was any need of one. Kenneth Fitzhugh had been arrested and charged.  The DA had felt they had enough evidence, but there was no way Fraser could have known any of this. 

He crumpled the note and tossed it back into the dark room. The edges of his bed were sharply outlined against the hall light; the rest of the room was indistinguishable from the gloom.  He felt the faint muscle memory of laughter still aching across his chest, but there was nothing to be happy about. He and Fraser had almost let a poor women die today.  

He snapped the nightstand light on savagely.  The paper had landed on his pillow.  He leaned over and snagged it between his fingers. The number rang and rang for a long time until someone answered.

“Canadian Consulate. Turnbull speaking. I mean, this is Canadian Turnbull speaking. Who is not actually at the consulate.”

Ray pulled the phone away in surprise. He could hear Turnbull tinnily muttering about how Canada was where the heart was, no matter where the body might be.  With a sigh, he forced the phone back to his ear.

“Turnbull, this is Ray Vecchio.  Can you put Fraser on the phone?” 

“No sir, I cannot do that. But I’d be happy to take a message.” The image of Turnbull standing to attention, saluting the Queen as he spoke, flashed through Ray’s mind.  He really could not admire the guy.

Before he could compose a message, he heard Fraser’s voice cut across the background noise like a passing train.  He could have sworn he heard Kowalski replying.   

Flushing, Ray gripped the handle of the phone tightly.  “I know he’s there. Put him on the phone, Turnbull.”

“No I cannot.  This is,” Turnbull lowered his voice dramatically, “official business, you see.”  Now Ray could hear more voices and the clink of glass.  It sounded more like a party than official business, he thought angrily.

“Of course Turnbull,” he answered silkily, his calm Bookman voice snapping back into play.  “And of course we don’t want to tell anyone that this official business is happening at the …at the ….” He left the sentence hanging and waited for Turnbull.

“At the warehouses on Loomis and 21st Place.” There was a pause and Ray could hear Turnbull slowly thinking.  “On dear,” he said and the phone went click.

Ray circled the building a few times.  From the number of squad cars, ambulances, and media vans he knew that this was no party.   But his low simmer had been kicked into a boil during the drive by the endless replay of Fraser’s voice in the background.  He flashed his badge and nodded to Robertson who was standing boredly at the side entrance.

Robertson perked up when he saw Ray approaching.  "Hey, Ray.  Good work!”

Puzzled, Ray kept his face smooth and stopped in the doorway.  He had no idea what Robertson was talking about.   “Yeah, it’s been a bitch to keep the media out after that dumb Canadian called them by mistake,” Robertson continued enthusiastically. “But you bet brass is gonna want the dog and pony show to go on at 11:00.”  Ray grunted something vague and kept moving.

Only a small portion of the warehouse was lit with forensic lights.   Fraser’s brown suit faded into the stacks of crates and smaller cardboard boxes, and Ray almost missed him at first. He stood, nodding silently to a uniformed man with a notepad.  Ray blinked and realized that man in the uniform was another Mountie.  Turnbull was standing behind the two men, looking miserable. His hands were empty and Ray decided someone must have relieved him of his cell phone before he dialed the Queen by mistake.

He heard a shout and his attention was pulled away.  The coroner’s people were shoving their way through the media crowding the front of the warehouse.  Ray traced their path and saw they were heading to where two bodies lay, partially covered with drop cloths.  Ray stared, trying to see if they were cops, but the casual conversations of the officers guarding the bodies reassured him.

Ray turned back to look for Fraser but he was gone,  along with the other man. Only Turnbull remained, but now he was holding a ringing cell phone. He held it fiercely, pushing the buttons repeatedly with great determination.  Some idiot must have given the phone back to him.

“Hey, Vecchio. Did Fraser call you?”  Kowalski loomed from behind.    Ray shrugged and turned to face him.

“Yeah, he did,” Ray said easily. “What’s going on?”  Ray’s eyes were scanning everywhere still hoping to catch a glimpse of Fraser.  He sensed Kowalski edge closer, then stop, shifting from side to side awkwardly. The movement drew Ray’s gaze back. 

Kowalski’s face and shoulders were outlined in what looked like yellow dust. His chin was scraped and blood dripped down from a cut on his head onto his t-shirt.  Vecchio winced in sympathy.

Kowalski seemed oblivious to the blood.  “We got em.  They set up a drug buy and someone tipped us off. Guess murdering Canadian tourists didn't sit too well with someone in the business.”   He rubbed his face with one hand, smearing the yellow and the red together into a sickly orange.

“So it wasn’t cops then?”  Ray asked.

“No, none of us.  Just a lot of evidence they planted to make it look like dirty border guards to throw us off.”   Kowalski looked relieved.  Ray nodded in unspoken agreement. That was better, the not dirty cops part of it. The rest sucked, though.   Drug runners had probably slipped the drugs to some poor unsuspecting tourists to get past customs and then murdered them afterwards trying to retrieve the merchandise.

Even as he finished that thought, another flashed through Ray’s mind.  Kowalski had won that particular argument.  Gee, that would make Fraser wrong, what, twice in one day?

“What is that stuff?” Ray asked after a moment of silence had passed.  He pointed, leaning closer, and saw that Kowalski was covered in the dusty stuff.  Even his jeans were a bright yellow. 

“It’s turmeric,” Fraser interrupted, startling Ray. He stepped back from Kowalski involuntarily.  “Perfectly harmless, a spice that is used in Indian cuisine. Originated from Southern Asia. Earliest record of turmeric comes from Assyria around 600 B.C…..”

Kowalski sighed tiredly and raised one hand for silence. Amazingly, Fraser complied.    Ray couldn’t help but remember all the times Fraser had annoyed him with the same patter of useless information. 

“So, we good to go?”  Kowalski swayed  slightly towards Fraser. Ray took another step back, feeling hemmed in.   

“Yes, we are.  We only have to give our statements to the duty officers.”  Fraser gestured across the warehouse and Ray realized he was spotlessly clean.  Not a speck of spice on his uniform.  Even his hair gleamed neatly in the harsh warehouse lights.

Staring at the shiny buttons on Fraser’s coat, Ray realized that Fraser had still not addressed him directly.  He heard the whine of a generator and the warehouse was flooded with lights.   The nightly news teams were gearing up for live reports.  He thought of Mrs. Kim. If she had died, there would have been no news cameras, no crowd of cops eager for their share of glory and fame.  Just some old lady lying dead in her own blood, shit, and vomit.  And here was Fraser, neat and calm as if he was the only thing that mattered.   

The anger propelled him forward, closer to the two men.  “Not so fast Fraser,” he heard his voice grate.  Something must have shown on his face, something dark and shear, because both men tightened their stances at his approach.

He tried to keep his voice low.  “What the hell did you think you where doing?  That witness you called was nearly killed today because you tipped off the murderer.”

The blank expression that fastened on Fraser's face left Ray panting.  Fraser had forgotten her.  He had forgotten Ray.  A hot wind filled his chest and he could feel the words rising from him like a tornado. 

“You fucking forgot.  That’s great. Why the fuck did I even bother to ask you to help me? You’re so full of crap.”  The wind swirled around him, twining through his body.

Fraser raised one gloved hand and then let it fall.  He opened his mouth angrily and then hesitated.  Ray never knew if it was the anger or that smallest hesitation that pushed him deeper.

“Don’t you fucking open your mouth to explain to me, you motherfucker.  Lucky for me I managed to cover your screw-up. Or rather I should say, lucky for Mrs. Kim.” Something was wrong with his eyes — the warehouse was getting dark.  He felt a brief moment of panic when he realized that he had lost any sense of his body. But then he felt a hard grip on his shoulder and heard a voice snapping at him like a small dog.

“Back off, Vecchio,” Kowalski's face was so close Ray could feel his warm breath brush against his face.  He could smell the sweetness of the spice — what had Fraser called it?  Turmeric — lingering on Kowalski’s skin.  Kowalski’s fingers dug in painfully, giving a sharp emphasis to his hissed words. For a split second Ray could see his fist connecting against flesh, could feel the satisfying crunch of bone. He struggled against the rush of adrenaline that even the thought of smashing Kowalski could bring.  

Fraser stood silently, his face still curiously blank.  There was a pool of stillness lapping around them and Vecchio realized that the warehouse had grown quiet.  His voice still echoed in the air and for the first time Ray felt acutely aware of just how many TV news generators hummed outside. 

Ray looked away and saw Robertson staring.  They were all staring like he was some first class idiot.  Like he had just crashed a first grader’s birthday party waving a gun.

Or like he was an experienced detective who was acting unprofessionally at a crime scene.  Ray could feel his lips curling into a defensive smile.  He wanted to shut his eyes, but he couldn’t. Not with everyone watching.

He heard Fraser’s boots crunch on something as he came within reach. He could only look on helplessly as Fraser somberly removed his hat.  Ray shifted unwillingly and Kowalski’s grip tightened.  He took a deep breath and jerked away, breaking contact.  Kowalski’s eyes still challenged him, but he did not try to restrain Vecchio.

Ray glared back, feeling words rise in his throat. Who did the little cock-sucker think he was?  Fraser’s goddamn bodyguard?  He could feel his face twist as the pain of his unspoken anger pounded in his head.  He missed Fraser’s words at first, they were so softly spoken.

“I am truly sorry Ray.  I had no idea.  Is she all right?” 

Ray nodded once, tight lipped.  Fraser had no right to ask. 

Fraser looked unhappily at Kowalski and then staggered slightly, almost painfully.  His hands were trembling as he folded and unfolded his gloves. Kowalski noticed and reached out to touch his arm, but Fraser shook his head and Kowalski let his arm fall.    Ray felt a surge of contempt for them both.  He waited for Fraser to say something more, but the painful silence held a beat too long. With his best dismissive shrug, he turned his back on them and left.

As he left the building, Robertson crowded him, almost blocking the door.  “Good work, Vecchio.” He smiled sarcastically and waved Ray out of the building. The air outside seemed colder and the walk to his car longer than he remembered.  As he fumbled for his keys to unlock the door, he realized his legs were shaking.  He leaned briefly against the side of the car.  Off in the distance he could hear a cop laughing, but then the coroner’s van doors slammed shut and Vecchio knew he must have been dreaming.   One of those horrible dreams where you walk in somewhere and look down and find yourself naked.  Except he doubted he would wake from this dream.  Not for a long time.

That weekend he avoided the house and spent the days in a small neighborhood café.  It had been in business since before he was born and was filled with ancient men sipping shots of espresso and arguing loudly in Italian. A few of them looked at him suspiciously, sitting there quietly with his newspaper, but the owner knew him and eventually they turned back to arguing.  Ray tried to ignore the smoky air and the ever-sticky floor, pretending to read the same pages over and over again.  After dark, he waited until he was certain his family had gone to bed.  He didn't want to deal with them. 

On Monday, he steeled himself and walked past the desk sergeant as if nothing had happened.  He paused briefly before entering the squad room and then went straight to his desk.  He shuffled some files around, made a few calls and listened to the background noise, tensing whenever he thought someone was looking at him. 

By Tuesday, he realized that nothing was going to happen.  Yeah, cops lived in a small world. But blow-ups between partners — even former partners — happened all the time.  When ten more cases were assigned to him, he realized he had bigger things to worry about than Fraser.  His closure rate was dropping back down to that of  his early detective days. 

A week later he caught a break when he got a tip that closed a high-visibility drug case in a white-collar neighborhood.  He dug into the perp’s background and got another lead that closed two more cases.  He worked later each evening and found that the other squad members eased up on him a bit. Everyone appreciated hard work.  He even found time to help out on a few other cases and volunteered for a stakeout.

His mother complained, but his evenings at home were brief and he turned a deaf ear to the chatter.  When his family prodded him about his withdrawal, he would simply nod and head off to his room. Franny knew something was wrong and made pointed comments about how he seemed to have forgotten his promise to be a better uncle. He didn’t know what to say to her.  How could she understand?  She worshipped Fraser, and Ray would always be second best to that perfection.  Thankfully, after a month, even the annoying jabs during the occasional family dinner ceased.  His brother-in-law and Maria had announced they were moving back home, which had set off a new round of arguments and recriminations.

And still he waited for Fraser to call.  He would check the credenza each evening where his mother or Franny would put his messages. He checked his voice mail every morning, hoping, and hating himself for the hope.  And after a while, the anger was replaced with  numb sorrow.  He hadn’t really meant all the things he had said.  Fraser, of all people should understand.

Driving home in the evening, it struck him while waiting at a red-light.  It wasn't like Fraser to break promises, let alone to the point where he’d endanger someone’s life.  Maybe something was wrong with Fraser.  Maybe he was sick.  Ray remembered one of his classmates who had developed a brain tumor. Before the doctors figured it out, the kid had started acting really weird, hitting friends, and trashing his locker.  Everyone at school had avoided him after that. They all felt guilty when he died.

The cars behind him honked loudly and he pulled into the intersection.  No, no brain tumor. But something had made Fraser act so differently since his return to Chicago.  Whatever it was, it must be bad if Fraser couldn't tell Ray.

The possibility began to gnaw at his sleep at night.  He thought of making a few calls, maybe asking one of his federal contacts who worked sometimes with the Canadian embassy.  He thought of calling Fraser, but his flush of shame silenced that idea.   Quickly on its heels, the anger swelled again.  Whatever it was, why hadn't Fraser told him? Called him?

He felt paralyzed, the worry and anger coiling into tighter and tighter circles, until it compressed into an emptiness that he was afraid to disturb.  He had been so close to losing control.  He was so close to losing control.  Now he found that the deadness added solidity and stability to his routine.  Get up, go to work, solve the cases, and come home.  And pretend he’d never had a friend named Fraser.

When his full reinstatement came two months later he expected to feel some relief, some sense of accomplishment.   Welsh called him over to his office, handed him the paperwork and had him sign the new payroll forms. 

“There’s a small increase, some sort of cost-of-living adjustment they passed last year.” Welsh squinted at the small print and then tossed the handout to Ray.  “Here, you can figure it out.  Be dammed if I’ll do payroll’s job for them.”

Welsh’s desk was piled high with HR requests, interdepartmental memos and OSHA bulletins.  He hated it all. A captain should lead his men, solve cases and deal with staffing issues, not become a paper pusher.  He never said this to any of his men, but they could all see his growing disgust. It made his upcoming retirement even more understandable. 

Ray shrugged his shoulders and shoved the handout into his folder. Taxes would most likely eat up any increase. Or some new union dues they’d tacked on to pay for police legal aid.  Nothing came free.

Welsh cleared his throat and Ray looked up from the folder.  Welsh was leaning on his elbows, a small frown tugging at his face.  He cleared his throat again awkwardly.  “You know they’re throwing me a retirement party next month.”

Ray nodded and waited.  Welsh peered around his office and leaned even further forward once he was satisfied no one was listening.  “I want you to make certain there will be nothing…untoward happening at the party.”

“Untoward, sir?”  Ray heard alarm creep into his voice.

“Yes, Vecchio, untoward.  Last year when Capt. Hoppenrath retired they brought in a …a lady of questionable virtue to serenade him into retirement.  I am going to assume that no one in my precinct would be that unwise.”

Ray could feel his face covering itself with stupidity and confusion.  “Yes sir. I mean, Captain, I am not planning the party. I mean I’ve been gone for almost two years, why would you think — ?”  He shut up quickly when Welsh settled back into his chair so sharply that the wood cracked.

“Because where you and that Mountie are concerned, all sorts of things have gone wrong.  With both of you back in the same city, I can almost be guaranteed of  something untoward happening.  Have I made myself clear?”

A thousand thoughts flared through Ray’s mind.  How can anything happen? I barely talk to the damn ‘Mountie.’  Why am I always getting blamed for things I haven’t done?  Will they never think of me without thinking of Fraser? 

“Yes, sir,” was all he said.  Welsh grunted and with one hand dismissed Ray. Ray hesitated only the briefest moment and then left. It wasn’t worth fighting.  Welsh would be gone soon, and if Ray was lucky the new commander would never have heard of Mounties. If Ray was blessed, the replacement might not even be able to find Canada on a map.

The clock said 11:30am but Ray was hungry. He headed to the lunchroom, hoping to grab something to tide him over until dinner.  He saw a flash of red and instinctively turned into the coffee area, connected to the lunchroom by a small passageway. His heart thumped and he found himself straining awkwardly to hear.

He heard a soft voice and then a deeper laugh.  He edged closer to the passageway for a better view and then relaxed.  It was only a small blond woman in a red sweater sitting at  the chipped table with Elaine. Elaine had her plastic container of leftovers open on the table and was busily trying to pry salt out of the shaker.  Ray stepped back to where he could still see the lunchroom but could not be seen.  He noted with contempt that his hands were shaking. He was turning to go when he heard Fraser’s name.

“Fraser?” Elaine was practically purring as she said his name.  “Yeah,  I worked with him.”

“Are the stories true?”  The second woman was clearly eager to learn more.

“Oh, I don't know.” Elaine laughed and Ray realized it had been her laugh he had heard before.  “But he is the most amazing man I have ever met.”

“Does he come around here often?”  Ray wondered who the hell the other woman was. Yet another second-hand Fraser conquest fishing for information about Mounties.

“No, he’s working with Ray — um — I mean Kowalski in the 19th precinct. Doesn’t come by here as much.”  Elaine sighed and Ray could almost imagine her resting one hand under her chin, gazing dreamily into the air.

He felt a whoosh of air behind as someone entered the alcove.  He reached down and opened the cabinet pretending to look for coffee filters.  The man dumped his coffee dregs in the sink, poured another cup and left. When Ray was able to pick up the thread of the conversation, the topic seemed to have strayed from Fraser.

“……lot of male friends. Like this one guy, he comes to me from time to time and asks me for advice.”

“About girls?”  Red sweater seemed disdainful of any man who’d ask a woman for advice about other women.

“No, no,” Elaine amended hastily.  “About work, his friends — you know the same stuff we talk about. He’s a great guy.”  Ray heard the same gentle purr in her voice and he snorted softly. Elaine sure knew a lot of perfect men. He decided to pour himself some coffee as long as he was going to continue eavesdropping.  He hunted for a clean mug and finally dumped the coffee into a Styrofoam cup someone had left behind.

“Anyway, the latest thing we’ve talked about is a recent blow-up with his best friend. He wanted my advice on how to patch it up.”  Startled, Ray dropped the sugar packet he’d been holding into the sink and watched the paper soak up the liquid.  They were talking about Fraser.  And him.  Shit.

The other woman murmured something inaudible and Elaine continued.  “I mean these guys were inseparable for years.  Best friends.  You could hardly pry them apart. And then, well let’s just say they had to take different jobs in different cities and when they got back together again, it didn’t work out. The point is, my friend had a huge public blow-up with his buddy over something really stupid and has been feeling guilty for months.”

“So what did you tell him?” Ray looked down and realized he’d been stirring Coffee Mate into the cup for so long that it had sloshed up and over the rim.  He watched the pale brown liquid drip down the side to the floor.  He was pinned in place, helplessly frozen while the conversation ground onwards.  He closed his eyes and released the stirrer, but could still see it circling round and round.  He felt nauseous.

“I told him to talk to his friend and find out what was bothering him.  Try to work it out.”

Red sweater woman burst out laughing.  Ray flushed angrily, jerking slightly. More liquid spilled to the floor. Someone would have to clean it up or they’d slip.

“Elaine, you didn’t!?  Men don’t talk. It’s not in their genes.  And if this guy could talk to his friend, he’d be doing it, not talking to you.  No, no, he’s just feeling guilty, he’s not really trying to patch it up with his friend. He’s already made his choice,  he’s just too stupid to figure it out.”

He heard Elaine’s sharp inhale and wondered if she'd blow Fraser’s cover. The other woman would change her tune pretty quick if she knew the real identity of Elaine’s “friend.”

Elaine continued with the fiction.  “Well, I'm not certain you could say that.”

“Well, why not?  People trade old friends for new ones all the time.” Ray shook his head at that statement.  Only someone who had never had a real friend would say that.

“It’s not like that.”  Ray could hear the irritation rise in Elaine’s voice.  He should leave. He really did not need to stand here, listening to two broads gossiping.

Instead, he tossed the coffee into the sink and started opening drawers looking for the cheap chocolate milk mix. He found one crumpled bag stuck in the back and dumped it into the Styrofoam cup and added hot water

“Look, my friend may have a new partner  — but this new guy is in a lot of trouble and he really needs him. He’s just trying to be good friends to them both. It’s not his fault that the two of them can’t get along.”

“Still, he’s talking to you, not his friend. You see?  On some level, he’s made his choice.”

Ray swung around, tossed the cup into the trash, and left the break room. He could hear Elaine angrily defending her “friend.”  Let her defend him. Red sweater woman was right. If Fraser had really wanted to work things out, he'd have come directly to Ray, not pussyfoot around asking a rookie cop for advice.   As he reached the main corridor he found himself bounding up the stairs. He slammed through a second set of doors and found he was half-jogging.  

What kind of man would go behind his friend’s back and pretend he wanted to work things out?  What kind of man would let his partner spend nights filled with worry and anger and self-doubt?  A man who never dealt with tough issues directly.  A man who always had some damn Inuit story that supposedly explained everything.  The kind of man who would manipulate and smile and charm his way through life. How many times had Ray found himself agreeing to help some poor sap just because Fraser wanted to?  How many times had he risked his life for some loser? No, Pop was right — the longer he stayed around Fraser, the more he looked like the loser. 

He burst through another set of doors and stopped beneath open sky. He was on the roof. The skyline was gray and there was a sharp bite to the air.  Small flakes were falling but they evaporated before reaching the tar and gravel roof.  Ray took a deep breath and tried to hold it. He was hyperventilating.  Something ached deep inside, something he was afraid would burst out and break loose.  He started pacing back and forth, still trying to control his breathing.  Pop used to do this when he’d come home after a bad day at the pool hall.  Up and down the hallway he’d walk, his tread heavy and unrelenting. 

Ray reached the edge of the roof and stopped when the parapet banged into his thighs. He felt a sudden yearning to keep going, to see if his momentum would carry him up high into the leaden sky.  He wondered if this was how fallen angels felt after they had lost their ability to fly.  He waited for some sign, some break in the clouds, but all he could see were the snowflakes falling one by one into nothingness.  When the numbness penetrated him completely, he silently went back to work.

A few weeks later he found himself trying to sneak out of the house early on Sunday before his mother noticed.  His stocking feet slid on the polished wood floor. He could smell bacon wafting from the kitchen and from above he heard his brother-in-law arguing with someone. Probably Maria had told him for the umpteenth time he needed to get out and get another job.  Tony was good at getting jobs, but always found some reason to quit or be fired.  He heard their bathroom door slam and shuffled his feet closer to the front door.  Boy, his sisters sure knew how to pick them.  It was like they could only be attracted to men like Pop — men who failed their families or abandoned them.  The only decent man Franny ever liked was Fraser, he thought, and then had to remind himself that as far as Fraser was concerned, they all were probably better off without him.  As an added bonus, fewer bodies were cropping up on his doorstep ever since Fraser had left.

He reached the front door and pulled it open. The air was raw and a brisk wind swirled back in his face. It was still sleeting and a layer of ice had formed on the front steps. Ray stared at his shoes — nice Italian leather — and then looked up and down the street. It was empty, unusual for a Sunday morning in his neighborhood. People were normally coming or going to church or family outings.  The air shifted back and with it a warm rush of bacon scent  pushed  out into the street.  He felt suddenly hungry and the effort of going out into the cold seemed too much.   He turned, dropped his shoes at the foot of the stairs and tossed his coat on the coat rack.  His feet slid comfortably into the kitchen.

His mother had every  burner lit and was trying to reach a set of pans high above the stove. She nearly overbalanced and Ray stepped forward to steady her.

“Here, Ma, let me get that.”  She nodded at him and then grabbed a fork to turn the bacon.  Her hair was still in rollers. Ray noted with amusement she was wearing the bunny slippers that Franny had given her last Christmas. He knew Ma thought they were silly, but she always solemnly wore every present her children had ever given her.  Even the awful yellow Easter hat Ray had bought her when he was a teenager. She had worn it to church until the cheap straw had fallen to pieces.

“So you decide not to go then?”  His mother didn’t look his way but Ray knew she was watching him. He shrugged and busied himself with rinsing the mixing bowls.

They worked silently for a few moments.  Then his mother continued as if there had been no pause.  “That’s good then.  I know you’ve been working hard. You need a day off to rest.”

Ray flushed once he realized his mother had thought he was leaving to go to work. He couldn’t tell her that he spent most of his Sundays at the local café. 

“Here take the plate.” His mother handed him the bacon and started melting the butter for the eggs. 

He snagged a piece of bacon and then sat at the counter, munching.  The heat sank into his muscles and he felt himself grow drowsy. He hadn't been sleeping well.

When he looked up, he saw his mother studying him, a frown on her face. Oh no, here it comes, he thought tiredly. 

“Did you call Stella?”  Ray shook his head. Stella had left a message last week that she’d be in town and wanted to have dinner. But he had been on a stakeout and calling his ex-wife just wasn’t his biggest priority.

“You should, Ray.  It’ll be good for both of you.” He rolled his eyes skeptically and then stopped himself. His mother sighed and turned back to the stove.

“It’s always better when you leave each other with good memories. Not just bad ones.”  She stirred the eggs vigorously into a scramble.  Watching her, Ray wondered if she had any good memories of Pop, or whether she had spent 35 years of her life regretting her choice in marriage. He opened his mouth, struggling to use the right words, suddenly needing to know, but the fight upstairs erupted into the sound of something breaking.  With a sigh he went upstairs and diverted the combatants with the promise of a ready-made breakfast. Before he came back down he called and left a message for Stella.

The restaurant was small, quiet and, of course, Italian.  Stella had always boasted that one of the perks of being married to an Italian was knowing where to find the best Italian food Chicago had to offer.  She was late, so Ray nervously ordered another glass of wine. He sipped cautiously and slowly, alternating the alcohol with the antipasti and bread. 

He smelled her perfume as she walked toward him. She still favored soft tones — cream, beige and tan. Silk blouse, slim skirt and just a touch of jewelry. Ray smiled as he stood up to greet her.  She smiled back and he knew it was going to be all right.

They chatted about the small things, then they ordered.  Over the first course, he finally asked her how her new job was going.

“Great, except I work too many hours.” She must have seen the surprise on his face because she raised one hand in protest.  “I know, I know. The woman who used to work every Sunday and then roll in Monday bright and early.  I must be slowing down.”

“Or working smarter?” Ray replied and was rewarded with a grin of appreciation.

“How about you, Ray?”  Stella reached for her glass and noticed it was empty. Ray refilled it for her. 

“Burying myself in my work.  Guess I really wasn’t ready to retire” He hesitated before adding the last bit, since that had been one of their frequent arguments. “It seems to have paid off, I’ve passed the reinstatement and am working on some interesting cases,”  he added quickly before she could react.

The waiters arrived, interrupting them.  Stella looked down at her plate and Ray toyed with his fork.  After they withdrew, Stella nodded once.  “You were right Ray.”  She leaned forward , her eyes flashing.  “It wasn’t time for us to….. check out like we did.” 

Ray felt a weight he hadn’t know was there lift slightly.  “I don’t think it’ll ever be time for you to check out.  I think we both just needed some time off from where our lives were headed.”

“Yeah, but a bowling alley? In Florida?”  She made a wry face then looked up  and caught his twinkle of amusement,. “Okay, if I admit that my choice of Florida was dense, you’ll concede that the bowling idea was …was…”

“Screwy? Considering that I had just spent two years undercover with the mob, we’re lucky it wasn’t a meat packing plant.” Stella coughed on her drink and waved her hand frantically.  “Stella’s Fleischhaus?” she gurgled, “Oh God, I’d never have lived that one down.”

“Better than Ray O’ Sunshine Bowling Lanes? Christ, Stella, what were we thinking?”

She grew silent and pushed at her food.  Ray buried his attention in his own plate, worrying that he had strangled the good mood.  But after a few moments, Stella  sighed and lifted her head.  “We were lonely, and you were the funniest and most charming man I’d met in a long time.  You weren’t too intense or wound up in yourself. And you had a great smile.  So if you’re asking me if we made a mistake, Ray, no I don’t think we did.  We made many mistakes, but choosing each other was not one of them.”

“Stella —” Ray began and then stopped what he was about to say.  How do you thank someone who let you off the hook?  How do you say you are sorry to someone who beat you to it?  Take it like a man, he told himself wryly and raised his glass to her.

“To us then.  Bad and good choices and all the ones in between.”

Stella beamed back at him and lifted her glass to his.  “And may they never come between us.” 

They gossiped a bit more, he told her his latest theory about the Mayoral race, and Stella dissed her new boss.  They ended the meal over crème brulé and sherry.  Ray felt a pleasant buzz rolling through him.  He didn’t want the evening to end. 

“So, Stella, why don’t you stop by the precinct?  Say goodbye to Welsh?”  Stella paused over the bill she had insisted they split. 

“I knew he was retiring, but, my God, Ray, it’s late.” 

Ray snorted and handed over his share of the money for the meal. “It’s barely 9:00. He never leaves before 10:00.  Come on, he’ll get a kick out of seeing you.”

Stella flipped her hair back and reached for her coat.  “Are you sure you want me tormenting the poor man?  He’s what — weeks — away from retirement?”

Ray opened the door for her and stepped outside into the biting air. “It’ll give him something to look forward to when he does call it quits. No more visits from ex-DAs in retirement.”  Stella wasn’t so sure, but she followed him in her car to the station.   Welsh was surprised to see them together.  They chatted a few minutes, Welsh’s eyes darting suspiciously back and forth between the two of them as if waiting for the punch line.  They were still laughing about it when they walked into the parking lot.

“Thanks, Ray,” Stella gave him a brief hug and then stepped back into the arc of the parking lot lights.  She looked relaxed and Ray realized she too had been seeking some form of closure. He was glad he had been able to help her find it.  She had been good for him, even though the last months of their marriage had been tough.  His Mom was right  — it was better to leave with good memories. 

“Stella, if you ever need something — you know where I’ll be.” She squeezed his arm and he helped her into her car, making certain it started and that she was safely on her way. Some old habits he’d never let go.

As he moved towards his car, he caught a glimpse of someone in the shadows of the precinct door watching them. He put his hand casually near his holster and pretended not to notice. He stepped closer until he could see by the flicker of the overhead light and recognized Kowalski. His lean face was watching Stella's car idling at the exit, waiting to turn onto the slushy road.  The lamp turned his face into a mass of shifting  angles and planes.  He was hunched against the cold, hands tucked into his pockets.  Kowalski’s eyes glittered briefly and then he jerked when he finally caught sight of Vecchio staring.   Their eyes met and Ray saw a muffled sadness cross Kowalski's face.  Did you ever really get over someone you had truly loved?  Did you never stop regretting  the road not taken?  With a chill Ray realized that Kowalski stared at Stella with the same look Ray saw in the mirror every time he thought of Fraser.   Every time he demanded from his reflection why their friendship had gone so terribly wrong. 

What must he have felt when we married? Probably the same thing I feel when I think about him and Fraser.    And then he shoved the betraying thought away. But as Kowalski turned abruptly back into the building, Ray wondered if either of them would ever be released from the ever-spiraling pattern of loss and regret.

The next two months were filled with work, endless paperwork and a spat of arrests.  Fraser and Kowalski’s drug bust and murder charge had shifted the power balance in the Canadian “import” industry and there were increased assaults, leading into extortions escalating into more murders.   Ray also had to testify at the preliminary hearing on the Fitzhugh case which in turn meant more time at the DA’s office. It seemed every year the DA had another new fresh face that needed breaking in.  Ironically, living with Stella must have given Ray some special ability to understand lawyer-speak, so his case preparation wasn’t too painful.  

When he opened the front door to his house, he could hear yelling from the kitchen and was tempted to turn around and go back to the office.  But it was late — past 10 — and he was tired.  Tony was standing in the kitchen entrance shouting and waving a hammer.  Over his shoulder Ray could see his mother and Franny on one side, squaring off with Maria over the table.  It looked like a picture from one of the old morality postcards his grandmother from Milan used to send him — only instead of the Virgin Mary and her saints crowding around the warm glow of the hearth, there was his family waving blunt objects at each other.

“I told you already, it’s broke, really broke.”  This came from Tony who was standing stiffly in dripping overalls and gesturing with a hammer.  Small rivulets ran off the hems of his pant legs and onto the wood floor.

“You shouldn’t have messed with it,” yelled Franny.  Tony jerked forward into the doorway temporarily blocking the kitchen from Ray’s view.  Ray could hear Maria’s voice edging out their mother’s. “He was trying to fix it, not mess with it.” 

His mother tried to say something and again there was a babble of voices.  Ray could barely make it out, but it sounded like the upstairs bathroom — his bathroom, of course it would be his bathroom — had sprung a leak and Tony had turned it into a flood. And that everyone was convinced it was someone else’s fault.

Ray tapped Tony out of the way and pushed into the kitchen.  The group kept arguing, oblivious to his presence.  He turned around, pulled the hammer out of Tony’s hand and tossed it on the table.  It made his point effectively and produced a brief silence.

“So has anyone shut off the main water valve?” he asked.

“I am not stupid, that was the first thing I did. But now she’s saying I shouldn’t fix it.”  Tony pointed at Franny. 

“Hey, it’s my bathroom too, buster, and I am not going to watch you screw it up any further by fumbling around,” Franny growled right back at him.

Ray was finally getting a handle on what was happening.  He glanced over at his mother   She shook her head warningly but he ignored her. Yet, before he could intervene, Tony was shouting again.

“Well I wouldn't have to fumble around if you’d let me call in some help. But noooh, you won’t let me.    This is an easy fix but I need —”

“So call the plumber, and get it fixed, Tony.”  Ray cut in smoothly, amazed his family could fight over the stupidest things.  “It’s cheaper than dealing with water damage.” And easier on the ears than all the shouting, but he kept that last comment to himself.

Tony turned to him, his face flushed. He looked cramped in the doorway, like a man who was being forced to advance into enemy territory when all he wanted to do was retreat.  But the anger was real — Ray could tell from the tightness of his shoulders and the way he was breathing in and out rapidly. Something had set him off and Ray was certain it wasn’t a plumbing problem.

“Well Ray, glad you see it my way for once.  But we don’t need to waste any money on a plumber.  Fraser will be glad to help.”  The room erupted into voices speaking in Italian, English, and some language Ray was certain wasn’t real.  He felt like a man stuck in a bad movie.  Why did Fraser have anything to do with this?  What did Fraser know of pipes and plumbing?

“…and he saved my life too you know.  All I did was suggest we give him a call and then you have to jump all over me and I never get a chance to make a single suggestion around here.”  Tony and Franny were facing off across the kitchen table. Maria was crying, her face pale with red splotchy marks.  Ray felt bad for her, but then she had to go marry a man with the self-esteem of a mosquito. You’d think after growing up with Pop she’d know better.

He heard his Mom say something and looked down. She was seated at the table, unusually quiet.  Her face was taut and her eyes flicked back and forth between Franny and Tony, trying to get a word into the argument. 

“Wait, you wanted to call Fraser? That’s what you’re arguing about?” he heard himself ask.  He didn’t think they heard him, at least not at first, but his mother did and again he saw the flash of worry and her head shake.

“It was just a suggestion, but then little princess here had to bite my head off,” Tony bellowed.  “What's up with that, hey?  You no longer hot for him?  What did he ever do to you anyway?”

Franny’s hand lashed out and caught Tony on the edge of his check.  Maria started forward and Ray physically shoved them apart.  He caught a glimpse of Tony and was secretly pleased to see him backing away with a red palm mark on is face.  Franny didn’t take shit, even from family.

“Ok, so let’s settle this now.  You,” he said, pointing to Tony, “want to bring in Fraser to help fix the plumbing.  And you want to bring in — what, a plumber?” he asked prompting Franny to nod yes.

“Ok, and could someone explain why it is a good idea to bring in a Mountie to help with the plumbing?”  A puzzled look crossed Tony’s face.  Ray suppressed the urge to slap him again.

“Cause we always call him. You know, to help.  When you were gone, he helped us a lot. And you haven't been around much lately,” Tony spit out. 

Ray felt a heavy lidded expression cross his face. When Tony swallowed nervously, Ray knew his brother-in-law had also seen it. He carefully composed his face before turning to his sisters and mother.

“So, anyone feel the same way as Tony here?”  he could feel the words slip out and braced himself for the reply.

Franny looked down and then at their mother.  She looked back and then caught Maria with a fierce look. Maria shook her head defiantly but kept her mouth shut. His mother turned back to Ray.  “No, we don’t think that. We know how hard you’ve been working.”  Tony twitched resentfully at her stress on the “working” part.  “So, if you want to bring in someone, that’s your call, Ray.  Not mine, or Franny’s.” She deliberately left out Tony’s name.  Ray stared at his mother, puzzled by her decisive words, yet her deferential air.  She gazed back at him steadily and he felt he was missing something.

But then Franny jumped back into the conversation and it all suddenly became clear.  “I still think we’d be better off with a professional. Rather than someone who comes and goes and can’t be counted on.”  She glared at Tony and Tony glared back.   Ray knew it wasn’t Tony she was talking about. It was Fraser.

He felt the ground slipping away from beneath him.  They were arguing about Fraser.  Even in his own home, he couldn’t escape the bastard. He’d never be free. 

His mother stood up and started clearing the kitchen table. For her the issue was settled.  But Tony still couldn’t let it go.

“So what, the guy doesn’t show up for a few months and suddenly is in the dog house?  That guy has done a lot for this family and because Ray’s pissed at him, we can’t talk about him?”

His mother kept wiping the table, but her eyes were fixed on Tony.  “This isn’t about him, Tony. This is about respect.  And in this house — in Ray’s house — we don’t choose outsiders over family.” The rag whipped in circles cleaning the table until it gleamed.  Tony watched it flick across the table as if it were a snake.  His mother came around the table and shoved the kitchen chair back.  Tony was still standing in the doorway and there was plenty of room, but he inched away from her determined cleaning.  “One day,” she said more softly, “one day you will understand this when we stand up for you against some forestiero.” She dropped the rag and straightened. She was almost eye-to-eye with Tony and Ray could feel the pressure of her gaze, even from this distance and across the room.  He could see where Franny got her strength.  Tony nodded slowly, clearly not understanding, but for once showing the smarts to stop arguing.

Tony left, taking Maria with him.  Franny settled against the edge of the table watching them go.  She peeked over at Ray and caught him frowning.  She sighed, pushed herself off the edge of the table and then followed her sister. As she passed the doorway, she stopped and smiled up at him.  “Lighten up Ray.  It’s not that bad.  We may be stuck with Tony ‘cause Maria married him but just imagine if I’d’ve married Fraser.” She nodded smartly and marched out of the room.  Ray watched her go, wondering when his moon-eyed sister had been replaced by this grown-up woman. When had his family suddenly woken up and decided Fraser wasn’t the saint and god of men?  When had they started sticking up for Ray Vecchio?

He wanted to run after Franny and ask her. He turned and looked at his mother, still chasing dirt around the kitchen and realized he’d never understand his family.  And perhaps that was a good thing, because if he ever did, it might mean he’d be just as crazy.

He pulled a four-day stakeout the next week and spent most of it out of the house. He slept at the station since the man they were watching kept odd hours. They had assigned him to Williams.  Luckily, he was a veteran on the force,  liked cappuccino, didn’t know anyone named Kowalski, and didn’t mind taking the first shift.

Williams jittered across the car seat and reached for the radio.  His fingers twirled the dial until they found an oldies station.  Ray nodded his approval and focused on the house across the street.  The soft beat of the music helped keep his boredom at bay.

“Did you know that in the 60s, they used to allow cops to listen to only two radio stations while on duty?”  Ray shook his head. Williams must be really bored to talk this much the third day into a stakeout.   

Still, no harm in shooting the breeze while nothing was happening.  “Like this was in the code book?” he asked.  They still called it that, even though the actual title was now  “Chicago’s Police Policy Manual.”

“Yes, one station was some religious station.  And the other was this big band music station.”  Williams smiled, his face half shadowed by hood of the car. He was reclining comfortably, his brown eyes half-lidded and sleepy.  He’d been up for 20 hours straight. 

“Couldn’t have been big band,” Ray protested mechanically.  “That wasn’t what people listened to in the 60s. Even cops.”  Ray shifted in his seat, feeling his pants stick to the vinyl seats.  The air outside was cold and it somehow made the car smell tinny and metallic.

“That’s the point.  It pissed off the rank and file.”

“Now how do you know all of this? You’re making it up.”  Ray couldn’t help but tease Williams just a little.

“You’d know a lot of little shit like this if you’d been partnered with Hessler fresh from the Academy.  The man had more stories than Aesop.”

Ray nodded in agreement so Williams carried on.  “Anyway, so one summer,  they parked their cars in the front of the chief’s office during lunch – this was before they had AC — and they rolled down their windows and cranked all their radios to the same rock n’ roll station.  They say you could hear it all the way up to the top floor and through the Chief’s open window.  Talk about disturbing the peace.”

“So what happened?”  Ray turned slightly, intrigued.   

“Well let’s say the next day all the station sergeants pulled the radio reg from their code books.  And that was the end of that.”

The radio chimed in on cue with “Rock Around the Clock” and they both laughed.  “So it was still on the books….” Ray mused out loud, letting the thought dangle.

“…but the rank and file could truthfully say they hadn’t seen the reg in the book if they were ever called on it.” Williams finished his sentence, grinning.  Ray shook his head and refocused on the front door.  Cops could be very devious when they wanted to be.  If you needed to find the loopholes in life, ask a cop. 

“Don’t know how long it took them to really take it off the books though. Hell, it could still be there.”  Williams looked down at the radio thoughtfully and turned it off.  He stretched and then rolled his shoulders.  “You wanna switch?”

Ray looked at his wristwatch and nodded.  Unlike stakeouts with Fraser, they couldn’t just climb over each other in the car when they wanted to switch.  They had to rest in place which meant his butt was getting firmly and irrevocably tired of the curve of the seat on his side of the car. 

He could at least recline his seat to stretch his legs.  His mind kept wandering and he could not keep his eyes closed.  The windshield had fogged slightly so they had cracked the back windows to allow some air in. It made the car chillier and damper.  He sighed and pushed his seat back up and rubbed his eyes.

“Can’t sleep?” Williams asked, jerking his eyes towards him and then back to the front door. 

“No. You have any more good anecdotes to share?”  Ray wriggled his feet. They were cold and cramped.

“Nah.  Oh wait, yeah, I heard from one of my old buddy at the 19th precinct.  You remember those Canadian tourists that got murdered?” Ray looked suspiciously at Williams, but he was staring at the empty door with a bored expression.

“Well, anyway, one of the cops from my buddy’s old precinct was on the case, and because this cop solved it,  they decided to create this new joint departmental position and he’s getting to be the first one assigned to it.”

Ray looked intently at Williams and then relaxed.  He seemed genuinely not to know about Ray’s involvement with Fraser or the case. Then he caught up with what Williams was saying.  “Joint departmental?  What is that? Some liaison with the FBI?”  Let’s see how Kowalski gets along with the Feds, his mind skittered happily in the background.

“No, no, this is really new. It’s like Interpol. Except it is US and Canadian. They’ll have joint jurisdiction over cases that cross the border, are deputized to make arrests and carry firearms.  Yeah, him and that Canadian Mountie who helped solve the case. It’s a prototype position.” 

Ray felt something dark and bone chilling settle around him.  He found his mouth opening and closing and dimly he heard himself asking for the name of the Mountie. 

“Frasier,” Williams replied. “Like the guy on the TV show.”   Williams rolled his window down a bit and the cold settled in even deeper.  Ray realized his fingers were trembling and he shoved his gloved hands into his overcoat pockets.

Williams must have kept talking but Ray never remembered what was said. His fixed stare caught a small chip on the windshield. He had been sitting here for days and he never noticed it before now. He tried to remember where it might have happened but with all the snow and ice and salt, it could have happened at any time.  Little things happened like that, and then they turned into a bigger crack and soon the whole thing would give way, scattering across the dashboard and onto the seats, slicing into flesh and bone.

He felt Williams jostle him slightly and the contact pulled him back from the glass.  That should have been my job, with Fraser, slithered through his mind and then he felt the words slide down deep into his consciousness where they burrowed.

And there they stayed until the shift was over, he’d nodded to Williams, and had started home.  As soon as he fired up the windshield wipers, it began beating itself out in rhythm.  Should’ve been mine, should’ve been mine, should’ve been mine.  He wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the job or Fraser.  Or maybe both.  But somehow Fraser hadn't just taken his Kowalski and gone off to the fucking wilderness. No, he had to come back to Chicago — Vecchio's Chicago — and start climbing all over the career ladders, dragging his golden boy with him.  Leaping tall buildings in one bound, that was fucking Fraser.  And leaving Vecchio stuck on the ground.  Every time I ever tried to do anything for him, I found myself ankle deep in mud, rolling in garbage or chasing some creep down some alleyway.  But I never really thought he’d leave me behind.

He parked the car and sat in it.  The streetlight bathed the hood with an orange glow and his eyes were drawn to the crack in the windshield.  It was so small, but he should have it looked at.  A cracked windshield wouldn’t shield him from much.  And it wasn’t like he had a lot of buddies looking out for his back.  No one there to catch him if he fell.

He was still sitting in his car when Tony pounded on the window, clutching his bathrobe against the cold.   Something about his mother and a fall. The message Franny had left with Tony  was garbled and the window muffled it even more. Ray reacted, starting the engine and instinctively heading for the closest hospital. He was halfway there when he realized he must have left Tony on the sidewalk splashed with slush.

Ray had to pull his badge and push the nurses hard to get the doctor out to talk to him. His mother had slipped on the ice on the way back from a neighbor’s and had broken her hip. She’d be in the hospital for a few weeks until they could stabilize her.  Franny was white-faced when he finally found her in one of the waiting rooms.

“Where’s Maggie?” He looked for a chair. The room was crowded and there were no empty spaces. Franny looked up at him, her eyes large and tired.  “Maria’s watching her. I didn’t know how long it’d be.”

“You talk to the doctor?” She nodded and they both fell silent.  He paced up and down, checking the hall and the other waiting rooms for the doctor again.  Finally, after the waiting rooms shut down, they were forced into the hallway.  Eventually, they were allowed to spend a few moments with their mother before they were sent home. 

Ray wanted to take time off but Franny insisted she and Maria could handle the visits between them.  Even Tony seemed willing to pitch in and watch the kids. For Ray, it was like a waking nightmare. He’d stop off at the hospital before work, chat with his mother, and then see her on his way home.  She seemed to be taking the fall fairly well.  They talked mainly about how they were eating (“the neighbors were flooding them with food”), that the grandkids missed her (“yes, they were asking for her every day”) and that she’d be back to her old self in no time.

But, sitting next to his mom, listening to the faint hum of the florescent lights and the constant buzz of activity, he knew it wasn’t going to be allright. Her arms were bruised from the fall. The backs of her hands were covered in smaller bruises, now yellowing where IV needle after IV  needle punctured the skin.  She refused to use the morphine pump so the nurses had just started giving her the pain medication orally. She never complained — she was an “old country patient” — some nursing code for a patient who would never admit to any pain or problem. 

And she looked so tired.  She smiled, she ate and she hugged them just the same, but every day Ray could see the pain steal more and more of her energy and spirit.  They talked about a home-care nurse over the dinner table, listlessly, but knew they couldn’t afford it and that she’d never accept a stranger in the house. And so they worked out a schedule, a roster of responsibilities and care between them.  For once Tony did not complain he was being left out — and Ray was the one feeling guilty that he couldn’t do more to help.  But he and Maria were the only one bringing in the paychecks. Franny had wanted to go back to work, but departmental cutbacks had eliminated her position. 

His mother insisted on thanking the nurses personally before leaving the hospital. She had wanted to leave them a small tip but he and Franny persuaded her that was not done anymore. The last time she'd been in a hospital had been as a young girl visiting her grandmother in Italy. She’d always avoided hospitals since then and had even had her children at home.  Sometimes Ray felt that his mother had lived in a very different world.

“You comfortable Ma?” he asked for the fifth time before starting the car. 

“Yes, just drive.  I want to get home and start dinner.” She was bundled in her coat and had tucked her hair under a scarf. She refused to go outside without one until she could have Maria style her hair for her. 

“Maria and Franny will be cooking for a while. And Mrs. Marnier says she’ll drop some lasagna over tomorrow.”

“Humph,” was all his mother would say.  She stared out of the passenger side of the car in silence.  The doctors had told her it would be at least a month before she could start putting real weight on the hip.  The family was determined not to let her try to ignore his advice.

Trying to divert her, Ray starting asking her questions about Thanksgiving plans.  “So who do you want to invite?”  She looked at him, stormy-eyed, and then her face softened.  “Thank you Raymondo. You’re a good son,” she said and patted him on his knee.  He smiled back and drove carefully, trying to avoid each pothole and sharp curve.

She started listing names and then commenting on whether this or that family member had reciprocated with invites. The family rules were complicated. You could be invited only three times and fail to give a return invite. Then you’d be dropped from the invite list. Until you had a significant event — wedding, birth, death. Then you’d get three more invitations. But if you still failed to reciprocate, then you were persona non grata. At least until the next death.  He could not keep it straight. 

“We can always bring up the old table and put it in the foyer.  That way we can fit in the Antonuccis.”  Ray nodded and swerved to avoid a truck backing out of a large house. 

“Did you hear they are about to lose their house?   The old man — he took out a second loan for repairs. But then the grandson Andrew, instead of banking the money, he took off with it.  And once the bank learned that the money wasn’t going for the repairs, they called in the loan."

Ray made a mental note to call a lawyer he knew to see if he could help the Antonuccis out. No one should lose their home.  His mother tapped him on the arm and pointed to two older neighbors pulling a square shopping cart up the street.  She waved at them and he stopped the car.  They started talking, his mother launching into graphic detail about her medical adventures.

He sat there, listening to the engine idle. The sun was shiny weakly, but it turned the street slush into a dazzling white.  He leaned forward, and through the windshield he thought he could catch a glimpse of blue breaking through the steel-gray clouds.  He settled back into his seat and waited patiently.  His mother and her friends were still talking.

The Antonuccis were a beautiful family. The wife was stunning and dark and funny.  Together with her husband they had three tall sons.  Really tall, with dark classic good looks, and outgoing personalities. Put them in a room and they could charm everyone from toddlers to grandparents.  But their oldest — Andrew — had always had a dark side.  Andrew was Ray’s second cousin, and the only clear memory Ray had of him was when he had falsely accused Ray of peeling the paper off some crayons. Ray had been spanked for that, and he had never trusted Andrew since.  One of his earliest lessons on the price of trust.

His mother had perked up as soon as she had seen the neighbors.  Maybe it was something to do with the old neighborhood, maybe the fact that she was going home, but her face looked less yellow and her eyes seemed clearer.  The neighbors promised to stop by in the next week.  She rolled up the window and he turned into their street.  As he approached the house he glanced at his mother. She was crying softly. He pulled the car over again and touched her shoulder.

“Ma, you OK?” She shook her head and then took a deep, wet breath.  “I am fine.  I just thought —” she hesitated and then smiled fiercely.  “I thought I’d never see this place again.”  He squeezed her hand and inched the car forward into the drive.  He should get her to bed really quick. She was obviously getting very tired.  As he was reaching for the car door, he could hear the front door opening and caught the first clatter of feet as the family ran outside to greet her.  For a second, his mind froze. It was like he was caught in time – one hand on the car handle, the other pushing against the wheel with bright light streaming in and the faces of his family coming into focus.  You think Andrew was bad?  What about you?  You hocked the house for Fraser once.  And if you hadn't shot him, he’d have jumped that train and left you with nothing.  And your mother wouldn’t be sitting here with her family pouring down the steps like a tidal wave.

He blinked, shaken, and then Maria’s son Jason reached the passenger door and started shouting something happily in broken Italian.  Tony shoved the wheelchair they’d borrowed from the neighbor and it caught on the door.  Franny was making loud mothering noises and their mother was making loud protesting noises. He stood shakily and stared at them like they were strangers. And for a moment, they were strange to him.  How many years had he seen them only as burdens and obstacles? How long had he used his love for Fraser as one more reason to stay away?  And when had Fraser’s needs become more important to him than his family’s needs?

His moved mechanically, opening and closing doors, carrying suitcases and trays of food, fetching side tables for his mother’s bedroom.  The noise swirled around him, brushing past him like a scarf loosely caught in the wind. He smiled when smiled at, answered when spoken to, and hugged or kissed when prompted by a family member’s touch.  He wanted to get away — the house was too hot and stuffy.  He glanced at the thermostat and saw they had again cranked it up to 85 degrees.  As he moved up the stairs, he felt his sleeve brush the railing and realized he was still wearing his overcoat.  But he didn’t want to go back downstairs and hang up the coat, so he slowly climbed the stairs to his room.

He felt a small breath of relief once the door was shut and the coat tossed on his chair. He stood there swaying slightly, feeling the sweat dripping down his back.  The heat was stifling now on the upper floors.  Why hadn’t Fraser called by now?  The family would have told him if there had been a message. Surely he must have heard about Ray's mother.  She had only shown Fraser kindness.  A wave of depression rolled over Ray and he sat on the edge of the bed. 

Whatever he’d had with Fraser was gone now. But there had been something there once. Like the absence of the day, he had felt the absence of Fraser in his life for so long he could barely remember the feeling.  But, sitting on his bed, he could now remember how the thought of Fraser used to bring him a flush of joy. How the feeling that was Fraser had pulled his eyes free of sleep every morning and jolted him into an awareness that today was going to be a good day. And when he’d lost it — no, when he’d lost Fraser — it was that lack of feeling, the gap, between who they had been and who they were now that had pulled him into Stella’s life. When he returned to Chicago for the second time, he must have been hoping that he’d find some way to reconnect with Fraser.

Even now he was still expecting Fraser to pick up the phone. Even now he was expecting to see a flash of red in the hall and a face lit with the soft secret smile meant only for Ray.  Even now, he was waiting in his room for someone to climb the stairs and rescue him. But all of that belonged to a path that Ray had not taken.  If only I had stayed, then maybe … and then even that thought died into the painful thumping of his chest. 

The light poured through the window like honey, spreading across the bed and patterning the hardwood floor. It spilled into his closet and even lit the boxes stored on the top shelf. The light was like a beacon, and it pulled him away from the window and the bed towards the closet.

He stretched up and pulled down the first shoebox he could reach. It was dusty and covered with a pale green pattern.  There was no label, so he balanced it carefully and pried it open. He could tell by the cigar wrappers that the shoebox had belonged to Pop.  Someone must have stored it in there when Ray had been away undercover.

He pulled out a few papers. A yellowing newspaper clipping about a bowling team. Pop’s name was listed in third place.  He dug deeper and found an old photo of his father and a few of his buddies. They hadn't even bothered to show up for his funeral.  And then deeper to where the pawn tickets sat unclaimed after all these years.  The detritus spread over the bed covers, pathetically small and old and wearied. Not much to show for a life.  He pushed the cigar wrappers aside with one finger. 

Did his father ever sit in the kitchen late at night, thinking about all his missed opportunities?  Did he ever regret turning into a man who could not  love his family,  who could not support them, and who could  never earn their respect?

And how was Ray any different from his father who used to hang out in the pool hall each day, grumbling about lost opportunities?   Except with Ray it wasn’t the pool hall. It had started with his job and then it had turned into Fraser.  All his life he had been afraid he was going to turn into his father.  The one thing that had drawn him to Fraser was that Fraser did not see any of Ray’s father in him.  And when Ray looked back at Fraser, all he could see was a reflection of the man Ray had always wanted to become. Someone brave and kind and reliable. Someone who would never let a friend down. But neither image were true reflections. They were images created by needs, longing, and dreams.  

The light shifted slightly and he realized the sun had started to set.  It dazzled him briefly as it slanted down the window and towards the street.  The glow brushed against his face and he felt himself grow very still.  He was perfectly balanced on the edge of his bed, his feet resting on the hardwood floor, his hands resting loosely by his sides.  He would always be Fraser’s friend — that he could never change. The door Fraser had opened into his heart could not be closed again.   Ray knew Fraser had tried to be some kind of a friend even after Kowalski, but looking back now it was clear that Fraser had made his choice a long time ago.  And now it was up to Ray to choose.  Ray would never mortgage his family's future again. He’d never follow his heart blindly again.   He’d never lose himself so deeply that he’d step over people who needed him to grasp at something he thought needed. 

He could sit here in his room, gripping his father’s old life, locked in the same old patterns, or he could stand up, open his bedroom door and become the better man.  All his life he’d acted like he had no choices, but that was the coward’s way out, his father’s way.  Today, he could choose to become the man that his father could never be, and in doing so become the man that Fraser had always seen in him. 

The sun set and the light faded from his room.  He felt its warmth linger on his face like the memory of an old love. Then he rose and smiled as he reached for the door.  Today would be a better day.  Because he’d choose to make it that way.


The End


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