Fanfiction: Due South

Shell Game 1: The Switcheroo


Pairing: Fraser/Kowalski, Kowalski/f
Feedback: Grooved upon mightily. Thanks!
Rating: PG-13, for adult subject matter (m/m, m/f), and bad language.
Spoilers/Warnings: Spoilers for Season 3. If the idea of m/m slash bothers you, pass.
Notes: I posted the first part of this story to 5Ps the better part of a year ago, and without ongoing input and support from my long-suffering listsibs I don't know if I would have ever seen it through. Major league thanks. Boundless gratitude to Kat Allison and AuKestrel for beta reading this weird thing. Several bits of dialogue were lifted wholesale from the show, so if you find yourself thinking: "Look, does this conversation seem strangely familiar?", the answer is, "Oddly, yes."


And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead,
But if you're tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am.
—"Divorce Song", Liz Phair


      Having to decide this on the anniversary is just poetry. Fate. Something. A year to the day. Doesn't seem possible it's been that long, but well... Here we go, scene of the crime: Birnbaum and Rudolph. And I asked to see Comet and Blitzen. Right. Twenty-ninth floor. Nothing like a mind for details. Stella in that soft blue silk suit, sorta Easter egg colored. And yeah, the earrings. Way to rub it in, Stell. Those gold earrings, couldn't-afford-it birthday gift for hitting the big 3-0. The ones that looked like shells kinda, the scallopy kind with ridges on them. Details, yep. What I get for being a detective.

      Lobby looks the same. Swanky polished granite and glass public atrium thing. Couldn't find the elevators without directions that first time. Three dollar coffees. Newspapers from places I've never been. Shoeshine guy hidden in the corner with the payphones. Still the same.

      No need to go upstairs now, the last time was enough. Jerkboy, Richard, passed that fat Waterman across the conference room table and that was all she wrote. Kaputnik. Official. Signed, notarized, suitable for framing. And there wasn't even anyone to fight with or yell at by then. They didn't need that thick carpet or soundproofed walls. Not for me.

      When it was over, Stella... she was cool. Not like she'd just admitted a major failure. And man, she sure looked at home here in plush-land. Like Richard. Always hated Richard, especially once I knew he'd asked Stella out in law school. But leave it to Stella to keep that network open. Never know when you're gonna need a good divorce lawyer.

      Part of me can't help wondering if things might've been different if I was more like Richard: sixty-K in student loans paid off already, linen-blend business cards, and this fancy-ass office on South Wacker. But what's funny, in that way that isn't really funny at all, is that if I'd been like him she might still be in love with me today, but she probably never would have fallen in love with me in the first place. She still works in the State's Attorney's office, not here. Right? Stella, Stella, Stella, you're one crazy mixed up chick. I don't know. Maybe it is funny. Yeah, and I'm laughing on the inside.

      The Stellazoic Era was twenty-three years. The Emptylithic? One and counting. What the hell am I supposed to do now?

     All right, stop it. This isn't helping. Supposed to be making a decision, not wallowing. So far, the little trips down memory lane have gotten me exactly nowhere. Less than two hours to call the Lieu. So what now, keep playing This Is Your Life, Ray Kowalski? Huh. More like, This Is Your Life, Of Which You No Longer Have One.

      Pass the newsstand again on my way out, and the title of Ring World catches my eye. Something about the guy on the cover... big, good looking, familiar... Sugarman! Wow. One of Franco Devlin's kids from the Community Center hit the big time. Man, have I ever been out of it.

     And for a crazy instant, I start to walk on by. Like I can't buy a copy. Like Stella's gonna get home and see it, and give me a bunch of yadda that adds up to: boxing's for lowlifes. You'd think the days when she got off on it never happened. When she'd come down to the gym after class and breathe in all that sweat, liniment, and blood, then fuck my brains out the minute we got back to her room.

      Used to. Before. I turn back and reach past the rows of out of town newspapers to pull a copy of Ring World off the stand.

      "Should read it in my underwear," I mutter, handing over a five.

      Newsstand guy forks over my change, looking at me like I'm a loon. And maybe I am one, but it feels damned good. Hell of a lot better than I felt the last time I walked out of this building, that's for sure. I tuck the Ring World under my arm, swing around to take one last look at the lobby, and revolve back onto the street. Sun's bright off all the Loop's glass and chrome, making me squint against the glare while I pat around for my shades. Spring kind of snuck up on me this year, but all of a sudden it's warm and green, and chicks are in short skirts, so I guess it's here.

      Get to the Crown Vic and notice a new ding in the driver's side door. Some moron must've sideswiped it trying to park. Too noticeable not to report. Great. More paperwork. Car's such a piece of crap, thin as a soda can. Why the hell do they buy these things? God, I miss the GTO. Wonder if Dad still even has it, out in Arizona. Stupid to give it back.

      Stop it. Focus.

      I get in the soda can, chuck the magazine on the passenger seat, and sit a minute tapping the steering wheel. Should I do this? It's kind of a nutty idea, cover for a cover. Not like I'm going to fool anyone, I don't even look Italian. Must've been a fun meeting, where they thought of me: 'Oh hey, let's get Kowalski! He's got nothing to lose.' Right, thanks. Not sure what to make of the 'oh yeah, your partner's Canadian' thing, either. Canadian. Stupid Blue Jays. Just because we call it the World Series doesn't mean anyone else is supposed to win.

      Now what? Less than two hours. What I really want is a beer, but that's probably a bad idea. What the hell, Lincoln Park. The lagoon. Yeah, me and Dad fishing for carp with balls of dough smashed out of Wonder Bread when I was like twelve. Before Stella and hormones took over my last brain cell.

      I head up Michigan and park below the Zoo, past the bandshell. Park is pretty, flowers, smells good, fresh. Lots of kid sounds now, getting louder, and I remember it's that playground Dad would take me to sometimes after fishing if we didn't catch anything. Like compensation. That was more like when I was eight though, or maybe ten, because somewhere around there after a lousy fish day, Dad suggested it and it was embarrassing all of a sudden. But I don't really remember now how old you get before you don't want to climb on monkey bars and be happy you're a kid. Not like I'm gonna find out anytime soon. Wonder how long it'd have taken me to figure out that all of Stella's not yet's really just meant no.

      The sounds, the shrieks and laughter draw me and I want to see if the playground is how I remember it. I'm usually pretty good at recalling the details of stuff like this, but the scale seems all out of whack. Everything looks so small. The black painted iron fence is new, and the clothes are kind of different, but the sound is just the same. And the way one kid can walk up to another kid who doesn't look too stupid and say "hey, you wanna play?" and you're good to go, best of buddies just like that. At least until you hit twelve or whatever and you've seen enough Steve McQueen movies to know you're a dork, and it's too embarrassing to even go fishing with your dad, forget about playing in a playground.

      The upshot is, being a grown-up kinda sucks. Especially in a place like Chicago where everybody 's already got all the friends they want, or they're too busy, or at least they want you to think they are. Maybe what I need is a change. Change of scene, change of luck. Whole new life. Nothing to lose, right? Nothing left to lose.

      Dig out the cell and call the Lieu. He answers on the second ring.

      "All right, I'll do it, I'm in. You got yourself a Vecchio."



      Never trashed a car that bad before. Not even a shell left to salvage. Blew it up and sank it down. Vecchio'll be royally pissed when he gets back. Can't say I blame him. Sure, Riv's never really turned my crank -- and that color! Puke-o-rama. But at least the guy has an actual car. Had. Guess now I'm back to driving a fleet soda can.

      So I don't know what's the matter with me that I'm thinking flying into 'the lake they call Michigan' on the verge of fiery death with an unhinged Mountie and a big, deaf wolf was the most fun I've had on the job in... well, ever. Hell, even taking that slug in the chest was no big deal, and hello, how nuts is that? All of a sudden I'm so smug and happy he called me "Ray" I forget I could have just been killed a thousand different ways.

      My new partner. Talk about making an entrance.

      Benton Fraser is like an anvil dropping out of the sky in one of those Warner Brothers cartoons. I studied Vecchio's case files up, down, left and right, and there's still no way I would have been prepared for him. Welsh, Huey, they tried, but I cannot believe this guy is for real. The jacket, the hat, the sincerity, the wolf. Impossible. And what the hell is a guy that good looking doing working as a cop for, anyway? Damn, if I looked like him... well, I bet Janie wouldn't've rather been staying home to treat her dog's foot fungus than go out dancing, for one thing.

     Come on, stop it. Back on the horse, no biggie. Janie's just a girl, Elaine too. Plenty of fish in the sea.

      Anyway, we got 'em. Duet, huh. Lennon and McCartney, Leopold and Loeb...

      … Bonnie and Clyde...


      And for a second, all I can hear in my head is Stella's husky, in-the-mood laugh when she'd say "Bonnie and Clyde" and straddle my legs on the big white chair in our old living room. That whole dirty partners-in-crime thing. Way more fun to play the bank robber than the kid who pissed his pants. Mmm... God, Stell... look out, we're dangerous. And it seems like forever ago. So far away, like in a dream.

      Don't go there, just do not even go there.

      I shake myself out of it and look up to see Fraser coming out of Welsh's office. Surprised me when he said he'd come back here after I dropped him at the Consulate to dry off and change. Wanted to help with booking Greta Garbo, and the paperwork. The paperwork! Pretty cool. Of course, he was the one getting stalked, but I get the feeling he'd have come back to help out anyway.

      Kinda neat to see him out of uniform -- jeans, leather jacket. Doesn't look so much like someone who'd go charging into a burning house or climb around on a moving car anymore. Doesn't look so... official, either. Just a regular guy. A really nice, regular guy. And I wonder if we were friends like he is with Vecchio and my apartment was on fire, if he'd run back in to rescue the turtle. Probably. Seems to think of little things like that.

      When I see him, I remember the postcard I found on top of the pile of mail on my desk when I got back from taking Garbo down to lockup. I scoop it up and bring it over to him.

      "This turned up on my desk. It's for you. What do you make of it?"

      I hand him the postcard. He looks at the picture, flips it over, reads the back.

      "It's a message."

      I'm about to make another 'there you go again, stating the obvious' crack, but something about the way he said it makes me stop. He means a message, like significant.

      "Something I should worry about?" A single day with Fraser's enough for me to understand that the kind of weirdness that went down today is not going to be a one-time happening.

      He reaches over and grabs Jimmy's lighter off the computer desk, flicks it open, and waves the flame behind the postcard. One of those invisible ink type deals. The snowy mountain lake photo starts to fade away, and you can see that hidden beneath it is a picture of Fraser and a big-nosed, slick haired guy -- Vecchio -- looking buddy-buddy.

      What with all the craziness and excitement today, it isn't really until now that it sinks in, how shitty it must've been for Fraser to come back from vacation to find his home gone, for one thing, and then this whole switcheroo we pulled on him to boot. Suddenly, this doesn't feel like just a job any more. Vecchio's not just some name and a made up story and case files to memorize. The guy's got a family. A partner... a friend. I wanted to change my life. Fraser didn't get a choice. And for the first time since I took this assignment, I'm having second thoughts about it.

      "No, no. No, everything's all right." Fraser's looking at the picture of him and Vecchio, and he sounds quiet, thoughtful. Then he returns his attention to me. "Everything is actually fine."

      "Okay. Well..." He does look all right, but I feel funny. Want to give him a little privacy. Some space. I start heading over to the file cabinets to finish off the Garbo forms, when I hear him say my name.

      "Hey, Ray." When I turn around, Fraser's still standing there by the desk, and he's looking at me with an expression that's somehow, dunno... familiar. "Would you like to go and get something to eat with me?"

      I watch him a second longer and then I place it, that look. One of those weird flashbacky kinda things -- like I'm ten and in Lincoln Park, and Fraser's the kid who just walked up to me, decided I didn't look too stupid, and said "hey, you wanna play?" And then I'm breaking out in a big dumb smile. Because sure, Fraser might be Canadian and a freak and all, but you know, that's all right. It's actually pretty cool.

      "Yeah. I just got to, uh, I'll put away these files and meet you at the car."

      "All right. Good."

      Right. We are. We're good.



      Coffee's even worse than usual. Watery and bitter. Yuck. It's bad enough this instant garbage will never come out like Stella's with the fresh ground beans and all, but I've been out of sugar for what, three days now. Throwing those chocolates in there seemed like a good idea, but I must've been pretty desperate to think they'd really work.

      Notice it more this morning. Get to the bottom and there's these partly melted candy shells that taste kinda waxy and wrong from soaking in this lousy stuff, and you'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now. Maybe if I ran the water a little hotter... But somewhere inside I know I'll drink it anyway, and it doesn't really matter. So I forget to stop at the store. Glutton for punishment. I must be.

      Set the mug down on the nightstand and sit on the edge of the bed. Just need to wallow a few minutes more. Definitely have to have my head screwed on a little tighter these days. Never know what kind of lunacy I'm going to face when I show up for work since I became Ray Vecchio.

      Lunacy, yeah. I shake my head and smile thinking about how sweet it was to bamboozle that Brandauer mook with all his tough talking crap about taking down Welsh and the whole 2-7. Yeah, it's just my adopted district and all, but that really made me see red. Remember Stella telling me what a disgrace Brandauer was to the State's Attorney's office. Understatement of the year there, Stell, understatement of the year.

     Anyway, guess I'm glad Fraser showed up at my little stake out and didn't let me chuck the badge after all. I did need to see Ellery, did need to confront him -- but I lost my head when I saw that obit notice about his mother and I know I wasn't thinking straight when I left here.

      Funny how humiliation stays with you like that. So much detail I can close my eyes and see it in technicolor. But now that I've had some time to think about it, I know Ellery was just the trigger. The accelerant. What happened with him in that bank set me on a road, and Stella's wanting to be a lawyer helped me along, but I wouldn't have done it, wouldn't have stuck with it -- wouldn't have fucked up things with Dad so totally -- if being a cop wasn't something I really wanted too.

      Letting Ellery go felt… good. Getting rid of a weight or something. Maybe I was right that it started with him, but it doesn't end with him, because after he was gone, in a funny kind of way, I felt more like a cop than ever. And I thought about that stuff Fraser said again, about feeling good knowing people can tuck their kids in at night 'cause we're out here…and it was…yeah… and I'd kind of forgotten about that.

      He's a good guy, Fraser. Weird as all get-out. I mean, telling that story about getting eagle feathers while we're running around in the cemetery? Like there wasn't anything else pressing going on at the moment. Like, oh, say, bullets whizzing past our heads. Bullets. I've been shot at more times in the week since I took this gig than I have been in all my years on the job put together. Mountie, what is that, Canadian for 'magnet'? Magnet for trouble. And a target, sheez. Haven't Canadians ever heard of camouflage?

      But nice, yeah. Remembers Vecchio's birthday, organizes a party -- freaky as hell party, but a party nonetheless. It's sort of a shame we're such opposites and probably won't wind up real tight or anything, but I'm glad at least he thinks we can be work-type friends. I think we can too. Partners, friends… that would be good.

      I look over at the window where the dream-catcher thingy's hanging. I know he meant to make that for Vecchio originally, and instead wound up making it for me. Seems dumb to be feeling any kind of jealousy towards Vecchio considering his skinny neck's in a hell of a lot deeper water playing masquerade games with the Mafia in Vegas than mine is, safe at home, playing him. Guess it's just weird getting a taste of someone else's life and wanting what they've got a little bit. Like an honest to God best friend. Stella was always mine.

      Okay, wallowing over. Time to go to work.



      Gym at the Community Center looks the same as it did, what, twelve years ago? When I used to box here. God, I'm getting old. Hell, it probably looks the same as it did in 1963 or whenever it opened. Not like they've gotten any new gear or anything since then. Same old heavy bag with the stuffing poking out around patches of duct tape. Duct tape. Dad always said there was nothing in the world you couldn't fix between duct tape and wire coat hangers. Right. Thank you for that Nostalgia Channel moment.

      I look around for any familiar faces, and notice bunches of guys in gang colors gathered around the different rings. Must be some new off-the-streets program. Mess of Cabrini's let out a whoop and I look up to see what they're so excited about. Huh. One of the kids sparring looks pretty good. Rough around the edges, sure, but moves well, got instincts. A fighter.

      "Name's Levon."

      I almost jump out of my skin at the phlegmy voice and the heavy mitt that lands on my shoulder. Step back to see who it is that snuck up on me, and bite back a laugh. Jimbo Murphy, crazy old coot. Talk about familiar faces.

      "Jesus, Murphy. I've seen guys in the morgue looking better than you."

      I joke to shake off my surprise, but he is a pretty brutal sight. I don't know how the hell old Murphy must be by now, because he's always seemed ancient with the grey hair and the cigars-and-whiskey voice, and considering all the busted noses and times his jaw's been wired, he was never an oil painting to begin with. But now he's kinda pokey too, a shell of himself: stooped in the shoulders, hair mostly gone, sweats all bagged out where his shape used to be.

      "Still making it up in mouthiness, huh Kowal..."

      "Vecchio," I cut him off, then pull my badge and add quietly, "Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD."

      Murphy's seen enough shady deals in his day, he doesn't even bat an eyelash at my new ID. Just takes it in stride.

      "Kid in the ring. One you're watching. Name's Levon Jefferson. Not bad, huh?"

      "No. Not bad at all." I shake my head and look back up at the practice ring. Kid's got his sparring partner on the run. Sweet right hook, and that's all she wrote.

      "Won a few league fights already on potential and guts. But, you know, that only gets you so far."

      "Yeah," I agree, half listening, watching the sparring match end.

      "So, you looking for someone, Detective?"

      I turn back to Murphy and smile. Guess if half your regulars are bangers, suspicion is normal.

      "Nah. Just got curious to see how the old place was doing. Had a little time on my hands."

      "Miss it, huh?" Now Murphy smiles back, and I get a flash of mostly fake teeth. They must be fake, because there's more of them than I remember. "I heard about you and the wife. Sorry, kid."

      "Yeah. Me too."

      "Guess that means you got a little more of that free time on your hands these days, huh?"

      "Rub it in." I laugh. "Now I remember what I loved about you."

      "All I'm saying, Ray, is it's good to see you back. And if you were ever interested... there are some kids here could use a guy like you. Levon, there. Little guidance might help him get to the next level."

      "Uh, Murphy, maybe you took a few too many blows to the head over the years or something, but look at me -- I'm no trainer. I'm not in shape. I haven't even set foot in the ring in like a decade."

      "You were never a great fighter, Ray."

      Can't help but crack a grin at that. "Thanks, Murphy."

      "But you know the sweet science. And you're smart. You'd be a hell of a lot better than what that kid's got now."

      "Which is?"

      Murphy jerks his head in the direction of the sparring ring, and I see Levon climbing down, taking pats on the back and a towel from a couple of the Cabrini's.

      "Levon's good, but he's vulnerable, if you catch my drift. He's not using or dealing, yet. But you know how it goes."

      I sigh, knowing Murphy's got me. "Think he'd even want help from a cop?"

      "Only one way to find out," Murphy croaks, flashing those phonies again and slapping my shoulder. "C'mon, I'll introduce you."



      "Frannie, you got that file on the Mullen brothers yet?"

      I'm afraid if I pick my head up to look for her, I'll lose my place, and starting over is not an attractive option. Can't believe Fraser actually offered to help me. Not that I'm not grateful, but who in their right mind would volunteer to go through LUDs? Although I guess the jury's still out on whether Fraser's really in his right mind.

      "Here you go, bro."

      Frannie drops the folder smack over the spot I was reading. Thanks a bunch. I glance up to give her a little what-for, and her ass is like, right in my face. Christ, where does she even buy pants that tight?

      "Hi Frase," she's doing her purring thing now, voice gone all honey, and she brushes her hip against Fraser's shoulder as she walks away from my desk.

      Fraser's still looking down at the stack of paper in front of him, but his ears are starting to redden. Huh. And I thought I was going to be the one having a tough time with Frannie working here. If she came on to me every day like that, I'd say to hell with the fake sister thing and have her bent her over the desk in a heartbeat. So I don't know what's up with Fraser, if it's because of Vecchio, or if he's really that old fashioned, or what.


      "Yeah," I glance up and Fraser's passing a phone log page across the desk with one line circled in pencil, in that super-neat way of his.

      "Have a look at that."

      He seems to be over his Frannie-trauma, anyway, because he's got that 'we got 'em' gleam in his eye and I can't help but smile.

      I look down at the paper and see what Fraser's highlighted: one call from Joe Mullen's apartment to Nicky Fotiu's cell phone the night before the murder. Bingo. Even Stella will be happy with a paper trail this tight.

      "All right, let's go pay our friend Nicky a visit, maybe he'll sing us a song." I jump up and pat my pockets to make sure I've got my keys. Fraser grabs his hat, wakes up Dief with a tap on the head, and we're off.

      It's almost funny how well we work together, after only what, a month? Out of all the partners I've ever had, I can't think of anyone who seems more different from me than Fraser. But, for whatever reason, we're on the same wavelength so often it's kind of spooky. Hell, the way we're going, I'm almost starting to feel sorry for the bad guys.


      Well, maybe I don't quite feel sorry for Nicky Fotiu. Not if he's the drug pushing, murdering scumbucket we think he is. We stand out on the stoop where he sets up shop most days, doing the polite cop, bad cop thing on him for a while, but I can't tell now whether the kid is just playing dumb, or if he still honestly doesn't realize we've got him nailed.

      "Perhaps then, you could explain the nature of the phone call you received from Mr. Mullen on the evening of the twenty-sixth?" Fraser asks in that patience-of-a-saint voice.

      Fotiu starts shifting from foot to foot, eyes darting around all over the place. "Uh, Mr. Mullen?"

      "Yeah, dumbass, Joey Mullen. You know, the guy that hired you to whack Cooper," I say, in my trust-me-buddy,-I-don't-have-the-patience-of-a-saint voice.

      "Um, I don't know no, uh..." Fotiu starts shifting around again, leaning back against the door to the building. I exchange a quick glance with Fraser, catch his expression -- a barely raised eyebrow -- which nobody else would be able to read, but I know means he thinks something's queer with Fotiu too, like he's about to make a break for it.

      And then he does. Fotiu twists and shoves the door open, dashing up the stairs like a maniac, yanking up his sweatpant leg and pulling a .22 out of his sock all at the same time. Damned kid's like twenty-one, and pumped with adreneline. We start off after him, Fraser first of course, which makes me nuts, and I pull my gun to cover us. Three, four, five... yeah ... five flights later we hit the roof access door, just slamming back in our faces with Fotiu on the other side.

      By the time we get the door open again, Fotiu's already disappearing onto the fire escape down the far wall. He pops up just long enough to fire a few rounds at us, but he's scared, shooting wild. Fraser takes off across the roof after him, yelling back to me to meet him on the street. The last I see of him is a flash of red swinging onto the fire escape. God, it makes me crazy when he pulls shit like this without a damned gun. But I know it's our best chance to catch Fotiu, so I run back to the building and down the stairs, calling in for backup on my way.

      "Fraser!" I yell, hitting the street and turning the corner back into the alley, but wouldn't you know it, Fraser's already got Fotiu tackled face down on the sidewalk. Jesus, that was fast. Maybe Frase is only thirty-six in dog years or something.

      We get the kid patted down, cuffed and Mirandized by the time backup shows. We hand him over to Huey to bring in while me and Fraser look over the roof and the alley for the spent shells and the stash he must've ditched.

      Fraser exhales deeply, still recovering from his sprint. I pat his shoulder.


      "Yeah," he admits, sounding a little surprised.

      "Sending you after perps is like exercising the wolf, Frase. Gotta keep you fit and happy."

      "I hardly think that's a fair comparison." He's trying to sound dismissive, but the look he shoots me says he knows I'm teasing him. I think he likes it. That triggers a grin I couldn't fight if I wanted to.

      "Did you, or did you not spend your last vacation chasing a litterbug halfway across the Canadian wilderness?"

      "I suppose, in a manner of speaking..."

      "I'll take that as a 'yes'." I put up my hand to stop him before he can launch into one of those longwinded reasonable sounding explanations that never actually make any sense.

      "Well..." He looks for a sec like he might argue some more, but instead he breaks into a smile. "Perhaps."

      People don't tease Fraser very much. They make fun of him plenty, but that's different. You've got to know someone to really tease them, and I'm actually getting to where I know Fraser a little bit. Go figure.

      Fotiu spills big time on the Mullen brothers once we get him down at the station. It's a good bust and Welsh is happy. He lets me and Huey knock off early and I kind of wish Fraser hadn't had to go back to the Consulate for his shift, 'cause I'd have asked him to hang a little, come out for a beer. But he doesn't drink anyway.

      Guess it's that leftover Chinese then. Been out 'liaising ' so much lately, I hope it hasn't gone bad. Can't tell if this is the stuff from Saturday or not, damn cartons all look the same. As I line the suspects up on the bar for the big sniff test, I notice the answering machine light blinking. Punch the play button and go to undo the flaps on the first carton when Mom's voice freezes me in place. She sounds weird, hesitant.

      "Stanley? Please give me a call when you get the chance. There's something you should know. It's ... it's about Stella."

      I put the food back down and just stand there a minute, drumming my fingers against the bar. Don't want to have heard in Mom's voice what I damn well know is there. Check my watch and count back for Arizona time. Three o'clock, she'll be home.

      Shit. If Mom's breaking a confidence, this is gonna be seriously bad.

      Stella's seeing someone.



      And there they are in front of the restaurant, just like Mom said they'd be. I pull the car up to the curb slowly and watch in the side view mirror. So that's what he looks like, Mr. Alderman Orsini. Wonder how much he spends on keeping up that tan. Jerk.

      Damn, he's got his filthy paws all over her! And what the hell is she thinking, wearing that skimpy little dress? She's practically naked!


      "What is?"

      Fraser's voice catches me by surprise. Forgot he was in the car with me for a sec.

      "Well, kissing right out in the middle of the street like that. Flaunting it all over the place."

      "I didn't realize you were so prudish."

      Prudish! That's rich coming from the guy who makes like a tomato every time Frannie says 'hello' to him. Prudish. I feel like telling Fraser I was married, not brain dead. Funky, sweet, dirty, whatever, whoever -- you name it, I've thought it. But I don't want to shock him.

      "Me? Hey, that's not it, I'll try anything. That's not the point."

      "What is the point?"

      The point is, that's not just some PYT in spaghetti straps getting her ass fondled for the enjoyment of every idiot on the street. The point is...

      "The point is we got laws in this city and I'm sworn to enforce them. And one of those laws bans lascivious acts." I hand Fraser the old Criminal Code book I stuffed between the seats, without taking my eyes off Stella and that pig. "Thank you very much, Fraser. Page 118. And that, my friend, is definitely a lascivious act."

      "You know, Ray, this is the 1890 Illinois Criminal Code."
      "Old laws are the best laws, Fraser." You'd think he'd give me props for doing the research, at least.

      I look again and they're still going at it, her clutching at Orsini like he's some big wonderful hero. I really must be a glutton for punishment. It hurts even more than I thought it would -- this dull, throbbing ache centered right in the pit of my stomach. Don't know why I thought I needed to see this. To make it real?

      Damn, Stella. Him? Connected guy. Influence guy. Rich guy.

      Right, like it would feel okay if it was someone else? A plumber, mailman, another cop? No. Capital N, capital O.

      But there is something extra knife in the guts about seeing that Stell's finally become her father's daughter after all her swearing she never would. Makes me wonder if you really can't fight your fate. And I wonder what mine is going to be. Because what I thought it was is out there on the sidewalk with a bunch of dumb yellow flowers and a guy who isn't me.


      I don't know who's worse, me or Stella. With all her 'oh yeah, Ray, it'd be a mistake, we'll only have more regrets... but I didn't say you couldn't stay' talk. What is that? A mistake. Right. And if it wasn't for that bomb, I'd have woken up in her bed this morning and we'd have lounged around and had good coffee... and nothing to say over the newspaper.

      Yeah. Mistake. I know. I know that. Instead I wake up on my own sofa in the middle of the afternoon, dick sore from jerking off and exhausted from dancing with shadows half the night. But that's not real enough. There's nobody here making coffee.

      Guess at least I should be glad all this happened before she got too involved with Mr. Dirty Politician. Oh yeah, I'm a regular humanitarian.

      Stop it. Just stop. I shouldn't even care. It's none of my business anymore. Shouldn't be.

      But damn, I hate that Stella can still yank me around like that, reel me in, throw me back. And I let her, I keep letting her.

      It's good that I left. Good. For me. Because she doesn't want me. Not the way I need her to, or she never would have actually gone through with signing the fucking divorce papers. This isn't like the other times we split up. It's been over thirteen months, and she's gone, and the sooner I get that through my thick skull, the sooner I can get on with it. With...

      Whatever. Jesus, I need to clean this place up. Laundry, shopping. Yeah, that's it. No more thinking, just doing.

      And the errands help, carry me through the rest of the afternoon, but when I get back home, I'm as bummed as ever. Think about trying to track down Levon for some training at the gym, but my heart and my head just aren't there. Try and listen to some CDs for a while instead, ones that don't remind me of Stella -- except they all remind me of her, even if it's just knowing which ones I had when we were together and which ones I bought alone.

      I crouch down in front of the aquarium to check on the turtle. He's out on his rock, sitting there quiet, like he's thinking about his problems. You and me both, little guy. How about some snails, huh? Maybe a little UV lamp action, keep the ol' shell nice and healthy.

      And I wind up sitting there a long time, me and the turtle, hanging out listening to music. He doesn't move a whole lot, just blinks once in a while. Zen master. I wonder if it's okay that I've got him here like this. Like in a cosmic kind of way. Maybe I should drive him down to Lincoln Park and set him free in the lagoon. I don't know. Maybe he would meet a girl he really liked. Maybe he'd get eaten.

      This is sad. I turn off the stereo and flop onto the sofa. Not even eight and I'm tired again. Not sleepy tired, worn out. Grope around between the couch cushions for the remote, turn on the TV, and I'm surprised at how much light it throws. Gotten this dark and I didn't even bother turning a lamp on. Way to be motivated. I zap through the stations three times, then watch the what's on channel for a while in case I missed something, but there's zip. Nothing even on the channels I don't get.

      Ray, my friend, you may be depressed, you may be pathetic, but there is no way in hell you're going to sit here all night watching the what's on channel. And this is the thing about being single that really blows. Nights like this when I'm not working and there's nothing on TV, no good movies, not even a ball game. When I don't know what to eat for dinner, or when to go to bed. What to do with myself. Nobody to talk to. No one to call.

      Well... there's Fraser. I could call him. We're friends.

      Wow. We are. I could. He's probably just holed up there at the Consulate reading some book on moose migration or something. Wonder if he's eaten yet. Eight o'clock, shit, he's probably sleeping already. I feel bad enough for breaking in on him the other night. Stop it, stupid. Just call him. He didn't mind. What if... Call!

      He answers on the second ring. Doesn't sound like I woke him up at least.

      "Hey, Frase."

      "Hello Ray. Is everything all right?"

      "Yeah, fine. You know." What the hell am I doing? This is beyond dumb. Bugging Fraser. This is lame, this is...


      "Look, you had dinner yet?"

      "Well," he says, and hesitates and I know that means the answer is 'yes', but he doesn't want to disappoint me.

      "S'alright," I say, to let him off the hook. "It's late anyway, I'll just grab some..."

      "Although I wouldn't mind going out for a cup of tea."

      "Tea?" And I'm actually about to be stupid enough to remind Fraser that he has like ten thousand different kinds of tea in the kitchen at the Consulate they keep around for all the diplomats from different countries that visit. It's like the United Nations of tea over there. But he said he wouldn't mind going out for a cup of tea. Gotcha.

      So, we wind up at the diner near the 2-7, which, while not exactly famous for their tea, makes a reliable cheeseburger deluxe and I haven't eaten all day. There's something strangely comforting about sitting in this booth, under these dumb too bright fluorescents, now that Fraser's here with me. He's in casual mode, jeans and a worn-out flannel shirt that might start to look kinda ratty on anybody else. But Fraser looks like he could do ads for a 4x4. Like, buy our truck and you might actually take that fishing trip you've been talking about for the past ten years. And you might look all rugged and cool and handsome while you're at it. Right.

      At first we just make small talk while I devour my burger and he sips at his tea. Stuff about some cases, Turnbull's latest stupidity, how Elaine's doing as a uniform. But once the edge is off my appetite, and my nerves begin to settle, I start wanting to bring up all the things I've been trying to avoid even thinking about since I walked away from Stella's apartment. I don't mean to do it, but somehow Fraser's being here feels so reassuring I find myself just letting go.

      "I mean, look at me, Fraser. I am what I've always been. Just some working class schmo. Kinda skinny, no great student, can't see too good... and Stella ...she was, you know, she was the impossible dream."

      "Well, evidently Ray, Stella managed to see past these perceived shortcomings of yours."

      "That was the amazing thing. She liked me. Hell, she was willing to believe I pissed my pants on purpose in that bank. I guess she was a little like you, with wanting to see the best and save the world and all. Well, she wasn't ever nutso like you..." I wave a fry at Fraser, and he raises his eyebrows and smiles. "But she had those funny ideas kids from money who don't have any real problems of their own get sometimes. It was cute on her. Sweet. We used to talk about it a lot, before we got married. How I was gonna catch the bad guys and she'd put 'em away. A one-two punch, you know?"

      "A duet?"

      "Yeah, a duet. Well, that plus..." And I feel a little pink, imagining this quick, mental crazy quilt of naked Stella while at the same time remembering how I'd said the duet thing to Fraser when we first met.

      "Understood," he says, a little too quickly, clearing his throat. And I don't know why, but it's pretty fun to tease him, even by accident. I find myself fighting a smile, and suddenly the words are just flowing.

      "I mean, it wasn't always roses. We split a bunch of times, but we always came back. Got to where I didn't know anything else, couldn't imagine life without her." I push my plate away. "So, at first when things started to change after we got married, I wasn't too worried 'cause, well… we'd done that dance before."

      Fraser nods, watching me intently. He really pays attention when you talk. I become aware of it, how his head cocks slightly to the side, eyes focused, sharp. On me. It feels kinda funny. Not bad-funny. Definitely not bad. Just... it's still weird having anyone listen to what I have to say like it matters so much. Especially a guy like him. I blink, and for a second, I can see almost from a distance, objectively. All the little details that make up Fraser. And he seems impossible again: too smart, too good looking, too clean to be here. To be a cop, sitting in a greasy cop diner in downtown Chicago, taking in the sob story of my busted marriage like it was some great opera or something. But then I blink again, and it's just my friend, sitting there across the table, waiting for me to go on.

      "I don't know how to explain it, Frase. I say it was the two careers thing, I say it was stress, but I don't think that's what really killed us."

      "What do you think happened?"

      "I think... she just grew up. I think she fell in love with all the stuff that made me different from guys she knew, and I... man, believe me, I played into that for all it was worth. But when she got a little older, I don't think she wanted someone different anymore. She wanted someone the same. Someone like she thought Orsini was."

      "I understand."

      "Anyway, we were just kids." I shrug, smoothing the wrinkles out of a paper soda straw wrapper with my thumbnail. "I only wish I hadn't been so blind. It's like she made a turn somewhere that I missed, and there I was for God knows how many years, going along, talking to myself like she was right there beside me when she was really long gone."

      And I realize this might be the first time I've ever spilled all this so completely, and I'm not sure what it is that's letting me. If it's time, or Fraser, or both. Whatever it is, it feels so good to get it off my chest, finally. I feel lighter, easier, than I have since Mom told me about Stella dating Frank Orsini in the first place.

      "And then, you say, she moved out?"

      "Yeah. She thought she had to. We kept winding up back in bed together otherwise."


      Zing. Gotcha, buddy. Fraser looks down at the table, color creeping up from his collar. So predictable. I still don't get what it is with him. You'd think there wouldn't be much else to do in an igloo or whatever, and it's not like Fraser'd be short on volunteers to keep him warm.

      "S'okay, that's just how we were. Barely speaking anymore, but we could still do that. And dance. We could... we can still dance together like nobody's business."

      "I remember. You seemed to fit each other very well."

      Yeah, we did. And now we don't. And I gotta learn how to move on already. Quit dancing with memories. But I don't know how. It's been too long. Too long.

      I notice the clock against the back wall and we've both got the early shift tomorrow.

      "Look, thanks for letting me jaw at you like this, Frase," I say, throwing enough to cover the bill onto the table, and putting my hand up to stop him from even trying to pay for that little cup of tea.

      "Anytime, Ray."

      Unlike a lot of people, I know Fraser actually means it. And for all the grousing I do about humping this job, and having to pretend to be something and someone I'm not -- well, at least I got this.



      I watch Fraser's back disappear into the Consulate, that big door closing behind him. Hope he's gonna be all right. Poor guy. Don't know if dinner tonight helped him at all, but what the hell, at least I think it distracted him for a couple of hours.

      Never seen him so interested in a woman before, but that Janet, she really got to him. Huh. Weird. I guess I always figured if it was gonna be easy for anyone, it'd be easy for Fraser. I mean, look at him. And he's nice, smart. A little annoying sometimes, sure, but who isn't?

      I don't know.

      So, does it make me a good friend or a bad friend that I'm so glad she's gone? I mean, never mind the little fact that she's married. Just something about her rubbed me the wrong way from the get go. And her kids were bratty. Fraser can do better than that.

      Drive away from the Consulate, start to head for home. It's funny. We're both single guys, me and Fraser, but it never even occurs to me that we should go out, out. I mean, where the hell in Chicago is a guy like Fraser gonna go to meet women? I try and imagine him sitting in a bar or something, sober and squinting in the smoke, getting hit on in totally rude ways left and right by all the wrong people and I think I pretty well have the picture right there.

      And hell, now I'm depressed. Because what am I going to do right now? Go home and stare at the walls. Jerk off and think about Stella. Jerk off and try not to think about Stella. Except that's a load of crap, isn't it, because no matter who, no matter what I try and think about instead, somewhere, somehow it changes into Stella. That picture in my head, that vision of her, always intrudes. Still.

      Right. Or I could go to Farrell's for a drink.

      Yeah, crunch through the peanut shells on the floor, elbow my way up to the bar, wait 20 minutes to get a beer I'm either gonna down way too quick, or nurse for an hour. Hope that woman isn't there, God, can't even remember her name. What an awful night that was. Never got the fuck-and-run thing before. Never wanted to. Smelling her perfume on my jacket the next day. Just weird, wrong, bad.


      Home. Go home.



      "So tonight's the big night, huh, huh?" I throw a teasing jab at Levon's head.

      "Yo, cut that out!" he yells, but he's laughing, excited.

      I am too. This is big. Bigger than big. This is major.

      "What, guy gets one lousy fight against a pro, now you're too much of a superstar to kid around, huh?" I whack him upside the head, then duck his return.

      "Come on, man!"

      "Okay, all right, Mr. Big Shot." I chuck him a towel and we climb down from the ring.

      He looks good. He's worked hard. Don't know if it'll be enough against Deron Martin -- lord knows Franco Devlin wouldn't train a fighter who's a chump -- but Levon's done his bit and then some. I'm really proud of him.

      "So, your Aunt Winona gonna come tonight?" I ask, and immediately wish I'd bitten my tongue.

      Levon looks down at the floor. "Nah, she don't come down here. She uh…"

      "Yeah, my ex-wife didn't get boxing either," I say, even though I suspect the real reason Levon's aunt won't come is because she doesn't like his friends, and the Cabrini's will be out in force tonight. "I, uh, I invited a couple of people to come, if that's okay."

      "Are they, uh…" he hesitates. We got ourselves an unspoken agreement, me and Levon, and we're teetering on the edge of it. He gives me no grief for being a cop, I don't hassle him about the gang thing. So far, clear sailing.

      "Yeah they are, but they're cool. No worries, okay?"

      "Yeah all right."

      I slap him on the shoulder.

      "Come on, let's go see if Murphy's got a last minute scouting report on this Deron clown, huh? Then you go home and rest up, get some sleep, you hear me? No hanging with your homies, no uh, getting friendly with the ladies…"

      "Ray, man," Levon laughs.

      "I mean it, okay? You. Home. Sleep. Deal?" It's mostly a formality, because I know Levon's really psyched about this chance tonight, knows it's a real opportunity and I can't imagine he's going to piss it away over something stupid like not being well rested. But hell, I'm pretty keyed up too, and I want to hear it out of his mouth that he gets it, that he knows.

      "Deal." He's rolling his eyes, but I think he's kind of glad I care.

      "Good. Come on, let's go."


      God, this cannot be happening. I've run the fight in my head a hundred times already and I still can't figure out what happened in there. An accident, I know, like Devlin said, must've just been some kind of one in a million freak punch, but…

      "You're really worried about him, aren't you?"

      Fraser's voice startles me. I've been so wrapped up in driving and looking for Levon, for Jamal Martin, anyone wearing Rollin' 22 colors, so wrapped up in thinking.

      "He's a good kid, Fraser. I've gotten to know him a little. I mean, yeah he hangs with some bad guys, but hell, that's where he's from. Levon's not like that, he's not a hard guy. If Jamal gets a hold of him…"

      "We'll keep looking, Ray."

      And we sweep the neighborhood over and over. Levon's buddies, any we can find, are tight as clamshells, his aunt Winona says he hasn't been home. Now she's worried too. I promise her we'll keep her informed. I'm getting groggy and bummed out, but we keep driving.

      Around 3AM, I'm finally getting ready to suggest we maybe pack it in for the night, when Fraser starts talking.

      "Though your face is battered to a pulp, your blooming heart is stout; Just stand upon your pins until the beggar knocks you out… and grin."

      "Fraser, what the hell is that supposed to mean?" I'm half wondering if he's really speaking nonsense -- or did I fall asleep at the wheel and I'm dreaming this? With Fraser, it's sometimes pretty hard to tell.

      "Hm? Oh, sorry. It's from a poem by Robert Service, sometimes referred to as 'the Bard of the Yukon.'"

      "Guy wrote a poem about getting your ass kicked?"

      Fraser looks like he's a little surprised by the question, then nods. "You could say that, yes."

      "Nice subject for a poem," I mutter scanning the street for what feels like the millionth time.

      "Well you know Ray, the Yukon can be a difficult environment."

      I shoot Fraser a quick look, but his face gives nothing away. That guy. More shades of deadpan than the Inuit got words for snow.

      "Right, right. " I turn the corner again, and think it can't hurt to work the grid again, just once more. "Okay, come on, we still got a long night ahead. Give me some more of this ass kicking stuff."

      And good old Fraser, picks up where he left off, rumbling away in that nice comforting voice of his, this crazy poem about getting your brains bashed in.

      "Your trouble is that you don't know when you have had enough -- don't give in. If Fate should down you, just get up and take another cuff; You may bank on it that there is no philosophy like bluff…and grin."

      Fraser finishes just as I'm pulling up to a red light. I look over at him again and he's just sitting there as neat and groomed and perfect as you please. Nutjob. Pretty cool nutjob, though, to drive around all night with me like this. And he worked an early shift this morning, too.

      "You are unhinged." Fraser takes that with his usual nod of understanding, like maybe he agrees. Dief whines from the back seat, letting me know the light's changed. I hit the accelerator and start working back into the heart of Cabrini territory where Levon would be safest. "Um, so you know any more of those, uh, poems?"


      "Look, the thing is this, Frase," I explain, easing myself down as gently as possible into the break room chair. Damn, three days later and I'm still aching all over. That Mason packs one hell of a punch. Not that falling through a skylight helped. "Putting Franco Devlin away, that really hurt."

      "Well, but that makes perfect sense, Ray. He was a man you admired a great deal. A lot of people did," Fraser says, pulling up the chair opposite me and setting down my soda and his milk. Dief curls up on the floor by our feet.

      "Yeah, but…" I'm not sure how to explain. "See, boxing was something I loved, always, since I was a kid. All through school, college, you know, I hung out at that gym. Not that I was ever any good at it, but it was part of who I was. And I gave it up because Stella decided one day she didn't like it, that it was all corrupt and crooked."

      Fraser nods, like he knows where I'm headed with this, but I feel like I need to keep talking anyway. Talk it all out of my system.

      "So, when I went back there a few months ago, hooked up with Levon, started working with him and all, it felt like, dunno, like I was getting a part of me back. That probably sounds kinda dumb."

      "Not at all." He shakes his head. "Sounds like you were just trying to reclaim some things that you felt were missing from your life in the aftermath of your divorce from Stella. Trying to reassert your own personhood, separate from who you were as a part of a married couple."

      "Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And Devlin, you know, he was like what I always wished I could be in the boxing world. And for him to turn out to be dirty…"

      "It makes you feel as though maybe Stella was right."


      "Well, there does seem to be quite a bit of corruption in the world of professional boxing, but that certainly doesn't mean that there aren't also a lot of honest, hardworking people involved in the sport. Yourself, and Levon Jefferson, and your friend Murphy from the Center, for example. There are still a lot of kids who can be helped by a program like the Community League. I don't think you should let this incident take boxing away from you."

      "You really think that? You're not just saying it to make me feel better?"

      "Absolutely, Ray."

      And then I have a funny thought.

      "You know, Frase, you'd probably be a pretty good boxer if you could get over that whole 'being Canadian' thing. Bet Jimbo Murphy'd love it if you came down to the Center too sometimes."

      Fraser thinks that over a sec, then a smile starts at the corners of his mouth.

      "Even if I lobbied for protective headgear?"

      "Right." I laugh. "With earflaps."



      I'd know the back of that head anywhere. I check to make sure the lids are smashed down on both cups good enough they won't spill, then go stand on line behind her quietly, resisting the urge to tap her on the shoulder. Wonder how long it'll take her to notice, if she even does. But it isn't more than a few seconds before she gets bored of waiting in line I guess, and turns to look into the glass case where they keep all the biscotti and scones and fancy coffee bar-type goodies. I see her eyes widen, reflected in the glass and she spins a fast half turn to face me.

      "Ray, what are you…" She's startled, almost drops her cup. God, she looks good, but her expression... not exactly happy to see me. Makes me wish I'd stayed back at the milk and sugar counter until she left instead of trying to say 'hi'. But that's dumb. It's a free country, I can buy coffee.

      "Just getting a couple of coffees, Stell." She glances down at my hands, then back up at me curiously. I realize what she's wondering and lift both cups slightly. "Fraser," I explain.

      "Oh." She's quiet again, and we shuffle along as the line moves towards the register. She looks almost guilty, like it only just dawned on her that she was actually surprised I was in the coffee bar on my own, not following her -- because why else would I shell out for snooty coffee? She clears her throat. "How is that going, working with Constable Fraser?"

      "Good, great. Frase is…" And even though I know she was just trying to make small talk and doesn't really care, I pause and smile to myself anyway, trying to think of a quick way to describe what the last few months with Fraser have been like. But there is no quick way, so I shrug instead. "It's cool."

      "Good. That's good. It must be interesting."

      She pauses again and looks up the line to the woman behind the register who's futzing with a grouchy guy in a suit bitching about his cup leaking, and this bag that sogged through the bottom and ripped. I hate the silence, so I just charge ahead, making dumb conversation at Stella's head.

      "Yeah, I'm on my way over to the, uh, Consulate now."

      She turns back to me and blinks, and for a second, actually seems to be paying attention again. It might just be a knee-jerk reaction to the word 'Consulate', though. Her dad always knew a lot of diplomats from parties and stuff.

      "Oh. Working on a case?"

      She kind of half-smiles and hell, much as I keep trying to tell myself I only miss her out of habit, I still want her like crazy. What is that? Why the fuck can't I turn it off? And what kind of weird thing is it to stand in line in an overpriced coffee bar next to the woman I slept with for nineteen years and not be able to even touch her? It's like there's a wall gone up around her, an invisible forcefield or something. She's become such a stranger.

      And she's right, it did take years, but it's been way worse since that night with the bomb, the night she said I could stay and I didn't. Now, I don't know, it gets harder and harder to really remember things between us ever being different, ever being close, when my wanting her didn't feel like a bad joke.

      "Nah, I'm off duty. Just going to see Frase, drag him out to catch a movie or something."

      I almost add, we hang out a lot these days, but it feels funny to say that to Stella. It would take too much to explain how, yeah, I know I never spent much time with guy friends when we were married, but I wasn't lonely all the time back then because you were my best friend. And anyway, Fraser's not like any old guy, he's really weird and smart and we talk about stuff. But me and Stella don't have the kind of relationship anymore where I don't have to explain, either. So we just stand there, and it sucks.

      "You're up," I say, finally, nodding towards the line that shuffled on while we were not-talking. I almost offer to get Stella's coffee for her, but I know she'll just say no and that would be even more awkward and stupid than it's been already, so I just shut up and hold my coffees, look at my shoes and wait.

      "I'll, uh…" Stella turns back after she finishes paying, and I know she wants to go.

      "Yeah, I'll see you," I nod, and turn towards the lady at the register, dig out my wallet. Not really rude, I don't think, but I don't know how else to deal. This is what we're like now, walking on eggshells to keep from fighting over nothing. Irreconcilable Differences. Except I realize, suddenly, it's me who's different as much as her, and I want to tell her, that I know that, that it's okay. But when I look up again, she's gone.

      Woman at the register hands me my change and the bag -- and there it is, my big splurge-- nice coffee.


      Oh well. It smells good, anyway. And I can just imagine Fraser waving the cup under his nose to figure out which side of what mountain in Columbia the beans were grown on. Freak. I laugh to myself as I pick up the bag, and head out towards the car.



      "Listen, Fraser, something came up. I got to meet a guy, so I won't be dropping by tonight. There's…"


      Finally. "Got to go." I switch off the cell, take a breath, and gear myself up to deal with this psycho. "Volpe."

      We take a minute to size each other up, the whole sniffing dogs routine. Hold my arms out for the pat down and tease him a little when he gets near the jewels. "Ooh."

      He gives me a look, almost smiles. Bugs the hell out of most guys when I mess around like that, and I kind of get a kick out Volpe's taking it in stride, sassing me right back. Got to give it to the guy, he's definitely got something going on. Bet he gets laid a lot. Then again, seems like the bad guys always do. Well they work good hours, for one thing.

      "Do you the same favor?" I ask after he finishes.

      "I'm a criminal. What would I be doing wearing a wire?"

      "Posterity?" And I start the pat down all over his big bald head just for fun, work my way down, looking for whatever the hell kind of surprises Volpe might be packing. But if he's willing to spill some dirt, it'll all be worth it. Can't help but wonder what angle he's trying to work this time, who he wants out of the way.

      "Are you satisfied?" Volpe asks.

      "I'm never satisfied. What do you want?"

      "What do I want?" And he shoots me this confused look. "You called me."

      Huh? Huh. He's not bluffing. He's not good enough. We both catch on something's hinky at the same moment, step back…I hear shots…then…


      If there's one thing I hate, it's being stuck. And what am I here? Stuck. Place is surreal. Turnbull, curling, tea. Reminds me sort of Stella's parent's place, actually, all stiff and formal, maybe that's why I feel so uncomfortable. Duh, maybe I'm about to get extradited, arrested for Volpe's murder and railroaded by a State's Attorney on a psycho mission, maybe that's why I feel so uncomfortable.

      Fraser seems to think he's got this all worked out. What else is new. And me, I'm just supposed to go to sleep and wait for tomorrow, see if I sink or swim.

      Slide down into the chair and pull the shirt I borrowed from Fraser up around me. Damned Consulate is an icebox. Freaky Canadians. Mmm, shirt is nice though. Cozy... smells good. Guess I lucked out there. And I think about poor Huey, stuck in a car outside all day with stinky Tom Dewey. Not that I'd want to spend all day stuck in a car with Dewey anyway, but his lunch habits sure wouldn't help.

      Hmm. Maybe it's the soap Fraser uses. I should ask him about that. All his stuff smells good -- well, except that goop he put on my forehead, and the wolf after a bag of Cheetos. Don't know how Frase manages that. Just takes care of things, I guess.

      He says I have to trust him. Trust him, right. And I suppose I do. I must, or I wouldn't have come running here in the first place, and I did that like instinct. If there's anyone who can figure a way out of an impossible situation, it's Fraser, right? Yeah, it's Fraser.

      And finally, I'm able to get a little sleep.



      I glance over at Fraser, still staring out the passenger side window at the night. He took the uniform jacket off a couple of hours ago, and usually that makes him look surprisingly relaxed, in that weird old-fashioned way of his, with the long sleeved henley and his suspenders. But he doesn't look relaxed tonight. Not now.

      There's tons of stars out, but he hasn't told me any stories about how they got their names or anything, even though I bet he knows them all. He's barely said a word, actually, except to give me highway directions since we left Chicago. Better than arguing, I guess, except it's not a buddies type silence. It's awkward, and Sault Sainte Marie is still a long ways off.

      He's been doing his best to carry on like normal all day, I know, except I don't seem to have the patience for business as usual with Fraser and I keep snapping at him. Jumped all over him for cutting off questioning Gilbert Wallace at Illinois Lake Freight, picked another stupid fight over where the car was parked, blew a fit when he even hinted we should do this crazy thing… I don't know. Guess he's given up trying to act like things are normal now. Just wish he didn't look so damned sad.

      I want to talk to him, want to explain it's just that he's like a steamroller sometimes. He believes in things, causes, right, whatever, and he just runs with it, and he expects me to go along with him. And usually I do, usually I'm good with that. I mean, what am I gonna do, let my no-gun-carrying partner charge off and not cover him? Leave him flapping in the breeze?

      But sometimes... Sometimes he bugs the hell out of me, always assuming I'm on the same page as him. Assuming I'm just fine with doing it his way. That I'm on board for risking my neck on one of his truth and justice crusades.

      Am I overreacting? Being stupid about this? I don't know. But lately, it's just been too much. Too much assuming and not asking. I hate that I hit him, hate that I feel like I need to quit working with him, but God, I don't seem to know how else to get the message through that hard Canadian skull of his that I can't go there right now. He just doesn't get it, we're not communicating. He's not listening, is more like it, and I can't do that again.

      I don't want to live like that. That's not who I want to be or how I want my life to go. Had enough of being steamrollered by Dad, by Stella, I damn well don't need it from my partner. It's like Fraser said to me himself after we put Franco Devlin away, about what did he call it, reasserting my personhood. And he was right. What I decide, what I want, it's got to stick sometimes. Right?

      But I don't know what to say to him. Don't know how to talk without making things worse than they already are, and I just want to get this last case together done. Do right for those poor guys who died on the Mackenzie.

      Last case together. Is this gonna be the story of my life? Get a partner, lose a partner.

      Lose a father, lose a wife...

      Stop it. Drive.

      It's for the best. He's a good guy. He's a great cop. He'll be better off back in Canada, back home. Although I guess they're not really sending him home. Ottawa. Whatever. Hell of a lot closer to home for him than Chicago is. And I got to concentrate on getting my life back. My life.

      I push the gas pedal a little closer to the floorboards, watch the speedometer needle creep past eighty-five. Just want to get there already. It'll be okay once we just get to the boat and start working again. It's always been the inbetween stuff that kills me.

      And the silence.


      When I come to, it sounds like somebody's opened up a big ol' can of whupass all over this tub. Like we're getting shelled with fucking artillery or something. Jesus, the ringing in my head wasn't bad enough already.

      I look around, but I don't even know where I am now. Last thing I remember was going to check out that Communications room, closet, whatever you call it and whammo! Big time pain, see red, then lights out, Kowalski.

      This is bad. I tug at the cuffs anchoring me to the floor, but the pipe they're looped around doesn't even budge. Try and move my lips enough to loosen the tape over my mouth, try and at least get some spit through to weaken the glue, but damn, whoever conked me out knew what the hell they were doing. Wonder why they didn't just kill me. Wonder where Fraser is, what's happened to him.

      And then another big blast rocks the ship and I really don't like the sound of that. What are we, being invaded? I start tugging on the cuffs again, and yelling as best I can with the tape on, hoping against hope that someone will be able to hear me, that…

      "Ray! Ray, are you all right?"

      Oh, thank God. Fraser. This is good. Fraser'll get me free, then we're getting the hell out of here. Forget the case, forget the Robert Mackenzie…all of it. Out of here. Home.

      No more of this craziness. No more whacked out partners and whacked out cases. Pirates! Forget it. Transfer. Cushy. Now.


      Teeth won't stop chattering and I think every inch of skin on my body is goosebumped. I know the reason Fraser made me take my jacket off is so I could use my arms better for swimming, but sheez, if it was cold before, it's unbearable now, numbing. 150 meters underwater! Shit. I can't do this, bloom and close, there's no way.

      But I guess I have to. Well, or die. Nice choice.

      "You ready? Big breath..."

      And Fraser turns and disappears under the water, leaving me with nobody to argue with but my own chicken-ass self. He's gonna be waiting for me, this is it, time to go. Time to go... now.

      Try and take a big breath like Fraser said, but it comes out more like some panicky hyperventilating, and then I finally steel myself and sink beneath the water. And God it's cold, shocking, shrivel my nuts, seize my chest, hurt my head to the roots of my hair cold.

      I want to shut my eyes -- block out where I am so I can concentrate on holding my breath and, I don't know, maybe pretend I'm doing something else, not really feeling helpless and stupid. But I have to be able to see where I'm going, and I hate how it feels to have my eyes open, how the water makes them feel dried out even when they're nothing but wet. Hate feeling like the cold can seep around them, get inside my head, freeze my brain.

      It's even blurrier than usual without my glasses down here, and kind of weird, like seeing everything in thick, grey, slow motion. At least the boat's emergency lights are still working. Stuff's floating around all ghosty and quiet -- no, not really quiet, you can still hear the roaring of the water pouring in through the hull, but all muffled now, hollow. And all of a sudden, paying attention to what that sound actually is, what it means, drives it home in a way I couldn't concentrate on before when I was too busy yelling at Fraser about philosophy and fish.

      We're sinking, really sinking, and if this crazy swim for it doesn't work, we're really going to die. Me and Fraser are going to die, trapped down here in the cold and the dark and no one's going to have any stories to tell about us like they do for the guys on the Robert Mackenzie -- although it's not like those guys wanted any damned stories, either. Fuck no. They just wanted to go the hell home.

      I see Fraser ahead of me, swimming low down the corridor, skimming right above this line of pipes. Smart, yeah, can grab and kind of pull myself along using them some because the whole bloom and close thing isn't working so good. But we're moving at least, I'm moving, doing this. Can feel the pressure start to build in my lungs, getting harder to hold, but we're going, we're good, we're...


      No, no, not stopped. Please, no... but there it is, one of those big metal hatch doors, sealed shut and looking like doom. Fraser's working at it, but for now, we're stuck.


      This is bad. This is really, really bad. Don't know how much longer I can go. When I was a kid I used to see how long I could hold my breath, just for fun, just a dumb kid thing to do. Could hold it for about a minute, I think, give or take. Wonder how long we've been down here now. Feels like forever.

      Right. Count heartbeats, sets of ten. God knows they're loud enough in my ears now, booming. Stop it. Concentrate. Anything except letting go.

      One, two, three, four...

      They always say you think about your life and your family at times like this, but I don't really know what I'm supposed to be remembering. All I can think of Stella now is the things we never did. Plans, promises, fights over the supposed-to's. Kids, house, all that. Getting so wrapped up in her and what she would or wouldn't or could or couldn't, I never even stopped to figure out if any of the supposed-to's were what I really even wanted for myself.

      ...nine, ten, one, two...

      Family. Huh. Can just hear Dad, barely even getting past 'hello' if he picks up the phone when I call. "I'll get your mother", mumbled low, already putting the phone down like he's not even really saying it to me, but to the air. At least Mom's good. But otherwise, I don't know. Maybe if I was a smarter guy, like Fraser, I'd be thinking something more profound.

      Whatever. I hope he's not thinking about anything right now except how to get that fucking door open because I really, seriously can't do this anymore.

      Pressure in my lungs keeps rising, pushing up, up my throat, trying to force my mouth open. Squeezing from the inside out, like I might pop. Try and seal my lips tighter together, try to swallow that bubble of pressure back down, but I can't. Not anymore.

      I can't hold it anymore.

      Oh, God. This really might be it. Come on. Heartbeats, heartbeats in sets of ten... one, two, three... but I can't concentrate enough to count, can't distract myself with thinking. Pressure rising, pushing, body, blood, lungs, screaming, bursting, needing to just open up finally and...


      There's a shape, presence, something, right up against me, touching me, my face, my mouth. Bubbles rising all around, pressure escaping, easing back just enough to feel bad again -- but not impossible anymore. Open my eyes, which I don't remember closing, and there, right in front of me, startlingly close, is... Fraser. The shape thing is him, it's his hands on my face, holding me still, and his mouth... what the?

      He pulls back from me, makes the 'okay' sign with his fingers, and swims on ahead again, still looking strong. I don't know what the hell he just did. What was that, some kind of crazy Canadian kiss goodbye? But whatever it was, all of a sudden I feel like I can hang on a little while longer. And I look up after Fraser and see he's got the hatch door open. Maybe I can hang on long enough.



      Man, could they have possibly made this thing any smaller? Like, if they tried?

      "Got any idea where we are?"

      "Yes, you are right behind me and I am right in front of you."

      Great. He picks now to become a comedian. "I mean in the water."

      "Oh. Well, we should be coming across Six Fathom Shoal, at which point I'll be able to navigate by dead reckoning. Well, that is, provided I've calculated correctly."

      He's trying to do his knowitall thing, but I don't like the sound of it. All the water where he's from is frozen. "And if you haven't?"

      "Oh well, then, we'll be hopelessly lost." And he says it all matter-of-fact. I want to smack him. I didn't almost drown back there to hear this little bit of Fraser honesty.

      Although I guess I'd rather have this snippy Fraser than the silent, hang-dog Fraser I had to sit with in the car to Sault Sainte Marie. And then he turns, well as much as he can turn considering how jammed up for room we are, and he's staring at me, but he isn't saying anything. It's unnerving suddenly, being smashed up in here like this, face to face so close.

      "What are you looking at?"


      Well yeah, I got that part, thanks. Not exactly the explanation I was looking for, but then again, with Fraser, how often do you get that? Ah, I don't know. I'm just scared. Worked up, freaked out. This is nuts, driving around in this teeny little submarine, in the middle of this huge ridiculous lake. It's like we keep hopping from one impossible situation to the next, and we are so far from being out of the woods here. And then on top of it, I've got Mr. Truthful there, yakking away about dead reckoning and being hopelessly... and then I get this weird shiver up my spine, a real full-on case of the willies. It's too damned quiet. Something is wrong. I just know it.

      "Look, Fraser, are we under the creek without a paddle here? Are we lost?"

      "No, we're not, we're not, uh…"

      "Just admit it, Fraser. We're lost."

      "No, we're not lost."

      I don't believe this. He is impossible. He is just…

      "Admit it!"

      "All right! We're lost."

      Crap. Lost. Maybe that wasn't an argument I really wanted to win. Anyway, whatever the hell it is we're doing now is getting us a big fat nowhere. It just feels wrong.

     "Go that way."


      "I got a feeling. It's a hunch, it's a feeling. Go that way."

      "Yes, but there's absolutely no reason why–"

      And this is it, you know? This is the nut of what's wrong with us, with this partnership. And it is the story of my life, and it's never gonna change. It's never gonna...

     "Look, Fraser, just this once. Just this once. I trust you every single time. Every single time I got to trust you. Just once you trust me. Go that way."

     Why can't he see that? Why can't he just…

     But then he does it. Holy cow. Turning the wheel...

     He listened.


     Never seen Fraser fire a weapon before. Of course I know he's a sharpshooter, got those handy little merit badge patches on his damned uniform sleeve as a reminder. But it's different actually seeing him. Weird to think a gun could look at home in his hands. That he could look so cool, confident.

     Squeeze, bang. And he shoots the glass out of the diving mask Wallace planned to make his escape in. Wallace reaches for the next one in the row and I feel a smirk break out on my face just knowing what's going to come next.

     Squeeze, bang. Squeeze, bang.

     No more masks, no escape. Fuck you kindly, Mister Wallace.

     One more perfect shot knocks the detonator out of Wallace's hand and into the water. He makes a desperate dive for it, but it's way too late, he's got nowhere to go.

     "Bring up the net," Fraser says, jumping down off the barrels and heading straight for the edge of that little pool where the sub was docked.

     I go to pull Wallace up, startled a little that Fraser actually spoke to me. I've been in sort of a trance and it feels like a long time since we've had to talk to communicate -- I was already on my way. And once I step back from the motorized winch that raises the net, I realize that watching Fraser do his thing with Wallace there has left me with half a boner. Sheez, and to think I always tease Fraser about getting a hard-on for justice -- now look at me.

     "Brave men lie below us in these waters, men whose names and reputations you used. This is their graveyard. You didn't think they'd let you get away with it, did you?"

     I glance at Fraser, staring down Wallace now. He's got this righteous gleam in his eyes that's really something, and I can't stop replaying what he looked like, up on those barrels, leveling that Glock and slowly, deliberately pulling the trigger.

     I feel all juiced up, aroused, like when me and Stella were still in the swing and I'd tell her stories sometimes when I got home from work, embellishing a little just for fun. And she'd go down on me while I talked, all greedy and hot, and when I'd close my eyes it was sexy and cool like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. Like... like...


     Fraser looked so fucking good with that gun.


     Maybe there's something to be said for this high seas stuff after all. Lake, whatever. At least when you're not drinking it, and nobody's shooting at you. Something restful about the gentle rocking now that I'm dry and safe. Creaking wood and ropes, wind beating in the sails, hell, just the plain old sound of the water. Kinda Zen. Good for thinking.

     Too bad I don't like what I'm thinking better. I really blew it. I mean, sure, yeah, me and Fraser were getting in each other's hair a little, but I should have realized that wasn't really what was bugging me. Like when I yelled at him about logic and Godel when I was really scared about drowning.

     And I don't know why it took so long for me to realize that half the reason Fraser does what he does and acts how he acts, is because one of the things he believes in is me. Which is weird and annoying and... kind of amazing. Don't know quite what to make of it. Not exactly what I'm used to. Not from Dad, not from Stella, that's for sure. But Fraser trusts me. Maybe not in the small ways, like where the car's parked, but in all the big ways, he does. The really big ways.

     As for that other thing... hey, it was just a thought, right? I was in the moment. Nothing to get bent out of shape over. Doesn't mean jack. It's normal. Hell, is there anything I haven't dreamed up at one time or another? I've had thoughts before, I can handle thoughts.

     And almost like thinking about him can make him appear, I see Fraser and the Ice Queen come walking slowly down the deck into my line of sight, talking quietly. There's a funny butterflies feeling in my gut and I can't even sort out all of what it is. Just know I feel sick thinking we're gonna end it this way, especially now with all we've been through the last few hours. I want to tell him I didn't mean any of the lousy stuff I said to him. Really didn't mean to slug him. I was just all worked up. Not thinking. Typical.

     They finish their conversation, and Fraser sees me, walks over towards the railing, and I go to join him. He takes the Stetson off, runs a hand through his hair, and looks out at the water. I don't know what to say to him, either. Finally I can't stand it any more and just spit out the most immediate question on my mind.

     "So, transfer. You thought about it?" I try to sound as casual as I can.

     "Well, it would be the logical career move."

     For half a second, I think he's baiting me with the logic thing. I brace myself against the rail. Keep my voice steady. Neutral.

     "I know. That's what I think. It's what my instinct tells me."

     He doesn't say anything then, looks away, and I wonder what the hell is going on in that brain of his. Then, just when I'm thinking that's that, he pipes up with, "Thank you," out of the blue.

     "For what?"

     "Well, I realize that logic doesn't always work."

     Whoa. Well... That's pretty big, coming from Fraser. And then I realize he's trying to patch up what he can. Make things right between us before we go our separate ways. Forget butterflies, my stomach's churning so I almost wonder if I'm not actually seasick. But I don't think that's it. Shit. Got to at least meet him half way.

     "I know. And I realize that going on instinct doesn't always work, either."

     He looks at me, maybe a little surprised. "No... no. So?"

     So? Time to cut to the chase. "You going to take the transfer?"

     I don't think I breathe again until he answers. Hear wind snapping canvas, water sloshing overboard, and it feels like forever even though I know it's not, before Fraser shakes his head and says, "I don't think so. You?"

     "Me? No." And suddenly, I can't believe I ever even considered it.

     "All right. So we're... we're still, uh..." He can't say the word. Sometimes I don't know if we're pathetic, or funny.

     "I think." Maybe we're a little of both.



     "Right you are."

     And it's settled, just like that. I laugh a little, relieved. He smiles back, and then we're both grinning like idiots and laughing and I feel almost dizzy. Except it isn't just relief.

     Fraser's as happy as I've ever seen him, and I know it's not because we took down Wallace and saved the day and the trout, and all that. It's not just because we went through some really scary stuff and lived to tell about it, either. No, even after how crummy I've been treating him lately, Fraser's happy because we're still partners, still friends. And his smile is just... I want to…

     Fuck, stop. Enough with this stuff, stop it, okay? But...

     My hands are twitching, hot with this sudden urge, this need, to touch him, reach out for him, right here on the deck. Pull him towards me, pull him in. The image is in my mind so fast, so clearly, completely, I have to bite back the apology on its way out of my mouth when I realize I haven't actually done anything.

     But we've been that close, I know how we fit. I can feel it. Can recreate that, pick the details, piece the puzzle. His heat beside me, crouched in an alley behind a car just before a bust. The soapy clean, good leather scent of him when he leans in to whisper something to me in the interrogation room. His strength, behind me, solid, steady, in Welsh's office, facing down the brass. And layered down beneath all that, the grainy memory of his hands on my face, his mouth on my mouth, with me to the end, in the cold, in the hopeless darkness. And I know.

     Run it again, tune it, tweak it, until he knows -- crazy, beautiful weirdo -- until he knows what I'm feeling, what I want, and he doesn't pull away. No, no, he closes his eyes, tilts his head, lips parting, leaning in. Waiting. Kissing softly at first, then opening. Deeper, stronger, hotter, wet. I swallow, to taste him, but it's only me.

     Fraser starts talking, something about the case, and I blink a couple of times, try and clear my head. But I'm still just fixed on his mouth, his tongue, his teeth -- strong and even except that one that's a little crooked. And in a strange kind of way, I'm almost homesick for missing Stella. Because as much as that sucked and as much as it hurt, at least it felt normal. Like a kick in the head, I knew what it was.

     I glance at Fraser again, still laughing and talking about our adventure. Wind's ruffling through his hair a little, putting color in his cheeks. He looks relaxed, confident, like he knows we did good today and it's shining off of him, radiating out. My heart is pounding, chest is tight, and I know it's too late to write this off as just some thought. It's way too late. Bottle's busted, genie's out.

     The Stellazoic Era was twenty-three years. And this?

     What the hell am I supposed to do now?





Endnotes: The poem Fraser quotes is "Grin" by Robert W. Service, from The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses. The Mullen brothers (Joey and Brian) and Nicky Fotiu are former NHL players who learned hockey on roller skates in New York City.    

And apropos of nothing: there are an even dozen in Part I. ;-)