She's mine! That time, the feeling roared through Fraser so strongly that it stole his breath.
Clearly, rationality wasn't helping him at all. He felt angry and betrayed; and the more he tried to tell himself how inappropriate that reaction was, that he was just imagining things or misinterpreting the situation, the more insanely possessive he became.
I should pick up the phone right now and call Ray, he thought. Ask him what he was doing here with her!
But common sense and politeness prevailed. It was late, far too late to break the quiet at the Vecchio house with a silly call like that. They're probably all asleep; and you're being ridiculous, he told himself again, uneasy at his own perverse reaction.
But a woman had lied to him once before, and the consequences had nearly shattered him. The mere idea that Elyssa might be doing so frightened him; and the thought that Ray might be the cause of such lies this time, rather than their target, was unbearable. He'd thought that Elyssa was through keeping things from him, but it seemed he'd been wrong. More insecure than he'd been in two years, he felt the sudden presence of old wounds he'd thought were healed, felt them threatening to break open again and pulse poison into his soul.
He opened his mouth to ask Elyssa again if Ray had been here, but rejected the idea. If he hadn't, she would only resent him questioning her word, and if he had and she didn't want him to know it, she'd be forced to lie about it again. He bit back the suspicious question, exerted rigid self control in an effort to save them both from what he sensed would be an ugly argument.
If he touched her, he thought, furious. If he kissed her, I'll--
You'll what? He looked down and saw that his right hand had clenched into a fist. He uncurled it deliberately, flexed his fingers as he told himself again that he was being stupid, getting angry about something he wasn't even sure had happened. Worse, he was feeling hotly, irrationally jealous. But since he'd never felt like that before in his life, he had no idea what to do about it. Would exercise help? A cold shower?
No. He'd already taken a shower, and his ten-mile walk had been sufficient exercise for one evening; so those options were out. Trying to cool the uncomfortable heat building in his chest, he made a heroic effort to forget the whole thing, to be patient and considerate instead of unreasonably suspicious. Tracing the delicate line of Elyssa's shoulder gently, he asked, "Would you like me to give you a back rub?"
It was an out-and-out attempt at bribery. He'd discovered that when she was tired or out of sorts, there were few things she loved as much as that. He wasn't a masseuse, but he had strong hands, and his grandmother, who'd suffered from arthritis, had taught him years before how to work knots out of tired muscles. He'd practiced on Elyssa, and stroking her was always a pleasure for both of them. He hoped that it would soothe his tangled emotions as well. Many times before, such back rubs had turned into sessions of intense lovemaking.
But not tonight.
If he'd nourished a secret hope that his hands might seduce her when his earlier kisses had failed, it was a vain one. She shook her head. "I just want to go to sleep, Benton," she said; and he didn't need to see her face to know that she was distinctly irritated with him. If her brusque tone wasn't enough, there was also the fact that she'd called him Benton, and she only did that when she wanted to keep him at a distance.
"Understood," he answered grimly. "Well, good night, then."
It seemed she didn't agree with that sentiment either, because she didn't answer him. He rolled over onto his back, his chest tight with renewed fury, wondering what the hell he'd done wrong. But the suspicious little voice in his head whispered that maybe he wasn't the one who'd done something wrong.
Maybe Ray is. Maybe she is, too. She's lying -- Ray's been here. He touched her, and now she won't let me touch her.
As she drifted off to sleep beside him, he seethed in silence.
When Elyssa woke again hours later, dawn had broken and the darkness in Fraser's apartment had ebbed a little, enough so that she could see him clearly. She turned over carefully, wanting to study him secretly, while he was still sleeping. He lay on his back beside her, his head turned slightly towards her, his arms pale against the darkness of his blanket.
He usually slept like that, flat on his back, as open and trusting as a child. He was that open and trusting. At least, I used to think so, she reflected painfully. She'd tried to be that way with him, too, as far as she could. But those pictures had changed all that. Those pictures chilled her to the marrow with their implications that Benny had been leading a secret life she knew nothing about. Still, she hadn't meant to lie to him about them. She'd just panicked because she and Ray had made a pact that she'd keep silent about his visit and the photos tonight if he'd wait until tomorrow morning to talk to Benny about them. She felt that since they apparently concerned his case, Ray should speak to him about them first, then she'd talk to him afterwards... She'd never guessed that Benny would quiz her about Ray's visit tonight. So she'd reacted hastily, and covered it up in order to keep their bargain.
How in the world did he guess that Ray was here?
She stared at him, mystified. He's so beautiful, she thought, her heart shrinking inside her. Awake, he was devastating; asleep, he looked angelic. His profile was achingly perfect: straight nose, gorgeous, chiselled lips, dark eyelashes so long any woman would've killed for them, fanned out gently over high cheekbones above a square jaw. Perfect, perfect, perfect... It made her want to moan. She'd never been able to look at him without wanting him, and now was no exception. Even now, knowing what she did, she couldn't look at his large, square, strong hands without longing for his touch.
For an insane instant, she found herself thinking of waking him with a kiss, as she often did.
But she refrained. She knew what would inevitably follow, and she didn't know where his lips and hands had been. Who they'd been touching recently. She wasn't even sure who he was anymore, wasn't sure if she had ever known. She rubbed her belly slowly, thinking about it. Was it possible that this sweet, gentle, seemingly honest man could've lived with her for the last six months, loved her (sometimes gently, sometimes with passionate intensity), put his child inside her, and all the while, been having sex with strangers? With men?
A lump formed in her throat. It seemed more than unlikely, it seemed crazy, impossible. But of course it wasn't. She wouldn't be the first woman something like that had happened to, nor the last. Men lied to their lovers all the time; and Benny had never told her about his trip to that gay bar in Ray's pictures, after all. He'd never even mentioned it to her, which seemed suspicious in itself, because he usually told her everything he did...
Ever since Ray had told her where the pictures of Ben were taken, doubts had begun to creep into her mind, shadowing her love for him. Ironically, she realized that she'd given Ben plenty of chances to stray. It was only in the last few weeks that she'd started spending every night with him. Before then, the very nights she'd insisted she needed to have alone at home might've provided him with the perfect opportunities for one-night stands. If it weren't for the fact that she'd only spent five nights out of seven in his bed for the past six months, she would be able to feel more sure about him. But as it was, she couldn't be. She'd gone to his place a few times, briefly, on their nights apart, or called him, and he'd always been home; but there had been many more times that she'd left him alone. Many more times when, for all she knew, he could've been out all night, picking up men in gay bars.
She closed her eyes, blotting out the sight of Benny as they filled with sudden tears. She hated being suspicious of him, hated it. She trusted him more than she'd ever trusted anyone. He was the sweetest, kindest, gentlest man she'd ever known--
Gay men are often like that.
The thought crossed her mind before she could stop it, followed by a wave of anger at the timing of all this. Those damn pictures! Why did Ray have to bring them over tonight of all nights? She knew she was being petty, that Ray was sick inside about the pictures too, but she couldn't help it. She'd hoped this would be a special night for her and Ben, and Ray had inadvertently ruined it, turned it into a disaster. She'd been planning to give Benny her big news, tell him that she was pregnant; and though the prospect had made her nervous, she'd hoped he would be, if not happy about it, at least accepting. Now she couldn't even tell him. Before she said a word to him about their baby, she had to know what was going on. What he'd been doing in that bar.
But she'd asked Ray not to confront him about it until this morning because she'd needed time to think, to work out what to do if it turned out that the worst was true. And now she knew.
If he's gay, or bisexual or whatever...
Tears spilled silently down her face as she turned away from him again.
If that was true, then everything he'd said about loving her had been a lie. And she wasn't going to raise her baby with someone who could lie as smoothly, as completely, as devastatingly as that. Someone who might've infected her, and their baby as well, with AIDS through his deceit. She bit her lip at the thought of that. If he was gay, then she wouldn't tell him she was pregnant. She would leave him. Go back to stay with her sister for awhile in Springfield, have the baby there and tell him about it after it was born, when she was over him...
She wouldn't withhold knowledge of his child from him once it was born. But neither would she let a baby tie her to a man who'd lied to her like that. Ben would never let her leave if he knew she was pregnant, but if he really was bisexual and had been taking other lovers, she couldn't stay with him any more. She'd have to go; and to do that, she'd have to keep silent about her pregnancy.
Except that she didn't know how she could do that, or how she'd ever get over loving him as much as she did. She'd walked away from him once before, and it had been the loneliest time of her life. She wasn't sure she could do it again.
But for the baby's sake, I might have to.
She cried quietly, so he wouldn't hear her.
Associated Press: Augusta, MN-- Maine lawmakers approved a ban on same-sex marriages Wednesday, avoiding what was shaping up as a contentious referendum campaign on the issue in the fall.
The Senate's 24-10 tally came a day after the House voted 106-39 for the ban. Governor Angus King has said he would not veto the measure. Maine becomes the 18th state in the past year to ban same-sex marriages.
Because the bill was initiated by a petition drive, a vote by the Legislature to kill it would have automatically triggered a November referendum.
Republican Senator John Benoit said he voted for the ban because his constituents don't believe society is ready for same-sex marriages, but also to avoid a long, nasty debate. "I don't want to see people at each other's throats, hashing this out," he said.
President Clinton in September signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to declare themselves off limits to same-gender marriages.
The walk back to his car was one of the longest ones Ray Vecchio could remember. It was less than a block, but once he got to the Riv and unlocked it, he was so exhausted that he slumped down in the front seat, too tired even to start it up.
Come on! Get going, Vecchio, he told himself. You've gotta drive home... But he still didn't move. Talking to Elyssa about the pictures had drained the last ounce of his strength. He groaned, and laid his head back on the seat for a minute. The last three days had been awful. Pure hell. He felt like he'd been beaten, inside and out; and the really tough part was still to come.
Tomorrow morning, he had to talk to Benny.
His head back on the Riv's padded seatback, he closed his eyes. He knew it wasn't a good idea, that it might even be dangerous. For all he knew, he might be under surveillance by a killer, and he was exposed, vulnerable...But he told himself it was just for a minute. He just needed a minute to rest, then he'd put the key in the ignition and go home.
But the instant he closed his eyes, exhaustion rolled over him like a blanket, pressing his body down into the welcoming softness of the car seat. It was so overwhelming he couldn't fight it. Worn out after three days of unending fear and anxiety, he fell asleep within seconds.
Several hours later, he twitched restlessly, in the grip of a dream. In his dream, he rose up, up into the quiet night, so high that he could see all of Chicago spread out beneath him in a gorgeous, jewelled panorama of lights. I'm a bird, he thought, enjoying it. I must be, 'cuz I'm flyin'... He soared over the Sears Tower, weightless and carefree.
This is great! Might as well check out the rest o' the city while I'm here, he thought. So he flew on, over the lights, over the buildings, billboards, cars and trees. High above it all, silent, soundless and unhurried.
Finally, he found himself heading for a darker section of town. Without really knowing why, he glided towards an old, seedy area of fleabag hotels and cafes. He found himself swooping in circles around a square, featureless eight-story building. It had few lights showing. Even from a distance in the dark, it looked old and decrepit. But something compelled him to go closer, so he glided down, down until he was hovering in front of it.
It was then that he noticed something in the street. Small, whitish squares that stirred gently in the breeze, blowing aimlessly across the pavement. He stooped to get a better look at them, then just as they were about to slide underneath a parked car, he settled to the ground and reached to pick them up.
"No," he moaned, thrashing in his sleep. This dream had been so wonderful, so soothing -- it couldn't be turning into a nightmare now. He didn't want that!
But it was, because the pictures he held were gory, violent images. The first one was of a pale man with long black hair, wearing only a loin cloth, who'd been tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. Gross. The picture was familiar in some indefinable way, but he dropped it deliberately, not wanting to remember where he'd seen such an image before. But the second photo was equally disturbing: it showed a Mountie's hat, a hat that he knew belonged to his best friend. Its crown bore a telltale stain. Horrified, he thumbed through all the remaining pictures -- but in every single one, the hat was stained crimson with blood.
"Nooooo!" He sat up with a cry, his heart pounding, filled with an overwhelming sense of danger.
But he was alone, and it was very quiet. The dark street of his dream had dissolved, replaced by another that was washed in the pale grey light of early morning. The abrupt change left him blinking stupidly, totally disoriented. He'd dreamed he was flying like a bird, and it had seemed so real that for a moment, he wasn't sure where or who or even what he was. Half afraid he'd spurted talons, he held up a hand. It was shaking, but reassuringly human. But such was the power of his dream that he ran it over his face to make doubly sure there weren't feathers or a beak there. Vastly relieved to feel only the sandpapery texture of his own unshaved jaw, and the smoothness of a large Neapolitan nose, he swallowed hard, trying to wet a mouth as dry as ashes.
You're losin' it, he told himself. It was just a stupid dream! You fell asleep in the car and had a nightmare, that's all. Now that the dream was over, he could afford the luxury of scorning his own fear. Still, he was cold with sweat.
Something bad is going to happen, that nightmare whispered.
I don't believe in crap like that, he told himself. Next I'll be dreamin' I saw Elvis buyin' a hotdog at Comiskey Park!
Partly to get his bearings, and partly to drown out that impossible whisper of foreboding, he took a nervous look around. He was still on West Racine, parked about a block from Fraser's place. Nothing was stirring yet. A few winos and street people were curled up in nearby doorways, but even they were still dead to the world. He knew he should've been relieved. Falling asleep in his car in Fraser's neighborhood wasn't a smart thing to do under normal circumstances; and the way things were, it had been incredibly dangerous. If he was right, and the Gay Strangler had been following him or Fraser... He was lucky to be waking up at all.
But he didn't feel lucky. Dread sat like a black lump in his stomach, refusing to be banished by the light of day. That damn dream had left a bad taste in his mouth. A man shot full of arrows, and blood on Fraser's hat. What the hell did it mean?
"Forget about it," he said aloud. "It was just a dream."
Brave words, but he wasn't sure he believed them. He usually couldn't even remember his dreams once he woke, but this one was different. He recalled every detail of it vividly. His flight, the seedy old hotel, the pictures... Especially the pictures. He couldn't get the image of Fraser's bloody hat out of his mind. But why had he seen pictures of it in his dream, instead of the real thing? And who was that human pincushion he'd seen in the first photo?
He shrugged, trying to shake off his persistent dread. Since when did dreams ever make any sense? The damn nightmare was probably just the result of his recent anxiety over the pictures he still had to confront Fraser about.
No wonder I dreamed of photos! I haven't been able to think about anything else for the past three days.
By the time Elyssa woke the next morning, Benton was already up and dressed. Apparently, he'd also fed Dief, for the wolf was hungrily gulping his breakfast as Ben sat on the edge of their bed pulling on his boots with an uncharacteristic scowl. She sat up wearily, feeling as if she hadn't slept at all. She knew it was because she was weighed down by worry. Ray's talk with Ben today was so important, it would decide their whole future.
And he doesn't even know...
"Do you want some breakfast before you go?" she asked, trying to salve her guilty conscience.
Blue eyes cut at her briefly, then he shook his head. "No, I'm fine." He went back to forcing his toes into his unusually uncooperative boot, but not before she saw a flicker of something that looked like resentment, if not outright hostility, on his face.
She hugged her knees, confused. She was the one with the big, dark secret here, wasn't she? So what was he upset about? "Are you okay?"
His scowl grew even darker as he gripped his boot with both hands. "I believe -- I just said that," he snapped. "Damn it!"
She blinked, astounded. Benton Fraser, cursing out loud at 6:30 in the morning? That was simply unheard of. For a second, she thought he was cursing at her. Then she realized his snarl was directed at his boot, which he finally forced on with a grunt of effort. Still, she wondered what was going on. In their entire six months of living together, she'd never seen him act like this. Benny had a sunny personality. It wasn't like him to be sarcastic or nasty, especially not first thing in the morning. He usually got out of bed smiling and happy to be alive. But a second ago, she could've sworn that if his boot hadn't finally slipped on, he would've hurled it across the room in an unprecedented fit of temper.
"Do you need a new pair of boots, hon?" she ventured, mystified by his strange behavior.
He rose to his feet stiffly, as if she'd insulted him. "No, I do not need a new pair of boots, Elyssa," he said, in an overly patient tone, as if she were a child who'd asked a stupid question. "I just bought these. That's what's wrong; they're not properly broken in yet. If they were old boots, they would have adjusted to the size of my feet by now, and I wouldn't have had such a hard time putting them on. So you see, their newness is the source of the problem, not a cure for it!"
"Oh," she said faintly. "I see."
Ben's voice had risen during his little lecture. A dead giveaway that despite his formal, polite diction, he was definitely angry. But not about his boots -- she could've sworn it was with her. There was a strange undercurrent in his voice, a weird look in his eyes that she'd never seen before. She stifled a stupid impulse to cry. She'd already done that, she had to face things now. It was just that this morning of all mornings, she needed him to be himself, to be patient and kind, so she could believe in him. So she could hope everything was going to turn out all right.
Why the hell is he acting like he has a thorn in his paw? She wondered suddenly if he was pouting about her refusal to make love with him last night, and felt her own temper rise. If that was what was behind this snit, how dare he! That was the first time she'd ever denied him, the first time she'd ever declined to have sex with him. Did he think he had the right to demand it whenever he wanted to? He couldn't be that much of a chauvinist, could he?
Does he think I'm some kind of robot, programmed to respond every time he touches me?
"I'm not your love slave, you know."
Fraser turned his head slowly, breathing hard, sure that his hearing must've been affected by his epic struggle with his boot.
"What?" He'd meant it to be a polite question, but he was in such a black mood it came out more like a muted roar. He could've sworn Elyssa had muttered something about being his 'love slave'. But after her convincing impersonation of an icicle the night before, that remark was so incongruous that he knew either his ears had malfunctioned, he'd begun to hallucinate, or she'd lost her mind.
Elyssa looked hard at him for a second, and her lips tightened. "Nothing. I was just thinking... If you see Ray today, say 'Hi' for me, will you?"
She smiled tightly, and he felt his pulse pound. Damn it! How could she say that, after lying next to me all night with Ray's cologne oozing from every pore? It was unbelievable! Of course, if he was wrong about the origin of the scent he'd smelled on her skin, the remark could be a coincidence. A mere pleasantry. But if he wasn't, then it was more like a veiled barb.
In that instant, he decided he wasn't going to open the trunk this morning, either. He knew he was being petty, but he couldn't help it. This seemed as far from an ideal time to ask her his question as there could possibly be. Strange undercurrents filled the air between them, and until he could find out what was going on, the velvet box was better off where it was.
"Certainly, dear," he answered, trying hard to believe her mention of Ray was mere coincidence, trying to sound agreeable. Still, the words came out with a distinctly sarcastic edge that Elyssa didn't miss. She shot him a narrow-eyed, unhappy look. Inwardly, his silent fury built. He thought darkly, If she thinks I'm going to even speak to Vecchio today, she has gone crazy! And then some. He's the last person I want to see.
"I'm going to take a shower," Elyssa said shortly, as if she couldn't wait to get away from him.
"Fine," he muttered, grabbing for his hat. It didn't help matters any that as she got out of bed and headed for the bathroom, her hair waving out of the neat braid she'd plaited it in, wearing only a t-shirt that showed her pert breasts and long legs clearly, she looked unbearably sexy.
How could any man resist her -- even Ray? he wondered painfully. He wanted her desperately all at once, longed to throw her back down on the bed himself and take her feverishly, without even taking his damn new boots off again.
But he could imagine how his 'love slave' would react to that.
Watching Elyssa go, Dief whined as if he sensed the tension in the room. Fraser shot him an icy glare as she shut the door loudly behind her. "Don't you start on me, too," he warned, feeling as angry, jealous and sexually frustrated as he could ever remember being in his life. "That t-shirt is punishment enough!"
"She wasn't teasing you, son," a familiar voice boomed at his elbow, so unexpectedly that he jumped. "She can't help it if she's beautiful. And it seems to me that'd be the sort of thing any red-blooded man would enjoy. So why the long face?"
He whirled to find his father standing beside him with a maddening smile, eating a large chocolate candy. God! This is all I needed to make the morning perfect, he thought sourly. A visit from the world's only dead and buried Mountie who refuses to admit he's six feet under.
"I don't refuse to admit it, son, I just don't dwell on it," his dad said cheerfully.
He ground his teeth together. He hated it when his dad read his mind, just hated it. Peeved by his sudden appearance, he sniffed, "What in the world are you eating, Dad?"
Bob Fraser grinned. "A chocolate-covered Easter egg. It's very good."
"But it isn't even Easter!" he protested, shaking his head.
"Well, maybe not where you are."
He grimaced in exasperation. "Is there something you wanted, Dad, or do you have nothing better to do than harass me while I'm trying to get ready for work?"
"Looks to me like you're done getting ready," Fraser Senior pointed out. "Finally got that boot on, eh? Damn stubborn things sometimes, boots. I remember one time when I was out on patrol with Frobisher, he lost--"
"His mind?" he interrupted pointedly.
"No, his boot," his Dad frowned. "Got it wedged between two rocks, while pursuing a suspect. Can we stick to the subject here, son?"
He felt his anger rising, coloring his face despite his attempts to keep it blank. "By all means!" he snapped. "Let's! You're the one who's switching subjects, Dad -- so fast it makes my head spin! A minute ago, you were talking about Elyssa, then it was Easter eggs. Now you've switched to Frobisher's boots! When I try to imagine what you'll bring up next, my mind boggles!"
"I changed the subject because you looked like you didn't want to talk about Elyssa," his Dad said, maddeningly calm in the face of his ire, as usual. "You know, you really oughtta marry her, son. Make an honest woman out of her, and all that."
He blinked, taken aback both by the sudden change of subject again, and the uncanny timing of his suggestion about marriage. He wondered if he'd been hanging around his apartment in the dark last night, and seen the little box he'd put in his trunk. That made him wonder if it was his habit to hang around here at night watching him and Elyssa, and what else he might've seen. He shook himself, wondering if he'd ever be able to make love to her again without checking for ghostly Mounties out of the corner of his eye...
"Well, you love her, don't you?"
"Yes, I do, but--"
"Then why don't you want to?"
"Want to what, Dad?" he asked, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from yelling. "Marry her, or talk about her?"
His Dad grimaced. "Talk about her, son," he repeated, as if he were dealing with a child with a short attention span.
Fraser jammed his hat down on his head with unnecessary force, trying hard to maintain his control. If there was one thing he hated as much as his Dad's tendency to read his mind, it was his amateur attempts at psychoanalysis. "Because she's my lover, Dad. I don't discuss my lovers with anyone; not even you."
His Dad's eyebrows went up. "I wasn't asking for details about your sex life, Benton," he shot back reprovingly. "But while we're on the subject--"
"Goodbye, Dad!" He turned and headed for the door, before he was tempted to reach out and strangle a man who wasn't even really there.
But Bob Fraser beat him to the door, was just there in front of it somehow, before he could even reach for the knob. His gray eyes bored into him, his gaze suddenly so serious that it stopped him in his tracks. "What I'm trying to tell you, son, is that Elyssa isn't the woman you need to worry about," he said intensely. "You need to worry for her."
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he felt a tiny coldness. "What're you talking about?"
His dad didn't explain. "I have to go," he said hastily, squinting off over his shoulder as if someone was beckoning to him. "Just remember, she loves you, son," he said. "So does that Yank friend of yours. Remember that, and look out for her. She's a good woman, like your mother was, and she needs your help."
"Dad! Do you know who's been harassing Elyssa? Is that what you're trying to tell me?"
But it was too late. He found himself talking to his door when his father suddenly disappeared. He sighed heavily. Dief came and leaned against his leg in an attempt to comfort him. He patted the wolf's ruff absentmindedly, even more frustrated than he had been before. What the hell did Dad mean, she's not the woman I have to worry about?
The remark was enigmatic, even nonsensical. But he couldn't shake the feeling that it was the real purpose of his father's visit; that it was really important. What woman was he talking about? What other woman could he mean?
He listened to the sound of the shower running for a moment, feeling a bit guilty. He'd been inexcusably sharp with Elyssa a minute ago, for no other reason than sheer jealousy, and he regretted it.
She loves you, son... So does that Yank friend of yours.
His Dad could be cryptic sometimes, even incomprehensible, but he'd never, ever lied to him. Hat in hand, he headed for the bathroom, opened the door quietly. "Elyssa?"
She had the water running hard, and the room was damp with steam. He doubted she'd heard him over the hiss of the shower. "Elyssa..." She still didn't reply, so he walked over and thumped on the shower door, then pulled it open.
Elyssa felt tears forming in her eyes as she stood under a cascade of hot water. She felt miserable, worried and (for the first time ever in Ben's apartment) lonely. He was so angry this morning, so distant and unfathomable and sarcastic -- she couldn't help but wonder if it was an omen. Maybe their relationship really was about to end, maybe the only explanation for his presence in those pictures was the worst one, that he'd been cheating on her with men...
She closed her eyes, swallowing back the tears as her heart beat frantically, her very body protesting the idea that Ben could've betrayed her. It was perverse, but she'd never wanted him more than she had this morning. Watching him wrestle with that silly boot, she'd suddenly realized how closely her life was bound up with his, and that she didn't want it any other way. She didn't want to ever be with another man, or taste anyone else's kisses. Ever. She'd longed to take him in her arms and give him what he'd wanted last night--
Until he'd snapped at her, and she'd sniped back with that sneaky request to "say hi to Ray for her". Ben didn't know that Vecchio was going to confront him about the pictures today, and it had been spiteful of her to tease him about it. She wondered, with a sinking feeling, if he was going to leave for work without even saying goodbye to her.
A second later, when she realized how trivial that concern was, she wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. She had a far more important goodbye to worry about than that one. God, she thought, her hands shaking. Am I going to have to leave him?
Something hit the shower door then, thudding solidly, so that she jumped. For a second, she was frightened. Then reason returned and she knew it must be Ben.
The door swung open suddenly, too fast for her to even reach out and turn off the water. "What--"
Ben stood there, and for a moment, he just looked at her silently from head to toe, filling his eyes with her. Then a broad, mischievous grin curved his mouth, and he leaned in, careless of the water spraying on his uniform, and kissed her.
It was salvation, apology and desire, all at once. She didn't know what had softened his prickly mood, but she drank his sudden warmth in like a starving woman. She wrapped her wet arms around his neck and pulled his head in to hers, loving the warm, wet hunger of his kiss, the taste of his mouth.
This was the man she loved; this was the father of her baby.
This was hope that they could stay together.
While Elyssa's eyes were still wide with surprise, he leaned into the shower's steamy spray and kissed her.
Then, after what seemed like all too short a time, she pushed him away. "Ben -- your uniform's getting wet!" she chided gently.
But she'd kissed him back just the same, her wet arms slipping around his neck to draw him closer, her mouth sweet and hungry against his. Beside that, nothing else mattered. So he just smiled as he backed out of the shower. "I'll walk to the Consulate," he said. "It'll dry."
She stared at him, naked and wet and so lovely his mouth went dry, just looking at her. "Goodbye, sweetheart," he said huskily.
"'Bye, love," she breathed, and the strange, strangling feeling that had constricted his chest since last night dissipated in a cloud of steam. His dad was right. He'd been a fool about the woman he loved, and his best friend too.
He leaned in and kissed her once more. "I'm coming home early tonight," he whispered, his lips on her warm, wet cheek. "I have a surprise for you."
"What?" she breathed, intrigued, her eyes lit with happy curiosity.
He backed out of the shower again, shaking his head. "That would be telling," he said, his eyes dancing with boyish delight in his secret.
She cocked her head at him. "Well, in that case, I have a surprise for you, too," she said.
He stared at her. "You do? What--"
"Ah, ah! That would be telling," she repeated, with an impish smile. "Until tonight, then, Benny," she repeated, smiling mysteriously as she shut the shower door.
"Hmm." Intrigued, he stood there for a moment, wondering what her surprise could be. Then, realizing belatedly that he was going to be late if he didn't get going, he turned on his heel and headed off to work. As he hurried down the steps to the street, he brushed absently at the right shoulder of his uniform, which was soaked, and smiled to himself. Before he'd met her, such an incident would've upset him. Now, he didn't care about it in the slightest. Kissing Elyssa had been far more important than the condition of his uniform. He grinned wryly, remembering her little complaint earlier.
She's right. She isn't my 'love slave' -- I'm hers.
Tonight, I'll prove it.
Ray Vecchio checked his watch. 6:45 a.m. He wished he hadn't fallen asleep in his car like this. He hated sleeping in his clothes. Even worse than the rumpled, wino-on-a-bender kind of fashion statement it made was the way you could smell yourself. The cold sweat his nightmare had bathed him in hadn't helped. He fairly reeked.
His nose wrinkled with distaste. I should go home, take a shower...
But he knew his desire to leave had as much to do with his reluctance to confront Fraser as it did with a hankering to get clean, so he wavered. He sighed, longing thoughts of steaming hot water warring with his overpowering need to stay and get the damn thing over with, be done with it... At that moment, Fraser came out of his building, his scarlet uniform instantly recognizable, even at this distance.
He must be on his way to work.
Ray froze in his seat, surprised by a momentary impulse to flee. He suppressed it. Though he was almost a block away, the Mountie was heading right for him; and with his eagle eyes, even if he drove off now, chances were Benny would spot him. He probably already had. And there was no way in Hell he was going to look like a coward in front of his best friend.
He sat up straighter, his heart beating fast now that the moment had come. He wondered how he should handle this, where they should go...Would it be better to ask Fraser to step back inside his apartment for a few minutes, or should he take him to a restaurant, maybe that little place where they'd had breakfast a few weeks ago?
Yeah, maybe neutral ground would be better for a bombshell like this-- Who's that?
He rubbed his eyes, hardly able to believe it as two guys suddenly got out of a car ahead of him and stepped into Fraser's path. Both wore dark sunglasses. One was a tall, muscular redhead, the other was shorter and much more slender, with shoulder-length brown hair. They were both dressed casually, in jeans and sport shirts. The smaller one wore a leather jacket. He'd never seen either of them before, and for a second, he wondered what the hell they were up to. But as Benny stopped politely in front of them, the taller one unfolded a small square of paper that looked like a map.
A plague second only to locusts, in his book. He groaned, knowing what would happen. No doubt they were completely lost, probably two rubes from California here for a dental convention or something, who'd wandered into the wrong part of town. They'd keep Benny standing there for the next half hour while they asked stupid questions like "What's a good restaurant around here?" and "Where's the nearest train station?"
And Benny, politeness incarnate, would let them.
Perversely impatient for the confrontation he'd considered ducking just moments before, he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel for about thirty seconds, watching Fraser conferring earnestly with the two men. Then he couldn't stand it any more. He put his hand on his door handle, meaning to go over there and rescue his friend while there was still time, before his brain was completely drained by the tourist vampires...
What the hell?
He never made it out of his seat. As he watched in astonishment, Fraser nodded to the shorter man. Then the guy suddenly opened the back door of their car, a gray Toyota sedan, and Fraser climbed in. The little guy followed him into the back as the tall one hurried around the front, to get in the driver's seat.
What the hell is Benny doing? Did he offer his services as a goddamn personal guide or something? I mean, I know he's Canadian and all, but that's crazy! Besides... he's on his way to work. He wouldn't just go off on an extended tour of the city with two out-of-town goombas when he had a job to get to. No way! Not Fraser, Mr. "I can't be a minute late for work, Ray, or Western civilization will collapse." Not him!
He wracked his tired brain for an alternate explanation for the strange occurrence. Maybe they offered him a ride to the Consulate in return for his help.
But he knew that wasn't very likely. Even Benny isn't still trusting enough to get in a car with two total strangers, is he? Even if they offered him a ride as a reward? God knows, I've warned him often enough about stuff like that...
As the car pulled away from the curb, he discovered that that wasn't the answer either. They couldn't be taking Fraser to work, for they were heading in the wrong direction, directly away from the Consulate.
Suddenly, another, uglier idea hit him. What if those two guys are gay? Jesus, what if what I just saw was a pick-up?
He sat there, stunned into immobility for an instant as the redhead drove the grey Toyota away. He didn't waste any time. The car bombed off down the street, and he noted automatically, with the cop part of his brain, that it was going far too fast. He waited until it was a good block away and there were a couple of cars in between them, then put the Riviera in gear and followed it grimly.
Maybe the big confrontation he'd been dreading was unnecessary. Maybe asking him about those pictures wasn't the only way to find out if Benny was gay.
Shit! He'd hung back almost half a block, but somehow, they'd spotted him. After braking deceptively at a yellow light, the grey sedan sped up suddenly, and tore through the intersection on a red, leaving three madly swerving cars, and several wildly blaring horns, in its wake. Ray cursed violently. For a second, he considered the possibility that Benny himself had made him, then rejected it. Even if he had, and he was trying to lose him to keep him from finding out that he was gay, Fraser wouldn't have advocated such dangerous speeding to do it. Dudley Do-Right would never endanger other people's lives like that. His confusion crystallized into a terrible realization.
This isn't a goddamn pickup, it's a kidnapping! Those goons probably hid a gun behind that map. Shit!
The dread he'd felt in the wake of his nightmare turned to fear. Since he was solidly hemmed in by traffic, he picked up his police scanner to radio the call, and put his portable flasher on the roof of his car while he called it in. Then he waited for what seemed like an eternity, until the light changed. By then, the Toyota had hung a hard left up ahead.
His police light flashing, he edged around the nearest car and gunned the Riv. Ignoring the protesting shrieks of his tires, he sped up and swerved around the corner at top speed, just in time to see the Toyota, far ahead now, hang a sudden right. He had the sinking feeling he'd be too far behind once he swung around that corner to spot them again, but he pursued anyway, because it was Fraser in that car. But who the hell was with him? And how had they recognized him?
Who the hell are those guys?
A frightening possibility crossed his mind. What if the Gay Strangler wasn't one guy, but two?
They made it to the door of the hotel room without incident. Victoria had slipped cuffs on Fraser in the car, as planned, they'd carefully donned gloves, and he'd come with them without protest. But as Sean turned for an instant to unlock the door, the Mountie exploded into motion. Before she could open her mouth, he struck a hard blow to her hands with his cuffed fists, that numbed them and knocked her gun flying across the hall.
"Sean!" she cried, a belated warning as Fraser turned with blinding speed and charged him, bending to drive his shoulder into Sean's torso. He put all his weight and strength into the blow, and despite Sean's size, it knocked him off his feet. Damn! She'd almost forgotten how strong he was, how quick...
As Sean lay on his back on the floor, Benton whirled and stared at her for an instant, his blue eyes dark with some unnameable emotion. She wasn't sure if it was regret or fury, but it held her frozen in spite of everything. He had always had that power over her, always -- and she hated him for it, for the way he'd made her love him almost as much as she hated him. She held her breath, half-expecting him to grab her, wrap his manacled wrists around her neck from behind and take her hostage.
She knew, in that split second, that he could do it. She couldn't stop him.
Ray lost them at the edge of the Tenderloin.
He turned two more corners -- three -- at near suicidal speed before admitting it to himself. The grey Toyota was nowhere in sight.
"Basta!" He pounded the wheel in fear and frustration. They'd picked the perfect place to disappear: home to prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and addicts, the Tenderloin district was a maze of bars, seedy old hotels, flophouses and crack houses, with hundreds of places where Fraser's kidnappers could've gone to ground. He had no way of tracking them any further.
Suddenly, an image from last night's dream filled his mind. He saw himself lighting on the ground in front of a crummy old hotel. Was it just a coincidence that he'd chased Fraser's abductors to an area that was lousy with places like that? The nightmare had given him the creeps at the time, and now that he knew Benny was in real danger, the memory of the pictures he'd seen in it of Fraser's bloody Stetson chilled him. It had been so strange, so vivid -- had it been more than just a dream?
Had it been a warning?
The hair rose on the back of his neck. He wasn't a superstitious man, but he suddenly felt that the hotel in his dream was in the Tenderloin somewhere; and that it might be where they'd taken Fraser. But where? Which one was it?
He drove on blindly, reliving the dream in his head. Searching for clues among the shadows of his nightmare, he thought of the photos again. Besides Fraser's bloody hat, there'd been pictures of a dark-haired guy shot full of arrows who'd seemed vaguely familiar somehow... He wracked his brain, trying frantically to remember where he'd seen that victim before, trying to connect the tortured image with a name.
It came to him suddenly, like the sizzle of a match flaming to life in absolute darkness: Saint Sebastian. Of course! He'd learned about him in school. The Catholic saint who'd been martyred by arrows.
He shook his head even as he picked up the police radio in his car again. This was the craziest lead he'd ever followed, for sure -- so crazy he wasn't ever going to tell anyone he'd done it. But it felt right, and he'd been a cop for too long to ignore his own instincts. They were telling him this was the way to find Benny, and that he'd better hurry up, or he'd be too late.
"Vecchio," he radioed in. "I'm still in pursuit. I need information."
"Check the city database, see if there's a hotel in The 'Loin called "Saint Sebastian", or the "Sebastian", willya'? I need an address, yesterday."
Fraser stared at Victoria for an instant, his normally serene eyes wide and charged with emotion. Love or hate? She thought she saw both, but it had been too long -- she wasn't sure. She used to be able to read him like a cheap paperback, but that was long ago. His open, honest, handsome face had changed in some indefinable way in the time she'd been gone. She couldn't read it as easily as she once had. She'd noticed subtle differences in him when they'd first picked him up. For one thing, the shoulder of his usually immaculate uniform was darkened as if it had been wet, which had surprised her. The old Fraser, the Fraser she'd known, would never have gone out in public like that. He'd been anally obsessive about that uniform being immaculate. And there were other things: the carefully hidden hint of loneliness in his blue eyes was gone, and he moved like a man who was, at last, at home in his own skin.
He looked handsomer than ever; so beautiful that it tore at her.
If he'd been any other man, some stranger she didn't care about, she would've thought his new life agreed with him. She would've said he looked happy. But since he was Fraser the traitor, that kind of lenience was impossible.
That bitch has put her mark on him! she thought instead, with a surge of black, raw hatred.
They stood frozen in place, staring at each other. She saw the knowledge that he could overpower her flicker across his face, but he didn't do it. Instead, he turned past her and dove for the gun.
That was his undoing. She ran after him, and kicked it out of his hands. It slid down the hallway.
"Son of a bitch!" Sean cursed behind her, pain making him hoarse as he finally climbed to his feet.
Fraser must've hurt him, she thought. But she couldn't worry about that. She scrambled after the gun.
Fraser jumped to his feet again, quick as a cat despite his manacled hands, but it was too late. She had the gun again, and she blocked the end of the hallway with it, cut off his only escape route. Sean closed in on him. She'd forbidden him to shoot the Mountie, so he laid into Ben with his fists. Fraser defended himself well, but Sean was larger and heavier than he, a vicious streetfighter unfettered by handcuffs or any sense of fair play. The two men struggled, but Sean eventually landed several blows to Fraser's jaw, then followed up with some vicious punches to his midsection. Victoria was almost sure she heard them crack ribs. Fraser crashed to his knees, stunned and bleeding. He staggered to his feet again after a moment, but he was faltering badly. Sean hit him in the mouth once, twice, splitting his lips open, making him bleed. Victoria knew he was playing with him, drawing out his punishment sadistically.
She stifled a strange impulse to stop him. After all, Sean was just following her orders.
Fraser went down again. He swayed on his knees, barely conscious. He looked up at her hazily. Unable to speak, with blood staining his perfect mouth, his dazed blue eyes pleaded for help. To steel herself, she mentally replayed the moans she'd heard inside his office that day weeks before, when he'd groaned with such outrageous pleasure at Elyssa Ryan's touch. She reminded herself that he'd undoubtedly had sex with the little bitch many times before that, and many times since, too. Searing pain cut through her.
She picked up his hat, which had fallen to the floor in the struggle. "The perfect Mountie," she said scornfully. "Not so perfect now, are you?" she asked, as she set his Stetson back on his head with mocking care.
Fraser didn't answer her, just stared at her with those astonishing blue eyes. Even then, clouded with pain as they were, they were the most beautiful eyes she'd ever seen. She hated him for that.
"Finish it," she said coldly.
Sean leaned over and smashed his gun down on Fraser's head, with brutal satisfaction.
Fraser's last thought, as the gun came down on his head, was one of fear. Elyssa! Please God, don't let them hurt her--
Moments later, they had Fraser laid out on the old bed in Room 42. Trussed up and helpless as those chickens we killed! Sean thought with satisfaction. He wondered why the Mountie had waited until they were almost in the room to try to get away from them. He decided it was probably Victoria's lie that they'd left a confederate behind, watching his apartment, that had kept him compliant. She'd told him if he didn't come with them quietly, she'd given that watcher orders to kill his girlfriend. So he'd been too afraid for her safety to risk trying to escape earlier. But he must've thought, once they got to the door of Room 42, that they meant to kill him. So he'd gotten desperate and made his move, figuring it was then or never.
It had almost worked. Victoria had warned him about Fraser's strength and cunning, but she'd forgotten to mention his speed. The bastard had been fast, faster than he'd expected; and despite his slightly smaller size, he was as strong as she'd said. Sean's ribs still ached from the Mountie's body slam. From the pain he felt whenever he drew a breath, he suspected one of them might be cracked. But strapping them up would have to wait until later. He'd been hurt worse before. Besides, he was fairly sure they'd lost his friend, that cop who'd been following them, some time ago, but who knew? Even if he had, he might've called in a description of their car already, so they didn't dare stay here very long. They had to deal with Fraser fast.
"We ain't gonna kill ya', you fucker," he muttered, smiling as he tied the ropes tightly on the unconscious man. "You'll just wish we had."
"Quit talking," Victoria ordered tersely, "and get on with it, Sean."
He shot a glance at her. She stood by the window, her gun in hand, staring down into the alley behind the hotel. Too bad we can't watch the front entrance, too, he thought. But he wondered if Victoria was really worried about the cop who'd been following them too, or if she just didn't want to watch while he did Fraser.
He unbuckled his belt, his chest tight at the thought of that. He'd risked everything for her -- everything! He was damned if he was going to let her shut her eyes now.
"Here." He tossed the tube of KY to her fast. With her usual quickness, she caught it neatly, but at least he'd got her attention. He drew off his jeans as he stared at her. "Put it on me," he said roughly.
She stared at him in silence for a long moment, her expression closed, unreadable. He knew she didn't like taking orders from anyone, but his conviction that there was more to it than that, that there was something else behind her hesitation, grew with each silent second. Fury hardened his resolve. He wasn't going to back down. He could've put the stuff on himself, of course, but he'd decided that she wasn't going to get away with watching this bit of fun from a distance.
This time, she's gonna have to get her hands dirty.
As she hesitated, he held her dark gaze, challenging her. "It's cold in here," he said. "It'll help."
She'd opened the window to chill the Mountie, but with a slight nod, she acknowledged his point that the frigid air was affecting him, too. At last, she moved forward. If she was reluctant, it didn't show. Her step was as light and graceful as ever as she laid the gun down on the bedside table and came towards him. "Anything for the cause," she smiled.
He smiled back, until he realized her words had a double meaning.
Maybe all I've ever been to her is a tool, he thought.
"Take off your gloves!" he ground out, suddenly too furious to worry about her vicious temper. He'd been prepared to let her work on him with her gloves on, but her veiled insult stung. Now, nothing but her bare hands would do. Somewhat to his surprise, though her eyes narrowed a little, she did as he asked. And when her slender hands were on him, the question of just what she felt for him didn't even matter. He wondered if she knew that her touch was all he'd wanted; that the KY had only been an excuse...
Ray burst out of the ancient, smelly elevator and tore down the fourth story hallway toward Room 42. The desk clerk had told him he'd just rented it to two guys who matched the description of Benny's kidnappers. Skidding to a stop in front of it, gun out, adrenalin pumping, he tried the door. Locked. He thumped it and yelled, "Police! Open up in there!"
No answer. What a surprise. And his straining ears didn't pick up any sound from the room inside, or from anywhere around him. The whole hallway seemed to have fallen silent, though he suspected there was plenty of life behind the battered doors lining the dingy corridor. Lowlife that had just frozen, hoping he would go away.
Not a chance. Praying he wasn't too late, he began kicking the door with grim efficiency. He half-expected to have to dodge a bullet at any moment, but didn't let that slow him down for a second. There were dark, crimson spots on the floor by the door that he knew from experience were fresh bloodstains.
Boom! Damn, the door was unexpectedly strong, for such a ratty old building. It refused to give. "Benny!" he roared, his heart in his mouth as he kicked it again.
No answer except for the loud, crashing noises his feet made on the flimsy door panels as they started to give way under his assault. God, don't let the guys who took him be the ones behind the Gay Strangler murders, he prayed desperately. Because he knew, in that moment, that he'd been a fool. Those goddamn pictures he'd been going nuts about didn't really matter. It wouldn't even matter if it turned out that Fraser was gay. He was his best friend, and gay or bisexual or whatever, he meant more to him than anyone else on earth, outside of his family. Hell, Fraser was family, was like the younger brother he'd never had but always secretly wanted. Irritating at times, but wonderful too, and deeply loved. And nothing else mattered but finding him alive in that room. Nothing.
Don't let Benny be dead, like Jimmy Tucci and the others! Another kick, with all his might.
Boom! Just let him be okay! I'll never miss Mass again if you'll just give me that...
Wild bargains with God until the door slammed inward at last.
Fraser tried to wake up. Somewhere, someone was shouting. He had a bad feeling that something was wrong, that someone was in trouble.
Someone must need help. He didn't know who it was, but as the thought flickered across his mind, it was followed by an automatic impulse to provide it. He tried to rouse himself, but found he couldn't even raise an eyelid. His body felt cold, heavy and far away. He realized dimly that he was shivering, and that he hurt.
Something wet -- on my face... He didn't like it, it frightened him. He tried harder to rise, grasped feebly at consciousness. But a fierce burst of pain hit him, expanding outwards like a bomb exploding inside his brain, overwhelming him.
He slid away from it, down, down into the cool blackness again. Aware of a troubling suspicion that he might be the one who needed help this time, he called out, though he knew no one would hear him.
Vecchio burst into the room at last, swinging his gun in a tight, defensive arc. He scanned grimly for movement, shadows, guns, any sign of opposition. But there was none. The room was freezing, and tattered curtains that flapped at the window across from him revealed the cause. It must've been open to the frigid April air for some time. He could see a fire escape outside, and he heard the far-off sound of an engine being gunned. He ran to check it out, but the fire escape, as well as the alley below, was empty. Fraser's kidnappers had gotten away. The room was empty too, except for--
Ray's heart seemed to stop. Dio mio! What've they done to you?
His friend lay naked on a rickety bed in an almost crucificial position. His wrists were tied to the headboard with some kind of cord, his ankles trussed together with more of the same, and he'd been brutally beaten. The right half of his face was deadly white. The left was covered with blood that had poured from a wound in his forehead.
Gunshot? he wondered, agonized. Fraser had been there long enough for blood to pool on the covers under his head. His mouth was bloodied, his lips split and swollen, and there were large, ugly bruises along his jaw and across his ribs. His eyes were closed, and Ray wasn't sure if he was badly hurt or dead. Fear shot through him, so strong that it stole his breath. God, not again, not again!
This was the second time he'd feared Fraser was dead. But it was even worse this time than that day at the train station. They'd become so much closer since then, and Benny meant even more... He dropped his gun and moved to the bed, his hands shaking, his eyes swimming so he could hardly see as he bent over Fraser. "Merda!"
He was only marginally relieved to find that the wound in Benny's head was an impact gash from a large, blunt object, not a bullet hole. He was dimly aware that curses were pouring out of him as he fumbled for a pulse at his bloody neck.
He's so cold--
"Tratidore di merda!"
I can't feel it, I can't feel it! Christ, there's so much blood...
There! His own pulse was pounding so frantically that he'd missed Fraser's at first. But after a moment he felt it, faint and feeble but still there. He drew a huge, aching breath into his starved lungs, felt the world form around him again. He dragged his sleeve across his eyes, trying to clear his blurred vision. When it came away wet, he discovered that he'd been crying without knowing it.
Who the fuck did this to you? But there was no time for that now. He had to get help, get him to a hospital... Fraser was pale, his skin was icy cold, and he shivered in the room's frigid air. Ray dragged a blanket out from under him, threw it over him with frantic haste, and added his coat on top of it, to keep him warm until help got there. Then he ripped up a corner of a sheet with his teeth so he could bandage his head wound, praying that the copious amount of blood he'd already lost wouldn't prove fatal. Finally, he dug out the cell phone he'd almost forgotten he had, and dialed 911 with shaky fingers that fumbled, slippery with Fraser's blood.
"Officer down, officer down!" he called urgently. "Room 42 of the Saint Sebastian hotel. Send an ambulance! Repeat, send an ambulance!" And as he called in the assault, he suddenly saw that his kidnappers had thrown Fraser's clothes in a heap on the floor beside the bed. His hat lay on top of them; and Ray caught his breath at the sight of it.
He must've been wearing it when they hit him, because its crown was stained with blood -- in exactly the same spot as it had been in his dream.
Sean glanced at Victoria as they drove away. Beautiful as always, she seemed icy calm in the aftermath of this latest, aborted step in her revenge. She stared out of the car window, saying nothing. He wondered, as he always did, what she was feeling. Was she happy he'd beaten the shit out of Fraser, or pissed off that he hadn't had time to rape him like they'd planned, or what?
"Too bad that pig came along, and I didn't have time to finish," he complained, to see what she would say.
Victoria's lips thinned. "Yeah. Too bad."
She's pissed, he decided. He wasn't too happy himself. It was lucky that Victoria had spotted Vecchio's car coming from the window, so they could get away in time. But he'd still ruined everything by barging in before Sean could finish, and before they had a chance to call the Mountie's little girlfriend and tell her to come pick up what was left of Fraser, either. Though she was too cool to show it, he knew Victoria must be seething inside. Her clever plan to ruin Fraser's career and shatter his relationship with his girlfriend, all in one masterly stroke, had failed. After all, though she'd always insisted Fraser was her main target, he'd noticed that her campaign of vengeance seemed designed to hurt his lover as much as him. Shit, sometimes I wonder if she isn't still in love with that fucking Mountie herself!
The thought made him doubly sorry he hadn't been able to finish him.
"Where do you want to go now?"
He'd been driving fast, and they were already far from the Tenderloin. But not far enough, it seemed. "Head for that chop shop you found," she said. "Dumb as he is, Vecchio's undoubtedly put out a call to all his fellow idiots in blue about this car. We need to get off the street, and trade it in for a different one."
He nodded. "Then what?'
Her eyes narrowed. "Then, we'll go pay a little social call."
While he was waiting for the paramedics to arrive, Ray began untying the tightly knotted cords from Benny's wrists and ankles. His fear grew. He couldn't rouse Fraser with voice or touch; and he'd peeled one of his eyelids back and noticed that his pupil was dilated. He'd seen enough injuries in his career to know what that meant.
Concussion, maybe even coma. People die from things like that.
His brain shied away from that possibility. Needing to focus on something else, he concentrated on the crime scene instead. He forced himself to think like a cop, to try and solve the mystery of what had happened in this dingy little room. Benny's dented, bloody Stetson showed that he'd been hit over the head hard, with some kind of blunt object, probably a gun. Judging from the bloodstains in the hall, he'd probably been hit just outside the room. Maybe he'd tried to escape, and there'd been a struggle. Then his unknown kidnappers had beaten him, stripped him, and tied him to a bed with an opened tube of KY on the table beside it. So their intent was obvious: they'd wanted it to look like he'd been a willing participant in kinky gay S & M that had gotten out of hand. It was a clever plan. If Ray hadn't followed them and seen that Fraser was being kidnapped, he might've believed the scenario himself. Especially after seeing those pictures of Benny at The Two Faces.
His mind raced. The gay connotations of both incidents couldn't be accidental. Now I know who took those fucking pictures, he reflected grimly. Though they could've been working for someone else, instinct told him one of the two men who'd picked Benny up that morning was also the anonymous photographer. And whoever he was, Fraser didn't seem to know him. There'd been no recognition on his face when the two men had approached him near his apartment building, just his usual politeness. Ray hadn't recognized them either.
But they knew me, he thought, puzzled, 'cuz they spotted my tail. At least one of them did. So either they were in disguise, or else two guys neither of them knew (but who knew them by sight) were going to great lengths to make it look like Fraser was gay, to hurt, humiliate and maybe implicate him in a murder case. But why? Who hated Benny that much?
A dark suspicion that had been lurking at the back of his mind for some time, wispy as smoke, began to solidify ominously. Hell hath no fury...
His mind skittered away from that horrific possibility. He focused back on the scene at hand. There was no way to know for sure, but he suspected that they hadn't meant to kill Benny. This setup was too elaborate for that. If they'd just meant to waste him, why hadn't they shot him out on the street by his apartment, or even in their car? No, they'd brought him here for a reason: not just pain and humiliation, but to ruin his career as well. Ray was fairly sure if he hadn't showed up, they'd have called the Canadian Consulate and/or Lt. Welsh, and tipped them to the ugly gay S & M scene gone wrong in Room 42 at the Sebastian. They might've even hinted that the guy in there had something to do with the Gay Strangler murders.
The idea chilled him. If Fraser had been found like this by either law enforcement agency, they would've instantly branded him gay. Despite the fact that an investigation would undoubtedly have cleared him of any connection to the murders, he probably would've been stripped of his badge for the duration, and possibly even drummed out of the RCMP in disgrace, for being caught in such a compromising situation. And Ray knew that would've killed him.
He couldn't let anyone else see Fraser like this, not even the paramedics.
For his friend's sake, he decided to put his shorts and pants back on, since his legs were undamaged. He pulled down the blanket and hurriedly bent to the awkward task. Suddenly, an ugly thought occurred to him. He knew the kidnappers had left in haste, gone out the window -- probably because they'd seen or heard him coming. But they'd gone to so much trouble to make this look real, what if beating him wasn't all they'd had in mind? What if he hadn't gotten here in time to prevent them from--
He peeled the blanket and his coat off of Benny's legs with unsteady hands and parted them gently. Feeling intensely embarrassed, he scanned his friend for any evidence of sexual abuse. God knew, he'd seen that often enough lately to recognize the signs. But to his vast relief, there was no blood, no bruising, nothing to indicate that Fraser had been raped. He let him go and closed his eyes with a shudder of profound relief.
"Thanks, God," he whispered as he redressed him gently. "I owe you one."
When the ambulance finally arrived, Ray hovered anxiously while the paramedics checked Fraser out. Just as he had that other time at the train station, when he'd mistakenly shot his best friend, he asked, "He's gonna be okay, right?"
Just like that other time, no one answered him. Fraser was still unconscious, and one of the paramedics pulled back his eyelid with practiced hands and shone a tiny flashlight down into his eyes from mere inches away. "Pupils dilated, and non-responsive," he muttered.
Ray swallowed. He'd known that wasn't a good sign.
"Skull fracture and concussion, possibly severe," the man went on. "Pulse weak and thready." He probed at the darkening bruises on Fraser's chest, and despite his unconscious state, Ray saw Benny shudder, heard him gasp. He charged forward, anger surging in him at the sight of his friend's pain. "Hey, hey, hey! Easy there, dammit!" he growled.
The paramedic gave him a look. "Relax, sir," he said calmly. "I have to check him out. I'm just palpating for broken bones here. Please stay back."
"Palpating! What the hell kind of word is that -- palpating? Looks more like hitting to me," he grumbled as the man bent over Fraser again. "You thump him like that again and I'll palpate you across the room, goomba!"
As the slight, bespectacled paramedic ignored him and went back to poking at Fraser's other bruises, Ray indulged in private fantasies of grabbing him and flinging him bodily into the nearest wall. But he knew his own fear was making him savage, and he couldn't let that interfere with Benny getting the help he so desperately needed. So he stepped back, shut his mouth shut and his hands to himself. The guy was only doing his job, and it was necessary for Benny's survival.
But that didn't mean he had to like it. "He's gonna be okay, isn't he?" he grated again, hating his own helplessness.
The paramedics were busy getting Fraser onto a gurney for transport, and they spared him barely a glance. "We'll take good care of him," one of them promised.
That's not the same thing.
The oblique answer only fueled his barely controlled panic. As they wheeled his unconscious friend out of the hotel room, he followed right behind them. "I'm ridin' in the back with him," he said.
The paramedic who'd poked Benny earlier started to shake his head.
"Don't argue with me!" he growled. "I'm armed, remember?"
That settled it.
Fraser drifted up, up from total blackness slowly and very reluctantly. He wanted to stay where he was. Moving upwards meant noise, and pain... But the noise drew him upward against his will. It was overwhelming, too loud to ignore. A loud, repetitive shrieking that penetrated even his warm, black cocoon. It frightened him. His mind moved sluggishly, trying to identify it. It sounded like--
An image formed in his mind: a white vehicle, flashing red light on top -- speeding to emergencies...
An ambulance! He pounced on the word, held it with a dim sense of satisfaction as he searched his memory for a definition. Ambulance: a vehicle that transports the gravely injured to hospitals. There must be an ambulance near, and its wailing siren was the source of that awful noise that made his head ache.
But who was injured? He moaned, remembering shouts, someone calling his name...
"Benny! Benny, can you hear me?"
Calling like that--
"Benny! Benny, please--"
He didn't want to listen to the voice. It called him upward further still, towards the light, into the terrible pain that took his breath away.
"Come on, wake up, man! You're scarin' me, Benny."
But the voice was too loud to ignore, too close to him to tune out. It was a male voice, hoarse with fear. A voice he knew. A voice he cared about. He didn't want that voice to be so scared, so he had to do what it was asking, had to try to wake up. He moved toward it blindly, reached...
God, it hurts--!
The voice grew louder, urged him on. "That's it, that's it, Benny! Open your eyes, I know you can do it! Come on!"
He responded to the frantic urging in spite of himself, fought to lift his eyelids in spite of his pain and exhaustion... But they were weighted down with stones, so heavy he couldn't budge them. The struggle to raise them tired him, made him try to draw a deep breath. When he did, it hurt so badly he wanted to cry out--
A flash of light, so bright it hurt. Colors moved and swam, making him nauseous.
"Yeah! Yeah, that's it, Benny! You did it!" the voice said excitedly.
When light came and went around the voice, he knew somehow that his eyes were open after all, and that he was blinking. "That's it, now just stay with me," it said. "Try to stay awake."
Obedient to the command, he blinked slowly, becoming fully aware of his body at last. He tried to locate his injuries, but couldn't move his head to look at them. He was too weak. He seemed to hurt everywhere. The pain was so overwhelming it was like bathing in fire. He realized that he was lying down, and something warm and hard was touching him, squeezing him--a hand. It held his tightly. He tried to squeeze it back, but the effort was too much. Stars burst behind his eyes, and he tried to gasp, but couldn't seem to breathe deeply enough.
I can't breathe! Frightened, he instinctively began gulping for air. His body arched like a bow as agony shot through him.
The voice called out frantically. "Hey! He's in trouble here--"
Suddenly, just as his vision began to ebb, replaced by blackness, something closed over his nose. There was a hissing sound and finally, he could breathe again. His sight returned slowly.
"Relax, Benny! Slow down, take shallow breaths. They're givin' you oxygen. Don't try to move!" the voice said, anxious. "You've been hurt bad, but you're gonna be okay. Just breathe slower. Slow and shallow."
Trusting blindly in the voice's familiar authority, he tried to still his gasps, and found that he could take slower, shallow breaths. As he did, the blinding pain in his chest eased a little.
"That's it, that's right. Just like that, Benny."
He concentrated on taking little, panting breaths until he got used to them, until he could do it without thinking. Then he tried to turn his focus outward again. Something dark hovered over him, and he blinked again, fought the pain and confusion and nausea, tried to focus on it.
A broken shard of memory floated across his mind. He'd seen someone, someone dangerous, someone he knew -- a woman... Was I shot? Is that what hurts so much? A bullet in his back... "Victoria?" he tried to say. But though he managed to move his lips, no sound came out. Then the memory floated away, down into the blackness inside him in a flash of pain, leaving fear in its wake.
Who's with me? For a second, he shuddered, and made a frantic effort to focus his vision.
Finally, a face swam blurrily into view. He waited until the image clearly a little, until he could identify it. Familiar and beloved, it was framed by thinning dark hair and dominated by large, heavy-lidded green eyes that usually looked sleepy but now were wide with fear.
He tried to say it, to make his numb lips form words, but he couldn't. Still, the realization that his best friend was with him flowed over him like a blessing, washing most of his fear away. Suddenly, the loud siren that split his head didn't matter, and neither did the pain that stabbed into him mercilessly with each breath. Ray was here! Ray was safety, comfort and protection. Ray wouldn't let anyone hurt him any more. He tried with everything that was in him to convey his vast, incredible relief at his presence.
But he couldn't move, couldn't speak. He was too tired. All he could do was twitch his fingers.
But at that tiny gesture, Ray's face lit up with a shaky smile. "Hey, Benny, hi!" he whispered, squeezing his hand even harder. "Welcome back! Ya' had me kinda worried there for a minute, Red."
An atypical understatement. Despite his attempt at a smile, Ray was pale, and he looked absolutely terrified. He was stunned to see tears in the Italian's eyes. Ray never cries. That scared him as much as the siren's wail had before. Am I dying? he tried to ask. But all that came out was a wordless, hissing moan, and his breathing grew ragged again as fear returned.
Somehow, Ray understood. Leaning even closer, Vecchio put a hand on his shoulder gently, soothing him. "Relax, Benny. It'll be okay. You got hit over the head, but you're gonna be all right," he said earnestly. "I promise you that, I promise you! You're in an ambulance, we're goin' to a hospital. You're gonna be fine. The paramedics are takin' care o' you, and I'll be with you all the way. Just keep takin' slow, easy breaths like I toldja', okay?"
Ben's fear eased with that reassurance. He tried to nod, to say that he understood, but his stomach roiled at the tiny movement, and he gagged as the world spun around him.
"Don't try to talk!" Ray warned, too late. "You took a helluva whack, Benny. You've got a concussion."
Now you tell me--
His vision had become a nauseating whirl of color and blinding light, and for a moment, he almost let go, just to get away from it, away from the pain. But something nagged at him. He'd seen something, something important, that he had to tell Ray about. He forced himself to focus on the sound of Ray's voice, and gradually regained a fraction of control. The interior of the ambulance stopped spinning crazily, and he could make out his friend's face again. He tried to remember the important thing he had to tell him. He drew several shallow, careful breaths, and concentrated fiercely, but the information wouldn't come. It swirled just out of reach, and the effort to recall it made his head throb like it was about to explode.
"I... can't... remem... ber!" It was hardly more than a whisper, but he was proud that he'd managed speech at last. But frustrated too, because he couldn't say what he needed to.
"That's okay, Benny," Ray soothed, misunderstanding him this time. "I'll tell ya' what happened. Two guys kidnapped you, took you to an old hotel and -- well, I didn't see the fight, but judgin' from the looks of it, you got the worst of it. The paramedic says you've probably got a concussion, and a couple o' broken ribs. Your wrist is sprained, and they worked your face over a bit, too. It doesn't look so pretty, but most of the damage isn't serious."
Pretty... Elyssa! Her image filled his mind suddenly. She was what I was trying to remember, he thought. She's in danger... That's what I have to tell him! He closed his eyes. Drifting away from Ray's long list of his injuries for a moment, he drew on every ounce of strength he had, took rapid, shallow breaths until--
Ray leaned closer to him, looking worried. "What is it, Benny?"
He swallowed hard, his throat dry as a bone, his strength fading fast. He struggled to hold his eyes open, to focus despite his rising exhaustion. Say it--
"El... lys... ssssa!" he panted. "Pro--" He gritted his teeth. "Pro--tect!" he ground out, sucking oxygen in deep gasps that were agony. Pain rolled over him in a towering wave that threatened to wash consciousness away. He hung on stubbornly beneath it, needing to hear Ray's answer.
Ray nodded swiftly. "Don't worry, Benny. I understand. I'll take care o' her."
He clutched Ray's hand feebly, desperately, with the last of his fading strength.
"Jesus, Benny, I promise! I'll keep her safe, you hear me? I swear on my life!" Ray sounded like he was crying again, but Ben couldn't see him. Pain had crashed over him as Ray spoke, blurring everything: his face, his voice, the light and the siren's scream.
"Can you hear me?" Vecchio asked. "Just hang on--"
Ben couldn't answer, couldn't hold out against the pain any longer.
"Try to... awake. We're... al... therrre--"
Ray kept talking, but despite his best efforts, Ben couldn't hold on to the sound of his voice any longer. He was tired, so tired he couldn't hold on anymore. But it didn't matter. Ray had promised he'd protect her; that was all he'd needed to hear. Now, at last, he could let go. He closed his eyes and tumbled away from it all, down into the blackness, knowing as he fell that Elyssa would be all right, that she'd be with him when he woke.
Ray will keep her safe. He promised.
Fraser's eyes drifted shut, and his hand went slack.
Ray held on even tighter to it, as if he could transfer some of his strength into his badly battered friend through his grip. He'd tried to sound positive earlier for Benny's sake, but deep down, where it counted, he was still scared. Fraser was still breathing, but he was far from out of the woods yet. Concussions could be tricky. Most of the time, people recovered from them, but sometimes--
God, please don't let him die! If he does, it'll be my fault. All of this is my fault: Benny getting shot in the back, and now this. All of it.
If there was one thing he'd learned from being a cop, it was that actions had consequences; but so did inaction. Terrible ones, sometimes. Benny was lying there bloody and close to death because he'd once made a promise concerning him that he hadn't kept: "If you hurt him, I'll kill you." Harsh words, but he'd meant them. And he would've followed through with them too, that day at the train station, if Benny hadn't gotten in his way.
He'd thought that was all over, that it was behind him now, but he suddenly felt the weight of that unfulfilled vow on his chest again. It was a strange thought for a cop to have, but as he watched his friend's pale, bandaged face as they screamed through downtown streets towards the hospital, he desperately regretted not having killed that day.
And not having listened to his instincts before now.
Because suddenly, everything made sense. All the crazy, terrible things that had happened lately--the vicious harassment of Elyssa, the pictures he'd received of Fraser in that gay bar, the way the kidnappers had recognized his car, and now this direct attack on Benny -- they all formed a pattern. I shoulda' known, he thought. I shoulda' seen it before now! The dreadful shadow that had been drifting at the edges of his vision, at the back of his mind for weeks, finally took shape.
He remembered a snatch of poetry, something he'd learned in school years ago: I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
That fear had a name. He wasn't sure if his friend was even aware of it, but he'd seen Benny's lips form it as he struggled back to consciousness: Victoria.
Victoria Metcalf was here again. The Bitch was back. She and some unknown accomplices had toyed with them, made his, Elyssa and Benny's lives a hell for several months indirectly, from the shadows. Now she'd taken the gloves off, come out into the open and sent a couple of thugs to beat Benny to within an inch of his life. The escalation of violence, and its boldness, chilled him. And he believed it wasn't over yet. Judging by the way Benny had strained, even in his agony, to tell him that Elyssa was in danger, he must think so too.
Ray had to do something. He'd already put out an APB on the two goons and their Toyota, but Victoria was a clever bitch. She'd probably planned for that, so he didn't count on them being found. He couldn't count on anything, where she was concerned -- especially if she was after Elyssa. He'd promised Benny he'd keep her safe. But how could he do that, when she was at work across town and he had to stay here with him?
He'd already called from the hotel to tell Thatcher that Fraser hadn't shown up for duty because he'd been abducted and badly beaten. Now he pulled out his cell phone and dialed the Canadian Consulate again. "Detective Vecchio. Inspector Thatcher, please."
"Detective," she said. "How is Benton?" He noticed that her usually cool, controlled voice sounded a bit shaky, and she'd actually forgotten herself enough to use his first name.
At any other time, he would've teased her about it. Asked, "Don't you mean Constable Fraser?" But there was no levity in him now. "He regained consciousness for a few minutes, but he's out of it again," he said tersely. "They've got him on oxygen, and we're almost at the hospital."
"Which one?" The query was so swift he knew she must be planning to come and see him. He shook his head. Would wonders never cease! "Sisters of Mercy," he replied. But her real, unexpected concern for Fraser's well being gave him an idea. For once, he chose his words carefully. "Look, Inspector, I know we're not exactly friends, but I need you to do me a favor. To do Benny a favor, that is."
"Name it." Her reply was gratifyingly swift.
He closed his eyes, thanking God Fraser had evidently made a much bigger impression on her than she'd ever let on. "I need you to go pick up his girlfriend at work, and bring her to the hospital for me. I'll call and let her know you're coming. Her name is Elyssa Ryan. She works at Hallen's gallery, downtown."
"Really, Detective! I'm an RCMP official, not a taxi service!"
Her tone had chilled. Evidently, Thatcher's idea of doing favors for Benny didn't extend to his girlfriends. Benny must've made more than just an impression on her, he thought wryly.
"I realize that, Inspector. But I need a Mountie, not a cab driver. I know who did this to Fraser; and my guess is, they'll go after Elyssa next. They've been followin' Benny, and probably her too. They probably know where she works. In fact, they may already be headed there."
That was a bit of an exaggeration. He didn't know what Victoria had up her sleeve next, he was just being cautious. But Thatcher didn't need to know that.
"I see. Who are they?" she asked, her voice cold as Canadian snow.
"Victoria Metcalf," he replied. "She's got some goons workin' for her this time, but she's the one behind it. I'm sure of it."
He heard a slight, shocked intake of breath. He didn't blame Thatcher. The sound of that name sent chills down his spine, too.
"So will you go to Hallen's?" he pressed. "I promised Benny I'd protect Elyssa, and she's gonna wanna be with him, but I can't go get her myself. I have to stay with him. So I need to send someone Benny trusts to get her to the hospital safely."
To Thatcher's credit, she stopped arguing. "Understood."
He took another, even deeper breath. "There's just one more thing, Inspector. You're gonna have to tell her what happened."
"What? You haven't--"
"I can't tell her!" he cut her off. "See, she's so nuts about Benny that if I do, there's nothin' on earth that'll make her wait until you get there. If I tell her first, she'll take off for the hospital alone, and I can't risk that."
"I see." Thatcher didn't bother to hide her annoyance. For a moment, there was silence on the line, and Ray swallowed hard, afraid she'd refuse. "Very well," she said at last. "But just so you understand, Detective, I am only doing this for Constable Fraser's sake," she finished coldly.
"And here I thought it was my charm," he retorted. She hung up in his ear, but he didn't care. He actually found her toughness reassuring. Whatever else she might be, Margaret Thatcher was also a hardened, experienced cop; and someone armed and dangerous was just who Elyssa needed by her side right now.
"I don't care if you do it for Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny," he muttered as he put away his phone. "Just get your little red butt down to Hallen's, and get Elyssa to the hospital, soon!"
He stared down at Fraser's pale, battered face. He found himself watching for each labored, painful breath his unconscious friend took. Terror gripped him anew at the thought that Benny wasn't out of danger yet. None of them were.
Victoria's in Chicago. Christ! Knowin' that bitch is here is like knowin' Lizzie Borden's in town carryin' a sharp axe, with thunder, lightning, and a little acid rain thrown in just for fun.
If he knew anything about Victoria, it was her insatiable hunger for vengeance. That hunger was matched only by her passion for Fraser. Which meant that this -- even this, bad as it was -- wasn't the end.
As long as the Mountie was still breathing, Victoria's business with him wasn't finished. Ray knew that. Maybe he'd always known.
"We're almost there," the paramedic said, leaning past him to check Benny's pulse again.
Hang on, Red, hang on!
A moment later as they rocked to a stop beside the doors of Sisters of Mercy's ER, and the paramedics unloaded Benny, another snatch of poetry ran through his head.
For I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep;
And miles to go before I sleep.
As he followed the gurney into the hospital at a run, he couldn't remember who'd written those words. But it didn't matter. They spoke to him with ruthless clarity.
Victoria wasn't the only one with unfinished business.
"No!" Victoria grabbed Sean's shoulder. They'd changed cars and wigs, were now two blondes in a nondescript brown Nissan Sentra. So though they'd parked fairly close to Hallen's, the gallery where Fraser's girlfriend worked, they should be safe. But she wasn't taking chances. Vecchio was stupid, but he might've finally figured out what was going on now, and that she was behind it. He might've been just smart enough to have a cop posted close by, watching the place in case she showed up.
"You stay in the car," she ordered tersely. "I'll go get her."
Sean opened his mouth to protest, and she shook her head. He was so tiresome sometimes -- he just didn't see what was obvious to her. "Vecchio's put out an APB for a couple, get it?" she snapped. "Either two guys, or a man and a woman. And since we can't disguise your height, it'll be safer if I go in alone. No one will be looking for a blonde, all by herself."
To her surprise, Sean caught her arm as she turned to open the passenger door, held it hard. "Don't get carried away. Be careful," he said, his brown eyes cutting deep into her, far deeper than she'd thought he was capable of seeing. Right into the bloodlust that swam in her heart, that had only been whetted by their attack on Fraser earlier. Her feelings for the Mountie were complicated: love, hate, love... So watching him being hurt, although fascinating, wasn't entirely pleasurable.
But her feelings for Ben's lover, Elyssa Ryan, were simple. Hatred. Sometimes it ran cold, sometimes hot, but it was always 100 percent pure, unadulterated spite. Hurting her would be ecstasy. The very thought of it made Victoria almost giddy, so happy that she forgave Sean for grabbing her so insolently. "Don't worry," she smiled, teasing him. "I've got a gun, remember? Besides, I just want to take her away with us. I wouldn't dream of killing her."
Not here anyway. It's too public.
Sean's eyes told her he'd read between the lines. But she didn't care if he'd guessed her plans for Ryan, or that he was concerned about her, either. She didn't want or need his caring. But since it had its uses, she didn't discourage him. Pulling away from him, she opened the door and stepped lightly out of the car. "When we come back, get us out of here fast," she ordered.
Then she walked on. She had the sidewalk to herself. There wasn't much foot traffic, and not many cars going by. Still, just in case someone was watching, she took her time. She strolled towards Hallen's as if she were just out doing a bit of window shopping. She hummed to herself as she went, as outwardly empty-headed as Scarlett's maid Prissy, dawdling down the street in "Gone With the Wind".
Lawdy, Miz Scahlett, ah done know nothin' 'bout kidnappin' an' attempted murder! she thought with a smile.
Still, despite her apparent casualness, her every sense was keyed to its highest pitch. She had no intention of being caught before she'd dealt with both of them.
Margaret Thatcher didn't have to hurry Fraser's girlfriend along. Once she explained who she was and told her the Constable had been severely beaten and that Ray Vecchio had asked her (she'd considered using the word "begged", but decided against it) to take her to Sisters of Mercy Hospital to see him, Elyssa Ryan told her boss the news and headed for the door almost before she could blink. Though she'd turned pale, she didn't waste any time on theatrics, didn't swoon or get hysterical. She held herself together, in fact, with admirable calm.
Thatcher wasn't sure how she should feel about that. The female in her wanted very much to dislike the woman who'd captured Fraser's heart so completely, and was jealous of her long red hair and delicate prettiness. But the cop in her approved of her strength and bravery, as they reminded her of herself.
"My car is this way," was all she said as they strode swiftly out of Hallen's Gallery. Thatcher looked both ways as they stepped out onto the street, mindful of Vecchio's warning that Fraser's deadly former lover, Victoria Metcalf, might be after Ms. Ryan, with an accomplice. But the sidewalk near the gallery was quiet, almost deserted, and none of the parked cars near it had occupants who might've been watching the place, so she breathed a little easier as they headed for her car.
"Ray told me Ben has head injuries," Elyssa said as they moved. "Do you know what else--?"
They passed a slender blonde who was bent over peering intently into a jewelry store window, apparently enraptured by a display of rings.
Thatcher sighed to herself. This was the hardest part of police work; telling the bad news to the nearest and dearest...But she didn't believe in lying to soften the blow; that only made it harder in the end. And though she could see tears in her eyes, she knew Ms. Ryan must be strong enough to take the truth, or Fraser wouldn't have fallen in love with her. "He's got a concussion," she began as they reached her car, "and he lost a lot of blood..."
Behind them, the slender blonde stared after them as the female Mountie's car pulled away from the curb, with Elyssa Ryan in it. She'd never seen the dark-haired woman before, but she'd heard enough about her from Fraser to guess that it was probably his boss, Inspector Thatcher.
So she didn't try to stop them. Thatcher was armed, and Fraser had often spoken of her bravery and sterling record with the RCMP. Victoria knew she had to be smart, to have achieved such a rank at her young age, in a male-dominated profession; plus, any cop who could earn Fraser's respect was no doubt formidable. He was naive, but she had a healthy respect for his abilities. Trying to challenge someone he idolized out in public would probably be tantamount to suicide.
Victoria ground her teeth together as the women walked swiftly past her. Who sent the Mountie bitch here, anyway? But the answer was obvious. Rage and frustration coalesced into one hated name in her mind: Vecchio!
He'd gotten the jump on her for once, countered the next move in her game before she had a chance to make it.
Vecchio was going to die slowly anyway. But for that, she'd draw it out even further.
Voices floated in and out of Fraser's awareness, wove themselves around him in hushed murmurs, and he wondered dimly if he was dreaming. Then wondered if having that thought meant that he wasn't. He pondered the concept for a time, but couldn't decide.
But even that much of an effort to concentrate brought him closer to consciousness. The voices became clearer to him, clear enough that he could distinguish their gender. A man, he thought drowsily. No, a woman...
And both were familiar. Curiosity moved in him, and he listened harder. Who are they?
Ray passed the Mountie Thatcher had posted outside Benny's room, nodding absently to him as he opened the door soundlessly. It had been three days now, and Benny still hadn't regained consciousness. They'd bound up his two broken ribs and sprained wrist, and he was breathing on his own, but he hadn't opened his eyes yet. And every time Ray saw his still, silent, bandaged figure, pain squeezed his chest so that it was hard to breathe.
He hadn't found Victoria yet.
She was too clever to make it easy for them. They hadn't found the car she'd used to abduct Fraser, and if he knew her, they probably never would. There hadn't been any fingerprints at the crime scene either, which didn't surprise him; but he knew she was in Chicago nonetheless. Some small part of him had suspected it from the beginning, he just hadn't wanted to believe it could be true. But the whole thing was just her style: clever frame-ups, manipulation and merciless vengeance -- it had Victoria written all over it, with a capital V.
And he had more to support that theory, now, than just his own hunches. Sam Wenner, the grungy, limp-haired old desk clerk at the Saint Sebastian, had given him a description of the two men who'd rented the room where Fraser had been taken. They were definitely the same two who'd bundled him into the Toyota outside his apartment building. But Wenner had gotten a much closer look at the two goons than he had, and when pressed for details, he'd finally admitted that he thought the smaller one was gay.
"Why's that?" he'd asked.
"Well, he was skinny, an' kinda' delicate, ya' know? Almost pretty. Like a fag. And he had long fingernails, too. I seen that." Wenner shook his head in disgust. "Prevert."
Ray had eyed him wryly. Thank God for homophobia! If he hadn't hated gays, Wenner wouldn't have stared at Fraser's kidnapper hard enough to notice such small details. But it clinched things for him. At first, he'd thought Victoria had sent two thugs after Fraser -- now, he knew she'd been there herself. She'd been one of those two "men"! She'd just put on a wig and sunglasses, and worn jeans and a leather jacket a couple of sizes too large, to disguise her feminine curves.
I shoulda' known, he thought bitterly. She'd wanna be there herself, to watch Fraser bleed.
And Fraser wasn't the only one she'd been watching. Acting on a hunch, he'd pulled the paperwork on that trace he'd had done on that car that had passed him weeks ago, that night outside of DaVinci's. The car that had been registered to a Clyde H. Arpy. The name's significance had escaped him at the time, since he'd thought it belonged to a male. But on second glance, it seemed to leap out at him: H. Arpy. Harpy! A ravenous, devouring monster from Greek mythology, with the body of a bird -- and the head of a woman.
One of Victoria's little jokes. No wonder every hair on the back of his neck had stood up that night, when that car drove past him. She'd been at the wheel, in disguise!
And he'd missed it. Fraser woulda' got the joke, he thought, bitterly aware of his own shortcomings. He loves mythology and stuff like that. The man practically eats dictionaries for breakfast. He probably woulda' recognized her that night, too... Even in the dark, at a distance, in disguise. He woulda' known.
But Victoria had revealed herself to him instead, betting that he wouldn't be smart enough to put two and two together, betting that his eyes wouldn't be sharp enough to spot her in disguise, in the dark.
The fact that she'd been right tore at him.
Seething, he'd gone to check out the address she'd left at the car rental agency himself. Looking for the lair of a harpy.
But as he'd suspected, the address was bogus. It didn't exist. Another dead end! And he had no other clues, nothing else to go on. All he had was rage, and an old vow to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
So he'd gone back to the hospital instead. Elyssa was still there. She hadn't left Benny's side, except to shower at Ray's house. He wouldn't let her go home, and he'd taken her to and from his house personally. And when they left the hospital, to ensure Benny's safety, there was a Mountie on guard outside his door 24 hours a day, and Dief curled up on the floor beside his bed. He was through taking chances, or being careless.
He was still the primary on the Gay Strangler case, so he couldn't spend a lot of time on Fraser's assault, but he wasn't complaining. In fact, he was grateful that Lt. Welsh had let him work the case at all, since it was standard procedure to bar an officer who knew a victim personally from doing that. But the Lt. liked Fraser, so he'd bent the rules a bit for both of them, and appointed Det. Guardino as the official primary on the Mountie's case, and Ray as its second. He didn't care who was in charge. Being second gave him access and authority, which was what he needed most regarding Victoria. In return, he kept Guardino informed of anything he found out.
There hadn't been anything positive to report so far. They had suspects, but no leads. And as he walked in the door to Fraser's room, feeling old and weighed down by frustration and guilt, he saw that Elyssa was crying.
She sat by Fraser's bed, her hair haloed in lamplight as she held his hand, stroking it gently. She looked wan and tired, but she smiled at him through her tears. "I love you, Benny," she whispered, and there was such tenderness in her eyes that he was reminded irresistibly of paintings of the Madonna that he'd seen in church. For a moment, he hung back, not wanting to intrude, not knowing what to say to comfort her.
As he hesitated, his eyes traveled around the room restlessly, passing over the numerous bouquets of flowers that had been delivered in the last few days, since Fraser had gotten out of ICU. They'd come from everywhere: the Canadian Consulate, the 27th, most of the tenants in his apartment building, and some from people even Elyssa didn't know. There were so many that they perfumed the air; so many, in fact, that the floral tide had become almost embarrassing. Finally, when they'd run out of space to keep them in his room, Elyssa had donated the excess to the children's ward, saving only the cards for Benny to look at later.
It was good to know how many people cared about Fraser. But it also deepened his guilt.
He wouldn't be in here if I'd been smarter. If I'd seen it sooner...
But he hadn't, so Benny was here, in this flower-filled place that missed looking festive because of the other things in it, things that had nothing to do with beauty and affection, and everything to do with the grim practicality of survival. Like the plastic tubes that sprouted from his arms, and a heart monitor that stood in the corner, silently recording the pulse of his life. Ray automatically checked its readout, as he did every time he came. Once again, he was gratified to see a regular, rhythmic pulse on its display.
Then he had to move forward. He couldn't let Elyssa sit there crying all alone any longer. "Hey, hey, Ryan!" he teased gently, burying his own grief and guilt deep inside as he went to her. "I know artists are sposed to be temperamental, but this is too much! It can't be good for the bambino, y' know?"
She lifted her head and tried to smile at him. "I know. I'm sorry, I just... miss him," she said. Her voice was steady enough, but tears fell silently down her cheeks as she spoke.
They hit him where he lived. He'd always hated to see women cry. "Me, too," he murmured, drawing her gently to her feet.
When she raised her eyes to his, her face crumpled. "And I feel so guilty," she said. "How could we--?"
"Hush." He hugged her tightly, not wanting her to see that same guilt in his own eyes -- or how much deeper it went, deeper even than their suspicions about Benny because of those pictures.
"How could we have thought he was... that Benny would've lied to us like that?" she whispered painfully against his chest.
He spared a silent curse for that witch, Victoria, the architect of Benny's injuries, Elyssa's tears and their shared guilt. "We didn't wanna believe it, we were made to think that," he said firmly. He'd told her everything he knew, and what he only suspected: who was behind those twice-damned pictures, her harassment, and Benny's kidnapping and brutal beating. As long as Victoria was on the loose, she needed to be on her guard.
"The important thing is, we know the truth now." At least some of it, he thought grimly. They still didn't know what Fraser had been doing in The Two Faces, but now that he was sure that Victoria was in town, he had little doubt there was some innocent explanation for his presence there. She'd either set it up somehow, or followed Benny and taken advantage of it. Either way, he was innocent; and knowing Benny wasn't gay, that he hadn't been leading a double life and lying to them both was the only consolation he had in this whole mess.
He'd hoped it would help Elyssa, too. But she was still crying, and the hands that clung to him were anguished. Though she'd never mentioned it before, and despite the fact that she'd had good reason for it, the idea that she'd doubted Fraser had obviously shaken her deeply.
"Hey!" He tipped her face up so that she was forced to meet his eyes. "Stop beatin' yourself up about this, okay? When Benny wakes up, we'll talk to him about it, and he'll understand."
She looked doubtful. "Do you think so?"
He smiled a little, for her sake. "Hey -- is the Pope Catholic?" he teased. "Benny's a cop, remember? If anybody would understand about drawing conclusions from evidence, he will. And he's crazy about you, too. So don't sweat it, all right?"
She swallowed hard. "Okay. Of course. You're right, Ray," she said. Brushing away her tears, she smiled a little. "I'm glad you're here."
He shrugged off the warmth and gratitude in her eyes. "Where else would I be?" But when she laid her head back on his shoulder, he held her for a long time, patting her back gently as she clung to him. He wasn't sure who was really comforting who anymore, and he didn't care. "He's gonna be all right, y' know," he told her, and himself. "He's really strong, and he wants to live. He'll wake up."
Please wake up...
"I know," she said, for both their sakes.
Sometime later, he told her she should go to his place to get some sleep. But he doubted she would.
Neither of them had been getting much sleep lately.
A tall man with curling black hair, carrying a bouquet of flowers, stopped near the nurse's station on Fourth East. Grace Minden, R.N., was checking a patient's medical record on the computer as he paused near her. She eyed him curiously. He was good looking, she noted, in a rough sort of way, with a square jaw and big hands. She couldn't make out his eyes behind his dark glasses, but he had a nice build. Big shoulders and a nice--
"Can I help you?" she asked.
He shook his head, looking both ways down the hallway. "I'm tryin' to find my wife's room," he said, his eyes lingering down the corridor to her left.
Married, Grace thought, with a bit of disappointment. She'd noticed he wasn't wearing a ring, but she should've known. The good ones were always taken...
"What's her name?" she asked.
The man didn't answer. Instead, for some reason, he frowned as he looked down the hall. She wondered why, then remembered that was where Constable Fraser's room was, the one with a Mountie on guard outside the door day and night. Maybe he'd seen the guard, and wondered what was going on.
"What room is your wife in?" Grace persisted, partly to forestall any questions about that particular patient. She'd been warned not to tell anyone who he was, though all the nurses had been gossiping amongst themselves since his arrival. After all, Constable Fraser was one of the most gorgeous patients they'd ever seen; and he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, either.
The big man glanced at a piece of paper in his hand, then grimaced in apparent embarrassment. "342", he answered. "I must be on the wrong floor, huh?"
"Yeah," Grace said. "342 is downstairs."
"Thanks," he smiled. She watched him get into the elevator and disappear, and sighed to herself. Another missed opportunity...
It wasn't until much later that it occurred to her to check on the occupant of room 342. The computer revealed it was one Sandy Stuart, female.
The odd thing was, it also showed that Sandy was 58 years old.
Grace just shrugged. One of those May-December things, I guess, she concluded, and went back to reading the latest issue of People.
That was one thing she liked about working nights. The place was usually dead, and she got lots of time to read.
"I feel so guilty," she murmured, anguished. "How could we?"
What had she -- no, they -- done? The woman Fraser had been listening to started to cry, and her distress bothered him. He fought his own tiredness and pain, struggled to wake fully so he could help her. He hung onto the sound of her sorrow and the murmuring male voice that was trying to comfort her, used them to draw him towards reality. His senses began to sharpen. His pain increased, but he ignored it and clawed his way upward anyway, concentrating on his other senses. He became aware of smells, both familiar and strange: familiar perfume, an odd metallic smell, and a slightly musky odor that his brain associated with memories of sinewy strength, ice blue eyes and unfailing loyalty.
And there were other, unfamiliar scents: disinfectant, floor wax, and starched sheets overlaid with the sweet, pervasive scent of flowers... His brain supplied the word hospital. Fear moved through him. What am I doing here? How did I get here?
"He's really strong," the man said. "He wants to live."
Who? he wondered, struggling to place his voice. It was both familiar and comforting, but he couldn't attach a name to it. And though it spoke words that were meant to be reassuring, it had an undertone of grief or guilt. Curious.
Wake up! he told himself, frustrated, not understanding why it was so hard.
At last, with a feeling of triumph he was too weak to voice, he forced an eyelid open. White light hit it, blinding in its intensity after his long journey through darkness. He blinked carefully, willing his eye to stay open despite the discomfort, and managed to hold it at half mast. It watered so much that at first, he couldn't see a thing. Then slowly, his vision cleared, and he peered out from beneath his lashes.
A tall, dark-haired man stood next to him, with a smaller, slender woman in his arms. They floated a bit in his sight, then steadied. The dark-haired man was wearing an expensively tailored navy suit, and the woman had long, red-gold hair. His mind gave names to them.
Ray! My friend.
Elyssa, my love--
A wave of pure happiness swept over him. Wherever he was, whatever had happened, he would be all right because they were with him. But why is Elyssa in Ray's arms? he wondered suddenly, uneasiness replacing his relief. Then he heard them.
"You should come to my place tonight," Ray murmured, his voice urgent. "Spend the night."
Her reply was muffled against his chest, but it didn't matter to Ben. Now he knew why she was holding him, and what was going on.
Most of his memory was a fog. He was in a lot of pain, and he had no idea how he'd got here, or what had happened to him. But one shard of recollection rose up out of the blackness in his head, jagged and clear as a piece of broken glass. He remembered Elyssa lying beside him smelling of Ray's cologne. He remembered that she'd lied to him about Ray coming to see her; remembered the way his chest had tightened with pain at his suspicion.
That pain was nothing compared to what he felt now, hearing his suspicion become fact.
He stared at the man who'd been the best friend he'd ever had, and the woman whom he'd loved, shocked to his core by their betrayal. They'd been everything to him: love, trust, security, family -- they had made this foreign place his home. Without them, he had nothing. In one impossible, blinding moment of revelation, he'd lost everything.
He realized something else in that moment: he was the one they'd been talking about earlier, the one whom Ray had said was strong, and who wanted to live.
Ray was wrong about that. Perhaps he would have, if they hadn't stood right next to him, planning their next assignation. If he hadn't heard it from their own lips: "You should come to my place, spend the night," Ray had said, holding her. "I feel so guilty," Elyssa had wept in his arms. "How could we?" Now he knew what she'd done, understood the hint of guilt in Ray's voice as well.
The bastard! The thought of her long, beautiful red hair spread out over Ray's pillows, of him touching her intimately, making love to her, filled him with an ugly, impotent rage. If he could have, he would've leapt out of bed, pulled her away from him, and--
He didn't know what he would've done. Red, raw fury filled his mind, blotting out rational thought. But he was helpless, unable to vent it or even cry out. As he watched them embracing, his anger grew until it eclipsed even his physical pain, until he shook with it.
Suddenly, as if sensing the fury that possessed him, Ray lifted his head and glanced at him. "Benny?"
He heard a hopeful note in the traitor's voice. Crazy with fury, jealousy and despair, he struck out at him, at both the guilty lovers, in the only way he had left. He shut his eye and purposely let go of consciousness, let the darkness take him away from both of them.
From a distance, he heard Elyssa cry out, felt her hand touch his shoulder. But he refused to let her call him back, either. It was too late. He'd wanted to come back to life for her sake; now he wanted to leave it, for the same reason. He'd thought she'd taught him the meaning of happiness -- instead, she'd been one lesson too many in despair. It had been the pattern of his life: if he dared to touch, to love someone, he lost them. He wondered bleakly why he'd ever imagined Elyssa would be any different. Or Ray. He wondered why, among all the other scents he'd identified as he regained consciousness, he'd failed to distinguish the odor of Ray's expensive cologne. He knew the scent of betrayal.
Then he left it all behind: their betrayal, his fury, everything. Even his life.
She doesn't need me anymore, he thought bleakly. She has him.
He stopped trying to fight his pain, stopped even trying to breathe. As he let the blackness swallow him, his last thought was a bitter one.
Just like Victoria...
Then he gave himself up to death.
"What do we do now?" Sean asked, frustrated.
"We wait, and watch."
"What good will that do? With a guard at his door and that cop hangin' around all the time, we'll never get to him."
Victoria smiled very slightly. "Never is a long time," she murmured. "And there are other ways."
Ray wasn't even sure he'd really seen it, or if he'd merely imagined that one of Fraser's blue eyes had opened a little for a second as he stood holding Elyssa. But he called out to him instinctively, hope leaping inside of him. "Benny!"
Elyssa shot him a startled glance. "What?"
"I thought I saw his eye open," he murmured. But if Fraser was awake, he didn't say anything. And if his eye had been half open, if that wasn't just a trick of the light and his own guilty imagination, it closed before Elyssa turned to look at him.
She touched Benny's shoulder, trembling with hope, but he lay silent and still as before. "Ben!" she cried out, trying to call him back. "No, please, I can't have missed you -- Benny!"
There was such anguish in her voice that he was sorry he'd mentioned it. He put his hands on her shoulders, trying to comfort her, but she shook him off.
"Ben! Benny, can you hear me? Benny!" Her voice was ragged, her need so intense that she even shook Fraser slightly. But there was no response, and he saw tears run down her weary face again.
"I'm sorry," he said, cursing himself for raising false hopes. "I thought I saw somethin', that his eye opened for a second. I musta' just imagined it," he added, though secretly, he was troubled. Though it was possible that his judgement could be impaired because of his deep emotional involvement with his friend, he was a trained observer and he felt strongly that he'd seen Fraser return to consciousness for a second -- then let go of it. Deliberately.
He couldn't begin to explain that, and as upset as Elyssa already was, he had no intention of trying; but it worried him.
Elyssa groped for his hand, and held it tightly. "No, Ray -- he was here! He was awake, I know he was," she whispered. Her certainty only served to deepen his sense that something was wrong. He didn't want to believe Fraser had come out of his coma, taken one look at them and then sunk right back into it. What in the hell would that mean?
"He was awake, and I didn't see it! Oh God, Ray -- what if he dies?"
He tightened his grip on her hand. "Hey! Don't say that, don't even think like that!"
"But I didn't even get to tell him about the baby -- he doesn't even know!" Elyssa had been strong so far, had faced everything that had happened without flinching. But her voice suddenly rose and cracked, and he knew the awful strain and sleeplessness of the last three days was starting to tell on her. Just then, he heard a sudden murmur from the hallway behind them. He turned to see a flash of dark hair at the doorway, and groaned to himself.
Shit! Just what we needed... The Dragon Lady's here!
Thatcher had already been to see Fraser once. She'd given orders that she be called when he regained consciousness, then left quickly. Probably because I was sitting by Fraser's bed, he thought wryly. He hadn't expected to see her here again until Benny's eyes were open. In fact, he'd hoped their paths wouldn't cross again at all. He had trouble tolerating Thatcher on a good day -- she was the last person he wanted to see barging in while Elyssa was upset.
"What's wrong?" the Inspector demanded as she strode in, imperious as always.
Nothin', until you showed up, he started to say. But when she paused beside him, he caught himself. After all, she'd done him several important favors over the past few days; he still owed her, big time, for escorting Elyssa here safely. Besides, Thatcher didn't look too good. She'd managed to maintain her usual haughty tone of voice, but she looked pale, and she searched Fraser's still face with a look of barely controlled panic. He suddenly realized she must've heard Elyssa crying, and feared the worst -- that she was using her authoritative manner to cover her fear.
It made her seem a bit more human, so he took pity on her. "It's okay," he said reassuringly. "Benny's all right. In fact, I thought he mighta' opened his eyes there for a second, but I guess it was a false alarm," he went on, giving Elyssa a chance to collect herself. As she wiped her eyes, he saw Thatcher heave a sigh of relief at the news that Fraser wasn't dead. But when she caught him watching her, she stiffened, her lips thinning.
"So you're saying that Fraser is still in a coma," she snapped. "You have an amazing grasp of the obvious, Detective!"
Knowing that had been payback for the fact that he'd witnessed her moment of weakness, he bared his teeth at her. He was suddenly sorry he hadn't told her that Fraser had died the second she entered the room, from sheer terror. Overburdened by guilt and fear for Benny and worry about Elyssa, he was perilously close to losing control. He almost hoped Thatcher would pick a fight with him, to give him an excuse to blow.
"The obvious," he repeated, with a deceptive smile. "Oh, you mean like things a blind man would notice? Like how often you keep comin' to see Benny here, for instance?" he shot back. "And what that might mean?"
Thatcher's eyes, if possible, got even colder. "He is one of my men," she said tersely. "I--"
"Only one of many, I'm sure," he cut her off with a grin.
Her eyes narrowed to angry slits. "Detective, are you implying--"
"If the shoe fits!" he growled, his own anger rising. "Or should I say Wonderbra?"
Elyssa laid a warning hand on his arm. "Ray!" When he looked down at her in surprise, she shook her head very slightly. "The Inspector's been very kind to me, and I understand why she wants to see Benton. She's worried about him just like we are." Please don't fight, her eyes pleaded silently.
He got the message. What's more, he knew she was right. Much as he would've enjoyed going toe-to-toe with her, he hadn't considered the effect a battle royal would have on Elyssa. She had enough on her plate right now, with what had happened to Benny. So he throttled back his rising anger with difficulty, watched as the Inspector did the same. They stared at each other silently for a moment, pulses pounding, nostrils dilated, combatants willing to withdraw temporarily from the field only because they both knew they would fight another day.
When it became clear, though, that he wasn't going to apologize, Elyssa said diplomatically, "I'm sorry, Margaret. We're both a little on edge."
"Yeah," he said at last with a shrug. He could be generous this once, for her sake.
Knowing that was as much of an apology as she was going to get, Thatcher nodded. "Understood." She looked away from him and down at Fraser again. She stared at him intently, as if she were considering ordering him to wake up and stop lazing around in bed when there was work to be done at the Consulate.
It would be like her.
"He looks better," she said instead. Ray blinked in surprise. Other than that one possible lift of an eyelid, he hadn't seen any change in Fraser at all, and he'd been staring at him for two days now. Either Thatcher had eagle eyes, or--
Elyssa shot a hopeful look at Benny, brightening a little at Thatcher's positive assessment. "Do you think so, Margaret?" she asked.
Ray's eyes widened. Margaret? When the Hell did these two get on a first name basis?
Ignoring his shocked expression, Thatcher nodded firmly. "Yes. I think there's more color in his face today than when I saw him yesterday."
Elyssa actually smiled, and Ray's shock turned to grudging admiration. Despite her tough hide and her unspoken feelings for Fraser, the Dragon Lady was trying to be kind. Well, I'll be damned! That's somethin' I never thought I'd see. But it dovetailed neatly with a sudden inspiration, so he took a chance on it.
"I'm sure you're right, Inspector," he agreed cheerfully. "Benny does look better. And how long's it been since you've had a shower and gotten some real sleep?" he asked Elyssa abruptly.
She shrugged carelessly. "I don't--"
"Remember," he finished for her, catching Thatcher's eye over her head. "Yeah, that's about what I thought. Time for you to go, Ryan," he said firmly, snatching her coat off of the back of the nearby chair.
"As in, go home to my place, and get some rest."
"Inspector, since you two are gettin' to be such good buddies, I don't suppose you'd mind takin' Elyssa to my house so she can take a shower and get some rest, would you?" he asked, as he pulled Elyssa gently to her feet.
"But I don't want to leave!" she protested. "I'm not tired, and--"
"Yeah, right," he snorted. "Honey, you got bags under your eyes Drew Carey could disappear into. Isn't that right, Inspector?"
Somewhat to his surprise, Thatcher nodded. "For once, Detective Vecchio is correct," she said. "You look exhausted. You should take his advice and get some sleep."
Faced with their united front, Elyssa wavered, and shot an uncertain glance at Benny.
Ray swooped in for the kill. "Fraser'll have my butt if he wakes up and sees how tired you look," he said earnestly, switching tactics to press his advantage. "He'll blame me for not lookin' out for you. So go and catch some zees before I get killed, okay?" He shoved her gently towards the door as he spoke, but Elyssa wasn't buying his innocent act.
"You play dirty pool, Ray Vecchio," she complained. Planting her feet stubbornly beside Fraser's bed, she protested, "I'm not a child. I can take care of myself, you know."
Not where Benny's concerned, he thought. You'd run yourself into the ground for him. But he knew better than to say that out loud. Instead, he tried a little more emotional blackmail. "I know, but you've got more than just yourself to worry about now, don't you?" he asked gently, glancing pointedly down at her still-flat stomach. "It won't do anybody any good if you exhaust yourself, will it?"
Dirty pool, indeed. Tears filled Elyssa's eyes suddenly, and she wavered. But despite the fact that he knew she was so tired she could hardly stand up, she hesitated and shot another guilty glance back at Benny. He knew what she was thinking; that he might wake again, and she'd miss it.
"I'll stay with him myself," he swore, a little embarrassed at manipulating her emotions this way, even if it was for her own good. "And if he even twitches a little finger, I'll call you. I promise. Okay?"
After a moment, she nodded. "Okay. But it's just for a few hours, Ray. Then I'll be right back." She took one long, last anxious look at Fraser. "And if he wakes up, tell him--"
He grimaced. "Nah, no mushy stuff! You know I hate that! When he wakes up, I'll call you and you can tell him all that yourself."
She smiled at him. "Okay, Ray. You win. I'll go -- but just for a little while. And you call me the second he wakes up, you hear?"
"Whaddaya' want, a blood oath?" he pretended to grumble. "I'll call! Now go, willya'?"
She hugged him tightly, then walked out the door with Thatcher trailing after her.
"Thanks," he said as the Inspector passed him. "I owe you one."
She smiled, her dark eyes frosty as a Canadian winter. "No, you owe me several, Detective," she corrected. "I'm counting." And the evil way her lips curled upward told him she was going to take her time thinking up punishing ways that he could repay her for each and every one of those favors.
And his little Wonderbra joke too, no doubt.
He winced. Elyssa seemed to get along well with her, but Thatcher was so cold that whenever he got within three feet of her, his balls froze. Brrrrr!
Still, when she was gone, and he was alone with Fraser again, he didn't feel relieved. It just meant he had to face the truth, face what he'd sent them both home to keep them from finding out. He sat down in the chair Elyssa had just vacated, the one beside his bed, and stared at his friend's pale, unconscious face with a scowl.
In the quiet silence of Fraser's room, his certainty deepened. He'd seen it, and Elyssa had felt it: Fraser had regained consciousness for a second, then let go of it again. And he had a strange feeling he'd done it on purpose.
It didn't make any sense, but it seemed like Benny didn't want to wake up.
He'd made Elyssa go home before she realized that too. She was unusually perceptive, and incredibly so where Fraser was concerned. If she hadn't been worn out already from her vigil, and nearly frantic with worrying about both him and her coming baby, she'd probably have picked up on Benny's voluntary check-out herself. So he'd had Thatcher hustle her out of his room for her own good. The last thing she needed right now was to even suspect that her unborn baby's father might be willing himself to die.
He leaned forward in his chair, his eyes narrowing as he studied the comatose Mountie. This strange development was so unlike Fraser that he didn't know what the hell to make of it. He didn't even know about Victoria yet. So he should've felt that he had everything in the world to live for: he was young, strong, good looking as hell, had a beautiful, smart, kind woman who loved him, and a kid on the way, too, if he only knew it. Lucky bastard, he thought, envying him a little, and not for the first time.
And to top it all off, Fraser also had a best friend who had no intention of letting him die.
He stood up again and walked over to his bed, leaned down over his still face. "Fraser!" he said loudly. "Benny!"
No response. He wasn't sure if he was imagining it, but it seemed like something ominously, eerily stubborn had crept into the quality of his silence. Fear filled him as he thought of what would happen to him and Elyssa if the Canadian gave up. How would she stand losing him, with his baby on the way? And how would he live with his guilt about not getting rid of Victoria the first time around -- or sensing her return sooner? He just couldn't imagine his life -- or even a world -- without the Canadian in it anymore.
He remembered how he'd suppressed evidence on his behalf, how he'd risked prison for him, and his anger grew.
"You're not givin' up, Fraser, you hear? I won't let you!" he said intensely, leaning over him to twist his fists in his hospital gown. "Don't you check out on me! You got that, Benny? Don't you dare!"
He shook him slightly, frightened and angry. Dief stirred on the floor, barking a warning. But if Fraser heard either of them, he gave no sign of it. He just lay there, pale and unresponsive, refusing to come back.
"Wake up, damn it!" he hissed.
Nothing. Fraser didn't even flicker an eyelash.
Goddamn stubborn Mountie!
The young Mountie on guard at the door stuck his head in. "Is everything all right, Detective?" he asked. Ray knew he must've heard him and Dief, and seen his hold on Fraser. He let him go, both glad the Mountie was so alert and a bit embarrassed that he'd been caught being so emotional.
"Fine," he said tersely.
Reassured, the Mountie backed out into the hallway again. He waited for a minute, then bent over Fraser again. "Okay, if that's how you wanna play it. Be stubborn, Fraser. Go ahead," he said. "But that's not the end of it. I won't go away, you hear me? I'll stay here all night if I have to. I'm not gonna let you slip away. I'll be here when you wake up. Waiting."
Only the slight rise and fall of the Mountie's chest showed that he was still living.
"I'm waiting, Benny," he repeated. He sat down again, glanced once at the monitor that showed his heartbeat. It seemed a little slower, but it was still regular. He sat back in his chair like a man settling in for a long siege. Fraser might be stubborn, but no one could outdo a Vecchio in that department.
When Fraser next opened his eyes, he did so reluctantly. Even before he did, his sensitive nose told him where he was: in a hospital. He still couldn't remember how he got here, but it was obvious that he hadn't died, after all. He'd thrown himself headlong into a black ocean, hoping to drown, but its waves had cast him back up on shore. He felt angry and humiliated.
How pathetic. Even Death doesn't want me!
Fate had once again chewed him up and spat him out, and here he lay, a six foot, throbbing mass of pain and heartache, helplessly alive against his will. He cursed Fate for sparing him, Death for not taking him, and Ray Vecchio and Elyssa Ryan too, for making him crave oblivion. He would've cursed his father as well, if he'd thought Fraser Senior had anything to do with Death rejecting him, but he had no memory of seeing him when he'd tried to die. For once, it seemed, his father hadn't meddled where he wasn't wanted.
He sighed to himself, and opened his eyes.
Ray Vecchio sat dozing lightly in his chair. His eyes were closed, but he wasn't really asleep; and he sensed the instant that Fraser's breathing changed. He lifted his eyelids slowly and cautiously, just enough so that he could see his face. Sure enough, the Canadian's blue eyes were open.
Elation flooded him. Thank you, God! He's gonna live!
He closed his own eyes for a second, swept by a rush of pure relief. Fraser wasn't going to die, he wouldn't be responsible for it -- God had given him a second chance to set things right.
Miles to go...
He didn't care. This time, he wouldn't fail. He hadn't found her yet, but he would. If it took the rest of his life, he was going to find Victoria Metcalf.
And when I do...
He put the thought of her aside, and focused on Fraser again. He had his friend back, but he forced himself to stay silent despite his vast relief. Because Benny was back, but there was definitely something wrong with him. He lay utterly still, staring up at the ceiling, his mouth drawn into a hard, bitter line. He didn't try to look around him, or even turn his head. Ray wasn't sure if he could see him, but if he did, he wasn't making any attempt to communicate. He just lay there like a stone.
Baffled anger flickered beneath his relief and happiness. Didn't Fraser understand that his recovery was a gift from God, that he'd been blessed? He and Elyssa had suffered the tortures of the damned since he'd been hurt, they'd both been praying that he'd wake up. Why didn't he seem happy to be conscious again?
He's probably in a lot of pain, he told himself uneasily, watching the Mountie's cold, unwavering examination of the ceiling. Maybe he doesn't even remember what happened, maybe he's worried that he's been crippled or something...
And maybe something was very, very wrong. Maybe Fraser had regained consciousness briefly, when he'd been standing by his bed with Elyssa earlier, then deliberately let go of it, despite her pleas.
Maybe he'd tried to let go of life itself. It chilled him. He'd thought Benny's love for Elyssa was rock-solid. So why would he try to die, to leave her? What the Hell's goin' on here?
He watched Fraser for some time from beneath his lowered lids. Long enough to assure himself that the Canadian was strong enough, and well enough, to stay awake for a time--and to answer some questions. Then he opened his eyes all the way, and bent over to touch his shoulder, smiling cheerfully, as if nothing was wrong. "Hey, Benny!" he said. "What's shakin', buddy?"
Fraser shuddered with rage when Ray touched him. It was an involuntary, uncontrollable response, but he wasn't sure if he would've prevented it if he could. For the second time in his life, he'd been betrayed by someone he loved; and the taste was just as bitter the second time around. Maybe more so.
He stared up into Ray's face, a face that had once meant loyalty and friendship, and saw only lies. He didn't answer.
As usual, that didn't stop Vecchio from talking.
"Man, am I glad you finally woke up!" he exulted, undaunted. "You've had us all worried. You've been out ever since the ambulance got you here."
Despite his depression, curiosity stirred in him. Something in him wanted to go on, wanted to know how he'd ended up here. He ignored it, and focused his eyes on the boring expanse of the ceiling again. He had no intention of responding to anything Vecchio, the traitor, had to say.
"You were banged up pretty bad, ya' know. Concussion, head wound, two broken ribs, a sprained wrist, lotsa' bruises...You've been in a coma for three days."
That explained why he was in such pain, though not how his injuries had been received. Part of him wanted to know, but the rest of him would've died rather than ask Ray Vecchio for even that much; for anything at all. He set his jaw and stayed silent.
After all, hadn't Vecchio already taken everything he had that mattered?
Ray didn't seem fazed by his silence. He rambled on, effusive as always. "Elyssa's been worried sick about you. She's been here ever since you were hurt--"
How touching, he thought, dying inside, lacerated by the thought of her.
"She hasn't been sleepin' much. She was exhausted, so I sent her back to my place to get some shut-eye before she keels over," Ray explained.
Bastard! Fraser thought, hating his glib lie. He clenched his fists at the thought of Elyssa sleeping at Ray's. When he did, he became aware that the left one ached abominably. Evidently, that was the one that had been sprained, he told himself, in a futile effort to divert his mind. But it didn't work. All he could see was her in Ray's arms -- in Ray's bed.
How many times had she been there, while she was living with him? Was that why she'd asked for nights alone? So she could be with Ray?
What did Ray do to you, in his bed?
He felt like someone had piled stones on top of his chest. He couldn't seem to get enough air to breathe.
But Ray didn't seem to notice. "I've gotta call her," he said. "She made me promise to do that as soon as you woke up. She's dyin' to see you--"
He hadn't meant to speak, hadn't wanted to say a word. But when Ray reached for the phone beside his bed, a moan ripped out of him. "No!" he gasped, in spite of himself.
Seeing her now would be worse than dying.
Okay. Now we're gettin' somewhere, Ray thought. Nothing he'd said had seemed to reach his friend until he mentioned calling Elyssa. Then the Canadian's eyes finally lost their faraway look, and focused on him. But the anger and pain he saw there stunned him.
"Don't -- call her," the Mountie rasped.
Ray blinked, taken aback. "Yer kiddin' me, right?"
Fraser lapsed back into his strange, stubborn silence.
Ray's unease deepened. Benny didn't want to see Elyssa? That was like finding out the sun wasn't going to rise in the morning. What the Hell!
All the times he'd prayed for Fraser's recovery in the past few days, all the times he'd imagined it, he'd never dreamed of anything like this. Never thought he'd try to give up, then wake up sullen, silent and unhappy that he was still alive. The last time he'd almost died, when he'd regained consciousness, he'd been so different. He'd been horribly depressed, yet gentle and forgiving, too. Even in his pain, he'd reached out to him, let him know the bond between them was still there, stronger than ever, despite what he'd done.
It was ironic. Then, Benny'd had every right to be furious with him, and he hadn't been. But now, when he didn't even know of his secret guilt regarding Victoria, when he didn't even know he felt responsible for his injuries, he shot daggers at him. It didn't make any sense! It was so bizarre, so uncharacteristic that he wondered if his friend had suffered brain damage when he was beaten. The doctors had said no, that the most he would probably have was some memory loss, but he was behaving so strangely that he'd begun to doubt their diagnosis.
"It's okay, Benny," he said carefully, though he knew it wasn't. Thinking maybe Fraser didn't want him to phone her because he didn't want Elyssa's sleep disturbed, he added, "I know it's really early in the morning, but she'd want me to call. She's been worried sick about you--"
"No." Quieter that time, but just as vehement.
He wracked his brain for an explanation. "You don't need to worry about how you look," he said gently, remembering Fraser's penchant for neatness, but aware that he was grasping at a pretty thin straw. "She's been here for days now, she's seen all the bandages--"
Fraser actually turned his head, his blue eyes dark with emotion beneath his bandages. "I don't want her here!" he gritted.
Ray sat back in his chair, stunned into temporary silence by the look in his eyes. If he hadn't known better, he would've sworn it was hatred. He wasn't sure if it was directed at him, or Elyssa, or both of them, but it shocked him.
He shook his head in disbelief. "You're a piece o' work, Fraser, you know that?" he burst out, frustrated and confused. "Three days ago, you're beggin' me with your last breath to protect Elyssa, and now you don't wanna even see her? What gives?"
Fraser set his jaw and lapsed back into a stubborn silence.
Ray frowned. He'd never seen him behave like this before, in all the years he'd known him; and the short term memory loss his doctors had predicted sure didn't explain it. Remembering how Elyssa had rushed to the hospital to be with him, the way she'd watched over him ceaselessly for days and looked at him with such love in her eyes, anger rose in him. What the hell's wrong with you? How can you treat her like this, when she loves you and she's havin' your baby, dammit! he longed to say.
But he couldn't. Elyssa had to tell Benny that, and he knew it. So he bit back the words, tried to stifle his anger and confusion because Fraser had been through a lot, because he was tired and no doubt in a helluva lot of pain as well. And mostly because he was responsible, in no small measure, for that pain. I should cut him some slack, he thought.
He took a deep breath. "Okay. I guess you're tired, or maybe they've been givin' you too many painkillers or somethin', Benny. I don't know. But I'm gonna go now, and let you get some sleep."
Predictably, Fraser didn't answer. He'd gone back to staring up at the ceiling again, as if it held all the answers.
He felt unexpectedly awkward. "It's good to have you back," he said anyway. Expressing such feelings never came easy to him, but he did it anyway, in an attempt to reach Fraser where all else had failed. Besides, it was true -- after days of torment, both before his beating and after, it was wonderful to have him back, alive and more or less in one piece. But he didn't know what to do about his inexplicable anger, or his refusal to see Elyssa. How in the world am I gonna tell her?
He had no idea. And when Fraser's stony silence continued, even after his declaration, he clenched a fist in frustration. He stared at him for a moment, bewildered, angry, and hurt. Elyssa wasn't the only one who loved Benny. Fraser had no way of knowing what agony he'd gone through in the past week, over him. But between those damn gay bar photos, his brutal beating and Victoria's return, he'd almost lost his mind.
And now this. I shoulda' figured, he thought wearily. Victoria had always done this to them -- pried them apart when nothing else could.
And it wasn't over yet. It never would be, until he found her.
Miles to go.
He turned when he reached the door. "You haven't asked me what happened," he realized suddenly. That was as weird as the rest of it. Ordinarily, Fraser liked nothing better than to talk his ears off. Ordinarily, he would've been bursting with questions about how he'd ended up in here.
But not this time. And if he'd needed another clue to tell him that something was badly wrong with him, that things were far from ordinary, his odd lack of curiosity would've been it. "Do you remember any of it?"
Fraser shook his head mutely.
He'd already told him about it in the ambulance, but maybe his doctors were right after all about him having some memory loss, because there was no sign that he recalled the grim story. Ray looked down at his feet, trying to decide how much to tell him. He wanted to say that Victoria was back, wanted desperately to warn him, but knew that if he did, Fraser would want to know how he knew it; and he'd have to confess his mistake about Clyde H. Arpy, and his own share of blame in this whole mess.
Ordinarily, he would've, because Fraser was his best friend.
But the anger that had turned the Mountie's blue eyes to ice had put up a barrier between them that made such honesty impossible. He found it hard to look at those silently accusing eyes. He found himself staring at the opposite wall, past Fraser's bed, instead of at him, as he started to speak.
"Three days ago, two guys kidnapped you at gunpoint on the street just outside your apartment," he began. He went through the whole scenario again, leaving out only the part that he'd lost his kidnappers during his pursuit, and managed to find them again only because of his weird dream. He hadn't told anyone else that, hadn't even put it in his police report, for fear of becoming a laughingstock at the station. Ordinarily, he would've told Benny anyway, but it was too embarrassing, and too weird, to confess to him when he was in such a black temper.
Benny listened to the story in silence, staring straight ahead. "Lucky you were outside my apartment when they grabbed me," he said at last, when he finished. "Wasn't it?"
Ray stared at him. Trust Fraser to notice every little detail, he thought. Still, he wondered what he'd meant by that. On the surface, the remark sounded like gratitude. But something in Benny's voice made it seem strangely like an accusation instead. He opened his mouth to explain, to tell him about the pictures, but found that he couldn't. Fraser was acting so weird, so dark and distant that he couldn't say the words. Couldn't tell him that he'd been waiting there that morning to confront him about pictures that seemed to prove he was gay.
He hesitated for a second, then said, "Yeah. I came over to give you a ride to work."
Fraser didn't answer, but his face hardened a little more.
Ray claimed he'd been waiting outside to take him to work the morning he was kidnapped, but he didn't meet his eyes as he said it. Fraser knew at once that he was lying. And he knew why.
You were waiting for someone, all right: Elyssa.
A long silence fell between them. Rage rose in his throat until it almost choked him. He couldn't bear it any more. No more words, he thought, anguished. No more lies. Finally, when he could speak again, he whispered, "Get out of here."
Ray took a step towards him, his face darkening with shock and something far more dangerous. "What?"
"You heard me," he gritted. "Go."
Suddenly, Ray was beside the bed. He grabbed his arm, leaned over him until his face was only inches away. "What's the matter with you, Fraser?" he hissed, his fingers digging painfully into his bicep. The pained confusion in his eyes seemed so genuine it was worthy of a Hollywood actor. "Why don't you want me here? I thought we were friends."
We were, he longed to say. Until you stole the love of my life. But the words stuck in his throat. He'd never been a coward, but somehow, enraged as he was, he couldn't make himself say the words that would put their friendship in the past tense, make Vecchio go away forever. He tried to shake off his grip, but found he was too weak. Hating himself for that, he shot him a hard, warning stare instead. "Let me go."
Ray didn't back off an inch. He hung onto his arm, tenacious as a bulldog, his eyes boring holes in him. "Then you wanna clue me in here, Fraser? 'Cuz I sure as hell don't understand why you're suddenly treating me and your girlfriend like shit!"
Language, Ray! The reproof rose automatically to his lips, insane though it was under the present circumstances. Old habits, it seemed, died hard. But he bit the words back, afraid to speak at all because he was so furious. Obviously, Ray's guilt over his clandestine affair was making him pretend that he didn't understand what was going on; and his continued deception only fueled Fraser's growing anger. His chest ached horribly, pressure building inside him like thunder. If Ray didn't turn away -- now -- he'd explode, scream, strike out with his fists... Lose control, like he had that time he was drunk. Only this time, he wouldn't have that excuse.
He couldn't let it happen. He set his teeth and pulled with all his might, despite the pain it caused him. That time, Ray let him go. He rolled over on his side, turned his back to Vecchio, and waited until he regained some semblance of control. "You're a detective," he said tightly at last. "Figure it out."
Ray stood over him, breathing heavily as he tried to control his own temper. "Okay," he said at last, his voice ragged. "I'm gonna cut you some slack, Benny, 'cuz maybe that concussion scrambled your brain. But Elyssa's been doin' nothin' for the last few days but watchin' over you, and hopin' you'd wake up. I had to force her to eat, or to leave you for a few hours to sleep. She's comin' to see you tomorrow morning, and I swear, if you don't let her in... If you act like this with her, I'll come lookin' for you. And it won't matter if there's a guard at your door. You got that?"
Fraser couldn't see him, but he could feel his friend's rage, sensed that he, too, was a hair's breadth away from explosion. He wondered bleakly if Ray understood how the very vehemence of his defense betrayed the depth of his feelings for Elyssa. He set his jaw tightly against the urge to hurl a curse at the Italian because, angry as he was, he didn't want them to come to blows. That would mean the end of their friendship and even now, he couldn't bring himself to destroy what was left of it. If there was anything left of it...
"Go away," he said tightly instead.
Ray let out an angry huff of breath, then his footsteps headed for the door.
All at once, through his rage and pain, he suddenly realized what he'd said. He turned his head, shocked. "A guard? What--"
Ray kept going, his whole body stiff with anger. For a moment, Fraser thought he was going to leave without answering. But just before he reached the door, he turned around again. "There's a Mountie out there," he ground out, pointing at the hallway. "Twenty four hours a day. Thatcher's orders."
Ray set his jaw, as if trying to decide whether he deserved any more information. After a long, seemingly endless moment, he swallowed hard and said, "I told you two guys kidnapped and beat you. Well, one of those 'guys' was Victoria Metcalf, in disguise."
He caught his breath. He felt like he'd been hit with a sledgehammer. "No..." He suddenly realized he was shaking his head, as if that could undo the awful truth he saw in Ray's eyes.
"Yeah. I wasn't gonna tell you right away, because--"
But Fraser knew why. He saw it in his eyes. The Italian had sensed his rage, and hadn't wanted to upset him further. Such consideration is odd, he reflected bitterly, coming from a man who's been sleeping with my lover.
"Well anyway, she's here all right," Ray went on grimly. "She's been here for awhile. She's the one who threw blood all over Elyssa's door, and she was probably in her apartment that night, too. That's why there's a Mountie outside, and why Elyssa's stayin' at my place while you're in here."
White dots swam before his eyes.
What is he talking about? Blood on Elyssa's door? Despite his aching head, he searched his jumbled memory for a moment. Then an image came to him of Elyssa standing in her apartment in a white nightgown, with terror in her eyes. He remembered running through blood to get to her, his feet had been covered with it--
But why did Ray think Victoria was responsible for all this? Fear grew in him, began displacing his red rage. "How can that be?" he rasped, his heart pounding so that he could hardly think. "Victoria's been gone for years. Why would she--"
Ray's eyes narrowed. "You're a detective," he shot back angrily. "Figure it out."
And then he was gone.
"Wait!" Fraser called, as desperate as he had been angry. "Ray, wait!"
But it was no use. His anger had driven Vecchio away. His staccato footsteps faded off down the hospital corridor, and he was alone again. He'd thought it was what he wanted, that he never wanted to see him again, but he found himself regretting his harshness as silence closed in around him. Despite what Ray had done, now that he knew Victoria was in town, he would've given anything to have been able to ask him more questions, to get his help in dealing with the terrible situation to which he'd wakened.
He sank back on his pillow, his breath coming in shallow gasps. Victoria -- in Elyssa's room! God in heaven.
As he lay there, weak and in pain, his fear for her escalated, overshadowed his pain over her affair with Ray, became panic. Elyssa was in danger, and he was lying here bandaged to the eyeballs, unable to help her. He forced himself to a sitting position, despite the agony that shot through his chest at the effort, and waited until the room stopped swaying around him. Then he lay there gasping, trying to think.
He had no memory of seeing Victoria, or of the attack on him, but he knew Ray was right about her return. He must be. Who else would've harassed Elyssa, and attacked him? Who else would have a motive?
But she was a wanted criminal in Chicago now, she'd risked prison by coming back. Why would she take such a risk?
There was only one answer. He'd thought she was out of his life, had counted himself well rid of her, but Victoria had come back; and she'd come for him. That was what Ray had meant when he'd thrown his own words back at him: "'You're a detective, you figure it out.' "
She's come for me.
Ray believed it, and in the silence of his flower-filled room, he realized that he did too. He felt it in the marrow of his bones.
He forced himself to think. Ray said she'd been here for some time. How did he know that? Had he seen her, had she contacted him somehow? No, that made no sense, Ray would've told him if she had.
That was a question he couldn't answer, so he moved on. How had Victoria known about Elyssa, about their involvement, and where she lived? She must've been watching me. Remembering her cleverness, her capacity for cruelty and hatred, and the way she had set out to destroy not only him but his best friend as well the last time he'd seen her, he shuddered. He'd learned the hard way how she thought.
She said she loved me. Once she found out that there was another woman in my life, that love would've turned to hatred. That's why she attacked me. But now that I'm being guarded and she can't get to me, she'll focus on Elyssa.
She'll try to kill her, he thought, his blood turning to ice.
Terror brought him an odd clarity. He'd been wrong before, when he'd thought he had no more reason to live. Victoria had gone after her because of him, so it was his responsibility to deal with her, and to protect Elyssa from her. It didn't matter that Elyssa had been having an affair with Ray, that they'd betrayed him. He would have to deal with that heartache, with his shattered life, later. Right now, all that mattered was keeping her safe.
His fear of losing her had temporarily obscured the fact that in spite of what she'd done -- what they'd both done -- he still loved her. More than anything.
More, it seemed, than himself.
Elyssa woke early that Saturday morning to a knock on her door. Francesca's door, that is; she was sleeping in Ray's sister's room. She sat up with a yawn. She was still sleepy, but felt infinitely better than she had last night. A few hours of sleep in a real bed, rather than a chair at the hospital, had really done her good. "Yes?"
Ray's mother poked her head around the door. She was wearing a blue dress and pearls, and Elyssa wondered for a second what the occasion was. "Wake up, cara," she said excitedly. Her round, kindly face was beaming. "Raymondo's waiting to take you to the hospital. Benton is awake!"
"Oh my God!" She shot out of bed and hugged Mrs. Vecchio, laughing out loud. "He's awake! Oh, thank you!"
"I know, I know, cara," she said, patting her back. "It's wonderful, a miracle! He's going to be all right!"
Everybody loves Benny, Elyssa thought as she clung to the older woman, overwhelmed with relief and a flood of emotion.
Mrs. Vecchio let her go and patted her cheek gently, her dark eyes smiling. "Don't cry now," she chided. "He's better!"
Elyssa rubbed her cheek in surprise. She hadn't even realized she was crying. "I'm just so happy," she said, brushing away her tears.
"I know. Me, too. Now, I'll leave you alone. I know you want to get dressed so you can go. There'll be coffee for you downstairs before you leave, though. Drink some before you go."
Elyssa smiled through her tears. "Thanks so much, Mrs. Vecchio. You've been so good to me--"
She waved a hand in casual negation, in the identical gesture her son always used when you tried to thank him for his kindness. "Don't be silly, Elyssa. Benton's friends are our friends. Now get dressed! Hurry!"
Like mother, like son, Elyssa thought affectionately. She'd realized long ago who Ray had gotten his good heart from. But as his mother shut the door behind her, she suddenly realized that she was being a bit selfish in her joy at Benny's recovery. "Aren't you coming with us?" she asked.
Mrs. Vecchio smiled again. "Later, we will all see Benton," she promised. "But you go first. He'll want it that way." Then she left.
He's awake! He's going to live! The words sang in Elyssa's heart as she pulled on her clothes with shaking hands. Ben was all that mattered.
I have to help her. That much was clear. It was also frustratingly clear that he couldn't do that from a hospital bed.
I have to get up.
The only problem was, he was weak as the proverbial kitten, as weak as he'd been after Ray had accidentally shot him. Taking a deep breath, Fraser drew back his covers and forced his legs over the side of the bed. His injured ribs protested painfully, and his head swam. He bit back a groan, ignoring them both. That bullet in my back hurt worse than this, he told himself sternly, to bully himself into moving. He had to get his strength back; he had to do this; he would do this.
He put one foot on the floor, then the other. A few more deep breaths, his hands beside him on the bed for support, and he pushed himself to his feet.
He'd done it! He was standing up!
For a second, anyway. Then a black wave began to roll slowly over his vision, as his legs shook under him.
Constable Turnbull stiffened at his post as a strange sound echoed from Constable Fraser's room. He was keenly aware of the importance of his duty. In fact, saying that he was highly motivated to do a good job guarding Fraser would be a vast understatement. Inspector Thatcher had told him that a dangerous female criminal named Metcalf, who'd recently attacked Fraser, might make another attempt on his life while he was recovering. She'd also warned him, in no uncertain terms, that he was responsible for making sure that no harm came to Benton. If he so much as stubs his toe on your watch, she'd said, her dark eyes cutting into him, I'll--
He didn't really like to remember what else she'd said. It was too horrible to remember. Suffice it to say, he knew his career (and maybe his life) would be over if Fraser got hurt while he was on duty outside his room. So when he heard a suspicious thud from that direction, for the second time in the space of thirty seconds, he drew his weapon and charged in on the double, his heart pounding.
Fraser knelt on the floor beside his bed, breathing heavily, as if he'd just tried to stand up and lacked the strength.
Turnbull swallowed in nervous relief, intensely glad that Fraser was alive, and seemingly unhurt. His own continued existence, after all, depended on it.
Read the final part of the story:
Beyond Where Angels Sleep, Part Three