WARNINGS: some swear words, some violence, and a bit of gore. I'll err on the safe side and say PG-13, although it's really probably only PG.
My beta reader for this one was Celeste -- many, many thanks to Celeste for having to read through an awfully long story, yelling at me about punctuation mistakes I should have known better than to make, and prodding me with a long pointy stick when I started to slow down in my writing.
It was going to be bad news. He could tell by the look on Fraser's face. That scholarly, considering, how-shall-I-put-this? look. Why couldn't anything ever be good news around here?
"Just say it Benny, don't 'hmm' at me."
"Hmm. Er, I mean, it's not entirely, that is to say, some of it may be--"
"Spit it OUT, Fraser."
"I'm very sorry Ray, but it looks bad."
"How bad, Fraser?"
A shudder shook the entire length of Ray's body. "Termites?!" He hit the basement wall with his fist. "You've gotta be kidding me! You know how much I *paid* for that wood? Termites?!" He continued pounding the wall.
Fraser stood a few feet away from him in the dimly-lit basement, watching his friend with concern. "Ray, that can't be good for your hand. Bones are really fairly delicate in comparison to concrete." After a moment's consideration, he attempted to console the irate man. "Not all the wood is bad. There seem to be a few pieces we can salvage...."
"A few pieces! Tell me, Fraser, are these few pieces gonna be enough to redo the entire basement floor?"
"Well, no; but...."
"How about one room of the basement?"
"Well, I don't think... maybe a closet or two...."
"A closet or two." Ray closed his eyes, shook his head. "You know, you try and do a nice thing, try to make life easier for people, what do you get for it? Life kicks you in the butt, that's what."
"It's going to be beautiful, Fraser! The entire basement, refinished. I'm gonna have the entire place to myself. A little privacy, that's all I'm asking for here, is that too much to ask for? And Ma can have my room to turn into a sitting room like she's been wanting. She doesn't have enough space of her own. None of us do. There are too many people," he stated decisively, "living in this house. No room to breath." Ray was pacing now, back and forth across the length of the room, as if in an effort to emphasize his need for space. "This is a real setback, Fraser."
"Yes, but in the long run, you may be better off without this wood."
"Whaddya mean?" Ray stopped under the window and turned towards him, frowning.
"Well, I'm assuming that you want to build a floor that really lasts, something of quality."
"Of course! This is my house. That's why I paid so much to get the best wood."
"But really, Ray, this isn't the best wood you could be using." Ray's frown grew deeper. Fraser tried to explain. "This wood is perfectly suitable for quite a few things, but it's only light hardwood." Ray looked blank. "Parkia leguminosae, Ray. It's dark brown, which is rather unusual for light hardwood, that means it's heartwood. But still, I wouldn't use this type of wood for floorboards, or anything that's going to have to take a lot of pressure and wear and tear. You want heavy hardwood for a floor."
"You want me to get heavier wood?" Ray asked, in disbelief. "I almost threw my back out carrying that stuff in. Not like anyone is *this* household was willing to lend a hand."
"Not heavier wood, Ray--heavy hardwood. There's a difference in the grains and textures, the different families of the tree...." Fraser looked ready to dive into an hour-long history of the evolution of plants. Ray held up his hand to stop him.
"You're saying I've been taken. I *told* them this was for a floor, that I wanted the best they had. They said this was it. I'm going back there tomorrow and arrest them."
"Well Ray, technically you can use this type of wood for a floor--or you could if it didn't have termites, that is--so I'm not sure...."
"Well, *I'm* sure, Benny." Ray stalked back across the room, rummaged through a pile of books and papers on the bench by the window, and came up with a single slip of paper. "Look at this receipt. Just *look* at what I paid for this wood."
Fraser reached out and took the document from him, frowning as he scrutinized it. "This is very odd, Ray. Perhaps there has been some kind of mistake."
"This receipt states that they did in fact sell you heavy hardwood. And it's from Hodge's and Jones' Lumber Supplies. They are an extremely well-known business in the area of lumber, Ray. I find it surprising that they could have made such an error, or that wood so badly infected could have made it through the inspection process."
"There, you see? They were trying to rip me off." Ray seemed almost pleased with this conclusion.
"Ray, I'm sure it was an honest mistake. If you go back there tomorrow, I'm sure it can all be cleared up. As I said, they're considered the top in the business, I'm certain they will be shocked that this has occurred."
"Yeah, well; we'll see." Ray headed for the stairs. "You had anything to eat? You want to stay for dinner?"
Fraser followed Ray up. "That's a very kind offer, Ray. Are you sure I wouldn't be imposing?" They reached the top of the staircase, and turned into the kitchen. Frannie was standing at the counter, surrounded by food. She beamed at Fraser as he entered.
"Fraser! Are you staying for dinner? There's plenty of food! What's your favorite? I'll make some up."
"That answer your question?" asked Ray, stealing a piece of celery off a tray and munching away.
"Yes, thank you very much, Francesca; I will be staying if that's all right." Fraser glanced across the room. Diefenbaker was sitting next to the kitchen table, Ray's niece and nephew a few feet away. The wolf and the children were staring at each other in mutual fascination. The little girl drew her hand from behind her back, held up a cookie. Diefenbaker whined, wagged his tail, and gave her his most fetching look. She solemnly handed over the cookie to the grateful wolf, who gulped it down, then licked her hand in thanks and was rewarded with huge smiles from both children.
Fraser watched the affair with a look of disgust on his face. "I see we have abandoned dignity completely, haven't we? Have you absolutely no shame, Diefenbaker?"
The wolf barely glanced at him, flicked one ear, and turned his attention back to the children.
"He really should not be eating those." Fraser attempted to convey the message to the children that they should stop without actually ordering them to. They ignored him.
Ray snorted. "You're gonna have to do a lot better than that if you want to get someone's attention in this house, Fraser. Throw something, maybe they'll look your way."
"Yeah, that would be your solution, wouldn't it?" came Frannie's voice scornfully. "Fraser, you didn't let him con you into re-flooring the basement for him, did you? He's too cheap to hire someone to do the job."
"Shut your mouth, Frannie! I'm not conning him into anything!" Ray glared at his sister. "I just don't see the point in paying some crook to come in here, eat all my food, hang around and loaf all day and charge me too much for doing it when I've got a friend who's an expert on this type of thing and can do it better to begin with! Or maybe that makes too much sense for you to understand."
Fraser glanced at his friend in concern. Ray really did appear to be on edge, and his irritableness was growing. "It's really no problem at all, Francesca. I certainly don't mind helping out with a project as worthy as this one. But unfortunately, I don't believe we can work with the wood we currently have downstairs."
"Why? What's wrong with it?" Frannie questioned.
"Well, it appears to be infected."
"With termites, that is."
Frannie let out a screech. "Are you saying he brought hundreds of ugly horrible little *bugs* into this house? And they're spreading all over the place while we speak?"
"I did not!" shouted Ray.
"Oh, yeah?" Frannie put down the knife she'd been using to cut vegetables and turned to face him. "That was someone else who looked exactly like you carrying all that wood in here? Didn't you even check the wood out? What'd you do, buy it off the street?"
Ray truly looked like he was going to murder her at that moment. Fraser hastily stepped into the fray.
"Actually, Francesca, Ray bought the wood from a highly reputable dealer known for selling quality wood. There was no reason for him to suspect that it was the wrong type of wood *or* infected."
"You mean it's not even the right type of wood?" Frannie stopped her visual duel with Ray long enough to glance at Fraser. "What type of wood is it? Can't you use it for floors?"
"Well, this particular type of wood has a number of uses. You could use it for floors, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's a good wood for carving, so you can use it for picture frames, or maybe packing cases, and I believe that it's often used to make chopsticks with...."
"Well, that's just great!" Ray exploded. "You know anybody who's going to want to eat their dinner with termite-infested chopsticks, Fraser?"
"Of course not, Ray, I just meant generally--"
"Don't yell at him! He didn't do anything!" Frannie was as irritable as Ray by this point.
Ray took a deep breath. "I wouldn't have to be doing this at all you know, if so many people didn't live in this house. Maybe some people should get a life so the rest of us can have a little peace and quiet!" He turned and marched out of the room, attempting to slam the swinging door behind him. In the silence that was only disturbed by the displacement of air as the door swung furiously back and forth, Frannie turned back to the vegetables and began attacking them with the knife as though they were her worst enemy. Fraser was left standing alone, blinking at the sudden dearth of conversation. Only the children remained unaffected, apparently as unconcerned by hostile tones and raised voices as Diefenbaker.
Fraser sighed. "Oh dear."
He was losing his balance. He was, in fact, in serious danger of falling. If that happened, he was going to be injured when the bookcase landed on top of him.
"Um, Ovitz, I think if you would just...." Fraser let go of the left side of the bookcase for just one second, tried to reach the banister to grab hold. He couldn't reach, the bookcase teetered back and forth, and his feet were sliding. He put his hand back in place on the bookcase and leaned into it with all his weight.
"I can't believe you just let them leave! This is *their* job, not ours, we shouldn't have to do this sort of thing." Ovitz had exactly one hand on the bookcase, for no apparent reason that Fraser could determine, since he wasn't actually helping pull it up the stairs. The object of his irritation was Constable Turnbull.
Ovitz and Turnbull were station on the stairs above the bookcase, attempting to pull it upwards, while Fraser held it in place from below. Turnbull was, to his credit, putting a good deal of effort into making sure the bookcase continued its slow and dangerous journey up the stairs, rather than a fast and ugly descent back down them which would result not only in the bookcase being damaged, but possibly in Fraser's untimely demise as well.
"What were you thinking? A bookcase this size, you must have realized there were going to be problems," continued Ovitz. "Too big to fit in the elevator, barely even fits on the staircase, we're probably damaging the carpet, and with these glass doors, if we drop it, there's going to be broken glass everywhere."
"Not to mention blood," gasped Fraser, under his breath.
"Sir, if you could just grab hold for one second," Turnbull was flushed and panting, and it was obvious even to Ovitz that this battle was about to be lost. He placed both hands on the corner, and helped pull. With a great deal of difficulty, grunting, a cry of 'watch out for my *suit*!' from Ovitz, and one of 'oh, crickets!' from Turnbull, they managed to maneuver the huge piece of furniture onto the first landing.
The bookcase stood on the landing, completely filling the space between the banisters. Ovitz and Turnbull were now trapped above the bookcase on the stairs, and Fraser was left standing on the stairs below. All three fought for their breath, and Ovitz pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and began mopping his forehead. Ovitz turned towards Turnbull, and was obviously about to launch into another lecture when the front doors opened below them.
Inspector Thatcher came through, followed by a middle-aged man in a business suit.
"So, as you can see, I've completely restructured the organization of the...," Thatcher caught sight on the three of them and the bookcase on the stairs and ground to a halt. Ovitz slid slightly to the left in an attempt to place the bookcase more solidly between himself and the Inspector. Fraser and Turnbull both came to attention. Her gaze inevitably stopped on Fraser.
"What is going on here, Constable Fraser?" Thatcher folded her arms across her chest. Not a good sign.
"Well sir, the new bookcase you ordered arrived this morning."
"Yes, Constable, I can see that. What exactly is it doing on the staircase?"
"Well, you see, sir; it wouldn't fit in the elevator, and we were attempting to position it in the upstairs lobby as you requested."
"And you didn't think to have the furniture movers put it where I requested when they delivered it this morning?" Thatcher's voice had gone up a notch.
"Fraser wasn't on duty when they arrived, ma'am." Turnbull spoke up bravely from behind the bookcase. Ovitz slid even further away from him. "I did request that they move the bookcase, but they stated that such an action wasn't within the scope of their contract and that they were only required to deliver it to our address." He had gone rather pale.
"I see," Thatcher stated. "This is Superintendent Rawn. I will be showing him around the consulate. Victor, I apologize...."
"That's quite all right," the Superintendent waved her apology aside, "actually, I'd better be leaving now, I have a meeting scheduled for one o'clock. What I really regret is that I won't be here next week to help you celebrate. Or does your staff have something planned?" He looked inquiringly at the staff in question.
"Sir?" Fraser inquired.
"Victor, I'd rather you didn't...," spoke Thatcher quickly.
"It's your Inspector's birthday next week, Constable, or were you not aware of that fact?" The Superintendent grinned over at the now slightly flushed Thatcher. "She does try to keep these things to herself."
"Congratulations, ma'am. We'll have to have a party." Ovitz had slid back into view, smiling hugely, his brain visibly working away on plans to use the event to his advantage. Thatcher just looked at him. Ovitz stopped smiling. Fraser dearly wished he were on the other side of the bookcase.
Ray contemplated his lunch spread out before him with some pleasure. Sure, there were drawbacks to having Frannie living in his house. She was constantly taking up too much space, butting into business that wasn't hers, and throwing insults at him. This past week had been really rough. It would be better once he had fixed up the basement. What he needed more than anything was some peace and quiet, some privacy from his always-present family. Still, he had to admit, she made great sandwiches. Of course, she screamed when you swiped a sandwich on your way out the door, but with those high heels, there was no way she could run him down.
He reached for the sandwich, a slight twinge of guilt coming back to haunt him as he thought about his actions earlier that morning, but determined to enjoy himself now. Welsh's voice brought him out of his meditations with a thump.
"What is this, Vecchio?" Welsh leaned over his desk, a file in hand.
"This is the Turner file, Vecchio. Oddly enough, it is completely untouched." Welsh leaned over further still. "As far as I can ascertain, no human hand, or even eye, has come near this file in over a week. Strange, since I distinctly recall assigning this case to you."
"Of course, sir. And I've been putting every effort into solving it as quickly as possible." Ray wracked his brain trying to remember the conversation he'd had with Welsh about the case.
"Oh really? What exactly is the case about then, Vecchio?" Was it his imagination, or was Welsh eyeing his sandwich?
"A crime, sir?" Ray reached up, took the file from Welsh, and attempted to strategically hold it in such a way as to block Welsh's view of his lunch. Elaine had come up behind Welsh, and was watching the scene with a smirk on her face.
"That's right, Vecchio, a crime." Welsh gave up on the sandwich, and returned his gaze to Ray's face. "Those little things the public pays our salaries to solve. So let's try and keep them happy, shall we?" He sighed, threw one last look at the sandwich, and headed towards his office. Elaine took his place in front of Ray's desk.
"I want you to stay off my computer and away from my desk, Vecchio."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Elaine. Why would I go near your computer?" He reached for the sandwich. Why did they always have to complain during lunch, any way?
"I know it was you, so don't bother to deny it. You don't know what you're doing and you mess up my system. Half a file was deleted and I had to spend the entire morning re-typing it. Also, if you need office supplies, go to the storeroom, keep your hands off mine." Elaine pulled open one of the drawers in his desk and began rummaging around.
"Hey, stay out of my stuff! Maybe I did need to check out something in your files, but I'm not a thief! I'm wounded that you could think that of me." He closed the drawer quickly.
"Yeah, right, so I'm not going to find my stapler in there somewhere if I come back here later?"
"If I were you," he leaned towards her and lowered his voice, "I would really be concentrating my attention on Huey. Personally, I think he gets his paper work done far too quickly."
"Huey, huh?" Elaine was smiling now, although obviously unconvinced.
Ray grinned back, brought up his sandwich, and bit off a huge mouthful. And gagged, choked, dragged the trash can out from under his desk, and spat the partially chewed food out his mouth as fast as he could.
"Ray, that's disgusting!" cried Elaine. "You'd better be choking to death!"
Ray grabbed the glass of water off his desk and attempted to swallow the contents in one gulp, but it only made things worse. He leaned over and spat the liquid that remained in his mouth into the trash can as well.
"What are you doing?!" Elaine had a look of revulsion and alarm on her face.
"The sandwich," he gasped, searching his desk for something to try and remove the taste from his mouth. "Poisoned! Frannie! Revenge!" He found a package of saltines and tore it open. Wasn't bread supposed to help cool a burning mouth, while water just spread the problem around? Maybe crackers would work the same way. He stuffed the entire contents into his mouth, choking slightly, crumbs spraying.
Elaine had backed away from the desk. "I'm not watching this! I'm sorry Ray, but I think you should start eating your lunches outside of the station."
Ray watched her hurry away as he painfully swallowed the crackers and began searching his desk for change so he could buy something else to drink from the vending machines. His sister had sunk to a new low. She was beneath contempt. He couldn't believe he'd been sitting here feeling guilty about spiking her shampoo with food coloring this morning.
"So you see my problem, Ray."
"No, I don't, Fraser." Ray brought the Riv slowly around the corner, scanning for a parking space.
"Inspector Thatcher's birthday is next week, Ray, as I just finished telling you," Fraser stated patiently.
"Yeah, and?" There was a spot three aisles down. He hit the gas. How could a lumber supplier's yard have so many customers, anyway?
"There remains the question of what to give her as a present, Ray."
Ray maneuvered the Riv carefully into place, beaming with pleasure at the precise way the car handled. "Hand me those papers, would you, Benny? Why do you have to get her anything, anyway?"
"Well, Ray, perhaps we wouldn't have before, but the Superintendent's statements, combined with Constable Ovitz' comments, rather place us in a position where we will have to acknowledge the event in some way. And quite frankly, I'm not at all sure what would be an appropriate gift to give a superior officer."
"Yeah, yeah, Fraser, can we have this conversation some other time? You've got a whole week to figure out what to get her. Let's go in there and get my wood. Here, help me with these boards." Ray opened the back door, allowing Diefenbaker to jump out, and began pulling out the sample boards they had brought to show the supplier. He handed them to Fraser to carry.
"You seem to be in a hurry, Ray," Fraser commented.
"I'm telling you, Benny, we've got to get that basement fixed up. I've got to get some privacy before I go insane." Ray was striding up the walkway to the building, Fraser a step behind. "I'm not sure if any of them even understand what the word privacy means."
"If you don't mind my saying so, Ray, you seemed a bit more...," Fraser hesitated, unsure how to phrase his statement, "gruff with Francesca last night than you normally are. Of course, she also seemed a little..."
"She's trying to kill me, Fraser. Did I tell you that she poisoned my lunch today? They walk all over you if you let them, don't care about anything but their own problems, don't appreciate how much you do for them... especially Frannie. Although, I'll tell you, what's really unpleasant first thing in the morning is having to use a bathroom after Tony's been in there. At least Frannie cleans up after herself."
Fraser and Ray entered the building and walked into a large barn-like structure. There was a counter situated at the end where they had entered, and several men were loading boards through a loading dock at the opposite end. The atmosphere was loud and noisy, with jokes and shouts passing back and forth over the noise of heavy boots hitting the floor, and boards of wood being passed back and forth.
"Yes, but Ray, it seems like it's more than that--"
"Yo! Can we get some service here?" Ray was no longer paying attention to Fraser, instead he was pounding away at the small bell sitting on the counter in front of them. "Hey, come on! We haven't got all day out here, we're busy people!" The men across the room ignored them. A small man wearing a grey suit, grey tie, glasses, with a rather grey face as well, came through the door behind the counter and raised his eyebrows at them. He seemed terribly out of place.
"Can I help you?" he asked, in a cold voice.
"Yeah! Remember me? You sold me some wood yesterday, and I want it replaced!" Ray motioned for Fraser to put the wood down on the counter. The man peered through his glasses at the wood.
"I beg your pardon? Exactly who are you and why is it you have brought this wood here?"
Ray gestured at the pile of wood "Oh yeah, right; like you've really forgotten me already. I don't think so. I paid a bundle for first-grade heavy hardwood. Only this stuff isn't heavy hardwood, it's light hardwood. You probably thought I wouldn't know the difference."
The man looked at him disdainfully. "You have a receipt, I presume?" Ray produced the slip of paper with a flourish. The grey man delicately removed it from his fingers, being careful not to touch him. He peered through his glasses at the writing.
"This paper clearly states that you received heavy hardwood from us, Mr... Vess-see-o?" He reached down and pulled a ledger out from under the counter.
"That's *Veck*-y-o. I told you how to pronounce my name before. Bad memory?"
The grey man was flipping through pages, finally pausing and stopping with his finger pointing towards a row of figures.
"Yes, he we are. Our records also confirm that you received a shipment of first grade heavy hardwood." He snapped the book shut and looked up at Ray.
Ray stood for a moment with a look of triumph on his face before realizing that the man was not going to continue speaking.
"Okay, so we just proved you gave me the wrong wood. What are you going to do about it?"
"No, Mr. Vecchio, we have just proven that the correct order was in fact filled and delivered to you. Our records clearly show that no error has been made on our part."
Ray was beginning to flush with color. "Are you trying to tell me that this stuff is heavy hardwood?"
The man lifted the end of one board, scrutinizing it carefully. "Hardly, Mr. Vecchio. The wood is clearly of an inferior grade and standard than anything that is supplied by Hodges' and Jones."
Ray was turning bright red. Fraser, who had remained a few paces behind Ray during the conversation up to the point, stepped forward first, and placed and hand on his arm. "Ray...."
"Well?!" demanded Ray, furious.
"Where you came by the wood, I cannot, of course say. However, seeing as it is clearly not wood that we would ever sell to a customer, you cannot have come by it from our establishment." The man in grey appeared to be supremely satisfied by this self-evident logic.
Ray drew a deep breath. A vein in his forehead was throbbing. Fraser hurried to speak up before Ray could open his mouth.
"If I might interrupt, for one moment, Mr...?"
"Blaine," said the grey man.
"Well, Mr. Blaine, as I'm sure Detective Vecchio was about to explain to you here, not only did the wood in question definitely come from your establishment, and not only is it the wrong type and grade of wood, but it is also, unfortunately, infested with termites."
Blaine jerked his hand away from the wood, letting it crash back onto the counter, and actually jumped back from the counter. Ray was amazed he was capable of such an energetic action. A look of true horror and panic spread across his face as he regarded Ray and Fraser, the pile of wood, and then Ray and Fraser again. He opened his mouth, gulping for air like a fish.
"I'm afraid so," said Fraser. "So obviously, you see there has been a mistake of some kind on your part--"
"You can't bring those in here! How dare you! Do you know what the inspection board would do to us if they knew infested wood had been brought into one of our warehouses?" Mr. Blaine's voice rose in pitch with each syllable. "Remove this wood from the premises immediately!"
"Now you listen here!" Ray finally exploded. "We aren't going anywhere until I either get some new wood or my money back!" He picked up a board and pointed it at Mr. Blaine. "I know all about you guys! You think you can sell the public anything, and they won't know any better! You think you can get away with this type of crap! Well you better think again if you don't want this place crawling with police and investigators! I'm onto your scam! I know what you people are up to! I have experts in wood working for me who can tell me the forest this board was cut from, so if you think you can hide anything from me, you better think again!"
"Um, Ray...," Fraser was glancing over his shoulder at the workers on the other side of the room. Ray's shouting had caught their attention and they had put down their tools and were watching the scene playing out by the counter.
Mr. Blaine was cowering in absolute terror behind the counter. He opened his mouth and shrieked: "Security!"
"Well, Ray, it could be worse." Fraser rolled the Riv's window down a crack to let in a little air as they sped down the street.
"Oh, it'll be worse, Fraser. I'm going to make sure of that." Ray was still seething. "They're going to regret this. I'm going to have them investigated by every government agency invented. Every code violation they've committed since 1972, that's what we'll get them for."
They had made it out of the warehouse intact, and without a physical confrontation, a fact for which Fraser was grateful. Ray had been well aware of how out-numbered they were when Blaine had called in the workmen. The workmen, although dutifully responding to Blaine's orders, had seemed puzzled and worried by the situation, Ray's accusations, and Ray's badge, and were more than willing to let them leave on their own. They had made a strategic retreat, although it had been punctuated by Ray's assurances that they would return with reinforcements.
"Exactly, Ray. There are several government agencies and watchdog groups we can go to in order to lodge a complaint and insure action is taken." Fraser frowned, considering the sequence of events he had just participated in. "I must say, Ray, I'm rather surprised. I would not have expected that type of reaction from a Hodges' and Jones establishment."
"Yeah, well; they thought they could scam me, I proved to them they couldn't, and now I'm gonna make them regret trying to mess with their customers. Maybe I'll sue them while I'm at it." Ray brightened slightly at this prospect.
"Yes, that's the point, Ray. You have considerable ammunition to use against them. The wood, the receipt, the extremely expensive fines the company risks for this type of misconduct, not to mention the possibility of a civil suit for selling you infested wood that might have jeopardized your entire house. It would really have been in their best interests to listen to your story and try to come up with a solution. They have much more to lose this way. It certainly contradicts the reputation they have built for themselves in this area.
"A company's reputation is as good as what they pay their PR firm to paint for them, Fraser. They'll all rip you off in the end if they think they can get away with it. Where do I go first to start with the complaints?" Ray slowed the Riv down as they approached a light.
"Right now?" Fraser glanced at his watch.
"Yeah, right now, I can't have those termites sitting around in my basement with just plastic wrap to keep them contained forever, they're gonna start spreading to the rest of the house. I need some place else to store that wood." Ray shook his head. "Don't know who's gonna let me leave it with them if I tell them it has termites in it."
"I would suggest you start at the Attorney General's Office, Ray, but it's rather late to go there today." Fraser picked up the manilla folder sitting on Ray's dashboard. "Weren't you supposed to be dealing with this case this afternoon?"
Ray sighed. "Yeah, the Turner case. Welsh is really starting to get grumpy about that. Okay, we'll start with complaints first thing tomorrow morning. Where can I drop you, Fraser?"
Fraser hesitated. "The mall?"
"The mall? Since when do you go to the mall?" Ray turned to look at him.
"Well Ray, as I was telling you before, I really need to find a gift...."
"For Thatcher. Yeah, all right. Good luck with that my friend, it won't be easy."
It wasn't at all easy. It had been easier buying women's clothing for himself to wear undercover than it was turning out to be buying a gift for Inspector Thatcher. Fraser wandered in an almost dazed condition through clothing shops, gadget shops, and gift shops. So many items, and he wasn't even sure what many of them were meant to be. He was in the accessories department at Lord and Taylor's now, standing in front of an arrangement of flowered scarves. He was almost certain that three of the saleswomen were shadowing him. He picked up one with roses and a fringe and fingered it wonderingly. Would Inspector Thatcher ever wear something like this? Not to work, of course; he couldn't imagine her ever wearing such a thing while on duty, but on her off hours perhaps? Was such an item appropriate?
"Can I help you with something, sir?" Fraser turned towards the voice at his elbow. One of the three saleswomen stood there, the other two stood a short distance in the background, glaring at her.
"Um, actually, perhaps you can--Caroline, is it?" he asked, noting her name tag.
"That's right. Are you looking for a gift?" She nodded at the scarf.
"Yes, exactly. A birthday present." Fraser felt amazingly relieved that she seemed to have picked up on the situation so quickly. Perhaps the proper procedure was just to ask another woman what she might like to receive as a gift.
"Your wife? Girlfriend?"
"Oh, no, no no," said Fraser hurriedly. "She's a friend. Er--just a friend."
"I see. What does she like?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What sort of thing does she like? What does she do with her time? Does she go out a lot? Read? Is she into sports?" She took the scarf from him and nodded at him encouragingly. "It's good to get someone a present they'll appreciate rather than just something they'll store in the back of their closet."
Fraser stared at her blankly, a feeling of embarrassment welling up inside him. He had told this woman that Thatcher was his friend, but the truth was he had absolutely no idea what types of things she liked to do, where she liked to go, or what she was like outside of her work-place persona.
"Um, actually, she's my superior officer at work. I'm not really sure what her activities consist of...," he felt absurdly ashamed, as though he had somehow failed at an assignment. How could he know so little about her? He'd known a good deal about Inspector Moffat's personal affairs; more than he had cared to learn, actually.
"Oh, well, in that case; perhaps something less personal? Gloves might not be a bad idea at all."
Fraser regarded the rows of gloves for a moment, then shook his head. "No, I believe you were correct in your assessment. A gift should be something the person who receives it will appreciate. I can see I'm going to have to do some more research on what would in fact be appropriate." He turned towards Caroline. "Thank you so much for your astute observations."
Ray sank into his overstuffed armchair with a sigh and began the procedure of removing his shoes without actually unlacing them first. What a day this had been. He leaned back and closed his eyes. Termite-infested wood in the basement, warehouse clerks with a snotty attitude, and then an afternoon spent questioning store clerks about a series of petty thefts in their neighborhood, the last of which had been Turner's Drugstore. No one had seen anything. Why had Welsh assigned him this loser of a case anyway?
"So how was your day, Ray?" Ray opened one eye to find Frannie standing in the living room doorway, smiling with a dangerous sweetness. Ray opened his other eye. Her hair looked the same to him. Maybe she hadn't taken a shower yet?
"My day was just fine, thanks so much for asking. And yours?" he asked cautiously.
"Perfectly good, thank you." Guerilla tactics it was. "I don't suppose there's any chance you were planning on doing anything about that wood in the basement any time soon? Before this house is swarming with bugs, perhaps?"
"Don't worry about the wood, Fraser helped me seal it up safely. I need to keep hold of it for a while to use as evidence." Enticing smells were drifting through the open doorway, and Ray's stomach was beginning to protest. He had, after all, been denied lunch. "Smells good. What's for dinner?"
"Lasagna. It'll be done in half an hour." Frannie paused. "Oh, and Ray? Food coloring is absolutely harmless when diluted by shampoo." She smiled at him again. "The lasagna is my own special recipe."
Ray sighed. "Maybe I'll just go straight to bed."
The man stood alone in the dark and pulled his coat tighter around him. It wasn't particularly cold but he was shivering. In his heart, he doubted he was up to the task he had set for himself, but he had to try. He was ruined if he failed. He considered them all to be incompetent, but that didn't change the facts about what they would do to him if they realized what he'd been up to all this time. He closed his eyes and tried to hold back the panic that was welling up inside him. He opened his eyes again and studied the house across the street from him yet again. All the lights had been turned out several hours ago. The neighborhood was still and silent with a peace that comes in the extreme late hours of the night. It was almost 3 a.m. No one up and about but the racoons. And him.
*You can do this,* he told himself. *You are prepared. There is nothing that good planning cannot overcome.* He was prepared. He'd gone to those who owed him favors and, under the guise of professing interest in their line of work, had asked them to explain the proper way to carry out this sort of job. He could have asked one of them to do the job for him, but he feared blackmail. Besides, the only person you could ever really trust was yourself. Every one else was inefficient, sloppy, didn't do their jobs correctly and therefore deserved whatever happened to them for not taking the proper precautions. He drew in his breath.
*There isn't any choice. You have to do this now!* He hefted the bag he had brought with him and, peering cautiously around him, started across the street.
Frannie opened her eyes into blackness. Her throat felt like sandpaper.
*Damn it,* she thought sleepily, *every single night. Every single night I wake up thirsty, you'd think that just once I could remember to leave a glass of water beside my bed before I go to sleep.* She was so comfortable, the bed was so warm, and the floor promised to be so cold. If it weren't for her sore throat and desperate need for water, she could have simply drifted back to sleep. She lay for a few more minutes, as she did every night, trying to pretend she didn't notice. It didn't work, it never did. She sighed, swung her feet out of bed and sat up, tugged her nightgown down, and tried to coax her body into action. *Come on, come on, the faster we get down there, the faster we can get back to bed.*
She stood up and stumbled towards the door, trying to see her way through half-closed eyelids. *Careful, be careful. Don't wake Ma, don't wake the kids, don't wake the baby.*
She found the staircase railing and started down, not bothering to turn any of the lights on along her way. Through the hallway, around the corner, and into the kitchen. She found the refrigerator door, opened it, and pulled out a bottle of water. She hesitated. Drink from the bottle or find a glass? She sighed. *You're supposed to be an adult now, find a glass.* Leaving the refrigerator door open to give herself some light to maneuver by she turned around....
She found herself face to face with a stranger. In her kitchen. Holding a crowbar.
Frannie was screaming.
Ray leapt out of bed and had his gun out of his desk drawer before his conscious mind had even registered what was happening. He grabbed the door handle and stood for a second in the sudden silence; heart pounding, senses straining, awake now and trying to listen for some clue as to what was happening, where the threat was coming from. He'd heard Frannie, and thought he had heard the sound of something breaking. Frannie made things easier by resuming her screaming and pinpointing her position downstairs. The rest of the house was waking up now.
"Frannie, what's wrong! What's happening?" He could hear Ma's sleepy, worried voice come through her door.
"Hey, wha's all the commotion? It's the middle of the night!" Tony voice grumbled down from the third floor.
Ray took the stairs three at a time. He had to get there before the rest of them did, before the threat extended itself to the rest of his family. He charged into the kitchen, gun held at the ready.
"Watch your feet!" Frannie shrieked at him. "Don't point that thing at me! He went out the back door!"
"Who did? What happened?" There was broken glass and water all over the kitchen floor, and Ray wasn't wearing any shoes.
"Some guy! With a crow bar! He's out there!" Frannie was leaning against the kitchen counter and shaking, but she didn't look hurt. Ray skirted around the glass and ran out the back. He was in the middle of the back yard before he realized that bare feet, a tee shirt, and boxer shorts were probably not the best attire for chasing suspects on a chilly night. Plus, there was no one in sight. He raced back inside. The house was bedlam.
"Frannie, Frannie, sit down, come here," Maria tried to lead Frannie over to a chair through the broken bottle shards.
"Raymondo! Did you catch him? I'm calling the police!" His mother stood in the doorway holding his cellular phone.
"Hey, what happened Ray? You need some help?" There was Tony, looking very nervous, baseball bat in hand as he hovered at the back of the room. Upstairs, the baby was crying, and the kids were shrieking that they wanted to come down and see what was happening. Maria yelled back at them that they were to stay put and take care of their sister or she'd ground them both for the rest of their lives.
Ray leapfrogged his way through the kitchen. "Yeah, Tony, I could use some help. Could someone do something about this glass? Frannie, I need to know what happened. Ma, give me that phone, I'll call it in to the precinct." He collared the phone from his mother and gave Tony a small shove in the direction of the broom closet. "Frannie, how'd this glass get all over the floor?"
"I came down to get a glass of water. I *still* need a glass of water, my throat is so dry." Frannie leaned over, her head in her hands. "I turned around and there's some man in our kitchen, with a crowbar!"
"Oh, Frannie!" Her mother wrapped her arms around her. "Are you hurt? Did he hurt you? Ray, call a doctor!"
"No, Ma; he didn't hurt me. I was just scared. I screamed, and then he sorta shrieked, and I threw the bottle at him and he ran out the back door. I didn't even hit him. Didn't come close. He just took off."
Maria and his mother were both making comforting noises. Tony had a broom and dustpan in hand and was looking helpless. Ray walked back into the hallway to call for backup from somewhere slightly more quiet. The kids were halfway down the stairs, peering through the railings.
"Get back upstairs!" he shouted at them. "Didn't you hear your mother?" They turned and fled. Muttering, he tapped in the number he knew by heart and gave a quick report to the officer on duty. He turned and went back into the kitchen. Tony was on his hands and knees, trying to deal with the spill, but only managing to spread the mess further around. Maria was handing Frannie a glass of water.
"Frannie, I need to know what this guy looked like so I can tell the officers who respond to the call who to look for." Ray shivered. The back door was still slightly ajar and the cold night air was flooded the room.
"I don't know, Ray, it happened real fast." Frannie shivered as well. "Someone close that door, it's freezing in here."
"No, leave the door alone, maybe we can get some prints off of it." Ray looked hopelessly around the kitchen. The door might be the only thing they could get prints off of at this point, with so many people already trashing the crime scene. "Come on Frannie, describe what you can remember, give me something to work with here."
"Ray, she's upset...," his mother started.
"He was white. And I think he was older." Frannie closed her eyes in concentration. "He was wearing a stocking hat on his head, I couldn't see his hair. The lights were out, and he was wearing black clothing. He had a bag with him."
"How old?" Ray demanded.
"I don't know, Ray. Forty? Fifty?"
"A fifty-year-old housebreaker, Frannie?"
Ray's skeptical tone caused Frannie to jerk her head towards him. "That's what I just said, and that's what I saw. And thanks so much for asking me if I'm okay."
"Well, I can *see* you're okay. I need more information than that, Frannie." Ray began to rub his arms with his hands to try and generate some heat. "Old and dressed in dark clothing isn't going to get us very far."
"Well, that's all I can remember right now! Just leave me alone and stop nagging me and maybe I'll have a chance to think!" Frannie's voice was furious, but quavered ever so slightly.
Ray shook his head. "Memory fades in no time, you gotta write it down before--"
"Raimondo!" His mother cut him off sternly. "Leave your sister alone! She's had a bad shock."
"I know that Ma, but--"
"No, no more of this right now!"
"Fine." Ray stomped his way out of the kitchen. "What does it matter whether we catch this weirdo or not, let's just let him break back in tomorrow night, what do I care; I'm going upstairs to change before the guys from the precinct get here, you can just solve this crime on your own...." He found himself face to face with his niece and nephew, halfway down the stairs again. "*What* did I just tell you?!"
"Good morning, Ray. You look lively today," Elaine said.
Ray groaned as he tried to convince himself to drink the lukewarm coffee in front of him. "I look as well as anyone could possibly look when they spend the entire night dealing with a hysterical family, Elaine. Don't give me any grief today, all right? I've had enough already."
"No suspects on the break-in then?" she asked sympathetically.
Ray shook his head. "Patrol came down and scoured the neighborhood for me, but they didn't find anyone. And Frannie didn't get a very good look at the guy."
"Did he take anything?"
Ray shook his head again. "No, nothing appears to have been touched. He must have just been getting started when Frannie walked in on him. I'm gonna go back over the scene this afternoon, see what I can come up with. Gonna buy some new locks while I'm at it. Something I can do for you?"
"No, actually, I came to give you these messages." Elaine produced a handful of pink paper slips. "Your mom called, she wanted to know if you'd caught the burglar yet. And a Mr. Hodges called three times, he said it was urgent."
"Hodges?" Ray interest perked up.
"Of Hodges' and Jones? He said he needed to speak with you at your earliest convenience."
"Earliest convenience, huh?" Ray leaned back in his chair, and grinned. "He starting to sweat, that's what. Just realized I can take him to the cleaner's if I feel like it. Well, he can just worry a little while longer. I'll call him it's convenient. Convenient for me."
"Flowers," insisted Ovitz. "You can never go wrong with flowers. All women love flowers."
"Well I must admit," Fraser said slowly, "I did receive quite a number of flowers when I was in the hospital, so obviously it must be an acceptable sort of gift."
"Of course it is!" Ovitz beamed at his own insight. "If not a bouquet of some type, then a houseplant, something to make the house green, and something to look after." He stared at the wall of Fraser's office for a moment, obviously mesmerized by thoughts of the particular type of flowers he would purchase, then brought himself back to the present with a jerk. He glanced at Fraser and Turnbull, both seated across the desk from him. "Of course, we can't all give her flowers. And it was my idea." His expression defied them to argue with him. They didn't. They had all crammed themselves into Fraser's office in the hopes of coming up with some ideas for Inspector Thatcher's upcoming birthday, but so far, they weren't getting anywhere.
"Oh no, of course not, sir; but shouldn't we get back to planning...," Turnbull started. The door to Fraser's office flew open.
"Fraser! I need you to...," Thatcher stopped short at the sight of all three of them seated around Fraser's desk. "What's going on in here?" she demanded suspiciously.
"Oh, sir; we were just, uh...," Fraser flailed helplessly for an excuse.
"We were just setting up the duty roster for the next month, ma'am," replied Ovitz smoothly. "Making sure there are no conflicts as to when people can work."
Oh, well; all right," Thatcher did not appear entirely convinced. "But I need Fraser for an errand now, so you'll have to do this later."
"Of course, ma'am." Ovitz jumped to his feet, and all three followed Thatcher out of the office.
A delivery boy stood in the lobby, a huge and rather monstrous basket of flowers in his arms making it difficult for him to see his way clearly. Fraser and Turnbull regarded the flowers with something like awe, while Ovitz glared maniacally at the delivery boy. The flowers appeared to have been arranged by someone who had apparently never designed an arrangement of flowers. There were roses, daffodils, gardenias, posies, snap dragons, lilies, dandelions, and, incredibly, surrounding the mess, palm tree leaves. The boy peered through the foliage at them.
"Meg Thatcher?" he asked hopefully.
"Yes, that's me," Thatcher replied, rather grimly.
"Flowers for you, miss." He carefully handed the huge arrangement over to her. Thatcher stood, her arms full, and glanced around her.
"Constable, my purse," she directed towards the air in general.
"That's all right, ma'am; the tip has been paid in advance, thank you!" The delivery boy departed hastily down the stairs.
Thatcher studied the flowers in her arms for a moment, then turned and deposited the entire display in the nearest wastebasket.
"What are you doing?!" Ovitz was shocked, "I mean, I'm sorry, ma'am...."
"I hate flowers. Victor, that is, Superintendent Rawn, *knows* I hate flowers. So every year, he sends me a bigger and more hideous bouquet of flowers than the last. Complete waste of money. Nothing I say will make him stop."
"But...," Ovitz was, for once, at a loss for words.
"Even live ones, ma'am?" asked Fraser.
"Do you hate live flowers as well?"
"Well, they're nice enough I suppose." Thatcher shrugged. "But they always die on me. It's depressing. I had a cactus once. You're not supposed to be able to kill a cactus, that's the whole point. It never stood a chance." She sighed, and considered the flowers again.
"I've changed my mind. We shouldn't let these flowers go to waste. Sort them out and put them separately in vases, we'll place them around the consulate. It'll look good to visitors." She regarded the three of them. "Not you, Fraser, I'm sending you out. I know you have paper work to take care of, Turnbull. You can handle it, Ovitz."
"It's strange, Ray, it appears as though he must have stood on this spot for some time." Fraser examined the ground in Ray's backyard carefully, on hands and knees. Ray fully expected him to start tasting the dirt at any moment.
"Casing the place, you think?"
Fraser shook his head. "There's really not that much he could see from this one position. And he doesn't appear to have scouted around the house, just came in through the back gate, stood here a while, then continued on to the door." Fraser moved slightly to the left, pinched up a piece of dirt between his thumb and forefinger, and brought it to his face to sniff it. Ray tensed, and prepared to turn his head away.
"Smells like...," Fraser paused, and then placed the dirt on his tongue.
"Paprika. And gasoline."
"I'm almost positive." Fraser stood up and dusted himself off. "And possibly a faint hint of garlic as well. Interesting combination. Perhaps the individual is a chef, or perhaps--"
"You think he was breaking into my house so he could cook us a surprise meal?"
"Of course not, Ray. But he may have been planning on burning the house down."
"What?!" Ray was horrified.
"The gasoline has a slight metallic taste. From the impression on the ground, I'd say he was carrying a can of gasoline inside some type of loose sack. I can't think of any other reason to bring along gasoline on a job like this other than arson, Ray."
"That makes no sense, Fraser! If he was planning on stealing something, I could understand it, but burning the house down?"
"Is there anyone particularly upset with you at the moment, Ray? Someone who wants revenge, perhaps? Another Carver?"
Ray stood still, considering the possibilities in his mind, then slowly shook his head. "I can't think of anyone, Fraser. I mean, lots of people threaten you when you arrest them, but no one ever really follows up. Until Carver, at least. And I'm not on any cases right now that are important enough to make me a target."
"Well, perhaps you weren't the target, Ray. Francesca, or Maria, or Tony? Is there anyone who would want to hurt your family?" Fraser walked towards the back door as he spoke, and Ray followed him.
"Tony, a target? Nah, Fraser, I can't imagine any of them are really...."
Fraser had stopped and was examining the door minutely.
"He didn't do that great a job, did he?" Ray commented. The marks around the lock and doorjamb were clearly visible. Splinters of wood stood out from the first few failed attempts by the invader. "An amateur."
"But Ray, he *did* get in. And you have strong locks on your doors, they are not that easy to get through, so he must have brought the right tools, and had some idea as to how to go about using them. He merely does not appear to have been very experienced."
"It doesn't really go together, does it?" Ray tried to sift through the pieces, without much luck. "He's old, which is unusual for a housebreaker, unless he's some kind of expert, going after specialized artwork, or jewelry. But there's nothing like that here, and he brought the gasoline, so it's more likely arson. He also can't be an expert, or he wouldn't have left this much evidence. If it was really arson, why break in? To insure he killed everyone? He could have lit the fire from outside, it would have been a lot safer for him personally. What have we got here, Fraser, a first-time housebreaker who somehow has specialized tools and knowledge and breaks in to burn down houses for no reason?"
"I admit, it is rather strange, Ray. Obviously, we are still missing facts that would make this individual's actions understandable to us.
"So what do we do now?"
"Well, Ray, I suggest we go shopping."
"How about that, Benny? Perfect gift for Thatcher."
"What? Where?" Fraser turned eagerly to see what Ray was pointing at.
"There you go. Just her style, don't you think?" Ray had a huge smile plastered on his face as he gestured at the window of the women's lingerie store.
"Ray!" Fraser turned from his normal coloring to that shade of bright red that Ray always found so amusing, as he quickly turned his head away and began examining the people walking by him on the street with sudden great interest. "You are, of course, just joking."
"Oh, come on! You *said* you wanted to get to know her better!" It was so enjoyable watching Fraser get flustered.
"You know that's not what I meant, Ray. I meant her social interests."
"Yeah? So how do you know that kind of thing isn't what interests her socially?"
Fraser was edging along the street now, urging Diefenbaker to ignore all the interesting smells in this area, trying to get past the trouble spot that was the lingerie store. He stopped short as he found himself in front of a bookstore. He brightened. "Perhaps she would like a book!"
"If you don't know what kind of things she likes, how do you know what type of book she'd want to read?" Ray asked.
"Well, Ray; there are so many areas one can choose from to broaden one's personal knowledge...."
"You pick the wrong area, you bore her to death, and she ends up using it as a paper weight. Or feeding it to a passing walrus."
"Well, but surely, if we just popped in for a few minutes, we could look around, see what they have...?"
"What you're really saying here is, *you* want a book, not some gift for Thatcher." Ray knew how this would work, he'd been in bookstores with Fraser before. "We've haven't got all day, Fraser; if we go in that bookstore it'll be two hours minimum before you let me drag you out again."
"No, Ray, I assure you--"
"Don't assure me of anything, Fraser. I've seen you in bookstores, remember? You lose all track of time. You were almost late to work once, you were so entranced. And I never have anything to do but stand there, while the store clerks give me dirty looks. I'm not going in there."
"I could just look through the newer selections...."
"Right. Fine. Look, I'm going across the street to Dunkin' Donuts there and get something to eat. I'll be back in ten minutes. And you'll be right back in front of this store, okay?"
"That sounds like a good plan, Ray. I will only take a few minutes. Come along, Diefenbaker."
The wolf ignored him, remaining at his position by Ray's feet.
"...did you hear me, Dief?" Fraser queried the wolf. "Are you coming with me or not?"
"It's no good, Fraser; he knows I'm going to get... the 'D' word."
"You simply can't give him any, Ray. I'm serious, Diefenbaker, this has gotten out of hand."
Dief turned his head so that he couldn't see Fraser's face.
"Fine. He can go with you, Ray. Just don't feed him anything. You are not going to win this battle, Diefenbaker," Fraser informed the wolf's back.
Fraser turned and proceeded into the bookstore.
Ray stood in front of the lingerie store window, cruller in hand, admiring the display. Three manikins in three different colors of outfits. At his feet, Diefenbaker whimpered. Ray looked down at him.
"Sorry, pal," he shook his head. "You heard what he said. Or you know what he said, anyway."
Dief looked away from him out to the street for a moment, then back at him, and began whining.
"Can't help you." Ray took another bite. Dief's whining became more urgent. "I know how you feel, but I'm not the one to be arguing with this about."
Dief growled at him. Ray looked down in surprise. Dief had never growled at him before.
"Hey! Now, look...," Dief leaped up and grabbed Ray by the arm holding the cruller with his teeth. Ray was shocked to his soul as the wolf held on with a force sufficient to pull him over and down to the ground. He opened his mouth for a shout that remained unuttered as the air above him exploded in noise and broken glass, and Diefenbaker was abruptly on top of his head and upper body, pressing him to the ground.
Ray lay motionless, listening for further gunshots. When none came, he tried to squirm free of the wolf's weight. Diefenbaker leaped lightly off of him, returning to look anxiously into his face. Bystanders were screaming and scattering, he could hear a someone shouting for an ambulance. A woman's head rolled sightlessly past him, giving him another terrible shock until he recognized it as one of the mannikin's from the display.
Running footsteps caused him to look up, and suddenly notice the shooting pain in his right side. He clamped his hand onto his side and found it sticky with blood. Fraser was abruptly standing in front of him, concern on his face.
"Ray, you're hurt! Are you shot?"
Ray explored the injury carefully with his fingers. "Nah, Fraser, I'm okay, I think I just got hit by a piece of broken glass. It's not too bad."
"You'll need to go to the hospital to make sure." Fraser knelt in front of him, stretching out an arm to help Ray stand up.
Ray considered the situation for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, we'll go to the hospital, get me a few stitches. Then we've got an important stop to make."
"What's that, Ray?"
"We're going back to Dunkin' Donuts and buy Diefenbaker an entire box of crullers."
"They got a partial license plate," Fraser informed Ray, as he entered the curtain-enclosed space.
"Really? Ow! How partial?" Ray, sitting on the hospital bed with his shirt off, a nurse working on his side, and a put-upon look on his face, brightened slightly at the news.
"The first four digits, and a description of the car. A brown Ford station wagon."
"A station wagon? Someone tried to kill me from a *station wagon*?" Ray shook his head. "I just don't know what this world is coming to. Watch it, would you?!" He twisted away from the hands of the nurse who was dressing his side, jumping off the bed. "Your hands are freezing! Haven't you got any blood circulation at all?"
The nurse, a matronly, no-nonsense type, glared at him. "Young man, if you prefer to bleed to death, I normally wouldn't stop you, but you won't be doing it on *my* shift. It creates too much paper work. Hold still."
"You have a wonderful bedside manner; you know that, lady? Just hand me the tape and I'll finish the job."
"You should let her finish, Ray, you don't want to take any chances with that wound."
"I'm fine, Fraser; they stitched me up great. Help me find my shirt and let's get out of here."
"You are not going *anywhere.*" The nurse placed her hands on her hips and braced herself as though prepared for mortal combat. "Bandaging that injury is a job for a trained medical provider. You will sit down and let me continue."
"Oh, I will, will I?"
Fraser could tell by the expression on Ray's face that with every passing second, it was less likely that Ray would cooperate.
"Yes, you absolutely will." Ray ignored Fraser's attempts to gain his attention as he kept his eyes locked with the nurse's in a battle of the wills.
"My shirt, Fraser!"
"He doesn't have it," the nurse informed him smugly. "And you won't be leaving here without it."
"You wanna bet? I'll just...." Ray reached for the sheet covering the bed, his intent clear. The nurse moved in a manner clearly intended to block his ability to reach the bed. Fraser hesitated, unsure of what action to take in such a situation, when Ray froze, hand outstretched, as a familiar voice cut through the outside murmur of voices and shuffling sounds of medical personnel going about their business.
"Raimondo! Where is he? Don't tell me I can't come back here, I'm his mother and my son is hurt and I can go anywhere I like! Get out of my way!"
"Oh no, Ma; please don't do this," Ray whispered under his breath as he screwed his eyes shut.
"Ma'am, please, just wait one minute...." A struggle ensued just outside the curtains, and the officer who had been stationed behind them after taking Ray's statement was shoved halfway through as Ray's mother made her entrance, followed two steps behind by Frannie.
"Ray! Oh, my poor boy! Look what's happened! How bad is it? Where are the doctors? Why aren't they taking care of you? I'll have their medical licenses!"
"I'm sorry, sir, I couldn't stop her...," gasped the officer.
"That's all right! Don't worry about it! Just go back to your duties, I'll handle this." Ray shoved the man back outside, hastily dragging the curtain shut again.
"Ma, what are you doing?" he hissed desperately. "You can't embarrass me in front of the other officers like this!"
"Don't tell me what I can't do, I'm your mother! Sit down! Why is that bandage hanging off you like that? What's wrong with these people, they can't even manage a simple bandage? Who's responsible for this?" Ma Vecchio turned her attention to the only medical personnel in the area, the nurse.
"Ma'am, your son has been attended to by a doctor already, and if it weren't for his own stubborn behavior we could have finished up here already--"
"Excuses!" spat Ray's mother. "You're blaming my boy, what you mean is, you're not doing your job right! Fine, give me those bandages, I'll finish." The nurse opened her mouth to protest and Ray's mother swept forward, snatched the materials from her hands, and hustled her out of the cubicle, to the cry of "I've raised four children, you think I don't know how to manage a simple bandage after a set of stitches? What are they teaching you people these days?"
Ray watched with an expression between vexation and admiration. "You know, I gotta get her to teach me how to do that. It really saves a lot of trouble."
"I think you have to be a mother, Ray," was Fraser's opinion. His eye alighted on the other new arrival and he smiled in greeting. "Hello, Francesca; I hope you're feeling better after last night's scare."
Frannie beamed back. "I'm doing much better now, Fraser, but it was really frightening. I can't even tell you, I mean, turning around and finding a stranger there in the middle of the kitchen like that, you don't know *what* could have happened...."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," interrupted Ray. "I'd just like to tell you, your concern for me here is touching, sis."
Frannie stopped, and glared furiously at him. "Yeah, a lot like your concern for how I was last night after some stranger breaks in, you don't even ask me if I'm okay."
"I could *see* you were okay! I was trying to catch the guy!"
"Like I can't see you're not injured that bad now? The kids get worse scrapes falling down on the playground! Don't expect me--"
"Enough!" Ray's mother rounded on them all. "Benton, Francesca, go wait outside for us now! I will take care of things here. Raimondo, it's time you listened good to your mother now."
"Oh no, Ma! Fraser wait, come back, no, go find my shirt for me... Fraser!"
"Just what have you been getting involved with that would result in people shooting at you on the street?" Welsh demanded. Ray and Fraser stood before him, Fraser at attention as per usual when in the presence of a superior officer, Ray leaning slightly against a chair to give his sore side a little support. It was obviously going to be a day for lectures, Ray thought dejectedly.
"Absolutely nothing, sir." Ray avowed fervently. "Certainly none of the high priority cases you've assigned me to recently."
Welsh frowned slightly at the obvious reference to the Turner case. "Oh? And what about him?" He pointed at Fraser. "You telling me he hasn't dragged you in on some unofficial case you absolutely shouldn't be involved with lately?"
"Actually, sir, I really can't think of anything I've been, er, involved with lately, that could have resulted in this attack," Fraser assured him.
"Well, then, what's this all about?"
"What, you think if I knew that, I wouldn't be out arresting the people involved, sir?" Ray demanded. "I mean, whoever they are, they're going after me, and they could have harmed my entire family with that break-in at the house!"
"You think the two things are connected then?" Welsh's brow furrowed as he mulled over the events.
"I think they have to be, sir. Two occurrences like this, completely out of the blue, so close together?" Ray moved over slightly, and lowered himself into the chair. He was suddenly feeling very tired. Both Fraser and Welsh took note of the action sympathetically, but wisely kept quiet.
The door swung to Welsh's office swung open and Elaine entered, closing the door behind her. She had a folder in her hand.
"Have you found something then, Elaine?" asked Welsh.
She passed the file over to her superior officer. "A list of names sir. Six possible matches on the license plate and car."
"What, you mean the car that was used hasn't been reported stolen?" asked Ray in some surprise. "I mean, whoever this was, didn't they try to cover their tracks at all?"
"If it was stolen, it hasn't been reported yet," was Elaine's answer.
"Only six matches is very promising, Ray. We should be able to check out the possibilities very quickly." Fraser glanced at Welsh for permission, then picked up the file upon receiving an affirmative nod.
"And who says the two of you will be checking anything out?" demanded Welsh. "You think I'm going to assign you to head up the investigation of an attempt on your own life? That I'm not going to choose someone a little more impartial?"
"Lieutenant!" protested Ray. "You *have* to assign me to this case! I mean, it's me they're going after, it's not like you can keep me out of it at this point! And it's my family that's been put in danger."
"So, I can assign you to *assist* with the matter. You've been injured and you need to recover."
"I was barely scratched! I'm not injured...."
"Oh, dear." Fraser's voice came faintly through the argument. They all stopped short and turned to look at him.
"What?!" Ray and Welsh demanded with one voice.
"Well, actually Ray, you may find this somewhat difficult to believe...."
"What? What is it, Benny?"
"One of the names on this list. It's Peter Blaine."
Ray stared uncomprehendingly at Fraser, as his mind groped hopelessly for a moment for a face to put with the name. It came to him and he blinked. "What, who--*Blaine?* The clerk? That soulless cardboard cutout of a human being from the warehouse?"
"Who is this? Who are we talking about here?" interrupted Welsh.
"Mr. Blaine, sir, from the Hodge's and Jones' lumber company. Ray recently purchased some wood from them that turned out to be, well, not up to their usual standards, to say the least, and this resulted in a dispute between him and Mr. Blaine."
"Hodge's and Jones?" Elaine said, curiosity in her voice. "They called two more times trying to reach you this afternoon, Ray."
"Are you telling me," Welsh's voice was almost querulous in tone, "there's some clerk from a lumber yard trying to kill you, Detective, because you didn't like the *wood* he sold you?"
"Not in a million years, sir, no way," came Ray's positive reply. Fraser's head came up in surprise.
"It's no good arguing with me on this, Fraser. I met that man. I bargained with him. And I saw the fear in his eyes when we went back there with that wood. This is a man who's spent his whole life doing nothing more interesting than adding up numbers. No way are you ever going to convince me this guy had the gumption to do something like get in a car and take pot shots at people on the street! I mean, this isn't exactly your thrill-seeker type we're talking about here! He's mister play-it-safe."
"But it's just too much of a coincidence that it was his car that was used in the attempt on your life, Ray."
"Yeah, well," Ray shifted in his seat. "I'm not saying something fishy isn't going on. I'm just saying that wasn't him out there shooting at me. We'll have to check it out."
Welsh raised both eyebrows at him.
"Come on, Lieutenant! We're talking about a mouse impersonating a human here! I could safely go investigate this guy even if I'd suffered a mortal injury. He is *not* a threat."
The Lieutenant gave in. "Fine. So you go check on him. But at the first sign of anything suspicious, you call in backup. Don't try and handle this all on your own, understood?"
"Understood, sir," Ray agreed. "So where does he live, Elaine?"
He lived at 1116 East Pontisville Drive, Apt. 3D. Ray stood and watched while Fraser rapped sharply on the door. He gave him two seconds, then shouted, "Open up! Police!" Two more seconds. "Okay, Fraser, move."
Ray was already kicking the door in, gun in hand. He threw himself into the apartment. Fraser followed, more sedately.
"I believe you said something earlier about how you didn't believe Blaine was dangerous?"
"Well, yeah, but I'm not taking any chances. Someone tried to *kill* me, you know?" He and Fraser slowly split up to search the apartment. Ray carefully surveyed his surroundings. Not a sound. And the apartment looked just as he would have imagined it. Relatively bare, and neat as a pin. Light brown carpet, light brown sofa, one light brown chair and light brown curtains. A television stand with a ten-inch black and white tv, fairly old, but in such good condition Ray wondered if it had ever been used. A square wooden table with one wooden chair for meals. No knick-knacks or personal items of any kind. It was depressing. And then, in the midst of the gloom and bareness, a totally unexpected sight, almost like a mirage in the desert: the kitchen. Or, rather, Kitchen.
The Kitchen was obviously the habitat of a gourmet chef. Someone who cared about food as an art form. There were racks of knives, all shapes and sizes. Copper-bottomed pots and pans hung from hooks on the ceiling. A double oven had been installed in the wall where a normal one would have usually stood, the refrigerator was industrial-sized. Fresh fruit hung in a series of baskets cascading down from the ceiling, and a huge spice rack was attached to one wall. Bread that was oven-baked rather than store-bought sat on the center island. A row of cookbooks lined the counter, several of them little more than paper journals with handwritten recipes inside. Ray stared at the arrangement in amazement.
Fraser was standing in the middle of the kitchen, sniffing the air. He turned in a circle for a moment, then headed for the pantry door.
"Well, it would seem that we have found your attempted arsonist, Ray," came Fraser's voice from inside the pantry. He stepped back into the kitchen, and gestured for Ray to take a look. Ray crossed the kitchen and looked inside. A cloth shopping bag sat on the floor, the top of a tin of gasoline visible inside it.
"Of course, I may be leaping to conclusions, but this is not a combination one normally finds amongst normal kitchen utensils." Fraser paused slightly, "of which he seems to own quite a number, hasn't he?"
"Why?" Ray shook his head. "He's only got one chair at the table. He couldn't have been inviting huge parties of people over here for dinner every night. What was the point of having all of this for himself?"
"Well, Ray, perhaps he simply took pleasure in the joy of cooking?" Fraser suggested.
Ray turned away and headed down the hallway, searching for the bedroom. This made no sense to him. He swung the door open carefully, gun in hand. It was just as bare as the rest of the apartment. One bed, one dresser. He shook his head sadly. He had known it. A spineless little worm, with no personality, and a boring pathetic life. But that kitchen... Doubt crept into his mind. The kitchen suggested something entirely different. Ray knew what real cooking was, and just looking at the way he had cared for his tools had told him that Blaine was a real chef. And therefore, at some level, there was something important Ray had missed in his evaluation of his character.
"Ray!" Fraser's voice came sharply through the hallway from the next room, his tone setting Ray's teeth on edge. "In here!" Ray hurried out of the bedroom, and into what turned out to be a study.
One desk, immaculately arranged. One book case, with the books organized in alphabetical order. One filing cabinet, contents unknown. On the floor, in uncharacteristic disarray, were papers, files and notebooks. They were fanned out around Blaine himself, who lay slumped against the wall. A gun lay next to one limp hand, while blood and shards of bone covered the wall behind his head.
The organized chaos of the crime scene had receded. The initial waves of police officers with their flashing cameras, fingerprint powder, tape, and plastic bags had all left, followed shortly thereafter by Blaine's body in the Medical Examiner's hearse. Everything had been thoroughly prodded and poked, opened and examined. It was now late evening and all that remained was a police officer to guard the scene until the lab was absolutely certain they were through with it, and Fraser and Ray, still in the bedroom.
Fraser sat on the floor, cross legged, carefully balancing a ledger on one knee while turning the pages with glove-covered hands. Ray sat in a chair, hunched over at the desk, staring bleakly at the note he had already read a hundred times. It was short, to the point, and made absolutely no sense.
"Detective Vecchio has discovered my actions and I have been unable to destroy the evidence. I have examined my options and there is no other alternative."
It had been printed in what would have been extremely neat handwriting if not for the fact that the writer's hand had been shaking.
"What did I discover, Fraser?" Ray's voice was almost a whisper. "That he gave me bad wood? He killed himself over wood?"
"He was embezzling, Ray."
"He was in charge of the books, Ray. And apparently, Hodges and Jones must have placed a good deal of trust in him. He appears to have been in charge of their entire records system." Fraser tapped the ledger sitting on his knee with one finger. "He was keeping two sets of books. One for the public records of Hodges and Jones, and one set for himself." Fraser paused. "The paperwork and calculations in each are scrupulously noted. I can see why it would have appeared to the company that Mr. Blaine was a first-rate bookkeeper. Unless you have the second set of books, you'd never be able to tell anything was wrong."
"He was embezzling from the company?" Ray stared at Fraser, the heavy sense of frustration, confusion and anger hanging over him growing even stronger. "Stealing their money? And he killed himself because he thought I knew? Why would he think that? I didn't know anything about it! I still don't know what you're talking about!"
"It was the wood, Ray," Fraser responded quietly and patiently. "He was deceiving customers about the type of wood they were receiving. It appears he was telling people wood was heavy hardwood when it fact it was light hardwood. They would pay him the price of the heavy hardwood, he would record in the books that he had sold the person light hardwood, and then he would pocket the difference." Fraser flipped through to the end of the book now. "This book only goes up to December of last year. There must be a separate set of ledgers for each business year. "
Ray could only stare at Fraser, who continued, "...he must have realized how much trouble he was in when you came back, Ray. You still had the wood, and you could prove the wood he had sold you wasn't what he had recorded in the books. No one else had ever challenged him before. He appears to have sold the wrong type of wood only to people he thought would not be able to tell the difference."
"How can you know that? You *can't* know that! What, does his handwriting tell you that he was aiming for people he thought were suckers?" Ray's voice was strained and harsh, and Fraser did not for a second take his attitude personally.
"He kept notes, Ray. Meticulous ones, actually, detailing certain points in the conversations he held with prospective buyers. He made the switch based on how much knowledge on the subject the individual appeared to display during his initial conversations with them. He was terribly efficient, Ray. He was in charge of the books, and in charge of telling the workmen where to move different stacks of wood for customers, and when. No one ever questioned his orders." Fraser bowed his head slightly. "Very certain of his operating procedures. It must have been extremely unnerving for him when you turned up with a suddenly-expanded knowledge of the subject . And he didn't know you were a police officer, Ray. Do you remember how shocked he was? You told him you were a police officer and that you were onto his scam. At the time it just seemed like he thought you were attacking him, but he panicked when you told him who you were, and he called for security to come and remove us from the premises."
Ray felt absurdly desperate. This man had *not* killed himself because Ray had complained about some wood. No one would do that. Why did he even care? Blaine had been a smug, officious little bastard. The guy had tried to kill him, hadn't he? No, he hadn't.
"It wasn't him."
"I beg your pardon, Ray?"
"It wasn't him, Fraser. I don't care what he got up to with his books and his figures and math or whatever, it wasn't him who tried to kill me."
"Ray, all the evidence...."
"...tells us that it wasn't him. Blaine was an *accountant.* Maybe he did panic when he figured out who I was, but he didn't go driving around the city in a station wagon with a gun trying to kill me. No way, no how, and you're never going to convince that he did."
"He had the motive for wanting you dead, Ray. He thought you were going to expose him. It was his car that was used, his pantry we just found the gas can in, and the gun he used to kill himself with was the same type that was fired at you. Ballistics is running the tests now."
"All right then, tell me this, if he thought that way, why didn't he kill himself before? Why'd he break into the house and try to burn the wood? He thought he could still cover it up, Fraser; he was trying to weasel out of the situation, to destroy the evidence, and he ran into Frannie, who scared him out of his wits. Are you trying to tell me this guy who runs for his life from a woman with a bottle of water wearing a frilly pink nightgown has the nerve to try and kill a cop in broad daylight? No way, Fraser--it wasn't him. And I'll tell you what else," Ray's voice grew more confident and assured. He knew was right about this. He could feel it. "There's no way he killed himself, either. Not this guy. He was still trying to find a way out of it. Thought he was smarter than everyone else. Kept notes about how clever he was fooling customers. Thought he could break into a *cop's* house and get away with it. Thought he was some great brain, and that he could think his way out of the situation." Ray jumped to his feet, revitalized. "Let's go."
"Go? Go where?"
"To the warehouse, Fraser! It's time to find out what was really going on."
"Come on, Benny, we have to go there anyway! There are still people who have to be questioned, lots of evidence to be collected, we can let them think we think Blaine killed himself, find out what really happened."
"Benny, when you tell me something completely outlandish based on something you tasted in the mud, do I doubt you? No! So I'm telling you that, based on my estimation of this man's character, we've still got some investigating to do! Are you saying you're not going to back me up on this?"
"Ray, of course not. You're quite right that there are still a lot of loose threads that need following up on, and of course I trust your knowledge of people's character...."
"It's one in the morning, Ray. Don't you think we should wait until tomorrow?"
It was 8:30 in the morning. Frank Hodges, a man apparently suffering from a terrible shock, was wringing his hands in front of them. It was an incongruous sight from such a large, burly-looking man.
*Bet he bites the bottle caps off beer bottles to impress women in bars,* thought Ray.
"I just can't begin to tell you how shocking this all is to us," Hodges was telling them. "Blaine was always a model employee! Before we hired him, we had two other men and a part-time employee to do his job, and they still didn't do it as well as he did."
The door to the office they were all sitting in swung open, and Gabe Jones, co-partner of the celebrated lumber company of Hodges and Jones stepped in, carefully balancing a tray holding a coffee pot, tea pot, several cups, and a creamer. "I've brought you gentlemen something to help you get your day started right. After all, this is our case you're working on, and we want you to be at your best!" he boomed cheerfully at them.
It took everything Ray had to keep his disbelief and scorn from showing on his face. *Man, are these two sucking up to us! What do they think, we're some pair of morons who are going to fall for this pitiful act?*
"Thanks, Gabe, have a seat." Hodges gestured towards the nearest empty chair. "I was just explaining to Detective Vecchio and Constable Fraser here what a valued member of our staff Blaine was. Of course, he was always rather distant, but we just assumed he was a private sort of individual."
"Didn't fit in with the rest of the employees here, perhaps?" queried Fraser, while turning down an offer from Jones for coffee with a slight appreciative nod of his head.
"Well, now that you mention... I have to admit, he didn't really fit in with the other men around here. He wasn't exactly, well... that is to say, he kept to himself. Didn't really like to mix with everyone else. But it didn't matter, you see. We all knew how good he was at his job, and how much sales and profits had improved because of his presence. They may not have treated him like one of the guys on the floor, but they respected him for his talents, and always followed his orders without any problems."
Hodges shook his head in apparent disbelief. "And then some of the men reported that incident on the floor the other day to us. Where you came in and accused Blaine of running a scam? We had no idea what was going on. We've been trying to reach you to reach you ever since then to find out the details. I have to tell you, it just had us confounded."
Gabe Jones slurped down a gulp of coffee, his huge hand engulfing the teacup. "And now you're telling us that it's true, he's been stealing from us all along! You know, it may have turned out that the man was a real slippery eel, but you gotta give him credit, he sure knew how to make a profit! What a waste! That is...." he turned slightly red, as if only suddenly realizing he was in the presence of law enforcement. "Well, I'm sure you two understand what I'm saying. Real talent that could have been turned towards other purposes, right down the drain there, and all because of greed."
"Oh yeah, real loss. The world's a much poorer place for want of his presence," Ray stated acidly.
"Ray!" exclaimed Fraser. "I'm sorry, you'll have to forgive my friend, he's just--"
"Don't you worry about that, son," Hodges cut him off. "We understand that Blaine made an attempt on the detective's life. Not gonna be a lot of love lost there, I'd guess! Well, I'd have never thought he had it in him, but it just goes to show, we really didn't know much about him, did we? Thought we knew him, and look what he was really like. Embezzling, attempted murder... I'm telling you, Gabe; we gotta set up a better screening process for future employees."
"Detective Vecchio, just so you know, we will of course, be reimbursing you for your wood." Jones leaned forward and spoke with great earnestness. "And because it's our responsibility to make sure things like this don't happen here, and we failed in our duties, we will also be replacing the wood with real heavy hardwood at no cost."
"That's terribly gracious of you, considering that it wasn't your fault. Just the kind of thing I'd expect considering your company's reputation," Fraser thanked them on Ray's behalf.
"Yeah, well, whatever." Ray seemed much less pleased than he should have been by this news. "Much as I'd love to sit here and chat with you all day," Ray stood up and dusted himself off, "we actually got a lot of stuff to take care of here. You wouldn't believe the type of paperwork this type of thing generates. So. Where was this guy's office, anyway?"
"His office?" Both Hodges and Jones swivelled their heads to follow Ray's progress towards the door.
"We'll need to look through his things to make sure we have missed anything," explained Fraser, almost apologetically.
"Well, of course, I'll take you there...," started Jones.
"Just point us in the direction, I'm sure we can find our own way. Come on, Fraser." Ray was practically dancing from foot to foot in his impatience to get out of the office and the stifling phony friendliness emanating from the two cowboy impersonators sipping their tea from china cups.
"Ah, yes," Fraser stood up. "Thank you kindly for all of your help."
"Can you believe the nerve of those guys?" Ray strode down the hallway, muttering under his breath.
"I'm sorry, Ray?" For once, Fraser was hurrying to keep up with his friend instead of the other way around.
"That act they were putting on for us!"
"They were very polite, Ray. They offered to replace your wood at no cost, and you didn't even thank them!"
"Yeah, they were polite. Too polite. Trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Offering me that wood was like offering me a bribe. You want me to start thanking people for bribing me?"
"Ray, I'm not sure that you can determine that someone is attempting to deceive you on the basis of polite behavior."
"Fraser, I'm telling you those two should be professional actors, they'd win awards." Ray ground to a halt in front of an unmarked door. "Here we are." He pushed the door open and stepped in, followed closely by Fraser.
The office had obviously belonged to Blaine. It was bare, no plants or knickknacks. A pen and pencil set were carefully lined up on the surface of the desk, and nothing else. Filing cabinets lined the back wall, and a bookcase the right wall. A single picture, of birds flying, was off to their left. Completely clean.
"On the other hand, perhaps you're right,"conceded Fraser.
"What?" Ray turned to look at Fraser in surprise.
"Well, Ray, this office has been ransacked."
Ray stared at the office.
"What? How can you tell? There's nothing out of place! You could eat off the floor in here it's so clean!"
"Actually, Ray, there are several things out of place."
"Like what, exactly? The dust on the floor?"
"There shouldn't be any dust, Ray; I don't think Blaine would have allowed it. But look," Fraser crouched down by the door, "there are small amounts of dirt that have been tracked in to the office. Heavy boots. Blaine wouldn't have worn heavy boots."
"No, but someone could have come in here to speak with him," objected Ray.
"No reason for them to do so. He gave them all their orders out on the floor. That picture on the wall is slightly askew, someone has removed it and then replaced it. Blaine would have had it lined up more exactly."
Ray squinted at the painting. A frame with four sides on a wall. It looked lined up to him. "Yeah, I see what you mean, they really got sloppy trying to cover their tracks, didn't they?"
Fraser stood up and moved over to the bookcase, "All of these books are out of order. Blaine had them arranged alphabetically at his apartment. Here, there doesn't appear to be any particular order. They've just been replaced wherever there was room."
"So they were looking for something," Ray agreed. "What?"
"Possibly the same thing we are," came Fraser's reply.
"And that would be...?"
"The second ledger, Ray."
"Ah." Ray pondered this a minute. "Did they find it?"
"Here it is."
Fraser reached out and pulled a book off the shelf. Ray hurried to his side. Fraser held a cookbook in his hands.
"Celeste Smith's Cookbook for Beginners," Ray read out loud. "Blaine wasn't a beginner."
"Exactly," concurred Fraser. He opened the book. The first few pages were exactly what might be expected. Very, very basic recipes. A chapter on bread. Another chapter on soups. Fraser turned a few more pages. The midsection of the book had been cut out, and new pages, matching perfectly in size, and fitting seamlessly into the book, had replaced the missing section. Blaine's precise, neat handwriting was easily recognizable.
"They didn't look closely enough." Ray's tone was smug. He'd been right. Something was going on here. This wasn't his fault.
Fraser glanced up from the book. "We'd better leave now," he said, worry tinging his voice.
"You think they might catch on to us finding this, and try to stop us from taking it?"
"Well, that too, Ray. But more importantly, I'm about to be late for work."
"Are you done with that yet?"
"Almost there, sir." Fraser typed furiously. He'd been late, of course. And he'd arrived to find that a convention of Canadian dentists had decided to have Chicago host their annual get together this year, and all the paperwork had unexpectedly come into the office early that morning, much of it needing to be completed by that evening. Not that the dentists, or the hotels, or the Convention Hall, or the Chicago officials had needed the paperwork done. No, it was simply that the branch office in Toronto was insisting that they receive confirmation that everything would be safely cleared as quickly as possible. Wouldn't do to have law-abiding dentists stopped at the border as suspected terrorists.
Thatcher had been on the phone with her superior officers for over half and hour by the time he had arrived, was much the worse for the experience, and had nearly taken his head off when he presented himself. So now Fraser was furiously typing his way through stack after stack of forms, while Inspector Thatcher sat surrounded by even larger and more disorganized stacks of paper. She was currently on hold for no less than three different businesses, as she had discovered it took a minimum of half an hour to make it through the normal series of voice recordings and button number choices, and had decided to hit as many as possible at once in order to save time. Ovitz had been sent to the necessary hotels to make arrangements, and Turnbull had been assigned the comparatively restful job of sentry duty when it had been discovered that his typing speeds were just fractionally slower than Fraser's. Fraser wondered about that.
"No, I don't want to hold, and no, I don't want to be transferred to another officer who might know more about this subject; it's already been made eminently clear to me that no such person exists at your organization by the number of times I've already been transferred, so what I want is for *you*--yes, you--to get up from where you are sitting and find out for me... *hello*?" Thatcher paused, her face flushed red, eyes glinting, and let out an exclamation under her breath that brought Fraser's head up from his task.
"Nothing, Fraser. They simply put me on hold again," the Inspector replied with a dangerously sticky-sweetness in her voice. "Nothing I like more than being put on hold, you know."
"Yes, ma'am," came Fraser's serious reply.
"There's just no way we're going to be able to get this all done! I'm going to have to give up my weekend to deal with this." Thatcher was desperate and frustrated. "I have plans!"
"Really? What plans are those?" If Fraser had been a wolf, his ears would have swiveled in her direction.
"What difference does it make? I should be allowed some time off like the rest of the world!"
"Of course, sir." Fraser let the subject lapse for a moment, as the Inspector's wandering phone partner came back on the line, and listened to her argue fruitlessly with the woman for another five minutes before slamming the phone down, task still uncompleted. He let another couple of minutes pass.
"Some type of sporting event, then, ma'am?"
"This weekend? You were going to take in a baseball game perhaps? Or, er, something else? Set some time aside to read? Exercise?"
"I'm going to a friend's housewarming party. Now you've made me miss which number I'm supposed to push."
"Sorry, sir." Fraser searched through his piles of paper for the next series of forms. "But, if you weren't?"
"The rest of the weekend? If you weren't going to the party, what would you be doing? Visiting the museum perhaps? A nice bicycle ride?"
"Why are you asking me all these questions?" Thatcher's hand hovered over the telephone keypad as she regarded him suspiciously. "What are you up to?"
"I'm assure you, ma'am, I'm not up to anything, I was, er, simply trying, er, to find out--"
"Oh, no!" Thatcher's expression changed from one of suspicion to one of outright horror. "You idiots haven't planned some kind of surprise party for me this weekend, have you? Because, if that's it, you can call the whole thing off right now! That's an order, do you understand me?"
"Of course! No, I mean, we weren't--"
"If there's anything worse than receiving a bunch of weeds that'll die within a week, it's having a bunch of people wearing stupid hats jump out at you in a dark room yelling 'Surprise!' and expecting you to be pleased with them for doing so!" She slammed the receiver down. "I have no idea where I was on this thing!"
"I assure you, ma'am, we have no such plans! I was simply, that is, trying to make conversation to help pass the time...."
"Well, stop trying to make conversation, and get back to work. I *will* be at that housewarming this weekend, and that means we have to finish this mess."
"Yes, ma'am. Right away, sir."
Ray lay bonelessly flopped over the width of his bed, feet dangling off one side, arms hanging over the other. He was just so *tired*. Up all last night at the murder scene, up the night before dealing with burglars and police officers crawling all through his house, looking for evidence, and only four hours of sleep before having to go and deal with those bozos, Hodges and Jones. He'd tried to read through the ledger they had recovered from Blaine's office, but the words had kept blurring before his eyes, and the sentences made no sense. He'd been forced to give up. Now he simply lay on the bed, trying to muster the strength to take his shoes off. It didn't seem to be worth the effort. He let himself drift.
There were footsteps coming, from a great long ways off, it seemed, down the hallway. Ray listened to them with a distant part of his mind. Not important. They came to a halt in front of his door. Not his problem. He wasn't even supposed to be home at this time of day. Someone was knocking on his door. Go away, there's no one here. The knocking came again, more sharply. *You're going to have to do better than that, my friend.*
"Ray, open up! I know you're in there!" Frannie's strident tones came through the door.
Ray's conscious mind pulled itself up one level from where it was residing. *Go away, Frannie.*
"I need to talk to you Ray, open the door right now!
*Yeah, like that's gonna really convince me? Ma should have sent you to charm school.*
"I'll come in there!"
*Wanna bet? This is MY room....*
The door flew open so hard , it slammed full-force into the dresser behind it. The keys and change from Ray's pocket sitting on top of the dresser rattled and jumped.
Ray lurched from prone to an upright position in one ungainly movement. "Wha'a'er think yer doin?" His mind had not quite caught up with his body, and his body wasn't at the top of its form either. He gulped and licked his lips trying to get his mouth back into working order. "Get out! I'm trying to get some sleep in here!"
"Yeah, well, some of us have to work, you know!"
"So who's stopping you?"
"Like Hell! I'd be glad to see you vanishing from my line of sight, right about now...."
"My food! All the ingredients for my sandwiches! It looked like a wild animal had savaged them!"
"Oh." Ray was momentarily stumped for words. "That stuff was yours?"
"Yes, it was mine! It was all *labeled* as mine! It had a note on it that very clearly said, "Do Not Eat, Frannie's Ingredients!" She was actually stamping her feet at him, arms gesturing wildly. She seemed strangely close to tears. "What kind of moron are you that you can't even read a note?"
Ray was ransacking his memories. Had there been a note? A piece of paper or something he had moved out of his way in his single-minded determination to consume those very agreeable-looking cold cuts? He honestly couldn't remember. "It was two a.m.," he protested defensively. "I hadn't had anything to eat all day. I've been hard at work trying to protect this family! I didn't see any note. I'd have seen a note if there had been a note."
"Yeah, sure you would have--you're a detective, right?" Frannie's voice was full of bitter scorn. "Some detective you are! Our house could burn around our ears and you wouldn't know anything about it. You can't see a note written in black magic marker right in front of your face. I've got a luncheon I have to start setting up at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning, I have all this work to do, and now I have to go out and buy everything from scratch! I don't have time for this right now, and how could you *eat* that much any way? What if it had been for the family, and not for work? You're just so selfish; you take everything and don't care about anyone else. You're always deliberately doing these things to make me angry and get in my way!"
Ray was so angry he didn't know what point of her argument he should attack first. How *dare* she! He was selfish? *He* was selfish? He didn't have any privacy because he was always putting his family first. He nearly got killed and she couldn't have cared less. He *was* a good detective! He'd just been tired! In her way, was he?
Ray stood up, grabbed his jacket off the bed knob, his keys and money off the dresser, and pushed his way out of the room past Frannie.
"Hey! Where are you going?"
"Out of your way, Francesca."
Fraser worriedly scanned the precinct room without success for Ray. His desk was unoccupied, and he did not appear to be elsewhere in an area that was becoming quieter as night fell and the day shift left. Even Elaine had given up for the evening and taken her leave.
Fraser was late for this meeting as well. Thatcher had kept everyone in well after their shifts had ended in her efforts to make a dent in the work before them. Because of the extra work, he had still been at the consulate when Frannie's phone call had come in.
"Looking for Vecchio?" Detective Huey's voice broke into his reflections from just behind his shoulder. Fraser turned to face him.
"Yes, actually, I am. He said he would be here and requested I meet him this evening."
Huey nodded, grinning. "He's in Interrogation Room #2."
"Really? Why...?" Huey was already walking away as Fraser started the question. Fraser blinked at the detective's retreating back, then headed towards the interrogation room with Diefenbaker padding along behind him. He pushed the door open cautiously, peering into the unlit room and allowing his eyes to adjust. A standard brown police blanket was draped over a form lying on top of the table, another stuffed under the individual's head for use as a pillow. "Celeste Smith's Cookbook for Beginners" lay a few feet away. All that could be seen otherwise were a pair of shoes at one end, a bit of hair and forehead at the other.
"Ray?" called Fraser, softly. No response. "Ray?" He tried again.
"I hear ya," came a muffled voice from somewhere under the blanket. "Just sit down and give me a minute or two, would you?"
Fraser turned on the lights, pulled a chair out from under the table and sat down as ordered, carefully placing his hat on the edge of the table. Diefenbaker crawled under the table and lay down.
A few minutes later, a huge sigh was heaved, and the top of the blanket was thrown back.
"You're sleeping in the interrogation room, Ray?"
"It was this or one of the holding cells, Fraser. Some of us need to sleep once in a while, you know. We don't all go around looking like we just woke up, ironed our clothes, and had a nice cup of coffee, twenty four hours a day, you know."
"Of course not, Ray." Fraser hesitated. Should he bring this up? Get involved? He felt like he should, but perhaps it was personal. "Frannie called me at the consulate this evening."
"Frannie called you at the consulate?"
"She was looking for you." No response. "She seemed to be worried you were upset."
"Yeah, well; she'd certainly know, wouldn't she?" Ray sounded terribly sour, and to Fraser's ears, hurt.
"I'm not entirely sure what she was talking about, or course, but she seemed very concerned about you. She said she couldn't locate you at the station house. She also said she'd been under a lot of stress, and no one seemed to appreciate that, and she was afraid she might have gone taken it out on you a little bit, even if you had been, er... a jerk."
"I think she was trying to apologize, Ray."
"Think so, do you?"
"Perhaps you should call her, Ray...."
Ray swung himself up and off the table, throwing the blanket onto the floor. "We're not discussing this, okay? You just leave my sister to me. We got more important things to think about than *her,* anyway."
"All right, Ray," Fraser retrieved the blanket from the floor and folded it. "Have you had a chance to go through Blaine's ledger?"
Ray heaved another sigh. "Not yet. Stuff happened."
Fraser nodded, picked up the cookbook, and began to read through the entries. This gave Ray some time to straighten out his clothing, grab the other blanket, and wander out of the room in search of coffee. He returned a few minutes later with two cups from the vending machine.
"Thanks, Ray." Even Fraser found coffee useful at times.
"So, what does it look like then?"
"Well, it starts off very much like the first ledger, Ray. Selling customers light hardwood, and claiming it was heavy hardwood. Recording it as light hardwood, and pocketing the difference. But there's something...."
"What? He make a math error?
Fraser shook his head. "He seems to have changed his operating style a few months ago. He was still selling people what he claimed was heavy hardwood...."
"He doesn't appear to have been recording the sales at all. He simply sold the wood and pocketed the entire amount, rather than just a percentage. He didn't record the sale as being of heavy hardwood, or light hardwood, or as even having taken place. He has you recorded as just such an entry, and we know that what he sold you was not in fact heavy hardwood."
Ray puzzled over this for a moment, then shook his head. "It doesn't add up, Fraser. How did he account for the missing light hardwood?"
"Well, he didn't."
"But he had to. I mean, claiming wood is a different grade is one thing, you could get away with that for a while without anyone noticing. But not even recording the sales? How did he account for all that missing wood? Didn't anyone ever take inventory or ask where it was all going? For that matter, where was it all coming from?"
Fraser stood and stared at the book in front of him.
Fraser looked up, a perplexed expression on his face. "I don't know, Ray. You're right, it doesn't add up, but the statements for the light hardwood don't appear anywhere on these books. I don't know how he was managing to keep the missing wood a secret."
"Let's find out."
Fraser nodded. "Tomorrow morning...."
"No, Fraser, let's find out now. They're not going to tell us anything we don't know already, and if we let on that we have suspicions, they'll just destroy any evidence that still exists. So, we go find out tonight, before they have a chance to clean up their act."
"We still don't know that Hodges and Jones actually had anything to do with this, Ray." Fraser put the book down and placed his hat back on his head. "All the evidence still points to Blaine working on his own. They may have had entirely innocent reasons for searching his office."
"You're wrong, Fraser. I *know* they're behind this. I just know."
We can't park here, Ray."
"I just did, Fraser."
"No, I mean it's illegal."
"The sign clearly states 'No parking anytime,' Ray."
"Fraser, there *isn't* anywhere else to park. We park any closer, someone will see the car. Any further away, we'd never make it back to the car in time if we needed to get out of here in a hurry or follow someone. Anyway, it's the middle of the night. Even the most obnoxious of the metermaids have gone to bed by now." Ray opened the door and climbed out. Fraser and Diefenbaker followed suit.
"Well, all right, Ray, but I must say, I don't think this is wise."
"And it's not whether or not you get a ticket, you realize, it's the *principle* of the thing; the spirit, rather than the letter...."
"Shut *up,* Fraser."
They reached the boundary of the warehouse grounds. The metal chain link fence was chained, but loosely and not locked, as though someone had recently used it and was not immediately ready to tighten up security for the night. Ray squeezed through and held the gate for Fraser, who in turn held it for Diefenbaker. They scouted around to the back of the building where the extra supply houses were located, as well as the loading dock. Ray peered through the darkness.
"So, what are we looking for here, Fraser?"
"Yes, I know *that,* Fraser, but all wood looks pretty much the same to me, or we wouldn't be here now, would we? What kind of wood?" Sometimes Fraser could be so dense.
"Well, if we could find where they store their light hardwood, that would be a good start. Then perhaps we can determine how Blaine disguised the fact of his thefts from the company." Fraser glanced over his shoulder. "I'll check out the second storage warehouse."
"All right, I'll look around the building and see if anyone's left any doors open."
"That sounds good, Ray." Fraser walked off with Dief trailing him. Ray watched his distinctive figure cross the lot, the Stetson making him easily recognizable to anyone who was looking. He supposed he should be glad Fraser hadn't worn his uniform.
The main warehouse was locked up tight. They took their security seriously here, it seemed. No one was going to be stealing from them from the outside, it was only the inside they had failed to take into account. Ray stopped his circuit of the building by the loading dock. A large trailer truck was parked there, pointed towards the main exist. There was no back to the vehicle, only a flap of burlap hanging from the top which had been pulled to one side. Ray placed his hands on the floor and climbed in.
Mostly empty, with some round metal drums off to one side. Ray walked over and tried to see what was in them. Sealed tight. They couldn't be empty through, as they were too heavy for him to move. Was that something behind them? A plank of wood on the floor of the vehicle? Ray lay on his stomach and stuck his left arm between two of the barrels. His hand closed on something wooden and un-sanded, and he cursed as he gave himself a splinter. The wood was too long to pull through at this angle. Ray attempted to turn it vertically to pull it through the space. The board hit something with an audible clang, and Ray froze. Something rumbled loose, and the massive barrels shifted. Ray stared at his arm in disbelief. He was pinned.
Ray tugged at his arm. It refused to budge. He tried again. Stuck. He looked out across the yard. There was Fraser, in front of the other warehouse.
"Fraser!" he hissed across the lot. He was too far away, Fraser didn't even turn in his direction. "Fraser!" He tried again.
He could hear the voices now, drifting across the yard. Apparently, so could Fraser, because Ray saw him stiffen, then take off at a crouching run to hide behind a pile of timber, with Diefenbaker right behind him. Ray, unable to take similar action, simply froze and held his breath.
Gabriel Jones' huge figure lumbered into view, followed by two equally massive-sized men in coveralls.
"So, you understand, this is the same run as usual?" Jones' easily recognizable baritone rumbled across the lot.
"You got it, Mr. Jones."
"Good. Same procedure, just a different pickup and storage point for a while, until things settle down here again. No point in taking chances. Oh, and make sure those fools didn't bring in any bugs with them this time."
"No problem, Mr. Jones; we know the procedure." The two men had separated from Jones and were headed in his direction. Ray tried to meld his flesh into the metal floor of the truck. Jones vanished towards the front of the building.
Ray sighed in relief as both men left his line of sight. He listened to their footsteps. They were climbing into the front of the truck! The truck's engine grumbled, then roared into life. Ray tugged frantically at his arm.
Fraser and Diefenbaker chose this moment to emerge from their hiding place. Ray could see Fraser survey the yard, then stop when he spotted Ray. Fraser raised his arm and gestured for Ray to join him.
"I can't, you idiot!" spat Ray, under his breath, using his right arm to gesture towards the trapped condition of the left one. The truck audibly shifted gears. Even in the dark, Ray could see realization dawning on Fraser. The truck rumbled slowly forward, and Fraser began to run in his direction, Dief leaping to follow. The truck was moving now, slowly at first, but gaining speed rapidly. Fraser put on speed as well, closing the gap a bit as the truck maneuvered for the now wide-open gate and turned onto the street. Diefenbaker flowed past Fraser in pursuit of the vehicle. The driver gunned the engine, taking the street at well above the speed limit. Ray could see something akin to panic on Fraser's face as he put on one last burst of energy, and tried to sprint the rest of the distance. He'd been less than ten yards away, but he was losing ground now. He wasn't going to make it.
But Diefenbaker did. Bunching his muscles at the last second, he heaved himself forward and onto the floor of the truck next to Ray, panting heavily.
"Nice jump, Dief! Come to rescue me again?" Ray gave him an absent pat with his free hand, then looked back out at the road. He watched as Fraser's figure dwindled and vanished, still running in pursuit of the truck.
Fraser sprinted desperately back the way he had come, across the warehouse parking lot, over the bushes, around the corner. They only had a few minutes start, he could catch up with them in the Riv. Of course, Ray had the keys, but he was fairly certain he could hot-wire the vehicle. He'd have to break a window to get inside in the first place, and Ray would *not* be happy about that, even if he was going to do it to help rescue him, he could already hear Ray's acidic comments on yet more damage done to his beloved vehicle in his head...
He stopped with a suddenness that would have caused most people to fall over. The street was dark and deserted. Completely empty. No Riv in sight.
It had been towed, of course.
Ray lay on his stomach, watching the yellow lines of the highway blur in and out, in and out. Dief lay besides him, panting into his ear. Ray sighed. He was fairly certain that these things didn't happen to other people. Stuck on a truck with a deaf wolf headed who knew where in the middle of the night all because of some dead accountant who'd sold him some rotten, stolen, termite-infested wood, when all he'd wanted was some privacy.
Diefenbaker licked his ear.
"Euww! Don't *do* that!" Ray shifted around to face Diefenbaker. "Too much self-pity for you to stand, huh? Okay, let's see what we can do about getting me out of this before Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum come back here and find us both." He considered the situation for a second. "How good are you at bracing yourself against solid objects, Dief?"
Fraser walked along the side of the road, terribly worried. It was late, and dark, he was miles from any public transportation, and Ray was out there somewhere, alone. Well, not alone. He had Diefenbaker with him. He tried to take some comfort in this thought. He had tried calling for a cab, but they had refused to come and pick him up in this neighborhood at this time of night. He had tried hitchhiking, but the cars were few and far between, and the four that had gone past so far had ignored him. He closed his eyes for a second and calculated. He was, what, 19 miles from home? Perhaps the next time he came to a phone, he should call the precinct. And tell them what, exactly? Lt. Welsh wouldn't be on duty at this time of night, and it would be a difficult situation to explain even to someone who knew them. If only....
His thoughts were cut off by the sound of an approaching vehicle. He turned to face the oncoming car, shading his eyes with one hand and sticking his thumb out as far as he could manage. The car continued its current speed unabated. It was only ten yards away now, and showed no signs of slowing down. He began to lower his arm in resignation. The car came five more yards, and the driver slammed on the breaks with a high pitched squealing. Fraser winced. He could smell the rubber. He ran over to the window of what turned out to be a small red sports car.
"Hello there! My apologies for stopping you, but I'm in rather a predicament...." He trailed off. There were two women in the front seat, both in their mid-twenties, a blond and a brunette. He found the expressions on their faces, although friendly enough, somehow terribly alarming.
"Okay, are you ready? On three, Dief. Are you watching my mouth? I'm going to count, and the important number here is three." Ray had maneuvered his body into an improbable and rather painful position, with his arm still trapped, but his feet up again the side of the barrel, ready to push. Diefenbaker was standing with his side against the same barrel, watching Ray's face closely.
"All your weight, Dief. Okay, here we go, one, two, three, push!" Ray extended his legs as far as they would go, and tried not to think about pulled muscles and how long it took to recover from them. Diefenbaker made a strange sideways hop and threw himself against the barrel. The barrel jolted. Ray had been prepared for a long and drawn out battle. In actuality, all it took was a second, the tiniest of gaps opening for just a moment, and then the combined force of his own pushing and Diefenbaker's effort caused his arm to come free with an abruptness that sent him flying backwards. One arm and leg fell out the back of the truck. Diefenbaker fell forward, grabbed his shirt with his teeth, and braced himself.
Ray dragged himself back into the vehicle, gasping.
"Urgh! Thanks again, Dief. You're really earning your pay this week, you know that?" He sat up shakily. "Of course, now we've got to figure out a way to get off this truck."
As if in response to his words, the truck took a left turn, and began to slow down. Ray grabbed the side of the truck and peered around, trying to see through the darkness to determine their location. For a minute he wondered if they'd been driving in circles for the past half hour. They were coming up on another warehouse, almost identical to the one they'd just left behind.
"Okay, Dief, we're going to get off this thing in a minute. When I say jump, you jump, okay?"
Dief whined anxiously at him.
"Yes, I can too jump down after you without breaking my neck! You'd never ask Fraser that, would you?"
"I really think it would be better if I sat in the back," Fraser repeated, for the third time now. He was terribly, terribly uncomfortable.
"There isn't any back seat," replied Kelli. "Just a little bit of space for storing stuff. You'd never fit."
"Oh, I really think I could manage...."
"Don't be silly!" cried Tammi, on his right. "You're fine right here, there's plenty of room, we don't mind at all." She twisted her arm around his elbow and smiled happily at him.
'Here' was the front of the very small red sports car, sandwiched between Kelli and Tammi, in a two-seater that had definitely never been meant to accommodate three adults in the front. This resulted in much more actual physical contact than Fraser really thought was appropriate, despite their kindness in stopping for him.
"So, are you some kind of cop or something?" asked Kelli, gesturing with one hand towards his hat.
"Yes, I'm a Constable with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and I can't help thinking, it might be a good idea to put your hand back on the wheel...."
"Really?" Tammi was impressed. "A Mountie? You know, I've always just *loved* these hats you wear." With one swift movement, she snatched it off his head.
"Oh!" cried Fraser, rather shocked. He tried to turn to reach for it, but there just wasn't enough room to move without hitting the steering wheel, or a body part, with the concurrent possibility of crashing the car. He considered this momentarily as a possible solution, but discarded it. "You really shouldn't hold it that way...."
"These hats, like, convey such dignity somehow! And the red uniforms, too; they're just great, I wish we had those here in America." Tammi sighed with pleasure and carefully fitted the Stetson onto her head.
Fraser gave a slight shudder and sank back into the seat. He tried to focus on the road in front of them instead. "You know," he said, after a moment, "I really don't think this is the way to the precinct."
"Oh, don't worry," said Kelli brightly. "I know a shortcut."
"You got the game on that radio?"
"What game? It's the middle of the night!"
"There's always a game somewhere," came the obstinate reply. "Why've you always got to being playing that music with people singing in foreign languages anyway?"
"It's called *culture.* Some of us like to add a little of it to our lives. It makes us civilized."
"Yeah, right, like you're really civilized. That's why I found you passed out on the couch all covered with potato chips when I came over last weekend. Bet that involved enhancin' your culture, too, huh? Turn on the game, already."
Ray listened to the conversation between Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum with a combination of disbelief and boredom. For *this* he'd risked life and limb jumping on and off trucks all evening? He and Dief lay on the floor behind a stack of crates on one side of the warehouse. Dee and Dum sat next to a bench on the other side of the building, fiddling with the radio. By jumping off the truck, and then running like hell, Ray and Dief had managed to get inside first and hide. After all, he hadn't come all this way to give up before finding out what was going on around here. Instead, he was now listening to an argument that had turned to the topic of the merits of using a toothpick after eating in a restaurant.
"Women, they don't like to see stuff in your teeth when you go out with them. It's unromantic. So you just go find a bathroom for a few minutes." Dee was explaining this bit of dating etiquette in complete earnestness to Dum. Ray wanted to cry. Instead, he hit his head against the floor softly a couple of times. Dief licked his face again.
"Hey!" Someone outside was shouting through the front door. "You guys in there?" The door swung open, and a third oversized man in coveralls came through. It's the long-lost triplet, Tweedle-dumbest, Ray decided, after one quick glance.
"We're here, take it easy. You got the wood with you?" Dee gave up on the radio, and shoved it over towards Dum.
"You got a full load?" Dum demanded of Dumbest.
"Of course I do, we always supply a full load, you know that," came Dumbest's defensive answer.
"Yeah, well, we gotta check it over this time. You brought in a bunch of termites with that last batch. Boy, were the bosses pissed about that."
"Termites?" Dumbest sat down as propped his feet up on a nearby stool. "So what? I mean, it's not like it matters if the wood's any good anyway, does it? If it were quality stuff, we wouldn't be shipping it south. This stuff isn't gonna get inspected like the stuff they sell to American customers. They sneak it over to contractors who can avoid the authorities over there."
Ray perked up. This was more like it! *It's getting interesting,* he mouthed at a perplexed-looking Diefenbaker.
"It's not the wood that matters, it's the trucks. We use the same trucks to ship both types of wood, the trucks get contaminated, the good wood gets infected, the inspectors get suspicious and want to know how the wood could have gotten to this point without anyone noticing. That's when they start sniffing around asking question." Dee's voice had taken on a lecturing, teacherish tone. "After all, the main business, that's all supposed to be on the up-and-up, above reproach, you know? That's what makes it such a great cover. The company's sterling reputation and all. They account for all the wood they sell. Everyone knows they'd never sell illegally logged timber."
"Is that why we hadda change locations? Can I have one of those beers? So we wouldn't end up bringing any bugs onto the warehouse grounds?"
"Nah," Dum was pounding on the radio with his fist. "That's not it. You'll never believe it! That old stuck-up snobby bastard, Blainesy; he was stealing from the company!"
"That stiff in the suit? You gotta be kidding!" Dumbest had his beer now, and was happily gulping away.
"Yup! Right out from under us!"
"Nah. Don't believe it. Not him."
"He was!" insisted Dum, with all the eagerness of a child who has juicy gossip to impart. "He found out about the extra wood somehow. He had part-time day shift workers move small stacks of it out of the second warehouse into a back room in the main warehouse--they didn't know nothing about it, just followed his orders. He was selling it on his own, without anyone noticing, right out from under us!"
"What, you serious?"
"Yup! No one inventories this stuff till they get it to the warehouse in Mexico, so no one noticed we were missing anything."
"So, how'd you figure it out then?"
"Some cop came in and started yelling at him about bad wood, right there on the floor in front of everybody! Well, Jake and I heard him, and we reported it to the bosses, and they checked into it. Sure enough, the cop was right; Blainesy, he sold him some of the wood what's never supposed to be sold through the company legally. Now we got cops and Mounties and people crawling all over the place, and we gotta be careful for a while."
"What?" Dumbest rose abruptly, knocking his chair over. "The cops are on to us? Why are we just sitting around here then?"
"Calm down. Pick that chair up! No one's onto us; they just think Blaine was stealing from the company, that's all. He made it easy for us. Tried to break into the cop's house to get the wood back or somethin'. So when we found him and made him tell us what he'd been doing, and everything was already set up perfect. All we had to do was take a shot at the cop and plant the gun at Blaine's house. There's no one left around any more that knows anything about this."
Ray was sitting up now, grinning from ear to ear. Never mind that he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of homicidal Neanderthals who'd probably kill him if they saw him. Never mind that his finger hurt from the splinter, his arms hurt from the barrel, his stitches hurt from the "accident" that had been arranged for him by these dimbulbs, and his ankle throbbed slightly from his landing off the truck. He'd been right!
Just wait until he told Fraser.
Ray considered his options. The Tweedle family had gone out to inspect the wood. The trick now was to get out of here alive--preferably with one of their vehicles, so he wouldn't have to walk all the way home. He wasn't even sure where he was. He inched forward and looked around the warehouse. He was going to need a knife. Of course, if he were Fraser, he'd have one strapped to his leg. Instead, he had a spare gun occupying that space. Considering his current position, he felt a good deal more happy knowing the gun was there. There had to be something sharp on the work bench over there, right?
"Hey, Dief," he whispered. Dief looked at him questioningly. "You think you can create a distraction or two for me?"
"No, I'm fairly sure this isn't the way." Fraser's voice had taken on a fretful tone.
"Relax. We'll get there. No hurry, right?" Kelli stretched out one arm and rested it on his leg.
"Well, actually, there's quite a bit of a hurry. A man's life may be at stake."
"Really? Is he a Mountie, too?" Tammi leaned against him, his Stetson now in her hands.
"No, actually, he's a police detective. I'm fairly sure I know how to get there from here, why don't I give you directions?
"Kelli, does the engine sound strange to you?" queried Tammi innocently.
Ray crawled along on hands and knees through the long grass and dirt. No moon at this time of night, which helped. As far as he could tell, the two trucks were the only vehicles out here, which helped even more. He lowered himself even closer to the dirt. He could see their feet and hear their voices now. He had decided to disable the truck with the wood on it, rather than the empty one he had arrived in.
"I'm telling ya, there's nothing wrong with this wood! It's just fine! Let's just load it into the warehouse, or onto the other truck, whatever you've got planned...."
*Careful now.* He reached out and stabbed the truck's tire with the letter opener he'd found. It took a lot of force to shove it in. Was that going to be enough? How fast would the tire deflate? He shoved it in a second time, then a third. Go around now, get the second tire....
"No, once we know it's okay, we're taking it right to the border. We ain't gonna be leaving stuff around where it can be found or stolen this time."
*That's it, just don't pay any attention to me over here.* He was terribly close to them.
Diefenbaker, several dozen yards off to their right, began to bark.
*Nice timing, Dief.*
"Hey! Shut up, you stupid dog! There's a dog on the property, Jake!" cried Dum.
"So? Just go chase it away!"
"I dunno. He sounds sort of big to me."
Ray was running in a crouched position now for the second truck. *Grab the door, open it, we're in! Now--find the wires, jump-start this baby....*
"You've got a shot gun in the warehouse, right? Go get it!"
Ray's heart lurched slightly upon hearing Dumbest's command.
*This would probably be a good time to speed up our escape.* He flicked the wires together. One, two... they sparked, and the engine roared to life.
"Hah!" Ray shouted triumphantly. No point in being quiet now. They'd seen him and were coming this way. He leaned over and opened the passenger side door, then hit the gas.
"Hey! Who is that? Get the gun, Jake!"
Two of them were coming after him now. Ray rolled the truck along the dirt road, trying to get a feel for driving a vehicle this big. "Hurry up, Dief," he muttered. He watched their approaching shapes in the mirror. Tweedle-Dum was making good time, he was midway along the side of the truck. Tweedle-Dumbest obviously hadn't worked out for some time. He was listing and staggering badly and, as Ray watched, fell off to one side of the road, clutching his side.
"Come on, come on; where are you Dief?" Dum was almost level with the door now, and Ray was scared that if he went any faster, he'd end up leaving the wolf behind.
Diefenbaker emerged quite suddenly and unexpected from the tall grass. With quick, graceful strides he caught up... and leapt onto Dum's back, knocking him over. Another few strides and he'd reached the door and leaped up and onto the passing seat. Ray slammed his foot down. Behind them, a shotgun fired and a found its mark in the back of the truck. Ray heard the barrels rattle, decided the shooter must have hit one of them.
He took the corner far to sharply, but then they were on the highway, and safely away.
He grinned at Dief. "Not bad, huh?"
"I can't believe you let that dog knock you over, Curt." Jake shook his head and stood up from examining the tires on their second truck. "He cut up both these tires real good."
"It wasn't my fault! I didn't see him coming. He took our truck, Jake," whined Curt.
"Oh man, I don't *believe* this. Who was that guy?" The third member of their party was leaning heavily against the truck. He still hadn't recovered from his attempt at running.
"That was the *cop,* Jake! The one from out on the floor, the one who was in with the bosses! Do you think he heard us? What are we going to *do,* Jake?" Curt's pitch went even higher.
"That was a cop? I'll tell you what we're gonna do! We're gonna fix the tires and get the hell out of here!"
"Shut up, Morrow. Stop panicking. Gimme the cell phone, Curt."
"The cell phone, Jake?"
"Yeah, that's right. There's a call I need to make."
The other two men stood and watched as Jake punched in the numbers.
"Mr. Hodges? This is Jake Satterly. Yeah, I know what time it is. But we've got a real problem here, and it can't really wait."
Detective Jack Huey yawned hugely and stretched his arms out as he stood on the steps of the 27th Precinct. He couldn't believe he was leaving work at this time in the morning. What was worth this kind of grief? He had to get a social life, before Vecchio started in on the mantra that he always used with Elaine. He could hear it now: "You have no life, Huey." If he didn't do something soon, it would be true.
A small red sports car came roaring up the street, and squealed to an abrupt and ugly stop right in front of him, one wheel rolling up onto the curb. Huey stared in amazement at the nerve of it. This was a *police station.* He wondered if he should ticket them. It simply didn't seem right, somehow. The passenger side door of the vehicle was flung open.
"Nononono! I'll be fine now, I assure you...." A terribly familiar, if slightly panicked, voice carried from the car to his ears.
"We can wait for you! If your friend isn't here, we can help you find him!" A female voice this time. Huey could see her now, a brunette wearing a short dress as though ready for a night on the dance floor, apparently attempting to block the way to the door.
"Really, I'm sure he's here, and if he's not, I may have to wait for quite a while." Fraser could be seen now, actually trying to climb *over* her in his attempts to escape the car.
"We'll come with you! You'll need company while you wait for him." There was a second woman behind the steering wheel, a blonde. From where Huey was standing, it looked like she was holding onto Fraser's foot to try and keep him from climbing out.
"It's a police station! I'm afraid unauthorized civilians wouldn't be allowed in the back. I really like to thank you very much for bringing me all this way...." Fraser's Stetson came flying out of the car and landed on the sidewalk. Huey watched as Fraser placed both hands on either side of the door frame and used the leverage to heave himself out of the car.
"Benton, wait! Let me write down my phone number for you! What did you say your number was again?"
"I don't have a phone! Thankyoukindly!" Fraser shouted back at them, scooping up his Stetson as he raced for the stairs. He paused for a split second next to Huey. "HaveyouseenRay?" he blurted.
"Right." And he was gone, racing up the stairs and through the doors into the station.
"There, you see?" came a plaintive voice from the interior of the car. "I *told* you we should have had the car break down and hidden the distributor cap." The door slammed, the small red car roared off again.
Yeah. He just *had* to get a life.
Devilled eggs, and cold cuts, chips on one side, dips right next to them. Lots of vegetables, she'd have time to chop them up once she got there, and be sure to put the tomatoes on top so they didn't end up smashed all over the place. Breads and crackers on her left. Potato salad and cole slaw. Lots of bagels and different flavored cream cheeses. Frannie stood by the open back door of the station wagon in the driveway of the Vecchio residence in the early twilight darkness, shivering slightly from the morning air, and counted through the packages, mentally trying to reassure herself that she had not forgotten anything, despite all the last-minute prepations she'd been forced to make. Getting this job at the last minute, then having Ray single-handedly demolish half her inventory was just not the best for her nerves.
*This'll be fine.* She took a deep breath. *Better than fine. We'll make sure this is a stunning success.*
There now. She placed the last box inside the car and closed the door.
"Francesca Vecchio?" She never heard him approach. She spun around to face the unexpected visitor.
"What? Yeah? Who are you?"
"Afraid you're going to have to come with me. We need your help to deal with a problem we're having, see?"
Ray was singing, off-tune and badly, mangling the words in uncaring cheerfullness as he drove the truck down the highway. It was barely dawn. The sun was coming up and turning everything a pinkish hue. He had no idea where he was, but that didn't matter. He'd figure it out. He'd figured out this case hadn't he?
"Tell you what, Dief. We'll go get Fraser now. Where do you think he'll be? The station? He's probably been there and left already when he didn't find me. We'll check at my house first. Then we'll go to the precinct, and tell Welsh we just single-handledly solved a huge timber smuggling case that no one even knew was taking place, and a murder everyone thought was a suicide. How does that sound to you?"
It sounded pretty good to him.
Fraser climbed out of the cab, hat in hand, and called, "Thank you, kindly!" after the disappearing vehicle. He'd given up waiting at the precinct. Time to check in at the Vecchio home.
He hesitated at the front steps. If Ray weren't there to answer the door, he'd be waking the family up at a rather early hour.
"You Constable Fraser, then?"
There was a man standing a few feet away from him, wearing coveralls and boots.
*From the warehouse,* thought Fraser, tensing up and measuring the distance between them.
"Well, here's a note for you cop friend. I think you'll find it interesting reading." The man shoved the note at him, turned on his heel, and strode off.
Fraser paused for only a second before unfolding the note in order to read its contents.
Ray pulled the truck up to the curb with a good deal of brake-squealing. He hadn't quite got a hang of how to stop this thing quickly yet. *Oh well, it doesn't matter now.* He climbed down onto the street, holding the door for Diefenbaker.
"Home, sweet home, at last, Dief."
The front door swung open, and Fraser came running down the steps.
"Hey Fraser! Were you worried about me? You're never going to *guess*...."
"Ray, please stop," Fraser cut him off, and placed one hand one his shoulder. "We've got a got a problem, Ray."
"This is my fault."
"No, It's not, Ray," came Fraser's soft reply.
"You see anyone else around here who just led the criminal element right to their family?" Ray raised his head slightly from its resting position on the Riv's steering wheel to look at Fraser.
"Ray, when we started out last evening, there was no way we could know that they were even doing anything illegal, let alone that they were willing to kidnap or kill to cover their tracks."
"I knew they were up to no good, Fraser. I got over-confident. Making stupid daring escapes and letting them see who I was. I should have hidden and waited until they'd all gone home, or gotten drunk, or something."
"You couldn't know this was going to happen, Ray, and you couldn't risk your life by staying there."
"Yeah, well; now I've risked Frannie's life."
"We will get her back, Ray."
"How? They want me, they want you, and they want the wood out of my basement, and they want their truck back. Or they'll kill Frannie. And you better believe if we show up, they'll just kill all of us." Ray shook his head. "What are we going to do about that, Fraser?"
"We'll give them what they want, Ray. Mostly, anyway."
Ray drove the huge truck slowly off the main road, turned onto a dirt path and went down the incline as instructed, one foot on the brakes to keep the vehicle from gaining too much speed. He could see two cars parked at the bottom of the hill. The area was rocky, barren, and flat once you were at the bottom. The road he had turned off of stretched above the small valley he was headed for, as an overpass. He drove the vehicle forward, turned it slightly to one side, parked it under the overpass, and climbed down from the driver's seat.
Four figures climbed out of the cars, pulling a fifth along with them. Hodges, Jones, Dee, Dum and a very unhappy Frannie. Frannie was gagged with her hands tied in front of her. She looked, Ray thought, like she wanted to kill someone. Trust Frannie to get angry rather than scared in a situation like this. Jones had a gun in one hand, the other hand firmly holding onto Frannie's arm.
"Where's the Mountie?" Hodges demanded.
"Not here," came Ray's indifferent reply.
"Check out the truck," Jones ordered Dee.
Dee moved forward. Ray stood to one side for him, and tried not to hold his breath. Dee pulled the burlap cloth back and climbed inside.
"We told you to bring the Mountie with you," stated Hodges in a frozen tone. "Don't you think you're taking a bit of a chance with your sister's life, here?"
"What'd you think I am, stupid?" Ray snarled at him. "I need a reason for you to let her leave here alive."
Dee climbed back out of the truck. "Nothing inside but the wood, like we told him to bring, Mr. Jones."
Ray relaxed the tiniest bit.
"And you think we have a reason now? The Mountie doesn't have any real proof. An unsigned note, and some hearsay story you might have told him, but won't be around to tell a jury." Hodges was sounding more confident now.
"He's got Blaine's ledger."
"So what? You had that before. All it shows is that Blaine was stealing from us." Hodges gestured towards Dee, who was closing in on Ray now.
"Not *that* ledger, you moron. Blaine had a second ledger. He hid it in his office, and you didn't find it when you searched the place."
Dee froze and looked over at Mr. Hodges. "He's lying. I searched that place from top to bottom."
"Yeah, we could tell," Ray allowed a bit of swagger to enter his voice. "But you didn't look closely enough, did you? He had the second ledger hidden inside a cook book. And you know what that ledger told us?" There was no reply. "Told us when Blaine stopped embezzling, and started stealing outright. Which made us ask ourselves, now where is all this extra un-inventoried wood coming from? You think the Feds aren't going to ask themselves the same question if I turn up missing, and they've got that ledger in front of them? They'll start wondering where all that extra wood could possibly be coming from. They'll back-track till they find where you've been logging the stuff from, same way we did."
"What is it you want, exactly." Jones took charge of the conversation again.
"I want my sister safely out of here. So we make a trade. You let her go, and I call the Mountie and have him bring the ledger here."
"You call him first."
"I don't think so."
"If we let her go, you won't call her. We'll let her go when we know he's on his way."
Ray pretended to consider this idea.
"Un-gag her, first," he said, after a moment. "And un-tie her hands."
"I'm afraid we can't do that."
"I want to hear from her own lips that she's okay, or we'll all just stand here till I do."
Jones considered this. "Un-gag her, Curt."
Curt didn't move. "Did you hear me?" Jones demanded.
"Yeah, I heard you. But boss, you didn't hear the mouth on her before! I mean, the things she called me! My ma, she would'a smacked my face if I'd used that kind of language, and then, after that, she just wouldn't stop *talking*...."
"No one's asking your opinion. You're paid to do as you're told."
Curt rather sullenly removed the gag, then loosened the bonds around her wrists. Frannie took a deep breath and glared at him, massaging her wrists, but remained silent.
"You okay, Frannie?" called Ray.
"I'm okay, Ray. I hope you brought the marines with you. I want you to arrest these bozos so I can watch them all rot in prison for the next fifty years."
"All right, that's enough, shut up now." Jones prodded her in the side with the gun. "There you go, now call him."
"Send her over here, first."
Jones shook his head. "No deal. You're stalling."
"Halfway over," Ray bargained. "Just so I know she's on her way."
Jones looked at Frannie for a moment, then shoved her away from him. She stumbled, then started to walk towards Ray, after one vengeful glance in Jones' direction.
"Now hurry up and make that call."
Ray nodded and reached into his pocket. He drew a deep breath, and shouted, "NOW!" He had already started running towards Frannie as the word left his lips, pulling out his gun instead of the expected cell phone. Dee had his gun out and pointed at them, and Ray shot him without even thinking about it. Everyone was drawing guns now. Ray could see Hodges and Jones, both with guns in hand and pointed towards Frannie. Behind him, he could hear but not see the sudden emergence of Diefenbaker from his hiding place inside a barrel, and Dum's reaction to his appearance on the scene. Somewhere far above, a figure was hurtling downwards. Someone was firing a gun, and it wasn't him.
Fraser jumped. It was a terrible drop, almost thirty feet down from the overpass. Ray had been against it, and Fraser had prevailed only because Ray couldn't come up with an alternative plan. It turned out to be perfectly all right, as Fraser used Hodges to break his fall.
Fraser rolled and was on his feet again in one smooth movement, head up, and taking in the situation. Jake was down, Curt was down, Hodges was extremely down. Jones was firing his gun at Frannie, and Fraser was too far away to stop him. He watched helplessly as Ray grabbed Frannie and swung her around behind him. The bullet hit him, and he fell. Jones was running towards them, gun in hand. Fraser sprinted.
He didn't get there in time.
Ray never heard the gun fire, but he felt the bullet as it entered his arm, and he heard Frannie's scream of rage and fear. *Oh, no....* He was falling. *Get up. Frannie still needs you.* He opened his eyes and found himself staring at the ground.
"Francesca, stop! Francesca, you can stop now. Stop!" That was Fraser's voice, slightly panicky. What was happening? Ray rolled over onto his side and blearily tried to take the scene in. Hodges was still out cold on the ground--no surprise there, Fraser had hit him pretty hard. Tweedle-dee was out from his bullet wound, and, although he couldn't see him, he could hear Tweedle-dum's whimpers of fear, and Diefenbaker's warning growl, obviously keeping him in line. Jones was lying curled on his side moaning in pain and trying to protect his head with his hands, blood running from his scalp down his face and shirt.
"Get her off of me!" he cried.
"You shot my brother! I'm going to split your skull open, you son of a bitch!" Frannie stood over him, one of her high heel shoes in hand. Fraser was restraining her with great difficulty.
"Francesca, I believe from the amount of blood here that you may have already done so." Fraser held on grimly.
"Leave him be, Frannie," called Ray, weakly. He could hear sirens in the distance now.
Frannie dropped the shoe. "Ray? Ray! Are you okay?" She knelt next to him. "He shot you! How bad is it?"
"I dunno. In the arm. I think it's okay, Frannie." Ray blinked and smiled muzzily at her. "What'd you *do* Frannie?"
"Hit him with my shoe, Ray. You can split someone's skull with a high heel, you know."
"Really. My physics teacher taught us that." Frannie caught her breath. Ray frowned, and winced in pain.
"Frannie? Are you hurt?"
"I'm not hurt, Ray." Her voice caught. "You're an idiot, Ray, you know that?" she asked him fiercely.
"Yeah, I know. Sorry 'bout that."
"Yeah, well, don't do it again. I don't need the aggravation. And all my food will have gone bad in the car."
Ray had no idea what she was talking about. "I'll buy you some more when we get home."
"Ray, the ambulance is here for you," Fraser was kneeling beside him now as well. "Lt. Welsh had one waiting in case anything went wrong."
"That was for you, Fraser, for when you broke your neck jumping like that."
"Just shut up and go with the ambulance, Ray," Frannie ordered him.
"Anything you say, sis."
"He just didn't get along very well with people, I'm afraid."
"Oh, well, you know; lots of people have trouble meeting people, it's not really that uncommon."
"No, that wasn't it. He just didn't like most people very much. He thought people were stupid. It was easier to deal with facts or numbers. They made sense to him."
Ray was at a loss for a reply. He pulled his raincoat around him and shivered, listening with half an ear to the minister droning on, apparently for his own benefit, since neither he nor Katherine Blaine were listening to the service. And they were the only people here. They stood together, huddled under the umbrella Ray was holding up with his good arm, at the edge of the grave. The cemetery was completely deserted except for the three of them: Ray, Blaine's sister Katherine, and the minister, who was vigilantly carrying out his duties to the deceased while ignoring the rain sleeting down on his uncovered head.
"But he loved to cook. It was like... well, I guess everyone has something that's important to them. One thing. He hated everything else. He hated his job, and the people he worked with, his neighbors, and he wouldn't even get a pet. He wrote to me that his bosses were greedy and crude, and so stupid they deserved anything that happened to them."
"Well, he wasn't far off there, I guess."
"He was planning on starting a restaurant, did you know that? It was his dream. He wouldn't have to deal with anyone, he'd hire waiters and managers and underlings to take care of all the details for him, he would have a very select gourmet clientele, he'd have his own area of the kitchen to himself, and all the special requests would come to him. He could do the one thing he really enjoyed. He started writing me about this restaurant he was going to have about a year ago. I thought he was just dreaming. I mean, there was no way he could afford to pull something like that off. But everyone has to have dreams, so I just went along with it. He sounded so desperate. He hated every second of his life, he didn't have any other interests, he was all alone, and it was all that kept him going."
"Oh." Ray was cold, miserable, and had no idea what to say. What did you say to someone who had just lost their only family member, and was telling you about what a miserable life that person had led before they had finally ended up in the ground? He wasn't even sure why he was here. He hadn't told anyone he was going, not even Fraser. Perhaps she just needed someone to talk to, someone to listen. If he hadn't come, she'd be here all alone.
"I thought at first, when they said he killed himself, that he'd finally given up. He had nothing left to live for; he wasn't going to get his restaurant, what was the point? I felt bad because I never came to visit him. I hate to admit it, but he depressed me. I don't want to end up like him, and I've been working so hard, but he was my brother, and I should have done something. Thought it was my fault 'cause I'd never even dreamed he would kill himself, it just didn't seem like something he would do. Why give the world the satisfaction?"
Ray stared at his feet. He felt sick. Katherine didn't seem to notice, and continued without encouragement.
"Now, stealing from his bosses, *that* seems like something he'd do. You know what? I bet he enjoyed it. He always enjoyed being the smartest in school, outwitting the other kids, knowing all the answers. I bet taking their money and stealing their wood right out from under their noses like that was a real thrill for him. I can see him planning it all out page by page, every step of the way, and being so satisfied with himself. I'm glad. I'm glad he didn't just give up. I'm glad he decided to do *something,* even if it was illegal. I'm glad he decided to try. And I'm glad you proved he didn't kill himself. No matter what, now I'll know he didn't just give up."
She fell silent, and they stood listening to the rain fall, and the minister's voice. He finished the sermon, shutting the Bible with decision. They followed him across the lawn to one of the cemetery's paths and began the journey back to the parking lot.
"Do you have a family, Mr. Vecchio?"
"Yes, a very big one."
"Lots of children?"
"Well, none of my own, but I've got two nieces and a nephew, and everyone lives with me."
"And friends? Do you like your job, the people you work with?"
"I've got friends. I like my job. I work with good people."
"You're a very lucky man, Mr. Vecchio."
He found he had to agree.
In the end, there was no party. They didn't dare. One by one, they chose their times, and presented their gifts. Fraser was last, having waited until the end of his shift.
"Yes, come on in, Fraser. Let's get this over with." That last part was muttered under Thatcher's breath, but Fraser heard her.
"Happy Birthday, ma'am."
"Yes, yes, thanks so much. Nothing like celebrating the inevitability of old age and eventual death."
"Or, seen in another light, ma'am, the increase of wisdom and the accumulation of experience."
"Just because people get older doesn't necessarily mean they get any smarter, or get to experience the world, Fraser."
"Well, no, that's certainly true. Er, anyway, I brought you...."
"A gift?" Thatcher glanced tiredly at her left wall. Ovitz' gift was propped there now, on top of the filing cabinet, waiting to be nailed to the wall. A painting of flowers. Turnbull's gift sat next to it. A selection of cheeses and dried meats.
"I'm, uh, afraid I forgot about the custom of wrapping gifts up...."
Fraser held out his hand. Thatcher stared in boredom at first, then with a look of puzzlement. She carefully removed the item from his grasp, examining it closely.
"It's a box," she stated in surprise.
She traced the smooth sides of the dark wood, carefully removing the lid. It was small, only six inches by four inches, four inches deep. The corners were rounded, and the sides smooth. The lid was an intricate carving. A wolf, standing against a background of mountains, staring at the moon.
"It's beautiful," Thatcher gulped, more in amazement than anything else.
"I'm glad you like it, ma'am."
"These type of boxes cost a lot of money." She looked up at him, frowning. "I've seen how you live. You better not have just spent a month's salary on this gift."
"No ma'am. Ray didn't charge me for the wood, ma'am."
"The wood. They were going to replace it, but since they all ended up in jail, that seems unlikely now. Most of it was bad, of course, so we just threw it out, but some of it was good, and rather rare heartwood, and Ray said he couldn't be bothered with re-flooring just the closets, and that I could have whatever I wanted, so--"
Thatcher cut him off. "Are you saying that you *made* this, Constable?"
Thatcher was silent for a moment, taking this in. "Well in that case, Fraser, I accept this gift with genuine pleasure."
"I'm pleased, ma'am."
There was an awkward silence.
"That will be all, Constable. Er, thank you, Benton."
"You're very welcome, Margaret." Fraser closed the door very gently behind him on his way out.
"What is this? What's he doing?"
"He's a lock man, Ray. I'm having him put locks on your door." Frannie pulled Ray carefully back along the hallway, mindful of his arm, out the workman's way.
"What? What're you doing that for?"
"Well, I thought it'd help, you know? Give you a little more privacy, so people can't just come barging in your room any time they want." Frannie blushed slightly. "Until you get the basement fixed up, anyway, thought this might make things easier."
Ray stared at her a moment. "Well, make him take them off!"
"If I've got locks on my door, how's anyone ever going to bother me?"
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