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Disclaimer: This story is written for the private entertainment of fans. The author makes no claims to the series' characters by the creation of this story. Fraser, Vecchio, Kowalski et.al. belong to Alliance, Paul Haggis and all the creative genius who made this show so special. No infringement of any copyrights held by CBS, Alliance, CTV, TNT or any other copyright holders of due SOUTH is intended. No money being made here.

Spoilers: Being set Post CotW everything's fair game. Praise, comments, questions and otters are all equally welcome--'though I do hope you'll enjoy! 'Thank you kindly!'

NOTE TO THE READER: First, a ‘big thank you kindly' to my wonderful betas. Vicki was stolen from me by RL fairly early in my endeavors with this series, but she really helped me with all the hip replacement stuff, and I would have never had the courage to begin it in the first place if it wasn't for her. Jean, your knowledge about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been invaluable. I have really appreciated the little pushes and debates we've shared as this was being put together. Lys, you and I share a brain where Ben and Frannie are concerned, even if I don't pair them up here! I've really appreciated the discussions, character insights and help with what works and what doesn't. Take a bow, ladies! --Thank you all most kindly!

I must also add here that my knowledge of American Sign Language is somewhat limited. We are told in the series (The Blue Line) that Ben knows ASL. Interpretation of advanced ASL is not a straight forward process. For instance, if I wanted to sign ^You are in grave danger^, I might sign ^You in danger, danger, danger.^ This is different from MSE, or Manually Signed English. For the sake of story continuity, most of my interpretations are based on what Ben, and others, are wanting to convey, and not necessarily exactly what they are signing --other times I do offer direct translation, depending on story requirements. No offense to the deaf or deaf community is intended.

This is story number four in an on going series and, although I have attempted to write it in such a way that it can be read as a stand alone piece, the happenings in the previous three stories, “Blood Red Serge”, “Silent Red Serge” and “Fallen Red Serge” have more than a little bearing on this story line. You might want to read them first. I have retained the original 'part' numbers from when I was posting in order to help the reader find their place again should they need to leave and return later; built in bookmarks if you will. Feedback as always is greatly appreciated. I hope you enjoy.

due SOUTH:
Angry Red Serge

By: Janice R. Sager
E-Mail Me

Part 1

Frannie sat propped up in the hospital bed and listened over the phone as Aunt Cecilia down in Florida brought her up to date on Lucas' condition. Apparently, the doctors had discovered a few complications following the surgery to remove her nephew's brain tumor.

"...still doing tests. The only thing that seems wrong is that he can't swallow. And he's still a little confused about some things. But, they say he's able to talk just fine so the docs don't think the throat thing will be permanent. Maria said something about swelling pressing on nerves but I didn’t understand half of what she was saying. She and Tony sound just like the doctors with all their gobbledygook talk half the time. They've practically lived at the hospital the last few days. Little Mariangelina and Tonino are missing their mom and pop, but the cousins--" She suddenly paused and then moved the phone aside to shout. "--Rosa! E' Francesca! Vuolei parlare con te... She just came in..."

"Francesca?" The phone was quickly handed over. "Hello? Francesca?"


"--What are you doing, calling here so soon? I spoke with you only yesterday! Has something happened? The baby? You are all right? And Raimundo? What is wrong, mi preziosa?"

"No, no," Frannie hurried to calm her. "Nothing's wrong, Ma. Everything's fine. Everything's... Everything's fine." She couldn't say it was great, but she did smile as she added, "La nonna."

"Nonna?" Ma Vecchio repeated in surprise. "You call me -- Grandmother? ...But it is too soon? You said you were not due until January!"

"Yeah, well, normally, you know, but--"

"--But this is two months early! More! Madre di Christo! And the child is all right? The doctors, they made some mistake in calculating your time? But such a mistake!"

"--No, Ma... I mean, yes, the babies are fine. The doctors didn't--"

"--Babies?" Ma Vecchio was quick to catch the word. "As in twins? You have had twins, mi cara?"

"Um... not exactly."

"Not exactly. What does this mean? It means you had triplets?! Santa Maria! Mi Francesca ha il triplets!" She and Aunt Cecilia broke into rapid and excited Italian on the other end of the line.

"Ma. Ma! Ma!!!" Frannie called over the two women's excited exclamations. "I had sextuplets, not triplets! Ma?"

"What?!" the other woman exclaimed, apparently shushing Cecilia because the other woman fell silent. "What did you say? Not triplets? Francesca, mi cara, you are confusing me. Have you had the babies yet or not? You said 'babies', yes? Plural?"

"Yeah..." she answered, casting Ren an amused smile. He returned her grin and squeezed her hand. "Remember how I told you about the artificial insemination and everything? And how they put four embryos into me?"

"Yes, I remember, yes... I was so sad when you told me about your friends, Karol and Mike, and how they died, and so proud that you decided to keep the child... Madre di Dio! Four?" Ma Vecchio squeaked. "But you said... you said that they would not all... That... that... The doctors... Oh, mi Dio! Four? And you did not know about this until the birth? This I cannot believe. Your doctors cannot have been so... so stupido!"

"No, Ma. I knew. I just didn't want to worry you. Not before Lucas--"

"--Worry me!" She could too easily picture her mother throwing up her free hand in the air and rolling her eyes heavenward as she continued on in Italian about daughters protecting mothers who know far more about giving birth than they ever could. She was happy to hear her mother ask for a chair so she could sit down. Cecilia also interrupted to ask if she had heard right. "Four, Francesca?" Ma Vecchio wanted to hear it again herself. "That is what you are telling me, yes? You have had four babies?"

"Actually..." She hesitated, biting her lip as she searched frantically for anyway to break the news more gently.

"If you dare to tell me that this is about your dog, Ante, who has had puppies--"

"--No, no!" Frannie answered quickly. "Ante's been spayed. She can't have puppies."

"This is good. We are talking about you then, yes? If you had told me you were calling about your dog I would be forced to fly home and give you the spanking of your life! This is not funny, mi figlia. Now." She offered a much put upon sigh before she demanded. "You have given birth, yes?"


"How many?"

There was no way around that question. "...Six," she answered hesitantly. She was answered by a long moment of total silence. "...Ma?" There was a sudden loud thump which she took to be the sound of the receiver hitting the floor, followed by the sound of Aunt Cecilia frantically calling for Uncle Alphonso to help. Frannie cringed and glanced at Ren nervously. Her mother's reaction had been exactly what she feared it would be. "I think she fainted..."

Part 2

"Enough already!" Jaelyn exclaimed, an amused laugh taking the sting from her words, but Ben could tell she was actually getting frustrated. So was he. "You two are worse than the doctors! Come on, James, put the suitcases back in the trunk." She pulled up her coat sleeve and frowned at her watch.

"No," her friend refused bluntly, his breath pluming in the chill of the November morning. "I can't believe your doctors okayed this. You haven't even been out of the hospital twenty-four hours!"

She frowned in confusion and glanced at Ben. He lifted his hands to translate but, unfortunately, James didn't wait for the translation. He spun on his heel and started back to the warmth of the hotel with their bags.

"James!" Jaelyn shouted after him in angry disbelief and then muttered, "Damn it!" She wasn't amused anymore.

Jeanie, standing off to the side in a wool coat that wasn't heavy enough for the weather, knew it and offered her friend a shivering little shrug. When James got like this, there was no talking to him!

"Ben..." Kowalski interrupted his signing with a gloved hand on his arm. "Buddy. 'Love ya like a brother... but James is right. What's up? You've never had an impulsive bone in your body! I'm the guy who flies down to Mexico on a moment's notice only to get dumped for a used poncho dealer, remember?"

"We're not going to Mexico--" Jaelyn frowned in mild confusion as she began translating for Ben, not having heard what Kowalski said, only to have Kowalski interrupt again.

"--That's not the point!--"

She didn't hear him, and she didn't care. ^--They're not listening!^ she signed in exasperation, foregoing speech and glaring after James as he disappeared inside. She wasn't about to go chasing after him to continue the argument or attempt to wrestle back their bags. ^This is ridiculous!^

Ben had to agree. He was tired of being treated like a child and having to defend his every thought and decision, or trying to.

"Look, Frase," Kowalski demanded his attention again, "I can understand your girlfriend here being upset, what with everything that's happened--"

Ben offered Ray a clearly read glare for the "girlfriend" remark but, as always, it was ignored.

"--Her friends trying to kill her and then gettin' killed themselves and all. I understand she needs to get away... But the two of you flying out to Aspen's a little extreme, don't ya think?"

"I think it's romantic!" Jeanie interjected, watching the by-play with a big grin on her face despite the cold that had her blowing on her hands and shifting her weight from foot to foot as she tried to stay warm. She wasn't about to follow James inside and miss what was happening here.

"It ain't romantic if they go and break their fool necks!"

Ben sighed and dropped his chin to his chest in exhausted frustration. Ray continued, arguing that neither of them was in any shape to go skiing. Neither of them was *planning* to go skiing! They'd already said that! He was mute, not stupid. Jaelyn was right: they simply weren't listening!

She touched his arm, drawing his attention to a taxi that was sitting at a nearby curb, letting people off. ^I have the tickets!^ she signed, then patted her purse.

He instantly understood her desire. ^Our luggage?^ he asked, torn between the need to make their friends understand and the knowledge that they didn't have the time. They'd already spent more than an hour trying to answer their objections to no avail and were in danger of missing their flight.

^We'll buy more!^ she signed quickly, obviously desperate to escape the overprotective cocoon their friends wanted to wrap them in.

Ben was more than tempted. ^Medicines?^

^Fax!^ she answered, and he knew she meant that they could have their doctors fax new prescriptions to the nearest pharmacy. He bit his lip and glanced at Ray.

"What?" the hyperactive man asked in confusion, then offered a much-put-upon sigh. "I wish y'all wouldn't do that. It ain't exactly polite, you know."
'Polite!' Ben thought in irritated exasperation. He was one to talk! They'd tried to be polite, tried to explain... Their doctors *had* approved the trip. This was not as last minute as the others seemed to think... Not quite anyway.

Three days ago, after securing Ben's agreement to accompany her, Jaelyn had waited for him to leave and then immediately set about making all the necessary arrangements, surprising him with a fait accompli the next day. He was a bit taken aback by how quickly she'd moved and she admitted that part of her impetus was specifically to avoid any arguments with him over money. She remembered all too clearly his stubborn pride when she first asked him to help her out at the Inn. She understood and respected that pride but, after everything that had recently happened in her life, she simply wasn't up to another such debate.

The rest of it was explained by her very understandable need to escape Chicago and the memories that haunted her here, at least for a little while. Even her doctors agreed that a bit of distance, emotional as well as physical, might be a good idea. She needed a reason to smile.

Thank goodness they'd asked Vecchio to pick up Dief last night. He too had expressed concern, but then listened and wished them well. It hadn't hurt that he was still in shock over Francesca and her six babies, not to mention Turnbull. Still, he *had* listened; whereas these two...

Enough was enough!

Ben gave Jaelyn a curt nod, transferred his cane from beneath his arm and grabbed up her hand in his. Together they turned and headed across the driveway. "Taxi!" Jaelyn yelled and waved her free hand, hoping it was loud enough without becoming a scream.

"Whoa!" Kowalski exclaimed from behind them, surprised by the unexpected move. "No, no, no..." He was quite capable of moving faster than either of them, but Ben dodged the hand that grabbed at his shoulder and offered his friend a glare that clearly warned him not to try that again. It was a look that was far more effective at making Ray pause and think than all their arguments combined could have.

Ben was mad; and, more than that, he was mad at Ray. That was never a good thing.

Before Ray could even begin to recover from the simple shock of having received such a glare and figure out what he'd done to overstep the Mountie's ever patient, understanding line; Ben and Jaelyn had slipped inside the taxi. The door slammed in his face and he saw Jaelyn shove a wad of bills at the driver over the back of the front seat. "Drive!" she barked clearly.

"No!" Kowalski banged a fist against the door in frustration of his own. He was tempted to pull his badge and order the driver to stop, but another glare from Ben warned him not to be stupid. "You're not being reasonable!" he called through the glass, trying one last time.

Ray didn't need words to see who it was Ben thought was being unreasonable here.

"Go for it, Jay!" Jeanie yelled happily from behind him, though Jaelyn couldn't hear her or the encouraging whoop she offered as well. And then the taxi was pulling away, down the luxury hotel's drive, and Ray could do nothing but stare helplessly after it.

"What in the..." James reappeared and quickly sprinted across the driveway to join Kowalski. "Stop them! Do something!" he exclaimed as the taxi slipped into the mid-morning traffic and sped away.

Ray shook his head and shrugged. If he wanted to, he could probably hop in the GTO and beat them to the airport, but he suspected the only thing that would accomplish would be to strain his and Fraser's friendship even farther. "I can't," he sighed.

"Arrest 'em!" James cried. "You're a cop. They're being stupid!"

Ray smiled wryly and shook his head. Foolish was perhaps a better word, but... "Being stupid ain't a crime."

James glanced back after the taxi and swore vehemently as he realized it had already disappeared from view. Ray rested a hand on the other man's shoulder, offering it a sympathetic and understanding pat before turning back to the hotel. Good or bad, right or wrong, the argument was over and Ben and Jaelyn were gone. They'd be back on November the sixteenth, in two weeks.

There was nothing Ray could do now but hope the two of them knew what they were doing.

Part 3

James managed to remain at least civil despite his apparent anger while Kowalski was with them, but once it was just he and Jeanie on the long trip back to the McKenna Estate and the cabin they shared there, he shut down. All attempts to draw him into conversation were simply ignored.

"Jeesh, James!" Jeanie finally exclaimed. "You're acting like Ben and Jay going to Aspen's the end of the world or something! ...No," she suddenly corrected herself as a sudden thought struck her. "You're acting like a jealous lover! 'There something going on I need to know about?"

James removed his concentrated gaze from the road in front of him long enough to award his fiancé a withering look which told her just exactly what he thought of that comment, then he turned back forward again without a word.

Jeanie shook her head, refusing to be intimidated by his black mood. "Well, you are!" she insisted. She knew the comment was nonsense but it didn't stop her from thinking the description fit. She folded her arms and glared unseeing at the traffic ahead of them.

"I'm marrying you, not her," he offered curtly. He shouldn't have to make that kind of a distinction, but he couldn't have her getting any stupid ideas in her head either.

Damn, but this all would be a hell of a lot easier if he *were* marrying Jaelyn; but nooooo, he thought sarcastically, he hadn't chosen to pursue that route with her. Nothing about the timid and straight as an arrow woman appealed to him in the slightest. Too short, too mousy, no fire... He had no desire to don the saint-like mask that would be needed to win her.

Besides, he would have still had to deal with Greg Manly and Jeanie Tallin eventually even if he did marry the twit. They were the beneficiaries of her Will. A sudden change, excluding them, after the wedding and just prior to Jaelyn's death would be far too suspicious. He didn't think he could stand to be married to such a goody-two-shoes for
the length of time necessary to keep someone from digging into such matters too closely.

No, he'd chosen another route, more circuitous but less suspicious; and was pretty much stuck with it after Manly goofed everything up! He could have dumped Jeanie and pursued Jaelyn – he hadn't proposed yet – but chances were that Jaelyn wouldn't have anything to do with him after hurting Jeanie. Nor did he have the patience required even if he could have managed a green light from Jeanie.

How the Mountie seemed to have walked by all the normal self-defense mechanisms that Jaelyn must have thrown up after the rape and attempted murder was a big mystery. James hated mysteries. Thinking about it simply made him more irritated.

"What if they elope?" he asked aloud. It was a nightmare scenario for him...

Jeanie offered a bright, amused laugh. "Oh, I wish!" she answered.

James gritted his teeth and kept his gaze firmly focused straight ahead to hide the surge of anger her delight at the thought aroused.

She sighed. "Never happen," she decided forlornly. "Jay's been through too much. She's an all or nothing girl, you know? She's hurting right now, hurting and confused. Her heart's been broken. First Greg, then... David." She had to force herself to say her brother's name and then quickly hurried beyond that pain. "Nah. She won't give her heart to anyone until it's healed, even someone like Ben. She's too smart to marry on the rebound, so to speak."

James nodded silently and concentrated on the traffic. Her words matched his own thoughts on the matter, but he needed to hear the confirmation. It was far too soon for someone like Jaelyn to even entertain the thought of marriage. 'Course, James would have never figured her for the type to ask a guy to move in with her either, even had all the psychological garbage not been there!

Damn, but he hated it when people failed to perform within the scope of his expectations...

"I don't think Ben's ready either," Jeanie continued, pouting unhappily at the other cars sweeping by her window. "Sounds like he got burnt."

"Burnt?" She had his attention again.

Jeanie shook her head. "Yeah, you know – crash and burn? Musta been bad. I asked Jay something about what if she just swept him away and he was madly in love with her; you know, joking. She got rather serious and simply shook her head. It's just... you know, the look on her face. I could tell she was remembering something he'd told her, but she wouldn't crack when I pressed her about it. And you know me," she laughed again. "I'm not afraid to press!"

James offered her a small smile as expected.

She sighed again. "No, much as I'd like to see those two get together, the chances of them eloping are about the same as for you and me getting married on the moon! Which reminds me, did you confirm the rental of the Galleria Marchetti for the reception? The woman I spoke too about it didn't seem like she knew what she was doing. God, I hate all these last minute changes. It would have been so wonderful to hold everything at
the Inn..."

Not to mention cheaper. James again had to grit his teeth as he was forced to deal with the mundane matters of their impending wedding. All conversations lately seemed to swing back around to it sooner or later, and the thing was more than a month away! She was going to nitpick the thing to death and drive him crazy in the process. He answered by rote for the most part, having already dealt with the stuff... as he'd said he would!

He turned his main attention back to the question of Ben and Jaelyn. Mountie-man was getting far too cozy with her despite his analysis of their emotional ties. If Jeanie was right and he'd been burnt...

Maybe there was a weakness there James could use.

Time to start digging some dirt, he thought, and smiled at both the figurative and literal meanings of that should the man get in his way any further.

Part 4

Not having any luggage to check made the check-in procedure at the airport much faster than normal. Or it should have. The ticket agent was a bit flustered by the simple fact that Jaelyn was deaf and Ben was mute. Naturally, she had to comment on how their disabilities complimented each other. Ben fought not to let his reaction to such an ignorant statement show. Instead, he pasted a rather strained smile in place and conveniently 'forgot' to translate it for Jaelyn, merely asking where their boarding gate was and glancing significantly at his watch.

"Oh, don't worry," the agent reassured them, checking her computer. "The plane was delayed out of New York. You've got an extra hour before you leave."

Ben sighed and nodded, translating the information with a sense of relief. He glanced at Jaelyn in surprise when the ticket agent summoned a wheelchair and attendant.

^Doctor's orders, Ben,^ she shrugged. ^O'Hare is big."

Ben offered the chair an angry glare. He was perfectly capable of walking. There were intra-terminal shuttles and escalators to reduce the strain and stress and, being familiar with O'Hare from previous journeys, he knew their gate wasn't that far in any case.

He also knew the wheelchair would be faster.

With a silent curse, he lowered himself into place and handed Jaelyn his cane. As it was, they checked in at the gate with only ten minutes to spare. He rose from the chair and reclaimed his cane, thanking the attendant with a small smile and nod of his head. Because they weren't flying into Denver International, but Eagle County Regional Airport, the doctor's orders didn't require him to use the chair for the entire trip. He was grateful to be rid of it.

He frowned slightly and quickly glanced around them.

"Relax, Ben," Jaelyn smiled up at him as they took their position in line to have their tickets checked again. "They're not here."

Ben frowned for a confused instant before understanding dawned, realizing belatedly that he'd half expected to find Ray or James waiting to ambush them. He returned Jaelyn's smile with a sardonic tilt of his lips. Apparently, the expectation was rather transparent, at least to her. The fact that she'd noted it was rather pleasing in a strange way. Or maybe she'd just been worried about it as well. He didn't have a chance to pursue it as the desk attendant chose just then to ask about carry-on luggage.
Ten minutes later they were seated and airborne.

The flight was two hours, forty-five minutes long and relatively uneventful. They hit a little weather coming into the airport, but the wide-bodied 757 rode it out without undue excitement and brought them to a safe landing. Had it been a smaller plane, they might have had greater difficulties. As it was, the pilot warned of weather delays for those who were planning to make a connecting flight. Ben and Jaelyn weren't, but they did have another ninety miles to go. Ben had to wonder how the weather would affect driving conditions.

"I guess we'll find out in a minute," Jaelyn answered and pointed across the gate area to where a uniformed man held a sign with the names 'McKenna and Fraser'. Ben lifted a brow in surprise but Jaelyn merely shrugged. She'd told him she'd arranged for a taxi to meet them at the airport... she simply hadn't told him what kind. Mountain High Taxi was a premier service but worth it: providing a four-wheel drive, six-passenger mini-van with exclusive private booking. She wasn't up to sharing a shuttle bus with a bunch of strangers for close to two hours and renting a car simply wasn't smart. Aspen was a small town, which exploded during the winter months. Parking became nearly impossible. It was far better to make use of the city buses, which were free, or one of the many charter services for traveling to nearby tourist areas.

The young man smiled pleasantly as they approached and lowered his sign. "Good morning, folks. My name's Peter. Welcome to Colorado. May I see some ID, please?"

Ben flashed a translation of ^ID^ to Jaelyn and reached for his wallet. Jaelyn quickly delved into her purse and produced her license. The man nodded as he glanced over hers and then turned his attention to Ben's. "RCMP?" he noted. "I've met a number of Canadian sports figures in the last few years but never a Mountie. I promise, I wont be speeding." He grinned, and then glanced over his right shoulder. "Your luggage should be coming off the third carousal shortly. Is this your first trip to Aspen?"

Ben offered a quick translation and Jaelyn answered for them. "We have no luggage and, um, I've been here before but this is Ben's first time."

"No luggage?" The driver seemed more surprised by this than by the signing. He did a double take on their lack of carry-ons and shrugged slightly as they shook their heads. "Just the two of you, right?" They nodded. "Are you... both deaf?" he asked in confusion, not sure if Ben was just signing for her or reading his lips or...

"He's mute. I'm deaf," Jaelyn answered. It was a question they needed to get use to she guessed.

"A mute Mountie. That must be..." The driver frowned in confusion again, wondering how any cop could be mute and... He shook his head, dismissing the thought. It wasn't any of his business. Driving them to their hotel was. "Okay. Well, you're pre-paid and everything, so... I'll be taking you directly to the front door of the Hotel Aspen." He paused, allowing Ben time to translate his words into sign. "It's about ninety miles. We have a bit of a storm moving in but don't let it worry you too much. We've got a four-wheel drive trans-axle mini-van with chains and I've been driving these roads for years. It has to get really bad before I can't get through. Might slow us down a bit, but we'll get there. Ready? Van's over this way..."

Ben and Jaelyn nodded and then followed him from the terminal to the blue and white van parked in a designated company zone.

Part 5

He glanced down at Dief with a look of extreme tension on his face. "But--" he tried again and was overwhelmed by another spate of fast and volatile Italian. Ma always reverted to Italian when she was upset. And by the sound of it, she was *very* upset!

Pop always insisted they speak English at home, that they were American. No one was going to call any of his kids a "Wop" or "Jabonee!" The two of them would switch to Italian whenever they fought, specifically to keep the kids from understanding what was said. Unfortunately, Pop was drunk most of the time and used the two languages interchangeably; and, when he wasn't around, Ma often reverted to her native tongue without thinking - thus the kids had learned more than Pop wanted them too. Ray hardly considered himself bilingual, but he knew enough to understand his mother most of the time. Unfortunately, she was speaking too fast at the moment for him to catch half of it!

"Ma...aaa!" he tried plaintively to get a word in edge-wise.

"Why did you not tell me, Raimundo, huh?" she demanded vociferously. "I am your mother! You do not keep secrets from your mother!"

He rolled his eyes and sighed silently. He could say the same thing about the way they'd all conspired to keep the truth of Lucas' brain tumor from him but that would only serve to irritate his mother more.

It was going to be a long day...

"You sister, I understand. I do not agree with it, but I understand it. She wished to protect me. But you, Figlio? You should have known better!"

He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he waited for the storm to pass. Obviously, Frannie had called Ma and told her about the sextuplets. Obviously, she was not taking the news well...

"I should have been there for her!" She suddenly switched from flailing Ray to flagellating herself. "Mi preziosa bambina, all alone and giving birth... This is bad enough, but - Mater di Dio - to give birth to six? Alone? With only the doctors--"

"--She wasn't alone!--" he interjected, hoping to calm her down even a little bit.

"--and strangers... Not alone? Who was with her?" she asked in tones of disbelief. "You?"

"--No, Ma--"

"--You, who turned green and threw up when the cat had kittens under your bed?!" She finally heard his denial. "No? Then who? Her, what is it called... her Lamaze coach, perhaps? A person who has no love or--"

"--Turnbull, Ma! And he does love her!" he interjected in frustration. Then he heard himself and his head snapped up as he realized what he'd just said. Oh, damn...

"Turnbull? Who is--?" Ma asked and then the name clicked. Frannie had dated the man once about a year ago and Ray doubted Ma remembered that, but he knew there was no way that the news of the shooting could have been kept from her. "The man who saved her life? And what is this you say, he 'loves' her? When did this happen?" And she was off again in another explosion of Italian, raging against children who kept their mother in the dark about things she should know.

Dief got bored watching him and gave a wolfish shrug before suddenly turning on his haunch and heading for the kitchen. There went Ray's Danish.

It was going to be a *very* long day...

Part 6

Ben paused a long moment in the lightly falling snow as they disembarked before the modern structure of the Aspen Hotel. Due to various interfering factors over the past few days, he hadn't taken the time he should to research his destination properly. What he discovered around him was... It was almost overwhelming.

He'd been expecting to find an over-commercialized, sprawling city of moderate size catering to the tastes of the rich and famous: the "skier's Mecca" or "Hollywood winter playground" as he'd heard it described. There was a definite tourist feel to it, of course, but the town was considerably smaller than he'd anticipated.

There were no sky-scrapers or bill-boards or any of the other things he'd come to associate with cities. No steel and cement high-rises competed with the view of the surrounding mountains which towered around the town like sleeping giants. The largest building he saw was about five stories tall. Most were only two or three. Main Street was anything but the congested four-lane highway pass-through he'd half expected. Instead, he was greeted with a broad two-lane roadway, bordered by cobblestone sidewalks and businesses whose exterior facades were tastefully in keeping with an atmosphere of relaxed charm and memories of a bygone era.

Whereas he'd been prepared to endure large, impersonal crowds of tourists and the sight of a McDonald's at the top of a mountain where chair lifts met, their cables and supports snaking up carefully groomed slopes where nature was ruthlessly subjugated to man's use and enjoyment... instead, he gazed up on rugged mountains whose ski runs were careful designed to work with, rather than dominate what nature had provided.

The city fathers had obviously worked hard to preserve their heritage and a sense tranquillity.

"Surprised?" Jaelyn smiled broadly as she watched him drink it all in.

His smile was his answer. It wasn't Tuktoyaktuk or Inuvik; but the air was crisp and clean, and the snow was white. The fullness of nature was embraced, rather than rejected. It wasn't home but there were aspects of the town that spoke to his soul.

He suspected he was going to enjoy this vacation much more than he'd thought when he first agreed to accompany Jaelyn.

"First timers are always surprised," their driver said with a smile. "Most people expect it to be bigger and more commercialized... and it is. You just can't see it. It's the fact that you can't see it that draws the tourists. But anything you want..."

He smiled and quickly snaked an arm about the shoulders of the bellhop who'd joined them. "This is Joe Linden. Joe, this is Jaelyn McKenna and Benton Fraser, a very nice couple from out of Chicago. She's deaf, he's mute, but they work together like a pair of Super 8 Pros. He's also a real life Mountie from up in Canada. I forgot to ask what in the world he's doing in Chicago but anyway, if you wrangle it out of him you can let me know later."

He offered Ben and Jaelyn a jovial wink even as he released Joe with a little pat on the shoulder. "I know all the bellhops. Joe here will take good care of you. 'Fraid they don't have any luggage, which makes your job far too easy." He turned back to Ben and Jaelyn. "It was nice meeting you folks. If you need any transportation services within Aspen or the surrounding areas, don't hesitate to call. Mountain High Taxi is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I hope you enjoy your stay."

Ben was reaching for his wallet with obvious intent but the other man waved him off. "The tip was pre-paid too," he explained, heading back around the front of the van. "Have fun!"

"No luggage?" Joe asked carefully, turning from his friend to the couple before him. "I assume it will be arriving later?"

Ben frowned as he struggled between the need to complete his summary of what the driver had said (he'd spoken far too quickly for Ben to hope to catch it all for Jaelyn. Plus, Ben had interrupted himself to offer the tip) and this newest question.

Jaelyn read the frustration easily and a simple hand gesture asked the bellhop to be patient for a second. Ben sighed and lifted his hands as he fought to reorganize his thoughts. Jaelyn's hand came out to grip his, stilling them before he could begin again. "Take your time, Ben, and just do whatever you think's important. You're here as a friend, not an interpreter." She released his hands and smiled. He nodded, thinking she had one of the most beautiful and sincere smiles he'd seen in a long time...

She suddenly laughed, offering the bellhop an embarrassed glance as she blushed quite nicely... and Ben suddenly realized he'd signed his thoughts without even thinking!

Joe lifted his hands in confused and innocent surrender. "Don't look at me!" he apologized. "I'm a fly on the wall who doesn't know sign language. I just need to know if we can be expecting your luggage later? It's no big deal."

^He - didn't understand,^ Ben assured Jaelyn.

She nodded, trying to swallow her embarrassed grin.

^He needs to know - our luggage - won't be arriving - later.^

"Oh, um..." She cleared her throat feeling it was too tight to have anything she said come out right. "Um, we don't have any..." A slight gesture from Ben had her raising her volume a bit. "...luggage. We left in a bit of a hurry. Can you recommend a good clothing store?"

"There's several in town but it kinda depends on your price range. Mr. Gardener, the Head Concierge, is the one to talk to. I'm sure he'll be happy to help you. If you'll come this way..." He moved to the door and held it open for them.

Part 7

Kali heard more than saw the young nurse approach and wait patiently while she concentrated on inserting a central line for the tiny twenty-four week preemie laying before her. "Hi, Nancy," she greeted her without looking up, carefully threading the pencil-lead thin tubing into the umbilical artery, turning and twisting it so as to navigate the invisible and twisted road map that was the baby's circulatory system. It was a common procedure in NICU and one she'd mastered many years ago. She could have left it to the Neonatal Fellow but she'd sent him to the OR to attend an emergency C-section instead. Kali preferred to stay close to her charges and let the Fellows and Residents handle the mundane. Or hopefully mundane. They already had forty-two babies. She could do without another admission this afternoon...

"A reporter covering the Vecchio sextuplets is here to see you," the nurse told her with a quiet frown. "She says you're expecting her."

Kali frowned as well and paused in the routine but delicate task to glance at the clock above the door of the NICU procedure room, commonly referred to as "the closet". She lifted a brow and shook her head, happy to note the time: 3:55 p.m. "She's early. Park her in the scrub room. I'll be with her when I'm done here."

"She has a cameraman with her."

Kali snorted and shook her head as she resumed threading the life saving catheter into the micro-premie before her. The miniature artery she worked within had parchment thin walls and Kali's only guide was touch and experience: she couldn't afford the spare thought necessary to be diplomatic as she answered the nurse. "Tell him to get lost. This isn't picture day at preschool."

The nurse fought to suppress a smile as she turned and hurried back to the ward's front desk to deliver the message. Dr. Sandison had reacted exactly as Nancy knew she would. The Neonatologist didn't suffer fools gladly, and reporters were at the top of that classification to her thinking. Nancy would be a little more tactful than the doctor when delivering the message, but the message would be delivered just the same.

Part 8

It was no simple hotel room they were led to but a large two-bedroom condominium suite. It had a southwestern theme with a cream colored leather sofa and chair in front of a large sandstone fireplace. The mantel was a rough hewn pine slab on which rested black Santa Domingo pottery, a Hopi kachina, and a stone mortar and pestle. Above it hung a brightly colored Navajo rug. On the wall to it's left was a giant dream catcher ringed in white fur and black tipped feathers, with faux turquoise beads caught in a web of fawn colored leather. A sheepskin "bear" rug covered the white oak flooring before the fireplace.

Jaelyn ignored it all, including Ben's signing as he interpreted the bellhop's words. She crossed directly to the double sliding-glass doors without a thought for either man, her eyes fastened on the snow covered balcony and the magnificent view beyond. The snow was still falling and the clouds hung low over the mountains, hiding their summits from view.

She could probably recite the bellhop's words faster than he could anyway.

Unlatching the door, she stepped out into the cold once more, relishing the crisp bite of the air as she lifted her face toward the feather light caress of the falling snowflakes.

Ben's attention was more on Jaelyn than the bellhop as he listened to the younger man's advice and instructions. He nodded absently and handed over a modest tip as the younger man finished his spiel. The bellhop thanked him and wished them both well before finally taking his leave.

Ben listened as the door snicked shut and debated joining Jaelyn outside. She'd left the door open. Whether in invitation or simple carelessness, he wasn't sure. A cold waft of winter air tempted him, but there as something about Jaelyn's actions that begged for privacy.

Or... maybe he was just afraid of what he was seeing.

Jaelyn held out her arms and laughed as she performed a simple pirouette. The movement drew Ben forward, almost against his will. There had been very few people in his life who appreciated winter quite the way he did.

He also knew the wood of the balcony would be slick with ice beneath the snow. She could slip and fall if she wasn't careful... Such was the rationalization he offered himself in any case as he stepped out the door and moved to stand beside her. She smiled over at him and he knew it was more than concern that drew him to her side.

She turned her gaze back to the cloud draped landscape and sighed as she moved toward the heavy wooden railing. She leaned an elbow and hip against it, ignoring the snow upon it as she waved a hand to indicate the town below them. "My father used to bring us here every year," she explained, a wistful look on her face as she let the memories take her. "My mother loved to ski. She loved the mountains... She loved our Inn too, but Illinois isn't exactly known for its mountains. Aspen was kind of her home away from home. It's where she and Dad would come to refresh their souls, you know?" She offered a little laugh as she considered her own words and turned back to the view. "That must have sounded stupid," she decided.

It didn't sound stupid to Ben at all, but Jaelyn's back was turned and she couldn't see him shake his head. She sighed again as he moved to join her at the railing. He wondered if she saw the same things in the view which surrounded them that he saw?

"It hasn't changed much," she offered quietly. "Not from the last time I was here anyway. That was... gosh, more than six years ago. Dad brought Mom here one last time, for Christmas back in 1994, but I didn't come with them. We knew she was dying at that point and they needed some time for themselves, you know?"

Ben nodded, remembering that her mother had died of breast cancer. It could not have been an easy time for her parents. Or her. He found himself trying to remember his last Christmas with his mother... It was a dim and disjointed memory, faded with the years. It hurt that he couldn't remember more.

Jaelyn turned her gaze back to the view. "After that... I guess there were just too many memories here for him. We'd plan it, but something would always come up. And then he was killed in that car accident..." She closed her eyes and bowed her head as a sudden wave of emotion threatened to overwhelm her control. "I'm sorry," she apologized. She hadn't meant to go and get all maudlin on him. "It's been more than two years since I lost my father and almost five since I lost my mother, but sometimes... Sometimes it still hurts."

Had Ben been capable of speaking, there were a number of things he might have said, the first of which was that she didn't need to apologize. But he couldn't speak and she couldn't hear, so he wasn't sure how to comfort her. He scratched his brow with a thumbnail and decided a slight change in subject was in order. Turning his gaze back to the mountains and the softly falling snow, he carefully set his cane aside so he could sign. He offered the view a small, wistful smile of his own and nodded. ^It reminds me - of home,^ he admitted.

Jaelyn awarded him a bit of a smile. "I bet. But then I don't know much about Canada. Did it snow a lot where you're from?"

Ben grinned and looked away, not wanting to insult her by laughing. He was struck by the memory of once teasing Ray Vecchio about having dogsleds at the border... He wasn't even tempted by such sarcastic humor where Jaelyn was concerned. It was obvious she had a typical American view of his country, but at least she admitted her ignorance. And her question was asked out of sincere interest.

^Some,^ he answered. ^But the far north - doesn't get as much snow - as you might think. The colder air gets - the less moisture - it can hold - and so the less - precipitation - you get. Aspen - probably gets more.^

"It's not the land of eternal snow and ice we ignorant Americans like to think?" she joked.

^You should see it - in the summer,^ he decided, remembering many a happy day spent traipsing through the wilderness back home. ^Fireweed – Columbine – Poppies... The hills and plains - especially along the rivers - explode with color.^

"It sounds beautiful."
^It doesn't last long - only a few weeks - but while it does...^

His smile got rather wistful again and she smiled in turn. He didn't smile nearly often enough, she thought.

^Of course - there are also - mosquitoes - and black flies - and poisonous tundra beetles.^ He shrugged a shoulder even as he felt obligated to list the less than pleasant aspects of summers in the far north.


He shook his head. ^They stay - well below - the permafrost line. In other parts of Canada - yes. Rattlesnakes – corn snakes... Many of the same - species - the US has. Ignorance - is the greatest danger - when living in the far north.^

"Don't tease the polar bears, huh?"

He smiled, knowing she meant it as a joke, but nodded as well. ^People have died - doing exactly that,^ he admitted. ^And caribou - and musk ox - even walrus can be dangerous - if provoked. Photographers - get too close to cubs - or campers - don't secure their food properly. Even wearing the wrong perfume - at the wrong time of year - can be deadly.^


He nodded. ^Many perfumes - are made from musk. In the spring - a rutting stag - can smell it - for nearly a mile.^

Jaelyn got the idea and offered an humorless laugh. "Dangerous..." she agreed. "But you love it."

Ben lowered his head and stared at his gloved hands for a long moment, embarrassed that she should read him so easily. Despite having been home for several months this last spring, he still found himself tasting a bit of homesickness. He knew he always would when he wasn't up there. He glanced back up and nodded. ^It's home,^ he signed simply.

She nodded in turn and looked away, out over the town below them and up into the mountains, but again he didn't think she saw them. He suspected she was thinking of her own home, which had so recently gone up in flames... He wished he'd signed something else.

"Guess I'd need a guide if I ever make it up there," she offered lightly after several moments. She cast him a sideways glance and a teasing smile. "Think I could impose upon you?"
He smiled as well, glad he hadn't upset her, and nodded. ^I'd like that,^ he admitted readily. He'd like that very much...

Part 9

A woman dressed in bright floral scrubs with a white coat over them pushed through the double doors and quickly gave the woman standing by the sinks a once over. No air of concern or fearful hope surrounded the waiting woman. "King?"

A blond brow arched upward as the receiver of that look gave the petite brunette a once over of her own. "Dr. Sandison?" she asked. The floral scrubs had made her think the other woman was a lab technician or something, not one of the top neonatologists in the nation.

Kali jerked her head to the right. "This way," she said simply and quickly led the way from the scrub room and up the hall.

King frowned as she hurried to keep up with the flapping tail of the white coat in front of her. The doctor didn't seem to care whether the reporter followed her or not. They rounded a corner and the doctor entered the first door to her right.

The office was smaller than she would have expected, little more than ten by ten. The walls to either side were dedicated to bookshelves and files, floor to ceiling, the contents all neatly crammed into place without an inch to spare for more. Her desk was more in keeping with her status, large and solid - no particle board here – the lacquered wood surface was quite spartan in comparison to the jam-packed shelving. Only a flat screen monitor, keyboard, notebook, rolodex and pencil cup resided atop the gleaming wood. The wall behind her held a large cork board message center. The few notes on it were neatly tacked at the lower right corner while the rest of the expanse was taken up by scattered baby pictures. Hundreds of them. Some were nothing more than Polaroids of tiny preemies almost invisible behind all the wires and tubes and machinery; others showed older children, two or three year olds, smiling happily at the camera.

King suddenly realized the meaning behind those older pictures. She was seeing a visual success story. Each of the preemie pictures corresponded to pictures of happy older--

"Sit," the doctor abruptly interrupted her thoughts and waved a hand to indicate one of the two cloth padded but small chairs that faced her desk. There simply wasn't room in the small office for larger chairs.

"No window?" King asked flippantly, shoving sentimentality aside. It only got in the way of getting to the facts. She'd dig the sentiment out later to add the human interest touch the facts lacked.
"I prefer to stay close to my charges," the doctor answered. In other words, she had more than enough clout to warrant a better office - and probably a secretary too - but had turned it down to stay in the trenches. "You have fifteen minutes, Ms. King. I have a staff meeting in twenty."

MacKenzie frowned. "This is a rather important piece, for you as well as the hospital," she offered. "Sextuplets don't happen everyday. Perhaps we could meet after work?" She needed more than fifteen minutes to do this right!

"I'd rather have a root canal."

King's frown became a look of surprise and she lifted a sardonic brow. "Shall I tell your bosses that?"

"They already know. I'm surprised they didn't warn you." The doctor sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Ms. King, I know why you're here. I know what you want me to say. I know what the hospital wants me to say. You all want the perfect, happy little ending for your 'miracle birth' piece for *Time Magazine*. 'The Vecchio sextuplets are doing remarkably well and will be going home with their mother in a matter of weeks where they will grow up to live happy, normal lives.' Yadda, yadda, yadda..." She shook her head. "Can't do it. I wish I could."

"What can you tell me?"

"I can tell you that sextuplets are a neonatologist's worst nightmare – excluding septuplets and octuplets. There's no miracle happening here, Ms. King. It's an accident. A scientific accident resulting from the over-aggressive use of infertility methods."

"Over-aggressive?" King echoed with a frown. "The doctors implanted four embryo. As I understand it, that's normal. Normally, only one or two take. In Frannie's case, all of them took! Plus a couple divided into identical twins. You still call that an accident?" She couldn't believe her ears!

"Most definitely," Kali answered. "The embryos resulting in twins most likely divided even before they were introduced into Ms. Vecchio's womb. The clinic failed to catch it. And introducing four embryo might be 'normal', but it's not necessary. Why do you think these procedures have such a high rate of multiple births? The driving force behind it is cost. The clinics are under great pressure to see that the prospective mother gets pregnant the first time. So, to increase their chances of success, they introduce more embryos. Unfortunately, the human body is not designed to bear litters. *I* have to deal with the results. Not them."

"I've been following this story for months, Dr. Sandison, and everyone else I've spoken to has said the babies are doing remarkably well. At twenty-seven weeks they have a better than ninety percent chance of survival, as compared to practically none ten years ago. Is something going on with the babies that we haven't been told about?"

"Your research is wrong, Ms. King," the doctor corrected her. "A single birth at twenty-seven weeks has a ninety-four percent chance of survival today, but that figure doesn't apply to multiple births and it says absolutely nothing about the chances for life-long physical and mental handicaps. You can number crunch all you want, but we are still talking about individual babies here. I've seen full term babies who should have lived, die; and twenty-four week micro-preemies who should have died, live. You cannot generalize when you're working with a baby."

"So the statistics are meaningless?"

"They have their uses, but not in this case."

"Great," the reporter sighed, tossing her notepad onto her lap. There went three weeks worth of research for nothing!

Seeing the defeated and crestfallen look, Kali relented a bit. "Given the circumstances of their birth, their gestational ages and weights... they are doing remarkably well," she allowed.

MacKenzie looked up again in confused surprise.

"What you have to remember is that we are talking 'remarkably well' for babies in a neonatal intensive care unit. That doesn't mean one of them can't take a sudden turn for the worse and die while we're sitting here discussing it. I can't guarantee that any of them are going to live, let alone grow up to have healthy, happy normal lives."

"What about the kids behind you?" King asked, nodding her head at that montage of baby pictures.

"My wall of dreams," she answered, swinging her chair around to glance at the faces behind her. "This is why I'm here. To let kids discover what a dream is. These," she hooked a finger at the display as she turned back around, "are the lucky ones. What you don't see are the ones I only keep here." She pointed to her heart. "The angels who touched my life for just a moment and then went back to heaven."

"Any danger of the Vecchio kids joining those angels of yours?"

Kali frowned and sighed. Hadn't she already answered that? "There's always that danger," she answered bluntly.

"But you won't tell me how much of a danger..."

Kali glanced at her watch. Had it really only been three minutes? "Not at this point, no."
"You're saying it's fifty-fifty."

"You're not listening to me!" Kali snapped. This was why she hated reporters. If you didn't say what they wanted to hear, they just reworded the question. "You want numbers, you talk to the PR people. They can give you all the numbers you want. Me? I fight for each and every one of my kids and statistics be damned.

"The Vecchio sextuplets were born three months premature. They are what we call 'fragile'. None of their organs are fully developed. Half of them are on ventilators. The slightest bump in their development will send the others there as well. Only a few basic instincts are in place. The suck and swallow reflex doesn't exist yet. They often simply forget to breathe. Their skin is like paper and without any subcutaneous fat they cannot even maintain their own body temperatures. Their immune systems are all but nonexistent. The slightest cold can kill. This is 'normal' for them. It is not normal for the human condition.

"The human womb with it's placenta and amniotic fluid offers the developing fetus protections we cannot hope to mimic. Out here, they are subjected to stresses and hazards they simply aren't ready to cope with. About the only good news I can give you is that we have detected no serious congenital defects: No spina bifida, no pulmonary hypoplasia, no trisomy or other genetic disorders. And they've survived the first seventy-two hours. That's always a good sign. That doesn't mean they aren't going to have problems. They will. It's my job to try and minimize them."

"So what do I tell my readers?" King asked. "What do you tell their mother?"

"That we are doing the best we can," Kali answered. "That if everything goes well, she'll have at least a few of them at home by their due dates. Some may take longer. Some may never go home. There are no promises. It's just too early."

King nodded thoughtfully and glanced down at the blank page of the notepad on her lap. Her tape recorder had captured everything so that wasn't a problem. "What can you tell me about them individually. What kind of problems are they having now?"

Kali shook her head and stood. "I don't have time, Ms. King, nor do I have the mother's permission to speak about specifics with you. Your agreement with her and the hospital doesn't cover that."

"Yes, it does," King rejoined, but she knew it wasn't something that was spelled out in black and white. "Has she been fully briefed on everything?"

"Of course," the doctor answered, waving her to the door. "But it usually takes a few times for the explanations to fully sink in. She may have understood it when we asked her permission for this or that procedure, we make sure of that, but I doubt she's retained more than a tenth of everything she's been inundated with in the last two days. She's entered into a new world, Ms. King. One that few people ever see, and no one wants to. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

King obeyed the silent order and stepped around her into the hall. "It's a world my readers want to see, Doctor," she argued. "And one I want to show them. If I can get the mother's permission in writing, will you talk to me again? In depth?"

"No," Kali answered bluntly. "I've told you everything I can at this point. Besides, I'm familiar with your by-line, Ms. King. You're not a reporter, you're a sensationalist. Don't take it personally. Most reporters now a days are sensationalists. Dry facts don't sell magazines. But I'm afraid I have far more important things to do than perform for you and your readers. You want to learn more, help support Ms. Vecchio. Be her friend and not just a reporter. Maybe then you'll be able to write the story you really should."

With that the white coated woman spun on her heal and hurried away, leaving MacKenzie King wondering if she should be insulted or not.

Part 10

What was left of the morning passed quite quickly for Ben and Jaelyn. After speaking with the Head Concierge and checking into their room, they'd set out again into the lightly falling snow. It was coming down a bit more heavily than before, but the continued gentle fall of white didn't seem to faze Jaelyn in the least. She seemed to be honestly enjoying it, which was a welcome respite from the normal list of complaints about wintery weather Ben was used to hearing since moving to the States.

Well, actually, he'd heard complaints in the far north too; but, up there, there was cause to complain: whiteout conditions, forty-below temperatures with a wind-chill factor bringing it to seventy-below... Those were things to complain about. They could easily kill, but this?

He gazed up at the low clouds, the sun filling them with an inner glow that filtered through and reflected off the snow, lighting the entire mountain in a soft, gray twilight that was surprisingly bright despite the heavy overcast. Long experience allowed him to judge the temperature as hovering just below freezing. Only a light breeze danced and swirled amidst the fat, heavy snowflakes. Not having lived here before, his weather sense was of little use, but there was nothing in the situation that he would regard as dangerous. Not yet anyway.

The ground itself had yet to freeze and traffic kept the streets largely clear; wet, gray slush was only just beginning to make itself known. The sidewalks, where they weren't covered by over hangs, held four or five inches of trampled snow. Despite doctor's orders to use a cane, Ben didn't expect to have any difficulties so long as they took it slow. His hiking boots offered more than sufficient traction. Jaelyn, however, had chosen to wear leather sneakers for their trip to the airport. He was going to have to make sure she bought something a bit more appropriate for the weather...

Their first stop was at a pharmacy just down the street from the hotel where, together, they dealt with the necessity of having their prescriptions transferred and refilled with expedient efficiency. Jaelyn decided to engage their express delivery service. The young man behind the counter promised to have their medicines waiting at the front desk of their hotel later that afternoon, thus leaving them free to enjoy their day.

Their next stop was right next door.

Jaelyn offered Ben a bright smile as he held the door for her. "This is going to be fun," she decided, a teasing glint in her eye. "I've never gone shopping with a man before. Well, my father of course. And--" A stricken look suddenly crossed her features. She masked it quickly and hurried on inside, but Ben had already seen it. She went straight to the nearest rack, pretending to be suddenly interested in some ski vests. The move afforded her the ability to turn her back on Ben, as well as the rest of the store.

He frowned as he watched her. It wasn't hard to guess what had upset her. Given how close she was to her friends, he wouldn't be surprised to learn she'd gone shopping at some point with either David or Greg. Their deaths, as well as their involvement in her near murder, were still open wounds.

She abruptly shoved the pain away and turned to offer a bright if very transparent smile as she grabbed up one of the vests, holding it against herself. "What do you think?" she asked, striking a melodramatic pose. "Can you see me in neon pink?"

He accepted the sudden mood shift, recognizing her desire for him to ignore her pain and play along. He answered by squinting his eyes and shielding them from the bright color. ^You'd never - get lost - in the snow - ?^ he signed honestly, careful to add the question mark and appropriate wry facial expression at the end.

She laughed, which is what he'd hoped for, and put the item back.

"Definitely more Jeanie's style." She sighed lightly, firmly dismissing the thoughts which had upset her, then waved at the more trendy and outrageous racks. "She was always the wild one of the two of us. I can't believe she's getting married." She frowned as she forced her thoughts to another track. "Well, not that exactly as much as I always pictured her with some biker dude or rock star, you know?" She grinned and held up a blue, orange and green tie-dyed sweater. It was the sort of thing a teenager from southern California might wear.

Ben knew perfectly well she was still teasing but regarded the selection seriously.

She rolled her eyes, quickly putting it aside. "Puh-leaze!" She spotted a more conservative, turtleneck sweater and quickly held it against herself. "Now *this* is more my style."

Ben shook his head, knowing that it might be her style but that she needed something other than black. ^What does - James do - for a living?^ he asked as he scanned the racks more intently. He quickly discovered a heavy knit, cream colored pullover to his right with a subtle snowflake pattern worked into the texture. He lifted one free and held it up to her.

She took it and turned toward a mirror not far away. "Independent stock broker, I think," she answered, cocking her head to the side as she regarded herself in the glass. "He seems to do well for himself if that Jag of his is any indication...

"Conservative, versatile but classy..." She glanced at the inside label. "And machine washable." She grinned. "I hate dry clean only. Too much fuss."

She held it up again and considered her reflection with complete seriousness. "I like your taste," she decided with a nod, checked the size and draped it over her arm. "One down for me: your turn!" She wriggled her brows and headed for the men's section. "Silk paisley, I think..." she teased him outrageously and sashayed away.

Part 11

James frowned into the blustery gloom of the storm-clouded evening which surrounded the phone booth and took a nervous drag of his cigarette. The weather was a perfect reflection of his mood...

Jeanie had harped on and on about the wedding plans and arrangements all the way back to the cabin, suggesting changes and asking questions James really had no interest in hearing. He'd tried to change the subject but it always came back to the same thing. He'd finally been forced to don his solicitous fiancé mask and tried to respond as though he gave a shit about any of it.

Once at the cabin, he pretended to retrieve an important phone message from a client and hurriedly made his escape. He had far more important things to worry about than whether the roses in the boutonnires should be white or red! As long as the event was first class and there was enough champagne with which he could dull the pain, he'd be happy.

The woman's chances of surviving beyond their first year of matrimony were beginning to look grim.

"Come on, come on!" he muttered into the receiver as he flicked ash aside and glanced about to keep an eye on the very few who dared to walk this part of town on such a day. The three whores who'd staked out the corner about thirty feet away kept throwing smiles in his direction, but his own dark frown earlier had warned them to keep their distance, at least for now... unless they wanted to be swallowing their teeth. At least, two of them had understood it. He'd seen them turn to the third and warn her off as well. Apparently, she was new to the game...

"Frennelli," a voice on the other end of the phone announced without preamble.

James shoved distractions aside and removed the cigarette from his mouth as he leaned back against the glass door. "'Got a cold there, Red?" he asked casually, blowing smoke as he did so. "You sound kinda hoarse."

There was a moment of silence as the man tried to place his voice. James wasn't surprised when he failed. "Who wants to know?" he asked suspiciously.

"Old friend," James answered. He'd never given the man a name, and he had no intention of doing so now. "Think ex-wife. I did you a favor with her, remember?"

Another long moment of silence followed before the voice at last clicked. The favor had been killing his wife before the bitch and her lawyer could take him to the cleaners. "For which you were well paid," Frennelli answered coldly.

"Yes," James agreed. "Don't worry. I'm not trying to squeeze you."

"Smart boy."

James lifted an eyebrow at the "boy" remark but chose to let it slide. "I gotta little problem of my own. Thought you could help me out."

"What kind of problem?"

"A car problem," he answered, pausing to take another swift drag before squashing the butt of the cigarette out on the side of the phone box. "Your specialty."

"Oh, really?" Frenelli sounded doubtful. "We don't do repairs."

"I need more of a cleaning job. Gotta little blood in the trunk last time I went hunting, know what I mean?"

"Oh, yeah. Yeah," Red agreed, starting to relax now that he understood the dynamics of the call better. "Nasty stain. Shoulda bagged it."

"Yeah, well, 'couldn't. Can you help me?"

"Sure," he said. "Not what I usually do, but... the boys won't have any problems making the stain disappear. What kinda car is it?"

"Jag and – I need to make sure it's in and out fast. No offense, but I don't want to risk you getting caught with it. And I don't think you want to risk my response if you did. Naturally, I'll pay extra for your trouble."

"Naturally..." James could practically hear the other man frowning.

"I'll give you three hours. Strip what you can in that time; but I want all VINs destroyed, the trunk burnt and the frame rusting at the bottom of the lake when you're done."

"Three hours?" Red echoed in disbelief and started to laugh. "You don't want much, do you?"

"Ten thousand enough?" James asked. The laughter ended abruptly.

"Ten thousand?" the other man echoed and suddenly became much more serious. "What? You stole the Police Commissioner's car and stuffed his body in the trunk? There better not be more than blood back there."

"There isn't, and I didn't steal it. It's my car." He shook out another cigarette and frowned up the way at the whores. Damn, the young one he'd been idly considering was getting in a car. He turned away with a frown to scan the rest of the area.

"A mistake, that," Red decided.

James frowned into the phone. "You're irritating me," he said bluntly. "Shall I take my business elsewhere?"

"No, no!" Red quickly backpedaled. The last thing he wanted to do was lose a chance at an easy ten grand. "I can help you. When you want it done?"

"Tomorrow night," he answered curtly. "The Oakwood Center Mall parking lot, west side, around seven. Gold 1999 Jag, license plate: RCW 139. There'll be a key in one of those magnet holders on the frame under the driver's side door. Send your best, Red. We don't need security stopping him. I'll be reporting it stolen about ten-thirty, or whenever the late show gets out. I want it in the lake before I call it in."

"And the money?"

"Under the back seat. Small, unmarked bills." He sandwiched the phone between his head and shoulder as he deftly lit the cigarette.

"Good. It won't be in the lake, but it'll be out of town," Red told him, hurrying on before James might protest. "Ain't no place we can dump it in the city and not be seen, man! We'll paint it first, change the plates, then drive it north. There's a couple places out in the back of no man's land I know where we can sink it nice and deep. No one will see it and no one will find it."

James debated the risks and merits of the plan for a long silent moment, during which Red held his breath. "They better not..." was all he eventually said.

Part 12

Ben sat up with a start only to have pain lance through his chest with the sudden move, winning a grunt and the belated thought that he knew better than to jerk upright like that. His left arm snaked around his ribs even as he blinked in momentary confusion, not knowing where he was or what had woken him.

Bright clear moonlight, reflected from the snow outside, streamed through the double-paned insulated windows and painted the bedroom suite in cold blue light. Memory returned as dream faded and he recognized the hotel room. He hadn't bothered to draw the heavy drapes. With a sigh, he glanced at the clock beside his bed: 2:24 am. He offered the luminescent face a frown. Glancing around again, he listened intently, at a loss as to what had roused him at such an hour. Perhaps he'd heard Jaelyn having one of her night terrors.

A faint crackling noise caught his attention...

It took him only a moment to recognize the sound and quickly spring from bed. Again, still healing muscles which gave him no trouble during the day but insisted upon stiffening in sleep protested his action. He gritted his teeth and ignored it, forcing his sluggish and uncooperative body forward. He and Jaelyn hadn't escaped the inferno at her home, only to be trapped in another fire here!

Jerking his door open onto the main room, he brought himself up short. The fire he'd so clearly heard and which had sent a surge of adrenaline racing through his veins was quite safely contained within the fireplace.

He sighed dramatically as fear was replaced by relief and looked up at the ceiling. Thank God, he thought, but was frowning a moment later as he lowered his gaze, looking for Jaelyn. The fireplace had been empty when they retired. She must have risen and laid it, but he didn't see her. His frown became darker as he moved forward. He would have thought she'd know better than to leave such a fire unattended, especially with the glass screen--

Jaelyn turned from where she sat on the floor with her back against the over-stuffed sofa as movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention. She stared at Ben for a long embarrassed moment, then ducked her head and turned back to the fireplace, a small hand quickly lifting to wipe tears away.

"I'm sorry." She sniffed and cleared her throat with a frown. God, she hoped that didn't come out as pathetic as she thought it did! "I didn't mean to wake you. Go back to bed. Please." The tears were firmly banished. After a moment, she even managed to turn back to where he stood in the dancing firelight and offer up a weak semblance of a smile.

She was not surprised when he didn't turn and head back to his room, even though she really wished he would. No, she was coming to know him too well: Benton Fraser was incapable of ignoring her tears. She sighed and turned back to the fireplace. There were times she wished he wasn't such a gentleman. Men just didn't understand the cathartic value of a good crying jag.

She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he cocked his head to the side and regarded her with a pensive frown. Then, suddenly, she realized what he was wearing and turned to stare at him again.

Ben's frown of concern became one of mild confusion as he saw her forced little smile transform into one of genuine amusement.

"Long johns?" she asked, with a grin and a wave to indicate his attire. He looked like a little boy standing there, at the edge of the flickering firelight, in his bare feet and sleep tousled hair. All he needed was a teddy bear!

Ben glanced down at himself, not having given what he was wearing a second thought as he raced out of his bedroom. He was momentarily embarrassed, but Jaelyn's amusement didn't seem to indicate he should be. It didn't surprise him, really. Up in the north, long johns were a necessity. In the south... well, he'd learned long ago that they were considered a bit odd and remembered taking a definite ribbing for them in the barracks when he attended Academy in Ragina. Of course, he'd also been a lot more comfortable than some of his fellow bunkmates on cold winter mornings so...

He and Jaelyn had separated for a few short minutes while shopping this afternoon, to purchase more personal items. He'd been quite delighted to find them.

He shrugged and noted that Jaelyn was dressed in flannel pajamas herself. The sight seemed a bit incongruous somehow. She'd always worn a long cotton nightgown on the few occasions he'd seen while at the Inn.

He dismissed the thought as inappropriate and lifted his hands to sign. ^Should - I change?^ he asked. He probably should have bought a robe, he realized, not that he would have taken the time to grab it before flying from his room...

She shook her head and turned back to the fire. "No. Just... go back to bed. You really don't have to worry about me. I'm fine. Really."

He offered a pensive frown, not believing her for an instant, and shrugged again. ^I can't – sleep - either,^ he told her simply. Which, he consoled himself, wasn't exactly a lie: he wouldn't be able to sleep until he knew why she was up at such an hour. Her tears might be gone, but he hadn't forgotten them. He came forward to stand beside her. ^May I?^ He indicated a spot on the floor beside her as she glanced up again.

She felt a momentary... It wasn't fear, exactly. More... trepidation. Or... maybe anticipation was a better word. There was nothing little-boy-like about him up close. Jaelyn quickly glanced away and shrugged. What was she supposed to do: tell him no?

He carefully folded himself downward beside her, supporting himself with a hand on the edge of the couch. She watched him, despite herself, and caught his slight wince of pain as he maneuvered himself into position; not too close, not too far from her side. "You okay?"

Ben was surprised by the question, unaware he'd let his expression slip and quickly fought to banish the look which had elicited her concern. He nodded as he settled and stretched his legs out toward the fire, his heels resting on the sheepskin "bear" rug. He lifted his hands. ^Sore,^ he admitted, with a shrug.

He should actually expect to feel worse, he thought, given how much walking they'd done. His muscles had already started to relax again in answer to his movements. It had been a pleasantly full day, and he didn't mind the minor aches and pains that were the price he must pay for it. Only a few weeks ago, he'd barely been able to walk a block without getting winded. He was definitely improving. At least physically, he amended, and frowned into the fire.

"Six months from now, you'll be chasing the bad guys again and this will all be forgotten," Jaelyn decided, offering her own wistful smile to the dancing flames.

He frowned a little harder, unwilling to lie to himself. ^Maybe,^ he offered silently, then dismissed the disquieting thought. He cocked his head to the side and waved a hand to indicate the fire. ^Did you - lay it?^ he asked, knowing she must have.

"No," she answered. "I called room service."

He was a bit surprised but nodded his understanding and acceptance of the simple declaration even as he fought to hide a frown, not sure why the idea that she hadn't laid it herself should be so disappointing--

--She lightly dug her elbow into his side. "Of course, I laid it, you idiot!" she corrected herself. "Like I'd really call room service at two in the morning for something so simple!"

He glanced over to see her grinning unrepentantly and knew she'd been having him on. He'd certainly fallen for it. He shook his head. There were a number of women he knew who wouldn't have the faintest idea how to go about laying a proper fire, and he wasn't sure why the thought that Jaelyn might be among them had almost hurt.

Most people simply threw a couple of logs on the grate and stuffed newspaper around them. The lay of the embers and ash beneath the grate told Ben that Jaelyn had taken the time to lay a proper bed of kindling and tinder before placing a single medium-sized log carefully atop it. A couple of pine cones had added color, though they were mostly gone now. It was a low soft fire, and one that could easily be maintained for the rest of the night if desired, or quickly picked apart and extinguished when the time came.

"One of my first jobs at the Inn was laying the fire in the main dining room," she offered with a wistful smile. "My father was quite insistent that I learn to do it right. Back when they refitted the old kitchen, the contractor for the job wanted to convert all the fireplaces to gas, but Dad refused to do it. He said gas could never replace a true log fire." She smiled at the crackling wood. "He was right."

A good thing too, Ben thought. The main fire place she'd mentioned tending at the Inn had backed against the kitchen. Had it exploded when the kitchen did, half the Inn would have collapsed and they would likely be dead.

With a shake of her head, she quickly thrust thoughts of the Inn aside before they could become too painful and turned to cock a questing brow at the man beside her. "You know... I think I saw some marshmallows in one of the cabinets earlier." She grinned. "Think we can find something to roast them with?"

He offered a crooked smile in answer and together they rose to pad into the tiny kitchenette.

Part 13

Frannie bit her lip and fought to still her shaking hands as her chair was wheeled through the double doors of the NICU and positioned before the large double sinks. A glance to the side at Ren assured her that he was just as nervous as she was about meeting the babies for the first time.

It had been four days since the birth. Four days of questions and half-answers she didn't understand, of worries and hope, of fears and forms and hearing other newborns being brought to their mothers... She'd developed a blood clot in her leg right after the delivery, and apparently her blood pressure had gone wacko too. It all added up to the fact that she'd been forced to stay in bed until this morning.

Four days.
It was a disconcerting blur for the most part, and not because of any drugs or anything she'd been on but because of everything that had happened. The euphoria of birth had quickly passed. She'd been bombarded with questions and information. Three of her babies had been placed on respirators immediately, another one had wound up being intubated yesterday when she "got too tired." Two of the kids were doing quite well, but that hardly meant they were ready to go home.

Her milk had come in quickly and the nurses had been in and out, teaching her to use the Medula breast pump they gave her and to collect the result. They'd explained the importance of colostrum and how her milk contained antibodies the babies needed. The babies couldn't drink it yet, but it would be frozen and given to them as soon as possible. There had been a lot of explanations and questions and a mountain of paperwork to sign, allowing this or that test or procedure. Surfactant therapy. Central line. Umbilical catheter. RDS. PDA. Apnea... It was like trying to learn a whole new language!

Her obstetrician, Dr. Romano had tried to warn her. She'd told Frannie the children would be born premature, told her that she had to be admitted when she started having early labor, done everything in her power to let Frannie carry them as long as she could... all the while knowing and telling Frannie that she could not possibly carry to full term.

Somehow, Frannie hadn't really taken it in. She'd assumed that they would be born when they were ready to be born: that they *would* be ready to be born... She'd been so worried about losing them, about one or more dying... All her other worries had revolved around where they were going to put six bassinets and how to afford all the necessary diapers. If they lived, then everything would be fine, and she'd be taking home six bouncing bundles of screaming joy. The fantasy of the perfect birth situation had never been supplanted by the reality of what premature birth meant.

Until now...

The nurse who escorted their small group handed each of them an individually packaged pre-treated disinfectant scrub brush to open and carefully explained the scrub down procedure, going through it with them and pointing out where the instructions were posted to the left of the scrubber dispenser in case they became confused on a subsequent visit. It even dictated the proper method for drying their hands by passing the paper towels over their skin in one direction only.

Somehow... it all seemed unreal to Frannie. This wasn't the way one was supposed to greet a new baby. Or babies... She'd known it wouldn't be the typical scenario: Mom propped up in bed, all happy tears as the precious bundle was handed to her and the family ooo'ed and ahhh'ed and made stupid comments. Not with sextuplets. She'd known... but at the same time, she hadn't. Lamaze hadn't prepared her for any of this!

Surgical gowns were produced as soon as they were scrubbed. The nurse shook one out for her and helped her slip it on as the others wrestled with theirs.

"I feel like I'm going into surgery or something," Ray muttered darkly.

"In a way you are," the nurse answered. "Most of the infants beyond these doors have severely weakened or immature immune systems. We try to keep the area as clean as any surgical suite you might see. Cleaner, in fact."

"Ready to meet the kiddos, Mama?" Mackenzie King asked from where she stood with her camera.

If it wasn't for the contract that she'd gotten with "Time Magazine" she probably wouldn't have been allowed inside. However, the-powers-that-be were always on the look out for any publicity that might win them extra donations or grants for the hospital, so the reporter was to be granted at least limited access, though her cameraman was barred from entrance. One of them in there was enough.

A hospital representative standing behind the group was going to be watching the reporter like a hawk. King was under very strict restrictions as to what she could shoot and how long she could stay. And either Ray or Ren would have to leave with her when the allotted time was up because hospital policy only permitted two visitors per family at a time. Ren was only permitted because the doctors were being nice. Dr. Romano had made a notation in Frannie's files which granted him special dispensation as the sextuplets "father-to-be", despite the fact that he was not a blood relative. In truth, the doctors simply acknowledged that the new mother needed all the emotional support and help she could get.

"Earth to Francesca?" MacKenzie called to the distracted woman, aiming her camera at her. "Give us a smile! You're about to meet the little ones for the first time. Aren't you excited!"

Francesca gazed up at the camera and woman behind it and tried not to cry. She didn't know what she felt, but *excited* certainly wasn't it!

"Frannie?" The reporter, who'd developed a real affection for the petite and excitable woman, frowned in sudden concern.

Ray was at his sister's side in an instant. "Hey!" he called softly, squatting down beside her chair and taking her hand in his. It was ice cold! He frowned and held it tight, wrapping both of his around it. "You okay?" he asked quietly, searching her face in concern and confusion.

*Okay?* she thought and bowed her head as the question threatened to shatter her fragile control. She ruthlessly shoved the emotional turmoil aside. "Sure," she lied, forcing a too bright smile for her brother's benefit. "Why wouldn't I be?" Why indeed, she thought, not sure herself. If she didn't understand what she was feeling, then how in the world were any of them supposed to understand it?

"Want me to kick King outta here?" he asked quietly. "She can get her pictures some other time." There was nothing in their verbal agreement that said the reporter had to be hovering over his sister every second of the day.

"Hey!" the reporter protested. "I have a deadline here, Vecchio. 'Time' wants the finished article by the end of the week!"

"So you got four days to play with." Ray glared up at her. "Back off!"

"Ray," Turnbull said firmly, interrupting the incipient fight. "Miss King..." He included her as well and laid a protective hand on Francesca's shoulder. She was actually shaking! "Would you give us a few moments, please?"

It really wasn't a question. Ray was surprised by Turnbull's audacity, metaphorically stepping between him and his sister. He was about to tell him to mind his own business... when he glanced at Frannie and realized she was fighting not to cry. Damn, she was more upset than he'd realized! Probably the pressure of everything. And he hadn't helped matters.

He looked back up at Turnbull and met the man's silent gaze. It was quite clear that he loved her and would do everything in his power to protect and comfort Frannie, if everyone would just give him the chance. Ray was struck anew by the knowledge that he was no longer the only male figure in Frannie's life who had the right to demand such a chance.

He glanced at Francesca again, but she still had her head turned away, eyes tightly shut. He offered a sigh and nodded, acknowledging that his own quick temper had only made the situation worse. He didn't know Turnbull as well as he'd like too, but what he'd seen over the last few weeks had been surprising. The often inane, ludicrous and bumbling Mountie - ex-Mountie - had managed to earn Ray's grudging respect. He deserved the right to try where Ray had already failed.

Ray stood and glanced at King. The cut-throat reporter actually showed some decency. A warning glare was all that was needed to shut her up and get her to accompany him as he moved away from his sister.

Frannie felt another hand gently pat her shoulder. The nurse had not moved away. "Meeting a sick child is not the happy, exciting moment that most people think of when they talk about meeting a baby for the first time," she offered gently and glanced up at the tall man beside Ms. Vecchio. She was relieved to see his nod of understanding. "It's perfectly normal to feel scared and angry and sad and overwhelmed... Especially with sextuplets. Has anyone been by to talk to you about any of this?"

Frannie offered a small humorless laugh even as she felt Ren offer her shoulder a silent, supportive squeeze. "Everybody!" she answered.

Ren and the nurse exchanged a silent message. A moment later the nurse was replaced by his lanky form as he carefully knelt beside her. Then he merely opened his arms and drew her close. It was the only permission Frannie needed to fall apart. She buried her face in his strong shoulder and wept openly, letting the careful dam she'd fought to maintain since before the birth give way. All her pain and fear and confusion surged forth in a cleansing and terrifying flood.

"It's all right, Francesca," Ren murmured softly, gently stroking her hair and kissing the side of her head, offering support and understanding and comfort all at the same time. "Shhhhh. It's all right."

It took a long time for the soft words to penetrate. Frannie continued to weep even as she shook her head and managed to answer him, forcing the words out in little more than half-gasped whispers. "It's not all right, Ren. Nothing's all right! Karol and Mike wanted kids so much. They didn't expect me to have six of them, but they were so happy. They were scared and thrilled and... And now their dead! And... And the babies are... What if her brother wants to take them? Everybody keeps saying they're not mine. What if he says I did something wrong? What if they die, Ren?"

The last question was the only one she heard herself speak. It seemed to echo and re-echo inside her head. She couldn't even believe that she'd spoken it aloud!

"No one's going to take them away, Francesca," he told her quietly, leaning back slightly so that he could look her in the eye and make sure she was hearing him. "The rights of the surrogate mother have been well established in cases like this. The brother has no legal claim on the children unless the State deems you to be an unfit mother and *you're not*. You did nothing wrong, Francesca, nothing. This isn't your fault."

"What... what about the shooting? I fell, Ren!"

"That was two months ago, Francesca," he answered her with quiet assurance. "If there had been any damage, or the doctors had been concerned, they would have told you about it."

"But... twenty-seven weeks--!"

"--Is very good for sextuplets," Ren patiently echoed what he’d heard her doctors tell her repeatedly.

"What if they... die?" She heard the question slip forth again and it was as if someone else had whispered it, not her. She stared deep into Ren's eyes, praying that he would simply promise her that they wouldn't, knowing that he would never lie to her and that if he said it, it would have to be true.

"Two of them are doing quite well," he said instead, concentrating on the positive. "They are all strong and good sized for their gestational ages. The doctors here are specialists at taking care of preemies. They--"

"--What if they die!" she insisted loudly, not hearing what she needed to hear.

Ren did not denigrate her fear the way Ray would have. He did not lie and tell her everything would be fine. "It would hurt like hell,' he answered quietly and there were tears in his eyes as he said it. She knew that it would hurt him just as much as it would hurt her.

She buried her face back in his shoulder and let the tears flow once again, but this time it wasn't the overwhelming flood that had threatened to drown her like before. This time she knew there was someone who understood and who would stand with her no matter what. That knowledge was more comforting than all the empty promises she’d been hoping to hear could possibly be.

Part 14

Jaelyn frowned as she slid two plates of bacon and eggs into place on the breakfast bar. "Why didn't he ask me to marry me?" she asked suddenly.

Ben's hands froze in the act of pouring their coffee as he contemplated this completely unexpected question, then resumed their motion as he realized he had no idea what she was talking about. He offered her only a lifted brow in silent inquiry and watched as she bit her lip, sweeping back around the bar to retrieve a plate of toast without answering. He put the hot carafe on a folded hand towel then turned to hold her chair as she returned a moment later. He awarded her a patient and curious look as he took his own seat.

Jaelyn wrestled with herself for a long moment, picking up her fork and pushing her food around a bit before she could force herself to answer. "Greg."

There was only one "Greg" she could mean

"Why the kidnaping and rape?" she continued with a confused little frown. "I knew him forever. It wouldn't have taken much to make things... different." She shrugged a shoulder at her own choice of words. Ben would understand what she meant. "Despite his claims otherwise, he never even asked me out. Was it really that simple? I just... wasn't his type, and he thought killing me was easier than trying to marry me?"
Ben carefully finished chewing the bite of toast he'd taken and contemplated both the question and the questioner... though he was careful not to look at her while he did so. This was the first time since Manly's death that Ben could remember hearing her speak his name. She normally avoided talking about her attack at all, changing the topic or simply walking away if any mention of it was made.

He considered his response carefully, knowing she wasn't looking for a trite or white-washed answer here... ^It wasn't Manly - who was actually - after you,^ he reminded her.

"David..." she sighed and suddenly frowned down at her plate. "You know, I really don't want to talk about this. I don't know why I brought it up to begin with!"

Ben offered a carefully casual shrug. ^Something about it - must be bothering you,^ he decided, which wasn't surprising. She'd been suppressing so much about it for so long. Apparently, now that they were away from Chicago, relaxed and in a place she felt safe, it was all starting to bubble to the surface again.

She frowned harder and continued to play disinterestedly with her food, mashing her eggs into a wet pile. He waited her out as he ate his own portion, knowing something besides confused musings had motivated her first question.

"I had a dream last night," she admitted after a long minute. She put her fork aside and lifted her coffee, trying to appear more relaxed than she actually was as she took a long a sip. She frowned as she noticed her hand shaking and quickly put the cup back down. "A nightmare, actually. At least it wasn't one of those stupid night terrors." She sighed irritably, then dismissed the thought. "Anyway, that's why I couldn't sleep.”

Ben nodded, listening intently without prompting her.

"There was this... ring." She glanced down at her plate again. Her voice had dropped so low that Ben was reduced to reading her lips in order to know what she said, but he didn't want to interrupt by correcting her. "I remember Greg and... and..." She glanced up in confusion. "What was the other guy's name? I can never remember his name..."

^D-a-w-s-o-n?^ Ben supplied, finger spelling the name of the man she'd picked out of the photo lineup she'd been given while still in the hospital.

She nodded. "I see him clearly," she explained pensively. "The others are all hazy, ghost-like. Greg keeps apologizing. David looks confused..." She suddenly shook her head and forced a smile, trying to dispel the phantom images even talking about the dream evoked. "I know it's not real. I mean... I remember the real stabbing. Well, some of it, anyway." She shrugged. "I remember the knife.. And I remember that no one was laughing, but they are in my dream, uh, nightmare," she corrected herself and then frowned sharply again as she looked up once more. "I know David stabbed me. I mean, I remember scratching whoever stabbed me and the DNA tests didn't match any of the other guys, so it had to be David, right?"

Ben offered a reluctant nod: so they all assumed. He also assumed that Mort was running a DNA comparison just to be sure. He hadn't heard such, but it only made sense.

She offered a weary sigh and started piling her mashed eggs onto her toast. "I can't make David's face fit on my attacker," she admitted irritably. "No matter how hard I try. He... he seemed bigger somehow. And ... now I'm remembering this ring." She paused in thought for a long moment but wound up shaking her head in frustration. "David didn't have a ring. At least I don't remember one." She sighed wearily. "It's probably as real as the laughter."

Ben frowned, trying to remember if he'd ever seen the younger man with a ring on and failing. He might have simply missed it, he knew, as he and Jeanie's brother had rarely interacted. Whether the ring was real or not wasn't what was important here.

^David was a friend,^ he offered. ^It's natural that your mind - should reject the idea of him - trying to hurt you. You told us the same thing - about Greg Manly - when we first discovered - he was involved.^

"I know. I know..." she sighed yet again. Frowning, she forced herself to take a bite and swallow before continuing. "Dr. Vernes has been trying to get me to write down my dreams. It's supposed to help me be able to sort everything out on a conscious level or something. But... how can I sort anything out if I don't know what's real and what isn't?"

^You said you knew - the laughter wasn't real,^ he pointed out.

She shook her head. "It was just me and... and..."

^Dawson,^ he supplied.

"Dawson. And... and... David." She forced the name out.

Ben shook his head. ^You don't remember - David.^

"No, but--"

He shook his head again, interrupting her. ^You're sorting what's real - from what isn't,^ he told her. ^Don't worry about - trying to fix it. You said David - was in the dream?^

She nodded. "In the background."

She nodded, then frowned and shook her head in frustration. "He didn't fit. I can't make him fit!"

^You may be trying - too hard,^ he allowed. ^Or the difference - in his personality - may have been so great - that in a very real way - it wasn't David - at least the David - you thought you knew.^

She awarded him a wry smile. "Do all Mounties have degrees in Psychology?" she asked.

^No degree,^ he shook his head, answering her seriously. ^But as a Mountie - a basic understanding - of the human psyche is... helpful. I've done a little - studying.^

"More than a little," she guessed.

He shrugged, knowing the question was relative.

With a sudden angry sigh, she shook her head and sat back in her chair. "Enough. Let's talk about something else. We still need to do some shopping. I don't know about you, but I need more than a single change of clothes."

^And ski masks - and sun glasses.^ He listed some of their more odd purchases the day before, none of which had been his idea. A lifted brow and slight tilt of his head was enough to ask the question he was thinking.

To his surprise, she actually giggled. "No, I'm not thinking of going skiing," she assured him and lifted three fingers in the age old Girl Scout salute. "Scout's honor!" she claimed, even while awarding him a mischievous smile.

Ben knew she might not be thinking of skiing but she was obviously thinking of *something*... He cocked his head in the other direction.

"You're being as bad as James now!" she laughed lightly.

His brow went up again.

"Okay," she admitted, "not that bad, but you're just going to have to trust me on this one. It's a surprise."

His other brow went up and then he sat back with a pensive look on his face.

She shook her head, refusing to be drawn. "Eat up, Ben. First order of business today is to replace our toiletries and my make-up." She grinned knowingly. "You're going to need your strength."

Part 15

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Cook County Hospital was a nexus of softly beeping machines, quiet bursts of urgent activity, and careful alert vigilance. A small army of specially trained nurses and doctors worked along side each other in near-seamless efficiency as respiratory specialists and lab techs moved from one tiny patient to the next. In the center of the large room sat an oversized desk, perhaps twenty feet long. The broad, carefully organized surface held three phones as well as charts, paperwork, and various other pieces of paraphernalia used by the support staff. A man in a blue smock over floral scrubs with a paper hair cap and a germ mask dangling from his neck gave their small group only a glance as they entered, then frowned down at the chart before him and continued whatever he was doing. Around the perimeter of the room stood some thirty-odd aquarium-like incubators and open-air heated bassinets, each surrounded by the various monitors and miscellaneous equipment needed to help sustain the fragile lives of their precious occupants.

Six of them along the west wall all bore the same name: "Vecchio". For hospital purposes, they were known as "Vecchio, female, A", "Vecchio, male, E"... noting their sex and order of birth. But each also had a blue or pink unofficial name card taped to the foot of their incubators, names that Frannie and Ren had been too quickly forced to agree upon: "Angelina Maria Vecchio," "Tina Rosa Vecchio," "Karol Elaine Vecchio," "Benton Aloysius Vecchio," "Raimundo Antonio Vecchio," and "Michael Stanley Vecchio." Some of them didn't have exactly the "ring" to them that Frannie would have liked, but all the names had significance and that's what was important. Ren was quite looking forward to changing the "Vecchio" part to "Turnbull," but that would have to wait until after the wedding, when he could begin the process of formally adopting them. Frannie was quite touched by the fact that he never even considered any other course of action.

She glanced around herself nervously, trying and failing to understand the mass of technology around her as she was wheeled forward and positioned between Angel and Tina.

"This is Angelina," the nurse introduced her to the child on her left first.

A look inside the clear plastic incubator had Frannie suddenly fighting not to cry at what she saw: Tiny, shriveled, hairy, limp... The nurses had tried to prepare her. It seemed like everyone was always trying to prepare her for something or other.

"She's sleeping right now," the nurse continued with a smile, "but doing quite well. Her bilirubin levels are starting to go up which is why she looks a bit yellow but jaundice is common in all babies, not just preemies."

"She's so tiny!" Ren exclaimed as he bent down beside Frannie. He hadn't realized how tiny they were when he was in the delivery room. She looked like he could hold her in one hand!

The nurse smiled again. "Actually, she's quite large," she corrected him. "The biggest of the bunch: Two pounds, eleven ounces and fifteen inches long. Not bad at all for twenty-seven weeks."

Large? Frannie bit her lip as she stared at the tiny little creature that was supposed to be her daughter. Angelina was lying on her back within the clear plastic of a heated Isolette which stood directly at Frannie’s wheelchair-height eye level, and even though she wasn't on a respirator, she was still covered in tubes and wires. Her head was too large for such a tiny body, the arms and legs almost skeletal thin. Her skin was wrinkled and pale looking, with a soft down-like fuzz across her forehead and shoulders. Her arms and legs stretched forth at odd, awkward angles, and were not curled close to the body like a normal baby. She reminded Frannie more of pictures she'd seen of Nazi concentration camp victims than a new born baby!

"We'll be starting her on photo therapy this afternoon," the nurse told them, opening one of the doors in the side of the incubator opposite Frannie and reaching in to adjust some wires. "What we do is cover the baby's eyes with this..." She held up what looked like a doll-sized sleeping mask. "...and shine special lights on them. This helps their bodies break down the bilirubin and get rid of it. It's a very simple therapy and nothing to worry about. It just takes a few days and we'll get her levels back down to normal. Would you like to touch her?"

*Touch her?!* Frannie stared at the nurse in horror but she just smiled back reassuringly.

"Can she hold her?" King asked from where she stood, taking pictures of the group.

"Hold her?" Ray exclaimed in a loud hiss. "Are you crazy!"

An alarm, sounding suspiciously like a MacDonald's French fry timer, suddenly went off beside them and the nurse moved quickly to the second Isolette, on Frannie’s right. Knowledgeable eyes scanned the monitors and then tiny Tina even as she reached up to turn off the alarm. Then she was reaching inside the Isolette.

"What's wrong?" Ren asked and added a quiet, "Oh, my god..." when the nurse deftly lifted the baby, turned her over in her other hand and started firmly thumping the baby's back. He was shocked at what he was seeing!

"It's all right, Mr. Turnbull," the nurse assured him even as she continued with what almost seemed like beating the child! "I'm not hurting her."

Frannie grabbed hold of Ren's hand and the two of them exchanged frightened looks. The nurse stopped the action after a few more moments and they heard Tina offer a weak little cry. "She just needs to be suctioned." She signaled another nurse who came over to assist her and Ren was forced to wheel Frannie out of the way.

"It's nothing to worry about, Frannie," the nurse who'd been assigned to act as the hospital representative came forward to kneel beside her. The group stood back and watched in mixed fascination and horror as the baby was again laid on her back and a tube passed down her throat. The tiny legs kicked and quivered in protest, the skin going from pale to dark purple. Another alarm sounded and was turned off. "Her lungs aren't mature enough to let her cough yet, that's all. It's normal for secretions and gunk to build up, so every so often the nurses have to suction it out." They watched as a small pre-measured vial of fluid was torn open. This was then poured down the tube into her lungs. "That's a special type of saline solution," the hospital representative explained. "It's used to help dilute the secretions and make them easier to vacuum up."

"But she can't breathe!" Frannie exclaimed quietly. She didn't have to know what the alarms all meant or exactly how to read the electro-cardio monitor to know the baby was in distress.

"It's only for a few moments, Frannie," the woman explained, "and she'll be able to breathe much better when they're through."

Sure enough, the nurses were quickly done with the procedure, the tube removed, and a tiny oxygen mask held close to the baby's face as she offered a much stronger crying protest. Her color almost instantly returned to its previous slightly yellowed color.

Frannie glanced up at Ren in shock, all her fears and doubts over the babies' precarious and delicate situation brought home to her once again far too forcibly. How was she ever going to be able to care for any of them, ever? Gone was the dream of racing from one white wicker bassinet to another in a brightly colored nursery back home while her mother watched in the background and smiled, shattered in an instant of all too real reality to become nothing more than a wishful illusion beyond Frannie's ability to grasp.

Part 16

Ray was just leaving Welsh's office when he almost ran into Maggie - literally. "Whoops!" he exclaimed backpedaling quickly. Not that he'd mind running into Maggie... He jerked his eyes upward even as he silently acknowledged that the bright red uniform did things for her it could never do for Fraser, and offered her a carefully friendly smile. "Hey, there! Curruthers decided to let you come play today?"

"Something like that," she agreed, returning his smile. "I've been asked to do a background check on Sgt. Sharidan. She recently transferred here from the twenty-third and has applied for some advanced training at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa."
"Really?" Ray asked in surprise. "'Fraid I don't know her. You mean immigrants can do that?"

Maggie shook her head. "She's not emigrating. The Canadian Police College is one of the best in the world. They accept applicants from several nations, including the United States."


"You seem surprised."

"No!" he answered quickly, not wanting to insult her. Frankly, he *was* quite surprised. He thought the US probably had the best Police Universities or whatever - though he couldn't think of one that specialized in advanced police training off hand... "No. Not at all. I mean... look at you and Fraser, right?" He had to admit, rightly or wrongly deserved, the RCMP did have a reputation as one of the best police services in the world. Maggie and her brother certainly upheld that image.

"I've never attended the Canadian Police College, Ray," she answered, "and I seriously doubt Ben has either. They're set up to help augment the training of police administrators and specialized police officers in such areas as forensics, explosives, cyber crime, collisions... Most officers have had at least ten years of experience before being accepted into the various programs. Officer Sharidan has eight but comes with high recommendations from her superiors. I've been asked to follow up her references. As she's from the twenty-seventh, I thought I'd do it in person."

"And Inspector Curruthers doesn't think that'll, you know, put you at too great a risk? Associating with us 'overly violent' Americans?" Ray grinned unrepentantly.

"Given that he is new to the post, Ray, and that three of his officers have been injured in the last three months, one of which has been forced into medical retirement while another remains on an Indefinite Medical Leave of Absence, I think he can be excused for being a bit paranoid."

"Hey! Vecchio and I told you to stay back when we went to check on Stevie Carstairs," Kowalski argued for argument's sake. It was also the only incident of the three he *could* argue. Fraser had been standing sentry when he was shot by an American he'd helped Vecchio put away, and Turnbull had been officially paired with himself and on duty when the younger Mountie was shot protecting Frannie. "It wasn't our fault you got caught in that bomb blast!"

"And if I hadn't been, you or Vecchio might have been killed," she rejoined. "In any case, Inspector Curruthers is willing to entertain the notion that it was all just an incredible run of bad luck. He isn't quite ready to pull the plug on the 'unique relationship the RCMP has with the Chicago Police Department,' as Thatcher put it. Yet. Just try to keep me out of hospital and he'll be happy."

Ray offered an amused shrug, resettling his holster. "I'd say that shouldn't be too hard if all you're doing is a background check, but I've learned not to assume such things when around anyone in a bright red suit. Where you off too?"

"First, I need to speak to Leftenant Welsh," she answered with a tug on her tunic, "and then I'm off to track down Dr. Gustafson."

"Mort?" Kowalski rolled his eyes. He hated visiting the morgue!

"You don't have to come?" she allowed. Her assignment certainly wasn't one that required Ray's assistance.

"No, I'll come," he quickly volunteered. "It's better than going over the same dead end clues I've already been over a hundred times today. Maybe something will click if I take a break."

"The brain will often come up with new or missed information if it is distracted for a short period of time," Maggie agreed. She then flashed him a bright grin. "Maybe we can bounce around some ideas while I'm running between interviews?"

"Sounds good to me," Ray nodded and pasted on his most charming smile as he turned to hold open the door of Welsh's office for her.

Part 17

Ben was quite surprised with how fast Jaelyn could shop when she wanted to. Not that he thought she was... indecisive or... particularly hard to please. Quite the opposite. He frowned at the washroom door as he waited for her to reappear and tried to define exactly what it was he did think.

Yesterday had been an exercise in patience. For him, shopping was largely a simple act of necessity. He determined his needs, sought out the required items and, based on budgetary demands, either bought them or not. Had he been alone, it would have taken him all of ten minutes, maybe, to replace his wardrobe: another pair of jeans, two shirts, necessary undergarments... He'd never been particularly fashion conscious. He knew what he liked and what he didn't, and didn't really have to think about it. Jaelyn, however, seemed determined to turn it into a game, each of them taking turns helping the other select what they needed.

He simply didn't understand the fascination that women seemed to have concerning such matters, and he doubted he ever would. He had to admit it was a rather interesting psychological exercise, however, one that left him both confused and surprised by turns.
Jaelyn's speed this morning might have been surprising but, standing here waiting for her, he realized it wasn't so difficult to understand. Their toiletries and other necessities had been quickly replaced with one stop at the local Walgreen's. She'd then disappeared into the nearest public washroom. He knew he'd correctly surmised her very feminine motives as she reappeared wearing a light dusting of make-up.

"That's better," she announced with a smile.

He returned the smile with a noncommittal nod. He didn't see as she needed the make up. They were both dressed quite casually and she was pretty enough without it. In fact, the application was so light as to appear almost natural. He offered a mental shrug and chalked it up to yet another aspect of the female mind he would never comprehend.

Together, they headed back to the hotel to drop off their packages and then headed out again, pausing at a small deli beside the hotel to get some sandwiches for lunch. When they were done, and without the need of a single spoken word, Ben suddenly knew they were back in the same non-hurried shopping mode of yesterday. Jaelyn awarded him a jaunty smile and chose an easterly direction today. He offered her back a tolerant shake of his head and followed her lead, simply enjoying the cool mountain air and her rather buoyant company. She quickly chose a store at random and led the way inside with a soft tinkling bells from above the door.

The moment he stepped inside the quiet little shop, Ben knew it wasn't going to be the simple clothing goods store he'd silently hoped for. The smell of cedar and lemon polish was a pleasantly pungent scent, accenting the visual impact of real wood paneling competing with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and gilt-edged crown molding.

"Thank you," Jaelyn easily answered the smartly dressed clerk who greeted them, not waiting for Ben to translate. "We just want to browse a bit first."

"Of course," the younger woman answered readily, completely failing to realize that Jaelyn was deaf. "Please don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions. That's what we're here for."

Jaelyn turned her attention to the racks scattered about them and immediately zeroed in on an azure blue turtle neck displayed on a headless male mannequin over by the front window. Ben followed like a silent shadow and regarded it dubiously even as she glanced from it back to him.

"You don't like it?" she asked with a disappointed and slightly confused frown. It was such a beautiful color. She knew it would be perfect on him.

It was a nice sweater but not the type he normally bought. It was rather light and had a brushed finish to it: not the sort of thing one wore under another shirt. It looked to be quite soft and was probably quite comfortable, but he wasn't sure it was very practical. Still, Jaelyn seemed to like it...

He was a bit mystified at himself over the fact that he should be considering her preferences regarding such a purchase even as he glanced at the price tag. That glance sent one of his brows quickly winging upward in surprise. He frowned and shook his head, turning to scan the store in the rather vain hope of spotting a simple plaid flannel shirt or maybe some long-sleeved Henleys.

Jaelyn offered the sweater a little pout and reached up to finger a sleeve. "I suppose you'd be upset if I wanted to..."

He cocked a censorious brow before she could even finish the thought.

^It *was* my idea that we leave the luggage behind,^ she defended her offer, switching to sign.

He tucked his cane under his arm to answer. ^I was aware - of the consequences - when I agreed.^ Ben knew she'd misunderstood his descision as she frowned, seeming to slump slightly. With a shake of his head, he reached out and drew her attention to the price tag.

Her jaw dropped open. "Five hundred?" she mouthed silently. She took another look at the sweater, then looked at the tag behind the price tag. "Ralph Lauren," she nodded, "and one hundred percent cashmere."

"Are you folks finding everything all right?" a different salesclerk came over to ask. She was even younger than the first.

Ben glanced up in surprise and then lifted his hands to translate.

Jaelyn nodded and offered the clerk a smile. "We have good taste." She indicated the sweater. "Can you show us something a bit more modest, please?"

"Of course." The woman awarded Ben a smile and turned to face him fully. "THIS - WAY - PLEASE," she told him, raising her voice and dramatically over-pronouncing her words.

Jaelyn had to fight not to laugh as Ben cast her a clearly dismayed look. She didn't need to hear to understand what had just happened. The salesclerk, unfortunately, missed the exchange and actually took Ben by the shoulders, physically steering him in the direction she wanted them to go. Jaelyn could have corrected her but didn't, and Ben didn't ask her to. Perhaps he thought she'd get a clue after a few more moments...

She didn't.

"WHAT - COLOR - DO - YOU - WANT?" she asked, presuming to choose a style for him. It was almost as if she were addressing a child.

"I can hear," Jaelyn translated his signing. He was not surprised when the salesclerk misunderstood her.

"Um, yes. Well, can you ask him what color he'd like? This black is quite nice for him, don't you think?" She held the sweater up against him for Jaelyn to see.

Ben took the sweater and stepped away from her over-solicitous help. Juggling his cane and the sweater meant he couldn't sign, which only added to his frustration and mounting irritation.

Jaelyn realized belated what had happened. "You don't understand," she offered. "He's mute. I'm the one who's deaf."

The woman turned to Jaelyn in obvious confusion. "But... I thought you just said you could hear?"

Jaelyn glanced at Ben in confusion of her own, unable to hear the question. His hands were occupied refolding the sweater. He shook his head with a sigh. It was simply an expression of frustration but Jaelyn interpreted it as something he wanted to say. "No," she offered aloud.

"Yes, you did!" the other woman insisted, then offered a frown. "I'm getting confused here."

Ben quickly finished with the sweater and simply tossed it back onto the display, his frustration getting the better of him.

"Thank you," Jaelyn translate his sign. "...We'll let you know if we need you."

Ben sighed and shook his head again. It wasn't the most polite interpretation of his signing, but it was accurate.

"What?" Jaelyn asked, thinking she'd misunderstood him. He seemed irritated, but she thought it was with the salesclerk... wasn't it?

"Whatever!" the salesclerk muttered. "My name's Bambi. I'll be over here..." She pointed to her left and quickly moved off in that direction.

Ben stared after her in mixed consternation and simple disbelief. It seemed poetically fitting somehow that her name should be Bambi...

"Did I say something wrong?" Jaelyn asked. She frowned after the salesclerk, realizing the other woman seemed irritated as well now.

Ben shook his head, forcing himself to dismiss thoughts of names governing personalities as utter nonsense. It was his fault, he decided. He should have tried harder to correct the misunderstanding before it went so far.

Jaelyn shrugged. "Gloves!" she suddenly insisted.

Ben blinked sharply in surprise and frowned mildly as he watched her suddenly hurry toward a display of various accessories, including ski mitts. He shook his head lightly and followed her, finding her shift of focus welcome – if completely bewildering!

Part 18

"Ah, Constable MacKenzie!" Mort greeted her with a pleasantly surprised smile. "A pleasure, as always. And Ray... what manages to drag you down to my lair? I trust you're not working the Montano case?" He gestured at the sheet-drapped body before him.

"Montano case?" Ray echoed, turning sharply away and frowning down at the personal effects of the man in question. He was careful not to touch them.

"The coroner ruled it a suicide," Mort answered and shook his head. "I'm about to ruin his day."

"Murder?" Maggie guessed, frowning pensively as she joined the doctor beside the body which Ray was carefully avoiding so much as a glance at.

Mort nodded. "He was found slumped over the steering wheel in his car, the gun beside his right hand. Unfortunately, there's no gunpowder residue on either hand."

"Meaning it was placed there after the man was dead," Maggie concluded.

"Exactly. That combined with post-mortem lividity along the back, shoulders, buttocks, thighs and calves clearly indicate the scene was staged. He had to have been laying on his back for several hours before being moved to the car. Very sloppy forensics work-up. They should have caught it before it came to me."

"Sgt. Sharidan wasn't part of that team, was she?"

"Shay? No," Mort replied emphatically. "No, she's better than that. I've known her for a while. We handle all the post-mortem studies for this area, including her old district. It's an odd set up, I know, but this building used to be part of Cook County Hospital, next door. Their new facilities might be better equiped, but they're still far too small. It's like trying to work inside a series of closets!" he claimed and offered a distasteful shudder. "It's far easier for me to work here.

"But, anyway, you were asking me about Sgt. Sharidan, weren't you? No," he repeated and pulled back the drape to frown down at the body. Ray's half-turned form quickly spun to face the wall. "She'd never be so careless. I can see her correcting the coroner now. The man should be fired!" He glanced up again. "Do you know Sgt. Sharidan?”

"No," Maggie answered, regarding the body with detached curiosity. "No, we've never met. She's applied for advance training in forensics studies at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa. I've been asked to follow up on some of her references. You were among them."

"Ah, yes," Mort nodded. "I remember her mentioning it a few months ago. I'm glad she finally followed through. Canada, huh? I hadn't expected that. How can I help you?"

Constable MacKenzie retrieved a small notebook she'd brought with her. "I need your general impressions concerning Sgt. Sharidan and any specific instances of interaction you've had with her that you feel would help the admissions review board make its placement determination."

As Maggie and Mort talked, Kowalski moved away from the victim's personal effects, trying to distract himself. He really didn't like being in the morgue. He'd had a bad experience when dissecting a frog for eighth grade. Cody Hensen and Roger Orouno had surreptitiously stimulated a nerve in its leg as he was working on it and it kicked, making him think it was still alive. They'd accused him of being a "butcher", like the Nazis. He was Polish. Didn't he know anything about the concentration camps? How could he do such a thing to a poor defenseless creature! As his father was a real butcher, they'd thought it was a great joke; but Ray had run out of the class in terrified tears.

It was an experience he'd never lived down or forgotten. The idea that a dead body might not be dead, or that it just might sit up or something, might be ridiculous, but it was one he could never get out of his head, especially down here. He came to the morgue only when he had too.

But he did like being with Maggie so he did it for her. In fact, he'd been toying with the idea of asking her out ever since she returned to Chicago...

Several things kept holding him back, not the least of which was that she was Fraser's sister. What if it didn't work out? Or... what if it did? Either way might put Fraser in a bit of a twist. They were friends and everything but...

Ray tried to imagine how he'd feel if it were Fraser dating his sister. But of course, he didn't have a sister and Fraser was Mr. Perfect so there'd be nothing to worry about anyway! He wound up trying to imagine what Fraser might think of him and Maggie dating. Frankly, he knew Maggie could do better. Fraser might never say anything against him, but the man just knew him too well. Not that Kowalski thought he was *that* bad a catch, but would he really want a sister of his to date someone like him?

A thick file buried under several much slimmer files on top of Mort's file cabinet caught his attention. Major case apparently. He needed further distraction and peeked at the cover. The name McKenna jumped out at him. With a sharp frown, he excavated it and started to flip through it.

"What's the McKenna Case File doing down here?" he asked, realizing only belatedly that he'd rather rudely interrupted whatever it was Mort was telling Maggie.

Mort looked over to him. "I think you'll find that's the forensics work-up on the case, Ray," he answered. "It's still waiting for me to close the David Tallin autopsy."

He recognized the file now of course. It was a copy of a part of the larger file that resided in his almost but not quite closed cases cabinet upstairs. He hadn't reviewed this part of it in a while, but now it gave him something other than the body the two of them were standing beside to concentrate on. "What's left to finish? The house went boom and he died in the resultant fire. Did you find evidence of a bomb or something on the body?"”

"No, no," Mort shook his head. "I'm just waiting for the DNA tests to get back."

"DNA tests?" Maggie echoed with a frown. "Was there some question of his identity?" She was disturbed by the idea that they might have informed his sister of his death if there was any question about whether the body found was David's or not.

Mort again shook his head. "The dental records were quite conclusive. There's no question the body discovered was that of David Tallin. No, the auto-radiographic study I've ordered is for comparison to the DNA results of the tissue taken from under Jaelyn McKenna's fingernails. We know she scratched her attacker, and we suspect it was David, but until the results come back there's no physical evidence that it was. Simple elimination of the others isn't good enough in my field."

"God, don't tell me there's a fifth perp for that crime out there!" Kowalski sighed.

Mort chuckled lightly. "I certainly hope not," he agreed, "but from what I've seen in that file, if David Tallin were still alive, that DNA profile I'm waiting for might be the only solid evidence you would have to tie him to the case, Ray."

"I think you're forgetting the heroin, knife and camisole that were found at his place." Ray shook his head and tossed the file back on top of the others.

Mort chuckled again. "No, Ray, I'm not. If you'll look again, I think you'll find that there were no fingerprints found on the knife or heroin bags. Even the camisole had been thoroughly laundered. A good defense lawyer could easily argue that it was planted."

Maggie frowned and glanced toward the file.

"No!" Ray slapped a hand down on it. He hated it when she got that look on her face! "Don't even think it."

"It is possible, Ray," she argued. "I can certainly see where someone might wipe his prints off the knife and launder the camisole before storing them away, but the heroin? Doesn't that strike you as odd?"

"Maybe he wore gloves when he was packaging the stuff up, how do I know? Possession is nine tenths of the law. We put away people everyday with less and you know it!"

"I'd still like to see the file, Ray."

Maggie came toward him and Ray stepped in front of the cabinet. "No. ...No, no." He shook his head. "See, I know that look. You'll look through the file and start asking questions. Questions without answers. Questions that will drive me batty until Mort gets that DNA test back, at which point the questions will all be made moot, right?"

"If the match is positive," Maggie agreed.

"'If!' 'If!' That's a mighty small 'if' and you know it!" Ray sighed. "I've got three hot cases I'm working, one of which is so hot I'm practically burning myself. I know the answer is right under my nose but I can't find that one little thread to tie it all together."

Mort threw an amused smile Maggie's way. "Mixed metaphors. He does it when he gets upset."

Ray offered Mort an irritated frown. "Metaphor shmetaphor, you know what I mean. I don't have time to beat a dead horse to death."

Mort lifted his brows in surprise. "That one actually made sense."

Maggie turned to Mort. "You think the horse is already dead, too?"

"More than likely," Mort shrugged, "but I'm not a detective, so what do I know? And, unfortunately, as much as I am enjoying our discussion, I really must get back to work. Detective Cupp is waiting for my report. Is there anything else I can help with concerning Sgt. Sharidan, Constable?"

"No," she answered with a smile and flipped the notebook she still held closed before slipping it back into the pouch of her Sam Brown belt. "No, I think that covers it. Thank you for your assistance, Doctor."

"You are most welcome, Constable. Glad to help." He turned back to the table and picked up with where he'd left, but paused and called out before the two of them disappeared through the door. "Oh, Constable? You're welcome to come back later and review the McKenna file if you want. I can't release it to you, of course, but there's no reason you can't see it when Ray isn't around to be driven 'batty'. You worked the case as well, after all."

Ray groaned aloud as Maggie nodded. "Thank you, Doctor," she agreed. "Four o'clock all right?"

"Excellent. I'll be doing paper work then."

Maggie nodded and, ignoring Ray's obvious displeasure, led the way from the Morgue.

Part 19

Frannie sat beside the last of the six incubators which held her tiny babies and stared silently at the softly beeping monitors and hissing equipment surrounding each. She was positioned in such a way as to be able to see all of them, or all of their incubators at least. Ren sat beside her on a high stool, offering his silent support as the nurses gave them a little break to absorb everything they’d seen and been told so far.

It was impossible.

Yet, Frannie remembered every word the nurses and doctors had said. How they were carefully saving her breast milk to give each child via gavage feedings as they became strong enough to tolerate it. How, because of her premature lungs, Karol not only had RDS, Respiratory Distress Syndrome as did most of them, but was also fighting a case of pneumonia! How Little Ray was fighting a fungal infection at one of the IV sites and how Ben was suffering a slight case of edema and that they were looking at his kidney functions. Everything from Angelina being big for her gestational age and the echocardiogram they were going to do on Michael, to the difficulties in telling the differences between a startle reflex and ordinary preemie behavior patterns from a seizure. It was all more than she should have been able to take in. But she had.

The doctors had chased King and Ray out some time ago. Ren too would have to leave soon, Frannie knew. He had a physical therapy session this afternoon. She knew he'd resist, but she'd insist right back. The best thing he could do for the children was to take care of himself.

In her head, she heard him repeating the thought back at her. The best thing *she* could do for the babies was take care of herself...

She didn't have time! She was going to be discharged tomorrow morning. Then she had to contact the insurance people because they were already starting to mess things up. Mike and Carol's insurance had come to a halt with their deaths and the Police Insurance Fund was not happy about the situation. Then a trip down to the Welfare Bureau to get all that paperwork started... She hated the idea of applying for State's Assistance, but there was no way she was going to be able to afford taking care of all six kids on her Civil Servant's pay. Then back to the hospital to talk to Indigent Care Services. She was hardly indigent, but she also knew she'd never be able to cover the mounting doctor bills that insurance and welfare were sure to kick back at her... She knew Ray and Ren and everyone would help her, but she couldn't ask them to shoulder her burden. It just wasn't right. The mere thought of what her weekly diaper bill was going to be if all the...


Damn, why'd she have to think *if?* She felt herself starting to tremble again as everything the doctors had told her about her babies flooded into her head again. The doctors hated talking in terms of statistics and odds, but she didn't have to understand everything they were saying to know that the babies were all very sick. That they might not all survive...

Beside her rested Raimundo Antonio Vecchio. He was the smallest of the six, weighing in at 880 grams or just under 2 pounds when he was born. Now, three days after that momentous day, Frannie had been dismayed to learn that he'd lost weight and was down to 810 grams! The doctors were checking out a couple of possible causes but no one was alarmed yet. She and Ren were assured that all babies lost weight after they were born. Their weights would soon stabilize and then they'd start regaining it, slowly. It could take some as much as a month to catch back up to their birth weight and it wasn't necessarily anything for concern.

*Not necessarily anything for concern. ... Nothing to be worried about. ... He's having difficulties but that's expected.*

She'd heard those catch phrases several times over the past couple of hours. Nothing to worry about? She had six preemies in NICU fighting for their lives and she wasn't supposed to worry?!

She bowed her head, fighting tears as Ren reached out to rest a hand upon her shoulder. "I think it's time we took a break," he said softly. "It's long past lunch but I suspect we can still get something at the cafeteria?"

Frannie shook her head. There was a part of her that was terrified to leave her kids, knowing on some illogical level that if she did, one of them would die! If she stayed then maybe, just maybe, she would notice something or sense something wrong before the nurses did and maybe, just maybe, she could help keep them all alive... "I’m not hungry," she told him quietly.

"I know," he surprised her by answering, "but we both have to eat anyway, and... and... ah..." There was a little catch in his voice that made Frannie look up to discover him blushing slightly.

Blushing? Of course... He was uncomfortable with all this. He was embarrassed because he couldn’t handle it. Nothing was like whatever he'd been thinking it would be like when he proposed to her in the delivery room. He was going to back out of their engagement...

"I... ah... I think you... that is, your... your... ah... your..." He was blushing crimson suddenly.

"You want to call off the wedding?" she offered bluntly.

"What!" he exclaimed, and suddenly glanced around in further embarrassment as he realized he'd all but shouted. "Sorry! Sorry!" he mouthed anxiously at the nurses and others in the room, then turned quickly back to Frannie with an entirely different kind of look. "No, Francesca! I-- I love you. I love you with all of my heart! Whatever made you think I'd want to do that?"

"I thought you were going to say you..." She waved a hand at the incubators. "I don't think this is what you had in mind when you proposed to me, Ren!"

Ren offered her one of his more adorable smiles and reached out to take her hand in his, drawing it upward for a kiss before he softly quoted, " 'For richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health...'"

Frannie felt tears threatening as she read the sincerity within his blue gaze. She glanced away, fighting them back, and bit a trembling lip.

"None of this matters to me, Francesca," he assured her, then did a double-take as he realized what he'd just said. "Well, I mean, of course it matters to me, it's just... I don't know what's going to happen, but I... I want to be here with you and, God willing, I want to stay with you no matter what comes."

Frannie glanced up again. She would have doubted such words coming from almost anyone else, but there was no room for doubt in Ren's earnest gaze. It was her turn to blush. His love and devotion was like a neon sign and she felt embarrassed for even considering that he might... "But... what did you... I mean..." She frowned remembering his blush and stuttering words. "What were you going to say then? I mean *before*.”
"Oh!" He gave a little start and glanced down at her chest and then away again, blushing crimson once more. "Well, ah--"

"—What?" Frannie glanced downward, following his unintentional glance and realized instantly what he'd been trying to tell her. "Oh!" Hurriedly, she crossed her arms over her chest, feeling a blush stain her own cheeks. She was leaking! The nursing pads that she'd been given to put inside her bra must have shifted or something. Even through the triple layers of bra, shirt and hospital gown, she had two very prominent... wet spots... which were getting bigger by the minute! Now that she was thinking about it, she realized that her breasts hurt, that it hurt to cross her arms over them, and that they were about as hard as rocks they were so badly engorged!

One of the nurses saw her move and noted a wet stain peaking out below one of her slender arms. She smiled gently and came over. "Ms. Vecchio?" she asked quietly. "Do you need to pump?"

"Ah... I... I think so," she forced herself to answer, feeling very embarrassed as she glanced down. Just thinking about her breasts was causing her to have a let-down reflex!

"We have a pump room right across the hall. Come on, I’ll show you where it is." A quick glance up to signal another nurse and then she was moving behind Frannie's wheelchair. "There’s a sink in the room if you want to rinse out your blouse, and I'll get you another hospital gown and some more nursing pads too," she offered. "I know you're embarrassed but don't let it bother you, really. It's great your milk is coming in so well. Some mothers of preemies have real problems and dry up completely. You're lucky." She glanced over to Ren. "Did you want to come with us?"

Ren and Frannie exchanged startled and almost frightened looks at the idea. "I..." Ren's voice actually squeaked and he had to stop to clear his throat before he could continue. "We're... not married yet."

"That doesn't matter," the nurse smiled gently. "You don't have to, of course, but as long as Ms. Vecchio doesn't mind, you're welcome to accompany her. Of course, if someone else comes in wanting to pump, you'll have to leave."

"I... I..." He looked to Francesca for guidance, but it was clear she was as uncomfortable with the idea as he was. This was not the time or place for... Not that they would do anything, or could for that matter, but still... "I think I'll stay here, for now, thank you."

Frannie actually looked relieved; and then, a moment later, was looking worried again as she realized she had to leave her children, even if only for a short while. The nurse merely patted her shoulder reassuringly and began pushing her wheelchair toward the door.

Part 20

"I don't want to hear a single word about the McKenna case," Ray offered even as he all but ran Maggie over in the hallway outside the morgue. "I knew I'd find you down here again. Do you know what time it is?"

Maggie lifted a brow in surprise but glanced at her watch, easily falling into step with Ray as he did an abrupt about face and headed back upstairs. "Six fifty-six p.m. Central Standard?"

"Dinner time," he corrected her. "Past dinner time. I had a long hard day and missed lunch. My stomach thinks my throat's been cut."

"There was no need to wait for me, Ray."

"Yes, there was... yes, there was," he repeated pendantically. "I'm a gentleman, even if your brother doesn't know it."

Maggie cast him a sharply confused look, wondering what in the world Ben had to do with anything?

"This is Chicago. I know the two of you like to walk everywhere, but it's..." He offered the stairs a frown, completely unaware that in his nervous agitation he was all but making Maggie run to keep up with him. "You can take care of yourself, I know that. I know that. I'm good with that. But your brother would like - skin me alive - if anything happened to you. So yeah, you see, uh, yeah, I did have to wait for you... And now because, uh, it's so late, you can just come to dinner with me. That sound fair?" He nodded, answering his own question. "That's fair." He nodded again, never even glancing at her as they continued their rather hasty march through the precinct, now sweeping past the front desk sergeant, weaving amongst the officers and petty offenders waiting to be booked. "Where you wanta go?" he called over his shoulder.

Maggie finally got a clue as they were nearing the back door and suddenly stopped cold, silently wondering how long it would take him to realize she wasn't at his side any more. He got a good ten yards away before suddenly turning to look for her.

"What?" he asked, hurrying back to her, noting and ignoring the patented "Fraser look" she was throwing him for his inattention. "'You leave something at the cold meat party? Do we really gotta to go back there tonight? You know, it's not like one of the stiffs is going to up and steal anything," he told her, really wanting to avoid another trip downstairs if at all possible. "Hotel California down there: You can check in, but you can never leave." He grinned at his own joke, but won only a momentary smile from the woman at his side.

Instead, Maggie frowned as she regarded his frenetic energy, reading behind the body language that so badly wanted to hurry both of them around and beyond whatever was really occupying his thoughts. Her pause as she considered his motives forced him to pause as well, and she knew she was right in her assumption when she saw a guarded glint of fear in those pale blue eyes.

"Ray..." She spoke his name quietly, glancing around to be sure they were alone. She'd be the one embarrassed if she were reading him wrong. Leaning toward him, she asked, "Are you asking me out?"

He reacted with surprise. "Asking you out?" he repeated and offered an amused smile; yet he turned away too quickly, a hand on her shoulder drawing her after him as he directed them toward the door again, for her to have time to really read his expression. "Like a date, you mean? Nah! This is just... buddy-buddy, you know? I'm hungry. You're hungry. You gotta be hungry!" He rolled his head, cracking his neck. "Though after spending nearly three hours in Rigor Mort's Stab and Slab Gallery, I'm not real sure how anyone could have much of an appetite – but you still gotta eat, right? So, humor me. I'll expire from non-nutrition or something if I don't eat soon."

"Malnutrition. And a person can go as long as a month without eating, Ray, as long as they have sufficient water," she offered and then corrected herself, "though given your energy level, I take that back: A day is about all you could handle."

"Funny!" he commented with a failed attempt at a chuckle, swinging the door open before them and holding it as he escorted her through. It was already quite dark but the parking lot was well lit. "That's – that's... I'm busting a gut on the inside. So, where do you wanta eat? You don't strike me as the sports bar type."

"I don't?" she asked, wondering what "type" he thought she was.

"You know who the Chicago Bears are?"

She frowned in confusion. "A pair of grizzlies at the Chicago Zoo?"

He gave a self-satisfied nod which clearly indicated she was wrong. "My point," he decided as they split to go to opposite sides of his car.

Maggie frowned, not at all happy with his attitude. "Do you know who Cutter's Rink is?" she asked, sweeping her hat from her head as she swung the passenger door open and paused to regard him over the roof of the black muscle car.

He lifted a hand to point at her triumphantly. "Curling team!" he answered readily.

Maggie rolled her eyes as her hoped-for chance to best him died. She ducked her head and entered the car without further comment.

Silently, Ray offered a victorious fist pump in the air and then carefully wiped any sign of gloating from his face before swinging himself into place behind the wheel. No way was he going to admit that his answer had only been a wild guess! "So..." he said, swallowing his grin and turning to face her as he started the car. "Where to?"

Maggie was not as good a sport about the situation as he was. "I don't know, Ray," she answered, fighting to keep her irritation hidden and failing. "You think you know me so well, why don't you choose?"

"Ah, come on," he sighed, as he put the car in gear and stood on the brake. "Don't--"

One glance at the sharp frown she was throwing his way froze the words in his mouth more effectively than an Arctic blast straight off the Beaufort Sea. Losing the verbal sparring match was bad enough; being told she was being a pain about it wasn't going to improve her attitude. He'd made the unforgivable mistake of implying he "knew her type". Now, Maggie was challenging him to prove it... and he'd better be right if he wanted to survive the night without getting frost bite!

He turned back forward and drummed his fingers in a quick staccato on the steering wheel, daring to wonder if she was coming up on her period or something? Having to deal with a PMS-ing Mountie just when he finally got up the nerve to kinda-sorta ask her out, was about par for course with his luck. "Ooooo-kay..." he sighed, deciding his destination without her help and praying she'd like it. "One very special surprise dinner, coming up!"

How the hell did he always manage to get himself into these kinds of messes? He shook his head and then quickly checked his rearview mirror before expertly sliding the car out of the parking spot. If the Piekarczyks had actually dared to retire, as they continually threatened to do, he was going to be dead!

Part 21

Frannie sighed and tried, really tried, to pull herself together. It was hard. Especially when no one was listening to her. Except Ren, bless his heart, but even he'd insisted she needed to go back to her room. She'd missed lunch. She'd missed dinner. She had to eat. They said.

She didn't need to eat. She wasn't hungry! She fought to keep a dispassionate mask in place, fought to swallow the tears that threatened continually to choke her, fought not to gag as she forced a bit of jello down and went back to moving the mess around her plate. She *needed* to be with her babies!

It was irrational. She knew that. This sense of impending doom ever since she'd seen them. Whether she was there or here in her hospital room, wouldn't make any difference. She hated being in her hospital room. She was useless here!

And... she had to eat. She knew that. She had to keep up her strength, had to drink lots of fluids, had to take her vitamins and take care of herself. It all went into her milk production. That was the only thing she was good for. She might as well be a cow! She glanced down at what had once been a slim and fashionably trim figure, now bloated and stretched and swollen... Four days after the babies were born and she *still* looked like she was pregnant! Dress her up in black and white splotches and change her name to Bessy! Heck, why not! Her dinner tasted like cardboard. She might as well be chewing her cud.

Ren was busy talking enough for both of them while she tried to make herself eat. She kept her eyes lowered so he wouldn't see her fighting not to cry and he kept his averted... probably because she wasn't worth looking at, she thought bitterly. She actually paused to listen to what he was saying only to discover he was busy comparing the various papoose styles designed by the different tribes of the First Nations and Inuit of Canada. She frowned slightly. Who gave a rat's turd about "papoose" styles, like she'd ever need one. At least, not like he was talking about. She tried to imagine the two of them with three baby carriers each, one on the back, two in the front...

She prayed for the day they might actually look so ridiculous.

Ren paused and glanced back at the doorway as a familiar voice suddenly carried down the hall to Frannie's room. It was accompanied by the sharp clip-clopping of a woman in a hurry. "247, 247," they could hear her saying.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry. You can't--" The hospital guard stationed outside the room to insure their privacy tried to intercept the woman and was roundly rebuked in a mixture of Italian and English. Ren was moving even before she lit into the poor man, shoving her way past him.

"--It's all right!" Ren assured the security officer as Mrs. Vecchio flew to her daughter's side, his words barely keeping the man from calling for assistance. "She's her mother," he identified her. He may have never met her but he had no doubt who she was. "It's okay!"

The security officer offered the voluble older woman an irritated frown and watched as she hugged her daughter, greeting her in a mixture of Italian endearments and chastisements. He had to smile slightly. Obviously, she wasn't a reporter or paparazzi photographer looking to harass the young couple for a story. The hospital was having problems keeping everyone away. Family, of course, was another story.

"Have her register downstairs and get a security pass," the man told Ren. There were procedures for these sorts of things and she'd obviously bypassed all of them in her haste to see her daughter. The man was surprised there wasn't another officer from downstairs racing up here after her. He'd have to follow up on that. She should have never gotten this far without being stopped.

The methodical approach of another set of footsteps had him turning back down the hall to see Ms. Vecchio's brother following in her mother's stead. He held up his security ID. "She's with me!" he announced. "Call off the back up."

Well, that explained why there wasn't any security chasing after her. "Mr. Turnbull caught me before I called them in," he assured the exasperated man with a wry smile. Mr. Vecchio rolled his eyes and shook his head. His irritation didn't last long as he looked into the room and saw his mother scolding his sister for not telling her about the sextuplets sooner. The guard didn't have to speak Italian to understand what he was seeing. Mr. Turnbull glanced at the men in the doorway with a rather nervous and uncertain look.

"Ma..." Ray sighed, moving forward. She'd promised not to give Frannie a hard time.

The guard awarded the man's back a sympathetic shrug and was careful to close the door behind him.

Part 22

"Damn it!" Jaelyn cursed under her breath where she sat at the TDD set up she'd arranged for from the hotel. Well, not really under her breath. Ben, standing in the kitchenette and preparing tea, heard her quite clearly. He lifted a surprised brow but Jaelyn didn't see it, her eyes busy reading the scrolling message on the tiny screen of the device. Her sudden irritation was very much at odds with the happy and carefree woman she'd been when they returned to the suite after dinner.

She quickly typed a long response and then ended the call. She sighed and rested her elbows to either side of the device, burying her fingers in her hair.

Ben cocked his head to the side and finished pouring the tea. He lifted the two mugs and carried them toward her, sitting hers on the table beside her. She lifted her head and met his gaze.

Weary irritation and mild anger marred her features for an instant before she dismissed the call and offered Ben a tired smile. "Thanks," she said simply, glancing at the tea but not reaching for it.

Ben leaned his hip against the desk and gestured at the phone, offering an inquiring look as he lifted his own mug to his mouth. Some things didn't require sign language.

"Jeanie," she answered his silent question. "James is giving her a hard time. Thinks we're being stupid..." She offered the device a humorless snort of laughter. "And she thinks we should elope!"

Ben glanced down and fought a smile of his own. He shook his head in understanding. Jeanie was...

"I swear. She can be even more overwhelming on the phone than she is in person!" Jaelyn glared at the TDD.

Signing with one hand was a bit awkward but he managed. ^She cares – about you.^

Jaelyn nodded, then suddenly stood up. "Come on," she decided. "I need some fresh air."

Ben offered a confused frown as she swept by. He quickly set his cup down and turned to her as she paused to pick up the coat she'd discarded on the back of a chair. ^We just – came in?^ They'd eaten dinner at the open-air cafe behind the Inn.

"I need a distraction," she amended her previous statement to something more close to the truth. She brought herself up short as she was putting the coat on. "Oh," she granted him a worried frown. "You're probably tired..."

He smiled and waved her concern off, moving to get his own coat in answer.

"No," she frowned, now moving to remove her coat. "No, we've been walking all over the place. Your doctors would have a fit."

Ben rolled his eyes, knowing he was a far better judge of his physical condition than his over-cautious doctors. Yes, he was a little sore. Yes, he was a little tired. It was hardly something to worry about! He lifted a hand to halt her action and made certain to make eye contact, giving her a sincere and reassuring smile. ^I'm fine,^ he insisted.

"You're sure?"

He nodded and shrugged on his coat. ^Where do you – want to go?^ he asked. He glanced down at where he'd left his cane, hesitating slightly. Lord, but he wished he could forgo it... but he wasn't quite that rash. He awarded it an irritated glare before wiping the look from his face and turning to present Jaelyn with an expectant and patient smile.

She hesitated, giving him a pensive frown for a long moment before accepting his assurance. "There's a little gift shop just a few doors south of here," she offered. "I remembered seeing something in it I want to buy Jeanie."

Ben cast his mind back, knowing they'd passed the shop earlier in the day. It was a gag shop if he remembered right. ^The plastic ball – and chain?^ he guessed.

She grinned. "The giant nose," she answered. "And I'll add a note about keeping it out of my business."

Ben lifted a censorious brow.

"Okay, okay," she relented, knowing that would be too rude. She grinned as she tapped her chin in thought. "How about a T-Shirt that says, 'Matchmakers R Us – Specializing in nagging, henpecking and interfering.'"

Ben chuckled despite himself and shook his head. He grinned and lifted his hands. ^'Nosey Parker – Your business *is* my business.'^

Jaelyn burst out laughing even as Ben felt himself blush for daring to offer such a suggestion. "Perfect!" she declared, linking her arm in his. "Says exactly what I want without being insulting." She giggled. "She'll love it!"

Part 23

The silence, coming off of Maggie in waves, was an almost palpable thing and made Ray squirm in his seat as he fought to concentrate on his driving. "So..." he frowned, navigating almost by instinct as he was forced to remember other times he'd managed to put his foot in his mouth. With Stella. He hadn't expected to find much in common between his ex and Ben's sister, except that they were both blondes – but apparently Maggie was just as capable of turning into a block of ice when she was pissed as The Stel had always done. 'Course, Stella had more than perfected the cold shoulder routine and just looking at her wrong could set it off. Maggie...

"So..." the woman beside him echoed, interrupting his thoughts as she made a conscious effort to thrust her irritation aside. "Where are we going?" she asked, her tone carefully curious. "I have to admit you're right in that a sports bar probably isn't a good idea. I'm still in uniform and could get in trouble."

"Oh?" Ray frowned, happy to let himself be distracted from his rather dark thoughts. "Ben never had a problem with it."

"Probably because he was acting in an official capacity or helping you with a case," she guessed. "I'm off-duty."

"Ah!" He nodded. Ben didn't drink, or only rarely, so the only time Ray could remember seeing him anywhere near a bar was when they were working a case.

"So..." she tried again, "have you decided where we're going?"
"Yep," he nodded again. And again offered up a silent prayer that it would be a good choice.

"But you're not going to tell me where, right?"

He fought to swallow a smirk. "Nope."

She fell silent and he frowned at the cars in front of them, willing to do just about anything to keep from irritating her again... except spoil the surprise. "Look," he offered uncomfortably, "um, I'm sorry about the 'type' crack earlier – you know, the 'you're not the sports bar type' thing? I didn't..." He again cracked his neck, trying to release some of the tension which seemed to have suddenly gripped his body. He wasn't real good at apologizing – no matter how many times he'd done it with Stella. She never accepted it. "I didn't mean anything by it, really." Lame, Kowalski! He could hear Stella now: *If you didn't mean anything by it, then why did you say it?* He winced.

"I know." Maggie surprised him. "I'm just... I'm feeling a little out of sorts. Sorry if I took it out on you."

"No!" he responded quickly, overjoyed simply not to have his head bit off. "No, no. You didn't. Um, what's up? Bugging you, that is. Anything I can help with? Oh, wait!" He quickly caught himself. "It's not the McKenna case, is it?" He really didn't want to hear anything about the McKenna case if he could avoid it. But... if talking about it was the only thing that would make her happy, then it was his own fault for having set her off to begin with and, he supposed, he'd just have to consider it as some sort of penitence or cosmic justice type thing...

"No," she sighed, much to his relief. "It's nothing to do with you or any of the cases. 'Though you know, now that you--" She brought herself up short as she saw Ray literally hunch his shoulders and sink slightly lower in the driver's seat. "Never mind." She decided not to bring up the the inconsistencies she'd noted in the McKenna file. Not now anyway. "Um," she frantically fought to find a safer subject, "tell me about your day?" That was always safe. "What did you do besides escort me down to the 'cold meat party'? Any more leads in the Rand/McNally case?"

The rest of the trip across town to wherever they were going was spent discussing various cases Ray was wrestling with at the moment, or that he'd wrestled with in the past. When they finally pulled into a parking lot and headed back inside again, neither of them even gave the old brick facade of the two-story restaurant more than a glance. Ray had even managed to get so distracted that he momentarily forgot why he'd brought her here – until they got inside.

"Mmm!" Maggie suddenly noticed where they were and took an appreciative sniff of the spice-laden air, glancing around in mild surprise. This wasn't at all the kind of place she'd expected Ray to bring her to after tossing down the proverbial gauntlet the way she had. She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but most men would have made a beeline for the nearest five-star restaurant. Five-star, this wasn't, but it wasn't bad either, especially not if the smells wafting from the kitchen were any indication.

"Rajmund?" an elderly man queried in surprise, turning from the table he was in the midst of clearing to greet them. As he got closer, he suddenly broke into a huge smile. "It is!" he cried in happy recognition while Ray ducked his head self-consciously. "Stanimir Rajmund Kowalski! Co przyjemna niespodzianka. To bylo tak dlugi! Matka?! Patrza kto jest tutaj! She will be so excited. Matka!" He turned to hurry toward the kitchen only to spin in place when he was halfway there. "Sit! Sit! Anywhere. Make yourselves comfortable. Pavel! Some wine for our friend and his lady. Ah, Matka will be so pleased to see you! Matka!?" he called yet again and this time managed to slip through the swinging doors of the kitchen without pause.

"Stanimir?" Maggie asked in curiosity. She declined Pavel's silent offer to take the hat she held in her hands and instead placed it in the seat of one of the chairs at the table they chose. Ray held her chair for her without fuss and she accepted it without comment.

"Polish for Stanley," he answered, "but it's not my name. I mean, Stanley is, unfortunately, but not Stanimir. It's just-- Um, they're from the old country. They've been here forever, or at least as long as I can remember, but they don't-- It's a tradition sorta thing, I guess."

"Friends of your family?"

Pavel was waiting to take their drink orders so they saw to that first before Ray answered Maggie – or he would have, but the owner and his wife bustled back to their table just then. "Matka" was a small rotund woman who bore a remarkable resemblance to every painting Maggie had ever seen depicting Mrs. Santa Claus. However, Mr. Piekarczyk (as she soon discovered was the owner's name and husband to Matka - Matka apparently meant "mother" in Polish) reminded her more of a white-haired Charlton Heston than Santa. Both were quite obviously overjoyed to see Ray and were not at all concerned about causing a scene or disturbing their other customers as they welcomed and then scolded him for not coming by more often.

A good half of what they said was in rapid and voluble Polish, but there was enough English interspersed that Maggie had no trouble following most of what was said. Maggie was a bit surprised by the rather exuberant welcome extended to her as well as Mrs. Piekarczyk awarded her seated form a hug and exclaimed what a pleasure it was to meet her. The younger woman smiled tolerantly while Ray fidgeted, embarrassed by all the attention. It was like watching them welcome home a prodigal son.

In very short order, Maggie soon learned that this impression wasn't far from the truth. Apparently, the Piekarczyks were something like an adoptive aunt and uncle to Ray. His first job as a young teenager had been bussing and then waiting tables in this very restaurant. He'd worked there for a number of years until he'd dropped out of college and decided to join the Police Academy. Apparently, Mr. Piekarczyk had been no more enamored of the idea than Ray's father. But it was now "water under the bridge."

The waiter returned with their drinks and was immediately shooed away as Mr. Piekarczyk took the menus before they could be offered and tucked them under his arm. He turned to Maggie. "You have had Polish cuisine before, yes?"

"Ah, no, actually," she answered with a smile, glancing at Ray for direction. He was still looking decidedly uncomfortable with all the fuss.

Mr. Piekarczyk clucked his tongue in quiet reprimand. "Then Rajmund has been most remiss! Food is an important part of many of our traditions. You cannot get to know a man without understanding his traditions. It is a part of who we are. That is where you went wrong with your first wife, Rajmund." He awarded Ray a reproving glance before turning back to Maggie. "Too American, that one. She would have nothing to do with our foods. Is it any wonder they divorced?"

Another glance at Ray told the other man that he was more than uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.

"But I talk too much!" the older man decided, chagrined. "This is a date. You have no need for a tired old man to be taking up your time commenting on things which are none of his business."

Ray had glanced up at the word "date." "Uh, no. No, this isn't--"

"--Uh-uh-uh-uh!" Mr. Piekarczyk held up his hand to forestall Ray's attempt to explain. "No, no! You are a good man, my young friend, like my own son, but I am wrong here and will not have you making excuses for me. My apologies. Now, I go and bring you a meal sure to impress. And she will see what I mean by our foods and traditions being a part of who we are. Trust me in this, Rajmund. Pavel!" He shouted for the waiter and spun away before Ray could try again to correct him about their relationship. He was left staring at Maggie helplessly.

She smiled, then glanced away and lifted her glass of water. "He seems very nice," she offered simply.

"Uh, uh, yeah." He frowned down at his place setting, knowing he couldn't leave things like this. "Look, uh, I'm sorry. I didn't..." He glanced back up and over toward the kitchen where Mr. Piekarczyk had disappeared. "I wasn't expecting--" But he should have been, he knew. He simply hadn't been thinking when he decided on this place of all places...

"--It's all right, Ray," Maggie interrupted his attempt at an apology. She wasn't sure why he was apologizing but he obviously felt uncomfortable with everything. Instead of pursuing the question, she glanced up and around, taking in the rather rustic and slightly rundown atmosphere of the place. "This is actually a pretty good guess on the type of place I like. What made you choose it?"

He glanced back at her. "You like it?"

She cocked her head to the side. "I can't say for sure until I taste the food, but... That was the general idea in bringing me here, wasn't it?"

"Yeah!" He felt like he was coming up for air. "Yeah. 'Course!"

"Of course."

"Right. So..." And he was starting to sink again. He searched desperately for anything to keep the conversation afloat.

Part 24

Frannie simply fell apart when her mother appeared. She couldn't help it!

Ma Vecchio's scolding instantly stopped, replaced by shock and worry as she quickly enfolded her daughter in her arms. "What has happened, mi Cara?" she asked in sharp concern. "The babies, they are all right? I came just as quickly as I could. Please, tell me they are all right?"

Frannie shuddered violently. "They're so tiny, Ma!" she wailed quietly, holding her mother in a desperate hug and crying into her shoulder. Her words were muffled and hard to hear. "They don't look real. Not like babies at all! Like little aliens or rag dolls or... All the tubes and wires and machines. Oh, God! Oh, God!"

All Ren's anxiety at the prospect of meeting Mrs. Vecchio was insufficient to keep him from Francesca's side when she was in such obvious pain. He quickly moved beside the older woman and sat on the edge of the bed. Francesca felt the move and glanced up from her mother's shoulder, then threw herself at him.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" she continued to wail, this time into his shoulder as he held her tight.

"Shhhh..." he whispered gently and stroked her hair. "It's all right. Let it out. Don't apologize. It's all right..."

Confused, Rosa Vecchio stood back and watched as this unknown man held her daughter close and rocked her gently in his arms, whispering reassurances and understanding. This must be the man Ray had told her about, Renfield Turnbull.

Ray was right. The man's love for Francesca was unmistakable.

She'd been surprised when Frannie threw herself into his arms. Now, Rosa saw him fighting tears of his own, but... was it because of Francesca or-- "The babies?" Ma repeated in a frightened whisper.

"They're fine," Ren quickly assured her, only to have Frannie suddenly explode in his arms. She pushed away from him and actually punched him in the shoulder.

"They are not 'fine'!" she screamed, punching him again; but her blow was weaker than before, glancing off his chest. "They're sick. They're all sick and weak and in incubators! They can't eat. They can't breathe! They're not 'fine'!" She collapsed against him again with a renewed bout of uncontrollable crying.

Even as her heart went out to her daughter, Ma was shocked by this outburst, especially hitting her young man like that! "Francesca!" she exclaimed, knowing they had to get her calmed down.

Ren quickly caught Mrs. Vecchio's eyes and shook his head. It had been her scolding which had set Francesca off to begin with - not that it would have taken much, he knew - but Francesca didn't need to be corrected like a child. He knew she was questioning her own worth as a mother, her own ability to ever care for her children, and blaming herself for their conditions. She was living in a state of quiet terror about what might yet happen. He was too.

Rosa frowned. What right did this man have to tell her how to help her daughter? The glimpse of love that she'd seen earlier was the only thing that stayed her tongue as she watched him slowly peel her daughter away, bowing his head and trying to get her to meet his eyes.

"They're not fine!" she declared again, resisting. "It's not all right. Stop saying it's all right!"

"Francesca?" he called to her softly, ignoring the tears that continued to fall as his hands caressed the sides of her face, gently brushing her hair back out of her face. "Francesca?"

"It's not all right!" she insisted.

"No," he agreed quietly, leaning his forehead against hers. "No, it isn't."

Rosa bit her lip and glanced at Ray who stood silently at the foot of the bed watching this strange and emotional tableau unfold. Why didn't this "Turnbull" reassure Francesca? Why didn't he say more? He was just sitting there holding her hands now, agreeing with her! And Francesca wasn't moving, her forehead leaned up against his, still weeping openly. Why didn't Ray say something?

Instead, Ray shook his head and lifted a finger to his mouth, silently asking her to give Ren another few moments. She frowned harder. Ray would never let anything or anyone hurt his sister. Rosa Vecchio had no doubt about that. The two of them could fight like cats and dogs at times, but let an outsider threaten either and the other would instantly leap to the defense. She knew instinctively that there must be things going on here she didn't know about. Rosa looked back at her daughter in this unknown man's arms and her heart broke for the pain she saw coming from them both; yet, strange as it might seem, she also saw that Francesca was starting to calm down...

Frannie glanced up at Ren at last, ignoring everyone else. "I'm scared!" she whispered brokenly. "I don't care what everyone says. I'm scared and I can't help it!"

"I know," he said softly and his heart was in his eyes. "So am I." He rubbed his thumbs over the backs of her hands in small circles even as a final tear splashed across the back of her wrist.

Rosa could not resist the pain she was witnessing any longer. She reached out and added her own touch to that of this unknown man, rubbing circles on her daughter's back. Frannie glanced up at the touch and offered a watery smile. She released Ren and leaned over to hug her mother again, slowly regaining her composure.

"I'm sorry," she said, wiping at her face and offering a massive sniff as her nose suddenly decided to get in the act. "Damn..."

Ren had already noted the difficulty and retrieved the tissue box from beside her bed. He offered them up without comment.

She took the tissues and hastily blew her nose. "Sorry," she said again, feeling suddenly drained and empty even as she fought the urge to start crying again.

"Basta," Ma offered kindly. She was starting to understand. What she had witnessed was most likely the result of stress. Her sudden appearance and mild scolding had been all that was needed to break through Francesca's fragile emotional dam. "There is nothing to be sorry for. You are frightened and trying to be strong, but it sometimes gets to be too much. That is why we are here. Now..." She waited until Frannie glanced up at her, making sure the tears were gone and that her daughter was reasonably calm once more. "Perhaps you can introduce me to your young man here? He seems to be rather special." Rosa was surprised when the young man in question actually blushed slightly and ducked his head.

The move surprised a small smile out of Francesca. Watching her daughter regard the man beside her, it was clear to Ma that his feelings were returned.

Frannie wiped her nose again before clearing her throat and introducing them. "Ma, I'd like you to meet Renfield Turnbull, my fiancé."


Rosa's mouth dropped open in shock. That they were engaged was not so hard to believe. That she hadn't known about it, was! She turned to glare at her son.

"Crap, Frannie!" Ray exclaimed, holding his hands up in surrender and backing away from the bed. "I hadn't gotten around to telling her you were engaged yet!"

Part 25

"I take it you don't come here often?" she asked, throwing him a conversational life-line.

"No." He shook his head, grabbing it readily. "I used to. Stella didn't like it." Damn, but he didn't want to talk about Stella. Real smooth. "And... and then, uh, what with me being undercover as Vecchio and everything--"

"--Vecchio being Italian--"

"—Yeah. Italian. And you know, at first, the undercover stuff was, uh, tight. I mean, we played it close to the vest; hush, hush; even keeping IA at a distance and all. Those first few weeks were critical-like, cause..." He caught himself glancing around nervously and jerked his attention back to her with a self-mocking smile. Simple habit. He wasn't undercover anymore so he didn't know why he should be nervous. "Apparently, there was a mole somewhere. Or, well, he wasn't a mole, really. He just happened to work in personnel down at division and, uh, just also happened to be related to Gino Tortelli, who just happened to be the head of the Palermos Social Club. That's a little money-laundering thing the Iguanas had set up here. That's who Vecchio went undercover to bust. The Iguanas that is, not the third-rate cousin in personnel. I don't think he ever did anything wrong."

Maggie nodded her understanding. "You know I always wondered about that stuff with your name. I mean, I remember Ben re-introducing you in Inuvik by your real name and how you told me it was part of an undercover investigation that had ended when you and Ben arrested Muldoon, or actually before?" She frowned in confused memory. "Frankly, the explanation didn't make a lot of sense. Especially after I met Vecchio."

"Yeah." He offered a chuckle. "We're kinda like day and night, aren't we?"

"Different," Maggie agreed.
"Yeah, well, by the time you met me - even before everything with Muldoon went down - the undercover stuff was pretty much a joke. I mean, I still had to go by Vecchio's name but it was like, uh, mostly only on paper: just in case someone recognized him down there and the Iguanas got the wild idea to actually check it out. I was like his, uh, place holder kinda-thing, you know? The fact that I looked so different was a plus at that point. I mean, if anyone had pointed at me and said I looked like Armando Langustini..." He chuckled, knowing that anyone who might have done so would have been called insane and tossed out on his ear for daring to bug a Mob boss with such idiocy. If he was lucky. "It was a pain at first, getting established and whatnot. But then the cousin in personnel moved and..." He shrugged. "Like I said: it was pretty much just a paper trail then."

"You had to live a lie," Maggie summarized, "to protect another person."

"Yeah. Well, no. I mean..." He frowned in thought. "At first, yeah. I mean, that was the whole point of it, right? And later, yeah, kinda. But I didn't *have* to anymore, you know? They even offered me a transfer at one point. I coulda got my own name back and everything, but I decided not to."

"Why not?"

He shrugged uncomfortably. There were a lot of reasons he'd decided against the transfer, the biggest of which was the fact that he'd have been walking out on the best friendship he'd ever discovered. "I like Chicago," he answered simply.

"Your kind of town?" she joked lightly.

Ray grinned and shrugged, and then noted that her smile seemed a little weak. He frowned. "Something wrong with that?"

"With Chicago? No," she answered quickly. "Or... It's not..." She sighed. "Actually, I was thinking about Casey."

"Casey..." It took Ray a long moment to place the name. "Oh! You mean, your, uh--"


"—husband, Casey--"


"Yeah." Ray had to wonder what had brought him to mind.

"He didn't have a choice."

"I'm sorry?" he asked, completely lost now.
"About living a lie," she explained, and frowned sharply at her own words. "Well, I mean, he did. Of course, he did. He was going to tell me the truth. That's what got him killed."

"Because he was going to tell you about the Torellis."

"They said it was my fault," she told him, frowning down at her silverware.

Ray remembered back to that fateful standoff in the bank when she'd pulled her gun on the Torellis and forced them to confess to her husband's murder. "Your fault the guy went straight?" Ray shrugged. "Hey, I'd like to think I was guilty of that too sometimes!"

Maggie was forced to smile again but didn't look up.

"Look." Ray frowned and leaned forward, daring to capture one of her hands as he continued more seriously. "I looked into it again after you left; you know, dug a little deeper than maybe I shoulda? I'm a nosey kinda, guy. Anyway, it seems to me your husband decided to go straight even before he met you."

She frowned up at him.

"He was the wheelman for the Torellis when they were busted for that bank job back in '87, right? He was a hard customer back then, rap sheet a mile long, kept his mouth shut during the trial and got twenty-five years. 'Cording to my stuff, he went straight in prison, became a model prisoner and actually saved a guard's life during a little riot in '93. The warden himself stood up for the guy and, despite his record, he managed to get early parole. 'Course, prison over-crowding didn't hurt either." Ray shrugged. "He was doing great for a while. Got a job as a janitor, met with his parole officer like clock work... Then the Torellis escaped and he disappears. May of '94. The two of you married in May of '95 "

"Digging into my history too, Ray?"

He shrugged again, a little uncomfortably. He hadn't meant to. "'Came up on the search when I was cross-checking both names. I figure he had to have been running from his involvement with the Torellis when he showed up in Inuvik. Running hard too if he wound-up up there!"

"He told me he was a mechanic who got tired of the big city rat-race."

"He took auto-shop in prison. Look, Maggie..." He cocked his head to the side as he forced her to make eye contact with him, making sure she was listening. "The point is, he went straight before he met you. And he was fighting to stay straight when he fell in love with you. I seriously doubt he planned that. It wasn't a con job."

How had he known that was her greatest fear? "He lied to me, Ray," she rejoined with the brutal truth she couldn't escape. "He lied to me about his name, about who he was, about what he did, about where he came from--"

"--And if he'd told you the truth, you would have had to arrest him," he finished as bluntly. "I'm not saying what he did was right. Maybe he should have stood up the the Torellis sooner and told them to get lost. But he didn't. He ran. And he just happened to run right into you. You were probably the best thing that ever happened to him and he was likely scared shitless of losing that!"

"I loved him," she admitted, but her voice was dead and cold. "He was everything a man should be: kind, attentive, thoughtful. He went out of his way to help others. That's how I met him. He was working at the local bar, or had finished work actually. It was New Year's Eve. He was giving drunks free rides home and went off the road into a ditch. I helped pull him out." She looked up with hurt and lost eyes. "I loved him... but he – he didn't exist! I did my own digging too, after I got back. Casey Richmond was a son of a bitch--"

"--'Was', Maggie," Ray interrupted her emphatically. "The operative word is 'was'."

"How do I know that, Ray?" she demanded quietly. "How do I know 'anything' he said was true? Maybe it was all a con job. Maybe all I was good for was a convenient and easy..." 'Lay' she thought, but couldn't bring herself to say the word, to reduce what had seemed like the perfect marriage to such cold, harsh terms.

"Right," Ray decided, hearing the word without her having to say it. "Right. He moved all the up to Igloocity-Inuvik, looking to con a cop into marriage because - who would think that an ex-con would marry a cop, right? He'd have to be pretty stupid to try that, but then again a beautiful Mountie like you would scare the Torellis off in a heartbeat, so, sure; I buy it. Works for me--"

"--Very funny, Ray--"

"--He planned the whole thing. Even going off the road on New Year's Eve because he knew that would impress the hell out of you. Chicks up north always go for the guys who can't drive--"

"--Enough," Maggie interrupted him before he could go any further. "You've made your point."

"Have I?" he asked, still seeing the lost and hurt look in her eyes. "What point was that?"

She closed her eyes and sighed wearily, not answering.

"You know, your brother fell for a wheelman too once," he told her, winning a slightly confused and surprised look. "I swear, the two of you are like mismatched bookends. He came here hunting the killers of his father and you came here hunting the killers of your husband. His wheelman almost got him killed. Yours... died protecting you. Hmph! I think I'd take yours over his any day."

She frowned sharply. "Why are you defending him?"

"Casey MacKenzie?"

"Casey MacKenzie didn't exist!"

"Oh, yes he did, Maggie!" Ray rejoined firmly. "I guess that's why I'm defending him. You fell in love with a wonderful, kind and compassionate man. Casey Richmond was the illusion, the – the shadow MacKenzie couldn't shrug off. He lied to you. Okay, so - well, I lied to you too. I said I was Ray Vecchio."

"That was different."

"How? I didn't have to be Ray Vecchio when I met you. It was a paper trail by then. I coulda told you the truth. I didn't. So, how am I any different from Casey MacKenzie?"

"You didn't say you loved me!"

"Well, no, but had I gotten to know you, had Vecchio not come back from undercover--"

"--You would have told me the truth."

"Yeah," he admitted with a nod and gave her a serious look. "But I wouldn't have been risking as much as Casey MacKenzie either. Look, I just can't stand to see you beating yourself up over this."

"I'm not!"

They'd been partners on and off for over three months now. He knew her better than that. He cocked his head to the side and gave her a "look." Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one's point of view) Pavel chose just then to appear with their first course: two steaming bowls of bright red soup.

"It matches your uniform," Ray quipped, hoping to lighten the mood which had taken a definite nosedive.

Maggie glanced up and, after a moment, allowed a small smile to tug at her lips. She quickly glanced back down at the soup and picked up her spoon. She wasn't ready to discuss her feelings about her husband any further. She'd already said a lot more than she'd wanted to, but...
Ray meant well. She knew that. And he was probably right. About a lot of things. She just needed time to think about some of what he'd said. Casey might have been killed more than a year ago, but some of the wounds were still fresh.

She lifted the spoon to her mouth and sipped the bright red broth. "Mmm!" she offered in appreciative surprise. "Is this borscht?” she asked, knowing well that it was but needing to redirect the conversation to safer and more mundane topics. "I've heard of it before, but never tried it. Made with beets, isn't it?”

Part 26

"Are you sure you didn't park it somewhere else?" the officer asked even as he scanned the area around them. It was habit only. There was nothing to see. The sky over head, choked with clouds, was pitch black. The headlights of passing vehicles and parking lot lighting reflected from the damp pavement and other wet vehicles around them in a shimmering, constantly moving dance of light and shadow. Still, Mall Security would have spotted the vehicle if it were anywhere nearby. At least the wind had stopped blowing.

James gritted his teeth and forced his grimace into a smile: an obviously strained smile, but a smile none-the-less. He even managed to answer civilly – despite the fact that he'd already been asked the same question five times!

"I'm sure," he replied. "It was here." He insisted, pointing at the spot that was now occupied by another car. "I'm not in the habit of misplacing sixty-thousand dollar cars."

"You'd be surprised how often that happens. Do you have the key?"

James sighed but quickly fished his keys from his pocket. "Why?" he asked, offering them up.

The officer didn't take them, merely jotting something down on the report. "Just making sure you didn't leave the keys in the car," he explained. "I assume you also locked it and that all the windows were up?"

James was finding it more and more difficult to keep his temper in check... seemingly.

The officer didn't require a verbal answer. "Any security systems on board: On-Star, Lo-jack, that sort of thing?"

"Jags come with their own security systems," he answered irritably. "Alarm, ignition kill switch, that sort of thing. I don't remember what all. Never thought I'd have to worry about it! Someone had to know what they were doing to get around it, I'll tell you that."

"Or they had a key," the officer offered. "Are you late on the payments or anything?"

"I own it," he answered frostily.

The cop he was dealing with was obviously a veteran and used to dealing with angry and emotional citizens. James' tone of voice didn't faze him one bit. "How long you had it?" he frowned down at his notes.

"Less than a year," James answered and let himself explode. He just really wanted to see this guy blink. "Are you going to put out an APB, or whatever the hell you call it, or not? Each minute you waste here, he gets farther away with my car!"

The officer still didn't bat an eye, but merely awarded James a raised brow in warning before he glanced over to where his partner sat at the radio in their patrol car with James' driver's license. "We gotta get the registration and license plate information first. It takes a few minutes to do a reverse DMV search. You should write down the license plate and keep it in your wallet. It makes things a lot easier. Might also want to keep a copy of your registration there too. I hope you didn't have the title in the car, did you?"

James shook his head in disgust. "Do I look stupid, or something?"

Finally, the cop looked up and gave him his full attention. "I've seen some really smart looking people do some really stupid things, Mr. Elliott," he answered quietly. "Even steal their own cars. Insurance fraud is a serious crime."

"Are you accusing me, officer?" James voice turned ice cold again. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. This guy was smart. James enjoyed a good challenge.

"Just an observation," the officer answered, dropping his gaze back to the notebook he held so as not to overtly challenge James. "I also observed that the car next to where you say yours was parked is unlocked."

"Idiot probably pulled up after my car was stolen," James answered.

The officer offered a noncommittal grunt and lifted a hand in answer to his partner who was signaling from the patrol car. "I'll be right back."

James frowned as the officer left and glanced at the unlocked car in question. Damn... If the stupid cop had noted it was unlocked, there was little doubt he'd also noted that the pavement beneath it was dry which meant it had likely been there for several hours. Sure it was just a stupid Ford Escort, but the thing was practically screaming to be stolen! He shouldn't have been so insistent about where he'd parked. This could be a little problem...

All but forgotten where she stood next to him, Jeanie reached out and wrapped her arm around his waist. "He's just doing his job," she assured him, resting her cheek against his shoulder. "They'll find it."

No they wouldn't, he knew; or they damn-well better not! He sighed, shoving his worries aside as he wrapped an arm about the shoulders of the woman at his side. The cop could have all the suspicions he wanted. It didn't matter so long as they couldn't prove anything. James refused to be rattled or, more importantly, to appear rattled. He had a part to play here. Failing to play it right would only add to the other man's suspicions.

It was about two minutes before he returned. "The call's been put out," he told them, handing his metal incased report pad and a pen to James. "Read and sign here." He pointed to a spot toward the bottom.

James skimmed the information and scrawled his signature where needed, then handed it back. "What happens now?" he asked, playing stupid.

"Now, we hope one of the patrol cars spots it. Most vehicles are recovered within a few hours of being stolen. If not, it'll be handed over to our Stolen Vehicle task force. That's who you follow up with. Make sure if you spot or find your car in the meantime that you call it in before you move it, otherwise you're going to get arrested and have a real hassle downtown proving it's your car. It's not a lot of fun." He tore out one of the color coded carbonless copies and handed it over. "Take this to your insurance company in the morning. They're going to want the full report too but that won't be available for five working days. You can pick it up at the twenty-first district..." He glanced at a mini calendar he had taped to the back of his report pad case. "... Tuesday, the ninth."

"That's seven days!" James protested.

"Office staff gets short on the weekends," the cop explained disinterestedly. "We'll call if we find anything. You're free to go now." He offered Jeanie a slight nod of his head and turned to head back to his patrol car.

"Jerk," James breathed, knowing perfectly well it was just loud enough for the other man to catch it. He ignored it as James knew he would.

"Shhh!" Jeanie hushed him. "He's just doing his job," she repeated. "It's ugly out. Let's go in and call a cab or something. I'm freezing!"

And that was his cue to start playing the solicitous fiancee again. It *was* an ugly night by most standards, he thought; but a perfect night for a car thief. He suppressed the desire to smile and instead took off his coat, wrapping it around Jeanie's shoulders despite her protests, then hurried them both toward the warmth of the Mall once more. He didn't need her to catch pneumonia before they got married.

Part 27

His feet were hot... Still more than half asleep, Ben frowned slightly and moved to kick the blankets off, only to discover he wasn't wearing any blankets.

The inconsistency of hot feet and no blankets woke him fully, and he froze. Too many wakings answered only with pain when he sat up had finally managed to break what had always been an habitual movement in the mornings. In the past, it was his wont to go to sleep on his back and to wake in much the same position, then to rise and stretch, feeling the blood rush into his limbs... He'd taken such feelings completely for granted. Not any more. Now, he often woke to find himself curled into a tight ball, his arms clasped protectively about his chest, unconsciously anticipating the protest of healing muscles stiffened by a night of sleep when he attempted to rise.

The temptation to sink back into the mythical realm of Morpheus, Phobetor and Phantasos was strong, but he ignored it. With a conscious effort, Ben forced his eyes open to confront the day. Squinting against bright sunlight, he offered the room about him a confused frown for several seconds as the fog of sleep lifted from his brain: White sheets, large bed, beige walls, framed pastoral print... Aspen. His brain slowly clicked into gear once more.

He hadn't closed his drapes last night. Now, the morning sunlight was streaming through the window and across his feet. That's why they were hot. He'd kicked off the covers sometime earlier.

Grunting slightly with the effort, Ben pressed himself upward and swung his legs from the bed. Then he glanced at his wrist: 7:10. Time to get up anyway.

A noise from out in the main room managed to catch his attention before he could force himself to his feet. He frowned as he tried to identify it. It sounded like...

He shook his head. It was too soft. Only an occasional musical note managed to penetrate his closed door, but it didn't sound like the stereo. As Jaelyn was deaf, it didn't make sense she'd turn it on anyway. Well, that wasn't true he knew. Many deaf people enjoyed the feel of loud music, but he'd never known Jaelyn to do so and this was soft in any case. Very soft...

Still frowning, he forced himself upward and moved to dress as quickly as his protesting muscles would allow, his curiosity motivating him to simply don yesterday's jeans over the long johns. Parading around in just the long johns at one in the morning beside the fireplace was one thing, doing so in the bright light of day was another.

He opened his door and glanced around.

"Hi, Ben," Jaelyn greeted him happily from where she stood behind the breakfast bar.
He'd already discovered that she was a morning person so finding her there was no surprise, yet he frowned. The sound that had captured his curiosity had stopped the moment he opened his door. He managed to catch himself just short of asking if she'd heard it.

"I was about to call you. Breakfast will be ready in about five minutes. You can grab a quick shower first if you want, or make coffee," she told him. "Your choice."

Still feeling his usual morning aches and pains, heightened no doubt by having walked all over Aspen yesterday, he wasn't ready to do anything "quickly." He decided to make the coffee.

Jaelyn finished cutting up a banana and added it to the oranges and apples she'd already diced for a fruit salad. A light dusting of cinnamon sugar completed it, then she turned to slip a pancake from the griddle and pour another. She glanced up and eyed Ben's rather unusual attire but offered no comment as she continued her task. She hadn't seen the long johns since that first night when she'd had that stupid nightmare. He was normally fully dressed in yesterday's attire before he appeared. This morning, however, he hadn't taken the time. His hair was all mussed and his feet were bare. He'd look like that little boy she'd caught a glimpse of the other night - if his jeans didn't fit him so well!

She bit her lip and ducked her head as she fought not to laugh aloud. Where had that thought come from? She shook her head and concentrated on the pancakes.

Ben glanced at her as he finished pouring water into the coffee maker, noting that she seemed happy if a bit shy. He kicked himself for not taking the time to get fully dressed, then frowned and glanced around as he listened for the sound that had drawn him from his room to begin with.

"What?" Jaelyn asked as she glanced up again to catch the frown.

He shook his head in mild confusion, still trying to figure out what it had been. ^I thought – I heard something.^

She offered a sudden grin and shrugged. "Can't help you there!" she answered lightly and slipped the last of the pancakes onto a plate.

He glanced back at her in surprise. Of course she couldn't help him, but it was nice to hear her joke about it. He smiled in turn and dismissed the question from mind. It was probably just an irregularity in the insulation between suites.

The two of them fell into comfortable silence as they sat down to enjoy breakfast. They were both almost done before Jaelyn spoke again.

"I was thinking we'd make the rounds of some of the art galleries today," she offered as she sipped her coffee. "If we're going to be moving into one of the rental cabins back home, like I was thinking, we're going to want to replace some of the rather generic prints I know are hanging there. They were designed to be calming and soothing and..." She made a face indicating her displeasure. "The cabins kind of lack character." She shrugged and frowned at the thought. At least the short-term ones did. The long-term rentals were often gutted so the tenants could bring in their own furnishings. She fully expected to do the same. "I have no desire to live in a pseudo hotel!"

Ben offered a wry smile. He'd never been to any of the rental cabins on her property, or even seen them, but he had a good idea what she meant. No matter how tastefully appointed, they would seem barren and lifeless until one was able to add some personal touches; then it didn't matter how sparse or elegant the surrounds might be: it was those personal items which made a home.

^Not everything - was destroyed - in the fire,^ he reminded her. Much of the east wing had been spared and there were still pieces that would be recoverable even from other areas.

She sighed and nodded. "Don't worry," she told him with a wry smile. "I'm not going to try and buy a whole house full of stuff while we're here. I just..." She surprised him by blushing slightly. "I thought it might be nice to choose a few things together. You know, since..." She blushed harder and glanced away with a self-conscious shrug.

*Since you'll be living with me,* he finished the sentence in his own mind. He didn't push her to say it, offering her only an understanding nod. In fact, he found her reticence about such matters quite refreshing. And he knew it wasn't because of the rape. This was a part of who she'd always been. As was her desire to make sure he was happy and comfortable with her decorating choices for the cabin. There were wives who weren't that considerate.

Why did he have to think "wives"?

She cleared her throat. "Anyway, they have some nice galleries here. Do you like art and that sort of thing? Or am I going to bore you to death if we do this?" She again offered a little self-mocking smile, half expecting him to say he would be bored silly!

Instead, he admitted to a fondness for Ansel Adam's black and white photography, and then questioned her as to her own opinion of various artistic styles and what artists they might find in the area.

Part 28

Ren adjusted his position on the inclined support slightly and continued the rehabilitative exercises for his hip slowly and carefully. His leg ached. Really ached. A bone deep ache that was more than muscular and it was starting to worry him, but he didn't want to say anything. He knew he'd over done it the last few days, and he'd been pushing himself pretty hard even before then. Now... he felt almost as if he'd lost ground, rather than improved. His leg felt incredibly heavy and the muscles were tired and sore before he even began. It was quite frustrating to feel the muscles begin to tremble after only half a dozen leg lifts.

The therapist shook her head and called a stop to the exercise. "That's enough." With a frown, she reached up to massage the muscles before they actually started to spasm. She noted his wince as she did so. "Hurting, huh?"

"A bit," he admitted reluctantly. "I suspect I've been using it too much the last few days." He winced again and apologized. "Sorry."

"For using it too much?" she guessed. He hardly needed to apologize for a wince after all. "You've been warned of the dangers, Ren. Do you want to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair?"

It was a rhetorical question but he answered it quite seriously. "No!" he exclaimed. "No, of course not, Mrs. Edstead – Shirley," he corrected himself, using her given name as she'd insisted long ago.

Shirley shook her head. He always got overly polite and formal when he was flustered. And blushed. Rather cute really, she thought as she swallowed her smile and continued to massage the tense muscles beneath her hands. There was a lot of muscle to massage. He had a large thigh. Then again, he was a large man. She quickly cut off that line of thought before it could become too unprofessional and forced herself to consider him clinically.

He saw her frown and quickly reassured her. "I've been quite careful," he insisted.

She shook her head again. "Doesn't matter. What happens when your muscles get tired, Ren?" she asked him, ignoring exactly where her hands were as they inched slowly up his leg.

"Cellular metabolism slows down and lactic acid builds up. Mitochondrial exhaustion leads to failure of the calcium cycle within--"

"--Accidents, Ren," she interjected, cutting his too clinical answer short. Sheesh! It had been years since she'd heard anyone talk about the calcium cycle of muscle cells! "The muscles get weak, you lose full control and are far more likely to have an accident. Now, what happens if you fall?"

"I've been most careful," he repeated, much like a petulant child, but had the grace to blush again and duck his head.

"You're walking along and the muscles in your left hip suddenly go into spasm just as you put your weight on the leg," she painted a very possible scenario. "There is no way you'd keep from falling. Fall wrong, and not only does the hip become dislocated but it tears ligaments and tendons that are still trying to heal, not to mention the possible neural damage and stress fractures that could result in your lower femur or your knee. Scar tissue builds up on scar tissue..." She shook her head. "It's more difficult to get out of a wheelchair the second time, than it was the first time."

"Yes. Yes, of course. You are... you are quite correct of course, Mrs.-- Ma'am," he agreed, looking at her with those big blue eyes of his, his gaze that of a child who has just been seriously reprimanded. "Please accept my apologies."

She had to smother another smile and diverted her eyes to his leg so he wouldn't see the laughter lurking there. He really was just too cute but she needed to drive her point home. "I'm not the one you have to apologize to, Ren."

She saw his sudden frown of confusion in her periphery.

"You've got a fiancé and six newborn babies over at the hospital who want you fully recovered. It's their futures you risk every time you push yourself too hard." Again, he suddenly blushed and lowered his head. Shirley sighed and leaned back, letting go of his leg and folding her arms across her chest. "Look, I know you're anxious to get better. I know you want to be able to carry your lucky bride across the threshold in a wonderful grand traditional finale to your wedding day... but you never will and you have to accept that. If you don't slow it down and do as you're told, you won't even be standing at her side when you take your vows.

He became even more contrite, if that were possible, and nodded as he returned her gaze quite seriously. "I have been most remiss. It won't happen again. I promise."

She nodded noncommittally and instead retrieved his chart. She quickly scanned through it. "Well, I can't see any reason not to pass you on your strength and mobility tests, despite the poor leg lifts. Looks like you're going to be getting out of here tomorrow." She snapped the chart shut with a smile.

"Tomorrow!" he squeaked in surprise.

She allowed herself a bigger smile. "I know you like the staff here, Ren, but it has been five weeks. I'd think you'd be anxious to get out of here!"

"Yes!" he answered quickly, then back-pedaled as he heard his over-enthusiastic tone. "No! I mean--" He frowned sharply and fought to organize his thoughts. His doctor had told him last week that he was to be discharged this weekend if all went well. He'd simply lost track of time.

Shirley offered a chuckle and hugged the chart to her as she folded her arms. "Got a place to go?" she asked, thinking that might be the problem.

"Yes. No. Yes." He frowned as he heard himself. "I mean, yes. I had a... disagreement with my landlord some months ago and was living at the Consulate prior to getting shot."
He'd discovered several minor infractions in the building code throughout the complex where he was renting an apartment and, after pointing them out to the owner, had been asked to vacate. The man had claimed to have a number of complaints on file against him from his neighbors for 'noise', which was ridiculous of course. But Ren wasn't quite as naive and innocent as most people thought. He'd understood the threat. The man could have him legally evicted if he didn't vacate willingly.

Given the nature of the neighborhood he'd chosen, proving such allegations false could be quite difficult. Should the man also lodge a formal complaint with the Consulate, Ren could be facing informal disciplinary action for violation of the Code of Conduct. Frankly, it simply wasn't worth the hassle. He'd agreed, then filed a formal complaint of his own with City Planning and Development and the Better Business Bureau.

Inspector Thatcher had been kind enough to allow him to follow after Constable – now Corporal - Fraser's example and live at the Consulate until such time as he could find another apartment. As he didn't have an office per se, he'd sold or donated all his furnishing and basically moved into a closet, utilizing a fold-away cot at night. It became something of a standing joke that he was living out of a cardboard box, but it was no worse than barracks living at the Academy had been. Sadly, all the apartments within easy transportation range had all seemed to either be too high priced or suffered from various building code infractions similar to his previous residence, which the owners were not wont to have pointed out to them. Thus he had remained at the Consulate longer than he'd anticipated. Fortunately, Inspector Curruther's hadn't objected to the set up after he'd taken over from Inspector Thatcher as it had facilitated twenty-four hour representation in case of Consulate emergency - usually a Canadian citizen who'd gotten himself arrested late at night and who needed advice as to how to retain a lawyer under the US legal system.

However, that was all before Ren had received his Medical Discharge. It's wouldn't be appropriate for him to live at the Consulate now.

"A friend was going to help me find an apartment," he continued belatedly, remembering Constable MacKenzie's offer from when first his Discharge had come through. "I need to call her. In the meantime, a motel will suffice. I simply need to call around and find one. I'm afraid I lost track of time this week."

Shirley smiled encouragingly. It wasn't her place to question patients about housing. "Well, good luck, Ren. I won't see you again until next week. Make sure you keep doing the exercises we went over today. And no more over-doing it!"

"Yes, Ma'am. I mean, no, Ma'am. I mean--"

Shirley laughed lightly at his sudden tongue-tied stumbling. "You'll be fine," she decided, patting him on the shoulder and turning for the exit. "See you later!"

Part 29

Jaelyn found herself suddenly brought up short as Ben jerked to a stop beside her. He frowned sharply as he stared off into middle distance, his thoughts abruptly captured by something; but it wasn't by any of the artwork around them. "What?" she asked with her own confused frown.

Ben's gaze swept the corridors of the art gallery, mentally reviewing the layout, before his eyes snapped back to Jaelyn at his side. He didn't have time to explain. Instead, he lifted one finger as if to say, *Excuse me a moment,* and then turned on his heel to hurry down a side corridor on an intercept course.

Jaelyn was left staring after him in utter confusion. Where he was going and why was a complete mystery. With a perplexed shake of her head, she followed in his wake. It wasn't like he was running, or even capable of running - though he was certainly trying she realized as he hurried through a side exhibit without giving it a glance. She stepped back into the main corridor to see Ben confront the target of his more than strange behavior. It was a man they'd passed a few minutes earlier.

Ben stepped squarely in front of him, actually placing a hand in the middle of the other man's chest to stop him. The man halted in surprise and something dropped to the floor.

The man reacted instantly, taking a swing at Ben. For a mad second that seemed far longer to Jaelyn, she stood frozen, scared silly by what she was seeing. "Security!" she finally managed to find her voice and scream even as she watched Ben drop his cane and block the blow, defending himself with practiced ease. The other man's arm was grabbed and twisted as Ben stepped toward him... and then he was doubled over, down on one knee, with his arm twisted behind him and his wrist in some kind of pressure lock...

Security finally appeared and, though Jaelyn couldn't hear what was said, it was obvious that the two men were being ordered apart. Ben released the unknown man and stepped back, hands palm out to his sides, but his attitude was clearly one of wary watchfulness.

Standing a good twenty feet away, Jaelyn wasn't sure what to do. The other man was clearly yelling something and Ben gestured at the item on the floor. One of the guards said something or asked something and Ben lifted his hand to his mouth with a shake of his head.

As the guards were frowning in confusion over what Ben was trying to tell them, the other man suddenly made a break for it. The guards were taken by surprise, but Ben wasn't. The man barreled into the first guard, sending him sprawling; but in the moment it took him to do so, Ben had rushed him.

Together, Ben and the second guard tackled the man and he was soon pinned to the ground. Cuffs were produced and locked into place, despite the man's continued protests and struggles. Ben was angrily ordered aside by the first guard and again held his hands out to his sides in ready compliance, but winced in doing so and wound up folding his arms across his chest in apparent pain.

The guards merely frowned at him. Obviously, they weren't sure how Ben fit into everything and they regarded him with almost the same kind of wary distrust that they did the cuffed man. A third guard appeared on the scene, his hand resting upon his holstered weapon in clear warning.

Jaelyn still didn't know what to do, but found herself reluctantly moving toward them, drawn forward by the simple knowledge that Ben couldn't explain. She had to help him.

"Excuse me," she dared insert loudly into what was clearly a volatile situation. Four pairs of eyes regarded her in angry irritation for the interruption and one pair frowned in sharp concern.

^Stay back!" Ben signed sharply, wincing again.

She stopped but continued with what she needed to say. "The dark haired man is a police officer. He's mute. I think he saw the blonde man steal something." She gestured back at where the item still rested on the museum floor. "That fell out of his jacket when Ben... Corporal Fraser," she corrected herself, hoping to make his position in the situation more clear, "tried to stop him."

The man on the ground obviously yelled some sort of protest or denial and was just as obviously told to shut up. Carefully, Ben reached for his wallet and displayed his badge and ID. Jaelyn again saw one of the guards turn to her and say something, but she shook her head. "I'm deaf. Ben--" Again she had to correct herself. She didn't want them to think she was with the other guy after all! "--Corporal Fraser and I are here on vacation."

The guards again turned their attention to Ben and said something; but, again, Jaelyn couldn't hear it. She suspected what it was when Ben answered in sign. She bit her lip in concern as she watched him wince again with the movement but translated for him, still keeping her distance and hoping she wasn't shouting too loudly... "He was shot and suffered brain damage. He's on medical leave." She added, "I think he hurt his chest when everyone was wrestling on the ground a second ago."

Ben shot her a surprised look and quickly waved off her concern even as he reached up to lightly massaged his chest muscles. ^It's nothing,^ he insisted, and had to wave off the guards' concern as well.

While the two guards were busy with Ben and Jaelyn, the third had been frisking the man on the ground, who was none too happy about it - especially when the guard came up with two pieces of rolled hide which had been hidden inside his coat lining. They opened to reveal several pieces of turquoise jewelry. Jaelyn recognized them as from a Navajo exhibit she and Ben had looked at only minutes ago!

The confusion was over.

The man on the ground said something and seemed to go limp in defeat. She was just as glad she couldn't hear whatever it was. The men around him frowned sharply and he was hauled to his feet. Two of the guards led him away while the third spoke with Ben.

Jaelyn finally dared close the ten feet that still separated them and came to stand at Ben's side. It seemed the guard was being a bit insistent about whether Ben had injured himself or not. And Ben, of course, was insisting right back that he didn't need help. At least that's how Jaelyn interpreted the concerned look on the guards' face and the repetitive shaking of his head on the Ben's part.

Ben offered her a reassuring smile as she stepped next to him. ^Thanks,^ he signed simply; and then added more, obviously intended for the security guard.

"You'll need our names and statements for the police," Jaelyn translated.

The guard nodded and moved to lead the two of them in the wake of the others. Jaelyn made him wait a second while she retrieved Ben's cane. Ben gave it a decidedly unhappy look but took it without comment as they turned to follow the other man. By the time they reached a small office in the back, Ben was using it. Jaelyn also noted when he reached up to massaged his chest muscles again, but he'd stopped wincing whenever he signed so Jaelyn assumed he was doing better. He was tired and sore, perhaps, but he wouldn't appreciate her pointing it out.

The following hour was largely confusing for Jaelyn. Ben didn't bother to translate most of what the security people said or asked. Most of it he was able to answer with a simple nod or shake of his head. She merely translated what little he signed. The police arrived in the midst of the explanations and Jaelyn found herself completely lost for a few minutes as security explained the situation and Ben confirmed with a nod. Actually, she had to translate a few corrections. In the end, she had the basic gist of the story.

Apparently, Ben had noted the young man when he first entered the museum. However, when Ben saw him a second time in the main gallery, he'd changed his coat and gained a significant amount of weight. That, combined with the sharp scent of sage, made Ben suspicious. Confronted, the man dropped something from his coat and took a swing at Ben. That something turned out to be a large squash blossom necklace.

Jaelyn was confused as to how the guy had gotten the stuff but Ben finally explained in turn what the guards had already told him. According to them, the thief Ben had caught was working with a man on the inside. Someone with the museum (and security assured them the perpetrator had already identified him) had switched several pieces with fakes, secreted the real pieces in the coat and then arranged for his conspirator friend to pick them up while he took a rather conveniently timed vacation in an effort to provide himself an alibi. If it weren't for Ben, it could have been more than a week before the switch was discovered.

Jaelyn couldn't hear what was said, but it was clear they were all quite impressed with him... and that he was quite uncomfortable with the attention, even as he secretly basked in his success.

They were also quite curious as to how a mute Canadian Mountie wound up in Aspen. Ben awarded her an apologetic shrug even as he tried to offer a very abbreviated version of his story. She merely smiled and added those parts he left out.

After several more minutes, the questions were all finally satisfied and everyone decided they needed to get back to work. The suspect was transferred to police custody and, Jaelyn assumed, the process of finding and arresting the other man was also underway.

And Ben once again had to refuse an offer of medical attention.

Jealyn really wished he wouldn't be so... stubborn! But she also knew he'd probably be alright - though she suspected he was going to be quite sore for a day or so. Jason had hurt him a lot worse last month when the younger man had mistaken him for a prowler at the Inn. In any case, once Ben had assured them he was fine, they were free to go.

"We don't have to worry about coming back down here for a trial or anything, do we?" she asked as they headed down the steps of the museum and back onto the snowy streets of late afternoon Aspen. The street lights were just starting to come on and the tops of the surrounding mountains still glowed with the final parting kiss of sunlight.

Ben shook his head, pausing a short moment to take a careful, deep breath of the cool crisp air before turning with her to head slowly back toward the hotel. ^He confessed,^ he signed. ^Even should he - recant later, our statements - combined with security camera footage - should be enough.^ He shrugged his shoulders lightly as he considered the question further. ^At the most - we might have to file depositions - to answer any further questions - but that can be done - in Chicago. I doubt it will go that far.^
Jaelyn nodded and watched him as he walked at her side. He seemed to be standing a little straighter, not that he ever slumped of course, but... There was a little more spring to his step as well, a little more pride and self-confidence in his carriage, despite his use of the cane. He walked a little slower perhaps then he had earlier in the day but that seemed to be the only evidence that remained from his altercation. Any sign of pain was firmly dismissed. For the first time, Jaelyn saw him as police officer, a man who took pride in that title. And she realized belatedly that maybe he wasn't as accepting and self-assured of everything that had happened to him since being shot as he tried to pretend...

"You scared me," she admitted, linking her arm unexpectedly with his and keeping her eyes carefully straight ahead. She knew her grip on his arm would make any attempt at signing a bit difficult.

^Sorry,^ required only one hand however: a fist circled above his heart.

Jaelyn didn't have to see his face directly to know he was frowning in confusion. "You were also amazing," she added, tagging on a smile and small shrug. Her peripheral vision showed her an embarrassed smile trying to tug at his lips even as he bowed his head and lifted his free hand to scratch at an eyebrow.

They continued to walk in silence after that, basically because Jaelyn refused to release his arm. She wasn't ready to discuss some of the other thoughts that were tossing about inside her head.

She'd forgotten that Ben was a police officer. Or, at least, she hadn't thought about what that really entailed. It was something she needed to think about, she knew, and think about hard...

Part 30

Frannie swept forward through the hospital doors with all the furious energy of a hurricane contained within her tiny form. Typically, Ray had managed to irritate the hell out of her this morning. She was home less than two days and he was already getting on her nerves, dawdling over his breakfast when he knew damn well she wanted to be at the hospital as early as possible! Ma hadn't helped matters by insisting she needed to eat more than she wanted too. They'd both laid the "you have to take care of yourself for the babies' sakes" guilt trip on her.

She *was* taking care of herself, damn it!

This morning when she'd called to check on the babies, she'd been told that both Karol and Benton were running fevers but the doctors didn't know why yet, and Angelina had suffered two seizures over night. The word "seizure" had sent a shiver down her spine. The others were still the same. The anti-fungal medication they were giving Little Ray wasn't working and they were worried about it spreading, that in addition to the jaundice he was fighting but which wasn't getting better. Micheal was faring better against the jaunice but his kidneys weren't liking it. Tina was the only one doing well.

And Ray had dawdled. She should have never agreed to let him drive her!

"Francesca!" someone called out as she hurried through the lobby toward the front desk to sign in.

She glanced up with an irritated frown only to see Ren making his slow way toward her from the waiting area. Well, it seemed slow to her. She clenched her fists and sighed as she fought back a wave of pure anger. *She wanted to get to her babies!*

Doing a double-take, she frowned harder. What was he doing in the front lobby? He normally met her in the NICU. She also noted he was carrying a large plastic bag. "What's that?" she asked abruptly as he drew closer.

"My things," he answered with a glance downward. "I've been discharged." He glanced back up, noting her obvious anxiety. "What' wrong? Are the babies all right?"

"Discharged?" Frannie repeated, stepping aside with another irritated frown to let another couple sign in as she spoke with Ren. "When? Why didn't you call us?"

"This morning," he answered, confused by her abrasive manner. "And I told you yesterday. I was just waiting for the taxi. I arranged for a motel room not far from here and need to go check in. Then I'll come back and--"

"-Motel room?" she echoed. "What are you talking about? You're staying with us!"

"Oh, no! No! I couldn't possi--"

"-You can't even use a regular bed, Ren! They're too low." She frowned. *Yesterday?* The nurses had been telling her about hypoglycemia and hypercalcemia and TPN. She didn't remember... "We can get Ray to move the foundation from Maria and Tony's bed and add it to the guest bed. That should lift it up enough. They won't be needing it. They're going to be staying down in Florida so Lucas can keep seeing the specialists there. Did I tell you Tony got himself a job driving a city bus and they might be staying there for good?"


"-If you'd called us this morning, Ray could have picked your stuff up when he dropped me off."

"No. No, that--"
Frannie cast an anxious glance at the elevators. *She needed to get upstairs!* "Ray's cell is on the fritz so I can't call him, but I'll call Ma and tell her you're on your way. You remember where the house is?"

"Yes, but I--"

"-No 'buts', Ren," she told him firmly. "You're not staying at a motel and that's final. I can't believe you even considered it! Jeesh!" She spun on her heel and approached the front desk, quickly catching up the pen to sign in as required and pick up a visitor's badge.

"But Francesca--"

"-I need to get upstairs. Angelina had two seizures last night, Benton and Karol are both running fevers and they're supposed to decide if Little Ray needs an exchange transfusion this morning. Drop off your stuff and hurry back. I'll need you with me."

"But your mother--"

"--would be insulted if you didn't stay with us." She sighed as she fumbled to peel the backing from the paper badge.

Ren shook his head and leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially. "But we aren't married, Francesca."

She rolled her eyes and turned to face him with her hands on her hips. "It's not like we're going to be sleeping together, Ren!" she exclaimed loudly.

Ren instantly ducked his head, feeling a bright blush beginning to burn his cheeks. Francesca on the other hand was completely obvious to the stares which her outburst drew.

"I don't have time to argue about this, Ren. I'm calling Ma and telling her you're coming. If you don't show up, she'll just send Ray hunting for you and that'll only make him angry. I don't need to be dealing with a moody brother!"

It probably wasn't a good idea to antagonize his prospective brother-in-law, but Ren couldn't believe that the other man would welcome his sister's fiancé moving in with them! It simply wasn't appropriate. Ren opened his mouth even as he fought to find a response but Francesca was already striding away, hastening toward the elevators and the NICU on the third floor. "Hurry back, Ren!" she called over her shoulder.

"Excuse me."

Ren blinked and turned. A uniformed man wearing a cabbie's hat faced him. "The woman at the front desk said you were Mr. Turnbull?" He glanced at the large plastic bag Ren carried.

Ren glanced back after Francesca in time to see the elevator doors close behind her. He sighed and bowed his head in defeat. He'd have to apologize for the misunderstanding to Mrs. Vecchio, then he'd go to the motel. Certainly she could help make Francesca see sense, but he'd have to hurry. He was quite concerned to learn that Angelina had suffered two seizures last night. That could not bode well and he wanted to get back here with Francesca as soon as he could.

He lifted his head and squared his shoulders even as he offered the cabbie a nod and handed him the bag.

Part 31

"Ray!" A woman's voice rang out over the bullpen.

Maggie frowned as Kowalski's head instantly snapped up at the sound of that voice, his body going from near boneless relaxation to full alert in less than a heart beat. She turned with him to see a petite blonde in a crisp baby blue skirt-suit striding purposely toward them. She looked none too happy either.

"Where's your case notes for the Rand/McNally investigation?" she demanded sharply even before she reached his desk.

Despite his obvious tenseness around this woman, Maggie was impressed when Ray refused to be steamrolled. "Uh, Stel, Constable Maggie MacKenzie--"

The woman gave her a quick once over, obviously not in the least interested in such pleasantries. "--The notes, Ray--"

He ignored the interruption. "--Maggie, Stella Kowalski, Assistant State's Attorney." He glanced at the floor and shifted his weight uncomfortably.

Maggie instantly recognized the name and its significance.

Ms. Kowalski merely rolled her eyes, obviously in a hurry and irritated by the social amenities. "Another Mountie? You know, if you've got a thing for red-suited partners, Ray, why not just move to Canada and be done with it?" It wasn't a question she expected an answer to. "The notes?" she asked again impatiently. There was an almost petulant quality to her voice that was quite unbecoming, Maggie noted. "And don't try to tell me you don't have them unless you want to spend the next few days in front of a grand jury explaining exactly where and when the car-jacking took place. My victim can't seem to keep his story straight!"
"He was pretty shook up, Stel." Ray frowned as he bent and opened a file cabinet that was most assuredly one of the biggest disorganized messes either woman had ever seen. "It's not unusual for car-jacking victims to be confused. "He started pulling things out of it and piling them on his desk. First, a shark tooth necklace, then a book on HTML and a bottle of contact cement... "The where and when should be in the police report." A small stack of haphazard files, half of which were trying to lose their contents, was lifted to the corner of his desk.

Stella offered a much-put-upon-sigh in answer to his suggestion. "The officer on the scene was a rookie. Obviously. He said it happened at the corner of Dearborne and LaSalle. Unfortunately, those two streets don't intersect! And his handwriting is even worse than yours. No one can read it, even him!" She dismissed the report, then threw up her hands and rolled her eyes. "How can you work like this? The grand jury is at lunch. I only have an hour to get those notes and get back there, else I'm dragging you with me. I'm not letting McNally walk because a cop doesn't know how to read a stupid map!"

Ray was paying no attention to the short stack of files on his desk, or to Stella for that matter, but bent back to the file cabinet and now pulled out a small, unopened bag of dog food. He glanced around to make sure no one was really paying particular attention to them, then turned it over in his lap. The bottom looked like it had been ripped and fixed with duct tape. Using Stella and Maggie's bodies as shields, he deftly popped off a series of hidden paper clips and dumped a set of small spiral-bound notebooks into his lap, then quickly put the bag back in the drawer.

"You have to hide them, Ray?" Maggie asked confused.

"Sometimes a lead doesn't pan out or just winds up muddying the water," he explained with a shrug as he rifled through one of the books. "Later investigation usually clears it up but you would *not* want a grand jury to see most of it, trust me. It would only confuse them. Besides, a lot of this is just my thoughts and musings 'bout stuff: supposition, unanswered questions, that sort of thing. Meaningless to anyone 'cept me."

"And a defense attorney," Maggie frowned, understanding the danger. "Why write it down?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Stella frowned darkly.

"'Cause when you got thirty-two open cases on your desk it's kinda hard to keep track of everything up here." He tapped his forehead.

"Thirty-two?" Maggie echoed in surprise.

Ray smiled at his notes and shook his head. "This ain't Inuvik, Maggie. The average is about sixty, so I'm doing good. A couple of them are kinda old, nothing but dead-end leads, and are about to hit the cold case file."

"Speaking of old files," Stella sighed and shifted her weight impatiently, "have you heard anything from forensics on the McKenna/Tallin case? That was yours, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," Ray frowned, discarding the notebook he held and opening another one.

"So?" she insisted irritably when Ray didn't answer. "I was expecting to close that one more than a week ago!"

"Mort's still waiting to get some tests back," Ray shrugged.

"Well, do you think you could light a fire under him for me?" Stella sighed again. "My boss hates it when we have too many cases hanging without any action."

"Here you go." Ray found the right notebook and handed it over, ignoring her request. "The stuff you want is toward the front. Case name is at the top of each page. Xerox what you want and get it back to me. I got notes on a couple other cases in there I need; and, unless you got a warrant for the book, you ain't got no business nosing into them. I expect you to treat them as confidential and keep them away from the defense attorney."

"Your handwriting is atrocious," she noted as she paged through the small notebook. "Not only do you keep case notes but you jumble them up in the same book?"

"You expect me to carry thirty-two separate notebooks around?"

"God!" She shook her head again. "I don't see why more of your cases aren't thrown out given such random and sloppy investigation techniques." She spun on her heel and marched away, calling over her shoulder. "Don't leave town, Ray. I might be dragging you in front of that grand jury after all." She spun on her heel and pointed at him. "And talk to Mort! I need that file!" She spun back around again without having missed a beat and hurried out of the bullpen.

Ray and Maggie exchanged looks in the wake of her departure.

He suddenly rose, grabbing up his coat. "So," he offered, completely ignoring everything that had just happened, "you feel like Italian or Mexican today? I'm starved."

Maggie followed his lead and offered no comment regarding his ex-wife's "visit" as the two of them headed to lunch. "How about Chinese?" she suggested. "I understand there's a place just around the corner from here that's supposed to be good."

Part 32

Ren carefully mounted the steps of the old porch one at a time, then turned to offer the waiting taxi a quick glance. Chicago cabbies were not known for their patience but he'd insisted on leaving his bags in the trunk, hoping that would desuade the man from simply driving off on him. Squaring his shoulders and pasting a smile in place, he turned and lifted his hand to knock on the door before him.

"Coming!" he heard faintly from inside. It was quite a good door, he noted. Moments later, it swung open to reveal the expectant and smiling face of Mrs. Vecchio gazing up at him. "Renfield!" she greeted him with his full name. "Come in, come in! Francesca called only a few minutes ago. I've been expecting you."

Ren returned her smile a little nervously. "Oh, well, thank you, Mrs. Vecchio, but I--"

Mrs. Vecchio caught sight of the taxi that was still waiting for him with it's engine running. "--It's okay!" she called out around him and waved the taxi off. "You can go now!"

"Oh, no! No! I--"

Ren turned to see trunk of the cab suddenly pop open and the cabbie moving to retrieve his bag.

"No!" Ren called out to him. "No, I'm not staying. I'll be there in a minute!"

"Not staying?" Mrs. Vecchio echoed in surprise, forcing Ren to turn back to her again. "What do you mean you are not staying?" She glanced beyond Ren to wave the cabbie to bring the bag up.

"No!" Ren contradicted her again. He turned back to her, a bit surprised by her actions. He'd expected... Well, he wasn't sure what he'd expected but... "I'm sorry," he quickly apologized. "I'm afraid there's been some kind of misunderstanding."


"Yes, I, uh... Well, that is, Francesca insisted..." He frowned as everything he'd rehearsed while in route promptly flew out of his head as he faced the small woman before him. This wasn't going at all the way he'd thought it might. "I have a motel," he blurted rather abruptly.

"A motel?"

"Here, okay?" They turned to see the cabbie standing on the steps behind Ren, waving at the bag he'd set on the edge of the porch.

"--That's fine, thank you--"

"—No, I'm sorry. Take it back. I'm not staying--"

"—Of course you are staying!"

"Make up your mind," the cabbie sighed impatiently.

"It wouldn't be appropriate--"

"—A motel indeed. What kind of nonsense is this!" Mrs. Vecchio cast the cabbie a severe frown. "Touch that bag and I will have my son, the detective, searching for you to find out where you took him!"

The threat of having a detective sicced on him was enough to decide the cabbie's mind about which of the two people before him to listen to. He had absolutely no desire to get involved in what was obviously a domestic dispute. The cabbie threw up his hands, spun on his heel and quickly hurried back to his car. The guy could always call another taxi if he needed to.

"Wait!" Ren called, realizing he was about to be abandoned.

"Basta!" the woman before him ordered firmly and stepped around Ren to retrieve the large plastic bag herself. "You are engaged to be married to my daughter. I'm supposed to let you stay at a motel?" She reverted to a spate of Italian as she moved around him and headed back into the house with his bag. "The guest room is already made up. Come. We will drop this inside and then I will drive you to the hospital. My daughter needs you."

Ren watched in utter confusion as the taxi quickly pulled away from the curb and sped off. His head was spinning with how quickly everything had gone so very wrong.

"Close the door, Renfield," Mrs. Vecchio called back to him. "I'll be with you in a second. Now, where did I put my coat..."

Ren glanced back into the hall before him but Mrs. Vecchio was no where in sight, obviously set on a course of action that would hear nothing of his arguments. "Oh, dear," he sighed, but stepped forward and caught the door to close it behind him, finding there was little he could do but obey. He could see where Francesca got her indomitable spirit and determination. Apparently, he was going to have to call and cancel his motel reservation.

Part 33
Jaelyn was frowning up at the sky, noting the swift moving, low clouds that had become more and more predominate as the morning progressed. Ben had known for some time that there was another storm moving in. His weather sense here was not as good as it was up north, but some signs were universal. Besides, he'd caught a weather advisory on a radio in one of the shops they'd visited earlier.

Jaelyn frowned over at him. "It's going to snow again, isn't it?"

Ben nodded and shrugged lightly. It wasn't anything he or Jaelyn needed to worry about and he wondered why she was frowning.

"How bad?"

Again, he shrugged. His point of view on such things was probably different from hers. ^Possible blizzard conditions,^ he told her. ^Two - or three – feet – strong winds – possible white-outs.^ It wasn't something they'd want to be out in, but then it wasn't seventy below or expected to last for several days either.

"Damn," she hissed.

He offered his own frown and lifted a questioning eyebrow.

"I was wanting to go hear the storyteller in Snow Mass," she sighed, reminding him of one of the attractions she'd been looking forward to when she first suggested escaping to Aspen. "Hear" of course had a non-literal meaning. "It being the off-season, he only does campfires on Fridays." She sighed in irritation at herself. Last Friday, they'd gone to a deaf theater performance of 'West Side Story'.

Ben frowned up at the clouds and tried to judge when the storm would break, knowing that weather forecasters were often... There was no denying the obvious signs of a building storm. The forecaster might be off by an hour or two, but it was clear to even an uneducated eye that they were in for a major storm sometime around noon.

"We'll just have to go tomorrow afternoon," she decided as she scuffed a foot to send a small clod of snow rolling away. "It's not as much fun as the campfire ones, but it's still worth the trip."

"Look out!" someone cried out.

It took Ben only a moment to analyze their immediate surroundings and situation. He stepped in front of Jaelyn, at an oblique angle, and turned toward her. It was either that or jerk her out of the way and he didn't...


"What?" Jaelyn asked, confused by his sudden move.

He lifted a brow and turned, glancing over his shoulder and showing Jaelyn where a large snowball had impacted the middle of his back.

Jaelyn swallowed a surprised smile. It would have hit her if he hadn't stepped in front of her. A very small heroic act perhaps but, given that her "startle response" was still heightened - or so her doctors explained it - she *really* wouldn't have liked being surprised that way.

They glanced up to where a few of the kids nearest them stood frozen in their play, surprised to have hit an adult. Seeing their looks, arms were instantly raised and fingers pointed at the youngest of the group who stood closest to Ben and Jaelyn. "He did it!" "Jerry did it!" "It was him!" various voices cried out.

The boy, about eight, was shaking his head in protest. He pointed at one of the bigger kids. "I didn't! Honest! He did it!"

It only took Ben another moment to size up the boy's situation. He was one of four but he didn't fit into the group. He was the smallest, his coat and hat a couple of sizes too big - not new as were the others - and it showed obvious signs of bombardment, whereas the others appeared fairly unscathed.

Ben glanced at Jaelyn, wondering if she saw the same things he did.

Jaelyn didn't have to hear to be able to know what was being said. Her frown made it clear she doubted the older kids. She turned that frown on the older boy and they all scattered, except the youngest who slumped in defeat, recognizing the fact that he didn't stand a chance at getting away.

"I didn't do it!" he protested again, forlornly.

^I know,^ Ben answered, knowing the trajectory was wrong for him to have been the culprit. Jaelyn translated.

The boy frowned upward in confusion as he glanced between the two adults before him. "Are you deaf?" he asked bluntly. Ben translated.

"I'm deaf, he's mute," Jaelyn answered. She and Ben exchanged a speaking glance and he signed a quick question. With a nod, she awarded the boy a mischievous smile and translated the question. "Want some help?" She waved at where the other kids had stopped about fifty yards away to watch what the adults were going to do with their little scapegoat.

"Mute?" the boy asked in confusion.
"He can't speak," Jaelyn answered, reading Ben's sign.

"You're deaf and you're..." The boy cocked his head to the side as he frowned at them, then dismissed it, turning his attention to more important matters. "You're not mad at me?"

Ben shook his head.

"And you want to help?" he asked. "With a snowball fight?" He seemed incredulous.

Ben cocked his head to the side and signed again. "Any rules, or is it a free-for-all?" Jaelyn offered, bending with Ben to scoop up some snow even as she spoke.

"Uh... rules?"

That pretty much answered the question. "Teams?" Jaelyn asked for Ben, though they both already knew the answer.

The boy shook his head.

"There are now," Jaelyn explained with a smirk. The two adults grinned at each other and took up position on either side of the boy. Together, the three turned to the older kids and started forward.

Part 34

Dr. Kali Sandison glanced up with a frown at the soft knock on the consultation room door. One of the NICU nurses stuck her head in, confirming who was present more than anything, then pushed the door open further to admit Mr. Turnbull and Ms. Vecchio's mother.

"Ren!" Frannie jumped to her feet and all but threw herself at the man. He staggered under the assault and she instantly reversed to catch him. The moment he was stable, she was in his arms and crying again.

"What is this!" Mrs. Vecchio asked in alarmed confusion as Ren fought to calm her daughter. "What has happened?" She turned to the doctor as the white-coated woman rose to her feet. "The babies, they are all right?"

"For the most part," she answered with a nod. Frannie interrupted before she could continue.

"Angelina suffered a brain bleed!" she blurted fearfully, gazing up at Ren in near panic. "That's why she had those seizures! She's bleeding in her brain!"

Ren glanced in alarm at the doctor for confirmation even as Ma gasped and quickly crossed herself, offering up an immediate prayer for her tiny grand daughter.

"Brain bleeds are actually pretty common is preemies at this stage," the doctor answered their looks with a carefully calm tone. She'd been trying to calm Frannie down to explain when they arrived. She continued quickly now, hoping to forestall a general sense of panic. Knowledge was usually the key to help parents deal with such situations. "We detected it with an ultra sound of her head this morning. I've ordered a CAT scan to get a better picture of exactly what we're dealing with but it doesn't look to be too serious at this point, what's called a Grade I bleed. We've given her some medications to help stop it and prevent further seizures."

"But is she going to be all right?" Ren asked quietly, holding Frannie close as she fought back the tears and held her breath, listening intently to whatever the doctor might say. "Are we talking brain damage?"

"We don't know yet," Kali answered honestly. "An infant's brain is both more delicate as well as more resilient than that of an adult. Unlike an adult brain, her brain is still growing and can actually repair itself; but it matters which part is damaged. If the bleed remains fairly minor to moderate, she stands a good chance of developing completely normally. If it increases, then so do her chances for long term neurological complications. We're doing everything we can for her at the moment."

"And Little Ray?" Frannie asked from where she stood clinging to Ren, refusing to let him go even as she spoke to the doctor. "They said something about an exchange transfusion this morning?"

The doctor nodded. "He needs it," she told them simply. "His bilirubin level is continuing to climb despite the bililights. His liver simply isn't ready to do its job here yet."

"His liver?" Ren echoed, knowing that the baby couldn't survive without his liver.

"We're doing a study of his liver functions now to rule out problems there, but ultra sound shows no defect or swelling so it may just be a matter of time. If he were still in the womb, the placenta would be handling this job. We're not overly concerned just yet. The bilirubin level however does have to be dealt with. When levels get too high, they begin to damage the central nervous system and brain tissues."

"Oh, God," Frannie whispered, turning her face into Ren's chest once again.

"And the exchange transfusion will correct that?" Ren asked, rubbing a slow circle on Frannie's back as he helped her deal with this.

"Correct the damage?" Kali shook her head. "The idea is to do the transfusion before the damage occurs. What we do is slowly remove small qualities of the baby's blood while replacing it with donor blood. We remove the blood high in bilirubin and replace it with fresh blood, physically doing the liver's job for it."

"There isn't a filter or dialysis type machine to do it?" Ren asked with a frown.

"No." The doctor again shook her head. "It would be nice if someone invented one, but they haven't yet."

"And you are telling us this because..?" It was Ma who asked this question.

"Because I need permission to do the transfusion," the doctor answered. "As with any procedure of this nature, there are risks involved."

"Such as?" Ren asked.

"Um, blood chemistry issues, stresses on the heart and blood vessels, infection, unforeseen complications such as aneurisms or blood clots. There's a slight chance the procedure itself could kill him."

"He could die? But without it he could die as well?" Mrs. Vecchio asked, trying to follow everything the doctor was saying. "He could die either way?"

The doctor nodded. "His chances of dying, or suffering irreversible brain damage, are far greater if we don't do it."

Frannie glanced up at Ren for help.

He could only stoke the hair out of her wide and frightened eyes, offering whatever strength she might take from his love. "You have to decide, Francesca," he told her quietly. He had no legal rights whatsoever where the babies were concerned. "I can't do it for you."

She glanced at her mother who was fingering a rosary and then again at the doctor. Swallowing around a dry throat, she nodded. "Do it," she whispered. "And the others? Are they going to need it too?"

"Not at this point," the doctor shook her head. "They all are suffering jaundice to varying degrees but that's to be expected, and the rest of them seem to be responding to the bililights so I doubt exchange transfusions will be necessary for them. Tina's doing quite well actually. Benton's edema has cleared up nicely and we're no longer worried about his kidneys. Karol's pneumonia is responding to the antibiotics and Micheal's PDA finally seems to be responding to the indomethacin."

"PDA?" Ma asked confused.

"It's a shunt between the aorta and the pulmonary vein that basically short circuits the lungs while the baby is in the womb," the doctor explained. "It's something all babies have and which normally closes on its own after birth. Sometimes we have to help it. That's what the indomethacin is for."

"And the others?" Ma asked, trying hard to understand everything that was going on with all of the babies. It was hard to keep it all straight. "They do not have this problem?"

"Actually, all of them do," the doctor answer. "It's quite common in preemies, especially at this stage of development, but unless it's a large shunt and causing problems we prefer to let them close on their own."

"Can we be present during the exchange transfusion?" Frannie asked, jumping mental tracks back to the child who was of greatest concern at the moment.

"No," the doctor answered. "It's considered a surgical procedure although there's no real surgery involved. We need to change out the stop cock on his umbilical catheter and then hook him up to an exchanger. The procedure itself is then very slow and, hopefully, very boring. I need to go order a complete blood work up and then we'll try to schedule it for this afternoon, all right?"

Frannie bit her lip but managed a small nod. It was far from all right but there was nothing else they could do.

The doctor nodded and gave her shoulder a reassuring pat. "I'll talk to you again this evening when the procedure is done. Why don't you just relax here a few minutes before you go see him and the others, hmm? It'll be better for all of you that way."

Frannie nodded and buried her face back in Ren's soft flannel shirt. Her tears were spent but she still needed to feel his arms about her, needed to know he was there and that he cared. The door of the small room opened and shut and she felt her mother step close to add her own gentle touch to Ren's. Frannie closed her eyes and shut out the rest of the world, permitting herself a momentary break from everything. It could just wait a second as she fought to find the strength and confidence she needed in the quiet and understanding love her mother and the man who held her offered.

A year from now, she might look back on all this and laugh... No, she corrected the thought. She knew she'd never be able to laugh about it, but at least it would be over and, God willing, she'd be struggling to change six diapers at the same time or something else as equally impossible. Anything, but worrying about if they were all still going to be alive tomorrow.

She wrapped her arms tighter around Ren and thanked God that he was there to help her. She couldn't imagine going through this alone.

Part 35

Jaelyn soon realized that Ben was an expert snow-baller. She grinned as she watched him suddenly spin on his heel, avoiding a shot that should have caught him in the shoulder even as he launched one of his own at his attacker to hit the boy squarely in the chest. The kid offered a melodramatic gasp, then proceeded to die quite dramatically to the laughing delight of his friends.

Ben's aim and reach were far better than that of anyone else on the snowy field, and he seemed to have an uncanny ability to dodge snowballs. The only times he'd been hit were when he purposely stepped in front of Jaelyn. The third time he did that, Jaelyn took the snowball she was holding and hit him square in the back with it.

He spun to award her a surprised look.

"Stop protecting me, Ben!" she told him. "I want to play, too!"

She *was* playing, Ben thought in confusion but, with a shrug, acquiesced to her request and stepped aside as another snowball sailed toward them. She promptly found herself sitting in the snow, the remains of the snowy projectile dripping down her coat front and sneaking inside the collar of her sweater. The timing was too perfect and she found herself laughing at the irony of it.

Ben, quite happily distracted by the unexpected sound of her laughter, suddenly found himself the target of a mass assault by the other "team". It was Jerry, the little boy they'd championed, who suddenly appeared from the left flank, charging into Ben's attackers with a mighty shout and pelting them with several snowballs he carried in his oversized coat's pockets. The attackers reacted in surprise, many of their shots going wild as the tiny dynamo charged right through their midst. Some bent to get more snow only to have Ben scooping up the snowballs that had gone wide and targeting their butts! They wound up scattering as they ran out of ammo.

Jaelyn joined in as both Ben and Jerry laughed in glee at having routed the enemy.

It was then that one of the parents, who'd been standing back and enjoying the fun, decided it was time to end it. "Thomas, Melanie!" she called out from where she stood at a safe distance beside a snow-covered park bench. "Time to go home!"

This announcement was greeted by a resounding chorus of plaintive groans.

"Uh-uh!" The mother frowned and glanced at her watch. "None of that. It's starting to snow. I want to get home before it gets much worse. Come on."
Ben glanced up, realizing for the first time that big fat flakes were indeed starting to rain down from the low clouds overhead.

Jerry ran up to Ben and tugged on his coat. "What time is it?" he asked.

Ben pulled up his sleeve to show the boy his watch.

"Oh, man!" the boy exclaimed. "My mom's going to kill me!" He quickly took off across the field, then remembered his manners and spun in place long enough to call out a loud, "Thank you!" and then he was off again.

Ben turned to Jaelyn, who was still sitting in the snow. Her smile had been replaced by a look of confusion as the kids suddenly started to disperse.

^Time to go,^ he explained simply and stepped forward to offer her a hand up.

She frowned at the hand, awarding it a decided pout; and, instead of taking it, flopped back to lie in the snow. "I don't want to go!"

Ben lifted a brow and cocked his head to the side in a clear look of censure, but couldn't quite hide the smile that tugged at his lips. She looked very much like a ten year old lying there, especially when she decided to wave her arms and legs, making a snow angel. The smile disappeared as he considered her clothing. The ambient air temperature was just below freezing, which meant that the snow beneath her was likely melting with the combination of friction and her radiated body heat. Her jacket was water proof, but not so the jeans she'd chosen to wear. Nor was she wearing a hat. ^You're going to - get soaked,^ he decided.

She shrugged. "I'm not the Wicked Witch of the West," she answered and held out her hand. "Help me up. Careful! Don't ruin my angel!"

Ben frowned momentarily, then dismissed his confusion as he gripped her hand and wrist, pulling her to her feet. Carefully, she stepped out of the angel and turned to regard it. She frowned critically. The snow around it was too churned up from the snowball fight for it to really look good. She shrugged and turned to Ben with an impish grin. "When's the last time you made a snowman?"

He shook his head and ignored the question, reaching out to ruffle her dark hair instead and sending the snow that clung to the back of her head flying in a white shower all around them. She grinned unrepentantly as she allowed his touch, then proceeded to shake her head vigorously, much as a dog might shed water after a bath, and showered Ben with what little remained. Ben merely shielded his face and watched as she bent to brush her pants off. Ever helpful, Ben bent to assist the effort... until they both suddenly realized exactly where his hand was as he was brushing snow from the seat of her pants.
They jumped apart as if they'd been burnt.

"Um..." Jaelyn cleared her throat sharply and fought to recover her composure, not liking the thrill of fear that had accompanied the sudden knowledge of exactly where Ben's hand was a moment ago. It was the first time she'd ever felt anything even akin to fear in his presence, and she didn't like it one bit. It was ridiculous, for one thing. And for another, it... It was ridiculous, that's all! She shook her head, dismissing the ghostly images that tried to force their way into her thoughts and shoving the panic that threatened with them firmly aside. She wasn't going to go there. She wasn't!

"What were you frowning about earlier?" she asked abruptly, forcing her mind onto another track.

It took Ben a short moment to realize what she was referring to. He shrugged, offering another mild frown of confusion as he signed, ^The Wicked - Witch - of the West?^

She grinned. "The Wizard of Oz!" she reminded him.

*Oh!* he thought and nodded. Then frowned in confusion again.

She read his confusion and prodded his memory. "Dorothy kills her by throwing a bucket of water on her, by accident..."

He seemed a bit surprised at the idea. ^How could a bucket of water kill someone?^ he asked.

"She melts," Jaelyn answered and shook her head incredulously. ""Don't tell me you've never seen 'The Wizard of Oz' before?"

Ben could only shrug a shoulder and shake his head. ^Where I grew up - there were few opportunities - to attend movies. My grandparents - didn't own a television. They tended to frown - on stories of mythical or magical happenings – anyway - unless it was something like - "It's a Wonderful Life" or - "The Miracle on 34th Street."^

"That's just..." She paused and shook her head, wrestling with her choice of words but not wanting to insult his grandparents.

^--I did – however - have quite a bit - of exposure - to various Inuit legends,^ he added. ^And an extensive library - at my command. Actually, Shakespeare's works - contain quite a bit of magic. Was the 'Wizard' of Oz - anything like Prospero in - 'The Tempest?'^ He frowned sharply in thought and continued before she could answer. ^If the villain is - the Wicked Witch of the West – and Dorothy defeats her - why is it called - 'The *Wizard* of Oz?'^ he wondered.

Jaelyn just stared at him for a long moment as she absorbed his signing and then threw her head back in laughter.

It was quite a delightful sound, Ben decided yet again, but he could only regard her in total confusion as he tried to decide what he'd said that was apparently so funny.

She quickly brought her laughter under control and awarded him an unabashed grin as she linked her arm in his. He didn't resist as she turned them toward the sidewalk once again. "I can see we need to educate you," she decided. "Where's the nearest video store? This'll be almost as much fun as going to the storyteller in Snowmass!"

Part 36

Having Ray take her to dinner after work was getting to be a bit of a habit, Maggie noted as she swept her Stetson off and held the front seat forward for Dief before climbing in herself.

Ray frowned, more in confusion than anything else. "I thought Vecchio was taking care of the wolf?"

"He had some stuff to do and didn't think Dief wanted to be cooped up at the house," Maggie explained. "The others have likely been at the hospital all day, so he dropped Dief off with me. I said I'd drop him off again after work. I hope you don't mind?"

"Mind old fur ball here?" he answered, glancing at the wolf in the rearview mirror. Dief seemed to roll his eyes and offered a short groan in apparent disagreement of the "old" remark. Ray smiled, having known he'd get a rise from the wolf with that. "We're good."

Maggie nodded, carefully folding her hands over a large looseleaf notebook of some kind she held in her lap. "'Have a good day?" she asked innocently.

Ray frowned, realizing immediately that there was something about the notebook that she didn't want him to question. Naturally, he intended to do just that. "Not bad," he answered her question and nodded his head momentarily toward her lap, even as he quickly checked traffic and pulled away from the curb. "What ya got there?"

"You don't want to know," she answered plainly and quickly changed the subject. "So, where are we going tonight? I'm kind of in the mood for fish, if you don't mind?"

"Fish is good," Ray shrugged. "Why don't I want to know?"

"It'll just make you mad."

Ray frowned again. Why in the world would she say that? "No, it won't," he claimed. How in the world was a notebook going to make him angry?
"Yes, it will."

"No, it won't."

"Yes, Ray," she insisted, "it will. Do you know any place that sells good crab cakes? Or maybe some shrimp scampi." She pointedly studied the traffic around them. "It's been a while since I had any shrimp."


Maggie chose to purposely misunderstand him. "I don't know. It's usually a bit more expensive than I like." She shrugged. "I can't see paying ten dollars for six shrimp when I can buy a pound from the store for half that."

Ray knew perfectly well what she was doing and refused to let her get away with it. "I mean why would I get mad about the notebook?"

Maggie sighed. Maybe if she told him, he'd drop it. "It belonged to David Tallin."

"David... oh, jeesh!" Ray exclaimed, instantly wishing he hadn't asked. Of course, it would have to be related to the McKenna case! "Why in the world are you digging through-- Never mind!" he corrected himself sharply. "You're right. I don't want to know."

Maggie nodded and adjusted the notebook in her lap. "I know. So, where are we going?"

He sighed unhappily, frowning at the traffic, and tried to focus his mind on the question of dinner. "Surf 'n Turf," he decided easily. It was the only place to get decent fish at a decent price, and he knew blasted well that Maggie wasn't going to let him pay for her. The stuff might come served on paper plates but it tasted good.

"I think I've heard Det. Dewey mention it before."

He practically lived there, Ray thought and quickly cracked his neck. Damn, the question about the notebook would not get out of his head! "You probably did this on purpose," he thought out loud.

"Did what on purpose, Ray?"

"Brought that damn notebook with ya!" he decided, frowning straight ahead. "You knew I was going to ask about it, didn't you?"

"I'm sorry, Ray," she answered with a slightly miffed tone, irritated that he could think so poorly of her. "I did not do it on purpose. I picked it up during lunch and simply haven't had a chance to go over it yet. I couldn't see walking back to the Consulate to get it after you dropped me off at home. Don't worry. I have no intention of talking about it with you."

"What's to talk about?" he complained. "The case is all but closed. Why can't you leave it alone?"

Maggie frowned at the traffic lightly. "You're going the wrong way, Ray. We need to drop Dief off first, remember?"

Ray offered a short laugh that was anything but amused and quickly looked for a place to turn around. Maggie herself was enough to distract him, but add her obsession with the McKenna case on top of it and there was no way he could keep his thoughts straight. He made a sharp right, cutting across a line of traffic which was fortunately empty.

A glance at his face told Maggie not to comment on his driving. She had no desire to be subjected to one of his black moods, however, let alone let it endanger her life! "Look, why don't you just drop me off here and I'll walk home. I can get some shrimp at the store and make scampi myself."

"No," Ray instantly reigned in his temper. He liked Maggie too much to let something stupid like this come between them. "No, I... uh... I..." *I want to have dinner with you,* he thought. Why was it so hard to say? "I had a hard day. Welsh was wanting a report I couldn't find and then Stella came by to yell at me. Sorry."


Ray sighed heavily. Instead of changing the subject, the question actually brought it back full circle. "She wanted to know why I hadn't lit a fire under Mort about the McKenna file. I don't see why she can't do it herself. All she has to do is pick up a phone. Instead, she comes and harasses me." He shook his head in disgust.

"She probably just wanted to see you."

Ray again offered a derisive bark of laughter. "I'm the last person she wants to see."

"I don't know." Maggie frowned in thought. "From what I've seen, she exhibits a number of almost psychological dependency traits, much like an addict who..."

Ray shot her a sharp and unmistakably angry glare.

"...Of course, I could be wrong," she quickly backpedaled, knowing she'd trespassed where she wasn't wanted.

"So what's so fascinating about the McKenna case that you can't let it go?" Ray asked pointedly, frowning again at the traffic. He was more then willing to talk about anything so long as it kept Maggie from trying to analyze him and Stella too closely. The McKenna case should distract her quite nicely.

Part 37

The microwave dinged and Ben reluctantly rose from his place on the floor beside Jaelyn. She offered him a curious frown even as she lifted the remote and clicked pause.

^Popcorn,^ he explained, retrieving the empty bowl beside him.

The unmistakable scent hit her a moment later and she smiled. "Good thing we got the three pack."

^One for each movie,^ Ben agreed. Actually, he was thinking they should have bought the six pack...

Jaelyn watched as he turned for the microwave again and absently noted that his jeans did nice things for him. She suddenly jerked her eyes away and frowned. Where in the world had that thought come from? Her mind flashed to the memory of his hand helping to brush the snow from her own jean-clad butt...

She squirmed uncomfortably at the thought even as she fought to repress it. What in the world was wrong with her, thinking such thoughts? Ben was a wonderful and sensitive man, with a subtle humorous streak that tended to show itself in rather interesting ways. And yes, maybe... maybe he was... She glanced back over to where he was carefully opening the steaming hot bag and pouring the popcorn into the bowl they'd shared earlier. Okay, she admitted, dragging her eyes away again to stare at the heavy snow beyond the glass sliding doors to their left, he was quite definitely easy on the eyes. She'd acknowledged as much before, even telling Jeanie that he was more handsome than James at one point. She had no idea why the thought should make her feel so... so...

She frowned, realizing that she wasn't exactly sure just what it was she felt toward Ben.

Ben returned with the large bowl and glanced at Jaelyn's glass. Still more than half-full of coke, as was his. He lowered himself back into place beside her, glancing around at the other munchies that littered the coffee table to her right and the hardwood floor to his left: a bag of pretzels, various candy bars, marshmallows, licorice whips and a veggie tray which had barely been touched. It was hardly a nutritional lunch, but he grinned wryly at the mess and refused to listen to the chastising voice in his head that said he was being childish. So what, he told it, and the snowball fight hadn't been? Yes, he admitted, there'd been a perceived injustice in the situation which needed correcting, but he hadn't been thinking about that when he heard Jaelyn laughing or watched her jam snow down the back of Melanie's collar.

He'd never been particularly childish as a child, and the only one around to scold him now was Jaelyn. Given that this had all been her idea, he didn't think he had to worry about her correcting him. After getting thoroughly chilled earlier during the snowball fight, they could both use the calories anyway, especially her.

He'd clean the mess up when they were done and fix something to go with the veggie tray for dinner, he promised himself. His inner voice fell silent, satisfied he was still capable of some sense of responsibility anyway. The thought of extra sit ups was dismissed, to be considered later.

Jaelyn offered a slight shiver. He frowned as she wrapped her arms around herself and then followed her gaze to where the snow was coming down in a thick blanket of white beyond the patio doors.

^Should I - close the drapes?^ he asked, realizing that the glass was radiating quite a bit of cold into the room despite the double-paned design. He felt quite warm actually but was well aware that what he found comfortable most others found uncomfortably cold.
She smiled and shook her head. "I love to watch it," she said simply. "Now finish what you were saying. He really survived having his house blown up?"

Ben nodded and lifted his hands. There'd been no need for Hollywood to exaggerate the happenings upon which they'd based the movie 'Death Hunt', staring Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. They had in fact downplayed certain incidences as being too hard to believe. ^I've seen a picture - of his cabin,^ he explained. ^The explosion tore the roof off and one of the walls caved in,^ he explained. ^According to Constable King - as he and a fellow officer entered the cabin - Johnson stood up - from a fox hole he'd dug in the floor - and fired two weapons - narrowly missing them. The movie is actually - fairly accurate - in so far as what we know happened - except for the ending – but I don't want to spoil it for you.^

"What about the stuff with the trap lines?" Jaelyn asked, glancing at where the TV screen glowed blue waiting for her to restart the VCR. "Did he do it or not?"

Ben shrugged. ^No one knows,^ he admitted. ^Who Albert Johnson - really was, why he came to - Fort MacPherson, why he refused to answer questions... The movie takes liberties there - I'm afraid - as according to all reports - none of the Mounties - ever heard Mr. Johnson speak--^
"You mean he was mute?"
Again, Ben shrugged. ^Not according - to the locals,^ he explained. ^But Constable King wasn't impressed with their stories. The movie is - an excellent interpretation - of at least one theory - concerning what might have happened. The truth remains - one of the North's - most enduring – mysteries.^
"Have you ever been shot before?" she wondered. "I mean... I don't mean..." She sighed as she stumbled over her own words. "I know about, you know... Victoria. And..." She glanced down and waved at his chest. "I meant, something like this." She waved at the VCR.

Ben cocked his head to the side and pasted a pensive frown in place. ^You mean - when trying to question - a mad trapper - accused of tampering - with other trappers' lines - while standing outside his cabin - in forty-degree below weather?^

Jaelyn made a face and folded her arms, offering him a mildly irritated frown. Ben answered her with his most innocent and confused gaze. It worked. The facade crumbled and a grin split her face even as she shook her head. "I don't believe you," she sighed.
He continued to play dumb, reaching up to tug on his ear before he signed, ^Believe what?^

She shook her head again and closed her eyes as she offered another soft laugh. She glanced up only to find him studying her intently. A surprised brow winged upward in question. "What?" she asked simply.

He shrugged. ^Nothing.^ He reached over to click the remote control to start the movie again.
She took the remote control away and clicked it off. She grinned mischievously. He wasn't going to get out of answering her that easily a second time. "Penny for your thoughts?" she asked.

He glanced away and licked his lips. She was putting him on the spot and she knew it, but he'd shock her if he told her he'd been thinking of kissing her breathless. ^You seem happy,^ he answered instead.

"Seem?" she echoed in surprise.

He frowned and shrugged again, not sure why hed put it in such terms. It was a secondary thought that had been nagging at the back of his mind for the last few days. ^Are you?^ he asked after a long moment.

"Yes," she answered readily. Then frowned. She stared into those eyes which met hers so openly, eyes which far too often saw things in her own she didn't want them to see. She glanced away and shook her head. "I'm not ready to deal with everything that's happened over the last few weeks. I'm concentrating on the here and now." She forced herself to meet his gaze again. "Does that bug you?"

He lifted his brows and pursed his lips, cocking his head to the side in an expression of pensive uncertainty. ^I'm not sure - it's healthy.^

"And when's the last time you thought about what you're going to do if they kick you out of the RCMP?" she asked pointedly.

Ben had to concede it was a question he was avoiding.

"We've only got four more days here, Ben," she told him, reaching out to lay a hand atop one of his. "Four days to just *be*, to heck with everything else! I didn't come here to find answers, and I don't think you did either. We came here to relax, and by God that’s what I intend to do. Everything else will just have to wait until it's time to go back to Chicago."
It was pure escapism he knew, but two weeks wouldn't make much difference in either of their lives. He nodded and gazed down at their hands. He turned his hand over and gently threaded his fingers through hers. She returned his grasp lightly, offering him a lopsided smile for the move. "Your friends would tease you if they saw us now," she offered with a light chuckle.

He lifted a confused eyebrow.

"You don't much like it when they refer to me as your 'girlfriend'."

His expression changed to one of mild surprise. Apparently, she was getting better at reading lips than he'd thought. He shrugged lightly in return and purposely lowered his gaze, making no move to release her hand as he lifted his other and dared sign, ^Are you?^

She remained silent for a long moment, forcing him to lift his gaze again before she answered. "Am I?" she asked quietly.

He understood what she was asking. Slowly, he nodded. ^I'd like to - think so.^

"I’d like to think so, too."

She fought to hide an embarrassed smile and glanced away, feeling suddenly self-conscious. Deciding that things had gotten way too heavy for the moment, she thrust the bowl of popcorn back into his lap and lifted the remote control to click the movie back on.

"Okay," she offered, leaning up against his shoulder and stealing a handful of fluffy white kernels. "The cabin went boom, he went boom, boom and escaped. What's happening now?"

Part 38

Ray frowned pensively as he teased the filet apart with a plastic fork. Dief had, quite appropriately, wolfed down his portion and now was curled up asleep under the table. Damn it, Ray thought, now Maggie had him questioning whether Jeanie's brother, David Tallin, was the would-be-killer or not! She'd basically refused to talk about it in the car...

"You know, you know--" He shook his head in frustration. "–You're just like your brother. I swear the two of you know how to exactly - I mean exactly! - drive me crazy." He glared at her as he angrily speared a piece of fish, only to have it drop free the moment he lifted his fork. "First, you try to ask me questions I don't want to hear. When that doesn't work, you go behind my back and dig for answers, all the while knowing that I know what you're doing. Then, you start showing up with pieces of evidence that you say you don't want to talk about but you know damn well I'm going to ask about. And when I finally break, when I..." He waved his fork between them to emphasize his point. "When I can't take it any more, and ask you to lay it on the line?" He tossed the fork aside, too upset to eat now anyway. "You stonewall me. I oughta check myself into a loony bin!"

"I'm not stonewall--"

"--Yes, you are! Yes, you are!" He insisted. Several dark looks from others at the tiny hole-in-the-wall diner forced him to lower his voice. "It's just like Fraser, just like with the 'i's and the 't's and the... and the... the always correcting and thinking he knows what I'm thinking. You know, I punched him once because of that."

"You punched Ben?" Maggie asked in surprise, wondering if Ben had decked Ray in answer. Probably not, she knew. She would have, but she wasn't Ben Fraser.

Ray suddenly realized he was talking about her brother and that she might not take kindly to the idea. "It was a long time ago," he quickly backpedaled. "He was, he was... And I did warn him. I told him to stop it. I told him I was going to punch him in the face if he didn't, but would he listen?"

Ray shook his head and leaned back in his chair, forcing himself to calm down. This whole mess was getting out of control. No. *He* was the one on the edge of being out of control. What was he going to do here? Threaten to pop Maggie one if she didn't stop acting like her brother? Even the thought of thinking such a thing was repugnant. He took a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly, forcing his raging emotions back under control. It was a stupid thing to argue about anyway!

"Look," he sighed. Leaning forward, he rested his arms to either side of the untouched lunch and sagged wearily over it. He forced his head up to face her. "When I ask a question that you know I really don't want to ask, do me a favor and just answer it. Don't try to second guess me or protect me or whatever the hell it is you think you're doing. If I ask, I want to know, okay? Don't make me beg."

*Beg?* "I'm sorry, Ray, I didn't--"
"--I know, I know, I know," he interrupted her before she could finish whatever apology she might offer. It would only make him feel even more stupid for having come so unglued before. He quickly dismissed it. "Look. We got motive: Jaelyn's millions. We got opportunity: he practically lived in her back pocket. And we got evidence: the knife, the camisole and the drugs. His blood type even matches the blood taken from under her fingernails. Just... just tell me whatever it is about this case that's eating you up so bad, because I don't understand it; and I'm not going to be able to rest now until I do."

"You're sure?"

Ray awarded her a patently pained look.

"Okay, okay!" she agreed, throwing up her hands in defeat. She really hadn't meant to discuss her suspicions with him at all. If she'd known the notebook was going to cause so much of a problem she would have left it until tomorrow! She frowned down at it on the table. Where to start? There were so many little things that were bothering her. Each taken separately meant less than nothing. It was the combined mass of them that had her questioning the overall case against David.

She started with an argument she'd made previously and with which Ray was very familiar. He wasn't going to like it, but he'd already been forced to acknowledge the worth of it when they were questioning Greg Manly's role in all of this. "He was right-handed."

"Oh, God." Ray dropped his head in defeat. "Not that again."

"You were the one who observed the shooting in the alley, Ray. The gunman was either left-handed or ambidextrous. It would be highly unlikely for a right-handed individual to use his left hand to fire a weapon. He would have more likely steered with his left and fired across his body, yet you clearly saw his arm extended from the driver's window."

"I remember. I remember," he assured her, running a hand through his perpetually tousled hair. "We've been over this before."

"Mort has confirmed that David Tallin, like Greg Manly, was right-handed."

"That wrist bone thingy again?"

"The distal end of the ulna."

"Whatever." He might not have been aware of Mort's finding but he wasn't unprepared for it. "Maybe he hired someone else to do the shooting, ever think of that?"

"There's more."

He sighed and bowed his head again. "Of course."

"No fingerprints--"

"--Yeah, yeah, we already discussed that." He waved her on to whatever her next point was.

She ignored the interruption. "--On the drawer pull, on his bedroom doorknob or his front door."

Ray glanced up with a sharp frown, but it only took him a moment to dismiss the inconsistency. "Too contaminated with other fingerprints: Ben, James, Jeanie, you... You were all in there cleaning the place up."

"There were no unidentified partials either, Ray," she argued.

Weird, he admitted silently but refused to do so aloud. "Go on."

"What's his connection to Charlie Wickert?"

"The guy Turnbull chased into the alley who looked like Manly..."

"But who apparently had no idea who that was despite wearing clothing identical to that seen on Manly the day before and whom our mysterious shooter went to great pains to make sure was quite dead after you two caught him." Maggie hurried on before he could get too tied up in that one. She'd spent hours wrestling with it already. "Where was she held?" she asked next. "She was missing for more than two days before being found in that alley on the South Side. Trace evidence recovered from her body included brown cotton carpet fibers, apparently from a commercial area rug like one of those large braided ones Ben had in his room at the Bed and Breakfast."

"You think she was kept at the Bed and Breakfast?" Ray asked incredulously.

"No," Maggie answered. "That was the week of the Heritage Numismatic Convention and Trade Auction in Chicago. The Inn was full."


"Coin collectors, Ray," she explained. "There were dealers who came from half-way around the world. Many of the Inn's rooms were booked weeks in advance. It would have been very difficult for our would-be-killers to secret Jaelyn in one of the rooms in such a way that housekeeping wouldn't have discovered it."

But not impossible, Ray knew. Greg Manly was the Inn's manager at that point. He would have had full access to the entire Inn and could have easily marked a room as off limits for needed repairs or what-not. No one would have been looking for her there, would they? "That takes some brass ones."

"Brass what?"

Ray was suddenly tempted to blush and hurried to dismiss the question. "Never mind," he said. "Go on. Go on."

"Her wrists bore evidence of rope burns yet she must have been released at some point given the fact that we know she was able to scratch her attacker. Also, she wasn't blindfolded and there was no evidence of her being gagged. Most likely, she was drugged as that would facilitate her being kidnaped from the party, but I doubt she was kept drugged for the entire two and a half days. Given the assumption that she wasn't gagged, it's unlikely she was held at the Inn – or anywhere else her screams would have been heard."

A mini-mystery, but Ray couldn't see how it made David look bad as one of would-be-killer. "You ain't said anything yet to convince me David isn't the knife man here."

"Where'd he get the money to pay off Manly's marker?"

"Who said he did? Maybe Manly stole it from Jay and David found out about it. Manly cuts David in for a piece of the action and a promise of some of the inheritance after Jay is dead to keep him silent. Or maybe Manly dug some dirt on David and blackmailed him into silence. David gets mad and targets Manly and Dawson." He shrugged.

"That still leaves Charlie Wickert with no connection to any of them."

Ray rolled his eyes. "The connection's there, Maggie. It's gotta be! We just haven't found it."

Maggie was shaking her head. "From all accounts, David was a hard-working, level-headed college student, managing to hold down a full-time job and still maintain a 3.5 grade average."

"Three point five?" Ray repeated, more impressed than he wanted to admit. An 'A' average... He shrugged, telling himself he could've done that back when he was in college, if he weren't distracted by Stella. And if he'd wanted too. He frowned, dismissing the thought. He hadn't really been into all that pre-law lawyer garbage anyway. He'd done it for her and his father. The smartest thing he'd ever done was drop out and join the academy. With a shake of his head, he forced his mind back to what Maggie was saying.

"...He owned his car, didn't pay rent, had a steady job and no known vices. This does not fit the profile of a premeditated murderer."

"So he lived a double-life. I just haven't had time to dig it up yet. He was not a saint, Maggie. If nothing else, the drugs prove that."

"The drugs," Maggie nodded and he knew from the look on her face that this was another thing that was bothering her. "The evidence log shows twelve packets of pre-cut heroin, a syringe and two balls of black tar heroin."

"And I won't be surprised if forensics finds Manly's blood on the syringe. What's your point?"

"It's a dealer's package, Ray," Maggie pointed out. "Small time, maybe, but definitely more that the average user would have. And there's no log for any paraphernalia, cutting or repackaging materials. Why would he have such a package unless he was distributing?"

"Maybe he was holding it for a friend. Maybe he stole it," Ray argued. "I don't know! All I know is I have five other cases demanding my immediate attention and one very dead perp with this one."

"Or someone who's being framed to keep you from digging deeper."

"He died in a fire that he caused, Maggie," Ray pointed out. "The arson team declared it an accident. Interviews have determined that there was a gas leak in one of the pressure lines in the kitchen and that David, trying to be the know-it-all Bob Villa handyman type, fixed it with duct tape. It held for a little while but by 2 o'clock in the morning when David was getting back from dropping off his very drunk girl friend, it was leaking like a sieve. He went in to pick up the tools he'd left and smelled the gas. Maybe like a fool he tried to fix it again, only this time he caused a spark. Maybe the gas had finally reached critical concentrations and a pilot light on one of the other stoves just happened to set it off when David walked in. I don't know. I do know he wasn't murdered. No skull caved in, no bomb, no sign of foul play. For someone to want to frame him like you're saying, they'd have had to be psychic or something!"

"No," Maggie denied with a shake of her head. "They simply had to take advantage of the situation."

It was Ray's turn to shake his head. "Too convenient. 'Can't buy it. Someone's trying to shake us off his trail and David just happens to die, so he frames him? What about the blood type, or are you saying that was luck too?"

"It's possible, Ray."

"It's also *possible* for a right-handed person to shoot a gun with his left hand while steering with his right! Come on, Maggie..." He reached out to take both her hands in his as he blew out a tired breath. "I know there are a lot of unanswered questions here; and, if David Tallin wasn't dead, I'd be all over them like butter on bread! But despite the questions, everything we have right now says he did it - and I have too many other cases with live perps running around out there for me to get all agitated over this one. Now, if by some weird quirk of improbability Mort should actually come back and say the DNA doesn't match," he offered an angry grunt and shake of his head, "watch out, bad guys, 'cause I'll be the first one to go nuts all over the place!"

Maggie sighed and gazed down on their interlocked hands. She was forced to nod her head. Ray was right. The preponderance of evidence definitely pointed to David Tallin as the lynch pin in this entire sordid affair and would be more than sufficient were they going for an arrest warrant. That didn't mean the evidence fit. She glanced back up. "I can't help but feel we're missing something."

"Of course we are," he agreed. "If we weren't, there'd be no questions left. This ain't Innuvik, Maggie. This is Chicago. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably an insane maniac with an Uzi waiting to blow someone away."

Maggie had to smile as the literal image of what he'd just said hit her.

"Look, all I'm saying is we can't get caught up in the little questions here. I know you met and liked David. I did too. He seemed like a nice kid. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when the payoff is in the millions."

Maggie sighed and nodded wearily again. In a way, she envied Ray's ability to let go of the case and just wait on Mort's report. Chances were he'd confirm everything and then, as Ray had said, all the other questions would become moot. But she wasn't Ray and she wasn't used to having to juggle the demands of several different cases at the same time. Letting go of those questions just wasn't easy for her. She liked answers. "So, how much longer before Mort has the DNA test back?"

"'Nother week or so." Ray took a pull on his soda and used his fingers to eat some of the fish he'd played with earlier. "The first batch got contaminated somehow so he had to send a second one."

"And Stella's driving you crazy because of it." Maggie smiled, picking up her own fork and foregoing some of the other questions that were still bothering her about the case, like background checks and bank account info and the fact that all the cars of those believed to be involved had checked out clean, failing to turn up any blood stains. "Just like I am, huh?"

"Nah, she's worse," Ray claimed. "At least you have a reason. She yells at me just to have someone to yell at."

"That's sad, Ray," Maggie declared bluntly.

Ray offered a momentary frown. It was something he'd never really thought about before but Maggie was right. It was kinda sad. He shrugged, dismissing it. It was just a part of who he and Stella were: Oil and water. "Hey, you want to go to the Cub's game tomorrow? You interested in baseball at all?"

"Yes, actually," Maggie agreed readily. "Did you know that the first organized baseball game was played in Canada?"

"What?" Ray exclaimed in disbelief. "No way!"

"Beachville, Ontario June 4, 1838, one year prior to the famous Cooperstown game with which you may be more familiar..."

Part 39

Ben woke slowly, as had become his habit of late, one sense after another slowly rousing to nudge him toward awareness. He opened his eyes to stare up at the ceiling overhead. There was still a pink glow to the early morning light filtering into his room. Turning his head to find the clock, he saw it was 6:50 am. If this were Inuvik or Tuktoyaktuk, the sun wouldn't be rising until about 11:00 am and it would set again about 4:00 pm. By this time next month, they'd be enjoying twenty-four hour darkness...

He dismissed the surge of homesickness such thoughts always brought and rolled to his side to push himself upright before swinging his legs from the bed. His chest ached. He reached up with his left hand to knead the pectoral muscles to either side of the heavy scar tissue that ran from the base of his throat to the bottom of his rib cage. His body was still healing from the wound that had nearly killed him three months ago. Being stiff and sore in the mornings was to be expected. Given his exertions yesterday, he should expect it to hurt more. It had been too much fun to regret any of it, however, so he ignored the pain. As usual, he slipped on his jeans from the day before for propriety's sake, and padded out to the kitchenette to start coffee. Normally, the shower was running by the time he turned on the automatic drip machine. Not this morning.

Over the last eight days, he and Jaelyn had established a routine of sorts. Jaelyn was a morning person. Ben was the type who adapted to the needs of his schedule. Here... he really had no schedule. Normally, the sound of Jaelyn moving around was sufficient to rouse him, but Ben wasn't too surprised that she was sleeping in this morning.

He smiled as he remembered waking about midnight to find both himself and Jaelyn still sitting on the floor in front of the sofa, her head resting lightly on his shoulder. The fire had died to nothing but weak embers, however there was more than sufficient light so see by. The blue light of the empty TV screen competed with the bright moonlight reflecting from the snow outside, combining to cast a rather cold and harsh glow over the room.

He'd simply sat and listened to her breathing for a long time, enjoying her simple presence more than he should have. He was loath to wake her. Unfortunately, he knew they'd both have sore backs and necks in the morning if he didn't. Still, it had been several minutes before he could convince himself of the necessity.

Trying to wake her, however, proved to be rather difficult. She was too deeply asleep to really rouse, merely snuggling into his shoulder more and murmuring a good night when he tried. With a smile and a shake of his head, he debated what to do. He could either carry her to bed, or he could be more insistent about waking her.

He could also kiss her...

He again shook his head, forcing the sudden image of the prince in the Disney Classic "Sleeping Beauty" waking the princess with a kiss from his thoughts. He was no prince. And with his luck, it would send her into a flashback episode. There was a danger of that happening if he carried her to bed as well, so instead he tried waking her again.

Reluctantly, she blinked sleep-dazed eyes to gaze up at him. "Movie over?" she murmured. He nodded but she still didn't lift her head or move to stand. "That's good." Her eyes closed once more and she sighed.

Ben chuckled and moved away, forcing her to sit up or fall over. She groaned and shifted against the sofa, lying her head on the cushion behind her. He bent and took her hand, pulling her to her feet whether she wanted it or not.

"Okay, okay!" she mumbled and promptly sat down. Within a few seconds she was trying to lie down and curl up on the cushions.

In the end, he resorted to carrying her to bed - which combined with the snowball fight was undoubtably why he was so sore this morning. She had been just awake enough to recognize him and not panic.

Now, he retrieved the Chicago Tribune which was always waiting in the hall outside their hotel suite in the mornings, and sat down to read it. Simple habit would likely have Jaelyn up and heading for the shower in a matter of minutes. "Death Penalty Cases Often Flawed" read the headline. It was a continuing investigation of the jurisprudence system which quite strongly challenged Illinois' current stance on the death penalty...

He took his time scanning through the paper and then glanced at his watch again: seven-fifty. Yesterday must have taken more out of her than he'd thought. He frowned pensively for a moment and then rose to check on her. He wouldn't disturb her if she were still sleeping.
He tapped lightly on her door and listened for movement inside... then sharply chastised himself as he remembered that she couldn't hear his knock. He frowned at the wood before him for a long moment. At the Inn, they'd installed a flashing light in her room for when someone wanted her. There was no such device here.

Covering his eyes with one hand lest he walk in on her in dishabille, he slowly swung the door open. No gasp or cry of alarm greeted him, and he dared to peek out from under his hand.

The full-sized bed bore mute testimony to a very rough night. Tangled and dislodged bedding lay in a heavy mound about Jaelyn's sleeping form. She lay curled into a tight ball, only her head visible, the coverlet and an extra blanket pulled high and bundled tightly about her.

Ben frowned and dropped his hand. The room wasn't cold. The thermostat was set at sixty-eight, as it had been since their arrival; and, though he knew there were those who considered that cold, Jaelyn wasn't one of them. He stepped forward in concern, noting the high color on her cheeks and a damp tendril of hair sticking to her forehead as he got closer.

She must have gotten more chilled from the snowball fight yesterday than he'd thought.

Not wanting to startle her awake, but worried about the evident fever she was running, he gently shook the bed, rather than her. She merely frowned and burrowed deeper into the covers. They had to go, he knew. They'd only make the fever worse. He shook the bed again, then dared reach up and pulled the blankets aside. She was still fully dressed in yesterday's clothes. The sudden loss of her blankets was enough to rouse her.

"Hey!" she complained, then glanced at her clock in confusion. "Eight o'clock?" she mumbled in surprise and forced herself to sit up. "I must have been more tired then I thought."

Ben ignored her words and reached up to lay a hand upon her forehead. She jerked back, startled by the move, then ran a hand sharply through her hair, figuring he'd meant to sweep some of the tangled mass back out of her face. He wasn't surprised to see her wince.

"Man, I'm sore," she muttered. "'Been too long since I had a good snowball fight." Her sudden grin became a frown and she grabbed up the blankets once more to pull them close. "Is the thermostat broken or something?"

Ben shook his head and reached for her forehead again.

"What?" she asked in confusion. This time she didn't pull away and realized immediately he was checking her for a fever. She wasn't sick! His hand did feel deliciously cool though... For a moment, she closed her tired eyes and simply enjoyed it.

She frowned when he removed it, and then frowned even harder when he took hold of the blankets to pull them aside yet again. "I'm cold!" she protested irritably, blinking up at him and arguing with herself about the necessity of getting up. It was well past her normal time to get moving, but she just didn't feel like it. The room was too cold and the bed too comfortable... and she needed to stop being so lazy! She couldn't believe a little snowball fight would wear her out so badly!

"We need to get going," she argued with herself, reversing her own action and pushing the blankets aside. "I still need to call Mile High Taxi and arrange for a van to get us over to Snowmass. How much snow did we get last night?" she glanced up in question. "I'm going to be majorly P.O'd if they've closed the road and we can't hear the story teller."

Ben was shaking his head. Whether they had closed the road or not was immaterial. She was going nowhere today. ^Fever,^ he signed clearly.

"Fever?" she repeated in confusion and shook her head. "No. No, I'm not sick. I'm fine." To prove her point, she swung her legs off the side of the bed... and immediately regretted it. Man it hurt to move like that, but she ignored it. Her head hurt too and her stomach did a queasy little dance. She dismissed it as just needing to eat. "You're not cold?" she asked in disbelief. He shook his head. "I'm fine!" she insisted, then shivered and frowned at him. "Maybe you're the one running a fever."

He lifted a chastising brow and cocked his head to the side.

"I can't be sick!" she argued. As if to disprove her words, she suddenly found herself attacked by a massive sneeze and a nose gone wild. Ben reached out to the nearest Kleenex box before she could and retrieved several tissues for her. She blew her nose with an irritated frown. "It's nothing," she told him around yet another tissue. "A little head cold -- maybe," she admitted reluctantly. She tried to shrug it off and winced again.

He nodded and cocked his head to the other side. ^You need medicine. What do you want?^

Jaelyn shook her head dismissively, knowing there was nothing in the bathroom medicine cabinet beyond their prescriptions. She hated to think about Ben making a special trip for a couple of Tylenol! "I'll be fine," she waved his concern away and stood up only to sway dangerously.

Ben automatically reached out to steady her.

With another frown, she shook his hand off. "I'm fine!" she repeated. The fever had apparently left her a bit unsteady. Not that she was really convinced she had a fever. Probably just got over-heated from being under all those covers. Once she cooled off, she'd be perfectly okay.

Ben frowned but refused to step out of the way. ^You were chilled yesterday. - I should have - brought you straight back here - and made you take - a hot bath.^

Jaelyn had to smile at that. "You can't *make* me do anything, Ben: you should know that."

Ben's facial expression acknowledged the truth of that.

"Besides," she continued, moving to step around him only to have him step in front of her again. She gave him an irritated scowl. "...getting cold doesn't give you a cold. That's an old wives tale."

True enough again, Ben knew, but it did weaken one's immune system and it didn't negate the fact that she was running a fever. ^You need - something for fever - and sinus. Are there other - symptoms?^

"I'm fine," she sighed and turned to find her robe, despite the fact that she was still dressed in yesterday's clothes. Fever or not, she was freezing! Where were her socks? Unfortunately, turning her head so fast made the room tilt. Ben caught her before she could fall and lowered her back to the edge of the bed. "I'm fine!" she repeated, but even she was beginning to realize she wasn't. She should have guessed something was wrong when she felt so cold earlier. Burrowing under the covers would have only made it worse. She chastised herself for being stupid.

Ben ignored the protest and felt her forehead again. Getting her out from under the covers had helped, but she was still running a fever. ^I'll go - to the store,^ he told her, realizing belatedly that asking her what over-the-counter medication she might prefer was a moot point. He'd need to consult a pharmacist to avoid adverse interactions with her prescriptions. ^Stay in bed. I'll--^

^--No, no, no!^ she whined angrily and thumped a fist into the bedding in frustration. "I can't get sick! I am sick and tired of being sick!"

He understood her frustration but arguing didn't change the facts.

She read Ben's look all too easily and collapsed back upon the pillows with a soft, "Damn it."

^Maybe the fever - will break - and you'll feel better - later,^ Ben suggested hopefully.

Later. By the time later came around it would be too late. The story telling was set for two o'clock! Missing it last night had been bad enough, but if they missed it this afternoon there wouldn't be another chance this trip! If it were just a head cold, she might be okay; but the fever and body aches argued for something more. She could deny it all she wanted, but she wasn't stupid. With an angry and irritated sniffle, she swung her legs back into bed and reached for the blankets again. Ben shook his head and took the top blanket away, but let her keep the comforter. She frowned up at him.

^You'll only make - the fever worse,^ he told her.

She knew that. She didn't want to know it. She didn't particularly care about it... but she knew it. She sighed, knowing also that she'd be good and do without the extra blanket. "You're worse than my father," she groused.

^Would you prefer - to see a doctor?^

A very sharp and angry glare answered his question. He nodded, knowing that she'd had more than her fill of the medical profession. ^I'll be back - in a few minutes,^ he promised her. ^Try to sleep.^

"Yes, Daddy," she answered sarcastically and closed her eyes. Ben shook his head, knowing he was lucky to get even minimal cooperation from her. He suspected she was simply tired of arguing. He rolled his eyes and stood, knowing he'd have to hurry if he expected to find her still in bed where she belonged when he got back.

Part 40

Ren frowned at the various papers scattered across the kitchen table and began sorting through them. "You have to fill out these," he told Francesca, sliding a couple of forms over to where she sat opposite him. "And this... and this..." He frowned as he lifted a couple of "How To" booklets aside, knowing there should be another set for her here somewhere...

"Oh, dear!" Ma Vecchio exclaimed, drawn from the sink to the table out of sheer curiosity as Ren put the plan they'd discussed that morning into motion. She, Ray and Renfield had all agreed that Francesca needed a distraction. For the past two weeks, she'd basically been living at the NICU. Even the doctors had urged her to take a break away from the babies and the hospital. However, getting her to cooperate wasn't easy.

Yesterday, they'd managed to hijack her for lunch. After eating, Ma had insisted on doing some shopping for the babies. When even looking at toys, bedding and mobiles hadn't been enough to shake Francesca out of her obvious depression, Ren had hit on this idea. He'd said it was something he needed to do anyway, and he really needed her help to do it.
"You're kidding," Francesca frowned in surprise. "All of this?" She shook her head in disbelief and sat back away from the table. "This is just another excuse to keep me away from the hospital, isn't it. Why can't you all just believe I'm okay!"

"Francesca, mi cara," Ma Vecchio was quick to come to Renfield's defense. "This is important and you know it. Do you want your young man here to be deported?"
Her daughter rolled her eyes. "They're not going to deport him, Ma."


"--What?" she demanded irritably. "They're going to deport the man who saved my life? The man who proposed to me in the middle of the delivery? The man whose story, right along with mine, is gracing the cover of Life Magazine even as we speak!?"

"It's not an immediate danger," he agreed, reluctantly. "But in a few months--"

"--In a few months we'll be married and there won't be anything they can do about it!" she exclaimed, tempted to throw the stupid forms in his face.

"I can't marry you under the B-2 guidelines."

"What?" she asked, totally confused.

"My current visa," he explained. "You see, visas are issued for various reasons. That reason has to be stated before entry into the host country. My original visa was an A-2. It grants the holder the right to live in the United States while working for a diplomatic mission, such as the Consulate. I lost that status when I was discharge from the RCMP. Fortunately, Constable MacKenzie was kind enough to apply for a change of status to a B-2 in my name, the 'Business, Pleasure and/or Medical Visa.' Given that I lost my A-2 status before proposing to you, she couldn't very well request a K-1 Fiancé Visa, which is unfortunately what I need now if we are to marry, but the B-2 cannot be converted to a K-1 so--"

"--Wait!" Frannie interrupted, throwing up a hand in his face to emphasize her order. He instantly froze and the hand dropped. "We can't get married?" she repeated.

He shook his head. "Not... not under the B-2 guidelines," he stammered nervously.

"Canadians and Americans get married every day! What are they going to do? Throw you out 'after' the fact. It's like a... a... an automatic citizenship type of thingy, isn't it?"

"Oh, no!" He shook his head emphatically. "No, indeed. Acquiring US citizenship, or that of most any other country, is far more complicated than that. Far more complicated. Should we do as you say and marry under my current visa, I could well be deported and refused entry into the States until such time as you had filed for a K-3 Visa and I had received it. That can take more than a year."

"A year!" she echoed in disbelief. "You mean, even if we were married, they'd ship you back to Canada for a full year just because of some stupid paper work?"

He answered with a serious nod. "It happens all the time, Francesca. I used to deal with it quite often, back when I was working at the Consulate. There was always someone who'd tried to bypass the system or simply didn't understand it and was in danger of being deported. They'd come to us for help, but there was little we could do for them. The laws are very specific and your INS people are not very flexible." "

"And they were deported, even after they were married?" she repeated, and then shook her head, awarding him an irritated glare. "You're lying," she declared bluntly.

"Oh, no!" Ren hurried to reassure her, quite dismayed that she could believe such of him. "No! I would never lie to you, Francesca! Never!"

That was a mighty big promise and, coming from anyone else, Frannie would have laughed; yet she knew without a doubt Ren was completely sincere in making it. She glanced away, feeling guilty for accusing him but too irritated to apologize. Instead, she frowned down at the papers in front of her. "There's got to be an easier way," she muttered.

"I'm sorry, Francesca," he offered quietly, sitting back and wishing he could have thought of something more pleasant with which to distract her. "I'm afraid our options are limited."

"Options?" She glanced up.

"Uh..." Ren met her hopeful gaze uncertainly.

"Out with it, Ren," she told him firmly. "If we have choices, I want to hear them. I have no desire to spend the whole day doing paperwork!"

Ren bit his lip and frowned down on the many forms scattered between them as he fought to organize his thoughts. Obviously, Francesca would take no answer other than the one she'd demanded. With a pensive frown, he complied. "Well, I believe we have three," he answered and lifted a hand to tick them off on his fingers. "One: we can fill out the paper work before us requesting a K-1 Visa. It's the simplest and most straight forward--"

"--But didn't you just say your current visa couldn't be changed to a K-1 or something?"

"Not directly, no," he agreed. "I have to go back to Canada and apply for a new visa. Once I file these forms--"
"--Go back to Canada?" she repeated in mounting distress. "I thought the whole idea of doing all of this was so that you could stay in the US?"

"It would only be for a few days," he assured her. He heard his own words and reluctantly had to correct them. "Or... maybe a few weeks. You see, once I file these forms with a US Consulate in Canada, then I can apply for a K-nonimmigrant Visa which would allow me to come back here while awaiting the K-1 request to be processed."

Frannie shook her head, only half following what he was saying. It was too convoluted. She didn't want him to have to leave for even a day! She needed him. Well, she corrected herself. She didn't *need* him. It wasn't like she couldn't deal with everything by herself if she had to. Other women did it all the time. She knew she could too, if she had to, but she didn't want to have to!

She frowned and shook her head, dismissing that option. "What else?" she demanded curtly.

Ren ticked off a second finger. "Uh, two: I can return to Canada and apply for a new B-2 Visa, declaring my intention to marry before re-entering the States. If it's granted, it would give us six months to plan the wedding, but I'd then be forced to leave the States after the ceremony and seek a K-nonimmigrant Visa while you filed the necessary paperwork for a K-3 Spousal Visa. However, having gotten married under the B-2 guidelines which stipulate temporary status, there's a danger they might deny a K-3 which is basically a conditional permanent residence visa. Also, given how long I've already been in the States, there's no guarantee that a new B-2 would be granted right away."

"So if you leave, you might not be able to come back?"

He nodded. "The request for a K-nonimmigrant after filing the K-1 forms is more likely to be granted than a new B-2," he explained.

Frannie frowned, growing confused as she tried to follow what he was saying. "You said there were three options..."

"Uh, well..." He glanced nervously at Ma Vecchio who'd pulled out a chair and sat down beside her daughter, thumbing through one of the booklets as she listened to them talking and let the dishes from breakfast soak for a few minutes. She glanced up curiously. "We... we could get married in Canada," he offered reluctantly.

"Mi Dio, no!" Ma was quick to protest. "And run off as if you were eloping?" She looked toward heaven and crossed herself, horrified at the idea. She glanced back down and caught Ren's eyes. "She did that before and look what happened? No." She shook her head, deciding the question with finality. "This choice is no good. My daughter is Catholic. She will be married in the Church!"
Frannie rolled her eyes. "Ma, they have Catholic churches up there too, you know."

Mrs. Vecchio offered her daughter a frown. Of course, she knew that! "What about all the pre-cana requirements and the engaged couples encounter and the pre-marital counseling?" she asked firmly "This takes time, mi cara. You don't just walk into any Catholic Church and ask to be married, you know!"

Frannie sighed and sat back, throwing her arms up in defeat. It wasn't an argument she could win. "Wait!" she suddenly exclaimed as another thought came to her. She sat up straight and then reached out to grab one of Ren's hands. "What if we got married at the Consulate?"

Ren's brows shot up in surprise.

"I mean, it's Canada, right? Remember back when Kowalski was accused of murdering that guy? And Fraser arrested him and made the Duck Boys have to extradite him and everything? So we could just get married there!" She glanced at her mother with mounting excitement as the idea took shape. "We could even get Father Behan to officiate. It would be just like if we got married at the Church!"

Ren hated to be the bearer of bad news. "I don't think--"

"--Don't think what?" she interrupted before he could complete the thought. "Look, it can work! Really! You still have your B-2 thingy that Maggie got you, right?"

He nodded and opened his mouth to say something but she went on before he could get a word out.

"So, you said that's good for six months. That gives us more than enough time to plan the wedding and go through all the pre-marital requirements and everything. And, and, and... if you're thinking the new guy at the Consulate won't go for it? All we have to do is sic MacKenzie King on him! Give him a choice of a lot of good PR or a lot of really bad PR." She waved her hand from left to right in front of her as if reading a big banner on the ceiling. "'Canadian Inspector responsible for destroying sextuplets future!' Oh, yeah, he'll go for it. No way he can't!"

The idea of approaching Inspector Carruthers with such a request, let alone with actually threatening the man with punitive retaliation... Oh dear! It was all too much to even contemplate! A glance also confirmed that Mrs. Vecchio was not very happy about the suggestion. But what could he say to dissuade Francesca? "The priest has to be Canadian!" he blurted out quickly, then frowned inwardly. Nice argument, he told himself sarcastically.

"What?" Francesca asked again.

Oh well, he'd started it, he might as well finish it. "To perform a wedding ceremony on Canadian soil, the priest has to be licensed in Canada."

"They can come in with your parents and whoever else wants to come down for the big day."

"And not have Father Behan officiate?" Ma exclaimed.

Frannie frowned, not particularly happy with that aspect of the idea either. She'd always dreamed of the big traditional wedding... She dismissed it as a pipe dream. "Well, it would let Ren get his Blue Card or whatever it is he needs. That's what's important here, right?"

"Green Card?" Ren corrected her gently and looked decidedly disturbed. "Oh, dear..."

"What now?" Frannie asked.

"Well, I... I just... I hadn't thought of getting a Green Card before. I was planing to apply for nonimmigrant residence status."

"What's the difference?"

"I would retain my Canadian Citizenship."

"Can't you do that with a Green Card too?"Ren shifted uncomfortably. "Well... I..."

It was Ma who suddenly saw and understood his discomfiture. "You want to move back to Canada, don't you?" she asked gently.

"Well, eventually," Ren answered, "yes. I thought... I mean..." It was clear from the look on Francesca's face that the idea of leaving Chicago had never even entered her mind! "Oh, dear."

"You two haven't talked about this yet..." Ma frowned as she glanced between them.

"It... never came up," Ren said most unhappily.

"Ah." Ma nodded her understanding without offering comment.

He suddenly shook his head and reached out to take Francesca's hand again. "It doesn't matter where I live," he declared boldly, lifting his eyes to meet Francesca's gaze even as he lifted her hand to his lips. "I'd hate to never see Canada again, but... I love Francesca. I will do whatever it takes to stay at her side and make her happy."

Frannie ducked her head and suddenly fought tears as she realized that the love radiating from the man across from her put hers for him to shame. He was a Mountie, or had been, and he had family in Canada. Of course he wanted to return there! And he was willing to give that up to make her happy.

Of course, there was more than just personal preference they needed to consider, she realized, her pragmatic side rearing its head firmly. There was cost of living and job opportunities and... and... With sextuplets, Frannie was going to have to be a full-time mother. Basically, it all boiled down to where and what kind of job Ren could get that would support all of them.

She shoved the thought firmly aside. That could all be considered another day. "I love you too, Ren," was all she whispered as he brushed a kiss across the back of her hand.

Ma smiled as she slipped unnoticed from the room, deciding to give the young couple some privacy. She'd been meaning for some time now to sit down with Frannie's young man and have a heart to heart conversation regarding her daughter and their future together. There were many questions that needed to be answered.

He'd tried a couple of times to stammer out a request for her blessing, but she'd purposely interrupted him. She wasn't about to give him her blessing until she knew him better. Now... The questions concerning his visa status and how they would be married became unimportant when she saw the love for her daughter that shone so brightly from his eyes.

She smiled as she made her way to the laundry room. When next he asked for her blessing, and she knew he would, there would be no hesitancy in her answer.

Part 41

Ben sighed as he closed the door behind him. Despite having asked her to remain in bed, he was not surprised to find Jaelyn in the living room trying to lay a fire in the fireplace. Her back was to him so she hadn't seen him enter. With a shake of his head, he quickly moved to place his packages on the breakfast bar and then hurried forward to help. She was having trouble with a medium-sized log. Reaching over her shoulder where she knelt before the hearth, he quickly grabbed the heavy wood before she dropped it and sent ashes everywhere.

She gave a violent start for his unexpected appearance and nearly fell over backwards. "Don't do that to me!" she ordered sharply.

Ben offered a contrite little nod and half-shrug by way of apology - he hadn't meant to startle her - and frowned at the fireplace. Suddenly, she was jerking the log out of his hands.

"I can do it!" she snapped, offering him an angry glare for his trouble.

Ben lifted his hands in mute surrender, not having meant to offend her and, quite frankly, irritated with her childishness. He didn't bother to ask why she wasn't in bed. She was a grown woman and, as she herself had pointed out, he couldn't *make* her do anything.

"It's just a stupid cold," she muttered testily, turning her attention back to the fireplace. "Like I've never been sick before. You think I took off work at the Inn just because I got a head cold?" She offered Ben another momentary glare and shook her head as she turned back to her task. "No way. I worked my butt off. Didn't matter if I was sick or not. Heck, even when I was in the hospital after the attack, I was going over the weekly books."

She offered a derisive snort, followed by a sniff and quick reach for the Kleenex box which Ben was happy to see she'd been smart enough to bring with her.

"It's not even that bad," she insisted. "I'll take some DayQuil and be fine."

Her arm shook as she wrestled the log into position. It wasn't a large log, but the fever was clearly affecting her more than she wanted to admit, and it showed in the way she'd laid the wood.

She again glanced over her shoulder, giving him an irritated frown as if she could hear him arguing already. He noted that there was now a long, black streak of soot beside her nose. It rather effectively detracted from the vehemence of her, "We *will* go see the storyteller this afternoon!"

Ben doubted it, but arguing with her would do no good. He'd learned that when they were both still in hospital.

He debated mentioning the soot; maybe taking some Kleenex and removing it for her. The thought of doing something so simple was surprisingly appealing... but he knew she'd never accept it. Not now, anyway. Instead, he chose to clasp his hands behind his back as he regarded her in passive silence, knowing she was fighting to convince herself she was fine more than she was him.

She frowned harder. "Stop looking at me like that!" she snapped. "I've been a lot sicker than this and I've never let it stop me before. There's no reason why I can't go to Snowmass if I bundle up properly."

Ben offered no answer, merely glancing into middle-distance with a pensive nod that did little more than acknowledge her words without really accepting them, and then cocking his head to the side as he waited for her to try to light the fire. He'd already noted that she'd forgotten the tinder. The kindling she'd tossed atop the grate looked to be a little green. Not badly so, but it wasn't going to be easy to light. Knowing that she well knew how to lay a proper fire, he suspected she'd realize her mistake in short order.

She struck a long fireplace match and frowned at the wood. As he'd expected, she discovered her mistake immediately.

"Damn it!" she whined. A sharp snap of her wrist extinguished the match without even attempting to light the poorly laid wood. She bowed her head in defeat and fought back tears as she realized she'd have to start all over again.

Ben knelt beside her on the hearth and waited. She looked up and shot him another irritated frown, but couldn't hold it. His expression was too understanding, too patient. With a defeated little whimper, she moved toward him and he automatically opened his arms to gather her close. "I don't want to be sick!" she protested helplessly.

Jaelyn rested her head against his chest and tried to imagine she could hear his heart beating, knowing it would be a slow, steady and reassuring sound. She could feel it if she closed her eyes and concentrated; a gentle thudding from deep within, almost hidden in the gentle rise and fall of his breathing. The blue and black flannel shirt he wore was soft against her cheek, the touch of his hands tender and comforting. She realized he hadn't showered yet, but his smell wasn't particularly strong or unpleasant.

The arms about her shifted and she shifted as well to accommodate the change without opening her eyes or moving away. Then he was lifting her.

She blinked her eyes open and bit her lip as her arms automatically closed around his neck. He shouldn't be doing this, she thought, even as he did it. "You're going to hurt yourself!" she protested.

He obviously couldn't answer her but made no move to put her back down. She felt him grunt with the effort of rising from one knee to both feet but his balance remained steady. He actually gave her a slight toss to readjust his grip, then he was crossing the few feet to the sofa and lowering her to lie on the soft leather.

Reluctantly, she let him go and allowed him to position one of the throw pillows behind her head and shoulders before he turned and moved away from her. "You shouldn't have done that," she complained again about his having carried her, offering his back a grumpy frown.

He ignore her and was back shortly with the extra blanket from her room. He placed it gently over her, gathering it close about her feet and legs before moving to the breakfast bar where he'd left the bag he'd brought from the store.

She noted he'd failed to even acknowledge her fears for his chest. Then again, he had carried her before, most notably when they'd gotten trapped in the burning Inn. If he could survive that without serious injury, she supposed she was being stupid to worry about him now.

She sighed heavily and stared at the barren fireplace where her aborted attempt at a fire lay staring back at her. It seemed strange somehow that... She offered the cold fireplace a pensive frown. If anyone else had tried to pick her up like that, she'd have freaked. A flashback episode certainly wasn't something she wanted, and she wasn't complaining about the lack, but... She still didn't understand 'why' she was so comfortable with Ben.

He interrupted her thoughts by suddenly reappearing at her side, a glass of water in one hand and two sets of different gel caps in the palm of the other.

"DayQuil?" she asked even as she plucked the medicine from his hand and took the glass. She didn't recognize either of the medications he offered her and wasn't surprised when he shook his head.

^You can't have...^ He finger spelled something, but it was just a bit too long and fast for her tired and aching head to be able to follow it. Some mile long technical drug name - which told her he'd consulted with a pharmacist before buying anything. He was smarter than she would have been. Frowning, she dismissed the question and popped the pills in her mouth with the rather vain hope they wouldn't upset her already upset stomach.

Handing him back the glass, she narrowed her eyes in accusation as she saw him reach up to rub at his chest. "I told you so," she groused. His hand immediately dropped back to his side. She shook her head, more angry at herself than him. She shouldn't have been so lazy! Then he wouldn't have been tempted to carry her in the first place. A massive yawn caught her by surprise and she reached up to cover her mouth.

^Hungry?^ he asked, ignoring both the chastisement and the yawn.

The mere thought of food made her wince. She wasn't at all sure it was a good idea. She shivered. ^Fire?^ she asked with a hopeful glance across the room even as she pulled her blanket closer.

Ben again put his hand upon her forehead. Deciding that her fever was down at least a little, he set the glass on the nearest end table and moved to the fireplace. It took him only a few moments to re-lay the wood and light the tinder, making certain it was a small fire, more visually comforting than actually warming.

Turning back to Jaelyn to ask again if she felt like breakfast, he discovered that she'd fallen asleep. A soft snore assured him she wasn't simply resting her eyes and he offered her sleeping form a wry smile. Somehow he knew she was just vain enough to be embarrassed if he were to tell her about it. He wouldn't.

With a glance at his watch, he made a careful note of what time she'd taken the Tylenol and Sudafed, and then decided to risk taking a shower while he could. When she woke, and the medicine took effect, he suspected he was going to have his hands full trying to convince her to stay down.

Part 42

"Who's the woman?"

Standing in the entry hall of the Vecchio home, Renfield Turnbull frowned and suppressed a groan as he instantly recognized the voice on the other end of the phone. As usual, his father didn't bother with the normal obligatory greeting he would have offered anyone else but instead immediately interrogated his son as to who had answered his call.

"Mrs. Vecchio," he replied, wondering why his father even cared. The last time they'd spoken was when Ren had received his Medical Discharge from the RCMP. It wasn't a memory he cared to dwell on. He glanced up to see Francesca's mother shrugging into her coat. The timing of his father seeking him out now couldn't possibly be worse.


Ren frowned harder. His father's statement only emphasized how little the man knew him. He really didn't have time for this. They'd just gotten a call from Francesca telling them that Angelina had suffered another brain bleed and it appeared to be quite serious. "I'm in a hurry, Dad," he answered perfunctorily. "What do you want?"

"Mind your manners. I have a meeting in ten minutes myself, which I'm sure is far more important than whatever could possibly be rushing you about."

"I doubt that," Ren rejoined, amazed to hear himself speak so bluntly to anyone, especially his father.

"'How dare you!" the elder Turnbull exclaimed, suddenly at his most self-righteous.

That tone alone would normally be enough to bring Ren near to tears, but not today. "Is Mum all right?" he asked quickly, wanting to make sure the call wasn't an emergency of some sort. One could never tell with his father.

"No, she's not!" the older man snapped. Ren could easily imagine the angry scowl on his face. "One of her friends in Ottawa called. Something about an article in one of those American journalistic rags. Apparently, someone named Turnbull went and proposed to some stupid American as she was giving birth to sextuplets. I told her it was a bunch of crock. Even you aren't that stupid, but you know how she is. She insisted I call you anyway. An endeavor I might add which would have been made much easier had you seen fit to forward your present phone number to my secretary."

Naturally, his father was most upset about the phone number. Ren shook his head. His parents were in China and this attitude was the very reason he'd been avoiding calling them. He simply wasn't up to dealing with the man right now. "I guess I'm more stupid than you thought because Mum's friend is correct. My fiancée had sextuplets two weeks ago and one of them may be dying even as we speak," he explained curtly. He glanced up to see Mrs. Vecchio waiting at the door. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I really must go. Call back tonight if you need to know more."

He didn't bother to wait for his father's response, which he fully expected to be nothing short of speechless anyway, but instead simply hung up on him. Francesca needed him. Ren quickly grabbed up his cane and hurried to the car.

Part 43

Jealyn offered the man before her an angry glare. "Ben... it's a cold, not the plague!"

^There might be - children present.^

"I'll wear a germ mask!"

Ben lifted a censorious brow and cocked his head to the side, quite eloquently conveying his thoughts on the matter.

Jaelyn growled in frustration and rolled her eyes even as she spun on her heel to march back to the couch. Arguing with him was like trying to argue with a brick wall! So it was below freezing. So temperatures would drop even more after sunset. So she had a sore throat on top of the head cold. So she was still running a slight fever despite the medicine.

So what!

She plopped down on the couch and with an irritated scowl grabbed up the tissue box. She wasn't a kid. She could bundle up. The taxi shuttle was heated and they'd be sitting beside a bonfire. Why wouldn't he listen to her? He knew how much she wanted this. The thing was, it wasn't even herself she wanted it for! Well... not entirely, anyway. She'd heard the stories before, witnessed the storyteller's magic before... It was something she wanted to share with Ben.

She cast him another irritated frown. A part of her wanted to tell him to go without her, but the mere thought of having to spend the evening alone made her heart sink and brought her close to tears. Maybe it was selfish, but she was incapable of being so altruistic.
She sniffed and blew her nose again. The tears were threatening anyway. God, she hated this!

Ben's boot clad feet appeared before her. He handed her the cup of aromatic tea he'd been making her just prior to their little blow up. She accepted it with ill-grace and then watched as he lowered himself to sit facing her in a cross-legged position on the sheep skin rug only a few feet away.

She lifted her cup toward her mouth but abruptly halted the movement, awarding him a determined frown as a sudden thought struck her. "I have something special planned for Monday," she told him quite firmly. "I went to a great deal of trouble to arrange it even before we came here. You're not going to keep me from doing it, I don't care how sick I am!"

He cocked his head to the side as he regarded her in mild surprise. She'd practically shouted that at him, though he knew she hadn't meant to. The energy behind her declaration had simply asserted itself with an increase in volume.

^It's Saturday. We are scheduled to fly out - on Tuesday,^ he pointed out reasonably. ^You don't want to fly - with a head cold.^

"I mean it, Ben," she insisted, her tone dropping back to its normal level. She calmly lifted the cup and took a sip even as her eyes bored holes through him. "You try to stop me and we'll be staying another week until I can arrange it again."

Given that today was Saturday, there was a very real danger they would have to remain in any event. ^We'll be staying anyway - if you're still sick,^ he repeated firmly with a frown of his own.

She shrugged, ignoring the warning in his look. "I mean it," she said again and purposely turned away so as not to see any further signing.

Ben shook his head in exasperation. Staying another week would entail a significant additional expense, as well as logistical problems. The ski season would be starting. Many of the area's hotel rooms, including the one they were presently staying in, were already reserved. If she wasn't significantly better by tomorrow, he was going to have to make inquires regardless, just to be safe. At the moment, however, she was quite clearly unwilling to listen to reason.

Arguing with her was often like trying to argue with a brick wall, he thought. She could be even more stubborn than Dief!

Part 44

Ren was a bit surprised to recognize Katie as she admitted them through the security doors to the unit. He knew most of the NICU nurses by name now, at least those who were assigned to the sextuplets, and knew most of their schedules as well. Katie was supposed to have the grave y-- 9 pm to 6 am shift this week, he corrected the thought -one did not use the term 'graveyard' in the NICU for obvious reasons - but he didn't have time to question her about it. Seeing the sympathetic look on her face, he immediately began to fear the worst.

"Angelina?" he asked curtly.

"She's holding her own at the moment," the nurse answered even as she moved to steer Mr. Turnbull and Ms. Vecchio's mother away from the second set of doors beside the scrub sinks. "Mom, however, is quite upset. We've placed her in a consultation room."

"She said my granddaughter had suffered a stroke?" Ma Vecchio asked anxiously even as she allowed the other woman to lay a gentle hand on her shoulder and lead them down the hall.

The nurse shook her head. "A brain bleed," she corrected. "It's more like an aneurysm. Please try and reassure your daughter that we're doing everything we can for Angelina." She glanced up at Ren. "I'll let the doctor know you're here. I'm sure she'll want to see you."

Opening the second door on the right, the young nurse ushered them into the room where Frannie waited. Her face as she glanced up was a mask of utter pain and despair, drawing both Ren and Ma immediately to her side.

"Francesca," Ren whispered, sweeping her into his arms even as he sank to sit beside her on the simple leather couch. Tears instantly graced his eyes as she buried her face in his shoulder and clung to him for dear life, letting the dam of necessity which had been holding her sobs in check crumble and fell away.

"Cara..." Ma whispered as well, sinking down on her other side. She lifted her hand to rest on the quaking back and offered what comfort she could. "Cara, you mustn't give up. The nurse, she said Angelina is holding her own."

Frannie gasped, fighting to get control of her breathing again. "She stopped breathing! And then her heart... and the nurses and everyone was suddenly there and... They had to put her on a... on a... on a–" Her mind went momentarily blank on the word she wanted. "The breathing machine thingie!" she exclaimed.

"Ventilator," Ren supplied as he sought to calm her, pulling her close again and rocking her against his chest. "Shhhh... The doctors are doing everything they can."

"She was doing so well, Ren! The biggest of the bunch, and even after the first one they didn't have to put her on -- on – one of those things!"

"Breathe, Francesca," he told her calmly, her obvious need keeping him from panicking as well. "Slowly. You're going to hyperventilate."

"I don't care! I don't care!" she sobbed frantically.

"Mi preziousa, you will not be helping Angelina by making yourself ill," Ma corrected her gently, rubbing a slow and gentle circle between her daughter's shoulder blades and glancing up to study Renfield's face. He didn't try to hide his own obvious worry from her but continued to rock Francesca patiently, his voice a calm and soothing drone as he held her, letting her cry the fear and pain out even as a silent tear traced down his own cheek.

Part 45

Jaelyn awarded Ben another foul look as he came over to take the empty mug and spoon away. He'd insisted she eat some chicken soup, of all things. And though she wasn't hungry, or hadn't been when she'd started, she quickly managed to work through the moderate portion.

She really hated the fact that he was right all the time.

She thrust the mug and spoon at him before he could ask if she wanted more and then turned her glare on the fireplace as she hunched herself downward against her pillows once more, trying in vain to find a comfortable position for her aching muscles. The fire had died to only a few little tongues of flame but Ben refused to build it back up, just as he refused to give her another blanket or let her get up to do anything other than go to the bathroom. She'd spent the entire day trapped on this stupid couch, because if she didn't Ben had threatened to call Dr. Martin.

It was a stupid head cold!!!

She hadn't been able to make him listen. Not wanting to hear some stupid lecture over the TDD from Dr. Martin, she'd capitulated; but she didn't have to like it and she'd made sure Ben knew it!

He patiently put up with her pouting, refused to listen to her arguments and ignored her outright temper tantrums.

She glared harder at the fire as he straightened and turned for the kitchen. She refused to watch him walk away, refused to admit that she'd rather enjoyed the view the last time she'd allowed herself the pleasure. He was a rat and a bully, and she didn't like him one bit at the moment, least of all his butt!
"Butt-head!" she muttered irritably, adding yet another insult to the many previous insults she'd already heaped upon him. He didn't even pause in his walk this time, though she knew perfectly well that he'd heard her.

Much to her surprise, after putting the dishes in the sink, Ben started going around the living room turning out the lights. She frowned sharply and glanced at her watch.

"It's seven o'clock," she groused. "You're crazy if you think I'm going to bed!"

Ben awarded her only a glance and continued with his task. When the lights were all off, he moved to the balcony doors and drew the heavy drapery there closed, winning yet another petulant frown for blocking out the beauty of the snow shrouded night beyond. He glanced at her again and then moved to the fireplace.

It was with that second glance that Jaelyn began to suspect he was up to something. There'd been a small smile lurking in his gaze and tugging at the corners of his lips. Given how badly she'd been treating him all day, she was quite amazed that he should want to do anything other than take her over his knee and give her a sound spanking. She was perfectly aware she was being downright hateful but she didn't give a crap!

Her frown became a look of reluctant curiosity as she watched him building up the fire, which was something he'd utterly refused to do before. She was intrigued despite herself.

"Okay," she decided with a sarcastic bite. "You've snapped. You're tired of me being an absolute jerk so you're going to kill me and feed me to the fire, right?"

He glanced her way again and awarded her his most pensive mask. ^L-o...^ He finger spelled a name too fast for her to read it by the firelight. ^...wouldn't like that.^

"Who?" she asked in spite of herself.

He signed a quick ^wait^ and turned back to finish with the fireplace. He soon had a large, bright fire dancing within its confines, and then moved to sit on the floor at an angle between it and her so that the light from it leapt and danced over his form. Pausing a short moment to assure himself that he had her attention, he lifted his hands and began a combination of sign and pantomime.

^A fearsome giant - named L-o-uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu--^ He drew the 'u' out, sweeping his hand slowly to the right, then brought his hand back center to finish finger spelling the name. ^--S-k-a-g-n-e-t-t-i... lived in a cabin - very high - on Mountain S-u-l-p-h-e-r...^

Jaelyn's mouth dropped open as she slowly realized what he was doing. If she couldn't go to the storyteller, he'd bring the "storyteller" to her. She lifted a trembling hand to her mouth in shock and stared at him wide-eyed, her heart torn with surprise and regret that she'd treated him so badly all day. How could he possibly even think to be so kind to her after all she'd said and done?

^...And there before him - stood the beautiful princess - from the valley below. The
snow - whipped about her...^ His hands pantomimed a large storm raging all around. ^ And L-o-uuuuuuuuuuuu - fearsome giant - froze...^ Ben himself froze in place for a long moment, has face conveying the confused surprise the giant must have felt, and then he glanced back at Jaelyn, his hands picking up the story once more. ^For the first time in his life - he didn't know what to do.^ Ben offered a puzzled frown and shrug. ^He didn't know whether to kill her...^ He pantomimed picking up a doll and wringing its neck before lifting it over his head and gobbling it down. He patted his stomach in satisfaction, then frowned in confusion and lifted his hands to sign again. ^Or whether to make her some of those tarts he liked - the ones with c-h-o-k-e cherries and brown...^ He hesitated a second then finger spelled, ^ l-i-c-h-e-n... and dust - sprinkled on top...^ His fingers danced in the air over an imagined tart. He smiled as he pretended to smell the apparently 'delightful' confection...

Jaelyn sat entranced.

She didn't deserve this. She *really* didn't deserve this. A happy and confused tear traced down her cheek, unnoticed, as she continued to watch the story unfold.

Part 46

Kowalski was not a happy man and when Kowalski was not happy, he became an agitated ball of energy. He sat in the dark and drummed his hands on the steering wheel in a frustrated tattoo as he waited for Maggie outside the Consulate.

Inspector Carruthers had asked her to remain after work so they could go over security arrangements for some visiting dignitary due in next week. He knew he was likely to get pulled in to help; least-wise, he always had when it was Fraser he was working with. Not that he minded. Baby-sitting some stuck up political mucky muck might be boring as all hell but it was different. And it gave him an excuse to see more of Maggie. She'd been pulling a lot of extra shifts lately and he'd been working a stake out for the last three days - as well as doing some digging he really didn't want to do. It was what he'd learned while digging that had him upset at the moment. And more than a little impatient.

He glanced at his watch and angled it into the yellowed illumination spilling from a nearby streetlight: 7:30 pm. How much protecting did an old windbag from up north really need down here?

Finally, the Consulate doors swung open and he watched as a trim figure in red serge hurried down the steps toward his car. He reached over and popped the passenger door and then sat up to check his mirrors even as he waited for her to slide into place.

"Hi, Ray," she greeted him easily. The door alarm buzzed until she swung it shut behind her. "I hope you didn't wait too..." Even as she was reaching for her seatbelt, she was interrupted by his sudden gunning of the motor and abrupt pull into traffic. She braced herself for a moment, then hurried to complete the action of securing herself. "Too long?" she finished her thought. "Hard day?" she guessed, bracing her hand against the dash again as he took the customary turn onto Madison a bit harder than she liked. Traffic was light, so it really wasn't dangerous; technically speaking, he wasn't speeding, just driving hard, so....

Something was obviously bothering him.

"You were right," he said curtly. No, 'Hi, Maggie, how are you?'; no, 'Have a good day?', just an abrupt and frustrated declaration from out of left field. At least his eyes were firmly fastened on the road, even if his thoughts weren't.

"About what, Ray?" she asked calmly, knowing that commenting on his driving would only make him more angry.

"David didn't do it."

She frowned in confusion, quickly reviewing what little she knew of his current caseload. "David who?"

"Tallin!" he answered. "Wanta stay with me here?" He shook his head and then sighed, forcing himself to sit back a little in the seat. The move had the side benefit of easing up his driving technique as well. "The McKenna case. I did some diggin'." He offered his neck an abrupt 'crack' to ease the tension of his muscles but his eyes remained glued to the streetlight dappled road ahead.

"The DNA came back?"

"No, not yet. But I found something else. One of those – what-do-you-call-it... inconsistency type thingies you keep harping at me about."

She decided to ignore his slightly abrasive manner. "Conclusive?" she asked simply.

"Nah, just..." He frowned irritably as he was forced to admit it wasn't as clear-cut as he'd like. "Look," he sighed, "all this stuff you keep going on about him being right-handed and the shooter left-handed and everything got me to thinking, okay? So... I did some checking; reading through McKenna's med stuff and all, but there's no angle of entry info. All the pics and analysis things were done after her surgery. So I call up her doc and he tells me to talk to her surgeon." He sighed dramatically, still not believing how much digging he'd actually done to answer a stupid little question. "Long story short," he decided, "whoever stabbed her used his left hand."

"Perhaps David was holding her down with his right?" Maggie offered, playing Devil's Advocate.

Ray offered the windshield a humorless smile as he recognized what Maggie was doing. Why couldn't he have gotten her to argue the other side a week ago?

"He burnt his left hand."

"Burnt it?"

"Less than twenty-four hours before she was found. 'Got an ER admit. form to confirm it."

"Bad enough to keep him from stabbing her?"

He frowned again and shrugged. "Second and third degree across fifty percent of the palm. Notes say he grabbed a hot pot. They bandaged it up and gave him some pain meds." Of course, the pain meds might have dulled the pain enough that in the heat of passion he'd been able to ignore it...

"And so now you don't think he did it." Maggie didn't make it a question.

He sighed again and suddenly sat up straight as he almost missed the turn onto her street. He took it at speed, squealing rubber and sending her up against him for a long second. "Sorry," he had the grace to offer as she righted herself. She said nothing, only reaching up to move her Stetson back across the dashboard. He had to pause a moment to organize his thoughts again. "Anyway. David... I don't know. But it's bugging me... You get anything from that notebook of his?"

"He and his girlfriend were having problems and he thought his Psych. teacher was insane." She shook her head as Ray pulled into her apartment complex and quickly found a spot. "Nothing incriminating, no."

"Do you dance?" he asked suddenly.

"Yeah," she answered, fighting to make the abrupt mental shift needed to match his racing thoughts. "But probably not what you're used to." She swung her door open and exited the car.

"Whaddaya mean 'not what I'm use to'?" Ray quickly came around to join her and they turned to head up the nearest stairwell. He offered the place a pensive frown. It could use more lights...

"I'm not exactly a modern hard rock kind of girl, Ray," she answered with a grin.

Ray answered with a surprised bark of laughter. "Now who's pulling the stereotype number?"

She awarded him a slightly startled glance. "Don't tell me you like country?"

He offered a decidedly uneasy smile even as he tried to hem and haw a bit. "Some of it's okay," he admitted. "You know, Garth Brooks and... uh..."

"Tammy Wynette?"

He had to wince. "Uh, Johnny Cash?" he offered instead. "Love his 'Riders in the Sky'. And, uh, who was it who sings 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia?'"

"The Charlie Daniels Band," she answered, awarding him a clearly impressed look as they came to her door and she let them in. "I'm surprised."

"Hey," he shrugged and grinned unrepentantly as she shut the door behind them, "I'm a surprising kinda guy!"

She smiled appreciatively and Ray felt his world beginning to light up.

"Do you Two-Step?" she asked, challenging him.

He performed a quick set of simple steps and pirouetted in front of her. "Like a cowboy," he claimed.

"Line dance?"

That brought him up short with a mild scowl of distaste he couldn't hide. "Too 'alone'," he claimed. "I can't see why anyone would want to dance that way." He stepped forward and drew her into a classic dance position. "Dancin's like a partnership," he told her, sweeping her through the entryway to her small living room, an infectious grin on his face. "It takes two to tango." He was tempted to give her a dip, but instead he spun her inward and then out again, letting her go. She moved good, he noted...

Maggie was struck by what she thought of as Ray's 'megawatt' grin. Had anyone else tried to grab her up and start dancing with her like that, she'd have been upset; but she knew it was only Ray's *joie de vivre* carrying him away. She couldn't get angry with him.

"So you're asking me if I want to go dancing tonight?" she asked, wanting to confirm what she thought he was saying.

"Yeah, maybe." He shrugged. "If you want..."

He played it all very casual, very nonchalant. There was no pressure, he was very careful about that, but Maggie was learning to read beneath the carefree mask he liked to present when he was at his most nervous. She was beginning to catch glimpses of the side of himself he liked to keep hidden from everyone: the little-boy part that had never grown up, the part that would be badly disappointed and hurt if she said 'no' now but which would never admit it, even to himself.

She liked that part.

"Yeah. Sounds like fun," she decided. "But let me change first, then we can decide where to go, all right?" She didn't miss the fact that her answer had made him rather happy.

He offered a self-deprecating little shrug with his smile as she headed for her bedroom. "We'd look kinda weird if we went dancing with you in the serge," he couldn't resist teasing her.

"Not to mention uncomfortable," she agreed. "The thing itches. I don't see how the guys do it!"

She closed the door behind her and Ray glanced around as he prepared to wait. He hoped she wasn't like Stella who could take a good hour to get ready even when she was rushing. 'Course if Maggie was like Stella, the last thing she'd want to do at the end of a hard day was go dancing.

He awarded the apartment a slight frown. Too clean; too Spartan.... She'd die if she ever saw his place.

She shouted something at him through the bedroom door but he didn't catch it. He moved next to it quickly. "What?" he called back.

"What're we going to do about the McKenna case?" she wanted to know.

Ray offered the wood only a slightly irritated glance. The question was still niggling away at the back of his head too. "Keep digging," he answered clearly. "Ben and Jaelyn aren't due back 'til Tuesday. Tomorrow's Sunday, I got off. I was planning to spend most of it sifting through my notes for anything we've missed."

The door beside him suddenly swung inward as Maggie appeared dressed in jeans and a dark turtleneck sweater with a winter coat over her arm. Ray stepped back, surprised at how fast she'd been. She'd even brushed out her hair and changed the style, pulling her bangs back but letting the rest of it dance about her shoulders. No, she was most definitely not Stella.
"Mind if I join you?" she asked easily.

It took him a second to remember what they'd been talking about. "Only if we do it here," he decided. "My place looks like a bomb went off in it. Ain't no way I'm letting you see it like that."

"You should see what my cabin looked like when I was packing to come down here!" she laughed as she led the way back out the front door.

Part 47a

Ben lay staring up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Memories of the last few months kept playing over and over in his mind's eye: getting shot, waking up to discover he couldn't speak, meeting Jaelyn in the Communications Disorders class...

She'd been so closed off; so terrified and angry and needy... and fighting to hide it all. It had taken a huge amount of courage for her to even admit she'd been attacked. He remembered how it had frightened him.

Even then he'd known she was been capable of getting under his skin.

He remembered confronting her about Dawson, the first of her attackers to be identified. She'd thrown up a stone wall until he told her someone else might be attacked. She'd cursed him for that... but she'd also answered his challenge, despite the fear and the danger.

He remembered her angry pride when ASA Kowalski questioned her claim of having been a virgin prior to the attack. He remembered her pain and anger when Greg Manly lied in his deposition, her stubborn desire to leave the hospital before she should when the police protection was withdrawn, her refusal to even listen to anyone or accept their help...

He remembered her at the Inn - her independence and drive, the way she interacted with the staff and guests, the love of life that had slowly begun to bloom in her again... even as she ran from anything and everything that might remind her of the attack.

He remembered hearing her play the piano, the beauty and complexity... hearing the discordant and angry crescendo of the music and finding her sitting before the instrument, weeping for the loss of her hearing. He remembered the look of wonder on her face as she discovered the virtual music of the garden behind his room. He remembered dancing with her, the feel of her in his arms; chasing her into the woods and kissing her in the moonlight...

He remembered the explosion that had jarred him from sleep, the smoke and rapidly building inferno. He remembered finding Jaelyn and realizing they were trapped - diving through her window into the burning garden beyond, their near drowning as his legs fell into the pool, trapped in the heavy comforter that had protected them from the fire.

The fear he'd felt at the restaurant when she was choking, the frustration and anger and helplessness of being unable to communicate when she suffered her flashback episode after...

The flash of fury and hurt in her eyes when she learned he hadn't told her of yet another suspected attacker.

The look on her face when she asked him to move in with her.

Her mischievous grin as she pointed out paisley silk boxers for him.

Her laughter when she was sitting in the snow, the remnants of a snowball slowly dripping down her chest.

Sharing pop corn while watching the "Wizard of Oz."

Her silent glares and irritated pouting all day as he forced her to stay down.

Her arguments and insults...

He smiled and shook his head, not really surprised that all his thoughts seemed to be centered around her. She was such an incredible paradox.

He closed his eyes and determined to seek sleep, suspecting she was going to be even more of a handful tomorrow. He wasn't sure why he looked forward to it, but he did; perhaps some latent streak of masochism... He offered the thought a wry smile.

His grandmother had always said, "God works in strange and wondrous ways." Life over the last six months was certainly proving the truism within her words... Ben wasn't happy he'd been shot, but he was glad fate had thrown him and Jaelyn together.

Part 47b

He was sore and tired and that was a very good thing. It had been too long since he last went dancing. Not that they'd actually gotten to do much dancing...

"You're grinning like a kid again," Maggie accused him gently from where she sat worrying her torn sleeve.

He dared glance from the road to her and back again. "You sure you're okey?" he asked, remembering the short but vicious fight all too clearly.

"Fine," she assured him again, dropping her arm back to her side. "I was just hoping I could fix the tear." She sighed. "This was my favorite shirt."

"That's what you get for mixing it up with a Chicago drunk," he told her, shaking his head.

"The girl was under aged, Ray."

"She was a hooker, Maggie."

"She was under age and didn't belong in there."

"You didn't know she was under age until after we arrested her."

Maggie frowned irritably. "I wish we hadn't had to do that. She needs counseling, Ray, not prison."

"She's under age - she'll get it. And then she'll runaway again and head back out on the streets and start turning tricks all over again."

Maggie rolled her eyes. "You're so optimistic."

"Hey, we kept her from getting the crap beat out of her tonight, or worse. That's something." He frowned at the street in front of him. "Maybe you're right. Maybe she'll listen. Maybe Social Services will do its job. Maybe whatever dysfunctional family she has will get their act together and give her the love she needs..." He tried to sound hopeful but he'd seen too many kids just like her walking the streets, night after night after night.

"I wish she hadn't pulled that knife."

"I'm just glad I grabbed her before she could stick it in you."

Maggie nodded her thanks and then frowned again. "I don't understand why she was mad at me?" she asked in confusion. "I was trying to help her."

"She didn't see it that way."

"Obviously." Maggie shook her head and fell silent as they pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex once more. "I'm sorry I ruined our evening," she apologized.

Ray shrugged and grinned. "I rather enjoyed seeing the look on that guy's face when you flipped him."
"But you didn't enjoy the questions after the owner of the bar called the police. Or all the paperwork later."

Ray shrugged again and slipped into an empty parking spot. "Not like it's something I'm not used to," he decided and grinned as he turned to face her in the dim interior of the car. "No one could ever accuse you of being a boring date, Ms. MacKenzie."

"Date, Ray?" Maggie repeated, catching the word and refusing to let it slip away.

"Uh," Ray frowned in confusion, wondering if perhaps he'd just stuck his foot in his mouth. "Uh, well, I thought... I mean--"

"--It's okay, Ray," she quickly assured him, reading his slightly panicked look easily even in the shadows of the night. "It's just the first time you've ever admitted we were dating."

"You mean you don't mind?" He had to backpedal as he heard himself. "I mean, you know, what with us being partners and everything. Your boss won't get upset or anything, will he?"

"It's none of his business, Ray," she said bluntly. "The Force might frown on interpersonal relationships between partners, and forbid it between officers and enlisted, but you're not with the RCMP. There's really nothing they can say unless it begins to interfere with the performance of my duties. What about your, Boss? Will he get upset?"

"No," Ray shook his head. "Welsh? No. Heck, the 23rd even has a couple of patrol cops who are married to each other."


Ray shrugged. "They had to fight to stay partnered, but... it worked out okay."

Maggie nodded and glanced away with a pensive frown. If she and Ray were to get serious - serious enough to actually think about marriage - one of them would almost certainly have to leave their job. Why did she have to think about that now?

She quickly dismissed the thought and turned back to offer Ray a pleasant smile. "Well, I want to thank you. I had... I wouldn't call it a 'fun evening', but it was certainly interesting."

He offered a quiet laugh. "We'll have to try for something a bit less interesting next time," he decided.

Next time... She smiled at the thought and nodded, then glanced around self-consciously. "Um, well, good-night then." She swung her door open.
"I'll walk ya up!" Ray quickly volunteered.

Maggie debated telling him "no" but... he was just being a gentleman. He hadn't asked to come in.


He might not, she knew. She wasn't sure they were ready for that... She smiled and waited for him to join her. They turned and walked toward the stairwell in silence. Ray shoved his hands into his pockets, looking a little nervous and uncomfortable. She knew he was thinking the same things she was...

"So, uh, you're coming over tomorrow?" she asked as they climbed the dark stair. Unless I ask you to stay, an inner voice piped up... She told it to shut up.

He glanced up sharply. "Uh, yeah," he answered. "What time?"

"Six o'clock?" she offered without thinking.

"Six?" he questioned, surprised by the early hour.

Maggie had to fight not to blush. He must think she was being forward. "I... I, um... You normally pick me up at 6:45," she explained quickly. "I just thought... we could have breakfast before we get started. 'Course it is your day off so–"

"–That's fine," he offered quickly. He glanced up as they rounded a corner and he found himself at her door. "We'll... we'll have a breakfast date."

"A breakfast date," Maggie nodded. An odd concept but it was basically what she'd suggested. Breakfast would be even better after they had first showered together in the morning... "Stop it!" she told herself.

"What?" Ray asked, chagrined as he tried to figure out what he'd done. "Stop what?"

"Nothing," she told him quickly, suddenly embarrassed. "Just... talking to myself. I guess."

"You guess?" He was confused now.

"Doesn't matter," she assured him and turned to fumble with the key. She was suddenly all thumbs. Ray reached out and took it from her, unlocking her door for her. They stood staring at each other for a very long moment. The temptation to ask him in was over-powering...

"You've got beautiful eyes..." he told her quite unexpectedly.
She smiled and glanced away, suddenly feeling like a shy little school girl. "Thanks," she shrugged, not sure what else to say.

"Would you mind if I kissed you good night?"

She glanced up, a little surprised that he was asking permission, but touched by the fact that he did. He had that little boy look about him again and she knew he was as uncertain about the moment as she was. She smiled. "I was beginning to wonder if you ever would," she admitted, remembering all their previous non-dates and the platonic leave takings that had followed.

He didn't answer her, only reached up to gently cup her chin. He bowed his head and brushed his lips against hers, feeling them open invitingly. And then their tongues were touching and tasting and dancing with need and desire. This wasn't the sweet and almost chaste kiss they'd shared when first she'd come to Chicago almost a year ago. His hand slipped to the back of her neck and her hands reached up to grip the front of his shirt, but neither of them moved to initiate a true embrace.

The sound of someone else coming up the stairwell had them breaking apart. They stood staring at each other and trying to calm their racing hearts.

"Hey, Maggie!" a voice called out as one of her neighbors appeared at the head of the stairs. "What are you... Forget I asked." The woman offered Kowalski a knowing smile as she hurried by and entered her apartment two doors down. She paused to offer Maggie a wink. "Night," she called.

"Night, Ellen," Maggie managed to call in return.

Ray waited until the door shut and then frowned down at his feet. "I guess I should--"

"–Stay," Maggie heard herself saying.

He glanced up and studied her face. "You sure?"

"No," she answered honestly.

He nodded, knowing he'd read her indecision correctly. "Then I'm not staying."

Maggie glanced away fighting to ignore the little voice inside that was telling her she was a fool to let him go. Instead she nodded.

"I just... I want it to be right," he told her with quiet sincerity. "Stella and me..." He hated bringing Stella into this but he needed to make sure Maggie understood. "We fell in love, we fell into bed and then we fell into marriage. We just plain fell. And we spent the next few years floundering around and discovering we didn't have anywhere to fall to. I don't want to do that again." He caught her eyes and made sure she was listening. "I *can't* do that again. I don't think I could survive it."

Maggie nodded again, seeing the pain of her own messed up marriage mirrored in his eyes and understanding what he was saying all too easily. She didn't want to go through that kind of pain again either. "When it's right," she agreed.

He nodded and scuffed a boot on the floor as he forced himself to turn away. "I'll just be going then."

"Night, Ray."


"I'll still see you in the morning though, right?"

Ray turned back with a smile even as he kept walking backwards. He knew if he stopped he'd never leave. "I may have to prop my eyelids open with toothpicks, but I'll be here."

"Don't drive if you're sleepy, Ray. I'll understand if you need to sleep in..."

Somehow Ray doubted he'd sleep a wink tonight. "I'll be here," he assured her even as he nodded and kept walking backward.

Maggie forced herself to enter her apartment and slowly close the door between them. "Night, Ray," she dared called again.

He lifted a hand and offered a little wave, mouthing the word "Night" so as not to disturb the neighbors. The door closed all the way and Ray mentally kicked himself for being three kinds of a fool. He knew what he'd done was right, but it still hurt like hell.

God, he needed a cold shower!

Part 48

Rosa Vecchio made her way quietly down the stairway and into the front living room. Francesca was finally asleep. It had nearly taken an act of God to get her home and into bed, but she had finally succumbed to whatever medication the doctors had prescribed.

Ren, who'd been unable to climb the stairs to Francesca's room, sat with Ray and quietly explained what little they knew of Angelina's condition. The doctors were almost certain that some amount of brain damage had taken place. How much and what the long-term effects might be were still unknown. A baby's brain was very different from that of an adult. Their brains were still developing and growing, so they could actually heal, unlike that of an adult or teenager which must simply adapt and compensate for any damage it might sustain. But how much healing it could do was dependent upon what kind of damage had occurred. It could be months or even years before the doctors could fully assess the repercussions. At least the bleeding had stopped and she seemed to be out of immediate danger.

"Hey, Ma," Ray offered quietly as she moved into the darkened room. "How's Frannie doing?"

Only one of the end table lamps had been turned on but none of the room's occupants really felt the need for more light. The dim glow of the single sixty-watt bulb was comforting in a strange way, assuring them they weren't at the hospital anymore.

"Sleeping," the older woman answered as she took a seat beside her son. "She is emotionally and physically exhausted. I am hoping the medication the doctors gave her will let her get a good night's rest."

"Amitripyline is an excellent choice in this situation," Ren offered. "Far better than Valium. It allows a much more healthy sleep, rather than inducing an artificial state or the possibility to dependency."

"Whatever," Ray sighed. "She's driving herself into the ground over this. She's not going to do Angelina or any of the others any good if she doesn't start taking better care of herself!"

"That argument is exactly why she agreed to accept the doctors' help tonight," Ren nodded knowingly.

"And you, Renfield?" Ma asked gently, studying the lean and tired face of the young man across from her. "How are you holding up? This must be difficult for you as well."

He sighed and bowed his head, finding he was unable to present the proud and stiff face that he would have liked to. "It hurts," he admitted. "But I know Francesca is hurting worse."

"A mother's heart is both a very fragile and an incredibly strong thing," Ma Vecchio nodded. "Our love is most important now, to help anchor and sustain her. Yours especially. You must take care of yourself for her, mi Caro, as well as the children." She reached over and patted his hands where they rested on his knees. "You should go to bed as well," she decided, chastising him kindly. "Tomorrow will come far too early."

Ren nodded and with a sad little smile that appreciated the nudge, took up his cane and carefully levered himself out of the chair he'd chosen.

Ray rose as well. "Sounds like a good idea for everyone," he allowed. "You guys go on. I'll lock up after I check the answering machine." He was already moving to where it sat beside the hall phone.

Ren seemed to freeze for a moment. "Oh, dear..."

"What?" Ray asked, glancing back up as he reached for the switch and keyed the play back function. "You expecting a call?"

"Uh, possibly..."

The answering machine squawked a warning and then a man's angry voice issued forth. "You said to call back, but of course you're not there. Doesn't matter. What I have to say is short and sweet: You will break the engagement at once or I will seize your trust fund and see you disowned and disinherited!

"...And don't ever dare to hang up on me again." CLICK!

Ray stared at the device in shock. "What the..." He glanced up at Ren and demanded, "Who the hell was that?"

Ren's own shock at having been so firmly reprimanded was quickly replaced by embarrassment. He felt his face heat with a blush as he glanced toward Mrs. Vecchio and cleared his throat. "My apologies," he offered, chagrined. "I'm afraid... that was my father."

"Your *father*?" Ray echoed in disbelief. Ren only blushed more. "Sounds like you got yourself a real winner there."

"Raimundo!" Ma rebuked her son for his obvious sarcasm. She turned back to Ren, easily seeing his discomfort and setting aside her own surprise. "What is this he says about disowning you? Did you not tell him about the engagement? Is it surprise and shock that makes him attack you so?"

Ren fidgeted self-consciously. "I've... been avoiding telling him. He called this morning."

"And you hung up on him?" she guessed, surmising this from what the voice on the machine had said.

"Can you blame him?" Ray asked, still upset by the dictatorial message.

"Caro..." Ma shot him a clearly read warning glare, then turned her frown on Renfield, softening it in the face of his obvious discomfort. "He is your father. You should not have done that."

"I'm afraid my father and I have never gotten along."
"It does not matter. He is your father and deserves your respect."

Ren had the grace to blush again and glance away.

"I take it you told him of the engagement?"

Ren shook his head. "Someone in Ottawa called my mother. They'd heard about the article in "Life Magazine" and didn't believe it. He said even I wasn't that stu--" He hastily shut his mouth, editing his words, but it was too late. They knew what he'd been about to say.

"--Stupid?" Ray finished for him and shook his head. "Like I said, 'a real winner.'"

Ma only offered him a disproving glance this time, beginning to agree with him and knowing that correcting him further would be useless anyway. "And what was this he said about disowning you?" she asked gently. "That is not the kind of threat most men would make lightly to their sons."

Ren shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he sighed. "We've been estranged for years. He and mother have always been more concerned with their political careers and social status than with me. It was my Uncle Angus in Alberta who actually raised me."

Rosa nodded slowly. "And have you told your uncle of the engagement?"

Ren blushed again and shook his head. "I should have," he admitted. "I just... never found the time."

Rosa shook her head and clucked her tongue. "I am disappointed, Renfield."

"What's all that your old man said about a trust fund and disinheriting you?" Ray interrupted the gentle chastisement. "If I remember right, you were kinda counting on it to help 'til you got more on your feet, weren't you?"

Ren nodded. "He can't touch the trust fund," he assured them. "My grandmother set it up when I was born. I received complete control of it when I was twenty-five."

Ma frowned. "Then why would he threaten it?"

"I doubt he knows how old I am," Ren admitted.

"What kinda trust fund are we talking 'bout here?" Ray asked, curious. "Ten or twenty thousand for college? That sorta thing?"

Rosa Vecchio again awarded her son a sharp frown.

"Hey! We're talking Frannie and the kids' futures here!" he argued. "I gotta right to know!"

"It's all right," Ren assured the older woman, agreeing with Ray, at least in principle. He bit his lip and thought about it. "I'm not really sure how much is in it, Ray," he admitted. "I've never touched it. But I can find out easily enough. I know it's quite sizable."

"How sizable?"

Ma Vecchio shook her head.

"Come on," Ray said, ignoring her silent censure, "he's gotta have some idea?"

"I know what it was twenty-eight years ago when it was set up?" he offered helpfully.

"Yeah?" Ray prompted impatiently.

"One million."

Ray's mouth dropped open in shock. "One... million. --Dollars?!" he squeaked.

"Canadian," Ren quickly added.

Ray's shock was abruptly halved, or close to it as he allowed for the exchange rate. But still... "A little more than half a mil then. And that was nearly thirty years ago?"

"It's largely tied up in stocks and bonds, Ray," Ren hurried to explain, not wanting Ray to get the wrong idea about him. "How much it might actually be worth now is completely dependent upon how those companies in which it's invested have fared over the years. As I said, I've never touched it, so I don't know. I do pay a sizable tax on it each year," he added hopefully.

"You're Canadian," Ray responded. "You pay a sizable tax on everything!"

"Actually, you know Ray," Ren offered helpfully, "if one considers your tax system and the normal deductions that are taken out of the average American paycheck, including medical insurance and the like, our taxes really aren't that much higher. In fact--"

Ray quickly interrupted before they could be drawn completely off track. "--You're rich," he stated bluntly.

"Uh, well, I, uh, I don't know that I'm *rich*..." He blushed again and shook his head, finding the idea as uncomfortable as always. Knowing he had a little nest egg to fall back on in case of emergency was nice, but he'd always felt it important to fend for himself. He had no desire to enter his mother and father's rarified social strata. He couldn't breathe up there!

"But rich enough that you don't have to worry about supporting Frannie and the babies," Ray specified. "That is unless your father gets his mitts on it."

"As I said before Ray, he can't touch it," Ren reiterated. "I made certain of that when I assumed control three years ago." He suddenly ducked his head as he heard himself and realized what a poor state it revealed their relationship to be in.

"Basta!" Ma suddenly interrupted. "I don't want to hear more talk about money. It doesn't matter. The good Lord has always taken care of us and He will always continue to do so. But I am disturbed to hear that you and your father don't get along. I can understand this." She nodded sadly. "My own husband, God rest his soul, was not a good father."

"He was a bastard, Ma," Ray declared bluntly. "If we're goin' to be trading skeletons in the closets here, let's be honest about it." He turned to Ren and continued curtly. "He beat me, he beat Ma, he terrorized my sisters and he killed my brother."

"Raimundo!" Ma Vecchio rebuked him sharply. "He did not kill your brother. That was an accident."

Ren noted that she didn't correct the other things Ray had said. He bit his lip as he glanced between mother and son, quite nonplused to find himself in the midst of a serious family argument.

"Accident, Ma?" Ray exclaimed. "His blood alcohol was point three when he decided to wrap the car around a telephone pole! I don't call that an accident!"

"Enough!" Ma ordered quietly. "You're going to wake your sister!"

Ray frowned darkly but lowered his voice as he glanced at Ren. "It wasn't an accident," he repeated firmly, then waved it away. "What I was wanting to say was, you know, uh..." He frowned for a second. What *had* he been going to say?

"We understand." Ma filled in the void for Ray. "You cannot choose your father. But, no matter how bad he is, God has placed him in authority over you. You must respect him." She frowned at her son. "I will not have either of you bad mouthing your fathers in this house. Is that clear?"

Both men glanced down and nodded contritely.

"At the same time, Renfield, you must recognize that you are a grown man now. It is a fine line you must walk between duty to your parents and duty to yourself. The Bible says that when a man chooses to marry that he shall leave his parents behind. You must decide if you want to honor their objections or if you will go forward on your own, no matter what your father might do or try to do."

"They've never even met her, Ma!" Ray protested. "They have no right to object."

Both Ren and Ma ignored Ray's outburst. True though it might be, it didn't change what Rosa Vecchio was talking about and they both knew it.

Ren met her gaze without hesitation. "I love Francesca with all that I am, Mrs. Vecchio, from the depths of my soul. I would marry her this instant if it cost me my life tomorrow."

Such earnest and heart felt words could not be gainsaid. "All right then," she nodded decisively. "First thing tomorrow morning, you will call your Uncle Angus and you will tell him about Francesca, for he is the father of your heart if not the father of your flesh."

Ren nodded, knowing he'd been wrong to put it off so long.

"And then you will call your father back," she added firmly. "You will listen to him and you will answer him. You will not argue with him or let him change your mind, but you will treat him with respect. And apologize for hanging up on him. Is this clear?"

Again, he nodded. It wasn't a conversation he was at all looking forward to, but he understood the necessity.

"All right," she sighed and shook her head. "So much trouble in one day! Tomorrow will be better, you'll see. Now, let's all go to bed. Ray lock up the house before you come up. I will check on your sister before I turn in." She glanced at a table clock as she turned to head out of the room. "One o'clock!" she exclaimed, "Santa Maria, I'm too old for this..."

Part 49

The sun had not yet lifted above the horizon when Ma Vecchio rose. It had been a long night but nothing could break the habit of more than thirty years of rising to prepare breakfast for her bambinos. Clad in a quilted, satin housecoat and fuzzy slippers, she quietly made her way downstairs. It would be some hours yet before Ray, Ren or Francesca woke, she was sure, but she would– She sniffed the air and frowned in surprise: fresh coffee... baking bread... cinnamon...

She entered her kitchen to find the tall and lanky form of her soon-to-be son-in-law, complete with apron and oven mitts, humming happily as he knelt beside the oven and opened it for a peek inside.

"Oh, mi Caro!" she exclaimed in surprise and hurried forward. "Let me help you!"

His humming was abruptly cut off as he gave a violent start and glanced over his shoulder in surprise. "Mrs. Vecchio!"

"'Ma', Renfield. You must learn to call me 'Ma'." She bent to take her own peek into the oven. "Cinnamon rolls?" Ray must have bought a package of those Pillsbury rolls and stuck them at the back of the refrigerator where she'd missed them. "You've been busy! Let me..."

She took the oven mitts from him and easily lifted the baking dish from the oven to the stove top. The rolls were quite large and golden brown, perfectly done. She frowned slightly, realizing they were far too large to be from a can. She glanced around the kitchen and spotted the large mixing bowl and rolling pin in the sink. Another bowl and spoon sat just to the left of the stove with powder sugar glaze waiting to be poured over the hot pastries. "You made these from scratch?" she asked in disbelief. The men in her family barely knew how to boil water for spaghetti!

Ren blushed bright scarlet as he carefully climbed to his feet and offered an embarrassed nod.

But of course, she thought belatedly as she watched him lever himself up with the help of the kitchen counter, it was because of his hip that he must kneel. Francesca had told her that he could not bend fully at the waist.

"These smell delicious!" she continued, still fighting to accept the evidence of his early morning activities. She reached for the bowl of sugar glaze. "But... it isn't even dawn yet! Why are you up so early, mi Caro?"

He cleared his throat self-consciously. "My parents live in China," he explained. "They're fourteen hours ahead of us. I wanted to call them before they went to bed."

"China?" she echoed in surprise.

"My father is the Canadian Consul for Guangzhou, in the Guangdong Province, north of Hong Kong."


She paused to scrape the bowl. It was a bit awkward and Ren quickly reached forward to help, steadying the bowl while she wielded the spoon. The last of the white glaze eased out over the hot rolls and spread across their tops, seeping within the buttery cinnamon-sugar laden layers. The smell was heavenly and Ma knew she couldn't have done better herself. "I'm amazed," she admitted. "These are absolutely perfect. Where did you learn to cook?"

Again, the young man beside her blushed and bowed his head in modesty before the compliment. "My, uh, my Aunt first introduced me to it when I was quite young, and I managed to finagle my way into a cooking class in grade 9. It's, uh," he ducked his head again and smiled in embarrassment as he admitted, "it's a bit of a hobby."

"More than a hobby, I'm thinking," she nodded to herself as she took the bowl and spoon to the sink. He'd already done about half the dishes he'd used. He even cleaned up after himself! She hoped Frannie knew what a rare treasure she'd found.

"So..." she continued, careful to keep her tone light and her attention on the dishes. "How did the call to your father go?" She handed him a towel. "You can dry," she added as she recharged the sink with hot water and added more soap.

"Oh, no! No, Mrs. Vecchio, please," he insisted. "I made the mess. I should clean it up."

"Nonsense, mi Caro," Ma corrected him. "It is my kitchen and my rules! Those who have or will partake of the cook's efforts must help with the dishes. It is only fair. Now, tell me about your father. You apologized for hanging up like I told you to?"

Ren bit his lip and took up station at the rinse sink. "Yes, Ma'am..."

"And you spoke with him about Francesca and the babies?"

"I... I tried to. Really!" He shook his head as he took the first of the dishes and started to dry it. "He wouldn't listen. He..."

"Yes?" she prompted.

He sighed unhappily. "He's a man of considerable power and influence. He..." Ren closed his eyes and bowed his head, his hands freezing in the process of drying the dish as he remembered the horrible conversation. It had been every bit as bad as he'd feared. "I've never told him 'no' before. I'm afraid. I-- He wasn't very happy with me."

Ma wasn't surprised when a quiet sob escaped the poor man's careful control. She shook her head, her own heart breaking for this gentle giant whose own heart was so vast and tender. "Mi figlio..." she sighed sadly. Quickly, she took the dish from his hands and wrapped her arms around his large frame as another sob tumbled forth.

"I'm sorry!" he apologized, mortified by his own actions. The dishtowel hurriedly dabbed at his face but he was unable to stop. "I'm so sorry!"

"Mi figlio..." She shook her head and turned him toward the kitchen table where she directed him into a chair. "There is nothing to apologize for. You did your duty, both to yourself and your father. It is sad when one's father cannot hear a son's heart, but he is human. We all are guilty of such thoughtless reactions from time to time. He'll come around. Just give him time."

"Oh, no," Ren assured her with an emphatic shake of his head. "No. You don't know my father!"

"Patience, Caro. When all else fails, you give it to God. It is amazing what a little prayer can do, no?"

It really wasn't a question, but more a heart felt assurance, and a reminder of something Ren already knew to be true. Yet... He'd been praying for a kind word from his father all of his life. With the thought came the knowledge, that this *wasn't* the only time Ren had said "No" to him: he'd said "No" about going to Law School, "No" when his father wanted him to drop out of the RCMP Academy, and "No" more recently when his father wanted to pave his way into the Diplomatic Corps. There'd been many times he'd been forced to say "No". And many more times he'd wanted to but bit his tongue instead. He should be grateful his father wasn't around more; he might never have learned to say "No."

Rosa Vecchio wrapped her arms about her daughter's fiancé and gave him another hug. She thought on what little she knew of Renfield's father and smiled a knowing smile, having dealt with stubborn, hardheaded men most of her life. If the man had any love at all for his son...

She and Consul Turnbull were going to have to have a talk.

Part 50


Three heads snapped up and around in answer to that plaint. There was a sense of urgency and pain in the cry.

"Ma!!!" she cried again, and there was no denying the near panic in her tone.

"Coming, Francesca!" Ma cried in returned, heading for the stairs as quickly as she could. "I'm coming!"

Ray was faster. He darted around his mother and flew up the stairs two at a time, images of a burglar or some other such threat flashing through his thoughts.

The same fears raced through Ren's mind, but instead of following Ray as he wished to, he was forced to stand clutching his hip as he rose too quickly from his own chair at the kitchen table. Pain threatened to collapse the leg from beneath him and send him to the floor, but he managed to grab onto the table and steady himself.

"I'm coming!" Ma repeated frantically.

Ren blinked away tears that threatened, fought the pain aside and glanced upward. He could hear Ray in the hall upstairs, could imagine him pausing to snatch up the weapon at his ankle, then heard Francesca's door burst open. The younger man forced himself forward, limping, praying that she was all right!

"Ray!" Francesca's tone was obviously a mix of pain and anger, which Ren found oddly reassuring. The house was old and well built, so whatever else she said was too muffled for him to make out. He did manage to catch his own name.

He continued forward, ignoring the protest of his hip and bracing himself for a moment against the doorway of the kitchen. If he'd dislocated the hip, he wouldn't be able to walk at all. He'd crawl to her room if he had too!

Ma Vecchio's voice joined the mix above. He heard a thump, as if someone had backed into a dresser or... Someone was hurrying down the hall again. He gritted his teeth and forced himself forward. He wasn't supposed to climb stairs, but that wasn't going to stop him. He wasn't supposed to navigate the steps of the Vecchio porch either but he did. He'd learned to take them one at a time, always keeping his left leg trailing so as not to bend his hip greater than ninety degrees. Of course, his doctors would have a fit if they knew he was putting such a strain on the still healing muscles, but they didn't know and he wasn't going to tell them either. The stairs would be more difficult as they were too narrow to safely use the cane. There were also quite a few more of them and his bad leg would have to fully support his weight for more time. Leaning on the balustrade would help.

Doctor's orders be damned, he was going upstairs!

"What do you think you're doing?" Ray demanded as he appeared at the top of the ascent and hurried downward. "You know you're not allowed to do that!"

Ren met the other man's gaze with obvious determination and need. "Francesca--"

"—Is fine!" Ray assured him, then corrected himself. "Well, not fine. She, ah..." He suddenly seemed to get quite embarrassed and flustered. "She... It's her... it's her, you know... Her..." He gestured to his chest.

"Her breasts, Ray?" Ren asked bluntly. He suddenly realized what the problem must be. "Oh, dear!" he exclaimed, glancing upward in concern. "She hasn't pumped in over twelve hours!" He leaned heavily on the newel post and started upward again.

"Whoa!" Ray stopped him with a hand to the shoulder, seeing the look of pain that crossed the other man's face. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I'm going upstairs, Ray."

"No, you're not."

"Yes, I am," Ren answered firmly. "She must be engorged. She'll need my help."

"Your help?" Ray questioned in obvious disbelief.

Ren didn't bat an eye. "There's a baby blanket and some pictures she left in my room. Get them." He again tried to mount the first step and, again, Ray stopped him.

"Ma's helping her," Ray corrected him firmly.

"Ray, I've helped her before."

"Not in this house!" They might be engaged but they weren't married yet! No way was Ray going to let Ren in there.

Ren answered with a glare for the man blocking his way.

"Raimundo—" Ma appeared at the top of the stairs. "Ah, Renfield! Good! Can you make it upstairs, Caro? Francesca is in pain and needing to--" She edited her own words. "We need to help her relax."

"I'm coming," Ren nodded and, gritting his teeth, pushed Ray aside as he took the first step.

"Help him, Raimundo," Ma ordered curtly and disappeared back down the hall to Francesca's room.

Ray stared after her in shock. Frannie was half-naked in there! He'd gotten a very unwanted eye full when he'd burst into her room. She'd immediately covered herself. Then yelled at him to get out and thrown her pillow to emphasize the order.

And Ma was *asking* for Ren?

"Out of my way, Ray," Ren ordered.

Ray shook his shock off and turned to face the younger man again. "It'll take you a month of Sundays to make it upstairs like that!"

"I said, 'Get out of my way!'" Ren repeated, becoming angry now.

"Relax!" Ray told him with a pensive frown. "Ma said to help you, I'm going to help you. Here..." He suddenly turned and presented his back to Ren, bending slightly at the waist. "Lean over my shoulder and give me your hands."

It was Ren's turn to regard Ray in mild disbelief. "You can't carry me, Ray!"

"If I can carry Benny all over hell's half-acre for hours on end after that plane crash we had a few years back I can manage to carry you up a flight of stairs. Now shut up and do what I say!"

Ren frowned, finding it hard to imagine the other man being capable of carrying Corporal Fraser for more than a short distance, but he doubted Ray would have made such a statement unless it was true. Reluctantly, Ren leaned forward over the other man, but not fully. "I can't bend my hip more than ninety degrees, Ray," he reminded him. A traditional fireman's carry wouldn't work.

Ray grabbed his wrists. "I know, I know!" he assured the other man, pulling Ren forward and off balance. He hunched over, supporting the taller man's weight on his back, his shoulder in the middle of Ren's chest and not his stomach. "Now pick up your feet and for God's sake lay still or you'll send us both crashing downward to break our necks!"

"Raimundo!" Ma's voice called out again.

"Coming, Ma!" Ray answered, pulling firmly on Ren's wrists as he started forward.

Ren had no choice but to trust to the unorthodox carry. He lifted his feet and bit his lip as Ray took the first step. To his amazement, the smaller man practically ran up the stairs.

"Damn, I'm out of shape!" Ray complained as Ren set his feet down again and Ray let him go. He bent over to catch his breath. "Go! Go!" He waved Ren down the hall. "Frannie already threw her pillow at me. She don't want me in there."

Ren glanced from the winded man to the many doors of the hallway. One was open. It had to be Francesca's. "Thanks, Ray," he offered curtly and spun to limp off down the hall as fast as he could. He suddenly stopped and turned back. "The baby pictures and blanket," he remembered. "Can you get them? They'll help her let down."

*Let down*, Ray thought confused. What the hell was that? He dismissed the thought, deciding he didn't want to know! He nodded and waved Ren off again. "Get going before she kills the both of us."

Ren spun on his heel and, ignoring his hip which was still protesting his earlier fast move, hurried to Francesca's room.

"—He's seen them before, Ma," Frannie was arguing. "Oh, God it hurts!"

Mrs. Vecchio glanced up as she heard movement at the door. "Renfield, good!" she sighed, obviously relieved to see him. She lifted a towel to cover Francesca where she sat on the edge of the bed, fighting with the breast pump accessories while being half-doubled over in pain. Ma had no idea how to help her with the device. Maria, being a working mother, had always opted to bottle feed, taking medications to dry up her milk; and such a device hadn't existed when Ma might have needed it. She'd experienced some of what Francesca was now enduring but nothing so strong as this! Her daughter's breasts were terribly swollen and enlarged, to the point where the individual milk glands were visible, looking like rocks under her skin.

Her only concern when she'd called Renfield upstairs had been to help relieve her daughter's obvious pain. Yet, now she became slightly flustered at the idea of his presence. "It has been too long since she expressed her milk," she explained. "We must help her to relax so..." She frowned, not at all certain how to explain things. This wasn't something that a man should ever have to deal with.

Ren merely nodded, hurrying forward as best he could and quickly kneeling in front of a weeping Francesca as she sat cradling her breasts and rocking back and forth in obvious pain. Ma watched in a mixture of shock and helpless confusion as he brushed the towel aside without a word and lifted Frannie's hands aside to examine her breasts with clinical detachment.

"I'm so sorry, Francesca," he apologized, even as he took up the pieces of the pump she'd been trying to fumble with and started putting them together. "I should have woken you. I didn't think--"

"--Hurry, Ren!" Frannie interrupted him. "It hurts!"

He bit his lip and screwed the collection bottle in place. "You have to try and relax, Francesca," he told her, knowing from a look at her breasts that she wasn't letting down. They'd been warned about this problem before. The longer a woman went without expressing her milk, the harder it became. He finished putting the pieces of the pump together and handed the result to her as he turned on the pump. He knew it wouldn't be enough.

"Oh, shit!" Ray exclaimed from the door. Those in the room glanced up to see him standing just inside, his eyes tightly closed and face averted. "Cover up or something, would you, Frannie!"

"Raimundo!" Ma chastised. It was shocking enough to be watching Francesca's young man helping her with such an intimate problem but... "Do not come in here!"

"I got the blanket and pictures!" he answered, still keeping his eyes tightly shut as he held out the items in question to the room at large.

"I asked him to fetch those things, Mrs. Vecchio," Ren assured her. "They'll help Francesca. We also need hot towels, Ray," he turned to call to the man in the door as Ma rose to take the items. "They'll help the muscles in her breasts to relax."

Ray groaned and made a face, not believing he was hearing or doing any of this! He felt someone take the things in his hands.

"Use the hand towels in the bathroom and make the water as hot as you can," his mother instructed,

"Ma...aaa!" He couldn't believe she was allowing any of this.

"Basta! He knows what he is doing!" She broke into Italian as she took Ray by the shoulder and spun him to face down the hall, giving him a light shove to get him going.

Part 51

After two days of being trapped on the couch, Jaelyn was more than ready for Monday to arrive. Ben had been a diligent and conscientious caretaker (as well as an overbearing and unrelenting despot!) but she was well now and quite glad to be free of his overly solicitous concern. She did have to admit to liking his stories, though. She'd actually learned a lot about him over the last two days. It only served to convince her, more than ever, that he was going to enjoy what she had planned for their last day.

Because plans called for them to leave the hotel fairly early tomorrow, most of the morning was spent packing - that and warding off Ben's frowns any time she even thought about reaching for a Kleenex. Despite all that, she found herself grinning through the entire thing. She grinned even more after lunch as she dragged out some of the odd purchases she'd insisted upon making during their first days here; the watch caps, ski mitts and sunglasses were tucked into their coat's pockets at her insistence before they headed downstairs at 1 o'clock.

Ben frowned in concern as he tried to figure out what she had in mind. She insisted it wasn't skiing or snowmobiling...

The first thing Jaelyn did when the taxi pulled up was to warn the driver not to tell Ben anything about where they were going. “It’s a surprise,” she added with a cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.

Peter, the same man who’d brought them in from Eagle County Airport, laughed knowingly and grinned right along with her. “Got it!” he agreed, then offered a pensive frown. “You did make reservations, right? I mean, it’s not the sort of place... Especially if you’re thinking about doing, what I think you’re thinking about doing...” He let his words trail off suggestively as Ben reluctantly lifted his hands to translate.

Ben didn’t normally like surprises. In his limited experience with them, they were generally more fun to give than receive. Be that as it may, it was obvious Jaelyn expected him to enjoy this one. He frowned pensively, wishing he knew something of what she had in mind so that he could be sure not to disappoint her. That was of course the biggest problem with surprises. If the giver guessed wrong, the recipient wasn’t the only one hurt.

“Yes,” Jaelyn answered their driver with a grin. “I called them at the same time I made our flight reservations. With it being the off-season and all, I knew I’d have to make special arrangements.”

“Good,” Peter nodded, holding the door as they climbed up into the van. “The two of you should have a blast.”

Ben was in the process of getting in and couldn’t translate, but the man didn’t seem to notice. Peter swung the door shut as they settled themselves and then quickly moved to get back in the driver’s seat.

^I don’t suppose - I should ask - where we’re going?^ Ben signed as Jaelyn finished hooking her seatbelt.

She regarded him with a self-satisfied smile. “Krabloonik,” she answered simply and glanced forward as the van started to move. “Did I pronounce that right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Peter replied. “We’ll have you there in about half an hour.”

*Krabloonik?* Ben thought in confused surprise. Was it just coincidence or... He translated Peter's answer; then finger spelled the name, adding a question mark at the end.

Jaelyn answered with a nod. “I think it’s an Eskimo word, isn’t it?” she asked. Her attempt to look innocent was destroyed by the mischievous smile she couldn’t repress.

Ben nodded in turn, finding his curiosity piqued. ^It means ‘big-eyebrows’,^ he signed, though he suspected she already knew that. ^It’s one of the names - the native peoples of Alaska - gave to the first white men they met.^

She nodded, attempting to look like this was news to her and failing. Settling herself back in her seat, she then turned her gaze out the window beside her and resisted the temptation to say anything more on the subject, leaving Ben to ponder the existence of any place in Colorado bearing an Inuit name...

Part 52

“...Maybe violet with green polka dots...”

“Whatever you want, honey,” James answered and frowned darkly. *...still under investigation. Cont. on...* He flipped the newspaper's pages and scanned the rest of article but was irritated to find no further mention of David's death in it. The reporter was focusing on a civil suit that had been brought against the Inn. Troublesome enough, but the investigation into David's death should have been closed by now.

Jeanie rolled her eyes. “You're not listening to a word I say!” she accused him irritably.

He blinked and frowned at her in turn. He could care less what she was talking about! But he certainly couldn't tell her that. He thought for a second. “The bride's maids dresses, right?” he rejoined, proving he'd been paying at least half-attention.

“Violet with green polka dots?” she repeated herself.

He lifted a self-mocking brow, knowing he'd been caught, and tried to imagine a formal dress in... He frowned again. “I've heard of worse,” he claimed with a shrug. A pink and green paisley tie he'd seen came to mind... The thought alone was enough to make him nauseous.

Jeanie threw her hands into the air and looked heavenward for relief.

James sighed and buried a hand in his hair. He was very tempted to yank some of it out. Like he didn't have enough problems to worry about? He didn't need this. He really didn't need this!

“You're still worried about Ben and Jay, aren't you?” she guessed gently. She'd gotten a call from them just that morning. Jaelyn was recovering from a stupid head cold and Ben was all but sitting on her to make sure she took care of herself, but other than that they seemed to be having a good time. James had not been happy since she told him about it. Jeanie stood and moved behind him, laying her hands on his shoulders to knead the muscles at the base of his neck.

Normally, that was something he'd love. Today, however, he shrugged it off in irritation, offering a derisive bark of laughter. “Worried?” he rejoined, rifling through his paper irritably. “And you're not, of course. You think it's all so very romantic and exciting...”

Jeanie just gave him a patient look. James thought he was so good at hiding his emotions but she was starting to be able to read him. He was more than worried. He was downright furious, but Jeanie couldn't understand why...

He shook his head. “Never mind. Why don't you get together with one of the bride's maids and let them help you with the color thing? I'm a man. To me, violet is a flower, peach is a fruit and burgundy is a wine. God only knows what 'mauve' is!”

“Don't change the subject,” she answered and reached out to snatch the paper away from him. She tossed it aside and, ignoring his irritated sigh, draped herself across his lap. “What's so wrong with Ben and Jay taking a little vacation and hooking up? I've never seen you this upset about anything before.”
James frowned as he realized she was seeing things he didn't want her to see. His "infatuated fiancé" mask was slipping... Minor arguments were to be expected within any relationship; however, at least until they were actually wed, he needed to keep Jeanie relatively happy. He was well skilled at smoothing ruffled feathers and, despite the fact that he had absolutely no desire to have to deal with this now, he fought to think of a way to use it to his advantage...

Okay, so he couldn't do anything about the vacation, but he could certainly plant some seeds to slow things down between the two of them once they got back.

“James?” Jeanie asked, playing with his hair.

He shook his head and urged her off his lap, then stood to retrieve and fold the paper. “You haven't thought it through, Jeanie," he sighed as he fussed with the paper. He tossed it on the coffee table. "Ben is the *last* thing Jay needs right now. Sure, if it was just a little romantic fling... She doesn't work that way, and you know it. Especially now.” He again shook his head, lifting his eyes to make eye contact and emphasize the seriousness of his next words. “He's a cop, Jeanie,” he warned her quietly. “And not just any cop. He's a Mountie; a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman. They're not like our cops, like that isn't dangerous enough? No, they handle everything from giving out traffic tickets to playing UN Peacekeepers! Here, police are hired by the cities and states, but up there? The RCMP is a paramilitary organization, run by the federal government. That makes him part cop, part FBI and part soldier. Do you really want to see Jay fall for a guy who could get killed by a junkie tomorrow or sent to Bosnia for a year?” he asked, watching her frown. “You think he's going to stay in Chicago forever? Do you even know *why* he's in Chicago?”

Jeanie was really frowning now as she fought to understand the ramifications of all he was saying. She managed to answer with a shake of her head.

“He's trouble!” James answered. “With a capital T! I did some digging on our friend the Mountie. Jay's my friend too, you know?” He sighed and shook his head again. “He has a hero complex that would make Superman look modest! Do you know that he once risked his life to bring in a man for fishing over the limit? Or that he chased another man halfway across Canada for littering? It's true!

"You remember that train thing that went down a few years ago with the Musical Ride?” he continued, shifting gears slightly. He knew she'd remember that. He nodded right along with her. “Yeah, that was him: tackling an international terrorist and saving Chicago from nuclear disaster. And then there was the nuclear sub thing last winter. That was him again."

"The man's a maverick. A loose canon! They sent him down here to keep him out of trouble, and what does he do? He gets charged with murder the first year he's here."

He paced over to the window and spun back, not giving her time to dwell on any one part of what he'd said.

"You wanted to know how he got burnt? Her name was Victoria. A bank robber he arrested in Canada. You'd think he'd know better than to mess with her, huh? No." He shook his head in disgust. "She shows up here ten years later and wraps him around her little finger. Oh, she was a real bitch, but a looker too. I'd say our friend the Mountie has a real weakness for beautiful women. I'd say it's one of many weaknesses. Her partner was killed with his gun. I'm sure the DA would still love to nail him for that one. How the hell he got out of it, I don't know. Probably diplomatic immunity or something."

"I remember you calling him a 'walking hero' once..." He offered the comment with a nod and sarcastic bite. "On the surface, maybe – but do you really want Jaelyn married to a hero? To someone who is very likely going to *die* a hero? You should ask him how many times he's been shot, or stabbed, or wound up in the hospital with broken bones and concussions. I lost count! Think about it, Jeanie. It's not nearly as romantic a scenario as you want it to be."

He stood up and walked away, knowing he'd said more than enough. Jeanie and Jaelyn would be having a very serious conversation when she got back. And what was really funny was that everything he'd told Jeanie was true! He smiled but made sure she didn't see it as he left her to ponder his words.

It also got him out of the need to sit and listen to her debating bridesmaid's colors! He was feeling much happier than he had been only a few minutes ago.

Part 53

Ben looked down the gently slopping path which was quite reminiscent of what one might see in a national or provincial part area, the meandering switchbacks and flats carefully cut into the hillside and clearly defined by old weathered landscaping timbers. Someone had been out earlier to shovel it clear of snow and, if he read the tell-tale signs correctly, had even swept it before laying down rock salt to keep it ice free. At the end of the path stood a large and truly beautiful Alpine cabin. Some of the walls appeared to be completely made up of nothing but glass windows, affording those within what must be an incredible view of the spectacular countryside surrounding them.

And it was spectacular, but what caught Ben’s attention even more was the edge of what appeared to be a large dog kennel which apparently existed just beyond the cabin. The yipping, yapping vocalizations of dogs talking amongst themselves and to their handlers carried clearly across the distances in the crisp air of the mid-afternoon.

Ben’s surprised gaze slid to Jaelyn at his side. She merely grinned at him. Naturally, she couldn’t hear the dogs but there were a lot of them; more than a hundred, if he heard correctly. He wondered if this was the local Animal Shelter for Snowmass? They were sufficiently removed from the town itself, but... with such an elegant restaurant right beside it?

As he listened, he realized that the various vocalizations he heard were all quite similar. They ranged from the rapid, high yip or yowls of puppies to an occasional adolescent howl and the more assertive and snarky yap of an alpha male correcting a lesser pack member... but they were almost exclusively Huskies: Siberians, Malamutes, Samoyed. Unless he was greatly mistaken...

His eyes swung to Jaelyn again as she took his arm and smiled up at him.

“Have fun, you two!” Peter called as he headed back around the van. “I'll be back to pick you up at seven-thirty.”

Seven-thirty. That was more than three and a half hours away: certainly too long for just an early dinner.

Jaelyn didn't need a translation to understand the gist of what was happening as Ben nodded. She smiled after their driver as well and offered a friendly wave. Then she turned back to Ben and slipped her grasp down his arm to his hand. Together, they turned back to the path.

"You still have your mitts and whatnot, right?" Jaelyn asked in sudden concern, wanting to make sure Ben hadn't left them in the van.

He quickly nodded and pasted a carefully innocent and curious smile in place, not wanting to spoil her fun.

She grinned mischievously as they started downward. "Good," she told him. "You're going to need them."

Ben suspected she was right. He also suspected this would be the best "surprise" he'd had in quite sometime.

Part 54

"More coffee?" Ray asked, rising from his cross-legged position beside the coffee table with his own cup in hand and a glance at hers.

Maggie looked up from the forensics' report she was deciphering and shook her head. "I think I've had enough for today." The two of them had gone through three pots in the last six hours.

Their efforts yesterday had been interrupted when a snitch of Kowalski's called in a hot tip about a murder for hire that was going down. He'd spent the rest of the day on a stakeout, but the tip had paid off. The would-be assassin had been quite happy to cut a deal - which had meant additional arrests quite early this morning.

As Maggie understood it, Ray had gone home and slept for about four hours then showed up at the Consulate to pick her up. She only worked a half day on Mondays. Given that his Sunday had been so screwed up, Welsh had given him today off. With the help of far too much coffee, they'd managed to work their way through about three quarters of the stuff Ray had brought with him concerning the McKenna case, most of which was spread across the coffee table between them or stacked on the couch to either side of where Maggie sat.

Ray glanced at the cup in his hand and noticed the slightest of tremors. "Me too," he decided abruptly and sat down again. "Making any headway over there?"

"Yes and no," she sighed. "I've gone over everything from the night of Jaelyn's abduction. The party itself was innocent enough but it's clear Dawson and whoever else was involved planned the kidnaping in advance. I think it's fairly safe to assume that she was given a date rape drug shortly before she was seen leaving with Dawson. Reports indicate that she appeared to be drunk. Miss Tallin became very upset when told of it. Apparently, Jaelyn doesn't drink and the idea that she would leave with a near stranger was quite out of character for her. Manly was at the party as well, likely providing himself a cover story and acting as a distraction while Dawson removed Jaelyn. But I have no one fitting Charlie Wickert's description as being there..."

"Wickert..." Ray frowned and shuffled through some papers in front of him. "He was probably outside waiting for Dawson to hand Jaelyn over. Him or whoever else it is we're looking for here. Dawson was only gone for a couple of minutes, right?"

"He claimed he never left but there were two witnesses who saw him with her at the backdoor. A third saw him coming in the back door at one point, but he wasn't sure if it was before or after Jaelyn had supposed left. None of them agreed about the timing. It was still considered sufficient to identify Dawson as a probable suspect when she turned up missing."

Ray nodded and turned his thoughts in another direction. "I don't think I ever got much on Wickert. If not for his little stunt at the hospital where he was dressed like Manly and then getting killed in the alleyway where Turnbull was shot, we'd have nothing to tie him to the case at all. New York driver's license checked out but his prints came up clean so no criminal or military record."

"Vehicle registration?"

"Nope. No known address, no known family and no missing person reports that match, here or in New York. No car titles, no house titles, no bank accounts, no credit cards. The last record I could find of him anywhere was an income tax filing three years ago in New York. Between then and getting killed, nothing. It's like he didn't exist."

"What was he doing three years ago?"

"Acting," he shrugged. "Working hand to mouth from what I could tell. None of his employers or his landlady even remembers him."

Maggie paused to pull up a picture of him from the pile on her right. She pursed her lips as she considered it. "And he didn't know who Manly was when you confronted him before the shooting, despite the fact that he was wearing Manly's clothes?"

"Right, only they weren't Manly's clothes." Ray offered a frown. "Look-a-likes. Manly was still wearing the same clothes from the day before at the hospital when they fished him out of the river."

"And we know Manly was likely tied up at the time, probably in the trunk of the car that ran over Wickert and which Manly shortly thereafter drove off the bridge into the Chicago River..."

"'Cause he was shot higher 'n high with an overdose of heroin..."

"And someone wanted us to think it was a suicide."

"Only... why have Wickert show up at the hospital in Manly's clothes?"

Maggie frowned pensively at the papers between them without really seeing them and sat back against the cushions. "Maybe he was suppose to do what Manly failed to do the day before: kill Jaelyn."

"Wearing the same clothes? When whoever's behind all this has got to know we'd have her under guard?"

"But you didn't, did you," Maggie pointed out. "The DA refused to reinstate police protection for her."

"A leak in the DA's office?" He frowned in turn.

"Or a a bug in her room?" Maggie suggested. "Was there anyway Wickert, or whomever he was working with, could have known you and Turnbull would be there? Maybe a police scanner or--" she shrugged.

Ray shook his head. "–It was sheer luck we were there at all. I think Turnbull spotted him before he even got inside the hospital."

"Interrupting a possible second attempt. Or perhaps Mr. Wickert's appearance at the hospital, dressed as Manly, was simply a ploy to make sure the police would be looking for Mr. Manly before he went off the bridge. "

"That would explain the timing, but why not plan the get away closer to the hospital?"

"Perhaps our man feared being seen and recognized."

"And was willing to risk Wickert getting caught?" Ray asked. "I somehow don't think that was part of the plan."

"I doubt it," she agreed. "Though I do suspect our unknown mastermind may have already decided Mr. Wickert was a liability. The man in the alley went to too much trouble to make sure he was dead when Turnbull foiled his escape attempt."

"And then tried to cover it up by making it look like Manly did it by having him 'commit suicide' in the same car."

"Exactly." She nodded. "I'm beginning to think Charlie Wickert is the missing piece in this puzzle. We need to find out more about who he was and where he spent those three missing years."


"Well, as you said, he's a cipher," Maggie pointed out. "There's nothing in any of your notes or any of the evidence logs to tie him to any of the others involved in the crime, except for the unknown man in the alley."

"You're thinking it's James or Jeanie, aren't you?"

"Why would I be thinking that, Ray?"

"Because if our unknown man here ain't David Tallin, his sister and her fiancé just jumped back to the top of the suspect list. She's the only other beneficiary of Jaelyn's ten mil Will."

"That's assuming Jaelyn's money is the motive."

"Ten million is a mighty big motive."

"But not the only one."

"Ex-employee? Working with Manly? If it's not the money, what's Manly's motive?"

"Maybe our man was blackmailing him."

"Blackmailed into rape and attempted murder of your best friend?" Ray shook his head. "I'm not buying it."

"It's not likely, Ray, but it is possible. He got that twenty thousand to pay off his marker from somewhere. All I'm saying is we shouldn't be getting fixated on the money as the only motive. Jeanie and James both have excellent alibis for the night of the attempted murder. They were at the Inn the entire two days. We have plenty of eyewitnesses to confirm it."

"And one of those witnesses is Manly."

Maggie frowned pensively as she realized this was true and they needed to go over the eyewitness reports again... She shook her head, dismissing it for the moment. "Wickert's bothering me," she declared. "I have the feeling he's the key to everything."

"Is either James or Jeanie left-handed?" Ray asked pointedly.

"Not that I've noticed."

"So, notice next time we see them!"

Maggie chose to ignore his outburst. He was looking a bit ragged. She suspected yesterday was catching up with him, despite the coffee. "The man we want could also be ambidextrous," she pointed out.

"He shoots with his left hand; he stabs with his left hand. He's left-handed! And who says it has to be a man? Jeanie Tallin's got as much motive as anyone."

"True, but she's also very slight, Ray," she pointed out. "Tall but slender. You saw the shooter's arm extended from the window. Not once have I heard you refer to him as anything other than male."

Ray frowned darkly, replaying the action in his head yet again. The whole thing had happened so fast. He was fairly sure it was a man, but honestly couldn't be certain. One didn't tend to associate that kinda thing with a woman. He sighed wearily and raked a hand through his unruly hair.

"I think we need to take a break, Ray," Maggie decided suddenly. "You're starting to second guess yourself."

He glanced at her in surprise and saw concern in her gaze. "No break," he refused, slamming his 'I-can-do-this' mask firmly back in place. "Ben and Jay are due back tomorrow. We've gotta figure this out now."

"I don't think we're going to solve this in a matter of hours, Ray," she argued. "There's too many unknowns here. The biggest of which is Mr. Wickert."

Ray offered the papers between them an irritated frown. "Fine," he decided. "I guess we can run the checks on him again, dig a little deeper. Any ideas?"

"I'd like to run his prints up in Canada."

"Canada? He's a US citizen. The driver's license checked out."

"He disappeared somewhere for those three years, Ray." Maggie offered him a shrug. "We might get lucky."

He offered a humorless bark of laughter. "We could certainly use some of that..."

"So call someone at the precinct to get me a copy of his prints and then come help me make dinner." She smiled as she stood and offered a weary stretch. Ray quickly glanced away. "I need a break, even if you don't."

A break. Yeah, his libido could use a break too, or maybe it was more a case of wishing his libido would give him a break! In any case, it wasn't something he was willing to deal with that right now. "Greatness," he offered with false enthusiasm, forcing himself to pull out his cell even as he tortured himself with the sight of Maggie walking away from him. What she did for a pair of jeans... He abruptly shook his head and forced such thoughts aside. He needed to keep his mind on business here.

"Lys?" He recognized the voice on the other end of the call. "I need a favor..."

Part 54

Having completed the necessary liability waivers, required safety briefing and video, Ben and Jaelyn followed Skip out behind the restaurant. The young assistant stood to one side, letting them survey the sprawling dog kennel some two hundred yards away which Ben had noted earlier. Even as they watched, a dogsled pulled away from the far side and made its way toward them. Snow flew into the air behind the twelve member dog team as they surged forward. They didn't particularly want to stop when a firm order of "Whoa!" rang out as they drew closer, being too excited. They had little choice however as the driver resorted to standing on the brake with both feet. Once they were stopped, he immediately released the snow hook and expertly set it firmly into the twenty or so inches of snow.

Ben smiled as he noted that two of the dogs had already managed to get themselves into a tangle. Skip shook his head and moved quickly forward to deal with it as the driver came over to greet his customers.

“They're excited to be out of training harnesses,” he excused the dogs with a grin and held out his hand to Ben. “Robin Matthews,” he introduced himself.

Ben shook his hand, then translated for Jaelyn, noting that the man's attention was more on the dogs and the assistant than on them – as it should be. Mr. Matthews didn't seem surprised by the signing and so Ben assumed he'd been fully briefed on his passengers.

Jaelyn glanced back at Ben with a vivacious smile, quite pleased with her little surprise, and rightfully so. Ben couldn't seem to stop grinning.

Suddenly, and with little more than a nod of apology, their driver spun on his heel and hurried over to the team even as Jaelyn introduced herself and Ben in turn. The driver quickly moved between the dogs and stepped on the gang line, preventing another incipient tangle.

“Line out!” he called in a clear, firm voice. The two lead dogs readily obeyed, bringing the gang line taunt and drawing the other dogs into a straight double-line before the sled. He then stepped off the line and waved Ben and Jaelyn over as he proceeded to introduce the dogs, calling their names out one by one and moving amongst them with obvious familiarity. It was an excuse for him to do a quick double-check of the equipment, awarding a pat here, untwisting a line there, checking a connection yet again.

As Ben finger spelled the various names, he allowed his own eyes to run over the dog team, noting healthy coats and bright eager eyes. He studied the lead dogs the longest and was happy to note how they kept their tails and ears up as they followed Robin's movements. This was an experienced pair. The wheel dogs, closest to the sled, were strong and capable. All were happy and energetic, eager to be on the trail. And it was clear the musher himself was a veteran.

Ben also ran a practiced eye over the traces, following the gang line from bridle and safety line, up to the lead dogs. It was a typical tandem set up. The main line appeared to be half-inch polyethylene rope. The tug lines coming off of it were quarter inch and connected with quick release caribeeners, as were the neck lines. The dogs were wearing wide webbed x-back harnesses, which had been properly fitted and adjusted to each animal so as to maximize comfort and proper load distribution.

He turned his attention to the sled itself. It wasn't a new set up and that was actually reassuring. New setups always had problems to be worked out and idiosyncrasies to be learned. It was, however, one of the fairly new styles he'd heard of: a raised toboggan sled, which were said to combine the best aspects of the normal low-bodied toboggan sled and the classic basket style sled that Ben was more familiar with. It was a style he was interested in studying.

At least it wasn't one of the newer, ultra-light aluminum frame sleds that were becoming popular. He didn't like those. A good sled had to be able to bend and give due to the demands of the trail. He didn't have to drive one to know that some of the aluminum designs simply wouldn't hold up. This one was made largely of wood, with light-weight steel cross-bracing and QCR runners. The break was a spring-loaded piece of laminated wood with two four-inch claws to help slow and stop the sled. The snow hook was pretty typical and properly connected to the gang line, not to the sled he was glad to note. He could see where it would soon be secured below the snub line which was lashed into place to the right of the back brace with bungee cords. The handle bow had been made of thin wood strips which had been steamed and carefully bent before being laminated together. It was set in place at about a fifteen degree angle, with a sharp angle at the top to bring the grip further back and thus allow the driver more running and pushing room behind the drag. An emergency medical and supply bag hung beneath the handle bow and was again secured in place by several bungee cords. The sled bag, where they would soon be seated, was the only piece of equipment that appeared to be brand new. At the moment, all it held were a few warm blankets.

Nowhere did Ben see any sign of excess wear or damage. He was actually quite impressed by the set up.

“I hope you two are ready for a fast ride,” the driver called over to them as he ruffed the fur of his lead dogs, lifting his voice to be heard over the various yips and yowls of the team.

Ben translated and eyed the team again with a mixture of envy and trepidation as Jaelyn laughed. Their excitement and simple joy of life was contagious, but Ben also knew it would make them difficult to handle.

^Is this their first – run of the season?^ he asked through Jaelyn.

“Their first commercial run,” Robin nodded as he moved back toward Ben and Jaelyn again. “We don't normally start the season for another couple of weeks, but we keep them busy and working during the summer too. These girls are pros. The kennel was originally established to preserve and promote the dying art of dogsleding. The best of the best are taken up to Anchorage every year by Dan, the owner, to compete in the Alaskan Iditarod. That's a profession dogsleding competition covering something like a thousand miles.”

^One thousand forty-nine,^ Ben supplied easily. ^The 1999 race - was won by - Doug Swingley - of Montana in - nine days - fourteen hours - and thirty-one minutes.^

Robin offered a surprised smile after listening to Jaelyn translate Ben's sign. “You're a musher!”

Ben's smile became slightly embarrassed and he shook his head. ^Not professionally,^ he answered dismissively. ^I have a team - up by Fortitude Bay - about four days north - of Skagway. A friend is - taking care of them - for me.^

“Ben's a Mountie,” Jaelyn added, as though the two things were related. They weren't, but Ben didn't bother to correct her.

“That's what I was told,” Robin nodded. The man glanced back over his shoulder and gave his team another quick once over. “Looks like we're set to go. You two ready to climb aboard?”

The two in question exchanged glances and then Ben glanced up, struck by a sudden thought. He frowned.

Jaelyn frowned in turn. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Had he noted something wrong with the dogs or the sled or...

His tongue swept his lower lip and he reached up to tug on his ear as he regarded her pensively. ^Are you sure - you’re ready for this?^ he asked in apparent concern.

“What... the sled ride?” she asked in confusion and offered him an amused smile. “It’s not that bad. I’ve done it before. Besides... physically, I’m doing fine.” She frowned in sudden concern of her own. “Are you worried about your chest?”

Ben shook his head. He knew the ride would by physically taxing, but nothing either of them couldn’t handle. ^I meant - the closeness,^ he signed. ^Being held so close -- so long.^

Understanding slowly dawned and she turned to regard the sled in a new light. Laughter from times past when she and her family had done this rang loud and clear in her memory. And so did the memory of the overwhelming fear she tended to feel whenever anyone got too close. The mere thought of being wedged into the small open frame of the sled sent a fission of fear up her spine. Her memories when she'd planned this were so wrapped up in the good times that she, her mother and father had enjoyed that she hadn’t even considered...

She could argue against the irrationality of her fear all she wanted. It didn’t help.

“A problem?” their driver asked with concern of his own. Ben asked for his patience with a simple gesture and a glance that didn't require translation.

Jaelyn frowned for another long minute then noted both men's patient regard. The dog driver's gaze was curious and slightly confused, whereas Ben's gaze was concerned.

If it were anyone else... She trusted Ben. She’d trusted him from the start, even when she shouldn’t have, even when she didn’t much like him! It was as irrational as her PTSD episodes, but just as real too. True, he’d triggered a few of her "episodes." The doctors said it was some kind of flashback to her attack and attempted murder. They all were. She didn’t know, because she never remembered anything... except the fear: the overwhelming fear that could all too easily send her into a faint, or even convulsions apparently if the episode was bad enough.

Ben had triggered one the night he saved her life. He’d had no choice about grabbing her then. When she’d come too, it was to discover herself cold and wet and her home an inferno. He’d simply held her, and she him, as they watched the magnificent old mansion burn. She’d felt no fear then. Nor had she felt any fear when she was dancing with him earlier that evening. She couldn’t have possibly danced with anyone else but... She’d even managed to share a kiss with him that night. An incredibly sweet and wonderful kiss... that was terrifying for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with PTSD.

No, the idea of getting into a sled with anyone else was completely impossible, but with Ben... She just might be able to do it.

She offered him a shrug. It was too late to back out now. “I guess we’re about to find out,” she answered with a wry smile and waved him ahead of her to get in the sled.

“Uh... guys?” the driver offered, more confused than before. “Something I should know about, maybe?”

Ben paused beside the sled, knowing the man should be made aware of any potential problem, but also knowing it wasn't something that Jaelyn wanted to talk about. She frowned as he signed the question, letting her decide how to answer.

She waved the concern away and nodded at the sled again.

Ben frowned slightly, thinking she really should have said something, but knowing she'd simply refuse to translate if he tried to offer an explanation. With a shrug, he pulled on the ski gloves she'd insisted they buy last Tuesday and stepped over to the sled, climbing into place and moving as far back as possible so as to give Jaelyn as much room as possible. It would still be a somewhat tight fit...

She smiled at the still frowning driver. “It's nothing, really,” she assured him. “I'm just a little claustrophobic sometimes, but I've done this before. I'm sure I'll be fine.”

Ben offered her a censorious brow lift in answer, but she simply ignored it as she climbed-in in front of him. He had a pad and pen in his pocket if necessary, and the safety briefing by the kennel's assistant had included a hand signal for requesting an emergency stop. The worst that was likely to happen if she had an attack was that they would have to walk back. If she was going to have a severe attack it would likely happen before they even got started.

The driver was still frowning. “You sure?”

The heavy ski gloves made signing difficult enough. Having Jaelyn seated between his legs made it nearly impossible. Ben merely nodded. Trying to explain the truth of the matter would take far too long and only irritate Jaelyn farther. Besides, her story wasn't *that* much of a lie.

“She's not pregnant or anything, is she?” the driver insisted.

Ben shook his head. He knew there was no physical reason that should prevent her from enjoying the ride.

“Okay,” the driver sighed, knowing they'd already signed the required liability waivers. If they didn't want to talk about it... It was their risk. He wasn't going to force them. “Arms and legs inside the sled at all times. No leaning side to side or rocking the sled.” He quickly started to go over the basic safety rules that he knew they'd already been over... and then remembered that the woman couldn't hear him. 'Didn't matter, he realized a moment later. The male passenger could and Robin was still required to do it.

He paused a moment and studied how they were situated. He quickly stepped forward to place his right foot between the woman's legs as he continued his mandatory spiel. Using his knee and thigh against her chest, he deftly wedged her back against the man in a carefully impersonal maneuver he'd done countless times before.

Ben held his breath as Jaelyn suddenly stiffened, offering a tiny surprised gasp even as the driver moved away and dragged the blankets out from beneath their feet to begin tucking them in securely. The driver's attention was drawn to a momentary dominance play between one of the dog pairs and he missed Jaelyn's reaction entirely.

Ben, however, was all too aware of it. Jaelyn sat ram rod straight in front of him. He quickly pressed himself as far back against the back brace as possible and was careful to keep his hands out to the sides where she could see them. She began breathing again after a long moment, each breath carefully controlled as she concentrated on relaxing again.

Movement to their left caught Ben's eye and he glanced up to see something that might help. Still holding himself as far back as possible, he waved a hand to her left and then pointed.

There at the edge of the woods, about a hundred yards away, stood a young doe watching the commotion. It must be very use to the kennel to be willing to come so close, Ben knew. It stood frozen for a long moment, long white-tipped ears sharply alert for all noises around it, and then it turned and bounded off once again into the forest's shadows, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.

“How beautiful...” Jaelyn breathed, letting him know that she had indeed seen her.

“Ready to go?” the driver called as he quickly moved behind them, having retrieved and secured the snow hook. His weight on the brake and the lead dogs' patience were the only things holding them in place. Ben answered with a thumbs up and carefully rested his gloved hands on his thighs so as not to hold onto or restrict Jaelyn in anyway. “Okay, then... Hike!” the man called firmly. “Hike! Hike!”

The dog team surged forward as one in answer to that command. Their impatient waiting was over and it was clear they were eager to run.

Part 56
Sounds that were forever lost to her now, echoed through Jaelyn's memory as they flew over the pristine landscape: the loud swooooosh of the runners gliding over and through the snow; the muffled thudding of paws churning a path through the winter wilderness; the firm, clear commands of the driver being called over the dogs joyous and exuberant barking as they spurred each other on; her father's happy laughter as they took a hairpin turn at speed and the sled tilted up on one runner...

A giant cock's comb of white sailed up and out as the sled threatened to turn over. It wasn't her father's arms but Ben's which were instantly around her, drawing her close despite the danger of triggering one of her episodes. Jaelyn let out a scream, but it wasn't a cry of terror. It was more a shout that was half-delight and half-fear even as their driver expertly controlled the careening craft, leaning into the turn and stepping on the brake to pull them to the inside of the curve. Snow pelted their seated forms as they settled back with a dull thump and found themselves racing onward through the forest and open fields yet again.

Behind her, and therefore unseen, Ben was frowning fiercely, sure that she must be caught in another flashback episode with the way she had screamed. Damn! The driver had warned them of a fast ride, and the way he'd expertly handled that turn – though momentarily frightening – had spoken of a maneuver he'd performed countless times before; but none of that had kept Ben from reacting as instinct demanded, grabbing Jaelyn back against himself to keep her from falling either forward or to the side should they actually flip. The handle bow would protect their heads and necks, as long as they remained seated low and to the back... But they didn't flip and, much to Ben's surprise as he moved to immediately release her, hoping against hope to minimize her PTSD response to being grabbed, she actually hugged his arms!

And then he heard her laugh.

Momentary confusion was replaced by simple relief as he understood that her scream had not been indicative of another flashback attack but more simply the kind of reaction one might have when riding a roller coaster, which was of course the response that the driver had wished to elicit. Ben still thought it a rather dangerous move, despite the man's obvious expertise; but then driving a dogsled wasn't like driving a car. The dogs were wanting to run and, as Ben had himself known before they started, that meant they were a bit hard to control. The driver had to give them a little freedom in certain areas, such as the speed of that turn, or he'd be fighting them on everything and *that* would be even more dangerous. There was always a certain amount of give and take in such situations and, not being the driver, Ben had to accept and respect the other man's judgment.

Jaelyn twisted around to toss Ben an unabashed grin of pure joy. The wind caught her hair where it had snuck out from beneath the confines of the watch cap and threw it in his face. Her hand came up to push it back and to the other side of her head, but Ben shook his head and rotated his wrist to get her to turn back forward again. It simply wasn't safe for her to sit that way. He offered her a tentative hug in answer to that grin. She again hugged his arms in return. The PTSD episodes were definitely getting better, or at least she was getting better at dealing with her triggers.

Ben allowed himself a smile and relaxed back into the sled bag. It had been a long time since he'd been a passenger on such a journey, not since he was a child actually. The perspective was completely different from driving. The motion of the sled seemed even faster than he knew it to be. And he also had the luxury of simply enjoying the feel of Jaelyn in his arms as they swept swiftly over the snow. She fit perfectly into the curve of his body, the top of her head only reaching his chin and allowing him an unobstructed view of the wilderness which so reminded him of home. What made it even more special was the knowledge that she was enjoying it as much as he was. He wondered if she realized what an incredible gift she'd given him in this?

They took another turn at speed, but this one wasn't nearly as sharp. The outside runner barely even thought about lifting from the white surface as the driver, instead, allowed them to fishtail slightly. The trees now gave way, giving Ben and Jaelyn a clear view of the valley below. The panorama was simply spectacular.

They made their way down the gentle slope, the mountains rising to either side of them, reaching for the sun even as it sank toward the crests to their right. It would still be close to two hours to full dark, if Ben judged everything right, but the shadows that crossed their path were long and sharp until they entered a wide windswept field of untouched white stretching perhaps a mile or more to the nearest tree line. Their scheduled rest stop was in the middle of this vast open space. Not a cabin, not a road, not even a jet contrail marred the perfection of nature clothed in her winter glory which surrounded them.

The driver expertly set the snow hook and tug lines, then moved to see to the dogs. They were obviously used to the routine. “You can get out and stretch now,” he called even as Jaelyn moved to do so. “We'll be here about fifteen minutes, then turn around and head back home.”

Ben was somewhat slower to exit the sled than Jaelyn, feeling the exertions of the day a bit more than he'd like. His muscles were a bit stiff and cramped from the ride, making him feel like a creaky old man as he maneuvered himself free and forced himself upright.

“Need a hand?” Jaelyn asked, turning to watch him and catching his frown.

He quickly dismissed her concern with a strong shake of his head and wave of his hand, forcing the minor aches and pains aside as he carefully stretched his arms and back.

The many abuses he'd subjected his body to over the years were starting to catch up with him, but he wasn't willing to admit it yet. He was still in his prime. Or, well, perhaps not in his prime, but he didn't like to think of himself as middle-aged either. And he was still recovering from Donnelly's attack, he reminded himself, thus soothing his male ego. Some exercise and proper care would see him back to full fiddle. It simply took him longer to get there at thirty-eight than it had at twenty-eight. He had to admit he envied Jaelyn those ten years which separated them.

The sun was slowly settling lower in the sky, decorating the blue vault over head with streamers of pink and gold as it tickled the undersides of the trailing clouds from the storm they'd enjoyed earlier in the day. The snow capped mountains actually seemed to glow with the brilliant hues of approaching sunset.

Ben was well acquainted with "aspenglow" and the almost iridescent quality that snow clad mountains could take on at sunrise or sunset. There were several books and magazines dedicated to the phenomena, but a camera could not hope to capture the magic of the actuality. The cold crisp air, heavy with the scents of pine and snow, clean and alive; the sweet taste of it on his tongue as he breathed in a deep lung full; the sound of the snow as it crunched underfoot and the dogs as they lay panting or nosing each other in the social hierarchy that was the team... No. There was no way to catch and hold such living moments.

He looked to his right to see that Jaelyn had moved a little ways off from the sled, taking in the raw wonder of all that surrounded them. Ignoring the slightly rubbery feeling of his legs, and the momentary thought of his cane waiting back at the restaurant, Ben quickly moved to join her - at least as quickly as he deemed safe. He was tempted to simply walk up behind her and wrap his arms about her as he had in the sled; but he knew the unexpectedness of such a move might well trigger one of her episodes, despite the fact that their proximity in the sled hadn't. Instead, he moved to stand beside her and glanced over to give her a smile... only to have her turn away and hastily wipe at her face.

The smile instantly vanished as he realized she was crying.

“Jay-ah--” He instantly choked back the sound even as he heard his unconscious attempt to speak her name fail. She couldn't hear him in any case. He realized belatedly that he'd actually spoken the beginning of her name correctly, but he dismissed the possibly fluke incident as unimportant at the moment and worried instead over what could have possibly upset her. Was this some kind of delayed reaction to their enforced contact during the ride?

She turned back to him with a patently false smile. “Beautiful, isn't it?” she asked, waving a hand to indicate the untouched wilderness around them.

He nodded but didn't even glance up, instantly knowing that, no, her tears were not born of simple joy or wonder. He also knew she didn't want him commenting on it... but he couldn't ignore it. He continued to frown in concern as he removed his gloves, tucking them into a pocket so he could sign.

She ducked her head and turned away again, suspecting his motives, but he wouldn't let her evade him that readily. Two steps and he was in front of her again.

^Are you – okay?^ he asked gently.

She offered a self-mocking smile and waved his concern off. “Just... thinking.” She ducked her head and kicked at a clump of snow before looking up again, beyond him, with a disparaging shrug. “Remembering,” she admitted belatedly.

Ah, she was thinking of her parents. Ben nodded in silent understanding and turned his eyes to the winter landscape as well. The vista which encompassed them tugged at bitter sweet memories for him as well; of his mother and grandparents and even the occasional visit from his father...

“It was always silent here...” she observed quietly. “Well, sometimes the dogs barked, I'm sure, but I don't remember that. I remember... I remember the silence and how much I loved it...

“Even way out where the Inn is, there was always noise, always people about doing something or other. I'd go wandering in the woods to escape it sometimes, but you never really could, you know? Planes would fly overhead or a semi would blow its jake-brake on the interstate or someone's kids would be yelling and screaming in the pool. But you learn to block that stuff out. I didn't even know I was doing it until the first time my parents brought me out here.” She turned slightly to gaze up at him. “Is it really as silent as I remember, or am I deluding myself?”

He shook his head. No, she wasn't deluding herself. They were several yards from the dogs and driver. A gentle breeze was coming from their left, carrying even the soft sounds of their presence away. He closed his eyes and listened, drawing in a deep satisfied breath...

“What do you hear?” she asked.

He opened his eyes and again frowned slightly, realizing that for her silence no longer held the same enchantment it once had. But there was no sadness in her eyes, no longing for something she couldn't have... It was a simple question of curiosity. He smiled and turned his gaze back to the landscape, the virgin snow field stretching for half a mile before them to the heavy fringe of trees at its edge and the base of the mighty mountains around them.

He cocked his head to the side as he contemplated the best answer... There were sounds around them: the breeze itself, the creak of the snow underfoot when either of them shifted position, the sound of clothing rubbing against itself as they moved... but that was it. These were the isolated sounds of his youth, the sounds of the tundra and far north...

He glanced back down at her, quoting something an Inuit elder had once told him, ^'Only in the silences - of the wide open spaces - and the most secret places - of your own heart - can you hear the world – breathing.'^
She smiled.

^This reminds me - so much of home,^ he continued, sweeping his hand out to encompass the entirety of their view. ^There's one particular place – very much like this – not far from my father's cabin.^ He offered her a lop-sided grin. ^I almost want to look – for landmarks,^ he admitted.

Her smile became wider and she dropped her head to hide her mirth for some reason.

Ben reached out and touched her chin, drawing her gaze to his again. ^Thank you,^ he signed sincerely. ^I could not have asked - for a better gift.^ Still smiling rather crookedly, he captured one of her hands and drew it to his mouth. Not sure how she'd react if he were to kiss her as he wanted to, he settled for expressing his appreciation by kissing the back of the heavy glove she wore instead.

Her smile suddenly became an amused grin and she cocked a surprised brow. “My lips are jealous,” she offered flippantly.

As soon as the words left her mouth, she was blushing and ducking her head in embarrassment. Ben knew instantly that she hadn't meant to say that out loud.

“Oh, jeesh!” she whispered.

She moved to turn away but he wasn't about to let her escape that easily, not after that statement! Her words had been a clear invitation, and it wasn't one he was willing to ignore. He cocked a brow of his own at her as he forced her eyes to meet his again.

She was still blushing. “I said that out loud, didn't I?” she asked quietly.

He fought not to smile but nodded in answer, then reached up to brush several strands of dark hair aside which had escaped her watch cap. It gave him an excuse to touch her. She watched him silently, half-embarrassed... half-expectant...

Tentatively, he leaned forward. Only his hand upon her cheek held her in place. She could step away if she wanted to. He would have stopped instantly if she did – but she didn't. Instead, she lifted her face to meet him halfway, closing her eyes the moment their lips touched.

He remembered the first time he'd kissed her, in the forest behind the Inn. He'd found her crying then too, fleeing feelings he himself had aroused. That feather light kiss had been like a dream and had left Ben wanting more.

He stepped closer now, daring to deepen this kiss, if only slightly, pressing his lips a bit more firmly against hers. She made no move to pull away as he half feared, but instead laid a hand upon his chest, responding by moving her lips against his, a tentative uncertain exploration...
It was a long moment before they parted.

Just as before, he found he wanted more, so much more; but he restrained himself, leaning his forehead upon hers as they both fought to calm passions neither of them were ready for as yet.

Jaelyn offered a shaky sigh as she turned away, but she made no move to leave his side. Instead, she stepped closer. His arm lifted automatically to fit her into the crook of his shoulder. She leaned her head back against his chest and, almost as if of its own volition, he found his cheek resting lightly atop her hair, the scent of her shampoo – Chamomile, he decided - tickling his senses. She fit perfectly against him, felt perfect... So small and delicate; yet strong and independent... She was a mass of contradictions that left him painfully confused and intrigued at the same time.

Ben turned his gaze back to the beauty around them which so reminded him of home, and dared wonder if Jaelyn could truly be happy in such an environment. Dare he even dream about her sharing his life with him, moving back north as he knew he eventually would, facing the realities of the world he called home..?

With the thought came the acknowledgment that he was in very real danger of falling in love with her, and he wasn't sure he was ready for that. He wasn't sure he ever would be. He didn't exactly have the greatest track record when it came to love.

The steady crunching of snow beneath feet alerted Ben to their driver's approach and, together, he and Jaelyn turned to meet him. He was carrying a large thermos and two cups.

“Compliments of Krabloonik Restaurant,” Robin announced as he handed each of them a mug. “Wild mushroom soup. Perfect for taking the edge off a cold winter day.”

“Wild mushroom soup?” Jaelyn guessed with a wide smile, not having heard what the other man said; and with Ben's right hand occupied, he hadn't been able to sign.

The driver merely smiled and nodded. Apparently the soup was something of a tradition.

“Oh, you'll love this, Ben!” she assured him. “My mother even ordered a batch shipped to Chicago once for their anniversary. No one makes it better – but don't tell Gaston I said that. I'd never hear the end of it!”

Ben laughed lightly as the driver poured, remembering well the rather mercurial French chef she'd employed at the Bed and Breakfast. She grinned up at him over the edge of her steaming cup as the driver moved away once more, the corners of her eyes crinkling with simple enjoyment of the moment.

He banished his own disquieting thoughts and, like her, chose to concentrate on the here and now. That's why they were here after all. Tomorrow would take care of itself.

Part 57

Ray frowned down at the folder in his hand as he paced the floor of interrogation room one. Welsh had canceled his day off late in the afternoon when a major sting was suddenly set up. The lieutenant had abruptly found himself with a bullpen full of suspects and witnesses and not enough officers to deal with all of them. Kowalski was one of the unfortunates who actually answered his cell phone.

"You got nothin', Man!" the kid across from him sneered.

"Nothin', huh?" Kowalski sneered right back. There was nothing innocent and sweet about the sixteen-year-old girl he was facing. "I got a police report here dated yesterday that has her family swearing out a complaint against you, stating that you threatened to kill her older sister. I got a description of the car used in the drive-by, which - surprise, surprise - matches one they said you were driving the day before--"

"--They're lying!"

"Who?" he demanded. "The cop who saw the vehicle speeding away from the scene of the shootin'?"

"Her family, Man!" she answered in apparent disgust.

"Lying *before* the shootin' takes place?" He smiled without amusement. "That's - that's a good one. Musta been psychic, huh?"

"That's enough, Detective," the Child Advocate Worker who'd been assigned the case quickly intervened. "I'd like some time to confer with my charge in private. Marcy, I suggest you shut up now."

"Fine!" Ray decided, giving in easily and moving to the door. The kid had been read her rights, her parents were still a no-show, she'd been warned by the social worker not to talk to him - she'd agreed to talk anyway. Her statement was admissible. "You go ahead and talk to her all you want, Ms. Lowen, and be sure to warn her the DA *will* charge her as an adult if that nine-year-old she shot by accident dies. Her age won't protect her."

"You ain't got no car!" the girl shouted after him. "You ain't got no gun! You can't prove nothin'!"

"I said, 'Shut up!'" the woman beside her ordered sharply.

Kowalski smiled to himself. He loved it when the perps had big mouths. "And how would you know that?" he asked as he opened the door. He turned to smile at the Child Advocate Worker who was shaking her head in frustration. "Be sure and explain how blow-back testing works. The necessary paperwork ordering it should be ready shortly." He shut the door behind him and cracked his neck. A bright red uniform caught his peripheral vision.

"Tough one, Ray?" Maggie asked from where she stood waiting for him outside the interview room. He hadn't realized the time. It must be past five. A glance at his watch assured him she hadn't been waiting long.

"Two girls in the same gang fighting over a guy," he answered, "and a nine-year-old gets shot. Yeah." He nodded. Open and shut case or not... "I hate those."

Maggie nodded sadly. Cases involving children were always hard. "I got Charlie Wickert's fingerprints back from Ottawa," she told him, knowing a distraction might be welcome. "Interested?"

"Oh, yeah," he answered, slapping the file he held shut. Time to let Marcy stew a bit. A night in jail might help her remember the name of the driver and where she dumped the gun. He headed for the front desk, knowing the court orders transferring her from juvenile jurisdiction, as well as the DA request for GSR testing, should be waiting by now.

"One arrest, June 3rd 1997, Toronto: Male prostitution."

Kowalski's eyebrows shot up. "That's a dangerous occupation..."

"He was required to post a five hundred dollar bond and released on his own recognizance. The bond was forfeited when he failed to show up for his scheduled court appearance," Maggie supplied.

"Probably hightailed it back to the States."

Maggie nodded. "Ottawa has a different name, however: Charlie Danvers of Miami, Florida."


"According to both his driver's license and birth certificate. Toronto would have run his license and fingerprints through both the RCMP database and ViCAP - the US Violent Criminal Apprehension Program - checking for felony convictions. They noted no discrepancies so I have to assume it checked out."


"Possibly," Maggie allowed. "Not finding a fingerprint match in either system, the Ontario Provincial Police might not have dug much further. However, they should have double-checked the social security numbers..."

"ID theft?"

"More likely," she decided.

"Well, maybe he used it in the US, too." Ray handed the file to the desk sergeant. "Just let me get Miss Marcy 'He's-mine-bang-bang' taken care of and we'll find out."

Part 58

It was only five a.m. Jaelyn sighed and punched her pillow again, fighting to get comfortable. She should have still been zonked but could barely lie still, let alone actually sleep.

Less then twelve hours from now, they'd be back in Chicago, the fairytale would be over and reality would embrace them once again. She had her lawyers and insurance people to meet with, as well as the doctors and police and whomever Kevin, her night manager, had gotten to handle the demolition... She needed to make sure that everything in the vault had been returned to its proper owners and that none of her employees was having any problems with worker's comp or their insurance plan. She probably needed to write out letters of recommendation for some of them as well. Most of them would have already filed for unemployment, but she needed to make sure they were being taken care of and not slipping through the bureaucratic cracks... Jason, Kevin's son, was supposed to be handling most of it, or at least what part of it he and his father could; but it was her Inn, or it had been, and so it was her job to double-check them. Besides, the lawyers and insurance guys would only give them the run-around.

She felt a headache threatening even thinking about it!

Damn, but she didn't want to go back. These last two weeks had been absolute heaven! Well, not heaven, she reminded herself, thinking about those two days that Ben had all but sat on her with that stupid head cold. The man could be the most stubborn, aggravating--

The memory of their kiss just that afternoon completely overrode any anger or resentment the other memory might hold.

She smiled and closed her eyes as she lifted a hand to her lips. Yeah, he might be one of the most irritating and pigheaded men she'd ever met - he was stubborn and single-minded and painfully polite and never wrong.

Except when he lied. Well, he hadn't exactly lied, she corrected herself. He... simply hadn't told her the truth (or anything for that matter!) about the cops' suspicions when they realized Greg had been murdered.

She shoved the thought away. She refused to even think about all that... that.... *stuff*. It was over. It was done with! Yes, Ben had lied to her. He'd been wrong to lie. But they'd gotten beyond that. He'd also been wrong about making her miss the storyteller Saturday!

But he'd made it up to her, too. She sighed and shook her head, remembering all the stories and tales he'd given her that night, his face so alive and open.

He normally wore a bit of a mask she realized.

Yes, Benton Fraser just might be one of the most exasperating men she'd ever met, but he was also one of the most understanding and compassionate as well. He could make her so mad and then turn around and... and...

She suddenly rolled her eyes and sat up. He was getting under her skin, she realized. And she was along way from being ready for that. Five a.m. in the morning or not, it was time for her to get up.

If she were lucky, Ben would be too tired from yesterday to hear her. In any case, she couldn't lie here anymore! Maybe she'd get some milk and just stare out at the snow on the balcony, saying a silent little goodbye to Aspen. She hoped it wouldn't be another five years before she got out here again.

Ben stared up at the ceiling in the predawn hours and chewed his bottom lip. He could argue with himself about the wisdom of it all he wanted to but... He was falling in love, and he didn't seem to be able to stop it. Stop it... Did he really *want* to stop it? That was the real question. And why?

He glanced at the clock beside his bed: 6:04 am. He had no idea why he was awake. It was far too early for Jaelyn to be up and about yet - only silence greeted his questing ears - but he couldn't seem to go back to sleep either. Heavy cloud cover, obscuring the predawn light, kept the room clothed in equally heavy darkness. The weather report promised it would clear off by ten, so there was no reason to expect any difficulties with their flight this afternoon.

His thoughts turned once again to Jaelyn. She was... What was she? "Incredible" a small part of his mind readily answered. He offered the thought a wry smile. No, she wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever met. No, she wasn't the most considerate or strong or passionate or kind or... She had a temper, a very nasty temper, and a sharp tongue when she wanted to use it. She could be as stubborn as the day was long! She was a bit spoiled and took things for granted sometimes... And, he forced himself to be blunt, she was deaf. Such could be a very dangerous handicap in the north.

The north. There he was again, thinking about her up north, as his wife - sharing a cabin, raising children...

He tried to imagine himself living in the city for the rest of his life instead in a high-rise apartment, or even one of her pre-manufactured-type cabins, with nothing more than an occasional visit home to ease his soul.

The thought struck him like a blow. "Home." That was the problem. Even if he let himself fall in love with her, the city would never be home. The tundra and wide-open spaces, the mountains and forests, the snow and midnight sun and the aurora borealis... yes, even the dangers were a part of who he was. The simple knowledge that someday he *would* go home was sometimes the only thing that kept him going. That and the friendships he'd forged since coming to the States. Those friendships were some of the strongest and best he'd ever known, but none of them had ever even tempted him with the thought of never going back home again.

Memories of the last time he'd fallen in love intruded on his thoughts. But Victoria had been raised in Alaska, so...

Was Victoria the real problem, he wondered? There was no love for her left in his heart, not for the woman she'd become. He'd always remember the woman he'd arrested on Fortitude Pass, the woman he'd thought she was anyway, before revenge consumed whatever love she might have felt for him in return...

He shook his head, banishing such thoughts. Regret, guilt, pity... Anger and pain - that's all he felt for her now. She'd nearly destroyed him... He'd nearly destroyed himself, because of her!

He again shoved the memory of her from his mind. Jaelyn was nothing like Victoria. What he felt for her was nothing like what he'd felt for Victoria. He never wanted to feel that way again!

Was that the problem? He was frightened? Frightened of what falling in love might mean? Frightened of losing himself within his own needs and desires and-- Again he ended the thought before memory could take him. Those memories were starting to fade at last, but it was a slow process. He wanted to do nothing that might reawaken or empower them again.

He frowned and blinked up at the ceiling once more, forcing himself to examine his own heart clinically. Had Victoria so badly scarred him that he could never share his heart with someone again? Never entrust it to someone like Jaelyn, or anyone else for that matter, without reservation or doubt? Never know the true fulfillment of what love was all about? Had Victoria robbed him of that as well? Would he *let* her rob him of that?

He suddenly shook his head and rolled his eyes. He was thinking too much, that was the problem! As if he really had any control over what his heart felt about anything. The only way he could keep from falling in love with Jaelyn was if he stopped it now: ended the relationship, moved out, refused to see her ever again...

He closed his eyes and lifted a hand to massage his forehead as a self-mocking bubble of laughter twisted his lips. He doubted even that would work!

Ben frowned and blinked his eyes open, listening sharply as he tried to catch the odd noise which had suddenly snagged his attention. The suite remained silent...


It almost immediately slipped into silence again and he frowned harder, more in frustrated curiosity than anything else. Rolling to his side, he carefully pushed himself upright, mindful of muscles which had a tendency to protest his early morning exertions, especially given the workout they'd gotten on the dogsled run yesterday.

It wasn't a "menacing" sound, or one that would normally elicit a sense of danger. He'd heard it once before, over a week ago, an almost but not quite musical sound. Then, too, it had been early in the morning and had stopped the moment he opened his bedroom door.

The problem was, he couldn't identify it.

He rose and dressed even as he regarded the edges of the door where it met the casement. It was too dark to see properly so he flipped on the table lamp beside his bed. Perhaps it was a pressure differential between rooms caused by the heating system wherein air from the main room forced its way through a small gap, or from his room into the main room, causing a-- He frowned harder and moved to inspect the door more closely. Such a pressure equalization between rooms should sound more like a rattle or a... It wasn't a whistle-type sound either. Nor even a moan, really...

He ran his hands carefully over the wood, feeling for the passage of air. He did indeed find a slight draft. The door wasn't designed to be air tight after all. But the sound that had captured his curiosity was intermittent.

He cocked his head to the side as he strained to hear it again. There'd been a definite musical quality to it, a rise and fall of pitch, but just slightly off key. Just slightly. He knew already it wasn't the stereo. When last he'd heard it, he'd thought perhaps it might be a discrepancy in the sound insulation between hotel suites, yet it was clear despite being such a soft sound.

He opened his door carefully, listening. It was hardly critical that he identify it, but the fact that he couldn't was quite irritating. Ben didn't like mysteries he couldn't solve.

He moved into the hall and flipped on the light before turning to examine the door from the outside, first stretching upward and looking for any checks in the wood which might funnel the air into vortices, then down along the hinged side... The bottom had a significant gap, perhaps a quarter of an inch, but there was a seam where the hardwood flooring of the two rooms were joined...
Jaelyn had turned from where she stood by the sliding-glass doors in the dark when Ben turned on the hall light and now silently watched as he crawled all over his bedroom door. She frowned in total perplexity, wondering what in the world he was up to? She set her empty milk glass aside and quietly padded forward so as not to distract him as she watched his search and tried to figure it out.

He was on his knees now and opened the door again, running his hand over the floor between the two rooms and then closing the door again as he failed to find whatever he was looking for. He sat back on his heels for a moment, frowning at the door before him in evident confusion, then raised up on his knees and leaned forward, studying the doorknob intently. He ran a finger around it and brought his hand to his nose, rubbing the fingers together. He frowned further and then leaned closer yet to the door...

Much to Jaelyn's surprise, he actually licked the doorknob!

She winced in mild disgust. "Uh, Ben?" She finally broke her silence, causing him to give a violent start and glance back over his shoulder at her. He froze, much like a deer might if caught in a car's headlights; his eyes huge, his mouth open and his tongue still poised. "You don't know where that's been." She fed him the standard line her father had always given her as a young child anytime she went to put something she shouldn't into her mouth.

He seemed to have to think about that for a second, then gave the doorknob a guilty glance and jumped to his feet, offering her a bit of an embarrassed smile. He gestured at the door, seemingly searching for a way to explain whatever it was he'd been doing but not quite sure how to begin.

Jaelyn folded her arms and cocked her head to the side, quite curious and refusing to let him off the hook. She'd known him to do some odd things before but--

^I was checking for – graphite dust,^ he told her. He had to pause and finger spell g-r-a-p-h-i-t-e.

She nodded and shrugged at the same time, having absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Offering him a perplexed grin that wasn't about to question him further, she spun on her heel and headed for the kitchen. "Tea or coffee this morning?" she called over her shoulder.

Part 59

"Oh, man," Ray sighed. Naturally someone would have to pound on the door just as he sat down to watch the morning news. Ma and Ren were busy in the kitchen and Frannie was taking a shower. That left him to answer it. With an irritated groan he shoved himself up off the couch again and hurried to the hall. "I'm coming already!" he hollered as the knock was repeated. "Jeesh!" Some people had no patience, he thought. He opened the door to find a brown uniform in front of him.

"Certified delivery for Renfield Turnbull," the UPS driver announced, reading from his electronic clipboard. He had a brown manila envelope under his arm.

Ray rolled his eyes. "I'll sign for it," he sighed, reaching for the board and stylus.

"You Renfield Turnbull?" the driver asked.

"No. He's busy."

"I'm sorry," the man frowned, refusing to relinquish the board. "I can only accept Mr. Turnbull's signature."

Ray rolled his eyes again. He'd always been able to sign for his mother or other family members when they got something "certified", not that it happened very often. 'Probably some kind of legal stuff from the RCMP about his discharge or something, Ray figured. He turned to shout over his shoulder, then stopped himself. Turnbull tended to be a bit slow and stiff in the mornings. Better to have the driver come in. "Come on," he decided, waving the guy inside. "He's in the kitchen."

He led the way down the hall and through the dining room, into the kitchen. "Ren, you need to sign for something," he announced without preamble and continued over to the coffee pot. A quick glance told him his mother and Turnbull were busy making French toast for breakfast today. He shook his head at the sight of the other man bedecked in a floral apron over his dark blue turtleneck and faded jeans, and fought not to laugh. At least the kids wouldn't have to endure Frannie's cooking when they got older!

Turnbull smiled at the driver and quickly scrawled his name where needed. "Looks like a beautiful day to be out and about," he commented to the driver happily.

"Better than yesterday," the driver agreed. He took the electronic clipboard back, handed over the envelope and, with a nod, quickly turned to leave, brushing past Frannie as she appeared in the kitchen doorway.

"Mmmm!" she offered, granting the delivery guy only a glance. "Something smells like heaven down here!"

"That would be the cinnamon and honey glaze that your young man made to go with the French toast this morning," Ma told her, flipping another slice on the griddle. "Having a man in the house who knows how to cook is spoiling me. Ray, get your sister some coffee. Francesca, get out the silverware. Ren, sit down; I'll serve. We're almost ready..."

The normal bustle of getting breakfast on the table went on around Turnbull as he moved to obey Francesca's mother. He frowned at the envelope in his hand as he pulled out a chair and eased gently into it, not even bothering to remove his apron first.
"When do you have to leave for the airport, Ray?" Frannie asked as she quickly set the table. "Remember, you're dropping me at the hospital first."

"I thought you were coming with us?" Her brother frowned as he set a cup of coffee at Frannie's normal place. "Want some coffee, Ren?" He glanced at Turnbull and frowned again as he realized the other man looked a bit concerned even as he tore open the envelope he held.

"No thank you, Ray," he answered off-handedly, quickly scanning the official-looking letter inside. His face suddenly went pale.

"Turnbull?" Ray asked in sharp concern. His question and tone of voice drew everyone's attention to the other man.

Ren looked up, clearly shaken. "I..." He glanced at the letter again. "They... they refused my application. I'm... being deported!"

"What!" Ray exclaimed. He was at Ren's side in an instant and snatched the letter from the other man's hand.

"My visa's been revoked," Ren explained in a shocked whisper. "I have fifteen days to appeal or leave the country."

"What?!" Frannie shrieked in turn. She snatched the letter from Ray's hand only to have him snatch it right back.

"I had it first!" he told her firmly and glanced down again, frowning pensively as he quickly read through the document.

"They can't do that! Can they?" Frannie demanded, panic draining her own face of color and forcing her to sit in the chair beside Ren. Ma Vecchio came to stand behind both young people and crossed herself as they all awaited Ray's proclamation.

"Apparently, they can," he decided with an angry frown, "but it also says we have the right to appeal. Naturally, it doesn't say a thing about *why* his visa was revoked." Ray shook his head in irritation. He hated bureaucratic run-a-rounds! Unfortunately, this one had some pretty huge repercussions in it. "It's probably just some kind of technical over-sight on the application or something," he decided. "You said Maggie filed the change of status for you, right?"

"Yes, Ray," Ren nodded.

"Maybe she filled out something wrong."

"Then I would have to leave the States and reapply at an American Consulate in Canada. However, once someone receives such a--"
"--Not so fast," Ray interrupted him with a firm shake of his head. "I'm sure we can get some sort of waiver or special consideration if we appeal it. I'm going to take this down to Stella. I'll bet she knows how to handle these guys."

"Stella?" Frannie repeated in surprise. "Stella Kowalski? Ray, she's... she's an Assistant State's Attorney! She doesn't know anything about visas and... and migration and stuff!"

"She knows how to cut through the bureaucratic red tape," Ray answered, ignoring the malapropism. It only demonstrated how upset Frannie actually was.

"Your brother is right, Francesca," Ma corrected Frannie before she could do more than open her mouth to protest. "Ms. Kowalski may know more of such matters than you think. And if she can't help us, she may be able to get your brother in to see someone who can."

Ray nodded. "I'll call Ray and Maggie and tell them we're not going to make the airport. Ren, this is something we need to take care of right away."

Ren nodded, donning a determined look. He, better than anyone else in the room, knew exactly what that letter meant. Getting the decision contained therein reversed was not going to be an easy matter.

Part 60

As always, Chicago O'Hare International Airport was a crowded mass of humanity, ebbing and flowing as people rushed from one point to another. Gate seventeen was no different. Family members and friends stood with loved ones to see them off or waited to one side to welcome them home. Four of those who waited stood looking out at the tarmac on their side of the tri-hubbed terminals and tried to make sense of the slow dance of commercial aircraft as they taxied from one place to another.

Kowalski glanced at his watch with a frown, then back at the arrival board above the check-in counter. "They're late," he announced, ignoring the fact that the board showed no delay.

"No, they're not," Maggie corrected him. She pointed through the heavy glass off to her left where one of the larger jets was slowly taxiing toward the disembodied arm of a gangway. "That's them now," she claimed.

"How can you tell?" Ray asked in surprise. Because of the angle and everything, he wasn't even sure if the ramp it was approaching was gate seventeen.

Maggie glanced at the board. "It's on schedule, Ray," she told him.

"Oh," he offered lamely and frowned out the window again.
Jeanie immediately jumped to her feet and started toward the door their friends would be coming out of, wanting a good position. "I can't wait to see them!" she exclaimed with all the enthusiasm of a child.

James rolled his eyes.

Ray noticed the other man's reaction and leaned closer. "So," he whispered conspiratorially, "you think maybe your fiancée knows something the rest of us don't?"

James frowned slightly and leaned away from where Ray had invaded his personal space. "Like what?"

Ray smiled after Jeanie and kept his voice low. "Like maybe Ben and Jay went and got hitched?" he asked. A quick glance at James tried to judge his reaction to the suggestion. "You think?"

James frowned harder. "I think you've been watching too much TV, Detective," he offered repressively and turned to join Jeanie.

Maggie slipped into his place as Ray lounged back against the handrail beside the massive windows and folded his arms. "What are you doing, Ray?" she asked quietly.

He offered her a surprised look. "Whadaya mean?"

She didn't buy his innocent look for an instant. "You know perfectly well what I mean," she whispered, glancing after the other couple to make sure they were well out of ear shot. "You've been baiting him all afternoon."

Kowalski offered a little shrug and smiled brightly as Jeanie glanced back over her shoulder at them. "Just needling him a little," he corrected her, adding a wave for good measure. "It don't mean nothing."

"In a pig's eye," Maggie hissed, reinforcing her own happy smile for the benefit of anyone who might be watching them.

Kowalski turned back around to face out the window and watch the plane which was still maneuvering into position. "What about that wrist bone thingie of yours? Is either of them left-handed?"

"Increased development and ossification of the head of the ulna only occurs when someone heavily favors the dominate hand," Maggie answered quietly.

"English?" Ray offered curtly.

"I can't tell."

He frowned and offered a dissatisfied grunt. His mind moved quickly on to something else. "I don't like the fact that his car suddenly turned up stolen," he admitted softly, 'though he knew perfectly well it was probably just coincidence.

"It was stolen last week, Ray," she pointed out. "We simply didn't know about it until today."

"Too convenient."

"Convenient?" Maggie echoed quietly. "Ray, I realize that both he and Jeanie are at the top of our suspects' list, but I don't see how his car being stolen *now* can be called convenient. If he'd used it to transport Jaelyn to the alley, as I assume you're suggesting, don't you think he would have gotten rid of it long before this?"

"Maybe," he answered with a shrug, turning his eyes to watch the reflections of the room in the glass before him. "We never had a reason to look at it before."

"We still don't have a reason, Ray," Maggie pointed out. "Our suspicions are hardly grounds for a search warrant."

"Don't need a search warrant to check tires."


"There were several tread castings taken from the alley where McKenna was found," he explained. He offered his reflection in the glass a quick once-over and shrugged to settle his coat more squarely on his shoulders. "One of them was a Dunlap high performance all weather radial."

Maggie frowned. Tread marks and castings were great for tying a known car to a crime scene, but you couldn't identify a car simply by the tread pattern; and if they were manufacturer issued tires Ray would have likely thought to check James' car right away. There weren't that many Jags around Chicago.

Ray nodded to himself. "Pricey little suckers," he told her. "You wouldn't find 'em on a Toyota pick-up, that's for sure. Well," he amended the thought, "you might, but it'd be weird."

"Too pricey for the local pimps and pushers?"

He cracked his neck, forced to admit it was possible. "You can get just about anything you want from the local chop shops, but pimps and pushers tend to drive used tires," he explained. "Leastwise, the smart ones do."

"To make tread identification harder," Maggie surmised.

Ray nodded. "These were new," he remembered and turned back around as the gangway began it's extension to hook up to the stationary plane, watching James and Jeanie's backs.

"He would have gotten rid of the car sooner if he were worried about it," Maggie repeated.

"Maybe he didn't know to worry about it."

Maggie frowned and shook her head. James struck her as many things but stupid wasn't one of them. "They both still have solid alibis, Ray," she reminded him, "and James *did* save Jaelyn when she was chocking at the restaurant. He could have just as easily performed the Hiemleich maneuver wrong and let her die."

"Ben would have taken over."

"Maybe," Maggie shrugged. Ben couldn't talk. He might not have been able to interrupt or correct the other man even if he did realize James was doing it wrong. "There are an awful lot of maybes in this case."

"Too many," Ray agreed. The first of the passengers were beginning to deplane. "And I think maybe the biggest one we got to worry about right now is what we're going to tell Ben and Jay about any of this..."

Maggie frowned unhappily as she watched Jeanie all but dance in place as she waited for her friend to appear. "Why tell them anything?" she asked quietly, forcing herself to be coldly professional. It seemed hard to believe that Jeanie might be involved in Jaelyn's rape and attempted murder, but Maggie had learned the hard way that appearances could be deceiving. She also knew that anything they told Ben would likely be related to Jay. He'd promised not to keep any secrets regarding the investigation from her again. That wasn't a promise that Maggie figured he was ready to break, not given how angry Jaelyn had gotten the last time. And anything that Ben told Jaelyn would very likely get back to Jeanie and James...

Now she was doing it, Maggie realized: focusing too tightly on the primary suspects. There could well be someone else they hadn't thought of who had a secondary motive for wanting Jaelyn dead. She frowned as another thought struck her. "If we're right and Jaelyn's hospital room was bugged, there's a good chance their place at the Manilow is too."

Ray cast her a surprised glance. Why hadn't he thought of that? "We need to get forensics in there to sweep it!" he hissed.

"No," Maggie corrected him. "We do and it'll just tip our hand. Whoever is after her probably doesn't know we're looking for him."

"Then we keep our mouths shut and say nothing? Do nothing?!" He didn't like that idea one bit.

Maggie nodded. "For now." She didn't like it either but it was the safest route.

Jeanie suddenly jumped up and down and then hurried forward with a delighted squeal. Obviously, the couple in question had appeared.

"He's going to kill us, you know," Ray decided unhappily.

"Better that than us having to attend his funeral," Maggie replied. With silent nods of agreement, and the unspoken understanding that they were going to have to be watching Ben and Jay like hawks, Maggie and Ray pasted smiles in place and went to welcome their friends home.

Part 61

Ben offered the waiting wheelchair an undisguised glare.

Maggie read the look easily enough and cocked her head to the side as she prepared for battle. She'd known he'd put up a fight. That was why she'd asked the attendant to wait with them rather than moving to meet him at the bottom of the gangway as was customary. "Doctor's orders, Ben," she reminded him gently.

Ben ignored her, turning to offer the attendant a small smile before waving her off.

A hand on the young woman's shoulder stopped her from turning away even as Ray stepped around Ben's other side between her and James. "Mr. Macho here's being stubborn," he decided with a knowing grin. Sure enough, Ben offered him a dark frown for the comment.

"Ooo," Maggie chimed in as well, "and overly sensitive, too!" Her blue eyes danced and shimmered with determination even as she fought not to laugh at her brother. This was one battle he wouldn't win.

Ray leaned a little towards James but his words were pitched for Ben as well. "Chicks dig the sensitive macho type." He nodded knowingly at Jaelyn.

Both Ben and James rolled their eyes.

With a determined frown, Ben moved to step around the chair, hoping to end the discussion before it began. To his mounting frustration, Ray folded his arms and simply stepped in front of him, resolutely refusing to let Ben pass.

"Uh-uh, Frase," Ray corrected him with a lopsided grin that said he knew exactly what Ben was up to. "Stop trying to impress your girl and get in the chair, like a good little Mountie-boy."

Ben's frown became decidedly irritated.

"What's wrong?" Jaelyn asked, confused by the by-play going on before her.

Jeanie giggled and, much to Ben's discomfort, quickly began scribbling an answer on a large pad of paper she'd brought with her.

^I don't need it,^ he signed firmly, pointing to the chair and shaking his head. Again, he went to step around it and Ray only to literally run into the other man as his friend stepped in front of him once more. His glare was returned with that know-it-all smile Ray tended to adopt when he was being his most stubborn. Ben glanced down in exasperation, compressing his lips in a decidedly sullen look, and found himself very tempted to bring the tip of his cane to bear on Ray's instep. That would make him move...

"Macho?" Jaelyn read aloud.

Ben glanced over in embarrassment to see her biting her lip to keep from laughing at him. Great, he thought and shook his head. Could the situation get any worse?

"Oh, for God's sake!" James exclaimed in irritation. "If the man wants to be an idiot, let him. He'll collapse halfway to the car and be begging for a wheelchair. Come on." He turned and tried to urge Jeanie and Jaelyn ahead of him toward the concourse.

Jaelyn, however, wasn't about to leave Ben behind. Spinning out of James' reach, she stepped in front of Ben, nudging Kowalski aside. "Allow me," she told them. She glared up at the glowering man before her and placed her hands on her hips, but there was laughter lurking in her eyes and she couldn't hold the frown. It was with a grin she quite clearly and deliberately called him, "Butt head."

Ben blinked in surprise and glanced away sharply, instantly remembering the last time she'd called him that only days before when she was sick. He'd had to all but sit on her to keep her down. They're situations were now reversed, and it was clear she was enjoying it. He was surprised to discover a smile tugging at his own lips and fought to suppress it as her sense of the ridiculous invaded and colored his thoughts about the situation. If he cracked a grin he was lost!

Maggie glanced at Ray who shrugged. He was as confused by the exchange as she was. With a sigh, she tried again, offering her comments both verbally and in sign. "Doctors orders–"

"–I know, I know," Jaelyn interrupted her, reading the sign from the corner of her eye without dropping her gaze from Ben's face. She saw the laughter he was fighting to deny, even if no one else could. She cocked her head to the side and offered him an understanding smile. "I know you don't need it, Ben," she told him quietly, lifting her hand to rest it on his arm. "Take it anyway. I'm tired and I want to get home."

"Hey! Good idea!" Ray suddenly exclaimed. He quickly took the wheelchair from the attendant and, pushing it into place behind Ben, awarded him a grin and a wink. "You can both ride!"

The attendant was fast to speak up. "I'm afraid that's against airport--"

"—Hey, come on!" Ray interrupted her. "Bend a little. Ben here cannot walk for miles and miles to get to our car, and his girlfriend suffers from..." He frowned as he struggled to come up with the right acronym and failed. He glanced up as he suddenly realized she probably didn't want it blabbed about in any case.

"She doesn't do well in crowds," Maggie supplied simply.

"Right," he nodded. "Right. She, uh, she can't stand being grabbed or, uh--"

"--She's was severely injured a few months ago," Maggie again offered in a confidential undertone. "Like Ben, she's still recovering."

Jaelyn frowned in confusion. Clearly the conversation had taken a new twist but she had no idea what it was. Jeanie quickly scribbled an explanation for her.

Ray again nodded, ignoring Jaelyn for the moment and glancing toward the concourse. "You're awfully busy right now," he added. "What do you think our chances are of getting out of here without her getting jostled? And lord help us if she should get separated or lost in this crowd..."

The attendant was already holding up her hands in surrender and shaking her head. "Okay, okay!"

Ray grinned triumphantly and turned to look at Maggie who grinned right back.

"This is ridiculous," James sighed even as Jaelyn glanced up from whatever note Jeanie had hastily written. He watched as she gestured Ben to the chair with a smile and a shrug. "If she can't stand to be grabbed, how's she supposed to ride in his lap?"

Everyone ignored him, paying attention instead to the silent exchange that seemed to be taking place between Ben and Jaelyn. With a sigh, Ben gave in and lowered himself into the waiting chair. To James' surprise, Jaelyn easily slipped into place and turned in Ben's lap to smile up at him even as his arms automatically wrapped around her waist to steady her.

Ray turned to James with a broad grin. "They're lovers!" he quipped readily, answering James' protest. "What do you expect?"
Ben reacted almost violently, literally jerking in his seat and very nearly dumping Jaelyn from her perch. She offered a sharp little cry of surprise even as Ben instantly caught her back into place and she gripped his shirtfront.

"Whoa there, buddy!" Ray slapped a hand on his shoulder to steady him in the chair.

Ben shot him a truly forbidding look but was forced to turn back forward to assure himself that Jaelyn was all right.

She was trembling a bit but managed to laugh it off. "Trying to remind me of the dogsled ride we took?" she grinned.

Her smile was infectious, as was the memory her words evoked, but neither was enough to distract Ben from his anger.

"What?" she asked, confused again as he shot his friend another clearly read warning look.

Had he been standing, Ray might very well have found himself flat on his back for that remark! With a sigh, Ben shoved the emotion aside. He probably wouldn't have hit Ray, he decided, but he would have loved to jerk him aside and be able to give him a piece of his mind. He shook his head in answer to Jaelyn's frown, knowing he couldn't explain and frankly a bit surprised by the depth of his own reaction.

He awarded Ray a hooded glance, wanting to make sure the other man had gotten his message.

Ray was grinning ear to ear, his attention more on James then Ben. "Dogsled ride?" he echoed happily. "Sounds cozy!"

James rolled his eyes again and grabbed up Jeanie's hand before she could write any more. "Let's go!" he sighed in exasperation, shrugging Jaelyn's carry-on over his shoulder and turning to lead the way into the crowd without a backward look to see if any of them were following or not.

"Touchy..." Ray commented and quickly set the chair in motion. Maggie had to hurry to catch up.

Part 62

So far, Ray and Ren were batting a thousand; a negative thousand that is. Ray shook his head in frustration as the traffic through the airport parking lots inched forward. At the rate they were going, Ben and Maggie would be long gone before they made it inside!

They'd spent the entire morning trying to track down Stella Kowalski, hoping she could help unravel the immigrations mess Ren found himself in. First, Ray had tried to call her. All he'd gotten was her voice mail. A call to her offices had only proven to be a lesson in futility. An appointment before next week was out of the question and getting any information as to where she was had been like pulling teeth! After several minutes of ranting and raving, he'd finally managed to learn that she was in court - which explained why he'd gotten her voice mail. Her secretary refused to say which court, though she offered to take a message.

Message! He'd already left three messages on her voice mail.

He took a chance and called Judicial Circuit Court Administration and then asked to be transferred to scheduling. That had managed to pull up the day's court dockets. He'd had to do quite a bit of wriggling to get it because he was no longer a police officer with the Chicago PD.

Damn, but he would be glad when he got rid of this lead inside him and could apply for reinstatement!

They then raced across town to the 17th Circuit Courthouse only to find they'd missed her by five minutes. Her assistant told Ray she was having a working lunch with a client but he didn't know where.

She still wasn't answering her cell phone.

Ray and Ren had decided to grab some lunch too before trying to head her off at her next court appearance. Unfortunately, after grabbing some fast Chinese take-out much to Ren's chagrin (something about too much MSG), they went to the wrong place. The venue had been changed at the last-minute because of a vague tale concerning a busted water pipe.

At two in the afternoon, Ray had finally given up. Stella would check her messages sooner or later. Waiting for her call was more efficient than chasing all over town with a wounded ex-Mountie who was starting to look a bit pale from all the jostling in the car. Ren never said a word of complaint, but Ray knew he was starting to hurt.

Together, they decided they might as well try to meet Ben and Jay's plane. Ray and Maggie would be there, and Maggie was the one who'd filed the paperwork for Ren. It made sense that she might have some idea what the problem was. And if she didn't, Ben might. He'd supervised Ren's efforts for others with similar problems for almost three years.

From the looks of it, however, they were going to miss them too! Ray glanced at his watch and slapped his steering wheel. Ben and Jay would *have* to come in during peak hours and the airport would *have* to decide to do some repaving this week, shuffling the parking areas and confusing the heck out of him and everyone else. Why did these things have to happen to him?
"We're going to miss them!" he claimed, answering the other man's surprised look.

Ren glanced down at his own watch and frowned. "Oh, dear," he offered quietly. "Their flight landed ten minutes ago."

"Exactly!" Ray complained. "By the time we get a parking spot and get inside, they'll be halfway across town at some restaurant eating dinner!"

Ren thought that a bit of an exaggeration, but that they were in danger of missing them, as they had missed Ms. Kowalski all day, was a very real possibility. They would likely be en route to the baggage claim area now and, even if Corporal Fraser were still recovering from his attack and walking slowly, Ren too was forced to walk quite slowly.

"Assuming a normal gait of fifty centimeters per step, probably reduced to twenty-five or so and walking slow so perhaps - oh, I don't know... one hundred steps a minute–"

"–What?" Ray interrupted, catching only a small fragment of what Ren was saying as he muttered something about "gates".

Ren shook his head in self-disparagement at his own inadequacy, knowing Ben could have figured out the math in a matter of seconds. Then he realized that if Ben were in a wheelchair, the calculations would have to be based on someone else's stride which could also be influenced by the amount of foot traffic surrounding them and the normal ebb and flow of crowd dynamics which would–

"--Earth to Turnbull," Ray declared boldly, forcibly catching the other man's attention once again. "What are you muttering about?"

"Nothing, Ray." He again shook his head, deciding that there were too many unknowns to make an exact calculation. "Perhaps you should try calling them again?"

Ray sighed dramatically but dug out his cell yet again. He'd tried earlier and gotten the typical "the party you have tried to call is unavailable at this time" message. Either Kowalski had turned off his cell or he was sitting somewhere with bad reception. Still, it couldn't hurt to try. He moved forward another few feet, then stabbed in the requisite numbers.

Part 63

Ben tilted his head to the side sharply in an attempt to stretch the muscles of his neck a bit. He'd given up on swinging his gaze back and forth amongst the friends to either side and above him and answered what little of the conversation was actually now directed at him with a simple nod or shake of his head. Most of the conversation had been done through Jaelyn on his lap, with Jeanie constantly scribbling something new on her pad for them to answer.
As they finally came to a stop beside the baggage area, Jaelyn slipped from his lap and stood stretching her own neck. Ben deftly locked the wheelchair's brakes and set his hands on the armrests preparatory to rising as well, only to find Ray's hand quickly slapped down on his shoulder. Ben frowned sharply.

Ray merely smiled and leaned downward. "Be a good little Mountie and we won't have to report you to Dief."

Rolling his eyes, Ben subsided and let his hands drop from the wheelchair arms. He shook his head in disgust. Let someone save your life and they make you pay and pay and pay...

Jeanie was talking up a storm, carrying on a conversation with the others even as she passed her pad back and forth to Jaelyn. That pad was getting a real work out and Jaelyn was looking every bit as confused and overwhelmed by it all as Ben felt.

Jeanie laughed, turning to smile down on Ben and include him. “So... I don't see any rings yet," she teased them both. "You're being too slow! What do you think about a double wedding? That would be cool, huh?”

"Jeanie..." James offered in irritated warning.

"Oh, come on!" She nudged James shoulder and grinned ear to ear. "I'll bet they already have matching luggage!"

Ben offered Jaelyn's friend a lifted brow that was half-surprise and half-silent rebuke for her outrageousness. They did in fact have matching luggage but that was only because the particular style had been on sale and Jaelyn had said she needed to replace a couple of older pieces anyway. Ben was finding it quite irritating that their friends should so purposefully choose to read more into the situation than was there. They'd only been gone for two weeks, for heaven's sakes! However, he knew from past experience that it would take more than a lifted eyebrow to get Jeanie to stop. She merely laughed it off and turned her teasing toward Jaelyn, who was shaking her head and trying not to blush at something Jeanie had written.

"Just 'cause there ain't no ring doesn't mean he didn't ask her," Kowalski offered easily.

James rolled his eyes, even more frustrated than either Ben or Jaelyn was by the continued talk of their possible engagement.

“So... did you?” Maggie asked with a broad grin. The smile and mischievous glint in her eyes made it more than plain that she was joking with him, but Ben was tempted to nod "yes" just to see her shocked expression. He didn't of course.

“Are we going to need to call in a moving van for your stuff?” James offered, trying to change the subject. “The two of you took off with nothing, you know.” He frowned without looking at them, and muttered under his breath, “Real smart, you two.”

Ben ignored the sarcastic comment and signed an answer for Jaelyn to translate. “'Just three bags',” she read, and knew immediately what James had said – or an approximation of it. “No, I didn't buy out half of Aspen!” She rolled her eyes in tolerant amusement as Jeanie grabbed the pad and quickly scribbled something. “No, I didn't leave it all at the honeymoon cottage!” she answered with mild exasperation and glanced at Ben for strength. “Is she driving you as crazy as she is me?”

Ben again resisted the urge to nod and offered a diplomatic non-answer instead. ^Stop reading,^ he signed simply.

Jaelyn shook her head and offered a long-suffering sigh. She was no more capable of doing that than Ben was of being rude to his friends. Instead, she tried to redirect her friend's attention, choosing Jeanie's wedding plans. It was a good choice. The other woman was instantly distracted and quickly grabbed back the writing pad to answer.

James rolled his eyes again and reached up to rub his temple where a definite headache was developing. God, not more talk about the wedding!

Ray was frowning surreptitiously at James when his cell phone demanded attention. With a sigh, he dug it out and flipped it open. "Kowalski," he snapped smartly. It better not be work, he thought. He'd made special arrangements for the day off with Welsh. No way was he going in!

"Vecchio?" He frowned more sharply as he fought to hear over the noise. He lifted a hand to cover his other ear and block out some of the noise. "Say again?"

James had finally spotted a set of bags that matched Jaelyn's description and hurried forward to check the tags.

"They did what?" Kowalski frowned harder and glanced up, catching Maggie's eyes. "Yeah, hang on." He lowered the phone and offered it to Maggie. "Vecchio. He says Turnbull's Visa was revoked."

Maggie's brows soared upward as she grabbed up the cell.

Ben frowned sharply and reached out to draw Kowalski's attention, giving him a clearly read look of query.

"Don't know," Kowalski answered with a shrug. "Apparently they got a letter about it this morning."

Ben turned his frown towards Maggie, unashamedly eavesdropping as he tried to understand what had happened.

"The letter didn't say why?" she asked, apparently wanting clarification. She met Ben's eyes and continued to frown. It wasn't a simple misunderstand or delayed correspondence of some sort. "No, I didn't leave anything blank. Where are you?"

^Ben?^ Jaelyn frowned in curiosity as she and Jeanie noted the serious looks.

He lifted his hands and quickly explained.

"'Kay," Maggie decided. "Um... do you have the letter with you? ... Well, go get it and I'll meet you at the Consulate. I'll have Ray drop me off as soon as we leave here."

She glanced at her watch and Ben followed suit: Three-thirty. That didn't leave a lot of time to review the paperwork and contact the local US Immigrations office to file an appeal.

^Why would they reject it?^ Jaelyn asked, still using sign so as not to talk over Maggie.

There were too many possibilities for Ben to begin to answer, but he couldn't see most of them applying to Ren. He offered a helpless shrug as he listened to Maggie hang up and explain what little she'd been able to get from Ray. Ben quickly volunteered to help. He had far more experience dealing with US Visa regulations than Maggie did.

"Can I help?" Jaelyn added after translating Ben's offer. She remembered the tall, young Mountie and would never forget that he was shot working her case. He was such a sweet young man and she knew he was planning to get married here sometime soon. It was ridiculous to think the government might toss him out!

Maggie smiled in appreciation of the offer but shook her head.

Ben was not so fast to dismiss it. ^He might need - a lawyer,^ he told her. An appeal would have to go before an Immigrations Judge. Depending on the cause of the action, a lawyer who specialized in such difficulties might be wise.

She nodded decisively. "Done," she said simply. "All I need is a TDD."

"Hopefully, it won't come to that," Maggie interjected.

"Come to what?" James asked, frowning as he joined the group again with the three suitcases he'd retrieved and let them drop with a loud clunk beside Ben's wheelchair. "Anyone else going to help me with these?"

Part 64

That cop, Kowalski, was really starting to piss him off.

James ground his teeth as he fought the traffic on the JFK Expressway and headed for The Manilow where Ben and Jay had a suite. First, the guy had riled him with the jokes about the Mountie and the girl getting married, and then he'd volunteered him to take the bags to their hotel while the cop and his girlfriend dragged both over to the Consulate. He'd been effectively reduced to little more than a bellhop!


"--Shut up!" he snapped angrily. He was at his limit of being able to put up with inane idiocy and that included any comments or remarks from Jeanie!

She stared at him in surprise for a long moment, then offered him a glare of her own. "No!" she answered angrily. "What the hell is wrong with you? You've been nothing but hateful and nasty all day."

James gripped the steering wheel tighter and fought the temptation to give her the backhand she was begging for. The bitch was going to make him have an accident!

"Is it work? A deal going sour or something?" she demanded. "You've been so busy lately I've hardly seen you at all this week."

The reason she hadn't seen him was because he needed to escape her constant henpecking about the wedding! He glared at the mid-town traffic around them and held his tongue, knowing he'd say something he'd regret if he didn't.

Jeanie sighed, her frown transforming from one of anger and irritation to one of concern as James failed to answer her. His hands were literally white knuckled where he gripped the steering wheel. She shook her head and tried a different tact, laying her hand upon the back of his neck and massaging the tense muscles there. "James," she offered more gently, "Come on. What's wrong? I'm your fiancée. I'm going to be your wife in a little more than a month. You can tell me. I *need* you to tell me. Don't shut me out."

James almost laughed. Shut her out - that was a good one! As if he had ever let her in. If she had any idea what he was thinking right now, she'd be cowering in mindless terror. The gentle, condescending words were like acid on his abraded nerves.

He glanced in his rearview mirror, judging the speed and distance of the other cars, noting who was paying attention to their driving and who wasn't... The guy in the right lane behind him was busy on his cell. James slammed on his brakes and swerved momentarily right, cutting into the other lane before swerving back into his own lane and gunning the engine. Tires squealed in surprise behind him. "Wake up time!" he murmured quietly.

Jeanie was slammed forward in her seatbelt and then back again as he resumed his speed.

Behind them, the car he'd momentarily cut off had swerved right to avoid him and caught the lip of the shoulder. A jerk on the wheel over-compensated and brought the driver back across his lane and into James' lane where he clipped the bumper of the car behind them. Both vehicles lost control and started to spin as other drivers slammed on their brakes and fought to keep from joining the deadly dance.

He smiled slightly as he watched the puppets behind him respond as expected - then slammed a hand into the middle of Jeanie's chest, belatedly pulling her back against her seat. "Whoa!" he exclaimed, for show's sake. "Sorry 'bout that. Some idiot lost a hubcap back there. Damn, will you look at that?"

Traffic in front of them had slowed in answer to the sound of screeching tires and screaming metal. Jeanie fought to catch her breath and understand what had just happened. Hubcap, she thought? Blinking sharply, she turned to look behind them and gasped. "Oh, my God!" she whispered as a third car tried and failed to avoid the tangled wreck that was just beginning to grind to a slow inevitable halt. It plowed into the tail end of the car before it and nearly flipped.

"Yes, operator," James intoned calmly into his cell. "I'd like to report a car accident on the John F. Kennedy Expressway, about ten miles east of O'Hare."

Jeannie glanced from the crash behind them and stared at James, confused and uncertain about her own perceptions. Had she actually seen him smile there for an instant? Why did she have the feeling that there was no hubcap in the roadway? How could she even entertain the idea that he had caused the accident on purpose! She was being ridiculous... She shook her head and forced herself to take a calming breath. Ridiculous, she told herself again and decided to simply be grateful that they hadn't been among those caught in the accident.

Part 65

Inspector Carruthers frowned down at the paperwork and case history before him and shook his head. Of all the incompetent, bureaucratic, red-tape foul ups... He was interrupted by a gentle knock.


He glanced up to see Lacy, his secretary, leaning in his doorway.

"I was wondering if I should go or not, Sir," she offered with a glance for the clock above his mantle. It was four-forty and she had technically been off for the last ten minutes.

"Why ask?" he frowned. She'd never asked before, just said her good-byes.

"Constable MacKenzie seems to be holding some sort of..." She glanced down the hall toward the Deputy Liaison Officer's office and then back at the Inspector in clear confusion. "Some sort of meeting, Sir. Both Corporal Fraser and Mr. Turnbull, as well as others I don't know, are back there. I wasn't sure if--"

"--Really?" He let his brows wing upward in surprise even as he rose to his feet and moved to join her at the door. "When did this start?"

"About an hour ago."

He stepped into the doorway and frowned down the hallway to his left. His subordinate's office was at the far back and around the corner. He could just make out several muted voices coming from that direction. "How many?" he asked, trying to decide if he should be affronted by this invasion of the Consulate or not.

"I counted six, Sir. Plus the wolf."

Six? Inspector Curruthers' brows winged upward yet again. How in the world had Maggie managed to fit six people in that tiny office of hers? What in the world was she thinking! The Consulate was not the appropriate venue for a social gathering. "You said Corporal Fraser was with them?" As he remembered, Maggie had asked for the day off so she could meet her brother at the airport. The man had taken a short vacation in the midst of his recuperation and was due back from Aspen today.

"Yes, Sir," she answered. "Corporal Fraser, Mr. Turnbull, Constable MacKenzie and three others I didn't know: two men and a woman."

The Inspector offered an irritated little humph. "Given Corporal Fraser's history, I wouldn't put it past the man to have stumbled on an international terrorist ring with links to Chicago and Canada while he was in Aspen." He shook his head in exasperation.

"Should I stay, Sir?" the secretary asked her original question again.

"What?" he frowned, forcing his attention back to her. "Oh. No, no. Go ahead and go. Whatever it is, it's not official; and it seems to me Constable MacKenzie has more than enough help, eh? I'll just take a mosey on back there and find out what's to do. Call Constable Cooper off of door duty and have him man the phones until five. I'll see you in the morning."

The two of them exchanged nods of parting and she turned back to her desk as he offered the hall a curious frown. With a sigh, he clasped his hands behind his back and "moseyed" to his subordinate's office, listening intently as he went.

"I don't see anything wrong..." Carruthers heard Turnbull offer pensively. He easily recognized the younger man's voice. "Oh, dear," he suddenly offered.

"What?" another man's voice, one he didn't recognize, demanded. "You found the problem?"

"I'm... not sure," Turnbull answered.

He tilted his head as he turned the corner in the back hall and thought he recognized the back of the blond headed man who stood half-in and half-out of the narrow doorway: a Chicago Police Detective, if he was right. Maggie often ran around with him. Curruthers approached the group silently, having no compunction about eavesdropping given the circumstances.

"The signature?" Constable MacKenzie's voice added. "You were pretty out of it, Ren; but that is your signature. It's properly witnessed. I'm not surprised you don't remember me bringing it to you."

Curruthers frowned as he began to piece the gist of the conversation together. He decided it was time to make his presence known and loudly cleared his throat causing the blond-headed man before him to start violently. Served him right, Curruthers thought. A police officer should never let someone sneak up on him like that.

Kowalski turned to find the Chief Liaison Officer standing expectantly behind him. "Sir!" he exclaimed in surprise, much as he would had Lieutenant Welsh managed to sneak up on him. He raised his voice slightly so those in the crowded room would hear him clearly as he identified the other man. "Inspector Carruthers, Sir! I'm sorry, did we, uh--"

"--No," Carruthers answered the question before he could finish it and waved the taller man aside. He was then fronted by a dark haired but balding man he didn't know.

"You Carruthers?" the man asked bluntly. He didn't wait for an answer as he took the Inspector's hand and gave it a perfunctory shake. "Ray Vecchio," he introduced himself curtly. "Yeah, you could say there's a problem: Turnbull's visa has been revoked and we're trying to figure out why. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

Carruthers frowned in irritation at the other man's rather challenging and abrupt manner but dismissed him as ultimately unimportant. "No," he answered sharply and stepped around him, effectively forcing the man to step out of the room.

Now Carruthers could finally see Constable MacKenzie where she sat behind her desk. Corporal Fraser was standing to her left with... what was her name? Carruthers knew he'd met her but couldn't place where. Having Turnbull suddenly all but leap to his feet before him distracted him from the question.

"Sir!" Ren offered nervously, grabbing at his hip.

"Relax, son," Carruthers told him with a concerned frown as he saw the younger man visibly wince. "You're not in the RCMP anymore. Are you all right?"

"Oh, uh, uh, yes, Sir!" Ren hastily assured the Inspector even as he all but fell back into his chair with a definite look of pain. "Yes. I just... I moved too fast, that's all. I'm quite fine."

Carruthers nodded, accepting the words at face value and turning his attention to Maggie.

She too had risen, though it wasn't necessary for her either given that it was her day off and neither of them were in uniform. She automatically assumed a parade rest attitude. "Sir."

He nodded acknowledgment and then suddenly turned back to the man behind him as his name at last registered. "Vecchio?" He frowned in confusion as he tried to figure out why that sounded so familiar...

Turnbull leaned forward slightly as he rubbed his hip. "My fiancée's brother, Sir," he explained quietly.

"Ah!" Carruthers nodded once more and again turned back to Maggie.

She fought not to fidget under that dark regard. He was frowning quite grimly which did not bode well. The man was a stickler for protocol.

Without a word he held out his hand, requesting the form Turnbull had been perusing. It was surrendered without question. He turned his frown downward. "You say your visa was revoked?" he queried simply.

"Yes, Sir," Turnbull answered and produced the letter he'd received.

Carruthers read through it and frowned harder as he realized there was no cause of action listed. "Have you contacted the US Immigrations and Naturalization Service yet?"

"We were hoping to get some idea as to what the problem might be before we called, Sir," Maggie answered smartly.

He nodded, knowing they would have been given the run around if they didn't have all their ducks in a row before calling. "Incompetents," he spat irritably. "I was just reviewing a request for a Canadian Family visa. Seems a young American married a young Canadian with the intent of setting up house in California. The woman needed to return to Canada to get some of her things but was stopped at the border and denied reentry into the States because she didn't have the proper paperwork, this despite the fact that they had called INS three times and were told all she needed was her wedding certificate. What she needed was proof they had applied for a K-3, which they hadn't started to do yet. Another call to INS resulted in the suggestion that she cross the border under her maiden name and begin the process of applying for a K-3 when she was back here. This advice was not only erroneous, it was illegal. She was intercepted at the border and slapped with a five year ban from entry into the US. It's an absolute fiasco! Is it any wonder the young man is wanting to move to Canada?"

He shook the papers he held and handed them back to Turnbull. "How a government agency can allow this kind of incompetency is beyond me!

"It's too late to call them now, but you make sure you speak to someone in authority and not some busybody flunky who doesn't know what they're talking about. Review your facts, get all the papers together and call them first thing in the morning. I'm sure you know the routine. These Americans love to make us jump through their little hoops of convoluted laws and requirements. It's nothing but a game to them." He glanced up at Maggie. "Get Melton involved if you need to," he told her, naming the Consulate's Chief Canadian Advocate. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was nothing but a ploy for some free publicity by a politician somewhere who read that 'Time' article'." He turned to Turnbull. "Have you and Ms. Vecchio set a date yet?"

"Ah, no," Turnbull stammered. "We, ah, we're still discussing it, Sir."

"The sooner you get it done, the better," Carruthers declared. "There are time limits on some of this stuff, you know." He turned his attention back to Maggie as the younger man stammered an answer. "You will give this your full attention tomorrow Constable. Mr. Turnbull is a hero for both the American and Canadian peoples. I won't have him shafted because of some short-sighted bureaucrat's need to dot his 'i's and cross his 't's! Keep me apprised." He turned to leave and both Americans quickly pulled back out of his way. "And make sure you lock up when you leave," he added over his shoulder.

Part 66

"Well?" Frannie asked, appearing in the foyer and wanting an update even before they could shut the door behind them. "Did you get it all straightened out?"

"Francesca," her mother chided gently. "So impatient! Let them get in the house first." She brushed past her daughter to help with the coats and the door.

"Thanks, Ma." Ray smiled at his mother even as he tolerated being pulled downward for the traditional kiss on the cheek. He shrugged out of his coat as Ma turned to Ren, but the other man was too unsteady on his feet for Ray to let him lean down. Ray's hand shot out to stop the move. "No you don't. Sorry, Ma. His hip's bothering him."

A closer look at the younger man's face revealed a pale and tired visage with tight lips set against pain. He tried to offer her a weak smile. "Oh, mi poor Caro!" Ma exclaimed. "You've been walking too much, yes? Let me help you with your coat and we will get you sitting down."

"No, that's-- I'm fine, really..."

Ma was hearing nothing of it as she continued with her rather unique blend of Italian and English, alternately chastising her son for letting Ren overdo it and dismissing Ren's efforts to reassure her as she insisted upon taking both coats and hanging them up.

Frannie found herself torn between concern and frustrated impatience: how hard would it be for someone to say, 'Yeah, Frannie, it's all cool?' The fact that no one did, told her it wasn't. Ren looked exhausted. She bit her lip as concern kept her from voicing a second demand for information. He glanced up and met her eyes, reading the clash of emotion there and opened his mouth to begin the explanations - only to be interrupted by the shrill ring of the phone.

Naturally, Frannie thought as she glared at the device beside her. She was tempted to ignore it, but it could be the hospital so she didn't dare. With a frown, she snatched it up.

"Hello?" she offered rather curtly.

"Who is this?" a man's angry voice demanded.

One of Frannie's brows arched upward. "Someone who won't stand to be addressed like that. Call back when you find your manners." She promptly hung up and turned back to see Ray stepping next to Ren.

"Will you stop playing superman and lean on me already!" Ray was complaining.

"Ray, really. I--"

"Shut up and lean!" Ray ordered sharply. "I swear, you're even worse than Benny. Ma, get a pillow from the living room." He turned his attention to Ren. "We're going to the dining room, you're going to sit down and eat, and then you're going right to bed - and I don't want to hear another word about it!"

Reluctantly, and only because his leg muscles were beginning to tremble, Ren accepted the other man's help. He glanced up at Francesca as they started forward, the question of whom she'd hung up on clearly read in his pale features.

"Some idiot who couldn't bother to say 'Hello', only 'Who is this!'" she answered, letting her irritation show as she mocked the guy's voice. Her attention was more on Ren's obvious pain than the brief conversation.

Ren nearly stumbled, his eyes suddenly going wide as he recognized Frannie's imitation.

Ray recognized it as well, the memory of Ren's phone message the other night still quite clearly lodged in his head, and let out a humorless chuckle. "Great move, Frannie," he told her. "You probably just hung up on you future father-in-law!"

"Don't worry," Ray assured her, moving past. "He's a jerk."

Ma Vecchio appeared with the requested pillow and soundly chastised her son for daring to say such a thing even as she hurried past all of them into the dining room.

"Well, he is!" Ray argued, catching Ren's full weight again as he forced the other man forward. Ray was tired too and Ren wasn't light. "You fall down and I don't know that I can get you back up," he warned.

Frannie brought her hands up over her mouth in both surprise and a need to stifle her natural urge to ask what Ray had meant about Ren's father. Ren was barely walking. What the hell had he done to himself? He obviously needed to sit down... She followed like a silent shadow and waited until they got through the doorway before hurrying around to join her mother at the table, pulling out Ren's usual chair.

Ma quickly positioned the cushion and stepped back as son and daughter helped the other man lever himself carefully into place, ignoring his continued insistence that he didn't need their help. She then disappeared into the kitchen, calling Francesca to help.

The last thing Frannie wanted to do at the moment was help her mother bring dinner to the table but food was the way her mother dealt with such situations. Ren would be stuffed to the gills before being sent to bed. Knowing it would be faster and easier to just give in, Frannie rolled her eyes and shoved her impatience aside. With a frustrated sigh, she disappeared into the kitchen after her mother. She didn't have to be completely patient however. "Start talking, Ray!" she shouted over her shoulder. "I can hear you as we serve."

Ray's cell interrupted whatever answer he might give.

Ma gave Frannie a reproving look as the younger woman growled in frustration, tempted to throw the salad bowl across the room just to hear the crash. She didn't, of course, but she didn't know how much more waiting she could take either! She hurried about the task of bringing the food to the table and nearly tripped her mother in her haste.

She rolled her eyes heavenward again and prayed for relief as she heard Ray addressing "Stella." There was only one Stella it could be. Then Frannie suddenly remembered that Ray had been trying to get in touch with her this morning. She froze at his side, unabashedly listening to his side of the conversation as he briefed the other woman on the situation.

A moment later, Frannie was throwing her hands up in the air, shaking them at the ceiling as she realized Ray was telling the other woman everything from the very beginning. They'd been gone all day and they hadn't spoken to her before this? What the hell had they been doing!

Ma literally took her daughter by the shoulders and directed her to her seat. "Patience, mi Cara," she whispered even as Ray lifted his hand to cover his other ear so he could hear over them. It was simple habit on his part, rather than any real need. "The answers will not change for want of a few more moments."

Frannie took her place beside Ren with ill grace and then glanced up at him. Concern again overrode her need for answers. "You okay?" she whispered, taking his hand and knowing well that he obviously wasn't. "When's the last time you took any pain medication?"

He squeezed her hand. "I'm fine," he assured her.

"Bull!" she hissed and demanded. "When?"

A warning glare not to argue finally got him to admit that he'd left his medications here this morning. With a shake of her head, Frannie shoved back her chair and quickly went to fetch them.

And of course the phone decided to ring again.

"I'll get it," Ma called.

"I got it!" Frannie called back, stopping her.

She paused with her hand on the phone in the hall, remembering Ray's words that she'd probably hung up on Ren's father before. It was probably him calling back. She didn't know why Ray had called him a jerk, other than the fact that he had been the first time he called and she answered, but she certainly didn't want to antagonize the man!

She took a calming breath and released it slowly as the phone started to ring again. She lifted the receiver before it finished. "Vecchio residence," she answered smoothly.

"Hi," an older and friendly voice replied. It wasn't the same man as before. "Can I speak to Ren, please?"

Frannie bit her lip, reminding herself that whoever it was didn't know anything about what was going on. "Um..." She glanced toward the dining room. "He can't come to the phone right now. May I ask who's calling?"

"His Uncle Angus. Is this Francesca by chance?"

Frannie felt herself relax a little and actually smiled. Ren had spoken quite fondly of his uncle in Alberta. "Yes, it is."

"Hi," he repeated. "I'm sorry to call at such a bad time. Could you have Ren call me back, please? It's rather important."

"Um, hang on a second..." She frowned pensively and put the phone down. She wasn't about to make Ren get up and she knew the cord on the phone in the kitchen wouldn't stretch across the dining room. She darted up the stairs and retrieved her cordless handset, hoping the battery was charged. She keyed it on. "Hello?" she tested it.


"Just checking," she explained and hurried down the stairs. "I'm using another phone. Give me another second. He's in the dining room..."

"Not a problem," the caller assured her.

He sounded quite nice, she thought as she hurried into the dining room and held out the phone to Ren. "It's your uncle," she explained.

Now it was Ma's turn to throw her hands up in exasperation. Dinner was on the table and was getting cold, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Frannie squeezed her shoulder in passing and then hurried back to Ren's room to get his meds.

"Hello?" Ren offered with an inquisitive frown. He'd spoken to his Uncle only the other day. It was strange that he'd call like this.

Ma sighed and frowned at the table. The rolls were missing, she realized, and rose to get them even as the voices of Ray and Ren overlapped. She hoped they'd be done soon...

"We don't know," Ray was saying. "The letter didn't say."

"I'm fine... He did?"

"Yeah, I know. But I thought you might know someone who might know someone..."

The voices became indistinct as she moved into the kitchen and retrieved the rolls from where she'd nestled them under a tea towel to keep warm. She shook her head, knowing they'd be cold despite the cloth after so long. She quickly popped them in the microwave for twenty seconds. She didn't much like using it for cooking the way Ray and Francesca sometimes did, but it was handy for re-warming things. Humming to herself, she waited for it to 'ding' and then hurried into the dining room again, hoping the phone calls would be quickly done so they could finally eat.

"I'll bet he's behind this..." She heard Ren suddenly hiss. "The dirty, no-good scalawag!"

Ray lifted a surprised eyebrow and concluded his own call. "Yeah, call me about noon," he told Stella. "I should have something by then. Thanks."

"My visa was revoked this morning," Ren was continuing. "We've been running all over town today trying to learn why. I'll bet he pulled some strings somewhere, the rotten cad!"

Ma Vecchio and her son exchanged startled looks. The man might not be cursing but there was no mistaking the obvious anger and contempt which tainted his tone. Francesca returned and gave him a started glance before looking to her mother and Ray for an explanation. They could only shrug.

"No, no..." Ren continued, offering her only the briefest of glances as she sank into the chair beside him. "I just realized: The letter was delivered here. It should have been delivered to the Consulate. Someone had to give them this address."

Ray suddenly got a clue and sat back in surprise. "Oh, crap!" he hissed.

"Raimundo!" Ma scolded him sharply. She would not tolerate such talk, especially at the dinner table.

Ray offered her a guilty glance but didn't take the time to apologize. He caught Ren's eyes. "Your father?" he mouthed.

Ren nodded grimly as he continued speaking to his uncle. "I know, but I wouldn't put it past him. He already threatened to seize my trust fund. He must have done this when he realized he couldn't."

"Father?" Frannie echoed silently, looking to Ray for an explanation.

Ren unconsciously followed Ray's example, lifting his hand to cover his open ear and turning away from the table. Ray smiled, realizing with that move that Ren would feel right at home with the normally boisterous Vecchio clan, and then quickly brought Frannie up to date where Ren's father was concerned.

"But he doesn't even know me!" she hissed in surprise.

"Doesn't matter," Ray answered, eyeing the food as his stomach offered a loud gurgle. Ma would never let them eat until after they'd said grace though. "He's dead set against it."

"And you think he could get Ren's visa revoked?"

"I wouldn't be surprised," Ray answered. "You didn't hear the message he left."

"Thank you, no," Ren answered something his uncle said. "I'll find out the details tomorrow and file an immediate appeal. He won't get away with this!"

"But *how*?" Frannie demanded softly.

"I don't know," Ray answered. "We'll find out tomorrow. Don't worry. I'm not going to let them deport him. We got some strings of our own we can pull if we have to."

"Like what?" Frannie asked, seeing no way to stop the huge bureaucratic machine that seemed intent on splitting the two of them up.

"Like MacKenzie King!" Ray grinned and reached for his phone again.

"Basta!" Ma exclaimed. "Wait until after dinner. The food is going to be ruined!"

"I need to go, Uncle. They're waiting dinner on me."

"No, Ren!" Ma quickly assured him. "It is your uncle. I didn't mean--"

A hand gesture stilled her protest. "—I'll call you tomorrow night... Thanks for calling. Give Auntie and Tina my love... Bye."

"You didn't have to do that," Ma shook her head.

Ren merely frowned at the phone, not sure what to do with it. Frannie took it and put it by her plate, then tapped the area beside his own plate where she'd deposited two pink pills for him to take. "Ray, say grace before we all starve to death."

Part 67

"Just... have to get this door open..." Jaelyn frowned as she fumbled with the keys. "...and we're..." She glanced up from the lock, giving Ben a wry smile as she corrected her own thoughts. "Well, I wouldn't call it 'home'," she admitted with a shrug.

No, Ben agreed silently. The high-rise apartment – while nice – wasn't something he would ever think of as home.

Jaelyn jumped back slightly as Dief nosed her aside, slipping quickly inside to check the place out as she finally got the door open. Ben shook his head. The dog was getting far too unmannerly of late. It had been bad enough when he would ignore Ben's verbal corrections before, but now Ben couldn't even voice such reprimands. Not that Dief could hear them anyway, but--

Jaelyn smiled at Ben, merely amused by Dief's antics, and followed after him. She quickly went to drop the mail on the kitchen table while Ben hung up their coats and locked up again behind them.

A quick glance showed him that James and Jeanie had deposited their luggage in the middle of the living area. The spare key had been left on the glass-topped coffee table. The vertical blinds, which he knew had been closed two weeks ago, were flung open on the dark and sleet-driven night beyond. The wind battered against the heavy glass as the muted lights of Chicago reflected off the low smog-laden clouds in an eerie and unearthly glow.

Dief offered the view a rather rude comment that Ben was glad Jaelyn couldn't hear and Ben shuddered. He normally liked the blinds open. Even the sometimes dingy city scape was preferable to the feeling of being penned in that closing them often brought, but the sight beyond the glass was too unnatural. He quickly moved to shut it off.

"Yuck," Jaelyn offered her own opinion of the view as she moved about turning on lights. "What a night. What a day!" she added. "I have to admit, I felt like a third wheel at the Consulate. Did anyone come up with any ideas in the car that I don't know about?"

Ben shook his head. Chances were that Turnbull was going to be deported. INS rarely made mistakes; and when they did, they didn't like admitting it. Getting the decision reversed was not going to be easy. It was unlikely they'd even be able to arrange an appearance in Immigrations Court before his deadline expired.

Dief nosed their bags curiously and Ben bent to lift them, giving his furred companion a clearly read warning look to leave them alone or Ben wouldn't give him the gift he'd brought back for him. Dief answered with a quickly lowered head and submissive whine. Ah yes, Ben thought sarcastically, bribery always worked – the greedy little fur ball.

Leaving Jaelyn's cases at the foot of her bed, he moved down the hall to his own bedroom. There was little for him to actually unpack he knew, despite Jaelyn's efforts otherwise. He decided to get it done with quickly before joining Jaelyn to see what they could manage for dinner.

Given that they had asked Ray Vecchio to take the perishable goods from the refrigerator, Ben rather suspected it was going to be a combination of frozen items: Asian Bar-B-Q chicken, tater tots, peas... They could probably put together some spaghetti fairly easily as well, he knew. Part of tomorrow would have to be spent shopping.

He popped the locks on his suitcase as he mentally reviewed their options for dinner and then froze. For a second, he thought he had the wrong case, but a note atop the tissue wrapped package that had been added to his clothing caught his eye. It read simply, *Ben*.

There was only one person who could have added something to his baggage. He glanced toward the livingroom in thought. She must have done it when he'd insisted upon going to get her some more Sudafed for the trip, knowing that even mild lingering congestion from her cold could result in serious discomfort if he didn't.

He picked the folded sheet up and flipped it open. *Please don't be mad,* it read. *I couldn't resist. Considerate it nothing more than a small gift to say thank you for coming with me and putting up with all my nonsense when I was sick. I'm sorry I was so mean. ~Jaelyn*
Ben set the note aside and peeled back the tissue to reveal the azure blue sweater that she had first picked out for him in Aspen: the Ralph Loren, 100% cashmere, much too expensive sweater. He closed his eyes and offered a mild chuckle even as he shook his head in exasperation. She didn't need to say "thank you" or "sorry" for any of their time together in Aspen. He'd enjoyed it all, even her rather acerbic and imaginative insults when she was sick. He grinned as he remembered them. He remembered the snowball fight that had preceded it, and the dogsled ride that she'd surprised him with after it. His smile melted into something more wistful as he remembered drawing her into his arms and kissing her in the snow covered wilderness...

A knock at his door interrupted his reverie and he blinked, startled.

"Ben?" Jaelyn called through the wood. "Are you awake? Dinner's ready..." She paused, staring helplessly at the wood. "Damn, I hate not being able to hear," she muttered as she debated her options if he didn't open the door. Should she just let him sleep? If he was, that is. He might have fallen and hurt himself, she knew. She doubted it, but it was possible. Should she risk a peek or knock louder? She'd be quite embarrassed if she opened the door to find him changing or-- What if he'd found the sweater already? What if he didn't like it or thought she was throwing her money in his face or--

The door swung open and she jumped back. It took her a long moment to realize he was smiling.

Ben cocked his head to the side as she stared at him, momentarily frozen or startled for some reason.

"Uh..." She suddenly blinked and shook her head. "Hi. Um, dinner's ready?" she offered rather lamely.

Ben glanced at his watch in confusion only to realize he'd been standing and daydreaming of their time in Aspen for well over half an hour! He lifted his brows in surprise. ^Sorry.^

"I didn't wake you, did I?"

He quickly reassured her with a shake of his head as he moved to join her and they headed to the kitchen. ^I found the – sweater,^ he told her.

"Ah," she nodded, glancing away and biting her lip nervously. She'd been right then about what was taking so long. "I'm sorry," she offered hurriedly. "I didn't mean to insult you or anything. Really. I just-- It's a beautiful sweater, and I just-- Don't be mad, please! I'm not trying to buy friendship or... or—"

He stepped in front of her and laid a finger lightly across her lips, shaking his head to still her rather confusing and completely unnecessary apology. ^I'm not mad,^ he signed quite clearly.
"You're not?" she asked, despite his finger still on her lips.

He found the sensation unnerving and quickly removed his hand. He shook his head in answer. ^Thank you,^ he signed simply and offered her worried frown a reassuring smile.

She sighed and offered a relieved little smile in return. "You're sure?" she asked as they started for the dining area again. "I mean, I... I don't want you to get the wrong idea or anything. I looked for something less expensive because I was afraid... but I always came back to that one. The color and... You're not mad? Really?"

He shook his head, deciding he was probably going to wear it tomorrow just to reassure her. It was a beautiful sweater, price aside, and he knew that the price was not a consideration where she was concerned – though his reaction to it clearly was.

He was beginning to realize that Jaelyn was a bit paranoid about that. Most people tended to see her in terms of her bank account and that generalized view influenced the way she saw others as well. Including him. He hadn't helped the situation by arguing with her about money when first she invited him to stay at the Inn, or by offering to pay for part of the rent here. She'd carefully avoided the problem when she booked their trip. Money was simply a tool and wasn't important to her, but his view of her was.

His pride had become an issue. If he let it continue, he knew it could well tear them apart. He didn't want that.

^Anything important?^ he asked, gesturing at the opened mail and moving them beyond the subject even though he was still tempted to say such a gift wasn't necessary. It was the intent, and not the price tag, that was off; but he knew she'd quite likely misunderstand any protest he might make. He also knew she wasn't attempting to "buy" his friendship, as she'd put it, or anything of that nature. It was simply best that he accept it and move on.

"There's a letter for you," she offered and moved to fetch the baked potatoes to go with the Asian chicken and canned spinach already on the table. "And apparently my lawyers and insurance people want to talk to me. I suspect they're going to keep me busy with paperwork tomorrow." She sighed irritably.

^Welcome back,^ Ben signed, acknowledging and understanding her frustrations too easily.

She smiled and glanced down at her meal, appreciating the sarcasm.

Ben turned his attention to the letter and was happily surprised to discover it was from Buck Frobisher. The two had managed to correspond rather erratically since meeting up four years ago. It would be good to read of some of the goings on back home. He set it aside. It would be rude to read it at the dinner table.

He glanced up again to find Jaelyn frowning at the windows across the living room. "Is... is that wall actually shaking?" she asked.

Ben noted that the vertical blinds he'd closed earlier were indeed periodically rattling, just slightly. Jaelyn couldn't hear the rather loud buffeting of the storm outside. ^It's the wind,^ he explained.

She offered a visible shudder. "I'll be glad to get out of this place and back in the country," she decided. "I need to remember to call Jason about it tomorrow."

Ben nodded, knowing she was talking about fixing up one of the guest cabins on her estate. Now that the danger to her life had passed, there was certainly no reason why she should be forced to live here. He had to admit he was rather looking forward to escaping it as well.

Part 68

"Kowalski," he answered the phone around a huge yawn, still more than half asleep. He hadn't even had a chance to get his coat off yet and already the stupid phone--

"Ray, it's Maggie."

Kowalski jerked to a halt in the midst of pulling his chair out, the sound of her voice – all too vibrant and awake – doing things to his heart that a good cup of coffee never could. He found himself suddenly awake. "Maggie!" he greeted her. A glance at the bullpen's clock told him it was ten after eight. She must be calling from the Consulate.

"Are you all right?" she asked, concerned by the odd timber of his voice when he'd first answered.

"Yeah!" he assured her, resuming his motion and glancing around self-consciously to see who had witnessed his momentary freeze. They might read something into it that he... No one seemed to have noted it amid the normal buzz of the morning's shift change. "Fine!" he continued. Another yawn was threatening. "Just... haven't had my required ration of morning coffee yet." He sank into his chair and offered a stretch, careful not to tip his chair over backwards.

"I made some inquires regarding Charlie Danvers a couple of days ago--"

"—Who?" he interrupted. His brain was still on automatic and not wanting to pull up the name. Sleep and him had not been great friends last night and he was feeling it this morning.

"Charlie Danvers a.k.a. Charlie Wickert," Maggie provided the name his brain was more familiar with. "The guy who was killed in the alley where Turnbull was shot--"

"--Right, right!" He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose as his gray cells started firing again. "McKenna case. Danvers was the name he used in Toronto."

"I asked Toronto to do some further checking," she explained. "Inspector Martin e-mailed me the results this morning. You were right--"

As he listened to Maggie, Kowalski flagged down Lys who was delivering the morning missives and gestured at his empty coffee cup. With a roll of her eyes, the civilian aide paused en route by his desk and picked it up. "Thanks!" he mouthed.

"—but it's a little more gruesome then just identity theft. The real Charles Danvers was murdered."


"Mid-June, 1996. He and his brother had gone to Buffalo on business. They checked into their hotel on the sixteenth and disappeared approximately two days later. Their bodies were discovered just last year - October, 1998 - by a hunter in East Aurora after a particularly hard rain eroded the shallow graves. The heads were missing and the bodies had been burnt, but Edward Danvers was still wearing his wedding ring. His name and that of his wife were engraved inside. DNA analysis confirmed the identification."

"Let me guess - when Charlie Danvers was arrested for male prostitution in Toronto in 1997, it was his brother who bailed him out, despite the fact that they were both already dead at the time."


"Do we have a description of Edward Danvers?"

"No, at least not yet. But Inspector Martin promised further investigation."

"Now that they know there's something to investigate."

She offered an agreeable, "Hmm... "

Lys suddenly reappeared to set a steaming coffee cup on the edge of his desk, along with a short stack of memos.

"Thanks," he mouthed silently again even as he picked up the memos and quickly shuffled through them, wedging the phone in the crook of his shoulder as he continued. "We need to tell Ben--"

"--What?" Maggie specified. "That we don't think David was the mastermind behind Jaelyn's attempted murder because he was right-handed? Or that Charlie Wickert lived in Toronto under a dead man's name and that the dead man's dead brother once bailed him out of jail? We don't have anything to tie it together yet, Ray. I know what you're thinking – whoever assumed the identity of Edward Danvers is the man who killed Dawson, Manly and Wickert, shot Turnbull, and framed David – but we have no proof."

Ray frowned as one of the memos caught his eye. "I think we do now," he told her. "Mort wants to see me. ASAP."

"The DNA results?"


"It's not going to tell us anything we don't already know, Ray."

"But it might tell our bad guy something he doesn't know..."

"I don't understand."

"Maggie, think about it!" Ray told her, suffering a sudden epiphany. He leaned forward over his desk and lowered his voice. "Our killer went to a great deal of trouble to first pin this on Greg Manly and then to pin it on David Tallin. If he knew about the DNA testing, he wouldn't have bothered."

"How could he not know?" she asked, confused. "He has to know she scratched him."

"Does he?" he asked. "What if he didn't notice or thinks he scratched himself? And even if he does know, he might not know about the testing. They didn't run a full rape kit on her at the hospital. He might think they missed it."

"Would he be so stupid as to make such an assumption?"

"Why not?" Ray shrugged. "He assumed we'd rule Manly's death a suicide, or he wouldn't have tried so hard to make it look like one. The man's an egomaniac, Maggie – not psychic. He's been watching everyone jump through his hoops all along. He planted more than enough evidence at David's place that the DA all but declared the case closed. If it weren't for Mort, it would *be* closed. Most M.E.s wouldn't have bothered with a DNA comparison unless it was requested."

"And if there's a leak at the D.A. like *we* assume, then he'd know there was no request," Maggie surmised. Ray could practically hear her frowning. "Wouldn't he know about the testing anyway? I mean, that's why the case isn't closed yet."

"Matters on how good his source is," Ray answered. "He might know the hold up is in the M.E.'s office, but no details. He might assume it's nothing more than red tape."

"Speaking of assumptions, we're doing a lot of that ourselves, Ray," Maggie cautioned him.
"And I'm about to do it again," he told her. "I don't think our would-be-killer is done. He's gone to too much trouble and pulled too many strings to just stop. I think he's biding his time, waiting for the case to close and attention to wane – and then he'll strike again, this time making it look like an accident."

"Unless he finds out about the DNA testing."

"Then there's no telling what he might do..." Ray shook his head.

"We need to suppress the results," Maggie decided. "Buy some time to learn everything we can about 'Mr. Edward Danvers' and who he really is."

"I'll find Mort right away," Ray agreed, "but what about Ben and Jay? You still don't think we should tell them anything?" He found it hard to believe that Maggie would keep her brother in the dark about this.

"I don't know," she admitted after a long moment. "The arguments against it are the same as they were last week. Ben would tell Jaelyn. Added to that is the assumption that their suite could be bugged. He might be able to act completely normal, but I don't think Jaelyn could."

"What if we get him to swear not to tell her?" Ray suggested. "And if the shit hits the fan we make it clear it's our fault, not his."

"I don't know, Ray," she answered. "You weren't there when he promised not to keep her in the dark again." Maggie had been. She had a pretty good idea of exactly how bad Ben's lack of trust had hurt the other woman. She wasn't sure Jaelyn would tolerate it again, no matter what they said afterwards. "I'm not sure he'll agree."

"We gotta tell him something, Maggie!" Ray argued. "They're sitting ducks right now!"

She sighed, very much afraid of the consequences no matter what they did. If they didn't warn him and something happened... Ben would do everything in his power to protect Jaelyn, but without prior warning he'd be at a disadvantage. Whether he or Jaelyn were injured or not, Maggie knew Ben would never forgive them. She also knew Ben would rather risk hurting Jaelyn, and losing her, than risk seeing her dead. She nodded, despite the fact Ray couldn't see her. "I know..." she allowed quietly, "but I'm afraid you're going to have to do it. I can't leave. I'm expecting Ray and Ren any minute. They were going to come by right after they drop off Frannie at the hospital this morning."

Ray leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. Him? Alone? This was not going to be easy. He would have liked Maggie along to help back him up in his demand that Ben not spill the beans to his girlfriend. Why was this his life...

"Okay," he offered decisively, sitting back up and leaning over his desk. It wasn't going to be easy but he could do it. "First, I gotta find Mort and get him to keep quiet about the DNA tests, then I'll hunt down Fraser. You call and let me know as soon as you get anything in about Edward Danvers. I'd like to know why the hell I didn't get anything when we ran Charlie Danvers ourselves a couple days ago!"

"We must have worded the inquiry wrong, Ray," Maggie decided. "The fact that we were looking for 'Charlie' and not 'Charles' may have been part of the problem. Computers can't find things unless the search parameters are correct."

"Whatever," Ray frowned darkly. "I'm going to run him again. Maybe I can find something before Toronto does." He moved to stand and hang up, but caught the phone back to his ear almost immediately. "Oh! And let me know what goes on with Turnbull too, will ya? The guy's crazy as a loon but, uh, he was my partner, you know? He kinda grows on ya. And Frannie, well... Just, let me know if there's anything I can do to help, okay?"

"Of course, Ray," Maggie answered. "Good luck with Ben."

"Yeah," he sighed, dreading talking to his friend even more than he dreaded heading down to the cold meat party to talk to Mort. "I suspect I'm going to need it. Talk at you later."

"Later," she agreed.


Part 69

When Ren and Ray arrived, they and Maggie spent the better part of an hour going over the paperwork she'd gathered on her desk, making sure yet again they had all their facts straight before they picked up the phone. The idea that Ren's own father could be behind the rejection was more than a little disturbing. Maggie had never known Turnbull to have an angry bone in his body, but she was seeing it now: anger, fear, determination. The poor man was wound tighter than a watch spring and the emotions were all aimed at the person behind his present dilemma. The occasional soft mutter that escaped his lips was incredible mild compared to most epitaphs she might expect from anyone else, but they were quite surprising coming from the gentle man beside her.

He had reason to be angry and worried. The Immigration and Naturalization Service of the US was almost a law unto themselves, with powers that could supersede even the Federal Courts. Those who crossed their paths had little or no legal recourse outside the system. Still, given Turnbull's history within the RCMP and diplomatic mission here in the states, Maggie had to believe that the rejection was based on more than simply pulling some strings or calling in a favor from a political friend. Someone somewhere had to justify the decision. Learning that justification and deciding how best to challenge it was the task that faced them this morning. That and fighting to get Turnbull an appearance in Immigration Court within the next two weeks.

"Yes, Ma'am. My name is Constable MacKenzie." Maggie began throwing her weight around the moment she finally got through the automated answering system and was actually connected to a living person. "I'm the RCMP Deputy Liaison Officer for the Canadian Consulate in Chicago--"

"--Visa number, please."

She ignored the interruption. "I'm calling on behalf of Mr. Turnbull, a former Deputy Liaison Officer of this office--"

"—Visa number, please," the voice asked yet again. The day had only begun and she sounded tired already.

Maggie frowned but quickly pulled up one of the forms on her desk, easily providing the woman with Turnbull's old A-2 Visa number. "About two months ago--"

"--I'm sorry, that number is invalid," the woman interrupted yet again. "Please repeat it."

"I know it's invalid," Maggie answered calmly. "He recently applied for a change of status."

"The number should still be good while the change of status is pending," the woman answered. "Please, repeat it."

The automated answering system had more life than this woman. Maggie glanced over to where both Ren and Ray were also on the phone; attempting to get him an appearance in Immigrations Court before his deadline expired. "It's not pending," Maggie explained. "He received a rejection notice yesterday morning."

"I cannot help you without a valid visa number," the woman answered. "Please hold while I transfer your call."

Maggie rolled her eyes and bowed her head. It was going to be a long morning...

Part 70

Jaelyn offered Ben a weary smile as he held the door to the apartment for her. She went through all the normal motions: taking off her coat, hanging up her purse, turning on the lights... but in silence. Outwardly, all appeared normal, but Ben knew better. She hadn't said a word since they left her lawyers' offices.

It had been a particularly trying day. First, they'd gone to her lawyers and learned that a guest of the Inn who'd been present the night it burned down had filed a lawsuit for ten million dollars. It was what the lawyers termed a nuisance suit. Liability insurance was in the process of handling his personal property claim but apparently he'd been drunk when the fire happened and had fled the scene. He'd subsequently wrecked his car and was trying to blame the Inn, partly because he'd gotten drunk at the Breast Cancer Awareness Ball hosted by the Inn and partly because the Inn had burned down while he was drunk - which he argued had caused him to drive while drunk and thus wreck his car. He was charging the Inn with everything from the loss of his car to "grave mental anguish." The arguments were ludicrous; but then, the lawyers had reminded her, so was the case in New Mexico wherein a woman had successfully sued MacDonald's when she spilled a cup of coffee in her lap, arguing that there were no warnings that the coffee was so hot. Ludicrous or not, they were taking the case seriously.

Jaelyn had been outraged and refused to offer a settlement. She didn't mind helping out guests and employees who'd actually been hurt - she'd happily go out of her way to do so - but she wasn't going to let some idiot take blatant advantage of her! She'd ordered a counter-suit for harassment and slander. In the long run it might cost more than a settlement, but she didn't care. The result had been a rather long discussion with one of the lawyers about the night in question.

Then it had been on to the Insurance people, who had promptly told her they were refusing her Property Claim. Given the fact that David had not been a licensed gas repairman, that he had been authorized by the night manager to do the work despite this fact, that there had been no effort made to contact a licensed gas repairman and that the resultant fire had been ruled an accident directly attributable to the botched repair job... It was being ruled negligence and they weren't paying a dime. The liability, medical and business insurances weren't a problem, all would pay according to her policies, but she would get absolutely nothing for the value of the house itself or its contents.

Back to the lawyers to discuss a possible lawsuit against the insurance company. They'd again had to go over the night in detail and her policy. In the end, they'd learned that even if she could get the insurance to pay on the claim, the insurance company would most likely turn around and sue Kevin, her night manager. Kevin was sixty-two years old and far more than just Jaelyn's night manager. He'd been with the Inn from the very beginning, before she was even born. He was like an uncle to her! Jaelyn had told her lawyers to forget it. She wasn't about to risk having Kevin face that, no matter the cost to her personally.

Ben didn't know what the insurance on the mansion had been worth as it hadn't been mentioned while he was acting as her translator, but he suspected it was close to two or three million. Possibly more. The fact that she'd write off such a sum for the sake of a friend said a lot about who she was. Especially as he knew a large part of her net worth must be tied up in the land she owned. Her decision wasn't without repercussion to herself.

Now, the day was done. Ben watched her as she moved from the dining area, across the living room and over to the windows, opening the vertical blinds only to stare sightlessly out over the city as the night slowly claimed it. The view was only slightly better than it had been last night. She wasn't in the mood to talk and Ben couldn't blame her.

Dief suddenly appeared and practically sat on Ben's feet, awarding him a reproving bark for being so late.

^I'm sorry,^ Ben signed, ^but it was your – choice to say here. You could have – come with us, you know.^

Dief merely stared up at him in confusion, gave his head a slight shake and then demanded to be taken out - and none too politely either!

Ben rolled his eyes. The wolf was simply being lazy when it came to learning sign language. A knock at the door drew his attention before he could require the wolf correct his attitude. ^We'll discuss your language later,^ Ben promised even as he moved to answer the door.

"Hey, Benny!" Kowalski greeted him easily, sweeping forward and glancing around the apartment. "You're one hard man to track down, you know that?"

*Benny*? Ben awarded his friend a confused look. Kowalski never called him Benny. Well, except once, when he'd first woken from his coma more than three months ago, but--

"Hi, Ben," Maggie greeted him more conventionally. "Mind if we come in?" She awarded Kowalski a reproachful glance for having barged in the way he had.

Ben shook his head and gestured her in. Dief offered a loud complaint as Ben shut the door again.

"What's wrong with Fur-face?" Ray asked, surprised.

Dief answered with another aggravated bark.

"We've been gone all day and just got home," Maggie translated for Ben. "He needs to go out."

"Perfect!" Ray declared, then seemed to hear himself and decided that such a statement didn't make a lot of sense. "I mean, uh, I'll go with you. And Maggie will stay here with Jaelyn. I mean, you know, what with you just getting home and all I don't figure she wants to walk the dog, right? Besides, I could use the fresh air."

Ben stared at Ray in utter perplexity even as the other man wrapped an arm about his shoulder and drew him toward the door.

"It's all right, Ben," Maggie assured him, and there was something about the way she said it, combined with Ray's strange behavior, that told Ben something more was going on here then he could readily see. "I'll take care of Jaelyn."

Take care of her? Did she need taking care of for some reason?
Dief barked impatiently again.

Kowalski chuckled even as he swung the door open. "I think his bladder's going to burst if we don't hurry up, Benny."

Ben glanced sharply at his friend, catching the use of Benny once again. Ray was obviously trying to tell him something... and apparently he didn't want Jaelyn to know about it.

Much to Ray's silent annoyace, Ben paused in the door and turned back to Maggie. Ray's impatience was obvious but– Ben glanced toward the window where Jay still stood staring out over the city without seeing it. He more than suspected she was aware of their visitors. With a small frown, he stepped to the side to make sure Maggie's body would block his signing, just incase Jaelyn should turn around or was watching their reflections in the glass. ^She's - had a hard day,^ he signed simply, not sure how else to warn Maggie that Jaelyn might not be in the best of moods.

"Hard day?" Maggie repeated, confused.

"Hard day?" Ray echoed in turn, interjecting himself firmly into the one-sided conversation. "Like an accident kinda hard day? Something happen we should know about?"

Ben shook his head, thinking once again that Ray was acting rather more on edge than was usual even for him. ^Meetings all day,^ he explained vaguely. ^They didn't go well.^

Maggie nodded. "It's okay, Ray," she assured the overly concerned man and maneuvered them both toward the door even as Dief offered a more than impatient demand to be taken out *now*! "I know, I know!" She turned her assurances toward the animal. "They're going to take you now." She glanced up at Ben. "I'll tell Jaelyn where you are."

Dief instantly slipped through the door the moment it was opened again and raced ahead to the elevator.

"You should let someone know when you're going to be gone all day, Fraser. I woulda dropped by and walked the dog if you'd called," Kowalski quipped, hurrying them along in Dief's wake. "Then again, calling ain't the easiest thing for you right now... Maybe you should think about toilet training him!"

Ben couldn't answer that even if he wanted to. Ray didn't know sign language.

Dief once again issued a strident little demand for them to hurry.

Ben gave the wolf a very sharp and angry glance. Mute or not, he made himself understood. Dief hunched downward under that look even as Ben signed something.

Kowalski fought to swallow a smile as he reached for the down button - only to discover that Dief had already hit it.

"Patience, right?" Ray guessed, trying to read Ben's signing. The doors swung open with a loud "ding."

Ben lifted his brows in surprise. Apparently, Maggie had taught him a little sign while Ben and Jaelyn were gone. Still, he chose to keep his own signing simple, so there would be no misunderstanding. He turned to Ray as the doors swung closed behind them and frowned. He pointed sharply at Ray and then touched his own lips, drawing his finger away from his mouth in a clearly read order to "talk." Something was going on and he wanted to know what.

Part 71

A warehouse in the heart of downtown Chicago wasn't exactly the sort of place that Marilyn was used to working in. The small back-office was certainly clean and tidy enough, and the heavy machinery in the outer area was all off and silent despite this being the middle of a work week. Yet, when she'd hired on to do an internal audit for Nash International Transport, she'd never envisioned herself picking her way between mountains of wooden crates and across a debris-ridden cement floor or sitting hunched in her heavy wool coat in a more than chilly little office as she poured over the concern's financial books for the quarter. She wanted only to get this particular job finished and head back to her hotel.

She jumped violently as a sudden, loud crash from above resounded through the small space.

"God-damned, son-of-a-bitch!" The words were hardly muffled at all by the non-existent insulation. "What the fuck do you mean they're not paying? They mother fucking have to pay!"

Another loud crash resounded over head. The man who'd met her at the airport, and who'd been assigned to escort her around the various Chicago locations she'd been told to check up on, frowned up at the ceiling of the small office as well. "Boss's friend," the otherwise silent behemoth told her quietly. "Ignore him."

Yet another barrage of noise - sounding very much as if someone had picked up a filing cabinet and tossed it across the room upstairs - had Marilyn jumping from her chair. She'd worked in some pretty scary places before, even visiting Sarajevo and Herzegovina in Bosnia, but she wasn't used to hearing people trash the room directly above her!

She'd had bad feelings about taking this job from the beginning. Nash International Transport had a number of offices worldwide. Her job was to audit the books at each location and point out any discrepancies to the on-site accountants. It had seemed like a peach of a job, but she was beginning to suspect she was only seeing the "public" books, the ones that had already been doctored. She couldn't prove anything. Mr. Lloyd P. Nash's accountants were good and apparently most of his business was quite legitimate, but the whole set up was making her more than a little uncomfortable. Thank goodness this was the last location she had to check. She wasn't signing on for another round next quarter, she didn't care how much he was paying her!

"David? This is David's god-damned fault?" the angry voice from above asked the air, making Marilyn cringe. "Of all the stupid, incompetent, fucked up... " Yet another crash echoed through the small office. "Best part of that son of a bitch ran down his mother's leg!"

"My God!" Marilyn protested in a horrified hiss. "He's going to kill someone. We have to call the police!" She suited action to words by reaching for the phone.

Her escort - who quite frankly resembled a bouncer far more than a business man - promptly grabbed her wrist and prevented her from lifting the receiver. "I said, 'Ignore it,'" he repeated quietly.

"I can't ignore that!" Marilyn whispered urgently.

Whoever was upstairs stomped across the ceiling and kicked something. "If the god-damned bastard wasn't already dead, I'd hunt him down and break every fucking bone in his god-damn body!"

"The boss says ignore him, we ignore him," the man with her replied. He offered Marilyn a smile and reached for her purse. "Come on, it's late, you can finish tomorrow."

Marilyn frowned at the telephone even as the man began to guide her toward the door.

"He's all alone up there. Just blowing off steam," he commented.

"But—" She was interrupted by yet another loud crash.

"It's his stuff, his business. You ain't heard nothing here but a bunch of cussing and I'm sure you don't want to hear any more of it." He held the door for her. "Ain't no crime in that. Come on. You missed dinner. The Manilow Suites are just up the way. They have a great little restaurant on the ground level."

Part 72

Kowalski had refused to talk until they were out in the service alley behind the Manilow. The location was Dief's choice, not Ben's. And even now that they were there, and semi-private, Ray seemed reluctant to begin. He fidgeted, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he glanced around nervously and continued with small talk. "He was really hyped up, you know? Scared the shit out of me. There's no telling what a guy like that will do, but Maggie just calmly tells him he's under arrest and to lower his weapon, and what do you know? He does!"

Ben faced him squarely and waited.

"That sister of yours is something else." Ray grinned and glanced away yet again.

The way he said that, the ever so slight change of vocal pitch, the slight increase of tension in the already tense form as Ray seemed to hear his own words after the fact, all told Ben that something was going on between him and Maggie. Yet, weighing Ray's words and manner here in the alley against his words and manner in the appartment, Ben knew this wasn't what his friend had been wanting to tell him. He folded his arms and cocked his head to the side in obvious impatience.

Ray misinterpreted it. "Uh, well, uh, she is!" He went into defensive mode. "She... I like her, okay? Like that should come as some big news bulletin to you. I've, uh, liked her since the first time we met."

Ben rolled his eyes and sighed.

"You got a problem with that?" Ray switched to the offensive when the defensive didn't work.

Ben shook his head. Of course he didn't have a problem with it, but he knew Ray well enough to know he'd be anticipating problems. Ben wasn't particularly interested in Ray and-- Well, that wasn't true. Maggie was his sister, after all; and, as such, he was duty bound to protect her. Not that he suspected he needed to protect her from Ray. Then again, Ray was a normal male and...

Ben shoved such thoughts aside. Maggie could take care of herself. He was not about to become the over-protective brother that Ray Vecchio was of Francesca. He was far more interested in whatever Ray had been trying to tell him upstairs, especially as he was fairly sure it had something to do with Jaelyn.

"Good," Ray continued. "'Cause, you know, it wouldn't matter if you did or not, 'cause I'd still want to see her. Friend or no friend, it's just something you're going to have to deal with, I guess. I mean, it's not... it's not like we're, you know, living together or anything. We're not... we're not... you know."

Ben did *not* want to hear this!

"We're just *dating.*" Kowalski specified firmly. "Just dinner and movies and stuff like that."

Ben sighed impatiently and dug out the small palm-sized notebook and pen he'd taken to carrying.

"My intentions are strictly honorable," he prattled on to Ben. "Well, at least mostly. I mean... I'd never do anything to hurt your sister. Ya gotta know that, right?"

Ben nodded as he quickly wrote something on the pad and then shoved it toward his friend before Ray could embarrass either of them any further. Well, as quickly as he could anyway. He still had some difficulties writing, but he was learning to compensate for that weakness.

"'You have my blessings,'" Ray read aloud and glanced away from the paper before finishing the note. "Really?" he asked. "'Cause you know, I mean, I really like your sister. I mean, more than like. I--"

Ben shoved the pad into his field of vision again. The discussion about Maggie and Ray was important, but he'd get back to it in a second, after he was sure that what had gone on upstairs had nothing to do with Jaelyn.

"—'What was with the 'Benny?'" Ray read the second part of his note. "Oh, you mean upstairs?" he asked. He glanced around again, his tension level suddenly shifting from nervous and self-defensive to nervous and outwardly alert. "Uh, yeah, that..."

Ben nodded, judging the seriousness of the situation by Ray's body language and not liking what he was seeing. Ray drew him to the side of the alley, seeking even more privacy for whatever he wanted to say.

"Okay, first," Ray decided, "you gotta promise not to tell Jaelyn."

It was Ben's turn to suddenly become tenser as his suspicions were confirmed. It was about Jaelyn, and there was only one thing concerning her that Ben could think of that would warrant the kind of caution and worry that Ray was exhibiting. He quickly wrote another note.

Ray read it, but refused to answer. "You gotta promise first," he insisted. "Look, Maggie told me how you promised not to keep stuff from Jay anymore. We're just, you know, covering your 'ASCII' here – whatever the hell an 'ASCII' is... You're not going to want to tell her anyway but this way you've got an excuse not to tell her. So, promise me."

Ben knew perfectly well that Ray's logic wasn't going to hold any weight with Jaelyn if he broke his promise to her by making one to Ray. The promise he'd made her was not one that he was willing to sweep away so easily. He frowned, touched his lips and brought his finger away again, sharply; demanding that Ray, ^Talk!^

Ray rolled his eyes. "Why can't you just humor me, huh? Come on..."

Ben shook his head.
"Okay then," Ray shrugged, assuming a superior attitude. "I'm not telling you."

Ben wasn't in the mood for games. Spinning on his heel, and frowning as the trials of the day made that into an awkward move, he headed back to the end of the alley. He could call Mort himself, even if it meant having to deal with the TDD and the chance that someone else might read what he was asking.

"Okay, okay, okay!" Ray grabbed him by the shoulder and then stepped directly in front of him. "Okay..." he sighed and raked a hand back through his hair in agitated defeat. "Ya gotta know. But you're going to wish you'd humored me!"

Ben cocked his head to the side in clear irritation.

Ray sighed and stepped even closer. "You're right," Ray admitted, referring to the last note Ben had written. "Mort got the DNA back. No match."

Ben's head came up as all the repercussions of that simple statement, all the little doubts that had been plaguing him over the last three weeks, suddenly hit him. His mind whirled with the ramifications. Someone who had raped and nearly murdered Jaelyn, someone who had killed three men, committing cold-blooded, premeditated murder, and then framing the victim or others for his own actions, someone who was capable of manipulating others, misleading the police and planting evidence... That someone was still out there.

"Whoa!" Ray grabbed Ben by the shoulders, physically stopping him when he would have automatically rushed back to Jaelyn's side. "Maggie's with her," Ray assured him, reading all the emotions and thoughts running through his friend's head as if they were being shouted at him. "We still gotta talk. Maggie and me, we've been working on this for a while. There were just things about David being the killer that didn't add up, you know?"

No, Ben didn't know. He shot Ray a clearly read frown.

"You were in Aspen!" Ray protested that look. "Besides, we weren't sure of anything until the DNA came back, and that was just this morning, so... I've got Mort sitting on it, by the way, at least for now. We don't think our guy knows anything about it, otherwise he wouldn't have gone to so much trouble in trying to frame David for everything."

Ben forced himself to be patient as Ray glanced around again and tried to reorganize his thoughts.

"Whoever this guy is he's, uh, he's calculating. Cunning. He's playing some kind of weird, I don't know, game of some sort. We don't even know why he wants to kill her, or if he still does. He might have finally decided the game was just too dangerous and split."

Ben sighed and shook his head. What Ray said was true, but he didn't believe it for an instant. Whoever had been behind Jaelyn's original attack had gone to too much trouble to just give up.

"Whatever, he's not going to suddenly go breaking down your apartment door and hosing the place with an Uzi, so just relax and listen, will you? Maggie's got it covered upstairs."

Ben glanced back at his friend and nodded, awarding him his full attention once more.

"If it *is* her money – the motive I mean – then James and Jeanie just jumped back to the top of our suspects lists; but, as I'm sure Maggie would remind me, that's a dangerous assumption. We ain't got no proof that our would-be-killer is after her money. Could be revenge for something she did or didn't do, or maybe even something her father did. We quite frankly don't know. James and Jeanie were both at the Inn the whole time Jaelyn was missing, so their alibis are, mmph, tight. We're still checking it though, especially since we realized one of the witnesses that placed them there was Manly."

That explained Ray's odd behavior toward James at the airport the day before...

"We're also digging into Charlie Wickert's history – that's the guy that was killed in the alley where Turnbull was shot." He quickly filled Ben in with what little they'd been able to piece together concerning Wickert's possible connection to the murders of Charlie and Edward Danvers. "We think whoever posed as Edward Danvers is our real killer. Toronto's supposed to fax us everything they can dig up on him but it might take a few days."

Which was why he was having Mort sit on the DNA evidence...

"Anyway, you can see why Maggie and me don't want you talking to Jaelyn about this. I know, I know, I know - you made her that promise, but do you honestly - I mean honestly - think that she's capable of handling this right now? What with Jeanie and James being our prime suspects? Plus, there's the fact that we think there might be a bug in your apartment and--"

Ben's gaze shot to Ray's again in surprise.

"—Maggie's got a sweeper hidden in her purse, like when have you ever known her to carry a purse? I'm surprised you didn't catch that. Anyway, we're checking it out. Back to your girl friend: I don't think she can act like everything is hunky-dory and normal, do you?"

Jaelyn was many things, Ben knew, but she was no actress. There wasn't a deceptive bone in her body. It was one of the things he loved about her most. His head suddenly shot up at the thought.


*Loved?* Had he just thought that?

Not a simple illusive reference to "falling in love", but an unconscious acknowledgment of a hard and fast fact?

"Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben!"

Ben shook his head as the insistent repetition of his name finally snagged his attention. He shoved the sudden knowledge of his own feelings aside and forced himself to concentrate on what Ray was saying.

"You with me again?"

Ben nodded.

Ray cracked his neck and then hit the side of his head. "For a second there I was sounding like you. Okay, so..." He offered a weary sigh. "We're watching you, you're watching her... I don't think our guy's gonna to try anything in the next day or two. I mean, he's weird. He's a.. a shadow player: a puppeteer. At least where she's concerned. He's, uh, he's... he's smart. Or he thinks he is. He's sittin' back there in the dark, pulling strings, figuring the angles, covering his tracks... He doesn't want anything to point back to him. That's why I'm having Mort sit on the DNA evidence. There's no telling what the guy might do when he finds out about it. "

Ben frowned, then lifted his pad and pen again.

"I don't know," Ray shook his head, having moved to read over Ben's shoulder. "Maybe... maybe he didn't realize she scratched him. Maybe he thought he cut himself on the knife or something. Maybe he thought, you know, since the hospital was too busy trying to save her life to do the regular rape kit that they didn't bother to do any of it. I don't know," he repeated. "All I do know right now is, he's still out there. We don't want to spook him or do anything that might let him know we're onto him. We do and... Well, he might just decide he's had enough of his games and stop pussyfooting around. He's already killed three guys we know of for sure. Maybe more."

Most likely more if Ray's suspicions were right and he was responsible for the murders of Charlie and Edward Danvers, Ben thought. He frowned pensively and wrote another note.

"No," Ray answered. "No connection between either of the Danvers and Jaelyn that we've been able to find so far." He waited patiently while Ben started another note... "Uh, no. No police protection. That would require going through the DA and we think there might be a leak there."

Ben gave him a pained look and Ray answered it with an uncomfortable shrug. "That's another reason to have Mort sit on the report. Look, just give me and Maggie a couple of days. That's all we're asking. A couple of days to hear back from Toronto, that's it. Mort won't be able to keep the report quiet longer than that so... If the stuff from up north doesn't pan out, we make other plans. We think you're safe enough until then."

^You *think?*^ Ben signed, not at all happy with the situation.

"I'm crazy?" Ray misinterpreted the sign. "You got a better plan?"

Ben sighed heavily and looked down at his feet as he shook his head, not bothering to try and correct the interpretation. He was feeling the stresses of the day.

"Okay then, so, I can assure Maggie you're not going to go and tell Jaelyn anything, right?"

Ben glanced up, quickly debating his options and then offering another sad shake of his head. Jaelyn wasn't going to like it when she found out. She wasn't going to like it one bit. But Ben would rather endanger their relationship, than endanger her life.

"Good," Ray declared, relieved. "Good. So..." He suddenly leaned close. "I don't suppose I could get you to carry a gun, could I?"

Ben gave him a sharp look.

"I didn't think so."

Part 73

"Thank you kindly," Maggie offered the woman on the other end of the phone. She hung up and turned to face the two men sitting across her in her small office. They waited patiently to hear what she'd finally managed to learn. Well, Ren waited patiently. Ray Vecchio did not strike Maggie as the type of man who was particularly patient about anything!

"Okay," she sighed, folding her hands atop the scattered papers on her desk and facing the problem before them with a calm and professional facade she was far from feeling. "There's good news and there's bad news. The bad..." She frowned down at her interlaced fingers for a long moment and then glanced up to meet Ren's eyes. "The order came down from someone at the US State Department. Apparently, your father pulled some strings with a friend there, and the 'friend' pointed out a few discrepancies on the change of status form: for instance, the fact that your address is listed as being the Consulate - which indeed it was, but which if taken at face value is hard to believe, especially in light of the fact that you've received a medical discharge and are no longer working here."

Ray Vecchio leaned back, rolling his eyes.

Maggie ignored him and went on. "Also, because you were rather badly doped up when I brought the papers to you to sign, your signature - as you noted yourself - is completely different from that on the A2."

"So we file some paperwork confirming that all of that is - was - true!" Ray exclaimed. "They can't kick him out for telling the truth."

"Yes, they can," Maggie rejoined, shooting the other man a grim look. "Wrong or right, the revocation has already gone through. The decision can only be reversed by an Immigration Court Judge and the soonest I can get you onto their docket is January 8th, after the holidays. *And* you'd still have to return to Canada to apply for a K1 visa, rather than the B2, if you plan to marry Frannie any time soon. Any attempt to marry under the B2 would be seen as fraud and cause for immediate deportation."

Ray Vecchio sighed heavily. "You said something about good news?"

Maggie offered a slight shrug. "Well, we can easily prove there was no fraud and submit a change of address. Also, I've managed to get someone with some clout at INS on our side. She's not at all happy with the games that Ren's father and State has played here. The State official will be facing charges of abuse of power if she has anything to say about it."

"Right - a slap on the wrist," Ray prognosticated. "In the mean time, Ren still has to leave the country next week and Frannie is going to go crazy without him! We're right back to square one." He dropped his head in defeat.

"Not quite," Maggie corrected the volatile man. "The woman I spoke to said that Immigration Marriage Law wasn't her specialty. She was going to talk to someone else and promised to call me back this afternoon."

Vecchio's head came up. "She thinks there might be a loophole?"

Maggie could only offer a hopeful shrug and reassuring smile for Ren.

Silence descended upon the small group until Ren suddenly sighed and changed the subject. "How are Corporal Fraser and Ms. McKenna doing? I believe you saw them last night?"

"Yeah," Ray added his own voice. A change of subject sounded like a good idea. "I haven't seen Benny since they picked up Dief after getting back from Aspen."

Maggie glanced between the two men and suddenly realized that they knew absolutely nothing about what she and Kowalski had been doing concerning the McKenna case over the last several weeks. They'd been very remiss in not keeping them informed, especially Ren. He'd been injured in the midst of the investigation of Greg Manly after all. Of course, he'd had a number of worries of his own to think about in the meantime but, given that they were basically stuck in limbo waiting for the INS official to call her back...

Maggie quickly brought them up to date with the case.

Part 74

Despite having traveled this way thousands of times in the past, Jason almost missed their turn off. "Sorry!" he called into the backseat, knowing he'd taken the turn a bit harder than he should.

Jaelyn righted herself from the sudden move, giving Ben an apologetic glance. She hadn't been expecting the turn either. The billboard for the Inn had been taken down and replaced by one announcing a new McDonald's at exit 23B. She craned her neck around to follow the new sign as they passed it, then turned back forward with a sad and pensive frown.

Ben noted the look but said nothing, knowing there was nothing to say.

They turned again, almost immediately, leaving the frontage road. Again, the normal signage which had been in place for more than a decade was missing. The HomeTown Grocery was still there. The Shell Gas Station across the road was still there. Nothing else about the route had changed, but Ben knew the lack of a direction sign was disconcerting for Jaelyn. He reached out and took her hand.

She gave him a surprised look and then smiled as she read his concern. "I'm fine," she lied easily, more to herself than him.

Ben wasn't fooled but he didn't press her about it.

The Inn had been about five miles off the Expressway, not really in the countryside (they were far too close to Chicago for that) but definitely in a more rural area. And due to the size of the estate, a large part of which was set aside in a private conservation Trust, it was easy to forget how close the city actually was.

Fortunately, they drove past the main drive which would have led them to the ruin that was now the Inn. The next right was the one they wanted and led into the forested area.

Jaelyn had called Jason last night about going out to see one of the cabins on the estate. He'd had to come into town anyway this morning and was supposed to meet with a demolitions' expert to go over cost estimates at the Inn later in the afternoon. It was a job Jaelyn wanted nothing to do with for obvious reasons.

The road they followed now was a private single-lane avenue that wound through the trees in a meandering loop. It was carefully designed to be as unintrusive as possible. Ben had studied a map of the estate and knew there were some fifteen cabins carefully nestled into the wooded landscape. One of them was set aside for special guests of the Inn, mainly out-of-town friends and family that might come and visit. According to Jaelyn, it hadn't seen much use since her father's death. It only made sense she should move into it now that the Inn was gone.

Dief would have loved the area and cool crisp air, but he'd been too busy pouting over being left in the apartment the other day to accompany them. He wasn't talking to Ben at the moment, let alone trying to understand him, and had begged to go with Maggie this morning when she'd manifestly stopped by to pick up a coat she'd left the night before. In reality, she'd stopped to confirm that she'd detected at least one bug in the apartment.

That pretty much confirmed that whoever was after Jaelyn hadn't given up.

They continued down the narrow roadway for quite a bit before they turned left into a screened driveway and there, framed in the dark green of tall pines and the spindly skeletons of winter oaks, was the cabin...

Part 75

Two strong arms encircled her from behind. Jeanie closed her eyes and laid her head back on James' shoulder. She didn't want to do the breakfast dishes anyway. His mouth nibbled at her ear.

"I'm still hungry," he whispered provocatively.

She grinned, teasing him. "There's some apples in the frig..."

He growled into her neck as his hands began an exploration of their own. "I'll stick one in your mouth before eating you up," he decided. That was one way to keep her quiet.

"Insatiable!" She tilted her head farther to the side to allow him better access, only to suddenly be hit with a completely irrelevant thought. She didn't move as she related it. "Oh, before I forget, make sure you keep this weekend open. Ben and Jaelyn are moving into the old family cabin down the road. Everyone is getting together to help them out."

James froze for a second, then resumed his seduction but at a lower key. His attention had been caught by something else. "The old family cabin?" he asked.

"Yeah," Jeanie sighed, enjoying his ministrations. Turning in his arms, she brought her own arms up around his neck. She loved running her fingers through his hair. He looked so wild and dangerous when it was all mussed up. She grinned at the thought. "Not so old really. 'Same as this one. It's just down the road, off the curve. The one with the really wide wood stairs leading up to the porch and the handicap ramp off to the side? It's reserved for visiting family and special friends, but no one ever uses it. Jason was going to bring Ben and Jay out sometime this morning to check it out. We'll practically be neighbors. Won't that be great?"

"The one with the screened-in back porch?"

James' ardor had seemingly evaporated with her words and Jeanie stared up at him in confusion even as she nodded. "Yeah," she confirmed, wondering how he'd known that the back porch was screened in... He must have gone exploring when she wasn't with him. She glanced at the kitchen clock. "They're probably there now."

James' blood ran cold and he had to fight to keep his reaction hidden. "Why don't I go see and invite them over," he offered. He quickly bent and bestowed a fast kiss before spinning out of her arms and heading for the door.

Jeanie frowned after him. "I already invited them!"

He'd already retrieved his coat from the back of the couch. "I'll just make sure they don't forget. You stay here and pick up."

Stay here and pick up, she thought? A quick glance around her showed nothing but the breakfast dishes needing to be done. Besides, she and Jay had never stood on ceremony. The place could look like a tornado hit it and Jay wouldn't care.

James had disappeared out the door before Jeanie could do more than open her mouth in confused protest. She stared at the closed door behind him for a long moment, debating her options even as she heard James' car door slam and the engine roar to life. He was backing out of the gravel-paved driveway before she could have reached the door had she been of a mind to argue with him.

She shook her head in bewilderment, thinking that he was certainly acting strange this morning! With a sigh, she turned to the sink and offered it a frown. *Stay here and pick up,* she thought again? Since when had she become a maid to be ordered about like that!

He'd also left her hotter than hell, blast him. With an irritated grunt, she picked up the cast-iron skillet and took her frustration out on it with a metal scrubber, even as she fantasized hitting him over the head with it!

Part 76

The cabin was actually a fairly simple design, Ben noted, nothing at all like the split-level log mansions they'd seen while in Aspen. And while it was indeed a log cabin and not a press-wood veneered wannabe, it obviously incorporated all of the conveniences of modern dwellings and was a bit more involved than Ben would normally expect to see back home. As such, he found himself wondering what Jaelyn's reaction to his own rather ramshackle cabin might be if she were to ever actually see it?
Somehow, the possibility that she *would* see it did not seem as unlikely as it once had.

It was little more than a lean-to at this point. He'd broken down last year and paid a contractor to do most of the necessary repairs. He simply wasn't going to find the time to do them himself before the elements destroyed what little had been left after the fire Victoria had set - which was basically the fireplace and barn. He'd almost left it too long as it was. There hadn't been much insurance on it. What there was had basically paid for four walls, a floor and a roof.

And he still didn't have a washroom... He smiled as he remembered Ray's consternation over that lack. The smile died as he considered Jaelyn's probable reaction.

He wasn't really sure why he was concerned about what Jaelyn might think, save that... well, he admitted he was thinking thoughts he probably shouldn't be thinking. No woman who'd grown up with all the conveniences that Jaelyn had could possibly be happy in...

He'd learned long ago that "no one" and "never" were two superlatives that had very little meaning; but, frankly, he was afraid to hope. He was afraid of falling in love again only to discover that Jaelyn could not adapt to the life that was as important to his being as breathing. Asking anyone to live the life he preferred was unrealistic.

There was one of those superlatives again.

Yet, he knew it was true. Could he give up his own needs and desires if she couldn't accept them? Was he willing to take that kind of a risk?

Did he have a choice?

“Ben?” Jaelyn interrupted his thoughts by suddenly leaning in his window. He'd dared to roll it down despite the cool temperatures as they finally drew to a halt before the cabin. Now he blinked sharply and fought the urge to rear back in surprise. He'd been sitting and thinking so hard that he'd failed to note the others exiting the vehicle and moving toward the house. Jaelyn had obviously come back for him.

“Sorry,” he offered with a shake of his head, kicking himself for being so distracted even as he waved her concern off. He offered a reassuring smile and swung his legs from the car even as she stepped back to let him exit.

And then he froze.

“Ben?” Jaelyn asked again in concern.

*Sorry...* The word echoed in his mind. He hadn't been thinking when he answered her. In fact, he was becoming so used to signing he wasn't even sure why he'd attempted to answer vocally, but he had.

And he'd done so correctly.

“Ben?” Jaelyn repeated, becoming alarmed by the shocked look upon his face. “Are you okay?”

He quickly schooled his features and answered with a nod, while at the same time clearing his throat and questioning his own ears. Jaelyn was deaf. There was no way she could know what he'd just done or...

He glanced toward the house but Jason was in the process of unlocking the front door. He couldn't have heard.

“Are you sure?” she asked, reaching out to lay a concerned hand upon his shoulder where he still sat half-in and half-out of the car.

He nodded, swallowed and forced himself to try it again. It was stupid to be afraid of even trying. “Thhhah...” He frowned and tried again. The "S" sound wasn't an easy one for him to make... “Sorry.”

It sounded so simple, and normal...

Jaelyn merely watched him with a worried frown. “Is it your mouth?” she asked. “Is...” She saw the look of amazement that had replaced the shock. “You spoke?” she asked, putting the pieces together suddenly. “Oh, my God... Ben?”

He cleared his throat and tried it one more time. It seemed silly to be getting so excited over one word but... “Sorry.”

He closed his eyes in disbelief, for the first time in weeks daring to let himself believe that he had a real chance at recovery.

“Jason!” Jaelyn turned and yelled toward the house, not sure how to interpret Ben's odd behavior. She suspected it was more of a scream then a yell, but she didn't care. Had Ben actually spoken, or was it some kind of breakdown? Maybe a stroke or-- Was he really okay or did they need an ambulance?

She couldn't hear, damn it!

She turned to look at Ben again. His mouth was open and moving, but he quickly became frustrated and with a frown switched to sign. ^I'm fine,^ he reassured her.

She frowned sharply in disbelief.

^I'm fine,” he repeated emphatically. ^I ... I spoke. - One word. - It's nothing. - It... I'm fine,^ he repeated again.

Nothing, she thought? *Nothing?* “You...”

Jason suddenly skidded to a halt beside them, having raced back to the car in a mad dash in answer to Jaelyn's cry. “You okay?” he demanded, anxiously. “What's going on?”

Ben was beginning to feel foolish and quickly waved the young man's concern away.

“He spoke!” Jaelyn answered. “He said he spoke!”

Jason glanced between them in confusion as Ben shook his head and lifted his hands to sign.

“It is not 'nothing!'” Jaelyn corrected him sharply, refusing to let him dismiss it as trivial. “What did you say? Say it again. Tell Jason.”

Ben was definitely getting embarrassed now. It was only one word! To him, yes, that was special; but to anyone else...

“Come on, Ben,” she insisted. “I saw you do it more than once. You can do it again. Please?” She reached out and took up his hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze. “Please, Ben? I can't hear you, but Jason can. I want Jason to hear it.”

Ben exchanged a glance with the other man who watched him expectantly. With a shake of his head and a frown for all the fuss, he capitulated; knowing it was easier than arguing. “Thhhhah--” He did it again, making the same mistake as before. Forcing himself to concentrate, Ben repositioned his tongue and tried one last time. He *had* done it before. He *could* do it again.

“Sorry,” he offered clearly, masking the surge of triumphant he felt while offering Jason a dismissive and apologetic shrug instead. The irony of the situation and the fact that his first word fit it so well didn't escape him. He was a bit surprised by the happy and shocked expression that crossed the younger man's face.

“You did it!” he exclaimed, glancing over to Jaelyn to confirm it. “He did it! He said 'sorry!'”

Jaelyn didn't need the translation; she merely interpreted the happy look on Jason's face and offered her own happy whoop. “Yes!” she exclaimed, suddenly hugging Ben. “You did it! You did it!” She stepped back. “What did you say? I gotta know what you said!”

Ben smiled, finding that the embarrassment was quickly being replaced by their infectious response. Apparently, it was all right to feel excited. He signed his answer and watched as Jaelyn did a double take, thinking for a moment that he was apologizing for not telling her sooner. “Sorry?” she echoed and they all laughed. As a first word, it did seem a bit strange. Still smiling, she tugged him up and out of the car. “Get your 'sorry' self up and in the house,” she teased him. “I'm cold! The heat is on, isn't it Jason?”

The younger man nodded and glanced at Ben, offering a longer answer. “The utilities have always been kept active in case of unexpected visitors.”

Ben nodded, but Jaelyn had stepped close and his arm was about her shoulders. He didn't feel like letting her go in order to sign and she didn't seem interested anyway as she wrapped her own arm about his waist. He felt her offer a slight shiver and gave her shoulders a squeeze as they turned to hurry up the path.

Part 77

Maggie and Vecchio exchanged amused (and slightly baffled) glances as they paused in their conversation to listen to Ren humming the Canadian national anthem. It was very obvious that the man was quite wonderfully and happily in his element filling out forms and filing them away as they waited for INS to call back. Maggie had let some of her paperwork pile up a bit over the last few days while she and Kowalski were digging into Charlie Wickert's history and Ren was more than happy to help her catch up. She also knew he was much more efficient at it than she'd ever be.

Vecchio had quickly gotten bored with the wait, however, and started to nitpick her about the case, going over every little detail and possible explanation with a fine-toothed comb. Occasionally, Ren would interject something or ask a question of his own, surprising them with his ability to concentrate on two such divergent things at once.

He paused even now in his humming to tap his pen against his lips in thought. "James used to wear a ring like that," he volunteered, considering Maggie's description of the ring that had recently been haunting Jaelyn's dreams. He glanced down again and shook his head. "This should be a colon, not a semi-colon; the information following it is a list. The list itself contains items with commas within them, so the items should be separated with semi-colons."

"James?" Maggie echoed, ignoring Ren's grammatical correction.

He nodded even as he made his proofreading marks. "A school ring, I believe," he decided. "Gold with black onyx, and a crest of some sort cut into the stone. Very nice work, but I'm afraid I didn't get a particularly good look at it so I'm not sure what school it was."

"He 'used' to wear it?" Ray questioned in turn, knowing that either Jaelyn or Ben would have noted the ring had James been wearing it at the airport.

Ren glanced up from the paperwork to give the question his full attention. He again tapped the pen lightly against his lips as he considered it carefully. "I remember seeing it when he and Miss Tallin visited me in hospital once. It was most considerate of them to check on me. I'd only met them a couple of times previously. They seem like a wonderful couple. He was quite attentive and–"
"–The ring, Ren," Maggie interrupted his reverie before he could be completely sidetracked. "You're sure it's the same ring?"

He blinked. "As the one in Miss McKenna's dreams? Oh, no. No, of course not, Constable MacKenzie," he answered. "I was merely remarking on the similarity between it and the one you described. Realizing that Mr. Elliott is under suspicion, I knew it would be of interest to you; but my memory of a class ring can hardly be considered substantive evidence - circumstantial, perhaps, but not material. A good lawyer could easily argue–"

"–When did he stop wearing it?" It was Ray who interrupted him this time. He knew what Ren was going to say. It might not be something they could take to a judge, but it he wasn't about to swallow the "coincidence" routine.

Ren turned from Maggie to frown pensively at Ray. "I'm sorry. I can't be precise, of course," he began, ameliorating his answer even before he gave it. "I didn't interact with him very–"


Even Dief, sitting quietly beside Maggie and taking everything in, offered an impatient little groan .

"Sometime between October 1st and October 6th," Ren answered concisely. "I last saw it on the 1st, and noticed it was missing on the 6th when they stopped in to visit me while awaiting word on Miss McKenna. It was the evening she suffered her choking incident at the restaurant. I remember Miss Tallin telling me that it was James who did the Heimlich maneuver to save her."

"Yeah..." Maggie remembered hearing about the incident. "If he's our guy, and as into playing games as Kowalski thinks, than he might just see the fact that he saved her life as the ultimate irony."

"Worth a good laugh," Ray decided with a grim nod.

"An interesting possibility," Ren offered with a most serious frown. "But why would he have removed the ring?"

The three of them frowned as they thought on that for a long moment.

"Maybe..." Ray let himself think out loud. "Maybe she recognized it - subconsciously."

"I'm sorry?" Maggie asked, confused.

"She had a really bad episode that night, if I remember what Benny told us right; one of the worst she's ever had: convulsions, the whole-nine-yards. What if she recognized the ring? Subconsciously."
"You mean if it was a trigger?" Maggie asked.

"Whatever," Ray dismissed the fancy lingo he didn't understand. "What if James caught her staring at it just before she had her little attack?"

"If he's the would-be-killer, and he was worried about her memory returning, would he have saved her life?" Ren asked.

"Did he have a choice?" Ray asked. "I mean, they're sitting there in the middle of a large restaurant. If he doesn't do it, someone else will."

"He could have done it wrong," Maggie pointed out.

"Too risky. Ben was right there." Ray shook his head. "As well as an entire crowd of people. Someone might realize what he's was doing. Instead, he saves her and looks like the hero. He gets a good laugh, plus it kind of waylays any suspicions anyone might have about him."

Dief nudged Maggie's leg and offered a short, sharp bark.

Maggie nodded at him. "We should call Ray," she agreed, referring to Kowalski and not Ray Vecchio sitting across from her.

"About what?"

"The ring."


"Because it confirms our suspicions!" Maggie sighed. "Look, I know it's not something we can take to a judge. Ren's right. A judge would laugh us out of his chambers. But..." She shook her head and reached for the phone. "Call me paranoid. I just have a bad feeling about this."

"Wouldn't it be prudent to call Ben and Jaelyn as well?" Ren asked, the paperwork before him forgotten.

"There's a bug at their place," Maggie reminded him. "The phone line could be tapped as well. Whoever this guy is, be it James or someone else - and that someone else is looking very unlikely from where I'm sitting - we're still two and three steps behind him. I don't like it. I don't like it at all.

"Hello, Ray? It's Maggie..."

Part 77b
"Kangarooing?" Frannie asked, completely confused.

"It refers to the way a mother kangaroo carries her babies around in her pouch," Dr. Sandison explained. "The concept was pioneered down in Bogota, Columbia back in 1983. Some of the mothers would carry their babies around in specially made pouches, like a Kangaroo. Studies have shown that skin to skin contact between mother and baby has numerous benefits, both emotional and physical. The babies sleep better, they grow faster and generally do better overall when we can do this.

"First, we're going to have you pump. It just makes things more comfortable for you. Then, you'll need to remove your shirt and bra, unless your bra opens in front, and we'll give you a gown to wear, backwards, so the ties are in front. You'll then sit down in this rocking chair." Kali paused to rest her hand on the back of the chair with its cheerful sunflower padding tied in place. "We'll bring the privacy screens over and then we'll place Angelina face down on your bare chest.

"She might fuss a little bit and there will be alarms go off, but we'll be here watching her closely so you don't have to worry. If she doesn't tolerate it well, we'll put her back in the incubator; but it really is amazing how fast most babies settle down. They generally love it. And if we don't manage it this time, we'll try it again later. In fact, we want to try it with all of the babies, but especially Angelina here."

"What about all the wires and... and the tubes and stuff?"

"There will be two nurses working together to make the transfer. We've kind of got it down to a science. It's not as hard as you think."

"Won't she be cold?" Frannie asked, gazing down on her infant daughter and biting her lip. She was torn between the fear of hurting her and wonderment at the idea of actually being allowed to hold her for the first time.

"No," Kali answered. "We'll put a light blanket over her, but usually we have to remove it. Whether you know it or not, you have a natural and rather uncanny ability to regulate your own body temperature in answer to her needs. All mothers do. She'll be fine. Really."

"And you're saying it'll help her?"

"I've been working NICU for seventeen years. We've been doing this for seven now and I really wish we'd been doing it longer. It's amazing how much better the kangaroo kids do compared to those who aren't held this way, either because mom or dad have to work or because they live too far away. I wouldn't recommend it if I thought it would hurt her."

"Can Ren do this too?" she asked, thinking about how incredible it would be just to see the delight she knew would light his face.

Kali frowned hesitantly. "Not just yet," she decided unhappily. "Babies seem to be automatically immune to Mom's germs, but not so Dad's; and, technically anyway, he isn't their father as much as I know he loves them. When the babies hit the three pound mark, then maybe. It used to be we never did this with babies under three pounds, but some of the tiniest preemies respond the best so now we at least like to try it with mom."

"What if something goes wrong?" Frannie asked, fear for her daughter rearing its ugly head again. "I mean, what if... if... if she gets too upset and her blood pressure goes up. She could have another brain bleed, right? Or–"

"–Frannie, Frannie, Frannie!" Kali interrupted her before she could get swept away in the horror of 'what-ifs'. She placed a gentle hand on the frightened shoulder nearest her. "She's on medications to control her blood pressure and I'll be right here. We stress her worse than this every time we have to do a heel stick. Her seizures have stopped and her brain seems to be doing well. We will be watching her very closely. If she doesn't tolerate it well, we'll transfer her back to the incubator. Don't let it discourage you if we do. It's a lot of stimulus for her to adjust to; but, knowing her, I think she'll do just fine. I can't guarantee that nothing will happen. You know that. But in my opinion the possible benefits for her outweigh the risks. If something does happen, we'll deal with it - but I don't think it will. All right?"

Frannie returned Dr. Sandison's frank and patient gaze with wide and frightened eyes, but after a moment nodded. The chance to actually hold her daughter was an overpowering temptation and the idea that she could actually do something to help her, something no one else could do, wasn't something she could ignore. If the doctor recommended it, Frannie owed it to her daughter to at least try.

"All right," she nodded, shoving her fear away and praying for the best.

Part 78

They hadn't even reached the stoop of the cabin yet when Ben and Jason suddenly stopped, exchanged surprised frowns and turned back toward the roadway.

"What?" Jaelyn asked, confused.

Ben, his arm still about her shoulders in the cold autumn afternoon, could only shake his head and point to his ear. His attention was more on the sound which had caught his and Jason's attention: a powerful engine approaching at speed. He frowned harder, intent on getting a description and license plate if possible when it went past. The winding and narrow dirt road passing through the nature reserve wasn't a place for hot rodding. Ben cocked his head and listened intently as the mechanical song rent the air, growling deeply in the corners, rising to a siren's song on the short straights.

Jason wasn't particularly surprised to see the dark blue Saab James had rented round the final corner into the driveway in a well-controlled drift and slide to a stop beside their parked car, spraying the area with dirt and gravel. Its engine died with a cough; a thoroughbred protesting being reigned in during a twin-cammed trophy dash. The younger man glanced at Ben and rolled his eyes, the look alone saying far more eloquently than words ever could exactly what he thought of the maneuver, and James as well. He quickly offered an excuse about checking the pantry and disappeared as the other man jumped out of the car and approached.

Ben frowned further as he realized that Jason often found some excuse to disappear whenever James showed up...

“Ben! Jay!” The other man offered them both an enthusiastic grin as he trotted up, totally ignoring Ben's frown. “Jeanie said you were coming here today. Why didn't you call?"

"The speed limit out here is twenty-five, James," Jaelyn remarked irritably, ignoring whatever he'd said. It didn't take a genius, or ears, to know he'd been doing considerably more than that.

"Sorry," he offered with a laugh. "I'm used to the Jag."

It was quite apparent that James wasn't sorry at all. Unfortunately, Ben was incapable of giving him the rebuke, or ticket, he deserved for such irresponsible driving. This fact only served to irritate Ben further.

James was being purposely blind and once again completely ignored Ben's rather dark look, abruptly changing the subject instead as he turned to the other man. "Don't tell me you're going to do all the furniture moving I know Jay here will want done by yourself, Ben!” He laughed again and cuffed Ben on the shoulder, perhaps a little harder than necessary - or maybe it was simply that Ben wasn't expecting it. In any case, the blow caused Ben to sway slightly and release Jay. James quickly caught his shoulder to steady him. “Careful there, old man, you gotta remember you still have some healing to do, right?”

*Old man?*

James turned to Jaelyn before he could note the momentary reaction that flitted over Ben's features. “Why'd you choose this old place, Jay?” he asked, awarding Ben only a momentary glance to silently request his help translating for them. “There hasn't been anyone out here in years according to Jeanie. I thought it was just for visiting relatives?”

Jaelyn and Ben exchanged mutually irritated but carefully masked looks. Jaelyn didn't have to be able to hear to know that James was being even more... Well, he wasn't usually rude, but he did have a habit of rubbing her the wrong way.

Ben dutifully accepted his role in the conversation and translated James' last few questions. There was little else he could do, without being rude himself.
"I don't like the city," Jaelyn answered quite simply and took Ben's arm in a calculated move designed to hamper any further signing. With a smile, she turned toward the cabin again. "It's cold out here," she repeated and glanced down to mount the steps.

Her eyes locked onto a crack in the cement.

Ben's attention jerked from James to Jaelyn when she suddenly stumbled. He easily caught and steadied her, even as James reached out to do the same.

"Careful," James advised her.

Jaelyn frowned and shook her head, feeling strangely dizzy for a moment even as she fought back a completely unreasoning wave of panic that had threatened to engulf her there for a second. What in the world had brought that about, she wondered?

“You okay?” James asked with a concerned frown. Jaelyn didn't need Ben to sign to know what he'd said.

“Yeah,” she assured both of them, shaking her head again to clear it. “Yeah, I... I'm just a little tired,” she lied.

James at least seemed to accept her answer at face value. She was strangely grateful the moment his hand fell away from her shoulder and he turned to get the door. Ben's frown and silent regard was a little more probing and doubtful.

“Rough night?” James asked. “You still having those night terror things Jeanie told me about?”

Jaelyn could see James' mouth moving but she had absolutely no desire for chitchat at the moment, answering only with a smile as she leaned on Ben and allowed him to guide her through the door.

Jason suddenly appeared in front of them. "There's coffee on in the kitchen," he said, having witnessed the shudder that passed through Jaelyn's form. He pointed the way through the livingroom. Ben nodded and led her forward even as Jason turned to James.

"I gotta go," he told the other man without preamble. "I was supposed to meet a demolitions contractor at the Inn at two, but he just called. He's sitting at the gate right now waiting for me to let him in."

"Don't worry about it," James told him easily, stepping aside and waving him on. "I'll make sure Ben and Jay get home."

"Thanks," Jason answered. "This is the third time I've tried to get the guy out here. I don't want to keep him waiting."

"Go, go," James shook his head, dismissing the need for explanations. "We'll be fine." He glanced over to where Ben had stopped and turned slightly to listen to the exchange, giving them a slight frown over his shoulder. James got the fleeting impression that he wanted to protest, but couldn't. And then the expression was gone, as quickly as it had appeared. Ben quickly turned back to helping Jaelyn. Jason didn't see the look, offering another quick shout of "thanks" as he hurried down the steps and James closed the door behind him.

James paused for a long moment and frowned at the knob beneath his hand. The look had been fleeting, but damning as well. Mr. Mountie didn't like the idea of being alone with him in the cabin... He had to wonder why, and didn't like the answers that came most immediately to mind.

He turned around again and watched as Ben and Jaelyn headed toward the kitchen. Then reached into the pocket of his wool overcoat to transfer the .38 he'd taken from the glove box of his car to the back waistband of his pants, making sure his sport coat would hide it. He had a feeling he might be needing it...

Part 79

“Well, this isn't bad,” James offered as he stepped around them. “From what Jeanie said, I was half expecting everything to be covered with sheets and cobwebs, but I imagine you have someone who comes and keeps it aired out and cleaned regular--”

“--That smell...” Jaelyn suddenly interrupted him. She closed her eyes and sniffed. “What's...”

Ben sniffed as well. Pine and brush and rich earth from outside... the lingering scent of fires that had been laid in the fireplace throughout the years... various cleaners and furniture polish... possibly lemon oil... He could detect nothing unusual.

Jaelyn stepped forward and froze again, staring at the braided rug in front of the fireplace. Something about it was wrong. Something about all of this was wrong. She gave the livingroom a sharp frown and fought to control the incredible sense of impending doom that seemed to be rising up again. It was different from the kind terror she usually felt, just before she had one of her flashbacks, worse in its way, but... The fear and panic she normally felt seemed to fall away, leaving her numb even as the sense of something terrible about to happen mounted.

“It's supposed to be brown...” she whispered in a monotone.

The rug in question was a mixture of red, brown and blue, Ben noted. He frowned as he watched Jaelyn cock her head to the side. Her face was oddly blank as she suddenly turned and headed down a hall to the left.

“Jay?” James called after her in confused concern, despite the fact that he was well aware she couldn't hear him. The two men exchanged bewildered glances and followed in her wake. They found her standing in the middle of the master bedroom.

She stood motionless and stared at a tree outside the window...

Ben frowned as he watched her. She was barely even breathing! Something important was going on, but... James was around him and at her side before Ben could stop him, a hand going to her shoulder to draw her attention even as he asked her what was wrong--

--She froze as she glanced up and met his eyes.

Even from several feet away, Ben saw the color drain out of her face. She stared at James for a long heartbeat and then glanced down at his right hand with a frown where it gripped her shoulder.

"You were wearing a ring..." she decided calmly and glanced back up, her eyes searching his face in disbelief. She shook her head. "It was you..." she whispered. "Not David. David wasn't here. You tried to kill me."

Ben had been entertaining suspicions about James, but he hadn't been expecting Jaelyn to so bluntly accuse him. James reacted to the sudden pronouncement faster than Ben could. He spun Jaelyn into his own body so she was facing outward even as her eyes rolled back and she started to fall. Her faint did not dissuade him from using her as a human shield. James easily caught her dead weight and placed the barrel of a gun at the base of her neck as her head fell forward. "Want to try me, Mountie?" he sneered as Ben was brought up short by the sudden move.

Ben froze.

Part 80

A knock on the open door drew their attention to where Inspector Curruthers' secretary stood. "I believe you were waiting for this?" The young woman held up several sheets of paper. "It just came over the Fax from Ottawa."

"Yes," Maggie answered, rising quickly to round her desk and take the documents. "Thank you."

The woman nodded and left to be about her own duties as Maggie quickly scanned through the pages in her hand. The fourth one down caught her attention and she shuffled it to the front. "Oh, my god..." she gasped, scanning the picture and accompanying explanation.

"What?" Vecchio demanded. He was up and reading over her shoulder in the next instant. "Oh, my god!" he echoed her and snatched the pages from her hand in his shock.

Maggie made no protest over the sudden confiscation of the papers; instead she was reaching across Ren and over her desk for the phone.

"What is it?" Ren asked, unable to see what had them both so upset. Ray was kind enough to flip the papers over and reveal the photo that had gotten their attention. It was a black and white wedding picture of James Elliott and some other woman. The caption read, "Edward Danvers and wife, 1994."

"Ray?" Maggie was speaking into the phone. "It's Maggie. We just got a fax from Ottawa. It included a picture of James Elliott as Edward Danvers. It's a wedding picture, Ray."

Kowalski frowned at the traffic around him. "He's married?"

"Was," Maggie corrected him. "She died in a car accident three months after they were married. He inherited six million dollars and collected another three in life insurance, then promptly disappeared."

Ray suddenly sat straighter as what she was saying fell into place. "He's done this before."

"Or something very like it," Maggie agreed.

Vecchio was suddenly moving and grabbing up his coat. "I'm on my way to get a warrant!"

Kowalski heard the comment and added his own. "I'm on my way out to the McKenna estate now," he said. "I just talked to Jeanie. Ben and Jay were going to check out a cabin on the estate and James went to meet them. She said he was acting strange before he left."

"This guy is dangerous, Ray," Maggie said in turn. "Be careful."

"I'll be careful when I know Ben and Jay are okay. Someone call Welsh and tell Vecchio to hurry with that warrant!"

Francesca was scared and near to tears as she watched the nurses working as a team. Alarms sounded and were switched off as Angelina was carefully lifted and held close, the myriad hoses and tubes and wires arranged and lifted by the second nurse. The nurse with Angelina then swiftly turned and lowered her precious little burden to where Frannie sat in the rocking chair, waiting to receive her. Her tiny little body was placed face down on Frannie's bare chest and a receiving blanket was placed over her.

"Relax, Frannie," the nurse told her with a smile. "Don't try and rub her back yet. Just lay still and let her get used to it." She and the other nurse glanced back over at the silent machines. The alarms might have been silenced but Frannie could still see the red lights flashing their warnings as Angelina protested the change, trying to cry around her breathing tube. "Enjoy the moment."

Enjoy the moment... Frannie glanced down at the tiny doll-like figure on her chest and felt her heart suddenly swell. She was holding her baby. For the first time, she was actually holding her baby! The tubes and wires and machines fell away in Frannie's mind and she gazed down on her tiny little daughter and met her confused and not-quite focused dark-grey eyes.

"Hey, there," she said softly, daring much to lift her hand and place a finger in her daughter's tiny grasp. The fingers instinctively closed about it, the tiny digits not even long enough to overlap around it. The touch was soft and warm and, to Frannie's amazement, Angelina instantly stopped fussing and blinked up at her. "Hi," Frannie added, softly.

She was holding her daughter. She was actually holding her daughter!

The nurses smiled at each other.

Part 81

"The plan started off simply enough," James explained as he finished tying Ben's hands behind the chair with a sharp jerk on the silken rope-like curtain tie-back he'd confiscated for the job. He straightened and tucked his gun back into the waist of his jeans before suddenly leaning close and lowering his face down beside Ben's ear. "I imagine you'd like to know exactly what happened, wouldn't you?" He splayed his hands over the top of Ben's shoulders and forced them back against the chair, the hard wood edges of the ladder-back design biting into his shoulder muscles even as his chest muscles were stretched painfully taunt. The bound hands flexed in pain. James smiled. This man had caused him nothing but grief. He pulled the shoulders back harder when he failed to respond. "Nod for me, Benny," he ordered in a whisper, purposely using the childish name his friends seemed to prefer occasionally. "I know you're curious."

Ben ground his teeth and fought not to show the pain he was in even as he debated his options, but being stubborn wasn't going to win him anything except more pain and possible injury. He couldn't afford to risk either at this point. Reluctantly, he nodded.

James abruptly released Ben's shoulders and reached up to ruffle his hair. "Good boy," he teased him, then produced the second curtain tie-back and knelt at his side to secure one of Ben's ankles to a leg of the chair.

"She was supposed to overdose on Ruphanol," he explained as he worked. "I gave Manly and Dawson enough to kill a horse. Dawson said he lost it. More like he sold it, or most of it anyway. He had enough to get her out of the party and over here to the cabin."

The Mountie tried to slip his foot a little forward, tensing his muscles in a subtle effort to keep the bond loose. A simple, sharp jab to the abdomen was sufficient to get his mind off such an attempt and allow James to draw the ankle tight against the wood. Too bad he was wearing hiking boots. James would have liked to cut off his circulation for that move - not that he was going to be alive long enough for the loss of circulation to be a real problem.

"I thought this cabin was the perfect set up," he continued conversationally, glancing up and watching as Ben fought to recover from the unexpected stomach blow. "Who'd think to look out here, right? Everything would have been perfect if you two had just stayed at the Manilow like you were supposed too."

A glance confirmed that the girl was still out cold.

James finished with the one leg and quickly moved to Ben's other side, making sure to walk behind him so as to avoid the danger of being kicked. It would hardly be a smart move on his victim's part, but James didn't trust this man as far as he could throw him!

He quickly stripped off his own tie to use on Ben's other leg. He'd have to remember to retrieve it after killing them. Then again, he decided, it wouldn't matter if he remembered it or not. At this point, he doubted his ability to cover up his involvement in their deaths. Jason would point the finger straight at him as being the last person to see them alive, and the police would be all over this cabin. The fucking livingroom would light up like the Forth of July under a Luminal test! The god-damned cops were stupid, but they weren't complete idiots. The pieces would all fall neatly into place once they realized this was the site of her original attack.

Let them find whatever they wanted, he thought. It wouldn't do them any good - not in the long run. James Elliott didn't exist anymore than Edward Danvers had, or Paul Stevens before him. He was quite skilled at dropping one identity for another. He was getting tired of this one anyway.

He suddenly frowned at the boot under his hands and cocked his head to the side. Then he reached into the top of the boot and withdrew the knife Mr. Mountie had hidden there. James clucked his tongue as he tested the heft. It was a nice little weapon, and could have proved a nasty little surprise if he hadn't been so careful. "Naughty, Boy," he chided with a facetious sneer. "Is this even legal in Chicago? I haven't checked my weapon's ordinances lately."

Mountie-man, of course, didn't answer him, merely glaring at the wall opposite and clenching his jaw in irritation over the discovery.

James retrieved the sheath clipped inside the boot as well and dropped both into his coat pocket. It would make a nice and rather ironic addition to his collection. He then turned his attention back to the task at hand and finished securing the ankle in place without much ado, and no further fuss from the Mountie. "That's better." He stood with a sigh and allowed himself a slight smile as he took in the grim and angry cast of the other man's face. Mr. Mountie was being very stoic, refusing to meet his eyes and trying not to react to anything James said or did.

That was something James wouldn't stand for.

"The whole thing was supposed to look like a date rape gone wrong," he continued, returning to his explanation of his original plan to get the girl's money. Having been a cop, he figured Ben could appreciate the details more than most. Or well, not the details - he could work those out for himself. Maybe. If he was fast about it.

James let his eyes wander as he debated how best to break the stubborn pride holding the Mountie so rigid and angry. He pursed his lips and admired the way the expensive sweater set off his captive's chest muscles and molded his upper arms and shoulders where they strained against the tall chair back - he was hardly a muscular man, but he was no weakling either. Probably a gift from the girl, he figured. It wasn't the sort of extravagance he figured Mountie-man might indulge in. With a secret smile, James ran a hand over the nearest shoulder again, enjoying the feel of the soft fabric and, even more, the sudden tensing of flesh beneath.

Mountie-man didn't like his touch - too bad, for him.

"When she didn't die from the Ruphies, Manly and Dawson come whining to me," he continued. James moved to Ben's other side, letting his hand trail across the knotted muscles of his upper back and then down his other arm. "'She's still alive,' they tell me, and they can't bring themselves to get their hands dirty. Fucking idiots."

James suddenly moved, catlike, to squat directly in front of Ben, bracing his hands on the knees before him. He dropped his eyes and let his hands smooth over the tight-fitting jeans, letting his fingers pause here and there over the fabric. Not surprisingly, he actually had to catch the man as the legs beneath his hands jumped in shock, nearly overturning the chair as Ben gasped.

Mr. Mountie wasn't looking quite so stoic anymore. It was about time he saw a little fear in that angry gaze. James answered his frightened glare with a knowing smile.

"I have to sneak out here and take care of her myself." He folded his arms across those knees and rested his chin on his forearms. Mountie-man didn't like that either but there was nothing he could do about it. "I get here and I find her in the middle of trying to escape! Fucking idiots can't do anything right." James expression moved rapidly from simple disdain to pure disgust. He pushed himself away from the Mountie as the memory took him. "I chase her into the livingroom. She's still got this rope tied to one of her wrists. I grab it, pull her to me... She tried to fight. It was pathetic." He shrugged and then glared over his shoulder at the silent and recumbent form, looking much like she had all those many weeks ago. Except for the blood. "I shoulda cut her fucking throat...

"She made me mad. I knocked her around, stabbed her a few times, careful not to hit her heart. I wanted it to look like an amateur job. If it looked planned, Manly would have been too obvious a suspect.

"There was blood everywhere. Stupid bitch should have died! I thought she was dead." He shook his head in disgust, then glanced up again to meet Ben's silent and angry gaze. The fear had faded, but James knew he could get it back anytime he wanted.

"I'm sure you can figure out the rest. I rolled her up in the rug, put her in the trunk of my car and dumped her on the South side. Clean up the trunk, change the tires... No reason for the cops to want to do a full forensics on it, so it was safe for me to keep driving, for at least a little while. Having my car stolen too soon after the attack would have brought me a glance or two I didn't want."

He shook his head irritably. "That should have been the end of it. She dies, Manly collects his half of her millions, pays me off with interest, of course. A *lot* of interest...

"You know, if I had threatened to break his legs in the time honored tradition of a true lone shark, I think he just might have been able to take that. But the idea of being gang-raped by this group of really mean-looking mother fuckers I know..." He grinned evilly. "I've always found that threat to be much more effective for some reason. 'Can't imagine why."

He suddenly stood and turned to frown down at Jaelyn. "But of course none of that happened. She couldn't be a good little girl and die like she was supposed too. She had to live. And Manly and Dawson had to turn out to be the biggest wimps I've ever had the misfortune to deal with!" He paced over to where she lay and glared down at her for a very long moment...

Then he reached down and undid his belt buckle.

Ben suddenly found his heart in his throat and jerked desperately at his bonds, coming close to overturning his chair yet again as the belt was whipped free from the pants. "Y-ooo..." Close enough. "Wah woe woe woe-nth..." He fought to speak, to say or do anything to distract James from Jaelyn - and to prevent what he feared was about to happen!

James glanced up and watched him calmly, awarding his efforts an amused smile. "'You won't get away with it?'" he guessed easily. "You haven't been doing your mouth exercises, have you? Not to worry. You won't be taking that Fitness Board Review or whatever the hell it is anyway."

He turned from Ben again and suddenly knelt beside Jaelyn, flipping her onto her stomach. She groaned but did not fully wake as he quickly used the length of belt to lash her wrists together behind her back. James ignored her and glanced back up at Ben as he worked.

Ben instantly masked any sense of relief he felt behind his rage, instinctively knowing that to let this man see any sign of weakness would be inviting him to exploit it.

"Anyway, when everything went wrong, I had to come up with another plan: marry Jeanie," James continued once more. "Not my first choice. I had a lover I was very happy with, someone I'd done this sort of little con job with before. Unfortunately, he knew too much. I was forced to kill him as well as Dawson and Manly. Pity really. The boy-toys here on the South side can't hold a candle to him."

He finished wrapping the leather about the girl's wrists tightly and threaded the belt through the buckle again, using it to secure the binding in place. Standing again, he frowned down at her.

"I knew the police were onto Dawson. Didn't figure it would take too much to link him to Manly, so I framed Manly for the whole thing. Shot him full of heroin and sent him out to commit suicide. It would have worked if the coroner hadn't ruled it murder. I'd like to know how the hell he figured that one out..." He glanced at Ben again and grinned as he read his expression. "But not enough to untie you so you can write out the answer."

His gaze again swung to the girl at his feet. "And then there was David." He snarled the younger man's name with obvious contempt. "That was sheer luck. I was quite upset with him about the fire. Even more so when I found out the Insurance wasn't going to pay on it, the fucking bastards..."

He suddenly got tired of his story and decided to nudge Jaelyn with his foot. He nudged her harder when she didn't respond right away. "Come on sleeping beauty, time to wake up and play. I may not be going to get your millions like I planned, but I can still have some fun before I kill the both of you."

Part 82

Kowalski coasted to a stop just short of the driveway and pulled onto the heavy slope of the roadway's shoulder. The world about him was cloaked in the grays and browns of approaching winter. Few leaves remained on either the trees or low scrub brush, except that of the pines and firs. Even the leaf litter had largely been blown away or into tight little piles at the bases of the trees. The bared ground was a hard-packed, rough brown that resembled cement more than dirt onto which the skeletal trees cast odd and harsh shadows even on this overcast day. With any luck, his car might pass for a large shadow amongst the rest, unless one was really looking for it.

Frowning, he gazed through the denuded hedge work at the cabin Jeanie had told him about. It fit her description and that was James' Saab...

But where was Jason's car?

The night manager's son was supposed to have driven them out here, but his car was nowhere in sight and the place wasn't designed to let him park out back. The idea that Ben and Jay might be in there alone with James sent a chill up Ray's spine. He reached up and thumbed the snap off his shoulder holster, drawing his weapon and clicking off the safety before he exited the car, careful not to slam his door.

He crouched down beside the car and pulled out his cell, dialing one handed. Good thing he'd traded up to the smaller model. "Come on, Vecchio, where are you..."


"Got that warrant yet?"

"I'm not even at the Court House yet! It takes a few minutes to drive across town, you know."

"I'm at the cabin," Kowalski explained, craning his neck to scan the area again. No sign of movement anywhere. He squatted back down. "Something's queer."


"Off. Weird. Not right," he explained unnecessarily, keeping his voice down as well. Why, he couldn't have said. "There's only one car: James'. Jason was supposed to drive them out here but I think he just dropped them off."

"You mean they're alone with the creep?"

"I think I'd use something a bit stronger than creep to describe him; but, yeah, if they're here, they're alone with him."

"You don't even know if they're there?"

"What did I just say, Vecchio?" Ray hissed, the stress of the situation making him short tempered. "There's only one car! According to Jeanie, Ben and Jay were supposed to be here an hour ago. If they'd been and gone, James wouldn't be hanging around." He cast another anxious glance over the back of his car. "They're here," he decided firmly. "With him..."

"That doesn't mean they're in any immediate danger," Vecchio argued. "Remember, he likes to play games."

"Yeah, but this one's getting long in the tooth. It's too quiet. Way too quiet. I'm going in."

"No!" Vecchio protested sharply. "You'll just spook him! If they're not in danger now, you go barging in there and they will be. Besides, you want the guy to get off on a technicality? I've already talked to Welsh and the warrant's in the works. Give me fifteen minutes and I'll have the place swarming with County Sheriffs."

Kowalski offered Vecchio a sneer he couldn't see. "And you don't think that'll spook him worse? I'm going in. Call me when you get that warrant." He snapped the cell shut before Vecchio could protest any further and turned his attention back to the house.

Part 83

Jaelyn turned her head and opened her eyes. There was a patent-leather, black shoe directly in front of her face. The shoe's high gloss was covered in a fine dust, she noted.

Not Ben, was the first thought to flit coherently through her mind.

Black shoe, black sock, charcoal gray slack...

What was she doing on the ground?

She followed the pant leg upward, belatedly realizing as she did so that her hands were tied behind her back. Her eyes suddenly focused beyond the leg to see Ben sitting across the room on a dining room chair. His hair was delightfully mussed, reminding her of the little boy look she'd seen in Aspen sometimes when he first got up in the mornings. But there was nothing little boy like about the hard and angry look on his face.

She frowned. What was a dining room chair doing...

No. It was a desk chair, from the writing desk. Behind him.

Carpet. Wall. Window.


Her memory returned with an almost audible click. Well, in any case, if she were capable of hearing she wouldn't have been surprised to hear a click.

A hand suddenly reached down to pull her upward into a sitting position. She found herself leaning against the old dresser of the family cabin's master bedroom. It was James who squatted beside her, offering her a malicious smile.

The memory of his attack flashed through her brain with the clarity of yesterday.

*"Fucking incompetents. I should kill you both, as well as her!"*

*The knife flashed. Descended. She lifted her arm to block it. Screamed. Her nails raked his wrist.*

*"Bitch! You're going to pay for that..."*

*He hit her. She fell. And then she felt the stab. Heard the sickening blow. Fire, not pain. Shock. Tug on muscle. Scrape on bone. The knife jerked out.*

She stared at him, remembering exactly what he'd done, and wondered why she didn't scream. Where was the nearly paralytic feeling of terror that always stole her away when memory rose too close to the surface of her mind? Where was the sweet oblivion that answered her mindless panic and swept her away before the memories could stay? It was almost as if it had happened to someone else. There was no fear, no panic... Nothing.

Was she already dead, she wondered?

James mouth was moving, but she couldn't hear what he was saying and she was too confused to try to read his lips. She shook her head to clear her thoughts and glanced over at Ben, wondering why he didn't do something. His shoulders flexed and moved as he glared at James' back, but suddenly froze as James followed her gaze and glanced back at him. James held the look for only a second before turning his attention back to her.

Of course, she thought as she finally noted the bonds at Ben's feet, he's tied as well.

"No?" James echoed her shake of the head as though it were the answer to his question, which he knew she had neither heard nor even possibly understood. She couldn't hear him of course, but he could make her squirm as well. "You don't remember all the fun we had together? I'm crushed." He gently brushed the hair out of her eyes, a bit surprised when she didn't recoil from his touch or offer him more than a slightly confused glance. Was it really possible she'd forgotten everything yet again, he wondered? That wasn't the way these things normally worked, he knew...

He pulled out Ben's boot knife and held it between them, turning it to catch the light and flash it in her eyes. "Guess I'll have to remind you," he decided with a grin.

She should have screamed. She should have pulled away and fought. She should have had one of her stupid flashbacks at the very least.

"Jeanie thought you loved her," she said with a small frown, completely ignoring the threat of the knife he held. "You were only using her..."

James frowned in confusion for a second, then grabbed a fistful of dark hair and yanked her head back, bringing the knife to bear against her throat. She might not be able to hear what he was saying, but she would certainly understand that move! He had to pull the blade back slightly as a bright red line appeared. He grinned and glanced back at Mr. Mountie who looked about ready to rip his head-off, if he could have only managed to win free of his bonds. "A man who knows how to properly sharpen a knife," he complemented the enraged and frightened man. "I'm impressed."
He frowned as he turned back the woman in his grasp, realizing she'd merely relaxed into his hold and was calmly blinking up at the ceiling. She hadn't even gasped! He narrowed his eyes, irritated by her lack of response.

"Your brains take a vacation, Sweetheart, or are you just too scared to think straight?" He tested the thought by turning the knife and tracing the outside edge of her face with the flat of the tip, starting at her temple and drawing the blade down over her cheek, past her jaw, down her throat and then lower still. He was quite careful not to cut her again but the threat behind the move was quite clear. "You know, it was the others who had all the fun of raping you for those two days before they got up the guts to call me."

The girl might be reacting like a wet dish towel, but Mountie-man on the other hand was reacting quite predictably, trying again to say something to distract James from the girl in his grasp. "If you don't shut up," James told him irritably as he traced the blade gently down over her breast and used the edge to ever so softly scrap against where he figured her nipple should most likely be, "I'm going to slip and cut her damn tit right off."

He dared freeze his action long enough to shoot the Mountie a warning glare. The man shut up.

James turned his attention back to the girl. To his surprise, she hadn't so much as even flinched! Her breathing remained normal, and even the pulse at the base of her neck was ridiculously slow. "I'm beginning to think you're brain dead, Girl," he told her quietly.

He suddenly flung the blade away from him, finding himself too tempted to bury it in her chest just to see her squirm. No, that would end his fun far too quickly.

Ben let out a surprised grunt and James turned in time to see the knife clatter to the ground at his feet. No blood, so apparently it had hit him with either the flat of the blade or the handle. James hadn't intended to hit him at all, simply not thinking when he threw the knife, but Mr. Mountie was quite lucky not to have gotten cut.

The girl in his grasp had jerked when he threw the knife and now he turned back to see her staring at Ben.

He grinned, then gripped her hair hard and brought his face closer to hers, mouthing his words slowly so she couldn't escape them even as he blocked her view of the Mountie. "Fallen for Mr. Walking Hero, have you?" he asked her softly and then glanced over his shoulder at Ben.

Ben did not like the malicious gleam that had suddenly entered the other man's eyes.

"I wonder which would be worse..." James paused as he reached into his waistband and pulled out his gun again. He waved it momentarily in the air between himself and the girl, making sure he had her attention.

She watched it and him with quiet detachment. It was a facade, he knew - perhaps a product of the shock of suddenly remembering everything, he thought - but it wasn't real. It couldn't be. There had to be a part of her, hidden deep inside, that was screaming in terror at what was happening.

He needed to find that part.

Moving to the side so Ben would have a clear view, James gripped her hair firmly and gently brought the barrel of the gun up to her mouth, brushing the cold, blued steel slowly over her lips and picking up just a trace of the lipstick she liked to wear on the metal as he did so...

It would be so easy to shove it in her mouth and blow the back of her head off.

"I wonder which would be worse," he repeated. "Lover-boy watching you die first?" He swung his gaze back to the Mountie, judging his reaction to the threat and manhandling; then once again back to the girl. Still no sign of fear out of her. Her eyes had locked with those of the Mountie.

James suddenly snapped the gun outward to point at Ben in clear threat. Deaf or not, she'd understand that move. "Or her seeing you die first?" he asked them, knowing neither could answer.

The girl remained infuriatingly passive and unresponsive. Stupid bitch. This wasn't going to be any fun if he couldn't get her to play!

He suddenly drew back his hand and slapped her, hard; needing a reaction - any reaction - out of her! She offered only a surprised little gasp and fell to her side. "Stupid bitch," he muttered.

Ben glared in impotent fury at James' back and concentrated on his ropes, fighting down the bile that rose in his throat in answer to Jaelyn's gasp of pain. He had to stay calm. Focus. Feel the lay of the rope. Test the loops for play. There. Now pull it through the others. Work the knots open... One at a time.

He had to freeze again as James suddenly stood, abandoning his sport with Jaelyn, and came toward him. Something about the way he approached struck Ben as more than a little predatory. He was like a cat playing with a mouse or injured bird just before finishing it off. Ben was quite certain he wasn't going to enjoy whatever game James had suddenly gotten in mind.

James retrieved the thrown knife, then grabbed Ben's chair and jerked it around to the side, nearly tipping it over in his zeal. "Gotta make sure she can see the show," he snarled, catching Ben before he could fall over.

Ben fought to hide his panic as James suddenly straddled his legs and sat down in his lap, understanding all too clearly what he was threatening and knowing he mustn't react. It was obvious James got off on other people's fear, on the power that understanding and manipulating that fear gave him. Ben had already given the man far too much ammunition to play with.

James stared into the dark gray eyes that glared back at him and chuckled at the mask of anger her saw. "Too late, Benny," he whispered and ran his hands firmly but sensuously over Ben's shoulders and chest. "I've already seen your puppet strings. I know exactly how to pull them."

He gripped the man's chin hard, digging his fingers into his checks and forcing his jaw open, and then brought his own face closer until his lips were mere millimeters from Ben’s. “Too bad I hadn’t before noticed just how appealing you are.” He grabbed the back of Ben's head with his other hand and forced his mouth against the Mountie's.

In the next instant, he was yelling and reeling back. Ben had jerked his head to the side and snapped his mouth shut. It was luck alone that kept James from losing his tongue entirely.

He leapt away from the bound and helpless man, tasting blood. "Fucking son of a bitch!" he screamed. He drew back his arm and struck, sending the bound man and his chair crashing to the floor. "Damn it!" He spit blood and run his tongue around inside his mouth, trying to judge just exactly how much damage had been done. He drew back his foot and lashed out at the helpless man.

"No!" Jaelyn screamed in horror.

James spun, surprised by her shout. In his rage, he'd forgotten all about her. The fear he saw mirrored in her eyes was like a balm to his abraded nerves. He threw back his head and laughed. "*Now* she speaks," he crowed triumphantly. He glared down at Ben. "Now she's mine. You are both *mine*!"

Part 84

He hated waiting.

As Ray saw it, there were two ways he could play this: he could knock and loudly announce his presence, interrupting anything James might be planning... James, realizing the cops were onto him, might then pull a gun and shoot Ben and Jaelyn out of sheer spite before heading out the back door.

Bad scenario.

Okay... what if he played it casual; simply knock on the front door and appear as Ben's friend, then try to bluff his way through to a safe point before taking the guy down? That meant dropping his guard before he knew what the situation was. If it had already gone sour, he could be dead before he knew what happened.

Uh huh. Check please!

He really hated waiting.

So... That left him with sneaking in and taking James by surprise. He had probable cause: reasonable suspicion of murder and attempted murder, the suspect was alone with his probable target and an injured and mute Ben. Ray could argue a case of imminent danger. He didn't need to wait for a warrant.

If he wanted back-up, he had to wait for a warrant. He glanced at his watch. Come on, Vecchio...

He was never good at waiting.

Frowning, he fumbled in his inside picket and pulled out his glasses. Shoving them in place, he scanned the area again. The cabin was still quiet. The drapes of one of the front rooms had been pulled open. Looked like it might be the living room or den. Hard to say.

No movement. No lights.

There wasn't a lot of cover between the road and the cabin but that couldn't be helped. He'd just have to hope James wasn't looking this way. He paused to make sure he had a full clip in his weapon and a spare in his pocket. Yep.

Besides, he argued with himself against waiting, with his luck backup would arrive with lights flashing and sirens screaming! He might as well bust down the door and yell, "Police! You're under arrest!"

Crouching low and moving quickly, he raced toward the front porch, battling the nagging suspicion that he was already too late.

Part 85

Jaelyn frowned in a strange mixture of fear, anger and apathy as she lie on the floor beside the dresser, watching James wrestle Ben and his chair upright again. The helpless man bit back a grunt of pain and visibly winced as he was thrown around in his bonds. His dark hair was a tousled disarray and there was a nasty cut high on his right cheek that was already beginning to swell from where James had backhanded him. A small trickle of blood traced down his lip and chin, though she suspected it belonged to James and not Ben. She didn't know where James had kicked him.

He was a mess, but she probably didn't look much better herself. Her face still hurt from where James had slapped her, and she could feel the cut on her throat pull and crack whenever she turned her head too far. The drying blood on her neck itched.

"Why are you doing this?"

James glanced back at her in mild surprise even as he patted Ben's shoulder and caught his breath from the exertion of righting the other man. Jaelyn had seemed to shut down again after seeing him kick Ben. She'd curled into a tight little ball and closed her eyes, and nothing he had done could make her open them. Only when he'd moved away and back to Ben had she seemed to become aware of her surroundings again. "She speaks!" he laughed, then had to fish out a handkerchief to wipe at his own bleeding mouth.

He offered the Mountie a venomous glare, promising to make him pay for the injury.

Jaelyn wasn't expecting an answer. She couldn't hear his answer. But it didn't keep her from asking. "Is it the money? You could have just kidnaped me and held me for ransom. I don't understand why you're doing this."

James chuckled even as he strode away from Ben and over to the girl, bending down to yank her back into a sitting position and propping her up against the dresser once more. He squatted on his heels and faced her squarely so she could read his lips if she wanted. "The money was only the icing on the cake, my dear," he explained. "I don't need your money, I need what it represents.

"Love, sex, fear, money... they're all only symbols; symbols of power. There is nothing more intoxicating than taking what you want, whenever you want, however you want it... except making someone else give it to you. Why am I doing this?" he repeated her question and paused to gently brush the hair out of her eyes. He grinned, revealing bloody teeth. "Because I *can*."

She only blinked at him in confusion.

He chuckled again, at himself this time; then paused to spit into his handkerchief, wondering if he was going to actually need stitches... not that he'd have the opportunity to get them. His tongue would have to heal on its own.

"Why do I bother? You can't hear me." He abruptly reached up with his other hand and ruffled her hair, much as someone might to a child who'd been especially cute about something or other. So much for brushing the hair out of her eyes. He stood and tucked the bloody hankie away. "Maybe Mountie-man can explain it to you in whatever heaven or hell - or non-existent nothingness - that awaits you beyond death. In any case, the answer isn't going to matter to you much in a few minutes."

He turned from her and pulled out his gun again as he approached Ben once more. "I really wish I had more time to play with you two," he sighed. "I could teach you games that neither of you can even imagine right now. Unfortunately, Jason could always get it in his head to swing by again after finishing with that demolitions guy and I have no particular interest in killing him. It would be kind of like swatting a fly, only more boring."

He paced around Ben as he spoke and now suddenly came to a halt, placing the barrel of the weapon at the base of his skull and shoving his head forward hard enough to make him wince. James leaned a little to the side so he could see his face better. The Mountie glared in silent fury straight ahead even as a vein in his temple pounded in fear.

"This is a very nice weapon," James offered conversationally, then he removed the gun and began pacing around Ben again. "I stole it from a cop in Canada, or 'O.P.P.' as the case may be. 'Oops, it's the opps!'" he joked.

Ben was familiar with the unfortunate nickname for the Ontario Provincial Police. It was no worse than that of any police force in the mouths of those who disparaged their worth. He ignored James' taunting and instead concentrated all of his attention on mentally picturing the remaining knots at his wrists as he dared let his fingers slowly trace them yet again, praying James wouldn't notice what he was doing. He froze his action, shifting his hands in an attempt to hide the short length he'd managed to win loose, as the man started to walk behind him.

"Thirty-eight caliber, Smith and Wesson, Model 10, sporting a muzzle velocity of 620 feet per second with a 200 grain bullet and delivering 176 foot pounds of energy..." James pressed the barrel to Ben's temple and shoved his head to the side this time. He manually cocked the weapon, enjoying the sound of the action, and was rewarded with a sharp catch in the Mountie's breathing. "Not much of a weapon by today's standards really, but it'll do the job. I imagine your father carried one very like it. Pity the RCMP switched to the 9mm a couple of years ago. You might have been able to carry it as well. Oh, what am I saying?"

He removed the muzzle from Ben's temple and manually lowered the hammer as he watched Ben lift his head again. The man glared straight ahead, refusing to look at James or show any fear. James offered a knowing smile. The man was actually sweating. "You did carry it. It was your father's weapon that Victoria used to kill..." He frowned in thought for a second. "'Jolly', wasn't it?"

That got a rise. James wagged his brows in triumphant as Ben shot him a murderous look. "I did my research," he told Ben quietly and brought the weapon to bear under his chin this time, pressing upward. Ben continued to glare at him, refusing to look away even as his head was forced back.

A glance at the girl showed that she'd closed her eyes and bowed her head.

James quickly strode over to her and yanked her head back up, waving the gun in her face. "This is no fun if you don't watch, my dear," he chided her.

She offered him an angry frown. "Kill us and get it over with," she told him with a weary sigh. "I'm tired of your games."

"Oh, really?" he asked, a bit surprised that his rather dramatic threats against the Mountie hadn't won more of a reaction. "Okay," he decided. She was boring the hell out of him anyway. He stood and pointed the gun at her bowed head.


It was Ben who offered the protest this time, surprising James with the clarity of the word. He glanced over at the bound man with a smile. "Oh, that was very good, Benny," he mocked the other man. "Can you say 'Mama'?"

Ben swallowed around a dry throat and tasted bile as he gave the other man what he wanted. "Ma - Man."

James winced slightly at the imperfect pronunciation. "Close," he admitted.

Ben wasn't done. "Bat–" His eyes conveyed quite clearly what his mouth struggled to say. "Bath– Bass-thirg! Bass--"

"--Bastard?" James grinned again. His tongue was starting to swell and he very nearly mispronounced the word himself. Oh, but the fucking Mountie really deserved a little more play... "You aren't tired of my games yet?" He turned from the girl and crossed back toward Ben, toying with the gun as he moved. "You'll do just about anything to stall for time, won't you. You think someone's going to figure out something's wrong and suddenly come to your rescue?"

Ben merely glared at the man and slowly, so very slowly so as not to betray what he was doing, teased another knot free.

"Tell you what," James decided, lifting the gun and swinging the cylinder open. "Since the two of you can't seem to make up your minds who wants to go first, we'll let fate decide."
He deftly worked the ejector pin and dropped all six bullets into his hand, then replaced one. He spun the cylinder and snapped it closed before pointing the gun at the ceiling so they couldn't see the chambers.

He frowned as he glanced between them. They were busy staring at each other again. How pathetic. It was time to show them he was serious.

"Ladies first," he decided. He lowered the weapon and gently squeezed the trigger.

Part 86

Ray made his way quickly to the porch, staying out of sight from the cabin windows as much as possible. The steps, however, caught his attention before he could mount them. He paused, weapon held at the ready, and squatted down to examine them.

It was apparent that Jason, or someone, had swept and cleaned the wood in expectation of Ben and Jaelyn's arrival. The path leading up to the cabin was packed gravel but not particularly smooth. There were several small puddles, left-overs from the early snow they'd gotten last week, that were still crusted with ice from last night's freeze. Ray didn't have to have Ben's sage-like ability when it came to tracking to know that several people had gone into the cabin, recently; and, unless they'd purposely avoided the slightly muddy prints they'd made going in, he only saw evidence of one person coming out.

"Damn," Ray hissed. Any hope that Ben and Jay weren't inside with James was shot.

He bit his lip and frowned at the steps again. It was also obvious that the heels of his boots were going to make a lot of noise on that wood, announcing his arrival before he could even get to the door, unless he was very careful and slow.

Slow was not what he wanted here.

There was nothing he could do about possible squeaks. He'd have to trust that any such noise would be dismissed as part of the cabin's normal creaks and groans - but he could do something about his heels. He glanced around quickly to make sure he was still safe. Then, with a shiver, he toed off first his left boot and then his right. In stockinged feet, he stepped silently up onto the first wooden tread.

No squeak.

He blew out a nervous breath and proceeded upward, feeling the damp coldness slowly invading his socks. Good thing he'd worn thick ones, he thought, and hoped he didn't get a splinter.

Moving quickly, his gun grasped firmly in both hands and trained low to the right, he made his way stealthily across the wooden porch until his back rested against the wall beside the door. He brought the gun up beside his head and blew out another nervous breath. So far, so good. Craning his head sharply over his shoulder, he strained to hear any sounds from inside the cabin. Nothing. He inched closer, until his ear was nearly joined with the door.

Still nothing.

He bit his lip and eyed the heavy wood before him, then lowered his left hand from his gun to gently test the doorknob. Slowly he turned it, praying it wasn't locked. "Come on, come on..." Ray ran the words over and over in his head. He felt more than heard the latch slide free of the frame and dared to silently push the door ajar, listening.

Silence. He nudged the door open fully, quickly bracing his weapon again in both hands as he brought it down and swept the area, only to find he confronted an empty living room. His fingers tightened on the grip in his hands as he heard the rumblings of James' voice coming from the hallway to his left.

"Round two," he was saying. There was an odd sound of something being spun or wound up and then a distinctive click/slap. The sound was similar to that of a clip being loaded in a gun. Ray's eyes narrowed and he almost stopped breathing, knowing he was too far away to prevent what he suddenly feared might be happening. "I wonder whose luck will run out first?"

Ray's cell phone chose that moment to ring and he thought for sure he'd jump out of his socks. "Shit!" he hissed, louder then he should have, and heard the door down the hall slam shut.

James stood with his back to the right of the door and quickly retrieved a fast loader from his pocket. He smiled at Ben as he deftly emptied the single shell they'd been playing with and reloaded the weapon, then listened intently for sound beyond their room. Someone banged a wall, it didn't sound like the hallway, and the phone rang again. Whoever it was wasn't stupid enough to come barging in. That, combined with the lack of a knock or voice raised in query to see if anyone was here, told James it wasn't an innocent visit.

He grinned at Ben. Why did he have the feeling the Mountie had recognized that muffled and quiet voice? Or, maybe it was the ring of the cell phone... It didn't matter. "Someone else wants to join the game." Probably Jason, he guessed.

Listening at the door again, he could hear whoever it was muttering something into the phone that had betrayed them. He'd probably overheard enough to know what was going on and was calling the police - or having whoever had called him call the police. It looked like James' playtime with the girl and Mountie had just gotten cut short, but not curtailed entirely. "Don't go anywhere," he told them facetiously, then swung the door open and hurried forward with a cat-like grace and silence.

He didn't like having his games interrupted and whoever had done so was going to regret it.

Part 87

Ben frowned at the doorway James had disappeared through and frantically began working at his bonds again. It took all his will power not to yank against the silken ties in sheer frustration and desperation, but he knew doing so would only tighten the remaining knots. The curtain tie-back James had used was made up of several heavy strands loosely twisted together into a soft rope. It might look delicate but the whole was as strong as steel. And if he wasn't very careful, he'd be bound in a mass of tangles rather than neat knots. His fingers were nearly numb, his wrists were bruised and cut from the individual treads that dug into his flesh as he twisted against them, his chest muscles burned from being stretched and his stomach hurt from where James had kicked him, but he forced these distractions from his mind and fought to find his place again, teasing another loop free.

He suddenly felt the rope about his right wrist shift and knew he was almost there.

Ben glanced at the door and chewed his lower lip anxiously, as he carefully tested that loosening. Could he work it further open? Was it enough to let him pull his hand free, or would he merely tighten the remaining knot or two if he tried?

He didn't have time to debate his choices. It was a small cabin. Whatever was going to happen would happen quickly.

He pulled and felt the loosened bond give but only so much. Not a slip knot then, damn. He pulled harder - it was now or never - and twisted his hand, forcing the loop to be large enough... The synthetic threads did not have any give but did roll against each other. His hand finally popped free and he quickly jerked his arms forward. Ignoring the short length still tied to his left wrist, Ben bent over and quickly fought to untie the bonds at his ankles.

He glanced up at Jaelyn and then to the door again, praying Ray could keep James occupied long enough for him to get her out of here.

He hoped Ray killed the son of a bitch.

He finally worked the last knot free and threw the necktie aside as he all but lunged from his chair toward Jaelyn. Her eyes danced from him to the door, but her gaze was strangely detached. It was almost as if she were sleep walking he realized.

She frowned slightly as she forced her sluggish thoughts to work. She should be terrified, she knew, but she wasn't. She felt numb, having absolutely no control or even understanding of what was happening. She didn't even know what had happened to draw James from the room, but she could guess. "Jason?"

Ben quickly put his fingers over her mouth as gently as he could and shook his head in both warning as well as denial. His gaze shot to the door as he listened for sounds in the hall that might indicate James had heard her and decided to return. Hurriedly, Ben pushed Jaelyn away from the dresser and dropped his hands to the belt at her wrists. He let his eyes dance around the room again in the hope of discovering anything he'd missed in his earlier perusal which might be used as a weapon: some light knickknacks to throw and the discarded bonds were about it.

His gaze jerked to the door as a shot rang out. James. The .38 had a heavier sound than Ray's 9 mm. He didn't hear any return fire...

He had to glance downward to see what he was doing. His fingers buzzed with the needles and pins pain of returning circulation as he fought to undo the buckle at Jaelyn's wrists. The sensation made him awkward. The leather binding was just as tight as his ropes had been, cutting into her arms and forearms and cutting off her circulation. The bastard. There. The buckle tongue slipped free as he jerked the leather back. He quickly unwound the heavy length and again had to cover her mouth in gentle warning as she groaned aloud with the sudden return of blood to her hands.

He glanced back at the window as he gently chafed her wrists: single hung double sash, sliding drop, real muntins with a wood frame. The frame and latch looked to be in good condition and not painted shut. It should open easily. He quickly urged Jaelyn to her feet while placing a finger across his own lips to reinforce the need to be quiet. They had to hurry.

He glanced at the door again as they moved and hoped Ray was being careful. He didn't have time to worry about the fact that he hadn't heard any return gunfire...

Part 88

Kowalski. What was *he* doing out here? James moved slowly forward, keeping his gun trained on the prostrate form. He wouldn't put it past the guy to play possum. He'd been expecting to find Jason skulking around, not the blond cop. His presence didn't make a lot of sense.

James hated it when things didn't make sense.
The fucking son of a bitch had been nothing but a pain in the ass ever since the girl and Mountie got back from Aspen. James remembered the idiot's jibes at the airport all too clearly. The irritating jokes suggesting Ben and Jaelyn had gotten married while they were gone took on new meaning as he gazed down at the unmoving form on the floor. Had the cops discovered something to tie him to the case after all? Had the stupid bastard been testing him with his annoying jests?

It would explain why the case hadn't been closed yet. The M.E. couldn't be so incompetent as to *still* be waiting on test results. James had never learned exactly what the tests were but he was beginning to suspect DNA comparisons. Had the fucking doctor been able to get a sample from the toasted remains of David? But what would they compare it--

He dared glance at his own exposed left wrist. The bitch had scratched him, he remembered. He knew the fucking doctors hadn't run a full rape kit on her - he hadn't been part of that party so it hadn't particularly worried him in any case - but they must have taken fingernail scrapings.


He cursed himself soundly even as he came up next to the unmoving body of the cop on the floor and kicked the gun away from the lax hand. The doctors weren't supposed to be smart enough to take nail scrapings. He'd thought they only did that stuff during autopsies. They should have been too busy trying to save her life to even think about taking nail scrapings!


The cop didn't even flinch as the gun went sailing away across the floor. James grinned. This was one son of a bitch who wasn't going to be bothering him further. Still cautious, James rolled him over with a foot, looking forward to blowing his brains out... and then saw he didn't need too.

The left side of Kowalski's face and hair was covered in blood. His eyes were half open and unblinking. A large puddle of red covered the hardwood floor where he'd been lying.

"Cool!" James laughed lightly.

The phone in Kowalski's jacket pocket where it lay open on the floor beside him started to ring again. James frowned irritably and brought his foot down on the offending object, hard, shattering it. It was probably whoever had called earlier calling back to confirm that the cops were on their way.

It would take them about ten minutes to get out here, he knew, less if they were already on their way. His mind quickly played with various escape plans even as he turned and quickly made his way back to the bedroom.

Playtime was over.

Part 89

Vecchio frowned as the connection was abruptly broken and he suddenly got a busy signal instead of ringing. With a soft curse, he hit redial and sandwiched the phone between his ear and shoulder as he started his car and pulled out from before the court house. Musta gotten a crossed connection, he thought. Kowalski's phone began ringing again, but it sounded odd and then a canned voice came over the line. "We are sorry. The subscriber you are trying to reach is not in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in–"

Ray cut the pre-recorded message short with an alarmed frown and tried again. He was rewarded with the same canned missive and again cut it short. Something had happened. He knew it in his bones.

Quickly, he dialed another number even as he vowed he was getting his shield and police radio back if it was the last thing he ever did! Dewey picked up. "Vecchio," he identified himself curtly. "Get me Welsh again. Now!"

"God damn, son of a..." James raced to the open window and quickly scanned the outside. Nowhere in sight, but there weren't a whole lot of places they could hide either. Quickly, he followed in their wake and climbed out the window. They couldn't have gotten far. How the hell had they–

His eyes searched the immediate area even as his ears strained to hear any telltale noises. What he heard was sirens. Lots of sirens. Still far away, probably on the interstate. Was it possible they weren't coming here? He scoffed at his own question. Kowalski had been a fucking cop! He hadn't been here by accident. He must have called for back up. Hell, it might even have been the fucking back up that had called him and blown the fact that he was in the god damn cabin!
"Damn it!" he cursed angrily, his eyes frantically searching the area again for any sign of his quarry. Nothing. He raced around toward the front of the cabin. It was the most likely direction for them to take. They'd probably head for the road and hope to flag down a passing motorist or take whatever car that idiot Kowalski had come in.

His eyes scanned the ground and shadows as he hurried along. The fucking dirt was as hard as fucking concrete. None of the half frozen puddles looked to have been splashed through.

He wasn't a god damn tracker! What the hell else should he be looking for?

No movement. No sound of breaking twigs. Nothing. Not a God damned thing!

He spotted Kowalski's car down in the shadows by the road, a good fifty yards away; there was no movement between it and him. He also knew there was no way the god damned Mountie and girl could have possibly reached it so quickly. It had taken him less than a minute to make sure the fucking cop was dead.

He spun in place, unwilling to accept how very wrong everything had suddenly gone. How dare they thwart his plans this way! It wasn't bad enough Manly and the others had fucked everything up, but now...

How? How - was all he could think!

Had the fucking Mountie had a god damned knife stuck up his sleeve, just like he'd had one stuck in his boot? James shouldn't have missed that. Or had he just untied himself. Was it that simple? Had James done such a god damn poor job tying him that he'd actually been able to work his way free?

Maybe it was the fucking girl. Maybe she'd been playing possum on him, acting like she was in shock when she wasn't. Maybe she'd gotten the belt at her wrists free while he was busy playing with her boy-toy. Then she'd jumped up the minute he left the room and they'd split out the window.

How had he been so god-damned blind not to see what either one or both of them were doing!

He should have blown their fucking heads off! But no. No, he'd wanted to play. And they'd known he'd wanted to play! They'd been stalling. Especially the Mountie... Yeah. Yeah, it was the Mountie, he realized. It was the god damned fucking Mountie! He'd been stalling. He'd been stalling and James had known it! And he'd let him! He'd let him stall. He'd let him play James like a puppet! He'd pulled all of James strings and James had let him! James had let them get away.

No! No, he wouldn't allow it. He *couldn't* allow it! He held his breath and listened, knowing they had to be here, had to be close, so god damned, mother fucking close...

All he heard was the god damned sirens getting closer, closing in on him, seeking to trap him.

With an animalistic growl of sheer rage, he brought his gun up and fired it at the cabin, the bushes, the shadows of a nearby tree... "I'll be back for you!" he screamed furiously. "I'll kill you both if it's the last thing I ever do!"

But he couldn't do that if he got caught. With another angry growl he spun on his heel and sprinted toward his car. The cops would be watching for it. He couldn't use it long he knew, but all he needed was five minutes...

Part 90

Ben finished stripping the curtain tie-back from his wrist and wiped his mouth on his shoulder. The taste of James blood in his mouth was making him nauseous. The idea that he'd probably have to be tested for AIDS was not pleasant either. He dismissed the thought and carefully eased open the closet door as he heard James run around toward the front of the cabin. As he cracked the door open, his own sensitive ears picked up the distant sound of sirens. Had Ray managed to call for back up?

Ben was very much afraid for his friend. James would not have simply wounded him and then returned to the bedroom. With luck, his friend had escaped out the front door and James had decided to finish them off, before either dealing with Ray or fleeing the scene. Whatever the situation, Ray needed help.

Ben turned back to Jaelyn. ^Stay here!^ he signed firmly.

For the first time, he saw fear enter her eyes and she grabbed onto his arm, shaking her head. She opened her mouth but Ben quickly put his fingers gently over her mouth again before she could protest. He watched as a terrified tear slid slowly down her cheek where the bruise from James' slap was beginning to darken.
Ben closed his eyes, torn between the need to find his friend and the fact that he obviously couldn't leave Jaelyn here alone. He had to protect her, dear God, he had to do that; yet he also had to help Ray. The closet was the safest place for her. Even if James returned to the cabin and found Ben, he still might not think to search the place for her until it was too late. The sirens sounded like they were getting closer but Ben knew there was no guarantee they were coming here at all. He had to find Ray and he had to get to a phone.

But he couldn't speak. If Ray was injured, how could he call for help with a regular phone? He suspected the chances that a 911 operator in Chicago would know Morse Code was more than slim. They would trace the call, he knew, but that would take time. And if they didn't know the full nature of what was happening, the single officer they were likely to send to check out the call would very likely be walking into an extremely dangerous situation - if James was still around, and Ben and Jaelyn were even still alive by then.

He needed Jaelyn's voice.

Ben opened his eyes and chewed his lip. He also knew that if Ray hadn't escaped and was seriously injured, or worse, that she might well fall apart when they found him. Her emotional equilibrium appeared to be more than precarious.

He didn't have time to debate the possibilities.

He lifted his hand and gently wiped her frightened tear away, gazing into her eyes and trying to silently reassure her. She shook her head again, in mute refusal of his order to stay here. She was far more terrified of being separated from him than she was of James. The knowledge was a double-edged sword.

^Stay back and do exactly what I say,^ he ordered her firmly. Smart or not, he couldn't leave her here. Not only would it cause her pain, but he couldn't be sure she'd stay put.

She nodded, girding what strength about her she could.

With a nod of his own, Ben caught up her hand and together they turned toward the bedroom door. He paused at the doorway, keeping her well behind him and leaned out to scan the hall. Nothing. The shot had sounded like it was fired in the living room. If Ray was in the cabin, he was likely in the den or kitchen. Ben gave Jaelyn's hand a reassuring squeeze and drew her forward, crouching low as they moved and thus making it less likely that James might look toward the cabin and see movement in one of the windows.

One of the front windows suddenly shattered, followed by the report of James' gun. Ben jerked Jaelyn downward and dove for the floor, shielding her body with his own as another and then another shot rang out. He dared lift his head as he realized the shots were not all aimed at the cabin, but seemed to be random and wild. It was more than unlikely James could have seen them this far back in the hall in any case, even if he were standing on the porch.

Had Ray drawn his fire outside?

"I'll be back for you!" Ben heard James scream. It was too shrill and enraged to be called a shout. "I'll kill you both if it's the last thing I ever do!" he swore viciously.

Jaelyn was trembling beneath him and Ben was glad she couldn't hear that promise. He'd said, "I'll be back." Did that mean he was leaving? The sound of the sirens was definitely getting closer. Whether they were actually headed for the cabin or not, they might have scared him off. Ben tried to calm Jaelyn as best he could even as he strained to listen for sounds outside. He heard someone running and then a car door slammed.

He *was* leaving. Thank God, Ben thought. He quickly rolled off of Jaelyn and made sure his sudden move hadn't triggered one of her PTSD episodes. Her face was pale and her breathing fast, but her gaze was coherent. Perhaps more coherent than it had been before.

^He's going,^ Ben signed curtly, even as the sound of James' Saab leaving confirmed what he said. He knew Jaelyn couldn't hear it. ^You okay?^

She blinked and swallowed around a suddenly dry throat, glancing uncertainly toward the living room and the window she'd seen break. ^Going?^ she asked, not daring to speak.

Ben nodded and climbed to his feet, urging her up. He still needed to find Ray. ^Ray's here,^ he explained, an 'R' waved at his hair defining which "Ray" he meant. ^He may be hurt.^

If he wasn't hurt, or out of bullets, Ben knew he would have heard shots fired at the fleeing vehicle. And if he was simply out of bullets, he would have called out to Ben and Jaelyn by now. Quickly, Ben straightened and hurried toward the living room, praying that he'd find his friend all right.

The living room was empty and he turned to the left... Jaelyn nearly ran into him as Ben suddenly froze. A stockinged foot lay unmoving in the archway to the den. He ignored the question of why Ray had taken off his shoes and hurried forward. He could see where the bullet had passed through the frame of the arch, blowing out plaster and wood splinters with its passage. The height and placement of that mark was...

He rounded the archway, only to again momentarily freeze as his worst fears were confirmed. The left side of Ray's pale face was covered in blood, the hair was matted with it and a large red pool haloed his head where it rested on the hard wood floor. The partially open eyes caused Ben's heart to seize.

"Ray..." Ben breathed aloud, not in the least interested in the fact that he'd spoken yet again or that he'd done so correctly.

"Oh, my God..." Jaelyn whispered in horror.

Ben ignored her for the moment, hoping only that she wouldn't collapse and go into convulsions on him. Instead, he forced his emotions aside. Ray needed him. He had to stay calm and he had to think. Quickly he knelt, reaching forward to check for a pulse even as he forced himself to view the wound more closely. He prayed it wasn't as bad as it appeared.

Part 91

Vecchio sped along the narrow lane at a far faster rate of speed than was really advisable. He could hear Benny now in the back of his head telling him he should slow down - only Benny couldn't talk now so he couldn't say anything and instead he'd shoot Ray one of those looks of his and Ray would ignore it like he always did...

Dirt and gravel sprayed to the side as he fish-tailed slightly around a tight turn, fighting to keep the stupid car from sliding off the road. It was a tendency - what with the big front end and weight distribution and the wheelbase laid out the way it was - that Ray was well aware of. It was the only thing about the Riv he didn't like. Not that he'd ever admit it! Always fighting to keep the thing from drifting too far in a fast corner only made Ray a better driver - or so he told himself. He knew just what this baby's limitations were and exactly how to make her dance; and if someone else tried to take him on in a chase, running him off the road or into another car, they'd just better be in a bigger and meaner car because he'd plow them over!

He dared glance up through the sparse winter trees again, but the helicopter had descended from view. He had no doubt where it was going. The fact that the sheriffs had called for a Life Flight only made Vecchio's foot that much heavier on the accelerator.

He fish-tailed again and slid onto the shoulder, his left rear bumper coming dangerously close to a tall birch tree. God, what he wouldn't give for a Mars strobe light and siren right now! One of the county sheriffs up ahead was sure to try and give him a ticket if they spotted him. Well, they could just do so after they answered his questions, damn it! He'd have one hell of a fine to pay, but he couldn't care less. His mind kept seeing Benny or Ray being loaded into that helicopter. Or Benny's girl. Hell, it could be all three of them for all he knew!

No. Life Flights couldn't carry that many people. He also knew they wouldn't airlift a dead body.

Ray just hoped no one else tried to come along the road toward him. He'd hear an ambulance in time to get out of the way, but anyone else... Just let him get to the cabin and find out that his friends were okay. That's all he wanted. That's all he was praying for right now.

He swept past a sheriff's cruiser parked behind Kowalski's car and jammed on the breaks as he slid into the driveway, finding himself at the cabin sooner than he'd expected. He hadn't been out here before and had been trusting to the sight of the sheriff's people to tell him where it was, knowing they'd get here first. A sheriff's deputy let out a shout and put his hand to his gun as Vecchio all but threw himself from the car.

"Chicago PD!" he yelled, flashing an empty hand to stay the guy. It was a total lie, but it worked. The man merely awarded him an angry glare and shake of the head as Ray raced toward the milling crowd of various uniforms. Damn, Vecchio thought and shook his own head. He was going to have to report the guy. For all he knew, Ray could be James! Idiot...

"Benny!" he shouted in relief as he saw the Mountie standing with his girlfriend at the back of an ambulance.

Fraser quickly looked up at the shout, easily spotting Ray as he hurried up.

Ray flashed the girl a smile, knowing she couldn't hear him, and turned his full out-of-breath attention on Ben. They both looked like hell, he thought, but at least they were alive. "Thank God," he panted. "I saw the helicopter and thought..." His eyes quickly scanned the area for Kowalski. He frowned sharply as he failed to find him. "Ray?" he asked abruptly. The helicopter could always be for one of the sheriffs, or maybe - hopefully - that bastard, Elliott...
Ben looked more than unhappy as he made a gun of his hand and cocked his thumb.

Ray didn't need to know sign language to understand what he was saying. He felt his stomach tighten into a knot. "Bad?" he guessed. It was a rhetorical question. He glanced over his shoulder at the helicopter which was revving up to take off again, knowing it had to be bad to require a Life Flight.

Ben nodded grimly in answer, his face betraying exactly how serious it was. He lifted his "hand" gun and tapped his head, brushing the "barrel" across a point just above the temple.

Ray paled. "His head?" he hissed in disbelief, then frowned as he considered that brushing movement. "He was creased? Tell me he was just creased, right?"

Ben offered a slight nod but his face was still quite grim and both men turned to watch the helicopter as it lifted quickly into the air and sped to the nearest trauma center. Just creased, Ray thought, and knew he was a fool to word it that way. Real life wasn't like TV or the movies where the hero got creased and then just shook it off.

Jaelyn glanced between the two men in mute pain and empathy, knowing exactly what Ben was trying to tell Ray and knowing he was trying to spare her by not asking her to translate.

"He was alive," she surprised both men by speaking. She wasn't at all sure what her voice sounded like. It felt weak and breathy but she put as much conviction into it as she could. "He was alive," she repeated more firmly.

They glanced at her and then at each other, each choosing to hold onto that one simple fact and letting the rest go because there was nothing else they could do at the moment. Kowalski's life was in other's hands now.

Vecchio nodded, forcing a positive outlook. "I always knew he was thick headed." The joke fell flat, winning only the slightest upturn of Ben's lips, but he'd still had to try.

Ben glanced back after the chopper as it disappeared over the horizon and tried to figure out which hospital it was likely headed for, mentally pushing it faster through the sky. Ray had gone into cardiac and respiratory arrest just before the paramedics arrived. They'd taken over the CPR and been able to get him back, but it had been a terrifying few minutes. In a way, Ben was glad he didn't have to try and tell the other Ray about that. All they could do now was pray for their friend. He prayed not only for his life but that there wouldn't be any permanent brain injury. He wouldn't want Ray to have to go through anything like what he himself was dealing with at present - or worse.

He turned his attention back to Jaelyn and Ray as one of the two paramedics who'd responded with the sheriffs reappeared at their sides. "Okay, let's take a look at you two--"

"--I'm mute, he's deaf, we're both fine," Jaelyn interrupted, recoiling. "Please don't touch me!" She turned sharply toward Ben who automatically opened his arms and pulled her close. She made no protest but instead buried her face in his shoulder.

The paramedic frowned in confusion for a brief moment and then went to reach for her again. "Let's just take–"

"No, man!" Ray told him firmly, batting the man's hands aside. "She got the mute and deaf stuff backwards: he's mute, she's deaf. She also suffers from PDT..." He frowned in irritation at himself, knowing he'd gotten that wrong. "Whatsis," he finished lamely. "Panic attack type stuff. If she says don't touch her, she means don't touch her." He let his eyes scan the milling officers again as another more important question sprang to mind. "Where's James?" he asked, turning back to Ben.

Ben returned Ray's gaze with a none too happy look of his own and shook his head.

"Don't tell me the son of a bitch got away?" Ray asked incredulously.

Ben nodded grimly, even as he let his hands gently stroke Jaelyn's hair. She'd been through so much, and it wasn't over yet...

"Damn it!" Ray exclaimed, swinging away in momentary anger. Turning back, he took a closer look at the two of them. Ben's hair was a tousled mess, his eyes dark and with that slightly bruised look he sometimes got when he was really stressed or tired. And Ray knew he hadn't gotten that bruise and cut on his cheek by accident. He couldn't see Jaelyn's face, but he remembered the pale visage and haunted eyes, the hint of a bruise on her right cheek and the long, thin cut on her throat. Had the guy pulled a knife on them, putting it to her throat? Was that how he'd captured them? Ray had already noted the rope burns on Ben's wrists but didn't say anything. He let his eyes roam over the girl again, noting that her own wrists bore mute testimony to having been tied as well.

The bastard.

"I really need to take a look at these two," the paramedic interrupted his thoughts with a frustrated sigh. "They could be hurt and not know it. Even if they aren't physically injured, they've both been through a very traumatic experience and need to go to the hospital to let the experts check them out."

Ben caught Ray's eyes and shook his head firmly. Ray did not miss the dark and very serious look that suddenly invaded his gaze. "I think they're refusing Medical Treatment," he decided. Ben nodded. "Yup, definitely refusing treatment." He offered Ben a serious frown of his own. Benny refusing help wasn't so surprising, but he should have insisted on it for Jaelyn...

"They *need* medical attention," the paramedic insisted. "It's obvious they've been roughed up. Just let me--"

Ray physically stepped between his friends and the paramedic, giving the man a hard stare. It was obvious the guy thought both Ben and Jaelyn were suffering from diminished capacity. Ray's lips set in a tight line as he warned the guy off through gritted teeth. "They have the legal right to refuse treatment. I know you're just doing your job, pal, but believe me - you have no idea what's going on here. And you don't want to."

Abruptly, Ray's face took on a more urgent cast as the only reason Ben might wish to refuse treatment for Jaelyn suddenly snapped into place. He spun to face his friend again, ignoring the paramedic. "He's going to be back, isn't he?" he guessed. He didn't need to specify which 'he' was meant. "He promised to kill you, didn't he?"

Ben offered another grim nod, quite glad that Jaelyn couldn't hear the words.

"Shit!" Ray frowned at the crowd of officers around them and then let his eyes scan further out, checking the woods and underbrush beyond the cabin. He knew he was being paranoid. The son of a bitch was probably long gone - at least for the moment - but Ray couldn't help it. He wouldn't put it past the guy to be sitting out there with a high-powered rifle and scope if he thought he could get away with it.

He spun back to Ben and lowered his voice. "I don't know how much you do or don't know, man," he told him urgently, "but this is one sick son of a bitch we're talking about. He's done this before."

Before? Ben couldn't know if Ray meant that James had planned such an elaborate and deadly scheme before, or just murder in general - but it didn't matter. He knew quite well that James Elliott was a sick son of a bitch. It was not an epitaph he applied easily but James had more than earned it. Ben took his threat quite seriously. He jerked his head to the side, looking to where the Riv sat half-blocking the driveway behind a sheriff's cruiser.

"Wanta get out of here?" Ray guessed, easily interpreting that glance. He was answered with a firm nod. "Good idea."

"Not a good idea," the paramedic countered. "The sheriffs haven't talked to them yet. And, hang on," he sighed, "if they're refusing treatment I need them to sign a form saying so."

"Sign it yourself!" Ray called, turning with Ben and Jaelyn toward the Riv. He wasn't about to let Ben and his girlfriend get caught up in the kinda hurry-up-and-wait garbage that was par for the course in such situations. Jaelyn merely trusted to Ben's judgement and blindly allowed him to steer her away from the ambulance. Together, the three hurried toward the Riv. Ray was not surprised when a couple of sheriffs' deputies tried to intercept them.

"Whoa, folks," one of them quickly raised a hand to stop them. "We're not done here yet. The Lieutenant's on his way. He's going to want to talk to both of you. Who are you?" He eyed Ray in confusion.

"Ray Vecchio," he answered sharply, swinging the car door open for Ben and Jaelyn. He couldn't quite bring himself to outright lie again and claim to be something he wasn't anymore. "I'm the one that got the warrant that got you guys out here - too late I might add. The son of a bitch is still out there and he still wants to kill these two. He's already killed three people we know of and another three we suspect, maybe more. Plus he just shot a police officer! I am not sitting around here with these two to let him sneak back and take a pot shot at them, do you read me! You tell your lieutenant to call mine: Lieutenant Welsh, Chicago P.D., District 27. I'm getting them out of here." He slammed the passenger door as Ben disappeared in the back with Jaelyn.

"He's not going to be back, Detective!" the deputy argued, assuming Ray's rank based on what he'd already said. Ray did not bother to correct him. "This is a county matter, not municipal. We're a hell of a long way from the 27th. You have no jurisdiction here."

"This is *not* a county matter," Ray countered angrily, daring to get in the other man's face the same way he was trying to get in Ray's. Ray was much better at it than the deputy was. "This is only one part of a much larger investigation, Pal; one, I might add, that has taken on international proportions. At least one of the suspected murders was in Canada. I expect the FBI to be showing up some time real soon and you can bet they're going to do their level best to jerk everyone around here. I suggest you might want to warn your lieutenant about that as well. Make sure your people go over that place with a fine tooth comb." He jerked a thumb at the cabin even as he spun away and headed around the front of the car. "We're out of here."

Ray quickly finished rounding the car and slid into the driver's seat before the deputy could demand to double-check Ray's story. Ray glared at him through the windshield as he started the car, daring him not to move. He wanted to get out of there before the lieutenant arrived. He'd have a much harder time intimidating a higher ranking officer. The deputy stepped aside, still struggling to come up with an argument. Gunning the engine, Ray quickly slipped past him and turned the Riv to race toward the Interstate.

Part 92

"I want a lawyer," she repeated firmly, her voice little more than a harsh whisper to her own ears. "I have the right to a lawyer and to refuse to answer questions. I'm exercising those rights."

"You're not under arrest. Yet. You're also not doing yourself any favors," the sheriff's deputy told her and shook his head. He'd like to be able to arrest her. Instead, he straightened and closed the backdoor of the squad car. She could just sit there until the lieutenant arrived and decided what to do with her. The deputy turned and leaned his hip against the back fender. He crossed his arms and blew out a weary sigh as he regarded the cozy little cabin. Not a mile up the road was another just like it where he knew a cop had been shot by this woman's boyfriend. He didn't have a lot of sympathy for her if she wouldn't answer any questions. She might well have been in on whatever had gone down.

It was going to be a long day, he thought.

Inside the car, Jeanie Tallin frowned down at the engagement ring on her finger and twisted it incessantly as she fought back her tears. The stone caught and refracted even the pale light of over the cold overcast day, sending little prism motes to dance about the interior of the car and flash in her eyes. It was no use, the tears came again anyway. She didn't seem to be able to stop them, at least not for more than a minute or two.

At least they'd taken the handcuffs off her.

She wasn't exactly sure why she was even crying. Everything was all so unreal. It couldn't be happening, but the memory of the last half hour kept playing over and over and over in her mind

The sheriffs had made a violent entry, without knocking or warning. She could still hear the sound of the doors exploding inward, still feel the fear and hear her own scream as men with flack vests and helmets and automatic weapons swarmed her house. She'd been ordered to the floor and stood frozen in shock. When she didn't move fast enough, they'd thrown her to the ground and pinned her there.

*"Hands out to your sides. I said out! Don't move!"*

She remembered James getting down on one knee in the restaurant and proposing in front of everyone...

*"We have a warrant for the arrest of James Elliott. Where is he?"*

...She remembered his smile and the near tears of joy in his eyes as she said, 'Yes...'

*"I said don't move!"*

...He'd stood and swept her into his arms as the other diners applauded them...

*"Where is he?"*

..."I love you..." he'd whispered...

*"He shot a police officer."*

...and kissed her...

*"He tried to kill a couple down the road from here."*

*Ben and Jay!*

She'd never been more frightened or confused in her life. She was quickly and thoroughly frisked, then handcuffed before they would let her sit up. A search warrant for the house was waved in her face.

*Where would he go to hide? Who are his friends? You'd better
help us out here, lady, or we're putting you under arrest as well!"*
She'd been too shocked to answer. James? Shot a police officer? Tried to kill Ben and Jay? No... No, it wasn't possible. There had to be some sort of mistake!

*"You're engaged to the guy, don't tell me you don't know where he'd go!"*

She found herself shaking again just remembering the angry demands for answers she couldn't give. She suddenly balled her hands into fists and screamed, trying to wake herself from the nightmare.

This – wasn't – *happening!*

The deputy turned sharply at the sudden, muted scream and eyed the woman in the backseat of his cruiser. If she damaged his car... The scream stopped and she seemed to collapse, weeping bitterly as she buried her face in her hands. He watched her for a moment and finally decided she wasn't turning violent. That was good. He had no desire to have to resort to hand and ankle flex cuffs. A little emotional outburst wouldn't hurt her. Maybe she'd be more willing to talk when the lieutenant got here.

With another sigh, he folded his arms and turned his bored attention back to the army of people swarming in and about the residence. He knew the cabin up the way must be a mad house by comparison.

Part 93

Welsh was not a happy man. At the moment, he had very little to be happy about. One of his best men had been shot five hours ago and he was still waiting to hear from the hospital exactly how he was doing. All he'd gotten so far was that he was expected to live and they were running a bunch of tests. Worse yet was the fact that the shooter was still at large. Add to that the very real possibility that the so-and-so was actually some kind of crazed serial murderer who still wanted to kill Fraser and his girlfriend, and, well, Welsh really didn't think he was having a very good day. With an irritated scowl, he drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk and eyed yet again the depressed little group gathered in his office awaiting the appearance of ASA Kowalski.

None of the others were any happier than he was. Vecchio, in typical fashion when he was really upset about something, couldn't seem to sit still and his pacing was getting on Welsh's nerves. Const. MacKenzie had appeared shortly after Vecchio brought Ben and Jaelyn in, and had acted as an unofficial interpreter as Vecchio and Fraser brought him up to date on everything that had happened. Fraser had apparently tried to get her to go back to work when they were done but she'd answered that Inspector Curruthers had ordered otherwise when told of what was happening. She stood next to the window now, a silent red shadow caught up in her own worries and fears for for Kowalski and acting like a mother hen to Fraser.

Frankly, Welsh thought Fraser needed it, but it was also only adding to the man's obvious stress. He looked like hell, sitting there all quiet and calm in the chair beside Welsh's desk. A stranger might wonder if he'd been in a little fight or something, and assume the other guy must look worse - but Welsh had learned a long time ago how to see beneath the Mountie facade. Fraser was anything but cool and composed, no matter what image he chose to project. He was worried and angry and far from patient.

The girl didn't look any better, although her response to everything was the complete opposite of Fraser's. Emotionally, she seemed to have shut down. It was a reaction Welsh had occasionally seen before in others. She simply couldn't take anymore. She sat curled up in the corner of his old leather sofa, doing her level best to ignore everyone and everything around her. Dief lay curled up on the other end of the couch at her feet, a silent and protective guard reflecting Fraser's concern.

Welsh glanced side-long at the other man as he lifted his gaze and watched her head nod to the side. With a soft sigh, she shifted position slightly and rested her head on the back of the seat. Ben's gaze dropped again and Welsh could almost hear his thoughts deciding that sleep was probably the best thing for her right now. And being deaf, the comings and goings of the small office shouldn't disturb her. Or not much anyway.

He wondered if the Mountie knew he was wearing his heart on his sleeve at the moment.

The older man glanced at the girl on the couch. She was a tiny little thing and he knew next to nothing about her. Even so, he was glad someone had finally been able to break through that shell the Mountie had erected around his heart after the Metcalf affair. He could only hope she didn't add to the scars the other man was already carrying. He didn't think Fraser could survive it.

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted. Everyone except the girl glanced up as Stella Kowalski suddenly appeared, flying through the door and across the small area to halt in front of his desk. She turned to glare angrily at Ben.

"He was shot," she accused him bluntly. "You let that son of a bitch shoot him and get away! And you call yourself a friend? How could you–"

"--Whoa!" Lieutenant Welsh intervened firmly, raising from his chair and actually throwing a hand forward to put a halt to the angry attack. He suspected both Ray and Maggie would be all over the her if he didn't. Well, he conceded, maybe not Maggie. The red clad Mountie merely rolled her eyes in obvious contempt. "Whoa," he repeated. "Right there, Ms. Kowalski. Fraser didn't *let* anyone shoot anyone, okay? It happened. Such dangers go with the job and you know it."

Stella divided her glare between Fraser and Welsh, but held her tongue. On some level she knew the Lieutenant was right - but this was Ray they were talking about!

Fraser looked down and away, embarrassed for her and not by her she suspected. There was nothing guilty about his demeanor. She followed his gaze as he glanced up again and looked at something behind her. She turned to see Jaelyn McKenna apparently sleeping on the lieutenant's couch. Or trying to. The smaller woman lay unmoving, her head turned away from all the commotion and the cut on her throat all too visible.

Stella frowned and her eyes narrowed. She'd worked with too many abused women not to suspect the cause of that so straight and narrow mark. The blood had been washed away but there were still traces on her shirt. Glancing at Ben again, it was suddenly clear to her that the two of them had been through hell. She didn't know what had happened but it was obvious she shouldn't have jumped on his case like that. "I'm sorry," she offered abruptly, tossing her hair back and clearing her throat. "I'm a little worried. Just... You didn't deserve that."

"You got that right," Ray muttered irritably.

She cast him an irritated glare for daring to belittle her apology.

"Enough!" Welsh again verbally stepped in before the sparring match could get decently started. He quickly changed the subject. "I was just about to call the hospital again. You got any more word on how Ray's doing? I know you're tight with his mom. Last report I got, they were still doing 'tests.'"

Stella sighed, forcing herself to let go of the fear that was feeding her anger and deal with the situation at hand. "He's got a concussion," she told them. "A bad one from the sound of things. They're admitting him and plan to run some more tests tomorrow. He'll live, but he's going to be messed up for a while. No skull fracture, thank God."

"Thank God for Worker's Comp. and Medical Insurance," Welsh offered with his normal sarcastic bluntness. He leaned back in his chair and stretched overly tight and weary muscles. The last few hours had felt like days. He was glad to learn his detective was expected to recover, but the day wasn't over. "Okay," he sighed, leaning forward. "You ready to talk about witness protection now? These two can't hang out in my office forever you know, and they certainly can't go home."

"I only got the gist of what had happened before I came over." Stella shook her head, beginning to feel the loss of her anger-induced adrenalin rush. "I got a little focused on Ray. Someone bring me up to date here."

"McKenna case," Vecchio offered concisely. "Greg Manly didn't do it. David Tallin didn't do it. A psycho-sociopath named James Elliott did, and he's done it before. We've got him on the Manly murder for sure. He confessed to Dawson and Wickert to Fraser here. He is also suspected of killing Edward and Charles Danvers of Miami, Florida back in '96 when they were in upstate NY. He then assumed Eddie's identity, crossed into Canada and proceeded to marry a young heiress using the fake ID. Surprise, three months later she dies in a car crash. It's ruled an accident. He inherits over 6 mil and cashes in another 3 in insurance. He disappears south and the OPP and RCMP don't suspect a thing." Ray shook his head in disgust. "He comes down here and decides to play his little games again, only with a twist. He doesn't go after his victim directly but works through others. The others fail, he messes up and she lives. The cabin Ben and Jay visited this morning turns out to be the site of her original attack. She remembers everything. He pulls a gun and - to make a very long story short - they escape, he escapes and he's pissed as hell. He's promised to kill them if it's the last thing he ever does."

"And you believe him?" Stella asked.

Ray and Ben exchanged rather incredulous looks. "Yes, we believe him!" Ray answered.

"Detective..." Welsh again intervened before things could get ugly. "I think we have ample evidence to believe him, Ms. Kowalski, and to also believe that Fraser and Ms. McKenna here are in eminent danger. Now, what can you do for them?" He waved a hand at Ben and Jay.

Stella frowned at Ray. "I didn't mean to imply you shouldn't believe him," she retorted. "It's a standard question, that's all." She sighed and shook her head as she turned back to Welsh. "I'm not sure how much we can do. What they *need* is the full bore Federal Witness Protection Program: New IDs, new state, new lives..."

Ben was looking alarmed and shaking his head.

"I didn't think you'd go for that, and I don't think the Feds would either. Not yet anyway. There were too many 'suspicions' and unsubstantiated allegations in Vecchio's account just now." She shook her head again unhappily. "Assuming you can prove a few of them in short order, the best I can do is a safe house and round the clock protection. But it won't be indefinite. Do you have any idea where this guy might be right now?"

"Nah," Welsh shook his head in frustration. "Someone in the county sheriff's office found his car behind a neighbor's place. He stole their car and everyone's out looking for it now. If he's smart, he's already ditched it - and he is smart. We already know that. He's been jerking us around here for more than three months now. He'll disappear and we won't see him again until he's ready to strike." Welsh frowned at the pencil he was playing with in his hands and debated breaking it in two. As much as he was tempted by the momentary comfort that venting his own frustrations in such a petty action might bring, it wouldn't help. Nor was it appropriate to do so in front of everyone else. He abruptly put the pencil down and the temptation aside before frowning up at Ms. Kowalski again.

"That's what I was afraid you'd say," she nodded sadly. "The city's witness protection budget got blown last month with the Butler/Diditt case. Getting anything approved is going to be a nightmare. The best I can offer is a couple of weeks, max, and I can't guarantee that."

Welsh shook his head in frustration. "All he has to do is sit back and wait us out."

"And if he has a mole in the DA's office," Maggie added, "a safe house might not do any good anyway."

"Mole?" Stella suddenly turned to her in alarm. "What mole?" she demanded. Her eyes narrowed again as she directed an aggravated look at Lieutenant Welsh. He held up his hands in innocent surrender, apparently as surprised by this news as she was.

"We don't know," Maggie answered. "There's no proof. But the way the situation a couple of months back at the hospital and alley played out, where Turnbull was shot and Manly appeared to commit suicide, we suspect our 'Mr. Elliott' had inside information."

"The mole could be here as well then," Stella argued.

"Yes," Maggie agreed. "But given the timing of everything, Ray suspects the DA's office. As I said, there's no proof."

Stella rubbed a hand across her forehead where a headache was starting to throb.

Ben suddenly stood and lifted a finger to request their patience as he moved to close the office door. He returned to face his sister and, after a quick glance to make sure Jaelyn was still ignoring them, lifted his hands to sign.

With a frown, Maggie translated. "We only need protection for a day or two. Then we disappear."

"Disappear?" Ray asked, incredulous. "You mean 'run.'" It might be the smart thing to do given the situation, but he was quite surprised that Ben would even suggest it.

Ben shot his friend a more than irritated look and then quickly masked his anger as he shook his head. Maggie again translated. "Buy time," she said. "The CPD, the FBI and the RCMP will all be looking for him. By disappearing we buy time for them to find him."

Ray frowned. "Where would you disappear too?" he asked. "Your dad's cabin is still a pile of ashes from when Victoria burnt it down, isn't it?"

"I had some repairs done," Maggie again read his answer for all. "But I wasn't thinking about taking her there. It would be the first place he'd look if he did follow us."

"Okay, then where?" Ray asked.

Ben frowned a second before shaking his head. "I'd rather not say," Maggie said.

"You don't trust us?" Stella asked, a bit surprised.

Fraser looked quite uncomfortable with the accusation but determined to remain silent as well. "'Loose lips sink ships,'" Maggie read, and tried not to grin. "The fewer people who know, the better."

Welsh nodded. "He's right. I don't think any of us would purposely tell where they'd gone, but an inadvertent slip of the tongue could be just as bad. Besides..." He heaved a sigh and leaned back in his chair. "Any place he did name would be totally meaningless to me. How about Hawaii, Constable? She's got money. You could hide out there in comfort for a few months."

"Corporal," Vecchio suddenly leaned forward to correct him.

"I beg your pardon?"
"Corporal," he repeated. "He got a promotion a couple months back."

"Ah," Welsh nodded. "'Bout time."

He shook his head and sighed again. He had a good idea of where Ben might head. It would be some place he knew, and someplace James didn't. It might not be his cabin, but it would be 'home'. Some place he'd have the advantage. And if Fraser did head north, chances were James couldn't follow them even if he wanted too. Not until the spring.

Welsh frowned at the young woman sleeping on his couch. He doubted she'd ever been to the Yukon or Northwest Territories, let alone the Yukon or Northwest Territories in winter. He suspected her life was about to be turned upside down.

Welsh didn't voice his thoughts aloud but referred to them obliquely. "Let's just hope that if you decide to head north, your girlfriend there owns several sets of thermal underwear," he decided. "She's going to need them."

Part 94

The ceremony was very brief and simple. Neither Ren nor Frannie wanted anything else; and, frankly, there wasn't time for anything else. The arrangements had been thrown together at a moment's notice. Though the civil ceremony performed at the Consulate would legally unite them as husband and wife, before both man and God, neither felt they were doing much more than simply going through the motions as necessitated by Ren's father's interference.

Ren dragged out his red serge, which as a retired member of the RCMP he was entitled to wear for such occasions, but there hadn't been time for Frannie to get a wedding gown. Nor, when it came right down to it, did she want to wear one. Not today. Instead of a gown, she'd chosen a nice, conservatively-cut, light-blue dress and stood trying not to mangle the small bouquet of flowers that Maggie had bought for her. She'd taken extra pains with her hair and make-up, and stuck a couple of small sprigs of baby's breath in her hair as a nod to the actuality of what they did. Despite the lack of wedding finery, the mirror in the Queen's Bedroom reflected a woman who looked every inch the nervous bride.

It was only a few minutes later when Ren felt his stomach tighten and throat go dry as Ray escorted his sister through the door into Inspector Curruthers' office. So small and exquisite and strong... He was amazed anew that she had chosen him, of all men, to share her life with. Going through the motions or not, Francesca would legally bear his name after this day. It was an incredible honor, and responsibility as well. He loved her so much. There was a part of his brain that kept insisting someone would soon wake him up and that the dream would end. No, he told it, no he never wanted to wake again, and he stood even taller in his red serge as Francesca smiled up at him.

Maggie and Frannie's brother, Ray, acted as witnesses; but, aside from the minister who'd flown in from Red Deer, the Consulate staff, the irate INS official who'd pulled some strings of his own in answer to Consul Turnbull's manipulations and a US Immigration's Judge he'd dragged with him, there was no one else to witness their exchange of vows. Even Ma had been asked not to come, and she'd understood why.

In a few months or as quickly as they could arrange it through the Catholic Church, they would stand before their friends and family again and exchange their vows properly, receiving the blessings of the Church. Not until then would either of them feel they were truly married. They would save all the fuss and festivity for their *real* wedding. They'd even managed to keep today secret from MacKenzie King - though she probably wasn't going to like that. Maggie squeezed off a couple of quick pictures, assuring them they'd want the memory of this day ten years from now.

As soon as the wedding license was properly signed and witnessed, the US Immigration's Judge declared the Deportation Order null and void, and the INS official handed Ren his K-nonimmigrant Visa. He was now free to remain in the US while awaiting his K-3. And there was absolutely nothing his father could do about any of it. Ren gripped Francesca's tiny hand is his much larger one and was rewarded with a reassuring squeeze. Together they could face anything, of that he was sure.

He would call his mother this evening and let her know what they'd done; but, he wouldn't speak to his father. Ren didn't much care if he ever spoke to the man again.

He put such thoughts out of his mind as he shook hands with Inspector Curruthers and turned to carefully negotiate the steps outside the Consulate. Ray appeared at his side and Ren silently accepted his steadying shoulder as he made his way downward, one step at a time.

"I wish Ben and Jaelyn could have been here to see this," Maggie smiled as she and Frannie made their way downward at Ren's other side.

Frannie frowned momentarily, missing their presence as well, and then turned her loving gaze to the man beside her. "They and Kowalski will be at our real wedding," she declared without a trace of doubt. "Get that scuzzy-ball, James Elliott, off the streets and - who knows? - maybe we'll make it a double-wedding!"
Ren and Ray both lifted their eyes at the mention of James Elliott and scanned the immediate area for any sign of him. It was doubtful he could have learned of the ceremony but both men had understood the danger which had precluded either Ben or Jaelyn from attending.

Frannie was silently greatful that Ray had been kind enough to whisper Ben and Jay's well wishes just before they all entered the Consulate. He'd said simply that they'd flown out of Chicago yesterday under assumed names, but that no one was supposed to know it. Exactly where they were going, he claimed not to know, but she suspected differently. She knew without asking that Ray was going to be Ben's contact concerning the hunt for James Elliott. He hadn't breathed a word about it, but she knew: it was just something she could sense as his sister.

She also knew he'd never admit it, even in the confessional.

Ray turned and held open the sliding door of the van Ren had rented some time back to get him to and from his various doctors' appointments. Frannie's little Cavalier didn't have the leg room he needed to keep from having to bend fully at the waist, and getting in and out of the two-door Riv was just too difficult. As it was, Ren still needed help and had to maneuver himself very carefully to keep from bending his hip too far. Frannie climbed in first and handed out the small wooden step they'd made to help. She reached back to steady him as he stepped upward with his good leg.

Ray waited until they were both seated and then tossed the step back inside and slammed the door shut. He then turned to scan the area one more time, glancing at the building opposite and fighting to hide a shudder. He'd be glad when the Consulate got around to moving again, as it seemed to do periodically. Was if possible James Elliott was hiding in the shadows of one of those dark and seemingly empty windows? Had it really been less than six months since James Donnelly took aim from a third-story window there and nearly killed Benny?

"He's not here, Ray," Maggie assured him, reading his body language too easily. "He's too calculating to do something this bold. He's hold up somewhere, licking his wounds and stoking his anger, making plans and contingency plans."

Ray frowned, knowing Maggie was likely right but he couldn't quite ignore the raised hair on the back of his neck that told him differently...

Part 95

A dark-haired, older man with a gray shot, neatly trimmed goatee and small wire-rimmed glasses sat slumped in the shadows of one of the second story apartments across from the Canadian Consulate, enjoying a late afternoon cigarette.

"–Stoking his anger, making plans and contingency plans..."

He smiled at the little radio-receiver in his lap. He smiled further as he remembered bumping into Vecchio an hour before in front of the Consulate without the other man even suspecting who he was.

Glancing over at the owner of this little apartment, he frowned as he met the dull and lifeless gaze. Killing him had been far too easy. Some feigned panic and a claim that someone had been stabbed down the hall while pointing the direction was all that had been needed to get the idiot to stick his stupid head out the door. It had taken less than a second to break his neck and then push his way inside without anyone else noticing a thing.

"They think they know me..." he told the corpse, permitting himself a soft, humorless laugh. What he wouldn't give to see the look on Vecchio's face when he finally discovered the bug in his left-hand coat pocket. "I think maybe I'll leave you here for them to find as well, just so they know how wrong they are."

The man was completely unsuitable as a new alias anyway.

James took another pull on his cigarette and contemplated the softly glowing end. By now, the cops had undoubtably seized all of his assets, or at least those of James Elliott and Edward Danvers. He'd been mad as hell when his snitch in the DA's office had told him about the trace back to Canada. The scum-sucking maggot should have known about that line of investigation long before this. Well, the maggots could just feast on him now. James didn't tolerate incompetence.

He blew out a smoke-filled breath and leaned his head back, watching the blue-gray cloud drift upward and dissipate. Yeah, the cops were undoubtably sitting on his credit card numbers and bank accounts, just waiting for him to use them again. He wasn't that stupid. They'd gotten a few hundred thousand but that was it. He had more stashed elsewhere, under other names. He wasn't stupid enough to keep it all in one place. He hated losing any of it. Money was power, and power was something he refused to let go.

He blamed the fucking Mountie for that.

In fact, this whole mess was all his fault if one really stopped to look at it, James decided. If it wasn't for his god-damned poking around and that of his idiot friends, James could have easily picked up the pieces after Manly and Dawson destroyed everything. But James would get his revenge...

First he had to find a suitable 'alias': a rich, unmarried business man on vacation, unlikely to be immediately missed, preferably someone with dual citizenship... Not in Chicago, he decided. Maybe Detroit or New York again. Maybe up in Toronto or... Quebec City! He doubted anyone knew he spoke French. He couldn't ever remember using it around that air-head he'd married in Toronto. He was a bit rusty, but he'd pick it back up again fast enough. He grinned in thought. Yes, a nice Québécois cover would do nicely. No one would be expecting that.

Let the Mountie and his girlfriend have a couple of months to play wherever the hell they'd gone. "They flew out yesterday..." Vecchio had whispered. James grinned again, wondering if the ex-cop would realize the bug in his pocket had been sensitive enough to pick that up.

It didn't matter where they went. He'd find them. He'd drench them in gasoline and watch them dance as he set them on fire... No, he corrected the thought, only their legs. It would take them longer to die that way... Or, maybe, he could make it look like the Mountie had killed the girl? Like what that Metcalf woman tried to do with 'Jolly'... She'd messed that up rather badly, but James wasn't so sloppy. Hmmm... No, having the guy rot in prison for a crime he didn't commit, while also robbing him of the girl he was apparently falling in love with, did have a certain appeal, but James preferred a more *permanent* ending. For both of them.

When puppets refused to obey their strings, they had to be destroyed, not locked away.

Locked away? Edgar Allen Poe's, "The Tell Tale Heart" came to mind. James offered the glass before him an evil grin.

It was far too early to actually plan anything he knew, but it was fun to fantasize. He smiled and turned back to the window, watching the van pull away. Too bad they hadn't shown up for the wedding. He wouldn't have killed them, but he would have enjoyed toying with them, maybe leaving some instamatic pictures with targets drawn on them along with the body of his host...

He took a last drag of his cigarette and crushed the butt out in the bottom of the saucer he'd confiscated as an ash tray. The show here was over. Time to get to work.


Jaelyn frowned at her own reflection in the glass, ignoring the night shrouded city scape and traffic flying by beyond the bus window. The dim, overhead reading light revealed a face that was painfully pale with dark, wide eyes that looked haunted. Tears shimmered far too readily and easily in their reddened depths, evincing a fragile and confused woman to anyone who might bother to look too closely. The expected bruise on her cheek where James had slapped her had never materialized. It had been red and sore for a time but had faded after only a day. The high collar of the brown turtleneck she wore hid most of the thin mark the knife had left upon her neck. It hadn't needed stitches, fortunately, and was almost gone now, healing well after only two days and the use of some rather noxious smelling stuff Ben had put on it. But she knew it was there. She could still make out the top half inch or so above her collar as it was reflected back at her in the window, a reminder of something that she could now only wish she could forget.

Gone was the sweet and confused amnesia which had enfolded her mind. She still didn't remember everything that had happened six months ago at the cabin, when she'd been kidnaped and nearly killed. Much of it was a disjointed jumble of fragments and moments. Part of that was likely because of the drugs they'd used on her, she guessed, and the rest was probably caused by brain damage. She was glad she didn't remember more, and wished she didn't remember as much as she did.

Greg had been like her brother!

She hadn't known... what's-his-name - Dawson. Her mind actually came up with the name on its own for once: David Dawson. The man who'd asked her to dance. He'd been some sort of friend to Greg and James. She didn't remember Greg very well, but she knew he'd been there. She remembered his eyes, the empty apologies, the turning away even as Dawson... His friend had been the one to rape her. Probably more than once. Again, it was something she didn't remember clearly and for that she was grateful.

And then there was James.

She'd thought she'd known him. The handsome, charismatic, rather audacious, sometimes abrasive business tycoon with a killer smile who'd swept Jeanie off her feet...

Dear God, Jeanie!

Jaelyn had to wonder what her friend was going through right now. There hadn't been time to talk to her before they left. She knew the police had searched her place and that she had refused to answer any questions... Was that because she didn't know anything, or because she'd been in on it? Dear God, how could she even contemplate that Jeanie would do such a thing? The very thought felt like a betrayal!

And yet...

Jaelyn, closed her eyes and fought back the tears yet again. She didn't know who to trust. She was afraid to trust. Her judgement where people were concerned seemed to be totally untrustworthy!

She opened her eyes again and let her gaze drift to the other ghost-like reflection in the glass, that of the man who sat silently reading a book of some sort beside her. Why did she trust Ben? She'd asked herself that before, many times, and she still wasn't sure of the answer. There was just something about him that seemed to speak to a part of herself, a part that had to trust him. He and his friends as well. They were all so different from most of her "acquaintances". They seemed more real somehow, more solid and dependable. If her money disappeared tomorrow, they wouldn't fade into the woodwork as she suspected a lot of people who called her "friend" would.

Greg hadn't disappeared. She would have bet her life on... She slammed the door shut on the thought. He was supposed to have been her "friend", damn it! A true friend, not...

She frowned at her reflection again, knowing her thoughts were circuitous. She wished she could stop thinking. It wasn't doing her any good. She felt like a china doll that was ready to shatter. No wonder everyone was treating her with kid gloves, she thought.

Another part of her just didn't care. So what if she looked like hell? Like she didn't have an excuse! The past six months had been one giant roller coaster. Every time she thought she was starting to get her feet back on the ground, someone would come along and rip the rug out from under her. How many times was she expected to endure having her world turned totally upside down and everything she knew to be true yanked out from under her? How many times was someone she trusted going to prove to be a greedy son of a bitch who only wanted to kill her?

God, she wished she were poor, or ordinary anyway. She *was* ordinary, at least in every way that should count. But no, the only thing that seemed to matter to most people was the size of her damn checking account. She'd sign it all over to charity tomorrow if she thought for an instant it would help!

"It wouldn't though," an older voice suddenly interrupted her thoughts. She gave a violent start and turned to face the man beside her. An older man, in full red serge uniform and Stetson, had suddenly materialized between her and Ben, wedging himself between them. "Could you move your arm a bit?" he asked, glancing down as he shifted uncomfortably. "It's hitting me right below the ribs."

She followed his gaze and moved her arm a bit forward.

"Ah, that's better," he offered. "I should have waited until after you two got to the hotel."

"I can hear you!" Jaelyn exclaimed, realizing she could hear herself as well even as her brain fought to deny the reality of what she was experiencing.

"No, not really," he told her quite matter-of-factly. "Just in here." He tapped his forehead. "You fell asleep and are dreaming."

"I am?" she asked, knowing that she must be but confused by how realistic it seemed. Ben wasn't reacting at all to what was happening.

"Oh, you're zonked, Girl," the strange man assured her. "Out like the proverbial light."

"Who are you?" she asked, still confused. She frowned at Ben as he turned a page in his book, completely oblivious to the man between them.

"That's not important," the stranger answered dismissively. "What is important is that you're sitting here like a... a - an ostrich, head stuck in the sand!" He frowned in sharp irritation. "Wishing you could just give up and give in, make it all go away. Tell me, is that what your mother taught you?"

Jaelyn's head snapped up as if she'd been slapped. "What do you mean?"

"To give up when things get tough," he answered quite bluntly. "Is that what she did when she was fighting her cancer?"

"How dare you..."

"Save your indignation for someone who can actually feel it." He shrugged and offered her a smile. "I'm not even really here, remember?"

She stared at the old man in simple dumbfounded disbelief. If she were dreaming and this were all in her head, then why...

"She didn't," Jaelyn denied, turning her eyes forward and no longer seeing him as she let herself get lost in memories of her mother. Jaelyn frowned sharply and repeated, "She didn't..."

"--Stop fighting?" he asked as if he'd read her mind. Given that he was a dream, he probably had. "No, Girl. She lost the battle against the cancer and knew it. There was nothing more the doctors could do. But she never stopped fighting to *live*. She never said, 'Why me?' or 'I can't take it anymore.' You on the other hand... Where's your fight?" he suddenly demanded. "Where's your spunk? Are you going to let that... that... that--"

"--Asshole?" Jaelyn offered, not mincing her words.

He frowned at her sharply. "Watch your language, Girl," he rebuked her firmly. "I'll have none of that. Your mother would wash your mouth out with soap if she heard you speak like that!"

Jaelyn actually felt herself blush slightly under the firm remonstrance and glanced away contritely.

"Ahhh," the man nodded, seeing her reaction. "You're a lady. Don't you be forgetting it! Now, where was I?" He frowned in thought and tapped his chin for a short moment. "Oh, yes. Are you going to let that... villain... steal everything from you? Your pride and self-worth, as well as what he's already taken? Or are you going to stand up and *live*, like your mother taught you to?"

Jaelyn blinked as the truth of the old man's words hit home. She turned back to him, her mouth open to say - something! - only to find he was gone.

She blinked again and glanced around. Where in the world had he.. Not that he should have been here to begin with, but... She shook her head in confusion and saw Ben turn toward her with an inquiring look of his own.

She frowned at him. "Some help you were!" she accused him - and realized immediately she was awake when she failed to hear her own voice.

Ben's brows shot up in surprise and bafflement.

Jaelyn sighed and shook her head again, shifting against the seat as she tried to get comfortable again. "Never mind," she said and closed her eyes. "Just tell your friends to stay out of my dreams."

Your friends, Ben wondered? Somehow he didn't think she'd been dreaming of Kowalski getting shot again. He turned back to the book he held with a shake of his own head, merely glad to see a spark in her again, even if her first words in two days made absolutely no sense whatsoever. He only hoped that spark would still be there in the morning.

The End
To Be Continued in Red Serge Series #5: Brave Red Serge