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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.

Note to the Readers: This thing is loaded with SPOILERS for several episodes, far too many for me to even try to list! It's set post Call of the Wild, about two months, and is basically a Ray / Ray piece. Someone once asked if it were possible to do a due South episode without Fraser in it. This is as close as I could get. Praise, comments, questions and otters are all equally welcome--'though I do hope you'll enjoy! 'Thank you kindly!'

due SOUTH:
Blood Red Serge

By: Janice R. Sager
E-Mail Me

Ben watched in stoic disregard as a taxi pulled up before the Consulate and Inspector Thatcher disembarked. She paused beside him and eyed the stiff backed Mountie minutely as the cab pulled away.

"Welcome back Constable," she intoned, picking a piece of imagined lint from his shoulder. "I trust you've had sufficient time to ponder the consequences of returning to duty a day late and have composed a suitable explanation for the delay which does not include any nonsense about the Hand of Franklin. When your shift here ends, please report to my office and I will hear it. If I don't like it, you can expect at least a week of standing in the summer sun."

Time had not managed to soften her professional opinion regarding his tardy return, he noted with a mental wince as he continued to hold himself immobile before the Consulate steps. It was hardly his fault that the plane he and Ray were on had experienced engine difficulties and been forced to return to Yellowknife. However, it was his fault that he'd scheduled things too tightly. The unexpected, but uneventful, in-flight emergency had resulted in the need for another plane which could not be had for two days, thus he and his friend had been late returning to work as per agreements with their respective employers.

The fact that Inspector Thatcher was in the midst of preparing the Consulate for a new Chief Liaison Officer and her own transfer to CSIS didn't help his situation. He offered a silent sigh as she turned from him to the door and swung it open.

Something suddenly slammed into his chest, knocking the wind from him and breaking his carefully correct attitude of attention. He was forced to gasp and saw Inspector Thatcher turn to him with a frown for the break in discipline. He chastised himself for a long moment, thinking a passing car must have kicked up a stone. Most unusual, and the chances of someone being struck-- The burning sensation in his chest became worse and he suddenly recognized it as he felt his legs beginning to go.

He blinked and glanced down as he fought to retain his balance but his vision was already beginning to tunnel. He clutched at his chest and fell backward even as he realized he couldn't breathe. His hand contacted a rapidly spreading stain that was warm and sticky. The wound was in the middle of his chest and Ben wondered distantly if the bullet had hit his heart. His world was jolted as he collapsed to the ground but he didn't feel the impact with the cement beneath him.

He shouldn't have ignored the letter.

He blinked harder, fighting the pain and shock away long enough to pull the letter from his pocket. Meg was kneeling beside him, as close to panic as he'd ever seen her as she dialed her cell phone. His hands were numb and he wasn't sure he still held the pale green envelope as he tried to thrust it into her hands. The muscles in his arms jerked, refusing to obey him. Speech was impossible. He knew he was drowning in his own blood. There were other faces around him now as well, shocked and curious. There were no sounds, though lips moved and spoke. The sound of his own heartbeat overwhelmed them. The speed with which he felt his consciousness slipping away was terrifying in itself.

Senseless way to die, he thought as his vision tunneled further and he lost his battle against oblivion.

"I told them we were getting married and I was opening a bowling alley!" Ray laughed.

Stella nearly chocked on her water and quickly grabbed up a napkin as her laughter bubbled forth. Ray smiled as he spread butter on the garlic bread. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't Ma's. Still, he wasn't complaining! After two months in south central Florida listening to her and Maria not fight with Aunt Cecilia-- He needed a vacation from his vacation! A date with Stella Kowalski was as good an excuse as any to at least get out of the house.

He'd only seen her a couple of times since they'd got down here and he was thoroughly enjoying himself. She was a lot of fun when she let herself relax. He wasn't sure he'd want to have to work with her professionally, but socially.... He got the impression that she could be a real bitch when she wanted to be, but he understood that. An Assistant District Attorney had to be sometimes. She was no fool but he didn't suffer fools lightly.

Besides, he'd always enjoyed a good challenge!

Ray was actually looking forward to his eventual return to the windy city. He was going to have to fight the system because of the quack who'd written his retirement orders but he'd had about as much fun in the sun as he could take. He wasn't ready to start collecting dust balls yet!

"And they believed you?" Stella offered with a laugh of her own as she sipped her coffee.

Ray shrugged. "After the performance we put on in Welsh's office?" he smiled. "Thanks for helping me out there by the way. Frannie was driving me crazy with her nurse-maiding!"

"Yeah, well, Ray's mom was getting pretty heavy handed with some of her comments too," Stella returned with a shake of her head. "And I already told you about Bruce. I needed a vacation." She had a sudden thought and giggled like a school girl. "--And they really thought you coughed up a bullet?"

"Like I wouldn't choke on it or drown in my own blood, right?"

The two of them laughed heartily at the memory again until Ray's cellular rang stridently. He contemplated ignoring it, but it wasn't good policy to ignore Ma Vecchio! Stella smiled in patient understanding as he flipped it open and offered a quick, "Hello Ma! How you doing? I'm in the middle of dinner here. Can I call you back?"

"Fraser's been shot!" Frannie's voice informed him bluntly over the line. "He's not expected to make it!"

"What??!" Ray exclaimed, his face suddenly going pale as he thought of his dear friend laying somewhere up in the Yukon bleeding to death while that idiot Kowalski bumbled around trying to get him to the nearest hospital!

"They shot him!" she repeated stridently, obviously crying. "He was standing guard outside the Consulate and --"

"Wait! Wait! Wait!" he interrupted her, sitting on the edge of his seat now and forgetting he was even in a restaurant. "I thought Benny was up in the Yukon searching for a lost appendage of someone or other?"

Stella frowned pensively as she listened to his half of the conversation. ‘Benny', ‘Yukon'. He must mean the Mountie; and, if the Mountie was in trouble, so was her ex.

"The Hand of Franklin," Frannie supplied, her irritation calming her flood of tears. "He and Kowalski got back two days ago, which was a day later than they were supposed to so the Dragon Lady made him stand guard duty today and someone shot him! Thatcher claims it was a professional hit."

"A hit man?" Ray repeated in shock.

"That's what she said," Frannie answered with a sniff. "There was something about a note too but I haven't seen it. No one even heard the shot! Him at attention in that uniform. The bullet came close to his heart! They said something about the pericardial sac thingy. God, Ray! He's been in surgery for two hours now and they're talking about flying his sister in from Toronto!"

"I'm on the first flight out of here," he told her decisively.

Stella nodded and quickly flipped her own cell phone open, making the arrangements for him and pulling strings as an Illinois Assistant State's Attorney that he couldn't.

"Where's Kowalski?" Ray snapped.

"He and everyone else is canvasing the area and searching the building across from the Consulate," Frannie said. "I'm at the hospital waiting for word but they're not telling me much because I'm not next of kin or anything. Thatcher's getting a little bit more but she's not real forthcoming. She looks terrible Ray. It scares me!"

"Try and stay calm Frannie," Ray offered, knowing the words were meaningless. Seeing Thatcher in a state would shake even him! "Benny's been shot before. He's strong. He's healthy. He'll pull through. Give me Kowalski's number."

He grabbed a pen out of his pocket and quickly jotted the number she rattled off onto the back of his napkin.

"Don't lose hope Frannie!" he encouraged his distraught sister. "Benny's pulled off miracles before. I'll see you in a few hours." He snapped the cell phone shut and listened impatiently as Stella finalized her own calls.

"Cab will be here in five minutes," she told him succinctly. "You're on American Flight 220 gate 15 leaving in one hour straight to O'Hare. I'll explain things to your Ma, pick up your stuff and be following you tomorrow morning."

"You're a miracle worker yourself, Ms. Kowalski," Ray shook his head as he stood and dug out his credit card. "I won't ask how you managed that one, but you don't have to cut your vacation short on my account."

"Yeah, well, I was getting kinda bored down here anyway," she shrugged. "Too much of a good thing. It's nice to throw the old weight around once in a while. How bad is it?"

Ray frowned as he weighed his sister's tendency to exaggerate against what she'd actually said. "Bad," he admitted grimly. "Sniper shot, just missed the heart. They're flying his sister in."

Stella shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry Ray," she offered and followed him to the register. "I didn't really know him but he seemed like a nice guy."

"Yeah that's Benny. The world's nicest guy," Ray agreed. "He also has a tendency to step on the wrong toes when they need it."

"Like Alderman Orseni?" she reminded him of her own encounter with the Mountie's unshakable sense of justice.

"Rank or political clout never stopped Benny," Ray agreed. "This time, somebody hit back and I'm going to nail whoever it was to the wall."

He handed the credit card over to the waiting cashier and flipped his phone open to dial Kowalski. The flat foot better have some answers for him or the perp. wouldn't be the only one he was gonna nail to the wall!

Kowalski frowned and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in barely contained impatience as he waited in the taxi lane outside the main terminal of the airport. He didn't have time to be playing nursemaid to the injured Vecchio! The guy was supposed to be on permanent disability. Hadn't Frannie said something about him marrying Stella and opening a bowling alley or something?

He shoved the thought of Vecchio and Stella aside. He didn't want to go there! Definitely didn't want to go there! If the man even mentioned--

He threw his head to the side, popping his neck with a loud 'crack!'

Concentrate on Vecchio, he ordered himself. He had enough reason to be irritated with the guy without bringing Stella into it. With the injury and all, Vecchio was just gonna get in the way. Ray knew he was just gonna try and come in here and take over everything, like he'd tried to on the phone, and Ray would probably wind up popping him in the head! The thought of it was quite satisfying but the thought of how Fraser would react--

Ray swallowed and shoved the memory of how his friend had looked as the paramedics worked over him outside the Consulate aside as well. Another place he didn't want to go right now.

He told himself it was only Fraser's friendship with Vecchio that kept him from driving off and leaving the interfering cripple to his own devices! That and Welsh's orders. Why did the lieutenant have to think pairing them up would be a good idea? Ray had memorized all of Vecchio's case notes.

He lifted his hands and beat an angry staccato on the steering wheel in frustration. Waiting had never been one of his strong points. He offered a huge sigh as the passenger door was suddenly flung open and a very tanned and healthy looking Ray Vecchio slid into the seat beside him.

"You're on mandatory retirement?" he heard himself ask in surprise.

"Not for long," the older detective rejoined shortly. "Any word on Benny?"

"Nothing," Kowalski answered, wincing at the use of 'Benny'. How the hell could anyone call him Benny? Made him sound like a little boy or something! "Ten minutes ago he was still in surgery."

"Still?" Vecchio exclaimed and glanced at his watch. That was-- "Over seven hours?"

Kowalski shrugged a shoulder and gunned the engine to slip into the agravatingly slow stream of traffic in front of the airport. Seven hours meant seven hours Fraser was still alive.

"Where's your bags?" he offered curtly, ‘though he wasn't about to go back for them now.

"Don't have any," Vecchio answered in the same no nonsense tone as Kowalski. "What you got on that letter of his-- Anything yet?"

"Standard printer paper, coulda been bought anywhere. Looks like an old dot matrix printer. The only fingerprints they could lift were Fraser's and Thatcher's. There were a couple other partials on the envelope but--ahm..."

"But what?!" Vecchio demanded.

"Fraser's hand was bloody when he gave it to Thatcher. The forensic guys are still trying to get something."

Vecchio closed his eyes and fought away the image that sprang to mind. Snapping his eyes back open, he frowned at Kowalski.

"What did it say again?" he asked stoically, ignoring his animosity toward the other man in his need to piece the puzzle together. "Exactly?"

Kowalski scowled as he recited it again, for the fourth time to Vecchio and the hundredth time to himself. "Mounty uniforms are red, your blood is too. My brother is dead, so are you."

"Charming," Vecchio muttered. "Who's making up the list I asked for, the one of everyone he ever killed in the line of duty? Knowing him, it shouldn't be too long."

"You asked for?" Kowalski echoed, clamping down on his irritation with difficulty. He'd asked for the list himself long before Vecchio even knew Fraser had been shot! He threw his head to the side again, trying to ease the building tension in his neck. "Look, we gotta talk."

"Don't even think about telling me to butt out," Vecchio snapped, apparently reading the belligerent tone too easily. "Benny was my best friend a hell of a long time before you ever met him. I'm gonna find the creep who did this and I'm gonna break his scrawny little ass in two, and I'll break yours too if you try to get in my way. We clear?"

"You're the one with the scrawny little ass here, Vecchio," Kowalski snapped right back in a quiet rage. "You're on mandatory retirement and permanent disability. You might have met him before I did but he's closer than family to me. This is my case, you understand? So help me God I'll mop the sidewalk with you if you get in my way!"

"You can try anytime you want, punk," Vecchio replied quietly. "You don't worry about me slowing you down. You just worry about keeping up."

Kowalski offered the traffic in front of him a mocking smile and nodded to himself. "Oh yeah! I can see this is gonna work out just great!"

"You just watch my dust kid," Vecchio taunted him. "Now what's going on with that list and I don't care who asked for it! This is a revenge hit. It's someone from his past. You said he hadn't killed anyone recently?"

"Fraser?" Kowalski offered with a short bark of laughter, remembering all too clearly the time he'd thrown a gun, rather than fire it. "As in ‘Bang, bang, you're dead!'?"

"I know, I know!" Vecchio bowed his head in momentary frustration. The idiot knew what he was talking about! He jerked his head back up and glared at him. "Are you telling me people don't wind up dead around him all the time? Because it happened all too frequently when I was his partner!"

"Oh yeah," Kowalski agreed. "I've seen more dead guys in the last two years than I have in all my previous years on the force!"

"He's a regular disaster magnet," Vecchio muttered. "So what about the list?"

"Thatcher's going through his files and Frannie's going through ours. They both promised to have something by this evening."

"Frannie?" Vecchio echoed in disbelief. "She couldn't find a clue if it reached out and bit her!"

Kowalski was surprised by a stab of rage at this blunt insult but forced it down. He tossed the man beside him an irritated frown. "You got a real high opinion of your sister, don't ya?"

Vecchio gave him a hard glance. "Don't go making me play big brother here Kowalski," he warned the other man. "You'll be in the hospital longer then Benny if I find out you've laid a finger on my sister."

"Like I said," he repeated disparagingly. "You got a real high opinion of your sister, don't ya? She's perfectly capable of taking care of herself."

"Shows how much you know about my sister," Vecchio muttered under his breath but Kowalski heard him anyway.

"Shows how much you've been around the last two years," Kowalski muttered in return and was vaguely pleased by the sharp glare he got in return. He just smiled, knowing at least one thing Frannie hadn't shared with her brother.

Fortunately, Vecchio changed the subject.

"What else have you got on the shooter?" he demanded, bringing the conversation back where it belonged. "Did you find where he was set up?"

"Third floor window, across the street," Kowalski answered. "The place was wiped clean. Got some shoe impressions from the carpet and hairs, but nothing definitive and the DNA won't be done for two weeks. Without anything to compare it to, we might as well be holding air."

"Shoe impressions?" Vecchio repeated. "On carpet? You think that's really going to tell us anything? You've been hanging around Benny too much."

Kowalski offered him a mocking twist of his mouth, repeating the words silently and shot back, "It already has, smart guy. Forensics says the shooter was right around six foot, it is a guy, and about hundred and seventy pounds. Oh, and the hair's dark, kinda longish."

Vecchio stared at him in surprise for a long moment as Kowalski offered the traffic a smug grin. The older detective visibly shook himself and suddenly exploded. "Why the hell didn't you say so to begin with!"

Kowalski frowned sharply. "You know who it is?"

"No!" Vecchio exclaimed. "But it certainly narrows it down a bit!"

Kowalski shrugged. "So you got any ideas?"

"A few," he frowned pensively and shook his head, "but that's from a while back. If this is an act of revenge, then why would anyone wait so long to make a move?"

"So you think it's something recent, like maybe that poison gas / nuclear sub thing the three of us hit up in Canada?"

"Maybe, maybe," Vecchio admitted and just as quickly shook his head. "Nah. I don't know. It doesn't feel right. Too impersonal to be Muldoon or the Bolts. Besides, Muldoon didn't have a brother and all the Bolts are in prison, but we can check and see if any of them died while there."

"That's an idea," Kowalski decided, snapping his fingers. "If someone Fraser helped put away died in prison it might explain why the brother waited so long to get revenge."

"You mean either the brother was in prison too or the one who died only did so recently?"

"Yeah, yeah--" Kowalski ran with the idea for a long moment before another deflated his optimism. "You know the letter could be a -- what'd'ya call it -- a wild herring meant to throw us off the chase. It may be the uniform he's targeting and not Fraser specifically." He checked his blind spot quickly and gunned the car again, slipping into the faster moving left hand lane.

"That's 'red' herring, Moron," Vecchio corrected him with a sigh, "leading us on a 'wild' goose chase."

"Yeah, yeah. You sound just like him," Kowalski groused. "The only other thing we got to go on is that the guy's American."

"How do you get that?"

"He mis-spelled Mountie," Kowalski explained. "‘M-o-u-n-t-y'."

"Maybe he just can't spell."

"Yeah right," Kowalski snapped. "Like you really believe that." "Hey! It's possible," he rejoined. "Fraser's been known to step on a lot of toes. It's how he wound up getting posted down here to begin with!"

"I know--"

Kowalski decided the strident ring of his cell phone was a timely interruption in a discussion that was really beginning to get on his nerves.

"Kowalski!" he answered, snapping it open. He listened for a long moment and suddenly pulled over to the curb with a sharp curse, bringing the car to an abrupt halt. Horns blared behind him but Vecchio doubted he heard them. "Go on," he snapped grimly.

Vecchio watched him anxiously, knowing instinctively it was a report on Benny and that it wasn't good.

"So?" he finally demanded as Kowalski shut his eyes and closed the cell.

"He's alive," Kowalski answered, bowing his head wearily. There was nothing happy about this pronouncement.

"And!!!" Ray demanded, knowing there was more.

"He's in a coma on full life support. Brain waves are suppressed, whatever the hell that means. He lost a lot of blood and they're worried about brain damage. Maggie's with the doctors now and apparently they're talking about Living Wills and such."

"Oh God!" Vecchio sighed painfully and ran his hands through his sparse hair, trying to hold it together. He just couldn't imagine Benny--

"Okay," he sighed decisively. "Concentrate on the case. You know what they say: ‘Shoot a Mountie and they'll hunt you to the ends of the Earth'. Well I don't see any of his fellow officers down here, so I guess it's up to us."

"Actually there is," Kowalski informed him. "Two of ‘em flew down from Ottawa and are working with Thatcher. They're putting a lot of heat on Welsh and Washington. I expect the FBI to show up anytime now."

"Oh great!" Vecchio muttered in disgust. "Those guys always mess things up!"

"Yeah, we gotta move fast if we don't want ‘em trying to yank our chains."

That was the first thing Kowalski had said that Vecchio could agree with
whole heartedly.

Vecchio stood where he knew Benny had stood and frowned up at the building opposite. Third floor. Second window from the right. Hundred yards. Clear shot. Some kind of .22. Who used .22s anymore? A standard hunting rifle with a 30-06 round would have been a preferable weapon. And more efficient. The doctors had turned the bullet over to forensics. They were studying it now. The shooter musta used a telescopic lens. He'd gone for the heart, not the head. Perfectly still target--

He shook his head and trotted up the steps to where Kowalski and Thatcher were arguing.

"I can't let you see the files Detective," the woman was saying. "There are things pertaining to national security in some of them. Trust me. The list is complete."

"Yeah but it doesn't tell me anything about who any of these guys are!" Kowalski complained, frowning at the slip of paper in his hands. "Names are good, but I need to know histories and MO types of things! This one here, Geiger, I remember about this one. I know I can dismiss him. No brother and he likes knives. Not the type to reach out and tap you with a rifle, but what about these others? Who else can I dismiss from this list? This is too long. We gotta narrow it down."

The woman sighed heavily and snatched the paper back out of his hand.

"Hey!" Kowalski protected sharply. "What you doing?"

"Narrowing it down," she frowned at the list and put check marks beside three of the names. "These three were professional hit men," she told him, shoving the paper back in his hands. "Why don't we try them first?"

"We?" Kowalski echoed sarcastically.

"He wasn't a pro," Vecchio interrupted firmly. "Benny would be dead if he was."

"Even professional hit men miss, Detective Vecchio," the woman rejoined.

"That shot?" he rejoined, gesturing up at the window across the way. "A perfectly still target and he misses?"

"Only by a few millimeters, Detective."

"And he went for the heart, not the head," Vecchio continued. "A miss of a few millimeters in the head ain't a miss. No way." He shook his head. "No pro would miss that shot. Scratch those three. Who on the list is American?"

Thatcher frowned even more darkly as she took the list back and ran down it again. "What makes you think he's American?" she asked, putting a single line through each of the three names she'd already checked off.
"He mis-spelled Mountie," Kowalski answered.

She shook her head and put a tick beside one of the names. "Tenuous," she offered pensively and ticked off another. "You know if someone would bother to tell me what leads you've managed to get, I might be able to narrow this down to four or five suspects."

"If you gave us the files we could narrow it down to one or two," Kowalski offered sarcastically.

She returned his mocking smile with one of her own. "Forget it Detective," she answered bluntly.

"Right now we're not even sure it was Fraser he was specifically after," Vecchio sighed. "Coulda been the uniform."

Thatcher frowned in surprise at the thought. "To whom was the letter addressed?"

"It wasn't," Kowalski answered, frowning as well. "Turnbull said it was delivered by courier. We had him do up a composite already. Hewy and Dewy are searching for the guy."

Thatcher offered him a mild glare, already well aware of that, and spun sharply to reenter the Consulate, forcing the two detectives to follow her as she swung through the door. She turned immediately to the right and entered the front waiting area where Turnbull was busy--dusting? Kowalski and Vecchio exchanged bemused shrugs and frowned at the woman's back again, trying to figure out what they'd said to set her off in the first place.

"The courier who gave you the letter for Fraser," she said, "to whom did he say it should go?"

Turnbull frowned, obviously confused. "Constable Fraser ma'am," he answered.

"By name?" she asked and the two detectives behind her suddenly realized where she was going with this. "I need his exact words Turnbull."

"Exact words--" Turnbull pursed his lips in concentration. "I believe he said, ‘Hey there, you the Deputy Liaison whatsit around here?' To which I said, ‘Oh no, that would be Constable Fraser but he's not in right now. I'm Constable Turnbull. Perhaps I can help you instead?' And he said, ‘Fraser! That's right. I have a special delivery letter for him. Can you sign for it?' and I said ‘Certainly. Have you been a courier long? I would think it a fascinating job. Meeting all different kinds of people--,'" Turnbull suddenly got a pensive look on his face as Thatcher fought not to roll her eyes. She hadn't wanted quite that much detail. "You know, it's strange that you should ask about exactly who the letter was for, because I remember noting Constable Fraser's name on the receipt log but not his title and wondering how the young man knew he was the Deputy Liaison Officer?"

"He was in on it!" Kowalski rapidly surmised.

"I want to see that composite!" Vecchio added firmly.

"I have the original here," Turnbull volunteered readily. "Just a little something I worked up in pencil. I'm much better with charcoal but--"

"Turnbull!" Thatcher snapped, losing her patience. "Just--get it please. Thank you."

"Yes Sir. Ma'am," he stammered slightly and turned to hurry from the room with a self-satisfied smile for being able to help.

"How the hell did that man get to be a Constable?" Vecchio wondered quietly with a shake of his head.

"He's actually a very good investigator, Detective," Thatcher answered. "He has eidetic memory and his mind is very analytical. It's-- His people skills are somewhat lacking."

"'Somewhat'?" Kowalski echoed sarcastically. Thatcher scowled but refused to answer as the man in question hurried back into the room with a large art pad in hand.

"Here we are," he sang out as he handed it over. "I could add color if it would help? I haven't been able to purchase any pastels here that I'm happy with but--"

"Turnbull," Thatcher interrupted him again and fought to paste a smile in place. "This will be fine. Thank you. Why don't you go see if Inspectors Hardy and Laurel have anything to report yet?"

Turnbull nodded like a happy puppy sent to fetch a ball and hurried back out of the room.

"Analytical?" Vecchio muttered as he watched the man disappear. "Fraser's analytical. That guy's--"

"Detective!" Thatcher glared irritably at the other man. She never had much cared for the Italian, not that she was particularly fond of Kowalski either, but at least the younger detective knew how to show a modicum of respect for her opinions. Vecchio never had. "I will not have my staff's abilities questioned. So unless you want me to pair you up with him--"

"Him?" Vecchio squeaked.

"--then I suggest you cease your unfounded and uninformed attack upon the man!"

"You don't have no authority to be pairing me up with anyone anyway Lady so--"

"Oh no?" Thatcher interrupted him. "I remind you that the attack occurred on Canadian soil, Detective. It can, in fact, be viewed as an act of terrorism against my country. This is my investigation and I can order you removed from the case entirely if I--"
"Actually I believe we agreed to a joint investigation, Inspector?" Kowalski quickly intervened, stepping slightly in front of Vecchio before the two came to physical blows. Jeez! And he thought he'd struck sparks off the Italian! "Let's not go there, shall we? We all want the same thing here right? Lets get back to that thing, all right? Who's this Hardy and Laurel whatsit you told Turnbull to check with? They the CSS whatevers that are working with Hewy and Dewy?"

"CSIS," Thatcher corrected him, offering the volatile Italian behind him another glare for good measure before dropping the issue. Kowalski was right. She might not like Vecchio personally but he and Fraser had worked closely together for over two years. His experience could prove invaluable if they were going to catch the man or men responsible for this attack. "Canadian Security and Intelligence Service," she explained. "They're something like your CIA and yes, they're the agents working with Detectives Hewy and Dewy."

"I know this guy!" Vecchio suddenly offered as he turned from the Dragon Lady to the sketch Turnbull had given him. He instantly had the others' attention as he frowned down at the pad in his hand. "Damn it. What's his name?"

"Slow and calm Detective," Thatcher advised him. "Let your anger with me go and concentrate on the face."

He offered her a furtive glance for the unsolicited advice but shoved his irritation aside, knowing she was right. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he focused on the composite. The nose--wasn't quite right but...

"Stevie," he managed to dredge the first name up. "Stevie something or other. He's from the neighborhood. Use to work for Frank Zuko five, six years ago. . ."

"You think Zuko's involved?" Kowalski interjected.

"Could be," Ray answered, "and he could be about up for parole too. No brother though."

"Who's Zuko?" Thatcher wanted to know.

"Mob boss from my old neighborhood," Vecchio answered. "He-- Benny and I had a major run in with him just after you showed up down here. I was in love with his sister and--" He closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath, shoving the still painful memories aside. He brought his head back up with a frown. "We got him on racketeering and conspiracy. Pretty much shut him down. He didn't like Benny, but if he were going to take out anyone, I'd be at the top of his list."

"You weren't here," Thatcher pointed out, remembering reading something in Fraser's notes about the man now. The entry had been incomplete, which was unlike him, and she'd wondered briefly about it before turning her mind to the next file, thinking he'd finish up the thread later--but he never had. "And the mention of a brother rather than his sister could be designed to throw us off. Were you two involved in her death somehow or is she still alive?"
"She's dead," Vecchio answered in a monotone and shook himself. "I'll check it out."

He knew even as he said it that the idea wouldn't pan out. If Zuko had ordered the hit, it would have been a lot more personal than a gun from across the street. Still, Stevie might lead them somewhere. Zuko had been out of the circuit for a while. The strong armed go-fer was probably working for someone else now, and that someone else could be the one who'd ordered Fraser gunned down.

He turned to Kowalski with a frown. "You two weren't working on anything involving the mob lately were you?"

"Besides Armando Langoustini you mean?" the younger man answered and shook his head sharply. Then took the thought one step farther. "You think the Iguana family might be involved?"

Shit, Ray thought, getting a sudden sinking feeling. It could very well be the Iguana family, and if it was-- Zuko was small potatoes compared to them. The FBI had managed to must most of them, but that didn't mean they couldn't reach out and touch someone. He'd been ‘strongly advised' to enter the Witness Protection Program when his cover was blown, but he'd refused. He knew how the Iguanas' worked. If they wanted him, and he disappeared, they'd target the rest of his family in revenge.

Was that what this was about? They hadn't known he was in Florida, so they'd targeted Benny instead?

"This ain't a professional hit," he argued, more to himself then the others. The Iguanas dealt with only the best, and no assassin worthy of the title would have missed that shot.

"I still think it should be checked out, Detective," Thatcher offered with an irritated frown. The man always had played it too much by the seat of his pants. Fraser had been a stabilizing influence on him, she thought, and that's probably why his arrest record had improved so much once the two of them had met.

"Well of course it should!" he snapped irritably. "We're going to check them all out! Right now we're just trying to decide who to go after first. So, who else on that list is American and got mob ties? Anyone?"

Thatcher frowned irritably. "Detective Kowalski asked me for a list of those people whom Constable Fraser killed or whom died as a direct result of one of his investigations, Detective," she answered curtly. "If you want Americans with Mob relations, I'll have to go through his files again."

"If all those are dead guys, then why is Geiger on it?" Kowalski wanted to know.

"He was executed last year for killing twelve police officers back in the seventies," Thatcher answered. "Your country denied our request for extradition, not surprisingly. Canada doesn't have the death penalty but New York does--or did. You people are always changing the laws on me."

"So's--we could be dealing with his brother--if he's got a brother?"

"Isn't that the premise you've been working on since you first called me this morning!" Thatcher snapped.

"We've narrowed the premises down a bit since then," Vecchio answered abruptly and snatched the paper out of her hands, glaring down at it as though the answer should leap out and hit him. "Benny locked horns with Warfield? Wilson Warfield?! When did this happen?"

"Last Christmas," Kowalski answered, remembering the incident too well. "He slapped a guy and Fraser wanted him to apologize. Nearly got beat to death for it too."

"And Warfield's dead?"

"Car accident."

"Probably one of his own men," Vecchio muttered and scratched off the name.

Thatcher frowned as she watched him. "He didn't have a brother Detective?"

"I don't think a Priest took a shot at Benny, do you?" the older detective answered off hand. "Who else. . . ." He quickly scratched off several more names. "I don't know the rest of these," he said, handing it over to Kowalski. "You?"

Kowalski frowned at the list again. "Oh yeah," he admitted, "but most of ‘em don't play hard ball, you know?" He frowned in thought for a long moment as something nagged him in the back of his head. It finally surfaced. "This list ain't complete. Nelly Martin, a.k.a. Nervous Nellie died about two weeks ago of a heart attack. Not that anyone thinks it was really a heart attack. Probably a mob hit as well. He confessed to a hit on Sammy Franks, a.k.a. Frankie Tucci and ratted out the DeLucca family."

"The DeLucca's?" Vecchio interrupted in dismay. "They're based in Arizona! What's Benny been doing while I was gone? Irritating every mob family in the United States?!!"

"Listen up," Kowalski told the other excitedly, "here's where it gets interesting. One of the people who attended Mr. Tucci's funeral was Gino Tortelli. He ran the Palermos Social--"

"The Palermos Social Club on the East Side for the Iguana Family for whom Armondo Langoustini worked!" Vecchio jumped in and finished for him. "That's too close a connection. What did Benny do to piss Tortelli off?"

"Nothing that I know of," Kowalski answered with a shrug. "Mr. Tucci asked Fraser to watch after his wife when he died. We uncovered a private eye that was trying to pose as his long lost son, only the son was long dead because Nervous Nellie had wacked him for the DeLuccas--but they didn't know about the Tucci connection far as we could tell. Mrs. Tucci wound up inheriting a couple four mill or so. We thought for a minute it might be mob money but a quick trace proved it to be all legit."

"Most Mob money is legit," Vecchio muttered and frowned as he tried to come up with the thread that would tie it all together--and failed. "The DeLuccas have no connection to the Iguannas. Damn it. There are too many coincidences but I don't see a pattern!"

"Let's not get too caught up in those coincidences Detective," Thatcher offered with a frown. "Check them out by all means, but if Mr. Tortelli had no motive then I suggest looking elsewhere."

"That four million would make good motive in itself, despite the connection to the Iguana Family, I just don't see how he planned to get it. He wasn't some distant relative or something was he?"

"Not that we were able to find out," Kowalski answered. "The friendship went back a ways."

"If this were some kinda strike against me ordered by the Iguana Family, because they didn't know where I was-- The shooter would have been a professional!" he argued with himself.

"You're assuming again that it wasn't a professional," Thatcher declared firmly.

"It wasn't a professional hit, okay?" he yelled at her, losing all patience with her constant questioning of his instincts. "It wasn't! I know it wasn't! Got it?"

Kowalski grabbed him by the shoulder, very much afraid the man might take a swing at the Ice Queen--and then the shit would really hit the fan!

Thatcher actually took a step back from the irate Italian and became irritated herself when she realized it.

"Whoa there now, Vecchio!" Kowalski offered but the taller man spun out of his grasp and stepped away, obviously fighting for control. Kowalski turned to the surprised and scowling Inspector. "He's just worried about Fraser, okay?" he offered in excuse. "He didn't mean nothing by that. Okay?"

Thatcher offered the younger man a piercing glance but knew he was probably right. She couldn't fault the Italian for his loyalty to Constable Fraser-- "We're all worried about him -- but he needs to control his temper!"

"He will! He will!" Kowalski promised on Vecchio's behalf. "Just-- Both of you need to calm it down. We won't solve nothing if you two are tearing each other's throats out."

"I can do without your exaggerated metaphors Detective," she told him curtly.

Vecchio spun back toward them with a frown and slammed one fist into the other open palm.

"Anyone else on that list shout revenge hit to ya?" he demanded in a reasonable facsimile of a normal voice.

"With a mob tie in?" Kowalski shook his head.

"Okay then," Vecchio ground out, pulling out a small notebook and pen. "We got Stevie as the delivery boy, a possible tie in to Zuko, Geiger's brother--if he had one, Warfield, Nervous Nellie's brother though that's a long shot and Mr. Tortelli, another long shot that's bugging the hell outta me." He frowned at his own notes, snapped the note book closed and jammed it into his pocket, scowling darkly the whole time. He glanced at the list that Kowalski was still holding and his frown changed.

"What?" Kowalski offered with a broad gesture of both hands. "Lunch not sitting right?" he asked sarcastically, hoping to distract the man somewhat.

"Something's not sitting right," Vecchio agreed, thinking furiously. "There's something--"

"Remembering something?"

"More like forgetting it," he rejoined with an irritated shake of his head. "We're missing something here."

"Agreed," Kowalski frowned. "It don't feel right. I think we're on a --what'd'ya call it-- a wild goose chase here."

Vecchio nodded pensively. "The shooter's not on that list."

"Of course he's not on that list, Detective!" Thatcher interjected forcefully. "The people on that list are all dead. You need to look for their brothers."

"We need to look for Stevie," the dark haired Italian corrected her sharply and pulled out his cell phone as he stepped away.

Kowalski stepped closer and spoke quickly. "Think you can go back through Fraser's case notes again and pull up all Americans with mob ties, dead or not?"

Thatcher turned her scowl toward him but it didn't seem to phase him the way it normally would. He returned her gaze solemnly.

"Playing another of your hunches Detective?" she asked sarcastically.

He suddenly jerked his head to the side and offered a weird kind of shrug. "Yeah," he answered. "You got a problem with that?"

"You're asking a lot detective," she informed him coolly. "Are you quite certain about the Mob connection?"

"No," he admitted, "but it's the best lead we got. Now, can you get me that list of all the Americans Fraser crossed who had Mob ties--or do I trust Turnbull to do it?"

"No," she sighed, suddenly very tired and frustrated with the whole mess. "I'll do it. It would take Turnbull too long. I need him to start making arrangements for the Ambassador's Ball we're suppose to host in a couple of weeks anyway, and then there are several requests for passport extensions and immigration information--not to mention the labor dispute with a local Construction Contractor who hired Canadian union members. I can't ignore all other Consulate duties to pursue this case, much as I wish I could. The new Chief Liaison Officer will be here next week and I've got to get this all organized before he can take over."

"Just get me the list," Kowalski told her. "We'll do the rest. And let us know if your Cswhatsits people find Stevie before we do."

She nodded. "You will keep me apprised of your own progress?" she asked.

"Natch!" he agreed and spun away to join Vecchio who was pacing impatiently at the front door and talking on the cell phone.

"I've got Frannie pulling Zuko's file and digging up Stevie's last known address," the volatile Italian informed his defacto-partner as they swung out of the Consulate and down the steps to the GTO. "I doubt he'll be there but we may find someone around who knows where he's gone."

Kowalski only nodded as he slid behind the wheel. "The duck boys didn't have anything?"

"They didn't even have his name yet," Vecchio sighed and frowned again as Kowalski quickly slid into traffic. "Where we going?"

"Hell if I know," Kowalski answered and gripped the steering wheel harder. "I just had to get out of there, you know?"

"Dragon Lady getting to ya?"

"No, Thatcher's cool," he rejoined and gave his tense neck a sudden, loud pop, "sometimes. I just kept expecting Fraser to walk in." He shook his head, forcing the disquieting feeling aside and focusing on the case at hand. Or he tried to. "Frannie say anything about Fraser?"

"She said someone named Maggie wanted to meet us at the hospital," the other man answered, turning pensive. "Is that Benny's sister I keep hearing about? When did he get a sister? He told me he was an only child."

"Half-sister and he didn't know about her until roughly four months ago," Kowalski offered.

"Jeez," Vecchio sighed, "I go away for a little over a year and I feel like I've picked up the wrong script or something! Can't keep up with the plot twists.

"So, is she a Mountie too or can we hope she'll stay tucked away at the hospital like a good little sister should?"

Kowalski laughed. The sound snuck past his worry for Fraser and surprised him. But it felt good. "Sorry Vecchio, the Mountie thing seems to be hereditary. She's going to latch onto us and this case like Dief with a sack of Cheese Doodles!"

Vecchio seemed suddenly surprised at the reminder of Diefenbaker. "Where is the wolf anyway?"

"Hospital," Kowalski answered shortly. Frannie had said Thatcher had brought him with her and the wolf had latched onto Maggie. When Maggie had gone in to see her brother, the wolf had refused to leave. The hospital staff still remembered him from three years earlier when Vecchio had shot Fraser in the back. That was a story Kowalski had never gotten the full gist of, but he didn't think now was the time to bring it up.

"She any good?"

"Maggie?" Kowalski asked, dragging his thoughts back to the present. "She's a Mountie. What do you think?"

"Turnbull's a Mountie," Vecchio reminded him, and gave a little shudder at the idea of being partnered up with that idiot!

"You got a point!" Kowalski agreed, grinning at the same thought that caused Vecchio to shiver. "But Maggie's a Fraser, even if that isn't her name. It's Mackenzie by the way. Originally came down here on the trail of her husband's killers--"

"What is it with Mounties and this 'trail of my relatives killers' stuff!" Vecchio interrupted in surprise. "Their family cursed or something?"

Kowalski shrugged, suppressing a smile. He'd wondered the same thing himself.

"Anyway," he continued, ignoring the rhetorical question, "Maggie's cool. She knows her stuff. And she's a bit more flexible than Fraser, if you know what I mean."

"She can bend the law to the breaking point without coming unglued you mean?" Vecchio asked, surprised at the thought of any Mountie being able to do that.

Kowalski coughed slightly to cover his reaction as Vecchio misunderstood him. But that was fine. The other man would understand soon enough. He was dieing to watch this guy try to put the moves on Maggie.

Then he remembered that Vecchio had married Stella--

He shoved the image of that out of his head and concentrated on substituting Maggie. If he did make a move on her, Maggie would put him in his place quick enough! And then he'd--

Although the thought of decking the man was more than tempting, Kowalski shoved the thought from mind. Stella wasn't his concern anymore, and she wouldn't appreciate him coming to her rescue. He had enough troubles with Vecchio without borrowing any. In the meantime, if the other man wanted to take his words literally--he could go with that.

"She was on suspension when I met her and took off when it looked like she'd killed a guy," he explained. "Can you imagine Fraser doing that? I mean, the taking off. He did get suspended when he refused to chase after her."

"Fraser suspended?" Vecchio repeated and shook his head in disbelief. "Have I fallen into Oz here? Am I still in Chicago or did I get picked up by a tornado I don't remember and land in Toronto without knowing it?"

Kowalski's answering grin quickly disappeared as he realized they'd arrived at the hospital. He wondered briefly if they'd let him in to see Fraz-- God, he hoped Maggie hadn't done anything stupid like tell them to pull the plug! He could understand it if Fraz was--

Ray shook his head sharply. He wasn't going to go there! Definitely not! He refused to think of Fraser as dead. Instead, he offered up a quick prayer that his buddy would be all right and then turned his concentration to finding a parking spot.

Maggie was hard to miss in her dress red uniform but she still managed to spot the men before they spotted her.

"Ray!" she called out, drawing both men's attention as she appeared from where she'd been waiting outside the hospital doors. "So," she offered immediately upon joining them, "what have you got so far? Who's this?" Vecchio eyed the woman before him with some surprise. Whoa, was the first thought that came to mind--but he managed to keep it to himself. He wasn't at all sure why he was surprised. Fraser had been overly blessed in the looks department. Why not his sister?

"Ray Vecchio," he introduced himself smoothly, offering her his most charming smile as he took in the bright blue eyes, strawberry blond hair and the perfect fit of her uniform. "The real Ray Vecchio."

"Ah!" she nodded and returned his warm gaze with a coolly distant smile of her own. "I've heard about you." She then turned her attention pointedly back to Kowalski--who fought not to smirk at this unexpected and unconscious compliment on her part. "What have you got?" she repeated firmly.

Kowalski suddenly shoved his amusement aside as a far more important question leapt to mind. "Fraser?" he asked anxiously, needing to make sure his best friend was still alive.

She winced slightly, hiding her pain behind the armor of her uniform. "No change," she answered. "He's still in a coma. It's too early--" She suddenly cleared her throat and shook her head, denying the emotion that halted her words and shoving it aside. "We can't do anything for him here. I want to help find whomever tried to kill him."

Vecchio frowned at this blunt pronouncement but Kowalski ignored the other man's reaction. He needed some further assurances from Maggie first.

"I need to know you ain't planning to like pull the plug or anything on him and not tell me until after the fact," he offered quite seriously. "Franny said you was talking about Living Wills and stuff."

Maggie closed her eyes in pain and bowed her head.

"Look, I know you're his sister and everything," he continued as gently as he could but urgently. He needed to know this! "I know you'll do what's right and all. It's just--"

God, now he was fighting tears! He glanced up sharply and away, refusing to let her or anyone else see just how very painful this all was for him. He swallowed hard and continued.

"If--" He had to swallow again and forced himself to meet her concerned frown. "I want to say good bye," he said bluntly.

She looked down again but nodded tightly. "I hope it doesn't come to that," she whispered.

"Hey guys!" Vecchio interjected, placing a compassionate hand on both their shoulders. "This is Benny we're talking about here, remember?" he interjected with false bravado. There was a certain tightness about his smile that belied his upbeat words. "Nothing can keep him down for long, so stop talking like this. He wouldn't want it!"

That was true enough.

"Okay," Kowalski suddenly shook himself and gave his neck a sharp crack. "I'm cool. So, you wanted to know what we had on the shooter, right?"

Maggie frowned as she followed the two men up the walkway and fought not to betray her irritation with either of them. They were both suffering from testosterone poisoning, ‘though she thought Vecchio, the real Ray Vecchio, was quite a bit more condescending than Kowalski. The taller man had practically ordered her to stay in the car! Practically nothing, she corrected the thought. He had ordered her to stay in the car!

At least Kowalski had known better than to try that.

She simply ignored Vecchio and followed like a red shadow in the approaching twilight as the two detectives met up with four other officers in the darkened alleyway behind the target house.

It was a one bedroom bungalow with a postage-stamp sized backyard and knee-high weeds in the front. It was in desperate need of paint and one of the walls was badly cracked where the foundation had settled. There was no driveway or sidewalk, and she was almost surprised the street was paved. This definitely wasn't the best of neighborhoods, but then she hadn't expected them to head up town after Kowalski filled her in on Stevie Carstairs.

This was the address his parole officer had provided. They all agreed that the chances of him actually being here were pretty slim--but it needed to be checked out. Besides, Maggie knew well there would likely be clues as to where he'd gone.

She followed Vecchio and Kowalski as the group pulled out their fire arms and split up. She hated bringing up the rear but kept her thoughts to herself. She wasn't here in any kind of official capacity. She was merely an observer. It was something she had to keep reminding herself of. Vecchio and Kowalski would do the knock and demand, busting down the door if necessary while the others covered the back and sides. She shook her head at the strong arm tactics but she didn't want to risk the guy getting away either--if he was even here.

Vecchio frowned over his shoulder as he realized she had tagged along and waved her back. She merely glared in return and Kowalski shook his head. A silent jerk of his blonde head and he proceeded up the steps, leaving the two of them to follow or not. Vecchio offered a silent sigh and glanced heavenward before giving up the struggle and jogging to catch up with the younger man. Naturally Maggie followed.

There was a single light on in the living room, not that any of them read any significance into that. There'd been no sign of movement in the ten minutes they'd taken to scope out the setup and decide on strategy. Vecchio moved to the door, Kowalski automatically covering him to the right and Maggie took the left--'though, without a weapon, she gave the guys a little breathing room and hung back slightly. They didn't need to be worrying about her right now.

Maggie turned her attention to the window beside her, listening for sounds from within. The house was totally silent. Vecchio paused before issuing the standard knock and demand to open up. Instead, he silently tried the knob and gave Kowalski a surprised nod as he discovered it unlocked...

Maggie's head jerked up as she heard an electronic whir and realized Vecchio had activated some kind of booby trap. She reacted without thinking and dove to knock the two detectives away from the door even as it was blasted open by a powerful explosion.

Vecchio turned from the fire chief and frowned as he scanned the chaotic scene, searching for Kowalski. He wasn't surprised to see him standing behind the ambulance. Kowalski gave the vehicle a slap on the door as it pulled away and watched as it took Maggie Mackenzie to the hospital.

"Stanley!" Vecchio called as he joined his temporary partner and was awarded an irritated frown.

"Ray!" Kowalski corrected him firmly. "My name is not Stanley. It's Ray. It has always been Ray! If that's confusing, stick to Kowalski. Got it?"

"Fine!' Vecchio allowed, throwing his hands up in surrender. He was frankly surprised by the other's response, wondering when it had become such a sore point. He hadn't argued when Welsh had suggested the name after Benny blew Ray's cover. "Whatever." He nodded after the ambulance. "She okay?"

Kowalski glanced back in the direction the ambulance had taken and shook his head pensively. "They got the bleeding stopped."

Just like Fraser, his mind reminded him, flashing back to that horrid scene infront of the Consulate. The paramedics had been working frantically when he pulled up, snapping terse orders to each other and all but throwing him on the stretcher. His uniform and white undershirt had been ripped open and there was blood everywhere.

Kowalski shuddered violently as he forced the memory aside, but it was only replaced by the sight of Maggie's blood staining his fingers as he fought to put pressure on the wound at her elbow. A damn piece of glass from one of the windows had caught her good and musta nicked an artery because he couldn't get it stopped. She'd passed out and gone into shock before the paramedics arrived. Then it had been almost like reliving the nightmare of Fraser's shooting all over again! Except that one of the paramedics had actually reached into Maggie's wound and clamped off the artery with somekinda sissor-like things.

"She'll be fine," he heard himself answer as he forced those memories aside as well. He knew he'd have nightmares about it tonight. Probably for several nights to come. "The door hit her hard so she's got some broken ribs too but the artery thing was the worst of it. They'll know more after they take some X-Rays."

"We're lucky the door didn't blow apart and spray us all with wood shrapnel. Benny know you got a thing for his sister?" Ray asked, studying the other man's face. It was far too revealing. How the hell had he ever been picked for an undercover assignment covering for him?

Kowalski offered him another glare and pointedly ignored the question. "What'd the bomb guys say?"

Vecchio shrugged. "Ain't talked to them yet but apparently there was someone inside."

"Oh yeah?"

"My guess is Stevie boy and I'd bet a year's pay he was dead before the bomb blast occurred."

Kowalski pursed his lips pensively and nodded. "No bet. So where does that leave us?"

"Pretty much no where," Vecchio sighed, glaring at the still smoking ruin of Stevie's house and wishing Fraser was here. He'd walk in there and pick up a scrap of paper or taste something and have the case solved by morning!

But if Fraser was here, none of this would have happened.

"Come on," Kowalski jerked his head in the direction of the burnt out house. "We'll steal some flash lights and look around. There's gotta be something to point us in the right direction."

"We should probably wait ‘till morning," Vecchio offered with a frown for the now deep night that surrounded them.

"You wait ‘till morning!" Kowalski snapped. "I'm going in. I thought you said you weren't going to slow me down Vecchio?"

"Fine!" Vecchio snapped in return, "but we're only going to miss something in the dark and have to come back tomorrow. I just hope we don't destroy evidence because of your impatience."

"I hope the shooter doesn't get away because you're dragging your heels!"

Vecchio glared at the younger man's back as Kowalski spun and marched to where the last of the bomb squad was exiting the premises with flashlights held low. The man was just begging to be taken down a peg or two and Ray was more than tempted to oblige him. Only the fact that Fraser liked him kept Ray from pummeling the guy into the ground. The younger man needed a lesson in manners almost as much as Frank Zuko had two years ago!

But he was Fraser's friend. Ray was smart enough to realize Kowalski was being driven by that friendship, by the need to avenge his friend, and could forgive him his smart mouth because of that. He loved Fraser too. He just knew when it was time to pull in the reins.

With a heavy sigh, he shook his head and followed in the other man's steps, accepting the flashlight he was handed with nothing more than an irritated frown. It was a waste of time to try and find anything in the dark, but he kept the thought to himself. He didn't want to miss anything and knew he was going to have a hard enough time getting to sleep anyway. He needed to be sharp tomorrow when the lab boys would finally have something for them to really take a look at.

"Where was the body found?" Kowalski asked, swinging his beam about the floor of the living room. It was pretty badly burnt, though the rest of the house had been spared thanks to the quick actions of the fire department.

A large, soot filled drop of water caught Vecchio square on the forearm and he quickly stepped back, swinging the incandescent beam to the still dripping ceiling--what was left of it. "Damn it," he muttered, regretting again that he hadn't stopped back home to change clothes after Kowalski picked him up at the airport. This was his best Armani coat! Well, not anymore. The explosion had taken care of that....

"Over there," he muttered, swinging his flashlight toward the west corner and finding the couch upon which the fire chief had said the body was found. There was a body shaped spot that had not been burnt or covered in soot so it was easy to see exactly where he'd been. There was also a large, blood stained whole punched in the middle of that outline. He'd definitely been shot and the bullet had gone right through him.

No need for a chalk drawing with this one, he thought sarcastically and moved over to it as Kowalski swung his light away and searched the general area of the room.

Vecchio glanced up from beside the couch and watched the younger man as he pointedly avoided the spot. "He's not here anymore Kowalski," he sighed and shook his head as he turned his attention back to the couch. "You think his ghost is gonna suddenly appear and strangle you or something?"

"Hardee-har-har," Kowalski rejoined. "Real funny Vecchio. We don't need to double up on each other. I'm gonna go check the bed room. See if I can't fine a personal phone book or something."

Vecchio was surprised he hadn't thought of that one himself but wouldn't admit it. Instead, he merely nodded and turned to concentrate on the immediate surroundings of where the body had been.

"Yeah, okay," he sighed wearily into his cell phone and rubbed the bridge of his nose where a headache was beginning to bloom. He heard Kowalski making his way through the living room and out onto the porch where he'd moved to get some fresh air after searching the living room. "Keep us posted," he told Frannie and closed the cell as the other man joined him.

"Who?" the other asked in short hand.

"Frannie," Ray answered, putting the phone back into the pocket of his coat. He wrinkled his nose and stood straighter. God, he reeked of smoke! He glanced back at Kowalski and tried to ignore the stench. "Mackenzie's in stable condition. Broken clavical, ten broken ribs," he rolled his eyes at the number, "and a mild concussion. Her neck and back are fine. They got her all sewn back up but they'll be keeping her a few days."

Kowalski nodded and sighed in relief before suddenly running his hand through his unruly blond hair. "Fraser's gonna kill us when he finds out how she was hurt."

"Hey!" Vecchio protested and lifted his hands in self-defense. "It wasn't my idea to let her tag along!"

"You really think you could have stopped her?"

"You didn't even try!"

"That's ‘cause I know better!" Kowalski brought himself up short and forced himself to take a deep, slow breath. Man, this guy had a talent for rubbing him wrong! He shoved his irritation aside. "What did you find? Anything?"

"Two dollars in loose change," the dark haired man answered with a mocking bite. "You?"

"Little black book and a notebook of some kind. Looks like maybe Stevie was involved in that little robbery at First Sierra Bank a couple of weeks ago."

"Stevie?" Vecchio echoed with a frown, remembering the guy as strictly small time muscle. He also had no way of knowing what robbery Kowalski was talking about.

"Looks that way," the other answered, paging through one of the small books and trying to read it by flashlight.

"Hey. Read it later," Ray suggested, shoving the small book downward and physically turning the man toward the car. "If you feel half as bad as you look, then you're about ready to collapse. I know I am. It's late. Time for bed. And don't argue with me about it!" he ordered firmly as Kowalski glared at him and started to open his mouth. "You're not operating on all eight cylinders here and neither am I. Right now the answer could leap out at us from behind that tree and we'd never see it."

"Speak for yourself Vecchio," Kowalski groused. "I never go to sleep before midnight."

"Well you're going to tonight or I'm going to complain to Thatcher real nice like and get her to team you up with Turnbull. What'd think of that?"

"You wouldn't--"

Ray merely shrugged and spread his arms wide in a patently false gesture of innocence. "Is it my fault you think working with a Mountie would be good for foreign relations?"
Ray bit his tongue only because he knew there were probably children sleeping in the neighboring houses. He offered the other man a very wide evil grin, silently promising to get even with him for this. Thatcher was just likely to want to run with the idea no matter what he said after Vecchio planted it in her little dictatorial mind.

"Okay, okay!" he gave in. "I'll drop you off and head home. You need a lift tomorrow?"

"My house is going to be unbearable tonight!" Vecchio shook his head. "I'll never get any sleep there. I'm inviting myself over. That way I can make sure you sleep."

Kowalski made another mocking face. "Yes mother," he rejoined. He spun to duck under the police tape surrounding the scene and lead the way back to his car.

"Mort?" Kowalski frowned in surprise as he followed Vecchio into the station the next morning and glanced up from the little black notebook he'd found at Stevie's.

The older man started slightly and turned where he sat patiently reading something beside Ray's desk. "Ray!" he exclaimed excitedly, standing to greet Kowalski with a warm handshake. "I've been waiting for you. I have those test results you wanted."

"Test results?" Vecchio echoed.

"I took a chance and gave him a call last night," the younger man answered curtly. "Mort, this is Ray Vecchio, the real Ray Vecchio. Vecchio, Mort. Dead guy specialist. Now, what ya got?"

"Well your shooter may not be a marksman but he does know his guns," the man answered and glanced down at his notes. "AR 7, made by Colt. Nice weapon. Fired a .22 short, subsonic round which is a good thing for your friend. A 30-06 or 7mm Remington would have killed him instantly. How's he doing anyway? Better?"

"Coma," Kowalski answered grimly. "No change."

"You said he knew weapons," Vecchio interrupted, moving the conversation quickly onward before it got too maudlin. "Why a .22 and why this one? Something special about it?"

"Oh yes--or, well, there would be for a sniper," he corrected himself. "They are quite common. Not hard to buy but very hard to trace. Very accurate too. What makes it nice is that it can be easily broken down and hidden in--I don't know--a brief case perhaps? A carpenter's box? That sort of thing. He assembles it, shoots, disassembles it and ‘poof' is gone in less than three minutes. Given a good silencer no one would even hear him."

"That fast?"

Mort shrugged. "Depending upon how long he took to aim, yes. Oh," he continued flipping through the folder he held. "I also have this. You were right. The man in the house last night was indeed Steven Douglas Carstairs. One shot to the heart, large caliber hand gun, close range, five feet maximum distance. He was sitting and the shooter was standing. They found the bullet buried in the sub-floor in the room behind him. For some reason it did not fragment but it's too distorted to hope for a match. Ballistics is still running the bullet they got out of Constable Fraser in their data base."

"That was fast," Vecchio was impressed. "You musta stayed here all night!"

"Fraser was my friend too," the other answered seriously.

"Is, Mort," Kowalski corrected him firmly. "Is. He ain't dead yet."

"Is, of course," Mort agreed quickly. "Sorry Ray. I didn't mean--"

Kowalski shook his head and waved the apology away. He knew it was only a slip of the tongue. It still irritated him but he shoved the emotion aside. He needed to think. "Got anything else?"

"Possibly," Mort answered. "He had quite a large sum of money in his pocket. It was a bit singed. I figured it might be from whomever paid him to deliver the message. I sent it down to forensics on the off chance there might be some prints they could lift."

"Good thinking!" Kowalski noted readily. "That just might give us the break we need!"

"Yeah, money don't hold prints real well," Vecchio muttered. "What about the rest of his stuff?"

"Not much there I'm afraid," Mort shook his head. "A little change, a set of keys, his wallet and his driver's licence. They're down in the lock up if you want to go see them?"

"Nah, the money's the best bet," Kowalski again shook his head. "Thanks Mort. I appreciate it."

"Yeah, me too. Thanks," Vecchio agreed, honestly appreciative of the fact that the man had worked most of the night on the case.

"You'll keep me appraised of how Fraser is doing, hmm?"

"Oh yeah," Kowalski agreed, making a mental note to add the man to his list of concerned friends. A lot of people had asked him the same thing but he put Mort up toward the top. "You put a fire under Forensics for us, right?"

"Already done," the older man assured them as he stood to leave. "You'll have the results by noon."

Kowalski nodded and turned his attention back to the notebook in his hand, absently reaching out with his foot to snag the chair Mort had vacated and straddling it.

Vecchio eyed the supposedly ‘organized' mess that was Kowalski's desk but forego any comment as he watched the other man's face.

"You find something?"

"Don't know," Kowalski frowned. "It's almost in code. All I got are the initials J.D. That mean anything to you?"

"J.D?" Vecchio frowned sharply.

Kowalski handed the small notebook up and watched as the other detective scanned the scribbled entry. Vecchio frowned and paged back a little ways, reading several pages before glancing up again. "This J.D. was apparently the gun man in that robbery. Sounds like Stevie got hungry. Who's handling that case?"

"Gross and Keeley I think," Kowalski answered, quickly scanning the bullpen and homing in on a tall man just leaving Welsh's office. "Hey David!" He jumped out of his chair and quickly made his way over to the other detective.

The other man glanced up from the folder he was scanning and frowned as Kowalski hurried over. "I'm kinda busy Ray."

"Yeah aren't we all," Kowalski sighed. "Look, I need to see everything you got on that gun man in the bank robbery last week."

"You got a cross over with the Mountie?" Gross asked and seemed to suddenly recognize the man behind him. "Ray? I thought you were in Florida knocking down pins in a bowling alley or something?"

"I got a sunburn," Vecchio replied curtly. "You gonna let us see what you got or do I go through Welsh?"

"Hold your horses Vecchio," the man rejoined with a frown. "You're not even officially a cop anymore." He turned pointedly to Kowalski and smiled. "What you got?"

Kowalski offered a lewd grin and sharp crack of his neck. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours?"

Gross offered a broad grin. "How do I know I want what you got?"

"I got the wheel man," Kowalski answered bluntly and waved the little black book under the other man's nose. He made a grab for it but Kowalski jerked it away. "Uh uh," he shook his head. Vecchio smiled as he watched the brash younger man taunting Gross. He could appreciate the other's style. "You first. I want the gun man."

The other detective nodded. "Okay, I'll give you what I got -- but we get part credit if you get him before we do."

"Natch!" Kowalski shrugged. Gross nodded and quickly lead them over to his desk on the other side of the bullpen.

As it turned out Gross and Keeley had very little. The perpetrators had all worn ski masks and heavy clothing, even gloves to conceal their hands. The eyewitness reports were useless and the surveillance tape was little better. The only thing Vecchio and Kowalski managed to learn was that the gun man spoke with an accent, but the witness hadn't said what kind. Gross and Keeley definitely got the better half of the bargain--'though David had been quite miffed to learn the wheel man Kowalski promised was dead.

"Now what?" Kowalski muttered under his breath as he watched the irritated man walk away.

"Wanta check with Thatcher?" Vecchio asked. "She should have something for us by now."

Kowalski nodded but his eyes were sweeping the bullpen again. "Where's Frannie?" he wondered aloud.

Vecchio glanced around. "Probably at the hospital."

"Nah, she said she'd be here this morning."

"And exactly when did she say this?" her brother asked suspiciously.

Kowalski glanced back at him with a guilty start.

"It wouldn't happen to have been around the same time as you spoke to Mort last night would it?" he asked putting a few pieces together. "When you were supposed to be sleeping?"

"Hey! I rested!" the other protested Vecchio's insinuation. "I told you I don't go to sleep before mid-night."

"What time did you call my sister?"

"Why don't you ask me?" Frannie's voice startled them both as she rounded Franklin's desk. "Of course I'd just tell you it's none of your bees knees so save your breath."

" 'Bees knees'?" her brother echoed in exasperation and automatically corrected her. "Bees wax! Frannie. Jeez! And what's with the coat?" He eyed the shapeless but classic business suit as if it might reach out and bite him! What had happened to the skin tight mid-drifts and leather skirts she was always skipping around the place with? The hair he understood. The shorter style actually looked good on her, but the clothes--

"What's 'bees wax' gotta do with anything!" she snapped. "Listen! Bizz-ness. Bees-knees. Get it? God! And as for the 'jacket'," she corrected him, "you've never heard of fashion?"

"It's summer Frannie!" he exclaimed. "You'll roast!"

She merely glared at him and turned to Kowalski, ignoring his words as she held up a folder. "Anyway," she addressed the other man, "I got what you wanted."

"Great!" The blond detective reached for the file but Francesca pulled it away.

"Uh--uh--uh, not so fast," she told them. "I've been up all night working on this thing and I went all the way back to when Fraser first came to Chicago looking for Drake. Where are your manners?"

Vecchio frowned, about to say something off-color when Kowalski looked down at his feet and surprised the hell out of him by saying, "Thank you KINDLY Frannie for all your hard work. May I please have the file now?"

Vecchio's eye brows nearly disappeared into his hairline.

"After you tell me what ya got so far."

Kowalski looked up with a frown of frustration. "Frannie!"

Vecchio made a surprise grab for the file but she was faster and jerked it out of his reach too.

"Cool it Ray," Francesca snapped. "I've been busting my butt, not to mention crying puddles all over the place since Fraser was shot. Now I want in on it, even if it's only a little bit. I've got this all memorized." She claimed, shaking the file under his nose and again jerking it beyond reach. "Tell me what you got and I'll tell you who in this list matches."

Ray offered her one of his cold, mocking smiles as he shook his head but once again Kowalski surprised him by giving in.

"Deal," the other man offered. "He's a bank robber, he likes guns and his initials are J.D. Mean anything?"

Something about the way Kowalski said that suddenly clicked with Ray and he frowned sharply, trying to dig the information out of the fog at the edges of his memory. Robbers, guns, J.D.-- Robbers, guns, J.D.--

Francesca bit her lip for a long moment and suddenly got a look of excitement on her face.

She and Ray spoke at the same time. "James Donnelly!"

Kowalski frowned.

"It fits! It fits!" Ray exclaimed, obviously excited. "He and his brother were major independents down on the east side for a time. There were two rules down there then: Never steal from the mob--and don't cross the Donnellys!"

"Donnellys..." Kowalski repeated, reviewing Vecchio's files in his head. "The Santa robbery?" he finally got it. "The bag man double crossed them..."

"And then just about blew up the warehouse district!" Vecchio confirmed. "It's him! It's gotta be him."

"The bag man?"

"No, Donnelly!" Ray corrected in exasperation. "Aren't you listening? Frannie what's the status on Cameron Donnelly? He die recently or something?"

Frannie frowned down at her file and quickly found what she was looking for. "Cameron Donnelly... Deceased, died in a prison riot at Joliette about two months ago. This says his brother's still there."

"Nah, can't be," Vecchio frowned. "It fits too perfectly. How old is the information?"

Francesca glanced at the top of the sheet. "A little over a month," she answered and glanced up again. "Hang on a second and I'll run him," she offered and quickly turned to begin pounding rapidly on the nearest keyboard.

Ray watched her with a surprised look on his face. "Looks like you finally learned how to run this thing."

"I've been doing it for over a year now," she rejoined with an irritated frown, never glancing away from the screen. "Kinda hard not to learn. Okay," she sighed as the information she wanted came up, and then stepped back with a satisfied smile. "Released on Parole two weeks ago."

"It's him!" Kowalski decided. "It's gotta be him! Let's go pick him up. Where's he at Frannie?"

Eight hours later James Donnelly smiled at the two detectives as he left the interrogation room, free to go by a Writ of Habeas Corpus. His lawyer had taken them to task over the lack of evidence and gotten a judge to declare it all circumstantial. Even after they got the results of the hair sample from the apartment, the DNA testing wouldn't hold up in court because Donnelly made no attempt to hide the fact that he'd been there--earlier in the week. He'd been looking to rent it but decided not to. And the landlord could confirm this. The fact that Donnelly was the right height and weight to be the shooter was merely coincidental! He had an alibi for the time of the shooting, claiming to have been with his girl friend and she'd very quickly provided a sworn deposition to this fact.

Given his history, they'd been able to get a search warrant for his apartment but they'd found nothing. Vecchio had even thought to impound his dirty clothes, hoping to discover blow back from at least one of the gun shots, but the test had turned out negative. So had the hoped for finger print tests on the money found in Stevie's pockets, though the serial numbers did prove to be from the robbery. But without the finger prints, Gross and Keeley didn't have enough to tie Donnelly to the bank robbery either. The eyewitness, or ‘earwitness' as the case might be, wasn't deemed sufficient. All they were left with was Stevie's notebook and it's vague reference to J.D.

It wasn't enough.

Both Kowalski and Vecchio knew Donnelly was their man, but they didn't have enough to hold him!

"Be seeing you Vecchio," Donnelly quipped, pointed his finger at the other man and clicked his tongue.

Taken as a casual move, it meant nothing but Ray knew it wasn't a casual move at all. They all knew it. Donnelly was warning him that he was next.

Vecchio offered the man an evil grin, daring him to take his best shot, but Donnelly was already out the door before Ray could offer a quick come back.

"I want a man on him twenty-four hours a day!" Welsh declared firmly. Gross and Keeley both nodded. "Pull in extra men for it. Kowalski, Vecchio--dig deeper. I want this guy!"

Both Rays nodded grimly. A simple glance confirmed and cemented their partnership for the duration. Any and all discord was shoved aside like yesterday's news. Donnelly wasn't going to get away with this.

"And Ray?" Welsh called as they all started to leave. Both men turned expectantly. "Ah, not that again. Stanley," the lieutenant corrected himself--

Kowalski interrupted him. "Not Stanley," he said firmly and glanced at Vecchio for support. "Sir. Just--call me Kowalski but--not Stanley. Okay?"

Welsh shrugged. He normally called his men by their last names so it was nothing to him. "Whatever--I want to talk to you a minute." He glanced significantly at Vecchio and added, "in private."

Vecchio hated being shut out like that, especially when he had the sneaking suspicion that whatever the lieutenant had to say was in regards to himself, but he also knew better then to argue about. He didn't need Welsh to remember he had absolutely no jurisdiction as a police officer at the moment. He merely nodded and left the men alone, turning to seek out Frannie. It was time that he did something about getting his badge back anyway. He didn't like busting his butt and not getting paid for it!

"Ray!" someone called out and Vecchio turned from talking with his sister. Kowalski was still in with Welsh, so the speaker had to mean him. Paul Keeley held up his phone. "Inspector Thatcher with the Canadian Consulate. She wants to talk with you ASAP!"

Vecchio cringed and rolled his eyes knowing they'd forgotten to contact Thatcher and her people about Donnelly. She was going to have him for lunch!

He made his way over to Gross and Keeley's desk and took the receiver from the younger man even as he tried to brace himself for what he knew was coming.

"Vecchio!" he answered smartly. He'd try the 'too busy to call' excuse first.

"I was expecting you some time ago Detective," she offered coolly. "I thought you and Kowalski were anxious for that list. By the way, I think I've found a possible match for you."

"James Donnelly?" Ray suggested, knowing the two brothers would have turned up on her search, but didn't give her time to answer. "Already working on it. Pulled him in this morning but the D.A. let him go for lack of evidence. We've been kinda busy here. You're people got anything solid we don't know about?"

"If you bothered to coordinate with them like you're supposed to, you'd know that Detective!" she answered repressively. "And I don't see how he could have been released for lack of evidence. Aren't your people performing a DNA test of the hair found at the scene?"

"He apparently thought about renting the apartment a week ago and the landlord confirms it," Vecchio sighed, hating having to go back over it again with her, and hating her attitude even more. "No way to date when the hair got there. He also has an alibi for the time of the shooting. A girl friend. We'll be checking that one out as soon as Kowalski gets done with the Lieutenant."

"The fit of this one is too perfect, Detective," Thatcher offered and Vecchio could hear her pensive frown over the phone. "The girlfriend has to be lying."

"We know," he sighed and shifted his weight impatiently. "We got someone on him twenty-four/seven and the girl is our next stop. We need to get to her quick though. If he killed Stevie, he could do the same with her. You got anything else for me or can I get back to work now?"

" 'Killed Stevie?'" she echoed, obviously put out over another bit of information that he and Kowalski had failed to report. He winced. "That's it Detective. I want one of my men working this with--"

"He did what?!" Vecchio interrupted sharply. "Sorry Inspector. Gotta go!" and Ray quickly hung up before she could order them to pick up one of her people. He glanced up with a sigh and immediately tensed again as he saw two suits enter the bullpen.

FBI. Damn it!

He quickly spun for Welsh's office and was relieved to see Kowalski coming toward him. Vecchio offered a frantic gesture to hurry it up and spun for the exit before Welsh could stop them. They'd be here all night if they didn't make their escape now!

"Jeez," Kowalski exclaimed as he slid into the driver's seat, "you move fast when you want to. Was that the Feds I spotted coming in?"

"Well I don't know any lawyers who pack a shoulder holster under their suits," Vecchio answered. "What did Welsh want?"

"He want's you wearing a vest."

"What? ‘Cause a Donnelly pointing his finger at me?" He rolled his eyes in disgust. "I hate those things!"

"You'd hate being dead a lot worse," Kowalski answered curtly.

"Well we're not going back to the station to get one now, are we? Those Feds'll latch onto us like leeches!"

Kowalski shook his head. "Don't need to. Got one in the trunk. You're not much bigger then I am. Should fit okay."

"You own your own bullet proof vest?" Vecchio asked, surprised.

Kowalski shrugged. "I worked undercover at a station once that had exactly one and it was way too big. After I saw a friend get gunned down, I swore I'd never go undercover without one again."

"You mean this ain't the first time you've covered for another cop like me?"

"Nah, not like that. The station was dirty. I got sent in to get the goods."

Vecchio whistled. "Nasty. Where was it?"

"Can't say," he answered with a short jerk of his head. "Gag order."
Vecchio was tempted but didn't push it. He wasn't planning on leaving the 27th anyway. "So what else did Welsh have to say?"

"Just wanted to make sure you were doing okay. You know the mandatory retirement stuff and what not. Doesn't want ya pushing yourself too hard and winding back up in the hospital along side Fraser."

"And you told him?"

Kowalski shrugged. "I'd keep an eye on you."

Vecchio laughed. "Right! You keep an eye on me? That's a good one!"

"So you still gonna fight this thing?" He glanced in the review mirror and quickly changed to the faster lane. "I mean you were retired and all at full pay. You can pretty much write your own ticket. You sure you want back in the rat race?"

"You have any idea how much thirty-seven thousand dollars a year is going to be worth in twenty years?" Vecchio shook his head. "I'd be lucky not to be on food stamps! And if I accept the ‘full-disability' clause, I can't ever do anything physical again. There are a number of cases pending right now because of that sort of thing. The government calls it 'fraud'. No thank you. I'll play hard ball with the dirt bags I know I can beat."

Kowalski snapped his neck sharply to the right and forced himself to ask the real question that had been nagging him for the past twenty-four hours. "So, Stella cool with all this? Or you not asked her yet," he offered as non-chalantly as he could, telling himself he really didn't care what Stella thought. As long as she was happy that was all that mattered.

"Stella?" Vecchio echoed in confusion and then got a wide grin on his face. "You mean you thought...? Frannie told you...?" And he was suddenly doubled over, practically rolling on the seat with laughter.

Kowalski spared a glance from the roadway to make sure Vecchio wasn't going to hurt himself or something. It definitely wasn't the kind of reaction he was expecting. He felt the intense knot he'd been carrying around in his gut since learning about Stella and Vecchio loosen slightly.

"Are you saying the two of you didn't get hitched and fly down to Florida to open a bowling alley?"

The question merely sent Vecchio off again. It was a long minute before he straightened and wiped at the tears of mirth in his eyes. "God I needed that!" he exclaimed.

"Glad to help," Kowalski offered irritably, "now you want to explain what that was all about or do I drop you off at the nearest funny farm?"

"Frannie was driving me nuts," Vecchio explained, "and your mom was doing the same with Stella. That and her boss was getting ideas. I think she filed charges, or threatened too. I'll have to ask her. Anyway, we both decided we needed a vacation so we concocted that entire stupid scenario in Welsh's office, and I can't believe anyone bought it! Let alone you!" And he was off again in another spurt of hilarity.

That knot in Kowalski's gut came completely undone and he told himself it was stupid that he'd allowed himself to get that worked up over it anyway. After all, it wasn't like he was interested in his ex any more anyway! She'd made it abundantly clear she had bigger game to chase down: Namely her career.

"God!" Vecchio sighed. "You know I don't even remember half the things we said that day. We only joked about doing it after we met and realized who--you know, everything bout you being me and her being your ex and all. I was in a lot of pain and with the pain medication I was on I shouldn't have been drinking in the first place, but I was and so was she. One thing lead to another... I remember making some really sappy remarks and her too. God it was fun watching Frannie's face!"

"I'll just bet it was," Kowalski muttered and cleared his throat. He wanted to get this all cleared up and out in the open now. "So now you're saying there's never been anything between you and Stella, then or now? You both went down to Florida together and had absolutely nothing to do with each other after that?"

"Of course we did!" Vecchio answered without thinking. "Stella's great! We had a couple of dinners and stuff..." He seemed to suddenly remember who he was talking to. "Nothing else you understand. I mean, we're great friends and everything but that's all. You understand that, right?"

"None of my business anyway," Kowalski returned smoothly with a shrug. The funny thing was, he believed Vecchio! Stella was obsessed with her career and, knowing Vecchio's family, he couldn't see the dynamic Italian setting for second fiddle and no kids, any more than he'd been able too.

"Well, I know she's your ex and all," Vecchio offered. "You're not holding a torch for her or anything are you?"

"Me?" Ray answered, shoving memories of happy times brutally aside. "Nah. I know when to cut my loses."

"Good. Good," Vecchio nodded and frowned at the street in front of them. "Where're we going anyway?"

"Hell if I know," Kowalski admitted, forcing himself to take note of their location. They were half way to the west side! "Get on the horn to Frannie and see what she can dig up on this girlfriend of Donnelly's. ‘Think we need to check in with Thatcher? She's gonna nail us to the wall for not talking to her sooner."

Vecchio smiled again. "She called while you were in with Welsh and threatened to team us up with one of the CSIS guys. I hung up before she could make it an order so we need to steer clear of the Consulate for a while. I'll have Frannie keep her posted until she cools off." He reached over and activated the call button to the police radio.

"Seventeen five. Seventeen seven... Should be the second one here on the right," Vecchio warned him. Kowalski quickly pulled over to the curb, frowning at the quaint little box of a house. How had Donnelly found himself a girlfriend on the west side? His apartment was on the far east side of town and he worked only three blocks away from it.

"I don't like this..." Kowalski muttered under his breath.

"Frannie!?" Vecchio called into the pick up clipped to the visor. "Where's Donnelly supposed to be right now?"

"He's eating dinner at Pat's Italian Bistro with his lawyer."

The two men exchanged glances and shrugged.

"Okay, we're going in," Ray told his sister. "Send back up if you don't hear from one of us in ten minutes."

"Got it," Frannie answered crisply. "Be careful!"

Kowalski smiled at the unnecessary warning and quickly slipped out his door. The two detectives quickly scanned the area and surrounding houses, but all was quiet and normal. Too quiet.

"I really don't like this," Kowalski murmured.

"Will you stop saying that! You're being paranoid. Jeez!" Vecchio hissed and followed the man quickly up the path to the front door.

"Hey, I listen to my instincts and right now their busy remembering Stevie's place and the fact that you're not wearing a vest! Welsh'll have my head if anything happens to you."

"I'm not gonna take the time to put it on now and nothing's gonna happen. Will ya just knock already?!" Vecchio rolled his eyes even as he pulled his gun and held it low, taking up position next to the far right of the small porch.

Kowalski frowned and leaned close to the door first, listening. He could hear a TV but it masked any other movement. Maybe Vecchio was right and he was being paranoid. Something just didn't feel right.

He knocked. After a moment the TV was shut off and a woman's voice called through the door. "Just a minute!"

The two detectives exchanged glances, simply happy not to have a repeat performance of the Stevie incident.

The door opened and a young woman with short brown hair and dark grey eyes looked up at them. She offered a weak smile but it was obvious she'd been crying.

"Miss Waters?" Kowalski asked gently, taking the lead while Vecchio glanced around the neighborhood again.


He flashed his ID. "Detectives Kowalski and Vecchio ma'am. We'd like to ask you a few questions?" He offered a charming, if patently insincere, smile.

She suddenly became very tense and nervous. "Do you have a warrant?" she asked in a monotone.

"We're hoping we don't have to go that route, Miss Waters--"

"I've been advised not to speak to the police unless they have a warrant," she answered curtly, looking through the two men. It was clear she was offering a rehearsed speech. "I've already given a sworn affidavit concerning Mr. Donnelly. If you do not leave at once I will press charges of harassment. Good-day."

She moved to close the door but Kowalski got his foot in the way. "Oops!" he offered. "Sorry. Look, ah, Miss Waters? We --"

Vecchio's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Where's your daughter Miss Waters?" the other man asked with a worried frown.

The woman paled and swallowed convulsively. "My--" She chocked and had to clear her throat sharply. "She's spending the night with a friend," she answered nervously. "Why?"

"No reason," Vecchio answered innocently. "I just noticed the toys in the yard. My niece has been wanting a bike like that. Can you tell me where to get one?"

"Sears, Detective," she answered repressively and shoved Kowalski's foot out of the way. "If you'll excuse me please?"

After a confused glance at Vecchio, Kowalski allowed the woman to close the door.
"He's got the kid?" Kowalski surmised just above a whisper.

Vecchio nodded grimly and quickly lead the way back to the car.

"Damn!" Kowalski cursed softly and followed on the other man's heels. There was no way they were going to get that woman to change her story as long as Donnelly had her kid.

He slid behind the driver's seat again but didn't immediately start the engine. He turned to the older man instead. "Why didn't you press her. Donnelly could kill the kid just out of spite!"

Vecchio closed his eyes and shook his head. "She wasn't alone," he answered. "Someone was listening."

"How did you know that?"

Vecchio shrugged. "I just know, okay?" he frowned but didn't open his eyes.

"I was afraid for a second you were gonna tell me ya smelled him or something!" Kowalski quipped in return and finally turned back forward to start the car. "What now?"

"We stake out the place and get a bug in that house."

"Gotta get a warrant for that," Kowalski offered. "How you gonna manage that?"

"I'm not going to," Vecchio answered with a smile. "Stella is."

"Here you go," Stella Kowalski growled as she handed the official document over and frowned at Vecchio. "You owe me big time for this one! I could be brought up on charges for even presenting such flimsy arguments! You're lucky Judge Powell is so easily distracted."

Vecchio looked down again and offered a suggestive smile as she ran a nervous hand down the mega short skirt she'd worn to see the man. "Hey," he offered smoothly, "those legs would distract any man."

Stella offered him a glare but it quickly changed to self-mocking humor as she caught the twinkle in his eye. Kowalski, standing off to one side, felt his stomach tighten into a knot again. Damn but the man was good!

Stella suppressed the urge to smile and frowned harder instead as she caught Ray's look. "What are you grinning at," she demanded abruptly.

"Me?" Kowalski offered innocently. "Nothing. Just--happy I guess."

"Yeah right!" she groused and glared at him before turning back to Vecchio. He still wore that super suave smile of his--which for some reason seemed to make Stella want to laugh! "Stop it!" she ordered him irritably.

Vecchio offered a look of surprised innocence. "What?"

"You know what," she snapped and quickly changed the subject. "That thing's only good for twenty-four hours. Even fast talking myself around that horny little..." she censored herself with great effort and continued after an angry pause, "...I couldn't get any more than that. I suggest you two get to work."

"I really appreciate it Stella," Vecchio offered and tried to kiss her hand.

She realized his intent and snatched it away at the last instant.

"Damn it Vecchio!" she hissed and glanced self-consciously around the room. "I told you to stop it!"

He smiled broadly and shrugged his shoulders. "You still haven't told me what to stop?"

"Ooooh!" Stella growled and turned to glare at Kowalski again. "Not one word!" she ordered, shaking a finger in his face.

"Me?" Kowalski managed to effect the same kind of innocent facade Vecchio had put to such good use.

Stella muttered something under her breath and spun on her heel to march quickly out of the station, ignoring the snickers that erupted behind her as she rounded the far corner.

"I can't believe you managed to do that," Kowalski offered when he knew his ex was beyond hearing him.

"Do what?" Vecchio offered, grinning down at the papers he held in his hand. "All I did was smile at her."

"Sure ya did!" Kowalski offered, suppressing another urge to laugh. The man had played her like a master--but he felt no sense of jealousy. He knew perfectly well that Stella would never allow herself to fall for any man who could manipulate her that way.

Not that he cared!

He shoved the thought from mind and quickly followed Vecchio into Welsh's office, glancing around again to make sure the FBI guys weren't about to show up again. Frannie had said they were busy 'coordinating' with Thatcher and the CSIS guys over at the Consulate.

That gave him and Vecchio a little breathing room, for a few hours at least. And they had better put it to good use.

"Shh Shhh SHHH!" Vecchio shushed Kowalski before he could even open his mouth. The Italian detective frowned fiercely and closed his eyes in concentration as he listened.

Kowalski was at a loss. The man in the house was placing a call to whomever was holding Ms. Water's daughter for Donnelly but he hadn't connected yet.

Vecchio suddenly turned down the gain on the receiver for the bug they'd managed to sneak inside via a 'pizza delivery boy' and yanked out his cell phone. With his eyes closed, and still frowning in concentration, he began to dial.

"No damn it!" he cursed himself and opened his eyes to glare at the phone. Wrong number. He quickly dialed again and this time got what he was looking for.

"555-0402," he repeated, reading the number he'd just dialed. "555-0402. Frannie! You there?"

"Yeah I'm here," she snapped over the radio. "Where else am I gonna be? 'Got something?"

"Give me a reverse listing for a phone number: 555-0402. Got it?"

She repeated the number and went to work.

"You heard that?" Kowalski asked rhetorically. "You sure you're not Fraser in disguise or something?"

"Someone's gotta play his part here," Vecchio frowned. "Just be glad it wasn't a cell phone number. I don't think I could remember how to triangulate in on one of those things."

He reached forward and turned the gain back up. They listened uncomfortably as mom and daughter were allowed to exchange a few words before the line disconnected.

"Damn that Donnelly," Kowalski hissed angrily.

Vecchio merely nodded silent agreement. Both men had a particularly dark spot in their thoughts when it came to anyone who messed with kids. The girl didn't sound like she was much more than five or six!

Technically, they had more than enough evidence from the tape to nail Donnelly for both the shooting of Fraser and kidnaping. The real problem was that their warrant to bug the house in the first place was too flimsy to hold up in court and they knew the tape would likely be thrown out. They had to get Ms. Water's testimony, and maybe break a couple of the guys working with Donnelly, if they were gonna be able to make the charges stick.

That meant saving the kid--then Ms. Waters.

"Got it," Frannie came back on line and quickly rattled off an address. "That's in the apartment next to his, guys," she continued. "Supposed to be a Mr. Johnson lives there. Gross and Keeley are there now."

"Tell ‘em we're on our way Frannie," Vecchio offered. "Have one of ‘em meet us at the alley around the block."

"You want extra back up?"

"Not yet," Vecchio decided. "Don't want to spook them. Donnelly's a vicious sociopath. He'll order them both killed the second he even thinks we're on to him."

"What'd you want us to do?" Huey's voice came over the line from where he and Dewy were watching the back door of Ms. Water's house.

"Keep listening and get ready to do a violent entry--but not before we've got the kid!"

He offered Kowalski a nod and the other man quickly started the car, taking them to the east side of town and a rendezvous with the darkest part of Chicago.

David Gross frowned darkly into the twilight as a light blue, Ford sedan pulled into the alleyway and cut it's motor.

"You'll get a ticket parking there," he quipped as the two detectives joined him in the shadows.

Kowalski offered a sarcastic sneer which said everything he felt about that particular danger. "What ya got?" he asked instead.

"Donnelly went up alone about two hours ago," the older man answered. "Ain't recognized anyone else coming and going, but we got their pictures. Light came on in the apartment just north of his about five minutes after we got your call. Saw someone walk by the window but other than that, it's been quiet. No sign of a six year old girl. You sure he's got her stashed here?"

"She's there," Vecchio answered grimly. "We heard her talking to her mother."

"Okay," the other man nodded. "Have you managed to get a warrant yet?"

Kowalski's cell phone rang interrupting them. After a moment, he slapped it shut again and nodded curtly. "We have a warrant."

A very flimsy warrant, but still a warrant.

"The feds'll hear about this in short order so we gotta move fast," Vecchio thought aloud. Kidnaping was a federal offense and they'd barge in here so fast and mess things up so bad... Vecchio had yet to meet a fed who was even competent in his job. Even his handlers when he went undercover had come close to blowing things more times then he was comfortable thinking about. He wasn't gonna let them mess this one up! "Okay," he sighed, "this is how we do it..."

Kowalski quickly slipped his glasses on as he and Vecchio waited in the stairwell for Gross and Keeley to appear. They weren't at all sure Donnelly didn't have someone on another floor watching for police, so they were doing this real quiet like, hoping to avoid detection. So far, so good.

Gross and Keeley appeared at the bottom of the stair and the two pairs nodded at each other. Kowalski keyed his walkie talkie. "Moving to the door now," he whispered into it. There were two more teams in position. One at the top of the fire escape another at the bottom. Huey and Dewy were also listening in, and making sure no phone calls got out to the house, ready to act swiftly if they even heard the phone ring. None of these guys were going anywhere but straight to prison.

Kowalski stuck his head out and quickly scanned the hallway. Then all four moved quickly and quietly into position. Kowalski and Vecchio took one door, while Gross and Keeley took the other. Because of the danger to the little girl, there would be no knock and demand. On a silent count of three, Gross and Vecchio both kicked their doors in and all hell broke loose.

"Police! Hands in the air! Don't move!"

Bang! CRASH!

Donnelly spun toward them--

"I said don't--"


Vecchio felt himself slammed against the wall before he even registered that Donnelly was holding a gun. Damn but it was a big, ugly thing he thought as he slowly slid down the wall. Kowalski had fired in the very next instant but Vecchio didn't see whether he'd hit the grinning Irishman or not as oblivion overwhelmed him.

Kowalski quickly stepped forward to cover the guy on the floor Vecchio had shot. He was writhing in pain, but unlike Donnelly, was still very much alive and reaching for his gun.

"Come on!" he hissed at the guy. "Give me an excuse! Give me an excuse!"

The guy was smart enough to cease his efforts and lay still as Kowalski kicked his gun beyond reach.

The entire thing happened very quickly. It probably took less than ten seconds to sort itself out. Kowalski listened to the fight next door for a second as he knelt anxiously beside Vecchio, still covering the henchmen. It too ended moments later and he could hear a young girl screaming. The sound reassured him, rather then worried him.

"Frannie!" he spoke urgently into the walkie-talkie, "get me an ambulance! Officer down, repeat, officer down!"

Kowalski hated hospitals: The smell, the quiet, the beeps and buzzes. It all gave him the creeps. But this was where his friends were, both of ‘em. Well, three if you included Maggie. Somehow the fact that he’d escaped the back lash of the last case struck him as ironic. Of course, it would have been more ironic if he’d wound up in bed too!

He shook his head and frowned down on Fraser’s quiet face. It looked like he was sleeping, but then that’s kinda what a coma was he told himself. A deep sleep. Too deep. It made him want to shake the guy and force him to wake up, but he knew that wouldn’t work.

“Hey buddy,” he offered quietly. He had no idea if his friend could hear him or not, but the nurses claimed that it sometimes helped. “It’s me, Ray. Sorry I didn’t stop by sooner. Me and Vecchio have been busy hunting down the guy that shot you.”

His mind flashed back to the scene outside the Consulate and he had to shove it away. He’d been terrified when he’d seen Fraser that way that his friend was already dead. He wasn’t, but Kowalski wasn’t sure that the idea of him maybe never waking up again was all that much better.

Of course there was still the possibility that he would wake up and Kowalski clung to that hope tenaciously.

It had been six days since Fraser was shot and they’d finally taken him off the respirator--but he was still in a coma. All the doctors would say was to not lose hope. Comas were crazy things that no one really understood. They could last for hours, days, months or even years. The patient could wake up after a year and be perfectly normal, or be under only a day and be a vegetable for the rest of his life. There was simply no telling at this point what would happen with Ben.

Patience had never been one of Kowalski’s strong suits.

“We got him,” he added, breaking the silence that had fallen. There was no sign that Benny heard him but he needed--

Benny? Had he actually just thought that? He smiled to himself, finally understanding why Vecchio might call him that. It somehow fit.

“We got him,” he repeated. “The shooter I mean. James Donnelly. Remember him?”

It was hard to talk to someone like this. Kowalski dropped his eyes from that lifeless face, took in the bare shoulders and large white dressing that covered his entire chest. There were electrodes and tubes and wires spilling over the sheets and disappearing underneath. Two IV bags and lots of monitors, all flashing various incomprehensible messages, but at least they were silent.

Kowalski sighed and took the hand nearest him, ignoring the clothe bed restraints that wrapped his friend’s wrist.

Ray debated telling him about his sister and Vecchio. He was a little worried that if Ben could hear him, the knowledge of their injuries might upset him. They were both stuck on the next floor down and he figured Maggie had already been up to see Ben. She was supposed to be released today. Vecchio would undoubtedly be up as soon as the docs let him outta bed. Probably before, knowing him. The bullet proof vest may have saved his life but he hadn’t gotten off lightly. Nothing stopped a fifty-eight grain bullet traveling at twenty-five hundred feet per second dead cold. Ray had been lucky the vest stopped the thing at all! As it was, he’d suffered five broken ribs, a collapsed lung and massive internal bruising.

He was going to be here a while too.

Kowalski sighed. “Frannie’s worried about you,” he offered. That was an understatement! “So’s everyone else--”

The hand he held suddenly jerked and he glanced up to see Ben’s blue eyes blink in confusion.

“Fraser?” Kowalski breathed, almost afraid to believe his friend was actually waking up. Those eyes blinked again and frowned at him for a long moment before he saw a tired light of recognition dawn within them. The hand he held turned and gripped his firmly. “Thank God!” Kowalski offered in a whisper even as he frantically stabbed at the nurses’ call button and grinned ridiculously down at his friend.

“Welcome back Benny!” he told him, unconsciously using Vecchio’s name for him. “Welcome back!”

The end...

Continued in RSS#2: Silent Red Serge