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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.

due SOUTH:
Dancing on the Razor's Edge

By: Janice R. Sager
E-Mail Me

It was a sound that first intruded on the sweet oblivion which enfolded her mind: a soft hum that refused to fit into the fractured puzzle of vague nightmare that danced at the edges of sleep. Her mind resisted acknowledging it, shying away from consciousness and... whatever it might hold: fear, pain, some unknown horror she didn't want to know or understand. Sleep was safe, a welcome escape from...

Fear teased her heartbeat faster, shredding the shroud of sleep she desperately sought to wrap about herself again. Her dreams became disjointed, vague meanderings, shadowy nightmares of barely glimpsed memories she fought to escape. Waking meant confronting...


Faces flitted through her mind, voices laughing and taunting. A memory of pain and terror--

She turned her head on the pillow and reality intruded further. It wasn't her pillow, wasn't her bed. Fear raised its ugly head again. Nightmare and reality fused as her arms twitched, struggling against remembered bonds, the cold metal of the handcuffs biting into her flesh as--

No! Sleep! She had to sleep. It wasn't real. It was just a nightmare. As long as she slept, it was only a nightmare!

Ben turned from the window as Francesca stirred. It had been three days since her surgery; three days since Muldoon and his men had kidnapped and brutalized her, using her as an innocent pawn in a sick game of revenge; three days since she'd lost her unborn child and nearly died as Ben watched the paramedics struggle to save her life.

She'd been heavily sedated for the first two days as her doctors sought to give both her body and mind a chance to heal. Someone had been with her the entire time, even so. Physically, she was doing well, or as well as could be expected having been beaten and viciously gang raped. The bruises were slowly making their way through the more colorful stages of healing, red to blue to green to yellow. The swelling around her left eye and lip was almost gone. He knew she'd suffered a concussion and broken ribs as well.

And a hysterectomy. He bowed his head as he stood beside her sleeping form. That was perhaps Muldoon's greatest crime, not only killing Francesca's unborn child but stealing her future children as well. Being a man, Ben didn't pretend to understand what such a loss might mean to the small woman in the hospital bed before him; but he knew it would be devastating. He also knew Francesca would recover. Her brother was wrong to think that this would destroy her. Change her, yes, but not destroy her.

Her mother had told him that she'd woken briefly this morning, but she hadn't recognized Ma. The older woman had stayed at her daughter's side all day. The doctor felt it best, given the traumatic nature of Francesca's assault, if someone she knew was with her in case she woke. Maria had come in for a short time after Tony got home from work, but it was only after Ben arrived that he and her eldest daughter had been able to convince Ma to go home and get some rest.

Actually, they'd insisted that Ray needed her. He'd been released from hospital yesterday and was heavily medicated. The piece of shrapnel which had caught him in the back of his thigh had been easily removed but the damage to the muscles would take more than two days to heal. It was quite painful for him to sit or stand for any length of time, and the medication he was on impaired his ability to use the crutches he'd been given. According to his mother, Ray had managed to stay with his sister for a couple of hours yesterday, and spent the rest of the day in bed because of it. Getting Ma to go home to him had been fairly easy. Ben knew that Tony and Maria would take care of Ray and make sure Ma got the rest she needed before allowing her to return to the hospital tomorrow morning. It was a routine that the family had been through before, but now they had Ben and Kowalski to help. The two men were taking turns with the night shift; Ben, 9 pm to 2 am, and Kowalski, 2 am to 8 am. Ma and Maria relieved him after dropping the kids off at school. Both Lieutenant Welsh and Inspector Mitchell were aware of the arrangement and made no comment if the men were a little late to work. At least not yet.

Ben's tongue swept his bottom lip as he regarded Francesca pensively, watching her toss her head as a frown graced her bruised and battered face, but her eyes remained closed. He wasn't sure if she were waking or just suffering through a nightmare. He reached out and gently took her hand in his, hoping to calm her. "Francesca?" he called her softly. She turned her head toward him in answer and opened dazed, unfocused eyes--

He was lunging at her, laughing as she struggled beneath his weight. Oh god, no! No! Not again!

Ben was taken completely by surprise as Francesca screamed and swung at him, ripping the IV from her arm as she did. She literally threw herself from the bed in a blind panic, climbing over the safety bar before he could even think to stop her. The monitors attached to her suddenly came to life, sounding the alarm as they were torn free, the high pitched demands easily overpowered by Francesca's screams. She collapsed, but her cries were of terror not pain as she stared at Ben, scooting herself backward across the bare tile floor away from him until she ran up against the wall and could go no further.

"What's going on in--" Several nurses and the on-call doctor appeared at the same time.

Francesca transferred her gaze to the doctor as he approached her and screamed again, tears streaming down her face as she slid along the wall seeking any escape possible. The doctor froze and glanced at Ben.

"She woke, saw me and panicked. Some kind of flashback I think," he explained.

The doctor nodded and turned back to his patient who was now huddled in the corner in a tight sobbing ball of fear and anguish. He glanced at one of the nurses. "Get me some Ketamine and Midazolam standing by and call Dr. Davidson. She's probably torn stitches." He turned back to Francesca and squatted where he was, making no attempt to approach her. "Miss Vecchio?" he tried talking to her first. "Miss Vecchio, can you hear me? I'm Dr. Kennedy. I want to help you."

At least she'd stopped screaming and now lifted a tear-streaked face to stare around her in confusion and fear. Her gaze collided with Ben's. "You!" she whispered in apparent recognition even as she continued to stare at him in terror.

"Miss Vecchio?" the doctor tried again, daring to move closer. "Miss Vecchio, can you hear me?"

Her eyes darted to him and she cringed back into the corner.

"It's all right, Miss Vecchio," he spoke clearly, calmly. "You're in a hospital. I'm a doctor. I want to help you. Do you understand me?"

Her eyes darted back to Ben in confusion and question.

"Francesca?" he asked, not sure if she actually saw him or not.

She continued to stare at him as her hands moved to her lower abdomen and she shook her head. "You--I--I shouldn't have--They--said it was a boy..." she whispered harshly. "They--they killed your son..." In the next moment, her eyes rolled back and she was sliding sideways to lay in a limp heap against the wall.

"Your son?" the doctor echoed even as he moved forward to kneel at Francesca's side.

"I wasn't the father," Fraser answered, standing aside as a nurse hurried forward with the requested medication.

She was waved to stand by as the doctor quickly bent and lifted Francesca back to the bed. "Get the IV back in," he ordered, immediately pulling her gown up to do an emergency assessment of her condition. Fraser instantly spun on his heel and turned his back on the bed.

"She seemed to think you were," the doctor commented, ignoring Ben's obvious discomfort as he worked. He ordered the Midazolam administered as soon as the IV was re-established and frowned as he gently palpated her abdomen. She had ripped several staples free, but it was the possible internal damage that had him worried. "I want a CAT scan, stat. We may have to go in again. Did you get hold of Davidson?"

"He's in surgery," one of the nurses answered. "I left a message."

Dr. Kennedy nodded and glanced back over at the man who seemed to have precipitated the emergency. "What's your name?" he asked, putting his stethoscope in his ears and ordering vitals with a silent nod to the nurse across from him.

Ben turned his head slightly but resisted the urge to turn around. "Constable Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I first came to--That's not important. I'm a friend of the Vecchio family."

"This is ICU, Constable," the doctor commented off-hand. "Family only."

"Yes, well, I've been pretty much adopted by the family," he explained. "Both myself and Detective Kowalski have been taking turns staying with Francesca at night so the family can get some rest."

The doctor merely nodded. It wasn't something he was particularly worried about as long as the family approved. "And you're sure you weren't the father?" he repeated as he listened to his patient's bowel sounds.

"I'm quite sure, Doctor."

"...'Cause you know, condoms do break and the pill isn't one hundred percent--"

"--It's not physically possible, Doctor," Ben interrupted the man, feeling his face heat slightly.

"Ah," the man nodded. "You and Miss Vecchio never had sexual intercourse?" he asked bluntly, needing a direct answer.

"No," Ben answered simply.

"Do you or the family know who the father was?"


The doctor paused and listened as the nurse rattled off Francesca's vitals. Fraser knew enough about such things not to be alarmed by what he heard.

"Okay, let's get her started on a Propofol drip. I want her kept under until after I see the CAT scan," the other man decided. "If surgical repair isn't necessary, we'll start weaning her again, slowly. I don't want her jumping out of bed again. And let's just do a wet dressing on the incision until we know what's going on inside." He glanced up at the clock, noting the time. "I don't want it left open more than an hour unless we're going back in so light a fire under X-ray."

A moment later Fraser found the man at his side, directing him out of the room. They paused outside the curtain as one of the nurses drew it shut. "You say you're a friend of the family. How good a friend?"

"I'm not romantically involved with Ms. Vecchio, if that's what you're asking," Ben stipulated quietly.

"It's not," the other man responded, donning a distant and professional mask. "How much do you know about her rape?"

Fraser glanced away uncomfortably. "Everything that can be known at this point," he forced himself to answer. "I helped with the investigation and rescue."

"Is it possible that the father of her child was involved?"

Fraser met the other man's gaze in sudden alarm as the possibility played around in his mind. It would explain Francesca's obvious terror--"She said 'they' killed his son," he realized, thinking aloud. "Not knowing who the father was, it is possible he was involved but I think it unlikely given her choice of words."

The doctor nodded, frowning at the curtain. "Did she ever address you by name, right or wrong, before we arrived?"

Ben shook his head.

"Okay, well, it's quite possible that something about you triggered a psychotic episode: your hair, eyes, the way you were standing. It could be as simple as the fact that you're a man. Flashbacks are not uncommon in cases such as hers. The sedatives have a calming effect but tend to blur the line between reality and dreams.

"It's also possible that the attack has caused serious mental and emotional disturbances that will require further medical intervention. And... she lost a lot of blood. We could be dealing with brain damage as well. It's too soon to say yet.

"If you're here the next time she wakes up, I want you to keep your distance. Tell her specifically who you are. Speak calmly and clearly. If she shows any signs of anxiety at all, leave immediately and call a nurse. I don't want her trying to jump out of bed again. Make sure the rest of the family knows what to do as well. Her psychological state right now is quite precarious. We need to keep her as calm as possible."

Ben nodded, glancing downward as he offered a silent prayer for Francesca. He hadn't considered the possibility of brain damage. The memory of Muldoon taunting him and the one chance he'd had to kill the man flashed through his mind again.

"They're going to be taking her down to X-ray in a few minutes," the doctor continued. "We may need to operate again to repair any damage done when she jumped out of bed. In any case, it's going to be several hours before we start weaning her from the sedative again. I'm not going to risk letting her wake up until I know what's going on physically. You might as well go home and get some rest."

"Thank you, Doctor," Ben answered stoically, "I'd rather stay, if you don't mind."

"You won't be allowed to accompany her to X-ray." Ben again nodded his understanding. "Okay, well, it's your choice, but you won't do her a lot of good later if you wear yourself out now."

"We've set up a rotating schedule," Ben explained. "I'll sleep later."

The doctor nodded pensively, then turned and re-entered Francesca's room.

Ray frowned as he lay on the couch and turned on the TV, quickly lowering the volume so as not to wake the rest of the house. He sighed in disgust as he clicked through the channels. There was nothing on. At quarter to one, he really wasn't surprised. He should have been asleep long ago but, having spent most of the day in bed already, sleep was impossible.

"...United States Federal Prosecutor, Joe Kelley, today confirmed that Holloway Muldoon, a Canadian national convicted of international terrorist acts against both the United States and Canada at the beginning of this year, will be facing the death penalty now that he is in US custody."

His thumb froze as the news story unfolded. A picture of Muldoon appeared in the upper right corner above the newscaster's head.

"Muldoon, who was recaptured two days ago in downtown--"

Three days, Ray thought irritably, get your facts straight!

"--Chicago, escaped in late July of this year from a maximum security prison in Canada where he was serving a sentence of three hundred years plus life without chance of parole for, among other things, stealing a Russian nuclear submarine and trafficking in biological weapons. His recapture, much as his original arrest had been, was the result of a joint task force involving FBI, RCMP and local police forces."

Yeah right, Ray rolled his eyes, of course the FBI was going to take whatever credit they could... even if they hadn't shown up until twelve hours after Muldoon's arrest!

"US charges against Muldoon are still being compiled. He is expected to stand trial sometime in late May, 2000."

"May?!" Vecchio exclaimed, momentarily forgetting the late hour. "That's seven months from now, you..." He lowered his voice as the silence of the house finally penetrated his anger, "...jack asses!" he muttered softly.

A moment later the silence was broken by the sound of the phone ringing. Ray frowned and glanced at the device across the room, knowing there was no way he could lever himself off of the couch and over to it before Ma picked up upstairs. Damn, but who in the world would be calling at...? His frown shifted from irritation to concern as he realized that it could well be the hospital calling about Frannie. He'd never thought to find himself praying for a crank call in the middle of the night!

The phone stopped announcing the call in the midst of the third ring, meaning that his mother had picked up. He quickly muted the television and glanced at the ceiling, straining his ears to hear her voice in the silence, knowing it to be impossible. He quieted even his breathing as he fought to hear anything. She'd be calling for Tony or Maria in a moment if the news were bad and they needed to get to the hospital. The silence continued to stretch. Two... three minutes... He heard only the faintest of occasional soft murmurs. No alarm was raised. He dared offer a silent sigh of relief as the murmurs ended and total silence descended once more.

A moment later, he glanced up again with a sharp frown as he heard bedsprings followed by the squeak of a floorboard. His mother was getting up. The call might not have been an emergency but something was obviously up. He reached for his damn crutches and forced himself off of the couch. He hobbled out of the living room at the same time his mother made it to the bottom of the stairs.

"Ma?" he asked in concern.

"Raymundo?" she greeted him, cinching the belt of her heavy terry cloth robe tighter. "You should be in bed, Caro."

"Who was that calling?" he asked, still concerned as he followed her into the kitchen and watched her prepare two cups of warm milk. He knew the second was for him.

"Benton," she answered. "I made him promise to call if there were any change in your sister's condition. She woke while he was there and was frightened. Somehow, she fell out of bed. They were worried they'd have to operate again but the X-rays were negative. He says she's fine now."

Fell out of bed? he thought. No one just fell out of a hospital bed! His mother put the cups down on the kitchen table and helped Ray over to a chair. He tolerated the help only because he knew it made her feel better. "Did he say why she was frightened?" he wanted to know as they both sat down.

His mother shook her head. "I imagine she was confused from all the different medicines she is on," she decided sadly. "She did not know me when she woke this afternoon."

Ray nodded, having heard about that earlier. His mother may have put up an understanding facade when she told him of it, but he could tell that it had hurt and worried her, no matter what logic might dictate otherwise. It was going to take time for Frannie to recover from everything. If she could. Blaming it on the drugs was just an excuse to help hold onto their hopes for her eventual recovery.

Ray very much feared that such hopes were nothing more than wishful thinking. The baby sister he'd grown up with and fought to protect --failed to protect-- was gone forever. And it was his fault. She'd been attacked because of him.

He stared down into his warm milk and saw the face of Holloway Muldoon as displayed in the news broadcast only minutes ago. His free hand closed into a white knuckled fist beneath the table and he closed his eyes, tilting his head back as he fought to hide the depth of rage and frustration that assailed him at the memory of the other man's laughter. He was assaulted by the brief glimpse he'd gotten of Francesca as the paramedics and Fraser swept by with her on the gurney...

Three days ago and Ray was quite certain the man was still laughing: facing the death penalty... and still laughing. Ray knew what the bastard's chances of actually getting a death sentence were. He suspected Muldoon knew it as well. He was right back where he'd been eight months ago when he'd first been convicted. Another country, another trial, another jail. Another chance at escape...

Hell, the crimes against Francesca hadn't even warranted a footnote in the news! Muldoon had taken his revenge and no one cared. At best, he'd get a few more years on a ridiculous sentence, if the FBI even bothered to prosecute him for it amongst all the other charges he was facing. What did it matter? Nothing. Less than nothing! And there wasn't a damn thing Ray could do about it.

"Drink your milk before it gets cold," Ma's voice interrupted the laughter in his mind. "It will help you sleep."

Ray opened his eyes and stared down again at the mug on the table before him. He nodded wearily and forced himself to lift it to his lips, sipping the warm liquid for his mother's sake. It tasted like chalk. He glanced up at her and forced a tired smile. "Thanks," he whispered, refusing to let her see his pain.

She waited until he was finished and then stood, patting his shoulder before taking both cups to the sink. Together, they left the kitchen. Ray feigned a yawn and hobbled toward the guest room on the ground floor where he'd taken up residence until his leg healed a bit more. Ma reached up and kissed his cheek before she turned and left him. Ray closed the door behind him and leaned back against it, closing his eyes as he listened to his mother make her way back up the stairs to her own bed.

He was completely oblivious to the single tear that slipped slowly down his face.

Fraser was waiting on the sidewalk in front of his apartment, Dief at his side, when Kowalski finally drove up, ten minutes late.

"Sorry," he apologized as he reached over and popped the door open. "Ma and Maria were running late and then I had to explain, you know, about calling the nurses if Frannie got upset or anything."

Fraser reached in and held the seat forward for Diefenbaker. The wolf hopped in back with no difficulty despite the bright blue cast that still encased his right front leg. Fraser let the seat fall back again and removed his hat before sliding into the passenger seat beside Ray. "Did she wake again after I left?" he asked, setting his Stetson on the dash as he deftly buckled his seat belt and Ray pulled out again.

"No," Ray answered simply and sighed. He was quite happy to help out the family and sit with Frannie but doing so was emotionally draining. It was hard to see the little spitfire looking so helpless and hurt. "So, what's on your plate today?" he asked changing the subject.

"Acting as chauffeur for the Canadian Minister of Finance," Ben answered. "He has a meeting at the Spanish Consulate this morning then boards a plane later this afternoon for talks in Washington, DC."

"Boring," Kowalski offered with a sympathetic shake of his head.


"Gotta lead on the Henderson case if I can ever break away from the stupid FBI." He rolled his eyes. "I swear, they expect me know what Muldoon ordered on that god damned pizza of his!"

Ben was not surprised. Unfortunately, his opinion of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations was not improved by the bureaucratic maneuvering that he'd witnessed over the last two days. As a member of the RCMP, he knew that he was treated a bit better than Ray; that was when what he had to say wasn't completely dismissed. He was as happy to have his interviews over with and be able to claim consulate duties as an excuse to escape further harassment, at least for today. It wouldn't last. He knew Inspector Mitchell was going to be acting as liaison between Canada and the US State Department as the FBI developed their case against Muldoon. He also suspected there would be those in Ottawa demanding Muldoon's extradition back to Canada. Extradition was extremely unlikely, but the forms had to be adhered to, especially in a case where the 'suspect' was a Canadian facing the death penalty.

The two men fell relatively silent after that, each immersed in their own thoughts about what had transpired three days before and trying to come to grips with it. Traffic proved to be surprisingly light so that Ben was only two minutes late as they pulled up before the Consulate.

"Call when you get off," Ray told him as Ben stepped out of the car and held the seat forward again for his lupine companion. "We'll grab a bite to eat and I'll let you bore me to death with the details of your day while I regale you with the Henderson case and try to forget the feds."

Ben awarded his friend a small, amused smile for his purposely provocative word choice and merely nodded, slipping his hat in place before turning to the Consulate steps and what (Kowalski was quite right) was sure to be a very boring work day. He welcomed it, however, after all that had happened over the weekend. Actually, he would have preferred a mountain of mind numbing paperwork to keep his thoughts occupied, but perhaps the Minister would prove to be a gregarious individual requiring small talk and answers to mundane questions. Ben could only hope so.

Kowalski watched Ben and the wolf hurry up the steps, offered the statue of Turnbull standing sentry a friendly wave, and then continued on his way to the twenty-seventh. He heaved a huge sigh of relief when he failed to see the expected set of three of four black, glossy sedans in the parking lot screaming FBI. If he could check in and grab his notes, he might just get out of here before they showed up!

As yesterday, the station seemed a bit subdued without Frannie's overly energetic presence to light the spark. Part of the announcement's wall had been dedicated to her, with her picture and an update of her condition. There were a few cards pinned there as well, more for color and as a kind of 'we're thinking of you' memorial. Someone had even made a small angel and stuck it next to her picture.

Ray moved past it quickly. The picture was too happy and full of life, contrasting painfully with the reality of what he'd just left at the hospital. He knew she'd be all right, he refused to believe anything else, but he wasn't sure they'd see such a carefree grin on her face again for a very long time. Huey and Dewey stopped him on the way to his desk, wanting the latest, just as they had yesterday. He suspected it would become a routine. He told them that she was doing fine, sleeping comfortably, and hurried away, leaving them to feed the gossip machine of all those who were concerned about Frannie. He didn't bother to tell them about Fraser's little incident. That was nobody's business.

He stopped and frowned at his desk. It was exactly the same organized mess as it had been when he left it yesterday, except for the in-house mail awaiting his attention, but his alarm bells were going off. Something wasn't right here. He quickly reviewed his memory but no, he saw nothing out of place. No one had messed with his stuff or...

Vecchio's desk, next to his: there was a large manilla envelope sitting on it. On top of the envelope was his notes on the Henderson case.

He knew damn well he hadn't left them there.

Kowalski's alarm bells screamed. The envelope made no sense because Vecchio was on medical leave and all of his in-house mail should have been rerouted. Add to that the fact that it was the same kind of envelope as had held the pictures of Frannie that Muldoon had sent...

He was very tempted to yell for a forensics team, but instead reached into his pocket for a pair of latex gloves... only to find them missing. Damn. He quickly rounded his desk and opened the bottom right-hand drawer. No good detective was ever without a supply of latex gloves but he hadn't stuffed any into his coat pocket yet. He noted off-hand that he was almost out, then turned his attention back to Vecchio's desk.

"Ray?" Lys asked in confusion, pausing on her way past with some files for one of the other detectives.

"I'm just being paranoid," he explained himself and nodded at the envelope. "You put that there?"

"No," she answered. "It was like that when I came in. I thought maybe you didn't want it mixed in with your other stuff or forgot it there on your way out last night."

"Nope," he said simply, snapping the gloves on and moving forward to bend over the papers. He didn't see anything that looked like it could be a booby trap or anything.

"Do you want me to call Welsh?" Lys offered.

"Not yet." It could simply be that one of the night shift had been looking for a file or something on his desk and had moved the notes and envelope to Vecchio's desk. Given that nothing else on his desk had been touched, and that he didn't remember the envelope, he didn't buy that idea for an instant... but he was going to check it out himself before calling in help. He picked up his notes and thumbed through them. Nothing missing. It was a hit and run case he'd only been given yesterday. He should have locked the notes in his desk but it was too soon for anyone to be interested in them anyway.

No, it was the envelope that was making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He wasn't surprised to see it addressed to him. He knew instinctively that the return adress was fraudulent. It was already open so he didn't have to worry about triggering a letter bomb or anything. Damn, but that was two times in less than a week that someone had managed to sneak an envelope into the bullpen without getting caught. He looked in the opening and slid a single typewritten sheet out onto his hand. A picture of Stella followed to smile up at him. He felt his stomach clinch and forced himself to read the note.

*The game's not over. Batter up!*

Fraser's tongue swept his bottom lip a moment before his teeth raked the same surface in an obvious indication of apprehension as he regarded whatever it was he held in his hand. The receptionist frowned, taking in his body language as he stepped up to her desk. She knew instinctive that something was wrong.

"Jasmine..." He managed to force a tight, polite smile for her and indicated the manilla envelope and unknown papers he held. "...Did you put this on my desk?"

She reached up and bent the tan envelope down so she could see the front and nodded as she recognized it. "It arrived this morning by special courier. Why? Is something wrong?"

"Yes," he answered cryptically. "Can you describe the courier?"

"Oh, let's see..." She frowned in thought. "It wasn't the usual guy. We deal with Intercity Courier Services all the time. This guy was new. Kinda young, maybe early twenties? Blond hair, kinda shaggy; glasses; maybe five ten or so, average build. Nothing special, I'm afraid. Why? Do we need to file a complaint with the company?"

"Wearing a uniform?"

"Yeah, but it seemed a little big now that I think about it."

"Would you recognize him if you saw him again?"

"I doubt it," she admitted. "I had about four calls going at the same time when he came in. Sorry."

Fraser nodded, clearly disappointed. He glanced at the office door beside her. "Is the Inspector available?"

She glanced at her phone and saw all the lights dark. "He just finished a call with the Finance Minister," she told him. "Last minute changes. He should be calling for you any--"

"--Jasmine?" the intercom beside her phone suddenly interrupted her.

She offered Fraser an 'I told you so' look and clicked the intercom open. "Yes, Sir?"

"Could you ask Constable Fraser to come in here, please."

"He was just asking for you, Sir," she answered, nodding toward the door. He nodded his thanks in turn and stepped toward the office. "Fraser?" she stopped him before he disappeared. "You might ask Turnbull if he saw the guy. He was on sentry and has a better eye for faces than I do."

He offered her another nod and this time the smile that accompanied it was a bit more genuine, then he turned and closed the door behind him.

Agent Ford read the note within its clear protective sleeve and shrugged. "And you think Muldoon sent this?"

"No, I think PeeWee Herman sent it!" Kowalski replied sarcastically. "'Course Muldoon sent it! Who the hell else do you think sent it?"

"Someone who reads the papers and wants to jerk you around maybe?" Ford replied, slapping the document back against Kowalski's chest.

"'Batter up!'" Kowalski quoted the short note even as he caught it before it slipped to the floor. "He's referring to his original note about 'playing hardball'. That wasn't in the papers you pea-brained nitwit!"

Ford shot Welsh a look that had the lieutenant, though he agreed with Kowalski about the epitaph, reluctantly rolling his eyes and issuing a verbal warning in the form of, "...Detective..."

Kowalski spun on Welsh. "He's whitewashing this, Sir!" He slapped his hands against the desk before him and leaned in over his arms, not attempting to hide his anger. "He's going to ignore this and get Stella killed, and you know it!"

"And how the hell is he going to kill her, Kowalski?" Ford interrupted him, letting his own irritation flare. "We've got Muldoon in maximum security lock down. He doesn't blow his nose without us knowing about it."

"He's still getting orders out to his underlings, probably though his lawyers!"

"And how the hell do I prove that, Kowalski?" Ford pushed a finger into his chest. "All you've got here is an unsigned note and a picture of your ex. The note isn't even explicit enough be considered a threat. No witnesses to it's delivery. No fingerprints. No nothing! Shall I use your Mountie friend's tactics and politely ask them, 'Say, is Mr. Muldoon asking you to act as a conduit between himself and his henchmen in an attempt to kill Assistant State’s Attorney Kowalski?' Yeah, that would be real effective!"

"You could throw his butt in isolation and slap her into protective custody!"

"You forget: I've met your ex. I don't think she'd be very appreciative of our methods. Nor do I think I could get clearance for it based on nothing more than your rather dubious misgivings. This is nothing more than some psycho looking to make you jump through hoops. You might want to perform for him, but I don't." And on that note Ford turned to leave. "I've got a hell of a lot more important things to worry about with leads concerning his international arms dealings to follow up on. Call me if someone actually takes a shot at her or if you happen to stumble on anything even remotely resembling evidence."

As the door shut behind Ford, Kowalski slammed his fist into the wall beside one of the windows... and then had to wonder if he hadn't broken his hand!

"You were generous in calling him a pea-brained nitwit," Welsh decided softly. "His brain's not that big."

Mitchell put the magnifying glass down and regarded what he held with a pensive frown. "There's a calendar in the background, Constable," he noted. Ben had already seen it. "This picture was taken two days ago."

"Yes, Sir."

"Have you called her yet?"

"She's out on patrol, Sir."

"But she did report in this morning?"

"Yes, Sir. They will pass on my warning when next she calls."

Mitchell regarded the other man's stoic face. After six months of working with the rather unorthodox Constable, he was beginning to be able to read him. "You don't expect her to take it seriously."

Ben continued to stare straight ahead while offering a small despondent shrug. "Not seriously enough, Sir."

Mitchell nodded and put the picture down next to the short note on his desk. He offered a small sigh and steepled his fingers as he debated what he could do. "Muldoon's friends went to a bit of trouble to get this here so quickly. Unfortunately, he's not stupid. Except for the 'batter up' reference, there's nothing here to tie him to it. I'll contact Ottawa and the US State Department; see if I can at least make them sit up and pay attention, but frankly I don't think there's a lot anyone can do. If Muldoon's smart, he's already set the wheels in motion on this. It's not him we have to worry about."

Ben continued to hold his position of relaxed parade rest and kept his gaze focused on the wall behind Inspector Mitchell's head. "With your permission, Sir, I would like to contact Detective Kowalski. It may be possible to trace the plot back up the chain of command if we can find the courier who delivered this."

Mitchell nodded. "Rather unlikely but it's the only lead we have. Given your history with Muldoon, and your report concerning his attack against Miss Vecchio, I am taking this very seriously." He drummed his fingers upon his desk. "Very well. You have my permission to liaise with local and federal police forces to pursue this case as far as they will permit. I will do what I can from my end. Turnbull will take over chauffeuring duties for the Minister of Finance. See if you can get a better description out of him and then send him in. The Minister's flight was delayed but he's still expecting someone to meet him at the airport at noon."

Fraser nodded and drew himself to attention.

"Keep me appraised, Constable. Dismissed."

Fraser spun on his heel and quickly went in search of Turnbull, thankful once again that Thatcher's replacement hadn't been another diplomatic toady like Moffatt.

"Geez, I think we've gotten more mail in the last two days then we did at Christmas," Tony groused as he came into the living room bearing a pile of mail he was sorting through even as he approached Ray on the couch. "Frannie, Frannie, Frannie... here." He tossed Ray an envelope. Ray caught it in mid-flight and had to react fast as another came sailing his way. "Bill, Frannie, stupid ad, stupid ad, Frannie..." Another white envelope sailed toward Ray. They were obviously cards.

Maria, who was passing by suddenly spun on her heel and entered the sunlit room. "Mail? Did my Cosmopolitan arrive yet?"

"Cosmopolitan?" Tony rolled his eyes even as he continued thumbing through the stack of letters and junk mail. "Don't tell me you actually subscribed to that damn thing!"

"Hey! It was fifty percent off the store prices," Maria informed him as she craned her neck to see over his shoulder, trying to spot her magazine. "Don't complain. I actually saved you money."

"Yeah, right! So hows come my wallet is cryin', huh?"

A large manilla envelope was the last to be thrown Ray's way before Tony turned to head for the kitchen. Ray shook his head as he listened to the two of them continue their bickering and then frowned down at the envelopes he held. The manilla envelope drew his attention first as it obviously wasn't a get-well card. The address was typed on a plain white sticker, as was the return address which he didn't recognize.

He felt a cold shiver run down his spine, remembering a very similar envelope that he'd received at the station only last Friday: an envelope that had contained pictures of--He shoved the images of his sister away. There was nothing about this envelope to tell him that it too was from Muldoon. Muldoon was in prison, his every move monitored, including his mail. So what if it was the same kind of envelope? So what if the address labels were similar? There were tons of such envelopes delivered everyday across the nation. There was nothing--

--No stamp or post mark.

Oh, crap.

Ray felt his heart climb into his throat even as he tore into the envelope. To be on the safe side, he should have taken it out to the backyard and called in the bomb squad. Most letter bombs were larger than this; but with today's technology, and him being a cop, it wasn't impossible to pack a deadly little something inside such an envelope. He was not surprised when nothing went 'boom'. Muldoon would never stoop to anything as mundane and direct as a bomb. Swallowing around a dry throat, he prayed he was wrong as he reached inside and drew the single sheet of paper out.

*The game's not over. I'll get back to your sister later.*

He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, fighting the urge to scream his rage and fear to the heavens. Oh god, no, no! This couldn't be happening. Not again!

It was only long experience as a police detective that kept Ray from shredding both the envelope and note. He forced himself to take several calming breaths, praying again: this time that none of the family would come in and find him in such a state. He had to calm down and get control. Muldoon was still playing his mind games, he was still threatening Ray's family. Ray had to think if he was going to fight him, had to think if he wasn't going to fail again.

No. He wouldn't fail Frannie again. Not again.

He forced his eyes back open, swallowing the tears of sheer frustration that had threatened for a moment, and with shaking hands carefully opened the envelope again to reinsert the note before he further contaminated possible evidence. He needed to call Kowalski, get him over here to pick this up and take it to forensics, file a report and get a guard on--

There was something else in the envelope.

Dreading what he was going to find, Ray carefully tilted the envelope, being careful not to touch the five by seven photograph that slid--

"Oh, god," he gasped, feeling as if he'd been stabbed in the gut and someone was twisting the knife. Frannie would have been bad enough. Frannie he'd been expecting. What he saw was his mother's face smiling up at him.

That son of a bitch! That god damn, sick, son of a--! Pain stabbed the back of his leg as he hobbled about the living room on only one crutch, interrupting the litany of vulgarities he was hurling at his unseen antagonist.

"Ray?" Maria paused on her way pass the living room again. "What do you think you’re doing walking around without--"

Ray glared at her. It was a feral look. One that even Maria, who was used to his melodramatic tendencies, recognized instantly as being deadly serious. Something had happened. She lifted a hand to her throat as she realized her brother was on the phone.

"Ma?" he asked, his attention instantly refocusing on the voice at the other end of the phone.

"Raymundo? I was just going to call. Your sister is starting to wake up. Would you like to talk--"

"Ma!" his voice snapped sharply, interrupting her happy tones. "Ma, shut up and listen to me. And for god's sake don't let Frannie know what I'm saying!"

"Raymundo?!" she replied, shocked to have him address to her in such a manner.

"Ma, smile!" he ordered.

"The children? Something has happened to one of the children?"

"No!" Ray forced himself to take a deep breath and beat back the rage and urgency trying to destroy what little control he had left. "No, Ma," he assured her, "the kids are fine. Maria, Tony and I are all fine. No one's been hurt--"

"--Then what is this with telling your mother to shut up? How dare you speak to me in this way!"

Maria finally found her voice. "What the hell's going on, Ray? You telling Ma to shut up--" He offered her another glare, but this one only got a scowl before she turned to yell for Tony over her shoulder.

"Is that Maria I hear shouting in the background?"

"Ma-aaa!" He raked a hand through his hair in frustration. "Listen! Please. I need you to listen... and smile for Frannie, okay? I got something I have to tell you but I don't want Frannie to know. She can't be upset, remember?"

"Francesca is not awake enough to know what it is I am saying."

Ray sighed in exasperation and realized that his own sense of urgency had overridden his better sense. Yeah, he needed to warn his mother, but he didn't want to frighten her to death! Unfortunately, he knew perfectly well that he already had. And he also knew something of how the drugs that Frannie was on worked. He had to do something to minimize the damage. "She hears more than you think, Ma. Smile and pretend I made a joke, then go to the nurses’ station and call me right back. Okay?"

"Raymundo, I am not in the mood for one of your games," his mother told him quite firmly. "Now, tell me what it is that has happened and stop scaring me like this!"

"Ray!" Maria demanded, storming up to him and facing him with her hands on her hips.

Oh, man, he thought, directing his frustration at himself now. He'd really messed this up! He had to get control back and he had to get it back now. He quickly covered the mouth piece. "Are the kids inside?" he hissed at Maria.

"It's Wednesday, Ray," she replied and rolled her eyes. "They're in school!"

Right. Of course. He knew that. "Go get them."


"Raymundo? ...Raymundo?" his mother's voice called. "Have we been disconnected?"

"No, Ma," he assured her. "Just a minute."

He ignored the spat of exasperated Italian that his words were awarded and covered the receiver again. "Go get the kids. I'll explain when you get back."

"Like hell you will," Tony appeared beside his wife, holding a sandwich in one hand. "I'm not yanking the kids out of school just cause you got some wild hair up your ass."

"Tony!" Maria jabbed an elbow into his ribs for cursing in the house.

"Raymundo!" Ma snapped sharply, demanding his attention.

"I'm here, Ma." Ray didn't have the patience to try and to explain it to both Tony and his mother at the same time. He spun on his heel and grabbed up the note and photograph, thrusting them at his brother-in-law. Even Tony should be able to figure it out! He turned his attention back to his mother. "Okay..." He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had to calm down. More importantly he had to keep his voice calm. Keep her calm. "Okay," he said again. "First, there's nothing to be scared about."Yet, he thought. "I'm probably just being paranoid but I--"

His mother interrupted him again with a voluble spat of irritated Italian. "Base santa di Christo! Regalo mi la pazienza!"

"Ma. Ma!" he interrupted her in turn, fighting to keep from snapping again. Calm. He had to stay calm. "I'm probably being paranoid," he started again, lifting his voice to talk over her, "but I'm not taking any chances either, okay?"

"You are giving me gray hairs, you know this?" she muttered. "I have enough gray hairs without you adding more."

"Oh, my god!" Maria hissed as she read the short note and put it together with the photo.

"What?" Tony asked, completely lost.

Ray ignored them. "Your gray hair is beautiful, Ma," he assured her and hurried on. He was probably giving himself more gray hairs than he was her!

Maria grabbed Ray's arm. "Is this from that Muldoon character?" she demanded.

"Muldoon?" Ma heard the name and repeated it in shock.

"Ma!" Ray exclaimed even as he nodded at Maria. "Frannie can hear you! Trust me, I know!"

"Of course," Ma offered, her tone a little strained as she forced a small laugh. "I am being ridiculous. He is in jail. He cannot hurt us or anyone else ever again. Mi preziosa bambina Francesca is perfectly safe."

"That's right, Ma, that's right," Ray told her solemnly. "I'm not going to let that bastard hurt any of us ever again. He's just playing his mind games; but we're not going to take any chances even so."

Ray turned his back on where Maria was in the midst of explaining it to Tony in an urgent hiss.

"Games? What games?"

Ray sighed. There was no easy way to say it. He didn't want to scare her but he knew that ignorance in this situation could be deadly. "He sent me a threat,"

"Dio de cielo, proteggerli! Mi cara figlia--"

"--It's not Frannie he's after, Ma..." He sighed and bowed his head, forcing the words out. "It's you."

"Me?!" she asked in surprise.

"Yeah. Look, I don't want you to get upset or anything. There's really nothing to be worried about. I just called to make sure you were okay and warn you. Don't be talking to strangers and don't leave Frannie's room until one of us shows up. It's probably nothing, but I'm going to call Welsh and get some protection for all of us anyway. Muldoon's in prison so he really can't do anything but try to shake us up. We just gotta find whatever penny ante little twerp he has running his errands for him and I'll send him up to join his boss."

He turned to find Tony gone and Maria pacing the room, hugging herself in obvious worry even as she hung onto every word he spoke to their mother.

"Uh, yes, I see. Do not worry, mi caro. I'm stronger than you think. I'll, uh... I'll help Maria get the decorations down when I get home." Decorations? he thought... "I'm sure Francesca wouldn't want us to skip Little Tony's birthday because of her."

"Ah! Good one, Ma. Keep her calm and happy. She don't need to know anything about this."

"Of course. We will show them what the Vecchios are made of. I will see you soon?"

"Soon, Ma. Be careful."

"I will. You too, Caro."

Ray sighed as he hung up and found that the calm he'd been able to maintain with her was a very fragile thing. He closed his eyes and lifted his face to heaven, feeling the fear and rage threatening to overwhelm him again. He paused to offer up a silent prayer for his mother.

Then he quickly lifted the phone again: time to call Welsh.

Turnbull's photographic memory and ability with a charcoal pencil had paid off again. He'd managed a 'fair' likeness of the courier before Kowalski showed up to get Ben. The two had then returned to the twenty-seventh. They were standing behind Lys as she scanned it into the system when Welsh appeared at his office door.

"Kowalski! Fraser!" A sharp gesture indicated they were to join him immediately.

"Let us know as soon as you've got a match," Ray told the newest civilian aid. She offered only a nod, concentrating on the job as Ray and Ben headed across the bullpen to disappear within the Lieutenant's sanctum.

A sharp glance from Welsh had Fraser closing the door behind him before turning back to the man who was angrily pacing about his office. "I just got a call from Vecchio," he explained curtly. "Seems Muldoon isn't satisfied with trying to kill Francesca, now he's threatening Ray's mother."

Both men stiffened. It wasn't surprising that Vecchio had also gotten a threat, they should have been expecting that, but the thought of anyone going after Ma...

"Vecchio's on the verge of losing it," Welsh continued, his voice dropping as it often did when he was truly upset about something. "Muldoon's got him dancing on a razor's edge. First Frannie and now this..." He shook his head. "There's no telling what he'll do if anyone tries to hurt his mother. I want the two of you to get over there and keep him from freaking out. He says he has some evidence he wants you to pick up for forensics anyway. I'm guessing another envelope like both of you already got. Any luck with that composite Turnbull drew up?"

"Lys is running it through the system now," Kowalski answered succinctly.

"Good. Tell her to call you if she finds anything. Vecchio was talking about uprooting his family and how if the FBI can't take care of Muldoon, he will. I've told him I'm assigning a couple of men to provide twenty-four hour protection for the family but that won't last if I can't get clearance from upstairs and I can't get clearance if the FBI keeps sweeping this thing under the rug. Ford's dodging my calls. I may have to ask for volunteers. Get over to the house and get Vecchio thinking straight before he does something stupid. If he comes unglued, Muldoon wins."

The two men nodded gravely and turned to hurry from the office.

It was a voice that invaded her dreams this time, a voice that she hadn't heard in more than eight years. "Look what you do to your mother," he observed irritably. "Sittin' there watchin' over you while you sleep, lookin' so innocent. 'Bout as innocent as a whore."

Frannie turned her head on the pillow to discover her father glaring at her from behind where her mother sat knitting. She should have been surprised, her father had died in a drunken car accident years ago, but she wasn't. She should have been shocked and maybe even frightened, at the very least confused. She felt nothing.

"Am I dreaming?" she asked calmly, noting that her mother made no response to her voice.

"Well, what do you know? She finally sees me."

Frannie frowned pensively as her mother continued her knitting, quietly humming a lullaby as she worked. "She can't see me. Haven't figured out why someone can or can't." He shrugged. "Don't even know why I'm here. Stickin' around watchin' my kids make a mess of their lives... I'm ashamed to call you my daughter! Don't be expecting no sympathy from me, girl," he told her. "You brought this on yourself."

"I did?"

"Just a matter of time." Pop Vecchio shook his head in disgust. "What do you expect? Prancing around half naked in those little mini-skirts and shorty-tops of yours. Might as well have been wearing a sign saying, ‘Sex toy: take me, I'm yours'!" He scowled at her.

Frannie remembered the kidnapping, the beating, the terror and... It didn't touch her. Weren't trauma patients supposed to have amnesia of the event or something like that? She remembered it all quite clearly. It was almost as though she were seeing it from another person's perspective. She heard Muldoon taunting her, saw the blows, the rape, saw the camera and then the other men... Her hand drifted to her lower stomach. Only then did she feel anything, but even that pain was a distant and nebulous thing.

"They killed my son."

"You mean, you killed him."

Frannie offered her father a distant frown.

"If you'd been a good girl, there wouldn't have been a son to begin with!"


"Always looking for fun, that's my baby girl," he sneered. "How you made it through high school without gettin' knocked-up, I'll never know. Always wantin' to be the cheerleader or fashion model. You had your nose in those fashion rags more than you did your books. Your idea of popularity was spreading your legs for every Tom, Dick or Harry that smiled at you!"

Frannie offered another distant frown. He was exaggerating. But did that really matter? She'd heard the same accusations all through high school. She was the youngest daughter of a taxi cab driver. She should have disappeared into the woodwork and been a quiet little wall flower, but obscurity was the last thing Francesca Vecchio had ever wanted. In point of fact, she hadn't lost her virginity until her senior prom... Once or a hundred times, it was still a sin. She'd gone to confession and done the assigned penance, but she'd never really repented. Was God punishing her because of that? And for all the other times? She couldn't quite remember how many other times...

"That's probably how you hooked Gino, isn't it?" Pop decided. "He was a good man, but you wouldn't settle down would you? Wouldn't stop wearing those tight little dresses and bright red lipstick and be a lady like your mother." He indicated the woman who still sat quietly humming a lullaby as she knitted something. It looked like baby booties... "Oh, no, not you! You knew what it did to the men around you. You liked the attention. You might have stayed faithful to Gino, hell I don't know, maybe one man was just too boring for you! Doesn't matter if you did or not. You humiliated him by dressing like a prostitute all the time! Then you had the gall to get mad when you drove him into another woman's arms."

Again, the distant frown as the last several months of her marriage tripped through her mind in perfect detail. Was Pop right? Had she driven Gino into the affair that had ended their marriage?

"And you wonder why that Mountie friend of Ray's won't give you the time of day." He shook his head and laughed. "Nobody marries a trollop, girl! He's like me at his age. He's looking for a lady, not a piece of used, dirty trash."

Used... Dirty... True...

"It's a good thing you lost the kid," he decided with a nod. "You ain't fit to be a wife, let alone a mother."

The sound of footsteps rushing into the room startled her. Ma glanced up from her knitting and released a small sigh of relief to see Ray sweeping forward. He quickly bent and gave her a hug, during which time she was able to recover from the momentary panic that his sudden appearance had triggered which was something she didn't want her son to see. He leaned back again, his hands on her shoulders.

"You okay, Ma?"

"I am fine, mi caro," she assured him and offered a smile for the two men who followed her son. "Benton. Ray."

"Ma," Kowalski nodded a polite greeting.

Ray closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer of thanks for his mother's well being, drawing in a deep breath and releasing it slowly before he opened his eyes again. "So, um..." He glanced at Francesca, knowing he couldn't say any of the things he wanted to say around her, "how's Frannie doing?" He was surprised the question came out sounding as normal as it did.

"Frannie's tryin' to sleep here," the woman in the bed muttered in answer, surprising them all. She blinked heavy-lidded brown eyes open. Actually, she'd been awake for sometime but simply had no desire to open her eyes. Her gaze collided with Ben's.

"Frannie!" Ray's form intervened. He offered a gentle smile and reached up to sweep a few loose strands of hair from her forehead. "Hey, Sis. Good to see you awake."

"Muldoon?" she asked simply, without batting an eye.

The question alone told Ray she remembered what had happened. "He's in jail and this time he won't escape. You don't have to worry about him ever again," Ray promised her emphatically. He was going to stop Muldoon's sick games if it was the last thing he did!

Frannie nodded, staring into her brother's eyes and seeing the silent vow behind his words. She knew Ray would die before he let anyone hurt her again, but she didn't believe him about Muldoon. She'd heard Ma talking to Ray earlier. Ma always was a lousy liar. Frannie knew something was going on. She should be frightened, but she wasn't. It simply didn't matter.

Nothing mattered.

"Hey, Frannie," Kowalski greeted her with the same gentle smile. "How you doing? Feeling a little better?"

"No," she answered bluntly and turned her gaze again to where Ben stood in the background.

He returned her silent gaze and stepped forward. "Francesca," he greeted her with a gentle smile as well.

"Get out."

All four people exchange confused glances as the smile was replaced by a pensive frown. "Francesca?"

"I said, 'Get out'," she repeated herself more firmly and turned her head away.

"Hey, what's wrong here? It's Benny. Remember? Constable Benton Fraser--" her brother offered only to be silenced as Frannie gazed up at him.

Her eyes were dead. There was absolutely no emotion in her gaze.

"I know who he is," she assured him. She looked again at Ben, meeting that concern and... "I said get out!" she shouted and grabbed her pillow to throw at him.

Ben avoided the pillow easily and stepped back in shock. Despite the shouting, there was still no emotion in the soft brown eyes that stared into his. Two nurses and a doctor instantly appeared, summoned by the shouting. For Francesca's sake, Ben ducked out of the room and stood outside, listening. He heard the doctor questioning her, but she made no answer. Ray followed suite, but again she remained silent, refusing to speak.

Ben bowed his head, fighting his emotions as he struggled with the fact that she'd basically thrown him out. What had he done to cause her--Did she blame him for the rape? For the fact that he hadn't killed Muldoon when he had the chance? For arresting him in the first place, precipitating his need for vengeance?

He'd been hoping for a second chance with her, a chance to break down the barriers he himself had erected... only to find she couldn't stand the sight of him.

Maggie paused outside the door to the Outpost to stomp the snow from her mukluks. There wasn't a lot but it was the wet, sticky type. No need to be tracking it across the floors inside. She smiled in the twilight as she watched it fall from the reddish fur to the rough wood of the porch, then kicked it aside so it wouldn't freeze into a lump to trip the unsuspecting in the dark. It had actually been a very nice day, at least for Inuvik in mid-October.

She stepped inside the welcoming warmth of the small Outpost and quickly shed the heavy RCMP issue coat. In another month, she'd be digging out the parka.

"MacKenzie." She glanced up to see one of the civilian aides addressing her. The local woman pushed her mid-night black hair behind an ear and then jerked her head to the back. "Sergeant wants you."

Maggie nodded and offered a friendly smile to the little Inuit boy who sat at the front desk coloring. "Thanks." She headed back to the sergeant's office wondering if there'd been a break on the Kelly case. The door was open so she simply leaned through the doorway. "You wanted to see me, Sir?"

"MacKenzie." Sgt. MacPherson glanced up from his paperwork and waved her in. "Patrol go all right?"

"Fine. Quiet day."

"The Tuttersons okay?" he asked, referring to a domestic violence call he knew she'd gotten.

"Yeah, the boy got liquored up and spouted off to his mother. It didn't amount to anything but a lot of yelling. She refused to press charges and I saw no sign of physical abuse so I simply warned them I'd have to bring the boy in for disturbing the peace if the neighbors called us in again."

The sergeant nodded and waved her to a seat before his desk. "Sit down," he told her. "I got a message from your brother earlier today. He's worried again."

"Ben?" Maggie frowned, remembering his warning from last Saturday as she took the proffered chair. "I thought Muldoon was back in jail?"

"Yeah, but apparently he's not happy to just sit quietly in his cell. Your brother got another threat."

Maggie shook her head. She was very glad to be able to call Benton Fraser her brother, but she had to talk to him about this over-protective streak he seemed to be developing.

"There was a picture of you with it," the sergeant added, his somber tones cutting through her mild amusement. She glanced up at him. "It was taken through that window," he pointed to his left, "two days ago." Maggie frowned at the window. Two days ago? How could they know--

MacPherson pointed to the wall on his left. "The calendar is in the background." She glanced at the Blue Pine calendar with it's distinctive Inuit artwork, each day past carefully x'd through. A chill went down her back. "Someone went to a lot of trouble to get that shot, get it developed and shipped down to Chicago and your brother in only two days."

They certainly hadn't done it via regular mail routes, Maggie agreed. Someone would have had to take the shot, then almost immediately hop a plane to get it down there in time. That took money. And money spoke of serious intent.

"Inspector Mitchell, your brother's boss, is also worried. Apparently, the woman Muldoon kidnapped last Friday very nearly died. He's made some phone calls."

"Did he say how Frannie is?"


"The woman who was kidnapped," Maggie explained. "I met her when I was in Chicago last year."

"No, I'm sorry, your brother didn't say... and neither did the other two men who called me from Department Headquarters. Inspector Mitchell called Ottawa with his concern."

Oh, dear...

"They agree with him that this is a serious matter. Muldoon is a very powerful and dangerous criminal. Your brother was responsible for his original arrest. He was also instrumental in his re-arrest. You're the perfect target for revenge against Constable Fraser, so they're not taking any chances." He offered her a hand written note. "I haven't had to de-crypt a message since I came up here."

De-crypt!? She lifted a brow in surprise and took the note, quickly reading through it.

Oh, shit...

"I'll get the car," he said, standing and reaching for his own coat. "A plane is standing by to take you... well, where ever you're being transferred too. I'll drive you myself."

"But... my stuff. My dogs!"

"--Will be taken care of, Maggie," the sergeant assured her emphatically. "I'll take care of your team myself. Look, I know this is sudden and extreme, but orders are orders; and mine say that as soon as you show up, I'm to take you immediately to the airport. I've already bent that as far as I can by taking the time to explain everything here. It won't be forever," he added gently, taking in her confused and shocked expression. "Your brother's already trying to track the courier who delivered the threat, and Muldoon is facing the death penalty. They kill him and any contract out on your head dies too. You'll be back here before the spring thaw."

Spring thaw was more than six months away!

"The orders come from Ottawa," MacPherson repeated sympathetically. "They may be a bunch of bureaucrats panicking over nothing, I know you can take care of yourself, but I can't argue with them... and neither can you."

Damn it, Ben, why'd you have to get Mitchell involved! The man had a lot of clout to pull something like this! She sighed and bowed her head.

"Come on." MacPherson reached out to squeeze her shoulder. "I gotta get back here and start screaming for your temporary replacement. And don't worry, the position will be open when you're ready to come back."

Fraser stood at the sink and finished up the few dishes he'd used that day. He rinsed the last one and set it in the drainer. Then sighed and allowed himself to slump against the countertop.


He glanced over to where Dief lay watching him from the doorway. "I am not sick," he assured his friend.


"I'm not depressed, either."


"I'm not," he said firmly. Dief merely frowned, as only he could, and looked away. Fraser rolled his eyes and sighed. "All right," he admitted reluctantly. "Maybe a little. Francesca..." He shook his head and stared down into the now empty sink, watching the lingering soap suds fade. "She wanted to ask me something last Thursday," he remembered, glancing back over at Dief. "Ray interrupted us and... I forgot it until now." He sighed, remembering it all too clearly now.

She'd had that 'look'. The one that... Frankly, it had always frightened him; or... it was more that he was frightened of his own reactions when she looked at him that way. He wasn't blind. Nor was he a monk, and... She was Ray's sister. He knew perfectly well how her brother felt about any relationship between himself and Francesca. For both their sakes, Ben had chosen to keep her at arm's length.

It wasn't until she'd nearly died that he'd realized how foolish he was to let her brother dictate such boundaries. And what he'd nearly lost.

He didn't know if he and Francesca were suited for... well, for more than friendship, but he'd finally admitted that he wanted to find out. She'd never made a secret that she wanted more, even if he had pretended to be oblivious to even her most blatant attempts. She was quite tenacious, he had to give her that, which was hardly a bad quality.

She'd changed over the years he'd known her, and... he liked those changes. He liked who she'd become. He'd actually flirted with her once or twice, and enjoyed the subtle, teasing by-play. She'd proven to be a loyal and steadfast friend with greater depth of character than her carefree, distracted facade led most to believe. She had a unique way of looking at life that was half innocent-daring and half warrior-courage. Nothing would stop her, not even this. But...

"She's angry at me," he told Dief and ran a thumb over his eyebrow as he turned to lean his lower back against the counter. "I don't know why. Maybe... maybe she thinks it's my fault she was kidnapped in the first place. If I'd let Dad..."

No. No, he was right to stop his father. He wasn't at all sure how a ghost could shoot a ghost gun and kill someone, but he'd been quite certain of the outcome if he didn't stop him. Muldoon would have died, and his father... His father and mother were together now. His Dad had made the right decision.

That didn't mean Francesca would agree.

Another possibility occurred to him. "Maybe while she was sleeping, Ray told her I could have killed Muldoon and didn't..."

That was something a part of him still regretted. It would have been the same decision his father had made more than thirty years before when he thought he'd killed Muldoon by pushing him into Six Mile Canyon. Only, Ben would have succeeded. He closed his eyes as he again saw Muldoon across the parking lot...

"Hey, Fraser! Was it your kid, huh? You banging Vecchio's sister? Did I manage to kill your son, Fraser?"

It was almost as if he were there again as the pain and rage that Muldoon's words had triggered rose to choke him.

The memory of Francesca after she'd thrown herself from the hospital bed suddenly replaced Muldoon.

"You--I--I shouldn't have--They--said it was a boy...They--they killed your son..."

The pain surged even greater. His son. A part of him wished it had been; that he'd been able to love and protect Francesca, and know the joy of holding their child in his arms...

But it wasn't his son. And wishing it had been, didn't even make sense! The loss of a child wasn't a pain he ever wanted to know, but... but Francesca did, and it was a pain he would have gladly taken from her if he could.

"She won't let me help her, Dief." He bowed his head and folded his arms. "I should be sitting with her now, taking my turn..."

"...your son..."

His head snapped up. Was it possible she actually thought the child was his? The doctor's concern about possible brain damage whispered through Ben's mind again. He'd thought her words a product of confusion due to the drugs she was on. Was it possible that, even now as the drugs were being withdrawn and cognizance was returning, that... Did she, in some strange logic known only to her--believing him to be the father--blame him for failing to protect his unborn son? Was that why she shoved him away?

It didn't make sense to him, but he knew it might to her.

He shook his head again, dismissing the speculations. He lacked information to form even an hypothesis, let alone an explanation. Francesca was the only one with answers, and she wasn't ready to reveal them.

"The doctors have recommended that I stay away, at least for the time being." He glanced down again, seeing the evening stretch out before him...

He would likely read or perhaps go for a walk. He might check in with Mr. Dallancy down the hall. He was an elderly widower who'd just moved in. He'd complained that his kitchen window didn't close properly. The management knew about it, but it sounded like they were stalling. Ben could go down and offer to take a look at it. It would be something to do to take his mind off Francesca, not that he expected it to work.

Perhaps there was something he could do at the Vecchio house that would help ease the family burden?

It would have to wait until tomorrow, after work. The data base had given them a name for the courier, one Tim Weber; but his last known address was in New York. Ben and Kowalski were going to canvass the areas surrounding the police station and consulate with the courier's picture in the hope of picking up a local lead. Ben seriously doubted he'd leave town before Muldoon was finished with his ‘game’.

He sighed again and leaned his head back. Time. It was going to take time to track the man down, if they could. Time to track the conspiracy back to one of Muldoon's lawyers. Time to fight and protect those Ben cared about.

If only he'd killed Muldoon! ...But he'd already missed his chance. Logic and duty said he'd made the right choice. His heart screamed otherwise. If only he'd taken the shot... Now, he was forced to hope the American justice system could find some way to keep Muldoon from terrorizing them further. But it would take time...

It was also going to take time for Francesca to heal, both physically and emotionally, for the words and explanations to come. He prayed her anger was just the result of the drugs, just a confused dream or misunderstanding. He could think of no reason she would suddenly hate him.

He was just going to have to be patient. He had to accept that this was one time he was helpless to help a friend.

He didn't have to like it.

"Come on," he told Dief. "We need to fix a window."

Maggie was not particularly enamored of airplanes. She'd had to work too many search and rescue operations when one went down. Now, she made a point to tune in the weather advisory channel on the radio as Sargeant MacPherson drove the benighted 14 km to the airport. Fortunately, there were no warnings up at present. 'Course that could change rather quickly up here at this time of year. Nor did it tell her anything about wherever she was being shipped off to. All her orders had said was that she would be met at the airport and briefed by her contact as to her re-assignment.

Damn it!

She hoped she wasn't being yanked down to Ottawa or Toronto to disappear in the masses. She could survive there if she had too but, damn it again, she hated big cities! Inuvik, with a population of about thirty-three hundred, was plenty big enough. And it was home. Once a year, she'd head down to Yellowknife to pick up a few extravagances that were too expensive or hard to come by in Inuvik but, for the most part, she enjoyed a simple life style. Hell, her one-room cabin outside of town wasn't even connected to the city utilities. She preferred it that way. Simple. Basic. Natural.

She remembered the first time she'd gone to one of the bigger cities. It had been ten years ago when she'd gone to the academy down in Regina. She'd suffered a bad case of culture shock. Some of the cadets from back east had thought it rather humorous that she was so ‘uneducated'. The sentiment had nothing to do with her schooling. She'd known nothing about the movies or actors they talked about and couldn't care less about fashion. She was uncomfortable with gossip, and inane chatter confused her. And partying... She enjoyed a drink once in a while but the idea of going out to get drunk was simply repugnant. She'd gone with a group of fellow cadets once and wound up policing them the entire night. She'd been pretty much ostracized after that... until she kicked their asses in survival training and hand to hand combat. She smiled at the memories now, but some of it had been rather hard to stomach at the time.

She'd graduated with honors and been posted to Toronto. Her superiors had immediately realized it was a poor choice and shipped her off to Yellowknife where she served her first year under the guidance of a twenty-two year veteran of the Force, Sgt. Haines. Since then, she'd pulled a number of different assignments, including Vancouver and Ottawa, and she'd learned to adapt to the various environments. But her home was still Inuvik. Finally, after about five years, her superiors had decided her experiences were 'well rounded' enough to let her transfer where she belonged.

Now, she was being yanked away again. Damn it! She was going to have some choice words for that brother of hers the next time they met up.

"Here you go," Sgt. MacPherson sighed as they pulled into Inuvik International Airport. The airport might be small compared with those farther south, Maggie knew, but it was a modern facility and a customs' point of entry for Canada, handling some twenty thousand take-offs and landings per year. The sergeant found an empty spot under one of the tall halogen lamp posts and pulled the Range Rover to a stop, but didn't turn off the engine as that would mean having to plug the engine block and oil pan into the provided electrical system to keep them from freezing.

"How much money do you have with you?" he asked her suddenly.

"I'm fine, Sergeant," she assured him with a smile. "Thanks."

"That's not what I asked, Maggie." The older man frowned at her, digging out his wallet. "Those stupid bureaucrats didn't even allow you time to pack a change of clothes or stop by the bank. If you're going into hiding, they won't let you use your checking account or credit cards. You're going to need some cash but they won't have considered that. Here..." He emptied his billfold, quickly counting the money and then forcing it upon her. "Take it, Maggie. There's not that much but it'll help. You can pay me back when you get home again."

"Mac, really, I--"

"--That's an order, Constable," he told her firmly. "I won't have you disgracing the detachment because those idiots in Ottawa didn't think things through. If they really screw this up, call my mother's place, and we'll figure out someway to help you. Now, get going. There's a plane waiting on the runway and it could be yours for all we know. ‘Don't want to aggravate your contact by keeping him waiting." He quickly tucked his billfold back in place and turned around, ignoring her attempt to hand him back the money.

Maggie sighed and shook her head, pausing long enough to quickly count the money so she'd know what to pay back and then tucking it deep into her hip pocket. "Thank you, Sir."

"I'd do the same for any of my men, Constable. Keep safe."

Maggie nodded silent acknowledgment of the truth behind his words and his kind wishes. Without another word, she pulled up her hood and silently slipped out of the warm interior of the SUV into the sub-zero night. The snow crunched noisily beneath her boots as she made her way across the pavement toward the main terminal. The lights of the Range Rover swept over her, casting her shadow against the large squat building for a moment as the sergeant turned the vehicle around and headed out again. She glanced up at the control tower nestled directly behind the terminal, it's surrounding tinted windows glowing green in the night as the men within went about their jobs. The sky beyond was crystal clear and black, sprinkled with a million diamonds. New moon, she realized.

Damn, flying was bad enough but did she have to do it at night?

She turned back to the main terminal and hunched deeper into her coat as she continued toward the steps and the welcoming glow of the double-paned glass doors at their top.

There were three people in the waiting area: two men and a woman. Maggie knew instantly who her contact was.

The other woman stood and nodded a greeting as Maggie came up. "Constable."

"Inspector Thatcher." Maggie nodded in turn. Then remembered Ben telling her about Thatcher's transfer to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. "Or, um, ‘Agent Thatcher' is it?"

"Let's try 'Meg'," she answered with a small smile and a glance at the two men across the room, apparently ignoring the women. With a nod, she indicated a door to her left. "Plane's waiting. I'll explain everything en route."

Maggie nodded in turn and proceeded Ben's old boss through the door. CSIS. Damn, what had Ben gotten her into?

The waiting plane was a small military transport. A crew member saw them coming and quickly opened the forward door. Maggie grabbed hold of the mounting ladder and scrambled upward, knowing how quickly heat from inside the plane would escape. Meg followed her and the door was again dogged shut. The idling engines were quickly revved and the plane was rolling even before the two women had found a seat... but then, Maggie realized, there weren't any seats! The plane was loaded to the gills with cargo.

"Just hang on here!" Meg shouted to be heard over the engines, indicating a support column and some straps. "We won't be here long!"

Maggie was more than a little confused and frustrated. How in the world was Meg going to explain anything over all this noise? She grabbed at a strap and fought to keep her balance as they maneuvered over the runway and taxied into position for take off. As soon as they were in place and had come to a stop, the crewman again opened the door and gestured to the women. Meg waved Maggie to follow and scrambled back down the ladder into the dark of the night. Now even more confused, Maggie shook her head and followed, jogging after the other woman as she hurried across the tarmac toward a nearby hanger. Behind them, the transport started forward again and was soon lifting into the star-spangled sky. Meg opened a door in the hanger and the two women entered the pitch black interior.

"Who's there?" a voice called.

"Thatcher," Meg called back in a normal voice. "Door's shut, you can turn on the lights."

The lights of the hanger snapped on revealing a typical tube-like enclosure and two bush planes equipped with skis. Two men in burnt orange cover-alls and heavy winter parkas were obviously expecting them.

"What's going on here?" Maggie finally voiced her exasperation, unable to keep silent any longer.

"A little subterfuge," Meg answered. "It's called breaking the chain. Anyone who was watching you or the airport will assume that you're on the transport that just took off. It's en route to Yellowknife where a look-alike will board a plane for Ottawa and vanish upon landing. In reality, you're not going that far." She turned to smile at the two men. "This is Terry and Michael Pratchet. They run a courier and supply service up here while helping to keep an eye and ear open to possible drug smuggling operations. They were scheduled to make a run to Paulatuuq this afternoon but had some 'engine trouble'."

"So they were delayed long enough for me to get on board, is that it?"

"Exactly." Meg turned to some boxes to her right and deftly pulled out a bundle of some sort. "Here," she handed it over. "You need to change clothes."

"This is ridiculous!" Maggie sighed. "I'm a Mountie, for heaven's sake! We don't run!"

"You're not running, Constable MacKenzie," Meg corrected her firmly. "You're buying us time to track Muldoon's associates down. Until we do... You're not the only one in danger."

That got Maggie's attention. "Who else is he threatening?"

"For now, Stella Kowalski and Ray Vecchio's mother. He's also promised to come after Francesca again. He won't be satisfied until everyone close to Fraser, Vecchio and Kowalski is dead. Then, he'll go after them."

"He's in prison already," Maggie noted with a concerned frown. "How do we stop him?"

"We destroy his network," Meg answered simply. "Like destroying a spider web, one thread at a time, tracing them back to his lair. It takes money to buy revenge. We find his assets and where the money is coming from and... SNIP!" She made a sissors-like motion with her fingers. "He's powerless to hurt anyone ever again."

Maggie nodded. That made more sense than waiting for his execution. "In the meantime, I disappear in Paulatuuq?" She shook her head and protested, "I've pulled duty there before. It's within the Inuvik sphere of responsibility! People know me. Or... am I acting as bait?"

"No," Meg answered quickly. "We have people elsewhere who are trained for that sort of thing. --Did Ben ever explain to you about Ray Vecchio and Ray Kowalski?"

"You mean about Kowalski pretending to be Vecchio while Vecchio was undercover?"


"You mean... I'm going to--You're--Someone else is going to pretend to be me?"

Meg nodded.

"And I'm..." She stared at Thatcher for a long moment, and then frowned down at the package she'd been handed. There was a patch of some sort sewn on one of the sleeves... She pulled it out so she could see it better. "Parks Canada?" she asked in confusion.

"Assistant Warden Margaret Hoagland, assigned to Tuktut Nogait National Park," Meg nodded, confirming her suspicions. "Paulatuuq is a very small community. Less than three hundred people. As with Kowalski, the people you'll be working with will know who you really are, but it won't matter. No one's going to be looking for you in Paulatuuq. And if anyone does... Well, strangers stick out like a sore thumb there."

"This was your idea, wasn't it?"

"It's the best I could do," Meg frowned. "I didn't think you'd want to be dragged down to Vancouver to rot in a nameless hotel until this was all over?"

"Ah, no," Maggie admitted, taking the hint. She had absolutely no desire to windup in protective custody until Muldoon's assets could be seized and his power base broken. If they were lucky and got the right break it could all be over in a couple of weeks, but she also knew it might take years. Sgt. Haines was being completely unrealistic in thinking the Americans would be able to try and execute him in six months!

"Good. Michael will show you were to change."

Maggie sighed but offered not further protest. The powers-that-be were locked on a course of action and she suspected that the only way out of it for her was to resign. Frankly, she wasn't ready to do that; nor was she prepared to have her brother appear on her doorstep ready to lay down his life to protect hers. She knew damn well Ben would do just that if she refused to cooperate.

She quickly changed and was not surprised to find the new uniform a good fit. Margaret Thatcher had always struck Maggie as being surprisingly efficient. The puppet masters in Ottawa might not have thought things through, but Meg had. Maggie was then given a duffle bag of clothing and 'personal effects', including paperwork, credit cards and ID in the name of Margaret Hoagland.

"The credit card is only good to five hundred dollars and you'll be expected to pay it back out of your pay as Margaret Hoagland. You're supervisor will explain about pay, duties, etcetera. I'll be copying and switching your medical records over here in Inuvik in case of emergency. I'll also be your liaison to anyone outside of Paulatuuq and that includes Ben, but it's going to be very limited, for everyone's sake. My number is written on the inside cover of your 'diary'."

"Wait," Maggie interrupted, having a hard time trying to absorb everything at once. "What about you? Aren't you afraid Muldoon will send someone after you as well? I mean, I don't know how close you two were but--"

"--Margaret Thatcher disappeared two months ago. I was specifically recruited to help with covert operations abroad, but there's an intensive probationary training period. My bosses felt this would be good experience. Do me a favor and don't make me look bad."

"You? A spy?" Maggie whispered in surprise, although why the idea should be surprising she didn't know.

"We like to refer to it as 'intelligence gathering', thank you," Meg corrected her drily. "Michael's got the plane warmed up. Let's go."

Ten minutes later, Maggie was finally allowed to move from the floor of the plane where she'd been hidden for take-off to a somewhat more comfortable seat. Glancing out the window, she managed to find the scattered lights of Inuvik quickly retreating behind and below them.

Damn it, Ben... Though she knew none of this was really his fault, she was still irritated by the entire blown-all-out-of-proportion quality of everything. She felt like a leaf caught up in a tornado, striped of all control and with very little idea of where she was going to land. She had to blame someone for it...

Frannie turned her head on the pillow and blinked her eyes open, expecting to see Ma or Maria at her bedside.

"Hey, Sis," Ray offered quietly, making no move to rise from the visitor's chair he occupied three feet away. "You feeling better?"

Better? She wasn't sure she knew what the word meant any more. 'Feeling'... She knew that one. She didn't want to feel. She refused to feel. She wished Muldoon had killed her so she didn't have to feel ever again...

"Get out."

Ray lifted a brow in mild surprise and regarded her in pensive silence for a long, hard moment. "You gonna throw a pillow at me like you did Fraser?" he asked calmly, refusing to let her intimidate him. "I guess you like being sedated."

Frannie stared back at him in silence and he felt a frisson of fear race up his spine. Her eyes were dead. Cold, distant... A stranger without feeling stared out of his sister's eyes. It was as if someone had turned off a light switch. He'd expected... He'd expected pain. He'd expected tears and anger and horror, screams and accusations, demands and unanswerable questions of ‘why?', suffering and anguish...

It wasn't there.

She closed her eyes and turned away... It had to be shock, he knew. He knew what that cold numb void felt like; knew that she probably didn't remember everything that had happened, probably didn't want to remember everything that had happened.

"Was Fraser the father?" he heard someone ask and was amazed to realize it was himself. Ray hadn't even realized he was questioning Benny's assurances otherwise until he heard himself speak. He knew Benny would never lie about... But he'd asked anyway. He had to. His voice was cold and calm, a mirror reflection of what he'd seen in Frannie's eyes.

She blinked her eyes open again and turned her head back to her brother, her gaze unreadable.

"Is that why you threw him out?" Ray heard himself ask. His voice might be coolly dispassionate but his feelings most certainly weren't. He met her distant and unwavering regard with a silent and unwavering demand. He remembered too clearly the time Benny had told him about Frannie coming on to him after Zuko's goons had beaten him to a pulp. More specifically, he now remembered how Benny had refused to say whether he and Frannie had done anything or not, citing some antiquated code of honor nonsense. But he was having no such qualms now! Was it simply because the situation was so much more serious or... No way could Benton Fraser be afraid of ‘fessing up to the truth, even if he had to know that Ray would kill him for it!

"No," Frannie answered after a very long moment.

"'No, he wasn't the father,' or 'No, that's not why I threw him out'?" Ray specified.

He finally saw the first real hint of emotion in her gaze as she frowned at him in distant irritation. "It's none of your business."

He was surprised by the instant raise of bitter bile and rage that answered her words. It required all his control to keep from shouting at her. "My baby sister has lost her unborn child because of me and you say it's none of my business!?" he hissed angrily.

Her distant irritation was joined by distant confusion.

"Muldoon attacked you because of me," he answered the look. "Because 'Armando Langustini' took him for a ride; because I helped set him up for the fall. Because I wasn't smart enough to go into the Witness Protection Program like the Feds wanted. Because I wasn't smart enough to realize that Muldoon was more dangerous than the Iguanas were. Because I didn't protect you! This is my fault; my fault, Frannie! My fault that you were kidnapped and almost killed. My fault that you lost the baby! And you're telling me it's none of my business?!"

His anger and pain were met with... nothing. Frannie's eyes were empty. And that was his fault too...

Frannie shook her head and looked away. Ray was wrong but she didn't have the energy or desire to argue with him. He wouldn't hear her anyway. It wasn't his fault...

It was hers.

"Fraser was not the father," she answered his question and closed her eyes, seeking escape from her own pain and guilt. She couldn't deal with Ray's as well.

"Who was?" he wanted to know. The question didn't surprise her. It was painfully predictable. Neither did the intensity of the pain behind it. But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. She just ignored him.

"If Fraser wasn't the father, why did you throw him out, Frannie?" he demanded next. She felt her bed shift and knew that he'd stood to lean over her, supporting himself on the safety rail. "Why? You've had the hots for him ever since--Is that it?" He suddenly stood back. The surprised understanding in his voice caught Frannie's attention enough that she had to turn and look up at him, wondering if he'd somehow divined her ugly little truth. "You're afraid of Fraser because of what those monsters did to you? Because you're afraid he might do the same thing?!"

Afraid of Fraser? Frannie shook her head in disgust. No, he didn't get it. And that was fine as far as she was concerned. "Go away, Ray," she sighed, turning away and closing her eyes once more. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"So tell me!" he hissed. He reached out to grab her by the arm, wanting to shake her, make her wake up from whatever emotionless cocoon she'd retreated into, make her turn and talk to him, keep her from tuning him out, tuning life out--

"Don't touch me!" she screamed, jerking from his hold and suddenly curling into a tight, protective ball. "Don't touch me! Don't touch me! Don't touch me!"

"Frannie?" his whispered, horrified to realize he'd frightened her! Two nurses and a doctor were instantly there. "Frannie, my god. I'm sorry! I--" He turned to the doctor. "I --I got angry. I touched her arm--"

"Out!" The doctor didn't wait for explanations, he merely grabbed Ray by the shoulders, propelled him from the curtained cubical and drew the drapery shut. A nurse stayed with him, knowing the doctor would need to hear his side of the incident as well... and because he looked like he might faint, he was so distraught.

Ray stumbled away from the supporting hands to the wall opposite the curtained area and leaned his arms and head against the hard surface. His fault! His fault! She was a lifeless, terrified husk and it was his fault! How could he have been so stupid to get angry with her?! How could he have been so thoughtless as to grab her like that! A shudder wracked his form but he was oblivious to the tears that rolled down his face.

In his mind, he heard the never ending echo of Muldoon laughing...

Park Warden Marie-Andrée Côté frowned at her watch. Again. It was going on 1:30 am, which was quite literally the middle of the night here. Sunset had been at 7:34 pm. Sunrise would be at 9:45 am. It was minus eigthteen degrees Celsius with a gentle breeze off the frozen bay, which sent the wind-chill factor plummeting another ten degrees. She should be at home, curled up in bed, dreaming about a trip back to Quebec and her mother's tourtières, not standing around waiting for some RCMP constable in need of nurse-maiding!

Why the hell couldn't they have just assigned her to Paulatuuq doing the job she was trained to do? Inuvik was responsible for providing peace keepers to the area after all. It wasn't like she was in hiding or anything, not really. Well, M-A allowed reluctantly, she supposed it would be more difficult to trace the woman if they threw her into a new job as well as a new name, but why the hell couldn't they have done that down in Regina or something? Yeah, make her a teacher at the academy, training the wet-behind-the-ears recruits. No one would think to look for her there. Instead, they send her four hundred kilometers from home and saddle Warden Côté with protecting her ass!

Sometimes, she questioned the sanity of government officials. Correction: she always questioned their sanity!

You'd think they could have at least waited until tomorrow morning after the sun came up to do this, but no... She shook her head in disgust and thought, 'That makes too much sense, Côté!' She sighed.

She should be thankful the woman wasn't from Toronto or something! M-A had never met her, but had certainly heard of her. She had a rather colorful reputation for being over-zealous, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing up here. At least she was familiar with the area and wasn't likely to get herself killed on her first patrol of the park. And as an RCMP constable, she should at least know some of the laws they were charged with enforcing, even if she didn't have a clue as to anything else the job entailed.

The sound of a single engine plane taxiing by the portable building that served as the tiny airstrip's 'waiting area' barely penetrated the heavy insulation but was quite distinctive in the silence. 'About time!' she thought irritably. The Paulatuuq airstrip was billed as a 'modern facility' but was in fact little more than a couple of portable buildings and a single runway. Still, it served its purpose, allowing regular, scheduled flights to and from Inuvik three times a week even in the winter.

Such flights were rarely scheduled at night, however, except during December!

M-A shook her head irritably, shoving the emotions aside. It wasn't the woman's fault the government busy-bodies had yanked her over here at such a god-forsaken hour. M-A wasn't even sure it was the government people's fault. Pratchet had reportedly had engine problems. Knowing the two brothers, however, M-A seriously doubted either of them would have made the trip at night unless someone was pressuring them. They weren’t flying in any perishable commodities or time sensitive supplies that she knew about. The fact that she was the only one here to meet the plane, confirmed that. In any event, the constable-turned-Park-Warden-trainee didn't deserve M-A's ire.

Damn but she hoped she wasn't one of those 'better-than-thou' types who thought all a Park Warden did was sit around and hand out pamphlets all day!

Maggie followed Terry Pratchet as he hurried across the packed snow of the landing field toward one of the gray and brown portable buildings to their right. The night had turned a bit colder than normal for this time of year and the wind had a definite bite to it. Ten to fifteen minutes in it would see the beginnings of frost bite in any exposed areas. Hardly an environment even those accustomed to it wanted to be standing around idly in.

She appreciated the courtesy as he held the door open for her and they entered the small but warm interior of the building. A young woman dressed in heavy pants and cream colored cardigan over a dark blue long-sleeved shirt turned as they entered to greet them. "Margaret Hoagland?" she offered with a wry smile that bespoke her knowledge of Maggie's real name even as she held out her hand. Maggie shifted the duffle bag she was carrying further onto her shoulder and accepted the extended hand with a nod. "Marie-Andrée Côté," she introduced herself. "Your boss. Call me M-A, everyone else does."

"M-A?" she questioned as they shook hands.

"My name's not Marie and it's not Andrée, and Marie-Andrée is a mouth full," she shrugged. "Or you can just go with Côté if you prefer. I'm easy." She glanced beyond Maggie and gave a sudden scowl. "Don't even think it, Pratchet!"

"What?" the young pilot behind Maggie assumed an overly-innocent expression and spread his arms in a show of nonaggression.

"You buying that look?" M-A asked Maggie, then again scowled at her friend. "Get your mind out of the gutter and keep it out."

"I'm not the one who said you were 'easy'," he shrugged.

The dark haired woman winced and shook her head, refusing to rise to the bait at 1:30 in the morning! "This all her stuff?" she asked instead, indicating the duffle bag.

"Looks like it, 'though Agent Thatcher might have me bring a few more things out in a week or two when no one's paying attention. Maybe not. I don't know." He offered another shrug.

M-A ignored his lack of knowledge and turned to her ward. "Well, we'll get you settled tonight and figure out what you don't have that you need tomorrow," she decided. "I was specifically told that you're not to stay at the Bed and Breakfast, so I guess you're bunking with me for now. I have a cabin to the south of town and we maintain a patrol cabin at the park, actually four of them. We'll be moving to the one closest to town tomorrow and beginning your training. I hope you don't think that you're going to be allowed to sit around and do nothing while your friends try and hunt down whoever it is who's after you. There's a real job here, and a real need for someone to do it."

This actually came as welcome information to Maggie. "Oh, no, ma'am," she assured the other woman, and frowned as she realized that could be misinterpreted. "That is, I want to be of assistance. I'd get quite bored if all I did was sit around all day."

"Good," M-A nodded. "Because Tuktut Nogait National Park is 16,340 square kilometers and one person cannot patrol and manage that much area alone, even when the park is closed as it is right now. I plan on keeping you busy."

Maggie nodded. "You have difficulty with poachers this time of the year?" she asked, knowing the blue-nosed caribou used the area as a calving ground in the summer, but they should have started migrating south to their wintering grounds by now.

"Poachers are only a small part of what we have to deal with up here constable--Excuse me," she corrected herself, "Ms. Hoagland. You've got a lot to learn. Come on. It's been a long day for me and I want to get to bed.” She turned and scooped up a parka from one of the padded folding chairs that lined the room. “Terry, want me to drop you at the B&B?"

"Nah, I gotta get the plane in a hanger and secured for the night. I'll just sleep here."

"Suit yourself." She glanced at Maggie and nodded toward the door. Maggie paused to thank Mr. Pratchet and then quickly followed Warden Côté into the night.

Stella Kowalski frowned at her answering machine. "Stella, I know you're still there. You never leave the house before 7:30. Well, except for that time you were dating Orsini, but that was one of those -what do you call it? -aberration type things and--"

With a disgusted shake of her head, Stella picked up the receiver. "My dating habits are none of your concern, Ray," she snapped irritably. "This better be good. I've got a meeting first thing this morning with the Mayor and am walking out the door. Damn!"

"Stell?" he asked in sudden alarm.

"Don't panic, Ray," she offered in further irritation. "I didn't know it was raining, that's all. Where's my umbrell--Here it is. Is this about Muldoon again?"

He could hear Stella juggling the cell phone as she wrestled the umbrella open and headed out the door again. "Let me drive you to work!" he offered quickly, his overly paranoid brain suddenly seeing her car go up in a ball of flames as she turned over the ignition.

"No," she answered curtly.

"I can be there in five minutes?" he added hastily. "Come on, Stell. This guy's not playing games. I'm worried about you."

"You always were a worrier. It's going to give you ulcers." This was offered almost kindly but in the next instant her armor was back in place. "Oh crap! I left the windows down last night! Damn it, this is just what I nee--"

Her words were interrupted by an explosion.

At 7:42 Thursday morning, Ray Vecchio should have been sleeping. He wanted to be sleeping. He wished he were sleeping! Unfortunately, he was wide awake, fighting the routine of a lifetime that said he should have been up an hour ago. It was useless. Here he was, two weeks paid medical leave, the house was empty and blissfully silent -the kids at school, Tony at work, Ma and Maria at the hospital -and he couldn't force himself to sleep in!

The groan he offered when his cell phone rang was merely an act of conditioning as well. He was actually grateful for the excuse to stop staring at the ceiling.

He grabbed the insistent device from his bed stand and keyed it on. "Vecchio," he sighed, running a hand over his face and debating whether he wanted to lay here another ten minutes or if he really needed to go to the bathroom badly enough to struggle with his damn crutches now.

"They got Stella."

Kowalski. Stella. Ex-wife. Muldoon... Any thought of sleep was instantly banished. "Got her?" he asked as he jerked upright in bed, hearing the pain and anguish hidden in the carefully leashed tones of his partner's voice and fearing the worst.

"Car bomb," Kowalski explained.

The memory of Gardino going up with the Riv three years ago suddenly flashed to mind as though it were yesterday. Vecchio closed his eyes in pain... and the certain knowledge that such a bomb could have just as easily been planted on his mother's car.

"It went off before she got to the car but it still threw her across the parking lot. Bomb boys'll attack the wreckage after the fire department gets the fire out. Paramedics are in route to the hospital and I'm right behind ‘em. Damn!" He suddenly swore. "I gotta stop and get her Mom ‘cause there's no way the docs'll tell me anything. This is just what I--" There was a very long pause before he whispered, "--need." He hung up without further word, leaving Vecchio to frown at the phone in confusion.

It was quickly replaced by concern for his own family.

Muldoon's goons had made a move against their first target. A second move was sure to follow. Damn Ford! They'd told him. They'd told him to protect Stella Kowalski! He'd blown them off with his all too typical FBI arrogance and snobbery. Well, he couldn't blow them off now; though Vecchio had little doubt the weasel would manage to wriggle out of any blame, slinging it about him with a blind self-preservation which refused to acknowledge his own culpability. Hell, he'd probably try to convince everyone that it was a freak accident!

And he'd get away with it. Vecchio knew too well how the system worked. Blame would be dodged and Ford would over-react, bringing down a protection net ‘a gnat couldn't get through'... but an assassin would consider a neon target!

Vecchio wasn't going to wait for the idiot to louse things up! A call to Tony first: get the kids in. Call the hospital, warn the guard there and Ma... No, he'd talk to Maria. A call to Welsh, though he probably already knew what had happened and was already bucking to double the protection on Ray's family... which meant someone would be calling Ford. Damn! There was no avoiding Fed involvement!

Ford would only help Muldoon get his family killed, if Ray didn't do something. Well, Vecchio had learned how to play in Ford's sandbox when he went undercover with the mob for over a year. He'd also learned how to play outside it.

He knew what to do, even if the Feds didn't.

First, he'd protect his family. Then... Well, if Muldoon wanted to play hardball, Ray would have to prove he had the harder balls --and he knew how to use a bat to smash Muldoon's.

Ford frowned at the clock: 8:04 am. A little less than two hours 'til he had to be at the airport to meet one 'Ms. Harrelson', from State. He'd gotten a call at 9:30 last night telling him he would be there to personally greet her and answer any questions she might have concerning the Muldoon arrest and investigation.

Damn, but this was not what he needed! He had enough to worry about what with trying to crack Muldoon's ‘associates'. They had the big fish, they had the little fish, they needed to get all the fish in between and seize the moneys that Ford's counterparts in the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service up north were too stupid to trace when he was first arrested. Ford was busy enough without having to deal with some paper-pushing, knee-jerk skirt from State poking her nose into his job. He was ‘Special Agent in Charge' for crying out loud, not some baby-sitter for a woman who'd probably learned her Miranda rights from watching Law and Order! But orders were orders and, try as he might, he couldn't twist these around enough to permit him to fob the job off on an underling. The bureaucratic broad was expecting him personally. Damn, but sometimes he wondered at the intelligence of his own bosses!

With a sigh, he grabbed a last cup of coffee and turned on the radio in an attempt to quiet his nerves. A car would be here in about half an hour to take him to the airport, where he and his men would double-check last minute, thrown together security measures (not that he was worried: she was only a high paid secretary after all, no matter what her title was) and then stand off to one side of the receiving gate looking important and intimidating until she arrived.

"...north side of Chicago was awakened by the blast of a bomb hidden in the car of Assistant State's Attorney, Stella Kowalski."

Ford choked on his first sip of coffee, spilling the scalding liquid all down his front before he could jerk forward to prevent it. He slammed the cup onto the breakfast bar, burning his hand in the process; and grabbed his shirt with his other hand, pulling the material with the hot liquid away from his skin. Several sharp obscenities escaped the agent's control.

"Speculation as to who and why are rampant; as one of the state's most powerful prosecuting attorneys, Ms. Kowalski has made a number of enemies over the years. One name in particular, however, keeps surfacing here: Halloway Muldoon. Apparently, Ms, Kowalski's ex-husband, a detective with the Chicago Police Department, received a threat earlier in the week against his ex-wife which is believed to be from the high profile criminal. Detective Kowalski was instrumental in the original capture and recapture of Muldoon. Ms. Kowalski was not in the car at the time of the blast but was taken away by ambulance to Cook County hospital. Her condition is unknown at present. We will update this story as information becomes available.

"Elsewhere in the news, the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company announced further layoffs in the wake of--"

Ford clicked the radio off and turned on his heel to head for the bedroom. He would have to scramble to change clothes and be ready when the car arrived. Damn! It was just his luck that someone had to go and make an attempt against the stupid broad. He didn't believe for an instant it was related to the so-called threat Kowalski had gotten. Ford had ordered background checks for Muldoon's lawyers, who were the only ones who could possibly carry messages for their client. They'd come up clean. Now everyone, including this bureaucratic bitch from State, was going to be jumping to conclusions -evidence be damned! That god damned Kowalski just had to spout off to the reporters... Ford was going to have a few words to say to Lieutenant Welsh about that.

Quickly then, he scrambled into a change of clothes. His second best coat didn't fit as perfectly as he liked. The pants didn't have a knife edge crease. The shirt showed evidence of having hung in the closet too long. The shoes were dusty. Damn it! He didn't have time to worry about any of it. He was fumbling to shove the contents of his previous pockets into the new pants even as the door bell rang. A glance at the clock... 8:30 on the dot. He rolled his eyes. When he wanted someone to be late, they were on time; when he wanted them on time, they were late! Crap! He quickly spun and grabbed up his gun, shoving it into his shoulder holster as he hurried to the door. He was hardly at his best, and he knew it.

Still, he shoved the raging emotions aside as he swung the door open, presenting the younger agents outside with the carefully stoic and professional facade that he'd cultivated over the years. His eyes raked their forms, seeking any flaws with which he might find fault. Nothing. Damn it. "Let's go," he ordered simply, masking his irritation with difficulty as he strode down the walkway.

What a way to start his day.

"Back off, Ray," Stella ordered with a mild glare for her ex. She had a pounding headache and was in no mood to deal with his overly-solicitant presence. The bright red serge standing at his shoulder wasn't helping the headache any either.

Ray, who'd been tempted to take her arm and guide her to a chair, raised his hands in surrender before he touched her. "You look like hell, Stell," he offered in concern.

"Gee, thank you, Ray," she snapped sarcastically, well aware of what she must look like. She had been lucky that the bomb went off the moment she triggered her remote to turn off the security system -while she was still a good ten feet away from her car. She'd been thrown twenty feet by the blast and suffered a mild concussion, lots of cuts and bruises, and a broken wrist. Had she been a few feet closer, she might not have survived. She didn't need Ray commenting on what she looked like! "The blown to bits look is all the rage in Ireland these days. Don't you like it?"

"Stella." Her mother's voice cut across the angry tones in clear censure.

"I'm sorry," Stella sighed. She always tended to be overly-defensive around Ray, overly harsh and irritable, especially with strangers watching. She glanced at the two plainclothes cops in the background. Ray still had the ability to get under her skin, and it wasn't something she wanted anyone else to know. They'd been good together, they'd been very good together, but ‘they' were over. Just his smile was a temptation to a way of life she'd rejected when she divorced him. She wasn't about to change her mind about it, but he seemed unable to accept that. "I have a headache and I missed my appointment with the mayor. Can someone just take me home already?"

"No way, Stell," Ray dared interject. "Someone just tried to kill you!"

Stella rolled her eyes, and then winced because of it. Closing her eyes, she lifted a hand to message the bridge of her nose. "Really? I wouldn't have realized that if you hadn't told me," she rejoined. As she opened her eyes again, she caught her mother's ‘look' but she wasn't up to being nice and charming at the moment, even for her sake. She sighed and waved at the two shadows. "I'm under police protection, Ray," she stated what he must already know. "The DA called the Police Commissioner, who in turn called Welsh. I'm just going to pick up some of my stuff then disappear into a safe house, all right? It's not the first time someone's threatened me, Ray."

"Yeah, but this is the first time they got so close."

"I think your forgetting Mr. Weston," she groused.


It was Fraser who answered. "I think she's referring to Dwayne Weston, the deranged young man who blamed her for his wife divorcing him and who attempted to blow her up, not once, but twice: First with a champagne bottle and, later, at her apartment where I was forced to throw the device into the air and let it detonate harmlessly above the parking lot of her apartment complex. Well, relatively harmlessly. As I recall, a young man did have to go to the hospital when a burning piece of--"

"--I remember, Frase," Kowalski interrupted the monologue. "Orsini. ‘De Cara A La Pared.' Psycho. Got it. But she wasn't hurt in that one. And Weston ain't in the same league as Muldoon."

"No. No, of course not," Fraser agreed readily.

"Muldoon's in jail," Stella interjected with a weary and irritated sigh. "It might be one of his henchmen, it might not--Why the hell are you hanging around here, anyway? If you want to help me, Ray, get out there and find the stupid asshole. I don't need another nurse maid."

"Stella!" her mother objected yet again.

"Oh, please..." Stella rolled her eyes again in sheer frustration

"I will, Stell," Ray answered, ignoring Mrs. Cox because--Well, because there was nothing else he could do. "As soon as I'm sure you're safe."

"I'm safe, Ray!" she exclaimed angrily. "I got a small army of cops watching me, thank you kindly." She offered Fraser a small glare as she realized what she'd just said. God, he was rubbing off on her too! She turned the glare back to Ray, knowing that the only way she was going to get through to him was to be painfully blunt. "I don't need you here, Ray. I don't want you here. Go do your job already and let these guys do theirs."

"Stella Kasia Cox Kowalski!" her mother gasped.

"Damn it, Mom!" She grabbed the older woman's arm and hurried away, not caring in what direction she was going as long as it was far, far away from Ray. God, but she hated it when her mother called her that. She didn't even realize the sexual connotations that could be put on it and she had to say it in front of a bunch of strangers! Stella only hoped Ray hadn't seen the blush she'd felt raising before she turned away!

Ford hated O'Hare International Airport. It was particularly a nightmare where security arrangements were concerned. Too big. Too busy. Hard to isolate the protectee. Well, it wasn't like he hadn't dealt with it a hundred times before. If this were a high profile protectee, they'd be taken off the plane first, directly to the tarmac and a waiting car. That was easy. However, Ms. Harrelson didn't rank that kind of treatment. A detail of five men and two cars was quite sufficient for their needs. More than sufficient. A single agent would have been sufficient, but she had to insist that he be there. He hated putting on the dog and pony show for some bureaucratic bitch, but she'd walk all over him if he were to meet her alone. The show was needed to impress upon her just who was in charge here.

A young punk wearing army surplus camouflage pants and a black T-shirt with some heavy metal band's logo on it, flopped down in a chair next to the departing gate. Which was next to the receiving gate. It was too close as far as Ford was concerned. A simple nod from behind mirrored sunglasses sent a subordinate to harass the boy. They didn't need his type anywhere near the area.

At least the flight was on time, so Ford and his men weren't forced to stand on ceremony for too long. When the receiving door opened, Ford quickly scanned the detail. Their attention immediately shifted outward, scanning the crowd and passengers waiting to board. He nodded slightly and turned his own attention back to the gate. He hadn't been told what Ms. Harrelson looked like, but he wasn't concerned. She'd be one of the first off the plane and would undoubtedly announce herself by zeroing in on them.

Tammy sighed as she gathered up her single carry-on bag and swung her purse onto her shoulder. It was time to get to work. She was not looking forward to it. There was trouble in the FBI's Chicago Field Office and she suspected it had a name: Ford. She'd read through his file before coming here and, not surprisingly, it read like a who's who of the FBI. He wouldn't be 'Special Agent in Charge' if it didn't. The file also smacked of being 'sterilized'. There were no black marks against him, no demotions or disciplinary actions. More significantly, there were also no commendations or letters of recommendation. The lack of black marks didn't surprise her. She wasn't FBI. She was used to receiving carefully cleansed documents. The lack of commendations or recommendations, however, was very telling.

If she had the time, she'd do some heavy digging. She didn't. There were people above her asking questions. It was her job to find the answers. She had two days to do it.

She very nearly rolled her eyes as she stepped into the terminal to be confronted by five carbon copies of 'Men in Black' waiting to greet her. She'd been expecting Ford and a driver. They'd be talking interagency business so she didn't expect a taxi, but this... 'Pompous bastard' was her first impression. She slipped a smile into place and decided to see just how he wanted to play this little scenario he'd set up for her.

The first thing she noted was that he made no move to come to her, even after it became obvious she was heading for him and his little group. He watched in silent and stoic disregard as she joined them, then forced her to make the opening statement. "Mr. Ford?" she asked quietly, purposely ignoring his correct title and laying on a thick southern drawl sure to disarm him.

A muscle in his jaw twitched before he spoke. "Agent Ford, ma'am," he corrected her as he pasted a carefully correct smile in place. "Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Field Office for the FBI." Without asking, he reached out and took her bag, tossing it to another agent. Her hand was then taken and tucked firmly into the crook of his arm. He smiled as he turned and all but manhandled her into walking at his side. It betrayed an extremely arrogant and chauvinistic attitude. The man actually had the audacity to pat her hand! "Did you have a good flight, Ms Harrelson?" he asked patronizingly.

So, that was the game he wanted to play, did he? The oh-so-important Agent in Charge condescending to meet with some empty headed little secretary he could feed his bullshit to and have it come out smelling like a rose. Fine, she could play that game -she was a master at that game -if he expected an empty-headed know-nothing, then that's what he'd get, but he wasn't going to like how it ended.

"Tolerable, Mr. For--I'm sorry!" She corrected herself with an embarrassed little laugh. She was really laying it on thick. "You said, 'Agent Ford', is that right? The flight was rather borin', actually, but then they all are, aren't they? I've never been to Chicago, though. Is it as windy as they say it is?"

She allowed the small talk and banter to go on until they were in the car and headed into town, where no doubt he intended to drop her at some high priced motel and have as little to do with her while she was here as was humanly possible. He even suggested having one of his men drive her around to go shopping while she was here! Unfortunately for him, she had no intention of being that accommodating.

"Now, Mr.--Agent Ford, I am here on business, you know," she told him with a smile and heavy drawl. She even dared bat her eyes at him. Any of her friends would be rolling on the floor laughing by now, but this bozo seemed to be eating it up with impatient relish. "I have a few questions I'm afraid I have to ask you, do you mind?"

"Not at all, Ms Harrelson," he answered graciously, his eyes still hidden behind those ridiculous sunglasses. "That's what I'm here for." Again, the patently insincere smile.

She enjoyed watching him squirm under the quiet lash of her oh-so-gentle drawl. He had to be thinking she was an absolute dizt, but she was about to disillusion him on that score. "Thank you. As you know, I am here in regards to the Muldoon investigation. I have reviewed the case history and your report concerning his arrest. A very nasty case, there."

She paused a moment to search for her note pad and pen, waiting to see if he'd make any comment.

"Yes," he took up the conversational ball and ran with it. "Yes, very. Holloway Muldoon was a notorious international arms dealer and terrorist. I am proud to have been instrumental in taking him off the streets."

"As you should be," she agreed. If you really were 'instrumental' in it. She mentally reviewed the various reports she'd read concerning Muldoon's recapture. They all said that 'agents had been present for the arrest', but none of the agents were named. There were no notes about the investigation before the arrest, no notes concerning the kidnapping and efforts made to find Miss Vecchio. It made her want to laugh at his 'instrumental'! But she didn't. A little digging would confirm her suspicions and provide that much more rope with which to hang him. How the hell such a buffoon had risen to SAC was beyond her!

"I hope you aren't going to ask me about those stupid threats," he offered, lazing back in the seat as Chicago sped by outside the mirror tinted windows.

Tammy froze for an instant. 'Stupid' threats? Was this idiot about to hang himself for her? "Threats?" she asked innocently.

"You hadn't heard? I'm afraid it was on the news this morning," he explained and offered a sigh. "Someone planted a car bomb in the ASA's car. She happens to be the ex-wife of one of the men who originally helped arrest Muldoon last year. He and a couple other guys claim to have gotten threats from Muldoon, but there's no evidence whatsoever that the notes are from him. Doesn't seem to matter though, half the town is jumping to conclusions. I was afraid you might do the same thing."

"Well, I would hope not, Agent Ford. Though... it does seem a bit of a coincidence, don't you think?"

"It's just some copycat hoping to get a thrill ride out of the Muldoon publicity or something." He shook his head dismissively. "Muldoon is in maximum security lockdown. No one but his lawyers have been to see him and I ran a security check on both. They’re clean."

"What about Muldoon's associates?" she asked, careful to keep her eyes on the illegible notes she was taking. She'd developed her own form of short hand years ago and was the only one who could read it. "I assume some of them are housed at the same penal institution as Mr. Muldoon?"

"Yeah, but they're all penny ante wannabes. Local talent for the most part. We're hoping to crack a couple of them and get something that might lead us to one of his front men or gun suppliers. CSIS up in Canada only nabbed a fraction of what this guy's gotta be worth. This arrest could lead to hundreds of arrests and indictments, and millions of dollars in seized arms and property! We're talking the biggest bust in the last hundred years!"

"Sounds big," she offered, carefully masking the sarcasm she felt.

"Darling, you have no idea!"

Darling? Had the idiot just called her ‘darling'? "Actually," she proceeded carefully, swallowing her pride for the time being, "I was thinking that maybe one of Muldoon's friends could be arranging the threats for him, you know, going through his lawyers instead of Muldoon's or something."

Ford was shaking his head before she'd finished. "I've been in this business for fifteen years. Muldoon's too worried about keeping his ass out of the electric chair to worry about attacking anyone -sorry about the language."

Too bad he wasn't sorry about the 'darling'. He would be...

"So, you haven't checked into it." She did not make it a question.

"Not yet," he hedged, "but what with the attempt against Kowalski's ex, I'm sure I'll have too. It's going to mean having to pull men who could be tracking down Muldoon's movements to deal with it." He shook his head in disgust.

"You're not going to be placing Ms. Kowalski in protective custody?"

He shook his head. "The local police have already taken care of that," he answered. "Unless I'm officially requested to, we're not going to get involved. I have enough things to worry about without pulling even more of my men to deal with a stupid copycat!"

"What evidence has lead you to conclude that you are dealing with a copycat, Agent Ford?"

"Lack of evidence, Darling," he corrected her. "There is a total lack of evidence to suggest it's actually Muldoon behind the threats. No motive, no opportunity, no links back to him. Each threat was accompanied by a photo of the intended victim. Muldoon certainly didn't take them! And like I already said, he's too busy worrying about his own life to be worrying about anyone else. If it comes right down to the wire, we might be able to get him to turn his own organization and moneys over to us in exchange for life rather than a death penalty..."

The man was nothing but a glory hound.

"I understand that the photograph which accompanied the threat Constable Fraser received was taken in Inuvik."

Ford shrugged. "Constable Fraser is a walking advertisement for the RCMP, but they don't want him. Bit of a wild cannon, not real good with authority. We've clashed before. I take it he jumped the lines of command and shot off his mouth to someone in State?"

"Not that I am aware of," Tammy answered. "Did you note a calendar in the background of this photograph?"

"No. I don't think I saw his threat." Ford turned to offer her a slight frown as he sub-consciously noted that her southern drawl had lessened dramatically. "Why?"

"Apparently, it was taken a mere forty-eight hours before Constable Fraser received it."

"That merely proves that Muldoon didn't take it," he shrugged.

"On the contrary, Agent Ford," Tammy corrected him. "It argues that Mr. Muldoon ordered it taken, and that he is indeed the author of these threats which you have so lightly dismissed."

Ford laughed. "Ms. Harrelson, I don't know where you're getting your information but I suspect someone up the line has been badly misinformed -or is fighting to keep his political appointment."

"And I suspect, Agent Ford, that you're head is so far up your asshole that you've blinded yourself with your own shit."

Ah! At last, the glasses come off! He offered her a deadly glare before reaching forward to shut the privacy window between the back seat and the driver. Tammy sat back, folded her arms and waited for the eruption.

"If you weren't a woman, I'd deck you for that," he claimed in an angry hiss. "I am the Agent in Charge of the FBI's Chicago Field Office. I am in charge of this investigation. You can ask what questions you want and I will answer them as I see fit, but you will not, under any circumstances, question my decisions or pass judgment on them! No one speaks to me in that manner, do you hear me? You will apologize or I will turn this car around and put you on the next plane back to Washington where you can tell your self-serving, brown-nosing boss what I think of his 'interest' in this case. Do I make myself clear?"

"Very clear, Agent Ford," she answered serenely. "Now allow me to do the same. Apparently, you were not given my full title. I am Undersecretary, Harrelson, liaison to the Department of Justice. My boss is the Secretary of State. His boss is the President of the United States. It is my job to question your decisions and pass judgment on them. So far, I think you're an incompetent jackass. If you want to prove it, try threatening me again. You will find yourself armed with an automatic pooper scooper patrolling the sidewalks outside the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover building. Now, do I make myself clear, or shall I use smaller words so that you can be sure to understand me?"

The man actually paled slightly. Good. She had his attention.

"The Canadian government does not seem to think these threats are the work of a mere copycat. They are in fact quite concerned that you are apparently ignoring these threats, and they have let that concern be known. They have further let it be known that if 'we' continue to ignore these threats against one of their citizens, that it could well prove detrimental to our future political and diplomatic relationship. My boss does not take kindly to being informed of such developments. In other words, your ass is grass and I am the mower. How short I cut it is dependent upon how well you answer my questions and respond to my 'suggestions'." She smiled sweetly. "Unless of course, you'd like to explain to the Secretary of State how and why you have allowed what should have been a fairly simple matter to escalate to the point of being a near international incident? No? I didn't think so. We will begin with Ms. Kowalski and the car bomb attempt this morning. Tell me what you know of this incident and it had better be more than what was on the news a few short hours ago."

"Hey, there," Laurie called, sticking her head into the room and awarding the patient a friendly smile. "Mind if we come in?"

Frannie recognized the voice and closed her eyes in momentary frustration. She and her mother had been in the new room barely fifteen minutes. The psychologist had been in everyday since she woke up. She'd refused to talk to her, ignoring her for the most part as she spouted her psycho babble and assured Frannie that it wasn't her fault. What did she know about it? She'd managed to avoid the woman the other day by claiming a headache, but it wouldn't work two days in a row.

With a silent sigh, she turned her head to see who 'we' were and was surprised by her first real sense of happiness since the attack as she recognized her other visitor.


"Hey, Frannie," the other woman greeted her with a gentle, sad smile as she came forward. Her eyes took in the too pale cheeks, the uncombed hair, the lack of make-up, the fading bruises... and focused on the faint spark of response in her friend's eyes. "How you doing?"

Frannie found herself at a loss for words. She couldn't offer Elaine a flippant, 'Fine', nor could she turn away and ignore the look of pity in her eyes. "Oh, god..." Frannie closed her eyes against the threat of tears as surprised happiness gave way to shame.

"Frannie?" Elaine closed the short distance to the bed quickly. "Are you okay?" she demanded in concern. "Should we call the doctor?"

Frannie shook her head. "I'm fine," she forced herself to say, forced the avalanche of emotion back under control, forced herself to open her eyes and face her friend. Elaine was one of the few people she counted as a 'real' friend. She'd always been there for Frannie, always believed in her and stuck up for her. They weren't exactly 'friend' friends, that is they didn't really hang out together a lot or anything, having different interests and social circles; but, even after Elaine had graduated the Academy and got assigned to the 21st, they managed to talk on the phone a bit and get together for the occasional 'girl's night out'. Elaine took her seriously, respected her ideas and encouraged her to be more than she was. She was... She was more like a mentor. It hurt Frannie to know how badly she'd messed up and failed her friend's hopes and expectations for her.

"You sure?" Elaine asked, taking the hand Frannie unconsciously extended to her.

Frannie nodded and forced a smile.

"You gave us all quite a scare, you know," Elaine offered with a mock frown she was incapable of holding. "I would have come by sooner," she shrugged, "but I had to make up some time at work. Have you heard? I'm transferring back to the 27th."

"You are?" Frannie asked, once again pleasantly surprised. This time she repressed the feeling. If she let any of her emotions break free, the others would follow and she'd drown in the resultant flood.

"Yeah, a position opened up, I requested it, and the transfer was approved. I start next week. Course, I won't be with you in the detective bullpen, but who knows, one of these years..." She offered Frannie another friendly grin.

"Ah, this is good news, yes, mi Cara?" Ma Vecchio spoke up with a smile of her own. "You and your friend will have a chance to get together more often. You must come over to dinner again. It has been too long."

"Thanks, Mrs. Vecchio," Elaine accepted, slightly embarrassed by the effusive offer. "I'd like that."

"When Francesca is better and back home, we will have a big dinner with all her friends," she proposed. "You would like that, Francesca?"

Frannie glanced away from her mother. She couldn't imagine anything she wanted less. "Sure, Ma," she answered, knowing her mother would never understand.

"Uh, Mrs. Vecchio?" the psychologist stepped forward. "I'm sorry. I need to speak with your daughter in private for a little bit. At least, I think she'd be more comfortable if you weren't here?" This last was directed at Frannie.

Frannie glanced down and away. It was going to be 'the talk'. The one where she was expected to tell them what she remembered. The other woman wasn't going to take any more excuses. Frannie had already told the doctors that she remembered 'everything', so she couldn't claim amnesia now...

Frannie also noted that while Dr. Holder showed Ma out, Elaine made no move to leave. Her visit wasn't strictly social.

Frannie withdrew her hand.

"I talked to Welsh and he pulled some strings," Elaine explained softly. "We thought... you know, that it might be easier if I took your statement. I can have them send someone else, if you prefer? Someone more anonymous?"

Frannie wanted to curl into a tight ball and tell the world to get out and leave her alone! She stared at the safety railing and equipment on the other side of the bed without seeing it. Emotions were raging just beneath the surface, just beneath a thin veneer of control. Seeing Elaine had weakened that control. Fear trickled along her spine now, even as she fought to lock it away.

"Frannie?" Elaine asked, reaching for her hand. Frannie jerked it away without conscious thought before Elaine could touch her. "You don't have to do this," her friend continued quietly. "You can throw me out, or I can send someone else in, or you can wait."

Throw her out? ...Like Fraser. Frannie had thrown him out and he hadn't come back. She didn't want to see him again, or so she told herself... but she had expected him to try. She didn't know whether to be grateful or not. She couldn't throw Elaine out too.

"Making a statement doesn't mean that you have to press charges," her friend continued gently. "You can do that later if you want. Or not. But... a couple of them might walk if you don't."

Frannie glanced up at that. Walk?

"Muldoon is facing the death penalty, but a couple of the other guys we caught have no records. Without any physical evidence or your statement..."

Physical evidence? She'd been beaten to crap! She'd nearly died! Those monsters had laughed as they raped her. They'd--


She knew Elaine meant that the evidence from the bloody sheets might be so confused and tainted as to be impossible to sort out. There'd been a lot of them. She didn't remember how many. Actually, if she thought about it, she probably did. She didn't want to think about it. Or sperm. Could the DA get them for accessory to kidnapping? A good lawyer could get them off. A slap on the wrist for conspiracy. It didn't matter. Whatever else they went up for, if she didn't make a statement and press charges, it wouldn't be for rape. A deal here, a deal there... Elaine was right. Someone would walk. Frannie had been around her brother and the station too long not to know how it all worked.

"What do you want to do, Frannie?" Elaine asked quietly.

'Want' to do? Want? What she wanted to do was curl into a ball and die, slip into that void beyond death where nothing mattered, face her judgment and... Even burning in hell was better than--It was her fault! God was punishing her; because of what she'd done, because of what she'd wanted to do, because of all the other times she'd--

Like a hungry monster, her emotions reared up and raked bloody claws down the fragile barrier of her will, seeking to devour her. She turned her back on it, ignoring it. Again. If she ignored it, it would go away.

What did she want to do?

"I want to get this over with," she answered in a monotone.

She had to do this. She had to keep those bastards from doing this again, had to accept her fate and punishment from God. Had to make her statement, file the charges, get up on the witness stand and point her finger at the men who did this. Tell it again and again and again...

The monster behind her roared in glee but she barely heard it. It was becoming more and more distant again, as the damn of her will hardened once more, locking the feelings away.

"I was taking some stuff to the church for Ma," she explained, not giving herself time to reconsider. She stared up at the ceiling and allowed the largest part of her mind to make pictures by connecting the dots of the acoustical tile. Just the basic facts: that's all she wanted, all they needed. For now. "My car broke down on the highway. I called home to let them know what was going on. Then there's a gun in my face and--"

"Hang up." He whispered it. She recognized him. She'd seen him before. The gun was real. She could actually smell it. Where had she seen him before?!


"You want me to splatter your brains all over the inside of your car?"

He smiled.


The memory flashed through her mind. She shut it off just as quickly, shoving the emotions behind her once more. It was last week. It was over. The bastard was in jail. She had to remember it. She didn't have to feel it.

It was the smile that had terrified her the most.

Stop it! She squeezed her eyes shut. The monster was roaring behind her. She had to ignore it. She had to ignore it!

"And... I hung up."

'I should have screamed, should have told Maria to call the police, should have--I should have let the bastard kill me! None of this would be happening now if the god damned son of a bitch had just gone ahead and killed me!'

"There was a van..."

The van was blue.

"You're making a mistake, buster," she laughed. False show of bravado. She couldn't believe this was happening! Talk, Frannie! You're good at talking. Maybe you can talk yourself out of this! "You got the wrong person. My brother's a cop. You really don't want to do this!"

"I know exactly who your brother is... Francesca."

The words surprised her. It wasn't a random car jacking or something. He knew her name! She jerked around, trying to see him again. She knew him! Where did she know him from?! The station? Someone her brother had arrested? She tripped, hoping to break free. Pain! He had her by the arm and twisted it up behind her back! Jammed the gun against her kidneys. It was cold and hard and she could actually feel the hole from the muzzle through the thin fabric of her shirt. Why didn't one of the other cars on the freeway stop? Why didn't anyone see what was happening here!

They couldn't see, she realized. Frannie and her attacker were at the side of the van. She had to do something, but it was all happening too fast! She couldn't think! She had to--The side door opened...


"There were two guys in the back."

No ski masks or anything. They didn't care if she saw them or not... My god! They're going to kill her! Oh, my god!

Elaine frowned as she watched Frannie's face. She'd gone quite pale and was suddenly sweating.

"Frannie?" Dr. Holder's voice called in gentle concern. Frannie didn't respond. "Frannie!" she ordered sharply. "Open your eyes, Frannie. Look at me!"

The eyes snapped open and blinked rapidly in confusion. She lifted her hand to discover herself trembling violently. She frowned. Why was she trembling? "I... I don't feel good," she announced calmly.

It was as much a shock to her as anyone else as she suddenly vomited. It went everywhere: her night gown, the bed, the floor. Elaine and Dr. Holder both jumped back, but not in time. It reeked. The smell alone was enough to keep Frannie gagging even after her stomach was empty.

She was totally mortified. Her mind shut down and the wall that held her emotions at bay shattered. She was completely unaware of anything but her own horror and shame as she curled into a ball of misery amidst the soiled sheets and cried uncontrollably, completely oblivious to the filth she lay in. It was the first time she had cried since everything had happened. She screamed. She didn't hear the doctor. Didn't hear the nurse. She didn't feel the needle that pricked her arm either, but she did welcome the sudden oblivion that opened to embrace her.

The man frowned pensively at the picture Ben held and shook his head sadly. "Sorry," he answered.

Ben nodded, disappointed yet again. "Thank you kindly," he offered and turned to see if he could find someone else who might recognize the courier's picture. Since leaving the hospital and Stella that morning, they'd been canvassing the shops and streets around the consulate to no effect. Most of the other employees and customers of the small coffee house had already dispersed. He didn't see anyone that he or Kowalski hadn't already questioned. The two men exchanged resigned looks and headed out to the street again.

"Okay," Ray sighed as they headed for the GTO, "that's it for your street. Where to now? Around the station house?"

"We might have better luck in the Vecchios' neighborhood. A uniformed courier there would be more likely to be noticed and remembered."

"If he was still wearing the uniform," Kowalski added. "No one saw a uniformed courier at the station. He probably changed."

Fraser frowned and nodded, knowing it was likely true. The uniform had been the man's way into the consulate, but would have been out of place at the station or in a residential neighborhood. He brought his head up sharply as a remote possibility struck him. "I'd like to make another stop first," he decided, sweeping his hat from his head as he slid into the car. Ray slammed his own car door and turned to Fraser for a destination. "Intercity Courier Services."

"You think the guy actually got a job there?" Ray frowned sharply. "I thought your receptionist said the uniform was too big or something."

"Yes," Fraser agreed, "and therefore likely stolen, but that's a presumption on our part. It needs to be confirmed."

"And if it was stolen then maybe the guy it was stolen from knows our guy!" Ray quickly saw where Fraser's thoughts were going.

"Possibly," Fraser hedged. It was a long shot. A very long shot. Timothy Weber had to get the uniform from somewhere. He could have been issued it, he could have borrowed it, or he could have stolen it. If it were stolen, as they presumed, then the victim might have seen him loitering about his place of residence or work. If they were lucky, they might get a vehicle description. If they were extremely lucky, they might get an address. In any case, they might get something more than they had right now.

Tammy frowned down at the many folders and papers she had required on the desk she had appropriated in the office she had confiscated from Agent Ford. He stood before her sweating as she waded through it all. She had given up questioning the man. He had tried (repeatedly) and failed (repeatedly) to divert her. If the question was too awkward, he claimed not to remember or that he had 'not been made aware of that'. There was a lot he wasn't aware of.

"This is everything you have on the Muldoon case?" she repeated without looking up. She'd had to make the same request three times before he pieced together several different files, including those from when Muldoon was originally arrested. She now had about ten inches of papers scattered over the desk, much to his dismay.

"Yes," he sighed in exasperation. "That's everything."

She glanced up over her glasses, awarding him a frown that had him regretting the tone of his voice. He no longer thought she was a ditzy skirt from State, he thought she was a fire breathing bitch! Which was perfectly fine with her.

"When were you informed of Ms. Vecchio's kidnapping?" she asked again. It was one of the questions he'd avoided earlier.

"I don't remember," he claimed again. "Friday night, I think. Saturday morning, maybe."

"How were you informed?"

"Phone call."

"Who informed you?" she demanded coldly.

"I don't remember."

His answer didn't surprise her. "There are no case notes here."

"They were in the blue folder, Ma'am," he answered, careful to keep the irritation she knew he was feeling from his voice. Despite the apparent mess before her, she knew where all the papers belonged.

She rested her hand on the folder he indicated. "There were no case notes concerning the kidnapping in this file. There were background notes, xerox copies of the original threat and pictures, and a rather vague report concerning the arrest of Muldoon and his men. The rest of it concerns the case following his arrest and that of his men: background notes, police records and interrogation transcripts; but, despite claims otherwise in that report, written by you I note, I see absolutely no indication that you or any of your men were even aware of the case until after the fact."

She didn't bother to wait for a response but frowned down at her note pad and the many notes she'd made there. "How were you informed of the present threats against the three officers involved?"

"Lieutenant Welsh of the twenty-seventh district called to inform us that Det. Kowalski had received a threat against his ex-wife which he believed to be from Muldoon. Upon examination of said threat, we found no direct evidence to implicate Mudoon. Despite this fact," he emphasized, "I did review Muldoon's security procedures and ran background checks on his lawyers. They're clean."

Tammy only frowned harder as he repeated that bit yet again, as though if he repeated it often enough it would become sufficient.

"Why is there no copy of the threat in any of these files?"

"It... musta been misplaced." He squirmed.

"All three of them? And the pictures? What about the forensic reports about possible finger prints? Handwriting or typeface analysis? Paper analysis? All conveniently misplaced?"

"I already said I didn't see Fraser's threat. It was never brought to my attention! Maybe if it was--"

"--Tuesday, October 24, 10:30 am; From: Lt. Welsh, 27th CPD -Const. Fraser has received threat against sister. Reference: Muldoon." She put the memo from his secretary back down and glared up at him. She was sick and tired of his excuses and attempts to pass the buck. "Repeat after me: 'I fucked up.'"

"Look!" Ford finally snapped, bracing his arms against the desk and leaning over it to invade her personal space. She didn't even flinch. "You think you know so god damned much, you try and find someone else to do a better job! I didn't get where I am by not knowing how to prioritize my efforts. I'm sorry that that jack-ass Fraser has got the Canadians jumping to conclusions and breathing down State's neck! I'm sorry that some idiot tried to blow up the ASA! But I don't have time to be defending every decision I ever made, especially if Muldoon is actually behind these things: and I still say it's a large 'if'! I did not see that memo you're talking about nor has there been time to perform the tests and analysis you mentioned. You're nitpicking questions are not helping the situation. I strongly suggest that you can either work with me at figuring this out, or you can go home and let me get on with my job!"

Tammy saw his explosion was nothing more that another attempt to distract her.

"You got where you are by brown-nosing, Ford," she rejoined quietly. "You kissed ass, fed others bullshit and claimed credit that wasn't yours to claim. You're trying to do the same thing now, but it's not working. I want to speak to your superior and immediate subordinate, now."

"I answer directly to Deputy Assistant Director Wallins in Washington, DC." he answered crisply. "I'm the top of the chain of command here in Chicago. You have a problem with me, you take it up with me."

Tammy ignored the man's threatening attitude and simply lazed back in his chair to get him out of her face. "You need to brush your teeth better," she informed him and reached for the phone. His hand slapped down on her's, preventing her from lifting the receiver.

"What do you want from me, Ms. Harrelson?" he hissed. "I've been with the FBI for eleven years and despite what you think, darling, I've earned my position here. I'm not willing to lose it because we seem to be having a personality clash."

Darling? Personality clash?! The man was an idiot.

"Get your hand off me."

He smiled placatingly. "I'm sure, if you're willing to talk about it, that we can come to some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement?" he suggested. He wasn't holding her tight but he also made no move to release her.

"You want a second chance?" she smiled sweetly.

"Something like that."

She tapped a well manicured fingernail from her free hand against her lips as she seemed to think about it. With a smile she laid it across the hand at her wrist then, still smiling, she grabbed his thumb and twisted. He gasped as his wrist and arm were twisted back in a thumb lock. "No," she decided calmly. "And if you ever lay your hands on me again, you can plan on a visit to the emergency room." She released him and picked up the phone. "Deputy Assistant Director Wallins in Washington DC, please. Undersecretary of State Harrelson calling. I'll hold."

"I could charge you with assault for that!" he threatened her angrily, shaking his wrist.

"But you won't." She could charge him with the same thing, but there was no way either of them could prove it.

"I'm doing the best I know how here!" he exclaimed. "What the hell else do you want from me?!"

"If this is your best, I'd hate to see your worst."

"You're a head hunter, is that it?" he accused her angrily. "Canada is screaming, so State wants a scapegoat and I'm it."

"Canada wouldn't be screaming if you had handled these threats properly."

"I didn't see Fraser's threat!" he practically yelled. He calmed himself with visible effort. "I missed a memo. I made a mistake. For that, you're going to flush an eleven year, spotless career down the drain?"

"One: I don't believe you missed anything. And two: you're mistake very nearly cost the ASA her life."

"You can't prove that I saw that memo."

"Frankly, Ford, I don't give a shit," she sighed. "If I had the power to fire you, you'd have been fired over an hour ago. What I do have, is the power to make 'suggestions'. What I 'suggest' is that you have someone go down to the 27th and get copies of those 'misplaced' threats and pictures. What I 'suggest' is that you check with the CPD and make sure Ms. Kowalski and the entire Vecchio family is in protective custody, and that you offer all necessary assistance to ensure their safety. What I 'suggest' is that you contact the three officers involved, and those who are assisting them, and do your job! Stop focusing all your attention on one aspect of the case and take care of the whole. I also 'suggest' you get me your immediate subordinate as I requested earlier before your boss gets on the line here where I plan to 'suggest' that your efforts would best serve this case out in the field. I believe it is Standard Operating Procedure for a Special Agent in Charge to head the most dangerous assignments himself, isn't it? I 'suggest' that right now that would be protecting Ms. Kowalski and investigating the attempt against her life. I 'suggest' you requisition yourself a bullet proof vest." She smiled as he stared at her. "I 'suggest' you get moving. --Yes, I'm still holding."

Ford spun on his heel and marched from the office.

"Again?" the manager sighed, when Kowalski flashed his badge. "I just got done answering questions from the other guys. I already told them everything I know."

"Other guys?" Kowalski frowned in surprise.

"Oh god," the man sighed, "don't tell me they weren't cops! What the hell kinda game's going on here?"

"It's all right, Mr--" Fraser quickly noted his name tag, "--Hansen. I doubt they were here for the same reason we are.”

"Unless you were reporting a burglary?" Kowalski interjected. "Breaking and entering, that sort of thing?"

"Burglary?" the man echoed. "What burglary? One of my men was found dead in the dumpster out back! You're here about a burglary?"

"Uh, not exactly," Kowalski answered, exchanging a surprised glance with Fraser. They'd apparently walked in on a murder investigation. Were the two cases related? "We're from over across town at the twenty-seventh district," he explained carefully, not wanting to interfere with another officer's investigation. "We think someone may have been impersonating one of your drivers. This, uh, dead guy..." Kowalski cocked his head to the side, "was he wearing a uniform?"

"Someone killed him to get his uniform?!" the manager asked in disbelief.

"We don't know that, Sir," Fraser quickly interjected. Such presumptions were dangerous and might have unwanted repercussions on the murder investigation if the two cases weren't related. "A man wearing an ill-fitted Intercity Courier Service uniform was seen entering the Canadian Consulate two days ago." Fraser produced the mug shot and Turnbull's sketch. "We're wanting to question him."

Mr. Hansen frowned down at the xerox copies. "Never seen him before," he shook his head, "but I don't know all the drivers. Mary Lou in dispatch would know. We're real strict about the uniforms, however. First impressions and all that. We make sure the uniforms fit." He glanced back at Kowalski. "Gary was not wearing his uniform when they found him. Underwear and socks."

Apparently, Mr. Hansen's assumptions were not unwarranted.

"How was he killed?" Ray asked.

"They said he was strangled."

The two again exchanged glances, sharing the same thought: no blood or holes in the uniform. "You got the names of the investigating officers?" Kowalski asked.

Change. That’s what life was all about, right? An interconnected chain of cause and effect, if this then that, a constantly evolving dynamic of perpetual change? But it was predictable change, or so Ray Vecchio had always thought. He'd known that going undercover for the Feds would mean change. He'd known it was a dangerous and potentially deadly assignment. He’d known that it would change him as a person and that there might be effects on his life even after the assignment was over. He'd accepted the challenge and risks. He'd thought he knew what changes he faced.

He'd had no comprehension of what the word even meant.

He'd thought of Armando Langustini as a mask he wore. A thin veneer to hide and protect the cop beneath. If only it had been that easy. A month, maybe two, and he might have escaped unscathed. He might have been able to slip the mask off and cast it aside forever. But after four months of intensive training and more than a full year undercover... Ray Vecchio had gotten lost somewhere along the way. Or, if not lost, then changed beyond his own ability to recognize himself.

He remembered many a night when, as Armando Langustini, he would stare up at the ceiling, listening to the silence that entombed him. The nine thousand square foot old-style hacienda in the desert outside Las Vegas had foot thick adobe walls which kept even the chirping of the crickets at bay. He slept in silk sheets on a two thousand dollar bed. Nero, his English trained butler, was an intercom button away. And still he didn't sleep, not well anyway.

Ray had reveled in the luxury and power for the first few weeks, allowing himself to enjoy the ‘perks' that went with the dangerous assignment. It hadn't taken long for the gilt to begin to flake, revealing a house and comforts bought with blood money: money Langustini was paid for arranging hits and taking care of the Iguana Family's ‘dirty laundry'; from drug money and extortion, from pimps and prostitutes, and ten year old kids on the street who'd kill their best friend for a dime bag of cocaine.

Two weeks into the assignment and Ray shuddered when he slipped between the silk sheets at night. At four weeks, the callouses had started to form on his soul and he no longer shuddered. At five weeks, he'd wanted out but had known it was impossible. One morning at about six weeks, the silence had woken him. It had taken him most of the day to realize why. No screaming kids. No Maria and Tony shouting. No Ma shifting pots and pans in the kitchen. No Frannie badgering him to ask Fraser over for dinner. He thought he'd gone through the homesickness routine when he was in training for the assignment, but this wasn't homesickness. This wasn't something his handlers had prepared him for. It was lack of homesickness. He'd suddenly realized that he'd gone two, maybe even three days, without once thinking of his family. The realization had hit him like an ax.

In answer, he'd bought himself a fake mustache to match the real one he wore. A simple phone call had the item hand delivered to his office that afternoon. Risk? His handler would have thought so, but no one looked twice at the return address or questioned the delivery.

At three a.m. the next morning Armando Langustini rose, went to the bathroom, locked the door and shaved his mustache. For the first time in months, Ray Vecchio had stared back at him from the mirror. The risk was worth it. At three in the morning, every morning from that time forward, Armando would rise from his bed and go to the bathroom for a few minutes where he would stand before the mirror and peel off the mustache, peel off the mask, and remember who he really was and why he was there.

Now, two years and a lifetime later, he still had the mustache. It lay tucked away in the back of a dresser drawer, wrapped in a handkerchief. It was a reminder of all he'd been through and a physical assurance that Langustini had never been anything more than a mask.

The last was a delusion he fought to make reality. Langustini had become far more than a mask. That long undercover, doing what he had to do, of course he had. He'd taken over a piece of Ray's soul. It was Ray Vecchio that was the mask now. A mask he wore constantly, fed and nurtured, praying that one day it too would become more then a mask and banish the traces of Armando Langustini that refused to let go.

But not today. There were no masks today.

Damn the Feds. He'd worked his ass off to put the Iguanas and the Bolts and Muldoon behind bars. Risked his life more times then he wanted to think of, done things that had left permanent scars on his soul. His reward? His little sister lay in a hospital bed, a shattered shell of the carefree and capricious spirit she’d always been. His mother and family was under twenty-four hour guard, afraid to fetch the morning paper from the front yard. His best friend feared for his own sister’s life. Stella Kowalski had nearly been killed. ‘Justice system': there was an misnomer! He'd laid down his life and sacrificed his very soul to protect and defend a justice system that ultimately valued the rights of the criminal more than those of the victim; a system that promoted boot-licking, ass kissers like Ford; a system that offered a sad, "tsk, tsk, but you have no proof. There's nothing we can do.'

Damn them all!

He waited impatiently for the car in front of him to pull out of the parking spot he wanted. It had been a long time since he last set foot in The Broken Heart Tavern. He'd spent many a night here working snitches and establishing himself with the lowlife on the South Side. Then Fraser came to town and blew his cover there, same as he did later with Armando. Well, that wasn't exactly true. Ray had been made before Fraser ever stuck his Dudley Do-Right nose in the door. God, the Mountie had been such an innocent back then. ‘Course, Ray hadn't been nearly as jaded and streetwise as he thought either. Yeah, he’d thought he was doing good, taking down a pusher here and a strong arm man there. If he was truthful, he’d admit a few of them had frightened him. The thought disgusted him. Dangerous, yes. Any animal was dangerous when cornered. But it was the blood sucking parasites behind the scenes that were the real danger. Strange what a year of kickin' back with the devil himself could teach you.

He frowned at the building as he pulled into the slot. After almost four years, there’d been some changes. Predictable changes. The sign out front had been replaced. There were bars across the windows. He saw the edge of a security gate that could be dropped down at the front door. It was a seedy dive with a fresh coat of paint on the deteriorating brick facade, but he wasn't interested in the cosmetics of the place. He was interested in one of the cars he's spotted out front. Or more specifically, its owner.

Only someone with a lot of chutzpah and power to back it up could park a late model Cadillac De Ville in front of such a joint and not have it jacked before the door of the bar had finished closing behind him. A quick run of the plates had brought Ray a name he knew.

The inside of the bar was little better than the outside. A slap of paint, some new paneling, carpeting, upgrade the indirect lighting, replace bar stools and the scattering of worn out tables and chairs... Ray frowned as he catalogued it all. The improvements were subtle but it was obvious someone had sunk a little money into the place, and it was more then the city had awarded Chuck after Frankie Drake shot the place up. It was still a seedy dive, but it was a comfortable seedy dive.

Someone besides Chucky was doing business here.

Ray ignored the guarded but hostile looks he was getting and swung his gaze to the man behind the bar. Chuck hadn't changed at all. Tall, balding, and with enough muscle to handle his clientele if one of them got too rowdy, he wasn't a man to mess with lightly. He answered Ray's challenging gaze with a glare that was half disbelief and half anger. Ray offered no smile or oily charm as he made his way along the bar to an empty spot. The smell of unwashed bodies, stale smoke and booze hadn’t changed. The person to his left had taken in the silent by-play between Vecchio and the bartender and instantly vacated his spot.

Chuck eyed the one to Ray's right. "You're sitting next to a cop, Johnny," he offered lazily, and folded his arms.

Johnny, an intimidating giant with stringy red hair, turned and eyed Vecchio. "Thought I smelt bacon."

Vecchio ignored him and continued to meet Chuck's stare. He wasn’t in the mood for games. "You want me and Johnny here to dance? You might wanta check and see if your patroni wants to do another remodel job first. I left the badge at home so the city won't be paying for it this time."

Both men smiled. "He'd mop the floor with you," Chuck decided.

"I don't think so," Ray answered. Johnny glanced down to see a 9 mm unobtrusively shoved in his gut. After a long moment to let the larger man think about his options, Ray surprised both men by slapping a fifty dollar bill on the bar in front of Johnny. The threat of the gun remained however. "I didn't come here to play. Get lost."

A simple jerk of Chuck's head had Johnny snatching up the bill and moving away. Vecchio casually reholstered his weapon as Chuck continued to eye him. He’d thought he knew Ray Vecchio but the smooth talking, flashy dresser who’d conned his way into the place years ago was nowhere to be seen. There were no jokes, no light-hearted banter, and no smiles. Chuck could almost believe the man was dangerous.

"I think you let Armando Langustini go to your head, Vecchio," the other man observed with a pensive frown. "Not real smart down here. Maybe I should see if any of the Iguanas want to talk with you?"

"Save the threats," Vecchio answered without batting an eye. "If they wanted me dead, I'd be dead. Where's Jimmie?"


"Jimmie Vickers. The guy who owns the theft-proof Caddy out front?"

"The Vicar?" Chuck asked in surprise. He leaned against the counter and lowered his voice. "I knew you were stupid when you came back in here, Vecchio, I didn't know you were suicidal!"

Ray merely stared at the man in silence. What Chuck saw in his eyes was enough to make him straighten away and reconsidered the man’s potential danger. This was a man who’d fucked the devil. Or maybe the devil had fucked him. But in either case, he wasn’t the man he had been. Chuck watched as he slid a hundred across the counter. "Where?" he repeated grimly.

Chuck knew that look. Ray Vecchio could just as gladly kill him as pay him, and damn the consequences. Yeah... the badge was a hell of a long way from here tonight. He shrugged and took the bill. "Your funeral. Private room in back. Invitation only."

Ray glanced toward the back and now saw a small but stout older gentleman leaning casually beside an unmarked door. The man was watching him with dispassionate intensity. The age of the guard notwithstanding, Vecchio was quite certain the man could take on the entire bar and not break a sweat.

"Know why they call him the Vicar?"

Vecchio turned back to Chuck, knowing the man he wanted to meet was already aware of his presence. He thought about the question for a second. "He administers the ‘last rites'?" he guessed.

"Got it in one."

Chuck turned to leave but Ray slipped another bill on the counter, stopping him. "I'll take a draft," he said with a mocking smile. No hundred this time. Only a five.

Chuck shook his head, thinking the man had a definite death wish, but he took the money and drew him the requested beer. If he wanted to go head to head with the Vicar, that was his insanity. The beer might well be the last he ever had. Vecchio, however, made no move to go to the back of the bar. He just sat there, nursing his beer. Chuck shook his head and ignored him. Dangerous, yes, but still a dumb ass cop.

It was about fifteen minutes later when Chuck happened to glance up to see the bodyguard approaching Vecchio. "Oh, shit," he sighed and made himself scarce at the other end of the bar. The Vicar would pay for any damages, but Chuck had no desire to get caught in the crossfire.

Ray was quite aware of the other man's approach. Just as he was aware that the bodyguard was aware that he was aware. Ignoring his approach was one of the rules of the game.

"Detective Vecchio," the man addressed him politely.

Which told Ray he wasn't about to be thrown out on his ass. First hurdle down. He turned to the older man and returned the stoic regard with a dispassionate gaze. "I'm not a cop tonight."

The man nodded silent acknowledgment of the assurance. "Mr. Vickers would like to speak with you," he said quietly.

Ray nodded his acceptance and pushed his half empty glass away before rising. He had his ‘invitation'. The bodyguard led him to the back of the bar where another guard met them. They paused before allowing Ray into the inner sanctum. No words were necessary. This too was all part of the game. He nodded at both men and, without complaint, held his arms out from his sides and spread his legs, allowing them to check for wires and confiscate his weapons. It was a very cold, thorough and professional search. No games. There were any number of lowlife crime boss's and bookies whom Ray could have marched up to and intimidated his way past such security procedures, but they were penny ante wannabes or simply stupid. Jimmie Vickers was on a whole different plane.

The two guns, and small dagger he'd added to his usual arsenal, were silently pocketed. He'd get them back when he left. He didn't move as the two straightened and stepped away. "You missed the pen knife in the left inside coat pocket," he quietly informed the younger guard who'd frisked his front. The older man shot the younger a censorious glare for the mistake and stepped forward to redo the frontal frisk himself, confiscating the pen knife in the process. It wasn't much of a weapon, but that didn't matter and Ray knew it. The older man straightened again and nodded, acknowledging Ray's cooperation and silently promising to discipline the younger man for being careless. Bodyguards at this level were not allowed to make such mistakes. Ray nodded in turn, leaving the matter to the other man, and straightened his coat. The door was swung open and he was waved through.

The private room wasn't that different from the rest of the bar. Fifteen by twenty foot or so on a side, there was a private wet bar, a couple of simple couches, some scattered chairs and a dinning room table across from a thirty-six inch TV. It was far cleaner and certainly smelled better, but the decor was in keeping with the rest of the establishment. A police raid would have little reason to question its existence, even if the local officers were all too aware of what likely transpired in here. It told Ray a lot about the man he was dealing with.

Jimmie Vickers was a lot like that back room. A middle-aged man in conservative, casual attire with short dark hair that was only just starting to go gray, a mustache to match and eyes that were hidden behind small wire rim glasses. Nothing ostentatious or remarkable at first glance. He could sit down at any bar or restaurant in town and no one would give him a second glance.

At the moment, he was sitting and enjoying the end of a basketball game. "Have a seat, Ray," he called out. "Long time no see. Knicks are playing the Celtics. I seem to remember you liked basketball?"

Ray allowed a small smile to cross his face as his took a seat and turned his attention to the game. "Some things never change, Jimmie." There were less that three minutes left on the clock. Score 78 to 89, Celtics. Too close to be a foregone conclusion, but far enough apart to make an upset more than unlikely. Ray hissed as one of the Knicks made a bad move and lost the ball back to the Celtics.

"Damn!" Jimmie exclaimed. "They shoulda pulled Martin at the beginning of the quarter."

The two men exchanged a few more comments about the game as it wound down. There would be no business until it was over. It was a careful line Ray had to walk here. He was on this man's turf. Jimmie would set the pace and rules of the game, and Ray had better follow them if he knew what was good for him. Damn, but it was just like stepping back into Vegas.

It wasn't long before the final buzzer sounded and Jimmie shook his head in disgust. Both sides had managed to score one more time but, after that last turnover, the game was pretty well sealed. "The Knicks won't even make the playoffs at this rate," he sighed, clicked the TV off and leaned back on the couch, turning his attention to his 'guest'. He paused a long moment, taking in Ray's appearance and judging the quiet but serious facade being presented. Polite. Respectful. Not submissive or subservient. "You're looking pretty good. What's it been now? 22... 23 years? You were a couple years behind me in school, weren't you?"

Ray nodded. "I was in Frankie's class," he reminded the other, knowing it was probably unnecessary.

"Ah! Frankie Zuko." Jimmie nodded and smiled in memory. "God, he was a little smart ass snot back then. Not a lot better when he grew up, huh? You pretty much took him down before you took down the Iguanas. Where is he now, anyway?"

"Prison," Ray answered. "Racketeering. But I didn't get him. One of his own men ratted him out."

" 'Course," Jimmie nodded. "He started losing it after you beat the crap out of him. Well, before that really. He never was as strong as his old man. The Iguanas, however..." Jimmie offered an appreciative chuckle, "that was a nice bust. Dangerous as all hell. You're lucky they appreciate your style. Don Alfonso is a man of honor and you won his respect. Only the very best are allowed to live after something like that. It humiliates those who failed him and teaches the surviving branches of the Family to be more careful."

Ray nodded. Jimmie had just confirmed the only reason he could think of for why he was still alive. The Feds had wanted him to go into the Witness Protection Program, but doing so would have only endangered his family. Unfortunately, he hadn't considered Muldoon in that equation.

"So," Jimmie sighed, offering his manicure a momentary frown as he switched mental gears. "Word on the street is you're asking questions in all the wrong places. Some of the wannabes think you're trying to get into another Family. Make another score." He shook his head, dismissing the thought. "Impossible to survive that. You're too smart to try a repeat. Yet... here you are."

Here he was.

"I heard about your sister," Jimmie offered pensively. "I heard about the threats. It's not a freelance job and I don't know who's been picked to make the hits, if that's why you're here."

It wasn't. Ray glanced downward, feeling his heart rate increase and he wasn't quite sure why. His mouth had gone suddenly dry and a glance at his hands betrayed a tremor. He closed his eyes and purposely remembered the terrifying glimpse he'd gotten of his sister's battered and pale face, a tube down her throat and a paramedic balanced on the gurney above her, straddling and bagging her, fighting for her life as Fraser and the other paramedic rushed her toward a waiting ambulance; purposely remembered the picture of his mother's smiling face and the cryptic note that had sent his world crashing inward once more...

"I see..." Jimmie murmured quietly.

Ray glanced up in surprise to see the other man regarding him almost sadly. For an instant, their gazes clashed. For an instant, Ray's soul was laid bare to the other man. It was Armando Langustini who came to his rescue, who slammed the door on emotions that could have gotten him killed in Las Vegas.

It was the other man who glanced away, granting him a moment of privacy in which to deal with the emotions that raged within. "It's a dangerous line you're contemplating, Detective," Jimmie advised quietly.

"Can the 'detective'," Ray hissed quietly, a little surprised by how rough his voice sounded. "I'm not a cop tonight."

Jimmie shook his head and sighed. "You'll always be a cop, Ray. You can shove it aside for a few moments, a few days, maybe even a few months. But as you yourself said earlier, 'Some things never change.'"

"He's going after my mother!" Ray croaked, barely leashing the anger and rage that the thought evoked within him.

"He's going after your soul," Jimmie corrected him dispassionately. "You need to ask yourself a question here, Ray: if you cross the line... who wins?"

"Warden Côté? Warden Côté!"

Maggie turned around at the frantic call, realizing almost immediately that someone had mistaken her bright orange Parks Canada uniform parka for that of Warden Côté. From the back, with the hood pulled up, there wasn't much difference between them. The local Inuit woman who was racing toward her pulled up short in surprise.

"I'm Con... Warden Hoagland," Maggie offered, kicking herself for stumbling on the name. She didn't recognize the woman but had probably met her, at least in passing, during a previous posting to Paulatuuq. The inanity of a cover name was irksome and just so unnecess--The look of urgency in the other woman's eye banished the thought before it was completed. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"Tommy Wilson is missing," she answered, speaking quickly as she swiped a hand back over her head, sweeping long black hair out of her eyes. "He and his mum are staying at Sharon's Bed and Breakfast. They come up from Vancouver to visit her sister. The boy, he's ten, he don't know about reading weather sign."

Maggie followed the other woman's glance upward, having already seen and recognized the signs she was talking about. Scattered low clouds, heavy with snow, reflected the approaching sunset as they skimmed fast and furtive across the sky from the northwest. They looked like colorful cotton balls to the uninitiated; but, to those who knew the area, they were an ominous warning. Maggie estimated they had two, maybe three hours at the most before a blizzard swept in.

"Councilman Krukto's calling for a meeting at the church so we can form search teams if necessary. Others are going round the town looking for the boy now."

Maggie nodded. She could hear the occasional call of 'Tommy!' in the distance as the townsfolk went door to door. "What about Constable Ootes?"

The woman shook her head. "He's up at Sachs Harbour. Someone went and shot Ol' Man Dennison's entire dog team. He won't be back for a couple days at least. Maybe more."

Maggie nodded. Such was the inherent difficulty for the RCMP in trying to cover such a vast area with only thirteen people. Local communities had to fend for themselves at times. "I'll go get Warden Côté," she decided crisply. "You keep spreading the word."

Maggie turned and hurried back the way she'd been headed. M-A should be at home feeding her dogs about now. With any luck, little Tommy was snug as a bug playing with one of the local kids in someone's living room, but it wouldn't take long to find out if he was. Given a bored ten year old from down south, it was just as likely that he'd gone exploring and gotten lost. Another glance at the sky had Maggie quickly calculating the remaining sunlight. It wasn't going to be enough. If Tommy wasn't found at someone's house by the time she and M-A returned to the church, they'd be doing a night search and the chances of finding him would be greatly reduced. Teams would have to be organized quickly and outfitted properly or even more people would be put at risk. She quickly inventoried the items she'd brought with her and the supplies she knew to be at the RCMP Outpost. Most everyone knew her anyway so to hell with her cover. She'd have to make sure that only the experienced hunters and guides went out, in groups of two or three. And she'd have to limit the search area and time with the storm moving in. It was unlikely he'd wandered very far... She could only hope he wasn't injured and that he was dressed warm enough so as not to have already succumbed to hypothermia. Had the mother been smart enough to chose a brightly colored parka for him?

Another glance at the sky had her breaking into a jog: Two to three hours. She knew they had to find the boy before then, or they'd be doing a body recovery come morning.

Ray stared at Jimmie in confused and torn silence. Within the legacy that was Armando Langustini's mind, Muldoon was already on a slab. Ray's family was safe and returned to normal: Ma cooking in the kitchen, looking out the window at her grand kids playing, Frannie was home and recovering... And then he saw himself, under arrest, the Duck Boys leading him away as his mother watched in disbelief. Murder and Solicitation of Murder. His family would protest, denying and fighting the truth as long as they could. Then... The inevitable acceptance. The shock and pain... The guilt they would bear for what he'd done and why...

He'd once been accused of tampering with evidence. It had been his old boss, Lt. Will Kelly, a man he admired and respected, that had planted the shoe heel and made sure Ray found it, sealing the Carver case. Kelly had crossed the line and almost gotten away with it. For a time. Ray remembered what it had felt like to realize his hero was nothing but a dirty cop... the lowest of the low, far worse than the criminals he had supposedly fought against. There had been other repercussions too. Every case the man had ever touched had been thrown into question. Who else might he have framed? Every case had to be re-visited, re-examined, re-litigated. Convictions were over turned. Innocents and felons alike had walked. Even Carver's original case was thrown out and the time he'd served on it was applied to his new sentence. They were damn lucky his confession hadn't been thrown out, or he too might have walked.

And why? Kelly wasn't on the take or doing someone else's bidding. He wasn't a bad cop in need of a big bust. Hell, it was Vecchio who'd gotten the credit! No, he'd done it because Carver was a sadistic bastard who was going to slip through their fingers. Because, circumstantial evidence and taunting innuendoes be damned, they couldn't prove that he had killed either of his victims and a murderer was going to walk. Again.

But Muldoon was already in jail. It was the system that was failing here, not police work. Ray’s heart screamed in agony at the thought of what that sick son of a bitch would do if he got a hold of Ma or one of the kids, the pain and agony Ben would be put through if Maggie turned up missing or dead... the depression and self-destruction Kowalski would be going through right now if that bomb hadn't missed! The god damned son of a bitch was playing with them, safe and secure in his prison cell where no one could touch him. What were they going to do? Charge him with attempted murder?

He was laughing at them!

Ray's hands curled into white knuckled fists as helpless rage and fear combined to send acid coursing through his veins. The god damned son of a bitch didn't deserve to live! Why shouldn't Ray cross the line? Why shouldn't he do what had to be done? A few words. That's all it would take. Jimmie wouldn't question his decision. The other man knew and understood the line; knew what crossing it meant, and the price Vecchio would have to pay if he did so.

Wasn't his soul a small price to pay for his family's safety?

He opened his eyes and faced the other man, his decision made. Jimmie waited patiently, a man who had seen too much of the darker side of life not to understand what he saw burning in Ray's eyes. Facing him, Ray could almost see a visible line between them. Once he crossed it, there'd be no going back. The deal would be struck and Muldoon's hours would be numbered.

Who wins?

The question rocked him back on his heels as it echoed in his mind. Ray suddenly realized that even if Muldoon was dead, there was no guarantee his family would be safe. He could sell his soul to the devil only to have Muldoon laugh at him from beyond the grave as Ray's family continued to be hunted, picked off one by one... Ray had no way of knowing what kind of set up Muldoon had placed in motion.

But what else could he do?!

With a little sigh and a shake of his head, he looked back over at Jimmie. Ray had absolutely no idea what he was going to do, but he wasn't going to let Muldoon win. Not that easily. "Thanks," he offered quietly. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."

"No bother," Jimmie waved it off, but Ray knew how lucky he was. No one had a face to face with a Mob Boss at the Vicar's strata and then said nothing. Of course, any other Mob Boss would have jumped at the opportunity Ray presented and pulled him over the line rather than warned him off. Jimmie was a rarity in the crime world. A man who still believed in honor among thieves. "This going after innocents leaves a bad taste in my mouth," Jimmie grimaced. "Even I have lines I won't cross. I'll keep my ears open and let you know if I hear anything."

The line between them wavered and faded into the background as Jimmie stepped over it. Without another word, Ray rose and shook the other man's hand, then turned and left. Jimmie watched the door close behind him and shook his head sadly. There had been tears in the younger man's eyes and the slightest of tremors in his handshake. He'd very nearly broken. Nasty business indeed to push an honest cop that far.

"Remember: keep your walkie talkies on and set to the proper channel," Maggie emphasized again. She paused as one of the locals translated her words into Siglit for those more comfortable in their native tongue. "Teams, keep your partner in sight. Don't divide up to try and cover more ground. If you get in trouble, your partner is there to help you. Don't hurry your search. If he's hurt and unconscious, you could miss him. Chances are, he hasn't wandered far. If you're out on the ice, be careful of seal holes. We don't need anyone breaking their leg or falling in the water. And everyone keep alert for polar bears." Most of what she was saying was unnecessary as all those she'd chosen were experienced hunters and guides, but she said it anyway. Most of the bears should have headed north and northwest onto Amundsen Gulf and the Beaufort Sea, following the edge of the arctic ice; but Maggie knew there would still be rogue wanderers here at Darnley Bay and further west around Franklin Bay. With the noise the teams would be making, a bear attack was unlikely. She didn't want to think about a ten year old running across either danger. "I expect teams to check in every fifteen minutes. Failure to check in will result in the nearest team being pulled from the search for Tommy in order to search for you. If the weather gets too bad, I'll be calling everyone in. Don't ignore me. We don't need any dead heroes out there. Questions?"

There were none. With a grim nod then, she waved them to the door of the church and the twelve teams hurried to their assigned search areas. Maggie let M-A take the lead for the two of them as the Park Warden knew the area far better than the Mountie. The last of the sunlight faded quickly, bright colors were muted, fading to black and white before disappearing into shadow on shadow tones. The wind was starting to pick up as well with the fast approaching front as they made it to the western edge of the small hamlet. A large gibbous moon shown through the fast moving clouds but only intermittently. Soon, it would be blocked all together.

"Tommy!" Maggie called out loudly as she played her electric torch across the ground. It had been a beautiful day and various kids had been playing in the area earlier. Paulatuuq was a small community of less then three hundred people, but it was a busy and social community. There were tracks all over the place. She swung the light further outward. The ground was rough and broken, the thin covering of snow tumbled and wind blown. There were few trees this far north, yet the land was far from being barren. Heavy scrub dotted the area around them. She noted a number of trails leading from the area, but were any of them wearing a size two hiking boot?

The two women exchanged a sober glance. It would be a difficult search. Without words, they divided to check the various trails while still keeping each other within easy sight.

Ray pulled his car over under some trees and into deep shadows. It was the edge of a park and no one was around. No one could see him as he allowed himself to finally fall apart. The slight trembling became violent shaking as the emotions that raged within were allowed free rein. He folded his arms across the steering wheel and bowed his head against them.

God. Oh god... What had he almost done!

He shook like a leaf as his mind again played out the scenario of what might have been, of wanting to arrange for Muldoon's death in prison. Of stepping over the line... For the last day and a half, he'd pictured nothing else, seeking to meet with someone who could make his revenge a reality, hungering after the other man's death like a rabid animal! He wanted him raped to death, like the bastard had planned for Frannie. He wanted him tortured and to beg for mercy before the end. He wanted him dead!

Who wins?

Now, he remembered those thoughts and emotions with utter horror. What had he become? What had he almost become? If Muldoon only knew how close Vecchio had come... Ray could almost hear him laughing now. This was what the other man wanted.

He's going after your soul!

If not for the wisdom of a major crime lord he should be seeking to arrest rather than have a meet with, he would have... He sat up and stared through the windshield into the night without seeing it. The temptation was still there. The Feds were goofing it up. His Ma and family and Fraser's family and Kowalski's... Everyone they cared about was in mortal danger! And no one could touch Muldoon! Except...

No! He wouldn't do it! His Ma and family and friends would not thank him for it. He wouldn't let the god damned son of a bitch destroy his soul!

And yet... if they got Ma...

He shoved the horrifying possibility away. He was too close to the edge: far too close. Forcing his emotions back into lock down, he started the car again. He drove straight to the station, knowing what he had to do. He didn't remember the drive as he mounted the steps and hurried to Welsh's office, which only served to confirm how badly disturbed he was. 8:00 pm. He wasn't surprised to find Welsh still there, though he was in the process of putting on his coat.

The older man glanced up as Vecchio swept into his office. One look at his face had Welsh fearing that Ma Vecchio had been killed. The younger man said nothing. He went straight to the Lieutenant's desk and whipped out his gun and badge, practically throwing them on the paper cluttered surface. "I quit!" he whispered harshly and spun to leave. Welsh was faster.

The older man stepped in front of him and slammed the door. A sharp glare kept the younger man from trying to step around him, but what Welsh saw in Ray's eyes froze his blood. Rage, hatred, fear, hopelessness... It was only Ray's innate sense of right and wrong that kept him from trying to walk through the older man, but it was a close thing. Welsh stared him down and knew exactly how close.

"Sit!" he ordered sharply and pointed at the couch when the younger man finally glanced away in defeat. The larger man then turned and quickly drew the shades, shielding them from the curious eyes of the bullpen. He also paused to lock the door, not wanting to risk an interruption.
Fighting to deal with the adrenaline rush Vecchio had just given him, Welsh swallowed around a dry throat and forced a calming breath before turning to regard the other man. Vecchio had obeyed his order and sat slumped on the edge of the couch, his face buried in his hands. Welsh frowned and re-evaluated the situation. It seemed a tableau of utter dejection, not grief. There had been no grief in his eyes either.

"Your mother?" he asked succinctly, wanting to make sure he was reading the other man correctly. In all their years of working together, Welsh could not ever remember seeing such a look in Ray's eyes before.

He straightened on the couch, awarding Welsh a surprised glance before dropping his gaze to stare at the floor. "Fine. Frannie's fine. They're all fine."

The man was exhausted, emotionally and physically drained beyond limit. "You look like hell," Welsh commented, wondering if Ray were even capable of making a break for it if he moved from in front of the door. He doubted the younger man could summon the strength to stand at the moment.

"I tried to put a hit on Muldoon," he confessed in a harsh whisper.

"A hit?" Welsh felt the blood leave his face as the enormity of what Vecchio had just said hit him. "Do you know what you're saying, Ray?"

"I didn't do it," he clarified with a soul deep sigh, "but God I wanted to. I still do. That's why I have to quit."

"So you can succeed next time and not take the Force down with you?" Welsh surmised. "Are you nuts, Vecchio? We're talking Solicitation of Murder here!"

Vecchio looked up wearily. "I didn't do it," he repeated.

"You didn't succeed," Welsh corrected him and held up a hand to forestall anything else. "You've put me into a very bad position here, Detective. I suggest you don't say anything else before speaking to a lawyer."

"I didn't do it," Ray repeated emphatically, glancing up at the older man and holding his gaze. "I never said the words."

"You said you 'tried'..."

Ray nodded. "I wanted to. I wanted to so bad. I went looking for someone, anyone who could make it happen."

"Are you sure you don't want a lawyer, Ray? Be very careful what you say here..."

The detective shook his head wearily and frowned down at his hands. "I walked right up to the line. I toed it. A gentle breeze could have knocked me over it..."

"Because he's threatening your family." It wasn't a question. Welsh understood the strain and stress Vecchio was under all too well.

"I came too close, Lieutenant." He looked up again and Welsh was shocked to see tears barely held in check. It was obvious that Ray was terrified by how close he'd come to the line. "I have to quit. I'm a danger both to myself and others. If he hurts Ma--or someone else... There's no telling what I'll do!"

Welsh felt like a man who'd been gut punched. Locked away in prison and the sick son of a bitch was still managing to destroy Vecchio! The lieutenant moved away from the door and went to stand beside his desk, frowning down at the badge and gun that lie there as he thought furiously. "No one can tell you what you'd do, Ray. God willing, we'll never find out. But I can tell you what you're going to do right now and that is not quit." He turned to frown at the other man. "I won't let you flush a twelve year career down the drain. A career, I might add, that I just scraped and groveled with the commander to save. Terrance Tuppence had a major fit about you attacking him in the cafeteria last week. You were very nearly charged with assault and battery. As it is, I have to write you up and you're going to be on probation when you come back --which, might I remind you, isn't due to be for another week. You're still on medical leave due to that bit of shrapnel you took in your leg, which apparently isn't bothering you any more?"

It hadn't until he'd mentioned it. "I heal quick," Ray muttered, ignoring the dull burn in the back of his left thigh.

"Physically, maybe," Welsh agreed. "Mentally and emotionally, you're a mess. And that's not your fault anymore than the shrapnel was. I should have ordered you into the shrink as soon as you could sit up."

Ray winced. He'd known it was coming. Whether he'd admitted his near self-destruction or not, someone would have 'suggested' that he see the doc sooner or later.

"Due to the traumatic nature, and family involvement, of your last case; I am ordering you to see the police psychologist for evaluation and counseling." Welsh confirmed Vecchio's fears as a direct order and not a request. "And you will do so immediately. The fact that you're still on medical leave means it won't look unusual or strange on your record. When you return to work, in one week, you will be placed on administrative duty until I have received medical clearance from the doc, am I clear? You were going to get stuck behind a desk anyway, so lets make good use of the time. I will go ahead and keep your badge and gun for both our sakes, but you will return to work and you will continue to help us track down whomever Muldoon has sent after your family, Stella Kowalski and Constable MacKenzie. Muldoon isn't the worry right now, Detective, it's whomever he tapped to do the job we have to stop."

Welsh folded his arms and frowned as the dejected detective absorbed this blunt and sobering fact. "We're going to get this bastard," he promised the younger man grimly.

"While I'm hugging a desk!"

"I'm not taking you off the case, Detective," Welsh assured him. "In fact, your job may be the most important of all: Hitting Muldoon where it hurts the most. Think about it, Ray. You spent over a year undercover with the mob running their money laundering operation. Who better to trace and help seize Muldoon's world wide assets? Shut the money down, and how does he pay the hit man?"

Dry it up at the source. Ray looked up again, his mind clicking over the logistics of everything, analyzing what the Feds should have gotten and what they hadn't. He knew the feds had probably had experts going over and through the stuff for months... but they didn't have Ray's hunger or need for vengeance. They might be great at number crunching but they didn't have his experience playing the game from the inside. The Iguana's had taught him tricks the Feds had never thought of. He nodded. The game was far from over. He wasn't going to forfeit now. He glanced at Welsh and nodded again.

"That line a bit less tempting, Vecchio?" Welsh asked careful.

"Receding in the distance, Sir."


"Team 9," the man on the other end of the walkie talkie lifted his voice to be heard over the rising wind and static of the storm. "Nothing."

Maggie sighed grimly as the last of the twelve teams checked in. The weather and Tommy's chances were deteriorating rapidly. It had been over two hours and conditions were starting to get dangerous. She suspected the wind-chill factor to be around -40C as the leading edge of the storm whipped about them in heavy, blustery gusts, swirling ice and small bits of debris all around them in the black of night. The reach of the powerful lanterns was becoming impaired. Maggie had hoped to give them as much as three hours but the front was moving in too quickly. Any tracks that might have led them to the boy had long since been obliterated and, given his mother's description of his clothing, Tommy's chances of still being alive were becoming nonexistent.

"Tommy!" she yelled one last time, angry at the futility of the effort. She knew it was time to call it and order the searchers in. Those on the ice were probably three or four miles out. They'd be in serious danger of not making it back if she didn't end this now.

With a heavy sigh she pulled her face mask aside and lifted the walkie talkie to her mouth. "This is Constable MacKenzie. I'm calling off the search. Repeat: I'm calling off the search. All teams are to report back to the church. Acknowledge."

"Maggie!" M-A called out from her left.

She turned to see the park warden collapse to her knees, then fall face first into the frozen ground. What the--"Warden Côté's down!" she announced sharply as she hurried forward. Had Maggie failed to catch the signs of approaching hypothermia in the other woman? Did M-A have a heart problem or some other unknown underlying medical condition that should have kept her from the rigors of such a search? Had she injured herself and not told Maggie--

--There was something protruding from the back of her right leg. The light from Maggie's electric torch danced and jumped as she ran toward her fallen partner, making it hard to see what it was. It was bright red, or was it orange? She finally stood beside her fallen friend and bent to kneel--

--A sharp pain stung her posterior, making her straighten suddenly in surprise and reach a hand back to the injured... She gasped again as her hand brushed something. She quickly grasped it and pulled it out, bringing it around to the light. A dart. She glanced again to M-A and the back of her leg. Tranquilizing dart.

Muldoon's threats were real.

"Damn it!" she hissed, feeling the drug already stealing away her senses. Quickly, she lifted the walkie talkie and keyed it open. She spun in place to get her bearings only to realize that her vision had closed to a spinning tunnel. "Help!" she managed to gasp as her knees gave way and then oblivion swallowed even the spinning vortex of the night around her.

She rolled over and frowned blearily at the clock. Why in heck had she set her alarm for three in the morning? Meg swatted at it ineffectively She'd decided last night she didn't need to get up before--

It wasn't the stupid alarm clock. It was her phone. Crap! Who could be wanting to call her at such an impossible hour on a Saturday morning? With an audible groan, she fumbled the thing off the hook and brought it to her ear. "Hello?" she snapped irritably. If it was a crank call, she'd crawl through the line and eat the person on the other end for breakfast.

"Um... Meg Thatcher?" a woman's voice on the other end asked.

Meg was instantly awake. There were very few people who had her real name anymore and even fewer had this number.

"Who is this?" she demanded firmly.

"Park Warden Marie-Andrée Côté," the voice on the other end answered. "It's an emergency."

"Oh, god..."

Fri 4:34 AM

Ben gave a sudden start as the phone in the kitchen jerked him from sleep. He seriously hated the thing, especially when it rang in the middle of the night. They were always wrong numbers. A glance at the clock beside his bed confirmed it was only 4:34 am. If not for Inspector Mitchell requiring he have a phone, he would have never gotten it. He allowed himself the briefest of fantasies in which he buried his head beneath his pillow and let the thing ring, but found himself rolling out of bed before the second ring had ended. Dief whined, telling him to ignore it, but Ben was no more capable of doing so then he was of being impolite when he answered it.

The forth ring had just started when he reached the wall mounted device and lifted it from its cradle. Maybe he should have a second jack installed in the bedroom. At least that way he wouldn't have to get out of bed to answer it. Somehow, he couldn't justify the expense to himself just because he was lazy.

"Constable Fraser," he answered, running a hand over his face to wake up fully. "May I help you?"

"Ben. It's Meg Thatcher."

Ben blinked in confused surprise. "Meg?" he asked, using her first name without even thinking. It had been several months, almost a year, since she had transferred to CSIS and he'd last seen her. "I mean... uh--" Well, she had called him by his first name. It wasn't unreasonable that he should answer--

"I'm sorry to wake you," she offered quickly, ignoring any question about propriety, "but... It's about your sister, Constable MacKenzie."

Ben felt his heart stop for just a moment and then adrenaline was answering the fear that coursed through his veins.

"She's alive," Meg hurried to assure him, "or... at least we think she is."

He swallowed around a tight throat and forced a slow deep breath as he listened to her explain the situation as best she could based on what someone else had told her. Maggie was supposed to be undercover but had been kidnapped early last night while running a Search and Rescue operation for a missing child during a storm outside Paulatuuq. The storm had prevented a message from being relayed to the RCMP for several hours. Her search partner had been shot with a tranquilizing dart and, upon recovery, had immediately called Thatcher who was responsible for placing Maggie undercover to begin with. Meg had immediately contacted the local RCMP detachment in Inuvik and CSIS headquarters in Ottawa. An armed Search and Rescue operation would be mounted at first light, but...

Ben glanced at the clock above the stove, doing the math himself. 4:30 am in Chicago was 3:30 am in Inuvik. Sunrise should be around 8:30 am or a little later. That was another five hours...

"Ben, did she call you? Or contact you in anyway over the last seventy-two hours?" Meg asked, dropping her explanation with a concerned note.

"No," he answered. "I was informed she was being placed undercover somewhere but not where. Why?"

"Paulatuuq might be relatively close to Inuvik but her cover was quite good. The means used to mask her trail should have drawn any potential assailant south."

"You think there's a leak in Inuvik?" Ben surmised.

"...Somewhere," Meg agreed. "It's only been three days and is unlikely to have originated in Paulatuuq unless the kidnapper is a local and has ties to the area."

Ben rolled the very unlikely possibility around in his head. A leak within the RCMP or CSIS was more probable... and more dangerous. Mounties were not immune to bribery, as he knew only too well.

"I'll be on the first flight out," he decided, dismissing speculation and turning his thoughts to the logistics of getting up there as quickly as possible. First, call for tickets. Then Kowalski. He'd take care of Dief and get Ben to the airport. As much as Ben would like his lupine companion's assistance, he suspected this round of battle would be over before Dief could clear quarantine. He'd have to call Inspector Mitchell as well... and Vecchio, ‘though Ben could wish to spare him the added stress. He wasn't ready to resume duty yet which left Kowalski to handle the investigation from down here while running up against the wall the FBI had erected against them. There was no help for it.

"Ben, I know you want to come up here, but--"

"--She's my sister, Meg," he interrupted her sharply.


Ben closed his eyes. Personal involvement. The RCMP would fight him on this one, fearing a lack of professional detachment. He briefly weighed the question, acknowledging the danger his own emotions posed, and then dismissed it. He'd have to move quickly if he was to avoid a direct order to stay out of it... in which case, he'd be forced to resign. It still wouldn't stop him. "I'm coming," he answered firmly.

Meg sighed. She'd expected nothing less. "I'll meet you at the airport. Have you got something to write with?"

Ben's thoughts skipped onto another track. "No," he told her, "don't meet me. In fact, you should leave. The attacker may be aware of our friendship and target you as well."

"I can take care of myself, Fraser," she answered predictably. "Constable MacKenzie is my responsibility. Now, let me give you this number."

Ben clenched his teeth in frustration, suspecting that he and Meg were dancing to Muldoon's music too well, but seeing no immediately escape that didn't involve abandoning his sister. He reached for the pad and pen he kept on the counter and silently jotted down the number Meg gave him. "I'll call when I have the flight itinerary."

"Be careful, Ben."

"I will. Watch your back." Meg was in far more danger, at the moment, than he was.

Meg agreed and with that they both hung up. He sighed and bowed his head wearily, offering a silent prayer for her and his sister both. And for Frannie while he was at it. She was still on Muldoon's list. He was suddenly assaulted anew by the memory of the man laughing after his arrest, taunting Ben with the suspicion that they'd killed his unborn son...

If only he'd killed the son of a bitch!

But he hadn't. He shoved the memory aside. Never had he regretted a decision more! Yet, regret didn't help him deal with the repercussions of that decision. With another sigh, he opened the phonebook to find an airline and the fastest way north.

It was the headache that she was aware of first. A splitting pain behind her closed eyes that throbbed in time to her heartbeat. God, had she gone out drinking with the guys and let one of them slip her a mickey or something? Her mouth tasted like three day old socks! They knew better than to pull such a prank. Whoever had done this to her was going to pay.

They hit a bump and her head bounced, sending agony shooting through her skull and making her realize that she was moving. Confusion assailed her as she blinked her eyes and she realized too that she wasn't in a jeep or car. Those were stars overhead. The sound of a snow mobile penetrated her sluggish thoughts next. Trying to sit up, or at least turn her head, completed the fractured puzzle. She lay mummified and wedged into a sledge that was speeding through the night behind a snow mobile.

With the knowledge came full awareness and memory: the missing child, the search, the worsening storm... She'd been shot with a tranquilizing dart! Maggie immediately tested her range of movement and confirmed her worst fears. She wasn't simply wedged into the sledge for safety. She was tied hand and foot, and going nowhere until her captor decided otherwise.

Why hadn't the man simply killed her?

It had to be Muldoon behind this. Maggie knew the man had made threats against her and others from prison. Ottawa had taken those threats seriously but Maggie had thought this whole going undercover scheme was a bit over the top. Apparently, she'd been wrong. Not that the going undercover seemed to have worked. How in the world had they found her after all that nonsense with the planes and fake name and...

The timing of the attack suddenly hit her. The man, whoever he was, had attacked her and M-A from ambush. He could have done that at the park but the storm... The storm was the key. It would hide their tracks. Of course, she wasn't likely to be out and about in a storm so he had arranged the need for a Search and Rescue, then waited until the last second to make his move, knowing the storm would also prevent a message from being sent out to Inuvik until he'd managed to get a safe distance from the area. Had he kidnapped the missing child? Was Tommy still alive or had the bastard killed him just to set up the opportunity he wanted?

Maggie had no illusions about her own situation. Muldoon had made his intentions very clear with his attack against Francesca Vecchio. He meant to destroy the men who'd arrested him by destroying those they loved and cared about first. If her attacker hadn't killed her, then it was because Muldoon had ordered something worse for her.

She tested the ropes that bound her again in vain. There was no give in them at all. She frowned up at the stars overhead. He was heading northwest. Toward Inuvik? That didn't make sense, but then she didn't know what direction he'd taken while she was unconscious. The storm had passed fully, so she knew she'd been out for several hours. Judging by the position of the constellations, she decided it was about five in the morning. It was hard to tell as they bounced over the rough terrain in the dark but she thought the wind was still blowing rather strongly, obscuring their trail and making tracking them difficult. He'd still have to stop before sunrise as she knew the RCMP would be launching an arial search at first light and suspected he knew it as well. The entire scenario was too well set up to be the work of an amateur.

She was in serious trouble. It was impossible to even delay the man because he'd had the foresight to rope her into the sledge as well as tie her up. She was going to have to wait and see where they were going, and then hope her assailant made a mistake. Otherwise, she was dead.

"Thank you, Ray," Ben offered again, glancing nervously at his watch and saying nothing as Kowalski accelerated through a yellow signal light in the pre-dawn morning traffic. Ben's flight was scheduled for 7:10. He had twenty-five minutes to get to the airport and get checked-in.

"You actually thanking me for speeding?" Ray joked.

"Of course not," Fraser answered with a frown and glanced at the speedometer. Ray was five miles an hour over the limit. Not exactly speeding, for him. Ben tugged his ear as he realized he felt absolutely no desire to correct him, even though he knew that the five miles an hour difference couldn't save him more than a couple of minutes at the very most. "Well, yes," he admitted reluctantly. He couldn't believe he was tempted to ask him to speed up! "Could we not discuss it, please?"

Kowalski offered a quiet laugh. Who'd have thought Fraser would ever be wanting him to speed? Still, Ray changed the subject. "When's Dief gotta go to the vet again?"

"Oh! I'd almost forgotten." Fraser frowned sharply at the reminder and glanced to the back seat where his lupine friend lay. The wolf awarded him a reproachful look for failing to remember he was due to have the bright blue cast that encased his right front leg removed. "I'm sorry," Fraser apologized, "I've had a few other things on my mind." The wolf rolled his eyes and turned his head aside. Fraser knew Dief had already forgiven him (he too was concerned for Maggie), but he'd never admit it. He'd make Fraser pay when he got back from the north. And pay, and pay... "Eight o’clock Monday morning," Ben answered, glancing back forward just in time to see the lights and grill work of a large panel van before it slammed into his side of the car.

It was well before dawn when Maggie felt the sledge come to a jarring halt. For a moment, she was simply grateful for the cessation of movement. She’d lost all track of time as she fought to endure the barrage of bumps and bounces that threatened to beat her to death. She suspected the land they’d traversed had less than a foot of snow in most places, not enough to really cushion the constant shaking and jolting of the heavy sled as it was dragged across the rough and rocky ground behind the snowmobile. She felt like one giant bruise despite the many layers of arctic clothing and blankets that had been tied around her.

That is, she was grateful until she remembered she was a captive and that stopping meant she was one step closer to whatever fate her captor had in mind for her. She quickly realized that the abuse had failed to loosen the bindings that held her. It was still quite dark and her range of vision was extremely limited. Her hood, scarf and the wind muffled sounds but didn’t mask them entirely. Maggie concentrated on what she could hear and easily pictured her captor dismounting from the snow mobile. She heard him trudge toward her and braced herself for whatever would come next.

The man shuffled into view and gazed down upon her. The moon had set hours ago, leaving only snow reflected starlight to illuminate the broken landscape. It was enough to reveal shape and form, but not enough to reveal color or cast shadows. Her captor was a man familiar with the area and it’s requirements. He was dressed in a well worn but heavy parka of native design but she couldn’t make out any details. That alone was not enough to tell if he were in fact a native himself. Heavy gloves, pants, mukluks... The face mask and snow goggles were more modern equipment. A high powered rifle was slung behind his right shoulder.

Mustering her strength, and a healthy lung full of air, Maggie yelled for all she was worth. “Heeeeeeelp!”

Her cry was cut off as he brought the butt of his rifle around and jammed it into her gut, effectively knocking the wind out of her. She next found the business end of the rifle in her face warning her not to try that again, not that it could really deter her. “If you were going to kill me, I’d be dead already,” she gasped, challenging him.

“You are dead, Mountie,” the man answered in a flat and slightly nasal voice, causing her suspicions about possibly having to deal with a native to the area to grow even if she couldn’t see his face. He swung the rifle away and back over his shoulder. “You just don’t know it yet.”

“If you know who I am, then you know you can’t get away with this,” she argued in quiet anger. “They’ll hunt you to the ends of the Earth!”

“They’ll try,” he answered flatly. “Scream again and I’ll gag you. Besides, anyone comes looking, I’ll have to kill as well. You don’t want that on you conscience, now do you?”

Maggie glared up at her captor. She might not be able to see his face but his tone of voice told her he was serious. He’d have no compunction about killing anyone who got in his way. That threat was a far stronger deterrent than that of a gag.

“I didn’t think so,” he decided and turned away.

“How much is Muldoon paying you?” Maggie asked, wanting to keep him talking under the general principle that any effect at stalling was in her best interest. Hopefully, someone had heard her scream and would report it. She had no idea how far or close they might be to a cabin, Inuit hunting encampment or other civilization. Sound out here carried a long way. A report of such a scream might at least give the RCMP an idea of where to start searching for her. “Is it really enough considering that you’ll have to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder?”

He seemed to think about it for a moment before nodding. “Yep.” He turned and moved out of her line of sight before she could come up with another argument. Great, Maggie thought, just how much had the idiot put on her head anyway?

“Why are we stopping?” she dared call out. Was he attempting to mask their location from an aerial search or was he planning to kill her now?

She heard him rummaging and assumed he had some packs tied to the snow mobile itself. A second call was also ignored. When he finally stepped back into her line of sight, he moved to kneel beside her and held up a knife. He pulled the blankets about her aside and unzipping her parka part way.

“You really don’t want to do this!” she warned him, fighting back the taste of panic that threatened to grip her. She fought her bonds as she wondered exactly what he was going to do with that knife. She felt the sharp edge press against her throat and froze.

“Stay still or you’re going to get cut,” he warned her quietly. “Your choice.” The knife moved away and went to work on her undercoat and the layers of clothing beneath. Maggie held still. Fighting, if he wasn’t planning to immediately kill her and it didn’t sound like he was, wasn’t in her best interests at this point. After a few moments, he’d bared her shoulder and collar bone. With a little sigh he turned and sheathed his knife and then produced a hypodermic which he proceeded to fill.

“What is that?” she forced herself to ask, knowing she was helpless to prevent his administering it.

“Sodium pentothal,” he answered flatly. “Don’t worry, I’m not after any state secrets just some sleep for both of us.” He jabbed it firmly into her arm and depressed the plunger. “Night-night, Mountie.”

Oblivion was almost instantaneous.

“Stay still, Sir!” someone to Ben’s left commanded firmly with a hand on his shoulder to help reinforce the order. “Stay still. You’ve been in an accident. Can you understand me?”

“Accident...” He blinked his eyes open, fighting to focus, only to see the twisted and shattered remains of a windshield. Windshield?

“You’ve been in a car accident, Sir,” the man informed him. Ben tried to turn his head that way only to discover pain and the fact that they’d already slipped a cervical collar in place. “Stay still, Sir!” the man ordered again. “You have to stay still until we can get you out of here--”

Out of here. Ben frowned, fighting the pain and confusion away. Car accident. He seemed to remember a pair of headlights... He blinked sharply, trying to make out more than the collapsed roof support and opaque shatter pattern of safety glass in front of him. He tasted blood and suspected he’d bit his lip. It was only then that he realized he was trapped in the car.

“--You hit your head pretty good. You could have a neck or spinal injury--”

He fought to focus beyond his immediate surroundings. Dawn was quickly chasing night away but the light was still soft and the shadows were quite long. Colored strobe lights flashed in his periphery, reflecting off torn and twisted metal in a scene of controlled chaos. He could hear voices calling orders back and forth, the stop and start of cars as police directed traffic around the accident, and the sound of a fire hose being used to wash down the pavement. The faint but distinct odor of gasoline from a ruptured tank stung his nose, whether the GTOs or the van’s he didn’t know. He knew he needn’t be too concerned about fire at this point. He couldn’t see the other vehicle. Probably behind them. It looked as though it had struck them just in front of his door panel. That door was badly buckled, shoving him almost to the center of the front seat despite his seat belt which had since been cut away. He knew he was lucky to be alive.

“--Can you tell me if you hurt anywhere else? How do your legs feel?”

Legs? The roof support was twisted and bent, the dash and roof itself crushed downward, effectively pinning his legs. Pain flared with the conscious acknowledgment of his situation. “Broken,” he managed to confirm. He prayed they weren’t crushed. The simple but inescapable pressure that held him in place made it impossible to tell how bad it really was. Unless he was imagining things, he could still wriggle his toes. It hurt like hell but he could still feel them. He was wearing his unform boots, without the rest of the uniform. The steel toes might have saved his feet.

“Your legs are broken? Are you hurting anywhere else, Sir?” the paramedic repeated.

Hips, abdomen, chest-- “Ribs...” Bruised or broken, he couldn’t tell which. “Right arm...” Not surprising. It had taken the brunt of the initial impact but it didn’t feel broken. Shoulder, neck-- “Head.” The paramedic had said he’d hit his head. He pretty much ached all over if he thought about it but it seemed his legs had gotten the worst of it.

“Do you have any allergies or medical conditions we need to be aware of?” Ben shook his head slightly and kept shaking it as the man went through his verbal check. “Any asthma or cardiac condition? Are you on any prescription medication at this time? Any over the counter stuff? Aspirin? Cough syrup? Antihistamines? Nothing?”

“Nothing,” he confirmed. “X-rays will show a bullet in my back. It’s an old wound.”

“Mmm!” The paramedic jotted some quick notes. “Thanks for telling us. The docs tend to freak when they see things like that. So, you’re saying you’re pretty healthy? Anything else I need to know about? No drug allergies or drug abuse? Any alcohol or drinking lately? Don’t worry about the cops. I gotta know so the docs can take care of you right. Lying ain’t going to do anything but make things a hell of a lot worse.”

Ben shook his head again as best as the neck restraint would allow. His neck felt fine. He wished they’d take the stupid thing off but knew better than to ask. “I am a cop,” he offered, using the same nounage as the paramedic. It wasn’t how he would normally describe himself, but he wasn’t up to unnecessary chatter. He understood the need to ask such questions but answering was taxing. He could feel shock creeping up on him and closed his eyes, relaxing back into the seat to conserve his strength. “Constable. RCMP. No drugs. No alcohol.”

“RCM--” The man sounded confused for a moment. “A Mountie?” he asked as understanding dawned. “Here, in Chicago?”

“I work at the consulate,” Ben explained with a sigh and opened his eyes to try and look around again. Sleep was too tempting.

It was obvious the GTO was totaled. Ray was going to be hurt to lose it. He and his father had worked so hard to restore-- Ray? His sluggish thoughts suddenly realized he hadn’t been driving and that the paramedic was on his left, inside the car with him.

Which meant Ray wasn’t.

“Ray!” he called out suddenly, fearing his friend had been ejected. He couldn’t remember if he’d been wearing his seat belt... Ben fought the cervical collar and hand at his shoulder, fighting to free himself from the wreckage as he imagined the worst. “Ray!!!”

“Stay still!” the paramedic snapped firmly, grabbing both shoulders and refusing to let go. “I said stay still! If you could get out of here we’d already have you en route to the hospital. Now sit still before you hurt yourself even more!”

The man’s words, and his own pain, managed to penetrate Ben’s confused and dazed panic. He was trapped. It was that simple. He was going nowhere until the firefighters had cut him free.

“Ray?” Ben asked again, forcing his mind to work. “The driver?”

“The driver’s doing fine. He was yelling his head off about you before they packed him off to the hospital. Your name’s ‘Frasier’, right?”

Ben ignored the mispronunciation as always and attempted a weary nod, regretting it as he awoke a pounding headache. Not surprising. He probably had a concussion. Shock was rearing its ugly head again. His mind skipped to the passenger that had been in the back seat.

“Dief?” he asked.

“Deef?” the paramedic repeated. “Frasier Deef?”

Ben winced irritably as he realized he wasn’t making a lot of sense. “Benton Fraser,” he correct impatiently. “Diefenbaker is my wolf. He was in the back seat.”


“Half-wolf,” Ben amended. “Is he all right?”

“Ah, yeah,” the paramedic allowed, glancing back over his shoulder. “--I think somebody already took him to the vet. He had a cast on his leg?”

“He was hit by a car.” And apparently, had been yet again, albeit under very different circumstances. If he was on his way to the vet, than he was alive; but Ben knew very well that even if both his friends had been killed outright, he wouldn’t be informed until after he was stabilized at the hospital. He was comforted by the knowledge that Ray had provided them with his last name which meant that at least he’d been awake when taken from the scene.

Ben was suddenly hit by the memory of Maggie’s abduction and where he’d been going when the accident happened. “I have to get to the airport!”

It was another voice from his right that answered him. “I’m afraid you’re going to miss your flight, Mr. Fraser.” A sideways glance in that direction revealed a fireman leaning in the broken passenger window and offering a patient smile for his incoherency. The brown eyes looked beyond him to the paramedic. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s a little out of it but with us. His vitals are all strong.” Ben received a gentle, reassuring pat to his shoulder. He fought not to roll his eyes. He wasn’t nearly as ‘out of it’ as he knew he sounded. At least, he didn’t think he was.

“That could change when we get the pressure off his legs,” the other warned and handed over a thick blanket through the window to the paramedic who immediately began spreading it over himself and Ben. The fireman glanced back over his shoulder and called, “You guys ready with the backboard?”

There was an affirmative answer from the distance.

Damn, damn, damn! Ben cursed silently as the blanket was brought up over his face and head, knowing without being told that it was to protect him from flying glass and debris as the firefighters literally cut and pried him free of the twisted metal and plastic that held him in place. He’d worked a few car accident scenes in the past. There’d been a nasty one while he was in Moose Jaw in which a young couple and their child had died. He understood all too well how lucky he was to have survived this one, but he cursed the fact that it had happened at all. Why did this have to happen now? Why now!!?

He heard what sounded like an outboard motor start up, accompanied by a loud thrumming and soft hissing. Air hydraulics, he identified it, wondering if it were the Jaws of Life or the giant nippers that would be used first to help extricate him. He knew that his level of pain was about to go up exponentially. He also knew the paramedics couldn’t give him anything for it until after they’d evaluated his condition fully, something they couldn’t do while he was still trapped in the vehicle, though he realized belatedly that they’d already started an IV line.

There were times he regretted his own curiosity and thirst for knowledge.

The edge of the blanket beside the door was lifted and the fireman, his face shield lowered, gazed in at them. “Ready?” he asked and glanced beyond Ben to the paramedic. “You staying in there?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” the other man answered with another pat to Ben’s shoulder, then reached across Ben’s chest to grasp his right forearm. His other arm was also taken. “This might hurt but you gotta stay still,” the man explained as he lay across Ben’s chest and prepared to restrain him in the event of struggle. “These guys work really fast so just try to stay still. We’ll have you outta here before you know it.”

Damn, damn, damn... His thoughts turned to Maggie again. Meg would have a fit when he didn’t show up at the airport. Would anyone have the foresight to call and let her know what had happened? He wasn’t even sure anyone knew she was involved in the case. All he could do was pray that the RCMP found Maggie before her abductor-- He refused to think about what her captor might be doing right now. She was alive. He concentrated on that. The man had used a tranquilizer. Well, he’d used a tranquilizer for the search partner. It didn’t make sense that he’d--

The revving of the emergency rescue equipment interrupted his thoughts and then a sudden violent vibration, transferred throughout the frame and fabric of the car, sent pain jolting through his being as his rescuers went to work. The angry scream of tearing metal helped mask Ben’s own scream before he felt oblivion welcome him once more.

Ray Vecchio was not a happy man, but then there hadn't been much in his life to be happy about for over a week. After promising Welsh to see the shrink first thing in the morning and leaving the station last night, Ray had come home to discover some rather radical changes.

Apparently someone at the FBI had gotten their act together. Or maybe the DA had come down with both feet when Stella Kowalski was nearly blown up. Whatever caused the shake up, Ray had walked in the door to discover a full-blown FBI protection net in place. Two agents inside, two agents outside. Tony, Maria and the kids had been taken to a safe house in another part of the state but Ma had refused to go.

Ray had tried arguing with her, but it was impossible. She was in full affronted matriarch mode. This was her home and no one was going to drive her out of it. Further, she'd stated, Francesca would be released from the hospital soon. It was important that she return to as normal an environment as possible which, Ma insisted, did not mean an unknown house with strangers watching her every move! Bad enough that the strangers could not be avoided entirely but Francesca could at least be allowed to return to her own home, her own bedroom, and her own mother. His mother absolutely refused to discuss the situation further, adding only that her running away would do nothing but endanger the rest of the family. She had kissed Ray upon the check, wished the agents watching their exchange a good night, and gone to her room.

Needless to say, Ray had not gotten a lot of sleep. He'd questioned the FBI agents but they really didn't know much beyond the parameters of their assignment. Ford, naturally, was not in the Chicago FBI Field Offices. Ray had managed to leave a message and requested a copy of all the FBI had concerning Muldoon's financial records. The last would certainly cause some raised eyebrows and might at least pique Ford's curiosity enough to get him to return the call, not that Ray expected anything beyond a major head butting session with the man. He had little doubt that he'd have to go over Ford's head and call in some of the major favors he was owed from working the Iguana case in order to get what he wanted. At the very least they would require another security clearance check and he'd have to pull some strings if he wanted the documents before next year.

Then, just when he'd finally decided that sleep was a necessity if he was going to avoid the temptation of chewing Ford a new asshole whenever he did call, Fraser had phoned. The knowledge that Maggie had apparently been abducted had been devastating, ‘though Ray was careful not to let his friend know just how upset he really was at the news. Had he learned of it only a few hours earlier, he might not have resisted temptation but strode over the line without a backward glance! The fact that Fraser was flying out at dawn had come as no surprise, but only added to Ray's concern and frustration. Benny's reaction was far too predictable. Unfortunately, Ray knew better than to try and argue with him.

After the call, which had come at around five, Ray had given up any thought of sleep. He was wound far too tight. He'd crash later when the adrenaline rush wore off and exhaustion finally did him in. Instead of tossing and turning for the next two hours, Ray rose and dressed again. He found one of the agents assigned the grave yard shift in the kitchen and spent a few minutes discussing security arrangements, then made his own security check of the house. An alarm system would be installed first thing tomorrow with redundant power supply and interior control systems to keep anyone from tampering with it. Everything that could be done to protect his mother, would be done.

He'd finally settled in the living room and was watching CNN when one of the agents' walkie talkies announced that they had visitors. "Give me a description," Unger demanded of the team outside even as Madison joined him outside the living room and they drew their weapons. Ray frowned in frustration as he realized that his back up gun, the one he normally wore in an ankle holster and which he'd ‘forgotten' to turn over to Welsh, was still in the guest room he occupied downstairs, unloaded and locked in his bedside table drawer. The agents had waved him back and he'd had little choice but to obey.

"Wait, it's our people," the team outside answered Unger's demand. "Steed and Peel. And it looks like they got that Assistant-whatever-she-is from State with them."

"At 7:15 in the morning?" Madison asked with a frown.

Unger could only shrug. They weren't due to be relieved until eight, nor were Steed and Peel slotted to replace them. It had to be something to do with the broad from State but they really should have called first. Maybe she was in a hurry or something. Unger moved to the door and checked the peep hole before holstering his weapon. The ‘Assistant-whatever-she-is from State' preceded the two agents that shadowed her and nodded a greeting at the two inside before looking beyond them to where Ray stood in the living room archway.

"Detective Vecchio?" she greeted him with a smile and soft, lilting southern drawl. "Assistant Deputy Director Harrelson from State. Sorry to bother you so early, but I have something I think you want?" She held up a thick manila envelope.

Agent Unger took it from her. "My apologies, Ma'am," he offered without real apology as he eyed the envelope and then proceeded to open it. "Standard procedure." He eyed the contents without removing them, then walked over and handed it to Ray.

Ray eyed the smartly dressed woman askance before turning his attention to the envelope. He didn't have a very good opinion of most government busybodies and a high ranking title didn't impress him. "What's an Assistant Deputy Director of State--" His words died as he pulled out a few sheets of paper and realized what he was holding.

"I was still at the Field Office going over some old files when your request came in," she explained. "I was supposed to fly out yesterday but one thing lead to another. You know how it is. Anyway, I was there so I decided to ‘expedite' your request." She offered him a mischievous grin as he stared at her in surprise.

Wow! A federal employee who actually knew what the word ‘expedite' meant. Now, he was impressed. "Thanks!" he offered, genuinely appreciative. "Um, can I take your coat?" he asked, belatedly remembering his manners. He knew there was more to a visit by an Assistant Deputy Director of State than dropping off a package. Any flunky could have done that. And he was jaded enough to know that he might not like that reason, but at the moment he was too happy to get what he wanted without a fight to really care!

"Raymundo?" Ma called as she rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs. She stopped in mild surprise as she saw the number of people standing in her foyer. "I thought I heard voices. Hello."

"Ma," Ray quickly stepped forward to introduce everyone just as the phone rang. Madison waved Ray to continue as he excused himself to answer it. The group was moving into the kitchen where Ma had already started some fresh coffee when Madison hurried to Ray's side to whisper in his ear.

Ray's face went pale. "Oh, my god..."

"Ray?" Ma asked in concern, reading her son too easily.

"It's Fraser and Kowalski," he answered even as he turned and headed down the hall to his room. "They were in a car accident!" he yelled back over his shoulder. Quickly, he threw his door open and went straight to the bedside table. He retrieved the gun and began to load it.

"Muldoon?" Assistant Deputy Director Harrelson asked from his doorway. He turned to find that they'd all followed him. His mother stood just behind Ms. Harrelson, holding her rosary.

"Don't know," Vecchio answered, "but I'm not taking any chances." He snapped the gun shut, set the safety and slipped it behind his back before reaching for his coat.
"I am coming as well," Ma decided belatedly.

"No, Ma!" Ray rejoined firmly. He turned to grab her by the shoulders, physically stopping her from turning to get her coat while also offering what comfort he could. "No," he repeated. "It's not safe. I can't be worrying about you, them and myself all at the same time." It was an argument she couldn't fight. He saw instant but anxious capitulation in her eyes. "I'll call as soon as I know anything," he promised just as firmly. Only once he'd won a sad nod of acceptance from her, did he let her go and turn to head for the front door.

Harrelson stepped in front of him. "We'll take my car. Steed, you drive."

Ray had been on his feet all day, and all night, so his leg was really complaining. Frankly, he was too damn tired to be safe behind the wheel, so instead of arguing he merely nodded and fought not to limp as he followed her quickly out the door.

Kowalski was not a good patient. He was, in fact, a very poor patient, and he knew it. Patience was not one of his virtues. There was nothing that Kowalski hated more than having to sit still and wait on someone else. He was the kinda guy who wanted to be up and moving and attacking problems head on. Stakeouts… well they weren't the same. Yeah, sure, maybe he was forced to stay relatively still for hours on end, but he was always having to watch something or someone. He knew too well that things could go from deadly boring to just plain deadly in a heartbeat. He had to constantly re-evaluate the situation, second guess what the suspects would do, grab the evidence and watch his back all at the same time. It wasn't like being stuck in a exam room, twiddling your thumbs, until some hot-shot, know-it-all deigned to give you thirty seconds of his time.

He wasn't even hurt!

Okay, okay, so maybe he'd gotten a few bumps and bruises. He remembered most of the accident; except for maybe a minute after he'd hit his head, and even then he didn't think that he'd knocked himself out or anything. Just rattled the old brain bucket a bit. He'd hit his head and some glass from the driver's side window or somewhere had managed to slice his arm open, but it wasn't like he was going to bleed to death or anything!

Fraser though… It was Fraser they'd needed to be worried about Fraser he was worried about. Damn, he'd been out like a light. That van had seemed to come out of nowhere and slammed into their right front wheel area, caving in the front half of the car and spinning them around like some kinda toy top! The windshield had shattered but, what with the safety stuff they used now, it hadn't done much of anything except turn into a macabre imitation of cloth, draping itself about the twisted interior. The impact had actually bent the frame, pulling the roof down and buckling the dash. Fraser had been shoved right up against Ray. He remembered how still the other man had been, and how terrified he'd felt until he realized that his friend was still breathing.

A whine from the back seat had snagged his attention. Damn! Dief woulda been tossed around like a rag back there. Kowalski had tried to turn to check on him and it was then he'd discovered pain: his head, neck, arm... Hell, he pretty much hurt all over.

Of course, he hurt all over! What did he expect after being t-boned by some idiot doing fifty in a thirty-five.

It was about then that the pedestrians on the scene had started playing good Samaritans. At least they did it right. No one tried to drag them outta the car, afraid that it was going to explode or something. In fact, the good Samaritan with him insisted that he stay put and not move, assuring him that an ambulance was on its way. Belatedly, Ray had remembered to turn off his ignition, and told the guy who was busy trying to apply pressure to his arm without hurting him any worse, to make sure that they did the same with the van. He even asked after the other driver, but he couldn't remember the answer that he'd gotten. He'd asked after Dief too… He only remembered that the wolf wasn't trying to get up in the front seat to check out his master. He thought that he remembered insisting that the wolf be taken to Ben's normal vet; and that money wasn't an issue, knowing that Ben had money set aside for such emergencies. Someone or other had assured Ray that they'd see to it.

Other than that, his memory was taken up by worry for the other man who continued to lay unconscious at his side. By the time that the emergency response people had arrived, Ray had been anxious to insist he was fine, and do whatever he could to help free Fraser.

That idea had gone over like a lead balloon!

He hadn't gotten both feet out of the car before they were forcing a neck brace thingy around his throat and shining lights in his eyes and wanting to tie him down to a backboard. He'd argued with them; and then, like an idiot, had stood up too fast. Next thing he knew, he was on that backboard, in an ambulance, on the way to the hospital whether he wanted to be or not--

--to be... or.. 'To be or not to be. That was the--'

That wasn't the question! The question was, 'where the hell had that stupid thought come from?' It came from being stuck in this stupid room for the last fifteen minutes waiting for other people to get their act together! He was going crazy with worry ‘bout Frase and simple boredom, that was all.

Because he'd been brought in by ambulance, Ray had been seen immediately. His mind wasn't real clear on everything that had happened, as it had all happened so damned fast. It was almost like being in an accident all over again! The hyper-activity of the docs had passed as they realized he wasn't about to croak on them. 'Course, he'd made the mistake of admitting that his neck hurt, so a bunch of X-rays had been ordered. They kept repeating, 'Let's just be on the safe side, ok?' anytime he raised a complaint. Questions about Fraser had been answered first with, 'I don't know,' and later with, 'I'll try and find out.' Well, if someone didn't 'find out' real quick like and come tell him, Ray was going to rip the IV out, toss the stupid collar aside and to hell with 'being on the safe side' anymore!


Kowalski glanced up at the soft call and actually sighed in relief to see Vecchio standing at the curtain beyond his feet. The other man awarded him a bit of a smile and a once over as he stepped inside the cubical, moving to Kowalski's right side. "I would say 'good morning,' but I suspect that would be rude."

Kowalski answered with a mocking grin. "Very funny. Listen," he sighed, glad that Vecchio was here to shake things up. "I ain't getting diddly-squat about Fraser out of no one here. What're they telling you? I know he's gotta be here by now and I know you woulda checked on him before coming to see me, so--"

"--Hello?" another voice interrupted their conversation.

The two men glanced up to watch a young, dark haired doctor sweep forward followed by a nurse and a technician pushing a giant portable X-ray machine.

"Hi," she offer Vecchio a small nod of greeting and then turned her attention to her patient. "I'm Dr. Abikahs. How're you doing, Mr. Kowalski? Getting impatient with us yet?"

"In a word, 'oh-yeah!'" he answered emphatically.

"Sorry 'bout that," she offered, moving forward with the nurse to start unstrapping him from the backboard. "Just lie still here and let us do the work, okay? --This seems to be the morning to have car accidents. We just had a four car pile up on Wacker come in. And it wasn't even a full moon last night." She glanced up at the other man as he was forced to move back to make way for the X-ray equipment. "Mister..?"

"Vecchio," Ray answered, making sure his feet didn't get run over. "Ray Vecchio."


"Partner," Vecchio answered. "Chicago PD."

The doctor nodded and glanced down at Kowalski again. "High speed chase?"
"At thirty-five? The guy ran a red and smashed right into me." He glanced back and forth from the doctor to Vecchio. "I was just asking him about the guy that was with me: Benton Fraser? I keep asking you guys and no one's answering."

"When we're busy like this, it's kinda hard to keep track of everyone. 'Benton', you said? A Mountie, right?"

"Yeah..." both men agreed simultaneously.

"Are you family?"

"I'm listed as next of kin," Vecchio volunteered. The doctor answered that with a lifted brow. "I am!" he insisted. "His family's up in the Arctic Circle." And could be dying right now for all they knew, but Vecchio didn't say that. "Check his chart if you don't believe me!"

The doctor eyed Vecchio for another long moment and then nodded, relenting. "I evaluated him when he came in," she revealed. "He's up in O.R. having some pins put in his legs, but he should be fine. From what I saw anyway. You'll have to wait and talk to the surgeon when they're done with him. Go up to four and let them know you're waiting for word on him. They'll keep you posted."

"Pins?" Kowalski repeated.

"Open Reduction Internal Fixation, or ORIF for short. It's a common procedure for stabilizing bones, especially for comminuted fractures--that's when the bones are broken in more than one place," she explained. "His legs were pretty banged up, but it could have been a lot worse. He's not in any danger of losing them. Not from what I saw anyway. He also had a couple of broken ribs and a definite concussion. Could be a hairline skull fracture. They don't always show up on X-ray. The head injury is more worrying than his legs; but like I said, you need to go upstairs and wait for the surgeon's report. All I did was stabilize him before sending him up to O.R. The surgeons will be able to tell you more than I can."

"He was stable though, when you sent him up?" Kowalski asked, still needing assurance. "I mean, he was breathing okay? No internal bleeding or nothing like that?"

"Nothing like that," the doctor confirmed with a compassionate smile for her patient. "He was awake and cognizant enough to raise a fit when we had to cut his boots off. How's that for stable?"

Kowalski and Vecchio exchanged surprised but completely understanding looks, and much to the doctor's surprise, broke out laughing.

"I'll just bet he did!" Vecchio snickered.

"Oh man, he's going to be pissed when he wakes up," Kowalski agreed.

"We really didn't have much choice," the doctor told them with a mild frown for their amusement, but chose not to elaborate as the technician caught her attention again. "Sorry to end the chit chat fellas, but it's time to get back to work. Officer Vecchio, I'm going to have to ask you to return to the waiting room and update your friend's family for me. I'll be out to speak with them after I see exactly what we got here."

"Ah, shit," Kowalski groaned. "They didn't call my folks already did they?"

"Probably," Vecchio confirmed. "Standard procedure. 'Want maybe I should try and intercept them?"

"Yeah," Kowalski agreed, knowing it probably wouldn't do any good. "I'm fine. I don't want ‘em worrying and driving down unnecessarily." He really didn't want to have his mother babying him for the next day or two, love her though he did... A cold chill suddenly went down his spine with another thought. "You gotta stop em!" he announced fearfully. "Whoever's after Stella might take a shot at them too!"

Vecchio frowned darkly and made a mental note to have a talk with Ms. Harrelson about getting them protection too, knowing that it had likely been overlooked given the fact that they'd received no direct threat against them. "You got it, Bud," he assured the other man quickly, already pulling out his cell phone.

"No, no, no!" the doctor snapped. "No cell phones in the hospital! Use the phone in the lobby or go outside."

Ray nodded and quickly put the device away. "Right." He turned to Kowalski. "I'll be in the waiting room when you're done here. 'Kay? Treat him right, Doc. He's one of the city's finest."

The doctor merely nodded and then went back to work as Vecchio slipped quickly from the room.

Francesca was tired. She was more than tired. She was exhausted, but it had nothing to do with physical exertion or lack of sleep. She slept a lot. Too much, if anything. The docs said it was normal. The shrinks said it was a symptom of depression.

Like she didn’t have anything to be depressed about, right?

The shrinks tried to get her talking. Tried to give her stuff to do. She wasn’t ready to talk, and she really didn’t give a damn about what anyone thought about it. They all thought it was about the rape. About the loss of her baby. The loss of her womb. They thought her pain was no different than that of the hundreds of other patients they dealt with daily. They thought they understood, that they could make her understand. They thought it wasn’t her fault. They kept saying that over and over and over again. And they were wrong. Oh, she gave the shrinks what they wanted... up to a certain point. She tried to listen to their rhetoric about the healing process she was going through, the different ways of handling grief and panic attacks and flashbacks. She was on antidepressants and painkillers and God only knew what else. They figured the mix was part of the problem. They’d given her all kinds of stuff to read and wanted to get her into a support group. She wasn’t ready for any of it! And didn’t give a damn about that either.

She was just-- It was a soul deep weariness that numbed her mind and heart as well as her body. It wasn’t the same kind of numbness that she’d felt before though. That had been... like someone turned off a switch or something. Shock, she guessed. The shrinks probably had some unpronounceable name for it. Her memory of her time in the hospital was made up of bits and pieces of inescapable events. All told, it added up to a few hours. Certainly not a full week’s worth of--

Week. It was Friday. Why that knowledge suddenly struck her, Frannie didn’t know. She certainly hadn’t been keeping track of the date, but she knew that today was Friday. Probably something someone said in passing... Friday. It had been exactly one week since...

Her eyes automatically drifted to the clock in the center of the opposite wall: 9:23 am. She’d been talking with Angie this time last week as they carted a few boxes from her friend’s garage to Frannie’s car. She’d been taking a load of stuff her niece and nephews had outgrown to the Church clothing bank and had stopped to get some stuff from Angie too. It had been girl talk basically. She couldn’t remember what they’d said now.

Had Muldoon been following her, watching her laugh and joke with--

She viciously cut off the memory before it could go any farther and tore her eyes away from the clock. Oh, god, she wished it wasn’t there! Fear and terror resided just beyond the fragile barrier of suppressed thoughts. She glanced at the TV and shuddered. She’d tried to get lost in some stupid sitcom the other day. She’d found herself trembling and had quickly changed the channel when she realized one of the dumb actors looked like one of her attackers. Brave Heart was on... Too bloody. Law and Order. No. Magnum PI. No. Unknown movie... Inane but possibly safe. A commercial for diapers had caused her to instantly turn the stupid thing off. If she wasn’t safe from commercials she wasn’t safe anywhere on TV. Magazines were just as dangerous. Romance books were out. She’d asked Ma to pick up some word search puzzles for her--

Where was Ma?

The time suddenly took on a completely different meaning for Francesca. Ma and Maria were always here a little after eight. Yeah, she’d been asleep then, but she was used to waking up and seeing them at her bedside in the mornings.

Something had happened!

She grabbed at the phone, ignoring the stab of pain in her lower abdomen that the sudden movement caused. Just another little bit of reality she wasn’t ready to deal with fully yet. She pulled the phone onto her lap, lifted the receiver and dialed.

Calm down, she told herself. Maybe they had a flat. Maybe one of the kids got an ear ache and they were at Dr. Kopeli’s. Maybe Tony had been told to come in late and they were dropping him off before coming to the hospital. All the maybes in the world didn’t help, because she knew Ma would have called! Yeah, she’d been asleep, but she hadn’t been that asleep.

Maybe Ma had called the nurse’s desk so as not to wake her...

She held onto that thought as she silently ordered her brother to answer his stupid cell phone! Whatever was going on, he’d know. And he’d better tell her if he knew what was good for him. Something had been going on all week that no one really wanted her to know about and which she hadn’t questioned. She’d caught a glimpse of the uniformed police officer outside her door on a couple of occasions, which when she bothered to think about it now didn’t make a lot of sense if Muldoon was in prison like everyone kept telling her...

Oh, god, but what if the bastard had gone after Ma?

“Vecchio,” her brother’s curt greeting interrupted the terrifying thought.

Frannie didn’t bother with any preliminaries but came right to the point. “Where’s Ma and Maria?” she demanded.


“Yes, it’s Frannie,” she snapped. “Where are they? They’re always here when I wake up but not this morning. Did they get a flat or something? I just want to make sure they’re okay.”

“They’re fine,” Ray hastened to assure her, instantly picking up on the fear behind the casually spoken words. Her tone was too normal, too tightly controlled... “They’re all fine. Ma’s at the house and--” And Maria and Tony and the kids were at a safe-house somewhere ‘cross state. He couldn’t tell her that! They’d basically been treating her with kid gloves for the past week. God, had it really been a week? She didn’t know anything about the threats against Ma and-- And now this! Damn! He didn’t want Frannie hearing about all this yet!

“--And?” she insisted calmly. “--What are you doing at the hospital? I just heard a doctor paged in the background.”

Shit! Ray glared at the crowded waiting room and turned into a corner, hoping to shield the phone better. He suddenly remembered he wasn’t supposed to be using a cell in the hospital anyway and quickly headed for the exit, though he supposed the main lobby should be safe enough. Still...

“Ray!” Frannie called impatiently.

“I’m here, I’m here!” he answered. “I just gotta go outside. There’s a thing about not using cell phones in the hospital. Messes up some of the equipment or something. Hang on a sec.” He moved quickly through the door and into the dirty sunlight of what promised to be a rather smoggy day. Must be an ‘atmospheric inversion’ or something, whatever the hell that meant. Smog, that’s what it meant. That’s all he needed to know. Like he wasn’t used to it, right?

What the hell was he going to tell Frannie?

He glanced up at the grey sky overhead and prayed for divine intervention, but he could see no way out of telling her the truth. He just had to be careful what part of the truth he told her and how he presented it...

“Ray!!!” Her shout was audible even at arm’s length. He winced, too easily imagining the police officer outside her room answering the cry by bursting in-- “I’m fine,” he heard her tell someone as he lifted the phone to his ear once more. “I’m yelling at my brother... who is going to wind up with more than a sore ear if he doesn’t hurry up and answer my question!”

“I’m here, I’m here!” he repeated. “I told you I had to go outside.”

“Stop kitty-footing around and tell me what’s going on,” she demanded bluntly. “Who are you visiting here besides me, and don’t try to tell me no one ‘cause I know you better than that. You always were a lousy liar.”

True enough. She’d always been able to see right though him when no one else could. Ray let out an audible sigh and ran a hand over his shorn pate. He still needed a haircut. “Okay, okay...” Where to start? “But there’s nothing to get upset about, okay? It’s not a big deal or anything. Really.”

“Ray!” She was getting angry.

“Okay! Benny and Kowalski were... in a little bit of an accident a couple of hours ago.” He winced at the hesitation within his answer.

Frannie, on the other end of the line, frowned, catching the hesitation as well. She was surprised by a whisper of dread across flailed emotions she refused to acknowledge existed. “What kind of accident?” she demanded suspiciously.

“A car accident.” Ray rolled his eyes, struggling to come up with the most gentle description of things he could without actually lying to her. He was too damn tired to deal with this right now! “It was--” ‘A little fender-bender?’ No way would she buy that one, not when she already knew he was at the hospital. “It was... just... Some guy ran a stoplight downtown. They’re not bad hurt or anything, so you don’t need to go and get all upset or anything. In fact, they should be releasing Kowalski here any minute.”

“What about Fraser?” she insisted, feeling her throat tighten up in fear. Ray was soft-shoeing it too much not to be hiding something. She frowned in confusion. Why did she care?

“Fraser’s going to be fine, Frannie,” Ray insisted in turn. “He got a little more banged up then Kowalski ‘cause the other car hit on his side but the docs all say he’ll be fine. I swear. There’s nothing for you to be worried about. Okay?”

“Then why do you keep telling me that?”

“Because I know you too, Frannie!” he sighed in exasperation. “You always make a big deal outta stuff like this. Accidents happen all the time. Just this time, we happen know the guys involved.”

“He’s in surgery, isn’t he?”

Ray let out a heavy sigh and bowed his head. So much for trying the gentle approach. He should know by now that it never worked with her. Straight out, no pulling the punches: it was the only way to keep that overactive imagination of hers from going nuts. He lifted his head and glared at nothing. “Okay, Frannie, you want it straight. Here’s straight. Benny and Ray were in a serious car accident. Kowalski’s got a few bumps and bruises and a cut arm. Benny’s got a couple of broken legs. He’s in surgery having some pins put in. And that is all I know right now, okay? The docs down here say it wasn’t bad and he’ll be fine. Besides, you threw him out of your room a few days ago. Why do you even care?”

Frannie gasped. But... hadn’t she just wondered the same thing herself? Why did the words, coming from Ray, hurt so much? She reeled from the pain that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere all at the same time, threatening to drown her, threatening to destroy the tenuous control she fought to maintain.

“I’m sorry,” Ray backpedaled, catching the tiny sound and knowing he’d been out of line. “He’s your friend. I don’t know why you’re mad at him, and you’ve made it clear it’s none of my business, but I’m sure you still care. I shouldn’t have said that.”

No, he shouldn’t have. The problem wasn’t that Frannie didn’t care, it was that she cared too much! That’s how this whole thing had started! Ruthlessly, she slammed the door on that line of thought and concentrated on why she’d called her brother in the first place.

“You still haven’t explained why Ma and Maria aren’t here,” she said brusquely.

Again, the sigh. “It’s too complicated for me to go into on the phone. There’s a lot going on that you don’t know about; and, frankly, you don’t need to know about. Ma’s fine. Maria, Tony and the kids are fine. We’re all fine... except you. You need to be concentrating on getting well.”

“That’s hard to do when I’m worried about everybody else, Bro,” Frannie rejoined. Two days ago, she wouldn’t have cared, she wouldn’t have felt a thing. She’d thought she was safe from her emotions but Elaine had shown her how wrong she was. She shoved the thought aside with all the rest. “Want to tell me why I have an uniformed police officer outside my door?”

“No,” Ray answered truthfully. “Not particularly.”

Frannie felt her blood freeze. There was only one reason she could think of. “Are you saying Muldoon escaped again?”

“What?” Ray exclaimed in surprise and answered quickly. “No! No, of course not. Muldoon is going nowhere until they decide to stick a needle in his arm and send him to hell, where he belongs.”

“Then why the guard?” Frannie pressed.

Damn it, where was Kowalski? Ray needed an excuse to end this conversation before he told Frannie more than he wanted too. “Muldoon is making a bunch of empty threats. The FBI and everybody else is being wonderfully paranoid, as usual, okay? Look, I see Kowalski,” he lied, speaking quickly and bringing the interrogation to an end. “I gotta go. I’ll keep you posted about Benny, but don’t worry. He’ll be fine. Bye.”

He slapped the phone closed and shut his eyes, letting his head fall back in exhausted relief as he offered up a quick prayer that she would buy that last lie about the threats being empty. ‘Emotionally fragile’, that’s how the docs described her. Knowing about everything that was going on right now, was the last thing Frannie needed!

Awareness returned almost as abruptly as it had disappeared. Her memory of the abduction and the few words she'd exchanged with her captor before he drugged her were quite clear. Just as clear as the rope that still bound her wrists to the frame of the sled. Her legs and ankles were also bound. She was still packed into the sled. Still forced to stare up at a small swatch of sky. It was impossible to orient herself given what little she could see, but they'd moved while she was out. And her body was definitely feeling the abuse. The addition of a gag didn't exactly add to her comfort any either.

Did the gag mean that they were near a village or camp? Or had her captor simply learned his lesson from her earlier outcry and decided not to take any chances?

The sky was just beginning to darken as the sun kissed the horizon beyond her range of sight, which meant she'd been trussed up like a caribou carcass for close to twenty hours. She lay back, listening, fighting to ignore the demands of her body. Her mouth was as dry as an easterly wind, her stomach empty and... A sharp demanding pain lanced through her lower abdomen. God, why did she have to think about her bladder? It was more than full. She was ready to burst!

She fought to focus outward. The only sound she heard was the wind. A fitful, angry wind following on the tail of yesterday's storm. She knew it would obliterate their trail quite nicely.

Why had they stopped? He couldn't be planning to take her very far. Hell, she couldn't figure out what he was planning to do at all! Given that the threats Ben had received against her were real, and that this guy was acting on Muldoon's orders... Well, she hadn't been raped yet. And given the way she was tied up, she didn't think she needed to be particularly worried about it anytime soon. Though if such a fate for her were part of his goal, it would explain why she was still alive. Yet... there had been nothing sexual or even predatory in his gaze when she spoke with him earlier.

Her bladder made its demand known again and she clenched her teeth as she fought for control. Damn it, she was going to drown over here if he didn't come release her soon! ‘Course, soiling herself was a good way to dissuade any sexual desire on his part... but it wasn't a good idea with a sub-zero temperature night approaching. Her arctic jumpsuit and parka were sufficient for the extreme temperatures but... She had no desire to add to her own discomfort unless absolutely necessary.

Then again, she had no guarantee that he intended her to live out the night, either!

If she could get him to release her, she just might be able to take him by surprise: play the helpless, frightened female to the hilt; feign incapacitation and draw him close; then hit him with everything she could muster. It was a weak plan but the best she could come up with. He'd seen fit to slip her arctic mittens back over her hands after tying her and, from the feel of things, he'd tied another rope over them. There was no way she was going to be able to wriggle her fingers free and get them anywhere near the knots that bound her. Weak plan or not, she didn't have many options.

She hissed as the need to pee nearly overwhelmed her again. Escape plans aside, her bladder was demanding attention NOW!

Taking a deep breath, she screamed through the gag, knowing it had to draw her captor's attention if he were anywhere about. And if not, if he had abandoned her to die like this or if he were out hunting, there was the slimmest of possibilities that someone else might hear her. A near impossibility, true, especially with this wind; but she'd found that God often liked to work within near impossibilities. She screamed again, directing the sound out her nose rather than through the heavy material stuffed in her mouth.

She heard someone approaching and, just for the hell of it, screamed again anyway. She wasn't going to rob God of the chance to work a miracle on her behalf if he wanted to.

Her captor squatted down beside her and watched her scream. He'd dispensed with the face shield and goggles so they must be stopping for the night. His lack of concern over the noise, muffled though it might be, told her they weren't anywhere near a village or other habitation. She glared up at him and fell silent, saving her strength as he stripped off his gloves. One hand went to her throat in silent warning while the other pulled the gag aside and removed the wad of cloth from her mouth.

"I have to go to the bathroom!" she announced without preamble, feigning desperate need and fear. Well, she didn't have to feign the desperate need!

He frowned down at her and shrugged. "So?"

So?! Obviously, the helpless routine wasn't going to touch this guy! "So I won't be the only thing reeking in short order if you don't let me relieve myself!"

His eyes raked his sled and all the supplies that he had piled on and around her. Again, he shrugged. "Won't be no worse than if I were hauling narwhale or caribou," he decided, and smiled. "My uncle tried to teach me how to butcher a caribou once when I was a boy and I accidentally hit the musk sack. Woo wheee! Now that was a stink."

His fingers hooked the gag again and Maggie quickly jerked her head away. "Wait!" she cried. She had to keep him talking! She had to try and figure out what his plan was. If she knew what his plan was, she might be able to come up with a way to win free of it! "Why are you doing this?" she asked quickly. "I mean, I know Muldoon hired you and I know he must be paying you well, but that still doesn't tell me ‘why'? I know your people! They revere life. You would be reviled and outcast if any knew you even thought about killing another human being!"

"My people?" He snorted derisively. "Because I look Inuit, you think I am, huh? Stupid qallunaat. You all think that you can judge someone by looking at him. A hundred and fifty some odd tribes in the First Nations and you think all ‘Inuit' are the same. You think it's ‘noble' or some such nonsense to be subsistence hunters and gatherers, that none of us could ever know greed or lust or envy..." He made a sound imitating a failure buzzer as might be heard on a TV game show. "Wrong!" The gag was forced back in place before Maggie could voice further questions. He patted her cheek and smiled. "I'm from Alberta."

Maggie watched helplessly as he stood once more and frowned down at her.

"I'm not letting you up to piss, girl. Any tracker worthy of the name can tell the difference between where a man took a dump and where a woman did. One of your buddies stopped by earlier to check out my camp and ask if I'd seen or heard anything." He shook his head. "Sadly, I hadn't. Nor did he check the camp very close. After all, I'm an ‘Inuit', so I can't be a killer. Still, it'd definitely cause some raised eyebrows if'n he were to come back after I left here and found evidence of a woman anywhere here abouts, especially as I told him I'm on a Vision Quest. I don't expect to see him again any time soon. You people have a strange habit of honoring that sort of thing.

"Oh," he added as he shrugged, resettling his rifle, "you can scream through the gag all you want out here. We're a long way from anywhere." He then walked away without a backward glance.

A car accident. Ben had been in a car accident. Meg had been going silently crazy since he failed to show up at the airport and a simple check had revealed that he'd never made his scheduled flights. Now she stood in Sgt. MacPherson's office and learned he'd been involved in a car accident. How was it possible that something as mundane as a car accident had--Meg forced herself to take a slow deep breath.

"Is there any evidence that Muldoon was behind the attack?" It was far too early in the game for Fraser to be a target, but it was a question she had to ask anyway. Perhaps one of Muldoon's thugs had gotten itchy.

"I've told you everything I know," MacPherson answered with a sigh. What he knew was next to nothing: Car accident, hospital, surgery, police guard. That was it in a nutshell. He frowned up at the CSIS woman from behind his desk. He was never really comfortable with the security and intelligence types. "We have a bigger problem here to worry about."

"You mean the leak." She frowned as well.

"It's not in my Detachment," he said firmly. "Even I didn't know where she was being transferred."

"No one in Inuvik did." Except the Pratchet brothers... but she didn't think they could be bought. ‘Everyone has a price, Meg,' she reminded herself. Cynicism rose to feed her suspicions. Even so, the Pratchets were not her first suspects. She suspected the leak was more likely to be higher up the chain of command, above her. Which would make tracing it a real pain in the ass! Still, she'd start with those she could and eliminate them before pointing a finger at her own bosses. "Bring in the Pratchets for questioning and get a warrant to check their bank accounts. They were the bush pilots who flew Maggie out to Paulatuuq. Keep it low key though. Also the crew of the military transport that went out that night... There were two men in the waiting area of the airport when Maggie met me. Find out if they were flying out or meeting someone and you should be able to identify them. If not, then I can help see composites drawn up."

"What about Paulatuuq?" MacPherson asked with a frown as he jotted down some notes. "She's worked there before so anyone who saw her might know who she really was. You shouldn't have sent her somewhere that she was already known."

"This was set up too fast for the leak to be in Paulatuuq." Meg shook her head. "It's too tight a community. Muldoon doesn't have that many contacts across the region who'd know what he wanted done and who to contact with the information. No, we'll check it out of course, but the leak is here... or Ottawa."

"Ottawa?" MacPherson echoed and shook his head. "‘Fraid I can't help you if the trail leads back there."

"That will be my headache to deal with, Sergeant," she agreed, and frowned out at the darkening window behind MacPherson. "First, we have to find Constable MacKenzie. What's the status of the investigation and various search parties?"

"Tommy Ellis, the Vancouver boy who precipitated the search and rescue effort, was flown to the Inuvik hospital this morning but he was still pretty doped up when I went down to talk with him and his mother about noon. The doctors said he was drugged with the same tranquilizing agent used to down Park Warden Côté. We're still tracing it and the dart, which will narrow down the search for the gun. It's such a specialized item that it shouldn't be too hard to run a trace for recent purchases. The hotel room Tommy was found in wasn't registered to anyone. It was the only empty room in the Inn as there were nine guests staying there, not including Tommy and his mother."

"Nine?" Meg asked. "That seems like a lot for this time of year."

MacPherson shrugged. "Two of them were research scientists, one a helicopter pilot and two CTV camera men, all of whom were working on a documentary about tagging and tracking migrating polar bears. That's five of them. Then there was Paulta and Peter Ernerk, an elder and his son out of the Repulse Bay region; Kevin Otokiak: he was doing some kind of Cree and Inuit folklore comparison; and Susan Johnson from Seattle, Washington. She's still complaining that Canada Air lost her luggage."

"So who's missing?" Meg asked concisely.

"All of them, except Johnson," MacPherson sighed again. "The scientists and camera crew went out two days before the storm hit and haven't gotten back yet. The Ernerks flew out right before the storm. Private Charter who also hasn't gotten back yet. Nothing unusual in that as he normally makes supply runs into and out of Anchorage for various people all across the region. Kevin Otokiak seems to have hopped on the same flight with them, but we won't know for sure until we can track the pilot down and ask him."

"And the search teams?"

"Again, nothing as yet. The storm pretty much wiped out any tracks we might follow. The dogs weren't able to pick up anything from the abduction site either. We're guessing there was only one person involved but it could have been a team. In any case, their best escape bet was to take her out via snow mobile or ATV and meet up with a plane or helicopter after the storm. With the low flying clouds and how long it took before communication was restored to Paulatuuq, the perpetrators could have been hundreds of kilometers away before we even knew she was gone. Now, assuming that they couldn't know what weather conditions following the storm would be and that they didn't want to trust to a plane or helicopter for whatever reason, we might, I say ‘might' get lucky and have them still be in the area. I've called in everyone I can on this, even asking for help from Aklivik, but we're stretched mighty thin. Fourteen Constables and twenty Special Constables are trying to scour some two thousand square kilometers of territory. We've got search planes up and radar coverage is very tight. Anyone and everyone within a hundred kilometer radius of Paulatuuq is being questioned. So far..." He shrugged, sadly.

"Who's in the area?"

"We're still discovering that," he answered. "Right now we have the research team I've already named plus two others working in Tuktut Nogiat National Park, the residents of Paulatuuq, any number of hermits and trappers and hunters, both indigenous and not. It's October which means the Inuit of the area are very active, getting ready for the winter. The coming of the ice this year was late because of global warming so the caribou are still on the move south. Combine that with the normal run on Artic Char and a whole lot of ice fishing going on, and it's a bit more crowded out there than usual for this time of year."

"Great," she sighed in frustration.

"Most of the local Inuit hunters are known to us, and the ice fishers work in teams so we're concentrating on the non-resident hunters who aren't using a local guide or outfitter, especially anyone matching the descriptions we have of our nine men from the Sharon Bed and Breakfast in Paulatuuq. We're still working on getting their pictures up and out, but we're not limiting it to them only. We're waiting to hear any word if there are other locals of the area gone missing. That narrows the search down quite a bit. That and we're checking everyone's hunting tags, who's a regular, who isn't, when they came up and what kind of equipment they have with them. That sort of thing. And I'm going to try to get a complete description of whoever attacked Tommy Ellis from the boy tomorrow morning. He should be fully recovered from the drug by then. ‘Fraid there's not much more we can do otherwise."

"Are you mapping them or in anyway trying to triangulate reports of odd sightings or run-ins?"

"Oh, yeah, but so far there have been no such reports to go with the various groups and individuals we've encountered. If her attacker was smart, he would have killed her and dumped her body in a seal hole. We'd never find her."

Meg shook her head. "Muldoon won't pay her kidnapper a penny without a body. He won't dump her in the ice. Nor do I think she's dead yet or he wouldn't have used a tranquilizer gun. Muldoon must have given special orders about how he wanted her killed... We just have to figure out what those orders are and intercept her kidnapper before he can carry them out."

"Well, I sure hope you can figure that out, Agent Thatcher, because searching two thousand square kilometers with thirty-four people is like searching for a needle in a hay stack. We're going to need a whole lot of luck if we're going to have a snowball's chance in hell of finding her alive."

Ben stared up at the acoustical tile ceiling and fought not to scream in frustration. He was not the sort who could easily sit back and let others deal with matters that concerned him directly, to take risks that were his to take or fight battles that were his to fight. Yet, here he was... stuck in a hospital bed while his sister--Memories of what Muldoon had done to Francesca left him shaking in impotent fear and rage.

If only I'd killed the son of a bitch!

He'd called Meg earlier, using the cell number she'd given him to call her directly. He'd known Inuvik wouldn't tell him anything, at least not what he wanted to know. Meg had respected him enough to explain the situation fully as it stood. They were following up on several leads and narrowing their list of suspects. ‘Joe Otokiak', one of nine men who'd been staying at the Bed and Breakfast Inn, was now the RCMP's prime suspect. The description locals gave did not match the picture on the man's Quebec driver's license. Meg expected Sgt. MacPherson, who'd gone to the hospital to interview the boy who'd been attacked, to come back with a similar description. They were still trying to find out who he really was.

Not only was Meg concerned about Maggie, but she'd also passed along her concerns about a possible leak within either the RCMP or CSIS. Someone had gotten the information concerning Maggie's transfer to Paulatuuq to Muldoon's associates very quickly, far too quickly for it to be sheer luck. She'd questioned Ben as to whom he'd told about the transfer but he'd never been informed of where his sister was going, only that she was going undercover. Nor had Maggie attempted to contact him directly. Given that there was likely a leak somewhere within the system, Meg had advised Ben to be on guard and to tell both Inspector Mitchell, who'd never been informed of Maggie's location either, and the FBI so that appropriate measures could be taken to assure his safety.

The last thing Ben was worried about at the moment was his own safety!

He'd been left with a lot to think about, none of which was pleasant. He stared down at the braces that encased both his legs and cursed the vagaries of fate that saw fit to add him to Chicago's auto accident statistical database... now, of all times! How many high speed chases had he and the Rays been involved in over the years? How many times had he seen his partners run stoplights and stop signs? But no, no this wasn't Ray's fault. His friend hadn't been at fault this time. Ben was the victim of someone else's careless inattention to the traffic laws.

And it might cost his sister her life.

He had found it rather difficult at first to be concerned for the other driver but had eventually let his anger at the unknown man go, reminding himself that the man might well have a wife and/or children who were dependent upon his income and that they too would suffer as a result of his failure to yield. He was most likely in the hospital right now and would be facing additional consequences beyond his medical care once he recovered from any injuries he might have sustained.

"Hey!" a familiar voice called from the doorway. Ray Vecchio awarded him a small smile as he came to stand by Ben's side and eyed his legs. The smile became a wince. "So... you're looking better than I thought you would, especially after the Doc told me they cut off your boots."

Ben rolled his eyes.

"Mad about that, huh?" Ray guessed.

"I told them not to, but they did it anyway after I passed out."

A brow winged upward but Ray chose not to comment on exactly how he pictured that scene taking place. "Quacks." He shrugged lightly and shook his head. "Can't appreciate what a good pair of boots are worth."

"You have no idea!" Ben sighed wearily and shook his head as well.


"It's not the price, Ray." Ben frowned in irritation as he glared at his bare feet. "It's the fit. A good pair of Mountie boots are actually molded to your feet. It takes months to properly break in a new pair."

"A hundred bucks?"

"Four hundred and thirty."

Ray gasped.

"Canadian," Fraser specified.

Ray was still shocked.

"And that's with a discount through official channels."

"You have to pay for them yourself?"

"Most likely." He offered a little sigh and stared up at the ceiling again. He'd been en route to the airport and not in uniform otherwise. He doubted the Inspector would say he'd been ‘on duty'. Ray was flabbergasted at the price but it really was the fit that Ben would miss the most. He'd invested in a spare pair after temporarily losing the one pair he had a couple of years ago, but they still had a lot of breaking in to be done. He also wasn't satisfied with the color yet and needed to strip them down again. That alone took several days. He had his black jack boots and uniform dress shoes, but neither could be worn with the dress red serge his superiors seemed to prefer he wear, at least here in Chicago.

Well, it would be a good month or more before he had to worry about that again! He glared at his feet again, then abruptly changed the subject. “How’s Dief?” he asked, glancing back up.

“Furball?” Ray grinned. “You know he broke his other front leg, right?”

Ben nodded sadly. He’d spoken with the vet earlier that morning.

“They took the cast off the right leg and put one on his left. He is not at all happy about it.”

Of that, Ben was quite certain.

“He’s milking it for all he’s worth though,” Ray grinned. “Ma’s got him set up in the kitchen and he’s eating like a king! You’ll have to put him on a major diet and exercise program when the two of you are better.”

Ben rolled his eyes, knowing Dief was going to be impossible to live with for the next few weeks!

"Hello? Oh, you have a visitor, that's nice!" A nurse entered, peaking around a vase of flowers. "More flowers I'm afraid. Where shall I put them?"

Ray blinked and looked around, for the first time taking in the fact that he was standing in the midst of a virtual flower shop! Roses, carnations, azaleas, daisies, balloons...

"Can I donate most of these to the nurses down in emergency or here or maybe send them up to the geriatric ward or..." Ben asked, glancing around and failing to see a place to put yet another bouquet.

"Of course," the nurse agreed with an understanding smile, as she moved a vase aside to find a temporary home for what she carried. "This sort of display of affection is normally reserved for Italian grandmothers or new mothers. You must have a lot of people who love you, mister Fraser."

The nurse pulled the card tucked amongst the greens free and handed it to him. "I'll call Social Services," she told him. "They'll send someone to help you redistribute these."

"Thank you kindly." He offered a friendly smile and dropped his eyes to the card he held, ignoring the flirtatious smile she flashed in turn before disappearing out the door.

Ray had noted several cards stuck amongst the various flowers and offerings, most of which looked untouched, and pulled one free himself out of simple curiosity. Ben was not a social person. Who could be sending him all... "Lois Bryan?" he read.

Fraser thought for a long moment but shook his head. "I have no idea whom most of these are from, Ray," he admitted, a bit taken aback by the fact.

Ray grinned and read aloud. This was too good an opportunity for teasing his friend to pass up! "Get well soon. The office misses you?"

Fraser frowned harder. "She's not from the Consulate..."

"It's addressed to Constable Fraser," Ray shrugged handing it over and grabbing several more. "Kali Sandison, Karol McGinley, Margaret B... something or other, Katie Ulrich, Jen Liu... I won't even try to pronounce that name!"

"Mrs. Ulrich is a nurse I believe..."

Ray nodded and set it aside; then, frowning, plucked another card from near by. "Ellen Kennedy? These are all from some publishing office downtown. 17th and Stetson... ‘Get well soon. We miss our red alerts?"

Ben shook his head in bemusement. "I walk by there regularly," he admitted, "but I've never had any dealings with them."

An image flashed in Ray's mind of someone shouting ‘red alert' and a bunch of sex starved women on the tenth floor making a mad dash to the windows every time anyone spotted the Mountie on the street below. They would all but orgasm when he removed his Stetson or bent to pick up something someone had dropped. The red serge was a definite babe magnet.

He opened another card and laughed aloud. Ben shot him a confused look as he fished in the envelope and pulled out a key. "Denise Manahl? ‘Come use this when you're feeling better.'"

Ben felt his face heat in embarrassment and shook his head in exasperation. Why would anyone think he would welcome such overtures when he was sitting in bed with two broken legs? What would make them think he'd welcome such sentiments at any time!

Ray read the look easily. "You're a cast-fitted sitting duck for the ladies, Benny. They can flirt with you via flowers all they want and you can't run away."

Ben frowned at the flowers and snatched the next card Ray pulled free from the other man's hands. "Please, Ray, it's quite embarrassing!"

"Yeah, well, I should be so blessed with such embarrassing situations!" Ray stood and went about the room gathering up the cards but not opening them. “If you ever figure out what it is that makes complete strangers drool over you, bottle it up and send it my way, okay?"

"You'll be welcome to have it all, Ray," Ben answered, reading another of his cards and closing it quickly lest the explicit language somehow escape and alert his friend to further teasing material.

"Oh, you gotta keep this one, Benny," Ray smiled indicating a stuffed husky who was holding a bunch of wild flowers. "Elaine," he said simply and handed the card over without comment. Ray frowned at the various flowers still around him as Ben glanced at the card. "Any of these from Frannie?" he wondered aloud.

"Your sister?" Ben asked, surprised by the question. A glance around the room by both men failed to spot any arrangement that seemed to speak of Francesca. "She's angry at me, Ray," Ben reminded his friend, frowning down at the various cards he held without seeing them. "I don't know what I did to anger her, but I doubt she'll send me flowers."

"She called me yesterday," Ray informed him. "She was worried."

"Worried?" Ben glanced up.

Ray finished gathering up the various cards, handed them to Benny and then took the visitor's chair. "Yeah," he finally answered. He wasn't sure how he felt about that...

Ben sighed and again stared up at the ceiling. "I wish I knew what I'd done wrong..."

Ray offered a soft snort. "With Frannie, who knows? Maybe her bed is facing north and it puts her in a bad mood. What's the word on your sister?" He quickly changed the subject. "Anything from up north yet?"

Ben shook his head. "They have a suspect and are following several leads, but they have no idea where Maggie is. And Francesca's bed faces east, the same as at the house."

"How do you know which way Francesca's bed faces at the house?" Ray asked in surprise.

"I rescued her and your brother-in-law from her room three years ago when your house caught fire," Ben reminded him. "It was right after you went undercover."

"Oh, yeah," Ray nodded, having heard about that long after the fact, "but that's not her room anymore. That's Sylvia's now. She was getting too old to share with her brothers."

Ben offered a small nod for the information. "So, which way does her bed face?"

"North by northwest: How the hell should I know!" Ray exclaimed, and quickly put a lid on his emotions. Benny had not been trying to be rude in asking. Ray after all had been the one to introduce the subject. "Look, I need to head out. I'm trying to follow up on a couple of questionable withdrawals made to one of Muldoon’s bank accounts up north about a year ago. Hey, maybe you can help me when you get out? Whata ya say? You're better at the computer stuff than I am."

Ben sighed. Obviously, he wouldn't be rejoining Kowalski on the streets or heading north for quite some while. "I'd be happy to assist in anyway I can."

"That's the spirit, Benny. We can nail this bastard where it really hurts!" Ray smiled and rose, offering Ben's shoulder a very gentle punch, then promising to return after work and check on him. Ben watched his friend go, wishing he were walking at his side and not facing a physical therapy evaluation instead.

A hand grabbed hold of her face mask and goggles, waking her from exhausted sleep as they were stripped away. "Wake up, girl," her captor ordered dispassionately. "I can't have you dying on me just yet."

Maggie squinted her eyes against the afternoon glare of an arctic sun in a clear blue sky. They'd stopped again, though she suspected it was only a short break. They'd started out over the uneven ground well before sunrise. She'd fought to stay relaxed and let her body absorb the many jolts and bumps as best it could, but her captor was more concerned with speed than he was with her comfort and, after hours of being steadily beaten to death by their travel, Maggie had fallen into an exhausted stupor.

Fingers snagged her gag and pulled it aside and then a hand went behind her head, lifting it. Something was placed against her dry, chapped lips and suddenly she tasted fresh, cold water. The sudden feel of water on her swollen and parched tongue woke her more quickly than a gun shot. She drank greedily but he only allowed her a small amount. "Can't have you throwing up on me. You might choke or something. Don't worry, it'll all be over in another day or so."

Another day or so...

"Where are you taking me?" she asked weakly.

"Where I was told to take you," he answered. "Why? You in a hurry to get there?"

The gag was shoved back in place before she could answer. Actually, she was in a hurry to get there. Another day or two of immobility and constant pounding from the sled might well leave her completely defenseless even after he released her. If he planned to release her before killing her. She needed more information! She also needed more water and some food. She groaned aloud in sheer frustration and dread as she heard the snow mobile's engine started up again. Too short a break. Far too short. The sled was jerked forward. Maggie's body was jostled against her bonds and the sled beneath her. Every bruised and abused muscle in her body protested the move.

God, but she didn't know how much more of this she could take!


Ford was not a happy man. That stupid bitch from State was still hanging around and expecting him to jump through hoops! She'd commandeered his office, strip searched his files, circumvented procedures to get Vecchio documents he had no right to have and had the audacity to think he should just sit back and take it?! Unfortunately, he had little choice. A call to his superior in Washington had yielded an order to cooperate fully, even before he could voice a complaint. The complaint was shelved.

Crap! The woman was supposed to have flown out yesterday. Then that got postponed to this morning. Then Kowalski and Fraser had to get in their accident! She'd postponed again, wanting to follow up on whether Muldoon had been behind it somehow. Shit! He was never going to get rid of her!

Stella Kowalski wasn't much better. All she could do was bitch and complain. She had to work, had to complicate his life. She refused to be a good little girl and hand her work load off to some flunky who could probably do it better anyway and sit quietly somewhere until they found the psycho who'd bombed her car.

He still wasn't convinced it had been Muldoon behind that.

Crime scene analysis had determined that it was a rather crude pipe bomb that had been hidden under her seat and hard wired into the electrical system of the car. The bomber had obviously meant it to go off when she turned over the ignition but had failed to take the remote key access into consideration which had set it off prematurely. Not very smart that. Muldoon didn't strike Ford as the type to tolerate such idiots.

But, nooooooo... His past experience and what he thought wasn't worth a plug nickel with Ms. Harrelson! Stella Kowalski was assigned a full time FBI security detachment, at the tax payer's expense. The Polpettine's, Vecchio's brother-in-law and his family, had been moved to a safe house in Peoria but his mother refused to go and they were expected to accommodate her! Hell, why not pack up the entire troupe and send them on an all expense paid Disney vacation down in Florida until Muldoon was sentenced in three or four years. It might be cheaper for the tax payers! And all of this based on what could wind up being nothing more than a couple of empty threats and a copycat, thrill-seeking car bomber!

The demand of a car horn brought him back to the present and reversed his attempt at a lane change. The car he had nearly cut-off speeded up to get around him quickly, the driver throwing him an angry glare in the evening rush hour traffic. An accident was just what Ford needed to complete his week! He'd probably wind up sharing a room with Fraser and have to commit suicide.

He shoved his many irritations aside and forced his attention back to the task at hand. Twenty minutes later, he was still trying to shove his frustration aside as he made his way down a non-descript hotel corridor to the room Stella Kowalski occupied. He checked to make sure he hadn't been followed and then rapped out the necessary code sequence on the door to identify himself. The security latch was immediately thrown and he frowned darkly as the door was opened.

"Did you even bother to check the peep hole?" he corrected the agent who greeted him and shoved his way past the idiot. Mistakes like that got agents and their protectees killed! Checking up on a security detail was not Ford's idea of a productive use of his time, but obviously Ms. Harrelson had been right to suggest it. That she'd been right only added to his irritation! His eyes swept the room. What he saw only angered him further.

"Pizza?" he spat angrily. "You ordered pizza?"

"You have something against pizza, Agent Ford?" Stella asked from where she sat at a table working on a laptop computer, several files spread out in organized disarray around her. Her pizza and a take-out soda sat carefully regulated outside the danger zone of her work.

"Delivered or did you at least have the sense to have someone pick it up?" he snarled, offering a glare for the agent in charge of the detail.

The lack of a response was his answer. He shook his head in disgust and waved at the window through which the sunset was clearly displayed in all it's glory. "Have you forgotten all your protocols for witness protection? What the fuck do you think you're doing here! Maybe Muldoon would like to hire you idiots to help kill her?"

The agent nearest the window quickly grabbed up the heavy curtain and moved to draw it closed.

"I don't work well in a cave, Ford," Ms. Kowalski complained.

"Perhaps you'd rather try working from a casket six feet un--" Ford's point was suddenly made as the agent at the window fell back without a sound and the glass exploded inward. "Down! Down! Down!" he shouted, pulling his weapon even as he dove for the fallen agent. Agent Clark had taken a high velocity round to the head. Ford grimaced as he realized the entire room had been sprayed with blood and gray matter. He didn't bother to check for a pulse.

The protection detail was up and moving, implementing standard operational procedure for such occurrences. One guard checked the outside hall, the other took command of the protectee and moved her toward the door.

No second shot rang out. Ford knew the gunman was probably already making his escape from the scene. He fumbled his cell out and keyed the emergency function as he dared peek out the shattered window and analyze the most likely spot the shooter had fired from.

Was this his fault, he wondered? Had his own lackadaisical attitude over the unnecessary protection of Ms. Kowalski transferred itself to her protection detail? Was that why the team was so sloppy? He shoved any self-recriminations aside. What he felt didn't matter and it shouldn't have made a difference to the agents assigned to this detail. They'd been given their orders and they'd failed to follow them. That was why Clark was dead. Damn fool...

"This is Ford," he snapped into the phone. "We have a security breech with shots fired. Clark is down. Protectee is on the move. The shooter may have used the roof of the building west of our location. Get the area secured and a SWAT team to sweep the area. I don't want this bastard to get away!"

Ford could see no evidence of movement on either the roof opposite or any of the windows. If the shooter were going to try his luck again, he would have made the attempt by now. Ford silently cursed the assailant and fought to deal with the massive adrenaline rush the attack had caused. The security detail had swept from the room, taking Ms. Kowalski to a secondary secure location that was already set up for such emergencies. He needed to bring up the rear. He glanced at the fallen Clark. Young man, only out of training six months. Damn! With another silent snarl for the assassin, Ford grabbed up Clark's gun and jammed it in his belt as he headed for the door.

A second shot rang out and Ford fell with a scream.

Stella fought not to scream herself as Ford's cry echoed in the corridor behind them. The agent behind her spun to look back, weapon held ready, but continued to push her forward, hurrying her through the halls behind the other agent who paused at a corridor intersection before pulling her forward, rushing them toward the lobby.

"Agents Teller and Penn: we're on the move! Secure the lobby and bring the car around. Second shot fired; repeat, second shot fired. Agents Ford and Clark are down. Call an ambulance and get a team back here, now!"

Stella stumbled but the firm grip the lead agent had on her upper arm kept her from going down. God, she couldn't believe this was happening! She'd received threats before. She'd been under police protection before. She'd even had someone try to blow her up before, but this... Her bright yellow pantsuit was splattered with another man's blood! Was he still alive? They couldn't just leave him... And Ford... It was all happening so fast!

That bullet had been meant for her! She should be the one lying dead in a pool of blood, and all because she'd insisted on having the drapery open. Stupid! So stupid!

They emerged into a scene of carefully controlled chaos. Three FBI agents converged on them, while three others, dark suits -name badges -weapons drawn, swept down the hall they'd just traversed. Stella found herself suddenly halted as an unknown agent swept a bullet proof vest over her head. She was given no choice in the matter.

"This isn't nec--"

"--Standard operating procedure, Ms. Kowalski. Please, let us do our jobs. You and everyone else will be much safer the faster we can get you out of here."

"You should be looking for--"

"--The shooter. Yes, ma'am. We're taking care of it. This way, please."

The 'please' was a a polite formality only, having absolutely no meaning otherwise. As soon as the vest was properly secured, her arms were taken again and she was forcibly propelled forward once more: through the lobby, past the confused and curious onlookers, through the glass doors... The sound of approaching sirens momentarily overrode the shouted orders of police and FBI. There was a dark sedan in front of her, the door already open as even more bodies seemed to surround her, physically shielding her from harm as she was literally thrown in the back seat, the door slammed behind her, and then the vehicle was screeching away from the scene. A pair of hands grabbed her shoulders before she could fall into the passenger well and helped her sit upright, then deftly secured her safety belt for her.

"Agent Mickel. Are you all right, Ma'am?"

"I..." Stella glanced up to find an earnest young agent regarding her in concern as she fought to calm her racing heart and take in everything that had just happened. She ran a shaking hand back through her tousled hair only to feel something wet and jerk her hand away. Glancing at it, she saw blood.

"Are you hurt, Ms. Kowalski?" the agent asked again, his calm but insistent manner providing her an anchor in a world gone insane. She refused to fall apart in front of someone so much younger than herself!

"I'm fine," she managed to snap out. She whipped her hand on a relatively clean portion of her skirt and purposely focused her eyes straight ahead, shoving the mental image of what she must look like far from her thoughts.

"Are you sure you're not bleeding?" the agent asked yet again, his eyes carefully raking her form even as he undid the velcro fasteners of the vest and lifted it to check her torso.

"I'm fine!" she answered a bit more firmly, slapping the vest back down although she knew there was nothing inappropriate about his regard. She was wearing a shirt and jacket under the vest after all. "The blood isn't mine."

The man straightened and turned his attention outward, not showing any signs of surprise at her outburst. "You're safe now, Ms. Kowalski. The car is bullet proof and we'll have you at an even more secure location in just a few minutes. Just try to sit back and relax."

Relax? Someone had just tried to kill her and he expected her to relax?! Fighting to conceal just how badly she wanted to curl into a ball and cry her eyes out, Stella instead forced herself to sit up straighter, hands braced on the seat to either side, and stared sightlessly at the passing traffic as the city was slowly swallowed by the encroaching twilight.

Sat evening

"I'm quite pleased that I had the chance to meet you, Constable Fraser, although I truly wish it could have been under better circumstances." Ms. Harrelson offered the handsome man stuck in the hospital bed a sympathetic smile. "Unfortunately, I really must fly out tomorrow morning if I don't want my boss to send armed men to come fetch me. I just wanted to stop by while I still could and let you know that the FBI has found no evidence that your accident was anything more than that, an accident. Apparently, Mr. Rand had just finished up a rather hectic day, or actually night, of deliveries and was overly tired. He has no record, nor could we find any connections to Muldoon anywhere in his past."

Ben nodded. He really hadn't expected Muldoon to be involved, especially not when he had Ben twisting in the wind over his sister. There was still no news about Maggie. After nearly forty-eight hours, Ben was very much beginning to fear the worst.

"I really must insist however that you not refuse the police protection that has been offered while you are recuperating," the woman from the US State Department continued. "I've already spoken with Inspector Mitchell and he agrees. You've become a bit of a political figurehead, whether you wanted to or not, and both our countries would be most unhappy were anything further to happen to you."

Agent Steed's pager went off, winning an irritated frown. He quickly turned it off and glanced at the read out. "May I?" he asked, indicating Ben's bedside phone. Ben nodded absently and focused on the woman addressing him.

"I understand they will be releasing you soon?" she asked.

He nodded again. "Monday afternoon, barring any complications."

She shook her head as she took in the outline of the braces beneath the covers. "Both legs... How are you going to get around? A wheelchair?"

"Wait!" Steed ordered sharply, turning and giving Ms. Harrelson an urgent glance. "Say that again?"

Two pair of eyes waited impatiently for an explanation. The older man frowned down at the floor and nodded a couple of times as he listened. "Ms. Kowalski is safe?" Another silent set of nods as two set of eyebrows winged upward. "Yes, Sir. I'll tell her." Another nod and he hung up. He sighed before looking up and meeting their eyes. "There was another attempt on Assistant State's Attorney Kowlaski's life a little over an hour ago. Both Agents Ford and Clark are dead. Ms. Kowalski is safe and has been moved to a secondary location--"

"--Dead!" Tammy interrupted in surprise.

"Yes, Ma'am," the agent answered. "Special Agent Deeter has assumed temporary command. The assailant used a high powered rifle from a nearby rooftop. They've cordoned off the area but haven't found him yet. Chances are he slipped out before we could seal the area. A forensics team will be able to tell us more."

Tammy looked away, stunned. It was only a couple hours ago that she'd 'suggested' Ford check on Stella Kowalski's security detail... She couldn't believe that he was dead!

"A high powered rifle?" Ben echoed with a frown. "How far away?"

"I'm sorry. That's all I know at this point, Sir," the agent answered quietly.

"What are you thinking?" Tammy asked, almost able to see the Constable's mind racing along some path or another.

The question took Ben by surprise and he glanced up with a start. "Well... I'm not sure that it means anything, it's just..." He frowned harder and cocked his head to the side as he again ran through everything in his head. "Most professional hit men have an MO, one methodology that they have honed and perfected, and that they are most comfortable with. Bombers may use different types of explosives, different delivery methods, but... they tend to stick with what they know. You said the pipe bomb, a crude pipe bomb, was hardwired into Ms. Kowalski's electrical system? That whoever planted it apparently forgot, or wasn't aware of, the remote access function which set off the charge prematurely..."

Tammy nodded.

"Yet, he had enough knowledge to bypass a state of the art anti-theft security system."

Tammy and Agent Steed exchanged surprised frowns.

Ben scratched his eyebrow with his thumb, not sure if he was onto something or not. "Bomb making is a very technical art form, requiring a high level of expertise and knowledge," he continued, pensively. "A car bomb is a distant weapon. The assassin is completely removed and detached from the actuality of the kill. A sniper on the other hand is required to see his target during the kill. He must participate in the act. His training and mind set are completely different from what one would expect from someone who would set a car bomb..."

"What are you getting at Constable?" Tammy asked. "Do you think we're dealing with more than one assassin?"

Ben sighed and shrugged. "It's possible. It just strikes me as odd that a hired killer would change his MO... and that he would miss twice."

"An open contract..." Steed frowned.

"Or he's missing on purpose."

"On purpose?" Tammy repeated in surprise.

Ben shrugged, unable to explain exactly where the thought had come from... beyond the fact that Muldoon obviously wanted to torture the men who'd sent him to jail.

"Well," Tammy sighed, "looks like my flight’s going to get postponed again. Come on, Steed, I've got a lot of work to do. Constable..." Giving him a parting nod, the small woman swept from the room, leaving Ben alone with his thoughts once more.

Ray sighed as he gazed wearily up at the camera, waiting for the agent inside to recognize him and come open the freaking door. It had been a hell of a day. He'd spent a big part of it pouring over all the data the FBI had on Muldoon. He hadn't been trying to memorize or analyze any of it. Not yet. He'd merely absorbed it. Tomorrow, he'd start trying to put the pieces together. Another big part of the day had been spent hauling Kowalski around. His partner had escaped the car accident relatively unscathed, but he did have a concussion and wasn't allowed to drive; not that something as inconvenient as a good bump on the head was going to keep Kowalski from continuing the investigation. Vecchio might not be able to act in an official capacity, but he was as capable of hanging out with Kowalski as Fraser had ever been wont to.

They'd spent the morning at the twenty-third discussing the Intercity Courier murder investigation with Detective Masterson. Gary Paulson had been a veteran of twelve years with the company and the Canadian Consulate was part of his normal route, so he hadn't been targeted merely for the uniform. He'd apparently been attacked right after picking up his normal morning delivery. The company hadn't known anything was wrong until they had to field several questions about where he was. At first, they'd been afraid he was in a car accident. Then one of the other employees discovered his body in the dumpster out back of the place. He'd been dead several hours, and the delivery to the Consulate had been made, long before the police had been called. Forensics was still going over trace evidence from the body. Detective Masterson confirmed he'd been strangled, actually garroted, but it was too soon for them to have anything else.

Kowalski and Vecchio had then canvassed the ICS offices and employees but no one at the company had recognized Timothy Weber. A canvass of Gary Paulson’s apartment complex had been equally fruitless, leaving them back at square one when it came to tracking the guy down! The only other possible lead they had was the still missing delivery car. They had an APB out on it but Kowalski agreed that it was probably rusting somewhere at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

The thing that drove Vecchio most crazy was that the guy was clean! Well, relatively clean. His record consisted of a bunch of parking tickets and a bench warrant for failing to appear in court on an assault charge, all of which were in New York. Given that the man had apparently killed a man, stolen his uniform and car, then done Muldoon's delivery service... Vecchio suspected ‘Timothy Weber' was an alias. What they needed were finger prints. So far, they didn't have any. The delivered threats had given forensics nothing more than a bunch of smudged partials. Turnbull and Jasmine had both failed to mention anything about gloves so Vecchio was thinking the guy had filed his fingertips or painted them with something. The FBI might be able to pull up more but the CPD didn't have the necessary equipment, and it would take time for the Feds to get around to it.

Time was the one thing they didn't really have!

Then, as Vecchio had been driving Kowalski home, word had come down that a second attempt had been made against Stella. Kowalski had nearly panicked, or at least come as close to it as Vecchio ever wanted to see. The other man might claim to be over his ex -and it was certainly clear that Stella wanted nothing to do with him-but it was plain to anyone who knew Kowalski that he still carried a torch for her. The two detectives had arrived at the hotel long after she'd been moved only to be informed that two FBI agents were dead.

Killing an FBI agent was no small matter. And killing Ford just might land the shooter on the FBI's ten most wanted! Course, they had to ID the guy first. Assuming it was Tim Weber...

But the more Vecchio thought about everything, the less he liked Weber as a suspect. A gofer for Muldoon, a car bomber, a sniper... No, they were dealing with more than one ...

Of course they were dealing with more than one person! Was he being blind or just too tired to connect the dots here? Someone had kidnaped Maggie up north and two days later someone takes a shot at Stella again? There was no way it was one hit man. Muldoon musta hired two guys, one for Chicago and one for--No. Three. He would have hired one hit man for each man he wanted to torture. The question then was... where did Tim Weber fit into it?

The knowledge that no one had made an attempt against Ma as yet only made Ray's skin crawl. It wasn't because the hit man was being distracted by his other targets, it was because he hadn't found his target of best opportunity...

The front door of his house finally opened at the same time his cell phone chose to ring.

"Vecchio!" he answered it even as he brushed past the agent and started to shrug out of his coat. He wanted to check on Ma and then try to talk some sense into her again. She needed to leave before...

"Tim Weber is at the Lake Shore Hilton, room 417." The caller instantly had his full attention. "You owe Jimmie."

The line went dead before Vecchio could say anything.

Maggie was in pure misery. Her captor had given her another few mouth fulls of water and a dose of sodium pentothal when they stopped for the night. She’d woken before dawn with a pounding headache which only seemed to amplify the ragged roar of the snow mobile over an angry wind as they continued their torturous trek to wherever they were going. The wind had picked up while she was out. Was that why they were moving even before sun up? Another front was moving in? It would only work to his benefit if it was. She had tried to figure out their direction, tried to get an idea of where they might be headed that was a three or four day trip by snow mobile from Paulatuuq but... there were too many variables to consider. The effort to make such calculations and guesstimates was beyond her. There was nothing between Paulatuuq and Inuvik except wandering hunters and Inuit! Did Muldoon want her dumped in the MacKenzie River because of her name, or something equally stupid?

They had to arrive soon. He’d said it would ‘all be over’ in another day or two, and that was yesterday. She’d begun her ordeal in top physical condition but knew she was in poor shape to put up much of a fight. That just meant her attack, when the opportunity came, had to be smart and decisive. She had to disarm and disable immediately. Failing that, she had to kill him. It was life or death, and she intended to live. She refused to entertain the possibility that she might not. A positive, fighting attitude was essential to surviving.

It was just past dawn when the lack of constant jolting penetrated her dazed mind enough to warn her that they’d stopped again, yet... She frowned. Something was different. This time she could hear the motor of the snow mobile idling. He hadn’t turned the engine off. The indistinct sound of another voice calling out over the hiss of the wind sent a serge of adrenaline racing through her veins. The noise of motor and wind kept her from being able to hear what was said, but the tone was casual, friendly. She craned her neck, straining to see, but the careful pile of blankets and equipment around her made that impossible. Who had they met up with? Was this part of the plan? Her captor had said he was taking her where he’d been told too. Was that why he hadn’t killed her? Someone else was going to? She didn’t think she stood much of a chance against two of them.

The conversation was fairly short. Then the motor was killed and she heard someone tramping through the snow toward her. She bit down on her gag and flexed her muscles against the ropes that bound her. This was it. She doubted they’d simply shoot her while she lay helpless in the sled. No, they must mean to transfer her. Maybe there was a plane waiting or an ATV, but in any case they would have to release her. She doubted she’d get another such chance. She lay ready, closing her eyes to mere slits and feigning dazed incapacitation while preparing to attack at the first opportunity they gave her...


Her eyes flew open at the sound of incredulous recognition. Was this a rescue? Constable Dodds stared down at her is equal surprise and she knew in that instant what had happened--what was about to happen. She screamed a warning through the gag, but it was too late. The crack of a high powered rifle mingled with her muffled cry as Dodd jerked and then fell across her. His surprise at finding her turned to shock and confusion as his body refused to obey him. She met his gaze in horror and watched helplessly as his eyes, a clear crystal blue to match the autumn skies, lost focus, then slowly closed as death took him. His body went suddenly slack and slid downward, out of view to lay in an unseen heap beside the runners of the sled.


Maggie screamed again, fighting her bonds in a fit of rage and promising to kill the son of a bitch with her bare hands if only she could win free! Jeremy was only twenty. He’d only just gotten out of the academy a few months ago! God damn it, he’d shot him in the back! Killed him in cold blood!

The ropes bit into her flesh, blood welled and slicked them, but they didn’t give. Struggle as hard as she might, she could not break free. Her muscles burned and cramped with the effort, bringing pain and the realization of defeat as adrenaline passed and rage gave way to grief. Tears burned her cheeks as she remembered first meeting Jeremy, only three months ago, about his happy announcement of his engagement to his sweetheart back in Whitehorse, about the ribbing she and the other Constables had given him about getting married...

She blinked her eyes open only to see her captor bending down beside her, down to where she knew Jeremy lay. Anger serged in answer again as she realized he was searching the body. He’d killed him, wasn’t that enough! And then her captor stood up again, cradling his rifle in his arms and gazing down at her dispassionately.

“Never turn your back on a man with a gun,” he sighed and shook his head. His gaze swept outward, checking the horizon to see if anyone else had heard the shot and would come to investigate.

He’d made a mistake killing Jeremy, Maggie knew. There would be people who knew where he was supposed to be. He’d be expected to report in regularly. When he failed to do so, the RCMP would close in. The approaching storm wouldn’t stop them once they knew where to look. Her captor didn’t have a hope at escape now.

There was no movement on the horizon and he allowed his gaze to drop to the body at his feet. “Dumb-ass Mountie.”

Maggie tasted bile and prayed for a chance to see this monster dead! She’d be only too happy to send him to hell where he belonged.

He sighed again and frowned down at her. He bent to remove some of the equipment from around her before stripping away several layers of blankets. She thought he meant to wrap the body in a couple and hide it in the brush or bury it under some snow. Instead, he bent back down and, much to Maggie’s horror, hefted the body directly on top of her.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” her captor told her and pulled the body downward slightly and to the side, taking the majority of the weight off of Maggie’s diaphragm so she could breathe. “‘Can’t have your friends finding him dead here. ‘Might be more handy if they think he’s still alive.”

The blankets were brought back in place, the equipment rearranged to balance the load, and everything was lashed back down again. He scanned the horizon one more time and then glanced down to make sure Maggie could still breathe. “Only a couple more hours, Girl,” he promised. With that, he turned and tramped back through the blowing snow to start the engine again. Maggie glanced at the pale, slack face resting on her breast and shuddered in pain and horror as the sled was jerked forward once more.

Tim Weber, or Tim Roland as was his real name, wasn't talking. That wasn't a problem, however, because Rafeal Reyes, the man he'd been meeting with when the police barged into room 417 of the Lake Shore Hilton, was. Vecchio frowned as he tried to hear what he was saying, but Kowalski's reflection in the observation glass was driving him crazy.

"Will you sit down," Vecchio sighed, tossing Kowalski--who was pacing the darkened room incessantly--an irritated frown.

"Why we gotta let the Feds do this, huh?" The tightly wound detective spun on his heel to face Welsh again. "Tell me. Tell me again, tell me again... ‘cause it just ain't sinkin' in!"

Welsh sighed. "The Feds made the collar. The Feds made the deal. The Feds got him talking. The Feds ask the questions." He didn't think he could make it any clearer than that.

"Collar? What collar?" Kowalski protested. "They had nothing until Vecchio here told them where Weber was! It should be Vecchio's bust, not theirs!"

"His name's Roland, not Weber; and Vecchio was nowhere near the bust," Welsh reminded the younger man and crossed his arms, "and I really don't think we want anyone examining the source of his information too closely, do you? The Feds don't care, but the district commissioner and/or the Captain might have a little problem with his earlier run in with the ‘Vicar'‘ being as Vecchio was, and is, officially on medical leave and administrative probation and all. ‘You think?"

Kowalski frowned but he knew Welsh was right. He didn't know the full of what had happened between Vecchio and the ‘Vicar', but the simple fact that he'd managed a face to face on the other man's turf without needing a plastic surgeon afterwards was enough to raise eyebrows in certain circles. Kowalski let his irritation go and turned his glare to the man on the other side of the glass.

"...He wanted to play games," Reyes continued in disgust. "I was supposed to make an attempt against Mrs. Vecchio but be sure to miss. Miss? I thought the guy was an idiot!"

A background check on Reyes had discovered a record for gun smuggling and that he'd run afoul of INS before. A little more digging had shown him to be a professional hit man, but not in the States. He was an import from Columbia and was known to have worked for Muldoon in the past. Combined with the threat Vecchio had received, and a picture of Ray's mother found in his pocket... the police had a damn good case against him and he knew it. A little leaning, a little lawyer talk about deals, and deportation looked a hell of a lot better than the alternative. He was singing quite beautifully.

"I've been paid to terrorize people before," he continued with a shrug. His lawyer, having won him immunity from prosecution, sat back in a corner and thought about dozing while the DA and Feds took notes. "You know, strong arm them into cooperating. If they don't, then you off them; but this wasn't the same. This was sick. I thought it was a mistake. Miscommunication. Roland's just Muldoon's megaphone, you know? Then, whatever idiot he hired to play games with the ASA, went and offed two FBI agents! Big mistake there. Don't know if it was in the communications or not, but Chicago just got way too hot for my tastes. Games like that get people caught and I don't care what the man is offering: it might as well be dog spit if I'm in prison and can't enjoy it. So, anyway, I go to tell Roland I was splitting and you guys knock down the door. I knew I shoulda just disappeared. Me, I gotta play professional even with the fruitcakes like Roland."

"You don't know who he hired to hit ASA Kowalski?" the DA asked.

Reyes frowned and shook his head. "Never said."

"I read you some names, you think you can recognize them?" It was Agent Deeter who asked this one. He pulled out a small black notebook and read the first name without waiting for an answer. "Steven Hatten?"

Reyes frowned slightly and shook his head.

"What is that?" the DA demanded.

"Roland's little black notebook," Deeter answered. "We found it when we searched his car. Ron Sellton?"

Reyes cocked his head in thought. "Lawyer..." He shrugged. "I think. Heard him talking to him on the phone once, unless there's another Sellton he knows."

"Sellton... Sellton..." Vecchio murmured, grabbing onto the name with a sharp frown even as the Feds and Reyes moved on. He turned his back on the interrogation and fought to remember where he knew the name from. It was something from amongst the mass of FBI info he'd tried to absorb yesterday but hadn't had time to look at since... His head popped up and he snapped his fingers as it finally came to him. "Sellton is Lou Gibbler's lawyer!"

"Lou Gibbler?"

"One of the guys we arrested with Muldoon," Vecchio answered. "I told you he was working through the lawyers!"

"Just not his own," Welsh nodded. "Have Huey and Dewey pick him up. Better write it up and get a warrant first. He probably won't be very cooperative."

"The Duck Boys? Why--"

"--Why, Detective? Because you're already too damn close to this as it is, both of you! Huey and Dewey are hardly what I call impartial but they look a hell of a lot better on paper than you two would. Besides, even if Vecchio wasn't supposed to be stuck in bed or hugging a desk, neither of you are in any shape to tear off after the guy if he decides to make a break for it. Give it to the Duck Boys. End of discussion."

The two men exchanged irritated but defeated glances. With a silent understanding, Kowalski spun on his heel to march out of the room and Vecchio turned his attention back to the interrogation in the next room, hoping he could pick up a few more tasty crumbs that slipped by the Feds in their rather clumsy attempt at questioning the guy.

A soft knock drew Ben’s attention from the FBI reports that Ray had dropped off last night and up to the door of his hospital room. He was surprised to see Francesca standing there. “Can I come in?” she asked quietly, glancing away before he could make eye contact.

She was dressed in a light blue turtleneck, dark slacks and a wrap around sweater. There was something almost incongruous about the style on her... He also noted she still wore her white hospital identification bracelet at her left wrist, so either she was still a patient or had only just been released. The bruises, if she still bore any, were carefully hidden or masked with makeup... which seemed lighter than normal. Or maybe she was just pale. Her hair had been combed neatly but seemed to lack it’s normal bounce and shine, reflecting the lack he sensed within her spirit as well.

She seemed very small and fragile standing there...

She bowed her head and shifted her weight uncomfortably, and he suddenly realized he was staring.

“I’m-- I’m sorry. I was--” He heard himself stuttering and quickly grabbed at his composure and manners. “Yes,” he answered her at last. “Please.” He quickly offered a smile and closed the files, pushing them aside so as to award her his full attention. He adjusted himself on the bed and straightened the blanket self-consciously. He really hadn’t expected to hear from her, let alone have a visit, given the nature of their last parting... not that he understood that parting anymore now than he had last week.

She stepped forward slightly, her eyes scanning the folders and the room, everything except his face, refusing to meet his eyes. “Doesn’t your boss ever give you a day off?” she quipped lightly, but the tone was flat, the humor she offered strained and uncertain. She reminded him of a frightened fawn that might turn and flee at the slightest provocation.

“It’s...” He glanced at the folders and knew he couldn’t tell her what it was, not exactly anyway. “It’s just some files your brother brought me. Something to stave off boredom.” Which wasn’t a lie, he consoled himself. It was also something to keep him occupied, to keep his mind off of what was happening up north. Meg had promised to call if they learned anything more. The continued silence was driving him slowly insane.

Frannie stared at the outline of the braces beneath the blankets. “Ma wants you to come to the house when they let you out,” she said without looking up, sweeping a few stray strands of dark hair behind her ear.

Mrs. Vecchio had called him yesterday to extend the kind invitation but, given the pressures that the family were already under and the fact that Francesca would be released soon, he had thought it best to decline. “I appreciate the offer, Francesca, but it isn’t necessary,” he allowed, concerned that Ma had made her come to talk with him. He was too much of a coward to confront her directly on the real reason he’d declined: her apparent anger with him. “I’ve arranged to transfer to a convalescent home until I recover sufficiently to care for myself.”

“A convalescent home?” she echoed and finally met his eyes in surprise.

“Park View Coordinated Care Facility,” he added, not sure that she really wanted to know, but...

“Park View?” she exclaimed, showing the first real emotion he’d seen in her since her rescue. “Are you crazy? We transferred my uncle Lorenzo out of there last year because they failed their certification review!”

“I would assume they’ve improved--”

“--It’s a hole, Fraser!” she interrupted him sharply, marching up to his bed. “Two years ago, they changed owners. The new owners cut half the staff and embezzled the profits for six months. Just before they were due for another licensing check, they foisted it off on some other poor sucker who’s still trying to prove what they did and sue the hell out of them for fraud. It’ll be years before the place recovers! You can’t go there!”

Ben frowned unhappily at the information and stared down at the blankets. Frankly, there was nowhere else he could go. If he were in Canada, it wouldn’t be a problem, but in the States... Canadian Health Care coverage for individuals outside Canada was problematic at best. He couldn’t afford a more expensive facility. “I’m sure it will be fine, Francesca,” he allowed, choosing to have a positive outlook. “I don’t require--”

“--You can’t go there, Fraser!” she repeated firmly. “I told you, we took Uncle Lorenzo out of there last year. Ma finds out you went there instead of the house and she’ll be hurt. You’ll be insulting her!”

Oh, dear. He certainly didn’t want to insult Mrs. Vecchio, but... He forced himself to stop playing with the edge of the blanket. “I don’t have much choice,” he admitted reluctantly and lifted his eyes to meet her angry gaze. “You’ll be released from hospital soon yourself.”

“So?” she asked in angry confusion.

Ben sighed and frowned down at the blankets again. “I don’t know why you threw me out of your room, Francesca, or what I did that hurt you so badly, and I’m sorry for whatever it was. But I’m afraid that my presence in your home...” He lifted his eyes to gaze at her earnestly. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

The anger in her gaze became a look of surprise which was quickly masked as she diverted her eyes. “You didn’t hurt me, Frase,” she whispered.

He had to ask. “Why did you throw me out?”

Francesca continued to stare at the floor and bit her lip, suddenly fighting back tears as she struggled with the why and wherefores of everything that had happened She shook her head. She wasn’t ready for this. She wasn’t ready to... She couldn’t explain. Not yet. Maybe never. She suddenly shoved the pain that threatened to overwhelm her aside, locking it behind the dam of her will once more. He wouldn’t understand anyway. She forced her head back up, forced herself to look at him again, forced herself... She could not meet his eyes. His eyes reminded her of things she didn’t want to remember.

“So, can I tell Ma you’ll stop this nonsense and agree to let us take care of you?” she asked crisply. Irritably, she brushed a stray tear away. “I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Obviously, she wasn’t going to answer his question. “Are you sure that’s what you want, Francesca?” he asked instead, concerned by her obvious upset. “I actually require very little assistance. I’m sure Park View--”

“--Then it’s settled,” she interrupted him again decisively. “When are they letting you out of here?”

“Tomorrow morning,” he answered. “I just have to finish the antibiotic run they have me on.”

She nodded curtly. “I’ll tell Ray to pick you up.” There was an awkward silence following her pronouncement, and then she suddenly turned to leave.

“Francesca!” Ben found himself calling after her in concern, but he knew she wouldn’t welcome it. She might say he hadn’t done anything to hurt her but it was clear she was uncomfortable around him for some reason. She paused at his call and he had to search for something to say. “...Thank you for coming by,” he offered, afraid that if he said what he really wanted that he might frighten her more than she already was. “It was good to see you.”

She nodded non-committally and then disappeared out the door, leaving Ben as confused about their situation as he had been before.

A couple of hours, he’d said. And what then? Maggie still had no clue as to exactly what his intentions were, save that Muldoon wanted her dead. The adrenaline rush had passed but the anger and pain were fresh enough to keep her mind alert and functioning. Jeremy’s limp and lifeless body bounced and jostled against her with each bump the sled hit. Rigor mortis had not yet set in. She consoled herself with the fact that he was beyond pain now, beyond caring what happened to his physical form and tried not to think of him beyond that. She concentrated on ignoring her own many discomforts, focusing on the few puffs of clouds overhead and the way the shadows shortened as the morning progressed. She was pretty sure they were still headed in a northwest direction.

The two hours should -- she suddenly felt them draw to a stop -- about be over...

Maggie flexed her muscles, trying to keep them warm. Having seen her captor kill a fellow Mountie in cold blood, did not improve her estimation of her own chances. Her chances... Her chances were practically non-existent! She’d been drugged and starved, tied to a sled and forced to lie immobile as it was dragged all over hell and back behind a damn snowmobile for two and a half days! Her bowels and bladder had let loose long ago, leaving her raw and reeking. He wouldn’t want to get any closer to her than absolutely necessary. Her earlier struggle had resulted in a tightening of the ropes about her torn and bloodied wrists, causing her hands to swell and go numb. Her arms and legs were stiff and weak from disuse. She wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone attack her captor even if he were unarmed and turned his back on her!

She was, quite frankly, afraid. She suspected she was about to die here and she really didn’t want to.

She heard the motor killed and then he dismounted, tramping through the snow back toward the sled. He leaned over and looked down at her, meeting her angry and defiant glare with a tiny smile. “Almost over, Mountie,” he told her as he turned his attention to one of the packs lashed beside her head. He worked several buckles, striping the heavy canvass open, and pulled something out. He paused and glanced at her, then lifted it for her to see. It was a GPS locator of some sort. “Muldoon was very specific about where you should die,” he told her. Turning the device on, he turned and headed away.

GPS? Where in the world could Muldoon be thinking of that would require a Global Positioning Satellite tracker to find? And when had he had the time to track down the GPS coordinates and get them to her captor? It didn’t make any sense to her.

Her captor did not move very far. She heard him stop and turn in place before setting off again.

Damn it! This was not how she wanted to die: out in the middle of nowhere, helpless to save herself! What day was it now? Saturday? Sunday? She’d been taken Thursday night so it must be Sunday morning, unless she’d lost a day somewhere in her misery fogged brain. Sunday, October 24, 1999. She saw it on her tomb stone. Saw a sad faced Sgt. MacPherson picking up the phone to call Ben’s superior in Chicago. Saw the unknown Inspector call Ben into his office and sit him down, breaking the news of her death. Ben would be devastated, she knew. He’d been so happy to find family, real family; not distant cousins and aunts and uncles who knew nothing about the Territories... It was what Muldoon wanted, she knew. He wanted to punish Ben for... for being Ben. For being the son of the man who’d first arrested him. For daring to arrest him himself, not once, but twice. For being a man of honor and...

She did not want to be used as an instrument of Muldoon’s revenge! It wasn’t right! Ben didn’t deserve this!

A sudden loud... cracking? Splintering... as of wood? It was an odd sound. Not a gun shot. Not a crash. More like a building caving in... Boards falling apart and... tumbling against each other. And a desperate, fear-strangled cry... It sounded like someone was falling. Was it her captor, or someone else he’d chanced upon? The cry was suddenly cut off, leaving only the sound of tumbling wood and rock, echoing and fading as though in the distance... Only a surprising silence followed in its wake.

She was forced to lie there and watch as small puffs of clouds, heavy with the promise of snow, drifted by totally indifferent to what her fate might be. The only sound to reach her now was the wind and a few stones slipping free to follow whatever path the victim of the fall had taken. No painful groan. No cry for help she couldn’t answer. No sound of movement. Had the idiot fallen over a cliff and killed himself? There weren’t any cliffs around here, not if they were anywhere near where she thought they...

Six Mile Canyon?

She remembered Ben telling her about how their father had tried to kill Holloway Muldoon after he murdered Ben’s mother. But... She didn’t know where Six Mile Canyon was but... it had to be in the heart of the Rockies, didn’t it? Or was it some kind of stable ice crevasse... She’d never heard of it before Ben mentioned it, so it must be a local name. It couldn’t be in the Rockies. The mountain chain was a good seven hundred kilometers southwest of Paulatuuq. And she wasn’t so out of it that she wouldn’t have known if they entered the mountains, was she? She had noted some long shadows that could be trees, which would mean they were below the tree line. They would have had to travel south, at least a short distance to... There was no way, even if she had figured their direction wrong, that they had traveled such a distance by snow mobile in three and a half days! It wasn’t possible. Well, if he hadn’t been hauling her and the sled behind him, maybe, but... Had he drugged her more than she knew? Had she lost more days than she realized?

Only silence continued to greet her straining ears as the clouds continued their slow, unrelenting march across her narrow field of vision. She felt a morbid hope flare within her that her captor had made some fatal error and thus met his death. She certainly felt no regret or sympathy at the thought. She would have loved to help shove him over the edge, the son of a bitch.

As the silence continued to stretch out, the hope grew... but was suddenly dashed as she realized that, even if he were dead, that did not necessarily mean she would survive. She was still tied, hand and foot, lashed into an open sled with a corpse for company, completely helpless to free herself. The last time they’d stopped for a break, her captor had removed her goggles and face shield and hadn’t replaced them. With all the equipment and blankets piled around her, they weren’t necessary during the day. The gag however was still firmly in place, so she couldn’t yell for help. With a storm approaching, the temperatures would drop. Frost bite would be the least of her worries, however, because a snow storm would quickly fill in the cavity where her head rested and she’d be smothered in a blanket of white. Even should she survive the storm, the smell of the body atop her, and the blood which must have soaked Jeremy’s parka, not to forget the blood of her now presumed dead assailant, would draw scavengers. A wolf pack or polar bear would tear the sled apart, and both her and Jeremy with it.

Her only chance now lay in the hope that Jeremy hadn’t checked in just prior to flagging down her captor. If he had... It could still be some hours before the RCMP realized he was missing. They must then find his last known position and fan out from there, find where he’d been killed, track the snow mobile and sled, despite the wind and blowing snow which she knew had destroyed all but the deepest marks of their passage... Two hours at twenty or thirty kph... They could be as much as sixty kilometers from where Jeremy had been killed. It could be a full day before anyone managed to find her.

She would almost certainly be dead before then.

Thatcher was not at all happy. The word seemed to have disappeared from her vocabulary. She wasn't sure what she'd expected when she accepted the transfer to CSIS, only... She'd wanted to make a difference. That what she'd joined the RCMP to do. And she had. She thought she had. It hadn't been easy. She'd always been a child protégé, racing through grade school and attaining a Bachelor's Degree in Criminology before she was twenty when she chose to enter the RCMP. She had graduated at the top of her class and received several commendations for field work during her first two years as a Constable. She had quickly won the attention of her superiors due to her diplomatic aptitude in dealing with an ‘incident' involving the RCMP, a tribal Shaman and use of disputed lands to grow peyote, necessary in certain tribal ceremonies. No one was really surprised when, after five years, she was offered an officer's commission and transfer to the Legal Attaché offices in Ottawa. She'd been very happy there for the next five years, until she'd caught the eye of a particularly ambitious lawyer by the name of Henri Cloitier.

He was an older man, very distinguished and well respected. A man of the world with a glib tongue. His attention had been quite flattering. He'd arranged a transfer directly to his offices and she'd leapt at the opportunities he promised. Opportunities... Right. There were a number of opportunities for advancement within his offices, but only if she played his game. The subtle charming compliment soon became thinly veiled sexual innuendo and she found herself reduced to nothing more than a secretary being chased around the office when she failed to respond. The saddest thing was, he thought it was perfectly acceptable and she was just playing hard to get! It was his word against hers, and charges of sexual harassment weren't welcomed by the ‘good-old-boy' school of the RCMP. Complaints were laughed at or ignored. She was told to suck it up and do her job. She'd put in for several transfers, only to be denied, repeatedly being told that her posting was totally subject to the needs of the RCMP. Apparently, Cloitier insisted that she was most needed in his offices.

It wasn't until she had threatened civil action and a very public lawsuit that he'd agreed to let her go. The first opening available had turned out to be the Chief Liaison Officer of the Canadian Consulate in Chicago. He'd been only too happy to let her go, having heard what a dismal mess Inspector Moffatt, the previous Liaison Officer, had apparently left in his wake. Cloitier had expected her to come running back to him, begging his forgiveness.

Instead, she'd met Fraser.

Oh, the Chicago Consulate had been a diplomatic disaster and the laughing stock of the Diplomatic Round Table there. Constable Fraser's ‘do-gooded' naivety had only seemed to be part of the problem in the beginning. The Consul didn't help by constantly finding excuses to spend more time in Ottawa or... wherever... anywhere, but Chicago, leaving her to handle both jobs. It had taken months to re-establish themselves within the diplomatic community, but they had. And Fraser had played a definite role in that effort, in ways she wasn't sure she could articulate.

Nor could she articulate her growing feelings for him, which according to all the protocols and unwritten rules of the RCMP were completely inappropriate. It had taken the capture of Muldoon, the promise of a transfer and a sassy Civilian Aide, to make Meg realize that she was in danger of treating Fraser no differently that Cloitier had treated her years before, dragging Fraser with her to Ottawa or Toronto without a thought as to what he might want.

As it turned out, Cloitier was still playing his games. The expected transfer and promotion opportunity, when it finally came, had been right back into his sphere of influence. It was the last place she wanted to be. Fortunately, her actions in the Muldoon case had also gotten the attention of CSIS. A few calls and interviews later, and she was changing professions.

But she still wanted to make a difference. Starting over was not an easy thing and not a decision she'd made lightly, but Fraser had shown her that making a difference didn't require an officer's commission. Now, her first real assignment, to protect Constable MacKenzie, Fraser's sister for God's sake!, she'd failed. It had been more than three days. Maggie's chances of being found alive were becoming exponentially less with each hour that passed.

Meg sighed and turned from the window. Staring at the snow covered ground wasn't a productive use of her time, unfortunately there wasn't much she could do. Her knowledge of the north was limited to what she'd had to learn on the few trips she'd made up here over the years. She turned her frown to the map that occupied most of the detachment's west wall. It was an aerial map comprising most all of northern Canada including the Yukon and the recently created Nunavut. Colored push pins with numbered tags were scattered all about the area around Paulatuuq, designating various search groups, Inuit villages, cabins, hunters, fishing groups and researchers who'd been encountered and questioned. So far, there wasn't a single clue to be had from any of them. There were even colored pins down around Yellow Knife and Dawson City, where someone had reported seeing a woman who matched Maggie's description in the company of a rather rough looking pair of outfitters. The most popular opinion right now was that if Maggie was still alive, she'd been flown out of the area before the RCMP had even known she was missing. If so, then only a miracle would find her.

With a frustrated sigh, Meg marched up to the map and silently demanded that it yield its secrets to her. She could not, would not, give up hope that Fraser's sister was still alive or that they would find her. She refused to contemplate having to tell him that his sister was dead.

"Excuse me, Ma'am." A Civilian Aide stepped past her and approached the map with a printout in hand. Carefully then, she began to rearrange the push pins. The red ones were the various search groups. The black were villages, cabins or large fishing groups. They weren't moved. Orange were hunters. Yellow, researchers. Blue... There was only one blue one.

"What's this blue one up over here?" she asked, indicating a pin about a hundred kilometers northwest of Paulatuuq.

The aide squinted up at the pin indicated and read the number, then turned a page on her clip board and scanned down it. "Michael Qausuittuq. He's a Shaman out of Oqsuqtoaq in Nunavut. Apparently, his niece died and he's on a vision quest to understand her death or something. Constable Jackson talked to him on Friday. Too young. Doesn't match the description."

The pin was off by itself, in the middle of Perry Peninsula. There was only one other hole, to his southeast, which she assumed indicated his position on Friday. He'd traveled more than a hundred kilometers since than. Quite a bit for someone who was supposed to be on a vision quest... "He was first picked up here?" Meg asked, reaching up to actually touch the place she asked about.

The civilian aide offered a mild frown for the continued interruption of her duties but said nothing. She flipped another page on her clipboard and double-checked the coordinates. "Yeah."

About fifty kilometers south-southeast of Paulatuuq... He could have kidnapped Maggie and gotten that far away before the the search parties were sent out. Then turned northwest to confuse the searchers as he headed ‘by' Paulatuuq to wherever he was going.

She sighed and folded her arms, frowning up at the map in pensive confusion. There were close to a hundred pins scattered over the map. Why was this one bothering her so much? Just because it was relatively isolated? That made sense if he was on a vision quest. What didn't make a lot of sense was that hundred kilometers he'd covered so quickly. Actually, she realized, it would have to be more than that if he were to avoid the Smoking Hills to the west of Paulatuuq. He might not have, but the area was very broken and rough...

"How's he traveling?" she asked, interrupting the young woman beside her yet again. Meg admitted that she was as prejudiced as most from the south and assumed it was by dog sled, but she'd been up here long enough to know it was a dangerous assumption. Dog sleds were rarely used anymore, even by the Inuit.

The aide cast her a confused and slightly irritated frown for having been interrupted yet again. She had to concentrate and make sure she got the new coordinates of each pin correct and Meg wasn't letting her do that. With a little sigh, she replaced the pin she'd been about to move and paged back to the first contact notation with number sixteen. "Snow mobile," she answered succinctly.

A hundred kilometers in a day wasn't that hard for a snowmobile. Unless... he was hauling something behind him. "Sled?" Meg asked just as succinctly.

The civilian aide didn't need to glance at the notation again. "Doesn't say, but I would assume so given that he's out of Oqsuqtoaq. That's more than fifteen hundred kilometers to the east of here."

Meg's brows rose in surprise. "Are such trips usual for a lone Inuit?"

The aide offered a distracted smile and moved another pin. "Hunters will travel a lot more than that when game is scarce. Whole villages tend to get up and move then."

But a hunter and a Shaman were two different things... If only Fraser was here. He knew far more about what was normal for the indigenous peoples than she did. Meg sighed again and found Oqsuqtoaq on the map. Then she mentally traced the path he would have likely taken... He'd basically taken a turn to the northwest at Paulatuuq. She continued the line of travel and suddenly felt her throat tighten up.

"That's him!" she exclaimed. "He's the one with Maggie!"

"Ma'am?" The Civilian Aide was surprised by her outburst. Meg didn't bother to offer the other woman an explanation but spun to find Insp. Timmins or Sgt. MacPherson. "He doesn't match the description, Ma'am!" the other woman called after her. Meg ignored her. It was fairly easy to make oneself appear older then one really was. The man had merely changed disguises when he kidnapped Tommy Ellis, not discarded a disguise as they'd all assumed!

She barged into the Inspector's office without knocking, to find both the men she was looking for in conference. "Agent Thatcher!" Timmons offered in surprised irritation at the rude interruption.

"I know where Maggie is!" she announced without preamble.

Timmons frowned sharply, knowing Meg couldn't possibly have gotten information that he himself hadn't already been over. "Constable MacKenzie is not the only concern right now, I'm afraid," Timmons informed her. "Constable Kiterin fell through a fissure in the sea ice to the north of Paulatuuq and is being air lifted to hospital with a broken leg and severe hypothermia. There's another storm rolling in from the west and I have a Constable that seems to have lost himself and failed to report in."

"Perry Peninsula?"

He frowned at her in surprise. "How did you know?"

"He had a run in with Constable MacKenzie's captor," she surmised. "He's taking her to Franklin Bay--"

"--Franklin Bay?"

"--And the mine shaft where Fraser originally arrested Muldoon last year!" she finished. "It's the perfect spot to kill her if he wants to send Fraser a message. If he didn't want to, he would have ordered her killed outright."

Timmons frowned, mulling over all the information they had on Muldoon. He didn't have to see the map in the other room to know there wasn't much activity in that sector of the search pattern. That's why the missing Constable had been assigned there, because he was a rookie and less likely to get into trouble... They also had another storm rolling in and, though he wasn't overly concerned with Constable Dodds who was trained to survive such situations, he knew in his gut that if they didn't find Constable MacKenzie before it hit that they'd be doing a body recovery instead of a search and rescue. "How sure are you about this?"

"Positive, Sir," she answered sharply. "Don't ask me to explain. There isn't time. Her captor is posing as a Shaman on a vision quest. I can take you directly to the mine shaft in question."

Timmons met her eyes and saw the certainty within them. "Sergeant, call ahead to the airport. I want the rescue chopper ready when we get there. Have all resources in the area turn their attention to Perry Peninsula and Franklin Bay. I want this Shaman found and taken into custody. We only have three hours before that storm hits here and another two before it hits the search area. We won't find anything after that. Lets move!"

Jack Huey frowned at his partner as they pulled to a stop and Tom Dewey parked the car.

"What?" Tom answered, responding with a look of confused innocence.

Jack merely shook his head and climbed out of the car, dismissing the subject. But, as always, his partner could not leave it alone. "What!" Tom repeated, resting his arms atop the car and demanding an answer.

"Nothing," Huey answered, knowing it was pointless to even discuss. There was nothing the other man could do about it anyway.

"Naaah," the younger man shook his head, rounding the car to join his partner and head into the posh restaurant where Ron Sellton was supposed to be having lunch. "I know that look. It's not nothing. What? Have I got dead grass in my hair? Something stuck in my teeth?" He quickly ran his tongue over his teeth, trying to find the offending item.

"No," Huey snapped, noting the sharply dressed couple exiting the restaurant glancing in their direction. Why did his partner have to constantly embarrass him? Hell, why did he constantly let himself feel embarrassed? He wasn't the one picking his teeth in public!

"What then?"

Huey sighed and rolled his eyes, then allowed himself a second critical assessment of his partner's attire now that he was outside the car. Maybe it wasn't as bad as... It was. "Did you have to sleep in that thing?" he asked, indicating the rumpled trench coat Tom had taken to wearing with the colder weather.

"This?" He was surprised by the criticism. "It's supposed to look like this!"

"It looks like a reject from an old Columbo flick."

"It does not!" Tom protested, and lowered his voice when his partner shot him a warning glare. A pair of young ladies, making their way into the restaurant, were looking at them. Tom stood taller and preened slightly, winning a smile... or a giggle. He wasn't sure if it was complimentary or not, but dismissed the possibly negative reaction. "I'll have you know this is all the fashion on Wall Street right now. I paid two hundred bucks for this thing!"

"Maybe Wall Avenue," Huey muttered, moving toward the door. They had a job to do here. "Did you get the whole outfit at a K-mart blue light special, or just the coat?"

"Har-de-har-har," Dewey rejoined sarcastically. He hated it when his partner nit-picked about stuff, but he had enough self-confidence to shrug it off. He and Jack were good friends, despite the ribbing. It was just their way. "At least I don't look like I stepped out of an old Kojak episode."

"Kojak?" Jack echoed total confusion.

"Kojak, Shak... Something like that. Don't ask me. It was before my time!"

"You mean Shaft?" Huey asked, then rolled his eyes. "Get your references straight; and, by the way, I appreciate the compliment. Black leather never goes out of style."

"Tell that to the animal rights activists."

"Kojak!" Huey muttered, affronted. "Kojak was a TV series staring Telly Savalas. I look like a white bald guy sucking a lollipop to you?!"

"Fine," Dewey sighed, stepping aside and holding the door for a young woman who was exiting. She ignored his flirtatious smile and he glanced back at his insulted partner as they entered the building. "Whatever."

"I wonder what you'd look like bald," Huey muttered. A young bald Columbo with a lollipop stuck in his mouth popped into mind and he had to fight not to snigger.

Dewey ignored him and lead the way to the front of the line.

"Gentlemen?" the Maître'd greeted them with mock civility and more than evident censure for cutting in front of a waiting couple.

"Sorry," Dewey offered and flashed his badge. "Chicago Police Detectives. We're looking for a Mr. Ron Sellton. Hot-shot lawyer. Secretary said he'd be here."

"Is he expecting you?"

"No, I don't think so." Huey opened his coat to flash the cover of the warrant he had tucked away there.

The Maître d’ paled. "Do you have to do this here!?" he hissed.

The two men shrugged apologetically. They could wait until Sellton exited the restaurant but had already traipsed from the courthouse to his offices and back over here trying to find him. They were in no mood to wait. "I don't think he'll put up a fight," Dewey offered.

Huey shook his head in agreement. "We'll try and keep a low profile," he added.

"This sort of thing is very bad for business, you know! The other diners--"

"--We'll try not to give them indigestion," Huey promised. "Now, where is he? Or do you want us to make a scene and barge in there to look for ourselves?"

"No! No, please!" The man paled further if that were possible. "I'll take you to him, but please, please!, keep it quiet. I beg you!"

Huey nodded placatingly. Sellton was a lawyer. The detective didn't expect a problem. The Maître d’, looking more than a little nervous, nodded. He handed off the register to someone else and lead Huey and Dewey through the white draped tables himself, toward a brightly lit window seat. Sellton was concentrating on some legal briefs as he ate and didn't notice them until the Maître d’ cleared his throat. He glanced up with a frown.

"Ron Sellton?" Huey addressed him in quiet tones.


He flashed his badge discreetly. "We have a warrant for your arrest, Sir," Jack continued with velvet coated steel. "I'll have to ask that you come with us."

"Arrest!" the lawyer exclaimed. He made no effort to subdue his voice. "Me? Are you crazy! I'm one of the state's finest defense lawyers. This is a mistake and I'll have your badge for it. How dare you interrupt my lunch in a public dining establishment! I'll hit you with defamation of character. Let me see that warrant!"

The Maître d’ was almost apoplectic and turned to apologize profusely to the nearest diners.

"I should sue you as well!" Sellton hissed at him as he snatched the warrant from Huey's hand. "How dare you just march them over to my table. The least you could have done is called me to the front of the restaurant. This is ridiculous!"

Huey and Dewey exchanged frustrated and impatient gazes. Huey gave the man a long moment to scan through the document before leaning toward him. "The warrant's in order, Sir," he offered, again in a firm undertone. "Please come along quietly or we will be forced to cuff you. Not real good for the image, you know?"

"Image, Detective?" he scoffed. "Who's image? Mine or the police department's when this all blows up in your faces in a few hours! Go ahead and cuff me. I'll be contesting that warrant within the hour and decrying the sloppy work of the Chicago PD to every news agency in the area within two! This warrant connects me to Holloway Muldoon. I have absolutely no connection to the man and you cannot possibly prove that I do!"

The two detectives shared a grim look. This was going to get ugly. Dewey reached for his cuffs while Huey tried one last time to calm the guy down and get him to cooperate. "We're just doing our jobs, Sir," he sighed and took the man's arm gently in hand. "I will ask you one last time: please, come quietly. You really don't want to make a scene, do you?"

He smiled nastily. "Wanta bet?" he hissed.

Huey sighed and glanced at Dewey. They shared a nod. Mr. Sellton yelled out, more in surprise than real pain, as he suddenly found himself lying sprawled across his own lunch, his left arm twisted painfully behind him as Huey put a pressure lock on his wrist. He didn't have time to resist. "Shit!" he hissed angrily.

"We did ask nicely," Huey reminded him as Dewey snapped the cuffs on his other wrist, then forced his hands together behind his back. Together, the detectives jerked Sellton upright and each took control of one arm. Huey kept one hand at the man's wrist, the threat of a simple nerve pinch enough to keep him from trying to break free or do something equally idiotic.

"This is a mistake, I tell you!" the man insisted. "I'll see you in jail for police harassment!"

Huey clucked his tongue and shook his head. "You need to bone up on your jurisprudence and the definition of police harassment," he advised. "Come on." A simple nod to Dewey had the two partners stepping out together and dragging the angry lawyer with them. Dewey pulled out a card from his pocket and began reading him his rights

"My papers!" the man cried, interrupting him. "You can't leave my personal property behind here!"

Huey caught the Maîtred'’s eye. "We'll come back for that when we have him secured in the car." The flustered man nodded his understanding and moved to secure the scattered files and brief case, wanting nothing more than the embarrassing moment to end so he could see about soothing the ruffled feathers of his other customers.

Sellton wasn't satisfied with that but neither detective paid his protests any heed as they led him through the dining room of the high class restaurant. The upper crust clientele was gawking but it was Sellton's fault, not theirs. They marched him through the tables, past the reservation desk, through the lobby and toward the glass door of the establishment. The valet was quick to hold the door for them, regarding the group in nonplused curiosity as they made their way from the subdued interior to the bustle of Chicago's noon hour traffic.

"Wanta come back here for lunch?" Dewey asked as they paused for a second, letting their eyes readjust to the afternoon glare.

"What? And pay ten dollars for a BLT?" Huey quipped, knowing his partner was joking. "I don't think--"

A loud report broke over the cacophony of cars and hurrying pedestrians. Sellton jerked sharply backward, breaking their hold on him as the heavy glass door behind them exploded inward. He crumpled to the ground in the same instant as the two police detectives realized someone was shooting at them! They weren't the only ones to realize it. Pedestrians screamed and ran for cover as the two officers crouched next to their arrestee behind a parked car, weapons drawn, ready to return fire as they scanned the crowds, traffic and buildings opposite for signs of their assailant.

"Call for help! We need police and ambulance! Go!" Dewey was ordering, waving the frightened valet who stood frozen next to the shattered door inside the restaurant.

Huey glanced down at their charge and realized that no second shot would be coming. The massive exit wound in Sellton's back told it's own story. The glass from the shattered restaurant door would be tainted with his blood and tissues. A glance through the gapping door showed him that at least no one else had been hit. Simple trigonometry told him the shot had come from the opposite building, probably the second floor. The sniper would be long gone by the time backup got there but Huey wasn't about to run across the street and try to find him. He glanced at Sellton again and, with a sigh, stood, reholstering his weapon. Sellton had been hit dead center of the chest and was well beyond the need for an ambulance. "Damn," he hissed, "I hate paper work."

“Come on now, Girl,” the gruff voice insisted, repeating his call for her attention. Maggie was so tired... but he refused to go away. “I know you can hear me. Open those eyes and stop dreaming of death and dying. Help’s on the way and you know it. You just gotta hang in there a little longer.”

Vague recognition dawned at the distant edges of awareness and she frowned. She knew the voice. Reluctantly then, she forced her eyes open to find the ghost of Robert Fraser leaning far too close. He offered her a bright smile.

“Ah! That’s my girl! Now stop playing possum and show me some of that Fraser spunk I know you inherited.”

Maggie blinked in a mixture of surprise and confusion. It had been several months since she’d last seen her father’s ghost. ‘Course she hadn’t known he was her father back then. She’d thought the revelation or guilt or whatever had chased him off. That or Ben was some kind of psychic medium and she couldn’t see Robert Fraser outside her brother’s company--

“Don’t be thinking no metaphysical psychic mumbo jumbo nonsense, Girl,” Bob chastised the unvoiced thoughts. “Buck Frobisher wouldn’t have a sixth sense if it jumped up and hit him from behind. You know Ben wrote you and told you I’d found my peace at last. I and Ben’s Mum have had a fair bit of catching up to do. Oh, and I did see your Mum, at least in passing the other day. She said to tell you that she and your dad-- Well, Matt Stern. He’s not your dad, but you thought he was-- You know what I mean. Anyway, she said to tell you that they were doing just fine.”

Maggie shook her head slightly. The man -ghost- was just as fractured as the last time they’d spoken. She stared beyond him at the now cloud choked sky and licked dry, cracked lips.

...Where had her gag disappeared to? Some distant part of her mind said it was still in place and she was only dreaming, but the ropes that bound her were still in place. The pain seemed a distant thing but it was still most definitely there. Would she feel pain after she died? She didn’t have the strength to test her bonds... It all seemed rather unimportant somehow.

“Am I dying?” she asked calmly, bypassing the inane chit-chat he seemed wont to engage in.

“Dying?” Bob echoed and shrugged. “You’re mortal. If you’re mortal, you’re dying all the time. Kinda goes without saying, don’t you think? If what you mean is are you going to die right now? Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know. I think that’s kinda up to you at this point, ‘though poor Ben would be awfully hurt if you ‘passed over’, so speak. I wonder why they call it ‘passing over’? I mean it’s not like you ‘pass over’ anything! You just...” He glanced up a second and shrugged again. “Can’t tell you that yet,” he allowed. “There are rules for this sort of thing, you know.”

“No,” she gazed at him in confusion, trying to decide if he were actually here or if she were in a delirium. “I didn’t know.”

“Yes, well, there you have it. You know, I think your ordeal is starting to effect that mind of yours a bit. Are you feeling a little confused by all this?”

A little? Maggie offered a weak nod.

He offered a wise nod. “It’s not easy to understand even when you have all your marbles to work with, let alone when some sick bastard does something like this to you.” He frowned down at her helpless form. “The least he could have done was offer you a last meal or something! As it is he barely gave you enough water to keep you going. You really are in pretty bad shape, Girl. You do realize that, don’t you?”

It was painfully obvious to her so she ignored the question. “I don’t suppose you could untie me or anything, could you?”

“Untie you? No. Sorry.” He sighed sadly. “Touching things is an iffy job at best; and, even if I could, this one would be breaking the rules. ‘Can’t interfere with the natural progression of things, you know.”

Maggie shook her head, having no way to have known that, and followed it with a nod to signify weary understanding... though she wasn’t sure she did understand since wasn’t his simply being here a kind of interference? She frowned.

“I’m just here to kinda keep you company, I suppose. You know, ‘til help arrives. ...Or this storm breaks and buries you. ...Or a polar bear shows up. ‘Wonder if I could scare a bear? Not that I’ve ever tried to scare anything or do a ghost-like haunting, you know. Never went in for that sort of thing myself.” He wagged a finger upward. “The Big Guy doesn’t like it. Still, I’d have to try. I mean, you being my daughter and all. I couldn’t very well just stand back and watch while a bear... Well, we don’t really need to contemplate that right now, do we... I do wish those friends of your would hurry up. How long do you figure it’ll take them to track you down?”

Maggie was finding it difficult to follow his rambling but the question did manage to win through. She gazed up at the dark grey clouds again. She must have passed out earlier since last she remembered they were nothing more than low flying cotton balls, harbingers of the storm to come. There was far more of a threat in the air about her now.

“How long have I been out?” she asked with a frown.

“Don’t ask me, Girl.” Bob shook his head. “Time ceased to have any real meaning for me a while back. Well, at least the way you all keep track of it.”

It was impossible to tell the time from the position of the sun, now obscured from sight, but it had to have been a couple of hours, at least. Maybe more.

Bob’s head popped up and turned sharply to the side. “Did you hear that?” he asked.

Maggie quieted her breathing but all she heard was the wind. “What?”

He frowned as he continued to listen for a long moment, then shrugged. “Nothing,” he answered. “Wishful thinking, I suppose. Too bad we couldn’t do this back at the cabin. It’s getting down right nippy, don’t you think?”

Maggie was well aware of the dropping temperature despite the many layers of blanket and the body on top of her. She glanced at her lifeless friend and back up to Bob. “Jeremy?” she asked.

“What, your friend here?” Bob glanced at the body as well. “Rather cruel of your captor that, tieing you to a corpse. Not to worry though, Jeremy is fine. Well, a bit surprised to be dead and all, but he’s got family here to look after him.”

“And my captor?”

Bob waved in the direction of the earlier sounds she’d heard. “Oh, he’s very dead. Suffering the torments of the truly damned, I imagine. Divine retribution and all that, don’t you know.” His head snapped up again with a sharp frown. “There it is again. Don’t tell me you can’t hear that?”

She had to concentrate to hear anything over the wind but she finally made out something. Yes... something was moving through the snow and brush, hurrying toward her. It sounded large. A bear?

“He’s here all ready!” a voice called from some distance. “Careful! He’s probably armed!”

Rescue, she realized! It had to be the RCMP.

“Cavalry has arrived,” Bob told her with a smile. “‘Took them long enough.”

“Maggie?” She recognized the voice this time as Inspec-- Agent Thatcher’s.

“I better head on home to dinner then,” Bob decided with a kindly nod. “You’ll be safe now, Girl.”

“Wait!” she cried, seeing him start to fade as he turned away and pain began to return. “Will I see you again?” she asked, forcing the words out of a mouth suddenly gone dry and... It was the gag. She was waking up.

“Maybe,” he told her lightly and shrugged. “I’ll always be here, Maggie,” he promised her. “If you need me badly enough, you’ll see me.” He offered her a final smile and then turned away, his fur coated form suddenly melting into the shocked face of Agent Thatcher as she gazed down on Maggie.

“Oh, my god...” Meg had to visibly shake herself free from her surprise and then realized she was seeing two bodies and not one. Her eyes swept their bound forms and then her hands went to Jeremy’s throat feeling for a pulse even as she called over her shoulder. “Over here! They’re over here! He tied them to the sled!”

“For Christ’s sake, Thatcher!” someone called angrily. “He could still be here! Get down!”

“Careful, men!” someone else called.

Meg’s eyes swept the trees and clearing before falling to the sled again and clashing with Maggie’s tired gaze. Relief instantly washed her features as she realized Ben’s sister was still alive. “Thank god,” she whispered and reached down to pull the gag free. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

“Thatcher--” It was Sgt. MacPherson who suddenly joined Meg, a hand going to her shoulder ready to shove her to the ground. The movement was arrested as he too looked down and saw Maggie and Jeremy beneath the blankets and equipment.

“Christ!” he hissed. His eyes again swept the trees. “Where is he, Maggie? Do you know?”

“Dead,” she managed to croak, surprised by how harsh and hoarse her voice actually sounded as compared to when she’d been talking with her father’s ghost.

“Sergeant!” someone else called from off to the right. “Looks like our guy found that mine shaft you were talking about the hard way!”

Mine shaft. Well, that told Maggie where she was at last.

Meg glanced back down at her anxiously. “Hang in there, Maggie,” she told the younger woman, her eyes sweeping the sled even as her hands started to undo the bungee cords and ropes that held everything in place. “We’ll have you at hospital in no time!”

Maggie smiled weakly and nodded, then closed her eyes. “What took you so long?” she teased the other woman before letting exhaustion take her once again.

Welsh sighed in frustration and leaned his arms on his desk. He had both Michael Hammond, a rather irritated State’s Attorney General; and Richard Head, the new Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Chicago Field Office, pacing his office. Hammond was a stick-in-the-mud political yes-man for the Governor: a blond-haired, blue-eyed wonder boy whose real job was to woo the masses over to the Governor’s political agenda for the next fiscal year. The only thing that had dragged Hammond out of his hole was concern for the media coverage his office was suddenly receiving over the Muldoon affair, when last week they’d been national heroes. Agent Head, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity. He was older than Ford, which meant he might have actually earned his new position, but he still exuded the same arrogant elitists attitude all FBI agents seemed to possess. Was it something the government consciously taught it’s people, Welsh wondered, ‘How to be a Snob-Nosed Fed, 101' ?

The two of them were breathing down his neck about his peoples’ continued ‘meddling’ in the Tim Roland, aka Weber, investigation. Yes, it was a federal investigation. Yes, the FBI had over sight. No, he was not going to roll over and let them call all the shots!

The Violent Crimes Detective Unit of the 27th District of the Chicago Police Department might be a tiny piece of the overall investigative force being brought to bear in this case, and Welsh might be way down the Powers-That-Be totem pole and answerable to far too many people above him, but it had been his people, and Constable Fraser, to begin with who had tracked down and collared Muldoon last week. It was his people, and Constable Fraser, who had received threats against their loved ones following that arrest: threats which the FBI had chosen to dismiss at the time but he hadn’t. It was his people who’d come up with a name based on Constable Turnbull’s sketch identifying the suspect who’d delivered the threat concerning Constable Fraser’s sister. It had been one of his people who had provided the FBI with the whereabouts of Tim Roland, aka Weber... It was, quite simply, his people who’d picked up the ball every time the Feds fumbled it! It was his people who were running with it and scoring all the points. As such, Welsh had absolutely no problem justifying his peoples’ continued involvement in the case.

He had finally gotten his point across when Huey and Dewey returned.

“Dead?” Mike Hammond repeated and threw his arms into the air in exasperation. He turned to Welsh with a mocking smirk. “You were saying something about ‘not fumbling the ball’?” He glanced back up at the two detectives. “Welsh sends you clowns out to pick up a guy who could quite possibly crack this case wide open... and you bring us back a corpse?”

Tom and Jack had the grace to look chagrined.

"They just said the guy was taken out by a sniper," Welsh, sitting behind his desk and looking none too pleased about the information either, defended his men. "That's hardly their fault."

"So who's fault is it?" Hammond wanted to know. "We've got a mad man running around out there taking shots at the ASA and FBI for god's sake. What made you think he wouldn't take a shot at the guy who just might be able to ID him for us? Idiots!"

Welsh fought not to audibly grind his teeth in frustration. "Maybe the fact that no one should have known he was even a suspect, let alone that my men were going to arrest him had something to do with it."

"So how do you think someone found out about that?" Hammond again glared at the two detectives standing before Welsh's desk. "It took them all morning to track him down. I'm surprised half the city didn't know about it!"

"What I think is that someone told someone that we collared Roland, aka Weber, and Reyes last night," Welsh answered. "What I think is that someone told someone that Reyes was squealing. What I think is that someone decided to cover his ass and eliminate the weak link between himself and these two scuz balls. But what I think and what I can prove are two different things. I do hope you are giving both Reyes and Roland some protection, because if not I think they’re gonna be our next victims."

"Are you suggesting there's a leak in my office?" Hammond hissed in obvious affront.

"There's a leak somewhere, Hammond," Welsh claimed and leaned back in his chair.

"Better check your own backyard before you go digging in mine, Welsh. After all it was your people who bungled this arrest!"

"Maybe, but my people didn't know where Stella Kowalski was being hidden."

Hammond blinked in surprise. "What makes you think the two incidents are even related?"

"Oh, they're related all right," Welsh nodded. "I'll bet my salary for the next six months that the bullet which killed Agent Clark will match the one that killed Sellton. Ford doesn't count, ‘cause as it turns out he shot himself. That aside, I don’t think the leak is in your office, at least not directly. Somehow, I doubt the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service called you up to let you know where Constable MacKenzie was being hidden."

"What the hell does Canadian Security and Intelligence have to do with this?"

It was Agent Head who answered that with a roll of his eyes. "You're out of the loop if you don't know that, Hammond."

Huey, wearing a very surprised and troubled look, leaned toward Welsh as Head explained things to Hammond. "Ford shot himself, Sir?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah, with the other agent's gun." Welsh sighed. "Stupid cowboy move. Shoved it in his belt: button caught the trigger, he was shoving on the grip safety--"

"--We're still not sure of what happened, Welsh," Head interrupted firmly. "We've sent the weapon in to be examined for safety defects."

Huey ignored the man. "You're saying he shot..." The mere thought made Jack wince in pain. Ford may have been a real prick, but...

"The bullet hit the femoral artery," Welsh answer, diplomatically avoiding what else it had hit in passing. "He bled to death before the paramedics got to him."

"Special Agent Ford died in the line of duty," Head insisted and offered the two detectives a warning glare. "Any discussion beyond that fact is pure speculation."

"It's also not pertinent to the subject at hand," Welsh decided, "which is, ‘What do we do now?' Can we get back on track, gentlemen, and maybe review what we do have to work with... like the threats." He frowned over at Head. "Has the FBI gotten anything back on the paper or ink analysis of them yet?"

"Not that I've seen," the agent answered. "It usually takes a couple of weeks to get that stuff back."

"What about the bomb scene and fragment analysis from ASA Kowalski's car?" Welsh asked. "I thought that was being handled locally?"

"It is," he answered, "but besides the fact that he bypassed a sophisticated alarm system to plant a very crude pipe bomb, there's nothing there to tell us anything about him."

"No signature?"

"Not one that my people have been able to match up with any known bomb makers. If what Reyes has told us about his own orders to terrorize Mrs. Vecchio holds true for this other hit man then, whoever he is, he most likely never intended to kill ASA Kowalski with it."

Welsh nodded, pursing his lips as he rocked back in his chair and reviewed the case in his mind. "Okay," he sighed. "We know--excuse me," he corrected himself with a glance at the State's Attorney General, "we have ‘reason to suspect’, that whomever the hit man is, he was hired by Tim Roland, aka Tim Weber, whom we know hired Reyes to kill Mrs. Vecchio, and whom we know delivered at least one of the three threats. I’m told we have a positive ID from Turnbull on that. In addition, we have ‘reason to suspect’ he may have killed an Intercity Courier, who's uniform we have ‘reason to suspect’ he was wearing..."

"Still ain't turned up the car or the uniform, Lieutenant," Dewey added.

"Speaking of cars, Sir," Huey interjected. "What about the Kowalski/Fraser wreck? We got anything to link that back to these threats?"

Welsh shook his head. "Accident, pure and simple. The driver of the van was on his normal route at his normal time and apparently trying to doze at the wheel. These things happen. Just bad luck for Fraser and Kowalski."

"What about the money trail?" Dewey asked in turn. "Any way to follow it through Roland to whomever else he hired?"

"Vecchio's chasing that one down right now," Welsh nodded. "Or I should say, ‘Kowalski is.' Vecchio's still on medical leave and officially not anywhere near the station, got it?"

The two detectives nodded, knowing Vecchio would be taking a temporary pay cut along with his administrative probation when he actually came back on duty. A few days pay might not add up to much but they weren't going to deny him what he was entitled to, especially when he was risking it to help out. Head and Hammond couldn't care less about it, so long as someone was pursuing the question and keeping them informed.

"Anything from either location the sniper used, Sir?" Huey asked, changing the subject to another possible line of investigation.

"Not yet, but the Mathison Building across from the restaurant where you picked up Sellton has security cameras. The FBI," he glanced over to Head again, "are going over the tapes."

"‘Might pick up a face we know," the agent nodded. "Whoever this guy is, he's good. The shot that caught Clark was from over six hundred meters away, ‘though killing an agent without cause is..." He shook his head at the stupidity of it. "In any case, we probably have a file on him."

"Military sniper school?" Welsh asked.


"What about Roland's little black book?" Dewey spoke up again. "The one they found in his car?"

"Still combing through it," Welsh answered. "Reyes didn't recognize anyone besides Sellton."

"Has anyone gone out to question Gibbler yet?" Huey frowned and glanced over at Hammond. "He'd have to be the one to pass information from Muldoon to Sellton, wouldn't he?"

"Gibbler's out on bail," Hammond offered in disgust. "You're welcome to try and find him but, if he's smart, he's probably skipped by now."

"Bail?" Head exclaimed. "He's up for kidnaping, rape and attempted murder and he's out on bail? The guy has a record as long as my arm!"

"Not according to my records!" Hammond shot right back. "He came up clean in all the DA’s checks. And, given that Ms. Vecchio was in no shape to give us any positive IDs, something we are still hoping she’ll do, the only thing we were able to charge him with was accessory to kidnaping and conspiracy to commit murder... and those are shaky.”

“Shaky?” Dewey echoed in disbelief.

“He claims to have only met Muldoon a few weeks ago and was completely taken in by him. Muldoon had asked to borrow his truck and he was at the warehouse where Ms. Vecchio was being held when the police raided it merely to pick it up: an innocent bystander who knew nothing about what was happening. We confiscated the truck. ‘Think it might have been used to deliver the bed; but, again, we can’t prove Gibbler knew anything about that. And, he has an alibi for most of the time in question, including Ms. Vecchio’s kidnaping. Girlfriend vouches for him.”

Huey offered a soft snort of disbelief. “That’s real solid.”

“Solid enough,” Hammond rejoined. “He had no weapon and didn't even resist arrest. Very cool customer. The physical evidence at the scene is a mess. The FBI are still trying to sort out the DNA evidence from the sheets but it isn’t looking good: too many guys and too much blood from the victim. So,” he sighed, “with no one rolling over on him, we have nothing that ties Gibbler directly to Ms. Vecchio’s rape and/or kidnaping...”

He sighed and paused to massage the bridge of his nose a moment before continuing. “Given that our charges are therefore based solely on his presence at the scene... He was arrested Saturday afternoon, called Sellton (having the best defense lawyer in the state didn't hurt him any), Sellton pushed the arraignment up, the DA argued against bail, Sellton painted Gibbler as an upstanding businessman and a Lilly-white victim of circumstance... and bail was set at two hundred thousand. Sellton posted it himself. Gibbler was out before noon Monday.” He frowned at Agent Head who was shaking his head in disgust. “Now, what's this about a record as long as your arm? The DA would have loved to have seen it!"

“Shit." Head sighed in frustration. "It's in Canada,” he explained. “It wouldn't have come up in a regular check. The guy has dual citizenship."

"How'd someone like that get American citizenship?" Dewey asked in surprise.

"He was born here, Detective," Head answered with another sigh. "His parents moved when he was a kid."

"Is there enough on his record to file an appeal to revoke his bail?" Welsh asked.

"More than enough," Head promised. "Guns, drugs, fraud... Petty stuff mostly. Not enough for Canada to ask for extradition, which is probably why nothing showed up in your background check," he turned to Hammond, "but enough to make a judge consider him a real flight risk. And... he’s definitely known Muldoon more than a few weeks."

"I'm on it," Hammond decided, turning on his heel. "Have your people fax my office a copy of those records and I'll get a warrant out on him within the hour. I just hope we get to him before someone decides to kill him too."

He was gone before Head could comment. The FBI agent shrugged and pulled out his cell, offering his comment to those who remained, "I don't think we have to worry about Mr. Gibbler turning up dead."

"And what makes you say that, Agent Head?" Welsh asked.

They had to wait until the man had conveyed his orders to fax the necessary files to the State's Attorney General's offices. He slapped the phone closed and looked at Welsh again. "Canada also sent a list of everything Gibbler’s ‘suspected' to be involved in but which they lack the evidence to prosecute him for. He's been living in Chicago for about four years. They think he's the one who set up the meet last year between Muldoon and the Iguana Family. Again, no one can prove it. Muldoon shoulda killed him for that mistake but he didn't. Combine that with everything that's happening right now... and it makes me wonder if Gibbler isn't Muldoon's second in command."

"Crap!" Welsh hissed. "And we let the scum bag back out on the streets?"

"Lack of evidence," Head repeated with a shrug. "I'm surprised he was anywhere near the warehouse when we arrested all those other creeps. He's a slippery little weasel."

"Then it's time we bagged him," Welsh decided and frowned at Tom and Jack. "Weasel season is officially open, gentlemen! Put an APB out. We can always pick him up for questioning and hold him until that warrant comes down. I want him found, and I want him found now."

"Yesterday, Sir," Huey acknowledged as he and Dewey spun to leave the office. It was time to go hunting.

Ben glanced at the clock on the opposite wall yet again and mentally chastised himself as he realized it had only been ten minutes since the last time he’d checked. He hated hospitals. More correctly, he hated being a patient in one. Even more correctly, he hated being trapped in a hospital bed while his sister was in danger!

Meg still hadn’t called. She’d promised to call if there were any breaks in the case. The continued silence... Abductions were very rare in the north. If the victim wasn’t located within the first twenty-four hours, their chances of being found alive were drastically reduced. The fact that Muldoon wanted Maggie dead, only decreased her chances even farther. It was five o’clock Chicago time. She’s been abducted about eight o’clock Inuvik time, or nine o’clock Chicago time... Thursday night. That was sixty-six hours and counting...

With a frustrated sigh at his own helplessness, knowing such mental torture was exactly what Muldoon wanted, he glanced again to the files Ray had brought him last night. He knew that attempting to read them would only bring on another migraine. He’d thought the earlier headache this morning after Francesca’s visit to be merely the result of stress and worry, and had attempted to lose himself in the FBI files. That had proven to be a mistake. His headache had quickly escalated beyond his ability to ignore it. He’d became concerned when the pain only continued to increase and had finally summoned the nurse, who’d summoned the doctor, who’d immediately ordered a CT scan. The test had proven negative for the suspected blood clot. Apparently, there was the chance of a delayed subdural hematoma from to the concussion. However, such was not the case and the physician had finally diagnosed a migraine brought on by reading. The underlying cause was most likely the concussion he’d suffered in the accident.

He’d been given appropriate pain medications and ordered to ‘relax, try not to worry about anything, and DON’T read.’ The orders were quite ridiculous in light of all that was going on.

The two Rays had stopped by just after the doctor had left, about lunch time, but they’d received a call and rushed off again almost immediately. Which was just as well. Ben had been in considerable pain and not up for company at that point. As it turned out, Fraser wasn’t the only one suffering from concussion. Kowalski was also fighting recurring headaches and Vecchio was having to drive him all over because he wasn’t permitted to drive. Vecchio had paused only a moment to confirm that he would be picking Ben up tomorrow morning and that he didn’t want any arguments.

Ben had managed a little sleep after they left. It wasn’t hard as the pain medication had made him drowsy in any case. Unfortunately, he’d only managed a little over two hours. Still, the headache was considerably improved by the nap. Distracting himself upon waking however had proven impossible. He had never really been a tv type person. News, weather, maybe an occasional movie... Focusing on the TV for any length of time however brought back twinges of pain, forcing him to close and rest his eyes to avoid a second attack. He could only hope that the after effects of the concussion weren’t long term.

The doctor had said most such effects passed fairly quickly but had then frowned over Ben’s chart, noting that this was hardly his first head injury. He’d questioned Ben about his history and then tried to reassure him with a positive attitude while saying they would have to wait and see. He reluctantly admitted that such after effects could last for years and that Ben’s history of previous head trauma only increased the risks. Concussion was not as simple as most people believed and there was a lot about the brain that science had yet to learn. Having already done a CT scan, he was assured that Ben was healing as expected but as for the headaches... He could only assure Ben that long term treatment was possible if necessary but that the chances were Ben would be fine in a few weeks. He wrote a prescription for Ben to fill after his discharge and to take as necessary. If he was still suffering recurring headaches after a month, he should make an appointment with a neurologist.

It was just one more thing that he wasn’t supposed to worry about. He sighed, thinking it wasn’t hard to dismiss that little bit given that his concern for Maggie was so much more immediate and demanding! He glanced at the clock again. A little after five, or a little after four in Inuvik. It was very tempting to call Meg again but he knew she would have--

His phone rang.

He consciously calmed himself, telling himself that it might not have anything to do with Maggie, but quickly lifted the receiver and brought it to his ear before it could ring a second time. He was greeted with a loud hiss of static. “Hello?” He frowned.

“Ben? It’s Meg,” his caller identified herself over a rush of noise. “We found--brzzzzt! --you hear me? --Shhhzzt --gie’s alive, Ben, she’s a--rrrzztp!”

“Alive?” he repeated, plugging his free ear in an effort to hear better. “Maggie’s alive?” He asked for confirmation that he had heard that correctly.

“Yes! --Jzzzst-- She’s alive! --brzzzt--storm moving in. I can’t-- --zppppt-- hospital --brrrrrrzzzzzts-- the mine where --brrrrruptzzz--”

“Meg?” he yelled into the phone, wondering if he’d lost the connection.

“Fzzzzzrt-- call later. Fssszt--aggie will be fi-- grrrrshtz!”

The static only became worse and then disappeared to be replaced by a broken dial tone, quickly followed by the canned voice of the automated operator saying, “If you wish to make a call, please hang up and dial again...” With a sigh, Ben returned the received to its cradle. There were any number of questions he would have liked answered but the most important fact had been relayed. His sister had been found and was alive. He couldn’t be sure, but the last he had heard sounded like Meg assuring him that Maggie would be fine. He prayed it was true and he hadn’t miss-heard. He glanced at the television with a frown but knew there would be no information about Canadian weather or any way for him to learn how long the storm which had interfered with the call was expected to last.

With another sigh that was largely relieved and only slightly frustrated, he picked up the phone again to call the Rays and share his good news.

She sighed. Where were they? Ray knew she was supposed to be released today. She'd called him twice already. She'd finished the paperwork, had her discharge consultation and been officially released two hours ago, but no one had managed to come pick her up as yet. Ray was busy driving Kowalski around and Tony's station wagon was always having problems. If she had her own car... but she didn't. She didn't even know what had happened to it after--

She cut off the thought before it could go any further. She wasn't going there.

Even if she had her car, she wasn't allowed to drive yet; and she didn't have her purse so she couldn't call a taxi. She was completely dependent upon someone remembering she was sitting here waiting on them. It wasn't like she was in a hurry or anything, she thought. She wasn't looking forward to having everyone fussing over her.

She sighed again and flipped open one of the many pamphlets she'd been given by the nurses. Knowing Ray, it would be another hour at least before he could escape work.

A hysterectomy is an operation to remove the uterus (womb). The uterus may be completely removed, partially removed, or may be removed with the tubes and ovaries. Most hysterectomies are not emergency operations, so you have time to think about--

She almost felt like laughing. Think? No, that didn't apply to her. She wasn't interested in options or different procedures. She'd had no options. Why the hell had the nurse given her this? She flipped it closed and tossed it in the trash.

"Francesca?" She was startled by the sound of her mother's voice and glanced up. The older woman beamed at her from the doorway and then rushed forward. "Bella, mi bambina, Francesca!" Frannie found herself recoiling from her mother's quick approach. The older woman had embraced her and bestowed a kiss upon each cheek before her daughter was consciously aware of the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. She sat frozen in fear as her mother released her and stepped away, unaware of what she'd done, or almost done. "Let me look at you. She is looking better, yes?" Ma glanced over her shoulder and Frannie felt an involuntary shudder pass through her as she saw Elaine's gentle smile. The memory of the last time they'd spoken... "Oh, but how I hated not being allowed to come see you. The phone is not the same. Basta, I say! Three days. She is to come home. I will go and you will not stop me! Even Raymundo--" She glanced to heaven and crossed herself. "--dio benedice un figlio forte-voluto--" She smiled at her daughter again. "--knew better than to argue with me. He would have driven me, but he and Ray are busy. Your friend Elaine here was good enough to offer and the federal agents agreed, although one of them insisted upon riding with us. The federal agents..." She offered a sad shake of her head. "They are quite polite, and they mean well, but--"

"--They're smothering?" Elaine suggested with an understanding smile.

"Dio pardona mi, yes," she sighed. "I cannot look out a window without one of them frowning at me! I do not see why they still hover so. This Reyes man Raymundo says they arrested claims to be the man who was after me. We should be safe now, yes?"

Frannie frowned. "After you?"

Ma and Elaine both froze, exchanging identical expressions of startled realization.

"Ray said something about Muldoon making empty threats from jail," Frannie continued quietly, feeling the walls of ice rise again to encase her emotions. "They weren't empty, were they." It wasn't a question. Damn, Ray, she thought! He'd lied to her! How could he lie to her?

"Dio mio," Ma sighed, "no one has told you? I thought Raymundo... But he was so concerned... He did not want you frightened... not that there is anything to be frightened of..." She turned to Elaine for support.

Elaine could almost see the emotional barriers slam up and bit her lip as Frannie seemed to slump, curling in on herself, withdrawing the small spark that had greeted them. She wasn't listening to her mother. Elaine stepped up beside the older woman and tried reaching her friend before she slipped too far away again. "Muldoon can't hurt you, Frannie," she assured the younger woman firmly, "or anyone else. He's in jail and he's going nowhere."

Frannie lifted her eyes to clash with Elaine's. Her emotionless gaze demanded an answer. A straight answer.

"He's still playing games," Elaine admitted, afraid of explaining everything but more afraid of what lying to her friend might do to her at this point. "Or trying to. There's been a couple attempts against Stella Kowalski and..." Elaine closed her eyes and prayed that telling Frannie was the right thing to do. She was going to learn it sooner or later. At least she was still in the hospital if she freaked out or... She wasn't going to freak out. Frannie was a lot stronger than most people realized. Elaine opened her eyes and met that same stubborn demand, guarded now because of her hesitation. Frannie knew the news wasn't good. "Fraser's sister was kidnaped."

Frannie's eyes registered distant shock and confusion. "In Chicago?"

"No," Elaine answered. "Up north. They're searching for her. Frankly, I don't think her kidnapper has much of a chance, do you?" She offered her friend an encouraging smile. Elaine had never met Ben's sister but Frannie had spoken quite highly of her. It took a special kind of woman to face the wilds of the north. No one from Chicago would be able to cage that for long. "She's probably got him hog-tied on a dogsled and is on her way back to the outpost now."

Unless she was already dead. Frannie's thoughts turned to Ben and she frowned. She'd seen him just that morning, but... he'd said nothing. Of course he'd said nothing! What did she expect? ‘Shut up, Frannie. My sister's been kidnaped and I'm a hell of a lot more worried about her than I am about where I go when I get the hell out of this god damned bed!?' Yeah, like Benton Fraser would ever utter such a rebuke even if it was what he felt.
"Reyes was the man sent after your mother," Elaine continued, speaking calmly. "He was captured before he could try anything and he's singing like a bird. It's Muldoon's middlemen we're after now, and we're closing in on them. We've got names and dates and all kinds of leads. With the Mounties on the trail up north and both Rays on the trail down here, it's just a matter of time before we bring the whole house of cards toppling in on itself. As for the Feds..." She glanced at Ma. "They're just being cautious. Better safe than sorry, you know? Another week or two and everything should return to normal."

Frannie frowned darkly. She was sure there were things Elaine wasn't telling her but she wasn't sure she really wanted to know the rest. Ma had said he'd been ‘after her'. Frannie shied away from exploring exactly what that meant, what might have happened or what might still happen. So what if he was arrested? Elaine had said ‘middlemen'. Plural. There were more of them out there. She could only pray Fraser's sister wasn't going through what--Oh, god... She closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands. She really didn't want to think about this! She wasn't ready to deal with any of this!

"Francesca?" her ma's voice called in concern. "Mi bambina?"

The gentle hand on her shoulder was more than she could take. She gasped and jerked upright, away from the touch. Ma also gasped, in surprise. "I'm fine," Frannie snapped, unable to acknowledge or even recognize the hurt and confusion in her mother's gaze. "I just--I--" She cleared her throat sharply. She blinked. Her Pop was standing behind her mother, shaking his head in disgust.

It was her fault. It was all her fault!

"Frannie?" Elaine echoed her mother's concern.

She blinked again and he was gone. But the memory wasn't. The truth was like a bucket of ice water poured over her soul. She'd forgotten. For just an instant. She'd dared to think she'd paid her price. Apparently, she was wrong. God was still punishing her.

"Call the doctor," Ma ordered.

"No!" Frannie snapped sharply and had to consciously moderate her tone. "I'm all right," she assured them. "I--I'm... just tired." It wasn't a lie. She suddenly felt exhausted. She wanted to sleep. She wanted to sleep and never wake up. What more God might want to do to her, she didn't know; but let it be to her, she prayed, and not those she loved!

"Are you sure, mi cara piccola?"

She sighed and nodded. Tears threatened for a moment and then the feelings that called them were banished once more behind the dam of her will. "I want to go home." She wasn't at all sure that was what she really wanted but it seemed to be what she had to do. She didn't expect to find any comfort there, or anywhere else she went for that matter.
"Of course, cara, but of course. Home is where you belong, surrounded and sustained by la famiglia."

"You have all the paperwork and whatnot done?" Elaine asked. A glance at the bed beside Frannie answered the question. Her paperwork was sitting atop the lone plastic hospital bag that held her things. There was another bag beside it with medications, dressings, instructions and scripts. "I'll get the nurse with a chair," Elaine volunteered and slipped from the room.

"I will make you some pasta fazool when we get home, yes? I have it ready and waiting for you. And some tiramisu? You have lost weight. To be stylish is one thing, to be so thin, ah, that is another!" Ma reached for her daughter's shoulder, but stopped herself short of the embrace she wanted so badly to bestow. Instead, she forced herself only to take her daughter's hand, and even that was tentative until Francesca returned her grasp. It was enough. She offered the hand of her youngest child a firm squeeze, full of all the love and hope that overflowed her heart. "We will have you feeling more like your old self soon. You will see."

Frannie bowed her head, closing her eyes and hiding the tears that threatened, not even sure where they came from.

Kowalski sighed as he snapped his cell phone open. “Yo! Speak,” he told the caller, his mind still wrestling with... something. Something about what they’d learned today, or some lead they’d been given, or... Something wasn’t ringing true. He wasn’t even sure what it was, but something was niggling away at the back of his head and he knew it wouldn’t let him alone until he figured it out.

The unexpected voice on the other end of the line managed to snag his full attention. He listened intently for a long moment as Vecchio threaded their way through the rush hour traffic. He then broke into a broad grin and glanced at his partner, including him in the conversation.

“They found Maggie alive? And she’s going to be okay?” he repeated, more for Vecchio’s sake than to actually ask for confirmation. “That’s great, Frase!” He paused to listen again for a second.

Vecchio felt like letting out a whoop as he absorbed the first good news they’d gotten in days, but contained himself out of necessity. Traffic was too heavy for him to do more than cast Kowalski a glance. Yes! It was about time they got a break! He listened closely, dividing his attention as much as he dared, as Kowalski continued talking with Fraser.

“What about the guy that kidnaped her?”

Vecchio frowned at the traffic as he waited to hear what Kowalski might learn. One-sided conversations were the pits.

“Uh huh. ...Right. Okay, so, but you’re sure about Maggie?” Another long pause. “Good stuff. And you’ll ask her about the guy when she calls back? ...Nah, it’s just... something about the case is bugging me. ...I don’t know, just...” Pause. “Yeah, well just let me know what she says, okay? And if you happen to talk to that sister of yours herself or something, be sure to tell her I said ‘hi’ and ‘hope she gets better quick’ and all that.”

Vecchio offered the traffic a small smile, amused to realize that Kowalski was sweet on Fraser’s sister. He’d suspected it before but the little addendum here was clear confirmation no matter what the other man might say. He wondered how Ben felt about that, and if Maggie felt anything for Kowalski? Not that the situation was anything like Frannie constantly chasing after Benny, but--

Kowalski signed off and slapped the cell closed again. “They found Maggie,” he offered, repeating what Vecchio already knew. “‘Sounds like she’s going to be fine.”

Vecchio had to fight to keep his smile from turning into a grin. Kowalski was about as obvious a three dollar bill. “I heard,” Vecchio nodded. It was tempting to tease the other man, but he was just too happy to hear some good news to needle his partner, so he changed the subject before temptation won out. “Bugging you, huh?”

“You too?”

Surprisingly enough, though he hadn’t realized it until Kowalski said something, Vecchio found it was true. “Yeah.” He frowned slightly. A little thought brought it immediately to the surface. “The timings off.”


“Yeah,” Vecchio frowned harder as the problem suddenly clicked into sharp focus. “We arrested Muldoon Saturday afternoon, right?”


“Gibbler is out Monday morning.”

Kowalski nodded.

“We all got our threats on Tuesday, but... the picture Fraser got was taken two days before, on Sunday.”

“Before Gibbler’s out. So either Sellton or Weber had to tell the photographer to take it... which means a call on Saturday. That’s really squeezing things tight.”

“Unless it was already planned... A part of the same plan that included stealing Maggie’s hat. That had to have been done even before Frannie was kidnaped.”

“Maggie was the next target,” Kowalski nodded.

“Was she?” Vecchio asked, not as sure as he once was. “This is personal for Muldoon. He’d have wanted to be in charge of each step of our destructions, one at a time... and Fraser should have been last.”

“Are you saying Muldoon didn’t send him the hat?”

“I don’t know. That’s what’s bugging me. Muldoon wouldn’t have hired a bunch of hit men unless he was planning for contingencies, like getting caught, and I can’t see him doing that. No, things got changed when he got arrested - but the pieces he needed to keep attacking us were already in place...”

“So someone else was planning for contingencies.”

“You don’t go pulling a hit man out of thin air in less that twenty-four hours. Reyes is an import from Columbia. He didn’t just get a call and show up in Chicago the next day.”

“Reyes said Weber hired him.”

“Which doesn’t make sense. Reyes himself described Weber as nothing more than ‘Muldoon’s megaphone’. And it had to be before Frannie was kidnaped.” Vecchio slapped the wheel. “I don’t care how good Muldoon’s contacts are, you don’t import a hit man that fast, that easy; let alone three... Which means either Gibbler was the one planning for contingencies...”


“Or Weber is a hell of a lot more important than we thought.” Vecchio checked his mirrors and headed for the nearest exit.

“Weber’s not talking. Back to Reyes?” Kowalski guessed, bracing himself against the sudden lane change.

Vecchio smiled but there was no humor in it. He shook his head. “Home,” he decided. “I’m tired, I’m hungry, and Ma’s expecting us for dinner. Besides, we’ll have to go through the Feds to get to Reyes. We’ll pick this up again in the morning after we drop off Benny.”

Kowalski nodded. “Franny was supposed to get out today, wasn’t she?” It really wasn’t a question. “Has she forgiven Benny yet for whatever it is she seems to think he did?”

Vecchio could only shrug and shake his head. “Hell, if I know.” Something was going on between those two but he certainly couldn’t figure it out, and he didn’t think Fraser could either. It was Ma who was forcing them together. With the two of them under the same roof, something was bound to give.

He just hoped they all survived the fallout.

Home. Frannie faced the prospect with equal parts of hope and dread... and fought to ignore both emotions as they warred within her. Elaine, Ma, the nurse and even the FBI agents who’d guarded her and accompanied Ma and Elaine, kept up a constant flow of inane banter around her as they rode the elevator down to the ground floor, but she really wasn’t listening to them. An agent brought the car around and she was helped into the back seat. Ma claimed the seat beside her while Elaine rode up front with the agent who insisted on driving. The nurses, and the unobtrusive guard who’d been stationed outside her door, wished her well and the car pulled out. They were on their way. It was an uncomfortable trip, in more ways than one.

Elaine and Ma both attempted to get her talking, but she ignored them. She kept her attention focused on the late evening traffic and fought not to think.

The driver had been warned to take it easy but even so every bump, every turn, every touch of the breaks, caused her pain. Not a lot, but she was definitely uncomfortable. She was surprised by how sensitive her lower abdomen was. She also knew she shouldn’t be. She’d been warned it would be about six weeks before things were properly healed inside, and as long as six months to a year before she fully recovered.

Recovered... She doubted that was possible.

She turned her mind to practicalities as they turned onto Octavia. There was a pothole in front of the driveway which she somehow doubted City Works had gotten around to fixing last week. She pressed a hand against her lower stomach in unconscious anticipation of the bump, then realized it wasn’t necessary. The driveway was full. Her little red Cavalier sat serenely beside Ray’s Mustang.

“My car...” She frowned. It looked exactly as she remembered. It shouldn’t look... Somehow, she’d thought it had been stolen, taken to a chop-shop to be raped and violated the same way she’d been. It seemed... unreal somehow that it hadn’t been.

“Your brother brought it home yesterday,” Ma answered her readily. “The police, they had to go over it and remove the... what was it called?”

“Kill switch,” the FBI agent who was driving supplied.

“That’s how Muldoon was able to time everything,” Elaine explained, twisting around in her seat to face Frannie. “They put a radio controlled switch on your battery and alternator. There’s no way you could have known unless you looked under the hood.”

Frannie nodded and fell silent again. She really didn’t want to think about it. Instead, she frowned as they pulled to the curb and the porch light was switched off. The door swept open and she was not surprised to see her brother hurrying down the steps toward them even before they’d completely stopped. Why had he turned off the light? He swept her door open and smiled broadly as he squatted down beside her.

“Hey! Welcome home.” Ray let his eyes roam to the others, acknowledging and including them, and returned to Frannie where his smile faltered. She was avoiding his gaze and not smiling. She looked pale and tired. He downgraded his enthusiasm for her sake. “Look, the agents inside aren’t real keen about any of us being outside so we gotta make the move back inside fast. You up to it?”

The driver had already gotten out and moved to Ma’s door. Frannie could see that he’d drawn his weapon but kept it lowered as he scanned the street prior to opening Ma’s door for her. A glance at the house showed her Kowalski on the porch, though if he had his weapon out she couldn’t see it. With a nod for Ray, Elaine too exited the vehicle and stood beside him, her eyes scanning the deepening shadows around them.

“I thought you said the threats were empty, Ray?” Frannie asked, frowning at the seat back in front of her.

“Hey, we’re just being careful here, right?” He shrugged and jerked his head toward the house. “Their paranoia is contagious.”

Still lying. Frannie refused the hand he offered her, carefully stepping out of the car on her own. She guarded her stomach as she moved, straightening slowly. Her medicines and the flowers were left on the seat but she didn’t care.

“I’ll get that stuff later,” Ray said, noting it as he moved to help support her.

She jerked from his touch. “Don’t touch me!”

Damn! He’d forgotten about that. “Sorry,” he offered contritely, glancing at Elaine for help. It was Ma who came to the rescue.

“Ah, but it is cold out here!” she exclaimed, rounding the front of the car, the driver following like a second shadow. “It is not good to move from the warm car to the cold air and the sun has only just set. It makes me think, maybe we are going to have an earlier winter this year.” She too went to wrap an arm around her daughter’s shoulder, seeking to comfort and support her, only to have Frannie gasp and jerk away. Ma’s voluble Italian spirit was surprised but only for a moment. Her daughter was hurting. It was painful to see such pain and know she could not help, but she knew that only God and time could heal her daughter’s fragile spirit. Ma pushed her own pain away to be dealt with later and dropped her arm, giving her daughter the security of her presence without touching her. “Come! We must get you inside. Raymundo, get her things. Elaine, no! You are our guest. Let my son see to that. Dona Maria, why is the porch light out? Ray--”

Frannie let her mother’s voice wash over her, calming nerves that were stretched too tight. This was familiar. This was Ma, donning the matriarchal robes of the family. No one argued with Ma. There was safety and assurance and strength to be found in that voice. Relentless acceptance, love and comfort... and it was torn from her as Kowalski hurried down the steps, followed by another agent who swept Ma into the house and safety despite her protests. It was obvious, they would have liked to have done the same with Frannie but were too worried about her possible reaction, or frightened of it, to do so. She found herself surrounded by bodies and that was almost as bad.

“Back off!” she snapped and braced herself against the brick balustrade to the right of the first step. She tried to glare at the men in the darkness around her, only to feel panic threatening to overwhelm her.

“Fran?” Elaine appeared again at her side, but made no attempt to touch her. “You okay?” she asked in quiet concern. Even in the deepening twilight Elaine could see that Frannie had broken out in a sweat and was breathing too rapidly. The men had retreated but Frannie stood rooted in place, her hand threatening to leave a permanent imprint on the cement end cap beneath her fingers.

“Yeah,” she answered curtly and contemplated the steps. She wasn’t suppose to climb steps yet, but she really didn’t have a choice. And there were only a few of them. Five. It wasn’t like she was going to tear anything. She’d feel it tomorrow, but so what. It was better than having someone carry her up the steps. She didn’t think she could tolerate that.

She forced herself to calm down and took the first step. At least she didn’t have to worry about climbing the stairs to the second floor. After the fire two years ago, she’d given her room upstairs to little Silvia, who was getting too old to share with her brothers. They’d used the insurance money to do some much needed renovation. Part of that had included converting a side parlor into a new room for her. She’d thought about getting an apartment but kept putting it off. Besides, that would leave Ray as the sole bread earner for the household. Tony’s check was a joke and, with three kids to take care of, Maria could only work part-time. She took the second step.

Elaine bit her lip as she watched her friend’s slow progress. The agent closest to them shifted impatiently. A sharp glance kept him in his place. Unfortunately, Kowalski ignored it as he suddenly reappeared and skipped downward.

“Hey, Frannie!” he sang out. “Ma just said she and Elaine told you about Maggie. Hey, Elaine,” he acknowledged the other woman briefly and turned back to Frannie. “Fraser just called a few minutes ago to let us know they’d found her. She’s going to be fine.”

Frannie paused in surprise. “They found her?”

“Yeah! Ain’t that great?” he confirmed, taking Frannie’s arm and drawing her up the third step without her even being aware of it. “Thatcher called with the news and then Frase called us. He said that she said that his sister was going to be fine. ‘Fraid none of us really knows any of the details though, cause there was this storm up there and she and Fraser got cut off.”


“The Ice Queen herself.” He chuckled. “Surprised me too when I heard she was up there. Man, she hated the snow. Guess she didn’t have no choice though. Fraser said she’s with the CSIC, or something or other. It’s like a Canadian version of the CIA. You knew that didn’t you? Anyway, she’s supposed to call Ben back with more info when the storm clears out. Watch it!”

Frannie stumbled on the last step but Ray, still holding her arm, deftly caught her and set her right before letting go and stepping away. She was surprised to find herself at the top of the steps and to realize that Ray had helped her get there without her even knowing it. She frowned as a disconcerting frisson of fear shivered down her spine and disappeared. Kowalski ignored it.

“Smell that!” he offered instead, taking a deep lung full of air. “How you and that brother of yours can possibly stay so skinny eating like that every night, I’ll never know!”

“Skinny?” her brother protested. Elaine rolled her eyes and Frannie tuned them out again, simply letting their banter and ribbing wash over her. It was normal. It was home.

Something was missing.

It took her a long moment to realize what it was. No kids. No screaming. No laughing. No Maria or Tony yelling to correct them. She remembered Ma saying something about them going away on vacation. Having been painfully confused and messed up at the time, she’d accepted it without question. Now, she felt like an idiot.

“God! Will you all please stop lying to me already!” Her exclamation caught everyone by surprise. “I’m not an idiot!” she told them, focusing on her brother. “You’re always trying to protect me. Well, you know what? You can’t. Telling me all these lies is like building a house of cards. Sooner or later it’s going to come crashing down and someone’s going to get hurt. And that someone’s gonna be me. So you aren’t protecting me at all, are you?”

“Frannie...” Kowalski stepped forward in the shocked silence around her. “We’re not lying,” he insisted. “They really did find Maggie. And as far as we know she really is going to be all right.”

“And I’m supposed to believe you?” she asked angrily. “Where’s Maria and everyone? And don’t try telling me they’re on vacation. It’s October for God’s sake. Antonio’s got school! And what’s with turning out the porch light when we drove up? You didn’t want anyone to get a clear shot of us coming home, like maybe there’s an assassin over at the Gallitos’ place? God! I am an idiot: an idiot for not seeing through you all sooner! Empty threats, Ray?” She glared at her brother again. “They’re about as empty as... as your head!”

“Francesca!” Ma gasped in surprise.

“And you!” She rounded on her mother in hurt indignation. A part of her mind was shocked but she couldn’t seem to help herself. “I believed you. I always believed you! How could you lie to me?”

“Francesca, mi bambina...”

“No!” she snapped. “I’m not your baby, Ma. And I’m not a China doll. I’m not going to shatter into a thousand bite sized pieces if someone around here tells me the truth. I need the truth, but none of you will give it to me. Not even you!”

“You were in no shape to handle the truth, Frannie!” Ray snapped in turn, wrapping a protective arm around his mother’s shoulders as she reeled under her daughter’s accusations. “And you know it!”

“Stop the fighting!” Ma pleaded. “Stop the fighting!”

Frannie glared at her brother, knowing he was the one behind all the lies. “You think that if you can wrap me up in your... white, little... Lilly-white lies... I’ll just wear it? I’m not a bride, Ray. I never will be! You can... take your Lilies and... and stuff ‘em in your ears! I prefer black.”

Ray glared right back but it was clear he hadn’t understood a word she’d said, and frankly she didn’t understand it either. All she knew was that she was hurting and angry and...

Ma looked like she might cry.

Oh, god! What had she done? They were just trying to protect her. She knew that. And she’d answered their love with...

With a choked little cry that was half shame and half self-loathing, she shoved her way past Ray and ran for her room. She wished the ground would just open up and swallow her! It didn’t. She had to be content with her room. She jerked the door open and slammed it shut behind her.

Why did she have to keep hurting the people she loved the most? Why did she have to lash out and say things she didn’t mean? She threw herself on her bed, sobbing uncontrollably. The problem was that she had meant it! They’d lied to her!

Her stomach began to ache, protesting her abuse. She wasn’t supposed to run, but who cared? She curled herself into a ball around the pain, welcoming it. It was the least she deserved. Oh, God, she couldn’t believe what she’d just done! If only she were dead. If only Muldoon had killed her along with her child. He’d taken away all her children. She was no longer a woman! Dreams of being a bride were buried with...

Buried? Had the doctors or the police... or had they just... Oh, god, why did she have to think of that? She didn’t even know if her baby had been buried!

Why had she lived? Why? Why! If only she was dead. Oh, dear God, how she wished she was dead!

"Francesca!" her mother called after her as her daughter fled through the front door and down the hall. The younger woman was beyond hearing her. They all jumped as her door slammed.

"What is with her?" Ray demanded from beside his mother.

"Basta!" Ma answered sharply. "You are a man. You cannot understand!" She shrugged out of her son's hold and hurried in her daughter's wake.

Elaine suddenly found herself the focus of several sets of male eyes seeking an explanation. She gazed at them in surprise. What was so hard to understand? "She's hurting!" Elaine offered, frowning at the clearly confused men.

"She's angry," Ray corrected her. "I didn't hear any pain in her little temper tantrum!"

"Then you weren't listening," Elaine answered. She hugged herself against the cold and shook her head sadly as she moved past Frannie's brother into the house.

Ray frowned sharply and followed on Elaine's heels, unwilling to let it go at that. Frannie was his sister. She'd just attacked both him and Ma. He needed to understand it. Kowalski and the other men shrugged, then followed the two inside.

"Hurting or not, that doesn't give her carte-blanc to lash out at her family like that!" Ray protested angrily, more upset for his mother's sake than his own. "She's not a child... as she so carefully reminded us!"

"Then why are you treating her like one, Ray?" This only made Ray frown harder. Elaine rolled her eyes as she shrugged out of her coat. "Look, I'm not saying you should have done anything different. Three or four days ago, she would have flipped out if you told her what was going on; but what she needed three or four days ago, isn't what she needs right now."

Ray frowned as he considered Elaine's words and shrugged out of his own coat. He opened the hall closet, taking her coat without even thinking, and hung them both up. The FBI agents chose to keep their lighter jackets and, with shrugs of, 'It's none of my business', went about their duties. The driver disappeared back out the door without a word, glad to be able to call it a day.

Ray turned to face Elaine again, Kowalski at his side. It was clear both men were trying hard to understand. Ray's gaze silently demanded further explanation.

"You've been through rape training," Elaine tried a different tack. "Both of you know that the woman often blames herself for what happened. 'What did I do wrong? What could I have done different?' ...Frannie lost a child because of that rape... and her womb. That's a large part of what helps define her as a woman. Hormonal issues aside, and I'm sure you understand all about those--" She gave Vecchio a significant glance. "--I imagine she's pretty confused right now. She needs something she can believe in, something she can trust. ...Because she can't trust herself."

And lying was the anti-thesis of trust. Ray understood. "We were only trying to protect her!" he protested, finding himself trapped in a paradox.

"I know," Elaine agreed, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. "And she will too... in time. Just give her some time."

Ma paused outside her daughter's door and closed her eyes as she listened to the unmistakable sound of sobbing from the other side. She sent up a prayer for her youngest and another for personal guidance, debating whether she should intrude on her daughter's pain or respect her need for privacy. The anguish she heard was such that she could not simply walk away. After several long moments, she could stand it no more and lifted her hand to knock softly. The sobbing immediately ceased.

"Francesca?" she called gently. There was no immediate protest or demand to be left alone. After a long moment of silence, she dared try the door knob. The door opened readily. "Francesca?" she called again, opening it slowly.

Francesca sat in the middle of her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs and her face half-buried in her knees. "I'm sorry!" she sobbed quietly, hearing her mother enter. "I'm... I'm sorry!"

"Shhhhhh. Hush, mi cara piccola." The older woman entered fully and gently closed the door behind her before moving to the bedside. "It breaks my heart to see you in such pain!" she admitted quietly. Oh, how she longed to wrap her arms about her child and rock that hurt away, but she knew better. She must content herself with sitting on the edge of the bed and laying a gentle hand upon her daughter's arm.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Frannie repeated brokenly, unable to find any other words to say.

"Shhhh. There is nothing to forgive. You are in pain. We know this. It is I who must apologize." She lifted her hand to stroke her daughter's hair. "You are right. We should not have lied to you."

Frannie lifted her tear-stained faced and shook her head. Ray was right. She couldn't have handled the truth. They'd needed to protect her. She knew that. The words wouldn't come.

"No, no," Ma refuted the gentle shake of her daughter's head, understanding without need of words. "It does not matter why we lied. It was wrong. But no more. No more lies. Especially from me. Your brother... I cannot speak for your brother, but he is your brother. He loves you very much. No matter what he says or how he hurts you, you must always remember this. He loves you. And he wants only what is best for you."

Francesca sniffled and nodded her head, bowing her face to her knees again and knowing her mother was right. Despite all of his whining and complaining, Frannie had no doubt that Ray loved her. So why did she have to go and bite his head off like that? She was an idiot. A selfish, self-centered fool! She could not hold back a fresh batch of tears.

"...Can you forgive us, cara?" Ma asked quietly, her hand drifting down to rub a gentle circle between her daughter's shoulders. "Forgive me, for lying? And believe me when I say I will not lie to you again? 'Though it should cause us both pain, we will stand strong in each other's faith and love. Nothing will destroy that. Yes?"

Frannie gasped as her throat closed with emotion. It was a dangerous promise her Ma was giving her and both women knew it. But Frannie also knew it was a bedrock-strong assurance, and that was something she desperately needed right now. She nodded as the tears flowed once more and dared reach out to her mother, accepting and embracing the rock steady love she didn't deserve. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" she whispered again into the other woman's shoulder. The gentle scent of fabric softener and lavender perfume was more comforting than she could explain.

Her mother held her gently, afraid of destroying the moment, and rocked her daughter in her arms. The moment didn't last long, a minute perhaps, no more, but she was grateful for it none the less. They had both needed that hug. When Francesca pulled away, Ma did not try to stop her. Instead, she turned and reached for the box of Kleenex on her daughter's night stand, silently handing it over. "I will let you be now," she decided, smoothing her daughter's hair one last time. "You need to rest. And if I do not reappear soon your brother may come looking for me. I don't think either of us wants that just now, hmmm?"

Having her brother storm in here was the last thing Frannie wanted, but the picture she imagined -him bursting in, angry and ready to bite her head off for hurting Ma -made her smile. She had no doubt he would defend her just as fiercely if need be, no matter how undeserving of it she was. She managed a small nod in answer to her mother.

"Do you feel like coming to the table, or shall I bring your dinner to you here? And do not tell me you are not hungry." She stood and smoothed her dress. "You must eat. I do not wish to see you return to the hospital anytime soon. So..."

"Here," Frannie managed to answer. Her throat was still tight and so she cleared it before continuing. "I'm pretty tired," she apologized.

Ma nodded in complete understanding. "It has been a big day for you," she allowed. "I will get your dinner and your medicines. You will have an early night and feel better in the morning."

Frannie nodded and watched silently as her mother rose to leave. The full weight of the day seemed to return as the door clicked softly closed once more, leaving her alone with only her thoughts. She was exhausted and despite her mother's words, she really wasn't hungry. But she'd eat anyway, at least a little, for Ma's sake if not her own.

Her stomach again let her know she should not have climbed those steps, let alone run through the house. She pressed a hand to her incision and lay down on her side as she waited for Ma to bring a tray.

Vecchio frowned down at Ben, watching with both trepidation and amusement as the other man again attempted to transfer himself to the wheelchair. Two broken legs made the maneuver a bit complicated. A short, soft cast encased his left leg from below his knee to his toes while his right was held stiff by a brace from hip to ankle. Up... he used the T-bar overhead to lift himself from the bed... and down, right back where he'd been.

"Can I give you a hand, Mr. Fraser?" the nurse asked patiently.

"No," he answered, his face assuming a look of overt concentration. "I did this yesterday," he assured them. And again, he lifted his weight upward. This time he managed to move two inches to the right before lowering himself again. Vecchio knew they were in trouble when Ben giggled.

Kowalski smiled and shook his head. "Houston... we have a problem."

"He over did the physical therapy yesterday," the nurse explained. "Given that he's being transported and was cramping earlier, the doctor ordered some extra pain medication. He's a little... loopy."

"I am not--not--not--" The man in blue RCMP sweats glanced to Vecchio for help. "--not what?"

"Stoned out of your gourd?"

"Higher than a kite?" Kowalski suggested.

"Hopped up?"

"Spaced out?"




"I not am. ...Not..." Ben frowned as he misspoke and tried to figure out what he'd just said.

"That's ‘Nottingham', Robin hood," Vecchio ventured with a grin. "Let's get you out of that bed before the Sheriff shows up."

"You are the Sheriff, Ray," Ben argued as he lifted himself once more. "Or... not. But a parallel can be drawn none-the-less as you are an officer of the law. However, I fail to understand how I could be Robin hood..." He frowned trying to figure out how to move to the right now that he was up in the air again. He glared at both his hands on the T-bar and knew that was wrong but didn't know why. "...as I would never rob anyone, even for such a nobel seeming cause. There are other more..." He'd done this yesterday without help and couldn't figure out what had changed over night. He grunted with effort and allowed the nurse to help guide him into the chair Kowalski was holding. "...legal ways to go about effecting social reform. Besides, I rarely wear green."

"You never heard of a red-breasted robin, Benny?" Vecchio asked as he gathered up his friend's personal belongings and medicines.

"Will Scarlet," Kowalski corrected Vecchio.


Ben laughed. "The troubadour!" he agreed and suddenly started singing ‘Green Sleeves'.

The two Ray's rolled their eyes as the nurse fought to hide a giggle behind Ben's paperwork.

"He is sooooooo crocked," Kowalski sighed, turning to the nurse. "Is it safe to leave with him like this?"

"Oh, yes," the nurse assured them. "I've double-checked the dosage and everything. It's been almost an hour since I gave it to him. He's just a little hypersensitive."

"How long is this going to go on?" Vecchio asked.

"The medication will begin to wear off in another two or three hours. You'll want to have him settled in bed by then as he's probably going to be a bit tired and sore by everything. I expect the... ‘high' will start to wane a lot faster. Don't leave him unattended until it does. I've gone over all his medications with him... before I gave him the shot," she assured them. "There's a basic schedule for his meds in the bag with them. If he has any problems or questions, he's to call this number..." She pointed to a place on the top sheet of his discharge papers and then handed them over to Vecchio. Her eyes quickly scanned the room and what the two men held, making sure they hadn't forgotten anything. With a smile, she scooped up the little gray wolf someone had sent him and handed it to her singing patient.

"Dief!" Ben stopped his song as he took the stuffed toy. "Where is he?" He glanced around with a slight frown.

"He's waiting for us in the van, Benny," Vecchio answered, "along with Father Behan. You're going home in style. I borrowed a handicap van from the Church."

Ben frowned. "I'm not handicapped, Ray."

"No," he agreed, "but I can't see trying to shoehorn you into the back of Frannie's Cavalier and my Mustang is a two door."

"Mustang?" Ben mumbled.

Oh, he was so out of it! "Yeah, remember? You and Kowalski here blew up the Riv two years ago and my insurance company gave me nothing but grief when I filed a claim over a year later."

Ben looked suddenly remorseful. "I'm sorry, Ray."

"Oh, god!" He rolled his eyes. "Let's get outta here before that Big-eyed Mountie Look starts to work and I actually forgive you two! Mush! Yeehaw!" The nurse, who'd moved to push the wheelchair, lifted a brow in silent question. Ray shrugged and explained, "He's Canadian."

"Let's go, girls!" Ben called, the moment of regret gone as quick as it came. He waved an arm in the air and threw it forward.

"Don't ask!" the two men answered the woman's surprised look in unison.

Accepting their advice, she merely smiled and lead the way from the room. She nodded at the guard who'd been stationed outside the door for the last three days. Kowalski and Vecchio nodded as well. He nodded in turn and brought up the rear. Fraser never even noticed him.

Suddenly, he twisted in his chair to face the Rays behind him. He called back, "Meg called!" he told them.

"Please sit still, Mr. Fraser!" the nurse instructed firmly, a hand going to his shoulder to keep him seated.

Vecchio skipped forward to walk beside the chair. It was no wonder the nurse had said not to leave him unattended. "You called and told us this morning, Benny. ‘Maggie is going to be fine.' That's great news."

"I told you, Ray?"

"Franklin Bay...tied to a sled...assassin fell through a mine shaft... You called us this morning, remember?"

Ben blinked a few times, trying to organize his fractured thoughts and failing. He at last recognized that failing. "I think the pain medication is effecting my cognitive abilities, Ray."

Ray fought not to laugh aloud as he reached forward to hit the elevator button for all of them. "I think you're right, Benny."

Frannie frowned as she was slowly dragged from sleep. Ray used to tease her that she could sleep through a hurricane, but let some guy throw a pebble against her window and she was wide awake. The thing that was most irritating about the observation, was that it was true. If her subconscious knew the sound, she could ignore it. If it was out of place, however, she wouldn't be able to sleep a wink until she identified it. It was such a noise that woke her now.

Well, not really noise, she realized as she blinked up at her ceiling. It was someone singing. Yet, that alone was not what woke her, she knew. Her brother-in-law, Tony, had a bad habit of singing in the shower. But this wasn't Tony, and it sure wasn't Ray.

She frowned again and sat up, or tried to. She paused with little more than her head off the pillow, pressing a hand against her lower abdomen as it reminded her of her excesses last night. Wincing, she rolled to her side and used her left arm to press herself upright. Then she glanced toward the french doors which led to the side porch.

No, it wasn't the singing itself that had roused her, nor even the unknown voice. She tuned out the TV and radio regularly. She recognized the melody. It seemed to be ‘Amazing Grace'. What had woken her was the simple fact that the song wasn't being sung in English... nor any other language she might recognize.

She did recognize Ray's voice when he interrupted the singer but she couldn't understand what either of them were saying. Knowing Ray, he was probably telling the guy to shut up. Sometimes, her brother had all the artistic soul of a rock.

Was that Father Behan's voice she heard? She glanced at the clock: 10:16. She'd risen earlier to eat breakfast. It still sat on her night table where Ma had put it, barely touched. She'd also thought about getting dressed but decided to lay back down instead. She was tired, plain and simple. Her incision ached because of yesterday and all she wanted to do was go back to sleep. But she knew she'd never manage it until she found out who'd been singing and why. Curiosity dragged Frannie out of bed. It was an odd sounding language. Rather harsh and yet... there was something hauntingly beautiful about it. Feeling like she was moving in slow motion, she shuffled to the side door and fumbled with the lock.

A loud, ear piercing siren suddenly shrieked its warning. "God!" she exclaimed, more in irritation than fear as she pressed her hands to her ears. Suddenly, there were men in her room, with weapons drawn. The door in front of her was jerked open and Ray appeared in front of her, looking frightened and ready to tackle someone.
Frannie blinked at him in surprise.

His eyes raked the room even as his hands came out to grab her shoulders, ready to toss her to safety behind--His eyes snapped back to her pale face. "Are you okay?" he demanded anxiously.

She screamed.

...They grabbed her and dragged her inside the van before she could react. The door slid shut behind her as she was shoved to the floor. She fought for all she was worth but a sharp blow to the side of her head had her fighting to maintain consciousness as her arms were twisted behind her back. There were two of them. "Shut up, you stupid bitch!" one of them ordered. Someone grabbed a handful of hair, jerking her head upward to shove a rag in her mouth even as she felt the van lurch back into the flow of traffic...

"No!" she jerked free of Ray's hands, jerked free of the hands in her memory. They'd grabbed her the same way, fingers biting into her upper arms as they hauled her upward... "No," she repeated, more to herself than anyone around her. It wasn't real. She knew that. She was home. She was in her room. It was Ray who'd grabbed her, not that... not that... "Don't touch me!" she ordered him, wrapping her arms about herself, reassuring herself further that she wasn't in their clutches again, that she wasn't held powerless and--She stomped on the memory as it threatened to rise its ugly and terrifying head again. It wasn't real! It wasn't real!

She was trembling like a leaf and was forced to back away from Ray. Why the hell couldn't he listen when she told him not to touch her! How many times did she have to tell him? She glanced up, ready to lay into him... only to see a tableau of strangers staring at her in shock...

"Oh, god!" she hissed, feeling fear rise up to try and strangle her again. She turned back to Ray and brushed past him, out the door, outside where she had room, where she could breathe, where... The sound of the alarm followed her, still clamoring for attention. Someone turn that thing off! she thought frantically.

The cold morning air was welcome, like a slap in the face. Her memories were haunted with heat and sweat and--She tore open her robe, letting the cold air invade the thin fabric of her nightgown, the chill caress helping her to banish the memories that threatened to overwhelm her. The alarm was suddenly silenced as she dragged in a shuddering breath, forcing herself to relax, forcing herself to concentrate on the here and now, on the feel of the weathered wood beneath her feet, on the smell of fireplace smoke from one of the neighbors, on the...


She gasped, recognizing the voice instantly. Benton... She dragged her robe closed again and spun to face the front of the house. He sat in a wheelchair about twenty feet away, at the apex of the porch where it turned and wrapped along the left side of the house down to her room. Father Behan, Ma, Kowalski and Dief stood with him, staring at her.

"Fraser?" she managed to choke out. She'd forgotten that he was supposed to be coming home... or here that is, this morning.

A momentary breeze caught her hair, sending several stray strands into her face. She instantly became aware of twin trails of icy moisture tracing down her cheeks. Damn! Clearing her throat and brushing the hair out of her face, she wiped the tears away in passing and hoped no one would comment... God, she must look like hell! They were still staring at her: Ben, Kowalski, Ma, Father Behan... and whoever the others were. Nameless FBI agents she didn't want to see, let alone know. She'd managed to shock them all, apparently. The scream, the sudden emergence into the morning air, tearing her robe open like... ‘though there was nothing really to see even if she had been facing them. It was a loose non-descript nightgown, little more than an over-sized T-shirt that hung to her knees. It was nothing special. Not that it mattered.

She forced such nonsensical considerations from her mind even as she wrapped the heavy robe more firmly about her slight form. She didn't care what Fraser, or anyone else, thought about the way she looked. Or so she told herself.


She about jumped out of her skin to hear Ray behind her. She'd forgotten he was there. She gasped and spun on her heel, winning another sharp stab of pain in answer to the sudden movement. "Don't touch me!" she ordered yet again.

He was not within touching distance but threw up his hands in a show of compliance nonetheless.

"What the hell was that?" she demanded, quickly donning a veneer of anger to hide just how badly frightened and upset she was. "Some kind of alarm system on my door? ‘Fraid I'm going to try to escape or something?"

Ray lowered his arms. "The whole house is wired--"

"--Great!" she interrupted sarcastically. "Like I'm not scared enough without having sirens screaming and men jumping around with guns every time I want to step out for a breath of fresh air."

"You're not supposed to step out for a breath of fresh air," the agent behind Ray interjected.

Frannie glared at him, thinking there wasn't an alarm system in the world that would stop a determined intruder. Then she saw his gun. He shook his head, disgusted to have been forced to answer a false alarm. She shuddered. To think she'd once wanted to be a police officer. She couldn't manage to protect herself, let alone anyone else. And the thought of ever handling a gun again...

...He pressed the barrel of the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger. (((CLICK))) Time stood still. For an instant, she thought she was dead. Then he laughed... and dragged the gun lower, the cold metal caressing her cheek, jaw, neck...

She shoved the momentary flash of memory back in the pandora's box of nightmares she preferred to forget existed and turned her back on the man, needing to focus on something else, anything...

She caught sight of Ben in her periphery. Kowalski and the others had closed the distance between her and the front of the house, joining her on the side porch as she was busy talking to her brother and the unknown agent.

"Was..." She frowned as she heard her own voice come out in a weak squeak of sound. Weak was the one thing she refused to be. She cleared her throat and began again. "Was that you I heard singing?" she asked, seeking to distract herself.

Ben frowned in mild confusion and glanced up at Kowalski as if he wasn't sure he'd heard right. "Me?"

Kowalski sighed and patted him on the shoulder. "You're the only one here who knows Inuit, Buddy. I never got the hang of it."

"We were only there a short time, Ray," Ben observed. "It does take a little more practice than that."

Frannie frowned sharply. If she didn't know better, she would have sworn he was drunk!

"And, it's Inuktitut, not Inuit," the chair-bound man corrected his friend. "Inuit is the name of the people. Inuktitut is the language. Actually, the word Inuit is often misused to represent all the First Nations, but they're actually only one of several tribes each with their own language, or variation of language, including the Inupiaq, Dene, Gwich'in--"

"--We get the idea, Frase."

"--Han, Yu'pik, Tsimshian, Kaska, Tagish, Tlingit--"

Frannie stared at him in concern. Despite his known proclivity for spouting inane facts at odd times, he wasn't acting at all like himself. Had he hit his head in the accident and suddenly--Oh, my god! A blood clot? A stroke? Had he suffered some kind of brain damage? She glanced at her brother. "What's wrong with him?" she demanded softly.

"--I understand, Frase," Kowalski interrupted again, patting his friend's shoulder to help get his words through to him.

"Inuktitut was simply the native language most commonly spoken in the various regions where I grew up. Which is why I learned it, of course."

"Great to know, Frase. Enough. Thanks."

Frannie's brother waved a hand, dismissing her fears. "The pain meds they gave him are too strong or something. He's just a little out of it. Come on, it's cold out here. Let's get everyone back inside and tuck Benny here into bed before the meds wear off." He glanced at Kowalski. "We got work to do."

"Work?" Ben echoed.

"Not you, Pavarotti. You're going to bed."

"It's not even noon yet, Ray," Ben answered. "I'm not tired."

"Bed!" he repeated firmly. "Doctor's orders."

Ben's frown could only be described as a major pout. Ray fought to suppress his smile and nodded at Kowalski who turned to push Ben back toward the front of the porch and the front door. Being trapped in the wheelchair, Ben didn't have any choice in the matter. (((ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump))) Dief hurried to keep up as best he could despite the bright blue cast that protected his own left front leg. What a pair they made. Ray shook his head and glanced back to see Frannie turning back to her own door. Head bent, shoulders slumped, an arm wrapped around her stomach, the other stretched forward to catch herself if she fell as she shuffled forward... She looked small and pale... and terribly alone.

"Frannie?" he called, surprised she wasn't joining them, though given the way she'd acted around Fraser at the hospital, he wasn't sure why.

"Leave me alone, Ray," she answered irritably without even glancing in his direction.

He frowned, wondering what had set her off this time, and glanced up to meet his mother's concerned gaze.

"Francesca?" Ma Vecchio called after her youngest and hurried to her side. Ray bit his lip and watched as Ma opened the door for Frannie, waving the FBI watchdogs off.

"Make sure you lock this door," one of them told her quietly. Frannie awarded him an angry glare but Ma silently nodded acknowledgment and waved him off again. Ray continued to watch as the two women disappeared inside, torn by the knowledge that Frannie was hurting but knowing there was nothing he could do to help her.

Well, no, that wasn't true. There was one way he could help her, he decided. He could catch the bastards who were terrorizing all their lives. He turned back to the front of the house and hurried after the others.

“I’m all right, Ma,” Frannie sighed as she made her way back to the bed. She wanted nothing more than to be left alone and curl up and cry herself to sleep, though frankly she wasn’t sure exactly what she felt so very badly like crying about. She certainly didn’t want her mother hovering and coddling. She knew she meant well. Frannie just couldn’t take it right now.

“No, you’re not,” her mother answered bluntly, “and no one expects you to be. But you are getting better and for this, I thank God. Oh dear... You did not eat your breakfast?”

“I was just too tired, Ma,” she answered with a sigh, easing herself back down on the edge of the bed. “I didn’t sleep well. I’ll be fine, really.”

“I know, mi cara picola, I know.” She smiled and gently patted her daughter’s cheek. Frannie endured the touch and fought to hide any sign of the disquiet the move created within her. It was her mother, for god’s sake! Ma turned to the night stand and gathered up the tray of cold food. “I was going to ask you to help with something but it is best if you rest. I will manage.”

“Help?” Frannie asked with a frown. Her Ma never asked for help with anything.

“No, no.” Her Ma turned back, holding the tray. “It is not important. I can speak with Father Behan some other time. Go back to bed, mi cara.”

“Father Behan?” Frannie echoed, standing once more and moving to her mother before she could escape.

“No, no,” Ma repeated. “You should rest!”

“I’ve rested enough, Ma,” Frannie frowned. “What did you want to talk to Father Behan about?” Besides her, she wondered?

“I just...” Ma sighed. “They wouldn’t let me attend Mass yesterday. Nor was I able to go to confession earlier this week. It’s been over three weeks actually. I...” She sighed again and shook her head dismissively. “It’s all right. God will understand.”

Frannie shook her head and touched her mother’s shoulder to keep her from leaving . “I know He will,” she agreed. “But I know what it means to you, too. Why can’t you talk to him now? Isn’t that what he’s here for?”

“No. Well, that too, but actually he was simply driving the van; the church van, with the wheelchair lift? Ray asked for his help to bring Benton home today.”

Frannie nodded, understanding so far, but still confused, “So why can’t you talk to Father Behan? Is he in a hurry or something?”

“No,” Ma shook her head, “but... Benton cannot be left alone. Not yet. The medicine they gave him... Your brother and Ray, they must return to work; and I do not want to ask one of the FBI agents to sit with him. They are strangers to him. No.” She shook her head decisively. “I will have to ask the Father to come back some other time.”

“No...” Frannie wanted to bite her own tongue off but couldn’t stop herself from volunteering. Ma did so much for the family and she asked so little in return. “I’ll... I’ll do it.” If she were lucky, Ben would zonk the minute he was in bed.


“--I said, I’ll do it,” she repeated, refusing to let herself chicken out. She immediately had to soften her tone. “Sorry,” she sighed. “I, ah... I have a headache but I’ll be okay. I’ll be happy to sit with Ben... Benton.” She stumbled slightly on his name, automatically echoing her mother’s usage but... She’d shifted to calling him Frase or Fraser months ago. Benton was... was too personal, too intimate. “I can’t sleep all day.” Frannie knew that her mother had spent more then a little time in prayer for her over the past couple of weeks. She knew how important her faith was to her mother. That faith had pulled the family through some incredibly rough times. There was no way she could deny her mother such a simple request.

As they merged with traffic on Michigan Avenue, Kowalski sighed and slumped back into the bucket seat of Ray’s ‘74 Mustang. Vecchio was in one of his pensive modes, all serious and thinking too hard, probably about the wrong things. At a guess, Kowalski would say he was worrying about his sister. He let the silence go for a few more blocks, then decided it was time to redirect his partner.

“Think he’s going to be okay?”

“What?” Vecchio asked, forced to return from wherever his thoughts had taken him.


Vecchio frowned as he dismissed whatever had been bothering him and did a double-take on the question. “Sure. Why not?”

Shrug. “Any epiphanies over night?”

“You mean beyond questioning whether Muldoon is still the puppet master we think he is?”

“Timing still bothering you?”

“There’s a lot about this case that’s bothering me. If Gibbler is Muldoon’s second in command and we assume he’s the one laying down contingency plans...” The balding Italian suddenly struck his steering wheel in frustration. “Why the hell isn’t he dead!”

Kowalski was surprised by the sudden show of controlled violence. “I don’t follow...” he dared admit when nothing more followed.

“Muldoon might not mind having someone watch his back for him but we’re talking ‘planning’ for failure here. He would have never thought to hire and import those hit men until after he was captured. One, I might believe. He needed someone to stalk and keep tabs on Maggie. But three? It doesn’t make sense. Back-up plans are one thing but this was a hell of a lot more than that. Gibbler’s spreading around a whole lot of green and pulling strings behind Muldoon’s back... and when Muldoon realized it, he should have offed Gibbler.”

“You’re thinking it’s some kind of power play on Gibbler’s part, but then why didn’t Gibbler just cut him loose when Muldoon was arrested again? Why is Gibbler playing his game for him?”

“This would make a whole lot more sense if it were the Bolts we were dealing with.”

“Another wacko cousin in the woodpile?” Kowalski asked.

“It would explain a lot.”

The radio interrupted any further discussion. “Kowalski,” Lys’ voice crackled over the secured channel. “Welsh wants you to meet the FBI over at The River House, Seafood Inc., 643 N. Kingsbury St. They just found Lou Gibbler, dead.”

Kowalski offered Vecchio a speaking glance. “Muldoon figured it out.”

Vecchio nodded. “On our way,” he answered and quickly calculated the quickest route over to N. Kingsbury.

"There we are." Ma Vecchio placed the tea service on the night stand to the right of Benton's bed. "Can I get you another pillow?"

"Ma-aaa..." Frannie sighed. "You're going to fluff the poor guy to death. Father Behan is waiting. Go!"

"All right, I'll just..." She moved back toward the tea tray. "Do you prefer honey or--"

"--Go!" Frannie ordered, standing to physically intercept her mother and turn her to the door. "I'll take care of anything here." She was beginning to suspect that the need to speak with Father Behan was a convenient excuse her mother had used to throw them together, but that now the older woman was having second thoughts.

"Well... we'll just be in the kitchen if you need anything," she called to the man in the bed.

"I won't kill him," Frannie offered, all but pushing her out the door. "I promise." She closed the door and leaned against it, shaking her head as she listened to the silence on the other side. It was a long moment before she heard the other woman move down the hall toward the kitchen.

"Why would she think you'd want to kill me?"

Frannie sighed and bowed her head against the wood. "I don't want to kill you, Frase."

"Perhaps just maim me a bit."

Was he teasing her? Such an uncharacteristically joking challenge surprised a smile out of Frannie. He definitely wasn't himself.

"What did I do wrong?"

She frowned as she turned to him. The question was asked with all the innocence of a child asking why daddy died.

"Besides everything, that is." He offered a huge sigh and stared up at the ceiling. "I can't believe it took something like this to make me realize what a fool I've been. I should have never let your brother dictate our relationship. I don't know that we'd ever be more than friends, but... now I've lost even that."

Frannie frowned harder and found herself drawn to his bedside. "What do you mean, 'dictate our relationship'?"

"He was afraid I'd hurt you. 'Men like him don't marry girls like you.' I was in the observation room when he said that. I didn't understand at first, but he was only trying to protect you and I guess I... He was right. Or I thought he was right."

It took her a long moment to remember the conversation he was talking about. She wasn't sure if she should be embarrassed or shocked. "You were eavesdropping?" she asked in disbelief.

"I'm not a dream, Francesca," he frowned, dropping his eyes to meet hers, "some Prince Charming or Sir Galahad. I'm not as perfect as you seem to think I am. Or seemed to think," he corrected himself, frowning harder. "You moved on while I was standing still. Now it's too late..." He shook his head sadly and closed his eyes.

Too late... But it was her fault, not his. She'd reached for the dream... and settled for an alcohol induced fantasy when she couldn't get it.

It had happened a little over four months ago. Theresa, down in Records, had been complaining about a date with him. He'd actually asked her out! That the other woman was complaining told Frannie that the story was real. He'd taken her to Ben Pao, but it was crowded and she didn't like Chinese. The lines at the movie house were long so she'd hinted at something more 'intimate'. Yeah, Frannie had rolled her eyes at the thought of Ben's reaction to that suggestion. She hadn't been surprised to hear he'd taken the other woman to see an Inuit art exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. Theresa had been bored out of her skull by the end of the night.

Had it been a recounting of a date with anyone else Frannie was interested in, she'd have laughed with the others and filed the information away for future use; but this was Fraser. There would be no future use and she knew it. He had made it very clear that he would never see her as anything more than Ray's little sister and a friend. She'd moved on, or tried too; but her heart was not so easily mastered. What had started out years before as lust had evolved over time into something quite a bit stronger. She could tell herself as often as she wanted too that love was a two way street and Fraser had chosen another route, but the mere fact that he'd actually gotten up the nerve to ask someone else out had hurt. Ben wasn't the fool, she was.

She'd gone out with the girls a few nights later with the specific intention of forgetting him. For one reason or another, her friends had called it a night long before Frannie was ready to go back to her lonely bed. They left and she got drunk. It wasn't a conscious decision on her part. She should have known better than to drink when she was so depressed. Then he sat down beside her. She had no idea who he was. If he told her his name, it went in one ear and out the other. All she'd seen were his eyes. They were Ben's eyes. That incredible blue-silver-gray outlined with a fringe of dark lashes. Pale skin, dark hair... It was easy to ignore the Chicago accent that was more reminiscent of Kowalski than Ben.

The next thing she remembered was waking up naked in a strange bed with some unknown man. Any lingering hang-over was banished in a rush of shock and adrenaline. What had she done! But the answer was too obvious. His back was to her and he was snoring. She didn't hang around to find out who he was. She threw on her clothes and ran out of the room, only further embarrassed as she realized she was in one of the seediest motels on the north side! It was no better than she'd deserved.

It was no surprise when her period was late. She couldn't remember anything about the guy, why would she think she might have been smart enough to think of protection? Her stupid ‘dreams' had cost her big time. She'd gone to a women's health clinic and gotten a battery of tests including AIDS and pregnancy. The pregnancy test was positive, the AIDS test was negative... for now. She was told she'd need to be re-tested later to make sure they hadn't missed anything.

A gentle 'wuff' from Dief brought her back to the here and now. There were tears streaming down her face but Ben didn't see them. She was spared that at least. He'd fallen into a light doze. Those eyes which now only reminded her of what she'd done wrong and the price she'd paid were mercifully closed in sleep.

Too late.

"My dreams are dead..." she admitted softly. "I killed them myself."

"...No, Sir," Welsh answered the irritated man on the other end of the line and cast a prayer upward asking for patience. He really needed to get a longer cord on the phone so he could pace at times like this. "Yes, Sir. Yes--" He wasn't given an opportunity to defend himself or his people. He was simply forced to shut up and take the undeserved tongue lashing with silent ill-grace. The Captain finally concluded his verbal reprimand with a curt order. "Yes, Sir," Welsh answered firmly. "We'll get right on it." Without further adieu, the other end of the line went dead and Welsh heaved a weary sigh.

Damn those Feds! First, they scream and moan that everything to do with Muldoon is their bailiwick, but the moment they screw up it's a shared case and his people's fault! Well, there was no way out of this one. They'd simply have to stomach the garbage and deal with the repercussions. He offered the phone a parting glare as he hung up and then swung around to open his office door. The shift change was just starting to drift in, raising the normal boisterous atmosphere to near cacophony. He swept the area with an irritated gaze, noting that the Rays were just coming in, probably dropping off notes before heading home for the day. Unfortunately, they weren't done yet. They just didn't know it. "Vecchio, Kowalski: My office. ...Lys!" he yelled at the first civilian aide he spotted.

The surprised woman stopped in her tracks and turned toward him.

"I want an APB out on Timothy Roland a.k.a. Weber, and whatever other aliases of his you can dig up. I want him picked up yesterday, got it?"

"Got it, Sir!" the woman answered crisply.

"Roland?" Vecchio echoed with a frown as he and Kowalski slipped around what appeared to be a pair of handcuffed prostitute twins and came to a halt beside their boss. He awarded them only a glance. Now a set of triplets would have been unusual... He turned his attention back to Welsh. "What's he doing out? I thought he was already in jail."

Welsh offered an irritated sigh and ushered the two men into his office, closing the noise of the other room out before answering. "The Feds have screwed up again, and are tossing the blame our way," he explained, running a hand through his hair for the tenth time in an hour.

"Like that's anything new," Kowalski shrugged. A glance from Welsh had him standing up a bit straighter and paying closer attention.

"Roland was arraigned two days ago on Conspiracy charges and was released on twenty-five thousand dollars bail. No mention of Murder or Accessory to Murder or Solicitation to Commit Murder: Nothing."

"What?!" Vecchio exclaimed.

"Seems our suspicions aren't enough to tie Roland to the dead Courier," Welsh offered with his typical sarcasm. "Outside of Turnbull IDing him as the guy who delivered Fraser's threat to the Consulate, the DA has nothing on him. He's claiming he didn't know what was in the package and that the uniform was 'delivered'... and then conveniently lost, of course. So, unless we, or the detectives handling the case at the twenty-third, can prove otherwise... even the Conspiracy charge is shaky.

"As for the rest, it seems we never told the DA about Reyes fingering him. Special Agent in Charge, 'Dick' Head passed the buck our way on that one, sticking it to us in the form of the files they so 'generously' shared with Vecchio here. It was our responsibility to liaise with the DA, not theirs. DA never heard a word. The charges were never filed. Roland's out. Hell, the guy's probably hightailed it to Mexico by now!"

"Um... actually, Sir, we think Reyes may have been protecting his ...back, when he, uh, fingered Roland," Kowalski spoke up, winning an end to the irritated pacing and a lift of a curious brow.

"Gibbler was busy packing up a secret office he had hid behind a legitimate office at the Seafood Import/Export business he owned downtown when he bought it," Vecchio explained. He glanced around and hooked a free chair, all but falling into it and massaging his aching thigh. He'd been on it too much today. "Double tap to the chest. Apparently, the assassin isn't part of the organization or he would've known better than to hit him there. We've got computer files, message tapes, monthly journals, you name it. The guy wrote everything down. One of the entries in his organizer specifically states that he hired Reyes. Roland was nothing but a courier."

"Any mention about the threats?"

Vecchio nodded. "Muldoon's been planning parts of this since Fraser captured him up north. He had Gibbler contact an Inuit friend of his three months ago, a Joe Bevilacqua. We think it's the same guy who kidnaped Maggie and then killed himself by falling in that mine. The FBI are coordinating with CSIS to confirm his identity. Anyway, Bevilacqua was part of Muldoon's plan. The other two hit men were part of Gibbler's. Exactly what that plan was, and what he needed with two of them, we don't know yet, but we think he was getting ready to double-cross Muldoon. On the one hand, he's helping arrange things for Muldoon's escape and revenge, and on the other he's pulling strings Muldoon doesn't know anything about."

"So you're saying this Gibbler would have probably taken care of Muldoon for us if it wasn't for Frannie and our getting him last week? But Muldoon found out about the double-cross and took care of Gibbler first."

"Exactly," Vecchio sighed. "There's still a hell of a lot of stuff to be sifted through and the FBI is demanding first dibs--"


"--but, it's pretty easy to figure out."

"Only problem is," Kowalski added, crossing his arms, "now that Gibbler's gone... who's going to hold Muldoon's little empire together for him?"

"And hunt you guys." Welsh frowned, then offered a grim shrug. "There's always someone waiting to move up the ladder. The question is, can Muldoon control that someone?"

"I doubt Muldoon's going to have an empire left to control when we get done sorting through Gibbler's stuff. Muldoon's gonna put a hit on the hit man for killing Gibbler in that back office. Combined with what we got last year, there should be enough to bring his little house of cards tumbling down around his pudgy little toes for good."

"Don't you just love those secret little books and files the real scuz-balls always keep?" Welsh smiled.

Kowalski mirrored it. "I don't think Muldoon's gonna find any hit men who are willing to work for free." He offered a musical snapping of his fingers to emphasize his point.

Vecchio sighed and leaned back in the chair. "This game is all but over."

"And you said Roland was coming out looking like a major flunky, right?"

The two nodded.

"Keep combing through those files... and bring me those notes you were talking about. The ones that get Roland off the hook as the point man where Reyes is concerned." Welsh frowned pensively, wondering if there were anyway he could use it to toss some garbage back the Feds way... The DA really hated having to revoke warrants. "I need to do some damage control."

The distinctive footfall of Ma Vecchio stopping outside his door drew Ben's attention even before the gentle knock announced her presence. He knew the sound was intentionally soft so as not to wake him should he be sleeping, and he was tempted to ignore it. The smells that emanated throughout the house told him that dinner wasn't far away and was quite definitely going to be better than he'd enjoyed in several days, but he had no appetite. Nor did he think he could force himself to eat even for Mrs. Vecchio's sake. He had no desire to insult her but... Despite the medications earlier which had reduced his morning to nothing more than a dim and embarrassing memory of singing, and three hours of sleep, at 6:34 pm he was quite sore and tired. Feigning sleep was definitely the lesser offense, deceitful though it might--

Her journey to his room had been immediately preceded by a phone call. The timing was such that it could quite easily be for him. "Come in," he called out, before he could change his mind. If she were carrying a dinner tray, he decided, he'd just have to give part of it to Dief.

The wolf, laying on the floor beside his bed, glanced over a lupine shoulder and grinned at him, causing Ben to wonder yet again if Dief wasn't capable of reading minds, as well as lips.

The door opened a few inches and Ma stuck her head in. "Molto bene." She smiled when she saw him propped up in bed and spoke into the phone she held. "He's awake. Um..." She frowned and glanced behind her. "The phone won't reach. Let me get a different one... Agent Unger?"

She disappeared for several long moments as they tackled the problem and Dief sat up, his tail thumping the floor as he waited expectantly. "It's not for you," Ben told him off-hand, wondering who it was and mentally wincing at the fuss it was causing. He didn't want to be a bother...

She reappeared with a cordless phone in hand. "Here we are." She bustled into the room and offered the phone with a smile. "It is your sister!" she told him happily.

Ben immediately forgot his aches and pains and misgivings over the call and took the receiver from Mrs. Vecchio with an impatient desire to confirm her words. "Maggie?" he asked without preamble. Ma Vecchio smiled again and slipped out of the room without a word.

"Hey, there!" The voice on the other end of the line sounded a little weak but it was definitely Maggie. He could hear the smile in her weary tone as she complained, "You're harder to find than a red-headed Inuit."

Ben smiled. "Has Kevin Ig'osiwich been causing problems again?" he asked, naming a rather infamous prankster from his days in Inuvik, who just happened to have red hair.

Maggie laughed. "You know him too, huh?"

"He was the bane of my existence in high-school," he admitted, relaxing back into his pillows.

"Really?" she asked, and he knew there was no avoiding at least one tale to assuage her curiosity.

He thought for a moment and shared the first one that came to mind. "Once, I borrowed my grandfather's car to take a date to a hockey match. He put water in the tires while we were at the game."

"Did it freeze?"

"Of course." He sighed, remembering all too clearly the momentary confusion and fear of a flat when he tried to pull out of the space and the whole car shuddered with the (((thud, thud, thud))) of ice in the tires. Kevin had driven by laughing his fool head off. The prank wasn't disabling to the vehicle, however Ben had been forced to ask someone else to see his date safely home. That had been more embarrassing than having to drive the older car down main street. The ice in the tires finally broke up after the first few miles and there was no actual damage done, but it had been a major chore the next day to fix them. He'd never been able to prove Kevin did it, but it was all too typical of the stunts he liked to pull, especially on ‘Mountie-boy'.

"Sounds like fun," she teased him.

Ben rolled his eyes at the memory. "So... how are you doing?" he changed the subject back where it belonged. "You gave me quite a scare down here, you know."

"Yeah," she sighed. "Sorry ‘bout that. The guy caught me off-guard."

"Tranquilizer dart," Ben nodded. "Meg...I mean Agent Thatcher, filled me in. Are you... I mean, he didn't...?"

"No," she answered the awkwardly worded question before it became even more awkward. "No, he didn't hurt me. Or at least, you know... He just tied me to his sled and dragged me all over creation. Wouldn't even let me go to the bathroom, the son of a--Sorry!" She censored herself and hurried to assure him, "I'm fine. Really. A little hungry and dehydrated. Kinda sore. Got a bladder infection and--But nothing serious. Docs should be letting me out of here in another day or so."

Which confirmed that she was still in hospital...

"I'm more upset about the twenty-four hour guards they have on me. And you?" she asked, quickly redirecting the conversation before he could question her further. "Car accident? I understand both your legs were broken."

"I've been through worse," he assured her and frowned down at his legs.

"I'm sure," she agreed. "Your reputation for jumping off of cliffs and wrestling runaway trains heading toward nuclear disaster precedes you. ...Are they sure it was an accident?"

"Yes," he answered firmly, not wanting her to worry about him. "The other driver fell asleep at the wheel. There was no connection to Muldoon."

"Good." He could practically hear her nod. "That's good." At least she was taking the threats from Muldoon seriously now...

"...Meg said Chicago got a big break in the case today," she offered, again changing the subject. "That we might be able to tie everything up in just a few days. Was she telling me the truth, or just trying to get me to accept the police protection without a major fight?"

"I... um, I don't know," he answered truthfully. "I haven't heard anything, but that doesn't mean much right now. I'll have to ask Ray when he gets in." Ben glanced again at his bedside clock: 6:49 pm. He was late, which meant that something had probably happened and he and Kowalski were busy with it. "Did she say what kind of break?"

"No, but she made it sound major. Um... darn. The nurses are here to do blood work and whatnot again. I gotta go. I just wanted to call and ... Meg said you were worried. But I'm fine. And I wanted to make sure you were okay too, of course--"

"--Kowalski said to say, ‘Hi' and he ‘hopes you get better quick'," Ben inserted hastily, belatedly remembering to pass on the message before the call ended.

"Ray?" she asked, surprised by the unexpected addendum to their conversation. "Is he there?"

"No," Ben answered. "No, he and Ray Vecchio are still working. He asked me to tell you earlier."

"Oh." She sounded disappointed and Ben purposed not to read anything into that. "Well, I got to go anyway. Tell him hi back and I'm fine and... maybe I'll take a vacation down your way when everything is said and done here. I mean your way, not his. To see you. I mean, I'd like to see him too, of course, I just--argh! You know what I mean."

"Of course." Ben grinned into the phone. It was very hard not to read anything into that stumbling exposition, however he refused to interfere in his sister's life the way Ray Vecchio had in Francesca's. He felt a slight pang at the unexpected and rather disloyal thought to his friend, but... He swallowed the smile and managed a stoic, "I'll tell him. Take care of yourself."

"You too. No more broken bones, hear? Or I'll come down there and break your head for you!"

Ben smiled again, not doubting it for an instant. "Understood," he answered. They said their good-byes and he waited to hear her hang up. With a sigh, he keyed the cordless phone off and placed it on the night stand beside his bed. He'd give it back to Ma Vecchio when she brought his dinner. There'd be no escaping the meal now, but he found talking to his sister had improved his appetite as well as his mood. He glanced down at Dief. At least the wolf wouldn't get all of it.

A noise from the next room drew his attention. A soft murmur came to his sensitive ears and he realized that it was Ma Vecchio addressing Francesca. His room must be right next to hers. Of course. He glanced at the connecting door, remembering the layout of the house from before the time of the fire. The door of the guest room lead to the side parlor... which Ray had told him they'd converted into Francesca's new room when she gave her room upstairs to little Sylvia.

He glanced down at the wolf. Why being in the room next to Francesca's should be so disquieting he didn't know, but it was. He'd managed to treat her with distant affection for almost four years now, without such qualms. But that was before he'd realized he was being a fool and lying to himself. He glanced at the connecting door again. Was it locked? Not that it mattered, of course. He'd never enter uninvited and Francesca had made it clear she wanted as little to do...

He seemed to remember something from this morning. Had she sat beside him? There...?

He glanced at the chair beside his bed, but it was impossible to tell if she'd actually been there or if he was merely remembering some drug induced dream instead. Well, not impossible. If he could get up and sniff--He brought the thought to an abrupt halt. The fact that he could likely distinguish her scent had she been in the chair recently seemed somehow... invasive. Yes, he knew Francesca's personal scent. He knew both of the Rays' scents as well, if he bothered to think about it. Both men were rather heavy handed with the cologne and had very different tastes. Francesca was... metamorphic. She'd worn a variety of perfumes around him in the past, but that wouldn't hinder him. She'd even worn scented lip gloss on occasion, strawberry usually, which had a habit of clashing with--

He glanced back down at Dief. His thoughts were rambling and he knew perfectly well it was because of that door. "Oh, dear..." he offered quietly. The next few weeks were going to be a lot more difficult than he'd expected.

Ray sighed as he opened the fridge and peered inside. Milk, beer, soda, various leftovers, lunch meat, eggs... Some of those leftovers had been in here long enough that he’d forgotten what they were. It was time to clean the fridge again, but not now. He grabbed up a dish that he recognized and stripped off the saran wrap before popping it in the microwave. He then grabbed up a can of beer and plopped into a kitchen chair while he waited for his dinner to reheat.

Vecchio had invited him to dinner at the house again, and he was sure they weren’t having three day old spaghetti, but he just hadn’t been up for the social number tonight. Love Ma and Frannie and Fraser et al like the family they were, he simply needed some alone time. He and Vecchio had been running themselves ragged over the case for a week now. The big break they’d gotten this evening was... greatness, but it was time to unwind and tackle it again tomorrow. Three, four days, they might have something to smile about, but right now... The emotions of the day had left him tired and wrung out. All he wanted to do was eat a little something and crawl into bed.

The phone rang and he groaned. A glance at the clock told him it was either urgent or some stupid crank. He bowed his head, ignoring the ding of the microwave and listening to his answering machine in the other room as it picked up. ‘This is Kowalski. I’m busy. Talk to the machine.’

“Ray?” His head jerked up as he recognized Stella’s voice. “Oh god. If you’re there, just pick up, please...?”

He was up and racing to the phone before she finished speaking. What the hell was she doing calling him? She was supposed to be under ultra-tight FBI protection. They shouldn’t let her anywhere near a phone!

“Ray? ...I guess you’re still working,” she sighed.

Ray quickly snatched up the receiver. “I’m here! Stella?”

“Don’t use my name! Jeesh! I’m going to be in enough trouble when they find out I’m using a phone.”

Ray felt only relieved to have her snap at him. At least she wasn’t in any immediate danger. He sighed and plopped down on the couch running a hand through his tousled hair. “You okay?” he asked bluntly, needing to hear her say it.

“No,” she snapped irritably and then sighed. “I’m going stir-crazy, Ray! They’ve got me stuck in a--”

“--Don’t tell me!” he snapped in turn, sitting up sharply. Chances were, the call was perfectly safe. Unfortunately they had no way of knowing what capabilities their antagonists had. For all he knew, his phone could easily be tapped. “Are you at least using a cell?” Those were harder to trace without going through the proper channels... but not impossible. He frowned in both irritation and concern for her.

“Yes,” she sighed. “I took one of the agent’s while he was dozing and locked myself in the bathroom. I can’t talk long. I’m not that stupid, but I had to talk to someone. They’re keeping me in the dark, Ray: literally as well as figuratively. If it wasn’t for the clock, I wouldn’t know what time it was!”

“I’m sorry, Stel,” he answered the frustration in her voice as patiently as he could. “The guy who’s after you ain’t messing around. We can’t take chances ... and that includes phone calls like this!”

“I know,” she sighed again. “I know. Just tell me one thing. There was a blurb on the news tonight. Tieing Gibbler to Muldoon and saying the CPD and FBI were about to arrest the men who’ve been after me. I need to know if it’s true.”

“I can’t--”

“--Please, Ray. My guards are nothing but flunkies and won’t tell me anything!”

“The guy could be listening in and trying to trace this call right now, Stella, and you know it!” he told her bluntly, tasting anger at the thought of her needlessly endangering herself this way.

“That’s a chance I’m willing to take--”

“--But I’m not!” he snapped. It was all too easy for him to imagine her hurt and resentful reaction to those words. He sighed and allowed his head to fall over the back edge of the couch. “Look,” he sighed. “Gibbler’s dead.” Anyone listening musta already learned that by now. “And we have leads we’re working. I can’t tell you anything else, except don’t call here again! Hang in there, Stel. We haven’t forgotten you. Bye.” And he keyed the phone off before she could say anything else. “Damn...” he sighed, praying she hadn’t just gotten herself killed pulling such a stupid stunt. He’d never be able to forgive himself if they traced a call through him and found her.

With another sigh he sat up and activated the phone again, dialing the FBI. Stella would likely kill him for ratting her out. The FBI was going to have a fit. But that was better than waking up tomorrow morning to read her obituary in the paper.

Ma Vecchio stopped her son before he could head for the door, a simple tap on her check issuing the command for a proper leave taking. Ray rolled his eyes but quickly closed the distance between them and leaned in to give her cheek the required peck. He was late and arguing about it would only make him later. Besides, he could never win. “It will be good when this business is over and we can get back to normal,” she said, patting his check before he could escape the maneuver.

He smiled and nodded, then spun and quickly headed for the door. Why he was in such a hurry, he didn’t know. After all, he was only rushing in to start hugging a desk and serving his sentence of Administrative Probation because of that penny-ante wanna-be, Terence Tuppence. Kowalski was cleared to drive again so he’d just need to get a car from the motor pool ‘til his own car was taken care of. Which meant Ray couldn’t wriggle out from behind the desk that way. Damn...

The door in front of him suddenly burst open and several men wearing nylon vests with big yellow lettering identifying them as FBI swarmed in.

“What the hell?” Ray asked of no one in particular as they swept around him.

An agent he recognized suddenly materialized in front of him, looking very harried. “Detective Vecchio,” he addressed Ray rather curtly, “we have a situation. You and your family will have to come with us, immediately.”

Frannie suddenly screamed and Ray spun on his heel in helpless anger, knowing damn well what had just happened. “Idiots!” he shouted, racing down the hall to her room. Dief started barking, coming to Fraser’s aid even as Ray shoved FBI agents out of his way and forced himself into his sister’s room, tossing men aside as he physically put himself between them and Frannie. She was sitting with the blankets clutched to her throat. He spun on his heel to glare at the morons who’d terrified her. “God damn. Son of a bitch...” He muttered darkly.

The door that connected Frannie’s room to Fraser’s suddenly swung open and Dief burst through ahead of Ben in his wheelchair. The wolf immediately took up position next to Ray, offering the agents a warning growl. The men who’d dared invade the two rooms so rudely were forced to backpedal rather quickly. Only one held his ground, pulling a weapon on Dief.

“Don’t even think about it, smart ass!” Ray warned him sharply, advancing on the man with nothing more than a pointed, angry finger and wishing to god Welsh hadn’t taken his weapon as well as his shield last week! ‘Course he still had his back-up weapon but, being down at his ankle, it wasn’t doing him a lot of good at the moment.

“Dief, no!” Ben commanded firmly from the connecting doorway. The wolf hesitated a moment, more for effect than disobedience, then sat beside Ray, still ready to spring into action if needed.

Damn, that was close, Ray thought. Concern for the wolf was immediately replaced by anger again as he heard his sister’s soft sobs. A glance confirmed that she had buried her face in her blanket wrapped knees and was crying softly.

“What’s going on here, Ray?” Ben asked the obvious question.

“I don’t know but I’m about to find out!” he snapped softly, advancing on Peel who’d appeared amongst his men. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, busting in here like this!” he raged, barely keeping himself from physically attacking the idiot!

“We don’t have time for this, Detective Vecchio. I’ve been ordered to move you and your family to a secure location--”

“--This is secure. Or it was,” he argued. “What’s suddenly changed?”

“Ouch!” someone in the hall exclaimed.

“Stupido!” Ma Vecchio suddenly made her presence known, spouting voluble and enraged Italian as she forced her way between the agents. Ray was not surprised to see her wielding a broom as a weapon. “Out of my way! Out of my way! Dona Maria! Mi fragilina bambina! Mi cara picola, Francesca!” She rushed into the room and directly to Frannie’s side.

Ray turned from the tableau they presented with barely leashed temper. “Start explaining,” he demanded softly, his tone brooking no argument. “Now!”

The agent glanced at Francesca uncomfortably but didn’t have time to mince words. “Muldoon is missing,” he answered bluntly.

“Missing?” Ray echoed in disbelief and glanced at Fraser in confusion. What the hell did they mean missing? “You mean ‘escaped’?” he exclaimed in dismay.

“The word at this time is missing,” the agent repeated, glancing again at the young woman in the bed who had glanced up at his words and gone even paler than before, if that were possible. “He wasn’t in his cell when they did the morning check. That doesn’t mean he’s--”

“--Escaped!” Vecchio snapped, unable to believe they were arguing semantics about it!

“The prison officials are not willing to admit that yet,” the agent rejoined firmly, “but it doesn’t matter. We’re not taking any chances. You and your family are to be moved immediately.”


“I cannot disclose that at this time.”

Ray glared at the man. It was a stock answer and one that he should have expected, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. Damn! He felt like someone had just pulled the rug out from under him! He glanced at Fraser in confusion. “Muldoon was in solitary confinement!” he exclaimed. “How the hell did he get out?!”

“We don’t know,” the agent answered. “Please, Mr. Vecchio, we need--”

“--Detective Vecchio,” Ray corrected him sharply. “And this whole thing stinks, Agent Peel. Stinks to high heaven!”

“I think we should seek confirmation, Ray,” Fraser interjected, eyeing the agents in the nylon vests warily. “This could be a trap.”

“A trap?” Agent Peel exclaimed in disbelief.

“Yes,” he answered calmly, ignoring the other’s tone and rolled eyes. “We know there is an agent, either in the FBI or the State department, who is working with Muldoon’s associates. Someone had to have tipped the shooter off as to where Stella Kowalski was being held last week. Given the fact that this someone has not been able to betray her location yet again, I’m led to believe he or she is likely a lower level agent who no longer has access to such information.”

“What about Paulatuuq and your sister?” Ray inserted, watching Agent Peel intently and itching to have his back up weapon in his hand.

“A second agent,” Ben decided. “There are always men in every organization who are susceptible to bribery. We would be foolish to decide that only one such man has been bought.”

“Oh god!” Peel exclaimed in frustration. “You’re even more paranoid than I am, and I’m paid to be paranoid!”

“Then you won’t mind providing that confirmation we’re talking about, will you?” Ray smiled nastily.

“Actually, I do mind. My orders said ‘immediately’, but fighting with you is only wasting more time. Exactly what do you want confirmed?” he demanded irritably. “That Muldoon is missing or that I’ve been ordered to move you before he decides to launch a LAWS rocket through your front window? Now that he’s out again, we think he may target you three directly.”

“Doubtful,” Ben rejoined stoically. “He’s in a position of power again and will more likely want to relish that feeling by continuing the game. As for confirmation, I think a call to either Lieutenant Welsh or Inspector Mitchell at the Consulate should suffice. I would assume they’d both be among the first informed, given who is being targeted.”

“Us,” Ray supplied. Ben merely nodded.

Agent Peel rolled his eyes, again. “Fine!” he sighed. “Call one of ‘em, but make it quick.” He then turned and waved another agent forward who’d brought a wheelchair for Frannie.

Ray frowned darkly and stepped in front of the chair, tossing another glare and silent order Peel’s way, even as he retrieved and dialed his cell. It took less than a minute to get the confirmation they needed from Welsh. He nodded grimily at Benny and then turned to regard his sister. She met his gaze and shook her head with a look of horror, reading the grim truth within his eyes and fighting to deny everything that was happening. He sighed and bowed his head. Damn Muldoon. Damn him and his games! This was the last thing his sister needed to deal with!

“Frannie...” he lifted his head and addressed her softly, gently. Getting her calmed down and keeping her there would be no simple task.

“No!” she choked out in a barely audible whisper, still shaking her head. A moment later, a violent shudder wracked her small frame, her eyes rolled back and she toppled to her side in a dead faint.

Ray glanced at the clock beside Ben’s bed and fought a sense of horrified amazement. It was only 8:16 am. The FBI had swept in, swept them up and dumped them in less than an hour. He spun on his heel and continued his pacing. “This is unacceptable, Fraser,” he decided, more than half muttering to himself. “This is totally unacceptable.”

Ben had to agree. If there was a mole within the local FBI Field Offices, then simply moving them to a safe-house had in no way improved their security. It may have, in fact, weakened it. Unfortunately, as far as the agents sent to relocate them were concerned, it was not a subject open to discussion.

“What can we do about it, Ray?” he asked with a frown.

“Not a damn thing,” he answered, irritably. That was the worst of it: Knowing the idiots had fucked up and not being able to do anything. He couldn’t even call anyone to complain. They’d confiscated his cell phone and the phone service at their new location had been purposely disconnected!

Ben reached down to gently message his right thigh. Just watching Ray pace was making his legs ache. Well, that and the rather precipitous trip across town. The UPS delivery truck they’d been swept into was not designed to transport recuperating patients. They had later been transferred to a handicap van before being taken to the safe-house, but even the few miles in the delivery truck was more than uncomfortable. Frannie had been heavily sedated, despite Ray’s initial protests, which in hindsight was just as well. They’d wanted to do the same to Ben until he pointed out that he was a Canadian citizen and promised them that doing so against his will would result in far more trouble than they wanted to think about. They hadn’t drugged him, but they had forced him to agree to be subject to their orders, regardless of his citizenship, while he was under their umbrella of protection. It was either that or be dumped at the Consulate.

Several arguments for why he should refuse had run through his head but in the end he’d agreed, with the stipulation that his agreement was contingent upon Inspector Mitchell’s approval and that his superior must be informed of what was happening. As a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he was subject to his superior’s dictates over those of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation in all matters. Agent Peel had merely rolled his eyes and informed Ben that Mitchell already knew what was going on, which was as he’d expected but Ben had needed the confirmation nonetheless. Given that Inspector Mitchell hadn’t ordered him brought back to the Consulate, Ben could assume he was expected to cooperate with the Americans. He could have, and should have, demanded to call Mitchell himself, but he didn’t want to risk being separated from the Vecchios. If Peel was lying then he’d pay for it when Ben reported the conversation to his superior. For now, he simply chose to believe Agent Peel.

“Damn it,” Ray muttered darkly, “I shoulda killed the bastard when I had the chance!”

Ben knew perfectly well he was talking about Muldoon. He frowned, then lifted his brows in confusion. “You were never in a position to kill him, Ray,” he pointed out, reviewing the man’s recapture in his mind. He on the other hand... He glanced down as he remembered Muldoon’s laughter, remembered the cold rage that had answered, remembered the sound of the safety on Ray’s gun as he clicked it off, the feel of the trigger beneath his finger... He closed his eyes, trying to banish the memory without success. “I’m the one who should have killed him when I had the chance, not you.”

“Oh, I had a chance, Benny,” Ray corrected him. He held up his hand, forefinger and thumb barely separated. “And I came this close to doing it. I made the mistake of dealing with an honest crook.”

“An honest crook?” Ben echoed, now more lost than ever.

Ray waved it off. “Yeah... we’re both too good for our own sakes. I shoulda crossed the line but I didn’t. You shoulda blown his head off but you didn’t. What I want to know is why is it it’s the ones we love that have to suffer for it, huh? They wanta come after me, fine. I’m ready for that. But attacking Frannie and Ma...” He shook his head. “No, man, I can’t take that. I should have killed him. I shoulda killed him!”

“Ray,” Ben interrupted his self-accusatory lament, “could haves, should haves and would haves serve no purpose but to weaken one’s defenses, usually at a time when they are needed the most. Recriminations are not helping either of us, or those we love.”

“Yeah, well, if Muldoon’s still alive when we get out of here, I just might change that ‘should have’ into a ‘done did!’” he exclaimed angrily.

Ben shook his head and glanced away, knowing they wouldn’t be allowed out of here until Muldoon was safely behind bars once again, and beyond Ray’s reach. It was best to change the subject. “How’s Francesca doing?” he asked. “Still sleeping?”

“Yeah,” he sighed irritably and plopped down in a chair, deciding he didn’t need to wear a path in the carpet the first day they were here. “She’s out like a light. Ma’s sitting with her.”

“I’d like to send Dief to her room as well, if you don’t mind,” Ben offered. The wolf sitting at his bedside suddenly perked up.

Ray offered a weary grin, reading the wolf’s body language. “Yeah, you’d like that wouldn’t you? What, you expect her to be sneaking treats to you when Fraser here ain’t looking?”

“He’ll control himself or he knows he’ll be put on a diet when this is all over,” Ben answered Ray while awarding the wolf a warning frown. Dief let out a much put upon whine and settled back down again. Ben glanced back up. “I’d feel much better knowing that your sister had a little extra protection at her side.”

“He’s got a broken leg, Benny! What the hell good is he going to do if someone comes breaking in here with Uzis and sub-machine guns?”

“I doubt Muldoon would waltz in here to merely initiate a blood bath. That’s hardly his style. As for Dief...” He glanced down at the animal again. “He was able to fend off the FBI agents at the house, Ray,” Ben reminded him. “At least for a short time. If Muldoon shows up, seconds might be crucial.”

“Yeah, well, if Muldoon shows up, it means the FBI sold us out. I doubt they’ll be in a hurry to come to our rescue.”

“They can’t all be bad.”

“Bad or incompetent,” Ray sighed, standing and going to the door, “what’s the difference? They won’t be helping us any. ...You wanta go see Frannie, Dief?” He opened the door and the wolf rose to hurry down the hall as quickly as his cast would permit. Ray closed the door again and leaned against it. “Happy?” he asked.

Ben answered with a nod and grunted as he tried to shift to a more comfortable position.

“Pain?” Ray asked, frowning at the bag of medicines that had been set on the night table and forgotten.

“Not really,” he answered, grimacing as he shifted again. He relaxed suddenly and blew out his breath as he finally settled. “That’s better.”

“Time for your meds?” Ray asked in concern, knowing the Mountie could be damn stubborn about such stuff if he wanted to be.

Ben frowned and shook his head, “Not till 10,” he answered. “I’m fine, Ray.”

“Yeah... as fine as anybody can be with two broken legs, huh?” He shook his head in disgust, knowing Fraser would never admit to being in pain. “So...” he sighed, “‘wonder if the TV is hooked up in the living room or if that’s forbidden along with the phones.”

Fraser ignored the sarcasm and worried the inside of his lip. He’d had a sudden thought when they were talking about Francesca. He wanted to ask Ray something, but now wasn’t the time.

Ray sighed heavily and pushed off from the door, only to grab hold of the knob. “Guess I’ll go find out. Want anything? Juice, tea...?”

“No. Thank you, Ray.”

Ray must have caught something of Ben’s pensive mood because he stopped and frowned. “You okay?”

Ben answered him with a hastily pasted on smile. “Of course, Ray,” he reassured him as naturally as he could, appearing slightly surprised and confused by the question. Ray frowned at him for another long moment but finally accepted the facade Fraser presented and shrugged. He nodded and headed out the door promising to be back shortly. Fraser told him not to hurry and offered a friendly little wave of parting and reassurance. As the door shut and he heard Ray move down the hall, the smile faded and he turned to stare unseeing at the water color pastoral scene that occupied a prominent place above the dresser. Why the thought had struck him just then he didn’t know, but the timing couldn’t be worst. He, stuck in a wheelchair; Francesca... Francesca was barely even speaking to him.

No, this definitely wasn’t the time to ask Ray for permission to court his sister.

"Okay," Welsh sighed and settled in the chair behind his desk, waving at Dewey to close the door to his office behind him, "...so, report time. Bring me up to date on the Vecchio, Kowalski and Fraser cases, and don't tell me stuff I already know like they've been thrown in protective custody. I wanta hear some progress here, Gentlemen."

Dewey took the lead. "A lot of what we found at Gibbler's is tying up loose strings for us elsewhere," he offered enthusiastically. "We've already got warrants out on five of Muldoon's men in the area and the FBI have even more that will be going nationwide."

"Besbriss is tackling some of the computer stuff that Vecchio started last week and linking it with Gibbler's books." Huey's addendum was a bit more subdued but no less positive. "The result is a gold mine of money laundering schemes from here to Beijing, China."

Welsh nodded pensively as he absorbed the information, but his interest was a bit closer to home. "What's the report from out at the prison?"

That effectively brought the two detectives back down to earth. "Still in lockdown mode, Sir," Huey answered. "They're combing over their video tapes and still trying to tell us he didn't escape. I'm betting a tape was switched with a previous day or something, but it'll take ‘em another day or so before they'll admit it."

"Inside job?"

"Ain't no way he got out of isolation without inside help," Huey shrugged. "Everyone's too busy protecting their own asses right now to start pointing fingers yet. The FBI jerked it outta our hands anyway and they aren't letting anyone near the place. Information sharing with the Feds is pretty much a one-way street."

"So what's new?" Welsh sighed heavily. He had dared hope that the new guy over at the FBI Field Offices might actually be competent at his job, but instead he was proving to be a paper pushing snob that made Ford look like the model of efficiency. "Any word on the street yet?"

"Too soon."

"What about Gibbler. Ballistics back yet?"

"Hollow tipped .38 mm. No match to the bullets that killed Sellton or Agent Clark."

"Naturally. Walking into someone's office with a high powered rifle when a .38 Special will do might be considered over-kill. And just a little bit conspicuous. What else do we got? Any leads on who our third hit man is?"

"Oh, yeah..." Huey nodded, pulling out a small notebook and flipping it open to the information he required. "Someone called 'The Collector'." He offered a shrug. "No other name yet and the FBI has nothing. At least, nothing they're sharing. Not much else on him. Gibbler pulled him in from Seattle. Probably someone they knew, maybe a strong arm guy they decided was ready for the big time. Something like that. Else the Feds would be more excited about him."

"Were the contracts pre-paid?"

"Nope," Huey shook his head and slapped the notebook closed, glad to be able to offer some good news. "He gave them money for 'operating expenses' but they were to collect for their efforts after each assignment was done. For instance, he paid out twenty-grand for that car bomb that missed Ray's ex two days after it went off."

"He wanted to scare her. This all fits with what Reyes told the Feds."

Huey frowned and shrugged. "Some of it does, some of it doesn't. Like the stuff about Timothy Roland. We got some real contradictions there, Sir."

Welsh waved it away. "Reyes just gave us a wild goose chase to protect himself from Gibbler." His phone rang and he reached for it with a frown. "Roland's nothing but a Muldoon groupie. ...Hello. Welsh."

She'd had enough. She'd had far more than enough. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate their efforts to protect her, but she felt like she was the one stuck in prison here while the idiot that was after her ran around free as a bird, doing whatever he pleased. If it wasn't for the fact that her boss had threatened to fire her if she so much as twitched, she would have told the FBI where to shove their all-mighty 'protection' and trusted to her own skills to protect herself! Hell, if she wasn't an ASA, the FBI would have dropped her protection the moment she'd even thought about violating their precious protocols!

And Ray... Damn, him! She was going to rip him a new asshole when next she saw him. Who the hell did he think he was? Her father?! She'd known the danger she was taking when she called him. She'd known the agents here would be pissed when they found out about it, which was inevitable when she returned the agent's cell phone. She was ready to take the heat for it. But nooooo... Ray had to go and make everything worse by reporting it to the Chicago Field Offices. The shit had rolled downhill before hitting the fan. The agents assigned to her case had been yanked and replaced by even more no-nonsense, by-the-book, shut-up-and-do-what-you're-told idiots! And it was all Ray's fault!

This whole mess could be pinned on Ray if she really thought about it. It was because of him that some idiot was out there trying to kill her in the first place! 'Of course, a part of her knew that blaming him for everything was wrong. He hadn't asked for any of this. But she was angry, and she didn't much care! She had to blame someone, and he was responsible for the even tighter leash the stupid FBI had put on her. It wasn't like he could hear any of the imprecations and accusations she silently tossed his way anyway, but damn it felt good to let off some steam... even if her overly-protective, doormat of an ex wasn't here to defend himself. Not that he would, of course. That was one of the reasons...

The knock at her bedroom door was a formality only as the agent outside stuck his head in even before she could call out an answer. He held out a cell phone to her. "A call for you, Ma'am," he said simply.

For her? What the hell did he mean there was a call for her! No one should know where she was. She wasn't allowed anywhere near a phone. And now they were telling her someone was calling her!?

She took the phone with a confused frown, "Hello?"

Ray sighed, hung up the phone and handed it back to the agent. "Thanks," he nodded and allowed himself to fall back across the bed, frowning up at the motel ceiling. After only five hours of being stuck in this dive, he was more then ready to leave it.

"They found him," the agent offered, watching Ray with a confused frown. He'd been briefed before he gave the phone over. "You don't seem very happy about it?"

Ray shrugged a shoulder, still staring at the water stained ceiling tiles. "I'm thrilled," he offered in a monotone. "Just tired." He closed his eyes.

In truth, he should be ecstatic over the information he'd just been given, but somehow he couldn't be. It was kinda more like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop or something... It couldn't be that easy. Nothing was ever that easy.

"Benny!" Ray surprised Ben as he burst into his room and came to a sudden halt. He looked like he'd been running, but he looked excited also. "They found him!" he announced without preamble. "In the steam tunnels under the prison somewhere. He's dead. He's dead, Benny!"

"Dead?" Ben didn't have to ask who Ray was talking about.

Ray nodded, clearly overjoyed by the information. "Somebody apparently didn't like him any more than we did. Preliminary report is that he was beaten to death. The other good news is that, according to the FBI and Duck Boys, none of the contracts out against us and our families was prepaid. With Muldoon and Gibbler both dead, his organization is tumbling like a house of cards. Once word gets out there's no one left to pay the hit men, the contracts will evaporate! The danger's over!" He closed his eyes and sighed. "It's over."

It seemed anti-climatic, somehow. All that stress and danger ending like that. Almost unreal, but it wasn’t. The FBI had even checked Muldoon’s dental records to be sure. Sitting at his desk in the bullpen three days later, thumbing through a copy of the file he’d finagled outta Huey and waiting for Vecchio and Cupp to show up, it was only now starting to feel real.

He glanced up as a pale yellow outfit caught his peripheral vision. Stella offered him a deadly glare as she swept through on her way to Welsh’s office. He ignored the fiery anger and merely smiled. She was alive, after all. And having her mad at him was nothing new. She’d given him a piece of her mind on his answering machine. Her words had been angry and resentful, but the sound of her voice had been music to his ears. Since then, she’d awarded him nothing but icy disdain, but even that didn’t faze him. He knew he’d done the right thing. She knew it too. She just wasn’t ready to admit it yet. Let her rant and rave. He knew it wouldn’t last. It took too much energy to stay that mad. Another day or two and everything would be back to normal.

Well... almost.

He glanced at the announcements board beside the west door and Frannie’s picture there, with her little angel pin and the get-well cards tacked up around it. And he remembered Fraser tucked into the rented hospital bed at the Vecchio house. Nah, not quite normal, but they were getting there. It was like Fraser had quoted, ‘That which does not kill me, makes me stronger’. Kowalski wasn’t sure he agreed with the sentiment, but Fraser was right in that they had survived and would recover. Life went on.

“Hey!” Vecchio greeted him happily as he turned the corner and joined his partner at their desks. He was still on cloud nine over everything and even the three and a half weeks of Administrative Probation and desk duty he had to look forward to couldn’t dim his smile. “You’re early. What you looking at?”

“The report on Muldoon. The FBI is handling his murder but Huey snuck me a copy of the final findings before we handed it over. Says he was sexually assaulted before being beaten to death.”

“Good!” Ray sighed, flopping down into his chair. “As far as I’m concerned, whoever killed the bastard should get a medal. So,” he changed the subject and glanced over his desk at the large stack of files that awaited his perusal, “who’d you pull to ride shotgun with today?”

“Cupp,” Kowalski answered. “Her partner broke her leg and is off it for the next month or so. Welsh decided the timing was about right and paired us up.”

Vecchio nodded. “Gretchen’s cool,” he decided. “But she has seniority.”

“Welsh told me,” Kowalski answered and shrugged. “I told him that if I could work with you, I could work with anyone. He agreed.”

“Har har,” Vecchio offered sarcastically and picked up a plain white envelope addressed to him. He dismissed a momentary shudder of unease as he noted the lack of a return address. It looked nothing like the threats that they’d all received from Muldoon, being smaller and hand written, as well as white. It was probably just a welcome back note or get well soon type thing from some of the gang. He was proven right a moment later. A simple sympathy card slid out and he flipped it open as he heard Kowalski call across the bullpen to Cupp as she came in.

I had a sister, too He frowned at it for a long moment. There was no signature, no uplifting message or rhyme. Just the rather obscure...

He suddenly recognized the handwriting.

“What?” Kowalski asked, noting his sudden shock.

Vecchio blinked and frowned sharply again as he focused once more on the note. “Nothing,” he decided, and closed it, slipping it back into it’s envelope.

“Sure?” Kowalski asked.

Vecchio nodded and slipped it into an inside coat pocket. It was evidence, he knew, but only to him. That was the whole point after all. Ray would know what was meant but otherwise... it was nothing. Less than nothing. There’d be no way to trace it back to him, except the handwriting, but that was hardly an exact science. No one could use it to prove anything. They’d need a hell of a lot more evidence before he could even think about pointing fingers. And frankly, he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“Cupp! Kowalski!” Welsh appeared at his door. “My office! Now!”

The two in question exchanged glances. “Lunch says it’s the Mandela case,” Gretchen guessed.

“Torellis,” Ray answered with a smirk. “I was expecting Stella to start screaming about it yesterday.”

“You’re on,” she rejoined, leading the way and calling over her shoulder. “I hope you like Mexican.”

“I hope you like Sloppy Joes!”

Vecchio grinned as he watched the two of them disappear into Welsh’s office. The envelope in his inside pocket seemed heavier than it was. Damn, but he never expected anything like this. The stack of files on his desk intercepted his gaze and with a sigh he turn to them. Three and a half weeks of sitting a desk, making phone calls, tracking down change of addresses and pushing out bench warrants. He could do this. He could do it with a smile. The sonofabitch who’d attacked his sister and all but destroyed her was dead.

And apparently, of all people, he had Frankie Zuko to thank for it...

The End

To Be Continued in Games People Play #3: Twister