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

Note to the Readers: NC-17 for *EXTREMELY DISTURBING CONTENT!* Dark, dark and more dark. Stygian dark. Take these warnings seriously. This started out as a simple little thing in answer to a fellow list-sib's cry for fic on a particularly slow day. I'd never done any posting in progress before and it quickly took on a life of its own. It became a personal exploration of my own limits and writing abilities, of exactly what 'dark' is and challenging myself to actually 'go for it', don't pull the punches, don't chicken out: Dive in and hit rock bottom with the very worst I could come up with. It was quite frightening. It was also quite fascinating. I had readers post me off-list telling me they couldn't read it and one even claimed I'd made her throw up: It was meant as a compliment. I'm not saying any of this to scare you off, but I don't want anyone reading it without some idea of what they're getting into. If you don't like dark fic, turn aside now. For those with the fortitude to continue -- don't say I didn't warn you! Oh, and if all goes as planned, this will be the rock-bottom start of a series called 'The Games People Play'. At least one sequel is planned. I have to wonder how many people will still be with me for fic two? A very special TYK to Voyagerbabe, bouncing board and shadow maker extrodinaire, and Melanie for a great beta job!
Spoilers: This is set post Call of the Wild, so everything goes, particularly BITH, H&E, MSTB, and COTW. Feedback is always welcome. 'Thank you kindly!'

due SOUTH:
Playing Hardball

By: Janice R. Sager
E-Mail Me

The envelope slipped from his trembling hands to the precinct’s floor, spilling the graphic and horrifying pictures of Frannie chained to a bed and a note that fluttered to lie on top: "I'm teaching your sister to play hardball -- want to join the game? Muldoon." He stared at the message as if a hole might open in the floor and swallow it, proving this all to be a terrifying dream.

It didn't.

He couldn't even bring his eyes into proper focus when the silhouette of a Stetson intervened as Ben bent to retrieve the items. He saw others moving in his periphery, bending to pick up the scattered photos. Huey made some quip about his clumsiness. Ray didn't hear it. Nor did he hear the shocked gasps as his friends and colleagues got a look at exactly what he'd dropped. His ears were roaring and his vision was a kaleidoscope of color as oblivion threatened to claim him. He prayed it would! Maybe when he woke he'd discover he'd been in an accident and it was all a drug induced nightmare--

His world was jolted as Fraser directed him into a chair. People were talking, asking questions, gathering around in concern and support-- Was that Welsh he heard yelling? The words were incomprehensible. This simply had to be a nightmare.

//"If you want to play hardball with the Iguana family, you better have hard balls. You still in the game?"//

Muldoon was supposed to be in prison serving 300 years plus life with no chance of parole. How the hell had the bastard escaped? Why hadn't they been told? How the hell had he gotten his hands on Frannie--

My God, Frannie!

He focused his eyes enough to reach out and jerk a picture from the nearest set of disembodied hands. It was Frannie. God, it was Frannie!

"Ray?" Welsh asked after the other man had snatched the picture from his hands. There was no response. Ray merely sat staring at the picture as if it might change if he merely willed it strongly enough.

Fraser shook his head where he stood with his hand on Ray's shoulder. "He's in shock," he diagnosed easily. He fought to suppress his own horror enough to think. Time could be of the essence. "There's no postmark on the envelope. Did anyone see who delivered it?"

Ray's head snapped up as the question penetrated. His gaze was both demanding and desperate as he scanned the faces of those gathered around him. They looked at each other helplessly, fighting to remember--

"Drop 'em!" Ray ordered harshly, his voice sounding as if it had been put through his mother's meat grinder. A couple people frowned and leaned forward to catch the words. "Drop 'em!!!" he repeated at a near shout. "There may be fingerprints! Get a-- get a-- get a team up here!"

Fraser had to jerk Ray back into the chair as his friends and co-workers failed to instantly drop the evidence. Welsh took quick control, yelling for a forensics team and ordering the photographs carefully deposited onto the corner of Huey's desk.

"I think Lys put it there," Dewey spoke up, naming the newest civilian aide. "I saw her doing her rounds earlier."

"Find her!" Welsh ordered. "And the desk sergeant. Maybe one of them saw who brought it in."

Ray dropped his head into his hands and fought to bring his chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order. He had to think if he was going to help his sister. He had to think if he was going to ‘play the game’.

God, he felt as if he'd been gutted! He'd lived the last several months looking over his shoulder, waiting for the Iguana family to come gunning for him when he refused to go into the Witness Protection Program. They hadn't, and he'd finally begun to believe that they weren't going to. Despite two years of his life spent digging the dirt, the case he helped build against the mob family was pretty much a shambles. The FBI had moved too slowly after his cover was blown and the arrests were improperly handled. Most of those Ray could testify against would walk because of technicalities. Some had disappeared and others had turned up with a hole in the back of the head.

He'd never expected this....

He finally became aware of Fraser standing beside him, and the quiet support in the hand that gripped his shoulder just a bit too tightly. The others had dispersed at Welsh's order, returning to work even as they fought to think of anything that might help.

"I saw Frannie this morning at breakfast," Ray heard himself offer, thinking aloud as he glanced at the clock. It was six-fifteen. Had it really been only fifteen minutes since he and Fraser had entered the bullpen to grab his coat and drop off his notes, ready to call it a day?

"She usually shows up for work at ten, doesn't she?" Huey asked, hooking a chair with his foot and dragging it over to straddle it. Welsh took up a position behind him.

"Friday is her day off," Ray answered in a monotone. "She was going to--going.... I have no idea what she was going to do! I can't remember!"

"Easy, easy Ray!" Welsh calmed the suddenly distraught man as he came close to snapping again. "Are you sure she even told you? Frannie doesn't strike me as the type to really plan her days off. Your mother or Maria will probably know anything she had on tap anyway."

Oh God-- "Ma?" he whispered, glancing upward to Fraser in sudden panic.

Ben read the look easily. "I seriously doubt Muldoon would have been able to take your whole family, Ray. There would have been pictures of them as well if he had."

"Yeah, yeah--" Ray frowned and forced himself to nod, latching onto the fact that only Frannie had been in the half dozen or so pictures. His eyes darted to the corner of Huey's desk, seeking those pictures of a battered and terrified sister who was at least alive when they were taken.

Fraser grabbed another folder and plopped it down atop the pictures, hiding them from Ray's view. Ray glanced up at the Mountie, not sure wether he should be angry or grateful--

"We'll have to go over them later, Ray, after they're properly bagged and protected." It was obvious that he was almost as disturbed by the thought as Ray was. "There may be clues as to her whereabouts in them, but right now we have to think. It has been only a matter of hours since Francesca was taken. We need to trace her movements this morning while there's yet a chance it will lead us to her."

"Ma..." Ray repeated and closed his eyes. How in hell was he going to tell Ma about this?

Kowalski nearly dropped the mug. As it was, he sloshed hot coffee across his hand, causing him to deposit it rather forcefully upon the kitchen counter top. He winced and shook his hand quickly, allowing the self-generated breeze to cool his abused flesh as his concentrated on more important matters.

"Muldoon?" he voiced his surprise into the phone. "The psychopath who tried to sell a nuclear submarine Muldoon? He's out?"

"Escaped," Welsh repeated. Ray heard him offer a frustrated sigh before he dropped the bombshell. "There's no easy way to say this: He has Frannie."

It was a good thing he'd set the coffee down, Kowalski thought, as he felt himself go suddenly numb. "Oh shit!" he whispered.

"We think he took her sometime this morning. Vecchio, Fraser and the Duck Boys are on their way over to Ray's house now to try and track her. I want you to meet 'em there. There's no way I can keep Ray outta this one but he is waaaaay too close. I need you to help Big Red keep a handle on him. He could well lose it. The bastard sent pictures."


"Rape," the other man answered curtly. "Torture. He didn't waste any time working her over. At least she was alive when they were taken."

Kowalski closed his eyes and let his head fall back. His imagination was far too vivid for his own good. Frannie--

"The guy's messing with Ray's head," Welsh continued, his voice taking on a hard edge that Kowalski had only heard once or twice before. "He wants revenge and he's making it somekinda game. We're going to catch this bastard if it's the last thing I do -- but I don't want to see one of my men go down for murder in the process. You got me, Kowalski?"

"You think Ray will lose it?"

There was an unamused snort on the other end of the line. "I think even Fraser will be tempted," Welsh answered coldly. "You ain't seen the pictures yet."

Kowalski's grip on the phone became white knuckled.

"Get over there and make sure Vecchio doesn't do anything stupid. And don't you do anything stupid either!"

"I am the epitome of professionalism, Sir," he answered crisply. Of course that didn't mean he wouldn't shoot the son-of-a-bitch himself if given the slightest excuse! Muldoon had better pray he was unarmed and that Frannie was alive when they found them, or he and Vecchio would likely find an excuse! "I'm on my way!"

"Ma!" Ray shouted as he entered the house, slamming the door open in his unconscious haste. Logic and Fraser's assurances notwithstanding, there was a very real part of Ray that was terrified he'd find his family lying littered throughout the house like so much garbage. They were dealing with the same bastard who'd gunned down Benny's mother twenty-odd years ago in cold blood!

"Raymundo?" his mother's confused and surprised voice drifted to him from the kitchen. She followed it a moment later, a dish towel in her hands. "What is this with the banging of the doors and--"

One glance at her son's pale face was enough to bring her hand to her throat in instinctive fear and freeze the chastisement on her lips. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. A glance at Benton, moving quickly to join his friend, did nothing to relieve that fear.

"Where's Maria?"

"Right here, Ray," his sister called from the stairway as she hurried downward. "What's going on here? Why you slamming doors and shouting?"

"Tony and the kids?" Ray demanded urgently as his older sister joined his mother.

"Getting ready for dinner," Maria answered, fighting back her own fear as she suddenly caught Ray's sense of near panic. She glanced at Ben and the two other men who'd followed Ray inside. She didn't know their names but she recognized them. They worked with Ray. All their faces were grim. "Frannie's still out somewhere," she volunteered, wondering what kind of emergency was about to befall their household now.

Ray's reaction to Frannie's name, closing his eyes and bowing his head, was enough to make his mother gasp out a quick prayer and cross herself. Maria reached out to steady her even as she felt the blood leave her own face. "My God, Ray--"

"She's alive," he told them bluntly, his head snapping back up to give them the assurance, more assurance than perhaps he should, certainly more than he himself possessed. "She's been kidnaped. We know who did it. We just have to find them. Did Frannie tell either of you what she was going to do today? Shopping? A friend's house? Anything?"

"She called about ten to say her car was acting up," Maria answered, paling even more suddenly. "She said she was going to take it to Al's but then -- something happened. Her voice got funny and she said she had to go. I thought maybe she had to pull over or something! God Ray, you don't think--"

Ray and Ben exchanged grim looks. "Muldoon," they agreed simultaneously.

"He took her from the car," Ray decided.

"Did Francesca say anything else before she hung up or before she left the house?" Fraser asked with a frown of concentration. "Do you know where she was calling from?"

"She was using her cell phone and I assumed she was calling from the car..." Maria answered, fighting to remember the short conversation.

"She was going to drop off some used clothes to the church," Ma spoke up hastily, clutching a rosary she'd pulled from somewhere. "Things that the children had outgrown but that others might have need of."

"She was going to stop at Angie's first," Tony volunteered from the doorway of the living room. "I helped her carry the boxes out. 'Said Ang had some stuff to donate too."

"Angie?" Ray echoed in confusion, knowing Frannie would never have anything to do with his ex-wife.

"Tanya Reed," Ma offered. "She sings in the choir. Frannie calls her 'Angie'. I'm not sure why. I think it may be her middle name."

"She lives over on Butler," Maria said.

Ray was nodding. "I dropped her over there last week for something or other," he explained, knowing exactly where the other woman lived.

"When did she leave here?" Huey spoke up for the first time, glancing up from the notes he was taking.

" 'Bout nine or so," Tony decided. "A little before. I caught the end of Jerry Springer after I came in."

Ray glanced over his shoulder to the others. "It doesn't take an hour to get from here to Butler."

"So she was probably en route from Angie's to the church when he grabbed her?" Dewey followed his logic.

"Unless she'd already left the church and was heading somewhere else," Huey hypothesized.

"Frannie isn't that fast," Ray shook his head. "She'd gab with her friend before taking off again."

"Yeah but what route would she take from Butler to the church?" Dewey asked. "You go to St. Michael's, right?"

"She was on the expressway!" Maria suddenly exclaimed. "I heard the traffic in the background! You don't go that fast anywhere else at ten in the morning!"

"Yes!" Ray nodded, grateful for Maria's memory. It was the kind of break they needed. "Call Highway Patrol. See if anyone found an abandoned--"

"I'm all over that, Vecchio!" Kowalski surprised Ray by calling out. He stood behind the Duck Boys dialing his cell. He offered no explanation for how or when he'd arrived, merely concentrated on getting the info they needed as he spun on his heel and lead the way back out of the house.

Vecchio paused to reassure his family. "We'll find her, Ma," he promised the older woman solemnly, before turning to join the others. "Don't let anyone outta the house today!" he called back over his shoulder as he caught up with Huey at the door. "Get someone over here to protect them now," he ordered in an undertone. The other detective nodded and dug out his own cell as Vecchio sprinted to catch up with Kowalski, Fraser following both like a red shadow.

"Yeah, that's it. Get Forensics over there yesterday. Girl was kidnapped from it this morning," Kowalski told whomever was on the other end of the phone as he whipped the door of the GTO open. "We're on our way over to take our own look. Be expecting us."

He paused to listen a long moment and glance at his two shadows before swinging himself into the driver's seat. "Don't go giving me any hassles you paper pushing twerp!" he snapped irritably. "Her brother's a cop and will be with us. We don't need no damn warrant!"

He snapped the cell closed. "Idiot," he muttered and turned back to Ray and Ben as Huey and Dewey hurried down the walkway. "Well, get in already! Her car was towed to the impound yard on Dijong Street. Pitter-patter, let's get at ‘er!"

Vecchio frowned and gave his stupid ‘74 Mustang a glare... and silently cursed his insurance company. God he missed the Riv.

"That thing's a gas pig, Vecchio, and you're not driving anyways: Welsh's orders," Kowalski called out his window. "Get in before I decide to let you drive over with the Duck Boys."

A glance at the Ford Escort Huey drove sent a shudder of distaste through Vecchio. Kowalski may have cremated the Riv, but at least the guy could appreciate a good car! The blond detective didn't have to argue further. Ray quickly skipped around the side of the GTO and climbed in the front. Kowalski was moving even before Ray got his seat belt in hand.

"The car's not going to tell us much of anything," the Italian realized belatedly, bracing himself as Kowalski did a quick U-turn in front of his place. He was a bit surprised when Fraser made no comment. "Fingerprints, hair samples...so what! The guy's not trying to hide that he did it! It's a good bet that Muldoon sabotaged Frannie's car but what does that tell us? That he planned this? I already know that!"

"How he sabotaged it may lead us to him, Ray," Fraser offered as he leaned forward and braced himself against the back seat between them. "Serial bombers and arsonists are often traced through the remains of the devices they use."

"Right, and how do we trace him if he simply drained her radiator or oil pan?" Vecchio wanted to know.

"That would have taken time and one of your neighbors would have noted it."

"Neighbors!" Ray snapped his fingers and quickly dug out his own cell phone. "We need to get someone canvassing my neighborhood. Frannie's car was fine yesterday. He musta done something to it last night. One of them may have seen something! We don't need Huey and Dewey underfoot at the impound yard anyway. Hello, Dispatch?"

It was just starting to get dark ten minutes later when they arrived at the impound yard. The night watchman checked their IDs before opening the gate and letting them into the lot. It was a simple, bare piece of ground, like so many others the city had rented. This one was overseen by ‘Marybeth's Towing Service and Auto Repair'. The proprietress, Miss Marybeth Weber herself, was waiting at the office door and signaled someone inside to hit the lights as they exited the GTO.

"This way, gentlemen," she waved them after her and quickly headed around the back of the old cinder block building that housed her offices. "You're lucky you caught me. I was about to hand over to Magsy. She's new and wouldn't have known what to do cause you ain't going through channels and everything. You said something about a kidnaping?"

"My sister," Vecchio answered curtly, glaring at the muddy, greasy puddles caused by last night's rains even as he hurried through them. He refused to think what they were doing to his Italian leather shoes! "Any idea what made her break down?"

"I haven't taken a look yet," the younger woman answered, punctuating her words with a loud crack of her gum as she lead them forward. "Any number of things could do it. Weird to find her on the freeway like that though, don't you think? I mean, if it were planned and all. Guess she coulda just had bad luck and the wrong kinda guy stopped to help her, you know?"

"We know who did it," Vecchio explained coldly as they finally rounded the building and came to a large chain link gate that had to be opened. "It was planned."

"Sounds nasty," Miss Weber offered, swinging the gate open. Fraser stepped forward to help with the awkward process and she gave him a bright smile even as she lifted a brow at his uniform. "Expressway's still weird though," she continued, leading the way forward again. "You'd think someone would chose someplace more isolated. ‘Course it matters what he did to her car. Sugar in the gas tank can't be timed like, you know."

"Sugar in a gas tank would be the farthest thing from this guy's head," Kowalski offered.

Miss Weber offered a noncommittal snort and stumbled slightly as Vecchio all but shoved her aside to get to the little Cavalier that he'd recognized as Frannie's.

"Actually the expressway makes perfect sense as an abduction site," Fraser offered as he shadowed Kowalski to the front of the little sedan, waiting for Ray to pop the hood. "The witnesses are moving too quickly to see anything."

"Yeah but the Highway Patrol could happen by at anytime," Kowalski frowned, searching for the hood release as Ray finally popped the inside latch. "Seems risky to me."

"There would always be an element of risk involved; but an expressway abduction, if planned and timed correctly, would be safer for Muldoon than, say, attempting to take her at the church or in a residential neighborhood where the witnesses are more likely to pay attention."

"Just another breakdown, huh?"


The two men frowned as they lifted the hood open and peered into the engine compartment. Miss Weber joined them and produced a flashlight, swinging it slowly about the shadowed interior.

"Here we go!" she announced, bringing the beam of light to a sudden halt on a rather new looking component that had been attached to the alternator. "Some kinda kill switch," she decided, leaning further inside. "It's attached to the battery too."

Fraser reached forward and stopped her from touching it. "A simple electrical switch, radio controlled. Forensics may be able to trace part numbers to the stores where they were purchased."

"Yeah, well, I don't think Muldoon went around to the corner Radio Shack to get his supplies," Kowalski muttered as he straightened and stretched his back.

"If he paid by check or credit card it may be possible to get an address."

Kowalski offered an unamused snort. "Even if he paid by check or card, he'd never use his real address. I don't think Muldoon's that stupid, Fraser."

"Neither do I, Ray," Ben agreed as he too straightened, "but it would be a starting point."

Kowalski slammed the hood shut as Vecchio joined them. "Nothing," the wiry Italian told them, a look of weary hopelessness settling about his shoulders. "Purse and cell are gone but there's no sign of a struggle, and certainly no dropped matchbook or anything from Muldoon."

There was a honk from up front and all four glanced over their shoulders. "Must be your forensics people," Miss Weber decided. "I called them like you said."

"You can let ‘em in. We're done here," Vecchio declared with a defeated sigh.

"They may find something we missed, Ray," Fraser tried to reassure him. Ray nodded, choosing to let Fraser reassure him but not really believing a word he said.

"Yeah," Miss Weber offered helpfully with a worried frown for the other man. "I've seen these guys strip a car to nuts and bolts to find a few grains of spilled cocaine before. It's amazing what they can do."

Ray was quite aware of what Forensics was capable of but managed to bite his tongue and not snap the sympathetic woman's head off. The three men nodded and Fraser spoke, "Thank you for your help, Miss Weber."

"Good luck finding your sister," she offered and patted Ray on the shoulder before turning on her heel to sprint back to the front gate where the forensics team waited. The three friends followed more slowly. She stopped suddenly about twenty feet away under a bright light and spun back toward them. "Which one of you is Kowalski?" she called back to them.

The blond detective frowned but waved his hand. "Me, why?" he called back.

"I ain't no paper pushing twerp, you flatfoot!" she called back jokingly and spun away once more.

A rather embarrassed little grin tugged at Kowalski's mouth. She'd told him!

"What do we do now?" Vecchio asked after a moment, jamming his hands into his pockets. "Check out the photos?" It was not a task he was looking forward to.

"And see if the Duck Boys learned anything from the neighbors," Kowalski added.

Vecchio's cell phone interrupted with an insistent clammer. The group came to a momentary halt as he dug it out of an inside pocket and flipped it open. "Vecchio!" he announced curtly.


His face went suddenly pale and he gasped. "Frannie?" Kowalski and Fraser froze for a second and then Kowalski stepped away, digging out his cell and dialing frantically, hoping to get a trace.

Muldoon's voice replaced the terror-filled tones of Ray's sister. "Just wanted to let you know she's still alive, Vecchio; but you're missing all the fun. I'm having a little party with some friends of mine. Your sister makes a damn fine whore, nice and tight. They're having a ball fucking her brains out."

Ray's vision tunneled and his hand threatened to crush the phone. "It's me you want you sick bastard. Come get me! Only a coward would attack my family!"

Muldoon laughed. "Attacking you directly would be no fun, Vecchio. I don't want to see you dead. I want to see you suffer! Besides, your sister is a much better ride. Tell your friend 'Ben-ton' that his sister is on my list too."

He heard Frannie scream in the background.

"Sweet dreams, Armando," Muldoon hissed and the connection went dead.

Ray dropped the phone to his side and glanced in desperation at Kowalski, though he knew the call hadn't been nearly long enough. Kowalski gave a soft curse and slapped his phone closed. He met Vecchio's haunted eyes and shook his head. Vecchio felt himself sway and couldn't help it. Ben and Kowalski both reached out to steady him in concern.

"Gang rape," his managed to explain in a hoarse whisper. "They're having a party."

"He's playing with your head!" Kowalski interjected. "There's probably not even a party! Just a tape or something. He's not going to risk killing her. She's worth nothing to him dead."

Vecchio closed his eyes. He wasn't going to argue with Kowalski but he knew it was no recording.

"What does he want?" Ben asked from his other side. "Did he say?"

"Revenge," Vecchio answered in a dead monotone as the pictures he'd received earlier swam before his mind's eye, now joined with the sounds and images of her being viciously violated by others while her captor taunted him. "He wants me to suffer. Us to suffer," he corrected the thought quietly. "Your sister's next."

He closed his eyes and lifted his face to the stars hidden in the glaring lights of the impound yard. His heart screamed to the heavens, but only a single tear escaped to trace down his cheek.

Ben and Kowalski exchanged worried glances as Vecchio closed his eyes and shoved the pictures away. "I can't do this!" his whispered hoarsely. "I just can't."

"It's all right, Ray," Ben assured him. "We understand."

Bright green eyes sought blue-gray. The emerald depths shouted their pain and desperation in a mask of weariness. "You do it, Benny," he said quietly, pinning all his hopes on his red clad friend. "I've seen you track Dief across town and hear a kidnaping. Find something in these--" He gestured at the pictures they had systematically spread out upon the table top, unable to come up with a sufficiently crude name for what they depicted.

What they depicted was his sister. He thought he'd been prepared to view them again, thought he had his professional wits in place so he could search them for the clues they needed to find her, thought he could pretend Frannie was nothing more than a nameless victim....

But he couldn't do it.

The mask had crumbled all too quickly and he'd been forced to turn away, swallowing the gorge that rose in his throat. God, she must look even worse now, he knew, and shuddered at the thought. Kowalski had said that Muldoon wouldn't risk killing her, but Ray knew that's exactly what he planned to do. Slowly. And he'd make sure Ray knew about every agonizing moment of it.

The game was only hours old yet and Muldoon had already scored several points against his enemy.

Ben squeezed Ray's shoulder and nodded, accepting the incredible burden of hope and trust his friend had thrust upon him. He found the pictures almost as disturbing for him as they were for Ray. Francesca was his friend, a very good friend. If it weren't for Ray, she might have been more than a friend. He was no more capable of viewing this evidence of her pain and degradation dispassionately than the other two men. Kowalski had spun away when he first viewed them, despite their warnings, and issued some rather profane invective for the absent Muldoon. He stood behind Vecchio now, forcing himself to view the photos at a distance and working up the courage for the closer look required.

All three knew that forensics had failed to find anything, either in or on them, with the exceptionof a drop of spaghetti sauce on the envelope, suggesting someone like pizza. There'd been prints, as well, but there was no match for them in the criminal or military databases: Probably some kid off the street. Questioning the desk sergeant and Lys, the new civilian aide, had come up empty -- as had the canvassing of Ray's neighborhood. No one had seen or heard anything. Others were still tracking down Muldoon's known associates in the area but, unless Frannie's car turned up something, it was looking like the pictures were the only clue they had.

Ben turned from his friends and bent over the first photograph, ignoring Francesca and studying everything else. He knew her life depended on how well he was able to shut out his feelings for her.

He glanced at the second and the third. There were seven in total, taken from different angles and, he realized, at different times. There was a progression in the -- injuries. Forcing his hands to remain steady, he deftly rearranged them in chronological order.

"Her wrists are secured by handcuffs to an old brass bed," he commented aloud, partly to keep his thoughts focused and partly in the hope that something he said might trigger a question or comment from either of the Rays that would lead to finding something forensics had missed. He found himself speaking in a rather clipped manner, but it was the only way he could maintain his objectivity. "Headboard, no footboard. Queen size. Sheets are plain, white cotton. The mattress sags."

"Sounds like something from a third rate hotel," Kowalski offered, frowning at the photos but still keeping his distance.

Ben shook his head. "It's not bolted to the wall," he continued, "and Ray said he heard her scream when Muldoon called. They must have dispensed with the gag."

"So--the room's gotta be sound proof?" Kowalski carried the thought one step further.

"Or in an area where a scream wouldn't matter," Vecchio added.

"Or both," Ben allowed. He bent even closer to one photograph. "The walls are painted cement and probably very thick." He glanced at Ray. "Did you hear an echo when you heard her scream?"

Ray closed his eyes and leaned his head back, forcing himself to remember his conversation with Muldoon in detail. "No," he answered, wondering what Fraser was onto but afraid to let himself hope. "Why?"

"I would guess the room to be quite a bit larger than the limited view we are given here would indicate," he offered. "See these shadows here?" He pointed to a series of diagonal shadows that ranged across the wall behind the bed in most of the pictures.

Vecchio merely sighed and bowed his head, unable to look at what Fraser indicated. Kowalski however leaned slightly forward. "Yeah, so?" the blond detective asked.

"They're diffuse, indicating distance. An object that was close would cast a much sharper shadow. And see how they move?" He again pointed out the observation.

"A window!" Kowalski jumped to the obvious conclusion.

"More likely a skylight," Fraser corrected him, "given the time of day they were taken and the angle of the sun. The building must be at least two stories, and this wall runs north and south."

"So, we're talking a warehouse with cement walls facing a -- what do you call it -- a cardinal direction here or something, right?" Kowalski asked with a frown.

"Warehouses don't paint their interior walls," Vecchio sighed in frustration, his face buried in his hands, blocking out the sight of the pictures as he wrestled with everything Fraser had found.

"What other kinda building has thick cement walls, a room that's two stories high or higher, and a skylight?" Kowalski asked.

Vecchio dropped his hands a glared at both men. "An abandoned gym? An old school? A building site?" he offered angrily.

"Building sites are too busy and I don't know of no abandoned gyms or schools," Kowalski retorted, "but we can run it by Lys."

"Fine, it's a warehouse!" the Italian shouted. "Do you have any freaking idea how many warehouses there are in the greater Chicago area?!"

"Hey!" Kowalski got in his face. "It's more than we knew an hour ago! Fraze--" He turned back to Ben with a patient frown and calm voice. "Anything else in those pictures?"

Ben sighed in frustration and straightened, frowning down on them. There was actually very little in the photos to work with: Francesca, the bed and the wall. That was it. He shook his head.

"What about the bed?" Kowalski asked. "Assuming this is a warehouse, where'd he get it? How'd he get it there? You said it was old right?"

Fraser nodded, frowning at the pictures yet again.

"So maybe he got it from a thrift store or the Salvation Army or something," Kowalski offered.

"Maybe he got it from the dump!" Ray snapped irritably. "So what!?"

"So he had to transport it somehow!" Kowalski answered. "Maybe whoever sold it to him got a look at the truck or whatever? I don't know! Even if we don't have a license plate, we find a truck matching the description near an empty warehouse...."

"He probably had a friend pick it up and deliver it," Ray groused, finding the lure of hope too painful.

"Yeah and the Duck Boys are checking on his known friends now," Kowalski added. "We find one with a truck to match, and we have a direct lead to where ever Muldoon is! Either way, we find Frannie!"

Ray's eyes snapped up as he wrestled with Kowalski's logic, hope actually touching him for the first time in hours. He glanced at Fraser.

Ben too was wrestling with it as he gazed at the photos. "The headboard is old and badly dinged up but not dirty. The sheets also are worn but clean. Muldoon didn't get it at the dump," he decided. "It is unlikely it was already at the warehouse. It is also possible that he borrowed it from an associate but I doubt his friends are that poor..." He glanced up and nodded. "It's worth checking out."

Ray suddenly stood, shoving his chair back with a loud screech as adrenaline answered his need. "So let's check it out," he decided curtly.

Fraser frowned unhappily and glanced at the large clock on the wall. Ray followed his gaze and suddenly sagged: Midnight. "Damn it!" he hissed and kicked his chair, sending it crashing across the room. There was nothing to check. None of the places were going to be open for several hours. All they could do was wait -- an imagine what horror Frannie was going through.

Muldoon had scored yet another point in his game.

Ray leaned an elbow against his desk and ran a hand wearily over his close shorn pate. "No, Ma," he sighed. "We've got a couple leads to check out but they gotta wait 'til morning."

Kowalski leaned against Huey's desk watching his weary partner while Fraser sat in the interview chair beside his desk staring at the floor and wracking his brains for anything further they could do. The rest of the bullpen's denizens kept a respectful distance from the somber trio as the precinct went about the necessary duties of a police station at one o'clock on a Saturday morning.

"No, Ma, he doesn't want her dead," Ray assured the distraught woman, adding a silent ‘not yet' and asking God's forgiveness for lying to his mother. "He let me talk to her, remember? It's me he wants, not Frannie. --I know, Ma. Kowalski and Fraser are sitting right here with me. Everyone is working overtime on this one. Even Welsh is still here." He glanced up toward the Lieutenant's office as though assuring himself of the fact. The lieutenant was still stretched out on the narrow couch snoring as he waited for any further breaks to come in on the case. "We'll find her, Ma," Ray promised solemnly, and sighed again as he bowed his head once more. "Um, I gotta go. I'll call you as soon as we learn anything. --Yeah, I promise. You get some rest too."

Ben glanced up and watched in silence as Ray finished his call. There was a lot he hadn't told his family, but Ben knew that hadn't made the call any easier.

Ray set the receiver gently in its cradle and allowed himself to collapse upon the desk, folding his arms over his head as he tried to shut out the thought of what he still needed to tell his family even if they managed to find Frannie alive, but he couldn't do it yet. Not yet.... He permitted himself only a momentary indulgence before he lifted his head once more and sat up straight.

"I need some coffee," he announced abruptly. There was no way he was going to sleep tonight.

"The river bottom muck in the break room or the sludge next to the door?" Kowalski quipped, glancing at the more than burnt remnants in the pot ten feet away.

Vecchio followed his gaze with a look of disgust. Fortunately, Detective Cupp interrupted the need for an answer. "Yo, Constable!" the feisty woman called over the soft mutters and noises of the bullpen. "Phone call!"

"Who the hell would be calling you here at this hour?" Ray asked with a frown.

Kowalski quickly jumped on that. "Trace!" he snapped, turning quickly to another phone and picking it up, ordering a trace on the call coming into Ray's line. Ben felt his hands pop a sweat as he waited anxiously for the other man's signal to pick up. There were one or two people who might have legitimate reason to seek him at the police station at such an hour but the chances that it was Muldoon calling to taunt them further was more likely. He blew out a quick breath and forced himself to calm down before he lifted the receiver.

"Hello," he answered normally. "This is Constable Fraser. How may I help you?"

"Yeah, Fraser! Mr. Nongrata here," his neighbor readily identified himself. Fraser visibly sagged in relief, waving the trace off. "Hey look, that wolf of yours started barking and howling a few minutes ago. I went and checked on him. I been checking on him off and on all day like you asked. He seems fine enough, ‘cept for the broken leg and all. He's thumping around on the cast, pacing back and forth, but I can't get him to shut up."

"Dief?" Ben frowned in sudden concern.

"Yeah, well you got any other wolf I don't know ‘bout?" the man complained. "Look, I like you and the mutt just fine, but you better get back here and settle him down somehow or someone else is gonna call the pound real soon like, you know?"

"How long ago did this start, Mr. Nongrata?"

" ‘Bout five or ten minutes ago," the other man answered. "I heard a big thump. Woke me up. Then he started raising Cain and now he won't stop."

"A thump?" Fraser repeated, his alarms going off.

"Yeah, but it was outside. Like something hitting the side of the building. Whatever it was, he didn't like it."

"I'll be right there, Mr. Nongrata," he answered calmly. "Thank you for calling."

The two Rays were watching him quite closely as he hung up. "Dief?" Kowalski asked. It was obvious they both had the same dark fear in their mind. The wolf made far too tempting a target for anyone who wanted to rip Fraser's soul apart. And with having to recover from getting hit by a car last week, the poor animal wouldn't be able to defend himself properly either.

"He's causing a disturbance," Ben answered with a concerned frown, standing up and slapping his Stetson in place. "Barking and howling. Mr. Nongrata says he appears fine otherwise. He just won't settle down."

"Poisoned or drugged somehow?" Vecchio suggested brusquely.

Fraser continued to frown and shook his head. "It doesn't sound like it. He's up and pacing. Most drugs or poisons would have the opposite effect. No, he seems to be reacting to something that happened outside the building: A 'thump', Mr. Nongrata said."

Kowalski spun on his heel and grabbed the sleeve nearest him. It was Detective Cupp again, hurrying by with some files under her arm.

"Gretchen, call dispatch for me," he asked hurriedly even as Fraser and Vecchio swept by, headed for his car. "Tell them to have a patrol car meet us at Fraser's place: 428 East Racine. Disturbance in the alley, and light a fire under ‘em. ‘Could be something to do with Frannie."

The irritated frown on the woman's face vanished, replaced by serious determination. They all knew about Frannie and were quite willing to do whatever they could to help. "You got it, Ray."

Ray grabbed up his coat and hurried after his two partners, calling over is shoulder as he went, “I owe you one, Gretchen!"

The other detectives watched him disappear through the door and turned their attention to the woman he'd addressed even as she was picking up the phone. "I'll be sure to remind you of that, Kowalski," she muttered under her breath, ignoring her fellow officers. "Hey Dispatch! --"

Kowalski offered a surprised snort as they rounded the corner onto East Racine and saw a marked car parked at the curb in front of Fraser's apartment building. The patrol cops didn't tend to respond too fast to calls from such neighborhoods, not that he blamed them. Fraser and his ideas about what constituted appropriate living arrangements hadn't changed in the more than four and a half years he'd been stationed in Chicago. When Inspector Thatcher had transfered to CSIS, the new Chief Liaison Officer had kicked him out of his office and Ben had moved back to 'the old neighborhood'. Kowalski and Vecchio had talked themselves blue in the face trying to get him to move elsewhere.

The GTO slid smoothly into place behind the squad car and all three men quickly exited the vehicle even as a flashlight swung around to blind them.

"Detectives Kowalski and Vecchio," the blond man called out clearly as he shielded his eyes and flashed his badge. "Get that thing outta my face!"

"Sorry," the patrol officer answered. "Calls down here make me a bit nervous."

"Smart man," Vecchio muttered before hurrying forward. "So you find anything?"

"If you think I'm goin' in a dark alley without backup in this neighborhood, you're nuts!" the other replied.

Vecchio awarded Fraser an 'I told you so' look even as he checked his own weapon and held it at the low, ready. "Yeah, well, backup is here. Let's take a look."

Fraser frowned as he heard Dief offer another series of barks from their forth floor room.

"That dog's been raising a ruckus since I got here," officer Dickson commented as they moved together into the darkness.

It didn't take the four men long to search the narrow, dead-end alley even with only one flashlight. All they found amongst the usual detritus and mud from the previous night was a small, rather splattered puddle of what appeared to be blood. It wasn't even enough to be called a puddle, maybe a few tablespoons at most, but it was fresh. Fraser bent to inspect it and suddenly froze as a drop of liquid rained down from above to splash into the tiny pool. Their heads all craned upward and the flashlight followed.

"That your window, Frase?" Kowalski asked, knowing it was. There was something on his fire escape. It looked like a small bag of some kind but the incandescent beam was too weak to reveal details at four floors up. A quick glance revealed that the fire escape extension ladder from the second floor landing was fully retracted and beyond their reach.

The three men turned as one for the alley opening, trailing the beat cop behind them. "You stay here," Kowalski told the older man, "and make sure no one enters this here alley."

"Alone?" he asked, disheartened.

Kowalski merely rolled his eyes and quickly followed on the heels of the other two as they disappeared into the building.

"4 B," Vecchio read the number on the door aloud for no reason other than to hear himself speak after climbing the four flights of steps. He had not been surprised to learn that the elevator was broken--again.

"Better 'an 5 P," Kowalski quipped.

"Shit!" someone whispered and a door clicked shut.

Fraser recognized the sound of fear in his neighbor's voice. "It's all right, Mr. Nongrata!" he called. "They are police officers."

"Thanks, Frase," Kowalski offered with a shake of his head. "You trying to panic the whole building?"

Ben frowned irritably but dismissed the comment to concentrate on digging out his keys and opening his door. Dief had settled down as soon as Ben spoke. Kowalski waited impatiently and decided to forgo a comment on how a deaf wolf could have so obviously heard him.

Vecchio had never come to the new apartment when Ben wasn’t already there and frowned in surprise."You actually lock your door, Benny?"

"It's required in my lease," he answered offhand and suddenly turned back to his neighbor's door with a frown. He stepped over to it and knocked. "Mr. Nongrata? It's Constable Fraser, Mr. Nongrata."

"I think he knows that, Fraser," Vecchio observed sarcastically and threw his hands into the air impatiently. A possible clue as to wherever his sister was being held might or might not be lying on Fraser's fire escape and he was concerned with reassuring his neighbor?

"He's very nearsighted, Ray," Ben answered quietly. He knocked again, lifting his voice. "Mr. Nongrata? I need to get my keys, please."

The door popped open to reveal three very heavy security chains in place across the narrow space and Mr. Nongrata's pudgy face beyond. "Fifty bucks," he demanded curtly, his eyes darting to the Rays behind Ben.

"Of course," Ben agreed readily, removing his Stetson to retrieve the necessary money he'd agreed to pay the man for watching Dief. Actually, it was a bit more than he'd agreed to pay but considering-- "I'm sorry I'm so late. We're in the middle of a very important--"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure," the man interrupted and, taking the money, gave Fraser his keys. "I gotta be at work in four hours! Keep the dog happy, huh?"

"I --" The door was firmly shut before Fraser could reply. He blinked in surprise and cleared his throat. "Thank you kindly, Mr. Nongrata!" he called through the door.

"Fifty bucks?" Ray echoed, merely surprised that one of the other neighbors further along the hall hadn't shouted for them to quiet down.

"Willie wasn't available," Ben answered succinctly. He dismissed the question as he swung his door open at last and reached around to flip on the light switch. The tension among the three, which had never really left, suddenly escalated once more.

Dief sat calmly waiting for them, his left leg encased in a bright blue cast resting gingerly before him. He ‘wuffed’ softly and looked pointedly to the window, outside which was the fire escape.

"I know," Ben answered his canine friend as the three men moved quickly through the sparse and undisturbed apartment.

(((KaThump, KaThump, KaThump))) The wolf followed them across the threadbare carpet and offered further comment as Ben wrestled with the window which was swollen shut with yesterday's rains. Ray leaned close, shielding his eyes to try and see through the old and pollutant etched window Ben couldn't get any cleaner.

"Yes, I know," Ben answered the wolf as he managed to force the window open slightly. "I couldn't help it. Francesca has been kidnapped."


"Yeah, right," Vecchio frowned at the dog, "when did we have time to tell you?"

Ben grunted as he gave a sharp jerk, finally winning his battle with the stubborn window and forcing it fully open. Kowalski reached out and held Vecchio back as Ben easily sprung over the sill and onto the landing beyond. "Crime scene," he offered curtly. "One person poking around out there at a time's enough. Besides, I doubt it would hold the two of you."

Vecchio glared at him but there was no arguing the facts. The fire escape wasn't big enough, even if it was strong enough, to hold both him and Fraser. All he could do is watch as his friend knelt beside the small, white plastic bag that had ripped open and was slowly dripping blood through the metal grate work to the ground below. Ray had to consciously keep himself from grinding his teeth as Ben paused to put on latex gloves before handling the bag.

Ben's face was grim when he finally reached for the twist tie that held the bag shut, thoughts ranging from the horrors of finding fingers or ears to the fact that the bag was too big for something so small. There was also the tell-tale odor of death to be ignored: Not simply the odor of blood and-- He frowned and sniffed again. It wasn't the smell of decomposing flesh. There hadn't been time for that to set in.

He opened the mouth of the bag and forced himself to view the contents dispassionately--

Any hope for dispassion evaporated when he saw the Stetson. He knew it wasn't his. He'd seen his spare in the hat block as they came through the door.


He forced the raging fear aside and looked further. A hat didn't bleed. Reaching in and moving it aside, he discovered the body of a cat. At least he thought it was a cat, or had been. It was so badly mutilated it was hard to tell. The smell he'd caught was of fecal matter from the disembowelment of the poor creature.

"Well?!" Vecchio demanded in tense impatience as Ben squatted, pale faced, peering into the bag without comment.

He glanced up, grateful for the distraction as Ray's demand brought him back to the here and now. "It's a cat, Ray," he told him, the simple pronouncement winning a relieved sigh and whispered ‘Thank God!' from both men.

"A cat, Frase?" Kowalski offered in confusion when the relief had washed through his system and he could think again. Fraser had retied the bag and picked it up, mindful of the rip, and was crawling back through the window. He walked directly to the kitchen sink and set it down so as not to drip blood on his floor. He then bent and retrieved two more garbage bags.

Dief gave forth a rather expressive and sympathetic whine before lying down to put a paw over his snout. He was definitely getting soft, Fraser thought. Of course, Dief had also been taught that domestic cats weren’t part of the food chain.

"Yes, Ray," he confirmed, working on automatic to protect and secure the evidence for forensics. He knew the bag might contain fingerprints. Muldoon might not be sloppy enough to handle such but it was obvious he wasn't working alone. Whoever had made the delivery might have left identifying traces.

"And that?" Vecchio asked, pointing to the blood-covered Stetson Ben had set on the countertop to be bagged separately.

Ben picked it up when he had the cat corpse re-bagged. "It's not mine," he told them succinctly as he forced himself to examine the hat more closely. It was possible that Muldoon had managed to buy it somewhere.

"Maggie?" Kowalski made the same logic jump Ben already had.

"He's threatening her somehow," Ben answered in a clipped monotone, swallowing the emotions that raged through him, "but I'm afraid I don't understand his message." He glanced at the bag with the dead cat again.

Vecchio was the first to put it together. "Pussy," he spat the translation out. "A dead, bloody pussy."

Ben froze and closed his eyes as he suddenly placed the euphemism. He really shouldn't be so shocked, he thought. Muldoon had made the same threat only hours earlier. However, this graphic delivery made it more concrete somehow.

"Can you tell if it's actually hers, Frase?" Kowalski asked, the question forcing Ben to examine the hat once more in detail. He could not let himself fall apart in front of Ray.

His eyes almost instantly found what they sought and his expression became even more grim as he gazed down, fingering a single, long strand of strawberry-blond hair that had gotten caught on the inner band.

"Ray, may I borrow your cell phone please?" he asked calmly, holding out his other hand without looking up. Any thought of waiting until morning to warn his sister was gone. He could only pray he wasn't too late.

Ben frowned impatiently as he listened to the answering machine. He wasn't surprised by it. His sister wasn't the easiest person to get in touch with at the best of times. Failing to get an answer at one in the morning was not cause in and of itself for alarm. She might simply be pulling the graveyard shift at the outpost or be out in the field working a case. She'd complained about the difficulty in contacting him--


"This is your brother, Ben," he identified himself succinctly. "It is urgent I speak with you. Please call me via the Chicago Police Department as soon as you can. 312-555-0123. I have reason to believe you are in danger. Call immediately. Thank you."

"Answering machine?" Kowalski guessed correctly as they watched Ben move to his bed and pull out a notebook from the bookshelf beside it.

"Yes," he answered simply, paging quickly through the book. "I'm going to try the outpost next."

"Where's she stationed anyway?" Vecchio asked Kowalski, lowering his voice so as not to distract Ben. He had a right to warn his sister, and for his sake, Vecchio hoped he could.

"Aklavik," Kowalski answered.

"That anywhere near Inuvik?"

"Two blocks west," Kowalski answered as they watched Ben on the phone, "same neighborhood." Vecchio nodded.

"Thank you, Sir. It's urgent," Ben replied and sagged visibly in relief. "She's there," he informed his friends. Kowalski and Vecchio offered their own relieved sighs. Vecchio didn't wish what he was going through on anyone. In the next moment he was pacing over to the window and silently demanding that Benny hurry up. He was glad Maggie was all right, but Frannie wasn't.

They needed to find her!

He stared out into the night and reviewed everything they did and didn't know. It was an exercise in mental self-flagellation!

Kowalski watched Vecchio at the window and knew he was close to snapping. Ben's voice was a soft urgent drone in the background but neither man was really listening to him. The call was an interruption, a necessary interruption, but an interruption just the same. Kowalski tossed Vecchio his cell phone, deciding to distract him: He needed something to do.

Vecchio almost didn't catch it and looked up at Kowalski with a confused glare.

"Call dispatch and have ‘em get forensics over here and someone to canvass the building," the blond detective decided. "Might be prints on the fire escape. Have ‘em check the roof too."

Vecchio rolled his eyes, well aware of standard procedure, and then frowned as Kowalski opened the door, obviously leaving. "Where the hell do you think you're going?!"

"Downstairs to have Dickson tape off the alleyway. Might be a tire track or somethin'."

"Might be nothing!" Vecchio exploded. "Fraser would have spotted it if there were! This is nothing but a God damned waste of time!!! Frannie's out there being gang raped even as we speak and you want me to crawl around here after nonexistent clues!?"

"None of the second hand stores are gonna be open for another five hours," Kowalski pointed out, angrily. His own temper was shot. "You got some better idea what to do until then? I'm listening?"

Vecchio lunged. "Just who the hell d--”

"Ray!" Fraser stepped between the two men, effectively ending the shouting match. "Yelling at each other is not helping Francesca. He's right: We need to follow up on every possible lead. Muldoon is obviously not working alone. Where he might not mess up, an accomplice might. That bag did not get tossed four stories up to my fire escape. The bag itself, or the Stetson, might have prints from whomever delivered it. We need to take them back to the station while a team checks here. Chances are something more will be found. We can't afford to overlook anything."

Ray sagged against the door like a scarecrow that had suddenly had its framework removed and lifted his face to heaven. God, he didn't know how much more of this he could take!

"Sister okay?" he forced himself to ask without opening his eyes or looking at Fraser.

"Fine," Fraser answered wearily. "The hat came up missing two days ago. She's supposed to talk to her sergeant about the situation and says she'll be careful."

Careful. Right. That meant that she would carry on with her job while trying to look over her shoulder when they all three knew she needed to be under twenty-four hour protection from this madman. Muldoon was no one to mess with!

Ray opened his eyes and finally met Ben's confused gaze: Anger, helplessness, fear, sympathy -- it was all there.

"Damn...." Vecchio sighed and closed his eyes again.

"I'll make the call, Ray," Ben said to Kowalski, taking the phone from Vecchio's unresisting grasp. "You go talk to Dickson."

Why was it, the Italian wondered, that Benny could call them both 'Ray' and they never got confused as to whom he was addressing? Even with his eyes shut, Ray knew he was talking to Kowalski and not him. Stupid thought. He shoved it away.

"I'll meet you at the car in five minutes," Kowalski answered in a subdued voice. "Hey Vecchio?" he said in the same soft tone. Vecchio forced his eyes open and met the other man's determined gaze. "We're gonna find her. You know we're gonna find her."

Vecchio appreciated the thought, but this wasn't some stupid movie where the good guys always won. They'd find her he knew, the question was -- would they find her in time? He wasn't about to voice it though. He answered with a nod and endured the reassuring squeeze of his shoulder before the other turned and disappeared back out Benny's door. He saw Benny lift Kowalski's cell and quickly dial the station. With a silent sigh he closed his eyes again and let his head fall back against the wood of the door frame. For the hundredth time or more that night, he sent a prayer upward screaming against the situation and begging for Frannie's life.

Six-thirty a.m. An hour and a half to go. He needed a bath. Instead, he stood and got another cup of coffee.

Huey suddenly popped his head around the break room door and held up a folder. "We got a match."

The three men were instantly awake and alert as the other detective swept forward to plop the folder onto one of the tables. "One Terrance Tuppence. Small time thug. Six counts of breaking and entering, four counts of assault and one --" Huey suddenly stopped short in the reading.

"What?" Vecchio demanded, reaching out to turn the file so he could read the rap sheet for himself. "B and E, B and E--" He closed his eyes and dropped his head. "Sexual assault." He wasn't surprised. He shouldn't be surprised. He was a bit surprised at how badly he wanted to kill the bastard -- but he wasn't surprised by the charge.

Dief seemed to sense the sudden anger in the atmosphere and offered a sympathetic whine. Vecchio looked down at him and purposely misinterpreted the soft sound.

"I am not buying you another cinnamon roll," he told the wolf irritably. He glanced up at Benny with a mock glare, tired of everyone's sympathy. "He's milking that injury for all it's worth. How much longer has he got to wear that stupid cast?"

"Another week, Ray," Ben answered, seeing through the ruse easily but allowing his friend to reclaim some of his dignity.

Ray glanced back down at Dief who merely gazed up at him and allowed his tongue to loll out the left side of his mouth. "They're all out anyway."

They heard a sound from the hall just then. A moment later, the new concession purveyor wheeled his cart into the break room to replenish the machines.

Ray offered Dief another mock glare as the wolf came to his feet. "You knew he was coming, didn't you?"

To his surprise, and that of everyone else, Dief growled....

Vecchio's brows soared upward and he glanced at Ben. The look of surprise passed quickly to become a pensive frown as the Canadian regarded his lupine companion. They all followed Dief's glare to where Carlos stood. There was no doubt the wolf was more than irritated with the man. Ben quickly knelt to calm his friend as he offered a second low growl.

The concession man hadn't missed the obvious threatening posture or soft growl either. He stepped behind his cart, placing it between himself and the wolf. "Nice dog?" he offered hopefully.

"Wolf," Kowalski corrected easily, moving to lean against the vending machine, effectively blocking that escape route.

"Wolf?" the man squeaked rather predictably.

"Yep," Kowalski answered nonchalantly.

"Ray," Ben interrupted rather disapprovingly, still trying to soothe Dief, but the wolf refused to relax. The Mountie glanced up at the man, reading his name tag. "I'm sorry, Carlos," he apologized. "He's normally much better behaved than this."

"Especially around someone who has food," Vecchio added with a suspicious frown.

"Yeah," Kowalski agreed, moving to purposely block the man as he tried to squeeze by. "Hugo was his best friend here."

"He doesn't seem to like you very much, Carlos," Vecchio noted, moving to block the man on the other side. Ray was clearly confused as to Dief's behavior but wasn't about to dismiss it. "Strange. Now, why do you suppose that is, Benny?"

"It is unusual, Ray," Ben agreed, standing to consider the situation. Dief never acted like this without a reason. "Diefenbaker is very perceptive, as are most wolves. Of course he is also rather eccentric, as you both know. Still, if I had to hazard a guess.... You wouldn't happen to be friends with a convicted felon by the name of Gerrard, would you?"

"Gerrard?" Vecchio repeated in astonishment.

"Well, Ray," Ben shrugged, "that's the last time I can remember Dief acting in such a manner with someone who did not present a very clear and immediate danger to either myself or someone else. The only other possible explanation that springs to mind would be if Carlos here..." Ben frowned and cocked his head to the side as a sudden thought occurred to him, "had handled a dead cat recently."

"Dief likes cats," Kowalski agreed, stepping forward to invade the man's personal space.

Vecchio reacted as if someone had hit him. "You god damned son of a bitch--" he hissed, and literally leapt for the other man's throat.

"Hey! Hey!! HEY!!!" Kowalski and Fraser both leapt forward to pry Vecchio off. Ray paid them absolutely no mind, his language turning the air blue as he swore he would break the man's neck. Fraser had to resort to a nerve pinch on both of his wrists before he could tear Ray's hands away from the other man's throat.

Carlos collapsed back into Kowalski's arms, coughing and gasping for air. The man stared at Vecchio wild eyed and quickly delivered a rather vicious elbow to Kowalski's rib cage, breaking free and making a stumbling dive for the doorway even as Huey and Dewey suddenly skidded into view in answer to all the screaming.

"Stop him!" Vecchio screamed, fighting Fraser's hold for all he was worth.

Huey didn't need to be told to stop him, reacting with the same adrenaline rush that had sent him and his partner tearing down the halls to begin with. He slammed Carlos up against the way, trapping his left arm in a pressure lock that threatened to disclocate his shoulder if he continued to struggle.

"He tried to kill me!" Carlos screamed in clear panic.

One glance at Ray assured them all that he would still gladly do so if not for the Mountie's firm grip. He stood calmly with his arms both stretched behind him, his wrists still caught in the nerve lock Fraser had originally used to force him to release the concession vendor. Ben had eased up on the pressure now that he'd ceased his struggle--but hadn't let go. Malevolent intent radiated from the Chicago cop like a visible blanket. "Let me go, Benny," he ordered quietly, his breathing ragged, "or I swear I'll rip your head off."

"Ray?" Fraser called anxiously to Kowalski, not about to release his hold on Vecchio after such a statement.

"Get him outta here!" Kowalski ordered the Duck Boys. "Book him and run his prints: I think we just found Mr. Terrence Tuppence."

The man suddenly went pale.

"Terrence..." Dewey greeted him with a sarcastic grin even as he snapped cuffs on the still gasping suspect, "how nice of you to deliver yourself into our hands!"

Vecchio suddenly let out what could only be called an animalistic growl and jerked one of his arms free from Fraser's hold, turning to catch the Mountie along the jaw in a wild roundhouse punch. Fraser reeled back but did not let go.

"Get him outta here!" Kowalski yelled desperately and made a quick grab at Vecchio before he could actually break free and go for the guy's throat again. He was literally insane with rage! Kowalski caught his arm, braced the elbow, grabbed the wrist and twisted, forgoing Fraser's attempt at gentle restraint for a straight-armed subduing move. Vecchio went down to his knees with a cry of pain.

"God damn it!" he hissed, but at least it was intelligible. Fraser released his own hold and stepped back to try and clear his head following Ray's punch. He'd seen stars with that one.

"You okay?" Kowalski asked Ben, easing up on the pressure on Vecchio's wrist but not releasing him.

"I'm fine!" Vecchio snapped irritably, the fight vanishing as quickly as it had come. "You can let me go now."

That's when Welsh suddenly appeared. "What the hell is going on in here!?" he demanded angrily.

Kowalski paused a moment to judge Vecchio's state of mind and then released him, stepping back quickly so as not to tempt the other man to retaliate. "I was demonstrating a takedown maneuver to Vecchio here," he offered with an innocent shrug.

"Uh huh," Welsh nodded in obvious disbelief as he took in the tableau, "and you all just got carried away which is why I passed the Duck Boys dragging the vending machine guy outta here in cuffs yelling about police brutality."

"Terrence Tuppence, Sir." Vecchio growled the name as he straightened painfully and massaged his shoulder.

"The guy who delivered the dead cat," Kowalski interrupted, knowing that if Vecchio started to explain he'd only light his own fuse again. "Dief here ID'd him and... ah..."

"Dief?" Welsh repeated and glanced at Fraser. "You're bleeding," he noted offhand.

Fraser frowned slightly but remained silent as he lifted a hand to dab the blood from the corner of his mouth.

Welsh glanced back at Kowalski and glared as he opened his mouth again. "Don't," he ordered simply. "I want you to think about what happened in here long and hard before the two of you write it up... and it better be good. Carlos or Terrence, or whatever-the-hell his name is, is going to swear out a complaint and I'm going to have to act on it. I suspect he's going to have some rather visible bruises on his neck from the quick glimpse I saw." He glared at Vecchio. "Extenuating circumstances or not, I can't have one of my men trying to strangle a suspect."

He turned his glare back to Kowalski and Fraser. "A shorter rein you two, or I'll throw all three of you off the case. Understood?"

The three men straightened, knowing it to be no empty threat. Fraser of course could not be thrown off the case, but one call to Thatcher would see him pulling double duty and unable to do more than worry about Francesca. Ben and Ray each nodded and glanced in concern at Vecchio who grabbed a nearby chair and collapsed into it, burying his face in his hands.

Welsh considered his dejected form for a long moment. He was on the verge of snapping. Hell, he had snapped! He needed a vent, a safe vent. Welsh hesitated for another long moment then decided to give it to him.

"You gonna let the Duck Boys handle the interrogation?" he asked.

Three sets of eyes jerked toward him in surprise.

"Legally speaking, of course, they're the ones that made the arrest," Welsh continued. "I am right on that, right? Given what I seen of Terri-boy's neck, I certainly hope so. But Kowalski here is in charge of Frannie's case so...."

All attention turned to judge Vecchio's frozen countenance.

"Now given that you just attacked him, I don't think he's going to want to see Vecchio," the lieutenant offered further. "But a'course I haven’t seen any report or complaint yet, so I can't order you to stay away. It's Kowalski's call... and his badge." Kowalski straightened again under this none too subtle threat. "Quite frankly I suspect your silent presence in the room would be... rather nice motivation for him to talk -- but you break like that again Vecchio and Mother Mary herself won't be able to keep you on the Force. Do we understand each other, gentlemen?" He offered them each a pleasant smile.

A chorus of 'Yes Sir!' greeted his ears. He nodded. "Then I suggest you tackle Mr. Tuppence before he lawyers up and slaps Vecchio here with a restraining order. I'll just go back to my office and await those reports." He spun on his heel and strolled calmly back the way he came. His mind was anything but calm, however, as he wrestled with the repercussions of everything he suspected verses what he knew. Given the bruises Terri-boy would be sporting tomorrow, Welsh suspected he was going to have to do some very fast talking with the captain to keep Vecchio from losing his shield permanently!

Kowalski rapped lightly on the door of interrogation room one and waited. A moment later, Huey joined the three men in the hall. "Anything?" Kowalski asked softly as the door snicked shut once more.

Huey frowned and shook his head. "He keeps yelling for his lawyer. We're 'working on it'."

Stalling as long as possible in other words. It wasn't hard to do at 7:15 on a Saturday morning. Lawyers didn't like to get up early on the weekend anymore than anyone else.


"Perfect match," he answered happily and glanced at Vecchio significantly. "You taking him in?"

Kowalski popped his neck and grinned. "Gives a whole new meaning to good-cop/bad-cop, don't you think?"

"I think you're asking for trouble," the black detective muttered and eyed Vecchio again. "Those marks on his neck don't look anything like hickeys. Might as well flush the case right now."

Vecchio stiffened and glared at the other man but kept his tone icily soft as he responded, "I don't give a shit about the case. Terrence Tuppence is nothing. He's a delivery man. All we got is a set of fingerprints on a bag. That's not a case. I find my sister and she IDs the scum ball then we have a new case. In the mean time, he's sitting in there clamming up like a shell while my sister is screaming her lungs out somewhere. And he-- knows-- where!"

Huey lifted a brow and turned to Kowalski in silent question.

"He'll be cool," Kowalski promised. "His brain disengaged for a couple minutes. Can't say as I blame him, can you?"

"No but--"

"He knows you can't get information from a corpse."

"Welsh already gave me the lecture, Jack," Vecchio added, crossing his arms, "so back off. I'm going in there. He even recommended it."

"Welsh recommended it?" Huey echoed in quiet disbelief.

"Like I said, good-cop/bad-cop," Kowalski shrugged. "He's also had a lecture from me and Fraser here. He'll be baby-sitting his family if he don't behave."

"He'll lose his shield if he don't behave," the other man responded, unknowingly echoing Welsh's earlier words. "What happens if he taunts you, says something like Frannie was a bad ride? He could of been part of her gang rape."

Vecchio stiffened angrily as Huey's barb found its mark and drew blood. A gentle hand on his shoulder kept him frozen in place and his mouth firmly shut.

Kowalski sighed. "He's going down for breaking parole anyway, Huey. Ain't no way he's gonna walk. We'll deal with the mess after we find Frannie. We ain't got time for chitchat. That lawyer of his is going to show up sooner or later. If Terri-boy manages to spark Vecchio off again, we'll throw him out, but in the mean time he might just spook some much needed info outta the guy. You and Dewey gonna help us gang up on him, or you two wanta take a break?"

Huey eyed Vecchio for a long moment as he chewed that over. He turned his gaze to Fraser. "You think he can do it? Act as a silent observer no matter what Terri-boy in there says? Honest answer."

Fraser dropped his head with a sigh and starred at the ground as all eyes turned to regard him. He hated being put on the spot this way. He was no psychic to predict what his friend would or wouldn't do. He knew Ray would do his best, but everyone had a breaking point. He remembered only too clearly how close he'd come to shooting Gerrard when he’d learned the truth about his fathers death.

He glanced back up, feeling the weight of everyone's gaze, and gave them the honest answer they demanded. "I don't know." He shook his head sadly and met Ray's determined gaze with the silent question in his own. Was determination enough? Ben wouldn't blame him one bit if it wasn't. Was it wise to tempt fate this way? "I don't know," he repeated. He glanced back down again, glad it wasn't his decision to make.

"He gets the chance," Kowalski stated unequivocally and turned back to Huey. "You in or out?"

Huey was suddenly struck by the memory of Frannie interrogating a suspect last year, calling him 'beef butt' and 'hair bottle'. She'd been surprisingly effective even if the transcript read like something out of a bad sit-com. Huey knew he'd do everything in his power to get the ditzy woman back where she belonged.

"We're in," he answered with a nod.

Terrence Tuppence turned to the door as it opened again and suddenly straightened, threatening to overturn his chair if Dewey hadn't been there to grab it. "Shit!" he hissed, reacting in obvious fear. "Get him outta here! Keep him the hell away from me!"

"You got a problem with me, Terrence?" Kowalski asked, purposely misinterpreting the man's words as the group swept into the room. "Did I do something to scare you?"

"Not you!" the man snapped, sitting as far back in the straight backed chair as he could and lifting a shaking hand to point at Vecchio. "Him! Him! He tried to kill me!"

"Vecchio?" Kowalski asked in apparent amusement. Terrence glanced at the other officers. Huey and Dewey merely shrugged in apparent confusion and folded their arms. Kowalski turned to Vecchio. "You know what he's talking about?"

Vecchio had agreed not to say a word so he merely folded his arms and shrugged.

Kowalski turned back to Tuppence. "You think he maybe got a little rough when he tried to arrest you?" he suggested and shrugged. "I don't know. I saw it and frankly--" He shrugged again, leaving the sentence hanging. He knew the interrogation was being recorded, so he had to be careful what he did and didn't' say. He could imply a lot of things, but he couldn't lie about what had happened. "You think maybe you did something to piss him off? Like helping that psycho Muldoon kidnap and rape his sister? Hmm? You think maybe he shoulda politely asked you to surrender like? Thanks for the bruise by the way." He rubbed his side where the man had elbowed him and smiled maliciously. "I'm adding resisting arrest to the charges already laid against you."

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about. Get him outta here!" the man cried, watching Vecchio as he moved slowly about the room, offering nothing more than a deadly stare the tape recorders couldn't capture. "I know my rights! I don't have to talk to none of you without my lawyer! Get him outta here!"

Kowalski braced his arms on the desk and suddenly got in the man's face. "You ain't got no rights, Asshole," he hissed quietly. "You broke parole. Contact with a known felon. Aiding and abetting a known felon. Hell, you're an accessory in kidnapping and rape. Whether you were there or not, you'll be charged with it. You god damn well better hope she's alive when we find her or you'll be facing lethal injection as a multiple offender guilty of first degree murder! I wouldn't be worried too much about Vecchio here if I were you."

"You made a little slipup, Terrence," Huey offered sympathetically from his other side and clucked his tongue sadly. "These things happen. One piece of evidence leads to another and another. But those prints of yours didn't cause a simple domino effect, you're caught in one hell of an avalanche and unless you want to get buried, you better start talking."

"Fine!" he replied with a large shrug. "I talk. So what? You ain't the DA. You can't offer me no deals."

It was Dewey's turn to brace his arms against the table and lean in close. "But we can talk to the DA. They really do like it when suspects cooperate with us. Makes their next job that much easier."

Terrence frowned pensively, glaring apprehensively at the men around him as he chewed on that. His eyes danced curiously over Fraser and his red uniform. "What's with the Holloween costume? You promoting the 'Dudley Do-Right' movie or something?"

Ben stepped forward. "No. Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP.... and the uniform is quite real. You're friend, Muldoon, escaped from a Canadian prison two months ago where he was serving multiple life sentences for conspiracy, terrorism, and the murder of my mother, among other things." He offered the information in a very quiet and controlled manner, his tone conveying far more than words exactly what he thought of Muldoon and anyone who would help him. "The woman he has kidnapped is a good friend of mine. Any information you can provide as to her whereabouts would be appreciated and could not in any way hurt your own situation."

"Muldoon is a real sick-o, Terri-boy," Kowalski added conspiratorially. "You know he tried to smuggle some nerve gas into Chicago last year? Rigged up a bomb and attached it to a Ferris Wheel at that special Carnival Extravaganza the city put on at the mall. You remember that? All those people. Closed space. Hell, you were out then, weren't you? Maybe you were there when it happened. You coulda been among the thousands that woulda died if Fraser here hadn't defused the bomb."

Terrence paled, telling Ray he'd hit his mark head on.

"Inspector Thatcher did help me, Ray," Ben had to insert.

Ray nodded. "Yeah, the Ice Queen. She kept her cool that day." He turned back to Terrence with a malicious smile. "These RCMP types aren't the bumbling idiot Dudley Do-Rights you see in the movies. Fraser here might be nice and polite but he's also the man who brought Muldoon in to begin with. He's gonna do it again; and, when he does, Muldoon is gonna sing like a bird against you and anyone else who helped him. Do you really want to go down holding the bag for that kinda scum?"

"Look, the honest truth here, 'k?" the man rejoined. "I was at that Carnival you mentioned last year. I even took my cousin to see the Ferris Wheel. I was getting ready to leave the mall when the shooting started and all. I never heard nothing about no nerve gas." He turned his eyes to Fraser again. "They're not putting me on about that, are they?" Ben merely frowned and shook his head, thinking yet again how strange it was that the uniform always made people trust him over others.

"The interrogation is being recorded, Terri-boy," Kowalski added, tapping the machine on the edge of the table. "We can't lie to you. Muldoon ain't gonna do you no favors. Why you wanta do any for him?"

"I don't," Terrence answered. "Honest guys, I know you're not gonna believe me, but I don't know nothing about some chick getting kidnapped and raped. That ain't my bag of tricks, you know?"

Vecchio froze for a long moment before shovng Dewey aside to lean across the table and into the suspect's face. "What I know is you have a sexual assault charge on your file and if I find out you laid one finger on my sister--"

Kowalski and Fraser both grabbed Vecchio and dragged him back from the table before he could finish his threat and destroy any chance he had of keeping his badge.

"I don't know nothing!" Terrence repeated, once more in the grips of near panic as he faced Vecchio's glare. He knew that only the other officers stood between him and the other man's deadly hatred. "Look some guy comes up to me and offers to pay me big bucks for a simple delivery. I'm supposed to take this bag and put it on some fire escape down on East Racine. I don't even gotta see nobody, just make sure I get the address right. Don't look in the bag, don't let nobody see me... that's the totality of all I need to know, you know? I ain't never heard of this Muldoon character; and yeah, yeah, yeah, I knew something was fishy and it weren't no laundry I was delivering but, I swear guys, I don't know nothing about no kidnapping or rape or nerve gas, and I don't want to know! Okay? I'm nothing but a patsy here, you know? You know?"

The five other men exchanged pensive frowns. They each knew it was quite possible the guy was lying through his teeth. They each knew in their gut that he wasn't.

"What'd he look like?" Huey demanded quietly, pressing for any and all information they could get before the guy decided to clam up again. "Was he with someone or alone? Did you see what kind of car or truck he was driving?"

Ten minutes later his lawyer showed up and the interview was instantly terminated.

"Okay," Kowalski sighed dramatically and scrubbed a hand over his weary face, noting absently that he could use a shave. Vecchio could too. Fraser still looked as fresh as he had yesterday afternoon. How the hell did the guy do that? Kowalski dismissed the observation and grabbed the chair behind his desk. A quick flip of the wrist spun it in place and he straddled it, resting his chin upon his arms. "Let's review what we got."

" 'What we got. What we got'," Vecchio mimicked mockingly. "What we got is bupkiss! We got an envelope of photos. We got a kill switch on Frannie's car. We got a plastic bag with a dead cat and Benny's sister's hat. We got the delivery man. We got a description that matches Muldoon and maybe a blue or black truck of some kind, maybe Ford, maybe! The guy knows less about makes of trucks than he does about endangered species in the Amazon rain forest!"

Vecchio grabbed the interview chair beside the desk and copied Kowalski's movements; only, rather than his chin, he rested his forehead in exhausted defeat on his folded arms. Fraser waited a long moment to be sure Ray was done with his tirade before he spoke up.

"We also have the evidence in the photos concerning her location: Possibly a warehouse. And we have yet to follow up on the question of the bed." He glanced at the clock. Three minutes to eight. They could begin that search in only a few moments. He offered silent thanks that it was his weekend off, and not Turnbull's. "We have a tentative description of the vehicle used to drop the bag off. We have the location of the drop off and the location of the original contact with Mr. Tuppence. We have Muldoon's phone call taunting us and therefore the knowledge that Francesca is still alive. We also know that Muldoon will call again. He may very well plan to kill Francesca but not without letting us know about it. He'll want to draw out the--"

"The phone!" Vecchio interrupted with a sudden hiss, his head snapping upward and his eyes staring into middle distance as something suddenly clicked in his brain. "The phone!" he exclaimed a second time and suddenly jumped to his feet. "Frannie's phone! It wasn't in her car! That means she's still got it!"

"The cell phone?" Kowalski echoed, leaping to his feet in excitement. "Is it one of the new digital numbers?"

"Yeah! Yeah!" Vecchio agreed. "A Nokia! I helped her pick it out last month. We can track it by that-- What did you call it?" He glanced at Fraser. "Triangulation?"

"If it's digital and on, we can have the company track it by GPS. They should be able to pinpoint its location to within a few hundred feet."

"You're kidding me?"

"No Ray."

"If it's on," Kowalski echoed firmly, afraid of them getting too excited and hopeful even as he quickly flagged the nearest civilian aide down. "Hey Lys!" he called, reading her name badge and remembering the name from before. So this was the new aide. "I need the number for Nokia right away. It's about Frannie. Think you can find it?"

"Thirty seconds!" the woman replied and spun on her heel to race back to her desk.

"What the hell is GPS and why couldn't we do that with the arms dealer case back three or four years ago?"

"GPS stands for Global Positioning Satellite. As you know, all cell phones broadcast a specific sender code. In the case involving Special Agent Chapman, their phone used a modified radio frequency. This is how we were able to pick up and zero in on the cell. It's actually very old technology. However, a digital phone is connected to a digital network and is linked directly to a satellite orbiting the earth in geosynchronous orbit--"

"Right, right!" Vecchio suddenly clicked on what Fraser was talking about. "The same kind of technology that powers the world wide web and most telecommunications networks around the globe. I was out of the loop for a couple of years but that doesn't make me a complete idiot about this stuff."

"Of course not, Ray," Fraser agreed. "In anycase, a digital cell phone can be traced in much the same way any phone call can be traced, with the exception that a cell phone broadcasts it's signal continuously as long as it's on, whether it is actually in use or not."

"And if it's not on?"

"Then there's no signal and nothing to trace," he answered bluntly.

Lys suddenly skidded into place beside Fraser. "Here it is!" she gasped, handing over a small slip of paper.

"I think you beat that half minute mark, Lys," Kowalski grinned as he snatched the slip of paper and picked up his phone, punching in the numbers quickly.

She smiled up at Fraser. "I use Nokia myself," she explained. "The customer service number is taped to the back of my phone."

Fraser nodded appreciatively. "Thank you kindly, Lys," he offered sincerely.

"Anything to help Frannie," she agreed hopefully. "She helped me get this job. Any luck so far?"

"We are following up on a few leads," Fraser answered vaguely.

"Right," Lys recognized the words for what they were: A non-answer full of hope but little else. "I'll let you get back to work then." She offered Vecchio's ramrod-stiff form a sympathetic smile. "I'll be praying for her."

Vecchio sighed and nodded, knowing Frannie needed all the prayers she could get. "Thanks...."

With another nod, the woman took her leave and returned to her morning routine, hopeful that she'd been able to help in some small way.

It took Kowalski almost five minutes before he got through to someone with the authority to help him; but when he did, the results were fast. "It is?" he asked, sitting up suddenly and quickly reaching for a pencil and pad. He jammed the phone into the crook of his shoulder and jaw, listening as he quickly jotted something down. "Yeah... yeah... Right. Thanks." He hung up and glanced up. "I need a map!"

"With Longitude and Latitude," Fraser agreed. The three men quickly made their way to the main city map only to discover it to be lacking the necessary lines. "The harbor patrol," Fraser snapped his fingers and lead the way back to Kowalski and Vecchio's desk. Two minutes later he had an exact address based on the information Ray had gotten from the phone company.

He quickly picked up his Stetson as Kowalski grabbed up his coat and Vecchio followed suit without question. The blond detective made directly for Welsh's office and entered without knocking, ignoring Lieutenant Vickers who was just getting off the night watch. "We think we know where Frannie is," he offered without preamble.

Welsh was on his feet in the next breath. "Where?" he demanded simply.

"444 Zaborah Avenue. Over on the north side," Kowalski answered curtly. "We traced her cell phone."

"Traced her cell phone?" Welsh echoed. "Why the hell didn't we think of that before? I want every available squad... Wait, wait-- let me think this out...." He frowned sharply and paused to massage the bridge of his nose. "We suddenly show up on Muldoon's doorstep and he's going to off her for sure. We gotta take him by surprise. You got a plan for doing that yet, Kowalski?"

"Not until after I see the place, Sir," he answered correctly.

"Right. Good, good," Welsh agreed, glad to see the younger man was still thinking straight. "So get over there and let me know what you think. And don't go trying anything heroic-like. Call for backup before you make any kinda move. You understand me, Kowalski?"

"Loud and clear, Lieutenant."

"And Vecchio--" He frowned at the wiry man. "I'm thinking maybe you should stay here."

"No!" Vecchio answered, paling in the face of this suggestion. "No, Sir! You can't keep me away from there, Sir! We're talking about my sister here!"

"That's exactly why I think it might be a good idea for you to stay here."

"Then you're going to have to lock me up and throw away the key," he answered bluntly, "‘cause I ain't staying here one minute willingly while someone else goes to my sister's rescue!"

Welsh frowned pensively as he regarded the tightly strung and desperate man before him. He was very much afraid Vecchio was going to do something stupid. He'd already gone for Tuppence's throat. What would he do if he had Muldoon at gunpoint? Not that Welsh would blame him, but he didn't trust Vecchio as far as he could throw him when it came to arresting the man who'd kidnapped and tortured his sister!

"I could make it an order," he offered, hoping he wouldn't have to.

"You'll have my badge before you're finished talking," Vecchio answered coldly and reached into his pocket to withdraw the item mentioned. Welsh put a hand onto his arm and stopped him. The two men stared at each other and Welsh knew the truth behind Vecchio's words. He would never forgive Welsh if the older man tried to make him stay behind on this one. And Welsh would indeed have to arrest him if he were going to make him stay put. He'd have a fight on his hands for sure.

"God, I know I'm going to regret this!" he sighed as he dropped his hand.

"I'll be with him like a second shadow, Leftenant," Fraser assured Welsh quietly, reading the other man's concern easily but knowing that this wasn't something they could deny Vecchio. He had the right to be there. He needed to be there.

Welsh met Fraser's eyes and saw the quiet assurance and determination there. Vecchio would be watched like a hawk. The Mountie would protect him... even from himself. He glanced back at Vecchio. "Get out of here before I come to my senses and change my mind," he ordered curtly. "I want Muldoon alive, is that clear?"

"Crystal," Kowalski answered for all three and spun on his heel to lead Vecchio and Fraser in a fast scamper out of the bullpen, taking the lieutenant's threat to heart.

"This ain't no warehouse," Vecchio muttered as he gazed up at the brick facade of the old office building. It was a bit run down and not in the best of neighborhoods, but it was obviously very much still in use. "You sure you got the address right?"

"Maybe he moved her," Kowalski offered with a frown of his own. They were in a warehouse district but he seriously doubted the building had a skylight. Heavy cement walls, maybe, but he couldn't see where a scream here wouldn't be noted.

"What the hell is an Icecat?" Vecchio wondered, reading the sign above the door as they slid back into traffic and drove to the next block, where they wouldn't be quite so obvious as they considered their options.

"A moderately successful manufacturing firm based out of Toronto, I believe, Ray," Fraser answered from the back seat, "at least if it's the same company I'm familiar with. They manufacture everything from snowmobiles to skis and ice skates. The owner's objective is to one day be rich enough to buy the Toronto Maple Leafs, or so I've heard."

"Think maybe Muldoon offered him a quick mill or two to help him toward his goal?" Kowalski asked quietly.

"Her, Ray," Fraser corrected him automatically. "The owner is a woman. And no, I seriously doubt it. The woman is well known for her high ethics. She dropped a multi-million dollar manufacturing contract with China when the partner company was discovered to be using child labor. The plant had already been built and she took a major loss on the deal. I don't think she's the type to take a bribe."

"This company don't look like it could be doing no multi-million dollar international deals, Fraser," Vecchio offered quietly.

"Looks can be deceiving, Ray," Fraser answered. "The Icecat company has been around for several years. This may have been the home of one of their first US ventures back when the company was still in its infancy."

"Yeah and maybe it's a front for one of Muldoon's 'companies'," Vecchio decided. "He's gotta do business somehow and launder his money somewhere. You don't go throwing around the kinda money he did when he offered that nuclear sub deal to the Bolts without having a way to make the cash at least appear legit."

"The FBI wasn't able to trace it?" Fraser asked, surprised.

"Nah," Ray answered. "They figured it was up in Canada somewhere. Your friends in CSIS seized everything they could but it didn't add up to more than a couple hundred thousand, ignoring the sub itself of course. Interpol tried too, but only managed to grab up another hundred K. We know he had more than that but never figured out where he had it hidden. Muldoon sure as hell wasn't going to help anyone track it."

"So he escapes and sets up business again," Kowalski nodded.

"I doubt he ever shut down," Vecchio shook his head. "An arms dealer like Muldoon has got a network like a spider's web running through most every country in the world. And a lot of his deals are legit. Remember, just cause something's illegal here, doesn't make it illegal elsewhere. A little creative financing, a few off-shore account transfers, buy some opium in China, sell it to a pharmaceutical interest in India -- a few hundred kilos get diverted, but no one's going to notice it in the paperwork -- use the diverted product to set up a deal for arms in Slovenia -- the paper work says a hundred sub-machine guns for sale to the Ecuadorian Army and you paid way too much for ‘em, but in reality it's a thousand for an incredibly low price and those extra nine hundred are going to go to the highest bidder on the streets of the US, the profits of which are going to show up as sales for a ceramic tile exporter in Italy which is doing surprisingly well despite having little or no inventory to show." He shrugged expressively. "Armando Langoustini wasn't called 'the Bookman' because he liked to read."

Kowalski whistled. "You mean you can actually balance your checkbook now?"

Vecchio gave him a glare.

"Hey, don't look at me like that!" Kowalski rejoined. "I had to figure out the mess you left it in when I assumed your identity, remember?" Vecchio rolled his eyes but Kowalski ignored it. "So you think this Icecat company is just a laundering machine?"

"Not the one up in Canada, but this one... There's nothing to say it's actually connected to the company Fraser is familiar with," Vecchio noted. "You open a front like this for a few months -- whoops that name is taken -- close it down and write it off as a loss."

"But in reality you use it to funnel arms and drugs to the local gang leaders," Kowalski nodded, seeing how the thing fit together now. "Double payoff. Sweet."

"And tax deductible," Vecchio added.

"Indeed," Fraser agreed. "It's easy enough to check out. May I borrow your cell phone, Ray?"

"What you gonna do, Benny? Call Icecat and see if they have an outlet here in Chicago?"

"No, Ray," Fraser answered even as he took the phone and started to dial. "That would be a long distance charge. I wouldn't make such a call on your cell. The Consulate will have all the information I need. Working with Canadian business interests is part of what we do every day."

"Even if the outlet is legit, doesn't mean that it's not dirty," Vecchio noted.

Fraser held up a hand for silence as he connected to the Consulate. "Turnbull. It's Constable Fraser. ...I'm fine, Turnbull. I need you to do me a favor."

It took Fraser almost two minutes to make sure Turnbull understood the nature of his request and then another five for the man to dig up the necessary files and report back to them. In the mean time, the three men sat in the GTO and fought the sense of urgency that ate at their patience like a desease. They knew they couldn't rush this. Rushing it would get people dead.

Eventually, Turnbull did manage to find the file and call back. The Icecat corporation did indeed have a set of corporate offices in Chicago whose only purpose was to handle insurance claims for its US workers. The address was correct.

"Insurance firms don't really make good fronts despite what you might think," Vecchio admitted. "Too much regulation and outside monitoring. The feds are always sticking their noses into the finances."

"So now you think it's legit?"

"So now I think it don't have no skylights or two story tall rooms," Vecchio snapped irritably. "What the hell would Muldoon wanta bring Frannie some place like this for?"

"She might not be here at all," Kowalski noted. "Maybe one of Muldoon's cohorts stole her cell or something."

"So how do we handle this? Just walk in and ask to see everyone's cell?"

"Why not?" Kowalski offered. "It's Saturday. They're supposed to be closed."

"So anyone we find inside might have Frannie's cell and know where she is," Vecchio followed his logic.

"Ain't been time for it to hit the streets and be resold," Kowalski noted. He frowned at the building. "We need a legitimate reason to get inside."

"Well, I'm still in uniform," Fraser offered. "I can always say someone asked a representative of the Consulate to stop by."

"And how do you explain us?" Vecchio asked, noting both his and Kowalski's rumpled state of attire.

"You're... account representatives from the home office who just flew in this morning and you want to go over the books."

The two men frowned at each other for a long moment and then shrugged. "Am I half asleep or did Benny here actually come up with a good lie?"

"At least ‘til they call the home office. We must be rubbing off on him."

" ‘Bout time."

"So... let's do this!" Kowalski decided, giving his neck an audible 'crack'.

"Ray," Fraser stopped them both from getting out of the car. "We need to call for backup. We don't know how many are in there."

"And every moment we wait out here for them to get here, Frannie is that much closer to dying!" Vecchio hissed, feeling his patience snap. "I'm not waiting around for backup!"

"Oh yes you are!" Kowalski snapped, clapping his hand down on Vecchio's arm before he could climb out of the car. "He's right. We go in there and play cat and mouse and the mice will scatter. Frannie'll be dead before you can say, 'You're under arrest.' The twenty-third is practically around the corner. Twenty minutes. That's all it'll take to set up a watch on the exits and get a wire on. Twenty minutes ain't going to make a big difference to Frannie, Ray, not if she's alive right now; but it might make a big difference in whether she's still alive when we find her."

"You don't know what those bastards are doing to her right now!"

"Neither do you, Ray," Kowalski countered firmly. "But we do know Muldoon. It hasn't even been twenty-four hours since he took her. He's not going to kill her yet. The game would be over far too quickly if he did."

Vecchio glanced from Kowalski to Fraser, swallowing convulsively as he fought back an overwhelming sense of desperation to think he might be so close to his sister but unable to go to her rescue. "Twenty minutes?" he repeated.

"Twenty minutes," Kowalski nodded, promising not to take a moment longer.

Vecchio closed his eyes and clenched his trembling hands in his lap. "Twenty minutes," he agreed in a whisper, slumping back into the seat.

"We'll have Frannie in a hospital within the hour, Ray," Kowalski added and reached for the police radio to call for the backup they needed.

They knocked at the front door of the building at 8:52 am. And had to knock again. It was a long moment before an older man appeared in the lobby. "We're closed!" he shouted through the locked glass doors.

Fraser merely cocked his head to the side as the two men with him exchanged uncomprehending frowns and shrugged.

The man frowned in turn as he belatedly took in Fraser's bright red uniform and recognized it for what it was. With a sigh, he crossed the room and twisted the lock open. "Good morning, Constable," he greeted Fraser easily. "Let me guess here: The Musical Ride is playing a hockey benefit match against the Chicago PD and you need skates, right?"

Fraser stared at the man for a long moment, wrestling with how he had possible come up with such an incredibly bizarre idea, and then blinked. "No," he answered simply.

The man offered a pensive and confused frown, speaking again before Fraser could explain. "Chicago has been annexed by Canada?"

Fraser smiled, realizing the man must be joking. "No," he answered again. "Someone called the consulate and asked a representative to stop by. I'm the Deputy Liaison Officer."



"Darn!" The older man shook his head. "And here I thought I was still in bed dreaming of home or something." He suddenly frowned. "But no one coulda called you today. We're closed."

"Yes, well," Fraser stammered uncomfortably. "Are you sure there's no one else here? We were supposed to meet with someone."

"No," the man replied with a frown. "I'm quite sure. I've been here all night going over some books. I'm Michael Carlyse, Senior Insurance Adjuster here in Chicago for Icecat Incorporated."

"I, ah... I see," Fraser answered, glancing at his companions. If this was the Senior Adjuster for the business than there was no way their covers as Account Representatives for the home office would work!

"Are you sure you have the right address?" the other man asked helpfully.

The three men exchanged silent questions and judgments, then Kowalski suddenly started to pat himself down. "Damn," he muttered. "I think I left the note back at the car. Could you come and help us figure this out? I'm sure the guy said Icecat."

Vecchio had moved to hold the door wide for the other man and Fraser reached in to gently urge him out with a reassuring smile. The man shrugged and nodded. "Sure," he decided, his ready compliance assuring them that he wasn't a part of whatever was going down inside.

Still, they weren't taking any chances. They lead him around the corner to where Dief and several uniformed officers were waiting as backup, then spun on their respective heels, judging his reaction and ready to tackle him if he tried to run.

Instead, he blinked in confusion. "What's going on here?"

"My apologies for the deception, Mr. Carlyse," Fraser offered readily. "I am indeed the Deputy Liaison Officer for the Canadian Consulate, Constable Benton Fraser, but no one put in a request that I stop by." He paused to indicate the Rays to either side of him. "These men are Chicago police detectives. We have reason to believe that a kidnap victim may be hidden inside your building, or that one of the men involved in the case is inside. Any assistance you could render would be appreciated it."

"A kidnap victim?" the man repeated, in obvious surprise. "Sure. I'll do whatever I can! But what makes you think the kid or whoever is here?"

"It's a young woman, Mr. Carlyse," Fraser corrected him. "We managed to trace her cell phone to this location."

"You said there was no one else in the building," Vecchio challenged him impatiently. "How can you be so sure of that? When did you come in this morning?"

"I've been here all night, Detective," the man answered readily. "For the last two days in fact. We're in the midst of an audit by the home office."

"And you see everyone that comes and goes in that building?" Vecchio pressed.

"Of course not, Detective," the man answered with a frown, "but the janitor does. I locked up after he left last night. He would have mentioned if there were anyone else staying over. I take it she was kidnapped last night?"

"Yesterday morning," Fraser answered, a gentle hand on Ray's shoulder calming the other man's understandable impatience and suspicions. "Can we have your permission to search the building, Mr. Carlyse? We can obtain a warrant if we must, but it would take time: The young woman's life is very much at stake."

"Of course!" the man agreed readily. "Go right ahead!"

"Would you be willing to accompany us, Sir?"

"Is it dangerous?"

Kowalski popped his neck. "Not if there's no one else inside."

The man shrugged pensively. "I suppose someone could have snuck in and Carl missed him...."

"Carl check the basement every night?" Vecchio asked succinctly.

Michael Carlyse shook his head. "That's where we keep our paper records and other supplies."

Vecchio glanced at Fraser. "Any chance that skylight was really a basement window?"

Fraser frowned pensively. "It's possible, Ray," he admitted reluctantly. "I may have misinterpreted what I saw in the photographs. Or, as Ray suggested, they may have moved her."

"Whatever," Vecchio decided, checking his gun yet again and tucking it back out of view as he glanced down the short stretch of alleyway to the corner around which he knew waited the front of Icecat Inc. "We've got people on the adjacent roof, the back street, the fire escapes and windows, and watching the front door. There any other ways in or out we don't know about?"

"No," the other man answered, "not that I can think of."

"Any steam tunnels? That sort of thing?" Kowalski suggested.

Again Mr. Carlyse shook his head.

"Okay, then." The blond detective nodded at Ray and Ben. "Let's do it! We'll stick with nice and quiet-like so we don't spook anyone hiding there, right? Mr. Carlyse, as you're with the company and all, you'll take the lead, at least until we get in the building. After that, just kinda hang back in case we got any questions. Clear?"

"Ray," Fraser had a sudden thought, "if someone is watching, then the sight of my uniform alone might be enough to 'spook them', as you put it."

Kowalski and Vecchio exchanged worried glances. It was stupid of them not to have thought about that sooner. They must be more tired than they thought. The blond detective shrugged. "Damage is already done then, Frase: Too late to change things now. Come on. Let's make this quick." Grabbing Mr. Carlyse's shoulder, the younger man spun him around and the group of four made their way quickly back the way they'd come. A minute later they were inside the building and beginning the search.

It took them about ten minutes to do a quick and very quiet search of the ground floor. Next came the basement, as it was the most likely hiding place given what Mr. Carlyse had told them about the janitor. The business executive showed them where the basement door was. They then told him to wait, and to run for help if he heard shouting. Kowalski wasn't sure the wire he wore would work from down in the basement.

They opened the heavy door quietly and exchanged glances as they saw the light at the bottom of the stairs. "You always leave this light on?" Vecchio asked in a soft hiss.

"No," Mr. Carlyse answered in the same quiet whisper. "It should be off."

"What's the layout like down there?" Vecchio asked further. "One big room or what?"

"No, ten rooms and a bathroom. One long hall," he answered. "Mostly files like I said. Some backup computers and paper supplies in one, the furnace in another, electrical in another, that sort of thing."

Vecchio and Kowalski were nodding. It was fairly typical stuff, no surprises. Good.

Kowalski took the lead as they crept down the stairs, his gun held low at the ready. Vecchio followed him, his own weapon also held low, finger well away from the trigger and carefully aimed away from Kowalski. Fraser, unarmed, brought up the rear. Only silence met their ears as they descended the cement staircase and paused at the bottom. Kowalski peeked around the corner. Nothing. He pointed at Fraser and then at his ears, knowing old Bat-ears could probably hear anyone breathing down here. Fraser closed his eyes, concentrated and shook his head. Kowalski nodded and turned to start forward again, but Vecchio stopped him.

Vecchio silently lifted a finger, telling them to wait as he reached inside his coat and produced his cell phone. A quick tap on his ear told them both to listen and then he quickly dialed. The two men understood immediately what he was doing.

A moment later, the musical chime that was Frannie's phone echoed in the silence of the basement as it announced the call.

They moved quickly and silently forward, zeroing in on the sound easily as it repeated: Third door on the left. Words were unnecessary as Kowalski and Vecchio positioned themselves and, together, kicked the door in.

"Freeze!" Kowalski shouted even as he moved forward, bringing his weapon to bear. "Chicago PD!"

Frannie's phone rang a third time.

There was no movement in the room as the two detectives crouched in the doorway, covering each other. Fraser dared stick his head around the doorjamb and quickly scanned the empty room.

Frannie's phone was sitting atop the far filing cabinet, directly opposite the door. A small, black tape recorder sat next to it. The phone rang a forth time and then they heard the sound of her provider picking up the call over Vecchio’s phone. "We're sorry. Miss Vecchio is not answering right now. If you would like to--"

Vecchio straightened and slapped his phone shut, ending the ubiquitous announcement and muttering a soft but expressive expletive. He closed his eyes as he fought back the wave of helpless anger and frustration that threatened to overwhelm him. Once more, Muldoon had second guessed them, had anticipated their moves and used it against them. Ray didn't know what was on that tape. He didn't want to know what was on it. He could guess.

But he had no choice.

He was going to have to listen to Muldoon taunt him again. And he was going to have to pray that the man had made a mistake; and that maybe, just maybe, there would be a clue on the tape to lead him to Frannie somehow.

He opened his eyes and found that Fraser and Kowalski had already moved to stand beside the machine. They watched him in quiet concern as Benny's finger hesitated over the play key. He swallowed convulsively and nodded.

None of them were surprised to hear Muldoon's chuckle. "Well, well, well... If it isn't the Three Stooges. You guys are about as amusing and effective as they were. What took you so long to remember your sister's cell phone, Vecchio?"

There was the distinct sound of flesh on flesh in the background and a painful groan that could only belong to Frannie. Ray winced and closed his eyes again as he fought down the bile, forcing himself to continue listening.

"You're making this too easy. The game's no fun if you can't even challenge me."

Another voice suddenly spoke up from the background, "Shit. Hal!?"

"What?" Muldoon answered. There was the sound of steps and bedsprings and sheets moving. Frannie groaned again, much louder. "She's bleeding. So what?"

Ray's nails bit into the palms of his hands as his vision tunneled and tears welled. He met Ben's staunchly controlled gaze and saw the sympathy and horror that lay masked there. Kowalski's gaze was angry before he glanced down and away, forcing himself to listen.

"Ah, shit. Don’t just stand there! Get some towels or something."

Towels? Ray closed his eyes and felt several hot tears scald his cheeks as he wondered if he were listening to his sister die.

"Your sister isn't looking too good here, Vecchio. Want to talk to your brother, Slut? Huh? You want to talk to Ray?"


It was a weak whisper of sound that tore Vecchio's heart out. He leaned on the file cabinet, silent sobs shaking his frame as his fingers threatened to leave permanent impressions in the sheet metal.


Pizza? The three men frowned at each other in sudden confusion while Muldoon chuckled.

"The slut is really out of it, Ray. I think she passed out again. I'll keep her alive as long as I can, after all that's part of the game, but you might want to hurry things up a bit. A little blood never stopped me from having some fun. In fact, it's kinda kinky. Heck, snuff sex is hot stuff. Maybe I'll make a video and she can pay me back some of what you three owe me. Don't worry, I'll be sure and send you a copy."

Vecchio lost any control he had remaining when he heard that last promise and the laughter that followed. He could not listen to that laughter! The recorder crashed into the wall beside the door, exploding into a hundred pieces.

But at least the laughter stopped.

Kowalski and Fraser exchanged glances in the silence that descended, broken only by the sound of Vecchio fighting to get control of his emotions. He'd just destroyed a piece of evidence, but neither of them blamed him for an instant.

Sounds from the stairway and hall suddenly overpowered Vecchio's harsh breathing and they knew Mr. Carlyse had summoned the backup. Fraser went to Vecchio and shielded him from the door as Kowalski moved to intercept their unwanted 'help'.

Huey was the first to appear in the doorway, Dewey right behind him. A quick glance dashed his hopes. "You didn't find her," he offered, curtly.

Kowalski answered with a grim shake of his head, a silent gesture ordering the two men to keep back, and keep the other officers out. Kowalski quickly went to the shattered tape recorder and bent to pick up the cassette with a handkerchief, wrapping it carefully to protect any prints. It was cracked, but it would take more than the projectile destruction of the recorder to destroy the information it contained. He took it to Huey and Dewey, drawing them into the hall where they could talk. Neither of the other men said a word about the tape recorder or Vecchio's obvious distress.

"The wire work?" Kowalski asked softly, knowing it hadn't or Huey wouldn't have made the comment about not finding Frannie. A simple shake of the head was his answer. Curtly, in a voice just above a whisper, he told them the basics of what they'd heard and then handed the tape over. "See if there's anything else on it and get me a transcript," he ordered in a hiss. "Make sure only I or Fraser get it," he emphasized. "Vecchio is not to see it. Understood?"

The two men nodded in silent agreement.

"Anything on the bed yet?" he asked further.

Huey shook his head. "Lys and Elaine are working on it," he answered quietly, glancing beyond Ray to where Big Red still stood shielding Vecchio's distraught form from view.

"Elaine?" Kowalski echoed in surprised confusion. "Elaine Besbriss?"

Huey nodded. "It's her day off. She showed up right after you left and Welsh put her to work."

Kowalski nodded. He shouldn't be surprised. He doubted there was a police officer in the city who didn't know what was happening at the twenty-seventh.

He also knew that if there was anyway to trace that bed, Elaine would find it.

With a simple nod then, Kowalski turned back to the room behind him and the anguished man Muldoon was slowly but surely destroying. Fraser turned as he stepped inside, meeting his concerned and questioning gaze with concern of his own as he watched Kowalski shut the door.

"Pizza.... Pizza...." Vecchio muttered in an angry undertone. He glanced up as Kowalski came to stand beside Fraser. The blond detective was taken aback by the pain and near panic which haunted the emerald green depths that rose to meet his gaze. "She was trying to tell us something," Vecchio decided and there was no arguing with that quiet vehemence. "What was she trying to tell us?"

Fraser and Kowalski again exchanged silent glances. Vecchio was too near the edge, and they both knew it. They also knew that only finding Frannie would keep him from going over. Hell, he'd already slipped twice! They couldn't keep him out of the investigation: He'd just go off on his own if they tried. But they made a silent agreement that, if or when the time came for an arrest, Vecchio would not be allowed within a hundred feet of Muldoon. Neither man would survive it if they failed.

But, they'd deal with Muldoon's arrest when the time came. First, they had to find him. For now, Fraser frowned and turned his mind to the question Vecchio had voiced.

Was Ray correct? Was Frannie trying to tell them something? Or was she, as Muldoon had said, too badly traumatized to know what she was saying? Was 'pizza' an obscured clue, or the vague meanderings of a mind seeking the solace of oblivion?

"What was she trying to say?" Vecchio demanded again in quiet desperation.

"Maybe she smelled pizza," Kowalski suggested.

Fraser's head suddenly snapped up. "Spaghetti sauce."

"Spaghetti sauce?" Kowalski repeated. Vecchio's face was an open window to his soul as he waited for Fraser to explain.

"The envelope," he answered. "The one with the pictures. Forensics said there was a spot of spaghetti sauce on it."

"Tuppence..." Vecchio growled.

"No," Fraser corrected him. "Tuppence didn’t deliver the envelope. There was no match in the fingerprint data bank. ‘Probably a kid from the street’,” he repeated their earlier surmise. “Muldoon gave someone the envelope and paid him to drop it in with the regular in-house delivery. But Muldoon wouldn’t have trusted anyone to carry it around for any length of time--"

“--So it’s not the delivery guy who was eatting pizza, but Muldoon!” Vecchio concluded.

"You think they were stupid enough to order delivery?" Kowalski asked.

"They have to eat, Ray," Fraser answered seriously and turned to meet Vecchio's ravaged countenance. "I think Frannie was trying to tell us something."

Kowalski didn't question it further. He merely flipped his cell phone open and hit the speed dial. "Get me Elaine," he ordered sharply even as he spun on his heel to lead the way back up the stairs. Someone would be sent back to bag up the destroyed tape recorder and any other trace evidence that might be there. "Elaine?" he greeted her in question. "Welcome aboard. I need you to find any pizza places close on to one of the warehouse districts, and then see if any of them made any deliveries yesterday afternoon, probably around lunchtime or a little after."


"To an abandoned warehouse or empty construction site, anything odd like that."

"Before or after the bed?"

"Before," he answered succinctly. "Frannie gave us the clue herself."

"Then stay off your cell. I'll call as soon as I get anything."

Kowalski snapped his cell closed and took the stairs two at a time. Exactly where he was going, he didn't know, but he had to get away from that room: He had to get Vecchio away from it. He decided they'd head down toward the waterfront and hopefully be that much closer when Elaine called with the information they needed. He had the sudden inescapable feeling that someone had upended an hour glass and that he was watching Frannie's life slip slowly away with each passing second. The sense of urgency he felt was nearly unbearable.

They had to find her. They had to find her now.

The streets of Chicago were a tangled web of activity at 9:45 on a Saturday morning in mid-October. The sky had taken on a nasty overcast look and the wind, unseasonably cold, held the unmistakable threat of snow. The weather mirrored the dark, foreboding mood that encompassed the three men in the GTO as they threaded their way through the heavy morning traffic. Even Dief was strangely subdued in the silence that held his human companions in its grip. Kowalski chose to cruise around the same area as the Icecat Incorporated offices. It was an arbitrary choice. There were several warehouse districts in Chicago. Just because the cell had turned up at Icecat, didn't mean Muldoon and his men were in the same district.

Kowalski glanced at the clock above the radio. Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes since Elaine began her search. Twenty minutes since his mental countdown to disaster seemed to have begun.

Towels, he'd said....

God, he didn't need to remember that! There was no telling how old that damn tape was. No telling when it and the cell had been planted. The only source of hope that they had was the simple fact that Muldoon had not called again. And he would if Frannie had died. He'd want to hammer the final nail in Vecchio's coffin personally, before reminding Ben that Maggie was next. Kowalski was deadly afraid to consider whom Muldoon might have targeted for him. He didn't have a sister -- but he knew that was no protection. He still had people he loved who could be used to destroy him the same way the bastard was slowly and meticulously destroying Vecchio.

The man sat in a near catatonic anger beside him, his eyes staring sightlessly forward, taking in the traffic around them without taking it in. He was a spring waiting to be sprung; a gun with a hair trigger waiting to be fired, a punch looking for a place to land....

A glance in the mirror at Frase told Kowalski the Mountie was all too aware of Vecchio's mood. He was worried -- but except for an occasional glance, the man in back stared out the side window, as lost in his own dark thoughts as Vecchio was.

Fraser was angry.

There were very few times Kowalski could remember that he'd seen Fraser actually get angry about something. Well, angry maybe, but this... Ben never was one to show his deeper feelings. He had a penchant for taking life as it came and rolling with the blows. But when he did get angry, really angry, it was like watching a storm build on the horizon. You could smell it in the air, feel it, taste it and hear it in the silence that descended just before that first lightning stroke.

Kowalski didn't want to be in the way when this one broke.

His cell phone suddenly rang, breaking the overwhelming silence that encompassed the interior of the car. The tension within the car practically crackled with impatience as Kowalski flipped the phone open.

"This better be Elaine," he greeted his caller brusquely. He listened for a long tense minute and then quickly scanned the streets around him. "Got it. Tell ‘em to stay far back ‘til I give the word. We'll check the place out first." He snapped the phone shut, tossing it onto the seat between himself and Vecchio. A moment later he was doing a boot-legger's turn, sending the car into a skid and turning them one hundred and eighty degrees while the cars around them slammed on their brakes and honked their horns in protest. Neither man with him said a word, his actions spoke for him.

"Where?" Vecchio asked succinctly.

"228 S. Tamora," he answered curtly. "Empty warehouse. Ainger Pizzeria charges extra for delivery there."

Which meant it was ugly. The others merely nodded acknowledgment of the fact and filed it away. They were going to have to be careful in their approach, but they already knew that.

"Welsh has backup and a SWAT unit on the way."

Again, they each nodded. Their job now was to scope out the situation and determine how best to rescue Frannie. They weren't going to wait for someone else to make that determination. If they needed backup or SWAT, they'd use them, but it would take time to get everyone in place: Time Frannie might not have.

South-east Chicago would never be a tourist trap. This particular area was a maze of warehouses, factories and massive industrial plants, half of them abandoned and falling down because their parent corporations couldn't sell them. Understandably. It would cost more to demolish them than the land they sat on was worth. Instead, the companies stripped them clean of the equipment they could and left the rest to rust and fall apart as a tax write-off.

228 S. Tamora turned out to be 'Shakiba International Radiator', a massive abandoned foundry whose front took up the better part of a block. Hell, the place probably extended a quarter mile back toward Lake Shore.

It was the perfect hiding place for a rat like Muldoon.

They drove by it slowly, not hard to do given the congested traffic flow of the area. Nah, Kowalski thought, this wasn't an area where screams even at two in the morning would be heard, let alone remarked on. They each noted the half-rotted boarded-up broken windows, crumbling brick facade and vantage points on the two story roof.

"There," Fraser suddenly spoke up softly, unconsciously lowering his voice. He was careful not to point. "Next to the air intake above the forth window."

Sure enough, Kowalski noted the man Fraser had spotted. H was hunkered against the chill wind on the lee side of the massive machinery, lazily smoking a cigarette. He wasn't much of a lookout but it was enough to confirm they were at the right place. There was no other reason for anyone to be up there, especially in this weather. Kowalski did his best to hurry it up after that, suddenly concerned that Muldoon might have had the foresight to warn his people to watch out for the old Goat.

The man never even glanced in their direction. Thank God for incompetence, Kowalski thought as he pulled around the corner and reached for his cell.

He gave Elaine a quick report to pass on with another strongly worded warning for everyone to stay back. There was no way anyone was in position yet and Ray didn't want to risk having the buffoon up top catch sight of a SWAT van in the area! That's all they'd need!

It was a big place. The three men knew that the only way they were going to get Frannie out alive, was to know exactly where she was and to be there to protect her before having the others move in. If they were lucky, Muldoon was playing this one close to his belt and only had a few of his 'friends' in there with him. It was also possible he had a small army inside! They wouldn't know until they got in there and could see for themselves.

Kowalski slapped his phone closed again, making sure to disable the ring function, and turned to his partners as he slipped it into his pocket. "Ideas?" he asked simply.

"Muldoon will have all the entrances covered, and we saw the man on the roof," Fraser offered.

"Yeah, a blind idiot," Kowalski noted. "Shouldn't be too hard to take him."

"But risky," Fraser rejoined. "He may be expected to check in periodically."

"One of the windows?" Vecchio suggested.

Fraser nodded. "The traffic will mask the noise."

"But not the sudden light," Kowalski noted.

"I saw a small alleyway to the north of the building as we drove past. It was heavily shadowed."

"What if we break into the same room they're holding Frannie in?" Vecchio asked, finding himself talking just above a whisper.

Fraser offered a grim little shrug. "She's likely being held somewhere toward the back and away from any windows."

Kowalski nodded. It was impossible to do this without some risk. The key was in choosing what risks to take and what to avoid. "And the lookouts?"

"Are a very real danger," Fraser agreed.

"I can't believe I'm going to suggest this," Vecchio muttered and then glanced back up at the two men, his distaste almost palpable -- but it wasn't enough to keep him from voicing a sudden idea. "What about the sewers?"

"Oh gag!" Kowalski groaned.

"There should be direct access to such a large facility, especially given the time period in which it was built," Fraser agreed.

Vecchio shook his head and closed his eyes. "I knew you were going to say that."

"The sewers," Kowalski echoed. "You're kidding, right?"

"You mean he's never taken you on the scenic tour?" Vecchio responded. He turned to glare at Benny. "I swear, I'll take you to the emergency room and have them pump your stomach if you eat anything this time."

"This time?!!"

"It was a carrot, Ray," Fraser responded indignantly, "and--"


"--and I did not eat it." He rolled his eyes as he finished his thought.

"He tasted it."

"Well, it's not like--"

"Don't go there, Frase! Just-- Do not go there!"

"Ray, it was just--"

"Forget it, Benny," Vecchio interrupted him firmly. "There's nothing you can say that will-- Never mind. Is there some place to rent a boat ‘round here?"

"A boat???"

Kowalski had been in some rather strange and ugly places with Fraser before, but this.... He winced as he felt something brush against his hair and hunkered even lower in the tiny boat. He refused to think about what was clinging to the rough surface above him.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," he whispered harshly, fighting to keep his breathing to the bare minimum. The stench....

"I didn't hear you coming up with any better ideas," Vecchio rejoined softly.

"Shhh!" Fraser hushed them sharply and shipped his oar. His finger went to his lips and the three of them froze as they drifted silently forward, listening....

"--What do I care?" someone laughed. It wasn't Muldoon.

"It's gross!"

Another laugh. "You don't know what gross is, kid. Come on. The party's over for this bitch. We're outta here."

Vecchio felt his heart threaten to stop as he heard that. Over? What did the bastard mean 'over'? Did he mean she was dead? Was he saying Frannie was dead?! A glance into Ben and Kowalski's eyes confirmed the possible meaning -- but he also saw the desperate hope that mirrored his own which words alone could not erase.

He swallowed convulsively around an impossibly tight throat and forced himself to breathe again, listening as footsteps echoed and faded. Fraser glanced around and gestured to the side where a ladder was built into the wall of the sewer. Silently, they dipped their oars back into the putrid waters and directed the small canoe to the side. Ray would not believe she was dead until--

No. No, he would not think it. They'd find her. She'd be fine. Not fine, he forced himself to acknowledge, but alive. They'd find her alive and get her to a hospital and she'd be fine.

And Muldoon would wish to God he'd never been born.

The access opening they happened to choose came up behind a dust- and cobweb-covered piece of tangled machinery. The smell of old oil and lubricants assaulted their sinuses as dust motes danced from shadow to an occasional dim stream of sunlight back to shadow again. Kowalski came to a sudden halt and had to fight desperately not to sneeze. His eyes watered as he grabbed his nose and shook it, trying to force the urge away. It was impossible. He did manage to keep it to a tiny high pitched snort that sounded for all the world like someone had stepped on a rubber duck. Fortunately, there was no else around them to hear it. In the distance, footsteps and faint voices echoed in the cavernous space. The three men crept silently forward once more, moving to hunker down in the shadows of some kind of old conveyor belt.

"I didn't hear any echoes," Vecchio whispered, reminding them of the phone call he'd received from Muldoon.

It was an inconsistency. "She may be in an area with packing materials or such, anything soft that would absorb the sounds and prevent echoes," Fraser offered in a quiet hiss. The three men stuck their heads around the tangled equipment, looking for anything that might fit that requirement. There was nothing, at least in their immediate area. There was also no movement within their immediate area. It took Fraser only a moment to determine that they'd entered the building somewhere along its west wall, apparently toward the front. The sounds of movement and voices were coming from their left.

A simple gesture and nod: The three men moved out in a silent coordinated effort, fanning out and slipping from one shadow to the next as they made their way further back into the building. There was plenty of cover. Very little effort had been made to strip the plant, as most of the machinery was far too massive and customized to the space. It towered over them like a rusty skeleton of pipes, lifts, catwalks and interconnected cranes. The floor was littered with broken pieces, stray bits of trash and a small rail system which had apparently carried large hoppers of casting sand or coal from one area to the next. The sound of running steps had them all slipping quickly into the shadows again. A moment later, someone ran by Vecchio's spot. He could have reached out and tripped him but held back as a voice called out, "Hey Joey!"

"Mark? What you still doing up front? Didn't you get the word? We're bugging out. The game's over."

"What about the chick?" the other complained. "I never got my turn. Don't tell me you ham- fisted idiots killed her already? She shoulda been good for several days!"

"She started bleeding or something," the other rejoined in obvious disgust as they started to move away. "Stop your complaining. It's the easiest five grand you ever made."

"So what's next?"

The answer, if there was one, was lost in the screeching protest of some ancient piece of machinery being started up. Somehow, the three police officers doubted that boded well for Francesca. None of them would acknowledge the silent message within the words they'd overheard which more than suggested Frannie was already dead.

Instead, Kowalski locked eyes with Fraser and held up two fingers. He walked his hands through the air in opposite directions, pointed at Fraser again, popped a finger upward, pointed to himself and Vecchio and then delivered an imaginary upper cut.

Fraser understood. If the perpetrators were 'bugging out', then they didn't have to worry about lookouts needing to report in periodically and could be far more aggressive in their actions. Besides, no one would hear anything over the noise. He nodded and glanced at Vecchio, making sure he too understood Kowalski's silent plan. He met grim and determined eyes, burning with a carefully controlled rage and a desperate fear. The man blinked mechanically and offered a curt nod: He understood the plan.

Ben wasn't exactly sure how sane his friend was at that moment but there was nothing he could do about it right now. He turned forward again as a (((beep, beep, beep))) suddenly joined the other sounds: much like the warning beep of a garbage truck when it was backing up... or a forklift, Fraser thought. Why it was sounding, he couldn't know, but it only added to his sense of urgency. They had to find Frannie. He prayed it wasn't too late. He blocked the sound out of mind and, having decided his route, he moved out quickly, an occasional glance assuring him he kept pace with Kowalski and that Vecchio kept pace with him. At the proper moment, he suddenly stepped out in front of their two targets.

"Joey and Mark, I presume?" he asked calmly, surprising them with their names as well as his presence as Vecchio and Kowalski slipped up behind them. A tap on the shoulder, followed by a solid uppercut as each turned-- They were down for the count before either could fully react.

Vecchio made a face and silently shook his hand, having hit his guy quite a bit harder than perhaps he needed to. He wriggled his fingers, assuring himself he hadn't broken anything.

"Hey Vecchio!" Muldoon's voice suddenly rang out over the screeching equipment. They glanced around in surprise, knowing they'd been spotted and fearing for themselves as well as Frannie, but they couldn't spot Muldoon. "Up here, Vecchio!" he called again lazily.

All three men glanced upward to discover Muldoon grinning down at them from the control cage of an electro-magnetic crane twenty feet above them.

"You know that red serge of yours stands out like a flare from up here, Ben-ton," he taunted them. "You all found me sooner than I thought you would, but it doesn't matter. You're too late, Vecchio," he laughed. "I was just getting ready to bury your sister. How ‘bout I bury you instead!"

With that he flipped a switch on the magnet and sent several tons of twisted scrap metal hurtling toward them.

Ben wasn't close enough to worry about Kowalski, but he was close enough to Vecchio. He grabbed his friend and threw him to the ground, following him and rolling them both under the cover of a massive caldron as the rusted mass of torn and twisted metal crashed down where they'd been standing moments before.

Mark and Joey never knew what hit them.

Ray cried out sharply and jerked against Ben's hold as the sound of the steel death trap enveloped them like an explosion and Ben rolled them further into safety. Ben lay bent over and around Ray, shielding him with his body. It was several long moments before the echoes faded enough for him to hear himself think, and he dared release his grip on his friend.

Vecchio cried out again and reached for his leg. A quick inspection confirmed that Ray was bleeding from the back of his thigh. Ben suspected a piece of metal had spawled off during the crash to ground and had caught Ray like a piece of shrapnel might. He suspected there'd been quite a bit of it flying around and they had been more than lucky to have suffered only the one injury.

"Move in! Move in!" They heard Kowalski's voice frantically calling for backup from somewhere to their right, shouting over the sound of Muldoon's laughter. "Muldoon's trying to escape. He's in a crane overhead. Don't let the bastard get away!"

And a moment later, "Fraser? Fraser!!"

"Over here, Ray!" Ben answered.

"Benny!" Vecchio grabbed him by the front of his tunic, shoving his pain aside to convey a desperate need. He shoved his gun flat against Ben's chest. "Get the son of a bitch."

Ben read the terrible loss of hope in his friend's eyes, read the pain and rage, the need to avenge his sister's death, and took the gun with a silent nod. He glanced up as Kowalski made his way around the tangled mess of steel and found them in the shadow of the giant pot. In the distance, gunshots joined the shouting and general alarm that the crashing steel had triggered. Ben and Kowalski exchanged an unspoken understanding. Ray nodded, assuming responsibility for Vecchio as Ben stood and glanced back upward again, easily spotting the crane Muldoon was in as it sped along its track to the south. He shoved the gun into his pocket, settled his hat firmly upon his head and quickly chose an interception path, taking off at a run.

The crane was moving at about twenty-five miles an hour, but on a set course. The nearest junction at which Muldoon could escape the cage was a good minute away. The catwalk at that point branched either eastward or down to the floor. Ben was moving for that ladder. Muldoon would see him coming, but Ben didn't care. His own rage and pain was a seething force within him, one that he now tapped and let boil forth in a carefully controlled drive, focused entirely on one goal: Stopping Muldoon.

He fed that anger now, like feeding wood to a fire; remembering Muldoon's words from a year ago on the Ferris wheel where he'd taunted Ben with his mother's murder, remembering how Ray had leapt in front of a bullet meant for him, remembering how the man had used to tease him with the name 'Ben-ton' when he was little because that was how the three year old had first introduced himself to his father's friend, remembering how he had betrayed Ben's father's trust, used it against him and nearly destroyed him.

And he remembered Frannie.

He remembered her laughter, her teasing, her constant flirting. She'd confused and terrified and amused him all at the same time. She was a woman of the world and an innocent child who danced to her own music and wasn't afraid to dream.

Muldoon had destroyed that. Whether she was alive or not, and Ben refused to think about that one way or the other, Muldoon had destroyed that. He'd used and crushed another innocent to get to his real victim. And he'd laughed while doing it. Muldoon would pay, he swore: He would pay for all the pain he'd caused if it was the last thing Ben ever did.

One of Muldoon's thugs suddenly jumped out in front of Ben with a gun. Ben never even flinched from his purpose. He darted slightly to the side, throwing the man's aim off, and then ran him over, delivering a vicious right hook in passing that sprawled him out on the filthy floor.

Ben's eyes found Muldoon again as he exited the crane's control cage and leaned out over the catwalk. Even at a distance of forty feet, the other man could see and recognize the deadly purpose which drove Ben forward. Ben saw that recognition and the fear it evoked, and darted to the side as Muldoon drew his own gun, letting off three rounds in quick succession as he forgot any plans for slow and torturous revenge.

No more revenge. This was going to end, Ben swore silently, it was going to end now!

The bullets spat sparks as they ricocheted off steel machinery. Muldoon scowled angrily as he missed and then turned to run, making his way eastward along the catwalk. Ben ducked out of safety and reached for the ladder. He swung behind it and scrambled upward, knowing himself to be vulnerable but again ignoring it. Muldoon didn't take the necessary time to turn and properly aim or he might have ended the chase. Ben had spooked him too much and he wasn't thinking straight. His only thought now was of escape.

Ben reached the top of the ladder and glanced after Muldoon, ducking below the opening as the man let off another three rounds. They went well wide. He was firing wildly, not taking the time to set up his shots.

"Your Maggie's next, Ben-ton!" Muldoon promised as he paused on the catwalk. He was obviously seeking to enrage Ben further. Ben knew it and fought to control the avalanche of anger that answered Muldoon's laughter. "How's it feel, knowing your father wasn't the saint you thought he was? You know, he was messing around on your mother even before I killed her. I wouldn't be surprised if you don't have other brothers and sisters out there waiting to be discovered."

Ben ground his teeth, recognizing the lies for what they were, and dared duck his head out and back again very quickly, drawing another shot from Muldoon's gun. He'd taken the time to aim this time, but it did him no good. That was seven. Ben knew he was using a nine round Sig-saur. He was down to two shots unless he had a spare clip, which Ben was sure he did. The idea was to take him while he tried to change it out. But that only took a few seconds. Ben knew he had to get closer.

Muldoon swore softly as he missed again.

"You won't get away with this," Ben called back to him. "I'll hunt you to the ends of the earth, Holloway Muldoon. I'll hunt you beyond! You kill me, and I'll still hunt you down! You can't escape!"

The words had the desired effect. Muldoon’s eyes got very large as he remembered his capture in the mine shaft he and Ben had fallen into so long ago. He had undoubtedly convinced himself that Bob's ghost was an injury-induced dream, but the words brought the memory of it back just the same. He spun on his heel and raced back along the catwalk, heading for a ladder on the east wall.

Ben quickly climbed up onto the catwalk and raced after him. A shout from below; and a shot rang out, ricocheting off the grating at Ben's feet: One of Muldoon's men trying to help his boss. Ben ignored it. If a bullet from below found him, then it found him, and that was the way it was meant to be. He wasn't going to worry about it. Besides, the grillwork at his feet was fairly tight.

Muldoon reached the ladder he sought. It went either up to the roof or down to the floor. The sound of policemen shouting 'freeze' and 'drop it' was now overwhelming the more desperate cries from below of Muldoon's henchmen as they called to each other. Ben had counted about eight or ten different voices. It wouldn't take long for the backup and SWAT team to round them up. The sounds determined Muldoon's course. He headed upward, for the roof.

Ben knew backup officers would be waiting for him. He clenched his teeth, knowing the chase was almost over and that there would be no one-to-one challenge in which Muldoon might accidentally fall to his death. It wasn't something that he would have actually precipitated, but it was a nice fantasy just the same.

In the end, the arrest was almost anticlimactic. Muldoon threw the door open to find himself confronting two SWAT team members, weapons drawn and ready. He froze, assessing the situation in an instant and knowing he was caught. He glanced back at Fraser and Ben saw the momentary debate that took place in his mind as they locked eyes: The cops were wearing flack vests: No way to win a shoot-out there. But he could shoot Fraser. The cops on the roof would open fire the moment he lifted his gun and Muldoon knew he would die, but he could at least take one of his enemies with him. The real question was whether he was willing to die before going back to prison. Having already managed one escape, prison won out. He dropped his gun as the SWAT team ordered and smiled with evil promise at Ben before he slowly turned and raised his hands in surrender.

It wasn't over. At least not in Muldoon's mind.

Ben watched as the other man was ordered to lie on the roof spread-eagle and the arresting officer came forward to search and cuff him. Ben clenched his fists and felt a sense of deep frustration as this monstrous villain was taken into custody without a struggle. He had to fight to let his anger go, ignoring the thought that he would have much preferred to see Muldoon's body riddled with bullets or better yet, hurtling over the edge of the roof.

Now he knew what his father had felt when he shoved Muldoon off the precipice at Six Mile Canyon some thirty years ago. Maybe it was his father's doing in some small way that kept Ben from having the same chance -- and making the same choice.

He spun on his heel and made his way back down the catwalk, taking the first ladder he came to downward. He needed to find the Rays. Someone else would have found Frannie by now. Someone would know for certain whether she was alive or dead. He wanted to be with Ray when he found out, one way or the other.

He came upon the two of them hobbling toward the back of the building. Vecchio had thrown an arm over Kowalski's shoulder and the other man all but carried him as he limped forward, unable to put any weight on his injured leg. A dark wet stain had spread down the back of his left pant leg below the makeshift bandage Kowalski had rigged from... apparently his undershirt. The white cotton showed a deep red slowly creeping into the twisted material. At least it wasn't arterial, or he would have been in much worse shape.

They glanced up as Fraser appeared in front of them. "They found Frannie in some kinda storage area," Kowalski offered without preamble. "She's alive. That's all we know. Muldoon?"

"In custody," Fraser answered curtly.

"You didn't kill the son of a bitch?" Vecchio hissed angrily.

Fraser ignored the question, still fighting his own anger and not at all happy to acknowledge that he'd certainly been tempted. The weight of Vecchio's gun in his pocket was a reminder of that temptation. In the heat of the chase, he'd forgotten it was there. If he hadn't....

He stepped forward and reached for Vecchio. "If I might..." A simple twist, bend, grab, straighten, and he had Vecchio slung over his shoulder. "This might be a little faster," he grunted. He was careful not to grip Ray's injured leg.

"Put me down, Fraser!" Ray ordered indignantly.

"You want to get to your sister before they take her away in the ambulance, don't you, Ray?" Ben asked, following Kowalski as he quickly assumed the lead. Ray needed an ambulance himself and Fraser knew the paramedics would be working with Francesca.

Ray had no answer to that one, and had to grit his teeth as he was carried in a most undignified manner past the milling cops who were finishing up the arrests and taping off the scene. He fought to ignore the pain that each step sent shooting up his leg.

"I can't let Frannie see me like this!" he protested as he suddenly thought what her reaction to seeing him injured might be.

Kowalski glanced back and met Ben's eyes grimly. They both seriously doubted that Frannie would be in any condition to even notice.

Huey suddenly appeared in front of them. "What the hell happened to him?" he demanded with a frown.

"Metal shrapnel in the back of his leg," Fraser answered simply. "Francesca?"

Huey's face became suddenly grave and he shook his head. "It's not good," he answered grimly. "Better get him in there." He jerked his head over his shoulder, indicating an open doorway about ten feet away. He reached out a gentle hand and laid it on Vecchio's arm despite his being slung over Fraser's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ray," he offered softly and then quickly spun away, leaving all three men frozen with the words he hadn't spoken... but which had been heard just the same.

Frannie was dying.

"Put me down, Benny!" Vecchio offered in a tight voice that broke with emotion.

Ben did not question that order. He was too busy wrestling with his own shock. He had prayed and hoped... He regretted not remembering the gun. He bent quickly and set Ray back on his feet.

Ray immediately turned to the room and took a step without thinking. White hot pain blazed in the back of his leg, actually threatening his consciousness. It was all he could do to keep from crying out as he felt himself pitch forward. Frannie mustn't hear him scream! She mustn't hear him--

Fraser and Kowalski both leapt forward at the same time, catching the suddenly white-faced man before he could collapse to the ground. His face was screwed up into a mask of agony as he clamped his throat shut on the scream that threatened. It was a long moment before he even dared gasp for breath again. Fraser glanced up and caught an unknown officer's attention. "Get a paramedic," he ordered quietly.

"No!" Ray cried sharply. He knew he could wait; he wanted every paramedic in the place helping Frannie. He screwed his eyes shut and formed his turbulent thoughts into an urgent prayer. "No--" he gasped again, opening his eyes and grabbing hold of Fraser's tunic again. This time with both hands. They shook where they gripped the heavy material in white-knuckled fear. "Go to her, Benny," he told the other man desperately. "Go to her! She can't be alone--"


"Go to her!" he ordered in a sharp hiss. "You're family. You always have been."

Fraser glanced upward, suddenly fighting tears, and swallowed around an inexplicably tight throat. He'd always known he was treated like family, but what Ray was asking of him now....

"Go!" The other man jerked at his tunic. "I'll be in as soon as the pain... will let me."

"Do you want me to carry you?"

"No!" he hissed again, wincing as he dared straighten the leg slightly. Ben looked down, checking the bandage, afraid the metal sliver might have shifted and hit the femoral-- "Get in there!" Ray commanded sharply, then shoved himself away. "She needs you!" He was suddenly begging.

Fraser met his desperate gaze and knew he had no choice. He glanced up at Kowalski who knelt opposite him and once more silently surrendered the stubborn Italian into his care. He stood quickly and steeled himself. He'd seen his share of death before, had lost loved ones before, had even held a friend as he slipped away....

He didn't want to do it again.

He paused just outside the doorway to remove his hat and offered a last desperate prayer for the woman beyond that doorway: He prayed it wasn't as bad as Huey claimed.

He could hear the paramedics inside. Their speech was short and crisp. He wasn't familar with all the terms, but he knew enough to realize Francesca was in more than serious condition.

He stepped quickly around the door and almost immediately shut his eyes. The image was burned into his retinas just the same. Blood. Blood everywhere. He swallowed and forced his eyes open again.

It was a fairly small room, as storage rooms go, perhaps fifteen feet on a side. Two of the walls were lined with empty shelves, the third was lined with acoustical tile for some reason -- which explained the lack of an echo. There were two levels to the shelves which ran a good fifteen feet upward but stopped well short of the ceiling, almost like tall stem walls. He suspected it had actually been a library of sorts with drafting supplies and prototype models. A large metal desk had been shoved aside to make room for the bed.

Francesca lay amidst blood-drenched sheets, the paramedics working over her frantically to stabilize her enough for transport. One of the men glanced up and spotted him. "We need another hand!" he claimed sharply. "Get over here!"

Fraser shoved his emotions firmly aside and moved forward to do what had to be done. An IV bag was shoved into his hands. "Squeeze it," the paramedic directed him simply. "Strong steady pressure."

"We're losing her," the other warned from where he fought to establish a second IV line.

The first didn't bother to answer. He'd already moved to Frannie's head and tilted it back. Grabbing up his equipment he made swift work of inserting an endotracheal tube. "I'm in."

"I'm not. I can't get a vein!"

"Go for the external jugular."

Fraser swallowed his fear and forced himself to kneel on the bed, bending close to Francesca as the one paramedic quickly slapped a bag in place and started to 'bag her', forcing her to breathe.

"Francesca," he offered quietly, not knowing whether she could hear him or not, but needing to do whatever he could to help her. "Francesca, it's Ben. Benton," he corrected himself. She was one of the few people who called him by his given name, something he appreciated more that he wanted to admit. "Francesca, listen to me. I know you're hurt. I know you're scared. I know you're tired, but please, please Francesca, please, don't give up! You have to fight. You're a fighter. I know you are. The danger's over. I--"

He was gently but firmly shoved aside. "Move!" the older paramedic ordered coolly.

"Come on, baby," the other one offered as he continued to bag her. "Don't give up on us now."

The one who pushed him aside was leaning over her now, obviously seeking to start an IV in her neck. Ben's mind clicked into automatic, the emotions shutting off as he analyzed the crime scene and situation.

There wasn't quite as much blood as he had at first thought, nor was it 'everywhere'. The sheets were indeed drenched, however, and there were places about the room where bloodied hands had smeared against other surfaces. She had been badly beaten, that he'd already known. His mind noted and catalogued the bruises he could see, the lacerations about her wrists.... She was obviously hemorrhaging from the uterus. He saw no signs of brutalization; no cuts, burns or extreme torture.

One of the paramedics fighting to save her life bumped into Ben. He quickly held the IV up and stepped back as best he could, granting the man greater access as he fought to save Francesca’s life. As Ben did so, he nearly tripped over something and glanced down to see a wastebasket, overflowing with paper towels. Something else in it caught his attention however, something--

//Oh my God!//

Vecchio leaned against the wall, refusing Kowalski's help as he forced himself forward. He could hear Ben in the other room. He was talking to Frannie. Frannie was alive. He focused on that and that alone. She was alive. She was alive and he had to get in there and be with her. As long as he moved his leg right, he could actually walk. It wasn't unlike being shot. The only difference was that the 'bullet' was razor sharp and hurt like hell if he moved wrong. He knew it wasn't that serious. If it was, he'd have gone into shock by now. It was a flesh wound, he told himself. He'd had flesh wounds before. He ignored the thought of the last one he'd had.

"Come on, baby," he heard someone else offer. "Don't give up on us now...." He also heard the slow and steady (((fwwwet... fwwwet... fwwwet))) sound of an air bag being manipulated. He'd heard it too many times in his career not to recognize it.

//Dear God! Dear God,// he prayed, begging yet again for Frannie's life. He gritted his teeth and took another step, only to freeze. His eyes jumped to Kowalski's suddenly stricken expression as they both heard something they thought they'd never hear.

Fraser was throwing up.

Vecchio turned his back to the wall and leaned against it, closing his eyes and wrestling with his emotions. Anything that could make Fraser physically ill, he didn't want to see. He didn't want to remember Frannie that way. He allowed himself to slip slowly down the wall as the tears he'd held in check so long began to fall. He couldn't see her that way. He trembled violently as his mind, having been exposed to the worst that the degenerates of Chicago had to offer, conjured visions he wasn't willing to either confirm or deny by going into that room. He couldn't. He just couldn’t....

//Oh God,// he prayed wretchedly, //Take her quick! Have mercy, and take her quick!//

Ray did not open his eyes again until he heard the gurney coming through the doorway. He hastily blinked the tears away and grabbed onto Kowalski's arm, allowing the other man to help him struggle to his feet. Frannie mustn't see him--

But Frannie couldn't see him, he realized, and he should have known that. He had known it, but his mind seemed to have fractured and was working on several different levels at the same time, none of them talking to each other. His emotions blazed in a chaotic conflagration which threatened his sanity as he watched a pale-faced Fraser help wheel the gurney quickly by him, one medic steering while a third man sat astride Frannie, bagging her.

"Move it! Move it! Move it!" the one steering yelled as they swept past. Officers in the way hastily stepped aside as the gurney headed for the nearest exit. Ray moved to follow and almost collapsed again as his leg screamed at him.

He welcomed the pain.

Suddenly, he found himself hanging upside down again, having been swept up on a much more narrow set of shoulders than Fraser's. There was nothing gentle about Kowalski's movements. Vecchio gasped as the pain in his leg was joined by the sharp jab of bones into his diaphragm and he fought to breathe as he was being jolted by Kowalski trotting after the gurney. "Shit!" he exclaimed.

"Shut up!" Kowalski answered, ignoring Vecchio and racing in the paramedics' wake.

Vecchio clenched the back of the other man's jacket to keep from falling off and gave up on anything except trying to not to scream as they hurried through the abandoned building. And then they were outside. Vecchio opened his eyes to see the broken asphalt of the parking lot sweep by under him. It came to a jarring halt as Kowalski slammed on the brakes. He blinked his eyes and fought to breathe again as noises came to him: The ambulance door being swept open, the gurney being hastily loaded--

"No, you can't come," someone said quickly. "I got it now. Thanks."

The door was swept shut as Vecchio craned his neck around. "Put me down, you idiot!" he shouted.

His world abruptly tilted and pain again seared his consciousness, but Ray refused to black out. He spun on the one foot, maintaining his hold on Kowalski to keep from falling over. The ambulance lights and siren snapped on as the engine turned over and then it was racing out of the parking lot, leaving the Rays staring at Fraser's back as he stared after the ambulance. The three remained, a silent and unmoving tableau, as the ambulance screeched onto the street and disappeared around a corner, its siren still shouting out its demand even after it was gone from sight. They stood and listened to it moving farther away, each man offering his own desperate plea to whatever eternal power might listen.

Vecchio wasn't even sure what to pray for anymore.

The head in front of them suddenly bowed and a sob shook the red-clad shoulders.

"Benny?" Ray called. God, don't let Fraser lose hope! If he lost hope, Ray would have nothing left to hang onto.

The head snapped back up, the shoulders straightened and a hand came up to brush away tears before the man turned to face them. Ray limped forward, leaning heavily on Kowalski as his gaze took in the frozen expression, the haunted eyes, desperately seeking any sign at all that Frannie would be okay.

"Benny?" he asked again in a desperate whisper. The eyes staring into his were fighting tears again. They closed sharply and the face jerked away slightly, a muscle dancing along the clenched jaw line.

Ray felt his world crashing in around him. He couldn't imagine anything being capable of rattling Benny to this extent.

Ben forced his own raging pain aside, forced his eyes open again, forced his throat to swallow. He had to tell Ray. Ray needed-- Ray did not need this, he corrected the thought. No one needed this kind of pain! It was going to devastate his friend and there was nothing Fraser could do to stop it.

He blinked sharply. There was no escaping it. He had a duty to tell him. Better coming from him than some impersonal doctor. He swallowed again and forced the words out. "She was pregnant."

The words washed over Ray without meaning. Frannie was pregnant? What did he mean, Frannie was-- She hadn't been pregnant. Ray would have known if she were preg-- She couldn't be-- Of course she could be. She was a woman after all. But he would have--

He suddenly realized what had made Fraser throw up. The rape must have induced a miscarriage. He must have seen the--

//Oh God!// Ray spun away, feeling his own stomach threatening to heave its contents onto the pavement at his feet. Fortunately, he hadn't eaten in more hours than he wished to think about, or he might very well have.

Kowalski grabbed hold of the man to keep him from falling on his face, feeling his own face pale dramatically as he too realized what Fraser was saying. "Oh Christ!" he whispered.

Movement to his right snagged Fraser's peripheral vision. He literally stopped breathing as he saw Muldoon being lead out of the building to a waiting squad car. The other man saw their little group at the same time.

"Hey Fraser!" he called out over the hundred or so feet that separated them. "Was it your kid, huh? You banging Vecchio's sister? Did I manage to kill your son, Fraser?"

Ben saw red. He had never been so angry in his life. Anger didn't come close to describing what he was feeling. Rage didn't even cover it. What he felt most clearly was the gun that was now in his hand. The cold hard grip, the smooth wood scales, the safety as he clicked it off--

Kowalski was in front of him, a tight grip on his arm keeping Ben from drawing the weapon from his pocket. Ray was saying something but Ben couldn't hear it. He knew he could draw the weapon. He could toss Ray aside and kill the murderous bastard who even now was laughing at him as a police officer directed him into the back of the squad car. Ben had to shoot now, or he wouldn't get another chance! He was an expert marksman. The other officer was in the way but moving. Ben knew he could hit Muldoon between the eyes--

But he didn't.

He released the weapon in his pocket and jerked his hand away from it, spinning away from Kowalski and the sight of the man who had dared-- He couldn't find words to describe the man's atrocity! He buried his hands in his hair and pulled, forcing himself to keep his hands away from the gun in his pocket and the revenge it promised. Even compared with Gerrard, Ben had never felt such a strong desire to murder someone in cold blood.

He heard the squad car pulling away -- and knew the chance was gone. He knew he should be grateful he'd managed to resist temptation, but he hadn't... and he didn't.

It had to be an act of God that held his hand, he thought. No force on Earth could have prevented it. He would have gladly tossed his career away and gone to prison, if he could have pulled that trigger....

"Yo! Earth to Fraser!" Kowalski yelled practically in his ear.

Ben's head jerked up and he glared at his friend.

"Whoa!" the blond detective exclaimed, taking a couple of hasty steps back, out of Fraser's reach. "Damn it, Frase. Put it in lockdown, would ya? I ain’t the one messing with your head!"

Fraser balled his hands into fists and closed his eyes, fighting to lock the emotions that raged through him away. Good or bad, his chance was gone. There was no getting it back. Ray didn't deserve the backlash of his anger and frustration. He forced himself to take a deep breath and hold it before blowing it out slowly. It took all of his concentration to let the rage inside him simmer down to a manageable level.

"Benny?" Vecchio's call interrupted his efforts, but he lifted his head and glanced at his injured friend, knowing he shared the same anger and helpless frustration. He met eyes that searched his in question and shock. "You weren't-- I mean, what Muldoon said--?"

"No, Ray," he answered stoically, feeling another stab of anger that Muldoon had even been able to put the question in Ray's mind. "I was not the father."

Vecchio sighed slightly and nodded, knowing Fraser would never lie about something like that. He had to admit to being relieved. He couldn't have taken the betrayal of-- He suddenly glanced up at Kowalski.

The other detective lifted his hands in mock defense. "Hey! Don't look at me!" he exclaimed. "I have no death wish!"

Vecchio frowned for a long moment but it was fairly clear his partner was telling the truth. He loved kids. If Frannie's kid had been his--

Ben stepped forward suddenly, coming to kneel beside where Ray had all but collapsed when Kowalski suddenly left him to intervene between Ben and Muldoon. Damn, Ray thought, but that had taken balls. "We need to get you to hospital, Ray," Ben offered, focusing on the needs of the present and his friend in order to escape the voices that kept telling him he should have taken the shot. He concentrated on the bandage at Ray's leg, checking the spread of the blood and making sure it wasn't tied too tight.

"I'll see if I can't find another medic," Kowalski offered. "We got to have called more than just the one unit."

"No," Vecchio ordered crisply and reached for Ben's shoulder. Without need of words, the other man helped Ray struggle back to his feet. "No," he repeated, gasping slightly as he fought to balance on his good leg, maintaining a firm grip on Benny's arm. "They might not take me to the same hospital as Frannie," he explained. "We gotta find out where they took her and then you can drive me there."

Kowalski and Fraser exchanged a silent glance. It wasn't the soundest decision in the world, but one they understood all too well. They both nodded and Fraser bent to sling Ray over his shoulder again as Kowalski dug out his cell to get the information they needed.

"Stop squirming," Fraser told the dog in his lap and glanced over his shoulder into the back seat. The GTO was not the Riv. It was a bit smaller. Quite a bit smaller. Just getting Ray into it had been difficult. The back seat was definitely not designed to let someone lie down in it. "Are you doing all right, Ray?" he asked in concern.

The injured man offered an irritated groan. He lay sprawled on his stomach with his left foot in the air and his right leg braced on the floorboard behind Ben's seat. "Do I look all right, Fraser?" he answered, using his right arm to brace himself on the back of Kowalski's seat as they made another turn and hit a pothole. His head hit the door with a loud (((thump))). "Will you take it easy with the bumps already!" he complained. "I feel like a rag doll back here!"

"What the hell do you want me to do?" Kowalski answered in exasperation. "Take it easy on the bumps or hurry up? Make up your mind, Vecchio, ‘cause I can't do both, not on these roads."

"Slow down, Ray," Fraser advised him seriously, taking in Vecchio's pale face and grimace of pain. "He's going to pass out if you don't."

"I am not going to pass out!" the other man snapped from the back seat, gritting his teeth as he forced the words out.

Kowalski glanced at Ben and nodded, slowing down a little bit. "You get blood on my seats, Vecchio, and you're paying for the cleaning bill!" Kowalski promised with a wink for Ben.

Ben rolled his eyes. The two men were constantly needling each other. It was almost a game with them. But it did have the side benefit of keeping Vecchio talking and his mind off his pain for a few minutes.

"Oh God," he suddenly sighed from the back seat as a sudden thought overwhelmed his complaints. "Where's my cell? I gotta call Ma and tell her to meet us at the hospital. I don't want her hearing about this from one of the Duck Boys or anything."

"Too late," Kowalski frowned, not happy at the thought of the panic the poor woman must be feeling. He'd become rather fond and protective of the entire family while he was undercover. "She had a couple of cops with her, remember? The word would have been passed to them to get her to the hospital. She's probably waiting for us."

"Damn it!" Vecchio hissed, knowing she'd probably been told about the rape too. God, he hoped she'd gotten only the bare bones of things. The fact that he'd been injured would worry her, but the family had learned long ago to accept that danger was part and parcel of his job. They didn't exactly take it in stride, but they understood it was a price he was willing to pay.

Frannie, however, was another story. She was the baby of the family. Well, he supposed, Maria's kids had taken that position over, but Frannie would always be Ma's baby girl. She'd always be Ray's little sister. It had always been his job to protect her.

Ray's job had put the family in danger before. They'd all learned to deal with that too. He'd always defended them with a ferocious zeal. He'd always been able to protect them.

Except this time.

Frannie.... He felt tears well again as he thought of the nightmare she'd endured... all because of him: Because he'd done his job and helped bust a scum-sucker like Muldoon, the Father's of Confederation and the Iguanas. It was the Iguanas he'd been afraid of. He'd been afraid they'd come after his family if he went into the Witness Protection Program. He'd put his life on the line again by not running, to protect them. But it hadn't helped. None of it had helped.

He hadn't considered Muldoon a threat. He was in Canada serving multiple life sentences with no chance of parole. No one had even bothered to tell them he'd escaped! Some bureaucratic snafu somewhere had kept the information from being passed on to them.

Now? Now, Muldoon would be thrown in jail again, in the US this time rather than Canada. He'd have to stand trial again for all that had happened over a year ago. He'd still be facing multiple life sentences. The attack on Frannie would be nothing but a footnote in the list of charges against him. A few more years in a legal document. What did a few more years mean to Muldoon?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Ray gritted his teeth, hearing Muldoon's laughter ring in his mind. When everything was said and done, even if Muldoon was in prison, he'd won the game. Hell, Ray thought, there was no guarantee that the game was over. He'd escaped once. He could escape again. Even if he didn't, he had connections. Being in prison wouldn't stop him.

(((Ka Thump))) "Hey!" Speed bump.

"We're almost there," Kowalski called back.

Thank God, he thought irreverently. He'd never curse that damned Mustang of his again. It might not be the Riv, but it was a heck of a lot better than this stupid GTO. The goat, Kowalski called it. Goat was right. Small, ugly-- (((Thud))) Bucking! They should have called it a donkey, like in jackass!

"Sorry!" Kowalski called back again.

"Get your stupid shocks checked!" Vecchio snapped, rubbing the top of his head. He was going to have a concussion by the time they got to the hospital -- which made him think of Frannie again, and remember the short glimpse he'd caught of her as Fraser and the paramedics swept by with the gurney, the paramedic on top of her working to keep her alive even as they rushed her to the hospital.

Pregnant. Fraser said she'd-- And that bastard Muldoon had killed her baby! 'Towels,' he’d said. That must have been when it happened. He'd killed Frannie's baby and then left her to bleed to death. No. No, Ray knew. Muldoon hadn't left her. He'd said blood was 'kinky'. He'd said-- God! Ray didn't want to remember that! He didn't want to think about that. Or about Muldoon laughing.

He suddenly remembered Fraser's face when Muldoon had taunted him. He remembered the look of pure murderous rage. It was a look unlike any Vecchio had ever seen on that handsome face, unlike any he ever wanted to see again. He remembered Kowalski jumping in front of him and grabbing his arm, Fraser's hand in his pocket. Ray had been too shocked to understand it all. He'd forgotten he'd given Fraser his gun, forgotten Fraser had put it in his pocket. Fraser might not have used it when arresting Muldoon but Vecchio knew now that Kowalski had been the only thing standing between Ben and murder at that moment.

God, he wished Kowalski hadn't stopped him!

"Okay!" Kowalski sang out as he quickly brought the car to a halt, which nearly sent Vecchio rolling toward the front again but for his arm braced against the back of the seat in front of him. "We're here. Everybody out. I'll go get a gurney."

Vecchio rolled his eyes. A gurney. Yeah, that's what he needed: His Ma seeing him come in on a gurney. Course, that was suggesting he could even get out of this bucket of bolts on his own. He heard Benny getting out. Heard him lift Dief out and set the wolf down. Felt the front passenger seat folded down and shifted forward. He pushed up with his arms and shifted his legs--

“Damn!” Ray had to clamp his throat shut on the scream that tempted. They were going to need the jaws of life to get him out of this stupid car!

Kowalski brought a couple of medics and a doctor with him. They watched Vecchio trying and failing to do much of anything except gasp, then climbed into the car and proceeded to extricate him, despite his loud protestations.

"Room four guys," the white-coated sadist ordered as Vecchio was laid upon the gurney and the safety bars snapped up. They put him on his back, the idiots! He had to fight to roll to his side and keep the weight off his injured leg.

"Frannie!" he managed to gasp as he clamped his left hand onto the safety bar to his right to help keep himself on his side. A hand on his shoulder tried to force him back to his back as they hurried through the doors.

"What's his name?" the doctor was asking. Ray was in too much pain to blast the guy the way he wanted too. To hell with himself, he needed to know about Frannie!

"Vecchio," he heard Fraser answering. "Detective Raymond Vecchio, Chicago PD. His sister was brought in a few minutes ago? Rape victim?"

"Rape-- Oh yeah. Ugly," the doctor answered. "His sister, you say?"

"Francesca Vecchio."

Ray heard curtains swept open and fought to stay on his side as he was swung around and into an emergency room.

"Let's get his clothing off people. Give me the ABC's, stat. Is this a gunshot wound?"

"Shrapnel," he heard Benny answer even as hands began to pluck at his clothing. Scissors began to slice up his pant leg as the makeshift bandage was removed. Another Armani suit in the trash. Other hands were shoving an oxygen mask in his face. "A load of rusted steel was dropped near us and a piece may have imbedded itself in his leg."

"May have?" the doctor repeated. "How close were you?"

"Too close. The man who dropped it intended to kill us," Fraser answered stoically.

Other voices now sang out, giving vitals and what-not. Ray found himself lifted upward as his jacket was swept off his shoulders. His shirt quickly followed. The undershirt went the way of the scissors.

He shoved the oxygen mask aside. "Frannie!" he demanded again, forcing the one word out of a pain-clogged throat. The mask was shoved back in place. A BP cuff was thrown on his arm and an ice-cold stethoscope was slapped against his back, causing him to gasp. Damn, heavy-handed nurses and docs! He didn't need--

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and a face swept close. "Your sister is in surgery, Mr. Vecchio," the doctor told him, speaking clearly and carefully. "I'll see if I can find out how she's doing, but first we have to take care of you. Is your leg the only place you're hurt?"

"Yes!" he managed to grit out through the mask. "Benny!"

"Excuse me." Fraser stepped into view behind the doctor.

"Go tell Ma I'll be okay. Tell her--"

Fraser nodded, understanding what wasn't said. Ray didn't want her hearing about everything from a stranger. The doctor swept forward again. "Let's get X-ray in here! I'm sorry. You're going to have to leave now."

"I'll be with your mother, Ray," Fraser assured him. "Either Kowalski or I will stay with her. She won't be alone."

Ray nodded, offering a little sigh as he surrendered his family into Fraser's hands; there was nothing else he could do for them. The sigh became a sharp hiss as someone began cleaning his wound and pain suddenly lanced down his leg again. Damn the stupid leg anyway. Why did these things always have to happen to him?

Ben found the family in the Surgical Waiting Room. It was a fairly large and bright room. The sun streamed in through several tall windows that looked out on a grassy quadrangle. There were a wide scattering of clustered seats, comfortably upholstered in plum and charcoal, providing the illusion of little oases of privacy for waiting loved ones. There was only one other couple in the room, sitting in the back and trying to comfort each other as they sat a silent vigil. An older woman behind the information desk looked up as he entered. He awarded her a slight nod and quickly made his way to where Kowalski knelt in front of Ma Vecchio. She, Tony, Maria and the grandkids had chosen seats off to the right.

Ma spotted him first and gave a sharp cry. "Benton!" she exclaimed. She hastily lowered her tone even as she stood to sweep him into a tight embrace. "Benton! Molto bene, mi capriccio bambino! I have been so worried. You have come from Raymundo, yes? He is going to be all right?"

"Yes, Ma," he answered firmly, using the name she'd always insisted upon and meeting her anxious eyes with a steadfast gaze that immediately calmed her. "Ray will be fine. He has a small piece of metal in his leg, but it's not serious."

She closed her eyes and quickly crossed herself. "Grazie, Mater de Christo," she offered softly.

“Tony,” Tony senior addressed twelve year old Antonio where he sat on the floor beside little Paulie and Sylvia, coloring, “why don’t you ask the attendant to see what’s on the Cartoon Channel?” he suggested, nodding at the TV beside the information desk. The three children scampered happily away, allowing the adults to speak freely.

Ma nodded gratefully at her son-in-law. Kowalski had stood and now moved beside Ben as the older woman laid a hand upon his arm. “My other Ray has said as much,” she gave the blond man a small smile, “but it is good to hear it again. And mi fragilina bambina, Francesca?" she asked hopefully. "Have they told you anything more about her? They tell us she is in surgery... and that she may not make it. A priest is standing by."

Ben offered a sad shake of his head and glanced at the clock above the information desk. She hadn't been in surgery long. At this point, no news was good news.

Ma Vecchio turned and sat beside her daughter again, then glanced up at Ray again. "He said that you were with her. That you helped the paramedics."

Ben looked at Ray. It wasn't something he wanted to remember, let alone talk about, but he knew Ray had merely been trying to reassure and comfort the anxious family. Ben also wanted to be able to reassure and comfort them, but he couldn't lie about the situation either. He glanced down at his hat, turning it in his hands, and then squatted down in front of her so as to preserve their privacy, much as Ray had been doing when Ben entered. He forced himself to look back up and was surprised to meet a quiet understanding in her eyes that seemed to already know what he would say.

"They have said that she was raped."

Ben blinked and fought to swallow around a tight throat. Her deep brown eyes, so like Francesca’s, held pain and acceptance both. She’d already dealt with the knowledge and entrusted her daughter to God. Ben didn't trust his voice, so again was forced to answer with a simple nod, though it really hadn't been a question.

Ma read his pain easily and reached out a hand to stroke his cheek. "The rape," she pressed reluctantly, needing to hear what she already suspected. "It was bad?"

Ben closed his eyes and fought to keep his pain in check. It was almost as though she were comforting him, not the other way around.

"And the child?"

He felt his heart contract. She knew it all then. Of course she knew. Francesca would have told her mother, if no one else. Once her mother knew of the rape... Ben allowed his head to drop to his chest and clenched his hands into fists to keep his emotions under control as he shook his head. He glanced back up, forcing himself to meet her gaze. "I'm sorry," he said simply.

She closed her eyes briefly as he confirmed the worst, then met his eyes once more. "She did not tell you she was with child, did she."

It really wasn't a question but Ben answered anyway. He shook his head.

She nodded quietly, but her gaze did not let his go. "There is but one more question I must ask, Benton, and I must have the truth. It was something my Francesca would not tell me. As God is your witness, I must know..."

Ben closed his eyes again and swallowed convulsively. He knew what was coming and shook his head before she could voice it. "No," he whispered. "I was not the father."

"Are you sure?"

His head snapped up, surprised and a little hurt that she could ask him such a thing.

"I am sorry, Benton," the woman apologized, again cupping his face in her palm. "I had to ask. It is just that Francesca has pined for you for so long. We all know this. Even you know this, though you try not to see."

Ben glanced down again. Yes, he'd known. He wasn't blind. But he'd also known how Ray felt about it.

"You are a good boy, Benton," Ma continued. "If you say you are not the father, then I believe you. But if this is true, then I must ask, who is? He should be here."

Ben glanced up at Kowalski but met a confused shake of the head. Neither of them had a clue as to who the father might be. "Has she been dating anyone? Perhaps three of four months ago?" he forced himself to ask.

"No one," the woman answered. "This much, I know: Three or four months ago, she was very depressed. There was one night, she did not come home. She claimed that she got to talking with her friend Angie and lost track of time. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. I worry... She may seem like a loose woman, Benton, the way that she is always teasing you, but my Francesca is a good girl. She would not go to bed with just any man."

Ben nodded, knowing it was true. He'd never seen her flirt with anyone else at the station or elsewhere. The only other person he could think of that she had dated was Turnbull, but he'd been in Ottawa during the crucial period for his ten year evaluation and some required certification exams. To Ben's knowledge, they had only dated the once, and that was over a year ago.

"The man who did this to her, who kidnaped and raped her," Ma offered, changing the subject. "Raymundo said that you knew who it was?"

"An old enemy," Ben admitted quietly.

"And he is under arrest?" she asked. "He is not out there preying on other innocent women?"

Ben again shook his head, ignoring the thought that it was not only Muldoon who had done this to Francesca. He'd been the puppet master. Ma did not need any further pain added to the burden she already bore. "He was an escaped felon from Canada serving multiple life sentences and facing the same here in the states. He won't be allowed to hurt Francesca or anyone else again," he told her stoically. Canada did not have the death penalty, but Illinois did. Unfortunately, Ben also knew that the governor had placed a moratorium on carrying out all such sentences. The chances of Muldoon getting what he deserved was very slim.

Something of his anger must have been visible in his eyes for the older woman again reached out to touch his face. "He will be judged, Benton," she promised him. "God will see to this. You must let it go, or this darkness within you now will destroy the precious man I know you to be."

Ben felt a stab of rage answer her words, a piercing of his soul as the truth she spoke clashed with all the secret pain and anger he was fighting so hard to contain. It wasn't something he could simply set aside. The man had nearly destroyed his father, had most certainly killed more men than they knew of, had threatened thousands with nerve gas and nuclear weapons, had sought to destroy Ray's very soul by killing Francesca, toying with them, taunting them with her pain and--

The man had killed his mother!

Ben was supposed to simply forget that? Simply let the pain and rage go? Where was God in the midst of such evil? Muldoon was laughing at all of them. How could He permit it? Why!

He bowed his head and fought his tears. Ben had been raised to believe in God, to believe His precepts and to trust in the unseen, and he didn't like questioning it. His faith was a quiet and personal thing, instilled first by his mother, then by his grandparents, then by life itself. He'd seen too many things that science and logic alone couldn't begin to explain.

Now, it was as if his mother spoke to him, in the quiet words of Ma Vecchio. Screaming, 'WHY?' in angry demand served no purpose and left only the swirling emptiness of the north wind in his soul. The same 'Why?" when uttered in the question of a trusting child, yielded a gentle touch and a peace unable to be explained. He might never know why, not in this lifetime, God's reason's were His alone and not for man's understanding, but God would judge. Muldoon would pay. And no matter what happened, He'd be there to help them put the pieces back together again.

If he believed nothing else, Ben believed that. It was to this he now clung as he lifted his head and met Ma Vecchio's concerned gaze. Her son had been injured and her daughter was fighting for her life, but her concern at the moment was for him. He didn't understand it, but he appreciated it more than he could say.

He nodded slightly, acknowledging her wisdom. He'd seen such anger and pain destroy other men. If he didn't let it go, it would do the same to him, giving Muldoon the ultimate victory. That was something he refused to let happen.

"Thank you," he whispered softly.

Her eyes searched his and seemed to find whatever they were looking for. She offered him a sad smile. "I want to pray now," she said softly, reaching for her rosary.

Ben nodded and stood, glancing at Kowalski who was watching him in confused concern of his own. Ben didn't say anything. A simple nod of his head drew the other man aside, leaving the family to pray in private, as he offered his own silent plea to the heavens.

He prayed God would not say, 'No.'

"...He was a giant bear! Enormous!" Ben told the children in an ominous but very soft voice. "The biggest bear there ever was! But the giant was bigger still; because, well, giants are, you know."

Paulie and Sylvia both sat entranced. Antonio simply rolled his eyes. At twelve years old, there was no way he was going to admit that he was enjoying the fanciful story.

Ben dared glance at the clock above the information desk: 5:34pm. He could not believe that it had been less than twenty-four hours since this horror had all begun. Francesca had been in surgery almost six hours. They'd already heard back about Ray. The surgery to remove the metal fragment had been uneventful and he was comfortably settled into a room on the third floor. Kowalski had just gone up to visit him.

"But the bear had a secret weapon..."

"Mrs. Vecchio?" someone called out, interrupting Ben's story and bringing all eyes around to bare on a young doctor who stood beside the information desk. There were four other families now in the waiting room but the reaction of their group clued the doctor in immediately. He hurried forward and quickly waved Ma back down as she started to rise. "Mrs. Vecchio?" he asked again as he joined them, just to be sure.

"Yes," she answered and turned to introduce the others. "This is my daughter and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Polpettine, and their children, and this is Benton. He is also family. You have word about my daughter, Francesca?"

"Yes," the young doctor answered, squatting down in front of them and reaching up to sweep off his surgical cap. "I'm Dr. Davidson. I was in charge of your daughter's surgery.”

He glanced at the kids uncomfortably and Tony took the hint. He bent and swept five year old Sylvia up in his arms and smiled at Paulie and Antonio. “Come on guys. You want some cokes?”

The suggestion wasn’t met with the enthusiasm desired. Antonio for one was well aware that they were being sheparded away on purpose, but he took Paulie’s hand in his and followed his father out of the waiting room.

The doctor watched them go and then turned back to the others with a nod. “It was a bit touch and go for a while, but we have her stabilized. I'm afraid she lost a great deal of blood and suffered extensive soft tissue damage, as well as some broken ribs and a concussion." The doctor continued after a short pause. "I'm told that you know of her rape?" He was answered with painful nods. "And the loss of her child?" Again the nods. "I'm afraid her uterus sustained irreversible damage. In order to stop the bleeding, we were forced to perform a hysterectomy. This means she won't be able to bare children again."

Ma Vecchio closed her eyes and bowed her head in pain. Maria reached over and took her hand firmly in her own.

"Her outlook at this point is actually pretty good," the doctor continued, needing to instill some light in the dark situation. "I want to emphasize that. Her condition is serious but stable. The real danger at this point is blood clots. There's not much we can do for soft tissue damage. The body has to extrapolate and reabsorb the lost blood. The danger is that a clot will break free and travel to either her lungs or her brain. She's being installed in ICU where we can monitor her condition more closely. If her condition holds stable, she'll be transferred to a regular room by mid-week. You'll be allowed to see her in about half an hour. She won't be awake yet and I've ordered some major pain medication for her. She's going to be rather out of it for a couple of days. It'll give her body a chance to begin healing.

“We have several people who specialize in treating rape victims and as soon as she is cognizant someone will begin helping her deal with what has happened. He or she will want to speak with each of you as well. You're daughter is going to need more in the way of emotional support than physical I think.

“For now, just go to the fifth floor and check with the reception desk. There's a separate waiting area there if you'd like to move. No more than two at a time, okay? And I'm afraid the children won't be permitted in to see her."

The family nodded as one. "Thank you, Doctor," Ma Vecchio said for all of them as the man stood.

"I understand her brother is here too?"

"Yes, mi Raymundo was injured saving his sister from that basturdo," Ma answered with quiet vehemence, surprising them a bit with such language. "God forgive me," she hastily retracted it. "We are assured he will be fine."

The doctor nodded, knowing that the double burden of two family members in the hospital could be quite overwhelming for some. "You've seen him then?"

"No," Ma answered. "I did not want to leave here until I'd heard about my daughter, Francesca."

Again he nodded. "I understand. Your daughter is not out of the woods yet, Mrs. Vecchio, but she's doing as well as can be expected at this time. Why don't you go see your son, then your daughter, then go home and get some dinner and rest. Your daughter won't be awake for a few hours at least. I would like for one of the family to be with her when she wakes; but, if you're going to be upset and looking tired, then your presence will do more harm then good. A familiar, positive and supportive face is what she needs most, all right? Maybe a little scheduled rotation of visits for the first few days, so that someone she knows is with her but you all have a chance to take care of yourselves as well, okay?"

"We'll do that," Maria agreed, patting Ma’s hand and giving her an encouraging smile. They'd done this too many time before. Tony had reappeared with the kids and she waved them back over. "Thank you, Doctor."

"If you have any questions, the nurses on five will be happy to help you. I'll be checking on her periodically, so I'll probably see a few of you again."

The family nodded and bent to gather up their things as the doctor took his leave. Ben felt a tug on his pant leg and glanced down at little Sylvia. Maria was carefully filling Tony in but at five, Sylvia was merely confused by the ‘big talk’. "Is Aunt Frannie coming home now, Uncle Ben?" she asked.

"Not yet, sweetie," he answered, confronted with the simple innocence in her eyes that could never comprehend such violence.

"Will you finish telling us the story, then?" she asked, dismissing any concern for her aunt with the certainty of the young that everything would be fine.

Ben nodded and took her hand as he watched Tony scoop four year old Paulie up again and tickle him. The two youngest kids didn't understand what had happened, and that was the way it should be. The family would preserve and protect their innocence as much as they could while dealing with the terrible situation. Maria and Tony would have to explain something of what had happened to their aunt, nothing specific he was sure, but some of that innocence would be lost just the same. Such was the price of growing up. It was a balancing act and one that all parents had to deal with. Antonio had already faced such truths before and, even if he didn't understand all of it, would do his part to help with his brother and sister.

Maria awarded Ben a grateful smile as she noted Sylvia's hand in his and turned her attention where it was most needed, helping Ma. Not that Ma would admit that she needed help, but she did need the simple presence of her daughter when both her other children where in hospital. The family's strength was in the family bond. None of them would carry the weight of fear and worry alone. They'd face this adversity together, as they'd faced so many before, and come out the stronger for it. Ben was glad he could help in some small way, and wasn't entirely unaware of the fact that they were helping him as well.

"Where are we going?" Sylvia asked aloud.

"Upstairs," Ben answered and turned, her small hand still in his, to approach the information desk. "Excuse me," he addressed the young attendant there. "The Vecchio family is moving to the fifth floor waiting room. My partner is visiting another patient on three. If we should miss him, or anyone else should ask after the family, could you direct them upstairs?"

"Of course," the woman nodded, making a quick notation of the information.

"Thank you kindly." Ben turned with Sylvia again and quickly rejoined the family as they headed for the nearest elevators.

"Damn," Ray hissed quietly, closing his eyes and fighting another tide of emotions as he lay helpless in the hospital bed. "Frannie always dreamt of having a passel of kids some day. You shoulda seen her when she was younger, when she used to play house? She never played with only one or two dolls. There was always six or seven of them, and she'd organize them all and everything and take them for picnics in the backyard or cart them to the living room for school or something. It drove Pop nuts whenever he--"

Ray's eyes snapped open and he shoved the dark memory aside. He didn't want to think of his Pop right now. It merely reminded him of how he'd always protected Frannie, from Pop and everything else, and how badly he'd failed this time.

Ben knew enough of the family history to know not to question Ray concerning his father. "She can still have her dream, Ray," he argued. "She may have to adopt, but she'll love the children just the same."

"It's not the same, Benny," Ray sighed angrily. If he were here right now, Ray would rip off Muldoon’s balls, stuff them down his throat and watch him choke to death!

"Maybe not," Ben answered, unwilling to argue with Ray, "but the love is. Your sister doesn't do anything by half. If she decides to adopt someday, I have no doubt that she will love any child she is given as if it were her own."

"You just don't get it, do you?" the other man snapped. "Muldoon didn't just kidnap and rape Frannie. He didn't just kill her unborn baby. He stole something precious and irreplaceable from her, and I'm supposed to just shrug and say, oh well, she can adopt? --I don't think so!"

"That's not what I meant--"

Ray didn't hear him. "And it's all my fault, Benny! I shoulda done what the Feds wanted me to do, gone into the Witness Protection Program and disappeared. Muldoon woulda had no reason to kidnap Frannie then. And from what Kowalski says of your sister, Maggie, she'd have probably cleaned his clock if he tried anything with her."

Ben doubted that, given Muldoon's ability to plan such things. Maggie would have been just as unaware of the danger and just as helpless as Francesca if he'd decided to kidnap her first. However, Ben knew it would do no good to point that out to Ray right now.

"I should have thought to check on him myself, you know? Not trusted the Feds to tell me if he broke out. I mean, when have we ever seen the Feds do anything right! I never even thought to worry about Muldoon. The Iguanas, yeah. I even checked on the Bolts to make sure there weren't some other crazed family members out there who'd come after us in vengeance, but I knew that if they did, they'd attack us, not our families. I never even considered Muldoon a threat!"

"He isn't anymore, Ray," Ben tried to reassure him. "He's in prison, high security. He will be for the rest of his life. He can't hurt Francesca anymore."

"Anymore?" Ray repeated and offered a bitter laugh. "What the hell more could he do to her! Frannie's-- Frannie's not going to be Frannie after this, Benny. She'll never be the same. He destroyed her."

"I think you're underestimating your sister, Ray."

"And you're overestimating her!" Ray snapped, slamming a fist into his mattress. "You always want to see the best in people, always want to believe that 'good will out in the end'! Bull crap! You've been in this city for more than four years now, and you're still stuck in that idealistic glass house of yours! I can't believe reality hasn't shattered it yet. Where do you come off telling me I don't know Frannie? You've never seen her after Pop laid into her. I may have taken the brunt of the physical abuse for her but I couldn't stop the words. He devastated her. She never let him see it, but I did. And you didn't have to hold her for three hours while she shook and sobbed in your arms because Guy Rankin tried, tried to paw her! That was nothing compared to this! Frannie is MY sister, Benny. Don't you go telling me I'm under-estimating her! She's not nearly as self-confident and strong as you seem to think she is!"

Ben bit his tongue and bowed his head, running his thumb over his eyebrow. He knew that there was nothing he could say at this time that would change Ray's mind. The man was having to deal with the pain, fear and frustration of everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours and it was overwhelming him. He simply wasn't ready to listen to anyone else yet.

"God..." Ray sighed, relaxing back into the bed again with a soul-deep sigh and closing his eyes, the fight and anger apparently disappearing as quickly as it had come. "I'm tired. I think I'll try to sleep."

Ben recognized the unspoken request in the words. "I'll just go and check with Ray and your sister then. Tony took your mother and the kids home. I think one of the neighbors is going to watch the kids. Your mother was going to make dinner and bring it back for everyone, including the nurses."

That won a tired smile. "That sounds like Ma," he admitted. Man, he thought, he really was exhausted! Probably the stupid drugs they were giving him. God, but he hated hospitals.

"I'm sure she'll bring you some too."

Ray nodded, still keeping his eyes shut. He didn't want to deal with Ben and his idealism at the moment. The world was just too ugly and he was afraid to hope for the best. All he could seem to do was imagine Muldoon laughing....

"I'm going to stick around a couple hours and then get some rest myself. Ray and I are going to take turns staying with the family tonight," Ben continued. "I'll stop back before I leave."

"Whatever," Ray answered, really not caring one way or the other. God, if only he didn't know that Muldoon was sitting quite comfortably in some cell somewhere, not in the least concerned about what some judge somewhere would say. That was the worst of it, knowing that Muldoon--

If only there was some way he could make sure Muldoon would pay!

Ben frowned as he contemplated his friend's carefully masked face. He knew Ray was being purposely rude to get rid of him, but he didn't take it personally. He knew the real source of Ray's anger was his own helplessness. Ray was hurting, and unfortunately there was nothing Ben could do to help him. With a silent sigh, he settled his Stetson in place and headed back upstairs to see how Maria was doing.


Ben held the door as Dief made his way (((Ka Thump, Ka Thump))) into the dark apartment. The wolf was used to the cast by now, but not at all happy with it. He gave a soft whine, more in irritation at himself than anything, and managed to hop up on Ben's bed whereupon he promptly stretched out and closed his eyes. It had been a long day.

Ben tossed his Stetson onto the kitchen table and moved to the refrigerator without bothering to turn on any of the lights. The harsh neon and city lights coming through his forth story windows were enough to see by. He grabbed up the carton of milk and shut the door. Salad, leftover spaghetti, sandwich meats, eggs-- none of it tempted. He should be hungry but wasn't. He'd left before Ma Vecchio got back with whatever she'd brought from home. He just wasn't up to eating. He deftly undid his Sam Brown as he took a deep swig from the milk carton, hoping to settle his stomach a little and ignoring the memory of his grandmother's chastising voice telling him to use a glass: There was no one to see or care, including himself.

He set the carton aside and quickly stripped out of his tunic, tossing it and the Sam Brown over the back of a chair. His friends might complain that he'd been Scotch guarded at birth but after more than thirty-six hours in uniform, a trip through the sewers, rolling across an abandoned warehouse's floor and...

He glanced at his left hand.

There was still a smear of dried blood above his wrist. Whether it was Ray's or Francesca's, he didn't know. He'd washed his hands in the men's room at the hospital but, apparently, hadn't been as careful about it as usual. He moved to the kitchen sink and grabbed up the dish soap to wash his hands again.

He glanced at his boots, then closed his eyes with a sigh. There was blood there too. And traces of vomit. He'd managed to turn away from the bed and Francesca before he lost control of his stomach, but he'd still been holding the IV bag and couldn't move far. Fortunately, there'd been very little in his stomach to come up. Acid, bile...

The milk wasn't helping.

He moved to the kitchen window, and forced it open, the anger and pain that still raged just below the surface making it easy despite the still-swollen wood. At least it wasn't the window with the fire escape. He had only to lean forward a little to see it -- but he didn't.

The smells of the city assaulted him. Still, somewhere, buried within the pollution and smog, there lingered the memory of rain from the day before. He concentrated on it and turned his gaze down on the alleyway and the city that was half home, half purgatory... Then lifted his eyes to the stars, shoving aside memories and thoughts that he wasn't ready to deal with yet. They were the same stars as up north, their splendor dimmed and hidden in the lights and pollution of the city, but still the same. On clear cold winter nights, even here, their beauty could shine through the grime and brutality of his fellow man to touch his soul.

Unfortunately, it was only autumn and he was too close to the heart of the city to see more than a tiny scattering of the myriad diamonds that gazed down upon its uncaring and disinterested populace. The city went about its regular activities without losing a beat: most of it’s citizenry going blissfully about their lives without knowledge of the unspeakable evil that had touched Ben’s life, without knowing or caring what made him stand in the chill breeze gazing up at the stars as tears slid unchecked down his cheeks.

He longed for home. He longed for the clean simple beauty of an untouched snow field, for the taste of frost in the air, the crunch of an icy crust beneath his boots, the deadly bite of the north wind...

The evil up north was no different than here, he acknowledged. Muldoon had come from the north, had been a neighbor and friend... Ben had chased murders and rapists, thieves and smugglers across the vast reaches of the tundra, men who would kill anyone who got in their way. There, stealing a man's wallet or a tank of gasoline could mean a child's life. The crimes might be fewer, far fewer -- and the evil more black and white -- but it was just as vicious and deadly, maybe more so.

What he hated most about the city was the lack of caring.

He knew it was an illusion. The city was far too large to react as a whole to such horror. They would read about it in the papers and shake their heads, praying that such never touched them, but then put the knowledge aside with all the other horrors reported daily and continue on with their lives, trying to attain happiness in whatever form they perceived it. Those who knew Francesca, who knew the family, would react a bit more, but they'd all become numb living with such in their backyards daily. Few were truly shocked or outraged by such heinous crimes. Up north... There would be more shock, more outrage; but in the end, unless the victim were someone they knew or a part of a small community, the knowledge would be tucked away and those not touched by it would continue on in the same manner as most in the city did tonight. Daily life was too much of a struggle for them not to. Such was the nature of the human condition.

But he still longed for home.

He longed for the sense of community, of belonging, of burdens shared and helping hands... Yes, this crime could have happened up north -- and Francesca probably would have died, her broken body and that of her child found frozen to death in a snow bank somewhere -- but it was far less likely. And he could have chased Muldoon alone. Could have faced him one-on-one. Muldoon would have pulled his gun and Ben would have had no compunction what-so-ever about killing him.

At least the world would be free of his evil then.

Ben closed his eyes and bowed his head. Could haves, would haves, might haves... they were empty comfort. He wasn't in the north. He was in Chicago. Francesca wasn't dead, and for that he had to be grateful.

He had seen her earlier, before he left the hospital. She wasn't awake yet. She lay small and pale and fragile against the stark white sheets, the tubes and machines offering quiet support and a strange kind of reassurance as her sister sat a silent vigil at her side. Her face was a mask of bruises, the left eye swollen shut, her bottom lip split; but there were no stitches there, no heavy gauze bandaging, no endotracheal tube to indicate more serious injury. Her wrists were lightly wound in white and bruises marred the pale beauty of her arms, distracting one from the two IVs that snaked into her veins, feeding fluids and medications to that battered body. Bruises on her jaw and neck dipped lower, disappearing disappeared beneath the collar of the light blue hospital gown.

But she was alive -- and she would stay that way. The love and prayers of her family would sustain her. She'd recover, despite her brother's predictions. Francesca was a fighter, a survivor. No, she wouldn't be the same. None of them would be the same. But they would continue. And in the end, they would win the game Muldoon had started.

Ultimately, ‘playing hardball' wasn't about inflicting pain and hurt: it was about surviving. They would go on with their lives, and continue with the constant search for happiness that was the drive of life -- and Muldoon would spend his life stewing in his own frustrations and anger. When all was said and done, they were the victors, not Muldoon. They might bare the scars of battle for years to come; but, in the end, they were made stronger and brought closer through this adversity.

Ben cried now for the child and all that might have been. It was the child who had lost the most. He prayed the angels enwrap it in all the love and joy it would never know in its mother's arms. He thought of what it would have been like, had the child been his, had he pursued Francesca despite Ray's obvious disapproval. If he'd given her her dream....

//Ray: Why do you do this? You always do this to yourself?//

//Francesca: Yeah, I do. You know what your problem is, Ray?//

//Ray: No, Frannie, why don't you tell me?//

//Francesca: Yeah, I'll tell you. Your problem is that you are so afraid to dream. You are so afraid to reach out for something that you really want. You know what happens to people like you? They get old. They get alone. And they die. And they never know. Well, that's not me.//

Ben had never forgotten that conversation he'd overheard. He'd been angry and upset with Francesca for putting him in such an uncomfortable position with her brother, insinuating to anyone who would listen that they had slept together! He hadn't understood it. He'd been worried, both for himself and her, when he saw Ray drag her into the interrogation room. There was no telling what she might say, and he'd dared eavesdrop in self-defense.

Whatever he'd expected, it hadn't been that.

His eyes had been opened that day to the beauty behind the -- flibbertigibbet that was Francesca. And to the deep love that existed between Ray and his sister. Ray had made his position about any relationship very clear. He saw Ben as a friend, but a threat to his sister. Ben hadn't understood what he had meant by ‘men like him don't marry girls like you'. He'd thought they were both being insulted. It had taken him a day or two to understand Ray's concern. There was a depth to Francesca that he'd never seen before, but ultimately she didn't have what it took to be a police officer's wife. She might be willing to fight for her dreams but attaining them could bring her more pain than happiness in the end. If he pursued and won her, if he wed her and knew the joy of love with her, and if then he were killed in the line of duty...

Francesca did nothing by halves. Ben had known that even then, and he'd chosen to honor Ray's wishes. He wouldn't risk hurting her that way.

Now? Now he saw himself as a fool. Life gave no guarantees. Denying himself and Francesca a possible future did not mean that she would find longer lasting happiness with someone else. He wasn't sure that a relationship between them would have worked out, but he'd never given it a chance. He'd kept a barrier erected between them and shown her only the same affection he might show for his sister.

He'd bowed to Ray's wishes as her brother, and now he regretted it.

Ben wondered who the father of her child had been, and where he was, and doubted he would ever know. Someone had come into her life, and apparently left again, and whatever pain was in that Francesca had kept to herself. He could only wish that it had been him, and that somehow he'd been able to protect her from Muldoon before his evil plan was hatched.

Ben sighed and bowed his head, wiping a hand across his cheek. The tears continued and he didn't try to stop them.

Tomorrow was Sunday. Tomorrow he'd get up and go to the hospital and take his place at Francesca's side while the family went to church and prayed for both her and Ray. If she was awake, he'd give her a smile and whatever encouragement and support he could. If she was asleep, he'd offer his own quiet prayers. The family would come back and together they'd carry on. Francesca would be wrapped in love and caring. She'd survive and recover, Ben had no doubt about that.

The game was over.

But for tonight, he would cry -- over what was and what might have been. Tomorrow, he'd put it behind him and the search for happiness would continue. After all, he was only human, like everyone else. And maybe, just maybe, he and Francesca would have a second chance. He didn't know if she wanted one, but he'd be there for her, and the rest of the family. And there would be no more barriers.

With a weary sigh, he reached forward and closed the window.
The end

Continued in Games People Play series #2: Dancing on the Razor's Edge