The Wandering Wren So Far...

 

*Don't smile at me, Benny. Whatever you do, don't -- ARGH!*

Benton Fraser was smiling.

"I think it's a good cause, Ray."

Ray Vecchio, Chicago PD, head of his household (except for his mother in the kitchen), fifteen-year veteran of police work, felt the world slipping away from him.

"Benny, it's Saturday. I finally get Saturday off and you want me to come to a *cooking* class?"

"The thefts are occurring during class, Ray. The only way we'll be able to watch what's going on is to pose as students."

"Why is this my life?"

Fraser's smile broadened. "Does that mean you'll do it?"

"It means if you do that thing again tonight, I'll go," Ray said coyly.

Fraser gave a long-suffering sigh.

"You mean?"

"Yes, ĎI mean.'"

"The things I do for you, Ray. Come on, we're about to be late!"

As the paired headed for the Riv, Ray couldn't help but wonder what he'd gotten himself roped into. "What are we cooking, Benny?" Fraser mumbled an answer. "I didn't hear you, Benny."

"*Pastries*!" Fraser blurted out. Ray burst out laughing.

"You're dragging me to a junk food cooking class???"

"Pastry making happens to be an art."

"If baking's an art, then what you did last night makes you Michaelangelo."

"Well, that was hardly a pastry, Ray. It's just Inuit chocolate sauce on ice-cream." Ray smiled, his whole face light with it. Fraser found he had to turn slightly from it to keep from being dazzled. Fortunately, Ray found something to frown over a minute later.

"Now, we agreed, right? Ma can't know I'm coming over to your place for food or she'll cry into next week."

Fraser was solemnity itself. "We're agreed, Ray. I'm just pleased you like the sauce. Buck Frobisher gave me the recipe."

@@@

What is it with you?!" Ray exclaimed as they were leaving the baking class several hours later. "It ain't natural, I tell you. It just ain't natural."

"Ray, I really don't know what you're talking about." Benny answer with a puzzled expression.

"You! I'm talking about you, Mister 'I'm so Canadian dirt would never even *think* of sticking to me!' Look at you! You don't even have any flour under your fingernails, and look at me! I look like I was caught in some kind of freak bakery explosion." Ray emphasized his point by waving his arms in a circle, creating a swirling cloud of flour around him.

Fraser leaned back from the flour storm immediately, but couldn't escape a stinging in his eyes. "Well, I don't do it on purpose, Ray -- Actually that's not, strictly speaking, true; naturally, I try to remain clean, but --"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ray interrupted, going for his keys as they reached the Riv. "'Cause you wouldn't want -- Hey!"

"What's wrong?" Fraser asked in concern.

Ray patted himself down anxiously. It wasn't there. This was incredible.

"It's gone."

"What--?"

"My wallet." He looked back at the cooking class building. "They stole my wallet!"

"They stole your wallet?" queried Fraser. He thought he'd been watchful, but he hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. "Are you sure you had it with you? You didn't drop it anywhere?"

"They stole my wallet Fraser!" Ray turned and stormed back toward the cookery class, a cloud of flour trailing behind him. "And when I find the rat that did it, I'm gonna make him pay!"

Fraser caught up with his best friend and tried to talk reasonably to him. "You know you have my full assistance Ray, but..."

"Good," interrupted Ray, handing him the keys to the Riv. "Then guard these with your life. I'm going back in."

Fraser stuffed the car keys into his pocket and hurried to match his stride with Rayís. "Ray, before you go in, thereís something I need to tell you."

Ray continued marching toward the cooking classroom. "Save it, Fraser. You can tell me AFTER I arrest the guy that lifted my wallet."

Fraser caught Ray by the arm just as he reached the door. "No, Ray. I canít. It concerns one of the students, and itís something you should know before you start terrorizing the class."

Rayís brows climbed up his forehead prompting Ben to continue.

Ben cleared his throat. "Err...Iím rather well acquainted with one of the male students."

"What do you mean, you're 'acquainted'?"

"We, um, well, is this a good time to be discussing this?"

"You brought it up!"

"Well, I met him when I was living in Moosejaw. At a bar. Where I was working undercover." Ray raised his eyebrows. "And?"

"And nothing. Except that if anyone stole your wallet, it's probably him. He was wanted in four provinces for purse snatching."

"Oh, that kind of acquainted." Ray grinned. "That's a relief; thought you meant..."

Fraser raised his eyebrows. "Thought I meant?" Ray simply shook his head; after half a second, Fraser understood. He jerked back as though he'd been slapped. "Ray, that's disgusting! I can't believe you'd think I'd...have those tendencies."

Ray kept grinning awkwardly, although he wanted to jerk back like Fraser had. Disgusting. Oh, God. Something twisted inside of him, and all he could feel was relief he'd never said, never mentioned what Fraser meant to him. "It was a joke," he said, and headed for the building.

Fraser suddenly realised what he'd said. This wasn't the first time he'd been startled into blurting out something utterly inappropriate. "Ray, wait!" he called.

Ray ground to a halt.

"What is it, Benny?" He looked pissed.

"What I said, about it being disgusting? What I really meant was, it was disgusting that you'd think that I'd have a one-night stand with a guy I met in a bar. I have nothing against the thought of having a same-sex relationship."

Ray's eyes lit up.

"Really?"

"Of course, Ray. Why, in the far north, the scarcity of unattached females makes the practice of same-sex mating quite common. Some of my best friends were.."

Before Ben could finish, Ray suddenly turned on his heel and started walking back towards the classroom so quickly that Ben had to run a few paces to catch up.

"Ray..?" At Ben's question Ray came to fast halt and swirled around again until they were face-to-face.

"Listen, Benny. I'm gonna go back in there." Ray said, gesturing back towards the building. "I'm gonna find the little schmuck that stole my wallet, and if he even hints at resisting arrest, I'm gonna use my foot to tap out his rights in Morse code on this thieving ass. And during that time, I don't want to hear one more word about what lonely Eskimos do after a hard day at the ice flow. Is that clear?"

"Understood."

The two ran back into the class room but most of the students had already left.

"All right, Fraser. Which oneís the thief?"

"Well, it appears that heís already gone."

"Gone?"

"Yes, Ray."

"Aww, great. I can see it now. The guyís probably at Sharper Image buying a karaoke machine on my credit cards and laughing his butt off. Next thing you know, heíll be picking up some bleached blonde in a red convertible and taking her out to dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town; again on my credit cards"

"But Ray, I thought the idea of karaoke was to sing with the music, not laugh hysterically."

"Benny! Would you be serious, here? That bastard has my ID, my money, everything. You said you knew him. Do you have any idea where to go look for him?"

"Well yes, Ray, I beleive I do. Perhaps once you have calmed down, and called your credit providers to report your cards as stolen, we can go in search of him."

"Geeze, Benny, you're right. I have my cell phone, I can get those cards cancelled before he gets a chance to use them. Then we go nail the scumbag."

"Right you are, Ray."

"Why hasn't he recognized you, anyway?"

Fraser raised his eyebrows. "I believe he did, Ray. In fact..." Here Vecchio's own eyebrows began a futile climb towards a nonexistent hairline, for Fraser's face began to reflect the color of his dress uniform, which was odd, since he wasn't wearing it.

"In fact what, Fraser?"

"Well, there is a chance...that is, ah..."

"You swallow a bug? Out with it!"

"He may have been trying to get my attention." Fraser looked at Ray now in open trepidation.

Vecchio scowled. "Then why didn't he lift your wallet?"

"I'm not carrying one right now, Ray."

Vecchio snorted now, and turned once again to go back to the cooking room. "That's the only thing about this conversation that doesn't seem weird to me, Fraser, and *that's* weird!"

Benny rushed ahead to pull open the door. Ray reached for his cell phone as he stomped through, and stopped dead in his tracks.

"Jesus Fucking Christ!" Ray roared as his hands patted a dozen places on his body, sending up small puffs of flour with each one. "I'ts gone! He took it!"

Ray looked accusingly at Benny. "Your 'friend' stole my phone!"

"Now, Ray.."

But Ray was already striding back outside, the paste on his neck starting to rise. "This guy's getting arrested, I'm calling this in right now!"

Both men pulled up short at the curb. The empty curb.

"Oh shit..."

"Oh dear."

Ray stalked past Benny and headed down the street. Benny hustled after him. "Where are you going, Ray?"

Ray spared him a withering stare and kept walking.

"Ray, Iím sorry your car was stolen."

"Donít talk to me about my car, Fraser," Ray muttered tightly.

"But Ray, I...."

"You were suppose to guard it with your life," Ray bit out, halting in his tracks to glare at his partner. "But nooo..." he strung out the one-syllable word, "...you were too busy worrying about your long-lost purse-snatching friend to give a ratís ass about MY
car." The first suggestion of hurt crept into his voice. "Where are my keys, Fraser? Did you leave 'em in the car for him?"

"No Ray," assured Fraser, producing the keys from his pocket and handing them back to the detective, "I guarded them as instructed."

"Oh great!" exclaimed Ray, pushing the keys into his coat pocket. "So now I got my keys back, maybe we can work on the rest of my car! What'd he want to attract you for anyways?"

"I think he may be in trouble."

"Oh he's in trouble all right!," asserted the italian, "When I catch him he's gonna living in a world of trouble."

"No, I mean...well yes, Ray, but bigger trouble."

"There's no such thing, Benny," corrected an irate Ray. "There ain't no such thing."

Ray spotted a pay phone and took an abrupt right, leaving Ben at the curb. Ben waited, wincing as the booth shuddered with each jab of Rayís finger. He smiled apologetically at the elderly couple who happened by just as Ray colored the air with the indignities that had been heaped upon him in the last thirty minutes. He braced himself as Ray slammed down the receiver and started back toward him.

"Okay, Fraser, Iíve reported the thefts and somebodyís coming to pick us up. You got about five minutes to tell me everything you know about this guy."

Ben raked a thumbnail across his eyebrow. "I canít do that, Ray."

"You can't *do* that?" Ray looked as though he were about to explode, then suddenly -- dangerously -- calmed down. "And why exactly is that, Benny?"

"Well, as I said, Ray, he's in trouble. And if I say too much I might put him in even further danger."

"You might -- that is the dumbest thing I ever heard!" Ray glared at him and turned away. "I don't believe this. Whaddaya gonna do, compromise his cover? *You* were the one undercover."

Fraser scratched his eyebrow uncomfortably. "Well, possibly."

"*Possibly*?" Ray turned back to stare at him. "I don't believe this," he repeated. "He stole my car. And my wallet. And my phone. My wallet, my phone and my car. Now you're saying he's a secret agent?

"No wait! Don't answer that." Both of Ray's hands shot up as if to ward off anything Benny might have to say. Dropping his hands, he began pacing along the curb a few times, the last step bringing him within two inches of the Mountie's face.

"In fact, don't say anything. I want you to be very, very quiet. Because, as hard as it is to imagine, it's just possible that whatever you have to say will make me angrier than I am right now and as much as the thought of a murder-suicide may appeal to me at this moment, I ain't got time for it."

Benny made calming motions with his hands. "Ray, Ray, please calm down. You don't mean that...You're just upset..."

'"Benny, if I don't find my car, unscratched, unpinged, unAnything, my phone, *and* my wallet, with all my money, my driver's license, ha!, my credit cards, my bank card, my library card, and every other goddamn card, I'm holding you personally responsible for not only the theft of said items but I'm going to arrest you for withholding vital information and interfering with an on-going investigation. Upset??!! Upset??!! What on God's Earth would make you think I'm upset??!!"

Benny's eyes widened. "Ray...You have a *library* card?"

For an instant, almost too quickly for Fraser's eyes to note it, Ray looked hurt. Then the gaze jerked away from him, staring over his shoulder, and the Mountie twirled just in time to see a flash of green disappearing behind the corner.

He started running immediately, but Ray was still in front of him for the entire half-mile it took to catch up to the slow-moving car at the closed gas station parking lot into which it turned, evidently waiting for them.

"Out of the car, asshole!" Ray shouted as he wrenched the door open. "Awk!"

A large hand came out of the door and pulled the detective in by his overcoat. The door slammed shut, the tires burned rubber, and Fraser lept onto the car as it pulled out into traffic, holding onto the roof by his fingers and toes.

As Ray grappled with the driver, Fraser was hard pressed to hang on. The Riviera offered very few handholds, but Fraser was determined; after all, his best friend was being kidnapped in his very own car, and it was all Fraser's fault. Worry for his friend's well-being was almost equalled by his dread at what Ray would say should Fraser scratch the car's finish, however, and that thought coupled with a sudden jerk to the steering wheel sent the Mountie tumbling to the pavement.

He had gotten a good look at the car's occupants before falling off. To say that he was surprosed would be an understatement.

"Why is this my life?" Ray mumbled to no one in particular. He shifted his weight, trying relieve the discomfort in his hands which were tightly secured behind his back with his own handcuffs. A slight lean forward got him shoved back against the seat again by the same goon that had dragged him into the car. The goon in question, slightly bigger than your average gorilla and twice as ugly, gave Ray a jagged-toothed grin. Ray was about to ask him what the hell he thought he was smiling at when a familiar voice spoke to him from the driver's seat.

"I know it's been a while, Detective, but you could at least say hello."

Ray sat in stunned silence, suddenly certain he knew the reason why this was his life. God hated him, that's why. He must have said it out loud because he was answered a moment later.

"You know, that's just the kind of attitude that got my Uncle, the Archbishop of Canterbury, defrocked."

"Just what the hell do you think you're doin', Ian? This ain't your kinda thing, kidnapping cops and stealing their cars. Oh, wait, what am I saying? Of course you would. Don't bother to answer, you'd just lie to me anyway."

Ray turned to the gorilla. "So, who're you and just what the *uc* is goin' on here?"

"Oh, it's no use talking to him," Ian said cheerfully. "Deaf-mute. But very loyal; he's been with the family for generations. Do you want a burger?"

Ray turned his attention away from the gorilla and stared at the lunatic in the driver's seat. "You're kidnapping me and offering me food?"

"Yes, well, unlike my ancestor, the Marquis de Sade--"

"Wasn't he a baron?" the deaf-mute gorilla asked.

"No, he was a Marquis; I distinctly recall because the queen at the time--"

"What do you want, MacDonald?" Ray snapped.

Ian's eyes looked at him seriously via the rear-view mirror. "Detective, I need your help. We have to save the life of the Mayor of Chicago."

Meanwhile, Fraser spotted a pay phone and called the 27th precinct. Elaine Besbris answered on the third ring, though to Fraser it felt like he waited half an hour to get through. "This is Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Ray has been kidnapped!" he said, at his most polite.

"I know, Benton. We're getting IA in here now, and Welsh is on the phone with the commissioner."

Fraser gazed at the phone in bewilderment.

"Benton?"

"Excuse me, Elaine, but did you say you already knew?"

"Yes. We received the ransom note via email twenty minutes ago, and when we couldn't raise Ray on his cell phone..."

"He has been taken by Ian McDonald and a man whom I've never seen before. However, he was only abducted a few minutes ago."

"Yes," Elaine said, her voice taking on the tones of the divinely patient. "That's what the note said. Have you gotten the bag yet?"

"Bag?"

Fraser refused to allow himself to succumb to the sensation of the earth rocking beneath his feet just as someone tapped on the glass of his booth. Turning, he saw an evidently indigent man holding an empty black leather bag.

Fraser left Elaine dangling and stepped out of the booth as the seemingly indigent shoved the bag into his chest. Even though it was half-open and, upon a first glance through the grimy glass had appeared empty, Fraser could feel something through the thin, worn leather. He also knew instinctively what he would find before looking inside.

And he was right. There, tucked deep in the bottom, were Ray's wallet and cellphone. What he didn't expect were the other two items.

Fraser looked up into the face of the bag man and his breath caught. He recognized those eyes.

Fraser leaned closer and whispered, "Steve?"

Steveís blue eyes twinkled with both amusement and sadness. Stray wisps of matted blonde hair peeked from under the ratty knit cap jammed over his ears. The grime smudged over Steveís pale cheeks couldnít hide the weathering that had coarsened the manís skin far beyond his true age, evidence of atmospheres far different from Chicago. Steveís words were soft.

"Been too long, *old friend*, since weíve camped in the wilds of Canada."

Rage and fear overwhelmed Fraser in depths he had never experienced before. "Steve, if Ray is harmed in anyway, Iíll not only kill your body, but like the avenging hunter in the Inuit tale, I will destroy the bladder that harbors your soul. There will be nothing of you left for this life or any hereafter. You might have left me for dead, but I will not abandon Ray."

"There's no need for unpleasantness here, Ben. You knew I needed to talk to you." Steve looked down at the pat of flour on his sleeve, a strange bit of white against his dark, shabby, though clean clothes.

"I made my choices, and you made yours," Fraser responded. "I promised you once that I would never interfere with your life, as long as you stayed away from mine."

"But you did interfere, Ben. You found out a few things that I need to know. You and your partner. Now we're going to go someplace and all meet up and have a friendly talk, just like old buddies."

Fraser reviewed what he'd seen in the car. The large man had been driving. Ian was in the back. He hadn't seen Ian's hands. Was the man in on this, or a prisoner as well?"

"If this concerns Audrey McKenna's work, I am completely unaware of the nature of her research."

Steven Macinaw smiled, and the flaw in his disguise was revealed with those perfect teeth.

"You're aware enough, Ben old buddy."

Meanwhile, back at the 27th...

Elaine's computer chimed, and she dropped the small china pig-shaped paperweight she was fiddling with. "You've got mail," she muttered in time to the computer's cheerful announcement. "Lieutenant!"

Welsh hurried over as she double-clicked the addition to the ransom note. "What have we got?"

Well, she didn't know that *yet*, she'd only just opened the email. Elaine bit back a sarcastic comment; everyone was worried.

"Oh my god," Huey said, reading over her other shoulder. "They've got to be kidding."

"I don't think so," Elaine said, staring at the bizarre demands onscreen. What the hell--?

The bull-pen of Chicago's 27th division was abnormally quiet, so quiet in fact that you could've heard a pin drop -- had anyone been stupid or nervous enough to drop a pin. Even the typically not-known-for-their-sensitivity scum of the Earth (otherwise known as the city's criminal element) were silent, all eyes in the room fixed on the heavy-set man leaning over Elaine Besbriss' shoulder.

This is ridiculous, Lieutenant Harding Welsh thought as his eyes trailed down the laundry list of demands, each getting stranger and more preopsterous as they went on. If it wasn't for the fact that one of his detectives (even if that one WAS Ray Vecchio) had been kidnapped, taken off a Chicago street in broad daylight in full view of a Canadian Mountie...

Welsh scrubbed at his eyes wearily. Ever since Fraser had arrived in Chicago, Vecchio had become involved in one bizarre case after another. But this...?

This is ridiculous, Welsh thought again, before glancing down at Elaine with a sigh. "Is Fraser still there?" he asked, indicating the telephone receiver sitting on her desk.

Abruptly reminded of her earlier conversation, Elaine raised the phone back to her ear. All she could hear was an ominous crackle. If the Mountie was still there, he obviously wasn't talking.

 

"What do you want, MacDonald?" Ray snapped.

Ian's eyes looked at him seriously via the rear-view mirror. "Detective, I need your help. We have to save the life of the Mayor of Chicago."

"The mayor of...?! I don't believe this!"

"Ok, so it's not exactly the mayor, although he and I are very close. I wanted to tell you the truth, but I didn't think you'd believe me."

"What could have possibly given you that idea?"

"You see, detective...may I call you Ray?" Ian glanced in the rear-view and was struck by two green daggers. Ian continued, unphased. "You see, Ray, Audrey and I..."

"Audrey?!! Oh no...I'm not doing this again. Pull over right now, MacDonald! I'm placing you and this escapee from Jungle Island under arrest." Ray struggled against the cuffs.

"It's no use, Ray, those handcuffs were given to me by my great-uncle Harry. They're escape-proof. He used to swallow the key and cough it back up, very discreetly mind you, and unlock them. Great trick. But not really magic like everybody thought."

Ray's eyes bore a hole through the back of Ian's skull. "You got this key, Ian?"

"Oh sure, Ray, don't worry, it's in a safe place."

"Don't tell me you swallowed it. Just don't tell me that."

Ian had the pretense of mind to look offended. "OK, Ray, I won't."

Ray closed his eyes and groaned.

The gorilla driving sniggered, and Ray realized once again he'd been had.

"Look, you little creep, just tell me what this is about, and I swear to
God, if you're not straight with me, I'm gonna..." Ian's eyes were
skeptical. "...I'm gonna sit here and say nothing, do nothing, no matter
what. I'm going to be Mr. Quiet as a Mouse."

Now Ian looked alarmed. "You can't do that!"

Ray turned in his seat and looked quietly out the window. They were heading
to the docks, he saw.

"You can't...you can't just sit there! This is important!"

Ray's stomach growled. Man, he wanted some nice pasta putanesca right now.

"Look," Ian was wheedling now. Incredibly annoying. "Seriously. This
concerns you even more than me."

Ray scratched his nose.

"It's Fraser," Ian said at last. "He's in trouble."

Ray turned in his seat and raised up his cuffs. "If Benny's really in
trouble, you don't need these."

"I need to make sure you'll listen."

"I'll listen." Ray rattled his cuffs.

Ian bit his lip, then produced the key from his pocket. When the cuffs were
back on Ray's belt, the young man leaned forward.

"What do you know about Steve?"

The cryptic remark had Fraser narrowing his eyes. "Perhaps you could enlighten me, Steve, as to precisely what it is you believe Detective Vecchio and I know that would provoke you into stealing his wallet, his cell phone, his car..." Fraser reached inside the bag, his normally placid features hardening to granite as he retrieved the two remaining items, "....as well as his watch and his crucifix." The last was said with such censure, Steve had the good sense to lower his head. "Perhaps you could also explain to
me, Steve..." Fraser's voice turned deceptively soft, "....why you felt it necessary to kidnap Detective Vecchio and hold him for ransom." In a sudden move, Fraser slammed Steve against the phone booth pinning him with his forearm. "Tell me where he is, Steve." The fire in Fraser's eyes could have melted steel.

"Whoa, Ben old buddy, take it easy!" Steve tried unsuccessfully to dislodge Fraser's arm. "We're on the same side, remember?"

Fraser pressed even harder. "Oh, I remember all too clearly, Steve." The smile that graced Fraser's lips was as cold as ice. "I remember how you abused the very laws you swore to uphold, how you used whatever means were necessary to achieve your end. I remember how you left me to die in order to gain another star!"

Hurt so brief it might have been imagined flickered in Steve's eyes before he retaliated in kind. "Still Mr. High and Mighty Mountie, I see. Judge and jury all wrapped up in one." He let out a half-laugh, part defiance, part despair. "Some people never change."

Fraser gave the man he'd once considered his closest friend an appraising look before releasing him and backing away. "You're wrong, Steve." His voice was quiet, resigned. "Some people do change."

Offering no comment, Steve stepped away from the booth and straightened his clothing. He watched in guarded silence as Fraser pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and carefully wrapped the crucifix inside. Shoving it and the watch deep inside his pocket,
Fraser returned his gaze to Steve. "I won't allow you to sacrifice Ray for the sake of your assignment, Steve. If indeed, you're that's why you're here."

"I don't plan to, Fraser," Steve answered defensively, annoyed by Fraser's obvious regard for the Chicago cop and his just-as-obvious disregard for him. "For the record, I didn't steal Vecchio's car and kidnap him. That was Ian and Bubba's doing. I merely asked MacDonald to divert Vecchio's attention so I could talk to you privately. God only knows what he put in the ransom note," he muttered under his breath. "And no, I didn't steal from Vecchio. I lifted those items off the man who lifted them off Vecchio. And yes, I'm on an assignment."

Fraser studied Steve's face a moment trying to discern the truth. He needed more information. "What could possibly ally you with Ian MacDonald and bring you to a cooking class in Chicago?"

"Bootlegging, Ben old buddy, good old-fashioned bootlegging. As American as apple pie."

"And some people with whom we share acquaintance are setting you up to take the fall because of it."

Fraser's eyes narrowed slightly at this last. He also noticed several people on the street looking their way.

"Perhaps we should continue this discussion in private," he said, easing his hold on the other man.

Steve straightened his coat and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "I've got a car around the corner."

Fraser slipped Ray's watch and handkerchief-wrapped crucifix into his pocket and allowed Steve to lead them to the nearby vehicle. As they slid into the front seat and Steve slipped the key in the ignition, Fraser put a strong hand on his arm.

"Where's Ray?" he demanded. "And how does bootlegging concern either of us?"

"I'll tell you on the way," Steve said, turning the key.

Fraser tightened his grip. "Tell me now."

Steve looked directly into the eyes of the man he had once called 'friend'. "I'll tell you this much... We're going to rendezvous with Ray and Ian at a warehouse on the docks. I'll be able to explain a lot more about this when we get there. There's something I want to show you.

"And the bootlegging? Will the bootleggers be there?"

"Not exactly. But I have a sample of the merchandise."

"Which is?"

Steve sighed and pulled the car away from the curb and into the flow of traffic heading east. "Alright," he said, checking the rear-view and then looking at Fraser again. "It's a tape. Video tape."

At Fraser's questioning silence he continued. "Remember the rumors, way back when, that had circulated about us?"

More silence.

"You know. The things some people were saying, that they thought... Jesus, Ben, you know what I'm talking about!"

Fraser gave a quick nod. "Yes, I remember."

"Well..." Steve continued, "If we don't stop this shipment of tapes, those rumors aren't going to be just rumors anymore."

 

Meanwhile, back in the Riv...

At the sound of the name, Ray's expression hardened and his eyes became flat and shuttered. He sat back against the seat and crossed his arms before answering.

"Well, that depends. Which Steve are we talking about here? Steve Allen? Steve McQueen? Oh, I know, it's your long-lost, separated at birth, less-imaginative twin brother Stephen King, right?"

Ian assumed an offended expression. "Well, if that's the attitude you're going to take, maybe my associate should replace the handcuffs.."

Ray leaned forward, roughly shrugging off the large hairy hand that tried to stop him. "Okay, so Fraser might have mentioned the name. What of it?"

"Well then I'm assuming you know how close they were in the past. Of course, that was before that nasty incident at Beaver Creek. Although Steve assures me that if he thought there was a chance that Fraser was still alive after the landslide..."

The look on Ray's face was enough to make Ian pause.

He shrugged and said,"I only brought it up because I thought you might be able to tell me if the Constable still harbors any ill will towards Steve. I hope not, considering they should be renewing their acquaintance about now, according to my watch, which incidentally was handed down to me from my great-great Grandfather, Gustov Bulova, the inventor of the ."

"MacDonald!" Ray hissed through clenched teeth. "You got three seconds to tell me what the hell is going on or you'd better pray that you're related to the inventor of Soap-on-a-Rope 'cause where you're going, it ain't something you're gonna want to bend over for. And don't think that being Canadian is going to help you. I'll bury you so deep in the system, the Psychic Network won't be able to find you."

Ian's brow furrowed. "Would that be the Psychic Puppy Network or the Psychic Chicken Network?"

The scream that exploded from Ray's throat vibrated the buildings on each side of the street. He reached over the seat, grabbed Ian by the neck, and shook him with such force Ian's teeth rattled inside his head. "MacDonald, if you don't give me the damn truth right this minute you're gonna be lying through a voice box the rest of your miserable little life!

Ian's face turned red, then purple, before Bubba could brake to a stop and pull Ray off him. "Settle down, Vecchio!" He shoved Ray into the back seat. "Get a grip man! It's time we leveled with you and I'll do that just as soon as you calm down!"

Ian wiggled his teeth with a thumb and forefinger, then shot Ray a wounded look. "I think my teeth moved!"

"Yeah well, why don't you move with 'em," Ray snapped. "Outa my car, outa my zip code. Pretend you're the pink bunny while you're at it."

Bubba expelled an exasperated sigh. "MacDonald, I thought you said you could persuade him to help us!" He twisted in the seat to face a disgruntled Ray. "I'd like to apologize, Detective Vecchio, for taking you against your will, but we had little choice at the time."

Ray narrowed his eyes at the goon who was suddenly acting nothing like a goon. "Just who the hell are you, anyway?"

Bubba pulled out identification. "Inspector Eulice Joseph Obediah Damonville Beauregard Babineaux the Third--Bubba for short.

Ray did a double-take--no, triple-take.

"I'm with the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency--CCRA for short."

Ray gave his head a slight shake. "Uh--arright, uh--Bubba." Wariness crept into his voice. "And you're here because...?"

"I first came to Chicago on the trail of a Beanie Baby, but for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, I'm now on the trail of a video."

That did it. That put a cork in it. That was the final straw! He'd lost his FUCKING MIND! "What the hell is happening here?!" Ray jerked his eyes between Bubba and Ian, suddenly freaked by the surreal events that had plopped him into the outrageous scene now playing out around him. But just as fast as the insanity hit him, so did the cure. He relaxed, his mouth curling into a smile, his face registering relief. "Arright. Now I get it. Now I know what's going on." He leaned forward, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial tone. "We're not in Kansas anymore, are we?" He winked at them both, then sat back with a smug grin. "Everything's in color." He crossed his arms and looked happily around. "Yep, all I gotta do is pick up Toto, follow some road to an old guy, click my heels a coupla times and I'm home free." His eyebrows met in the middle. "Hmmm. Wonder if a wolf will work for the dog."

Bubba locked eyes with Ian. "I think it's time to call in the troops."

But Ian shook him off. "He can help us. I'm telling you, he and Fraser are the best."

Bubba grimaced, then met Vecchio's eyes. "Fraser used to work with Steven Macinaw, believing the man to be a fellow member of the RCMP."

Ray's eyes started to narrow.

"Macinaw's a known member ofÖwell, let's just say that the Canadian government pays his cheques, but most of the government doesn't know about it."

"Canadian spies, now?" Ray muttered.

"We thought Macinaw was dead. Fraser, I'm sure, thought the same thing. That's why he didn't turn Macinaw over to you when he saw him in your class." Bubba halted, sending Vecchio an odd look.

"What?" Ray demanded.

"You really spend your Saturdays going to cooking class?"

"What's it to you?!"

Bubba shrugged. "Suit yourself, I'm sure." His eyes grew cold and hard. "Do you remember Dr. Audry McKenna's work?"

"UFOs too?"

"No. Just old-fashioned surveillance satellitesÖand reconnaissance video of American military personnel training Kurds in anti-aircraft weaponry." Bubba laughed in disgust. "Typical. You Yanks stick your nose into someone else's politics, then yell for help when you get your hands caught in the cookie dish."

"Cookie jar," Ray scowled.

Bubba shrugged. "Shit house, really, if you want the truth of it."

"What has any of this to do with Fraser?"

Ian could no longer contain himself. "He's the long-lost son of an Iraqi sultan!"

Bubba didn't even wave McDonald off. "Macinaw needs a patsy."

"And my great-aunt Patsy, who actually survived the plane crash of 1963, isn't available since she's singing for Bill at the Capitol tonight." Ian lowered his voice. "There's a slight issue over the president's morality so I hope you'll keep this to yourself."

Ray stared at Ian all of two seconds. "Okay that's it." He reached down, pulled his back-up gun from its ankle holster, and aimed it directly at Ian. "Outa my car."

Ian's eyes widened. "You took a gun to a cooking class?"

Bubba tried to placate. "Detective Vecchio, if you'll just...."

"You too, Bucko, or whatever the hell your name is--out!"

Ray motioned them out of the car and made short work of finding his keys, stashing Ian in the trunk in spite of his and Bubba's protests, forcing Bubba into the passenger seat, and claiming his rightful place behind the wheel.

"Now...," Ray remarked almost jauntily, "...I wanna know two things." He started the engine. "First, what kind of video's worth twenty years in prison for kidnapping...," he shifted into gear, "...and second...," he stuck his thumb toward the back, "...you want him buried in Canada or the U.S?

"On second thought, don't answer that." Ray moved into traffic headed south. "As soon as I find Fraser, we're going downtown and both you and MacDonald can vacation at the 27th for a coupla decades."

"You need to go east to a warehouse on Western to find the Constable, Detective--and I assure you, you'll change your mind after you learn why we're here."

"Great. Finally we're getting somewhere." Ray turned at the first intersection and headed east. "Okay, Bucko, let's hear it. Why are you here?"

Bubba shifted in his seat. "It began with my inspecting MacDonald's tour bus during his last border crossing. We'd received an anonymous tip that he was bringing fake Beanie Babies into Canada."

"This is a joke, right?"

"Why, no, Detective. I personally retrieved a counterfeit Maple from beneath Ian's seat that clearly did not have the distinctive Canadian tush tag."

"Well hell, if it didn't have the tush tag, burying him alive's too good for him."

"Precisely."

"So you're telling me you're here to bust some bootlegging Beanie Baby bandits?"

"Er...no. As it turns out there's a more serious crime afoot."

"What? The Canadians who got the fakes forgot to send thank you notes?"

"You really don't have to be sarcastic, Detective."

"Arright, arright. Just keep spilling the...uh...just keep talking."

"During my inspection I found a video that contained top secret U.S. surveillance footage which belonged to the Army base that employs Ian MacDonald's fiancee, Audrey McKenna. And before you ask, I've taken precautions to secure it."

"Well why didn't you turn the tape and MacDonald over to the proper authorities?"

"Because of the other item I discovered. Accompanying the tape was a letter addressed to a known arms dealer, Ivan P. Nash. In that letter the sender agreed to pay a large sum of cash in exchange for a truckload of illegal arms. To sweeten the deal he offered the tape with a promise to bring evidence that two rogue Canadian law officials -- namely Steve Macinaw and Benton Fraser -- are involved in stealing said tapes and selling them to the highest bidder. He ended with confirmation that he would arrive at Nash's warehouse tonight at 8:00 p.m. with the money and evidence."

"Wait a minute. As hard as it is for me to say this, I can't believe Ian MacDonald would be involved in arms smuggling."

"Well, he appears to be an unwitting dupe in this nefarious scheme. He seemed genuinely surprised when I found it."

"Now that I can believe. He's a dupe all right. But that other part -- about Fraser being dirty -- that's a buncha crap. Now the other guy, Steve..." Ray glanced at his watch only to find it missing. "Jesus FUCKING Christ! He got my watch too! When I get my hands on Macinaw I'm gonna cram his thieving Canadian tush all the way up his throat!"

"Detective, please. You're raging unnecessarily. Steve didn't steal your belongings. He did, however, retrieve them from the pickpocket who stole them from you and I'm certain by now he's turned them over to Fraser for safekeeping."

Ray took a deep breath and counted to ten. "I just have one more question." He chose his words carefully. "Is Steve or is Steve not...," he turned and flashed Bubba a smile that could freeze the Arctic,"...a FRIGGIN' BAD GUY?!"

Bubba waited a beat before answering. "Yes and no, Detective. Yes and no."

There was a thump from the trunk, and, to Ray's surprise, Bubba looked guilty, and then crooked a small smile. MacDonald must have been getting on the guy's nerves too.

"There's good reason to suspect that the frame of Mr. Macinaw and your friend may have been organized by, well, a highy organized criminal element," the agent offered.

Ray made a sharp turn. "That I'm ready to believe. Start convincing."

"You have in your country a well-established bootlegging network for pirated videotapes."

"Not just in my country," Ray observed, breezing through a yellow light and starting to feel human again.

"True. Interpol has long been trying to establish a system of detection and punishment. But one fears --"

"Is this the convincing part?" Ray wanted to know.

Bubba shook his head. "Now that DVDs are taking over the video market, bootlegged disks are now replacing the tapes, but the market for tapes, particularly tapes of things that never have, and probably never will make it to disks has strengthened. By that, I mean home-made sexual videos, observeillance videos, and military videos."

Ray thought about that one for a second. "So in Audrey's work they made a video some of American military guys training Kurds in anti-aircraft weaponry and now it's being copied and sold in this sophisticated American video bootlegging market?"

Bubba nodded, but sighed. "Not just that tape. Dozens of tapes. Someone in military intelligence is making these tapes and distributing them through mail-order. I must find out who this is and show that the people behind it do not, in point of fact, include Constable Fraser or Macinaw."

Ray nodded, then scowled at the line of warehouses on Western. They should all have been condemned long ago. But perhaps Bubba had meant the nicer ones on the other side of Dumont.

"There," the agent said, pointing to the worst of the lot. "Fraser should be in there." Bubba shifted slightly. "Please don't be too, er, reactive when you see him."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ray demanded, turning towards the warehouse and thowing his passenger a look to kill.

"Well, I'm afraid, given Macinaw's usual MO, that the constable will be bound and gagged."