Disclaimer and Notes: Ray Kowalski, Benton Fraser, and all the other Due South characters have been invited by Amanda to take up permanent visas in Stonyland just like she and Nick and all the other Highlander characters have. ::sigh:: I know they belong to Alliance and the Highlander folks to Panzer/Davis, but as usual, I'm not making a dime off this. Cait Donovan, Kasi Vairocana, Gregor Kulik, and Jasper Sahir (and their assorted sundry companions) are residents of Stonyland and therefore belong to me.
This is the sequel to A Shot of Reason. I'd like to say this stands on its own, but I suspect it doesn't. However, you don't have to know Highlander: The Raven or dueSouth to enjoy this; I tried to write it so that it still could be enjoyed by a fan of either Highlander or dueSouth.
Comments, constructive criticism, therapy suggestions for the much-neglected Mack Bolan muse, and discount coupons for tea are welcome.
SPOILERS: This is set after the end of both shows, so anything is open.
This is rated R for sex, strong language, and violence.
Thanks to: My alpha and omega betas: Dana Woods and Amand-r. Thanks for going the extra mile for me and for being the great friends that you are.
Thanks also to Rhiannon Shaw for the beta reading and the inspiring, way-too-late-for-me-to-be-up discussions. Heaps of gratitude to Debbie Hann, who saw this from its extremely angst-ridden beginning and stayed around for something happier.
This is for James McDonald-for being not only a pretty nice guy to work with, but also a friend. Thanks for insisting that "slash" makes you think of horror films.. ::giggles:: Extra TYK for the encouragement, inspiration, and advice.
Oh, and famous last words can be found here.
The Raven crossover
Code of Silence Trilogy #3
by Raine Wynd
"It's such a contradiction
To love someone enough to walk away
The curse of benediction
Is the pain that just won't go away"
Heather Kinley, Jennifer Kinley, Sarah Majors (sung by The Kinleys) "Contradiction"
Near Galway, Ireland
The rain poured down in steady sheets as Cait Donovan trudged down the highway outside of Galway. She'd run from Chicago with little more than her passport, a backpack full of clothes, and sixty dollars, intending to crash at her cousin's until she could find a job. The plan would've been perfect except that Cait had forgotten just how far it was from the airport to her cousin's house, and the money she had wouldn't be enough to cover a taxi. She'd already tried calling her cousin, to no avail.
So she did what she'd done countless times before when she'd been stranded in the middle of nowhere: she walked. Vehicles passed her by; she stuck out her thumb in the universal hitchhiking gesture, but no one bothered. Some seemed to prefer splashing her instead. She cursed a few of them and tried not to think of how foolish she was being.
A smart woman would've pulled money out of her bank account or charge card to get to her destination, but in typical Murphy's fashion, the ATM machine Cait had found in the airport had been out of order. An even smarter woman would've walked to the next nearest ATM.... Cait was tired, heartsick, and more than a little jet-lagged, and the obvious solution hadn't occurred to her until she was several miles out of the city. Then, when she'd thought about it, she'd consoled herself that at least this way, her destination couldn't be traced, and no one could go looking for her. She didn't want to be found.
Well, okay, so I'll take being found by a nice, safe Good Samaritan who'll let me drip all over their car until the next town, she thought wryly.
Cait shivered and pulled the edges of her denim jacket tighter around her. The rain felt like liquid ice. She had long since passed the stage of being thoroughly soaked and was now in the realm of being one mass of waterlogged clothing. She wasn't wearing a hat, and her reddish-brown hair now hung wetly against her scalp and dripped onto her shoulders, soaking into the black T-shirt she wore. Still, she kept on walking, stubborn to the core. Exhaustion from the miles she had already completed had settled into her bones. Hunger had stolen her capacity to think much beyond the need to get to her destination.
How much time had passed before a black luxury sedan pulled up in front of her, she had no clue. She was so exhausted that she nearly walked right into the parked vehicle.
"Cait?" a female voice asked as its owner, a slender, raven-haired Pakistani woman, poked her head out of the passenger side window. "What are you doing walking in the rain?"
Recognizing the woman, Cait smiled in apparent gratitude. "Oh, Kasi, I thought today was a lovely day for a walk," she remarked lightly even as her mind raced. Kasi Vairocana was one of the last people she wanted a ride from, but refusing it was equally dangerous. The last Cait had known, Kasi's family had been involved in a number of criminal activities. They were the kind of people who had been among her clientele as a forger. Even as broke as Cait currently was, she had no desire to get into that life again.
"Come in, the door's unlocked."
Instinctively, Cait knew if she hesitated, Kasi's driver would be more than happy to help her into the car, and with less than gentle hands. Ignoring the leather seats (if Kasi didn't mind them getting wet, Cait wasn't going to argue), Cait slid into the back seat of the sedan.
"I'm so glad you're in town," Kasi gushed. "I have someone I want you to meet."
"Oh?" Now that she was inside the vehicle, she saw that a tall, dark-skinned man who seemed oblivious to her and Kasi was driving it. Without being told, Cait knew the driver was a servant; a woman driving a vehicle went against Kasi's beliefs and upbringing. "Who is this someone you want me to meet? Your husband?"
Kasi tittered. "No, not yet. Sahir is a friend of my mother's cousin. He's looking for someone who can do some work for him, and I thought of you. I told him you were the best."
"Kasi, I'm retired."
"Nonsense," Kasi said with a wave of her hand. Her tone had the ring of command. "You'll retire when you die; you love the challenge."
"Kasi, I left Chicago because the cops were on to me." Or at least, Ray will have figured it out by now. Cait shut her mind to that depressing train of thought; she didn't want to think about the man she'd left behind, the detective she'd loved.
"Then Kulik was a grandstanding fool. He assured me you would be protected." Kasi's voice held contempt for the man who was largely responsible for Cait's decision to leave Chicago. "I knew something was wrong when I was told you had arrived at the airport and he didn't call."
Sinking into the supple leather, Cait knew she had gotten out of the rain and into the fire. So much for that Good Samaritan, she sighed.
"I still remember the night we met
You said you loved my smile
But your love for me was like a summer breeze
Oh, it lasted for a while
I could hold on a little tighter, I know
But when you love someone you gotta let 'em go"
Chris Lindsey, Keith Follese (Lonestar), "Smile"
"I can't do it."
"Yes, Ray, you can. You can do anything you set your mind to doing."
"You don't understand, Fraser. I can't do this. It don't matter if she's alive or not. I can't go back."
"I thought you said you loved her."
"I did, I do, oh hell, I don't know!" Ray's last words were delivered in an explosion of anger. "Frase, she lied to me. Do you understand? The woman I knew, she ain't the one I thought I knew. Look, I gotta go; I'm gonna be late to work. I'll talk to you later."
With that, Fraser was disconnected. He stared at the phone a moment, frowning. He'd thought Ray would be happy and would want to try and find her, but the Mountie had apparently miscalculated. He frowned. He was usually pretty good at predicting how people would react to a given situation, but he had to admit that where matters of the heart were concerned, there were a lot of uncontrollable variables. As a result, Fraser decided to wait until Ray talked to him as he'd promised.
Several hours passed, however, before they managed to have that conversation since Ray had had to work second shift. As a result, it was much later than Fraser had hoped, and he feared that the intervening time would result in Ray being even more committed in his refusal to discuss Cait. From experience, Fraser knew that silence wasn't always a good thing. In an all-night cafe not far from the station, Fraser brought up the subject of Cait again.
"I don't understand your hesitation in regards to Cait," Fraser began.
Ray put down the burger he'd been steadily working through and stared at his partner. "Understand this, Frase: I'm only gonna say this once, and that's it, okay? After this, she's off limits. We aren't gonna talk about her again."
Fraser vacillated a moment, but he wanted the explanation, and thus, reluctantly accepted the terms. "Understood."
Ray toyed with the straw in his glass a moment, not really looking at it. His shoulders were hunched in what Fraser had come to recognize as a defensive posture. He was half-tempted to comment on it, but something told him to remain silent.
Finally, Ray spoke. "Cait and me... we were like one of those Roman candles you light on the Fourth, you know?"
"No, I don't," Fraser answered, sounding perplexed.
"C'mon, Fraser, don't gimme that," Ray said impatiently. "You been living here long enough, you know what I mean! Don't you ever light fireworks up in Canada? Now do you wanna hear this or not?" He held Fraser's gaze until the Canadian nodded.
Ray studied the straw like it was a piece of medical tubing he'd been inexplicably handed, then took a deep breath, and plodded forward. In a defeated voice, he continued, "It was like... I dunno, all sparks and fire, and I guess I thought we were connected on the inside, but maybe I was looking for something that wasn't there and just pretending that it was. I'm good at pretending; you know that. Hell, I pretended to be Vecchio, and maybe I wasn't exactly him, but hey, it worked, right? Least until you blew his cover."
Fraser flinched at the reminder, but Ray didn't see the movement, too caught in self-examination to notice.
"Maybe she was just pretending that she was someone else, and maybe she was pretending I was too. I don't know that. I don't want to find out." He pulled the straw out of his glass, mangling it until it was a crumpled piece of clear plastic that wouldn't spring back into a tubular shape.
"Why not?" Fraser asked, genuinely puzzled.
Ray broke his apparently fascinated examination of his destructive handwork and looked up at Fraser. "'Cause if I know, it's gonna make me feel worse than I already do. I don't need that."
Abruptly, he sat back in the booth. "'Sides, you said Wolfe said she was headed for Ireland, right?"
"And anyway, ain't no way in hell Welsh is gonna let me go to find her. It's almost Christmas, and every wacko in the world comes out of the woodwork this time of year. Nobody gets time off unless they're almost bleeding out of their eyeballs or something."
Aware of the 27th Precinct's departmental policy regarding leaves of absence, Fraser knew Ray was stating a fact. He suspected that Ray was using it as an excuse, but there wasn't much Fraser could say to refute it.
"I loved her, Fraser. Maybe you can't understand that, an' maybe you'll understand when you're with a woman you really love, but I ain't gonna love anyone else like that ever again. An' if it makes any sense, I'm gonna let her go, because that's what she wants, and all I ever wanted to do was make her happy. Just like I did with Stella."
Fraser held his friend's gaze a moment, seeing a myriad of emotions mingling in Ray's expression.
"I'll get through this. It's not like I haven't been here before. Hey, at least this time I didn't lose everything thanks to some slick lawyer." Bitterness crept into Ray's voice and Fraser watched him visibly try to clamp it down.
Ray seemed to be fighting the urge to pull his arms tightly around himself as if he was cold. He shoved his plate of food away from him as if it was a salad he'd been mistakenly served instead of the burger he preferred. If Fraser had been a man who reached out and hugged others easily, he would've given Ray one right then, but he wasn't, and something told him Ray would take such a gesture in the wrong way.
"Listen, I'm kinda tired," Ray told him as he slid out of the booth. "Why don't we get out of here?"
"As you wish, Ray." Silently, Fraser made a note to himself to make a phone call in the morning.
Amanda always looked beautiful in Nick's eyes, but tonight she literally sparkled. If a sheet of water in sunlight could be transformed into a bandeau and a long skirt with high side slits, Amanda was wearing it. Nick couldn't help but stare as she walked down the stairs on a pair of silver, strappy, high-heeled sandals. The slender blonde smiled, acknowledging the compliment in his stare, and stopped before him to mold her curvaceous body temptingly against his. He felt her hands reach unerringly around to cup his buttocks through the black dress pants he wore and drew in a breath at the desire that shot through him.
"You like?" she teased.
He pursed his lips and nodded an affirmative as he drawled, "No, I hate it."
She laughed, low and smooth. The heels she wore leveled their heights, and for a moment, Nick enjoyed the slight change as he held her close. She could turn him on with just a look, make him angrier than anyone he'd ever known with just a careless comment, but she would always be the one who held his heart. Wrapped in the love, desire, and friendship were oceans of hurt and pride fed by rivers of lies and deceptions, but Nick would never deny he'd fallen in love with her almost from the moment they'd met. He would love her forever, slay whatever dragons she needed slain, and it wouldn't matter if he lost his life trying. He'd already proven that more times than he cared to remember.
She kissed him now, infusing the kiss with just enough desperation that Nick knew she'd dressed deliberately, hoping that he would take the hint. Steeling himself against the tactics, he ended the kiss gently.
"We talked about this, Amanda," he reminded her, stepping back and breathing deeply. "I love you, you're in love with Mac, he's in love with someone else, and being around the three of you isn't something I can do. I thought I could, but I can't. Not when I'm a friend to all of you. Maybe in a couple of centuries, I'll learn how to deal with something like this, but right now, it just hurts too much, knowing that I'll never have all of your heart."
She nodded, resignation in her dark eyes. "I know, Nick, but this is your last night in Paris. You haven't even told me where you're going. I know you can take care of yourself, but I lost you once. I just got used to having you around again. Can you blame me for trying to convince you to stay?"
He chuckled. "Sweetheart, if you didn't, I'd have thought you were coming down with something."
She looked insulted for a minute before she acknowledged the truth of that with a small laugh. "Now that would be a sight, wouldn't it?" she joked as she slipped her hand in his. Together, they walked towards the bar where he knew Mac and his lover waited. The ringing of his cell phone interrupted their walk just before he opened the door that led from their living quarters to the club, and he made his excuses to Amanda to take the call, his eyes watching her go even as he greeted his caller.
Nick woke slowly, the embers of the dream/memory vivid in his mind. Frowning, he rubbed his temples tiredly and stretched, trying to get the kinks out of his body. It had been four months since he'd last seen Amanda, and he wondered why he'd dreamed of their last night together. The phone on his nightstand rang at that instant, and he stared at the instrument a minute, half-convinced it was the dream and not reality.
The phone rang again, its shrill tone jarring in the relative silence, and Nick shook himself to answer its summons. "Hello?"
"Good morning, Mr. Wolfe. I hope I haven't woken you."
Nick smiled as he recognized the crisp, formal tones of Benton Fraser. "Good morning, Constable. What can I do for you?"
"I thought you'd be interested in knowing that the information you provided regarding Cait Donovan was received."
Nick sighed. Now he understood why he'd been thinking of Amanda; he'd gone to bed wondering if the message he'd left at the Canadian Consulate over the weekend had been delivered. "Is your partner going to do anything about it?"
"Unfortunately, nothing can be done at this time. It is almost Christmas, and as a former police officer, surely you understand that getting personal time off is"
"Like asking for the moon?" Nick finished. "Yeah, I remember. I just didn't want Kowalski thinking that she was dead when she wasn't. I know what that feels like, and I know people can do some pretty crazy things when they're grieving, especially when they're as intense as Kowalski seemed to be."
Fraser made a noise of agreement. "Yes, Ray can be... . rather passionate about certain aspects of his life," he agreed. "You wouldn't happen to know how to reach Cait?"
Nick shook his head, forgetting Fraser couldn't see, then, catching himself, answered, "No, I don't. She and I aren't friends, just two people who owed each other a favor." He thought of the Irishwoman, and felt disbelief rise in him again as he remembered how she'd run away rather than face the man who loved her. Cait had made him promise her not to tell Ray, but Nick had split hairs on that vow, telling Fraser instead out of gratitude for saving his life.
"I see. Well, Mr. Wolfe, I thank you for that information, as does Ray."
"Call me Nick, and you're welcome. I owe you for saving my life; helping your partner's the least I can do." Nick almost hung up the phone then, but something told him to wait.
"May I just ask one question of you?" Fraser asked hopefully into the sudden silence.
"Depends," Nick replied warily. "Ask, and I might answer."
"Just how did both of you manage to escape the fire and the ensuing explosion? Ray, Diefenbaker, and I barely managed to escape before the warehouse exploded. The attempt to match medical records with the remains that were found was inconclusive, and you and Cait were both presumed dead."
Nick chuckled. "We ran," he told the Mountie. "Cait just didn't want to stop until she was several blocks away." Unconsciously, Nick shuddered, remembering how the fire had scorched his back as he'd protected Cait from the worst of it. Burning to death was now on his least favorite ways to die list, and some part of him sniggered humorlessly at the thought that he even had a list.
"Ah," Fraser murmured. "Thank you kindly for the explanation. I shall trouble you no further, Mr. Wolfe."
In that instant, Nick knew Fraser hadn't been fooled. There was nothing in Fraser's voice to indicate anything other than acceptance, but Nick had never taken anyone at face value; learning about immortality had only made him even more cautious. For a wild moment, Nick wished he felt he could trust Fraser with the truth, but what Fraser had already seen and figured out was damning enough without further confirmation.
"You're welcome, Constable," Nick replied, echoing the formality as he ended the call.
For a minute, he stared at the instrument, his finger still on the disconnect button. Then he released it, telling himself he wasn't going to call Amanda, and replaced the phone on the nightstand. Just because you were thinking of her doesn't mean you should automatically call her, he chided himself as he headed for the shower. You're the one who wanted to leave and start a new life without her, remember? So get on with it.
Resolutely, he shoved thoughts of a blond-haired immortal thief out of his mind. He had an interview with an insurance firm in a few hours, and he wanted to be prepared for it. There would invariably be a background check, and though he trusted Cait's work as a forger and knew that she would have ensured his new identity would hold, he didn't want to slip up on anything. As much as possible, he wanted to live normally.
Whatever the hell that means, he thought with the bitter resignation that he suspected would never fade, when you're immortal.
Frannie looked across the squad room at the empty desk of the man she'd come to love like the brother he'd pretended to be. He was supposed to be there by now, and she glanced over at Lt. Welsh's office quickly. As far as she could tell, the lieutenant hadn't yet noticed that Ray was late, even by Ray's standards. Frannie had heard about Cait's presumed death, and knew that Ray had to be taking it hard. Anyone who'd seen Cait and Ray together knew that they'd been in love. Ever the romantic, Frannie had been hoping for news of a wedding. Now she worried; Ray could be highly impulsive, and unpredictable.
Biting her lip, she was about to call Ray at home when he walked in. He looked exhausted, as if he'd been up all night, or maybe several nights. He surprised her by stopping at her desk instead of walking past as he normally did. In a tired voice, he greeted her with, "You doing anything tonight?"
She snorted. "I wish." She studied him critically. He was wearing a sport coat over his usual white T-shirt and black jeans, and she guessed he'd been in court. Either that, or he was trying to do a bad imitation of her brother's attire again. "Why, what's up?"
He ran a hand through his hair. "Need someone to talk to. Figured you were close enough to human to qualify."
"You must be tired, your insults are starting to sound like compliments," she shot back with a smile.
"Frannie, don't give me any shit. Not today."
Instantly, she sobered. "Come on, Ray, you think I'd let you get away with insulting me?"
He chuckled, acknowledging her statement. "And here I was thinking you couldn't tell the difference." His smile faded quickly. "Please, Frannie. I can't talk to Fraser about-about her."
"No, he wouldn't understand, would he?" she returned perceptively, knowing he referred to Cait. "Well, maybe he would, but nobody talks about that witch he got mixed up with, and I-"
"Frannie-" Ray said warningly, growing impatient.
"Okay. But you owe me dinner, and you're the one who's calling Ma to tell her I won't be home."
"Deal." Clearly uncomfortable, Ray made a quick escape to his desk, where he proceeded to spend the rest of the day uncharacteristically catching up on paperwork.
At six o'clock, Frannie shut down her computer and pulled her purse out of the bottom drawer of her desk where she'd kept it hidden during her shift. A glance across the room told her that Ray was headed her way, and she waited patiently for him.
"Ready?" he asked her.
She nodded, and fell in step beside him. "Where are we going?"
"My place," he told her. "I'm not in the mood for being in public. I thought I'd cook."
She quirked an eyebrow at that. "This I gotta see."
"Just don't get lost following me, okay?"
As it turned out, getting lost was the least of their concerns. Halfway to his apartment, Ray was sailing through a green light and checking in his rearview mirror to see if Frannie was still following him when out of nowhere, the blue Mustang convertible between them was broadsided by a black sport utility vehicle, causing a chain reaction. Acting quickly, Ray pulled his GTO over to the side of the road, wanting to help where he could, and reported the accident to emergency services.
A check of Frannie revealed she was shaken. She'd have bruises in the morning from the seatbelt, but the worst damage was to her late model sedan, which had been crumpled in both the front and the back. The young, brunette woman with the face of a porcelain doll who'd been driving the convertible wasn't as fortunate. It didn't look like she'd been wearing her seatbelt, and had been thrown halfway into the passenger seat. It was likely that she'd hit her head on the inside of the passenger door, if the whiplash hadn't broken her neck. Ray wasn't EMT trained, but he'd seen enough accidents in his time as a patrol cop that he didn't think the stranger was going to survive this one.
Still, he reached in and felt for a pulse. Amazingly, she was alive. "Hang on," he told her. "Ambulance is on its way."
Her eyelids fluttered, opened. He found himself staring into a pair of brown eyes filled with pain and a touch of humor. "It's okay," she told him. "I'm not... going... anywhere," she managed. Then she smiled. Somehow, despite the blood that smeared it, the smile turned a striking face into a beautiful one, and something in Ray hitched a sigh.
Oh no you don't, Ray, he told himself, panicking. Don't go falling for someone who's got about a snowball's chance of making it through the next five minutes.
"I'll be right back," he said quickly, needing to leave before he did something stupid. "I gotta check on the driver of the SUV that hit you."
Did her voice just sound stronger? he wondered as he turned to do as he'd said. Nah, that's just wishful thinking. You know she's a goner.
A few minutes later, he was saying the same thing about the SUV driver. Later, Ray learned that the SUV driver had been high on cocaine and had suffered a heart attack upon impact. Frannie was treated for shock and checked for internal bruising and then released to his care. In the confusion of making sure Frannie was okay, Ray forgot about the beautiful, mysterious stranger.
"Guess this is one way of getting to talk to you," Frannie remarked wryly as Ray helped her up the stairs to his apartment.
"I can't take you home like this," Ray answered her. "Ma will have my ass, and she'd be right in blaming me." Even though Mrs. Vecchio wasn't his mother and his undercover assignment had been over for quite some time, Ray knew she'd forever be "Ma" to him. "Guess I better call her and tell her I'm taking care of you here since it's closer to the hospital."
"Good plan," Frannie agreed. "Remind me to argue with you about it tomorrow."
Ray chuckled and opened the door. Frannie leaned on him heavily as she made her way into the apartment. Within short order, Ray had her resting comfortably on his bed and the painkillers she'd been given had started to kick in, finally. Mrs. Vecchio was called, and fussed until she was satisfied that Ray would indeed take care of her baby girl, never mind the fact that her baby girl hadn't been a baby in years.
"So what was it that you wanted to tell me?"
Ray shook his head. "Get some rest, Frannie. It's not important." He set a glass of water on the nightstand and turned to head for the door.
"Ray, I hurt all over. I've always hated lying in bed except when I'm wallowing or I'm making love, and since I don't think either of those is happening right now, the least you can do is talk to me, especially since it's your fault I'm even here." She paused. "It's about Cait, isn't it?"
You wanted to talk to Frannie, he reminded himself. "Yeah," he admitted quietly, taking a seat on the bed.
Moving carefully, Frannie made room for him so that he wasn't falling off the edge. "I'm sorry, Ray. She was the best thing to happen to you in a long time."
He closed his eyes, feeling the heartache rise in him again. "I know," he agreed, opening his eyes. "But she didn't love me enough to come back and tell me she was alive, that somehow, she and Nick Wolfe managed to escape the warehouse before it blew. What's love without trust?"
"Empty," Frannie replied compassionately. "And lonely." She paused. "So where is she now?"
"Somewhere in Ireland, Fraser says."
"You know you could ask Welsh-"
Ray snorted. "It's almost the holidays, Frannie. Get real."
"Oh. Sorry, forgot. No time off till after New Year's unless you're dying."
"Think I could plead a broken heart?" he asked humorlessly.
"Probably not." Frannie brightened. "But I could maybe try and talk Welsh into it, if you want. You could say you're taking care of me because I was in an accident."
Ray shook his head. "It's like that old saying. If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it's yours for keeps."
"And if it doesn't, hunt it down and kill it?" Frannie retorted.
"Where the hell'd you hear that?" Ray demanded. "I wouldn't do that." He conveniently overlooked the fact that he'd stalked his ex-wife when he found out she was serious about someone.
"My ex-husband," she murmured, apology in her tone. "Or maybe that was Pop." She shrugged, wincing as the movement pulled at her bruised muscles. "Maybe it's for the best, Ray." She exhaled slowly. "I saw the report you and Fraser did on the warehouse, Ray. Did you know she was an ex-con?"
The detective shook his head. "No," Ray admitted quietly. "She had a lot of secrets. Some detective I am. I can't even figure out that my lover is a liar and a convicted murderer." Suddenly angry, he rose from the bed to pace. "I could've handled knowing that if she'd just let me in, you know, but she didn't. Maybe you're right. I don't know if I coulda trusted her the way I did, knowing she lied to me. I was kidnapped, beat up, and nearly flame-roasted because of the secrets she was keeping. God only knows what else she wasn't telling me. " He ran his hands through his hair and sighed.
"Then forget about her," Frannie declared.
Ray shot her an incredulous look.
"Okay, so I know it's not that simple, but at least you can try." She closed her eyes against a wave of pain. To distract herself, she teased him, "You know, Ray, if you wanted me in bed, you could've just asked."
Ray chuckled. "Come on, Frannie, like you wouldn't have turned me down faster than it snows in Canada."
She managed a small laugh. "So? It would've been fun."
"For you, maybe. You'd've done it just to see my reaction and Fraser's." Ray snorted, aware that she was trying to distract them both. "When are you going to get a clue that Fraser doesn't want you?"
"Oh, I've known that for a while," Frannie responded, surprising Ray. "Haven't had a chance in years, thanks to my sweet interfering brother. Guess it's just habit now, kinda like what you used to do with Stella. I think if he ever said yes, I'd die."
"So would half the station. You know how high the bets on the two of you have gotten?"
She chuckled. "Yeah, I know." She paused, studying him. "You know, Ray," she said slowly, as if discovering it for the first time, "when you're not out trying to prove just how much of a reject from life you are, you're a halfway decent guy."
"If you weren't on drugs right now, Frannie, I'd believe you just paid me a compliment."
"If I wasn't on drugs right now, do you think I'd be this nice to you?"
"Too true, Frannie, too true," Ray agreed with a chuckle as he stood. "Get some rest while I run over to your house and get you a change of clothes."
"Thanks, Ray. Oh, and don't forget my hairbrush, okay? And my makeup. Don't forget my makeup."
"I'm not bringing your entire vanity over here, Frannie," Ray warned her. "If I can't get Maria or Ma to help me get you a few things, it's going to be whatever I grab for you, and you're gonna have to live with it because you agreed you weren't going home tonight."
Frannie pouted, but knew better than to argue. Ray looked at her, trying to make certain that she wouldn't, then turned to leave.
He returned an hour later to find her as he'd left her, trying unsuccessfully to sleep. "Anything I can do?" he offered, setting the bag with her clothes and a few toiletries down on the floor beside the bed.
She smiled wanly. "Nah, that's okay. I'm just sore all over and numb at the same time. You go and do whatever you need to so at least one of us can get some rest."
Ray nodded jerkily and, after stripping off his gun holster, gun, and bulletproof vest, started pulling a T-shirt out of his dresser, clearly headed for a shower. Frannie watched him pull off the T-shirt he was wearing and toss it in the general direction of a hamper set in one corner of the bedroom, not quite certain of her emotions as she looked at him with purely feminine eyes. She knew him as well as a brother, loved him like one, trusted him with her life, and took him for granted in much the same way she did her brother. Yet, somehow, tonight, she was consciously aware of the fact that he wasn't her brother, and she was in his bed, dressed only in an oversized, faded T-shirt he'd loaned her.
"Ray?" she ventured tentatively.
"Yeah?" he answered carelessly, pawing through a drawer for the pair of faded, cutoff sweats he usually wore to bed.
"You know that thing about me having six kids?"
"You won a chance to be on TV, and you had to agree to do whatever they told you," Ray supplied. "It was all a publicity stunt. Even your pregnancy was all faked. Ma and Ray told me about it when I asked. That was months ago, Frannie. Why are you bringing it up now?"
"Just that... I heard that the reason why you and Stella broke up is because she wanted a career more than kids. Was that true?"
Ray removed the clothing he wanted and carefully shut the dresser drawer. "Yeah." He stood at the dresser a moment, and turned slowly to face the woman who occupied his bed. "You're starting to make sense, Frannie. That's a definite sign you're on drugs."
She ignored the insult. "You wanted kids with Cait, didn't you?"
"I don't want to talk about her anymore." Ray stepped into the bathroom across the hall and set his clothes down on the counter before returning to lean against the doorframe, sensing that Frannie had more to say.
Frannie closed her eyes, acknowledging the rebuke. "I wanted Fraser's," she informed Ray quietly. "You know what scares me most? The fact that no matter what I do, I can't find anybody who'll want me for me. And I look at you and I wonder why Stella gave you up and ran off with my idiot brother, and why Cait won't come back to you, and I wonder why you're being so nice to me when all I ever do is tell you what an annoying, disgusting pig you are, and why you're suddenly all I want."
Ray looked startled at the declaration, then he chuckled softly, ruefully. Crossing the room, he sat on the edge of the bed and took Frannie's hands in his. "Trust me, Frannie. It's just a reaction to your accident. You had a bad scare, your car is totaled, and you managed to walk away with a bunch of bruises. I could be Jabba the Hutt and you'd be saying what you're saying."
She stared at him disbelievingly, then sighed. "I hope I don't remember this in the morning."
"You will," Ray assured her, trying not to grin at the thought of her reactions when the painkillers had worn off. Leaning forward, he kissed her cheek and let go of her hands. "Good night, Frannie." He rose and headed for the bathroom, intending to shower before he slept on the couch in the living room.
"Good night, Ray."
Standing in the shower, Ray thought about Frannie's unusual offer. He had to admit to a certain level of knee-jerk interest, interest that he'd buried years ago when he realized the inappropriateness of his attraction given that he was supposed to be her brother, interest that was rekindled in the light of her declaration. Yet the wound on his heart was still too raw for even casual sex, and he valued her friendship too much to risk the added intimacy.
When he emerged from his shower, he heard her call his name. Stepping into bedroom, he asked, "Whatcha need, Frannie?"
"Just... I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm saying."
He smiled easily. "I know."
"It's a big bed," she babbled. "I don't want to be alone. Just... could you hold me till I fall asleep?"
Ray started to deny her request, but her eyes pleaded with him. He took a deep breath. He could do this... somehow. The couch wasn't all that comfortable anyway.
Slowly, he nodded, and moved to fulfill Frannie's wishes. Sliding into bed, he arranged it so that she was in his arms, her back to his chest. For a moment, Ray's mind flashed back to the last time he'd held Cait like this, and he fought back the wave of pain the memory produced. Sleep, when it came, was filled with fragmented, restless dreams.
"Although the names change,
Inside we're all the same
Why can't we tear down these walls
To show the scars we're covering"
Mark Tremonti, Scott Stapp (Creed), "Inside Us All"
Two weeks later, Ray was in the middle of finishing the report on a case that he and Fraser had wrapped up earlier that day when he heard Welsh call his name. Sighing, wishing Fraser hadn't had to go back to the Consulate because Welsh was invariably kinder when the Mountie was around, Ray went to see what his boss wanted.
"Just got this in," Welsh informed him. "There's been a burglary at the Whittenhall estate. Apparently, Mrs. Whittenhall is a friend of the mayor's wife, and they've requested the best detective on the force to handle this. Guess that means you, Kowalski, though it goes against my grain to say it. Don't let that compliment go to your head all at once."
"Thank you, sir," Ray interjected quickly, grinning. "So what was stolen?"
"That's what I need you to find out. Mrs. Whittenhall refused to speak to anyone but the detective in charge of the case. My guess is that whatever was taken is pretty expensive. The Whittenhalls aren't old money in Chicago, but they do have it, and like I said, they're connected."
"Got it." He took the sticky note Welsh handed him and saw that it contained the address and phone number of the Whittenhalls. "So you want me to do this now?"
"When do you think, Detective?" Welsh responded testily.
"Just checking," Ray said meekly. "I still have to do that report you wanted on the Hernandez case."
"Now, Kowalski," Welsh growled. "You're gonna have to do without Fraser on this one. You do remember how to do that, don't you?"
Ray bit back the retort that almost spilled from his lips, replacing it with a "Yes, sir," instead, and left the office.
Great, a society burglary, he groaned as he headed out to the address. What makes them any different than the rest of us? Oh yeah, that's right, they can get my ass fired a hell of lot faster when I screw up.
Self-consciously, he was glad he'd forgotten to take his sport coat out of his car. It wasn't too badly wrinkled; he'd remembered to hang it up on a hanger and put the hanger on the hook just above the window. Upon parking in the driveway in front of the mansion, Ray brushed off as much wolf hair as he could and put it on, hoping it looked halfway presentable. Most days, he didn't care what people thought of his attire, but then he didn't meet people like the Whittenhalls on a daily basis either.
A smiling Hispanic woman greeted his arrival, and then led him to an ornate sitting room and offered him coffee. He accepted, not quite sure if it would be impolite to refuse, and eyed the Victorian-style couch with some trepidation. He decided it would be better if he just stood instead. He wasn't entirely certain he wouldn't break the furniture and didn't want to risk it.
A few minutes passed while he waited and wished he'd thought to call and see if Fraser was available. Fraser would know if it was okay to sit. Hell, he'd probably know the history of the damned thing.
Ray sighed and curbed the impulse to pull his cell phone off his belt to call Fraser. He was perfectly capable of solving a case without the help of a Mountie. He'd done it... . just a few years and a lot of solved cases ago.
Was this why Vecchio took that Mob assignment? Ray wondered. To prove to himself he could do something big without Fraser's help? Damn, if that was the case, I'm in deep shit right now.
Hearing voices floating towards him, Ray shut his mind to that depressing train of thought. Soon, a woman in her late fifties accompanied by a younger, taller, rangy man entered the room. Shock flooded through Ray as he recognized the man as Nick Wolfe. For a moment, he couldn't speak.
Nick nodded, acknowledging the surprise. "Ah, Detective Kowalski, good to see that you've arrived," he greeted smoothly. "I'm Nicolas Wolverine. I represent Rock Securities, the insurance company, and this is Mrs. Lily Whittenhall. Mrs. Whittenhall, this is Detective Ray Kowalski, the officer who will be investigating the burglary."
Ray heard the unmistakable warning in Nick's introduction: now was not the time to debate identities. "Pleased to meet you both," he responded as Mrs. Whittenhall gestured for them to sit down and the maid brought in coffee service.
"I do hope you can recover what was stolen," Mrs. Whittenhall remarked. She had a soft voice that made Ray think instantly of genteel ladies and proper breeding. "I was assured that you were the top officer on the force."
"I'll do my best, ma'am, but I won't promise you anything I can't deliver. I prefer being honest that way." He looked at Nick, who shook his head slightly as if to say the barb was wasted. "Now, can you tell me anything about what was taken?"
Nick reached into his pocket and withdrew a sheet of paper. "Here is an itemized list of what was in the safe. You'll notice that the burglar was selective in what she took. She bypassed some of the more expensive items for the more exotic, cheaper pieces."
"She? Do you know who it was?"
Nick quirked a quick smile. "You might say that," he answered, and Ray got the impression that he knew her far too well. "The style of burglary reminds me of someone I used to know. She was one of the last cases I worked when I was a police officer. Her name's Jade."
Ray took the list and scanned the items, barely managing not to whistle at what was considered cheap. "I'll get working on this list, see what I can come up with," Ray promised.
"Thank you, Detective," Mrs. Whittenhall said. "I cannot fathom why anyone would want a life of crime when all it takes to make money is some hard work and determination. Why, my Edgar is living proof of that."
"Some people don't wanna work that hard." He took a business card out of his wallet, wincing a bit at the creases on the edges, and handed it to her. "If you find anything else is missing or you need anything, you can call me on those numbers on that card."
Mrs. Whittenhall took the card and murmured her gratitude. Ray quickly took his leave, not wanting to stay any longer than he had to, especially with Nick in the room.
Still, Ray wasn't too surprised when Nick followed him out to his car. As much as Ray wanted to get away, he sensed that Nick wasn't finished with him. "Look, it's a strange world," Nick began. "I'm sorry about Cait. I tried to tell her she was making the wrong choice."
"I don't have to talk about her to you. Whatever you are, whoever you are, it don't make a difference. I got a job to do. I can't arrest you without a lot more hassle than I want to go through, and I owe you for saving Cait's life, even if she doesn't want me in that life. Guess that makes us even. Right now all I care about is getting the creep who got Mrs. Whittenhall's jewelry, and getting on with the rest of my work."
Nick looked at Ray assessingly, as though the answer somewhat surprised him, then nodded. "If there's anything I can do for you-"
"I know where to find you." Ray's voice was cold as he got into his car and sped out of the driveway. He didn't need or want an ex-cop with a criminal history to tell him how to do his job. Even more importantly, he didn't need the reminder that he'd lost Cait Donovan, the only woman he'd truly loved since Stella.
Nick watched Ray leave with mixed emotions. He didn't regret lying to him about the identity of the burglar, but he did regret causing him pain. Still, Nick knew it had been unavoidable. He sighed tiredly and turned back to the house. For a moment, he wished he could tell Ray the truth, but honor demanded that Nick keep secrets.
Besides, Nick thought grimly, if Amanda's in town, the least she can do is say hello.
He quickly made his excuses to Mrs. Whittenhall and left her mansion. As he drove back, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number from memory. The call would be expensive, but at the moment, Nick figured the expense was justified.
The long-distance call was answered promptly, as Nick had expected. "MacLeod," a male voice said crisply.
"Mac, it's Nick. Have you seen Amanda lately?"
"She left here a few days ago," came the slightly puzzled reply. "Why, what's going on?"
"I'm not sure," Nick said honestly. "I think she's up to her old tricks here in Chicago."
There was a measuring silence, then a carefully posed question. "Do you plan to bail her out or do you plan on trying to convince her to stop?"
Nick sighed. "Both, probably, before things are settled."
"I could try and find her for you," Mac offered cautiously. His undertone indicated he'd make it very clear to Amanda that the police were after her and that she'd better leave town.
"No, I don't think that would help," Nick answered. Though he appreciated the offer, he wasn't entirely certain that Mac wouldn't complicate things further. Despite only having gotten to know the younger Highlander a relatively short time prior to Nick's move to Chicago, Nick felt he knew him well. "I know getting involved isn't the smartest move I can make, but I never could walk away when Amanda's involved." He paused. "Aside from that, I know one of the cops investigating the case. He'd pin it on me in a heartbeat if he could figure out a way, and that's the last thing I need."
There was a momentary pause as Mac absorbed Nick's words. "Be careful, Nick," he said finally. "If you need help, you know you can just call."
"Got a cure for being in love with the most maddening woman in the world?" Nick asked dryly. He didn't wait for Mac's answer, too well aware of the other man's on-again, off-again relationship with Amanda. "I appreciate the offer, Mac, but I think I can handle this." I hope. Nick disconnected the call, wondering even as he did so if he wasn't being too hasty in dismissing his friend's offer.
"I still can't believe that kid, man," Ray said, shaking his head as he tiredly made his way to his desk to fill out the closing paperwork on the case. "Took one look at you and just plain froze." Ray chuckled. "What did you have on, your 'I'm a Mountie, stop in the name of the law' face, or what?" With a sigh of relief, Ray dropped into his chair.
"Actually, Ray," Fraser began as he reached for the required forms in the file cabinet next to Ray's desk. "I merely stepped into his path as he was running away from you."
"Yeah, well, whatever," Ray shrugged carelessly, "it worked. That's one less drug runner on the street tonight." He took the forms Fraser handed him, scrawled his signature, added a few brief comments, and then stuck them on top of the stack of other paperwork on his desk.
Disapprovingly, Fraser took possession of the paperwork and proofed it, as Ray knew he would. Though Ray was conscientious enough to put sufficient detail to make sure his arrests stuck, Fraser always managed to find something he'd forgotten or merely overlooked in his desire to get the more tedious aspect of his job completed more quickly. Ray waited for Fraser to point it out, wondering what it could be in this instance.
The bust had come on the tail end of their dinner. Not for the first time, Ray wondered if he'd ever manage to have an after-work meal with Fraser that wasn't interrupted somehow by crime. A woman's car had been stolen, and they'd given chase. Before it was over, the teenage carjacker had crashed the car into a telephone pole and given both Ray and Fraser a good workout on foot. Ray had thought the chase was going to end in failure until he'd trapped the kid between himself and Fraser in a back alley in a residential neighborhood. All it had taken was one look at Fraser in his usual red serge, and the carjacker had frozen in his tracks. Ray had later found a half kilo of cocaine in the teenager's possession. The simple arrest had helped cheer up Ray, who was feeling down about his inability to track down the person responsible for the Whittenhall burglary.
"You didn't mention Ms. Baker's name," Fraser reminded Ray now, having reviewed Ray's report.
Ray smiled, taking back the paper, relishing the little game they were playing. Quickly, he added the carjacking victim's name. He was just about to make a wisecrack about Fraser knowing the woman well when an unfamiliar officer stepped into the squad room.
"Excuse me, Detective Kowalski?" the young Asian man asked crisply.
"That's me," Ray answered. "Help you?" Not having his glasses on, he squinted, trying to read the officer's name tag, then shrugged, thinking that he probably couldn't pronounce it anyway.
Under the pretense of checking over what Ray had just written, Fraser leaned over and whispered, "Smith."
Surprised by the last name, Ray glanced at his unofficial partner. Fraser nodded almost imperceptibly, but Ray knew him well enough to catch the gesture. "You gotta be kidding," Ray said in an undertone.
"When they said downstairs I'd find you with a Mountie and a wolf, I didn't believe them," Officer Smith continued in that tone of stunned disbelief Ray had come to know well.
That told Ray that the other officer was fairly new to the precinct. The look of optimism that burned in the young man's eyes also clued Ray to the fact that Smith was probably still fresh to the uniform and hadn't yet had his heart hardened by the rough side of life. Some of the veteran patrol officers had taken to sending the newbies up to see Ray and Fraser on dares, dares that invariably they lost. The dares weren't anything more than "bet you can't find a wolf and a Mountie upstairs," but still, they irked Ray on some level he couldn't quite name.
"Yeah, well, some stuff you just can't make up," Ray drawled, not bothering to hide his irritation. "You up here on a dare or you wanna tell me something important, Smith?"
Smith stopped gawking long enough to regain his composure. "My partner and I just arrested some chick for B and E. She said she wanted to talk to you."
"Got a name?"
Smith shook his dark head. "No, she wouldn't give it to us. We're running her prints now, but the computer's slow tonight. Would've called you sooner, but I didn't think you'd still be here."
Ray's eyes met Fraser's. Some psychic shiver was telling Ray the last thing he wanted to be doing was standing up and following Smith down to the holding area. Ray knew if he refused the request, Fraser would go instead. Yet another contrary urge was pushing Ray, a hope that had never quite faded.
"Okay, just gimme a sec," Ray agreed, rising to his feet. Abruptly, his heart caught up with his head as the location of the business registered. Cait's alive, she's supposed to be in Ireland, and she doesn't want me. It would be crazy for her to be here, but I don't know anyone else who'd ask for me without giving their name, and she'd be the most likely person who'd want anything at Donovan Research. That means she's probably waiting downstairs. What the hell am I going to do now? Unable to move for the tumult of emotions sweeping through him, he froze in place, turning wild eyes to Fraser in a wordless plea for help.
Recognizing the symptoms, Fraser rose swiftly, effectively concealing Ray's sudden insecurity from the other officer. "Breathe, Ray," he ordered, still speaking quietly enough for only Ray to hear.
A single breath shuddered through Ray. "I'm good, I'm good," he insisted, though he knew he wasn't fooling Fraser in the least. He stepped around the desk, nearly tripping over Diefenbaker, who chose that moment to stand.
"Stupid wolf," Ray muttered.
Diefenbaker turned innocent eyes on him.
"Yeah, you," Ray insisted. "Move it or lose it, buster."
"You talk to him?" Smith interjected.
"Not that he listens," Ray replied. He glanced at Fraser, realizing his words. "Man, I spend waay too much time with you and Dief," he told Fraser. "I gotta get a life."
Fraser looked at him curiously, as if to say, "What's wrong with this one?"
Ignoring the look, Ray said, "Come on, furball, move it; I have work to do." Diefenbaker continued to block him, as if he didn't want Ray to go.
Not that leaving was a great-sounding idea in the first place, Ray thought sourly. "Hey, Frase, he ain't moving."
"Diefenbaker," Fraser said sharply, grabbing the deaf wolf so that Dief would able to read his lips clearly. "You are being rude and inconsiderate. Ray has work to do, and you are preventing him from doing it."
The wolf looked at Ray, then at Fraser, then at Smith. With a great aggravated sigh, as if to say, "Fine, don't listen to me," Dief moved out of the way.
"Thank you," Fraser said, just before following Ray and Smith out of the squad room. Diefenbaker sighed again, and trotted after them.
A few twists and turns later, the group arrived at the holding cells.
"She's this way," Smith directed once the group had cleared the security process. He led them down the hall to a cell where a woman stood, her back to the door. "We were just doing our rounds of the neighborhood and caught her trying to break in. She didn't have any ID on her, so we brought her in."
Diefenbaker growled, low in his throat, and moved to stand between Ray and the door, effectively preventing Ray from entering.
"We put her in a cell alone, not sure what would happen if we put her in with the others and you came down," Smith explained.
Ray didn't answer. Unconsciously, he reached down to pet Dief, who looked at him with pleading eyes, and then huffed indignantly when his silent request was ignored. Nonetheless, the wolf moved out of the way.
Ray glanced down, feeling Diefenbaker move. Panic seized him once again, and he started to hyperventilate. Dief pressed against him, and Ray calmed down, but his eyes were quickly riveted again to the woman in the cell.
Glancing at his friend, then at the woman, Fraser took up the cue. "Thank you kindly, Officer Smith. Would you be so kind as to unlock the door and give us a few minutes alone with the prisoner?"
Smith hesitated a moment, then glanced at Ray, who had become a statue. "You know her, don't you?" he asked Ray. "She like your girlfriend or something?"
"Just open the fucking door, Smith," Ray growled, the sudden spurt of anger rattling the younger officer.
With shaking hands, Smith made the request over the intercom built into the wall near the cell door, then backed away.
The steel door slid open with a heavy clank as it came to a rest.
"Cait?" Ray asked tentatively, stepping forward.
She turned then, lifting her head in an unmistakable sign of pride.
For the longest moment, all Ray could do was stare at her. She was thinner than he remembered; the bones in her diamond-shaped face appeared more prominent. Her gold-green eyes were shadowed. She looked... worn out. Defeated. That, more than her gaunt appearance, scared him.
"Cait?" he asked again. "What the hell are you doing here?"
She laughed humorlessly. "Being stupid," she confessed. "Would it be too much to ask for you to get me out of here?"
Ray hesitated. The memory of how she had withheld certain pertinent information from him before still rankled. He looked at her assessingly. "Yes," he answered her finally, then turned, and walked out of the holding cell, Diefenbaker on his heels.
Cait turned to Fraser. "I don't suppose... ?"
"You did let him believe you were dead," Fraser pointed out reasonably.
She nodded tightly and wrapped her arms around herself. "Yeah, I know." She sighed. "Okay, then. I guess I'll be spending the night here. I don't have anything to prove I'm who I say I am, and they won't believe I'm the same Cait Donovan who owned Donovan Research."
Hearing the finality in her voice, Fraser started to leave. At the last second, he paused. "Why were you at your former place of business?"
Cait shrugged carelessly. "Trying to reopen it." Her voice was resigned. "Guess that won't be happening now."
"Why didn't you just get a key?"
"I lost it," she said flatly. "Kinda hard to keep anything when you've reported yourself dead."
Despite his need to see if Ray was all right, Fraser lingered a bit longer. "I was under the impression you had gone to Ireland," he said carefully.
A spark of the animation he'd come to associate with her flared briefly into her eyes, then died. "Wolfe told you, didn't he?" She didn't wait for the affirmative both of them knew to be unnecessary. "I was there. I left." She turned away then. In a voice he thought might shatter from the weight of the melancholy acceptance enveloping it, she added, "Go to Ray. He's made his choice clear."
Fraser started to protest, certain she misunderstood his relationship with Ray, but something in her body language stopped him. She was holding herself tightly, as if she was counting on him to leave so that when he did, she could fall apart in private. As someone all too familiar with the technique, he decided to let her have her privacy.
He started towards the door, only to have it flung wide open by Ray as he burst in.
Ray didn't speak, didn't stop moving forward until he had his lips pressed against Cait's in a desperate kiss. Fraser turned away politely, knowing that even as he shut the door behind himself, Ray and Cait hadn't noticed his leaving. Barely five minutes had passed when Ray stormed back out of the cell. "Come on, Fraser." His voice was hard, and he did not look at Fraser.
"Where are we going, Ray?" Fraser asked, following his friend down the hallway and up the stairs.
"Somewhere. Anywhere. Nowhere." The words were spoken with harsh impatience. "I — I just can't be here."
Half-afraid of what would happen with Ray in such a volatile mood, Fraser spoke. "Give me your keys, Ray."
Raw, dark, soul-wrenching pain glittered in Ray's eyes as he met Fraser's unrelenting stare and commanding tone. For a long, tense moment, neither said a word.
"Yeah, I guess you'd better drive me home," Ray agreed finally, digging into his pocket for his keys.
Neither man spoke during the drive to Ray's apartment, though Fraser kept expecting a comment about his driving habits. None was forthcoming, however, and he worried; Ray felt that Fraser drove too safely. It wasn't like Ray to keep things so bottled up. Still, he respected the silence and didn't pry. In one respect, Fraser was glad that there was no need for conversation: the winter night had turned colder, and the streets were starting to be covered in ice, and thus required more of his attention in order to drive safely.
It wasn't until Fraser pulled into the driveway of Ray's apartment complex that Ray spoke. "Cait said there's something big going down. Someone tracked her to Ireland and asked if she would do a job for him. She wouldn't say who."
"Do you believe her?"
Ray drummed his fingers on the passenger door just beside the window. "No."
"Yes." Ray bit off the word and got out of the car, slamming the door shut. Fraser eased his body out of the passenger seat, closing the door with precise gentleness after allowing Diefenbaker to get out of the back seat.
"Maybe," Ray said as he jogged up the stairs. Fraser followed, Diefenbaker on his heels.
"Hell, I don't know!" Ray exploded on the landing in front of his apartment. Gesturing wildly, he declared, "She lied to me. How can I tell she ain't lying to me now?"
"You could take it on faith," Fraser offered.
"Maybe you can, but I can't." He braced his hands against the wall next to his apartment door and took a shuddering breath. "I can't."
Though he suspected the answer, Fraser felt compelled to ask the question anyway. "Are you going to bail her out of jail?"
"No." Ray didn't turn, didn't make a move to enter his apartment.
The anguish in Ray's voice reminded Fraser so much of when Ray had revealed the truth about Beth Botrelle, and he ached for his friend. There wasn't anything Fraser felt comfortable saying; his own experience with being in love with a criminal had nearly destroyed him. Instead, Fraser settled for encouraging Ray inside where he could fix him some tea and collapse on the couch. It wasn't enough, Fraser knew, but somehow, he knew Ray understood.
Cait sighed as she collected her personal belongings and headed out of the police station. She was beyond tired, and as she shrugged on her denim jacket, she shivered. After two days in jail, she'd been released. The officer who'd processed her release had indicated that she was supposed to meet someone in front of the station. She wasn't looking forward to it; she'd guessed that Sahir had arranged for the charges to be dropped. She wasn't sure how she was going to get around to fighting the declaration of persona non grata for the falsification of her death, but she imagined Sahir would know. She chuckled bitterly; that would be one more thing she would owe Sahir, and she hated debts.
She was surprised and relieved to find Ray waiting for her, standing almost arrogantly next to his beloved car. The door to the passenger side of the black GTO was open in clear invitation.
"Get in," he ordered gruffly.
Not liking his commanding tone, she refused. "I don't think so."
"You've been released into my custody," Ray told her. "Either you get in the car or you go back to jail."
Cait stared at him. His eyes were cold, hard, and she knew instinctively that he wasn't bluffing.
Without a word, she got into the car, pulling the door shut behind her. He walked around and slid into the driver's seat. Shutting his door, he started the car.
The drive to Ray's apartment was completed in near silence, the only sounds the hum of the engine, and the wind as it whined through Ray's open window. Feeling colder than she could remember being, Cait kept her window closed and hunched into the jacket she wore.
It didn't take long for Ray to park the GTO in front of his apartment building. He got out first and opened the door for her, then he gestured for her to lead the way, though he followed close behind. It was the longest Cait could ever remember him being silent. She couldn't read him; it was as though he'd slipped on a mask. The apparent change scared her. Ray had always been easy to read; his emotions always bubbled close to the surface, and she'd loved him for that.
As soon as they'd stepped through the door of his apartment and into his living room, Cait decided she'd had enough of the silent treatment. "Ray, what is going on?"
"Funny you ask," he nearly snarled at her. "Maybe you ought to tell me. Did you think I would just take you back after you lied to me? Huh? What the hell did you think I'd think? "
"That I was dead," she shot back, throwing her words at him like stones as she reacted without thinking to the challenge in his voice.
"Damn it, Cait, why?" His expression clouded in anger.
"I thought it would be easier," she began.
"Easier for who? For you, maybe. Maybe you wanted to be with Wolfe more than me. Maybe that's why you made him promise not to tell me."
"No, that's not it," Cait argued vehemently.
"Then what? You never said you loved me, so what am I supposed to think?"
"You weren't supposed to be involved!"
Ray walked up to her until she was backed into the couch. She stumbled, nearly sitting down, but managed to catch herself in time.
In a dangerous voice, Ray asked, "Not supposed to be involved? How the hell do you figure that?."
Cait stared at him, knowing he spoke the truth. "I was going to tell you everything."
"When, Cait?" Ray demanded. "Before or after Kulik killed me?"
"I couldn't tell you if you were dead," Cait retorted.
"Well, now, wasn't that the point? You didn't want to tell me some crazed psycho who thought he couldn't die was after you. I was good enough to fuck, but I wasn't good enough to trust with your life."
Cait couldn't bear to look at him anymore. Shaken by the self-disgust she heard in his tone, her knees crumpled under her, and she sank into the couch, promptly burying her face in her hands.
She felt him walk away. Judging from his footsteps, he'd crossed the room. She looked up and saw that he stood near the window, his back facing her. "I made a vow," she told him, her voice breaking on the words.
He shook his head. "To do what? Get people killed?" he scoffed.
"No, it's not like that," she tried to say.
He snorted again. "Sure as hell looked like it to me."
"I thought I was doing the right thing. I needed time."
"Then why didn't you say so?" Ray challenged. "I would've given you anything."
"Because I couldn't deal with it!" Cait rose to her feet and began pacing. "Kulik's a part of my life I thought I left behind. I thought I was safe from him, do you understand? I thought if I never forged the documents he wanted, he wouldn't succeed. I didn't think he'd resort to kidnapping someone I was in love with!"
"Well, guess what? He did. And you wanted me to believe that he killed you. Why, Cait?"
"I don't know!" Cait answered, frustrated. "It made sense then. You're a cop, for God's sake, and I have a criminal record. I didn't think you wanted to be with me."
"You never gave me the chance to say no," Ray returned. Anger mixed with contempt and pain to make his voice rough. "You never even asked. You just pretended to be dead." He closed the distance between them and glowered at her before swallowing hard. In a quieter tone that made Cait's heart break to hear it, he asked, "Why did you come back, Cait?"
She met his troubled gaze. The ache in his words lanced through her, and she had to blink past her tears. "I had to," she whispered. "I-I missed you." Silently, she prayed he'd accept the half-truth. Unconsciously, she hugged her stomach and bit her bottom lip.
Ray's sharp eyes caught the movement. "You sure have a funny way of showing it. If it weren't for Fraser, I'd have thought you dead when the warehouse exploded. If you really missed me, you could've come back sooner, told me the truth."
"I didn't think you'd understand." The words to tell Ray about the Watchers, about immortality, stuck in her throat; habits of a lifetime suddenly too difficult to break. It's more important that he knows about Sahir, she told herself.
"Why? Because I'm a cop? Because I ain't got a fancy degree? Maybe Stella was right and I'm just a stupid fuck." The pain of the old insult was clear in his tone.
"No, you aren't stupid," Cait argued. "I just-" She looked at him, and her voice failed her. He was watching her with winter in his eyes, and she knew she wasn't reaching him. Blinking past the tears that suddenly threatened to fall, she raised her chin in an unconscious gesture of pride and tried to regain her composure. Crossing her arms, she rubbed her shoulders and took a deep breath. Something told her that this was her only chance to make things right, and she'd blown it so far.
"I wanted to protect you," she finished quietly. "I thought that maybe if I went away, my past wouldn't be an issue. Then I got this deal with Sahir and I wanted to warn you-" She halted speaking, unable to continue for the mistrust and hurt etched into his angular face. Her heart squeezed in anguish as she realized she couldn't tell him the truth about the Watchers, and now she suspected he wouldn't listen to what she wanted to say about Sahir. She was tired; Sahir had her running ragged, and her little jail adventure would be a setback he wouldn't appreciate. The heartache she was feeling only added to her exhaustion and stress.
Taking a deep breath, she exhaled and hoped a part of the truth would be enough to wipe the look off Ray's face, let her back into his heart. She dearly wanted to be there: in his arms, she had felt safe, wanted, loved, and she cursed herself for throwing it away so rashly. Now there was no going back, and the code of silence she lived by wouldn't allow her to say what needed to be said.
"Being with you scared me," Cait admitted, as she searched his eyes and prayed for understanding. He was so still, she was afraid to touch him. "The last time someone loved me like that, I was seventeen and damn near broke. Marc took me in, helped me move to Geneva so I could go to school for this job he said would be more exciting than waitressing." She laughed bitterly. "My life has never been the same since."
Ray's eyes narrowed. "So why was that so hard to tell me? Cait, I've been shot at, stabbed, kidnapped, nearly drowned and frozen to death, and God knows what else, and that's only since I was partnered with a Mountie who doesn't know when to quit pursuing justice."
Cait's eyes widened at Ray's description of his life. "I didn't want you to get hurt any more. You didn't need me around; I nearly got you killed just because you knew me."
Ray laughed bitterly. "Oh, that's great. And letting me think you were dead wouldn't hurt me?"
"Why didn't you come after me if you knew I wasn't?" Cait burst out, abruptly tired of the circular argument.
"Because I couldn't get the time off!" Ray shouted back. "Damn it, Cait, I wanted to, but I got a job to do. Nobody asks for time off during the holidays when you're a cop. It doesn't happen, especially when you've only been back on the force for seven months."
Cait looked at him, confused. "Why? What happened?"
"I was in Canada with Fraser on an adventure." Ray shook his head, nearly chuckling at the memories. Then he sobered as he remembered Cait. "I was cold up there, but not like when I thought you were dead. If you didn't wanna hurt me, Cait, you sure as hell fooled me. Next time, why don't you just take a knife and stab me with it. Least that way I can see if I'm bleeding or not."
He laughed hollowly and moved restlessly away from her. In Cait's eyes, he had never looked more graceful, more achingly beautiful than he did right then. Abruptly, he stopped and turned to face her.
"Tell me, Cait, did you ever love me or was I just dreaming?" he demanded in a voice raw with barely suppressed emotion.
The answer stuck like glue in Cait's throat as she realized he wasn't going to forgive her for leaving as she had. Suddenly, the distance between them seemed greater than the one she had created when she had left Chicago. A sense of inadequacy swept over her, and she could only stare at him helplessly.
"You're free to go, Cait," Ray said tiredly. "I guess I was just dreaming we had something good going on."
Cait started towards him, intending to say something, do something, anything, but the urge to protect herself suddenly rose strong in her. Clearly, she'd handled things badly, and there wasn't anything she could do now to save it. The words of warning she'd wanted to give him died unspoken. She took one last look at him, and walked out the door.
Ray stared at the open door a long moment, then slowly turned his back on it and sank to the floor, holding his head in his hands, trying to cry tears that hurt too much to flow.
Frannie found him like that an hour later. "Ray?" she asked cautiously. "Welsh tried calling you, but you weren't answering the phone, so he sent me down here to check on you. You okay?"
He snorted. "No, I just fall apart for the hell of it."
"You?" she scoffed. "Fall ap Oh, Ray," she said more softly as she got a clear look at his face. "What happened, huh?"
With the ease of her Italian upbringing, she stepped closer, set her purse down on the couch, knelt down on the floor and hugged him. He leaned into the offered embrace with a shuddering sigh that sounded suspiciously like a restrained sob.
"Let it out," she coaxed gently, instinctively. "Come on, I might talk a lot, but I'm not gonna tell anyone. Not about this."
He half-smiled against her shoulder. "Better not," he warned her, his voice rough. He swallowed and moved just enough so that he could look directly at Frannie. "I saw Cait today."
"Ray, that's great! So where is she? How is she? Are you going to" The words tumbled out in a gleeful rush, only to be halted when Frannie's mouth caught up with her brain. "Oh, Ray," she said sympathetically, aching for him. "I take it didn't go well."
"No," he confessed. "I wanted to believe her," he admitted. "I loved her, and I wanted to believe her, but I can't. Not anymore."
"I'm sorry, Ray." The words seemed lacking in her own ears, but she didn't know what else to say. "I'm so sorry." She looked at him, wanting to do so much more than just what she was.
He returned the look for the briefest of moments before the tears engulfed him. Frannie found herself drawing him closer, holding him against her. For one wild heartbeat, she was glad she'd chosen to wear a much-modified uniform shirt that day; it wasn't something that needed dry cleaning. Even as she murmured soothing words to the man in her arms, she could feel a disbelieving rage settle in her soul.
Ray wasn't a gentleman in the way Fraser was. If Fraser was a prince, Ray was the knight charged with protecting the prince by whatever means necessary while still upholding the law. His armor was bulletproof, but his heart lay open for anyone to see. Even so, it wasn't something he gave away lightly, no matter how fickle his flirting around the station made him appear to be. Why Stella and now Cait had chosen to throw that heart away like a vest that had been shot full of holes not only seemed incredible to Frannie, but unfair and cruel.
"She didn't deserve you,"' Frannie declared sometime later when Ray had regained control of his emotions and moved out of her embrace. They still sat on the floor, though; neither was inclined to move to the couch as it seemed too great an effort.
Ray took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "I wasn't good enough for her," he told Frannie. "Guess I'm just a great fuck and a great fuck-up."
"Oh Ray," Frannie began. "You're not a screw-up. You're a pig," she said earnestly.
His eyes opened at that remark. For a moment, he appeared so incredulous that Frannie had to stop and think about what she'd said.
"Well, you are," she insisted, floundering. "I mean, that's slang for a cop, right? And your desk is always a mess."
He stared at her a heartbeat longer, then began to chuckle. Relief swept through her, and she began to laugh as well. Their laughter turned quickly to borderline hysteria. As if realizing it at the same time, they sobered.
Ray checked out Frannie, who clutched her sides in a clear reflection of how hard she'd laughed. "You okay?" he asked, rising to his feet.
She suppressed a giggle. "Yes." She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Help me up?"
He reached for her, pulling her upright in a smooth motion that revealed his wiry strength. A little surprised by it, Frannie didn't release his hand right away.
He glanced down at their still-joined hands and then at her, baffled. "Frannie? You can let go now."
She looked quickly at her hand in his and let go. "Sorry," she apologized, abruptly aware of something shifting in the invisible dynamic between them. There was a tingling in the pit of her stomach Frannie recognized as the first stirrings of desire, and she swallowed nervously. Then she met his gaze, and her pulse skittered alarmingly.
"Do you remember what you told me the night your car got smashed?" he inquired, his eyes searching hers.
She shook her head as a knot rose in her throat. All she remembered was that Ray had taken her to his place, and she'd woken up in his bed, alone, aching from her various bruises, and yet feeling strangely comforted.
A brief, ironic smile graced his lips and was gone. He stepped back, leaving Frannie feeling oddly bereft and somehow relieved. Not quite understanding the feeling, she stood there as he reached for the cordless phone and called Lt. Welsh with an excuse Frannie barely heard. Her mind was a morass of confusion; for a moment, she could've sworn Ray had been feeling the same attraction she'd felt.
Hanging up the phone, he grabbed his jacket and slid it on before grabbing his keys. "You going back to the station?"
It took Frannie a few seconds for the question to register. "Yeah, I'd better," she answered. Picking up her purse, she noticed a business card beneath it. "Hey, you want this?" She picked the card up and handed it to Ray.
He glanced at it, seeing the words "The Royal Bazaar (A Pakistani Restaurant)" emblazoned on it and a discount for 10% off any food item. Figuring Cait must've dropped it, he ruthlessly shoved the reminder of her into his jeans pocket and promptly forgot about it. "You still got that rental car?" he asked Frannie as he opened the door to his apartment, allowing her to precede him as they left.
"Yeah, the insurance company hasn't decided if my car's totaled or not."
"The hood's practically in the driver's seat and the trunk's in the back seat," Ray countered. "What's so hard about that?"
Even as Frannie replied, she was left with the nagging sense that she had turned the corner in her relationship with Ray, and that she'd missed something important as they'd rounded that curve. Trying to figure it out, though, only resulted in Ray's adamant refusal to tell her.
"The moon is pulling at me, the moon is pulling at you
You swear to me it's the sun that's shining through
It's hard to push for the truth when lies are easy to find
I'm left with, I'm left with this trouble in mind"
Bree Sharp, "Walk Away"
Ray fidgeted with the unaccustomed confines of the rarely-worn tuxedo and wished to God he was anywhere other than a stuffy ballroom. He knew why he'd gotten stuck with the duty of attending the pre-Christmas charity event: he'd mouthed off to Welsh. Not even the fact that he'd managed to solve a big drug case without Fraser's help had rescued him from having to play glorified security officer on what was supposed to be his night off work.
Ray sighed, knowing it wasn't the first time or the last his mouth would get him into trouble. Lately, it didn't seem like he was saying anything that wouldn't get him into hot water with somebody. He was a little surprised Fraser was still speaking to him, especially after Ray's crack about Fraser's sex life. Thinking about that particular remark made Ray wince.
Face it, Kowalski, he told himself, if there's one thing you're good at, it's fucking up.
He was so busy berating himself he almost missed her. She walked in with the assurance of a woman who knew exactly what she looked like, how much she was worth, and why she was there. She was tall, slender, Miss America material, with short-cropped blonde hair and an almost elfin face. She wore a glittering navy blue sheath that clung to every move she made and somehow managed to be ten times sexier than if she had walked in wearing something more revealing. She exuded a natural confidence and sexuality such that nearly every head in the room turned to watch her enter.
From his vantage point in the corner of the room, Ray couldn't help but stare at her. She looked like someone he ought to know, someone he'd met sometime in the course of his work, but he strongly doubted it. He wouldn't forget someone like that. For a moment, Ray forgot that he was supposed to be part of the security detail and just simply... appreciated.
A small smile played across her lips as she came to a stop just before the edge of the dance floor. Ray lost sight of her as she disappeared behind the dancing couples, then shrugged to himself.
Like you'd have a chance in a million of having her, he thought to himself. You had your Gold Coast girl, and look what happened to that.
His attention wandered. He knew he was supposed to be providing undercover security for the charity event, but with all the other officers on duty, he didn't think anyone would notice if he wasn't completely focused. It had been seven days since the Whittenhall burglary, and he was no closer to a resolution than when he started. Even with Nick's theory that it had been someone named Jade, Ray only had a decades-old mug shot and no leads. The simple answerto blame the theft on Nick Wolfewasn't one that Ray could support without evidence, and he doubted anyone would believe him if he claimed that theory, especially when he wasn't completely convinced of it himself. As far as anyone knew, Nick Wolfe had been killed in an explosion that had also claimed the lives of four others, including the woman Ray had loved. Ray had already claimed that Nick had come back from the dead once; it was stretching his credibility if he did it again.
Still, Ray knew that no one could have survived the things he'd seen Nick walk away from without a scratch-and that didn't even begin to explain the weird sword fight he'd witnessed. Instinctively, Ray sensed there was an explanation that defied conventional wisdom, and he just was somehow missing a piece of the puzzle that would solve the mystery. Someone was not telling him everything, and Ray hated secrets. Secrets invariably meant someone would eventually get hurt when the truth was revealed. Having stood in one too many firestorms in the wake of a revealed truth, Ray was beginning to think that his asbestos jacket was scorched beyond repair, and the scars were getting to him.
Suddenly, a voice spoke. Ray jumped, and barely managed to stop the expletive that rose to his lips as he realized Fraser was standing in front of him. Fraser was saying his name in a tone that made Ray realize Fraser must have been repeating it for some time now and was getting rather irked.
"Sorry, Frase, I was thinkin'. What's up?"
"Did you see a blond-haired woman come through here?" Fraser began. "I believe she was wearing blue." He then went on to describe her in more intricate detail.
Ray listened patiently through the long-winded description of the woman Fraser was seeking. "Yeah, she walked in about an hour ago," Ray answered with a glance at his watch. "Why?"
Fraser rubbed his neck, just on the inside of his collar. "She made quite an impression."
Ray stared at his friend, caught off guard by the comment. He'd been expecting Fraser to tell him that she was a wanted felon or that she was a friend of a friend of a neighbor of Fraser's who needed something. Ray looked closer, and realized Fraser was actually uncomfortable admitting his attraction to the stranger. A slow grin spread across Ray's mouth. "Yeah, she was a hot one, wasn't she? Bet you could walk up to her and get her name in less than thirty seconds."
"Oh, no, Ray, I couldn't-"
"You're representing Canada tonight, aren't you?"
"Well, yes, this is considered an official function, as this is one of the Inspector's favorite causes."
"So it wouldn't be impolite to introduce yourself, now, would it?" Ray grinned, aware that he'd trapped his friend.
Fraser opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. "No, no, you're right, it wouldn't." He smiled. "Thank you kindly, Ray." He turned and headed in the direction of the stranger.
Ray chuckled, enjoying the sight of his normally reserved friend moving through the crowd towards the woman in shimmering blue. If I can't get lucky, maybe someone else can, he thought. And maybe this'll make up for that crack I made about him needing instructions the next time he got laid.
"Constable Fraser," the heavyset, middle-aged Pakistani man greeted warmly, "so good to see you."
"Mr. Sahir, it's a pleasure, as always," Fraser said, shaking hands. "I trust that the evening is going well?"
The philanthropist beamed. "Very well. Is Inspector Colby with you?"
Fraser smiled politely at the mention of his newest boss. "I'm sorry to say that I'm her stand-in tonight; she has the flu."
"Please, when you see her, extend my sympathies." Smoothly, the man largely responsible for the charity ball turned to the woman in navy blue beside him. "Constable Fraser, may I introduce you to a dear friend of mine, Amanda Darrieux. Amanda, this is Benton Fraser of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police."
Automatically, Fraser reached for the slender hand that she extended and looked into her eyes. The crowd, the music, the world abruptly narrowed to the two of them as electricity sizzled through the simple touch. Breathing suddenly became difficult. Then she smiled, and Fraser's heart tumbled right into her hands.
"A Mountie," she murmured, a devilish light in her eyes. "It's been a long time since I had the pleasure."
Fraser tilted his head, not quite understanding the dare in her voice. "I take it you knew another Mountie?"
The smile grew wider. "Oh, I wouldn't say that," she countered. "I think it was the other way around." She didn't explain further. "Jasper, if you'll excuse us," she told the philanthropist, "I do believe I'll have the Constable escort me to the buffet. I wouldn't want to get lost in the crowd."
Jasper chuckled. "When you're old and gray, Amanda, maybe that will happen."
Amanda smiled, but Fraser didn't miss the fact that the light in her eyes dimmed at the prospect of aging. "That would be a sight, now wouldn't it?" she tossed back lightly, taking Fraser's arm and turning away from Jasper.
Fraser automatically bid Jasper good-bye and began leading Amanda to the buffet. "So what do you do, Miss Darrieux?" he asked politely, trying to ignore the heat of her touch and the way her nearness was affecting him.
"Please, call me Amanda," she insisted.
"Call me Benton, then," he returned, smiling. "Or Fraser."
"Benton," she acknowledged. "What a lovely name. I'm part owner in a club in Paris," she answered, "but I'm in town on business. An old friend needed my assistance with a personal matter, and I happened to run into Jasper while I was eating lunch the other day, and he invited me to this. I so love children, don't you, Benton?"
"I've given some thought to having them, yes."
"And?" She let go of his arm, leaving it tingling oddly, and stepped up to the buffet. Without the awkwardness another man might have shown, Fraser picked up a plate and offered it to her. She smiled, her head tilting slightly with surprised gratitude at his courtesy.
"Grandchildren, son, I want grandchildren," the voice of his father's ghost spoke just then, and Fraser barely managed to avoid jumping in reaction. Ignoring his father as best as he could, Fraser smiled at Amanda.
"Ah, it would be difficult to raise a child, but I believe the rewards can be greater than the struggle."
"Absolutely, son," Fraser Sr. agreed.
"So I've heard," Amanda replied as she moved down the buffet.
Some moments later, she sighed. "Doesn't look like I'm going to get much of a meal tonight."
"You're not fond of vegetable and cheese trays?"
Amanda made a face. "Are you?"
"Vegetables and cheese are important components of two of the food groups, from which one should always-"
"I prefer to live dangerously," Amanda interrupted him with a smile. "Besides, this is Chicago. I have a craving for a really good pizza, and I know just the place I'd like to go. Pizza shouldn't be eaten alone, though. Care to join me?"
"You know you're not getting any younger, son. What are you waiting for?"
Fraser breathed deeply and tried to remember to be grateful that his father's ghost had chosen, after a prolonged absence, to return. "Would you give me a moment, please?"
"Of course," Amanda agreed easily.
"A minute?" Fraser Sr. began arguing as soon as Fraser turned to head in Ray's direction. "Son, if a woman like that was asking me-"
"She's not," Fraser returned abruptly. "I'll thank you kindly to leave me alone right now."
"Hmpf. Don't even get a 'hello, Dad, how's Mom'?"
"You're both dead."
"True enough, son, but your mother did tell me to make sure to tell you hello."
"Dad, would you please leave?" Fraser muttered crossly, grateful that because of the way the crowd was moving through the room, his conversation with a ghost wasn't readily apparent. A few feet before Ray, Fraser glanced over to his left and was relieved to see that his father's ghost had disappeared.
"Hey, Frase, what's up? You get her phone number yet?"
"Ah, no, Ray. However, she has invited me-"
"What, you asking my permission?" Ray interrupted, incredulous. "I got another hour here anyway, so don't worry about me."
Fraser rubbed an eyebrow. "I just didn't want you becoming concerned."
"Look at me, Frase. You, a beautiful woman, and a date. What's there to be concerned about? Now, if it was me, that'd be a different story."
Fraser frowned at the self-depreciation.
"Go on, get outta here. I'll check on Dief before I go home."
"Thank you, Ray," he said gratefully. "Please do assure him that I won't be long."
"Go on, don't worry about him," Ray urged him. "I got it handled."
"Thank you kindly." Fraser turned and headed back in Amanda's direction. Ray smothered a chuckle, too well aware that his friend had ears like a bat, and wouldn't understand why Ray was laughing.
Michelle Webster breathed a sigh of relief as the sensation of another immortal faded into the distance. The last thing she needed was a confrontation, not when she was on a deadline. She had exactly forty minutes to get in, switch the painting, and get out. She glanced at the rolled-up canvas in a poster tube on the seat beside her and snickered at the thought that someone would look at it and consider it to be art. It didn't even resemble the one she'd been commissioned to steal. She'd been told it was a forgery of another of the same artist's work; all she knew was that it had arrived at her hotel that morning.
Like it matters, she chided herself. This is target number two of ten, and once you deliver the goods, you get twenty-five thousand dollars. When it's all over, you'll have a quarter of million dollars. It's just like Amanda taught you: work a few hours and get rich. Not a problem if you don't mind being unethical and illegal.
"Oh yeah," Michelle whispered, and slid out of her seat. "Piece of cake." Locking the door of the dented Mustang convertible, she tucked the poster tube underneath one arm and pocketed the keys. She then stuck a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of a local art gallery on her head, careful to thread the end of her French-braided brunette hair through the opening in the back of the cap. She'd already taken care to wear a matching T-shirt and jeans. Both the cap and the shirt had been easily obtained out of the gallery's souvenir shop.
Michelle took a deep breath and walked into the hotel. With practiced ease, she flirted with the desk clerk and convinced the night manager that she was, indeed, supposed to be changing out the picture. "They like me to do this kind of stuff at night," she confided breezily. "That way, they can make me work on other stuff during the day and I'm not interrupting normal business hours."
The night manager looked skeptical, but the work order Michelle provided him looked legitimate. He was new, fresh out of college with a degree in archeology, and the charity ball in the main salon made him nervous; he wasn't used to having to cater to society types. After a few minutes' hesitation, he let Michelle do the work.
Michelle flashed him a dazzling smile, one that had won her the attention of many a teenage boy and had helped wrap her adoptive parents around her little finger. It hadn't worked on Duncan MacLeod yet, but she had a few centuries now. And from what Amanda had said, he was worth the patience. The switch only took a few minutes, but still, Michelle moved quickly. Silently, she thanked Amanda for teaching her how to swap a canvas from a frame without damaging it. Even as she thought it, she wondered where her mentor was. She hadn't talked to Amanda in almost two years, and the rumor that had been passed on to Michelle was that Amanda had retired from thieving.
Michelle doubted the truth of that. The only way Amanda would have stopped being a thief was if someone had cut off her head, and somehow, Michelle figured someone would let her know about that.
But what if that was the case?
It wasn't like Michelle had a lot of immortal friends in common with Amanda willing to let Michelle know what happened to her teacher. Mac was the obvious connection, but he'd made it very clear that if he never spoke to her again, it wouldn't be soon enough. She winced as the memory of her artless seduction attempt rose to haunt her. For a moment, Michelle's hands faltered as she stapled the last corner of the forged canvas in place. Closing her eyes, she willed strength back. Come on, girl, you know the stakes in the Game. Just because Amanda's lived over twelve centuries to your twenty-four years doesn't mean she can't lose. Besides, if Sahir's people had been able to find Amanda, you'd be out of a job now, wouldn't you? A girl can never be too rich, especially if she's going to live forever.
Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes and moved to re-hang the painting. A quick twist of her hands rolled the original canvas and popped it into the tube. She smiled as she bid the night manager and the desk clerk on duty good night. A glance at her watch told her she had fifteen minutes to deliver the tube to her employer's office.
Whistling, she headed for her car.
And to think I died on the way from meeting my newest employer, she mused. Who says there's no life after death?
She chuckled softly to herself, and thought how far she had come from being a typical teenager with a passion for guys and cars. She wasn't a brainless, whining idiot anymore. No, she was immortal, and she was on her way to being a rich immortal. If that didn't take planning and brains, she wasn't sure what the definition of smart was.
She never noticed the black Jaguar that followed her out of the parking lot, or the young man with an unusual tattoo on his arm who sprinted across the lot to a five-year old sedan to form the tail end of the procession.
"You don't have to walk me up to my room," Amanda protested as Benton paid the taxi and joined her at the entrance to the hotel.
Benton smiled. "I would be remiss in my duties as a gentleman if I did not see a lady to her door."
Twelve centuries of living hadn't diminished Amanda's love for courtly manners, and Benton Fraser had them to spare. He was an anachronism, and the more time she spent with him, the more intrigued she became. Some part of her recognized the danger of her fascination, yet she'd never reined in her curiosity when the danger seemed relatively light. Even as her heart sighed with the pleasure of Fraser's actions, she heard the warning bells of her conscience. In typical fashion, she considered the odds, and decided they were in her favor. With that thought in mind, she acquiesced to his insistence to see her to her door. He held open the elevator doors for her and a slow-moving elderly woman, nearly losing his arm when the doors shut a little faster than he'd anticipated. Acting quickly, Amanda grabbed his arm and heard fabric rip.
"Oh dear," Benton muttered, looking at the ripped sleeve. "This is simply unacceptable."
"Unacceptable?" Amanda repeated disbelievingly. "Are you all right? You could've been hurt."
Benton blinked, as if the concept had just registered. "Ah... No, I'm fine, thank you kindly."
Amanda sighed in relief. "You're sure?"
Benton smiled and tugged the ruined sleeve straight as best as he could. Looking directly at her, he answered, "Of course. If I was hurt in any way, I would let you know, as that would be the most logical course of action."
Amanda stared at him, amazed. The honesty and innocence she saw in his gray eyes was almost too much to believe, yet she did. From prior experience with his type over the years, she knew that he was as moral and upstanding as he appeared to be. Wryly, she considered how she seemed to be attracted to men of one extreme or another.
But you love the moral ones the most, a small voice in her head gleefully reminded her. As if you hadn't already learned your lesson about how difficult that can be from Duncan MacLeod, you went and fell for Nick Wolfe. You turned his life upside down, ruined his reputation as a police officer, triggered his immortality, and then you expected him to accept that your heart was already half taken by Duncan and that you were never going to stop being a thief. You sure know how to pick them.
I am not in love with Benton Fraser, she argued silently. I'm just... intrigued. There's a difference.
Uh huh, the voice snickered. Then why haven't you let go of his arm?
Realizing that, Amanda glanced down at Benton's arm. She could see the tearing had exposed a white sleeve, and she guessed it was his undershirt. Somehow, the knowledge that he had more clothing underneath the red serge was sexier than the opposite. Desire shot through her, and she swallowed uncomfortably.
The elevator pinged then, announcing their arrival at a floor. Amanda glanced up at the display over the door. With some measure of relief, she realized it was her floor. "Oh, here we are," she said brightly. The moment gave her an excuse to continue to hold Benton's arm, and he seemed perfectly willing to allow her to do so.
She risked a glance over at him. Though he seemed perfectly calm, she recognized his attraction to her.
Playing with fire, Amanda, the voice in her head warned her.
She smiled at Benton and unlocked the door to her suite. "Ever seen the lake from up here?" she asked, blithely ignoring her conscience.
"I'm afraid I must point out that I've never been in this hotel before," he answered, shaking his head.
"Come on in then," she invited, pushing open the door.
"I'm telling you, I was doing my job!" Ray argued heatedly the following morning as he stood in his lieutenant's office. "I didn't see anything!"
"Well, maybe if you wore your glasses more often, Kowalski, you wouldn't have that sight problem."
Ray glared at his superior officer, irked by the insult, but aware that Welsh was feeling pressured. Before Ray could make a comment he might regret later, there was a knock on the door.
"Come in, Fraser," Lt. Welsh said wearily.
"I'm sorry I'm late, sir."
Ray took a look at his friend, who was, for some reason, wearing his brown service uniform today. "You okay, Frase? You're not wearing red."
Fraser flushed. "This is a perfectly acceptable uniform, Ray. I merely did not have a chance to repair my other uniform this morning, as it was ripped last night."
"I see," Ray said knowingly.
Welsh appeared faintly worried at the implication in Ray's words. "Gentlemen, if we're done discussing the constable's uniform, may we get on with discussing last night's activities?"
Ray didn't say a word, but smiled widely and shot a glance at his friend, who immediately seemed even more uncomfortable. Welsh narrowed his gaze on Ray, who continued to grin.
"Sure, Lieutenant. You said someone stole some painting out of the lobby of the convention center?"
"Not just some painting." Welsh handed the case file to Fraser, who quickly read it.
"It's an original Escher."
"Lecher?" Ray asked, doing a double take. Welsh barely smothered a chuckle at Ray's words, coughing instead.
"Are you all right, sir?" Fraser asked solicitously. "You should drink some honey and lemon tea if you have a cold."
"No, thank you, Fraser," Welsh refused, clearing his throat. "I just had a tickle in my throat."
Fraser nodded his understanding. "That was 'Escher', Ray, not 'lecher.' Escher is best known for his interlinking figurative work, called tessellation, as well as for drawings that encompass dual realities. He was quite an innovator in that respect."
"It just looks like a bunch of stairs and squares to me," Ray offered.
"Well, whatever it looks like," Welsh interjected, "it's gone, along with a sapphire and diamond bracelet that belongs to Julie Norr, the director of Valley National Bank. Find out who took both, and work on your art history later. Oh, and gentlemen, the art currently hanging in the lobby is a fake. The officer who made the initial report says he's a fan of the artist, and he says the art is very clearly computer-generated. See if you can verify that."
With those words, Fraser and Ray were dismissed, and headed out of Welsh's office.
"So what's her name?"
Fraser looked at Ray blankly as they drove through the city a few minutes later.
"The woman from last night. The one who ripped your uniform."
"Amanda. Her name is Amanda Darrieux, and no, Ray, she did not rip my uniform. It became caught in the elevator door at her hotel. I miscalculated, and the doors were a little bit quicker than I had anticipated. Consequently, my sleeve was torn."
"Sure, Fraser," Ray said in teasing disbelief. "Where was this?"
"The Drake," Fraser replied, naming one of the city's landmarks. "She had a suite with a view of the lake."
Ray whistled softly. "That couldn't have been cheap," he remarked. "She must be rich."
"I would not be the best judge of that, Ray. She is, however, part owner of a club in Paris called The Sanctuary."
"Paris, huh? Well, she's gotta have some money. Those fat cats at the charity ball last night just don't hang out with anybody." Ray frowned as a thought occurred to him. "So what's she doing in Chicago? I mean, if she's the owner of a bar in Paris, shouldn't she be there or something? She ain't on the trail of the killers of her father or husband or anything like that, is she?"
"No, I don't believe so, Ray. You do realize not everyone can be motivated for reasons such as mine or my sister's." Ray rolled his eyes at the obviousness of Fraser's comment. "Amanda has friends in the city, and she has been visiting them for the holidays."
"That's cool. So are you gonna see her again?"
"She is meeting me at the Consulate tonight."
"The Consulate, huh?" Ray's teasing continued. He was enjoying the sight of his friend trying desperately to remain calm and collected about Amanda when it was obvious to Ray that Fraser really wanted to see more of her. "What's wrong with your apartment? Other than the fact that the neighborhood's just this side of slum?"
"I do not believe that it is proper to invite her to my apartment just yet, Ray," Fraser admonished.
"Uh huh," Ray grunted. "Only you, Frase, could say something like that, and make me believe that you honestly believe that." Ray parked the car in the hotel's front parking lot and the pair got out of the vehicle.
"I have these moments of weakness
But I've a lifetime of strength
And I know I will defeat this
But that's not what my heart wants to think"
Tia Sellers, Mark Selby (Trisha Yearwood) "Some Days"
Nick stepped out of the office tower where Rock Securities leased space and into the cold afternoon air. Shivering slightly, he zipped up his hip-length suede leather jacket and headed for the café down the street. He'd skipped lunch to work on an insurance claim his boss had marked urgent priority, and was consequently quite hungry now that he'd finished working.
He hadn't gone more than six strides when a distinctive, migraine-like pain seared into his brain. He swore, knowing it meant another immortal was nearby. More precisely, an old, powerful immortal; the intensity of the pain seemed to increase with the other immortal's age and strength. For a moment, Nick wondered if it was Amanda, but he wasn't fond of making any assumptions. The nearest Holy Ground was six blocks east of his current location, and the street traffic was such that getting a taxi and heading elsewhere wasn't a problem.
For a moment, Nick was tempted to take the easy way out and avoid confrontation. His stomach growled loudly, making the decision for him, and Nick sighed. He wasn't in the mood for a fight, and could only hope that whoever was in the area wasn't either. The chances of the strange immortal being a friend were relatively remote; Nick counted exactly five immortals as friends, and to his knowledge, all of them save one were in Paris; the other was in New York. He was more likely to run into a stranger who wanted his head than not; from what he'd been told, the Gathering was picking up speed again after a small period of relative peace. At least, that's what it seemed like to Nick after hearing just how many immortals had crossed paths with the younger Highlander in the last ten years. Resolutely, Nick closed the distance between him and the café.
He opened the door of the café to find it decorated in bright, cheerful tones with a modern country look.
Automatically, Nick's blue-green eyes scanned the room for possible trouble. His nerves tensed immediately when he found it headed his way with all the charm and unconscious sensuality he remembered.
"Nick, darling!" a voice from his dreams cooed as its owner wrapped herself around him in an effusive hug.
All the conflicting, confusing feelings Nick had thought he'd buried rose like rekindled flames at the intimacy. Just as suddenly, he hated her for it. "Hello, Amanda."
Her dark eyes registered surprise at his cold, flat tone.
With an effort, Nick pushed aside the anger at her unexpected presence. Torago, where Nick had grown up and where he'd first met Amanda, was only a short drive away from Chicago, and he knew that she still maintained a residence there. It wasn't inconceivable that she had come into the city for a shopping trip. His eyes narrowed at the thought. Shopping invariably meant that Amanda had been stealing.
"Don't worry, Nick," she chided him gently, guessing at his thoughts. "I've been a good girl."
"Really." Disbelief coated the single word like chocolate on a cherry.
Amanda smiled and gestured for Nick to join her at the table she'd chosen. She didn't speak until after the waitress had taken Nick's order.
"You wouldn't happen to know anything about a burglary at the Whittenhall estate about two weeks ago, would you?"
"Come on, Nick," Amanda said with a laugh, "you know there's no right answer to that question. You won't believe me either way. Why, are you a cop again?"
"No, I'm working for an insurance company, and the claim I'm working on happens to be an apparent burglary. I just thought it might be you because it looked like something you'd do. Then I thought it might be Jade, since she's always trying to do what you do."
Amanda shrugged. "If she is, I haven't run across her. I've only been in town three days. I had a craving for true Chicago pizza, and thought since I was leaving Paris anyway"
"Why, Amanda? What happened in Paris?"
She stared at him, clearly reluctant to divulge her reasons. "Can't a girl just go where she pleases when she wants to?"
"Amanda," Nick said warningly. "As much as you love to live the high life, you hate traveling, and don't think I don't remember hearing you bitch about it."
She held out a moment longer, then sighed irritably. "All right. I came looking for someone."
Nick's eyes narrowed. "Who?"
"Nick, I don't need or want your help to find him. He owes me a favor, and I intend to collect."
"Amanda. Tell me who it is." Nick's tone brooked no argument.
The immortal thief looked at him. "You've had some trouble lately?" she asked perceptively.
Grimly, Nick replied, "If you were friends with Gregor Kulik, my condolences on both the friendship and your loss."
She closed her eyes momentarily and reached across the table to clasp Nick's hand. "How long ago?" Her voice was gentle, full of compassion, and Nick knew instinctively it was directed towards him. More than anyone, she knew how hyped up Quickenings left him; she had been there the first time he'd taken one.
"Three weeks, almost four. You knew him well?"
Amanda didn't smile. "He was slime," she enunciated clearly. "But even slime has its uses. In this case, he owed me a life. His."
"Who challenged you?"
"Did I say anything about a challenge?" Amanda glanced at her watch and rose from the table. "If you'll excuse me, I must be going."
Nick rose as well and caught her by the arm when she would have hurried past. "Amanda. Don't do this to me. I thought we were friends."
She glanced at the hand gripping her arm, then up at his face. "I thought you loved me, Nick," she countered quietly. "Maybe it's just because I'm an old-fashioned woman, but I always thought that love meant trust."
Nick released her, eyes wide in disbelief at the below-the-belt insult. "I do trust you," he growled. "I trust you with my life."
"Then let me do what I need to do." She held his gaze until she read acceptance in his eyes, then kissed him lightly. "I love you, Nick, but you drive me crazy."
So saying, she escaped the restaurant, leaving Nick feeling frustrated.
Amanda walked rapidly away from the restaurant, uncaring of direction. She seethed with Nick's presumptions even as she knew she hadn't discouraged his interest. She had to figure out a new game plan; she'd hoped that she could use the favor Kulik owed her as leverage. Now she would have to approach Sahir on her own, and without the ticket of Kulik's favor, she would have to bargain herself. Kulik's favor would've protected her from Sahir, and she had hoped to parlay it into protection of Michelle. Once Sahir purchased someone's services, he believed his money also then purchased that person. Like any good slave master, he wasn't one for voluntary separation. Amanda had escaped being one of Sahir's people thanks to advance warning from mutual associates, but when she'd received word that her former student was involved, she'd gotten worried. In the best of situations, Michelle was still very much a young woman struggling to grow up. Given what Amanda knew of Sahir, the easiest escape route for Michelle was death, but Amanda didn't want to risk exposing immortality to Sahir.
Amanda sighed. Right now, she wished she hadn't pissed off her Watcher, but being spied upon by a secret organization of mortals with nothing better to do than to chronicle immortals' lives had irked her ever since she'd first learned of them. Though the Watcher Oath proclaimed noninterference in immortal lives, some Watchers had violated that Oath, and Amanda wasn't exactly pleased with the results. Her current Watcher was someone who worked in The Sanctuary, and Amanda had threatened to fire him if he involved the Watchers on her little trip. There were some things Amanda didn't want chronicled in her life, and this was one of them.
Still, the bad part of that was that she couldn't charm information out of her Watcher, and thus get inside information on where Michelle was so she could talk to the younger woman. That meant that Amanda had to go to Sahir and try to convince him she could pull off whatever he wanted better than Michelle, and somehow not get caught in his trap.
Good plan, Amanda. You've got all the angles covered, a voice in her head mocked. It sounded suspiciously like Nick's. Recognizing that made her get angry all over again.
So intent on her thoughts, Amanda didn't notice where she was going. A sharp bark was her first warning of danger. Startled, she jerked back. A car roared by just inches in front of her as a white wolf loped up to her.
Immensely grateful, she buried her hands in the wolf's fur. "Thanks, sweetie. What are you doing here in the middle of Chicago?"
She heard footsteps pounding on pavement and looked up to see Benton, dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans, jog to a halt in front of her. "Oh, good," he said breathlessly. "Good work, Diefenbaker." Then he really looked at her. "Amanda!" he exclaimed. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, thanks," she murmured, rising to her feet. "Is he your wolf?" she asked, gesturing to Diefenbaker.
"Well, actually, he's mostly wild and belongs to no one. However, he seems to have consented to staying with me." Benton rubbed a spot behind his ear, looking slightly baffled as why Diefenbaker had chosen to stay with him. "To be quite honest, I owe my life to him, and now it seems I owe him yours as well."
Amanda smiled. "Oh, I'm pretty sturdy," she assured Benton. "But I do thank you both for the intervention."
"You're welcome," Benton said. "May I ask where you were headed that you were so distracted?"
"Oh, nowhere in particular," she told him, slipping her arm in his as they crossed the street now that traffic was stopped at the light.
"My apartment isn't far," Benton suggested. "Diefenbaker and I were just out for a walk, and we were on our way back when he spotted you. I could make some tea if you'd care to join me."
The courtliness of Benton's manner charmed Amanda; she hadn't been treated like such a lady in too long to remember. After being around Nick, it was such a refreshing change. "I'd love to join you," she told Benton. "I could use some to soothe my nerves."
"You've had a scare," Benton pointed out. "Tea will help."
A few blocks later, they arrived at Benton's apartment. A quick glance at the building told Amanda that the complex had been built with lower-income residents in mind, and while it wasn't shabby, it wasn't particularly well-kept either. The grace and ease with which Benton moved through the seven-story building, however, revealed how he'd made it his home. Bypassing the elevator, which had a neatly taped "Out of Order" sign on it, they headed up the stairs to Benton's seventh-story apartment.
Stepping inside, Amanda saw that it was a small one bedroom, decorated in a mismatch of furniture that could only be called "early garage sale". Her thief's eye noted that the only item worth stealing was the TV, which looked new. Declining Benton's offer to take her trench coat, not wanting him to feel the odd weight of her sword in its lining, she slipped it off as he headed into the kitchen. After hanging her coat in the closet in which Fraser had put his jacket, Amanda headed into the kitchen.
The kitchen was, by comparison to the living room, sparsely furnished. The contrast made Amanda suspect that Benton hadn't chosen the furnishings; well-meaning friends had given them to him, and he would be perfectly content with less. As he brewed the tea and pulled cups from a cupboard, Amanda studied him.
Years of long practice at figuring out people and which buttons to push to charm them into giving her what she wanted allowed Amanda to see that Benton was one of a dying breed. She'd already figured that out the night at her hotel, but seeing him now in his space reemphasized that fact. He wouldn't appreciate secrets, even less so than Nick did, and Amanda was a woman with more than her fair share. Sighing quietly, she shut her mind to that depressing train of thought and concentrated on Benton.
He heard the sigh as he poured tea into a pair of white china cups. "May I ask if something is troubling you?"
She took the tea cup he handed her and smiled. "An old friend," she admitted, guessing he wouldn't be satisfied with a non-answer. She took a cautious sip of tea and found it both hot and strongly flavored.
"Oolong?" she asked in surprise.
Benton smiled at her as he took a sip from his own cup and led her to the couch. "I have a friend in Chinatown who gave me some as a gift at Thanksgiving. Some years ago, I helped him when his son was kidnapped by the Tong."
"The Tong have long memories," Amanda noted.
"You sound as though you know them well."
She flashed a smile, realizing she'd revealed a bit more of herself than she'd intended. "Only what I've heard on TV," she lied smoothly. "Though, since I do run The Sanctuary, it's possible I might have run into a few of them and not known it. So how long have you been in Chicago?"
"I first arrived in Chicago in 1994 on the trail of the killers of my father, and for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, have remained, attached as liaison at the Canadian Consulate. I did, however, recently return from leave of absence during which my friend and unofficial partner, Detective Ray Kowalski, and I explored Canada seeking the Hand of Franklin reaching out for the Beaufort Sea."
Amanda's eyebrows rose at the ease at which the explanation was given, and surmised it was one that he'd had to give often. "So did you find what you were looking for?"
"No." Benton smiled. "We did, however, apprehend a number of suspects and prevent several environmental disasters."
"Why do I get the impression that saving the world is a regular habit with you?" Amanda queried, teasing lightly.
He looked at her, surprised. "Ray has accused me of playing Superman on occasion," he acknowledged. "I don't see it that way." He ignored Diefenbaker's snort, though Amanda had to chuckle at the wolf's timing. "Justice knows no boundaries."
"Such commitment is very commendable," Amanda murmured. And dangerous for me, she thought. It's time I left. She made a show of glancing at the watch on her wrist. "Nine o'clock already? I really ought to be going; you probably have to work in the morning."
She rose to leave, detouring to set her tea cup in the kitchen sink. As she stepped out of the kitchen, Benton was there.
"Stay," he entreated. "Please."
Caught by the note of loneliness she heard in his voice, Amanda stopped moving towards the door. She turned to find him a half-step behind her. What she read in his expression caught her heart, and she had to close her eyes to find the strength to bear the weight of that longing. She tried to deny the pulsing knot that had formed in her stomach, and found she couldn't. She was attracted, intrigued, and fascinated, and she wanted to know more. The moment of opportunity was now, and she sighed in acknowledgment of that fact.
She felt him touch her chin and tilt it just enough upward to kiss her. She could feel his breath caressing her mouth, and yet he didn't kiss her. Instead, he asked, "May I?"
A smile tugged at her lips. A gentleman to the end, she thought. "Yes," she answered, aware that her acceptance was for more than a kiss.
He took her mouth in the barest of kisses, yet Amanda felt its power heat her blood. Slipping her arms around him, she pressed herself closer, offering herself as a salve to the pain he was feeling. She kissed him gently, coaxing a response from him with tantalizing, feather-light touches. He responded willingly, giving himself up to the sheer pleasure of her.
Amanda felt him accede control to her and had a second's fleeting time to wonder if he always did that. Then she smiled; of course he would: the lady's wishes always came first. The courtesy only served to kick her desire up several notches. Suddenly, she couldn't stand the layers of clothing between them, and sought to divest them both of the barriers. His hands joined in the quest even as she took the time to kiss and lick and explore every inch of his skin she uncovered. Passion pounded the blood through her heart, chest, and head, and she moved to its beat. His fingers burned into her tingling skin where they roamed over her body, causing her to tremble in reaction.
Abruptly, he swept her into his arms. Half-stumbling over their discarded clothes, he carried her into the bedroom. Gently laying her on the bed, he quickly covered her body with his own, pressing her against the sheets. She was left with the impression of a strong male form and instinctively reached for him. He had other ideas, though, and began to explore her with his lips and tongue. Her thoughts fragmented as his hands and lips continued their hungry exploration of her body, and then to the core of her womanhood. She moaned helplessly, caught in the sensual haze as he brought her to a shuddering climax. Pausing only to slip on a condom, he slid into her with a smooth motion that caught her off-guard and sent her pleasure meter skyrocketing. She couldn't control the outcry of delight that escaped her, and gripped him more tightly to her. He freed in her a bursting of sensations, and she felt his release within her a heartbeat after her own orgasm peaked.
When she would've moved to get up, Benton's arm tightened around her, keeping her close. Silently, Amanda sighed, feeling regret rise within her.
It'll keep until morning, she assured herself. He's lonely, and I'm not going to find Michelle tonight. With the ease of long practice, she ignored the part of her that wanted, if only for a night, to be with someone who didn't know her half as well as Nick did.
"So tonight I'll go to sleep
And dream that dream of you
But the morning sun will surely come
And bring me the truth"
Shane Minor, "Change Your Mind"
"You're here late," Frannie observed, stepping into the squad room the following evening. "I thought you left with Fraser."
Ray looked up from the file he was reading and shook his head. "He had a date."
"A date?" Frannie stuttered.
Ray didn't look at Frannie when he replied. "Yeah, imagine that."
"Ray, Fraser does not have dates. Trust me. I would know. This has got to be some Canadian thing, right?"
"No, it's not."
Taken aback by Ray's tone, Frannie took a second look at him. "You're serious."
"No, I'm kidding. Why would I lie to you about that?"
"Because you know I always-"
"Mean absolutely nothing by flirting with him," Ray finished for her with uncanny perception, "and absolutely everything."
Frannie stared at him. It was true that her flirtation with Fraser was more habit than seriousness, but if he ever reciprocated, she wouldn't see it as something she did reflexively. How could I forget that Ray's a cop? she chided herself. You know they see too much. Memory of the night she'd spent at his house flashed into her brain, and she wondered what all she'd told him in that pain-induced haze. Breathing deeply, Frannie blinked back the unexpected tears and lifted her chin in an unconscious gesture of pride. "So who is she?"
"Some good-looking society chick named Amanda Darrieux," Ray said offhandedly, but his eyes were kind as he returned Frannie's gaze.
"Oh," was all Frannie could think of to say. She seemed deflated.
"Why? You had plans?"
For a moment, it appeared Frannie was considering lying to him. He shot her one of his better brotherly glares. "Oh, okay," she relented, "so he probably would've just stood there until I felt stupid for asking him to go check out this new club I found, but I wanted the chance to ask him, okay? Just in case he did say yes."
Ray snickered. "You're hopeless, Frannie."
Frannie glared at him. "Not as hopeless as you are. I'm not the one in love with a criminal."
Ray was up and on his feet before she could blink. Standing so close she could almost kiss him, he stared at her with eyes like ice. "Leave my feelings for Cait out of this," he growled in the coldest voice she'd ever heard him use. Instinctively, Frannie took a step back. Ray vibrated with the threat of violence, and while she didn't think he'd ever hit her, Ray was unpredictable even when he was in the best of moods.
"I'm sorry, Ray," she apologized quickly, sincerely. "That was a low blow, and I shouldn't have said it."
As quickly as the anger had flashed, it vanished. Ray exhaled heavily and ran a tired hand through his hair. "You ever think before you talk, Frannie?" he complained.
She bowed her head in acknowledgment of the rebuke. "Sorry," she apologized again. Frannie brightened as she remembered something. Shuffling through the paperwork on her desk, she produced a sheet with a small cry of triumph. "Hey, Ray, here's that transcript you wanted," Frannie said, handing the paper over.
"Thanks." Ray paused, aware that she was trying to make up for her careless remark. "You gonna work late?"
Frannie shook her head. "Nah, I thought I was going to, but I found the stuff Harding wanted," she informed Ray, referring to the lieutenant, who she'd known before she'd started working for him. "You want some company?"
He looked at her, not wanting to seem as pathetic as he felt. Thinking about Fraser having a date had reminded him how empty his life was now without a certain Irishwoman in it, even if he didn't trust her and would never love her the same way again. Slowly, he sat back down at his desk and considered Frannie's offer.
She followed him and took the guest chair. Her expression earnest, she added, "I really don't want to go home tonight. Maria and Tony are fighting again, and I'm sick of being the one stuck watching the kids while they fight."
"What are they fighting about now?"
Frannie shrugged her shoulders. "Do they need an excuse?"
Ray sighed, too well aware that Frannie's sister and brother-in-law had hair-trigger tempers. "Not really."
Looking suddenly shy, Frannie asked, "Does that mean you want me?" Realizing just how that sounded, she hastily added, "I mean, to stay. Unless you want to come with me to the club?"
Ray put the paper she'd handed him on top of an already overflowing pile and contemplated the work ahead of him, work that he was slogging through for the sheer want of not being alone to think. His apartment still held too many memories of Cait Donovan, too many dreams incinerated in a flaming wreckage that had only served to burn in his soul exactly what he'd lost. He glanced over to Frannie and decided police work could wait.
Grabbing his jacket, he rose. "Come on, let's get outta here."
The club was as loud and crowded as Ray had expected, but it suited his mood, and he suspected it suited Frannie's as well. The music held a throbbing, sexual beat, and Ray let himself be caught up in its rhythm. As always, he was surprised at how easy it was to be with Frannie. Though he'd never tell her directly, she was his sister in his heart, and he treated her accordingly. Lately, though, he was beginning to wonder if he'd made the right choice. She wasn't like Stella or Cait, and though she'd been on drugs at the time, Frannie had claimed to want him. Dancing with her now made him think about her words, and he had to remind himself that she didn't remember what she'd said, and that he didn't want to risk her friendship with a careless mistake.
Sometime later, he took a break from dancing to grab a beer and watch the crowd from a strategic position at one of the bars set along the side walls. He observed Frannie flirting with a tall, dark-haired stranger, and wished her luck even as he kept an eye out for trouble. He was working on a second beer when a woman with a doll-like face and curves to spare sidled up to him. He took inventory of her beauty with a quick, appreciative glance and smiled at her even as he figured her for jailbait trying to pass for older.
"Hi," she greeted him. "I'm Michelle. Can I buy you another drink?"
He shook his head, not in the mood to play the game. His heart was still scorched from Cait, and he wasn't looking for the kind of company Michelle seemed to be offering. "Thanks, I'm good."
She smiled at him, unfazed. "Then buy me one," she invited coyly.
"You got a purse," Frannie interrupted from behind Ray. Her voice held frost as she placed her body just close enough to Ray's for suggestion. "Use it."
Michelle's eyes narrowed, and her face tightened in an unflattering expression of hostility. Without another word, she walked away.
Frannie slid onto the stool Michelle had vacated and set down the tall glass of clear liquid and ice she had been carrying.
"I might've wanted her," Ray remarked mildly.
Frannie snorted and sent him a droll look. "Sure, Ray." She took a sip of her drink, and then added, "She came in with this big Arab guy." At Ray's questioning look, Frannie gestured to the opposite wall. Ray couldn't make out anyone through the thickening crowd. "Well, he was over that way a minute ago."
Ray shrugged, deciding that it wasn't worth debating. "I thought you were with that guy, you know, the one that looked like Tom Cruise's cousin."
Frannie made a face. "His hands were like ice, and they were all over me. You know, hippopotamus hands."
Her companion stared at her, then shook his head. "Octopus hands, Frannie," he corrected her. "I thought that was what you wanted."
She shot him a strange look. "Not from him."
"Give it up, Frannie, he's not even here."
She leaned forward and started to say something, then seemed to decide against it. For a moment, Ray almost thought she was going to insult him, but something just past his shoulder seemed to catch her attention.
Half-turning, Ray asked, "What?"
Frannie shook her head. "I thought I saw a ghost." She mulled it over a minute longer, then shrugged it off. "Maybe this place is haunted."
Ray looked at her, not quite believing the almost gleeful tone in her speculation. "You are crazy, you know that, Frannie?"
That remark launched them into a friendly squabble, the noise of which was swallowed by the music and the crowd.
Across the room from Frannie and Ray, Michelle felt the warning migraine of another immortal in the room and debated flight versus trying to find where Sahir was. Breathing deeply past the sharp warning in her brain, Michelle began threading her way through the crowd. She figured that she could try to find Sahir as she made her way to the door. With any luck, she would avoid the other immortal until the parking lot, and perhaps nothing would happen out of the encounter.
Luck, however, had never been particularly kind to Michelle; she'd tempted Fate once too often. Just as she was three-quarters of the way to the door, she caught sight of the other immortal. Her grim expression turned into a smile as she recognized how handsome he was. Maybe there's some hope yet, she thought.
Boldly, she approached him. Even in the heels she wore, she had to tilt her head up to see his rugged face clearly. "I'm just here to have a good time," she informed him. "Care to join me?"
His blue-green eyes narrowed in wary speculation. "Depends," he replied. "There are some whose idea of a good time involves sharp objects."
She smiled. "Not unless you want to get kinky." She extended her hand. "I'm Michelle Webster."
He took it, still cautious. "Nick," he introduced himself as they shook hands. "Buy you a drink?"
"Absolut Mandarin with Sprite," she requested. It didn't escape her notice that he hadn't given her his full name, and she wondered just how old he was and what his experiences had been to have such paranoia.
The drink was delivered shortly thereafter. For a moment, she was at a loss for words. Swallowing nervously, she reminded herself she could charm anyone; she'd learned how from a master. "So what brings you to Chicago?" she asked and took a sip of her drink.
"I live here," he answered. "You just passing through?"
"For a few weeks," she agreed. "I'm on a buying trip for a merchandiser in Geneva." Silently, she hoped her smile didn't give her lie away.
The I-don't-believe-you-but-I'll-take-your-word-for-it undertone he'd injected into the single word irked her. Slightly sharper than she'd intended, she retorted, "Really. Some truths are stranger than fiction."
To her surprise, he grinned at that and raised his glass. "Indeed," he concurred, toasting her.
Whatever he would've added to that was lost as the warning of another immortal resounded in Michelle's brain. Without looking, she knew Nick felt it as well. He set his glass down on the bar and swore. "Not her," he cursed. "Just what I need."
"You can tell who it is?" Michelle wondered, amazed.
"Not precisely," he answered. "You can't?" He seemed surprised by the revelation.
"No. I didn't think anybody could."
"The ones who are old, who have a lot of power, they feel stronger," Nick explained quickly, his eyes scanning the crowd. "Thought everybody knew that."
"It's a fucking nightmare migraine no matter what," Michelle countered bluntly. "Everyone's older and more powerful than me. I don't care who it is, it hurts."
He glanced at her with sympathy and a bit of pity in his expression. The look angered her. Belatedly, she realized just how vulnerable she'd made herself sound, and her anger grew. "Look, you can stay and have a lovely conversation with the old one," she bit off. "I'm outta here."
So saying, she made her escape. Nick let her go, dismissing her as being relatively unimportant, a random encounter with a strange immortal who had been more interested in his body than his head. He'd never been much for running from confrontation, and he wasn't about to start now. Though it had nearly killed him on a few occasions, he still preferred to hold his ground. Moreover, he wanted to know if Amanda was in the club, and if so, why. He wasn't disappointed.
She sauntered up to him with all the delight of someone who expected to find him there, arms spread open as if in preparation for a hug. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "All right, what have you been up to?" he demanded before she could charm him with a hello.
"Why, Nick, " Amanda drawled, "I'm hurt. Anyone ever tell you paranoia is unhealthy?"
"Funny," Nick responded testily, "I seem to recall the teacher you sent me to insisting that it's a way of life."
"Doesn't mean you had to take Connor's word for gospel."
"Oh, and I'm supposed to only believe you?" Nick retorted. He was starting to become annoyed by the way they'd fallen into the roles they'd played before they'd become lovers, with Amanda hiding the truth and Nick getting frustrated by her. "Damn it, Amanda, I thought we'd agreed you'd be honest with me."
"I wasn't the one who left when my honesty wasn't good enough," Amanda shot back.
Narrowing his eyes at the insult, Nick took a deep breath and gestured to the door. "Let's take this somewhere where we can talk openly."
"Fine," she agreed, nearly biting off the word.
A few minutes later found them standing in the parking lot behind the building. "Okay, we're alone," she said. "Now what?"
"Do you know Michelle Webster?"
"You've seen her?" Amanda countered urgently, shoving her irritation at Nick aside at the news.
"Yeah, she was just here. She left when she felt you coming."
Amanda swore, forgetting she didn't want Nick to be any more involved than he already was. "Damn, I need to talk to her."
"What for? She take something of yours?"
"No." Abruptly angry, Amanda vented. "Damn it, Nick, can't you just leave it alone? My life isn't yours to protect, interfere, or otherwise meddle in, though God knows you keep on doing it no matter what I say."
"I love you," Nick shot back. "And if I ever got a straight answer out of you, one that I could believe was the whole truth, I think I might be less inclined to interfere as you say. You're the one who keeps coming into my life; I got enough problems here as it is. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you're hoping that I bail you out on whatever it is that you're messed up in. You want me to trust you, Amanda? You want me to help? Then God damn it, tell me what the fuck is going on here."
"Michelle's my most recent student," Amanda allowed. "She's in over her head. That's all you need to know, Nick. I don't need your help. I can handle it." She drew her sword. "Don't make me use this to keep you out of the way."
"You'd take my head?" Nick was incredulous. "If you want to take my head, Amanda, then do it right." He drew his sword. "Challenge me. I got probably more reason than anybody to want you dead, and I'm sure someone would thank me if you died."
Some part of him couldn't believe this was happening, couldn't believe the words that tumbled out of his mouth. He wasn't sure where he'd buried the resentment he'd felt; he thought he was past those emotions, but it was clear now that he hadn't been. He'd faced Amanda in training duels before, but never like this. Never in anger, and not when his heart was beating in his chest like thunder. His soul was screaming that he was insane for even suggesting that Amanda fight him, while his mind hoped that she'd refuse.
Her lips curved into a grim smile, and he knew there was no going back. Amanda stared at him for a long moment, sadness in her eyes. "All right," she agreed softly, slipping off her trench coat and tossing it aside, then she attacked.
Nick parried her first parry easily, but she'd opened with a favorite attack of hers, one that she'd often used when they'd sparred together. From there, the fight became less predictable. The tidal wave of emotions they felt for each other spilled over, turning an already complicated and lethal dance into something more. Nick's hand-and-a-half sword against Amanda's broadsword, the quickness of an accomplished athlete versus the agility of a sometime high-wire acrobat, it all played out in a steel-ringing opera in the shadow of the parking lot lights and the wolf's moon. Swearing, Nick parried the attacks and tried for the weak point in her defenses. He realized, however, that she remembered how he fought, and was now using that knowledge against him.
Amanda slipped in close, feinted, and then thrust her sword forward. Barely catching the movement in time, Nick slapped the flat of his blade against hers, shoving it aside, then disengaged to counter with an attack Connor had drilled into him. His sword was swinging towards Amanda's vulnerable neck before he could think about it.
At the last second, he stopped just millimeters from her throat, using every ounce of skill he possessed. Breathing heavily, sweat dripping into his eyes, he stared at Amanda, who knew she'd been bested. His sword hand trembled from the effort of having to control it; the adrenaline rush was in full sway, the demands of his immortal instincts pressing for the natural conclusion to this battle. "God damn it, Amanda," he cursed her, and abruptly brought his sword down. She'd just shuddered a relieved sigh when she felt the point of his sword go through her stomach.
Stunned, she looked up at him as she sank to her knees, her hands automatically grabbing for the blade, trying to pull it out. She could feel her body scrambling to shut down and simultaneously heal itself. Pain exploded through her nerves, and she knew she was dying.
I can't believe this is happening, she thought, or maybe she said it. It was all a haze. She had enough time to register the sickening lurch of Nick's sword being pulled out of her body, and then the world went black.
"Give me back my touch
Give me back my feeling
Give me everything I wanna be your witness
I want you to believe in me"
Sophie B. Hawkins, "Before I Walk on Fire"
Waiting. The waiting was always the worst. The moment after the heavy stroke that sliced through the other immortal's neck that was the moment when everything Nick was crystallized into sharp focus. Life upon life, unceasing years of moving (not always silently) through the shadows, loving those who passed far too quickly for the heart's comfort... . this was the moment when every nerve stood on edge, every sense amplified.
Nick fought to keep his eyes open, fought to retain some measure of control even as the power poured through him. A thousand needles of insistent, insidious pleasure/pain attacked him, demanding a response from his body, which greedily sucked it in like some addict. He loathed this moment. He relished this moment. In this moment, he knew everything, felt everything, was everything that he had ever been, everything that his enemy had ever been. He could feel the knowledge of thieving, of desires bought and bartered, of times long past crowd into his brain, strengthening him in ways he hadn't dreamed possible.
Chest heaving, he took a shuddering breath and eased his grip on his sword. Automatically, his eyes went to the severed head, and found himself staring at the woman he'd loved since he'd first laid eyes on her, three years earlier.
With a start, Nick woke from the nightmare, screaming denial.
Closing his eyes, he willed the nightmare images to subside. He would never take Amanda's head, though their fight earlier had involved swords. Nick knew his nightmare had to do with that and the aftermath of the Quickening of the headhunter he'd taken not long before he'd fallen into a restless slumber. The irony of almost taking Amanda's head, only to walk away and run into a headhunter four blocks later hadn't amused Nick at all.
He'd stayed long enough with Amanda to make sure that she would recover from her encounter with his sword, and then had left. When she'd revived, she'd stared at him for a long moment, then got to her feet.
"Guess that was long overdue," she noted softly, and slid a hand up to cup his cheek in touch that felt like a kiss. "I'm not going to change what I'm doing, Nick."
"I know," Nick said roughly, hating the way the adrenaline was making his senses hyperaware of how soft her fingers were, how she smelled of sweat and blood and a hint of some musky floral perfume. Perversely, the sensations turned him on, and his arousal made him angry. "Damn it, Amanda, tell me what's going on. Please."
"No." She raised her chin with a cool stare in his direction. In a commanding tone, one that she rarely used, she ordered, "Nick, stay out of this. You don't know Sahir, and you don't want to be associated with him."
"I'm not a child, Amanda. I don't need to be protected, and I'm not some pre-immortal in danger of dying too soon. You're the one who keeps running into me, making me think you want me involved. If you believe in Fate as much as you say, then I got news from the Oracle for you: I think you need my help."
Amanda's eyes widened in disbelief, then narrowed as she reinterpreted his words to mean that he thought she was helpless. Her back became ramrod straight and she shot him a withering glance. Very regally and gracefully, she picked up her sword and sheathed it, then slipped on her coat. "Stay out of this, Nick. I mean it." She paused. "You're a better swordsman than I ever dreamed you'd be," she noted quietly. "Thank you for not taking my head."
Then she pivoted on her heel and walked with stiff dignity out of sight.
Groaning in frustration, Nick made a helpless gesture with his fist, tempted to smash it in the nearest wall, and decided to walk it off instead. That had proved to be a not-so-great choice.
Damn, I hate Quickenings.
Aware he wouldn't sleep, Nick got out of bed. He had to do something. The burglaries were making headlines, and he didn't want to see Amanda in jail. Sighing, Nick switched on his laptop computer and connected to the Internet, quickly jumping to a web site run by a friend with a security business. Typing in an address, he entered a firewall code and began the process of figuring out exactly who Jasper Sahir was.
Three hours later, Nick had his answers. His eyes narrowed as he contemplated just how to deliver the information without compromising his position. He'd learned a lot from his mentor, Connor, though they'd often clashed on the limits of honor and the use of deceit. At times, he'd wondered how Duncan had come away so strictly honorable when he clearly respected Connor's opinions so much.
Then he smiled. Maybe, he thought, I can use this to catch a thief.
Feeling better, Nick shut down the computer. He was just about to go back to sleep when his phone rang.
"Hello?" he asked cautiously, glancing at his watch. It was almost three in the morning; he didn't know of anyone who'd be calling him at this late hour.
"Nick, it's Mac. Hope I didn't wake you."
Nick smiled. "No, I was up. What's going on?"
"I was hoping you could tell me. Did you find Amanda?"
"Yeah, she's here." Nick paused. "Why?"
Mac hesitated, clearly trying to decide how much to say. "We have a friend in common," he said at last. "I was wondering if Amanda had run into her."
"Not that I'm aware of," Nick replied. "Amanda and I... had a little argument."
Mac chuckled. "That doesn't surprise me," he remarked. "If you see her, would you ask her about Michelle?"
"Michelle? I think Amanda was looking for her," Nick remarked. "I ran into another Immortal named Michelle in a bar last night. She looked about seventeen, brunette, pretty, about five-four, maybe a hundred ten pounds. Sound familiar?"
"That sounds like her," Mac said heavily. "If she and Amanda have hooked up, there's probably a fairly hefty commission involved."
"I don't know if they've hooked up," Nick replied. "But it sounds reasonable. There's been a wave of burglaries lately, and I think Amanda's involved somehow."
"Are you sure you don't need some help?"
Nick chuckled softly. The tone of Mac's voice indicated he was in 'Highlander, Clan Chieftain' mode. "Do you really want to get involved in something Amanda's stirred up?" he questioned. "To hear Connor tell it, the last time you got involved in something she did, you nearly lost your head."
Mac laughed quietly, ruefully. "True," he conceded. "So you'd better watch yours, Nick. Call us if you need additional forces, though."
"Will do," Nick vowed, and disconnected the call.
Leaning back in his chair, Ray began to read. He'd decided, based on the interview with the night manager and some of the other staff at the hotel, that maybe it was time he took a second look at Nick Wolfe. Regardless of what Ray couldn't prove about the other man, he sensed an integrity of character inherent in Nick. If Nick had been conscientious enough not to lie about Cait Donovan's whereabouts and Ray didn't doubt the validity of that information then it stood to reason that the answers Ray sought lay in the interview he and Fraser had conducted when they'd arrested Nick for murder.
For a long moment, Ray stared at the sheet. He couldn't believe he'd forgotten such a detail so quickly. Nick Wolfe had left the Torago Police Department shortly after a case involving an internationally known thief named Amanda, alias the Raven, alias Amanda Montrose and a host of other names that Ray ignored, since the list was so long. During the course of the interview, Nick had steadfastly refused to divulge Amanda's whereabouts in return for leniency on the charges for which he'd been arrested. When Fraser had questioned him about his feelings for Amanda, Nick had decried love for Amanda as being ridiculous but he hadn't denied his feelings.
Ray's eyes narrowed with the thought. What if Jade was just something to throw me off, so I wouldn't go looking for Amanda?
"Hey, Frannie," he called, walking over to his once-pretend-sister's desk. "Look up Amanda Montrose, will ya?"
Frannie grumbled, as he'd expected, but complied with his request and typed the request into her computer. The search engine's hourglass timer spun for a few minutes before delivering the results. She read the list and summarized, "Okay, so she's a thief, so what? You after her or something?"
"Maybe," Ray hedged. "Can you get me a picture?"
Frannie shrugged and hit a series of keys. Within a few moments, a picture came up on the screen. Even in the mug shot, she photographed well, and the impish grin on her face told him she'd treated the process as if it had been a photo shoot for a magazine.
Ray swore as soon as the image registered. He glanced back at the sheets he held in his hand, his finger stabbing the name as soon as he found it.
"What?" Frannie asked. "You know her?"
No answer came her way, and she turned in her chair to find Ray had vanished. Frowning, she contemplated his disappearance for a minute, then shrugged. It wasn't the first time he'd done something like that, and she had other work to do.
Ray's first instinct was to find Fraser and tell him what he'd found out about Amanda. He drove as far as the parking lot of the Drake Hotel before realizing that a confrontation would only embarrass Fraser. From the way Fraser had been acting lately, he was as close to being in love with Amanda as Ray had ever seen him. Ray swore and hit the steering wheel with his fist. Getting involved with a thief and a conwoman was the last thing Fraser needed; the last one had nearly shattered his career and his partner's. Ray didn't want to think about the lengths that Fraser would go to protect Amanda, if he felt that Ray was attacking her unfairly. That damned chivalrous code Fraser lived by would kill him someday, and it wouldn't matter if Fraser knew the truth about Amanda or not. She would still be a lady in Fraser's eyes, still be worthy of his protection.
Then Ray remembered Nick Wolfe, and how convinced he'd been of Wolfe's involvement with Amanda. Ray's hands were turning the steering wheel in the direction of Wolfe's apartment even before he was conscious of making the decision to confront him. Nothing in Ray's life had been the same since Wolfe had moved to town, and Ray wanted answers. He was tired of living in the dark. He knew the ex-cop was carrying a big secret; Ray had witnessed him take someone's head some months ago and then appear to be electrocuted, only to walk away unscathed.
Where there's one secret, there's gotta be more, and I wouldn't be surprised if Wolfe knows exactly why Amanda's in town, Ray thought as he turned his GTO towards Wolfe's last known residence.
Nick had just stepped out of the shower when he heard someone pounding at his door. He paused in the midst of toweling his hair dry, automatically searching his senses for the warning of another immortal. His head remained clear of the distinct, searing pain, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Slipping on a pair of gym shorts, he tossed the towel over his shoulder and walked out of the bathroom. A quick glance at the wall nearest the door assured him that his sword hung in its apparently decorative spot against a coat of arms. Just because it wasn't an immortal didn't mean that he didn't have to be prepared to defend himself.
With the paranoia that had served him well as a police officer, Nick checked the peephole. Recognizing his visitor, he debated simply ignoring him. Then he remembered Cait, and sighed.
Disengaging the safety chain, Nick pulled open the door and gestured for Ray to enter. "I've been expecting you," Nick remarked as the other man stepped inside. "I figured you'd be asking about Cait." He could almost see the anger radiating off the other man. Hoping to defuse it, Nick walked across the room to open the refrigerator and grab a beer. He tossed a can to Ray, who caught it easily.
For a moment, Ray stared at the can like he'd never seen one in his life. "I'm not here to talk about her." Ray set the can down on the breakfast bar, unopened. He paced for a moment as Nick watched him warily. Long practice at reading other people made the ex-cop believe that the wrong word would just detonate the explosion he sensed Ray was fighting to control.
"Obviously," Nick remarked, "you're not here for my taste in beer." He popped the tab on his can and drank. Swallowing, he asked, "So what brings you here?"
"A thief named Amanda Montrose," Ray drawled insinuatingly.
Nick narrowed his eyes as he took a seat on one of the stools at the breakfast bar. "We've discussed her before."
"You didn't give me a straight answer then. I want one now." Ray strode up to Nick until they were inches apart. His body language dared Nick to give him a reason to hit him.
"Why?" Nick countered. "Last I checked, you're a cop." At ease with this all-too-familiar routine, he drank another swallow of beer, knowing it would irritate Ray.
"This ain't about being a cop," Ray growled.
"No? Imagine that." Nick smiled humorlessly. "I used to be just like you. All gung-ho on catching the scum who broke the law, and you know what? I didn't care if I was off-duty or not. So try another line on me, Kowalski, that one isn't working."
"This is about friends. You understand what those are, don't you?"
"Some might consider telling you about Cait an act of a friend," Nick commented mildly, "but since I'm the bad guy and you're the good guy, I guess I don't get to count that."
At the mention of Cait, Ray reined in his temper with an effort. He'd come looking for answers, not trouble. Instinctively, Ray knew Nick would keep pushing buttons until the thin control on his temper snapped. "Look, I owe you one," he conceded grudgingly, exhaling heavily. "Knowing Cait was alive probably stopped me from doing something stupid. I thought I'd found something good, you know. Something real." Ray paused as a snippet of remembered conversation abruptly made sense. "You thought you'd found it with Amanda, didn't you?"
"What does it matter to you?"
"I wanna know," Ray retorted. "What? Not a good enough reason? Afraid I might stumble onto something I'm not supposed to know? What are you hiding, Wolfe? Other than that sword of yours."
"What sword?" Nick spread his hands wide to show he wasn't hiding one on his person. "I'm not a magician, and I sure as hell don't play one on TV."
As Nick expected, Ray spun around the room, looking for the sword. Finding it exactly where Nick had hung it, Ray reacted predictably. "All right, I'll give you that," he granted unwillingly. "But I coulda sworn you were dead."
For a moment, Nick was tempted to tell Ray the whole truth, remembering how he'd hated being left in the dark about immortality. He was too well aware that the knowledge carried a heavy price, however; it had made him doubt the nature of his existence and his role within the world he'd taken for granted. "Just call me lucky," he said lightly.
"Lucky?" Ray snorted. "How's this for lucky?" He started pacing, his hands moving to underscore his words. "My best friend fell in love with a thief who almost killed him, destroyed his career, and put his then-partner under investigation for corruption. The only thing that stopped Fraser then was a bullet in his back, put there by that partner." Ray faced Nick and glared at him. "That bullet's in his spine. They can't take it out without crippling him, and some days, I gotta wonder how he even manages to move. And you know what? If he had to do it over, he wouldn't change a goddamned thing."
Caught in the midst of taking another sip of beer, Nick swallowed hard as Ray's words struck home. He'd fallen in love with a thief who'd caused him to walk away from a promotion and the career he'd loved. He'd been accused of crossing the line, of being just as unlawful as Amanda, and the smear on his reputation haunted him. Still, Nick wouldn't change what happened; he wasn't all too certain of who he'd be had his path not crossed Amanda's. He shuddered at the thought of waking up from the dead and discovering he was immortal without prior knowledge of the cost of that life. Carefully, he set the can down on the bar.
"He would've given up everything for that bitch. I'm glad I never met her, because I think I'd've killed her."
The vehemence in Ray's voice caught Nick's attention. Startled, he stared at the other man. He didn't think Ray would resort to violence towards Amanda, and yet.... Nick recognized pieces of himself in Ray, and suspected that would be precisely the case if it was justified in Ray's mind.
"Know where your girlfriend's been lately?" Ray challenged. He'd stopped pacing, but looked ready for a fight.
"She's not my girlfriend," Nick corrected automatically.
Ray smiled humorlessly. "Tell that to someone who believes you," he shot back. "You're not fooling me. Besides, I remember what you said when we arrested you. When we asked about her, you protected her, which means you must feel something for her. So why aren't you with her instead of Fraser?"
"Fraser? She's with the Mountie?" The words spilled out before Nick could stop them. Dread shivered through Nick's spine and took up residence in his stomach. What Nick knew of Fraser had told him that the other man had honor to spare. If what Ray had said was true that Fraser had been in love with a thief then the consequences of him getting involved with Amanda would kill him. Just like me, Nick thought. Except in Fraser's case, he's not going to have the chance of telling her just what he thinks of her killing him. Damn it, I wish explaining everything would make it right, but it's going just create more questions.
"No, she's with the other Mountie with a wolf." Ray's tone was sharp.
"Is there another one?" Nick asked, stalling for time while he tried to think, and earning a glare from Ray as a result.
"All right," he abruptly conceded. "Amanda and I were lovers. Past tense. I don't know where she is." He sighed. "The Whittenhall break-in looks like it could've been her, or it could've been a student of hers who's obsessed with copying her."
"She's here," Ray declared. "She's been staying at the Drake."
Nick half-chuckled. "Nice to know her taste for expensive things hasn't changed." He took a deep breath. "Look, Amanda's a lot of things, but she's not evil. She's never killed anyone during a heist, and I don't think she's going to start now. If you go after her, she'll lead you on a merry chase, but you won't catch her. Trust me. Let me talk to her."
Ray looked at him doubtfully.
"She still loves me," Nick assured him. "She just has this fascination for honorable men."
Ray groaned. "No one's more honorable than Fraser." He paced the area in front of Nick. "She the reason you're not a cop anymore? What'd she do to you, make you break your code of honor or something?"
"Or something," Nick allowed, not really wanting to get into the details. "Fact is, she and I have a history. I know her, and she's more likely to talk to me than anyone." If she doesn't take my head first; I really pissed her off last night. "Give me a chance to at least distract her, and maybe you can talk to Fraser."
He paused. "Is Fraser going to handle the news all right?"
Ray nodded tightly. "Yeah. He's a Mountie." He sighed, hoping that he wasn't overestimating his friend's capabilities. "Okay. You handle Amanda, but she's dead if she hurts Fraser."
Nick smiled grimly. "If she hurts him, I might be tempted to kill her myself." He kept the fact that he would never take her head, thus killing her permanently, to himself.
Startled by the intensity of Nick's tone, Ray did a double take. "I thought you said you love her."
Chuckling humorlessly, Nick returned, "Ever hear about the thin line between love and hate?"
Knowing the truth in that, Ray acknowledged the statement with a quick nod.
A small silence fell as the two men contemplated that line. Ray turned towards the door. Just before he reached it, Nick spoke. "I know where to find Cait if you want," he offered.
Ray stopped. "She don't want me. I don't love her." He paused. "But thanks anyway." The door shut behind him a heartbeat later.
Nick stared at the door a moment. "You lie, my friend," he declared quietly. "But I guess we're just a pair of fools." Sighing deeply, he rose off the stool and reached for the phone. "So much for being a matchmaker, Wolfe."
His fingers dialed the number for the Drake Hotel. "Yes, I'd like to know if an Amanda Montrose is registered there? Yes, I'd like to leave a message for her. 'Want to play tag, Raven? Wolfe.' Yes, that's the message." He rattled off his phone number, adding, "Thank you," before disconnecting the call.
His phone rang three hours later. "Nick, stop interfering with my life. What the hell are you trying to do now, play with my head and then take it?"
Nick ignored her. "Do you know what the hell you're doing with a Mountie?" he snapped. "Or are you just trying to screw up every cop's life that you meet?"
"No, and whatever gave you that idea?" Her voice held impatience and annoyance.
"Fraser's falling in love with you. He has this thing for thieves, God only knows why."
"He's not in" Abruptly, Amanda broke off. "How do you know?"
"I just had his partner here, about ready to knock the shit out of me just for knowing you."
Amanda giggled, irking Nick. "Well, that's sweet." Sobering, she stated quietly, "I didn't mean anything by being with Benton."
"Did you tell him that?" Nick demanded, ignoring the insinuation of intimacy Amanda's tone gave her words. He really didn't want to think about her with other men; although he'd given up his claim to her exclusivity months ago, it still hurt.
Silence met his words, and he snorted in derision and anger. "Didn't think so."
"I wanted to," Amanda pleaded. "I won't hurt him. I swear."
"Amanda, tell him good-bye"
"I can't," Amanda admitted reluctantly. "It's complicated."
Nick rolled his eyes. "Everything with you is complicated. Tell him good-bye before he gets himself killed."
"Nick, stop worrying. Just because I shot you doesn't mean I'm going to do that with everyone."
"Gee, and here I was wondering why everyone who knows you has scars to show for it." Nick ran a hand through his hair in a gesture of frustration, not at all reassured by Amanda's words. "Amanda, Fraser got shot the last time he fell in love with a thief."
"Nick, I'm not just a thief," Amanda protested furiously.
"Oh, and I'm not just an ex-cop," Nick retorted. "Come on, sweetheart, you forget who you're talking to. I'm not some Mountie with a wolf. How long do you think it's going to be before he finds out who you really are?"
"I'm not going to hurt him," Amanda repeated coldly. "I'm just having fun, and so is he. Believe what you want, Nick; you always have, but if you're jealous, Nick, then I suggest you go find someone else to be with, because I refuse to be manipulated."
With that, she hung up, leaving Nick frustrated. Again.
"Don't answer the unanswerable
If the truth would hurt"
Billie Myers, "Kiss the Rain"
Two days before Christmas
"I won't do it." Cait stood her ground, a five-foot, four-inch spitfire with mahogany-colored hair. Her Irish accent only served to make her words sound more passionate. "You're talking about more than some pretty jewels, some paperwork, and some computer generated art. This is a sword, damn it. You just can't forge a sword overnight, not one that'll pass a museum inspection! If you're willing to pay, I can get a replica shipped to you in a few days."
"I hired you because you're the best forger in the business." Sahir's voice was cold. "You know people. Find me a sword that fits this description. Today. Not tomorrow."
"No. You claim to be doing this for charity, but I think it's for revenge." She cocked her head, studying the Pakistani man before her. "What did they do to you? Pass you by when you sent out invitations to the ball? Not give enough money?"
"If I answered yes," Sahir said silkily, "would you play nice?"
Cait seethed at his insolence. "Can't you just accept not everyone's going to be interested?"
"No," Sahir said coldly. "Are you going to cooperate with me or not?"
"No. This deal is over." Cait started to walk out of the office.
"I own you."
Cait scoffed. "You own nothing. You're a professional beggar, except you dress it up and call yourself goodhearted person and a charity fundraiser."
"You forget who found you on the side of the road." Sahir stood, his body vibrating with rage.
"No, I haven't," Cait argued, turning back to face him. "Kasi picked me up, not you."
Sahir smiled, suddenly the face of serenity. "Of course she did," he agreed. "Give her my regards when you see her, won't you?" He depressed a button on the speakerphone on his desk. "Joel, please escort Miss Donovan back to the house so she can pack up her things."
"Yes, sir," a male voice answered.
"Thank you," she told Sahir as the door to his office opened and a burly man entered. "I knew you'd be reasonable." Abruptly, she gave a soft, sharp cry as a coughing noise was heard. She fell to the floor, gasping as the bullet instantly mushroomed within her body, killing her within seconds of impact.
Joel looked at his boss as the smell of cordite rose in the air from the silenced gun he held, pointed now towards the ceiling. "I've called the maintenance crew," he informed Sahir. "This will be gone in a few minutes."
"Excellent, Joel. You know," he mused conversationally, " it's a pity she forgot that Kasi is my mother's cousin's niece." Joel, like the good henchmen that he was, grunted sympathetically while Sahir took a deep breath and sat down. He smiled and then gestured dismissively as he commanded, "Be sure to bring the car around front when you're finished. I have a meeting in twenty minutes."
With an impatient sigh, Michelle Webster checked the time on her watch again. A casual passerby would note her black-haired, alabaster-skinned, porcelain-doll beauty and marvel at the genetics that had combined to create it. She looked barely legal, particularly in the jeans and denim jacket over a black logo T-shirt she wore. A closer examination would have noted that she sat entirely too straight for an ordinary teenager, and perhaps even caught sight of the oversized gym duffel on the floor near her feet.
"Where the hell is he?" she wondered impatiently.
Before the question could hang in the air for more than thirty seconds, a stocky Pakistani approached her table.
"You're late, Sahir," she growled.
"It couldn't be avoided," he said smoothly as he took a seat beside her. "I had to dispose of a small problem."
"Problem?" Michelle asked.
Sahir flashed a smile at her. "Nothing to worry your pretty little head over, my dear," he told her, ignoring the irked look he received in return. "You've been doing an excellent job so far. Tonight is lucky number seven."
"So it is," Michelle agreed.
He handed her a fat, letter-size envelope. "You'll find all you need in there, as usual."
She opened it and, flipping quickly past the cash, withdrew a sheet of paper with an address. "I've always had a fondness for swords," she commented.
Sahir took the sheet from her, tapping the address. "Such a waste. The money could be better spent on helping children."
Michelle barely managed to suppress the shudder at the disgust in Sahir's voice. While some part of her agreed that swords were expensive, she knew their worth to her was priceless. "Some people have money to burn," she interjected with as much charm as she could muster. Frankly, the more time she spent with Sahir, the more she felt like running immediately to the nearest shower.
"So they do." He smiled at her and brushed a hand across her cheek. Abruptly, he grabbed her jaw, hard enough to bruise. "See that I haven't wasted it on you." He let go, thrusting her away from him.
Automatically, she raised a hand to cup her jaw. The gesture served to conceal the tiny spikes of blue lightning that accompanied immortal healing. "You won't be disappointed," she said coldly.
Sahir rose from the table. "I expect delivery by six a.m. Don't be late."
Michelle stared at his departing figure, hating him. Then she took a deep breath, reminding herself that she'd just gotten a nice chunk of change for working for him. She was almost finished with this job; handling Sahir's abuse seemed a minor thing to put up with until then. Anyway, hating your boss is the American way, she thought. And I'm an American in the middle of a mall in Chicago. A church-run boarding school for girls in Geneva this ain't, not by a long shot. She smiled, suddenly inordinately pleased with herself. Tucking the envelope into her gym bag, careful to avoid touching or revealing the sword that lay within, she began whistling.
Slipping the bag over her shoulder, she wondered what Sahir would've thought if she'd told him that if he wanted a sword, one had been at his feet all the time. That made her grin, even as she knew she wouldn't give up the German basket-hilt sword in her bag for the world. She might not be good at sword fighting, but Michelle wasn't going to leave home without being armed. Still, if Sahir wanted a sword and a rather ugly one at that stolen from the Art Institute of Chicago, then Michelle was going to deliver.
She had to admit, though, that the list of targets he'd given her didn't make sense. The pieces she was stealing were very specific; she felt as though she'd been given a shopping list, and someone was going to have a really nice Christmas and New Year's. She didn't understand why, though, it was a sword today, a piece of art yesterday, a collection of sapphires tomorrow. Then she shrugged. She'd leave the heavy questions to people like Duncan MacLeod; she was having fun, and since she'd made that word her personal motto, Michelle put the matter out of her mind.
She was loving him as though the world was ending, with a desperate passion that only served to enflame him. He loved it when she took control like this, demanding his surrender to the desire that engulfed them. Closing his eyes, he let his hands, mouth, and body speak for him, telling her that he was hers in a way that would not be mistaken. Her breathless moans served as her acceptance, and he thrilled to hear them. Then she rocked against him, taking him deeper inside herself, and he felt the pressures of his desire build until spots formed behind his eyelids. Unable to bear anymore, he opened his eyes, her name on his lips as his orgasm hit.
Startled out of his dream, Ray woke, hearing his voice echo off the walls of his bedroom. Wide awake, he shook himself, wondering why he'd been dreaming of Cait. Then he remembered he'd visited Nick the night before, and how he'd been thinking of how Fraser shouldn't have to be going through the pain of finding out his girlfriend wasn't all that she claimed to be, as Ray had been in the wake of being kidnapped by Kulik. Suddenly impatient with himself, Ray tossed the covers aside and stepped into the bathroom to shower and get ready for the day.
His absolutions finished, he had just stepped into the kitchen to pour his first cup of coffee when a knock resounded on his door. Frowning, he finished pouring coffee and dropped a handful of Smarties into the mug before taking a sip and answering the door.
He was surprised to find Fraser on his doorstep.
"Mind if I come in?"
"Sure, Frase, you know you're welcome anytime," Ray replied. "Where's Dief?"
"I'm not exactly sure," Fraser confessed. "I was hoping he was with you."
Ray yawned and shook his head. "No, I haven't seen him. You lose him?"
Fraser looked mildly uncomfortable. "I'm not quite sure. He does have this annoying tendency to go roaming on his own, though I've told him time and again that he ought to remember his last experience with Animal Control."
Ray debated asking if Dief's wolf license was up to date, but it was way too early and Frase was too reliable to forget something like that. "Hey, maybe he found a hot poodle, y'know, Frase?" Ray offered. "You know how much he liked Ante, 'til we had to give that poodle back."
Fraser looked at him like that was not even a possibility. Ray spread his hands expansively.
"Hey, it could happen," Ray argued.
"That is precisely why I reminded him of his last encounter with Animal Control," Fraser said, sounding like a parent with a wayward child.
Though it was on the tip of Ray's tongue to tell Fraser to just let Dief find his own way back, he knew how much the wolf meant to Fraser. "Give me a few minutes, and I'll help you go find him."
Fraser smiled, clearly relieved. "Thank you, Ray."
Three hours later, Ray and Fraser caught up with the wolf. Later, Ray would wish he hadn't. Later, when the memory of receiving such a present on Christmas Eve came back to haunt him.
They found the animal lying beside a Dumpster outside the back of an Pakistani restaurant, whining softly. At first, both Fraser and Ray thought Diefenbaker was injured, but he wasn't. Fraser immediately jumped into the Dumpster.
"Oh, man, Fraser, why'd you have to go and do that again?" Ray complained.
Fraser didn't answer.
"Frase?" Ray asked worriedly.
A moment later, Fraser pulled himself out of the Dumpster. "May I please use your phone?"
"Sure, Frase," Ray said, handing it over. "What's in there?"
"You don't need to see this," Fraser suggested in the firmest tone Ray had ever heard him use.
"Don't need to see what?" Ray asked, miffed and not understanding what could possibly be in the trash container that he didn't need to see.
Fraser caught him by the arm when he would've climbed into the Dumpster. "Ray, trust me. You don't want to see this."
Ray glared at him suspiciously. "What's in there that you don't want me to see?" he demanded.
Fraser took a deep breath and rubbed an eyebrow. "I'm sorry, Ray."
Something in his friend's expression and tone alerted Ray that the apology wasn't an ordinary one. Before Fraser could stop him, Ray scrambled to check the Dumpster. He nearly succeeded in getting in, only to be stopped by Diefenbaker, who abruptly got in the way. Fraser caught Ray when he would've stumbled over the wolf.
"Ray, listen to me," Fraser said urgently. "There is no reason for you to go into that Dumpster."
"Fraser, what the fuck is in there that you aren't telling me?"
In the gentlest voice Ray had ever heard Fraser use, he stated, "Cait is dead."
Ray stared at him. "No, Fraser, we've been through this before. I am not hearing this. I am not believing this."
Fraser looked at him compassionately, then reached out to grasp Ray's shoulder. Ray let Fraser's hand rest there for a moment, then he shrugged it off, clearly uncomfortable. Wishing there was something more he could do, Fraser then unfolded Ray's cell phone to report the discovery. Ray continued to stare at his friend until a squad car and an ambulance arrived; even if Diefenbaker wouldn't have let him attempt to reach the Dumpster, the reality of Fraser's words was sinking in, freezing Ray in place. He had a sickening sense of déjà vu. Scenes from a warehouse near Lake Michigan flashed through his head, and for a moment, he could almost smell the acrid stench of the fire, feel the heat of the flames as the memory flashed through him. The images in his head were blurring as they were overlaid with the image of the paramedics removing Cait's body from the Dumpster.
The paramedics laid her down on the gurney. Fraser tried once more to block his view, but Ray shouldered past him, stepping over Dief when the wolf again tried to stop him. She was clearly dead, but the formalities still had to be observed, the official pronouncement of death made. Seeing her there unfroze Ray. Like a robot, he moved to touch her, barely hearing Fraser as he cleared the way. Between the elements, the indignity of being tossed into the trash, and the sheer fact of her death, she wasn't much to look at anymore. The surprise on her freckled, diamond-shaped face was frozen forever, and yet she still looked beautiful to him.
Beautiful liar, he thought, then almost immediately, Maybe I should've listened to you when you said you were in trouble.
"Who killed you, Cait?" he whispered, feeling the hurt, guilt, and rage build inside of him. She hadn't deserved to die like this. No one did. But this - someone was gonna pay for this.
"Ray, we'll find him." Fraser's voice registered through the maelstrom of emotions spinning inside of him.
Ray looked at his friend and stepped away from the gurney. "Yes, we will."
Of all the things Amanda had expected to do when she arrived in Chicago, fighting with Nick hadn't been on the list. She sighed, and tried to focus her attention on the task at hand, which was essentially a self- diversion while she contemplated just how she was going to get in touch with Michelle and try to convince Nick she wasn't doing what he thought she was. In typical fashion, Amanda ignored the voice that sniggered at the irony of trying to persuade Nick she wasn't a thief when she fully intended to break into a locked building on a cloudy, moonless night. The Art Institute of Chicago had an excellent collection of armor, and she dearly wanted to see what was new.
The idea of seeing the collection during the day seemed too pedestrian. Nighttime was Amanda's element, and she thrived on the challenge of breaking into places where the security was tight. Just as she approached the museum, though, the warning of another immortal resounded in her brain.
Michelle, she thought. Carefully, she checked the door, finding that the alarm had been deactivated. Slipping inside, she found that the security system was being fooled into thinking that everything was fine. Smiling in admiration and pride, she moved quickly through the museum, her sword ready just in case it wasn't Michelle.
At the entrance to the medieval armor exhibit, she found her ex-student standing warily, sword drawn. "Amanda!" Michelle hissed, lowering her sword. "What are you doing here?" Astonishment was etched into her porcelain doll-like features.
"Shopping," Amanda said lightly, crossing the room and gesturing grandly to its contents as she did so. "Aren't you?"
"No. I'm working." Confident that Amanda was not a threat to her health, Michelle grabbed the duffel bag on the floor, sheathing her sword inside, then began the process of disengaging the security from the sword display to her left.
"Working?" Amanda asked, as if she couldn't tell.
"Yeah," Michelle replied. She connected a wire with an alligator clip to one of the supports holding the sword she wanted, then connected the other end to a Taser. Depressing the button on the handheld stun gun, she short-circuited the electronics. A puff of smoke rewarded her effort, and she smiled. "I heard you retired."
"Darling, who told you that?" Now it was Amanda's turn to look surprised.
"Sahir." Quickly, Michelle unhooked the Taser setup and removed the sword from its supports. She grunted, surprised by the weight, and nearly dropped it. Swearing lightly, she took a firmer grip on the wickedly curved medieval chopper.
"So the rumors are true. You are working for him."
Michelle glared at her former mentor. "Amanda, I don't have time for this. The alarms will go off in a few minutes."
"Michelle, Sahir will kill you when you're done."
Michelle shrugged. "So? He might get a little rough, but he doesn't know about immortals. He can't do any permanent damage."
The older woman rolled her eyes at that remark and took a step closer. "Any permanent damage? Michelle, if he kills you, and you get up, guess what happens?"
"He's not going to find out about us," Michelle said impatiently. "Look, it's great seeing you, but I really have to run." So saying, she stuck the sword in her duffel bag and started to zip up the bag.
Just then, the sensation of another immortal's approach sliced through the two women.
"Shit," Michelle swore. "What's this, a convention?" She started to pick up the bag.
"Never mind that," Amanda snapped. "Leave the sword, Michelle."
"No. I came here to do a job, and I'm getting out of here."
"You don't know what you've got yourself into," Amanda countered.
"I'm not an idiot, Amanda," Michelle said exasperatedly. "I can handle myself. Right now, that means leaving." She hefted the bag on her shoulder. "Look, if you want a cut of this deal, you can talk to Sahir."
"I'm trying to tell you, I don't want to deal with Sahir, and I don't think you should be either."
"Amanda, I don't care. You're just jealous because I got the deal and you didn't."
"That's not the reason," Amanda insisted as the sound of approaching footsteps on tile echoed through the museum.
"What, you think you gotta protect me?" Michelle asked sarcastically, her hands underscoring her words. "Give it up, Amanda. I stopped being your student years ago. You said I was ready, remember?"
"Ready to get your head cut off if you stepped off Holy Ground," Amanda snapped. "Damn it, Michelle, I care about you. Sahir's dangerous."
"Is this a party, or can anyone join in?" Nick inquired, stepping into the room. "I see you've brought a friend, Amanda. You training her to take over, or just helping out?"
"Nick, I told you to stay out of this."
"Now why would I do that when you're involved?"
"Because this is none of your business."
"I hate to interrupt such a lovely reunion," Michelle remarked, "but this girl is gone."
Amanda snagged the younger woman's arm. "Not yet," she hissed.
"Bullshit." Michelle glared at her and tugged her arm free. In the process, her elbow knocked into a nearby suit of armor, causing it to fall and trigger the alarm.
"Fuck," Michelle swore. Scooping up the duffel, she ran for the nearest exit.
Amanda ran after her, with Nick following a heartbeat later. Nick caught up to Amanda easily, stopping her.
"Oh, no you don't," he told her, grabbing her. "I want to know what's going on."
"Nick, are you nuts?" she demanded. "First you kill me, now you're trying to get me arrested?" She shook herself free. "You don't know what's going on."
"Then tell me, damn it. Tell me why Sahir is so interested in you."
Amanda jerked at the mention of Sahir's name. "Not now. I have to get Michelle."
Nick glanced at the exit. "Michelle's gone."
"Then let me go."
The sound of police sirens echoed off the walls.
"Nick, we've got to get out of here." Amanda started running again, the tails of her long black trench coat flaring behind her. Nick swore and followed her, knowing that they'd run out of time.
"Freeze! Police!" he heard a familiar voice shout, and groaned. Damn it, not Kowalski. Not now. Nick and Amanda turned a corner, and skidded to a halt as Diefenbaker blocked their path and growled.
Beside the wolf, Fraser stood. He seemed clearly shocked to find Amanda there. His words only served to confirm Nick's assessment.
"Amanda?" Fraser asked hesitantly, sounding puzzled and concerned. "What are you doing here?"
"Yeah, and with Wolfe too," Ray interjected. "What's going on?" He sounded just as bewildered as Fraser, and worried.
Nick realized that the only reason Ray had lowered his gun was due to that confusion. Silently, the ex-cop cursed the awkward triangle he found himself in, the necessity of the secrets he was keeping. Loving Amanda as he did, he wanted to protect her, and yet... this was one question she was going to have to answer by herself.
Time stretched; seconds ticked by, and then Amanda glanced at Nick, Fraser, Diefenbaker, and Ray.
Nick knew that instant she'd decided to run rather than face any of them. He couldn't fault her; at the moment, it sounded like a pretty damn good idea. He wasn't exactly sure what to say, either, now that he thought about it. Then he remembered the information he'd found on Sahir, and what Ray had said about the relationship between Fraser and Amanda. Almost without conscious thought, he reached for Amanda.
"Running is going to make it worse," he told her when she shot him a furious glare and fought his grip. He held on only through application of a martial arts trick his mentor had taught him. "Besides, by now they have us surrounded."
She looked at Fraser, whose initial shocked expression had turned into a mask of guarded curiosity. Then she offered him a smile and answered his question. "Would you believe me if I told you I was just meeting an old friend?" she asked in her most charming voice.
"It's all right to make mistakes, you're only human
Inside everybody's hiding something"
D. Armstrong, P. Herman (Dido), "Slide"
"I don't think so," Ray answered, shooting his unofficial partner a worried glance. Fraser's body had stiffened with Amanda's words and Ray could swear he could feel the emotional distance growing. Damn it, Frase is freaking out. This is not good at all.
Quickly, Ray decided the best route to deal with the situation was to take a cue out of Fraser's book and follow procedure. "Both of you are under arrest for breaking and entering," he declared, reaching for a pair of handcuffs. "If anything's missing, we'll add theft to the list." He continued to speak, rattling off the Miranda warning as other officers joined them on the scene.
From somewhere inside him, Fraser watched the scene, appreciating the efficiency of the arrest. He was numb. One part of him was furious for not making the connection between Amanda Darrieux and the international thief Amanda, especially since he'd been the one to discover that Nick Wolfe and Amanda had been linked. Another part of him was frozen with disbelief over being taken in again by a charming criminal.
"You know," the voice of his father's ghost observed, "'Truth... is not a thing to be thrown about loosely, like small change; it is something to be cherished and hoarded and disbursed only when absolutely necessary.'"
"H.L. Mencken," Fraser said, recognizing the quote, "and I fail to see how that is any comfort to me. She could have told me."
"I'm sure she had her reasons," Fraser Sr. said confidently. "Why, your mother kept secrets from me all the time."
"You were gone most of the time, Dad. There were a lot of things you didn't know." Faint annoyance and the tiniest bit of resignation crept through Fraser's tone as he walked away from the cluster of officers who were going to transport Nick and Amanda to jail.
Fraser Sr. glanced at his son, regret in his eyes for the lost opportunities. Gruffly, he said, "Well, don't be too hard on her, son. She's not Victoria, you know."
The comment fell on deaf ears, for the younger Mountie had walked away, towards Ray.
"You okay?" Ray asked. "Smith and Keith are taking 'em up to book 'em, but we got the collar." He took another look at his friend. Feeling awkward, Ray added, "We're supposed to meet them at the station in fifteen minutes."
"Good," Fraser managed as they headed for Ray's GTO.
"I'm sorry you had to find out about her like this," Ray said just before opening the driver's side door. "I didn't know what to expect when we got the tip about the museum, and I figured I'd have time to tell you."
"Tell me what, Ray?"
"That I forgot there was an Amanda associated with Wolfe. I didn't think of it till earlier, when I was catching up on paperwork."
"It's not your fault, Ray." It's mine. I should've recognized her.
Ray opened the door. "Sure, Frase," he agreed quietly, but Fraser knew his friend didn't believe him.
"Why is it every time I'm with you I get caught?" Amanda demanded, pacing, trying to contain her anger like the cell contained her.
"Oh, I don't know about every time," Nick pointed out calmly as he lounged against one wall. "Remember the Maria Rose? We cut it close, but with both of us looking like we'd spent the evening relaxing, Magnes couldn't prove we'd been at the museum."
Amanda stopped, turned, and then smiled, remembering the heist on the Torago Museum of History, which had involved relics from the recovered ship. "True," she granted. "The look on Captain Magnes' face when he saw us together in a bubble bath was priceless. Thank God you were in an all-fired hurry to get naked."
"Come on, Amanda," Nick teased, "you invited me into your tub and you didn't expect me to get undressed?" He paused, drawing a quick breath, as Amanda stepped forward and leaned seductively into him, settling her body against his. "Whatever would you have done if Magnes had asked you to stand up? You ruined that black dress you wore in the tub, you know."
"Oh, I know," Amanda said carelessly. "I would've thought of something." She frowned. "You never did tell me about that tattoo on your butt."
Nick chuckled. He was aware of the sudden sexual tension in the room, and knew that Amanda was trying to parlay it into making him forget he had a reason to be upset with her. She was nearly succeeding, and he had to fight to remember that things weren't right between them. "You never told me about teaching Michelle Webster."
"That's not the same thing," Amanda countered. "Besides, you're dealing with something you really don't want to be involved with."
"Amanda, I'm involved with you whether I like it or not. I always will be, even if you do piss me off to the point where killing you seems like a pretty damned good idea." Nick ran an impatient hand through his hair. "I'm not going to apologize for the other night. Face it, sweetheart, you're a walking magnet for trouble, and just when I think I've gotten far enough away from you, you come waltzing back into my life."
She sighed, hating the fact that he was right to a certain degree, and unable to come up with a defendable argument that wasn't based on heated denial. "Why can't you ever believe me when I tell you to stay away?"
"Because lying is pathological with you," he told her bluntly. Then, relenting a bit, he added, "Besides, didn't I tell you that you were 'it' in our game of tag? You know how wolves love to play tag with ravens."
She laughed softly. "I remember. You're not going to eat me for lunch," she told him tartly. Leaning even closer, she went on in a suggestive tone, "I might be willing to let you go for dessert, though."
The subtly musky floral scent of her favorite perfume rose to tantalize him, reminding him of how her skin would taste. For the briefest of moments, Nick remembered the pleasure of holding her so close, and shifted position so that she rested more comfortably against him. As soon as he felt her body's weight increase, though, Nick realized what was happening.
"Amanda," he said, annoyed for even being momentarily tempted. She'd always known what buttons to push, and he'd been particularly sensitized to her charms ever since they'd become lovers. His hands rose to push her away.
Deftly, she caught them in her own and kissed the tips of his fingers. "Nick," she countered, her tone clearly making fun of him. "Tag, you're it," she called playfully.
Just then, the sound of someone approaching the cell echoed through the cell block.
Nick looked over Amanda's shoulder to find Fraser standing just outside the cell, accompanied by one of the officers responsible for the holding cells. Hurt and betrayal was etched clearly into the Mountie's face as he stared at them. Instantly, Nick was conscious of how intimate his embrace with Amanda must look. Even as the urge to feel embarrassment rose within him, Nick clamped it down. He refused to feel shame for how he felt about Amanda or for his past history with her, though he sympathized with Fraser for feeling as though Nick had crossed the line.
Amanda glanced up at Nick, then turned, breaking the contact of their hands. "Benton!" she exclaimed, and glided across the cell to greet him.
"Good afternoon, Amanda, Nick." Fraser's voice was distantly polite. His tone had the effect of freezing Amanda for the barest of moments, stopping her before she could reach past the bars to touch him. She settled for just standing in front of him, smiling as if she hadn't recognized his rejection.
"Don't be mad at me, Benton," Amanda entreated coyly and charmingly. "I wasn't doing anything last night."
Fraser stared at her a long, telling moment. Then he motioned to the officer beside him, who unlocked the cell.
"Wolfe, you're free to go," the officer announced.
Surprised, Nick looked at Fraser. "I don't understand," he said slowly. "What's going on?"
"The charges against you have been dropped," Fraser informed him crisply, having retreated behind the reassuring familiarity and formality of procedure. "Lieutenant Welsh wants to speak to you before you go. If you're willing to spare a moment, I'd be happy to take you to his office."
Without being told, Nick knew he was being offered amnesty in exchange for information. He glanced at Amanda, and realized the offer was extended to him alone. She seemed to recognize that fact, and some of the joy in her eyes faded. Taking a step back, she told him, "I'll be okay."
Nick glanced at Fraser, who seemed to have straightened his posture even more, if that was possible, then back at Amanda. Staying and refusing the offer of freedom was a pointlessly gallant gesture of unity. Nick wouldn't gain anything by staying by Amanda's side. With a silent, rueful chuckle, he acknowledged that doing so had cost him more than anyone had a right to lose. Moreover, he suspected Fraser would misinterpret the gesture, and there were enough questions and unspoken accusations as it was.
Maybe this way, Nick thought as he walked out of the cell, I can stop Sahir, and help Amanda. He didn't look back, but he felt Amanda watching them as they departed.
The officer who'd unlocked the cell stopped walking with them once they'd breached the cell block door, leaving Fraser and Nick alone. Nick took advantage of the opportunity to try and rectify some of the damage caused by Amanda's embrace.
Damn it, what can I say? Nick risked a glance at the other man, who moved with military precision through the corridors leading up to Lieutenant Welsh's office. If I tell him Amanda's a flirt, that she probably didn't mean to get involved with him, then it's just going to make him feel worse. Why can't the truth ever be easy? He drew a deep breath, and chose his words carefully.
"I've known Amanda a while now," Nick admitted. "She means well, but it doesn't always turn out that way."
Fraser said nothing, but the look he shot Nick spoke volumes. The ex-cop smothered a chuckle at the disbelief radiating from the Mountie. If he hadn't lived through the walking disaster zone that was frequently Amanda's life, Nick wouldn't have believed it either.
"Look, she's a lot of things, but she's not evil, and she doesn't intend to hurt anyone."
Fraser didn't respond to that, and Nick could only hope that his words had made it past the other man's reserve. In silence, the pair moved through the station to Lieutenant Welsh's office.
After knocking and announcing them, Fraser opened the door to Welsh's office and allowed Nick to enter before stepping inside. Nick saw immediately that Kowalski lounged against one wall, looking faintly impatient, and that the lieutenant was a heavyset, older man.
"So glad you could join us," Welsh greeted. "Have a seat, Wolfe."
Nick obeyed the gently voiced command, sinking into the chair in front of Welsh's desk.
"I called your old captain," Welsh began, and shuffled papers until he found the name. "Captain Magnes of the Torago Metro Police. He was surprised to learn that you were alive and well; he seemed to be under the impression you'd died in Paris earlier this year."
"He always did like to delude himself on a number of things," Nick interjected, his mind flashing on the man who'd offered him a promotion in return for his silence on the precise details of his partner's death. "So what does he have to do with me now, and what is it that you want me to tell you before I go walking out of here?"
"All right," Welsh declared. "He said that an old friend of yours had hired you on after you left the force. You started working for Myers Enterprises, an international security firm. Magnes claimed you were probably working on something for them when you ran across Amanda."
"If I was," Nick challenged, "I might not be at liberty to say."
"Cut the crap," Ray retorted impatiently. "You know something about why she was there at the museum, and I think you know who's behind all the other burglaries."
Nick said nothing for a long moment, not wanting to appear too eager. "I'm not working for Myers," he informed them. "Not for this anyway. I was only investigating the insurance claim in regard to the Whittenhall burglary." He paused, silently debating how much to say. "Does the name Jasper Sahir ring any bells?" he offered finally.
"He's a philanthropist," Fraser said.
"Wasn't he the guy who was hosting that kids' charity?" Ray asked. "He was at that ball you sent me to," he added, looking at Welsh.
"Yes. He's one of the city's leading figures in charitable causes," Welsh agreed. "Owns a pretty good restaurant on the north side. What's he got to do with the museum?"
"I did some checking with the contacts I have," Nick began. "I'm sure Kowalski and Fraser did a good job investigating the leads they had," he added, glancing at both men. "But as vice president at large of Myers Enterprises, I have some contacts you may not have. Jasper Sahir has connections on his mother's side to a very powerful Pakistani crime family, the Vairocanas. They control a good portion of Europe's underworld - they deal in everything that can be sold illegally. They prefer to specialize in art theft and forgery, though, and Interpol has been after them for years."
"Cait must've been working for them," Ray surmised, leaping to the conclusion. "She was trying to tell me something about Sahir, and we did find her behind the Royal Bazaar."
That statement gave Nick pause. "Is Cait okay?"
"She's dead," Ray said flatly.
Nick drew in a sharp breath at the news. It was true that he and Cait weren't friends, but they had shared a common secret: his immortality, and her former involvement in the Watchers. She'd saved his life, and he'd later returned the favor. He hadn't expected her back in Chicago so soon, and wondered just how the Vairocanas had gotten a hold on her. He sincerely hoped she hadn't been that desperate.
"I didn't know," Nick stated quietly. "I'm sorry."
Ray nodded tightly, acknowledging the sympathy, but not going any further.
Briskly, guessing that Ray wouldn't want to dwell on the memory, Nick continued talking. "Jasper Sahir is the respectable one in the family. He's heavily involved in charities, as you know, and has never been associated with the family business until recently. The word I received was that he was looking for a highly skilled thief - one who wasn't averse to working on a deadline."
"Did your informant tell you what the deadline was?" Fraser asked.
Nick shook his head. "Only that there were ten targets, and that the entire deal was worth $250,000." He paused to watch their reactions. "As you've probably guessed, I have reason to believe Amanda is the one responsible. That's why I was at the museum last night."
"How do we know you aren't in on this deal? A quarter of a million's hardly anything to sneeze at," Welsh observed.
The ex-cop leaned back in his chair. "I'm not interested in easy money," he declared. Oh, and like you didn't pawn a black sapphire necklace Amanda gave you as her contribution to your rainy day fund just because you needed a couple grand, the voice of his conscience sneered at him. You know damn well that Myers doesn't pay you crap now; he thinks you're dead. Ignoring it, he continued, "I'm not a thief either; that's Amanda's specialty."
Fraser noted, "You were involved with her prior to arriving in Chicago."
"Doesn't mean that I'm involved with her now," Nick retorted, aware that Amanda's police records would reflect his association with her. "Besides, I know where her heart lies, and it sure as hell isn't me. Don't kid yourself into thinking it's you, either; it's a waste of your time." As if realizing how his words stung, Nick gentled his voice. "Look, I'm cooperating with you because I think she's dealing with some major slime. If you're not interested in catching them, then fine. Let me go and let me deal with them."
"We can't condone vigilante justice," Welsh warned.
Nick rose. "Did I say I was going to do that? You know, the only time I ever liked jail was when I was the one throwing the perps behind bars," he answered. He started for the door, then paused to glance at the other men. "Check my information. You'll see what I mean." He shrugged casually. "Maybe by then Sahir will have what he wants, and you can watch him get away with murder."
He started to open the door of Welsh's office when Welsh's voice stopped him. "What about Amanda? You gonna tell us anything more about her? Magnes said she was your last case on the force, that you were closer to arresting her than anybody."
The ex-cop debated that statement for a long minute. Then he shook his head slowly, half-turning to face the other men. "No," he answered. Then he smiled. "It's my turn to be It, and I'm counting to a thousand."
With that seemingly cryptic comment, Nick walked out of the door.
"A thousand?" Ray repeated. "What the hell's so important about that number?"
"I don't think it matters," Fraser declared after a long moment. "I believe he was having a private joke at our expense. If I understood him correctly, he's a wolf playing tag with a raven."
Ray's eyes narrowed. "What the fuck is he hiding? What does that have to do with anything?"
"In the wild, Ray, wolves play a kind of tag with ravens. If the ravens are quick enough, they live to see another day; otherwise, they are eaten. While I don't believe that Wolfe meant that literally, I do believe that he is playing some sort of game with Amanda."
Ray digested this information, then demanded irritably, "Why couldn't he just say so, instead of all this mystery man crap?"
"Right now," Welsh stated, drawing Ray's attention, "that's not important. Ray, I want you to check on this guy Sahir and find out what Wolfe meant. Whatever you do, if you find out Sahir's connected with your girlfriend's death, I don't want any hero stuff, all right? We want to get him legally."
Ray nodded, and left the room. Fraser lingered, as he was wont to do until he was formally dismissed. "Is there something you want me to do, sir?"
"Shut the door, and sit down, Constable," Welsh ordered gruffly.
Fraser compiled, wondering what his unofficial commander wanted. A part of him wanted to run back downstairs and see Amanda, to talk to her and ask a million questions, while another part of him was experiencing flashbacks to Victoria. The dichotomy was making his heart and his head hurt in ways Fraser had never expected.
"Are you involved with Amanda?"
For several minutes, Fraser considered dodging the question, burying it in a morass of truths that weren't exactly whole. It was the easiest dodge in the world for him to do, hiding his feelings in a maze of language that left most people annoyed with him for speaking unnecessarily and without really answering their inquiry. He glanced at Welsh, reading the other man's concerned expression, and realized that the lieutenant had heard Nick's comment clearly. "If you're asking if I would repeat what happened with Victoria, sir," Fraser began quickly, hating the unspoken accusation, but understanding the reasoning behind it, "I can assure you that won't happen."
Welsh didn't bother to disguise the relief he felt. "See to it that it doesn't," Welsh warned. "The last thing we need is another incident like what happened then."
It was on the tip of Fraser's tongue to point out that circumstances were different, but he looked at the older man, and realized that such a reassurance would not go very far. Fraser couldn't say he blamed Welsh for his suspicions. Victoria had been Fraser's personal siren, and her hold on him had been powerful enough that Fraser had been willing to risk everything he'd held dear. Even now, Fraser wasn't entirely certain what his reasoning had been when he'd started running towards her as her train pulled away.
He couldn't say that his feelings for Amanda were that strong, but as he'd never been one for casual sex, he knew that she'd become very important to him in an extremely short period of time. Being with her had brought a kind of joy to his life that he hadn't wanted to admit had been missing. Being around her had been like a breath of fresh air, without a need for pretense. She possessed a certain zest for living that had made being with her easy. maybe too easy.
He thought about their last date, which had been an afternoon at a local art gallery, followed by a leisurely dinner and lovemaking at her hotel. She'd shown a definite preference for certain pieces, and now he found himself wondering if she'd been picking out the ones she planned to steal. She'd brought along a disposable camera, and she'd convinced him to pose alongside the pieces she'd liked, claiming that she much preferred to be behind the camera than in front of it. She'd been so charming and fun to be with that Fraser had found himself agreeing willingly, even going so far as to point out art he thought she'd like.
Even now, her words echoed in his brain. "You sure know how to win a lady's heart," she'd teased him before taking his lips in a very public, very arousing, and all too intimate kiss. He'd wanted to protest, but the words were muffled as she wielded desire to her advantage. He couldn't say, even now, that he had really wanted to refuse her. He'd been attracted to her from the moment he'd seen her, and nothing had really mattered when he'd discovered she'd returned his interest.
If I haven't asked Amanda for details, Fraser wondered, then does the fact that she withheld the truth truly count as a lie? Or did I just sense that I didn't want the answers, and willingly overlook something in my desire to be with someone? Was I merely out to prove that I could have a relationship without strings, as Ray said he was going to do, since he wasn't going to love anyone as he did Cait?' I don't believe I'm cursed by Fate, but what does it say about me that I seem to keep having sex with women with potentially lethal secrets? Is there something in me genetically that attracts these women? Am I simply a glutton for punishment?
"No," he said aloud, "I'm not a glutton for punishment."
"That's a good thing to hear, Fraser."
Startled, Fraser jerked his gaze to meet Welsh's. Realizing he'd forgotten where he was, Fraser swallowed his embarrassment. "Ah, yes. Very good," he babbled.
Welsh looked at him oddly. "I want you focused on this. Kowalski's handling his girlfriend's death a little too calmly, and I know he's gonna wale on this Sahir guy if I give him the chance."
"I won't let that happen, sir," Fraser assured him.
Welsh leaned forward in his chair, satisfied with Fraser's answer, but wanting to emphasize his next point. "Aside from that, I don't trust Wolfe entirely. No matter what his record as a cop says, he's not one anymore, and he's been less than cooperative with us before. Bringing down the Vairocanas, even just one of them, would be quite an accomplishment, and I'm not about to turn down a shot at taking down scum. Wolfe knows that, knows we'd be greedy for it. Who's to say that Amanda wasn't the advance party and didn't get under your defenses so you'd be fooled?"
"I don't believe she is like that, sir," Fraser protested respectfully, "but I will keep your advice in mind." He paused. "If you had nothing further... ?"
Welsh studied him for a long moment, then shook his head. "Dismissed, Constable, and thank you."
"The silence is broken now
It's over now
The truth has been spoken
And with every word you say
You blow away
The scene of another crime"
Jack Blades, Tommy Shaw, and Ted Nugent (Damn Yankees), "Silence Is Broken"
Left alone to ponder her situation, Amanda realized quickly that she'd gotten herself stuck in a predicament. She had two choices: accept her fate, and hope that Michelle would find her own way out of Sahir's deal, or hope that Nick was feeling more benevolent than he had been lately.
She sighed deeply and leaned against one wall. Some part of her still couldn't believe that he'd nearly taken her head, though she had to concede that she'd been convinced he'd do that ages ago. It wasn't like she hadn't given him enough justification in the three years that they'd known each other. She just clung to the belief that he'd eventually get over it, and they'd go back to being intimate friends.
Amanda had lived long enough to know that life didn't always turn out the way she wanted. She was a master of living in the now, though, rather than contemplating consequences, and her attacks of conscience had always been brief. In the last decade, however, the validity of applying her not- inconsiderable planning skills to more than just strategic shopping sessions, rendezvous with specific people, the occasional sword fight, and thieving, had begun to slowly be hammered into her brain. Somehow, the effort of thinking ahead and contemplating the consequences of her actions seemed to be a really smart idea, but she never seemed to remember that fact until she was looking at events in hindsight. Thinking about that now made her realize how poorly she'd planned this particular caper.
Face it, Amanda, you panicked. You heard the Vairocanas were looking for a thief, and you got jealous and protective because they found Michelle. You knew Michelle wouldn't listen to you; she's always been headstrong and stubborn, and someday those traits will be her death. Kulik's dead, and he can't pressure Sahir into letting Michelle go. You're stuck in jail, so you can't charm Sahir into anything. He thinks you're just a wealthy businesswoman anyway, one who contributes to his favorite causes, and when you saw him at the party, you couldn't believe how much he'd changed since you last saw him six years ago. Amanda shivered at that thought, remembering the hint of madness she'd glimpsed in his eyes.
She breathed deeply, trying to center herself, and crossed the small room to sit on one of the bunk beds. She had to come up with a plan, and fast. The longer she spent in jail, the sooner Sahir would have what he wanted, and the faster Michelle would be dead. Amanda knew that no one was going to collect all the money that the deal was worth; she knew the reputation of the Vairocanas, and knew that the chances of being double-crossed were high.
Now that Nick knew Sahir was involved, he would probably deduce that the Pakistani was the source of the burglaries. If nothing else, Nick would assume that Sahir was connected to Amanda, and he'd go after Sahir. Amanda didn't even have to see the wager to know she'd win that bet. Given that Nick didn't know how unpredictable Sahir could be, there was a chance that whatever Nick did would only increase Michelle's chances of getting hurt - or place him at risk as well. Granted, Michelle and Nick were both immortal, but if Sahir knew anything about immortals, that wasn't much of a guarantee for their safety. Amanda didn't think Sahir held that knowledge, but she couldn't assume that he didn't. Either way, Nick wouldn't stop.
Oh Nick. My white knight, charging full tilt at windmills, simply because he can't stay away when he thinks there's some danger to me.
She put her face in her hands and drew her knees up to rest her arms on them, her expression troubled.
Maybe I should've stayed away. He left Paris because he was getting to the point where he couldn't stand to be around me anymore. Between all the Immortals who wanted Mac's head and all the people in my past who suddenly decided they wanted payback for all the things I've done, the only surprise is that he stayed as long as he did. Then I had to go and think I could fool him a detective into not seeing how I felt about Mac.
It's never really been a problem before, but then, Mac and I never said how we felt about each other until a few years ago, and neither of us was with anyone at that time. I guess I forgot that Nick's still getting used to being immortal, still getting used to being in love with me, and I didn't give him enough understanding. Now I'm not sure what he thinks of me... or if I'll ever get a chance to really explain that I don't want to go back to Mac? How was I supposed to know Nick would mistake my casual flirting with Mac for something deeper? I thought he knew me well enough to know I didn't mean anything by it.
She sighed tiredly and rubbed her eyes.
All I wanted from Nick was his love and his friendship. Fraser was supposed to be a simple diversion, nothing more, someone to pass my time with while I looked for Michelle and Kulik. I'd hoped that maybe I could convince the Vairocanas that I'm the better choice for whatever they wanted. I wasn't expecting Sahir to be the one that was in charge of the deal. God, I wasn't looking for complications, and this situation's got more than it needs.
How the hell was I to know that Benton's been through so much? I wondered about that scar on his back, recognized it as a bullet wound, but I didn't think it was still there. He didn't seem to treat it as anything important, so I let it go.
Damn it, Amanda, when are you ever going to wise up and remember that men never say anything when it's something that's truly important?
"Beautiful women should never pout," a male voice declared.
Startled, Amanda jerked her head in the direction of the stranger standing just on the other side of the bars. He turned out to be a gangly, towheaded twenty-something male dressed in a dark blue polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of The Royal Bazaar Restaurant and black dress pants.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Call me Tommy. I'm a friend of a friend, well, an employee of a friend to be more precise."
Amanda took a second look, and realized who had sent him. Sahir owned The Royal Bazaar, and her heart sank. She chose not to pretend she didn't know why Tommy was there. "If I said I'm not going with you, then you'd just leave, wouldn't you?"
"If that's what you choose," Tommy agreed readily.
If I refuse, then I'm stuck here. Maybe Nick will bail me out, but he might be inclined to cut a deal with the cops. If I go, then I'll have to cut a deal with Sahir, and I'll be in debt to the Vairocanas.
For a moment, Amanda wavered. The sensible choice was to wait, but Amanda knew that time was running out, and she needed to find Michelle.
Amanda had never been known for being sensible. Still, she hesitated momentarily, not wanting to appear too eager. "All right," she declared. "As long as I'm not in debt for the rest of my life."
Tommy didn't blink. "Of course," he answered smoothly. "If you'll be patient a while longer, I'll see to it that you don't spend the night here."
She smiled and lifted her chin in unconscious defiance of the feeling that she'd just entered another kind of jail. "Thank you, Tommy."
Ray swore as he finished collating and pouring over the data which confirmed Nick's statements. He spent a moment wondering if Nick would've given them the information if he hadn't been arrested, then decided against it. Nick didn't strike him as a man who gave anything away without having good reason to do so.
Ray glanced at the closed door of his lieutenant's office and wondered what Welsh was telling Fraser. Silently, he hoped that whatever Welsh said would help Fraser. Ray wasn't relishing dealing with his friend when Fraser finally chose to let go and he had a feeling that Fraser was overdue.
"Thought you could use this," Frannie announced, breaking into Ray's thoughts. She set a cup of coffee down on his desk.
Surprised, Ray looked at her warily even as he thanked her for the unexpected gift.
She shrugged off the gratitude and took the guest chair next to Ray's desk. "What's going on in Welsh's office?"
Ray glanced over to the closed door. "He's talking with Fraser."
"Oh." Frannie worried her lower lip a moment as Ray took a sip of the coffee she'd brought. "The funeral home called while you were on the phone," she informed him quietly. "They wanna know what you want to do for Cait."
Understanding why she'd brought the coffee, Ray closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. Putting the coffee cup on his desk, he rubbed the back of his neck tiredly and wondered why everything that could happen in his life had to happen all at once. "Would you handle it for me, Frannie? Please? Nothing expensive, just take care of it. I gotta stop this Sahir guy, and hope that Fraser doesn't freak out on me now that he knows Amanda's a thief."
"Amanda's a thief?" she repeated, shocked. "Oh my God. Not again. And you too damn, am I going to have to shoplift something to get your attention?"
Ray started at her, his eyes narrowing. "Frannie, this isn't about you," he cautioned in a very dangerous tone.
"I know it's not about me," Frannie exclaimed in irritation, her hands fluttering. "It's all about that 'good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere' factor. You know how unhealthy those relationships are? Why, I read in Cosmo yesterday"
She stopped when the import of Ray's stare dawned on her. "Okay, okay, I'll take care of the funeral arrangements," she said hastily, rising to her feet. "I just think sometimes that whole bad girl thing is so overrated. I mean, you fell for Cait, and she almost got you killed. Fraser's dating some chick who turns out to be another thief. What's a nice Catholic woman like me going to have to resort to for someone to notice me?"
Ray watched her flounce away. He was torn between annoyance and the desire to read more meaning into her words than they warranted. The emotional roller coaster he'd been riding in the last few days was making him dizzy, and prone to second-guessing everything, he decided. Tiredly, he rubbed the side of his nose and forced himself to return his attention to the case at hand.
Now that he knew that Sahir wasn't the goody-two-shoes citizen that he appeared to be, Ray realized he needed to know where Sahir was likely to strike next. Nick Wolfe had left the building, though Ray guessed that Nick either didn't know or wouldn't say. Trailing Nick had its drawbacks, especially since Ray remembered how well the ex-cop had fooled him once before and escaped his notice. That left Amanda.
And maybe I can talk to her about how she hurt Fraser.
Ray's feet were in motion towards the holding cells before that thought completed.
Amanda seemed eager as he walked towards the cell, but her enthusiasm dimmed when she realized who he was. Based on her reaction, he surmised she'd been expecting someone. He wondered who that someone could've been, then decided it had to have been Nick.
"Detective Kowalski," she drawled. "Is this where we get to play Twenty Questions?"
"Depends," he answered, stepping up to the cell. " You gonna play straight?"
She pursed her lips and considered the idea. "Straight is boring," she replied. "Besides, I don't have to tell you anything." She looked past him, then smiled brightly. "Especially since I hear freedom calling."
Ray turned to find one of the cell guards moving to unlock the bars. "You releasing her?" he demanded of the other officer.
"Her bail has been posted, sir," the officer informed him.
The officer checked his clipboard. "Someone named Tommy Jazeryeri," he told Ray, shrugging. To Amanda, he added, "Mr. Jazeryeri is waiting for you."
"Thank you," Amanda stated, smiling. She managed to make her exit seem graciously dramatic, leaving Ray staring at her.
Then his brain caught up with him, and he started after her.
"Look," he said, catching up to her. "I need to find Sahir. I wanna throw this slime wad behind bars. Think you're up to helping with that? Or you gonna be like the other bitch who broke Fraser's heart?"
She stopped walking. Eyes flashing, she countered, "I'm not like anyone else."
"No? Then prove it." He glared at her and crossed his arms as if he expected her to disappoint him.
She looked towards the door where she guessed Tommy was waiting, then back at Ray.
She thought of the look on Benton's face when he discovered her in the museum, the hurt she'd glimpsed when he'd seen her with Nick. She remembered the price of her freedom was debt to the Vairocanas, and how she'd thought that she could weasel into the deal that Michelle had struck with them and perhaps get a share of the profits. If she owed the Vairocanas, the chances of getting in on the last few hits and getting out alive, with no strings attached and with some profit, were slim. She thought of Nick, her personal Don Quixote, and of all the wrongs she'd done to him.
Maybe this is my chance to make it all right, she thought.
"All right. I so do love a challenge," she agreed, her sudden cheer and capitulation startling Ray. He stared at her suspiciously; she ignored the look and continued, "What do you need?"
"I have my secrets
Call it my defense
Be careful what you're wishing for"
Garbage, "Temptation Waits"
An hour later, escorted by Tommy, Amanda met Sahir in the offices above The Royal Bazaar. The office was an ornate affair, gaudy in its flaunting of Pakistani heritage and Sahir's connections to the wealthy. It easily encompassed a quarter of the upstairs space. Amanda's gaze didn't miss the fact that the sword Michelle had stolen lay across Sahir's teakwood desk, or that the two burly flunkies guarding the door were armed with machine guns, or that the office had no windows. She guessed that the room had been soundproofed. Her own sword was concealed in her trench coat, but that gave her little comfort.
"You're late," Sahir snapped at Tommy. "You told me it would be a short trip."
Tommy didn't meet his boss's gaze. "The paperwork took forever."
And getting me wired in a hurry didn't help, Amanda thought. "I'm here now, Sahir. Thank you for bailing me out."
He smiled, suddenly gracious. "You're welcome, Amanda. You do understand that I have certain needs that must be met." He gestured for her to sit and dismissed Tommy.
"Of course," Amanda replied smoothly, crossing her legs and leaning forward suggestively. "Are you interested in a, shall we say, personal transaction, or something more appropriate for your office?"
Sahir chuckled. "You are a charmer, Amanda, as always. I treasure your discretion." He paused. "To think that I always thought you were just a wealthy businesswoman. I should've asked my family sooner. You're a world famous thief. Interpol seems to think that they've seen you in every generation that they've been tracking you."
"You know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Amanda said lightly. Her mind was racing, wondering where Sahir was going with this conversation.
"Well, your imitation is hardly worth the comparison."
Abruptly, the sensation of another immortal resounded in Amanda's brain. Seconds later, the door to Sahir's office opened, and Michelle was shoved roughly inside. She'd been bound and gagged; her clothes were torn. Her eyes were wild as they searched the room for the source of the silent warning that Amanda knew had to be searing through her brain. When they locked on Amanda, the look on the younger immortal's face was shock mixed with self-revulsion and shame.
Sweetheart, if you think I'm embarrassing you, then you've got a lot to learn still. From experience, Amanda guessed that Michelle had been mauled, if not sexually assaulted. She glanced over at Sahir, feigning a casualness she didn't feel. "So what happened?"
"She claims she can't break into a bank vault, that it is nothing like breaking into a museum."
"It isn't," Amanda agreed. "Besides, I never taught her how to break into one."
Sahir's eyebrows rose. Then he began to chuckle. "So the teacher doesn't teach the student everything."
"Of course not," Amanda said, affronted. "Not when she's a second-rate thief." Ignoring the killing look that Michelle was sending her way, Amanda leaned forward. She knew she had to play this game carefully. "It's any wonder she was able to get you the Whittenhall jewels, much less everything else you asked for."
Sahir's eyes narrowed. "I was told she was the best, after you. I'd been told you retired."
Amanda shrugged carelessly, glad that Michelle was gagged and couldn't talk back. "You weren't asking me directly, were you? Come now, Sahir, you know better than to believe everything you hear through the grapevine. I can assure you, I'm much better than Michelle is, and I do want to make sure your investment in me isn't wasted."
Sahir leaned back in his chair and pressed his hands together, considering Amanda's words.
"All right," he agreed. "Let's have a contest, shall we? The better thief gets a bonus. I want you to break into the First Valley National Bank. They are holding the Midnight Diamond that is to be raffled off at the After-Christmas Ball on behalf of Children's Hospital. The negative publicity will generate more donations. You'll have exactly twenty minutes to get the diamond and get it back to me." Sahir rose and gestured to the flunky holding Michelle. "Unbind her."
As soon as the gag was removed, Michelle spat. "Fuck you. Fuck you all," she declared.
Amanda glanced over at Sahir and saw the rage flash across his face. "Michelle, shut up." To Sahir, Amanda pointed out, "Twenty minutes would require a full set of floor plans and security schematics, otherwise there isn't enough time, and even then it may not be enough. Depends on what the tolerances on the timers on the security system are. "
"Oh, go fuck yourself, Amanda," Michelle said heatedly, not letting Sahir respond. "You're such a showoff; you always wanted in on this deal anyway." She turned to Sahir, rubbing her wrists where the ropes had chafed. "Like I told you earlier, you can go to hell because I'm not working for you anymore."
"Working?" Sahir repeated, his voice rising on the second syllable. "My darling Michelle, I own you."
"Own me?" Michelle's eyes glittered with confusion. "No one owns me."
"On the contrary, my dear," Sahir growled. "You belong to the Vairocanas. You signed the contract for services rendered. Did you not read the fine print?"
"I didn't sign no damned contr-" Michelle broke off, remembering suddenly the paper that her contact for the deal had requested that she sign. "Oh, shit."
"Indeed," Amanda agreed grimly.
Michelle glared at her, then turned to Sahir. "I quit."
"No one quits the Vairocanas," Sahir roared.
Amanda held her breath. The Hells' Angels reject who'd been guarding Michelle now had his gun cocked in Michelle's direction. He looked at Sahir, awaiting his cue.
The danger she was in seemed to abruptly register with Michelle, and she gasped. "You'd kill me?"
Sahir smiled coldly. "I prefer to see it as a preventative measure."
"Against what?" Michelle demanded incredulously, stepping forward. "Look, I'm not going to tell anyone about your warped business deals."
"That's not the point," Sahir answered, sounding insulted that she'd question him. "You failed me last night; you broke the merchandise. A Ming vase, once damaged, has no value. I do not wish to see such failure again. I must raise the funds for the children, and if the owners of these pieces do not wish to contribute to my cause, I must see that they contribute anyway. Your incompetence is less than what I desire, and so you must pay. You cannot refuse."
"Or what?" Michelle pressed on, dodging the grab the nearest flunky made for her. "He'll shoot me?" She gestured to the lackey. "Go ahead. You can't do any worse to me than the halfhearted attempt you and Sahir made at seducing me."
"Michelle, I don't think this is a good idea," Amanda warned.
"Shut up, Amanda," Michelle said viciously. "You're not the one he tried to rape." She strode towards Sahir until she was almost on top of his desk. Fearing for what would happen, Amanda scrambled out of the chair she was sitting in and stepped back.
"I can't help it if you're frigid," Sahir retorted. "For a Swiss, you're as lousy as an American woman."
"I am American, you son of a bitch," Michelle shot back. "I just live in Geneva."
Sahir reached across the desk and slapped her with such force that she lost her balance. Her arms flayed wildly as she tried to grab onto the armrests of the twin guest chairs to keep from falling all the way to the floor, to no avail. Amanda knew better than to try and catch her, and so stayed out of the way.
She was so busy watching Michelle that Amanda didn't see Sahir reach for the sword. Michelle had just managed to pull herself up to a kneeling position using the guest chairs when the blade bit into her neck. She tried to freeze, but the sword's motion couldn't be stopped, and she wasn't that agile or quick enough to dodge it. With a sickening thud, her head hit the floor.
Amanda saw the blue lightning start, and knew she was in trouble. The moment the Quickening hit, she would be incapacitated, unable to do anything but revel in the pleasure/pain of the magic and the power that had been Michelle Webster. She glanced at Sahir, whose eyes had widened with the light show, and knew she only had seconds in which to act. Morbid curiosity drove Sahir to emerge from behind his desk, still clutching the bloody sword, and touch Michelle's corpse.
Just then, Amanda felt the sensation of another immortal seconds before the door to Sahir's office burst open.
"Freeze, Police!" Ray shouted above the rising, unnatural wind that was swirling around Michelle's body. He aimed his gun at Sahir as he rushed into the room, with Nick and Fraser following.
Nick immediately saw what was happening. Ignoring the stunned flunkies, he raced for Sahir, tackling the stocky Pakistani and trapping him to the floor, away from Michelle. The Quickening continued to rise, seeking purchase in the nearest immortal. Not wanting any part of it, Amanda flattened herself against the farthest wall, hoping that it would pass her by. She didn't want Michelle's memories, Michelle's power, not like this.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the lightning speared into Nick, slamming him against Sahir. Nick screamed and convulsed as the Quickening fused with him. In fear, the flunkies aimed their guns at Nick and fired; he grunted as the bullets struck him. Like a ghostly pair of hands, twin wisps of lightning reached out and slammed into the flunkies. The burly men groaned and fell to the floor, stunned. Ray and Fraser watched for a frozen moment, then shook themselves out of their trances and quickly took advantage of the opportunity to cuff the flunkies.
It was several minutes before Nick was able to roll off Sahir. The Pakistani was stiff. His face and body were blistered and scorched; his eyes had rolled into the back of his head. When Fraser went to feel for a pulse, he found nothing.
"He's dead," Fraser pronounced. "What did you do to him?"
Nick rubbed his eyes tiredly and sat up. "Let it go, Fraser," he told him in a tone that brooked no argument.
Ray glanced at Amanda, who stood against the wall, breathing heavily. "I guess you ain't gonna explain anything either, are you?"
She smiled wryly and shrugged innocently. "It's a kind of magic?" she offered. She glanced over at Nick, and her mask slipped to reveal a newfound respect for him.
He took a deep breath and rose to his feet. He looked around at everyone in the room, feeling removed from it all, and more of a freak. He glanced at the stunned flunkies, somehow knowing that they were incoherent at the moment, and certain they'd dismiss it as some fantasy. "It's more than a kind of magic. It's a curse and a code and a chance to live forever." He looked directly at Fraser, who moved away from Sahir's corpse to check on the flunkies. "In the end, there can be only one." His gaze slid to Amanda.
Amanda had never hated that phrase as much as she did that moment. Not wanting to dwell on it, she turned her gaze on Ray and Fraser, trying to avoid the meaning in Nick's eyes. He just took a Quickening; he's going to be morbid for a while, she tried to reassure herself. It doesn't mean he really believes it. She frowned. Then again, I did tell him that, a long time ago.
"One what?" Ray demanded, sensing the tension in the room and not understanding the reason for it.
Nick stared at Amanda as Fraser found a pulse on both of the near-comatose henchmen and breathed a sigh of relief. The Mountie stood and looked at Amanda, then Nick. "One immortal, Ray," Fraser answered into the silence. "The legends are true."
"So if you're immortal, and you get that freaky lightning show when one of you dies, you're not really immortal, are you?" Ray asked, leaping to conclusions. "I mean, this chick on the floor's not going to do a zombie number is she?"
Nick chuckled blackly at that. "No, she's not. Sahir just got lucky." He turned to Amanda. "Or did he know?"
"I never told him. Like you said, he was lucky; I think he just grabbed the nearest weapon he could find, since he was so mad." Amanda crossed her arms and walked closer. "Some secrets should be kept." There was a hint of warning in her voice.
Ray snorted. "Like Welsh is gonna believe us when I tell him what happened here?"
That elicited a reluctant smile from his unofficial partner. "No, I suppose not," Fraser agreed. "I do suspect he'll have to believe the statements from the parties involved."
"Then he'll have to accept what we tell him, won't he?" Nick remarked challengingly.
"I won't hide the truth," Fraser stated with quiet emphasis.
Amanda just looked at him.
"Come on, Frase, don't be stupid," Ray said slowly, glancing at Nick and Amanda. Instinctively, he understood that what had transpired couldn't be explained as it had happened without risk to both Nick and Amanda. As much as Ray disliked Amanda for hurting Fraser, he wasn't going to condemn her blindly; there had to be something redeeming about her for Nick to love her, and she had agreed to help with their investigation of Sahir. "This is probably a murder and one of those spontaneous combustion things."
Fraser looked at the three of them, unified in their concealment of the admittedly bizarre set of circumstances in which they were, and realized that Ray was right. They had to live by a new code of silence to protect the secret of immortality, and that code had to go into effect now. Already, the henchmen were starting to stir, and the backup that Ray had requested before they'd burst into the room could be heard coming up the stairs.
"Of course," Fraser agreed smoothly. "However, I must point out that I do not believe this is the only thing that happened here."
He didn't dare look at Amanda, who had moved to stand near Nick. Later, Fraser promised himself, he'd examine the meaning behind her actions, and his reactions to the same, but right now, duty and honor called. Later, when he could bury his tears in Diefenbaker's fur and hope that the wolf wouldn't hold it against him in the future.
"Don't ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to"
Peter Alan Green (Kenny Wayne Shepard Band), "Oh Well"
"You gonna hang around here a while?" Ray asked, slipping out of the booth where he'd shared dinner with Fraser. It was two days after the scene in Sahir's restaurant. Nick was somewhere in town, but neither he nor Amanda had lingered after their statements had been taken. Officially, Sahir's and Michelle's deaths were being investigated as homicides, but unofficially, their cases were closed. Some of the stolen items had been recovered, thanks to the now-recovered henchmen's cooperation, but others were assumed to have been sold. The city was mourning the loss of one of its great philanthropists, but Sahir's reputation was tarnished now, given the fact that many of the items stolen had been found in his possession at the time of his death. It was the stuff of tabloid reporters' dreams.
"I still have some of my dinner to finish," Fraser answered, gesturing to his plate. He didn't really have the heart to tell Ray that he wasn't really hungry, and suspected Ray knew it.
Ray half-smiled and nodded briefly. "All right. I'm outta here. I'm gonna check on Frannie; I promised her I'd stop by since she's alone in the house with everyone else gone to Florida for Christmas. You gonna be okay?"
"If the weather turns worse as predicted and I am still here, I will call a taxi," Fraser promised. "Although I don't understand why you're so worried; it has never snowed as bad here as I have experienced farther north."
Ray scratched his head and looked frustrated for a moment. "No, I meant with everything else."
With Amanda, Fraser translated silently. Cait's funeral had been earlier in the day, and Fraser guessed that was on Ray's mind as well. Despite Ray's plans to attend, he'd told Fraser that police business had interfered, and now Fraser wondered if Ray had invented an excuse for not going. He shook himself, realizing he was mentally stalling, and decided to answer his friend's question. "I'm fine, Ray," Fraser assured him.
"If you ever wanna, you know, talk about it?" Ray offered awkwardly. He felt funny about asking, remembering how determined he'd been to resist Fraser's efforts to get him to talk about Cait a month earlier.
Fraser smiled, touched by his friend's offer. "I'll know whom to ask," he returned. "You'd better not keep Francesca waiting."
Ray glanced at his watch. "Sheez, she's gonna have my head. See ya, Frase!" He tossed down a twenty- dollar bill for the check and loped towards the door.
Fraser picked at his food, uncharacteristically unwilling to finish his meal. Now that Ray was gone, the empty bench across from Fraser only seemed to underscore the lonely state of his life.
No one had seen Amanda since the arrest, and Fraser wasn't willing to ask Nick for her whereabouts. He'd seen how they acted around each other, and surmised that he'd been nothing more than a distraction for her. The feeling of being used like that chafed like sand in his clothes, rubbing his heart raw, and he tried not to dwell on it, knowing that it didn't serve a useful purpose.
He was just about to give up on his food and head back to his apartment when the subtle musk/floral scent he'd come to associate with Amanda greeted his nostrils. He looked up to see her standing beside his booth, wearing a black trench coat open to reveal an equally dark velvet mini-dress.
"May I sit down?" she asked. "No, don't answer that, you'll probably refuse. I shouldn't go barging in on other people's lives. God knows I know better."
She paused and took a deep breath. Fraser waited, unsure of what she wanted, and not entirely certain that he trusted his voice.
"Anyway, I just wanted to say I'm sorry." She sounded genuinely apologetic, and Fraser wanted to believe her.
"For which part?" he found himself asking.
She acknowledged the hit with a brief nod. "I never meant for you to get hurt."
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
She chuckled mirthlessly. "I know." Uninvited, she slid into the booth, taking the space Ray had vacated. "I've been there." She looked across the table and reached for Fraser's hand. He flinched at the touch. "Look, I don't know what I can do or say to make things right. All I can say is that I didn't expect to run into Nick while I was here. What he and I have is complicated, and always will be."
"So the raven flies free, leaving the wolf to chase her, and anyone else who feels tempted to do so?" Fraser noted with unusual sarcasm. "I'm not just anyone, Amanda. I'm not going to be around forever."
"I know," she responded quietly, her eyes dark with pain. "You're a Mountie, a passionate man, and someone I'd love to call a friend." She took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. "But I'll understand if you never want to see me again."
"That would be best."
She nodded tightly, accepting his terms. Just when she would've turned to leave, he spoke again.
"I accept your apology, Amanda."
She looked back at him, surprised and grateful.
He didn't smile. "I hope you have a good life."'
She smiled sadly. "Take care, Benton Fraser."
Deliberately, he closed his eyes, not wanting to watch her leave. When he was sure that she was gone, he slid out of the booth, picked up his Stetson, and left the diner, unwilling to linger any longer.
Not unexpectedly, his father's ghost chose to accompany him on his walk back to his apartment. "You didn't ask the right questions," Fraser Sr. chided him.
"Oh? What was I supposed to ask, Dad? If she loved me? That would be a useless and fruitless question, not when I can see the truth. How could I possibly love a woman who breaks the law on a regular basis?"
"You did once. So did your partner, and that Wolfe character."
"Well, that's very comforting, Dad, considering that 'Wolfe character', as you call him, resigned from the Torago Police Department and turned down a promotion to lieutenant because of her."
"You don't know all the details," Fraser Sr. interjected, but his son didn't seem interested. "There were rather messy circumstances, from what I understand."
"Whatever they were, they forced Wolfe to alter his life. As for Ray, Cait nearly killed him and me."
"I hardly think she meant to do that. Victoria, on the other hand, she meant everything."
"I refuse to discuss Victoria with you."
"You can't let one bad apple sour you on the whole bunch," Fraser Sr. scoffed.
"That's grapes, Dad, and what you don't seem to comprehend, Dad, is that I'm looking for what you and Mom had, and I do not believe I'll find it. I'm afraid I'll never find it, and when love is offered to me, I don't always know how to handle it." Fraser rubbed an eyebrow in irritation. "Even when love is offered to me, I rarely know what to do with it. It's a hell of thing for a grown man to admit: that he thinks true love is something he'll never have. Is that what you want to know?"
"Is that what you believe, son?" the elder Fraser asked quietly. "Because if it is, you are wrong. Ask that Italian woman who kept after you for so long."
"Dad, I'm not interested in Francesca."
"Oh, she knows that," Fraser Sr. assured him. "But I'd ask her just the same, son." Then Fraser Sr. looked over his son's shoulder. "Be right there, Caroline!" he called. "I'd best be going. Your mother is calling, and a gentleman should never keep a lady waiting. You think about what I said."
With that, Fraser Sr. was gone.
Feeling even more frustrated and upset than when he'd left the diner, Fraser exhaled heavily. He didn't understand his father's oblique advice, and wasn't entirely certain if he even wanted to pursue trying to figure it out.
"Ray?" Frannie asked tentatively, walking into the living room. The Vecchio house was decorated for Christmas, but as the rest of the family had jumped at the chance to take a Florida vacation and visit Ray and Stella, it was quiet. She'd been standing in the kitchen, debating dinner, when she heard the door open, and had gone to investigate. As Ray still had a key to the house, and she'd asked him over, she wasn't too surprised to discover that she had him as a visitor.
She found the blond detective sitting on the couch, his head in his hands. Instantly concerned, she went to sit beside him. "What's wrong?"
He looked at her, pain clearly in his eyes. "Just thinking about Fraser and me, how messed up we are. Why the hell can't we fall for nice women, instead of the ones who'll screw us over?"
"Maybe," she offered, "because you're taking the nice ones for granted?"
He looked at her and did a double take. She smiled knowingly at him. "You know, you keep a secret pretty well," she told him. "How much did I tell you when I was on those painkillers?"
Ray's lips curved into a smile, the first one in days that had come easily. "Everything," he teased her, feeling the tension in him seep out of him as he settled more comfortably into the couch. He wasn't sure where this conversation was going to lead him, but he felt confident that it wasn't going to involve immortals, thieves, or wolves.
Frannie looked glum. "Oh no," she said. "You mean to say I told you about me going to Fraser's apartment in a leather teddy?"
Ray looked at her, incredulous. Then he began to chuckle. "No, you didn't tell me that," he informed her. He hesitated, then decided that in light of the secrets he was keeping, the one he'd kept from Frannie didn't matter as much. "You said you wanted me."
"You?" She made a face. "Sheez, I was really out of it, wasn't I?"
He grinned. "Something like that."
His grin faded as he looked into Frannie's eyes. She wasn't teasing anymore, and in her expression, he could see desire flare into life. With all the chaos of the last few weeks, it was the last thing he wanted. "No, Frannie," he told her quietly. "This isn't what you want."'
"Don't tell me what I want," she countered firmly. "You're right, you know. I know I won't ever have Fraser, and maybe I'm making a huge mistake by offering, but it hurts to see the both of you hurting. I just want to help where I can, whatever it takes."
He smiled crookedly, but the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "Don't sell yourself so cheap, Frannie. I'm damaged goods. I'm not gonna love"
She placed a finger on his lips, silencing him. "I know," she answered. "I'm not offering anything more than a hug, if that's what you want, and maybe later we can figure out what Ma left for dinner."
Something inside of Ray ached at the sweetness of her gesture. Closing his eyes, he accepted the hug she offered, holding tightly against the storm of emotions that had been his barometer over the past two months, and finally, letting go. He wasn't entirely certain of Frannie's intentions, and he was tired enough to not want to examine them too deeply. For the moment, it was enough to be held. Silently, Ray hoped that Fraser was finding the same peace he was, and vowed that, somehow, he'd make certain of it.
Nick strode up the slight rise of the cemetery to meet the immortal whose signature had been ringing in his brain since he'd parked his car in the parking lot. He wasn't surprised to find her dressed in raven black, looking like a thirty-something widow of independent means, standing warily near a fresh grave. She relaxed only marginally when he approached. He noted with a slight trace of amusement that she didn't greet him as enthusiastically as she used to, and surmised that what had happened in Sahir's office had something to do with it. He couldn't say that he blamed her; the experience was one he didn't care to repeat. He could only imagine what it had been like to witness it.
"I didn't expect to find you here," she remarked quietly. "How'd you find me?"
He smiled. "Decided to introduce myself to my new Watcher." Nick stuck his hands in his pockets as Amanda chuckled, guessing how that conversation had gone. "He wouldn't have told me where you were if it wasn't Holy Ground." Respect for the mortal's interpretation of his Oath showed in Nick's voice. "I think he thought I might try and take your head."
Amanda sobered at the reminder of their fight. "Surely he doesn't think you'd really do that," she remarked, incredulous.
Nick laughed ruefully. "I ran into a headhunter a few blocks from where I left you," he informed her. "Seems the Watchers got their reports confused."
Her breath caught. "Oh, Nick," she said softly, reaching for him and clutching his arm. Her expression revealed her desire to know the details of the sword fight, but she didn't press for them. It made him want to tell her, as he suspected she knew it would.
"Anyway, I set the record straight." He shrugged, trying to indicate that the issue wasn't important, and stepped back slightly. The movement resulted in Amanda's grip slipping downward from near his elbow to just above his wrist. Taking the hint, she let him go. "I tried calling your hotel, but they said you'd already checked out, and I wanted to talk to you before you left town."
"About what? Michelle? She was my student, but she never listened to anyone. Now she's dead." Amanda gestured to the grave where Michelle was buried. "Talking about her isn't going to change that." Her tone was resigned, though curiosity for Nick's reasons for wanting to speak to her laced it.
"I didn't come here to talk to you about her," Nick answered calmly. "Look, I don't know what happened in Sahir's office. To be honest, I'm a little freaked about it myself. I didn't know a Quickening could do that to a mortal." He exhaled deeply. "Not that I mind what happened. Sahir was a creep."
Amanda nodded agreement. "I tried to tell Michelle that, but she wouldn't listen." She was silent a moment, her face pensive. "I was trying to save her."
"I know," Nick responded. "I wish you would've told me that sooner."
"You would've tried to threaten Sahir, and that would've been a mistake," Amanda pointed out. "He would've killed you, and he might've gotten as lucky as he did with Michelle."
"Maybe," Nick allowed. "But that would've been my mistake, not yours. You didn't kill Michelle," he added perceptively.
"I know that, but I" Amanda sighed heavily. "I think I killed my chances with Fraser. I don't think he trusts me."
Nick chuckled. "Can you blame him?"
"No," Amanda said, sighing. "I just wish I didn't feel so guilty."
Her former lover snickered, then eased the insult of his laughter by embracing her. "Amanda, that's your conscience pricking you."
She made a face. "Well, it's annoying." She paused, then nudged Nick. "It's all your damned fault, you know. Did you have to tell him and Ray about us?"
"They'd already figured out some of it," Nick pointed out. "I trust them. Besides, do you want two smart cops trying to dig for the truth, or do you want damage control?"
Amanda glanced at him, then smiled ruefully. "True." She rubbed the back of her neck, then asked, "Are you staying in Chicago? I'm headed back to Paris, and I could use a hand with The Sanctuary. I could even count it as your Christmas present to me."
Nick shook his head. "I can't be around you and Mac, you know that. Even if I didn't know you love him, things have a way of exploding around you, and I'd rather not be in that danger zone."
"I could stay, you know," Amanda offered.
"But I won't stay long"
"Amanda." Nick's voice rang with command. "If nothing else, leave for Fraser's sake."
She closed her eyes at that reminder, then took a deep breath. "You know I'm really sorry about that."
"I know," Nick said gently. "But as long as he's here and I'm here, I'm not going to get caught in another triangle, and he doesn't need to be involved with a thief."
"I'm not just a thief," Amanda protested, opening her eyes.
Nick only chuckled. "Have a safe flight, Amanda. You're It now, but don't come looking for me any time soon."
She held his gaze a long moment, then nodded acceptance of his pushiness. "Watch your head, Nick."
"Always," Nick replied.
They stared at each other, the look as intense as a kiss. Then the two immortals turned and walked in opposite directions, knowing that their paths would cross again.
Finis ©6.16.00 Raine Wynd
1. The following song inspired this trilogy:
Code of Silence
Music by Billy Joel Lyrics by Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper
Vocals: Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper
Everybody's got a million questions
Everybody wants to know the score
What you went through
It's something you
Should be over now
Everybody wants to hear the secrets
That you never told a soul before
And it's not that strange
Because it wouldn't change
What happened anyhow
But you swore to yourself a long time ago
There were some things that people never needed to know
This is one that you keep
That you bury so deep
No one can tear it out
And you can't talk about it
Because you're following a code of silence
You're never gonna lose the anger
You just deal with it a different way
And you can't talk about it
And isn't that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you've really got a lot to say
You don't want to lose a friendship
There's nothing that you have to hide
And a little dirt
Couldn't hurt no one anyway
And you still have a rage inside you
That you carry with a certain pride
In the only part of a broken heart
That you could ever save
But you've been through it once
You know how it ends
You don't see the point
Of going through it again
And this ain't the place
And this ain't the time
And neither's any other day
So you can't talk about it
Because you're following a code of silence
You're never gonna lose the anger
You just deal with it a different way
So you can't talk about it
And isn't that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you've really got a lot to say
I know you well enough to tell you've got your reasons
That's not the kind of code you're inclined to break
Some things unknown are best left alone forever
And if a vow is what it takes
Haven't you paid for your mistakes
After the moment passes
And the impulse disappears
You can still hold back
Because you don't crack very easily
It's a time-honored resolution
Because the danger is always near
It's with you now
But that ain't how it was supposed to be
And it's hard to believe after all these years
That it still gives you pain and it still brings tears
And you feel like a fool
Because in spite of your rules
You've got a memory
But you can't talk about it
Because you're following a code of silence
You're never gonna lose the anger
You just deal with it a different way
But you can't talk about it
And isn't that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you've really got a lot to say
© 1986 Joel Songs (BMI) (Used without permission and without profit)
2. If you'd like to know more about M.E. Escher, two really good sites are: Totally
Tessellated and World of Escher.
I chose Escher because his work can be considered optical illusions (i.e. "things
are not what they seem"). Yes, I know that was sneaky of me, but I thought
3. The Drake's standard rate ranges from $275 to $1050 a night (these figures are as of 5.4.00 for a proposed May 24-25 night's stay), depending on size of room, floor, whether or not it has a lake view, and other factors. It's operated by Hilton Hotels.