It began to rain.
The thick gray clouds had been looming overhead all morning so Benton had been expecting to get wet at some point. But as the droplets turned into a downpour he sighed heavily and allowed himself a petty expletive.
For several minutes Benton seriously considered stopping again. He was so tired. It would be simple enough to find shelter beneath an overpass or perhaps at the foot of one of the few trees in a nearby corn field. But Benton had already dallied longer than he should.
He’d left Springfield three days ago, walking north along interstate 55. The distance from Springfield to Chicago was only 320 kilometres. At this time of year, with more than fourteen hours between sunrise and sunset each day, Benton knew he should have been able to traverse most of that distance by now. And yet, he was only a little more than halfway to his destination.
Exhaustion and apprehension slowed Benton’s pace. He knew that he needed to return to Chicago to face the consequences of his actions, but he was not eager to do so. He was facing court martial and likely dismissal. Without his job at the Consulate he would, no doubt, lose his visa and be deported. He would be going home, but he would be doing so as a civilian.
With a heavy sigh, Benton trudged wearily onward. The rain plastered the hair to his head and ran down his neck to trickle into his shirt. He shivered, though the raindrops weren’t really cold. Cars and trucks whizzed by several meters to his right, heading south on the interstate while he continued to walk north.
Pushing his wet bangs away from his eyes, Benton took a moment to wonder about his hat. It would have provided a small amount of protection from the rain and Benton found that he missed it desperately. All the more so because he had, in all likelihood, lost the right to ever wear it again. It took a few seconds for Benton to recall where and when he had last seen the Stetson.
He’d been at the train station, standing on the platform with Ray. Ray Kowalski had known. He had known probably before Benton had even made the decision himself. Ray had known and had been waiting on the platform when Benton had arrived.
“Here,” Ray had told him, shoving a thick envelope into his hands. “Take this.”
Benton had been holding his knapsack in one hand and his hat in the other. Ray had taken his hat so that Benton could accept the offered package with the free hand.
Benton had tried to protest but Ray had waved his arguments away. “You’ll need a stake to get yourself settled,” Ray had said. “First and last month’s rent and security deposit, right?”
“Ray,” Benton had started. But then the train behind him had started to move.
“Go,” Ray urged him. “She’s waiting for you. Don’t worry about Dief. I’ll explain it to him.”
Benton had turned and run after the train. He hadn’t looked back.
Later that evening, with Victoria in the seat beside him, Benton had thought to look at the envelope that Ray had given to him. The stack of currency within had been in assorted denominations and totaled nearly eight thousand dollars. Benton had been aghast.
Of course the money was gone now. Victoria had taken it. Benton had lost his knapsack as well.
Benton felt his face burn with shame at the thought of facing Ray in Chicago. But he would find a way to pay back the money he had lost. It might take a while, especially if Benton had just lost his job. But somehow, he would find a way to reimburse his friend.
With a heavy sigh, Benton continued to walk, ignoring the cars and the rain. He tried to keep his mind blank. He didn’t want to think about Ray, whether he would be disappointed in Benton or just angry. Benton tried not to think of Ray Vecchio, whose reaction Benton knew would be volatile. He tried not to wonder what had happened on that train platform after he and Victoria had left and Ray Vecchio had arrived with backup.
It had been raining for about an hour when Benton looked up and noticed a car parked on the shoulder about a quarter of a mile up the highway. As he approached, Benton could see that the vehicle was a state trooper’s patrol car. When Benton was only a few metres away, the door opened and an officer climbed from the car.
The man appeared to be younger than Benton, but not by much. Benton felt a pang of nostalgia as he noticed the trooper’s hat, so much like his own. The yearning changed to wariness when Benton realized that the officer had one hand on the butt of his gun.
“Hello there,” the officer said.
“Good day, Officer,” Benton replied.
“You know that pedestrians are not allowed on the interstate,” the man said. “With you walking north on the southbound side, I didn’t notice you until I had nearly passed you. I had to exit and swing back around again.”
Benton waved toward the cars zooming by them. “As you can see, I am at least 10 meters away from the interstate, Sir.”
The state trooper frowned. “Are you arguing with me?”
“Where are you headed?” the other man asked.
“Did your car break down?”
The officer shook his head as if to clear it. “You’re walking to Chicago?”
“Chicago is more than ninety miles from here. Why are you walking to Chicago?” The interrogation continued.
“I had only enough money for bus fair to Springfield,” Benton explained. “But I need to get to Chicago.”
The trooper shook his head and sighed. He must have decided that Benton wasn’t a threat because the man let his hand drop away from his gun.
“Have you got any identification?” the officer asked.
Benton nodded and pulled his near-empty wallet from his jacket pocket.
“RCMP?” the other man asked after studying Benton’s ID for a moment.
Benton nodded. He chose not to reveal that his status with the RCMP was currently tenuous. After all, they hadn’t fired him yet. Or perhaps they had and Benton simply hadn’t been notified.
“Come on,” the officer told him. “If you are a Mountie, you know the drill.”
With a sigh, Benton placed his hands on top of the patrol car and waited as the officer did a routine pat down. He pulled Benton’s knife from a back pocket and shook his head again.
“Listen,” the man said. “I can’t let you walk on the interstate.”
“But,” Benton began.
“Nope,” the trooper cut off any argument. “Get in the car.”
Benton was in the back of the patrol car, huffing in frustration as the officer climbed in front and they began to drive south.
“I need to get to Chicago,” Benton repeated. “This is the wrong direction.”
The officer replied in a calm but firm tone. “My station is just a couple of miles from here. We’ll get you out of the rain and we’ll get some hot food into you, then we’ll go from there. Okay?”
Benton’s shoulders sagged in defeat. It was obvious that this officer thought he was suffering from some mental disorder. This wasn’t the first time Benton had been treated in this manner, but today it stung far more than it ever had before.
“Isn’t there anyone you can call for a ride?” the trooper asked.
Benton shrugged. “I had no money for a pay phone,” he explained. Benton knew how to place collect phone calls, of course. But he hadn’t wanted to call anyone in Chicago. There was no one there that he was in any hurry to face.
“You can use the phone at the station,” the other man assured him.
Benton closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat. He was so tired, his eyes felt gritty. There would be no more delays. He had run out of excuses. It was time to reconnect with his old life in Chicago. What was left of it at any rate.
In the dream, the sounds of screams were always louder than they had been when the actual event was unfolding in real life. Every time Benton had closed his eyes over the last four days, the dream had come. The dream had twisted the true events, had fed off of Benton’s guilty conscience. As a result the screams were very loud, when he’d only barely registered them that day in Little Rock. The sound of the gunshot that Benton had not really heard that day was always the jarring bang that jerked him from his slumber.
Benton flinched into wakefulness and nearly tumbled off the bench where he’d fallen asleep. The highway patrol station was quiet. It didn’t have the same chaotic energy of the 27th precinct. Benton scrubbed at his eyes and tried to regain some semblance of equilibrium. But he flinched again as he realized that Ray Vecchio was standing before him.
Ray pinched the bridge of his nose as though he had a headache. “Tell me that bitch is dead, Benny.” Ray’s voice was hard and icy with barely concealed anger.
Benton grimaced. “I can’t.”
Ray heaved a sigh. “Let’s go,” he said. “I’ve already signed you out.” Without waiting for any reply from Benton, he turned and strode quickly toward the exit.
They were back on the highway speeding north before Ray spoke again. “You look like hell, Benny,” he observed. “Do you need a doctor to look at you?”
Benton shook his head. “I am unharmed.”
“Well you look like you haven’t shaved for a week,” Ray scolded him. “And you need a shower.”
Benton stared down at his hands clasped tightly together in his lap. “I’m sorry Ray, but I lost my things a few days ago. Haven’t had the opportunity to replace them.”
Heavy silence filled the car for the next quarter of an hour.
When Benton could stand the silence no longer, he cleared his throat and said, “I appreciate you coming for me, Ray.”
“Yeah, well I’m in the shit with Frannie right now,” Ray told him. “I was supposed to be taking her and the baby to the doctor this afternoon. Had to get Maria to take over for me.”
“I’m sorry, Ray.”
Ray shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. She’ll forgive me when she finds out that I canceled on her in order to pick you up.”
Benton swallowed and rubbed a thumbnail across his eyebrow. “I know you have a lot going on. I initially tried to reach Ray Kowalski, but there was no answer at either his apartment or on his cellular phone.”
Ray scoffed. “Well, Stanley couldn’t have come anyway. No car.” Seeing Benton’s puzzled frown, Ray continued, “Where did you think that stupid Polack got that wad of cash he gave to you?”
“He’s got zero savings after all those months ‘adventuring’ on the tundra.” Ray laughed bitterly. “Idiot pawned his car.”
For a minute, Benton literally could not breathe. The thought of Ray losing his beloved GTO because of Benton’s foolishness was more than he could withstand. He felt bile rising in his throat and fought to keep from being physically ill.
Ray seemed not to notice and continued talking. “Frannie tells me that he’s managed to get a loan to buy it back. So he’ll be mobile again by tomorrow or the day after. But for now, no wheels.”
For several minutes, Benton fought to calm himself. He took deep regular breaths in and out, until the shaking began to ease. His heart was just beginning to slow to a more regular rhythm when Ray spoke again.
“She took the money didn’t she?”
Benton could only nod.
“Damn it Benny, talk to me!” Ray yelled. “You’ve been missing for nearly two weeks with no word to anyone!”
“What would you have me say?” Benton asked in defeat.
Ray sputtered and shot Benton an incredulous look. “Just tell me what happened,” he urged with sudden gentleness. “Where is Victoria?”
Benton sighed and closed his eyes wearily. It was time to face the music. “She’s in a jail cell in Little Rock, Arkansas.”
“Thank god,” Ray huffed. “You finally came to your senses and arrested her.”
“No Ray,” Benton admitted. “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything.”
“Start talking, Benny.” Ray demanded in a low growl.
Benton kept his eyes closed so that he wouldn’t see Ray’s face. “We spent the first two days on the train. We took it all the way to Little Rock. Then we spent a couple of days sightseeing. We were trying to decide if we would stay there or make our way further south.”
“She was trying to talk you into heading for Mexico, I’ll bet,” Ray murmured.
“Probably,” Benton admitted. He squeezed his eyes more tightly shut, forcing back the tears. Those first few days had been wonderful. He had been so damn happy before everything fell apart.
“Go on,” Ray insisted.
“We bought an inexpensive but reliable used car. Paid cash. It was green.” Benton’s voice wavered. He swallowed back the tremors as he remembered their visit to the car dealership. He almost smiled at the memory of their ridiculous debate about car colors. It couldn’t be red, like his uniform, it couldn’t be black or white, like good guy/bad guy hats worn in old movies. They had been so silly and had laughed so hard.
“We still had some money left,” Benton continued. “She thought we should put it in a savings account. She said that she already had one at the Little Rock Savings and Loan under an assumed name. It would be a simple thing to just make a deposit to an existing account. No one would question it.”
Benton huffed a shaky breath and then continued. “She asked me to wait in the car. I didn’t think anything of it. I was in the driver’s seat, watching her walk into the bank.”
Behind his closed eyelids, Benton could see her again, dark hair waving in the warm spring wind. She had been beautiful and he remembered licking his lips to chase the taste of her last kiss. When Victoria had glanced at a heavy set man standing on the street corner, Benton had nearly missed the non-verbal exchange.
“There were two other men waiting,” Benton continued. “I could tell that she knew them. They followed her into the bank. As the second one turned to enter the building, I could see that he had a sawed-off shotgun hidden under his coat.”
“Damn,” Ray swore. “You were the wheel-man.”
Benton nodded. “She was robbing the bank. She intended for me to be the get-away driver without realizing it.” Without opening his eyes Benton leaned wearily against the head rest. “She was doing to me what had once been done to her.”
“Supposedly,” Ray countered. “I don’t believe she was ever as innocent of that first robbery as she claimed. So what did you do?” Ray asked.
“Nothing,” Benton confessed his shame. He voice dropped to little more than a whisper. “I stepped out of the car and walked away.” He hadn’t even stopped at the pay phone across the street to call 9-1-1. He had been two blocks away when he heard a woman scream in the distance and the bank’s alarms began to clamor.
“A young man was killed,” Benton went on. “He was an unarmed guard and she killed him.” Benton hadn’t known it at the time. It had been hours later when he saw the news in a small diner miles away. Only then had Benton learned the true depth of his sedition. The young man’s name had been Nicholas Halcome. He had been twenty-six years old and left behind a wife and two very young children. The image that had been televised that day had been a candid snapshot in which the young father had been smiling, full of pride in his young family. It was a photo that now haunted Benton’s dreams.
Tears began to leak out of the corners of Benton’s closed eyes. “Evidently, the authorities arrived on the scene more quickly than expected. Things deteriorated and it became a hostage situation.”
“But they’ve got her?” Ray asked.
“Yes,” Benton whispered. “Her accomplices were both killed by the police, but she was taken into custody.”
“Shit,” Ray growled. “She’s going to spin one of her tales and make one of those poor schmucks a scapegoat. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that she had killed them herself for just that reason.”
Benton said nothing. The scenario Ray had proposed was quite possible.
Ray snapped his fingers and started gesturing with one hand. “We’ll stop in the bullpen as soon as we get back to the city. I have some files we should send to the police in Little Rock,” Ray said. “They need to know who they are dealing with.”
“But Ray,” Benton’s eyes snapped open and he frowned at his friend with concern. “I really should present myself at the Consulate as soon as possible upon returning to Chicago. The longer I remain AWOL the more severe the disciplinary action.”
“AWOL?” Ray asked.
“Yes. Absent without leave,” Benton explained. “I abandoned my post with no word to my superiors.”
Ray shook his head. “You aren’t AWOL Benny,” Ray told him. “Stanley got some form filled out that granted you emergency leave.”
“But a form 10k/A43 requires the requestor’s signature,” Benton replied.
“I don’t know about that,” Ray argued. “I didn’t personally see the thing. All I know is that Stanley talked to Turnbull’s replacement and got the forms. Then he filled them out and faxed everything back to the Consulate.”
“He forged my signature?” Benton gasped.
“Are you really going to make an issue of it if he did?” Ray asked. “That blockhead has been nothing but stupid for the last two weeks. I warned him. Again and again, I warned him about her. But he just would not listen. This is the one and only thing he actually got right. It probably saved your job Benny,” Ray argued. “Leave it be.”
“None of this was Ray’s fault,” Benton said quietly. “You can’t blame him for what has happened.”
“Yes. I can,” Ray snapped. “I can and I do blame him. Stanley just wouldn’t listen to me. I knew how that bitch could get to you and I tried to tell him.” Ray slammed one palm against the steering wheel in frustration. “Stubborn punk refused to see reason.”
Benton took a deep breath and clenched his jaw. He couldn’t argue with Ray about this, especially since the man had agreed to drive a three hour round-trip just to pick Benton up from the highway patrol station. Leaning his forehead against the cool glass of the window beside him, Benton stared at the passing landscape and said nothing.
Ray had a point. Why would Ray Kowalski have ignored the warnings so many others had given him? Looking back at it now, Benton realized that his friend had gone to great lengths to assist in Benton’s departure from Chicago. And it was more than just the money he had given to Benton in that envelope.
Ray Kowalski had bought the train ticket that found its way into Benton’s pocket. He had volunteered to watch after Diefenbaker. He had smiled and urged Benton to get on the train when Benton had hesitated in those last moments. Why?
“Look, we’ll be back in Chicago in thirty minutes or so,” Ray told him. Benton nodded but kept his gaze fixed on the shifting horizon. “It will only take a few minutes to fax those files. Then I’ll take you back to the house and you can get cleaned up. Ma will be thrilled to cook for you.”
“Ray,” Benton pleaded. “I can’t. I’m in no state to be any sort of pleasant company tonight.”
Ray glanced away from the road for a moment and sighed. “Yeah, I get that,” he said. “And Frannie will be there. So probably not a good idea.”
“I need to go back to the Consulate,” Benton urged.
“No,” Ray told him. “You can’t let the Inspector see you in this condition. You’ll try to fall on your sword and quit or demand they fire you or something. You need a meal and a good night’s sleep, a little time to pull yourself together. At the very least, you’ll need your uniform.”
“Which is at the Consulate,” Benton pointed out.
“Nope,” Ray said with a wry smirk. “Stanley needed to get some stuff for the wolf and he picked up your things while he was at it. He has everything at his apartment.” Ray shook his head and continued, “I think he was planning to ship some of it to you once you had settled somewhere. Moron was the only one who didn’t know you’d be back.”
Benton wasn’t sure which was worse, that Ray Kowalski had such blind confidence in him, or that everyone else had known in advance how wrong Benton had been. Benton’s throat tightened and he felt as though a dozen possible replies were choking him. So instead, he said nothing and leaned his forehead against the window with a sigh. He spent the rest of the drive morosely watching the landscape as Illinois farmland changed into suburban neighborhoods and finally the Chicago skyline appeared.
When they pulled into the parking lot at the 27th precinct, Benton hoped for a moment that Ray would have him wait in the car, and for several seconds, Benton considered making the suggestion himself. But he recognized the cowardice in such behavior. He knew that he would have to face his friends and coworkers eventually. It was appropriate penance to face them now, unwashed and unshaven, like the vagabond he had tried so foolishly to become.
As Benton followed Ray into the bullpen, he tried not to notice the wary glances he received from the other detectives. He tried not to wince as Detective Dewey, not recognizing Benton at first glance, stopped suddenly and did an almost comical double take.
“Is that you, Fraser?” Dewey asked, his eyebrows rising so high that they nearly disappeared into his hairline.
“Back off, Dewey,” Ray growled. “We have work to do.”
Dewey frowned. “Jeez Vecchio,” he complained. “Get him out of here quick. He’s going to be a chick magnet looking all rough and tumble like that. I’ll never get another date around here.”
“You never have gotten a date, why should anything change now?” Ray snapped. He steered Benton toward the chair beside Ray’s desk, the chair that had unofficially had Benton’s name on it only a couple of weeks ago.
Benton focused on the nameplate that sat on Ray’s desk and tried not to flinch as Ray slammed a drawer closed. A thick manila file dropped onto the stained blotter in front of Benton just as Ray spoke again. “This should only take a few minutes Benny,” he said gently. “I don’t need to send the entire file right now. Just enough of it to let them know what they’ve got there.”
Benton folded his hands in his lap and gave Ray a slight nod. He sat quietly, studying the seemingly random objects on Ray’s desk one at a time. After a few minutes, Benton could feel the weight of someone watching him. Inhaling a deep breath, Benton tried to marshal a bit of courage. Somehow he knew who was watching him now. Benton knew and took a moment to collect himself.
With a swallow that clicked in his throat, Benton straightened in his seat and turned. Benton had a great deal of respect for the Lieutenant. He met the older man’s gaze with as much comportment as he could muster under the current conditions. Benton slowly rose from his chair and stood at attention.
For a long moment they stared at each other. Then, without a word, the Lieutenant nodded once at Benton. Then he turned away, yelling across the bullpen about the suspect in interview room two. With the Lieutenant’s unspoken acceptance, Benton felt a surge of gratitude so strong it was nearly overwhelming. He all but collapsed back into his seat.
Benton sat there struggling with his emotions, gripping his knees so hard that his knuckles were white. Slow deep breaths and a concentrated study of his hiking boots for the next several minutes served to calm the feelings clamoring in his chest. When Ray next spoke, Benton had no idea how much time had passed.
“Okay Benny, let’s get out of here.”
Benton stood and began to follow Ray out of the building. They were nearly to the car before he realized that they had forgotten something. “Ray, wait,” Benton said. “We need to speak to Ray Kowalski and gain access to his apartment.”
“That’s our next stop,” Ray agreed with a nod. “We’ll go over there and get your stuff.”
Benton blinked in confusion. “But isn’t Ray here?”
Ray sighed. Gesturing with one hand toward the passenger seat he replied, “Get in the car Benny. I’ll ‘fess up while we drive.”
Once the car was moving and they had pulled out of the parking lot Ray began to explain. “Kowalski isn’t at work today. He’s been suspended for a few days.”
Benton felt the blood drain from his face and suddenly felt as though the world was spinning out of control.
Ray glanced toward his pale face and rushed on, “No, Benny. No. He didn’t get into any trouble because you left. Kowalski’s suspension had nothing to do with this mess.”
Benton leaned against the dashboard in relief.
“Not directly,” Ray admitted.
Benton glared across the seat at his friend. Anger began to creep to the forefront of the emotions churning within him. “Please explain,” Benton said.
“Look, it was no big deal really,” Ray glanced at him warily. “I was mad as hell that Kowalski helped that bitch get to you. And you know what a short fuse he has. We’ve been pushing each others’ buttons since the day we met. You know that. This thing with Victoria coming back just cranked things up a few notches.”
With a mildly embarrassed shrug Ray continued, “A few days ago, he took a swing at me. The guy has one hell of a right cross. He had me seeing stars, so I gave him a black eye.”
“The suspension?” Benton asked.
“We were at work. So I filed a complaint,” Ray admitted. “This kind of disagreement happens with cops sometimes. I file my complaint, he files his and the two cancel each other out, right? Then the Lieutenant might make us shake hands or something, a note goes to H.R., but no one really gets hurt.
“It is not my fault that Stanley was too lazy to fill out the paperwork,” Ray complained. “He never filed his own complaint. When the Lieutenant called us into his office, the little punk didn’t say a word, even though I’d been riding his ass ever since I found him at the train station the day that you left.”
Ray shook his head and sighed. “So officially, in front of witnesses, Detective Stanley Kowalski physically assaulted Detective Raymond Vecchio without provocation. Five days unpaid suspension and a permanent mark in his record. He’ll be back at work on Tuesday.”
With a wry shrug Ray continued, “Frannie sat the two of us down and knocked our heads together a few times,” he admitted. “So Kowalski and I have got a truce of sorts between us at the moment.”
Benton was quiet for several minutes, turning the facts over in his mind. “It wasn’t laziness,” he said finally.
Ray glanced away from traffic just long enough to raise his eyebrows in an unspoken question.
“It was not laziness,” Benton repeated. “It was not the desire to avoid paperwork that kept Ray from filing a complaint against you.”
“So enlighten me, Benny.”
Benton scratched at an eyebrow with his thumb. “Ray Kowalski was undercover as Ray Vecchio for nearly two years. He spent that time protecting you, your family and your reputation. He worked hard at it and did an exemplary job.”
Ray acknowledged the statement with a nod.
“He is not going to stop just because the assignment has ended,” Benton explained. “Ray Kowalski will do everything in his power to protect you and your family. And there is no way he would ever do anything to jeopardize your reputation or place a black mark on your personnel record.”
“I think you give the punk too much credit,” Ray replied with a sigh.
“Perhaps you don’t give him enough,” Benton said quietly.
“I am not going to argue with you about Stanley,” Ray said. “As far as I am concerned the guy stabbed you in the back when he helped Victoria. Besides, she is the one we should be arguing about. Not that two bit punk.”
At the mention of her name, Benton felt the anguish wash over him again. He balled his hands into tight fists and squeezed his eyes shut against the memories. But in the dark behind his eyelids he could see nothing but the face of the young man who had died in the bank in Little Rock.
“I don’t want to argue with you at all,” Benton whispered. He had to whisper. If he started to yell now, he wasn’t sure he would be able to stop. Benton so wanted to hit something, to release some of the tension curling in his chest. But Ray Vecchio was the last person who deserved Benton’s wrath. “Please, just take me to the consulate,” Benton pleaded.
“It is almost five o’clock, Benny,” Ray countered. “They’ll be closing up soon. Let’s get your stuff from Stanley and then we’ll find you some food. Okay?”
Benton sighed and Ray seemed to take that as a sign of the affirmative. An exhausted lethargy fell over Benton and he hadn’t the energy to debate with Ray any longer. Benton was silent for the rest of their drive through the Chicago streets.
When they arrived at Ray Kowalski’s apartment building, Benton’s exhaustion made his limbs so heavy that it was difficult to haul himself from the passenger seat. As Ray Vecchio led the way upstairs, Benton lagged behind. His consternation at seeing his friend again after failing him so spectacularly caused his chest to tighten even further.
“Maybe he isn’t home,” Benton said quietly as he and Ray approached the apartment door.
Ray knocked without responding. Moments later the door was flung open and Ray Kowalski was frowning at them both.
“Where have you been?” the blond detective railed. “I got your message when Dief and I got home from the park. But when I called the number you’d left, the trooper I talked to said that you were already gone. You should have been here an hour ago!”
While he spoke, Ray Kowalski dragged the other two men from the hallway and into his apartment. Benton received a quick but thorough pat down checking for injuries and then he was wrapped in a welcoming embrace.
“You need to switch to decaf, Kowalski,” Ray Vecchio growled. “We had to make a stop at the station.”
Ray Kowalski glanced at Vecchio and then back to Benton in alarm. “You took him to the bull-pen looking like this? Dammit Vecchio, what were you thinking?” Without waiting for an answer, Ray continued, “Come on, Benton buddy. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“Chill out, Stanley,” Ray Vecchio said. “We just came for Benny’s things.”
“Oh give me a break, Vecchio,” Ray argued. “What are you going to do? Take him to your place? He’ll have to make nice with your sisters and your mom and a dozen little Vecchio nieces and nephews.”
Ray Vecchio heaved a deep sigh and rubbed one hand across the top of his bald head.
“Come on, Vecchio,” Ray Kowalski went on. He took a step closer so that the two Rays were standing side to side. Kowalski placed one hand on Vecchio’s shoulder and continued in a soft but urging voice. “Fraser needs some time alone here,” Ray Kowalski confided. “He at least needs time to sort things out with Dief.”
At that comment all three men looked up and stared across the room at the half-wolf. Diefenbaker was lying casually across the cushion of his favorite chair, blinking lazily at the images flickering across a muted television screen. The wolf’s glance shifted from the screen to the men for one long moment and then, with a huff of derision, his focus went back to the soundless game show.
Ray Kowalski shrugged. “He’s a little annoyed with me right now,” Kowalski admitted. “I took him for a run and we missed ‘Days of Our Lives’. We only watched it for three days and he’s already hooked!”
“I don’t think he’s upset with you, Ray,” Benton said with a sigh. Ignoring the other two men, Benton crossed the room and sat on the floor beside Diefenbaker’s chair. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath before gently taking Dief’s snout in one hand. “I am sorry, my friend,” he said softly. “I shouldn’t have left without discussing it with you.”
Dief yawned in his face.
“Dief and I had a long talk,” Ray Kowalski interrupted. “I explained everything.”
Ray Vecchio bristled in response. “Oh really,” he drawled. “And what exactly did you tell him?”
Benton kept his gaze focused on Diefenbaker, scratching him gently behind the ear in just the way he liked. But Benton could see the two Rays at the edge of his peripheral vision. He could see Ray Kowalski gesture with his left hand.
“You ever seen that scar on Fraser’s wrist? He ever tell you where he got that particular scar?”
Ray Vecchio was very still for a long moment. He sighed heavily and nodded. “I remember when he got it.”
“Right,” Ray Kowalski replied in a clipped voice. “You were partnered with him then. You know all about that time Dief bit him. That was about a female too, you know. Dief and I had a long talk. I reminded him of that scar. He understood.”
Benton frowned at Ray’s words, shaking his head in denial. “That was different,” Benton said to Diefenbaker. “She was in trouble and there were pups to protect. This wasn’t like that at all.”
Dief licked Benton on the chin and then nosed at the now faint marks on Benton’s wrist. The half-wolf’s low vocalizations of affection were faint, meant only for Benton to hear. Benton fought down the emotions that were suddenly choking him and buried his face in Dief’s ruff.
“Okay,” Ray Vecchio said. “Okay, fine. I’ll leave them both here. I know it’s a mistake. You Stanley, can’t take care of a pet rock. But you’re right. My place is a madhouse.” He turned toward Benton and asked gently, “Is that good with you Benny? Will you be okay here?”
Still scratching at Dief’s ears, Benton replied, “I really should get back to the Consulate.”
“That is not an option,” Ray Vecchio scolded. “I’ll come by tomorrow and take you over then.”
Ray Kowalski placed a hand on Vecchio’s shoulder again. “Come on, Vecchio, cut him some slack. There’s no need for him to go back to work on a Friday. That’s almost un-American,” he begged. “Let him put it off until Monday.”
“Stella and I have plans this weekend,” Ray Vecchio said.
Ray Kowalski flinched away as though he’d been burned. “You don’t need to rub it in, Vecchio,” he growled.
“Oh grow up, Stanley,” Ray shook his head. “I’m just giving Benny the facts. I didn’t mean it as a dig.” Turning toward Benton he continued. “But if you need me, Benny. If you want to talk, just call and I’ll be there.”
“Call me Stanley again and I’ll pop you,” Ray Kowalski snapped.
“Try it Blondie.”
Ray Kowalski grinned evilly. “Maybe you could hit me in the other eye this time? Make the bruises match?”
“My left hook isn’t as good as my right,” Ray Vecchio admitted.
Benton sighed and laid his forehead against the cushioned arm of the chair. He was so tired. His weariness had weakened his resolve to the point that he was glad to let his friends dictate his next steps. He closed his eyes, for just a moment, but Nicholas Halcome’s smiling face appeared again.
When Benton’s eyes snapped open, Ray Kowalski was at his side. Ray Vecchio was eyeing him with concern.
“Come on, Frase,” the blonde detective said. “Hot shower for you while I pull some food together.”
“Not pizza,” Ray Vecchio chided. “Make him eat some real food.”
As the other man helped ease Benton to his feet he replied, “I’ve got it covered, Vecchio.”
With a sigh, Benton made his way toward the bathroom and the temporary escape of a hot bath. As he closed the door behind him, the low murmur of voices filtered to him from the other room. He chose not to listen, knowing that his two friends were talking about him.
Benton knew that Ray Vecchio would relate his tale of woe to Ray Kowalski. Benton knew and his only reaction to that knowledge was relief, for he would not have to tell the story to Ray himself. He never wanted to speak of that day in Little Rock again.
Benton took his time washing up. He stood under the hot spray of the shower until the water began to run cool, soaping himself up again and again. He dawdled further as he shaved. Having lost his straight razor when he’d abandoned his knapsack in Arkansas, Benton was forced to use one of the disposable razors he found in an unopened package in Ray’s medicine cabinet. He told himself that he had to shave twice in order to replicate the effectiveness of his missing straight razor. But it was really just an excuse to hide in the bathroom for a bit longer.
When he finally eased open the door, Benton found a set of clothing neatly folded on the hallway floor. The baggy sweatpants and simple white t-shirt were soft and comfortable. Benton usually wore these clothes when jogging with Dief in the park. But it was a simple outfit and a good indication that the Rays had agreed that this is where Benton would be staying for the rest of the evening.
With a sigh, Benton dressed and then padded barefoot down the hall. He found Ray Kowalski alone, standing in the small kitchen area.
“Vecchio had to go. He’ll be back on Monday morning to take you to the Consulate.” Ray began. “But he said to call if you need him. Sit, sit,” Ray urged, waving Ben toward one of the stools at the counter. “We’ve got just what the doctor ordered. Hot tea.”
As Benton sat where instructed, Ray placed a steaming mug in front of him.
Ray continued to talk as he turned back toward the stove. “And I found this in the tin with your things,” he explained. “So I went across the hall to ask Mrs Levinson for some raisins. But this was all she had.” Ray pivoted on one foot and set a bowl on the counter next to Benton’s tea. “Ta-da! Mountie comfort food.”
For a long moment, Ben could only stare into the dish, unable to process what he was seeing. It was oatmeal, steaming hot, and liberally topped with slices of banana. At first, Benton just blinked at it. When his lip began to quiver, Benton found that he couldn’t stop it. The strain of keeping his emotions at bay was overwhelming and he could hold them back no longer.
Suddenly, he felt as though he was six years old again. The woman he loved most in all the world was gone forever. And there was nothing anyone, not even his father, could do to fix it. The tears burst out of him uncontrollably and Ben wept like the heartbroken child he had been thirty years ago.
Benton fell from the stool and collapsed into a ball on the floor. He scrambled backwards across the room until his shoulders hit the back of Ray’s couch. Trapped against that wall of upholstered furniture, he curled in on himself, pressed his forehead against his knees and just sobbed. Now that it had finally sprung forth, there was no controlling these raging emotions.
“I’m sorry, Fraser,” Ray whispered beside him. Ray sat on the floor next to Benton and wrapped a lean arm around his shoulders. “I’m really sorry that it didn’t work out.”
Ben continued to cry. He ignored Ray and when Dief curled along his other side in support, Ben ignored him too. The sobs wrenched from him were unstoppable, clawing at Ben’s throat painfully as he tried vainly to suppress them.
How long they sat there, Benton didn’t know. Frankly he didn’t care. Ray continued to rock him gently, murmuring nonsense into Ben’s hair. When Ray’s words finally began to penetrate through Benton’s misery, the sadness abruptly turned to anger.
“It’s okay,” Ray said quietly.
“It is not!” Benton gasped. “It’s not okay. A young man is dead!” He tried to pull away from Ray’s embrace but the thinner man would not let him go.
“You didn’t kill him,” Ray reasoned. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Benton stopped struggling against Ray and scrubbed hard at his wet face with the sleeve of his shirt. “I did nothing,” Ben hissed. “And now a man is dead. His children will never get to know him.”
“That is not on you, Fraser,” Ray told him firmly. “That was her doing, her choice. Not yours.”
“Why did you help her?” Benton wailed as the tears continued to fall. “I thought you were my friend. Why didn’t you pro-,” Benton’s voice stuttered with pain. “Protect me?”
“Hey, hey,” Ray shook Ben’s shoulder’s in rough affection. “I would stand between you and the devil himself. I would crawl across broken glass, follow you into Hell and back. You know that. Don’t ever doubt it.”
“But, you helped,” Benton’s breath hitched and quavered as he spoke. “You helped her.”
“Yeah, I helped her.” Ray nodded his head sadly as he explained. “I had to believe that Vecchio was exaggerating. She couldn’t be all that bad.” Ray shrugged. “You love her. She is the only woman you’ve ever loved. She had to be something pretty special to have earned the love of Benton Fraser. I still think so.”
“How can you say that?” Benton gazed at Ray in disbelief. “She is a criminal and a murderer.”
“You love her,” Ray said, as if that fact alone was logic enough. “You love her,” he repeated, putting emphasis on each word.
Benton leaned his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes wearily. “I should have known better,” he sighed. “I knew that it was probably a terrible idea, that chances were good that things would end badly, that someone would get hurt.” More tears clogged Ben’s throat as he gasped, “But I thought it would be me. It never occurred to me that anyone else would suffer.”
“You had to try,” Ray urged. “I know you’re hurting and I know it sucks right now. You feel like your heart is being torn out of your chest by her pretty manicured little fingernails. But you had to try, Fraser. You had to chase that train, because let me tell you my friend, if you can catch it, if you can find a life with that one perfect love, it is greatness like nothing else can ever be.
“I had that,” Ray continued. “For a long while I had that kind of life. And I am telling you, it is worth the risk, any risk, to have it. You deserve to have that life. You, of all people, deserve to have a life with the one you love.”
“It won’t ever happen,” Benton shook his head morosely.
“I’m sorry,” Ray pressed his forehead to Benton’s temple and murmured into Ben’s ear. “I’m sorry that you are hurting. I really wish that you could have found that happy ending with her. You don’t deserve to be a brokenhearted slob like the rest of us.”
Heaving several deep breaths, Benton tried to calm himself. He let his head slide down Ray’s shoulder until he had his head pillowed in Ray’s lap. Ray kept one arm wrapped tightly around Ben’s shoulders while with his other hand, Ray stroked soothingly through Ben’s hair.
“I’m not like you,” Benton argued meekly. “Stella never killed anyone.”
“Didn’t she?” Ray asked bitterly. “Didn’t she kill that skinny pony-tailed girl I fell in love with? Do you think the death of my marriage hurt less just because there were no criminal charges involved?”
With his cheek pressed warm against Ray’s stomach, Benton gazed up at the pained frown on his friend’s face. He sniffled once and dragged his sleeve across his eyes again before responding. “I suppose not.”
“I hate to break this to you, Benton buddy,” Ray chided. “But your broken heart is no different from any of the rest of us schmucks. Welcome to the club. We should have meetings.”
Benton squeezed his eyes shut tightly. “I don’t know how,” he began. “How do people do this? How does anyone survive this?”
“You get through it,” Ray told him. “People cope in lots of ways, some healthier than others. But most folks just find a way to get through to the other side of it.”
“How?” Benton asked miserably.
“Well,” Ray said. Benton could hear the wry smile in his friend’s voice. “Chicks normally sit alone in the dark, watch old romance movies and cry into a tub of ice cream.”
Ben opened his eyes and looked up at Ray. He tried to smile at the small joke but probably failed. “That’s terribly sexist, Ray,” he said.
Ray shrugged. “Some guys will sit alone in the dark, watching old cowboy movies and crying into a bottle of Jack Daniels. Others will go to a dark bar, get drunk and cry while surrounded by strangers. Some will go to that dark bar and get drunk, then have meaningless sex with one or more of those strangers. Not the healthiest option, but it gets used more often than any of us like to admit.”
“What did you do,” Benton asked. “When your marriage ended?”
Ray huffed a weak little laugh. “All of the above, my friend. All of the above.”
“I’m not a girl,” Benton said with a sigh.
Ray answered slowly. “I had noticed.”
“I’m not much of a drinker,” Ben continued.
“No, you are not,” Ray replied.
Feeling his lower lip quiver slightly, Benton bit down on it for a moment before adding, “And it was casual sex with a stranger that got me into this mess.”
Ray nodded sadly in agreement. After a long moment of silence Ray asked, “What are your thoughts on casual sex with a friend?”
Benton sat up and frowned at Ray, “Which friend?”
Ray’s only reply was raised eyebrows and a wry shrug. Benton was flabbergasted.
“You?” his voice almost squeaked.
“Why not?” Ray answered.
“But, you are heterosexual,” Benton countered.
“Mostly, but not entirely,” Ray replied. “I know how you are feeling right now. I know that a little physical contact, no strings attached, won’t hurt anyone. Might even help a bit.” Ray frowned, gazing intently at Benton as he added, “Unless you are completely and entirely. Does the idea of guy parts make you squeamish?”
Benton pressed the heels of both hands against the puffiness of his tear swollen eyes. “I can’t…” he moaned. “I can’t think about this right now.”
“I mean,” Ray went on. “You’ve never been attracted to a guy before, never even wondered?”
Benton shifted uncomfortably. “I wouldn’t say that,” he admitted.
Ray smiled knowingly and clasped the back of Ben’s neck in one hand. “You are hurting and tired,” Ray said. “Don’t think.” Ray half wrestled Benton up from the floor. “Come with me,” Ray murmured. “Come to bed and get some sleep.”
Ben allowed himself to be steered several steps toward Ray’s bedroom before he stopped abruptly. “I can’t sleep,” he admitted. “I see young Halcome’s face every time I close my eyes.”
“You will sleep,” Ray purred in encouragement. “I guarantee it.”
Perhaps it was shock that made Benton so compliant at first. It might even have been curiosity, playing along to see how far Ray would go before backing down on this strange dare. There was also an excitement, a previously unacknowledged attraction not only to Ray’s lithe grace, but also to his strength, his candor and even his scent. But when Benton found himself shirtless and on his back in Ray’s bed, his sense of propriety returned and a mild panic began to set in.
“Hey now. Relax,” Ray urged when he felt the tension rise. The blond man had also lost his shirt somewhere between the couch and the bedroom. He knelt on the mattress at Ben’s side and began to run his fingertips up and down Benton’s ribs with such a light touch that Ben’s entire body shivered in reaction.
“Ray,” Benton groaned. He grasped Ray’s hands in both of his own, pressing them tightly against his bare chest.
Without pulling his hands away, Ray threw one leg over Benton’s body so that he was straddling Ben’s thighs. He leaned in close and whispered into Ben’s ear. “You’re safe here with me,” Ray drawled. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Benton twitched when Ray’s tongue flickered across his neck at the jugular.
“I’m not going to shoot your dog,” Ray continued in a low raspy voice. “I’m not going to threaten any innocent bystanders.”
Benton gasped painfully at Ray’s words but said nothing.
“You are safe here with me,” Ray repeated. Ray’s tongue painted a long stripe of moisture from Ben’s collar bone to the hollow behind his ear. “If you want me to stop this, just say ‘No’, Fraser. Tell me ‘No’ and I’ll leave.” Ray’s tongue traced the same path up Ben’s neck again sending tremors of desire throughout Ben’s body.
Benton’s lips parted and he panted for a moment, but said nothing. Instead, in response he released his hold on Ray and let his hands fall to his sides in surrender. He just wasn’t strong enough to deny himself this gift of warmth and affection.
When Ray kissed his way down Benton’s chest, Ben was nearly undone by the tenderness being shown to him. A moment later, when Benton felt the elastic waistband of his sweatpants being eased down, he groaned aloud with need but still said nothing. Benton was gasping for air as though he’d been running for miles when Ray’s lips first touched Ben’s foreskin. All the helpless man could do in response was grunt and grasp tight-fisted at the sheets beneath him.
Ray was cautious at first, tentatively running his tongue along Benton’s swelling shaft, mouthing his foreskin and testicles in turn. Whether Ray was giving Ben the chance to back out or inexperience was causing some initial reticence, Ben didn’t know. But regardless of the source of Ray’s hesitant start, he quickly adapted and his technique rapidly improved.
It wasn’t long before Benton was nothing more than a sweating pile of raw nerve endings begging for release. His climax was earth shattering, both punching into him and ripping from him simultaneously. It left him weak and gasping for air. As his heart rate began to return to a more normal pattern, Benton fell asleep between one breath and the next.
When Benton twitched into wakefulness, the sound of the dreamt gunshot was faint and far away, not the jarring bang it had been for the last several days. The room was dark and had that very late/ very early feeling to it. He must have slept for hours.
Glancing around him, Benton saw that he was still in Ray’s bed, wearing only the cotton sweatpants he had donned after his shower. His encounter with Ray might have been a rather peculiar dream, but for the evidence that it had been all too real. First, Benton’s entire body had that relaxed, heavy contentment indicative of sexual satisfaction. And second, curled along Ben’s right side with one arm protectively thrown across Ben’s chest, was Ray Kowalski.
Ray was deeply asleep with his face smashed against Benton’s shoulder. For a long while, Benton watched him sleep and tried not to wonder at his friend’s actions. He didn’t want to examine Ray’s motivations too closely nor did Benton want to admit how readily he had accepted Ray’s overtures.
“Don’t think,” Ray had told him earlier. How easy it was to take that advice now.
Benton slipped quietly from the bed and made a quick trip to the bathroom. After washing his hands, Benton simply stood in the dimly lit room and stared at his reflection in the mirror. The only illumination was from the street lights outside. He stood there, blinking at his image until the door, which he had left slightly ajar, began to swing slowly on its hinges to reveal Ray standing in the hallway.
“Hey,” Ray whispered. “You okay?” Ray rubbed at the side of his face sleepily and then scratched at his chest along the collarbone. He seemed to be half asleep, squinting as though the feeble light in the room was too much for him.
Benton’s carefully blank mind could come up with no response to that question. So he just gazed at Ray mutely.
“Hey,” Ray repeated. “Come back to bed.” His voice was soft and he reached out toward Benton without touching, as though gentling a wild animal.
Benton heaved a deep sigh of indecision and reminded himself not to think. Then his stomach rumbled loudly, so loudly that he nearly jumped in surprise.
Ray flinched and shook himself sharply as though just waking. His face broke into a huge grin. “Right,” he said. “Food first. We never ate any dinner.”
Ray grabbed Benton by the arm and tugged him toward the kitchen. The sudden brightness of an open refrigerator door in the dark room made Benton’s eyes water. Ray moved quickly, slipping the now cold bowl of oatmeal from the counter to clang carelessly into the sink.
“Don’t tell Vecchio,” Ray stage whispered dramatically. The pizza box Ray had pulled from the refrigerator slapped onto the counter while Ray pulled plates from the cupboard. A moment later, several slices were warming in the microwave.
They stood in the dark, leaning against the cupboard and watching the digital readout wind down. Ray crossed his arms and gazed at Benton with a puzzled frown.
“So,” Ray began. “No more oatmeal.”
Benton swallowed and studied the spinning turntable carefully.
“But I’ve seen you eat oatmeal before,” Ray said pointedly. “It never caused a meltdown.”
Scrubbing at one eyebrow, Benton nodded. If they were going to talk, this would be a relatively safe topic with which to begin. “I don’t remember much from the time just after my mother died,” he started.
Ray nodded. “You were real little.”
“Yes,” Benton admitted. “I remember that my father stayed with me for a while. He didn’t talk about her, or tell me where she had gone. He just sat, and stared out the window. He didn’t shave or go to work. His beard grew long.”
Without seeming to move, Ray was suddenly nearer. Benton could feel his warmth all along one side.
Benton continued. “I don’t know how long that went on. Probably a couple of weeks. But to a young boy, it seemed to be a very long time.” He took a deep breath and went on. “One morning I woke up and breakfast was waiting on the table.”
Ray understood as he so often did. “Oatmeal, with sliced banana,” he volunteered.
“Yes,” Benton nodded. “Oatmeal with sliced banana. And my father was clean-shaven and he was crying.”
Benton scrubbed both hands across his face as though he could wipe away the memory. “I knew then that my mother wasn’t coming back and that my father couldn’t fix it. My mother was gone and my father was only human. I wept bitter tears that day.”
“I’m so sorry, Frase,” Ray whispered. He clasped Benton around the wrist and squeezed hard.
Benton placed one hand over Ray’s and squeezed back.
“That afternoon we began the journey to my grandparents’ home.” Benton shook his head sadly. “That was the only time in my life that I ever really saw my father and the man behind the uniform. It frightened me.”
“It’s a family thing then,” Ray said. At Benton’s puzzled frown, Ray continued, “Hiding behind the uniform, trying to forget about the guy who lives inside it. Just a guy. Not perfect.
“You’re allowed to mess up once in a while, Frase,” Ray told him with a shrug. “No one is perfect. You are about as close to it as anyone ever gets, but still, nowhere near perfect.”
Benton pulled away from Ray’s touch, suddenly angry and unsure as to why. He pulled the pizza from the microwave and stared at it for a moment.
“Eat up,” Ray urged. “Then we’ll go back to bed and see what we can find inside that imperfect shell of yours.”
“Ray,” Benton scolded him.
“No. Don’t argue with me. You slept, didn’t you?” Ray pointed out. “You’re feeling less like you want to bawl and more like you want to punch something, yeah?”
For a moment, all Ben could do was stare at Ray in shock. How could this man know what Benton was feeling? What audacity was required for Ray to assume that he knew Benton’s innermost thoughts? But Ray was right. Benton had slept. And the carefully suppressed emotions churning in Ben’s stomach could be defined as anger.
Ben was angry. He was angry at Victoria, of course. But a brief self-examination revealed that he was also angry at Fate for denying him the life he’d wanted so badly.
What emotions were written on his face at that moment he didn’t know, but whatever Ray saw made the thin detective smile sadly. “I get it buddy,” he patted Benton gently on the chest. “Yours is not the first heart that has ever been broken. And it won’t be the last.”
Placing the pizza filled plate onto the counter between them, Benton picked up one slice and bit into it with determination. He was both irritated and uneasy but refused to examine the cause.
“How is sex supposed to help this situation?” he asked.
Ray shrugged. “It won’t hurt,” he replied. “It’s harmless and fun. Like that time of experimentation with your buddies when you were in school and just learning how the equipment all worked.”
Benton scoffed. “I was home schooled, Ray.”
“You had friends, Fraser,” Ray argued. “I’ve heard you talk about them. What about Innusiq?”
Ben scrubbed his eyebrow in discomfort. “When I was young, I spent a great deal of time alone. What I knew of sexuality, I had read in medical texts provided by my grandmother. I didn’t understand the colloquial references to sex that were used by others of my age.” Ben sighed. “The resulting misunderstandings were at times painfully embarrassing.”
“Right,” Ray drawled. He took a bite of his own pizza and rudely continued while he chewed. “So no experimenting for you, huh?”
“Not as such, no,” Benton admitted.
“So you are way overdue then,” Ray grinned. “Just think of me as your own personal chemistry set. I’ll bet you can come up with all kinds of things you want to try. See what goes ‘boom’.”
Benton concentrated on eating his pizza for a moment. Then he said, “I haven’t considered much in the way of homosexual encounters. Such sexual fantasy seems an unproductive use of time.”
“So you only ever thought about girls, huh?” Ray asked.
Frowning in puzzlement Benton replied, “How would such thoughts be more pragmatic when involving the female form than it would the male?”
“No sex fantasies at all?” Ray blinked in surprise. “How did you jack-off, masturbate?”
Benton stared at him and gave no answer.
Ray took a step closer and ran one hand down Ben’s arm from shoulder to wrist. “That is about the saddest thing I have ever heard,” he said. “But I guess it explains a lot. You’re a smart guy, Fraser,” Ray purred. “An imaginative guy. I’ll bet you can think up a few things for us to try. A few non-productive, just for fun things that we could try.”
“Perhaps,” Benton agreed slowly.
Ray stepped close and kissed Benton on the lips. He tasted like mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. “Anything you want,” Ray whispered. “I’m yours until Monday morning.”
“Surely not,” Benton frowned. “Not anything…”
“Anything,” Ray promised.
Benton spent the next few days testing that promise. At first it was simply a distraction, a way to keep his mind from dwelling on the events in Little Rock. Additionally, much of Benton’s behavior was based on curiosity. He wanted to know if there was any line that Ray wouldn’t cross. Each suggestion was like a dare and neither of them would back down. But if Ray had some sexual boundary he wouldn’t cross, Benton was unable to find it.
It was late Saturday evening when Benton first began to realize how dire the situation had become.
They were both naked. Ray was on his hands and knees, his head down and his hands clenching the bottom of the bed’s headboard. Ben had one hand on Ray’s hip and the other clutched on Ray’s shoulder. Ben yanked Ray onto his erection again and again, forcing grunts from the blond with each impaling thrust.
“This isn’t us,” the thought flashed through Benton’s mind so quickly that he nearly missed it. But before he could focus on it, Ray lifted his head and groaned.
“God,” Ray moaned.
Ray’s climax, the pulsing ripples that Benton could feel through their joining, triggered the same reaction in Ben. In the afterglow, in the gasping breaths and the sweet oblivion of sleep that shortly followed, Benton forgot the moment of caution that had fluttered through his mind.
It was hours later, when Benton woke, that his conscience began to whisper at him again. It was very early. Dawn was just edging through the windows. In the distance, Benton could hear church bells calling parishioners to an early service.
Beside him, Ray slept. Ray was sprawled on his stomach with his face again pressed into Benton’s shoulder. They were both still naked. All the bed sheets and blankets had been tossed to the floor during the previous night’s activities.
As the early morning light began to brighten the room, Benton gazed at his bed mate. He was stunned as he noticed the marks on Ray’s body and his face burned with shamed when he realized what he was seeing.
There were bruises on Ray’s shoulders and both hips where rough hands had gripped too tightly. At the juncture between Ray’s neck and shoulder, just where the two met, was a red mark, darkening slightly in the center. Benton remembered biting that spot, tasting Ray as Benton first breached his body.
Benton ran his fingertips gently over the bruises on Ray’s skin and sighed.
“Hey,” Ray croaked. The blue eyes blinked open and gazed solemnly at Benton. “You’re thinking again. Are you freaking out?”
Benton nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid so. What are we doing, Ray?”
Ray gave him a small smile. “We aren’t hurting anyone,” he said. “So does it matter?”
Benton continued to stroke the blemishes and whispered, “But we are hurting someone. We are hurting you, Ray. This isn’t fair to you.”
“This isn’t about me.”
“But,” Benton began. But Ray interrupted.
“No buts,” Ray said. He lifted himself onto his elbows and stared down at Ben. “This isn’t about me. This about getting you through this.”
Benton began to shake his head, but Ray cut him off again. “I know it won’t work,” Ray said sadly. “I know that this isn’t enough to put her behind you. I know that.” Ray caressed Benton along his collarbone causing the skin there to rise in goose bumps.
“But we can pretend,” Ray whispered. “We can pretend that it might be enough. Just for a while, just until you go.”
“Go?” Benton asked.
Ray frowned at Benton knowingly. “ ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ ” Ray quoted the old adage. “She fooled you twice. And you feel like everyone in Chicago knows that. You won’t stay here, where everyone knows you were fooled. Not for long anyway.”
Benton licked his lips and began to speak, but Ray talked over him again.
“Don’t try to tell me that you aren’t planning to put in for a transfer the first chance you get,” Ray scolded him.
“I wasn’t consciously planning it,” Benton denied.
“But it’s in the back of your mind, on the list of things to be done when you report to work on Monday,” Ray said knowingly.
Benton swallowed with trepidation. It was suddenly terrifying, realizing how well this man knew him. Ray seemed to know his deepest thoughts. He knew Benton better than Ben knew himself at times. And there was little to prevent Ray from using that knowledge to his own advantage. Just as Victoria had done.
Ray smiled sadly. “It’s okay. I get it,” he said. “I knew you were done with Chicago the moment you got on that train.”
“I should never have been on that train,” Benton whispered, his voice rough with sorrow.
Ray brushed his fingertips across Ben’s eyebrow in a soothing caress. He sighed and said, “If you hadn’t tried, you would still be torturing yourself right now. In a whole different way maybe, but you would be beating yourself up just the same. For not going with her.”
Ray shrugged, shaking his head in resignation as he continued. “I think it’s better to regret the things we have done, than it is to regret the things we haven’t done. You know what I mean?”
“ ‘There are two possible situations - one can either do this or that. Honest opinion and friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it - you will regret both,’ ” Benton quoted.
“Huh?” Ray frowned.
“Kierkegaard,” Benton explained. “He was a nineteenth century Danish philosopher.”
Ray huffed a laugh and let his forehead drop on to Benton’s shoulder. “Way too deep for the ass crack of dawn on a Sunday morning, Fraser,” Ray teased. “Especially for a dumb flatfoot like me. What did I tell you?”
“Don’t think,” Benton replied with a small smile.
“Right,” Ray agreed. “Don’t think. And spouting quotes from this Kindergarten guy does not jive with that plan.”
“Intentional cessation of thought seems diametrically opposed to what most would call a plan.”
Ray snickered. “Okay, so we’ll call it an anti-plan, a non-strategy.”
“An anti-plan,” Ben repeated.
“Yep. Don’t think.”
As a strategy, not thinking seemed to work rather well over the days that followed. When Benton returned to work, he carefully avoided wondering about his co-workers’ opinions regarding his sudden arrival. They all behaved as though Benton had simply been gone on holiday.
Inspector Thatcher’s replacement, a man named John Macdonald, was only three years from retirement. He had transferred to Chicago so that his wife could enjoy a little metropolitan glamour during these last years of his career. Younger than her husband by fifteen years, she was absolutely devoted to him but had spent most of their marriage in far less hospitable environs. As a result, Inspector Macdonald had no aspirations other than satisfying his wife’s near nightly social obligations. He had little concern for where Benton had been for the last two weeks and asked no questions. As long as the paperwork was completed properly and submitted on time, he was totally disinterested.
Benton’s colleagues at the twenty-seventh precinct reacted to his arrival in a similarly blasé fashion. After an initial few minutes of greeting and awkward throat clearing, everyone seemed to shrug off any lingering questions and behaved as though nothing had changed. No one even mentioned Victoria, or the reason that Benton had been away.
Ben found it quite disconcerting. He felt as though his world had been irrevocably altered. Something essential had been shattered. How could others not see the fractures? How could life just keep going without there being some kind of upheaval, some amount of rubble to mark the destruction Victoria had wrought?
Lieutenant Welsh said nary a word about Benton’s absence, as one would expect. Francesca had decided to make her maternity leave permanent and was no longer attendant in the bull pen each day. So there was nothing to deal with from that corner. Ray Vecchio adamantly refused to do or say anything that even hinted at those two lost weeks.
Of all Benton’s friends and acquaintances, only Ray Kowalski treated Ben as though some radical change had occurred. Ray himself seemed to have changed. This change involved more than just the physical intimacy shared with Benton each night. Ray seemed to be less taciturn than before, less likely to explode in anger.
Ray’s persona at work was a great deal different than it had been before the events in Little Rock. He worked with Ray Vecchio each day. As a result, when Benton was at the precinct to liaise, he was able to work cases with both Rays. So Ben was able to study Ray Kowalski’s interactions with Ray Vecchio very closely.
Ray Kowalski rarely argued with his new partner. He deferred to Ray Vecchio in most things, though he still refused to let anyone else drive the GTO. Ray’s relationship with Ray Vecchio was nothing like the early days of his partnership with Benton. In those first weeks, Ray Kowalski had been aggressively, obsessively and willfully at odds with Ben all the time. It had been an exhausting and yet exhilarating time, building the foundation of their partnership. Benton wondered why that friction was missing now, between Ray and his new partner.
Benton asked Ray Kowalski about it late one night as the two of them lay wrapped around each other in the dark.
“You don’t…” Ben hesitated as he tried to find a polite way to phrase it. “Push… as much with Ray Vecchio.”
Ray chuckled wryly. “I don’t get in his face as much, you mean?” He shrugged. “You were my partner. I needed you to know that. You had never really had one before. You always depended upon no one but yourself. You were my partner and partner means sharing. There are some things you don’t share so good, Frase.”
Benton knew this about himself and nodded.
Ray continued. “You got better but I still had to fight you nearly every day to remind you. We were partners. That meant equals, where you went, I went. No exceptions.”
“But you don’t do that with Ray Vecchio,” Benton tried to keep the dismay from his voice but wasn’t completely successful.
“Vecchio is the guy I work with,” Ray explained. “We ain’t partners. Not like me and you were. Hell, with that guy’s record and Stella’s ambition, Vecchio will probably make Lieutenant in a couple of years and he’ll be my boss.”
Benton sighed and said aloud the word Ray had just used repeatedly, “Were.”
Ray cocked his head and gazed at Ben.
“You keep using the past-tense,” Benton reiterated. “We were partners? Aren’t we still?”
“No,” Ray shook his head sadly. “Not like we were. Not anymore.”
Benton sat up with a frown and glared at the naked man beside him. “Then what is this?” he demanded gesturing one hand to indicate them both. “Lovers? Boyfriends? What do you call this?”
Ray reached out and cupped Benton’s cheek in the palm of his hand. He heaved a great sigh of regret and answered, “Temporary. This is temporary.”
Benton had no words to respond to that. He swallowed hard and laid back down. As Ray snuggled against one shoulder and began to drift into sleep, Ben could do no more than stare at the darkened ceiling above and try very hard not to think.
Time passed as it so often does. The days became weeks and the weeks started to slip into months. Benton continued to work at the Consulate and liaise with the Rays each day. Each night was spent in Ray Kowalski’s bed. Benton worked hard to not think about Little Rock, about Victoria and what had happened to young Halcome.
Benton had been back in Chicago for exactly two months when the strange limbo he had created for himself, (that Ray had created for him) was abruptly brought to an end.
First thing after opening the Consulate that morning, Inspector Macdonald called Benton into his office. “At ease, Constable,” he ordered in his typical offhanded fashion. “Your transfer request has come through,” he said without preamble. “Dawson City outpost. You’ll be one of seven men stationed there. They’ll be expecting you on the first of the month. Any questions?”
“No sir,” Benton replied, slightly shocked by the suddenness of it all. With only nine days until the end of the month, Benton was going to have to book travel and get Dief’s paperwork in order as quickly as possible. Ben’s next thought was that he needed to tell Ray and the idea of it filled him with dread.
Benton completed his consular duties for the day as quickly as possible and then walked to the precinct as usual. When he arrived in the bullpen, Benton saw that Ray Vecchio’s desk was unattended but there were papers strewn across the surface and a cup of coffee steamed on one corner. Ray was undoubtedly in the building but had obviously stepped away for a moment.
Taking a deep breath to prepare himself, Benton turned toward Ray Kowalski’s desk instead. Ray was there, bent over a folder and frowning at the papers within. In one hand he held a napkin covered in blurred ink. He seemed to be trying to decipher the writing on the napkin.
Benton approached, stopping to stand directly in front of Ray’s desk. He waited for Ray to notice him and look up. For a long moment they simply stared at each other without speaking. Then Benton gestured helplessly with the envelope that he held in his hand.
What Benton saw next happened so quickly that he would later be tempted to think he had imagined it. An emotion flashed across Ray’s face. It was a look of such desolation and pain that the blond man seemed suddenly hollow, as though he echoed with the depths of his despair. But then he blinked and the expression abruptly vanished, replaced instead with a curious blank sort of stare.
“Transfer?” Ray asked tipping his head toward the paper in Ben’s hand.
Benton nodded in response.
“Someplace nice?” Ray asked. “North pole, maybe?”
It took two attempts for Benton to clear his throat and find his voice. “Dawson City, in the Yukon territory. It is located at the conflux of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, one hundred kilometers east of the Alaskan border.”
It was Ray’s turn to nod. “Small town, then huh? Like Tuk?”
“No,” Benton replied. “There is a population of thirteen hundred in Dawson City proper, another six to seven hundred in Klondike and the surrounding area.”
Ray sighed in clueless frustration.
Benton rephrased, “It’s twice the size of Tuktoyaktuk, Ray. But one third the size of Inuvik.”
“Bigger than Tuk but smaller than Inuvik, huh?” Ray had seen both of those communities while he and Ben had been on their adventure, so the comparison was a recognizable one. Ray nodded again in understanding. “Yeah, that will work.” Ray frowned and glared at Ben. “Are you gonna have someone to watch your back up there?” he demanded.
“Yes, Ray,” Benton answered. “I will be one of seven Mounties stationed at that outpost.”
Ray seemed taken aback. “Seven? Wow.”
“Well,” Ben explained. “There is a lot of area to cover. With the highway and the historical significance of the site, there is also quite a bit of tourism to deal with in the summer months.”
“Land of the midnight sun and all that, right?” Ray huffed.
“Not really,” Benton said. “Dawson City is located 280 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. Even on the summer solstice the sun goes down for a few hours each day.”
“They got electricity there?” Ray asked. “Hot water?”
Benton gave him a small smile. “Yes. They even have a Chinese restaurant, though I doubt that they will deliver.”
Ray nodded sagely for a moment. Then he asked quietly, “When?”
“I report for duty on the first,” Benton told him. “I’ll be leaving in one week.”
“Jesus,” Ray groaned softly. The empty, hopeless look was back, this time accompanied by a hollow, broken tone of voice. “Did you have to tell me this here, now?”
“Would you rather I had kept it from you all afternoon?” Benton asked him desperately. He shook his head in denial. “I needed to tell you right away. I needed to tell you first.”
That was the moment Ray Vecchio chose to reappear in the room. “Benny!” he called.
As Benton turned toward Ray Vecchio’s greeting, he saw Ray Kowalski slip from behind his desk and scurry out of the room. Ben let him go. They could talk more this evening when they had a little privacy.
For now, Benton turned toward Ray Vecchio and prepared to tell him about the transfer. There was a great deal of fuss and concern as word of Benton’s transfer spread. But although Ben’s friends and acquaintances all expressed disappointment that he was leaving, few of them seemed all that surprised at the news.
When Ben and Ray Kowalski returned to the apartment that night, they did not, in fact, talk. There was a bittersweet physical encounter where Ray ran his fingertips over every inch of Benton’s skin and followed the same path with lingering kisses. It was as though Ray was trying to soak up Ben’s essence through his skin and his lips. But once they had each climaxed, rather than drift off to sleep as he usually did, Ray slipped from the bed, mumbling something about a shower.
Ray had taken a very long shower and then puttered around in the apartment long enough that Benton had fallen asleep while awaiting his return. In the morning, Benton found Ray asleep on the couch with a classic movie channel playing on the television. The volume was turned down so low as to be nearly muted.
It became a pattern over the few days that followed. Ray would fall asleep on the couch in front of some old movie. He did not return to the bed they had shared for the last two months.The physical intimacy between them abruptly stopped and Benton could find no words, nor adequate enough reasoning, to reestablish it for only the few days that they had left.
It wasn’t until the morning of Ben’s last day at the Consulate that Ray even mentioned the transfer again. Benton was sitting at the kitchen table, finishing his morning tea when Ray came in, dressed but still damp from his shower, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
For a long moment, Ray leaned against the counter and stared into his coffee without tasting it. “So,” Ray said. “Vecchio says that there will be cake in the break room after shift end.”
Benton nodded. “Followed by dinner with the Vecchio family.”
“Yeah. Get one last shot at Ma Vecchio’s lasagna.” Ray sighed and then spoke quickly, “I won’t be there.”
Ray swallowed and blinked hard. Benton realized that the other man was shaking badly enough that his coffee began to slosh over the edges of the cup. Ray resolved that issue by taking a huge gulp of coffee, grimacing as the too hot liquid went down his throat.
“I can’t say goodbye to you in front of all those people,” he said quietly. “And not in front of Frannie and Ma Vecchio.” He paused for a moment and gave Ben a fleeting glance before studying the contents of his cup again. “I don’t think I can say goodbye at all.”
“Ray,” Benton began.
Ray cut him off. “Vecchio’s taking you to the airport tomorrow morning, right? Maybe you should just stay at his place tonight. It will be easier.”
“Easier for whom?” Ben asked.
“No one,” Ray growled. He slammed his cup onto the counter, spilling half the liquid across the surface. “Look. Stay at Vecchio’s. Come back here. It doesn’t matter. I won’t be here tonight anyway.”
“Where will you be?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ray said angrily. “I won’t be here.”
Benton scratched his thumb across one brow. “Ray, please. Don’t end things between us this way, with anger.”
“I didn’t end anything, Fraser.” With that Ray turned and grabbed his keys from off the table and slammed out the door.
Benton’s last day at the Consulate was somewhat underwhelming. All of his colleagues there were relatively new to the posting. Inspector Thatcher and Constable Turnbull had both transferred out of Chicago while Benton and Ray were on their adventure. As a result, there was little in the way of attachment that had developed between Ben and his current coworkers.
Everything in the office was in order, waiting for Benton’s replacement to arrive next week. Most of Ben’s things, his storage trunk and the few books he had collected, had already been shipped north. With no other duties to occupy him, Benton simply said his farewells. After a firm handshake from Inspector Macdonald, Benton was on his way to the precinct nearly two hours earlier than he had originally planned.
As Benton pushed through the doors into the bullpen, Diefenbaker slipped down the hall toward the break room. “Try to behave,” Benton called after him. “That cake is meant to be shared with our friends.”
The twenty-seventh precinct was bustling with activity today. There seemed to be a slightly higher level of chaos than was usual. Benton edged around a line of five ladies dressed in less than adequate clothing. They were handcuffed together in a chain, while the woman at the end furthest from Ben was also cuffed to a bench.
There were two circus clowns sitting on a second bench. One clown was holding an ice pack to the side of his face. The condensation was making his face paint run. The second clown was holding a towel to his face as blood ran from his nose, dripping gruesomely down his chin to stain his polka-dotted shirt. Benton would have stopped to offer his assistance, but the performers were each being attended to by a uniformed paramedic. Neither man seemed to be in any immediate medical danger.
Benton stepped around Huey and Dewey, who both nodded at him in greeting without interrupting their debate regarding the case they were pursuing. Benton was greeted by a few other officers, and a couple of detectives who were not normally on this duty shift.
When Benton glanced toward Ray Kowalski’s desk, he saw the blond detective hard at work, a phone pressed to one ear. Ray did not look up or acknowledge Benton’s arrival in any way.
At Ray Vecchio’s desk, Ray was leaning against one edge of the desk with his arms folded. He was frowning intently at two plump, balding men dressed in the distinctive white of bakers. The two men were gesturing wildly and yelling at each other in Italian.
“Hey, Benny,” Ray said when Benton arrived at his side.
“Good afternoon, Ray. You seem busy,” Benton began.
“Full moon, I guess,” Ray said, as though that fact could explain the situation. “And some of the second shift guys have come in early to mooch cake from you.” He added with a smile.
“I am honored that they would take time out of their day to bid me farewell,” Benton replied.
“Just give me one second while I clear this up,” Ray said with a tilt of his head that indicated the two loud men.
Benton watched for a moment as Ray started speaking to them in Italian. He must have said something that resolved the issue because the men both quickly calmed. A few more words between them and Ray made them shake hands before they left.
Benton was speaking with Ray Vecchio when he felt the distinct sensation that he was being watched. For a full minute, Ben tried to fight the urge to turn and look. He was sure that it must be Ray Kowalski that was watching him so intently.
But when Ben did turn to look toward Ray Kowalski’s desk, he found that Ray wasn’t even looking in his direction. Ray was staring, wide-eyed and shocked, at a figure that was walking across the room.
Ben shifted to follow Ray’s gaze and saw a slender figure in a gray hooded sweatshirt. She had changed her appearance, cutting her hair very short and dying it a horrid shade of fiery red. Ray Kowalski recognized her first. He recognized her even before she threw back the hood. So as Victoria approached and pulled a gun from the pocket of the sweatshirt, Ray was already vaulting across his desk and yelling.
The officers of the twenty-seventh precinct reacted immediately. A half dozen detectives drew their weapons and had the suspect in their sites. Other officers quickly shifted their attention to the civilians in the room, whisking several out the door while others were shoved under desks or behind filing cabinets for cover.
Ray Vecchio, among those who had pulled his side arm from its holster, hissed at Benton, “Step aside, Benny. You’re in my line of fire.”
But before Benton could reply or shift one way or the other, Ray Kowalski inserted himself between Benton and Victoria, further blocking Ray Vecchio’s line of sight. The slender blond detective didn’t have his gun drawn. Instead he had his hands out in a calming gesture.
“Hello Victoria,” he said.
“Move,” she growled. “Or I’ll shoot you first.”
Ray sighed and shook his head sadly, “Come on Vick. These fine officers won’t let you do that. You try to pull that trigger, they’ll open fire. You’ll be dead before you hit the floor.”
“Move!” she repeated.
Ray ignored her. “I thought you were in jail, in Arizona.”
“Arkansas,” Victoria practically snarled at him.
“Victoria, please,” Benton spoke and took one step forward. He was about to take a second when a steel grip fastened onto the back of his Sam Browne. Ray Vecchio had hold of him and wouldn’t let him step any closer.
“Arkansas, right. Right.” Ray Kowalski kept talking. As Victoria’s attention was focused on the Rays and Benton, the other detectives continued to work on keeping others safe by clearing the room of civilians. “So what happened?” Ray asked.
“I left,” Victoria explained.
“Anybody get hurt when you decided to leave town?” Ray Vecchio asked, calling to her over Benton’s shoulder.
Victoria smiled a cold evil smile. “What do you think?”
Ray Vecchio nodded. “I think that somewhere between here and Little Rock, Arkansas is a stupid security guard who fell for your sob story and is now very dead.”
“I needed his gun,” Victoria said with a shrug.
“Come on, Vick,” Ray Kowalski urged gently. “What are you doing?”
“I’m here for Ben,” she declared.
The blond man sighed and shook his head. “If you try, you will die here. Vecchio will see to it. Don’t make Ben watch you die today.”
Victoria gazed soulfully toward Benton. “But I’ll take him with me,” she vowed. “We always knew it would end this way. Always. Lovers entwined in death like in a great Shakespearean tragedy.”
“I won’t let you,” Ray Kowalski promised. “You’re only going to get one shot. And you have to go through me to get to him.”
“Ray!” Benton hissed in denial. He tried again to move forward, but Ray Vecchio yanked hard, pulling Benton another step further away from the danger.
Victoria tilted her head at Ray Kowalski in curiosity. “Do you think I won’t do it?”
The blond head nodded sagely. “Oh, I know you will.”
“I love him!” She cried, the madness in her voice caught between a wail and a snarl. “I will gladly kill for him!”
Ray Kowalski smiled sadly and reached out toward Victoria and her gun. “We make a good team then, you and I,” he told her. “Because I will gladly die for him.”
Victoria raised the gun higher, pointing the barrel at Ray’s chest, “I love him,” she whispered.
“So do I,” he replied.
Then, everything seemed to happen at once in a heartbeat of time that stretched forever. Ray Kowalski took another step forward and reached for the gun. Victoria pulled the trigger.
Benton couldn’t hear that first shot but he saw the puff of smoke from the tip of the gun. There was an answering roar of gunfire as several of the officers in the room returned fire. An immediate weight punched into Benton’s chest as the impact of Victoria’s bullet propelled Ray Kowalski backwards against Benton’s body. It was a bleak reminder of the first day they had met, when Ray had stepped in front of Greta Garbo’s bullet.
Just as he had on that first day of their partnership, Benton caught Ray in his arms and tried to ease him gently to the ground. But Benton had trouble holding on, for his left arm had abruptly gone numb. As a result, Ray crumpled to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Benton fell to the floor to sit beside Ray, landing hard on his rump. With no regard for what else was happening around him, Ben clawed at Ray, turning him onto his back to inspect the damage. Ray was conscious, his blue eyes wide with pain.
Unlike their first day together, today Ray wore no Kevlar. The hole in Ray’s t-shirt, just to the right of his sternum, was rapidly changing color from black to red. The blood spread quickly. When Benton tried to apply pressure, he found that he still could not make his left arm move properly, so he pressed down with just his right hand.
“Ray, Ray, Ray,” Benton began to whimper as panic started to crawl along his skin.
Ray was gasping for air. He coughed suddenly, and blood began to fill his mouth and run down his chin.
There were hands pulling at Benton’s shoulders, trying to ease him away from Ray Kowalski. But Ben growled and shook the hands away.
“Benny,” Ray Vecchio urged. “Benny listen to me. You have to let the medics at him. Benny! Let them help.”
Benton began to understand the words and looked up. Two paramedics were kneeling beside the gasping man and beginning to triage the wound. Ben let Ray Vecchio shift him away until he was sitting with his back pressed against a nearby desk.
Ray Vecchio was speaking to him. Ben could see his lips moving. But Benton couldn’t understand for there seemed to be no sound. There was no sound other than that of the moist gurgling gasps Ray Kowalski made while trying to breathe.
Ben’s body began to shake. He looked uncomprehendingly from Ray Vecchio’s concerned face to the pain filled visage of Ray Kowalski. Ben’s gaze shifted and there on the floor, not much further away, lay Victoria. She was covered in blood, her unseeing eyes stared at a point on the ceiling somewhere above Ben’s head. She was gone.
Benton’s shivering increased and he was suddenly very cold. His teeth began to chatter.
“Benny?” Ray Vecchio called to him. Benton felt firm slaps on his cheek as Ray tried to illicit a response. “Benny, talk to me. Are you hit?” Ray pawed at him for a moment. “Damn it. You’re hit.”
The numbness in Ben’s left arm was replaced by an excruciating sensation of pain, as though he’d been set on fire. He gasped. Echoing the sound was a gurgling sigh from Ray Kowalski. Some part of Ben’s brain whispered to him, “Now you will lose them both.”
It was too much for Benton to process. He blinked once more and then slipped into unconsciousness.
When Benton woke, he was in a hospital bed. He still wore his boots and jodhpurs, but his tunic and shirt were gone. A heavy blanket was tossed across his lower body. Benton’s bare chest was partially covered by a hospital gown, into the sleeves of which only one arm had been inserted. His other arm was only draped by the thin cotton. Ben’s left shoulder was thickly bandaged so that he looked like he was wearing half a set of a football player’s shoulder pads. There was an I.V. tube running from the back of his right hand and a nasal cannula tickling under his nose.
With a groan, Ben reached up with his good hand and yanked the plastic tubing from his nostrils. A voice immediately rose from the chair positioned next to the bed. “Hey,” Ray Vecchio said gently. “Leave that alone Benny. The doctors are still trying to decide if they need to admit you. You were in shock, hyperventilating. Scared us all pretty bad.”
Ray Vecchio stood at Ben’s side, gently easing him back against the pillows.
“Ray?” Benton asked.
“You’re okay, Benny.” Ray told him. “The doc removed the bullet right here in the E.R. Not much damage, but its going to hurt like a son of a bitch once the meds wear off.”
“Ray?” Ben repeated. The drugs were making him groggy and he was still shivering slightly. He was finding it difficult to make himself understood. “Ray?” he asked again.
Ray Vecchio sighed. “I’m sorry Benny. He didn’t make it.”
Benton couldn’t breathe. His chest seemed to seize up and it took a great deal of effort to inhale. His gasps stuttered into him in fits and starts. Pain that had nothing to do with his shoulder knifed through him.
“I’m sorry Benny,” Ray repeated. He rearranged the cannula and positioned it under Benton’s nose so that it could serve its intended purpose as he continued. “She was dead before she hit the ground. Took four hits to the chest.”
Only one word seemed to penetrate through Ben’s misery. “She?” he whispered. “She’s dead?”
Benton had misheard Ray’s initial statement. Ray had not said ‘He didn’t make it’. He had said ‘She’. Hope crashed over Ben in a warm rush. With his good hand he reached out and grabbed Ray’s silk shirt in one tight fist.
“What…what about Ray Kowalski?” he stuttered.
Ray Vecchio patted Benton’s arm in an attempt to soothe him. “Stanley was still in surgery last I heard,” he responded. “The prognosis was pretty grim, Benny. The round went clear through him and ended up in your shoulder. It missed his heart but tore up a lung pretty badly. It didn’t tumble through his insides much. It just went in and then out again.”
Benton pulled at the cannula again and began struggling to sit up. He grabbed at the I.V. needle and was just about to remove it when Ray slapped his hand away. For a moment the two wrestled with Ben trying to get up and out of the bed, while Ray held him down.
“I need to find Ray,” Benton moaned.
“Stop that!” Ray scolded. “Settle down or I’ll have the nurse sedate you again.”
“Please,” Ben begged. “I need to find Ray.”
“He’s probably still in surgery,” Ray Vecchio argued.
“Please. Please,” Benton urged desperately. He wasn’t sure if he was pleading or praying. “Please.”
“Okay. Okay,” Ray soothed. “Here’s the deal. You stay put. Leave the tubes alone. I’ll get a nurse and a wheelchair and then you and I will go find him. Okay? Deal?”
Benton nodded and heaved a deep breath. Swallowing his panic, he nodded again and then sat back to wait for Ray to follow through with his promise.
The next twenty-four hours were the longest of Ben’s life. Ray Kowalski survived the surgery but was in the intensive care unit under close supervision. His condition was very tenuous for several hours during which Benton could do nothing but wait.
Intensive care had strict visitation policies, no more than two visitors at a time and only during posted hours. So for much of that first day, Benton sat in the waiting area while Barbara and Damian Kowalski stood at their son’s bedside. Ben had no idea what Ray had told his parents about their relationship, if he had said anything to them at all. So Ben didn’t feel he had any right to take the place of one of Ray’s parents in that room.
The afternoon of the second day, the doctor came to the waiting room to update the Kowalskis and told them that their son was improving. Though Ray’s condition seemed unchanged to his family and friends, the doctor assured them that he was indeed much better. He was, in fact, doing so well that the medical staff would be moving Ray to a different unit to accommodate the less critical status.
The wave of relief that washed over Benton was so intense that it left him shaking. He sat down on one end of a nearby couch and struggled to regain control of himself. When Barbara Kowalski approached him, Benton tried to turn away so that she would not see how greatly affected he had been.
But Barbara Kowalski was evidently very much like her son. She simply stepped into Benton’s personal space and cupped his cheek in her palm. Turning Ben to face her, she smiled and him and said, “He’s going to be okay.”
Benton could not have stopped the tears if his life had depended upon it. He gasped and burst out in quiet, choking sobs. Barbara pulled Ben toward her and he buried his face in her stomach were he wept silently.
“He’s going to be okay,” she repeated.
Another day passed before Benton truly began to believe it.
The morning of day three, Ray woke up, though he spent much of the day in and out of consciousness. By day four, Ray had begun frowning at anyone and everything and began to respond to questions in a semi-coherent fashion. On the fifth day, they reduced Ray’s pain medication and he quite abruptly came out of the drug induced stupor that had been suppressing his normal behavior.
As a result, on the morning of the sixth day in the hospital, Ray was in pain, confined to a bed and had been informed that he would be in that bed for another week to ten days. To say that Ray Kowalski was a bit cranky was an understatement of monumental proportions.
But as far as Benton was concerned, an irritable, mulish Ray Kowalski was a wondrous sight to behold. He was very much alive, breathing and well enough to be a challenging patient. Watching Ray frown at his breakfast in disgust, Benton found it very difficult to hold back a smile. Ray was still very pale and as weak as a kitten. But the doctor who had examined him that morning had remarked on how quickly Ray was improving.
“What is this?” Ray whined. He was propped up in the hospital bed with a tray positioned in front of him. On the tray was a bowl of some whitish, semi congealed substance that Ray was scooping onto his spoon and then tipping back into the bowl in slimy globs.
“I believe it to be Cream of Wheat,” Benton answered helpfully. It was still early in the morning and Ray’s parents had not yet returned to the hospital. So Ben was sitting in the chair nearest Ray’s bed, doing his best to keep Ray company.
Ray shook his head and grimaced. “I hate Cream of Wheat. But this ain’t Cream of Wheat. This is like warm boogers. This is worse than that blubber you tried to make me eat that time.”
“I’m sure it contains plenty of nutrients and the calories you need to restore your energy,” Ben replied.
“Bleah.” Ray dropped the spoon and shoved the tray away, leaving his meal uneaten. Leaning his head back against his pillow, Ray closed his eyes for a moment.
“Are you in much pain?” Ben asked. “I can fetch a nurse.”
Ray shook his head. “Nah. I’m good for now,” he replied. “I don’t need a shot yet. Will later though.” For several minutes, there was silence between them and Ben thought that perhaps Ray had fallen back to sleep. Rest was the best thing for him right now.
But Ray suddenly opened his eyes and turned to look at Ben. “Hey,” He said with a frown. “What day is it?”
“Tuesday,” Ben answered, slightly confused as to why Ray even cared.
“No,” Ray said. “The date. What is the date?”
“Ah.” Benton began to get an idea of where this line of questioning was going. He wasn’t sure he was ready to have this conversation just yet. But as usual, Ray was plowing ahead anyway. “Today is the third of August.”
“What are you doing here?” Ray asked. “Why aren’t you in the Yukon Territories?”
Benton lifted his left arm a few inches to indicate the sling he was wearing. Ray Vecchio had been quite right about the wound in Ben’s shoulder. It was somewhat painful, but little more than an annoyance. It would however, excuse him from duty for another week or so. “I’m on medical leave,” he explained.
“Oh.” Ray closed his eyes and laid back again.
The next words tumbled past Ben’s lips before he could stop them. “Besides,” he said. “You aren’t well enough to travel that far.”
Ray’s eyes popped open and for a long moment the two of them just blinked at each other. Then, with a nod, Ray carefully shifted in the bed before reaching once more for the breakfast tray.
Benton quickly rose from his chair to help rearrange the tray to Ray’s liking.
“I’m getting better,” Ray said as he lifted his spoon and began to eat his breakfast.
“Yes,” Benton agreed warily.
“The doc says I may get sprung from this joint in a week or so.” He swallowed another couple of bites of the cereal before he asked, “Can we go then? When I get out of the hospital?”
“You’ll need to finish your respiratory therapy,” Benton told him.
Ray nodded in agreement and proceeded to eat most of the contents of his bowl. He seemed to have nothing further to say.
Benton was astonished. “That’s it?” he asked, suddenly angry and unsure as to why.
“What do you mean?” Ray asked.
“I say ‘Let’s go’ and you’ll drop everything and come with me? Just like that?”
“Sure,” Ray said, staring intently at the spoon in his hand. “Why not? You did it for her.”
Ben frowned. “That was different,” he replied.
Ray shook his head sadly. He looked up and gazed at Ben with eyes that blurred with emotion. “Not for me,” he whispered. “It is exactly the same for me. I know that it is probably a terrible idea. I know chances are good that things will end…badly. That someone will get hurt.” Ray sighed heavily. “That I will get hurt.”
“But you’re going to try anyway,” Benton gasped, his throat tightening at the angst that rose within him.
“Gotta chase that train,” Ray told him.
Ben was completely overwhelmed by the depth of the other man’s feelings. Benton reached out and grasped Ray’s forearm and squeezed. “I don’t deserve you,” Benton told him with a wavering voice.
“You’re right. You don’t,” Ray agreed. He placed one hand over Ben’s and went on. “You deserve to spend your life with the woman you love. I tried to give you that life. I would have done anything to give that to you, for you to be happy. But it didn’t work. Now all that’s left, all I can do, is give you a life with someone who loves you.”
Ray shrugged. “It isn’t enough. But it’s all I’ve got.”
Benton groaned and leaned in toward Ray, pressing their foreheads together. Wrapping one hand around the back of Ray’s neck, Benton held him tightly. “But Ray,” he breathed. “It is more than enough. It is everything.”
Ray clung to Benton’s shirt desperately. “I love you,” he whispered. “You have no idea how much I love you.”
Benton closed his eyes and buried his nose in Ray’s unkempt hair, hugging him as hard as Ray’s fragile condition would allow. “It is more than enough,” he repeated.
One year later ---
Benton snapped awake and found himself alone in bed. The day was just beginning to brighten the room, meaning it was still very early. At this latitude and time of year, the sun rose at around 5:30am and didn’t set until well after 11 o’clock at night.
Benton blinked sleepily at the empty space beside him. It wasn’t usual for Ray to awaken this early, especially since this was Ben’s first day back from an eight day patrol. Benton had returned to the small home they shared on the outskirts of town just before midnight last night. He had been dirty and exhausted. Ray’s enthusiastic but sympathetic greeting the night before had entailed a long, hot, shared shower followed by a sleepy exercise in frottage.
Since arriving at Benton’s new post in Dawson City, the two of them had established a routine of sorts in regards to Ben’s patrols. The Mounties stationed at the outpost took turns driving the outer patrol, an eight day route. With seven constables assigned to Dawson City, this meant that every couple of months, Ben would be gone for a week and a day. But an outer patrol was always followed by two days leave. Usually, those were two days during which Ray spent as much time in bed as he could tempt Ben into accommodating.
However today, Ray was not there. Ben levered himself out of bed, pulled on a pair of sweatpants and went to locate his missing companion. He found Ray on the couch, fully dressed and in the process of lacing up his boots. Diefenbaker lay on the cushion beside him, yawning.
Without looking up from his task Ray asked, “Did I wake you?”
Ben shook his head. “I noticed your absence in the bed,” he explained. Ben yawned and sat on the arm of the couch, scratching absently at the scar on his shoulder. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll help you with the chores,” Ben said.
“Not much that needs to be done here today,” Ray told him. With a shrug he added, “I thought I would go into town. Help Chris with the new barrier wall he is putting up next to the restaurant.”
“But I have the day off,” Benton reminded him.
Ray nodded. “I figured you would want to be alone today.”
Ben sighed and crossed his arms over his bare chest. “Why would I want to be alone when I’ve just come off of patrol?” he asked.
Ray wore that hunched, self-protective grimace and body language that Benton had always hated. “You know. Because of the day,” Ray said with a fluttering wave of one hand.
“What day?” Benton frowned. He had no idea what Ray was thinking right now and Ben didn’t like it when they were not on the same page.
Ray looked up at him and then quickly looked away. “It was a year ago, Ben. A year ago today, she died and you lost her forever.”
“Oh Ray,” Benton sighed. He stood and reached for Ray’s hands, pulling the other man from the couch and wrapping him in a hug. “That doesn’t matter anymore.”
Ray pressed his face into the crook of Ben’s neck and inhaled deeply. “She’s the only woman you ever loved,” he said sadly. “That’s what you always call her. The only woman you’ve ever loved. And now she’s dead, one whole year dead.”
Benton exhaled in frustration. How could Ray still be thinking this way? How could he not know how much he meant to Ben’s life? Now was the time to fix this. He had to convince Ray that he was more than a temporary substitute.
Ben placed one hand on the back of Ray’s head and kissed his temple. “Ray, listen to me. Yes, she was the only woman I ever loved,” as the body in his arms tensed further, Ben hugged all the harder. “But Ray, you are the love of my life.”
Ray raised his head and gazed at Ben in wide-eyed hope. “What?”
“You, Ray Kowalski, are the love of my life,” Benton repeated.
The smile Ray gave him then could have lit all of Chicago with its brilliance and Benton just had to kiss him.
“The love of your life?” Ray asked between kisses.
Ben nodded. “For the rest of my life.” He began to unbutton Ray’s shirt and slip it from his shoulders.
“Lovers,” Ray murmured.
“No”, Benton corrected him. “Partners. Partners for life.”
“I like that term,” Ray grinned as he toed off his still untied boots.
Benton smiled as his hands slipped into the back of Ray’s pants. With his lips, he latched onto the soft dip just above Ray’s clavicle for a time. As he licked at the mark he had left, Ben whispered, “You were right,”
“About what?” Ray panted.
“This train,” Ben explained. “It is worth the risks we take in trying to catch it. The reward is well worth the risk. I know that now.”
Ray threw back his head and laughed with delight. “All aboard!” he crowed. “This is going to be one hell of a ride.”
“A long ride,” Ben added.
Ray kissed him hard. “The rest of our lives,” he vowed.