Thank you kindly to my wonderful beta, TAE.
Only one Mountie stood at attention in front of Inspector Thatcher to receive the morning’s instructions. There should have been two.
“Where’s Constable Fraser?” she demanded of Turnbull.
“I don’t know sir, I haven’t seen him all morning.”
“He hasn’t called?”
“That’s not like him. Something must be wrong.” Turnbull watched his boss’s expression go from annoyance to worry. He was just a little sorry to think that if he himself had been the one unaccounted for, the expression would probably have stayed the same. That the pretty Inspector should worry about Fraser was no big surprise, still Turnbull felt cheated. He himself was taller and thinner than Fraser and not ugly, he figured, by any means. Still nobody beat Constable Fraser for cuteness and there was nothing to be done about it.
“He could have called from his neighbour’s phone.”
Thatcher was a woman of decisive action. “Turnbull, bring around one of the cars. We’re going to Constable Fraser’s apartment.”
As soon as they entered the main hallway of Fraser’s tenement they knew something was very, very wrong. Diefenbaker was howling. They raced up the stairs, (knowing it would be faster than the rickety, ancient elevator) then down the hall to Fraser’s door. Diefenbaker’s howls changed to whines and yelps as he heard the presence of people outside the door. Turnbull aimed his shoulder at the door, but Thatcher stopped him.
“He usually leaves it open, Constable.” She turned the handle and they went in.
Dief jumped on her and yipped with relief, then led them to the bedroom. There was Fraser, still in his bed and still in his red flannel long johns. He was sweating and moaning slightly, showing no awareness of anyone entering the room. Thatcher touched his forehead, gingerly.
“He’s burning up. Constable, find a thermometer.”
Turnbull located one easily in Fraser’s medicine cabinet and brought it to her. Thatcher leaned over her deputy and held the thermometer near his face. “Fraser, I want to take your temperature.” Fraser only grunted.
“Constable, open your mouth.” Nothing happened. He was oblivious. Embarrassed, she shook his shoulder slightly. “Constable?”
“Mmmm…I don’t want to go to school today, Grandmother…I don’t feel well.” Fraser muttered, sick but grammatical.
Thatcher sighed. She sat down on the bed and tried to sound as “grandmotherly” as possible. “Now Fra…Benton…open your mouth. Grandmother just wants to take your temperature.” Again she tried to get the thermometer between his lips, but he just twisted away, grunting.
“We’re going to have to try something else.”
“Sir?” Turnbull didn’t like where this might be going.
“I can’t take his temperature orally. Constable, take down his…underwear.”
Turnbull didn’t move.
Thatcher insisted. “Turnbull, that’s an order.”
Threat of a firing squad couldn’t have made Turnbull obey.
“Oh, really” declared the Inspector. She bent down over her wriggling deputy and managed, with a little wrestling, to expose his left arm and shoulder. Then she slipped the thermometer under his armpit and pressed his upper arm against his body to hold it in place. “Now time me five minutes, Turnbull. You can do that much, can’t you?”
Thatcher started breathing just a little harder at the feel of Fraser’s bare, sweating tricep under her hand. Five minutes passed quickly. She removed thermometer, read it, and gasped.
“Almost a hundred and five! Turnbull, get him under the shower. Lukewarm water. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“But do I have to undress him?”
“No! There’s no time. Hurry!”
Turnbull hefted his colleague onto his shoulder with a fireman’s lift. Weakened with fever, Fraser offered little resistance, except for squirming. Turnbull carried him to the bathroom, turned on the shower with one hand, balancing Fraser with the other, and stepped in.
When the paramedics arrived they saw a sight that they described to their friends over beers that night – a Canadian Mountie (not realizing there was no other kind of Mountie) standing in full uniform under a shower, still wearing his hat. Flung over his back - another man in red flannel underwear, both shivering very hard.
Thatcher brought them up to date as they strapped Fraser to a stretcher.
“Sounds like that Thai flu going around. Chicago Hope has a special ward set up for that. How long has he had this fever?”
“I don’t know” replied Thatcher. “We just got here.”
“So it could have been, like, hours?” insisted the paramedic.
“I’ve no way of knowing.”
The paramedic pursed his lips. “That’s not good,” he ventured. “You coming along, lady?”
Thatcher nodded. Following the attendants with the stretcher down the stairs she called back to Turnbull “Take care of the wolf, Constable. And notify Detective Vecchio.”
Ray Vecchio was in Lt. Welsh’s office, in an unusual position: he was sitting down. Usually, whenever he was in his superior’s office, he was standing at attention in front of Welsh’s desk and on the proverbial carpet. For the last couple of years the Mountie was usually standing at his side, absorbing some of the blame. But then, most times, Fraser was also the cause of the trouble in the first place, so it was little consolation.
This morning, however, Ray sat on one side of Welsh’s desk, Welsh sat in his own chair, and sitting on the other side was Louise St. Laurent. Ray was leaning down, elbows on the desk, head between his palms, while the other two ‘discussed’ his testimony in a recent drug case. They hadn’t been pleased with Ray’s version of the event. Ray’s cell phone rang and he hoped it was a diversion to get him out of there.
“Detective Vecchio? This is Constable Turnbull.”
Ray sat bolt upright. Turnbull calling him? That could only mean Benny was… “Hurt or dead, Turnbull? Tell me!”
“Nobody is either, Detective. Inspector Thatcher told me to tell you Constable Fraser has come down with the flu.”
Ray slumped back down with relief. “Flu? Don’t you have chicken soup in Canada, Turnbull?”
“We do, indeed. I, myself, have an excellent recipe,” replied Turnbull, taking him literally, “but Constable Fraser isn’t in Canada, right now. He’s in Chicago Hope.”
“Hospital?” Ray popped back up again in alarm.
“I’m afraid so, yes. We found him in his apartment with a high fever. He was quite delirious at the time.” Turnbull left out the part about the shower.
“And who’s taking care of Dienfenbaker?”
“I am, Detective. He’s worried, but he’s fine.”
“Well, thanks for letting me know, Turnbull.” Ray hung up. Welsh and St. Laurent looked at him questioningly, curious about why he had been bobbing up and down. “Fraser’s in the hospital. He’s got that Thai Flu that’s going around.”
Welsh frowned. “We haven’t wanted to alarm the public, but they’re dropping like flies from that.”
St. Laurent nodded in agreement. She had no great love for “Big Red”, but she wasn’t a monster. “You’d better go see him, Vecchio. While you still can.”
Ray looked to Welsh for permission.
“Go,” said the lieutenant. Ray dashed to the Riv, slapped the police flasher onto the roof and broke every traffic law in the city to get to the hospital.
Chicago Hope was a crowded and busy place. In just the one hour that Meg had been sitting there, she’d heard that two more cases flu came in and one death had occured. Hordes of worried relatives scavenged the corridors for spare chairs.
Ray found Fraser’s room, and Thatcher sitting by the bed. No matter how often he saw his friend in a hospital bed (and it was way, way too often) it always shocked him. Fraser lying helpless was very, very wrong; Fraser unconscious put Ray’s universe out of kilter.
“How is he?”
“Not good, Detective.” Thatcher answered. “They’re giving him drugs to lower the fever, but he’s responding very slowly. Some kind of resistance, they say.”
* That’s just like you, Benny. Can’t you co-operate just this once, man? * Ray thought.
“They’ve told me he has a fifty/fifty chance of pulling through,” she continued. “He was in a high fever, probably for hours. It weakened him.” Thatcher’s voice was calm, professional. She could have been discussing a police case of mutual interest. Ray knew, of course, it was a façade and inside she was almost as worried as he, himself, was.
Chairs being a scare commodity, Ray, with a shrug, sat down on the end of Fraser’s bed. The two of them sat wordless, watching Fraser toss and moan. From time to time the Mountie babbled, sounding to Ray like he had sounded that night they slept by a campfire beside their wrecked plane in the forest. Ray couldn’t make any of the words out, if they were words at all.
A couple of hours slowly passed. From time to time nurses changed Fraser’s IV, took his vitals, and wrote on a clipboard. Once, a doctor came by. After examining Fraser he asked Ray and Thatcher if they were Fraser’s next of kin. Fraser kept talking in his delirium, saying nothing coherent. The other two were mostly silent, watching.
Then Fraser blurted out something that sounded distinguishable. “Mi…randa…” It sounded like a name, and Fraser uttered it in a voice as pathetic as Ray as ever heard. “Miranda…” Fraser repeated. Eyes closed, oblivious, he whined for awhile, like a puppy dog.
Then again he called out, loudly and sharply but still unaware of his surroundings “Miranda! Don’t leave me! Stay with me!”
Ray and Meg were mesmerized. Meg spoke first.
“Does he know a Miranda?” She figured that, as Fraser’s best friend, he would know if anyone would.
“Never mentioned a Miranda to me. But Fraser doesn’t talk about his past.” Ray realized that was inaccurate. Fraser talked incessantly about his past, bizarre exploits of his father, experiences with Inuit hunters, strange episodes on ice flows. Only… “I mean not his personal life kind of past.”
After the last outburst, Fraser fell silent and so did Ray and Meg, for awhile. Then Meg spoke up again. “Miranda. That could be from Shakespeare. Constable Fraser is fond of the Bard.”
“The Tempest. Miranda was the magician’s daughter.”
“What did she do?”
“Walk around being beautiful and innocent, mostly. And have people love her.”
“You’re describing Benny.”
Thatcher wasn’t amused. “You know that line ‘Oh brave new world that has such creatures in it.’ Miranda says that in the play.”
Ray didn’t know the line and didn’t care. “Quoting Shakespeare while he’s delirious. That’s just like Fraser. But I don’t think that’s it.” Ray tried to remember any Mirandas he’d ever heard of. “We read people their Miranda rights. Could that be it?”
Meg gave him an exasperated look. Then after some thought, she came up with another theory. “There’s Carmen Miranda. Actually, she was a very talented and very accomplished woman. Hollywood turned her into a joke. I always thought that was very unjust. Maybe Fraser does, too?”
“I don’t think that’s who he means,” said Ray. “I know. Star Trek. There was this blind woman. She was jealous of Spock because he was a better telepath than she was.”
Thatcher looked puzzled.
“Vulcans are natural telepaths,” Ray explained.
It still meant nothing to Thatcher. “No.” Meg finally answered. “Fraser doesn’t watch much television. I don’t think he’d have Star Trek in his subconscious mind.”
Suddenly, Fraser called out again, “Miranda…please…I need you!”
“Wow.” breathed Ray.
After a little while, Fraser’s skin lightened from feverish red back to its usual fair, Fraser-colour. He stopped tossing and he breathed steadily and easily. The babbling also stopped and he seemed to be sleeping normally.
The next nurse that came in confirmed that his temperature had dropped to normal. The next doctor that came in warned them against being too hopeful.
“There’s really no treatment for this kind of viral infection. It’ll just have to run its course. I’m afraid his system has been weakened badly.”
“Is he going to make it or not?” Ray wanted something definite.
“To be honest, there’s no way to know. I’m sorry that’s not very helpful.. I’d say, if he makes it through the next twenty-four hours, he’ll probably be all right. Let them know at the nursing station if there’s anyone you think should be called.” The doctor went on to the next of the many cases.
“I wonder if they’d know where to find Miranda,” said Ray to himself. Then to Meg he said “Look Inspector, I don’t think we can both make it non-stop through twenty-four hours even if we wanted to. Let’s organize watches. I’ll call my sister. Maybe you could get Turnbull?”
Meg thought that was a good idea. They each placed calls and a system was set up so that each of the four would sit guard six hours, around the clock, and call the other three if there was any change one way or the other. Francesca offered to take the first watch. Bruno’s Fine Meats found itself without a check-out girl within ten minutes of Francesca hearing of the plan.
Francesca arrived at the hospital with a cut glass bowl and a delicately embroidered handkerchief. She filled the bowl with water. Whenever anybody passed by the bed, she dipped the hanky prettily into the bowl and dabbed at the sleeping Mountie’s brow. It was a charming picture but medically useless. Once she was safely installed at her post, Ray drove the Inspector back to the Consulate. He walked her up to the door.
“You may as well come in, Detective. I’ll have Turnbull make us some coffee. I don’t think any of us will get much work done today.”
Ray followed her in. Over coffee and donuts, they brought Turnbull up to date. He suggested they check Constable Fraser’s personnel file for any mention of a Miranda. There was none. There was nothing else to do but wait, so Ray decided to go home. He still had some time until it was his turn to watch - assuming his partner lasted that long. He knew Francesca would call immediately if there was anything to tell. Ray needed comfort. He needed his mama.
When Ray got home, Ma Vecchio held his head against her ample bosom and let him cry out his worry over his friend. Then she calmed him and fed him. Over a bowl of pastafazool, Ray told his mother about the mystery of Miranda.
“Ma, you know what I’m going to do?” Ray declared, “I’m going to find this Miranda, whoever she is, and I’m going to bring her to him.”
“How are you going to find her, Raimondo? All you have a name.”
“Ma, what do I do for a living?”
“You’re a detective, caro. A very good one, too.”
“Right. So what do detectives do? We find people, don’t we? What kind of a detective am I if I can’t find someone for my best friend - when he may be dying?”
Ma Vecchio sat down at the table and took her son’s two hands in her own. “Raimondo. I know you want to help Benito. But think this through, sweetheart. This Miranda person. If she wanted to be with him, why would they be apart now? Maybe you should just leave this alone.”
“Ma, my gut tells me this is the right thing to do.”
Ma Vecchio went to the freezer and got him out some gelato for dessert. “Just be careful.”
There was no sense in going back to the station. Ray knew Welsh wouldn’t expect him to be there when the Mountie was in danger. Ray drifted up to his bedroom and lay down on his bed. Where to begin the search for Miranda?
First of all, who might she be? Someone from Chicago? Not likely. Fraser spent most of his off hours with Ray. How could he have managed to become so close to someone as to call her name at death’s door, and Ray not know about it? Someone from home, then. The Canadian north was a big place. Who would know about Benny’s past?
Two people came to mind. There was Gerrard, presently serving a life term for killing Benny’s father. Before that he had been Bob Fraser’s best friend on the force. They went to the Academy together. Gerrard would have no reason to help now, that was for sure.
Buck Frobisher then. Bob Fraser’s partner for years. Ray and Sgt Frobisher knew each other well enough for Ray to ask him for help. Ray had the impression Sgt Frobisher thought of the younger Fraser as his own son, sometimes. He loved Benny as much as…well just about as much as anybody who knew him, really. So if anyone would know who Miranda was, and also be willing to tell Ray, it had to be Buck Frobisher.
Ray thought back about his own quip about how Benny walked around having everybody love him. It wasn’t a joke. What was it about Fraser that made just about everybody (St. Laurent being the exception that proved the rule) want to take care of him? The good looks? Not enough to explain it. There were many handsome men in the world and most of them were pricks. Maybe his child-like ways.
Ray smiled to himself, remembering the first time he and Fraser had met. Fraser blew Ray’s cover when he was trying to take down the biggest garment dealer in the city for buying stolen merchandise. Benny hadn’t been at all embarrassed at the time, but only commented, with that annoying innocence of his, ‘Isn’t that entrapment?’ It never seemed to Ray that someone like Fraser could function as a policeman, yet he had been with the RCMP thirteen years before ever coming to Chicago on the trail of his father’s killer.
Ray got out of bed and drove back to the Canadian Consulate. Turnbull was standing rigidly on guard at the front door. That caused a catch in Ray’s throat. It was Fraser’s job to do that. Seeing Ray, Turnbull did the unthinkable. He talked while on guard duty.
“Detective Vecchio? Is there any news?” Of course he thought Ray was there because of some change in Fraser’s condition.
“No, sorry, Turnbull. I just want to talk the Inspector about something. What are you doing on guard duty? Didn’t I hear the Inspector give you the day off before?”
“Oh, yes she did. But I’d rather work. I’m just too worried to be idle.”
Standing outside the Consulate door, forbidden to move or speak didn’t sound like much of an improvement over being ‘idle’, but if it made Turnbull feel better, then to each his own. Ray didn’t dare make any comment. Fortunately Turnbull didn’t expect any.
“Then why are you here, Detective?” Turnbull wanted to know.
Ray didn’t see any reason to keep Turnbull in the dark. He knew the other Mountie worshipped Fraser and would approve of his efforts. “I want her to help me find Miranda. I’m going to track her down and bring her to Fraser. Hopefully before its too late.”
“Oh, Detective, what a romantic notion! He’ll see her again…a joyful reunion…I’ll take you to Inspector Thatcher right away.”
“You mean you’re going to leave the door while on guard? The Dra…Inspector will have your head, Turnbull.”
“Not if it’s about Constable Fraser,” Turnbull said this just a little sadly. He took Ray in and escorted him to the Inspector’s office, then went back to guard duty. Ray outlined his reasoning and asked Thatcher for Frobisher’s number. Her reaction surprised him.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea, Detective.”
“You’re not? You think there’s somebody else I should call instead?”
“No” replied Thatcher. “I mean I don’t think it’s a good idea to go looking for this woman, whoever she may be.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Look, Detective. May I call you ‘Ray’?” Thatcher got up from behind her desk and walked over to a window, looking out pensively. Then she turned back. “Look, Ray, I know you want to help Fraser. But it sounds to me like this woman left him for some reason. Do you really want to hurt him more at this time? I advise against this, most strongly.”
“Then you won’t give me the number.”
“I’m sorry, I’d really rather not.”
Something about this wasn’t right. “I can get the number somewhere else, but it will take me much longer. Benny could die in the meantime.” Then Ray knew what was wrong. Of course. Thatcher loved Fraser herself. She wouldn’t welcome any reunion between Fraser and a lost love. Neither would Frannie, come to think of it.
“Inspector. Meg. You’re the official RCMP liaison officer. I’m on the Chicago P D. I’m making, oh, lets say, an official request. Please put me in touch with Sgt Frobisher.”
“This isn’t an official matter, it’s personal. If you want to make it official, you’ll have to send me a written request signed by your commanding officer.”
“Meg, please, this is for Fraser.”
Thatcher went back to her desk. She consulted her computer, called up an address list and printed off Sgt Frobisher’s address, telephone, fax and email address. She ripped it off the printer, an abrupt motion showing her annoyance, and handed it to Ray. “This is against my better judgement, Ray. But if you feel you have to do this, out of friendship for Constable Fraser, I won’t stand in your way. Just, please be very careful.”
Ray remembered his mother had said the same thing
Ray now headed the Riv back to the 27th. Time to go to work. For Benny. From his own desk, he called Frobisher.
“Yes, Detective. What can I do for you?” Sgt Frobisher’s voice on the phone had its usual warm, fatherly, friendly tone.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news, Sergeant. Constable Fraser’s very sick. He’s in the hospital. He may die.”
“My God. What’s happened?”
Ray told him the story so far.
“Then, I suppose you think I know who this Miranda is?”
“I think you might, yes. Please Sergeant. If there’s any way you can help?”
Ray sensed reluctance over the phone line, even thousands of miles away with the northern wind howling in the background.
“Detective, you know Benton values his privacy. Bob was the same. We were partners for twenty years and he never told me any more than he had to about any personal matter. That’s just the way he was. That’s just the way Benton is.”
“I understand that. So you do know her.”
“I never met the woman, but yes, I know whom you’re talking about. Her name is Miranda Green. Last I heard, she was the manager of the CIBC in Dawson City. That would be three years ago. I don’t know if she’s still there, but I imagine they could help you track her down if she isn’t.”
Pay dirt! Ray rejoiced as much as he could with Fraser’s life still in danger. “CIBC?”
“Sorry, I forget you’re a Yank. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. I don’t know the address. Wouldn’t be hard to find.”
“Sergeant, you haven’t told me what her connection to Fraser is.”
“No, and I don’t intend to. If you want to locate this woman, that’s your business. But I suggest you be very careful what you say to her. My understanding is that it was a delicate situation. I can tell you Benton was very impressed that she worked at the same CIBC as Robert Service.”
“Is he someone I should talk to?”
“Robert Service, the Canadian poet. For his day job he worked at the bank in Dawson City. You’ve heard of him?”
“Oh, yes, I remember. ‘There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who toil for gold’.” Ray remembered the line and quoting it to Fraser that time in the wilderness.
“Moil for gold,” corrected Frobisher.
“Right, that’s what Benny said. Please give her my cell phone number, I’ll be leaving for the hospital soon.” Ray supplied him with the number. “Thanks for your help,” he concluded.
Frobisher was telling him to be careful, now, and mentioning a “delicate situation”. Did Benny get this woman pregnant? That was the way Frobisher and Benny himself might just phrase it. Winter nights in the north were long and cold. Benny was a babe in the woods with women, but certainly a bank manager was a practical person. Wouldn’t she take precautions? No more speculating. Ray was hot on the trail now.
The internet is a detective’s best friend, after his Mountie. Ray got Elaine to call up the main website of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce on her computer and linked her way along to the branch in Dawson City. Here she got the telephone number, address, hours of operation, GIC rates, latest mortgage deals and best of all, confirmation that the branch manager was still Ms Miranda Green. Elaine was better at hiding her crush on Fraser than the other women were. Ray had no idea, sitting beside her at the computer, that she could barely concentrate on the screen. Engrossed in his own plan, he didn’t even notice that her hands were trembling and her eyes misty.
“You’ll let me know how Fraser is?” she asked as Ray jotted down the number on a yellow legal pad and headed back to his own desk.
“Ummm,” answered Ray, thinking about what he was going to say to Miranda. Back at his own desk, he mentally girded his loins, sat up straight, took a deep breath and dialed.
“Thank you for calling the CIBC. How may I direct your call?”
“Miranda Green, please.”
“Yes sir. The extention is 139. I’ll connect you.”
“Wait, before you connect me, could you tell me if its Miss or Missus? I’m addressing a letter to her.”
“It’s our policy to use Ms for everyone, sir.”
Ray tried to fashion his voice into that of a doddering old geezer. “Oh, I just hate these new-fangled titles. I tell you, Missy, in my time we knew when a lady…”
“It’s Miss Green, sir. I’ll connect you now.”
Not married. Ray mentally filed that piece of information away while listening to a recorded voice trying to sell him an RRSP. He didn’t know what an RRSP was, but it sounded like something good to have. Finally…
“Green.” The single syllable was crisp, precise, in control. Well why not? She’d been manager of the same bank for at least three years. The voice was just a little higher pitched than Ray expected, but very professional. Here we go, thought Ray.
“Ms Green, we haven’t met. My name is Vecchio, and I’m calling from Chicago.”
“Was I expecting your call, Mr. Vecchio?”
“Well, no, but I’m with the…”
“Then I’m sorry, but I really am very busy right now. I’m sure my secretary can help you with whatever you need. I’ll connect you with her.”
“No, Ms Green, this is personal. I’m a detective with the Chicago police and…”
“Yes, I’m sure you are. If you’d like to call back and talk to my secretary, her extention is 142. She’ll be very happy to help you at any time.” She hung up on him.
Damn! Ray called Frobisher back.
“She wouldn’t talk to you, eh?” Frobisher didn’t seem surprised.
“I don’t think she believes I’m with the police. I mean I can’t exactly show her my badge over the phone. Sergeant, could you sort of introduce me? Officially, like RCMP business.”
“Detective, I still don’t think Benton would want you to do this. Does it occur to you that he might think you’re meddling in his affairs?”
“Sergeant, if Fraser lives, I won’t care if he thinks I’m meddling, and if he dies, I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t try. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes. I guess I would have done the same for Bob. Give me the number and I’ll see what I can do.You’ll let me know as soon as there’s any news about Benton?”
It was getting close to the time Ray was due at the hospital to take over. He called Francesca for an update. There was no change for either the better or worse. Fraser was still asleep and still holding his own. For that much, Ray was grateful. As he was finishing his conversation with his sister his call-waiting sounded.
“This is Miranda Green. Are you Detective Vecchio?”
“Yes, I am. Thank you for calling back so quickly.”
“The RCMP contacted me. They said it was important. Are you really a detective? I’ve never spoken to a detective before. What am I supposed to call you?” This time she sounded more like a nice lady and less like a busy banker.
“ ‘Detective’ is fine.”
“Then, Detective, I have to tell you I think there’s been some mistake. I don’t know anyone in Chicago. I’ve never even been there.”
“Do you know a Constable Benton Fraser?”
The long pause on the other end told Ray she certainly did. When she finally spoke her voice was so low Ray wasn’t sure he was hearing her right.
“I thought I knew him.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Nothing. A private reference. Yes, I know Ben. I didn’t know he was in the States.” Ray was taken aback by the unspoken end of that sentence. From her tone, it was clear what she wanted to say: ‘And I don’t care’.
“What can I do for you, Detective?” the woman continued. Ray decided to heed everyone’s advice to be careful. He started with the least he could.
“Constable Fraser is gravely ill. There’s a chance he won’t survive. We have reason to believe you would be interested in knowing that.”
Her cold, detached reply shocked him straight through. “Oh really. Why?”
This was an answer for which Ray was not ready at all. “Well, we just thought…”
“Detective, I haven’t been in contact with Ben for some years now. Whatever he may be doing, its no concern of mine. Now, if you will excuse me, we’re in the middle of our year end closure of accounts, the auditors are due next week and I really don’t have any more time for this.”
She was rushing him off too fast. Whatever the story was, it had to be juicy.
“Ms Green, are you sure you wouldn’t like me to call you back and let you know if Constable Fraser lives?”
“That won’t be necessary. If the bastard dies, you can rest assured it’s no more than he deserves.”
The key word of that sentence crashed in Ray’s ears all the harder because she didn’t emphasize it in any way. It was as calm and icy a denounciation as he’d ever heard.
“I really must be getting back to work. Now, is there anything else?”
“No, I…” Ray was too stunned to think of anything else.
“Then thank you kindly for calling. Good-bye.” She was gone, again.
Ray snapped his cellphone shut, leaned back in his chair and tried to think straight. If Fraser’s sickness had unsettled the universe, this last conversation had smashed all laws of physics. She hated him. If he dropped dead, she’d be just as happy.
The bigger picture was too much for Ray to take in, so his mind focused for a time on smaller issues. She had said ‘Thank you kindly’. Did she get that habit from Fraser, or Fraser from her? Or did everybody in the north say that?
Something else seemed familiar. ‘Now, is there anything else?’ That’s exactly what he had said to Fraser that first day they met. ‘Oh yes, the dead Mountie thing. As if I couldn’t have guessed. Look, I have your list of names in my basket. When I had a chance I was going to go to the computer, and call you with the information so you can go get your boy scout badge. Now, is there anything else?’
Then Fraser’s answer, which Ray could never forget. ‘Yes. The dead Mountie was my father.’
Ray had felt like a heel. So he made some inquiries, went to pick up a wolf in quarantine, got blown up, and then went up to Canada and got shot at. When it was all over, Fraser was his brother.
Ray looked at the clock on the wall over his desk. It was time to take his turn watching over his brother. He headed back to the hospital.
Francesca abandoned the head-dabbing routine early in her shift, since nobody seemed to be noticing. She spent some time watching Fraser sleep, taking in details she never had the opportunity to, before. His hands, for example. Usually they were clenched behind his back, and she’d never really looked at them carefully. They were so small for a man his size, the fingers pudgy like a little child’s.
Time passed and when it seemed Fraser wasn’t going to either wake up or die in the next little while, she began to get bored. A call from Thatcher was a welcome diversion. She assured Meg there was no change and the two women fell to chatting, sharing their worry.
Then Meg asked, “By the way, Miss Vecchio, how is your brother progressing in his search for Miranda?”
Francesca hadn’t heard anything about this and demanded a full report from Thatcher. When Ray arrived to take over she launched into him.
“How could you not tell me about this? You’re going looking for her?”
Ray tried to keep his composure. “I’m not looking for her, Frannie. I’ve found her. I just talked to her before I came.” Ray repeated the conversation. To his surprise, his sister was nowhere near as shocked as he had been.
“She obviously still loves him,” was her diagnosis.
“No, Frannie, she hates him. She called him a ‘bastard’ and wants him dead.”
“Bro, you’re an idiot. You can’t hate a person that much, unless you love him. Don’t they teach you anything in detective school? You should let me talk to her. I’ll get the truth. Woman to woman.”
“Why would you want to? The Dragon Lady doesn’t. If Benny gets this Miranda back, you’re both out of the picture.”
“You just don’t get this love stuff, do you, big brother? First, Fraze has to live. That’s the most important thing. Next, he has to be happy. I’d rather he was happy with me, but if he needs her more, she’s the one he should have.”
Ray put his arms around his sister. “Go home and rest, baby.” He kissed her forehead, then picked up her purse, handed it to her and walked her to the elevator. “Be nice to Ma. She’s worried, too.” Then he went back and sat down beside Fraser.
Francesca had never been to detective school, but she knew her way around any telephone. While Ray was hugging her she lifted his cellphone and stashed it in the waistband of her skirt. She got safely outside the hospital building and began tapping at the buttons on the phone until she figured out the automatic re-dial. With any luck, Ray hadn’t called anyone else after he’d talked to this Miranda. She didn’t know Miranda’s last name, but the receptionist who answered the phone certainly did. Francesca, in her turn, listened without comprehension to the RRSP spiel, then was connected.
“Ms Green, my name is Francesca Vecchio.”
“What? Mrs. Vecchio, I told your husband and I’m telling you…”
“He’s not my husband, honey, he’s my brother. Now what’s between you and Fraze, that you’re so mean about him?”
“I don’t believe this!” Miranda seemed to be losing her banker’s composure. “I swear if anybody calls me about Ben again, I’m going to notify the RCMP. Now LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Francesca flinched when Miranda slammed down the receiver. “Touchy,” she observed. Then she dialled the Consulate, still on Ray’s phone, to consult with Meg.
Meanwhile, Ray decided to call home to talk to his mother, and found his phone missing. He barrelled out of Fraser’s room and took the elevator down to see if he could still catch up with Francesca. There, indeed, she was, chatting away. He tore his phone angrily from her hand, they bickered briefly in Italian, and Francesca stalked off in a huff.
In her office, Ms Green could no longer focus her attention on work. Two calls about Ben in the space of an hour - three, if you counted that Sergeant. She needed a valium, but the price of that peace would be several hours of being inefficient and she couldn’t afford the time. She buzzed her secretary and asked, apologetically, for coffee. Anne knew from the request that Ms Green was upset about something. She always got her own coffee.
Miranda folded her arms on her desk and dropped her head wearily onto them. Not Ben. Not now. She raised her head again at the sound of her office door opening and her secretary coming in with coffee and a cinnamon bun.
“How’d you know I needed that?” asked Miranda, meaning the cinnamon bun.
“You sounded upset.”
“I’m fine. Thank you kindly, Anne.” A cinnamon bun wasn’t valium, but it would have to do.
Anne didn’t leave the office right away. She paused at the doorway and looked hard at her boss, with her eyebrows raised in inquiry.
“I’m fine. Really.” Miranda said, “Are you finished with Schedule 12? The auditors…”
“…are coming next week. I know.”
Anne left the office and sat back down at her own desk. The words ‘thank you kindly’ had tipped her off that Ms Green had been thinking about that no-good, son-of-a-bitch Mountie.
She wondered if perhaps she should go back in and force her boss to open up. Seven years past retirement age, Anne considered anyone who occupied that office to be her child. Miranda was her sixth such child, her first daughter, and Anne felt especially protective because of that. Ms Green looked so normal from the outside: medium height, medium weight, medium length non-descript brown hair hanging straight to her medium-sized shoulders. All her work wardrobe was the same: skirted suits and blouses. But Ms Green had a hidden quirky side, evidenced by her calling her drab wardrobe her “accountant’s uniform”. She also had a temper that she had to work hard to control.
Thatcher had been honest in her belief that this Miranda person should by no means be contacted. But it seemed to her, after talking to Francesca, that the Americans had botched the situation badly, aided by that moronic Frobisher. Meg looked inside herself and realized that if she really cared for Fraser, she’d do what was best for him, not what was best for herself. That being resolved, her dominant nature took over and she figured she should take matters into her own hands.
She sat down to her computer and, as had Elaine before her, clicked her way to Miranda’s telephone number. She too, listened to the RRSP pitch, being the first of the group to know that it meant a Registered Retirement Savings Plan. She made a mental note that the rates offered were marginally better than the ones she was earning now. Finally, she was connected.
The call found Miranda just licking the last traces of cinnamon from her fingers and realizing there were coffee stains on her printouts of the Prepaid Expenses. Half of her coffee remained in her mug. She picked up the line, hoping against hope that it was work-related.
“Ms Green, I’m Inspector Margaret Thatcher.”
That startled the banker. “Any relation?” she asked.
“Never mind,” said Miranda. “You were saying?”
“I’m calling about Constable Fraser. I understand you’ve spoken to the Vecchios, already.”
“That’s it!” declared Miranda, “Isn’t there anything else to do in Chicago except talk about Benton Fraser? Don’t you people have lives? I’ve had enough of this harrassment! I’m calling the Mounties!”
“I am the Mounties. I’m Constable Fraser’s commanding officer in Chicago. Could we talk a moment?”
Miranda was now totally lost. “Look, Inspector Blair,…”
“Thatcher.” Corrected Meg.
“Whatever. Just tell me, what is it you people want?”
“I’m not sure, I… I suppose what we want, Ms Green, is for you to come down to Chicago.”
Miranda knocked over the rest of her coffee, completely obscuring the already stained Prepaid Expenses. “What!”
Meg took the plunge. “Fraser was delirious for several hours and he called out the name ‘Miranda’, over and over again.”
“So, that’s what this is all about. Poor Ben. Sweet, lovable, adorable little Mountie. Do you want to know why he was calling my name? Guilt, that’s why. Well, you know what? It took me two years of therapy to get over that lowlife. I wouldn’t come down there if my life depended on it!”
Meg had to try just one more time. “What if HIS life depended on it?”
This was becoming more than Miranda could handle. She knew she had to get control of herself somehow. Miranda employed on herself a technique she liked to use when one of the bank employees was overly stressed. She closed her eyes, mentally put her two hands on her own two shoulders, looked herself sternly in the eye and said to herself, ‘Green. Breathe’. The tactic gave her back just enough control to allow her to take the offensive
“I have had enough of this. Inspector, would you spell your name for me, please?”
Thatcher, as civil servant, complied and at Miranda’s further request gave the spelling of her commanding officer’s name, his location and his telephone number.
“Good. Thank you. If I hear anything more about this, I promise you I’ll contact your superiors.”
For the last time that day, Miranda hung up on a call from Chicago. She surveyed the mess on her desk for a moment, then went to the bathroom and came back with both fists clutching paper towels to clean the coffee off her desk. She stopped at Anne’s desk to ask her to reprint all the Prepaid Expense reports. In response, Anne relieved her of the paper towels and ordered her boss to go home. Miranada gratefully obeyed, auditors or no. When Turnbull called, just before leaving for his stint, it was Anne who took the call and told him Ms Green had left for the day.
When Fraser first woke up, he lay with his eyes closed, taking in the reports from his senses. First, the sense of touch. He felt cotton against his skin, not the familiar flannel. But only his upper arms and torso were covered. His feet, legs and, oh dear, his privates, were all bare. But these were mercifully covered by … what? Not the familiar, itchy Hudson’s Bay blanket. A cotton sheet. This felt like a hospital. He expanded his awareness to sounds and smells. Yes, a hospital. But what had happened to him?
Eyes still closed, he made a mental inventory of his own body. Where was any pain? Only in one place, it seemed. The top of his left hand. Thinking about it, albeit groggily, he decided that if he were indeed in the hospital, this must be the IV needle. Nothing else felt damaged, so he wasn’t injured. A disease? A memory formed. He was laying in his own bed, feeling hot and wondering whether for this once to ignore his usual aversion to taking medicine and indulge in some aspirin. That was the last thing he remembered.
His mind cleared a little and he sensed the presence of someone nearby. He hoped it was Ray. He would be embarrassed to be seen like this by anyone else. Then he felt his other hand being taken and held by someone. That would definitely not be Ray. Fraser turned to the side being held. He cracked his eyes slowly against the light, squinted for a moment, and opened his eyes to see his father’s ghost sitting beside his bed and, yes, holding his hand.
“Oh, it’s only you,” he said, relieved.
“Yes, Constable Fraser, it’s me,” answered Turnbull, softly, from behind Fraser’s back. Poor Turnbull expected no better greeting, even though he had taken his turn watching as faithfully as any of the others. Fraser had no awareness of him, yet.
“I can feel you,” continued Fraser to his father. “How are you doing that?”
“I’ve been practising, Working on the hands, trying to get them solid. How are you feeling, son? You gave us quite a scare, you know.”
“I guess you were just sensing how worried I was, Sir,” said Turnbull, a little unsure how to interpret Fraser’s question, “You gave us quite a scare, you know.”
Now Fraser heard the other Mountie and turned to face him. “Turnbull.”
“Thai flu, Sir.”
“How did I get here?”
“You mean to the hospital? Inspector Thatcher and I found you in bed. She took your temperature and called an ambulance. I’m afraid you were delirious, Sir. The Inspector had to undress you.” For Turnbull this was still a key issue.
Turnbull didn’t elaborate on the extent of, nor the reason for, the undressing. Fraser moaned out of sheer humiliation. Why couldn’t it have been Ray that found him? Or Mr. Mustafi? Or anyone else in the world? Then, he remembered Diefenbaker and was just a little ashamed to have momentarily forgotten about him. “Is Diefenbaker all right?”
“He’s fine, Sir. The flu doesn’t seem to affect canines.”
“That’s good. How long have I been here, Turnbull?”
“A little less than a day. Sir, I think I should tell you that you almost died.”
Fraser turned and looked at his father, who nodded confirmation. Fraser twisted around to lay on his back and closed his eyes, already exhausted from the short conversation. He thought, disjointedly, about dying. Constant interaction with his father had made him fear the inevitable much less than he used to. But would anyone miss him? His Chicago friends, yes. But at home? No one. Everyone he cared for from home was gone. They were waiting for him in the next world. No, he did not want to die, not yet, but he did long to see them all again.
His tired, half-asleep mind wandered. He climbed into his mother’s lap, resting his head against her warm breast while she rocked him gently back and forth. She sang an old French-Canadian folk-song. He sang it with her, weakly, but still audible to Turnbull and Bob.
J’entends le moulin, tique, tique, tique,
J’entends le moulin, taque.
Turnbull, listening, saw his colleague’s blissful expression and figured that he was reliving some tender moment. His own eyes welled up with tears.
On Fraser’s other side, his father also listened. He didn’t know that song. Something Caroline must have taught Benton during those long months he had left his family alone.
Mon pere a fait batir maison…
Bob Fraser translated to himself. ‘My father built us a house…’ He gave his son’s hand a squeeze.
The feel of it caused Fraser’s consiousness to shift. He saw, in his mind’s eye, his grandmother approach, brandishing freshly baked bannock on a stick. But she was dead; she couldn’t make him eat it. Ah, then this truly was heaven.
Heaven. Save the best for last. This was where Miranda was waiting for him to come to her, when he had finished all his worldly obligations. Indeed, there she was, standing on the docks by the river in Dawson, the breeze off the water blowing her ridiculously straight hair. She was wearing that one brown suit he hated most of all from her dreary, banker’s wardrobe. He’d never been able to persuade her to throw it out. Never mind. It didn’t matter anymore.
He started towards her, his lungs taking in the stale-fishy air and the motorboat exhaust as he ran along the dock. She held out her arms to him and he took hold of her, bringing her close. He would make love to her later - he was too tired right now. What difference did it make? They had all eternity for that.
Fraser let out a sigh, turned over and drifted away into a deep, healing sleep.
It was the first of November at the CIBC in Dawson City. Truth be told, it was November first everywhere else in the hemisphere, as well. But for Miranda the day after Hallowe’en was a special day - the beginning of the Christmas season at her bank. During the night the cleaners had brought out the Christmas boxes, put up and decorated the trees and scattered other tasteful red and green decorations around the building. One tree, however, they were under instructions to leave bare. Ms Green liked to decorate one herself.
Anne stood beside Miranda, watching her happily hang baubles and listening to her sing ‘Adeste Fideles’ in a careful, just-barely-audible voice. It was good to see her in a happy mood, a much better mood than she had been in for several weeks. Anne, with all her skill, been unable to get Ms Green to confide in her what was wrong. She only guessed it had to do with that Mountie.
“I hope you’re going to get a tree at home this year, Ms Green,” she ventured.
Miranda picked up a silver star, rejected it, picked up a bigger silver star and hung it on the right hand side of the tree. “I don’t think I’ll bother. When you live alone it’s kind of, I don’t know, depressing. I like our bank trees better.”
She hung a star of exactly the same size as the previous one on the exact opposite point on the left hand side of the tree. Realizing what she had done, she chuckled at her own expense. Too many years balancing books, now she was balancing trees. “I haven’t had my own tree since that one year I tried to get Ben to decorate…” She stopped abruptly. “We should be working,” she announced. “Get someone to finish this, would you please, Anne.” She made a beeline for her office.
Walking home from work that evening, along the wooden sidewalks of Dawson City, Miranda decided it was time to get out of her blue funk and try to improve her mood by making a real Yuletide night of it. She stopped at the grocery store for the first litre of eggnog of the season. Then she went to the video store and rented, also for the first time that season, the 1951 version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. In Miranda’s opinion, Alistair Sim was the only believable Ebenezer Scrooge.
The kid behind the counter at the video store winked at her. “Starting early this year, eh? I bet you know every word of that movie.”
“Eric, I can recite the damned thing.”
Miranda left the store, hoping that an evening with her favourite movie would provide her with at least ninety minutes of not having to think about Ben.
That night, Miranda dreamed that she was sitting up in a curtained four-poster bed, wearing a white nightdress and old-fashioned nightcap. Standing at the foot of the bed, who else? The familiar, kindly old face of the Ghost of Christmas Past. He held his hand out to her.
Miranda got out of the bed, still barefoot, went over to the spirit and looked him in the eye. “You’re wasting your time.”
The Spirit’s only answer was to stretch his hand out further toward her.
“Alright, alright, bear but the touch of your hand and I’ll be upheld in more than this,” she quoted and reluctantly touched her forefinger to his.
In an instant she was in Ben’s rooming house. Ben was lounging on the leather recliner she had bought him for his last birthday, the only decent piece of furniture in the room. A huge, undecorated fir tree in a makeshift pot dwarfed the room and both occupants. Miranda stood admiring it. At her feet were the unopened boxes of Christmas ornaments she had bought that afternoon.
“I don’t see why we can’t have that tree in your house,” Ben protested, “This room’s not big enough and you’ve got plenty of space.”
“No, the whole point of this is for YOU to have a tree. I can’t believe you never had one.”
“The origin of the Christmas tree is essentially pagan. Grandmother would never let us have one in the house.”
“Essentially pagan, eh?” Miranda started singing a song a Wiccan friend had once taught her.
‘We’ll go chasing Aphrodite,
She’ll be out there in her nightie.
Gimme that old time religion,
It’s good enough for me.’
Ben came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. “Let’s go chasing Aphrodite,” he purred.
Miranda tried to shake him off but Ben’s encircling arms were too strong.
“Ben, no. Tree first.”
“Blasphemer,” Ben kissed the back of her neck. Miranda shivered. “Tree…” she protested, “We can’t leave it naked.”
“Then let’s keep it company,” suggested Ben. In her dream, Miranda closed her eyes and felt Ben’s body against hers once again. She leaned back against his chest.
Then suddenly Ben was gone. She staggered backwards. The Ghost of Christmas Past was also gone. In his place was the Ghost of Christmas Present, red robes, jolly countenance and all.
“Look upon me!” he declared, “You’ve never seen the like of me before!”
“Yes I have,” muttered Miranda, “at least half a dozen times a year. Let me touch your robe, and let’s go.”
The scene the Spirit took her to was the Cratchit house. In the corner beside the fire, where Tiny Tim was supposed to be, sat Ben. He was leaning, not on a wooden crutch, but on his father’s old rifle. His red tunic was in tatters. On his head, instead of the Stetson, was an old cloth cap.
The Ghost nudged Miranda with his elbow. “Say the line.”
“I won’t. You can’t make me. This is stupid.”
“Say the line,” the Spirit insisted, nudging her harder.
Miranda sighed in exasperation and in an annoyed sing-song she intoned, “Tell-me-Spirit-will-Tiny-Ben-live?” She knew what was coming next. This was so damned predictable.
“If the bastard dies” said the Ghost of Christmas Present, “it’ll no more than he deserves.”
Miranda slapped her forehead with her palm. * I know what’s coming, I know what’s coming *, she thought. Sure enough the scene dissolved and reformed into a creepy Hollywood graveyard. In front of her was the tall, sepulchral figure of Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, black robes, bony fingers and all. As often as she had seen the movie, this image always frightened her. She backed away. The Spirit pointed to a tombstone.
“No way! I know what its going to say. Instead of ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ it’s going to say ‘Benton Fraser’ and I’m supposed to feel all guilty. It’s not fair, I tell you,” she tried to explain to the wraith, “I’m not going to him! He doesn’t deserve it! I’m not going!”
Then the Ghost did something it never had done in the movie. It took off its black robe to reveal a figure in a dearstalker cap, tweed cape and sporting a pipe. “Sherlock Holmes? You’re not in this movie.”
“I’m not Sherlock Holmes; I’m the detective from Chicago” the thing replied.
The Ghost of Christmas Past appeared beside it. Then it, too, transformed - into the dim shape of a woman. It was misty and shimmery - indistinct. It spoke to Miranda in a petulant, whiny voice, obviously chewing gum.
“And I’m his sister, not his wife.”
Miranda looked around for the third Spirit to come back, too. There was the Ghost of Christmas Present, but, oh God, it was turning into Inspector Fenwick, Dudley Do-Right’s boss. “I’m the Mountie’s commanding officer” the cartoon character informed her, with the voice of a woman. “If you want to report me to my superiors, it’s spelled: F…E…N…”
The three strange beings formed a circle around Miranda and started closing in. She woke up, screaming.
No one quite knew how the story of Ray’s call to Miranda first leaked out into the squad room. But it spread from there to the entire station and outward from there to just about everyone Fraser knew. Opinions varied as to whether the Mountie was guilty of some ungentlemanly act, the victim of some hoax, or on the receiving end of some terrible misunderstanding. Nobody was able to stay neutral on the subject. And nobody, not even Ray, dared breathe a word of the controversy to Fraser himself.
At the consulate, Turnbull and Thatcher debated the matter hotly whenever they were sure Fraser was out of the building. The slights of the past took their toll, and Turnbull slowly convinced himself that his idol was, in fact, a dastardly knave.
Fraser could not fail to pick up on this changed attitude, nor to the unusual way people were acting around him. He asked Ray first, and got only an embarrassed denial that anything was wrong. He asked Welsh next and got the same response. Francesca, Ma Vecchio, Turbull - all reacted the same way.
He had the idea of leaving Dief at the 27th with Ray for a day, as a spy. Dief wouldn’t to go along with that plan. He’d almost lost Fraser, and now refused to be away from him for even a few hours.
In desperation, Fraser sought out his last resort.
“Permission to speak freely on a personal matter, sir.” Fraser stood almost at attention; his posture was correct, but he tugged so hard at his collar that it looked to Thatcher, in front of whose desk he was standing, that he might soon pull the seams loose.
“Granted, Constable. What is it?” she said aloud, adding in her mind, * and what did you do to Miranda? *
“Well, sir, for some weeks now, I mean, ever since my illness, it seems to me that people are treating me, I don’t know, well, for the want of a better way of describing the situation, somehow…differently. ”
“What do you mean?” * Why does she hate you? *
“I…I… I’m not sure, really. Constable Turnbull, my American friends, even you, sir, if I may be so forward. It’s as if you’re all somehow embarrassed to talk to me.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken.” * Moron! We want to ask you about Miranda! *
“I was wondering if, perhaps, it had something to do with your seeing me at a disadvantage.”
“You mean seeing you delirious? Anyone can get sick, Fraser. We don’t think any less of you for that.” * Tell me about Miranda, damn it. *
“Then, is there some other reason?”
* Yes! Yes! I can’t talk to you, any more. Every time I look at you, all I can do is wonder why she called you a ‘bastard’! * “I think you’re just imagining it, Fraser.”
“Turnbull has stopped calling me ‘sir’, sir.”
“I thought you didn’t like him calling you that.” * He’s disallusioned. He thinks you maltreated a woman.*
“I don’t. It’s just that, not to be immodest, he seems to have lost respect for me, somehow.”
* Damn it, Fraser, you’ve fallen off your pedestal! But I don’t believe you could have done anything wrong, and neither do the Vecchios. We’re on your side. * “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
Fraser saw this line of inquiry was clearly going nowhere, so he thanked the Inspector, kindly, and asked to be dismissed.
The desk sergeant took stock of the woman standing in front of her. The woman’s severe grey wool suit and white silk blouse said ‘lawyer’ but the woman had no briefcase, nor did she announce her name.
“I’m looking for a Detective Vecchio.”
The sergeant decided to have a little fun at the serious-looking woman’s expense. “Well, we just happen to have one.”
“Only one? Darn, and here I thought they were mass-produced,” said the woman, “I figured you’d have several in stock. Oh well, I don’t suppose you’d lend me the one you have?”
Impressed with the comeback, the sergeant buzzed Ray to come out front, instead of sending the woman to the squadroom to hunt him up herself, as she normally would have done.
Ray came out, introduced himself to the woman and made his own evaluation of her while he did so. Neither pretty nor ugly. Intelligent expression, no make-up, ordinary-looking. Ray’s eye for clothes priced the suit, blouse and matching black leather shoes and purse. Very expensive. He wondered how a woman could pay so much for clothes and still end up looking so drab.
Whatever Miss Drab-Suit wanted, he hoped she would make it quick. He wanted to leave in twenty minutes to pick up Fraser. The Mountie had finally agreed to come over to the Vecchio’s for dinner and Ray knew his mother wanted them home early, so she would have the maximum time to fatten Fraser up.
The woman nodded acknowledgement of Ray’s self-introduction. She extended her hand politely.
“Detective, I don’t know if you remember me, but we talked about a month ago. My name is Green.”
Ray went weak in the knees. “Oh my God, you’re Miranda!”
Every police head within earshot turned to stare. Half of them started whispering to the other half. Miranda noticed and looked around uneasily.
“Is that an unusual name in the States? Why is everyone staring?”
Ray’s answer was to grab Miranda by the wrist, and tow her out of the station and around the back to the parking lot. He threw open the door of the Riv and tried to stuff her in. Miranda cast about in her mind for anything she could remember about defending oneself from kidnapping. Born and raised in the far north, she would have been better prepared had a grizzly bear been trying to put her into a ’72 Buick, in the unlikely event that a bear should take such a notion into its head. As for defense against a man, all she could remember was the standard knee to the groin. Unfortunately Ray was moving around so much she couldn’t get his groin in range.
So instead she just screamed “Help” and tried to push her way past Ray and out of the car. She finally succeeded and took off across the parking lot. Ray caught up with her easily and tackled her from behind. Miranda screamed some more, loud and hard, as she went down.
A uniform, smoking in the parking lot, tossed his cigarette to the ground and hurried over. Seeing that the attacker was only Ray, he relaxed somewhat and helped Miranda to her feet. Ray kept hold of her arm, not letting her get away.
“’Cuff her to me,” Ray told the uniform, who shrugged, complied, handed the key to the handcuffs to Ray and sauntered off, lighting a fresh cigarette.
“Please, Ms. Green, I’m not trying to hurt you. I just want to take you home with me.”
Miranda started to scream again, but Ray cupped his hand over her mouth.
“No, no. I don’t mean… Look, Fraser’s coming to my house for dinner. I just want to take you to where he is.”
Miranda seemed to be calming down. Ray released his hand from her mouth. She tried to brush the gravel from her clothes, and Ray, still attached and unprepared, lost his balance and nearly toppled the two of them again.
“Your house? Then, he’s not dead?”
“No, he made it. Please come talk to him.”
“I’d rather die than talk to him,” Miranda declared, haughtily, “I just came down here to see his grave and satisfy myself that the son-of-a-bitch was really gone.”
* You lie as badly as you dress, lady.* thought Ray. * Francesca was right. You still love Benny like crazy. * “Maybe we could just go someplace and talk?” he suggested.
“Will you let me go?”
“Only if you promise not to run away.”
She sighed. “Very well. I won’t run away.”
“How can I trust you?”
“I give you my word as a money-changer,” she responded.
* Strange sense of humour, * Ray thought, as he undid the handcuffs.
Ray steered Miranda a couple of blocks down the street to a coffee shop, his mind racing with anticipation the whole time. Ray ordered a coffee and a cruller; Miranda surprised him by taking a large hot chocolate and a cream-filled donut. They settled into a booth.
Ray knew when to prompt a witness and when to just let her talk. He waited.
“I’ve been wondering,” she said at last, “Is Ben somebody important now? I mean, if they have detectives looking for people for him. I thought he was still only a constable.”
* Only a constable. Interesting. She loves him but she’s not particularly impressed by him. * “There’s no ‘they’ Ms Green. Just some of us who care about Fraser. He’s my best friend.”
She nodded and stirred the hot chocolate. “So, I guess you’d like to hear the story.”
Ray leaned forward, all ears except for his eyes which had grown so wide they took up half his face.
“Fine. I’ll tell you. You might want to rethink your choice of friends. Three years ago, Ben and I were engaged.”
“To be married?”
“No, Detective, in illegal smuggling. Of course to be married. The last time I talked to Ben was about a week before the wedding. We were going to have a very small wedding: Ben’s dad, his dad’s partner, a couple of my friends.”
“What about your family?”
Miranda took a drink of chocolate. “My family were dead set against my marrying Ben. Had I been young enough to disinherit, I’m sure they would have done it. Most of my friends were against the marriage, too. At least I thought they were my friends.”
This was getting stranger, not clearer. “Why? What’s wrong with Fraser?”
“Nothing as such. I just…” another sip of chocolate, “I had better prospects. And lots of them to choose from. I mean, look at Ben. Still a constable in his thirties. No real future. I could have had…” She trailed off.
Ray didn’t see what there was about Miranda to attract hordes of men. She guessed his thoughts.
“Not because of my looks, obviously. I just happen to be very rich.”
“Richer than you can get on a bank manager’s salary, I take it.”
“Very much so. Family money. An ancestor who got lucky in the gold rush. Let’s just say, rich enough to buy myself a Mountie.”
Ray was immediately indignant. “You’ll never make me believe that!”
“Oh, it’s not as sordid as it sounds. Ben came into my office, one day, fundraising for some group home he was helping to start up. Native kids. Substance abuse. Government money scarce. The usual. My bank gives to a number of worthy causes. And he probably also figured I’d kick in something privately. I’m known around town as a soft touch.”
Another stir. Another sip. Ray’s coffee and cruller remained untouched.
“I found Ben interesting.”
“No, I don’t mean his looks. If all I wanted was a handsome man I could afford to buy one. Several, actually.” For the first time, the corners of her mouth turned up, just slightly. “He seemed like a good man. Genuinely good. Morally good. That’s so rare these day. I pretended to be interested in his group home, just to get him talking. Later I figured out it doesn’t take much to get Ben talking.”
“Harder to get him to shut up.”
The corners of her mouth turned up a little more. “So, I got his hopes up, sounded really interested, and then I turned the tables on him. I went into my best Ebenezer Scrooge routine.”
“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” supplied Ray.
“Exactly. I sent him off without a nickel. Poor sucker was crushed.” A real smile broke through. “I let a week pass. Then, what I did, I called my lawyer and arranged to fund the whole damned thing through one of my foundations. Gave them one of my houses. To cover their expenses I established a perpetual annuity at…Sorry, I’m getting technical. Let’s just say they’ll run that group home for as long as they want and not have to worry about fundraising.”
Stir. Sip. Nibble.
“You should have seen Ben and the kids falling all over themselves trying to thank me. When I finally asked Ben out, he didn’t dare refuse. I just had a feeling that if we spent some time together, really focusing on each other, we’d find we had things in common. I made it clear to him that he didn’t have to pretend to love me just to show gratitude over the group home. I probably would have funded them anyway. It didn’t set me back much. In the end he believed me, but by then he had discovered I had other qualities.”
Miranda inserted her finger absently into the middle of the pastry, extracted a bit of cream and licked it off. She did it innocently, oblivious to the suggestiveness of the gesture, just as Fraser might have done, (except that Benny would never do anything so unsanitary). He found himself warming to her, and feeling a little disloyal to Fraser because of it.
“Anyway, that’s how a rich girl managed to pick herself up a Mountie.”
Pick up a Mountie? Ray remembered that Fraser was waiting. He consulted his watch. “I have to pick Benny up. Won’t you reconsider and come along?”
“You haven’t heard the rest of the story, Detective. It doesn’t have a happy ending. I have no desire to see Ben, now or ever.”
* Yet, you’re here. * thought Ray, * I’ll have you and Fraser eating Ma’s linguine together if it’s the last thing I do. * “Ms Green, just give me a minute. I’ll get my sister to pick him up. Then we can talk some more.”
He made Miranda promise to stay put. She seemed content to do so. It seemed to Ray she wanted to tell the rest of the story. He certainly wanted to hear it. He excused himself and went to the men’s room to be sure she didn’t hear his call.
“Ma! What are you doing?” Francesca shrieked in alarm as she came into the Vecchio kitchen.
Ma Vecchio paused in the act of frosting a gigantic walnut cake.
“I’m making dessert, Sweetheart. What do you think?”
“No, Ma. Fraze looks so much better since he lost all that weight. Can’t we have fruit or something?”
“Now, sweetheart, it’s a month since Benito’s been sick and he’s hardly put back any of the weight he lost.”
“That’s just it. He looks great thinner!”
Ma Vecchio just shook her head in dismay. Benito was a pleasure to feed. He ate everything given to him and praised each dish politely. She usually didn’t understand what he was saying, but from the tone it was clearly praise. And, unlike her own sickly-looking children, he plumped up quickly and nicely in response to her feeding. During his sickness and convalescence he’d lost so much weight that he was as spindly now as when he first came to Chicago.
“Go set the table, Francesca.”
Francesca headed off to the dining room and started getting out the good silver. The phone rang. It was Ray.
“Frannie, I need you to go pick Fraser up at the consulate. I’m…held up.”
This was a mission that was fine with Francesca, but Ray still needed to be hassled on principle.
“Why should I do your errands? I’m busy getting dinner ready.”
“No you’re not. You can’t cook for beans and you’re letting Ma make everything. Oh, and tell Ma I might be bringing somebody else home for dinner.”
“Are you sitting down? Try – Fraser’s Miranda.”
At that moment Francesca happened to be standing, but fortunately a dining room chair was in easy reach. She needed it.
“Miranda? You’ve got to be kidding! She’s here? You’re bringing her to OUR house?”
”She doesn’t want to come, but I’m working on her.”
“Ray, do you know what’s with them?”
“Not yet. She’s telling me the story now. Not a word to Fraser, okay? Don’t tell him anything. Just get him over to the house and keep him busy until I get there.”
Francesca wrestled with conflicting emotions as she drove downtown. She was about to have Fraser all to herself in a closed vehicle, then under her own roof with the task of keeping him busy. Normally this would be the answer to a prayer. But the whole idea of it was to arrange for her to lose all her chances with him. On one hand, she wanted Miranda to hate him forever. But her better nature wanted to see a tearful reunion of lovers, and to see Fraze ecstaticly happy. Life just wasn’t fair sometimes.
Ray came back to the table. Miranda had polished off her donut and he caught her eyeing his cruller. He pushed it towards her as he sat down.
“I haven’t touched it. Go ahead.”
She shrugged sheepishly. “Thanks. When I’m nervous I crave carbohydrates. I haven’t talked about Ben for some time. Not since my last therapy session and that’s almost a year ago.”
“So, you and Benny fell in love and everybody you know was against you.”
“Sounds like a cliché, doesn’t it. But, basically, yes. That’s what happened. We were so happy – I thought. We had all these plans. Ben refused to live in any of the properties I owned. He was planning to build me a log house with his own hands. We wanted to start a family right away. I was going to stay home with the children. I don’t have to work, of course. Meanwhile he was going to get transferred to Dawson permantly, keep the town safe from evil-doers and come home every single night. He wanted to do that, because he didn’t want to be like his father. If you’re his best friend, I guess you know about that.”
Ray nodded. He did, indeed, know.
“And then…” he prompted.
“It was a week before the wedding. Ben was stuck up in Colville Lake. That’s so far north it makes Dawson look like Florida. Ben couldn’t get out because of the weather. We talked any day he could get a line out, but that wasn’t often. Getting married is stressful under the best of circumstances – and these weren’t the best of circumstances. Worrying about Ben getting home in time, just about everybody I know nagging me every day to call the wedding off. I don’t think you’ll think any less of me, Detective, if I admit I wasn’t in very good shape, emotionally.”
Ray made a sympathetic noise.
“So one evening I went out to the spot where our cabin was going to be. I like to do that to unwind when I’m feeling really stressed. It’s a lovely spot overlooking the river. There’s a slight rise with a clearing on top, just perfect to build on. You can look down at the river through the trees. Ben insisted on buying the lot with his own savings. He can be so stubborn. Is he still stubborn?”
“I’d been having these abdominal pains for a few days, but I put it down to nerves.That was a mistake. I was all alone out there when my appendix burst. I couldn’t get help; I stayed there alone for hours. I’d have died there, I’m sure, if I didn’t have dinner plans with my friend, Melinda, and she got to wondering where I was. When I didn’t show up, she drove out there – she knows my habits – and found me.”
“I’m so sorry. That must have been terrible.”
“They tell me I wasn’t expected to even survive the surgery. But I did. And then peritonitis set in and I was in the intensive care for several more days. My mother said she called Ben and told him what happened.”
“You can’t have believed her?”
If there had been any chocolate left in Miranda’s cup, it would have curdled from the look she gave him.
“Ben may be Dudley Do-Right, but I’m no Little Nell. If I were, they wouldn’t let me run a bank. Of course I didn’t trust my family. As soon as I was able to lift a phone I called Colville Lake to talk to Ben. They told me he had left days ago. Even so, I trusted him. I was in no shape to leave the house, but Melinda went to the church on the morning of the wedding, I just knew he’d make some kind of dramatic last minute entrance. He didn’t. When I was able to go out, this was some days later, I went to his place. He was gone. The landlady and she said he’d moved out. No forwarding address. Can you imagine how I felt?”
Ray’s chest hurt as he imagined it. But this just wasn’t like Benny. There has to be some explanation. * thought Ray, and he said as much to Miranda.
“Don’t you think I thought that!” the woman cried out, “Don’t you think I imagined the most horrible things happening to him? I know Ben better than anyone. Do you have to tell me this wasn’t like him? I was worried sick. I can tell you I was barely alive myself and all I could do was worry about Ben. I was frantic. One more thing I did, I called his unit in Dawson, but he wasn’t there either. I talked to his commanding officer and he said…he said…”
Miranda gave up on her attempt not to cry. Ray, himself, was too lost to be of any help. After several minutes she was able to go on, brokenly.
“His commanding officer said he’d gone to Edmonton on vacation. He assured me Ben was alive and well and gone on vacation. On vacation! So you see why I can’t get very excited if you tell me he called out for me. Whom do you think I called out for, three years ago? Well, I guess you see Ben a little differently, now.” She concluded.
“What about later? You didn’t try to contact him again?”
She sniffed. “I’ve lived and worked in the same place all this time. He knows where to find me. Would you have tried to contact him again?”
Ray had to admit that, in her place, he wouldn’t.
“And you didn’t marry one of those other ‘prospects’.”
“My parents pressured me to do just that. So did my so-called friends. Ben’s a tough act to follow.”
They sat in silence. Ray sipped at his cold coffee, trying to think.
“Look, Ms Green…”
She smiled through her tears. “I’ve poured out my heart to you. You might as well call me ‘Miranda’.”
“And I’m Ray.”
“You were saying, Ray?”
“Please come home with me. I’m begging you. What if there really was some mistake. You came all this way. Please. That’s all, just please. Ma’s a great cook.”
Miranda took some kleenex from her purse and wiped her eyes. It was fortunate she wasn’t wearing make-up. It would have been demolished.
“I HAVE come a long way, haven’t I? Very well. Lay on Macduff.”
“Is that Shakespeare?”
She nodded. “Macbeth. In everyday parlance: let’s do it, but without the handcuffs.”
* Boy, her and Fraser really talk the same *, thought Ray. Unbidden he formed a mental picture of the two of them making love, both panting out quotes from Shakespeare at each other. He entertained himself with the image as he led her back to his car.”
They settled into the Riv, with Miranda in Fraser’s shotgun seat. Ray hoped it was a good omen. As he pulled out of the parking lot, he wondered just how he was going to orchestrate this. Miranda was wondering along the same lines.
“So, how is this going to work, Ray? I’m just going to stroll into your house and say ‘Hi, Ben. How are you liking Chicago? And, by the way, why did you jilt me?’”
Ray was liking Miranda more and more now, and feeling less and less guilty because of it. She was smart, she was funny, in a warped way, and she had been badly hurt.
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought it through that far.” Ray confessed.
“Maybe you could get him talking about me while I hide somewhere and listen. When I think the time is right – if I think the time is right – I’ll come out.”
“Is everything Shakespeare with you? This is like Hamlet, right?” Ray now felt he knew her well enough for a quip.
“Hamlet among many others. Hmm. You’re right. Only it didn’t work out too well for Polonius, did it? Oh well. I still think it’s the best way.”
Ray was proud of his Hamlet catch, so he didn’t confess to not remembering which one in the play was ‘Polonius’. No matter. He had her in custody and was bringing her in. She could use the Shakespeare on Fraser later, perhaps in the context he had been imagining on the way to the car.
“I’ll arrange it.” He assured her.
Ray flipped open his phone and dialed his sister’s cell. She had already picked up Fraser, explained that Ray was stuck with some witness, and was heading home.
“Frannie, it’s me. Don’t say my name, just answer everything ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Okay?”
“Yes…” she ventured.
“I got Miranda in my car. Where are you?” He forgot his own instructions in his excitement.
“Sorry, are you in your car?”
“On your way to get Fraser?”
“On your way back WITH Fraser?”
“Then here’s the plan. Listen carefully. You bring Fraser in the front door and put him in the living room. Keep him there. I’m going to bring Miranda in the back door to the kitchen. Don’t tell Fraser. She doesn’t want him to know she’s there. When she’s in, I’ll come to the living room, alone, and get Fraser talking. You and Ma sit with Miranda. You got that?”
Francesca looked at the Mountie beside her in the car. He was looking out the window showing no signs of interest in her conversation.
“Okay, I’m counting on you, Sis.”
Fraser was actually listening quite intently to her monosyllabic responses and trying to figure out what was going on. The conversation was about himself, that much was obvious. Ray’s delay was a ruse of some kind. One thing he found promising was that Francesca was no longer embarrassed and distant. She was excited about something, but also hiding something. Since his birthday was many months away, he had no real theory.
“It’s all arranged.” Ray announced to Miranda, snapping his phone shut.
“Thank you kindly, Ray, but you shouldn’t be talking on the phone while driving,” said Miranda, “A policeman…” She stopped abruptly.
“A policeman should set a good example?” Ray grinned at her, finishing the obvious thought. “You talk just like Fraser, you know that?”
“We do have similar habits of speech. It used to be a pleasure to talk to Ben. We understood each other so well,” she said, wistfully.
“I have to ask you something.”
Miranda nodded permission.
“Did he get ‘thank you kindly’ from you?”
Miranda stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“He says it all the time.”
Miranda’s lips pursed and her brow furrowed. “I wish you hadn’t told me that. Ben did learn it from me. I picked it up years ago when I was working in Ottawa. Long before I met Ben.”
She startled Ray by rubbing her eyebrow with her thumb, thoughtfully.
“Ben started using it himself after we got engaged. I thought it sounded stupid coming from him, he’s usually so well spoken, so careful to avoid clichés. It’s trite, and I told him so. He said…”
Ray, glancing at her as he drove, noticed tears starting up again.
“He said he liked to use it as often as he could, because every time he said ‘thank you kindly’ he thought of me.”
“Then, he thinks about you a lot, Miranda.”
“I doubt it. It’s probably just a bad habit with him now.”
Ray thought back to Fraser in the hospital, calling for Miranda so piteously. He figured they were in for one major love scene and he was looking forward to it enormously.
Francesca settled Fraser onto the living couch.
“Sit. Stay.” She commanded, then barrelled into the kitchen to tell her mother of the plan.
Ma Vecchio loaded a tray with plates of appetizers and handed it to Francesca.
“Just keep him eating,” she ordered, and shoved her daughter back through the door that connected the kitchen to the living room.
Fraser was still sitting, obediently, on the couch where she had placed him. She plunked the food down on the coffee table. He needed no coaching; his role was clear enough. He set work on cheese balls, bacon curls, stuffed mushroom caps and bits of fried dough rolled in sesame seeds. Francesca kept each dish filled, glad that there was enough food in the kitchen to prevent her from having to fall back on Plan B – getting him to tell Inuit stories.
Twenty minutes later, Ray pulled into his driveway. He brought Miranda into the kitchen as planned and put his finger to his lips when he saw his mother. Ma Vecchio was up to speed. She just smiled greeting to Miranda and then, by virtue of Miranda being Benito’s girl and herself being an Italian mother, she hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks.
Ray motioned Miranda to a kitchen chair. Fraser’s voice was coming clearly through closed door to the living room. He was lecturing Francesca on how to tell the difference between edible mushrooms and poisonous mushrooms. Ray made an “OK” sign with his thumb and finger. Miranda sat down, hunched forward, and crossed her arms, each hand clutching the opposite elbow.
* That’s his voice. That’s Ben. He sounds so normal. * She hugged herself tighter. * Why did I agree to this? *
Ray went out the back door and came in through the front door and into the living room. Francesca caught his eye questioningly. Ray inclined his head slightly, hoping she would catch on that all was going according to plan and the next line was hers.
Francesca scooped up the last three mushrooms on the plate and popped them into her mouth.
“Oh, look. We’re out of mushrooms. I better go get some more,” she said, with exaggerated significance. She got off the couch where she had been sitting beside the Mountie and went into the kitchen. Unfortunately, she forgot to take the mushroom plate with her, which went to confirm to Fraser that something was, indeed, up.
Ray settled in beside his friend on the couch.
“Benny, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What, Ray?” * Good, * he thought, * Here it comes at last. *
“I did something. I hope you’re not upset.”
“That’s pretty vague, Ray.”
“Right, okay. You see, when you were sick, when you had that fever, you were delirious – really out of it.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“And you called out for somebody. Begging for her not to leave you. It was really pathetic. And, Benny, it was a name I never heard you say before.”
“While I was delirious, you say?”
Fraser said, very low. “Miranda.” It was a statement, not a question. “I’d have to be delirious to call for her.” He drifted off into some memory for just a moment and leaned back on the couch. Then, with a sigh, be brought himself back to the present.
“You said you did something, Ray?”
“Yeah, and I hope you’re not mad. Well, I know you don’t actually GET mad, but…”
“You went looking for her, didn’t you? You went looking for Miranda for me.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Oh, Ray. Of course not. It was a lovely thing to do. You’re a true friend.”
* No guilt here. * thought Ray.
Through the kitchen door, the women were hanging on every word.
“Fraser, I didn’t just go looking for her. I found her.”
Fraser’s gentle, quiet air didn’t change at all. “Of course you found her. You’re an excellent detective. So, I guess you know the story, now.”
Ray tried to push him into some emotional response. Fraser was far, far too calm. “It’s a pretty upsetting story, Fraser.”
“Yes. I never wanted anybody in Chicago to know about Miranda. It’s a little embarrassing. But, now you know. I guess there’s no harm done.”
In the kitchen, Miranda started to tremble.
“No harm done…no harm done…” she muttered.
“Thing is, Fraser,” Ray went on, “I talked to her, and she said…”
This finally got a reaction from Fraser.
“Talked to her? I don’t think so, Ray!”
“I did. I talked to her and she said…”
“That’s not possible, Ray.” Insisted Fraser. “Miranda’s been dead for three years. The woman you talked to must have been an imposter. Although why anyone would want to impersonate Miranda, I can’t imagine. She was only a bank manager.”
In the kitchen, the bewildered Vecchio women looked back and forth from the door to their guest.
“Lying…filthy…cowardly…” Miranda rumbled like a volcano building up to erupt soon.
Ma Vecchio sat down beside her. “He thinks you’re dead, Sweetheart.”
“No he doesn’t! Don’t you see what he’s trying to do? Wretched…pond-scum sucking…”
In the livingroom, Ray pressed on.
“Fraser, she’s not dead! I talked to her, I tell you!”
* She must have appeared to him, as Dad appears to me, * thought Fraser.
Aloud he said, “Ray that doesn’t make sense. Why would she talk to you and not to me?”
“From what she tells me, I don’t think she wants to talk to you. She’s pretty mad at you.”
“I don’t see why.” Fraser was totally baffled.
“I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him!” The volcano blew. Miranda threw open the connecting door. She paused only long enough to get the layout of the room and pinpoint her prey. Then, fists upraised, she fell upon Fraser, pummelling him about the head and shoulders. She screamed curses as she beat him, using language she never learned in any bank.
The Mountie made no effort to defend himself against the blows. He had no basis upon which to react. There was no reality in the situation. Miranda was back from the afterworld, through the medium of Ray’s kitchen, attacking and cursing him. It made so little sense that he could do nothing but sit and let it happen.
It was Ray that had the presence of mind to pull Miranda off Fraser and pin her back with a very professional half-nelson. She struggled against him, kicking at his legs, but he endured it. Fraser got up and came over to face her, still stunned, but some survival instinct made him stop just outside of kicking range.
“Thanks for noticing after three years, you…”
“You’re alive. You’re not dead.”
“Miranda!” Ray declared, joyfully. “Don’t you see? That’s the answer! He thinks you’re dead!”
She was still furious. “No, he doesn’t. He’s a clever son-of-a-bitch. Don’t you see what he’s trying to do? Coward! It’s not enough you desert me; you’re not even man enough to admit what you did. Liar!”
Fraser still didn’t know what to think. Either Miranda was alive or much, much better than Dad at taking physical form.
“Are you alive or dead? Tell me.”
His confusion was so deep that, even in her rage, Miranda could sense it was genuine. She ceased struggling. Still breathing hard, her tone pure poison, she said, “Do I look dead?”
Fraser moved in a little closer. “Let her go, Ray.” With each hand he took hold of one of hers and held her at arm’s length, studying her.
“I can’t tell. Dad doesn’t look dead, and it’s been more than a year.”
He stared directly into her eyes, trying to figure it all out. In the face of his earnest gaze, she couldn’t maintain her anger. It melted away.
“Oh, Ben. You really thought I was dead?”
Fraser’s answer was to draw her towards him, wrap his arms around her and softly kiss the top of her head. “You’re alive…you’re alive…” he whispered.
She pressed her head against his chest. “You thought I was dead. That’s why you never came.” Her voice was no louder than his. The Vecchios strained to hear. “Who told you I was dead?”
“Your family. When I called from Colville Lake. Your mother said…”
Fraser led her back to the couch, not letting go of her for an instant.
“Your mother said your appendix burst while you were all alone by the river. Nobody knew you were there for hours, and you died. She said they found your body right on the spot where our cabin was going to be. She said they buried you in a cemetary in Edmonton.”
Miranda nestled into his chest like a baby animal. “All this time. How you must have suffered. My appendix did burst, but I survived. I called out for you. You never came. You never showed up for the wedding.”
“And you thought I abandoned you. That’s why you were cursing me. But, you can’t be alive. I saw your grave.”
“Where? In Edmonton? Your captain said you went to Edmonton on vacation.”
“Is that what he said? Yes, Miranda, I needed to take some vacation days to go down there. Let me tell you about my ‘vacation’.”
The Vecchios all sat down to listen to Fraser tell about his ‘vacation’ in Edmonton.
“They told me you died. Of course, I didn’t believe it. First I went to your house. It was deserted, but all your cars were still in the driveway.”
“I was at my parent’s house, recuperating.”
“Then you might have been right there in their house when I called and made them tell me the name of the cemetary where you were buried. You see, I wanted to call them in the buff.”
“Call their bluff, Benny.”
“Raimondo, be quiet.”
“I went down to Edmonton to see for myself.” Fraser dug his fist into his eyes to keep from crying. Miranda had less control. She started to weep, softly, into his shirt.
“I went to the cemetary. That’s why I was on vacation in Edmonton. I got there on the morning of our wedding day, first thing in the morning, and I saw your grave. Oh, my darling, I saw your grave!”
Francesca and Ma Vecchio fell into each other’s arms, overcome.
“I stayed the whole day. It was our wedding day and I had to be with you. I sang you that song I wrote for you. I talked to you. I played my guitar. For the longest time, I just sat there on the ground and cried. When the sun started to go down, a security guard told me they were closing and I had to leave.”
Fraser gulped hard, and told the rest through falling tears.
“I refused to leave. I told him it was our wedding night. I was going to be with you, and not even death itself was going to stop us from being together.”
Ray gave in to crying last of all.
“When’s he going to kiss her?” wailed Francesca, between sobs.
“I had my bedroll with me. I slept on top of the earth that covered you, to be as near to you as I could. When I got back to Dawson, the first thing I did was find a new place to live. I couldn’t bear the memories of that room. Remember that ridiculous tree you tried to get me to decorate?”
Miranda sniffed back enough to allow her to speak. “And my family swore you never called, not once. But, Ben, how could I have a grave? In Edmonton or anywhere? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Never mind, just kiss him,” said Francesca, under her breath.
Ray whipped out his trusty phone. He realized that it had been carrying this whole story along, right from that first time in Welsh’s office when he had answered it and learned about Benny’s flu, all through his calls to Frobisher, to Thatcher, to Miranda, to Frannie. He held the phone out.”
“Miranda, phone home.”
“I’ll pay you back the long distance charges, Ray.”
The Vecchios howled in protest at this mundane consideration. Eyes were dryed and deep breaths taken all around, as Miranda dialed.
“Mother, it’s me. No, I know you don’t recognize the area code. It’s Chicago. Mother, you’ll never guess who I’m sitting here with. Ben. And he’s telling me a very interesting story about Edmonton.” She listened for a while.
“Mother, I need you to tell me the truth now. If you lie now, and I find out later you’ve been lying, I swear I’ll never talk to you again. Tell me the truth now and maybe I’ll forgive you.”
“Don’t bother crying, Mother, I’m not impressed. Just tell me how you managed to pull it off?”
“I don’t know when I’m coming home. I don’t know IF I’m coming home. I’m not sure about anything right now. Maybe I’ll see you. I have to think about it. Ben and I will have to think about it.
“That’s another lie, Mother. You couldn’t possibly love me. Tell Father you spoke to me, will you?”
“No, I don’t want to speak to him myself. I may be in touch. Or not. Good-bye, Mother.”
She handed the phone back to Ray.
“They organized the whole thing when I went into the hospital. It was a conspiracy – to keep me from knowing Ben ever called and to make Ben think I was dead and buried. It’s …it’s…inconceivable. I’ve been rich my whole life and even now I just can’t grasp what money can do! They bribed anyone they thought Ben might talk to. Even Melinda took their money, to stop her from telling me the truth later. While I was in the hospital, Father had to go all the way to Edmonton to find a cemetary owner crooked enough to let him set up a phony grave.”
They all sat for a while, absorbing it. Fraser said, thoughtfully, “This does require a certain suspension of disbelieve, Miranda. Whom did your family talk you into marrying, afterwards? Vince? Harry? Phil? Alphonso? Emil? Maybe somebody I don’t know?”
“After being dumped by you? Man delights me not, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to think otherwise.”
Since Fraser wasn’t smiling, everybody realized it was a quote. It occurred to Ray that if they did get married, conversation around the dinner table of the Fraser household would be very strange.
“I’m available, Ben, if you still want me.” Miranda continued, “Did you ever get married? Ray never mentioned that.”
“No, not married, but…”
“But you love someone. It makes sense. You’ve found some nice American woman to make you happy. I understand. Really. It’s all right.
“Miranda, there was one woman.”
Ray became alarmed. Fraser was going to spoil it all by telling her about Victoria.
“Benny,” he tried to warn him, “You don’t have to tell everything, just right now.”
“No, Ray. I have no secrets from my bride. You need to know this, so you can decide if you still want me. SHE came to Chicago. She came looking for me here.”
“We were together. You have to understand. You were dead. I was alone. I needed…At the time, I loved her. I’ll tell you the whole story sometime, but the ending is: I was shot, and she left without ever coming back to see if I lived or died.”
“Twenty minutes ago, I’d have said that was poetic justice. What about now?”
“I’m over her.”
“Your dark lady. When she was a memory, I could accept her. Our life was the real one, so I was willing to share you with your dream. She was no threat to me. But now you’ve had your dream come true – you’ve been with her again. I’m not sure I could stand lying beside you and knowing you were comparing me to her. This may not work after all.”
There was no colour in Fraser’s face. He just sat on the couch, swallowing and blinking back tears. His voice, when he finally found words, was as pathetic as it had been that day in the hospital. “Please don’t leave me again. I couldn’t stand it. I’m over her. I swear it.”
They all waited. No one dared move or even breathe, waiting for what she would say. Miranda got up and took a step back, all the while looking him full in the face. Then, she spoke.
“Where did I leave my purse?”
Ma Vecchio was the first off the mark, trundling quickly off to the kitchen and fetching back Miranda’s handbag. Miranda accepted it from her, nodding her thanks, and started looking for something inside.
“Ben, am I safe in assuming you live in some kind of slum?” She was looking into the depths of the purse, not at him.
Fraser couldn’t answer. Ray spoke for him. “A real tenement, Miranda.”
She found a pen in her purse, a Mont Blanc, Ray noticed. She kept rooting around in the bag.
”I’m going to have to go back for a couple of months. I’ll have to give notice at the bank, wind up some of my own business, pack, arrange to have my stuff shipped down, there’s so much to do…”
She found the second thing she was looking for: a chequebook. She wrote out a cheque, then went over and perched on the arm of the over-stuffed chair where Ray sat. She held the cheque in front of Ray’s face. “Is this enough for a decent house in a decent neighbourhood in Chicago?”
Ray whistled. “Real estate prices must be pretty high in the north!”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” She folded the cheque and deposited it into Ray’s shirt pocket. “You’ll have to help Ben with the house. He’s hopeless when it comes to business.” She turned to Fraser. “I’m sorry, beloved, but it’s a day for truth.”
Fraser found himself able to move again. He manifested it by raising his eyebrows sharply and saying “Miranda, I’m still not willing to have you support me.”
She raised her eyes, appealing to the heavens, and then lowered them to meet Ray’s. “He’s the most irritating man in the world.”
“I figured that out,” Ray agreed.
“Ben… Ben… Ben… If we ever go back north to live, you can build me that log cabin and go hunt game. While we’re in the big, bad city, let me handle feeding, clothing and lodging us while you take care of what’s really important – keeping the city safe for us to tuck our kids in at night. Deal?”
“Don’t you want to go home?”
“You mean Dawson City? That’s where we were lied to and betrayed. Home is where people care about you. These people care about you, Ben. I hope I’ll be worthy of them.” She looked, with gratitude, around at the Vecchios.
Ray felt like a benificent god, deliriously happy with his handiwork.
“Then, come back and sit with me.” Fraser waved her over and she settled in with him. “Miranda, I hate your clothes,” he said “I’m sorry, my precious love, but, as you say, it’s a day for truth.” He took hold of one of her arms and kissed the grey wool sleeve that covered it.
“Not the sleeve, the face,” urged Francesca.
“We have a deal on one condition,” Fraser went on, “You let Ray take you shopping and pick you out a whole new wardrobe.”
“What about me?” Francesca protested, meaning that she wanted to be consulted in any matters of fashion.
“I’ll be happy to buy you some new clothes, any time,” offered Miranda. “I hope we can be friends, Francesca. I’ll need help getting used to Chicago. And I’m going to need bridesmaids. Oh, you’ll have to introduce me to that Inspector person.” She added, with due justice, but somewhat anti-climactically.
“Then, we’ll consider it done.” Fraser sealed the bargain by kissing his bride with an intensity that finally satisfied Francesca, and then some.
“We still haven’t had dinner.” Ma Vecchio reminded everyone. “I’ll get the linguine boiling. Francesca, you still haven’t finished setting the table.”
Francesca got up and headed over to the dining room. Fraser was lost to her, but not entirely. She would be aunt to his children and friend to his wife. As she got out the plates from the sideboard, she thought back over all that had just been said. She didn’t understand it all, but it seemed that her new friend had a generous heart and deep pockets. She arranged the plates around the table, while visions of frilly bridesmaid dresses danced in her head.