Two weeks had passed since Ray’s mother had accused Fraser of driving Michael Vecchio away and Ray had blown up in anger against her. To Fraser it had been a huge emotional event but Ray, as ever, seemed outwardly unaffected, in the long term, by all the emotional ups and downs that made up Vecchio family life. To Fraser’s inquiries, Ray would answer easily that nothing had been heard from his older brother and that Lina, Michael’s wife, was just as happy.
Ray hadn’t invited Fraser back to the house since that night, but a gap of two or three weeks between visits to the Vecchios was not unusual. So Fraser had no way of knowing if Ma Vecchio was still angry at him – short of asking Ray and this the Mountie didn’t want to do.
When Fraser thought about it, and this was several times a day, he decided that it was not at all unusual for the “good child” of a family to resent the attention lavished on the “black sheep”. It was a familiar pattern and quite understandable that Ray felt slighted.
“She keeps hoping he’ll return like the prodigal son. Oh God, her precious first-born. I’m the good kid who stays home and doesn’t make any trouble and doesn’t get noticed. In my own house,” That’s how Ray had said it, that horrible night. Yes it was a familiar pattern but this time the slighted child was Fraser’s own best friend.
Fraser had no personal experience to compare with this. He had grown up an only child in a quiet, circumspect household where to raise one’s voice was practically unheard of. A wrinkled brow and bitten lip were all that showed in his grandmother’s face when she was displeased. And while Grandfather made free enough with the traditional birch rod against his grandson’s backside – he never shouted.
Fraser preferred to let his thoughts revolve around his friend’s emotional issues and put out of his mind as much as he could the effects on himself and his own feelings. During the day this was possible but alone in his apartment at night he could not help reliving Ma’s anger against him and his sense of failure at not being able to help Michael Vecchio.
The receptionist at the consulate buzzed to let in the man who identified himself as Mr. Vecchio and asked to see “the Mountie”. The nearest Mountie to hand was Constable Turnbull who happened to be standing the reception desk at that moment.
He turned to greet the visitor and was puzzled. He’d met Detective Vecchio in the company of Constable Fraser a few times and this man looked something like him – but not exactly like him. Still, he called himself “Vecchio” so Turnbull figured he was simply mistaken and this was Constable Fraser’s friend after all. He greeted the man with a polite, “May I help you, sir?”
Michael Vecchio peered at the tall officer. “You’re not the right Mountie.” It sounded like an accusation and Turnbull, never too secure, took it as such.
“I . . . we . . . there’s also Constable Fraser.” Silently he berated himself. Of course, why would Constable Fraser’s friend want to speak to anybody else?
“That the only other Mountie you got here?” Michael demanded.
Turnbull was getting more intimidated. “There’s also Inspector Thatcher but she’s busy at the moment, Detective.”
Michael laughed. The sound of his laughter didn’t relax poor Turnbull’s in any way. Michael’s laugh was harsh, derisive. “You taking me for my brother? I’m no stinkin’ cop. Yeah, Fraser, that name sounds right. He here?”
“As far as I know, he’s in his office,” Turnbull said, taking in the new information that this was not Detective Vecchio but his brother. Well, this other Mr. Vecchio had none of the easy manner and good humour of Constable Fraser’s friend. Happy to get away from this unpleasant visitor, Turnbull used the receptionist’s phone to buzz his colleague and ask Fraser to come out front.
Fraser was barely able to mask his surprise at this appearance of the man who had been so much in his thoughts. As he came close to the desk, Turnbull whispered to him, “He didn’t ask for you by name, sir. At first he just said he wanted to see a Mountie.”
It struck Fraser that he and Michael had spent quite some time together that dreadful night. And here Michael didn’t even remember his name. What did that show? Self-centeredness? Denial?
He led Michael to his own miniscule office, sat him down, offered tea and offered nothing else when Michael declined tea. There was no smell of alcohol about Michael nor any unsteadiness in his manner. He was stone cold sober and barely civil. His confiding in Fraser in the hotel room might never have happened. Or perhaps, Fraser thought, he’s being rude because he’s ashamed of that confidence.
“Look, I guess I didn’t really thank you properly for helping me out that night,” Michael began, “I appreciate what you did.”
Never had Fraser seen a man’s manner so out of sync with his words. Michael slouched in Fraser’s visitor’s chair and spat out the words with contempt.
Why, for the love of God, is he here? Fraser wondered. “I’m glad I could help,” he said, blandly.
“Yeah, I’d have been up shit creek if you hadn’t got me my stuff. And then later in my hotel room. . .” continued Michael. “Tell you the truth, I don’t exactly remember what we talked about but I do remember - seemed like you wanted to help me.”
“I did,” Fraser admitted, “But you were indisposed.”
At that, Michael jerked his body straight in his chair and anger flashed across his face. “Indisposed? Look, pal, I didn’t come here for you to patronize me. I was drunk. Can’t you say that word? Naw, you’re too polite.”
“Polite” was a foul insult, if you listened only to Michael’s tone and it was to that tone, rather than to the actual word, that Fraser responded. He went into full formal Mountie-mode. “You came here to ask for my help, you said.”
“Yeah. Here’s how you can help me. You can go talk to Lina again and get her to let me see the kids. She listened to you before.”
“Out of the question. This matter is in the hands of your lawyers and the courts.” Fraser hoped the frostiness of his delivery would cut the conversation short. But Michael didn’t seem notice the Mountie’s manner and tone in any way. He’s completely self-absorbed, thought Fraser. All he cares about is what he is going to say next. He’s taking nothing in from the outside.
“Screw them. Children should be with their father. You talk to Lina for me. Then she’ll tell the fuckin’ lawyers and the fuckin’ cops to back off.”
Michael’s cavalier attitude so unnerved Fraser that he blurted out, “You’re a violent man with a history of abusing your family. You may as well know that you disgust me. I only tried to help you to prove to your mother I could be part of the family.”
The words slipped out before Fraser actually thought them. After weeks of mulling over his motives, the penny dropped. He had no real desire to help Michael Vecchio. Not back then and certainly not now. All he wanted to do was show Ma that he understood and could help. And the attempt had backfired to the point that Ma hated him. Or so he feared.
The malice he had been trying to deny broke through. “You’re a fiend. If there were any way I could, I’d see that you rot in jail until the children are grown.”
Michael jumped up, livid. “You son of a bitch! You going to tell me you never swatted one of your kids? Never?”
“I haven’t any children, but if I did I know I would never lay a hand on them. My grandfather chastised me often enough, but he never came home inebriated and out of control. I can never countenance such behaviour.”
Fraser’s haughty declaration enraged the man even more. “So, your grandpa slapped you around when you were a kid? Yeah. So what makes him better than me?”
“My grandfather,” Fraser proclaimed, as though preaching from a great height, “punished me soberly and with deliberation. Never, never did he strike me in anger.”
Michael Vecchio laughed. It was so unexpected that Fraser could only stare. Michael let out great guffaws and grabbed his own midsection before settling back into his chair out of breath from his merriment.
“Oh that’s rich! That’s really something.”
“I see nothing funny in what I said,” Fraser said, uncomprehending.
“No, I guess you don’t. Well, pal, here’s what you said: Your grandpa beat up on you, on purpose, thinking about it ahead of time. He wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t even mad. He just calmly went and walloped you.”
Michael burst out laughing again, then recovered and continued.
“I’ve got to be drunk and out of control. But not your grandpa. Oh no, he did it on purpose. Let ME tell YOU something – I never touch nobody when I’m sober. I have to be out of my mind first. So who’s the criminal here?”
Fraser was staggered. Until that moment he’d never thought of his grandfather’s lashings as anything but the normal discipline parents used in that place and time. Fraser knew he himself could never strike a child but at the same time never connected that attitude with what he had experienced in his own youth. He had no answer for Michael Vecchio. In that instant he tumbled from his high horse and could only look speechless across his desk at the man who had just turned his mind inside out.
Michael watched him with amusement. “Not so high and mighty now, are we?” Michael rose again, “Well, don’t let it get you down, friend. I’ll give you a little while to think about what I asked you, and I then I’ll call. You got a card?”
Fraser was still too stunned to react. Michael glanced about the Mountie’s desk and located a plastic business card holder. He took one of cards and shoved it into a breast pocket. Then he held out his hand for Fraser to shake it.
Fraser only stared at the hand, then at Michael’s face, then back at his hand. The elder Vecchio snorted, shrugged and left Fraser sitting at his desk, staring confused into empty air.
Fraser didn’t wait for the next Tuesday to tell Ray about his brother’s visit. He called the detective and insisted that Ray meet him for lunch that very day.
Ray didn’t react with outrage, as Fraser had expected. He listened to the story with seeming amusement. The revelation that Fraser now had business cards seemed to be the part of the tale that impressed him most.
“I can’t believe he tried to pull that on you,” Ray said out of one side of his mouth, the other side being occupied with chewing barbequed chicken. “That just proves you’re part of the family. He manipulates us like that all the time.”
Ray reached across the table and took an untouched dill pickle from the Mountie’s plate. He used the pickle to point to Fraser’s uneaten half-chicken. “You going to eat that?”
Fraser shook his head. “Ray, you can stop now.”
“Stop eating your leftovers?”
“Stop talking about my being part of your family. It’s as though you’re trying to convince me all the time.”
“I AM trying to convince you. That night when Ma was mad at you - you have to forget about it. She blows up, she calms down. That’s the way she is.”
“She was perfectly calm when she told me I had driven her first-born away.”
Ray took his frustration out on Fraser’s uneaten chicken. He reached across the table and drew the Mountie’s plate in front of him, picked up a chicken breast in his hands and worried a chunk of meat off with his teeth.
“And you weren’t there when she told me I wasn’t part of the family. She said it straight out.” Fraser told him.
Ray waited until his mouth was empty before trying to make Fraser understand what to Ray was so very clear. “She was upset. She didn’t mean it. Look, Benny. Ma wouldn’t get mad at a stranger. If she dumps on you, it means she loves you.”
“That’s very interesting logic, Ray.”
Ray munched his way halfway through Fraser’s chicken breast while trying to think how to relieve his friend’s suffering. What a WASP up-bringing Benny must have had. “You can’t take everything that happens in my house so seriously.”
Not even the part where she favours your brother over you, Fraser thought, but wouldn’t say it aloud. He decided it would be best to bring the conversation back to the original subject. “You don’t think I should talk to your brother’s wife on his behalf.”
“Don’t you learn anything? Stay out of it. I know it’s hard. Look, the next person you help, help them twice to make up for skipping this one, okay?” He smiled.
Fraser didn’t return the smile. “Your brother said something else.”
“He talks a lot. Runs in the family,”
“Ray, please! This is important to me!”
Thus appealed to, Ray dropped his attempts to jolly his friend out of his unhappy mood. “What else did he say?”
Fraser repeated the conversation about his grandfather and tried to make Ray understand how demoralizing it had been. Ray tugged at his sparse hair with both hands and rolled his eyes.
“You see how he manipulates people? So your grandpa burned your bottom a few times. Who the hell cares.”
“Well, you shouldn’t. Michael’s just messing with your mind. God, you got it right when you said he should be behind bars, I almost wish I could catch the son of a bitch starting something, so’s I could arrest him myself. Except Ma would kill me.”
That very afternoon, Michael called Fraser at the office. He called again the next day, and again the next. The fourth day, he called twice: once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Thereafter his calls became more frequent. At first he begged but in a condescending tone. It was a paradox that Fraser hadn’t thought possible until he heard it time after time. Then, after a week, Michael’s tone on the telephone changed and he was penitent. He was so sorry for what he had been like before and ready to turn over a new leaf. But the lawyers were out to get him. All he wanted to do was hug his kids.
Fraser stayed polite but firm during each phone call, but eventually it all began to wear him down. He asked the Inspector for permission to divert his phone line to Turnbull so the other Mountie could screen out Michael’s calls. Thatcher sympathized and allowed it. For a few days Fraser was spared Michael’s pleadings, until Michael found ways to disguise his voice and use false names to get past the none-too-swift Turnbull.
The worst of it was that despite Ray’s dismissal of his brother’s words, Fraser’s moral superiority had taken a beating. Michael had cracked the Mountie’s armour in just the right place.
It occurred to Fraser that he might be able to get rid of Michael by pretending to help. He could let the older Vecchio witness him making an attempt to convince Lina. Yes, he’d talk to her right in the front doorway as he had that night that now felt like years ago. Let Michael watch and see him fail to convince her.
Fraser ran this plan past Ray and, as Fraser expected, Ray was dead set against it. “Don’t get involved anymore, Benny. Didn’t you learn anything the last time? Stay out of it. You know Ma’s temper. She’ll dump on you for weeks. We can get a court order to stop him from bugging you, you know.”
“Your brother has enough of courts and orders to deal with,” Fraser sighed.
“He wants to use you. Don’t let him.”
Inspector Thatcher and her deputy sat together at his cramped desk while he showed her some modifications he made to their monthly spending reports. The phone on his desk rang and Fraser’s hand jerked towards the receiver out of force of habit. But he stopped the motion and drew his hand back to where it was pointing to some numbers on the printout they were working with.
“I don’t want to disturb our concentration, sir. My voicemail will pick it up.”
She let the matter go at that, but later in the afternoon she called his line again at a time she knew he was sitting alone at his desk. She got his voicemail. “My office, Fraser. As soon as you hear this,” she told the machine.
Only moments later he was standing at attention in front of her desk.
“Constable, this is interfering with the smooth functioning of the liaison office. If this man won’t leave you alone, we can get an injunction.”
“Sir, I’d rather not get the authorities involved.”
“Fraser, let me help in some way.”
“I can’t, sir. I don’t want any official interference.”
“Then sit down.”
Fraser hesitated, she was inviting a confidence in a subject he didn’t want to discuss so he preferred not to sit down. On the other hand, she had given him a direct order. He placed himself in one of her visitor’s chairs, sitting up as straight as he could to make it clear he still felt he was at attention.
“I don’t like to see anybody harassing you like this. What does he want from you? Specifically.”
“He wants me to go visit his wife and ask her to let him see their children.”
“I helped him once. It’s rather a long story, sir.”
Her eyes softened. “And you’d rather not tell it. This must be very hard for you. He’s Detective Vecchio’s brother so naturally you want to help.” Thatcher sighed. “Something about this doesn’t sound right, Fraser. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but . . .” She got up out of her chair and started pacing. Fraser jumped to his feet.
Thatcher waved a downward gesture at him. “Sit,” she barked. He dropped back into the chair.
She continued pacing and thinking. “Why would he think that you have so much power? I mean, his wife went to the trouble of getting a court order. You’re a stranger to her. Why would she listen to you? No, it doesn’t make sense.”
“He wants my help, sir.”
She hadn’t been looking at him during her pacing but now she turned and he saw her expression was kindly.
“I know you believe you have to put every problem in the world to rights. This Vecchio man is playing on that, don’t you see? What he is asking of you doesn’t make sense.”
“I’ll put an end to it, sir,” he promised her.
The next Tuesday lunch with Ray was at a Mexican restaurant. Fraser poked listlessly at a burrito with no real desire to put any portion of it in his mouth
“This stops now, Benny,” Ray said seriously. “You’ve lost so much weight we can put two Mounties in that red suit of yours.”
“I promised the Inspector I’d put an end to it,” Fraser answered.
Ray let out an exasperated cry. “You’re not the one that has to stop this! You’re the victim! He’s harassing you!”
The role of victim didn’t appeal to Fraser. “I’ll end it. Tonight.”
“No, tonight you’re coming to the house so Ma can feed you properly.”
Fraser was still uncomfortable in Ma’s presence. For all Ray’s assurances Fraser was still ill at ease. He was afraid that the old, Italian lady would crush him with two syllables, calling him not “Benito” but “Fraser”.
“Tell your mother I’ll just be a little late.” Fraser looked down at the burrito and considered whether to take a bite. His queasy stomach made the decision for him. “I’ll get back to the office. I’m not really hungry.”
Ray watched him go out of the restaurant and sat thinking while he finished Fraser’s burrito. He’d been raised not to let good food go to waste. He hadn’t quite finished eating when he came to a decision, whipped out his cell phone and called Inspector Thatcher’s line.
Fraser sat down at his desk to call Michael Vecchio. He lifted the receiver and dialed the number that Michael’s voice had repeated until it had been burned into his brain. 658-4177.
The call was answered after only two rings. “Yeah,” said a voice that was all too painfully familiar.
“It is I. I’ll speak to her.” This was not a lie. Fraser didn’t say what he would speak to her about. He only hoped Michael would assume he would talk to Lina about letting him see the children.
“When are you going?” Michael asked abruptly.
And here I was expecting his next words to be “thank you”, thought Fraser. He answered the question automatically without considering why Michael should need to know. “This evening after work.” Fraser hung up without any further talk. With luck, he’d never hear that voice again after this evening.
Well, that’s arranged, thought Fraser and went on thinking that for five whole minutes before realizing he had not made any effort to ensure that Mrs. Vecchio would actually be home to talk to him.
The man’s been dominating my thoughts so much, Fraser mused, that I just assumed that as soon as I told HIM I was giving in everything else would just fall into place. He looked up the number of Michael’s former home, where Lina and the children still lived, and dialed again.
Thatcher, listening from the corridor outside his office, heard him confirm, “Six this evening then. Thank you kindly, Mrs. Vecchio.” She went on tiptoe back to her own office but the caution was unnecessary. Fraser was too lost in his own thoughts to hear her come or go. Nor did he hear her calling Ray back to report that Fraser had made the appointment with Michael’s wife. She hadn’t heard where it would take place but that didn’t worry Ray. He’d just follow when Benny left the Consulate after work.
Fraser was too experienced a tracker not to be aware that he himself was being tracked. And even though Ray had taken the precaution of driving a non-descript Honda Civic from the district motor pool, Fraser caught sight of him from the window of the bus as he rode along to the house where he had once gone with Michael Vecchio. Fraser nodded to himself in agreement with Ray’s tactic, even though he himself was the prey.
When the vehicles reached a point a few miles from Michael’s house Ray slowed and allowed the traffic to come between the Civic and Fraser’s bus. Fraser figured, correctly, that Ray had now deduced Fraser’s destination and planned to turn off, take another route and park close, but not too close, to his brother’s house. He imagined Ray as he had seen him dozens of times on stake-outs: hunched down, collar turned up. It was spring and the sun would still be up when Fraser got to the house, so Ray should be able to watch easily.
Fraser got off the bus and walked five blocks through a residential district to the house. He kept all his senses alert for signs of Ray. As he came close to the house he thought he saw his friend but in the wrong car. But no, it was Michael Vecchio’s car he saw. Fraser himself had ridden it that night when he first came to get Michael’s wallet from Lina. The man inside looked so much like Ray that Fraser mistook him for his brother. Michael was sitting in his car, across the street from his own house, watching.
Lina appeared at the door. She must have been looking out the window. Fraser saw her turn her head back and forth looking at him and at her husband in turn. Where was Ray? In his peripheral vision Fraser detected movement.
I must not let Michael see where Ray is, Fraser thought. Resisting the impulse to turn his head he only moved his eyes in the direction of the movement to pick an impression of a man in a trench coat slipping behind a parked car. He hadn’t seen the Honda but figured Ray must have parked it where he, Fraser, would not see it.
Well, we’re all here, thought Fraser.
Lina left the window and opened the front door. She stepped out onto the front porch and called to the Mountie across the street, “Constable! Constable Fraser, is that you?”
Fraser couldn’t help wondering if she thought any other Mountie in full red serge uniform would have any reason to be on her street, then shook the thought from his head. He risked a quick glance around him, fixing the position of the two Vecchios in his mind, and then headed across the road.
As Fraser came up the front steps, Lina stood aside from the doorway to make room for him. “Please come in, Constable,” she said. Lina was looking only a little healthier than when Fraser had last seen her. The bruises on her face had faded, but there was still a worn, haggard expression about her eyes.
Fraser stopped at the doorstep. “Mrs. Vecchio, it would be better if we spoke out here.”
Fraser cleared his throat. “I’d like Mr. Vecchio to see that I’m talking to you.”
She threw her hands into the air. “Are you here to talk to me or to put on a show for him?”
Fraser sighed. “To be honest, to put on a show.”
Lina took his arm and tugged on it. “Inside.”
Fraser turned to see what Michael was doing. He saw the man get out of his car and stand leaning against it, watching the house. It took him longer than it should have taken to get out of the car and he stumbled when his feet hit pavement.
Dear God, he’s drunk. Fraser toyed briefly with the idea of making a citizen’s arrest for impaired driving, but decided against it. He had no proof. Michael may have driven up sober and sat drinking in the car.
Meanwhile, Ray took advantage of the moment that Michael’s eyes were off the house to dart from behind the parked car to a spot much closer to the house behind the next door neighbour’s bushes.
The Vecchios are on the move, Fraser thought.
Meanwhile Lina was still tugging on his arm. Fraser allowed himself to be pulled inside to the vestibule and Lina pushed the center of the wooden door with her palm so that it chunked to a close behind him.
the Mountie to the family’s “only for company” living-room where a coffeepot,
cups and saucers and a plate of homemade Italian wafer-cookies were waiting on
the coffee table. The plastic was still on the couch and chairs. A fine layer
of dust coated the cups and saucers. The furniture was heavy and ornately
carved, like the furniture of Ray’s living room.
expressly for his visit and been too pre-occupied to rinse off the dust.
Fraser had already picked up on her fear, scenting her animal panic, and this was further evidence of her distress.
Fraser knew better than to insult her by declining the refreshments. He let her pour coffee and munched his way through what he hoped were enough of the pastries to satisfy her, in brave defiance of the dust. This opening ceremony done, he proceeded to business.
“Your husband asked me to come speak with you about letting him see the children,” he started.
“No, he’s been nagging you to death about it. Ray told me,” she said. She had poured herself a cup of coffee but hadn’t touched it all the time she was observing Fraser eating and drinking. Now she took a sip, but her hands shook and a tiny bit of coffee spilled over the rim of her cup onto her hand. She didn’t seem to notice – either the coffee was now too cold or she was too distracted to feel it.
“Do you think I should let him? He’s been hanging around the house, you know. He doesn’t try to come in - he knows I’ll get him arrested if he does. But he stands across the street and watches. My lawyer says there’s nothing she can do about that. He’s allowed to stand in the public street as long as he doesn’t come onto the property.”
This disturbed Fraser but didn’t surprise him.
“You don’t think I should let him in, do you?” Lina pleaded.
Fraser hesitated to answer. Again here he was with the chance to interfere. He hadn’t sought this; it had been thrust upon him. He could refuse to speak his mind, he knew. That’s what Ray would want him to do. In fact, it was probably the wise thing to do. Let these people sort out their own problems. He wasn’t part of the family.
It didn’t matter. He couldn’t be who he truly was and keep silent. “No,” he said, simply.
It wasn’t enough of a response to satisfy her. Her upbringing was as talkative as Fraser’s own was terse. “That’s all? Just: no?”
Fraser lost his caution. I am what I am. It is my nature to interfere, he decided, and I’ll risk the consequences. “No, that’s not all.”
He jumped up from where he had been sitting on the couch and stood over her, grabbing her two hands in his, heedless of any misinterpretation she might make. “Your husband is obsessive. He’s been stalking you. He’s been stalking me. He hasn’t done anything dangerous yet but I fear the day will come when he’ll . . . when he’ll . . . cross the street. Leave this house if you must, but don’t let him near you. Or the children.”
He squeezed her hands and stared into her eyes. “I beg you,” he whispered.
She rose to face him. “I’ve been so scared,” she whispered back. Then she threw herself against him, clutching him tightly around the middle. Her arms encircled his waist and she squeezed him hard.
“I’m so scared,” she repeated. “Everybody says I should keep him away, but I feel so bad keeping him from the children.”
“Where are the children?” Fraser mentally kicked himself for not noticing until now that he heard no sound of them since entering the house.
“I told them to go to their friends’ house after school. I didn’t want them here when you came. I thought, maybe . . . something might happen.” Still firmly attached to his mid-section, she laid her cheek against the red serge covering his chest. “Ray says I should tell Michael to go to hell.”
Lina turned a tear-smeared face up towards Fraser’s face. “You agree with him, don’t you?”
Fraser’s answer was to put one arm around her shoulders and to wrap the other arm around the back of her head in an impulse of protection. The only sound as they stood there was of Lina’s crying.
And then there was another sound of the front door opening. Still clutching Fraser, Lina cried out, “I didn’t lock the door!” even as Michael Vecchio rushed into the living room. He swayed slightly as he stood looking at them.
Fraser took hold of Lina’s arms and gently disengaged her. “Leave the house,” he said, looking not at her but at the switchblade in Michael’s hand.
Lina’s eyes followed where Fraser was looking. Her calm surprised Fraser as she said, “Michael, you’re not supposed to be here.”
Michael brandished the knife and rushed her, screaming, “Bitch! Fucking bitch! You going after the Mountie now, you whore?”
Fraser was quick enough to push Lina out of the line of attack but not quick enough to protect himself. The blade plunged into his right side. Lina covered her mouth with her hands and gasped as blood spurted from his wound. Fraser stood looking down at himself, stunned. Michael took the advantage of this, grabbed the knife handle and yanked it out of Fraser’s body causing both men to stagger. He lunged at the Mountie, spewing oaths, but the wounded man was still able to disarm the drunken one.
As the two tumbled together to the floor, Fraser tossed the knife across the living room. Lina switched to housewifely autopilot and went over to pick it up and put it on the coffee table. Blood from Fraser’s side was now spurting all over the room, soaking the carpet and beading into round pools on the plastic that covered the furniture.
Fraser was becoming weak and confused from loss of blood. Michael, though drunk, now had the advantage and pinned him to the ground. Then, inexplicably to Fraser, the weight of Michael was somehow lifted off him.
“Ray! Help us!” Lina screamed, although Ray was in the midst of doing exactly that.
Michael was still cursing both her and Fraser at the top of his lungs.
“Call 911! I’ll get this son of a bitch!” Ray shouted back to her.
Fraser felt confused relief to hear his friend’s voice. He could relax now that Ray was here and had the situation under control. Pain was just beginning to register beneath the larger sensations of wooziness and nausea. I really mustn’t vomit in living room, he thought, before passing out.
Consciousness teased Fraser, coming close and sliding away. His eyes closed, he picked up reports from his other senses and fought through the fog in his mind to make sense of them. Pain. Medicinal smells. Pain. Institutional cotton against his skin. Lying down, his head on a pillow. Where was the pain coming from? No underclothing on his lower body. Can’t pinpoint the pain. From somewhere in the middle of him? A gown coming just down to his knees. Hospital. Oh no, not again. A woman’s voice. Why don’t they give me something for this pain? Mouth very dry. I’m getting tired of waking up in hospitals. What is the woman saying? Do I need to listen? Probably not. Pain. Other sounds: Beeping. Shuffling. More female voices. Pain.
One female voice was speaking in Italian.
Staying conscious was too much of an effort. Fraser drifted off again.
This time Fraser fought to stay awake. The sensations were clearer now. He was definitely in a hospital. He could feel the IV needle in his hand. The pain in his side was dulled. He must be under the influence of pain medication. That bode well. They wouldn’t drug him if he were in immediate danger of his life.
His eyes were still closed as he lay listening for identifiable sounds.
“Tu sei benedetta fra le donne
e benedetto e il frutto
Madre di Dio,
What a comforting sound. He’d heard her before, he was sure of it.
“prega per noi peccatori,
adesso e nell'ora della nostra
There was a brief pause and then Ma started again.
"Ave, Maria, piena di grazia,
il Signore è con te”
She was saying her rosary. She had finished one Ave Maria and was starting another. Fraser, out of some dim half-conscious respect for religion, decided not to distract her from her devotions by opening his eyes or in any way calling attention to himself. It was pleasant enough just to lie still and listen to her soothing voice.
She loves me after all. How long has she been sitting beside me, praying?
Eyes still closed, Fraser heard the heavy footsteps of a man running into the room.
“Ma! Thank God! There you are!” Ray’s voice. “I went looking for him in the Intensive Care. He wasn’t there. I thought . . . I thought he was . . .”
I want to see them, Fraser decided. He forced his eyes open slowly and turned his head toward the voices. His eyes focused first on Ma sitting in a chair and then on Ray standing beside her.
Ma held out her arms to her son. He sank to the floor beside her and buried his head in her lap. She stroked her younger son’s head.
“Benito’s going to be fine. He was doing so well they moved him out of Intensive Care.”
“So if he’s okay, why are still praying over him?”
Ma kissed the top of Ray’s head. “It’s what I do. Me, I pray. You,” she paused.
“I put my brother behind bars.”
Ray’s voice was muffled as he burrowed into her lap. He was trying not to cry. Tears of sympathy came into Fraser’s eyes as he listened to Ray talk to his mother.
“He tried to kill Lina and he almost killed Fraser. I had to take him in, Ma. I had to.” Ray said, breathing in uneven gulps. “You must hate me.”
Ma gasped. “Hate my own son? How can you even think that? We all do what we do. I pray. Michael, he makes trouble. And you . . .”
“Yeah, and me?” came Ray’s barely audible question.
“You keep the family together, mi’ figlio. You take care of us all. You’re my rock, my rock.”
Ray burst out into sobs. “Ma . . .”
“Bambino, I should tell you more often.”
Fraser lay listening to Ray’s crying and Ma’s wordless cooing sounds. All was well with the world.
At length, Ray spoke again. “And Benny? What does he do?”
“He interferes. I should know better than to try to stop him.” Ma reached over to squeeze Fraser’s arm and only then noticed that the Mountie’s head was already turned towards her and his eyes opened. “Benito, you’re awake! Look, Raymondo, he’s awake.”
Ray didn’t bother to hide the fact that he had been crying. His voice and hand were still unsteady as he reached for Fraser’s hand. “Hey, Benny.”
“Ray.” Fraser forced his dry throat to produce the syllable.
“So, you had to interfere, didn’t you?”
Fraser didn’t feel strong enough to speak the words “I’m sorry” aloud. He just looked at his friend and hoped Ray would understand.
Ray did understand. “Don’t worry about it, Benny. Like Ma says, it’s what you do.”