The souls who had once been Caroline and Benton Fraser lounged on the grass beside a sparkling lake. Bob was out hunting, but this was an activity Benton did not enjoy, even though no animals were ever harmed Here. Instead, Benton lay on his back in the grass, his head in his mother’s lap, looking up at the clouds. Sometimes he closed one eye or the other to see if he could change how he saw a shape.
“See, that one looks like a dragon! Just like the one you took me to see on Berengarius Seven.”
Caroline stroked his dark hair. There didn’t seem to be nearly enough to stroke, so she imagined it a couple of inches longer, guessing correctly that her son wouldn’t notice. After that, she caressed his head as she would a kitten’s.
“Mum, I’ve been thinking. May I please be a little bit older now?”
Caroline controlled her panic, hoping Benton wouldn’t sense her tensing up. Benton was only seven years old now because he had blocked out all memory of the events leading to his death at hand of his best friend, Ray Vecchio. She’d been enjoying giving her son the idyllic childhood he never had in life, but she also knew this particular Bliss could not be Everlasting. It had to happen that he would come to remember the rest of his life. With that remembrance would come responsibility and with that responsibility – no – she didn’t want to think about what came with that.
Still, there may yet be time before he had to face what would come with remembering how he had betrayed his best friend. Maybe she could stall him. “How old would you like to be? Ten?”
“I was thinking - thirty-four.”
So, there was to be no stalling. That was so like Benton (as it had been the way of his father) to do everything by extremes, jumping from the innocence of childhood right to the age of his death. Caroline still felt she had to at least try to offer another option. “How about seventeen? You never did teenage rebellion. You might enjoy that.”
Benton shook his head, his recently lengthened hair giving the gesture more impact, even lying down. “I think not, Mum. From what I recall observing at the time, that age and attitude is highly overrated. I can’t remember thinking there was any inherent value in the stereotypical behaviours I saw around me at that age.”
Too late. It was the head of a grown man that now lay beneath her hand. She had very little time left now to keep him with his head in her lap and his mind still in the clouds.
Except for re-adjusting his position so that his larger form would be comfortable in his mother’s lap, Benton seemed to show no awareness of any change. “What was I saying? Oh, yes. That one over there, see? That looks like a weasel. And that one looks like a whale. And . . .”
Benton eased himself up onto his elbows as if to get a closer look at what he was seeing in the sky. “Mum, does that cloud look like a train to you? How can a cloud look like a train?” He sat up and looked around him, his forehead creasing in thought. “And there’s a train coming around that hill. There weren’t railway tracks there before, I’m sure of it.” He looked to his mother, bewildered, for an explanation.
She bit her lip. “I don’t know, Benton. I really didn’t notice.”
Benton pointed toward the horizon. “There’s another one. I can hear the whistle!” He jumped to his feet, his head swiveling around, seeing trains all around, hearing the squeals of the brakes and the whistles. The whistling pierced into his mind, voices upon voices. Even under all this was a panicked sound that he knew was his own breath. “Mum, what’s happening?” he cried, knowing from some source other than himself that she could not pull him back to the safety of her lap.
Then the memories began to come back, playing without sequence or chronology. Time stretched forward and back. Then the hurts came, looming over him, balls of despairing energy. He clutched at his stomach, but his hands grasped nothing. He was sure he would fall forward, but then there was nothing with which to fall forward. In fact, whatever body he had possessed Here had vanished, along with the recognizable landscape. Benton tried to shout his dismay, but nothing came. He no longer had vocal chords.
He yearned for the release of physical pain, for a familiar body to feel the different hurts washing over him. Accusation. Despair. Fear. And that incredible gnawing guilt. A blinding duplicity. All through an instant barrage of images and senses, that somehow manifested sickeningly without any of the senses he knew.
Without hands, he reached out to stop a bullet flying. Without sight, he saw the hurt in the eyes of someone who loved him. Somebody’s eyes, brimming with a suppressed betrayal. Without ears, he heard the last strangled cries of desperation. Then again, and again, and again. And, truly, it was never but once - all in a single moment, a single, perfect instant, and at the same time, forever.
He never acquired a tolerance. His revulsion grew and grew and grew, until he knew nothing but a flight - someone was frantic to run, frantic to escape!
Benton could not hear his own cries, but they penetrated the nearby forest where Bob Fraser sat crouched in a thicket, waiting for the right moment to jump up and shoot a handsome buck. Once hit, the animal would instantly disappear, thus letting Bob know that particular round of the hunting game was finished. Usually he hunted deer but sometimes, for variety, he tracked a human and brought him in to justice. In those cases the round ended with Bob handcuffing an instantly penitent wrongdoer. No prey of any species ever came to any harm. The point of it all was the thrill of the chase.
At Benton’s first screams, the animal started and ran off. Bob tossed his rifle aside and ran back to the clearing where he had left his family. He reached the forest edge and paused to look around the clearing, to see what was going on. His son lay writhing on the ground and his wife stood by motionless a short space away, watching. As he ran past her towards Benton, she grabbed hold of his arm.
“Robert, no! You can’t help him!”
He shook her off, rushed on and knelt beside his son. He tried to lift him to his feet, but Benton only twisted away, oblivious. “Caroline, do something!”
“It’s beginning, Robert. He’s started to remember and now he’s being held accountable.”
Robert stood up, reluctantly, and backed away, not taking his eyes off his son. He was able to go a long time now without thinking back on his own Punishment; it wasn’t something a man liked to remember. And now Benton was going through it and he was powerless to help. “Is that what I looked like?”
“More or less.” She sighed deeply. “Let’s go home”
“What! And just leave Benton here, like this?”
“Robert, sometimes I wonder if you really know where you are. Benton’s not actually here, any more than we are. Come on home, I’ll make us some tea while we wait.”
Ray stayed in Centerpoint Psychiatric Hospital another week after being visited there by Bob Fraser. Thanks to Bob’s interference he remembered everything leading up to his shooting Fraser on the railway platform. The weeks between the shooting and coming to the hospital were still a blur, but Dr. Reyburn did not think this was enough of an issue to keep him hospitalised.
Dr. Reyburn let Ray’s last therapy session on the day before leaving have a relaxed tone, making it clear that Ray didn’t have to work too hard on this day. She invited him to start with whatever he felt like talking about.
“I missed Fraser’s funeral. I was sitting right there the whole time, but I missed it.” Ray began “My best friend’s funeral.”
“At the time you were deep in shock and denial, Mr. Vecchio. You really can’t blame yourself for not remembering.”
“No, I can’t blame myself for THAT. Hell, I had enough to do with that funeral. I caused it, didn’t I?” He let himself mull over that thought, letting it sink into his mind. “You know, sometimes I try to imagine what I would have said if I’d been sane enough to deliver the eulogy for him.” Ray started to laugh, suppressed it, then let go and laughed anyway. “Can’t you just see me standing there over his coffin in front of all those people. ‘Hello, friends. My name is Ray Vecchio and I’m the reason you’re all here.’”
His mind drifted and he reflected on the impossible inversion. A year ago Benny waltzed into his life announcing ‘the dead Mountie was my father.’ He asked for Ray’s help in finding the murderer. Now the dead Mountie was the son, and the father had come in and helped Ray learn just who Benny’s killer was. Add to that - both Mounties were killed by their best friends. Ray figured that if this were a movie, he’d walk out. Just too strange.
“What are you thinking?”
The doctor’s voice still sounded motherly to Ray’s ears even though he was slowly beginning to realise she wasn’t his mother. He nodded and smiled; it was a familiar pattern now with them - Ray went out to sea, and she reeled him back in.
“I’m thinking that I’m going out of here tomorrow and I still don’t know if I shot Fraser on purpose, or if he just got in the way,” More and more he was beginning to believe it was no accident, but even in the safety of Dr. Reyburn’s office, he couldn’t say it aloud.
“That’s not important right now, Mr. Vecchio.”
Ray appreciated the doctor’s parting gift to him, a joke rather than a demand for him to explore the issue. From all their talk about Fraser over three weeks, Dr. Reyburn knew many of the Mountie’s expressions and odd habits. Strangely, it didn’t hurt to hear her repeat Fraser’s words. Ray chuckled his appreciation, feeling that they were honouring his lost friend in some strange way.
“Okay. It is very important.” She smiled, but steered him back to therapeutic mode, “I’m sure that you really did think you saw Victoria with a gun, and on some level you felt you were protecting Fraser. And maybe you were also trying to stop him from leaving, too. It may be some time before it all comes together.” The doctor let her ever-present pen rest on her clipboard for a moment, while her eyes seemed to go elsewhere, but so slightly it would take a detective to notice it.
“What are YOU thinking, Doc?” he grinned as he asked.
“Oh my, you caught me. I was thinking – this is going to sound silly – about Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes.”
This was another gift: sharing her own thoughts rather than maintaining her usual correct aloofness.
“Who’s this Mycroft?”
“Sherlock’s brother. The way Conan Doyle tells it, they were two brothers, living in the same city, but they hardly ever saw each other. No quarrel between them, they just didn’t interact. I was thinking about Fraser’s father when he barged in last week. You’d obviously never met him before. Your best friend’s father right here in Chicago but you didn’t know each other.”
“That’s true.” Ray kept to himself why he and Sgt. Fraser had never met before.
“I wonder if maybe you shouldn’t seek him out again. It didn’t seem like he blamed you for the shooting. Maybe you could grieve together.”
I’d have to die to do that, Ray thought. Not really a bad idea, come to think of it.
Bob Fraser had walked in on one of Ray’s therapy sessions and Doctor Reyburn never knew she had been visited by a ghost.
Caroline and Bob sat at the old wooden table in their log cabin. Each had a mug of tea but while Caroline sipped at hers, Bob twisted his cup around, stirred the contents and generally fussed about.
“How long has it been now?” he asked his wife.
She was finally exasperated. “Robert, you really have to stop thinking in corporeal time. For us it’s been ten minutes. For him it’s going to be an eternity. How many times do I have to tell you to be patient?”
Bob stared into his cup. Looking back at him was the same face that had accused him during his own Punishment. The face of a six-year-old boy, glowing with the innocent guilt of failing to save his mother and driving his father away. In his Punishment, Bob had been stripped of flesh and bone. Countless tiny barbs had flayed his naked spirit. Crystallized pieces of the childish pain he had left Benton to face alone. And now, when he wanted to save his son . . .
“I can’t just wait and do nothing!”
“What do you think I did while you were being Punished? Don’t you think I tried to help you? It doesn’t work that way. Please go wait outside if you can’t keep still. You’re beginning to annoy me.”
Bob smacked the table in his frustration and glared at his wife. She wasn’t particularly impressed, so he got up and headed for the door. He pulled the door open to see Benton leaning slumped and pale against the doorframe.
“Son! Look at you, you’re as white as a ghost!”
Caroline joined them and they each took one of Benton’s arms and guided him to a kitchen chair onto which he dropped, exhausted.
“It’s over now, Benton. It’s all over. You don’t have to go through that more than once,” Caroline whispered. She sat down beside her son, drawing his head gently to her breast.
“Once is enough,” echoed Bob, still remembering.
Benton clutched at his mother, making tiny mewing sounds. On an impulse, she shrank him to baby size, then held the child out to her husband.
“Comfort him, Robert.”
Bob held the tiny body against his own face. After a time that was at once very long and only a moment, the baby began to squirm. Reluctantly, Bob put him back onto the chair where the infant re-formed into adult shape. Looking around the cabin, orienting slowly, Benton’s still-confused eyes came to rest on the teapot.
Caroline reached for a cup to pour him some tea. Thinking better of it, she changed the tea to strong coffee with lots of sugar. Benton gulped it down without pause and tried to imagine more coffee but all he could manage to produce was some sludge at the bottom of the cup. His hand still trembling, he held the cup up to his mother.
“Mum, please. . . and may I have a sandwich? I haven’t eaten in an eternity.”
Caroline marveled at how quickly Benton was recovering from the Punishment. In many ways he seemed to be a stronger soul than his father, and she was proud of him.
“Were you told to do anything dear?” she asked as she complied to both his requests, refilling his coffee and producing a tuna salad sandwich.
“I’m supposed to help somebody. I wasn’t told how.”
“Who are you supposed to help, son? Were you told?” Bob wanted to know.
Colour was returning to Benton’s face. His hand steadied around his sandwich and he managed a bite. “I think . . . Dad, did I know somebody called Ray?”
In the peace and quiet of his own livingroom, safe for the moment from Frank Zuko and his bizarre obsessions, Charlie poured himself a scotch. Leaning back in his recliner, he sipped and thought back over the conversation he’d had with Frank earlier that evening.
No death of an actual enemy had delighted Frank as much as the news that Vecchio had “offed” the Mountie. It had made no sense to Charlie at first. He knew Frank had no feelings about the Canadian one way or another. The only reason for the attack on Fraser at the bus station had been to get at Vecchio, and even at the time Charlie had advised against it. Other than upsetting Vecchio, there really hadn’t been any point. Yet it seemed that point was enough for Frank. Charlie had been just as glad when he'd been interrupted before he'd had a chance to deliver the final message.
Charlie put his drink down on the table beside him and picked up some brochures of retirement villages in Florida. Damn, he couldn’t leave Chicago just yet. He still had a number of economic interests that depended on Frank Zuko and Frankie was becoming less and less dependable lately. For Frankie's and his own good, it made sense to stick around at least until his boss had just a little less Vecchio on the brain.
“Vecchio’s a nutcase, I hear,” Frank had explained it, “They just let him out of the funny farm. We’ll be able to get at him easy now, his guard is down.”
Charlie had tried to reason with his boss.
“You can’t touch a sick man, Frank. It’s against every code.”
It hadn’t helped.
“Let him be sick. One of these days he’ll be well. And as soon as he’s well, he dies.”
Ray drove through the cemetery gates and into the parking lot. Francesca, Ma Vecchio and Diefenbaker shivered a little as they watched Ray open the trunk and pull out a wreath of white and red carnations, the colours of Canada’s flag. If their shivering was from anything other than the wind and cold of the autumn day, Ray didn’t notice.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Raimundo? We can wait a few more days, or
a few weeks.”
“No, Ma, I’ve put this off long enough.”
Well, this is it. I’m here to see Benny’s grave, he thought as he slammed the trunk shut. But for some reason the words “Benny’s grave” were only words and it puzzled him. I guess I’ll feel something more when I get closer, he decided.
His mother took hold of one of his arms, assuming he needed comfort and not knowing how dead he felt inside. His sister took his other arm and they went along the way, now familiar to all of them but Ray. They stopped at an oval of black marble set on a rectangular granite base.
Ray took in the details. The stone was at once modest and elegant, a spare, dignified monument with very little carving: Benton Robert Fraser, dates from and to, below that the words “Maintiens le Droit”. Nothing more. They all stood quietly, looking - Ray at the stone, the womenfolk at Ray, and Diefenbaker at the brown leaves as they blew around in the late November wind.
“That’s French,” Ray finally observed, for want of anything better to say.
“It’s the Mountie motto. It means ‘maintain the right’. I went on the Mountie website and asked. They said the English wasn’t official, only the French, so we only put the French on here. Fraszh likes everything official.”
Francesca’s choice of verb tense didn’t register. Ray dully repeated the only word that did register from that explanation. “We?”
“Me and Ma. There was no next of kin in Fraszh’s file so that Moffat guy called the station to talk to you. Welsh said you were out of town. He didn’t want to go telling people you were out of your tree, you know. So Welsh gave Maddock our home number and he called and asked us if we wanted to take care of . . . you know. We even paid for it all. Well, you did, really. You just signed where we told you to.”
Ray remembered none of it. I’ve done that much for Fraser, anyway, he thought. His cabin burned down, so I bought him another home here in Chicago. Also made of wood. Go figure. The thought triggered another question.
“You didn’t want to send him home?”
Ma answered that one. “Benito always said everybody hated him back home. I thought he should stay here with us. Francesca wanted to cremate him and keep him in the living room. But I thought, no, he’s more a man of the earth than a man of fire.”
Ma always knew best.
“Could you two leave me and Dief alone for a minute?” Ray said, a bit more quietly than he had been speaking before.
“You sure you’re going to be okay here by yourself, bro?”
“I’ve got Dief. We’re just going to give Benny these flowers and maybe talk to him a little.”
Francesca kissed his cheek, then turned to address the stone.
“See you next week, Fraszh.” She reached out and lovingly traced the inside of the carved capital F. “You know, Ray, I wanted to have them put ‘Fraszh’ on here, but nobody could figure out how to spell it.”
“What, so you could embarrass the poor guy even after he’s dead?”
Francesca was reaching the limit of being able to hide her own hurt in order to focus on her brother’s. “Now just you wait a minute, brother dear. We had to take care of him and we had to take care of you. You think all that was easy? You think maybe that was a whole lot of fun? You had the easy part - just shoot him, then check out. We had to . . .”
“Francesca, come to the car. Leave the boys here alone,” Ma interposed. Francesca’s anger was justified, no doubt, but Raimundo needed to deal with other things right now. She steered her daughter back towards the parking lot.
Ray watched them go and reflected that Francesca had managed to snag Benny once and for all. By arranging his burial, she had, so to speak, become the one to put him to bed, finally and forever. He was hers to cherish now, openly, and in any way she wanted.
Ray turned back to the stone and stood there, holding the wreath and waiting for the floodgates to open and the grinding guilt to engulf him. All he felt was the familiar undercurrent of misery that had been with him since leaving the hospital. Nothing more.
“I brought you some flowers, Benny.” He leaned the wreath against the stone. “I hope they don’t get frozen overnight. They say they’re expecting snow.” Jesus! What am I saying, he thought, I’m talking to him about the fucking weather!
Ray had been prepared, when he finally got up the nerve to come here, to find himself howling like an animal. What was wrong? He looked over to the real animal for a clue. A dog at his master’s grave. Ray had read or heard that somewhere. Dief loved Fraser. What was Dief feeling?
Diefenbaker was sitting watching the leaves fall from the surrounding trees. Occasionally a leaf would drop close enough to the wolf’s face for Dief to pay attention. He would snap at it, but listlessly, there being nothing much better to do.
Then, Ray figured it out. Benny’s remains may be there beneath his feet, but there was no sense of “Bennyness” in the air. He put out his hand and touched the smooth stone surface.
“If you felt like coming and saying ‘hello’, Fraser, now would be a good time. You know, come tell me an Inuit story. Maybe clue me in to what Eternal Bliss feels like.”
Ray waited around for another ten minutes - just in case. Except for the cold wind blowing more leaves down, nothing happened.
“I see what you mean, Dief. He’s not here. No sense trying to talk to a guy that’s not here.”
They went back to the car.
When he felt like going for a swim, Benton made the pond beside the cabin large enough for him to take twenty good strong strokes before having to turn around. He didn’t like the pond too large, though; he liked to be able to see it all at once in a single glance, surrounded by trees. But when he wanted to use the pond for surveillance purposes, he shrank it to a mere couple of feet across. It was that size now, as he sat beside it, cross-legged on the grass. Looking into the water, he watched Ray walk sadly back to the car, with Diefenbaker trailing along behind.
Bob came up behind him and idly tossed a pebble into the water to enjoy the sight of the ripples, obscuring Benton’s image of his two friends.
“Dad, please. I’m watching something.”
“Sorry, son. I didn’t think.”
You never did, thought Benton. You never thought of anyone but yourself most of the time, at least not while you were alive. Your duty. Your reputation. Benton’s thoughts didn’t actually have the bitterness the words themselves seemed to conjure. He acknowledged his father’s mortal failings, as well as his own.
“Still watching the Yank?” Bob plucked a blade of grass to suck on and settled on the ground beside his son. “What’s he doing?”
“Missing me,” said Benton, briefly. “He looks so lonely.”
“Getting any ideas about how you’re supposed to help him?”
Benton shook his head. “You’d think a fellow would get some kind of hint.”
“No roadmap,” said Bob, regretfully.
“Maybe if I could remember more about him, more about what we used to do together.”
“Your mother tells me Punishment only comes when you remember. Kind of like training a puppy: if it doesn’t know what it did, no use in swatting it.”
“I remember what I did, I just don’t remember all the details of my life yet. Mum never went through it. She can’t really understand.”
“She was a good woman.”
“We were good men, weren’t we, Dad? I mean, we wouldn’t be Here if we hadn’t been.”
“You’re pondering again, son. You should be letting go. You’re Here and that’s all there is to it. Think about your duty - helping the Yank.”
Benton picked up a twig and set it adrift in the pool. He was finished watching for the time being.
“Why not try the direct approach?” continued Bob, “Go talk to him.”
Benton looked at his father with surprise. “I’m allowed to do that?”
Bob shrugged. “I used to talk to you while you were alive. Apparently you don’t remember that either. Can’t say as that’s very flattering, son. We’ll have to go through some channels, make a few requests, but it could be arranged.”
Ray drove up and parked his car in front of the consulate. With Fraser gone, he never expected to go in that building, past that Canadian flag, again. He consulted a scrap of paper before getting out of the car. Inspector Thatcher. That’s who he was supposed to see. Somebody had called him at home and introduced himself as the secretary of the new liaison officer. Would Ray mind coming down to the Inspector’s office?
He got out of the car to see an unfamiliar Mountie standing guard duty. Just as Fraser would have done, this Mountie stared straight ahead, unmoving, as Ray approached the door and held up his badge in front of the security camera that was pointing towards the doorstep. Time was when everybody here knew who he was. Now Fraser was gone. Moffat was gone. He stood on the familiar doorstep like some stranger. Eventually somebody let him in.
“I’m supposed to see Inspector Thatcher,” Ray told the somebody who turned to be the same male secretary that had called him before. Ray followed him to Moffat’s old office.
Ray had a speech prepared to say that he only was involved with the liaison office because of his friendship with Constable Fraser. Anything they wanted to have to do with him now - well, thank you kindly, but no thanks. But he forgot all about his rehearsed material when he saw the office’s new owner.
Inspector Thatcher turned out to be a very attractive brunette. As she rose to greet him, Ray couldn’t help but notice that she had a great figure and had it wrapped in a tight yellow suit.
“Thank you for coming down, Detective Vecchio,” she said, offering her hand for a shake.
Ray looked at the extended hand as though wondering what to do with it. He had no particular reason to make nice with these Canadians, but there was no reason to be rude either. Meanwhile the new Inspector tactfully removed her hand as if nothing had happened and didn’t seem offended. Somebody probably told her I’m nuts, Ray decided.
“Please have a seat,” she used the rejected hand to indicate a chair in front of her desk, and sat down behind the desk in a business-like fashion.
This woman would have been Benny’s boss. Bet that would have been interesting, Ray mused.
“This is about Constable Fraser of course. A terrible thing. Terrible.” She
emphasized her words with tiny shakes of her head that, if bigger, would have meant “no”.
“Yes. Terrible.” Small talk? Is that what she called me here for?
“I wish I’d had a chance to meet him,” the Inspector continued. “I’m told he was quite a character.”
Ray’s hackles rose a notch. “That character would have been your deputy, Inspector.”
“Oh, I doubt that would have lasted long. From what I see here . . . “ she had a file on her desk and she lifted it briefly for Ray to see, “ . . . he didn’t seem very suited to consular work.”
The hackles rose higher. “Well, then isn’t it lucky that he died before you had to fire him?” The hackles brought Ray right out of his chair and off towards the door. “Nice to meet you, Inspector. Have a good life.”
Ray turned and saw her face showed some honest embarrassment and her head was doing that little “shaky-thing”. Ray, however, was not in a mood to be swayed by sorrowful women folk, no matter how well wrapped in yellow.
“You ought to know that character was my best friend and the most dedicated police officer I ever knew. I’m not staying here and listening to you put him down. I’m out of here.”
“No, please. Look, I’m sorry. This is a difficult situation. For me as well as you. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before. Please stay. I asked you here for a very specific reason.”
She seemed genuinely distressed. Ray forced himself to stay calm and sat back down. The Inspector opened the file and extracted some papers.
“Constable Fraser named you as beneficiary of his group life insurance. Here’s the amount.” She pushed one of the sheets of paper towards him. “I know it’s not much. It seems Constable Fraser only opted for the minimum coverage.”
“He didn’t have any family.”
“Yes, well. There are also pension benefits.” She gave him another piece of paper. “I tried to get him Accidental Death, I think you call that Double Indemnity here in the States, but the insurance company wouldn’t give it to him. It seems he was shot by an on-duty policeman and although he was subsequently absolved of any wrong-doing, he was, technically, out on bail when he was killed.”
Her expression hadn’t changed as she explained all that. She apparently didn’t know that Ray himself was the on-duty policeman in question.
“There’s some unused vacation and sick time. And a burial allowance.” She gave him more papers. “Inspector Moffat told me your family paid for all the final arrangements. I imagine you must have been very close.”
“Me and Inspector Moffat?” Ray was genuinely puzzled, partly in shock to the gradually growing stack of papers.
She smiled, for the first time since he had entered the room. Ray figured she was probably nicer, deep down, than she came across. Women in authority, they have to over-compensate, he thought, with an inward grin over Welsh and his own lady commanding officer.
“You and Constable Fraser. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about him.” She motioned towards the file on her desk. “I’ve read the file, of course, but I don’t suppose the official documents would really do him justice.”
She was definitely softer now, trying to be friendly. Was she trying to placate him? Was there something more in the way she leaned forward and stroked her own dark hair? Sweet Jesus, was this woman interested in him?
“Fraser’s not an easy man to describe. You had to experience him.”
The Inspector gave her hair another caress, then looked down at her desk before raising her eyes again to meet his. “I hope you won’t think I’m being too forward, Detective, but . . . would you like to tell me about him in a . . . I don’t know . . . more informal setting? Maybe dinner?”
She’s asking me out, Ray marveled.
Ray again glanced at the perfectly formed figure, the smile, and the newly revealed kindness in the eyes. He decided to take the plunge. Best to make it soon so he wouldn’t have time to stew over it too much and back out. Time was that he’d have been the one to make the move. Well, everybody kept telling him it was time to start living normally again.
“Tonight okay?” he asked her.
The Inspector’s smile widened. “Tonight’s fine. You can pick me up here at seven if you like.”
Ray wasn’t sure of anything much these days, but he was being truthful when he told her
he would look forward to it.
Ray’s hand trembled with anticipation edged with guilt, as he knocked on the Consulate door several hours later. How could he think of any pleasure for himself so soon after . . .?
The door to the Consulate loomed huge and monstrous with no red serge standing
beside it to warm it up. Nothing to be afraid of. It’ll just be a comfortable dinner and some conversation, he thought, completely failing to convince himself.
There was no answer from inside. Ray was raising his hand to tap against the wood again, when the door opened. Inspector Thatcher stared at him from the other side, looking much sexier than he’d expected. She was no longer in a starched business suit, filled with the demeanor of a perfectly controlled woman of power. Now she was now luscious in a deep maroon off-the-shoulder affair, tight enough on top to make Ray very conscious of her breathing - fast and nervous. A bright green brooch bobbed up and down
on the breathing area.
Does she keep that dress in the office, or did she go home and change for me? Ray wondered.
“Detective Vecchio?” she asked, with what Ray could’ve sworn was a blush.
“Call me Ray, Inspector,” he answered.
She nodded hesitantly and exited the Consulate. She didn’t say anything until
Ray opened the door for her on the Riv’s passenger side. Meeting Ray’s eyes over the door, she said “And you may call me Margie.”
“Margie?” Ray asked, momentarily taken aback.
“‘Margaret’ has always made me feel like I’m about to storm off to the Falklands.” She smiled, causing her face to lighten in a most attractive way.
Margie slid smoothly into the passenger seat, and Ray shut the door behind her. For a moment, Ray paid a quick homage to Fraser for that training. With what could only be termed a silly grin on his face, Ray practically dashed to the driver’s side. “So, Margie. Do you like Italian?”
They sat talking, with Margie not even glancing at the elegant over-sized menu with a gold tassel. Ray had chosen his favourite “impress the first date” restaurant for his first encounter with this woman who would have been Benny’s commanding officer. He told her Fraser-story after Fraser-story and she was mesmerized.
“He used you as a shield?” she exclaimed in disbelief.
“Well, I was covered in frozen meat.”
“But there’s no way he could know that they wouldn’t shoot at your head!”
Ray felt his mouth curving into an even more exaggerated smirk. “But, really,
that was nothing.”
Margie rested her chin on her folded hands, rapt.
Ray presently became aware of a waiter standing beside the table. He paused in his explanation of the importance of a matchbook to turn and ask for a glass of Merlot. “Margie, would you like . . .?” Ray stopped speaking when he actually saw the waiter.
“Would I like a what?” Margie’s face had clouded with confusion. “Don’t you think you should wait until a waiter is here?”
She doesn’t see him. I see him. She doesn’t see him. “I . . . I uh, yes, of course. I was just asking whether you . . .” He sneaked a glance at the “waiter”.
“Might I recommend a Chardonnay?” That voice! That voice he had not heard in four months and wasn’t really expecting to ever hear again!
Benny. It was Benny. No, not Benny exactly but someone, something, that looked almost like him, but something was subtly different. Ray gaped, unable to speak. The thing that was something like Benny smiled Benny’s familiar half-smile.
“Uh . . . recommend . . . uh . . . Chardonnay?” Ray managed to echo.
“Ooh,” Margie cooed, “that sounds lovely. Maybe just one glass.” She turned her attention to the menu, and Ray peered over his to stare at the apparition of his dead friend.
Fraser moved his mouth, very slowly and deliberately, whispering the word “bathroom”.
Ray’s mouth repeated the word, but with a question mark crinkling his eyebrows.
The almost-Benny-thing inclined his head just slightly in agreement and walked away. Ray stared after him.
“Ray, is everything all right?” Margie asked, distracting his attention.
“Margie, um, would you excuse me for a minute? I just want to go . . . I want to
go to the bathroom.”
“Ray, are you sure something isn’t wrong?” Her concern showed in the tone of her voice. “Have I said something?”
“No, no! I just . . . I’ll be right back, just a few minutes, okay?” Ray hurried over the men’s room, not realizing until he was about to push the door open that he’d brought his glass of water and napkin with him. He set the items on a low wall beside the lavatory. Steeling himself, he pushed through the door to see the Benny-thing leaning against a tiled wall, arms crossed, ankles crossed, and grinning.
Fraser was better looking, although it hardly seemed possible to think it. His hair was much longer and thicker than it had been in life, parted in the middle and curling softly over his ears and against his neck. The clothes were such that he had never seen Fraser wear: black dress pants, black socks and loafers, tight turtleneck sweater. The sweater, of royal blue wool, clung to a torso that was a little wider in the shoulder and a little narrower in the waist than before. That shade of blue made his eyes glow like brilliant sapphires.
All the lines that Ray had rehearsed to be his first words to Fraser, should he ever show himself, fled from his mind. Instead he blurted out the first thing that popped into his head.
“Wow, man, you look great!”
In surprise, Fraser looked down at himself and patted the top of his own head and his neck to ascertain the length of his hair.
“Oh, that’s my mother. She always changes the way I look when I’m not paying attention. Do you want me to change back to the way I was?”
“No, stay like that! Dead suits you!”
The thing that Ray now accepted to be Fraser straightened up, uncrossing all his limbs, and moved towards Ray. He extended his arms wide, obviously inviting a hug. “It’s good to see you, Ray.”
Ray hung back, frightened, but Fraser moved in closer and wrapped him arms around him. Ray found the arms that held him strong, and the chest and stomach, against which he was pressed, firm and very real.
And then the dam broke. Not since that day in the psychiatrist’s office had Ray dared to cry, but he cried now - deep, gasping sobs. He buried his head into his friend’s shoulder, while Fraser patted him on the back and made soothing noises.
“There, there, Ray. It’s all right. It’s going to be all right.”
Ray went on for several minutes, wailing himself into exhaustion. A couple of times another restaurant patron came into the bathroom for more conventional purposes, saw one sobbing man clutching at empty air, and hurried out again. Ray paid them no attention.
After a time, Ray had no more crying left in him. First he breathed hard, unevenly. Then, slowly, still in Fraser’s arms, he regained just a little composure. Fraser took him by the shoulders and held his body away at arm’s length, as though to get a good look at him.
“Are you okay? Can you talk?” Fraser looked worried.
Ray nodded. An alive and more logical Fraser wouldn’t have taken that as evidence of Ray’s being able to talk, but this Fraser seemed to be satisfied.
“Good,” said Fraser. “I think we have a lot to talk about, Ray.”
Ray was still too stunned to answer. He just grunted some affirmation. He rubbed away some remaining moisture on his face with the sleeve of his suit, not caring if he did ruin it.
“Now, now, Ray, you don’t want to appear messy for your date.” Fraser smiled knowingly.
That got Ray’s attention. “My date? Oh, no, we just got together to . . .” discuss you, Ray finished the sentence in his mind only, but he had a feeling that Fraser had understood anyway.
Fraser nodded easily. “Maybe now isn’t the best time. I just wanted to let you know that I am still here, and that . . . Well, your date is waiting for you. I’ll be back. I think she likes you, Ray,” he said, sounding more than a little bemused.
“Benny! Wait!” It was to no avail. Fraser simply wasn’t there any more. “Benny!” Ray stroked the empty space with his hand, until he finally touched the cold wall. He sagged, then groped for a washbasin and clung to it. He took several deep breaths. “I’ll be back,” Fraser’s apparition had said. He had to be content with that for now.
Ray stayed against the sink, thinking. Something about Fraser’s ghost was different from Fraser alive. The appearance and clothes, of course, but there was more somehow. The relaxed posture, the hugging. Ray had an involuntary and irreverent mental picture of some angel yanking the poker out of Fraser’s ass as he went through the Pearly Gates. Vecchio, you may have to go back to the loony bin after all.
He eventually remembered his “date” was waiting. He washed his face with cold water and examined himself in the mirror. His eyes were red and his skin white, but there was no more reason to stay in the men’s room. He willed his legs to carry him out and back to the table.
“A waiter came while you were gone,” Margie informed him as he sat down. “I went
ahead and ordered a Chardonnay for myself and a glass of Merlot for you. I hope you don’t mind.”
Ray felt Margie looking him over. He knew he couldn’t hide that he’d be crying, and what kind of considerate date went to the bathroom to cry, leaving the gorgeous woman to hang? Fraser had said it was a date, and Ray knew that in his heart he thought of it as one too.
Ray felt he owed her an explanation. “I haven’t been myself lately. Constable Fraser . . . well, it hit me really hard. We were partners, you see.”
She nodded knowingly. Of course.
“No! No!” He read her conclusion in her expression of resignation and disappointment. “Not that kind of partners. He worked cases with me at the station and I helped him with his work sometimes. Police-work type partners.”
“And friends too. Losing him must have been very hard.”
Ray had to chuckle. “Not all that hard. All I had to do was aim and pull the trigger.” He was so disoriented at this point that he actually enjoyed her look of alarm.
“You killed Constable Fraser? You?”
Ray gave her a conspiratorial smile and leaned forward. “Want to hear the story? It takes exactly two hours to tell.”
“I have it! I have it!” Benton burst into the cabin, grabbed his mother by the waist and swung her around, laughing with joy.
“Benton, what is it?
“Beeeeeennn – toooooon- what iiiiiiiiis – it,” he sang in a three-four rhythm and started waltzing her around the cabin.
“I have to tell Dad!” Benton declared. He let go of his mother in the middle of a swirl and dashed out the door. He tore out of the cabin and into the surrounding forest, shouting, “Dad! Dad!”
Bob emerged from a thicket, brushing stray twigs from his jacket. Somewhat gruffly, he said, “What is it, son? Are you all right?”
Benton lifted his father and drew him into a tight bearhug. Benton seemed to be getting more and more emotional the longer he was dead, and Bob was getting used to it.
“All right? Dad, I’m more than all right, I’m transported!” He let his father go and did a little jig. “I know how to help Ray!” He sang as he danced. “You were so right. I had to see him to figure it out. It’s that woman, that Margie. I’m supposed to bring them together.”
Bob wasn’t so sure, and he said so.
“Oh, Dad. If you had seen how lonely he is, you’d be as sure as I am. He’s so unhappy. He’s so alone. This has to be right!”
“Son, just because he’s alone doesn’t mean he needs to be thrust together with someone else.”
Benton paused his jig to stare stunned at his father, who was now inanely combing his gloved fingers through his furred coat. “What do you mean? They’re perfect together! They’d love each other! It’s the right thing!”
“Are you sure? Benton, a man who is alone will be alone even in a room full of a thousand people. Being alone comes from the inside. You can’t be alone unless you don’t fill yourself till you spill out along the edges.” He illustrated his comment with a bizarre hand motion that looked almost like a sea otter paddling against the current. “A man can only be alone when he’s
not home in himself.”
This made no sense to Benton, but Dad’s making no sense wasn’t anything new. Still, he wanted yo share his happiness and his certainty. “But Dad, I’m sure I’m supposed to help Ray with Margie.”
“Fine, help him with Margie. Just know that that may only be a part of the whole. A little tiny piece of the trail. One bit of scat that you’re looking at, when you really need to follow the tracks of the beast, perhaps noting a broken branch along the way, or even trying to sniff the wind so you
can . . .”
Benton gave up and tuned out the rest of the lecture. He already knew what he had to do.
Ray insisted on going back to work before Doctor Reyburn felt he was really ready. It wasn’t about money. He still had some weeks of disability left and his house was paid for. His house was most certainly paid for. In Ray’s darkest moments (of which he had more than he would admit to anyone) he thought about the price that had been paid to keep his house mortgage-free.
The money left to him by Fraser was also a help. What an irony that was. At first, Ray was going to donate it to some charity he thought Fraser might approve of, but Ma surprised him by talking him out of it.
“Let Benito help you in this way,” she had said. “It would make him happy.”
Ray simply had had enough of sitting and brooding, at home, in the park, walking the streets with Dief. Only his occasional dates with Margie gave him a break from his soul-killing thoughts. Maybe back at work he could focus on somebody else being the criminal.
So, on this first day back, Ray found himself tapping one expensive leather shoe against the hard floor of the precinct and listening to Huey and Louis discuss a case. Every now and then one of them tossed out a patronizing “Right, Ray?” and Ray grunted something that sounded like yes or no then returned his chin to his hands. Why did today, of all days, have to be so slow? One of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, and he couldn’t go chasing one malfeasant?
Then he heard a voice that belonged to neither of the “duck boys”.
“She is not currently romantically involved, Ray.”
Ray started. “Jesus!”
Detective Huey glanced over. “Something wrong, Vecchio?”
There was Benny, standing right in front of him, dressed in his usual jeans and flannel shirt, big as life. But not life. Never life again.
“Good morning, Ray.”
“Um, it’s afternoon.”
“Sure, Ray. It’s afternoon.” Louis raised his eyebrows high and looked at Huey. “We can finish this later. Maybe tomorrow morning, if afternoon is a bad time for you.”
So saying, Louis got up and wandered off. Huey followed after, but not before giving Ray a kind and forgiving look.
“My mistake. Good afternoon, then. I sort of lose track of time.” Fraser continued in his usual “I’ll write out a report about my misdeeds” tone.
Ray stood and nonchalantly glanced around. To the bat-closet! he thought. He knew that Fraser would follow him, out the glass-windowed door, follow the hall, right at the stairs, quick turn after two doors, and a right into privacy. Ray only gave a cursory look around to make sure no one was watching, then stepped inside, shutting the door firmly behind him. In semi-gloom he realized he was standing in there all alone. From outside in the corridor came a polite “Ahem”.
Ray rolled his eyes in the darkness. “You could just reappear in here, couldn’t you?”
In the time it took Ray to blink, Fraser was standing there with him. “Sorry, Ray. I forget. There’s so much I still have to learn about being dead.”
Ray pulled the chain to the single bare bulb overheard and leaned against the door. “Well, it’s good to see you.”
“And you, Ray, but I don’t want to keep you unnecessarily from your work.” He
smiled again, a warm, easy smile. Fraser crossed his arms over his chest and leaned beside Ray. “I simply want to assure you that she is not currently romantically involved. Nor has she recently exited a relationship, so there is no socially acceptable time for you to wait before asking.”
“Hunh? Asking what?”
At just that moment, however, someone on the other side had pushed on the door, obviously expecting it to open without difficulty. Ray heard a creative burst of swearing from whoever it was and couldn’t help laughing. He turned to share the moment with Fraser but his friend was gone. Ray’s called out after him, “Fraser, where’d you go?”
A voice sounded in the back of Ray’s mind. “I’ll be back.”
Ray emerged from the stuffy closet to see a uniform looking at him with unmistakable pity.
One Friday evening after church Ray went to the park instead of going straight home with his mother and sisters. Ray had started going regularly to mass again. His divorce precluded him from going to confession and getting a penance for killing Fraser, but the priest always made time to talk to him. The old Father kept coming up with things like “I’ve known you since you were a boy, Raymond. You couldn’t commit murder. It must have been an accident.” Everybody seemed to be sure of that but Ray himself.
Sitting on the park bench, with Diefenbaker snoozing nearby in what was left of the sunlight, Ray was thinking about what he would say to Fraser the next time he showed up. Fraser would show up again, of that Ray was certain.
Ray broke his reverie to enjoy the sight of an amazing redhead coming in his direction. After several more dates, Ray was actually beginning to think of Margie as his girlfriend now (though there was nothing “girlish” about Margie), but there was never any harm in a little recreation for the eyes.
What a specimen of womanhood this was! She was tall, nearly six feet. Impossibly thick, fiery red hair hung just to her shoulders and swayed as she walked. Her generous bosom in a bright green halter-top rode so high on her chest that it defied gravity. Below that, her midriff was as tight as a bongo drum and equally inviting to the fingertips. A mere strip of denim passed as shorts, making it barely possible for her to walk in the street legally. Her long shapely legs were unnecessarily enhanced by spike heels. Ray gave in to the pleasure of watching her walk towards him.
Wait a minute! Towards him? Yes, the beguiling redhead was, indeed, coming right in his direction. As she got near to Diefenbaker, the animal became frantic. He jumped to his feet, his tail whipping madly back and forth. He pranced in circles, yipping and whining as the woman came closer.
“Wrong species, Dief,” Ray quipped. “I’m the one who should be getting excited here.” And, indeed, Ray was getting excited in spite of himself.
Meanwhile the impossible beauty marched right up to Diefenbaker and dropped to her knees in front of him, her haunches straining against the already too tight shorts.
“Diefenbaker,” she purred in a voice so sultry that it made the wolf’s name sound X-rated. “Diefenbaker.” She hugged the animal, her flaming hair mixing with Dief’s white mane. Dief whimpered and burrowed his snout into her cleavage.
It can’t be him! It can’t be! thought Ray desperately, but then he remembered what Fraser had said in the restaurant: “She keeps changing the way I look”, and “Should I change back to the way I was?” Never in religion class had any of the priests or sisters suggested that shape-shifting was supposed to be the norm in the afterlife!
The redhead let go of the wolf, rose to her exquisitely shaped feet, and came to stand before Ray.
“How do I look?” She turned around slowly for Ray’s inspection. Resting perfectly manicured fingertips against perfectly proportioned hips, she asked, all innocence, “Isn’t this a great body?”
“Fuh... Fuh... Fuh...”
She sat down beside him on the bench, crossing one perfect long leg across the other, while Diefenbaker came up beside her and leaned his head into her lap. She caressed the top of the wolf’s head and all around his ears.
“Fuh-ray-zur?” Ray sputtered.
“Benton Fraser, formerly of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” the blazing beauty confirmed with a musical little laugh.
“Fraser! It’s Fraser!” Ray’s brains screamed at his loins, but his loins were paying absolutely no attention. Ray squirmed and twisted, hoping to hide from Fraser his reaction, which was totally inappropriate towards a dead, male, best friend. Fortunately for Ray, Fraser was busy petting Dief and paying no attention to Ray’s contortions.
“Mum said I should be visible when I come talk to you, so you won’t look like you’re talking to yourself. Don’t want to be arousing suspicion,” Fraser tossed off to Ray, sideways.
“No, it’s not suspicion you’re arousing,” muttered Ray to himself. Fraser was still focused on her wolf friend, not looking at Ray at all as she said, “So Mum helped me take the form of a woman. She says I look completely normal – won’t attract any attention at all.”
Ray only groaned. Fraser’s mother must have some weird sense of humour. Ray summoned all his mental strength. Fraser! Fraser! Not a real woman! By the time Fraser and Diefenbaker came to a pause in their conversation his arousal had subsided sufficiently for him to at least sit normally.
“You seem surprised to see me. I said I’d be back.”
“You said you’d be back, but you didn’t say when or, um, in what shape.”
“Point taken,” Fraser agreed. “You’re looking better, Ray. More confident, I think this Margie is having a good effect on you.”
“Margie?” This wasn’t what he wanted to discuss with Fraser at all. “Benny, I don’t want to talk about my love life. We’ve got more important things to talk about.”
Fraser looked disappointed. “Well, all right, Ray,” she allowed. “But, the thing is, I’ve been watching the two of you and I really think . . . “
“Watching? You can WATCH? Any time you want?”
Fraser seemed offended. “I don’t watch for fun, Ray. I’m concerned about you.” She wondered if she were supposed to tell him about her assignment, that she was under instructions to help him. Maybe not.
“Well, this is just great, Benny,” there came the old sarcastic tone. Even as he spoke Ray knew his anger was with himself over his own shameful reaction to Fraser’s current appearance, but he couldn’t seem to control his body, his mind or his tone of voice. “This is just what I need.”
“Sweet Jesus, I’ll never have sex again. Every time I touch a woman, I’m going to see those big Mountie eyes of yours, watching.”
Fraser was at a loss. “I’m not a Mountie anymore, if that helps any,” she ventured.
“It doesn’t help, Fraser. Mountie/not Mountie. Man/woman. Dead/alive. You’re still impossible!”
Her face fell into an expression of unutterable sadness. “I’m sorry, Ray.” She ruffled Dief’s hair and said, “We’ll have to talk later, Diefenbaker. I have to go now. I’ve upset Ray.” So saying, she got off the bench and walked away.
The tantalizing view of Fraser’s back end in motion distracted Ray’s attention. By the time he had brought himself back to reality, such as it was, Fraser had disappeared around a bend in the path that wound through the park. Ray launched after her, with Dief at his heels, but Fraser was gone.
Ray sank down in the grass below a tree. Fraser would have known what species of tree it was, but there was no Fraser anymore. Ray moaned in his head. All I do is hurt the guy. All the time. Even when he’s dead! I still hurt him!
Ray was annoyed with himself for getting aroused. He already felt guilty every time he came home horny from his dates with Margie. He wasn’t entitled to pleasure, murderer that he was. He needed to suffer. Worse yet, he imagined Fraser watching him, not just with Margie or any other woman, but alone in the bathroom. Did he need Fraser watching him do THAT?
When would Fraser show up? Where? What would he look like? Ray could never be sure after that.
He could swear he’d never met that girl at the flower stand before. But she insisted he buy red roses instead of pink, saying the bright red flowers would suit his dark-haired girlfriend. Margie hadn’t been with him at the time, so that had to have been Fraser.
On the other hand, the cab driver after that pub night when he and Margie took a taxi home – that was a “maybe”. The cab driver made every right turn too sharply, throwing him against Margie, but every left turn slowly and sedately.
And then there was the morning, when Ray went to get a paper at a newsstand, when the old man behind the counter handed him a bridal magazine and said “On the house”. Not much doubt there.
Ray began to dread any encounter with a stranger. He stopped short of suspecting people he knew of being his dead friend, hoping Fraser would refrain from taking the bodies of Ray’s own relatives and friends. One thing Ray noticed was that very encounter had something to do with Margie or with romance. Fraser’s ghost seemed to be determined to push them together and he was being none too subtle about it.
At first Ray tried to pin him down. “Benny, is that you?” he asked the teen-aged ice-cream vendor who handed Margie a triple-scoop when Ray had paid for a single. Margie’s look of embarrassed pity had cut the inquiry short. Fraser sightings tended to be public, leaving Ray no chance to tell Fraser to lay off.
It was wondrous and agonizing. Fraser was coming back to him, but it was only causing Ray more and more pain. Every date with Margie was edged with the feeling of being wicked for enjoying something happy and healthy when, as a foul murderer, he was entitled to no such thing. What a stabbing irony it was that Fraser himself kept trying to push Ray deeper and deeper into this massive conflict.
If he didn’t like Margie so much, Ray would have stopped going out with her just to avoid the strain.
It was a kitten cute enough to have come from a Disney movie: wide, liquid eyes, perky little ears, a head and back soft and pettable. There it sat, all alone, on Ray's front lawn as Ray drove up to his house with Margie in the front seat and Diefenbaker in the back. As soon as Ray let Dief out, the wolf bounded, barking and yelping, straight for the little creature. Dief sniffed all around the kitten and made strange noises Ray couldn't interpret at first.
“Dief, no.” Ray said, fearful for the tiny thing. He scooped the kitten up and handed it to Margie, who began to pet and caress it. Dief kept jumping around her, yelping like mad. Then, Ray figured it out.
Oh my God. What's he up to now? Ray moaned inwardly. “Let me hold it a second,” he said aloud, taking the little animal back into his own hands. He held the kitten by its little armpits, holding it close up to his own face, its back paws dangling. This was really more than he could stand. No matter what anybody thought he had to confront Fraser right here and now. “What is it, Benny?”
Margie clasped her hands. “Oh, Ray! You're naming it after Constable Fraser! That's just so sweet.”
Ray whispered to the kitten. “Stop torturing me. Help me out here. What's the deal? I don't get it.”
The kitten let out a pathetic mew as its only response. Ray absently stroked the fur the length of its so, so soft back. Wasn’t that just like Fraser to be able to do ‘cute’ in other species besides human.
“Let's take it in the house. We'll give it milk or something.” Ray figured he might as well give Fraser milk. He didn't have any bark tea in the house, whatever that was anyway.
“Ooh, let me carry it,” Margie twittered, relieving Ray of the small ball of fluff (which Ray was just as glad to be rid of at the moment). They all went into the house and Ray led the way to the kitchen.
“May I keep it, Ray?” Margie asked, timidly, as Ray poured milk into a soup bowl and put the bowl down on the kitchen floor. She set the kitten down beside the bowl and they both watched it lap up the milk with a teeny pink tongue. “I'll call it ‘Benny’, for your sake.” She looked up from the kitten to Ray with a woman's appreciation of a man doing something tender.
Ray grunted, “Sure,” and thought: You realize, Fraser, this means you have to spend the next dozen years as a cat.
A familiar voice sounded in the back of Ray's mind. “No, I won't, Ray. Mum's going to come rescue me in a couple of days, disguised as a little old lady who lost her kitten. I just wanted Margie to see how sweet you can be. Women like that.”
Ray stifled the impulse to kick Fraser across the room. It would make a bad impression on Margie.
The clerk in the shoe store was middle-aged and very fat. Just the exertion of trotting back and forth getting shoes for Ray and bending to fit them onto Ray's feet was causing small beads of sweat to form on his forehead. Eight pair of Italian leather loafers lay on the floor. Ray didn't notice how obsessive-compulsively the clerk had taken the time not only to fit each pair neatly into its box before fetching the next pair from the storeroom, but also to line the boxes in a straight row on the floor.
Ray’s attention was focused on the fact that the shoes he was currently wearing were the very shoes he had on when he killed Fraser. Did that mean something? Was he trying to get rid of the guilt by getting rid of the shoes? Get a grip, Vecchio, there’s holes in the soles. Holes in the soul too, he thought.
“I would suggest you get these in a half size larger, sir,” the salesman’s words startled Ray out of his reverie. Then the salesman winked suggestively. “I understand some women are attracted by larger feet.”
How much more of this could he take? “Damn you, Benny, talk to me. Don’t push me anymore. Talk to me.”
“We are talking, Ray,” said Fraser.
How could innocence be so infuriating? Only with Fraser, but then even alive he had been that way.
“I do have a coffee break in twenty minutes, though, if you want to talk some more.”
Fraser shrugged and went over to the sales counter. There he conferred with an even older man, and then followed Ray out of the shoe store into the mall.
Good. This was good. Ray cast his eye around the mall for a good spot to sit down and have this out with Benny. There were no benches free on this busy Saturday afternoon but there was a spot on the ledge of a fountain, wide enough to accommodate Ray and the greatly expanded Fraser. Ray sat down on the slightly damp granite edge and patted the space beside him. The fat salesmen plopped himself down with a grunt.
“Look, Fraser, how come every time you show up, you act like an asshole?” Ray blurted out.
“There's no need to curse, Ray. There are young children around.”
Ray clasped the sides of his head, and shook his head from side to side in frustration. “Fraser, every time you come, you talk to me about stuff that’s totally stupid! You're driving me crazy!”
Ray didn’t see the chubby face contract with confusion. “I don’t understand. What do you want me to do?”
“Talk to me!”
“No, I want you to leave me alone about her!”
Fraser considered this. “What do you want to talk about, then?” The question was an honest one. His efforts to push Margie and Ray together were clearly annoying Ray, but he didn't know what else to do. He had a task and knew no better way to carry it out.
“About what really matters. Like the fact that I murdered you.” Ray's voice rumbled with the intensity of his emotions. His fingernails left impressions of where he pressed them into his scalp.
Fraser was shocked. “Don't say that! You did no such thing. The shooting board cleared you, didn't they?”
Ray's eyes glowed with pain. His voice couldn't stay steady for more than four or five words at a time. “They don't know what really happened. They weren't in my head. Come to think of it, I don't think I was in my own head. I was out of my head, Benny, when I shot you. For weeks after I was in a psychiatric hospital. I guess you know that.”
“No, Ray, I didn't know. I'm so sorry.” Fraser was the quiet one now.
“What, you mean you weren't watching then?”
Fraser rubbed the back of his fat neck in embarrassment. “I wasn't in very good shape myself, Ray, after the shooting. I . . . I . . . blanked it all out. I was so guilty and confused that I just forgot all about it for a while. I guess this whole business has been pretty upsetting for both of us.”
Ray was starting to nod along, relieved that Fraser was beginning to get to what mattered, even if he was as annoying as usual in understating the case. “Pretty upsetting for both of us.” Who but Benny could describe one best friend killing another like that?
Fraser continued, “But don't you think the love of a good woman . . .”
Ray buried his head in his hands. “Stop it! You got to help me. Is there something I'm supposed to do? Something to make things right for you?”
It was an interesting thought. Fraser’s focus had been on what should be done for Ray. Still there was no denying he himself had been on the receiving end of some unpleasantness. Did Ray owe him any amends? The shooting had been accident; that much he knew from reliving it eternally during the Punishment. But Ray might benefit from a feeling of giving Fraser something. If so, what was there he wanted that was in Ray's power to supply? After a little thought, something came to him.
“There is something you can do for me, Ray. Tell me what you said in my eulogy. I would have loved to have seen my funeral.”
“You weren't there?” Ray wondered what the use of an afterlife was if they didn't at least let you watch your own funeral.
“Well, of course I was there, strictly speaking. But my folks wouldn’t let me watch. So, please tell me what you said. I'd really like to know.”
This was embarrassing. “I didn't speak at your funeral, Benny.”
“What? Who did?”
“Welsh. And Sgt. Frobisher. He came down.”
Fraser looked away from Ray and into the fountain for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts.
“I don't understand. You didn't come to my funeral?”
It was so hard talking about this to a shoe salesman. “Fraser, can't you turn back into you?”
Both men glanced around for a location suitable for changing. Finally Fraser said, “Wait here,” and headed for a department store. He slipped into a changing room and returned looking as he used to look when off duty, at the same weight and build as he had at the time of his death. Ray felt tears well up as he saw Fraser heading back towards him with his familiar stride, but wiped the tears away before Fraser got close enough to notice.
“Now, about my funeral,” Fraser said, settling back beside Ray by the fountain. “How could you not be there?”
“It was like with you, Fraser. I was there, but I wasn't. I was sitting right there the whole time, but . . .” Ray went on to describe what he could about his mental breakdown and subsequent therapy.
“Hmm,” said the ex-Mountie, thoughtfully. “So neither of us was really there and now we’ll neither of us have a chance to speak over the other.”
“Well, Benny, when it's my turn, you could always disguise yourself as a priest.”
Fraser nodded, brightening slightly. “You're right. That's a good suggestion. Thank you kindly, Ray.”
Ray's throat tightened at the familiar words. “What about you? Why didn't your parents want you to go?”
“I went back to being a child. I was seven years old. I didn’t remember anything. And then, things started to come back. That’s when I was told I was supposed to help you.” He stopped the story there. The Punishment wasn't something Ray needed to know about.
“And that's why you come down here? To bug me about Margie?”
“Well, it's not technically ‘down’, but in principle, yes. I'm sure you and Margie are meant to be together and I want to help you two along. I've been thinking - I could disguise myself as a hoodlum and threaten her and you could come to the rescue.”
“Benny, for the love of God!” Ray wailed.
“But, I'm supposed to help.”
In his own distress, Ray couldn't hear the helplessness in his friend's voice or register his pleading expression. His focus was inside himself, in that hard knob of guilt that never softened. His pain came out in angry sarcasm against the very person he needed to be kind to.
“Yeah, well, help some other way. How about a million bucks? A super-model?
No, even better. Go rid the world of hunger.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, actually, and Fraser sat for a moment thinking about whether he should try to do just that - rid the world of hunger. It seemed a bit grandiose for an ex-constable. “I don't think I should try something like that, Ray. At least not until I finish with you and Margie first.”
"Fraser! Just leave me alone!" Ray howled. Around them, people turned to stare.
Fraser froze at the enormity of what he had learned. Every time he tried to talk to Ray it seemed he was just hurting him worse and worse each time. How could that be, when he was trying so hard to help? He realized he was losing the concentration he needed to maintain corporeality. Without a word of parting, Fraser jumped up off the ledge and dashed back to the department store. He was barely able to duck into the privacy of a changing room before his control gave out and he vanished.
Ray shouldn't have been surprised that Fraser picked exactly the worst moment to make his next appearance. Ray and Margie had been dating steadily for many months and she hadn't once let him stay the night. Ray wondered if all Canadians were prudes, or only just Mounties, or maybe just the Mounties he was lucky enough to meet. Christ, little Canadians had to come from SOMEWHERE.
Mixed with his affection for Margie was still the guilt that he didn't deserve her, didn't deserve any happiness of body or of mind. What he deserved was punishment. Maybe that’s what Fraser’s appearances were meant to be.
Nobody’s attempts to comfort him did any good.
“It was an accident, caro.”
“I read all the files Moffat left me. Constable Fraser was trying to jump bail. He wasn’t exactly an innocent victim.”
“I was there, Detective. You fired at an armed suspect. The Mountie jumped up in the way. End of story.”
He took Margie to see “Othello”. He had no real love of Shakespeare but she wanted very much to go see it. Ray spent three hours in a state of tension, fearing that at any moment one of the actors would step out of character, turn to the audience and say something to humiliate Ray personally in front of a whole theater of people.
One bit at the end of the play stuck in his mind. It sounded like one of those famous lines everyone always quoted. He remembered it well enough to look it up in an old “Complete Works of Shakespeare” a few nights later.
After the show, Margie announced that she wasn't in the mood to go for coffee, and asked Ray to just take her home. At the doorway of her apartment, she gave him their usual parting kiss – heartfelt but nothing particularly spectacular.
“Well, I guess I'll be going.” Ray mumbled. What else could a fellow do?
Margie said, looking down at carpet, “You . . . don't have to go . . . if you don't want to.”
Ray froze, so shocked that for an instant he didn't know what to do. Margie took his hand, led him in, asked him to sit on the couch, poured him some scotch and disappeared into the bedroom. “You wait here, Ray. I just want to change. I won't be a minute.”
Ray sipped his scotch, trying to imagine just what kind of outfit she was planning to change into. Tonight is going to be the night, Vecchio. Tonight she's not making you go home. Tonight, for the first time since . . . He suppressed the rest of that thought. He leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes. Can I actually do this? Can I be a man tonight, and not a filthy killer?
Eyes closed, he felt a familiar presence. Some funny scents - soap, leather, some kind of oil. Then he heard a voice speak a single syllable.
“Oh God, now? NOW?” The confrontation at the mall had been for nothing it seemed. Fraser wasn’t going to let up.
“Things seem to be going well, Ray. Now would be a good time to know each other better. Get closer.”
“Earth calling Fraser. She's in her bedroom changing into something more comfortable. We're going to get a lot closer if you'll just bug off.”
“Oh, sorry Ray. I guess I still have forgotten some things.”
Ray fought the age-old battle men have always fought, between the big brain and the little brain, and the big brain was losing. His phrasing suffered because of it. “Fraser, if you louse this up for me tonight, I'm going to kill you.”
“Wasn't once enough?” Fraser faded and was gone, leaving an impression of a sorrowful face in Ray's mind, not unlike a mournful Benny-like Cheshire cat.
Immediately Ray started kicking himself for his momentary loss of control. What if Fraser were really hurt now, and never came back? He dropped his head into his hands. “Benny, I'm sorry,” he moaned.
Margie came back in the room, wearing black lace and as little of it as Ray had hoped. She caught sight of Ray's face, and stopped in her tracks.
“Ray, are you crying?”
“I'm okay, Margie.” He knew it was a lie. He stuttered on the words.
“No, you're crying.” She came over to the couch and sat beside him. “It’s Fraser again, isn’t it?”
She didn’t know how right she was. “He . . . he was here.”
She picked up his hand in both of hers and held it gently, not more than a couple of inches away from her breast. Then she bent her cheek against it softly. “I think I understand, Ray. Maybe it's too soon for this. I didn't mean to push you.”
She kissed his hand and put it into his lap. “I'll go get decent again and make you some coffee. Then you can go home and relax. We can do this some other night.”
Before Ray could say a word she was gone again.
Half an hour later, after a blue-jeaned and sweat-shirted Margie had forced him to drink coffee, he found himself out on her doorstep and heading toward the Riv, an infinite stream of “if only’s” ringing in his head.
Zuko was annoyed with Charlie and made no effort to hide it. “Vecchio's back to work. You never told me.”
Charlie wasn't sure how to play this one. “How did you find out?” he essayed.
"How did I find out? I have other ways of finding things out besides depending on you, thank God." He tried out his newest glare on the older man and was satisfied with the result. “How come you didn't know?”
Charlie realized that admitting the truth would be safer than letting Frankie think that things were getting past him. “I didn't want to mention it, Frank. You've got too much Vecchio on the brain. Leave him alone. He's suffering enough. Put him out of his misery, you'll just be doing him a favour.”
Zuko stabbed out a cigar impatiently. “This kind of favour, I'm happy to do. Get on this, Charlie. It's time.”
A policeman gets into the habit of feeling confident when he’s out in the streets. And why not? He’s well trained, accustomed to protecting the public. Ray thought nothing of taking late night walks to enjoy the cool breezes. He didn’t think that, unarmed and still unsure of himself, he might end up a target.
Zuko’s goon was a professional, for all that he was dressed and carried himself as a drugged-out punk. Even if there were witnesses, there wouldn’t be much of an investigation. He waited behind some tall bushes that lined the sidewalk Ray usually took to get home. As Ray passed, he stepped out. Ray could just make out the knife blade in the feeble light coming from the street lamp.
Ray paused, perfectly calm, and tossed his wallet onto the sidewalk between him and the punk kid. “Take what you want, pal,” he said without too much feeling. “Or take me out. I don’t care.”
Ray spread his hands out at his sides and just stood there. This was the best thing that could happen, to be snuffed as an innocent victim. Murdering his best friend had been sin enough. He feared to compound that wrong with killing himself. But this would be a convenient way to go out, all things considered. No more having to live with homicide – worse, fratricide.
This wasn’t what the goon was expecting. He took a couple of steps towards Ray, considering his next move. Then Ray detected movement in his peripheral vision.
A second kid stepped out from between two parked cars. This kid was younger, more outlandish than the first, with metal studs piercing any number of unlikely parts of him. Straggly hair. The emaciated body of someone who spent his money on drugs, not on fruit and veggies.
Two against one, thought Ray. He crossed himself and realized his mother would probably take his demise hard. He’d have to find a way to come back and reassure her. Well, Benny would show him how, no doubt. If he even went to the same place Benny did. He wasn’t so sure he would.
The second punk spoke up. “Would you please step away from my friend, sir?”
“Benny! Don’t interfere! Let this happen. I don’t mind.”
“That’s just silly, Ray,” Fraser insisted. He moved past Ray and stood between his friend and the goon.
The goon sized up the skinny kid and figured he could be easily disposed of, but he was a professional. Scaring the kid off would be better than killing him.
“Scram, punk,” he said, forgetting for the moment that he himself was dressed as a punk. “This has nothing to do with you. You can walk away.”
Fraser shook his head at the offer. “Sorry, but I can’t do that.”
“Then you’re dead meat, kid.” He lunged at Fraser.
“You got that right,” Fraser agreed pleasantly, while expertly flipping the man onto the ground. He followed that with a swift kick to the side of the man’s head. Then he relieved the unconscious thug of the knife still in his hand, another from his boot and the gun in his shoulder holster.
He offered all these to Ray, but Ray didn’t move to take them. He just looked from goon to Fraser and back, over and over. Fraser shrugged and tossed the entire collection of weaponry into the bushes.
“Good thing I’m not a policeman anymore,” Fraser remarked casually. “I’d have
to insist you take all this, and him, into custody. There are advantages to not being alive.”
Ray just continued to stare.
“I haven’t hurt him, Ray,” Fraser assured him. “He’ll recover. You’d better go home now. I’ll get us a taxi, you look too shaky to walk.”
So saying, Fraser took hold of his friend with one arm and flagged down a cab with the other. He put Ray in first, and then climbed into the back seat with him, giving the driver Ray’s address.
“You’ll have to pay for the taxi, Ray. I’m afraid I don’t have any money.” Regret for this inconvenience seemed to be his only reaction to the whole incident.
Ray finally made a noise, a groan. “Thanks, but you didn’t have to do this. I was ready to go.”
This clearly distressed Fraser. “No you aren’t! Don’t say that, Ray! You and Margie have a future together. Children. Grandchildren. You could name one after me.”
It was all so frustratingly anti-climactic that Ray was at a loss. “Jesus, Benny, is that all you can talk about?”
“But, Ray, it’s important.”
“Look, Benny, I’m sure Ma will be happy you saved my life, but I can’t say I’m all that thrilled. Next time, just butt out!”
Fraser’s expression clouded but Ray didn’t see it in the gloom of the cab.
“Leave me alone. Don’t save my life. Don’t bug me about women. And for Chrissake don’t watch.”
“I’m . . . I’m . . . supposed to help.” Fraser sputtered.
“Yeah, well from now on, don’t help. You’re free. Go float on a cloud or whatever it is you’re supposed to do. Scram, okay?”
“Okay,” was his former partner’s pathetic word of agreement. Fraser began to fade and in seconds Ray was alone in the back seat of the cab.
Glancing into the back seat, the cab driver couldn’t help but notice he was one passenger short. “Where’s the other guy?”
“He’s gone. And good riddance,” Ray said testily.
The cabby, wisely, let it go.
Bob found Benton sitting on the ground in his usual spot out behind the cabin, but somehow there was something wrong with the landscape. “Where’s your pond?”
“I got rid of it.”
“Where’ll you swim?”
“Don’t want to swim anymore.” Benton was sulking. He knew it, and he didn’t care.
“How’ll you watch the Yank?”
“Not watching anymore,” Benton muttered.
“Good, so the assignment’s a success then.”
Ben looked up at his father and just shook his head. “Were you always this dense when you were alive, or has being dead just rotted your brains?”
Bob Fraser offered no reply. It wasn’t like Benton to talk to him like this. Something must be very wrong.
Benton continued, “Probably the latter. My brains are certainly useless now. Every time I think of some way to help Ray, it all just blows up in my face.”
Even Bob could see Benton was in a funk. Yet it seemed he couldn’t connect with his son any better dead than alive. So death didn’t give instant understanding of all things. That didn’t seem fair but there you go. Some stuff you still had to work on, Bob supposed.
“Anything I can do to help?”
“You’ve already helped plenty. You gave me the idea to go talk with Ray. He’s waaaaaaay better off now, that’s for sure.”
Not even Bob could miss the sarcasm. At a loss, he went back into the cabin to talk to his wife. Caroline interrupted her reading of Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon to listen to the problem.
“I’ll talk to him,” she assured Bob. “Don’t feel badly, dear. I’m sure you did your best. Sometimes a boy just needs to talk to his mother.”
Caroline went out back behind the cabin. Benton was no longer sitting dejectedly on the ground, but was sitting dejectedly on the edge of a precipice some fifty feet high, and was dangling his legs over the edge. Caroline put herself up there and settled down beside him.
Benton tossed a twig down and watched it fall. “I’m making everything worse for Ray. He doesn’t even want to see me, and I was his best friend.”
“Maybe you need to help him some other way, Benton. He’s a policeman; his life must be endangered pretty often. Maybe you’re supposed to save him.”
“Oh, Mum, I tried that. It was a disaster.” He tossed a handful of pebbles after the twig. They made a pleasing clatter, but Benton wanted more. One by one, he sent down a half dozen choice goblets of Belgian crystal. This was much more satisfying. Then he enjoyed the crash of a Ming vase.
“Mum, what happens to me if I fail in my assignment?”
She edged over closer and put her arm around him. “Failure’s not an option Here, Benton. You just keep trying until you get it right. It’s not as though there’s any time limit.”
“But what if I’m supposed to save him and he gets killed first? Dad was right, it’s not a romance he needs. It’s something else and I just can’t find it. I know I’m messing this whole thing up.”
Benton drew up his legs and stretched out sideways, laying his head in his mother’s lap. Bits of gravel at the top of the cliff cut into his skin, for which he was just as glad. He felt it was appropriate for him to be uncomfortable is some way, as punishment for failing to connect with Ray.
Caroline wrapped a lock of his hair around her finger and toyed with the black strand. Benton was so upset he had left it long without even noticing.
“You’ll solve this, Benton. You’ve got the Pinsent brains and the Fraser stubbornness. Be patient. Watch. Wait. You’ll know when it’s time to intervene.”
Benton closed his eyes and snuggled into his mother’s warm lap, let out a little hum, and gave in to the enjoyment of her petting. The sharp stones gave way to his cot back in the cabin.
“Mum, I’ve been wondering about something. Do we have to stay in this cabin?”
“Of course not, dear. Your father and I didn’t even have corporeal form when you first arrived. We made you this forest and cabin so you would have familiar surroundings. You were a little disoriented, Benton.”
Mum was so diplomatic. There was no way his father had the skill to help her make this environment, and as for his being a little disoriented when he arrived Here, well that was putting it mildly.
“Then, if I wanted to go somewhere else, be something else . . . not another person or animal, but . . . I don’t know . . . something else.”
“You have only to imagine it.”
“I think . . .” he said slowly, “ . . . I’d like to try something I’ve never imagined. But not now. I need to finish with Ray first.”
The Pinsent brains at work, thought Caroline. Without realizing it, her son had stumbled upon the entry requirement for the next step. A soul had to finish its obligations before being given the freedom to explore the various dimensions of the universe. She hoped he would want his family with him when he finally went off exploring, but the choice would, of course, be his own.
Ray paid the taxi driver, found his way into the house and dropped into the living room chair closest to the vestibule. He sat thinking about how that moment of danger, before Fraser had saved him, had clarified for him just how he felt about going on living. He had family, he had work, he had Margie, and he wanted none of it anymore.
Ray had known depressed people: relatives, friends, crime victims, often the suspects themselves. He’d heard people howl and whine and insist that they wanted to die. He was just a little short of that, he figured. He didn’t want to live, nor did he want to hurt his mother or defy the Church by taking his own life.
And Benny wasn’t helping, always showing up so damned cheerful. It had to be fake. A Mountie, claiming to be Fraser’s father, had barged into Dr. Reyburn’s office during one of his therapy sessions and announced Fraser was enjoying Eternal Bliss. For the first time since then, Ray suspected that ghost may have been lying. The happy dead don’t come back and haunt the living. Fraser still had consciousness – that was something nice to know – but he was still hurting and Ray had caused that hurt.
Fraser had been running away. That had been wrong, selfish, borderline evil. Yet, in the months of thinking about it, Ray had come to see it could have happened to anybody. Fraser had been blindsided. Temporarily insane. None of this made any sense. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to. His thoughts were interrupted by sounds made by his mother and Francesca coming in the door.
“Raimundo, did you just come home in a taxicab? Where were you?”
“Just walking around, Ma.”
“Walking so far that you had to take a taxi home?”
Ray was too deep in thought to monitor what he was saying. “Wasn’t my idea. Fraser’s.”
“Fraszh put you in a cab?” Francesca exclaimed.
“Now, wait a minute. Are you telling me Fraszh came back from the dead and
put you in a taxi?”
“I wish he’d come back to ME and do something like that.”
Ray found a point of focus in his confusion – the perfect scapegoat. “You’re still panting for him, even when he’s dead! Do you have any idea how disgusting that is?”
It was himself he was disgusted with, for daring to seek pleasure when he didn’t deserve it.
Time after time he came home from a date with Margie and locked himself into the bathroom, just like a teenager. Even after seeing Fraser as a woman he’d needed that relief. And whenever Fraser came to talk, what did he talk about? Women. Why couldn’t Fraser just leave him alone?
“How’d you even know how I came home?”
“Mrs. Tomasini was in the street just now when Aunt Rosa dropped us off. She saw you.”
“You shouldn’t be talking to people in the street! Don’t you have a house? Didn’t I kill my best friend to make sure you had a house?” Ray stormed upstairs and the women heard a door slam.
Francesca screamed up the stairs after him: “God, bro! Get over yourself! Stop wallowing! Everybody knows you’re miserable! We know it because you make damn sure we know it!”
Francesca caught her mother’s look of disapproval.
“Leave him alone, cara.”
“He’s not the only one that lost Fraszh. I lost him too.”
“Yes, but you found a way to hold him,” said Ma, as she started up the stairs to talk to her son.
Francesca called up the stairs, her voice shrill with uncontrolled hurt. “You’re not the only one that suffered!”
“No, Ma. He needs to hear this.” Her tiny shoulders quivered along with her voice.
“Who went to Fraser’s apartment to get clothes for them to bury him in? Who had to go into his fucking dresser drawers and get clean fucking underwear? And all the time Ray was just wandering around the house like a zombie, scaring the kids!” She fled in tears to the kitchen.
Standing there, halfway up the stairs, Ma faced a difficult decision. Both children needed her at this moment but she had to go to one of them first. After the briefest of mental calculations, she proceeded upstairs. She could comfort the girl later, after her fussing and fuming had subsided a little. What the boy said about Benito - she had to know more.
She found Ray not in his own room but in Francesca’s. Ma sat down on the bed beside him where he lay face-down, his face against the quilt. “That Victoria woman, she stayed in this room, didn’t she?”
Ray nodded, still face down. “You know what I said to her, Ma? I said ‘You hurt him and I’ll kill you,’” he muttered into the bed.
She stroked his hair. “You say Benito came to you. Do you want to tell me about it?”
Ray rolled over and faced her. Before today he had told no one about Fraser’s visits “You wouldn’t believe it,” he said but he was beginning to think that maybe she would.
“To see visions, to hear voices, it’s unusual but it happens. Maybe you’ll be a saint.”
He checked her eyes to see if this was a joke. It was.
“Tell me,” she insisted.
What would be the worst that could happen if Ma thought he was back to being . . . as he was after the shooting. A return to the hospital? It hardly seemed much of a threat anymore.
His mother’s face was so eager and ready to believe that he told it all, while she listened and petted him as she used to when he was a child.
Sometimes there is great wisdom in simply stating the obvious at the right time. “His soul is not at peace,” Ma summed it up when he had finished, “You must help him, Raimundo.”
“A punk kid knocked Bernie out? Is that what you’re telling me?” An exasperated Zuko stared up at Charlie from his desk.
“That’s what Bernie says,” Charlie assured his boss. “Bernie’s pretty reliable. If he says that’s what happened, I’m willing to believe that’s what happened.”
“I don’t know what’s with all my people these days,” Zuko complained with a hint of malice. “I send you after the Mountie with the best talent there is, he gets away. I send Bernie after Vecchio and he fucks that up too. So, I’m going to have to do this myself, right?”
“I’d advise against it.” Charlie realized it was a useless gesture but he just had to try.
“Yeah, well your advice hasn’t been that great lately.”
“Benny, I hope you don’t mind I haven’t been coming here very much,” Ray said to the gravestone in front of him. “It’s just when I think about you, I don’t think of you being, you know, here. You just keep showing up so many different places. You come, you go, never a word of warning.”
Ray paused. That sounded like a complaint. It wasn’t the tone he wanted to use. He pushed on.
“The thing is, I’d like to talk to you and, um, I’m not really sure what will happen if I just sort of ask you to come, so I figured this would be a good place to . . .”
“Did you say you wanted to talk to me, Ray?” The voice came from behind him, and Ray turned to see Fraser wearing a grey jogging suit, his shoulder-length hair in a ponytail. Fraser looked sadder and more serious than Ray had ever seen him since his death.
“Yeah, Benny. Look, I think I’ve been a little hard on you lately. I realize you mean well.”
Fraser’s expression brightened instantly. Ray’s own heart lightened just a little to see it.
“Benny, I know this is going to sound silly, but . . . is there something that you, um, want me to do?”
Ray was trying to stay attuned to every little nuance of his friend’s tone and manner. He read caution in Fraser’s two-word response.
“About you. I mean, for you. To help you.”
“I’m the one that is supposed to help YOU, Ray. I told you that. Isn’t there something you need?”
Ray fought back the words he longed to cry out: I need to know! I need to know if I murdered you or just tried to protect you. No sense in asking Fraser, standing there looking so innocent. You’re not innocent, damn you! You went after her. If you hadn’t run after her you’d be alive – and I’d be able to live.
Then words burst out. “I need things to be the way they were.”
“I don’t think you can have that,” Fraser said, as though telling Ray a shirt he wanted to buy didn’t come in his size.
So, Fraser wasn’t going to be any help. Well, there was always the last way out. Death would bring an answer. He’d roast in Hell for murder or he wouldn’t, but he would know the truth. Could Hell after death really be worse than this hell of not knowing?
“Then, I don’t know what else there is you can give me. Unless, you want to just arrange for me to join you where you are.”
Fraser didn’t get it. “You always hated that cabin. Although, it does seem your main objection was the lack of indoor plumbing. Come to think of it, that’s not an issue when you’re dead. But you’re not dead, so I really don’t know how it could work.” Fraser shrugged, “I don’t know what else to offer.”
His mother’s words came back to Ray. He remembered why he had come to the graveyard in the first place. “His soul is not at peace. You must help him.” What does he need from me, Ray wondered.
With some effort, Ray forced his focus outside of himself. Fraser seemed to like being with him, and still didn’t seem to realize what torture his visits were. Well, if it made Fraser feel a little better, then Ray would try to welcome him with good grace.
“Tell you what Benny, let’s just arrange to talk sometimes. But don’t keep surprising me. Let’s make, like, an appointment so I’ll be ready for you. How about every Wednesday night at ten, until further notice.”
Now Fraser looked happy, really happy. Ray figured he must be on the right track.
“I like the sound of that, Ray. But you’ll have to arrange to be alone, somewhere we can talk unobserved.”
Ray knew the perfect place. “Right here?”
“It’s a date.” Fraser vanished without another word.
Later, in their cabin, as he retold the conversation to his mother, Benton recalled his choice of word: date. “Mum, I had that whole talk with Ray and I didn’t even once think of Margie. Do you think that means something?”
Bernie Fuggo was bidding a not-so-fond farewell to his half-brother, Marfield. Marfield Fuggo had been involved in “family business” when he had met with an accident: a half ton steel barrel had his name on it. Bernie hadn’t been too sad to hear the news - after all, he’d never really been close to his half-brother. Besides, accidents were fairly common in his family’s line of work.
Bernie himself was waiting for some accident to befall him as punishment for failing to get rid of Vecchio. Frankie Zuko didn’t like to be disappointed and seldom gave second chances. But while he was saying a basic prayer over his relative, Bernie happened to hear one voice carrying on what seemed like half a conversation.
“Let’s make, like, an appointment so I’ll be ready for you. How about every Wednesday night at ten, until further notice.”
Vecchio’s voice! There was a pause as though Vecchio were listening to someone, then he spoke again.
Here’s my second chance, Bernie thought, as he drew one of the pistols concealed in his clothes. Then he thought better of it, and put the gun back into his jacket. He couldn’t see who it was Vecchio was talking to. Maybe he was talking to himself – everybody knew he was loony-tunes. Still it was best not to take chances. Frankie would be pleased enough to know where he could find Vecchio alone, just before or after Vecchio met this person – if there were a person.
After a few moments, Bernie saw the detective amble off.
Zuko laughed. Charlie knew only one word to describe it: maniacal. A certain fly on the wall thought the same thing.
On Wednesday night Ray arrived at the cemetery at about quarter to ten, alone. He had wanted to bring Diefenbaker so that the wolf and Fraser could visit, but hadn’t been able to find him in the house. That was strange, and Ray had been looking for him room by room before realizing that he’d have to leave to get to the cemetery on time.
It had not been a good day. Over an early supper with Margie they’d had their first fight. He replayed her words in his mind as he drove into the cemetery and parked.
“Do you think Fraser would have wanted you to mope around like this? Don’t you think he would want you to get on with your life?”
Ray had answered her by confessing to her his doubts about his own motives. Let her know the worst about him. Expecting her to give him the same unconvincing assurances everybody else did, he was surprised by her vehement response.
“Well then, maybe you’d better decide if you want to live, or just go on killing yourself with guilt.”
Ray walked up to Fraser’s grave and looked around in the darkness for signs of movement. The only lights in the cemetery were over the roadways and parking lot. It wasn’t a popular place at night.
“I’m here, Benny,” Ray announced into the gloom.
“Isn’t that sweet,” came an all too familiar voice that wasn’t Fraser’s. The man that stepped out from behind a tree was Zuko, a gun in his hand, pointed at Ray. “Come to talk to the friend you murdered, have you? Well in just another minute you two are going to have a whole lot more in common.” Zuko leaned forward ever so slightly with a sickening leer.
“Frankie, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Why, Ray,” answered the smaller man, “I’m going to kill you.” Zuko cocked
the gun and took aim. “I’m going to shoot you dead, then make sure everyone knows you killed yourself. ‘What a goddamn shame,’ everyone’s going to say. ‘He just went crazy with grief. Poor stiff.’” He drew out the last two syllables with long enjoyment.
Ray just squinted in the bad light, and decided it was a good thing Dief hadn’t come after all. He might have been hurt. Ray raised his hands into the air.
“I’m not armed, Frankie. You go ahead and do whatever you want.” Ray figured this was going to hurt like hell, but when it was over he and Fraser could compare notes – what it felt like to be shot in the front versus what it felt like to be shot in the back. Ray stood up just a little straighter. “I’m waiting, Frankie.”
Zuko leveled his gun towards Ray’s chest. Just then Ray picked up two shapes in his peripheral vision. They were low, four-legged, coming out from among the surrounding gravestones.
As they came into his line of sight, Ray saw Diefenbaker, accompanied by an unfamiliar dog. It was a Doberman, sleek, black and wearing a red silk bandana around its throat. The two canines put themselves between the two men, back to back; Dief stood facing Ray and the Doberman stood facing Zuko.
Each animal advanced slowly towards his man. Ray and Zuko backed apart, instinctively. Ray couldn’t see the Doberman’s face, but he could hear the menacing snarls. They were pitched just a little lower than Dief’s growling. Dief bared his fangs and lowered his shoulders. Only then did Ray shudder, at having his good wolf-friend look at him with death in his eyes. It was that look from his friend, not the threat of actual harm, that chilled him.
“Dief, back off,” Ray had to say it, but as he expected, the wolf’s angry eyes and teeth just came closer and closer, forcing Ray further and further away from Zuko. The Doberman moved in the same way, pushing Zuko away. Zuko fired at it, point blank, but it just kept advancing.
Ray hadn’t really been in any doubt about who the dog was, anyway.
Fraser pushed the terrified Zuko farther and farther back. When there was about twenty yards between the men. Fraser let out a sudden single bark. He and Dief both stopped. Fraser crouched low, tail straight to the ground, and then sprang at Zuko.
“Fraser! No! Sit! Stay!” Ray screamed. Diefenbaker turned to see what was going on, leaving Ray the chance to rush forward as Fraser-as-dog knocked Zuko to the ground. Fraser straddled him, his fangs poised over Zuko’s throat. Zuko lay without moving, his eyes and Fraser’s eyes locked – both sets of eyes inhuman.
“Don’t! Don’t kill him!” Ray pleaded. “I don’t want more blood on my head!”
Fraser made a little yelp of surprise and turned to Ray with an expression that was clearly puzzled, although Ray had never seen a dog wear such an expression before.
“I know you think you’re supposed to help me, but this isn’t the way,” Ray was barely breathing as he tried to explain a reaction he didn’t quite understand himself.
Fraser, still on top of Zuko, gave a few short barks. Diefenbaker came over to him and they had a brief conversation of yips and woofs. Then Diefenbaker went back to Ray and sat down beside him, facing Fraser and Zuko.
Before everyone’s eyes, the Doberman shape blurred, shimmered, and re-solidified into Fraser as a man - sitting straddled on Zuko’s chest. He still wore the red bandana, along with a black jumpsuit. A long braid hung down his back.
Zuko was beyond any words. He only continued to stare, open-mouthed.
“But, Ray. If I let him live, he’ll only come after you again,” were Fraser’s first human words of the night.
Ray came forward, slowly. He studied his friend’s face. “This isn’t like you, Fraser. How can you be so cold-blooded?”
Fraser paused to give this some thought. “I guess it’s because I don’t have blood,” he said, calmly, philosophically. He sat back on his heels in a more relaxed position and thought some more. “You don’t mind if I take his gun while we figure this out?” he asked Ray. “I don’t want him hurting you or Dief.”
Ray nodded, dumbly. Fraser pried the gun from Zuko’s fear-tightened fingers and held it out to Diefenbaker. The wolf took it in his jaws and walked it over to Ray. Without thinking or looking, Ray took the gun and slipped it into his pants pocket.
Finally, Zuko was able to sputter, “You . . . you’re dead.”
Fraser’s smirk was so dangerous it robbed Zuko of any further words.
“Well, that’s true, Mr. Zuko,” Fraser crooned with exaggerated politeness, “but it doesn’t mean I don’t look after my friends.”
Ray just stared at the two of them. Fraser nodded a little to himself, showing he had made up his mind how to proceed. He bent low over his victim, bringing his face within inches of Zuko’s face.
“Now, Mr. Zuko, I want you to understand that Ray’s safety is very important to me. I intend to keep watching everything that happens to him from now on.”
Zuko’s face, flushed before, turned white at the ice in Fraser’s voice.
“If anything were to happen to Ray, I’d have to come back and do something about it. Being a ghost, I can do that. I can come back.” A significant pause preceded the next words. “Anywhere. Anytime. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Zuko managed a sound, “G-yah. . . “
“I’d like to think that you’re going to share my concern for Ray’s well-being. Can I count on you to make sure nothing bad ever happens to my friend – from this day forward?”
Zuko let out a bleating noise.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Fraser gave him a last long look, then got to his feet. He reached down to Zuko on the ground and extended his hand. Zuko stared at it.
“You can get up now, Mr. Zuko,” Fraser kept his hand out, intending for Zuko to use it to help pull himself to his feet.
Zuko only rolled to a sitting position and waited to see what would happen to him. When nothing happened he crouched on all fours, then straightened, all the while gazing at Fraser’s outstretched hand. Once Zuko was on his feet, Fraser brought his hand, along with the other, to rest casually on his own hips.
“Give him back his gun, Ray.”
Ray didn’t move. Diefenbaker nuzzled Ray’s hand with his nose and Ray remembered the gun in his pocket. He looked questioningly at Diefenbaker as if to say, “Are you sure?” then thought better of expecting an answer from the wolf and directed the look to Fraser instead.
“Give him back his gun, and let him go home.” Fraser repeated.
Ray took the gun from his pocket and extended it to Zuko. Fraser shook his head in dismay. “Ray, Ray, Ray. You know you’re supposed to hand someone a gun handle-first.” He took the gun into his own hand, reversed it to hold onto the barrel and held it out to Zuko correctly.
Zuko took in the whole scene, gave a final huge shudder, and ran.
Fraser shrugged and held the gun out to Ray again, still handle-first. Ray made no move to take it. He made no move at all, standing as still as the stones that surrounded them. Fraser reached over and slipped the weapon into Ray’s pants pocket. “You might want to check if he has a permit for that, Ray.”
The three friends stood watching Zuko disappear into the darkness between the rows of graves.
“That was close, Ray. But I think life is going to be a lot more relaxed for you from now on. So if you had any plans . . .” Fraser’s voice trailed off, hopefully.
The tension that had been building up in Ray broke. He lashed out at his former partner. “Benny, don’t you get it? I don’t want to live. Every day I wake up is another day I have to spend knowing I murdered you.”
Fraser stood aghast. It finally dawned on him that Ray had been saying this to him over and over and he hadn’t heard it. “Ray, you did no such thing!”
“Don’t be so innocent, Benny. I know what I did. I saw you go after Victoria and I got mad. I got mad as hell. And I shot you.”
“You can’t really believe that!”
“Look, I’ve been over this in therapy. You were jumping bail, I was afraid I would never be able to pay that mortgage, and you were deserting me, throwing it all away: our partnership, our friendship. And in that split second when you jumped for the train, I snapped. I shot you to stop you from getting away.”
“Ray! No! That’s not how it happened!”
“You keep bugging me about Margie. Sure, she’s great. If I wanted to go on living, I think I’d marry her. But, I’m no good to her like this. Not her or anybody. If I could believe it was an accident – really believe it - I think I could go on. I’d miss you like hell, but I could go on from here.”
Fraser was so staggered, he had to sit down. There was no bench within easy reach but one of his neighbours had a stone much lower than his own. He eased himself onto it, muttering a polite “Excuse me, Mr. Wynand.”
Ray watched, fascinated, as Fraser closed his eyes in what seemed like intense concentration. When the eyes opened a moment later, there were tears in them.
“All this time I was trying to find something big I should do for you. But I had it all wrong. I’m not supposed to protect you from danger; I’m supposed to give you back the will to protect yourself. I’m not supposed to force you into love; I’ve got to release you so you CAN love.”
Fraser got up and went back to Ray. He put a hand on each of his friend’s shoulders and looked into his eyes, holding his gaze. “Just to know it was an accident. That’s all you need. And to me it was so obvious it wasn’t even an issue.”
Fraser cleared his throat. “Ray, listen to me carefully.” He enunciated every word, making sure all of it came through to Ray in his distress. “It. Was. An. Accident.”
“How can you be sure?” Pleading, pleading for it to be true.
“Oh, I have it on the very best authority.” Fraser realized that this was the lasting gift of his Punishment – absolute certainty of Ray’s innocence. Mum had been right. Everything that happened Here was for a reason.
Fraser smiled so kindly Ray thought he would just melt in that smile As Fraser stared into his friend’s eyes, he thought he could make out some understanding starting to grow in Ray’s soul.
Accident. The word grew and grew until it was huge in Ray’s brain. If Fraser said it was an accident, it was an accident and there was an end to it forever. If there was one immutable truth in the universe, it was this: Fraser didn’t lie. A stillness settled over Ray such as he hadn’t felt in many months and never thought he would feel again. He fell onto Fraser’s shoulder and rested there, feeling safe, warm and clean.
“Do you think you can drive home?” Fraser said, after a time. “I’d drive you but my license wouldn’t be valid anymore.”
Ray laughed. He laughed and cried and whooped and slapped at his own thighs. It was too much.
Fraser didn’t see what was so funny, but laughed in his own relief. He had helped Ray. He had earned his absolution, and with it his freedom. The whole universe, maybe many universes, awaited him now that he had paid his entrance fee.
When they could both laugh and cry no more, Ray wiped a final tear away, crooked his elbow and said. “Car?”
“Car!” agreed Fraser, linking his elbow into Ray’s. They marched off together towards the parking lot.
As they went, Ray remembered something.
“Benny, about your funeral. I’m sorry I didn’t give your eulogy.”
Fraser waved a dismissive gesture with his free hand.
“No, there’s something I thought of the other day. I think now I know what I would have said. I took Margie to see “Othello” and there was this bit near the end that sounded like they were talking about you. I looked it up later. I remember I thought somebody should have said it for you.”
“Shakespeare. I would have liked that.”
“I wish I could say it for you now, but I don’t remember how it goes, exactly. I’ve got it written down somewhere, but . . . “
Fraser concentrated briefly. “Did it begin like this?
Soft you, a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t:
No more of that.
“Yeah, that sounds right. And that’s you. You helped your government and they didn’t appreciate it.
Fraser quoted on:
I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice.
“There’s been a lot of paperwork about you, that’s for sure. You should see the file Margie has.”
Fraser started alone:
Then must you speak
Of one that loved . . .
Ray joined in and they spoke the last words together.
. . . not wisely, but too well.
They continued towards the parking lot with Diefenbaker trotting along behind. When they reached Ray’s car, Fraser drew Ray close for a last embrace.
They stood in the lamplight, arms about each other. It was the parting they should have had, and were now capable of sharing. Fraser realized there was one more thing he needed to do. He placed his hands on Ray’s head and tilted it, gently, towards his own. Then he made his trademark half-smile and kissed Ray’s forehead.
“This is going to be good-bye for us, Ray. For a long time, anyway. I’ve been thinking I’d like to do a little traveling.”
“That’s okay, I can handle it now. Where are you going to travel to, Benton?
“I have no idea. I . . . did you just call me ‘Benton’?”
“It’s your name. I thought maybe I should call you that just once, for the record. Now, about this keeping an eye on Zuko . . . “
“Well, I didn’t say an eye specifically, but I’ll keep aware. You won’t have to worry about him anymore.”
There was one more thing Ray needed to settle. “I’ll see you again, won’t I, when it’s all over?
“If you want to, nothing can prevent it.”
“I’ll want to.”
“I’ll introduce you to my parents. But I have to warn you, when you meet my mum keep focused on your own appearance. She likes to change the way people look when they aren’t paying attention.”
“She made you look pretty good. Maybe I should let her have a shot at me.”
“You wouldn’t want to, Ray. I know for a fact she’s planning to make you blond.”