Two hungry thirteen-year-olds watched Fraser pour spaghetti out into a colander in the sink and run cold water to rinse off the starch. The old wolf and the young man followed the Mountie’s every move as he dumped the pasta back into the dented oversized saucepan, poured a jar of store-brand tomato sauce poured over it and returned the mixture to the burner for a quick reheat.
Diefenbaker was served first in deference to the wolf’s age, then Fraser served Willie by virtue of his being a guest and then the last third of the pot Fraser dumped onto his own plate. It was Willie that fell onto his meal like a ravenous wolf. Fraser regarded him and became suspicious. Teen-age boys generally had hearty appetites but Willie seemed eager for his dinner out of proportion to the situation. Fraser knew that Willie had breakfasted well that morning and taken a bulging brown bag to school. He knew this because today had been one of the not infrequent days that Fraser himself was feeding the boy.
Willie had a mother, this much Fraser knew, but her care and feeding of the boy seemed to be haphazard. Without making a big deal of it, Fraser had been giving Willie breakfast when he came to walk Diefenbaker in the morning and putting together a bag-lunch for Willie to take with him afterwards.
Evening walks weren’t in Willie’s job description but Fraser was as happy to have the boy hang around the apartment rather than go out shoplifting at night. If the boy just happened to be there at dinner-time courtesy required that he be invited to share the evening meal with the Canadians. But since that first night, Willie never slept over at Fraser’s apartment.
It didn’t make sense to Fraser just why Willie should be quite so hungry at dinner-time. A direct question would probably not result in the truth from Willie so Fraser tried another approach.
“Your sandwich wasn’t too soggy today, was it?” Fraser asked.
Willie looked up, spaghetti strands still dangling from his mouth. He slurped up these stray bits and then broke into a wide smile, seeing an opportunity to indulge in some friendly dissing of his benefactor.
“Bananas often leak juice when you slice them,” Fraser continued.
Willie tumbled right into the trap. “Yeah, it was all mushy, Fraser. You really got to watch that.”
Fraser hadn’t touched his own food yet. He opened his eyes a little wider and sat looking at his young friend.
“And of course peanut butter is also pretty moist,” he prompted.
“Man, that was the soggiest sandwich I ever . . .” Willie noticed Fraser’s eyes were even wider now and the Mountie was staring right at him. “What?” the boy demanded.
“I gave you a ham sandwich and there was lettuce on the bread to prevent any moisture leakage. What happened to your lunch, Willie?”
Thus caught out, the boy ducked his head in embarrassment. “I gave it to somebody,” he said, looking down at his plate.
Fraser was all too familiar with children’s bullying. Having been a scrawny child and raised in a bookish household he was often a target. This seemed unusual, given that it was usually cash, not bag lunches that was extorted.
“Voluntarily?” he pressed.
“Did you give your lunch away of your own free will?”
“Sure. Ain’t nobody taking nothing from me I don’t WANT to give!”
The belligerence signaled a touched nerve. Fraser ignored the triple negative and pressed on, “Whom did you give it to, Willie?”
Willie answered with a mocking sing-song “Whoooom did you giiiiive it to, Willieeeeeee.”
The Mountie knew better than to take the bait. He just opened his eyes even wider still, sending his eyebrows soaring upwards in his forehead.
Willie let out an exasperated breath and declared, “Just somebody – okay?”
“No,” said Fraser, deadpan. He neatly twirled a few spaghetti strands around his fork, consumed them, lay his fork down again and looked back at Willie seriously. “Not okay. Who, Willie?”
Willie jumped up. “Hey I don’t come here for the third degree. You’re not a cop, you know.”
“Not in this jurisdiction,” Fraser agreed, “and no, you don’t come here for the third degree. You come here for three meals a day. I don’t mind that but I have the right to know what’s happening to the victuals *I* provide.”
“Don’t think so. You give me stuff, it’s mine. I can do what I want with it. I don’t need you to feed me, ass-hole. I can take care of myself.”
Diefenbaker looked up from his food at the sound of Willie’s raised voice.
Fraser took the time to twirl and eat another forkful. “You know I don’t like that kind of language in my home, Willie.”
The boy backed off immediately. “Sorry, Fraser.” Willie went on eating and for a few minutes neither of them spoke. Willie was getting more and more embarrassed. Finally he burst out, “It’s my mom, okay?”
“Your mother? You’re giving your mother lunch?”
“Yeah, well she gets home late and she’s tired and she forgets to make herself something. So I leave her my bag and she just thinks I made it for her.”
“Working late, is she?” Fraser inquired, blandly.
“Yeah. For a long time she didn’t have a job but now she’s got one and they make her work lots of over-time. She gets tired out. You know.”
Fraser seemed to let the matter drop, from what Willie could tell. The Mountie only said, “Oh. Well, there’s no sense in your skipping meals, Willie. We can make your mum an extra sandwich.”
In his own mind, Fraser resolved to look into this whole issue further when time permitted. “By the way, I’ll be away tomorrow night. Do you want to come over and keep Diefenbaker company while I’m away. I’ll leave some food in the icebox for the two of you.”
“Sorry. Refrigerator. Back home we use to take ice from . . .”
“Never mind, Fraser. Sure, I’ll come over. Mom’ll be out again anyway.”
“At the library?”
Ray explained the plan to Fraser but somehow the Mountie didn’t follow.
“Why are we looking for a
mule in an alley? I’d have thought a petting zoo would be the only place to
find such an animal in
Ray ran his hands over his scalp, a habit left over from the time that he used to run his hands through his hair when exasperated, “Not an animal mule, Fraser. A person mule.”
The explanation didn’t
help Fraser. He formed a mental picture of Bottom in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer
Night’s Dream” sprouting an ass’s ears and then inexplicably wandering the
backstreets of the
“No, Benny. A mule.”
“But you told me once that a mole was in fact a person. And that generally a meeting with such a person was in some out-of-the-way place, such as an alley.”
“Correct but tonight we’re not going after a mole.”
“No, tonight it’s a mule.”
“Who is a person, but not a mole.”
Ray groaned. “A mule is . . .”
Fraser’s mind wandered again at these words to the lyrics of the 1944 Academy Award Winning song ‘Swing on A Star’. A mule is an animal with long funny ears. He kicks up at anything he hears. His back is brawny but his brain is weak, he sang in his head. “He’s just plain stupid with a stubborn streak.” he continued aloud.
“Yeah, I guess most of them are like that,” Ray agreed.
“Most of whom are like what, Ray?”
“Forget it! Forget it! Do you want me to tell you what a mule is or not?”
Thus appealed to, Fraser said meekly, “Yes, Ray.”
“A mule does deliveries. He picks up drugs from some drug lord and delivers to them to the pushers. So what we’re doing, we’re going to follow this mule. He’s going to take us to the drug lord first then we’re going to follow him around to the pushers. My source told me where he meets his boss-man. We’ll pick him up there and trail him.”
“Your source being a mole, but we are not following HIM,” Fraser fought to understand. “We’ll follow the mule and thereby round up quite a number of drug offenders ‘in one fell swoop’,” he said, thinking of Macbeth.
Ray only shook his head. He’d never be able to get the Mountie to stop quoting stuff but that wasn’t important right now. What was important was that Fraser seemed to have a bit of a clue as to what was going down.
It was one of those stereotypical back alleys that can be found in any large city, the kind of alley that almost seems to have been specifically designed for covert activities, being too dark, narrow and secluded for any wholesome purpose.
The operation involved
A dumpster provided excellent cover and was just the right distance from the warehouse wall for Ray and Fraser to hide behind comfortably. (Perhaps the same worldly-wise city planners had arranged it that way? We’ll never know.) Ray crouching and Fraser standing, both peered around the edge of the dumpster, their faces hidden in the gloom.
A figure entered the alley at the end farther from where the friends waited. At first they could make out only the silhouette: short, no more than five foot two, and no apparent female secondary characteristics. The mule moved closer and became more visible to the watchers.
“That’s a child!” Fraser whispered in alarm.
“Shh,” Ray shushed him.
Fraser was too moved to be shushed. “But, Ray. He can’t be any older than Willie!”
It was clear Fraser wasn’t going to let this drop so Ray whispered what he hoped would be sufficient explanation to make the Mountie shut up. “Little kids make good mules. They’re fast, they got lots of energy, they work cheap and they don’t have girlfriends to distract their attention.”
Fraser absorbed this information while watching the youngster as he came even closer. The boy was white, his frame compact and muscular in contrast to Willie’s loose-limbed lankiness. Nevertheless Fraser saw his young friend in his mind’s eye as the boy made his way closer. He kept thinking that this could just as well have been Willie and the thought frightened him. How easily all his care of his young friend could come to naught. How could wholesome company and ham sandwiches compete with the money Willie could earn by undertaking work like this? Especially when his mother was always absent most nights.
Fraser jumped at a poke of Ray’s elbow in his stomach. He looked down to see Ray gesturing with his gun towards the other end of the alley. The Mountie looked where Ray was pointing to see a taller, thinner figure also approaching. Ray put his finger to his lips.
In silence, the two friends witnessed the taller person hand over a paper bag to the smaller person and apparently give him some instructions. Even Fraser’s sharp hearing couldn’t make out what was said but it didn’t matter. They were going to tail the child anyway.
As he watched, Fraser continued to superimpose the shape of Willie over the boy in front of them. What did it matter if they caught a few pushers more or less? They sprang up like weeds all over the city anyway. It was more important to try to save this child – the child that could be Willie.
After a few minutes, the taller figure moved off. Ray activated his radio and whispered instructions. Then the friends waited while the drug lord strolled out of the alley. The boy also stood still, watching his employer leave.
“He’s waiting for that guy to be far away before turning his back. Smart kid.”
“I hate to think of somebody so young having to be so suspicious,” Fraser agonized, “He can’t be any more than thirteen.”
Ray snorted, but quietly. “He’s thirteen in street years, Benny. That’s like dog years – worth way more than normal years. This kid is older than you’ll ever be.”
This was too much for Fraser. The Mountie squeezed past his friend and walked a few steps away from the dumpster towards the boy.
“Mary, Mother of God, what’s he doing!” Ray whispered to himself.
“Excuse me, young man,” the Mountie said, just loudly enough for the boy to hear.
The youngster only stared, astonished at what appeared to be some guy dressed up like Dudley Do-right (he’d seen the cartoons as well as the movie). The boy was as streetwise as Ray had made him out to be. He shifted the paper bag to his left hand and slid his right hand under his t-shirt and let it rest in the waistband of his jeans. Fraser noticed this and also noticed the tell-tale bulge of a weapon under his shirt.
The usually eloquent Fraser wasn’t sure what to say. “You don’t have to do this,” he began.
“Back off, dude. Just walk away, okay,” replied the boy.
He doesn’t want to hurt me. That’s a good sign, Fraser decided. He can be saved from a life of crime, or worse – a death by crime, if I just handle this rightly.
“Surrender yourself and you’ll be protected.”
“Fuck you,” snarled the boy.
Meanwhile Ray watched from his hiding place trying to gage when would be the right time to jump out to Benny’s rescue. Wouldn’t it be something if the Mountie actually talked the kid into giving himself up? It had happened before.
Fraser took a step towards the boy and reached out his hand. “Give me the weapon, son.”
“I ain’t your fucking son,” pointed out the boy.
Fraser took another step towards him, hand still outstretched. “If you testify against your confederates, there’s a good chance you won’t have to do any time.”
The boy actually seemed to be thinking it over. “I’d be dead meat,” he said.
“Once you’re in the system you’ll be safe from any reprisals.” Fraser moved in some more. He was now close enough to see the boy’s face and note his brow contracting in thought. He came within a foot of the boy and sought to meet his eyes.
“Benny, for Christ’s sake, back off,” Ray said to himself from his hiding place.
The boy’s gaze met the Mountie’s and their eyes locked. Fraser’s hand was still out and he was within easy touching distance of the boy. The boy brought his hand out from under his t-shirt holding a small pistol.
“You’re too close, man. Move away.” He jerked the gun slightly.
Fraser didn’t move.
“I said, get the fuck away!”
Fraser judged that it was the right time to make a jump for the boy and disarm him. But his judgment was clouded. He didn’t realize he was attributing Willie’s good nature to this unknown youngster.
The boy fired. Then he ran.
Ray yelped into his radio for a squad car to follow the young shooter and for an ambulance even while running the few steps to where Fraser was sinking to the ground. Blood gushed from the Mountie’s upper left leg and he winced in pain.
“What the hell were you trying to do? Aw, never mind, I know what you were trying to do,” Ray said while examining his friend’s thigh, looking for the bullet wound. “Here let me put pressure on that.” Ray pressed his palm down hard against the Mountie’s bleeding flesh and held it there. In an instant he was wearing as much of Fraser’s blood as Fraser was himself. “Hold still, help’s on the way.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Ray,” Fraser moaned.
The paramedics arrived. They made a quick evaluation of the gunshot site and commended Ray for his treatment. Fraser groaned and grunted as they lifted him onto a stretcher.
“Don’t worry, pal. You’ll get some dope as soon as we get you to Emergency,” a paramedic assured him.
“Ray, take care of Willie and Diefenbaker,” Fraser was in so much pain that he actually omitted to say ‘please’.
“I spend way too much time sitting with him in hospitals,” Ray groused good-naturedly from his chair beside Fraser’s bed. The detective and Willie were munching doughnuts that Ray doled out from the sac he had brought. The Mountie was still under the heavy influence of pain-killers. The staff at this hospital was less tolerant of wolves than had been the case the last time Fraser was shot, so Diefenbaker was at Ray’s house for the duration.
“Can I have another one of those cream ones, Ray?” Willie asked.
“No, you’ll spoil your dinner. What time is it anyway?”
“Little past eight. Fraser usually feeds me at six.”
“While your mom’s still working late every night,” Ray said.
“At the library,” Fraser supplied, groggily.
“Oh, the library,” Ray repeated with enough irony in his voice for the boy to pick up on.
“Yeah, what’s it to you?”
Ray regretted his slip. He had been thinking about Fraser and lost some of his caution. It was bad form to upset the boy. “Sorry, I’m just not used to the idea of librarians having to work late.”
“My grandparents ran a library,” Fraser interjected dreamily. “Traveling library. Sometimes we traveled all night.”
The boy and the detective exchanged amused looks.
“What about supper?” Willie said.
“Okay, let’s go down to the cafeteria.” Ray was keeping his promise to Fraser by having the wolf at his own house but he didn’t think it was a good idea to remove the boy from his home. He had a mother, whom Ray had not met but about whom he had his doubts given that the boy was being fed by Fraser lately. Ray met the boy in the morning at Fraser’s apartment, gave him breakfast and brought two brown bags with lunch for the boy and his mother. Ma Vecchio provided these and Willie felt just a little guilty for preferring her provender to Fraser’s.
“All right, grandfather. Call me if you need me to lift anything heavy.” With that generous offer, Fraser drifted off to a drugged sleep.
While Fraser’s two friends were in the hospital cafeteria munching burgers, a woman came into his room. She wore a trim, grey pin-striped pants suit and a cherry-coloured scarf that suited her black complexion perfectly. She stood for a moment looking down at the sleeping patient. Good-looking for a white guy, she decided.
Then she went back into the hall and checked the name plate outside the door. B. Fraser. That was the right name. But where was Willie, she wondered. He’d left a note that he’d be at this hospital visiting a “Fraser”. Here was the named person and the volunteer at the patient information desk had told her there was only one patient named “Fraser” at present, so she must be in the right place.
The woman headed over to the nurse’s station. In response to her inquiries she learned that a boy had indeed been visiting Mr. Fraser. He’d left the room in the company of another man and, as far as the nurse knew, they’d be back soon and would stay until visiting hours were over. At least that’s what they had done for the last two nights since Mr. Fraser had been brought in.
Ms. Lambert had no desire to awaken and talk to a man she didn’t know, so she waited on a chair by the elevator.
“Mom! You finished early!” Willie cried out happily as he and Ray came out of the elevator. He threw himself against her while she was still sitting.
She gave the boy a loving squeeze then stood up to face the man with her son.
Ray extended a hand as courtesy required but his manner was cold. “Mrs. Lambert, I presume.”
She took his hand and gave it a small dip in greeting, “Ms. Lambert,” she corrected.
“This is Ray,” Willie told her. “He’s Fraser’s best friend, after me.”
“That’s nice. But who is this ‘Fraser’?”
Ray had formed his own opinions about Willie’s mother, based on what he had been told by Fraser and by the boy himself. He had a few suspicions about just what she might be doing when she was supposed to be working late nights at a library. Obviously something she didn’t want her son to know about. Now he saw that she didn’t even know the man who was feeding both her son and herself. His opinion of her plunged even lower. Without hiding his disgust he spat out, “You don’t know who Fraser is? What kind of a mother are you, anyway?”
Willie and his mother stiffened in shock. Ray took the woman’s arm and steered her into a common room just opposite the elevators. Willie trailed after.
Ms. Lambert shook off his arm. “You get your hands the hell off me! Who do you think you are?”
“Don’t you talk to my mom that way, mother-fucker!”
Ray only went on to blast the woman for her negligence: not bothering either to feed Willie, not caring who actually did, leaving him at night while she went to God knows what sleazy place and telling everybody she was at the library. Like anybody believed that. She ought to be ashamed.
He continued in this vein for some time. Ms. Lambert endured the tirade and somewhere about halfway through she sat down on a chair and held out her arms to her son. Willie, still flummoxed by this outburst by the man who had been so jovial until now, came to his mother and they hugged while Ray yelled. Other visitors naturally gathered to take in the show.
At length, a nurse appeared and asked Ray to please settle down. Ray shut up as requested but stood breathing hard and glaring at the seated woman.
When at last she spoke, it was to Willie, not to Ray. “William, you told me you were getting the groceries and making those lunches and suppers yourself.”
The boy ducked in embarrassment. “I wanted you to think I was taking care of things.”
The woman pressed her lips together and nodded.
“And you told me you were spending the evenings at Alonso’s. Why?”
The boy’s head, previously ducked, now lowered way down in shame. “You’re always warning me about going with men. I didn’t think you’d like it if I was spending time with Fraser. But he’s not like that. He never touches me. He’s a decent guy.”
Ms. Lambert’s eyes filled with tears. “You’d better introduce me to this Fraser of yours. I’ve got a lot to thank him for.” Ignoring Ray completely, mother and son went arm in arm back to the Mountie’s room.
The next night Willie came to the hospital with his mother and the two of them sat all through the evening visiting hours with Fraser and Ray. Ray remained polite and none of the three mentioned their scene in the common room, so Fraser had no knowledge of what had transpired among them.
While Ray had managed to let go of his hostility to the woman and believed that she hadn’t been neglecting Willie on purpose, he still had his own ideas about what “library” she was working at. But since the late night hours had apparently stopped and she was now free in the evenings, he let bad enough alone and told himself it wasn’t his business.
Fraser was on a much less potent painkiller now and actually able to converse. Ms. Lambert kept quiet most of the evening and let the boys chatter. At a pause in the conversation, however, she fished in her purse and drew out a small, narrow envelope. She held it out to Fraser.
“I brought you these, Mr. Fraser. I hope you’ll be out of the hospital in time to go. They’re tickets to a lecture series. It’s about promoting literacy in the third world. If you’re interested in that kind of thing,” she added.
Fraser was indeed interested and reached for the tickets eagerly. “Thank you kindly, Ms. Lambert. I’d love to go. But don’t you want to use these yourself?”
First she turned and frowned accusingly at Ray, then changed her expression to a smile as she looked back at the Mountie. “I wish I could, but Willie and I are going to be leaving town.”
This was news to Willie. “We are? When? Where?”
“In two weeks,” she told her son. “To Nevada. I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure.”
“A library in Nevada. Right,” Ray muttered.
“Ray!” Fraser protested this impertinence to a lady. For all that he himself had some doubts about the lady’s occupation, he couldn’t condone being impolite about it.
“But I don’t want to leave Dief and Fraser!” the boy protested.
“I know, sweetheart, but we have to go where I can find a job,” she turned to include Fraser in the explanation. “You have no idea how hard it is to find work in the library sciences. The cities, the universities, they’re all cutting back. Hardly anybody in my graduating class is working in our profession. I’m lucky to have a job even if I did have to spend every night this month getting ready for the move.”
“The move?” All the males in the room echoed.
“I work at the Franklin-Hickson Library. We used to get city funding but with the new budget we’ve been cut off. The board’s had an offer from Carson City in Nevada to house the collection. If I’m willing to make the move I can keep my job.” Ms. Lambert looked down at Willie. “I know this is hard on you, but maybe your friends can come see you sometime.”
“Yeah, I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the south-west,” Ray said, sarcastically.
Fraser recognized the name as a library that was quasi-private and quasi-public. The original collection of books had been made by the Franklin and Hickson families but now the collection was open to the public at a fee just slightly higher than that of a public library.
“He can be a valet for some goombah and bring him buttermilk all day long,” Ray murmured.
Ms. Lambert finally had enough of this. “You don’t think I’m a librarian do you?”
Ray only smirked.
“You think because I’m a single mother and I’m black I must be working at some kind of trash job.”
“Since when do librarians work late nights?”
“Since we have to get ready to move the whole kit and caboodle across the country. We’ve got to check all the catalogues, update all the files, and supervise all the packing. When I get home I can hardly see straight,” The woman replied with icy dignity. “You should be the one that’s ashamed - thinking in stereotypes like that. Here’s Mr. Fraser’s a Canadian and I don’t go around saying he rides a dog sled.”
“Actually, he does ride a dog sled, but I get your point. You’re right. And I’m sorry.”
“Ray just feels strongly about protecting children, Ms. Lambert. It clouds his judgment.”
“No, Benny, you’re the one who’s got this thing about kids. And got yourself shot for it, I might add.”
Ms. Lambert put her hand on the Mountie’s arm. “If he’s going to get shot for something, that’s a pretty nice thing to get shot for.”
The quasi private/quasi
public library really exists in