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REQUIEM

DISCLAIMER: All the characters in this story belong to Alliance. No copyright infringement intended etc.

Requiem (c) Deborah Herdman-Wedlake October 1996.

Please do NOT archive on any web site without my express permission.

LANGUAGE: hell, damn. The terms "Thank God" and "Oh God" are used by the characters as informal prayers of thanksgiving or supplication.

VIOLENCE: no description of violent acts, but aftermath (e.g. pain and suffering) included.

ROMANCE: hot without even a button being undone.

Ray Vecchio walked out of the shop, his breath clouding in the cold air. He shoved his notebook into his overcoat pocket and glanced at his watch. Just enough time to pick Fraser up from the Consulate and make it home. Pastafazool. For longer than he could remember, Tuesday had always meant pastafazool for dinner.

He scowled at the crowd gathered beyond the police cordon, eager for their fix of blood and excitement. It could almost have been the same crowd that had watched him yesterday as he'd confronted a gunman who was holding a child hostage——

His heart skipped a beat, then thumped back into rhythm. Even after all this time, an unexpected glimpse of long dark hair still brought back the fear and abandonment he'd felt watching Benny run for that train. He had to stop doing this to himself...

The woman shifted position to look directly at him, and shock froze Ray into absolute stillness. What could have been a smile twisted her lips before she turned and walked swiftly away.

Ray plunged across the footpath, ignoring protests from the people he shoved roughly out of his way. Halting at the far edge of the crowd, he cursed fluently as he realized she had vanished.

Movement in the alley across the street caught his attention. He charged towards it without stopping to check the flow of traffic, and noticed the bus almost too late to avoid being ground into the road.

Ray pulled out his gun before stepping cautiously into the shadow darkened alley way. He knew she would never be careless enough to become trapped in a dead end, but every instinct screamed that she waited somewhere in the shadows.

He made it halfway down the alley before he sensed her behind him. Even as he started to turn, a cold, hard gun barrel pressed against the base of his skull.

"Give me your gun."

For a wild moment he considered taking his chances. The gun barrel dug in even harder and she snapped, "Don't be stupid!"

He raised his hands and allowed her to take his weapon. "What do you want?"

"You made me a promise once. You didn't keep it."

Even knowing it was madness to provoke her, he retorted, "Yet."

Surprisingly, she laughed. "Now there's the good old fashioned Italian spirit of revenge."

"What do you want?"

"What I've always wanted."

"I'll see you in hell first."

"Not if I pull this trigger." The pressure of the gun increased. "He was coming with me that night. If you hadn't shot him, we'd be together now."

Ray refused to give her the satisfaction of hearing him admit he knew she was right. "Look, I don't have time to stand around here discussing ancient history with you. If you're going to do this, just get it over with, all right?"

"This is your lucky day, sweetie. I need you alive to take

care of Price for me."

"Yeah, right. Like I'm about to do you any kind of favour, whoever Price is."

"He's the diamond smuggler I used to exchange the money from the robbery." Victoria made that explanation in the tone adults generally reserve for backward children. "And he's looking to get even."

"Good luck to him."

"He's not after me."

A cold knot formed in Ray's stomach. "And I should believe you because you're such a truthful person."

"You want to take that chance with Ben's life?"

"You mess with him again and so help me, I will keep my promise. Any way I can."

"Thanks for the warning." The gun barrel eased away from his neck. Before he could take advantage of that, brightly coloured lights exploded behind his eyes.

Ray pulled himself up onto his feet, and gingerly felt the lump on the back of his head. The headache wasn't the worst he'd ever had, and a quick glance at his watch showed he'd only been out for a couple of minutes. There would be no point in looking for Victoria — that brief time would have been more than long enough for her to vanish. At least she'd left his gun behind — he had enough to worry about without wondering where and when it would show up to incriminate him.

He glanced down at his clothes and groaned out loud. No wonder Cheryl at the dry cleaners greeted him like a long-lost favourite son every time he went in there. Someday, he was going to get the hang of that never-get-a-speck-of-dirt-on-you-no-matter-what-you-just-rolled-in routine of Fraser's and she would be bankrupt in a week.

Muttering under his breath, he brushed at the stains on his coat as he walked out of the alley. The crowd had begun to disperse, and a patrolman standing by the cordon tape glanced curiously at him as he unlocked the Riv.

"Hey, what happened to you, man?"

"Nothing."

"Pretty messy nothing."

The look Ray shot at the patrolman should have dropped him dead on the spot. Still scowling, Ray climbed into the Riv and stilled as he caught sight of a yellow A4 envelope on the passenger's seat. Dragging in a deep breath, he picked it up and examined it. No indication of who had put it there, but he would take long odds on it being part of whatever game Victoria was playing.

He slit the flap and pulled out the papers it contained. Photos. Neatly typed notes on Price's movements since he had returned to the country almost three weeks ago. Suggestions of the best places to start looking for him. The same thoroughness with which she had once plotted Benny's downfall was apparently now being directed at saving his life.

Ray glanced at his watch and cursed as he stuffed the papers back into the envelope. He slid the package under his seat and checked none of it showed, then pushed the key into the ignition and checked again.

The Riv pulled away from the curb. By the time he reached the Consulate he was calm, in control of himself, and his plans were made. Benny would never know Victoria had been back in town. He'd gone crazy last time, and although Ray had worked hard at convincing himself his best friend had recovered from that particular madness, he wasn't about to take any chances on it.

Inside the Consulate, Ray blocked The Dragon Lady's path a third of the way up the stairs.

"You want something Detective?"

"Yeah." Ray checked no-one was near enough to hear their conversation, then lowered his voice anyway. "Don't put Fraser on guard duty again until I tell you."

One eyebrow rose. "Did he put you up to this?"

"You know better than that."

"Then I assume you have a very good reason for the request?"

"Standing still in a bright red uniform makes him a real easy target. And the guy after him is a professional."

"What?!"

Ray glanced around again. "Shhh!"

"Fraser hasn't mentioned——"

"He doesn't know. And you're not going to tell him either."

"If an officer under my command is in danger——"

"He'll be watched twenty four hours a day. Nothing will

happen to him, not this time."

"This time? What do you mean, this time?"

"Listen to me." Ray gripped her arm. "The best thing you can do for Fraser is to make sure he never finds out what's going on."

Her eyes narrowed. "And you're not going to tell me what it's about either."

"It's about saving Fraser's life."

Suspicion was written on every inch of Inspector Thatcher's face. She thought over what he'd just told her then nodded decisively. "Very well, I'll do as you ask. But if I find out this is some kind of sick joke..."

The sentence didn't need to be finished to send a shiver down Ray's spine. "Understood."

She looked pointedly at her arm and he released it. He stood aside to watch Inspector Thatcher walk down the stairs and disappear across the foyer before heading in the opposite direction.

Ray knocked on the office door at the same time as he opened it. "You ready?"

"Coming." Fraser placed his pad and pencil neatly in the desk drawer and stood up, reaching for his Stetson. "What happened to your coat?"

"Nothing."

"It looks like you fell in a puddle."

"I DID NOT FALL IN A PUDDLE!"

Fraser blinked, startled by the decibel level of Ray's denial. "If you say so."

"Let's go, all right? We're going to be late for dinner, and you know how Ma hates that."

Ray mentally smacked a palm against his forehead as he led the way out of the office. So much for calm and in control. He'd better remember to leave his coat in the Riv or the rest of the family would be on his case as well. And they would yell back at him.

Somehow, Ray made it through dinner. A trip to the bathroom between the main course and dessert covered for the phone calls he needed to make before he took Benny home. Ray had delayed their departure as long as possible, but now the Riv pulled up in front of the tenement building.

"Thanks for the ride Ray."

"Not a problem." He cut the engine and turned off the lights. "I'll walk you up."

"Ray——"

"I need the exercise." Ray climbed out of the Riv, asking over his shoulder, "You coming or what?"

Victoria watched Ben go into his building, Vecchio on his heels. She sighed, her breath fluttering the net curtains concealing her from anyone who looked up at the window from the street. This was pure insanity, but even knowing how risky it was to be anywhere near him — especially with Vecchio on guard — she still had no choice. A light came on in the apartment opposite, and her eyes drifted shut as she remembered the three days she'd spent in that room the last time she'd been in this city.

The buzz of her mobile phone cut through the quiet room, jerking Victoria back to reality. Reluctantly she turned away from the window. Time to start taking care of the business that would at least make her stay in Chicago financially profitable.

Fraser and Ray walked up the stairs and along the hallway to the apartment, not speaking until Fraser opened the door.

"You know Benny, you really need to get a lock on that thing." A long time ago, Ray had stopped counting how many times they'd been through this conversation. "Anyone could walk in here."

Fraser bent down to greet the Wolf, who sniffed with great interest at the bag of leftovers his Friend carried. "Not with Diefenbaker here."

"But he's not here all the time, is he?"

Fraser straightened up and faced him. "Ray, what's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Something's been bothering you all evening."

"You're imagining things again. Look, I gotta go. I'll pick you up in the morning, same as always."

"Ray——"

He didn't wait to hear more. "See you in the morning Benny."

Out in the street, Ray paused to check the cars parked along the curb. He shot a quick glance up at Fraser's apartment to check he wasn't being watched, then ducked along the footpath to the car parked half way down the block.

Jack Huey didn't waste time on a greeting as Ray climbed into the car. "I pulled the photo from the file like you said. Nobody looking anything like Price has been near this place."

"Where's Elaine?"

"Watching the fire escape."

"Great. By the time I take Fraser to work in the morning, Lieutenant Welsh will have organized the twenty-four hour surveillance."

"Considering what the Metcalfe woman did to him last time, it doesn't make sense she'd warn you Fraser's in danger now."

"Maybe she feels guilty about getting him into this mess. Who knows?"

"I'm telling you Vecchio, she's yanking your chain."

"If you don't want to be in on this, just say so. I can find someone else."

"That's not what I meant."

"Yeah, I know." Ray opened the car door. "I'm going to check out some of the places on the list she gave me."

"Watch your back."

"Once — just once — I would like to track someone who lived in high class hotels and ate at decent restaurants," Ray complained to himself the next afternoon as he pulled up in front of the Consulate to collect Fraser and Diefenbaker.

It had been a long night, and the few hours sleep he'd managed to grab had been plagued with nightmares. Although each dream had been different, they had all ended at the same location — the railway station. And each time, he had watched helplessly as Benny disappeared onto the train with Victoria.

An even longer day had followed, filled with searching dingy bars, greasy diners and cheap boarding houses. Still, it hadn't been a total waste — he'd gathered enough information to make it worthwhile to arrange a stakeout for tonight. And he'd thought of a plan to keep Benny from being there without making him suspicious.

Fraser and Diefenbaker were already waiting for him outside the Consulate. When they were in the car, Ray pulled the Riv away from the curb and made his pitch.

"Fraser, I need a favour while I'm on a stakeout tonight." As Fraser opened to his mouth for details, he added hastily, "It's a routine, stolen property thing. There's been a prowler in my neighbourhood lately, and I'd appreciate it if you could stay over with my family just in case."

"Won't Tony be there?"

Ray snorted. "Once he's asleep, he doesn't hear a thing. I'd really appreciate it if you would keep an eye on things for me."

"Of course Ray. Glad to help."

"Thanks Benny. We can stop by your place to get whatever you need and still be home in time for dinner."

Dinner was over, and Diefenbaker was thoroughly contented as he lay under the kitchen table. He didn't even mind the children climbing over him, tugging at his tail and prying in his ears. Ma's cooking was worth far more aggravation than this.

Ma stood at the stove, and smiled at Ben as he took the heavy container from her. "Oh, thank you. Just put it on the counter for the moment."

"You certainly have a lot of food here."

"Father Behan needs some extra help feeding the people at the homeless shelter tonight. Poor souls, there seems to be more of them every time I go. Some of them with children — just babies really."

"I'm sure they appreciate what you're doing."

Maria came into the kitchen, followed by Francesca. In the bustle that followed, the children were wrapped up against the cold night air and strapped into their safety seats while the containers of food were carried out to the car.

Tony came out of the house and shivered. "Man, it's cold."

Maria rolled her eyes. "Then put your coat on like the rest of us."

"I can't find it."

"'Scuse me folks." The family looked around to see a man walking up the driveway, and a large furniture removal truck blocking the exit. "Can you tell me how to get to Lexington Avenue? I'm supposed to make a delivery there, and I'm late 'cause I had a flat tyre. Now I'm lost and I'll get fired if I don't show up in the next half hour."

As the man returned to his truck, the written directions clutched thankfully in his hand, Ben shrugged out of his coat and handed it to Tony. "Here, take mine."

By this time Ma was in the car. She rolled down her window to ask, "Benny, aren't you coming with us?"

"No. An empty house would be a perfect target for the prowler." He looked at the Wolf ensconced in the back seat between two of the children. "Diefenbaker, come."

The Wolf's selective deafness allowed him to ignore that order. Wherever Ma's cooking was going, he intended to go with it and make sure he got his share.

"Aww, let him come." The big, pleading eyes in the young faces were irresistible.

Ben fixed a stern look on the Wolf. "We'll talk about this when you get back."

Cheers erupted in the back seat. Ma started the engine, and over the noise yelled, "Okay everybody, we're off! Benny, go inside — it's too cold without a coat."

The truck pulled away and gave the detective watching the house a clear view of the driveway once more. It was empty except for the Vecchio filled car, which now turned out onto the street. As it passed under a light, he caught a glimpse of a dark haired man wearing a blue coat in the back seat and started his engine to follow.

Inside the house, Ben looked around the kitchen Ma hadn't had time to clean up after dinner. Rolling up his sleeves, he set to work washing, then drying the dishes and placing them carefully in the appropriate cupboards. This done, he extracted the spare house key from under the potted plant on the window ledge above the sink and went upstairs to Ray's bedroom to collect his leather jacket. Settling his Stetson firmly on his head, he went downstairs again and checked the house was secure. Time for a quick look around the neighbourhood to see if the prowler could be located.

Ben opened the door, stepped out on to the back porch — and froze at the loud, ominously familiar click.

"Smart move." The business end of a gun dug into the side of his neck to emphasize the point. "We've got orders not to hurt you Mountie, but we're getting paid an awful lot of money for this. We'll deliver you any way we have to, understand?"

"Yes."

"Take another step forward and put your hands behind your back." Cautiously, Ben did as he was told and felt the cold steel of handcuffs encircle his wrists. "Now move."

A black panel van, the number plates obscured by mud, pulled up at the bottom of the drive. The man on Ben's left slid the side door open and Ben was thrust roughly inside.

The same man closed the door again, and as the van accelerated away, Ben's Stetson was pulled off and a black hood tugged down over his head. He heard the abductors pulling off their own hoods now that he was blinded, and concentrated on trying to identify sounds which would later help him retrace this route.

Without warning, the van bumped over a curb and along a short, pot-holed road. The conversation between his captors had been limited, but they had spoken enough for him to be sure he would recognize their voices if he ever heard them again.

The van stopped and he was bundled unceremoniously out into the night air, his feet splashing into a puddle. He heard the van door begin sliding shut, then halt as one of the men beside him called, "Don't forget his hat."

Ben's Stetson was shoved back on his head, and he could hear the van pulling away as he was led across the uneven concrete. From the sound of their footsteps, he knew he had been led into a large building with wooden floors. He counted the stairs to help him estimate how high up they went, and smelled the dust kicked up as they walked him to the centre of the room. The handcuffs undone, he was pushed down into a chair and his arms dragged behind him to be secured with more rope than was necessary.

Footsteps echoed up the stairs. The two men walked away from him to the far side of the room, and held a brief, muffled conversation with the newcomer. A woman.

I saw this morning morning's minion... The words he hadn't been able to remember until the night he lay dying on the railway platform tumbled through his mind.

Startled by the irrelevant thought, Ben pushed it away and listened to the kidnappers clump down the stairs. The new footsteps came slowly across the room, and recognition of the light tread hovered just past recall.

King-dom of daylight's dauphin...

She bent over him to remove his Stetson. Her scent — not artificial perfume, but pure distillation of the woman — wrapped around him.

"Victoria?" He didn't know if he'd said her name out loud, or if it only reverberated through his head.

Cool fingers brushed sparks against his skin as they curled under the edge of the hood and tugged. He blinked against the sudden light and squinted up at her.

"Hello Ben."

She was thinner, almost gaunt, and the hair he'd loved to bury his hands in was shorter than the last time they had been together. Her voice hadn't changed though — it was still the most beautiful he'd ever heard as she asked, "How are you?"

His response was automatic. "Fine."

"Good." She reached out to smooth his ruffled hair and time telescoped. One touch and it was as if she had never left — as if she had lain in his arms just yesterday and would do so again this night. As if the heartbreak and loneliness were nothing more than a nightmare being rapidly erased from his memory.

It took concentrated effort to form the words. "Why are you doing this?"

Her hand pulled away. "I had no choice."

"Why are you doing this Victoria?"

She began pacing up and down beside him. "Remember the man I sent you to for the money exchange?"

"Yes."

"Price got into a lot of trouble with some serious people when he lost the diamonds. He's been in hiding for the past two years, but a couple of months ago he managed to make some kind of deal to get them off his back. Now he wants revenge."

They'll come after us.

Not me, sweetie.

The words echoed through his head, and realization dawned. "He's coming after me."

"He's got someone watching your apartment and following you around. It was only a matter of time before he made his move, so..." She shrugged. "I should have known better than to let Vecchio handle the situation."

"Ray knows?"

"It's his fault I had to do this." Contempt laced her voice. "I gave him everything he needed to find Price and he still couldn't do it."

"You saw him? When?"

She stopped pacing to look directly into his face, and her mouth twisted. "He didn't tell you."

"No." Ben sifted through the last forty-eight hours, and disconnected fragments slotted into place. "He was trying to protect me without telling me why."

"Well, he didn't do a very good job of keeping you safe, or we wouldn't be here. You know Ben, you should really get yourself a best friend with a bit more intelligence."

He opened his mouth to defend Ray, then decided it would be more prudent to ignore the remark. "How long are you going to keep me here?"

"As long as it takes Vecchio to find Price — which may be some time if his performance up to now is any indication."

She gave Ben a speculative look. "If you give me your word you won't try to leave, I'll untie you."

"You know I can't do that."

"Can't or won't?"

"Does it matter?"

"Suit yourself!——" A buzz from her handbag interrupted her. Snapping her mobile phone open, she demanded, "What?... You're early... No... I'll be there... I said I'll be there!... Right." She closed the phone and returned it to

her bag. "There's something I have to take care of."

"Where are you going?"

"I'll be back in a little while."

Ben watched her walk across the room and down the stairs. Just before she disappeared from view, she paused and looked at him for a long moment through the railings. Another three steps and she was gone.

Her footsteps receded into silence as he checked his surroundings by the light of the lanterns on the floor. Dusty boxes with writing too faded to read were stacked against the wall to his left. The room was empty of furniture except for the chair he was tied to, and the small table beside him. The high ceiling was outside the pool of light cast by the lanterns, but he could just make out an elegant, cut-glass chandelier hanging from its centre.

Time to go to work. He tested his bonds — firmly tied, and with some degree of skill, but nothing a patient man couldn't overcome. He selected a knot and carefully began the first procedure he had learned from Uncle Purvis.

Ben listened to Victoria climb the stairs, and stopped working on his bonds as he watched her reappear above the edge of the floor. She carried a suitcase in one hand and placed it under the table, then scrabbled in her handbag for the mobile phone. Dropping the bag on the table, she set the phone down beside it and smiled at him.

"That didn't take too long did it?"

Ben eyed the suitcase. "What's in there?"

"Our future."

"Victoria, what do you want from me?"

"What I've always wanted."

"I'm sor—"

Her fingers against his mouth stopped the words.

"Don't."

Touching him proved to be a serious mistake as the memories crowded in on her. Memories of the way he had used his mouth to protect her fingers from frostbite, of how he had repeated the gesture that first night in his apartment.

The money she schemed to possess all those long years in prison had been lost when he betrayed her to save Vecchio. Yet as the train pulled away from the station, she hadn't given the diamonds scattered on the platform a single thought. All she had wanted was for Ben to come with her. She hadn't been able to master her passion for him then, and one touch was all it took to know this time would be no different.

Her free hand rested on his shoulder for balance as she leaned over him and stroked one finger across his top lip. With her head tilted in concentration, she traced the curve of his bottom lip with the increased pressure of three fingers.

When she reached the corner of his mouth she paused to consider her options. At that moment, Ben turned his head, caught her fingertips between his teeth and clamped down hard enough to prevent her instinctive attempt to pull free.

Victoria expelled the startled breath lodged in her throat and scraped the thumbnail of her trapped hand lightly along his jaw line. She smiled as she felt his uneven exhale across her fingers, taking comfort in the need he couldn't hide.

Her smile faded as her own need drove her to lay her mouth against the edge of his. His skin flavoured her tongue as she murmured, "I wasn't going to do this. I was not."

Without warning, Ben released her fingers and captured her lips with a greediness that flooded liquid fire through her veins.

Resentment flared as the only control she wielded over him slipped away. In retribution, she punished his bottom lip with her teeth. She took pleasure in the muffled sound of his pain before she gripped a fistful of his hair and forced his head back far enough to break the kiss. Locking her gaze into his, she willed him to struggle — the futility of that would prove beyond doubt who was in charge. Instead he remained still, his eyes dark with desire as he silently waited for her next move.

And that desire proved to be her undoing. A soundless groan spiraled through her as she surrendered to it, and ravaged his mouth with fierce intensity. From there she traced savage kisses along his cheek, and whispered harsh promises into his ear as she slid across his lap. Pulling his head back even further, she savoured the taste and texture of the skin under his jaw as she lingered on the pulse hammering there.

"Victoria." Her name was a ragged plea, vibrating against her lips and dissolving the wildness in her.

"Shhhh." She placed soft, moist kisses down the line of his neck and pressed her face into the curve at the base of his throat. He laid his cheek against her hair and she luxuriated in his scent. Crawling under his skin was the only way she could get any closer than she was now, and it still wouldn't be enough.

In spite of the record Austin summers, she hadn't once been warm since the night she thought she had watched him die. Until now. Now he burned in her blood until her very bones were in danger of being melted by the heat.

She laid a hand over his heart, and the rhythm thumping against her palm echoed of the beat sounding in her ears. An annoying buzz intruded on the edge of her consciousness, and it took a concentrated effort to identify the noise as her mobile phone.

Victoria seriously considered ignoring the summons until all the reasons to answer it forced their way into her mind. Cursing under her breath, she pulled away from Ben just enough to reach around him and grab the phone from the table.

"What!" She listened briefly, then snarled, "Can't you get anything right?... Yes, yes, I'm coming!"

Slowly, reluctantly, she disentangled herself from Ben and stood. She didn't look at him once as she shoved the phone into her handbag then slung it over her shoulder.

"Victoria——"

She silenced him with a consuming kiss, then trailed one finger down his cheek. Still without speaking, she turned and walked away.

"Victoria!"

At the head of the stairs she paused. With one hand on the newel post, she looked back and smiled. "Don't go anywhere, will you?"

Then she was gone.

Fingers of light stole over the city as Victoria wearily climbed the warehouse stairs again. Nights like this were almost enough to prompt a serious career change, and make her settle for the boring predictability of an honest job. Almost.

Soon, it would all be over. And by then she would have persuaded Ben to come with her——

She halted with her foot on the last step, disbelief pounding through her. "NO!"

Her furious denial echoed through the room as she hurried to the empty chair, and examined the ropes tangled on the floor beneath. With an inarticulate cry of rage, she hurled her bag at the wall. It landed in a satisfying clunk and she sucked in a deep calming breath.

Fists clenched, she stalked forward to retrieve the bag. She needed to get out of here fast——

When she turned and saw Ben standing in the centre of the room, she almost dropped her bag again in shock. Recovering, she measured the distance to the stairs and tried to calculate her chances of escape as she demanded, "Why are you still here?"

"Because I knew you'd come back."

"So now what, you arrest me again?"

His voice was bleak. "I don't know."

She stepped forward eagerly. "Ben, come with me. You were going to last time——"

"It's not that simple any more."

"Why not? You know we belong together."

"Where are we supposed to be together Victoria? Your world will destroy me, and mine will lock you up in prison for the rest of your life."

"Don't say that——!"

She broke off as a movement on the stairway caught her attention, but by then, it was already far too late. Price stood at the top of the stairs, with a man on each side of him, and all three carried automatic weapons.

"Well now, isn't this convenient. Remember me, Mountie?"

Ben nodded. "The diamond smuggler."

Price smiled faintly. "I told your partner there wasn't anywhere you could hide if I wanted to find you. And after the trouble your little stunt caused me, you can bet I wanted to."

"You kill a Mountie and they'll hunt you to the ends of the earth," Ben warned.

"I've already been hunted by people a lot tougher than your mob will ever be." Price looked at the man on his right, and jerked his head in the direction of the suitcase. "Check inside it. We don't want any nasty disappointments later."

The man moved to pick up the suitcase and set it on the table. Opening it, he quickly counted the neat bundles of hundred dollar bills stacked inside.

"It's all here Boss."

Price smiled then, a lean, feral smile without any trace of humour. "Then I'll consider that a little bonus on top of the pleasure of killing you both."

Victoria threw herself at Price, her fingers curved to claw at his face with her nails. And Ben didn't have a chance to protect her.

Pain. Slamming around inside his body and shooting stars through the darkness behind his closed eyes. Bright multi- coloured arcs of light which disappeared from his field of vision, to explode at the ends of nerves he hadn't realized he possessed. He knew it would be a thousand times worse if he moved, and it took all his courage to begin.

Ben concentrated on the Herculean task of forcing his eyes open a fraction at a time. The wooden floor was rough against his cheek, and dust prickled at his nose. Blurred shadows leered at him, mocking his efforts to clear his vision.

As he lifted his head the warehouse heaved violently, spinning him to the edge of unconsciousness. Grimly he hung on to his senses, Victoria's name a litany against the pain- free temptation of the darkness. And when the world steadied again, he found her.

He estimated the distance between them to be less than three metres. The logic of that measurement self-destructed under the exquisite agony each centimetre cost him.

Her breathing was shallow, her eyes closed. He brushed the hair back from her face, and panic shafted through him as he felt how cold she was. "Victoria?"

Her lids fluttered open. "It hurts."

"I know. I'm sor——"

She placed a shaking hand against his mouth, her bloodied fingers damp and slick on his skin. "Come with me."

"Lie still. I'll get help."

Her hand dropped. "Come with me."

"Victoria!" Somehow he found the strength to shake her, a feeble defiance against the power of Death. "Stay with me!"

"Too cold..."

He wrapped his arms around her, desperately trying to warm her with his body. "I will *not* be without you again!"

"Then... come... with... me..."

How simple that solution.

"Ben....?"

Forgive me Ray.

"Yes." He laid his head over her heart and felt his own match the slowing rhythm beneath his ear. A smile curved his mouth as he watched the snowflakes drift around them, and he began to recite the poem Victoria had once used to save his life. "Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon... in his riding... and blue- bleak embers... gash gold-vermilion..."

The sigh of her last breath. "Beloved."

He closed his eyes, took her hand and walked with her into the light.

Ray walked up the precinct steps, holding his mobile phone to his ear. "It's me... I need to talk to Benny... He's gone to work already?... You have to pick Dief up from where?... That Wolf thinks with his stomach. Of course he stayed at the church if that's where the food was... Yeah, take him back to the apartment... Okay... Thanks Ma... 'Bye."

He walked into the booking area as he closed the phone. When he entered, the noise level died into a hushed silence and everyone looked anywhere except at him.

"What?" He spread his arms wide in appeal. "Did I forget to put on my pants or something?"

The desk sergeant cleared his throat. "You need to see Lieutenant Welsh. Right away."

"What's up?"

The sergeant shifted uneasily, still not quite meeting his eyes. "You need to see Lieutenant Welsh."

As he climbed the stairs to the squad room, Ray searched his mind for anything he could have done to get himself in this much trouble. It wasn't like he'd accused any senators of consorting with and murdering prostitutes lately.

He heard the murmur of voices in the Lieutenant's office as he knocked. He didn't wait to be told to enter, but pushed open the door and discovered other voice belonged to The Dragon Lady. She held a battered Mountie hat in her hands, and he was startled to note she had been crying.

"You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Shut the door Detective."

He did so. "What's up?"

Lieutenant Welsh climbed slowly to his feet. "Early this morning, we had a report of gunfire at an old chandelier warehouse. When officers arrived at the scene, they found two victims with multiple gunshot wounds."

"I was on that stakeout sir, and—"

He held up a hand to interrupt Ray's automatic protest. "One of the victims was Victoria Metcalfe. The other was Constable Fraser."

"Which hospital is he in?"

"Fraser didn't make it to the hospital."

"Then where is he? And which idiot let him go anywhere else?"

Lieutenant Welsh hesitated. "Fraser didn't survive the shooting."

Ray knew he had to have misunderstood what the Lieutenant had said. "What are you talking about? Of course he survived. He always does."

"He's dead, son. Fraser is dead."

And in that instant, the world stood still. Ray sagged against the filing cabinet behind him and tried to remember to breathe as he fought to understand what he had been told.

As he had anticipated when making the request, Benny had taken the charge of protecting his family seriously. It didn't make any sense that he'd be out getting himself killed in a warehouse instead of fulfilling that duty. Besides, the detective he had shadowing Benny would have reported him traipsing off. It had to be some kind of horrible mistake——

Yeah, that was it. Victoria had faked her death once before. Only this time she was going for the Oscar and including Benny in the performance. This was her revenge because he'd stopped Benny from going with her that night.

Inspector Thatcher's voice seemed to come from some place far away as she said, "I'll do the formal identification."

Ray pushed away from the filing cabinet to block her exit.

"No."

"He was under my command——"

"He is my best friend."

Inspector Thatcher glared at him, and for a moment he thought she was going to give him a serious argument.

"All right." She pressed her mouth together to stop it trembling.

"Inspector."

She stopped halfway through the door she'd just opened, but didn't turned back. "What?"

Ray didn't know if this was a good idea. Benny wasn't really dead, and she'd always treated him badly. No, not always. Perhaps that was why it needed to be said.

"He does care for you."

A slight nod was her only answer. He watched her walk away, the hat held in a white-knuckled grip.

The morgue was brightly lit by fluorescent tubing. Ray shivered, and wondered why he'd never noticed before how cold it was in this big room.

The attendant consulted a list pinned to a clipboard. "Ah yes, here we are."

She placed the clipboard on a bench and walked briskly towards the sheet-covered tables. Lieutenant Welsh started to follow, then realized Vecchio wasn't coming with them.

He went back. "Why don't you let me...?"

Ray shook his head and forced his feet to start moving. All he had to do was take a quick look at whoever was under that sheet. Then the nightmare would be over, and he could concentrate on finding Price.

The attendant lifted back the top of the sheet and the nightmare became reality.

Benny's eyes were closed, his face relaxed and peaceful. He was smiling, and part of Ray waited for him to sit up shouting "April fool" through a burst of laughter. Only it wasn't April — and in spite of his unexpected penchant for practical jokes lately, Ray knew Benny would never pull a stunt that hurt like this.

"Ray." Lieutenant Welsh placed a hand on his shoulder, reminding him why they were here.

"Yeah, that's him." Even the hardest swallow couldn't stop his voice breaking as he made the formal identification. "Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

Lieutenant Welsh squeezed his shoulder and the morgue attendant picked up the edge of the sheet. Without a word, Ray took the sheet out of her hands and laid it carefully over the lifeless face of his best friend. He turned and left the room, not looking back.

Ray parked the Riv in front of the familiar tenement and stared out through the windshield. Almost two years after Benny had moved in, nothing had changed in the dirty, garbage strewn street. The inside of the building would still be the same as well. Benny was dead, and there was nothing here to show how hard he'd tried to make a difference.

Switching off the headlights, Ray climbed out of the Riv. The hair at the back of his neck lifted as the eerie, vaguely familiar sound floated through the night air. It swelled to a mournful crescendo before slowly dying into aching silence.

Carefully he locked the Riv's door, then paused as he remembered where he'd heard that sound. It had been the time they'd crashed in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, and Dief had tried to scare him by pretending to be a wolf.

Inside the building, he stopped at the foot of the stairs. The lift had never been repaired after the battle with the slum landlord, and the paper the tenants had hung so hopefully was peeling from the damp walls.

He reached the third floor just as Mr. Mustafi came out of his apartment.

"Where is Constable Fraser?" he demanded, raising his voice to be heard over another howl.

Ray couldn't make himself say the words. Instead he gave a half shrug which could have meant anything.

"The Wolf — he has been doing this all day, making me crazy. Making everyone in the building crazy."

"I'll take care of the Wolf."

"Where is Constable Fraser?"

"I said I'd take care of the Wolf!"

Ray pushed past him and along the hallway to the door of Benny's apartment. His hand froze on the knob as he remembered the last time he'd told Benny to put a lock on his door. Of course Benny hadn't listened — he never did, so why should this have been any different?

Another melancholy howl cut through the night, a soaring expression of a grief almost too great to be borne.

Ray glanced back over his shoulder at Mr. Mustafa, who still stood in the hallway waiting for him to stop the howling. The expression on Mister Mastafa's face was even grimmer than it had been when they talked, and Ray steeled himself to turn the knob.

Diefenbaker sat facing the kitchen window, the moonlight silvering his fur. He turned his head as Ray entered, the knowledge of what had happened to his Friend reflected in his eyes.

"You know don't you?" Ray didn't recognize the sound of his own voice. "You know already, don't you Dief?"

The Wolf turned back to look out of the window without answering. As he silently watched Diefenbaker, Ray felt unreasoning fury build within him until it swamped his grief.

"He was with her you know." Ray seized the tin cup sitting on the sink and threw it with all his strength. It clanged into the wall, just missing the window. Startled, Diefenbaker spun around to face Ray. "He went with her instead of staying where I told him."

Throwing the cup felt so good, Ray wrenched the cupboard doors open to find another missile. "That's what got him killed."

Saying the words out loud finally allowed him to admit his burning anger at that betrayal as he clawed the neatly stacked dishes and candles out on to the floor. "Damn Mountie! He never listens to me!"

He kicked viciously at the scattered pile, then raged into the living area. Everything was neat and orderly, so typical of the neat and orderly man who had wreaked such havoc in his life.

Ray picked up a chair and threw it across the room. "I'll show you what a real mess looks like, you moron!"

He heaved the table over onto its side, knocking the other chair over in the process. One by one, he picked up the articles on top of the bedside trunk and launched them at the far wall.

Diefenbaker followed the human who hurled curses with each object he smashed or knocked over. The Wolf knew it was wrong to allow this behaviour, but nothing could ever be right again with his Friend gone.

When there was nothing left to destroy, Ray stilled, his laboured breathing the only sound in the wrecked apartment.

Slowly, he slid down the wall into a crumpled heap, unable to meet Diefenbaker's eyes as he finally told the truth.

"It was my fault Dief. Not Benny's. Not even Victoria's. She warned me and I was supposed to keep him safe. Only I screwed that up the way I screw up every good thing in my life."

The Wolf came to him then. He pressed a cold nose against Ray's cheek before licking his ear. Diefenbaker refused to be shoved away, and slowly the hands which pushed at him clenched into his fur. Ray buried his face in Diefenbaker's neck to hide the scalding tears sliding down his cheeks. Sobs shook through him and the Wolf howled once more as they both mourned the Friend who would never return.

Thirty-six hours later, a very crumpled and unshaven Ray climbed the steps to the church where he had been baptized, confirmed, and even married. Diefenbaker walked beside him, staying as close as he could without getting underfoot.

The interior of the church was dim and peaceful. Ray took a new candle and lit it, holding it in his hand as he looked across the altar to the crucified Christ on the wall behind. He tried to remember a prayer, but all the words were lost in the aching void where his heart used to be. Hot wax dripped onto his hand, the physical pain a barely noticed irrelevance.

"Raymond?" Father Behan's voice came from just behind him. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"That's okay, Father." Ray put the candle in a holder and fumbled in his pocket as he turned to face the priest. "I came to give you this."

Father Behan frowned at the wad of money. "For what?"

"The funeral. And the mass for his soul. He'd want you to be the one."

"That's too much."

"Take it." Ray shoved the money into the priest's hand. "Put the extra in the poor box or something."

A sad smile touched Father Behan's mouth. "Benton would certainly approve of that."

"Yeah. Listen, I gotta go."

"Son, I know this is a difficult time for you but we need to discuss the service arrangements."

"Whatever you think. I'm sure you'll do a great job."

"You'll do the eulogy of course."

"No!" The word came out far more sharply than he'd intended. "You'll have to get someone else."

"You won't be there?" The priest's eyes widened as the implications of that omission sank in, and his next words were a statement, not a question. "You're going after the killers."

"That's my business." Ray started to turn away. "You just take care of yours, and make sure he gets the kind of funeral he deserves."

"Suicide is a mortal sin."

Ray stopped. "What?"

"If you deliberately get yourself killed going after these men, then it's suicide as surely as if you put a gun to your head and pulled the trigger yourself. Do you really want to do that to your mother? To your sisters?"

"Leave my family out of this."

"How? They're the ones you're hurting the most by doing this. Not those men, but yourself and your family."

"He was my best friend, and I was supposed to keep him safe. They'll understand this is the only way I can make things right."

"No, they won't." Father Behan stepped closer. "Because they'll know you took the coward's way out by getting yourself killed. If you can only trust God to know what He was doing when He allowed this to happen——"

"It should have been me, not someone like Benny!"

Father Behan gripped Ray's shoulder with surprising strength. "Do you really believe Benton would want you to do this? To inflict vengeance on these people regardless of the law?"

Anger blazed in Ray, and he pulled free. "Do you think they deserve to live after what they did?"

"That choice isn't ours to make."

"I'm making it my choice."

"You know how he'd handle this if the situation were reversed," Father Behan persisted. "You know that as surely as if he was standing here, telling you himself."

"It doesn't matter what he'd do! He's dead!" It was the first time Ray had said the word, and it sliced another gaping wound into his already jagged soul.

"And when the men who killed Benton are all dead as well, will that stop you feeling responsible for his death?"

Do you honestly believe that by jailing him you won't have to feel guilty any more? The challenge Benny had given him that fateful night outside Zuko's house echoed through Ray's memory. Funny how some things never changed.

"Oh God." Ashen and trembling, Ray sank onto the pew behind him. Benny had been right that time — he was the one who had refused to listen. And instead of Louis being avenged, Irene had been killed.

"Ray." Father Behan sat down next to him. "Whatever mistakes you may have made, Benton has already forgiven. If you feel the need for absolution, then find it in doing this the way he'd want you to. Within the law, and by the rules he followed."

Ray looked at the gentle priest for a long moment, and absently stroked Diefenbaker's head when the Wolf rested it on his leg. Until now, it hadn't occurred to him the absolution he needed so desperately could come in any way other than by giving up his own life.

He drew in and expelled a deep, cleansing breath.

"You're right Father. It should be done the way Benny would want."

"Say a prayer with me son," the priest suggested. "For the success of your righteous endeavour against these men."

Ray nodded, and together they bowed their heads as Father Behan began the words.

Outside the church, Ray paused to let the warm sunshine wash over him. The thought of never seeing Benny again, of never listening to another Inuit story, or never being told the Latin origin of some obscure word, still hurt more than he could ever have imagined. But beyond the pain was the inner peace he had gained within the church, and he knew he would survive. He was going to be all right.

"Ray."

He automatically turned in the direction of the familiar voice, then blinked at the bright circle of light he now faced. It was pure white, with rays of gold shooting out from the centre and dissolving at the edges.

"What the——"

"Ray." He wasn't sure if the voice came from within the light, or if he just heard it inside his head. The light shimmered and a woman, dressed in a flowing white robe, walked from it.

His heart stood still in disbelief. "Irene?"

"Hello Ray."

His heart remembered to beat again just before he fainted. "Am I dead?"

"No, Ray." To his surprise, tears sparkled in her eyes.

"You're very much alive."

"Are you...?"

When he hesitated, Irene completed the sentence for him. "Still dead? Yes."

"This doesn't make any sense."

"That depends on your logic base." She smiled and held out her hands. "There's something I want to show you — don't worry, there'll still be plenty of time to see Lieutenant Welsh and organize the raid when we're finished."

He placed his hands in hers. "Where are we going?"

Her smile widened. "Hang on to your stomach. We're going for a ride."

When the colours finally settled back into solid objects, and Ray's stomach returned to where it belonged, they were standing in a long white corridor.

He pulled a face. "Smells like a hospital."

"That's because it is."

"Why are we here?"

The door next to them opened, and a woman came out. Shock ran through Ray as he recognized his mother. She looked as though she had aged twenty years the brief time since he had last seen her. Her hair was untidy, her clothing wrinkled.

"Ma?" Instinctively he went to her. "Ma, what's wrong?"

She walked away from him, slowly shuffling down the corridor, her head bowed.

"Your mother can't hear you Ray."

"What happened? Why does she look so terrible?"

Irene took his hand again and led him towards the wall.

"Come and see."

"Hey——!" Ray's protest choked off as a wave of dizziness swept over him. When it passed, they were through the wall and standing inside a dimly lit room. A still figure lay in the single bed, the head swathed in bandages with an alarming number of tubes and monitors connected to the body.

Ray gestured towards the body. "What happened to him?"

"He was shot in the head, saving a child from the gunman who was holding her hostage."

"Ouch." Ray winced in sympathy. "Will he be all right?"

Before Irene could answer, the door opened and Ben entered. He crossed to the bed to check the occupant, Diefenbaker at his heels.

"No change." Ben's head dropped as he uttered the words, and grief laddened his voice. "I was so sure Dief — I was so sure he'd be waking up when we got back."

"What's going on?" Ray demanded harshly of Irene. "Benny's dead — I saw his body!"

"He's alive Ray. I promise you, he's alive."

Ray pulled his hand free of hers. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"You did it to yourself." Irene ran a hand through her hair, clearly searching for the words to make him understand. "That man in the bed is you. Your body has been here, in the hospital, for the last four days while your mind decided whether you'd live or die."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your psyche chose this way to confront the fears you'd buried so deep in your subconscious you couldn't even remember what the nightmares were about when you woke up in the morning."

Ray's denial was automatic. "I don't have nightmares."

"Your father wrapped his car around a street light after he'd had too much to drink. You couldn't stop him from driving that night." Irene hesitated a fraction before she continued, "Fraser almost died when you shot at Victoria. Louis was killed by a bomb that was meant for you. You tried to protect me and I ended up dead anyway. That's an awful lot of guilt to be carrying around."

Bitterness welled up in Ray. "Goes to show my old man was right about me. I'm a total screw up."

"No, you're not." Irene laid a palm against his cheek, using her touch to soothe him. "I died that night because it was my time——"

"If I hadn't been there, Frank wouldn't have had any reason to pull his gun."

"Whether you were there or not, it would still have happened. It was not your fault, just like it wasn't your fault Louis died."

"The bomb was meant for me. Who else's fault could it be?"

"That was just random chance — an accident of fate." She waited until that had sunk in, then added, "It does happen you know. In spite of the order there is in the Universe, plain old bad luck sometimes wins out."

"That's not fair!" Ray's protest was an age-old cry of futility.

"Fair has nothing to do with it Ray. It's just the way life is. Sometimes you can change things, but no matter how hard you try, you can't always protect someone from Fate or Chance... or from their own choices."

A movement across the room caught Ray's attention as Ben slumped into the chair beside the bed. Irene followed his gaze, and added, "You saved his soul that night at the railway station. If he'd gone with Victoria, he would have been damned."

"And my father?"

"It was his choice to get into that car. There wasn't a thing you could have done or said to change his mind."

Ray thought that over. "So how am I supposed to know which time trying to change things will make a difference?"

"You can't. All you can do is hope that your best is good enough, and not destroy yourself with guilt if it isn't."

Irene fumbled in the pocket of her robe and drew out a brightly coloured strip of tartan. "Louis asked me to give you this. He said to tell you it's about time you had a classy tie."

Ray looked at the splash of colour in her hand. "Absolution?"

"Yes." Irene placed the tie in his hand and closed his fingers around it. "It's over."

Ray ran his thumb over the material sticking out from the edge of his fist. "So you're saying it was nothing more than a bad dream? That nothing that happened in the last four days was real?"

"Oh it was real, all right. If you had walked out of that church still determined to die, then your body would have ceased to function as surely if the bullet had killed you."

Ray scrubbed a hand over his face. "None of this makes any sense."

"It happened exactly like you've been so afraid of, didn't it? You did your very best to protect Fraser, and he still died. Your worst nightmare came true, but with every reason to give up and get yourself killed, you still chose to live." Irene watched Ben as he leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. "A lot of good people have been doing a lot of praying for you."

Ray frowned. "I didn't know Benny was religious."

"Not in the traditional sense perhaps, but his faith is strong. In God, and in you." Irene placed a hand on Ray's arm. "And now it's time to wake up and get on with your life."

"Just like that?"

Irene nodded. "Just like that."

"How....?"

"Lie down on the bed and your spirit will go back into your body."

Ray hesitated. "Listen, I was shot in the head, right?"

"You'll be fine when you wake up, I promise."

"Will I remember any of this?"

"Some of it perhaps, as a dream."

Ray reached out to gently stroke her hair. "I have missed you so much."

"Me too. That's why I was allowed to be the one who came." Irene floated up high enough to kiss his cheek, then stepped back down to the floor again. "Go on. It's time."

At the edge of the bed, Ray turned to face her again. "Will Victoria ever come back?"

"I don't know. But whatever happens, I do know you'll be all right."

He nodded and lay down, feeling himself sink into the body on the hospital bed, into darkness. In that last moment he turned his head to look at Irene. She was smiling, and peace wrapped itself around his soul.

Ray had no way of knowing how long he'd been unconscious. Pain was the first sensation he became aware of as he drifted up through the blackness, yet it somehow seemed to belong to someone else. And beyond the pain was a feeling of relief — as if something which frightened him for a long time had melted away. He couldn't remember what he had been so afraid of, and decided it didn't matter. The fear was gone, and he knew it wouldn't be back.

He tried to move his head to see who was in the chair waiting for him to wake up. That was a serious mistake.

When the bed stopped heaving and the room stopped spinning, he realized he didn't need to look to know who it would be. "Benny?"

"Ray?" Ben was out of the chair and bending over him in less than an instant. "Oh, thank God."

A drop of moisture splashed onto Ray's face. It took him a moment to figure out it was a tear, and he almost passed out again from the shock. "Are you crying?"

Ben hastily swiped a hand over his face and cleared his throat. "That's just silly Ray."

"Good. 'Cause I just had the craziest dream..."

Ben's attention was distracted by the brightly coloured material in Ray's hand. "Ray, where did you get that tie?"

THE END