Layer after layer of autumn leaves
are swept away
Something forgets us perfectly
--Leonard Cohen, "For E.J.P."
It's 3:13 a.m. Ray's hands are empty. His shadow stretches along the cracked asphalt of the street, reaching toward the promising gap between the facades of the post office and the drug store. The red and purple of an endless dawn has finally stretched to a thin, taut blue, and the distant hills are hunched like sleeping men with their faces turned toward the blank wall of the sky, their backs to the sun.
He'd have bought it if he'd been on his side of the bed.
It was pretty much like it always was, in the dream, only this time, he was on the wrong side of the bed. There was just a sharp hiccup of sound and a puff of feathers from the unoccupied pillow beside him and then he was rolling, tangled in the covers, onto the floor, one hand groping under the bed for his piece—she'd hated that, the gun under the bed—but he was on the wrong side, Stella's side, and the gun was way out of reach. A second bullet pinged against the bedpost and ricocheted. It chewed a hole in the carpet next to his other hand.
That's when he knew for sure it wasn't the dream. In the dream, the guy was always a perfect shot and Ray never had a chance to scramble backward like a crab toward the open balcony door, kicking viciously at the sheets around his feet while his blood roared between his ears and another shot pocked into the bookshelf beside his head, leaving a hole in the thick spine of a book Stella had promised to come back for. Head lowered and the gun with its silencer raised, the hulking shape came around the end of the bed. Later on, hanging in the sky somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, Ray would put it together, this shadow like a Minotaur and a face from the files in his head, the list of handymen, the wet-work guys out of Vegas.
This was the point-blank pay-back Ray had been waiting for ever since that day in the hotel room in Chicago, when he opened the door to find the damn Mountie standing there grinning like it was Christmas morning. So this wasn't the dream. In the dream, Ray had only a second to make his peace, more than enough time to taste relief while he waited for the quiet after the shot. This time, though, some old reptile-brain reflex kicked in and Ray lashed out with a bare foot and caught the guy in the side of the knee. As the thug fell forward with a curse, Ray caught him with his other foot, hard in the nose. He felt something give under his heel, but he didn't stop to check the damage. The air on the balcony was a thick soup of Florida heat and his hands were slick on the rail as he hoisted himself up and threw himself over it into the dark.
It's 3:14 a.m. and the street is crowded. There's laughing and music and the smell of popcorn. Someone, a big guy in a red checked shirt, stumbles against him and apologizes with a pat of an enormous hand on Ray's shoulder. He's missing most of his thumb and the hand looks like a paw. When Ray shrugs him off with a startled snarl, the bear grins and holds up his beer mug in a mock toast before throwing his hairy arm around the waist of the woman with him—a willow stick with dreads down her back—and heaves her off her feet with a roar and carries her into the crowd around the bandstand. A few seconds later, Ray can see her again, up high, perched on the shoulders of the bear and swaying her arms against the sky while the band on the makeshift stage tunes their guitars. On Ray's shoulder, the bear's paw print would be glowing if it were darker out, marking him for target practice. Good thing it's not darker out.
It wasn't him she was leaving, Stella said, or because of him. It wasn't him and it wasn't her. It was Vegas, she said.
He didn't hug her back before she left, because she didn't have a freaking clue who she was holding onto and who she was letting go, and neither did he.
But he slept on her side of the bed.
Ray puts his empty hands in his pockets and closes his eyes for a moment to let the sun seep through his eyelids. Pink. A pale, oblique northern heat. Behind him, a girl is stomping her boots on the pavement in time with the music she's making to compete with the jangle of noise from the bandstand. Her spider-quick fingers chase notes up and down the slender neck of the fiddle she has tucked under her chin. One curl of hair has escaped her rainbow toque and falls over her eye, bouncing in time. She has freckles and dark, dark eyes and a grin for anyone who tosses a coin into the open case at her feet, a wink for the generous ones who leave her those fake-looking, colourful bills.
Kowalski lied transparently. No, he said, Stella did not ask him to call. He wasn't Stella's puppy. Even if he did tend to chew up the newspapers occasionally and drool while he was eating, Ray said. Kowalski suggested that he take this act on the road. He'd kill in Vegas. As segues went, it made up in effectiveness what it lacked in finesse. Kowalski boot-to-the-head therapy. At least Kowalski did him the favour of not apologizing. Ray was too tired to deal with duplicity. He slumped down in the deck chair to put his bare feet up on the balcony rail and watched the palms across the parking lot smear the sky with sunset red. Kowalski listened to him breathe his way silently through a few bucks-worth of long-distance charges. Eventually, when the red sky over Florida slipped west to Chicago, leaving Ray in the dark, Kowalski said he knew all about three in the morning. Heinous stuff comes out at three in the morning. Yeah, yeah, he said as if he could see Ray's raised eyebrows, try spending three months on an ice floe with Fraser and see what happens to your vocabulary.
Ray has neither coins nor bills. Obeying the unconscious force of habit, his fingers close around the softened edges of his passport in one pocket and his credit card in the other as the girl stomps harder and the music shifts to a higher gear. The fiddle looks old, battered, loved to brittleness, but holds up under the sawing bow while the sun caresses the wood with a soothing hand. The music is too bright for soothing, though, like the day is already too light for 3:15 in the morning. The jig or reel or whatever it is she's playing rains down on Ray like a shower of sparks. Each note burns his skin for an instant before going out.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he's tired.
It was because of Langoustini that Ray learned about the panic bag. He should've got that little bit of wisdom from the Feds, but as it turned out, they were less interested in Ray's timely escape than the mob was in Langoustini's. Vince Defecendis—head of Langoustini's security, 6'5" in bare feet and the approximate weight of a king-cab fully loaded with lumberjacks—brought him the canvas gym bag and told him what to put in it. First, a change of clothes—cheap, but not shabby, and as uninteresting as possible, he said. Think travelling office furniture salesman on the leg home. Then, a .22 because the rounds rattle around inside a body and make less mess. Discreet, like, for when you have to deal with obstacles in small spaces. A credit card in someone else's name, because you can buy a plane ticket with cash, but only if you want the chick at the counter to look up at your face to see what kind of guy carries that much green in a polyester suit. And a passport, also in someone else's name, someone everybody could know and nobody really does. And not too 'ethnic,' Vince said, making rabbit-ear quotation marks in the air with fingers the size of hoagies. Think mayonnaise, Vince said. Think the wallpaper at a two-star hotel. Think that guy in the departure lounge who's normal enough to sit next to and too boring to talk to.
The panic bag—or bags, actually—were stashed in convenient places away from Langoustini's home and his businesses, places you could sneak into as a wanted man and walk out of as a nobody in a polyester suit.
In Florida, Ray kept the panic bag in the shed behind the condo, pushed way back with Stella's on the shelf beside the sand-filled barrel of the pool filter. Stella hated the panic bag. That was then, she said. This isn't some Scorsese movie. No, he thought, as he slithered in his sweat-soaked t-shirt and boxers into the shed and crawled across the floor to wedge himself in behind the throb and hum of the filter. Not a movie. He should be so lucky. He groped blindly on the shelf behind the bucket of chlorine bricks, but the shelf was empty. His eyes owlishly staring at the crack around the flimsy shed door, he waited for the looming shadow, the Minotaur coming to peel the door away like the skin of a tin banana and find him there, a tall man folded up in a small space, trying to be invisible. He willed his heart to stop ricocheting inside his chest and held his breath. Nothing. Nothing but the yappy dog in 127 yap-yap-yapping and the traffic out on the boulevard hissing through the humid night. He carefully eased the bucket of chlorine aside with a scraping sound loud enough to wake a January bear in Canada and stretched his arm as far as he could until finally his fingers scrabbled over the stiff canvas of the panic bag. Stella had taken hers when she left.
About a century later, when the June sun started to turn the shed into an Easy-Bake Oven and, for some reason, no one came to tear the roof away and shoot him, Ray slithered out again. He left his car in the lot and headed on foot toward the bus station, a credit card in one pocket of his polyester pants, a passport in the other, and eyes in the back of his head.
The wind steals in at the end of the street like someone who's not sure they're welcome at the party. It comes to lean against Ray's chest and the fiddle sparks are carried away from him as the girl turns her back to the wind to shelter the music like a flame between her hands. On the bandstand, the singer is on a tall stool with the heel of his boot hooked on the crossbar and his mouth against the microphone, talking over the heads of the small crowd. He's welcoming them with a wave over his shoulder at the banner, which is snapping now at the end of its tethers and shouting in tall, newly painted and celebratory letters that it's the longest day of the year.
The sun rose two days ago and keeps forgetting to set, and the people dance in their shrinking shadows between the river and the hills.
The singer's voice is a growl of sleeplessness and cigarettes and his worn face, Ray's pretty sure, is the face of the low mountain still stretched out asleep against the horizon. As he watches the singer close his eyes and tip his head back to draw the song out of his throat, Ray imagines the glaciers and the rain and the slow-working fingers of ice cracking the stone, making scars and softening them again. But maybe it wasn't glaciers. Maybe it was fire. He has no clue. Fraser would know.
No, Fraser said finally. I won't be coming back. He'd decided to take the posting to M Division, after all. In the pause that yawned wider and wider, Ray could hear him wincing up his eyes and bowing his head a little, scrubbing with his thumb at his eyebrow. The receiver sweating against his ear, Ray blinked into the candy blue sky above his balcony and dragged the back of his wrist over his eyes to dry them. Damn, Vecchio, he thought, you're turning into an old woman. Benny, he said, It's okay. I get it. It wasn't like Ray didn't expect it. He didn't fall off the apple cart yesterday. His voice bounced off a satellite or two, coursed along wires, over mountains, through stone, to bleed into the air in a cabin hidden from sight by the curve of the planet.
Fraser said, Thank you, Ray, loading a few formally spoken words with the weight of friendship, and gratitude, and affection, and understanding so that they became something dense, like a Purple Heart, a small thing heavy with meaning that made you want to lay it on velvet in a box. Ray nodded. Sure, Benny, he said.
He was still standing there on the balcony with the dial tone buzzing in his ear when he realized that he'd missed his appointment with the Bureau shrink.
Didn't matter. How sane did a guy have to be to run a bowling alley?
The fiddle girl's crouched down now, scraping the coins and bills across the worn blue velvet of her violin case into a pile she can gather up in one hand. On the stage the singer lashes the space between the buildings with a voice that's a tough whip of leather ragged on the ends. He's not singing in English, and behind him a woman is beating a large, round drum. The circle of skin is translucent, catching the endless day in the hoop of bent wood, and Ray thinks of the pink curl of Stella's ear, how it glowed with the early sunlight streaming over her through the balcony door. He raises his fingers to his lips for a second, but what he tastes is the skin behind Stella's ear, and the vulnerable curve of her throat. The beats of the drum are somehow both steady and irregular, like Florida wind buffeting storm shutters, like the pulse of blood in his fingertips.
He's standing there, trying to trace the pattern of the drumbeats when the girl's sharp shout cuts through the air followed by a curse, and the man who's narrowly avoided stepping on her tries to catch his balance. His arm swings out wide. The bottle in his hand narrowly misses Ray's chin, and slipping free, arcs up, seems to pause for a moment at the tips of gravity's fingers, falls and hits the asphalt with a crack. It breaks and explodes in a starburst of beer and foam at Ray's feet. At the sound, Ray breaks too.
Under the flickering fluorescent light in a dinky airport bathroom somewhere in British Columbia, Ray stared at Langoustini's reflection and couldn't tell which side of the glass he was on.
The Minotaur lurked in the shadows at the end of the row of urinals. Or maybe he was in one of the stalls. Ray didn't turn to look. He knew the guy, though. He'd remembered, finally. Picked him out of a dream that woke him with a yelp of fear to find himself suspended over mountains, the plane's prop on the wing a vibrating disc six feet from his eyes. The Minotaur was one of Langoustini's men, for God's sake, was there that first night when Langoustini was forced to make a point, up close and personal, leave a message on some poor sonofabitch's skin and in his bones. The Minotaur did the heavy lifting. Loved his job. Must've been sweet to get the contract on Ray. Not that the thug would have much appreciation for poetic justice. Or injustice. Whatever.
By the time they'd made it to the Canadian border Ray had seen him so often in his peripheral vision he'd stopped even trying to catch a good look. Back in Vegas, the Minotaur hadn't been able to change his shape like that, to morph into an old man dozing behind a newspaper, or to turn into a rumpled dad trying to keep his three kids from killing each other over a bag of chips. Somewhere in the Midwest Ray had stopped trying to see him, but he couldn't keep the skin on the back of his neck from prickling and his hands from clenching into fists. At each stop where he changed buses, he checked exits, counted civilians, calculated collateral damage. He knew what Langoustini would do in this situation. He thought of Fraser in the red serge as he ditched the .22 in a dumpster outside the station in Bellingham, burying it deep in the most disgusting bag of garbage he could reach.
Then, a million miles further north, where the dark woods stood at the end of the runway like a crowd behind police tape, Ray leaned against the counter in the bathroom and didn't put his fist through the mirror. Good call, Vince said inside his head. No undue attention. Mayonnaise, remember? Fuck off, Ray told him dully. The kid washing his hands at the next sink looked up at him with wide eyes and ran out without turning off the tap.
Throwing himself sideways, Ray bowls the girl over. There's a glittering in the corner of his eye as her handful of coins scatters across the pavement. She might have screamed in surprise except that Ray's weight has knocked the breath out of her. With a hand on the top of her rainbow toque, he presses her face down close to the street. "It's okay," he says, low and steady, into her ear. "Just stay down and you'll be okay. It's me he's after." Under him, her body is a frail vibration of fear. He can feel her heart fluttering inside her.
Sometimes, Ray said, laying his voice down for posterity on Kowalski's answering machine. Sometimes the only thing between me and Langoustini was Fraser. He could picture him standing there in a dumpster in that stupid red suit surrounded by garbage and maggots and not a spot on him. The tape recorded long minutes of silence, clicked a few times, and ran out. Sometimes, Ray said to the dead air, there was nothing between me and Langoustini.
"Stay down," he says again with another reassuring pat, and, pushing himself up with one hand, he reaches with the other around to the back of his waistband for the .22. The gun's not there. He doesn't have time to cast around for it—Where did it go? When did he have it last?—because someone grabs him from behind and drags him off of the girl. The hand on his shoulder is the thumbless paw of the bear. "Run," Ray tells the girl as the bear lifts him to his feet and spins him around to growl in his face. Ray catches a glimpse of the end of the street opening out to the blind hills before the bear swats him across the jaw with an open paw and the world flares white, then red. Behind him, Ray can hear the girl scrambling away. Good. He lifts his head to meet the next blow with a grin.
But the blow doesn't come. A hand snaps out over Ray's shoulder from behind and catches the bear's fist before the punch can connect. Ray watches in dumb surprise as the bear's white-toothed snarl relaxes and his grip on the front of Ray's polyester sport jacket loosens.
"Thank you kindly, Mr. Sirtis. I'll take it from here."
Ray feels his bones disintegrating as he falls backward into the familiar voice. He doesn't hit the pavement, though, before the white northern light dims to black.
Some nights, if he was careful, he could run the tip of his middle finger along Stella's bare skin from her shoulder to her hip without waking her up. Mapping her, he knew where he was.
Other nights, when she twitched away from him, he lay on his back between the clammy sheets and the blanket of stifling Florida heat and listened to her listening to him not sleeping. He wondered sometimes if she could hear the screaming in his head.
It takes a moment for the shadow at the end of the bed to resolve into Fraser's shape, and when it does, Ray's pulse slows again to a steady thumping in his throat and in his head. The uniform is different, less formal-looking with the nylon jacket replacing the brass-buttoned dress tunic, but the Stetson is the same. The posture is the same. The tightness around the mouth and the eyes is something Ray's seen before, but that tension smoothes away before Fraser comes around to the side of the bed so that he meets Ray's gaze with an expression that is calm, open, assessing. Still, though, Ray can feel the pressure of his concern like a steady headwind.
Ray settles back into the pillows and tells himself that Fraser can't really see the tremors that rattle through him like aftershocks. He can still feel the fiddle girl's slight form against his, the stammering of her heart. There's a ghost of Stella there, too, and the girl's terror seeps backward into the memory of the sunlit bed so that his muscles twitch, reacting involuntarily to the obscene convolution of sex and fear. His right foot is throbbing with a dull and distant pain. He can't remember why, but it seems fair. "Is she okay?"
The closed blinds cast the room in disorienting lines of light and shadow so that Fraser's body seems to ripple as he nods his head. His answer suggests that he's been reading Ray's mind. "Stella's safe at her sister's in Chicago, where she's been for some time, I gather." Fraser lets the question hang unsaid. When Ray doesn't offer anything, he nods with that slight downturn of the mouth that says he's read the whole story in the bent twig and the disturbed leaf. "As for Melanie, she was more startled than hurt, really." A miniscule smile makes crinkles beside Fraser's eyes. "She's enjoying the notoriety." Then his face settles into a gently mocking sternness. "But I have to say that tackling a teenaged street performer in the middle of the Solstice Festival isn't the best way to improve the American reputation in the eyes of the local population."
Ray's smile feels ghoulish and pulls against the bruise the bear left at the side of his mouth. "That's me, Benny, doing my bit for international relations." He can feel Fraser tracking him through the underbrush, so he closes his eyes and listens to the hospital noises in the hall, pages for doctors. He could be anywhere in North America. The walls painted a soothing shade of green, the smell of antiseptic and disease, it's all the same. In the next room, a thin, age-worn voice is singing the first line of "Danny Boy" over and over, like a skipping record or someone trapped in a single moment of time.
When he opens his eyes again, Fraser's pulled a chair over and is sitting with his arms resting on the rail at the side of the bed. His folded hands are tanned deep brown and there are healing scrapes across the knuckles of the left one and a yellowing crescent of bruises in the shape of someone's bite in the tender webbing between his index finger and thumb. Seems like Whitehorse sees its share of rough nights—when there are nights, that is. The Stetson is resting on the bed next to Ray's feet, an oddly comforting shape that makes Ray's eyes prickle suddenly with tears.
Fraser starts without preamble, the official tone softened by the worry that puts a notch between his eyebrows. "I got a call from Lieutenant Welsh." He pronounces it "lef-tenant" and that's even worse than the Stetson.
Ray raises his hands to scrub at his face. "Yeah?"
"He got a call from the FBI." Fraser pauses until Ray looks at him. "They found a dead man in your condo."
Ray's eyebrows go up and his mouth drops open, but the bruise makes him close it again. He has a swimming, uncertain memory of the Minotaur in the shadows, following him, but when he tries to bring it into focus, it dissipates like smoke. "He's dead?"
Fraser nods. "That was your doing, then."
He's watching Ray carefully, like he would a man on a ledge, and Ray feels a sudden, hot surging of anger in his chest that makes his voice a little strangled and too loud. "Unless somebody else kicked him in the head that day, which I wouldn't discount because he wasn't exactly an upstanding citizen." Suddenly his throbbing foot makes sense. He moves it away from the Stetson, thumping the heel deliberately against the mattress so the broken bone curses at him in a red flash of pain.
"Do you know who he was?" Fraser asks. He does Ray the courtesy of not taking out a notebook and writing things down. Ray can't remember if he's been read his rights or not.
"Ruby the Elbow. One of Langoustini's guys from Vegas. You know, Benny, I should be flattered. Guy's got warrants. They don't send him out of state unless it's a special occasion." He glares at Fraser. "So, what. Am I under arrest?"
Fraser frowns again and shakes his head. "I don't think that's my call. The FBI are sending someone here to talk to you. I'll do what I can, though, to make sure all the facts are given due consideration. Even if they can see the case for self-defence, though, they'll still want to know why you didn't contact them. Why you ran."
Ray doesn't know. He doesn't remember how he got from there to here. He must've talked to people, bought bus fare or plane tickets, ordered food, but between the moment when his foot connected with the Minotaur's head and when he'd found himself standing on the street in Whitehorse there's nothing but a blank space and a sense of momentum, of being pursued by something he can't quite see. On the bedside table, his watch beeps twice. He has no idea what the reminder is for, and in any case, Whitehorse is at least three hours in Florida's past, so whatever was supposed to happen has happened already. He's come unmoored. Only the weird light and Fraser's shadow pin him to a place.
After all the training and the briefings and the endless repetition of codes and addresses and drop locations, the one thing the Feds didn't prepare him for was the realization that if Ray Vecchio was going to survive the mob, Armando Langoustini had to survive too.
Ray wakes with a start that makes the tea slosh out of his cup and over his hand. He jumps again when the backlit shadow beside him shifts closer. Then he recognizes the spiky mess of Kowalski's hair glowing around his head like the most ironic halo ever, and he slumps back into the lumpy cushions of the couch. Kowalski catches the cup before it can tip again and replaces it with a beer before settling down on the coffee table, his own bottle dangling from his fingers between his knees. Looking at him, Ray feels the world go sideways a little, spaces folding together like origami, and the fingers of his free hand twist into the blanket on his lap.
"Okay?" Kowalski asks.
The abrupt silence from the kitchen tells Ray that Fraser has stopped chopping and is waiting for Ray's answer, too.
"Yeah." He's not really sure what okay is, but he'll go with it for now, if only to get the world moving forward. Move along, move along. Nothing to see here.
The chopping starts again. At Fraser's feet, between his legs and the counter, Diefenbaker is in position to capture anything that might drop off of the cutting board. Ray hasn't seen concentration like that since the academy when he spent a day with the bomb squad. On the stove, a pot big enough to cook an entire cow is humming a little over the gas flame and the table between the tiny kitchen and the living room area is set for three. It seems that Fraser's traded in the lean-to for something more house-like, but it's still closer to Mountain Man Weekly than Better Homes and Gardens, with log walls and a silent and cold woodstove at the end of the couch, an empty wood-box beside it. The view through the window beside the plank door is of the river, silver now, the same colour as the sky, and beyond it, Whitehorse and the gunmetal hills casting their shadows over the scrubby forest and the town. On the other side of the room, if Ray tilts his head a little, he can see into the cramped bathroom, and the bedroom with its narrow bed and a familiar stack of worn, leather-backed journals on the old footlocker beside it.
Noticing the angle of his gaze, Kowalski lifts his beer to indicate the bathroom. "Fraser got you a razor if you want one. Toothbrush. The whole five-star hotel convenience package."
Ray rubs the back of his hand over the stubble on his chin. "That bad, huh?"
A jerky shrug from Kowalski. "Depends if you want to look human or not."
Shifting his broken foot uncomfortably on the cushion next to Kowalski on the table, Ray winces. "Not so good with mirrors these days." He's wearing a pair of baggy work pants and one of Fraser's shirts, blue plaid, patched neatly on one elbow. The polyester suit is in a plastic bag on the floor by the door. The credit card and the fake passport are in Fraser's desk at M Division on 4th Avenue. Ray's okay with that. He doesn't need that guy anymore.
"What are you doing here, Kowalski?" Ray doesn't bother tearing into him for leaving Stella in Chicago, because he knows Kowalski wouldn't have come if he didn't know she was safe. The fact that he's here is better proof than any report from Welsh or the FBI. Ray doesn't ask if she's planning to come up here for a visit, conjugal or otherwise.
Kowalski's got the shark grin on and Ray braces himself. "Thought I'd come see the superhero who's gonna save the world from the threat of teenaged buskers. You should expand, though, maybe get a team together. I figure you and three other guys might be able to take down a mime."
"Yeah. And you can be Mr. Spaztastic, the guy with the killer hair. I bet you'd look real sweet in spandex tights."
"Hey," Kowalski says around the mouth of his bottle. After swallowing, he aims the bottle and one finger at Ray. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."
Even though Ray can't see Fraser's face, the angle of his head tells him he's smiling. But Kowalski's twisting around on the table, groping behind him for a manila folder, and the spark of warmth in Ray's chest is snuffed out. From the folder, Kowalski pulls a crappy fax and hands it over. Even with the terrible quality of the copy, the man in the mug shot is unmistakable.
"You know this guy?"
Ray realizes he's been nodding for a long time before he answers. "Vince Defecendis. Used to be Langoustini's second. Worked personal security." In his head, he can hear Vince's voice like a tractor engine running in an oil drum while his big hands make the .22 look like a toy. The rounds rattle around inside the body and make less mess. Ray's stomach is closed in a tight fist.
"The Feds were tracking him since he left Vegas two days ago, but they lost him at the border. Geniuses. Guy that big, you can see him for miles."
When Ray tosses the fax back to Kowalski, the air catches it and it glides across the floor to come to rest under the kitchen table. "Not if he doesn't want you to." The bruise stretches again as his mouth turns up in a grim smile. "Maybe I should just save everybody the trouble and let him find me." Catching the surface of the river, the sun sends lances into Ray's eyes. He covers his eyes with his hand. "Put me and Langoustini both down for good."
"That's not an option, Ray." Fraser's shadow passes over him, and he drops his hand to find him there behind Kowalski, between Ray and the stabbing light. Ray can't see his face very well, but he knows the tone. It's that one Fraser uses to reshape reality. Ray can almost feel it rearranging molecules and building a parallel universe where Ray isn't screwed twelve ways from Sunday.
"Besides," Kowalski says, "Langoustini's already dead.
In Ray's mind, a fluorescent bulb flickers a sickly light over Ray's features as he stares into a mirror at the narrow end of the world. His fingers are aching where they're squeezing the beer bottle in a white-knuckled grip. "His face. My face. It's all the same." The space between Miami and Whitehorse is empty of image and sound. It's just a feeling, raised hair on his neck, gooseflesh on his back, and a ghost on his tail. But, he knows, he's been running from that ghost since long before it showed up in Ray's condo wearing the Minotaur's face. "He's never gonna die as long as I'm breathing."
"Not true," Fraser says. "You killed him when you took that bullet in Chicago. When you stood up with me." Fraser moves away from the window and the light falls on Ray again, warm and calm now that the planet has turned a few more degrees away from the sun and the river has turned from silver to purple. "Let him go."
"It's not that easy," Ray says. "I'm a normal guy, Fraser. Normal guys got to go crazy the normal way." His voice cracks a little, gets caught on half-submerged snags of memory, and he has to stop and cough to clear the debris. "Some things you can't forget."
Fraser tilts his head a little, acknowledging and working through the problem. "True," he concedes. "But you don't have to carry them alone."
The molecules shift again and Ray realizes that Fraser isn't making him a world where he can be instantly sane, but one where he's safe enough to be crazy. He's not sure how he feels about that. It seems so weirdly Canadian.
Kowalski rolls a beer bottle between restless hands, and his eyes make Ray think of sparks of fiddle music. "This ain't such a bad place to work things out." He hooks his thumb over his shoulder at the window where the sun is still defying gravity. "At least nothing can sneak up on you in the dark while you're gazing at your navel. And now you've taken care of the street musicians, me an' Fraser can handle the thugs." He mimes a few boxer's jabs in the air between them. "Still got some good moves." Jab. "Butterfly." Jab. "Bee."
Flinching a little away from Kowalski's loose fists, Ray gives the two men his sceptical face. "So, you guys are gonna do what the Feds haven't done in five years of trying."
"Yep." Kowalski gets up and heads for the little kitchen. He manages to get a spoon into the pot before Fraser gets there and slaps the lid down again. In the scuffle, a dollop of spaghetti sauce lands on the floor and Dief pounces on it, licking it up and then cleaning the planks in a three-foot radius just to be thorough. "'Cause now it's personal," Kowalski goes on. He's opened the fridge door and disappeared behind it. "Plus, we got something they don't got."
When Fraser drops a double handful of whatever he'd been chopping into the pot without losing a thing, Dief, who is back in position against the counter, groans his frustration.
"Which is what?" Ray asks. "Besides snowshoes and a full line of hair products, I mean."
A hand holding some kind of root appears above the fridge door and stabs in Fraser's direction. "Super Mountie. I bet he even looks good in spandex tights."
"Actually, Ray, tights are unnecessary. The Dene people, for instance, used to go into battle as close to naked as possible in order to facilitate freedom of movement."
"Right, Captain Anecdote. Your job is to bore the nefarious criminals into submission." Kowalski stands up and waves the root in Fraser's face. He's got a celery stick in his mouth and the leafy end bounces in time with his words. "You got any actual food?"
"Yes. The fridge is well-stocked."
"I mean other than sticks and roots."
Ray realizes he's gaping at them a little and wonders if he's having one of those shocky fugue things the doctor was telling him about.
Sidestepping Kowalski, Fraser comes over to the couch and shakes another painkiller out of a bottle into Ray's palm. "I don't remember you complaining about the food on the Adventure." Before he goes back to the kitchen, he takes the beer out of Ray's hand and replaces it with the tea.
"We were three months on an ice floe, Fraser. I'd've eaten your boots if you didn't sleep with one eye open and tie the laces in secret Mountie knots."
Having given up on scraps from the counter, Dief comes over and slides under Ray's raised leg to rest his head on Ray's other knee. Ray digs his fingers in deep until he feels the soft undercoat and Dief's warm skin.
"You still with this guy, Dief?" he asks the wolf in a whisper. "They're both only about half-baked, you know that?"
Dief grunts his agreement.
"Strictly speaking, we were only on the ice floe for five days."
"I figured you'd've given in to the call of the wild by now," Ray says to Dief and shifts a little so he can scratch Dief's throat. The wolf raises his nose to point at the ceiling, his eyes closed to blissful slits. "No donuts in the wild, though, I guess, huh."
"Right." Another beer in hand, Ray tosses the root back into the fridge and closes the door with his hip. "Which is exactly five days longer than human beings were meant to be on ice floes. Right, Vecchio?"
With a contented groan, Dief slides down until he's lying on Ray's foot. Ray slouches down, too, and sips his tea with his eyes shut. His fingers laced around the cup, he raises one thumb and waggles it noncommittally in the direction of the argument in the kitchen.
"See? Vecchio agrees with me."
"I think that conclusion is debatable."
"I think you're debatable."
Ray breathes deeply, and as he drifts toward sleep, the voices get mixed up somehow with the oblique, endless, northern light. "You know, Dief," he says, "you are one smart wolf."
Notes: Another in a little series of fics inspired by lines from Leonard Cohen's "For E.J.P." And armloads of thanks and gratitude to brynnmck for beta, for reading multiple drafts, and putting up with me. There's a reason her name rhymes with \o/
Feedback welcomed at email@example.com.
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