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[personal profile] brigantine posting in [community profile] alternate_ds_c6d
Title: Ajax Fassbender’s Amateur Guide to Zombie Wrangling
Author: Brigantine
Characters: Fraser/Kowalski, Stella Kowalski, Diefenbaker, Shelly Litvak
Rating: PG-13
Length: 17,730
Summary: After Ray Vecchio disappears undercover into the wilds of Las Vegas, Fraser decides it’s high time to quit moping, and get on with life. Diefenbaker puts in his two cents, which is pretty much where the trouble starts.

A/N: This is a total fantasy version of Chicago, though Seamus is real. I swear.

My courageous betas, [personal profile] green_grrl, [personal profile] umbo and [personal profile] boxofdelights each contributed savvy observations and helpful suggestions, all of which proved useful, and for which I am most grateful! If this thing is still a disaster, that's all on me.



Inspector Thatcher’s newest paramour is a Belgian wool magnate by the name of Viktor Van Broeck. Over the past several weeks Viktor has developed the unwelcome habit of arriving unannounced at the consulate to take Inspector Thatcher out for impromptu lunches at the sort of expensive bistros which Benton knows require reservations well ahead of time. Each time, Viktor waits for the inspector at the consulate’s reception desk, attempting to make small talk with Benton, all the while smiling at him as though he knows something Benton doesn’t. Benton smiles back at him with polite resentment, while privately entertaining himself with colorful imaginings of Viktor Van Broeck stuck in a bear trap. In the Yukon. In February. Sometimes there is also a hungry wolverine.

This Friday evening Viktor arrives promptly at 7:00 p.m. to fetch Inspector Thatcher for an evening of dancing and fine dining in downtown Chicago. Viktor curls one arm about the inspector's shoulders before he helps her into her black swing coat.

"Meg, my darling, you glow as brightly as the autumn moonlight," Viktor croons, and Benton wonders why Viktor can’t pick up Meg, My Darling from her apartment and spare Benton the humiliation, which of course provides him his answer.

Inspector Thatcher stops at the door of Benton’s office for a moment on her way out of the consulate, and makes an awkward clicking noise behind her front teeth. “Fraser, it’s Friday night. Please tell me you have plans. Even Turnbull has plans." Her brow creases briefly. "Something about a tatting club. Whatever that might be, he's very excited about it."

“I’m considering my options,” Benton lies, and he smiles and smiles, and is still a villain, while Viktor Van Broeck escorts Inspector Thatcher out of the consulate and down the steps into the plush interior of a very long white Mercedes limousine.

As the limousine pulls away into Friday night traffic Benton drifts through the quiet lobby to stand on the consulate steps with his hands in his pockets. He searches the darkening purple sky past Chicago's persistent light pollution, aching for familiar constellations. He breathes deeply, pulling the cool night air and the fine ash of the city into his lungs. In June Benton and Diefenbaker briefly escaped the city for a satisfying working holiday up in the Northern Territories. They returned to Chicago to find their apartment building on West Racine burnt to cinders, and their friend Ray Vecchio gone, recruited away from the Chicago Police Department by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Benton tries to imagine Ray's current life in Las Vegas. He wonders what Ray is doing, who he is with, whether the undercover identity the FBI remade Ray into is still safely intact. He thinks about how very much he misses his friend.

Benton frowns and straightens his shoulders. Self-pity, his late father would have told him, does not become a Mountie, nor a Fraser, and for good or ill, Benton is both. Diefenbaker pads out to stand beside him. He whines softly and nudges his muzzle against Benton’s hand. Benton scratches him behind the ears, scolding gently, “I don’t know why you insisted on ‘Anna Karenina’ for your reading club assignment. You know how the Russians make you melancholy.”

It occurs to Benton later, as he’s lying on his cot in his office decidedly not sleeping, but rather staring up at his ceiling and sighing discontentedly, that his own sense of melancholy surely walks hand in hand with his recent feelings of purposelessness, now that he and Dief no longer visit the 27th Precinct to help Ray solve cases. Over the past three months Benton has felt himself subject to an increasing sense of inertia. He wonders how long it will take for his brain to fossilize beyond recovery.

He again recalls his father, Sergeant Robert Fraser, who was killed in the line of duty, and how he might scold Benton for lying here pitifully accepting his fate. There would likely follow a long, convoluted story, perhaps involving some fellow whom Sergeant Fraser knew forty years ago named Derek Sprocket, whose beloved pet wolverine, Carmine, had gone lost in the heart of winter, and Derek Sprocket, taking only his parka, his snowshoes, a boot knife, six pounds of dried smelt and a paperback copy of Sense and Sensibility, set out into the teeth of a raging blizzard to find him. Benton's father really could be quite tiresome, but he did on rare occasions surprise Benton with good advice.

“I am bored nigh unto death,” Benton declares into the darkness. He rolls over on his cot, finds the white blur of Diefenbaker curled nose to tail next to Benton’s desk, and asks, “When was the last time we apprehended a criminal?”

Diefenbaker pricks up his ears and opens his eyes. They gleam faintly gold in the trickle of light around the blinds from the street light outside.

“When was the last time,” Benton asks, "that we were actively engaged in helping to secure the safety of the people of Chicago, or even of our own neighborhood?"

Diefenbaker rolls upright, sighing nostalgically. He barks softly.

“Exactly.” Benton feels his heart speed up, a sense of purpose and resolve firming pleasantly in his chest. “We once caught a murderer — well, Ray inadvertently crushed him to death in a rock slide, but that’s neither here nor there — while I was blind and brain-rattled, and we were lost — misdirected, really, not so much lost, as — the point being that we were at a severe disadvantage, yet we prevailed.”

Diefenbaker yips excitedly and scrambles to his feet as Benton throws back the covers and sits up. “Dief, it’s up to us now. We’ll have to find our own adventures.” He glances at the glow-in-the dark hands of his old clock, and droops with disappointment. “Nearly midnight. Oh, bother. Perhaps tomorrow?“

Dief makes an impatient noise and paws at Benton’s knee. “You’re right,” Benton agrees. “No excuses. It’s time to take the metaphorical bull by its horns. Carpe diem. Tally ho!” He tugs thoughtfully at one ear lobe. “Any suggestions?”


Dogtown Chicago (proudly boasting more werewolves per square block than any other neighborhood in Illinois) never fully awakens before the evening stars rise. As Benton and Diefenbaker step off the number 42 bus neon signs glow brightly against the night, casting rainbow colors over the sidewalks, painting busy residents and strolling summer tourists alike as fantasies. The little round bulbs surrounding the Harvest Moon Cinema marquee are lit up brightly, running back and forth in a sprightly rhythm. The marquee itself proclaims a midnight showing of "Star Wars," followed by "Bringing Up Baby" at 2:30 a.m.

Benton peers between the large gold lettering arched across the wide front window of the Collector's Cavern, shading his eyes against the reflections of the glowing neon signs behind him, which include a 6-foot neon cowboy over Bartczak's Men's Shop (Alterations While You Wait. Long Neck? No Neck? We Can Suit You), and the yellow crescent moon rising over pulsing red entwined hearts of The Midnight Rendezvous Cafe and Friendship House (Featuring friendship by the night or by the hour. Reservations available. Visa and Mastercard accepted. We do parties!).

“This one?” Benton glances down to confirm with Diefenbaker, who dances in front of the door, warbling rapturously about the variety of fascinating smells wafting from within. A hand-scrawled sign attached to the window in yellowed, peeling tape asserts that the Collector's Cavern opened at 12:33 a.m.

A bright silver bell above the door announces Benton’s and Dief’s entrance into the shop, and Dief bumps against Benton’s knee as he darts past with a quick skitter of toenails. He quickly disappears into the dim mystery of the shop before Benton can caution him against licking anything. It's nearly as dark inside as it appeared from outside, though lamps from a wide span of decades perch on overflowing shelves, on cluttered tables, dangle on looped chains in the corners of the ceiling to cast puddles of warm light amongst the shadows. Half-glimpsed trinkets and treasures prick at Benton’s peripheral attention, plucking at his imagination like gems from the secret hoard of the Forty Thieves.

The barrel chest of a Conquistador's armor, fashioned of heavy steel, rusting at the edges, scraped and dented as though in some past it has seen raw battle lists leftward against an old ship's wheel with a corroded brass plate bearing the name, "Belle Étoile." Benton leans in close to study what seems to be an eight-inch axe mark through the center of the armor's breastplate, the edges of the score rough with what he’s fairly certain is not entirely rust.

From the corner of his eye Benton catches sight of Dief’s tail, held up jauntily, feathers wafting as he cruises the dim, cluttered aisles like a hairy shark. Benton is about to call out to him when a gravelly voice behind him says, "Y’like that one, do you?"

Benton startles and turns to find a man at his elbow. In one fist he grips the basket hilt of an old Scottish broadsword, in the other a red kerchief. His eyes glint up at Benton from beneath bushy white eyebrows. He is broad shouldered, bandy-legged, wiry. Thick grey hair swirls into tufts on his head, as though he's just been through a windstorm. The man's eyes are green, shining brightly in the shadows cast on his lined face by the scattered lighting.

He pokes at the blade with a long, gnarled forefinger, the kerchief wafting in his fist. "Look at that rust there. Damn tourists come in here, start hollering like pirates and waving the blades around as though they ain't real. Next thing you know one of 'em's cryin' and bleedin' all over the floor. Jesus, you know how bad blood is for old steel?"

Benton tries not to laugh at the misfortune of others, but he can't help smiling, just a little. "Worse than vinegar."

The old man grunts approvingly. "Damn right." He shifts the broadsword to his left hand and holds out his right toward Benton. “Seamus Lynch, proprietor.”

“Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” Benton offers. Seamus’s fingers are long, callused where they curl around Benton’s hand, and his grip is strong. Benton gets the odd feeling that the old gent is holding back.

Seamus swipes the red kerchief over the long, slender blade of the broadsword, eyes the blade appraisingly, and then shoves it point first into a battered brass umbrella stand with a clang that makes Benton wince. Seamus turns smartly and strides toward the rear of the shop, calling, “C’mere!” over his shoulder. He doesn’t look back to see whether Benton is following.

Seamus veers past an old ship’s wooden figurehead in the likeness of a what might be a Greek goddess, a jumbled stack of old clocks gathering dust in a crate that according to the stencil on the side once held dynamite, turns a corner past a long glass case filled with a confusing jumble of items including old pistols, older daggers, beaded moccasins, campaign buttons from past US presidential elections, Zippo lighters, and a bust, approximately 13.5 cm high of Sarah Bernhart, draped in a rose gold bracelet set with small diamonds that glint at Benton from their settings like tiny lighthouses.

At what surely must be the very back of the shop — though Benton is having a difficult time estimating. He feels a bit like a mouse in a maze — Seamus arrives at a tall, heavy black bookcase standing on thick feet carved into the shapes of reptilian claws. He harrumphs thoughtfully to himself, peering intently at the books lining the shelves of the big bookcase. Finally he snorts triumphantly, grabs one volume from the shelf and turns to Benton.

“Here,” he says, blowing the dust off the top edge as he jabs the book toward Benton.

The green cloth cover of the slender volume in Benton’s hands is scuffed about the edges, but the boards and the binding are sound, and its pages are neat and pale, only faintly tanned by the century since its publication in 1895. Benton turns the book in his hands to read the title, Forest, Lake and Prairie: Twenty Years of Frontier Life in Western Canada, 1842-1862, by John McDougall. “This is a lovely book,” Benton says, petting the cover gently. “First editions are rare.” He hardly dares ask the price.

Seamus offers, "Sawbuck, and it's yours.”

Benton squeaks, "Re—" He clears his throat. "Really? So little?"

Seamus grins, green-eyed and snaggle-toothed. "Sure, kid. I like ya."


It’s not until later, when Benton is turning the key in the consulate’s front door that Benton notices the item in Dief’s mouth. Dief dashes through the door ahead of him, but Benton catches up to find Dief hiding under the desk in his office. Benton pushes away the chair and crouches in front of Dief, who looks anywhere but at Benton. One would think the underside of Benton’s desk as fascinating as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Benton sputters, “Diefenbaker, did you shoplift something from the Collector’s Cavern? What on earth possessed you? Hand that over right now. We’ll go back tomorrow and return it. And there will be an apology!”

Diefenbaker sighs woefully and draws the item out from behind his right hindquarters. Benton tugs it from between Dief’s jaws. “How did you manage to hide that all the way here on the bus?” He shakes his head. “Never mind.”

Benton straightens and goes to sit at the edge of his cot, wiping the bit of wolf saliva from the cover of the book with the cuff of his Henley. The book is small, just over half as tall as Benton’s open hand, and bound in soft brown leather. The edges of the cover are scuffed and worn in a way which, when Benton considers its small size, makes him wonder if it was meant to fit easily into a rucksack, or even small enough to be carried in the pocket of a coat. As Benton investigates he discovers first, to his surprise and consternation that it contains more pages when it is open than when it is closed; second, that the pages are old vellum, hand-lettered in India ink, with small, careful sketches scattered throughout.

Diefenbaker, pressed up against Benton’s leg the better to see, glances up at him with a concerned whine, and snuffles at the open book. Benton closes it, and it becomes thin, seemingly hardly a hundred pages in thickness. When Benton opens it again it suddenly gains hundreds more pages. It even feels heavier in Benton’s hands. He looks down at Dief. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

Dief wriggles excitedly, and noses at the pages. “It called to you?” Benton takes a thoughtful breath and rubs at one eyebrow. “I’d suspect you were letting your imagination run away with you, except that the evidence suggests otherwise. It appears to be some sort of supernatural field guide.”

In no particular order, as though catalogued as they were encountered, Benton finds entries for pixie, hobgoblin, harpy, troll, tree nymph, leshy. "Look Dief, here are several entries regarding zombies. Hypnotized zombies. Drugged zombies. Spiritual trance zombies. Actual corpse zombies.”

Diefenbaker shoots Benton a doubtful look. “Actual corpse zombies,” Benton repeats. “That’s what it says. Let’s see… Options for removal. One: Negotiate with necromancer to remove animation spell from corpse. Two: Kill the necromancer, the magic will dissipate, and the corpse can be safely re-interred, though adding salt to the grave as a precaution against lingering residual magic is recommended. Three: If the necromancer cannot be persuaded, killed, or contacted, counteractive measures can be taken directly.” Benton’s eyebrows rise as he skims the instructions. “Really?”

Diefenbaker noses at the instructions and whuffles at Benton. “No, I didn’t expect that at all,” Benton agrees. “A gallon of lime Jello and a tablespoon of gunpowder seem straightforward enough, but as you and I are well aware, moose are not known for being light on their feet.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Seamus’s shop, when Benton and Diefenbaker arrive at 12:35 a.m. Saturday night at the address Benton remembers does not appear to be where Benton and Diefenbaker left it.

Benton blinks, revisits the mental note he made of the Collector’s Cavern’s street number, and stands back to the edge of the sidewalk so that he can get a proper look at the addresses of the shops to the north and south of where Seamus’s should be. At number 619 to the south is Belt, Buckle and Candy. Its generous front window displays four mannequins clad in... Benton takes a closer look and blushes furiously as he finds that the seamwork he's studying belongs to a red leather corset modeled by a very much live shop girl, who smiles at him as she laces up the bodice on one of the three mannequins. "Ah," Benton observes. "Very fine. Er, very fine stitchwork. Admirable." Dief huffs and rolls his eyes.

"Yes she's very pretty," Benton admits, "but I didn't intend to stick my nose—plate glass notwithstanding — never mind."

Number 623 to the north is a three-story building with a small tower forming a partial fourth floor at the rear, and a tall willow tree growing in the walled yard behind it. The tips of some of the willow's branches overhang the alley.

Seamus's shop was number 621, but at the moment in place of where number 621 should be there gapes an empty alley that cuts between the buildings all the way through this block to another street entirely. Benton can see the glow from the street lights and the cruise of traffic along the street at the other end.

“Diefenbaker,” Benton says, not taking his eyes off the empty space that continues to remain an alleyway, “am I misremembering Seamus’s address, or is this…” Benton gestures toward the alley and glances at Dief, who has shifted up against Benton’s right knee and peers down the alley with a befuddled wrinkle of eyebrows. Dief glances up at Benton and whines.

Benton nods, marginally relieved to find that if he’s losing his marbles, he’s not alone. “Well then. I suppose we’ll just have to ask one of the neighbors.”

When Benton pulls open the large front door of the ‘The Rat’s Breath Saloon and Boardinghouse,’ he is nearly knocked over by the hurried exit of a group of young men; a laughing, jostling jumble of blue jeans, flannel shirts and heavy work boots. All five are tall, broad-shouldered lads with sturdy jaws and sharp cheekbones, and bright, sparking eyes. The dark-haired young man in front is tallest and most broad-shouldered of all, guaranteed to catch the eye. The two youths in the rear hastily tuck in their shirt tails as the group swerves, cheerfully offering Benton apologies as they tumble past him in a citrus-scented waft and roil down the sidewalk like a pack of unruly young hounds. Diefenbaker skitters after them, warbling a greeting, and the last of the young men pauses to scratch Dief’s back with rough affection before whirling away to catch up with his fellows. Dief watches them go for a moment, then trots back to Benton, whuffling happily.

After quickly checking for the all-clear, Benton stands aside to let Dief dart through the door ahead of him. “Werewolves? Really? They look like lumberjacks.”

When Benton steps inside The Rat’s Breath he is immediately surrounded by the smell of bacon, pancakes and coffee, the pleasant clinking of flatware and china, and the low rumble of comfortable conversation. The Rat’s Breath’s interior looks like a combination of movie sets from “Robin Hood” and “Rio Bravo.” He half expects either Errol Flynn or John Wayne to belly up to the bar, except that the bar is fronted by padded bar stools, and people eating hash browns.

“Well come on in if you’re coming in, kid.”

An older gentleman behind the counter eyes Benton with a sharp half grin around the stub of an unlit cigar clenched betweeen his teeth to one side. “Your hairy little friend’s already made himself at home. Sit down. Have some pie.”

“Be careful,” a voice calls out from a corner near the back. “Shel’s been experimenting again.”

A wave of easy laughter passes through the room. The man at the counter shoots a narrow-eyed glare toward the back and shifts the cigar stub to the other side of his mouth. “Philistines!”

Benton sidles between a large gentleman eating what looks like three large biscuits covered with a dark gravy that smells wonderfully like venison, and half-sits on the empty stool next to him. “Actually,” he begins, “I was hoping you could help me with some information.”

The man behind the counter regards Benton doubtfully. “Yeah? It’ll cost ya.”

Benton’s eyebrows rise. “I was merely going to inquire about the shop next door.”

“You’re not a cop?”

“Er, not as such, no.” When the man behind the counter raises a skeptical eyebrow, Benton extends his hand. “Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I first came to Chicago — never mind. I have absolutely no jurisdiction here outside of my previous association with the Chicago Police Department, and I assure you, I am visiting your establishment entirely as a private citizen.”

The man behind the counter accepts Benton’s hand with an amused expression. “Shelly Litvak. Proprietor and den mother.”

A young woman, dark-haired, fragile-boned, and barely out of her teens as far as Benton can see, pauses behind Shelly to jab him in the back with the edge of a plate full of sausages and mashed potatoes. In her other hand she carries a basket of what smells like toast, covered with a red and white towel. “Hey.”

Shelly clucks, long-suffering. “This is Betsy. My waitress, and my cross to bear.”

“Ha ha, the vampire makes a funny,” Betsy says. “I’m also his accountant. Pleased to meet you. Have some pie. But not today’s ‘very special’ pie.”

Shelly’s shoulders droop. “But it smells fine,” he argues.

“Yes,” Betsy says, as she winds her way toward a pair of bearded gentlemen seated off to the left, “but it tastes very peculiar, which you can never figure out for yourself before inflicting it on some unsuspecting patron, because solid food doesn’t agree with you, does it?”

Shelly grimaces and looks at Benton. “Dryads. So critical. Like a splinter, straight to my undead heart that goes. Now, what’s this about a question? Try the blueberry pie. It’s just blueberry, I swear. It’s good.”

“I’m sure it is, but I didn’t actually come here for pie. You see the reason—“ Benton starts, and then the very large, doe-eyed man seated to his right elbows him gently and nods encouragingly. Benton decides, “Blueberry pie would be lovely, thank you.”

Shelly yells Benton’s choice over his shoulder toward the kitchen pass-through window behind him, then turns back to Benton. “Shoot.”

“I was wondering about the shop next door. It was… well, you see, it was there last night, but it doesn’t seem to be there now. At the moment.” Benton winces faintly.

Betsy squeaks, “The Belt, Buckle and Candy is missing? Where will I buy underwear?”

Shelly’s eyebrow rise. “Really?”

Betsy sniffs at him. “I have a life.”

Shelly grins encouragingly. "Oh, do tell!"

“No. No, the Belt, Buckle and, er, Candy is still there, it’s just that…” Benton tugs uncomfortably at one ear. He feels like an idiot, but there’s nothing for it but to go forward, so he blurts out, “Diefenbaker, that's my wolf, is something of a bibliophile, and in a moment of weakness I’m afraid he appropriated this book, or, the fact is, he says the book called to him, which seemed a bit far-fetched when he was explaining it to me last night, until we realized that it does appear to be a volume markedly out of the ordinary. At any rate, tonight we’ve come to return it, only there appears to be an empty alleyway where Collector’s Cavern was last night, and we couldn’t see the shop anywhere.” Benton pulls the small, leather-bound book from the pocket of his old leather jacket and places it on the counter as Exhibit A.

“Holy crap,” Shelly wheezes, eyeing the little book with an expression of goggle-eyed alarm.

“Order up!” the cook yelps behind Shelly. He slings a plate onto the pass-through and turns back to his grill, unconcerned.

Shelly reaches blindly, and sets the plate in front of Benton. The pie has been warmed, and the smell wafts invitingly as purple juices ooze onto the white china.

The man with the gentle doe-eyes next to Benton asks, “It’s back? That’s it there? The Book is back?”

Shelly flaps a bar towel at him. “Ssshhhh, you wanna start a panic?”

“What’s back?”

A man has appeared next to Shelly, as if summoned from the ether. He is lean and sharp, black jeans hugging narrow hips. The rolled up sleeves of his black t-shirt reveal long arms, wiry and cable strong, the lower half of a red and black tattoo bright across the pale skin of one shoulder. The man’s hair looks damp, bristling over his scalp in dark blond spikes. He smells of oranges. Or maybe grapefruit. The scent is familiar. Benton fails miserably at not staring.

“Ray!” Shelly bleats in an anxious whisper. “The Book is back!”

Betsy darts behind the counter and peers at the little leather-bound book, her brown eyes wide with consternation. “Holy cow,” she breathes. She looks up at Benton. “Where’d you get that?”

Shelly answers before Benton can. “Seamus Lynch.”

“Oh golly. Seamus is back?”

Ray edges up next to Betsy and regards the little book challengingly. He looks up at Benton. His eyes are large and blue, maybe green, Benton can’t really tell, but they are luminous and lovely, and Benton breathes in that sharp, citrus scent, the soft musk of clean skin and a faint hint of leather underneath, and oh dear, he’s staring again.

“Seamus sell you that?”

“What? No,” Benton says, trying desperately to focus on the apparent crisis at hand, and not the sharp lines of Ray’s face, the luscious curve of his lower lip. Benton scolds himself and shakes off the distraction. “My wolf, my friend, that is, Diefenbaker, acquired it.“

Dief has appeared from wherever he was likely cadging treats from soft-hearted patrons, and nudges persistently against Benton’s knee.

“Acquired?” Ray leans across the bar to look down at Diefenbaker. “Hey, furface. You shoplift this from the old dragon?”

“Dragon?”

“Maybe,” Shelly allows. “Nobody’s sure exactly what Seamus Lynch is, but he always seems to show up with The Book just before trouble — that’s Trouble With a Capital T — hits the fan.”

Ray explains, “Last time Seamus sold The Book to a tourist from Boise, who left it behind at Averil Denton’s new age shop, and three days later we ended up with a homicidal maniac witch who'd been Averil's boyfriend back in eighth grade, and still held a grudge. Adders everywhere. It was a miracle no one died.”

“He tried to turn Doug Leialoha into a rodent,” Betsy tells Benton. "Dougie didn't like that."

Shelly snorts, “Even if the spell had worked, he’d have been confronted with a very angry 200-pound mouse. How is that better than an angry 200-pound Bouncer?”

"Shoulders this big," Betsy tells Benton, spanning her palms wide in the air. "Shoulders like —“

Shelly interrupts, “Wait. ’Dougie,’ did you say?”

“Shush. Crisis here, Shel.”

He pats Betsy on the shoulder. “Sure. We’ll talk later.”

“...surfeit of serpents,” Ray continues, gesturing to reinforce the concept. “A plethora. An over-abundance of scaly slitheriness. Way, way too many snakes. It was worse than lamias.”

“I’ve never met a lamia,” Benton says, mesmerized by the movements of Ray’s long hands. He remembers with a grateful jolt that he’s got blueberry pie on a plate in front of him and manages a quick bite, finding to his delight that it really is delicious. Also that it keeps him, if temporarily, from babbling like a fool. His grandmother used to claim that a cup of tea and a slice of pie were a fine beginning to any solution. Her advice was usually reliable.

“Lamias are short-tempered and venomous, but they can usually be reasoned with. Regular old poisonous serpents, not so much.” Ray shrugs. “Point is, we need to figure out what’s coming, and deal with that.” He extends a hand toward Benton. “Ray Kowalski. Bouncer of the Dog town Watch, and private sex therapist.”

Ray’s grip is warm and firm, his fingers long, slender around Benton’s hand. Benton's skin tingles with the phantom brush of electricity, as though Ray’s energy flows in a live current across his skin. “Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” Benton indulges in another slow inhalation of Ray's scent, and struggles to resist the powerful urge to crawl across the counter toward him.

“Mountie, huh? I heard about you. Welsh says you, y’know, like to think outside the box.” Ray offers him a slow, thoughtful smile.

It’s a wonderful smile, Benton thinks dreamily.

Shelly scolds, “Ray! No sex-mojoing the customers. Especially not when we’ve got a Book Situation on our hands!”

“What mojo? I am mojo’d out and magicked up, filled to the rim with magical vim. Also on my way to Watch, so no, no mojo here.” Ray gives Benton a sly look. “Maybe another time, though.”

“Ah jeez, look at him, the poor idiot looks drugged. Benton!” Shelly flaps the bar towel at him.

“What?” Benton blinks at Shelly. He blushes, frowning at Ray. “Sex therapist indeed.”

Ray’s broad grin is bright, dangerous, and entirely unapologetic. He turns to Betsy. “Hey, werewolves are thirsty work. Grab me a hot one, will ya?”

Benton places the citrus scents. “Werewolves.“ He gestures toward the saloon door. “You mean — were those — the young men Diefenbaker and I passed on the way in?“

Betsy counts out six candies from a 2-pound bag of M&Ms and hands the large white coffee mug to Ray, who smirks at Benton before taking a slow, careful drink, eyes closing in pleasure. “Unless another pack snuck in here without Ian knowing, yep, that would be Ian Connolly's bunch. Werewolves like to do a lot of things in packs, what can I say?”

Benton boggles, “There were five of them!” He feels himself blushing hotly. Blushing, and thinking, his imagination running wild. He takes a deep breath and imagines Tibetan monks. And snow. Lots and lots of snow.

“Benton. Kid,” Shelly says consolingly, “it’s just sex magic. Ray’s part incubus.”

“Plus a little of this, and a little of that,” Ray says, licking dark residue from his upper lip.

Benton watches in helpless fascination.

“I’m a magical mix, a bag o’ tricks. Hex 57.” Ray smacks his lips happily, takes two steps, plants one hand palm down on the counter, and hops over it easily.

“Show-off,” Shelly grumbles.

Ray gives a backward wave. “Nice to meet you, Constable Benton Fraser. See ya, Shel. Don’t start the apocalypse without me.”

Shelly calls after him, “Sure, fine, we’ll just sit here and try to figure out Seamus’s dire warning while you go out and play with Captain Douglas MacShoulders and your buddies on the Watch, shall we?”

But Ray is already out the door, the little brass bell jingling merrily behind him.

Shelly makes an irritated noise and rolls his unlit half-cigar between his forefinger and thumb. “I don’t suppose Seamus left a note in that thing?”

“A note in what thing?”

Benton glances to his right, to find a slender woman with ice blue eyes and shoulder length blonde hair approaching the counter from the direction of the staircase to the second floor. Benton is so much more accustomed to seeing her in high heels and expensive suits that he at first hardly recognizes her in a blue t-shirt that reads, “Houses of the Holy” on the front, blue jeans worn white along the tops of the thighs, and bright pink high-top sneakers. “Ms. Kowalski?”

Assistant State’s Attorney Stella Kowalski raises one slender eyebrow and regards Benton with mild surprise. “Constable Fraser. Isn’t it a little past your bedtime?”

“The Book’s back,” Shelly blurts.

Stella Kowalski looks down at the troubling little leather-bound volume lying quietly on the counter next to Benton’s pie, then she looks up at Shelly. “Well, hell,” she says.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s just shy of 6 a.m., and Fraser is in the consulate kitchen resting his head on the cool, smooth surface of the kitchen table. To Benton’s left, somewhere nearabouts the back of his head a bowl of oatmeal, optimistically enhanced with butter and brown sugar, sits abandoned and slowly congealing into a mottled grey and brown clump. Before him The Book lies on the table, the gold letters of its title glinting softly in the early light. He glares suspiciously at it.

“Why us, Dief? Or more specifically, why you?”

Diefenbaker rises from his place near the refrigerator and trots over to rest his chin on Benton’s knee. He sniffs at Benton’s blue jeans and whuffles softly. Benton rubs his ears companionably. “Us, then? All right, but the question of why remains, though Shel did mention that The Book has historically found its way into the hands of whomever will eventually find themselves at ground zero, so to speak. I don’t mind admitting I find that somewhat worrying. How did Seamus even know us? We’ve never —“

Benton sits back and looks Diefenbaker in the eyes. “You never wandered that far afield while I was at the precinct with Ray, did you? No, of course not. Chicago Transit Authority doesn’t allow dogs, or even half-wolves on buses without a human-ish companion. You’ve complained before about what an inconvenience that is. I don’t blame you, either. It’s very short-sighted.”

Diefenbaker licks at Benton’s hand and whuffles inquiringly.

Benton rubs at his chin, feeling the beginnings of beard stubble. “I’m afraid basketball down at the Boys’ Club is out of the question until this afternoon, Dief. I am too pooped to pop, as Grandfather might say, and as Shel wants us and The Book—is it just me, or do you hear capital letters every time someone says, ‘The Book’?—back at the Rat’s Breath tonight, I’m going to have to catch up this morning. I suppose I’ll have to black out the window with a blanket.”

Benton stands up and stretches, tilting his head to make his cervical vertebrae crackle pleasantly. “First a wash-up, then bed. Tonight will make three sleepless nights in a row, with tomorrow being Monday. I’m concerned I won’t be at my best.” He imagines Inspector Thatcher’s Disapproving Expression, and winces.

Benton tucks a blanket over the curtain rod, and jimmies a few straight pins between the window frame and the wall to tuck the blanket tight. The room is dark now, and Sunday-quiet, and Benton is tired, but he finds that his mind won’t be still.

Ray, Betsy and two boarders live on the second floor of the Rat’s Breath, Shelly on the third, and Stella rents the single tower room beneath the widow’s walk as a sort of hideaway, an office away from the office. Ray calls it the Fortress of Justice. He’d tried to get Stella to call it the Bat Cave, but Stella is not a fan of the Dark Knight.

"I've always been more of a Wonder Woman fan."

Benton would like to blame Shelly's pie for his inability to keep his own embarrassing secrets, but then he would have to thank it for Stella's surprising willingness to share, when in the past she has always struck Benton as cool, aloof, and more than a little intimidating.

Assistant State’s Attorney Stella Kowalski, it turns out, is Ray Kowalski’s ex-wife. They have been best friends since they were children, and were married long enough to realize that certain aspects of Ray’s incubus heritage made it harder for Stella to be his wife than it was for her to be his friend.

"I had a hard time convincing Ray to let the marriage go, but in the end he realized that saving the friendship was the higher priority." ASA Kowalski took a dainty bite of Shelly's blueberry pie.

"I would imagine in your profession you've learned to be highly persuasive." Benton meant it as a compliment, but as so often seems to happen he apparently said the wrong thing.

ASA Kowalski gave him a stern look. "Constable Fraser, Ray may not be college smart, but he's people smart, and he's not scared of a fight. He graduated from the Chicago Police Academy, but he's been on the Watch since he was sixteen, and in the end he decided he didn't want to give that up, because this is his ground, and these are his people. If he hadn't been willing to see the sense in ending the marriage, nothing I or anybody could have said would have moved him."

By way of apology Benton confessed thoughtlessly, "I've had feelings for my commanding officer for over a year now. We seem to alternate between a bumbling sort of flirtation and actively disliking one another. Though she did kiss me once, on the roof of a runaway train with a bomb in it."

ASA Kowalski blinked at him. "Wow. That's awkward and complicated."

Shelly, who had been quietly wiping down the same spot on the counter top for the past 15 minutes sighed, "Oh, kiddo."

"It was very confusing." And because he was tired, and overwhelmed, had possibly been influenced by an attractive incubus and apparently possesses an unfortunate tendency toward brief fits of perfectly ill-timed honesty Benton added, "And before that I fell in love with a beautiful bank robber who murdered at least two people, almost got me killed, and nearly cost my best friend his career."

"Okay," Shelly said, gesturing with his half-cigar, "that beats me passing out drunk and waking up turned to the night side in an alley in Abilene. I didn't think much could, but you've done it."

ASA Kowalski wiped a smudge of blueberry juice from the corner of her mouth and said to Benton, "I read about that. Sort of." She shot him a small, quick smile. "Ordinarily I've got a low tolerance for bullshit, but your friend Vecchio's got a real gift."

Benton replied, "I'm afraid I find myself in over my head again, er, situationally-speaking. I have no idea what I'm expected to do here."

Leo the cook passed Shelly a cup of hot chamomile tea through the kitchen window. Shelly handed it to Benton and said, "Seamus didn't sell you The Book. He gave it to you via your wolfy buddy. You're one of us, kid. The Book came to you for a reason. Whatever it is, we'll see you through."


And now, because of Seamus Lynch and a strange, portentous little book, and Ray Kowalski with his mesmerizing blue eyes and wicked smile, Benton finds himself calling Assistant State's Attorney Stella Kowalski simply, Stella.

She's still intimidating.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shelly, Benton, and a Voudun practitioner friend of Shelly’s named Momma Lolla are huddled at one end of the dining counter, near the staircase that leads up to the boarding house portion of the Rat’s Breath. Momma and Shelly study The Book between them, occasionally asking Benton questions, looking for a connection to one of the myriad super-mundane beings described in The Book. Momma Lolla holds Benton's hand in the hope that she might get a reading from him.

Momma Lolla’s eyes are dark and kind, and her voice is soothing. "If you can relax," she cajoled when they began the evening, "and let your mind open, I might pick up a hint if one of the entries in The Book stirs a memory." She smiled and gently tapped his forehead. "Look at what's here, but don't think so hard. Let your thoughts float around, easy."

The Book, filled though it is with page after page of the author’s descriptions and illustrations of fae beings from all across the wide world, fails to hold Benton’s complete attention. It is a unique volume, drenched in age and magic, a veritable encyclopedia of the fae, the demonic, the angelic, the Elder races, beings that Benton has never heard of, let alone met, and yet Benton finds his attention wandering ever leftward.

Ray is due shortly to join the other Bouncers on the Watch, but at the moment he is helping Betsy wait tables. The way he swerves between the crowded tables on his way back to the counter seems as though he's dancing his way through the saloon. It's faintly obscene. It's very attractive. Benton knows Ray isn't doing it consciously, and for Benton that's the hell of it.

“…and so they cut down my perfectly healthy hundred-year-old maple tree because it was raising the asphalt,” Betsy tells Ray as he accepts a plate heaped high with bacon — just bacon — from Leo the cook, and passes it to her. She sets it on the counter and fills a coffee mug from the carafe. “It’s what trees do, Ray. They give shelter, they give oxygen, and they break up asphalt. I cried for a solid week before my sisters showed up with a new sapling.”

She plucks the plate of bacon off the counter, hoists the mug of coffee out of the way of two women who have just come through the door and makes her way back to the table full of Dwarves in the right corner, who are animatedly discussing renovation plans for a local playground. Benton tries not to stare at the two women who sit down at the end of the counter, but it's hard not to look. They have dark, almond-shaped eyes and pearlescent green skin. They are tall, and slender. One of them has got several small silver rings through her left eyebrow, and the other has dyed her long hair bright magenta-red. Benton thinks they might be wood-elves, but he fears his observation of them is already bordering on the impolite, and he doesn't dare ask.

“So that’s how you got the big willow in the back here?” Ray pours himself another cup of coffee, adds the usual chocolate candies, and takes a careful swallow.

Betsy weaves her way gracefully back toward the counter, casually slapping a young satyr on the back of the head when his hand wanders toward her slender waist as she passes. The young fellow cheerfully accepts the reprimand he deserves, but cringes a bit when Ray shoots him a hard look.

“1968 that was,” Betsy says.

From across the street at the Midnight Rendezvous (Live Dinner theatre Friday through Sunday nights 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.) there is the sound of shouting, angry yelling, and an awful lot of glass shattering at once.

“Golly! What’s all that about?”

Ray swears sharply, leaps over the bar, and Benton lunges from his seat next to Momma Lolla at the counter, heedlessly following Ray out into the street.

It is, as Captain Doug Leialoha of the Watch will boast later, a hell of a party. Ray gleefully dubs it a knucklefest extraordinaire and then, as the Watch are rounding up the instigators — a handful of brothers of the Delta Kappa Phi fraternity of University of Illinois Chicago apparently having had a strong philosophical divergence with a gang of young bog elves from Skokie with regards to the evening’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and congratulating themselves on yet another fine showing in the service of Justice, Dogtown sovereignty, and having a good time Ray, bruised and bloody-nosed and grinning as though he's just stumbled over the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, grasps Benton by the front of his shirt, hesitates for an uncertain heartbeat, and then kisses Benton ever so gently in the middle of the broken furniture and the blood spatter and urges, “Sleep with me tonight. I don’t mean sex. I mean sleep with me. Be safe, don’t be bleeding on a bus back to downtown Chicago at two in the morning. I hate the idea of you bleeding on a bus at two in the morning.”

Benton feels the parameters of his life shifting, cracking outward. He says, “Yes. Yes, I’ll come with you.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When Benton and Diefenbaker sneak into the consulate on Monday morning Benton notes that the reception desk is currently unmanned, and he experiences a thrill of optimism that he and Dief might be able to slip past and make it to Benton’s office without being seen. His fragile hope is dashed when Constable Turnbull pops up from behind the desk with a small, “Aha! There you are,” while brandishing a shiny paperclip between finger and thumb.

Turnbull spots Benton, blinks in surprise and yelps, “Constable Fraser! Have you been in an accident?”

Benton freezes, realizing a moment too late that he’s silhouetted against the open doorway, though Diefenbaker has managed to slink around the edge of the room, pressed against the wall. It appears that at least Dief might be able to make it to safety before being spotted, until Inspector Thatcher emerges from the parlor and her right knee bumps hard into Diefenbaker’s nose. Dief recoils, scrabbling backward against the paneling in an effort to make himself smaller, but it’s no use.

Inspector Thatcher skitters a few steps away, glancing quickly between Diefenbaker, Turnbull, and Benton. She frowns. “Constable Fraser, where have you been? Why aren’t you in uniform? Good Lord, you look as though you’ve been…” She waves one hand in the air, looking bewildered and annoyed. “As though you’ve been dragged through a knothole backwards!”

Benton is reminded of his sixteen-year-old self, caught sneaking back into this grandparents’ house after spending the night with Mark Smithbauer out in the Smithbauers' barn, getting high as a pair of kites on Mark’s uncle’s moonshine. The swooping feeling in his stomach at the moment bears a striking similarity. He tries to think of an excuse, some plausible scenario other than the remarkable truth, but he is, as Ray Vecchio might put it, running on fumes, and after his brain wastes precious moments whirling like a drunken lemming he draws himself up straight and says —

“Is that a black eye?" Inspector Thatcher gapes. "Your whole face! What happened to your whole face? Constable, were you brawling?

“Yup!” Benton amends quickly, “Yes. Sir. Yes, Sir.” He presses his lips together against the grin threatening to break through at the memory of all the things he’s done in the last 9 hours, and how much he doesn’t regret any of it. “Diefenbaker and I visited, well, the fact is, we were in Dogtown. Last night.”

Turnbull wheezes, looking scandalized.

Inspector Thatcher raises an eyebrow, her mouth set disapprovingly. “Dogtown. And?”

“Aaand there was an incident.” Boy howdy, was there an incident. “An altercation, of a sort.” In a brothel-slash-improvisational theatre. “And I was concerned for the safety of civilian bystanders.” Mostly true. 62% in favor is a clear majority, and most of the bystanders were honest working men and women, some of them personal friends of Ray’s. “Aaand even though Dogtown is for ordinary matters policed by the Watch, and therefore not Chicago Police Department, nor, certainly, RCMP responsibility, as an officer of the law overall which, as I know you are well aware governs both fae and human members of our society with only a handful of modifications for — well, I felt compelled to join the Bouncers when they responded to the, er, cries of alarm. And the breaking china.” It was glorious. And afterward Ray Kowalski kissed me. First in front of his friends on the Watch and again this morning in front of a cab driver, and I’d like very much to do that again, though next time perhaps involving less bleeding beforehand.

Inspector Thatcher regards him soberly while Turnbull sinks slowly into the receptionist’s chair like a silent film heroine with the vapors. Diefenbaker makes an admirable attempt at disappearing into the floor next to the baseboards. A tense silence settles. Benton imagines the opening theme music to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and stifles an extremely imprudent giggle.

Benton fancies that one side of the inspector’s mouth twitches upward. “Uh-huh. In that case, I can only hope you acquitted yourself well in the circumstances?”

Benton straightens his shoulders. “I believe I upheld the honor of the regiment, Sir.”

Inspector Thatcher nods briskly. “Very well. Get yourself cleaned up, constable, and then you can relieve Turnbull.”

Benton nods back, “Yes, Sir,” and he and Diefenbaker quickly make their escape toward the cramped sanctuary of Benton’s office.

Behind them, Inspector Thatcher asks Constable Turnbull in a deceptively mild tone, “Constable, why did I just receive a call from the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, wondering whether the Canadian government’s casual attitude towards the enjoyment of marijuana extends to the use of LSD at the Canadian consulate?”

Diefenbaker immediately curls up beneath Benton’s cot, left as it was from the evening before. Benton glances at it longingly before diving into his closet for his shaving kit. “Don’t get too comfortable,” he warns Dief. “It’s a workday, and I’ve got to put that away when I get back.”

Caroline Pinsent Fraser, Benton's mother, died when Benton was six years old. Because his father was a Mountie, and because it was necessary for him to range wide and far-flung to patrol the vast acreage of the Yukon under his care, young Benton was raised by his grandparents; kind, sensible people who brought Benton up with the belief that, according to the habits and mores of a civilized society, problems were best solved by thoughtful discourse and careful planning, whereas very few of Life’s complications could be solved satisfactorily by a punch to the head. As Benton stares at his reflection in the consulate’s downstairs bathroom mirror, taking in his bruised cheekbone, his split lip, and his hair, which is clean thanks to Ray's shower, but was slept on wet and proved impossible to tame this morning and now appears as though Benton stuck his finger into an electrical outlet, he can't help but wonder whether there might be a flaw in Civilized Society’s reasoning, because Benton hasn’t felt this honest in his own skin since he came south.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On Tuesday afternoon Benton sends Mrs. Li and her husband into the parlor to look over the emigration paperwork they’ll need in order to join their son Steven, currently living in Toronto. He looks up as the front doors of the consulate open to admit a familiar figure, briefly silhouetted against the late afternoon light.

Ray is dressed in jeans, his scuffed black boots, and a grey t-shirt worn thin with use. It hugs his shoulders and his chest lightly, reminding Benton of the feel of Ray’s pectorals curved warm beneath his palms while Benton kissed him.

“Good afternoon, Ray.”

“Hey,” Rays says. He jitters restlessly for a moment in front of the reception desk, then darts forward, landing with brisk near-precision in the visitor’s chair. He grimaces and growls briefly as one foot gets hung up around the left front leg of the chair.

Benton smiles at him, loopy with affection. “I didn't know you wear glasses.”

"I don't see so good in the daylight," Ray says, staring nervously at Benton from behind the square black rims of his glasses and fidgeting with a pencil from Benton's desk.

"It's good to see you," Benton ventures.

Goofy is the term Benton's grandmother would use for the smile Ray gives him. "Yeah. You too." Then Ray huffs, collecting himself before turning serious.

“It’s Frank Orsini,” Ray says. “Alderman Frank Orsini. It’s gotta be him. You’re involved, and Stella’s involved, and he called her up about an hour ago and asked her to meet him for breakfast tomorrow morning. Who the hell asks somebody they barely know for a breakfast date? It’s stupid.”

Benton argues mildly, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, Ray.”

Ray boggles, blue eyes wide. “With the person who’s trying to put you in jail?”

Benton rubs at one eyebrow. “Ray, could you backtrack a few steps? Why is Stella attempting to put Alderman Orsini in jail?” Benton himself is backtracking quickly, his memories whirling with a case he and Ray Vecchio began nearly a year ago, but could never find evidence enough to finish.

“Old case of yours,” Ray confirms, and Benton feels his hopes kindle.

Ray wrinkles his nose. “See, a couple of weeks ago Stella was at one of those charity shindigs where all the local uppity-ups donate a hundred dollars to eat prime rib and tiny carrots, prepared by some guy with a French name and a TV show, and served to the table by a college kid making minimum wage —“

“Ray.”

“Huh?”

“What happened at the shindig?”

“What happened was, Orsini asked Stella out, to which she said maybe, don’t call me I’ll call you, and then she took a look into the guy, and decided she needed to wash her hair forever. Then she called Harding Welsh down at the 2-7, and he handed her the write-up on the Manor Point Project from when you and your old partner Raimundo Vecchio ran into a wall.”

Benton nods, “Ray and I didn’t have enough evidence to pursue the case at the time. It was something of a burr under Ray’s saddle. What’s changed?”

“One of Stella’s friends down at City Hall, y’know, where they authorize building permits and stuff? Guy had some questions about some of the plans attached to the permits comin’ across his desk, like, how come the permits are for 500 low income housing units, but the plans only show 200, plus a country club and a golf course? So now Stella’s got questions, and if you’re a crook, you do not want Assistant State’s Attorney Stella ‘I can kill you with my laser eyes’ Kowalski questioning what you're getting up to.” Ray grins proudly. “Shake, bad guys, shake.”

“But now Alderman Orsini has asked Stella out again, this time for breakfast?” Fond as Benton is of breakfast, and company to share it with, he understands that certain inferences, however unfairly stereotypical, might be made by the appearance of a man and a woman sharing that particular meal in public.

Ray says, “He claims he wants to clear the air, answer any reservations Stella may have, ‘cause golly Mrs. Cleaver, he’s got nothing to hide. Sure. He wants to meet her at Alessio's, of all places. Jeez, does he think she’s a complete moron?”

Benton glances past Ray’s shoulder as the consulate's front door opens again.

It occurs to Benton as Harding Welsh drifts toward the reception desk that the lieutenant moves remarkably quietly for such a big man. His brown tweed suit jacket fits snugly across his shoulders, and barely conceals his shoulder holster, the bulk of a .38 police special at his side. The lieutenant eases to a stop at a polite distance from Ray’s left shoulder, but he doesn’t wait on pleasantries. “Forgive me for interrupting, but if I could have a word, Constable Fraser? It’s important.” He glances down at Ray. “Mr. Kowalski. What an interesting convenience that you are also here.”

Ray looks up at the lieutenant from his sprawl in the visitor's chair and flashes a smile. “Hey, Lieu. How’s the fight for peace, justice and the Chicago way goin’?”

Lieutenant Welsh grimaces agreeably. “It’s a pain in my neck. How’s the Watch these days?”

“Oh, you know. A grudge match between ogres here, a screaming banshee with self-esteem issues there. Keeping the forces of darkness at bay. I'm guessing Stella passed on the word that The Book is back?”

“Yeah,” Welsh confirms glumly. “ASA Kowalski filled me in. I believe I may have something to contribute to unraveling the mystery." One side of his mouth twitches with distaste. "Otherwise I've just got a wet corpse, with no reason why."

"I hate it when that happens," Ray says.

"Yeah." Lieutenant Welsh continues, “What’s left of a local magic user washed up along the river this morning. Professor Julian Elmore."

"I heard of him," Ray says. “Guy teaches — taught out at UC. D’you got a time of death?"

“Mort says probably sometime last night, maybe between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.”

Benton asks, “Was there foul play involved?"

Lieutenant Welsh sighs heavily, as though something pains him. "I am confident he did not cut his own throat."

Ray points a forefinger at Benton, all pretense at relaxation tossed to the metaphorical winds. “See? We got a murdered practitioner, and Alderman Orsini trying to get Stella to go eat breakfast with him tomorrow at Alessio's."

"But how can we be sure Professor Elmore's death is related to this case?"

“That’s a mob hangout,” Lieutenant Welsh observes.

“It is a mob hangout!” Ray repeats, flailing agitatedly. “It is expensive as hell, and guys like Vinnie the Hole and Wilson Warfield hang out there. It is not the kind of place a respectable Assistant State’s Attorney in the middle of investigating a city alderman for corruption should be seen with said alderman!”

"So it's a trap," Benton deduces.

"Yes, it's a trap!" Ray flails again, nearly backhanding Lieutenant Welsh in the chest. "Or it would be, if she was going, which she is not."

Lieutenant Welsh regards Benton thoughtfully. “Wilson Warfield once tried to kill you.”

“Well, now, he never specifically ordered my death,” Benton points out. “And if we could return to the subject of Professor—“

“As I recall there was a two-by-four and a near concussion involved,” Welsh elaborates relentlessly.

Ray winces. “Ouch.”

Benton persists, “Would either of you care to explain why you're assuming Professor Elmore's death has anything to do with the Manor Point project?”

Ray rises to his feet and looms over the reception desk at Benton. "'Cause Julian Elmore used to hang out with Frank Zuko Senior, and he still consults — or he did — for Frankie Jr.”

Lieutenant Welsh blinks bemusedly at Benton. “Didn’t Zuko Junior also once try to kill you?”

Ray smirks, “You and your friend Vecchio really were the town busybodies, weren’t you, Constable Fraser.”

“You have no idea,” Welsh rumbles.

Ray says, “Get The Book, Fraser, I gotta show you something."

"Can it wait for an hour? I'm on duty."

Ray growls, "No it cannot wait! As of now, the consulate is closed. Stick the CLOSED sign on the door, you’re done. I need to show you something in The Book. Welsh, too."

Ray's eyes gleam brightly, as though lit from behind. Benton is powerless to resist, though if he's honest that's mostly because he is disinclined. "Are you using incubus mojo on me, Ray?"

"I'm gonna use my left boot mojo on your stubborn Mountie butt in minute," Ray promises. "This is serious."

Lieutenant Welsh snorts, far too amused for Benton’s liking.

Benton pulls Turnbull, full of babbled protests and anxiety, away from sentry duty and tells him to man the desk, at least until Mrs. Li and her family have finished filling in the emigration forms. He can only hope Inspector Thatcher remains in her office, or Heaven knows what the harvest will be.

In Benton's office he, Ray and Lieutenant Welsh cluster around Benton’s desk, huddled together in the tight space. Diefenbaker, wedged between Lieutenant Welsh and Ray, braces his front paws on the edge of the desk and peers excitedly at the open pages of the little book.

"I've been poring over it as time permits," Benton says, adding apologetically, "and as well as I could stay awake. There are so many entries, I hardly know where to begin. It appears to be written in multiple languages. I'm afraid my Latvian was never good, and my Greek has lapsed to a rather embarrassing degree."

Ray fixes him with a complicated expression comprised mostly of blinking rapidly, and then he points both of his forefingers at Benton. "You are unhinged," he pronounces. "Must be a sign I got a screw loose that I find that attractive."

Benton blushes, and a smile tugs at his mouth.

Lieutenant Welsh harrumphs uncomfortably. "Gentlemen, could we proceed?"

Ray twitches and searches quickly through the book's pages. When he finds what he's looking for he spreads open the book on Benton's desk and jabs a long, slender finger at a brief entry that begins, “Miodóg Dearg,” and ends with, “You should probably set your legal affairs in order.”

"There. That's what's coming, Fraser."

"There's no picture for these guys," Welsh complains. "How are we supposed to recognize a Midog — a whatsit if it shows up?"

Ray explains tersely, "You recognize 'em when they jump out of the dark and start to kill you. They aren't a What, they're a Them. Miodóg Dearg means 'Red Dagger.'" He jabs at the entry in the book again. "They're an assassins' guild."

Benton squeaks, "Assassins? You believe someone is going to send assassins after me? Wait." He takes a calming breath. "Assassins have their own guild?"

Welsh shrugs. "Sure, why not? You got an electrician's guild, a pipe-fitters' guild."

"If we could," Ray yelps irritatedly. "Look, if it's not Orsini, then it's one of the bosses he's involved with, and they're sending 'em after you, and after Stella."

"You're sure? I mean, professional assassins seems excessive."

"Dead mob magician," Ray says. “Red Dagger won't even contract with someone who hasn't got the necessary to hire a wizard capable of summoning them with a very specific, very fucking complicated spell, which they do not actually need to get here from the Fae side. They use that spell like an interview. If the magician messes it up, they come over, they kill him or her, and then they go home until you hire someone good enough to get it right. Julian Elmore was not some half-trained journeyman likely to get tripped up by his chalk-work or his Latin, but oh, hey, he shows up dead as a wet doornail this morning in the river. Stella says there is a lot of money riding on the Manor Point project, Benton — piles of money, bank vaults of dough — and if Orsini's trying to get Stella to show up at a mob joint, he's not the only investor, you get my drift?"

Lieutenant Welsh rubs a hand over his face. "You think we still have some time? Before, y'know..?"

"Until Orsini or whoever can find the right magic-monger the spell will keep failing. Too many tries, and you-know-who might get ticked off at the waste of their time and go after whoever's trying to do the hiring."

"That would be convenient," Lieutenant Welsh observes hopefully.

"It's happened before. Not in Dogtown, but a guy in Philadelphia told me — look." He points at Benton. "You need to get your ass to the Rat's Breath asap, and hunker down until this is over, my friend. Pack a bag. You're coming home with me."

Benton shakes his head. "No, Ray. I appreciate your concern, but—“

"No?" Ray gawps, his entire body jolting with surprise. "The hell, Fraser, are you suicidal?

"Somebody already had a go at Damon Reese," Welsh warns.

“Damon Reese? Who’s Damon Reese?”

“A young man who’s been protesting the Manor Point project since its inception,” Benton explains. “His family is one among many who will be displaced.”

“Right, yeah, by the golf course and the club house, and the fancy shops,” Ray says. He turns to Lieutenant Welsh. “You get the perp? Was he fae? "

"No, no, it was a human guy. Happened last week. He botched it."

Ray decides, “You are coming home with me right now, Benton Fraser."

"The consulate is well-warded, Ray. I should be safe inside."

Ray sneers, "I'm pretty sure the warding emphasis was on espionage, not murder, Fraser."

"Ray, assuming for the time being that your hypothesis is correct, it may take them some time to find a new practitioner with the skills necessary to survive the interview process."

“Okay. Okay,” Ray allows. He takes a deep breath, which doesn’t seem to help him calm down very much. “There aren't many guys that good in Chicago, and none of 'em run cheap, especially for a job this risky. Word's probably got out already that Elmore bought it."

"What about Stella?"

"Her apartment building's got wards thrown up, and for the rent she pays they should be fancy enough. The courthouse is protected up the wahzoo, but Stel's gotta get from one to the other to do her job. I will therefore be Stella's chauffeur for the time being."

Lieutenant Welsh asks, "Does Ms. Kowalski know that yet?"

Ray rubs at the back of his neck. "Not exactly."

"Oh dear," Benton says.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The consulate telephone rings 45 minutes later. Before Benton can answer it properly Ray’s voice is already in his ear, growling, "’I'm aware of the danger,’ she says. ‘I'll be careful, Ray,’ she says."

Benton quickly tries to think of something soothing to say, but all he can think of on the spur of the moment is, “I’m sorry, Ray.”

“Apparently,” Ray complains bitterly, “I have got a type; smart, stubborn, and determined to make me a crazy person!”

“I take it your suggestion to Stella that you escort her to and from —“

“Did not work out so well,” Ray yelps angrily. “No, it did not! You two. You!”

“Ray, I —“

“You may be confident about protective wards in the consulate —“

"Ray."

“— and Stella's promised not to travel alone, but the cold fact is that people die under all kinds of iffy circumstances in regular old Chicago every day, even without Sidhe interference. And the worst thing is —“

"Ray?"

Benton rubs at his eyebrows, and considers that possibly his best course of action is to simply let Ray say his piece and get it out of his system. He holds the phone a few inches away from his ear.

“— or maybe the best thing, because I understand part of why I am attracted to insane individuals like Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, and why I am still friends with my ex-wife, Assistant State’s Attorney Stella ‘do not lie to me because I’ll know’ Kowalski, is that I get where you’re coming from. You’ve both sworn to uphold the Law, you've got duties you’ve promised to fulfill, and when things get dangerous for you it’s like proof you’re doing something right. Just give me a day before you go and do something reckless and stupid, okay?”

"Ray, why would you assume that I —“

“Shut up, don’t even try that with me. Because you’re you. You’re a cop, and stickin’ our noses where other people don’t want us to stick 'em is what we do. I got Stella to at least promise she won’t wander around anywhere alone when she’s not at home, and I know she’ll do that, ‘cause she’s got survival instincts, at least most of the time. You, on the other hand, I would not put a bet on for common sense. I know we only met last week, but call it a hunch. So I’m asking you. Just get some sleep, and let me hunt down a few possibilities, okay?”

Benton is talking before the decision is fully formed in his mind. “I don’t think I can sleep knowing you’re out there trying to save me all by yourself, Ray.”

“What?”

“If I can’t come with you, I’ll be awake all night.”

There is a pause on the other end of the connection during which Benton can hear Ray breathing angrily. “You are a terrible, manipulating person, Benton Fraser.”

“Is that a yes?”

“I hate you.”

If Benton’s smile might be considered smug, there’s no one around to scold him for it. “I’ll see you tonight then, Ray?”

“10 o’clock. That's p.m., on account of most of the people I need to talk to don’t wake up until the sun goes down. Do not under any circumstances wear that shiny red Christmas tree uniform I saw you in today, but do bring the wolf.”

“You don’t like the uniform? Most people are quite taken —“

“It’s very pretty, Benton, made all the prettier with you in it, but you stand out like a neon sign, and right now that is counter-productive up the —“

"I understand, Ray."

Ray huffs, “Stella Kowalski in the courthouse with arsenic, and Benton Fraser in the consulate with a candlestick. Jeez, my life. Okay. It’s only a little after 5:00. Take a nap. Be awake tonight."

Ray hangs up before Benton can reply.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ray pulls up to the curb in a gleaming black Pontiac Gran Torino Omologato, its engine emitting a deep, smooth rumble that Benton feels against his skin.

As Ray pulls out into traffic Diefenbaker investigates the Pontiac’s back seat excitedly. Ray yelps when Dief leans forward to happily lick the back of his left ear. “Hey! Bad Wolf! Get. Off. Me, you hairy maniac, I’m driving!”

“Diefenbaker,” Benton scolds, “where are your manners? I’m sorry, he loves riding in the car, and he’s become quite taken with you.”

“Great, I’m flattered, but the drooling? That is not cool.”

Dief dances on the back seat, shockingly unrepentant. Benton suppresses the impulse to advise Diefenbaker that Ray is not their territory, and it’s no use scent-marking him, regardless of how appealing the notion might be.

“Here. Betsy found photographs of most of these folks on the Internet. The photos aren’t the greatest, but I already know what they look like anyway.”

“Betsy compiled the list for you?”

“I hate computers, Fraser, and they hate me right back.” Ray shrugs. “You wouldn’t think a dryad’d have the knack, would you, but there it is.”

Benton studies the list, hiding a smile as he realizes that Betsy must have included the images specifically for his benefit. He wonders whether she did it on her own initiative, or whether Ray asked her to. He decides not to ask. It’s a nice gesture, either way.

“Remember Fraser, these are not miscreants or whatever, they're just folks I know, but I got reason to believe they might know some bigger fish, and all we’re looking for is a hint, a little info., thank you very much, no risk, no hassle, no direct involvement with you-know-who.”


Marian Cooke is nearly invisible beneath so many crocheted shawls draped over a house dress in a pattern of large, bright pink flowers that Benton finds it nearly impossible to discern where the layers of fabric end and Ms. Cooke begins. He wonders whether it’s a sort of camouflage. She’s wearing cowboy boots, of hand-tooled brown leather with red roses carved and painted into the sides. Diefenbaker sniffs them appreciatively, and she reaches down to briefly scratch his hears.

She slaps down the Ten of Wands. “Honey,” she informs Benton, “you’re repressed.”

Benton blinks, “I’m sorry?”

Ray bites off a sharp snicker, and Benton shoots an annoyed glance at him.

Marian taps the card next to it. “S’okay, you got the Prince of Wands here, and the Princess of Cups over there.” She smiles at him. “Benton sweetie, you got some serious changes in lifestyle in the works. Or you’re looking for changes. Either way, good for you! That why you two showed up for a reading above Chicago’s finest leather bar? ‘Cause if you want to shake up your sex life, this is the place to do it.”

Benton gapes helplessly, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. “Oh no. No, we. I. We’re fine. We’re shaken.”

“Hey, I don’t judge,” Marian says, blinking behind her spectacles.

Ray rubs at his eyes. “We're not here to spice up our sex life, Marian.”

“Gee that’s too bad. You make a cute couple. So, if it’s not advice from an old lady who’s been around the block a few times, and it’s nothing the kids downstairs can help you with, you wanna clue me in on what you’re after, Ray?” She eyes Benton keenly, and he feels his adrenalin kick up beneath the sharp intelligence in her gaze.

“We’re looking for a practitioner with a certain… a certain level of professional advancement,” Benton says. “Someone proficient with complex spell-work, and we were wondering whether you might be able to refer us to the right person.”

Marian raises an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? What kind of spell work?”

“A very intricate and very specific summoning spell.”

Marian’s eyes narrow, and Benton feels the air in the room tighten. “Quit dancin’ around,” she says, and this time there is a hard edge of authority in her voice. “What spell?”

“We’re trying to find someone who could contact a certain murder for hire guild, and live through it,” Ray says flatly.

“Sweet Saint Athanasius!” Marian’s eyebrows shoot upward, and she leans back in her chair, looking rapidly between Ray and Benton. “You wanna know if I got somebody who could—“ She hunches forward and lowers her voice dramatically. “You wanna summon the Miodóg Dearg? The Red Dagger? Are you fucking bugnuts?”


“Well that was a whole lotta nothin’,” Ray grumbles as he guides the GTO into traffic.

Benton rubs at one eyebrow. “I don’t think it was a complete waste of time. Dief doesn’t think Marian was lying when she claimed she ‘wouldn’t touch that hot mess with a twenty-foot pole, Kowalski, and none of my friends are that stupid either,’ so that’s one avenue we can cross off the list. In addition, I believe we made a positive impression on the clientele.” With a bemused smile he holds up a pair of handcuffs lined with pink fake fur for Ray to see. “On our way out through the bar someone slipped these into the rear left pocket of my jeans. I’m guessing it was the young lady dressed entirely in pink leather, but whoever it was must have exceedingly nimble fingers. I didn't notice a thing until I tried to sit down in the car.”

Ray grins, "I can understand the temptation. You got some pretty snug back pockets goin' on there, my friend."

"I do not." Benton feels his face heating. "They're perfectly ordinary back pockets."

"Beg to differ. I may not carry a badge, but I am paid to pay attention, and I've been paying attention to those back pockets."

"Pish," Benton argues, tamping down a smirk of pleasure. "Anyway, you should be paying more attention to the road in front of you, and less to what's behind me."

Ray laughs and guns the GTO through a yellow light.

They're on their way to an address near the University of Chicago campus to meet a practicing graduate student named Jeff Suzuki when Ray's phone rings. Ray is mid-turn and says, "Hey grab that, Ben?"

Benton picks up the phone from its spot between the front seats, and presses the little green button. "Hello, this is Ray Kowalski's cellular telephone, Benton Fraser speaking."

Ray snorts a laugh, and Benton shrugs, smiling back at him.

"Hello? Fraser?"

"Stella?" He can hear traffic, a radio, what sounds like a young man’s voice high-pitched with consternation, and then cursing in the background. "Is everything all right?"

Ray shoots Benton a concerned glance as Stella tells him, her voice clipped and rushed. "No, it is not all right, Fraser! It's happened!"

"It?"

"It! Them! The fucking magical ninja assassins!"

Ray snaps, "Fraser, what's she saying? What — Jesus, what're you sittin' there lookin' white-washed for? Oh, hell." Ray yells, "Stella!" and reaches for the phone. Fraser gives it up without protest.

"We're already on the road. Where are you? We can come get you." Ray nods, scowling with concentration and jerking the big black Pontiac through traffic, his path marked by the loud honking of car horns. "Okay, okay, got it." He turns to Benton. "Check in the back, there's a cherry somewhere back there, hell the wolf's probably sittin' on it. Stick it on the roof. Stel, listen, you got CPD on the way?"

Benton unbuckles his seatbelt, and twists to drape himself over the back of the seat. He's thrown into the side of the car as Ray narrowly avoids a half dozen oncoming vehicles at an intersection. Ray swears and leans on the horn.

Diefenbaker, whining and scrabbling across the back seat, points his nose at the portable red light rolling back and forth on the floor behind Ray's seat. Benton dives for it, tumbles forward, and sprawls into the back of the GTO.

"Hey!" Ray yelps. "Ben! Hey, Benton buddy, you okay back there?"

Benton holds up the cherry triumphantly. "I'll just — the cord’s a bit tangled. Don't worry about me, you keep track of Stella, and please let's not add to the tragedy by getting into a traffic accident, nor mowing down innocent pedestrians."

"Sure. Right. Got it," Ray says, gripping the steering wheel hard and driving faster.

Benton contorts himself back into the passenger's seat, plugs the cherry’s adapter into the GTO’s cigarette lighter, flicks the On switch, rolls down the window, and sticks the magnetic base of the flashing red light to the top of the car. "Dammit," he mutters.

"What? What?" Ray looks quickly sideways, then back at the road.

"My hat fell off the dash, and I stepped on it."

Ray's eyebrows rise, and then he relays, "Stella says she's very sorry for your loss.”

Benton sighs and tosses his beloved Stetson into the back seat. It will be covered with wolf hair, and possibly crushed beyond reclamation, but if he can survive the night, he can requisition a new one. He doesn't even care that Inspector Thatcher will purse her lips at him. He's got 'fucking magical ninja assassins' after him. Inspector Thatcher's look of prim disapproval no longer holds sway. As he thinks about it, he finds this oddly freeing, in spite of the circumstances.

“Ray?”

“Yeah.”

“Not to quibble, but dare I ask how you came into possession of a Chicago Police Department-issue portable flasher?”

“Better if you don’t dare,” Ray advises. “Or quibble, neither.”

“Understood.” Benton fishes in the glove box for the little leather book. "What did Stella say about the assassins?" He makes an aggrieved noise. "This would be much more helpful if it came with an index.” He opens the book and watches in irritation as it immediately grows to a staggering number of pages. “It's supposed to be a guide book, isn't it?"

"It's supposed to be a harbinger of impending disaster," Ray snaps. "Anyways, it’s vampires. They sent two of 'em, maybe three. It was hard for Stella to tell, ‘cause they were lurking in the shadows. As assassins tend to, y’know?"

Benton flips through the little book's pages, not really expecting to find what he's looking for, but the act of searching seems to help settle his nerves. "Vampires? That doesn't sound so horrible. Shelly’s a vampire. I like Shelly. Perhaps we can reason with them."

Ray makes a derisive noise. "Benton, my endearingly naïve friend, these guys are not here to negotiate. They are here to rend you limb from limb and/or suck you dry, and possibly bring your bloody dead head to Frank Orsini or Frankie Zuko or Wilson Warfield, or whoever wants you dead this week as proof, you got me?"

“That’s a very gruesome scenario you’ve described, Ray.”

Ray nods, looking satisfied. “Thanks.”

Ray swerves the GTO around a corner, wrenching the steering wheel one-handed as he barks into the phone. "Whazzat! Stel? What happened? How’s the cab driver? Did you call Doug? Does he know where you are? Do you need me to — Okay. Eurydice’s old brewhouse. Right, sit tight, he’ll probably get to you first.”

Ray turns to Benton. “Our very naughty vampires shoved a couple of trash dumpsters into the middle of the road, and the cab smashed into one of ‘em. Good news is, cavalry’s on the way. Bad news is, Eurydice’s closed for repairs after the explosion, yeast and stinking hops everywhere, and the neighborhood Stella’s been detoured into is a funk zone."

"A what?"

“Mostly small industry, some artists. Folks who like to make messes and a lot o' noise, which is cool, which I dig, but it means there aren't many people around, and most of ‘em are knee-deep in Def Leppard and arc-welders, so wow!

Benton is flung sideways again regardless of his seat belt, and he twists forward as Ray narrowly avoids the large steel trash dumpsters hulking in the middle of the road and hauls the GTO around the corner. “Ah, Ray, if you might let me have the phone, so that you can keep both hands on the steering wheel?”

“What? Yeah, good idea.”

Benton says, “Stella, I’ve asked Ray to let me have the phone, as he is currently occupied careening through the streets of Chicago at a truly alarming rate of speed.”

Ray protests, “What careening? I am driving with intent, here!”

Stella says, "Yeah, he does that. I can see the GTO's headlights. I'm hanging up now."

The GTO’s headlights pick out the rear end of a yellow cab in the road ahead of them. Its roof light is askew, but it’s moving at a good clip considering that the left rear tire has partially come loose from the rim, and the wheel wobbles as the cab moves forward.

The cab stops with a lurch, and Ray pulls up to the right of it, leaving enough room for Stella to open the back door and get out. Benton scrambles out to meet her, and pushes the front seat of the Pontiac forward so that she can climb into the back seat, remarkably agile, Benton notes, for a woman in a knee-length skirt and 4-inch heels.

The young cab driver puts his vehicle in reverse gear and backs up at speed, regardless of the condition of his left rear wheel, toward the intersection behind them, and Benton dives into the front seat of the GTO as Ray peels away from the curb.

“Jesus, Stel, what were you doing wandering around this time of night?"

"I'm sorry, Ray, I know. We had a case go belly-up and had to backtrack to see where we went wrong. Mike and Stacey walked me out to get the cab, and I decided to go back to the Rat’s Breath after all. Then I spotted them pacing the cab, up on the roofs.” Stella peers out the side window. “Ray, there are a hundred places for them to ambush us here.”

“Which is why I am getting us out of here at an alarming rate of speed,” Ray tells her. "Also I'm thinking this whole thing with blocking off the street and coming after you while you’re in a cab seems pretty out of character for Red Dagger."

"Sloppy?" Stella guesses.

"Poorly thought out?" Benton asks.

Ray nods, "Half-cocked, yeah, all o' that. Miodóg Dearg would have had Stel gone, baby gone, nice and discreet-like, long before either the cab or the reinforcements arrived. Which I am not going to think about at this juncture, ‘cause my brain will explode.”

Something heavy lands on the GTO’s roof, and Benton flinches back as the cord for the portable flasher is jerked out of the dash, and the adaptor end whips past his face on its way out the window. The flasher smashes to pieces in the road behind the car.

"Here we go," Ray growls, and he stamps hard on the brakes, making the Pontiac's tires squeal. A dark-clad figure tumbles forward onto the Pontiac’s hood. The man catches his fall by flinging both arms wide, and even from inside the car Benton can hear the high, screeching sound of claws scraping over the Pontiac's sleek black hood as the figure — the man, the vampire — slides toward the front grille. The vampire snarls at them through the windshield, his eyes glittering red and gold in the streetlights. His broad jaws open wide to show off twin rows of sharp teeth, the long canines of a predator. Ray snarls back and steps hard on the gas, then brakes again. The sudden jerk shakes the vampire off the front of the car, and there's a double bump as Ray hits the gas again and runs over him.

“That won’t stop him, will it,” Benton says.

“Not at all,” Ray agrees. “But it made me feel pretty good.”

“What kind of vampire is that? Shelly doesn’t look like that.” Benton flips rapidly through the expanding pages of the little leather book, but it’s more a matter of reflex than any hope of finding what he’s after.

“Nah,” Ray grunts, “Shel gets hungry, he likes to leave ‘em laughing. He told me though, getting turned can make a person more of what they already were.”

“That’s a bit terrifying, considering some of the people we know.”

The GTO's headlights pick out three steel trash cans among assorted debris piled chest-high in the middle of the street. Ray doesn't slow, and the trash cans make an awful clanging racket as they bounce off the Pontiac’s nose. An uprooted blue mail box slams into the GTO's windshield on the driver's side. The glass holds its shape in the frame, but cracks all the way across and fractures into so many tiny pieces that it becomes opaque. Ray swears violently as the right front tire ruptures with a loud whuff and a hiss, and the back end of the car fishtails to the left.

Ray eases down on the brakes and turns into the curve. The left rear tire goes, and the car lurches sideways until Ray stops it at an angle across the street. “Everybody in one piece?”

“Yeah,” Stella says. Benton glances back to find Stella and Diefenbaker huddled together in one corner, Stella’s arms tight around Dief’s shoulders.

Benton peers out the passenger window. There is only one street light—that is, of the three Benton counts along the entire length of the street one is working, sputtering out half-hearted flickers of yellow light. Most of the area is barely lit by the odd porch light, or here and there a yard light, partially hidden behind the jumble of whatever has been collected for use in small-scale industry, or an artisan’s work shop. If not for the bright silver of the autumn moonlight the neighborhood would appear to exist in little more than shadows twisted with other shadows.

Ray shoves open the driver’s side door, snapping, “Benton, you and Stella stick in the car and hunker. I’m gonna go have a meaningful conversation with our visitors.” He ducks back in to retrieve a baseball bat from the floor alongside the driver’s seat.

“You most certainly are not going out there alone,” Benton argues. He unbuckles his seat belt in no uncertain terms.

“You’re safer inside the car,” Ray insists. “With the street back there blocked off Doug and the Watch have to make a loop, turn back on themselves to get to us.”

Benton helps Stella out of the back of the damaged Pontiac. “They’ve ripped a mailbox right out of the sidewalk, Ray, you think they can’t tear apart your car?”

Dief bounds out on Ray’s side, squeezing past his knees as Ray shrugs out of his leather jacket, leaving himself in his black t-shirt, black jeans, and his black boots, the baseball bat clenched in his right fist. For a moment, in spite of the danger, Benton can only stare at Ray as he stands warily in the street; his long legs and wiry arms, the sharp angles of his face, the way the stuttering light from the single working street lamp flickers over him, picking out the tips of his eccentric hair. Ray’s shirt sleeve is bunched up to reveal the red and black tattoo that reads, “Champion,” and he looks precisely what he is; a Bouncer of the Dogtown Watch.

Ray’s eyes reflect the weak light like a cat's as he turns in a quick, small circle, scowling up at the roof tops silhouetted against a clear, starry sky. He tosses the baseball bat to Stella, who catches it neatly.

“Fine. Stel, you remember Alistair?"

"The blacksmith?"

"Yeah. His place is at the end of the street here, and around the corner, hang a right. Him and the missus live above his workshop. Come on, stick close —“

A heavy body plows into Benton’s side, and whoever it is bites him hard at the crux of his neck and shoulder. Benton guesses, as he slams painfully into the pavement, it must be one of the vampires. Stella cries out, and past the intense, tearing pain in his shoulder Benton hears Diefenbaker snarling, and Ray yelling, but mostly, everything is wild and red, and when he scrabbles at the vampire’s eyes to force it to let go of him, when he lashes out with his raw fists, quick, furious, he does not pull his punches. He knows he’s getting hit, can feel the impacts of knuckles on his ribs, his face. The vampire is fast, terribly so, but all Benton cares about now is getting his own in, and keeping the vampire assassin away from Stella. He has to believe that Ray might hold his own against the second until the Watch arrives, if Benton can hold this one here. The vampire ducks a swing, grabs Benton with one fist by his shirt front, screams in his face, baring all his teeth and gripping Benton’s throat with the other fist. Benton wheezes for breath, scrabbling at the vampire’s arms. He can feel his throat bruising, cartiledge straining under the vampire’s strength. The vampire grunts and flinches, its grip lessening for a moment, long enough for Benton to jerk free.

The vampire lunges for Stella, flat-footed on the road with the baseball bat raised, a dark stain on it from where she’s brought it down hard on the back of the vampire’s head. Diefenbaker has got his teeth buried in its leg, and Dief snarls and tugs back, jerking with all the strength in his shoulders, his paws planted flat. The vampire grabs him by the scruff of the neck with both hands, wrenches him loose, and flings him away onto the cracked sidewalk, where Dief lands with a yelp.

Stella’s gaze catches Benton’s over the vampire’s shoulder, and she tosses him the bat. He snatches it mid-air, catches the vampire turning, strikes him across the skull with everything he’s got. The bat shatters lengthwise, long splinters landing on the sidewalk, and Benton staggers backward, off-balance. Claws catch one shoulder, twisting him around, then rake across his shoulders, and he expects the feel of fangs at the back of his neck, but it doesn’t come. He whirls, the lower half of the broken bat still in his fist, to find Stella half-riding the vampire, punching at one side of its face. It reaches backward, clawing at her, and shakes her off. It flings her across the sidewalk and she hits the side of the building hard, her head snapping back against the wall. Her knees buckle and she drops onto the sidewalk, tilting like a drunk.

The vampire lunges toward her and Benton follows, grabbing at its jacket. The vampire turns on him, but Benton hangs on, and they do a swift, twirling sort of dance together, the vampire pulling against Benton’s grip, trying to free itself, and Benton clinging, creating a tension that sends them into an awkward spiral together until Benton hits up against the building, nearly stepping on Stella as she’s struggling to her feet. Benton’s back is against the wall and the vampire grins and slams into him, pinning him against the building. The vampire’s claws rake down Benton’s left arm, while its other hand grabs him by the hair to jerk his head back and sideways, baring his throat. And then it simply stops. An expression of first surprise and then confusion flit over its face, and it lets go of Benton and begins to slide down the front of him until it falls to its knees and keels sideways onto the sidewalk to lie still, the handle of the broken baseball bat jutting out from where it’s embedded at an upward angle into the vampire’s chest.

Benton revels in being alive long enough to take several long, deliberate breaths, and then he takes stock of the current situation. Diefenbaker limps toward him across the street. He’s favoring his right foreleg a bit, but otherwise appears not much the worse for having been flung nearly 30 feet by an angry vampire. Stella is getting to her feet, bracing herself against the wall.

Benton takes an unsteady step forward. “Stella, how badly are you hurt?”

She reaches back to prod tentatively at the back of her skull, winces at the touch, and makes a face when her fingers come back smeared with a small amount of blood. “Mostly okay,” she decides. She looks Benton up and down, and says, “You look like hell.”

“Yep.” Benton laughs, small and faintly hysterical. The adrenalin rush begins to recede, leaving him to feel the pain of his wounds and the weariness of the fight. He giggles, off-kilter, nods toward the dead vampire sprawled in a puddle of black blood on the cracked old sidewalk. “But you should see the other guy.”

Stella gives a triumphant little cackle that drains away as she steps into the street, rubbing at the back of her neck and glancing about her, peering into the darkness. “Where’s Ray?”

Diefenbaker whines, pressing up against Benton’s left thigh, and Benton gratefully scratches his ears. “I’ll be fine. You were very brave.”

"Fraser! There were two of them, and I can't find Ray.” Stella turns in circles in the street, her gaze sweeping side to side, frantic. She wails, ”Ray!” Her voice ricochets as she stands barefoot in the middle of the asphalt.

"Stel?"

Ray emerges from the black gape of a narrow space between two buildings. In his right fist he grips a headless body by the back of its coat, and in his left he clutches the head by its dark hair.

"Oh," Stella breathes, and Ray stops to look down at what he's carrying.

"Sorry. Sorry." Ray lets the second vampire’s body fall to the pavement, lets the head drop. It rolls once, downhill toward the gutter before it rocks to a stop on its left side, still leaking black blood. "Sorry."

"Oh my God, don't be sorry, you idiot," Stella scolds with relief as she runs forward to fling her arms around him and hug him tightly.

Ray winces, but hugs her back hard, swaying with her a little, as though they're about to start slow dancing in the street. Ray looks at Benton over Stella's shoulder. There is blood on his face. His smile is sharp, more than a hint of predator in it, and his eyes are wide and black, glinting with small flashes of blue and green in the moon's light. His left arm is bleeding. "Hell of a party huh, Ben?"

The bite at Benton's neck stings sharp and steady like salt in a wound. It throbs like venom, like a burgeoning infection. "Yeah," Benton agrees, grinning stupidly. "Some shindig." Then he decides that he would like to sit down. So he does.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Benton sits comfortably curled up in the window seat of Ray’s bedroom, a small side table set up near him so that he can reach his tea with his right hand, as his left arm is bound up by bandages and a sling. The indirect morning light of due north falls across page 37 of Forest, Lake and Prairie, the book he bought for 10 dollars from Seamus Lynch 7 days ago.

The little leather-bound book with the gold lettering that Diefenbaker took from Seamus’s shop is currently nowhere to be found, at least not by Benton nor by Ray, as though it disappeared directly from the front seat of Ray’s big black Pontiac on the night of the great vampire battle. Benton expects that it will eventually resurface, but there’s no predicting where or when, and he is more than content to let it take its time.

Benton awakened this morning in the dim light of just about dawn to the sight of a young man in a green t-shirt under blue plaid flannel, gently kissing Ray’s forehead as he slept. Benton recognized him from the night he and Dief had first entered the Rat’s Breath, and though he’ll have to ask to be sure, he’s confident it was Ian Connolly. Ian looked over at Benton with bright amber eyes and a sharp smile glinting with mischief, but softened by affection, and he whispered, “Ah, so you’ll be after breakfast, then,” and turned to pad quietly from the room.

On the night table next to the bed Ray’s cellular phone rings. Ray grumbles, struggles briefly out from beneath the tangle of blankets and bed sheets, and flails for the phone. “Mmm’uh?”

Sharing Ray is a concept that will take some getting used to, but Benton finds that he doesn’t mind it as he might have expected to. He’s at the top of Ray’s list of priorities, possibly sharing that honor with Stella, but as Stella has become Benton’s friend by now as well - they did battle a rogue vampire together, after all - the position doesn’t feel crowded.

Forest, Lake and Prairie momentarily forgotten, Benton watches over the rim of his tea mug while Ray rolls onto his back to listen to the person on the other end of the conversation, occasionally grunting an interrogative. The northern light softens the angles of Ray’s face, but the bruises received while battling the rogue vampire two nights ago are still livid purple against his pale skin. There are more bruises hidden by the bed linens. By now Benton has carefully cataloged each one. Ray's left forearm is swathed in white gauze. There are forty one stitches underneath, and even given Ray’s habit of healing quickly and thoroughly, this wound will leave a scar.

Benton’s throat is a grim display of purple and red bruising, and it aches if he talks too much or turns his head without thinking. He doesn’t know how many stitches are in the claw wounds across the back of his shoulders. He wasn’t awake when the doctor at Cook County Hospital stitched him up, and when he later asked Ray to count them for him he was informed that he’s got more stitches in him than an Egyptian mummy, and also that he is deranged, and that was that.

Surely, Benton imagines, Ray Vecchio would be happy for him, if he knew. A little confused, perhaps, that Benton has chosen a volatile Bouncer and part Incubus, whose friends seem to be unsubtly moving Benton out of the Canadian consulate and into the Rat’s Breath Saloon and Boarding House, but Ray Vecchio has on more than one occasion reminded Benton that most humans don’t talk to wolves, and Benton never did get the chance to know much about his mother.

"'Kay thanks, Lieu. Sure. You too." Ray ends the call, tumbles the phone onto the small table, and stretches. "Ow." He blinks at Benton. "How's Shelly's tea?"

"Minty," Benton says. Shelly first brought it to him on Wednesday, clucking that Benton should take something against infection because Saint Bridget alone knew where his attacker had been, and Shelly was convinced Benton would neglect to take the anti-biotics the doctor at the hospital had given him. In fact, the little bottles still lay unopened at the top of Benton’s duffle in Ray’s closet.

"Plus there's something in it I can't identify. Truthfully, I'm not sure I want to know." Benton sips at the brew, rolling it briefly on his tongue before swallowing it. "Nope. Still a mystery. What did Lieutenant Welsh have to tell you?"

"Looks like I was wrong," Ray says. "But also right."

"That's very talented of you, Ray."

Ray leers, "I am a talented guy."

Benton smiles into his tea, and doesn't argue.

"I was right about Orsini putting a hit out on you and Stella, but it wasn't the Miodóg Dearg. Orsini hired a couple of vampire thugs over from Naperville. The guy you, Stel and Die took down was one Lawrence Wainwright. He had a record from his previous human existence; grand theft auto, and more recently the occasional convenience store, so his prints were in the system. Now get this: he wrote Orsini a receipt for services rendered, had a copy in the top drawer of his desk in his lair back in Naperville, and Orsini gave his half to his accountant as a business expense."

Benton stares at Ray. "Surely, you're pulling my leg?"

Ray cackles happily, "Once they got the search warrant, it took Welsh's people about an hour to unravel the whole thing."

"That's disappointingly anti-climactic," Benton decides.

"Ain't it though? Hardly seems worth the stitches."

Benton swirls the dregs of his tea. "I kept thinking of Lawrence Wainwright as 'it' when we were fighting. That seems terribly rude, now."

Ray scrunches his pillow behind his head so that he can better face Benton. "It's not like they introduced themselves, Ben. You wanna talk rude? They were there to murder you with violence aforethought. As for me, I uncapitated an undead former Prohibition bootlegger, and current pimp named Fabian Piatek."

Ray sputters a laugh, "Fabian! Okay, I guess I shouldn't laugh about de-heading a guy, but he was attempting to render me limbless, and I barely remember doing it anyways. Mostly what I remember is being mad as hell, and desperate to keep him away from you and Stel."

"Much of the fight is a blur for me as well,” Benton admits. “I'm inclined to think it's for the best. Did Lieutenant Welsh say what happened to Julian Elmore? I'm assuming his death wasn't at the hands of the Miodóg Dearg after all?"

"Vera Fillion," Ray says. “Older sister of Gus Fillion, criminal boss. Did he ever try to kill you?”

Benton pauses his tea cup halfway to his mouth. “Not that I recall.”

"Huh.” Ray scratches at his chin. “It turns out Professor Elmore had thing for Vera Fillion, but Vera's already either divorced or outlived three husbands, and she wasn't interested in starting a fourth round of wedlock with Julian Elmore at this time of life. Apparently Elmore couldn't let go of the dream, started dabbling in love spells, which are creepy and illegal, and finally Vera decided enough was enough. Whatever else Gus Fillion might be, he apparently takes his responsibility as a brother very seriously." Ray yawns again and makes a disgruntled noise. "So I was wrong about that, too."

"Well now Ray, the timing of Professor Elmore’s murder was highly coincidental,” Benton says. “Even Lieutenant Welsh thought it might be connected to the return of The Book. And I admit you were correct that Stella and I would have been safer here at the Rat's Breath until the Manor Point situation could be resolved."

"Sure, but neither of you could stay bottled up in here forever.” Ray rubs the heels his hands briefly against his eyes. “It might sound weird to say it, but if Orsini hadn't got impatient and hired Wainwright and Piatek to sweep you and Stel under the rug, the whole Manor Point situation would still be a big mess."

Benton pours himself another cup of tea. "True, as far as that goes, but I'd like to point out for the record, and for the sake of Stella's concussion and my stitches that you are unhinged."

"Benton my friend, I'm not sure I was ever hinged." Ray sits up and scoots carefully up against the bed's headboard. "Is there coffee around here? I am lacking coffee. A coffee-free zone, that's me. Is this thermos here mine?" He twists loose the lid of the tall white thermos next to Benton's tea pot and sniffs appreciatively. “Mmm s’already got the chocolate in it.” As he pours himself a mug full he asks, "Where's the wolf?"

"Diefenbaker is, as far as I am aware, upstairs with Stella in the Fortress of Justice eating scrambled eggs. He’s become shamefully self-indulgent. I don’t know how she puts up with him."

Ray sips blissfully at his coffee. "Hey, you fight killer vampires together, you bond. How come we didn't get eggs, when the wolf got eggs?"

"I got eggs," Benton says smugly. "You were asleep, and Shelly was afraid yours would get cold before you woke."

Ray pours himself more coffee and complains, "I get no respect around here.”

Benton offers, aiming for sly, "I'll give you some respect."

Ray eyes him over the rim of the mug. “Oh yeah?”

Benton's romantic experiences have, over the course of his thirty-odd years, been sadly limited, and usually disastrous, and he never has learned to flirt easily. Still, if Mae West could do it so can Benton, and he puts as much meaning as he can behind his smile, adding an eyebrow waggle for emphasis.

Ray laughs, "You and me are about as spry as a couple of arthritic turtles, and now you decide to get saucy?"

Benton regards him archly, "Didn't you just boast to me that you’re talented, Ray?"

Ray sets down his coffee mug and narrows his eyes at Benton. In the soft light of morning his eyes are the quick blue-green of a tumbling sea. His hair looks like a wind-blown dandelion, and he is everything that Benton wants. "Is that a challenge there? Did you just challenge me, Benton Fraser?"

Benton sets aside his tea cup. "If you're not sure you're up to it, Ray..."

Ray gingerly disentangles himself from the bed linens and stands facing Benton, a rare picture of bony knees and bruises in a tattered blue t-shirt, and faded red boxer shorts. He steps toward Benton, smiling dangerously. "Game on, buddy!"


--#--

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-01 09:12 am (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
Okay, I have not yet read this, but I would just like to say that the opening paragraph is perfection, complete with passive-aggressive Fraser. *g* It made me laugh out loud.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-10-18 10:42 am (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
Hey, I've read this now, and it was thoroughly enjoyable! One of my favorite things about your writing is how your details are so vivid and quirky, which really helps to make the world feel solid. Also, I liked the Stella friendship, and her Fortress of Justice. *g*

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-01 08:35 pm (UTC)
umbo: (callum existenz beret)
From: [personal profile] umbo
Yay, you posted! I really like the edits :-)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-02 07:54 pm (UTC)
green_grrl: (ckr_guh)
From: [personal profile] green_grrl
I love this world you created so much! It's so very, surreally vivid. And Ray as an incubus is typecasting perfect!

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-04 12:14 pm (UTC)
fred_mouse: cross stitched image reading "do not feed the data scientists" (Default)
From: [personal profile] fred_mouse
Very much an enjoyable romp. I was unsure at the beginning, but am very pleased to have kept going (I am not wonderfully familiar with the fandom, and the additional touches were enough to have me somewhat off-kilter). I was particularly amused by the book thieving.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-06 02:03 am (UTC)
mergatrude: a hermit crab peering from it's shell with the text "lurker" (f/k - duet (text))
From: [personal profile] mergatrude
AWESOME! AWESOME! Such a good time! Thank you! *beams*

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-07 01:42 am (UTC)
ride_4ever: (Always on My Mind)
From: [personal profile] ride_4ever
It's going to be a few days before I get to read this in its entirety, but I didn't want to wait to tell you that what I've read so far is ftw and I know the rest will be just as excellent.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-17 03:12 pm (UTC)
ride_4ever: (RayK reading is hot)
From: [personal profile] ride_4ever
I've printed it out to hard-copy (41 pages) so I can do circles and exclamation points and hearts all over it while I'm reading it -- THAT'S how much I've been enjoying it. Also, I'm reading kinda slowly so I can drag out the enjoyment.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-09-29 01:25 am (UTC)
ride_4ever: (Fraser & RayK back you up)
From: [personal profile] ride_4ever
Just finished reading it! Hearts and circles and underlines in red scribbled all over my printed copy. Loved this like woah!

(no subject)

Date: 2015-02-25 12:18 am (UTC)
butterflyghost: (Default)
From: [personal profile] butterflyghost
Oh, good Lord, I adored this. Even if the Séamus in this is nothing like my son. (A bit like my Grandad S, but that's another story. To the best of my knowledge he never had a magical shop that appeared and disappeared, though he did have some magical books.)

In fact, I think (hope) I adored this fic likewise on AO3. But even if so, one can never adore wonderful perfection too often. Loved this. Absolutely frigging awesome.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-03-02 04:45 pm (UTC)
ride_4ever: (Fraser & RayK back you up)
From: [personal profile] ride_4ever
Back for a rereading! *points up to my comments of 2013*

Did you keep a copy of the original longer version from which this was derived? If so, I'd <3 to read it.

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