A Shot of Reason by Raine Wynd
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Author's Notes:
Standard disclaimers apply. Thanks to Dana Woods, Rhiannon Shaw, Debbie Hann, and KRNEFF for beta-reading this. This is the sequel to A Kind of Madness, but I think you can read this on its own. Also, familiarity with Nick Wolfe from HLTR isn't necessary; I'm aware that not everyone got to see that show, so I tried to write it accordingly.

August

Nick Wolfe parked the borrowed Corvette in the airport parking garage. Taking the clothes Monique had left him in the back seat, he quickly changed out of the prison-issue uniform. He wasn't surprised to find the clothes fit; he knew his Watcher would have more information on him than he really wanted her to know. She'd even thrown in a duffel to conceal his sword, which the police had confiscated and which she'd managed to retrieve. He wasn't going to question her resources. Even as he took advantage of the opportunity her sacrifices had provided, he felt a wave of guilt.

At worst, the pretty redheaded Frenchwoman would be prosecuted by the Watchers for breaking her Oath by directly interfering with Immortal business. From what Nick had heard, Monique could die as a result. At best, the Watchers would allow the justice system to deal with her for her role in breaking him out of prison when he was accused of murder.

Grimacing, Nick thought of the two headless bodies the police had tied him to. One had actually been a result of a Challenge. The other... well, he didn't know anything about that one. Still, given the fact that he was the only sword-wielding murderer the Chicago PD knew about, he'd been the logical person to apprehend for the second death. With his escape from prison, he had added 'wanted fugitive' to his resume of crimes.

What are the chances of being caught in the tail end of a swordfight and having two cops witness a Quickening? Nick wondered, frustrated. One in a million?

He snorted. Not too long ago, he would have bet the same odds on Immortality, yet here he was when he should have been six feet under the ground.

He sighed. He couldn't leave Chicago. His honor wouldn't stand for it. Aside from that, he doubted he could catch a flight to anywhere without getting Interpol stuck on his tail. He had no cash, no identification, and he couldn't go back to his apartment while the heat was still on.

Mentally, he swore. That meant lying low for a few days at the very least.

He looked around the garage, considering his options. He needed transportation, and the late-model Corvette, while not a classic, was still an eye-catcher, especially since it was cherry red.

What the hell, he shrugged philosophically as he dug into the trunk of the borrowed 'Vette for a screwdriver. It's not like I haven't broken enough laws already.

He shook his head as he applied the screwdriver he'd found to the lock of a nearby dark blue midsize sedan. If anyone had told him he'd go from being a cop to being a wanted criminal in the space of a few years, he would've told him or her there wouldn't be a chance in hell. He had to get back to his apartment, get some cash, and find his phone book. Somewhere in that list there was someone who could help him, and maybe, just maybe, save Monique.

Try as Ray Kowalski might, there were things about the Wolfe case that refused to settle in the back of his mind. It had been three weeks, and the last word he'd received was that Interpol was now handling the case because it looked like Wolfe had fled to Paris. A part of him was glad that the mess was someone else's to deal with, yet he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd been witness to something far more extraordinary than a simple murder.

Get over it, he told himself. You aren't ever gonna find out why you saw lightning when Wolfe chopped off Koeltzow's head.

Yet it bothered him.

A lot.

He hated that sensation. It usually meant he would probably end up investigating something he probably would have been better leaving alone, like the Botrelle case that had helped launch his career. When the smoke had cleared, he'd uncovered a case of police corruption and saved an innocent woman from death by lethal injection. Still, he wondered if ignorance of the truth would've been better; it certainly wouldn't have left him second-guessing everything he did. It was bad enough that he had a sneaking suspicion that Wolfe was something other than an ex-cop from neighboring Torago with a habit of carrying around a sword. The last thing Ray wanted or needed was a new mystery to ponder. There were definitely enough of those on his desk.

Sighing, Ray shoved the feeling to the back of his mind. He had a backlog of cases, as usual, and he was on a deadline to catch up. It was raining steadily, the perfect kind of weather to stay inside, and for once, he didn't mind being forced to stay indoors.

He was plowing steadily through the paperwork when, out of the corner of his eye, movement snagged his attention. His gaze immediately landed on a pierced navel set in the midst of an expanse of creamy flesh and a small waist. A slender hand attached to a wrist, tattooed on the inside with some design Ray didn't recognize, rested on a hip. A pitiful excuse for a denim skirt covered her hips and exposed long, shapely legs. Her feet were encased in high heels. His eyes traveled upward as a smile started to tug on his mouth, encountering a full bosom threatening to burst out of a denim bustier. A silver and turquoise necklace encircled a graceful neck, which supported a heart-shaped face framed by shoulder-length flame-red hair. The strap of a large denim bag rested on one shoulder.

Ray's appreciation of her beauty collided sharply with recognition. She was the woman who'd broken Wolfe out of jail and allowed him to escape with his sword.

"Monique Le Due," he bit off her name. "What are you doing here?" he demanded, forgetting for the moment that English wasn't her native language.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, her French accent strong. "I am being— what is the word? Expulsé."

"Deported?" Ray guessed. "Sent home to France?"

"Yes, that's it," she agreed, relief at his interpretation evident.

"So that's it? You're not going to jail?"

She shook her head and smiled. Ray noted that for a woman who'd been set free, she didn't look too happy; her green-gold eyes were sad.

"Don't be angry," she said gently. "You did the right thing." So saying, she left the squad room.

"Right thing. Yeah," Ray muttered skeptically. "I still don't know what the hell happened."

Shaking his head, he decided to let it go. There was justice in this world, somewhere, and it wasn't his job to figure out whether or not it made sense. He just enforced the rules. He looked at the pile of paperwork still on his desk and suddenly felt disgusted by the whole thing. He glanced at his watch and realized it was quitting time.

Relieved, he grabbed his keys and headed out of the station.

"Donovan Research, Cait speaking, how can I help you?" The voice that spoke held remnants of an Irish lilt.

"It's Nick Wolfe, and I need to ask you a question, Donovan."

"Why should I fucking tell you anything? You're the cop who sent me to prison in the first place."

"Because you're in the Watchers. You know how to save Monique."

"Sorry, Wolfe, I don't know what you're talking about."

"Just cut the crap, Donovan, will you?" Nick said impatiently. "I know I busted you for stalking, forgery, and murder, but I didn't understand then what you were doing. I do now. If anything, I like it less now than I did then."

Silence filled the line and Nick waited, holding his breath. Calling Cait Donovan had been a long shot, but at the moment, he didn't know of anyone else nearby who could possibly help him. Though he knew one Watcher, Nick's attempts to contact him had met with failure in the form of a disconnected number.

"How fucking ironic," Cait declared. "I'm not with the organization anymore, Wolfe. They frown on their agents getting caught doing their jobs, observing people like you. They are positively against one of their agents killing one of you, never mind that it was justified."

"Just tell me whether she's dead or not."

"I don't know who you're talking about." A pause. "Who is she?" Despite her objections, Nick could hear the interest in her voice.

"My Watcher. She broke her Oath to save me. Her name is Monique Le Due. Do you know her?"

There was the hiss of a sharply drawn breath. "I'm sorry, Wolfe. They won't kill her, but they'll make her wish they had. She'll be lucky to have a job with them when the Tribunal gets through with her."

Nick closed his eyes, feeling guilt rise through him for Monique's selfless act. "Damn it."

"I'm sorry, Wolfe," Cait said sincerely. "She knew what she was risking when she helped you. 'Observe, record, and never interfere.' That is the Oath. Anything less is treason in the eyes of the Tribunal."

"Thanks."

Nick hung up the phone and stared at his apartment. He still had to get out of town, find somewhere else to live for a while. He sighed, frustrated, wondering what to do next.

Just then, the phone rang. "Wolfe," he answered.

"You're booked on a flight to Paris," Cait announced. "It leaves in an hour. I'll pick you up."

"Why are you doing this? I thought you hated my guts."

"I want your apartment, Wolfe. I need a new place to live."

"Got someone after you, Cait?" he couldn't resist asking.

"Don't worry, Wolfe. He's not after your head, and no, I don't want your help or help from the cops."

Nick bit back the reply he'd been about to make. Cait was offering him a chance to save Monique, a chance to get his life back. He couldn't get involved with Cait. Grimly, he reminded himself that the last time he'd gotten involved with a known criminal, he'd lost everything, and he would never be the same for it. Honor warred with practicality and experience; and he sighed reluctantly.

"If that's the way you want it," he told her.

"Oh, it is," she assured him. "I can handle this. Besides, it's been a few weeks since I last broke the law; I think I'm getting rusty." Cait's voice sounded inordinately cheerful, and Nick knew she was enjoying the fact that he needed her. "I'll even throw in a set of identification just to keep the cops guessing. In exchange, I keep them from tearing through your stuff anymore than they already have, and in a few weeks when you're settled, you tell me where you want your stuff shipped to, and I'll handle it."

"That doesn't answer my question."

Cait sighed. "Can't you just accept a gift horse when it's offered?"

"Not when it could be a Trojan, no," Nick answered. "Knowing you, you probably charged the tickets to a forged credit card."

"Let me guess: the first question you had when you woke up from your First Death was 'You call this a gift?'"

"That's beside the point."

She snorted. "Some people would kill to live forever, you know. But if you really want to know, Monique doesn't need to go through what I did. No one does." She paused. "Just remember: next time my documentation services aren't free."

Nick released a breath he hadn't been aware he'd been holding. "I'll be waiting for you here."

"Like you have any other place to go?" Cait asked snidely, then hung up.

*~*~*

One year later
October
Thursday


Ray Kowalski glanced at his watch and swore as he jogged up the steps of the veterinary office. He was running late; a multiple-car accident, caused in part by the pouring rain, had tied up the streets and forced him to take an even slower route to get to his destination. He was supposed to have picked Dief up an hour ago. Silently, Ray was glad that Fraser, the Chicago PD's Canadian liaison and Ray's unofficial partner, had been detained by some diplomatic function at the Canadian Consulate and wouldn't know about Ray's tardiness unless Ray told him. He just hoped the vet's office was still open, else that lie of omission wasn't going to work.

He was in luck; the office door opened easily and he stepped through. He paused to shake off a bit of the rain and looked around.

The lobby, however, was deserted; it had the look of an office that had been closed for a while.

"Hello?" Ray ventured.

"Just a minute," a female voice called back.

He looked in the direction of the voice, seeing only a hallway that led to what he assumed to be examining rooms and the kennels.

Within a few moments, however, a woman who appeared as if she could have been a member of a Soviet-era Olympic team appeared. Her name tag identified her in flowing script as Dr. Galenkova. She took in Ray's presence with a single assessing look that instantly irked Ray. "You here for the wolf or the wolfhound?" she demanded in not entirely friendly manner.

"Aren't they the same thing?" Ray asked, momentarily confused.

Dr. Galenkova rolled her dark eyes. "No. The wolfhound was used to hunt wolves in Ireland."

"Then, no, I'm here for the wolf. Diefenbaker."

"Where's his owner, the guy in the red suit?"

"He's working," Ray said shortly, liking the woman less and less with every passing minute. "Look, all I came to do is pick him up. Fraser said he'd already settled the bill with you for Dief's shots."

Just then, the door banged open. A torrent of curses delivered in an Irish accent preceded the arrival of a rain-soaked woman with mahogany hair. She was dressed in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt that clung wetly to every curve, worn blue jeans, and suede ankle boots. Her diamond-shaped face was sprinkled liberally with freckles, bisected by a slightly misshapen nose, and offset by wide, gold-green eyes. He tagged her age to be late twenties, her height to be five feet, four inches, and her weight to be approximately one hundred ten pounds. He knew he was staring, but he figured he had a few seconds left to enjoy the view.

She turned in his direction. Their eyes met, and what had been a purely reflexive action on his part flared into something more. Suddenly, the room felt ten degrees warmer, the air somehow weighted down with a substance called expectancy. He wasn't sure what he was waiting for from her; he only knew that it was abruptly, urgently important that he did receive it. Her gaze drank him in with the deliberation of a woman intending to get drunk slowly. He felt abruptly self-conscious, as if he was naked, rather than dressed in his usual boots, jeans, and T-shirt, a leather jacket thrown over it as both a concession to the cold and to the need to conceal the gun he wore. He held his breath, wanting to pass the silent test.

A slow smile curved her lips, and her eyes met his. He read desire and appreciation in her expression before she turned to speak to the vet. Oddly shaken by the intense flash of attraction, Ray exhaled and tried to appear relaxed, even though his senses were humming with excitement. He reminded himself that he probably had a chance in a million of actually succeeding past 'hello.'

"I'm here for the wolfhound," she told Dr. Galenkova.

"Just a moment while I take care of him," Dr. Galenkova said, her voice softening somewhat as she spoke to the other woman.

"Planning to track a wolf?" Ray asked as the vet went to retrieve the animals. Oh, that's brilliant, Kowalski. Ranks right up there with 'Wanna buy you a drink' in originality.

The stranger chuckled. "I already found one," she returned lightly. She gestured to Diefenbaker, who was practically running towards freedom.

"Whoa, Dief, hold on a sec, all right?" Ray stammered as the wolf nearly attacked him in happiness at being released.

The woman laughed again. "You'd better get him out to your car before Brenna is brought out. She's a purebred Irish wolfhound."

"Uh, yeah, I guess that would be a good idea." Hastily, Ray managed to get Dief into his GTO. As he did so, he noticed the electric blue Mustang parked next to his car. Out of long habit, he noted the license plate: RCW 139. For some reason, that struck him as familiar; then he shook his head, reminding himself that he was probably thinking of some other, similar combination. It wouldn't be the first time he'd thought he'd seen something he hadn't.

He slid into the driver's seat and started the car as he saw the stranger exit the veterinary office. She didn't have the wolfhound, and her arms hugged her stomach as she walked, head bowed.

Dief nudged Ray meaningfully. "Yeah, I see that," Ray told the wolf. Rolling down the window, Ray asked, "Is everything all right with your dog?"

Hearing him, she stepped up to the side of his car. "She's dead." A silent sob shuddered through her, and she favored Ray with a sad look. "I could use a little company. You doing anything tonight?" she asked.

For a long moment, Ray was stunned that she was even asking. Hope flared into life, and he had to remind himself that she was grieving. Get real, Kowalski, he told himself. She's not interested in you. She just doesn't want to be alone.

"Nothing," Ray returned, finding his voice at last. "Just gotta keep eye on the wolf."

She nodded, accepting his reason, even as the rain dripped down into her eyes. Somehow, it just made her look sadder and endearingly attractive at the same time. "You know where O'Brady's is?"

"That's on the north side, isn't it?"

She nodded again, stifling a sob. "Do you have to drop your wolf off somewhere?"

Ray glanced at Dief, then back at the woman. "No. He'll be all right in the car." If he doesn't manage to find a way into the bar, that is. "He's not my wolf anyway; he belongs to a friend of mine." He paused, feeling awkward. "You gonna be okay to drive?"

She drew a deep breath, then nodded once more.

Ray entered the pub a few minutes behind her. He'd gotten caught at a stoplight a block up from the pub, and she had run the yellow light ahead of him. He noted she'd chosen a table near the back, one with easy view of her surroundings and access to the exits, but with a solid wall at her back. It made him wonder if she expected trouble. Then he realized he knew next to nothing about her.

For a moment, he hesitated. It had been a long time since he'd been successful with a woman, never mind the fact that he saw too much of the bad side of people on a daily basis to completely trust a woman. Yet the first impression she'd given him hadn't set off any alarms in his brain, and Ray had always been a man to go with his gut. Still, he couldn't help feeling apprehensive. He'd felt an immediate and total attraction to her, and the intensity of it scared him even as it thrilled him.

C'mon, Ray, he told himself, it's not like you haven't had a beer before, or met a woman you liked. He took a deep breath, and stepped forward.

Since it was a weeknight, the pub wasn't crowded, and the jukebox was playing some song Ray didn't recognize at a semi-reasonable volume. He took a seat at the table.

"Thought I'd lost you back at the light," she remarked. "Sorry about that." She paused. "I really appreciate you being with me tonight."

Ray smiled at her. "No problem."

"Thanks. You know, I just realized I don't know your name."

"Ray Kowalski."

"Cait Donovan," she returned, shaking his hand. "You like wolves?"

"Actually, I only know the one," Ray confessed as a server approached. After the server took their drink orders-two draft beers-he continued to speak. "I've seen them out in the wild, and they're nothing like Dief."

She laughed softly. "No, I suppose they wouldn't be. So what do you do when you're not wolf-sitting?" She narrowed her gaze, then said, "No, wait, let me guess. You're a cop."

He saluted her with his mug, and took another look at her. "What gave it away?"

She sipped her beer, then answered, "Let's just say that I've spent a lot of time around cops, and leave it at that."

"You did some wild and crazy things when you were a kid, or something like that?" he guessed.

"Something like that," she acknowledged with an easy smile. "Doesn't everyone?"

He shrugged. "Some more than most." He paused, studying her carefully. "But since you aren't doing that now, what do you do when you're not grieving over your dog?"

"Brenna — my dog — has been sick a long time. She was in so much pain." She sighed, and with that gesture, she seemed to find acceptance with her pet's death. "But to answer your question, I find dead people."

"Whoa, wait a minute, isn't that supposed to be you see dead people?"

She laughed, suddenly no longer sad. "No, nothing like that. I'm a genealogist, among other things."

"A jean — what?"

She chuckled again. "I look up family histories, old court records, basically anything someone wants to research involving archived documentation."

"So like if I wanted to find out if I was related to some pirate back in the 1700's, you'd be the person I'd hire."

Using her left hand, she saluted him with her mug. "Love the way cops think." She took another drink.

Ray wondered about the scar he saw on her wrist; it looked as though she'd either had a tattoo removed or had tried to slice her wrist. "Someone try to chop your hand off there?" he asked, gesturing to the scar.

She glanced at the scar, and the animation in her expression faded. "Handy tip," she told him with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, "never get a tattoo you're going to regret later."

"Yeah, well, isn't that kinda hard to do? They all make sense at the time you're getting one."

"I suppose." She fell silent a moment, sipping her beer. "Voice of experience, huh?"

He smiled and pulled up his sleeve to reveal the Champion Sparkplugs tattoo on his shoulder. "You could say that," he told her. She toasted him with her glass, acknowledging the truth of his words.

He paused, floundering for something to break the silence, and took another sip of beer while he searched for something neutral to say. His nervousness slipped back to grip him, and he wished suddenly that he had refused her invitation. At this rate, he wasn't going to impress her with his charm.

"Been in Chicago a long time? You don't sound like you're from around here."

"No, I'm not," she replied. "I was raised in Ireland."

"So how did you get here?"

She laughed. "I was seventeen, and I decided I'd go on a tour of America. My money ran out in New York. I took a job waiting tables and one day, one of my customers made me a job offer I couldn't refuse. I could travel the world, meet new people, learn new languages, and I'd get paid more money than I thought someone could earn then." She shrugged easily, though Ray noticed the story seemed to put a bit of sadness back into her eyes. "I've been here two years, but I don't miss New York."

Somehow, Ray got the sense it wasn't New York she didn't miss. From her expression, though, he suspected now wasn't the time to press the issue. "So do you get a lot of people looking up their family histories?"

"Enough," she answered with a smile. "Thinking of looking up yours?"

"Maybe," Ray hedged. "What do people do with that information when you sell it to them?"

She shrugged. "Doesn't matter to me. People want to know where they come from; I provide the answers." She chuckled. "Or at least, I try. Sometimes I don't find anything."

"Not even a ghost rattling around some closet?"

Cait laughed openly now. "No, no ghosts or skeletons." Eyes dancing, she asked, "Any knocking around yours?"

"Not that I know of," Ray replied. "Well, no more than anyone else, I guess." Cait nodded thoughtfully as Ray gestured, punctuating his words. "I had a wife. It didn't work out, so she's not my wife."

"That's too bad," Cait remarked. "And to answer the question you're going to ask next, no, I'm not seeing anyone. Unless you want me to be seeing you."

Caught in the act of preparing to take another drink, Ray set his mug down with exaggerated care. "Like getting to the point, don'tcha?"

She shrugged easily. "Neither of us is going to live forever, so why waste time?"

"In that case," Ray returned with a grin. "What are we doin' here?"

Her lips curved. "I'm in no rush, are you?"

Somehow, the question seemed to take on importance. "None at all," he returned steadily, careful to keep his eyes level with hers. Oh, yeah, that was brilliant. Good going, there. Gotta save this, if she's really interested.

She leaned back in her seat and nodded, apparently satisfied with his answer. Ray sighed, relieved.

The hours passed in a blur as they spoke of things that interested them. Ray discovered she shared a mutual passion for the same kind of music, though not for the same sports teams, and was also surprisingly knowledgeable about some of the more archaic laws on the city's books. When pressed, she laughed and said one of her clients had wanted to find out if it was legal to spit chewing tobacco on the sidewalk, since his wife had complained about it.

With every passing minute, Ray was conscious of an undeniable magnetism building between them. The rest of the world could have fallen away except for the booth in which they sat. He didn't want to tear his attention away from her for an instant.

It was little wonder, then, when Diefenbaker nudged him, he nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Damned wolf," Ray grumbled when he realized who it was. "Goes where he wants to go," he said in explanation to Cait's surprised look.

To Dief, Ray chided, "I thought I told you to stay in the car."

Dief whined.

"Guess someone wants to go home," Cait remarked, barely hiding a smile.

"Yeah, I guess," Ray said awkwardly. "You gonna be okay tonight? Want me to drive you home?"

She smiled. "Thanks for the offer, but I'll be fine." She indicated her empty beer mug, and Ray realized she'd switched to water a good hour before. "I know my limit."

"Okay then." Ray suddenly felt tongue-tied, and tried to keep the frustration out of his voice as he forced his mouth to cooperate with his brain.

"When will I see you again?" he blurted just as she asked, "Can I get your phone number?"

They looked at each other and chuckled as they realized they'd spoken at the same time.

"Next Friday," she began, "I have to attend a convention downtown, but I'll be off at six. Want to meet me for dinner?" She took a business card from her purse and handed it to him. "If you can't make it, give me a call."

Ray smiled and took the card. "I'll be there." Taking the second card she handed him, he scribbled down his phone number on the back and gave it back to her. He slid out of the booth and pocketed the card she'd given him.

Then, driven by an urge he couldn't put a name to, he leaned over and kissed her. The first touch of her lips against his seemed to detonate the slow-burning fire that had been burning through him all night, and he had to fight to keep control, to keep it light. He pulled away with an effort, and saw the same stunned look of shocked desire reflected in her eyes that he felt.

"You'd better go," she admonished him unsteadily.

Dief woofed softly, echoing her sentiment. Dazed, Ray looked down at the wolf, needing to see the animal for some sense of reality.

When did seeing a wolf in a bar get to be normal? He asked himself in a daze. Yet the sight grounded him, made him less like he'd lost control.

"Yeah," Ray agreed, backing away. "Good night, Cait."

He chanced a look at her face, and nearly stayed. Longing, loneliness, and lust were all etched in her expression, the kind that meant far too many nights had been spent alone, certain in the knowledge that no one wanted her the way she needed to be wanted. It was far too close to the way Ray often felt, and it was yet another layer in the sensuous magic he felt pulling him toward her.

Dief nudged him again, and the spell was broken. Ray reluctantly left the pub, the wolf following, as if to insure that he would not turn back around. He could feel Cait's eyes on him as he walked out, and hoped she didn't think less of him for leaving. He never saw the wistful smile that played on her lips as he exited the pub.

*~*~*

Wednesday

Cait pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, suddenly aware of how her well-kept classic sports car stuck out like a sore thumb among a row of tired-looking cars in a neighborhood that had seen far better days.

Come on, Cait, it's not like you didn't used to live in places far worse than this, she reminded herself.

Still, she hated coming here. It reminded her of times she'd been too desperate to discriminate, too poor to care. She wouldn't even be here now if it weren't for the fact that she had found it useful to keep a hand in her old business. There were many ways to obtain information; some were more efficient than others. It all depended on what price Cait was willing to pay, and how legal she wanted to make it.

You know, she chided herself, you could just call the cops on Kulik, instead of getting your information on him this way. What are you going to do with the knowledge that you have on him now? You've been sitting on it for years now.

If I just keep him from finding me
, he can't get the documents he needs. That's better than the alternative, the voice of her devil's advocate countered.

The silent argument was an old, familiar one. She sighed and picked up the brown, letter-sized envelope from the passenger seat. Glancing over the contents, she checked over her work: passport, two credit cards, birth certificate, Social Security card, and a driver's license. Mentally, she calculated the cost, and wondered if her client would try to rip her off. It wouldn't be the first time that had happened to her. Silently, she hoped this wasn't the case. She needed to know where Kulik was, what he was up to, and she knew her client had connections.

She smiled wryly, aware that her client's connections were the precise reason why he needed a new identity.

Taking another deep breath, she got out of the car and headed into the restaurant.

"Now, Diefenbaker, just because I suggested we visit our old neighborhood doesn't mean we have to eat here," Fraser began.

The wolf regarded him silently and cocked his head towards the door of the restaurant.

Fraser sighed. He didn't understand what had gotten into the wolf; he'd been acting strangely the last few days. At first, Fraser had thought Diefenbaker was sulking because he'd been working and hadn't been able to pick him up from the veterinarian, but then the wolf had seemed determined to shadow Ray everywhere, driving Ray crazy. In desperation, Fraser had suggested this trip, hoping to give Ray some peace.

"All right," Fraser acquiesced, unable to tolerate Diefenbaker's stare any longer. "But no jumping up on the counter like you did the last time we were here."

Diefenbaker snorted, as if to say, "Who me?"

Fraser shook his head and let the unrepentant wolf precede him through the door.

The first thing he noticed was that the restaurant appeared to be doing a thriving business. A quick glance at his watch confirmed that it was long past the lunch hour, and well before the dinner crowd. The scents coming from the kitchen, however, revealed the reason for the bustle, and Fraser smiled.

He was just about to claim an open table when he noticed Diefenbaker had made his way over to a woman with dark reddish-brown hair and was growling at her companion, a stocky, olive-skinned man with thinning silver hair.

"Diefenbaker, that's enough," Fraser ordered.

For once, the wolf obeyed the command.

"I'm terribly sorry, ma'am, sir," Fraser began apologizing. "I don't know what's gotten into him." Looking at her, he was struck by a sense of deja vu, as if she looked familiar to him somehow, but the recognition escaped him. It was nothing he could really put his finger on, and it defied reason, but he knew she was not a stranger to the wrong side of the law.

The woman smiled. "That's okay," she told him. "I had a wolfhound that acted that way sometimes. You must be Ray's partner."

"Yes, I am," Fraser replied, surprised. "How do you know Ray?"

"We met a few days ago when he picked up your wolf," she informed him.

"Cait, it was a pleasure doing business with you," her companion said, clasping her hand. Fraser noticed that, immediately after being released from the handshake, she turned her hand into a fist and brought it underneath the table. Still, the smile never left her face.

"Be safe," she admonished her companion as he rose from the table and tucked a brown envelope underneath his arm as he departed.

She then turned to Fraser. "I'd invite you to join me for lunch, but I've already had mine, and I really must be going now." She rose to her feet. "Tell Ray I said hello, and I'll see him Friday."

"Certainly," Fraser promised, but the words were said to her retreating back, and she didn't seem to notice that he'd even spoken.

Fraser stood there, perplexed. Then he shook his head and decided that perhaps she really had had other places to go.

Cait didn't dare look back until she got into her car. It shocked her to realize she was shaking. It took her several tries to get her car started, and then she nearly forgot how to work the stick shift.

Stupid, stupid, she cursed herself. You shouldn't have said anything, should've just pretended you didn't know the wolf.

Yet she couldn't shake the feeling that the wolf had known exactly what she was, and had chosen to focus on the greater of two evils. The sensation scared her more than she was willing to admit.

Don't be silly, Cait, she scolded herself. You know animals are smart, but not that smart. The wolf was probably just reacting to the smell of rare roast beef that the new Mr. Valentine had for lunch.

She shook her head, trying to deny the fact that she'd had a wolfhound in part to help her determine who to trust. Brenna had disliked strangers, but she'd hated the truly evil and deviant even more. Without Brenna, Cait knew she had lost that early warning. She wondered if the wolf was the same way with his owner, and surmised it was so.

That idea was entirely too depressing to contemplate.

Sitting at a stoplight, needing a distraction from the direction her thoughts were taking, Cait glanced over at the wad of hundreds she'd been given, money she had tossed on the passenger seat in her haste to leave the restaurant. Glancing at the light to make sure it was still red, she reached over and grabbed the cash. Quickly, she counted it, nodding when the total amounted to several hundred dollars. She sighed in relief; her client hadn't cheated her, and he'd given her the information she'd wanted: Kulik was in New York, and wasn't expected in Chicago anytime soon. Now she could get on with her life, maybe even look into getting another wolfhound.

She frowned at that last thought, and then decided against it. Brenna had been special, and she wasn't ready to replace her just yet. She glanced at the money again.

"Not bad, Cait," she told herself. "And right in front of a cop, too." She tucked the money into the inside pocket of the denim jacket she wore.

A slow smile spread across her lips as she belatedly realized the thrill of that action. Feeling energized, she watched the light turn green, and hit the accelerator pedal.

"Ray, do you know a woman named Cait?" Fraser asked later that afternoon as they sat in the station going over paperwork for a case they had just closed.

Ray looked from the file he was perusing and smiled. "Yeah."

Fraser watched as his partner drifted off into space, and had to bite back his own grin. When was the last time he'd seen Ray so happy? he wondered.

Then he took a second look. No, not happy, Fraser decided. Happy isn't the word for what Ray is feeling. There was something more, something Fraser recognized: love. He wondered if Ray knew it yet, then decided against the idea.

"Cait's a researcher," Ray said after a long moment. "She's beautiful. We have a date tomorrow night."

"She is very pretty," Fraser agreed. "I saw her yesterday at Mr. Lee's restaurant."

Ray frowned. "She lives on the northwest side," he commented. "Her business ain't too far away from her place. What she doin' in your old neighborhood?"

"She appeared to be meeting a friend," Fraser returned. "Diefenbaker took an exception to her friend, though."

"You sure this friend of hers didn't have something Dief wanted?" Ray asked.

Fraser paused, searching his memory. "I'm not exactly sure," Fraser confessed.

"Guy probably did," Ray shrugged. "Say, is there anything else we have to do with this case? I'm sick of looking at it."

"We still have to file the closing report," Fraser reminded his partner.

Ray swore and glanced at his watch. "Okay, but if we ain't done in half an hour, I'm calling it finished and then we're outta here."

"In a hurry to go somewhere?" Fraser asked mildly. "Or go see someone?"

Ray's eyes narrowed. If he wasn't mistaken, Fraser was teasing him. "And what if I am? You gonna make something of it?"

"Of course not, Ray."

"Good."

*~*~*

Friday night couldn't come fast enough for Ray. However, as Murphy's Law would have it, Friday turned out to be one of the worst days to be a cop since he'd graduated the academy. A simple domestic abuse case from the night shift turned out to be a morning murder, with one of the city's more prominent citizens involved. Then Fraser had been called away on Consulate business, leaving Ray alone to deal with the fallout from the morning. As if that hadn't been enough, Ray had been pulled into helping on a drug case. That didn't include the pile of ongoing investigations he had hoped to close that day. By the time he had everything to a point where he could leave for the day, he was running late.

He picked up his cell phone to call Cait as he drove home.

"Donovan Research, Cait speaking," he heard.

"Cait, it's Ray. I just got off work. I'm gonna be late picking you up. Is that okay?"

"Actually, I was just about to call you," Cait told him. "I'm running late as well. The convention ran overtime. Do you want to meet me at my place in an hour? It's on the card I gave you."

"I'll be there," Ray promised.

An hour and a half later, they were seated at one of Chicago's better restaurants. Though Ray was aware of the exquisite taste of the food he had ordered, he couldn't remember exactly, what he had ordered. He was only aware of Cait as she sat across the table from him. She was dressed in a V-neck black number with thin straps that pretended to hold up the rest of the dress. Ray knew the dress ended at mid-thigh and hugged every curve. He wondered what, if anything other than pantyhose, she was wearing underneath it. He wondered if he'd have the chance to find out.

She was hypnotizing him with every breath she took. On some level, Ray recognized he was falling in deep, yet he couldn't stop himself. He wasn't entirely sure if he wanted to; she made him feel wanted, alive, needed, in a way that he hadn't felt in a long time.

The restaurant featured a live band and a dance floor, and after dinner, Ray didn't hesitate to take advantage of it. He needed to feel her close, and dancing seemed to be the safer way to go at the moment. He didn't want to scare her off. The fire inside of him was building, turning into an almost unbearable ache, but he remembered her admonition from the other night to take things slowly. Nor did he want to ruin this moment; it had been a very long time since he'd felt this confident around a woman. He wasn't sure where the confidence was coming from, yet he wasn't about to deny there was something about Cait that made him forget his usual wariness about women.

She fit into his arms as if she belonged. Ray closed his eyes at that, remembering another woman who'd felt that way. Ruthlessly, he pushed thoughts of his ex-wife out of his mind and concentrated on Cait.

How long they danced, Ray lost track. Cait was an excellent dancer, flowing naturally as though she'd been born dancing. The flame of attraction grew as their bodies brushed close, until both of them were nearly scorched from the wanting.

How they made it to Ray's apartment, neither of them knew.

"It's not much," Ray began apologetically as he ushered her inside, "but it's home."

She smiled. "There are worse places to be," she said gently, knowingly.

He didn't have time to mull that over, for then she stepped closer, cocking her head. "Last chance for regrets," she warned him, searching his eyes.

Ray shook his head. "No. I mean, no I don't have any. Regrets I mean." Even as he said it, he realized it was true. The realization gave him confidence, and he leaned forward.

"Good," she declared, and then met his kiss halfway.

Fire shot through Ray's body as if he'd been scalded. The kiss started out lightly and gently but quickly escalated into a battle of tongues. He could taste the wine she'd drunk. He had the crazy thought that he was getting intoxicated off of her.

Needing to touch, his hands moved to push the straps of her dress down. His fingers reached behind her to unzip the dress.

She broke their kiss to step out of her dress in what was supposed to be one smooth motion, but didn't quite make it when her foot caught on the hem. She swore lightly, then laughed softly at her own impatience. She tossed the garment aside, revealing that the only thing she had been wearing underneath it was a pair of sheer pantyhose, which drew an appreciative smile from Ray.

She kissed him again, then stepped back just enough for him to take his shirt off as well. Then, just before she pressed herself close, she leaned down to kiss his erection through his pants. His breath caught in his throat at the unexpected gesture.

Ray shuddered at the first touch of skin against skin. Cait was warm against his, her breasts full and soft as they rubbed against his chest. His lips wandered down her neck and down to her breasts. He took one nipple into his mouth and sucked on it while playing with the other, alternating after a while. As he did so, her hands stroked the back of his head, his face, and toyed with the corners of his mouth. She moaned encouragingly.

Driven by a sudden urge, he opened his jaw wider and slipped one of her fingers into his mouth, sucking on it as well. She inhaled sharply, turning him on more. Wanting to taste more of her, he let go of her breast and started down her stomach. He took the opportunity to divest her of her pantyhose and her flats.

He looked at her and his smile widened.

"I like that," he said huskily, and pressed a kiss on the inside of her thigh. She shuddered at the touch.

"Wait," she stopped him. "Let's go somewhere more comfortable."

He grinned, and led the way to his bedroom.

She spread herself on the bed, striking a seductive pose, as Ray quickly rid himself of his clothing, taking a moment to slip on a condom. He lay down on top of her, intending to continue what she'd interrupted, but once again, she took control, rolling him over and slipping him inside of her in one continuous movement. He inhaled sharply at the sudden, intimate contact, and then let the breath out in a moan as she clenched her inner muscles around his hard shaft. It was doubly erotic to realize she wasn't moving her hips.

"Oh, God... ." he said breathlessly.

She smiled, then lifted her body slightly before dropping it, seating him more deeply inside her body.

He shuddered and reached for her hips.

She laughed softly at his eagerness and caught his hands, shaking her head. "Not yet," she told him. "I want to feel you this way." Her eyes locked with his, and he burned in the heat he saw reflected there. He couldn't remember a time when he'd felt this intense passion. All his senses were focused on her.

She was still a moment, inhaling deeply. Then she placed her hands on her thighs and began a slow, deep rhythm. Ray trembled with each downward stroke. She was warm and snug around him and he ached with the need for release.

She leaned down for a kiss, and he felt his orgasm shooting through him the moment her lips touched his. Her body shuddered a heartbeat longer, then she lay limply atop him, drained with the force of her own orgasm.

Exhausted and sweaty, they drifted off to sleep, only to awaken numerous times during the night to slake the passion that burned red-hot between them again and again until the dreams merged with the pleasure and the pleasure seemed almost a dream.

*~*~*

The following day

Fraser was worried. He knew Ray could be (and often was) late to work, but he'd rarely made a promise to Fraser that he hadn't kept. Ray had promised to meet Fraser to pick him up for work, but it was now three hours later than the promised time. He'd tried calling, but no one had answered. A check with Lt. Welsh, Ray's commanding officer, had revealed that Ray hadn't shown up yet for work. In Fraser's experience, that meant a trip to Ray's apartment to actually get him out of bed.

Fraser was surprised when a woman wearing nothing but a baggy T-shirt emblazoned with the Chicago PD logo answered his knock. It took him a moment to place her. He felt heat start to rise up his neck as he realized that she apparently had spent the night with Ray. Unconsciously, he tugged at the collar of his tunic.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he said apologetically, "but Ray's late for work, and--"

"My fault," she interrupted, smiling. She opened the door wider. "I'm Cait Donovan. We met the other day, remember? You're the owner of the wolf."

"Yes, yes, I am," Fraser affirmed as he stepped into the apartment. "Benton Fraser, RCMP."

"I wouldn't have guessed," she noted dryly, her swift gaze taking in the red serge he wore. Belatedly, he remembered she'd already known his occupation. "Hang on, I'll wake Ray up." She didn't leave him a chance to argue the point, but disappeared into the bedroom. He heard her mutter under her breath, "Damn it, just what I need, another cop in my life," and frowned. He wondered why she sounded so bitter, and decided that perhaps she was just not a morning person.

Knowing Ray was useless without coffee, he started a pot. Logically, he knew there was no reason to suspect Cait of being anything other than what she appeared to be, yet he couldn't shake the sense that she was trouble. He tried to dismiss the feeling, preferring to stick to the facts as he knew them. Still, the impression refused to fade.

Cait emerged a few minutes later just as the coffee finished brewing. She now wore a slightly creased black dress and flats. A Rolex watch adorned her right wrist, gleaming as it caught the morning sunlight spilling through the living room windows. Fraser noted this even as he poured a mug full of coffee, found the bag of Smarties Ray kept stashed in the shelf across the kitchen from the coffeepot and poured exactly seven candies into the hot liquid.

"You might want to take him this," Fraser suggested.

She took the proffered mug and smiled. "He was muttering something about coffee," she acknowledged. "I'll be right back."

Fraser waited patiently. Cait returned, sans mug, and headed for the door.

"Nice meeting you," she said in lieu of good-bye.

Ray entered the living room a short while later, dressed for work. "Sorry, Fraser," he apologized. "I met her last night, and I guess I got a little... uh... "

"Sidetracked," Fraser offered blandly. "Distracted, diverted, preoccupied, otherwise involved, engrossed— "

"Yeah," Ray accepted with a grin, cutting off the litany of synonyms. "That's the word for it. C'mon, let's go before Welsh takes my badge."

"As you wish, Ray."

Two weeks passed. Fraser saw less of his partner during off-duty hours as he spent more time with Cait. While he couldn't help but be happy for Ray, Fraser was concerned. Ray could be intense, even a bit obsessive, when it came to relationships. Fraser could only hope that Cait had the capacity to balance Ray's passion.

He decided to check out Cait Donovan. However, when he went to look up the information, he saw that Francesca was at her desk. Aware that the Italian-American woman still saw Ray as her adopted brother, Fraser decided to wait for another time when she wouldn't be around to see him researching Ray's girlfriend. Unfortunately, every time he started towards the civilian aide's desk, other matters intervened and he never got the chance.

Cait was running late. She swore as she dashed through the police station; she'd nearly forgotten about the meeting with her parole officer. She'd been too caught up in decorating the office for Halloween, which was just two days away. Only her assistant's arrival had reminded her of the time.

Officer Judd would never win any beauty contests; she looked as though she'd undergone a not-too-successful gender transformation. Built like a quarterback, every line of her face reflected a lifetime spent dealing with the residents of the underside of life. Sympathy had long been bled out of her. To say that she was a Pollyanna would have been like saying the Titanic hadn't sunk.

Cait skidded to a stop in front of Judd's desk. "I'm here," she announced breathlessly.

"You're late, Donovan," Judd noted dryly. "Sit down."

"Yes, ma'am." Cait complied and tried to slow her breathing down.

"It's been six weeks since we last spoke," Judd began. "You've surprised me, Donovan. Didn't think you'd make it. Sign these forms, stating that you and I have discussed your progress, and we'll call it a day."

Cait smiled. "Then I won't ever have to talk to you again, will I?"

Judd grunted and shuffled some papers. "Don't go getting ideas, now. You still have one more visit before you're fully free of the system." She laid the necessary paperwork in front of Cait. "Then I don't doubt you'll be back my way again in no time."

For once, Cait didn't let the officer's comments irk her as they normally did. All she could think of was she was one step closer to freedom. Smiling hugely, she decided tonight would be a perfect time to celebrate.

Fraser was in the hallway, headed for Ray's desk with some information, when he thought he saw Cait leaving the station. When he was able to make his way to where he'd thought he'd seen her last, she was gone.

He frowned, well aware that Ray was not at the station. There wasn't any reason for her to be there during the day, not when she had a business to run, unless something had happened to said business. A quick check of the incident reports for the day revealed that hadn't been the case. He looked to see if she had left a note for Ray, something to indicate that she'd been there, but she hadn't.

Perhaps she meant to surprise him, and then saw that he wasn't in, he thought.

Yet a look at the visitor log showed she hadn't been in to see Ray at all. Her name was listed, but her destination had been elsewhere in the station.

What business does she have to do with a parole officer? he wondered.

He had no time to ponder on this further, since Lt. Welsh saw him just then.

"I've been looking all over for you," the heavyset commanding officer declared. "There's a witness in interview one who says he'll only talk to the Mountie. Kowalski just tried, but the guy's insistent."

"Ray's back?" Fraser asked, following the lieutenant to the interview room.

"Just got back from questioning that dealer," Lt. Welsh confirmed. "He said to tell you it was a waste of time. The guy doesn't have anything to do with Mrs. Smith's missing cat. He just happened to be in the alley at the time Mrs. Smith noticed her cat was missing."

"Understood. Thank you kindly, Lieutenant."

"So who is she, Ray?" Frannie asked.

"Who?" Ray answered absently.

"The one who's got you mooning around here in love."

"I am not mooning anyone." Realizing what he'd said, Ray backtracked, "I mean, I'm not whatever it is you said."

The Italian-American woman scoffed. "C'mon, Ray, who do you think you're fooling? I am the queen of romance, and I can see it in your eyes."

"Oh yeah?" Ray shot back defensively. "So how come you haven't found Mr. Right yet?"

"These things take time," she said loftily. "Besides, we weren't talking about me, we were talking about you. What's her name?"

"Cait," Ray answered before he could stop himself.

Frannie smiled smugly. "Cait, that's pretty. So when are you gonna bring her around? Has Fraser met her?"

"Yes, I have met Cait," Fraser replied from behind Frannie.

She jumped. "Fraser! You startled me!" Suddenly all flustered, Frannie missed the grateful look Ray shot his partner. "So," she smiled at Fraser, "has the love bug caught you yet?"

"Get a clue, Frannie. Bugs don't stick to him," Ray told her before Fraser could answer, distracting her again.

As he'd hoped, she shot him a disgusted glare, then flounced off.

Both men sighed in relief when she was out of earshot.

"So what did the guy in interview room one want?" Ray asked, knowing that was where Fraser had been.

"Just someone to listen to him. He took a company car out past the date he was due to return it and his boss reported the car stolen. Mr. Fairlane had signed a document stating that he was responsible for returning the vehicle three days ago, regardless of personal circumstances."

"So? He signed the paper, he should've returned it."

"True enough, Ray, but he claims his employer should have been more understanding because he did use the vehicle to drive to the airport for a business meeting that ran longer than anticipated."

Ray shook his head. "So his boss is a prick. Big deal. Is Fairlane happy now?"

Fraser nodded. "I believe so, yes." He tugged at his collar, frowning slightly. "Though I don't think he was entirely pleased to learn that I don't drink."

Ray stared at his friend, eyes narrowing. If he wasn't mistaken, Fraser had just stated that he'd been propositioned. Just as Ray was about to confirm that, he heard Lt. Welsh call his name. Sighing, wondering what he was going to have to explain to his commander next, Ray rose from his desk and went where he'd been summoned.

"We got a tip that some group named the Protect the Earth Association is planning something big," Lt. Welsh informed them. "I need you two to go and check them out."

Fraser, who stood nearest Welsh, took the address the lieutenant handed him.

"So what are we looking for?" Ray wanted to know. "Cos you know we can't just go up and ask them if they're gonna blow up something."

"It might be nothing or it might be some window breaking, maybe a bomb," Lt. Welsh admitted. "But I need you to at least find out who they are."

Protect the Earth's offices turned out to be in a row of mostly vacant offices/warehouse spaces near the docks. A reed-thin waif of a receptionist who looked like the next strong wind would blow him over greeted them.

"Welcome to Protect the Earth," the receptionist, whose nameplate identified him as Mike Benjamin, greeted them. "Have you come to join our cause?"

"Yeah," Ray interjected before Fraser could speak. "We're really worried about what happens." Both partners watched as a burly security guard appeared behind Mike and sized them up.

Mike's eyes met with the guard's. Forty seconds — Fraser counted them — passed before the guard stepped back, still hanging on the edge of the L-shaped reception desk, only poised a little more casually than he had been previously.

"Yes, of course," Mike said smoothly. From a drawer, he extracted a pile of pamphlets. With great flourish, he presented the glossy tri-folded paper to Fraser and Ray. "We have a rally on Saturday; you're welcome to join us then. You'll find the information in the pamphlet I just gave you. Or, if you'd like to make a contribution to the cause right now, I'd be happy to take it on behalf of Protect the Earth."

Ray ignored it and stepped closer to Mike, watching the guard's reaction. As he expected, the guard's position shifted. "You expecting trouble?"

Mike's lips thinned. "We've had a few incidents," he said disgustedly. "You'd think more people would support us, instead of wanting to kill us."

"You've received death threats?" Fraser asked.

"It's nothing to be concerned with," a new voice spoke. "People will always try to kill what they do not understand, what they fear, and we represent a new voice of reason."

Fraser and Ray turned to see a tall Caucasian man enter the room. A dark navy suit jacket was draped over broad shoulders. He had a face that should've been gentle but wasn't; life had been cruel to him, and it showed in the stern set of his jaw, the flare of suspicion in his unsmiling eyes, the harsh curve of his beak-like nose. A kinder, more rotund man might have been mistaken for a young, Mediterranean-born Santa Claus. Arrogance cloaked him as if it was another layer to his expensive suit.

Ray took an instant dislike to the man. The guy had "smalltime hood makes big" written in neon all over him. "And you are?"

"Gregor Kulik," the newcomer announced, as if Ray should've known that fact already. "I'm the director of Protect the Earth. We are committed to preserving the environment, especially Lake Michigan, which has been abused by man for so long. I do hope you are here to participate in our cause. Unless, of course, there is something else I can help you gentlemen with?" He stared pointedly at Fraser, who was sniffing the air experimentally.

"No," Ray said. "I think we've heard enough. Come on, Fraser, let's go."

"Thank you kindly," Fraser said in lieu of good-bye.

"You wanted something, sir?" Mike asked Kulik as soon as the door shut behind the two officers.

"Call Travis and get me Donovan," Kulik ordered. "We no longer have time to waste."

"Donovan?" Mike asked, puzzled.

"Shut your ears," Kulik ordered. The receptionist, too used to his employer's mercurial moods, obliged by walking away from his station. Kulik then turned to the security guard. "She is out of prison, now, isn't she, Vincent?"

"Three years now," Vincent replied. "I kept track of her for you, boss."

"Good," Greg said condescendingly. "It's what I paid you to do."

*~*~*

Earlier that same day

The phone rang just as Cait walked into her apartment with an armload of groceries. Out of long habit, she let the machine screen the call as she put away her purchases. Her mind was on the dinner she had planned; she was in the mood to celebrate, and Ray was supposed to come over to her apartment that night with Fraser and Diefenbaker to watch videos. In her mind, that would be the perfect opportunity to have a small party, though she knew she wasn't going to tell them the exact reason why. Instinctively, she knew her past wouldn't go over well with two officers of the law.

"Hi. You've reached 555-6925. I'm sorry I can't answer the phone right now. Leave a message and then wait by the phone until I call you back."

"Hello, Cait," a male voice drawled.

The two-liter bottle of soda she had just been about to stick in the refrigerator crashed to the floor. Numbly, she watched it roll away from her across the tile floor of her kitchen.

Rolling away, she thought with an odd sense of detachment, like everything I've managed to build in the last two and a half years.

"You've been a clever girl, you know. Putting your new place in someone else's name, that was brilliant. Then again, I wouldn't expect any less from the best forger this side of the Atlantic. If it weren't for your ever-so helpful neighbor at your old place, I would've never found you."

Without being told, Cait knew her former neighbor was dead. Though she had never really liked the old woman's nosiness, Cait hadn't disliked her enough to want her dead. Her heart ached at the thought.

"Let me get to the point, Cait. I need you. Protect the Earth needs you. You, my dear friend, need me."

"I don't need anyone," Cait whispered. She shut her mind to the memory of how Ray had eased her loneliness. Despite the long hours his job demanded, he'd still managed to find time to be with her.

"Don't forget, Cait, I know everything about you."

"No, you don't," she protested.

"You're so close to being free from parole now, aren't you? You don't want to go back into prison, now do you?"

She'd been so afraid to be in prison, she recalled. The moment the steel doors had clanked shut, her fear had grown. She hadn't expected to be; she'd made a living dealing with some of the most disreputable people in the world. She'd thought herself ready to pay for the crimes she'd committed, but the reality of prison had been a culture shock.

Moreover, she'd been certain that the Watchers would come to her rescue, be willing to protect their own. After all, the organization needed her skills; at least, that's what she had been told when she'd been recruited. She'd been devastated to discover that, in their eyes, she had crossed an invisible line and become the worst kind of Watcher imaginable: a Hunter, someone who interfered with the Game for her own personal gain.

It hadn't mattered that she was supposed to have meekly accepted death at the hands of a psychotic Immortal, and that she had wanted very much to live. It hadn't mattered that said Immortal was one of the most evil players in the Game, and had been judged worthy of death several times in her long life for the same heinous crimes. No, it hadn't mattered at all.

Cait hugged herself as the memories tumbled through her. No one from the organization had come to support her. Some part of her had realized that without risking the entire organization and revealing the truth about Immortals, the Watchers couldn't defend her. Still, she had hoped for a friendly face, someone who understood the cold, lonely, frightening place in which she found herself. She'd been crushed to discover that she'd been judged in absentia and expelled from the organization. The only thing that had saved her from being executed by the Watchers for her treason was the fact that they had fully expected her to be killed by the state of New York as unishment for her crime.

As Cait had been discovered moments after she'd cut the Immortal's head off, the case had been decided in a matter of hours, and Cait had been left to fend for herself in a den of wolves. She'd learned quickly that if she wanted to survive, she had to pay a price, and she quickly learned how to barter for the things she wanted. Shortly after her early release from prison, Gregor Kulik had shown up, demanding her services. He'd claimed he'd heard about her skills from some mutual friends. She had performed a small transaction, a simple matter of new identification, but then he had demanded more. He wanted to own her, body and soul. She'd gone along for five months, not seeing any harm in living the high life Kulik had provided, not having anywhere else to go, until she'd realized just what her documentation and research skills were being used for.

Cait closed her eyes, listening to the voice and hating herself for it, hating the memories that swept over her, hating the reminder that she still wasn't free. She'd hoped that with relocating, she could hide from Kulik. She'd believed herself to be safe when his henchmen hadn't found her, believed that the information she'd obtained about Kulik's whereabouts to be accurate. She'd forgotten that a lot could change in a few weeks and cursed herself.

When the call was over, she rose to her feet.

Picked up her answering machine.

And threw it against the far wall.

For a long moment, she stood there, not really seeing the wreckage. Then, ever so carefully, she picked up the broken machine and tossed it into the trash.

Garbage, just like my life, she thought numbly.

As if on autopilot, she picked up her keys and jacket and headed for the door. Some part of her recognized she was running with no clear destination in mind. All that mattered, though, was that she wasn't going to hear the phone ring, wouldn't feel the walls closing in on her.

There wasn't anywhere she could hide, really. Kulik had the gift of time on his side; she didn't. She knew all too well that the only way to disappear was to not leave a paper trail, and avoid all contact with other people. She wasn't ready or willing to do that. The only thing she could do was warn the police, and hope that they got to Kulik before he got to her.

*~*~*

Later that afternoon, at the station, Ray and Fraser were trying to obtain more information about Protect the Earth's principals.

"Gregor Kulik," Frannie announced, reading from the computer screen. "Russian national, no convictions, but his file is tagged because he was seen in the company of Adrik Varvarinski, AKA Alexei Voishin, who's believed to have connections with the Russian Mafia. Why don't they just say he's a major creep and be done with it?"

"That is not a criminal offense," Fraser answered her.

"Ought to be," Frannie said stubbornly.

"What about Mike Benjamin?" Ray suggested. "Anything on him?"

Frannie tapped a few keys, then shook her head. "A couple of unpaid parking tickets, otherwise he's clean."

"What about the death threats? Anyone reported them?" Ray asked.

Frannie entered the request in the computer. After a few minutes of waiting, she shook her head. "Nothing."

"Then why the hell did he mention them?" Ray exploded.

"Perhaps," Fraser suggested after a moment, "to distract us from the real purpose of their organization. You wouldn't have happened to have smelled petroleum while we were there, would you?"

Ray threw up his hands. "How should I know? You're the one who goes around smelling and tasting everything."

Fraser started to respond, then decided against it. Ray was in an explosive mood, and Fraser knew the best thing to do was to not to annoy him further. He reminded himself that the wind had been blowing from the east. As close as they had been to Lake Michigan and to a gas station a block up the street, it was conceivable that he had smelled either a shipment being transported or the refueling of the underground tanks of the gas station. He decided to remain silent for the moment.

Frustrated, Ray paced. "There's gotta be some dirt on them somewhere. Did you see that office, Fraser?"

"I was there, Ray."

"No, no," Ray said, gesturing wildly. "That location. The furniture."

Fraser thought for a moment. "The reception desk was solid mahogany of recent manufacture. The carpet appeared to be a unique make, not your standard office carpet in either texture, weave, or pattern. The paint on the walls did not appear to be standard, either." He paused, thinking through his observations. "The location of the office suggests that Protect the Earth rented cheaply."

"Isn't this group supposed to be one of those save the rainforest groups?" Frannie interjected. "Why would they choose wood furniture if they were concerned about the environment?"

Fraser and Ray exchanged looks.

"Perhaps the furniture was from the previous tenant?" Fraser suggested.

"Not likely," Ray shot back. "That stuff looked new and expensive." He paused. "Maybe that's why they have to raise money — they spent it all on furniture."

"Francesca, would it be possible for you to check the financial records of the organization?" Fraser suggested.

"Anything for you, Fraser," she promised, causing Ray to roll his eyes. "It'll take a while, though."

"Thank you kindly, Francesca," Fraser responded.

*~*~*

Later that evening, Ray knocked on Cait's door and frowned when he received no answer. Glancing at Fraser, he knocked again. He was about to pick the lock when he saw Cait coming up the stairs.

For a frozen moment, she seemed startled to see them, as if they had arrived too early. Her expression darkened with an unreadable emotion, and he would've sworn he'd seen fear in her eyes. Then she seemed to pull herself out of her trance and stepped forward to kiss him in greeting.

As always, the passion flared like a blowtorch between them, and Ray forgot everything except the feel of her lips and the brush of her body against his. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard Fraser clear his throat, dragging him back into reality.

Reluctantly, Ray broke the kiss. Cait's eyes opened slowly, as if she had been drugged, and she took a shuddering breath.

"I'd better open the door," she said, a little too brightly.

"Perhaps I'd better leave you two alone," Fraser suggested as Cait fumbled with her keys.

"No!" Cait protested sharply, dropping her keys, and with them, the oversized purse she carried. Something heavy clicked inside the purse; to Fraser's ears, it sounded metallic, perhaps a weapon of some kind. She took a deep breath, vividly aware of the two men's eyes on her. "I mean, it's okay, Fraser. I just had an awful time in traffic." She picked up her keys and thrust the correct one into the deadbolt, pushing open the door as she did so. Then she grabbed her purse.

Stepping inside, she flipped on a light switch and set her purse on the coffee table in the living room.

The men followed her inside as she fished out two videocassettes from the oversized purse. A piece of paper fluttered to the floor as she did so, and Fraser caught the sight of a dagger sheathed in leather sticking out from inside of the open purse.

"So, what will it be?" she asked them. "Comedy or action?"

"Action," Ray voted.

"Fraser?" Cait asked.

"Whatever you decide is fine," Fraser said noncommittally.

He bent down to pick up the fallen piece of paper, only to have Cait snatch it out of his fingertips before he could read what was all on the sheet. He did, however, manage to catch the name of a bank at the top, and from the size of the slip, surmised it was probably an ATM receipt.

She flashed him an apologetic smile. He straightened his body, not quite sure how to interpret her actions. He hadn't spent a lot of time with her, and he'd left Diefenbaker at home specifically so that he could get to know her better without having to worry about the wolf's behavior. Diefenbaker had objected to him going, but as Fraser had caught the wolf in the act of stealing from a bakery around the corner from his apartment, Fraser had felt justified in leaving Diefenbaker behind.

Looking around her apartment, he was struck by a sense of having been in exactly the same place before, and reasoned it was merely because the furniture was mass-produced pieces. While this seemed like a reasonable expectation, the feeling of deja vu remained, nagging at him and adding to his sense that something wasn't entirely right. Long after he'd bid Ray and Cait goodnight, Fraser tried to interject a shot of reason into the nameless fear building within him.

He stared up at the ceiling as he lay in bed that night, willing the sensation to subside. As if in sympathy, Diefenbaker padded over to him and nudged him gently.

"Perhaps I should mention this to Ray," Fraser mused.

Diefenbaker woofed.

"You're right. I should wait. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness and perhaps an overactive imagination. If I mention this to Ray, he will probably accuse me of being jealous and petty."

The wolf looked at him.

"Well, I don't resent the time he spends with her, but it does take some getting used to," Fraser explained hurriedly.

A snort was his companion's reply.

"What do you think of her?"

The wolf barked sharply and shook his head, causing Fraser to frown and rub an eyebrow in a gesture of frustration. "You don't approve of her."

Dief regarded him soberly and made a low noise in his throat.

"She is good for him, from what I've seen," Fraser pointed out. "He certainly seems a lot calmer than usual. It is true, though, that what I know of her is minimal, and I should try to get to know her better before I make any hasty judgments. You should do the same."

The wolf huffed indignantly, but Fraser wasn't listening, too relieved at having made that decision. Rolling over in his bed, Fraser closed his eyes and was soon asleep.

"You sure you don't want a ride home?" Ray asked as Fraser poured over financial reports related to Protect the Earth the following evening. "This money stuff can wait till tomorrow. C'mon, Frase, it's quitting time, you know, the whistle blows, woo hoo, pitter patter, time to go."

"No, that's all right, Ray. It's a nice evening for a walk. Go on, I know you have a date with Cait tonight."

Diefenbaker chose that moment to lift his head and stare at Ray intently. Fraser noticed only because the movement caused the wolf's head to brush against his leg, and wondered at the cause.

"Fraser, it's supposed to snow."

Fraser looked at him mildly.

He sighed impatiently and rolled his eyes. "Duh. I forgot. You're Canadian; this ain't nothing for you. Okay, Fraser, I'm outta here. See you tomorrow."

From his position at Fraser's feet, Diefenbaker rose and padded over to Ray. Fraser frowned as he realized his animal companion had been acting oddly protective of Ray lately. He made a mental note to discuss it with Diefenbaker at a later time.

"Hey, buddy," Ray said, rustling the wolf's neck affectionately. "You take care of Fraser for me, all right?"

Diefenbaker barked sharply, and Ray chuckled. "Yeah, yeah, I'll take care of myself." He grinned wickedly, then walked backwards out the door, turning at the last second to stride, whistling cheerfully, down the hallway.

Fraser smiled, and thought again of how good Cait seemed to be for his friend.

Diefenbaker followed Ray as far as the hallway, then whined, clearly torn between staying and leaving.

"No, you can't go," Fraser told him firmly. "You have been acting very strangely lately. What is wrong with you?"

Diefenbaker chose to ignore him, opting instead to wander instead down the hallway. Sighing in frustration, Fraser returned his attention to the mass of data.

An hour and a half later, he was about ready to call it a night when something on the last page of financial reports caught his eye.

A check in the amount of several thousand dollars had been written to an individual Fraser recognized. He sat there with his fingers framing the incriminating document, his body going rigid with shock.

"No," he breathed unsteadily.

He didn't want to believe what was in black and white. For an agonizing moment, he tried to tell himself that it was someone else with the same name, just an unexpected occurrence, a mere coincidence.

Trying to reassure himself, he ran the name through the computer, looking for proof that would tell him that his instinct was wrong.

The computer obligingly gave him an answer.

It wasn't very reassuring. In fact, if anything, it only made things worse.

The words on the screen seemed to stand out in vibrant detail. Charged with second degree murder, she had served six years before being conditionally released as part of a measure to resolve overcrowding in New York's prison system. Six months after her release, she had dutifully reported her move to Chicago, whereupon she had continued to follow the conditions of her parole.

Still in shock, Fraser stared at the standard police photograph displayed on the screen. Though it was three years old and taken at the time of her release from prison, he could see that she hadn't changed much. He glanced over the list of identifying features. Hope rose inside of him when he read "trefoil tattoo on left wrist" before he remembered seeing the scar where a tattoo had mostly likely been.

The memory of seeing a similar tattoo on another woman inspired him to check the woman's address. The computer responded with another nail into her coffin: the apartment was rented out to Nick Wolfe.

Curious, Fraser thought. What does she have to do with a man we arrested for murder last year, the same officer who arrested her and sent her to prison? It doesn't make sense that she would willingly befriend him; most criminals blame the arresting officers for their problems rather than themselves for getting placed in a correctional facility. What does that tattoo signify? More importantly, what was she paid by Kulik to do? Murder? Forgery? Her record shows she's capable of both. She is armed with what has to be a recently purchased dagger, so that leaves murder open as a strong possibility, though I doubt she means to cause harm to Ray.

He looked again at the financial statement and reread the name. The rereading didn't lessen the shock of it, didn't make his heart ache any less with the knowledge of the task ahead of him.

Even supposing she has gone straight, Fraser mused, Ray needs to know this information. It does pertain to the case we are investigating. If she has gone straight, perhaps she can be of some assistance to us. Still, I do not believe that Ray will take this well.

Resigned to the truth, and with Diefenbaker beside him Fraser picked up his hat and headed out into the night. He needed time to digest the information and plan how to break the news to Ray.

*~*~*

In the early morning light, Cait watched Ray sleep. Even in slumber, he didn't seem all that relaxed, as if he could fight the memories his subconscious would twist into nightmares. Still, she smiled, her heart surging with an emotion she didn't dare name. She shifted position, careful not to wake him with her action. Under the tousled, midnight blue sheets, his wiry body was naked, silent testimony to the previous night's lovemaking.

She didn't know what to tell him. Instinctively, she wanted to trust him with her secrets, yet experience had her holding back. She'd been betrayed by a cop before, her life as she'd known it taken away. Though she'd come to know Ray, she wondered if he only showed her one side of his personality. People had all kinds of masks, Cait knew, faces they showed to certain people in certain situations. In her experience, everyone had little defense mechanisms to protect themselves from getting hurt, and hiding bits of personality was one of the easiest to develop. Her mother would have called it "smiling and going with the flow." She had no doubt the "cop" side of Ray was different than the lover she'd come to know.

Still, she hoped it wasn't.

She drew a breath and closed her eyes.

Getting involved with a cop was a mistake. You knew it from the beginning, yet you couldn't stop yourself.

She opened her eyes, seeing her hand resting on Ray's chest. It looked and felt so right laying there, it made her heart ache.

Is it wrong to want to be happy for once? Just let me dream that this is real, that we're just normal people with no secrets between us, no lies, no hidden facets to our personalities. God, I've been mostly good. Surely helping people find new lives isn't all that bad compared to what Kulik wants to do if he got enough money and the paperwork he needs. Please, let me dream this dream, she prayed silently.

Needing to touch, to fill the empty darkness that dimmed the light in her soul, a light Ray had ignited, Cait ran her fingers through his spiky blond hair. It wasn't enough. She stroked the planes of his angular face, needing to memorize them with the urgency of one told she would be blind soon. If only his arms would hold her for this moment in time, she could pretend that forever was within her grasp.

Some part of her knew she was only kidding herself; the knowledge added a layer of desperation as she kissed him, rousing him with her passion. The touch of his hands was almost unbearable in its answering tenderness. She wanted to lash out at the gentleness, the love he showed her even as the tears started to well in her eyes. She didn't deserve his love, she wanted to say, but the words lodged her throat.

"Hey," he whispered. "It's okay, Cait. I'm here, don't cry." He sat up in bed and wrapped his arms around her, tucking her in as close to him as was possible.

She sniffled and shook her head. "Don't go," she begged, hating the way her voice hitched on the words.

"I won't," he vowed. "Tell me what's wrong."

She turned slightly in his embrace, moving so that she straddled his hips and faced him. She stared into his eyes, seeing confusion and love in his expression. She closed her eyes against a surge of pain and drew a deep breath.

The words, "I'm a criminal on the run from an Immortal psychotic who wants to poison Lake Michigan" just didn't want to come springing out of her mouth. She nearly giggled hysterically at the thought. As if you thought it was going to be simple? a voice in her head sneered.

She swallowed convulsively and, blinking away the tears and the laughter, looked up at the ceiling. Not trusting her voice, she shook her head again. Then she looked at him.

Ray was watching her intently, concerned. The purity of his caring for her was like a balm to her soul, and she ached with the healing. Some part of her knew she'd forever be scarred by him, branded as his in places she hadn't dared share with anyone else. Her heart felt like it was going to burst with the feelings tumbling through her. She couldn't bear to look at him anymore, so she turned her head and began to nuzzle the length of his forearm from his elbow to his wrist.

"Hey, whatcha doin'?" he demanded, laughing softly as the motion tickled him.

His laughter died as she licked and nipped her way back up his arm, pausing only to grasp his hand and then lick each of his fingers in turn. He shuddered, and she knew he was reacting to the way she was mimicking a more intimate action with her tongue.

She wasn't satisfied with that, though. Dropping his hand, she lavished attention to his mouth, neck, and chest before moving south. She needed to show him how she felt, needed to feel him fill her completely. Suddenly it seemed as though she had only a few minutes left in which to give of herself, to express every nuance of her love for him. The sense that she'd been living a fantasy was strong; it sounded like the ticking of a bomb, and she tried to erase the sound with the music of Ray's breathless moans as she brought him to climax.

It wasn't enough, and she slipped up his body to taste the sweat on his smooth chest, to tangle his tongue with hers once more.

Cait was ruthless in her needs; though Ray tried to temper her desperation, he was helpless against her urgency and skill. She used her knowledge of his responses to her touch to light his desire. His tormented groans were mere kindling on the fire that drove her as their bodies rocked together. She felt half ice and half flame. Though she could feel the heat of his body course down the entire length of hers, she couldn't seem to get warm enough, couldn't quite chase out the darkness in her soul. Cait's heart exploded with love and anguish as the flames built to flash point, then died.

"Shh," Ray's voice soothed her. It took her a minute to realize she was still shaking, and that her trembling had nothing to do with the aftershocks of passion. She was equally surprised to find tears streaming down her cheeks. "Shh, it's okay. I'm here," he repeated, over and over.

Eventually, Cait let go. "I'm okay," she told him.

He looked at her, not quite sure whether to believe her. Apparently, he decided he did, for he said, "I'm starving. Wanna do lunch and maybe a movie after?"

"After I shower," she agreed.

He smiled at her, then kissed her lightly before rolling out of bed.

"Ray, would you get that?" Cait called from the shower as the phone rang a half hour later. "My answering machine's broken, but tell whoever it is I'll be right out."

Cait had left the bathroom door open, so Ray heard her clearly in the living room of the apartment. Following her directions, Ray snagged the cordless phone off the coffee table and hit the talk button. "Hello?" he ventured cautiously. "Cait Donovan's residence."

"Is Cait there?" a male voice asked. For some reason, the voice sounded vaguely familiar to Ray.

Cait emerged from the bathroom, toweling her hair dry with an oversized bath sheet.

"She just got out of the shower, hang on." Not waiting for a confirmation, Ray walked over to Cait and handed her the phone.

She dropped the towel to take possession of the instrument, then tucked the phone between her ear and her shoulder. She picked up the towel and deposited it in the bathroom. Ray watched her, admiring her casual nudity as she wandered into the bedroom to grab clothes. Her caller seemed to be the one doing the majority of the speaking; as far as Ray could tell, her end of the conversation was limited to sounds of confirmation.

Cait slipped on a white, long-sleeved camp shirt over the bra she'd apparently put on in the bedroom. She buttoned the shirt as she strolled into the kitchen, still on the phone. She then pulled on a pair of jeans while seated on one of the kitchen stools.

"I won't do that," Cait argued as she zipped up her jeans. "No. I'm not fucking doing that anymore. Goddamn it."

She listened for a moment. "I said no, you bastard," she reiterated angrily. "Can't you understand I'm not— " Cait broke off, apparently realizing she had an audience. Agitated, she strode back into the bedroom and shut the door.

Ray's internal radar was screaming. Something was not entirely right here. He was tempted to eavesdrop, but just as he moved to do so, Cait came out of the bedroom. Ray noticed she now wore boots.

"For the last time, I said no." Angrily, she hung up the phone, and took a deep, shuddering breath.

"Something wrong?" Ray asked.

Cait smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "It's nothing," she said. "Just an old client who thinks I can perform miracles."

"Pretty persistent, huh?"

"Yeah," Cait agreed, rolling her eyes theatrically. "You wouldn't believe." Changing the subject, she said, "You wanted to go to lunch and a movie, didn't you?"

Suddenly suspicious, Ray didn't answer for a long moment. Cait's odd behavior in the last twenty-four hours troubled him. Yet he couldn't deny that she had been the first woman he'd felt connected to on a soul to soul level. Stella had been the love he'd always thought would be there; so familiar he'd taken it for granted that it would always remain, a slow burning ember in a relationship that spanned so much shared experience. There had been other women Ray had wanted, other women he'd been attracted to, but nothing had quite been like this. Instinctively, he knew this went beyond love at first sight into something deeper, something more rare. He had to fight the urge to tear it apart, as if by destroying it, he could prove it had been real.

Come on, Kowalski, a voice in his head urged, don't ruin it like you did with Leann Russell. You were so ready to believe she was bad when she wasn't. You blew your chances with her big time, and you hadn't even slept with her.

Ray looked at her, seeing her puzzled yet patient smile as she waited for a reply. If anyone's the loser here, it's you, Kowalski. She wants to be with you. Can't you be happy with that? the voice in his head insisted.

He took a deep breath.

Swallowed.

And let his heart lead the way.

"Yeah, we'd better get going."

Sitting in the darkened theater, engrossed in the movie, Ray nearly jumped when he felt his cell phone vibrate. He swore quietly.

"What is it?" Cait whispered.

"Probably Fraser," Ray said. "I'll just be a minute."

"You hope," Cait replied, a smile in her voice. She was aware from Ray's stories that Fraser got Ray involved in some convoluted cases. "Go on, I'll let you know how the movie turns out."

Ray was suddenly glad that they'd decided to drive separate cars to the theater, as he'd planned to head straight over to his apartment afterwards to pick up a change of clothes, while Cait had mentioned that she needed to do some grocery shopping. He made his way past the other patrons and down the stairs to the hallway leading out to the lobby. He answered the phone just as it rang for the fifth time and stepped out to the lobby.

"This better be good, Fraser," he greeted.

A heartbeat later, the phone fell from nerveless fingers, crashing onto the floor. It was scooped up quickly by a stranger.

*~*~*

An hour later, Cait stepped out of the theater She glanced around, hoping to see Ray, but not seeing him.

Guess he had to go help Fraser, she thought. He missed a great movie.

Shrugging, she strode to her car, then gasped.

The classic car's windows had been smashed. Horrified, Cait stepped closer to examine the damage. Her heart lodged her throat as she recognized Ray's black leather jacket and badge tossed onto the driver's seat. A note had been tucked underneath his badge.

Gingerly, she reached past the glass to pick it up.

The note read simply, "Cooperate, Cait."

She dropped it as if it was on fire and started running. Cait didn't stop until she was nearly out of breath, fear driving her beyond reason. She eventually ended up in a phone booth far from the movie theater Gasping, she leaned against the glass walls, wishing her heart would stop racing. When she felt she had regained some semblance of normal, she picked up the receiver and began dialing.

The digitized voice of directory information cheerfully prompted her. "What city, please?"

"Torago."

"What state?"

"Illinois."

"Thank you," the computer said in the same gratingly cheerful voice. Cait wanted to smack it into next Wednesday; she felt far from cheerful. "What listing?"

"Nicholas Phelan."

"Thank you," the computer said again. "One moment please, while the operator looks for that number."

God, I hope you're still using the identification I made you, Wolfe, Cait prayed. I don't know who else to turn to.

The computer supplied her the number, and she quickly memorized it, then dialed.

The phone rang once.

Twice.

Thrice.

Cait closed her eyes and hoped for an answering machine.

Six times.

Swearing, Cait hung up and dialed information again. She had to find Wolfe somehow.

*~*~*

Across town, Fraser awoke from a nap to the sound of Diefenbaker barking.

"What?" he asked the wolf groggily. "What's the matter? Is something on fire?"

Diefenbaker regarded him impatiently, and with what could only be called a "No, stupid, it's something else" look.

Fraser narrowed his eyes, then shook his head as the only other possibility occurred to him. "Ray."

He ignored Diefenbaker's sharp, reproachful yip as he thrust his legs into a pair of jeans, threw on his boots, lacing them swiftly, then tossed on his leather jacket over a hastily donned red flannel shirt and set his Stetson firmly on his head. He didn't question how he knew Ray was in trouble.

He only knew that his partner was.

*~*~*

Ray awoke slowly. His head pounded as if he had a massive hangover, and he quickly discovered he'd been bound and handcuffed to a support pillar in a warehouse. Black barrels surrounded him. For one long moment, Ray wished he didn't have his glasses on. Dread settled like lead in his stomach as he recognized the labels on the barrels.

Oil.

Enough gallons of crude oil to fill a tanker, he guessed. Fraser would know exactly how much. Probably know how much it weighed on Mars, too. The thought wasn't in the least reassuring, and he swallowed past a lump in his throat.

Visions of being burned alive flashed through his head, and he struggled against the ropes that bound him. He succeeded only in exhausting himself and getting rope burns.

He swore and hoped whoever had him didn't have Cait as well.

Just then, the sound of approaching footsteps echoed through the warehouse. Panicking, Ray fought against his bonds again.

"Really, Detective Kowalski," a male voice drawled, "surely by now you know how useless an activity that is."

Ray turned his head as much as his bonds allowed him to find Gregor Kulik walking towards him, accompanied by the security guard Ray remembered from the front desk of Protect the Earth and another gorilla-like man. Instinctively, Ray knew he wasn't meant to leave the warehouse alive. They wouldn't have risked allowing him to identify them otherwise.

"What the hell do you want?" Ray demanded.

Kulik stopped before him and chuckled. "Not what, Detective. Who."

Ray's mind raced. Given that Kulik knew he was a cop, the obvious possibility was Fraser, but that didn't make sense to Ray. A quick and disturbing thought occurred to him: Fraser only had one person in the world who still wanted him dead. Even as the thought occurred to Ray, he discarded the possibility; from what he knew of the incident, his current predicament didn't strike him as her style.

That left a host of other possibilities, cases he and Fraser had worked, cases Fraser had worked with his previous partner. Chills of dread shot through Ray as he fought to hide his apprehension in denial.

"I don't know who you're talkin' about."

Kulik smiled smugly. Ray wished he had the ability to punch that smile off Kulik's face. He knew he wasn't going to like whatever Kulik had to say next.

"Tsk, tsk, Detective. I would think a man of your experience would take the time to learn who his friends were. I myself never make the mistake of sleeping with a total stranger. Even a hooker has her nasty little secrets."

Kulik strolled a few steps past Ray, then turned. He brought his right arm close to his chest and then rested his left elbow in the palm of his right hand. The fingers of his left hand curled underneath his chin as he stroked his beard with mock thoughtfulness.

"Of course," Kulik continued, "a smart officer like you wouldn't be caught dead sleeping with a prostitute. A petty thief, maybe, someone who was arrested for something fairly minor, that's a bit more acceptable, isn't it? Certainly not someone who paid for her trip to America by laying down on the job. Then again, I haven't met a smart cop yet."

The Russian's statements were arrows in Ray's heart, the points aimed directly at his self-confidence. Even knowing Kulik was trying to get a rise out of him, Ray couldn't stop his reaction. A cold knot formed in his stomach even as the color drained from his face. Aware his emotions were easily read, Ray fought for control, but it was too late.

Kulik made a self-righteous noise in his throat. "I see my darling Cait has been less than forthcoming with her facts. She's really quite good in bed, isn't she?"

"You fucking bastard— "

Ray's words were rewarded with a slap from the goon on Kulik's right.

"Thank you, Travis," Kulik said graciously. "As I was saying before we was so rudely interrupted, Cait is quite a talented woman. Did I mention she is also extremely skilled with creating documentation? Or that nine years ago, she murdered a woman? No remorse, either. I love knowing just how far someone will go, don't you?"

Ray didn't want to believe what he was hearing. "You lie," he spat.

This time, the other goon gut-punched him.

"Thank you, Vince," Kulik said smoothly. "On the contrary, my dear detective. What I know is a matter of public record. Had you taken the time to do your homework, you'd already know this."

He brushed his fingernails on his lapel and studied them, suddenly bored.

"However, your ignorance is of no consequence to me. You are my bargaining chip. With you in hand, Cait will cooperate and give me the documentation I need to prove that all this oil actually belongs to the city of Chicago, so when it's dumped in Lake Michigan, the scandal will create chaos."

"I thought you said you were here to protect the Earth, not ruin it," Ray shot back.

This time, both Travis and Vince punched him, Travis with a right cross that split Ray's lip, Vince with a hit to Ray's groin. Groaning, Ray could only gasp as his ropes prevented him from collapsing to the floor.

Ignoring Ray, Kulik turned to his companions. "When Cait arrives, kill him."

I gotta stop him somehow, Ray thought desperately, body aching with the searing pain shooting through him. He'll probably kill Cait, too.

"You think you're so slick, huh?" Ray taunted, resorting to childhood tactics. It wasn't the best plan in the world, but it was all he could think of to do. "Killing a cop. You think you're gonna get away with it?"

Kulik smiled wolfishly. "Of course, my dear detective. You can't arrest a dead man, now can you?"

Ray blanched as the implications of that hit him.

Either Kulik's gonna fake his death or....

Suddenly, a year-old case came to mind.

Or he's like Nick Wolfe, who was deader than a doornail and then he wasn't.

Suddenly, Ray was terrified. Frozen with fear, he could only stare in horrified disbelief at the Russian.

Kulik's smile grew wider, then he turned to walk away.

Oh, God, no, Ray's mind screamed.

*~*~*

"Look, if you really have a fucking problem with this, Wolfe, just forget I asked, okay?"

"I can't do that," Nick retorted, pacing the living room of his home in Torago. "You tracked me down, show up on my doorstep, tell me I owe you for what you did for me last year, and now you're going to tell me to forget it? I don't think so, not when you tell me you've got an Immortal psycho after you. You should've told me before that was who you were running from."

"And done what?" Cait asked testily. "You had the cops on your ass as it was, and all you cared about was whether or not your Watcher was going to live." Cait paused and turned away, hugging herself. Almost as an afterthought, she asked, "Did she?"

Nick stared at Cait. Somehow, he suspected she already knew the answer to that question. There had only been a handful of people who'd known he'd been living in Torago after a brief stay in Paris. Monique Le Due, his Watcher, had been number one on that short list.

"Don't play innocent with me, Cait. It doesn't suit you." He narrowed his gaze as a thought occurred to him. "You knew it might come to this all along, didn't you? You didn't help me just because you needed a new place to live."

"So what if I did?" Cait shot back. "Like I said, if you don't want to rid the world of another piece of pond scum, I'll do it. It won't be the first time I ever chopped off a head."

"What aren't you telling me, Cait?" Nick demanded. "If murder doesn't bother you, then why call me?"

Cait was silent for a long moment, so long that Nick reached over and turned her around to face him.

His breath caught as he glimpsed heart-wrenching grief in her eyes. He swallowed, feeling her pain as if it were his own.

"What the hell does Kulik have on you?"

She shook her head, refusing to elaborate. "Isn't it enough to know he's evil?"

Nick sighed in resignation. He'd come to learn that life was full of shades of gray, and things that appeared to be black and white never were precisely so. Instinctively, he wanted to tell Cait yes, but taking another man's life bothered him. He'd never been a headhunter, and that was exactly the role Cait expected him to play. At least, that had been the impression he'd gotten before he'd asked to know more about Kulik's connection with Cait. He was already committed this far; the only thing that now stood in his way was Cait herself.

"Cait, if you don't want my help, just leave, and go home. Otherwise, I'll go pack my sword and we'll stop wasting time arguing."

For a wordless instant, Cait seemed surprised at Nick's answer. Then she nodded tightly.

*~*~*
Five hours later

Having checked Ray's apartment and several local establishments he knew Ray frequented, Fraser had just stepped into the hallway leading to Cait's apartment when he froze. Recognition flashed through Fraser even as Diefenbaker growled, low in his throat.

A dark brown haired man in a black leather jacket and blue jeans halted a few strides away, caught in the act of leaving Cait's apartment. Fraser knew without a doubt that he was looking at Nick Wolfe.

"Interpol reports that you died on the autobahn six months ago," Fraser stated, which happened to be the first thing that came to mind.

The not-so-unfamiliar stranger smiled sardonically and finished hefting a duffel bag more firmly across his shoulder. "I think you know by now, Constable, that I'm a hard man to kill." He paused. "Where's your partner?"

"He's missing," Fraser said carefully. "You wouldn't happen to have seen him lately, have you?"

Nick scoffed. "No. Now if you'll excuse me, I have places to go, and you are in my way."

For a moment, Fraser hesitated. "Where's Cait?"

A look of annoyance flashed across the other man's chiseled face. "Why do you want to know?"

"If she is also missing, then both she and Ray may be in serious danger."

"Damn it," Nick swore. "I knew she wasn't telling me everything when she called me."

"You and Cait are friends?"

Nick snorted. "I owe her," he said briefly. He started moving, and Diefenbaker growled threateningly. "And if you don't call off your wolf, she and your partner are going to be dead."

Fraser studied Nick a moment, looking for clues that the other man was lying. A tense silence ensued.

Then Fraser reached over to Diefenbaker and laid a hand on his head. The wolf whined a protest and glared at Fraser.

"Now is not the time to be questioning my judgment," Fraser admonished the wolf.

To Nick, he said, "You were going to meet Kulik, I presume?"

Nick stared at him for a long moment. "You armed?" he asked.

"No. I don't have a permit to carry a firearm in this country."

Fraser watched as Nick took in this information, a grim look of understanding forming on his face. Silently, Nick set the duffel bag on the floor, unzipped it, and pulled out a dagger.

Extending the dagger to Fraser, hilt first, Nick said, "If you run into Kulik before I do, kill him with this, but don't pull it out."

"I can't accept this— " Fraser began.

"You're a smart man," Nick interrupted. "You know what you saw last year wasn't two men acting out a play. You and I both know people don't get up and walk around after lying dead in a morgue for a couple of hours. Don't pretend you haven't drawn your own conclusions."

Fraser met Nick's eyes, eyes that suddenly looked older than the thirty-something man Nick appeared to be. Fraser looked at the open duffel bag, seeing an Irish-influenced hand-and-a-half sword laying inside. "Who are you?"

Still holding the dagger, Nick smiled grimly. ""Just a man," he said quietly, "with a piper to pay."

Fraser stared at the dagger, then looked at Nick. "I should have you arrested for conspiracy to commit a murder."

"Life is full of important choices, Constable," he returned evenly. "I have a debt to fulfill. I suspect it's related to your missing friend, but that— " he shook his head carelessly "— isn't my priority. I'm leaving now. Whether or not you call your friends with the Chicago PD is completely up to you." He chuckled softly. "It wouldn't be the first time I've been in jail." So saying, he laid the dagger on the hallway floor, zipped up the duffel bag, and headed for the door.

Fraser glanced at the dagger, then at Nick's retreating back, then at Diefenbaker.

The wolf yipped sharply and trotted after Nick, then paused to look back at Fraser.

"I wasn't hesitating," Fraser argued in an undertone, picking up the dagger and moving to follow.

Diefenbaker snorted and turned away.

The slamming of the car door seemed unnaturally loud in the stillness of the ice-and-snow-encrusted gravel parking lot. Cait didn't care. She wanted Kulik to know she'd arrived. She wasn't disappointed when one of his goons stepped out of the office to investigate the noise.

Feeling anything but brave, silently cursing herself for being a fool, she grabbed the briefcase she'd previously laid on the Mustang's hood and stepped forward. Her footsteps crunched in the hard packed snow.

"I'm looking for Gregor Kulik," she announced.

The goon smiled wolfishly and disappeared inside the office. She stood her ground and hoped that Nick would hold to his promise.

The goon reappeared a moment later. His broad back kept the door propped open, and she could feel heat radiate out towards her. The sudden influx of warm air did nothing to ease the cold fear gripping her.

If Kulik has killed Ray... . She did not allow herself to complete the thought.

"Boss said for you to follow me." He gestured inside with a wave of the gun he held in his left hand.

Cait took a deep breath and walked into the office.

*~*~*

Ray wasn't sure how long it was before Kulik returned. He estimated it had been at least a few hours. His initial terror had faded, and he'd vacillated between rage and despair as the minutes had ticked by. He'd wondered if Fraser had noticed he was missing, then had decided against it. He hadn't made any plans to be with Fraser, and until Ray didn't show up for work, no one would know he was in trouble.

Except Cait, a voice in his head had reminded him.

The tiny bit of hope had flared like a struck match, then had died just as quickly when Ray remembered Kulik was expecting Cait to show up.

Now, as Kulik strode into the room, Ray's heart sank.

Cait walked in front of Kulik, looking more beautiful than any woman Ray had ever seen. She still wore the same clothes that he'd seen her in last, but somehow, everything Ray sensed was now in sharp focus. He could clearly smell the permeating scent of oil mixed in with the stench of Kulik's spicy cologne and something Ray recognized as his own fear.

His eyes took in the possessive grip Kulik maintained on Cait's arm. Ray swallowed convulsively, seeing the way Cait was biting her lip and surmised that when Kulik let go, Cait would have lasting bruises on her arm.

"As you can see, my darling Cait," Kulik drawled, coming to a stop, "your precious cop is fine." He let her go, and Ray saw his hunch had been correct.

Cait's eyes met Ray's. She seemed to be pleading with him for something he didn't understand. As quickly as the plea surfaced, it was gone, leaving Ray confused.

She turned now, and put her arms around Kulik. Her lips a breath away from Kulik's, she purred, "All right, Greg. I'm happy... for now." Her voice left no doubt as to her future wants.

Kulik smiled, and closed the distance between them. Ray closed his eyes, not wanting to see the kiss. The mere implication was enough to tear his heart with a sound like unwanted wallpaper. The pain was too much for his closed eyes to contain, and he opened them just in time to see Kulik backhand Cait.

She reeled with the force of the slap.

"You lying bitch," Kulik spat. "You think you're going to fool me with that kiss? Think it's going to change my mind?"

"Greg, please," she pleaded. "I'll give you the documents. They're in my briefcase. Everything is set. Be reasonable. You're so close now. Killing a cop isn't going to help you any."

"Oh, but my darling Cait," Kulik countered silkily, "he's going to be a hero. The one who tried to prevent the city from environmental disaster." He grabbed Cait, who struggled against his embrace.

"Vince," Kulik ordered, "kill him."

Vince, the guard to Ray's left, drew his gun. Ray steeled himself for the shot. He thought about all the things he'd never done, all the things he wanted to say to people, and he felt utterly miserable. He knew that when Fraser found out who had killed him, justice would be served, but the knowledge left Ray with a hollow feeling.

"Any last words for posterity, Detective?" Kulik taunted. "And do try to be a little more creative than telling me to go to hell."

"Go fuck yourself."

Travis punched him.

"Tsk, tsk, Detective. How utterly unoriginal. I think I'll keep you around to amuse me a little more." He waved off Vince, who withdrew his gun. Ray didn't bother to hide his sigh of relief.

Suddenly, Kulik froze. "Come on, Cait," he snarled, dragging her along. "Let's see who else came to the party."

"Leave her out of this!" Ray screamed.

Travis hit him again, and this time, Ray blacked out.

Entering from the northwest dock side doors, Nick walked into the open space along the west wall of the warehouse. Off to his right and behind several stacked rows of barrels, he could hear Ray arguing with Kulik over Cait, and the sounds of someone getting punched.

He was sorely tempted to intervene. As an ex-cop, Nick knew Ray had to be suffering not just because of the physical beating he was receiving, but also because the cop mentality — the one that said Ray was supposed to be one to protect others, the one that tugged at Nick now — was getting a bruising as well. Nick fought the urge, aware that charging in would only serve to endanger Ray and Cait. He knew that it would only be a matter of seconds before Kulik sensed his approach. He had to be ready for that. He let his mind go empty, and waited for Kulik to arrive.

His patience was rewarded a short time later when the sharply-dressed Russian emerged from the shadow of a row of barrels and manhandled Cait into a shield position.

"So nice of you to join me," Nick drawled with a pleasantness he didn't feel. "Gregory Kulik, I presume?"

"Who the hell are you?" Kulik demanded.

"Wolfe, Nick Wolfe," came the cold reply. "Let her go."

"I think not," Kulik said.

"You always hiding behind a woman?" Nick taunted. "Or do you not know the rules? One on one, that's the way we play." He drew his sword and waited.

Kulik narrowed his gaze, then abruptly made a decision. Throwing Cait aside as if she was a rag, ignoring the moan of pain she made as she crashed to the floor and slid into unconsciousness, he pulled out his sword.

Aware that Kulik was expecting him to rush over to check on Cait, Nick forced himself not to leave himself open like that. He spared her a glance, steeling his emotions as his mentor had taught him to do. Silently, he hoped that she would survive. Then he returned his focus to Kulik.

As he'd anticipated, Kulik took advantage of his momentary distraction to attack. Their swords met, the sound echoing through the warehouse.

Nick disengaged his blade and tried to attack, once, twice, three times. Each time, he was blocked, and he realized that he wasn't fighting a completely naive immortal. Though Kulik's Russian saber was a half foot shorter than Nick's own sword, Kulik knew how to use it. Nick fought the urge to panic, knowing it would only cost him. He retreated and tried to regroup. This wasn't the first battle he'd waged, but it suddenly took on the same level of importance. He had to plan his next move. He circled his opponent, trying to find a weak spot.

Kulik apparently got tired of waiting. He rushed in, hoping to take Nick off guard. He nearly succeeded. Nick crashed into a stack of barrels with the force of the attack. Kulik's sword stabbed into a barrel a hair's breadth away from Nick's neck. Kulik pulled it out quickly and stepped in for the kill.

Instinctively, Nick brought his sword up to block the attack and then immediately countered it, rising to his feet as he did so. He was shocked to discover he'd managed to disarm his opponent. Kulik's sword went flying across the room.

The Russian immortal seemed equally shocked. He stared at where his sword had flown to, then brought his gaze to Nick.

"You wouldn't settle for just walking away, would you?" Nick asked, knowing the answer even as he offered amnesty.

Kulik growled. From inside his now-bloody suit, he pulled out a gun. His hand rose to thrust it at Nick, now made vulnerable by his proximity to Kulik.

Suddenly, Kulik jerked back, the gun falling from his hand as something knocked it free of his grasp. He reached over his shoulder to pull out a bloody dagger.

Nick didn't have to look at it close to know it was the one he'd offered Fraser. It was enough to see the flash of the Mountie's Stetson as Fraser left, having held to the silent commitment he'd made to Nick earlier. Nick didn't waste any time, but took the opportunity, not wanting to find out if Kulik would turn around and use the dagger on him. Bracing both hands on the leather-wrapped wooden handle of his sword, Nick put his strength behind the killing stroke.

Kulik's head stayed connected to his neck for an instant before the cut glowed ominously and the head toppled to the floor like an overripe melon.

The Quickening rose to greet him like a ghostly lover with an affection for pain. Nick screamed as the first taste of it sliced through him, with a power that was dark, evil, self-motivated, and sadistically erotic. Nearly blind with the greediness of its possession, Nick fought to keep his eyes open, to ground himself on something, anything.

Over the haze of the lightning and the agony of the memories tumbling through his mind, memories that weren't his own, he thought he caught sight of a white wolf. Desperately needing to polarize himself before Kulik's more powerful Quickening overwhelmed him, Nick seized on the name, on the connection to reality.

Diefenbaker's blue eyes met his for a wordless instant. A finger of the Quickening reached out to envelop the wolf, and Diefenbaker howled in response.

Nick opened his mouth to scream again, but what came out wasn't human. It was pure animal and echoed the one made by Diefenbaker.

As if from a distance, Nick felt the Quickening slam deeper into him. He fell to his knees, his sword falling, as the unnatural lightning caused sparks to fly around the warehouse. The spilled oil began to burn. Nick could see the flames starting to rise even as he could feel Kulik's personality fighting for control.

Diefenbaker bayed, and the sound was like the touch of ice on Nick's warring soul.

"No!" Nick shouted, denying Kulik what he wanted for the last time. "There can only be one."

With those words, the Quickening fused with Nick, leaving him feeling battered but energized.

Shakily, uncertain of his ability to stand, he crawled over to where his sword fell. Mindful of the edge, he used it as a prop to help him stand, then scanned the room. He wondered where the wolf had disappeared to, then he dismissed the thought as his eyes focused on Cait, seeing her limp body. The smell of burning oil rose heavy in the air, and Nick abruptly realized he was running out of time.

Burning alive hadn't sounded pleasant when he was mortal; it sounded even less so now, knowing he'd have to endure the healing at an Immortal-accelerated pace.

Quickly, Nick sheathed his sword in the cross-body sheath he wore underneath his jacket. He had just enough time to pick up Cait before a wall of fire flashed into life around him.

When Ray came to, Fraser was in the process of untying him. "Where's Cait?" he gasped.

Fraser ignored his question. "We have to hurry, Ray. There isn't much time."

"Why?" Ray demanded, but Fraser was already tugging at his arm, urging him to run through the warehouse.

Ray was forced to comply with the nonverbal demand or risk injury. "Damn it, Fraser, talk to me!"

Just then, Ray noticed the heat wave coming their way. He stopped abruptly, forcing Fraser to halt. His eyes widened as he realized the building was burning.

"Why didn't you just say the place is on fire?" Ray demanded. "Let's get out of here!" He started to run towards the nearest exit, which happened to be the loading dock doors. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fraser running as well.

The smoke was rising, but he could see sunlight glaring off the snow. The brightness of it nearly hurt his eyes. Instinctively, he held up a hand to shield his face from the glare and turned his head away.

Through the rising heat and the flames, Ray heard an inhumane howl. The sound tore through him, reminding him of nights he'd spent out in frozen Canadian wilderness. Just as he had the first time he'd heard that sound, Ray froze. He could see Fraser moving on, then doubling back when he realized what had happened, but Ray couldn't move.

All he could think of was that someone was dying, someone he loved.

"Ray," Fraser said urgently. "Ray. Ray."

"Kulik has Cait," Ray croaked. "Fraser, we gotta save her." He looked pleadingly at his friend, expecting him to do as he always did and play Superman. He was stunned to discover that for once, Fraser refused.

"Ray, the flames are coming our way. We don't have any fire protection gear, and we would die in the attempt."

Stunned, Ray could only stare at him. "You want her to die."

"No, I don't, Ray, but now isn't the time to get into this." As if to punctuate his words, a roof support beam fell just behind them, igniting a wall of fire.

For a wordless instant, Ray's eyes met Fraser's. He started to turn back, only to be manhandled out towards the blinding snow. They had barely reached the lot when the building exploded in a ball of fire. Fraser was forced to duck and cover Ray to avoid the burning debris.

"Cait!" Ray shrieked, scrambling to his feet and running back.

"No, Ray!" Fraser grabbed his partner. "You can't save her."

"No!" Ray screamed, fighting Fraser's hold. "Cait's in there, she's gonna die if I don't get to her— "

"Ray, she's already dead."

Ray didn't want to believe it, even as the heat from the explosion seared him, burning its unmistakable images and scorched scents into his brain.

"No one could survive that," Fraser said

Ray hated that tone, the one that said Fraser was only being sensible. It made him feel about eight years old. And like that child, Ray seized on the first thought that sounded even remotely like it could win an argument.

"Nick Wolfe could— "

"Nick Wolfe isn't Cait," Fraser returned, his calm slipping as Ray continued to fight him. "Ray. Nick might be dead too."

"That can't be. You saw it last year. He was alive and then, and then he came back." Ray was nearly hysterical now. "He could save Cait."

"Ray, the building is in flames." Over the roar of the inferno, both men could hear the wail of approaching fire engines. "No one could survive that. We were lucky to get out of there. I'm not even certain that Diefenbaker escaped."

Ray shook his head, unwilling to accept the truth. "I ain't believin' it until they find the bodies."

Suddenly, he broke free of Fraser's hold. "You wanted her dead. You never liked her," he accused hotly.

"That's not true, Ray. Diefenbaker had his reservations about her, but I thought she was good for you, and I told him so. I wasn't even aware she knew Mr. Kulik or Mr. Wolfe until very recently."

Ray stared at him. As quickly as his anger had come, it evaporated. "She's gotta be alive, Fraser," he declared quietly. "She's just gotta be."

It took the firemen three hours to put the fire out and another hour to search the rubble for survivors. From a safe distance, Ray watched all the while, having refused treatment for smoke inhalation. From somewhere, Diefenbaker emerged, and proceeded to stand guard next to him while Fraser consulted with the fire marshal on the scene.

Finally, the building was nothing but charred beams and twisted wrecks of metal. Fraser walked up to him. Even before he opened his mouth, Ray knew what he was going to say. He couldn't, wouldn't accept the dull ache of foreboding that was settling in his chest. For one wild moment, Ray wished Fraser would lie to him and tell him everything was going to be all right. It took more strength than Ray knew he had to stand there, waiting patiently for whatever Fraser had to say.

He felt Diefenbaker press against him in a gesture of reassurance, and Ray found himself reaching down to pet the wolf. The world was starting to tilt, and he suddenly needed all the anchors he could get.

"Ray, the fire marshal suspects that whatever ignited the oil was similar to white phosphorus."

Ray didn't bother to hide his impatience. "So what does that mean? What's this white phos— white fossil stuff do?"

"Phosphorus, Ray. It's a nonmetallic chemical element which unites easily with oxygen, so that it ignites spontaneously at room temperature. White phosphorus has been used extensively by military units in grenade compounds because of its flammable nature and because it is poisonous to humans. If you were to survive a white phosphorus fire, you would mostly likely be extensively burned and scarred for life."

"In English, Fraser."

"Combined with the oil, the building burned faster than your average oil or phosphorus fire."

Though the words cost him, Ray forced himself to speak. "Just say it, Fraser."

"It is extremely unlikely that anyone other than ourselves survived."

Ray took in that information with a quick nod. His throat seemed to close up, swelled shut by the wave of grief that rose to engulf him, and he bowed his head to try and conceal the emotion.

"Moreover, identification of bodies will more than likely require DNA testing."

Ray swallowed painfully. "You'll let me know, won't you?" he asked, lifting his head to meet Fraser's eyes.

Fraser didn't speak for a long moment. Clearly, he thought the situation was hopeless, maybe even that Ray was being foolish in light of such evidence, but Ray didn't care. He had to know for sure.

"I will, Ray," Fraser finally promised, and there was such a wealth of compassion in his voice that Ray nearly broke down in tears right then.

How he made to Cait's car, Ray wasn't sure.

A whine broke through his haze, and Ray abruptly realized Dief had accompanied him to the car.

"I'm okay," he told the wolf hoarsely.

Dief looked at him with what could only be a disbelieving expression. He looked so human in that instant, Ray almost chuckled.

"I'm sorry, furball, but I need to be alone, okay?"

Dief eyed him carefully, then woofed softly.

Ray blinked, not sure if he'd just gotten approval from a wolf, then shook his head, telling himself that it didn't matter either way.

He was still going to be alone, still going to be the one left behind with the shattered heart and the grief that never ended. Almost as an afterthought, he hot-wired Cait's car, and drove home.

Ray parked Cait's Mustang in the lot adjacent to his apartment building. For a long moment, he stared at the steering wheel as if he'd never seen one before. Slowly, he pushed open the door and walked up to his apartment. His body felt heavy, as if he weighed more than normal. Perhaps it did. There was a lead weight where his heart had been.

Why? he wondered, stepping inside. Why did she have to go like that?

He stared at the interior of his apartment, seeing it through the eyes of a stranger. Everything looked different. Aimlessly, he wandered through the rooms. The place echoed with memories of Cait, and he wished he could somehow package them up and put them somewhere where he could do something, anything with them other than let them break his heart even more than it had already been broken.

It wasn't fair, he thought. We didn't have enough time.

His footsteps carried him to the bedroom. He swallowed, hugging himself as he remembered the white-hot flame of desire that they'd shared. Their passion had more than warmed him; it had filled a space inside of him that he'd known was empty, but hadn't thought anyone would be able to fill. Now he felt worse than when he'd gotten divorced.

At least, knowing Stella was still around, I could have something to hope for. This, this is like someone just shut the door in my face, and there ain't no hoping for anything.

Ray turned away from the bed and headed for the stereo. Not allowing himself to think too deeply about his actions, he rabbed the first CD that touched his fingertips and stuck it in the player. It wasn't until he had moved to sit down on the couch that he realized it had been one Cait had bought him a few days previously just because he liked it.

Too heartsick to contemplate changing it, he let the sound wash over him and buried his face in his hands.

*~*~*

Something was wrong. Fraser knew it the moment he stepped into Ray's apartment a half hour later. Oh, the usual disarray was in place, the music was on, but the room felt as though someone had sucked the life right out of it and replaced it with a body of sadness. He sighed heavily, realizing he'd miscalculated the depth of Ray's feelings for Cait.

He listened a moment, trying to locate his partner over the low, guitar-driven blues that poured through the hidden speakers. Finding him leaning against the row of windows across from the dining room, Fraser strode forward.

Ray didn't stir from his position. "I loved her, Fraser."

"I know," Fraser acknowledged quietly. He stepped farther into the room.

"You knew, didn't you?" Ray questioned, turning at last to face his friend. "You knew who she was."

"Yes, I did. I was planning to tell you, but I never had the opportunity to do so."

"She knew what they were gonna do. She didn't tell me. She tried to protect me. Protect everyone. I can't believe she took that chance— " Ray's voice broke.

"I know." Fraser moved closer to stand on the opposite side of Ray. He could see the tears sliding down his partner's face. "She was very courageous."

"Why didn't she say something? Ray's voice hitched, and he choked back a sob. "I could've done something, instead of going on, thinking everything was OK. It wasn't okay. It will never be okay."

Fraser closed his eyes as he remembered another woman and another choice made. "I understand, Ray," he told his friend, aware his voice wasn't precisely steady as he spoke. "Love is a kind of madness that knows no reason. It's not easy to ascertain what someone is capable of doing in the name of love." He opened his eyes. "No matter what you do, love is taking that one huge leap into the unknown, and even if you had looked before you leaped, you still could not have done otherwise."

"I know," Ray acknowledged.

For a moment, he stood there, biting back his pain. Wordlessly, Fraser reached out to him, wishing he had something better to offer than his understanding.

Ray allowed himself to drawn in, to be embraced, and he leaned into Fraser as the tears began to flow.

*~*~*

A block down the street, in a green sport utility vehicle parked just behind a fire hydrant, a man and woman were arguing.

"You should tell him the truth," Nick said quietly to his passenger. "Trust me, it's not better this way."

"He doesn't need me around," she insisted. "I nearly got him killed."

Nick sighed, frustrated. "Cait, you're making a big mistake."

She closed her eyes. "Mine to make."

"If you love him— "

"I never said that," Cait interrupted swiftly, opening her eyes and shaking her head furiously. "I never promised him that."

Nick looked at her, hearing the lie in her words, seeing it reflected in her agonized expression. "Bullshit."

She looked away, not speaking for a long moment. "We're even, Wolfe. You saved my life by killing Kulik and getting me out of the building. I saved yours by giving you a new identity and a plane ticket to Paris. That doesn't give you the right to tell me what to do with my life. Don't mistake a debt paid for friendship." Her voice was harsh, raw with barely suppressed pain. "Since I knew you're going to pass by here and the airport on the way back to Torago, I asked you if you'd mind making both stops. Now that we've made this one, we'd better get moving. If we don't leave now, I'm going to miss my flight."

Her companion swore, banging a fist on the steering wheel. "Do you even know where you're going to go?"

"Home," she said softly. "It's been a long time since I've seen Ireland."

Nick looked at her. The way she'd spoken, it had sounded like she was praying that going there would somehow heal her emotional wounds. For a moment, he was tempted to tell her it wouldn't, that her ghosts would still chase her no matter how miles she put between herself and them. He knew, though, that she wasn't in any shape to hear them. Moreover, as she had pointed out, they weren't friends. Nor did he expect they ever would be.

All right," he acquiesced, starting the car. "But I still think you ought to tell him you're alive."

She laughed humorlessly, then winced when pain shot through her. Nick guessed she had bruised ribs and a concussion from when Kulik had thrown her to the floor, but she'd refused to get treatment. "Anyone tell you that you're a pain in the ass, Nick?"

"Well, I haven't heard it from anyone pretending to be my wife, if that makes a difference," he replied with a smirk. His smile faded as he drove, too well aware of the road ahead for Cait.

"One more thing," Cait said as she started to open the door at the curbside check-in for her airline.

"Let me guess," Nick remarked dryly, "you don't want me telling Ray the truth, either." The flash of relief he saw in her face confirmed his hunch. "Don't worry," he assured her, "I won't. I'd have to explain how I survived the fire, and I'm not about to get into that."

She smiled her gratitude, then got out of the car.

Nick watched her go for a minute, then put the car into gear. Once safely away from the airport, he reached for the car phone mounted in the console.

He dialed information, then waited patiently as he went through the prompts. "Yes, I'd like the listing for the Canadian Consulate," he requested.

A minute later, he was connected to the Consulate.

"Yes," he answered in response to the lengthy, bilingual greeting he received. "I'd like to leave a message for Constable Fraser."

He knew he was splitting hairs, but if he was going to be paying on debts, Nick figured telling Fraser the truth might be sufficient tender for saving Nick's life.

Two days later, Fraser was going through a stack of messages from the weekend when one caught his eye. His fingers stilled as a smile slowly spread its way across his face.

He reached for the phone.

*** Finis ***
©11.25.99 Alice in Stonyland/Raine Wynd