Title: Deja Vu All Over Again

Author: vienna_waits.

Category: General.

Genre: Drama, fantasy, romance.

Pairings: None, but with blink and you'll miss hints of Harding Welsh/Francesca Vecchio and Benton Fraser/Ray Kowalski.

Rating: PG.

Spoilers: I COULDA BEEN A DENFENDANT, DOCTOR LONGBALL.

Disclaimer: Harding Welsh, Benton Fraser, Ray Kowalski, Francesca Vecchio and the others do not belong to me. I am not making any money from them, just having a little fun. Honest!

Distribution: Please ask first.

Feedback: E-mail me at v dot waits at gmail dot com. Thank you kindly!

Personal Notes: Written for the lovely lalejandra, as part of the ds_seekritsanta community on Live Journal. I must also offer extremely sincere thanks to mondschein1 for wondrous beta of a story that kept getting longer and longer and longer.

Warnings: A serious injury, child abuse and a rape are discussed, but not shown.



***




There was a knock at the door, a light, graceful tappity-tap-tap, and my eyes jerked open.

Ouch. I'd fallen asleep on the couch again. There was a giant crick in the left side of my neck, and my back ached steadily away, reminding me that it, too, was not happy with the situation. And my mouth felt like something had crawled in it and died.

The knock came again. I sat up, hastily wiping off a thin line of drool from my face with the back of my hand, and tried to say, "Come," but there was something in my throat, and it came out as a strangled squeak. I cleared my throat and tried again, and the word boomed out, almost a shout.

Francesca entered, a large, steaming mug of coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. I was glad, and a little relieved, to see that she was wearing a more-or-less regulation shirt and pants. It still didn't do much to hide her curves. I reached up and massaged my neck with one hand, forcing myself to look away.

"Good morning. Here's the latest on the Gorbachev case," she said, dropping the folder on my desk, "and I thought you could use this." She presented me the coffee with a smile. A wobbly mountain of whipped cream dotted with cinnamon threatened to spill over the top of the mug like a volcano ready to blow. "It's a double-double extra grande cappuccino. I made it just for you."

Instead of reaching out to take the coffee from her, I rubbed my back with my hands and gave the sofa a sour look. My irritation rising by the second, I then turned the same withering look on the coffee and its bearer. "Francesca, what have I told you about this coffee machine business? If you insist on making hoity-toity, fancy-pants coffee, could you just make me coffee—normal, black, nothing-added-to-it coffee? No almond shots, no cinnamon sprinkles, no whipped cream, no soy milk, no double-triple whatever. Just. Coffee. Got it?"

Francesca's eyes went dark, the spark gone, and she turned away from me. "Fine. You can go get your own coffee, then." Her tone was bruised rather than playful. She went to the door to leave, but before she could reach for the doorknob, Kowalski came barreling in, hitting her with the door. My coffee and its jiggling mountain of cream were upended all over Francesca's petite hands, and then she was crying, and Kowalski was frantically apologizing, and I felt like the world's biggest ass while I hustled her to the sink in the break room and turned the cold water full blast on her hands. Luckily, she had nothing more serious than first-degree burns. Constable Fraser carefully applied aloe vera cream and bandaged her hands, rendering her useless—she couldn't work on the computer, make phone calls, or do any filing. I gave her the rest of the day off and had Kowalski drive her home.

It was a good hour before I called Kowalski back into my office. "So," I said, fixing him with one of my best glares, "now that we’ve had our own little PSA on why knocking is good—"

"Sir, I am so sorry. Really, really sorry—"

"—perhaps you could tell me what was important enough to make Francesca look like a lobster."

Kowalski shifted, looked down, sighed, and shifted again. "The Gorbachev case. I heard the drug analysis was back for the sample I gave 'em."

"Ah." I opened the folder on my desk. "Says here that the—nesting doll?—you submitted tested positive for cocaine. Drug runners?"

"Looks like it. They've been importing those little wooden dolls from Russia, you know, where you open one up and there's a smaller one inside? For their shop, they said—this kooky little joint with lacquer boxes and traditional costumes, pickled herring, stuff like that."

"Okay." I handed the folder to Kowalski. "Call Judge Hamlin's office. Stop over and pick up your warrant on the way. Get down there and seize whatever they got. You taking Fraser?"

Kowalski nodded, his eyes scanning the contents of the folder. "He speaks a little Russian. Could come in handy." He turned and left.

I watched him go, allowing myself a little smile at the thought that Gorbachev was going down. It was going to be a good day at the 2-7 after all.

***


Except it wasn't. The station was soon overrun by a bunch of shouting, hysterical stage mothers from the "Chicago's Cutest Child" contest who were all trying to beat the snot out of each other. Their children were all dressed in outlandish outfits, many of the girls in garish makeup, and nearly all of them, boys and girls, were crying. Huey and Dewey (heh. I pretended not to notice how funny that was, but I always did) were trying to book them all and not making much headway. The kids kept getting off their mothers' laps and running around the station shrieking, and the detectives kept having to separate a few of the parents who seemed unaware that they had been arrested and wanted to continue their fight over whose kid was the best.

Jesus, people were idiots. I went to my desk and yanked the top drawer open. Where were my earplugs?

"Fran-CES—" I started to call, before I remembered that she wasn't here. She would have taken all the kids into one of the interrogation rooms and had them doing the Hokey Pokey or playing Simon Says in no time. As it was, it was over an hour before the parents were processed, and two of the kids sustained scraped knees from falling while chasing each other around the station. Predictably, the parents threatened the Chicago Police Department with a lawsuit. I told them in a civil but firm tone that all minors were the responsibility of their parents, and that it was not the CPD's duty to provide babysitting services. I thought about mentioning that I could file child endangerment charges against them, just to yank their chains, but then I thought better of it. I decided I'd seen and heard enough apoplectic insanity for one day.

And then Kowalski got back.

He at least knocked on my office door this time, urgently rapping twice before entering without waiting for an answer.

I looked up from the paperwork I'd been doing all afternoon, a stinging rebuke on the tip of my tongue, but then I saw his face, drawn and exhausted, and closed my mouth.

"Fraser's hurt," he said.

Oh, fantastic. It seemed like the Mountie was getting himself shot, concussed, stabbed, or roughed up every other day. Maybe if he saw how bad Kowalski fell apart every single time, he'd wise up and do it a little less often. I resolved to have words with Fraser on the subject. "When? How? Bad?"

Kowalski released a shaky breath. "Looked worse than it was, I think. Probably just a mild concussion."

Ah, so today Fraser had decided to go with a nice concussion from the Buffet of Pain. Hopefully he wouldn't be adding a helping of amnesia this time. "He conscious? You been in to see him?"

He nodded. "Just came from there. He seems more or less OK."

"Good. Good. I've gotten used to having him around."

"Me too, sir."

Yeah, no kidding, I thought. Aloud, I said, "So what happened? They nail you during the seizure?"

Kowalski shook his head. "There was nothing to seize by the time we got there. They loaded it all on a truck and got it outta there. Fraser found the tire tracks in the snow, and so then we thought we’d try to track the truck."

"You tried to track the truck?"

"We tried to track the truck," he agreed. "You know how Fraser is. Anyway, we actually did it, tracked it to a, a garage a couple of miles away, but they got the jump on us, and he took a two-by-four to the back of the head. I, uh...I fired my weapon."

I grimaced, both at the two-by-four part and the firing part. "Please tell me you didn't hit anybody. It's just a five-page form for a firearm discharge—but when you hit someone, it’s fitness hearings and bulging file folders for everybody!"

"No, I missed 'em, but hearings and file folders would've been hunky-dory by me." There was no missing the feral undertone in his voice. "But, lucky for Fraser, the hat took some of the hit. The back of it was all smooshed up. I just left it there lyin' in the snow...Fraser's gonna kill me."

We both couldn't help half-smiling at that.

"So," he summed up, "we got no dolls, no coke, no Gorbachev, and we're down one hat and one Mountie."

I looked at my watch. "Listen, it's past end of shift anyway. Go back to the hospital, see if you can get a description out of him—and don't let him go anywhere until the docs say it's okay."

"Thanks," Kowalski said, gratitude written all over his face. "I'll just stop by his place and feed Dief first."

I just made a vague shooing motion at him. I had somewhere to be, too, only I didn't want to go. I mean, I knew I should go, I guess I felt like I had to go, but I didn't want to go. But I'd feel guilty if I didn't.

Of course, it was rush hour in Chicago, and of course, some moron had to get in an accident and back up traffic. So a good hour later, I was still sitting there staring at a sea of brake lights in the darkness, and seriously thinking about just going back to the station, when my cell phone rang.

"Welsh."

The reception was lousy, and the voice on the other end sounded like one of my grandmother's old Victrola records. "Harding, it's Wilson. I can't make it."

"What? What do you mean, you can't make it?"

"Sorry, Harding, but—" His words cut in and out. "—busted water pump. Ray says—three days to get the—you're just—by yourself this time. Like I said, I'm really—"

Then the call dropped. I half-tossed, half-threw the phone back onto the passenger seat in disgust.

Now I really wanted to turn around and go back to the station. I'd managed to get through my last visit by letting Wilson do most of the talking. But Dad's phone had been disconnected again, so I couldn't call him, and he might actually remember that we'd said we'd come visit today. Without Wilson there, I'd have to actually talk to him, try and find something to say to him. I could think of lots of things, but most of them were not really repeatable. I bet Wilson did this to me on purpose. Water pump, my ass.

"So what?" I murmured out loud. "So what? So you go in, you stay five minutes, and then you have someone call you and say you're needed back at the station." I considered that for a minute. It was a sneaky, underhanded, dumb thing to do, and I finally decided that I would just stick it out as long as I could—kind of like sitting on the railroad tracks until the train was almost on top of you.

I pulled up to the ratty apartment building he called home, instinctively looking around for any signs of trouble. This was not a great neighborhood—especially not after dark—but at the moment, things seemed to be quiet.

I put my phone back in my pocket and walked up the five flights of stairs, went down the hallway with its creaky floorboards, and arrived at door number 562. I could see light coming through at the bottom of the door where the weatherstripping had peeled away, so at least he was home—assuming he hadn't wandered off somewhere and left all the lights on again, of course.

I put my hand up to knock on the door, but I couldn't make myself reach out and actually touch the wood, let him know once and for all that I was here. An overwhelming sense of dread descended on me, and I almost turned and left.

He's not a demon, he's not a god, he's just a guy who happens to be your father, and you owe him this much, I thought, goading myself on. You owe him this. I finally managed to make my fist move, and I rapped on the door, dislodging a few chips of paint in the process. "Dad? It's me, Harding."

Nothing. I knocked again, louder. Maybe he was passed out. "Dad, are you in there?"

Now I heard movement, saw a shadow fall under the door, the light in the peephole grow dark, and I knew that he had to be standing there. But he didn't open the door, didn't say anything, not a word.

"Dad? Wilson and I were going to come visit today, remember?" I prodded him.

At last, he saw fit to open his mouth and acknowledge me through the closed door. "You're late. Where's Wilson?"

"His car broke down. He couldn't make it."

"Oh," he said. One simple word, and yet it oozed disappointment and resignation. The locks rattled and jingled for a long while, and then finally he threw the door open. My father had dark eyes, a chin so sharp you could gut a fish on it, a quick tongue, and a brutal uppercut. He had once been wiry, but now he was just gaunt and caved in on himself, like a pumpkin a week after Halloween.

I entered, sizing him up as I came in. I could see the tension in him, in the way he held himself and the way he moved, and when he shut the door, I automatically edged three feet away. He was not a big man; I had three inches and at least forty pounds on him nowadays, and yet I still moved unconsciously out of his strike zone. I realized what I had just done, and God, how I hated him for that. I hated that he could do that to me, that he had the power to make me feel like a cockroach scuttling out from under a raised shoe, small and powerless. I was a fucking lieutenant on the Chicago police force, for God's sake!

Anger won't help you here, I reminded myself, taking a deep breath. Let it go. I had to try. I could be decent for a few minutes. "Good to see you, Dad. How are you?"

"Do you see any bottles anywhere?" he said proudly. "Do you?"

I barely managed not to roll my eyes. This was one of his old scams. He'd clean up a little before someone came to visit—family, guys he knew from the force, social workers, whoever—and proudly proclaim he was through with the booze.

"I'm done with it, son," he beamed, continuing his shtick. "Had my last drink this morning and said, 'Okay, you've been hittin' the sauce a little, but now you're going to stay on the wagon and really get yourself together.'"

The crazy thing about it was, every time he rehashed these bald-faced lies, they were gospel. He believed every word. Not even a lie detector test would catch him right now, he was so sure of what he was saying. He was the prodigal son over and over and over, and yet every rebirth was the real deal—for a little while, anyway.

"That's great, Dad," I said, suddenly feeling exhausted. "Really great." Next, he would talk about going to a meeting and ask for money.

"Now, I'm going to go to some meetings until I get this under control," he assured me solemnly. "I know I can do it."

As if he hadn't said this twenty, fifty, a hundred times before. My dad had clearly missed his calling. He should have gone into sales.

"Now, son," he pressed on, pious and proper as a priest on Sunday, "I heard they pass a basket around at those meetings, and it sure would be nice to be able to put something in it, to tell 'em thanks and to show I'm serious about this. And I'll need to buy their little books and things they put out, maybe get a haircut and a new shirt, you know, really get myself presentable, only I'm a little short right now."

Frustrated, I took the conversation off-script. "Dad, stop. Just stop. How many times do you expect people to buy this song and dance?"

I knew it was a mistake the moment I said it. He changed instantly from born-again teetotaler to downtrodden victim. "Wilson would help me," he said glumly. "Wilson believes in me, not like you, always trying to tear down every good thing I've ever done."

It had been a very long day already, and I just wasn't in the mood for another episode of Five Hundred Reasons Why Wilson Is Better Than Harding. "What good things?" I retorted, my voice rising. "Never being able to have friends over? The broken arm on my eighth birthday? Returning all our Christmas presents to get your hooch money? What, Dad? What?"

"My twenty-five goddamn years on the goddamn Chicago police force serving this goddamn city, that's what!" he roared, his finger poking me in the chest each time he swore. "Don't you dare talk to me like that! If it weren't for me, you never would have made the force at all! I busted my ass for you, and all I ever got in return was crap!"

That wasn't even in the same time zone as the truth, but if I stayed here and argued with him for one more second, I was going to deck him.

Fortunately, my cell phone rang. "Excuse me," I said, making a great effort to speak normally. "I need to answer this." I moved to the door.

Dad was in no mood to be normal. He was still quivering with righteous indignation, his face as red as Fraser's jacket. "You can go to hell, Harding! Get out! And don't come back until you can show me some respect!"

I was almost to the stairwell in three furious strides before I picked up in mid-ring. "Welsh!"

"Sir, is this a bad time?"

"Uh..." I stopped on the stairs, trying to place the voice. It was familiar and female, but...

"Sir, it's Elaine Besbriss." She was at the 2-2 now and doing well, from everything I'd heard. She had a good head on her shoulders and was on the short list to receive Hostage Negotiation training next spring.

I started moving again, eager to get to my car and get the hell out of here. "Oh, yes, hello, El—Officer Besbriss. Lieutenant Archer tells me you've made some great busts already."

"Oh, thank you, sir," she said, but it sounded like she was only half listening.

"So, what's up?"

"Lieutenant, I've got a case here I'm not quite sure what to do with, and I thought you would want to know about it."

Now this was a problem I could deal with. "What kind of case?"

"Intimidation, battery, and criminal sexual assault of a 32 year-old Caucasian female."

"Date rape."

Elaine sighed in resignation. "Yep, pretty much."

"Did the victim provide a statement?"

"Yes, she did."

"What, was she not willing to go to the hospital to get checked out?"

"No, she was fine with it. I took her there myself."

"She not willing to testify against the perp?" I guessed, more and more puzzled.

"Oh, she's plenty willing, no problems there."

I unlocked the door to my car and slid behind the wheel. "So where's the part you're not sure about? Sounds like you have it all wrapped up to me." I started the car and backed out of the space, my lights cutting a bright swath across the dingy brick wall of the building.

"It's not so much the case itself, sir, as the victim."

I pulled out onto the street and headed for home. "Elaine, you can't let yourself get emotionally wrapped up in these things," I chided her.

"Well, in this case it was kind of hard not to," she said, clearly uncomfortable. "The victim was Francesca Vecchio."

"WHAT?!" I nearly ran the car onto the sidewalk, causing a gaggle of teenagers in their puffy jackets and gold chains to jump out of the way and yell curses at me. "What the hell happened?"

"According to her statement—which I'm not required to share with you, by the—"

"Oh, no you don't," I growled, "you called me, and now I'm involved. So let's hear it." The sheer force of my anger caught me off guard. My stomach was roiling, my hands were shaking, and I really, really wanted to find the scumbag who did this and separate his head from his shoulders. Slowly. Painfully. Because no one messes with my people. No one.

"She was set up on a blind date by one of her friends," Elaine explained. "They were supposed to go to dinner and a movie, but apparently he drove the car into an alley in the warehouse district and..." Another sigh. Elaine was taking this almost as hard as I was.

This guy was going to be very, very sorry. Very sorry. "Where is she now?"

"Mercy Hospital. She's still getting checked out."

I swung a hard U-ey at the next light. "I can be there in ten minutes."

"Please don't," Elaine said, halfway between a plea and an order. "You're her boss. You're the last person she wants to see right now. She came to me because she didn't want to be the gossip du jour at the 2-7. I only told you because...I want you to try and keep an eye on her for a while, make sure she gets through this. Sir."

"Yeah, yeah, absolutely, you bet. I'll look out for her, no problem." I thought the rest of it over, decided she was right, but—I had to do something, or so help me, I was going to pop a vein right here and now. The idea of someone committing an SCA on Francesca was the most sickening, disgusting thing imaginable. "Listen, what do you have on the perp?" The way I said it, "perp" could have been any number of insults regarding his parentage, intelligence, or anatomy.

"He has a record."

"And she went out with him anyway?!"

"I was told," Elaine's tone grew frostier, "that some oaf spilled hot coffee all over her hands so she couldn't use the computer."

"The oaf was Vecchio," I muttered reflexively, but my thoughts were racing.

This was my fault. This whole goddamn thing was all my fault. My fault, because I snubbed her coffee. Snubbed her, really. Jesus, how could I have been so stupid? Why didn't I just drink the damn coffee? Would that have been so hard?

I pulled over and flicked my hazards on, grabbed some paper and a pen from the glove box. "All right, Elaine," I said, and I barely recognized my own voice, "I want the name, address, and description of the perp. Now."

She immediately read it all off to me, the words tumbling over each other in their hurry to get out of her mouth. "Sir," she ventured then, taking a breath, "this information...you're not going to do anything—"

"I'll do whatever the hell I want," I retorted, and hung up.

***


Five minutes later, I was flying down the road, easily doing 25 over the limit, and the whole world was tinged red. Vince Donatelli would be lucky if he even made it back to the station alive. I prayed he'd pull a knife or try and run—anything that would give me an excuse to go apeshit on him. Anything at all. I'd take it. I'd make him sorry he was ever born.

The light up ahead turned yellow. I was not in the mood to wait, and I floored it, roaring through the intersection so fast that I hit a pothole and went airborne for a second, and then—

A Marshall Field's truck stood across both northbound lanes, slowly backing into an alley off to the right. I reflexively slammed on the brakes, but I already knew I was going too fast and it wouldn't do any good. In about eight-tenths of a second, I was going to be splattered all over the side of the truck after my car hurtled into it. In another stupid and useless reflex, my hands flew up and my eyes squinched shut. I knew full well it was stupid and useless, but I didn't bother to resist the impulse.

The engine went silent, but there was no impact. I waited one second, two, five. Hm. People said your sense of time got all stretched out in times of crisis. Maybe I was just an extreme case.

Still nothing. Maybe I had already left my body or something, and I was just dead? Had I somehow conveniently skipped the actual die-a-horrible-death part?

Then a familiar smell hit my nose...Pall Mall cigarettes? The afterlife smelled like Pall Mall cigarettes? What the hell? Maybe I was delusional in my death throes and the car had exploded. Cautiously, I lowered my arms and opened one eye, and then the other.

My mother was sitting in the passenger seat. "Hello, Harding," she said, smooth as can be, smoke curling up off the cigarette she held between her extended pointer and middle finger. She was dressed for church—in the late 1970's.

I just stared open-mouthed at her, at her cigarette, at all of it. My mind spun and spun and spun like a washing machine gone wild, but she seemed content to just watch me, clearly amused.

Finally, I settled on the only explanation that made any sense at all. "I'm dead, right? I have to be. That's why you're here. They say when you die, you see people you knew who died before you." It was kind of a shock, being dead, but it was awfully nice to see my mother again.

She laughed, a rich, bubbly sound that made me realize how much I missed hearing it, and shook her head. "Wrong." She pointed out the windshield with her free hand.

I looked. The Marshall Field's truck was still there in front of me, still unscathed, still waiting to be slammed into, and the driver's face was turned toward me, his eyes and mouth frozen in wide-eyed shock.

None of the cars going the other way was moving. Across the street, a dozen people were trickling out of the second-run movie theatre, some coming out of the lobby doors, some putting on jackets, some talking to each other as they walked. None of them moved a muscle. Not even the hair on their heads stirred.

I squinted at something in the air, apparently hovering three feet above the ground. A candy bar wrapper.

"Holy..." I breathed, looking at it all again. Frozen truck: check. Frozen cars: check. Frozen people: check. Candy bar wrapper defying gravity: holy shit.

"Look, I'm glad you're impressed," she said, “but I can't hold this forever.” She took another long draw on her cigarette.

"I must be hallucinating. I'm having a flashback or something," I muttered, shaking my head. "This is totally nuts." I looked at my watch. Sure, it was stopped, but it could have just been a dead battery.

She waved it off like it was no big deal, exhaling smoke through both nostrils. "Yeah, yeah. Honey, forget the frozen people and listen to me for a second. I thought I'd pop in and see if I could do something about your little—" She motioned at the truck. "—problem here, and I couldn't help noticing a few things. Things that make me sad. Things I thought I brought you up better than to do."

Oh, God. My mother was spying on me from the afterlife? A thousand horrible things I'd said and done, things I was ashamed of, flashed through my mind, and I felt my ears and face burning, the outward display of my utter and total humiliation. Maybe death was preferable to this. Maybe I should tell her to just go about her business and let the truck take me out. This was like the world's most mortifying confessional. Oh my God, maybe she could read my mind! Maybe she already knew everything I was thinking. I shifted in my seat, hoping against hope that the ground would just open up and swallow me.

She seemed unaware of my internal panic, or at least pretended not to notice. "Today wasn't a very good day for you, was it?"

"Today?" I blurted out. Yes, please, let it be just today that she saw!

"Yes, today."

"Oh, well..." I was so relieved that I had to think hard before I remembered just how lousy a day it had been. "Now that you mention it, no, today was not a good day." I still couldn't believe I was carrying on a conversation with my dead mother, but hey, maybe if I humored my hallucination, it would go away and leave me alone.

"Well, for one thing, Harding, I think you need to make peace with your father—it is Christmas and all."

"Give it a rest, Ma, Christmas was six weeks ago! You're a little late."

"Oh." Another drag on her cigarette. "It gets harder to follow that kind of stuff when you've been dead for a while."

The thought of having to go and face Dad yet again was excruciating, and a drinking binge would follow today's 'rebirth' like heartburn followed lunch at Eddie's Coney Dogs. I'd rather throw myself under a city bus. "Are you turning this into some kind of sappy 'It's a Wonderful Life' kind of thing? 'Cause if so, I'm not gonna play along. Dad's a selfish man who thinks of nothing but himself, and screw everyone else."

"Oh, really? Like father, like son, huh?" she said nastily, blowing smoke in my face. "I think you need to get a little perspective on things."

And the smoke got thicker and thicker until I couldn't see anything at all.

***
When my vision finally cleared, I was at the wheel, and there was no Marshall Field's truck of death in front of me, and the car was moving very normally down the street. Good. That was a relief.

Hey, wait a minute…

This wasn't my car. And it was morning. And the radio was blaring, and I was singing along rather badly: "You've already won me over-errr in spite of me, and don't be alarmed if I fall-allll, head over feet..."

I was singing in a woman's voice.

My hand should have flown to my throat, but it didn't even twitch. It just stayed blithely on the steering wheel, and now both hands swung the wheel around to make a right turn into the station parking lot.

"Hello?" I tried saying, but nothing came out of my mouth. Jesus, was I paralyzed or something? I couldn't move, I couldn't speak…

I watched myself in fascination as I parked, turned the car off, and grabbed a makeup bag lying on the front passenger seat. Just a little mascara and eyeliner, and maybe a little lip gloss…

That was not my thought. I did not think that. I do not think about mascara and eyeliner! Ever!

My right hand reached up and adjusted the rear-view mirror, and I saw dark brown hair, a pair of brown eyes, a cute little nose, and plump, unchapped lips. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Holy Mother of God, I was FRANCESCA! I was inside her head! GAAAAHH!

"Ma!" I called, although I had no idea if she, or Francesca, or anyone at all could hear me, "Ma, this is really, really wrong! Okay, I get it! I need to be nicer to people, more thoughtful, yadda yadda yadda. And I will, starting with her. Now undo whatever you did!"

Nothing. No answer at all. Not even a whiff of Pall Malls.

"And I will go see Dad and make nice, just like you asked. Okay?" I waited hopefully.

Nothing.

I—or Francesca, I guess I should say—finished fiddling with her face and got out of the car, thinking as she walked across the parking lot, just silly little thoughts about her cute new boots that she'd gotten such a great deal on, and what Monica and Daniela would say about them when they saw them. She could even wear them on her date tonight.

This was so incredibly weird. I was looking out at everything through her eyes, like they were giant sliding glass doors, but I couldn't open them, I couldn't go through. I felt the cold metal of the door handle as she reached down to heave it open—I could even smell the perfume she'd dabbed on her wrist. And the audio soundtrack was All Francesca, All the Time. Now she was thinking about the errands she’d need to run on her way home tonight—pick up the dry cleaning, buy pork roast, blah blah blah, and I heard it all in Francesca's voice.

"Ma?" I begged. "I will do anything, and I mean anything you ask if you'll just get me out of here!"

Still nothing.

Now Francesca's hands were flitting to and fro on that silly cappuccino machine as her thoughts continued to drone on—wait, was there a Harding mention in there somewhere?

Harding always works so…hard. Ha ha ha. It can't be good for him to sleep on that old couch all the time. He'll throw out his back. He must not have much to go home to if he's always staying here. I wonder what his apartment is like? Or maybe he has a house? Nah, I bet he's more of an apartment kinda guy. Too bad, though, I bet he would look pretty hunky mowing the lawn.

(???!!!) Did Francesca...surely that was just some crazy little...it was Fraser she was ga-ga over...wasn't it?

She picked up an enormous mug of some coffee concoction with a mountain of speckled whipped cream on it, tucked a file folder under her other arm, and walked toward my office door.

She obviously hadn't learned a thing from yesterday's little coffee chat. It was sweet of her, though, that she'd made me coffee again. Hey, maybe when she saw me, I mean, the me everyone else could see, y'know, normal me, I could jump back into my own brain or something. And forget about all the weird thoughts she'd just had.

She had to knock twice before Other-Me said, "Come!" and she went inside.

She turned to look at Other-Me, and—had I lost weight? Gotten plastic surgery or something? Because damn, I looked good. Like Marlon Brando. Well, okay—maybe a low-rent, slightly overweight version of Marlon Brando. But still.

Other-Me's eyes wandered up and down her figure for a moment before he looked away and massaged the side of his neck.

"Good morning. Here’s the latest on the Gorbachev case," she said brightly, dropping the folder on his desk, "and I thought you could use this." She presented him with the enormous mug, and her underlying pride and happiness were unmistakable. "It's a double-double extra grande cappuccino. I made it just for you."

If I had been standing in my own body, under my own power, I would have had to sit down. There are only so many shocks a guy can take in the course of—a day and a half or whatever it had been, and this was—hell, I had lost count of the how-many-eth jolt this was.

It was yesterday, déjà vu all over again! The day I had already lived through, which had been a total trainwreck the first time around, and now I was going to get to do it again. As Francesca.

Where was a Marshall Field's truck when you really needed one?

Now Other-Me was being mean and nasty about the coffee, and he was making Francesca feel terrible. God, why does he have to jump all over me like that? I try to do something nice for him, show him I care, and this is the thanks I get! He’s only so grumpy because he slept on the couch, he doesn't mean it personally. I see the way he looks at me sometimes, we make cute little jokes, I thought maybe—but I guess not.

She turned away from him, went to the door, and I realized she was about to get hurt. Again. "Francesca, stop! Get away from the door!" I yelled as loudly as I could, trying desperately to reach her.

If she heard me, she gave no sign. Kowalski catapulted through the door once more, and suddenly she and I were both in a great deal of pain.

Y'know, normally this would be the greatest thing ever, but somehow I just don't care, Francesca thought, looking dully across the desk at the man in red serge tending to her wounds. Her hands were throbbing insanely with every beat of her heart. Probably a good thing he's not making my heart race.

"Does that hurt?" Fraser asked, very gently applying burn cream to her right pointer finger.

"Yes," she snapped back, "everything you're doing hurts, but y'know, burns hurt. Not much you can do about that."

"I'm terribly sorry," he said, in his ultra-sincere tone. Oops, now Mr. Mountie is offended. Geez.

"Sorry, Frase," she sighed, "I'm not quite myself this morning." She was more right about that than she knew!

Fraser wrapped up her right hand, winding and winding a long roll of gauze around it until it looked like she was wearing a white glove, and then moved to her left hand. Francesca morosely considered her situation. There's that old Vecchio luck again! Why did this have to happen to me, today of all days? The mummy look is hardly going to make me seem adorable and irresistible! Maybe I should call and cancel, say I have the stomach flu or something. Daniela must have his number.

Kowalski walked up to her like a man going to the gallows. "Um, Frannie...I'm really sorry. If I'd had any idea you were standin' right there with your jumbo-size coffee—"

Francesca's vision blurred, and one tiny sob escaped her before she clamped down on it. "The coffee wasn't for me." Why did he have to be so mean? This is all Harding's fault.

She was right. It was my fault, and she was miserable because of me. Because of me. I felt indescribably awful. If I could have jumped into a 55-gallon drum of lava to appease her, I would have done it right then and there.

Kowalski looked bewildered and even more contrite, if that was possible. "Frannie, please, don't cry."

Fraser offered her a neatly folded, snow-white handkerchief, and she was able to flex her hand just enough to trap it between her thumb and fingers and wipe sloppily at her face.

"Listen," Kowalski hurried on, obviously thinking he was the reason for her tears, "Welsh said you can have the day off with pay. He ordered me to drive you home. I'll apologize the whole way. We can even go through the drive-thru at Java Jolt Express, and you can pour a whole pot of coffee over my head if it'll make you feel better."

He looks so panicked, Francesca thought with amusement. He can't stand to see me cry. "It's OK," she said with a sniffle. "I know you're sorry." Anyway, it's not you I want an apology from. Where is he, anyway? Coward.

Right again. Other-Me was sitting in my office with the door shut, reading the same piece of paper over and over and not seeing any of it, and feeling like an idiot. Boy, did she have my number or what?

***


"I am well and truly sorry, y'know," Kowalski said for the tenth time, glancing into the rear-view at Francesca.

He really means it. Okay, enough with the torture. "All right, all right, enough, you can stop now. I told you I believe you," she said, the corners of her lips hinting at a smile.

"We don't have to go to Java Jolt Express?" he said hopefully, breaking out a cute little smile of his own.

"Not this time," she mock-growled, shaking her head.

"You sure you're not going to change your mind or anything? 'Cause I can still turn around, but this offer is over when we pull in your driveway up there."

"I'm sure," she said, glad that Kowalski was un-freaked out enough to tease her a little.

Fraser leapt out of the front passenger side almost before the car had stopped moving and hurried around to open the car door for her.

Now this is nice. Two cops fawning over me. A girl could get used to this. She nodded at him as she got out. "Thanks, Frase. And thanks for the mummy job," she added, wiggling her fingers a little before she winced in pain.

"You'll want to be careful with your hands today. I don't often suggest over-the-counter medications, but you might want to rest and take some ibuprofen for the pain. Oh, and you'll want to have a look under the dressings later to check for blisters. Your hands should be as good as new in a week or so."

"Thank you, Dr. Fraser," she said with a smirk, and hurried to the front door. Ma was already standing there holding the door open with one hand, her forehead creased with worry. Her other hand went to her chest when she saw Francesca's bandages.

"Come inside out of the cold, caro!" she said, herding her youngest daughter inside and closing the door. "Your Lieutenant called and said there was an accident! What happened?"

So he called, did he? He couldn't be bothered to say anything to me, but he's got plenty of time to call Ma and chat with her! "Nothing, Ma," she said, feeling the tears trying to well up again and mentally pushing them back. "Someone spilled coffee on me. Fraser put aloe cream and a hundred yards of gauze on it. It's fine," she said stiffly.

Her mother's eyes flicked over her face. "No, it's not fine. You think I can't tell from your eyes how much it hurts? First we'll get you some painkillers. I'll put the little TV in your room and make you some nice chamomile tea and cookies. You can rest in bed, watch TV, maybe take a little nap."

The tears almost made a return appearance, but Francesca wasn't sure why, and neither was I. I had no idea women cried so much. Of course, Francesca was already unhappy and in pain, so it probably wouldn't take much to push her over the edge right now. Her mother had also forgotten to tell her that I had said how sorry I was—not as profusely and creatively as Kowalski, okay, but I apologized more than once during the conversation.

"Ma, I have a date tonight. Some new guy Daniela works with, Vince something. She’s fixing us up."

Oh, Christ, Vince Donatelli. The guy who was going to—the guy I was going to—don't go, Francesca. Don't go. Your hands hurt so much. Cancel. And then I can make sure he never gets within a mile of you. Maybe he's got an outstanding warrant.

"I don't know, caro," Ma said, looking at the bandages. "Maybe you should cancel."

"Yes! Cancel! Cancel! Cancel!" I yelled out loud. Christ, I felt like some kind of idiotic cheerleader in here.

Francesca looked down at her hands. "No, Ma, I really want to go. It'll take my mind off things."

"No! Wrong! Wrong answer!" God, this was frustrating! What was the point of being stuck in her brain if I couldn’t affect the outcome of things? This was even worse than when you tape the big game, and some blabbermouth at the station tells you the score before you get a chance to sit down and watch it.

"That's it, Ma!" I yelled, wondering if I would be stuck here forever. "You can't make me suffer if I refuse to pay attention." I stuck my non-existent fingers in my non-existent ears and made up my mind to ignore everything from that point on, but I couldn't ignore Francesca's thoughts as she drifted off to sleep in her bed soon afterwards with some TV talk show in the background.

They were so nice to me. Ray was way nicer to me than my real brother would have been—God, I wonder how he is? I wish he could give us a call, send us a letter, a telegram, something—and, YES, Fraser actually paid attention to me! He was running his fingers up and down my hands, for God’s sake. Yes, yes, in the course of giving me first aid, but so what? That counts! But he just doesn't seem to have the same hold on me he used to. Why is that? Maybe...I don't know...maybe he’s just too perfect. Perfect gets boring after a while, and God knows I’m a million miles from perfect. Pffft, I'm not even in the same universe as perfect. Even if I did manage to snag him somehow, I'd lose his interest in five minutes. Too much pressure.

Harding's not perfect, but he's a good man—well, except for when he acts like a jerk like today. I can't believe he didn't apologize to me. He better say something nice to me the next time I see him. And okay, so he's not Fraser in the looks department, but he's got great hands, nice eyes, good skin...he's nothing to sneeze at. I wish he wasn't my boss. Of course, I could quit my job, and then he wouldn't be my boss any more and I could ask him out, but then I wouldn't see him all the time. That would stink. But...wait a sec, what if I became a cop? If I worked something he wasn't in charge of, so he wasn't my boss, I could still see him all the time, maybe even win his respect, AND I could ask him out. Yes! What an awesome idea. But could I hack it as a cop? I wouldn't want to, y'know, stick my hands in blood all the time, but I'm good with people, I know the city pretty well—I bet I could do it. I guess I'd have to keep my nails short, but that's a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I don't know about the hat part, though...

***


Suddenly I found myself in a car again, only this time I was in the passenger seat. I was looking at a search warrant in a file folder on my lap.

Not my lap. Also not my car. Therefore obviously not me. Oh, God, not again. Who was I now? Elaine? Wilson? Commander O’Neill??

My eyes looked up and over—at Kowalski.

Which made me Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP.

Fraser had been about to say something about the search warrant, but instead he frowned and looked carefully around him, scanning the front and back of the car for...what was he thinking...his dad? That didn't make any sense, even for Fraser.

"Something the matter, Fraser?" Kowalski asked him.

"With the warrant? No, the warrant seems to be in order."

"No, with you. You lose Dief's pet eel in here or something?"

"You know perfectly well that Dief doesn't have a pet eel. Although he did ask for one for his birthday."

The wolf made a high-pitched, pleading sound, sort of like hiiaaahhhf, and I swear to God, I heard it echo in Fraser's mind as, "I'll take good care of it, I promise! Last year you said I could have one when I got a little older!" It was the damndest thing—it was like there was an internal dog-human interpreter chip in Fraser's brain.

I—wait, I mean he—turned to look at the wolf in the back seat. "I do not consider 'chasing the eel around the apartment and then devouring it' to be 'taking good care of it,' you know."

"Fraser, cut it out and answer the question already."

"Certainly, Ray. I just had this strange feeling that...I don't know, I'm being watched or something."

This was music to my ears...well, figuratively speaking. Maybe I could actually get through to Big Red! "Hey Fraser," I tried experimentally, "if you can hear me, say 'horseradish hippopotamus.' And tell your wolf Welsh is stuck in your head."

"You think there's a bug in the car? Those Russians—"

But Fraser was already shaking his head. "No, that's not it, exactly. Just this odd sense of a...I guess I would call it a 'benevolent presence.'"

Kowalski frowned at that. "You seein' ghosts, Fraser?"

I felt Fraser's startled surprise at that. Huh. Ray is remarkably perceptive sometimes without even knowing it. But surely he's never seen--? "No, not at the moment," he answered hurriedly. "Ray, that's it up there on the left, isn't it?" He pointed to a bright red storefront with "Little Ivan's Russian Emporium" painted above the door in school-bus yellow.

The ruse worked, and Ray didn't ask any more questions, much to Fraser's relief. Me, I was still hoping Fraser'd bust out with "horseradish hippopotamus."

Kowalski parked in an alley a block past Little Ivan's. "Let's go around back. OK, we got everything? I got the gun, you got the warrant. Let's rock and roll."

The wolf yipped, and Fraser's brain rendered it as "Hey, don’t forget yours truly!"

"Right," Fraser said to him, and then to Kowalski, "I have Diefenbaker and the warrant. He gets very upset when you just leave him out like that, you know."

Kowalski just grinned. "Yeah, yeah, whatever."

The three of them moved quietly to the shop's back door. Fraser's mind was keyed up, alert, but very quiet. It was a great relief after the intense babblefest known as Francesca. The few thoughts he had revolved solely around what he would do if the Russians didn't play nice.

But they did. Play nice, that is, and Fraser knew what that meant too: We're too late, he thought, disappointed, they've clearly already sold or moved whatever drugs they had here. He and Ray exchanged a look that said as much. Dief conducted a quick check of the building, nose to the floor, then came to Fraser to report. "Nothing here," the wolf said, and it still blew me away that Fraser really could talk to him.

They dejectedly filed out the front door, and to my total amazement, there was another Mountie, an older guy, standing there on the sidewalk. I mean, what were the odds? It was weird enough to see Fraser running around with us all the time for lack of anything better to do, but now there was another one?

I waited for Kowalski to crack a joke, and for Fraser to tell the man he'd come to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father, but Kowalski made like the guy was invisible, and Fraser just made a face at him. How rude. Not like Fraser at all.

"Did you see those fresh tracks in the snow back there?" the older guy said gleefully to Fraser.

"So what do we do now," Kowalski said, totally ignoring him.

"They must have moved the drugs," Fraser said. "I did notice some fresh tracks in the snow at their loading dock in the back."

"You did not," the older Mountie sulked. "You never give me credit where credit is due."

Kowalski smiled, but only at Fraser. What was the deal with him and the other guy? Come to think of it, how come I'd never heard either one of them talk about an older guy at the Consulate? Who was this guy? “Y'know, a year and a half ago I woulda said 'Ooh, tire tracks, big deal.' But now I know better, so Fraser, let's go do that Mountie voodoo you do." He turned and walked back around the shop to the back, Fraser and Old Guy a few steps behind him.

"Dad," Fraser said quietly, clearly talking to the older Mountie, "let me ask you something."

Geez, what else did Fraser have going on in his head? It was just a never-ending Circus of Crazy in here. I was sure that he had just called the guy "Dad," but we all knew his dad was dead. As Fraser loved to remind people, he had come to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father. Which meant his dad could not possibly be alive, much less in Chicago. Which could only mean…in a rush, it came back to me: back when we'd gone out to Willison, Fraser had said something weird about not waiting until my dad was dead to discover his sides, something like that.

So Fraser was talking to the ghost of his dead father. But the guy didn't look like a ghost. I couldn't see through him, he talked normally, none of that "oooooaaahhh" stuff, and he didn't seem bothered by the daylight. Maybe Fraser was hallucinating. Of course, for all I knew, this whole freakshow experience was one long bizarre hallucination to occupy me while my car splattered itself all over the Marshall Field's truck. I might as well play along.

"What is it, son?"

"Do you...notice anyone else around? Do you see or hear anyone else besides Dief and Ray and me?"

If Fraser couldn't quite see me, maybe his dad could. "Hey, right here!" I said, waving and throwing myself against the barrier that kept me locked in there behind Fraser's eyes. "Yo, dead guy, right here! Horseradish! Hippopotamus!"

Fraser's dad shook his head. "Nope, can't say as I do. Say, do you know a good place for roast beef around here? I have this sudden urge to get a sandwich and go to the zoo."

"Fraser, you coming?" Ray called from the back.

"I'd better go, Dad," Fraser said, and hurried to catch up to Kowalski.

Okay, Fraser was possibly certifiable, but he still had a better relationship with his dead dad than I did with my living one. I was more than a little jealous.

Fraser and Kowalski (and the wolf, let's not forget the wolf) spent the better part of the next ninety minutes tracking the truck. They were lucky in that the truck had mostly stuck to the alleys, which rarely got salted and plowed, and thanks to the combined talents of Fraser's eyes and mouth (ugh), Dief's nose, and Kowalski's knowledge of the city, they were able to figure out the parts in between the alleys and stay on the truck's trail.

Fraser loped along easily the whole time, never getting winded, and I allowed myself another petty admission: it was nice to be in a younger, stronger body, and Circus of Crazy and all, Fraser was an amazing tracker and an absolutely fearless cop.

He looked closely at a track, ran his fingers across it, then walked back to Kowalski's open car window. "The truck pulled in right here," he said, pointing at the closed garage door.

"Hop in. I'll hide this thing and then we'll come back around."

Fraser nodded and got in.

Shortly, they were once again standing at a back door, minus the wolf, who had used some shockingly bad language when Fraser told him to stay in the car.

Fraser reached out and tried the knob, then shook his head at Kowalski. They wordlessly got into position to bust the door down.

One, Fraser mouthed.

"Two," whispered Kowalski.

"Look out, son!" Fraser's dad cried, and in the same instant, something hard and unyielding smashed into the back of Fraser's head. Everything was showered in red stars before fading to black.

***


It was still black, only it wasn't because I'd just vicariously taken a two-by-four to the back of the head. My head felt fine, but clearly my mother had a sadistic streak a mile wide. First I got to enjoy the sensation of piping hot coffee all over my hands, and then I got the even lovelier board to the head. Maybe now I was in the body of a homeless guy just before he gets beat up and knifed over the contents of his shopping cart. Thanks, Ma.

But it was warm, so I couldn't be outside. I was sitting on a not-very-comfortable bench with my elbows on my knees, hands over my face, eyes closed. I was pleading, praying, trying to hold myself together. I felt like I'd been in that position, the same thoughts battering my brain, for hours.

A series of bright still images flashed before me like slides in a projector. The first one focused on impossibly red blood, a lot of it, bright against the milky skin on the back of Fraser's neck, a vivid contrast to the deep blue of his wool coat and the mottled gray-white of the snowy alley. Fraser lay on the ground, still as a marble sculpture, his head angled just slightly to one side to reveal one closed eyelid.

The image flashed to a gun held at arm's length, knuckles stark white around the handle, with an ethereal cloud of gunpowder and smoke just beginning to puff out of the barrel, while in the middle distance, two men were frozen in mid-stride, clearly running pell-mell for the other end of the alley, their long dark coats flying up behind them.

Now an image, washed out, of Fraser on a gurney, gray-white slush splashed with red-brown below him, white sheets pulled up to his neck, drying blood creating stiff spikes in his hair, his face nearly blending in with the ground and the sheets and the leaden gray sky above, his blue eyes two shades faded and staring directly into your soul.

There could be no doubt that I was now an uninvited guest in Ray Kowalski's Gallery of Guilt. Now that I had been shuffled into a third foreign head, I just sighed and didn't even bother to curse Ma, since she clearly wasn't listening.

Kowalski was beyond worried. He was panicked, frantic, hanging by a thread. How anyone could feel this much emotion and not spontaneously combust was beyond me.

He has to be all right. He has to be all right. He's Fraser, of course he's all right. He's gone through worse than this. –What if he ends up like Cousin Danny after his car accident, all drool-y and wobbly and not all there? Oh God, I think I'd have to kill myself. —How could I not have seen those goons? Why did we leave Dief in the car? Why didn't I call for backup? Why am I the king of suck? When are the fucking doctors going to tell me what's going on?

With eerily good timing, someone walked up and touched Kowalski on the shoulder, and he nearly leapt out of his seat.

A nurse jumped back, startled and more than a little unnerved. "Detective Vecchio?"

"Yeah."

"You can see your partner now. Follow me, please."

I didn't think it was possible, but Kowalski's frantic-o-meter actually went up another notch as he hurried down the hallway behind the nurse. "Is he...is he gonna be okay? Nobody would tell me anything, and I was startin' to think maybe he didn't make it and you were waitin' for the Canadians to come and tell me."

The nurse, used to such statements, just smiled a bland smile and said, "We had to run a few tests, but he should be just fine in a day or two. He's a little groggy right now, but that's normal."

She stopped and indicated a door. "He needs to rest. Keep it to five or ten minutes. You can come back again during evening visiting hours."

"Thanks," he said, one last image of a drooling, incoherent Fraser tormenting him, and then the door opened to reveal...

Fraser. Tired, clearly wiped out, but definitely the same Fraser he had gone out there with this morning.

Fraser smiled, clearly glad to see Kowalski, and he was so relieved by that smile his knees practically gave out.

"Hey," Kowalski said, grinning like a fool, "I was sitting out on that bench so long, I think my butt wore a groove in it." Christ, what a stupid thing to say, but screw it, I don't care. Thank God he's all right. "You get some more stitches for your collection?"

Fraser started to nod, then winced. "Yes. Where’s Diefenbaker?"

That's Fraser for you—he practically gets his skull smashed in, and the first thing on his mind is the wolf. He continued to grin stupidly, giddy that Fraser was Fraser, not dead or in a coma or suffering from massive brain damage, and said, "He's fine. I took him back to the Consulate. The Ice—I mean Inspector gave me some forms for you to fill out, but I left 'em in the car."

"Thanks, Ray."

"No problem," said Ray, still utterly incapable of wiping the grin off his face.

Fraser's eyes gave him a quick down-and-up scan. "Were you hurt?"

There, that killed the smile. Kowalski shook his head dismissively. "But the Russians got away," he admitted, looking down at his shoes. "I shot at them and missed." I've never, ever wanted to kill someone the way I want to kill the jackass who whopped Fraser. Ever. Now I understand what 'bloodlust' is. So help me, if I ever see either one of them again, I'll make damn sure I don't miss, and to hell with justice and a jury of their peers.

Fraser frowned. "Hmm. I don't remember you firing. I suppose that's typical for a concussion—I remember kneeling in the snow in front of a garage and thinking this was where they had gone, and then there's nothing else until here in hospital."

"Eh, you didn't miss much." Except me being scared to death for a couple of hours.

"Where's Diefenbaker?"

Kowalski's head snapped back up, and the frantic-o-meter showed new signs of life. "You already asked me that. He's at the Consulate. I took him home."

"Oh. It would seem I'm perseverating."

"What's perseverating?"

"Repeating the same question even when it’s already been answered. Another concussion symptom."

"Oh. What’s perseverating?"

They both smiled at the joke, but Fraser's eyes were drooping, and Ray could tell that the nurse was right, that he really couldn't handle more than a brief conversation right now.

"Tell you what." He fished a scrap of paper out of his pocket—a receipt for the Chinese delivery from last night—and swiped the pen from the chart at the foot of the bed. "I gotta get back to the station so Welsh can yell at me some more, but I'll be back in a couple hours. I'll write you a note so you know Dief's okay."

I sighed. What a smartass. I hated yelling at my troops. Maybe if you'd stop injuring people, I’d stop yelling at you!

"Okay," said Fraser, closing his eyes, not offended at all.

It wasn't so much a note as a drawing, even though he couldn't draw to save his life. He started with an A and two straight lines down for a house and added a maple leaf on the roof. He then put two upside-down V's, two dots, a U with a dot on the end, and a longer floppy U inside the house—Dief's ears, eyes, muzzle and nose, and tongue. He wrote "Fraser" above the house. Off to the right he drew a clock with its hands pointing at six o'clock. Next to the clock, he drew a circle with a big WWWW of hair on top—hopefully Fraser would recognize that as him—and added C's for ears, two dots for eyes, and a backwards L for a nose. He started to draw a straight line for a mouth, but then added a curve beneath it so it turned into a big smile. And then, just to be silly, he added a horrific approximation of an arm waving that looked more like a deformed tree. At the bottom, he wrote, "See you soon. Love, Ray."

"Okay, Fraser, I'm putting it right here next to your bed. I gotta go. See you later."

His only reply was a faint "Mmm." He was already half asleep.

There was clearly something weird about cars in all of this, because as soon as Kowalski got in his car and left the hospital parking lot, everything started getting all hazy again, like it had with Ma's cigarette smoke. Maybe, just maybe I could look over and see her in the passenger seat again, but—

***


Wouldn't you know it, I was singing again. Not in a car, though. At least this time I had a male voice.

"Oh pleeeease release me, let me go..."

I'm going to do it. Today's the day. I'm going to do it. I CAN do it. I AM doing it! I am a bulletproof vest, and nothing can get through me!

"...cause I-I-I-I just won't love you anymore..."

I was waltzing around the kitchen. Every single cabinet door and drawer was flung open, as was the refrigerator door, and I was dragging around a giant trash bag, merrily flinging in bottle after bottle as I sang, the glass and plastic making chirrupy clinks and clanks and dull hollow thunks as I dragged the bag around behind me. It was all there: Vodka. Good beer. Cheap beer. Scope bottles. Whiskey. Three-liter bottles of wine. Tiny liquor bottles like they serve on airplanes tucked in the silverware drawer.

I knew Ma wasn't listening to me, but I couldn't help myself. "Oh, Ma. You had to save the best for last, didn't you? Okay, I give up. Fine. I'm sure I'll learn all about what a beautiful and tortured soul my dad is, and develop this pure newfound love for him, and forgive everything, and we'll go to father-son picnics every Saturday for the rest of our lives. Or you can just let me hit the truck and die. Right now, that truck is looking reeeeally good."

"And to live together we both knooooow is a sin..."

Let the record show that my father was a better singer than Francesca. He did have a nice voice. Possibly the only advantage of any kind he had over her.

"So release me, release me and let me live again," he finished, changing the lyric to suit him.

The bag was now full. He dragged it across the living room's yellow-orange shag carpet, kicking several piles of unopened mail out of the way so he could pass, and went to the window on the far side of the room. He wrenched the window open, already out of breath. "Bombs away!" he yelled, and then he started heaving the glass bottles out of the window. They fell the five stories to the ground and shattered spectacularly on the blacktop of the service drive that ran behind the building, one after the other, again and again, until there was a glittering pile of shards three inches high.

The plastic bottles weren't nearly as satisfying, but he took the caps off first so the liquid would spill out when it hit the ground with a clonk, then threw the caps after them.

"Done!" he shouted triumphantly. "No more booze in this apartment. I'm through with it!" He was ecstatic, actually trembling with excitement. No more sneering, no more nagging, no more monkey on my back! And with the money I save on alcohol, I can move someplace nice, leave all this ugliness behind.

His gaze swept disdainfully over the small, dingy apartment.

I can't wait to see Wilson’s face when I tell him the good news. Harding will try and sabotage me, as usual, but who cares what the hell he thinks, anyway?

"Hey!" I said, stung, rapping on the barrier between us with my knuckles. "Wrong! I never tried to sabotage you! I came by and checked on you every day the first couple of times you said you'd quit, I let you come stay with me when you got thrown out of yet another apartment, I drove you to AA meetings and argued with you the whole hour in the parking lot trying to make you go inside! How is that sabotaging you?"

I was surprised at how much his one thought hurt in a way that even Francesca's angriest ones hadn't, and I sorta hoped that maybe an alcoholic mind would have a few more holes in it for me to get through—and besides, I was royally ticked off and I wanted him to hear me.

But he didn't. He just went and got in the shower. Asshole.

Half an hour later, he was showered and shaved, and by some major miracle, he had actually found a clean shirt. He hurried around doing a thorough cleaning up, which basically meant picking things up (everything from stale pretzels lying on the carpet to empty toothpaste tubes to dirty socks—he wasn't a stickler for organizing by category), putting them in garbage bags, and tossing them under the bed or shoving them into closets.

He'd been nervously switching the TV on and off, picking at his fingernails, opening the door and looking out into the hallway, and getting more and more agitated for forty-five minutes before I finally heard Other-Me knock on the door.

"Dad? It's me, Harding."

Where's Wilson? Maybe if I sit real still, he'll think I’m not home and just leave. I was poleaxed to hear an undercurrent of fear in the thought. Dad, afraid of me? That made no sense at all.

The knock came again, louder. "Dad, are you in there?"

Maybe Wilson is standing next to him and being real quiet. He carefully got up from the sofa and peeked under the door, but as far as he could tell, it really was just Other-Me standing there. He froze in place, wondering what to do next.

"Dad? Wilson and I were going to come visit today, remember?"

The name "Wilson" finally made him speak. "You're late. Where's Wilson?"

"His car broke down. He couldn't make it."

"Oh." What am I going to do now? I'm going to have to sit there all alone with Harding? What'll we talk about? All he has to do is look around, and every time his eyes pick out a bottle, they'll flick back to me with a judgment: loser. Worthless. Pathetic. Waste of space. Well, he won't be able to do that to me this time.

My God, he thought I was Attila the Hun! How could he possibly have such a warped image of me? He felt so threatened by me that he couldn't even think my name without his lip curling in disgust.

Other-Me entered, took a deep breath, relaxed ever so slightly. "Good to see you, Dad. How are you?"

Ha! No bottles! he thought triumphantly, and then he was off to the races, and there was no stopping him. His exuberance smoothed out his jitters, calmed him down.

Until Other-Me rained on his parade again. "Dad, stop. Just stop. How many times do you expect people to buy this song and dance?"

Like a slap in the face. I tell him the big news, and he just farts all over it. How can my own son treat me like this? "Wilson would help me," he said glumly. "Wilson believes in me, not like you, always trying to tear down every good thing I've ever done."

The argument was just as depressing from this end as it had been from my end yesterday, and I was soon treated to the sight of my own back as Other-Me stormed out of the apartment, his cell phone ringing plaintively.

Dad was not in good shape. He slammed the door, staggered to the couch, and sat down heavily, so furious that even his thoughts were too incoherent to follow, and I wondered if he was about to have a heart attack. What if he died while I was stuck in his head? Would I die along with him, or would I just go back to my car and get killed there? He wheezed like a steam engine, and his hands shook. Nothing about his body seemed to work properly. How old was he? Not even 70, but he was a physical wreck. If he were a car, he’d have been totaled long ago.

I was glad when he calmed down enough to get up and get a glass of water. He gulped it down standing at the kitchen sink, some of it dribbling down his chin and shirt front in his haste.

Check the mail, he finally thought, and go for a walk, get some fresh air. That’s what I'll do.

Of course, "go for a walk" probably meant "find the nearest bar and get soused." Still, fresh air in early February in Chicago was cold enough to freeze the insides of your nose sometimes, and now I had visions of him collapsing outside and dying of exposure. And if he stayed here, he wouldn't drink, since he'd just tossed his entire inventory of booze.

I tried one last time to break through the mental Plexiglas. "You don't want to walk up and down all those stairs just for some stupid junk mail. And those kids might be waiting to harass you in the lobby. Hey, Wilson's probably watching the Blackhawks game. It's cold out. Just stay in tonight! Pop some popcorn and turn on the game!"

There was a definite pause, and I could feel his puzzlement and confusion. I don't think he heard my actual voice, but the idea apparently got through somehow. And then, wonder of wonders, he went to the kitchen! He opened the cabinet door! He pulled out the box of microwave popcorn! I finally got someone to listen to me, and it was my old man, of all people!

My mental victory jig only lasted about two seconds, because behind the popcorn box, there was a bottle he’d apparently missed during his manic clean-up earlier.

Vodka, glinting alluringly in the light, and I could feel the longing sear him as he reached eagerly for the bottle, already looking forward to blotting out this whole awful day. "Oh, crap. Just kill me now," I mumbled in defeat.

About the next hour, let me just say this: being inside the head of a drunk is ten times worse than being drunk yourself. I was not only not trying to get through the Plexiglas any more, I was practicing mental duck and cover.

I waited eagerly for him to pass out in the hopes that it would set me free. Anybody's head would be better than this one right now.

***


There was a knock at the door, a light, graceful tappity-tap-tap, and my eyes jerked open.

I was on the couch. In my office. Wait a minute…On the couch!! In my office!!

I waved a hand experimentally, and it moved. I sat up and ran my hands down my face, wiping away a little drool that had collected on one side in the process. Definitely my face. Me! Me! I was me again! The insanity was over, and not a moment too soon!

The knock came again. I cleared my throat, went to stand at the far corner of my desk, and said, "Come in!"

Francesca entered, a large, steaming mug of coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. She was her usual attractive and lovely self.

"Good morning. Here's the latest on the Gorbachev case," she said, dropping the folder on his desk, "and I thought you could use this." She presented me the now-familiar coffee with a smile. "It's a double-double extra grande cappuccino. I made it just for you."

The smile on my face went all the way up to my eyebrows. "Thank you, Francesca," I said, accepting the coffee gratefully. Our fingers brushed as I took the mug from her, sending a little jolt, a little tingly buzz, up my arms. "Very thoughtful of you."

"I'm glad to do it," she said, bringing her eyes up to meet mine.

We held each other's gaze just a little too long, and I was about to say something hopelessly stupid when Kowalski came bursting into the office.

"Where's the fire?" Francesca said to him, still smiling. "Good morning."

I looked triumphantly down at my coffee, which was still in its cup where it belonged. I had been careful to keep us well away from the door. Horrible days were so much easier to handle when you got in a few practice rounds first. Maybe I should ask Ma to do it again sometime.

"'Mornin'," Kowalski nodded at us. "Uh, the Gorbachev case—I heard the drug analysis was back for the sample I gave 'em."

"Word travels fast," Francesca noted, reaching over and handing him the folder.

Kowalski scanned the report. "Ding! Positive for cocaine. How quick can we get a warrant?"

Francesca was already leaning over the desk to pick up the phone. "I know Sonja over at Judge Martin's office. She'll have it over here in twenty minutes."

"No, wait," I interrupted, "Call Judge Hamlin's office. It's on their way. They can stop off on their way down."

She nodded and began dialing. I turned to Kowalski. "Pick up your warrant on the way. Get down there and seize whatever they got."

He nodded and turned to leave. "You bet."

"Oh, and one more thing."

He turned in the doorway.

"If Fraser has a sudden urge to follow any tracks in the snow? Don’t let him. No tracking of any kind. Strictly forbidden on pain of death."

He looked at me like I was out of my tree, but he just said, "Okay, no tracking," and went to get Fraser.

Hopefully we'd saved enough time that they could nail Gorbachev before he could move the drugs. Maybe this time, it really would be a good day at the 2-7.

***


And you know what? It was. Kowalski and Fraser strode back into the bullpen less than two hours later; Kowalski was grinning like he'd just won the lottery, and even Fraser looked mighty pleased with himself. I went out to meet them.

"Gorbachev and his goons are coolin' their heels downtown," Kowalski said, and everyone within earshot cheered.

"Fantastic. How much did you seize?"

"Evidence is still weighing it all in, but they think maybe eight kilos!"

There was still the matter of Francesca's date with the felon tonight, and this gave me the perfect opening. "Great work, great work, men, and you too, Francesca," I nodded to her, "for getting that warrant issued in record time. I propose a celebration: a round of pool at the Armadillo tonight, and all the cheeseburgers you can eat, on me. Whaddya say?"

"Greatness," Kowalski said, "I'm in." He looked at Fraser.

"I'll have to check my schedule and make sure that Inspector Thatcher—"

Kowalski elbowed him in the ribs.

"I'd be glad to come, thank you."

The three of us turned and looked at Francesca.

"Oh," she said, "I'd really like to, but I'm busy tonight. I wish I could, though."

Damn. I wished I could take her aside and tell her the truth, but I still had a hard time believing it myself, and I'd lived it. How was I going to fix this? If I had to, I'd lock her in the supply closet before I let her go off with that piece of slime, but there had to be an easier way.

Not everything was perfect—the Chicago's Cutest Child pageant yay-hoos soon overran the station again—but this time I had Francesca. She was unflappable, herding the kids into Interrogation One with promises of hot chocolate with HUGE marshmallows and stories of children who happened to look just like them who had amazing adventures and won pageants all the time. Kowalski, for his part, resorted to sitting on one particularly obnoxious parent, and Fraser spoke in his earnestly sincere way with a few others.

And then I realized how I could make Francesca cancel her date. I snuck over to Interrogation One, looked through the one-way mirror, and flipped the mic on. The kids were arranged in a semicircle on the floor, cups of hot chocolate in various stages of emptiness sitting on the table, while Francesca stood near the door and told them a story, using her arms, her voice, her whole body to act it out:

"And then the brave little girl, whose name just happened to be Rhona," and she looked at the little girl who obviously shared the name, "waved her magic wand right in the principal's face and said the magic words—do you remember the magic words?" she asked them all breathlessly.

Twelve kids all yelled, "YEEAAHHH!"

"You doooo?"

"YEEAAHHH!"

"Okay, everyone wave your magic wands and say the magic words NOW!"

"HORSERADISH HIPPOPOTAMUS!!"

Whoa. How weird was that?

I hurried back to her desk and sat down at her computer, trying to be as small and inconspicuous as possible and keeping an ear open for the clop-clop approach of Francesca's boots. I hadn't ever gotten the hang of using this thing, and trying to pull up what I wanted was like pulling teeth. After fifteen minutes of cursing under my breath and banging keys, I finally had it front and center on the screen: Vince Donatelli's sheet, complete with a rather unflattering mugshot.

And just in time, too—I heard the sound of children being unleashed. I got up, pushed her chair in, no, wait, pulled it back out, and walked nonchalantly back to my office.

I settled in at my desk with a file and waited for Mount Vecchio to erupt. Less than five minutes later, I heard her screech into the phone, "Whaddya MEAN, you didn't know he did hard time in Joliet? The only thing that's keeping me from coming over there and killing you on the spot is the fact that you didn't give him directions to the house! And if you even think about giving him my number or my address, so help me, I'll..." And then she launched into a blistering, enraged torrent of Italian. Her tone could have peeled the paint off the walls. The conversation ended with the resounding slam of the phone hitting the cradle.

I heard her boots clop-clopping toward me and put a carefully blank expression on my face. A few seconds later, she appeared in the doorway, a model of composure, although her cheeks were still a little red. "Lieutenant? It seems my evening just cleared up. I'd love to come."

***


Late afternoon rolled around, and there were still two more items to check off on my cosmic do-over list: "try not to fight with Dad" and "avoid Marshall Field's trucks at all costs." Both of them stymied me, but the first one seemed a lot harder than the second.

I remembered to leave early to avoid getting stuck behind the traffic accident and took a quick detour on my way to Dad's place. All too soon, I was walking down his creaky hallway with a pizza and a two-liter bottle of pop, still not knowing what I was going to do or say.

I knocked by thunking the pop bottle against the door. "Pizza delivery!"

He must have recognized my voice; he immediately set about unlocking the door. He finally got the door open, and I couldn't say he looked happy to see me, but he didn't look angry, either. Mostly he looked puzzled. It was progress.

"You're early," he said thickly, and then he noticed the pizza box. "Is that Luigi's?" he said, perking up noticeably. Luigi's was his favorite pizza in Chicago, bar none.

"Yeah. I thought we could maybe have a little pizza, watch the Blackhawks game, y'know..."

He stepped aside to let me in, still looking vaguely confused.

"Good to see you, Dad. How are you?" I actually meant the "good," a little. Imagine that.

I waited for him to begin his shtick, but he didn't. The pizza had thrown him off-balance. "I...I'm okay. I haven't had a drink since this morning."

"That's great, Dad, really great," and again, the words came out differently than they had before—better. "How're you feeling?"

He turned to get plates and glasses from the cabinets. "Like crap. I mean, right now it's okay, but I know in a couple of days, I'll want a drink so bad, my teeth'll ache."

I blinked, dumbfounded. I had never, ever heard him talk like this before. I concentrated far more intensely than I had to on pouring pop into the glasses, not knowing what else to do. An image leapt unbidden to my mind: my father, with a giant black octopus wrapped around him, its enormous tentacles hiding everything but the left half of his face, and him struggling feebly against it, maybe managing to get one tentacle off for a moment before its suckers attached themselves just as firmly somewhere else.

He walked into the living room with the pizza box, swept a few stray items off the coffee table, and put down the box and the plates. I followed him with our drinks, and he picked up the remote and began flipping through the channels as we settled on the couch. We didn't talk, but the silence wasn't uncomfortable. Relatively speaking, I was having the time of my life; we hadn't raised our voices once.

He found the right channel, but the game hadn't started yet, so some ski-jumping competition provided the background for our pizza munching and pop slurping.

After a while, we got down to the last few pieces of pizza, and the hockey game started. We yelled at the TV like any two red-blooded Americans watching a hockey game. How nice that we can both yell at the TV instead of yelling at each other.

The game went to commercial for the fourth or fifth time, and my dad looked toward the door. "Where's Wilson? He should be here by now."

"I don't know. Maybe he got held up."

"That just figures. Typical Wilson! He's the flakiest, most unreliable man on the face of the Earth."

I turned and stared at him.

"And talk about a loser! You and me, we're real men. We're Chicago cops, and proud of it—and rightfully so, but him? Pffft. Small-town sheriff in some little pisshole the size of Palos Park."

My cell phone rang. "Welsh," I answered, still incredulous at my old man.

"Harding, it's Wilson. I can't make it." His voice was clear as a bell. Being on the fifth floor must have helped.

"It's okay. I'm already here. We're having a great time. We got some pizza from Luigi's, and we're watching the Blackhawks game."

"Sorry, Harding, but—whoa, wait, what did you say?"

"I said, we're having a great time."

"That's what I thought you said. Is he drunk? Are you drunk?"

"No, no. Listen, do you remember what you said to me when we were at the baseball game down there, right before we arrested the mayor?"

"You mean the part about him being hard on us?"

"Right after that."

"Umm...oh, you mean the part where he kept telling you I was his only real son, and then he'd turn around and tell me you were his only real son?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"What about it?"

"You know, at the time, when you said it, I didn't believe you. But now I know it's true."

"You didn't believe me?"

"But now I do. Listen, I gotta go. I'll call you this weekend."

"All right, Harding. Take care of yourself."

"You too. Bye."

"That was Wilson," I said to Dad. "His car broke down. He can't make it."

"Well, of course his car broke down—he drives one of those crappy Jap cars. Serves him right. He'd buy American if he knew what was good for him."

Wilson drove a Ford pickup truck, and I was sure Dad knew that. "Dad," I said quietly, "can I ask you something?"

He just stared, not saying a word one way or the other, so I kept going. "Instead of having an 'only real son' and a no-good worthless dumbass, why can't you just have two real sons?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, and stood up.

I looked at my watch and stood up too. "I have to go, Dad—I'm meeting some of the guys at Armadillo's."

"How great for you. I have to take a piss. You can let yourself out." Just a few minutes ago, he’d shared something real with me, something of himself, but now his voice was as sharp and icy as the pile of glass shards outside his window.

Without another word, he turned and marched off, and I went to the front door and put on my coat and gloves. At the last moment, I remembered to grab the bottle of vodka from behind the popcorn and slip it into my coat pocket before I shut the door behind me.

I turned things over in my head as I drove, looking at the past in a new light, and suddenly some things made a lot more sense than they ever had before. I couldn't believe it—all those years Dad had played me, set Wilson and me against each other for his own twisted sicko fun. I'd liked Dad more today than I had in a long time, gotten a little hopeful, even, and once again he’d found a way to disappoint me.

The light up ahead turned yellow, and I pulled to a stop.

Oh, my God.

Maybe a hundred and fifty feet past the intersection, a Marshall Field's truck stood across both northbound lanes, slowly backing into an alley off to the right.

No, it couldn't be. Could it?

The light turned green, and I slowly pulled closer to peer at the driver.

Same guy. Holy shit.

I stopped and waited until the truck was well off the roadway before I drove on.

***


"Hey, we were starting to think you weren't coming!" Francesca greeted me, raising her voice to be heard over the country music coming out of the jukebox. She was on one side of the booth, and Fraser and Kowalski were on the other. The table was already littered with empty plates and crumpled napkins.

"Sorry I'm late!" I yelled to no one in particular and sat down next to Francesca. "Something I had to do."

"Sir, should we order you some food?" called Fraser.

I shook my head. "I ate already."

"You up for a game of pool?" Kowalski yelled, jerking his head toward the pool tables. "Me and Fraser against you and Frannie. We'll clean your clocks."

"Like hell you will," I shot back. "Twenty bucks says we'll clean yours."

"Sir," Fraser cut in, "I don't think this type of wagering is legal—"

"Shut up, Fraser!" all three of us chorused.

"Understood."

I broke. Kowalski and I both played decently, and although Fraser was surprisingly good, Francesca was better.

"Don't look so surprised," she said after she'd sunk three in a row, cool as a cucumber. "My dad practically lived and breathed pool. When I was little, I probably spent more time watching him play pool than I did watching TV. Sometimes he'd let me play."

We trounced Fraser and Kowalski, so of course he insisted on a rematch. She broke even better than I had and sunk two stripes right off the bat, then sunk another stripe to make us stripes. It took a while before I got to shoot at all, and most of the balls were already gone by then.

I studied the table, started to line up. "Uh, Harding?" my brilliant ringer pool partner asked.

"What?"

"Why don't you...here," she said, leaning over my shoulder and gently rearranging my hands on the cue. Her hands were tiny, and her hair smelled like strawberries. "Try it from that angle."

My concentration was trashed. I completely screwed up the shot, and we lost because of it.

"Come on," Kowalski taunted us, "one more! Best two out of three, winner take all!" But Fraser tapped him on the shoulder, showed him his watch face, and said something about night duty at the Consulate. Kowalski made a face, but said, "Okay, I guess you get to avoid humiliation...for now, anyway."

I settled up with the waitress for the food they'd eaten and bid the Mountie good night, wondering how often he talked to his dead dad, and whether the old guy had been giving Fraser advice on how to play pool. There had been a moment or two when he’d been looking off to one side where no else was, now that I thought about it.

Kowalski left next, good-naturedly trash-talking about how next time, we wouldn't even know what hit us, and if he'd known what a pool shark Frannie was, he'd have picked her instead. I still liked this Kowalski way better than the one in the hospital with a pegged frantic-o-meter.

I was just putting on my coat and gloves when I saw Francesca return from the ladies' room.

"Well, thanks for this," she said, putting on her own coat and earmuffs. "It was nice of you to invite me too, even though I'm not a real cop..."

"You were an important part of that bust," I protested. "It was only fair."

Francesca made a doubting face.

"Here, let me walk you to her car."

"Thank you, Harding. Very thoughtful of you. I'm a block that way."

We walked out into a bitterly cold, clear night, and we might have been able to see some stars if we hadn't been in downtown Chicago.

"So, you know what you said a minute ago about not being a real cop? You could do something about that, you know," I said, aiming for nonchalance. "You ever think about it?"

She looked up at me. "I admit I've tossed the idea around in my head a little. You think I could do it?"

"Sure, why not?"

She smiled a huge smile. "I appreciate the vote of confidence. Oh, here's my car." She turned to face me, her back to the driver's side door. "Thanks again. I had fun tonight. When I think about what might have happened if I hadn't found out about Vince's record..." She shuddered. "How did his sheet get on my screen, anyway? Did you have anything to do with that?"

I gave her my best puzzled frown. "I didn't even know you were going on a date, much less the guy's name. Just some kind of weird coincidence, I guess."

"I guess so," she said, although her tone was still doubtful, and then, quick as a flash, she was on tiptoes, giving me a shy peck on the cheek. "Good night." She got into her car, gave me another adorable smile, and drove off.

Hmm. What was that weird feeling in my gut? Maybe the pizza was backing up on me. No, wait, it was something else. Oh, yeah, happiness. I was happy. "Thanks, Ma," I said to the empty street, sure she could hear me somehow.

I turned to walk to my car, and just for an instant, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the lit end of a cigarette. Or something.

When I looked again, it was gone.