“Constable Fraser, there’s a call for you – from Chicago.”
It’s been one week since this fateful moment.
“Listen, I’m just calling to let you know that I may not be there at the train to pick you up.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, why would anything be wrong? Just calling to let you know that I’d like to be there to pick you up, but that if I can’t be there it’s not ’cause I didn’t wanna be, but because something came up.”
“And you’re sure everything is alright?”
“Look, Benny, I don’t know if they have a similar thing up there in Canada, but down here in America we have this thing called ‘friendship’ and this is something a friend would do.”
And Fraser’s friend hadn’t been there when he came back from holiday.
“Ah, Detective Huey, have you seen Ray?”
“Uh, no, no. Have you talked to Lieutenant Welsh?”
Fraser should’ve seen this coming, should’ve known what Ray had been trying to tell him.
“Ah, Constable, you’ve returned. Upon reflection, I imagine that pleases me. Listen, we gotta talk.”
Fraser could still remember the nervousness and his rapid pulse inside of Welsh’s office.
“There wasn’t anything we could’ve done. Some things just have to happen. Listen,” Welsh sighed unhappily, “Detective Vecchio has gone deep undercover with the mob.”
Fraser nodded, not yet willing to fully realize what this meant.
“It’s an open assignment, we don’t know for how long. As long as he needs to be Armando Langoustini, ‘the Bookman’, he will be exactly that.”
“What about his safety? Won’t it be noticeable that he isn’t working here anymore?” Fraser asked, trying to think practical, trying not to think about the loss of his friend.
Welsh nodded appreciatively. “Vecchio wasn’t the most prominent face of this precinct, but we covered our tracks. As far as people know, he got transferred to the 19th precinct. A guy there has taken over his identity and answers the phone with his name. There isn’t much more to it.”
“I see.” Fraser had answered, feeling calm and cold. Bereft of a friend. And now, on top of everything else, without any distraction beside his consulate duties.
“We might still find something to do for you, but we can’t order anyone to liaise with you, you understand?”
Fraser cleared his throat. “Yes, ah, of course, Sir. May I… be dismissed?”
Welsh sighed. “Yeah, of course. Listen, show your face now and again and I’ll let you know if there’s anything new.”
One week, and Fraser was going out of his mind.
He hadn’t realized how much Ray’s presence had filled his life, how much his friend had filled this emptiness that had been growing inside of Fraser since he had come to Chicago – and maybe even before that.
The fact that his apartment had burned down wasn’t even bothering him so much. It wasn’t as if he had any friends to invite back to it anyway.
He didn’t believe the story about the old fuses and the bad insulation, though. He was pretty sure that his apartment hadn’t burned down on its own accord. Someone had done this. But he didn’t have any proof and Huey and Dewey seemed to believe that it was merely Fraser’s desolate state that made him yearn for a crime.
Fraser couldn’t really argue with that, but he hadn’t imagined the traces of perfume he had found in the ruins of his apartment building. His investigations hadn’t gotten him very far yet, though.
Sitting behind his desk at the consulate, Fraser flicked through one of his father’s journals. After a few pages he laid it back down and cradled his face in his hands. Dief gave a worried whimper.
Fraser raised his head and smiled tiredly at his companion. “I need something to occupy my evenings. Something to do. I—”
Dief raised himself up until his front paws touched the desk and with his muzzle he pushed the journal in Fraser’s direction. Dief whined softly.
Fraser looked at the journal with a look of deep contemplation on his features. He had never considered keeping one himself. Maybe Dief was right, though. He needed an outlet for his emotions, a way to vent his frustration before he exploded.
Why not? There was no harm in writing about what was inside of him.
“Thank you, my friend.” Fraser reached out and ruffled Diefenbaker’s fur.
The next day, Fraser and Dief embarked on a long, aimless walk around the neighborhood. His shift had already ended and not even Inspector Thatcher had found anything else for him to do.
After hours of walking, he realized that they had ventured into a part of the city he had never explored on any of his previous walks. Run-down and dirty it was no wonder that this part didn’t draw much attention for a leisure walk.
His stomach grumbled loudly and he winced deprecatingly. He had to take better care of himself, this wasn’t the first time that he had forgotten to eat something since he had returned from his holiday.
He was just… he resisted the urge to shrug. He simply didn’t have any appetite. He didn’t have much of a drive towards anything lately.
There was a small shop at the corner; maybe he could get a recommendation or at least directions to a restaurant around here.
The badly smudged sign over the door read “Tennessee W. – Stationery”. What a strange coincidence, Fraser thought.
Upon entering Fraser was surprised by the well-stocked shelves and the colourful assortment of paper, pens and other writing essentials. He had expected something a little… ah, less organized.
Dief went off on his own exploration while Fraser looked for a suitable notebook. A whole wall was stocked full with them. Notebooks of all sizes and in all colors filled the shelves.
Surrounded by all of these blank pages and the silent rustle of paper Fraser’s heart felt immediately lighter.
He took a smallish red one in his hand. The cover was smooth and crisp and the pristine white sheets were covered with faint lines. With a smile, Fraser turned to go to the cash register when something caught his eye.
It was a small notebook. Lying on a lower shelf was a battered-looking notebook with a well-handled black leather cover. Curious, he picked it up. The first few pages had dog-ears and there was a faint scratch over the back cover. There were no lines or anything on the eggshell colored pages. The faint traces of glue from an old price tag were visible on the lower part of the front cover.
It looked… well, it looked a little rough around the edges. It looked bruised and as if it had its own story to tell. Fraser supposed that if the essence of Chicago were written on paper this was what it would look like. He smiled a little. Yes, this was Chicago in a nutshell.
Why not? Something about it appealed to him and without a second glance Fraser replaced the red, crisp notebook on the shelf.
He carried his treasure to the cash register. A smallish man with a well-worn, knitted sweater stood behind the counter, looking through his slightly dirty glasses with a curious expression when he saw what Fraser held in his hands.
“Interesting choice,” he said in a soft voice.
“Ah, why is that?” Fraser asked and rubbed a knuckle over his eyebrow.
“It’s the last of its line,” he shrugged. “People didn’t like it much.”
Fraser raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Why not?”
The man shrugged again with a secretive smile on his lips. “They said it was a funny one. I suppose it didn’t work for everyone; you’ll find out for yourself.”
Fraser wanted to ask something else, but the man straightened and asked, “Anything else I can help you with?”
Fraser shook his head. He paid and left the shop with a thoughtful look upon his face. Only a block later did he realize that he had forgotten to ask the man about a nearby restaurant.
That evening Fraser sat down at his desk again and opened the black notebook. Dief lay curled in front of the cot as Fraser uncapped his pen with a soft smile.
The first sentence, however, took him by surprise. Only two little words. But two words he had had no intention of writing.
The ink dried quickly and Fraser was left staring at his own hand-writing. It was true, he supposed. And it must’ve been on the forefront of his mind.
Once started, he couldn’t stop. His hand flowed over the page, filling the emptiness with his neat writing, word upon word crawling over the paper.
After a few pages, Fraser stopped. He felt drained. Empty but… lighter. His writing told of loss, he had held nothing back; how lonely he was, how much he missed his friend… but also how angry he was. He hadn’t realized until now how very bitter he was, how angry he was at Ray for abandoning him like that.
And how guilty he felt about being so angry at his friend. His best friend. His only friend.
The last sentence came as no surprise to Fraser.
I need a friend.
The next day, Fraser tried to make some progress in his investigation. There hadn’t been that many fires after his apartment burned down; it should be possible to find another one in which perfume had been used as an accelerant.
He started with the most recent one and met Huey and Dewey on the scene. They told him, gently and probably very well-meant, that this wasn’t Fraser’s job. That they would let him know if they found anything.
Fraser swallowed his frustration. Everyone at the 27th was handling him with kid gloves. He missed his friend, he hadn’t lost his mental faculties. The fire wasn’t anything like the one at his apartment building though. He looked at his list. There had been a fire in the basement of the building where his book club met every month. That seemed like a good enough place to start.
He slipped through the warning tape on the door and looked around. The fire had been reported before the building could burn down completely so it was only the basement that had burned out.
It didn’t appear as if his search was going to be successful though. The fire department had looked pretty thorough throughly the debris.
Suddenly, there was a clang in the next room and Fraser took a few quick steps in that direction. He thought he saw someone vanish through the doorway, but when he entered there was no one to be seen and it was dead quiet.
He was about to turn around when his boot caught something in the rubble that made a sound like a bottle rolling over the floor.
Fraser looked down and found the broken remains of something that might have been a perfume bottle at some point. Triumphant, Fraser straightened again and was about to pocket the glass shards when he heard another noise from the entrance hall.
He raced back and could have sworn that he just about saw the front door fall closed. In a second he was at the door and out on the street. He looked to the right and then to the left—there! A man with dirty-blond hair, wearing a beige trench coat was just turning the corner and vanished from sight.
Fraser started to run in his direction and Dief overtook him a split second later. When he rounded the corner, he found Dief looking at him in confusion. The man was nowhere to be seen.
Strange… it was… strange. If the man hadn’t made that noise, Fraser knew he wouldn’t have found that perfume bottle. And yet, the more he thought about it, the less sure he was if he had actually seen the man at all.
Back at the consulate Fraser tried to find the connection between the two fires. But apart from his own connection to both buildings and the perfume as accelerant in both cases he couldn’t think of a possible motive or perpetrator.
Over the pages of his notebook, Fraser pondered this strange case and the stranger he thought he had glimpsed in the ruined building.
I can’t be sure that I really saw him, Fraser wrote. I think I saw a flash of experimental hair and the coat reminded me of an old movie I saw once; I think Steve McQueen wore one just like it. But my knowledge of movies is extremely limited and I might be wrong on this point. The coat was beige – or maybe it was gray. Actually, I am not sure if my memory serves me correctly.
It all happened so fast and even Diefenbaker couldn’t find a trace of him after he vanished around that corner.
Maybe it was all the excitement this newest development brought with it. It is a break from my monotonous days, I have to admit. I can’t remember feeling so… real… at any point these last few weeks.
I just… I wished I could see that man again.
Two days later, Fraser involuntarily overheard two women in the park talking. Diefenbaker was off chasing some ducks and Fraser had stopped in the shade of a few trees so as not to draw attention to himself.
Lately, he didn’t do so well at deflecting the attention of strangers with quite as much grace as he would’ve liked.
A few feet away stood a bench on which two young women were talking quite animatedly.
“Yes, isn’t it tragic?”
“The whole building you say?”
“Completely burned down to the ground.”
Fraser couldn’t help but tune in at this point.
“It was this morning, apparently. I saw the fire truck racing down the street as I was putting the trash out. My neighbor told me that it was something with the oven in that sandwich shop— you know, the one where that handsome Mountie went for his lunch break at least once a week?”
“No!” The friend shouted scandalized. “Did it have to be that one? I always went there when I saw Big Red in the area!”
The tips of Fraser’s ears went red. That’s what you get for eavesdropping, he thought.
“Exactly my thought! It must’ve been less than three hours ago; they’re probably still busy cleaning it up. I hope no one got hurt.”
Fraser didn’t stay long enough to hear the end of the conversation. Instead, he took the shortest route to the mentioned sandwich bar.
The police and the fire department were indeed still busy with the charred remains of Fraser’s favorite lunch haunt.
It was a different district so he didn’t know any of the officers on the scene. His red uniform was noticed in an instant and the fire department wasn’t at all happy about his involvement in the proceedings.
He managed to talk to a young officer who seemed more in awe of his uniform than concerned about Fraser’s appearance on the crime scene.
“Excuse me, my name is Constable Benton Fraser—”
“You are the Mountie!” The youth’s face broke into a grin. “Man, I’ve heard stories about you!—and you brought the wolf, that is so cool.”
“Half-wolf, actually. I was wondering if they found any perfume on the scene?”
“Perfume?” The young man frowned. “Why should anyone be looking for perfume?”
“I have the strong suspicion that it has been used as an accelerant for the fire.”
The face of the man cleared up. “Hey, I think I heard of one of the fire department guys say that it didn’t look as if the oven had started the fire. Wait—I’ll check if anyone’s bagged and tagged anything that fits what you’re looking for.”
The young man looked through the list of evidence. “You’re right—man, this is so cool. It says here ‘broken bottle with vaporizer’… that could be a—”
“Anderson!” An angry voice hollered. The young man flinched.
“Thank you,” Fraser said before he could get the man into more trouble.
When Fraser had reached the corner of the building, he thought he saw a man with blond hair get into one of the police cars. But before he had fully realized it, the car had already sped off.
And Fraser was left wondering if it had indeed been the same man again, the one he had seen at that other fire.
If it was him then he was apparently with the police.
Three fires. All at places with some connection to him. All started with the same perfume. There had to be a reason. Revenge was the most possible motivator. Someone bearing a grudge. Someone with a history of arson.
Fraser went back over his past cases with Ray and one name leaped out at him: Zoltan Motherwell. It was the only case of arson Fraser had worked on during his time in Chicago. Fraser thought back on Motherwell’s verdict. He was still in prison.
They had put him in a straightjacket; they wouldn’t release him earlier for good behavior. He was mentally instable.
Maybe it was a copycat. Or an avid admirer. An admirer worked better; it would explain why Fraser himself or locations with a connection to him were the target.
It was evidently not the goal to injure other people for all of the buildings had burned down during a time when no one was supposed to be inside. Well, except for his own apartment building, but no one had been hurt then either.
If the goal was to hurt him, though, the arsonist would soon up the ante. He or she couldn’t be satisfied for long with these public buildings; they would go for something personal soon.
But what? The consulate? The Vecchio house?
Now that he thought about it he and Ray had been fairly regular at this sandwich shop. Probably every Thursday… except for… except for today, Fraser realized with a start. Because he had completely forgotten about it; without Ray here it had seemed pointless and… empty.
God… he was so alone.
Decisively, Fraser opened his notebook. It was almost a form of confession, a way to get this burden off his chest. Fraser thought he was beginning to understand why his father had been so diligent in keeping his notebooks.
It is not the least bit humorous how alone one can feel in a city of several million. Chicago is the third biggest city of the US – one should think it would be hard to be alone here. But no one can make you feel alone like other people can. I have never been this alone in the vast remoteness of the Northwest Territories. Or the Yukon. Or Nunavut.
In the vast open landscape of the Arctic tundra you are simply on your own – it’s not loneliness if there are no people to miss.
I never fit in anywhere. Even less so in Chicago… except for Ray; he made me feel welcome. He has always been my friend. But the rift his absence created is getting greater with each passing day. It’s not for lack of attention, God knows I attract more than enough. Yesterday, a woman threw herself at me. It was embarrassing and very awkward for both of us. At least I am fairly sure that the young Miss will have felt deeply embarrassed about her spectacle afterwards. I don’t need that kind of forceful attention. Can’t something bring me together with someone for reasons that do not relate to my uniform or my looks or my nationality?
Fraser put the pen down as sudden inspiration struck. That sandwich shop had burned down today because someone knew that Fraser went there every Thursday. That meant that someone must’ve been watching him for quite some time. And chances were that he was still being shadowed. Whoever was behind those crimes committed them out of some fixation related to him.
Tomorrow, he would get down to the bottom of this mystery.
Fraser had to suffer through one of the most frustrating days of his life. He had guard duty, a job to which he had little objection usually. Guard duty, however, meant that you had no other distraction save for what your own mind could come up with. And Fraser’s was in a rather bleak state lately… spending hours inside of it was the last thing he wanted to do.
It also kept his possibility of surveilling his surroundings to a minimum. A few people were loitering near the consulate, but the guard duty always drew curious onlookers to waste their time standing around the premises.
Someone with a dog walked past several times, but there was nothing criminal in walking a dog around the same building more than once.
He checked the cars, but most of them were parked and only two of them moved at all during the time he was on duty. A few cabs passed the consulate – a cab would have been the perfect disguise, Fraser thought. But no license plate turned up more than once and none slowed down or even stopped.
After his guard duty ended, he was sent to collect the Inspector’s dry cleaning. As far as he could tell, no one was following him. The frustration of urban tracking, Fraser sighed.
When he came out of the cleaner he paused. That blue van, hadn’t that also been parked at the corner of the consulate this afternoon?
He set off, trying to glimpse the van in the reflection of the shop windows he passed. He almost thought he had been wrong when a limousine with tinted windows crossed the intersection and Fraser saw the reflection of the blue van a few vehicles behind. It could still have been a coincidence, but it was quite possible that he was being followed.
For a while, Fraser led the van aimlessly through the streets. It occurred to him, though, that he would need to get Inspector Thatcher’s dry cleaning back to the consulate at some point if he didn’t want to acknowledge that he knew he was being followed.
Once back at the consulate, Fraser’s eyes widened when he saw a familiar bottle of perfume on the front desk. Adrenaline pumped through him as he rushed into his superior’s office.
Inside, a man was kneeling in front of a small box containing various bottles of perfume.
“Dief!” Fraser shouted and before anyone could react, the wolf had pushed the strange man to the ground.
“Fraser!” The scandalized voice of the Inspector cut through the room.
“What—get your wolf off him!”
“Excuse me, do you know this man?” Fraser asked with a puzzled frown.
Inspector Thatcher rolled her eyes at him.
“Yes, this man happens to distribute perfumes; if that’s not a crime you take offence at I wish that you release him this instant.” The last two words were said in a clipped tone that brooked no argument.
“Dief, let him up,” Fraser said quietly.
“Thank you,” the Inspector said to him before she turned to the stranger on the floor. “I am terribly sorry, Sven. I don’t know what has gotten into Constable Fraser, but I expect he will make a full report about this incident.”
Inspector Thatcher’s smile wasn’t particularly friendly when she turned to Fraser again. “Constable, I have no idea why it is any of your business where I buy my perfume or from whom so I hope you’ll have a good explanation for your behavior.”
“Ah, yes sir. I have reason to believe that the consulate was the arsonist’s next target.”
“Yes sir, it would appear that I am being stalked by a performance arsonist.”
Inspector Thatcher seemed to be at a loss for words for a moment.
“…yes, that would qualify as an explanation.”
Fraser nodded earnestly.
He needed another plan of action. He couldn’t wait until the arsonist found his next target.
Fraser charged outside. He would force a confrontation. It was better to bring this conflict to an end before anyone got really hurt. With a purposeful stride, he marched in the direction where the blue van was parked at the curb.
He didn’t know what he expected to happen, but when the engine roared to life and the car veered out of the parking space, he knew what he had to do.
He planted himself firmly on the road, intent on jumping onto the van the moment it came close enough.
The van accelerated in sudden flight and Fraser tensed all his muscles in preparation for the jump. You needed to get the timing just right. Too slow and the car would flatten you, too fast and the car would be too far away and you would end up jumping against the windshield.
The tires screeched as the van gathered speed. Fraser didn’t know if the driver was indeed prepared to run him over or if it was sheer panic that was forcing this reaction.
5… 4… 3…. Urgh! Something collided with Fraser with full force. The air was knocked out of his lungs as his whole body was thrown out of the way of the moving car. Whatever it was must’ve approached him from his blind spot; he hadn’t seen anything coming at him.
Fraser’s body hit the concrete with a painful thud that was followed by an equally painful sounding ‘oof’. The first thing Fraser’s eyes could focus on was the van speeding past. The second was a blurry close-up of the man half lying on top of him.
“Are you insane?” The man shouted.
Fraser opened his mouth to explain that the man had just prevented him from arresting a dangerous performance arsonist.
“You know, I heard a lot of stories about you. ‘The Mountie does crazy shit,’ they said. And I said, ‘that’s alright, I’m kind of a wild card myself’. And then they said, ‘hey, he talks to his wolf’ and I said ‘I got nothing against people who talk to animals,’ well nothing in general anyway.”
“Well, Diefenbaker does have an opinion on most things,” Fraser felt the need to explain.
The stranger paused for a second. “Which I am willing to overlook.”
“Thank you… I suppose.”
The stranger broke into a sudden grin before his expression sobered once more. “But at no time did they say ‘oh, by the way, the Mountie’s got a soul that’s desperate to evacuate his body. What the hell is wrong with you? You suicidal?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Fraser answered truthfully. He might have been a little more reckless than was his wont, but he hadn’t tried to endanger his life at this particular moment.
The man seemed to relax slightly at that.
“Can I get up now?” Fraser asked unsure.
“Oh, heh, yeah.” The man pushed himself up before offering a sinewy hand to Fraser.
Once Fraser was sitting up and wasn’t quite so close to the face of his savior anymore, he took a good look at him.
“You’re him!” Fraser exclaimed in sudden surprise.
“Who?” The man answered alarmed.
“The man from the burned out building. The man from the police force at the scene of the diner on Jackson Drive.”
Another smile appeared on the stranger’s face.
“Yeah, I was there. How do you know?”
“I was there, too. This van belongs to a—”
“Yeah, I know, I know. A crazy arsonist who was about to burn down the Canadian consulate.”
Fraser stopped with his mouth already half-way open.
“Yes. How could you possibly know that?”
“Because there was a call. My district, my department, my phone – in fact, I even picked up the phone. And then someone told us that they were about to burn down the Canadian consulate for some weird ass reason.”
“Ah,” Fraser’s head was reeling. “And you are?”
“Sorry,” the stranger held out his hand. “I’m Ray. I’m with the 1-7, I don’t think we’ve met before. Then again, the 2-7 is a bit out of the way for me.”
Completely taken aback, Fraser took the offered hand. “You’re called Ray?”
The man winced. “Well, Stanley Raymond Kowalski really, but no one dares calling me that.”
“Your name is Stanley Kowalski? Just like in the Tennessee Williams’ play?”
The stranger scowled. “You don’t have to memorize it, okay? I go by Ray.”
“Yes, of course. Nice to meet you. I’m Benton Fraser.”
“Yeah, I know,” the man grinned his disarming smile again. “Everyone’s heard stories of the Mountie over at the 2-7. So, are you gonna tell me why you threw yourself in front of a van?”
Now it was Fraser’s turn to look displeased. “I didn’t throw myself in front of a van. I was trying to jump onto it. I wanted to prevent future fires on my behalf.”
“The next time?”
“Yes?” Fraser asked confused.
“Don’t listen to what the little voices are telling you.” The man dusted himself off. “We’re onto this. We have a pretty good idea what the substitute target will be, now that they didn’t get to burn down the Canadian fortress.”
“And what would that target be?” Fraser asked a little haughtily. The attitude of this detective wasn’t the least bit courteous.
“I think you know it. It’s the family home of a man named Vecchio.”
Fraser couldn’t have pretended not to know if he had tried.
“Yeah, thought this would mean something to you. What do you say, you wanna come with me check it out?”
“Yes—yes, certainly,” Fraser said fervently.
“Greatness. Come on, my car is parked over there.”