Stella had been right about the weather. The rain was coming in sheets now, visibility down to nearly nothing. The few lights that shone along the docks were washed out and streaky. Dief, as they passed their dull glimmer, looked grey. Glancing at Ray and Fraser she realised that they looked like they'd been swimming. At this rate, soon, so would she.
"Where's your car?"
"We didn't bring a car, Stell, Fraser here and Dief were doing their sniffer dog thing."
"Oh, for goodness sake..." she huffed with frustration. "We need to get to her..." She started to run, or tried to, and slipped. Her shoes were not designed for running at the best of times, and the wet concrete beneath her feet was practically a skating rink. Fraser put his arm out, and caught her.
"Don't run," he said, "we'll get you home safe."
"What are we going to do? Swim there? I've got to get to my mother before he..."
"I know, Stell," Ray said, "just follow me."
He strode on ahead, and she felt her lips thin, slightly. She knew he meant well, and she was incredibly grateful he had turned up when he had... but this whole 'take charge, cowboy in a white hat' thing was very, very irritating. Also irritating was the fact that she knew she was being unfair. Fright was still bleeding through her, and she wanted to lash out at somebody. Unfortunately Packer wasn't there, and she realised that if she wasn't careful she was going to lash out at her rescuers.
And damn... she was mighty pissed that she had rescuers at all. Damsel and distress did not look good on her. Frustrated she flapped at Fraser's arm. "I'm all right," she said, releasing herself, "I can walk, you know."
Fraser gave her space, and walked alongside her as they followed Ray.
"What the hell does he think he's doing," she muttered, watching him stride into the middle of the road. "Oh good God," she shook her head in dismay as he took up position in front of an oncoming truck, with his right arm sticking out, displaying his badge. Fraser stiffened for a moment, and started to run.
"Marvellous," Stella sighed to herself. Two men playing hero, just what she needed.
"Oof," Ray let out a grunt as he hit the ground. "Fraser! He was gonna stop!"
"He was going to run you over."
"Oh, for pity's sake..." Stella stepped to the side of the road, and stuck out her thumb. The next truck stopped.
"Hey, lady," the driver leaned out his open window. "You all right? What are you doing, standing in the rain?"
"Getting wet," she laughed. "But thank you for stopping... could you give me and my friends a lift?"
The driver looked suspiciously around him, and spotted Fraser and Ray, whose efforts to get up from the tarmac were being seriously hampered by the loving ministrations of Dief.
"They're not drunk, are they?"
"Believe it or not, no. These two fine specimens of manhood are in fact police officers."
"And the dog?"
"Police dog," she said firmly, keeping 'wolf' to herself. "We need to get to town, quickly."
"Okay... someone been roughing you up?"
"Yes," she said, tersely. Good grief, she must look bad if he could tell that in this light. To make matters worse, Ray and Fraser, who had finally made it to their feet, were standing beside her looking chastened. To tell the truth they resembled nothing more than men who had been in a bar fight with... well... a wolf.
Fraser sneezed massively, and Ray gave him a dirty look.
"You know, I'd love to help," the driver said, dubiously, "but I can't take a detour into town..."
Oh hell, she was losing him...
"What am I thinking..." Thank God Packer had left her wallet. If he was after money (and she was sure he was) it was a lot more money than she carried on her. However, what she did have would be more than enough to compensate this man. "Look, I know that the police will clear it with your boss, and in the meantime, I can pay..." She pulled out a sheaf of money, and held it up. "This is really, really important."
"Okay," the cab driver made up his mind. "You and your friends might as well jump in."
"Thank you," Stella looked at the men standing on either side of her, and smiled. "You're a life saver."
Perhaps literally, she thought, her mother coming back to mind.
After all that messing around, she could only hope they would arrive on time.
Clarice was, as he expected, drunk. Drunker than usual. Normally, at this stage, she would be drunk and boozily flirtatious, but she appeared to have drunk herself into a stupor. Damn... he'd wanted to be able to work on her tonight, get her into a pitch of panic where she'd do whatever he said. As it was, he'd have to wait. She'd take a while to sober up enough in the morning, but at least, if she was comatose, he could make himself comfortable. Taking a vicious pleasure in it, he rolled her off the bed. She landed with a thump. He'd sleep better tonight, knowing that the old hag was stretched out on the floor. And if she threw up, she'd know about it for once. He was sick of cleaning up after her. He imagined her reaction, if she woke to vomit in her hair. Tough love, they called it, didn't they? Allowing an alcoholic to suffer the consequences of their drunkenness. To hit rock bottom so they knew they needed help.
Well, there was no love in what he was doing, but she'd know when she woke up that she'd hit bottom. And she'd do anything to fix it.
Yes, he smiled to himself. Finally, he was getting back on track.
Spreading out casually on the bed he phoned the lobby.
"This is Steven Packer. I just wanted to thank you so much for letting me up here. Clarice is... well, she's a little bit better. She needs some rest, but I think we can wait until the morning before I take her to the doctor's."
"Are you sure? We can..."
"No, no. Don't worry. She's doing okay... she agreed to take her medication, and now she's sleeping comfortably.
"I'm so glad, Sir. You phone down if you need anything at all."
"No, thank you. I'm fine. You've been very good to me."
"Thank you, Sir," he could almost hear her blushing.
"No, thank you," he replied, amused, and hung up the phone.
Well... what could he do while he was waiting for Clarice to wake up? He pursed his lips, and gazed speculatively at the television. It was late, but there was probably a rerun or ballgame on somewhere. There was an adult entertainment channel, but it mightn't be the thing for a concerned boyfriend to be watching. He should try to stay in character...
He made himself comfortable against the pillows, and turned the television on. Clarice had left half a bottle of wine. He might as well pour himself a glass...
Oh, good. A Western. With a grunt of satisfaction he turned up the volume, and got lost in the story.
Clarice groaned, and mumbled in her sleep.
Martha was still chastising herself for not having done more to help that poor Steven Packer when the front doors opened, and three very disreputable looking individuals walked in. She sat up and stared at them with open hostility. A huge white bear of a creature was shaking water all over the lobby.
"Is that a... is that a dog?"
The man with the black hair slicked to his head opened his mouth to speak, but the very irritated blonde woman put her hand up assertively to stop him, and stepped right up to the desk, dripping.
"Look, we've come because one of your guests is in danger. I know they don't look it, but these guys are police officers and..."
"Stella," the blond man was looking belligerent. "We can introduce ourselves..." He shook his head, dropping water everywhere. "Look, lady," he said, "don't give us that look." He thrust a badge in her face. "You've got a Clarice Hamilton staying here..."
"Yes," Martha felt her confusion lifting. Of course, they might not look it, but they were here to help that poor woman, and Steven Packer. "She's quite safe. She's taken her medication, and she's sleeping. Her fiancé is with her now..."
"Her what?" The blonde woman's voice spiked with alarm. Martha glanced quickly around to make sure no guests were in earshot. Thank goodness it was late... the last thing that they needed was a scene...
"Excuse me," the dark haired man spoke, calmly. "Martha? We need a key to Mrs Hamilton's suite. I'm afraid she's in considerable danger."
"No... no, like I just said, she's got her fiancé with her..."
The blonde woman folded her arms across her chest, and fixed her in a ferocious glare. "Earlier today her fiancé, as you call him, pulled a gun on me, kidnapped me, tied me up, and beat me up. I'm sure that he's not got anything pleasant planned for my mother. So... give us the keys, now."
Martha's mouth dried. Oh... Good... God. She had just made the worst mistake of her career...
Fingers trembling, she grabbed the spare key to the Hamilton suite, and handed it to the blonde woman.
"Thank you kindly," the dark haired man said, as the three made their way to the lifts.
She could swear the blond man was saying something about kicking Packer in the head... but she must be mistaken. She watched, concerned, as he passed a gun to the woman. Kick him in the head? No... A police man would never say a thing like that...
Packer was just beginning to doze when the door creaked open. Room service, he thought. Probably Clarice ordered something before she passed out. She often got the munchies this time of night. Good... he could do with a bite to eat.
"Put it on the table," he said sleepily. "I'll get it later."
"You'll get it now," came a female voice, "you bastard."
For a moment the silhouette standing next to the bed looked disconcertingly like Clarice. Clarice with a gun. Then the light came on, and he saw it was...
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. How could he fix this... there had to be a way... there was always a way.
"Stella," he sat up, scrambling to adopt the right persona. What would work with her now? "Are you all right? I'm so sorry about..."
"Don't you dare," she said. "Don't you even think about smarming your way out of this one." She had an odd smile on her angry face. "You, my friend, are in a lot of trouble."
"Oh, I'm sure we can work something..."
Ah. Oh shit. Stella was not alone. She wasn't even the only person in the room with a gun in their hand.
Kowalski, also pointing a gun, and another guy, gunless, but with a...
That was a freaking wolf.
Kowalski walked up to him, grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. "You, Packer, are under arrest."
Behind him, the dark haired man sneezed, then stooped, lifted Clarice gently, and carried her to the couch. As he did so, the man's wolf bounded up on the bed, and shoved his muzzle into his face, snarling.
The next few days were a blur. The press were persistent, but Stella did her best to avoid them, succeeding for the most part. Her mother, on the other hand, lapped up the attention. Stella cringed... she couldn't understand why her mother wasn't ashamed. But then, her mother had always craved the limelight. Finally she was getting it in spades, and she wasn't about to let it go. She didn't even seem to mind that the press was divided between portraying her as a victim, and portraying her as an old... well... what was the word? Tart.
Poor mother, thought Stella. She wished that she could have been enough for her, that anyone could have been. But it seemed like there was a hole in her mother, somewhere, that she had missed out on something growing up, and had been trying to fix it ever since. It made her sad to think of it, but she'd never know what the problem was. She doubted even her mother knew.
Finally, a full week after the kidnap, she had put together every single scrap of evidence that she could find, detailing not only what Packer had done to her mother and herself, but also what he had intended to do with the money. It came as a shock to everyone when, finally, facts came through that could be used to nail Domnin and Krutov. Packer had been suspicious from the start, and had recorded several of their conversations. The investigation into the activities of this branch of the Russian mob had been going on for so long that for a while the justice system didn't quite understand what had fallen into their lap. Once the penny dropped, however, things moved quickly. It irked Stella that Packer was going to get a reduced sentence for sharing his testimony against his erstwhile co conspirators, but he would, at least, serve jail time... He seemed, at this point, to think that he could wriggle his way out of this as he wriggled his way out of everything. But she knew that, even taking his testimony against the Russians into account, he would be in prison for no less than ten years. Probably more.
So, yes... she should have been feeling better than she was.
"Hey, Stella." Ray met her at the steps of her office. For once, she wasn't annoyed to see him.
"Hi Ray. How are you doing?" They started walking together, the decades of their friendship settling on them as they kept perfect pace. He could still... he could still made her feel comfortable.
"I'm, well, you know. Okay. Better than Fraser."
"Why, what's wrong with Fraser?" Since the rescue and everything that had gone with it, she was feeling rather fonder of Fraser than she used to.
"Oh, he's all right. He's just getting over a cold. Probably never had one in his life before. He's at the Vecchios' right now, being mothered." Ray grinned. "Ma Vecchio's feeding him hot chocolate, and Frannie's in heaven."
Stella laughed. She'd seen Frannie around the station, making eyes at the poor Mountie, and seen the way Fraser carefully deflected. "Well," she said, "at least he's being looked after."
"Yeah, he's in good hands. Listen, Stella..." He looked at her, with that peculiarly intent expression that used to precede his declarations of love.
"Yes?" She spoke cautiously.
"I just wanted to say..."
"Oh, for heaven's sake. Spit it out so I can give you the brush off." Now she was upset all over again. Did he have to constantly make everything so complicated?
"No... not that. Sorry Stella. I just wanted to say..."
"What?" This time she spoke more softly.
"You've been, you know, really strong about all this. I'm sorry if... well, you know. If I came on like Sir Galahad. You know. Trying to be..." he scratched his head, as though trying remember a word. It made her heart ache a little. He often lost words when he was anxious or worried about something. "Chivalrous."
"Chivalrous?" She smiled. The image of Ray as a slightly battered knight errant appealed to her.
"Yeah, yeah." Ray sounded embarrassed. "I thought you'd laugh."
"No... no, Ray. I'm just..."
He looked at her, eyebrows raised.
"I'm remembering something."
Her smile broadened, and she walked a little closer to him.
"When we were teenagers, you used to write me poems, remember?"
"Oh, God, no..." His whole body seemed to clench up in a cringe. "Stella, they were awful."
"I didn't think so."
"Yeah, well, thank God I didn't save any of them. If anyone ever read them, I'd never live it down."
"I saved them," she said, and looked, carefully, at the sidewalk.
"Oh..." he looked at her, questioningly. She stopped next to a tree, looked up at its branches, and turned to smile at him.
"'Remember, dear, beneath the tree,
my lavender queen,
kissed by the breeze,
that I will love you,
and you will love me,
as long as the leaf is green on the tree.'"
"I wrote that?"
"You did. And... it's true, Ray." She blinked, suddenly blinded. "Even though... even though it's autumn, and the leaves aren't green any more. I do love you. I always will."
Ray spoke, but only with his face. She knew that look. She knew all his looks. He knew... they both knew, that it was over. Their season had come and gone. But...
She stood up on tiptoe, and kissed him, gently, on the cheek.
"Be happy, Ray," she said. "You deserve it."
There was a lot else that she wanted to say, but she knew herself, knew him. Knew them both. If they talked too much they might get caught up, yet again, in their complicated history. For now...
It was enough to know that it was over. And that they had both loved.
She reached out, and patted him, then straightened her purse on her shoulder, and walked away.
Fraser was sitting on the couch, nursing chocolate, when the door opened. He looked up, and smiled to see Ray being hustled through by Sophia. She was bambinoing him.
"Hello, Ray," he asked. "Are you all right?"
Ray looked at him, with a slightly sad quirk on his face. "Yeah. Yeah... I'm fine."
Ah, Fraser thought, he's seen Stella. To distract him he said, "you really should try some of Sophia's hot chocolate. She uses real chocolate, and cream..."
"Oh, I'm fine... I'm not staying long."
"Have some chocolate, you silly boy," Sophia gave him a little smack on the arm. "It's good for you."
"No, honestly I..." Ray stopped talking, with a sudden look of alarm.
"You... I've got a tickle."
"You gave me your..."
"What?" Oh dear... Ray sounded angry about something...
"You gave me your cooties." He glared at Fraser, and sneezed again.
"Chocolate, now," Sophia Vecchio said sternly.
Ray sat down on the couch with a sigh. "Yes, Ma," he said.
Fraser shifted his weight to give Ray more room. 'Cooties,' he thought, and tried not to laugh.