Now, I was originally going to include this story as part of Partners In Crime. But then a single chapter took on a life of its own, and I realized this would work better as a story in its own right.
It takes place during one of my all time favourite episodes from season two - Big Murderer On Campus. Not only did it bring Ted Atherton in for a wonderful ST:FBE reunion with Yannick Bisson, it also showed the depth of friendship between William and George. I've always seen it not just as mentor to student, but big brother to little brother too. It really highlighted the bond of trust between them, especially when George asks for William's advice on his rather unfortunate situation.
Special thanks to Demosthenes23, for inspiring me to write this longer story, which centres around that trust, and some of its consequences. I hope you enjoy it!
A Shot In The Dark
It felt so strange, and wrong, to see him so unhappy, and - oh, how William felt for him. George was the last person in the world who deserved to face such a painful dilemma.
All he'd tried to do was find and meet his natural mother, and… well, now the inevitable had happened. Two women from vastly different backgrounds had come forward, to claim him as their long lost son. But only one had the right to do so. The other was using him, in the utmost cruelty, for her own gain. Regardless of his own feelings, they'd fought over him, as if he were no more than a piece of meat – leaving him mortified as Brackenreid ordered him to take this 'fine show of motherly love' outside.
With the shame of this adding to the revelation of his upbringing, he'd been understandably quiet ever since. As he answered his mentor's call to his office, his face betrayed the full scale of this personal conflict. Between trying to focus on their latest case, William knew he was also still struggling to find a way to prove his real mother's identity.
From her reaction on meeting him, William already knew who was the more likely, but to prove it – well, he'd need his young protégé to listen to his proposal, and trust him, as he'd never done so before. After assuring him there'd be no pigs this time, and no dresses, he turned serious again. Deadly serious
"Now, George, you've always done everything I've asked of you in the past, but this is different," he said gently, placing his hand on George's shoulder, so that he fully understood what he was about to ask him to do. "In order for this plan to work, George, I need you to trust me. Completely. With your life."
For a request that would resort to such drastic measures, George responded to it with remarkable calm. With just a smile, and four heartfelt words, he left his mentor visibly moved, and immeasurably proud.
"I do already, sir."
Brackenreid's reaction was as he'd expected too, but with rather less touching belief. And much more volume.
"You're going to do what?!"
"Sir, you know that I would never, ever, put George in any risk of danger," William insisted, holding up the box that he'd been shooting at before, then pointing to the thickly padded gilet in George's arms. "He'll be wearing this vest that I've had made especially for him, and it will protect him completely."
"Yes, sir, it's quite the ingenious thing. Inspired by these Mongol warriors," George chipped in, meeting his Inspector's sceptical eyes with a resilience that spoke volumes for his character. His faith in Murdoch was as complete as his loyalty, and Brackenreid knew both were unbreakable.
More to the point, he knew Murdoch was right. They needed to catch two killers, and a heartless fraud. So despite his doubts, he had to admit this was the best chance they had to do both at the same time.
"Alright, Murdoch, we'll do this, but on one condition. I get to take the shot," he said at last, glancing in turn between them, until two grateful smiles conveyed their thanks for his support.
So it came that, later that night, Thomas Brackenreid settled himself down into his hiding place. With Hodge as a convenient replacement for its usual driver, the coal cart's latest delivery was still mundane enough to give him the perfect cover. A yard full of students didn't even give it a second glance. All he had to do now was wait for the right moment to play his part in Murdoch's plan.
He didn't have to wait long. Right on time, Murdoch and Crabtree appeared beside the window, their unsuspecting suspect standing bemusedly between them. Through the sights of his rifle, he saw George move away, then return with his confirming cue. The telephone which, as he held it out to Perry, gave his Inspector the final signal he needed to fire.
Checking once more that he'd attained his target, he took another deep breath. And pulled the trigger.
Even with knowing it was all part of Murdoch's plan, what happened next was still shocking to watch. Hit by a shot that would normally have killed him instantly, George's body jerked, then seemed to freeze in time. Then his legs buckled, and he dropped to his knees, falling out of the vision of two anxious blue eyes.
All they could see now was Murdoch rushing to his fallen constable's side, and Robert Perry's reaction. Even in darkness, and despite the distance between them, the shock on his face was still plain, and real. He'd surely know by now that whoever had fired that bullet had been aiming at him. Trying to kill him.
In that respect, Murdoch's plan had worked perfectly. Now its other objective would come into play.
It started with the ambulance that had been conveniently positioned just outside the campus grounds. From Robert Perry's panic stricken phone call, it now came clattering into the main courtyard, its two attendants reacting to Murdoch's stricken yell with a chillingly believable urgency.
"Here! Up here! Hurry, my constable's been shot, I – I think he's dying!"
As the few people who were in the yard scattered in panic, Brackenreid gratefully used its advantage. Emerging from his hiding place, he signalled to Hodge that his part in the charade was over too. He could now drive the cart, and its incriminating weapon, out of the campus, unnoticed, leaving his Inspector to attend his latest crime scene.
When he reached it, he had to remind himself again that it had all been meticulously staged, and yet – no, as he stared down at George Crabtree's pale, lifeless face, he felt his gut clench in rising alarm. Was this silent stillness part of the act? Or, as the shock on Murdoch's face suggested, was it real? And if Crabtree was only supposed to be playing dead, then why the hell wasn't he responding to his mentor's now frantic attempts to rouse him?
He'd planned it all so carefully. Calculated its every stage with total precision, to eliminate every risk. Assured every person in this deception, and its most vital player, that his life was safe in his hands. But starting with a soft groan of pain, and ending in this hospital room, to now stand next to its bed – no, William thought bitterly as he continued to watch George sleep, he had not planned for this.
The only comfort he could offer himself, and it was such a precious one, was that George wasn't dead. The vest he'd worn under his tunic had undoubtedly saved his life. If not for its protection, he would be paralysed at best. At worst, he'd be lying in Julia's morgue. Both thoughts were still too awful to contemplate as William drew a chair to his bedside, and sat down - reflecting on Brackenreid's surprisingly gentle attempts to ease his conscience
'That vest did its job, and young bugalugs will thank you for it. So chin up, me old mucker. He's going to be fine.'
William had nodded then, trying to believe his Inspector's words. Both of them knew, though, that belief wouldn't come until they came from George himself. Until that moment came, William took the alternative comfort of watching George sleep, the steady rise and fall of his chest. His soft, quiet breathing.
He was dreaming too, his face conveying the safe, happy place where his subconscious had taken him. Stirring for a moment, his eyes then tightened under their lids, causing William's smile to fade as well. Just as he'd started to come to terms with it, he was once more reminded on where his carefully laid plan hadn't ended as he'd expected. Why George now lay in this hospital bed.
Tearing through his vest, enough to dent the steel plate beneath it, the bullet had still left its mark. Its impact had punched a deep bruise through the muscles in George's back, right down to his spine. And despite his best efforts to conceal it, its extent was still causing him a great deal of discomfort. A deepening wince now turned into a soft groan as he opened his eyes, and blinked sleepily around him.
Set in the paleness of his face, those eyes were huge now, darkened by the effects of lingering pain. The trust within them was still as bright as ever, though, mirroring the delight of that familiar smile. Yet instead of easing William's conscience, it only served to rewaken the guilt that still lay within it. Until the bruise came fully out, and the swelling below it subsided, he had to keep as still as possible – no easy feat as the depth of the injury made it hard for him to find a comfortable position to lie in.
So as he shifted again, wincing from the movement, William's conscience finally overwhelmed him.
"George, I'm so sorry. This wasn't part of my plan, this wasn't meant to happen," he said at last, the rest of his apology tumbling out before his still groggy protégé could say anything to stop it. "The vest was supposed to absorb the bullet's impact, so that you wouldn't be hurt, and…"
"I-I'm fine, sir. Really, it's just a bruise, and a bit sore if I lie on it too long," George assured him, frowning now, and not just from his aching back, when he realized William wasn't fully convinced.
It felt odd, that he had to point out the obvious to the best detective in Toronto, but… well, needs must. And just so he didn't cause his mentor any offence, he made his point with calm and quiet simplicity.
"When you consider the alternative, sir, I think we can both live with a little soreness."
Faced with such simple but significant logic, William could only smile, nod, and gratefully accept it.
"Yes, George. Yes, of course, you're right, we both have a lot to be thankful for," he agreed, feeling a weight of guilt lift from his shoulders, and dispersed completely by that irrepressible smile.
Not for the first time and, thank God, not for the last, he marvelled at his protégé's greatest assets. Loyal to a fault, he was often as inspiring a teacher to his own mentor as he was a student. But as a soft question also reminded him, he had an innocence too, that was still being cruelly exploited.
"Are – Are my mothers still here?"
"Yes, George, they are. As we agreed, Dr Ogden is going to… um, explain the severity of your injuries," William replied, privately glad that the time had almost come now, for him to reveal one of them as a heartless fraud. "I'll speak to them too now, to confirm who is your real mother, but… well, I wanted to see you first, to see that you were alright."
For him, of course, it was the most natural thing in the world, to offer comfort to an injured friend – hence the surprise he felt when George blinked up at him, as he didn't think he deserved such favour. Then he remembered the stigma and prejudice that he, and other foundlings, still had to endure.
He'd been luckier than most, of course. Taken into safety, and raised within a close, loving family. But the shame of being abandoned as an unwanted baby had still betrayed itself in his own reactions. As William had observed, his response to his second mother had been tellingly different to the first. So yes, he could understand the hope he saw in George's eyes. The nervous yearning in his voice.
"Do you know that already, sir? I – I mean, who is the more likely to be my real mother?"
"I have a pretty good idea, George, yes. As I believe you do too," William replied just as softly, giving his arm a gently rallying squeeze as George nodded, and mustered up another brave smile. "Now, get some rest. I'll be along presently with your mother, your real mother, so that she can sit with you. Alright?"
The nod was even slighter this time, reflecting the tiredness that had already caused his eyes to close. Once he'd settled, William rose to his feet again, pausing a few more moments to gather his thoughts. He'd had his fill of the lies and deceptions that had caused his friend such pain, and… no. No more.
As he left his room, William made him a fervent promise. It would end here, and it would end now.
"Which one of you will go to him?"
It was a simple enough question, but William knew its response would carry a lifetime of importance. Not so much for himself, but for George… yes, the answer to this question would mean everything. It would change his life forever. Bring him the reunion he'd yearned for, and risked so much to attain. And, of course, it would do the same for one of the women who'd answered that fateful advertisement.
Both of his 'mothers' now sat staring up at him, considering this soft but unmistakeable challenge to their conscience. One surely knew by now that their deception was over, and they couldn't exploit it any further. The other was still struggling to take in what Julia had just told her.
But to finely trained eyes that could see its subtleties, their reactions told William all he had to know. Now, only one of them came under his unyielding eyes - hers the first to slide away in reluctant defeat.
She'd listened to Julia with a calm composure, that hid the less maternal motives and thoughts beyond. The boy had been unbelievably gullible, too desperate to find his mother to even check into her story. But if the financial gain she'd been pursuing him for was lost now, there was no need for her to stay. She certainly wasn't going to throw her own life away, tending to the demands of a helpless cripple.
So Emily Richardson finally rose to her feet, and re-met William Murdoch's silently damning eyes.
"I've made a living from being a believable mother. I thought I could do so here," she said at last, regarding him with the same resentful disdain that her next words conveyed, with no hint of remorse. "But I should have known better than try to fool you, detective. Your reputation does you credit."
As William treated that remark with the contempt it deserved, she then unleashed her own on another target – turning the full depths of her heartless cruelty onto the woman whose own heart still bled for her tragic son
"And if he's to be a cripple for the rest of his life, then she's welcome to him."
Completely unprepared for this attack, Gracie Saunders could only stare back at her. Even Julia was left speechless by what this seemingly genteel woman had just revealed herself to be. Watching her stride away, it was all William could do not to pursue her, and vent his own, bitter anger.
Instead, he just watched her go, allowing himself a private smile for what lay in wait for her outside – knowing that Henry and Perkins would gladly escort her to the more fearsome wrath of their Inspector. Even if she hadn't succeeded in defrauding her latest victim, Brackenreid would ensure she never did it again.
So with that thought to sustain him, he turned back, to favour Gracie Saunders with his warmest smile. He'd known her true identity all along, of course, but… well, it was still a satisfying moment to be proven right.
"Well, Miss Saunders, I believe full and proper congratulations are now in order," he said at last, extending his hand, and patiently waiting for her to overcome her surprise, and accept it into her own. "Thanks to the honesty of your reactions, you've been reunited with a truly wonderful son."
After everything she'd just been told, William could understand why she now looked so confused. In the space of two days, she'd been reunited with her son, only to see that joyous moment ruined by Emily Richardson's cruel deception. Through another of a far more well meaning intent, she'd just been told that her son, her precious Georgie, would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. So yes, for any mother, it was an awful lot to take in.
Then her face changed, registering a realization that, he thought fondly, was already so familiar.
"So – So you've known all along that I'm Georgie's mother? His real mother?"
Glancing across at Julia, William gratefully returned her smile of approving encouragement. He knew she'd shared his intuition in telling the difference between false tears and genuine distress – just as she shared his natural instinct to protect George from those who would try to exploit him.
With that impostor now gone, they could both focus on reuniting him with his real and rightful mother.
She was still staring at them, confused and uncertain, waiting for her question to be answered. Still smiling, William sat down beside her and, to her accepting surprise, re-took hold of her hand.
"Miss Richardson may not agree, but there are advantages to being a detective," he said gently, seeing more and more of George's personality in the eyes that still stared so curiously back at him. "If I say so myself, I see things that others don't. Including behaviours that cannot be faked."
Gracie Saunders may not have had the benefit of her rival's shrewd mind, but she had a far greater gift. The same, down to Earth awareness that served her son so well, and that served her equally well now.
"Like her putting on airs and graces just now? Trying to make me out as the fraud?"
"Yes, exactly. Although I knew you were George's mother long before then," William replied, warmly returning her tentative smile. "There was such delight on your face when you met him for the first time, and such genuine pride."
"And your distress over his injuries has been too real to have been faked," Julia added, "While Miss Richardson remained calm, too calm… well, your reactions were those of a real mother."
"Yes, I had my suspicions about Miss Richardson and her motives from the start," William went on, feeling honour bound to apologise for what she'd said. "And I am deeply sorry, both for her callousness, and how we've had to deceive you to expose it."
If he was expecting her thanks, though, then he was unpleasantly disappointed. Stunned by this latest revelation, Gracie's expression changed, her eyes narrowing in outraged fury.
"Deceive me? You mean, he's been shot because of this? My Georgie's been crippled because of you?"
There'd been an edge of anger to her voice, that William had anticipated. He just hadn't expected to face it so soon. Still wincing at this oversight, he could only hope he'd find a way to dispel it.
William had lost count of the times when he'd welcomed Julia's presence. Her wise, calming support. With his best friend in hospital, and his justly anxious mother demanding answers, he needed it now – especially when another patient emerged from his room, accompanied by a woman whose tearful distress told its own story.
Huddled in his wheelchair, he cut a pitiful figure. And, William sadly noticed, he was so young too. Certainly closer to George's age than to his, the potential of a healthy lifetime cut cruelly short.
Even if he didn't know who he was, it was an upsetting sight. And, inevitably, even more so for the woman who'd met another mother's stricken eyes, and realized what she herself was about to face. Certainly not the happy future with her son, that she'd once been sure would never happen. So Julia's assurance that George wouldn't suffer the same fate came at the perfect time for them both
"George has been injured, and he will be confined to bed for several days," she said gently, reaching to take Gracie's hand in the timeless gesture of comfort. "But there is no bullet in his spine, and no paralysis. He will make a full and complete recovery."
"Yes, the vest he was wearing had a steel plate beneath it, which absorbed the bullet's force," William explained, reining in his usual impulse to explain all the science behind it, and keeping instead to what Gracie needed to hear. "Its impact has still left a rather painful bruise on his spine, but that will quickly heal. As Dr Ogden says, he will make a complete recovery, with no ill effects."
So much like her son's, Gracie's face now conveyed every one of her emotions, as she stared in turn between them, and the tragic young man they'd just seen in his wheelchair. For several moments, they flashed in turn through her eyes - confusion turning to relief, then hope, and finally an overwhelming joy, that trembled through her response.
"So – So he'll walk again? I – I won't need to nurse him, or – or look after him, like… like that?"
"I know you've every right to be angry with me, Miss Saunders, for putting you through this," William said gently, glancing at Julia for confirmation he didn't really need, but welcomed nonetheless. "But please believe me that George will be perfectly alright. He'll be back on his feet in no time."
There was only one emotion on her face now. Complete joy, that was inevitably buried in the depths of her handkerchief. Accepting William's gallantly offered replacement, she finally composed herself enough to ask the next, hopeful question.
"So I – I can see him now? It won't be too awful, for me to see him confined by this… injury?"
"Yes, of course you can see him. I'm sorry, I should have told you so before," William said quickly, offering her his arm as they all rose to their feet, and smiling in relief that she accepted it so easily. After doing so much to reunite her with her son, he really didn't want to fall out of her favour. And George's friendship meant far too much for him to let such disharmony come between them.
But as a quiet voice reminded him, Gracie Saunders had her own guilt to confess and confront. She'd left her firstborn son on the steps of a windswept church. Even now, the shame ran deep, for an act that well bred people like these would surely condemn.
"You - You must think me an awful mother, Detective Murdoch… to have abandoned him like that."
If she was expecting censure for her actions, then it wasn't going to come from William Murdoch, or this lady doctor who seemed destined to be at his side. To her surprise, his face held nothing but the kindness she'd already seen in his eyes, to match the compassion in his voice.
"I'm not qualified to judge you for that, Miss Saunders. I don't have the right. You had your reasons, and I respect them. And unlike many others, you did leave him in a place of safety."
"Yes, well, I'd been to St James's before, so I knew he'd be cared for, much better than I could do," Gracie agreed, thinking for a moment, before she turned to face him and Julia with a genuinely grateful smile. "And he's been blessed in other ways too, having such good people like you to take care of him."
"Your son is a very special person, Miss Saunders. it's my blessing to know him," William replied, patting her hand where it rested on his arm, before nodding to where Julia had proudly taken the other. "I'm sure Dr Ogden will agree that he's one of the kindest, most generous people we've ever met."
"Yes, we can both truthfully say that he's one of a kind. A son to be truly proud of," Julia agreed, slipping back into her professional persona as they finally came to George's room. Being a doctor gave her the advantage of checking his progress, without reprisal from the nurse who'd been officially charged with his care.
Quietly conferring with her for a few moments, she then returned to where William and Gracie stood waiting outside. Her smile alone was enough to reassure them as she led them into George's room.
"Now, he's still sleeping. But I'm sure the first face he'll want to see when he next wakes will be yours."
Understandably distracted by the sight in front of her, Gracie just nodded, smiling her thanks for the chair that William had drawn up for her to the side of George's bed. To his proud approval, her attention was already where he'd expected it to be. Not on him, or Julia, or even the nurse who now smiled gently back at her. No, it was focussed purely on George now as she leaned forward to stroke back his hair, reassuring him with a gentleness that only a real mother could give.
"I'm here, Georgie. I'm here."
Still deeply asleep, he didn't hear her. But that didn't stop the smile of pure contentment that still settled on his face, and migrated in turn onto that of his proudly watching mentor.
Yes, in every sense, he was in the safest of hands now, and William didn't want to intrude on their privacy any longer. This had to be their time now, to start making up for all those lost years, and rebuild their relationship. So with a final glance at this peaceful scene, he squeezed Gracie's hand, returning her joyous smile, before he and Julia quietly took their leave. As she took his arm again, he smiled back at her, his heart full of pride, and his conscience untroubled.