Dirty

(Many thanks to Gurrier for beta!)


The scrape of the key in the lock. Muffled thump of the door falling closed, of boots on the floor in the hall, then climbing up the stairs. Ray closes his eyes but he doesn't move, doesn't roll over or turn on the lamp. Kowalski's footsteps slow down and then stop altogether. Ray can hear him breathing.

"Hey," he says, still without moving. Opens his eyes, though. Kowalski is a silhouette in the doorway of the bedroom, backlit by the light in the upstairs hall. His hair is sticking up all over his head and he looks worn out or something, the way he's slouched.

Ray hears him exhale, watches him lift a hand to scrub at his face. That stupid bracelet catches the light as it slides down his wrist, disappears beneath the sleeve of his jacket. "So listen," Kowalski says. "I figure between my salary and those bonds you got, we should still be able to make the bills. Things are going to be tight for a while, but whatever. We'll make do." He pushes himself away from the doorway and lets his jacket slide off his shoulders, tosses it over the chair by the door. Ray closes his eyes again, listens to Kowalski's boots cross the floor, feels the bed sag as he sits on the edge of it. "Might not be able to get out to Arizona this winter, though." He leans over, starts working on the buckles of his boots.

Ray puts a hand over his eyes. "I didn't do it," he says. "In case you were wondering."

He hears Kowalski pause, then start to move again, a little slower than before. "Welsh...he says you got backpay coming. Vacation you never took, sick days, overtime. So that should help." A soft thump as one of those boots hits the floor.

"What the fuck would I want to start squeezing some two-bit hood like Franco for? Jesus fucking Christ, Kowalski. Most I could have gotten is a couple grand." He takes his hand away from his eyes so he can glare at the hard line of Kowalski's spine, sitting there on the edge of their bed.

Kowalski jerks his other boot from his foot. "Couple grand extra every month," he says, "Tempting for guys like us. City isn't exactly the most generous employer in the whole world. Besides, fuck--maybe you got a crack addiction I don't know about. Maybe you're into cards or races or Jesus, whores. That's the point, here, Vecchio. I just do not know." He starts on his holster, fingers fumbling angrily with the snaps.

"Oh, fuck off," Ray says. "You know every damn thing there is to know about me. We live together, we work together...when have I got time to keep anything from you?" Kowalski doesn't answer. He throws his holster on top of his jacket, stands to lock his gun away for the night. "I didn't do it, Kowalski. I'm telling you. I'm not a dirty cop."

Kowalski slams the lockbox closed and rounds on Ray, one finger extended. "Do not fucking lie to me," he says. "You got some kind of gambling problem, fine--I would have helped you figure it out, pay your debts, get fucking...therapy or something. You got yourself in trouble somehow, Jesus, Vecchio, you know I would have had your back. Even with this--if you'd told me about it, sure, I would have made you stop, but I wouldn't have turned you in. I am with you here, you understand me? I will always back you up. But you gotta know--I can't fucking deal with being lied to."

And yeah, Ray does know that. He knows all of this. He's lived with Kowalski for long enough that this whole scene has already played out in his head. It's kind of creepy how close to the script it is, actually. Ray feels like The Amazing Kreskin or something, like woohoo, he can see the future...but what good is that if you can't fucking change anything? "I'm not lying to you," he says anyway.

Kowalski closes his eyes for a second. "Come on," he says finally. "You really expect me to believe that? I've been you, Vecchio. Remember? I know."

Ray lets out the breath it seems he must have been holding. He predicted this part too, but that doesn't make it any easier. Him and Kowalski have been not talking about this particular elephant for a long, long time. It's a hard habit to break.

"What if I told you you're right about that?" he hears himself say. "What if I said I did it, I took it, I stole that fucking heroin? Would you believe me then?" He looks up and Kowalski's just standing there, staring at him, and he has this...fuck...this look on his face, like he's going to be sick or something, like in spite of everything, he didn't actually believe this until now.

Ray forces himself not to look away. "We should have talked about this a long time ago--I know that, and I'm sorry. But I need you to believe me now. Because I did not do this Franco thing, Kowalski. I didn't."

Kowalski looks at him for a minute longer, opens his mouth to speak. But then he shakes his head and lets out his breath, and he turns and walks out of the room.

***

There are dishes in the sink so he does them: saucer with toast crumbs (his, from this morning), coffee cups, a wine glass, that Tupperware container Vecchio's mom sent with her lasagna. The funniest thing, Vecchio's mom--Catholic as the pope but she had no problem with the gay thing. Vecchio says when he told her, she just looked at him with her eyes this wide, and then she said But who's gonna cook in a household like that? You poor boys, you're going to starve to death. They haven't been able to convince her otherwise. She makes them a casserole every week.

And the dish this one came in is stained, the stupid fucker. He scrubs hard but the pink tint of tomato sauce won't go away. Maybe if he uses some kind of cleaner, one of those chemicals Vecchio got for the bathroom. But can you eat off something after you put that shit on it? Probably not, he thinks. Probably you shouldn't. So instead he just sticks the whole thing in the trash, and then he kicks the trash, kicks it so hard the cheap plastic can goes flying into the wall on the other side of the room and all kinds of shit comes flying out of it. He kicks that, too, and slams his fist into the wall, and then he grabs a sweatshirt from the hall closet, finds a pair of sneakers by the door and leaves.

The night is cool and dark and quiet. He pulls the sweatshirt on and zips it up as he walks out to the sidewalk. The keys for the Goat are in the pocket of his jacket, which there is no way in hell he's going back to find. So he walks, instead, heads out toward the brighter lights of the street at the end of their block. His knuckles sting so he sticks them in his mouth, tastes blood all coppery on his tongue. Stupid fucking thing, punching the wall. Habit he's never been able to get out of.

When he gets to the end of the block he stops because there's traffic on the street in front of him. It's maybe midnight or one a.m. and this is a nice neighbourhood he's living in now--no more all-night porn stores and slice places, no more sleazy corner groceries. He shivers, pulls the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. There's a 7-11a couple of blocks from here. He can go there. Maybe get a pack of smokes.

But when he gets to that lit-up oasis in the middle of the closed-down street, it's the payphone on the outside wall that draws him. He doesn't think--thinking is not safe right now. He just pulls his wallet from his back pocket, slides a credit card in the slot. There's a hum after he dials and he imagines all that distance, all that quiet nighttime land under the spark of connection speeding through the wires.

Fraser picks up on the first ring. He sounds sleepy and a little annoyed, though you'd have to really know him to catch the last part. Ray leans against the plastic enclosure thing beside the phone. "It's me," he says.

There's a pause. Ray imagines Fraser sitting up, rubbing his eyes awake. The two of them have smoothed things over in the last couple of years, made a friendly kind of peace. But it's not like they just call each other up in the middle of the night; Fraser must be wondering what happened.

Sure enough, the first thing he says is: "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. We're...everybody's good. Safe. Don't worry." Ray shifts. The phone is cold against his ear. "Just...I kind of wanted your advice."

Fraser clears his throat. "Well, Ray...I'm honoured."

Ray half-smiles, brings a hand up to tap the plastic panel beneath the silver buttons of the payphone. "So...uh. Say I have this friend, this hypothetical friend. Okay?"

"All right," Fraser says.

"And say my friend is a cop. And then say my friend has been suspended because he's under investigation for being on the take, which I never would have believed except I happen to know that this particular friend has not exactly walked the straight and narrow a hundred percent of the time. Got all that so far?"

There is an uncomfortable pause. Ray closes his eyes, opens them. Stares up at the overcast sky. Right now in a snow-covered shack in the Northwest Areas, Fraser is rubbing his eyebrow. "Ray," Fraser says, eventually. "I believe I know your hypothetical friend. And I assure you that he is not guilty of whatever it is they've accused him of."

Ray sighs. He forgot how fucking annoying Fraser can be sometimes. How he lets his loyalty and his...principals get in the way of living in real life. "Fraser," he starts.

But Fraser cuts him off. "No, Ray. I think it's important that you listen." He pauses for a moment and Ray sighs again, stops fidgeting, gives Fraser his attention. "Ray Vecchio's father was a lout," Fraser says then. "He was a drinker and a gambler, and far too free with his fists. I don't know that he ever did an honest day's work in his life; certainly he left his family nothing but debt when he finally died. After the hospital bills and the cost of the funeral, the Vecchio's were destitute. The house was heavily mortgaged and those payments were in arrears; and then Ray's brother-in-law lost his job and was forced to move his wife and children into the Vecchio home. Francesca was working--as was Ray, of course. But their combined salaries were not sufficient to meet the needs of so many people and cover their debts as well. They were going to lose the house."

Fraser pauses, takes a breath. "I believe that in a situation where there are no good choices, the best of us will make mistakes. Ray Vecchio is an honourable man. In all the time I have known him, I have not seen him choose so poorly as he did then--and Ray, you may be sure that I was watching."

Ray's mouth is open. He closes it, swallows twice before he speaks. "You knew?" he says.

Fraser sighs. "I am not entirely naive, Ray. I noticed the discrepancy between the two logs. And I know Ray Vecchio. It was clear that his conscience was troubling him."

"Jesus, Fraser. Jesus Christ." Ray feels like the whole world is backward all of a sudden. Like there's nowhere solid to put his feet.

"My father once told me something that may be of value to you now, Ray," Fraser says. "It involved the relocation of...well, never mind. That's not important. The long and the short of it was this: your heart is where your duty lies.  Laws and rules can guide us, but each of us has only himself to answer to in the end. Ray Vecchio volunteered for an assignment he was sure he would not survive--that was his way of atoning. That he did survive it does not negate the gesture. He's done his time. Let it rest."

***

Fucking Kowalski. There's garbage all over the kitchen. Ray sweeps it into a pile, shovels it back into the can with the dust pan. Then of course he has to mop, slow slop-slop of warm water on the tiles, smell of lemons in the air. Kowalski sulks like a fifteen year old kid--all smash this and kick that, make as much noise as possible. He's such a goddamn drama queen.

There's hardly any noise now, though. The small sounds of the mopping seem really loud in the late-night hush. So stupid to be cleaning at one in the morning, but it's not like he can sit still anyhow, and he sure as hell can't sleep. He wrings the mop out and slides it back across the floor. There is this unstoppable movie in his head, a whole long sequence of events: Kowalski staying gone until sometime tomorrow, sneaking back to get his clothes and the car. The phone calls after that--Ray figures he'd get desperate by the third day, track Kowalski down, try to change his mind. The yelling and hanging up and calling back and yelling more. And then the polite part would set in and fuck, fuck--Ray hates the cool look in Kowalski's eyes, the wariness on his face. "I just want my stuff, Vecchio, so don't start nothing, okay?" And then they'd have to tell people, maybe even get a lawyer for the loans and everything. Jesus Christ. If Ray wasn't Catholic, he'd be thinking about jumping off a bridge, just to save himself the trouble.

He's still standing there in the quiet kitchen when he hears somebody open the door. He lifts his head. The door closes again. Kowalski's sneakers shush down the front hall carpet, come to a halt with their toes just over the linoleum line.

"It's wet," Ray tells him.

Kowalski nods. He looks...Ray doesn't know how he looks. He's never seen Kowalski's face like that before.

For a moment they just stand there watching each other. "I talked to Fraser," Kowalski says finally.

Ray feels his fingers close too hard around the mop-handle. "You did what?" He can't fucking believe Kowalski would do this; Benny's probably thinking Ray's the worst fuck-up in the world, right now, probably planning on never talking to him again. "Fuck. Jesus. Way to ruin a..."

"He already knew, Vecchio."

Ray narrows his eyes. "He did not."

"He did. Hey, I didn't believe it either, but it's true. He knew all along."

There's a pause, and Ray feels it hit him, the weight of that, of how he made Benny (fucking Benny) cover up for him. Lie, even. He swallows and tightens his grip on the wood. "Fuck," he says, and Kowalski's still watching him, so he ducks his head. Traces the patterns in the linoleum with his eyes instead.

"He told me how it happened, how you were...maybe gonna lose the house. He wasn't mad, Vecchio." And Kowalski must have decided to brave the clean floor because he has his fingers wrapped around Ray's shoulder now and Ray can smell him, the night air and a hint of smoke.

He takes a breath. "Fuck," he says again, and what the hell kind of messed up voice is that? He swallows hard, tries to push back the tight hot pain in his chest. "I didn't...I didn't do this thing with Franco."

Kowalski's fingers squeeze him, gently. "Yeah," he says. "I know."

There's a silence. Ray takes a breath. "I am so fucking sorry," he says.

And Kowalski, smart bastard that he is, doesn't tell him it's okay. He pulls Ray close, instead, wraps his arms around him. "Yeah," he says, and rubs Ray's back. "I get that too."

They're quiet for a while. Ray twists his fingers in the back of Kowalski's sweatshirt, lets go, does it again. "So now what?" he says finally, "I mean, this is real sweet and everything, Kowalski, but I'm still up shit creek, here, you know? What the fuck am I gonna do?" He sounds angry, hostile even, but Kowalski gets it, knows him better. He strokes up Ray's back, cups his hand around the nape of Ray's neck.

"I don't know," he says against Ray's cheek. "But don't worry. We'll figure it out."