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3 Lead

At the Hour of Our Death

After Hours ….

Ben sat in the shadow of the private, hospital room, listening to the steady rhythm of Meg's ventilator. He'd been sitting beside her still form since night fall. She hadn't moved, hadn't made a sound. He wasn't use to the Inspector being so quiet, so motionless. He wished she'd sit up and tell him he was being a moron, that there were things to be done. Ben would have gladly run errands for her, just to know she was better.

“What were you doing outside the consulate on a Saturday? Why weren't you at home?” Ben whispered, speaking for the first time in hours. “Why wasn't I there?” he asked himself as much as the Inspector. He knew that he shouldn't blame himself, yet he did.

Softly, Ben slipped his hand beneath Thatcher's, her small, slim hand swallowed by his large, rough one. He'd felt her hands before, holding onto his waist as they rode horseback. She was stronger than she looked.

“You are stronger than you look, Inspector. You keep your true beauty behind a mask. I've seen you smile, I've heard you laugh, I've witnessed your passion. Come back, allow me one more glimpse behind the mask. Let me see your inner beauty again.” With the touch of an angel, Ben pressed a kiss to her palm and closed her fingers around it.

A tap on the door brought Ben back to the present. He laid her hand down and stood up, taking a deep breath first. Quietly, he opened the door to Ray. They stepped out into the hallway to talk.

“I just got a hit on one of Thatcher's credit cards, someone used it at a gas station along the highway.” Ray handed Ben a freshly printed sheet with the store's name and address listed.

“That's excellent.” Ben ran his thumbnail over his brow, debating on whether or not to accompany Ray to the gas station. He didn't feel right leaving the Inspector alone.

“Come on, if we hurry the station attendant might still be on duty.” Ray was chomping at the bit to catch the perp. From the way Thatcher's skull had been fractured, her ribs cracked from being kicked and her arm sprained from being twisted up behind her back, this guy was a real beast. It was a miracle she hadn't died before Fraser found her.

“Just a moment, Ray, let me find Inspector Thatcher's nurse.” The Mountie found the middle aged nurse and gave her Ray's cell phone number, just in case. He thanked her kindly and met Ray at the end of the hallway.

***

Red light on the emerald hood of the Riviera turned it a shade of murky brown that reminded Ben of the blood on his hands at the scene of Thatcher's mugging. No, attempted murder, that's what Ray planned on charging the assailant with when, when, he caught him.

In his head, Ben still sat at Thatcher's bedside when they pulled up to the gas station. The car stopped and Diefenbaker moved to be let out behind Ben before the Mountie moved. White and red, neon signs lit the small gas station still open at one o'clock in the morning. A bleary eyed woman about thirty greeted the fashionably dressed detective and the Mountie in full, red serge uniform. She ran her fingers through her short, brunette hair and smiled invitingly.

“How may I help you?” she leaned forward, a red badge spelling her name as 'Tori'. Ray pulled out his badge and held it for her to see clearly.

“I'm Detective Vecchio, this is Constable Fraser, our computers say someone used a credit card here about forty-five minutes ago, we'd like to see your security camera footage.” Ray leaned on the counter between a beef jerky display on his left and scratch-off lottery tickets on the right.

“This way.” Tori pointed over her shoulder to the manager's office. It was a small space, barely large enough for a desk and roller chair.

“Look, I'm here alone, Bobbi went home sick at eleven, can you do this without me?” Tori looked from American cop to Canadian cop.

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” Ray shrugged.

“Thank you kindly, Toni.” Fraser gave her a polite smile, which put a dreamy look in her eye.

“I'll be out front if you need anything.” she shrugged, her loose, red shirt and black slacks hiding much of her average figure. Ben and Ray got down to business, rolling back the feed and making a copy of the pertinent time periods. Ben studied the camera carefully, trying to identify the mugger, making his face real in his mind. He wanted to recognize him immediately so that he wouldn't get past him somehow.

“There's that SOB.” Ray hit the pause button on a frame. The time stamp of the credit card hit and the video matched perfectly. The suspect stood approximately six foot two inches, heavy bodied with a slick shaven head wearing jeans, a tee shirt and work boots. The overhead lights gleamed on his pale head.

“What's he driving?” Ben pointed to one of the small screens in the corner of the television. Staring directly down the aisles between the pumps, the camera captured license plate numbers quite well. Ray replayed the suspect arriving at pump number four, the one farthest away from the store. He drove a rusty, limping Oldsmobile with Illinois plates. They watched him walk into the store, choose a beer from the cooler and pre-pay twenty dollars worth of gas, swiping the Inspector's credit card without flinching.

“Okay, let's get this out on the wire, I'll call the station, you make a copy of all this, okay, Fraser?” Ray asked, looking nearly straight up at the Mountie peering intently at the security footage. He asked twice before waving his hand in front of Ben's face. “Earth to Fraser.”

“Hmm, sorry, Ray. From the amount of fuel the suspect purchased and the condition of the car, it isn't in very good mechanical shape, he will have to stop for more fuel soon.” Ben nodded resolutely, his eyes hard as diamonds.

“And when he does, we'll be around to catch him.” Ray stood up and began dialing the Twenty-seventh Precinct.

“Perhaps more than catch him.” Ben amended silently.

***

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