“Welsh inviting us all to his house? He hasn’t done that since I came to the 27th.” Ray Kowalski paused and mentally tallied just how long this has been: two year in the guise of Ray Vecchio, two years as Fraser’s partner while Vecchio was in Florida, and now Vecchio was back for nearly a year, another Ray to have been chewed up and spit out by The Stella. “Five years. Doesn’t seem like it.”
“He hasn’t ever. Even before you came. Guess he wants to show off his new swimming pool,” Vecchio said.
Welsh picked up this last comment as he was crossing the squad room. “You could call it showing off. Or, Detective, you could call it wanting to be nice to my people now that I’ve finally decided to get a pool.”
“You mean now that your grandchildren talked you into getting a pool,” put in Francesca from across the room. “If I ever have kids and grandkids I’m sure not going to let them push me around.”
Both Rays and Welsh individually found themselves tempted by this straight line and each separately considered a snide comment, then refrained from delivering one in order to be nice.
“Anyway, tomorrow night at my house at six. Burgers, potato salad, beer and soda will be provided. You bring your own bathing suits and towels,” Welsh said, “My wife’s been cooking for a week and the house reeks of boiled potatoes and chopped onion. There’s a whole lot of potato salad to get got rid of, so everybody who isn’t on a stake out better show up.”
“My mother puts in all different colours of peppers in potato salad. It’s really pretty,” Kowalski said.
“Ma likes German style potato salad. She slices the potatoes thin and mixes them with oil and vinegar and serves it hot,” said Vecchio.
“That’s sick-making,” observed Huey from his desk. “Mayonnaise and hard- boiled eggs. That’s what you put in a really classic potato salad. And paprika sprinkled over the top.”
From all over the bull pen, opinion flew forth as to what made a really good potato salad. Finally Welsh called a halt to the discussion by enjoining them all to shut their traps and go solve some crimes.
The party went well, as a party would be expected to do when the dominant ingredients of it are a bunch of people who know one another well, lots of food, lots of beer and weather warm enough for swimming but not too hot for those who chose to stay dry.
Mrs. Welsh kept her husband stationed at the barbeque flipping burgers and delegated some of the more responsible, designated driver guests to help her by keeping an eye on the fare laid out on the backyard picnic table. Large plastic bowls were kept full of potato salad, styrofoam coolers were kept full of beer and fresh ice to keep the beer cool. She also enlisted sentries armed with extra beach towels to prevent swimmers from coming into the house dripping wet. Those wishing to come in to change or use the facilities were forced to wipe down before being allowed inside so as to minimize the damage to the furniture and flooring. While the soberer guests were the most trustworthy to replenish the comestibles, Mrs. Welsh found that men with a few drinks in them made the most diligent and insistent of guards.
A high point of the party was Fraser’s brief dip in the swimming pool. Like the other bathers, he changed in one of the bedrooms and came out of the backyard patio door wearing a towel about his shoulders and a pair of trunks about his loins. He appeared not to notice as all conversation stopped the moment he set his small, bare, pink feet onto the backyard deck. Few of the gang at the 27th had ever seen the Mountie wearing anything more revealing than his uniform. Fraser appeared to be casual even though all eyes were on him as he walked across the deck to the pool and cut a shallow dive, after first waiting to be sure that he had enough room to do so without splashing anybody.
His swim trunks were unremarkable – the simple black ones he had worn in the hospital swimming pool, taking physio years ago. But once the Mountie was wet, they clung to his nether regions and all eyes strained to make out the shape and size of that which lay beneath them when he walked back to the house from the swimming pool.
Once the sun went down, only the occasional die-hards went into the pool. Eating eased off and some of the guests produced bottles of liquor that they had been keeping in their cars just in case it happened that beer was indeed the only alcohol their host was providing. After the first tossing of an unsuspecting victim into the pool, Welsh bellowed his disapproval and any further rowdiness was forestalled. All in all, it was a successful party from anyone’s point of view.
The party wound down. Designated drivers rounded up their charges and herded them towards cars. Welsh and his wife supervised the loading of each vehicle to ensure that the drivers were sober. Vecchio proved to be an unexpected problem. He, Fraser and Francesca came to the party together in the Riv under the agreement that Francesca would be the one to drive home. But when the party ended Francesca wanted to drive home with a uniform she had been spending the evening with and intended to spend more time with after the party.
“I’m going for a little drive with Garvey. Fraszh can drive you home and crash on our couch for the night. Ma’ll be thrilled to have another mouth to feed in the morning,” she proclaimed.
Ray seldom got drunk, but the night’s party atmosphere had depressed him, still stinging from his painful experiences with Stella. Safe in the knowledge that his sister would drive the Riv later, he’d downed far more beers than he was normally able to handle. He allowed himself to be placed in the front seat of the Riv by Fraser and Kowalski, under the watchful eyes of his host and hostess.
“Maybe Kowalski could take you instead?” offered Welsh, mindful of the fact that the Mountie seldom drove any vehicle that didn’t have dogs as its motive force.
“I’ve already got a full load of drunken detectives,” the blond detective apologized. “I guess I could deliver all my bunch and then come back for him, but how would he get the Riv home?”
“I’m licensed to drive in this jurisdiction,” Fraser pointed out. Apparently this was the important issue for him in the discussion.
“I dunno.” Kowalski scratched his head, tangling his fingers in blond spikes. “The Mountie and vintage cars. Not a good mix.”
“It’s late. There’s not much traffic,” Mrs. Welsh said.
“Still, Kowalski’s right. He’s done in two of Vecchio’s cars already,” her husband said.
Fraser was offended. “On each of those occasions, circumstances required me to sacrifice the vehicles. I’m a careful driver. I drive Inspector Thatcher around in the consular limos all the time.”
The only counter to that argument that either Welsh or Kowalski could think of was that the Inspector must enjoy having her deputy chauffeur her around for reasons other than his skill in driving, but they each kept that thought to themselves.
Meanwhile Vecchio remained slumped in his car, babbling the occasional comment to which nobody paid any attention.
At last Fraser decided the issue by reaching into his friend’s pants pocket, taking the car keys and easing himself into the driver’s seat.
“Good night, and thank you for your hospitality,” he called through the car window as he drove off.
Vecchio roused briefly and forced himself to focus on the streets that they were passing.
“You missed the on-ramp,” he accused, drunkenly.
“I missed it deliberately, Ray. I’m not taking the freeway back to your house, I’m taking the surface roads,” Fraser told him.
“Freeway’s faster,” muttered Vecchio.
“I’m aware of that. But Ray and the Lieutenant are worried about my driving, so I’m taking a safer route.”
“Turn back to the freeway,” Ray insisted, his speech slurred.
“That’s unnecessary. It won’t be too much longer a drive. There’s no traffic at this hour,” the Mountie said, patiently.
“Turn back, I said! This is my car. It goes where I want it to go. Christ, don’t I get to control anything anymore?”
Fraser drove in silence, considering what to say next and whether or not to change his route to satisfy his friend’s irrational but vehement demand.
He didn’t react quickly enough to satisfy his drunken friend. Vecchio grabbed hold of the steering wheel and gave it a solid shove to the left and kept hold of it, thinking to force Fraser into making a U-turn.
The car swerved before the Mountie could wrest control of the wheel from Vecchio. There was a horrible squeal of tires, followed by an even more horrible crunch of metal against metal. The Riv slammed into the minivan that was driving on its left.
The driver of the mini-van was released from hospital after a perfunctory examination. The middle-aged man driving home from a late night at the office had been alone in his car. Vecchio was kept over-night for observation. The intern that examined him was appalled that he couldn’t have Vecchio arrested for something, but the cops that came to this patient’s bedside pointed out that the detective, while responsible for the accident, hadn’t been the driver. “Damn cops,” he said to his girlfriend when his shift was over and he had a few hours to go home and sleep. “They all protect one another. That asshole ought to thrown in jail for twenty years. Probably killed that other guy.”
That other guy, to whom the intern referred, was Fraser. He had taken the brunt of the impact when the driver’s side of the car had torn through the passenger side of the mini-van. He remained in surgery for a good five hours. Quite a crowd gathered during this time – Ma Vecchio, Francesca (summoned to her brother’s side by a frantic cell phone summons) and Maria sat with Vecchio, saying little. Welsh, Kowalski and Thatcher spent most of that time fretting in the waiting room but occasionally went to say something non-committal to the now fully sober Vecchio.
At last one of the surgeons came out to consult with the waiting assemblage.
“He’ll live.” The doctor’s somber tone warned them that bad news was going to follow that simple assurance. “But there’s been damage to his spine. We won’t know how bad it is for a while, but it is possible that there will be paralysis. It’s just too soon to know, I’m afraid. Well, he’ll be in recovery for another couple of hours then we’re going to move him to intensive care. You folks might as well go home and get some rest. We’re not expecting any change in his condition and it’ll be at least another day before he can talk to you.”
With this, the doctor left them. The three cops all stood about, unsure what to do or say next.
“I’ll go tell Vecchio,” Welsh said, finally, and headed over to the cubicle in Emergency where Vecchio languished, surrounded by female relatives. There weren’t supposed to be four people in that tiny room but Welsh and Thatcher’s combined influence prevented anyone from gainsaying the wishes of the Vecchio family.
Welsh rapped lightly on the cubicle door then opened it without waiting for any answer. Vecchio, his sisters and his mother all looked hopefully at him, wanting news. Welsh delivered it. The women all gasped and took turns hugging each other. To Vecchio they said nothing nor even looked at him.
“My poor Benito,” murmured Ma.
“When can we go see him?” asked Francesca.
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask somebody,” he tossed off and left abruptly, closing the door behind him. He had no reason to be rude to women-folk but right now he was too angry with his detective to even try to be civil.
Discussing it amongst themselves, Welsh, Kowalski and Thatcher decided to heed the doctor’s advice. There was nothing they could do for Fraser for the time being and nothing they needed to do for Vecchio, since he was already surrounded by family. Welsh took an extra few minutes to find the doctor in charge of the recovery room and leave orders that Inspector Thatcher be notified if Fraser’s condition took an unexpected turn.
Then they all headed out of the hospital and into the glow of the early morning. Thatcher stopped just outside the main entrance and waved at one of the waiting taxis.
“You’re not taking any cab,” Kowalski protested. “I’ll drive you. It’s been a long night.”
“No, I’ll take the Inspector in my car,” Welsh said.
“I’d rather be alone,” Thatcher told them. “Really. You two go on home.”
“If you hear anything at all, you call us,” Welsh said for the seventh time since designating her official contact point.
“I will,” she assured them, getting into the back seat of the cab. Welsh rushed forward to close the door after her.
Show off, Kowalski thought. “Well, good night, sir,” he said aloud.
“Good morning, more like,” Welsh said, looking at the rosy sky.
“Yeah, and not so good either. Oh well. By the way, I’m going to be in late today.”
Welsh smiled for the first time in many hours. “I won’t dock you for it, detective. Get some rest.”
They parted company, each man heading towards his own car.
This is my fault, Thatcher thought as she rode in the back seat of the cab. I should have come to that party. Lieutenant Welsh invited me but did I come? No. I didn’t want the embarrassment of being at a party with Fraser. If we’d gone together, me and Fraser, he would have had to drive me home and he wouldn’t have been alone in that car with Vecchio. Damn it. I messed up. Everything that has to do with Fraser I mess up. And now, he might be paralyzed and I could have prevented it.
Kowalski was tired, very tired. He literally couldn’t keep his eyes open as he tried to drive home. His eyelids kept drooping and his vision blurring until finally he gave up and pulled into the parking lot of a fast food outlet. Coffee. I need coffee right now, he decided and, not trusting himself to drive any further, even up to the drive-through window, he parked and made his sleepy way into the restaurant. After purchasing a coffee he realized he had no Smarties, so he settled for pouring sugar into his cup instead.
This is my fault, he thought as he sipped at coffee so sweet it made his teeth ache. I should have made Fraser and Vecchio wait there for me and taken them home myself. You’re a fuck up, Kowalski. Vecchio could have left his car there overnight. You never should have let Fraser drive. And now he might never drive again, or even walk. Nice going, you ruined your partner’s life.
Welsh parked his car in his driveway and opened his front door. His wife was waiting in the living room, still fully dressed from the night before, waiting for news.
“You didn’t call. What happened? Are they okay?”
Welsh bussed her on the cheek perfunctorily. “Sorry, I should have called. I was just . . . distracted.” He headed past her up the stairs and she trailed after.
“Everybody’s okay but the Mountie,” he said, and brought his wife up to date.
She thought about it as they both changed into pajamas. Welsh had no intention of going into the office and he’d already called the station from his car to let them know not to expect to see himself, either Ray or the Mountie.
“Harding, is this is our fault?” she said, as they slipped into bed together. “We were the hosts. Should we have noticed Ray Vecchio was having too much to drink and cut him off?
“I don’t know. He wasn’t much drunker than some other guys. I didn’t think he was that far gone. Now the Mountie might end up paralyzed. Yeah, I guess it’s our fault.”
Shortly after seven in that morning Vecchio was told to go home. Since the accident he hadn’t said much. During the hours that passed in Emergency his mother and sisters chatted about inconsequential things, just to make conversation, or sat quietly while he rested.
Ma and Maria had come over in Maria’s car and Francesca had been dropped off by Garvey at the hospital after her sister called her on her cell about the accident. Once all the paperwork was taken care of, the women escorted Vecchio to Maria’s car. He was about to climb into the back seat, then stopped and took a few paces away from the car.
“No, I’m staying here,” he said, speaking a full sentence for the first time since he had caused the accident. “I’m staying with Fraser.”
“Caro, there’s nothing you can do for him right now. Come back later, that’s best,” his mother tried to soothe him.
“I said I’m staying,” Vecchio insisted.
“You’re being stubborn, Ray. Considering what being stubborn just got you, you may as well give up and do what you're told.”
Vecchio flinched visibly but didn’t get into the car.
“Maria, you can come back and pick him up later,” Ma said, “Let’s go home and get some sleep. Come, Francesca. Raymondo, call home when you’re ready to be picked up.”
The women drove off and Maria, at the wheel, complained “What was all that about? Why should we go out of our way to humour him?”
“He’ll need to talk to Benito. Leave him be,” said her mother.
Maria muttered and groused in the front seat.
Beside her, Francesca was looking out the window, ignoring the conversation, deep in her own thoughts.
It’s my fault, she told herself. I had to go off with a guy instead of staying with my brother. I could see he was plastered but I didn’t stay and make sure he was okay. Fraszh tried to take care of him and now God knows how he’ll be. I should have stayed and driven them. How’ll I ever look Fraszh in the eye again. Damn. Damn. Damn.
There was no way Ma was going to go to bed even though she had been up all night. She went to the kitchen and started baking. She did it out of habit, barely aware of what it was she making – just to keep busy. This kept her hands busy but it wasn’t enough to stop her thoughts.
I did this to poor Benito, she agonized. All these years I never pressured Raymondo about drinking. I trusted him not to be like his father, not to be a drunk. I didn’t want to nag him. I was afraid he’d get his back up and just drink more. Wrong, I was so wrong. I didn’t teach him and now look what happens. He gets drunk and nearly kills his friend. Maybe he’ll never walk, who knows. I failed my son. I wanted to raise him to be a better man than his father but I failed.
Vecchio waited by the nurse’s station at the Intensive Care Unit, while one of the nurses made some calls and finally let him in to see Fraser. He walked slowly towards the bed where his friend lay, motionless and pale.
I can’t take back what happened, Benny, he thought. I did this to you and there’s no excuse. You weren’t running away. I didn’t imagine any gun. I was just drunk and stupid and now here you are. But I’m going to be here and whatever there is you need, I’m going to make sure you get it. Anything.
A nurse came up from behind him and startled him by speaking, even though she spoke softly.
“Relative?” she asked gently.
“Best friend,” Vecchio answered, once he had recovered from being startled.
“His chart says car accident.”
“Not an accident really. I did this. I made him lose control of the car.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” said the nurse, wanting to draw him out if he needed to talk but careful not to say anything too distressing.
“I’m going to make it up to him, though. This is all my fault.”