Margaret was usually too self-conscious to talk aloud to herself. But this afternoon the task before her was so frustrating that she muttered and cursed loudly enough to be heard outside her own office.
A knock at her closed office door distracted her attention from the computer screen in front of her. She tossed off an impatient "Yes, come in!" and looked up to see Fraser coming in through her office door. He waited just inside the doorway and regarded her with a certain expression he often wore when looking at her. Margaret knew no real word for the expression because she'd never seen it on anyone else's face but Fraser's. It was a look that somehow combined respect and condescension, with a hint of pity around the edges of his eyes. She'd taken to calling it the Fraser-look in her own mind and it was fairly dripping from her deputy's face as he stood there looking at her.
"You sound distressed, sir. May I help you?" he said politely. Margaret was aware that her deputy was very precise with his wording. He hadn't said "Can I help you?" The implication, in her mind, was that he was entirely confident that he was capable of helping her with whatever her problem was. All he needed was permission to do so. What a puzzle Fraser was � managing to be polite and arrogant at the same time.
Then she told herself, in her own mind, to stop reading extra meaning into the man's slightest utterance. Don't be so obsessed, she scolded herself.
Meanwhile, the man was standing there waiting for an answer, so she figured she should say something to him. Well, why not let him help? The problem did involve him, as well as the entire liaison office staff.
"It's this report, Fraser. Headquarters wants it by tomorrow and I just haven't been able to wrap my head around it all week." She motioned him closer and pointed to a chair on the other side of her desk. With a nod of acknowledgement he sat down and waited.
"I have to submit my evaluation of the effectiveness of the liaison program � with statistics, example and my own observations." Her outer calm broke and she cried out, "This affects all of us, Fraser! If I mess this up they may very well scrap the whole program."
Fraser pressed his lips together, and Margaret could see he was thinking ahead to what he should say. Finally, he spoke.
"Sir, this is a pilot project, after all. It's not entirely surprising for headquarters to want your evaluation of it, eventually. But, you're a skilled writer, sir. What's the problem?"
Was he flattering her? She couldn't tell. But she figured he was right, composing reports in official-ese was something she was usually good at.
"I suppose it's just that this is so important to all of us. Suppose we were shut down entirely!"
Fraser only shrugged. "If the liaison project were to be shut down, we would all be re-assigned. We wouldn't suffer any actual physical consequences: we wouldn't be subjected to pain or injury. We wouldn't suffer cold or lack of food and we certainly wouldn't die."
This perspective took Margaret completely aback. To her, 'consequences' were things like loss of prestige, of money, or transfer to a less desirable location. Physical consequences of the kind Fraser spoke of never occurred to her. She was and always had been a 'city mouse'. Matters of pure survival were foreign to her, but they were the first things that came to Fraser's mind. What she worried about most � to him these things did not occur.
Her musings were interrupted by Fraser's voice, speaking up again. "Although . . . I would miss my Chicago friends. Sir, there's no doubt in my mind that that the liaison project is an amazing success. Think of all the criminals on both sides of the border that have been brought to justice by just our own work with the Chicago PD."
Your own work, you mean. Margaret thought. You're nothing if not modest. Aloud she said "You're right, but I can't seem to write this. I'm just drawing a total blank."
"If I may suggest a format, then? Start with a general statement - how law enforcement objectives have been met in both countries, the establishment of international cooperation, trust, that sort of thing. Then some statistics on the number of arrests. That shouldn't take more than a half an hour to dig out of the numbers we already compile. Then some anecdotal accounts of the more interesting cases. Follow up with some testimonials. And there you are."
"You make it sound so easy," she sighed.
"Sir, I could draft something if you like. I've no other commitments this evening so I could work into the night. First thing tomorrow morning I could have a preliminary version ready for you to adjust and correct. You would easily meet your deadline."
You're pretty smooth, Fraser, Margaret thought. I have no doubt you'll write a better report than I could and then you'll stand there graciously while I pretend to be correcting something.
"Make sure to order yourself dinner and charge it to the Consulate. And take a taxi home when you're finished."
"Understood," he answered promptly.
As the weight of her frustration lifted, Margaret realized she was being overly abrupt as a cover up for her insecurity and it wasn't the first time she'd done this when talking to Fraser.
Fraser was already on his feet again, waiting to be dismissed. She motioned him back down an gazed at him, wondering. "Why is this going to be so easy for you and so hard for me?"
"I think, sir, that it is so important to you that can't think clearly. You could easily write this yourself, most expertly I'm sure, but your mind is just clouded because it means so much to you. To your career, I mean."
"And your career means nothing to you?" she wondered, aloud, and was pleased to see she had managed to touch a nerve. Fraser looked down at the floor, embarrassed.
"It means everything to me � to be an officer of the law, but I never really gave much thought to where I was posted. Until my father was killed and I found myself persona non grata at home. But you shouldn't worry, sir. The liaison office is marvelous success under your leadership. I can't imagine anyone wanting to disband us."
"That's very sweet of you, Fraser."
"And if they were, after this report you'll be getting a commendation, I have no doubt." Fraser gave her just a hint of a smile.
She allowed herself to return the smile, "Get to work, Constable. Dismissed."
Margaret remained in her office for the rest of the afternoon. At four-thirty, the time she usually left, she passed by Fraser's office on the way out and saw exactly what she expected to see: her deputy sitting in his ridiculously small office, at his ridiculously small desk, tapping away at his computer. Beside him was a pile of file folders and as she was going by she saw him pause to flip through some papers before going back to his writing. He sensed her presence and looked up.
"I've found some letters of appreciation, sir, and I'm going to add some excerpts to the testimonials section of the report." He lifted a sheet of paper momentarily in demonstration and then dropped it back on to the pile.
"That's good, Constable. Um, carry on, then," she said, feeling that the comment was somewhat lame but not really able to think of a better one.
Back in her own apartment, she sat at her kitchen table, munching leftover salad and microwaved rigatoni for her dinner, and thinking about her relationship with Fraser. The man was saving her ass, nor was this the first time he had done so. There was no doubt in her mind that he wasn't just helping her because she was his commanding officer. He cared for her as a person. No, be honest with yourself, Margaret, she chided herself, he cares for me as a woman. Nor is it simple old-fashioned chivalry. She swallowed the last bit of her tasteless pasta and sighed to herself. He wants me as much as I want him and he's not going to do anything about it unless I make the first move.
What more can I expect, after all, she thought, as she carried her dishes to the sink. Then she reached across the counter to her telephone and called the Consulate, punching through the recorded messages until she connected with Fraser's extension. Would he still be there? If so, would he pick up? She found herself holding her breath and with a little laugh at her own silliness, made a point of letting it out noisily as she waited.
"Consulate General of Canada. May I help you?" came Fraser's voice.
"It's me, Fraser," she said, briefly.
"I thought it might be you, sir, so I picked up."
"How is it coming?"
"Another couple of hours should do it, sir. Would you like me to email the draft so you can look at it first thing in the morning?"
Margaret steeled herself for the next words she was about to say. The time for avoidance was over. "Send it to my home email address, Fraser, and then come over here when you are finished and we'll proof it together."
She heard him clearing his throat on the other end of the line.
"Is that a problem, Constable? You DID say you hadn't anything else planned this evening."
"Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. I mean . . .yes I did say that . . . and, um . . .no I don't have anything else planned.
Hearing him stammer like that was very satisfying.
"But at the risk of sounding immodest, I really don't think there's much you'll have to correct. It could easily wait until morning, sir," Fraser went on.
"Then we'll find other ways to pass the time once you get here," Margaret took a deep breath, "Benton."
There was more throat-clearing at the other end of the line.
"And remember to take a taxi. I don't want any unnecessarily delays," she ordered.
"Understood. Will that be all, sir?"
Oh, that's not all. Not by a long shot, she thought with satisfaction. But you'll find out when you get here.
Two hours later, practically to the minute, he was standing in her living room. She had received the report by email already and read through it while waiting for him to arrive. As she had suspected, it was flawless. She told him so, as he stood before her at attention, a stance that was a little incongruous for the setting.
"I'm glad you approve, sir," he said, formally.
"So sit down and relax. I'll make us some coffee. By the way, did you eat anything?"
"I obeyed your orders, sir, and sent out for a couple of sandwiches. I hope that was satisfactory."
She chuckled. Now that her mind was made up and she no longer had any doubts about her next move, she was much more confident.
"You aren't driving, so maybe you'd prefer something other than coffee."
"I . . . well . . . coffee is fine, sir . . ."
"Okay, how do you take it?" she asked, moving towards the kitchen. "You know it's funny that I've worked with you all this time and I don't know how you like your coffee. We went out for coffee that one time but I just don't remember what you had." By now she had to raise her voice for him to hear her from the living room.
"Lots of sugar and milk, sir, if it's not too much trouble," he called back.
She already had a full pot in her coffee maker in anticipation of his arrival so she quickly poured two mugs full, added milk and sugar to his and came back to the living room.
"When I ever think of you having coffee, I think of you taking it black. You come off so austere some of the time. Cold, almost." she said, handing him his coffee, "You go to great lengths to hide your feelings, don't you? I can't say I blame you. You haven't necessarily had an easy time, emotionally. There was that Metcalfe woman," she took a sip of her coffee. "And then there's me."
Fraser was clearly uncomfortable with this turn of conversation and fidgeted with the cup after accepting it from her. "Well, I guess, I'm not made of stone either, sir."
"No, but there are things that worry other people terribly, like this evaluation we're going to have, that you don't seem to care about at all."
"If you mean administrative things, well, yes, you're right. When you've faced physical privations it's hard to get too emotional over such things as evaluations and reports. Especially when I know that by turning in Gerrard I've pretty well killed any chance of promotion I ever would have had. I'll spend the rest of my career being shunted from posting to posting. I don�t guess that life would suit an ambitious man, I've never really wanted to be in authority over anyone else. I know that many people get satisfaction out of being in authority, and they are quite good at it. You, yourself, sir, for example. But I've never got any particular pleasure from telling another person what to do. Sorry, sir, I guess I'm babbling."
"You don�t have to call me 'sir' for the rest of the night Benton. 'Margaret' will do. And I enjoy hearing you babble."
She saw his eyes go wide at the words 'the rest of the night'.
"I didn't ask you to come here for work," she paused and then said his name again, "Benton."
"Oh . . . well . . . " he stammered and tugged at the high collar of his tunic.
"That tunic can't be comfortable, especially since you've been in it since first thing in the morning.
Fraser started trembling so hard the coffee spilled out of his mug and on to his uniform.
"There, now you'll have to take that thing off," Margaret declared.
Fraser set the cup down on the side table beside the sofa on which he sat. His hand regained its steadiness now that it was entirely clear to him what Margaret had in mind. As he stripped the uniform from his body, Margaret said, "The report you wrote is going to make quite an impression at headquarters, I'm sure."
"I'm pretty confident about it, yes."
"Then, there's not much chance the liaison office is going to disbanded anytime soon," she said, watching him undress.
"Not much chance," he confirmed and now he was smiling at her.
"Good. Then show me what else you can do besides write."