“Trout and cabbage riding the red-ball express. Must mean a party.”
“Where?” Francesca looked up from her keyboard over to Ray’s desk, where he sat with his feet up on his desk, ankles crossed, affording Francesca an excellent view of the soles of his shoes. She made a mental note briefly to make him get the holes in his shoes fixed, then instantly discarded the idea. It was too soon in their relationship for her to interfere in his dressing. That would, she hoped, come in a couple more months.
“No, not over here. Over there.” Ray pointed to the entrance to the bullpen where Fraser had appeared, clad in his red serge and carrying, as Ray’s detective’s power of observation had already picked up, a fish in a plastic bag full of water and a large green cabbage.
“Whose birthday is it?” the lounging blond man asked his partner.
By this time Francesca was on her feet and making her way over to the Mountie, obstructing Fraser’s path. “Hi, Fraszh,” she simpered.
“Well, it’s not a birthday this time, it’s . . . “ the Mountie began.
Ray interrupted him. “Fascinating. Really interesting, Fraser. Frannie, outside, please?”
With a last lustful glance at Fraser, Francesca shrugged and turned to follow Ray. Ray must have not thought she was following fast enough because he paused, turned and grabbed her arm to pull her along with him. She trotted along with him with tiny steps, her stiletto heels, clicking, as they went out of the building.
“What was that all about?” Ray demanded of the tiny woman. His tone was harsh but he didn’t come across as menacing as had intended because the effect was weakened by his gesture of waving away the drifts of smoke from the smokers who were finishing up their cigarettes.
“Making big goo-goo eyes at Fraser. Didn’t you tell me that you were going to stop chasing the Mountie, having realized the most alluring dude on the planet is actually yours truly?”
“Frannie, you told me you weren’t interested in Fraser anymore. The man for you is . . .” he jabbed a couple of thumbs towards his own chest, “ . . . moi. You said that.”
She reached up to touch his cheek. The height difference was as much as it would have been if the detective didn’t have a tendency to slouch. “Oh, Ray. Oh course. But, you know . . .it’s like . . .”
“What? Force of habit?”
“No, more like . . . well, suppose Jennifer Lopez were to keep coming to the squad room every day. Now you wouldn’t have a chance of snagging her, but wouldn’t you still look? And maybe . . .pose? Just a little.”
“I wouldn’t flaunt myself. You, Frannie, are flaunting yourself. Let’s get this straight. Are we an item or aren’t we?”
“Ooooh, Ray.” She confirmed their “item-hood” with wet and noisy smooch right there on the doorstep of the station. The last of the smokers hooted their approval.
“So maybe it doesn’t behoove you to throw yourself at my partner every time he shows his boyish face on the premises.”
Still in his arms, she pulled back slightly, “Behoove?”
“Christ, I’m starting to talk like him. It doesn’t look right. It just does not look right.”
She pulled back even further. “Excuse me? What am I, your property?
Ray dropped his arms to his sides immediately and stood back contritely. “No, no.”
But it was too late. The flame had been lit. “So, I’m some little girl and you’re responsible for my behaviour?”
Francesca was building up a good head of steam now. “Because, buster, I didn’t take that kind of thing from my brother so I’m certainly not going to take it from you!”
“Now, hold on, Frannie.”
She wound up to deliver a slap to his face but Ray’s instincts were good and he ducked in time. Francesca lost her balance momentarily, then steadied, wheeled about and marched back into the station. Ray stood there alone, suffering the shaking of the heads and expressions of pity on the faces of the smokers. He grimaced at the group, and then followed Francesca inside.
Fraser was standing in exactly the same place that they had left him, holding the fish in one hand and the cabbage in the other.
“Is everything all right?” he inquired politely as Francesca tromped back in and Ray slunk in afterwards.
“Everything’s fine,” Ray muttered, “Everything’s fine and dandy.”
Francesca sat down at her desk and made a point of jabbing at her keyboard with sharper, more forceful taps than was her wont. Fraser noted her mood with raised eyebrows but made no comment, sensing perhaps that it might be safer to be talking to Ray at that point. It was a decision easy to implement since Ray was continuing to talk.
“So whose birthday is it?”
“No one’s, Ray. Well, I can’t rule out the possibility that it might be somebody’s birthday at the station and I’m not aware of it. Now that you bring it to my attention maybe I should get the desk sergeant to provide me with a list of . . .”
“The fish, Fraser. If it’s not a birthday why did you bring a trout?”
“This is a carp, Ray. I thought we’d have a little variety.”
Ray’s mood was now bad enough that he had even less patience than usual with Fraser-speak, and his humour was made even more ill by the fact that the Mountie’s appearance had prompted his tiff with his girlfriend. “Who?” he shouted in his friend’s face.
Fraser quailed. “Welsh,” he pronounced obediently and fell silent.
“Why? It’s not his birthday.” Ray demanded.
“Ray, if you’re going to bite my head off every time I speak, I obviously can’t answer you very well,” he recovered his dignity and turned to leave the room.
Ray grabbed his shoulder, preventing his exit. Fraser turned back around and leaned forward, conspiratorially, and whispered to him, “I can see this isn’t a good time. Should I come back later?”
Ray regained control and ran his free hand (the one not holding the Mountie in place) through his blond spikes. “Okay, sorry. Party. Parties are good. Just tell me why we’re having one?”
Fraser relaxed at this. “I’ve discovered that today is Lieutenant Welsh’s twenty-fifth anniversary as a police officer. He joined the Chicago PD twenty-five years ago today, which, I may add, signaled the beginning of an illustrious career in which he . . .”
“Yeah, I get the point. How did you find out about it?”
Fraser looked over to Francesca who had paused her hunting and pecking to look up at them.
“Francesca has access to the station’s personnel records,” he said. The woman smiled briefly, then put her angry face firmly back on and went back to her work.
“You’re right, that’s a good reason for a party,” Ray allowed.
Fraser brightened. “Good, well then I’ll just proceed to canteen and set up.”
“Hold it.” Ray emphasized his words by tightening his grasp on the Mountie’s shoulder, which he had not let go of during the above exchange. “A party for Welsh – I’m thinking fatty meat, beer, and a woman wearing balloons and lots of skin. You know the kind?” He shot the next comment to Francesca, “The kind of woman who gets her kicks out of strutting her stuff in front of people who really aren’t interested in her?”
“Humph,” Francesca humphed,
“Never mind that,” Ray said, “Here’s the new plan: me, I go down to the beer store, Frannie you call the deli and order a platter, then call one of those balloon-o-gram places and to send somebody over at, what, three? Three is good.”
“And who is paying for all this, pray tell?” Francesca asked.
“That’s where the Canadian element comes in. Fraser, you go around the station and tell everybody to meet right in here at three and bring a cash donation.”
“You’re very forceful when you’re motivated, Ray,” Fraser commented.
“Yeah, and Fraser,”
“Before you talk to anybody, lose the fish and the cabbage,” Ray gave Fraser’s shoulder a shove to send the Mountie out on his mission.
With that the Mountie marched off to fulfill his assignment Francesca watched his retreating figure and Ray watched Francesca watch. He shook his head in dismay.
The party as such went off without a hitch. A voluptuous blonde arrived at three in the afternoon sharp and asked to see Welsh. She insisted that he come out into the bullpen to speak to her. Welsh suspected something was amiss because most of the station was gathered around but was not aware himself of the significance of this day.
The blonde flung open the trench coat she was wearing and, as had been pre-arranged, was dressed in far less than requisite attire. Such attire as was evident consisted of strategically placed balloons and one satin sash on which “Happy Twenty-Fifth Anniversary” was emblazoned. Fortunately that was a stock item for the balloon-o-gram company although it was generally used for wedding anniversaries.
Welsh was only puzzled. “It’s not my anniversary. My anniversary is in November and it’s not going to be the twenty-fifth. I did that three years ago. I took my wife to Cozumel.” Eyeing the messenger with interest he added, “Although this is a mistake I can live with.”
Fraser explained, “Not your wedding anniversary, Lieutenant. It was twenty-five years ago today that you first reported for duty as a member of the Chicago Police Department.”
A slow smile spread over the older man’s face.
“Yeah, LEFT-enant,” Ray echoed his partner’s pronunciation.
“Well, I’ll be . . .” Welsh began, and then with a mischievous smile said to the balloon-covered woman, “You don’t work here, do you?”
“No, sir” she answered promptly, “I’m just the messenger.”
“Well, good. You know, people, twenty-five years ago we didn’t have all these worries about harassment in the work place. But since this lady doesn’t actually work for me, I can do this.”
He reached out to the woman and they all waited for him to do something unprofessional. He took her face in his two hands and planted a fatherly kiss on her forehead. “Thank you kindly, miss.” he said, turning to send a quick smirk in the direction of the Mountie. Then to the ‘messenger’ he said: “You can go now, honey. Unless you’ve been paid to dance or something.”
“No, sir, just the balloons and the greetings.” With this she pulled the balloons one by one off her body and gathered them all together in strings that had been pre-attached. Under the balloons she wore the skimpiest of bikinis.
“Without the bikini was extra,” Francesca whispered to the officers standing around. “I didn’t know how much you clowns were going to cough up to cover this.”
The woman handed the bunch of balloons to Welsh. Then she slipped off the banner she wore and slipped it over Welsh’s head. She planted a healthy smooch on his mouth, scooped up her coat from the floor and strutted out.
Once she was gone, the assemblage returned their attention to the man of the hour. Welsh sniffed the air and asked. “Is that by any chance the smell of pastrami?”
Amidst general laughter and some backslapping, the lieutenant was escorted to the canteen where deli platters and beer awaited.
Ray, Fraser and Francesca all held back until all the others had gone out of the bullpen.
“You did good, Frannie,” Ray ventured, meaning to compliment her organizational skills as some sort of roundabout means of apology.
“Yeah, yeah,” the woman sneered and followed the crowd. Just before leaving the squad room she turned and paused in the doorway. “Are you coming, Fraszh?”
Ray clenched his teeth.
“I’ll join you and Ray in a little while,” Fraser told her.
Ray took his cue, “Right. Yeah. Frannie, let’s go down.”
Once his two friends had gone, Fraser dropped down behind the nearest desk. It happened to have once belonged to Detective Guardino and was now used by Detective Dewey. Alone in the empty room, he thought back.
There’s something familiar about a deli platter. In all the noise and excitement he couldn’t think clearly to place it before. A deli platter.
Oh, yes, Fraser remembered, that’s what Ray was going to buy with the money he lent me for my vacuum cleaner. He never mentioned if he ever got that platter. Something else about today feels familiar. Of course. The woman dropping her coat. Just like that night when Francesca came to my apartment.
Fraser allowed himself a few more minutes of quiet reflection and then got up and retrieved his hat from Ray’s desk. His intention was to leave the station and head back to the Consulate.
Francesca came into the room just as he was trying to get out. “Leaving? Aren’t you coming downstairs?”
“It’s a wonderful party, Francesca. You and Ray did a crackerjack job setting it up.”
“You haven’t seen it yet. It’s downstairs.”
Caught out like this, Fraser admitted, “I’m not really in the mood for festivities. I’m sure it’s a marvelous party. You go enjoy yourself.”
Francesca dropped into a chair close by. “Wanna talk about it?”
The Mountie sighed, “I don’t want to spoil your mood. You and Ray deserve a good time.”
“What is it?” she insisted.
He cleared his throat and then took another chair and placed it near her. “You care about Ray, don’t you? I don’t mean your brother, Ray, I mean . . .”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I mean, who you mean. If you know what I mean.”
“So, is that all you were thinking about – Ray and me?”
Softly, Fraser said, “And I was thinking about that night you came to my apartment. I never really thanked you for keeping what happened to yourself.”
She reached over and patted his knee. “Hey, you were pretty beat up that night. I never would have come over if I’d known how hurt you were.”
“I was flattered.”
“I know. And I appreciate that you tried. Really. I was silly to insist, you were in so much pain.”
It was only when Fraser looked down, embarrassed, that he saw he had been wringing his hands. He made an effort to still his hands but continued staring down at them, avoiding her eyes.
Francesca reached over and placed one of her hands over his. “I don’t want to cause you pain ever again, Fraszh. You’re a good friend.”
The Mountie looked up, hopefully. “Then, you realize that we are friends.”
“Yeah, I know that.”
“Ray’s a good man. I’m pretty sure he loves you.”
Francesca blushed and it was her turn to look down. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You don’t have to try to goad him into saying it. That could backfire.”
Francesca’s quick temper flared. “You think I’m goading him? You think that’s what I’m trying to do?”
He wrapped both his hands around her hand that was still in his lap. “I think, Francesca, that you are a little bit afraid that if you don’t push and insist you’ll never have things the way you want them. Did you ever think to relax and let things unfold as they were meant to?”
Francesca’s anger died down as quickly as it had flared up. “You’ve spent enough time at our house. Vecchios don’t do ‘relax’. When we want something – we move.”
“So I’ve learned. But Ray is only pretending to be a Vecchio. He doesn’t have the family confidence.”
Francesca fell silent. What was Fraszh trying to tell her? She felt so stupid around him sometimes. Great thing about Kowalski, she never had to guess what he was feeling. She liked that.
“Are you asking me to lay off you?” Francesca ventured.
“I’m sure you don’t do it on purpose,” was Fraser’s answer and Francesca felt a pique of irritation. Never a straight answer from that man! At least with Ray. . . Oh well. He wants to be left alone. That much I can figure out.
Fraser let her hand drop and rose to hit feet. “Tell Ray I’ll see him tomorrow.” He picked up the Stetson and started out again.
“Assuming I’m talking to him,” Francesca called after the retreating red figure.
From halfway down the hall he paused a last time. “Talk to him, Francesca.” With that he turned a corner into another part of the hall and was gone.
“Moody,” she said to herself with a sigh. Men were so emotional over every little thing. But Fraszh had a point. Maybe she needed to cut Ray a little slack. She detected music from below her. Somebody must have brought a boom box along. Francesca went back down to the canteen.
Ray stood against a wall between two vending machines, looking to Francesca as though he were seeking the protection of the machines. A bottle of beer was in his hand and she watched him for a few minutes: take a sip, drop the bottle to let it swing in his hand, take another sip, let the bottle swing again, listlessly.
Well, she wasn’t a Vecchio for nothing. Squaring her tiny shoulders she marched up to Ray and took the beer bottle out of his hand. She reached up on her toes to reach the top of the vending machine on his left and pushed it on top.
“Dance with me,” she ordered.
“Why? Couldn’t you get the Mountie?”
“You’re my dance partner, Kowalski, and don’t you forget it,” she told him firmly and slipped one hand into his while placing the other around his waist.
Ray smiled. It was beyond his understanding what was going on but for the moment he didn’t care.