Francesca remained all afternoon on the lookout for a time when the office was free and it wasn't too busy in the shop to leave Yolanda alone at the front counter. Finally there was a lull in the action and she retreated to place a call to the Canadian Consulate. Calling Fraszh right out was a daring step but it was the only way to get in touch with him during work hours without taking time off. Damn his adorable eyes, why didn't he get a phone in his own apartment like a normal person?
Francesca had already gone through the internal debate over whether it was a good idea for her to ask Fraser's help in this project and since she seldom lost arguments with herself she'd been waiting for a quiet interval to make the call. With a cheery request to her counter-mate Yolanda to watch things for a minute, she went behind a set of swinging doors to the back of the store and into the business office. Hopefully Fraszh would be at his desk and not standing motionless outside the Consulate door. What was the Dragon Lady thinking, keeping him out there and not inside where she could see him? Everyone knew that Fraszh's boss had the hots for him. Francesca had grudging respect for the Inspector's restraint in not taking advantage of her position over Fraszh, though. The Dragon Lady had respect for her staff, at least.
She dialed the Consulate's number and asked to be put through to Constable Fraser's line.
"Constable Fraser. May I help you?" She heard him say.
"Yeah, hi Fraszh. You CAN help me actually. Are you busy tonight?" She'd learned the hard way that this question did not mean asking someone out on a date in the Mountie�s mind, although it did mean that for everyone else in the world.
"Well . . . I . . . no, not busy . . . but what did . . . I mean . . . was there something specific you . . .?"
"Don't worry, I'm not asking you out. Madonn' you'd think I was trying to murder you. It wouldn't do you any harm to go out with me . . . " Here she paused and realized that scolding him wasn't the best opening to a request for his help. She took a breath and changed mode. "Sorry, what I meant to say was, if you're not too busy, I'd like you to come along with me while I go buy a car."
She waited while he cleared his throat and stammered. God, he was so predictable. She drummed her fingers on the old wooden desk, impatiently, waiting.
"Wouldn't you want your brother with you for something like that. Ray knows a lot about cars," he said finally.
"No Fraszh, that's the whole point. I know as much as he does about cars. And I've done my shopping around and I know which car I want and what dealer I want it from. Tonight's the night I want to go in there and make a deal, and it's a whole lot easier to do that when you have a man along. Women don't get respect."
"I see, but Ray is a man."
"He's my brother. Of all the men in the world he probably respects me the least, and he'll try to take everything over himself. You, Fraszh, you're a man, but you're polite and you show respect."
"Francesca, in all fairness, I'm not the only man in the world for whom that can be said. Many men are polite and respectful."
"Not any that will be any good to me tonight. And something else - you won't try to horn in to show me how macho you are. You'll let me do the dealing and just help me along when I need it."
"Very well, Francesca. If I can be of service to you, I'll be happy to oblige."
You could sure be of service to me, Francesca thought, I've made that pretty plain and you never have obliged, not once. Not even when I walked in practically naked and threw myself at your head. Well, that was another problem for another time. For today, the objective was to get a good car at a good price.
Aloud she said, "Thanks, Fraszh, I appreciate it. Please don't be insulted but I can't invite you over to the house for dinner first or everybody will know you're coming out with me. I'll pick you up at your apartment, say, seven?"
"Seven will be fine."
"Great. And, um, don't wear any of that Mountie stuff."
"It's a plainclothes operation. Understood."
"Thanks again, Fraszh. See you tonight."
She hung up and then looked up to see Mr. Bruno standing in the doorway of the office. She was a little embarrassed to be caught, but only a little. Employees were allowed to use the office phone as long as they didn't tie up the line too long.
"I heard you talking about dinner, Francesca," the old man said, with shy smile that was all to familiar to Francesca and to his other female clerks, "Would you like to take your mother a nice prime rib roast?"
Francesca did a quick mental calculation to estimate how much a rib roast would cost her. Mr. Bruno's scale was well established. A quick peck and a squeeze was worth a few pounds of ground chuck. A decent kiss was rewarded with a pork round. A rib roast would require Francesca to put up with a tongue in her mouth and a fairly audacious grope. But, being an old-fashioned Italian male, Mr. Bruno believed he was respecting the virtue of his female employees by never over-stepping certain bounds. Francesca knew that no matter what he offered, they'd both be keeping their clothes on and no private parts were going to be exposed.
"Ma's making ham tonight," Francesca said, with a little smile of her own. "Maybe some other time, Mr. Bruno." She squeezed passed him through the door of the office and he didn't so much as pat any part of her. Respect was a funny thing. Mr. Bruno was a pathetic old lecher but never rude or insistent, always taking no for an answer with good grace when one of his targets wasn't in the mood to put up with the exchange. That was more respect and consideration than some younger guys showed these days, Francesca thought, as she returned to place behind the cash register.
Yolanda was busy talking to a customer and pointed silently to several piles of meat on the work counter behind the refrigerated display cabinet. Francesca understood that she was being asked to weigh and wrap each packet, and she undertook that work right away, turning her back to the customers and also to the door to the shop.
Her brother walked in to pick her up, a few minutes before she was expecting him and, not to interfere with her concentration, he hung back in the crowd of busy shopping women, waiting for her to end her shift.
This allowed him to overhear the talk between Yolanda and his sister as he waited and Francesca, with her back to the shop, not to notice that he was overhearing.
"So, did you ask him?" Yolanda started, raising her voice over the din.
"The Mountie? Yeah, and he said yes he's up for it."
"I don't see why you want him anyway, you know so many guys who have more experience."
"That's just it, Yo. I don't want a guy with experience. Fraszh will do things the way I want, he won't try to take over."
"If you say so."
"I say so," Francesca insisted, "And something else. If things go well and I'm satisfied, he won't go bragging afterwards. I can count on him to be quiet. If Ray found out, Madonn', what a fuss he'd make."
Ray held his temper in check with great difficulty
Francesca finished wrapping and labeling the brown paper packages and brought them over to the counter. Ray faded back behind several customers to make sure he wasn't seen.
To Yolanda, Francesca whispered so that no one beyond the counter could hear "By, the way, he's feeling amorous today. I turned him down, so if you want a rib roast go in the back."
"I shouldn't put up with playing second fiddle," Yolanda whispered back.
"He only asked me first 'cause he saw me first," Francesca assured her, "Go ahead."
Yolanda wiped her hands on a towel that was hanging beside a small sink and retreated through the swinging door saying loudly, "Men are pigs. All they want is one thing."
Ray waited while the rush of customers eased off and his sister noticed him. She greeted him with a cheery "Hi, Bro".
She sounds so innocent, Ray fumed inwardly.
A few minutes later Yolanda returned from the back. The customers were gone now and the two women tidied up, took an end-of-day cash register reading and balanced the cash in the drawer. Yolanda kept looking at Ray, while they did these things, shooting him glances that she figured were encouraging and making unnecessary, embarrassing conversation. Ray's attention was distracted briefly by the woman's blatant crush on him. This was the part about picking his sister up that he knew ahead of time was going to be a pain. He expected it. Hearing Frannie confirm plans to seduce the Mountie, that wasn't entirely unexpected but it was unsettling.
At length Francesca retrieved her purse and said "Bye, Yo" to her co-worker. Yolanda waggled her fingers at them as they went out of the door, cooing "Bye, Ray."
Women, thought Ray. And they call US pigs.
Ray's dark mood wasn't improved when Francesca announced over dinner that she was going out later but declined to tell anyone at the table where or with whom.
Ray refrained from confronting her. She was of age; he had no real right to control where she went or even ask. What good was it to be the head of a family in this day and age? He was responsible for everyone financially but if he were to intervene to protect his sister's virtue, he'd be told it was none of his business.
Ray spent the rest of the evening watching television with Maria's kids. During commercial breaks he turned his attention to the kids, gazing at them and thinking how innocent they were at that age.
The household all went to bed, leaving Ray alone on the living-room couch thinking about Frannie and the Mountie and trying to figure out a way to find out what went on between them. Asking either of them wouldn't help. He'd tried that the last time and each had refused to tell him anything. Nothing had happened since, of that he felt fairly confident, simply because he knew Fraser would have been twitchy and uncomfortable if he slept with Francesca. (Or slept with her AGAIN, Ray didn't know which, and it continued to bug him. For all that Fraser was his friend and the best man he knew, he still didn't like the idea of his sister sleeping with ANY man.)
He back on the couch, arms crossed behind his head, thinking. Men are pigs, Yolanda had said. His mind wandered to the rerun of a sitcom he had watched that night. Some dialogue came back to him. One of the women said that it was okay for women to use sex to get what they want. Didn't men sometimes do that too? The male star had answered, to the enjoyment of the studio audience, that men can't use sex to get what they want. Sex IS what they want.
Then Ray thought of Yolanda. A little ashamed of the direction the thought was taking, he decided that if men were pigs in her opinion and if further she liked HIM, it could only mean that it was okay for him to be a little underhanded and use her to get what he wanted - information. After all it was only confirming the view she already had.
He devised a plan that was simple and also decided, as he drifted off to sleep on the couch, elegant in its simplicity.
It was about 9:00 pm when Francesca concluded her car deal, made her down payment, then driven away in her old car, with an appointment made to pick up the new car two days hence. Fraser had performed admirably. He'd sniffed and peered and prodded her chosen car and said things to her sotto voce that she could use to get the price lowered but never addressed a single comment to the car salesman. He sat impassive by her side while she argued and ratcheted the price lower and lower. First the salesman and then the sales manager tried to include him in the negotiations, but he gave them polite his Mountie half-smile and said he was only there for moral support. His friend, Miss Vecchio, was buying the car, not he.
Afterwards, still feeling a little guilty about not feeding him at home before taking him out on the expedition, Francesca stopped at a restaurant to buy Fraser something to eat. She watched him put away a burger and fries and it puzzled her a little. Somehow she imagined him eating only healthy food and it was interesting to see that he chowed down like any other man she knew. Maybe he was right about what he had said that afternoon - that he wasn't all that unusual among men. It gave her hope. Yolanda might be wrong. Maybe all men were not pigs and there were decent guys out there besides Fraszh amongst whom she might take her pick. By the time she'd dropped him off at his apartment and reached her own front door it was a little after ten thirty.
The sound of Francesca's entry awakened her dozing brother. He rubbed at his eyes and sat up on the couch. Once his eyes were fully opened he consulted his watch. "You're home early,"
His accusing tone broke her good mood and she snapped back at him, "Or late. You don't know what I was doing so you don't know how long it was supposed to take."
"You could tell me what you're doing. Would that be so terrible?"
"Yes, it would be so terrible. Because you're not the boss of me, Ray. I work too, and I support the family just like you. Maybe I don�t work in a police station like you, but I do what I can. Who knows, maybe I'll work in a police station too some day."
"Yeah, like that will ever happen."
"The point is: you're not responsible for me, Ray. I'm not a little girl."
He couldn't ignore the truth of this, but at the same time he wasn't ready to give up the conviction that as head of the house he was indeed responsible. Life had contradictions and this was one of them. The head of the house protects the womenfolk. It had been drummed into him by his father, even though Arturo Vecchio had thoroughly failed to uphold that ideal himself. Or maybe it was because Pop had, in Ray's eyes, failed his family so miserably, not protecting Frannie from that early, horrible, marriage, nor Maria from marrying the lazy, lay-about Tony, and � worst of all � passing along to Ray his terrible temper that destroyed Ray's own marriage to Angie. Ray had a vague awareness, not entirely conscious nor entirely unconscious, that he was trying to be the perfect paterfamilias to make up to his sisters and mother for what Pop should have been.
"You're my sister. I care about you," Ray blurted out the same words he had a few months ago.
Francesca bent over to kiss his cheek, mollified. "And I love you for it. Now mind your own beeswax, sweetie." With this endearment she headed up the stairs to her own room.
"Where did you go?" he called up the stairs after her.
"You'll find out in a couple of days. Now don't bug me!"
As humans will often do, Ray tuned out information that did not fit into his current line of thinking. Francesca's statement that he would "find out in a couple of days" went un-remarked and as Ray followed her up the stairs to his own room, he was thinking about the plan he would implement on the morrow.
In the cold light of morning, Ray decided that the plan that had seemed elegantly simple while he dozed half-asleep the night before was, in fact, simple-minded at best and disrespectful to Yolanda at the worst. He'd been planning to use her crush on him to gain her confidence and then pump her for information about Frannie, since he knew his sister confided in this friend.
I'm big enough to admit when I've had a stupid idea, Ray told himself as he dressed in the morning. He didn't feel quite so self-righteous and realized that taking advantage of Yolanda would be wrong. And, even more to the point, he'd probably fall flat on his face, Yolanda would see through him and report his attempt directly back to Frannie. No, bad plan. But never mind, he worked out another while eating breakfast and finalized it as he brushed his teeth.
He wouldn't press his sister, having no rights in the matter and he wouldn't try to take advantage of her friend, that being under-handed. It was a different age than his father was raised in and if he had to live with different mores, then somebody else jolly well had to change his ways, too. That person was Fraser. If Ray wasn't be allowed to fall back on old-fashioned domination then Fraser wasn't allowed to hide behind out-moded chivalry. Ray had let the Mountie get away with that whole gallantry thing that other time, and not pressing Fraser when he insisted that a gentleman owed a lady discretion. Just because his grandmother taught him that. Well, let me tell you, Benny, Ray lectured in his mind as he rinsed and spat, my grandpa and my pop taught me certain ways and society doesn't let me honour them. So you, too, will have to just go with modern times. You'll tell me straight out what you did with my kid sister this time because, after all, we're living in an age of honesty about personal affairs. Well, aren't we?
Fraser didn't seem at all uncomfortable with Ray when he came over the 27th the next afternoon.
Ray started by asking straight out, "So what did you do last night, Benny?" knowing the Mountie was generally averse to lying.
"I went shopping," Fraser answered promptly and easily.
"By yourself?" Ray asked.
Now this had an effect. Fraser paused and seemed to need to think about his response before giving it. "No, I had somebody with me."
Ray opened his eyes wide and trained them on Fraser, mutely demanding more details. But Fraser was disinclined to tell more.
Direct, that's what I have to be, Ray told himself. It was what he had decided. I'm going to confront him straight out and if he doesn't come clean I'll just have to beat him up. From one generation to the next, some things never change.
"Okay, Benny, I know who you were out with last night and I'm not taking any of that chivalry stuff from you this time. Tell me what happened."
Fraser cleared his throat. "Francesca prefers that I don't discuss it. She is apparently concerned about you losing respect for her."
This was what Ray was fearing, but he plunged on. "Details, Fraser."
Now Fraser sighed. "I think at first Francesca seemed to think that any man would have served her purpose. But she came to see I was the best choice and end up being completed satisfied."
Oh my God. He's telling me what I expected to hear and now that I'm hearing it � I don't want to know, Ray agonized. But there was no shutting up the Mountie once he was on a verbal roll.
"You know, Ray, to be frank I have to admit I'm glad she came to me for this. It was a pleasure for me to give her what she wanted. She's quite pleased with the outcome."
"The addition to your household that she has in mind. She's very excited about it."
"Okay, this is too much. I can only be so modern!" Ray burst out.
"What do you mean, Ray?"
"That addition to my household that's coming. You admit you're responsible."
"Partly responsible, Ray. It was Francesca's idea but I really had no reason to refuse. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would."
Ray's anger was building now. "She's my sister. Your partner's sister. You don't think that's a reason to refuse?"
"On the contrary, it is all the more reason to do whatever I can for her."
"So you sacrificed yourself. Real noble, Fraser, real noble."
"It wasn't such a big deal Ray. Just a few hours out of my life . . ."
A few hours? Was he bragging about his stamina, the low-down creep?
". . . and Francesca rewarded me with a very nice meal afterwards. She did say that later when her new arrival is safely home she'll invite me over to dinner with the family."
"She'll do more that invite you to one dinner," Ray announced. "You're going to be married to her when she gets her new arrival, count on that."
Fraser started at that. "Married? Two days is a short time to arrange a wedding. I don't think it is even possible in this jurisdiction."
"Two days? Don't tell me that's all it takes in Canada."
Ray was about to go on, then he tripped over the words 'two days'. It was what Frannie had said last night and he hadn't paid attention. Two days? What was that about? He repeated this aloud to Fraser, puzzled.
"That's when her car will be ready. The salesman promised he'd have it ready for her on Friday. There are some features to be added and she also negotiated some rust-proofing. You'd have been very proud of your sister, Ray. She drove a hard bargain and ended up with much more than I suspect you or I would have."
"Car," Ray repeated. "We're talking about buying a car? Oh my God!"
The Mountie was immediately contrite. "Oh dear. I let the feline out of the backpack didn't I? But you said you knew what we were doing." Then he added, with suspicion, "Were you lying to me, Ray. That's . . . that's . . . not a nice thing to have done."
Ray laughed with relief. A car. That's all it was. "Just a mistake, Benny. I thought that you slept with Frannie again."
"I object to your use of the word 'again', Ray."
"Benny, we'd better get this straight right now. Are you after my sister or aren't you?
"Ray, let me put it to you this way. I would never take advantage of Francesca nor allow her to take advantage of me. That's what she tried to do the last time. For what it is worth, I can assure you of only this: if I ever make love to Francesca it will be because I love Francesca. I'm not capable of a casual relationship and I should think, after what we've been though together, you would know that about me."
I do know that, Ray thought. I won't forget it again. He placed his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Come tonight for that dinner. Frannie called me this morning to tell me she's bringing home a giant-sized rib roast from work tonight."