BALLROOM DANCING THIS WAY --->
The sign was hanging crooked and written in three different ugly colors of Sharpie. Ray thought again about turning around and going back to his new apartment. Pulling it around him like Champ's shell and hiding inside like he'd been doing for the last month. He felt soft and terrifyingly easy to chew up and spit out. Ballroom dancing at the Y, had he really sunk this low? He looked at that sign and looked down at his dancing shoes, which he hadn't shined in a last-ditch effort to pretend he didn't give a shit, even though slacks-and-a-nice-shirt was basically desperation in Ray-world.
Fuck it, he told himself. You gonna let the Y beat you? You don't have the balls anymore to walk into a gym and smile at a girl? Course, the odds were ten to one there wouldn't be any girls at all, just little old ladies. Little old ladies loved him, sure, and a lot of times they were good dancers. But being nice to little old ladies, that was a little too Fraser for tonight.
He walked into the room nice and casual, his jacket slung over his shoulder. He'd been right, it was mostly old people, plus, in the corner, a miserable-looking teenager and his mom. But there was a girl on the other side of the room, knee-length dress flaring over an ass that was pretty fucking great. Her back was to him so he couldn't tell if she was stacked, but hey, there was an easy way to find out.
He was halfway across the room when he started to feel unsettled. She looked familiar. Shit, watch it turn out he'd brought her in for soliciting, back when he was in Vice. Then she turned around.
Ray stopped short. "Frannie," he got out, almost choking on the word.
Her face lit up, like she was glad to see him, and fuck, that was making him feel a little hollow and horrible and weepy. "Ray!"
He'd never noticed how she smiled with her whole face. It was lips and teeth and eyes and eyebrows and now her hands were getting in on the action. He'd gotten so used to watching for that little crinkle at the corners of Fraser's eyes that he didn't know what to do with all that happiness. And just for seeing him? What the hell?
"Oh my God, you're back! And you know how to do this dancing thing, right? Because I think I've got two left hands."
"No, no. Just listen. You hear the beat? BOM bom bom, BOM bom bom. Okay, let's try it again. And stop trying to turn. We will do turning when you can do the box step without looking." He'd wanted to put down a masking-tape square for her, but Frannie'd said Ma Vecchio would kill them if she caught them messing with her floors.
"Who died and made you Jesus?" Frannie grumbled, but she fumbled through the box step a few more times, counting under her breath. "This is harder than it looks." Her spiked heel came down on his toes.
Frannie stopped moving. "Fuck," she said flatly.
He'd never heard her swear before. Italian girls weren't supposed to, he remembered that from high school. Her cheeks were red and her hand was starting to vibrate nervously in his. Ray wasn't the smartest with women, but Frannie was easy. Her embarrassment was just as outsize as her smile, and maybe neither of them meant anything, but Ray wanted the smile back anyway.
"Hey," he said quietly. "I, uh, my first dance with Stella, I knocked her over. Right onto the floor."
The corner of her mouth started to curve. "You were a spazzy little kid, huh?"
"You bet, and I still learned how to dance. C'mon, that's enough for one day, I'll buy you an ice cream."
She cleared her throat and stepped back. "I, um--you know this isn't a date, right?"
"Uh, yeah, of course I do," Ray said automatically, even though he hadn't been sure when she'd asked him to continue the dance lesson at her place. He hadn't been sure whether he wanted it to be one, either, but it turned out he felt mostly relieved. She was cute, yeah, he'd thought so since the first time he laid eyeballs on her, but come on, she was also Frannie.
"I mean, I love ice cream," she said hastily. "It's not you, I've sworn off all men. I'm choosing Frannie for a change."
"Greatness." Yeah, sure. She'd sworn off all men till the next thing in a red jacket came along.
"Well, it's about time someone did. But you can still pay for my ice cream if you want."
He wasn't sure why that made him grin, but it did, and Ray didn't look a gift horse in the mouth because horses had scary-ass teeth. "That's real sweet of you, Frannie. You wanna pay for mine?"
"Sure!" She smiled back at him, so he didn't tell her he'd been joking. "There's a gelato place on--"
"Christ, Frannie, will you stop with the Sinatra?" someone yelled from the next room. "There's only so many touching love songs to Momo Giancana I can take," and then Vecchio walked in.
Ray hadn't known Vecchio was back in town. He'd heard he and Stella split, but he'd thought Vecchio was staying in Florida. He was not prepared for Vecchio to walk into the room in nothing but ugly swim trunks and a full-body tan, that was for damn sure. He was not prepared for that gold chain around Vecchio's neck or the fact that Vecchio actually only had hair in the right places, on his forearms and a patch on his chest just starting to go gray, and, fuck, in a tidy little trail down from his bellybutton to--
"That's my name, don't wear it out," Ray said, taking his hands off Frannie and his eyes off Vecchio's crotch in a hurry. "Isn't it a little cold to go swimming?" Not his best comeback ever, but under the circumstances he'd take what he could get.
Vecchio rolled his eyes. "There's a hot tub in the backyard, remember?"
Oh, yeah. Ray did remember. In fact, he was suddenly getting a very detailed picture of Frannie's gold-and-hot-pink bikini, and it was not managing to distract him from Vecchio's chest even a tiny bit. "We, uh, we were just going for ice cream." He turned his back to take the record off the turntable. This was stupid and unnatural. This was Vecchio, slick-dresser dickweed Vecchio, and he wasn't even in that great shape. Well, okay, the arms were great, but he had a belly! It stuck out just a little over his trunks and Ray wanted to grab it. Fuck.
"How's Benny?" Vecchio asked, casual as all hell.
"I don't know anyone named Benny," Ray snapped.
But Frannie was actually turning out to be pretty cool, and Ray didn't have anyone else to hang out with, so ice cream led to another dancing lesson which led to a movie which led to another dancing lesson which led to dinner.
They spent most of the night swapping Catholic-school anecdotes and ordering more wine, and Ray was so caught up in proving that Sister Mary was crazier than Frannie's eighth-grade teacher that he forgot about how Frannie was a chick and a lot smaller than him.
"Uh, Frannie," he said when he noticed her gesturing hands start to wobble, "maybe you shouldn't have any more wine."
"What, are you Ray?" Frannie snapped, and downed her glass. "Oh hey, I guess you are." She giggled.
Ray shrugged, because he wasn't her brother. Anyway he was driving her home and he wasn't gonna try anything, so she'd be okay.
"This is weird," Frannie said.
Frannie waved her hand and almost knocked over the half-empty bottle. "This," she repeated. "You know. This friends thing. I mean, normally when I'm out with a guy I have to spend the whole time pretending to be interested in sports and worrying about my hair."
He blinked. "Your hair always looks great."
She smiled at him, one of her big bright smiles. "You don't have to flatter me, Kowalski. We're just friends."
"I'm not Fraser," Ray said. "I'm not gonna lie just to be polite." Her mouth twisted, and Ray knew he should back off on this but he'd had a few glasses too and somehow his mouth kept going anyway. "Remember Fraser's bullshit about a man and woman being friends? Based on mutual respect or some crap? Guess he was right after all. He can't be right about everything, can he? 'Cause what kind of sad world would that be?"
Frannie set her glass down so hard Ray thought it was gonna crack in half. "Who cares about Fraser?"
Ray blinked, because the answer to that one was obvious. Everyone cared about Fraser.
"He wasn't very nice to Ray. I mean, he had you call the Lieutenant to say he wasn't coming back from Canada." She tapped her fork on the table a few times, angrily. Ray pulled his arms back out of range. "I tried to sleep with him once," she announced.
"Uh, Frannie, you tried to sleep with him every time you saw him."
She flushed. "I mean, really tried. And he wouldn't even say no! He made Ray do it for him! And I told myself he was just shy, and then he did the same thing to Ray and it was so obvious."
Nothing seemed obvious to Ray right now. "What was?"
"He can't say no. He doesn't trust himself to say no, but that doesn't mean he wants to say yes. And Ray loved him. Like Fraser was his brother, except, you know, Ray liked spending time with him. No woman ever loved a man like I loved Fraser, but Ray thought the sun shone out of his teeth, you know? And Fraser didn't even call. I made a fool of myself for years for that?" She sniffed. "Well, not anymore!"
Ray didn't want to go there. He didn't want to be angry at Fraser any more, even though he was. And he was ashamed that he'd been part of it. He hadn't tried to make Fraser stop. He'd called Welsh when Fraser'd asked him to. Hell, he had even told Frannie Fraser liked her, which was a straight-up lie and he'd known it. But it was the same lie Fraser would have told, and at least this way it'd been over quicker. "I, uh. It wasn't that bad. I did the same thing with Stella, you know, kept asking her out even though--"
"Exactly, and everyone thought it was rude and pathetic and unprofessional!"
Ray was struck dumb with horror. Because that was exactly why he could never be friends with Frannie, last year, 'cause being around Frannie just made him feel like he was looking in a funhouse mirror. It hurt watching her throw herself at Fraser and it hurt watching Fraser hate it, and it killed him that anyone would feel that way looking at him and Stella. He'd pretended no one saw it but him, and now it turned out it was true, he and Frannie were exactly the same and everyone knew it.
He was just as stupid as Frannie, except he had no excuse. Stella had never told him any polite lies, even when he'd wanted her to. Even when he would have cut off his arm to hear that maybe she didn't want him to be the father of her kids and maybe she didn't want him to be her husband and maybe she didn't want him to be her anything, but--at least she liked him.
"You're drunk," he said roughly, holding up his hand for the waiter. "I'm taking you home."
She frowned. "Ray, are you okay?"
"Nothing wrong with me." He tried for it not to matter, tried to be the bigger man. But he was angry, angry at Frannie which was not fair. If she was a guy he'd have punched her, but she wasn't. And he couldn't talk to her, so they were quiet all the way home. Frannie was drunk, anyway, and by now she was kinda nodding off. He had to help her out of the GTO and up the stairs and open the door with her key, hoping against a shitload of hope that he wouldn't have to see Vecchio.
But it wasn't his night. Vecchio came to the door, and when he saw Frannie he got a look on his face that was kinda scary. "I'll take it from here," he said, like Ray was freaking Guy Rankin, and that made Ray want to hit something. "You, don't go anywhere."
Ray thought about taking off into the night. But he'd have to face Vecchio at some point, so it might as well be now. It wasn't like the evening could get worse.
He wasn't sure how much time passed before Vecchio came back outside, but it was enough that Ray's adrenaline buzz had died down a little. He felt less like picking a fight with Vecchio and more like going home and watching the game and telling the mirror it could go fuck itself, 'cause he just had something in his eye. "Look, Vecchio, she had a little too much wine with dinner, that's all. How was I supposed to know she was such a flyweight?"
"Nothing happened?" Vecchio asked calmly.
"Of course not!"
"It better not have," Vecchio said, still with that creepy calm. "You wanna put the moves on my sister, you do it when she's sober."
"And preferably armed, got it," Ray said. "Look, Vecchio, I am not that kind of guy! I don't--I--fuck." Because maybe Vecchio had heard it too. Heard he was the kind of loser who didn't take no for an answer.
Vecchio looked him over. "Are you okay?"
He said it casual and curious, not polite but like he really wouldn't mind hearing. Hey, no reason to stick with the level of pathetic you're at, right? Ray was an overachiever. So there he was, telling Vecchio the whole story, except he left out the part about Vecchio thinking the sun shone out of Fraser's teeth. "And I'm gonna have to go in there in a couple weeks and beg for your job back, knowing that they all think I'm the saddest sack in the region of the Lakes we call Great," he finished.
Vecchio leaned against the door-frame and looked really, really tired. "You know, Kowalski, being dumped and humiliated doesn't actually hurt less when no one knows about it."
Ray didn't know what to say to that. He had no idea what Vecchio was talking about, except Frannie had got him wondering. It was dumb, because Vecchio could mean anything, but--could Vecchio be talking about Fraser? Were they all exactly the same kind of stupid?
"Look, Frannie was just running her mouth. Now you know why my family doesn't drink."
"From what I heard, your dad hurt a lot more than your feelings after wetting his whistle," Ray said, and then really, really wished he hadn't.
Vecchio's sympathetic eyes went flat like a mirror. "Right, I forgot, you know all about us. Good night." He went inside and shut the door behind him. Ray hadn't realized he could actually feel crappier than he had earlier. The wanting-to-hit-something was back, too, except Vecchio had shut the door real quiet like he didn't want to wake anyone up, so Ray just tiptoed back to his car and went home instead.
"Mom, I need Stella's number."
His mom hesitated, and if anything could have told him how far over the line he'd gone last year, it was that. "Honey, I'm not sure--"
"I just--I'm not gonna bug her, Mom. I just wanna apologize. For last year."
She gave him the number.
Her voice brought everything back, all twenty-five years of it, and he almost fucked everything up all over again. "Hey, uh, Stella, it's me."
"Ray?" Her voice had gone wary. Ray's gut clenched. "Is everything okay?"
No. Come back. "Yeah, everything's fine."
She sighed. "I told your mother not to give you my number unless it was an emergency."
"Yeah, I know, Stella, I'm not gonna bother you, okay? But I gotta--look, I--" I'm sorry. He'd never had an easy time saying it. Not when he meant it, anyway. When all he wanted was for her to look at him again, it had come out nice and easy, over and over until they both felt like puking.
"I'm sorry." There.
Dead silence. Not even any fucking static.
"For, uh, for being an ass last year. I shouldn't--I love you and I made things rough for you and I wish I hadn't done that."
"Really?" She sounded--not stunned, but just turned around, like she was pretty sure she'd heard him wrong. Christ, Ray was an asshole.
"Thanks, Ray," she said finally. "You did--last year was hard for me. That means a lot." She sounded so relieved and grateful. What he did still mattered to her, and Ray missed her so bad. "Listen--how are you doing? Did you have a good time in Canada?"
Ray laughed. "Not really. How's Florida?"
"It's--I'm thinking of moving to New York, actually."
There was an awkward silence, and then she said, "Have you seen Ray? Ray Vecchio, I mean." Ray kept forgetting. He'd never seen them together and it just made no sense and he kept forgetting that Vecchio had fucked his wife. Shit, that was bizarre.
"Uh, yeah. Saw him last night."
"Really?" she asked, sounding surprised.
"Yeah, I gave Frannie a ride home after dinner." It occurred to him uneasily that that made it sound like a date. But trying to explain would just be weird, and maybe--maybe it was okay if Stella didn't know how dateless Ray had been recently.
"Oh," Stella said, kinda flat. "So, uh--how is Ray doing?"
"A little tense," Ray said.
Stella laughed unhappily. "Tell me about it."
Ray snickered, and then Stella said in this bright voice, "How are things going with Frannie?"
He gave up. He could lie, but eventually she'd find out, probably from his mom, and he'd just look more pathetic than before. "Look, Stella, nothing's going on. I mean, I'm just teaching her to dance."
"You been dancing at all?"
"Yeah, you know, it's nice," he said, remembering how comfortable things had been with Frannie before the whole Fraser-Stella conversation. Was it too late for him and Stella to have that? They'd been friends once, right? Back before Stella said yes? "We can just talk. Like--like when I'm around her I don't feel like I gotta be somebody different."
There were some weird noises on the line.
"I'm getting some static. Hey, uh, I won't call you again but you got my number, right? I--I miss you, Stell."
"Ray, I never wanted you to be--" Stella's voice sounded weird and static-y too, and--
"Are you okay? Stella, are you--"
"I'm fine, Ray." She was gonna cry. Shit, he'd made Stella cry. "I have to go. I miss you too. I'll call you in a couple weeks, okay?"
"Wait, Stella, no, what'd I say--"
Ray was even more of an asshole than he'd thought.
Talking to Stella used to be easier than breathing. Ray wanted that back so badly that for a minute breathing got almost as difficult as talking to Stella.
The weird thing was that he wanted to tell Frannie about it. He was gonna have to talk to her sooner or later, anyway, 'cause his tango records were at her house. He called the 2-7 and arranged to meet her at the diner a few blocks from the station.
She settled into the booth across from him, her Civilian Aid sweater setting off a wave of nostalgia. He half-expected Fraser to walk over and start ignoring her.
"That wasn't really true about everyone thinking you were pathetic," she started immediately. "It was a dumb thing to say. Plenty of people sided with you. Jimmy thought Stella was the biggest bitch in--"
"Hey," Ray said loudly. It kinda made him squirm to realize that once--fuck, even just last night--he'd really wanted to hear that. "No slamming Stella."
Frannie bit her lip. "Well, I don't know what you want me to say, Ray! I wanted to go to college, you know."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Maybe if I'd gone I wouldn't say dumb things all the time," she explained. "But Pop said it was a waste of money for a girl to go to college. And now you're mad at me, and I--"
This was why he'd wanted to talk to Frannie. He'd known she would get it. She would get being a failure, being the one who could never figure anything out until it was too late. "I dropped outta college," he told her. "You were right, anyway. It's cool."
Her eyes widened. "You dropped out of college?" She said it the way his dad did, that immigrant way like the word "college" was some kinda abracadabra. Like it could magically make you into a suit instead of the low-class Polack you were.
He spun the little stand-up beer menu around a few times. "Yeah, to go to the Academy."
"Oh," she said, like that explained it. "Well, you know, being a cop is--"
He kept his eyes on the beer menu. "I didn't want to."
Her hands stopped mid-gesture and hung in the air above the table, looking puzzled.
He hadn't told Fraser this. Hell, he'd refused to admit it to Stella, even though she knew. But he told Frannie's hands. "I had to, 'cause Stella had a fight with her parents and they stopped paying for her school. I mean, she wanted to be a lawyer since she was four."
Frannie rested her chin on her fist. "What did you want to be?"
Ray stared at the table. "A teacher."
She laughed. "A teacher?"
He flinched and set the beer menu spinning again. "Not an English teacher. A gym teacher, maybe, or auto shop. Make school suck less for kids like me. Stupid, right?"
"Sounds boring to me," Frannie said. "I'd rather solve crimes than take care of someone else's kids all day."
"I like kids."
"Yeah, and Stella didn't want them. I think people in Detroit know that."
"I called her," Ray said. "I called her and I fucked things up even more. I made her cry." Suddenly he felt so antsy and mad he could barely stay in the booth. "Christ, I thought I'd figure things out in Canada. But guess what? I am never going to be someone who knows what the fuck they're doing. This is all there is. I am a loser and a fuck-up and--"
"Oh, for God's sake," Frannie said. "The only thing wrong with you, Kowalski, is that you're a bigger drama queen than Maria Sabatini from sixth grade. No one wants you to be a different person. They just wish you'd grow up a little."
He jerked his head up and accidentally banged it into the back of the booth. "Really?"
"Hey, you were more popular at the 2-7 than Ray ever was," Frannie said.
That made Ray feel kind of weird, since he liked Vecchio. But it made him feel good, too. Really good, like maybe the way he'd felt like he belonged wasn't all just part of the undercover lie. "Uh, Frannie," he said, because he wanted to make her feel good too, "people don't think you're dumb."
She raised her eyebrows at him.
"Okay, maybe they do, but I don't. You and me, we're not book smart like Fraser, right? But we got our own thing. We're savvy. You dig?"
Her hopeful little smile kinda reminded him of Fraser, in this weird way. "Will you come to the opera gala with me next Tuesday? I won tickets on the radio." He must have looked like a squirrel in the headlights because she said, "Just as friends. Jesus."
"Frannie, I would not go to an opera gala if I were guaranteed sex with Sophia Loren at the end of the evening." He thought about it. "Well, maybe then."
Frannie looked startled. "Why not? You get to dress up, and then there's opera!"
"You like opera?"
"I'm Italian, duh. Anyway, there'll be dancing, and I thought we could--"
"Frannie, I don't do nice parties. I am not a nice party guy."
"Oh, because of Stella," she said, nodding.
"What? No! Because they suck," Ray said. "What does Stella have to do with anything?"
"You know, because she's a Gold Coast girl and you're a boy from the neighborhood," Frannie explained. "She was an uptown girl, and you were a backstreet boy, only not the kind with lawsuits and bowlcuts. You felt out of place in her world--"
"Uh, about that," Ray said, playing with his fork. "Stella wasn't from the Gold Coast. Her mom's parents bought a house there like, way after her mom married her dad. She did make me go to a bunch of fancy parties at their house for morale support but we mostly ended up having sex in the bathroom."
"Was it a nice bathroom?" Frannie asked with interest.
"Oh yeah. Marble everywhere, and a lotta mirrors." Good times. Ray'd had a lot of good times, he realized suddenly. It was only the last few years everything went to shit. And even last year had had its good points.
"Sir, I, uh, you got a minute?"
Welsh looked up from a report and his frown turned into slightly less of a frown. "Vecchio! I mean, Kowalski. Come in. To what do I owe this honor?"
Ray took a deep breath. Popular, he repeated to himself for the millionth time. Frannie said you were popular here. "Can I have my job back? Vecchio's job, I guess. Or another one that looks like it. I'm cool with a different desk."
Welsh raised his eyebrows. "May I ask why you aren't planning to return to the ATF?"
"I don't want to do undercover anymore," Ray said. "I was an okay detective, right? My solve rate was as good as Vecchio's, and you hired him back."
Welsh sighed. "I did not, technically, hire him back. He was still on the books as being on extended unpaid leave. Therefore I didn't have to justify him to the suits. You, on the other hand, are not in my budget."
Well that was a bust. "Thanks, I'll see myself out." Ray was about to slam the door when Welsh called him back.
"I don't know why I'm even considering this." He gave another heavy sigh. "There hasn't been a single hole punched in one of my walls by one of my detectives since you left. But listen, you do me a favor, and maybe I can find you a desk."
"What kind of favor?"
"The Commissioner has been getting some unpleasant notes in the mail. I've encouraged him to make the matter official, but he refuses. He wants me to send someone to a party he's attending next Tuesday, to make a few discreet inquiries among his various ex-girlfriends. Not in any official capacity, you understand. Do you think you can do it?"
Ray would rather rip off his own eyelids. Interviewing some womanizing suit's gold-digging mistresses at a party? Because the guy couldn't man up and call the cops? "I would like nothing better, but I'm going to an opera gala next Tuesday with Frannie," he said promptly.
"It's at the gala," Welsh said. "Go. Blend in." He grimaced. "If you can. Talk to pretty women. We'll have pictures of the suspects."
"Do I have to?" Ray knew he sounded whiny but he didn't care.
"Much as it pains me to say this out loud, you're the best undercover cop in Chicago. If I'm going to keep you in the department once ATF starts campaigning to get you back, having the Commissioner on your side would not go amiss. You get me?"
Ray stared at him. Was Welsh dusted? Okay, the Lieu wasn't an undercover guy, so maybe he didn't know, but--
"Hello, sir," Vecchio said blandly from the doorway.
Ray cringed in embarrassment. "I, uh, I think he--" he started awkwardly.
Welsh's frown deepened as he looked up. "Right," he said sarcastically. "Vecchio. I keep forgetting you're the golden boy now. Possibly because you have fifty-seven unsolved cases on your desk."
"I only got here last week," Vecchio pointed out.
"And what have you accomplished in that time? Besides reorganizing your desk and staring at that chair you won't let anyone move, of course."
Man, Ray didn't remember Welsh being this much of a dick.
"Sorry to be a disappointment, sir." Vecchio didn't sound very sorry. "I'm going to the gala."
"I'm sending Kowalski, end of story."
"He's taking my sister," Vecchio said flatly. "I go as backup."
"It's not dangerous, Detective," Welsh said. "He's just going to ask a few questions."
Vecchio just stood there.
"You're not getting paid for it."
Vecchio shrugged. "Just get me in the door, sir." He turned and walked out of the office.
Welsh watched him go with an expression it took Ray a few tries to place as concern. "And how is the constable?" he asked after a minute.
"I don't know, sir," Ray said honestly.
Welsh sighed again. "You're dismissed, Detective. Report here on Tuesday afternoon. And get yourself some nice clothes."
When Ray walked out, Vecchio was sitting at his desk, his eyes on Fraser's empty chair. He didn't look up, even when Ray told Frannie they were going to the gala and she squealed loud enough to start an avalanche.
"Hello, Constable Benton Fraser speaking."
Ray almost hung up the phone. It took everything he had to say, "Hey, Fraser, it's me. Uh, Ray Kowalski."
"Ray!" Fraser said, sounding surprised but pleased. Right? He sounded pleased, didn't he? "How are you?"
"I'm good," Ray said, which wasn't really true but also was not as big a lie as it would have been a couple weeks ago. "I might be going back to the 2-7. And I been hanging out with Frannie. I guess you were right about that whole man-woman friends thing, huh?"
"With Francesca?" Fraser asked with this note of skepticism and surprise, and suddenly Ray was remembering exactly why things were never going to work out with Fraser.
"Yeah, with Frannie," he said in a you-wanna-make-something-of-it voice. "She's pretty cool when she's not vamping, okay, Fraser? So back off."
"I'm glad you're doing well," Fraser said, a little huffily.
"Sorry." Ray tried to breathe easier. "Look, Fraser, I--"
"It's good to hear your voice."
"It's good to hear yours," Fraser said, his voice softening, and nononono Ray could not do this.
"But also really, really tough, okay?" he interrupted. "So maybe we should start with letters or something."
"Letters," Fraser repeated blankly.
"Yeah, sure, why not. I bet you write beautifully."
"And you'll answer them." Fraser wouldn't actually say it, but Ray could hear the implied You can't spell for crap. He'd forgotten this feeling, like he was boiling with frustration, like he was pounding his hand into drywall over and over and it would not fucking give. And Fraser had barely said anything.
He doesn't want you to be a different person, he told himself, hanging onto Frannie saying it as hard as he could. He just wants you to be a little bit different. And that was cool, it really was, because he wanted Fraser to be different too. "I'll make you a deal, Fraser. You promise not to send my letters back with red ink all over 'em, and I'll promise to write 'em."
"Deal." Fraser was smiling, Ray could tell. Fraser did like him.
"And listen, you should call Vecchio."
"Is he all right?"
"Yeah, I just--I think he could use a friend right now."
There was a pause, and then Fraser said, very seriously, "He couldn't ask for a better one than you."
And Ray was gonna melt right into the phone, but he said gruffly, "Yeah, he could, Fraser. He could ask for you."
Frannie had gotten a ride to the opera house with Vecchio. She was waiting for him in the lobby, and she looked like a million bucks in her dress. It was this drapey black-satiny sleeveless thing with a V-neck and some definite lack of back, and when he gestured for her to turn around she did a little twirl. Her breasts bounced a little and the skirt flared and then fell back over her hips in this way that was really, really great and for a second Ray thought Why not? Frannie was nice and he liked her and she looked fantastic in black.
Then someone muttered, "Nice suit, Kowalski, did you buy it in 1987?" and shoved a tray of olives in his face, and his heart went ZLONK. And that was why not.
Looked like Welsh got Vecchio in with the caterers. Ray snagged a couple olives and popped them in his mouth. Toothpicks were for squares. "Way to rock the bowtie," he said with his mouth full. "But what is it with you and vests? Hey, can you get us some champagne?"
"Get your own damn champagne."
"Guys, we are undercover," Frannie reminded them.
To Ray's total shock, Vecchio actually went and got them champagne. The guy was a professional. When he handed Ray his glass, their fingers brushed, and Ray's heart did that Batman-sound-effects thing again. He pounded back the champagne like there was no tomorrow and handed Vecchio the empty glass.
"You know you're supposed to sip that, right?" Frannie told him, but Vecchio just said, "You're welcome," and headed off to wherever used glasses went to die. Man, Vecchio was really working those black pants.
"I think it's a nice suit." Frannie gave him a comforting pat on the arm. "You wanna hit the food? It looks like they have shrimp!"
Half an hour later, Ray was impressed. He'd thought he could eat a lot, but Frannie had downed twenty-two shrimp and an untold number of olives, pieces of melon, and crackers with lox on top and showed no signs of slowing.
"I am taking you to a hot-dog eating competition," he told her.
She flashed him a grin. "Sure, but I'm not sharing my prize. And no blowjob jokes."
"Way to take all the joy out of hot-dog eating competitions." He shoved one last piece of Italian salami in his mouth. Christ, he was full. So far this fancy party was okay.
The teeny orchestra started playing, and a teeny dance floor started to clear. "Okay, I need to go put on more lipstick, and then we can dance," Frannie said. "Don't wander off."
Ray caught a glimpse of a bald head above a tray of Unidentified Flying Appetizers across the room. "Uh, I'm just gonna check in with Vecchio. Find me when you get back."
Frannie rolled her eyes. "Fine. But we're dancing before you start interviewing the Commissioner's exes."
Vecchio didn't even start when Ray tapped him on the shoulder. Just turned around and said, "Yeah, what do you want? Where's Frannie?"
"Fixing her makeup. Could be hours. C'mon, wanna smoke up behind the bleachers?"
That took Vecchio a minute. Looked like Ray was the only one who spent his prom doing that. Stella had looked outta this world with grass stains on her bare feet and her floaty dress, her fancy hairdo all coming down where he'd had his hands on it, telling him with stoned sincerity that life was theirs, Ray, they just--
Vecchio passed off his tray to another waiter, making a really lame excuse about getting Ray his coat in a really convincing tone of voice, and then he turned to Ray with a half-shy, half-smug little smile. "Smoking anything is disgusting, but I think I can find us some bleachers."
He let them into a coatroom. "This one's full already, it won't open back up until after the opera." He leaned back against the door with that same little smile. "Tired of the party already, Kowalski?"
Actually, Ray was having a pretty good time, but he said, "Guess it's more your scene than mine, style pig."
Vecchio frowned. "What is your problem? I'm Frannie's brother, Kowalski. This isn't my scene. Although I did work for a caterer one summer in college--"
Ray could still hear the orchestra, faint but unmistakably playing a waltz. He tried to focus on that even though his heart was going way louder. "You, uh--you know how to waltz, Vecchio?"
"Of course I know how to waltz."
The coatroom was really, really warm. "Prove it."
Vecchio blinked. Then he smiled. "What, you're too macho to just ask me to dance? Smooth, Kowalski, real smooth. C'mere."
Vecchio wanted to lead, and Ray had no problems with that. He could dance better than Vecchio, anyway, and following was trickier than leading. He held Vecchio's hand and put his other hand on Vecchio's shoulder and couldn't believe it was this easy. He couldn't believe something this easy could make him so nervous. This was what first dates must be like. He'd never done that before. Stella had been his best friend first, and Fraser--well, Fraser had never been anything but his best friend. This was nice, not having all that weight on everything. Vecchio pulled him a little closer, awkwardly, and stumbled on the turn, and Ray followed him.
Vecchio snickered. "It's better than disco, anyway."
Ray had no idea what Vecchio was talking about, but on the face of it he agreed, so who cared. "Where'd you learn to dance?"
"Gym class." Vecchio smiled. "Me and this girl Irene, we--"
"Irene Zuko," Ray supplied without thinking.
Vecchio froze, and Ray panicked. It was the same mistake he'd made with Vecchio's dad. "Sorry," he said. "I forget, you know? That the files are real." It had just been a cover, stuff to memorize and repeat back if anyone asked. But now he was thinking about Vecchio's Academy graduation pictures, the police reports on his dad, the badly-typed formal complaints about smoking in the men's room, Vecchio's statement about Irene Zuko's death and it was real, it had happened to Vecchio and Ray felt like something was trying to crawl out of his throat, hopefully something that would make Vecchio feel better.
Vecchio started to dance again. "Man, I'm glad I never had to meet the Bookman. This must be really weird for you."
"Weird in a good way." Ray moved closer.
Vecchio stepped on his feet but didn't try to get the distance back. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. C'mon, twirl me."
He thought Vecchio was gonna do it, but someone started banging on the door. "Let me in," Frannie yelled. "I know you're in there."
"Go away!" Vecchio yelled back. Ray was tempted, so tempted to let that pass and keep dancing with Vecchio, but Frannie was his friend now so he went over and opened the door.
"Well I don't know what you guys were doing in there," she said, smirking like maybe she knew, "but I just solved your case."
Vecchio came and stood at his shoulder. "Yeah, whatever, Frannie."
Frannie glared at him. "I am just as capable of solving a case as you are!"
"What?" Vecchio sputtered. "Wha--I have been a detective for ten years! You put on a tight sweater and now you're qualified to solve crimes?"
Frannie's face shut down. "Fine. If you can't give me some basic respect, then I'm not going to tell you who did it!" She whirled around, her dress brushing Ray's ankles.
He caught her arm. "Hey."
"Let her go," Vecchio said.
"Yeah, let me go." Frannie's voice trembled a little.
Ray crossed his fingers that this wasn't the end of the road with Vecchio and took a stand. "Vecchio, apologize."
"What? I'm not going to apologize! She said--"
"She said, you said. There's more to Frannie than her fucking sweater."
"I'm not going to apologize."
"Fine. Then me and Frannie will do this by ourselves." God, he hoped she had something. "Frannie, what did you see?"
"Well, I was in the ladies' room putting on my lipstick and the woman next to me was redoing her whole face. There was mascara all over her cheeks. On her nose, even, so I--"
"Hurry it up, Frannie," Vecchio said.
"So I knew she'd been crying. And whenever she reached into her purse for her makeup there was this weird clunking sound, like she had something metal and heavy in there. So I said my paper towel dispenser was broken and reached over to use hers, and guess what was in her purse? A gluestick!"
Ray's feet started to jitter. "Like the poison pen used to make her notes!"
"It's kind of retro, isn't it?" Frannie said. "Why not just use a laser printer? Letters from the newspaper are practically Elizabethan."
"Gluesticks aren't heavy and metal," Vecchio pointed out.
"Well, no, she also had a gun."
"A gun?" Ray and Vecchio said at the same time. Guns were not a good sign in jealous-ex-girlfriend nasty-note cases.
"Shit," Ray said. "We gotta find her."
There was a scream from the lobby. Ray pulled his gun. So did Vecchio. Ray was really glad they hadn't taken the realism too far on his Vecchio gig because he hated ankle holsters. All three of them took off running.
Ex-Girlfriend's makeup was streaked again by the time they got there. She had a gun trained on the Commissioner. "I'll do it!" Her voice wavered hysterically. "Bet you'd take me seriously then, you fucking asshole!"
"Chicago PD!" Vecchio barked, aiming straight at Ex-Girlfriend's forehead. "Put the gun down."
Ray shoved Frannie behind him and aimed at the girl's heart. He was close enough he could probably do this without his glasses if he needed to. Shit, he really didn't want to need to, but he might because Ex-Girlfriend had the safety off, and her arm wasn't shaking even if her voice was. And she wasn't making the rookie mistake of turning around and aiming at Vecchio either. "C'mon," he said coaxingly. "Put it down."
"You put yours down!" she shrieked. "Or I'll blast your boss's head off!" Neither of them moved. She raised her arm a little higher. "I said I would!"
"Okay, okay." Ray let his gun dangle. "I'm putting it down. Just don't shoot anyone, okay?" Vecchio was setting his gun on the floor too. They were fucked. They needed Fraser. Fraser would know what to say, how to talk this girl down. But Fraser wasn't here and talking wasn't their thing. Not the useful kind of talking, anyway.
Frannie stepped out from behind him. "This is a terrible idea."
Vecchio went white. "Frannie, go back to using Kowalski as a human shield. Now."
Ray tried to edge over in front of her, but Frannie dodged him easily. "What, you think this is winning? You kill him and they execute you? He's got about, what, thirty years on you? Forty? You've got a lot more to lose here."
"He said he'd get me into the Academy," the girl said. "He said he loved me. And then he told me I was too pretty to be a cop and blocked my calls!"
Frannie waved her hand dismissively. "Men are assholes, what else is new? You can't let it get to you. You have to rise above it, be a bigger person. Do you read Cosmopolitan?"
"Frannie," Vecchio said desperately.
"Of course I read Cosmopolitan!"
"Did you read January's issue? 'Ten Signs You Deserve Better'? I'm pretty sure number four was 'he tries to bribe you to have sex with him.' You don't need him to get into the Academy. Last time I checked there wasn't a prettiness exam, either. Just, you know, hats."
"You're gonna let this filthy old lecher ruin your whole life?"
"Frannie, that is my boss!" Vecchio said.
Frannie ignored him. She stepped forward and held out her hand. "Give me the gun." She sounded like a mom, like someone you would listen to. Ray tensed, ready to tackle her to the ground if the girl tried anything. He could see Vecchio doing the same thing out of the corner of his eye.
But, amazingly, the girl started to sob and handed Frannie the gun. Ray stepped forward and plucked it out of her hands as Vecchio pulled out his handcuffs and got them on the girl's wrists. Vecchio was standing between the girl and Frannie, even though Ray had the gun now. "You do anything like that again," he threw over his shoulder at Frannie, "and I'll shoot you myself."
"Whatever, I just saved your boss's life."
"And almost gave me a heart attack," Ray said. "Next time we go out on the town you're wearing a vest."
Frannie glared at him. "But I--"
He put his arm around her. She was little and warm and also--and Ray considered this a giant plus--alive. He let out his breath. "You were a hero. Fraser woulda been jealous."
"Don't encourage her," Vecchio snapped, but Frannie beamed at Ray. She was shaking a little, not enough to see but Ray could feel it against his arm.
"Sorry we didn't get to dance," he told her.
Later, after they'd booked the girl and Welsh had made them repeat the story five times--staring at Frannie in horrified disbelief the whole time--and then promised Ray a job, the three of them ended up on the sidewalk. "I'll bring the car around," Vecchio told Frannie.
"Give Frannie the keys," Ray said. "I wanna talk to you."
"But I just got a new Riv!" Vecchio was getting his keys out even as he said it. Vecchio, Ray was figuring out, was kind of a pushover.
"So, uh," Ray said brilliantly once Frannie was out of earshot. He shoved his hands in his pockets and his fingers went through one of them. Maybe he did need a new suit. "You should come dancing with me and Frannie some time."
Vecchio laughed. "No fucking way, Kowalski."
Oh. So maybe guys did just dance with other guys in coatrooms when they didn't mean anything by it. It was just one of those things and the only good part was that he wasn't actually in love yet so maybe he'd only have to get drunk and punch a hole in his wall once instead of as a lifestyle.
"Why don't we just catch a game sometime?" Vecchio suggested. "The Sox are playing Friday night. I was thinking of watching it at Buck's, if you wanted to tag along."
Buck's. The gay sports bar. That was--that was--Vecchio had to mean--"It's a date." He tried to lean casually against the lamppost, missed, and nearly fell over. "It is a date, right?"
Vecchio laughed at him. "Yeah. It's a date."