“Miss Vecchio, would you have the goodness to explain to me why there are exactly a half-dozen transvestite clowns in holding?”
“Sorry, Harding. They’re Vecchio’s,” Frannie said. She still couldn’t get used to calling that blond weirdo by her brother’s name. Her name. Whatever. Harding would hear the Vecchio name and would automatically add in Fraser’s name. Like Frannie wished her name and Benton Fraser’s would end up being tied together, although that dream was starting to get a little old. Not that her other crush was any more likely to bear fruit. Less so, she figured.
“Of course they are,” Harding sighed. “And they are being held for…?”
“They’re undignified,” Frannie said. She could tell by the look on Harding’s face that she’d said the wrong word, but going over it in her mind, she couldn’t figure out what she’d said wrong.
“Actually, Miss Vecchio, I would say that, as transvestite clowns go, they have a certain cosmopolitan air about them. Perhaps even superior to that of some of my detectives.” Huey glowered at that, but Frannie felt that the comment couldn’t possibly be directed at Huey. He always looked so…put together. Classic. She hadn’t been a bit surprised to find out he actually owned his own tux. It was hardly Huey’s fault that it just looked better on Benton. Why couldn’t she have a crush on Huey instead of people like Benton or…the other one?
“I got it, Frannie,” Fake Vecchio said. “They ain’t got papers,” he explained to Harding, glancing over at Frannie and winking. She normally did not like being winked at, but Ray’s wink was friendly, not smarmy, telling her not to sweat it.
“Undocumented!” Frannie exclaimed triumphantly just as Benton materialized in the squad room.
“It is my fear,” Benton said gravely, “that the gentlemen in question were being exploited due to their lack of legal resources in the face of workplace negligence.”
“Ladies,” Fake Ray said. “They’re women under all that makeup and the suits and ties and red noses and all.”
“I believe, if I understood their apparent leader correctly, that they identify as men, regardless of their chromosomal attributes. Oh, except for Ylena. She does wear the clothes just to fit in with the others in the performance group.”
Fake Ray took a deep breath with his eyes closed. “Of course. They can’t just be straight-up cross-dressing clowns. They’ve gotta be transitive clowns.”
“I believe the word you’re struggling to apprehend and wrestle to the ground is ‘transgendered,’ Detective,” Harding said. He’d been real touchy about stuff like that since he spent two days in Waukegan learning to be more sensitive to sexual minorities. If anyone dared question him about it, which they (meaning Dewey) had done precisely once, he would point to the pink and green “LGBT SAFE SPACE” sticker on his desk and say, “I earned that fair and square. Also, Uncle Maxine always made the best fudge of anyone in my family.” And he backed it up with a glare that told everyone that they would be tolerant and understanding and sympathetic or he would kick them in the ear.
“Where did they come from?” Harding asked. That one, at least, Frannie could answer with confidence.
“They found them at the coin-op laundry next to the soft-serve ice cream place,” she said helpfully.
But that wasn’t it, either. Harding gave her his God-give-me-patience-and-do-it-right-now look.
“I believe the leftenant was inquiring as to their nation of origin,” Benton said, giving her his own version of the same look.
Suddenly it was all too much for Frannie. She was usually of a sunny disposition and didn’t worry that her words sometimes came out wrong. Especially since Fake Ray came along; he may give her that you’re-a-maroon look, but he’d also call her a maroon, and even she knew that wasn’t the right word. Plus he got his words mixed up all the time and just plowed ahead anyway.
But for some reason she just couldn’t take it anymore. It had been a terrible year. Her brother leaving, maybe never coming back, Ma getting more and more silent and prayerful, Frannie having to hide too many secrets, some of the biggest ones from herself, Benton being even more distant and Frannie herself going to his (blessedly fake) funeral in a wedding dress. It was too much.
Frannie slunk out of the room, the ongoing discussion of the transvestite/transgendered clowns giving her cover. She slid into Interview Two, put her head in her hands and started crying.
“Hey,” someone said from the door. Great. Frannie was having a meltdown and the one thing she really needed at this juncture of her life was a witness. She looked up, knowing her face was probably all puffy and her eyes red.
“You need some help?” God. It was ASA Kowalski. Who always had the right words, the right clothes, and even managed to get out of being in helpless thrall to the wrong man while still looking good, saving all those people from losing their houses.
“No, I’m fine, Ms. Kowalski,” Frannie said, although she clearly was not.
ASA Kowalski moved slowly into the room, cautiously sitting next to Frannie. Trying not to startle her, Frannie realized. God, she must really be a mess. And in front of Stella Kowalski of all people.
“Please call me Stella,” ASA Kowalski said, and handed over a handkerchief. It was big, broad and white, like the kind of thing Benton probably carried….Frannie couldn’t stop herself from sniffling again even as she gratefully took the hankie.
“Thanks, Stella,” she said.
“Let me guess,” Stella said. “It’s the guys, right?” Frannie nodded, holding the hankie to her nose. It smelled great. First by Van Cleef and Arpels. Reallly top drawer.
“It’s everything,” Frannie said, just barely managing not to wail. “I try to be helpful, and they only notice when I screw up. My words sound fine to me, but everyone acts like I’m speaking geek!”
Stella patted her shoulder. “I know,” she said.
“How could you? You always say the right thing. It’s your job to say the right thing!”
“Have you met my ex-husband?” Stella said, arching her eyebrow and making Frannie giggle through her tears.
“He usually says the wrong thing. Wrong words, wrong order, wrong everything. And it makes me so mad because he’s so smart but when he talks, he gets so excited because he’s thinking so fast that he can’t get everything out correctly. Me, I have to think everything through very carefully. I can’t just speak off the cuff.”
Frannie mopped herself up some more. “What, like they’ll fire you if you say ‘undignified’ instead of ‘undocumented’?”
Stella frowned a little and shook her head. “No, I don’t mean it that way, although if I say the wrong thing during an official procedure it could have severe negative consequences both for me professionally and for the community. I mean that I won’t allow myself to say the wrong thing if I can possibly prevent it.”
“I know that one,” Frannie said excitedly. “That’s self-censorship!” Not that Frannie herself had much of that, but at least she knew what it was.
Stella nodded, giving Frannie a rueful smile. “It is. Ray and I took French together for a semester in high school. I got an A on every test, and he got…well, he never got an A on a French test. But everyone thought he spoke the best French of anyone in the class.”
Frannie thought about that. “Because he just…spoke French, right?”
“Right,” Stella nodded. “He would just throw himself into conversational exercises. He didn’t care if he didn’t say exactly the right words in exactly the right order, or if he got a gender wrong. He just talked. I never spoke in class because I was so sure I’d say the wrong thing.”
“Wow,” Frannie said. “I’m trying to imagine you as shy. It’s not happening.”
Stella ducked her head just a little. “You’d be surprised, is what I’m trying to say,” Stella said carefully. Frannie reached out and took Stella’s hand from where it rested, small and neat, on the table.
“Would you be? Surprised, I mean?” Frannie asked, looking Stella right in the eye, lightly stroking Stella’s thumb with hers.
“Very,” said Stella, her eyes wide. “I thought you….”
“Mostly. But if you speak French loud enough, nobody knows you’d sometimes rather be speaking Italian.”
Stella’s mouth dropped open. She did even that elegantly. Frannie really wanted to kiss her but wasn’t sure she’d be welcome to.
Stella composed herself. “What if you’re afraid to say anything at all in case you make a mistake?” she finally asked.
Frannie smiled at her. “Did you and Ray ever go to Paris?”
Stella looked at Frannie, puzzled but not exasperated. “We did. And…Ray did the talking for both of us and we had a wonderful time.” Frannie could tell that Stella understood where she was going with this.
“So if you’re afraid to say anything in case you make a mistake,” Frannie said, “you can just let someone else do the talking for both of you and you’ll have a wonderful time.”
Frannie waited for a long moment, then she felt Stella’s finger stroking hers. “Miss Vecchio, would you care to join me for dinner tonight?” Stella asked, very formally but with a glint in her eye.
“Ms. Kowalski, I would be absolutely delighted,” she said, just as formally but with a much brighter glint. Maybe this crush wasn’t quite as hopeless as she’d thought.