Looking through the morning mail, Inspector Thatcher almost threw out the invitation to the OSCE conference. Then, something on caught her eye and she read it more closely:
'Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe' Heard of it. Election monitoring, border control, disarmament, making the world safe for democracy. Except I'm not in posted to Europe right now.
'Annual Symposium on Challenges in Policing in Post-Conflict Environments' Ho hum.
'Venue: Ana Grand Hotel, Vienna, Austria' Well. . . on the other hand . . .
'All registrations include a ticket to the annual OSCE ball, Hofburg Palace' A Viennese ball?
"Write me a convincing memo Fraser. That's an order."
It took all Fraser's creative writing skills to come up with a convincing memo to Ottawa to justify the cost of sending Inspector Thatcher and himself to this conference. He tried to point out to her that the conference theme was so totally divorced from their official mandate that he would barely be able to justify one trip, let alone two. To no avail. Inspector Thatcher made it clear she had no intention of attending the ball unescorted and Fraser had made the tactical error of letting her know that he knew how to waltz.
"Fraser, we've been approved for Vienna. Well done. Now, about what we should wear. You will be in dress uniform, of course."
"But I'm not sure about myself. Should I be in uniform, or in a ball gown, I wonder?"
The uniform suits you, sir, but it would be interesting to see you in a ball gown, preferably low cut. And very tight.
"I wouldn't know, sir. There was nothing about this in my grandparent's library."
"Find out what I should wear, Fraser. That's an order."
"Sir, I have contacted the Austrian consulate and received some very good advice as to dressing for such affairs. Apparently, all ladies are expected to be in long dresses. Modern evening gowns are most popular but a small minority of female attendees do appear in dresses featuring crinolines or hoops. The Austrians have assured me that you could rent such a garment easily in Vienna during ball season. Until recent times there haven't been any females at such balls who would even have uniforms, so they feel you might look out of place if you wore yours. Male participants are expected appear in dress uniform, unless of course they are civilians, in which case they should wear tuxedos."
The conference itself was as boring for Meg expected it to be. The only fun part was walking around the Ana Grand Hotel in red serge, with Fraser trailing after her, also in red serge, and watching the rest of the delegates envy her. She sat yawning through two days of lectures and discussions. Fraser (big surprise) listened attentively to every word and asked questions at the end of every session. Meg wasn't sure if he really cared about the Kosovo Police School or if he just somehow felt obliged to get Ottawa's money's worth from the trip.
The food supplied was marvellous, but she feared overdoing it. The ball gown she had rented was very tight around the waist and very low on the bosom. It left very little margin for error. The dress had a base of apple green satin covered with white lace. Extra layers of lace circled the hem, sleeves and neckline. The hoop skirt was wide enough to have been worn by Scarlett O'Hara. The whole thing rode so low on Meg's shoulders that even though she was completely covered from the clevage down, she still felt almost naked.
It only occurred to her after getting the dress back from the shop to the hotel that standing in green beside Fraser in red serge, the two of them might risk looking like a Christmas ornament.
Finally it was the night of the ball. She could barely fit into the elevator with the wide dress. As she crossed the lobby of the Ana Grand she was pleased with the approving looks she attracted. Fraser waited for her in the lobby. It was walking distance from there to the Hofburg Palace and many guests were already beginning to head over on foot. Among those milling about the lobby, there were other officers in red serge, mostly British, but none, of course, wore that fabric as well as her own deputy. She approached him and took the arm he offered her. The stares around intensified and Meg knew they made a splendid couple. Nobody looking at them was thinking about Christmas, except perhaps wishing to have one or both of them under their tree.
"Sir, I took the liberty of arranging . . . well . . . " Fraser waved to the driver of a small horse drawn carriage. The rig pulled up beside them and Fraser helped her in. The wide skirt was a challenge, but the challenge was met. Then Fraser climbed in himself and settled in beside her.
"Green suits you, sir."
They stood outside the OSCE entrance to the Hofburg Palace and looked around the wide square surrounding it. Fraser pointed to and lectured about the different parts of the building and the history of the statues. All Meg cared about was that the whole thing looked like a castle from a fairy tale and here she was with Constable Charming.
A doorman opened the huge wood and brass door to the Hofburg Palace and they came into an entrance hall all marble and gold. Enormous pillars held up a ceiling that seemed miles above them. And the flowers. It never occurred to Meg that there could even be that many flowers in the world. Red and white roses, mostly, representing the official colours of Vienna.
The women, in their gowns, were as beautiful and colourful as the flowers. Meg saw every variety of ball gown, and among the several hundred women present only a dozen or so were dressed as she was. Women all around stared at her with obvious envy and she realized with pride that it was not only because of her escort but also because of her outfit.
And there were so many dashing uniforms: capes, tunics, riding boots with spurs, chests bulging with medals. All worn by men who spoke in exotic accents as they introduced themselves to one another: Ambassador, have you met the general?
A chamber orchestra played for the guests as waiters in brocade livery walked around with trays of champagne, and waitresses in dirndls walked around with canapés.
Meg wondered if life could be any better than it was at that moment, and decided probably not.
Later she realized she was wrong. It COULD be better. Wearing Fraser on her arm, she floated up a wide red-carpeted staircase and stepped through an arch into the main ballroom. Meg saw a sight that she never believed could exist in real life. The ballroom rose four stories high. Around the edges were dining tables with the finest linens and silver. Marble statues and gilt-framed portraits of famous Viennese looked down on the revelers from their niches of the white and gold walls. Thousands upon thousands of flowers. A stage was set up on the far side of the ballroom, where an all-female orchestra played waltzes. The musicians all wore identical white gowns with blue sashes.
"Fraser, look. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes! There really are such things in Austria! I thought that was only in the song."
Fraser hadn't seen "The Sound of Music" so he did not know she was referring to "My Favourite Things". He refrained from commenting. He was beginning to realize that the Inspector had not brought him here to talk, but to be seen and to dance.
The girls in white dresses played nothing but waltzes. They kept the two Mounties (and the rest of the ball-goers) waltzing for forty solid minutes. Then a jazz band took over for half an hour, leaving Fraser and Meg an interlude to get some dinner from the buffet. All night there was never a break in the music. The waltz orchestra alternated with other kinds of bands - soft rock, big band, Beatles imitators who sang with Austrian accents. The Mounties rested during these other acts. Meg would not let a single waltz go by unused.
Fraser started off easily with her, simply rocking her back and forth - one two AND - one two - AND. Once he felt she was able to follow, he picked things up a bit - wider swings, a little dip. Everything he tried, she could handle.
"You are a very good dancer, sir."
"As are you, Constable."
"Thank you kindly, sir. There's quite an international community here. If I may suggest - let's show them what Canadians can do."
"What did you have in . . . whoa.!"
Fraser clenched her waist tightly and sailed off with her at full speed across the dance floor, spinning a full turn with each bar of music. Diplomats, bureaucrats, police officials, and partners thereof fell back in awe to watch them as they galloped and whirled.
It became warm in the ballroom and Fraser suggested they go out for a little air. He located a tiny balcony, a little lip of white marble that looked out over the glittering, imperial city. The Palace and all the surrounding buildings they could see were beautiful contradictions. Old classical and gothic structures lit with modern brilliance. From inside the ballroom, the vague suggestion of music leaked out to where they stood.
If you start lecturing me about architecture, you're dead meat, Constable. Kiss me, or I'll push you over the ledge.
He turned to her. She didn't have to push him over the ledge.
Meg learned that a single night could last for an eternity yet be over in what seemed like a minute. The last waltz was announced at two in the morning. Barely a tenth of the original guests were still there. As the last revellers descended the elegant, red carpeted staircase towards the entrance hall and the street, Meg saw other women scooping up armfuls of red and white roses to take home. It seemed an accepted custom.
Fraser picked up an armful of flowers, and bowed to her, ever so slightly, before presenting them. It was a good thing she already knew the flowers were beautiful. Through her tears she wouldn't have been able to see.
"This is your room, sir. I'll be saying good night."
"Thank you, Constable. It was a beautiful evening."
"And night, sir. And morning." It was past three. They had walked back to the hotel very slowly through park adjoining the palace.
"Constable, would you like to. . . " Be brave, Meg. Say it now, or you'll never have the courage again. " . . . would you like to come inside?"
"Well, sir, yes, I would. But, it may not be appropriate."
"Come inside. That's an order."