Title: General Counsel
Characters: Joss Carter, Lionel Fusco
Word Count: 3,256
Summary: The old alchelmy of good food and honest conversation always worked wonders, he would have told them, if they had asked.
Note: I've written a companion piece to this story called "Human Interactions," which features conversations between Reese and Finch. You can find it here: http://blacktop50.livejournal.com/6162.html
“Let’s blow this hot dog stand, Carter.”
Fusco’s disdain for their regular lunch spot, the stainless steel emporium run by Sammy the Turk opposite the precinct house was sudden, but in his opinion, Carter was ready for a change in routine.
“Where do you want to go, Fusco? Not too expensive. Payday is not until next Friday, you know.”
“I’ll show you. Trust me, you won’t regret it.”
The partners ambled slowly across the leafy pocket park and then down a quiet street that angled away from the noontime bustle of their neighborhood.
Fusco noticed Carter raise her eyebrow in surprise when he abruptly turned into a dark stylish restaurant named Verona, whose ornately printed menu framed outside the door promised solid Italian food with no modern flourishes. He liked Verona because it provided a classy atmosphere, simple fare, and a cozy routine.
He even liked the overwrought maître d’ who greeted them with gusto.
“Lionel! Gracing us with your presence twice in one week!”
The short bald man at the podium swept Fusco and Carter into the restaurant with a wide grin. He had an enormous head surrounded by a fringe of light brown hair neatly tonsured and combed.
“And I see you have upgraded your company this time.”
The man ran an appraising eye over Carter and then whispered to her in tones loud enough to be heard in the kitchen:
“The last twelve times Lionel has eaten here he was by himself. So I am particularly delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss….?”
“This is Detective Carter, Lawrence. She’s my partner. My work partner.”
“Work! Life! Love! What are these artificial boundaries that define our lives? I reject outright the notion that society can dictate the categories into which we divide our existence.”
Lawrence seemed eager to expand on his finely honed personal philosophy. He had placed a hand on the third chair at their table as if to take a seat when a handsome blonde woman in a black apron and beehive hairdo interrupted the conversation.
“I’m sure that Lionel and the lady are not here for a chat with you, Lawrence. Go back to your station.”
Fusco looked up at the woman with undisguised relief and introduced her to Carter as Lawrence backed away from their table.
He briefly explained that Rosaline was the daughter of the late founder of Verona. He left for Carter to discover that along with the restaurant, Rosaline had inherited her father’s no-nonsense attitude that kept the staff, vendors, and clientele in line.
Without waiting for Fusco’s request and without presenting a menu, Rosaline suggested that Carter try the seafood alfredo, which was the chef’s specialty. Fusco confirmed that his regular choice, Rigatoni alla Vodka with extra prosciutto, was fine for him.
Fusco placed his cell phone on the green and white checkered table cloth when Rosaline left to fill their orders and Carter followed suit.
The proprietress returned in a few minutes with a bottle of Sangiovese, a fruity red she assured them would complement the rigatoni and not clash with the alfredo. Carter wanted to decline the wine. But Fusco pointed out that since it was already past one on a sleepy Friday afternoon in June, they could afford to indulge a bit.
“Loosen up a little, Carter. Life’s too short to turn down a good red wine.”
After discussing their current case load for several minutes, the partners decided that the images raised by those dreary crimes were too gruesome for lunch time conversation.
“No more faceless bodies or bodega assassinations today.” Carter’s edict was firm.
And since she had blocked that avenue of conversation, he got to pick the next topic.
“Carter, I need some help with the weekly office pool.”
“You know I never participate in that foolishness. Why throw good money after a bad bet?”
She tore into a bread stick to reinforce the point.
“I remember last fall when you all put cash down on whether Koslov’s surrogate’s baby would be a boy or a girl. And betting on whether JLo would divorce Marc Antony was just lunacy.”
“Ah, come on. I won more than three hundred dollars when Tebow signed with the Jets.”
“Anybody who bet against you was out of his mind.” Carter chuckled and shook her head.
“Yeah, O.K. maybe some of those bets were dumb.” Fusco’s conciliatory tone dropped into a conspiratorial whisper.
“But this time the pool is about you.”
“Wait! What about me?”
Before she could get an answer Rosaline glided back to the table with their main courses. The elaborate care with which the proud owner set down their dishes suggested a saint’s day festival, as did the flourish with which she unfurled the white napkins across their laps. Pouring a second glass of wine for her two customers took several more minutes.
While Rosaline fussed over them, Fusco slid the two cell phones off the table and slipped them into the huge pocket at the front of her black apron. She returned to the kitchen without comment or apparently noticing her new burden.
Carter didn’t miss a beat. “What was that move all about, Fusco?”
He didn’t try to feign ignorance, paying his partner the compliment of acknowledging her observational skills.
“I didn’t want anyone listening in on our conversation here, that’s what.”
“So, what gives? Why the secrecy?”
“You wanted to know that the office pool is about? It’s about who you are going to go out with, Carter.”
“Who I’m dating? That’s what you are betting on? That’s ridiculous and it’s insulting too!”
“Carter, you been holding out way too long and the fellas figure that you have to crack sometime. So they got a friendly wager going. Sort of a sweepstakes on who gets Carter, you could say.”
Fusco knew he was treading on thin ice and he expected a blow up any minute. But Carter actually seemed to be listening with some curiosity to his report.
“So you want me to help you win, do you? If I go out with the guy you bet on you collect big time, is that it?”
“Exactly. I’ll split the take with you and we both make out like bandits.”
“Fusco, you got a helluva lot of nerve.”
But her smile suggested she was in. She gestured with her fork to urge him to give a fuller explanation of the wager.
He pulled from his pocket a sheet of lined paper with three holes in one side, which he had taken from his son’s school stash. He looked at the paper as if referring to notes to guide his commentary.
“O.K. Here’s the line-up. We figured that you were looking for a certain type and you weren’t interested in a married guy.”
He looked over his half-moon eye glasses to see if she was following along or rejecting this line of reasoning.
“Yeah, so I’m listening.” Carter took another gulp from her glass and poured a refill for her partner.
“What’s my type, do you figure?”
He felt more than a little embarrassed to have to spell it out and deeply grateful that he had remembered to ditch the phones before this part of the conversation began.
“Well, ah. Well, we figured you went for the tall, skinny, dark haired type of guy. Intense too.”
He plunged ahead before she could contradict him or cut him off.
“So we narrowed the field to three contenders.”
“Do tell, Fusco. I’m all ears.” She seemed less enchanted now that they were getting down to specifics.
But he was in it up to his eyebrows now, so he forged ahead.
“First, there’s Szymanski. He’s got the home field advantage, you could say. And the sympathy factor is pretty high since he got shot on your watch. You said you were going out with him once, but I figured that was just a head fake to keep me off the scent. But maybe it was for real. The guys give even money on Szymanski.
“How’m I doing so far?”
“Go on.” She said this with a low growl that didn’t indicate good things to come.
“Most of the uniforms put in for that Agent Snow. He’s been showing up at the precinct way too often to just be interested in following some CIA case or other. He could do that from his office computer. No, from where we sit looks like he’s sniffing around you with serious intent. The fact that he brings along that preppy wing man to make himself look cool is a definitely tell, I figure.”
“That is seriously creepy, Fusco.”
“Yeah, well the odds on Snow are the longest, 15 to 1.” Fusco took another gulp of his wine.
“And finally there is your FBI champion, Donnelly. Looks just like that robot Data, but he is so sincere we figure he has to have at least a shot. I like him for the moony eyes he’s always throwing your way. “
“And what are the odds on Donnelly?”
“Right now, 3 to 1 and improving. We figure he is the sweetheart in the field. And you might take pity on him or something.”
Carter pushed her pasta around in its sauce, took a sip from the glass of ice water between the plate and the bread basket, and moved her wine glass nearer to the half-empty bottle.
Abruptly she reached across the table and grabbed the sheet of paper from Fusco’s fist.
The sheet tore, but she could see from the fragment that it was blank. No names, no odds, no notes of any kind.
She spoke slowly, staring into Fusco’s eyes. He could feel the flush rising in his cheeks and he took another gulp of wine in the hopes of cooling his embarrassment and steeling his nerves.
“So, there was no office pool named ‘Get Carter’ was there?”
“This was a trick, wasn’t it?”
“So come out with it. Say what you really want to say, Fusco.”
He was in it all or nothing now.
He figured she would appreciate honesty over any more beating around the bush. But he couldn’t come up with the words to use that wouldn’t sound crude. So he threw out a metaphor he hoped she would get.
“You’re playing with fire, Carter. There is no way this ends up in a good place.”
He knew he had hit the mark when she seemed to deflate like a balloon after a birthday party. Her eyes stayed glued to the bread crumbs beside her plate and she didn’t say a word for an eternity.
“You think I don’t know it.” She sighed and cradled the wine glass in both hands.
“I’m not some love-sick teenager anymore. I know this can’t possibly end well. I know we’re looking at bullets not picket fences when the last scene is played out.”
Carter paused to gather her thoughts. She started a sentence several times only to discard the opening words with a wave of her hand. Then she came out with an explanation so short and true it pierced his heart.
“But he makes me feel good. Better than I’ve been in I don’t know how many years. I don’t have any idea where this is going. But I know where I’ve been and this is so much better now.
“Fusco, I trust him with my life. With my son’s life.”
He felt her frankness deserved equal candor from him.
“Look, Carter. I don’t claim to be a genius at relationships. I got one divorce under my belt and I can’t bring myself to get serious about anyone again. Once burned, twice shy, I guess.
“And losing the love of your life in a divorce is nothing compared to being a widow, I know that too.
“But I gotta hope that you take care of yourself in this, look out for yourself. You gotta protect yourself here.”
She looked up at him with wide eyes, as if surprised by the intensity of emotion rolling across the table at her.
“Hey, when did this get so heavy, partner? And when did you figure it all out anyway? I thought we were pretty good at keeping it on the down low.”
Fusco laughed at the lighter turn in the conversation and accommodated her change in mood.
“No matter what you and James Bond think of my skills, Carter, I am a professional detective. I sussed out you two many months ago.”
“Do tell, Detective, so next time I can hide my tracks better.” Her eyes were bright with mischief now and Fusco felt relief flood through him.
“I noticed that he was always asking me questions about you. First it was about your cases, which ones were unsolved, the address where you were investigating that day, who was on your list of confidential informants, things like that. Then he started asking about personal stuff: where you liked to eat dinner, what movies you talked about, where Taylor went to school.
“I’m not any kind of Romeo, but I do know something about the birds and the bees after all these years. He was nursing a major crush and he didn’t know what to do with it.”
Fusco leaned back in his chair and smiled broadly at the memory of the consternation and intensity he had seen on the younger man’s face during those talks.
“And you weren’t really good at hiding it either. The way your voice got all soft when you talked with him on the phone, the way you tried to move out of earshot to take those particular calls. The way you got all puffed up and prickly every time another cop mentioned a new attack by the guy in the suit.
“Carter, you couldn’t be more obvious if you were carrying a sandwich board sign on your back.”
It felt good to talk with her about this now, to get it out in the open instead of pretending with each other like they had been for so long.
“And your moods were linked together like sorority sisters with synchronized cycles. When he was up, you were too, when he was short-tempered, you were impossible. After the bust at the Moretti safe house, when Syzmanski got shot, the both of you were blue and edgy. I noticed you not taking his calls. But you didn’t get rid of the phone, so I figured it was a break, not a break up.”
She shook her head to acknowledge the difficult passage, but didn’t offer to elaborate. He let her keep their privacy and didn’t push for details.
“Of course, I knew it was John who got Taylor back from Elias’ thugs that day. Who else could it be?”
Fusco paused before sharing the next observation because he didn’t want to upset her. He took two bites of rigatoni and let her spear the last shrimp before he went on.
“And when a, uh, a perp accused him of being ‘Carter’s Guardian Angel,’ he didn’t blink an eye. Even when that perp roughed him up pretty bad on account of being your protector he didn’t say a word. I, uh, well, I intervened with the perp and it turned out O.K. But I thought the world of him for that.
“He was old-school stand up then, Carter. I liked that.”
Her eyes clouded over and Fusco looked away to give her a moment to collect herself. The last thing he wanted was for this lunch to end in tears.
She spoke after several moments.
“Thanks for telling me that, Fusco. Takes a stand-up guy to know one.”
She hurried to get the rest out in a rush of words before he could deny the compliment.
“Before, I was asking all the wrong questions. About my job, about my life, about myself. But now, he makes me ask the right questions. I don’t know if I have the answers. But I know I have the right questions now.”
Fusco thought that maybe just a little bit of the gratitude he heard in her voice extended to himself as well.
“However long or short we have, this is something I have to try. I have to see where it goes with John or else I‘ll spend the rest of my life wondering what I missed out on.”
Her tone sounded a concluding note, but there was one more thing to ask before he could let it go.
“Have you talked to Taylor yet?”
“Not yet. He’s on vacation in Virginia for the summer.”
“What are you going to say?”
“I don’t know yet. In some ways he is so grown up, so smart about people and things. But since the kidnapping, he just seems so young to me. I just don’t know what to do. I guess I’m hoping something will just come to me when he gets back.”
At that moment, Rosaline reappeared to ask if they wanted any dessert. Fusco was surprised that she seemed to be offering them options rather than just dictating the next course. But he chose the tiramisu as he always did and Carter followed his lead. His stomach was too jumpy for the espresso that would taste best with the pastry so he went for a cappuccino and Carter did too.
The partners ate their desserts in silence, savoring the flaky sweetness as much as the new camaraderie their exchange had produced.
The coffee had cooled enough for them to swallow in sizeable gulps when Rosaline came racing back to their table, a stricken look upon her face.
“Lionel, I am so sorry! I don’t know how this happened. I must have just picked up your phones by mistake. I had no idea they were in my pocket until they started buzzing like mad, first one then the other.”
She handed over the devices using her fingertips only, as if they were hot to the touch.
Both detectives scrolled through the multiple messages on their screens. Fusco was deeply impressed with the way such towering indignation could be expressed in so few words.
He didn’t know what Carter’s messages were like, but the frown lines across her forehead and the softening of her eyes and lips suggested that their tone was closer to anxiety than fury.
Neither chose to type in an immediate answer to the text messages, but they knew the afternoon’s work beckoned them.
Fusco had already settled the bill by the time Carter returned from the bathroom.
“Hey, that’s not right, Fusco! I was going to pay my half, fair and square!”
Lawrence the maître d’ patted her on the shoulder and shook his enormous head as she passed by his station at the entrance of the restaurant. The mood of the two partners was noticeably altered in the span of two brief hours at Verona. Lawrence took full credit for the lunchtime transformation. The old alchemy of good food and honest conversation always worked wonders, he would have told them, if they had asked.
Fusco and Carter emerged into the late afternoon sunlight, squinting as they turned their steps toward the precinct house.
As they entered the little park, she reopened the question of payment.
“Next time is on me, Fusco.”
“No way. Next time is on the Lone Ranger. He owes us. Big time.”
The partners smiled in unison and toed the gravel path, raising up a tiny dust storm as they left the shady park and crossed the street back into their city.