If I had an alien abduction, I'd give you one

Ray's hands were full, what with the potato salad bowl in the crook of his left arm and the bookstore bag gripped in his right hand. He'd raised up one knee to ring the bell when the door swung open.

"Hey," said Maria, looking frazzled. "Thanks for coming. Dinner will be in half an hour, or sooner if you can give Frannie a hand in the kitchen."

A voice called from the living room as Ray stepped in. "Maria Louisa, don't you dare ask a guest to help cook dinner!"

Ray grinned and leaned in the living room door, the potato salad sliding up against the saran wrap covering the bowl. "I thought I was your son." He paused. "Ma."

"Eh, you bad boy, you are my son. Give me a kiss, now." Ray leaned down to press a kiss against her cheek. Mrs. Vecchio was wrapped in her favorite ugly afghan, propped in the armchair by the radiator. "You're a son and a guest both."

Ray put down the bag of books and straightened the bowl of potato salad. "So me-the-guest brought a whatsit, a hostess gift." He started to hand the bowl to her, stopped, looked sheepish, and turned to hand it to Maria. "And me-the-son is going to go help Frannie in the kitchen."

"Not like her real son ever helped in the kitchen," Maria muttered, but she took the potato salad into the dining room.

Ray brought his bag into the kitchen. Frannie was standing over the stove, stirring vegetables with a wooden spoon. A pot of rice on the stove was steaming, and Frannie's hair was sticking to her forhead in damp curls. Ray paused inside the door, staring.

"Hi, Ray," Frannie said, looking up and smiling. "Long time no see." She waved her spoon at some yellow peppers on the counter. "Could you do me a favor and dice those? I forgot to do the peppers and the onions are pretty soft already."

Ray huffed a breath. "I brought you some books. I mean, I brought Alicia some books." He put the bag on the table and grabbed a knife from the drawer.

"She can't read, Ray," said Frannie. "She's only four months old."

He looked down at his peppers and chopped carefully. "Yeah, I know. These are all, like, musical and stuff. Jazz books, board books, for little kids. I mean, it was dumb."

"Hey. Hey, Ray." He kept chopping, looking at the pale yellow flesh of the peppers. Frannie's hand entered his field of vision. He stilled the knife, and she rested her fingers on the back of his hand. "I was kidding, Ray. It's really nice that you bought her books."

"They're about jazz," he said again, looking at her short purple fingernails. "Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. The pictures -- the colors look like music, I thought. And they're board books, so she can't tear them." All those colors, he thought. Purple nails, yellow peppers. His own hands were ugly, chapped skin coarse under Frannie's fingers. "That's stupid, I'm sorry. About the pictures looking like music, I mean."

"No," she said. "It doesn't sound stupid."

"You cut your nails. And your hair."

"You noticed?" She pulled her hand away from his. When Ray looked at her, she was touching her hair, patting it back into place but missing one curl that lay against her cheek. "Sergeant Geller was very insistent about the hat. 'All Probationary Police Officers shall wear their uniforms in the classroom and during all components of the elocutionary expience. Their entire uniforms, Officer Vecchio.' So I went to Gloria, and said, 'Gloria, I have to wear a ridiculous hat for work, make me not look awful.' And she did." Frannie cut off sharply. Ray looked at her out of the corner of his eye. She was chewing on her lip, and he thought he was supposed to say something but he had no idea what. He chopped peppers instead of talking. "I mean," Frannie continued. "I think she did a good job." She paused. "On the haircut." Another pause. "At least, it doesn't look too bad with the hat."

Not too bad? "It's good," said Ray. "The haircut. It's real nice, Fran."

"Well, Gloria's a great stylist," said Frannie off-handedly, but her face shone so much that Ray thought that somehow, by accident, he'd said the thing she'd been hoping for him to say.

Dinner was chaotic as always, with Maria's and Tony's kids yelling at each other, Tony yelling at the kids, and Maria yelling at Tony. Ray occupied himself slipping bits of potato to Alicia in her jumperoo until Mrs. Vecchio noticed and yelled. After that he applied himself to his dinner.

"Great stir fry, Frannie," he said, around a mouthful of pepper and rice.

"It's the peppers, diced so nice it can't help but taste good," said Frannie. She wasn't looking at him, but she smiled as she wiped off the pacifier Alicia had thrown at the floor.

"You're so quiet, mio nuovo figlio," said Mrs. Vecchio. "Usually you are not so quiet. What's wrong?"

Ray chewed and swallowed. "Just tired," he said. "Getting old, I guess."

"Old?" laughed Maria. "You're not old." She smacked Tony on the arm. "This idiot is old. You're too young to feel old."

"Well, who makes me old?" asked Tony. "All this nagging is aging me prematurely."

"Nagging?" Maria shrieked. "I'm not nagging, you lazy bum."

Ray returned to his stir fry, contemplating a gingery piece of broccoli. After dinner, he sat on the front porch with a beer while Tony did the dishes. Francesca came out and sat next to him, drinking a Diet Rite.

"Ma was right," she said, as she leaned against the door. "You are quiet tonight."

Ray shrugged and sipped his PBR.

"Is everything okay at the 2-7?" Frannie asked. "Lieutenant Welsh isn't hirstuting you, is he? Your new partner is okay?"

"Tallent's cool, sure," said Ray. "And the lieutenant's good. Yells at us, mocks us, calls us stupid."

"Same old lieutenant," said Frannie with a smile.

"It's just... Never mind. It's dumb."

"What's dumb?" She leaned forward and put her hand on his knee.

Ray sighed. "It's the work. Or it's the work without Fraser." He put his beer on the porch and laced his fingers absentmindedly through Frannie's. "With Frase, it was all polar bears and gypsy curses, you know? But without him, Major Crimes is just goddamned major crimes. Drive-bys, rapes, gang killings, car theft. Greed and violence." He squeezed Frannie's fingers once, then let go in a rush, picking up his beer and draining it in one long swallow. He sunk his face into his hands and spoke into his palms. "People are mavelo... mavevol... People suck, Fran." He rubbed his face. He hadn't lied at dinner; Ray felt old.

He heard Frannie sigh. "Fraser did add a little extra sparkle to everything he touched," she said. "But --" She inhaled, sharp and sudden, and Ray drew his hands back from wet cheeks to look at her. Frannie leaned back on her palms. "Don't you think there's anything in Chicago good with him gone?"

Her blouse had ridden up her belly to show a patch of skin that glowed in the porch light. "Yeah," he said, after a pause. "I'd say Chicago has its charms."

A long silence passed before Frannie chuckled a little shakily. "What do you think Fraser and that Lieberman get up to there in the frozen north?" she asked.

Ray huffed a laugh. "Chasing clowns?"

"Rescuing miners from angry dolphins?"

"Tap-dancing purse snatchers with an illegal Kool-Aid smuggling operation?"

"A money washing ring of cross-dressing fur trappers!"

Both of them dissolved into laughter, Frannie's loud, and Ray's in quiet shakes that hurt his stomach muscles. When Maria came out to ask them what the hell was going on, they just laughed harder, managing only to squeak out "super-powered prostitution rings" and "spies from the bermuda triangle," setting each other off agin.

On Monday, Ray came in to the precinct to find Tallent at Ray's desk, looking through his old case files.

"What the fuck is this fucking shit, Kowalski?" said Tallent, without preamble. "Haunted boats? Bounty hunter moms? Kangaroos? Were you and your Mountie solving crimes or auditioning for the fucking circus?"

"Gimme that," said Ray, grabbing the folder out of Tallent's hand. "What are you doing in those? And what the hell, I didn't hear about you stopping any terrorists from stealing nuclear submarines when you transferred here from Paxton."

Tallent leaned back in Ray's chair and beat out a quick drum tattoo on the desk. "New case," he said, flicking one finger towards a folder at the top of the pile. "Welsh gave to us because, and I quote, 'Your partner, Detective Tallent, has had a veritable plenitude of experience in solving crimes involving the more colorful of Chicago's denizens.'" Tallent shook a cigarette from a pack and lit up, ignoring the No smoking per Public Health law 410 ILCS 82/1 signs around the office, including the three scotch taped to his own desk. "In other words, you used to get all the freaks, back when you and the Mountie were making Chicago safe for --" He flipped open one folder. "Deep cover octogenarian spies."

"H was a chess player, not a octopusarian," said Ray.

"Whatever." Tallent flicked ask at the ashtray Ray had started leaving on his desk in self defense. "We lucky fucks got a case because of it. If you can call this a case."

Tallent ran down the case file as Ray drove them to the crime scene. Armed robbery: a stylist reported an attack by a mask-wearing thug who threatened her with a can of glitter spray paint and then tied her to one of her own standing hair dryers with a makeshift rope made from a leopard print smock.

"He was going to spray it in my eyes!" wailed the stylist, when they arrived. "After he emptied the register, he ransacked my shop!"

"Seems to me that this 'ransacking' was more 'spraying pink glitter in stylized loops which go well with your decor,'" said Tallent. "Interesting fucking coincidence."

"I'm real sorry, Ms. Estevan," said Ray, resisting the urge to glare at Tallent. One thing about this partnership that really got his gourd was how he kept having to be good cop. He hated being good cop. "Could you describe the assailant?"

"He was, oh, very beefy. Huge. Maybe seven feet tall. And he was wearing a mask, a, a, you know, one of those kids' masks from cartoons?"

"Barney?" asked Ray.

"Fritz the Cat?" asked Tallent.

"Dora the Explorer!" offered the stylist, looking pleased.

On Tuesday, Ray was first into the precinct. "Another one," he said, as Tallent walked in nursing a cup of coffee. He flipped the folder over.

"A comedy club attacked by what the fucking fuck?" said Tallent, as he skimmed the report.

"A midget Venezuelan soccer team," said Ray.

Lieutenant Welsh glared at him as he walked by with a full cup of coffee. "The polite term is 'Little People,' Detective," he said. Growled, really.

Ray pointed to the report. "Just respecting the victim's choice of words, sir. Dewey said 'midgets'."

Lieutenant Welsh raised his eyebrows. "Do you usually model your behaviour after that of former detective Dewey, Detective?" he asked.

Ray winced. "Point taken, Lieutenant."

On Wednesday, a psychology professor at Discovery Center reported that his garden shed had been burned down by a swan with a flamethrower.

"Your next door neighbor tells us that you'd had contractors in recently with estimates for removing that shed," said Ray.

"A fucking swan," said Tallent, looking dazed.

On Thursday, a visiting sherriff's deputy from Willison reported a purse snatching.

"Four Elvis impersonators, you said?" asked Ray, thoughfully making notes.

"Five," she said firmly.

Ray crossed out the '4' he'd written in when noting her previous statement ("And that's when all four of them tripped me with the jump ropes they'd stashed inside their nun's habits.") and wrote in a '5'.

"They all had blue tattoos of Priscilla on their faces," the deputy added.

Tallent hummed to himself as he paced around the crime scene, steadfastly ignoring the deputy.

When the bespectacled German came into the station on Friday to report a mugging, Ray was prepared. He suspected it was the parrot feathers stuffed into the man's suit pockets that clued him in.

"Let me guess, kidnapped by a group of priests who want to sacrifice you in a shrine to the great parrot god, and escaped by the skin of your teeth and the timely assisstance of a passing paperboy?" asked Ray, walking up to the man.

Mort, who'd been called up to translate, looked bemused. "No," he said. "Mugged by three candy stripers on roller blades, who took his wallet and stuffed his pockets with feathers to protest the plight of the Moluccan King Parrot. Why, have you recently met a helpful paperboy?"

"Gotcha. Well, bring him over to Tallent, he'll file the paperwork," said Ray. "I gotta go."

Tallent was stuffing all the crap in his desk into boxes when Ray left.

"Fuck you, Kowalski," said Tallent, but his heart didn't seem to be in it. "I'm not doing your fucking paperwork ever again. I've had it with this precinct and its weird-ass crimes. Gonna join a band."

"Have fun," called Ray, on his way out the door.

At the Vecchio's, he was almost derailed by Tony.

"Ray, thank god you're here. I need Man Time," said Tony, grabbing Ray's shoulder. "I just got the riot act for leaving the toilet seat up."

"I get it, man," said Ray, extricating himself from Tony's grasp. "Best part about being divorced was getting to leave the seat up. Ow!" He glared at Maria and rubbed the back of his head. "I didn't mean it that way and you know it."

"Whatever. Don't go giving this loser any ideas," said Maria.

"I just came to see Frannie," said Ray, and escaped upstairs.

At last, Ray was ensconced on the glider with Alicia in his arms. "Frannie, we have to talk," he said.

Frannie leaned back against the toy box and threw one arm over her eyes, pulling up her t-shirt a little. "I am hedged," she said. "School, baby, everything, even with Ma and Maria babysitting during class. Thanks for helping out. You don't know how much it means to me that you come over so often."

"Frannie," said Ray again, watching the strip of skin between her sweats and her t-shirt. He liked the way Frannie-the-Mom dressed when she was at home. "You've got to stop this. People are going to get in trouble."

"Stop what? Having kids?" asked Frannie.

"What? No, you shoud have lots more kids. That would be awesome." Ray leaned forward, careful to shift Alicia so she stayed comfortable. She paused from gumming his shoulder, looked at him thoughtfully, then punched him once and returned to the wet spot on his shirt. "I appreciate what you're doing, God knows I appreciate it. But people are gonna get in a lot of trouble for filing false police reports. I don't know what Dewey and Huey were thinking, going along with this."

Frannie brought her arm down at last and glared at Ray defiantly. "Only if the Lieutenant doesn't conveniently lose the paperwork," she said. "Is what I would say if I knew what you were talking about, which I don't."

"It was a real nice thing to do, though," said Ray.

"Hmph." Frannie closed her eyes again, and rested her head against the toy box.

"I don't stay in Chicago for the freak crimes," he said. "There's plenty here to love."

"Didn't say you did," said Frannie, but a smile played around the corner of her lips.

"Just so we understand each other," said Ray, and as Alicia grabbed at his badge, he lifted her over his head and hid his own smile by blowing raspberries into her belly.