Author's note: In The Gambling Game, the Chief revealed he'd known Fran since she was a child. I always wondered about that relationship; why did she have a constant need to stand up and defend herself, and especially, why did she break Bobby Maldonaldo's nose when she was young? I decided I wanted to flesh that out and have an opportunity to introduce Magdelena and Dave Belding, as well as a much younger Robert T. Ironside. No crime, just the Chief, chili, Mark, Ed, Bourbon, Fran, and poker, for your enjoyment. Many thanks to Laprofa for her thoughtful comments and encouragement as she helped me out of writer's block.-Johanna
Memories of the Wednesday Night Poker Game
"Yes, it is Officer Belding, thank you for updating my calendar," Robert Ironside responded. "Any particular reason you're making this announcement?"
"It's poker night, isn't it?" She took several manila files off the table.
"Yes, it's poker night. 8:00 just like always. You are playing tonight, aren't you? Is there anything else?"
"Yes, I'm playing, and no, I'll get going on the McKibbin case."
"We need that for court in the morning."
"Right. Oh, remember, you have that appointment with the Bank Manager today."
"Yes, Bank of America, 4:00."
"Awfully late, don't you think?
"We go by his schedule, not ours, Fran."
Fran nodded her head. "Yes Chief."
Ironside watched as she went to her favorite spot in the office, the window seat, curled up and began her careful reading of the case file. She had a yellow legal pad and pen on her left side and as she read, made notes, usually in the form of timelines and questions that they would use later. She was good at that and could get to the heart of a baffling problem quickly. Her father Dave, Ironside's late friend, partner, and poker buddy, had worked like that. Like father, like daughter, except Dave Belding wasn't around to see the poised police officer she was becoming. She was still raw, but improved each time she went out on a case.
"Chief, since Mark will be with you at the interview, and Ed is out, would you mind if I made dinner tonight?"
"That would be good. Don't go to any bother. Takeout from Luis' would be fine, or better yet, just heat up some chili."
She nodded and went back to work.
When the office was finally quiet and the McKibbin notes typed up, she surveyed the Chief's pantry. Two cases of Hormel chili with beans were stacked neatly on the shelves. Groaning at the sight of the red and gold labeled cans, she shook her head and made her decision. Grabbing her coat and purse, she left to do some much needed shopping.
"¡Maria Francesca! ¿dónde estás?" Magdalena Belding shouted from the kitchen. "Mary Frances Belding! Where are you?"
From the living room, Dave Belding looked up from setting up his poker table with amusement. "Maggie, she's around somewhere, probably playing, or more likely reading. Frannie never misses poker night. Besides, Bob's coming tonight. She'll want to check him out for sure."
"Si, el mysterioso daytaketeev sarhehnto aironseed."
"One would never know you teach high school American Lit when you talk like that."
"David, who is this Robert Ironside? You've never really talked about him before."
"I've known Bob since academy and the department decided that we're going to pilot a new program. We'll be the community patrol starting next week. I think he wants to get a feel for us and the neighborhood tonight. Get his feet wet. You'll like him honey. He acts like a great, big, gruff, bear outside, but inside, he's all marshmallow."
"A grizzly bear who's also a marshmallow, eh? If you like him, then I know I'll like him."
Dave dipped a spoon into the bubbling pot on the stove, blew carefully and tasted. "Ahh, chili, muy delicioso as always. This is Bob's favorite thing to eat, but I don't think he's ever tasted anything this good." He dunked the spoon in again. This time his wife good-naturedly slapped his hand away.
"Leave some for your amigos, ok?"
Dave pulled Maggie close to him and they kissed. "I'll go find the kid, ok".
"Hey! Oreo!" Bobby Maldonaldo shouted, "C'mon, I dare you."
From under the live oak tree seven year old Fran Belding looked up from the book she was reading. She hated Bobby, hated being called Oreo. When he found out her father was policía and an Anglo, he had made her life as difficult as only a ten year old could. 'Oreo', brown on the outside, white on the inside, that's what the kids now called her at recess. Magdalena had given Fran her café au lait skin and curly dark brown hair. Her father had given her piercing blue eyes. Both gave her a fierce intelligence and strong moral compass.
"Because no one likes you Orrreeeo," he said drawing out the word, rolling the r's for emphasis. "Your dad's a cop and you narc for him."
"Take it back!" She threw down her book, scrambled to her feet and charged the bigger boy, launching her body at him, sending him sprawling on his back in the dirt.
The other kids formed a circle around them. "Pelea! Fight! Pelea!" Scrambling up, Bobby and Fran warily circled then shoved each other like they were midget sumo wrestlers hoping to push the other out of the ring, each throwing the occasional punch. It seemed for a time that there would be no winner. Bobby caught a handful of hair and twisted hard. Fran sank to her knees in pain.
"That's right, cry, baby. You're a puta just like your mama."
The ring of kids stopped moving in shock, their voices dropped to low whispers realizing what Bobby had said. No one called someone else's mother that. Fran stumbled to her feet, tears and snot running down her face, streaking it; Bobby still grasping her hair.
"Take it back"
Balling her left fist tightly, she slammed it into his nose with all the force she could. She saw Bobby's eyes widen, loosening his hold on her hair. Next came a sound she'd never heard anyone make, an animal-like wail of pain.
"You broke my nose" he said in a muffled voice. "You broke my nose." She looked in horror as a red, streaky, wetness escaped his cupped hand.
In the back of her head she knew she'd be in trouble over this, her fourth fight in three weeks. Even though she was fighting him because of the name calling and standing up for her mamita, she'd get grounded and Madre Tomas would have another long talk in the office with her. She glared at Bobby."You called my mamita a bad name. You say you're sorry" she yelled, as her enemy ran home.
Suddenly all the children around her scattered. She turned to see a big man, leaning against a nearby tree, observing. He wore a woven sport shirt, dress slacks, and a sport coat with shined shoes. His clothes were expensive. He wore after shave too, a hint of sandalwood drifted out to her. She liked it.
"I'm looking for the Belding house. Do you know where it is?"
Fran looked up at him. Ironside noticed her brilliantly blue eyes. A gift from her father.
"Who are you?"
"My name's Ironside. I'm a friend of Mr. Belding's."
"He's my father. You comin' to play poker?"
"Yes. That's some punch I saw you throw a minute ago."
"You saw it?" She said, looking up at him in alarm, her face flushing.
"Saw almost everything."
"You a cop?"
"Yes. Why'd you fight him? He's a lot bigger than you."
She stiffened. "I'm not an Oreo an' my mamita's not a puta." Fran could tell he didn't quite understand what she was saying. How could he be a good friend of her dad if he didn't understand those hateful words. He had a lot to learn about her neighborhood. She began again, "An Oreo… someone who looks like me, not them."
"And a puta?" he asked gently.
"One of the Ladies inna Tennerloin," referring to San Francisco's notorious, nearby, red light district. Tears flowed freely down her dirt smeared cheeks leaving even bigger trails.
Ironside led her over to one of the park's picnic tables. They sat down. She wiped her face and noisily blew her nose with his proffered handkerchief, carefully folding the cloth, now streaked with snot, dirt, and tears, before returning it to him. Ironside took it and placed it in his coat pocket.
"I think you're a lovely young lady. I know your father loves you and your mother very much."
"How come you didn't stop us?"
"It looked like you needed to settle something. You fight a lot?"
Ironside found himself liking Belding's daughter. There was a spirit about her. "Why?"
"I can't help myself."
"You can't?" He asked "Or you don't want to?"
Fran looked at the steaming pot of pinto beans. She'd decided that the Chief needed real chili, not that canned stuff he said was chili. She was going to make her mother's recipe that had been their dinner almost every Wednesday night of the year, except during Lent, when there were no poker games at their house and no chili, instead they ate vegetables, beans, rice, and corn for six weeks. She added salt and bay leaves to the pot, remembering when the Chief first tasted her mother's chili.
Robert Ironside walked into the small bungalow the Belding's called home, Fran clinging to his side. From the aromas coming from it, he could easily have found the kitchen without his young guide.
"Mamá, this is.." Fran began.
Magdalena Belding looked at the newcomer. "You must be Robert. Welcome to our house." She extended a hand, then caught sight of her daughter, covered in dirt, top to bottom, a shiner beginning to form under her left eye. "Ay, mija! Who was it this time?"
Her daughter bowed her head, "Bobby," came the whisper.
"Maria Francesca, what do I tell you."
"una verdadera dama no se comportaría de esa manera." Fran replied in a singsong voice.
"That's right, real ladies don't act like that."
"Mama, no pude ayudar."
"Don't tell me you couldn't help it Francesca. You know better than to fight."
"Señora, your daughter stood up not only for her honor, but yours as well."
"How do you know that?"
"I saw most of it. Fran's got a great left jab. She didn't use it until he insulted you. She also gave me an important first vocabulary lesson. Words, madam, I will never use anywhere."
Dave Belding came into the room. "Hey, Bob," he shook hands with his partner. " Welcome. You found the house ok, I see and I see you've met Maggie and Fran." He looked at his now scruffy daughter. "Paqui, Mrs. Maldonaldo called. She wants you thrown into juvie for breaking Bobby's nose. What happened?"
"What happened? I'll tell you Dave Belding. Bobby Maldonaldo needs to stop being a bully; stop calling people names. It isn't good for Paquita to fight, but she stood up for family this time. Luz and I will have café tomorrow and we'll get it sorted out. Bobby will make amends".
Dave Belding grinned. "And that Bob, is how a lot of things get taken care of around here. Mija, you need to get upstairs, take a bath, and get ready for bed."
"Wait," Ironside interrupted. "Before you go, what smells so good?"
His stomach rumbled. "May I have a taste?"
Maggie took a bowl from the stack next to the pot, lifted the lid and ladled a scoop in it. "Enjoy".
Ironside put his spoon in and tasted. He smiled broadly.
"Madam, this is absolutely the best chili I've ever eaten. Would you give me the recipe?"
"No. Es muy secreto," she laughed, "And please, call me Maggie."
Fran jumped up for a hug from her father. He held her tightly for a long time. "You know how I feel about you fighting, but you stood up for your mom. I'm proud of you Paqui."
"Love you daddy."
"Me too punkin."
She wriggled out of Dave's arms and dropped to the floor. Looking at Ironside, Fran went to him for a hug. Ironside took her hands and pressed them to his lips. "Buenas noches señorita".
Fran smiled at the memory of their first meeting. The Chief became a regular at the Wednesday night poker game and shared the dinner table often with the Belding's during the time the two men were partners. Fran called him "Uncle" or Tio Roberto. Her father teased that his partner came only because he hoped Maggie would give him her recipe for chili. It became a running joke between them as Ironside constantly tried to get the recipe. She never gave it to him, she merely kept him coming back each week for food and family with the offer of a new dish. "Muy secreto," she laughed, when asked for the ingredients.
The last time Fran saw Ironside was at her father's funeral. Ironside was now special consultant to the Commissioner. It was difficult seeing him in the wheelchair, but the Chief hadn't lost sight of himself. He was still Ironside. Two weeks later, she was abruptly assigned to his staff after starting an investigation into her father's murder. She was openly antagonistic to everyone in the office. She didn't want to be babysat. Tonight, she wanted to show that that rebellion was over. She would still stand up for herself when necessary, but knew this was her new family and wanted to be part of it.
She drained the beans, saving the liquid, and set them aside, added chorizo and ground sirloin to the pot and while it browned, chopped fresh chilies, sweet peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, into small dice, and dumped them into the pot the meat had been in, sweating them into a sofrito. Cumin, epazote, Mexican oregano, and New Mexico chili powder were added in generous spoonfuls. A large dollop of tomato paste, along with bean liquid, beef stock combined with beer, mole, cinnamon and allspice followed. Taking a large wooden spoon, she made sure that everything was blended together, not wanting anyone to be surprised by a clump of spice. Fran remembered when her mother thought she was ready to learn to cook. To her surprise there were no written recipes or cookbook for her chili or other dishes. It depended on what was in the kitchen and most importantly, Magdalena told her daughter, "what was in the soul." She took those lessons to heart. Fran tasted, added a tad more salt, the beans, her mother's secret ingredient, covered the pot with a lid, turned down the heat and let the ingredients marry together.
While it simmered, she washed the dishes, then curled up on the window seat looking out on the darkening city, remembering.
"Mamá, I don't want to go."
Fran stood before the bathroom mirror, wearing a dress and heels. She brushed her unruly curls back from her forehead furiously.
"This is the Fiesta of San Pedro, of course you're going. Everyone will be there, including Michael Barolo."
Her daughter blushed furiously. "He won't notice me."
"He will tonight." Maggie walked into the small room. From the vanity drawer, she took out a tube of lipstick and some blush. "Here, and don't tell me you don't know how to put this on either. I know you girls practice all the time in the bathroom at school. We always did. The sisters had fits over it. Told us we'd never have a decent boyfriend because of that."
Her daughter smiled, deftly put the cosmetics on, and looked at her reflection. At age fourteen she strongly resembled her mother.
"You are beautiful mija. Always remember that. No matter what. Inside and out, you are a beautiful, strong, intelligent, and creative woman. You aren't a child anymore. You're growing up, far too fast for me."
Fran leaned her head against her mother's shoulder. "Gracias mamita. Te amo".
"I love you too."
Maggie had been right. The boys did notice her that night, especially Bobby Maldonaldo. The two had resolved their long ago problems and become close friends.
"Buenas noches" he said formally greeting his neighbors. He looked at Fran, tonight she resembled nothing like the tomboy he knew. "Hey Paquita, the band is starting up. Wanna dance?"
"With you? No way! Hola Juana!" she said, greeting her best friend. They linked arms and ran off giggling.
Maggie gave Bobby a comforting squeeze of his hand. "Don't worry, you two will be dancing before long. Remember, se hicieron dificultades que hay que superar."
The time passed quickly for all except Bobby, he sat glumly on the steps leading to the patio. The music slowed and he became aware of someone standing before him.
"I've been waiting all night for you to ask me again."
He looked up, "thought you were all crazy for Miguelito."
"He only does a one foot square and he stomps on your feet."
"Want to dance with me memo?"
"Yeah, I do." Taking her hand, he led Fran out onto the dance floor.
It was a Tejano Two Step, one of those joy filled accordion and guitar driven songs that made you want to dance. The two energetically swept around the patio. After the song, they went over by the refreshment stand.
"Who taught you?" Fran asked between sips of lemonade.
"Your mom and I did."
She turned to look at Ironside standing beside them. "Tio! You came!" She flung her arms around him enthusiastically.
"Only because I heard Señora Velez made tamales."
"You and mama taught Bobby? When?"
"Whenever you were out of the house." Bobby grinned.
"The band struck up a waltz. Fran looked at her 'uncle'. "May I have this dance Tio Roberto?"
"Of course, señorita, it would be a pleasure."
Ironside was a big barrel chested man, but he didn't dance that way. He was light on his feet, made sure he led, and had a smile on his face as if he truly enjoyed dancing with a teenage girl. The music was half over when Dave Belding broke in. "It's my turn." At the end of the music, there was a buzz of conversation around them. Two uniforms stood at the entrance to the patio motioning for the partners.
"Sorry kid. Duty calls. We'll take Bob's car so you and your mom can get home, ok."
Fran nodded. "Be careful Papi"
He kissed the top of her head "Always kiddo".
The sound of the steam escaping the pot drew her back into the kitchen. There had been a night when she asked him to be careful and he didn't come home. She shook her head to clear it; gave the chili a stir, making sure nothing was stuck to the bottom. She set the table for four, put the tortillas to warm in the oven and got out the poker set. The last thing she did was straighten the office. As she moved the desk calendar, she was reminded again it was December 1, her birthday. She wasn't going to tell any of them. She didn't want a fuss. It would be her first birthday without either parent.
Everyone, except Fran, knew that she and Bobby Maldonaldo were boyfriend girlfriend. To her, he was her big brother, friend, and protector. They walked to school every day and except when he had basketball or baseball practice, walked home together. In fact, they did everything together.
They could talk about anything with each other.
Bobby was quiet on the walk.
"I got called to the counselor's third hour."
"I got my letter today."
"Uncle Sam's 'greetings' letter"
She stopped walking. "You can't go now. You graduate four months from now."
Bobby turned to face her. "I'm supposed to go in two weeks. They want me to have things wrapped up and report to Camp Pendleton then. I'm not going though."
"You're going to desert? Are you crazy?"
"Naw, I enlisted. When the counselor told me I was getting called up, I didn't know what to do, then I remember Mr. Ironside telling me once about his time in the war. I thought maybe he could put in a good word with the Navy recruiter. Mr. Hodgkins called him and the Chief called his friend. They came to school and I got something called a deferred enlistment. I go after graduation. I'm still going to Nam, but I'm gonna be on a ship repairing planes."
The relief clearly showed on Fran's face. Bobby bent down and kissed her. She responded with equal force. They broke apart both feeling something had changed between them.
"When do you go in?"
"That's, that's good."
They kept walking. Dropping her off at the house, Bobby kissed her again. Flinging open the door, Fran shouted a greeting to her mother and ran upstairs to her room to get a last glimpse of Bobby. She saw him turn to wave at her.
Changing out of her uniform into a pair of jeans, t shirt, and a flannel shirt, she went down the back stairs into the kitchen.
Maggie Belding lay on her back, a surprised look on her face, eyes staring at the ceiling. Fran knelt beside her. She checked for a pulse, there was none. The body was cold. Her mother was gone. Getting up, she went to the phone. He wasn't there, but the office would contact his car and he would come home as soon as he could. She knew she should call an ambulance and the priest, but instead, sat next to her mother, closed her eyes for a final time, took her hand and began to cry inconsolable tears.
Staring out the window, Fran brushed away the moisture at the corner of her eyes. Maggie had never seen the woman she was becoming. She knew her mother would have liked that. She also knew that her mother would not have liked the delinquent she became.
"C'mon Paqui, your papi's not home." Her cousin Noni shouted from the street. "Me an' Beto are going to La Vida Encantada. Have some fun. Dance all night, drink some tequila, maybe meet someone new."
From her bedroom window, Fran nodded and bolted from the house. She had finished some of her homework and make sure something was ready for her father to eat when he got home, but otherwise she didn't care.
There was an estrangement between the Belding's. They loved each other but their sadness was so heavy they were unable to grieve together. Dave, now a captain in the Vice Squad, plunged into his work. Bobby, too, was unable to help. They no longer walked home together and she barely spoke to anyone at school. Her grades were dropping. Her dad met with Madre Tomas and her teachers about her regularly. The next meeting could result in being expelled from Mission Delores. It didn't matter. She hurt too much to care.
The only thing that mattered was going to the dance clubs that peppered the neighborhood. There she could cut loose and be free, dancing until she was exhausted. They never carded her, so when offered a drink or a smoke, she took it. She came home early in the mornings smelling of stale cologne, sweat, smoke, booze, and more recently marijuana. Dave Belding had confronted her a few times about her disappearances and they had exploded into intense arguments. They were two strangers living in the same house.
Four am found the three of them walking home. The crowd at La Vida had been dull tonight, more into boozing than dancing. As they passed an alleyway, a patrol car whooped a siren at them. They walked faster now that the vehicle followed them. Approaching a corner, the car speeded up and parked, blocking them from crossing. The door opened. Fran heard a familiar voice.
"Alright you three, into the car."
"Wha'd we do man? I don' think we did nothin'." Beto said, his words slurring slightly.
"Young man, I don't care for your tone. I said get into the car. That means now, before I put you in cuffs."
Robert Ironside got out on the driver's side shaking a wad of handcuffs. "The three of you are out past curfew. You've been to La Vida, an adult club. You smell like booze and cigarettes, and you're underage. That makes you delinquent, and as Chief of Detectives, I am pretty sure I can make that all stick."
"Make me cop," Beto sneered.
Fran put her hand on her cousin's arm. "Beto, don't", she whispered, "don't be stupid."
Beto shook off his cousin's hand and walked toward the Chief.
"I said, make me."
Ironside shook his head. Swiftly he moved around to Beto, pushed him up against the car, snapped a pair of cuffs on him and guided him into the back seat. "That does it. The three of you are going to juvie and will get bonded out tomorrow after Youth Court convenes."
"Ladies?" he gestured, waggling the cuffs. "How do we do this?"
Noni and Fran eased into the back seat. Both were white faced.
"C'mon Paquita, you know this guy. Get him to bust us loose." Noni whispered. "My father will kill me if he has to bail me out of juvie."
Fran thought on it. From the other side of the car Beto hissed. "These cuffs are killin' me. Paqui, he's your old man's friend. Tell him to forget about it and let us go."
How could she explain this to her father? 'Sorry Papi, I got busted by Uncle Bob because I'm angry and hurt that mamita's gone and I can't talk to you because all we do is fight?'
How could she tell this to the man in the driver's seat? How could she live with herself?
Ironside drove slowly downtown to the Hall of Justice. It was almost as if he was waiting for her to say something, anything.
Finally, the receiving entrance for the Juvenile Detention Center appeared. Her last chance. Ironside stopped the car. All he had to do was honk the horn for the guards to come out.
She heard her mother's voice. 'Mija, difficulties'…
"are made to be overcome," she finished.
"What did you say Fran?"
"Uncle Bob, let Noni and Beto go, please? They were just trying to help me. My cousins are good people, most of the time. I'm the one you want."
Ironside got out of the car and opened the back seat. Helping Beto out, he unlocked the cuffs. Noni and Fran slid out the other side. The Chief took his wallet out and pulled out some bills.
"Take a cab home you two, and next time if I see you two even littering, that's it." Beto took the bills, mumbled thanks, and the two ran up the ramp and outside. The Chief turned towards Fran "As for you," pointing a finger at her, "get back in the car. The front seat this time."
The Chief drove to a small diner near her house, choosing a booth in the back. Immediately the counterman brought two mugs of coffee to the table. The two men exchanged greetings.
"Anything else Chief?"
"In a while Jonas, just keep these filled for now." He took a sip of coffee. "Now young lady, let's talk."
"Who told you? How'd you know where to find us?" Fran asked, spooning sugar into her mug.
"Not Dave, that's for certain. He's so busy, he's not even playing poker."
"I don't see him very often either."
"I suspected so."
"Who told you? You still haven't given me an answer."
"Who do you think?"
"Yes. He wants to be sure you're all right before he goes into service."
"Why didn't you take us into juvie?"
"Simple, I wanted to throw the fear of God into you. I think I did fine with one of your cousins, what's her name?"
"Beto, he's got an attitude. Is he going into service after school?"
"No, he's got a high draft number."
"He could use some seasoning."
"He could be a cop."
Fran laughed and drank her coffee. Jonas came over and poured refills, then disappeared back behind the counter.
"He's got to get an Associate's and Rodney, Beto, he's not what you'd call a scholar."
"Have him come by and see me before graduation. There's a new program at City College called Upward Bound. Beto probably would qualify. They'd help him get through his basic classes. Now, what about you?
"Should have thrown me in Juvie."
"Another case where you couldn't help yourself or didn't want to help yourself?"
"Chief Ironside, the shrink now?"
"No, Uncle Bob, your friend."
"He's a stranger. We share a house and that's it."
"I know how much you miss your mother. I know I do," He said gently.
She looked at him for a moment then began to cry. Ironside got up and sat next to her holding her gently. When she finished, he gave her his handkerchief. She took it, and dried her eyes. "I miss her so much. I'm so angry with her. She died and I couldn't say goodbye to her."
"Everyone who knew Maggie misses her, she was an incredible woman."
They drank coffee in silence.
"What are you going to do this summer?"
If they don't kick me out of school? I have to retake chemistry for sure, I skipped a lot of afternoon labs, maybe English too."
"So Madre Tomas tells me."
"You and she were spying on me?"
"Someone needed to pay attention to you screwing up your life and Madre cares about you. She always has, from the time you had a reserved seat in her office for fighting. If you call my taking a nightly patrol in the old neighborhood looking for you, spying, then guilty."
"I don't know what to do next."
"Being out all night, drinking, smoking, and using drugs aren't the best way to get your dad's attention. You have to be honest with Dave. Tell him the truth. Consider counseling for a while, and definitely find a new hobby other than late night dance clubs." He turned towards the counter. "Jonas, more coffee, and two of the usual" he bellowed, "Christmas style with extra cheese and corn tortillas"
Minutes later, two plates of huevos rancheros appeared, covered in green and red sauces; heavily dusted with cotija cheese. Ironside dug into his food happily. "I love good food".
"As long as it's Mexican". Fran finished for him.
"As long as it's Mexican." She repeated as she moved the two cases of Hormel to the far back of the pantry, filling the space with the groceries she'd bought. When she took up the Chief's advice to find a new hobby, she found two, cooking and sculpture. Needing a job to pay for the summer school tuition, she went to work for Jonas at the cafe' where he let her work in the kitchen as a short order cook. A local artists collective offered classes in sculpture. She signed up and found a new way to pour out her energy. She spent more time at the collective and combed the beach for driftwood and rocks to practice on. When she looked out on the ocean, she thought of Bobby, wondering what he was up to, how he was surviving the war. She hadn't heard from him since he went in. Her letters to him went unanswered. At least they weren't returned with "Addressee Deceased." Cooking also brought her closer to her father as she began making their old favorites. Her mother's dishes.
The office door burst open. "Something smells absolutely wonderful." I could smell it as soon as I got into the elevator. You went to Luis' after all. They make a fine chili."
Fran resisted the urge to glare at the Chief, instead went to the refrigerator and took out bowls of finely chopped onion, cilantro, and shredded cheese, placing them on the table. She took the tortillas out of the oven and wrapped them in foil to stay warm and moist. Then she ladled chili into the bowls and brought them out on a tray.
Ed looked appreciatively at the table. "This looks great Fran. You didn't have to go to all this bother. We could have gotten your order for you."
Mark opened the beer he'd brought and put one at each place.
"You don't need them Chief."
"I don't think so."
Ironside scooped onion and cheese into his bowl and stirred. "Is that cilantro? Only one person I knew always put cilantro out with the chili and that was". He stopped and took a bite. After chewing and swallowing, he took some cilantro and sprinkled it on top. "Your mother." He turned to look at his aides. "Mark, Ed, you have no idea of how good you're eating tonight." He ate another spoonful. "Sheer heaven."
Fran sat down and ate taking in the compliments from her partners.
"What made you decide to make chili tonight," the Chief asked.
"I couldn't help myself."
Ironside nodded. Mark and Ed didn't get the private joke that the two had shared, but felt the atmosphere had lightened. After dinner, the dishes were washed, stacked in the drying rack, and the cards brought out.
"And the tortillas?"
"From El Granjero."
"The old neighborhood. Those were good times for the most part." He shuffled the deck and dealt."Mark, Ed, someday I will tell you stories about Fran that will fascinate you, and you can hold over her, but for now I will say two things, she's a lousy poker player, but she's got a mean left jab and she will use it."
Ed looked at her bemusedly. "Oh, I know what you mean about that jab," remembering the night she slugged him in the van.
They played several hands, sharing stories and jokes, before Mark put down his cards. "I'm out". He got up and stretched. "Another beer, anyone?"
"Bourbon! And don't be cheap on the fill. It's my booze."
"You got it Chief. Ed? Fran? Anything?"
"I'd like another beer."
"Beer for the gentleman, bourbon for the Chief, and for the lady?"
Fran threw in her cards. "The lousy poker player needs some coffee." She got up and went to the sink to pour a cup.
The phone rang. The Chief grabbed it. "Ironside," he said impatiently. "Yes, send him up Frank. Thank you".
"What's up Chief?" Mark asked.
"I thought I'd have some dessert sent over from Modern Bakery. Seems Fran thought of everything but something sweet to end the meal."
"I'm sorry Chief"
"No problem, it's taken care of."
They heard the elevator make its way up to their floor. The doors opened and then a knock on the door."
"Come on in." the Chief bellowed.
A tall slender man entered with a large box. He wore a dark navy blue suit with gold piping on the cuffs. Fran was too busy pouring coffee to notice him. "Delivery for Paquita", he said loudly.
She looked up from the coffee pot.
"Feliz Cumpleaños Paqui"
Fran stopped in mid-pour; the mug fell from her hands; shattering in the sink.
"Memo!" She flew into his arms, knocking him backward. Bobby Maldonaldo managed to get the cake placed on the counter before she hugged him.
"When did you get here? How long are you here for? Does your mother know you're here?" Her Spanish was rapid fire.
"I'm in transit. Only here for a couple of more days and yes, I've seen mom." He replied in English.
"Transit to where? Back to Vietnam?" She switched back to English as well.
He smiled. "Nope, Newport, Rhode Island. The US Naval Academy Prep School."
"Eighteen months from now, he should be settled in as a midshipman at the Academy in Annapolis."
"Couldn't have done it without your help, sir."
"Glad to have spoken to the Congressman for you."
"I realized that I didn't want to be a grease monkey all my life and when they made me a squad commander, I liked it. I wrote the Chief and told him I wanted to go to college, but wanted to stay in the Navy, so there you have it."
"I'm proud of you Bobby"
"Actually, Fran, everyone calls me Bob now."
"I let the Chief know when I was in town. He told me he'd persuaded you to come work for him and asked if I would stop by tonight, play some cards, and see you. He also asked that I pick up this cake for your birthday."
"Oh no, the ice cream! It must be soup by now"
"Ed, if your ice cream has ruined my present for Fran, I will not be happy, man." Mark replied.
The two raced up the ramp to get the forgotten ítems, returning a short time later. Ed put the ice cream in the freezer to harden and Mark took the cake off the counter.
The Chief shuffled cards waiting for Mark to return with the forgotten drinks. The sound of a cork popping indicated that the Chief's bourbon would have to wait. Mark brought over a bottle of champagne and glasses.
"This is not bourbon."
"Agreed, but it is Fran's birthday. She deserves some bubbly."
The Chief nodded. "A toast then, to our birthday girl."
"Hear, Hear". They drank.
"Is that a Chocolate Tres Leches cake I almost made Bob throw away?" Fran asked.
"That was the cake mamita would make every year. Chocolate, just for me."
"So how many candles do we put on this cake?" Ed asked.
"Ok, are you sure you're not hiding anything from us, say another year."
"Why Ed Brown, women don't always lie about their age…...at least not this year."
"Twenty three it is." Ed put the candles on the cake, and brought out a tray with plates, silverware, and the ice cream, passing them around. He took his lighter and lit the candles."
Fran let them burn for a while, pouring another glass of champagne for herself.
"Ok, birthday girl, make a wish". Mark teased.
"You aren't going to sing to me?"
"Officer Belding, singing is not something I do in public." The Chief groused.
"You can catch his next performance of Sinatra's greatest hits at seven am tomorrow in the shower though." Mark laughed.
Fran blew out the candles. "I remember when you used to sing." She knew what her wish was. She'd gotten it. Family. She cut the cake and gave it to them. After eating, they returned to playing cards.
Bob looked at his watch. "I gotta go. I have…"
"Yeah. It was good to see you Paquita. Take care of yourself."
"You too and be good to her Memo. I broke your nose once, I can do it again."
"I learned my lesson."
He leaned over, kissed her, then was gone.
Mark looked at Ed. "Broke his nose" he mouthed. Ed nodded with a grin
"You ok?" Ed asked.
"Yes, I'm ok Ed."
The Chief looked at her, "Any chance I can get your recipe for chili?"
"No chance." She laughed. "Es muy secreto."