Boxing Day

PART ONE

Fritz was relieved to hear his cell phone ring, as odd as it was to welcome an intrusion on Christmas Eve. He had been waiting for Brenda to call him ever since they talked briefly early this morning, and she told him her division was covering a potential bank robbery based on information given to her by Wesley. Fritz didn't say anything, because it always made Brenda mad when he acted overprotective, but he was worried. PHD was not trained in tactical maneuvers, and why Pope allowed them to be on site for a potential bank robbery was beyond him. Of course, Fritz didn't have a lot of respect for many of Will Pope's decisions, so that was nothing new.

He answered his cell on the third ring, quickly checking to make sure it was Brenda who was calling him. It was. He dispensed with pleasantries. "Honey, did everything go OK? You all right?"

Brenda ignored his questions. "I need you to get Momma and meet me at the Fairfield Mall," she said.

Fritz frowned. "What are you talking about? Brenda, what happened with the robbery? You can't leave me hanging here."

He heard her sigh on the other line. He knew that she was stalling so she could figure out her story. Despite their big fight about honesty and trust, he knew that Brenda still crafted the truth to fit the situation. He had hoped that her admission that she had a tendency to lie might change this behavior, but watching her over the past week, during their tumultuous trip from Atlanta to LA, he noticed that not much had changed.

"Dammit, Brenda, I have been worried about you all day. Will you answer me, the whole truth, please?" Fritz was getting impatient.

Brenda sighed again, but started talking fast, little inflection in her voice. "Wesley did give us correct information on the bank that was going to get hit. As soon as his accomplices jumped out of a car with their semi-automatics and started to yell at the guards to get down, Wesley popped out of goodness knows where and shot them both to death." Her voice was flat, but Fritz knew her well enough to tell she was struggling for control. After a brief pause, she started again. "Wesley surrendered to me right away, but when he put his hands in the air, one of the Tass guards pulled his gun and shot him three times." Her voice caught ever so slightly. "He was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. I then had to stand in Pope's office and get yelled at for an hour for botching the entire operation with Taylor smirking in the corner. Shit." She sounded so tired.

Fritz didn't know what to say. He had very mixed feelings about how Brenda had treated Wesley, and couldn't help but wonder if her lie to Wesley about Grady being killed lead to today's events. "I'm sorry, Brenda," he said softly.

She seemed to recover a bit. "So I need to have you and Mamma meet me at the mall in 30 minutes." She was back to being her businesslike self, putting her emotions in that deep, dark, part of herself no one ever saw. Except me, Fritz thought, on very rare occasions. Too rare.

"The mall—what? Do you want to do some retail therapy or something?" What crazy idea did Brenda have now?

"I realized, when I was trying to tune out Will today, that we don't have any Christmas presents for Grady. And at some point, I have to tell him his brother is dead, so the least we can do is make sure he has a good Christmas. Mamma's a real good shopper, and you are a guy, so you could help pick out boy-things. I'm not too sure I would do too well on my own. So Fritzy, please, meet me at the mall with Momma, OK?" Brenda had a note of desperation in her voice that concerned Fritz. She needed to do this, to give Grady a good Christmas, as her way of making up for everything that had happened, Fritz realized. Brenda wasn't big on guilt, or admitting that she ever feels guilty about anything, but he could sense that Wesley's death was bothering her immensely. If Christmas gifts are going to make her feel better, than so be it.

"Okay Brenda, I will gather your mother and we will meet you at the front entrance of the mall as soon as we can, depending on traffic."

"Oh Fritzy, thank you," she breathed, and then hung up the phone.

Fritz sat on the bed and stared at his cell phone. There was so much that needed to be discussed, processed, analyzed, about how recent events affected them, and the first moment they had an opportunity to talk, he had to go shopping with her. And her mother. He needed to tell her he was angry, and hurt, and disappointed, and a thousand other things that he didn't have a name for, because he couldn't stand walking around feeling angry at her. He rather have a big teary fight, make up, and then go back to loving her with every fiber of his being. He wanted to look at her beautiful face and worship her, instead of thinking how cold her eyes got when she poured drink after drink for Wesley. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. Big, cathartic fights were not going to happen for awhile, since Brenda is determined to give Grady his dream Christmas, and yelling and storming out really didn't go with decking the halls. It was going to have to wait a few days, and he hated the thought. He felt the "mad at Brenda" stomach twinge he had grown to recognize over the years as he put his cell phone away and walked out of the bedroom in search of Willie Rae.

In the car, Willie Rae asked what happened with Wesley. Fritz knew that Willie Rae was aware that Wesley had dumped his wire, but nothing else. Fritz didn't want to worry her with the information Brenda gave him that morning on PHD's job of intervening in a bank robbery, and he felt that it was Brenda's responsibility to tell her mother that Wesley killed two people, and then was killed himself. He had done enough explaining to Clay and Willie Ray on Brenda's behalf, and he didn't want to do it again.

Yesterday had been rough. Brenda insisted that she, Flynn, and Provenza be dropped off at work immediately, pulling some dress clothes out of her suitcase and throwing them on before the RV arrived at Parker Center. The RV was pulling up in front of their house not much later when Fritz remembered that Grady was staying there, and the Johnsons' thought he was dead. He had Willie Rae park the RV in front, and then asked to speak to both of them before they gathered their luggage. He told them that Brenda had lied to get a confession out of Wesley, and that Grady was perfectly fine and staying at Brenda's house so he wouldn't be put in foster care. Grady knew nothing about Wesley being arrested in Atlanta and charged with murder, and it should stay that way until Brenda can talk to him. Fritz spoke as calmly as possible, his insides broiling that he had to be the one to tell Brenda's parents the truth. Willie Rae put her hand to her mouth while tears rolled down her face, and Clay was so furious that Fritz was a little bit afraid of what he would do when he saw Brenda next. "Son of a bitch!" Clay yelled, jumping up and slapping the wall so hard Fritz was surprised he didn't leave a dent. "What the devil is wrong with that girl? Tellin' a man his brother was killed like that? I just can't believe her." His face was slowly turning redder and redder.

"Mr. Johnson, I think you have to understand, in Brenda's line of work, sometimes you have to do things that don't seem very nice in order to get a confession. She only does things like that when the end justifies the means, like when she is afraid more people will die." His explanation seemed weak, even to his own ears, and a new wave of Brenda-anger washed over him. I should not be the one explaining this, he thought.

Clay seemed not to have heard him. "Willie Rae, where did we go wrong with her? That she grows up and treats people like this? The boys turned out just fine, got good jobs and nice families, and our little girl makes a livin' leaning over dead bodies and lyin' to people. Did we spoil her to much, Willie Rae, because she was the only girl? What happened?" Clay ran his hand over his bald head in frustration.

Willie Rae wiped her eyes and looked at her husband. "Clay, we didn't go wrong, honey. Brenda is just…unusual. She wants different things than most women. That's how she is, and I just accepted that about her a long time ago, still lovin' her and proud to be her mother. But I have to agree with you, I just can't understand how she could have lied to Wesley about his brother, and how she could lie to us." Willie Rae shook her head. "I'm having a hard time justifying that one. I hate to say this about my baby girl, but sometimes she seems…ruthless." Fresh tears sprung to Willie Rae's eyes.

Clay took Willie Rae's hand and sat down next to her. Fritz thought it was a good idea for him to excuse himself and give them some time alone. He wanted to see what was going on in the house, and prepare Grady for meeting Brenda's parents. He had a feeling that they would hit it off, but he wanted to meet Grady first and see how anxious he was for news of his brother. Here come more lies, a more complicated web, Fritz thought, as he pulled his and Brenda's suitcase from under the RV.

"Fritz?" Willie Rae said, looking over with raised eyebrows. "Is there something you don't want to tell me? About Wesley? Or anything that happened?" What a perceptive woman, Fritz thought. No wonder where Brenda got her investigative skills.

Fritz made a decision, one he thought was fair in light of all the explaining he had to do lately on Brenda's behalf. "It's not that I don't want to tell you, Willie Rae, it's just that I think it would come better from Brenda. She could give you the whole story."

Willie Rae nodded and, to Fritz's surprise, didn't ask any more questions. Something Brenda didn't inherit was her mother's sense of when to back away.

Brenda's mother was quiet for awhile, looking out the window at the passing cityscape. After a few minutes, she turned and looked at Fritz and said softly, "Fritz, is she hard to love?"

Fritz took his eyes off the road and glanced over at Willie Rae. Her brow was furrowed, as if she was thinking about something very hard. He remembered her defense of Brenda's upbringing yesterday when she had heard about Grady being alive, and he wondered if she shared some of Clay's doubts about how Brenda turned out, as if she was worried that she had somehow raised a daughter that was unlovable. He was glad Brenda wasn't present to here her mother's question, because it would devastate her.

Fritz sighed. "No, Brenda is very lovable. I think I fell in love with her over ten years ago, when we worked together in DC and were just friends. One of the happiest days of my life was when I learned that she moved to LA. The most happy day of my life was when she accepted my marriage proposal. She means the world to me. Willie Rae, why do you ask?"

Willie Rae cleared her throat. "I love my daughter, you know that, Fritz." He nodded. "But sometimes, well, I don't think she treats you very nicely, and that bothers me, a lot. You always seem to be so patient with her. And with her draggin' you out to Atlanta, making you go along with her lyin', which I just know you don't like, well, it makes me wonder. It must be hard for you sometimes."

Fritz chose his next words carefully. "No, it isn't hard to love Brenda. I would crawl to the ends of the earth for her on my knees if she asked me to." He smiled. "But Brenda can be hard to be with. She is the most brilliant, beautiful, and complicated person I have ever known. We have been together for three years, and there are days where I feel like I have hardly cracked the surface, barely know what lies in her heart. But I do know this, without a doubt: Brenda is an intensely compassionate person. Her compassion doesn't look like other people's, I know, but she has a heart of gold. She does what she does for a living because she wants justice for the victims, and she wants to bring closure to the families. She cares, intensely. The thing is, when she has a case, she is so determined to solve it and get that closure that she puts blinders on and just can't see anything or anyone else. That's what you saw on the trip from Atlanta, Brenda's determination to solve these robberies so no more guards got killed, because if she didn't, she would hold herself responsible. It's just that seeing her techniques, up close, for four days in the RV, well, I'm sure that didn't make her look too good to you and Mr. Johnson." He paused. "When she goes into that mode, I just step back and let her do her job. I knew her before we were a couple, and so her tenacity on a case was not a surprise to me. I knew what I was getting myself in to. I just wait until the case is closed and then she lands back on earth and notices me. And she loves me too, I know, possibly because I am the only man in her life that has given her the space to be, well, to be Brenda."

Willie Rae reached out her hand and put it on top of his, which was resting on the gear shift. "She is a very lucky woman to have a man like you," she said, squeezing his hand. "Very, very lucky."

Fritz spotted Brenda standing at the front of the mall as he drove up and down the isles looking for a parking spot. He lucked out as a harried-looking woman laden with packages pulled out of a spot fairly close to the mall. He helped Willie Rae get out of the car, and then they walked toward the entrance.

The closer Fritz got, the more awful he thought Brenda looked. She was wearing her brown "comfort sweater," but it was buttoned incorrectly and one of her shoulders was peeking out. Her hair was a mess, and she wasn't wearing lipstick. Her lower lip looked chapped, which he thought might be a result of her habit of chewing her lip a bit to heartily. Her eye makeup was smeared and her eyes looked unfocused. She reminded him of the night she came home after being involved in a shooting, covered with blood and jumpy as hell. As angry as he was with her, he wanted to pull her into his arms and have her bury her face in his chest. But he knew from her stiff posture and her arms wrapped around each other that she wouldn't welcome his embrace, not now, anyway.

Willie Rae noticed Brenda's disheveled appearance too. She let go of Fritz's arm and walked hurriedly toward Brenda. "Honey, what is wrong with you? You look awful." She rested her arm on Brenda's, and Fritz noticed the almost imperceptible jerk.

"Bad day is all, Momma."

Willie Rae left her hand on Brenda's upper arm and said in a soft voice, "Brenda, what happened with Wesley? Is he OK? Grady has been asking for him all day."

Brenda quickly looked at Fritz, eyebrows raised, questioning. She was clearly surprised that Fritz hadn't told her mother what had happened. Fritz returned her stare, sternly shaking his head no. This one's on you, Brenda Leigh, he thought.

Brenda turned her attention back to her mother, and there, on Christmas Eve, amongst last-minute shoppers and canned Christmas carols, Brenda told her about the three murders she had witnessed earlier that day. When she was done speaking, Willie Rae was quiet, but had tears in her eyes. Brenda straightened her spine even more and stared at the ground as if preparing for an attack. Fritz knew from Willie Rae that they had had words the night before about Brenda's treatment of Wesley, and Brenda looked for all the world like she expected to be blamed for his death by her mother. Fritz's heart went out to her, standing outside the mall looking like a mess, clearly expecting the people she loved to hold her responsible for Wesley's death just like Will Pope did. Or like she blamed herself, perhaps.

Instead, Willie Rae said, "Wesley shot two people? In cold blood?" Brenda nodded. "And you were with him when he died?" She nodded again. Willie Rae ran the back of her hand across her eyes. "What a day for you, honey. And to think that you could actually worry about Grady havin' a good Christmas. That's amazin'." Brenda exhaled, and her eyes closed briefly in relief. Willie Rae became all business. "Well, let's get started so we can get you home. I think that a young man that age should have a nice suit, don't you? Fritz, let's go."