This began life as a response to the newbie challenge that came with the welcome message, but it's morphed into something else. Some of the challenge items are still in it, but it doesn't fit the teaser pattern, nor is it centered around one of Gary's saves.
Disclaimer: With one exception, the characters in the story do not belong to me. They belong to SonyTristar or CBS or Three Characters or whomever would send the lawyers after me if they wanted to sue me for doing this, which I hope they won't do because all I have to give them is my computer and some pocket lint. No infringement, no money changing hands, you know the drill, right?
Oh, and that one exception? He's mine, I tell ya, all mine!!!!! Bwahahaha--what are you staring at?? Go read the story!
This story contains spoilers for "Love is Blind" and "Mum's the Word"; everything after that point has been gleefully and completely ignored. That's right, it's early summer, 1998, and Chuck's still in Chicago. The Great Desertion never happened. Welcome to my world--feel free to stay if you like it.
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"What do you mean, we're out of hamburger buns? How can we be out of hamburger buns?" Chuck's outraged exclamation was the first thing Gary heard when he stepped into McGinty's bustling kitchen. Chuck had his back to the alley door and thus saw neither Gary nor the grocery bags he deposited on the stainless steel prep table.
Gesticulating wildly, clad in khaki shorts and what had to be the most outrageous Hawaiian shirt Gary had ever seen, Chuck continued to rail at the assistant cook who stood before him. "This is our Island Getaway Night! We've got a park full of Parrotheads about to descend on us--how are we supposed to serve them Cheeseburgers in Paradise without any buns?"
Gary ran a hand through his hair. Kill the messenger, that was Chuck's modus operandi. Luckily, the staff was used to his histrionics by now. The young man who was the recipient of Chuck's incredulity had seen Gary, and, concealing a grin but not the twinkle in his eyes, he shrugged. "I guess we'll just have to use the hot dog buns left over from Seventh Inning Stretch Night last week."
Other members of the staff who were within earshot tried to hide their amusement at the mention of the failed baseball extravaganza. Chuck had been pushing hot dogs on everyone at their breaks ever since.
Like Chuck, the staff were all wearing the accoutrements of tropical island tourists. Colorful shirts peeked out from under aprons and a number of the workers had sunglasses perched atop their heads. None of their outfits looked quite so--well, so loud--as Chuck's gaudy get-up. Of course, none of them were as loud as Chuck, either.
Gary frowned for a minute. Somehow he'd missed something. Another one of Chuck's theme nights, no doubt. What had Chuck said about...parrots, wasn't it?
"Oh, for crying out--Marissa?" Chuck wheeled and stormed into the office without even noticing Gary. "Marissa? Where the hell did she go? And where's Gary? That guy is never around here when I need--" Chuck re-emerged from the office and came face to face--face to neck was more like it, considering Gary's height advantage--with his friend.
"Ya don't have to yell, Chuck, I'm right here." Gary grinned at Chuck's startled jump. Throwing him off kilter could be such fun sometimes.
"This isn't funny, Gary. This is a crisis of major proportions." Chuck waved his hands as though he was trying to imitate a cross between a conductor and an octopus. "We can't be a bar and grill without hamburger buns, especially not tonight, and Marissa, who you, I might add, put in charge of inventory, is nowhere to be seen--"
"Relax, buddy." Gary pointed to the bags he'd brought in. "See that? Hamburger buns."
Suddenly hopeful, Chuck stared at the bags. "Buns? You got buns?"
Nodding, Gary added, "There are more out in the van. And, and, before you go giving Marissa a hard time, she told me this morning that we were running low and the deliveries were behind schedule. She asked me to pick these up, and I did. I just got waylaid a little, that's all." Gary tossed the van keys to one of the busboys, who hurried out to unload the rest of the bags.
"Waylaid?" Chuck's eyebrows went up in the familiar question.
"Yeah," Gary answered, noticing the assistant cook was still watching them, even as he went back to chopping onions, "Waylaid." Gary stepped around Chuck and into the office, removing his copy of the Sun Times from the back pocket of his jeans and dropping it on the desk. He turned to face his friend, who had followed him.
"Waylaid how?" Chuck asked, ever persistent.
Gary leaned back against the desk, crossing his arms over his chest. "If you must know--"
"Yes, I must." Eyebrows raised, Chuck stood a few feet from Gary, waiting for the latest story.
"Some kids over at Water Tower Place had bought a bag full of jelly beans and were trying to--to mash them in the escalator or something. This one kid told me he just wanted to see them squish. They were standing at the top of the up escalator tossing the jelly beans down to the oncoming steps and watching them get squashed at the top."
"Mall rats!" Chuck sneered in disgust.
"Yeah, well, one of those mall rats was going to lose his paw--his hand--when it got caught between the stairs." Gary watched Chuck, squeamish as always, shudder while he pictured that one.
"You stopped them, though, right, Gar?"
"Well," Gary admitted, "yeah, I got there before he stuck his hand in. But--well, when I came up behind them, I startled them and his friend dumped the whole bag at once. Completely gummed up the works on the escalator." He shook his head ruefully, remembering.
Chuck grinned. "Good goin', Gar."
"Don't start with me, Chuck, or I'll give you a blow-by-blow account of what would have happened at noon if I hadn't stopped a class of kindergartners on a picnic from eating potato salad that had been left out in the sun too long."
Surrendering, Chuck held up his hands. "You win, man. I don't need that kind of misery tonight."
Gary cast a glance through the door to the kitchen, somewhat busier and certainly a great deal more colorful than usual. "What exactly is going on tonight?"
"Gar, if I've told you once, I've told you a dozen times--Jimmy Buffet's giving a concert in Grant Park this evening. Afterwards all his fans will descend upon McGinty's en masse! We have to keep the mood going!"
"The mood?" Standing up straight, Gary eyed Chuck suspiciously. "What exactly do you have in mind? And who the heck is Jimmy Buffet, anyway?"
Chuck closed his eyes and shook his head, feigning distress at Gary's ignorance. "What am I gonna do with you, buddy? C'mon, Jimmy Buffet, you know Jimmy Buffet--the guy who does all the songs about sailing, islands, Key West, drinking--" His expression became a smirk. "I know for a fact that you yourself wasted away in Margaritaville a time or two in college."
Perhaps he had, but Gary still wasn't sure what all this had to do with McGinty's. "So, that would explain that--that--thing, that shirt you're wearing?" Gary waved his hand vaguely at Chuck's attire. The Hawaiian shirt was splashed with exotic flowers in bright hues--turquoise, magenta, emerald, orange--it was a design that didn't understand the meaning of the word 'blend'.
Chuck glanced down at his shirt in obvious satisfaction. "Yes, it would, and where is yours, while we're at it?"
Holding out both hands, palms forward, Gary shook his head emphatically. "Oh, no, no, no way, Chuck."
"C'mon, Gar, you gotta, man..."
"No. Absolutely not." Gary stalked out to the bar, Chuck at his heels.
"I don't even own one of the things, Chuck! I--" Gary stopped in his tracks, gaping. "What--" He pointed with a finger out into the seating area. "What the hell have you done to my bar?"
"Excuse me?" Chuck raised his eyebrows, affecting a haughty tone. "I thought it was our bar. Besides," he continued, shifting back to his own voice, "it's just for tonight. Relax, Gary, it'll be fun."
"But--but--" The sweep of Gary's arm took in the plastic pineapples and straw hats that served as centerpieces; the tablecloths as tacky as Chuck's shirt; the colored lights, plastic fish, and toy ships that hung from the ceiling; the bright streamers that adorned every pole and post in the place. "It looks like a truckload of cheap souvenirs blew up in here! Are those--" He pointed at the pink monstrosities in the front window, all--eight of them, "--those are lawn flamingos!"
"Yup." Chuck bounced on his toes, clearly proud of himself.
"We spent money on this stuff?"
"How many times do I have to tell you, Gar, you gotta spend money to make money! We are gonna have a huge crowd in here tonight! I put flyers up all over town. Hey, wait!" he hurried over to a waitress, who was trying to hang leis on the flamingoes, "those are for the guests!"
When the hell had he agreed to all this? Gary just shook his head, bemused, as he made his way over to the bar. Chuck was harder to stop than a runaway freight train sometimes. At least it was just for one night. It had better be.
Gary obligingly handed a pile of plastic tiki torches that were stacked on the bar to another waitress as Chuck rejoined him, still chattering away. He tuned in just in time to hear Chuck ask, "...and I need to coordinate the sing-along with Marissa. Where is she, anyway?"
Sing along? Gary sank onto a stool, resting his chin on his hand. All he had wanted was a nice, normal sports bar, a place where people could go to watch a game, have a beer, rehash the eternal Cubs/Sox debate...where had he lost control? With a sigh, he checked his watch and told Chuck, "She's probably upstairs. I told her she could use the loft to get changed."
Chuck brightened and clapped his hands together. "Changed? Is she gonna wear a hula skirt like I asked her to?"
He'd asked Marissa to what? Gary's head came up and he stared at Chuck in shock and disgust. If that was true, it was a miracle that he was still among the living. It did, however, explain Marissa's request for the night off. "Uh, no, actually, she, she has a date, Chuck. She knew I wouldn't be back 'til the dinner hour, so she offered to work until I got back and have her date pick her up here. Guess she didn't want to ruin your big night."
There was a muffled crash on the far side of the room as the waitress with the tiki torches collided with a bus boy carrying a box that was as big as he was, but Chuck paid no attention. Stepping closer to Gary and blinking hard, he asked, "A date? Marissa?"
"Looks like you're going to have to find somebody else to coordinate your sing along. Why don't you ask Crumb? I'm sure he'll be glad to take care of that for you--what?" Instead of the withering glare Gary had expected to see plastered on Chuck's face, there was apprehension.
"Marissa. On a date," Chuck repeated, slowly, as though those four words should make his point patently obvious. "Gar, you know how her dates turn out: psychotic killers, jewel thieves--" He ticked off Marissa's romantic history on his fingers.
"Now, now Chuck, don't you go giving her a hard time." Gary frowned at his friend sternly. "You go out on dates, I--I've been out on dates--" He ignored Chuck's snort. "Marissa can go out on a date."
"I'm not saying she can't go out on a date, Gary. I'm just saying that, given her track record, we gotta be careful." Chuck hopped onto the stool next to Gary's.
"We? What do we have to do with it?"
"We are her friends and we are the ones who are always cleaning up the mess when she gets into trouble."
Gary's mouth dropped open. "When she gets--WE?"
Chuck ignored Gary's incredulous question. "Did you ask her?"
"Ask her what?"
"Pertinent facts, Gary. Does this date of hers have a brother in jail? Has he ever smuggled cursed jewelry out of a museum exhibit? Does he have a police record in this or in any other country?" With each question, Chuck sliced the side of his hand through the air and onto the bar top.
"Well, no, I didn't ask her that. Those aren't the kinds of questions most friends think to ask each other about their dates."
"Well, we're not like 'most friends', are we?" Chuck waited while Gary shifted uncomfortably, silently acknowledging the relationship between the paper--his paper--and Marissa's troubles in the romance department. When Gary didn't say anything, he added, "Those are the kinds of questions she should be thinking about." Chuck spread his arms wide. "She's--she's the Calamity Jane of the dating world!"
"You--you better not let Marissa hear you say that," Gary cautioned, waggling two fingers at Chuck.
"Say what?" Crumb appeared on the other side of the bar, decked out in a straw hat and a shirt that was almost as bad as Chuck's. Gary stared at the bartender as he started setting up for the night. Crumb seemed perfectly comfortable in the ridiculous ensemble.
"Oh, Magnum PI, good, you're here!" Chuck exclaimed. He jumped from his seat and paced a few steps up and down the bar as he made plans. "We need fruit sliced, lots of fruit. And those funky straws, you got those? The colored ones? What about the parrot? And oh, by the way," he came to a stop in front of Gary and Crumb, "we need a background check on--what's his name, Gary?"
"I told you already, Fishman, I'm not wearing the damn stuffed parrot on my shoulder--" Crumb had been setting out napkins and paper coasters, but he stopped to stare at Chuck. "A background check?"
At the same time, Gary answered Chuck's last question. "Name? I don't know his name."
Chuck's voice rose again. "You're letting her go out on a date and
you don't know his name?"
"Letting--letting--Chuck you better stop with this 'letting' stuff."
"Whoa, whoa," Crumb leaned on the bar in between the men. "What the heck are you two talking about?"
"Marissa's date," Chuck told him, pronouncing the last word with crisp emphasis.
His gaze darting from one to the other, Crumb asked, "Hobson? You got some reason to think there's a problem?"
"No, no I don't," Gary assured him with a faint smile as he leaned back in his seat. "Chuck here is just a little outta control."
"Out of control, Gar? Crumb, do you have any idea how her last couple of flings have ended?"
Crumb's eyes were so hard they glittered. Despite the hat brim flopping over his forehead, he suddenly looked like the no-nonsense retired cop he was, rather than a tourist in Jamaica. "No I don't, but I also know it isn't polite to spread rumors about a lady's love life, especially a classy young lady who counts you as her friends."
Chuck, oblivious to the warning, plowed on. "Which is exactly why you need to check this guy out, Crumb. He could be anybody! Look, Marissa, she--" He looked to Gary as if for confirmation, or to ask how much to reveal, but Gary fixed him with a stony glare. Crumb was right, this was bordering on gossip, and Chuck was overreacting. Completely.
Elbow on the bar, Chuck leaned in close to Crumb and used his most pronounced stage whisper. "She tends to end up with guys who seem perfectly harmless, but who turn out to be bad, bad news. Crumb, I'm telling you, you gotta use your pull to check this guy out."
"Oh fer gawd's' sake, Fishman--" Crumb turned on Gary. "Does he seriously expect me to do this?"
Gary looked up from rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm afraid so."
"Look," Chuck lowered his voice further, so only Crumb and Gary could hear him, "you know when she was in the hospital this spring? That was because the guy she was dating gave her earrings that carried a virus. The time before that it was a knife-wielding psycho who stalked her in a campus auditorium."
Eyebrows shooting up, Crumb looked to Gary for confirmation. "That true?"
"Well, yeah, yeah, it's true as far as it goes, but--" he couldn't tell Crumb it was all the paper's fault, couldn't explain that if he, Gary, wasn't a part of Marissa's life she would never have had such trouble. "There were, uh, extenuating circumstances." Yeah, that's what Marcia would have called them.
"Yeah, uh..." Gary trailed off. He was having a hard time looking Crumb in the eye. "Look, it was never a matter of Marissa picking the wrong guys. They just kinda seemed to pick her."
Gary couldn't read the look Crumb was giving him now. Did the former detective think there was a reason to worry? Did he blame Gary? Crumb had always had a soft spot for Marissa and now, apparently, he was starting to catch the tenor of Chuck's concern. Or maybe he was reading Gary's own inner worry that nobody and nothing connected with him could have a plain and simple life.
Finally straightening, but not relinquishing his stare, Crumb asked, "Do you have some reason to suspect this guy?"
Gary shook his head. "No."
Crumb chewed his lip judiciously, then refocused his gaze to include both Gary and Chuck. "Then you know what I think? I think you should trust the lady to make her own decisions and let her lead her life without the two of youse hanging over her shoulder every damned minute." He punctuated the last word by stabbing the bar with one thick finger.
Gary nodded slowly, accepting the gruffly-veiled assurance, but Chuck wasn't through yet. "I told her I was going to screen all her dates from now on."
"Chuck--" Gary stood from his stool, ready to tell his partner to get back to hanging tiki torches or putting sunglasses on lawn flamingoes. Crumb rolled his eyes and turned his back on the two of them, sorting bottles on the shelves that lined the mirror on the wall.
"I mean, who knows what she's got herself hooked up with this time!"
Gary had been about to go around Chuck, but he froze in mid-step. "Uh, Chuck?" Marissa had come through the office door, brought up short by what she heard. It wasn't her reaction that stopped Gary, however. It was--well, it was her.
He was glad she couldn't see his jaw drop halfway to the floor. Too bad she couldn't have missed Chuck's speculation as well--too bad for Chuck, that was.
"Probably the Mafia--or--no, no--drug runners--Oh, but they'll be nice drug runners--" Chuck continued, falsetto, "Just like Ali was a charming jewel thief and--"
"Chuck!" The absolute, ice-cold anger in Marissa's voice brought him up short. He whirled to face her--and out of the corner of his eye Gary saw that he wasn't the only one left gaping.
"Whoa..." Chuck began, a note in his voice that he'd never directed at Marissa. Gary elbowed him in the ribs. "Uh...Something tells me you're not going to the Jimmy Buffet concert," he finished lamely.
If Marissa hadn't been standing with her hands on her hips, mouth pursed in exasperation at Chuck's effusive tirade, the effect would have been even more stunning. As it was, it was enough to knock her friends' socks off. The scoop-necked, sleeveless dress fit curves they'd never seen before, the skirt flaring just a little as it brushed the tops of her ankles. And what was the deal with that slit up the side of the skirt? Gary's gaze trailed from the tops of Marissa's shoes up the slit to her...he jumped when he heard Crumb clear his throat, right behind the pair who were staring like schoolboys, and turned to man in innocent shock. He hadn't been...not Marissa, for Pete's sake! If Crumb thought he was--but the bartender chuckled, clearly enjoying the effect Marissa's transformation was having on her friends.
Crumb came out from behind the bar, taking her hand. "Don't listen to those yahoos," he told her, guiding her around her friends to a stool, where she perched, a queen on her throne. Gary had no idea what the dress was made of, but it flowed like black, liquid ink when Marissa moved. She was taller--good lord, those heels were spiked--and how she was able to walk in them, Gary had no idea.
"You are absolutely lovely," Crumb continued graciously. "Like--like Cinderella all ready for the ball."
Her hair was swept up into a barrette, baring her shoulders and showing off long, slim silver earrings that sparkled even in the dim lighting of the bar. She looked completely out of place in these casual surroundings, not to mention completely gorgeous--the kind of woman men would fall all over. Gary wasn't sure he liked that thought. Maybe Chuck had been right to worry.
"Thank you, sir," Marissa returned Crumb's courtly tone with a smile, then turned in the direction of her friends. Her smile disappeared faster than yesterday's news. "Chuck? You were saying?"
Chuck shifted from one foot to the other, his stare encompassing Marissa's regal poise, the way she filled out the dress. If Gary hadn't known Chuck better, he would have thought he was ogling her--and Gary would have decked him for doing it. But Gary himself was just as discombobulated by this Marissa, someone he'd never really seen or known existed.
"I, uh..." Chuck looked at Gary, who wasn't about to offer his friend any rescue attempt this time. Nervously swaying on the balls of his feet, Chuck finally offered, "I was just wondering what happened to the hula skirt."
Crumb stared at Chuck as though he'd sprouted an extra head, while Gary rolled his eyes.
"There never was a hula skirt, Chuck." Marissa's tone would have withered tomatoes if they'd been in the kitchen. "There never was the merest glimmer of a possibility of a hula skirt." She paused, smoothing the dress over her knees, then added, "It sounded as if you were making fun of me."
"Well, no, Marissa, I wasn't, I--heck, I always make fun of you! What's the big deal?"
"No, Chuck," she answered, suddenly serious, "you tease me. There's a difference. One's to my face, and the other's behind my back. It isn't very fair to talk about me like that when I don't have an opportunity to put in my own two cents."
Chuck gulped and looked at the floor for a moment, hands behind his back, obviously fully aware that he had crossed a line. Crumb and Gary exchanged a speculative glance. Just how much had Marissa overheard?
"Hey, we were just worried about you, that's all." Chuck looked up at Marissa again, and some of his spark was back. "With the luck you've had lately, if you went on the Love Boat, it'd hit a rock and sink faster than the Titanic."
"Fishman!" Crumb threw up his hands and shook his head. "Don't listen to him, sweetheart." He then went to deal with the busboy, who was clearly lost as to what to do with the brightly-colored plastic pails and shovels that had spilled from his box.
Gary watched Marissa, waiting for an explosion that didn't come. Still composed, she asked quietly, "What are you saying, Chuck? You think there's going to be trouble? You don't trust me to pick my dates?"
Arms akimbo, Chuck retorted, "Well, I can think of a time or two you could have been more careful, yeah."
"Careful? Do you think I'm not capable of making good decisions?" Her voice rose, just a little, and Gary could see the ice they were all on was pretty damned thin.
"You were ready to go to Egypt with a guy you'd known for forty-eight hours!" Chuck exploded.
Crack. There it went.
"That was different, Chuck, Ali, he--"
"Swept you off your feet?" Chuck adopted an almost-British accent, oozing affectation.
He took a step closer. "Completely snowed you with flowers and jewels?"
Marissa bit her lip, her hand curling tightly over the railing of the bar.
"Chuck, that's enough." Gary's voice carried all the warning he could impose, and he thrust an arm in front of Chuck before he could get right in Marissa's face. She had never had any trouble holding her own in the verbal sparring in which she and Chuck regularly engaged. If she wasn't giving it right back to him now, it was because he'd hit too close to home.
Staring at Gary for a minute, Chuck apparently realized the same thing.
"Look, I'm sorry, Marissa." He took a step back. She winced at the word that never failed to gall her, but didn't correct Chuck this time. He continued, "It's not you, it's your dates we don't trust, right Gary?"
"Don't be dragging me into your paranoid delusions, Chuck. I never said any of that, you did." Gary dropped his arm. "Look, Marissa, Chuck's just...he's just a little concerned, that's all."
"Concerned about what?" Her brow furrowed.
Loading every word with sarcasm, Chuck responded, "Oh, I don't know, maybe the fact that the last guy you got involved with put you in the hospital and nearly killed you? Or that the one before that came after you with a knife?"
Marissa drew herself up stiffly. "Those things didn't happen because of poor judgment on my part, they happened because--" She took a deep breath before she went any further, but she didn't have to. Gary knew what she'd been about to say. "--because of, I don't know, bad karma or something," she finished lamely.
"Marissa, I--" Gary began, but she wouldn't let him dwell on the past.
"I had dates before I knew you guys, and I'm going to keep having dates until--well, until I don't anymore. Just because I happen to be meeting this particular date here doesn't make you any more responsible for what happens, so you can just stow the big brother act, all right?"
"Well, maybe you could use a big brother," Chuck snapped.
"Oh, and what are you going to do? Set a curfew?" One hand on her hip, Marissa glared in Chuck's direction.
"Just, just hold on," Gary broke in, resigned to his role as peacemaker yet again. "Chuck is just--he's just being a little protective. Overprotective," he amended, turning to Chuck with a finger held out. "And Chuck, Marissa isn't a teenager, she's not stupid. She's been around the block a couple of times--" Gary broke off and dropped his hand, realizing what he'd just said and who he'd said it about. "Uh...Marissa...I didn't mean that you...I mean, I hope you..." He could feel his cheeks getting hot.
"As if it's any of your business." She sighed, rubbing her forehead with one hand. "I do not believe I am having this conversation."
"Well, it's just--" Gary paused, fumbling for the right words. "It's just that none of us seems to have led a normal life, the past couple of years."
"Whose fault is that?" Chuck asked Gary pointedly.
"There's no reason to worry about me," Marissa insisted.
"There is in that dress," Chuck muttered under his breath, as he stepped past Gary into the office.
"I heard that!"
"Well, it's the truth," Chuck groused, re-emerging with a handful of neon green papers. "Lyrics for the sing along," he said in response to Gary's unspoken question. Gary winced. What next, a pig roast?
Marissa was having a hard time keeping her cool. "What is wrong with my dress? My mother helped me pick out this dress!"
"Your mama lets you go out looking like that?"
Gary shot Chuck a look that silenced him, for once, then said, "There's nothing wrong with it, Marissa, it's just that it...well, it..."
"It looks like it's missing a part or something," Chuck finished. He handed the papers to a waiter, who started putting them at all the tables.
"Oh, and what part would that be?" Marissa was clearly not taking this lightly.
"The part that keeps guys from drooling down your--"
"Fishman! Get over here and tell us where you want the inflatable palm tree."
Flashing a look of pure gratitude at Crumb as Chuck swallowed whatever he was going to say and headed across the room, Gary sat down on the stool next to Marissa's. Hand still gripping the railing, back perfectly straight, Marissa faced him with her chin tipped up and her mouth set. Not for the first time, Gary wondered why his friends always seemed to be at odds, even though they cared about each other.
Rubbing one hand on the side of his jeans, Gary fumbled for the right thing to say. "Don't, don't mind him, Marissa, it's just--Chuck, he, uh--he just doesn't want you to get hurt."
"I know, Gary." Marissa's expression softened. "But there's really nothing to get worried about. I can take care of myself."
"Well I, I know that--"
"This isn't Ali or, or--or Jeffery," she continued, and Gary nodded, though she couldn't see it. She bit her lip, then cocked her head, asking, "Do I--Gary, do I really look, well, good enough to make--to make Chuck react like that?"
Gary started, taken aback at such a question from the normally self-assured Marissa. Now he really wasn't sure what to say. "Well, yeah, of course you do, Marissa, you look--you look--" He held out one hand helplessly, as if the right word would land in it like a pop-up fly ball. Sexy, he thought; hot--but he could not say those words, not about Marissa, no matter how true they were. He settled for: "You look like a million bucks, and then some."
"Good," she nodded once, a little smile on her face that told him she'd read more into his answer than just the words. She'd been worried, Gary realized, about the impression she was making, the way she looked. Maybe she'd offered to stay at work late out of more than mere courtesy.
A silence followed, in which Crumb came over to investigate the situation under the guise of handing Marissa a club soda with lime and Gary a bottle of beer. Apparently satisfied that Gary wasn't harassing her, Crumb went back to wiping down the bar. "So, uh, what did you say his name was?" Gary kept his voice casual, absently tracing random patterns on the side of his bottle with one finger.
"His name is Ben. Ben Elsner." Marissa's smile grew a little wider, a little deeper, and, elbow propped on the bar next to her glass, she rested her chin in her hand. Gary had seen that look on her face before, and heard that dreamy tone, and he'd wanted to believe things would work out for her. Maybe this time, they would.
"Yeah?" Gary leaned an elbow on the bar, too, settling in. "So, tell me about him."
Fiddling with one earring, Marissa chose her words with care. "Well, he's--he's kind, you know? Like you, a little. And he listens to me. He has a really warm voice, like--well, I don't know if this makes any sense to you, but it's like hot chocolate. He makes me laugh, too, and when I'm with him I feel--" She waved her free hand. "--it's like there are all these possibilities just buzzing around in the air."
Gary blinked and sat up straight. Wow. Marissa really was taken with this guy. "Well, that's, that's great--"
"What kind of possibilities?" Chuck had strolled back to the bar and stood next to Marissa's stool with his arms folded across the front of his tropical shirt, looking for all the world like a bull terrier who'd run amok in a paint store.
"Oh, Chuck, not again." Marissa sighed and swiveled around on the stool, leaning back against the bar. She was clearly not happy to be jolted out of her reverie.
"Nah..." relaxing his stance, Chuck broke into a familiar grin. "Come on, now, I'm not here to give you a hard time. Well, I am, but not that way. Look, Marissa, I didn't mean to imply that I didn't trust you, okay? I just got a little carried away, that's all."
Gary watched Marissa carefully. She seemed to accept Chuck's implied apology, and nodded as she sipped her soda.
"So, where'd you meet this guy?" Chuck asked, swinging his arms and snapping as Crumb fired up the stereo and "California Girls" came over the speakers. Apparently realizing that she was going to have to give away a few facts, like it or not, Marissa answered the question without chiding her friend.
"At church, if you must know." She smiled as if at a private joke. "He's the choir director's son."
Sounded good to Gary, but Chuck wasn't finished yet. Raising his eyebrows, he asked, "So, he's kinda like a preacher's kid, a little wild, rebellious, what, does he sing in a rock band? Is he a tattoo artist?"
"He's a podiatrist, Chuck," Marissa told him flatly, folding her hands in her lap.
"Oh no. A podiatrist? Oh, that's not good." Chuck was clearly teasing now, the gleeful playfulness in his voice replacing the stern older-brother stuff he'd pulled earlier.
"What?" Marissa's indignation was belied by the crinkles around her eyes.
"No, no, not good at all," Chuck continued, shaking his head in mock-remorse. "Guy with a foot fetish, you in those shoes...am I right, Gar?" he added with a wink.
Gary finished a swig of his beer and played along, relieved that Chuck and Marissa weren't at each other's throats again. "Yeah, yeah, you could be."
"He'll sweep you off your feet, too, under the guise of 'examining them'," Chuck declared.
Marissa swung said foot in the direction of Chuck's voice. "Watch it, Chuck, or I'll plant 'these shoes' in you somewhere."
"No thank you, Emma Peel," he chuckled, taking a step away just in case. "So, tell me, what exactly are you doing tonight? This seems awful...um..." Chuck waved his hand up and down, encompassing glittering barrette, dangerous heels, and everything in between,"...dressy...for a first date."
"We're going to dinner, and then to a concert at Orchestra Hall. And I didn't say it was our first date, Chuck."
Chuck and Gary exchanged startled glances, all thoughts of tweaking Marissa gone again. "It--it's not?" Gary asked, slowly sitting up straight.
"Which date is it, exactly?" Chuck wanted to know.
Marissa shrugged one elegant shoulder. "I don't know, it's been a few weeks, and we don't always--"
Completely indignant, Chuck raised his voice to a level that even the cooks in the kitchen could probably hear. "A few weeks? You've been seeing some guy for a few weeks and you haven't even told us?"
It was a good question. What was it about this guy that had prompted Marissa to keep him a secret? Although, considering Chuck's reaction, Gary decided, it might not have been Ben Elsner she was worried about.
"Well, Chuck, I don't think I need to confirm my every move with you, do I?" Marissa asked. "We've been out for coffee, we've talked, we've--" she broke off, throwing one hand in the air. "Why am I telling you this? I don't owe you an agenda!"
Gary chewed on his lip. He didn't want her to think he was hovering, but on the other hand it made him uneasy to think what a guy might expect after several dates, if she showed up in that dress...
Chuck was already several yards ahead of Gary in that line of thought. Probably already out of the ball park. Shaking one agitated finger in Marissa's direction, he retorted, "Yeah? Well, you listen to me, Miss Independent. There are guys out there who aren't as respectable as me and Gar, here--"
"Well, Gary, anyway," he amended when she snorted. "There are sharks out there, Marissa, who will tell you anything just to get what they want."
She lifted her eyebrows. "And you know this because..."
"Because he's one of them." Gary shot Chuck a wry smile to show he didn't mean it. Despite Chuck's posturing around women, he really was a gentleman when all was said and done.
"So what is it that these 'sharks' want, Chuck?" Marissa tilted her head to one side and opened her eyes wide, feigning innocence.
"Well, it's, um--" Chuck fumbled for an appropriate euphemism. "You know--dancing." He spoke the last word in a whisper, as though it were an unspeakable horror.
Chuckling, Marissa asked, "What?"
"Oh, yeah," Gary nodded, jutting out his lower lip and trying not to laugh. "Dancing. The Cha-cha, that's real dangerous stuff there. And be sure you watch out for the guys who want to do the Hokey Pokey. They're up to no good."
"Dancing, Gary," Chuck persisted, eyebrows raised. He was not going to be detracted. "The horizont--OW!" Marissa's heel had made swift, sharp contact with his bare knee. As Chuck doubled over, Gary couldn't help but wonder which was more uncanny--Marissa's aim, or the fact that she had known where Chuck was heading and had cut him off before he got there.
She lifted her chin in satisfaction while Chuck rubbed his knee. "Chuck--both of you--I can handle myself. It's not like this is the first date I've ever had."
"Yeah, we've established that, haven't we?" Chuck hopped a little on his good leg.
Gary couldn't believe Chuck was still at it. Next time that shoe was going to be aimed just a little higher, if he wasn't careful. "Hey, look, Marissa, we know you're strong; you can obviously take care of yourself." Standing, he couldn't resist a sly grin at Chuck, who glowered back at him. "We just--we're your friends and we want you to be happy, that's all."
"Well, I am happy, Gary. I like Ben, and I don't know what the two of you are imagining is going to happen tonight or any other night, but frankly, it's none of your business unless I say it is. Why do you think I haven't said anything before? I'm afraid you'll embarrass me if you act like this around him."
"Okay, okay, we're gonna be perfect gentlemen...right Chuck?" Gary waited, as did Marissa, while Chuck looked from one to the other. "Right, Chuck?"
"Right," Chuck finally acquiesced.
"There, ya see? Everything's gonna be fine," Gary assured Marissa. He would have patted her shoulder, but it was so--so bare. Brows furrowing, he added, "Are you sure you don't need a sweater or--"
"Well, it--it just looks cold in that dress, that's all!"
Marissa put her head down on her arms, shaking it carefully back and forth, careful not to muss her hairdo. Gary ran a hand through his own hair. Drat, he'd blown it.
"Um, excuse me--Marissa?" The soft baritone startled them all. Marissa's head came up as she turned toward the sound.
"Ben?" The man who stood before them was just slightly larger than Chuck in both height and build. He glanced uncertainly from Marissa to her friends.
"Hi. Is--is everything okay?" With his dark curly hair cropped close and a clean-shaven face the color of cinnamon, Ben Elsner could have passed for much younger than even Marissa. But something about his bearing, the way he wore the dark grey, crisply tailored linen suit, told Gary that Ben was closer to his own age than to that of a college student.
"Everything's fine. I'm just glad you're here." Gary didn't miss the significant weight Marissa put in her words as she stood, just about the same height as her date in her high-heeled shoes. Chuck stepped away to stand next to Gary, eyebrows raised as the two of them watched Ben take Marissa's hand and give her a kiss on the cheek. Farther down the bar, Crumb had dropped all pretense of setting up and was watching the scene as well. None of them missed the quick smile that broke across Marissa's face, nor the way she squeezed Ben's hand. She really liked this guy, Gary realized. No wonder she had gone to so much trouble with the dress.
Dark, almond-shaped eyes widened behind wire-rimmed glasses as Ben stepped back just a little to get the full effect. Stammering, he managed to get out, "Marissa, you--you look--you are--" He gulped. "Wow." Marissa ducked her head, but her smile said that all the effort and the teasing she'd had to endure had been worth it for that response.
Chuck cleared his throat, and Ben turned to him and Gary, grinning sheepishly. "Oh, hi, I was just--"
"Admiring the view?" Chuck asked dryly. Even for someone listening closely, as Gary was, it was difficult to detect the harder note underlying Chuck's seemingly casual question. But it was there.
"Ben, these are my friends." Marissa indicated Chuck and Gary with her hand. "Chuck Fishman is the shorter one, Gary Hobson's standing next to him."
"Ben Elsner." His handshake was quick and firm, and he looked Gary directly in the eye when they exchanged grips. There was no subterfuge, at least not that Gary could discern. "Marissa's told me a lot about you."
One eyebrow raised, Chuck responded, "Has she? I wish I could say the same about you. Though I do hear it's actually Doctor Elsner, isn't it?"
Marissa stiffened, but Ben smiled, a lopsided grin that said he didn't take any offense at all. "Just Ben's good enough. And there isn't a whole lot to tell. Being a podiatrist isn't nearly as exciting as running a bar. Hey, Marissa, you didn't tell me it was such a--" He looked around, apparently at a loss for words. "--tropical place."
"Usually it's not," Gary informed him dryly with a disgusted glance in Chuck's direction. "Usually it's a lot more, well, tasteful."
"Oh. Well...nice shirt, anyway," Ben offered lamely to Chuck. It came across as a completely innocent comment, but Gary noticed that the guy's eyes were twinkling. Maybe he wasn't so bad after all.
"Marissa? Can I get your friend anything?" Crumb had finally given up on the aloof act. Pushing the brim of his hat back off his brow, he leaned across the bar, forearms on the counter.
"Crumb, there you are." Marissa turned to the bartender with a warm smile. "This is Ben."
Ben reached out to shake hands again, and Crumb straightened as they did so. "Zeke Crumb. My friends call me Zeke," he added, flicking a sideways glance at Gary.
"Formerly Detective Crumb, of the Chicago Police Department," Chuck added pointedly.
Wincing, Marissa shook her head. Ben's eyes widened but he didn't say anything.
"What can I get you?" Crumb asked Ben.
"Well, actually--" Ben turned to Marissa. "--we should get going. Our dinner reservations are in twenty minutes, and since it's just a few blocks over I thought we could walk, if that's okay?"
"Sure. I--oh, I have to go get my purse and my cane from the back, it'll just take a second." Marissa was so familiar with McGinty's that she often moved through the bar without any aid.
"Can I help you with that, or--"
"Oh, no, I'll be fine." But Marissa paused after taking a couple of steps toward the office, as if realizing that she was abandoning Ben to the clutches of her friends. "Behave," she hissed at Chuck as she passed.
He made no promises, putting on a Cheshire Cat smile. "You go ahead, Marissa. We'll just chat with Ben here, right Gary?"
"Sure," Gary answered, watching Marissa until she made it to the office. He turned to find Ben had been doing the same thing, and their eyes met in unspoken understanding.
"So," Chuck clasped his hands in front of him, bouncing on his toes again, "dinner and a concert, eh?"
Ben nodded, his eyes lighting up even more. "Yeah, Marissa said she really likes Vivaldi, and it's not every day that a violinist like Nigel Kennedy plays in Chicago, you know?"
Gary had no idea who Nigel Kennedy was, but he nodded as if he understood. "Great--" Chuck cut him off.
"Classical music, eh? So is there any dancing involved in this date?"
"Dancing?" Ben frowned in confusion, then, seeing Chuck's suggestive tilt of the head and Gary's roll of the eyes, quickly ducked his head to hide a sudden grin. He looked back up with amusement shining from a warm, direct gaze. "Okay, look, you two--three--" Crumb was still standing across from them at the bar, and Ben waved a hand to include him as well. "I know what this is all about. Marissa's said enough for me to know that you guys are all really tight, and that you look out for her. I think that's great, I really do. But you have to understand, she's not Little Red Riding Hood and I'm not the Big Bad Wolf. Heck, if that were the case, the wolf would be the one in trouble." He grinned, and Gary cast a sidelong glance at Chuck, whose knee was already starting to bruise. "But it's not, okay? Nothing's going to happen to her because I won't let it."
Evidently Chuck was at a loss for words in the face of such a forthright declaration; he blinked at Ben a couple of times but couldn't find one of his trademark snappy comebacks. Crumb grinned from ear to ear and looked as if he would have slapped the guy on the back if he could have reached that far. But it was Gary Ben was looking at and to whom he had addressed the brunt of his little speech. Wondering how much, and what, Marissa had told him, Gary had listened with growing respect.
Either this guy knew exactly what Marissa's friends wanted to hear and was casting it out to them, hook, line, and sinker, or he really was as genuine as he seemed Considering Marissa's good instincts about people, the sparkle she'd displayed as soon as Ben had walked into the bar, and the fact that he could see no hint of guile in the man's manner, Gary concluded that the latter was probably true. Nodding slowly, allowing a little smile to creep into his own expression, Gary told him, "You've--you've got good taste, Ben."
"And good luck," he agreed. "I was sure someone like Marissa would already be, you know, involved. I was as shocked as anyone when she said she'd go out with me that first time."
"Well, just because you got lucky that time, don't think--"
"Chuck, don't be vulgar." Once again, Marissa had managed to sneak up behind him.
"Don't think you can win at the blackjack tables every single night, that's all I was saying," Chuck finished. "We were just discussing the casinos, weren't we fellows?" None of the other men rushed to back him up, and Marissa didn't even dignify his prevarication with a response.
Turning to Gary, she said, "Try to keep him under control tonight, will you?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'll do that, Marissa. You have a good time."
Purse tucked under one arm, she glided past Gary and Chuck to where Ben stood, again transfixed. Gary grinned. This guy was okay. He was so much in awe of Marissa that he probably wouldn't remember how to try anything, even if he wanted to.
"Better than you will, no doubt." She smirked over her shoulder. "Good night, Chuck. Don't ruin our bar."
"Good night, Marissa. Don't do anything I wouldn't--wait a minute, that's not right..." Chuck trailed off with a wry smile.
"Hey, young lady, you have a wonderful evening," Crumb told her, but he had Ben in an eyelock. Breaking that gaze with a nod, he directed his next words right at Marissa. "You call me if you need anything, anything at all, you hear?"
Somehow she seemed to take it better from Crumb than she would have from Gary or Chuck. "All right." She turned to Ben. "Shall we?"
"Sure." Offering his elbow, which she took, Ben directed a nod at the trio who watched them leave. None of Marissa's friends missed the way he guided her out the door with a hand on the small of her back, just below the spot where the low-cut dress made a "U".
Wisely waiting until the couple was out the front door, Chuck broke into song.
"Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older;
When did theeeeeeeey?"
"Fishman, you are certifiable," Crumb told him, rolling his eyes.
"Oh, it's just so...so poignant," Chuck sniffed dramatically. "Our little girl, all grown up, going out on dates--with a doctor, no less!"
"You know--" Gary had been watching Marissa and Ben as they strolled past the window, talking with animated gestures. "He's not so bad."
"Well, what d'ya expect?" At Crumb's snort, Gary turned to the bartender and found him staring back with detached amusement.
"What?" Gary asked defensively.
"A sweater, Hobson?" Shaking his head, Crumb added, "You're as transparent as Saran Wrap on a stripper." He went back to work, mixing drinks for the first few customers who'd trickled in.
Chuck turned to Gary, staring at his feet. "Hey, Gar?"
"Hmmm?" Distracted, Gary looked down in surprise in the direction Chuck was pointing. Cat was pawing at his shin, mewing insistently.
"You don't think--I mean, did you check the paper?" Hissing the last two words so Crumb wouldn't hear, Chuck bored a hole into Gary with his insistent gaze.
"Well, no, I--" Stomach sinking, Gary realized what Chuck was implying. The two friends stared at each other for another split second, until Chuck broke the spell.
They broke for the office, Gary elbowing Chuck out of the way before he could get his hands on the Sun-Times.
When he dashed back out through the bar a minute later, paper in hand, Gary heard but didn't respond to Crumb's urgent question. "Hobson, what the hell is wrong with you?" Trusting Chuck to come up with an explanation, Gary grabbed what he needed from the foyer and raced off in the direction he'd seen Marissa and Ben go. Two blocks later, he caught up with them; they stopped and turned back at his call.
"Marissa, wait up!"
None too pleased to hear him, probably thinking he was hovering again, Marissa set her jaw in impatient annoyance. Ben, who could see the look on Gary's face, regarded him curiously.
"Gary, what is it now?" Marissa asked.
"Sorry," he gasped, a little out of breath after his mad dash. "I just wanted to give you this. You're gonna need it." He held out the object he'd brought from the bar.
"An umbrella?" Ben asked, confusion replaced with a wry grin. "There's hardly a cloud in the sky." His expression clearly told Gary that he thought this was some excuse to follow them, and he frowned owlishly through his glasses while Gary made a rather noisy show of transferring the paper from the hand that held the umbrella to the back pocket of his jeans.
Marissa, on the other hand, suddenly understood. Her eyes widened. "Is that all, Gary?" Her question left him room to maneuver; she wasn't sure if there was something else he was trying to warn her about, and she was giving him an opening. "It's going to rain?"
"Yes, Marissa, that's all," Gary assured her. "I just didn't want you to ruin your, uh, your new dress and everything."
Ben watched the two of them, eyes narrowing slightly. He was sharp, Gary realized, and knew there was more being said here than what was in the words, but Gary was sure Ben didn't have any idea what it was he and Marissa were avoiding so assiduously. Marissa would never tell anyone about the paper, not without asking Gary first.
"What exactly is going on here?" Ben's straightforwardness exerted itself again.
"Just making sure you guys don't get wet, that's it." Gary looked Ben in the eye, but he also placed extra emphasis on the last word, just so Marissa would know there was nothing else in the paper for her to worry about.
Marissa squeezed her date's arm. "Trust me Ben, there's one thing about Gary--if he tells you it's going to rain, there will be rain." Evidently assured by this, Ben relaxed and took the proffered umbrella.
"Thanks, Gary." Releasing her casual hold on Ben's arm, Marissa stepped closer to her friend, found and lightly touched his arm, stood up on tiptoe, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for everything." Leaving Gary with an affectionate smile, she took Ben's arm and they started off again. He leaned in close, asking a question, and she chuckled and nodded. One final look back at Gary, who waved, and Ben guided Marissa around the corner and out of sight.
"You happy now?" Gary asked Cat, who had materialized at his feet again. Purring contentedly, the enigmatic feline rubbed against Gary's ankle for a moment before trotting back toward McGinty's. Gary followed, shivering a little in the suddenly cool breeze. The paper had predicted a downpour in the next few hours, and now he could smell the rain on the wind.
Chuck was waiting for him outside the front door, appraising the garish window display. Seeing the flamingos in all their glory, Gary winced.
"Everything okay now, buddy?" Chuck asked.
"Yeah, it's, it's fine." Well, Marissa was. The window wasn't. It was just for one night, he reminded himself. That was all. "What'd you tell Crumb?"
"Just that you watched the Weather Channel and panicked. Didn't surprise him at all." Chuck's wicked cackle was met with a disgusted shake of Gary's head. "C'mon, buddy, you gotta relax." Chuck thumped him on the back as the two of them headed toward the entrance. "How are you gonna lead the Limbo contest if you're all tense like this?"
"L-Limbo contest? I ain't doing no limbo contest, Chuck! You gotta be kidding me."
"Oh, c'mon, Gar, the ladies love it!"
"Well, they, they can just go right on loving it--you limbo, Chuck, you can get under there, you're a little guy."
"Don't call me that!"
"Crumb calls you that. You're not gonna make Crumb do the limbo, are you? If he doesn't have to, I don't have to."
"Hey, Gar, what was that 'Zeke' business, anyway? Is that what he wants us to call him now?"
"Well, I dunno, Chuck, why don't you ask him?"
"You ask him, he's your friend."
"My friend? Since when..."
With one imperious "meow" at the flamingos, Cat followed Gary and Chuck,
still trading gibes, back into McGinty's.
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