Story Notes and Acknowledgements

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The End of the Road

Kat Allison

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Diefenbaker refused to accompany me to the airport this morning. (Interesting, I note in passing, how swiftly my mind has abandoned its always-tenuous grip on the pronoun "us" and reverted to the first person singular.) His refusal surprised me—not that I expect cooperation from him, certainly, but I thought he might at least be willing to lend some support on this occasion. Perhaps I should, in charity, attribute his decision to some canine sensitivity to emotional atmosphere.

However, I'm not feeling charitable this morning, and I have decided his obstinacy is due to his own lupine self-willed pigheadedness, his disinclination to consult anyone's wishes but his own, or to accommodate his nature to anyone else's design. Whether in the heart of Chicago or here in Inuvik, he has always been simply who he is, wolf-dog, dog-wolf, a misfit in both worlds, belonging nowhere—and serenely unconcerned about it, hence fitting equally well wherever he goes, simply by being himself.

(And I cannot keep from following that thought, cannot silence the wretched part of me that whimpers If that's so easy for him, then why must it be so impossible for me? For Ray?)

There was a blizzard down in Edmonton, of course, this being December, so of course the flight is delayed. And, of course, this has propelled Ray from his chronic edginess into outright anger, and I know very well how close that is to explosive rage. I sit entirely still, knowing all it would take to propel him over the edge is one sigh, one wrong look, one clumsy word—and all my words have been clumsy, of late.

Nothing about Ray is clumsy, I think as I watch him pace. Not now, not ever. In the relative warmth of the terminal he's shed his parka, balaclava, mittens, even traded his boots for sneakers. He's prowling up and down the passenger lounge, turning the rows of chairs and their inhabitants into partners in his private quadrille. There's a rucked-up hump of carpeting in the aisle; every time he nears it I think this time for sure he'll trip over it, so intent are his eyes on the windows, scanning the runway and sky. And yet every time he steps gracefully over it, as if every cell in his body is sensate, perceiving.

Every so often he takes off his glasses, scrabbles under his sweater for the hem of his t-shirt, and scrubs the lenses with it. He's taken to wearing them habitually of late, as if he needs the clarity of vision they give him now even more sorely than he did in Chicago, when his very life at times depended on getting off a clean shot.

He stops pacing, finally, and turns from the window (difficult to see anything out there in any event, the sun stopped rising three days ago). He runs his fingers through his hair, then drops into a chair and stares back into the terminal from hooded eyes. The airline clerk, behind her small desk, is in his line of vision, and he fixes on her a stare of such concentrated malevolence (Ray in his cobra incarnation, I know that look well) that it seems to compel her to glance up, and to flinch, visibly, when she catches his gaze. But she's a brave girl—Canadian North hires no weaklings—and after a moment she stands and walks over, closer to him.

"Mr. Kowalski? I'm very sorry about the delay. Can I get you anything while you wait?"

"Can you get me anything." This tone, too, is familiar to me, I've heard him use it on the street with armed thugs, in interrogation rooms with unlucky suspects. At home, recent nights, with me. "Yeah, you can get me something, you can get me my flight out of this fucking place. Nineteen hours it's gonna take me to get back to civilization, and I got to be held up, right here at the get-go, cause in Canada they don't have rubber bands strong enough to run the propellers when it's snowing." He leans back, grinning at her. "What a surprise, hey? Snow, up here, who'd'a thought it."

Then he stops, looks down, and raises his hands. The other passengers in the lounge are very pointedly not noticing him. "Sorry. I'm sorry. Shouldn't take it out on you. Not your fault, I know that." His sharp gestures are conciliatory, as if trying to pull back his words and his anger, reallocate them, to him, to me, to us. The fault is indeed no one else's. It is his, mine, ours.


You're so pale, in the fluorescent glare. Bone-white skin, pulled tight over bones. You've lost weight ever since the weather turned cold and the days began to shorten. I've noticed how little you've eaten, how badly you sleep. How you pace the house, deep in the night, silent in your thick socks, when you think I'm asleep.

Pale skin, pale wolf's ruff of hair, pale eyes—it's so hard to sort out, to categorize all that I've come to love in you, but those might have been the very first. Northern eyes, the grey-blue of winter, malamute's eyes, with the slaty cast of ice over them, and yet so hot with life.

I had known you and loved you for what seemed like a long time before we ever came north, but when I truly saw you for the first time in northern light, in the arctic dawn, I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful. You looked like you belonged here, like this was your landscape, your home. I began, in that moment, to dream things I never would have hoped for, in Chicago.

Romantic delusions. Lies to oneself are the most damnable lies of all.


The flight, whenever it finally arrives, will take him through Norman Wells, to Yellowknife, Edmonton and finally to Chicago, but his stay there will likewise be temporary.

His ultimate destination is, to my knowledge, as yet uncertain; if he has new information, he's not shared it with me. I know he has a job interview arranged in Los Angeles, and one in San Antonio. "Warm, Fraser," he told me. "Goin' for warm, here, goin' for absence of snow, lose the mittens, burn the mukluks. That's the agenda, top to bottom. Someone give me one of those whatsit, Franklin Planners, I'd sit down and write 'Warm' on every day of the year, and we're including January in that."

The craving for heat is a mystery to me; I recall so vividly the heat of that cheap apartment, my first summer in Chicago. The nights when there was nothing for it but to leave, to walk to the lake and sit by the shore. Even then, with the open expanse of water before me, I felt myself suffocating in that choking air, and had to force myself to be calm, to breathe steadily. I would tell myself I was merely back in Toivo's sauna, in Fort Reliance, that any minute I could go out and leap into the snow, and that helped me to keep breathing.

Chicago is already unreal in my memory, but the heat is one of the few things I vividly remember—that, and the awful sense of need that gnawed me the whole time I was there like a sickness, the emptiness and the desperation for something, I wasn't certain what, something to fill the ache and make me whole.

At times, back then, I let myself dream that Ray could be that something, though I was certain he never would. At times I'd dream that being back here would heal me, to be back in the cold, the snow, the darkness, the great empty sweep of the arctic, the home that seemed lost to me.

So when it seemed, for a while, that I could have both Ray and home—well, that was the sweetest delusion of all, and the most pernicious.


Ray's digging in his carry-on bag, pulling out one item after another, scowling at them and shoving them back, until he finds a bag of candies, rips it open, and starts munching them ferociously. He must be hungry; he'd declined breakfast, refused to give me one last meal with him (and that's disgusting self-pity, stop it right now). I have a feeling if I brought him any food he'd knock it out of my hands, and there's nothing at the refreshment kiosk worth eating in any event; but they do have coffee.

He'd—we'd—run out of coffee a few days ago, and Ray had refused to let me buy any more. "What exactly would be the point of that, Fraser?" A quick grin, with no humor in it. "You planning to take up the habit or something? Mountie all jagged up on caffeine, there's a scary thought."

"It couldn't hurt to have some around. Guests—"

"Yeah, you're big on the guests, I've noticed that, the Conrad Hilton of the tundra, that's you."

He knew perfectly well, of course, why we so seldom had guests, why I had striven to keep some tattered shred of privacy around our lives—a futile attempt, to be sure, in a town the size of Inuvik.

Even here at the airport—many of these people are strangers, of course, merely passing through, but some of them are locals, and they know exactly who I am, who he is, what is happening in this terminal this morning. They're watching with placid interest, in the hope that drama will explode and give them a story to recount over coffee at the Sunriser tomorrow morning. My mother used to say, with some bitterness, that our chief obligation to our neighbors is to provide entertainment, and I do believe one thing I inherited from her was a dislike for being the object of small-town nosiness.

So I feel eyes on me as I rise and walk to the refreshments kiosk, purchase a large coffee, spoon in an appalling amount of sugar, the way I know he likes, and walk back. He's slumped in his seat, legs sprawled. Nearing him feels dangerous, like approaching a high-voltage line, but it's a sensation I'm accustomed to by now, and I walk right up to him, and hold out the tall cardboard cup.

For a moment I think he's going to ignore it and me, but after a moment he slides up in his seat, and, without looking at me, holds his hand out. I give him the cup, step back—it feels like handing off a bomb—and sit, carefully keeping an empty seat between us. He doesn't drink the coffee right away, but sits for a minute with his hands wrapped around the cup, warming them. He's had cold hands since the moment he arrived here, nine months ago, and the frostbite certainly didn't help. Though the marks it left have faded, I still know exactly where each frozen spot was—those four fingers, there; the left cheek and ear; toes. Those places will likely always be tender to cold, a permanent reminder, as if he needed one, a memento, a painful trophy of the Quest.


The Quest . . . well, to say that the whole thing was just romantic idiocy on my part would be letting myself off far too easily. I could say I was unhinged, as you've often told me, but it would be more honest to say that I was indulging myself, unforgiveably. Selfish, as you've also told me. There is no excuse for it, and no escape from the shame of it. It nearly got you killed.

You thought you might be near death when you first brought the idea up, there in the crevasse. As impetuous as ever, you were envisioning new adventures even while the one in progress was doing you in, and it was hard for me to tell if the idea of a quest for Franklin was just a fancy borne of fatigue and delirium, or a bone thrown out to keep my spirits raised, or if it was the truth of your deepest desires, a secret of the kind that can reveal itself in moments of extremity.

But however carelessly you might have flung the idea out, it took root in my imagination, and grew there. When all the adventures of the following days were over, when our mission was done and Muldoon in custody, when the prospect of your departure back to Chicago impended, it leapt up again in my mind—the dream of what it might be like to keep you here, to show you my country and travel through this landscape with you beside me. The vision was too strong for me, stronger than my common sense. Not the first time I abandoned sense in the grip of dreams, and, as events have proven, certainly not the last.


A nearby loudspeaker crackles on, announcing the imminent departure of an Aklak Air flight to Paulatuk. Ray glares at it, twists around to glare out at the runway, and, seeming unable to sit still another moment, leaps to his feet and resumes his pacing, abandoning his coffee. I watch him—I have no choice but to watch him, take him in, storing away memories in a kind of desperate greed. Some part of my brain is snivelling quietly—this is it, this is the end, this is the last I'll see of him—and to silence it I set myself to calculating how many kilometers he must have covered in pacing the terminal since we arrived, estimating the dimensions of the lounge, timing out the seconds per circuit, running the arithmetic in my head, the distance of this last absurd lap in the long journey we've taken together.

Our journey ... how did it start, where did it go wrong, why did it lead us here, this place, this moment? I can't stop wondering, can't stop thinking about how we came together, how we fell apart. All the days and weeks and months, the miles travelled, the choices made and not made, and how did we end up here, how in the world, how the hell, Ray, did we end up here?

Regret solves nothing, I know that; chewing over the past serves no useful end. What's done is done, and to retrace my steps, trying to find that moment when our tracks came together and joined, when we turned together onto the long and twisting path that led us to this day ... it's a hopeless quest, a search that spirals back endlessly. The day we set off in pursuit of Muldoon? The day Ray materialized in Ray Vecchio's stead? The day I first took a plane south to Chicago? The day my father died?

I watch him pace back and forth, so close and yet already a thousand miles away, face tight, eyes turned from me, and out of all the jumble of time past the moment that comes back to me is that night ... can it be only nine months ago? That night when I thought it was all ending between us, that night by the fire, under the winter sky—do you remember, Ray? That night you sat by me, so near and so distant, eyes turned away from me, that night I thought we'd reached the end of our journey, that night we turned onto a new road together ... do you remember it as I do?

_______________________________________________________________

We sat by the fire, silently, in the same spots where we'd sat and talked the night before. It was late; everyone else had turned in, and the air was still, without a breath of wind, the only sound the crackle of the flames. It was snowing, a dense fine snow that fell straight down out of the enormous sky and hissed into the fire.

It should have been a moment of triumph; Muldoon was in custody, we had won once again, justice had prevailed. I had avenged an evil done to me and mine so long ago that even the memory of it had hidden itself away. But there was no joy in me. I felt bruised, inside and out, and hollow, as though I might crack apart at any moment. The cold was intense; it held me upright, held me together, in an iron grip that was familiar, solid, and yet indifferent, and as empty as the sky. It would never leave me; it cared nothing for me; it would always be here for me.

As tired as I was, I felt tempted to simply sit there through the night, letting the cold fill me up, harden off those painful tender places inside me. And yet—there was the fire, that small irrepressible flicker of light, heat; and sitting hunched up beside the fire there was Ray. No matter how long I sat, I knew he would outsit me, outstubborn me. He hated the cold, and yet he was out in it with me, wrapped up in his parka, staring into the flames.

We'd often sat up together after a case was closed, debriefing, rehashing—or just talking, helping each other ease down from the jittery high of excitement and tension. I could not, simply could not, get my mind to come to grips with the idea that this would be the last time we'd sit this way. I watched him—for once, I let my eyes take in their fill of him—but it wasn't enough, I had to reach out, and without forethought I simply found myself saying his name.

"Ray."

"Hm." He didn't look up. In the firelight, his eyes looked hollow, smudged with fatigue.

I had no conversation ready, and found myself fumbling for words. "You—you should probably turn in and get some sleep. It's been a long day."

"Nah, I'm good." He pushed his hands into his coat sleeves. "Couldn't sleep anyway."

I didn't argue, though I was certain he was exhausted. He'd shadowed me ever since I'd been hauled out of the mineshaft, staying at my shoulder through all the rigmarole of tidying up the case. He'd held off the array of helicoptered-in officials with his fiercest snarl until I'd gotten medical attention for the insignificant injuries I'd sustained in my fall; and then he brought me hot food he'd found somewhere, and made me eat it, while I was giving my reports. It was as if he could sense that something large and painful had happened down there, as if he could feel how bereft I was, and how badly I needed his presence, the solid warmth of his care.

"I haven't yet thanked you."

"Thank me? What for?"

"For—for all of this. Everything you've done." He kept staring at the fire, not giving me his eyes. "For cooperating in my continuing endeavors to place your life at risk in bizarre ways."

My feeble effort at humor seemed not to touch him; his face was oddly still. "Thanks. Yeah. Thanks for everything, pal, it's been great, sayonara. That's it, isn't it?"

"Ray—"

"You're staying here. Aren't you?"

"Well, there are a number of options to explore—"

"You're staying here."

"Being back in the north does have a certain appeal, although Chicago—"

"Fraser. You're staying here."

I opened my mouth, shut it, swallowed, and said "Yes. I am."

He nodded slowly, still staring at the fire. "Yeah. I guess I kind of knew that the minute I saw—it's not like I was even paying attention, you know, I was too busy trying to figure out if I'd broken any important body parts, but—and I mean, nothing wrong with it, a guy's got a right to be happy, I guess, if he's enough of a freak to be happy when he's just jumped out of a friggin' airplane into seventeen feet of snow in the middle of nowhere, but—"

"Ray—"

"You looked so happy. And I guess I knew then. I never saw you look that happy before." He raised his head, finally, but looked away from me, into the darkness. "Not even when that hotel door opened up and you saw Vecchio in there."

"It's not the same thing." That moment, in fact, already seemed long ago and far away to me. "Of course I was happy to see Ray Vecchio again, he's a dear friend and I'd missed him, but..." I paused, searching for words.

He turned to look at me, finally, a little crease between his brows. "But—you wouldn't go back even to partner with him again." He spoke slowly, as if he were deducing something, and then shook his head and gave a quick little breath of laughter. "Well. I guess that's something."

That wasn't actually how I'd intended to end my sentence, and I wanted to ask Ray just what he meant, but he looked so tightly wound, arms wrapped around himself and hands shoved deep into his sleeves, that it made me cautious. An icefield, full of unseen crevasses. There was in any event a more important question I needed to ask, and I let some time pass until I couldn't hold it in any longer.

"So, Ray. What are your plans, from here?"

He shrugged. He'd become fascinated with the fire again. "Who knows. Go back to my old district, I guess. Can't stay around the two-seven, that'd screw with Vecchio's gig."

I tried to picture it—Ray, back at the Twelfth, with his old name and a new partner—tried industriously to imagine him happy and productive, moving onward with his life, without me; but somehow the picture refused to clarify in my mind. I had never, in all our time together, heard him once mention his old district, his former colleagues or lieutenant, not even in private. My brain was telling me This is for the best, this is what he must do, it would be unutterable selfishness to wish otherwise; but something deeper in me was murmuring Wrong, wrong, this is all wrong.

All I said, though, was, "You don't sound very excited about it."

He shrugged again, pushing his hands deeper in his sleeves. "It's cop work. I'm a cop. Makes logical sense, right? It'll be OK." He glanced up at me briefly, and when he spoke again his voice was gentle. "It'll be OK, Fraser."

I was startled at how badly that angered me, for a moment—that he could sit there, uncharacteristically offering me inane platitudes, when it was suddenly so clear that neither he nor I, nor anything about the situation, was "OK" in the slightest. He looked miserable, in fact, and I didn't think it was just due to the cold. It was so unlike him to be this still, this constrained (wrong, wrong, wrong); and he hugged himself fiercely, as though he had nothing else left to hang onto.

And it was that, the sight of his misery, that pushed me into speech. My reason was still insistent that it was best for him to leave, that my greedy yearning to keep him must be tamped down, that the only way to take off a bandage is with one fast rip. But the unruly and unfamiliar voices of intuition, impulse, were loud in my head. Ray was, apparently, trying for once to be logical; perhaps it was my turn to go with a hunch.

I craved more time, time to order my thoughts and consider things more carefully, but we were—abruptly, after all our months together—out of time. He had a seat allotted on the helicopter that was leaving in the morning. The river's fork was right before us, and there was no stopping the current of life rushing us along.

I took a deep breath. For a moment I was riven by the longing to have my father back, to have him murmuring something in my ear, some encouraging platitude about partnership is like a marriage, about meeting in the middle. But he was gone; I would have to do this on my own.

"I'm sure that you will, in fact, be OK wherever you go, Ray, or more than OK. You're a singularly competent individual." He snorted at that, and I pressed on. "But the thought had occurred to me that you might, perhaps, wish to—not with the intention of pressuring you in any way, it's just that you'd expressed an interest in—possibly, expanding that competence into new arenas." He looked up at me, brows drawn together. "What I mean to say is that life presents us with a vast array of opportunities, some of which recur through time, and some of which appear only within a limited window of chance and propinquity—"

"Fraser—" I could hear energy coming back into his voice, in the form of exasperation, but I'd welcome it in any form it took.

"There is, as Shakespeare put it, a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at its flood leads on to—"

"Fraser, take the marbles outta your mouth and get 'em back in your head where they belong." He'd pulled his hands from his sleeves and made a sharp gesture at me. "Just say what's on your mind. Twenty-five words or less."

I turned to pick up a log from the pile in the snow behind us, and spent a minute arranging it on the fire with great care, positioning it to catch quickly. I wiped the snow from my hands onto my pants legs, and then I tried again. "Before taking up any new duties here in Canada, I feel the need for some—time off. A desire for a different challenge. You've been working under great pressure for the past year and a half. I wondered if you might feel the same need. You'd mentioned, earlier, a desire for an adventure. The hand of Franklin. I wondered if—if these desires might not intersect." I leaned forward to poke compulsively at the fire. "And that's more than twenty-five words, Ray. I'm sorry."

"Fraser—"

"Sixty-five, to be exact, but I—"

"Can it." He was gazing steadily at me; I could see the reflection of the fire leaping in his eyes. "So, what're you saying here? You need a break, I need a break. You want an adventure, I want an adventure. Hand of Franklin. Us, together. Is that what you're saying?"

"I know it's presumptuous—"

"Screw that. Cards on the table. That what you're saying?"

Sometimes you just have to leap, son. "I ... yes. It is."

"OK. Let's do it." No hesitation, leaping right after me, for once without question or quibble.

It was so utterly not what I was expecting, I was so shocked by the both of us, that I began babbling. "Of course, I understand that you'll need some time to think it over, consider your options, perhaps consult with the lieutenant about your assignments, or—"

"Fraser. Did I not say OK? I said OK, I mean OK " A sharp nod, never taking his eyes from mine. "So. When do we start?"

It shouldn't have surprised me; although I'd become accustomed to thinking of Ray as the less impetuous of us, the one less ready to leap into life-threatening situations, I should have recalled his willingness to leap, perhaps less riskily but more profoundly, into someone else's life, when his own seemed at a dead end.

In that moment, I couldn't encompass it, couldn't accept it without further affirmation. "Are you certain about this?"

"I'm sure. Sure I'm sure. You think I'm blowing smoke here?"

"It's just that—" I was groping, fumbling. "Well, I recall you saying once that you were prone at times to making verbal commitments that you found it difficult to fulfill in actuality."

"Fraser, I'm pretty sure I never said anything like that."

"Well, you did phrase it differently—I believe the exact language was something about letting your mouth write checks your—uh—"

"Yeah? My uh what?" His eyes glittered with amusement in the firelight.

I took a breath, spoke fast. "That your, as you phrased it, ass can't cash. It's a colloquialism, I believe. A vivid piece of idiomatic—"

I stopped, cut off by a snort of laughter. "You said it! Never thought I'd live long enough to hear a word like that out of your mouth." I looked away, feeling self-conscious, not knowing how to respond, and when I looked back he was looking a little unsure himself, no longer smiling.

"Fraser, I know I kind of—stomped on the gas a little hard there. You sure you want to do this? With me, I mean?"

"I believe that's what I've been saying, Ray." Asperity, my refuge in times of emotion.

"That's—OK, then, that's good. That's great." He was staring into the fire, with a grin that he seemed wholly unable to control. Then he looked up at me, and again seemed to pull back a little, speaking with elaborate dismissiveness. "I mean, as long as I'm up here anyway, what the hell, might as well stick around a few weeks, and hey, how often does a dumb Polack from the southside get to make like a hero at the North Pole?"

"Well, actually, Franklin's route didn't take him anywhere near the North Pole, which is just as well, as the sea ice conditions would make any search effort considerably more difficult."

He let it pass. "You really think we can pull it off?"

"Whatever the outcome, Ray, I believe we can make a noble effort."


Just like that, the deal was struck And god forgive me, you trusted me; you gambled your life, so easily, on my judgment. Not for the first time, of course, but always before the stakes had been nobler —justice, the righting of wrongs, the protection of the innocent, and not my personal gratification. Then, too, we had always come through intact, and I had, perhaps, become too pleased with myself, too sure of my ability to manage circumstance.

Grandiosity, my old familiar curse. I do believe I felt omnipotent, at that moment, almost drunk on the knowledge that you wanted to stay here with me, just a little longer. Having shut the door on my past—having well and truly orphaned myself—I believed I could start all over again, back here in the place where it all began. That I could start a new circle, when the old one had been closed forever.


The days leading up to our departure are a blur in my memory, a tumult of list-making and planning and packing. Sergeant Frobisher took on our outfitting as a personal mission, digging into stockpiles he'd accumulated over the decades, and while I was a little uneasy about the adequacy of some of his equiment—he scorned such modern frippery as thinsulate and polypropylene—I let myself be reassured by the thought that generations of men, he and my father among them, had managed in the arctic with gear even more primitive than what we were taking. My own preference would have been to take the time to outfit ourselves with indigenous materials that had ensured human survival and comfort here long before Europeans had arrived. But time was speeding past, and Ray's impatience to get going was a constant goad, and I had some strange conviction that luck was with us, an irrational hubristic belief that having so improbably survived all the dangers we'd faced together so far meant we were invincible.

The one sane thing I did, in those days, was to alter our planned destination. I knew that the Franklin expedition had likely come to grief near King William Island. This was almost a thousand kilometers east of us, far too great a distance to be covered by sled in the time we had before the ice would become unreliable, and the journey there would take us into profoundly remote country. I knew that even if by some miracle we made it to the general vicinity of the expedition, we hadn't the resources to arrange for a pick-up in such a locale, or to get ourselves resupplied.

So I plotted a journey that would instead take us west, toward country I was more familiar with, that had some scattered outposts of civilization. I didn't inform Ray of the change, telling myself that the hand of Franklin had really been a pretext, that the journey not the arrival matters, that what he and I were both seeking was adventure rather than discovery. I rationalize well, and it was in any event clearly the only sane course of action. But I didn't tell Ray about it.

In my more superstitious moments, I sometimes wonder if that act of doubt might have set some seal of doom on our enterprise, from the very outset. (But such thoughts are idiotic, I tell myself; had we gone east instead, we surely would have died out there. Things worked out as they had to, and as it was, our very survival should be miracle enough for the less rational sectors of my brain to brood over.)

In retrospect, of course, I should never have let us start out in the first place; certainly not so underequipped; absolutely not when Ray was already exhausted from the journey over the mountains, and, despite that experience, still so lacking in real knowledge of what we were heading into.

And I should have paused a moment to contemplate why he would propose such an adventure, should have at least tried to understand the stakes he was laying on the table. I thought at the time that I was being most marvelously attentive to his needs and wishes: making sure that we packed coffee and a means of brewing it; encouraging him to acquaint himself with the dogs, and choose ones with whom he felt a rapport; taking great pains to consult his tastes in provisions, clothing, gear. I asked every question of him but the essential one: Ray, why in the world are you doing this? A child given a gift doesn't question the giver's motive, and I was boyishly happy through those busy days, and full of a child's blithe arrogant certainty that whatever made me happy must likewise please all. Ray had said this was what he wanted; I pressed no further, thinking only of the adventure ahead, and never of what might lie at the end of the trail.

Out of all that blur of days, the one thing I do remember, with utter clarity, is the morning that we set off. The dogs, pulling hard in their leads and yodeling happily; the snowfields, lying pure and open ahead of us; the sun, rising golden over the mountains; Ray, in front of me, on the sled, eager for whatever would come next, eager to leap into it with me. All the vast skein of life's possibilities, his and mine, spinning together to this one moment, our lives wrapped into a single steel strand, fusing us in hope and joy, pulling us into the future, together.

I don't think much about my death, but I hope that, whenever and however it comes, that is the last memory I have, the last image to hold in my mind as I leave this world forever, that one clear moment of earthly perfection.


"—it's a mental exercise, Ray, one that merely requires practice to perfect."

"Mental exercise, Fraser, my head's frozen like a slush pop, I don't have enough brain cells left to be doing exercises with."

We were huddled over the campstove at noon, two days into our journey, heating some soup for lunch. The weather had changed since our departure, with a steady scouring wind out of the northeast, temperature dropping.

"Imagine, as you sit here in the cold, that you're retracting your nerve endings deeper into your body."

"Retractable nerves. Oh yeah, that's one of those mutations you guys have evolved up here in Canada, right? Along with the gene for curling, and the hereditary insanity."

"Ray, if you don't want my assistance, all you need to do is say so."

"Okay, okay. Retracting the nerve endings, got it." A pause. "Okay, I got no idea what that means."

"Imagine that the top layer of your skin has only muted sensation. You're aware that the cold is out there, but you just don't feel it as strongly, because your nerve endings have pulled back to a deeper layer of epidermis."

"Uh huh." Another pause, longer. "The nerve endings are staying right where they are, Fraser. I think they got frozen in place."

"Very well, then, try this. Picture your sensation of cold as being controlled by a large knob, like the volume knob on your stereo. Imagine yourself reaching out and turning that knob, so that the volume, or in this case the temperature—"

"Imagine that I'm going to pop you one in about three seconds, Fraser, I mean it. What the hell's the point of me sitting here on an iceberg imagining knobs?"

"Interestingly enough, the yogis in the Himalayas are actually able to raise and lower their body temperature by dint of such exercises. Visualization is a very powerful technique, and we'll keep trying until we find one that works for you."

"You are relentless, you know that?"

"And you're cold, Ray. I simply don't want you to suffer unnecessarily. Now. Close your eyes, relax, and picture yourself turning the knob, slowly, counterclockwise. As you do so, you can feel the sensation of cold diminish. With every millimeter it turns, you feel less and less."

I gave him a minute, stirring the soup, testing its temperature with a knuckle. Not ready yet. "How are you now?"

"Cold." A pause. "That stuff really works for you?"

"Well, yes, but of course I've had more opportunities to practice than you have."

"So you're saying—you can just stop feeling stuff, huh?"

There was something in his voice that startled me. I looked up to find him watching me. His nose was running, his face was tight, his eyes were very serious.

"The feelings—they're—well, it's not as if—" I was floundering, and took a grip on myself. "They're always there, of course, but one learns to just—not feel them."

"Yeah, that sounds logical." He smiled briefly, but then turned serious again. "And so when you're where it's warm again—does it go the other way around?"

"What do you mean, Ray?"

"The knob. You turn it the other way, the feelings come back up? Loud and clear?"

The question seemed a silly one, which left me unsure of precisely what he was asking. "Well, assuming there's no permanent damage to the nerve endings, as in the case of severe frostbite, yes, of course, sensation returns. Homeostasis is the guiding principle of physiology, after all, and—"

"Yeah, imagine me turning your volume knob down, Fraser." But his tone was kind. "We're fast-forwarding through the homeowhatsis, cut to the chase, you're telling me it comes back okay? All those nerve endings get right back on the surface where they belong?"

"Certainly—although there's pain, of course." I stopped. What in the world possessed me to say that? That wasn't what he needed to hear; but one look at him told me I had no chance whatsoever of not explaining that remark.

"Pain. Just what kind of pain are we talking about here, Fraser?"

I paused, ordering my thoughts, finding words that would give some distance from whatever was going on here, now. "Pain is—a curious phenomenon. I've experienced a certain amount of it myself in my life, and oddly enough, the worst physical pain I've encountered wasn't from being shot, or falling from buildings, or being beaten by Warfield's thugs."

"Yeah?" He was attentive, listening closely.

"Rather, it was those occasions when I'd come inside, after several hours on duty, in weather like this, in my regulation boots. Even if you put on two pairs of socks, they offer little protection from the cold, you know, and in time one's feet would be entirely numb, up to the knee. So I learned to come in, go to my room, get the boots off, and wrap myself tightly in a blanket." He gave me a puzzled look, and I explained, "To prevent myself from doing any damage by involuntary thrashing about. I also folded up a corner of the blanket, to give myself something to bite down on." I paused, recalling. "The pain would last for approximately fifteen minutes, during which it felt very much as I would imagine it would feel having one's feet held in a fire."

The soup was ready, and I broke off my storytelling to serve it up. It was only later that I realized that asking Ray to retract his nerve endings was just foolish—if ever there was anyone whose nerve endings hung out all over the place, quivering in the breeze, it was he.

Over the next few days the weather eased, we hit a long stretch of relatively smooth snow, and we began to settle into routines. If Ray felt the cold, he no longer mentioned it, and I watched with pleasure the energy with which he tackled the challenge of learning how to manage the sled, the tent, the campstove.

He clearly enjoyed the dogs above all else, although working them wasn't precisely his strong point. One morning, when we were getting ready to begin harnessing them up, I called to Milo, an oversized irascable Malamute whom I'd placed as lead dog when it became clear Dief wasn't particularly interested in that role. (I was soon given to understand, in fact, that he had serious reservations about the entire journey, and would have preferred to be back in Chicago with Ante and doughnuts, or at least at Sergeant Frobisher's outpost.)

As I bent to gather up the harness, Ray suddenly said, "Milo. Fraser, think about it, what the hell kind of name is 'Milo' for a hard-ass sled dog?"

"Well, I'm afraid you'd have to ask Sergeant Frobisher his thoughts behind—"

"Frobisher. That freak. Look, Fraser, this is your lead dog here, your top gun, the big enchilada on the combo platter. You cannot be letting him get humiliated in front of the second-string guys with some putz name like Milo."

I began trying to explain to him why dogs don't cope well with changes of name in the middle of a trek, but he wasn't listening, he'd dropped down on the snow in front of Milo and crouched, giving him a baleful basilisk stare, and growled, hunching his shoulders. Milo growled back, humping up his neck, weaving, and the lecture dried up in my mouth as I watched, frozen in terror that he was about to have his throat ripped out before my eyes by an eighty-pound malamute. If Milo had leapt, I would have had to leap faster. But the dog was unmoving, lips pulled back but ears well forward, seemingly caught between outrage and curiosity and intimidation. (I knew rather how he felt.)

When Ray finally spoke, it was still in a half-growl. "Ditka."

"I beg your pardon—"

He was ignoring me, addressing the dog. "Ditka. That's your new name, guy." And suddenly he reached out, cuffed Milo on the side of the head, the dog jumped, and they were rolling in the snow together. I heard yelping, Ray's and the dog's mingled, but it sounded gleeful rather than angry. The other dogs were yelping and leaping, pulling at their chains to get into the fray.

I waded in, grabbing Milo's harness and hauling him off. Ray was lying on his back half buried in the snow, panting and laughing. "Look out there, Fraser, he's got a wicked right hook."

I reached down and yanked him to his feet. He was glowing with cold and excitement, brushing the snow off himself, and it was all I could do not to put my hands on him, under pretext of helping out. "I'm delighted you take such pleasure in agitating the dogs, Ray, and I certainly hope you'll be equally willing to get them resettled."

"Oh, come on, they're fine, they just—" He looked up, saw my expression, stopped. Then a little grin. "Hey. You were scared."

"That's hardly—"

"You were scared." He nodded, confirming his hunch. "You got nothing to be scared about." He reached down again and grabbed the dog's ruff of fur, shaking hard, getting a happy yelping growl out of him. "Ditka and me, we understand each other just great. We're copacetic."

And in fact from that moment on, Milo—Ditka—was rather readier to take direction from Ray than from me. It both confounded and pleased me to see Ray take charge of the team, embroidering the standard gees and haws with his own profane ad-libs, and to see the team heed them. Soon we were able to trade off on pretty much equal terms, one driving, the other following along on skis.

Ray never did get comfortable with snowshoes—I think they were just too plodding, too pedestrian, to fit his own rhythms—but he took to the cross-country skis as if born to them, picking up the quick kick-glide movement almost immediately. Within hours he was swooping ahead of the team, seeking out hills so that he could speed down them, falling sometimes but jumping right back up. It became one of the greatest pleasures of the journey, to watch him skimming over the snow, dancing his way across the skin of the Arctic.

But there were days—as time went on, more days—when the terrain was too rough for skis, when the only progress we'd make between one camp and the next was a few miles across fractured battlements of ice, miles bought at the cost of endless hours of brute labor, heaving the sled up and over, up and over. It was a kind of ox-like toil he wasn't suited for—it needed a draft horse, not a thoroughbred—and though he gave all his strength to it, it drained his spirit as well as his body.

After the day's labor was done and we'd made camp I found myself facing a new kind of challenge, one I hadn't anticipated. The first night or two Ray was talkative, his words spilling out with their usual scattered exuberance as he rehashed the day's small adventures, the dogs' misdeeds and the sights we'd seen. But with time he became quieter; he'd sit staring at the stove, once our dinner was done, seeming preoccupied, while I tidied away gear and wrote in my journal. At first, I must admit, the quietness was a relief. I found I was exhausted by day's end myself (it was worrisome how badly out of shape I'd gotten in Chicago), and keeping up with Ray's chatter had been wearing.

But it had at least been familiar, the usual accompaniment of our work together. His silence was something new, unaccustomed, and it was worrying to me. Then, too, in those long moments of quiet, between eating and sleep, I found myself aware of him in uncomfortable ways. The tent was small, and he was so close, always, that there was no way to ignore him, even buried in my journal: the smell of his sweat, the play of lamplight on his face, the little sighs he made as he stretched out sore muscles, the twitches and murmurs of his sleep.

I had spent nights before in proximity to Ray: across the width of a vacant apartment in Chicago; side by side in the Tucci's back yard; in the car, on stakeouts. Always, before, I'd had responsibilities in the forefront of my mind, cases to preoccupy and distract me. Now—well, of course the journey provided its own concerns, but really all we needed to do was to keep going, in a kind of dogged routine devoid of strategy and requiring little thought. My brain, without much to occupy it, was left free to range in unsafe directions, and I was often too tired to call it back to heel, or keep myself from contemplating Ray as something more than spirit and mind, friend and colleague; from seeing him as a whole man—physical, sensual. As someone whom—well, I'd already said as much to him—whom I found attractive. Very much so.

These feelings were nothing new to me, but I was often too tired for the familiar discipline of damping them down. To turn my thoughts away from myself and my wayward desires, I tried to imagine what was going through his mind, in those spells of silence. Thinking he might be homesick, I'd try starting conversations about Chicago, his friends there, our past cases, but he seemed almost averse to such topics. Any inquiries about how he was doing, his mood or physical condition, got me an abrupt "I'm fine," and nothing more.

It perturbed me. One thing I'd selfishly hoped for, on our journey, was more time to simply be with Ray, for evenings of conversation without the interruptions of gunplay or traffic or television. I'd hoped that, on my turf, without the armor of his Chicago life and persona, he'd let me in to the mysterious recesses of his head, disclose more of his thoughts and feelings. But though he was no more than an arm's length away, in some ways he seemed more remote than ever.

Eventually I gave up trying for conversation; but I noticed that, when I'd pause in my journal writing or my chores and look up, I'd often find him watching me. I tried not to make too much of this—there was, after all, little else in the tent for him to watch—but the intensity and focus of his regard was new, in my experience of him, and unsettling. Being looked at by others, with a certain degree of intensity, is something I've learned largely to ignore—it's a matter of putting up a mental shield, of a sort, and then carrying on with one's tasks, impersonally. But there was, from the beginning, no way I could be impersonal with Ray, and very few shields that held for long against whatever he aimed in my direction.

Something was changing between us, some shift in the climate. I know how to read weather, the smell of wind and the movement of clouds; but these changes were a mystery to me, and, wary, I pulled further into myself, and the odd silence between us grew and deepened.


One night, about a week out, he broke the quiet with an abrupt question. "Fraser, I was wondering, this Franklin reaching-hand thing we're looking for—what the hell is that, anyway?"

I looked up, startled. It was late, we were in our sleeping bags, I was making some journal entries with the lantern angled down low to the page, and Ray, I had thought, was sleeping.

"What do you mean?" I shifted the lantern so that some of the light spilled on him and I could see his face.

"I mean—I've been thinking about it, and—y'know, when I heard 'Hand of Franklin' I was kind of picturing some guy's hand sticking up out of the snow—" He pulled one arm out from his sleeping back and stuck it up in the air, at an angle. "And we'd be sledding along, and then we'd see it, and it'd be like—OK! Cool! There it is! Mission accomplished!" He waved with vigor, and, drawn in as usual by Ray's imagination, I had a brief absurd vision of the corpse of Sir John Franklin, waving us a friendly greeting. Then Ray burrowed his arm back in the bag and went on. "But then it hit me that that was pretty dumb, because—well, that was what, a hundred years ago or something? And he'd probably be, I don't know, buried, or rotted, or the wolves would've eaten it, or something."

"One hundred fifty one years, to be precise. And interestingly enough, the arctic climate, with its combination of cold and aridity, can have a sort of mummifying effect. In fact, a 1985 expedition found the remains of three of Franklin's men in a remarkable state of preservation."

"Yeah? Cool." The light picked up just a quick glint of his grin, the fog his breath made in the cold air. "So, maybe he is out there, huh?"

I closed up my journal and slid deeper into my own bag, choosing my words. "The odds of actually finding any remains of the expedition are—well, they're extremely remote, you should understand that." I closed my eyes, mentally squaring my shoulders. "In fact ... Ray, I have a confession to make to you."

"What?"

I looked over to see him watching me, brow furrowed, eyes shadowed with fatigue but intent on me.

"I—when I was planning our trip, it struck me that a course plotted to reach the actual region where the Franklin expedition is believed to have perished would be—well, perhaps a bit of a reach. Not to disparage either your competence or your determination, nor mine for that matter, but the distances involved, and the extremely harsh nature of the climate and terrain, rendered it ill-advised in my judgment, overly ambitious, and it seemed wiser to attempt a journey more in keeping with the limited nature of our resources, bearing in mind that the ultimate goal, at least as I understood it, was to undertake an adventure rather than the achievement of a fixed destination per se, and—"

"Fraser."

"Yes?"

"What the fuck are you trying to say?" He didn't sound angry—baffled, rather, blinking at me from the depths of his sleeping bag.

"What I'm saying, Ray, is that the actual route we're pursuing is—taking us in a somewhat different direction than, ah—"

"We're not going after Franklin?"

"Ah—in point of fact—no."

He considered that for a moment. "OK. So where are we headed?"

"I'm sorry, Ray, I realize that I should have consulted with you long before this, or at least—"

"Fraser. Just tell me. Are we actually headed somewhere, or just, y'know, roaming around seeing the sights? Cause we can consider these sights pretty much seen by now, and I'd like to think we're going to end up someplace eventually, besides in another freakin' crevasse."

I took a breath. "We're headed west. Towards Inuvik, eventually. It should take us perhaps two more weeks to get there."

"OK. Right." He still sounded calm, surprisingly so. "And the reason you didn't tell me about this before is why exactly?"

"I'm sorry," I said again. "I suppose—I was concerned that you might not consider a mere trek to Inuvik to qualify as an adventure. I was afraid that—" I stopped.

"Afraid? Of what?" However tired he might have been, his wits were by no means asleep, whereas I'd let fatigue make me careless.

"Nothing, Ray, that's not important—"

"Yeah? Who died and made you the god of deciding what's important? Afraid of what, Fraser? You were ... shit, Fraser, were you thinking I'd bail on you? Like if this wasn't some kind of big National Geographic Special I'd just cop an attitude and back out?"

I was silent. To say no would be a lie; to say yes would be to expose the foolish depths of my fear, and my needs.

"Damn it." His voice wasn't angry; exasperated, rather, and he reached up to scratch through his hair. "I thought we did all this already. You know? You remember? The I-listen-to-you, you-listen-to-me thing? The communicating thing?" He propped himself up on an elbow to stare at me, hard, across the stove. "Partners, Fraser. Partners."

I looked back at him. "I remember, Ray. And I understand."

He pointed at me with one gloved hand. "You got some news you think I'm not going to like, you tell me about it. Maybe I'll get pissed off, maybe not, either way, big deal, we work it out. But don't go treating me like cargo. Y'know? And don't go treating me like some kid who—who you can't tell him there's no Santa 'cause it'd break his little heart."

"I understand," I said again.

He flopped back down on his side and let out a deep sigh. "And ... jeez. Fraser, did you really think I'd crap out on you just because maybe we wouldn't find some scuzzy mummified dead guy hand?"

"I thought that the prospect of discovery was what gave the trip its allure for you."

"No, see, that's not what it's all about. Adventure, Fraser, that's the concept here." He pulled his arm out yet again to gesture around the tent, and I reflected in passing that talking while wrapped in the confines of the sleeping bag must be frustrating for him. "Adventure. That's what we're having here, right?" He fell silent, huddling back into his bag, and when he spoke again his voice was quieter. "So, how far are we from wherever the hell it is we're going?"

"Approximately 180 kilometers. Perhaps two weeks, if the weather's with us."

He was silent for so long that I thought he'd gone back to sleep, and reached to turn the lamp off. But then he said, "What happened to 'em, anyway?"

"Pardon me?"

"Franklin, and his guys. They were up here somewhere, right? That part of the whole thing's real?"

The doubt in his voice cut me, and I'm afraid I answered sharply. "You mean to say that you've never learned the story of the Franklin expedition?"

"Chrissake, Fraser, I didn't grow up in a library, unlike some people. I went to high school at Englewood, you think we had a special unit on Nutjobs Who Froze Themselves in Canada? If it wasn't for the Blackhawks-Leafs games, we'd've never even heard of Canada. Shit, if it wasn't for the fifty dollar bill I wouldn't know who Ben Franklin was." He paused briefly. "That, and the kite."

I put my notebook away, slid deeper into my own sleeping bag. "Sir John Franklin joined the Royal Navy at fourteen, and fought with Nelson at Trafalgar. Later made Governor of Tasmania, he—"

"Fraser." Ray thrashed around in his sleeping bag. "Cliff Notes."

"I'm sorry?"

"Reader's Digest. Cut to the chase."

"Ah. Well, in 1845 Franklin set off from England with a crew of 128 men in search of the Northwest Passage—the long-sought open-water route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They—"

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why was that such a big deal? Why'd he do it? I mean, he could've stayed in Tasmania, which granted you got the giant bug situation there, but at least it's warm."

"He seems to have been a restless man, driven by his own conceptions of glory and honor. Then too," I added, "the financial considerations were significant. The existence of such a passage would mean vast profits for trade."

"Money." Ray snorted. "That's what it all comes down to, isn't it? First thing you learn when you're a cop, cherchez the bucks." He seemed unaccountably annoyed at a man who'd been dead a hundred and fifty years.

"Well, I rather think in Franklin's case, it was more about the glory. He was a brave man, but an arrogant one." I paused, trying to gather up the thread of the story. "His ships were the best that the Royal Navy could provide, with steam engines and inch-thick steel hulls. They were outfitted sumptuously, with an organ, a library with two thousand books, china place settings, cut-glass goblets and engraved silverware. Franklin and his men lacked few comforts. What they did lack was any knowledge of how to survive in this terrain, or any inclination to learn."

I glanced over at Ray, to see if I'd put him to sleep yet, but he was listening attentively.

"Their maps were erroneous, and consequently they followed the wrong stretch of coastline. When winter came on, their ships became locked in the ice somewhere near King William Island. The men disembarked, and apparently tried to travel overland. But they headed in the wrong direction, and in any event they were underequipped, underprepared. Modern researchers have blamed their provisions—they may have gotten lead poisoning, or botulism, from substandard canned goods. But even so, they might have survived had they not felt it beneath their dignity to adapt to Inuit ways, and equip themselves to hunt and fish. They disdained using sled dogs, though they had some dogs as pets." I paused. "In the end, they ate their dogs. They ate their clothing, and their boots. Finally ... it would appear that finally they ate each other. And they died anyway, all of them."

I stopped, and after a silence, Ray said, "Gotta hand it to you, Fraser, you know the pick-me-up for every occasion." He had burrowed deeper into his bag, and his voice was muffled. "That's the stuff to give the troops."

"Well, you did ask, Ray."

"Yeah. I guess. And, uh, you said they—ate each other? Like, cannibalism?"

"It seems a plausible conclusion, from the condition of the remains that were found." I put my journal away, snuffed the lamp. "Go to sleep, Ray. We both need our rest."

I was half asleep when he spoke again, in the darkness. "Two weeks, you said?"

"Approximately, depending on weather and terrain."

"And ... we're gonna make it OK, right?"

"Certainly, barring unforeseen catastrophe."

"Right. Uh. OK, then."

I pushed my head up and tried to make him out in the blackness. "Don't worry, Ray. I know what I'm doing."


A few days later, a storm blew up out of the east, hard and fast, bringing a cold more fierce than we'd yet experienced. We managed to get camp made before it struck, and then rolled ourselves into our sleeping bags to wait it out. I lay awake, too deeply chilled to sleep, watching the tent walls shudder in the wind, counting to one hundred in every language I knew to distract myself from the misery.

At one point the roar of wind quieted momentarily, and I could hear a faint rattle. I realize that for most people the sound of teeth chattering is cartoon material, but up here it's just one reliable indicator of early hypothermia. I was briefly angry that he hadn't told me how cold he was, but that emotion was unhelpful and I set it aside. "Ray. Ray. Ray." The wind had kicked back up, and I had to shout to be heard.

"What?" His voice was muffled.

I rolled over and reached a hand out to touch him. Through the sleeping bag, I could feel the curve of his back—he was coiled into a tight ball—and how hard he was shivering.

A gust of wind tore at the tent viciously, rattling it with a noise like gunfire, and I thought for a moment something might give way. My fingers were already numbing, from just a few seconds out in the air, and it suddenly became clear in my mind—which was working more slowly than usual—that even inside the questionable safety of the tent Ray was in danger, that in fact we both were.

"Ray, I'm going to make some adjustments in how the sleeping bags are arranged. "

"What?"

I began moving, getting my own bag unzipped. "I'm going to put the two bags together, so we can share body heat. It should be a more efficient arrangement."

"Fraser, you fucking lunatic, touch that zipper and I will personally kill you." The ferocity in his voice heartened me, but the shake in it was alarming. "I've got about one degree of warm built up in here, anything moves and I'm gonna lose that, and then I'm gonna die "

"Hold on, Ray, the discomfort will only be temporary." I paused, taking a deep breath while an especially brutal blast of wind slammed into the tent, and then I reached, as quickly as possible, to unzip his bag—he yelled, and I think he actually tried to hit me, but his movements were too uncoordinated by then —flipped the top half of his bag to the ground underneath me, threw my bag over the both of us, slid down and fumbled for an agonized minute to get the zippers matched, the icy metal burning my fingers. I could hear Ray cursing, and then the zipper caught, and I got it pulled all the way up. I grabbed Ray and flipped him over and pulled him tight against me, his back up against my front, and wrapped myself around him as completely as I could. He was still cursing me, in a monotone almost inaudible under the wind, but he pushed himself hard back against me, twisting deeper into my arms.

I lay there, willing the heat to leave my body and go over to his, but radiant convection through as many layers of clothes as we had on takes time, so I put my mouth over the big knob of spine at the base of the cervical vertebrae, and blew hard, forcing warm breath through the fabric of his turtleneck. He'd been wearing that garment pretty much continuously since we'd set out, so it was redolent of him, and for a moment I could smell the two aromas mingled, his body and my breath.

He was still shuddering hard, as if the cold were some huge animal that had grabbed him and was shaking him, but as minutes went past the shivers became less violent, and then diminished to tremors. Finally he quieted, but his body was rigid against me, still clenched tightly—against the cold, against my warmth. "Ray," I whispered to him, "it's all right now, relax." And slowly I could feel him begin to let go, a little at a time, each increment setting off a new round of shivers.

I kept holding him. I was holding Ray. Right up against me, my arms around him, his body curled into mine, fitting perfectly against mine, top to bottom. An amazingly perfect fit. I was cold and exhausted myself, hungry, worried about the storm. But that all seemed distant; all I could really feel was amazement, and a disturbingly intense pleasure in the closeness of his body, the smell of him, the feel of him trembling in my arms.

I took in one more lungful of air and breathed it out again into his collar, into the base of his skull, and he sighed deeply. I think he went to sleep almost immediately—his breathing took on the deep regular rhythms of sleep—but I lay awake for a long time, holding him, filled with awe and joy at this unexpected gift the storm had blown my way, this closeness I'd so long desired but never really thought to have.

By morning, the storm had blown itself out, and, no longer having any plausible excuse to linger, I pulled away from him, got up and started the stove. Over breakfast, Ray was a little apologetic and a little truculent. "Bet you didn't get any sleep with me crowding you."

"Actually, Ray, I slept better than usual." It wasn't really a lie; I had slept less than usual, but what sleep I'd had had been sweeter, more refreshing.

We made decent progress that day, but it was very cold, in the storm's wake, and by the time we made camp again the temperature had dropped to -42 C. It seemed to take forever to get the food heated, and the air in the tent never did warm much. After we ate, Ray sat huddled in on himself on the far side of the stove and watched as I laid out the bags—one below, one above, zipped together.

"Uh. Fraser. You—uh, we're gonna—" He nodded at the bags. "Like that again?"

"I thought so. Did you find it uncomfortable?" I got into the bags and stretched out, leaving a space for him.

"No, I mean—it was warmer, sure, so—comfortable that way, yeah, but—"

I considered his uneasiness, assessed it as insignificant compared to survival issues, turned a deaf ear to that part of my brain that was murmuring about my own selfish motives, and set about reassuring him with brisk practicality. "Simply maintaining body temperature in this weather burns up a great many calories. Given that our supplies are limited, it makes sense to do whatever we can to reduce that drain on them by utilizing whatever heat sources are available."

"Uh huh." A pause. "So—what you're saying is ... Fraser, is this one of those buddy-breathing kind of things again?"

The analogy startled me badly, and I felt a sudden nervous stab of guilt, as though I'd been found out. Just as on the Henry Allen, I resorted to defensive pedantry. "One could see a certain similarity, given that in each case the goal of physical survival dictates equal sharing of whatever resources are most essential—oxygen, heat, and so on—by the most direct and efficient means."

"Ohhhh-kay." After another moment's hesitation he shed his parka and got in with me, back to my front, with no further words beyond a muttered "G'night."

The next night we simply set up and crawled in together, self-consciously but without discussion; and so it became one of our established rituals, like Ray's morning coffee and my evening journal writing (which I soon began postponing until after we'd crawled into the sleeping bag together—the lamp turned down to a dim glow, the length of Ray's body nestled against mine, and my notebook braced up against the back of his drowsing head, as I scribbled notes).

It never became routine to me—a recurring miracle, rather, a visitation of grace, like the shimmering marvel of the aurora borealis that glowed over us some nights. I reasoned with my willful and greedy heart, I told myself it couldn't last, that like everything else it would end. And in the meanwhile I timed the passing of those nights by the rhythm of Ray's breathing, the rise and fall of his chest within my arms, the metronomic beat of his heart against mine, counting off the minutes toward the end of our journey.


I suppose it's tautological to say that disaster, when it came, struck unexpectedly. Such is, after all, the nature of disasters, and it's a man's responsibility to be adequately prepared for them. As it developed, I was not.

A storm had forced us to halt and make camp early one day, and then had kept us pinned down for the next day entirely. Though I welcomed the rest, Ray had been impatient, jittering and thrashing around until the tent seemed entirely filled with his arms and legs and edgy energy. I tried to keep my attention off of him and focused on my book, but still it was a long day, and we were both relieved when the next morning dawned clear and quiet.

The dogs were as antic from their enforced layoff as Ray had been, leaping and barking and tangling their harness, and when we finally set off they threw themselves forward, slewing the sled around wildly. It was Ray's turn to drive, and though I was sorely tempted to ask him to trade off and let me handle the team, I forebore, and saved my breath instead for my skiing. He seemed to have them reasonably well in hand, though I winced at the language he was volleying at them.

We made excellent progress that morning, and I was lagging a bit, trying not to get overheated with exertion, admiring the open sweep of the land, wondering idly if Ray would call a lunch stop soon, when from over the small rise ahead of me I heard "Gee, gee, gee, god damn it," then a loud whoop, and a crash-thump, and Ray yelling, "Ditka, you asshole!"

I sprinted forward and, cresting the rise, saw the dogs milling wildly, Ray flailing in the snow, and the sled tipped over like a turtle, gear strewn about. Ray seemed uninjured; by the time I reached his side, he was sitting up, red-faced, slapping snow off himself, and launching a fresh tirade at Ditka, who, along with the rest of the team, was tearing into a large bag of dog food that had split open and spilled.

"Ray. Ray." I put a hand on his shoulder, shook him. "Are you all right?"

"Me, yeah, I'm fine, I'm a whole hell of a lot better than that fucking dog is gonna be once I get my hands on him—" He squirmed around in the snow, trying to get his feet under him.

"What happened?"

"Steered us right into that bump is what happened. Damn it." He was panting, his breath clouding around his face.

I put a hand under his elbow and helped him to his feet. "Strictly speaking, the fault isn't Ditka's. Erskine and Dief were on wheel, and steering is more their responsibility."

"Yeah, whatever. Shit, I hate it when I get snow down my neck." I watched with a critical eye as he stamped and shimmied, snow flying around him, checking to make sure that he was in fact unhurt; then I turned to the team, and discovered that they'd already devoured an alarming amount of their provisions. It took some effort and shouting, and a few blows, to get them pulled away from the food, and rather to my surprise, Diefenbaker was helping out, lunging around as best he could, snarling and snapping the others back into line. When I had the team staked down again, I squatted next to him. "Thank you," I said. "Of course, if you could also put a little more effort into steering—" He made a low unpleasant sound and turned away from me to glare at Erskine. "Very well, then, I know you're doing your best."

I rejoined Ray; we righted the sled and began gathering up our gear. As long as he and the team were all right, I wasn't particularly worried, though I was concerned about the depletion of our remaining supply of dog food. So preoccupied was I, in fact, with mentally recalibrating their daily feedings, that it took me a moment to recognize true catastrophe, even as I was holding it in my hands.

After a minute Ray noticed my immobility. "What is it? Something broke?" He came over, looked down at the fragments I was gripping. "Oh, geez. The stove? How'd it get that wrecked?"

"I believe the brush bow must have landed right on top of it," I said mechanically.

"Damn." Ray touched the twisted metal with one mittened hand. "No more coffee," he mourned.

"Coffee is the least of our problems, Ray."

Though I was working to keep my voice calm, he must have caught something in my tone, and he gave me a quick uneasy look. "What do you mean?"

I took a deep breath, let it out. Somewhere in my head a small voice was saying Partners, Fraser, communicating, remember? But I simply could not speak my fears; I knew him to be a worrier, and worry would only be another burden on him, in what had abruptly become a far more challenging situation. And after all, it was my responsibility to find some way to right the situation. "Well, it's just that we need some steady heat source in order to melt snow, for water. We'll have to devise some alternative, that's all."

He stared at me with a look I'd come to know well, the slightly blank look that meant his brain was triangulating its way toward the truth by some intuitive celestial navigation that would forever be mysterious to me. What he finally said was "Alternative." He waved an arm around, taking in the barren landscape. "Look around, Fraser, you see any alternative, uh, fuel sources here?"

"I do realize that we're above the treeline, yes," I snapped.

"No stove, no heat. No heat, no—we're gonna freeze. Our. Skinny butts off, right? We're gonna freeze and we're gonna die—no heat, no coffee, no soup, no—"

"I think we'll be able to stay warm enough." Inwardly I eased, just a little—he hadn't, after all, intuited the true nature of the hazard that faced us, and with great good luck and effort, he might not need to ... possibly, just possibly, I could devise some other way to supply us with water, or there might possibly be some way to fix the stove before dehydration took us down. I set the twisted remnants down on the sled, with care. "And the best way to keep warm is to keep moving. If you could attempt to get the dogs disentangled, I'll finish loading up here."

When we made camp that evening, a half-hour's fiddling proved conclusively that there was no repairing the stove without a welding torch, and we ate a cold dinner of pemmican and cheese, huddled with the sleeping bags wrapped around us. I don't know what Ray was thinking—he kept silent, giving me occasional anxious looks—but I was busy with calculations and strategies. After eating, I unloaded everything, got out my saw, and began the grim task of shortening the sled. With the wood that yielded, I built a small fire, sufficient to melt enough snow to give each of the dogs, and us, a scanty drink. Then I filled with ice the zip-lock bags I'd brought along for keeping clothes dry, and tucked them into the sleeping bags with us, over Ray's howls of protest. We had a miserable and cold night, but in the morning our body heat had melted enough water to start us off with, at least. When it was fully light, I sorted all our supplies into those that were essential and those that could be spared, and the latter pile into flammable and non-flammable. Ray stood a little ways off, watching, but when I began reloading the sled he came over to help me. When that was done, and I was about to go harness up the dogs, he stopped me with a hand on my arm.

"Fraser. We're in trouble, aren't we?"

Reflexively, I sought to turn the question away. "Well, there are various things we can do to cope with this inauspicious turn of events. Though I'm afraid the rest of the trip is going to be a bit less pleasant."

"Yeah, 'cause it's been like a day at the beach so far." He kept his hand on my arm, squinting at me against the glare and the wind. "Look. Are we gonna die?"

It was a child's question; but there was nothing childish in his rough voice, the set of his face, the sharp look he was giving me. The assurances I'd been about to offer died in my throat. This was my partner,a courageous and resourceful man, someone with whom I'd faced death before, asking me for an honest assessment of our fate. I owed him no less than the truth.

"It's possible," I said at last. "I don't think we will. But it's going to be difficult."

He nodded, releasing my arm, but still holding my gaze. If anything, he looked oddly relieved. "So, OK," he said. "Tell me what's going to happen."

I took a breath, feeling it sting my lungs, wiping my nose with a mittten. "We're going to be short of water, as you've no doubt discerned," I said. "The difficulty with that is that sustained exertion, in a climate this dry, demands a great deal of water."

He thought about that. "Right. You been nagging me to keep drinking."

"I won't be having to nag you any more, I'm afraid."

It looked like he was trying to smile, with his cold-stiffened face. "There's one upside, anyway." Then he looked at me more sharply. "What else? There's something else, right?"

"Well ... simply that dehydration lowers the body's core temperature, and makes one that much more vulnerable to hypothermia."

He took that in; I could see him considering the ramifications. "OK," he said after a moment. "The one-two punch, got it. But we're not going down, right? You got a plan."

Such a weight of confidence in his voice, so much trust ... it was at that moment that I felt my first real twinge of panic. If I were to die out here, that would be nothing more than fair payment for my own carelessness, a squaring of accounts. But if I were to let Ray down—if he were to know the extent of my own fallibility, and suffer for it, before he too died ... It was unthinkable, that was all, something I couldn't allow to happen.

The wind picked up, and we turned to put our backs against it, standing shoulder to shoulder and staring out across the empty snowfields. I breathed out, watching my breath instantly crystallize into a hundred glittering specks of ice; I noted the infinite subtle shades of white and grey and blue in the snow and sky, the luminous, endless beauty of this land. It brought me a moment of peace. I had always known that death, whenever it came for me, would find me in such a place. But I was not yet ready for death, and the brush of Ray's shoulder against mine reminded me that he was even less so, that he was waiting for my plan.

"I have a cabin," I said. "East of Inuvik, near Colville Creek, well-stocked with food and firewood. If we can reach it, we should be fine."

"If?" Ray bumped his shoulder against mine. "Cough it up, Fraser, just how big an 'if' are we talking about here?"

I ran through the calculations in my head once again—distances, speed, hours and days. Finally I said, "With luck, we should be able to reach it in five days, or perhaps six, depending on weather and snow conditions. We should have just enough food left for the dogs to last that long. Our own supplies will run a little tight, since we can't spare water to reconstitute any of the dried food." I heard the rustle of his parka hood as he nodded. "We'll need to carry ice in plastic bags under our clothing—" I paused for his moan of protest, and went on. "—to be melted by our body heat. It's the most efficient way to provide at least some water. The important thing is to keep making steady progress, without any delays."

"Well, what're we standing around talking for then?" He started toward the sled, but I took hold of his shoulder and stopped him.

"Ray—the emphasis is on steady rather than swift. We can't burn up our own energy, nor that of the dogs, with sprints. And now more than ever, we can't afford to overexert to the point of perspiring. If we can maintain a good moderate pace, and barring any further mishaps—well, we at least have a chance." I released him, with a pat that I hoped was reassuring. "Now wait there while I fit you up with some ice to carry."

He accepted it, with no good grace but no protest beyond an involuntary whoop when I settled the ice-bag under his sweater. Then I geared myself up in like fashion, unstaked the dogs, and we were off. I kept my eyes forward, watching the team, checking Ray's pace on the skies, scouting our path; but I thought I could sense death whispering along behind us, not yet on our heels, but following our trail.


Most people believe that survival in a climate as harsh as this must be endless fight, endless struggle. But those who thrive here know that the key is acceptance. One could see it as religious. Though I'm not a religious man, or a drinker for that matter, I understand it as very like the A.A. credo of surrender to a higher power. In the far north, winter is the highest power of all, and to surrender fully to it, to let one's purposes and habits and self and soul be wholly shaped by it, is to live in harmony. In that harmony, there may be, will surely be, pain, but there's no suffering. To fight against winter, though, is to suffer endlessly. It will always beat you.

You fought, Ray, you fought so hard, far harder than you ever fought Mason in the boxing ring, and it was an unspeakably mismatched fight, one where none of your Chicago street smarts could help you at all. It's a fight I should have stopped in the first round, when we were still back at the camp. But I couldn't; selfish, selfish, selfish, I couldn't let go of you so soon. Refusing to admit that you would lose the fight and then I would lose you, sooner or later, and that "later" would only give you more suffering and leave you more scarred.


The days that followed are vague and muddled in my memory, or perhaps it would be more honest to say that I have little inclination to try to recollect them. No useful purpose is served by dwelling on past pain, once the lessons it has to teach have been fully absorbed. Suffice it to say that the descent from discomfort and inconvenience, into outright misery, proceeded inexorably.

I can remember a few things rather too vividly: the daily struggle to portion out the food and water among the dogs, when there wasn't enough of either to meet their needs. (I asked Dief to try to explain the situation to the others, but I think that was straining our anomalous lines of communication a little too far.) The terrible shudder that Ray would give every time I secured a fresh bag of ice under his parka, against his belly. The burn of cold air in my throat, a little sharper every day, and the gummy sticky weight of my own tongue in my mouth, before the evening's blessed mouthful of water would loosen it.

The weather, at least, was with us most of the way, cold but steady and clear. But on what must have been the fifth day another storm hit, forcing us to stop early and make camp. Ray struggled to do his part of the set-up, but he seemed confused and uncoordinated, and finally I sent him into the tent to warm up and rest while I dealt with the dogs. Their tempers were beginning to turn ugly; Natty slashed at me while I was feeding him, almost catching my arm. I cuffed him away, and went on with my work, while the wind sliced through me, with an easy, casual savagery.

When I finally got into the tent, Ray was curled up in the sleeping bags, and above the noise of the wind I could hear him making a little whining sound, over and over, with every breath. I shed boots and parka, crawled in behind him, and pulled him close to me.

"Hey. There you are." He was shaking hard. "I didn't know where you were."

"Just feeding the dogs." I made an effort to sound brisk and off-hand. "Are you all right?"

"This kind of sucks, Fraser." His voice was gone; all he had left was a rough whisper. "Hey. Can we maybe not have the ice in here tonight?"

"Certainly," I said. In fact, before I'd gotten in, I'd shoved the bagful of ice down my own back, under my sweater, away from him. Though suboptimal, it seemed the best solution: we needed water, but he couldn't afford to lose any more heat.

"Really? Cool." For a moment the only sound was his harsh breathing, and the hiss of snow blowing against the tent. "Hey, can we ... uh ... can we just go home now, Fraser? I wanna go home, can we just do that now? No place like home..."

He trailed off, and I shook him a little, to get his attention. "Ray," I said into his ear. "Hang on. One more day. Tomorrow we should reach the cabin. Just hang on."

"I dunno, Fraser." It sounded like he was trying to swallow. "I dunno if I'm going to make it."

"You will. You will." I was almost snarling. "I'll get you there if I have to carry you."

He burrowed back harder against me. "Just ... don't leave me here, OK?" He groped for my arm, took a grip on it.

"Never." I could feel the cold eating slowly into my back and shoulders, could feel my spine locking up and my muscles cramping, but I tried to put that aside. "I would never leave you, Ray. Now get some rest."

That night was endless. I didn't think I'd be able to sleep, but I drifted in and out of nightmarish delusions—half-conscious dreams of Ray lying dead in my arms, of falling endlessly into crevasses, even of being back in Fortitude Pass, holding Victoria. I would wake from these muttering jumbled nonsense, trying to talk, with my cracked lips and thick tongue, to find Ray jerking on my arm, whispering urgently. "Fraser? Don't leave me here, you gotta stay here with me, Fraser, you leave me and I'm gonna die." And I'd apologize, over and over, for everything, and try to hold him closer, warm him better, though I felt I'd no warmth left in me anywhere to give.

When dawn came at last, I got us up and into boots and parkas, and doled out a mouthful of water for each of us. Then I crawled out of the tent —and into a world of swirling, opalescent, silver-grey. The sky was heavily overcast, shimmering with ice-haze, the sun was a diffuse directionless glow, and the wind was whirling the fresh snow around, obscuring the horizon. It was a terrible day for travel, but at this point it was move or die.

I gave the dogs a scant handful of food each—we were down to the dust in the bottom of the last bag—and one swallow of water. I packed and loaded the tent, with Ray fumbling alongside me, trying to help, and my own movements were not much more efficient than his. Every motion was pain, every step a fight against the temptation to simply lie down and stop trying. Then I went to harness the team, but when I finished I straightened, squinted around me, blinking against the wind's sting, and realized I had only the vaguest idea of direction. I dug out the compass, painfully, but it seemed terribly hard to decipher its symbols, and the gummy blur of my vision made it difficult to see. I stood there for a minute, breathing, fighting down fear. Then I went back to the team. I took Ditka out of lead, and staked him down while I unfastened Diefenbaker. Then I led Dief to the front and harnessed him in the lead position, biting my lip against the pain in my bleeding fingers.

When I was done, I squatted down beside him. "Dief. The cabin. You've been there. Can you find it?" He looked at me, with an expression I couldn't make out. "I'm sorry. I'll do everything I can, but I need your help. Please."

After a moment, he shoved his muzzle against my knee. I stood, and went to harness Ditka into Dief's old place. But Ditka was taking his demotion in bad part, howling and snarling, and as I neared him he lunged for me, sending me sprawling backwards in the snow.

I lay there, panting, and then I heard a noise behind me, a voice as harsh and raw as the caw of a raven. "You!" It was Ray, staggering toward the dog, unsteady and ferocious, fixing him with a glare. "You shut the fuck up! Asshole! Get in line and do your fuckin' job!" Ditka growled at him, and Ray gave him a clout on the side of the head, jerked his lead free of the stake, and dragged him over to the team. By the time I reached Ray, he was grappling with the harness, cursing in a low steady voice, and Ditka was growling quietly, sullen, but subdued.

I took over, forced the fastenings into place, and then turned back. "Ray. Thank you."

"Yeah. I just..." He turned, took a few steps back toward the sled, and suddenly his legs gave way and he collapsed in the snow.

I gathered him up and got him into the sled, over his protests—"I'm OK, I just got dizzy, lemme steer or something."

"No." I shook out a sleeping bag, wrapped it around him. "You're riding."

"Fraser, I can't—that's not fair to the dogs, they shouldn't have to haul me, they got enough—"

"Be quiet." I pulled the bag up around his head, but he stuck it out again.

"You're being nice to me here, Fraser, don't do that, I can—"

"No," I told him. "You can't. And I am not being nice. This is about survival."

It was not, in fact, an act of kindness, but one of grim necessity. The surest way to keep warm in Arctic temperatures is to keep active, and I knew Ray would suffer worse from the cold if he were lying still. But there was no way he could ski, and no point in his trying to steer. I put the skis on, made my way to the front of the team, took a final stab at a compass reading, tried to rub my eyes into focus. Then I nodded at Dief. "Let's go." And he surged forward, the rest of the dogs shuffling behind him, as we headed into wind and the swirling snow.

We travelled. Miles went by, featureless and indistinguishable, marked only by the slow passage of time, the slow dwindling of my strength. My vision was blurred, and I kept hearing things in the wind—voices, mostly, mocking me. I began fancying that I could hear death behind us, gaining on us, whispering to me, and I'd drop back and lift the sleeping back to check on Ray, to make sure he hadn't been overtaken.

Every so often Dief would call a halt and stand, sniffing, ears alert, casting about, and then he'd set off again, on a slightly altered course. During one of those stops, I squatted down beside him, and told him that if worst came to worst, I'd cut him and the others free before I succumbed. He gave me a soft growl that in any language clearly meant Shut up, and pushed me to my feet again.

The day grew brighter, and then slowly, slowly, began dimming again—or perhaps it was my vision, I thought, fading out. I lowered my head, and pushed forward. There was nothing else I could do.

Some unmeasured time later, when I had long since stopping thinking about anything at all, the team halted again. I raised my head and looked around, discovering that evening was truly darkening around us, thinking to myself Well, this is it, I suppose; then I realized there was a darker shape, a familiar one, looming in the darkness. I blinked, rubbed an icy mitten across my eyes, looked again, and it was still there. The cabin.

For a minute I just stared at it. Then I shuffled my way to the head of the team, and dropped down beside Dief, throwing an arm around him, burying my face in his fur. Thank you, I whispered over and over, knowing he couldn't hear it. Thank you.

Then I stood and took my skis off, cursing at the snow-clogged bindings. Walking felt like the strangest thing I'd ever done, and I couldn't feel my feet at all. I staggered back to the sled and fell over on it, panting for a moment, before I found the courage to reach down and uncover Ray. He was still alive, blinking at me, moving his mouth soundlessly. And he was shivering hard, a good sign. I slung his arm over my shoulder, grabbed the sleeping bag, and half-carried him into the cabin, lowering him as gently as I could to the floor in front of the stove. Wood, tinder, matches were in their places, and despite the shaking of my hands I managed to get a fire going.

As soon as it was burning, I got a kettleful of snow and set it on the stove to melt. I unwrapped the sleeping bag so the stove's heat could reach Ray, gently putting aside his flailing arms and unzipping his parka to expose his torso. The fire would warm him slowly enough to avert after-drop, I trusted, and there was little else I could do for him at that point, so I went to the pantry, collected a bag of dog food, and went back out to tend to the team. That was a hard and dangerous job; the team had to be hauled around to the leeward side of the cabin, where they could shelter in the lean-to, and then they had to be individually short-staked. Hungry as they were, left unstaked they'd have ripped me or each other to ribbons, to get at the food. It seemed to take hours, as slowly as I was moving, and the only thing that kept me going at all was the shrieks of dogs waiting their turn.

When I was finally done, I stood and stared at them stupidly. It had only taken them seconds to wolf down the food, and already they were burrowing down into the snow to sleep. For a moment I had the crazy idea of joining them—it seemed so much easier than walking all the way back to the door of the cabin—but I knew I had to get back in and tend to Ray, and so I began moving. The wind was blowing even harder by then, and as soon as I came around the corner it hit me full-on. I wasn't sure I'd make it to the door, but my legs somehow kept pushing, my hand rose and turned the knob, I got through the door and shut it behind me, and suddenly I was in a different country.

Warmth.

I 'd forgotten what it felt like, to be in warmth; the shock of it was too intense yet for pleasure, it drove me literally to my knees, and I knelt there panting, stripping off my mittens, unzipping my parka. Without bothering to take off my boots, I crawled across the floor to the stove, to where Ray lay.

He was awake. He looked groggy and confused, but his eyes were open, and they recognized me. He tried to speak; it took him several tries to make sound into words.

"Hey." He licked his cracked lips and went on. "Thought maybe I was dead. This was heaven." A worried frown. "But you weren't here. Pretty crappy heaven."

I smiled. It broke open the cracks in my own lips till they bled, but I didn't care. "Not heaven, Ray. Just the cabin."

"Yeah." He was still shivering, but less hard, and the color was coming back to his face. "We made it."

"Yes. We did."

"Kind of figured ... 'cause if was dead, I don't think my feet'd hurt so much."

His feet. I cursed myself for spending time sitting and gabbing when I should have been checking their condition, and slid down, pulling at his boots, cursing myself again for having left these icy shrouds on him.

"Hey—Fraser, you—oh shit that hurts—no, Fraser, cut it out, I didn't mean—oh shit shit shit—"

I apologized over and over, telling him he'd warm faster this way, getting blood on the laces where the frozen fastenings cut into my fingers. I was as quick as I could be, knowing how much it likely did hurt and fearful of what I'd find when I was finished. I got the boots off, peeled away stiff layers of socks. His feet were waxy and pale, but not entirely rigid to the touch, and there was no gangrenous blackening anywhere. I hadn't crippled him, not permanently.

The relief drove the breath from me, bent me double, and I hunched over, hugging his feet gently to my chest. We had made it. We were alive. He was going to be all right. In the primal joy of that moment, I bent and pressed my face against one bony arch. My mouth was still bleeding, and it left a faint smear of blood on the chalky skin.

"They hurt, Fraser." Ray's head was thrashing restlessly, back and forth. "They really really hurt."

"I know. I'm sorry." I stood, resettling him and shaking off my momentary self-indulgence. Warm fluids, I told myself, treat hypothermia and dehydration first. I dipped up a mugful of hot water from the pan on the stove, mixed up some watery cocoa, sat Ray up, and got him to drink it. I found a can of stew in the cupboard, emptied it into a pan and set it on the stove to heat. I found a box of crackers and crumbled some into the stew. By the time the food was ready Ray was asleep, but I woke him and got him to eat along with me.

The feel of hot food in my belly was like a drug, but I couldn't sleep yet. I found large thick socks, warmed them on the stove, put them on his feet. I dragged over the single bed from the corner, set it close to the stove, got him up on to it, and covered him well with the sleeping bag. I melted more snow, and took out water to the dogs, shaking them awake to make them drink; being out in the cold again after having gotten warm was a fresh and distinctive agony. I hauled in more wood, built up the fire, unloaded a mat and sleeping bag from the sled, spread them on the floor beside Ray's bed, and crawled in. Then, at last, I slept too.

 

I couldn't tell how much time passed. Sometimes the wind would fall, and sometimes it blew hard. Sometimes it was light, but more often it was dark. From time to time I would wake, feed the fire, feed the dogs, feed Ray and myself, and then we would sleep again. There were endless dreams, of snow, of city streets, trying to run with legs that wouldn't move, trying to ski with skis locked in ice; and then waking again, fire, dogs, food, and then more sleep, more dreams.

I woke at last to a sound that wasn't wind. A thud, then a voice, a familiar voice, saying something too softly for me to understand, and then a familiar whine.

I opened my eyes to find the cabin bright with sun, and turned my head, blinking. Ray was sitting cross-legged on the floor in a pool of light, sorting stacks of canned goods, while Diefenbaker nosed at a stack he'd toppled.

"Now look what you did, you woke Fraser up. Goofball. Get outta there, that's fruit cocktail, that is not a dog item." Ray thumped Dief on the side, and then looked over at me. "Hey." He looked dishevelled and tired, but his eyes were clear, and he gave off that hum of elemental energy, the distinctive Ray-vibration. I hadn't realized till that moment how sorely I'd missed it.

"You're up." I had to clear my throat. My mouth tasted vile.

"Yeah. Woke up a few hours ago."

"You brought Dief in."

"Batting a thousand so far, Fraser, glad to see those amazing powers of observation came through okay." He gave me an accusing look. "You left him out there, y'know, with all those other bohunks."

"They're dogs, Ray. He's a dog." I rubbed my eyes, trying to get fully awake. "Dogs live outside, in this part of the world. This isn't Chicago. He's designed to thrive in this climate."

Ray considered this for perhaps one second, and dismissed it. "Not Dief." He picked up a can of corned beef hash and appeared to be giving it careful study. "So. How're you doing?"

I sat up, trying to work the kinks out of my neck and shoulders. "I'm doing well, Ray, and yourself?"

"Fine. I'm fine. Thought I'd see what else there was to eat besides stew." He set the can down and looked around the cabin. His hair was filthy and sticking in all directions, but it still glinted gold where the sun caught it. "Nice place you got here."

"Do you like it?" I felt foolishly pleased.

He gave me an instant's grin before looking away again. "Beats the hell out of the sled, I'll say that much for it." He started getting to his feet, stiffly, gathering up cans. "That's an experience that'll adjust your attitude for you. Course, I'd like this place a lot better if I saw anything that looked like a hot shower around here."

I watched him limp back toward the shelves. I had wondered why he hadn't simply stood in the pantry to sort through provisions, and now I knew. "Ray, let me check your feet."

"They're fine."

I got up, pulled on pants and socks, followed him. "They're not fine, Ray, they're frostbitten. You should have received medical attention right away, but—"

"Fraser, do not be playing Nurse Nancy with me here. Leave it alone, the feet are fine." He set down the cans with a clatter, turned, and dodged past me, back into the center of the room, and I trailed after him. Dief was watching us as if this were some kind of new game.

"Sit over here and let me see them." I motioned toward a chair, but he only stood glaring at me, refusing to move.

"And you say that I'm stubborn," I told him. He ignored it, so I knelt down swiftly and grabbed an ankle, putting my elbow in the back of his knee and giving a push. It's not all that different from dealing with a recalcitrant horse that refuses to be shod; one difference, though, is that a horse has three other legs to balance on. Ray swayed for a moment, giving a little yip, and then he grabbed my head to keep from going over.

By the time he'd finished god-damning me and telling me to let go of his leg, I had his shoe and sock off; he was wearing a pair of my old moccasins that hung loose on his narrow feet, and the thick socks I'd put on him the night we arrived.

"Fraser, if I ever wanted to kick anybody in the head, it'd be you right now and I warn you you're in prime kicking position —"

"That would be singularly unproductive, Ray. My head is extremely hard, and your foot is—" I poked one toe gently, and he yipped again. "—quite tender. A kick would cause you far more pain than it would me."

In fact, he seemed to be in better shape than I'd feared. There were a few blisters, but they were clear, not bloody, and the color had pinked up reassuringly. In time some dead skin would slough off, but it seemed evident that the flesh beneath was sound. Relieved, I patted his calf and leaned to reach for his sock, and the motion unbalanced him again; he took a stronger grip on my head, clutching my hair, and I grabbed him around the waist to steady him. He stilled; we both froze, for a moment, just like that; and then he made a little noise and pulled his hands back, and in that same instant I released him, backing off quickly, and stood. "Thank you for allowing me to reassure myself as to your—"

"Allowing you—Fraser, I didn't allow you zip, you just went and did. Stop thanking me." There was an odd note in his voice, and as I sat to put on my own shoes I looked up at him. I had a number of questions in my mind, but only one I felt I could ask.

"Why were you so reluctant to have me examine you?"

He gave a little snort, and settled himself back on the floor, next to Dief. "You've gone through enough shit for me, you shouldn't be having to deal with my revolting feet."

"They're not revolting, Ray. They're mildly frostbitten, yes. And dirty. But apart from that, you have very nice feet."

It got him laughing. "Only you, Fraser. Only you." Then abruptly he turned serious, his mouth pulled down—the emotional lability of someone who had been pushed past collapse, and had not yet recovered. "You know something? You could've gotten killed out there hauling me in. You realize that? You understand?"

"Well, actually, Ray, I was there too, and my own view is that—"

"The smart thing—forget all that shit I was saying out there, the smart thing would've been to leave me behind. Get yourself back safe."

Whatever I'd expected from him, even at his most labile, it wasn't that. "How can you suggest such a thing?"

"I slowed you down." He was working his fingers through the fur on Dief's chest. "I know I did. Dead weight."

I struggled to put all I was feeling into my voice. "Leaving you was never an option, Ray. Never. Not even for an instant."

"Yeah, well maybe it should've been." He was hunched over, both hands dug deep into Dief's fur. "If you'd died out there, trying to haul my pathetic ass in—if I'd gotten you killed just cause I wasn't good enough to keep up—"

"Ray." I slid off the chair to the floor, moved toward him so we sat facing each other with the dog between us. "You've risked your life for me, numerous times. For me, or for causes I thought were important."

"It's not the same thing."


"And how exactly is it different?"

"Just—let it alone, Fraser. Doesn't matter. You just shouldn't have."

"How is it different? Because it's you this time instead of me?"

And then the surge of anger I'd been waiting for, the heat that let me know I was tapping truth. "Because you never had to have your ass hauled out of the fire just cause you weren't good enough! Hell, yes, there were times I had to jump in cause you were acting like a fucking deranged idiot, or trying to do something phenomenally stupid all by yourself, but—it was never because you just flat couldn't cut it. Couldn't measure up."

I didn't know what to say to that. "That's not ... Ray, you never ..."

"So that's how it's different." He made a little gesture of finality; I knew the topic was closed for now, and that if I wanted to pursue it I'd have to reopen it later. "So anyway. You hungry? Food sounds like an idea, here, and I think it's my turn to run the can opener." He stood, brushing Dief-fur off his hands, and headed back toward the pantry. "What sounds good to you? And if you say stew, I'm gonna pop you one."

Over corned beef and canned peas, I raised the topic of going into town, certain that he'd find it a welcome prospect.

"Not today, certainly, we need some more time to rest up." I was thinking aloud, watching him section up his corned beef with the side of his fork. "But tomorrow, perhaps, if the weather's good, and if you're feeling up to it..."

That got me a level stare, and I could have bitten my tongue. "You think I'm not up to it? Hey, Fraser, anytime you're ready, any time, I'm good to go." It was close to a snarl, and I suddenly remembered—it seemed very close, for a moment—Ray, at my side, staring down a roomful of armed killers, cowing them with only his attitude and his anger, hands empty, facing possible death, for my sake. Good to go.

"I'm sorry, Ray, of course you are. I meant to say, we could both use some time to rest and recover. I know I could."

The set of his mouth relaxed a little. "OK. Tomorrow, that sounds good. Bright lights, big city. Bring 'em on."

"Well, Inuvik's not precisely a metropolis, of course. But it's a modern town, and in summer it hosts a fair number of tourists. So there are facilities where we can do laundry, get a shower and get cleaned up, get groceries and supplies. I have a friend who can care for the dogs while we're running errands."

He nodded, chasing stray peas around the plate with his fork.

"And Ray—" I stopped, and then forced myself to go on. "There's an airport in Inuvik. Air Canada and Canadian Airlines both have flights out, to Yellowknife and Edmonton. If you—whenever you wished, you could book a flight through to Chicago."

Having gotten it out, I looked up at him. He was staring down at his plate.

"Yeah. OK." Then he looked up, not at me, but at Diefenbaker, who was drowsing in a patch of sunlight. "Hey, Dief!" He waved with vigor. "Hey, time for a little infield practice, guy, how about it?"

Dief lumbered to his feet, panting happily, and Ray gestured him to stay where he was, then picked up a pea from his plate and lobbed it at him. "Easy comebacker, up the middle," and Dief caught it with ease. "Hard line drive, second base side"—a quick toss to the right that he lurched for, snapping it out of the air. "Way to pick it, Dief, how about a high pop fly?" This one rose in a leisurely arc, dropping into Dief's waiting jaws.

They played on until all the peas were gone and Ray seemed more cheerful. Dief had missed a bouncer that had somehow scooted under his nose—"Gotta get the glove down, fellah!"—and I went and retrieved it from under the stove. I would have tossed it to Dief myself, but he wasn't watching me, he'd gone to Ray and had his nose shoved into Ray's chest, and Ray had wrapped his arms around him, whispering something into one furry ear, a pointless exercise, as I forebore from pointing out. The sight of them made me ache oddly, and I turned and opened the stove, throwing the pea inside, watching the flames leap and dance.

When I turned back, Dief had settled at Ray's feet, and they were both looking at me, two pairs of pale eyes so oddly similar. They looked like kin, at that moment, fellow creatures, emissaries from some animal world where things were either simpler or more complex than in mine but were in any event foreign to me as I stood there, clumsy, trapped in my human brain. Words were of no use in their world, and they were of scant use to me, as I found myself saying, to my horror, in a tone of false cheer, "He'll miss you. Won't you, Dief?"

"Why should he?" Ray's voice sounded harsh, over the mutter of the woodstove. "He's your pal. Hey, he's back home. He's, what'd you say, designed for this climate? He's A-OK."

"Ray..." I had no idea what to say, and he cut me off with a gesture. Rising, he hobbled over to the cot.

"Might as well get some rest so I'll be all, y'know, rested up for tomorrow. Hate to slow you down." I opened my mouth, but he wasn't listening. He wrapped himself up in the blankets and stretched out, facing the wall, away from me. Dief made a little sound of disapproval, of reproach, looking up at me; I looked back. I didn't know what to say to him either.

The afternoon passed slowly. I hoped Ray was getting some sleep; he lay still and silent, at least. I read, caught my journal up to date, looked out at the snow. I knew that I should be planning, that the next few days would bring a welter of chores and responsibilities, but I found myself wholly unable to think ahead. All the plans I tried to make seemed to lead, not into town and the tasks that lay there, not to my work and the decisions I'd need to make about finding a posting, not to any of the pleasure I'd anticipated in being back here, but only and inexorably, however circuitous the path, to the Inuvik airport, and a deep ache of pain came with that thought.

When it got dark I lit lanterns, and then moved to the kitchen, making a carefully calibrated amount of clatter with pans and dishes, and as I'd hoped, Ray finally stirred, stretched, and at last sat upright, raking his fingers through his hair and scratching.

We ate in silence, the few conversational gambits I attempted about the history, culture and civic attractions of Inuvik falling flat. After we'd finished, and I'd cleaned up, Ray still seemed disinclined to talk, instead taking dog-feeding duty upon himself, and once he came back in and got his layers of outerwear peeled off he got back into the cot. I crawled into my bedroll, and read for a while by lamplight, until I could no longer pretend to myself that I was making any sense of the words. Then I doused the lights and we lay together in the darkness, silent.

Neither of us had any luck falling asleep. I listened to Ray thrashing around, feeling every twitch of his restlessness in my own body, thinking that perhaps I shouldn't have let him nap so long. Finally I heard him whisper, "Fraser?"

"Yes?"

"You awake?"

"Well, obviously."

I could hear him climb out of bed, and assumed he was going out to relieve himself. But instead he walked the few steps to my bedroll, stopped, knelt. I heard fumbling sounds, and then the scrape of a match striking. I watched as he lit the lantern beside my pillow, moving my book out of the way. Once he had the flame adjusted, he turned to look at me.

"Ray, is there something—"

"Shh." He put his fingers over my mouth, and the surprise of it silenced me as much as the pressure. His touch was very gentle—his fingertips were still ragged, deeply crevassed from freezing and cracking and freezing again, and my lips hadn't healed either—and after a moment he lifted his hand again. "Cold out here."

I stuck an arm out from under the covers and waved it around; the room was no chillier than usual, and I was fairly sure the stove had enough fuel to last at least seven more hours. "It certainly doesn't seem that—"

He touched my mouth, silencing me again, and with his other hand he reached and caught my wrist, guiding my arm back under the blankets, letting his arm follow, and then giving me a little push backwards. "Cold out here," he said again. His face, in the lamplight, was very serious.

Well, the rigors of the trail were not all that far in the past, and Ray was still recovering from them. If he felt cold, it was my responsibility to warm him. I moved back as far as I could in the narrow space, and he slid in beside me, a tense shivery presence in the heated cave of blankets. But instead of turning, as he always had on the trail, to huddle his back up against me and let me hold him, he lay facing me, one arm crooked under his head. He reached out with the other and, slowly, watching me, slid it around my waist. Under my shirt, against my skin.

The cabin was so silent that the fire muttering in the stove sounded loud, and Ray's breathing louder still. I looked at his face, inches away from mine. He was marked with frostbite and windburn, clearly visible under the stubble. In the lamplight, he looked like someone entirely different—no longer Chicago's Ray Kowalski, but someone remade by the cold, erased and redrawn with the scars of that suffering. Remade, reborn, a creature of this place. My place. Mine.

I reached up a hand and, as gently as I could, traced those marks on his face. He gave a shaky little laugh. "Yeah, well, you're not looking so pretty yourself these days, Fraser." I drew breath, but whatever I was planning to say was forestalled when he said. "Listen. Tell me one thing. You want me to go?"

For a moment I thought he was asking if I wanted him to leave the bed, and reflexively I reached over, curling my arm around his back, holding him there beside me. "No, of course not. I don't want you to go," I said, and only as the words left my mouth did I begin to realize what he was asking, what I was saying. I could feel the words hang in the heated chasm of air between us, blooming, opening, deepening. Heavy words, heavy with layers of meaning. They terrified me, those layers, and they gave me the reckless courage to say again, "I don't want you to go."

"Sure about that." It was a response, not a question; an affirmation. I nodded, not knowing what more I could say, and any words I might have gathered were scattered and lost forever when he slid forward and kissed me.

It was like the moment when the ice begins breaking up on the Mackenzie in the spring—shattering, an upheaval that tears the familiar world apart with a noise like cannonfire, a shock like the end of the world—and yet wholly inevitable in the cycles of time; something dreamed of, yearned for, for so long through the dark frozen months, that it seems idle fantasy, right up until the instant it explodes into reality. And under that ice, set free by that explosion, is dark water running fast and hard; a man caught in the break-up, whatever he might wish or will, has no choice but to be swept away in it, to his likely doom.

For a while we just lay like that, clutching each other, kissing hungrily, clumsily. When it was no longer enough to rub and grapple through layers of cloth, the only way to get undressed in that narrow space was to roll out in the open air, on opposite sides of the bedroll, and pull off clothing as quickly as possible, shuddering with chill and arousal. We slid back under the covers at the same moment, and the feel of his skin against mine, his flesh right up against me, all the way from top to bottom, made me shudder all over again, with a moment of pure terror. To be touched that way, to be stripped bare and touched, naked and open ...

But this was Ray, after all, and I took a deep breath of his familiar smells to be sure of that. Ray, whom I would trust with my life absolutely, and whom I could therefore, perhaps, trust even with this. I had never done this before with someone I knew so well and trusted so entirely, and that gave me the courage to keep moving, to reach out and wrap a leg around him and pull him even closer. There was fresh shock in feeling all of him against me like that—as sharp a shock as the tumble into the ice-crevasse had been—but now, just as then, he was with me. He was with me, and the joy of that burned away my fear.

In my memory, that night is as lovely and awkward as any newborn thing. Unimportant, the details of our fumblings, of who did precisely what to whom; what I recall is my gratitude and astonishment, to have reached this place at last. I remember thinking that so must the explorers have felt, the first Europeans to reach this new world—eager and terrified, unready and arrogant, knowing they were heading into new land, but wholly unprepared for how abundant, how dangerous, how rich, how savage, how utterly strange it would be.


When I woke, I thought for a muddled minute we were back on the trail, but I couldn't figure out why we were both naked. Every part of me that was touching Ray—which was quite a considerable portion of my body—was warm, but every other part of me was freezing. I shifted a little, and Ray pulled me closer, and in that instant memory flooded me.

"Fraser."

"Yes?" We hadn't done this. Had we? We had. Oh dear god.

"You leave a window open or something?"

It brought me briefly back to practical matters, with an inner thump of relief. "Don't be silly, Ray. We must have overslept. The stove's gone out."

A pause. "I'd say we just stay here till summer, if it weren't for the fact that I gotta pee so bad my molars are floating." Another pause, one that seemed to last forever, while I lay there, my mind simply refusing to take a grip on the situation. I could smell a strong musky aroma there in the bedroll with us, something new, different from all the smells of Ray and myself that I knew so well by now.

"You know—" He drew the word out, and I waited in terror for whatever he might say next— "What is it with this get up and throw a log on the fire routine? You guys never try putting that on automatic? I mean, think about it. You fit a chute that goes from your woodpile right into the top of the stove, okay? And there's a thermostat control that, every time it gets down to the nut-freezing zone, it kicks another log down the chute into the stove. See? It wouldn't be tough to put together at all." He was talking fast. "You know, maybe I could play around with that. If I could get that working, hey, I could start a business, maybe, make my fortune here."

"It's an interesting concept, Ray. Unfortunately, you'd probably need some sort of power source to run the device." I couldn't begin to make sense of this conversation, or why we were having it.

"Mm." He paused for only a moment. "And that's just one more reason why electricity's such a happenin' thing, Fraser."

The words were no different than the usual loops and swerves of Ray's mind running loose, but he was louder than usual, more jittery.

"OK," he said abruptly. "Let's do it." He pushed away from me, and only then was I fully aware of the crusty layer of stickiness that had been gluing us together. He leapt from his side of the bed, I from the other, and and we began throwing on layers of clothing, even more swiftly than we'd thrown them off the night before.

Once dressed, we simply stood for a minute, at opposite sides of the cabin, not looking at each other. Then Ray pulled on his parka and went to the door, and at the same moment I moved away, to the stove. I heard the door close behind him, and I squatted down and began the mechanical labor of rebuilding the fire, trying not to panic, wondering what in the world we'd done, what we'd say, how we'd face each other.

A minute later he hurried back in, stomping snow off his boots. "Whooo. Cold one out there."

I cleared my throat and stood, closing the stove door on the briskly-burning fire. "Yes, I noticed that it's a clear morning. We should have good weather for the trip into town." I still didn't turn around, and after a minute I heard him rattling dishes in the kitchen. He came up behind me suddenly with the teakettle, and I almost stumbled over the rug moving out of his way.

"Easy there, Fraser." He took my arm to steady it, and just that, the familiar grip of his hand on my arm, was too much for my precarious composure.

I pulled away, and with utterly unconvincing jocularity said, "I'd better make my own trip outside."

The first thing I did once out was to suck in a deep breath of the clean air, feeling the cold burn my throat and lungs. I unzipped my parka and pulled up my sweater, and cleansed my belly, fast, with a handful of snow, gasping at the shock of it. Mortification of the flesh seemed appropriate, and as I wiped myself off, shuddering, my mind dealt me a number of crisp and flinty remarks about my baser nature, my greed, the way I'd taken advantage of Ray's emotional lability, the damage I'd likely done to our friendship.

After I'd relieved myself and fed the dogs, I walked a little ways from the cabin, to the edge of a spindly copse of spruces, and gazed out over the open tundra. The snow lay deep and pure, unmarked, and the air was dead still. Perfect travelling weather. I entertained for just one crazy moment the idea of harnessing a couple of the dogs to the small sled stored behind the woodshed, and taking off, as fast and far as I could.

I gave myself a hard mental smack for that one, but what followed it was a petulant whine—It was his idea, he started it all, I didn't make him do it, it's not my fault. Pathetic. Eventually I decided any confrontation would be better than standing out here witnessing my own decline into infantilism, and in any event my feet were going numb. I turned, squared up my shoulders, and, one step after another, walked myself back to the cabin and through the door.

The air inside seemed considerably warmer than it had been, and was full of the smell of coffee. Ray glanced up at me from the pot he was stirring on the stove. "Hey. Thought you'd maybe frozen to the wall out there or something."

"I was just—" I stopped, fumbling guiltily for a lie. "Looking at the weather," I managed.

"So what's the thermometer say?"

I'd completely forgotten that particular part of our morning routine, and grabbed wildly for a plausible-sounding number. "Thirty-seven. Below."

"Yeah, the below part I figured out myself. So what's that in real degrees?" It was a safe question, and I gratefully calculated the conversion. He was dishing oatmeal into the two bowls that sat on the table, and I braced myself for the ritual of breakfasting together, something that until this morning had been an interlude of comfort and relaxation .

I pulled the container of pemmican out of the cupboard and began distributing pieces onto two plates. "We may as well finish this off. We should be able to get fresh meat in town."

"Great."

We ate in silence, heads bent. Often in the time I'd known Ray I'd wished I could see into his head, read his thoughts, but never more urgently than at that moment. In the covert glances I took at him, he looked—not angry, not upset, but thoughtful. He was eating with appetite, which was faintly reassuring.

We were almost finished, and he'd replenished his coffee, when I heard him make a small choking sound, as if he'd swallowed wrong. I looked up. He had a hand to his forehead, shaking his head slowly, and he was—laughing? Laughing. He was a man who smiled readily, but seldom laughed out loud.

Catching my look, he began laughing harder, and to my astonishment I found myself joining in, both of us shaking with whoops and snorts. I caught my breath, finally, and managed, "Ray, what's so funny?"

"Hey, you tell me." He wiped his eyes. "Nah, it's just ... oh man ... it's just, you know—" He gestured with his spoon at the table. "Oatmeal and pemmican. I mean, christ almighty, Fraser, think about it."

"That's funny?"

"For breakfast, yet. Someone tell me a year ago I'd be sitting in Numbfuck, Canada, eating oatmeal and pemmican ..." It almost set him off again, but he pulled himself together. I waited, still not quite seeing the humor. "And liking it." He jabbed his spoon at me accusingly. "Liking it. What've you done to me, Fraser? Huh?" There was edginess in his voice, nerves, mockery, unease—but there was no anger. He was looking me straight in the eye, and I could see no anger in him anywhere.

It lifted a huge weight of fear from me, but left me no less confused. I took in a breath, tried to loosen my neck, and said, "Ray ... I don't know what to—" And stopped, as he sliced a quick slash through the air with his spoon, a gesture so clearly meaning don't go there that I could almost hear his voice saying the words. I coughed, and went on, "Actually, Ray, as you know, oatmeal and pemmican are excellent survival fare in this climate, providing a mix of complex carbohydrate, protein, and animal fat essential for hard physical labor in extreme cold. Enjoying it simply evinces your fine adaptive capabilities."

He snorted, predictably, and then he was up, gathering dishes with a clatter. "OK. Town. Let's make a plan." He set the dishes in the washbasin and looked over at me. "How long's it going to take to get there?"

I tried to pull my thoughts together. "The team's rested and well-fed, the weather's good. No more than two hours, I'd think."

He stared at me. "Two hours. Thought you said we were close to town here."

"Well, that is close. Relatively speaking." I realized I sounded a little defensive. "There are many people in Chicago who spend at least two hours a day on the freeways, commuting to and from work."

Ray had already let it pass. "And the time right now, not that we have any clue about what time it actually is by the clock, cause we got no clock, but —" He went to a window and looked out at the sun, assessing, and I felt a little surge of pride at him making the attempt. "OK, if this was anyplace normal, I'd say it'd be around ... oh, maybe ... I dunno. Nine, ten maybe." He tapped his fingers on the glass, staring out. "But I'm probably wrong. Right?"

I came up behind him, intensely conscious of keeping an appropriate distance, putting my hands behind my back and angling my neck to look out the window. "The first thing you always need to work from is the date. Now if I've been keeping accurate track—"

"I'd say we take that as a given."

"—it must be April 4th. So, if that's the case—you're probably quite accurate. I'd say around ten."

"Cool." I might have edged too close despite my resolve, because he abruptly spun away from me. "OK. A plan. Here's what I'm thinking." He sat down at the table and warmed his hands on his mug. "First off, two hours there, two hours back, ten now, that leaves us not a whole lot of time for whatever we gotta get done. Right?"

I nodded.

"So, I'm thinking, you said there's tourists, tourists mean hotels, and a hotel means—hot baths." He said the words with the yearning rapture of a man describing his hopes of heaven. "And central heat, the kind that you don't gotta get up and throw a log on. And real beds, the kind with—y'know—mattresses." He made a bouncing gesture with one arm. I didn't know how to respond safely to that, so I just nodded, as neutrally as possible. He gave me a sharp look. "Fraser. Play along with me here. They got a place in town like this, or do they put the tourists in igloos? Do not be letting me get all worked up about nothing."

"Actually, the Mackenzie Hotel is very well-appointed. Not the Sir Francis Drake, certainly, but—hot baths, central heat, mattresses—" and I echoed his gesture, for just a moment. "Certainly."

He tapped out a complex taradiddle on the tabletop, closing it off with a fist-thump. "So. Plan. We head in, we do the laundry thing, the grocery thing. We get a room. We hit a restaurant—they got restaurants, right?" I nodded. "Steaks?"

"The Peppermill has good steaks."

He closed his eyes in anticipatory bliss, and then snapped them open again. "Right, dinner. And then I figure—we got a couple of choices." He stood up, looking away from me, gathering up the breakfast dishes. "We could go take in the night life of Inuvik, which I imagine has got to be an education in itself. Or—we could go back to the room, think of something else to do."

He said it lightly, but with a sidelong glance at me, as though trying to make some meaning clear. I went hot all over. Feeling painfully self-conscious, I said, "I'd like that." It struck me that was unclear, so I went on, "And Ray, I can assure you that Inuvik has very little nightlife of any kind."

I feared I might have gone too far, but he flickered a little grin at me. "Waste of time to go looking for it, huh?"

Greatly daring, I said, "I think we could come up with better things to do."

He rocked back just a bit, as though surprised at me, and then he nodded. "OK." And then he was in motion, digging through our packs, tossing things out onto the floor. "Laundry, OK, t-shirts, socks—Fraser, where'd you put that bag with the jacket Axel peed on?"

The trip into town was almost anticlimactic, after all our recent travail. The dogs had regained a great deal of their strength during our layover, and seemed to take confidence from my certainty about the route, the familiar trail I'd followed many times. Ray had at first been mulish about wanting to ski alongside, but after a mile or so, when his energy was clearly flagging, he was willing to accept my suggestion that he reserve his strength for the chores we'd need to do in town, and let himself be conveyed on the sled, much to my relief.

I steered us first to Wendell Koe's place, several miles outside of town. I had known Wendell as long as I could remember, and had earned some money during one boyhood summer helping him outfit and lead hunting parties. His business had apparently thrived in recent years; the place was as much of a mess as always, but there were even more snowmobiles and trucks, in various stages of disassembly, strewn about the property, and a large assortment of dogs in improvised kennels. They began baying frantically as soon as they caught the smell of our team, and Wendell came out of his cabin to greet us, crunching through the snow and raising his hand as I pulled the dogs to a halt.

"Benton. Good to see you again."

I stepped off the runners and gave Ray a hand up from the sled. "Likewise, Wendell. May I introduce my friend, Ray Kowalski, from Chicago."

"Yeah, I heard you were down there." He nodded to Ray, and gave us, our sled, our team, a thorough once-over. "You look kind of beat up."

I gave him a truncated and no doubt garbled precis of our journey, and he listened calmly, nodding, frowning from time to time. "Sounds like you guys are lucky to be here," was his only comment.

"Yeah, better to be lucky than smart," Ray muttered. He was stamping his feet restlessly, hands jammed deep in his pockets.

"So, you heading into town?"

"Yes, and though I know it's quite a bit to ask, I had hoped that possibly I might impose on you to care for—"

"Leave the dogs here for now. Good team, it looks like, or they will be when they get some weight back on 'em." He bent down and gave Cody a few thumps.

"In the meantime, since we lack other transportation, I was wondering if there might be any possibility, by chance, that—"

"There's a jeep, back by the shed. I won't need it till May. You keep it till then."

"Thank you, Wendell." I curbed the tendency to offer him more effusive gratitude, but in fact I was very much relieved, and moved as well. The simple recognition of need, the easy offer of what might meet that need, the implicit trust of it all—it was sustenance of a sort that had been scanty these past few years.

Ray was quiet while we transferred our bags from the sled to the jeep, while we helped Wendell unharness and stake the dogs, while I gave Dief a few stern words about minding his manners until I could come to retrieve him the next day.

Once we'd set off, jouncing over the ice road, he said, "Guy must know you pretty well, huh?"

"Oh, not particularly well. We're acquainted." I was concentrating on keeping the car out of the deepest ruts. It felt very odd to be driving, with Ray to my right in the passenger seat, rather as if the magnetic polarities of the globe had been reversed.

"But he gives you his car? Just—here, take it, just like that?"

"It's the way things are up here, Ray. If someone needs something, you help out. It's very difficult to try to survive here entirely on one's own."

"Huh. That's a weird one."

"What is?" We hit a bump that bounced both of us, hard, on the ungiving seats.

"You. Saying you might need other people. That you maybe couldn't make it all on your own."

Something about that annoyed me—perhaps the hint of smugness in his tone. "Well, of course I can survive on my own in this country for quite some time. A competent hunter who knows the basics of dressing hides can keep himself fed and clothed and sheltered." I slowed the car still more; the wind had come up and was trying to push us off the road. "But if I were to—oh, lose my knife, or break a bone, I'd certainly need the help of others. And it's very useful to have a source for resupply of certain basics—flour, and ammunition, and matches. Cooking vessels. Luxuries, I suppose, but they do make life pleasanter."

"Luxuries." He snorted, and I expected him to start haranguing me about the true definition of "luxury," something involving plumbing and television and Chinese food, but he fell silent again, looking out the window. He seemed out of spirits, which puzzled me—I'd thought that the prospect of town would cheer him. After a while he said, "So, knife, ammo, stuff like that, that's all you really need?"

"A knife is fairly essential, yes. In a pinch, of course, you can fashion one from bone, using sharp rocks. With that, you can make harpoons and spears, from bone and sapling. With those and the requisite knowledge, you can hunt and fish, tan hides and furs, make bone needles and sinew thread, perhaps build a kayak. Rocks and tinder will give you a fire, and—"

"Yeah, OK, got it." He let a minute pass in silence, and then when he spoke it was only to say, "Hey, Fraser, look out for that rut up there, you want to pull it to the left a little."

I'd been wondering how long he could go without correcting my driving. "Right you are, Ray."

Inuvik was visible for quite a ways across the open tundra, and as we neared it Ray was silent, gazing at the jumbled outlines of buildings and storage tanks and telecommunications antennae. The road smoothed to pavement, we began passing a few outlying warehouses and trailers, and suddenly we were in the town. It seemed larger than I'd remembered, or perhaps any settlement would look large after the weeks in wilderness. I drove slowly, memories sparking with every block, and Ray swiveled his head around, taking it all in.

"Shall I show you the main street?"

He nodded, looking blank, brows up, and I turned onto Mackenzie Road and piloted us past the row of businesses, pointing out the Visitors Centre, the Aurora Research Institute, the hotels and restaurants, the traffic signal. It seemed somehow hilarious to see a traffic signal again, and to stop obediently at the red, but Ray appeared not to share my amusement.

He said nothing until we got to the edge of the business district and I turned onto Franklin Road so I could show him Twin Lakes. Then he said, "Stop a sec."

I pulled over to the shoulder and put the car in park, and he got out, stretched, and took a long look around him, pivoting in a circle where he stood, his breath clouding around him. Then he shook his shoulders out, took one more long look at the town, shook his head and got in the car.

"Fraser," he said, "I don't want to be disrespecting your home turf or anything like that. But I have got to tell you, my friend, that this is one ... butt-ugly ... town."

A little nettled, I replied, "Well, it's certainly not a masterpiece of urban design, I'll grant you that, but I hardly think it's any worse than—oh, Gary, Indiana, for example."

"I'm just sayin', Fraser."

"What were you expecting of it?"

Instead of snapping back at me, he seemed to take the question seriously, to give it some thought. "I don't know," he said at last. "Something more—frontier-like. Y'know? Not so new. And not so, uh, ugly."

"Inuvik was only founded in the mid-1950s, so it makes sense that it would lack buildings of historical distinction. And it was never really a frontier town, in the sense you probably mean."

"Uh huh." He motioned to me to drive on, and I did, easing back onto the road and turning up Reliance to loop through the residential district.

"What the hell are those things?" he asked after a while. "The, uh, pipes?"

I explained to him about the utilidors, their function in providing water and sewage service, the need to have them above ground to avoid damaging the permafrost. I'd expected some further expostulation from him, some incredulity about the crack-headedness of people proposing to live in a place where the ground never thawed, or about the unsightliness of the whole thing; but he was silent, seeming a little quenched. When he did speak at last, all he said was, "Look, can we get to the hotel and do that hot-bath thing? Cause frankly, I don't know if I can stand to be in the same car with me another minute."

"Certainly, Ray." I turned and headed back toward the main street. "We'll try the Mackenzie Hotel; I believe you'll find it the most aesthetically pleasing of our various options."

"Options? How many hotels you need in a town this size, anyway?"

"Well, Inuvik does get a certain amount of tourist traffic, drawing —"

"Oh, yeah, I can see how this'd be a big vacation paradise. Who needs Club Med when you can freeze your ass amongst the freakin' utilidors?"

"—drawing hunters and fishermen, as I was saying, as well as outdoors enthusiasts in general." Ray's foot was pushing impatiently against the floorboards, as if he were willing the car to move faster. "And then of course there are those who seem drawn toward benchmark destinations for their own sake."

"Meaning what?"

"Well, Inuvik is northernmost point in this hemisphere reachable by paved roadway. The Dempster Highway terminates here, so—this is quite literally the end of the road, which in and of itself seems to make it an alluring destination for some."

I had stopped behind a car that was waiting to let a tanker truck manouvre its way around a corner, backing and filling, grinding its gears. "End of the road, huh." Ray seemed to contemplate that for a moment, drumming his fingers on the dashboard. "Look—uh, Fraser..." And then the truck lurched ahead again, and his attention abruptly shifted to the driver in front of us. "C'mon—c'mon, c'mon, lady, the guy's giving you room, Jesus Christ, you could get the Queen Mary through there—"

Fortunately, the windows were up, and I was able to push Ray's hand away when he reached over for the horn. The timid driver eventually edged through, Ray yelling instructions at her the whole way, we followed, and in another minute we'd pulled up in front of the Mackenzie Hotel. I shut off the engine and took a breath. "You were saying, Ray?"

But he was already out of the car, pulling out bags, and whatever he had been going to say was lost in the flurry of getting checked in.

We hauled the bags up to the room before it struck us simultaneously that we had no clean clothes to put on, so bathing was postponed while we went back out, visited the bank to draw cash (Ray seemed surprised that I'd kept my account there open, all the years I was in Chicago), and then purchased a new set of clothing for each of us—underclothes, socks, pants, sweaters—from a sales clerk who eyed us warily and seemed relieved when we refrained from trying on any of our selections.

Once back at the hotel, I told Ray to take his turn first. I could hear, through the closed door, the roar of the tub filling, then silence as the water was shut off; and then a series of sounds, as Ray apparently lowered himself into the hot water—little gasps and yelps, some sloshing noises, and then a long deep moan of bliss, trailing off into a sigh. It struck me that he sounded, in fact, very much as he had the night before, when we—when he... Immediately a brief heated fantasy filled my mind, of opening the door, kneeling down beside the tub, reaching in to touch him where he lay, naked and wet and loose-limbed in the steaming water—

I shook myself hard, and went over to the window for a moment to stare out at the street, making a mental list of all the tasks we had yet to accomplish that day. Far too many, I told myself, to allow any distractions. Besides that, this was the first real chance for privacy and solitude that Ray had had in weeks, and I would not intrude myself or my selfish carnality on that, not without invitation.

I returned to the chores at hand, sorting our filthy clothes into stacks, phoning the Peppermill to make sure they were open for dinner, and then, as I had the phone book to hand, leafing through it, looking up the names of old friends half-forgotten, distracting myself from the faint sounds of pleasure I could still hear. Eventually there was a final great slosh, the gurgle of the tub emptying, and then a bang as Ray flung open the door, and his voice behind me. "I have been to the promised land, Fraser, and it's got hot running water. Hallelujah and amen."

I turned, to see him standing there with a towel slung low around his hips, scrubbing at his hair with another. I could see the spot of blood on his face where he'd tried to shave his wind-chapped skin; I could see the bluish shadows under the clean lines of collarbone, and droplets of wet on his chest and thighs, and the faint line of downy hair leading down from his navel. I had never seen him that way before, nearly naked, with the low-angled sun painting his skin. He looked almost like a stranger for a moment, and I must have stared like a ninny before I jerked myself back to coherence, and said, "Well! My turn, then, I suppose," and made a circle around him, almost tripping over a dufflebag, on my way to the bathroom.

Once I had the door shut behind me, I took a deep breath, then stripped and showered quickly, not wanting to loiter and savor, wanting to get us both dressed and out of this room before I did something untoward.

When I was done, I wrapped the towel tightly at my waist, cursing myself for not having thought to bring my clothes in with me, and emerged, only to be brought up short yet again at the sight of Ray. He'd dressed, and gotten the scissors out of my kit, and was making a stab at trimming his hair in front of the mirror, with his glasses on, squinting and snipping. While not completely even, and still a bit scruffy on the sides, it was back to its normal length, more or less, and he'd even made some attempt to spike it up while it was still damp.

He caught me staring at him and turned, his shoulders coming up defensively. "OK, OK, so I should've waited to get it done right, it was driving me crazy, though." He turned back to examine himself glumly in the mirror. "So I look like a doof, right?"

"Not at all, Ray. You look—you look like yourself." And it was true; with his crisp hair, his new jeans and t-shirt, his glasses, he was once again Ray Kowalski, my good friend, my partner; and at the same time he was still that mysterious and infinitely desirable other, that man who'd stood before me minutes ago almost naked, who'd come to my bed the night before, who'd kissed me, held me, made love to me. It was bewildering, and when Ray turned again I was still standing there, nervously clutching the knot of my towel. He seemed suddenly to become as self-conscious as I had been before, and said, "Right! Uh, light's better in there, I'll just—uh, even it up a little—" He grabbed the scissors and darted back into the bathroom, and I doffed the towel and got dressed as quickly as I could.

When at last we were both ready to go, we put on coats and made our sortie, laden with bags. We started the clothes washing in the laundromat, and then went to the grocery store. ("Fraser, you can't just leave the stuff here!" "This isn't Chicago, Ray, they'll be perfectly fine unattended." "Anybody steals my Bulls t-shirt, I'll shove 'em through the utilidor.") We stocked up on canned goods, frozen meat, frozen vegetables, and, in deference to Ray, a few frozen pizzas ("Can you cook 'em on top of a woodstove?" "I have no idea, Ray, having never made the experiment." "We'll give it a shot.").

Stowing the groceries in the jeep, we returned to the laundromat and transferred the damp clothes to dryers. Ray was still uneasy about leaving them there, and an idea struck me. "Why don't you stay here and wait for them to dry, Ray? I have one more errand to run."

"What's that?" He was absorbed in counting out quarters.

"Well, it's nothing in particular, nothing urgent, just that I thought I might check in on...um...just for a quick visit, that is..." The laundromat was terribly hot, the air stuffy and thick with lint.

"Geez, spit it out, Fraser. If I didn't know better, I think you had an old flame you were going to look up or something." Then he looked up at me. "Hey, if you do, y'know, that's OK, I mean, I'm not trying to—"

I hastened to assure him. "No, of course not, nothing of the kind, I just thought I'd pay a visit to the local detachment." He looked puzzled, and I went on. "The local RCMP headquarters. It's just a few blocks away."

His face cleared. "Oh. Sure, that's cool, you're probably having lanyard withdrawal or something. You go talk about whatever it is you guys talk about."

As it turned out, the conversation took longer and went further than I'd anticipated, and it was dark by the time I started back to the laundromat. I hurried down the icy sidewalks, wind scouring my face with a light peppery snow. Yet I paused at the window, just for a moment, looking in. Ray was inside, leaning back in a chair, feet propped up, reading a magazine someone had apparently left there. Looking at him, I remembered all the times I'd been in this laundromat in years past, with my small solitary loads of wash, watching people bring in bundles of family clothing. It had always made me feel more alone than usual. Now, seeing Ray there, in the lighted warmth, our clothing neatly folded at his side ... I felt like an idiot for getting choked up, and strode briskly ahead, through the door.

Ray glanced up from his magazine. "About time. Hey, didja know Jodie Foster's pregnant? You gotta wonder how that happened, huh?" Then he looked at me more closely, "What's up? You look like you got something on your mind. How'd the big reunion go?"

"Well, it was most interesting, and did in fact provide me with some news, but..." I didn't want to broach everything that needed discussion, not yet, not here.

"News? What, like they changed form 734W to form 8299-stroke-zed or something?"

"It's—nothing that won't wait until later. Let's take our things back to the hotel and then go get dinner."

I think he sensed he was being put off, but then he shrugged and nodded. "OK. I'm starved."

The restaurant wasn't crowded, and we were seated at a good-sized table with ornate silverware and an oil lamp and an arrangment of dried flowers in a vase. Ray seemed fascinated by these accoutrements of civilization, examining them all with a little smile. We both ordered steaks, with salads and vegetables, and when they arrived conversation ceased for a while, as we dug in. I have no idea if the food was truly good or not, but at the time it was epicurean—tender beef, real vegetables, fresh bread. Every so often I glanced up to see Ray attacking his meal with appetite, and the sight was as nourishing as the food itself.

We couldn't begin to finish everything we'd ordered, and as much as I usually hate to waste food, I hardly minded, feeling a strange expansiveness steal over me, with a full belly, warm hands and feet, Ray across from me in the golden lamplight.

He poked with his fork at the remnants of his steak. "Feels weird, not having Dief here to hand this off to. He'd clean it up in a second."

"I'm sure he'd appreciate the thought." I leaned back, closing my eyes.

Hazy with repletion, we just sat for a while, Ray sipping every so often at his beer, and I—simply feeling, for a while, simply enjoying, letting the animal in my soul relish the deep primal joy of survival, warmth, the full belly, the end of the trail, and the sense of closeness that glowed between us as warm as the lamplight.

"So. Fraser." Ray's voice startled me, and I realized I'd almost been dozing, leaning back against the booth's cushions. He was watching me steadily in the lamp's glow, and for just a moment I was back beside the fire, at Sergeant Frobisher's camp, on that evening—could it be only three weeks ago? It seemed a lifetime. "What's the big news?" I sat forward, confused, and he amplified. "HQ, this afternoon. You said you were going to tell me later. It's later. You ready to spill yet, or you need to percolate some more?"

I picked up my fork, took a last bite of potato, wiped my mouth, folded my napkin with some care and put it alongside my plate. "Yes. Ah. It was an enjoyable visit, actually, Sergeant Gammell was most cordial. A very pleasant man, and so far as I can tell a good officer. I hadn't met him before, but he had some acquaintance with my father."

Ray snorted. "Figures."

"We had quite an interesting conversation about this detachment—patrolling of inland waterways, relations with the Gwich'in Tribal Council—" Ray's fingers were beginning to do a little speed it up, Fraser dance on the tabletop, and I took a breath. "As well as—staffing issues. Retaining a full complement can be a challenge in this locale, and in fact—" I paused and took a sip of water. "In fact, he currently is short-staffed, Constable Akers having left on rather short notice—his wife proved unable to tolerate the climate. He's having some difficulty filling the position, and ... well. To make a long story short, he offered me a posting here. Effective immediately." I looked at Ray; his brows were up, but he seemed not entirely surprised. He'd sensed something had changed, as soon as I came back to the laundromat, and perhaps he'd intuited the nature of my news.

"Real Mountie-type work, that's what you'd be doing here, right? Not like back home—" He stopped. "Not like Chicago."

"There's certainly no need here for anyone to perform ceremonial duties here. It would be a regular field position, providing direct service to the community."

"Right." He nodded, examining his beer with deep attention. "So. D'ja take the job?"

"I told him I was very interested, but that I would need to think it over. That there were—some other factors, to be considered."

He nodded, abstracted, not seeming to take in what I'd been trying to imply. "You like the place, you like the guy, job sounds like the kind of thing you want to do. You'd be dumb not to take it." He seemed to be thinking hard, sorting things in his mind, and suddenly looked up at me. "Two hours each way from the cabin, that'd be a hell of a commute."

"Well—" Another patch of terrain to be crossed; it felt like we were moving very fast, across ice I wasn't sure was sound. "Actually, Ray, the position brings with it a housing allotment. In town."

"What, you mean like a barracks?" His voice was sharp, brows drawn together.

"No, not at all, it would be—nothing fancy, certainly, but by no means a barracks. Row housing, such as you've seen in town here. Small, but of relatively recent construction, modern conveniences, plumbing and heating of course, and appliances are included, though it's otherwise unfurnished—I was told there might need to be some minor cosmetic repair, painting and so on, but it's basically very sound, in excellent condition—" I was babbling, and made myself stop.

He still looked worried. "But—so, you could ... you could, uh, have Dief there, right? Dogs OK?"

I almost laughed, out of sheer startlement. "Well, of course, that would be —" I stopped again. The crease was still between his brows, and I went on, speaking with some care. "The units are intended as family housing, Ray. For detachment members, and their families. But in fact, I could have—whomever I wanted, living there. The RCMP owns it, but it would be a private home."

He took that in, still serious, still thinking, but seemingly still evading the central point, circling away from it. "But the cabin—you'd keep that, right? You don't want to give that up."

"Certainly. After all, I kept it all the time I was in Chicago, and even a constable on active duty gets some days off, some vacation time." I picked up my water, took a sip, feeling the glass cold against my fingers; I was tempted for a moment to hold it to my forehead to cool myself down. I was sweating, all of a sudden, the food lying heavy now in my stomach. "You know, Ray, it's very beautiful there in summer, at the cabin. I'd like for you to be able to see that. To—be here with me."

I stopped. It was as far as I could go; all I could do was wait for him to meet me in the middle, or to drop me.

"Yeah? Summer, huh?" He emptied his beer mug, set it back down, wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. When he lowered his hand, I could see he was smiling. "You trying to make me believe you actually get summer around here? Bluffing, Fraser, you're bluffing big time. Better believe I'll stick around and call you on that one."

"I'd like that."

"OK, then."

"Right."

"You said it."

We were staring at each other, across the table and the detritus of dinner. Flames were licking up between us, hotter and wilder than the tame glow of the lamp, the same heat I'd felt before in the hotel room ... but mutual now, I was almost certain, acknowledged, returned, intensified.

"Let's get out of here," Ray said. Voice like sandpaper, eyes glittering, full of nerve and edge. I waved for the waiter, more vigorously than I needed to, perhaps, because he came hurrying over.

"Everything all right, gentlemen? What can I get you? Dessert, coffee—"

"The check, please."

While he calculated the total, I fumbled in my pocket and counted out bills, taking time over it in an effort to compose myself. After the waiter left with the money, Ray picked up the receipt, looked it over, and pocketed it.

He must have noticed my quizzical look, because he said, "So I know how much I owe you."

"Ray—"

"Gotta remember to check on the hotel rate too. And I know it was a hundred and twelve bucks at the grocery store, and the laundry came to—"

"Ray."

"What?"

"Don't—don't be ridiculous." I was almost angry. "There's no need for you to pay me back anything, you're my guest—" I stopped myself a moment too late. He was looking at me, face set.

"That what I am? Is that what this's all about? Cause if that's what you think, maybe I got the wrong idea about the whole deal."

I rubbed my forehead. "No. No, that's not actually ... I'm sorry, Ray, I don't feel I've quite got a grip on things yet." That much was true; I felt as if my world had been upended, in less than twenty-four hours.

He gave a nod, dismissing it. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. But—look, you gotta tell me how much you spent on all the stuff for the trip, too. Sure, Frobisher loaned you some of it but I know you laid out some cash. I'll do a wire transfer from Chicago and we'll get squared away."

Despite my better knowledge and best intentions, I couldn't keep from protesting. "Ray, really, it's not necessary. The money isn't an issue."

"Yeah, it won't be as long as we get one thing straight, right from the top." He leaned forward, fingers jabbing the air in front of my face. "We go halves on this. All of it. I pay my way."

"If it's that important to you," I began, but he wasn't finished.

"I am not a fucking charity case, Fraser, and yeah, OK, maybe I didn't always haul my own weight out there on the icebergs, but from now on that changes. Partners. Even-up, I do my part, you do yours, and hey, we're back now where you don't need a bone knife to stay alive, you can do it with money, right? Moolah, dinero, that I got, that part I can handle just fine, and I pay my own way from here on, you got it?"

"I didn't know it mattered that much to you."

"Yeah, well, now you know, so you just tie that one up with string and put it someplace you won't lose it, OK?" Then he sat back, rubbing his eyes, and when he spoke again he sounded calmer. "It just makes me crazy to feel like I owe somebody. You know? I just ... it makes me crazy."

"I have no intention of making you crazy, I assure you."

"Intention—yeah, you don't need any intention, Fraser, you can pull that one off without even trying."

The tone was the familiar one of casual jab, friendly grumble, but then he ducked his head, staring down as if surprised by his own words. He chuckled, just a little. "Yeah." Then without looking at me, he jerked his head toward the door. "C'mon."

We walked down the sidewalk, boots squeaking on the dry snow, and I tipped my head back to take deep lungfuls of air, grateful for the steadying effect of the cold. Ray gave me a sidelong look from under his hood.

"You're really happy here."

It was a statement, not a question, but I answered anyway. "Yes. I am." I breathed in again, smelling fresh snow in the wind, feeling the flakes like little pinpricks on my skin. "We might get another inch or so by morning," and even I could hear how ridiculously pleased I sounded.

"Yeah, what were the odds. Must be our lucky day." But the mockery in his voice was warmed with affection, and after a moment he reached out and squeezed my shoulder, a quick hard grip. It was the first time he had deliberately touched me since the night before, and it made me shudder—just that quick squeeze, through the layers of my parka and clothes.

We walked on in silence. Not a word had passed between us, all day long, about what had happened the night before, what we'd done, what we felt, what it meant. A hundred times I'd wanted to open the topic, somehow, but words had utterly failed me. I could only trust that our acts, in the end, would clarify matters.

There were two double beds in the room. When we'd checked in, Ray had strewn our bags all over one of them, which I'd taken as a sign of sorts, but I was suddenly afraid he might move them to the floor, might claim that bed as his, that I might have been misreading everything all along.

But he didn't. He took off his coat and boots and socks, walked to the window, his bare damaged feet sinking into thick carpet, and stood for a minute staring out at the snow. Then he shook his head bemusedly, and pulled the curtains closed. He turned, not looking at me, and took a sudden dive onto the vacant bed. He bounced onto his back, and spread out his arms and legs, semaphoring like a child making angels in the snow.

"Ohhhh man." It was a tone of pure bliss, and the sound of it, the sight of him, stirred heat in me, but I didn't move, watching him for my cues. He bounced a few more times, looking up at me with a grin, and then his look turned serious again. He lay quiet for a moment, then sat up, pulled off his sweater and t-shirt, quickly unfastened his jeans. Lying back down, he shoved them off, along with his briefs, in one quick wiggle that I don't think he meant to be seductive. Then he scooted over so he lay flat on his back on the far side of the bed, bare and still. Or at least most of him was still.

For all his seeming vulnerability, in that tense fragile moment, there was nothing passive about his nakedness—it was a challenge, all cards laid on the table for the highest possible stakes. No bluffing.

And, I suddenly realized, it was my play now, my turn, to see his hand and raise it. He had come to me last night; now I was going to have to go to him, to show him, without any possible ambiguity, that this was exactly what I wanted as well.

The bed looked enormous to me—I remember thinking I had never seen a bed so vast—and yet as I made my way dizzily over to it and sat on the edge I was all at once much closer to Ray than I'd bargained for. It was dreamlike, disorienting. The hugeness of this moment paralyzed me briefly, until I made myself focus on Ray's face and saw the gathering tension there. Then I looked down, took hold of the hem of my layers of shirts—feeling a moment's security in having something solid and real to hold onto—and pulled them all off at once, tossing them onto a chair. I unfastened my pants, pushing them down and away, tugging off my socks. I could feel Ray's eyes on me all the time, until finally, as bare as he, I turned and looked at him, straight on.

Still he said nothing, but after a moment his eyebrows twitched up, and that sudden familiar movement, on the safe terrain of his face, freed me enough so I could move, reach out a hand to him. I touched his shoulder, hesitantly, and then let the touch become a stroke, running my fingertips over his collarbone, watching his throat move as he swallowed, the subtle play of tendon and muscle.

"You're beautiful," I told him.

"You're mental." Two words, said with such an odd mix of humor and scorn and nervousness and—and affection. Love? I shivered once, hard, absolutely shaken by the intensity of my desire to have this work, to make this right, to not fumble and drop what he was giving me. I didn't know what to do next.

He took hold of my wrist and lifted my hand off of him, holding it in both his, examining it as if he'd never seen it before. I looked at it as well, wondering what he was seeing—the calluses, the marks of frostbite. "Big hands," he said at last, with the air of one tacking down a significant point.

"They're not particularly large, for a man."

He gave me a look that said, as clearly as speaking, "Well, duh." Then he set my hand back down on his chest, with no apparent provocative intent, but simply as if it were the most convenient place to put it. His eyes moved up my arm, took in the rest of me, up and down and side to side, while I sat there feeling huge and awkward, hovering over him like some large animal, uneasy in my nakedness.

I cleared my throat. "Have you—have you ever done this before?"

"What, you got that twenty-four hour amnesia thing going or something?" He sounded edgy.

"No, I mean—you know what I mean."

"What's it matter?" He shifted restlessly. "Come on, Fraser. You're the one that likes to jump off ten-story buildings, don't crap out on me here."

I could feel dampness between my palm and his chest, and wasn't sure if it was his sweat or mine. "I don't mean to—that is—I don't know why you're doing this, Ray."

He looked frustrated. "You want it, don't you?"

No words could have conveyed the immensity of my yes—I could only nod.

"You see anything that makes you think I don't want it?"

Having thus been given permission, I looked down at the rest of his body; clearly aroused, tense, almost quivering.

"The fact that we clearly both want—this, doesn't speak to our motivations in undertaking such a drastic change in our relationship."

"Look, we can talk about this or we can do it, and I'd rather do it, Fraser, how about you?"

"I'd rather understand what it is we're doing."

"Yeah, well, understand this." And he grabbed me, with fluid speed, and yanked me down on top of him.

I landed with a graceless thud that knocked the breath out of both of us, and, breathless, I scrambled up onto my elbows and knees, trying not to squash him. Ray once embarked on a course of action was not to be deterred, though. He took a fresh grip on me—my head, fingers in my hair—and, with a look of determination, pulled me down to his mouth.

I had already discovered that, for so vibrant and restless a man, his kisses were surprisingly gentle, slow and deep and wet. I knew relatively little about kissing; for Victoria, it had been more a means to an end (just as you yourself were to her, I couldn't help thinking) Then I shoved bitter memory aside, tried to relax and just give myself up to the present, without apprehension or remorse, to just let myself sink into Ray, into the taste of his mouth. The feel of his skin against mine was still shockingly novel, and as I lowered myself onto him by clumsy degrees, the sensation of him moving under me—under me—was stunningly intense, every fresh point of contact setting off new shocks of arousal.

His hands, restless, left my hair and slid lower, over my shoulders, my back ... he urged me closer still, and I could feel increments of reserve giving way, like steel bands snapping, one after another—this, and this, and then this ...

It was too much, suddenly, and I had to pull away, breathing hard. I pushed up on an elbow, and touched him, awkward glancing touches down the length of his body, shoulder, ribs, belly, down to his groin, and then I hesitated a moment before taking careful hold of his erection. He shuddered all over, pushing up into my grip. I looked down at him, my hand on him, holding him there. Last night the darkness had eased everything, had made it possible for me to focus, accept, manage, but now with the light filling the room everything became all that much more, became overpowering. I pulled my hand away—it hurt, to stop touching him—and groped blindly for the lamp, almost knocking it over. He grabbed my wrist, pulling my hand back to him. "No," he growled. "Light stays on. You can't deal with that, then don't do anything."

Not doing anything was far past being an option at that point, so I took hold of him again, took a deep breath, forced my eyes open, and found another restraint giving way as I let myself sink into watching him, seeing his mouth fall open, his own eyes squeeze shut, flashes of sensation that I didn't know how to interpret—pain? delight?—flicker across his face. I'd called him beautiful; I hadn't realized until that moment how inadequate the word was. Having at last let myself look, I couldn't stop.

The wind rattled sleety snow against the window, and I remembered again where we were—home, home—just as my body found a smooth sweat-wet place to thrust against him, just as my hand found a better grip on him, and the joy of that moment exploded until I felt it could fill the whole of this empty land. Words came pouring out recklessly—"I wish we were out there now, Ray, out in the snowfields, I wish I could see you like this against the snow—"

He pushed hard up into my hand, and gasped out "You're fucking crazy, Fraser—" The words trailed off into a high keening moan, and I clapped a hand over his mouth, suddenly afraid, terrified of being overheard by people in adjoining rooms or the hallway, wishing again we were back in the remote silence of the wilderness.

He bit my fingers, then licked, then bit harder, and I squeezed him with my other hand, too hard, because he sucked in air through his nostrils and reached down to ease my grip on him. Then he jerked his mouth free of my hand, curled up to whisper in my ear, "Fucking crazy," and dropped his head back down on the pillow. I wasn't sure if he was referring to me, or himself, or the entire situation.

We lost our rhythm, found it, lost it again. The night before, we'd been flying on instinct and spontaneity, but now I couldn't keep myself from thinking, trying to figure out what I was doing, what I should be doing, what I was doing wrong. I could tell that reason, so long my mainstay, was of no help here, and that the self-control so deeply laced into my nature, the iron bands that lashed me together, were my enemy. I wanted to let go, I tried to let go, to just feel, humping myself against Ray like an animal, and yet I knew that whatever was going on here was infinitely more complicated than any animal coupling.

I choose this, I thought then. I choose this. And at that, the other thoughts went silent, and my body lunged forward, like the dogs throwing themselves into their harness, surging ahead with joy and purpose. I pushed, harder and harder, thrust, slid, plunged, and fell—into what crevasse had I fallen, this time? How would I ever get out? And then, falling, I exploded, pleasure that surged from my scalp to my soles, fierce and threaded with a high thin wail of doom.

It was too late. I had chosen already, long before we ever arrived in this room. This man, out of everyone and everything life had put in my path. I opened this door—the words were sing-songing in my echoing brain—I caught this plane, I went down this street, I took this job, I made this journey—too late, thank god too late now to turn back.

Movement, sounds...Ray groaning, moving underneath me, in my hand, lithe and taut and wet as a trout just hooked and pulled from its native water into the strangeness of air, writhing and twisting, all muscle and desperation. I began stroking him again, faster, feeling his struggle as pain, wanting only to set him free, and then with a final thrust he shuddered hard, throwing his head back and making a frightening sound deep in his chest, the sound of a man in mortal pain. He lunged again, and then once more, and then collapsed, panting, mouth open and eyes shut tight.

I let my hand rest on him a minute longer, as he twitched and shivered and subsided; then I got up, on shaky legs, and went to the bathroom. I washed my hands, wetted a cloth and wiped myself off, and brushed my teeth while I was there. Then I rinsed the cloth and brought it back to the bed.

He had crawled under the covers and was asleep already, mouth open, snoring softly. I cleaned him as best I could, given that he kept muttering and growling and trying to push the cloth aside. I wiped up the mess on the bedspread, put the cloth away, and got in beside him, turning out the light. He gave a great sigh and rolled onto his side, away from me, curled around his pillow.

I lay on my back for a long time, back in my mind again, letting my thoughts race along, arriving nowhere. Understand this, he'd said...and yet I understood nothing. Even when I gave up, exhausted, and tried to sleep, I was distracted by the glow from the streetlight outside the window. It made me feel like I was back in the city, a strange through-the-looking-glass city where by some unnervingly beneficent magic I was being given everything I'd so longed for, fruitlessly, in Chicago. I dreamed of Chicago, when I finally slept, long exhausting dreams of chases through alleys and warehouses, never quite catching whomever I was pursuing, Ray always somewhere alongside me, an elusive and sardonic presence whose voice was always in my ear but who, when I turned to look for him, was never there.

 

I woke, eventually, to a dim grey half-light, and an unfamiliar mixture of physical wellbeing and inner unease. The sheer comfort of the bed was a marvel, and tempted me to drift back into a doze, but I needed to look at Ray, to confirm that he was really here with me, and to try to read from his face the nature of his own dreams. I shifted carefully, not wanting to wake him, but when I got myself turned I found he was already awake, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling. He didn't look over at me when I raised myself onto an elbow beside him.

"Good morning, Ray."

"Hey." His voice was soft and gravelly.

"Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah, pretty good." He stretched a little, shifting his legs. "Never thought a plain old lumpy hotel mattress could feel so great." He turned his head to look at me then, to my great relief, and behind his half-smile I could see the same nervousness I was feeling.

I looked down at him—rumpled, puffy-eyed, frostbitten. I wanted to kiss him, not so much out of lust, although looking at him, remembering the previous night, I was already feeling a stir of arousal, but as almost a ceremony, setting a seal on the first day of this new life that I hoped, I trusted, we were embarking on together. But as soon as I moved toward his mouth, he rolled away.

"Jeez, I never brushed my teeth last night, yuck." He was running his tongue over his incisors, making a face. "Hang on."

He padded into the bathroom, and I could hear him using the toilet, running water, and then the strange bristly sound of toothbrushing, something so homely and domestic that it wrung my heart.

When he emerged, he stopped halfway to the bed and stood awkwardly for a moment, naked—as if torn between the duelling discomforts of being seen that way, and crawling back under the covers with me—yet, to my great relief, making no movement toward his clothes. Finally he waved his arms around gawkily—"You notice something? like, it's warm in here? What a concept, huh. Central heat, you gotta love it."

Feeling greatly daring, I slid over, pulling the covers back. "It's warmer in here."

He opened his eyes a little wider, blinked, opened his mouth as if preparing a retort, but said nothing. Instead, after a moment, he shuffled over to the bed, climbed in, keeping to his side, and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, covers pulled up to his chin.

Silence lengthened between us. I felt the need to say something, but I had no anecdotes, no observations, no words at all that seemed right for this moment. Instead, finally, I reached over and put a hand on his chest, as I had the night before, feeling his heartbeat, solid and steady. After a moment he put his hand on top of mine and pressed it against himself, squeezing hard. Then he gave a little tug; I came willingly, sliding toward him, and he turned at the same moment, sighing, eyes closed, moving his mouth blindly toward mine. I kissed him then, a kiss that was warm rather than hot, tasting his toothpaste, smelling his sweat. After a minute he pulled away and settled his head on my shoulder, and I held him. The weak light of dawn was just filtering in through the curtains. A new day.

We had to get up and moving soon, but whatever need for action the day brought was inconsequential, nothing compared to the need I felt to keep holding him like this. Skin against skin, the weight of his head trusting on my shoulder, the tickle of his hair against my cheek, his breath on my neck. I stroked his back, over and over, my hand savoring the long smooth sweep of muscle, the odd knobs of bone, the small movements of his breathing. It fed hungers I'd carried in me for so long I'd almost lost awareness of them. Until now.

But there was another hunger at work in me, one more imperious, more used to getting its way, the brain's need to make sense of things. As astonishing and reassuring as it was to touch him, to feel him letting himself be touched, I needed more; I needed to frame this tacit contract in words, my mind needed to reassert its control of the situation.

"Ray."

"Mmm." I could feel the soft exhalation of breath on my chest.

"I ... While I'm extremely gratified by this—this entire turn of events, I must confess I'm also somewhat bewildered."

"Mm-hm. Makes two of us."

"And I was hoping that you could—that is, this seems to represent a rather radical shift in orientation for you—not, of course, that I'm familiar with all of your past history, whether romantic or sexual, but your behavior up until now had appeared to indicate—that is to say, I've never seen you evince an interest in males beyond collegiality and friendship, and—"

He reached up, without looking, and clapped his hand over my mouth. I took the hint and kept quiet even after he took his hand away.

"Fraser. This, uh ... do we have to talk about this now?"

"Well, I suppose we could defer—"

"Let me rephrase that, is this one of those things you're going to keep niggling away at until I crack and start bleeding from the ears?"

"All I'm trying to do is understand this. I'm having difficulty coming to terms with this—this sudden change, in our relationship."

He sighed. "Fraser, a word of advice, don't try to figure this out. Trust me, this is not the kind of thing a guy can figure out. I tried. I give up." He sounded tired, resigned.

I certainly was not about to give up, but I took a different tack. "I'm only saying I'd appreciate a little clarification, given that I'm still somewhat bewildered about—recent developments." He snorted at that, and I went on, trying to speak less pompously, more plainly. "This is what I want. Beyond question. But it's nothing I ever expected. I need to be sure that it's what you want as well."

"Yeah. OK." He pushed away from me, and flopped onto his back. "Right. Um. Doing stuff. With you. Yeah." He paused, thrashed his legs around, kicking the covers loose at the foot of the bed, and then went on. "See, here's the deal. I ought to be dead."

Then he stopped, as if that constituted some kind of explanation. Ray's nonsequiters could either charm or infuriate me, depending on the circumstances, and this one was in the latter category. "What in the world do you mean by that?"

"Just what I said. I should've died out there." He flung a hand in the direction of the window. "Just like the Franklin guys. Stone cold, ceased to be, rung down the curtain, pushing up daisies, dead. Not that there are any daisies out there, y'know, but—" He gestured again, forcefully. "And so that's—you see?"

"First of all, I have no idea what you're driving at, and secondly, as I have told you more than once already, I would never have allowed you to die out there, so—"

"No!" He twisted around, glaring at me, jabbing me in the chest with his fingertips. "You do not get to decide shit like that! You are not God Al-fucking-mighty! And the point is that in any halfway reasonable universe I'd be a stiff right now! Right? Am I right?"

I opened my mouth to snap back at him, and then bit back my words. The last thing I wanted was a short-tempered wrangle with him. Instead, after a moment, I said, "Could you at least attempt to explain how this relates to the ostensible topic of conversation?"

He rolled on to his back again, scratching at his stubbled jaw. I gave him time, musing how that familiar faint rasping sound always seemed to me the audible signifier of Ray's thoughts skittering and scrabbling around in his head, as he attempted to chivvy them into line.

Finally, most unexpectedly, he said, "Did I ever tell you how I ended up proposing to Stella?"

"I don't believe so."

"Yeah." He stared at the ceiling. "That was a while ago. I'd just turned twenty-one, just started at the Academy, and I thought I was really the cat's ass. So—this one Saturday I'm up early, heading down to the gym, and I see this guy in an alley trying to break into the back door of Shulman's Jewelry. Broad daylight, you know? So clearly he's a dumbfuck, but the problem is clearly I'm a dumbfuck too, because instead of calling the cops—you know, the real ones with the guns and the badges and stuff—I go in there yelling at him to step away from the door and get down on the ground, just like I knew what the hell I was doing." He paused a moment, remembering. "I thought I sounded pretty good, actually, but I guess he wasn't buying it because next thing I know he turns around and he's pulling a 9mm out of his belt, and instead of getting down on the ground he's yelling right back at me—'I'm gonna drop you, you mutt!'" He paused, seeming surprised. "I remember that. Weird. And I remember ... he aimed that gun at me—" Ray raised his arms, hands clasped, forefingers pointing an imaginary muzzle to the ceiling. "Right at my chest. And of course I didn't have a vest, I didn't have a gun, I didn't have nothing, including the brains to get the hell out of there. I just—looked at it. And it was like —zzhheeep, zzhheeep, zzhheeep—like in Terminator, I could just zoom in and see his finger moving, pulling that trigger, and I knew I was going to die right there, I knew I was dead. And it—it went so slow, y'know? My head was going a million miles a second, but everything else was so slow."

He stopped, and I made myself relax my hands, which were clutching the sheets in a sweaty grip. I found the scene all too easy to visualize. "And then?"

"Then—" He shrugged. "Nothing. Misfire. I heard it click, and then I waited to be dead, and then I wasn't dead, and then the guy starts swearing, but he was too fucking stupid to just rack and tap it, while me, I finally got enough brains back to jump him, which I did, kicked the gun away, kicked his head, got his arm bent back up, and I start yelling until finally a cruiser shows up. And he's not gonna spill and put an attempted murder on his sheet, and I'm not saying anything to highlight what a moron I was, and so I come out smelling like a rose."

I let out a breath, pulling my mind back from that imagined Chicago alley to the safety of this room, this bed, thousands of miles away and many years later. "Well, Ray, though I've always been impressed by your physical courage, still that seems like an imprudent course of—"

"Yeah, like you wouldn't've done the exact same thing yourself, and anyway, like you say, that's not important, what's important is—" He gave the sheets another kick, flinging them off completely, and I allowed myself a glance over at him, the length of his lean body bare to the morning light. "See, I had a date with Stella that night. And it was like I'd wanted her for forever, but I never really let myself even think about it, 'cause I was this little punk from back of the yards who couldn't cut it at city college. And she was dating the guys from Lake Forest who went to Northwestern and could take her to dinner at Ambria, and order the right wine and stuff. That was her real life. And me, I was like —" He waved his hands around, seeking words. "Like—you know when a chick gets dressed up all Goth and puts on one of those fake nose rings and Doc Martens and her girlfriends tell her how tough she looks and they go out to a club, and the whole thing's just dress-up 'cause you know next day she's going to be back in her suit and her pearls?"

"I ... well, I'm not actually familiar with—"

He waved a silencing hand at me and went on. "And that's what I always figured I was, that it wasn't about me, when we got together, it was just like I was—whattaya call it, an accessory?"

"I doubt that she—"

"That, plus I could dance, which her Lake Forest guys couldn't." He suddenly hauled his pillow out from beneath his head, punched it up with a flurry of blows, and shoved it back into place.

"Ray, it's not that I don't find this engrossing, but perhaps we could revert to the topic of—"

"Shut up. You, of all people on this planet, do not get to tell me how to tell a story." He shot me a glare, and resettled his head. "So, uh. Anyway, that night—it was like up to then I'd always wanted her, sure, I was crazy about her, but I didn't let myself think about it. Y'know? Cause it totally didn't fit with who I was and who she was and so I just stuck it over in a corner and forgot about it. But that night—all that day, ever since I took that guy down, it was like—I should've died, I should've been dead, but I wasn't, and it was like God or somebody said, 'Ray, my friend, you get a do-over. And you get to do it different this time.' Like in a weird way I was dead, whoever I'd been, and ... and so that night, she's going on and on about studying for the LSATs, and some chick in her Poli Sci class who she think's screwing the prof, and out of nowhere, I mean I didn't even know I was going to say it, but out of nowhere—I ask her to marry me. Which I didn't even know I was going to say until, wham, out of my mouth, there it is. It was like—like somebody else was doing it. And then when she said yes, it was like, OK, that somebody else is the person I get to be from now on. The guy who got Stella."

He seemed to have run out of story at last, and I lay silent for a while, mulling over what he'd said, and what he hadn't said. I could hear a couple passing by in the hall outside, the faint sound of their voices and laughter.

Finally I ventured, "So when you thought you were going to die, out on the sled—"

"Thought I had died. Just waiting for the white light and the tunnel to show up."

"Right. And when you found that in fact you continued to live, you—you found within yourself the impulse to—to pursue—"

I stopped, floundering, but he kept his silence—refusing for once, I thought aggrievedly, to lend me a hand. "Ray, are you implying that you—thought about this, back in Chicago?"

"No!" He paused only fractionally. "Well, OK, maybe I thought about it, but I didn't think about it. Cause that wasn't the kind of thing I thought about back then."

"Ray, I'm afraid that doesn't really clarify—"

"It maybe crossed my mind, OK? Weird shit crosses my mind sometimes. OK?"

He sounded angry, and I found myself snapping back, "Ah, so I'm to understand that you consider this, to quote you, weird shit, is that it?"

Unexpectedly, he laughed, a harsh bark, and pushed himself up on an elbow, looking at me. "I dare you, I dare you, to lie there and say with a straight face that this is anything besides weird."

I looked back at him, the shadowed crease in the corner of his grin, the fierce glitter of his eyes, this face I knew so well, that I'd studied so often, so covertly, mine now to gaze at openly. Finally I said, "Actually, I think there's a great deal here besides, or in addition to, weird. Though I won't deny that that enters into the melange."

He stared me down for another moment, and then his smile, his gaze, eased. "OK. All right. Grant you that." He lifted a hand and brought it to my face, pushing back my hair, stroking a thumb over my temple.

For a while it was enough to just accept the gift of that touch, sink into that moment of grace, with gratitude. But there could be no real peace for me without better understanding, and finally I cleared my throat, and said, "So ... this was nothing you ever actually planned?"

"Oh, for christ's sake." But his voice sounded affectionate in its exasperation, and he kept his hand in my hair, combing it out with his fingers. "Planned. That'd be you, Fraser, not me. You make a plan, you follow it out, you make a plan, you follow it out, and everything goes the way you planned it. Get to the end, check it off the list, make another plan, bing bing bing. Me, I never know what the fuck I'm doing until, blam, there I am, and then it's like 'What the hell does this mean? How the hell did this happen?'"

There seemed a world of meaning in the way he said the word, and after a moment, I ventured, "This?"

He slid over closer to me, put an arm around me. "Yeah. This."

I shifted, getting one arm under his head and the other around his back, holding him. This, I thought. Ill-defined, irrational, mysterious, perfect. After a moment Ray said, "So, yeah, doesn't make any sense, but then what the hell does anyway? That's all the answers I got for you, Fraser, you want any more you gotta come up with 'em." He pushed away, sitting upright. "And we got a million things to do today, right? So let's get at 'em."

After a quick breakfast, we loaded all our belongings into the jeep and drove to the detachment, where I signed papers and collected keys, while Ray waited in the lobby. Then I dropped Ray at the bank, at his insistence, to begin the process of opening his own account and transferring funds, and I drove on to the house that had been Constable Akers', that was now ours. I unloaded the car, stacking our clothing on the bare floor and groceries in the empty refrigerator.

I drove back and collected Ray, who was standing in the bank lobby nervously folding and unfolding a sheaf of papers, and we went to a store we'd passed a few times the day before, a new establishment on Mackenzie Street that sold furniture and household supplies. I opened a charge account with the credit manager, an upright older woman who turned to have been a friend of my grandmother's, and we bought a few basic pieces of furniture.

I'd wanted to take the time to scout around for used items, but Ray emphatically vetoed that idea: "Other people's stuff—you don't know what went on with it. I always feel like it's got cooties or something." So I gave in, and allowed myself the pleasure of watching Ray try out various sofas, finally picking one that was big enough to accommodate his long body and was upholstered in Dief-colored fabric ("So the fur won't show so bad."). I let him go off on his own to choose a bed ("You don't wanna help me try out the mattresses?" "I'm sure you'll handle it just fine on your own, Ray." "Chicken.") while I selected a sturdy kitchen table and two chairs. We bought sheets, towels, dishes. I finally signed my name to the charge slip with as much pride and trepidation as if I were closing on a mortgage, while Ray stood to one side, fidgeting. I left a house key with the clerk (who, it turned out, was the niece of my old friend Ed Crandall, though she evinced no particular interest in the connection), and she promised to have the items delivered by the end of the day.

Then we drove to Wendell's, harnessed the dogs, and took a final run back to the cabin, the dogs pulling with energy and joy, as if they were starting a journey instead of closing one. We cleaned, tidied, stowed, working side by side, mostly in silence. When all was in order and secured, I shut the door behind us and we headed back. We left the other dogs at Wendell's again, to stay until Sergeant Frobisher could pick them up in the spring, and, with Diefenbaker in the back seat, we drove into town and parked behind our new home. After I shut the car off, we sat for a moment in the quiet and the gathering twilight, Ray drumming his fingers on his thighs.

"OK. Right. This is it, huh?" He put his chin up just a little, made that odd truculent roll of his shoulders that I'd seen before in moments of danger. Then he was out of the jeep, walking fast. Dief was probably the first through the door, pushy as always in his curiosity, but Ray was right behind him, and I brought up the rear.

They both spent several minutes exploring the house. Dief trotted around purposefully sniffing everything, while Ray wandered. He studied the placement of the sofa, which looked oddly forlorn in the otherwise empty living room; he stood in the bedroom doorway looking at the mattress, its quilted-nylon surface shining bare and shameless under the ceiling bulb's glare. He tried out the bathroom faucets, looked into closets, flipped light switches on and off, rapped his knuckles on the woodwork, face neutral. I followed after him, hands behind my back.

Finally he wandered to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out one of the beers I'd put in there earlier for him. He popped it open, took a swallow, sat down at the kitchen table, and Dief settled at his feet with a gusty sigh.

He took another swallow, set the beer down on the table, and looked at me for the first time since we'd arrived. Smiled, for the first time. "So," he said. "What're we doing for dinner?"

And thus we launched upon our own peculiar and precarious version of domesticity.


Had this been a storybook, the tale would have ended there: the adventure done, the safe haven reached, the lovers settled down together in peace, for an evening at their kitchen table, a night in each other's arms. A happy ending.

But life is not a storybook, and there is no true ending to it, happy or otherwise, until death (and, based on what I know, perhaps not even then). In between every now and that terminus is nothing but a succession of moments, one following another, leading in directions we might never have anticipated. Little about our life together turned out to be what I would have expected, and the fact that it brought so many surprises should have been no surprise to me. Yet I struggled, all the same, to encompass how entirely different from anything I had ever known it was to live with someone. To love someone, daily, hourly, intimately.

The early weeks of it are a jumbled blur to me now, just like the days before the quest, and in rather the same way—full of arrangements and transactions and provisioning, absorption in endless details, mundane busyness wrapped around a core of apprehensive joy. And it had the same feel of setting off on an uncertain adventure of high risk, which seemed odd to me even then—I kept thinking this should feel like settling in, settling down.

I was kept extremely busy, of course, by learning the responsibilities of my new posting. Challenging though it was, it hardly felt like work—relaxation, rather, into routines and systems that were deeply familiar, routines not necessarily beloved by me but comfortable, easy. "Like riding a bicycle, huh?" Ray said, when I tried to explain it to him; but it was more like the way horsemanship comes back to me, when I'm astride again after a long time away from horses—a tacit certainty of the rightness of one's place, and of how to align one's will and strength with that of a power so essentially different from oneself. There was no need to negotiate my place and standing, justify my presence, withhold my authority. No fear of hearing the "Well, y'know, he's Canadian," that had been such a constant refrain during the years of exile. I knew that this couldn't last, that the dubious looks would someday return. But in the meantime I took a simple pleasure in being in a place that wanted me, and I quickly assimilated the details of new personalities and office politics.

Once work was done and I returned home, I had far more unfamiliar things to learn, and they came with considerably more effort. For all my experience in sharing quarters during cadet training, I had never lived with anyone before, not this way, and had no conception of what it would actually entail. Always before, no matter how cramped or compromised my external life—in barracks, in the consulate—I'd been able to construct a simulacrum of privacy around myself, when needed, an inner fortress barricaded by the reserve that had become second nature to me.

Even on our journey together, there had been long interludes when, one of us on skis and the other on the sled, out of earshot of each other, I'd had time to myself. But now—the moment I arrived home from work, I stepped into the total immersion of Ray's company, his energy, his questions, his stream-of-consciousness conversation, his restless attention. It was wonderful, and it was exhausting, and it was surpassingly strange to me.

Equally strange was the task of negotiating domestic logistics. The most mundane details of life—establishing who needed the car when, and whose fault it was that we were out of toilet paper, and what constituted a decent level of household cleanliness—though they seemed as simple as rowing a boat down a stream, would sometimes hit the most unexpected rocks and rapids.

After a bumpy shakedown cruise, it became apparent that we'd be best served by a from-each-according-to-his-abilities approach, rather than the strictly equal division of household duties I'd envisioned. I took chief responsibility for cleaning and tidying, and Ray became the primary cook. In the kitchen, his intuitive flair came to the fore in ways different from those I'd previously witnessed. I recall coming home one evening, early on, to find the house filled with appetizing aromas, and Ray at the stove, stirring a sizzling array of mysterious chopped-up foodstuffs in a skillet.

"What is that, Ray?"

"Um." He peered down through the rising steam. "Some of that leftover chicken, and they had a can of artichoke hearts at the store. Threw in some olives. Onions, and garlic, and some hot peppers ..."

"That sounds—very interesting. Actually, I meant what recipe is that?"

"Recipe? Fraser, this is cooking, this is art, this is improv, recipes are just, y'know, paint by numbers. Mounties, they use recipes. I don't do that." Without missing a beat in his stirring, he transferred the spatula to his other hand, stepped sideways, opened the cupboard, and flicked his fingers over an array of small jars—spices and herbs, apparently.

"Those, ah, weren't there this morning, were they?"

"Way to pick up on the details, Fraser. Nah, I bought some stuff." He seized one jar, twisted the lid off one-handed, took a sniff of the contents, considered a moment, and then shook a generous unmeasured amount of the contents over the sizzling mass.

The results, when we sat down to eat, were delicious, pungent and savory, with a bite of heat.

"How did you learn to do this?" I asked, finally, sopping up the juices with a crust of bread.

"It's not something you learn, it's something you just do. You know, you try this with that, you see if it's good or bad, if it's bad you try it with that other thing over there instead, you throw in something else, see how it turns out." He stopped his illustrative gesturing, picked up his fork and took another bite, chewing, assessing. "Not bad," he finally said.

"It's excellent, Ray. I had no idea you were such a good cook."

His forehead creased in annoyance. "Hey, it's not just a chick thing, cooking, a lot of guys do it, including the ones who get paid the big bucks for it, you know?" He jabbed his fork in my direction.

"Of course, Ray, I never meant to imply that one sex is more fitted than another for the task. My surprise was merely occasioned by my memories of how you used to eat back in Chicago."

"Oh." He paused, nodded, went back to eating. "Back when I was with Stella—see, her idea of cooking was you pick up the phone and order take-out, but we didn't have that kind of money, so I figured out how to do it. I used to cook for her a lot, back when she was in law school. But cooking just for yourself—it's a pain in the ass."

"Indeed. And I must admit I'd have no idea how to go about producing a meal like this. I don't think that's a talent I possess."

"Nothing to do with talent, you just got to pay attention to what you put in your mouth." I gave him a look at that, and he grinned. "OK, OK, I don't mean pay attention like figure out if this grew on a, on a north facing hillside in Afghanistan or something, I mean like does this taste good, does this taste not so good." He pointed at my plate. "You got to think about do I like it, do I not like it. Does it make me happy." He looked steadily at me. "That's something you're not so used to doing."

I took a breath, but, finding no words, I ended up merely nodding, and took another helping. Afterwards, I washed dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, and spent a few minutes bemusedly looking over the array of seasonings Ray had bought. I was tempted to sort them alphabetically, but I thought Ray had perhaps arranged them in a way that made some sense to him. And a man doesn't mess with another man's tools, after all.

Ray's experimental cooking continued to produce unlikely successes, and some appalling failures, and never exactly the same dish twice. Every so often I would fill in with one of the set meals whose steps I'd mastered years ago—meatloaf and baked potatoes; hash and green peas; chicken and dumplings. He'd eat them without comment, and the next night he'd produce another of his spontaneous melange of oddities.

And so the allocation of chores worked themselves out over time. Ray tended to the car, naturally enough, and I kept the rather balky plumbing in working order. Ray washed the clothes, I folded and put them them away. Somewhat to my surprise, Ray took on most of the routine aspects of caring for Dief—feeding him, brushing him, policing the yard for waste. (And yet it was not so surprising—Ray always seemed to evoke the more doglike half of Dief's nature, the playful side, whereas with me his wolflike sense of responsibility tended to be more to the fore. He was my colleague; he was Ray's dog.)

We had always worked well together, Ray and I, and the job of creating and sustaining a household was one that we mastered in time, just as we'd mastered the art of police work together, meshing our very different styles with efficiency and grace.

But the other part of our lives together—the physical part, the passionate and lustful part, the part that I always remember as taking place in darkness or half-light, even when the sun was streaming in—that was wholly new to me, to us, and at times it was a struggle. It was like jumping into deep water, a great dark river that swept us away, helpless and half-drowned, to places we'd never expected. Sometimes we swam joyously in smooth warm shallows; sometimes we found ourselves in turbulent rapids. Or it might be more accurate to say that, just as on the quest, there were times of easy sledding over smooth terrain, and times that were like negotiating a broken icefield, difficult and treacherous.

The very fact of sexual intimacy as a part of my ordinary life, something that was permitted, expected, was staggering in and of itself, and at first I could not get enough, I simply could not imagine ever sating the physical hunger I felt for his body. Sometimes, burrowing deep into some hidden shadowed furred part of him—armpit, perhaps, or groin—smelling and tasting, I would find myself growling, sensing the big veins so close to the surface, so full of life; fighting my hunger, my wild need to rip my way into him, fighting to keep my teeth gentle on his vulnerable flesh. Sometimes the feel of my growl against his skin would make him laugh, and sometimes he'd growl right back, grabbing my hair and forcing my head, my mouth, to wherever he wanted it. Afterwards, panting, he'd say "You're a fucking animal, Fraser. Jeez, who knew?"

Those words would trouble me, once I'd come back to myself. Because, after all, I am not an animal, no matter how I might behave like one at times. Were I one, I would know, it would be encoded in my genes and reinforced by my upbringing, when and where and how to touch; the appropriateness and significance of each nuzzle and nip would be unambiguous.

But I'm a man, a human raised with very little schooling in the ways of human touch, and I was continually at a loss—how much was appropriate, or too little, or too much? I would watch Ray cook, feeling a desire to come up behind him and kiss his neck, stroke his shoulders, and I'd think—would that be intrusive? Greedy? When we sat on the sofa after dinner, would the natural thing be for me to sit close against him, put an arm around him, or would that be excessive? If I were tired and simply put my head in his lap and rested, as I sometimes wanted to do, would it convey a sexual overture? Would it seem too needy, too demanding? If I wanted to just sit quietly on my own and read, would it signal rejection?

I wondered mightily (it being a topic I'd never considered before) just what the expectation is, between couples who share a home—is sex assumed to be a daily thing, like meals and dishes? A treat for special times, like ice cream? That first week, during a lunch break, I went on-line and surreptitiously researched statistics on frequency of intercourse in married couples, until I reflected that after all very little about Ray and I was likely to fit any statistical norms, and I went back to work. But the questions remained.

I had assumed that Ray, with his experience of the married state, would have a better grip on these matters than I and would give a lead, but he often seemed as baffled as I was. He'd always had a careless ease about touching me, but our entering a sexual relationship seemed to bring that back to some sort of starting line, and he had to begin over, with awkward self-consciousness. Sometimes he'd put a hand on my shoulder, casually, and then suddenly pull it back again. Sometimes he'd push me away, when I'd attempt to caress him, with a scowl, and then turn back a minute later and grab me, and move things along to bed with a speed and intensity that left us both exhausted, and left me at least as perplexed as before.

It was nothing really new, of course, just the same mercurial unpredictability that had captured and confounded me from the day I'd met him, the volatility that so often left me feeling like I was plodding along far behind and in the wrong direction. But still I felt that this was different somehow; that the stakes were higher now, and any distances between us more dangerous.

I remember getting home one evening, only days after we'd taken possession of the house, to find Ray out of sorts, complaining about the limitations of the local radio stations; he was missing his music, I believe. After dinner, I'd made some clumsy attempts to comfort him physically; he'd borne them for a while, and then pushed me away and stalked off to bed, early for him, to lie wrapped up in blankets facing the wall. When I'd joined him, apprehensively, I could tell he wasn't asleep, and after a minute I'd ventured, "Ray? Are you angry with me?"

He made an exasperated growling sound and burrowed deeper into the blankets, curling in on himself; but after a moment I could hear a muffled sigh, and then he rolled over on his back and squinted up at me. "With you, Fraser, no. You're good, we're fine, no problem, don't worry."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that, of course, but you do seem upset, and that causes me some—"

"I said don't worry. Nothing you can do about it. Nothing's wrong, it's just..." He pulled the blanket up under his chin and lay staring at the ceiling for a while. "It's—y'know—kind of a lot to get a grip on. This whole deal."

I nodded, folding my hands to keep my own grip on the urge to reach over and touch him. He was wrapped mummy-tight in the bedcovers, as if he needed some shield between himself and the rest of the world, with only his rumpled head poking out.

"It's like—being Vecchio, OK, no problem, I knew how to do that. Different name, different division, but, y'know, same old song. I knew the job, I knew the city, I knew—at least most of the time, I knew who the hell I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to be doing. But this ..." He pulled an arm loose from under the blankets, and made a comprehensive sweeping gesture. "It's like, if you take all that stuff away, then ..." He stopped, gazing up into the dimness, and then went on, talking fast. "I don't know what I'm doing here. I don't know a single fucking thing about anything anymore. Starting with me, and, y'know, moving on out from there in all directions."

"Well, you know me. That much, at least, shouldn't be strange to you."

He turned and stared at me. In the half-light, his pupils looked enormous. "You, Fraser, that's the weirdest thing of all. You, and me, and this." This time his gesture was much smaller, more intimate, taking in the two of us, our bodies there on the bed, the small space between us.

"I'm the same person I've always been, Ray. You can count on that." I said it in all seriousness, but the moment the words left my mouth, I felt a twinge of doubt, tasted some measure of falsehood in them. I set that aside for later reflection, and, hearing toenails click in the hallway, added brightly, "And then there's Diefenbaker, who should certainly be a known quantity to you by now, though how reassuring you'll find that I'm not certain."

"Yeah, I don't know that Dief's the one I'd be going to for my reality check," Ray said, but he sounded more upbeat, more like himself, and then I began some long pointless reminiscence about Dief's misdeeds during our early days in Chicago, and so the moment passed.

But it compelled me to face some uncomfortable issues that, in the flurry of getting settled, I'd allowed myself to overlook. As astonishing as it still sometimes seemed to me, Ray was here, indubitably, in my life, in our household, in Inuvik, but despite his apparent determination to remain, there were still a number of ambiguities about his standing.

I'd taken steps, even before we set off on our adventure, to rectify the extreme irregularity of his manner of arrival in Canada, and to make sure he had the usual six-month temporary resident status. I had no concern about being able to get that extended, when needed; but such a status did not bring with it authorization to seek paid employment, and I was uneasily aware of Ray's fierce resistance to financial dependency.

He had immediately instituted a rough system of household bookkeeping, in the form of a whiteboard attached to the refrigerator upon which we were both to jot down household expenditures, which would then be reconciled at month's end. I offered to set up a better-organized system (Ray's notations were often along the lines of "Stuff from Northern Store—$10+change," and they got smudged at times when he would brush against the whiteboard), but that led to so much cheerful mockery ("Hey, Fraser, while you're at it, how about you figure in the depreciation on the sofa cushions?") that I finally gave up and let him handle it. More germane, in any event, was the question of just how long his savings would allow him to sustain this arrangement, a question which felt too potentially fraught to raise at the time.

But money wasn't the only issue—more immediately pressing was the fact that, without a job, there was little for him to do here. Ray had spent his adult life engaged in difficult, demanding, consuming work, and he was active by temperament, a doer; his restless energy sorely needed some object to focus upon, lest it flare up out of control.

While we'd been travelling, of course, I'd assumed he'd be returning to Chicago and his work there, the police work that he'd once claimed to dislike even though he clearly loved it. But his decision to stay brought with it a host of new decisions, new questions that I felt some responsibility to help resolve. We were, after all, on my home turf now; it was my turn to take on the job of helping him find his place here, just as he and Ray Vecchio had done for me.

I was, perhaps, too accustomed to the sort of accommodation that the Chicago PD had given to the peculiarities of my own role. I was, certainly, too na�ve. But I had hoped I could broker an arrangement that would give Ray some quasi-official status with the detachment, something that would allow him to use his skills and experience—a consultancy, perhaps, a liaison, even if only part-time. An arrangement, of whatever kind, that would bear the scrutiny of HRDC, and would allow us to continue working as partners.

With this plan in mind, I requested an interview with Sergeant Gammell. I had drawn up several documents in preparation—a precis of Ray's professional experience and qualifications, with notes on his commendations; a draft job description, indicating where Ray might fit in the detachment's work flow and chain of command; a tentative revision of the budget, with enough funds diverted from nonessentials (including a portion of my own salary, which was pegged at a level ridiculously in excess of my needs) to provide him with at least a stipend.

At the appointed time, I laid the documents out in front of the sergeant and launched my appeal. As sometimes happens, I got rather caught up in my own flow of speech, and it was only near the conclusion, when I took in the set of his face, that I thought I had, perhaps, overdone it a bit.

"Well, Constable. A most impressive display of initiative, for someone so new to a posting, and clearly you have administrative capacities I should keep in mind." I winced inwardly. "I must say, though, that I don't understand what's behind this. There isn't enough crime in Chicago to keep him busy, perhaps?" He said this with heavy irony, and I gave a dutiful little laugh. "Or—is it perhaps that he thinks we need a little help up here? Just a bunch of Canuck hicks, eh? We need some fellow from the states to come up here and show us the ropes?"

"I can assure you, that's not the case at all. Ray has the highest respect for the professional skills of the RCMP, and for the people of Canada." I gestured at the file. "He has successfully liaised with us in the past, most recently in the arrest of Holloway Muldoon, as I've summarized in the—"

"Yes, a successful piece of work, that was, although unorthodox. Strikes me that was rather a cowboy operation, in fact. Not the way I like to see an investigation conducted." He shot me a glance. "Is that how Mr. Kowalski usually works? A bit of a Dirty Harry type, perhaps?"

"Not at all, sir. The circumstances themselves were unorthodox in that case; Detective Kowalski is normally very mindful of procedure." It was in my mind to add You could ask his former supervisor for verification of that, but I thought better of it.

He shuffled the papers together, setting them aside. "Be that as it may. You should realize that there's absolutely no way we can offer him a position here as part of the detachment. That's out of the question, Constable. However they might fiddle the system down in Chicago, we don't do things that way up here. I trust you understand that."

"Sir—"

"He's not a citizen. He doesn't even have permanent resident status." He paused, pondering. "If he's enthusiastic about learning our criminal justice system from the ground up, I heard they were looking for volunteers to serve as adjunct probation officers, down in Whitehorse. That might be a way for him to get his foot in the door. Make some connections."

"That's a very kind suggestion, sir, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. But I'm afraid it isn't—" I struggled for some safe way to phrase it. "Detective Kowalski would prefer to remain in Inuvik, if at all possible." I tried to make myself add "He's formed an attachment to the area," but the lie wouldn't come out. From the way the sergeant was looking at me, I realized that in any event it wouldn't have helped put him off the spoor he'd already scented. I should never have attempted this, I thought then, not in this way. Gossip had already travelled faster and further than I'd feared.

"Constable—may I call you Benton?" I nodded. "Benton. Use your head, my boy." He sounded both kindly and impatient—sounded, for just a moment, uncannily like my father. "You may have had to cope with highly irregular arrangements while you were in the states. You may have even gotten accustomed to them. But you're home now. We don't do things that way here. You know that, certainly." He watched me, waiting for me to nod again.

Instead I said, "Sir, with all respect, innovation is not a bad thing. Community policing was an innovation, back in 1989. It's now the foundation of our presence in Inuvik."

"You're not talking about an innovation. You're talking about bending the rules purely to indulge your personal—inclinations. Where are your priorities, Benton? Do you really think your friend has what it takes to work effectively here? Does he know the culture? The social organization, the Canadian legal system and police procedure? Does he have any experience in dealing with this climate? Do you really think that throwing him out there, with no training, no official standing, would be even in his best interests, to say nothing of the interests of the people we serve?"

What shook me weren't his words, but the realization that I would have responded the same way, would have had the same thoughts, a few years ago. "All I can say, sir, is that Detective Kowalski is an excellent officer and a quick learner." I sounded feeble, even to myself.

"And all that may well be true, but it's beside the point." He leaned back, rubbing his forehead. "Very well. If you don't wish to think about the good of the community, at least take a moment to think about your own future. Your career."

I stood silent.

"You're one of the most capable young officers I've seen, Benton. Even with this little Chicago ... hiatus, on your record. You can leave that behind. If you get yourself back on track here—straighten out and fly right—there's no limit to how high you could go." He was looking at me narrowly, speaking slowly, and I could tell he intended to convey many layers of meaning beneath the cliches.

He couldn't know, of course, that he'd played entirely the wrong card. If there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that my future doesn't lead to mahogany desks and brass plaques. I know I could have taken that path; and I know that at some point I chose to step off it and onto a path of my own, one that fortuitously runs in tandem with the mission of the RCMP but which aims, not up the rungs of power's ladder, but off into the wilderness. Knowing this was like touching earth, and it gave me the strength to say, "Sir. All I'm asking is that you talk to him. Give him a hearing. Just that."

"Benton." He shook his head in a horatory manner. "This is a disappointment. Tell me this, Benton—" and he waggled a finger at me. "Just what would your father think about all this? Hm? Tell me, what would his response be?"

Again, I could sense multiple meanings in his words, his reproving look. He meant to shame me. I could hold back the flare of rage I felt, because I knew what to say, as clearly and surely as if my father himself had been standing at my shoulder, whispering into my ear. "He would say that partners stick together. They stand by each other. Surely you knew that about him. Sir."

It only stopped him for a moment, as his eyes grew hard. "Perhaps. But in any event, you are no longer Mr. Kowalski's partner. That—arrangement ended when you left the Chicago Consulate. In fact ..." He reached out for some papers, leafed through them. "I had asked Darlene to set up a meeting with you about this, but I might as well go over it with you now." He looked up at me from under his brows, then returned to his papers. "We've been authorized a new cadet position, and yesterday I selected a candidate to fill it. Cameron Sinclair, a very promising young man, graduated from Depot last June. He's been doing a tour in Regina, but he'd expressed a desire to work in the NWT."

He set the papers down on his desk and looked up at me as if expecting some response. I said nothing, and with a frown he went on. "Promising, as I said, but he's young, and could use some seasoning. I had thought that working in partnership with a more experienced officer would be of benefit to him, and that you could gain by serving as partner for a cadet and taking on some responsibility for fostering his professional development."

"Sir, it's a great honor, but I—"

He cut in, cold-voiced. "I'm hoping I'm not misguided in my expectation that you can discharge that role in a responsible and professional manner. If you feel there's some reason you couldn't handle it appropriately, of course ..."

To control myself with superior officers, control my anger, show nothing of my feelings, was a skill I'd mastered long ago. "I'm not sure I understand why you think that might present a problem, sir. I would be glad to work with Cadet Sinclair."

"Good." He scribbled a few notes on a memo pad. "He'll be arriving next Tuesday, and at that time we'll meet to discuss allocation of supervisory responsibilities. And we'll consider the rest of this conversation closed."

"Sir—"

"Thank you, constable. Dismissed." And with that he swiveled his chair away, picked up his phone and began dialing.

 

Ray was on the phone when I arrived home that evening, with the cord stretched out to full length as he moved restlessly around the kitchen, talking loudly, gesticulating. "No—no, all of it! ... Cause I don't want you digging through my stuff, OK? Is this so hard to understand? Just tell 'em, box it up, take it down to— ... Yeah, boxes! They're storage guys, they've gotta have boxes, right? ... OK, fine, you want to collect liquor store boxes and drag 'em over, you be my guest, just stay the hell out of my drawers, got it? Hey, Dief!" Dief had put a paw on his leg in greeting, and Ray leaned down to give him a rub behind the ears, still talking. "Yeah, just came in the door ... yeah, both of 'em." He straightened, angling the phone away from his mouth for a moment. "Frannie says hi."

"Ah. Give Francesca my warmest regards, please."

"Yeah, he says hi back. ... Look, I toldja already why not, cause it's fifteen hundred bucks round-trip, and it's not like I got cash to burn, and the next time I cross that border I'm doing it inside the plane, sitting down, with the waitress bringing me drinks—" He shot me a fast grin, spun and yanked the refrigerator door open, pulling out a beer, which he set on the counter, and a bottle of juice, which he tossed to me. "So if you just— ... what? ... Oh, yeah, right, like they give him the good-guy discount or something, doesn't work that way, Frannie, besides which he's got a job up here, y'know? That little thing called work? ... Yeah, I know you got work to do too, that why all I'm asking is, just call the guys, tell 'em what to do—" He uncapped his beer and took a drink. "Me? Don't you worry about that, I'm lookin' at some options, got some leads to follow up—" He was nodding with such energy as he spoke, talking with such confidence, that even I, for a moment, felt convinced that he was a man with limitless possibilities in this small and narrow town.

Then, as he listened to Francesca, I could see him slow and stop his restless jittering, his bravado folding in on itself as he stilled. He set his beer on the counter and stood listening, head bowed. When he spoke, his voice was quieter. "Yeah. OK. Tell him—uh, tell him it was an OK job. Could've been a lot worse. Tell him I appreciate the stuff he did for me, and ... nah." He took another drink from his bottle. "Nah, forget that, just tell him I said hi. OK?" He looked up at me. "Yeah. Yeah, sure. Here you go." He held out the phone to me, and I took it.

"Francesca?"

"Hey, Fraser." It warmed me to hear her voice, distant though it sounded, with that strange mispronunciation of my name she'd stubbornly held to all these years. "How are you? Are you doing OK up there? Must be nice to be home, huh?" Under the usual cheery energy, I could hear some wistfulness in her voice.

"I'm doing very well, Francesca, thank you for asking. And yes, it is indeed good to be home."

"So, you got a job up there now? That going OK for you?"

"Well, I was certainly very lucky to secure a position so quickly." I heard her snort and mutter, "Lucky, yeah, like I'm sure people're beating the doors down to freeze their—" I went on, "The detachment seems to be well organized and staffed, and I find the work enjoyable. Though certainly there are aspects of my duties—my liaison duties—in Chicago, that I miss." I stopped abruptly, feeling I might perhaps be sending the wrong signal.

But she didn't pursue it with any of the flirtatiousness I'd come to expect from her. Instead she said, "Yeah, that's good, Fraser, that's—you're happy, and Ray's OK, and you got an OK place, and—that's all OK, then. That's good, I'm happy to hear it." Happy was not precisely how she sounded, but she continued, "Well, OK then—I mean, this has got to be costing you a fortune, so I guess—I guess I should let you go, huh."

"It's good to hear your voice, Francesca. And you're doing well, I trust?"

"Who, me? Yeah, I'm fine, couldn't be better, keeping busy, y'know? What with the lieutenant being in a really, really crappy mood for like the last month, and ma having back trouble so she needs me to do everything around the house, and my dimwit brother heading off to Florida with that blonde bimbo—"

"Excuse me?"

I could hear her draw her breath in, and then pause, and then she said, low and fast, "Nothing, forget it, you didn't hear me say a thing, OK? About Ray, I mean about my brother, you didn't hear a word, right, Fraser?"

I was bewildered. "As you wish, Francesca, although I must point out that I did hear you—"

"No, Fraser, I mean it, honest to god, forget I said anything. OK? And—and take care of yourself, keep warm up there, tell Ray I'll take care of the movers and everything, that's all taken care of, and—and take care, OK? Right?"

"All right, Francesca." Clearly something was afoot with Ray Vecchio, but trying to pursue it with her seemed fruitless at this point, and I made a mental note to seek elucidation from Lieutenant Welsh. "Please give my regards to everyone there, and give your mother my best wishes for a speedy recovery."

"OK, thanks, Fraser, and—and—come visit sometime if you can, OK? I mean, I know, it's a long way and you're really busy and everything, so—not for a long time, I understand, but—we miss you. OK? Take care of yourself. G'bye." And she hung up, with a clatter.

I looked at the receiver for a moment, and then hung it up. Ray glanced up at me, from whatever he was heating up on the stove—Sunday night's stew, by the smell of it. "What's up? She got a bug up her butt about something?"

I took off my jacket and hung it up. "Well, Ray, it appears that Mrs. Vecchio is having some kind of problem with her back. And Lieutenant Welsh hasn't been in a good humor lately." All true, as far as it went, and I felt compelled to honor her request for silence on other matters, which I reflected could hardly be of interest to Ray anyway.

He, in any event, seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts. "Yeah. Welsh—I kind of left him high and dry there. Which sucks. Cause he was always pretty decent to me." He poked at the stew with the wooden spoon, sniffing at it. "Of course, I guess I'd've been out of there by now anyway. Hey, I wonder how Vecchio's settling in, he's got to at least be back to riding a desk by now. Frannie say anything about that?"

He was pulling bowls out of the cupboard, not looking at me, and I ventured, "She wasn't particularly forthcoming on that topic, actually."

"Yeah. Figures, I guess, a guy goes undercover like that, you get used to not talking about him." He dished up, shoving Dief's inquisitive muzzle aside with his hip, and the topic lapsed.

It was an uncomfortable meal for me. Apart from my concern and curiosity about whatever situation Ray Vecchio had gotten into, I had two disquieting bits of news to communicate to Ray, and I wasn't sure how to proceed. My unease must have made me less talkative than usual, because Ray abruptly set down his spoon.

"Fraser. Spill."

"Excuse me?"

Ray pointed a finger at my forehead. "What's going on in there? You got something on your mind."

I raised my napkin to my mouth for a moment, then set it on the table. "It's nothing, Ray—well, not precisely nothing, but rather—some matters that arose at work today."

"Uh huh." His tone clearly conveyed that he was waiting for more, and though he tipped his chair back casually, he kept his eyes on me.

"I ... er ... I had a conversation with Sergeant Gammell."

"Mr. Warmth," Ray muttered, and then his eyes narrowed. "He giving you shit about anything?"

"No, not at all. That is—not about my work per se. Rather, I—ah—I put a staffing proposal before him, which he declined to consider."

"Oh, jeez, you probably had some big plan to reorganize the whole place, huh? After being there, what, a week? Fraser, use your head, a guy's in charge of a place, he tends to think he knows more about it than someone who just got off the dogsled. You gotta learn how to play the game."

"I wasn't proposing any wholesale scheme of reorganization, Ray, for heaven's sake. Not that it wouldn't make much more sense, mind you, to reallocate the—" He made a rude noise. "Yes, well, leaving that aside." I stood, and began gathering dishes off the table, carrying them to the kitchen. "The particular change I suggested entailed—er—providing a new position. With the detachment. On an ad-hoc and contractual basis." I set the dishes in the sink. "For you, actually."

Over the clatter of china I could hear his chair thunk to the floor. "What the hell?"

I plowed ahead, turning on the hot-water tap, adding dish soap. "So that we could continue to work as partners. It seemed an excellent idea to me, but the sergeant—"

Ray was suddenly behind me, reaching around to shut off the water, then taking me by the shoulders and spinning me around. "Forget the fucking dishes. Say that again."

Obediently, I said, "I suggested providing a new position with the detachment, on an ad-hoc—"

"Shut up." Ray's fingers dug into my shoulders, and his eyes were glittering. "And you were going to mention this bright idea to me when exactly?"

"Ray, for heaven's sake—"

"Like, maybe, 'Oh, hey, Ray, forgot to tell you, I got your life all arranged for you 'cause you clearly can't handle it yourself,' huh? Y'know, be there tomorrow morning with your lunch money and your crayons? Something like that?"

I pulled myself free of his grip, and strode back to the table. "I would, of course, have informed you immediately if there appeared to be any likelihood that the idea would bear fruit."

"Informed me. Whoa, now here's an idea, you ever think you might try, oh, say, maybe asking me? Hey, it's so wacky that it just might work, you think?" He circled the table to face me, glaring.

I had begun gathering up silverware, but set it back down on the table with a clatter. "I had simply assumed that you would—"

"Do not go making assumptions about this kind of stuff without running it by me first, OK? Is that so freakin' much to ask?"

"I merely thought—"

"My life, Fraser. My work. You check it with me first, got it?" He slammed the flat of his hand on the tabletop, to punctuate his words.

"I was only trying to be of help to you, Ray."

At that, he slammed both of his hands on the table, hard enough to rattle the silverware. "OK, get this straight, the let's-help-poor-Ray part of this scenario is over. Done-ski. That one ended out there on the icebergs, from now on, I can take care of myself, I am not some kind of a fuckin' feeb, you got that?"

"All right! All right, I acknowledge that I should have consulted you. But—I didn't want to set you up for a potential disappointment. Was I wrong in thinking that you might wish to continue our working partnership?" My throat felt tight. "I had believed you found that association rewarding enough that you might desire its continuation. Was I mistaken?"

A moment of silence, and then Ray's shoulders sagged, his belligerence subsiding. He pulled a chair around, turned it backwards, and dropped into it, folding his arms across the backrest. "Rewarding." He sounded tired. "Fuck yeah, it was rewarding. I mean, for all the demented shit you put me through, and all the times you nearly got me killed—still and all, it was the best. Best I've had." He dropped his forehead onto his folded arms for a moment, then lifted it again. "But that's over. I knew that way back at the whatsis, the camp, when you said you weren't coming back to Chicago. Knew it was time to turn the page." His voice was low, rough. "That's over, Fraser. It was golden, and now it's over, and it's not coming back. We gotta be something different now."

I didn't know what to say to that. I pulled up the other chair and sat, leaning across the table, stretching out my hand. After a moment he took it, in a tight, hard grip, and we sat for a little while like that. Then he let go, and with a quick shake of his head sat back. "So. Anyway. Guess you can get used to working solo again, huh? Be like old times for you." He picked up the can of beer he'd been drinking with dinner, and drained the last of it.

Oh, dear. I shook myself inwardly, and decided it was best to get it all out and over with at once. "Actually, Ray, that was the other thing I discussed with the sergeant today, and—ah—of which you should probably be made aware. They've hired a new cadet, a young man named Cameron Sinclair, and—" I took a breath, and forged ahead. "He's been assigned as my partner. Starting Tuesday."

Ray's face went blank. He stared at the empty can in his hand, then bent and set it on the floor. Stood, and stomped it flat, a shockingly loud noise in the silent house. Picked up the flattened can, walked to the trash bin, dropped it in. Stood staring down into the garbage for another minute, and then turned back to me, clearing his throat. When he spoke at last all he said was, "Cameron Sinclair? That what you said?"

I nodded.

"Jesus christ on rollerskates, Fraser, is there, like, some law that in Canada you only get last names? I mean, look at it, Cameron Sinclair, Sinclair Cameron. Benton Fraser, Fraser Benton. Is that or is that not what you might call, I dunno, really stupid?"

"Well, Ray—" I should not have said anything, I knew it even as the words left my mouth— "I hardly think that someone named Stanley Kowalski has any particular call to be—"

"Bite me." He stormed over, grabbed the silverware off the table, strode back, and dropped it in the soapy water with a crash. "That was not my idea, which you know perfectly well, that was my dad being cute."

"Exactly so, Ray, just as neither Cameron nor myself can be held responsible for our own nomenclature."

"Yeah, fuck him and his nomenclature too." He was breathing hard, his eyes darting around. "And he's—what'd you call him, a cadet? That's, what, like a rookie?" He barely waited for my confirming nod. "Oh, this, this is greatness, they send you out there with some fucking rookie that doesn't know his ass from his mukluk, I guess maybe that dickweed sergeant of yours does have a sense of humor after all."

"He's not wholly inexperienced, Ray, I gather he's done a tour of duty in—"

"It's like the freakin' comics, you and your little sidekick, y'know? To the Batsled, Robin!"

"Ray. You're my partner." It got me a quick look, quickly turned away again. "You always will be, whether or not we're working together. If there were any way I could—if it were within my power to circumvent the bureaucratic constraints of the RCMP—" I stopped, unsure if he was listening to me; he had the dishtowel in his hands and was twisting it over and over, into a rope, into a knot. "I'm sorry. I don't want this arrangement any more than you do. But it's not something I can change. Please—" I cleared my throat. "Please don't make this any harder than it already is."

Ray stared down at the wad of cloth in his hands. It was so silent I could hear Dief snoring on the sofa, and the faint crackle as tiny bubbles popped in the dish-soap foam. Finally Ray sighed, unwound the towel, shook it out and hung it on its hook, and turned to look me square in the eye. "OK," he said. "I'll lay off it."

"Thank you."

"But—" He pointed a finger at me. "You gotta promise me one thing. If this kid's not up to snuff, you gotta promise me you'll march your ass into the sergeant's office and tell him you want to be partnered up with someone who knows what the fuck he's doing. Deal?"

"I hardly think that's likely to be a—"

"Deal?"

"Ray, Cadet Sinclair does come highly recommended—"

Ray took a long stride forward and gripped me by my shirtfront, not gently. "Deal?"

"Very well. Deal."

He released me. "Thank you." And then he turned, went back into the kitchen, and began washing the dishes, which was not one of his usual responsibilities, and which I interpreted as a gesture of reconciliation.

Cameron turned out to be a stocky, ruddy-faced young man, deferential in manner and methodical in his habits. He sat through his initial meeting with Gammell and myself mostly silent, making careful notes, nodding from time to time, and on our first patrol together he kept a couple of steps behind me and to my left, watching and listening.

At least initially, he seemed a restful presence; placid of temper, slow of speech, disciplined and competent in his professional work. He kept his paperwork and desk meticulous; he listened with great apparent attention to my stories; he had ox-like patience in questioning suspects and witnesses. After a few initial clumsy overtures on his part, he and Dief mostly ignored each other.

He was, in short, utterly unlike Ray Kowalski, and all in all that was a relief. If I had to work with someone other than Ray, I preferred to have the slate wiped entirely clean, to have no possible basis for comparison, nothing that would remind me of how things used to be.

Ray, for his part, showed no interest in learning anything more about him, though his name inevitably cropped up in my dinner-table recounting of the day's events. I assumed that the two of them would eventually meet, one way or another, and that event came to pass about a week after Cameron's arrival in the detachment. We'd been working late, trying to follow up on a sudden outbreak of graffiti vandalism, but we'd been hampered by a mechanical malfunction in the jeep we'd been alloted, and were actually in the detachment garage, peering under the hood, when the door banged open. I assumed it was one of the other constables, and was startled to hear Ray's unmistakable "Hey."

I turned to see him standing in the doorway, holding a large paper bag. "Ray! What a pleasant surprise."

"I, uh, I called down, Darlene said you guys'd probably be stuck here a while, she said something about how you'd worked through your dinner break, so I figured—" He held the bag up, and I could catch an appetizing whiff of beef and hot grease. "Swung by Sally's, picked up some food."

"Thank you, Ray, that's a very kind thought."

He nodded, and then his eyes flicked over to my left, and I became aware that Cameron had moved around from the other side of the car and was standing behind me. I opened my mouth, about to effect an introduction, when Ray forestalled me by striding forward. "Hey. You must be Sinclair." He stopped, squared his shoulders, face set, and then stuck out a hand.

Cameron stepped forward and took it, a little warily, saying nothing, and I leapt in. "Yes, that's right, this in fact is Cameron Sinclair, and cadet, this is Ray Kowalski," deciding it would be more prudent to leave out any references to partnerships, past or present.

They shook hands briefly, and then Cameron stepped back and put his hands at his sides. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Kowalski. I've heard quite a bit about you."

"Uh-huh." Ray's tone was neutral, and he was giving Cameron a quick once-over, eyebrows slightly lifted. "Hope you like burgers." Without waiting for an answer, he turned, shoved tools aside to clear the top of the workbench, and began unpacking food—a half-dozen hamburgers, a large grease-spotted bag of french fries, several cans of soda, and a small carton of milk, which he tossed to me.

Dief abruptly came bounding over, no doubt woken by the smells from his nap on a pile of tarpaulins, and shoved his nose against Ray's arm. "Hey, guy, don't worry, I brought you one too, double patty no onions, just hang on a sec, wouldja? Here, have one of these," and he tossed a french fry over his shoulder, which Dief leapt and snapped out of the air.

"It's not a good idea to feed a dog french fries, is it?" Cameron said, and Ray and Dief turned, simultaneously, like a well-rehearsed comedy team, and gave him almost identical looks of skeptical incredulity. All Ray said was, "Better not let him see you call him a dog, kid."

I moved over, quickly. "Well! This looks most appetizing, and again, thank you, Ray, it's most thoughtful of you."

"De nada," he said, and then putting his hands on the side of the workbench he made a quick lithe vault and settled himself cross-legged, with the food in front of him. "C'mon, dig in," he said, waving to us, and he tossed one burger to where Dief was waiting, picked up another for himself, and took a bite out of it.

I glanced over at Cameron, who seemed considerably taken aback that Ray was joining us, and then I pulled over a cracked wooden chair and took a hamburger for myself. Cameron finally came over and began eating, standing a long step back from the workbench and looking uncomfortable.

There was an interlude of silence, broken only by sounds of chewing; and then Ray set down his hamburger, took a swallow of soda, and launched into speech. "All right! OK, so, time for lesson numero uno, Cam, there're some things you gotta know if you're working with this guy, and—"

"People generally call me Cameron."

Ray paused, and gave him a grin which, if you knew him less well, could have been interpreted as purely friendly. "I just bet they do." He picked up a french fry, pushed it in his mouth, and went on, chewing. "If you're working with this guy, there's some things you gotta know, and first off is—" He grabbed another french fry and used it to gesticulate with. "You gotta be in charge of the meal stops. Let him run the show—" He pointed the fry at me. "—and he'll work you right through lunch, right through dinner, and basically you'll end up starving to death." He ate the french fry and paused a moment, looking Cameron up and down. "Which could take a while, of course," and he shot me just the edge of a quick private grin.

"Well, sir, Constable Fraser's dedication to duty is one of the qualities I find admirable in him," Cameron said. "Any responsible officer would find it more important to follow up a case than to stop for food."

Ray sighed, loudly, and picked up his burger. "Fraser, what're you teaching this kid?" He took a bite, chewed. "Graffiti, right? That's what you're working? Yeah, the town's trembling on the brink of chaos, I can see that for sure. Better not stop to use the can, or there'll be riots in the streets."

Cameron straightened up even more stiffly. "Vandalism is a very serious—"

"Probably some kid bored out of his skull, if you can feature that here in the metropolis. Anyway, I don't see any graffiti in here, do you, Cam?" Ray waved his burger around at the garage. "What're you guys doing here, anyway?"

I jumped in. "Our jeep is experiencing some sort of malfunction, and we thought we'd see if we could effect some repairs before—"

"Malfunction? What kind?"

"It's overheating; we replenished the coolant, but that didn't solve the problem, and so we were exploring other possible—"

"Jeez, Fraser. You, under the hood of a car, that's comedy gold." He finished his burger in one large bite, swung his legs over the side of the workbench, and stood. "Lesson number two, Cam, if you're following along here, is never let this guy dink with an engine, he knows about as much about cars as I do about caribou."

He pulled off his parka, tossed it to me without looking, strode over to the jeep, and bent, surveying the engine. "OK, right, CJ-3B with an F-head engine—runs hot pretty much all the time, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"You could just unhook the thermostat, but then you wouldn't get any heat inside, and that'd suck. Head bolts been retorqued?"

"I really couldn't say for sure."

"Right." He unclamped a hose and pulled it free, while I watched; out of the corner of my eye, I could see Cameron walk over and stand a little farther away, observing us both.

After a minute Ray straightened; I handed him a rag, and he wiped his hands. "OK. Here's the deal. What you really want to do here is put on a coolant recovery tank and a 5-7 pound pressure cap, and that should take care of 'er, but in the meantime—" He held out his hand in Cameron's direction and snapped his fingers. "Drill."

Cameron blinked at him. "Excuse me?"

"Drill, electric drill, you got one, right? And a one-eighth inch bit, or whatever that'd be in Canadian."

Cameron looked at me helplessly. "Sir, I don't really think that—"

"I'll get it." I moved quickly, found the drill and bit, plugged it in, and brought it back over to Ray, who took it with a nod, and bent again to his work.

"Constable Fraser," Cameron shouted over the whine of drill on metal, "this is an unauthorized modification of a detachment vehicle, and I'm not really sure that we ought to be—"

"It's all right, cadet," I called back. "He knows what he's doing." I hoped I was right about that.

Another moment, and the hellish noise ceased; Ray handed me the drill, and began reassembly, talking to me as he worked. "OK. I put a little hole in the thermostat, that'll let the water jacket fill up, and you shouldn't have any more problems for now. But you want to get someone to make sure your timing is OK and your head gaskets are sealed up like they ought to be and all that."

"You drilled a hole in the thermostat," I repeated, blankly. I could see a look of mild horror on Cameron's normally impassive face.

"These Jeeps, for some reason a lot of 'em have the overheating problem, but that usually takes care of it." He shot a glance over at Cameron. "Start 'er up, see how she goes."

After a pause, Cameron walked stiffly around to the driver's door and started the engine. I flicked on the ventilation fans, and then joined him, craning my neck to watch the temperature gauge. Ray, meanwhile, went back over to the workbench, and resumed eating french fries, tossing one occasionally to Dief.

We let it run for perhaps ten minutes, confimed that the temperature was staying exactly where it ought, and eventually Cameron shut off the engine and climbed out, casting a worried look at the engine compartment. "Sir, I don't really know that it's a good idea to have civilians doing unauthorized maintenance on RCMP vehicles. Totally apart from warranty and insurance issues—if there are further problems, we could be held accountable for—"

Just at that moment, the door banged open, Sergeant Gammell strode into the garage, and Cameron and I both guiltily jumped to attention. "Fraser! There you are. We just received word of another incident of graffiti, behind Joe Mulvaney's place. Have you got the car working yet?" Then he caught sight of Ray, and his brows drew together. "Mr. Kowalski, is it? "

Ray gave him a friendly nod. "That'd be me." He picked up the greasy bag and held it out toward Gammell. "Want some fries?"

The sergeant turned curtly away, and I jumped in. "Ah, the car is in fact working now, sir, the overheating problem seems to have been rectified, so we should perhaps proceed directly to the scene of—"

"Ah, that's good, fine work, gentlemen." He nodded approvingly.

"Sir—" Cameron sounded a little uncertain, but then he drew breath and plowed on. "Actually, sir, you should understand that it was Mr. Kowalski who did the repairs. He, ah, did the actual modification. Not us."

"Oh? Under whose authorization?" Cameron glanced over at me, and the sergeant went on, sounding testy. "Mr. Kowalski, what brings you down here anyway? This is RCMP property, not a social club."

"Just resupplying the troops," Ray said, waving a nonchalant hand at the pile of wrappers. "A guy's gotta eat, y'know. If it comes to that, I could ask why you're having two of your highly-trained certified official officers doing car repair instead of fighting crime—but hey, I don't make the staffing decisions around here, right?"

"That would be a correct assessment, Mr. Kowalski, and furthermore you appear not to grasp the fact that an RCMP officer must be an all-rounder, capable of carrying out any task that relates to his job."

"Uh-huh." Ray sounded more amused than anything; he cast a look at me, at Cameron, at the car, and then picked up a napkin and rather ostentatiously wiped automotive grease off his hands.

I ventured, "Actually, Ray, our usual mechanic suffered an unfortunate—"

"Got drunk, smashed up his snowmobile, put himself in the hospital, I heard all about it down at Sally's." He looked at Gammell. "Left you in kind of a bind, huh."

The sergeant gave him a moment's level stare, and then turned to me. "The car is now functional? Mr. Kowalski's repairs did in fact solve the problem?"

"It seems to be working perfectly, sir. Ray is very knowledgeable about and skilled at automotive mechanics." I drew breath to say more, but a whip-flick glance from Ray—Shut up, Fraser—and I restrained myself.

"Indeed." The sergeant sighed, ran a hand through his hair, and turned back to Ray. "Mr. Kowalski. I understand that you've been seeking employment, and since I do find myself short-handed at the moment—I would be willing to countenance your temporary and provisional hire as vehicle pool mechanic, until Dewayne is capable of resuming his duties."

"Yeah?" Ray scratched his jaw, giving an excellent impression of dubiousness. "I dunno, hadn't really been thinking about that—I got some other stuff in the pipeline." He let a deliberate moment pass before going on. "But what I always say is, a cop's gotta help another cop out. Right? So—OK, yeah, I'd be willing to give you a hand here, for a while."

"Sir—" Cameron stepped forward. "With all respect, isn't this going to present some legal difficulties? I assume that Mr. Kowalski has not secured permanent resident status, nor gotten a work permit. Shouldn't we—"

"For god's sake, Sinclair, let's not haul HRDC into this. All I'm trying to do is keep the motor pool operational for a few weeks in an emergency." Gammell gave Ray a narrow stare. "We could perhaps set it up as ... a short-term consultancy, with a detective from the US, terms unspecified. Is that agreeable?"

Ray shrugged. "Works for you, it works for me."

"Very good." Gammell gave a crisp nod. "Report at eight a.m. sharp tomorrow. You can see Darlene about the administrative details, and then check the maintenance log for your duties." He started to turn away, and then swung back. "Oh, and clean that mess off the workbench," and he nodded at the pile of food wrappers. "Eating's not permitted in the garage, you can take your meals in the staff canteen."

With that he turned and left. As soon as he was through the door, Ray's studied nonchalance cracked into a huge and genuine grin, and I got my arm up just in time for the vigorous high-five that he launched at me, while Cameron looked on, uneasily.


With Ray's employment, our life together began to settle into daily routines, and I found myself adapting to habits, rituals, very different from anything to which I'd previously been accustomed. For example, though my whole life long I'd been out of bed within moments of awakening, I began learning to appreciate the positive aspects of the "snooze" button. Such an inducement to sloth and procrastination had always seemed deplorable to me, but waking up in bed with Ray quickly changed my attitude. As soon as the alarm went off, he'd shoot an arm out from under the blankets and swat the button (he had remarkably good aim for someone who was still mostly asleep). Then he'd lunge over to my side of the bed and wrap his long arms and legs around me, pulling me close and burrowing us both under the covers, in a cocoon of Ray-fragrant warmth.

He often woke to speech before he'd get his eyes open, and he used to mutter jumbled sentences into my cheek or neck—fragments from dreams, mostly; sometimes a lewd suggestion that, sadly, we seldom had time to pursue; every once in a while a nearly-inaudible endearment. He was never more open, emotionally, verbally, than when half-awake, except perhaps after lovemaking, and I treasured those ten-minute interludes of simple intimacy; they were like an unguarded gap between the oblivion of sleep, and the prickly shell of truculence he often assumed for his dealings with waking life.

Once the alarm came on for the second time, he'd take a deep breath and push away from me, flopping onto his back, which allowed me to pull free of the bed's seductive comforts and go shower. From there on it was a dance we evolved to move smoothly through the morning's routine, and I quickly learned my steps in it; shower timed out to two and a half minutes so Ray would have enough hot water for his more leisurely ablutions; getting dressed, with a light shake of Ray's leg when I'd finished, to re-awaken him; then to the kitchen, water on for tea, and coffee started; Dief let out; oatmeal set to simmer; radio tuned to CBC news and weather. Eventually Ray would stumble into the kitchen, damp and squinting and pulling on the last of his layers of shirts. He would switch the radio to its cassette player function, put on music—usually something loud and propulsive—pour himself coffee, and then take his cup and stand by the front window for a minute or two, staring out silently, with a bleak look on his face.

Those interludes disturbed me, but I learned not to try to talk to him until he returned from wherever he'd been, returned to the kitchen and to me. Once he got his first cup of coffee down, his customary fierce good cheer was usually back, and it was safe to turn the music down and attempt conversation. I'd introduce a topic from the day's news, or speculate about the weather, while he'd scrounge together some odd assortment of edibles from the refrigerator.

At 7:45 we would put on parkas, boots, mittens, and head off to walk to the detachment building, Dief bounding alongside. (Ray had rather grumpily acknowledged that it wasn't worth taking the car for a four-block trip.) Once we arrived, we'd part outside the building, Ray going off to the garage, and I to my desk.

We seldom saw each other during the work day; to be honest, I kept clear of him at first, out of some desire to placate (in rather different ways) both Cameron and the sergeant. But he also seemed to take pains to keep out of my way, to avoid conversation or encounters, and it puzzled me enough that I asked him about it one morning as we walked to the detachment.

"Fraser, c'mon." He kicked at a chunk of frozen slush, sending it skittering. "You know why I steer clear of you at work."

"No, Ray, actually, I don't. I wouldn't have asked if I—"

"You don't get it?" He stopped, put a hand on my arm to halt me, studied my face. "You don't get it." He shook his head, and started walking again. "OK, let me show you something."

"What—"

"Just a little demo. You'll see." But he said nothing more until we reached the detachment building, where, contrary to his daily custom, he followed me through the door and into the main room, muttering, in response to my querying look, "Just do whatever you normally do."

Puzzled, I went to my desk and sat, and Ray followed, leaning a hip on the edge of the desk. "Now," he said in an undertone, "Take a look around."

Obediently, I surveyed the room, which was busy as always at this time of day—constables milling about fetching coffee or talking on the phone, Darlene chatting with the clerical aide. But as I looked at my colleagues, I was suddenly struck by something odd in their manner. Usually, when I first arrived, I'd get a few nods or smiles of greeting, nothing effusive, just calmly businesslike. But today ... I realized, with some surprise, that no one was looking at me, that everyone seemed in fact to be making a careful effort not to look at me, or at Ray, to keep their eyes entirely turned away from my desk, and when someone's gaze did pass across me, it was with the nervous speed and skitteriness of a horse on ice. I turned back, with some bewilderment, to Ray, who was watching me with a crooked half-smile, and—there was nothing odd about his being there, certainly, nothing inappropriate in his manner, in fact it was exactly like the countless times he'd perched on my desk or as I'd stood next to his, back in Chicago, no closer than that, yet—all at once, it was as if I was much too close to him, or much too distant from everyone else in the room. As though we were sealed into a glass case together, one that the others would prefer didn't exist.

I felt heat rise in my face, and Ray said, in a carrying voice, "OK, so c'mon, lemme show you how to work that new towbar I put on the boat trailer." He pushed away from the desk and strode off toward the door, hands jammed in his pockets; I followed, feeling, as I went, a faint chill of distance on all sides of me. (Diefenbaker stayed traitorously behind, his eye no doubt on the box of pastries Darlene had brought in.)

When we got to the garage, Ray went, without speaking, to one of the cars, pulled open the driver's door; I went to the passenger side, and we both got in and shut the doors. I sat, trying to absorb what I'd just witnessed, watching Ray's hands flex and tighten on the steering wheel. Finally I said, "I hadn't realized."

Ray blew out a little laugh. "Yeah, I figured that out. Which is weird, being as how you usually pick up on everything."

"Well, of course, I had noticed a certain—oddity, in some people's manner toward me. But I assumed it was that ... well, having been away and in such a different environment, I thought perhaps I had unknowingly picked up some urban mannerisms which possibly put them off."

"Urban mannerisms. Oh yeah." I could see the edge of a grin, as Ray stared out through the windshield, at nothing. "That nice young Constable Fraser, he goes down to the big bad city. And he comes back bent. There's a mannerism for you."

I sat silent, thinking back on some of the peculiar reactions I'd gotten from people—strangers and old friends alike—here in Inuvik, in the place I'd thought of as home, where I'd expected to finally, at last, be seen as something other than alien.

Eventually I said, "Does everyone know?"

"Everyone?" The question seemed to amuse him; he tipped his head back against the headrest and furrowed his brow, elaborately conveying deep thought. "Well, let's see. The two-year-olds down at the day care—probably not. Charlie Standish—hard to say with him, but I'm guessing no." Charlie was a well-known citizen who'd been grievously stricken with Alzheimer's and who would sometimes get out and roam the town until his family tracked him down. "Everyone else—yeah, pretty much." He looked over at me. "What, you were thinking maybe this was some kind of big secret?"

"I suppose I hadn't really given the matter much thought," I said. Which wasn't really true, I acknowledged to myself; I'd chosen not to think about it, I'd chosen to find other rationalizations for people's conduct toward me. I'd felt ready to be done with being a freak, and had simply acted as if my willing could make it so. I'd blinded myself shamefully; Ray, the stranger here, had understood this town better than I.

"Uh-huh." He turned back, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. "A little clue for you here, Fraser. This is a small town. Y'know? You move with some guy into a house that everyone knows is unfurnished, you go to the store, you buy a bed—one and only one bed—and get it moved into that house, where you're living with this guy. So what happens? The store clerk tells her girlfriends about it, they tell their boyfriends, who tell all their buddies at the bar, who go home and tell their wives, who blab to everyone at the fuckin' kaffee klatsch—give it three days, and you might as well take out an ad in the paper."

"Well, that's just delightful." I was out of temper with myself, and unfairly turned it on him. "One would think that people had enough to attend to in managing their own lives without needing to engage in prurient speculation on others'."

"Yeah, right, you tell me what universe that's likely to happen in." Ray gestured with exasperation. "Not the one where I live, I'll tell you that much." He glared at me, running a hand through his hair. "And if you don't like it, maybe you shouldn't have gotten the bright idea to live in a small town. Geez, Fraser, you shouldn't need me to tell you this stuff, you're the guy who grew up here. You should've known what you were getting yourself into."

I took a breath, blew it out, nodded in acknowledgement. "All right. Point taken." I paused. "And Ray—it goes without saying that my annoyance doesn't arise out of any shame or embarrassment about our relationship. In that sense, I certainly don't care who knows. It's simply that I dislike the sense that people are putting their noses into my private affairs, uninvited."

He certainly didn't seem mollified. "You think I like it? You think I like knowing that every time I walk down the street everybody who sees me's thinking fag? Everybody's wondering about what we do together?" He banged a hand on the dashboard. "Picturing in their heads what it looks like, me down on my knees sucking your dick?"

"Ray!" I lowered my voice, glancing around nervously. "People certainly do no such thing."

"People most certainly do just that thing, Fraser."

"Why would you think that? That's a most unwarranted—"

"Why would I think that? I'll tell you why, 'cause that's just the kind of thing I used to think." Suddenly the truculence went out of him, and he slumped back in his seat, rubbing his neck. "Back when I was a uniform cop ... I'd get calls sometimes, y'know, go down to the gay bar and break up a fight. Or, domestic, couple of guys trying to carve each other up with their fucking Wusthof Trident cutlery. Whatever. And I'd work it just like any other bust, but I can tell you right now, when I looked at 'em, I'd be thinking queers, and I'd be thinking about—what do they do together, how do they do it. Picturing it." I opened my mouth, but before I could say anything he went on, jabbing a finger at me. "And that is not just me being a freak, 'cause the other guys, the other cops, they'd talk about the same things, back at the station, and they'd laugh about it, lay bets about which one'd be on top, that kind of shit. And I'd be laughing right along with 'em."

It stopped me, set me back, as Ray's honesty sometimes did, his gift for self-revelation of spiky and hurtful truths that anyone else would seek to veil. It was one of the things I most loved in him, and as always, it disarmed me. "Understood," I finally said, though I wasn't sure I understood everything he was trying to say. "But I think you may be painting with too broad a brush, Ray. Not everyone reacts to those with unconventional personal lives as a Chicago police officer would."

Ray sighed, and swiped a hand across his face. "People are people, Fraser. Even up here, I guess." He looked over at me. "Don't freak about it. Just—don't forget about it either. OK?"

I sat still, uneasily aware I should get back to my desk, and yet unwilling to leave matters at that. Finally I said, "Does this ... are you upset by this, Ray? We could, I suppose, purchase another bed, or—"

He gave a short laugh. "Three words, Fraser, horse, barn, out." He leaned over the steering wheel, stretching his back, rolling his neck. "We deal with it. We can deal with shit, right? It's just—be careful, is all. That's not exactly like the national convention of PFLAG in there." He jerked his head back toward the office.

I nodded, more in acknowledgement than agreement, and reached for the door handle. "I suppose I should be—"

"Getting to work, yeah." We climbed out of our opposite sides of the car and stood for a moment, staring across the roof at each other; then he said "See you tonight," and turned away, and I returned to my desk, pondering.


I recall something that settled into ritual from the earliest days: we would lie together in bed, after lovemaking, briefly at peace with each other and the world. You liked to slide down just far enough so your forehead rested against my mouth, your eyes out of my sight, nose tucked under my chin. Our legs would tangle together, and sometimes you would stroke my calf with the arch of your foot. You loved to have your back scratched, in those moments, and it was one thing that I knew would always give you pleasure, long slow rasp of fingernails across your skin.

It was almost perfect. Except that . . . well, I had always loved the image of lovers lying in each other's arms, clasped together, bodies perfectly melded. I had dreamed I might have that someday, without much actual hope it would happen. But with you I came to realize that, as sweet a dream as it is, logistically it has some strikes against it. Recumbent bodies don't actually fit together that way, not without some major problems of compromised blood flow to one arm at least.

The arm I lay on I always slid under your neck, holding your head cradled, close against me. Which meant that the arm you lay on you always perforce curled up so it lay between us, between our bellies. A barrier, a roadblock. You were not, I'm certain, intending to barricade yourself against me, at least not at first. It was merely ... what it should have been was a reminder to me, that when dreams and fantasy collide with reality, reality wins out. A reminder I should not have needed, and should certainly have heeded, far more than I did.


We bought a computer, early on, a castoff from the library, and I arranged for internet access through a local ISP. I knew Ray would feel cut off up here from most of the familiar elements of his former reality, and I wanted him to have a way to keep up on things, to communicate and connect in whatever way was possible in this remote locale.

I chose an e-mail address for our account in some haste—bfrk@permafrost.com—and when Ray saw it on the print-out he snorted. "You get top billing, huh?"

I hadn't even thought of that. "I'm sorry, Ray, of course we can make any changes that you'd like."

"Nah, that's good, except for one thing, Dief's gonna feel hurt if you leave him out."

"Ray, he's a wolf. He doesn't receive e-mail."

"Hey, he's family, right? But, see, the thing is—" He took the piece of paper from my hand, grabbed a pencil, and printed "bfrkd@permafrost.com." Then he looked up at me. "See? Be-freaked. That's us, for sure." He was grinning. "Anyone writing to us, that's just exactly what they'll be. Freaked."

I stared at him. He seemed amused, but I sensed an undercurrent of bitterness in his voice.

"Ray," I said slowly, "do you think this is—freakish?"

He moved a shoulder. "Wasn't talking about me, Fraser."

"Well, I am, now. Do you?"

He put the pencil and paper down with unnecessary force. "I don't know. I mean—freaky, sure, I guess, some ways. You've always been a freak, y'know, so maybe I just caught it from you." He was working to keep it a joke, but I didn't feel like playing along.

"Ray, please tell me, is this wrong for you?"

"Chrissake." He stood, threw his hands out, paced one tight exasperated circle around the room and stopped, facing me. "Look, OK, so we're freaky, there's good freaky, there's bad freaky, there's all mixed up Heinz 57 freaky, and where the hell is this all coming from anyway, Fraser?"

The pencil had rolled off the desk onto the floor; I bent and picked it up. "It's coming from my fear that I'm pushing you into something that's not right for you."

"Pushing me. You think you can push me that easy? Do I look like a pushover to you?"

In fact he looked dangerous at that moment, scowling in a way that brought back bad memories of an argument beside a lake, a fight seemed like years ago and yet all too close. I rolled the pencil in my fingers, looking down at it. "All right then, pushing is perhaps the wrong word ... luring, maybe. Enticing. Leading you astray."

He made some muffled sound, and I looked up. He was staring at me bright-eyed, clearly trying to suppress mirth, his mood suddenly swung around. "Enticing." Giving up the battle, he flopped into the chair and laughed out loud. "Yeah, Fraser, you're one of those great femme fatale types, you and, uh, whoever, leading guys to their doom, shit, what's her name, who was that—"

Victoria. The name rang in my head, and to silence it I talked, too fast, too loud. "I don't want to hurt you, Ray. I don't want to damage your life, not in any way, I don't want to cause you trouble with the people who love you, I don't want to—to lead you to do things you wouldn't otherwise do, to go against your nature or your principles, I don't want you to feel ashamed—" I ran out of breath; he was watching me oddly, no longer laughing.

"Fraser. It's OK." He made a little calming gesture in the air. "I mean, some of that stuff it's already a little late for, that things-I-wouldn't-otherwise-do-stuff, like freezing my ass off chasing a bunch of mutts across the Arctic Circle. Can't think of anyone else offhand I'd do that for. And for the rest of it..." He looked away, for a moment; I jabbed the pencil point into my finger, compulsively, over and over. "The rest of it—I wouldn't do this with anyone else, Fraser. With, I said." He gave me a sharp look. "Not for. I'm doing this for me, not for you, not for anyone else. Whatever anyone else thinks about it, fuck 'em." His head was tilted back at a defiant angle.

Hesitantly, I put out a hand, touched his hair, almost expecting to feel sparks leaping off it. He made a little sound, pushing his head up against my palm. "So...Ray." My voice sounded rusty. "Does this qualify as good freaky?"

Though I couldn't see his face, I could tell from his voice that he was smiling. "Heinz 57. Definitely. But it's got its good parts." He reached out and wrapped his arms around my hips, pulling me close and burying his face in my belly. I felt his lips move before I deciphered his words. "This is a good part." I slid my other hand around his shoulders, holding him tight.

We stood a moment, locked together like that. I love you, I thought, and I wished I could say it, but instead I moved my hand gently over the nape of his neck, feeling the tender skin there, and the prickly margins of hair. Finally he pushed away, freeing himself.

"And as for the rest of that shit ... is this working yet?" He gestured toward the piece of paper.

"They told me the account would be initiated right away." I took a step back, trying to regain my equilibrium in the ever-changing rapids of his mood.

"OK, then." He pivoted in the chair, pressed the button to turn the computer on. "Watch this one, Fraser. Here's me, here's me on the computer, here's me writing a letter to mom and dad giving them the scoop on what's up in little Stanley's life."

He stared at the screen, watching the computer blink on. He jiggled the mouse around, clicked a few icons, grabbed the printout from the ISP, and spent the next half-hour muttering and fiddling, while I fiddled with makework in the kitchen, knowing better than to interfere. Finally I heard him say, "OK, Fraser, they tell you how to get this thing going?"

Between us we eventually got the e-mail application operating, and I retreated again with a book, listening to the sporadic flurries of key-clicks, starting fast, trailing off, then starting up again. During one protracted silence I ventured, "I didn't know your parents used the internet, Ray."

He was gazing at the screen, leaning on his elbows with his hands folded over his mouth. He unwrapped them long enough to say, "My mom, she kept saying she didn't know why my dad bothered to get the computer, they were both too old to learn new tricks, blah blah blah. Then one day a friend of hers turned her on to eBay, and that's all she wrote. My dad says he wishes now he never bought the damn thing."

I nodded, although he wasn't looking at me, and tried to go back to my book. The silence continued; I could feel tension building across the room from me; and finally Ray exploded up out of his chair, smacking his hand on the tabletop.

"Damn it." He had pushed his chair back so hard it tipped over, waking Dief, who scrambled to his feet, barking. "Dief, shut up, it's OK, settle down, jeez." He stomped into the kitchen, pulled a beer from the refrigerator, and took a deep swallow before he turned back and saw me watching him. "I just—" He gestured at the computer, slopping a little beer onto the carpet. "I know what I want to say, sort of, but when I try to—it just—ah, shit." He stared at the computer as if it were a recalcitrant witness in the interrogation room, one who was refusing to give up his secrets.

"Would you mind if I, ah...not that I have any desire to intrude of course, but—"

He walked back over to the chair, righted it, dropped down into it, and made an eloquent gesture of disgust at the monitor. "Knock yourself out, Fraser."

I came up behind him, looking over his shoulder at the screen, and for a moment it was like the old days, at the station, applying our joint intelligence to some vexing problem. What I read was:

Hi mom, hi dad—Actually, mom, I guess you'll have to tell dad hi from me, since I know he doesn't use this. Well, anyway, here I am in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. If you go to www.mapquest.com, and type in 217 Dolphin Street, Inuvik, it'll show you exactly where we are, me and Fraser, that is. It's a pretty cool website, if you haven't used it before. Maybe dad could use it to figure routes, when you go on your trips, and then he'd think the computer wasn't such a bad deal. Ha ha.

Anyway, we're way up north here, and even though it's supposed to be April, you'd never know it. It's cold, but I guess that's no surprise. We got down to -27 the other night. Tell dad all the cars have block heaters in them here, otherwise they'd never start. Probably it's a good thing I don't have the GTO here. Tell him to be sure to remember it's got winter weight oil in it now and when it gets warm he'll have to switch. Yeah, I know he's probably done that already.

I'm going to be staying here for a while. Like I told you on the phone, me and Fraser made it through that dogsled trip OK, so don't worry about that any more. The dogs were great, and Fraser really knows what he's doing with all this. He grew up here, and everything. Don't worry, because we're done with that part, and Inuvik is an OK town, no Chicago, but we're staying in a house with heat and plumbing and everything. He's got a job here now, with the local division, being a Mountie, and I'm looking at some possibilities. Nothing solid yet, though. Tell dad I sent in my resignation from the CPD, that should make him happy.

Maybe you're wondering why I'm staying, and if I was you I'd be wondering the same thing, since I was never much for camping trips and Boy Scouts and so on. Some stuff has changed for me lately, and I probably should have told you about it before, but anyway, I figured I'd tell you now. Like I told you before, Fraser's been a really good friend to me, all the time we were working together, and even though we're not working together now, we're still really good friends. But like I was saying, some stuff has changed lately, and

The letter stopped there, and Ray stared at it. "Does that suck or what."

He sounded defeated, and I patted his shoulder. "It seems perfectly straightforward so far, Ray."

"Sounds like a ten-year-old at summer camp." He touched the keys, then took his fingers off them again. "I just...I don't know how to say it."

I moved around, alongside him. "Do you mind if I—"

He got up from the chair. "Like I said, Fraser, knock yourself out."

I seated myself, pulled the keyboard toward me, and began typing, Ray watching the words materialize on the screen.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski,

Benton Fraser here. I apologize for this intrusion into your son's letter, but he felt some uncertainty as to how to proceed in communicating news that I believe he fears may upset you.

At the conclusion of our dogsledding expedition, Ray made a decision to stay in Canada with me, as he told you. Although in some respects it would be easier to be able to tell you that this decision proceeded purely from an acquired taste for my home country, I must say that his motivations, so far as I'm aware, are more personal.

I hesitated, very aware of Ray looming over me, reading over my shoulder, and then pushed on.

Over the past year, my own feelings for Ray, grounded in partnership and friendship, have deepened, expanding in scope and changing in nature. Though I was initially unwilling to disclose this to him, I discovered, once we had arrived in Inuvik,

I paused, rubbing my fingers together unnecessarily, feeling the dampness in my palms, and then kept typing, more slowly:

that his feelings mirrored mine, that the relationship we both desire transcends friendship, and that in fact we love each other. Ray made the decision to stay here, to live with me as my partner, in a domestic rather than a professional sense, and my hope is that this relationship will continue on a permanent and committed basis.

Terrifying, to see that up on the monitor, in black and white. I was rigid with tension, waiting for some response from Ray, some protest, but he was silent. I could feel his breath, faintly, on my neck.

I most sincerely hope that this news will not upset you unduly. I'm sure it must be startling, given Ray's previous heterosexual experience and marriage. Believe me when I say that I was as surprised as you must be. I want to assure you that my chief concern in all of this has been Ray's happiness and well-being, and I would not have entered into this arrangement, nor allowed it to continue, if I felt that those were being significantly compromised.

I stopped again, feeling as stuck as Ray had been, before I plunged ahead, fumbling a word here and there, backspacing and retyping.

I can only hope that you will extend a degree of tolerance and understanding toward your son's life choices, and will comprehend that, just as you love him and wish him only the best in life, so do I. I don't delude myself, nor would I wish to delude you, into thinking that his choices will take him on an easy path, but I am committed to honoring those choices, whatever they may be and wherever they may lead him, and I hope that you will find it in your hearts to do the same. I know how much he loves you both, and he felt, as do I, that you deserve nothing less than honesty and truth. And though it may be premature of me, I would take pleasure in welcoming you to our home, at some future date, and showing you the country where Ray has chosen to cast his lot.

With all good wishes,

Benton Fraser

I took my hands from the keyboard and folded them tight in my lap, waiting for some reaction. The silence stretched on, unnervingly long, but there was nothing more I could say; it was all up there. Finally Ray said, "You mean that."

"Every word."

"Yeah. Um. Wow." Without taking his eyes from the screen, he put an arm around my shoulders and gave me a hard squeeze. Then he nudged me with his hip, and I slid out of the chair, letting him sit. He reread the letter several times, scrolling up and down, while I went back and pretended to read my book. Finally I heard a few more keystrokes, and then the sound of the computer powering down.

I looked up. "You sent it?"

"Well, uh..." He pushed his chair back and stood, stretching. "Thought I'd hang on to it a little longer, y'know, look it over in the morning. I think there's something more I wanted to tell dad about the car. Can't remember what now." His tone was elaborately casual, and I let the matter drop.

Several times, over the next few days and weeks, I surreptitiously checked the e-mail application, but the letter never made it out of the "drafts" folder and into "sent mail." I know he did eventually write to his parents, short notes that touched on the details of his life here without ever going below the surface. He never threw our joint letter away, though, and I tried to take comfort from that.

Ray ended up not using the computer much, as it turned out; I think it reminded him unpleasantly of report writing (his least favorite part of police work), or perhaps of school, and the effort to order his quicksilver flow of language into written sentences seemed to always leave him feeling hobbled and inept. I used it more than he, to check news, and sometimes I would give him an update on current events in Chicago or the status of the White Sox, but he showed less interest in these matters than I would have expected.

It did disturb him, I think, that we heard little from our former colleagues in Chicago, at the 27th. Francesca sent chatty e-mails from time to time, having apparently mastered the computer at last, and we did get one letter via conventional mail from Lieutenant Welsh, typed out from force of habit in the form of a memo, on the ramshackle Olivetti he'd annexed for his own use when the computers were installed:

TO: Ray Kowalski, Benton Fraser

FROM: Lt. Harding Welsh, 27th Division, Chicago Police Department

Gentlemen:

I trust you are surviving the Arctic winter unscathed, and that the pemmican supply is holding up. Everything here is remarkably much the same as when you left it. Chicago's supply of lowlifes appears inexhaustible, and since you, Kowalski, along with Vecchio, Huey, and Dewey, were replaced by an assortment of lackwit newcomers, the nature of the aggravation around here changes but the quantity stays the same.

Kowalski, your separation papers have been formally placed on file, and Maureen will contact you about any remaining financial or bureaucratic details. Should you decide at some future point that you've had enough of politeness and feel a desire to reimmerse yourself in the urban cesspool, not that I can see why you should, I could find it in the generosity of my heart to reconsider you for a detective position here. My brain must be softening with age and overwork.

Constable, I gather that congratulations are in order on your new posting. The tundra's gain is Chicago's loss. Try not to get shot chasing down any caribou rustlers, and convey my sincere and sympathetic regards to your new supervisor.

My best to you both, gentlemen. Oh, and Kowalski, I gather from the Weather Channel that your neck of the woods might get up into the vicinity of ten below this weekend. The tulips are in full bloom here.

And then his signature at the bottom, a thick abrupt scrawl.

Ray clearly enjoyed the letter, and kept it in a desk drawer, but after that there was nothing. He didn't say anything about that for some time, and when he finally mentioned it—"Guess they forgot all about us down there, huh?"—it was with a show of bravado that failed to hide his hurt.

I was more equable; I realize that the imperative of a police officer's life is to pursue one's larger duty, to keep going, in the knowledge that some of those around you might not be going on with you. I remembered well the difficulty I had had, in spite of everything, dealing with the obliviousness all around me had shown to Ray Vecchio's disappearance, the fact that no one seemed particularly upset by it except me. Perhaps that experience helped me in the present case. Though I might have been wrong, I told myself that the silence was nothing personal, nothing to do with me and Ray and the life we'd chosen—just how things are, in police work. But still, it was odd to feel the traces of my past life, and Ray's, our work together in Chicago, being so easily erased in such a short time.


One Saturday in early May, I'd gone down to the detachment to catch up on paperwork, and when I left, I stopped by the post office to pick up the mail, an errand that Ray usually forgot.

Gene, the postmaster, nodded to me in greeting. "Hey, Benton. Mr. Kowalski stopped in just a minute ago to pick up the boxes that arrived, but he forgot to get the rest of the mail, I guess."

"Boxes?" I unlocked our mail slot and pulled out a few envelopes.

"Big ones. From the states. He seemed pretty excited about them."

"Ah. Thank you, Gene." I leafed through the mail—the usual assortment of charitable solicitations addressed to me, credit card offers addressed to Ray, advertising circulars addressed to nobody in particular, along with the telephone bill, and a plain white envelope, of good quality rag-bond stock, with Ray's name and our address typed on the front. There was no name in the upper left corner, merely a return address in Boca Raton, Florida.

I puzzled over it a minute, and then trudged on home against the stinging wind. Once inside, I found Ray sitting amidst an array of packing boxes, as gleeful as though it were Christmas morning.

"Hey! Fraser!" He pumped a fist in greeting. "Hey, Frannie came through! I was sure, I was positive she'd managed to screw up and ship everything to Siberia or someplace."

"That's most unfair, Ray, she's a very competent young woman."

"Yeah, right." He picked up a knife he'd apparently brought from the kitchen and began recklessly slicing through strapping tape.

"Do be careful, Ray. Are those some of your belongings?"

He pulled back the flaps with a rending sound, dug out a quantity of styrofoam packing peanuts (which Dief immediately began sniffing and whuffling all around the floor), and beamed down into the open box. "Stereo. Oh yeah. CDs. Tunes, Fraser, we got tunes!" He grinned up at me, almost jiggling with happiness where he sat, and then peered back down. "OK, nothing looks wrecked so far." He reached into the box and carefully lifted out a piece of audio equipment. "Oh yeah," he crooned, holding it up to his face. "Good to see you again, babe, you miss me?"

I took my coat off and, reminded by the crackle of paper, pulled the mail out of the pocket and set it on the table. "You have a letter, Ray, from Florida, apparently."

He made a face, already busy slicing into another box. "Aunt Ginny, probably, she writes me sometimes to ask when I'm getting back together with Stella. Hey, you want to give me a hand here?"

Between us we got all the equipment unpacked, along with multifarious bundles of cord and cable, and an astonishing number of compact discs. Then Ray unceremoniously cleared one shelf free of my books and began setting the system up, while I flattened and bundled the boxes and tried to gather up all the bits of styrofoam (which ultimately entailed bribing Dief with some pemmican to stay in the kitchen, out of the way). It soon became clear that more storage space was needed, so we made a trip to the lumberyard, hammered together another set of shelves, and by the time we sat down to a belated dinner, to the accompaniment of some raucous bass-heavy music, I was exhausted. Ray, on the other hand, seemed full of energy, barely taking time to bolt down his food before racing back to continue sorting and organizing his compact discs.

I washed the dishes, yawning, then picked up a book and tapped Ray on the shoulder. "I'm going to turn in, I think," I shouted at him.

He'd been crouched over, examining a case whose cover photograph depicted an emaciated young woman with black lipstick, but at my words he straightened quickly, went over and turned down the volume, and then gave me an abashed look. "Sorry. You going to bed? I'll keep it down. Or do you want me to—uh, I could turn it off, I guess."

"No, that's all right, I'll just keep the door shut." I paused a moment, enjoying the sense of happy energy that seemed to vibrate off him, in rhythm with the music. "I'm very glad you have your recordings back, Ray, and a little noise won't bother me. Just try not to wake the neighborhood."

"OK. Uh, thanks." He slung an arm around my neck and gave me a quick hug, and I took my book and went to bed. Tired as I was, I could only manage a page or two before falling asleep, with Ray's music thumping softly on the other side of the door.

I woke abruptly, alone, in darkness, to the sound of something crashing in the other room; my first thought was that Dief had knocked something over, and my second was that Ray's dancing had gotten out of hand and he had knocked something over. Then I heard, not music, but Ray's voice—loud, harsh, unmistakably angry, though I couldn't make out his words—and I staggered up out of bed and into the living room, blinking in the light, to find Ray shouting into the telephone, a piece of paper clenched up in his fist.

"—I don't give a shit what time it is there ... Oh yeah, like you got to get up early, crack of dawn, to open up the fucking bowling alley ... No, you listen to me for once in your life, I got three things to say, and— ... god damn it, don't you, do not let him take that phone away from you, he does that and I'm on the next plane to Florida and I'm gonna rip his fucking arm off and beat him to death with the wet end—"

"Ray. Ray. What in the world—" I took a few steps toward him.

He waved me off, violently, turning his back and flinging the wad of paper toward the wastebasket. "Two minutes, that's all I'm asking, we were married thirteen years, you're at least gonna give me two minutes here—"

"Ray, is that Stella? What in god's name is going on?"

He ignored me. "—and I don't care if you never want to talk to me again after this, you're gonna hear me out ... OK! OK, so first off, what the fuck? A bowling alley? Stella, how fucking many years did you spend in law school, you want to tell me that? How many asses did you have to kiss to get your job? And now you're gonna throw it all in the crapper so you can fuck off to Florida and run a bowling alley? Does that make any fucking kind of sense whatsoever? OK, so that's one, and then, b, so you want to hook up with another guy, fine, no problem, I can deal with that, but—Vecchio?"

Vecchio? I had been following Ray as he paced wildly around the kitchen, trying to catch his eye, but at that name I froze—what in heaven's name ... and then I remembered, hearing Frannie's distant voice in my head—and my dimwit brother heading off to Florida with that blonde bimbo ... oh dear God. It couldn't be. There was a torn envelope lying on the floor, and I mechanically bent and picked it up. The envelope from Florida.

Ray was snarling into the phone, gripping it hard with one hand and the counter with the other, white-knuckled. "No, this is not some kind of a jealousy thing, Stella, I know you need to move on, you're gonna find another guy, fine, I'm cool with that, I got past that, y'know? but—Stella, remember one thing, OK? Vecchio—I know that guy. Shit, I had to be that guy, I know him better'n his own mother, and I know that he is not the kind of guy you want to— ... Well, no shit, of course Fraser thinks he's aces, Fraser thinks everyone's a fucking prince right up to the minute they shit in his oatmeal—"

"Ray. Ray. Ray. This is not wise, please allow me to—" I reached for the phone, but he shoved my hand away and strode to the other side of the kitchen, pulling the cord so tight it quivered.

"Yeah, well, you just do this one thing for me, Stel, you just take a minute and think about how he interrogated Guy Rankin, OK? You do that for me? You think about that, and then you ask him about the nine kilos of heroin, you got it? ... Don't you fucking dare hang up on me, Stella, you owe me, I gave you my fucking life, you owe me one more minute of your time—"

I made one more effort. "Ray, I beg of you, whatever is going on, please defer this conversation until you're calmer."

He gave me a scalding glare, and went on. "OK, one more thing, I got one more thing to say and then I'll shut up. It's just that—Jesus, Stella, where's your fucking brain? Huh? Y'know?" His voice softened a little, took on a pleading edge. "You're the smart one. You don't pull the crazy-ass stunts, that's my job. I mean, I always figured you had it together, like maybe I'm a total fuck-up, what'd you expect from me anyway, but you'd at least be ... oh, fuck, Stella, this is not about me, this is about you pissing your life away, and ... No, Stella, wait wait wait, hang on, do not let him—do not put that jerk on the—" And then he abruptly straightened, stiffened, hardening all over. "I'm not talking to you, asshole. You got something you wanna say to me, write a fucking letter and then stick it up your— ... screw that, you wanna talk to Fraser, you do it on your own dime, capiche? ... Yeah, well, fuck you!" That last was at top volume, and then he spun and slammed the phone into its cradle, and at the same moment I heard a soft thumping on the wall—the neighbors, registering a complaint about the noise. I'd have to apologize to them tomorrow.

Ray stood slumped over the phone, breathing heavily; after a moment he pushed away and stumbled into the living room. He paused in front of the sofa, staring down at it. "Fuck," he said, in a clear, calm voice, and then he abruptly threw a punch into the cushions, crouching, driving with his whole body. "Fuck it all to hell," and another punch, and then he was pummeling wildly, fast vicious blows, sending clouds of dust and Dief-fur flying into the air. I stood by and watched as he punched out his rage, red-faced and sweating, jaw clenched. When the blows finally began coming more slowly, clumsily, I went back to the kitchen and filled a glass with cold water.

I came back in time to see him stop, and bend over, resting his fists on the cushions. Then he turned and collapsed onto the abused sofa, panting, letting his head fall back, eyes shut, hands lax on his thighs. His t-shirt was dark with sweat.

I sat down beside him and nudged his hand with the glass. Without opening his eyes, he took it, drained it—I watched the tendons move in his throat as he swallowed, a stray drop trickling down his jaw and neck—and then he handed it back to me. I set it on the table, and then reached over and put a hand on his arm.

At last he spoke, in a raspy near-whisper. "OK, I know. Let me do the honors here. I was stupid, I was non-polite, I used bad language, I scared the neighbors, I should've waited till I cooled down. You don't have to tell me."

"I had no plans to say anything of the kind, Ray." I gripped his arm a little more firmly. "Are you all right?"

He swallowed again. His breathing had slowed, but the vein in his forehead was still pulsing angrily. "Do you get this, Fraser? Does anything about this make any kind of sense to you?"

"Well, I'm often mystified by people's behavior, so my reactions are hardly a useful gauge. But still, if I'm deducing Stella's and Ray's actions correctly from what I overheard, it seems—odd."

"Odd. Uh-huh." He let out a soft snort. "You probably think I freaked 'cause I'm jealous of her, right?"

"I don't know, Ray. Certainly in your more recent interactions with her you haven't exhibited any undue—"

He went on as if he hadn't heard me. "Cause that's not it. I mean, I can't believe she hooked up with Vecchio—" He lifted one hand off his leg, forestallingly, and let it drop again. "S'okay, I'm not gonna rip him, he's your buddy, I got that. But whatever, she's got a new guy, so what the hell, I figured that'd happen eventually. It's just that ..."

He lay there a moment longer, and then sat up, shaking my hand off, putting his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. "I just ... I can't believe that she's as fucked up as I am."

"What do you mean?"

"I knew her almost her whole life, OK? I mean, since she was twelve I've known her, and if there's one thing I always knew about her, it's that she'd always do the smart thing. Whatever it was, any situation, she'd do whatever was best for Stella. She used her head, y'know?" He stopped. "Except for, uh, when she married me, which I guess that punches a big hole in my theory, come to think of it."

"Ray—"

"Apart from that, I mean, she always had good sense. Y'know? That was one thing, one thing, in the entire whacked-out universe I could count on." He picked up the empty glass from the table, rolling it between his palms. "So now, out of nowhere, all of a sudden she flushes her career, which she worked like hell to get—she dumps it, and she hooks up with a guy she hardly knows, and she fucks off to Florida to run a bowling alley. That make any sense to you?"

"Well, it certainly seems uncharacteristic, but—"

"That's—I mean, that's almost as loony as me ending up here, right?"

I stared at him, then shifted forward on the sofa, trying to catch his eye. "Ray. Do you really feel the two cases are analogous?"

He stared down at the glass, not looking at me, not replying. I took the glass from him and set it on the table, and then took his hands in mine. They were reddened, swollen, abraded, and I held them gently.

Finally he shook his head, cleared his throat. "I don't know. I mean, I'm just ... like ... lost at sea here, Fraser. Maybe I never knew who she was. Or who I am. Or anything." His voice dropped to a rough whisper. "I don't know. I don't know."

I sat quiet for a while, listening to the rasp of his breathing and the ticking of the clock. Finally I said, "People change, Ray. Their aspirations, their habits, their beliefs. It's the way life is." I was thinking, as I spoke, about Ray Vecchio—my old partner, my beloved friend, now more sundered from me than ever. Despite the pain his actions had caused Ray, there was no anger in me at all toward him; I knew how deeply, behind his bluster, he'd yearned for true love, true tenderness, of a sort that he could let in, and I urgently hoped he had found it. Knowing, even as I hoped it, that that hope was something I could never voice to the man who sat so close beside me, his hands resting in mine; and I felt that as a wall between us, invisible, gossamer-thin, unbreachable.

Ray Vecchio had taken a great leap, he and Stella both; just as I had, just as Ray had, and I wished them well as much as I did us. I hoped we had all leapt in the right direction; I hoped we could all come to believe that we had done so. Ray's pessimism, his apparent belief that we were all acting like lunatics, disturbed me. I wanted to dispute it, but it was yet another topic I felt wary of opening with him, another thing lying between us unsaid.

In any event, Ray hadn't hadn't given any indication that he heard or heeded what I had said, and I after a while I spoke again. "People change, and when they do, they—well, they move on, and the process can be ...disconcerting, and painful. But it's the way things are. Nothing's permanent.." I stopped suddenly, hearing my father's voice again—nothing's permanent, son. I looked over at Ray; I couldn't tell if he was listening or not, and his eyes were half-closed, head sagging, the fight gone out of him. "In any event, you're exhausted, Ray. You need to rest. Come on, let's go to bed."

I hooked an arm around his waist and helped him to his feet, as he swayed against me. Once we were undressed and in bed, I held him through the rest of that night as he slept fitfully, twitching, sighing, clutching at his pillow. I slept little myself, but lay staring into the darkness, thinking about Ray's words, and my father's, and my own.


Only a few days after Ray's parcel arrived from Chicago, I received a shipment of my own—the belongings I'd left at the Consulate. I was surprised at the size of the box, but when I opened it, I realized that Turnbull, of course, had done the packing, and of course he had swathed every item in multiple layers of tissue, then bedded each separately in an extravagant nest of shredded excelsior. A ludicrous waste of time and material, because nothing I owned was breakable—except for the photograph of my family, which I placed on top of the bookcase, next to a stack of Ray's CDs. I dug through the box, uncovering clothing, hiking boots, books, Dief's food and water dishes, my knife, and finally, at the bottom, my father's journals.

All the other items I put away, but I left the journals in a pile on the coffee table, and then made myself some tea and sat and drank it while contemplating them. I had an unaccountable impulse to simply dispose of them; to let my father complete his departure from my life, let him and his words be buried once and for all.

I didn't do so, of course. Instead I sorted the volumes into chronological order; then I carried them to the bedroom, and put them in my dresser drawer, alongside my folded undershirts. I started to close the drawer, hesitated, and then pulled out the top volume—the first, the oldest—took it back to the living room, and settling down with my tea, opened it and started reading at the first page.

Sept. 28, 1960 — I've never kept a journal, believing that a life of duty keeps a man busy enough living it, without taking the time to scribble about it as well. However, with the birth of my son, I've decided that it's worth the time to chronicle my work, and perhaps some reflections on the nature of a life rightly lived. Not for myself—my memory's not defective—but for Benton. A boy needs guidance as he grows into manhood, and though I fully intend to provide such guidance myself, it's always possible, given the nature of my work, that I might not be around to do that.

I wasn't able to be present for his birth last week, but when I got home Caroline laid him in my arms, before I'd even gotten my boots off, and as I looked down at him I knew that some things in my life had changed forever. He felt far heavier than his eight pounds.

Benton, if you are reading this—and I hope you will, and will pass it along to your own son in turn—know that you are welcomed. Your mother and I will do our best by you, in our own ways, to help make you a man that we can be proud of.

I'll be off tomorrow at dawn for Rat River, where there have been reports of poachers. Caroline's none too pleased at my leaving again so soon, but the cabin's finished and chinked, she's well supplied with food and firewood, and the McPhersons are only two miles away if she needs help. Lord knows the place seems amply stocked with baby equipment; a man can hardly turn around in here now without running into a diaper or a bassinet. I assured her I would return as soon as my duties would let me. In the meanwhile, I'll try to get the hang of this journal-keeping.

I closed the book, keeping a finger in to mark my place, feeling a faint prickle at the back of my neck. In the silence of the house, I could have sworn I heard my father's voice speaking the words, his familiar tone of bluff jocularity not quite hiding his emotions. I actually glanced around superstitiously before I caught myself, reminded myself that he was gone. But still I wished Ray and Dief would hurry back from their walk.

The worn volume weighed heavy in my hands. When I'd read these journals for the first time, back in Chicago, I'd been embarked on a search that seemed at the time no less hopeless than the search for Franklin—the quest to discover the truth of this man, this familiar stranger. When he'd made his outlandish reappearance in my life, I'd largely set the journals aside, finding it too confusing to reconcile the words from the past with the actual (well, phantasmal, I suppose) man himself.

I had thought that by now I knew him as well as I ever would. But perhaps these journals had something more, something different, to teach me; I was a different person now than I was when I'd first read them, and my life had gone in some directions I'd never expected back then. My father had, after all, managed to sustain a marriage, while also pursuing duties that often took him away from it. In the past, no matter how much I'd respected his success in the latter, I'd felt he performed less than admirably at the former. But now—well, I was already beginning to suspect that I might have my own shortcomings in that area, and that, as reluctant as I was to admit it, I might still have a few lessons to gain from my him.

I bent my head, re-opened the volume, and returned to my reading.


It must have been sometime around then—the first time I asked Ray to ...

No. I realize I can't, even in my own head, find the right word, still less use his casual and profane term for what we enacted together. I can say the word "fuck," of course; despite what most who know me think, I'm no prude. But in my growing-up among rough men and fellow cadets, I'd learned that word as a marker of anger, or contempt, and my mind is too attached to its categorizations to let me simply reclass it as a verb signifiying acts of sexual love. (I have little vocabulary for intimacy in any event, whether sexual or emotional; it's an acquired language for me, one that came with far more difficulty than Mandarin.)

In any event, the first time I asked Ray to make love to me, he didn't understand what I meant, glancing up rather irritably from my groin. "What the hell d'you think I'm doing?"

When I finally managed to get across to him what I had in mind, he pushed away from me, sitting back on his heels.

"No!" he said, and then immediately, "I mean—jeez. You saying you want that?"

"I believe that's what I said, yes."

He stared at me. "I don't believe you."

"Ray—"

"I mean—that's .. it's gonna hurt, and ... Fraser, no, forget it, you don't want that."

His quick dismissal annoyed me, given the amount of nerving-up it had taken me to make the request in the first place. "Might I ask that you refrain from telling me what I do and do not want?"

His mouth twitched in a nervous smile. "OK, I guess that is you in there after all. I was wondering." But his face was still wary, full of disbelief; I could see him thinking it over, holding himself back, and I didn't want that; I wanted his passion, his drive, I needed that to carry us through this.

"Ray, I seem to recall you once saying something to the effect of 'we can do this or we can talk about it,' and at the time you certainly seemed to favor action over conversation."

"Uh. Yeah. But—I mean—" His eyes were moving over my body now, sprawled before him; I had never felt more naked in my life, and I kept myself relaxed, fought down the sudden lurching urge to pull the sheets up and cover myself.

"Please," I said. He shivered once, hard, as if chilled, but I could sense the heat of arousal kindling in him.

"OK, OK." He ran his hands through his hair, glancing wildly around the room. "Shit. Uh, we don't have any—y'know—"

"Top dresser drawer," I told him. "Left-hand side."

He gave me a look of sheer disbelief, and then went over to the dresser, and I shut my eyes, steadying myself, setting aside apprehension, reminding myself of my absolute trust in Ray, in his love and care and skill.

I remember how incredibly long it seemed to take for him to ready himself, far longer than it took me to be ready. I remember how he shook, all of him—his hands, as they smoothed over and over my back; his thighs, braced between mine; his voice, as he asked again and again for assurance that I was all right, that this was OK.

And I remember, inconsequentially, that it did hurt at first, quite a bit, actually, though I didn't let him see that. The pleasure came with time, all the more intense for its strangeness, its unexpectedness; but I hadn't asked for this in the first place for the prospect of physical pleasure.

No, it was because I wanted to ... as foolish as it sounds, I wanted to give him a home. A place where he could, in the most embarrassingly literal sense, take root, dig in. I wanted to let him know that he was welcome, more than welcome, to take my body, to have it, make it his, do whatever he wanted with it, as long as he could feel he belonged, that he was part of something, joined with me in some way.

Perhaps I already knew that there were too many parts of myself I couldn't open up to him, too many rooms forever off-limits. I gave him what I could, and any physical pleasure I derived was a side benefit (though a delightful one). Above all, I wanted him to have a home.


Home.

You told me once how much that meant to you; how much you'd loved the house you shared with Stella, the little bungalow you'd bought with such pride, sold with such pain. Home to you was bed, sofa, food, music, warmth, and someone to share it all with; but it was also ownership, mastery, a place on the earth where a man could plant his feet and make his mark. It was a lesson that I believe you'd absorbed from birth, from your handyman father—that part of a man's duty in this life is to establish his household, erect the fences that mark off his little piece of land, maintain the bricks and plaster and shingles that shelter his hearth-fire.

I didn't realize until I lived with you how different were the lessons I'd learned: that buildings, houses, are transient; that to become attached to them is a fool's error; that true home is found, not by raising walls and closing the door, but by opening the door and stepping outside. My home is an angle of light, smell of wind, lay of land; the way the seasons shift, the way the snow tastes, the vegetation and the animals and the constellations. The aurora borealis is my hearth-fire; I'd learned the hard way to cling to nothing smaller.

Though you never said as much, I know you believed, all the way down to your bones, that a marriage needs a home, a place where two people can take refuge from the world's harsh dangers and find solace and safety together. You wanted that for us; you tried so hard to make a home of that squat little box on the tundra, that bit of RCMP property that could never truly be ours. I know now how often I failed to understand what it meant to you, how little regard I showed toward your need for it. It was, to be sure, a need that you were shy of showing to me, feeling it to be—womanish, perhaps? A weakness in you? And yet, had you asked, had I taken the trouble to think, I would have acknowleged that for me, there could be no greater act of courage than to accept the limits of four bounded walls, to let a narrow roof shut me off from the wide sky, to take off my jacket and boots and let the warmth in. That I never truly did feel at home in that house was all my failing, and never yours.


On a quiet Thursday afternoon, I was at my desk, writing up an arrest report, when I heard angry voices in the hallway. I turned to look, then leapt to my feet. Ray was striding into the room, with Constable Swillins at his side, gripping him by the arm, both with set angry faces. Ray had a split lip, blood trickling down his chin and blood on his shirt. I called his name, but he didn't flick a glance at me, at anyone, as Swillins led him to Sergeant Gammell's office and pushed him through the door. I hurried after, paused a moment in the doorway at the sight of Ray and the sergeant, staring each other down in silence, and then stepped inside and shut the door behind me.

"Constable Fraser." Gammell didn't look over at me. "If you have some business with me, this is not a good time. Please wait outside and I'll let you know when I'm free."

I disregarded him. "Ray—"

"Fraser, get out of here." A drop of blood fell from his chin, onto the linoleum floor.

"You're hurt." I angled myself a little, so I could see his face, see the place where a bruise was starting to come up around one eye. My hands were clenching into fists. "What happened, Ray?"

"None of your business." He was staring off into a corner of the room, a hard unblinking stare. The act of speech made fresh blood well up in his lip. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Ray—" I began, but he gestured swiftly at me with one hand, the familiar Let me do the talking here motion that I'd learned to honor. I reached into my pocket, handed him a hankerchief. He took it without looking at me, and blotted away the blood from his mouth and chin.

Gammell was watching both of us, eyes going back and forth. "On second thought, perhaps you should stay, Constable Fraser. Perhaps you might have something to contribute. Or to learn." He leaned forward across his desk. "Kowalski. I'd like your account of what happened."

"Nothing happened."

"Nothing." Gammell narrowed his eyes. "A brawl breaks out in the motor pool, in the middle of a work day, but apparently that's nothing to you. All in a day's work. Perhaps that's routine for Chicago, but not here, as I hope you'll learn. Now. What happened?"

Ray was staring at a point on the wall. "I let a word get to me. It was stupid. It won't happen again."

I couldn't stop myself from speaking. "Ray, who did this to you?"

He ignored me, but the sergeant gave me a measuring look, and then was back at Ray. "Indeed. I'd like to know who else besides yourself is responsible for this imbroglio."

"I couldn't say. Sir."

"Kowalski, I warn you I'm in no mood for—"

Ray put his chin up at an angle, a familiar angle to me if not to Gammell, and I sighed inwardly. "I couldn't say."

Gammell stared at him a moment longer, then nodded. "Very well. If you were a regular employee, I'd put a warning in your file. As it is—well, you're only here for two more weeks in any event, but one more incident like this and you're out immediately. We don't resolve disagreements with fists, not in this detachment." Another hard look at me, clearly a look of warning. "And we don't allow personal—issues, to affect our work. That's not how things are done here." He paused, seeming to wait for some reply. Ray stood mute, gripping the bloodied handkerchief in one hand. Finally Gammell sighed. "Go home and get cleaned up. I'll have Darlene mark you down for half-day sick leave."

Ray turned, and I moved quickly to his side. "I'll drive you home, Ray."

"Constable." The sergeant's voice, behind my back. "I don't recall having given you leave from your duties."

I turned and stood at attention, planting my fists at my side. "Sir. Clearly Det—Mr. Kowalski has been struck in the head. Although he appears alert and oriented, head injuries can lead to delayed onset of confusion or disorientation, and in such an eventuality his being out in the street on his own could be dangerous. I believe it's my duty to make sure he gets home safely."

Gammell eyed me, expressionless. "Very well. Then please return promptly. I would like to have your monthly statistical summary on my desk by five."

"Of course, sir." I turned on my heel and strode out after Ray, who was already halfway down the hall.

I caught up with him on the front steps, and put a hand on his arm. "Ray, let me drive you home."

He shook me off, turned to glare at me, and before he could refuse I added, "Please. For my sake, if nothing else."

He still glared, but after a moment he gave a curt nod, and I led him around to the garage and signed out a vehicle.

Once we were underway, I said, "Can you tell me what happened?"

I was half expecting him to blow up at me, but instead he made an exasperated noise and said, "It's like I told the man, Fraser, a word got said and I got pissed off, I hit the guy, he hit me, we settled it, end of story."

"A word." I gripped the steering wheel. "What word?"

"Fraser, don't play stupid with me, you get three guesses what word, and I'll give you the secret clue, it wasn't 'Yank.'"

After I moment I got my jaw unclenched enough to say, "And who was it who said this?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake, would you let it go?" He tried leaning back against the headrest, unfortunately just at the moment that we hit a pothole. "Ow. Watch the road, hey? Doesn't matter who said it. You don't need to know, you don't want to know, you gotta work with these guys just the same as me." He touched his face, feeling gingerly along the jawline. "Anyway, doesn't matter. I was being stupid, that's all."

"Well, Ray—" I was choosing my words with some care. "I would agree that it's unproductive to counter verbal insults with physical violence. Perhaps a more sensible course of action would have been to report any harassing or otherwise inappropriate comments to the Sergeant, so that—"

"Oh, yeah, that'd be a great idea, all right. Oh sergeant," and he shifted into a whiny falsetto, "they're being mean to me." He made a noise of disgust, and let a minute pass before he went on. "No, see, what was dumb—I mean, he was right. The guy who said it. Nothing to beef about." He fell silent, cleared his throat, dabbed at his lip with the handkerchief, cleared his throat again. "Nothing but the truth. I just gotta get used to it, I guess."

I braked, to let a group of children with a soccer ball clear out of the street, and I put my hand on his arm. There were so many things I wanted to say, but I knew they would all come out as apologies, and that he was in no mood to hear them. When I started the car in motion again, all I said was, "I do think, though, that Sergeant Gammell should know who was responsible, so that appropriate disciplinary action can be taken."

"Fraser, quit being so stupid when you don't even have being hit in the head for an excuse."

"I don't see what's stupid about—"

"You know the score here. I gotta work with those guys and so do you. Doesn't matter if they're assholes, you don't rat out your guys. Hell, I learned that much back in grade school."

"The code of the playground." I could tell my anger was about to break through, and I couldn't let Ray see that, I wasn't angry at him, not really. "Gang justice, the honor of bullies and thugs. I would have hoped that we were all past that, Ray."

"Playground." His speech was getting a little thicker, as was his lip. "What you don't get, Fraser, and it's not like I blame you 'cause you never had a normal life growing up or anything, but what you don't get is that it's all just one big playground. Guys who beat you up, guys you can beat up. You don't get past that. You deal with it." We had pulled up in front of the house, at last. "I can deal with it. You know?" And then he was out of the car, making his way toward the front door, head down.


Head down, head averted, eyes turned away ... it's odd that that's how you are in so many of my memories of you in Inuvik. I only really began noticing it after you purchased the headphones and the Walkman. That was an act of thoughtfulness on your part, I know; though the ceaseless clamor of your music was like oxygen to you, you could see how sorely it grated on my nerves, and you were seeking a reasonable compromise. But I think in time you came to prefer the headphones to simply playing your music out loud. They became both another layer of insulation against this place, and a temporary escape from it.

I recall many nights watching you in the kitchen, headphones on and Walkman hooked to your belt, chopping and stirring in a rhythm choreographed to music only you could hear. I would sit apart, wondering what beat was driving the slam of the knife, the thrust of your hips as you spun to open the refrigerator. Once in a while, feeling too lonely, I would interpose myself in your line of vision, and when you looked at me, there was often a chilling moment of blankness in your eyes, as if you'd expected to see something else entirely, as if I were a stranger.


One night, we lay in bed on the tangled sheets, I sprawled on my belly, Ray still half on top of me, panting. I was lost in the echoing aftermath of pleasure, and the even greater bliss of living simply on the animal plane, brain shut down and silent; to me, the most compelling thing about sex, far more than the physical release of orgasm, to be released from the inexorable strictures of the mind.

So I lay there, thinking nothing at all, simply feeling—the throb of Ray's heart against my back (faster than mine, always, even when he was asleep), the rubbery collapse of my joints and bones, random aches and twinges, and the chilly prickle of sweat cooling. Minutes earlier, I'd whipped my head around and bitten Ray's forearm, needing something in my mouth at that moment of extremity, and now I reached out again, gently this time, and took his wrist between my teeth, working it back and forth with care, feeling the shifting of the narrow bones. No reason other than the simple animal pleasure of it. He made a little sound, sigh or chuckle. "Cannibal." Then he slid all the way off me, pulling his arm free and using it to turn me onto my side, facing him.

"You really like that?"

For once, I knew what he was referring to. "I would have thought that was obvious."

"Mm. See, I don't get that. It's like—" He fell silent, and pulled me close, resting his head on my arm, his hand stroking slowly up and down my back. Finally he said, "When I was a kid, we'd play this game, me and the other guys, it was called Would You Rather. Someone'd come up with some question, like, 'Would you rather have bamboo splints put under your fingernails and set on fire, or have your big toes chopped off?'"

"Well, that sounds like an odd game, Ray."

He disregarded my comment. "Would you rather have to drink a glassful of piss, or eat a bowl of worms, that was another one. And we'd have these big arguments about which one was worse. It was kind of fun."

I lay silent, reflecting that the solitude of my own boyhood had had its positive aspects.

"So anyway—one day, I remember one of the guys—Ricky Krantz, I think it was him—he came up with a new one. I don't remember what the first option was, something pretty disgusting, but the second one ... the second one was, would you let some guy fuck you up the ass." He paused. "And all the guys, they were, like, whoooaa!" He flung his hand out in a dramatic gesture of repugnance, narrowly missing my head. "It was like that was immediately the most horrendous thing anyone could imagine. You know? We pretty much agreed that one would be worse than being tortured to death by Nazis, which up until then that'd been the chart-topper."

"Not that any of your social circle was in a position to make an informed choice on the question, to be sure."

"What I'm saying is ... we just couldn't imagine it. I mean, unless maybe you were in prison and you didn't have any choice, y'know, some guy raped you or something, and then we basically decided you'd have to kill yourself."

His hand had stopped its movement over my back, had clenched up into a fist. I shifted a little, pulling back enough so that I could see his face.

"Ray—"

"So then Ricky couldn't just leave it at that, he started talking about, if that happened, which of us it'd be most likely to happen to, and they all decided that'd be me. 'Cause I was the smallest one back then, I was skinny, I had those stupid glasses, I was good in art class, stuff like that." He gave one harsh little snort of a laugh. "I got in one good punch on Ricky, and then he creamed me. Man, was that a fight." He shook his head, his hair making a little whispering sound on the pillow.

The whole topic disturbed me, and I knew I should let it go, but I felt impelled to ask, "Does it bother you that I like it?"

"Shit, if I let myself get bothered by all the weird stuff you like, they'd've locked me up in a rubber trunk by now. No, what bothers me ... " He shifted, pulling away from me, grabbing a pillow and punching it up under his neck. I waited, knowing that he could not leave a point unmade, any more than he could leave a bed made. "What I'm trying to say is, letting that happen to him, it's not something a guy does."

I pondered that. "Do you think I'm—less of a man, for doing this?"

"Oh hell, Fraser, I didn't mean that—look, I'm not trying to im—im—"

"Imply? Impugn?"

"I'm not trying to put you down. You're a man, that much I got clear. Just not a normal one, is all."

"I see."

"I'm not saying it like it's a bad thing. I mean, it's nothing you did, right? You can't help it that you were raised by wolves."

"Ray, that's ridiculous. I was raised in the vicinity of wolves, to be sure, but my own upbringing—"

"OK OK OK. Right, you were raised in a library by bizarre grandparents. Same diff. What I'm saying is, you never learned stuff the way normal guys do. For christ's sake, you had a girl in your boy scout troop, what does that tell you?"

I took a breath. "It tells me—it told me even then—that a great many of those barriers and categories that many seem to think are so imperative, that carry some weight of natural law, are in fact—quite arbitrary. Arbitrary and, ultimately, meaningless."

"OK. I mean, that's a little more'n I was looking for in the way of an answer, but—yeah, that says it all. To you, that stuff's meaningless."

A pause. I wanted to ask him And what does it mean to you, Ray? Or rather—I wanted to know, without having to ask, without having to have the discussion, or to hear him say things that I was, perhaps, unready to hear. Instead I said, "Would you like me to act differently, with you? More—the way a man is supposed to act?"

I propped myself up on an elbow as I spoke, bending over him, trying to read his face in the dim light—that was my intent, at any rate, and if I let my hand rest flat and heavy on his chest, pressing him down into the mattress—it was just that I was was tired, that his body was a comfortable place to rest my arm, there was nothing more than that in my mind, but he stiffened abruptly under me, and then shoved my arm off with some vehemence, sitting up and jerking away from me.

"No, that is—jeez, that is not what I'm trying to say here, Fraser!" He pulled away, hitching across the mattress and getting to his feet. "Shit, pay attention, will you, listen to what I'm trying to tell you!" He turned and strode into the bathroom.

"And what would that be?" I asked his retreating back, but he shut the door behind him, and for a few minutes all I could hear was the sound of water running, splashing, and the creak of plumbing. Finally the water stopped, the door re-opened, and Ray returned, carrying a glass of water. He handed it over to me, sat on the bed beside me, and watched me as I drank.

"No," he said. "The thing that bugs me ..." I held out the empty glass to him, and he took it and set it on the bedside table, abstracted, thinking. "It bugs me that it's always me doing it, you taking it, me doing it, you taking it. It's all outta balance. That's not a duet, Fraser, that's like ... " He groped for a word, not finding one, and gave up. "I don't know how to even it out, is what I'm saying. It's not fair."

"Ray, neither fairness nor justice demands strict reciprocity in such matters." I could see that the words weren't connecting for him, and tried again, more directly. "If each of us is getting what he wants—that's fair, isn't it?"

He pulled his feet up, crossing his legs, and spent a moment examining the toes of his left foot, poking gingerly at the hard welt of scar left by frostbite. Finally he said, "Is this what you want? This whole deal?"

I sat upright. "Of course it is. Have I given you any reason to think that it isn't?"

"I didn't say that. Jeez." Exasperated, he leaned over and thumped his shoulder against mine. "I just—it's hard to figure sometimes. You're hard to figure sometimes." He paused, shrugged. "Usually."

"I don't believe that I'm keeping things from you." I could hear the peevish edge that, despite myself, had crept into my voice, and Ray seemed to as well, because he shifted around to face me, reached out a hand, and took hold of my head, lacing his fingers into my hair.

"It's not that, it's just—like, I don't know what's going on in there." He shook my head by way of illustration.

I reached up and pulled his hand loose, gave it a squeeze, and set it back on his knee. "I'm a reticent man, I suppose, by nature. But I'm an honest one as well. You know that, Ray. You can ask me anything."

"Yeah. Right." He reached for the blanket, pulled it up around his bare shoulders. "I just—sometimes I'd just like to know. Y'know?"

"Understood." I paused, then said, "I sometimes have the same feeling as well. About you, that is." He made no response, and I fumbled onward, uncomfortably. "That I'm not entirely sure what's—as you put it, going on in there, in your own head."

He took that in, his mouth tightening in a humorless grin. "Yeah. Makes two of us."

I tried again. "Ray. Is this, in fact, what you want?"

At that, he looked at me, and his smile eased into something more genuine. "Sure, I guess. Must be. Why else'd I be here?"

Just then there was a scuffle at the door, and an irritable whine. "Oh, jeez, I better take Dief out." Ray slid out of bed, stood naked in the dim light for a moment, casting about, and then he grabbed his clothes and began pulling them on. I watched as he covered himself up, one part of him after another disappearing beneath denim and wool.

"I could come with you," I offered, but he waved me off, shoving his feet into his shoes.

"Nah, s'OK, you take it easy. Hey, Dief, hang on, OK? Yeah, I know it got late, it's not like you're gonna die in the next five minutes—"

I heard his voice, and Dief's grumbling replies, trailing off, and then the bang of the door behind them, leaving me with my thoughts, in the tumbled and cooling bed.


One morning I was dispatched to the Sunriser to follow up on a report of a broken window. Nothing seemed to have been stolen—it was apparently an act of random vandalism—but after I'd finished examining the scene, Elaine, the proprietor, invited me to have some tea and a sweet roll, and refused to hear my demurrals. So I sat at the counter, nibbling at the pastry for politeness' sake, and after a minute someone sat down next to me. I was working on my notes, and didn't look up until the person said, "Benton Fraser. Too busy to say hello to an old woman?"

I looked up to find Emma Atchealak beside me, looking almost exactly as she had the last time I'd seen her years before. "Emma!" I slid off the stool and stood to greet her formally, holding out my hand; she looked at it, and me, for a moment, impassive, then gripped my hand and pumped it twice, and thumped me on the shoulder. She hadn't lost any strength over the years, either.

"Sit down, Benton. You make me nervous."

I resumed my seat. "It's been a long time, Emma. How are you?"

She considered that briefly. "All right. Keeping busy. The business is going well."

"That's good to hear."

She nodded, sipping her coffee and eyeing me up and down. "I heard you were back. Thought you might have gotten fat, living down there in the city. But you still look pretty skinny to me."

I grimaced, sipping my tea. "Well, city life does make one soft," and I shot a quick glare at Diefenbaker, who was sitting under the glass case of doughnuts, eyeing them wistfully. "But returning here took care of that, I'm glad to say. Speaking of which—would you care for a strawberry danish?" I slid my plate over toward her, ignoring Dief's whine of protest.

She took it without ceremony, broke off a piece, and dipped it in her cup. "Wendell told me about your sled trip. Sounds like that was kind of a harebrained stunt. You're old enough now to know better than that." Her voice was matter-of-fact, and I nodded, trying to accept her words without resentment. She'd been surviving in this country far longer than I'd been alive, and she had little use for the romance of the north.

To change the subject, I asked after her family, and she embarked on a detailed exposition of marriages, deaths, and births. Most of the names were unfamiliar to me—Emma's family was quite extensive—but I seized on one as it flew past me. "Duane? Did you say he's in school now?"

She nodded, munching on the sweet roll. "Down at Aurora College in Yellowknife, studying computers. He's engaged to a girl down there, Gloria. She's Nahanni Dene, I don't know her family but she seems like a smart one, works with the government. They'll be married in October, and he has a job promised with NorthwesTel when he finishes his classes."

"I'm delighted to hear that, Emma. I always felt that Duane had the potential to do well."

"Potential." She glanced up at me. "A knife has potential to kill a man, or to save his life. That Duane, he could have gone either way. You made a difference there."

Her words warmed me; Emma was not one given to shallow praise. "I simply felt it was obvious that he'd fallen in with a bad group and that stealing that snowmobile was entirely Charlie Hiqiniq's idea. Given a chance, I was confident he could turn his life around."

Emma rattled her coffee cup against its saucer, to signal for a refill. "He did. But you helped, and we'll remember that."

"Thank you, Emma." I knew the weight those words carried, for her and all her family.

She went on, "I'd kind of hoped I could get Duane up here for the summer. I'm short a man on the crew, Gil had to go back to Tsiigehtchic to take care of his grandfather. But he says he doesn't want to leave his girlfriend." She snorted. "I think he's just gotten used to sitting at a desk all day. Gotten a little scared of real work."

A thought came to my mind. "So you're looking to hire someone?"

"We got the contract for that office building MacEachern wants to put up, so I need all the hands I can get. Most men, though, they want to go to the fish camps, or they can earn more on the oil rigs. The ones you can count on to show up sober, anyway."

I stared down at my cup, and cleared my throat. "It's an interesting coincidence. I have a friend who's—in need of some occupation, actually. Not—" I raised a hand. "Not a job, technically speaking, as he's not a legal resident and of course could not be legally employed without HRDC confirmation. Which is unfortunate, as he's an excellent worker, and I believe he'd be much happier with something to engage his energies." I stopped, waiting for her response.

She took a sip of coffee, took out a cigarette and lit it, before she replied. "Yeah. I heard about your friend." She fell silent again, smoking, and I counselled patience to myself, knowing that trying to hasten the conversation would be unhelpful.

Finally she said, "Can he pound a nail straight? Does he know how to use a saw?"

"I—well, I don't have first-hand knowledge, but I'm certain he can. He's a skilled mechanic, that much I know."

She cocked her head to look up at me. "I hear he's got a smart mouth. Can he take orders from a cranky old Dene woman?"

She was poker-faced, but I allowed myself a smile in return. "I don't think that would present any difficulties, Emma."

She considered a while more, smoking, and I watched her hand as she tapped ash—knotted with veins and tendon, scarred from years of cleaning fish and working furs, long before she started her contracting firm. "OK," she said at last. "I never had an American on the crew before. He'll have to get along with the others. But I owe you a debt." She put out her cigarette and stood. "I can pay him cash under the table. Tell him to—"

I held my hands out quickly. "Any financial—donation that you chose to make, in appreciation of his contributing his labor to your company, would of course be purely voluntary on your part, and not in the nature of a wage or salary." I paused, watching her take that in, watching her eyes flick over my uniform. "And it would be best if I didn't actually know about it." The words were sour in my mouth, but I got them out.

Emma shrugged. "Got it. Have him show up at the trailer at six tomorrow morning, and we'll give it a try."

"It might be preferable—I hate to impose on you, Emma, but would it be possible for you to call him directly to convey the invitation?" I tore a sheet from my notebook and jotted our phone number on it.

Emma took the paper with what seemed like amusement, folding it into her pocket, but all she said to me was, "OK, mountie. Your hands are clean." Then she drained her coffee, nodded to me, and ambled to the door.

She phoned that evening, and the conversation, from what I could hear of it, was brief, to the point, and satisfactory. Ray suspected, of course, that I'd had a hand in the matter, but I assured him that he'd be doing Emma a signal service (true enough), that his name had never actually come up in our conversation (an appalling equivocation, but not an outright lie), and that I had not pushed her to hire him (ditto). Ray had been at loose ends for a week by then, ever since Dewayne had come back to his job, and I believe any resentment he might have felt at my interference was markedly tempered by the intensity of his restless boredom, which had made him rather difficult to live with for the past few days.

In any event, he got himself up, dressed, and out the door by 5:30 the next morning, and when I got home that evening, he was sprawled in front of the television, looking tired but unwontedly cheerful.

"It went fine," he said, in response to my queries. "Guys are cool, Emma's cool, it's gonna be good." He slid over to make room for me on the sofa, as I hung up my jacket. "She told me to let you know she wouldn't talk to anyone about it. Said you had a stick up your butt about me being hired—"

"I most seriously doubt she used that phrase," I said, sitting down beside him.

He angled me a grin. "Or maybe she talks different to you than to the hammer monkeys on her crew, ya think? But anyway, she said cool it, we all keep our lips zipped and everything should be copacetic."

He didn't seem to be paying attention to the television, so I reached for the remote and shut it off. "You do understand, Ray, that although I'm very glad you have this position—you realize why I'm uncomfortable about it? That I'm colluding in a violation of the law?"

"So?" He turned a hand over. "I mean, sure, I get that, I know you don't like it, but you're not doing anything your boss didn't already do. Right? I don't think he sat up nights getting an ulcer about it." He looked over at me then, and, catching sight of my face, put his hand on my shoulder. "Aw, geez, Fraser." Beneath the exasperation I could hear a tenderness that hadn't been a main feature of his demeanor in recent days. "Why is it that you've always gotta be harder on yourself than you are on anyone else?"

I kept my eyes down, running my fingers over the buttons on the remote. "It's my duty, Ray. How can I demand a higher standard of conduct from others than I hold for myself?"

"Look." His hand was moving on my shoulder, strong fingers working the knots of muscle; it was painful and yet comforting. "Letter of the law ain't always right in every situation, you know that and I know that. You're all yay-Canada, protect-Canada, I got that, but what do you think's better for Canada, me helping Emma out of a jam, or me sitting down in Sally's all day getting hammered and then coming home and driving you nuts? This is a good thing, Fraser. Be happy about it, OK?"

"Understood." I nodded, leaning back into his touch. "It's simply that—I dislike having my happiness founded on a fraud."

"It is not a fraud, Fraser. Everybody's getting what they need here. Who's getting hurt? You tell me that." I had no reply, and he went on, "Besides, I figure—whatever kind of happiness you can get going, go for it. Enjoy it while it lasts." He kept up his massage for a minute, and then his fingers ceased rubbing, took a grip on the nape of my neck, and his voice took on a huskier tone. "Hey. Fraser. You ever make it with a construction worker?" I looked over; his face was serious, but there was a provocative glint in his eyes. "'Cause I hear for some guys, that's kind of a hot fantasy. And now's your big chance." He pulled me toward him, on top of him, yanking my suspenders down and finding my mouth with his.

Dinner was quite late that night, but Dief was the only one who seemed to mind.


As good as it sometimes was between us physically, at other times there was a clumsiness in how we joined, our moves together not quite fitting, a sense of doing something chancy and graceless. I tried what I could by way of remedy; I read up on the subject, in private, in books I ordered over the web and hid from him. I pondered technique. But what felt seamless, liquid, in imagination, all too often turned sweaty and awkward in reality, full of elbows and mistiming.

Ray could, of course, sense my earnest effortfulness, and, predictably, it irritated him. "Relax, wouldja? Jeez, just go with it." But endeavoring to let go of self-consciousness merely made me more self-conscious than ever, more tentative and awkward.

In exasperation, one night, Ray had grabbed me, grabbed my hands away from him, and snarled into my face, "Here's an idea, Fraser, pretend you're fighting me."

It bewildered me. "Why would I want to pretend I'm fighting you, Ray?"

"Cause when you fight, that's when you move like you know what you're doing." He flung my hands away, and mimed a few quick punches, elbow jabs, narrowly missing me. "Bam, bam ba-da-bam. You fight like—like you're Nureyev or something. I'd say pretend you're dancing, but you can't dance, so I figure, try going with what you know." He looked at me pleadingly, as if he were making some kind of sense. "It's like one of your whatsis, visualization things. Y'know what I mean?"

I got out of bed, sat on the corner of the mattress, pulled the blanket up around my shoulders. "No, Ray. I don't know what you mean." It was not a lie, not really. Truly, I did not fully know what he meant; I had learned by then that the inside of his head was in many ways a mystery to me.

But I did know, to my shame, my own impulse at times to fight—to fight him; to cast off all care and consideration and simply pound him into submission; to pin him flat, master him, as I knew I could; and then to open him up, tear into him, dig all the way to the heart, and find that diamond-hard core, that stubborn, unyielding essence, the part of him that would never yield. And then to seize it, rip it out of him—and fill the hole it left with myself, to wrap him around me and make him wholly mine, my possession.

Much as I might wish otherwise, I could not disown those thoughts; I am, god knows, no stranger to despicable impulses. But I need not give in to them, give them accommodation in my soul. Before we ever came up here, I struck Ray—at his urging, to be sure, and not truly in anger, but even so I feel the shame of that moment to this day. If I were to strike him again, there could be no "pretend" about it, it would be in anger—he must have known that, and for him to ask me to, again—to urge me to dive into those poisonous waters... I had to get up, then, and dress and go out, walk away from the house and the town and down toward the river.

It was late June, and a windless evening, which meant the mosquitoes were swarming ravenously. I walked as quickly as I could, slapping and sweating, but finally I had to admit defeat and turn back.

Ray was standing at the window when I let myself in, back to the door, looking out, and the stereo was playing something slow and sensual, jazz, city music. He was moving to it, the whole complex articulation of his body echoing its syncopations. He didn't turn around, though he must have heard the door open and shut.

I walked up behind him and put my hands on his waist, cautiously, half expecting him to move away from me. Instead, he reached down and took my wrists, pulling me closer against him, and then, never losing the beat, he turned slowly in my arms until he was facing me, eyes shut, and put his own arms around me, burying his face in my neck. For just a moment, I let go, let myself simply move with him, small gentle motions shaped by the music and the rhythm of his breath on my neck, his thighs and belly against mine ... and then my cursed mind kicked in, and began thinking about the beat, about whether I was moving in correct rhythm, about the fact that we were standing in front of an open window facing the street, and the moment fell apart. He could feel it, and he stopped moving, but when I tried to pull away he held on to me. I rested my forehead against his, shaking my head slowly back and forth, feeling bone grind against bone, and told him "I'm sorry."

I was sure that would push him away, but instead he put his hands on the back of my neck, holding me close, lips almost against mine. Eyes still shut. "Fraser, you've got nothing to be sorry about. I'm the sorry specimen here. Everything I say comes out wrong."

"So—you'd prefer I didn't fight you after all."

He nodded slowly, forehead rubbing against mine. "I don't want to fight."

We stood for a minute holding each other, with the music wrapping around us, until he sighed and pulled back. Only then did he look at me, eyes widening suddenly in shock.

"Fraser, what the hell—" He grabbed my shoulder, touched my cheek, and I saw the red on his fingertips when he brought his hand away. "You're bleeding—shit, Fraser, what've you—"

"It's nothing, Ray. Mosquitoes."

"That's—"

"Mosquito bites, that's all it is." He stared at me, wiping his fingers on his jeans. "That's what it's like here in June, unfortunately. They'll diminish somewhat by the end of July."

He turned away from me, pushing his hands through his hair. "Way to scare the shit out of me, Fraser. I thought you'd maybe—" He left the sentence lying unfinished, and when he spoke again it was in a lighter, more brittle tone. "OK, yeah, I should've figured, the only time you're not freezing your ass up here you're getting it chewed off by bugs. Didn't you tell me it got nice here in summer? Guess you forgot to mention the killer-mosquitoes part."

I felt a ridiculous impulse to protest, defend, as if this land needed me to advocate on its behalf, or as if Ray could be won over by my words. We'd had enough words for the night in any event.

"I think it's time I turned in, Ray, I have an early briefing tomorrow." He nodded, without looking at me, and I went to rinse my face off and brush my teeth.


Soon after beginning my new posting, I had discovered that the tasks it presented were largely mundane—solving cases of petty vandalism and theft, citing reckless drivers, curbing outbursts of drunken hooliganism at the numerous bars in town. Important, all of it, to the well-being of the community; rewarding enough (I told myself) to give any man a sense of accomplishment at day's end. Certainly more satisfying than the makework that had eaten up so much of my time at the Consulate. And yet ... irrationally, as the weeks went by, I found myself restless; found myself thinking, at the end of a long day, as I cleared off my desk and headed out the door, This wasn't what I came home for.

It made me impatient with myself, this unwonted dissatisfaction, and at first it puzzled me. I knew that I wasn't nostalgic for the more gaudy crimes of Chicago, or for the pomp and paperwork of consular duties. Rather, I came to realize in time, I was longing for the work I had done before I ever flew south, and that my father had done before me—patrolling the wilderness, alone and afoot, pitting my wits and skill against those of criminals, tracking through forests and bogs rather than streets and alleys.

I had submitted a memorandum asking to be assigned to patrol duty in the outlying areas around the town, but the sergeant rejected my request out of hand. "For heaven's sake, Constable, any fool can go tramping around the backwoods. Your talents would be wasted out there, and it won't do a damned thing to advance your career. No, I believe you'll gain far more by staying right here and learning all aspects of this detachment. You'll need that grounding when you're promoted and move on to Yellowknife or Whitehorse."

My first chance to step outside the routine came in late May, with a midnight telephone call from the detachment. "Constable Fraser?" It was Evans, sounding a little harried. "I'm terribly sorry to bother you so late, but we just got a call from Angie Mathieu—you know, she and her husband have that cabin way up Kettle Creek? It sounds like he's beating her up again—she seemed very frightened, and then she got cut off—"

I was up in a moment and pulling on my pants. I knew George Mathieu, a trapper with a long and ugly history of violence. Ray was making drowsy irritable noises in the background, as Evans went on. "I'd go out there myself, but really, I haven't spent much time out in that area, and—I have maps, of course, but I thought that you perhaps might already know—"

"I'm quite familiar with the area, Evans, and I'd be delighted to take the case."

"Oh, excellent." He sounded relieved. "I'll phone Cadet Sinclair and have him meet you here." And he rang off.

As I was pulling on my hiking boots, Ray stuck his head out from under the covers, blinking fuzzily. "Whathefuck? You get called in?"

"Yes. Domestic assault." He made thrashing motions, trying to sit up, and I put a hand on his chest. "Go back to sleep. I'm not sure when I'll be back."

"Yeah, OK," he mumbled, and dove back under the covers. I wasn't certain he'd been entirely awake to begin with.

I met up with Cameron and we hurried to the cabin, driving as fast as we dared along the rutted track, to find Mrs. Mathieu alone, badly bludgeoned, unconscious, but alive. Dief indicated that the man had fled on foot, so I left Cameron to tend to the victim and wait for medical assistance, and we set off in pursuit, Dief racing ahead through the boggy stands of willow and spruce, I pounding along behind, branches whipping my face. After the first mile or so, I got my second wind, settled into a comfortable pace—and then it was simply the mindless, timeless rhythm of the hunt, legs carrying me without effort, all of my brain in my eyes and ears and body.

It was dusky out, but not dark, would not be dark again for weeks. The moon was faint overhead, the air was fresh with chill, faintly smelling of spruce and water. I ran. Everything else slid away from me, town, office, cars, telephones; words stilled; time became only the slow movement of the moon down toward the horizon, the slow lightening of the sky, as Dief and I hunted onward. My chest was aching, my belly snarled with hunger, my feet were throbbing and soaked—and I was in bliss, the richest and simplest joy I'd known in years, the sense of perfect fit, with everything in me being used at last for its right purpose.

The sun was well up in the sky when we ran Mathieu to ground, panting and spent, huddled in a willow copse. He rose, aiming a gun at me, but Dief took him down, and I soon had his hands secured. After a brief struggle against his bonds, snarling and cursing, he sagged, and as I got him to his feet and we set off back to the cabin, he began whining at me. "Fucking bitch. It's her fault, you know. I told her a hundred times to just shut up, but she wouldn't leave me alone, it was always 'Where are you going?' and 'When will you be back?' and I mean, how much chatter can a man be expected to take, eh? I kept asking her to shut up—" He kept on, despite my request that he take his own counsel, and though tempted to avail myself of Ray's technique of threatening head-kicking and other mayhem, I finally just gagged him with my handkerchief.

It was a long and slow trip back, but, once Mathieu was silenced, an enjoyable one; the day was crisp and breezy, and it was pleasant to note the signs of spring all around us, in the swelling leaf-buds and melting snow. At one point Dief darted off and came back with a rabbit in his jaws, and I paused long enough to build a small fire and roast it, glorying in the straightforward pleasures of resting hard-used muscles and devouring freshly-cooked meat. I gave Mathieu half, on condition that he'd eat it in silence, and, fortified with food, we made better time from then on.

It was near midnight when we got back to Mathieu's cabin. I phoned in, ascertained that Mrs. Mathieu was recovering in hospital, and arranged for Constable Morris to drive out and pick us up. I wrote out my report while waiting for her, and once we'd jounced our way back into town, I saw to the details of booking my prisoner, while Dief wandered off to wheedle a sandwich from the night clerk.

Done at last, and filled with a glow of accomplishment, I stopped a moment to wash up in the men's room. Exhaustion was beginning to catch up with me at last; my legs were a little shaky as I splashed my face. The cool water felt heavenly, and I was happily anticipating the prospect of a shower and bed as I summoned Dief, collected my jacket and walked out the front door. Then I stopped short.

Our car was parked in front of the building, and Ray was at the wheel, giving me a glare that could have bored holes through sheet metal. For a moment we just stared at each other, and then he jerked his head toward the passenger door, and I came around, let Dief in, and climbed in after him. Even before I'd gotten the door shut, Ray stomped on the accelerator, and the tires screamed as we spun and slewed out way out of the parking lot.

"Ray! What in the—"

"Shut up!" He slammed the heel of his hand on the dashboard, and then jerked the steering wheel, skidding us through an intersection, and then speeding off again down a side street.

"Stop it! I don't know what's gotten into you, Ray, but you can't—"

"I said shut up!" This time he thumped his hand into my solar plexus instead of the dashboard, and, bewildered, with the wind momentarily knocked out of me, I had no choice but silence. He made one more screeching turn, into a deserted lot behind a barricade of metal storage tanks, slammed on the brakes and threw the car into park. There was a yelp from Dief as he scuffled to resettle himself, and then silence, except for Ray's hard breathing.

I coughed, getting my own breath back, and looked over at Ray with some caution. He was staring straight ahead, still holding the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. I felt far too weary to cope with whatever rage was possessing him, and for a moment I thought about simply getting out and walking home. But the only home I had to go to was his as well; there was clearly no way out of this situation, whatever it was, except straight through. Still, I felt he'd earned the responsibility of starting whatever conversation he intended to have, and I sat, waiting.

When he finally spoke, his voice was gravelly. "OK. What the fuck were you doing out there?"

I considered this, tiredly. "My job," I finally said.

"Your job. Yeah." He twisted his hands on the wheel, over and over. "So tell me this, Fraser, when they wrote up your fucking job description, did they put a part in there that says, 'Hey, that stuff about waiting for backup? Forget about it, 'cause you don't gotta do that.' Hah?"

"It wasn't—"

"And did they maybe put something in there about how you're not allowed to take a fucking radio with, so that maybe you could fucking call in and let somebody know what the fuck's going on with you? Is that part of the job too, Fraser? You tell me that, 'cause I'd really kind of like to know if that's it, or if it's maybe just that you're a fucking moron."

I took a deep breath, pinched my nose hard. "My job entails pursuing suspected criminals and bringing them to justice. This not being Chicago, we haven't the luxury of sufficient staffing to permit sending multiple officers on a single case, and I'm sorry if that doesn't meet with your approval. I'm also sorry if you feel my communication was inadequate, but in point of fact I've been somewhat busy over the past twenty-four hours."

He nodded, and then kept nodding, metronomically, his mouth getting tighter and tighter. All of a sudden he flung the door open, leapt out of the car, grabbed a scrap piece of lumber that was lying on the ground, and began pounding it on the storage tanks, over and over, making an unearthly din. I climbed out of the car more slowly, and stood some distance away, watching him, Dief pressed uneasily up against my leg.

Eventually, with a final clamorous whang, he stopped. He rolled his shoulders, swiped back his hair, and then turned to face me. "OK. You been busy, right. You want to know what I've been doing the past twenty-four hours?" He pointed the board at me. "First thing this morning, I call down to the station to see how you're doing, I get that pissy bitch Darlene who tells me you're not back but she doesn't think it's appropriate to be giving out any further information. So I call and tell Emma I'll be late, I head down to the station, and whoa, Cammy the Wonder Boy's back, but whaddaya know, no Fraser. Which gives me cause to wonder, y'know? And he doesn't want to tell me jack shit 'cause he's got his fucking reports to do, but finally I get it out of him that—" He jabbed the board at me. "That that little asshole you call your partner thought it was a bright fucking idea to sit around that cabin holding his dick and waiting for the medics to show up—and, even better, then go fucking off back to town with them—while you go chasing off after that guy by yourself." He spun and gave the tanks a few more resounding blows.

"Ray, believe me, it wasn't—"

"So I burn a favor from Elston, he owes me one 'cause I hammered out that dent he put in the cruiser and didn't rat him out to the sergeant, I get him to slip me the file on this scumbag, and I take a look at it." Another whang to the tanks. "Manslaughter, Fraser! This guy did nine years for manslaughter! Aggravated assault, B and E, christ knows how many counts of wife-beating, and hey, did I mention manslaughter? And you go off after him by yourself."

"For god's sake, Ray, I had Diefenbaker with me, and—"

"Yeah, you had Dief, and he had a gun! Didn't he? He did, didn't he, Fraser?"

I stood mute, and Ray moved his attention to Dief, enunciating with violent clarity. "Dief! The bad guy! Had a gun! Right?" I nudged Dief surreptitiously, but he gave a traitorous yip of affirmation.

Just then, headlights angled around the corner, a car pulled up, and Constable Evans got out. "All right, gentlemen, what's going—Constable Fraser?" He peered at me in the half-light.

"It's all right, Evans," I called back. "Mr. Kowalski has been, ah, demonstrating some percussion techniques."

"Percussion."

"Indeed. You might say it's a sort of performance art, such as is popular in the larger American cities and cultural centers."

"Ah." Evans sounded baffled. "Right, then, sorry to disturb you, although to be honest, sir, the noise levels—"

"I believe that part of the evening's performance is over, actually, Evans, thank you."

"Thank you, sir." And he sketched a half-heartedly jaunty wave, got in his car, and drove off.

I turned back to Ray, and noted with relief that some of the ferocity seemed to have gone out of him. He was turning the piece of lumber over and over in his hands, not looking at me. After a moment, he said, "So ... I start making some noise about how geez, maybe it'd be a good idea to send some backup out after one of your own guys who's out there somewhere with a guy who kills people, and that's when your fucking partner tells me he's got no idea what direction you headed off in, you could be anywhere out there, and on top of that, cherry on the sundae, that you didn't take a radio or nothing." He gave me a quick ferocious glare. "Which, trust me, I'm not the only one pissed off about that, Gammell's going to rip you a new one in the morning."

"Oh, well, that's wonderful." I sat down heavily on the hood of the car, stretching out the stiffness in my legs. "Thanks so much for the—"

He cut me off, jabbing the board at me like a spear. "So, afternoon rolls around, still haven't heard a thing, I'm trying to get someone to tell me where this fucking cabin is so I can go start beating the bushes, and everyone keep on saying Oh, I'm sure he'll be all right—like I'm somebody's nervous kid sister, like I'm Frannie or something." He tossed the board away, violently.

"Ray, I'm terribly sorry you were worried. It's just that—"

"So finally Gammell throws me out, and then Morris, who's the only one of that whole crew who is not an asshole, she gives me the high sign like she'll try and keep me posted. And I go home, and I sit around, and I sit around, and finally—the phone rings." He paused, shoving the heels of his hands against his eyes. "And it's Morris, and she says 'You might want to come down here and pick him up, I think he's almost ready to go,' and I'm, like, 'What the fuck?', and she says—" He took his hands away from his face, stared at them briefly, shoved them in his pockets. "She starts mumbling and fumbling and finally she says, 'Oh, yes, he called me from Mathieu's cabin a couple of hours ago to come get him, I just assumed he phoned you as well.'"

He fell silent then, at last, staring off at nothing, and I bent over slowly, hands on my knees, taking in a deep breath. All the satisfaction of the chase, the capture, the return, was gone. "I'm so very sorry, Ray," I said at last. "I was—preoccupied, I suppose, and tired. I just didn't think of phoning you."

He gave a jerky nod, still not looking at me. "Which I figured. I know how that goes. It's just—" His voice dropped; I could barely hear him. "Shit. You didn't have anyone covering your back, Fraser. I know you're good, and you're smart, and you're lucky. But nobody's lucky all the time. If something'd gone wrong out there...." He shook his head, hard. "I should've been with you. And I couldn't be. And that makes me crazy enough that I start thinking you're dead, maybe, out there somewhere."

"I'm sorry," I said again, and abruptly he flung himself into motion, pacing, jabbing the air with his hands.

"Tell me I'm still your fucking partner and then you can't even be bothered to phone in and let me know you're still alive? Just 'Hey, I'm still breathing,' maybe, and—shit!" He swung his boot at a loose stone, sending it flying, and spun to face me. "And you know what's the kicker in this whole thing?" His face was lit up with a bright bitter mirth, eyes wide. "I have already had this fucking argument, like seven thousand times! With Stella! Except, you know—" He spun an arm, vehemently. "The other way around."

He walked over to me, stood a moment, then settled himself next to me on the hood of the car, and shook his head. "Ain't that just a boot in the pants. Shit. Me acting like one of the citizens."

I had no reply, and he didn't seem to expect one. After a minute, he stood. "C'mon. Let's go home."

We got back in the car, Dief muttering at both of us, and Ray started the engine. As he pulled back out onto the street, he said softly, "Y'know ... it was killing me that I couldn't be out there with you. Just—killing me."

"Understood," I said, and as we made our way through the quiet streets I strove to imagine it —Ray, beside me on that chase, running at my side—but no matter how hard I tried, how much I willed it, the picture wouldn't come clear or ring true. Finally I gave up, and let it go.


The next morning, Sergeant Gammell summoned me to his office. As I stood before him, hands clasped behind me, he gave me a look up and down. "Well. You don't seem much the worse for wear, I have to say. Youth's a grand thing." He gave a bark of laughter, and, rising, went to the window, staring out. "Time was I could hike all day after a suspect, and feel fresh as a daisy the next morning."

"You seem very fit still, sir," I ventured.

"Perhaps, perhaps." He turned back. "But that's hardly the point, is it. Back in those days, footpower was often one's only recourse in apprehending a fleeing man. But nowadays—nowadays, Constable Fraser, we've developed other techniques for pursuit." He returned to his desk and sat. "Radio, ATVs, GPT, tracking from the air ... great advances, all of them. And we've developed procedures for making use of them, procedures which you chose to disregard."

I made no response to that, and Gammell sighed, picking up a pen and twiddling it. "Understand, Constable, that I'm pleased you were able to bring this case to a successful close. Mathieu's a dangerous man and I'm glad to have him in custody. But—" He pointed the pen at me. "You put yourself at unnecessary risk, and you ran too great a danger of losing him. What were you thinking of, galumphing off through the underbrush after this fellow, with nothing but—but that dog?"

I'm afraid I wasn't entirely attentive for the next several minutes, as he went over, in considerable detail, the customary chain of procedure for staging pursuit of a fugitive in wilderness conditions. It was straight out of the cadet training manual, and I knew it as well as he did.

"...and then, when armed back-up officers have established their position—Fraser! Are you listening?"

I jerked back to attention. "Of course, sir." Then I coughed into a fist. "Although to be honest, I may be a little fatigued, because I've found my mind going back to a story my father used to tell me, about the time when he pursued Mungo McNaughton for three days across the pack ice, and brought him back in a blizzard, after they'd both been given up for dead." I paused for just a moment, taking in, out of the corner of my eye, the crease in Gammell's brow. "He used to say that the call of duty is like the sounding of the last trump, that you can't always take the time to put your affairs in order. A man must simply be ready to take the narrow path that opens before him, without hesitation."

Gammell leaned back in his chair, sighing, and rubbed his hands through his hair. "Constable. I knew your father, as you're aware. An extraordinary man, Robert Fraser, and an extraordinary officer. He was—truly—the last of his breed." He let a moment pass, then sat forward, folding his hands on his desk. "In his time, he was the best that there was. But Benton—his time is past." I could tell he was striving for kindliness, and my spine stiffened against it. "This is a new age, and we must move forward into it. We owe it to the citizens we serve. We're a professional law enforcement organization, with all the tools of the modern age at our disposal." Still I made no response, and he banged a hand on his desk. "This isn't Renfrew of the Mounted any longer, for god's sake! Do you understand?"

I kept my voice as neutral as possible. "Do you wish to initiate disciplinary proceedings, sir?"

"No, of course not." He sounded annoyed. "You caught the man, for god's sake. No, what I want is—Constable, someday you'll be the officer in charge of a detachment. Perhaps even of this detachment. And then, there'll be no latitude for bushwhacking around in the back country, or for solo grandstanding. You'll need to set an example to your men of progressive, professional, twenty-first century law enforcement procedure. That's the world you'll be living in, and I want you to begin coming to grips with it."

I inclined my head. "Thank you for your consideration, sir. If there's nothing more, I should finish my reports."

"Yes, well—all right, then. Dismissed."


From my father's journal:

September 13, 1964

Left before dawn, for a patrol out to Baker Lake. Caroline woke to see me off. We'd had some hard words last night, after she got the boy to sleep, but she rose to make me breakfast and say goodbye. I'll be back by November, if all goes well.

It was a grief to leave them, of course. But once I'd met up with Buck and we'd headed out on the trail, I felt lighthearted, as if I had inexhaustible energy, despite running on short sleep. At one point, crossing a stream, I even burst into song, like a fool. Buck told me I sounded like a bull moose in rut, and I chucked a rock at him. He's a good man, and a comfortable partner.

I feel as if I've put aside a heavy load, a knapsack full of stones. I love them both dearly, of course—that doesn't even need saying, or shouldn't. But lord—it's a burden, caring for people that way.


We were in bed one night, in the indolent aftermath of passion. I'd returned that afternoon from a three-day trip to Yellowknife, transporting a prisoner and giving testimony, and when Ray had gotten home from work he'd hauled me to the bedroom and made love to me fast and hard. My brain was exquisitely disconnected, and I was halfway to slumber, when I heard him speak.

"You know what you said before?"

"When before?" I didn't remember conversation being a feature of the recent past.

"Before, y'know. That, that thing you said."

I made some effort at thought, replaying the interlude before words had fled me. Finally I ventured, "That I love you?"

A pause. "Say it again."

Somewhat baffled, I roused myself enough to get up on an elbow and look down at him. "I love you, Ray."

Another pause, while he fiddled with the blanket hem, picking at the seam. "You like me?"

It seemed a perfectly lunatic question. "For heaven's sake, doesn't the one imply the—"

"Of course it doesn't. You know better'n that." He yanked the blanket up, pulling it tight under his chin. "Never mind."

I felt a stab of shame at my irritability, and even more, at my reticence, which had forced him to this. "Ray, of course I like you. And I love you as well. I ..." Awkward, to try to find language for it. "I trust you. I respect you. You're my best friend. I find you—very desirable."

He pulled an arm out and folded it over his eyes, hiding them from me. After a moment he said, "You need me?"

That brought me up short. I opened my mouth, meaning to say, "Of course"—but the words stalled out. He kept his eyes covered, waiting. Finally I said, "You're central to my happiness."

He didn't react at all for a moment, and then I saw a slight twitch of his mouth that might have been a smile or might not. "Good end run, Fraser. Course, I remember you saying, way back in Chicago, that you don't really need to be happy." Finally he took his arm away and looked at me. "That what you really need is to feel like you're doing the right thing, and that the way that works out isn't always going to make a guy happy."

Being with you is the right thing for me to do. The words suggested themselves, almost irresistably, as something he needed to hear more than any "I love you"'s, but I couldn't quite bring myself to say them. I felt put on the spot, and I wanted to find some way to turn the tables, turn the question back on him. But then I recalled how when he'd yanked me up from the sofa into his arms, before he'd even gotten his jacket off, he'd muttered "I missed you, damn it." How when he'd held me down and thrust inside me he'd growled in my ear I need you. Pointless, asking a question to which you already know the answer; and it would be unkind to push him to repeat such things now, when they might embarrass him.

Instead I lay back down, pulled him closer, said lightly, "Well, you make me happy, Ray, and a man would have to be quite unhinged to see that as a wrong thing." Which, I reflected, even if it didn't encompass all the truth, was neither exactly a lie.


One plan I'd made even before Ray and I embarked on our quest together was to reach out in some way to my half-sister, Maggie; seeing my mother and father shimmer away and vanish from this world forever had left me determined not to lose contact with what little family I still had. Buck Frobisher had told me that she was in Calgary, awaiting the results of administrative action from the RCMP over her unauthorized foray into the States, and had said he was doing what he could to pull strings on her behalf. I had worried about her, but, selfishly, my own concerns and adventures had pushed her affairs from the forefront of my mind, and I'd let myself believe that all would be resolved, given the positive results of her actions, however unorthodox they might have been.

Once we were settled in, I'd written to her at the Calgary address Buck had given me, letting her know of my new posting and mentioning, in as offhand a manner as I could manage, that Ray had decided to remain in Canada. She had written back, a brief letter of general welcome and enthusiasm that made no mention of her own situation, or of any prospect of her return to the NWT. After that there was nothing, and when several letters went unanswered, I stayed late at my desk one evening, surreptitiously logged into the RCMP personnel database, and pulled up her records.

Most of them I had seen previously, to be sure, back in Chicago; after the astonishing discovery that I in fact had a half-sister, I'd been unable to keep myself from tracking down all the information I could find on her, studying the bare bones of data for clues about this oddly familiar stranger who had hurtled through my life and then vanished back to the north. I had felt an almost superstitious need to verify her existence, as if my imagination and my loneliness might have conjured her up, and though ashamed of my furtive intrusion, I hadn't been able to resist the temptation to snoop. The records had been unrevealing—bare facts about her enlistment, her training dates and graduation, her assignment to the Norman Wells detachment, her promotion to constable.

I scrolled past these familiar data, and found only two more recent entries, at which I stared for some time. A statement of demotion and disciplinary actions initiated, pursuant to investigation of unauthorized activities in the U.S.; and a final line, "Resignation tendered, May 19, 1998."

Finally I logged off, and picked up the telephone. I hadn't phoned her earlier, heeding her words to me back in Chicago about how she'd call if she needed help, and wanting to give her the liberty to set the terms of our relationship. But in these circumstances—she had left her career, she might be alone, friendless, in financial straits—such niceties went by the board, and though I had no clear concept of how siblings ought to behave in all situations, I felt that I had to act more directly.

She picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"

"Maggie? Good evening, I'm sorry to disturb you at home, and please let me know if this is an intrusion, but—"

"Who is this?"

"Ah, yes, sorry, this is Benton Fraser. Your broth—"

"Ben? Is that you?" She was clearly surprised—pleasantly or unpleasantly was hard to tell. "Gosh, it's good to hear your voice."

"Likewise."

"I guess—I really feel dumb, I should have called you long ago. I'm sorry. I've been meaning to, but things have been kind of busy. You know how that goes." Her laugh sounded strained.

"Maggie, please don't give that a moment's thought."

"No, but after you wrote me, I truly meant to, it's just that things have...gotten away from me a little, I guess, and ..." She trailed off, and for a moment there was just the faint hum of distance.

"I have something to confess, Maggie," I said abruptly. "I was concerned about you, and although I suppose it was none of my business, I—I checked your records. I saw that you'd resigned, and—"

"Yeah." Her voice was soft. "Kind of a chicken thing to do, I suppose."

"Not at all. To change the course of one's life in midstream can be an act of great courage. But I was concerned about you. I have no wish to meddle in your life, but let me ask—are you all right? Is there any way I can be of help to you?"

A pause. I could hear her clearing her throat, and then she said, with a brave attempt at a bantering tone, "You'd come down here and patch my roof, maybe? If it needed it?"

"That, and more." I wished I could see her face, could see if she needed to keep this light. I didn't feel like joking. "Maggie—I made some promises to you, in Chicago, and I stand by those. Please let me help you, if I can."

"Oh, Ben." And there it was, in her voice, the simple warmth that I remembered more clearly than anything else about her. "That's so good of you. Honestly—I'm all right. Things are a little complicated, but I'm doing well."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"And in fact—this is really what I meant to write you about, I'm going to be going up to Norman Wells in a couple of weeks, to get some of my things out of storage. But I thought—maybe we could swing up and see you, while we're up that way."

"We?"

She chuckled. "Greg and I. That's one of the complicated things. I'm engaged."

"You are?" I realized, too late, that I'd sounded almost accusatory, and I quickly adjusted my tone. "That's wonderful, Maggie, I'm delighted for you. Many congratulations."

"Thanks, Ben." She cleared her throat. "I know it must seem kind of—sudden. But it was—that is, after I got back here, I was—oh, heck, let's talk about it when we meet, OK?"

"That's fine, Maggie. We'll be looking forward to seeing you, and meeting Greg."

A pause, and then she said, "We?"

"Ray and I, that is."

"Ah. He's still staying there, then? He didn't strike me as the kind who'd really want to stick around in Inuvik."

I couldn't help smiling. "It's another one of those—complicated things, Maggie."

"I see." Silence again, and this time the hum of distance was heavy with the weight of things not being said. "Well, all right, then, I'll let you know the dates as soon as I get them figured out."

"That sounds good. Take care of yourself, and give my regards to Greg."

"I will. And, uh ... give my best to Ray, will you?" She sounded a little hesitant.

"I shall," I said, and we rang off.

They arrived, in fact, two and a half weeks later—an interlude that was filled with effort on my part to get Ray reconciled to the idea. When I'd first told him of the impending visit, he'd been incredulous.

"You did what?"

"I said, I invited Maggie and this fellow Greg, to whom she is apparently engaged—"

"I heard what you said, Fraser, there's nothing wrong with my ears any more'n there is with yours, although apparently there's something wrong with your brain, if you think that this rates as some kind of bright idea on your part."

"I fail to see what's wrong with inviting a member of my family, someone whom if I'm recalling correctly you feel warmly towards, to visit us, and to—"

"Ohh, this, this is rich, this is classic, this is Constable Benton Fucking Oblivious Fraser at his finest. OK, so you don't get it? Allow me to spell it out for you here." He'd been pacing around the living room, waving his arms, and now he stopped and took a deliberate stance, legs parted and arms held wide, a hideous parody of a smile on his face. "Why hello there! It's the lovely Maggie Mackenzie, Fraser's sister who the one time I met her I acted like a complete moron around, despite which I'd like to try to stay on the good side of! And Mr. Greg somebody, who I never met before in my freakin' life! Welcome to our humble abode!" He pivoted, making an gesture somewhat reminiscent of that used by game show hosts, toward the rest of the house. "Won't you come in? Wouldja like the grand tour? See, here's the gracious living room, and the lovely kitchen, and back here, back here—" He swung his arms the other way. "—is the bedroom, and—why yes, that's right, as you can see there's only the one bedroom, which, whaddaya know, has only the one bed in it, from which you may indeed deduce that I am sharin' it with your freakazoid brother, and—"

He halted momentarily to catch his breath, and I seized my opportunity. "Ray, for god's sake, what is the matter with you?"

"The matter with me? Oh, yeah, there's clearly gotta be something the matter with me, just cause I don't necessarily want someone to know I'm playing grab-ass with her brother, to say nothing of some guy I never even met before but who she's apparently getting married to, and—" He paused for an instant. "What the hell's she doing getting married to some guy, didn't she have a husband who just got whacked like a few months ago? Isn't she supposed to—y'know, be in mourning, or something?"

"I don't know, Ray, we didn't get into that. But that's not—"

"Oh, sure, that'd be too personal for you two to talk about, I got that."

"I look forward to hearing more about it all, when they're here." I let myself put just a little stress on that when.

"Uh-huh. And I'd guess you didn't tell her about—" He flicked a hand back and forth between us. "This. Either. Did you?"

I turned away. "The subject didn't arise, no."

"Right! Bingo! Exactly!" He circled around, getting up in my face, jabbing a finger.

"Exactly what, Ray? Are you attempting to make a point here?"

"The point I'm making, and don't you try to slide out of this one, Fraser, the point is that I'm not the only one who's a little weirded out by this, and don't try to act like you're not."

"The only point here is that I greatly dislike attempting to conduct emotionally significant conversations by telephone. As you well know."

He made a loud and intensely annoying bzzzzt sound. "Sorry, wrong answer, but thanks for playing along."

"Ray, please do not try to tell me what I do and do not—"

"Shut up a sec. Let me think." He took a few long-legged strides up and down the living room, brow creased, and then stopped and smacked his hands together. "OK, here's how we'll work it. I'll get a room in town while they're here, get my stuff out of the closet, and—"

"Absolutely not. Out of the question." He glared at me, but before he could say anything I went on, "May I ask just what exactly about this is getting you so agitated? Because after all, Ray, it's not as if this—our relationship—" I was doing a little arm-waving myself, by then. "—is in any sense a secret. You of all people aren't laboring under any illusion that the entire town doesn't know about it."

"The entire town, who cares about what they know. Fuck 'em. They don't matter." Despite the bravado of his words, he seemed to deflate a bit. He perched on the arm of the sofa, head bowed, and rubbed fiercely at the back of his neck. "Maggie, she matters."

I took a few cautious steps closer to him. "I understand that. She matters to me as well. That's why I want her to know me better. To know everything about me. I'd like for her to be part of our life. I won't lie to her, and I see no purpose in trying to keep secrets from her."

He slid sideways, in some unlikely-looking manner, and ended up sprawled on the sofa. "Total, complete, one hundred percent board-certified freak. You're making some big assumptions here, Fraser, like for one that she's gonna be just A-OK with this situation. And you know what they say, an assumption makes an ass out of, uh, you and umption."

"Well, if so, Ray, you're being as much of an ass as I, given that you apparently assume that she'll be unable to accept this."

He sighed. "Got the percentages on my side."

"I doubt that Maggie plays by the percentages, as you put it, that she adheres to the statistical norms of conventional social bias and prejudice."

"You don't know her that well, Fraser."

"I know her well enough to believe that. To trust her." I paused. "I honestly thought you did as well. That you liked her."

He put the heels of his hands against his eyes and rubbed hard. "Oh yeah. I like her. That part you got right."

"But then—"

"And see, that's another thing you just don't get. Let's say a guy meets a woman, he likes the woman, the woman turns him down like a bedspread. So he doesn't see her for a while, and then when he sees her again—what he does not want to hit her with, first shot out of the gate, is 'Well, hi there, and guess what, all of a sudden I'm queer!' Y'know?" There was a pleading tone beneath his belligerence. "Can you get that, Fraser?"

It boggled me at first, and then as I studied his words I could feel my stomach start to twist. I turned away from him, to the bookshelf, and began blindly straightening the volumes, lining them up neatly.

"Fraser? You with me?"

"Are you—" I had to stop and clear my throat. "Are you implying that you have—feelings, for Maggie? That you don't want her to know about us because you, perhaps, have designs on—that you're still cherishing hopes of—"

I heard the sofa creak loudly, and then all of a sudden he was behind me, his hands on my shoulders, squeezing. "Ah, shit. I should've known you wouldn't get that one." He shook me. "It's just—one of those normal guy things that you never got the clue book for. Designs, why the hell would I be having designs on her, I mean, after all, she's already got some guy, right? She went for door number three."

I let my hands rest on the books. "But if she hadn't—"

"So even if she hadn't, I still wouldn't be—" I could feel his fingers working restlessly over my shoulders as he sought words, and then he sighed, his breath warm on my nape. "Fraser. Look. I got what I want, I want what I got. You got it?" He gave me a fast kiss on the back of my neck. "I just—it's, like, I don't want her to think I'm having some kind of a weird rebound thing. Y'know, I'm doing this cause I can't cut it with chicks or something. 'Cause I really acted like a doof with her."

It still didn't make much sense to me, but I had to remind myself that Ray's pride, Ray's sense of manhood, were rather differently constituted than my own. "I doubt she'd think that, Ray. She did tell me once, before she left Chicago, that she thought you were charming."

"Charming." He snorted, and I knew that once again I'd fallen a bit short in reassuring him. "Yeah, whatever." He kissed my neck again, more lingeringly, and slid his arms around me. "OK. So, they're coming, we'll deal. But—I still think you're being maybe a little rose-colored about the whole thing. And I still think that maybe it'd be a good idea for me to get a room while they're here."

"No." I leaned back against him, feeling his warmth. "She accepts us as we are, or not at all."

He sighed and let his head drop onto my shoulder. But he stopped arguing, for a little while at least.

 

When the day of their arrival came, I picked them up at the airport. Maggie, when she stepped off the plane, was instantly recognizable, and yet strangely unfamiliar—she'd cut her hair, so that it hung in a short bob around her face, and it made her look more urban, a little older. She gave me a hug, and then introduced me to Greg, who was also something of a surprise—a short man, shorter than her by an inch or two, not fat but rounded and compact, with frizzy black hair receding from his forehead, and wire-rimmed glasses. He shook my hand—his hand, though small, was solid and strong—and tipped his head back to look me in the eye. I was accustomed to the way people usually looked at me, the way their eyes would take in the surface—uniform, physical appearance—and stop there. But he seemed to go right past those externals, and to be taking in some part of me not immediately apparent, with a genial interest. It was both unsettling and warming.

As we drove into town, Maggie seemed content to let Greg do most of the talking, and he was full of questions, about the buildings, the way the streets were engineered to last on permafrost, the people and buildings we were passing. I did my best to keep up with him; the volatile energy of his curiosity was a little reminiscent of Ray's, but unlike Ray he seemed to take a cheerful pleasure in Inuvik and in everything he was seeing and hearing.

We pulled up in front of the house, and I ushered them through the door. Dief came bounding forward, greeting Maggie effusively, sniffing Greg thoroughly, distracting all of us for the first minute or so. Eventually Maggie gave him a final thump on the side, straightened, and saw Ray. He was standing at the far side of the living room, hands jammed deep in his pockets, shoulders tight and chin down. Before I could say anything she exclaimed, "Ray! There you are!" In a few quick strides she went to him and wrapped her arms around him in an embrace. His forehead was creased with tension, but he pulled his hands out of his pockets and hugged her back, briefly, cautiously. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, and then led him over to us. "Let me introduce Greg Russo, and Greg, this is Ray Kowalski."

Ray's eyes were darting everywhere, but he managed to look straight at Greg long enough to have his hand shaken and mumble a greeting. Then he was suddenly in motion, into the kitchen. "OK! Right, so would you like—can I get you something to drink, or—dinner's gonna be ready pretty soon, but—drinks, yeah, we got, uh, lots of stuff to drink, and so—uh, what can I get you, can I get you something?"

Greg was watching him, bemused but smiling. "Beer?" he said, hopefully.

"Beer! That we can do, we can definitely manage a beer—" He flung open the refrigerator and was rattling things around. "Maggie? What about you, we got, uh, juice, we got ginger ale, water, we got some wine for dinner I could open up, or, uh ..."

"Actually, you know, some tea sounds wonderful, but I don't want to put you to any trouble, Ray."

"Trouble? Do not even start with that, we got enough tea here to float a boat, all I gotta do is—" He turned, slamming the refrigerator door, darted over to push a bottle of beer into Greg's hands, and darted back, grabbing the teakettle in passing. "Water, just boil some water is all, and—"

"I can handle that, Ray." I took a step toward the kitchen.

"Fraser, for chrissake I got it covered, you go—sit on the sofa, make like a host, OK?" He turned the water on full blast and started filling the kettle, jittering in place as he stood.

It seemed best to leave him to collect himself, so I led our guests into the living room, Dief panting along happily, shoving his nose against Maggie's leg and making a nuisance of himself. I gestured for Maggie and Greg to take the sofa, and pulled around a dining chair for myself. I could hear Ray, behind me, clattering the teakettle onto a burner, and waited for him to join us, but instead he stayed in the kitchen, opening and shutting drawers, pulling down a cup and saucer and rattling them together onto the countertop. Greg, after sitting long enough to take a swallow of his beer and set it on the coffeetable, was up again, looking with interest over my modest array of books. Maggie glanced at him, over at Ray, then smiled at me and rolled her eyes.

"Hey, you've got those new Isaiah Berlin essays!" Greg pulled the volume down and began thumbing energetically through it. "I've been meaning to get this, I haven't really read him since college, but he had a big influence on me." He looked up. "You like his work? Or—I'm sorry, maybe this is Ray's?"

He asked the question without any apparent discomfort, and I said, "No, you're quite right, that's mine. And I have to admit that I read Berlin mostly as a corrective; his arguments are persuasive, and of course beautifully stated, but I confess that despite my better knowledge, I like to believe that humans are—well, if not perfectible, at least capable of creating a rational social order, guided by a unified system of morality."

His eyes gleamed behind his glasses. "Hey, cool. Guess that makes sense for someone who works in criminal justice. I'd love to hear what you think about the new policies on—"

Just then Ray yelled from the kitchen, "Uh, tea coming up, but I was thinking—luggage? How about I carry that in from the car?" He started toward the door.

"No, that's all right, leave it there, Ray," Maggie called back. "We booked a room at the Finto."

Ray came around to the other side of the counter and stared at her. "You did?" He seemed, oddly, almost hurt.

"I know how small these houses are, and I didn't want to put anyone out of his bed." She was looking down at the coffeetable, sorting through the odd array of magazines—Ray's Popular Mechanics and Ring World, my Smithsonian and Maclean's. "And Greg's not as enthusiastic as I am about sleeping on floors, are you, Greg?"

Seeming to take his cue, he slid the book back into place and came over to sit beside her. "I don't mind sleeping out on the ground, when you're really out in the open, but if you're in town and you've got a bed available, well, why suffer unnecessarily, eh?" He looked over at Ray. "Am I right?"

"Amen to that!" Ray nodded with vigor, and at that moment the teakettle began shrieking.

Ray darted back into the kitchen, rattled crockery around, and eventually reappeared with teapot, cup, saucer, and spoon. He set them down in front of Maggie, and stepped back. "There you go—uh, you want sugar? Cream?"

"No thanks, Ray, this is wonderful."

"Right. Uh, right. OK, then." He retreated to the stereo cabinet, leaned a hip against it, and began picking at the label on his beer bottle. There was a brief awkward silence, which Greg broke.

"Ray, Maggie tells me you're a Chicagoan. Do you follow the Cubs, then?"

Ray gave him a glare. "Cubs suck."

I winced, but Greg seemed wholly unperturbed. "Well, sure, traditionally they do, but—oh, wait." His face lit up. "You're from the south side, right? White Sox fan?"

"Well, yeah, have been. Not really following 'em so much lately."

"See, because I've been looking for someone who could explain to me just what's the problem with that club this year. They should be doing so much better, given their talent, and—"

"Their problem, the problem with that bunch of stiffs, is that a, they got no pitching, and b, nobody's hitting, and that'll cause you some big problems right there, y'know?" Ray's voice still sounded edgy, but his face had lost a bit of tension. "Ventura's not hitting, Thomas can't hit his weight lately, which I grant you that'd be kind of a feat, but—"

"Belle's hitting, though."

"See, that's the whole thing, right there!" Ray leapt up and started waving his bottle around, pacing. "You got a team that sucks, you got nobody coming to the ballpark, so the big brains, they go out in the market for a player, and who do they bring in? They bring in a class-A jerk like Albert Belle, who proceeds to carry on like the jerk that he is, never mind if he can hit the ball, and then they wonder why people aren't comin' out by the busload and why the whole team morale's gone in the crapper."

Greg nodded, engrossed. "So you're saying how a player executes on the field is less important than—"

"What I'm saying is—" He stopped, jabbing his bottle at Greg as if to underscore his points. "Baseball, see, it's a game of character and class. That's the thing, that's the nut. Football, it doesn't matter if you act like a thug, what else do you expect anyway from those guys. But baseball, you go out there, you take your stance—" As if to illustrate, he stepped into a batting stance, holding his bottle like a bat (a little too upright for good bat speed, I thought, but perhaps he was afraid of spilling). "You stand there with some—some dignity, like you got some pride in what you're doing, you take your cuts, and whatever happens, whether you get a hit or make an out, you comport yourself with some class. 'Cause that's what it's all about." He straightened, took a swallow of beer. "And fucking Albert Belle's got all the class of a cheap street punk muggin' an old lady on the day the welfare checks come out."

Greg seemed positively aglow with interest. "That's very eloquently put, Ray, although I think it might also be important to factor in the reasons for Belle's behavior, the background influences—"

"Who gives a shit about his background? Hell, Kirby Puckett grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, which take it from me is about as bad as it gets this side of freakin' Beirut, and that guy is a total class act. Belle, he'd've been a jerk if he grew up on Park Avenue with Mother Teresa as his nanny." Despite the vehemence of his language, Ray's temper had clearly shifted to the sort of cheerful antagonism with which he was wont to carry on debates, and Greg seemed to absorb it with good humor.

"Greg works with kids in trouble," Maggie interjected quietly. "He's a social worker. So he's probably inclined to look more at the environmental factors."

I was about to follow up with some remarks intended to steer the conversation either toward Greg's work or, at least, a more temperate discussion of nature versus nurture, but Ray leapt in, looking a little taken aback. "Hey, y'know, I didn't mean to diss your work or anything. That's—I'm sure what you're doing is important stuff, and—"

"No problem," Greg said, and he did indeed look at ease, leaning forward and beaming over at Ray. "But getting back to your main point for a second —so I'd assume that in the case of Pete Rose, you're on the side of keeping him out of the Hall of Fame?"

"No, wait, now hold on, that is a completely different situation."

"Different because?"

"Because Pete Rose was always a class act on the field, that's why!"

"Even when he ran over Ray Fosse in the '70 All-Star Game? Separated his shoulder? The guy was never the same again, you know."

"That, that was a good, hard, clean play. You don't want ballplayers to act like a bunch of pussies out there. You gotta play the game the way it's supposed to be played, Fosse knew that."

"But leaving that aside, the gambling thing—"

"There is no proof he bet on baseball, I looked at those documents, I wouldn't even try to send a case to the DA myself on evidence like that, and—"

"Ben," Maggie interrupted. "This sounds like it could go on a while. Unless you're a lot more interested in baseball than I think you are, maybe you and I could move out to the back step for a bit? I'd like to get some fresh air."

"Of course, Maggie." I stood and followed, closing the door behind us as Greg was launching into something convoluted about "the integrity of the game."

It was a gloriously still evening, fresh and mild. Maggie settled on a step, and leaned back, gazing at the sky. For a few minutes we just sat together, enjoying the air and the quiet.

Finally she said, "It's good to be back in the north."

I nodded. "I was a little surprised to hear you were in Calgary, frankly."

"My friend Ellen—we were at Depot together, she's stationed down there. She's letting me stay with her while I get things settled."

Choosing my words with care, I said, "I was very sorry to learn that your abilities have been lost to the RCMP."

She gave a short laugh at that. "Well, the RCMP maybe didn't have as high an opinion of them as you do." Then she leaned forward and patted my knee. "I'm sorry, Ben, I don't mean to sound bitter about it. They were doing what they had to do." She settled back again, leaning against a railing. "I just—it became clear to me that I had to go in a different direction with my life."

"I understand."

"You do?" She gave me a searching look, and then turned her gaze to the sky again.

"Well, of course I don't know all the details of your particular situation, Maggie. But I do know that this career can demand a great deal in the way of compromise." I paused. "In fact, I feel some—admiration, for your refusal to compromise your principles. Your willingness to take the action you felt was necessary."

She snorted. "My pigheadedness." She tucked her hair behind her ears, but it refused to stay there. "And you were every bit as willing to take action as I was. When you went down to Chicago. You were just—more willing to take the consequences. Take your lumps."

"I didn't feel I had a choice, at the time." I paused, listening to the muffled sounds from inside, Ray's voice making some emphatic point about give a guy a second chance. "And I don't regret it."

She glanced back at the house and nodded, and silence fell again. Maggie broke it at last, saying, "You must be wondering about—well, about me and Greg. Me getting engaged again so soon."

I ventured, "He seems like a fine man."

"Oh, he is. And I love him, and he loves me. It's just ... it's not what I expected." Her voice was very soft. "After I lost Casey, and then after what I learned about him—I didn't know if I could ever love anyone again. If I could ever trust a man again, or trust myself. I'd been so wrong about him. I mean—I was crazy about him, I thought he hung the moon and stars. And it turned out—he was just a crook, the whole time. And a liar. And I just—I thought it was going to kill me."

I nodded, biting down on my lip.

"But then ... there I was in Calgary, sitting out my suspension—I hadn't resigned yet—and I got a phone call one day from this man who runs a program for juvenile offenders, who said they were having a dance party for the kids. He said he was looking for someone to help with security, and that Ellen had mentioned my name to him." She shook her head. "I told him I wasn't what he was looking for, I wasn't big and strong and scary-looking, and he said—he said that was exactly what he needed, someone who wasn't scary, and who was smart enough not to try to get by on muscles."

She paused, and I said, "And that was Greg?"

She nodded. "That was Greg. And I went and worked the party, and stayed after to help clean up, and we got to talking, and .... Well, we've been talking ever since, I guess." She was looking down at her hands. "It felt all wrong at first, like it was too fast, or too soon, or something. Like I shouldn't be falling in love again so quickly. But he's such a good man. Sure, he drives me nuts sometimes, he's so enthusiastic about everything, and he'll talk your ear off. But there's no pretense in him anywhere. No lies."

"I can see that about him, Maggie."

She looked up at me. "You can? You like him? Oh, Ben, I'm so glad."

I put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. "You deserve happiness, Maggie. Happiness comes on its own timetable. It would be foolish to turn it away."

She nodded, brushing her fingers briefly over the back of my hand. "I was ... so lonely, Ben. Sometimes I feel like I've been lonely all my life. I worked hard, I did everything I was supposed to, but still ... it was like being empty, deep down inside."

I cleared my throat. "I'm not unfamiliar with that feeling." I picked up a chunk of gnawed bone that Dief had untidily left on the step, and turned it over and over in my hands, feeling her eyes on me.

After a minute, she said, "And you—you're happy now?"

It was a question I could have taken in many directions, but—this was Maggie, this was family. I gripped the bone hard, not daring to look at her, and said, "Yes, I believe so. I am. Or rather, we are, Ray and I. Very happy."

I heard her take a quick breath, and I waited, feeling my face turning red, telling myself where there is love, no shame is possible. But when she finally spoke, all she said was, "Thank you, Ben."

It startled me so much that I looked up, to see her smiling at me. "Thanks? For what?"

"For—for being honest with me. Letting me know." She was smiling now, looking a little embarrassed. "I'd wondered, you see. After we'd talked. It seemed like—like you were trying to tell me something, but it just seemed awfully unlikely, and of course it wasn't something I could ask you about, but—I'd been wondering."

"Yes, well, it is unlikely, very much so, I'll grant you that."

Just then there was a rap at the window, Ray signalling us that dinner was ready, and Maggie and I went in to the table. Ray had prepared a stew that bore some resemblance to bouillabaisse; though the fish and seafood it incorporated were of northern rather than Mediterranean origin, it was still rich with garlic and spices, and Greg and Maggie apparently relished it. Ray seemed a little put off by their compliments, ducking his head and muttering, "Hey, a lotta guys can cook, I knew how to cook a long time before I got up here, OK?" But he soon seemed to relax, under the influence of wine and good food and general conversation, and the meal went most pleasantly. It took but little prodding on my part to get Greg launched on a lengthy exposition of his and and Maggie's plans for the future.

"So many of these kids I work with—they're not really bad, see, I keep finding that a big part of the problem with them is that they're bored. Kids need a challenge, you know? They need some way to find out who they are, what they can do, they need some way to push themselves. And a lot of them—if they're not lucky enough to do well in athletics, or music, or get hooked by school, they find some other kind of challenge, something that ends up getting them in trouble." Greg looked eagerly around the table, at me, at Ray. "Right? You know what I mean?"

Ray was twirling his wineglass. "Well—boredom, that's usually not so much the problem in Chicago, but up here—yeah, I can see what you mean. Definitely."

"Right!" Greg nodded, beaming, and plunged on. "So Maggie and I—we're thinking about starting a wilderness program. Kind of like Outward Bound, you know? We'd get a group, give them some training, some conditioning programs, stuff like that, back in town, and then we'd take them out on expeditions. Put them in situations where they'd understand why they have to be responsible, where they'd have to think about what they're doing, really learn some things about themselves."

"A wonderful idea." I found myself caught up by Greg's enthusiasm. "And I can venture to say, from personal experience, that there's nothing like survival in the wilderness to let a young man test his mettle, take the measure of his powers." I nodded to Maggie. "Or her powers, in the case of a young woman, of course."

"Right, right!" Greg gestured expansively with his spoon. "You learn that you're capable of so much more than you ever thought. It gives you self-confidence, you get focused, you really start to understand who you are—"

"That's assuming, of course, that you come out OK." Ray spoke quietly, staring down into his soup plate. "'Cause if you don't..." He was tearing a slice of bread into little chunks, dropping them into his stew.

It brought me up short, but Greg leapt in. "Sure, but see, that's why you need to have really good group leaders. And that's another thing we need to start working on, getting some staff lined up, because Maggie and I won't have time to do this all ourselves. I mean, we want to start our own family soon." He reached over and squeezed her hand, smiling at her; she looked embarrassed and pleased all at once.

I was fairly confident she hadn't intended to break that piece of news in quite that way, but I said, "Well! Congratulations to both of you, prospectively of course," in a tone that I hoped conveyed my genuine happiness, and then went on, trying to steer the conversation to less intimate territory. "And certainly you will need some competent group leaders. And a funding source as well, I'd imagine. Have you had any luck in that direction?"

Greg nodded, cheerfully cracking open a crab leg and sucking out the meat. "Got a nibble from the Laidlaw Foundation, and we're getting a meeting set up with some of Hilary Weston's people."

"That sounds promising."

"Of course, we're going to need to get some more people involved besides the group leaders. More names on the letterhead. I mean, once we get the letterhead." He poured himself another glass of wine, and shot me a grin. "Hey, Ben. You want to be on a board of directors?"

I gaped at him. "Excuse me?"

"I was talking with Maggie about it the other day, and if you'd be interested—" He held his hands up in a bracketing gesture. "'Constable Benton Fraser, G Division, RCMP.' It'd look real good to the suits down in Toronto. Plus, of course, I'd value having your head in the mix, I think you'd have a hell of a lot to contribute."

"I—well of course it would be a great honor, but I'm not sure if I—"

"You wouldn't have to fly down for meetings or anything, we could teleconference you in. Think about it anyway, OK?" He took a noisy slurp of his soup, then turned to Ray. "And while I'm thinking about it—not that I want to sound like I'm up here recruiting or anything, but—Ray, I was wondering what you'd think about coming on board as a guide. Help us lead some of the groups."

Now it was Ray's turn to gape. "The fuck?"

Greg went on, unperturbed. "It wouldn't be a steady job or anything, of course, just a few weeks out of the year, although it'd be great if you could come down and help with the training too. Of course, I know you've got your construction job going, and maybe by the time we get this up and running, you'd be too busy to take the time away, but if you're interested, I could e-mail you a draft of the contract we're thinking about, and a description of—"

"Wait. Just—wait wait wait, hold on a sec." Ray was flailing, spluttering. "There are so many ways in which that is a completely stupid idea that I can't even—"

"I think it's a very interesting idea, Ray," I said. "Actually—"

He swung on me, shot a forefinger at my face. "You. Shut up. You are deranged, established fact." Then he turned back to Greg. "Despite which, if there's anyone who should be doing something like that, it's him," and he jerked his head in my direction. "Not me."

"From what Ben wrote me, it sounds like you both did a wonderful job on that trip of yours," Maggie put in.

"Yeah, well that's 'cause you don't know what it—how it—" He stopped, groping for words, hands tensed on the tabletop, and finally he went on. "That was all Fraser, I don't know shit about this survival stuff, all I know is how easy it is to end up dead."

"But, see, Ray—" Greg leaned across the table, brows knitted with earnestness. "That's the important thing to know. Understanding the nature of risk, the genuine possibility of failure—that's just what these kids don't get, they think they're bulletproof. You know better, you could get that across to them. Knowing how dangerous life can be, and going ahead, with that awareness—that's what matters. Everything else about survival is just technique, and anyone with a brain can learn technique, and you do have a brain." He paused briefly. "Even if you think Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame."

"One of the best damn players who ever swung a bat," Ray retorted automatically. "But—OK, leaving all that shit aside, there's the fact I got no experience at all working with kids—"

"Oh, I wouldn't say that's true, Ray," I interjected. "In fact, I think you have exceptional rapport with troubled youth." He gave me a baffled look. "Stanley Smith? Davey Abelard? Levon Taylor?"

"Those were not kids, those were guys," he said irritably. "And besides ... OK, that's another thing you gotta be thinking about," and he turned back to Greg. "Cause, see—you need use your head about this stuff. You start up something like this, you got kids involved, you gotta think about how it's going to look if you've got someone like ... " He paused, seeming to grope for words. "A lot of people wouldn't think it was so good—y'know—having someone working with kids who's —" Finally he gave up language, gesturing at himself, at me, at our household.

Greg watched this pantomime, and then shrugged. "Well, sure, there are some people who think all gay or bisexual men are pedophiles. But a, those people are morons, and I don't waste my time paying attention to morons, and b, in any case I know you're not a pedophile, because apart from anything else, if you were, I'm sure Ben wouldn't have anything to do with you." He nodded cheerfully to me. "Right? So there's no problem." Then he turned back to Ray. "So—I mean, think it over. I'm not trying to push you or anything. But we'd be really glad to have you on board."

Ray was staring at him, blank-faced. Then he carefully moved his soup plate aside, set his hands flat on the table in front of him, side by side, and transferred his stare to them, head bent. The silence stretched on a moment longer, and I began tensing up, apprehensive that he was about to explode. But finally he raised his head, took in a breath, let it out.

"OK." He nodded, still expressionless. "OK. So, there's one thing that is now crystal clear." He raised his head, raised an arm, pointed a finger straight at Greg. "You, my friend, are officially unhinged. Just in case the jury was out before, the verdict is now in." Suddenly, he was grinning, a fierce wild grin. "Congratulations, you have qualified! For membership! In the Fraser clan of the demented!" He stood, sticking his hand across the table, and Greg half-rose and took it, pumping it heartily. "Glad to have you here! I paid my dues a while ago, and it's a pleasure to welcome you to the nuthouse!"

They both flopped back in their chairs, Greg laughing openly, Maggie smiling—even Dief came over to join in, putting his forepaws on the table and waving his tail around. "We're all bozos on this bus!" Ray shouted. "Welcome aboard!"

"Hey, glad to be here, eh?" Greg said. "Normal, who needs it?"

Ray grabbed the wine bottle, poured a healthy dollop for the three of them, and for good measure splashed some into my empty water tumbler. "A toast!" He raised his glass high. "Some are born to unhingedness—" He waved his glass at me and at Maggie. "And some, uh, acquire it."

"Contagious stuff," Greg said, nodding seriously.

"Contact high," Ray replied, with equal seriousness.

"Here's to family!" Maggie called out, and we all drained our glasses.

In my gladness, on that extraordinary evening, I went against my longstanding habit, had not only that glass of wine, but then a second, and so the rest of the night is a little blurry in my memory. I know that at some point Ray put on music, and there was dancing; Ray grabbed Maggie first and spun her around, Dief circling both of them, then Greg and Maggie took a turn while Ray watched and ragged Greg on his steps, and eventually all four of us were out there. I recall moving muzzily to the music, Ray's arms holding me upright, his body guiding me, his voice humming along softly in my ear. I recall whispering to him, "Are you all right with this?" as we swayed together, and his murmured "What the hell. We're good. We're all good here."

And at some point later I remember sitting on the sofa, Maggie beside me. Ray and Greg were in the kitchen, conducting a lively debate on youth gangs and doing the dishes, with much rattling and sloshing. The last light of evening was still glowing in the windows, and I felt aglow myself, with a sense of inner fullness, contentment, a feeling of being lapped in human warmth as in a blanket. Maggie was talking quietly, almost to herself, and she spoke with a freedom we hadn't had between us before; it was as if I were listening to the eddying and rippling of her very thoughts.

"Sometimes I wonder ... it's not that I think I made the wrong decision. All I have to do is see Greg ...the way he looks at me ... and I know it was worth it. I know I'm happy, I know I've been very lucky. But sometimes ... when I'm alone, and he's not around, I start thinking about all the things I gave up. When I resigned." She paused. "I loved my work, you know?"

"Yes," I said.

"I loved it, and I did it really well, it ... it used everything I have in me to give, or that's what I thought. And for a long time I thought it'd be all I'd ever really need. I wanted it to be, I didn't ... I didn't want to be like some—some girl, who thinks she needs a man to make her life complete." She spoke with such robust scorn that I had to smile.

"And then with Casey ... you know, it's funny, my mother always used to say—you never met her, did you?" She looked over at me.

"No, I'm afraid I never did." I let my head roll on the sofa toward her, and watched the room spin unpleasantly for a moment before it resettled.

"Right." Maggie sighed. "I used to ask her if she ever thought about getting married again ... because sometimes I thought how much I'd like to have a dad ... but she'd just laugh and say that a man would only clutter up the place, get in her way, or tell her to go cook his dinner or something." Dief, who was curled up on the sofa on the other side of Maggie, squirmed and mumbled something in his sleep, and she reached over absently to pet him. "She used to say, 'Maggie, a man's like a sheefish. Landing one can be fun, but then you may as well toss 'em back, because they're not good eating, and after a while they stink up the place.' I don't think she'd had such good experiences with men." She started to laugh, and then she abruptly stopped and stared at me. "Oh, lord, Ben, I'm sorry, I didn't mean—I mean, I'm sure your dad—that is, our dad—I'm sure he was a fine man, and—"

"Don't worry," I told her. "Robert Fraser was indeed a fine man in many ways, but I don't believe that dealing with matters of the heart was one of his strengths."

She giggled, a very un-Maggie-like giggle. "Right. So ... then ... what was I saying?" She frowned. "Right, so, then, I didn't figure that marriage was in the cards for me. Because I wanted to be like her ... she was such a strong woman ..." She trailed off, lost in thought, and I felt myself drifting, only to jerk awake when she began talking again. "Anyway, so then I met Casey, and I fell for him like a brick down a well, and what I thought made it so perfect was—he didn't want me hanging on his arm, he wanted me to have my own life, he'd—he'd see me off, when I'd go on patrol, and he'd say, 'Don't you worry, you go do your work and I'll see you in a couple of weeks,' and I thought ..." She made an odd gulping sound, and I looked over, startled to see tears welling in her eyes. She coughed, bent her head, rubbed a sleeve briskly across her face, and after a moment went on in a harder voice, "Well, of course what I didn't know then was why he was so happy to have me out of the way. And afterwards—I couldn't help thinking that maybe, if I'd been around more—"

"It's not your fault, Maggie," I said. "He made his choices, and that's in no way your fault."

"I know that." She pushed her hair back. "But even so ... sometimes I wonder if I'd been more willing to compromise right from the start, take a posting that would keep me at home ... he wasn't a bad man, deep down, you know? He fell in with the wrong people. He was weak, and he had time on his hands, and ..."

She coughed again, pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, and I reached over and squeezed her shoulder. After a moment she blew out a breath, sat up straight, and said, "Well—that's the past, and it's beyond helping. But now, with Greg ... I think I'm finally getting it figured out." She shifted wobbily around on the couch, turning to face me and curling a foot up underneath her. "Compromise. That's what I'm starting to get straight. Greg and I—we're so different, in so many ways. There are parts of myself that—well, that I just have to keep a rein on, in order to be with him. And that doesn't come easy for me. I'm pretty bullheaded, you know, and I always thought there was one right way to be, one right way to do things, and all I had to do was figure out that one right way and then stick to it, never give up, and everything would be all right. Not easy, of course, but ... how it had to be."

"Well, I tend rather in that direction myself, Maggie," I said. "And I believe we both come by it honestly."

She nodded, though I wasn't sure she was listening. "But I finally got it straight—I could stay on that path, of course, I could keep on doing things the way I thought was right, but then—I'd be walking that path alone, the rest of my life." Her voice was very soft. "And ... I don't think I'm strong enough to do that. Not as strong as my mother was. Maybe I'm not so much like her as I used to think." She sounded plaintive, bereft. "Sometimes I don't know who I am any more, or what I'm good for."

"Maggie." She looked up at me, eyes swimming again. "I certainly can't speak for your own experience, but I do believe that the compromises demanded by an intimate relationship require more strength than—well, than anything else I've ever done." I paused, and then found myself saying, "To be honest, I'm not always sure that I have that kind of strength." Then I stopped, startled at myself.

"Really?" She was giving me a searching look. "But it seems like you—"

Just then there was an almighty clatter from the kitchen as a pot lid fell to the floor, hoots of laughter, Ray's voice—"And Russo fumbles the catch, plus there was encroachment on the play—" and Greg loudly and simultaneously protesting, "Just because it's shaped like a frisbee does not mean it has the same kind of aerodynamics, Ray, you can't—"

"Boys!" Maggie called. Her voice was sharp, but when I turned to look at her, she was smiling, shaking her head. "Lunatics," she said.

"Compromise," I replied, gravely. She laughed, a small laugh that trailed off, and we sat in silence for a while, Maggie twiddling a strand of hair, I trying to get the room to stop wavering. I thought that perhaps she'd lost the thread of our conversation, and was frankly a little relieved.

But then she said, "Sometimes it just hits me ... I'm never going to be the person I might have been. I'll never get to do the things I might have done, if I hadn't—if I'd never met Casey, if I'd never gone down to Chicago. If I'd stayed a mountie. And ... it makes me angry, sometimes."

I nodded, my head feeling thick and heavy.

"I just—I miss it so much. Like—sometimes, I just want to run away from it all, from Calgary and Greg and everything, and be back out in the woods again, by myself." She dropped her head onto the back of the sofa. "Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes, I do," I said. "And Maggie—" I pulled in breath, trying to gather my woolly thoughts, groping for words. I had the sense that there was something terribly important I wanted to tell her, something large and summative that included the jangling of Ray's and Greg's voices in the kitchen, the lingering heavy aromas of dinner, the stuffiness and smallness of the house, the freedom of the open trail, the way that I could almost feel the roof pressing down upon my addled head, the way that I had known, somehow, from the very beginning, that she was kin to me ... well, to be honest, I don't know what all I was trying to say, but when I turned back to her, I saw she had fallen asleep where she sat.

I may have dozed then a bit myself, because my memories are disjointed—Greg helping Maggie to her feet, Ray pushing me back down on the sofa when I tried to struggle up to help—"You're toasted, Fraser, relax—geez, wish I had a camera"—the sound of the door opening, voices, an engine starting up, and then Ray's hands in mine, pulling me up, steering me to the bedroom, helping me undress. I remember rousing momentarily as he slid in beside me under the covers, yawning and curling up against me.

"Ray," I mumbled, "does she seem happy to you?"

"Who, Maggie?" He yawned again. "Sure, I guess, I dunno. She ought to be, Greg seems like a good guy."

"Does she—" I wasn't even sure what I was asking, where this was coming from. "Does she seem happier than me?"

"The hell kind of question is that, Fraser?" He slid an arm around me, nuzzling against my shoulder. "You're both freaks, that's all I know. Now go to sleep."


It was an unconventional opening for the Midnight Sun Slo-Pitch Softball Tournament, to say the least.

I had been at my desk, taking advantage of a quiet Saturday morning to catch up on paperwork, when the emergency call had come in, a near-incoherent message about somebody at the playing field with a gun. I hurried to the scene to find a large crowd, spectators and players alike, crowded into the outfield, milling and babbling, and two figures standing on a makeshift platform that had been erected behind home plate. One was Lynette Iverson, the wife of the bank president; the other, a young Inuit man, had an arm around her shoulder, and a gun jammed against her throat.

"Fraser!" I turned, and saw Sergeant Gammell and several of my fellow constables, standing in a cluster of red, and I jogged over to join them.

"What in the world is going on, sir?"

"We've a hostage situation." Gammell turned back curtly to young Constable Evans, who looked near tears. "Go on, Evans."

"Well, sir, so the Mayor finished his speech, and then Mrs. Iverson was right in the middle of singing the anthem, and suddenly this fellow came running out of the crowd and grabbed her. I was over dealing with some boys who'd been scuffling by the refreshment stand, sir, by the time I realized what was going on it was too late, and—"

"What are his demands?" I asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Constables Elston and Lafferty arriving, carrying rifles. The crowd pulled back, murmuring.

"Constable Fraser, if you please, I believe I'm in charge of this operation," Gammell said, and then he turned to Evans. "Well?"

"I'm not sure, sir, he hasn't really—"

Just then the loudspeaker system came crackling to life, with a painful screech of feedback. "Hey! I see you fuckin' Mounties there, with the rifles! You try anything—anything—and she's dead. You understand?" And for emphasis, he briefly pulled the gun away from her neck, and fired a shot randomly into the air, then jammed it back in the angle of her jaw.

As the reverberation and the crowd's shrieks subsided, I heard a familiar voice behind me—"Yo, Fraser!"—and turned to see Ray, striding toward me, squinting out at the infield. "What the fuck is going on here?"

"Well, Ray, we appear to have a hostage situation, and—"

"Yeah, that much I figured out. Who's the—" Ray took a few steps forward, pulled out his glasses and put them on, and then stopped and shook his head violently. "Aw, hell. It's that dumb putz Johnny Innukpuk."

"You know this man?" Gammell barked at him.

"He works with me. Joined the crew about the same time I did. What in the hell's he—"

"Thank you for that information, Mr. Kowalski. Now if you would step back—"

I cut in. "Do you have any idea what his motives might be? Does he have a grievance?"

"Grievance, who knows. Kid's a headcase, he's always reading weird shit during lunch break. I can tell you one thing, what he probably does have is a snootful."

"What do you mean?" Gammell was glaring at him.

"I mean he's hammered, plotzed, shit-faced." Ray barely paused. "Drunk, I guess it'd be in Canadian."

"How can you tell that?"

Ray shrugged. "Figures. Emma sent him home drunk yesterday afternoon, I saw him going into the Silver Dollar at opening time this morning."

I stared out at the figure on the platform. He did, in fact, look unsteady, dangerously so. He also looked very young, no more than nineteen or twenty. I could just make out Lynette's shoulders shuddering, likely with sobs.

"Sergeant," I said, "what's the plan?"

"I've phoned Yellowknife. They're flying in the Emergency Response Team. My orders are to stabilize the situation until they can arrive and take charge."

"What?" Ray spun on him. "From Yellowknife? How the hell many hours is that?"

"Mr. Kowalski, would you kindly—"

"It's approximately two hours, Ray, depending on weather conditions. And perhaps it might be best if you—"

"Listen up!" It was Johnny Innukpuk again, his voice slurred and distorted by the amplifiers. "I wanna talk to the Prime Minister. You get the Prime Minister here. I talk to him, then I let her go." He shook Lynette, and I could hear her give a small shriek. "And make it fast! One hour, and that's it, she's dead!"

"Oh, for chrissake," Ray muttered, and then he turned to Gammell. "Look. I know this guy, you don't, and I'm telling you, he is not a guy who's screwed together real tight. He's impulsive. You want to sit around on your thumbs waiting for him to get an impulse to blow the top of that lady's head off?"

"Mr. Kowalski." Surprisingly, it was Cameron, moving toward Ray with a determined look. "Of course, I wouldn't expect you to know Canadian police procedure, but our protocol dictates that in a hostage situation we wait for personnel who have been specifically trained to handle such situations."

Ray bared his teeth at him. "Very good, Cammy, you get the gold star for memorizing the manual. That'll look real nice when that woman is dead 'cause you had a hard-on for procedure."

"Mr. Kowalski. Please vacate this area immediately." Gammell sounded on the edge of his temper.

Ray took a step closer. "Fraser, how do you want to work this? We could—"

"Kowalski. For the last time, I'm requesting that you—"

Ray whipped his head around toward Gammell. "You! You ever run a hostage situation before? Hah?" I couldn't see his face, only that of the sergeant, who stared at him tight-lipped, and Cameron, who was wide-eyed. "I didn't think so. Any of you clowns ever work something like this?"

He swung in a slow circle, raking his eyes across the cluster of officers. Constable Grant ventured, "I went through Tactical training, back in Ottawa—"

"Couple of days in the classroom, right? Shut up."

"Have you, in point of fact, handled hostage situations before, Kowalski?"

Ray turned back to Gammell. "Yeah, in point of fact, I have. Including one with Fraser." He jerked a nod in my direction.

"Well, in all honesty," I ventured, "I must point out that in the situation in question I was actually one of the—" He sliced a hand at me without looking—shaddup—and I subsided.

"Hey! What are you guys doing out there?" Over the loudspeaker, the boy's distorted voice echoed around the field. "I want to see some action here! I want to see the Prime Minister! Or do you want this lady dead, maybe?"

Gammell stepped forward, holding up the cell phone. "We've made a phone call, and a flight is on its way," he shouted, mendaciously. Then he moved back, and glanced over at Ray. "Mr. Kowalski. If you know this fellow, and if you can keep him talking—"

"Yeah. Yeah, I can do that." Ray nodded, studying the tableau on the platform.

"Sir, do you really think that's the best—" Cameron began, but Ray cut him off.

"OK, here's what I'm thinking. Cammy, you and the other boy scouts keep the citizens back outta the way. You guys with the rifles, get down, get some cover, stay out of sight. Fraser, you keep 'em from doing anything stupid, and watch for my sign."

He took a step toward the platform, as the others began taking their positions, and the microphone crackled to life. "You Mounties! I don't want to see anyone in a red coat move this way! Any of you come this way and I start shooting, OK?"

Ray turned and spread his arms wide. "Hey, Johnny! I don't got a red coat, right?" He began walking slowly toward the platform, across the empty playing field. "How're you doing, kid?"

"Ray?" The voice sounded suddenly uncertain. "What are you doing here?"

"Just came to talk with you."

"I'm kind of busy right now, Ray. I got a thing going on here."

"Yeah, I can see." Ray shaded his eyes, looking out toward the platform. "What's all this shit about? Talk to me, kid. Something bugging you here?"

"Bugging me? Yeah, something's bugging me! Yeah, I'll talk to you!" He reached into his pocket, keeping the gun jammed into Lynette's throat, and pulled out an index card. He held it up near his gun hand, so that he could keep both card and hostage in view, and began reading, slowly, stumbling here and there. "On behalf of oppressed aboriginal people everywhere, I demand the release of Wolverine and the other fourteen political prisoners of Gundersen Lake. We will no longer—uh—tolerate peacefully the racist and gen—genocidal policies of the Canadian imper—imperialist, uh—"

"Hold it a sec, Johnny," Ray called. "Catch your breath." Then he yelled back over his shoulder, "Fraser, what the hell's he talking about?"

Gammell started to say something, but I overrode him easily, pitching my voice to be heard by Johnny, as well as by the whole crowd. "I'm afraid it's an unedifying story, Ray. In September of 1995, the RCMP launched the largest paramilitary operation in Canadian history, against Sushwap protesters occupying Sundance ceremonial grounds at Ts'peten, also known as Gundersen Lake. Tanks, helicopters, and land mines were deployed against a group of perhaps two dozen civilians, which included women and children. There is evidence that unarmed persons were fired upon by RCMP snipers in a no-shoot zone, that—"

"Constable." It was Gammell, at my shoulder. "I really don't think this is the time or place for—"

"—that a member of the assault force was directed to murder a tribal elder, that the subsequent investigation and trials involved misrepresentation of fact by RCMP and governmental witnesses, and that prisoners were maltreated and denied their counsel of choice."

A silence had fallen over the crowd as I spoke, and when I concluded, Ray half-turned to stare at me. "You're shitting me."

"Regretfully, no."

He jabbed a finger at me, then waved it around to take in all my colleagues. "You guys give us crap about Waco, when all the time you're pulling this kind of—"

"Mr. Kowalski, this is a volatile situation, and getting into political debate won't help matters, aside from the fact that such debate is outside the scope of responsibility that I've authorized you to take here. Simply talk to the fellow and keep him calm. And Constable—" Gammell swung around to shoot me a glare. "That is, at best, a rather one-sided version of the situation. Those people were armed extremists and trespassers. I trust you comprehend that our mission—your mission, as an RCMP officer—is to uphold the laws of our country, not to pick and choose which laws to enforce and when."

I bent my head. "Of course, sir, that goes without saying. But the tactics used—"

"Hey, Johnny!" Ray had already turned away from us, and was gesturing in a conciliatory manner. "OK, so—it sounds like maybe you got a legitimate beef there. Let's talk about it." He took a step forward.

"Hold it!" Johnny sounded panicked. "No police!"

Ray paused, spread his hands wide. "I'm not police, moron."

"Yeah, but you used to be."

"Not any more." His voice was steady. "I'm just a hammer monkey like you. Right?"

Johnny stared at Ray, then at me. "Yeah, but ... you're with them. I mean, one of 'em's your boyfriend. Right?"

A whispering rustle went through the crowd, and I heard a titter. Ray stood still for a moment, then made a small motion with his shoulders, squaring them, standing taller. "Right, but if you think that means we're always on the same page, you're crazy. Just like you and Patti ain't always on the same page about stuff." He took another step forward. "Hey, how is Patti, anyway? Don't you guys have a date for the dance next Saturday?"

"Uh ... yeah, we were gonna go."

"Man, she'll be pissed if you do something dumb here and fuck that up. Bet she's already got her dress picked out and everything." Another step. "Hey, she and Lynette are buddies, right? Aren't they on the broomball team together?" Two more steps. I watched, feeling my heart pounding. "She is gonna be so pissed if you put a bullet in her buddy. Tell you something, Johnny, you do that and you'll never get lucky with her again. Word to the wise."

"I dunno, Ray, she—"

"Women are like that, Johnny."

"She'll understand that—sometimes, other stuff is more important." But the boy sounded uncertain.

Ray tipped his head. "Maybe, maybe not. But you wanna know something, Johnny, you wanna know what I'm gonna do if you fuck this up? You know that sweet new set of wood chisels you bought last week? You act like an asshole here, and I'm gonna take those chisels, and I'm gonna put 'em in my toolbox!" The microphone conveyed a crackling inarticulate yelp. "And then I'm gonna use 'em on shitty scrap lumber that's full of nails, and put some big fuckin' dings in them!"

"Ray! You wouldn't do that!" Johnny sounded distressed.

Ray nodded with vigor. "Damn straight I would! On the other hand, you use your brain here and cut this shit out, and I'll hold 'em for you till you're back on the job, keep those other jerks away from them. Deal?"

"I dunno, Ray, it's kind of—" Ray took another step forward, and Johnny grabbed Lynette more tightly, jabbing the gun against her neck, his voice screeching up an octave. "Hey, you got a gun?" Out of the corner of my eye I could see Elston and Lafferty start to raise their rifles, and I gestured them sharply down. "Ray, you coming up here with a gun? Don't be doing that, or I'm gonna—"

Ray threw out his arms, exasperatedly. "Do I look like a got a gun? Where the hell would I be keeping a gun? You tell me!" He slapped at his pockets, then pivoted slowly, his eyes meeting mine for an instant.

"You, uh—you could have a shoulder holster."

Ray shrugged, and then pulled off his sweater, leaving him in only a tight t-shirt and his jeans. He looked unutterably vulnerable there, standing alone, in the middle of the empty playing field, between the rifles and the platform. "Remember I told you once I don't carry a piece up here? Cause Fraser'd shit a brick? And anyway, even if I did—" He pulled off his glasses, held them up. "You know how blind I am without these, right? You remember that?"

"Yeah!" Unexpectedly, Johnny laughed. "Like that time you were going to toss that screwdriver to me, and you hit Russ in the back with it instead."

"Right!" Ray nodded, and then, without turning, flung the glasses backward over his shoulder toward me. They arced gracefully through the air, and I was able to catch them with only a short step. I held them tightly for a moment, then slipped them into my pocket.

"So—even if I had a gun, which I don't, it wouldn't do me any good at this point anyway, y'know?" Ray took another slow step forward. My entire body ached with the tension of just standing there, doing nothing, but I knew that for me to make any move would be to risk lives. I could feel my red jacket burning bright under the midday sun.

"I don't think you should come any closer, Ray—"

"Relax." But Ray paused, shoving a hand through his hair. "Look, obviously I don't know a thing about whatever it is you're pissed off about. I mean, I'm just a dumb Yank, right? So how about I come up there and you fill me in?"

"Talking's not going to do any fucking good! The only one I want to talk to is the fucking Prime Minister!" Johnny yelled. The amplifier screeched and crackled. "Yeah, you don't know what went on there, Ray! They put down land mines! They shot at 'em, women and kids and old men! Hollow-core bullets! You don't know!" His voice broke. "We're sick of this shit!"

"You're totally right, I don't know. I got no reason to argue with you about any of it. I just want to hear your side." Ray was walking forward now, slowly but steadily, his entire body conveying a relaxed nonchalance. "Take it easy, kid, as long as we're waiting on the Prime Minister, let's you and me just talk for a few, see if we can figure out . . . " As he moved forward, his voice dropped below audibility, so that all I could hear were Lynette's muffled sobs, but I could tell Johnny was listening to him, cutting his eyes back and forth between Ray and his hostage, not relinquishing his grip but not appearing to panic at Ray's approach.

Once Ray reached the platform, the loudspeaker faintly picked up his voice again, and I could hear him say, "OK, I'm just gonna step up here so I don't get a crick in my neck looking up at you. OK?"

He waited for the boy's uncertain nod, then put one booted foot on the platform and levered himself up. Johnny took a step back, dragging Lynette with him; he stumbled momentarily, Lynette yelped, and then he resteadied himself, the gun's muzzle still jammed into her throat. Ray simply stood and watched, arms hanging loose at his sides. After a moment he spoke again, and I could just make out his words over the rushing sound of the breeze blowing across the microphone.

"So, OK, we need to talk this stuff over, but the problem is, we don't have a whole lot of time before the Tac Squad guys get here."

"They're coming?"

"For chrissake, Johnny, use your head, who do you think they're gonna call in, the Musical Ride? The point is, they're not here yet, and life is going to be a lot easier if we can get this straightened out before those jokers get into the picture. We can do that." His voice was easy, relaxed. "It's like—remember when you hung those doors the wrong way, and I helped you pull the hinges and switch 'em over before Emma came around to check on us? Same kind of thing. Y'know?"

"Yeah, I guess. That was good of you, Ray."

"OK, then, let's fix this, same deal. But I gotta tell you, Johnny, whatever we work out here, it'd go over better if we had a sign-off from someone a little more legit."

"What do you mean?" He sounded suspicious, voice edging upward with nerves.

"Take it easy. I'm just saying—you know how at some point you gotta get the building inspector to sign off on the plans? Same kind of thing, plus maybe three heads are better than two here, cause we're just a couple of dumb nail-pounders, right? So I'm thinking—maybe we could get Fraser up here, we can talk, he can take notes and stuff. Draw up some kind of agreement."

"No! He's one of them!" Johnny clutched at his hostage, and she whimpered, but Ray only shrugged, still looking wholly relaxed.

"Yeah, he is, but he's OK. He's cool."

"You're just saying that 'cause—"

"I'm just saying that 'cause I know the guy, plus I know that he knows where you're coming from with all this stuff. OK? Hey, he kept Emma's nephew out of jail, right? He's a stand-up guy. You know that."

There was a pause, filled with the restive muttering of the crowd. I could sense heightening tension, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Constable Elston, on the ground, adjusting the aim of his rifle, squinting through the sights. I could hear Cameron muttering to Gammell, "Sir, I really don't think this is the right way to go about this," and Gammell's voice, aimed at me. "Fraser, hold your ground. We're not taking action at this point." I disregarded all of it; my attention was wholly focused on Ray. Though I felt some fear for him, facing down an armed and unpredictable drunk, it was eclipsed by my pride, the joy I felt seeing him in his element, and feeling once again the humming connection of trust between us. We were partners still; I would await his signal.

When Johnny spoke again, he sounded edgy, near panic. "This has gotta end, Ray."

"You're right, Johnny, you're totally right about that, and that's my point exactly. We're all on the same page here. Let's get Fraser up here, chew it over, get it squared away. Deal?"

Another pause—and finally Johnny nodded. Ray didn't say anything, just looked around at me, jerked his head.

Ignoring Gammell's "Damn it, Constable!", I walked slowly forward across the empty field, feeling eyes on me, and stepped up onto the platform, being careful to keep my hands well away from my body.

"Hey, Fraser." Ray nodded to me, easily. "So, you're up on this Whatsis Lake situation Johnny's talking about, huh?"

"Yes." I looked at the young man, smelling the whiff of alcohol rising from him, noting the sweat sheening his face, the tremor in the hand holding the gun, the way his finger was tightening and loosening on the trigger. I gave Ray a brief glance—we need to act soon—and he nodded. "I've studied both the eyewitness accounts and the documentary footage of the Gustafsen Lake incident, as well as the case files, and I believe that the RCMP's tactics there were intemperate, excessive, and out of keeping with our mission." I heard a loud cough somewhere behind me—the sergeant, I assumed—but I ignored it, and went on. "However, Mr. Innukpuk, I also believe that your actions here will only serve as a detriment to the cause of securing impartial review of the case, and in a larger sense will further polarize all parties and impede our progress toward a culturally sensitive system of jurisprudence, respectful of the spiritual as well as legal rights of aboriginal people."

Johnny was staring at me, glassily; then he turned to Ray. "Thought you said he was going to help us figure this out."

"Yeah, that's his way of helping. All he means is, thumbs up on where you're headed, thumbs down on how you're heading there." I listened, but I was more attentive to Ray's body language, watching as he subtly altered his stance, settling his weight, flexing his knees slightly. "He's got a weird way of getting his point across sometimes—" Ray lifted a hand to scratch his jaw. "—but, y'know, I can always translate for you—" and then he flicked his thumb across the tip of his nose, and simultanously we leapt into action, Ray grabbing Johnny's gun arm and pulling it up, toppling them both to the ground, while I seized Lynette, pushing her flat, trying to cushion her fall.

I could hear screams from the crowd, Gammell shouting "Hold your fire!", a percussive wham as Ray slammed Johnny's gun hand into the decking, and the sound of the gun skittering away. Lynette was clutching at me, sobbing, and I was momentarily unable to detach her so I could go help Ray subdue Johnny, who was struggling, face-down on the platform with Ray's knee in his back, shouting "Son of a bitch! You son of a bitch!"

Then there was a rush, a thudding of boots, a sea of red at the edge of the platform and a tumult of hands and arms. Constable Elston pulled Ray to one side, while Cameron and Grant seized Johnny, hauling him to his feet and handcuffing him. I handed Lynette off to Sergeant Gammell, and she clung to him as he issued orders. "Grant, check him for weapons. Elston, keep these people back, would you? Mr. Kowalski, stand down, please."

Johnny, struggling against his restraints, jerked around to face Ray. "Cocksucker. You fucking cocksucker. I should've known better than to trust someone like—"

Grant shook him hard, and the boy seemed suddenly to collapse, head hanging. Then he looked back up at Ray. "You lied to me. You said you weren't a cop. You fucking lied to me, man."

Ray looked back at him, shoulders hunched. "Yeah. Guess I did."

"What's more to the point, Mr. Kowalski, is that you hijacked this entire operation." It was Cameron talking, to my surprise; he was pink with exertion and, I realized, with anger. I hadn't seen him angry before. "You had no authorization to do what you did. And although you may have chosen to give up your own career in the police, that gives you no right to imperil Constable Fraser's career, by leading him to disobey—"

"Cammy? Stuff it." Ray spat on the platform, wiped his mouth. "Go on back to the office, kid. You'll never make a cop."

He jumped down from the platform and stalked off, the crowd parting for him as he went. Gammell shouted after him, "Mr. Kowalski, stay here, please, we'll need a statement from you, and then I have a few words for you regarding—"

He stopped, whirled. "Yeah? Well, you know something, fuck that, because I don't work for you, and furthermore I'm not one of you Canadians, so I don't owe you a fucking thing, and even if I did, I figure I just paid up in full." He grabbed up his sweater from the ground, and strode off, the crowd murmuring and staring after him.

 

When I got home that night, the stereo was blasting out loud angry music, and Ray was in the kitchen, chopping onions with a fast thwack-thwack of the knife. I hung up my jacket and turned down the music. Ray jerked a nod toward me in greeting. "Dinner in twenty," he said, and kneed away Dief, who was sniffing at a packet of ground meat on the counter.

"Thank you, Ray." I got myself some milk from the refrigerator. "And—thank you for your help today."

"Yeah." He scraped the onions from the chopping board into a hot skillet, and began digging through the drawer for a spatula. I could barely hear him over the clatter. "It ... uh ... it felt good, y'know?"

"It did indeed." I leaned against the wall, watching as he grabbed the packet of meat, ripped off the packaging, tossed it in the skillet and began chopping it up with the spatula.

"That partner of yours." He shook his head. "What a piece of work he is."

"Well, Ray ..." I paused, forced to admit to myself that Cameron had, not to put too fine a point on it, spent the afternoon sulking, and had signed himself out early. But it wouldn't help things to share that with Ray. "He's young," I finally said. "And a scrupulous attention to procedure is not a bad thing in a young officer. He wants to better himself."

"Yeah, good luck with that." He set the spatula down with a thunk, and turned to face me straight on. "So. How much trouble you in?"

I considered that. "Perhaps a bit more than you were, after your unauthorized incursion into Mr. Farah's poker game."

"Yeah. Damn it." His face tightened, and he turned back to his task. "I wish to hell you could have Welsh here."

"Sergeant Gammell's a good officer, Ray." He was pushing the meat around with such speed and vigor that it scarcely had a chance to brown. "He did ask me to convey to you his appreciation for your help this afternoon."

"He did, huh?" Ray sounded bitter. "I bet you're leaving out the part where he said, 'And tell him if he ever pulls another stunt like that I'm going to send him back to Chicago in a box.'"

"Well—those weren't his exact words."

"Uh huh." Ray jerked open the refrigerator, pulled out a jar, contemplated it a moment, then dumped its contents into the pan. "I guess he's got nothing to worry about on that score, 'cause what're the odds anything like that'll happen again?" He began stirring again, but more slowly, thoughtfully. "I guess—come to think of it, that was probably our last case, right?"

I hadn't wanted to say it, think about it, and even after hearing Ray's words I shied away from it. "It's hard to say what the future holds, Ray."

"Nah, in this case it's pretty simple. Tomorrow you get up and go back to work, tomorrow I get up and go back to the two-by-fours. And in the meantime we eat some dinner." He pulled the lid off the pot of rice and gave it a stir. "Go set the table, this stuff'll be ready in a minute."


One mid-July morning Cameron and I were sent to bring in a man who'd robbed the bakery and then stolen a boat, attempting to flee upriver—a harebrained action, but then the fellow was drunk, according to witnesses. He had a bit of a head start, so I sent Cameron down the Dempster in a car, to intercept him if need be at the Tsiigehtchic ferry crossing, and I took a speedboat in pursuit, leaving Dief back at the detachment, at his request (he seemed to have developed a wholly unjustified mistrust of my competence on the water).

I was grateful for the solo pursuit; I'd been aching for time outside, away from the town, in this glorious midsummer weather, knowing as I did that the days were already beginning to shorten fractionally, though the endless sunlight gave the illusion of life out of time, in suspension.

I came across the robber about 30 kilometers from Tsiigehtchic, out of fuel and frantically trying to restart the engine. I apprehended him without undue incident, once I'd fished him out of the river (he was a laughably slow swimmer), handcuffed him, then made his boat fast to mine, and proceeded to meet up with Cameron at the crossing.

"Take him in, Cadet, and I'll bring the boats back down the river."

He looked a little dubious. "Are you sure, sir? We could all take the car, and send Swillins back with a trailer for the boats."

"An unnecessary use of manpower and fuel," I said decisively, though if I were to be honest with myself the prospect of a quiet afternoon on the Mackenzie was more to the forefront of my mind than prudence and economy. "Oh, and when you get back, would you kindly phone my home number and leave a message that I'll be back late?"

He made a note of it, and they departed, jouncing along down the gravel road, while I manouevered my ungainly flotilla back into the main channel and headed north.

After a half-hour or so of dutiful motoring, when I was well out of sight of the village and the highway, in a wilderness of marsh and fen, I saw a ridge of higher ground fingering out into the water. I angled over to it, tied up to a little clump of dwarf willow, and cut the engine. The sudden silence was bliss, like cool water on a burn, and after a moment my ears had recovered enough that I could hear the small sounds—water moving gently against the boat, a distant flock of ducks making little squawking sounds, and the faint unending whisper of wind across open country.

I got out and walked a ways to a small rise of land, and sat, folding my legs. I was alone. Entirely alone and solitary, in this huge emptiness. No voices, no people, no sound but birds and water and wind. A sky as vast as the entire world, land that stretched on forever, and I in the middle of it, alone. I tried to arch my neck back, take it all in, but my collar bit into my neck, so I unfastened it, then took off my jacket entirely, and let the wind blow over me, clean and cold. I could feel it all the way through me, chilling and cleansing me, sweeping away all the stale clutter of office and procedure and household, like dead leaves off a tree, and I the bare wind-scoured trunk left standing, roots sunk deep in native earth.

Home. I was home. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in ... No, I thought. Home is the place where you don't even know how desperately you've missed it, until you return. Scrambled syntax, but I let it be, and breathed in and out, letting the wind blow through me. I was empty, hollow and free, filled only with the song the wind made blowing through my bones, a song of joy. Home, I was home. Where I belonged. Never to leave again. There were tears on my cheeks, and I couldn't pretend they were just from the chill of the wind.

I sat for a long time, watching the motion of birds against the sky—geese and terns, flapping clusters of ducks, and far above, the solitary raptors, eagles and hawks. They soared, glided, wheeled, and though my body sat on the chilly ground, my spirit soared with them, filled with joy—joy, whose flight is like that of a bird, held aloft only by air.

But even the highest fliers are creatures of this earth, and must sometime descend; and although I felt I could sit there all day, as time passed and the sun moved across the sky, I could feel the weight of responsibility slowly creeping back into me, the inexorable gravitational tug of connection to duty and schedules and expectations.

I got to my feet, finally, and climbed back into the boat and set off downstream once again. I could tell even without consulting my watch that I was going to be very late indeed getting back, and from there my mind leapt ahead to anticipate the paperwork that awaited me, the sergeant's likely annoyance at my absence, and beyond that, Ray's almost certain irritation. I thought about getting home, the familiar solace of dinner and sofa and bed; but these images were oddly comfortless, oppressive. Setting them aside, I found my mind turning instead to memories from my father's journal—one of the last entries before my mother's death, a passage I could recall puzzling over for the first time in a diner in Chicago:

When we got to Fort Reliance, I found a letter waiting for me from Caroline, and enclosing a note from Ben. His penmanship is getting better, but could still use a good deal of improvement, of course. Though he seems to be well enough, most of the note consisted of him asking when I'm going to get back home. Reading that knocked a big hole in the good spirits I'd felt hauling McLaren that last hundred kilometers in through the blizzard. Strange, this pain that I feel at such a simple and natural question from my own son. At times like this, I wish he were older, so that I could explain to him—well, why I must do things as I do them, why I'm so seldom at the cabin. But then, when he's older, perhaps he'll figure it out on his own.

The boat putted along, I watched the marshes slide past, feeling the heaviness in my belly deepen with every kilometer I passed, and I thought about my father. It struck me that there were things I understood about him now, at last, that I'd never known while he was alive, nor even during his visitations to me after death—things that I'd have never been able to comprehend while I was alone and unattached. For a moment I wished, urgently, that he could reappear for just one moment, so I could tell him that I knew, that I finally understood.

By the time I got back to Inuvik, the sun was low in the sky, resting on the horizon before it resumed its climb. I took my time over the details of securing the boats, and when I was done I stood staring out over the river for some while, my back to the town, watching the water glow in the low-angled light. At this time of night the river was deserted, and I had it to myself for just a little longer, a final interlude of peace that I let soak into my soul. Finally I turned and walked up the street, back into town, on legs that felt heavy.

The house was dark, and I was greeted by Dief with many guttural complaints about having been left behind. I reminded him in a whisper that he'd made his own choices in the matter, and after taking off my boots I padded to the bedroom and peered in.

The bed was empty, the covers undisturbed. I was already out of sorts with myself for the time I'd taken mentally composing rationalizations for my lateness that I knew to be specious; but not having Ray here to deliver them to was irrationally annoying. I flicked on the light and sat on the side of the bed for a moment, tempted to just turn in and let him make his way home whenever the spirit moved him. I wasn't at all sleepy, though, and while I wasn't worried about Ray, it left me oddly unsettled to not have him where I expected him to be. Finally I got up, changed into jeans and a sweater, and went back out.

Ray wasn't at Sally's, though I was briefly waylaid there by an elderly man who wanted me to talk to his neighbors about the junked cars in their yard. He wasn't at the Midnight Sun, and by then I was starting to wonder a little. Then I stepped into the Silver Dollar, and for a moment was overwhelmed—the air was thick with the haze of cigarette smoke, and the noise level was deafening. I stood inside the door, trying to sort out the sounds that were assailing me—raucous music pounding in the background, a woman's shriek of laughter, a television over the bar tuned to some programme featuring gunplay and explosions.

But the loudest and most jarring noise was coming from a pinball machine in the corner, and as I got my eyes adjusted to the dim haze I realized that it was Ray who was crouched over the machine, at the epicenter of that chaos.

I had watched Ray play pool in the past, and I'd always savored the smooth elegance, the sang-froid he brought to that pastime. This was entirely different.

This was electric. The machine was alive, exploding with noise and light, flash and clamor, and it was as if Ray were plugged into it, electricity blazing through him in wild anarchic jolts. He was slamming the buttons with the flat of his hands, pounding out an arrhythmic cacophony, and the machine shrieked and flashed in response.

"He's pretty good." It was Mott, the bartender, leaning across the scarred mahogany toward me. "Got a feel for it, y'know?"

"Indeed." It was hard to keep my voice casual, given how loudly I had to pitch it to be heard. "Has he been here long?"

"Couple hours. He comes here pretty often." Mott stared impassively at me. He was familiar to me, from many nights of negotiation about the management of unruly drunks and bar brawls, but in the discolored glare from the television his face looked even odder than usual—pitted with acne scars, one eye milky and half-closed, jagged seam of an old knife wound on his cheek. "Never makes any trouble. But he sure likes the pinball. What can I get you, Constable?"

"Er—a glass of tomato juice, please."

He moved away down the bar, and I returned to watching Ray, locked in his battle with the machine, moving against it like a boxer, like a lover, slamming it with his hands and his hips. After a moment I became aware that I was not the only one watching him; nearby was a table at which two young women were seated. One of them I recognized—Sheila Maxwell, a town girl—but the other was unfamiliar to me, and something about her attire suggested to me that she was a visitor from a larger city. She was staring at Ray with avidity, leaning toward him, and as I watched she fluffed her hair, said something to her companion, and half-rose from her chair. Sheila grabbed her arm and pushed her back into her seat, giggling, and leaned across the table to shout something into her ear, glancing briefly in my direction. Sheila's friend was less discreet—as she listened, she turned her whole head to stare at me, her mouth open in shock; then she jerked her head back around to stare again at Ray, and then back at me. Then she shook her head, picked up her drink, and took a deep swallow, while Sheila giggled and giggled. And all the while Ray played on, oblivious to them and to me alike, a fierce and angry angel, spiky hair haloed by smoke and the harsh glare of the pinball lights.

As I watched, his last ball apparently dropped; he slammed his hand on the glass, yelled "Shit!", and then picked up his beer and upended it, draining it, while he dug in his pocket for change. The waitress appeared at his side with a fresh bottle, and took a bill from the pile on the table next to him; he nodded, without taking his eyes off the machine, flung a few coins into the slot, and the hellish din, which had blessedly subsided for a moment, roared back to life, and Ray with it, as though the jolt of power surged straight into his nerves.

It was an erotic sight, and a disturbing one. I knew what it was like to be the focus of Ray's energy, Ray's passion, to have that body slamming against me, those fast nervous hands working me so skillfully, making the lights flash and explode, the bells and sirens go off. And yet, despite the memory of such intimacies, and the arousal they brought, I had never felt more remote from him than at that moment. His face, I could see even at this distance, held the same avid intensity that it did when he bent over me. But the passionate coupling he was locked in with the machine had nothing to do with me, and I suddenly found myself wondering what sex, the sex between us, really meant to him, if it was really anything more than this—drop the quarters in, hit the levers, get that raw neural jolt, and then walk away. My body craved him with a primitive urgency, all the fiercer for seeing the women's eyes on him; but my mind took in the noise and the flash, the squalid bar and the boozy clamor, the crowd and the smoke and the reek of alcohol, and Ray in the center of it all—and it turned and took a cool step away, back to the empty land and the clean sky and the solitary bliss that had so recently filled me.

I set my juice back on the counter, unfinished, and stood and walked out, into the blessed fresh air and quiet. I told myself it would be foolish to let this bother me. If there were parts of Ray's life that were alien to me, that were none of my business, well—they were none of my business, then, and certainly I wasn't in any position to cast stones. If this bar gave him something I couldn't, something he needed, then I granted it to him freehold. It had been a mistake to come here sniffing after him, and was one I wouldn't make again.


A few weeks later, I came home after a vexing afternoon of paperwork to find the house empty; the stereo was turned on, but nothing was playing. Dief ran through the living room to the back door and pawed at it, whining; I opened it and found Ray sitting on the back step, with a half-empty bottle of beer in his hand.

He nodded when I sat down beside him but didn't look at me, staring off at some remote point on the horizon. It was twilight, the sky an arching glory of purple and orange and pink. I wanted to simply enjoy it, the deep quiet and the fresh grass-scented air and the feel of the season starting its turn toward autumn. But Ray's silence, the tight set of his shoulders, the way he wasn't looking at me—he felt like trouble, looked like it, a little hunched-over ball of trouble next to me, and I sighed inwardly, the beauty of the evening tainted. I wanted to feel at home with him, to just speak what was on my mind—isn't it a beautiful evening, Ray? or Look at the geese, up there, to share with him the simple pleasure of it all.

Instead, I finally said, "How are you, Ray?" Inviting trouble in, no doubt, but there was no help for it; he was my trouble, my business.

He twitched, hunching his shoulder a little further away from me, deeper into his jacket, and for a minute I thought he wasn't going to reply. What he finally said was, "They're having a heat wave, back home. I heard it on the news. Up around a hundred, old people croaking in their apartments, whole nine yards."

"Well, that's most unfortunate. It certainly seems a shame that the civic apparatus of Chicago isn't better organized to help its citizenry deal with weather phenomena that are, after all, eminently predictable." That got no response, and I went on, "Though it may be selfish, we can certainly be grateful not to be suffering through it." Belatedly, a thought struck me. "I'm sure your parents are all right, Ray, they have air conditioning, do they not? Of course, if you'd like to phone and check on them—"

"No—no, Fraser." He laughed once, a little humorless bark of laughter, and held out a hand against me. "Not a problem. They're fine." He took a swallow of his beer and lapsed into silence again.

I waited a while, and was about to try something cheerful and inane about dinner, when he spoke again, softly. "Summer nights ... you remember?" It wasn't really a question, and I held my peace. "Get home late ... always running late, 'cause everyone goes wacko when it's hot. Nice little housewives pick up the carving knife and think about sticking it in the old man's back. So you're beat, you get home, get a shower, grab a beer. Put some music on ... Sam Cooke, maybe. Marvin Gaye. And then go sit on the fire escape, and just ... listen."

I listened. The distant honking of the geese faded away, and then it was silent again.

"Nights like that, you can hear everything, everyone's out on the street, everyone's got their windows open. You can hear the people downstairs yelling at each other about something, next building over's got salsa music, guy in the street drives by with the rap going so loud the car's shaking, across the street they're having a party ... sirens, you always hear a lot of sirens, nights like that, but that's OK, 'cause that's some other poor bastard's problem, not yours. You can just sit there in the window and watch it all go by."

Dief yawned, and stretched out at our feet, settling his muzzle on his paws. Ray absently dug his fingers into the fur behind Dief's neck, but he seemed far distant still.

"Everybody's out on the street, just hanging out ... people walking the dog, guys showing off their wheels, girls ... ohh, man, Latino chicks, in those tight little dresses, with their hair up, and the high heels ..."

I said rather sharply, "I do indeed remember Chicago summers, Ray. In particular, I recall with some vividness the July heat wave of 1995, in which, as you may be aware, seven hundred and thirty-nine people perished."

He sat up straight, glared at me. "Well, no shit, Fraser, I remember that one too, I was there, hauling stiffs out of apartments, which sucked, but I'm not talking about that, I'm just talking about—summer, you know? Just normal summer, and then you gotta go for the bleak."

He snapped his head away from me again, and I sighed. "I'm sorry."

"It's not like people don't die just as dead from the cold too, OK?"

"Absolutely," I said, in a conciliatory tone. But in fact, I thought, tilting my head back to look at the pale moon, in fact there was no memory of my own occasions of near-hypothermia that terrified me nearly as much as my recollections of that hellish summer week, when I was new to the city. The panicky sense of suffocation, with no escape from the choking heat, and then the dawning hideous realization that people—the elderly, the helpless—were actually dying, all around me, that there was no organization in place to save them. I'd seen to the well-being of everyone in my apartment building, and then had marshalled a group of the young and healthy to systematically check all the buildings on the block, bringing water, conveying people to air conditioning. And yet some had died, before we could get to them; were found, bloated and discolored, in their beds ...

A cool breeze had sprung up, and I breathed it in gratefully, shaking off the memories. Ray pulled up the hood of his jacket, shrouding his face from my view. "Are you cold?" I asked him.

"Of course I'm cold, I been cold ever since I got here, being as how it never gets anything but cold in this town. I mean—jeez, here it is, end of July, it's summer, and I'm sitting out here in a coat, freezing my ass off. Give it another two weeks and it'll probably be snowing. What the hell kind of place is this, Fraser?

It's home, I thought. But all I said, after a moment, was "Perhaps we should go indoors. You'd be warmer there."

"I don't want to go indoors, I got all winter to be indoors, all I want is—" He shoved his hands into his sleeves. "Just one, lousy, regular summer night. I just want a little side trip into normal, you know? Like—a time-out, or something."

I knew better than to think I had anything helpful to say; my own conceptions of normality had never fit any of his criteria. Instead, I patted his shoulder, and then rose and went in to forage some dinner for myself, leaving him to his thoughts.


June 12, 1962: A man would like to think that his home could be a refuge of peace and quiet, but the minute I stepped through the door on Tuesday, home at last, Benton took one look at me and began squalling his head off. Caroline tried to tell me some farrago about how nine-month-old babies go through a stage of being shy of strangers, but I certainly don't believe I went through any such stage myself, and in any event I'm the boy's father, for god's sake. He finally settled down after dinner, but later in the night he woke again, and Caroline kept getting up to feed and fuss over him, even though I told her that if she'd just let him be, he'd learn in time to control himself.

Finally I took a bedroll and went out to the kennel to try to get some sleep. That didn't sit well with Caroline, of course, though I'm glad to say that we squared things up before I left this morning. I'm sure she's doing the best she can, and I can't blame her for being on edge. Lord, a baby's crying sounds worse than a bobcat in heat.

I suppose that if I'm to be honest, I must say that the noise wasn't the only thing that drove me outdoors. After two months on the trail, I find I'm more accustomed to the open sky, and the tang of fresh air, than I am to a stuffy cabin and the feel of someone alongside me. As slender a woman as Caroline is, I'd forgotten how much room she takes up in a bed. At least when the dogs crowd me I can push them aside.

Before I left, Benton seemed to get over his foolishness, and when I took his hand he grabbed hold of my finger. The boy's got a good strong grip. I can only hope that Caroline doesn't spoil him; I don't believe he's half as needy as she seems to think.

 

Of all the things that were strange to me in my life with Ray, I sometimes believe that sharing a bed with him, hour after hour, through night after night, was the strangest. It had been somehow different on the trail, when he and I together had been the one point of warmth in the vast icy land. But in town ... I found myself recalling how, at Depot, at the consulate, my narrow bed had been my retreat from the endless crowding and buffeting of others; how I'd learned to lie on my back, and picture an invisible wall of solitude, rising around me on all sides like glass, like ice, through the ceiling and up to the sky, shielding me. Only once that barricade was clear in my mind could I relax and fall asleep.

I would often wake, in our bed together, to find Ray curled up against me, an arm flung across my chest, his breath hot on my shoulder. All of him was hot, in sleep, throwing off warmth as he threw off energy during the day, and he would clutch at me, press against me, as though in sleep his body gave silent voice to some hunger I seldom saw at other times. When I tried to edge away from him, he would shift and writhe closer and coil himself ever more tightly around me, murmuring irritably in his sleep. And so I would lie there, sweating, trying not to feel as if I were at the mercy of a particularly large and insistent python. I'd remind myself of how dearly I'd longed for just such closeness, through my long years of solitude; and then I'd reflect on how confounding it can be to have one's wishes granted.


In August, there came a week when the weather turned unusually warm. Anything approaching heat, in Inuvik, seemed to increase the already high incidence of public drunkenness and disorderly behavior, and so my days were long and full; but Emma's crew was working still longer hours, racing against the turning of the season. So I was surprised one evening, during that week, when Ray arrived home just minutes after I.

"Finished up the Smithson remodeling ahead of schedule," he said, by way of explanation. There was a loose-jointed quality in his movements that I knew by now meant he had a few drinks on board. "She gave us each a twenty-buck bonus and let us off early. Nice lady, you know that?"

"Yes, I know," I said, but he wasn't listening, he'd gone over to the stereo and was flipping through CDs with a fast click-click-click.

"So me and the guys went down to Sally's and had a few." He selected a disk, squatted down in front of the console while he inserted it and punched buttons, then sprung to his feet as the house abruptly filled with the most extraordinarily bouncy music. He stood for a moment, pulsing, letting the music take over his body, and then he pivoted and danced his way into the kitchen, punching the air, head back, yelling "Summertime, Fraser! We got summertime! I hereby proclaim this to be officially summer!" He stripped off his sweat-darkened t-shirt as he went, peeling it free with a wiggle, throwing it aside, throwing me a grin as he passed. I could see the clean lines of muscle that had hardened in his arms and shoulders, over the past months of physical labor, and the deep bronze of his skin from hours spent in the sun.

I took off my own jacket (it was really far too warm in the house for it), watching him as he yanked a bowl of potato salad from the refrigerator, listening to him sing off-key with the ridiculous lyrics—"I got me a car, as big as a whale, and we're headin' down to the looove shack—" He pulled a fork from the drawer and began eating straight out of the bowl, still shimmying in time with the music.

In this mood he was irresistible, and I suspected he didn't want me to resist. I came up behind him, letting my hands slide around his bare chest, kissing the back of his neck. "Mmm. Nice," he murmured. I took the bowl and fork from his hands, set them on the counter, and spun him around, grabbing his arms and kissing him fiercely. He laughed into my mouth, taking a grip on my hips and grinding up against me. "Not nice, that's good too," he muttered, and then bit down on the side of my neck.

He smelled deeply, richly, of sweat and sawdust and fresh air, and I wanted to kneel down and have him right there in the kitchen, but all the curtains were wide open, so instead we fumbled and staggered our way into the bedroom, kicking the door shut against the music. Once I got the rest of his clothes off I went after him with my mouth, tasting him until I was glutted, making him wait, forcing him to a slower pace than he thought he could stand, and it was one of the occasions when I managed to do everything right, in pleasuring him.

I rose, afterward, to get a glass of water, and coming back with it I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of him, lying sprawled on his back on top of the blankets, loose-jointed, looking wanton and debauched, with the red marks on his chest and thighs where I'd used my teeth on him. I felt foolish, standing there with my ridiculous still-unrelieved erection poking out in front of me, but there was no derision in the heavy-lidded gaze he turned on me. I shivered all over, hard, with the force of the desire I felt for him, and finally I made myself move, stumbling over to the bed, setting the water glass down so hard it slopped over, almost falling in my haste to be close to him. I pulled him up against me, shameless in my need, muttering "Your mouth, Ray—god, please—"

He kissed me, and then pulled away, and whispered, "I was thinking—maybe, try something out—something else—" And he twisted beside me, beneath me, sweaty and sinuous, until he was on his stomach and I on top of him. He shifted his legs, and suddenly my erection was in the hot cleft between his thighs, right up against his buttocks.

Before I could stop myself, I thrust once, hard, into that space, and I saw all the muscles of his back tighten up. I forced myself to stop, pull back away from him a little. "This isn't what you want. Is it?"

He has his head turned to one side, eyes clenched shut, and he didn't say anything, just gave a little shrug.

"Ray?"

"Give it a shot," he muttered, without opening his eyes.

"Ray." It took great effort to keep my voice calm. "Are you certain about this?"

"For the love of christ, Fraser," and then he was twisting his neck to look at me, eyes a blaze of reckless nerve almost concealing the fear. "Just pick up the ball and run with it, would you?"

My conscious mind was still reeling, but my instincts knew how to respond to his fear—I knelt up and began stroking his back, long gentling strokes down the bands of tense muscle. I meant, I only meant, to be soothing him, giving reassurance that he was safe and that I wouldn't let either one of us hurt him. But my hands had a mind of their own, and despite my better intentions I couldn't stop them from straying lower, to the hard flat curve of his buttocks. He shuddered at the touch and then stilled, took a deep breath and let it out, and then shifted, resolutely moving his legs farther apart, lifting his hips a little.

I thought I had been aroused before, but the sight of that, the feel of the solid muscle flexing under my hands, the memories of times I'd grabbed him, right there, to pull him deeper into me, and the thought of what he'd just offered me—it blinded me, literally, my eyes went dim with the surge of thick dumb lust. To take him, to simply open him up and drive into him, inside him, to possess him...

I didn't think I could take my hands away from him long enough to find the lubricant, but I managed, lurching and panting like an animal. Kneeling between his thighs again, touching him again, looking at him spread out before me, mine to have—I was briefly dizzy, and had to lower my head, resting it on the small of his back, kissing him there. An act of worship. I could hear him muttering profanely—"C'mon, fuck it, c'mon c'mon"—and then a gasp, as I slid my mouth lower, grabbing at him with my teeth. I wanted to devour him, as I myself was being devoured, from the inside. And then, as I raised myself, fumbling with the cap to the tube, I could hear him again, muttering into the crook of his elbow, barely audible—"C'mon, what the fuck, how bad can it be?"—and I knew his "c'mon"s were for himself, not for me.

I knew, even then I knew, through the haze of rut in my brain, that I should stop, but I was beyond restraint, it was all I could do to try to slow down, go gently and with care, as I squeezed out some lubricant, smeared it around on one finger, and then slid that finger inside of him; as slowly as I could, but without stopping, because I couldn't stop. He jerked, and made a little grunting sound, and clenched hard around me, and I stroked him with my free hand, over and over, murmuring, until he eased a little and I could move my finger out, and then in again. I did that as long as I could bear, and then I squeezed more gel onto my erection, spread it around awkwardly, left-handed, and then slid my finger all the way out and bumped myself up against his buttocks, slippery and clumsy and thickwitted with lust.

I don't know what set him off—the feel of that, or my clumsiness, or the realization of what was about to happen ... all I know is that one moment he was lying on his belly in front of me, and the next moment he'd leapt up, with a violent flurry of arms and legs, and stood, halfway across the room, panting, staring at me. He'd knocked me over, and I lay on my side, staring back at him, stupidly.

"Fraser." He was shaking his head, over and over. "Ah, shit, Fraser, I—I just—" Suddenly he bent, grabbing his pants off the floor, and began putting them on fast. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Fraser, I just can't, fuck, I'm sorry, I'm such a fuckup—" Pants on, he grabbed a t-shirt, socks, shoes, pulling them on, never ceasing the soft babble of apology and obscenity. "What in the hell was I thinking about, shit, I am so totally fucked in the head, fucking moron, sorry, sorry—" Dressed, hair askew, he turned and started to the door, stumbling over his untied shoelaces. In the doorway he stopped, turned, looked back at me where I lay naked on the tumbled sheets. He pulled in breath, opened his mouth as if to speak, and then just shook his head one last time, hard, and fled. I could hear the door slam behind him. I lay there for a long time without moving, until it got chilly. Then I got up and washed myself, and got back into bed. It was only nine p.m., and still broad daylight, but I couldn't think of anything to do besides wait for Ray to return.

He came home shortly before five a.m.. It was getting light out again, though there'd been a short interlude of darkness somewhere in the interim.

I heard the door open, after a considerable period of scratching and rattling, as though managing the keys was a challenge for him. I heard it slam shut rather louder than was advisable at that time of night, and then unsteady footsteps, and a few soft slurry words apparently directed to Dief. An interval of silence, and then he coughed, and I could hear him moving across the living room, into the hallway, to the bedroom door, where the footsteps stopped again.

After a minute I turned my head and looked over. He was standing in the doorway, arms braced against the frame. His head was tipped forward, as if very heavy, and he was shaking it slowly from side to side. The high of the evening's drinking had receded, apparently, but not far enough to return him to sobriety.

He saw me watching him, and that was apparently enough to launch him into movement again. He walked carefully over to the bed and sat on the edge with a little whoof, and looked down at me. I could smell the reek of cigarette smoke and alcohol, and below that—I took another sniff—the unmistakable smell of a woman. Sweet and pungent, tuberose perfume overlain with the briny tang of a woman's sex.

"Hey. Fraser."

I closed my eyes, wishing that I could believe that things were now officially as bad as they could get and we could just stop here, with no worse territory to forge into. But hearing his voice, slurred and thick, forced me to acknowledge that since he was here and I was here and we were both awake and apparently conversation of some kind was inevitable, things could in fact deteriorate further.

"Yes?"

"What's that about?" I could feel his fingers flick against an epaulet. It probably did look odd, me lying in full uniform on top of the made bed. "You—ready to get to work, huh? You were gonna go out and hunt me down?" Another touch, fleeting. "You worried about me?"

I looked up at him. He was trying to make it a taunt, a parody of tenderness, but in his voice and face there was such an undercurrent of longing . . . Frightening. I hitched myself further over on the bed, away from him. "Not at all, Ray, I assumed you were fine. This not being winter, I was fairly certain you could take care of yourself."

A silence, and then, "Not bad, Fraser, not bad at all. Three-point shot for the team in red."

He tried to stand up, but apparently the effort was too much for him, and instead he slowly toppled backwards, twisting as he fell, until he lay on his back beside me. He folded his arms over his face against the daylight that already streamed into the room.

"This has got to be the worst place in the world to have a hangover," he said.

"Well, I imagine Chicago would be worse, given the ambient noise factor. And you can't have a hangover already. You're still drunk."

He shot me a baleful look from under an elbow. "You wanna try my head on for a few minutes and then tell me that?" Then he let his head roll back, whispering "Shit."

After a pause, he said, "So. You're going in early, huh. I can—gimme a sec, I'll go crash on the couch or something, get out of your way."

"No, don't trouble yourself." I cleared my throat. "We—Cameron and I, that is—were called in to assist with a raid near Lac de Gras. I got a call after you left. He'll be by shortly to pick me up. We'll likely be gone several days."

"Uh huh." His voice was without expression. "Well, that's cool, Fraser. You and Cammy-baby have a grand old time. Maybe you can show him how to wrestle bears or something, you get the chance."

I took a breath in through my mouth, trying not to smell the scents rising off him, knowing they would only fuel my anger. "It will give you an opportunity, if you desire, to spend more time with your friend."

"Friend. What the hell are you talking about."

"The person who—" I stopped. "The woman you were with this evening."

He seemed to pull into himself, wrapping his arms more tightly around his face. I could hear a muffled "Ahh, fuck." I waited to see if he'd have anything to add to that, and finally, he moved his arm away from his mouth and said, "I got no friends here, Fraser."

I bit down hard on my anger, my temptation to snap back That's a load of self-pitying rubbish. Instead I said, "Really? I would have thought that at least some degree of friendship would be involved in—in..."

He gave me a moment, less out of courtesy, I think, than a bitter curiosity as to how I would finish that sentence, but eventually he said, "You know, just cause someone lets you fuck her, doesn't mean she's a friend, okay?"

"And vice versa, I'd imagine." The words were out before I could stop them.

He blew out a sharp little breath and sat up suddenly, grabbing his head. "And the mountie takes the round." He put his hands over his eyes, resting his elbows on his knees. "I ... uh ... shit. I don't have to tell you what a world-class piece-of-shit major-league fuck-up I am, do I?"

"I don't think that's necessary, no." I stared at the ceiling. Looking at him was too painful.

A brief interlude of silence ensued, the seconds dragging by. I wanted to be gone, away from this bed and this conversation, away from Ray, but flight seemed futile. Though I had no idea how to manage it, we had to see this through, somehow, or we'd be finished.

Ray coughed, shifting on the bed and crossing his legs "So. The Boy Wonder picking you up? That what you said?"

I nodded. "He'll be by shortly. I had thought it would be prudent to attempt to get some rest before we leave."

He pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes, rubbing. "Shit, Fraser, I'm sorry, I just—I'll get out of here and let you get some more sleep."

"Please don't trouble yourself. I haven't been sleeping." He sat a moment longer with his hands pressed against his eyes, and then staggered to his feet, mumbling "Sorry, sorry, sorry," and lurched toward the door.

I didn't want to follow after him—I told myself not to—but I found myself pushing up off the bed, getting to my feet, and by the time I reached the living room he was trying to get to the front door, weaving and making furious ineffectual lunges for the doorknob, his path blocked by Dief, who was gazing up at him and making unhappy sounds in his throat.

I came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. He spun away, out of my grip, in a blur of vehement motion, lost his balance, fell heavily against the wall, and he rested there for a moment, all that kinetic frenzy briefly stilled.

Just stillness, for a moment, and then he raised his head, and let it fall back against the wall with a loud thump. And then another, harder, and I could hear a faint slurred mumble. "....sorry, Fraser, I'm so sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—" Another slam, skull against sheetrock, almost hard enough to dent it.

I took him by the shoulders and pulled him away from the wall, onto his feet, steadying him. I held his shoulders, listened to his harsh breathing, smelled alcohol and sex and the shame rising off him. Dief made a little murmuring sound and settled down against the door, watching us warily.

"Ray."

He shook his head once, hard, and then abruptly stopped, raising a hand to his forehead. "Ow," he said, in a small voice.

"Please don't punish yourself."

"'Cause you'll do it for me?" He tried to laugh.

I wanted to shake him, but I kept my hands still, my voice calm. There was at least some satisfaction to be had in my sense of my own self-control. "Ray, listen to me. I'll admit that the past eight hours have not been particularly pleasant. But that's not important. What's—"

"Don't you try to lie to me, Fraser, the hell that's not important. I fucked up, I fucked us up, I fucked you over, and—"

"What's important is that you understand—you don't have to do anything to be here with me. Not anything that you don't want to do." He actually snorted at that, and against my will I felt my fingers tightening on his shoulders. "Most particularly if the endeavor drives you to attempt to reassert your sense of manhood via compensatory acts of meaningless drunken sex with a stranger—" I stopped, feeling my voice getting away from me, and Ray jerked out of my grip.

"Do not. Do not analyze me, Fraser. You can hit me if you want." He took a step back, angling his chin up at me. "Go ahead. Take your best shot, you got a right to that. But just do not—fucking analyze me."

"What the hell else am I supposed to do?" I was close to shouting, and took a deep breath. "You know perfectly well I'm not going to hit you, that wouldn't help the situation one iota."

He turned away from me, in a quick angry movement, and my arms actually went out to grab him and spin him back around to face me, before I caught myself, pulled my hands back. I took a deep breath, and tried to go on more calmly.

"Believe me, Ray, I most seriously wish that you would not force yourself to attempt things you don't feel able to carry through on."

"What else have I done since I got—ah, forget it." He put a hand to his forehead, rubbing. "Forget I said that."

I plowed ahead, doggedly. "I don't want you to do—anything that you don't want to do."

"You wanted it." Long fingers, rubbing his forehead, over and over. He'd have a bruise there tomorrow, I thought. "You wanted it big time. Can't tell me that's not true."

"What I want is beside the point, Ray. Of course I don't get everything I want in life. Nobody does, and I'm very accustomed to coping with that reality."

"So—what, you're trying to tell me it's no big deal? I set you up and jerk you around like that and you're just gonna cope with it?" He turned and walked over to the kitchen table, leaning against it, facing away from me.

I walked after him. "Well, I don't see what my alternatives are. I certainly am not going to pitch a tantrum about it. I can cope with a great many things, but what I have a hard time accepting is your apparent belief that you have to force yourself to do things repugnant and alien to you, simply because you think I need them to be happy." I moved to face him, trying to get him to look at me. "I don't need that, to be happy with you."

He hooked a chair with one foot, pulled it over, and lowered himself into it, a bit unsteadily. "Look. Fraser. I'm a guy, you're a guy. You can stand there and say that it's no big deal, but ..." He glanced up at me, looked away again. "Fucking—it's what guys do, or what guys want to do. We fuck. It's in the guy constitution, we fuck anything that has a hole, right?" He crossed his arms on the table, looking down at them, and made a painful little noise that might have been a laugh. "I mean, shit, look at me. "

"I'm not like that." I tried to keep my voice calm, to rein in the anger and hurt.

That stung him. "Oh yeah, cause you're so much better than me, sorry, I forgot."

I went on, stiffly, hating the entire conversation, hating myself, at the moment hating even him. "It's not that I wouldn't take great joy in—being able to make love to you that way, but believe me, Ray, I have no desire to do anything that would be painful for you—"

"Painful?" He jerked his head up, staring at me with what seemed honest amazement. "You think that that's what this is about? That I can't handle a little pain?" Now he seemed as angry, as hurt, as I felt. "Like that's what this is about? You throw me out of an airplane, you drag me over a mountain, you—" He was waving his arms. "I go through fucking windows for you, and now you think I can't handle a little pain? Fuck that."

"Well, I'd assumed that—"

"Clueless, you are truly clueless, you know?"

"Perhaps if you'd give me a clue, once in a great while, I'd—"

"I shouldn't have to tell you what it's—there are some things a guy should just get, OK?

"Well, I'm not sure I do get it, Ray. I'm striving to make sense of your behavior, but it's a bit much to expect telepathy of me at this juncture." I was trying to keep my voice under control. "Is this perhaps one of those issues of being a normal man that I'm unaware of?"

"Ah, fuck it, Fraser—"

'No, please explain it. If you can. I want to understand."

He nodded, slowly, and after a moment he stood and walked over to the counter, leaning against it, head hanging down. "Shit," he said tiredly. "It's not—I know what it looks like, but it's not—it's not about getting fucked in the ass, it's not about being a fag, and it sure the hell isn't about pain, because—y'know, Fraser, if you wanted, if you really needed to, you could just pick up that knife over there and blam, right in the guts—" He gestured, expressively, miming a fierce stab to his abdomen and then hunching over with a little oof! "Just dig right in, take whatever, you want my spleen, you got it, it's yours."

"Ray, I don't see what—"

"But there's got to be—there's got to be something you don't get to have, something that's—that's just me. Just mine." He glanced over, straightening up. "You get that?"

"In all honesty, Ray, I'm not sure I do, given that you have many idiosyncratic interests and pastimes that I don't share at all, as well as—"

"No, Fraser, that is not what I'm talking about, and I'm not talking about sex here either, it's just—look, sometimes you gotta draw a line. Y'know, it's like—I'm here, and you're there, and there's these places where we're together and then there's—there's places where we're not." His hands were slicing air, in a kinetic geometry, mapping out the boundaries and borders of him, of me, of us. "We can go just so far down this road together, and then ... and then, Benton-buddy—" And he chopped downward with both forearms, hands like blades, a movement so violent that he had to lurch forward with one foot to keep from toppling over. "Then ... the road ends." The barricade that he'd carved in the air loomed, almost palpable. He stared at it.

After a moment he shook his head, and let his hands drop. "Anyway." He pushed away from the counter and walked toward the front door. I was afraid he was going to leave again, but instead he crouched down next to Dief and plunged his fingers into the thick fur behind his ears, rubbing.

"You know something ... she wasn't anyone I would've even looked at normally." He was staring down at Dief, as he spoke. "I mean, it's not like I was interested in her or anything."

He meant it reassuringly, I knew, but it only made things worse. Before I could stop myself, I blurted, "Who is she?" A question both rude and unhelpful, and I quickly corrected myself. "I'm sorry, Ray, of course you don't have to answer that question, certainly I have no business asking you to betray someone else's privacy, or—"

"Nah, it's OK, I know, you don't want to go around town looking at everything female, and wondering. I get that." He stood, wobbly, still not looking at me, brushing loose fur off his hands. "Tourist. Hubby'd gone off on a hunting trip for the weekend, left her here, she was pissed at him. Shitfaced. Lookin' for a good time." He gazed down at his hands. "Not that it was any good."

"Ray—"

"So. Anyway." He turned to face me at last. "Finito. And—I'm sorry." He stared at me until I had no choice but to look back, to see the pain and the guilt, to take in everything he was trying to convey with his eyes. "I know I been saying that, but I mean it. Never been more sorry. And it won't happen again."

I stared at him without responding, still too angry for honest forgiveness, and furious with myself for that incapacity.

"Fraser?"

I knew what he was asking, what he couldn't bring himself to ask aloud—are we good? Are we still partners? Is this going to be OK? But I didn't know how to truthfully answer any of that yet, I needed more time to sort myself out, and so I moved to the kitchen and picked up the container of potato salad, which had never gotten put back in the refrigerator. It had likely gone bad, I thought, and I upended it into the trash.

"OK." His voice, behind me, sounded raspy. "OK, then. You want me to have my stuff packed up by the time you get back?"

That jerked me upright. I turned, trying to keep myself very calm. "Are you going somewhere?"

"I can't picture you wanting me to stick around. After—" He waved his hand around, aimlessly.

"Do you want to leave?"

"Don't you want me to? Look, just say the words, just kick me out, if that's where we're at."

"That's not where I'm ... at, Ray. I want you to choose what's best for you, but believe me, I very much hope that you choose to stay." He stood there, staring down at the ground, hands fisted up at his sides, and seeing his pain grounded me in some sort of reality, gave me the strength to say what I truly felt. "There is nothing you could do that would lead me to turn you out."

His head jerked up, and he stared at me with actual terror. "You—oh Christ, Fraser, that is so—that's fucking chickenshit of you, you know that?"

I took a step back. "Actually, I thought it was a fairly courageous stance, given what—"

"Stella, at least she had the balls to kick me out. You—I pull this kind of twisted shit on you, and you'd just—you sit there and—oh fuck it."

"I don't see how—"

"Just cut me loose, Fraser." He looked exhausted, his hands hanging limp now.

"I won't do that, Ray."

He shook once, all over, hard. "Just ... fucking ... cut me loose."

"No." It hurt to see his pain, and part of me was tempted to simply go over to him, embrace him, reconnect us in the simplest and most direct way. But it would have been dishonest. "What we have between us, fundamentally, is good, and I'm not giving up on it. And Ray—you're a good man. I'm not giving up on you."

He grimaced, staring down at the floor. "You into pain? Should've figured that one out earlier."

"Ray." I took a step toward him. "I know you weren't intending to hurt me."

"You know that, huh." He was almost snarling. "Pretty sure about that?"

"I know you're really not that kind of person. I know you, Ray, I know who and what you are, and—"

And that seemed to drive him over the brink; he grabbed a glass off the table, spun, and threw it against the wall, shattering it. "Yeah? You think so?" He stared at me, almost panting. "I don't even know that. Me. I got no clue." His eyes were huge, full of rage, bewilderment, fear. "So you think you know who I am? That means you're either stupid, which you're not, or a fuckin' liar, which you're not, or, or you're trying to be nice to me. And do not be fucking nice to me, Fraser. You can give me what I got coming, you can kick my ass from here to Chicago, that's no more'n I deserve, but not even I, shitheel that I am, not even I deserve the nice treatment."

He grabbed another glass, sent it spinning across the room to smash against the wall, and while the crash was still reverberating, like an echo the front door banged open, and Cameron stood in the opening. He took a quick step into the room. "Sir, are you all—" Then, taking in the tableau, he faltered, halted, and froze, putting his hands behind his back, staring at a spot on the floor between us. "I'm very sorry, sir, I should have waited in the car—I heard, ah—noise, and—and I thought perhaps you were—that there was danger of some sort, and ..." His face was almost as red as his jacket.

"Thank you, Cameron, but perhaps you should step—"

It was too late, Ray was already moving toward him, eerily calm all of a sudden, nodding at him with apparent sympathy. "Domestics, they're a bitch, huh? But the thing you gotta learn, Cammy, maybe they didn't teach you this at the Depot, maybe they had to use the time for lanyard-tying class or something, but you gotta learn, and I'm giving you this lesson for free, so pay attention—" He'd been gliding closer and closer to Cameron, and abruptly he poked him in the chest with a forefinger, hard. "Never walk in on a domestic without your weapon ready. Quickest way to get your head blown off." He glanced down at Cameron's revolver, buckled in its holster, and then looked more closely. "Hey, what the hell is this?" In one deft movement, he had the gun unholstered and in his hand. He took a long step back, gave it a quick toss and grab to get the proper grip.

"Sir—"

"Whoa, haven't seen one of these in a while. I gotta tell you, Cammy, there's thirteen-year-old gang girls in Chicago that'd be embarrassed to be seen with a piece of shit like this. Not to mention dead." He spun the barrels. "Go into Cabrini waving this around, you wouldn't make it as far as the stairwell."

Cameron shot me a bewildered glance of appeal. I said, "Ray," warningly, but he ignored me, as I knew he would, prowling in a circle around Cameron, playing with the gun, shaking out the bullets and reloading them, checking the safety, testing the balance, talking the whole time, his words like quick jabs. "Money that tight up here? Somebody in the RCMP hate you, Cammy? Somebody got it in for you? Cause I tell you, sending a guy out with a piece like this, that's a hostile act where I come from."

Cameron was clearly trying to pull himself together and speak authoritatively. "Well, sir—detective—we're not in Chicago, you know."

Ray grinned, an unpleasant grin. "Oh yeah. Trust me, kid, I got that one figured out. That is one fact that hasn't escaped my notice. Chicago this is not."

He suddenly spun and raised the gun, sighting along the muzzle, aiming it rather too close to Cameron's head.

"Ray. Kindly return Constable Sinclair's weapon to him immed—" but he went on, completely ignoring me, talking over my words, though at least he lowered the gun.

"Of course, this piece of shit's got antique value. Hell, this is the kind of thing they used back in the days of Mad Sam DeStefano. You ever heard of him?" He didn't even pause for a response. "Course not. Now there was one crazy fucker." He laughed a little under his breath. "He was the guy took out Joey the Spoon. Picked him up one night, took him to a warehouse, hung him up on a meat hook. Went at him first with a baseball bat, just to kind of loosen him up, y'know? Then he got out the icepicks."

He was still circling, still pacing. Cameron stood rigid, mesmerized, following Ray only with his eyes. I knew I should intervene, but I was almost afraid to say anything. It wasn't apparent in any unsteadiness of voice or movement, but I knew how drunk he still was. "And this, this piece of shit, it would've suited Mad Sam just fine back then, but this is 1998, kid." He halted, finally, right in front of Cameron, very much inside his personal space. When Cameron made as if to reach for the revolver Ray smacked his hand away, leaned in still closer, and shoved it in the holster himself, and then, stepping back, gave him a little slap on the hip.

I had thought Cameron could hardly get any tenser, but he did. From somewhere, though, he summoned up the defiance to say, "It suits me just fine, sir. I can take care of myself with it."

Ray gave him a large and malevolent grin, baring his teeth. "Right, Cammy, but, see, that's not the point, is it? Cause you know, I really don't give shit if you get capped. That's not something that tips the bubble one way or the other. The point is—you gotta take care of him." His voice was suddenly so intense he was almost hissing. He grabbed Cameron by the elbow, jerked him around to face me. "You see him? That's your partner. Right? You've got his back. Right?" Cameron was trying ineffectually to pull his arm free. "You need to make sure you got that covered. You need to make sure you don't fuck that up in any detail whatsoever. Cause Cammy—if anything happens to him, you can count on one thing like the rock of Gibralter, you let anything happen to him and I'll find you. And when I do, you're gonna think Joey the Spoon got off easy." His voice was very serious now, soft, almost hypnotic in its intensity. "You watch out for him. Cause the guy can take care of himself, but he can't watch his own back, and anyway that's something you shouldn't need to be told if you've worked with him more than five minutes, but you don't strike me as a quick learner, Cammy."

Cameron didn't say a thing, just stared at Ray for a moment longer, then gave me a stiff nod and turned and walked out the door to the car. I knew I had to follow him, and as wrong at it was to leave things in this state, I was somewhat relieved at the prospect; at least I could count on Cameron not to launch any emotional scenes. I picked up my bag, then paused, feeling the need for some sort of leave-taking, but what I found myself saying was, "Ray—that was ... that was entirely and completely—"

"That's the kind of good guy I am, Fraser. You said it. You know it." He was almost swaying where he stood, exhaustion catching up with him at last. "Gonna catch some z's." He started to turn, as if to go toward the bedroom, but it was as if his body was working against itself—even as his legs went one way, his body turned back, and, stumbling, he surged over to me, against me, grabbing me in an embrace so hard it hurt, giving me a fast desperate kiss that landed in front of my ear. Then just as abruptly he pushed away again and headed for the hall.

"Ray." He stopped, swayed, catching himself with a hand on the wall. "Will you be here when I get back?"

He kicked one foot hard against the baseboard, leaving a black scuff. "Where the fuck else would I be?" Then he pushed off the wall and headed into the bedroom.


Three days later, I was on a flight back to Inuvik. The plane was small, and rather ineptly piloted; the weather was rough; several of my colleagues were looking a bit green. I myself was trying to read over a copy of the reprimand that Sergeant Gammell intended to place in my file, regarding my actions in the course of the raid.

("Damn it, Benton," he'd shouted at me, "it may seem harsh, but it's for your own good! I understand that you were successful in apprehending the man, but your orders were to hold your position and await direction, not to extemperaneously appropriate a piece of earth-moving equipment!" He'd lowered his voice then to a more conciliatory tone. "You have to get it through your head, son—you'll never rise to the position your abilities merit until you're willing to get a grip on the concept of teamwork." And I'd said nothing in reply, though I'd longed to tell him just how well I understood what true teamwork could be.)

The sergeant's handwriting bounced in time with the shuddering of the plane, sharpening my headache, and finally I gave up the effort. Now that our job was done, and there was nothing left to do but go home, I could no longer keep my thoughts from what might await me there.

I'd phoned before our departure, to let Ray know I'd be back that evening, and had been shamefully relieved to get the answering machine. But it had left me worried about whether—setting aside the issue of what frame of mind he'd be in, truculent or guilty or reckless—whether he'd even be there when I got back, whether he wanted to continue this relationship at all, and how we would mend this breach. Finally I told myself that fretting was wholly unproductive and that in any event there was nothing I could do about any of this at the moment, at least not from an altitude of 6000 meters.

It was near dark when I finally saw the lights of town glittering in the dimness, and felt the plane banking downward. Once I collected my hat and bag and got myself off the plane, I paused to exchange a few words with Gammell, and then looked around to find that Cameron had already driven off. I wanted to think that in his fatigue he'd probably just forgotten me, but had to admit to myself that he'd been taking pains to avoid me during the entire trip. In any event, I told myself, a 10 kilometer walk on a fresh evening would be restorative.

The solitude and peace were indeed pleasant, but about halfway to town my own fatigue caught up with me; I'd had little sleep the past few nights, had had no appetite for breakfast that morning, and by the time I got to town I was starting to sag. It was unfortunate, I reflected, that the most difficult part of my day was likely still ahead of me.

When I reached the house, lights were aglow behind the curtains, warm and welcoming, but I had no idea what might await me within. I wondered if Ray were there, if he would bombard me with anger, with remorse, with ... well, I didn't know with what, I had no experience with conversations of the sort I feared. I stood in front of the door for a moment, drawing in breath, straightening my spine; and then I turned the knob and went in.

It was warm inside; it was quiet; it smelled wonderfully of good food; and Ray was sitting crosslegged on the sofa, a magazine in his lap. He looked up as I came in, and when I met his eye he nodded and said, "Hey," in a soft voice. Just then Dief came barrelling up, full of reproachful comments, and when I straightened from greeting him and reminding him I'd been ordered to leave him behind, I saw Ray walking toward me, face neutral. He said nothing; when I shed my jacket, he took it from me and hung it up, wordlessly. Then he turned back to face me and we stood for a long moment, just looking at one another, silence deepening between us.

Abruptly, he broke it. "You look like hell."

I nodded. "The last few days have been rather tiring."

He went over to the table, pulled out a chair. "C'mon. Sit. I got some of that, uh, casserole thing you like."

As Ray dished up a plateful of food and poured a glass of milk, I sank into the chair. I hadn't realized until that moment just how exhausted I actually was. I wasn't certain if I could relax yet,though, or if I should stay braced for some sort of emotional sucker-punch. But Ray set the plate and glass before me without comment, and then leaned back against the counter, apparently willing to let me eat in peace.

The food was heavy and satisfying, a kind of stroganoff richly laced with paprika, and I wolfed it down. Once the edge was off my hunger, I leaned back with a sigh.

"So. How'd it go?" Ray moved around to take a chair facing me.

"The—?"

"The bust, whatever." He rested his hand on the table; his fingers danced a complex nervous pattern, but he was keeping the rest of himself unusually still.

I took a sip of milk. "It went well, I believe."

"Organized crime." His voice was soft. "That's what Darlene said, big-time mob guys. Bad shit at the diamond mines."

I was startled. "Darlene talked with you about the case?"

"Brought her some danish, she sang like a canary. I think I'm getting to her." He lifted one shoulder slightly.

"It was essentially a CID and Federal Services operation," I said. "We were just there to provide back-up."

One corner of his mouth twisted. "Sit still, shut up, follow orders. That kind of stuff?"

I nodded, and he nodded back; I wondered if he was recalling, as I was, the times we'd both been chafed by that yoke, side by side. It eased me enough that I added, "Though I must admit I fell short of entire compliance with that programme."

He stared at me, and then the bitter twist of his lips smoothed out into a near-smile. "You went off on your own hook." He waited for my nod before going on. "You did something screwy, you annoyed the feds, you pissed off the sergeant, except you also caught the bad guys in a, in a fishing net or disarmed a bomb or something like that, so he can't really be pissed at you and that makes him even more pissed. That it?"

"Essentially, though neither bombs nor fishing nets were involved." I yawned. "Sergeant Gammell is not entirely pleased with me, I'll confess."

He leaned forward. "Screw him. You got the bad guys, you didn't get hurt, you came back. That's what matters."

It certainly wasn't a point I was inclined to dispute; I was, in fact, entirely too exhausted for any further conversation. I pushed my chair back and stretched my legs, wincing a little as my boots rubbed against blisters, then bent with a sigh to start unlacing them.

"Here. Let me get that."

Before I could protest, Ray slid to the floor, kneeling in front of me, undoing the laces with a scowl of concentration. There was nothing subservient in his manner; I felt like a warrior home from the field, being tended by a comrade, one who understood the nature of battle fatigue, who could tender the rough kindnesses that made the combat bearable. I simply watched him, in a haze of weariness, occasionally forking up another bite of food.

When he finished pulling off my boots, he set them side by side, then sat back on his heels and looked at me. "You done?" I nodded, letting the fork fall back onto the plate. "OK. Get some sleep." He stood, took my hand, pulled me to my feet, and steered me to the bedroom, with a hand on my shoulder.

"I should probably shower—"

"Tomorrow. You're beat."

He helped me undress in silence, taking each garment from me as I fumbled it off. I crawled under the covers like a bear into its den, and I think I was asleep before he slid in beside me.

In the depths of the night, the depths of sleep, I became groggily aware of something pressing me down, something clutching—hands gripping me, a weight on my chest. I struggled, briefly, until I woke enough to realize it was Ray, holding me, his mouth moving urgently over my chest.

"Ray," I croaked. I felt drugged with exhaustion, pole-axed, and there was a frightening hunger in his caresses, with which I felt utterly unable to cope. "Ray. Ray, please hold on a moment—"

But he refused to listen to me, moving lower, to my belly, until finally I put the heel of my hand against his forehead, pushed his head back, forcing his gaze to me, and spoke to him as distinctly as I would to Dief. "Ray. You don't have to do this."

He pulled away from my hand, pushed it aside. "Yeah I do. I have to do this. Just—be OK with me. OK?"

I tried again. "You need sleep, Ray. I need sl—"

"I need to do this, please just lemme do this. Please." And without waiting for an answer, he bent again, taking me in his mouth.

I had seldom felt less aroused in my life—certainly sex was the last thing I needed at that point—and I wasn't at all sure that Ray's need was for this act, this connection, or whether it was to prove something, to me or to himself or to both of us, and I was far too tired to try to resolve it with words. Instead I lay back, let him do what he would, and tried to summon up some response to his endeavors. That response was lacking, however, until after a while, aware of his growing frustration, I reached in desperation for a memory I'd carried around with me for a long time, an image that had heated my lonely Chicago nights ... Ray, in his sojourn at the Consulate after Volpe's death, asleep on a sofa, barefooted, unshaven and tousled, in one of my flannel shirts, with his bare chest showing through the unbuttoned gap, legs sprawled wide and a hand tucked in the waistband of his jeans ...

It did the trick; but a minute later, as he crawled back up and flopped alongside me, throwing an arm across my chest and wiping his face on my shoulder, I had the strangest sense that I'd betrayed him, cheated on him; that just like him, in the face of a need I couldn't encompass, I'd fled, finding gratification in some phantasm.

Sleep pulled me back down swiftly, but before I went under, I could hear him, murmuring into my neck: I love you. I love you so much. God, I love you. His words flowed over and around and past me, as I dropped off into darkness.


We never talked about any of it again, did we, Ray? I had to be at work early the next morning, you were working overtime that night, days passed, new matters came up to distract us, and after a while I had no idea of how to re-open the topic, even if I'd wanted. So I never had a chance to tell you that, truly, I wasn't angered by the infidelity. It would have been silly to let it trouble me; you'd broken no promise, we'd never made those kinds of vows to each other, and I wasn't self-deluded enough to think that loving me meant you'd cease feeling drawn to women.

No, it was that—well, I never wanted you to feel you had to be someone else to be with me. I loved you as you were, rash, impulsive, passionate, and honest about it all; I simply wanted you to go on being who you were, with me, even when "being who you were" meant doing things that were bewildering to me. That you were just as bewildered as I, just as thoroughly in the dark, was a salient fact that escaped my notice. I was signally blind to how alien and demanding a role you were occupying, one that you had to improvise as you went along. Being Ray Vecchio was nothing in comparison to it.


I stood in the hallway outside the interview room, and took a moment to review the file once again. This wasn't my case, strictly speaking—Evans had made the arrest, but he had been scheduled to attend a Safer Communities Initiative meeting that evening, and had asked if I could take a statement from the prisoner.

The youth in question, Jason Handy, wasn't known to me, but that was likely because he had only recently returned from a stint at a juvenile offender work camp out near Lupin. He had, by age 16, accumulated a depressingly lengthy record of offenses—theft, vandalism, assault, and general hooliganism. His mother, on the other hand, was known to me—a chronic inebriate whom I'd several times had to collect from one bar or another. There was no father's name listed.

I closed up the folder, with a sigh, and opened the door. The boy was alone, sitting slumped at the table, his face buried in his folded arms. He didn't look up when I sat down opposite him.

"Jason. Where is your—"

He looked up at the sound of my voice, squinting. "Hey. It's the fag mountie. They send the fag mountie in to talk to me, huh?"

I disregarded that. "Constable Evans told me that Legal Aid was contacted on your behalf, and sent over an—"

"I told her to fuck off. I don't want a fucking lawyer." His voice was flat and slurred.

"Jason, you have the right to talk to a legal representative both before and while making any statement, and it's a right of which you should avail yourself. You should also understand that, as I assume Constable Evans informed you, you are under no obligation to make a statement, and that if you do, any such statement may be used as evidence against you." He gave no sign of paying attention. "Now, if you would prefer, you're eligible for services from the Native Courtworker Program, and I could—"

"Fuck that too." He pushed his greasy hair back. "I'm going to jail, right? Let's just do it."

"You should at least have your mother here, or some other adult family member, to safeguard your interests."

"That bitch? Why the hell would I want her here?" He stared at me, sneering, and as I studied his face, noting some anomalous features—the epicanthal folds, the short upturned nose, low-set ears, flat philtrum, undersized skull—I suddenly felt sick with disgust, though not at him. Fetal alcohol syndrome, almost certainly. I folded my hands tightly on the file, feeling my jaw clench with anger. He'd never had a chance. Doomed before his birth, damaged in his very making.

"So, you going to ask me some questions or what, fag?" The taunting, thick voice was hard to listen to, but I composed myself and leaned forward.

"Jason, listen carefully to what I'm telling you. You need to see a lawyer. Also, I'm going to request that you be evaluated by a doctor before you appear in Youth Court—"

"Awww, fuck that!" He jumped up, shoving his chair back and toppling it to the floor. "I'm not talking to any doctor!"

I pushed ahead. "Because if you don't—pay attention now, Jason, if you don't, it's likely, given your record, that you won't be remanded to open custody or given treatment, but will instead be sent to the Young Offenders Centre in Yellowknife. To prison, that is."

"Yellowknife?" He smacked a hand against the wall, but he seemed bizarrely gleeful. "Alllll right!"

I shook my head. "No, you don't understand, I said that you'll be going to jail, and—"

"In Yellowknife, right?" He nodded with vigor. "See, you don't get it, fag, I always wanted to go to Yellowknife. I got some buddies down there."

I took a grip on myself. "But, Jason," I said as calmly as I could, "you'll be imprisoned. You won't be seeing your—"

"And you know something else?" He was pacing back and forth, hitching absentmindedly at his pants; they were ridiculously baggy, in a style reminiscent of that I'd seen on youth gang members in Chicago. "You know what's the best part?" He stopped, facing me. "I'll be getting the hell out of this fucking town! Man, I hate it here! This has got to be the stupidest most boring fucking place in the world!"

"You don't understand—" I began, helplessly, but he cut me off.

"Aren't you supposed to be asking me questions? What happened was, that guy came out of the bar, he was drunk, I beat him up, he had five hundred dollars on him, I took it." He gestured at the table. "Now you write something down and I sign it, right? That's how it works, I done this before."

"Jason. I care about your well-being, and I'm trying to act with your best interests in mind. Now, you should not be making a statement until—"

"Let's just get this shit over with, huh?" Then he leered at me. "Unless you got something else in mind here. You like me, huh?" And to my shock, he made an obscene thrusting movement with his hips. "You want a piece of this, fag? You want to try this on for size?"

I stood, grabbed the file, strode to the door and threw it open. Standing in the doorway, I turned and addressed him. "I will type up your statement and have an officer bring it in for your signature. Please resume your seat."

I shut the door, hurried down the hall to my desk, and rolled a piece of paper into the typewriter, hands shaking with anger. By the time I had typed up a verbatim transcript of the interview and a waiver of right to representation, and had filled out the necessary paperwork for his transfer to Youth Court and for medical and psychiatric evaluation, my mood had settled somewhat, into a bleak and pervasive disgust. It was late, and my colleagues were bringing the night's usual assortment of belligerent drunks. There would be more of them the next night, and the next, and the night after that, endlessly. I kept thinking about the lives damaged, truncated, wasted; I thought about Jason's family, what I knew of them, a pitiful and fractured assortment of alcoholics and petty criminals, people whose noble culture and heritage were lost to them. I thought about what likely awaited Jason in jail, the pointless destruction of his young life, and about the havoc he no doubt would bring to other lives, before he died. And there was little, really, that I could do about any of it, except hew to my duty, protect those whom I could, save those who could still be saved.

I fnished my paperwork at last, and was preparing, with relief, to leave the building, when I noticed a folder in my inbox, with a note clipped to it in Sergeant Gammell's handwriting: I believe this workshop would be an excellent opportunity for your professional development, and will authorize funds for the fee and for your airfare to Edmonton. Please hold these dates on your calendar, and I'll arrange for someone to cover for you.

I opened the folder, and found a training brochure from the Canadian Police Association: "Into the 21st Century: Managerial Skills for Tomorrow's Law Enforcement Leaders." I scanned, with a sinking heart, the list of seminar topics: Elements of Successful Personnel Management; Employee Issues for Institutional Supervisors; Fiscal Management; Applying Challenge to Organizational Achievement; Mastering Change in a Transforming World; Practical Time Management; Unleashing Human Potential for Supervisors—the Covey Method.

My head was aching like an iron band was tightened around it, and I felt an overwhelming impulse to simply flee. But first I took a piece of paper from my notepad, and after a moment's thought, wrote Sir: I very much appreciate the consideration, and it's most kind of you. But I would be quite uneasy at leaving my duties during this busy time, and I also think that Constable Elston would be a better candidate for this opportunity, as he seems to have a great interest in administrative matters. I would be more than happy to put in additional hours to allow him to take advantage of this prospect. Again, I thank you for thinking of me.

I clipped the note to the folder, thrust it into the sergeant's mailbox, and fled. I walked for a long time, in the darkness, until the town was far behind me; and a part of me wished to simply keep walking, on into the wilderness, until even the faint glow of town lights disappeared behind me. But finally I slowed, and halted. The night wrapped around me as I stood, and the fresh crisp air eased the last of my headache eased away. I knew that I needed to turn back, that I was behaving like a self-indulgent idiot, acting as if I could walk away from my responsibilities. But still I stood for a long time, savoring the silence and the dark, before I began trudging back toward the town.


May 12, 1992

When I checked in at headquarters this morning, the Superintendant began haranguing me again about accepting a transfer to Kitchener. Trying to tell me I'm too old to be out in the field, that I should take it easier. I told him that when the day comes that I can't do my work the way I was meant to, he can just take me out and shoot me. For god's sake, what would I do behind a desk all day? Write my memoirs? He had no answer to that, and tomorrow I'll be off to look into that smuggling operation near Winisk.

There was a letter waiting for me from Benton. He's apparently asked for a transfer away from Moose Jaw, and will be returning to Fort Good Hope. That's a mercy; I don't know what in god's name he thought he was doing down there in the first place. The boy takes after me, in every way that matters, though of course he's got a lot left to learn. I can only hope he won't make all of my mistakes, in doing so.


One September evening, I came home to find Ray sitting on the floor, with his back propped against the sofa and his legs stretched out, staring at the blank and silent television. He had a bottle of vodka at his side, about an inch down from full, and a shot glass resting on his thigh. Dief nosed him in greeting, and he pushed Dief's muzzle away, without speaking.

I hung up my coat, walked over, and squatted down in front of him. "Ray. Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Fine." The reply seemed automatic, and I stayed where I was, watching him. After a minute, he turned and focused on me, blinking. "Sorry. Just a little ..." The glass began sliding; he caught it, picked up the bottle, paused for a moment, and then, to my relief, leaned over to set them both on the coffee table. He almost lost his balance, and I reached out to steady him, and then once he resettled I left my hand on his shoulder. He made an irritable shrugging motion. "I'm fine."

"Actually, I rather doubt that, Ray. You don't seem—"

"I got pink-slipped, is all."

I frowned. "Pink-slipped?"

"Laid off. Adios, it's been fun, have a nice day." He rested his hands on his legs, staring down at them. "Emma's cutting back the crew. Makes sense, building season's winding down. Said to call her in May, if she has an opening she'll put me back on."

"I'm very sorry, Ray." My head dropped, though not as far as my spirits did. I had been cherishing the hope that perhaps she would keep him on over the winter.

"Yeah. Me too." Ray pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. "I mean, I get it. I got no beef coming. Last in, first out, that's the way it goes. And some of those guys, they got families to support. I get that." He rested his chin on his knees. "I just ..." It was barely above a mumble. "I dunno what I'm going to do now."

He sounded forlorn, behind the hedgehog-like defensiveness of his posture, and I didn't have much of an idea about how to console him, other than by trying to direct his mind toward positive action. I stood, feeling unaccustomed stiffness in my knees. "Well, it is a shame, but after all, misfortune can often present fresh opportunities, for a man of resource and self-reliance, and I'm certain that diligent inquiry will turn up—"

With a vehement flail of arms and legs, Ray leapt to his feet; he grabbed the bottle and glass, poured and threw down a drink, and slammed them both back on the table. Wiping his mouth, he turned back to me. "Two things, Fraser. One, I do not want to hear about how all a guy really needs is a knife and some whale blubber and he should be fine. And second, you and me both know that the only reason Emma gave me that job in the first place is that she was being nice to you."

"Did I mention whale blubber? No, I don't believe I did, and in any event, she would not have kept you on if you weren't—"

"She would not have given me the time of freakin' day to begin with if it wasn't that she owed you one. It had zippo to do with me."

"Be that as it may, the fact remains that she kept you on, because—"

"—because she didn't have any options, she needed another warm body who'd at least show up sober most of the time." He pushed his hands over his face. "If she'd found another Inuit guy she thought could do the job, you better believe I'd've been out on my ass in a heartbeat."

Though I suspected he was correct, still I opened my mouth to dispute the point, but he held out a palm to me and went on.

"And I'm not blaming her, I get that, people want to hang with people they fit with, that's—sociological, or whatever. It just—it means I got a problem, 'cause I don't really fit in here. With anyone."

I took a step toward him. "I would question that, Ray. You certainly seemed to form a fine rapport with your fellow crew members, once they got to know you. You just have to give it time."

"Rapport?" He threw out his hands. "They put up with me, yeah, 'cause guess what, they didn't have a choice! But do you think they ever for one minute let me forget what a freak I am?" He was pacing now, punching out the words with his voice and his hands. "Weird-talking, American, queer, freak." Abruptly, he spun, pointing at me. "You know just how much of a fun time that is. I'm as big a freak here as you were back in Chicago."

It halted me, for a moment; the truth in his words stung. I half-opened my mouth to argue back, to say But that was different. Then I stopped again, realizing that the difference in question was that—well, simply, that I knew what had sustained me in Chicago, what had made the exile tolerable, was not the friendship of Ray Vecchio and Ray Kowalski, as valuable as those had been; rather, it had been my work, the one essential ground of my existence, the thing that would never leave me, that I could never lose.

"But you, at least you had something to do down there. And after a long hard day of catching bad guys and being a freak, you could head on back to the Consulate and watch curling with Turnbull and be all, Hey, we're in Canada, really!" He stopped pacing, and gave me a narrow-eyed stare. "Me, I got nothing here."

"For heaven's sake, Ray—" Then I stopped, hearing my father's voice, saying briskly, sardonically, There's no point in arguing with a man when he's in the right. I shut my ears to it. It was too unsettling to think that Ray might, in fact, be right. There was a difficulty here, to be sure, but it had to be amenable to solution, and my task was to find that solution, and convey it to him, in some fashion that he could accept.

"Be that as it may," I tried again, "as regards the more immediate issue of your finding alternate employment, we clearly need to take a more comprehensive and well-planned approach, which of course would involve regularising your residence status, perhaps some re-training, and—"

I stopped; he wasn't listening to me, he was at the desk, yanking open a drawer, pulling out a file hidden beneath a stack of papers. Striding back, he slapped the file down on the coffee table, flipped it open, and spread out the contents with one sweep of his hand. I recognized them immediately from my own anxious and furtive sessions on the computer—a printout of the General Occupations List from Immigrant Services, and the self-assessment worksheet for applicants. The worksheet was somewhat rumpled, and had a coffee stain on one edge; it was ornamented with doodles, including a fairly vivid sketch of a grinning skull being stabbed in the eyesocket with a dagger.

And it had numbers filled in the blanks, some in pen, crossed out and rewritten, some in pencil, showing signs of erasure and revision. At the bottom was the total, "50"—accurately summed, I noted—and next to it, in Ray's handwriting, the words "No FUCKING way," underscored with a heavy slash.

"Maybe you think I haven't been thinking about this, Fraser. But I ain't stupid." Ray was staring down at the papers. "OK. That's the best I could figure if I went for car mechanic, which is kind of hinky to begin with 'cause I've never done that for a real job. And it still leaves me ten points short from minimum for them to even take a look at me."

It was essentially the conclusion I'd reached, uneasily, in my own research, and I chastisted myself for the cowardice that had kept me from sharing it with Ray earlier, for having left him to thrash through this alone. "Well, that's why I was bringing up the concept of re-training. If we were to take a look at alternate occupations—" I reached for the list of jobs, but Ray grabbed it away from me.

"Already done that, Fraser, and I can tell you what they're looking for. Look at the high scores there. Audiologist, which I don't even know what that is—computer programmer—industrial engineer—occupational therapist—" He was scanning through the list, scowling at it, and then threw it back down. "I look like any of those to you?"

I picked up the sheets and glanced over them, putting mental tickmarks against a few entries—airplane mechanic, cook, heavy-equipment mechanic. "Well, there are certainly other feasible alternatives, ones which would require less in the way of education and credentialling." I looked up at him. "Of course, it would improve your score if you were to learn French."

"I do not want to learn French! How stupid is that, anyway? You see anyone speaking French around here? Does this make any sense to you, that I have to learn French so I can get to be an audiologist while freezing my ass off in the Arctic? And what the hell is that, anyway?"

It took me a moment to parse his question. "An audiologist diagnoses and treats hearing disorders, and for heaven's sake, forget about that, Ray, and let's set the language issue aside for the moment as well." He had walked restlessly over to the bookshelves and was sorting through his CDs, as though handling them calmed him in some way. "The point is—well, there are a number of directions you could go. Just as an example, Aurora College offers a diploma in aviation. You could train to become a pilot, which offers—" I consulted the list. "Fifteen EFT points."

"Y'know something, I thought about that one." Ray pulled out a disc, examined it a moment, put it back again. "Looked up the program. But what they want, Fraser, they want people who either they've lived up here a long time, or they're—what's that word, Aborigines?"

"Aboriginal," I said.

"What's with that, anyway?" He turned, squinting at me. "That doesn't seem real polite to me. I tell you, if I went up to someone in Chicago and called 'em an Aboriginal, they'd sock me in the jaw."

"It's a non-pejorative term which merely means 'of or relating to indigenous people,' and is widely accepted by all groups of—"

"What is this, the Fraser Encyclopedia Hour? Forget it. Look, this list—" He walked back over and stabbed one finger, hard, against the printout. "I can tell you one thing, 'cop' isn't in here anywhere, not even in some weird Canadian-talk." His face was hard. "And that's what I am. I'm a cop."

I could hear the stony finality in his voice, and knew that a frontal assault on it would be pointless. But I could not let it sink me, sink us; instead, I essayed a flanking manouvre. "It's a career that you've pursued with great distinction, Ray. But it isn't all of what you are. The skills that you developed in that career could be successfully transferred elsewhere."

"Fraser, you're not listening real good here. I told you. I'm a cop. That's what I am, that's what I know how to be." His voice got tighter. "Shit, you were the one that taught me that!"

No point arguing with a man when he's in the right; and yet I couldn't accept that, could not let it be right, because the only direction it led was down a road we could no longer walk together. And the fear that came with that thought led me to speak too fast, too carelessly. "I understand that it was your career, Ray, but you can't let yourself be defined by your career."

His eyes flew open, and after a moment his mouth curled upward in a rather savage grin. "Oh, now this, this coming from you of all people, this is—talk about freakin' hilarious. Can we get the cameras on this? Hey, Dief—" Without looking away, he gestured to Diefenbaker. "Can I get a witness, buddy?"

I could feel a red flush creeping up my neck, and without thinking I snapped back, "Perhaps I do identify rather closely with my work, but that's—" Then I caught myself, and the glint in Ray's eyes sharpened.

"Yeah, right, go ahead, say it, that's different, and then I can point out to you that the only thing that's different here is it's you instead of me, and when it's you, it's because you're the super-mountie, and when it's me it's just that I'm a big loser who can't adjust. Right?"

I bowed my head, clearing my throat. "No. Ray, you are most certainly not a loser of any kind. And I apologize if I seemed to belittle the significance of your connection to your work. I meant no disparagement. I merely wished to encourage you to think in a positive way about possible alternatives."

After a moment's silence, he dropped onto the sofa, with a whoosh of cushions, and let his head fall back. "You know what's really hilarious?" He stared at the ceiling, blinking. "You know what's the beauty part here? A couple of years ago, I was ready to walk away from it. Shit, I'd've been right there with you on looking for the alternatives. You know what happened?" He tipped his head to the side, looking at me. "You happened. You're what turned my brain around on that one. Working with you, it was like—OK, yeah, being a cop, now I remember why I wanted to do this!" He let his head roll back, shutting his eyes. "And now—you're the one telling me forget about it."

I sat down beside him, looking at him. The low sun angled through the window, catching the side of his face, highlighting the gold of his stubble, the creases of fatigue in the corners of his eyes, the scar that Kuzma's teeth had left on his ear. "I don't want you to forget about it, Ray, any more than I would ever want to forget what it was like working with you." He didn't look at me, and I leaned forward. "The passion and the courage that you brought to your work in the police force—they're part of you, they make you who you are, and they can find other outlets. That's all I'm trying to say. You need a challenge to match your abilities, and I am committed to working with you to find that."

"Challenge. Yeah." He still hadn't opened his eyes; his voice sounded far away. "Y'know what that reminds me of ... back when I was at college, one of my profs, he had this quote he made us all write an essay about. Something about how a guy's got to, uh, measure his powers or taste the coffee or something."

I bent and began unlacing my boots, searching through my memory. "Would it have been Santayana? 'To be happy, you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.'"

My voice faltered just a little on the last words, and I wished them back unsaid. Ray tipped his head toward me and shot me a slit-eyed glance. "Yeah, that's the one. Should've known you'd know it." He slid down a little further, thunking his feet onto the coffee table. "So I wrote about how the one thing I'd figured out so far was that college wasn't the right, uh, place in the world for me, and next day he grabbed me after class and started in with me about how I needed to let it be a challenge to me, I just had to find a good reason to be there, and I'd do fine."

"Well," I said cautiously, "I can't disagree with his assessment. You're an intelligent man, and certainly could have done well at college, had you chosen to."

He disregarded that. "There were a couple of other guys in the class, buddies of mine, they got so fired up by the whole thing they decided to drop out for a year and go to Alaska and work on a fishing boat."

"Indeed." Finally finished with the laces, I pulled my boots off.

"I was thinking about going with 'em, but my dad had a fit, he wouldn't front me the plane fare, which meant I would've had to sell the car, and then I got accepted into the Academy, and so—" He blew out a dismissive breath, adding as an afterthought, "Plus they lost their shirts anyway, they ended up bartending at some dive in Anchorage to pay for their flight home."

"Quite a youthful adventure," I said, not sure if this was simply Ray's mind ranging off on a side track, or if he was building to a point.

The latter, apparently, because he thumped his palms down on the sofa cushions and pushed himself upright. "Yeah. That's it right there, Fraser. Youthful. Here, look at this." He pushed his hand under my nose, palm down. "See that?"

I had always taken pleasure in looking at Ray's hands—strong, well-made, expressive—but as I gazed at the one in front of me, I could see the toll the last half-year had taken on him. Not just the faint marks of frostbite, but also the damage of his job—scarred cuts, a purpled fingernail. I felt a sudden surge of protective anger. He ought not to be a common laborer, he deserves better work than that. But there was little better that I, or this place, could offer him, and to cover the sense of helplessness that that brought, I said, "Would you like some ointment for that graze, Ray? It looks rather—"

"No, I wouldn't, it's healing up fine, and that's not the point! Look. Look at that." He pointed to some brownish marks on the skin, barely darker than his tan. "See those? You know what those are, Fraser? Age spots, that's what!"

It struck me, in the moment, as a rather ludicrous manifestation of vanity, and I patted his hand and straightened. "Probably just some minor damage due to sun exposure. A high SPF sunscreen would be—"

He leapt up and began pacing again. "Age spots is what they are, I seen 'em before, my dad started getting 'em when he started getting older. Right before the arthritis and the bifocals."

Watching the youthful energy with which he circled the room, it was hard not to dismiss his worries out of hand; and yet I recalled my own apprehensions, during the LaCroix case. "Certainly none of us likes getting older, Ray. But truthfully, you're in the prime of life."

"I don't know about any prime of life, but one thing I do know for damn sure." He stopped, facing me, silhouetted against the window. "I'm not a kid any more. Kids, they can do shit like run off to Alaska and pretend like they're salmon fishing. Kids think they got all the time in the world." I wished I could see his face more clearly, but he was in shadow. "Me—I know better than that."

I sat up straighter. "Well, I'm certainly not proposing that you launch off on some adolescent lark, Ray. No, you're not a youth any longer. Nor am I. The decisions that we make now have weighty consequences. Which is why it's important that we not go rushing around deciding things in the heat of emotion, but take the time to consider and discuss our options."

"Options." He was standing very still, uncharacteristically so. "I'm gonna be forty soon, Fraser. I don't got as many options as I used to."

"You're a man of many abilities, Ray, and—" He silenced me with a quick slice of his hand.

"The abilities I got, nobody up here wants 'em. That job I just lost? A chimp could've done that job. I am almost forty, Fraser. What am I gonna say on my deathbed? I hung a bunch of sheetrock, rah for me?" Again I wished I could see him more clearly; his voice, issuing from the shadows, without the usual vivid byplay of Ray's expressions, sounded impatient but also unusually grave. "I have to do something that means something, Fraser." He brought a hand up to rub his neck. "Maybe I been around you too long, and maybe this sounds stupid, but—I have to do something that—I dunno, makes a difference." He gestured helplessly, seeking words. "You know what I mean?"

I did indeed know very well what he meant; those words went right to the core of my being, and I'd seldom felt prouder of him than in that moment. I thought again, almost with rage, He deserves better than this. "I know, Ray. And I can tell you that your actions have made a great difference in many people's lives." Then I stood and moved closer to him, searching for some further kind of assurance I could offer him, however feeble. "And Ray—your being here makes a difference to me. It matters a great deal in my life."

He turned a little, facing me, and I could see him more clearly. "Well, that's sweet, Fraser." He looked flinty, impassive. "That's nice to hear, and maybe if I was, y'know, Suzie Homemaker, that'd be good enough. But I'm not, and it ain't. Not any more than that'd be good enough for you."

It stung, but with the sting of honesty; it shook me back to hard facts, which, rocky though they might be, were better than the fluff of soft words. "Point taken." I nodded to him, and walked back over to the table. "That's why we need to undertake a systematic review of vocational options, investigate occupational re-training programmes..." I picked up the papers and turned back, studying them. "For the time being we'll get your visitor status extended, and then we'll develop a plan of action that will get you over the 60-point threshhold, so that when you apply for permanent—Ray?"

He had his back turned to me and his headphones jammed onto his head, pushing his hair askew, and was clipping his Walkman onto his belt. I walked over to him and, tucking the papers under my arm, lifted the headphones off his ears. "Are you listening to me?"

"Does it look like I'm listening to you? Gimme those." He snatched them away from me, with a glare, and resettled them on his head.

"Ray," I said loudly, noting that he hadn't yet pressed the Play button, "this isn't helping anything. We really should spend some time looking over—"

"I have looked over that shit, Fraser, I looked over it till my eyeballs rolled up in my head. You want to waste your time on it, be my guest."

"Ray—"

"I'm wallowing, OK? Do I get just one lousy evening to wallow in the privacy of my own home, or do you want me to take my sorry unemployed ass somewhere else and do it? Hah?"

I stood silent, and he grabbed a stack of CDs from the shelf, went to the bedroom, and shut the door behind him.

After a moment, with a sigh, I put the papers back in their folder, and set them on the desk. The house seemed unpleasantly stuffy, and I took my jacket off its hook, gesturing to Dief. Perhaps a good brisk walk would settle me. I'd clearly mistimed my approach to Ray, and once he'd had a chance to recover from the jolt of being laid off, he could return to the whole subject in a better frame of mind. I'd just have to pick my occasion with more tact.

That occasion never seemed to arrive, though, and one day a few weeks later, when I was cleaning house, I emptied a wastebasket and found the print-outs crumpled and jammed in the bottom.


February 12, 1994

I made a side journey this morning, en route to Churchill, and stopped by Caroline's grave. I don't often go there any more, but that doesn't mean I think about her any the less. Grief's a faithful thing; to believe you've lived past it is as foolish as thinking, every spring, that you've outlived winter and that it won't come back again.

For many years after her death I berated myself for not having been able to protect her, for not having been there in time. I'll continue to regret those things for the rest of my days on this earth, of course, but with time I've been able to square up my shoulders and face the fact that I'd a great deal to regret about my behavior long before that. When I'm being honest with myself, I'll admit my deepest grief is that I failed so often to be the husband that she deserved.

And that's a wound that won't heal, because god knows I couldn't have lived my life and done my work other than as I have. What I could have done differently—well, I loved her more than life itself, and she gave me great joy, but had I been a stronger man I wouldn't have married her. As I knelt by her grave and brushed away the snow from her headstone, I knew that that was the most heartless thing I've done.


Autumn is a restless season in the north. In the depth of winter, or at the height of summer, time seems suspended, in the long unbroken stretches of darkness or light—rather like the pause when a clock's pendulum reaches the end of its arc, and seems to hang momentarily, halting time's passage. But just as a pendulum always descends again, speeding up as it swings, so in October the sense of time rushing past is almost palpable. Every day there's roughly eight minutes less light than the day before; every week darkness reclaims almost an hour. The first lasting snow falls; the cold takes hold, and begins inexorably tightening its grip. It evokes a sense of urgency—to lay in provisions, seal windows, repair gear. In the back of one's mind, always, is the awareness of the long stretch of deep cold and true darkness that lie just ahead, getting closer every day, and a driving need to ready oneself for that ordeal, just as a man contemplating death will strive to settle his affairs.

Ray's spirits mirrored the unsettledness of the season, and at times his mood seemed to be darkening in pace with the shortening days. He became shorter-tempered with me, and with the various minor inconveniences brought on by the changing season. One day I was misguided enough to try to reason with him that, after all, he'd been able to cope with brushing snow off his car in Chicago, which earned me a five-minute outburst.

Conversation in general grew more difficult; I kept a mental tally of topics that it seemed wiser not to open with him, which came to include the weather, the change of season, his job prospects, my current cases, the increasing urgency of renewing his visitor status, recreational and educational opportunities offered by the community, the doings of my colleagues at the detachment. We talked, like acquaintances, about politics (of which he knew little) and movies (of which I knew even less). We traded local gossip, like chance seatmates over coffee at the Sunriser. It grew increasingly difficult for me to rein in my annoyance with his apparent unwillingness to take a grip on himself and deal with the circumstances of his life, but I learned the hard way not to give voice to even the most temperate and rational expression of such feelings.

He was away from the house a great deal—mostly hanging out at one bar or another, I suspected, although I knew he'd also picked up a few odd shifts filling in for Elena at the Midnight Sun, when one of her children was sick. When he was home, he spent much of his time sprawled in front of the television, going through one rented movie after another, with a blanket wrapped around himself and Dief curled up at his side. (Dief, in fact, was increasingly choosing to spend his time with Ray rather than me, and was churlishly unresponsive to my inquiries as to his sense of duty and responsibility.)

He would crawl into bed, eventually, clad in a turtleneck, sweatpants, heavy socks, curling in on himself and pulling the comforter over his head; and on those increasingly infrequent occasions when he reached over for me, he was silent and urgent, as if it were too hard for him to take much time for tenderness. Afterwards, he would turn away again, curling up and pushing his back against me, and I would lie flat and look out the window, wishing I were far from the streetlights and yard lights, so that I could see the stars. Sometimes in the night I'd be woken by his shouting and flailing, in the grip of bad dreams, but once awake he wasn't willing to talk with me about them, though he'd let me hold him till he fell back asleep. Once I woke to find him standing at the window, in the dark, staring out at the falling snow, with his shoulders hunched and his arms wrapped around himself.

As the weeks passed, I found myself carrying out familiar rituals of preparation for the coming winter, with an eye to our shared comfort and security—stocking in enough provisions for two, hanging Ray's parka next to my own, carefully arranging the pairs of boots, mittens, skis, snowshoes, scarves, balaclavas, side by side. I pretended to myself that it was just good sense and forehandedness, but I knew that I was making talismans and weaving spells, just as pitifully as any silly girl plaiting her sweetheart's hair with hers into a lover's knot. I don't know which annoyed me more, the pathos of it, or the irrationality. If need and will weren't sufficient to keep us together, sympathetic magic certainly wouldn't carry the day. But I found myself doing it anyway, and checking buttons and zippers for good repair, and sealing cracks in boots. As if the storms approaching us could be kept out by proper gear.


One November day I was attempting to compile my activity reports and feigning attention to Darlene's running commentary on the G Division's latest newsletter. "My lord, Superintendent Shaffer has finally retired, that man must be a hundred years old . . . I cannot believe that Fort Providence is getting another snowmobile when I can't even get a computer that works half the time, but then Corporal Myers always seems to get what he wants, doesn't he . . . Oh, how nice, Constable, you'll want to hear this, Constable Akers and his wife had a baby."

"Excuse me?"

"Martin Akers, the officer you replaced. A little girl, it says. Isn't that lovely."

"I'm sure it is," I said, erasing a mis-entry. "I never met Akers myself, of course."

"I'll have to take up a collection to get them a baby present." She made a note on her memo pad, then read on, and I tried to return to my task. "Oh! Oh oh oh. What a shame."

Striving for civility, I said, "Yes?"

"Don Stansfield, do you know him?"

"I don't believe so, no."

"He's the constable posted up at Holman. Such a nice man, and his wife is a lovely person. He's been having heart trouble, they had to fly him down to Yellowknife for surgery and apparently he's decided to take early retirement and stay there. Well, that's a shame, he loved it up there, though I'm sure it won't break Laura's heart to be back down in the city." She tapped her fingers consideringly on the edges of the page. "I wonder who they'll find who's crazy enough to want to transfer up there now."

"To Holman?" I got up to sharpen my pencil.

"Mm-hmm. Now that place is truly the ends of the earth, I'll tell you." She watched me walk back to my desk, and then gave a tinkling little laugh. "You know what, Constable Fraser, perhaps you ought to look into it. You're the one other person in the RCMP besides Don who might actually like working up there, all by yourself."

Just then her telephone rang, and she set the newsletter aside, launching into a long conversation about the supply requisition. But as much as I tried to refocus my attention on my work, it was as though Darlene, in casually tossing out the idle chaff of her mind, had dropped a seed in my own head, one that took root and spread, creeper-like.

When I finally finished my reports, I went to make some tea. While the water heated, I scanned the bulletin board in the break room—not looking for anything, I told myself, just carrying out my too-often-neglected duty of staying up to date on administrative matters. And there, half-hidden by a flyer about the charitable fund drive, was the official notice: "Position Vacancy, Holman Detachment." Glancing around to make sure I wasn't observed, I took it down, read it over.

Single-member detachment. I had known that, of course, had recalled it as soon as Darlene had mentioned the posting. Candidate must be self-reliant, demonstrate independent decision-making skills and be capable of working without direct supervision . . . very traditional community . . . familiarity with Inuit culture, and knowledge of Inuinaqtun or other Inuit language, are highly desirable . . . extreme climate . . . preference given to applicants with proven experience in Arctic conditions . . .

I held the sheet for some time, staring at it, mind ranging far afield, until the shrieking of the teakettle brought me back to myself. I set the tea to steep, started to tack the announcement back up, then hesitated, and finally walked over to the photocopying machine and made myself a copy. Once I was back at my desk with my tea, I read over the announcement one more time, noting the final line—application deadline November 30—and then, cursing myself for a daydreaming fool, I hid it in my top drawer, under a pile of letterhead, with all the furtiveness of a man concealing a love letter.

That effort at self-deception was, of course, pointless; out of sight was by no means out of mind, and over the next week I found myself more than once sliding the drawer open, fingering the stack of paper, and then catching myself and slamming it shut. I found myself, in idle moments, envisioning a landscape harsher and purer than Inuvik's, and at night my dreams were often of my old life, before I ever went to Chicago, out alone on the trail with only Dief for company.

Finally, in considerable annoyance with myself, I decided that the only cure for my wayward imagination was to apply the corrective of rational investigation. One quiet morning, when there was no one within earshot, I dialed the Human Resources office of G Division, reasoning with myself that the odds were excellent I'd be told that they already had several highly-qualified candidates, or that they would give me some other piece of information that would effectively quash my romantic fantasies.

But instead, the personnel aide who took my call received my hesitant query with apparent delight. "Constable Fraser! What a pleasure to hear from you, and to know that you're interested!"

I scrabbled through my memory for some association with the woman's name. "Er—I'm sorry, have we—?"

"Oh, you wouldn't know me, of course, but years ago my sister-in-law worked for the corporal at Norman Wells, and she used to tell me all about you. Really wonderful stories. You were sort of a hero of mine."

"Indeed," I said, running a finger around the inside of my collar.

"In fact, do you know something, when we got this posting in, I actually thought about you. But I thought you were still down in the States! So you're where now?"

"I'm with the Inuvik Detachment."

"Oh, well, then, that's perfect, isn't it, Holman being a satellite of Inuvik and all. You should be able to make the transition very smoothly."

"Actually," I said with some desperation, "I was merely calling for a little additional information, on the chance that I might know of someone who—that is, I'm sure you already have a well-qualified pool, and—"

"Not a soul." I could hear her across the miles, clicking her tongue with some indignation. "Well, there was that one fellow from Halifax, but I think all he really wanted was to put as much distance between himself and his ex-wife as possible. Not a serious candidate, really."

"Ah. Well, I was really just indulging my curiosity, I shouldn't take any more of your—"

"I tell you what I'll do, Constable Fraser, I'll have Don Stansfield give you a call. Since he knows the posting so well, we've asked him to talk with applicants, just so they know what they're letting themselves in for."

"Really, I don't think it's necessary to trouble him."

"Nonsense! To be honest, I think Don's bored silly with sitting around home convalescing, he'd love a chance to talk about Holman. You'd be doing him a favor."

"Er—"

"I'll just give him a message to ring up the detachment headquarters there, would that be all right? I know he'll be eager to talk with you, he hated to leave Holman and he's been very anxious about getting the right person to replace him, someone who'd really enjoy the place. And I know you'd be perfect." That last was in a tone of such happy confidence that I couldn't find it in me to argue further with her; she rang off, and I spent the rest of the day hanging about the office as much as possible, eyeing the phone with trepidation and jumping every time it trilled. I told myself that I was being ridiculous, that there was certainly no harm in a simple chat with Stansfield, that he would probably be someone whose acquaintance I'd enjoy, that, as Sergeant Gammell once suggested to me, it would be sensible to strengthen my connections with officers in the division headquarters, and that things need go no further than that. My capacity for self-deception is certainly one of the less admirable aspects of my character.

But in any event, there was no call for me that afternoon. The next day was Saturday, and after a morning of chores, I phoned the detachment to make sure I didn't have any messages, and then went off to do grocery shopping, while Ray stayed home to watch a hockey game.

When I got back the house was strangely quiet—the television off, no music playing—and Ray was sitting at the kitchen table. His hands were folded in front of him, and he didn't look up as I came in the door, nor offer to help me carry bags. His moods had been unpredictable of late, and I told myself sternly that I would not try to cajole him out of whatever frame of mind he'd fallen into; instead I set the bags on the table and began unpacking the groceries, while he sat in unwonted stillness.

"I'm afraid the produce selection was fairly dismal, Ray. The carrots weren't bad, and I found some decent cabbage, but—"

"Fraser."

"Yes?" I was pulling out canned goods, stacking them on the shelves.

"You got something to tell me?"

My stomach gave a lurch, but I kept putting the cans in neat rows, telling myself I'd not actually done anything to feel guilt about. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"OK then. All right, you want to play stupid, we can do that. The name Holman ring any bells with you?" Involuntarily, my hand jerked, rattling the cans, and I could see that my reaction had not been lost on Ray. "'Cause here's the deal, I got a phone call, from some mountie named Stansfield, lookin' for you."

"Indeed." I kept stacking cans neatly, striving to maintain composure, though I could feel a red flush creeping up my neck. As shaming as it was to be caught out in a deception, it was nothing compared to the shame of realizing how witless it was to try to deceive both him and me in this way.

"He said he called the detachment, whoever he got told him he could maybe reach you here." Ray's voice was without expression. "I told him you were out, and then he says to me, 'Tell Constable Fraser the posting in Holman is still available, and I'd be glad to talk with him about it.'"

All the cans were shelved; unless I wanted to keep rearranging them indefinitely there was no further excuse for me to keep my face averted, and so I turned back toward him. "Well," I said brightly, "I don't know why he'd call me at home about a work-related matter."

"Work-related. Oh yeah." Ray picked up an onion that had rolled his way, turning it around and around in his hands. "And so I ask myself, being as how even though I'm now an ex-cop I still got a nosy sort of mind, I ask myself, just exactly why is my good friend Constable Benton Fraser so interested in the availability of some posting in someplace called Holman? This interests me enough that I fire up the computer, and I let my fingers do the walking." He banged the onion down with a thud, and strode over to the desk, grabbing a sheet of paper from the printer tray.

I was trapped, stripped of cover, and all I could come up with as diversion was a feeble "Really, Ray, I don't think that you need to concern yourself with—"

"Holman Detachment." Ray was ignoring me, staring at the paper, walking slowly back into the kitchen. "Western edge of Victoria Island. Latitude 70 north, which, I checked the maps, means it's even further fucking north than fucking Tuktuwhoosis. Average winter temperature thirty below zero C-degrees. 430 people, mostly Inuit, very traditional, big on the family values and the musk ox and all that shit. Native arts and crafts, that's the big economic powerhouse up there. Terrain: rocks. Lots of rocks. Maybe some lichens. And ... single member detachment. Just one Mountie, and 430 musk-ox-eating arts-and-crafts Eskimos." He looked up. "Sounds like Fraserville to me."

"Ray—" My voice sounded weak. "I was merely—ah, researching—"

He threw the sheet down and stepped right in front of me, pushing his face in mine. "Fraser. You're thinking about it. Right?" I opened my mouth, and he said "You lie to me about this and I'll fucking put you on the floor."

I spun away. "All right! It was a fantasy, a pipe dream!" Only in that moment was I finally able to admit to myself how dear a dream it was, how much I'd unconsciously been building on it. "Fair enough? Is that what you want to hear?"

I expected an explosion, but when he spoke, after a pause, he sounded more tired than anything else. "Since when does what I want to hear make any difference?"

"For god's sake, Ray, of course it makes a difference!" I turned back, to see him staring at the floor, shaking his head slowly. I tried again, realizing I didn't sound convincing even to myself. "It has always made a difference."

"No." He rested his hands on the table, leaning forward, sagging. "What's always made a difference is that you tell me what I need to hear. Whether I'm gonna like it or not. Like—you remember that time when you told me we might end up dead?"

"Which time?"

It was an honest question, actually, but he scowled at it. "When the stove got wrecked, and I asked you if we were gonna die, and I could tell, I could tell you were about to hand me some line of crap, and—then you didn't. You know how happy that made me? Even though I was in the middle of freezing to death and everything? I mean, shit—" He tightened one hand into a fist, thumped the table with it. "When the hell did it turn into this? Huh? Into you telling me a bunch of bullshit 'cause you think that's what I want to hear?" His eyes, when he looked up at me, were filled with pain. "I mean, just hit me in the face, why don't you?"

"Ray, I never meant—"

He shoved a palm toward me. "This has never—this whole deal—it's never been about what you want, or what I want. It's about what—you and me—what we need. Right?"

I had no answer to that. Ray bent, picking the paper off the floor. "And so I been sitting here thinking, and I'm thinking what you need to do—" He folded it carefully in half, sharpening the crease with his thumbnail. "What apparently you need to do—is to get out of this place. Which, weird though it may seem, also happens to be what I need to do." He looked up at me. "So—you could say we're kind of on the same page here. Right?"

It unnerved me, the wary, tentative note of hope in his voice, made me apprehensive, and I sought to deflect whatever was coming next. "Certainly there are some aspects of my posting here that are less than ideal, but after all, life is filled with imperfections, and though I might at times succumb to fantasies of flight, part of functioning as a rational adult is learning to compromise and cope with those imperfections, which is something I'm eminently capable of doing."

"That's a beautiful sentence, Fraser." He set the folded sheet of paper on the table, tapped it with a finger. "And it's crap. You wouldn't even be talking to somebody about a transfer if you weren't miserable here."

"Ray, that's a wild overstatement."

"This place makes you feel squashed." He made a squeezing motion with his hands. "The boss, the town, whole nine yards. I get that, I know how you feel. And—"

I could almost feel those hands, as if they were squeezing the air out of me. He was too close to the truth. "You seem to be making quite a few assumptions about how I feel," I said curtly.

"Yeah, well maybe all I can do is make assumptions, 'cause you won't tell me this stuff!" He threw out his arms, paced all the way down to the far end of the living room, stood for a second, then turned. "OK, OK, I was never gonna say this, I swore I was not gonna say this. Shit." He walked back, stopping several paces away. "OK. Come back to Chicago with me."

I stared at him. His chin was up, his eyes glinting. It was not a plea, but a challenge, the gauntlet flung down, and it was like—well, it was like the moment in the cabin, all those months before, when he'd leant in and kissed me for the first time. A shock that ripped my world apart, and yet not really a surprise; the eruption of something that had been building for a long time, below my awareness. And, just as then, I knew that this would change us forever, that he'd taken a leap there was no backing out of.

When I didn't answer, he pushed on. "Yeah, and let me do the honors here, this is where you say, 'I can't do that, Ray,' and I say, 'Why the fuck not?', and—and so you tell me, Fraser, why the fuck not?" He was advancing on me, jabbing at me, fingers, eyes, even his hair seemed to be spikily on the attack.

"It's not that simple." I moved around behind the table, knowing it to be a retreat.

"Why not?" He threw his hands out. "Looks like a pretty simple one-two to me. One, I cannot hack it here. I admit it, I give up, uncle. I'm beat. Doneski."

"Ray, it's only been a few months, you haven't really given it—"

"And two," he shouted, overriding me. "Two, you're sick of this place yourself. You're sick of the drunks and the gossip and that asshole Gammell and that apple-polishing little moron of a partner they gave you. You want out."

"That's an exaggeration, Ray."

"And that's bullshit, Fraser." He picked up the folded paper and brandished it at me. "I call bullshit on all that crap about how you can compromise and you can cope. You were willing to go sit on a fucking lichen-covered iceberg with the musk ox, just so you could get away from this place."

"There are other—" Then I stopped, clamping my mouth shut, knowing there was no place to go with that sentence that wouldn't do further damage.

"Right!" Ray nodded hard. "Thank you! I kinda knew already that there had to be some other reasons you were thinking about it, Fraser, but what I need your help with here, I need you to help me figure out—was it just 'cause hanging out with the musk ox sounds like your idea of a great time? Huh? Or was it maybe—" He took a step closer. "Maybe was it because you knew perfectly well that never in a million fucking years would I go live in that place? Is that it?"

"On the contrary, Ray. That is precisely why I would not, in fact, pursue it. It's not a realistic option for us. I comprehend that." Trapped again, outflanked, outmanouvred; he was way ahead of me. My only option was retreat, but I was no longer sure in what direction retreat lay, what ground he and I could occupy together.

"For us. Yeah. Yeah, that's the nut right there, isn't it?" He turned, and walked over to the window, staring out. A light snow was drifting down, out of the hazy sky. "I don't know what you're thinking, Fraser, but let me clue you in on one thing in case you haven't figured it out already, which is, I have got to get out of here." He paused, lifting a finger to doodle random patterns in the condensation on the pane. "You—you got options. You can sit here in Inuvik, by yourself, but hey, you'll have Cammy and Gammell to keep you company, so you oughta be happy. Or you can go up to Holman and hang out by yourself with the Inuit, and maybe you can make a nice sideline income selling rocks to the tourists. Or —" He swiped his palm over the glass, erasing the marks he'd been making. "Or you can come back with me." He turned, then, and looked at me. "Doesn't have to be Chicago. I guess we could go someplace else."

"Had you perhaps gotten as far as identifying some other feasible location?" It was a stalling tactic, since I was fairly certain I knew the limits of Ray's disposition to plan ahead, but the ground felt shaky under my feet, and I needed to carry the battle back to his turf.

"I don't know!" He flung his hands out. "Take a look around, why don't you, it's a big world, there's gotta be some place where you can do your thing and I can do my thing."

"My thing." I took a harder grip on my temper. "What precisely do you conceive my thing to be, Ray? Shuffling papers in an urban bureacracy, perhaps?"

"Cut it out," he snapped. "Catching bad guys, that's your thing. That's my thing, too. Put that big brain of yours on it, Fraser, there's gotta be some way we can—" Again, he gestured eloquently, bringing his hands together, interlacing his fingers; and again, I could feel those hands as if they were squeezing me tight, choking the air out me. I spun away and strode to the far end of the house, to the window that looked out away from the town, and leaned against it, breathing deeply, resting my face on the cold glass. Closing my eyes, I tapped my forehead against the pane, feeling it shiver gently under the impact.

After a minute, I heard Ray come up behind me. "Hey." He was quite close, and despite myself I tensed up all over, shoulders stiffening. "Don't go disappearing on me here, Fraser. We're in this together. Right?"

I lifted my head, opened my eyes. It was starting to get dark out, and though I could still see the trees, the snow, the open land and the horizon, I could also see Ray's face reflected in the glass, a phantasm overlain across the landscape. I let my eyes focus on one and then the other—near, far; inside, outside.

"I don't like this any more than you do, but we gotta get it out and kick it around. Right?" He was striving to be conciliatory. "C'mon, Fraser, work with me here."

With an effort, I half-turned toward him, one hand resting against the window. "Ray. You asked what it was that aroused my interest in the Holman posting. You raised the point, a moment ago, of what precisely my—thing is." I tapped a finger against the glass. "That. That's it."

He gave me a dubious look, and then took a step forward, peering out. "That's—you mean the town?"

I sighed. "No, I don't mean Inuvik."

He shoved his hands in his pockets, pulled his shoulders tight. "There's nothing out there, Fraser."

"You don't underst—"

"I'm telling you there is nothing! Out there!" He took a long step back from me, from the window. "There's nothing but a million miles of snow and cold and maybe some caribou. That is not any kind of a place where a person can live!"

"It's where I'm most alive, Ray." I didn't move, keeping my hand pressed against the glass. "It's what I need to be truly alive."

He looked at me a moment longer; then he turned, and walked back to the light and warmth of the kitchen, and dropped into a chair, legs asprawl. I followed slowly, and sat down opposite him.

Neither of us said anything for a minute, and then he sighed deeply and pushed his hands through his hair. "OK. Um ... Montana, maybe? They got lots of nothing there."

"Frankly, I doubt that the law enforcement system of Montana has any more use for a Canadian mountie than the RCMP does for a Chicago detective."

His mouth tightened. "OK, fine, shoot me down. You got any bright ideas?"

"Well, there are, of course, other detachments in the NWT and theYukon, but I seriously doubt they'd constitute an improvement, from your point of view."

"Yeah." A moment passed, and then he leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. "I dunno, Fraser. I don't know what else I can say here, except for one thing. I'm outta here, whether it's next week, next month, whatever. I'm gone. That's as far as I can figure things. So—help me out here, huh? Now's the time to make with one of your plans." He moved a hand in an aimless circle on the tabletop, not looking at me, waiting. Trusting in me, trusting I could come up with something that would bring us through this together.

And abruptly I could feel something in me buckle, under the weight of that trust. I had always known, or feared, I would let him down one day; it appeared that day had come. "I don't know what to tell you, Ray. I'm afraid I have no plan."

"Bullshit." He curled his hand up into a fist. "Don't give me that, you always got a plan."

"One can only plan when one has taken into account all variables and imperatives in a situation, and I'm afraid that until today I hadn't—"

"Don't do that." He swept his whole arm across the table. "Look, I told you what I'm thinking, I told you what I need to do, now you do the same for me, OK? Even up? And then we'll figure something out."

The dogged hope in his voice left me feeling helpless. "I don't know what I can add to what I've already told you."

"You haven't told me jack shit!" He leapt up from his chair and came toward me, shoulders hunched, crowding me. "Make up your mind, Fraser. You gotta let me know what you want to do here. Figure it out, and cough it up."

I stood and took a step back, away from him. "Don't force me to this choice, Ray. Please."

"What, this is my fault? I'm not forcing you into anything here. This is just—it's where we already are. This is it. You have to choose something." His tone turned hard. "Me, I got no choice. I'm outta here. I'm going home. And—" His voice cracked; abruptly, he went to the cabinet for a glass, filled it with water and drank it down. Only then did he turn back to face me. "And I want you with me. You gotta know that, Fraser." He was gripping the empty glass so hard his knuckles were white. "I can't make you come with me—shit, I know better than to think I can make you to do any-fucking-thing. So ... I'm asking you. Come back with me. Please."

There are, in life, moments of absolute inexorability; the moments of birth and death; the moments you feel a crevasse crumble under your feet, or a bullet enter your body. In such moments, there's no issue of choice, just the knowledge that something is happening that's beyond the power of your will. I opened my mouth, and what came out was "I can't do that." It wasn't even an argument, I knew as soon as I said it, just the simplest and most banal statement of fact. The earth revolves around the sun, the speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second. I can't go back with you.

I could see that Ray heard the finality of it, I could see him rock back for just a moment, as if struck; and then he struck back, stabbing at me with a finger. "Fuck you. Fuck you. You son of a bitch." He slammed the glass down onto the counter. "Just like that, huh? Just—it's been swell, you go your way, I'll go mine, and that's that?" He was breathing hard.

"Ray—"

"It's that easy for you? Just hang 'er up and walk away?"

"For god's sake, Ray, do you think this is easy for me? Do you think—" My voice broke, in mid-shout, and as ashamed as I was of losing control, my outburst seemed to deflect his anger. I could see him take a deep breath, calming himself, and then he took a step toward me, reaching out a conciliatory hand.

"So why do you have to make it this hard? Don't be so stubborn, hey?" He touched my arm lightly, pulled back again. "You did it before, living down there. Maybe it wasn't perfect, but it was OK. You could do it again. Right?"

The gentleness, the reasonableness, were harder to bear than his anger; though I had to steel myself against them, I couldn't brush them aside. "The time I spent in Chicago was indeed an important part of my life, Ray, and I don't regret it. It taught me a great many things—about friendship, about partnership—there were good aspects to it." I paused, and Ray leapt in.

"Right, and we can get that back again. Just—c'mon back with me, we can work something out, talk to Welsh—"

There was a terrible temptation, in that moment, to simply give in, go along, to let myself remember only the good times. But I could not think of Chicago without also remembering the pain—the endless nights of longing for my home, the yearning to plant my feet, not on cement, but on familiar earth, to look up and see, not the murky haze of city lights, but the stars, glittering in the cold sky, the stars that would always tell me where I was, where I belonged.

And to think of Chicago was, inevitably, to remember the last time that someone had said Come away, come with me. I shuddered away from that memory, and looked up to find Ray watching me, head angled.

"Fraser? C'mon, what's going on in there?" He shoved his hands in his pockets. "What do you say? Let's do it, huh?"

Such a weight of nervous hope in his voice, his eyes—and to let that hope live would be the ultimate cruelty. There was no way out of this but to bulldoze straight through it.

"Ray—for all the good aspects of my life in Chicago, the fact remains that not a day went by that I didn't wish myself back here. Not a day passed without a reminder that, however long I stayed there, it would never be my home." I looked down, unable to meet his eyes, to see what my words were doing to him. "Life up here is hard, I'll acknowledge that. And if you choose to leave, it will be harder still. But—it's often hard to do the right thing, Ray. I know that very well. It takes strength to live my life the way I must, the strength that comes from being where I belong, standing on my own ground. I have that now." I took a breath and blew it out, staring down at my fists on the table. "I can't give it up again."

There was silence, and then a thump as he dropped into a chair. When he spoke again, the hope was gone out of his voice; he sounded wretched. "So—what're you saying, Fraser? You saying this is the right thing? To just—just throw away what we've got?"

I could hear the shake in his voice, the need and the grief, and for a moment I ached to give in, to somehow find some way to make it better for him. It was misery to know how much pain he was in, and all of it my fault. But Victoria's ghost was still lurking in my head; I could hear her again, in my mind's ear, as clearly as if I were back in the car with her, that hellish night: I need you. I want you to go away with me.

You know I can't do that, I had told her; and when she answered, her voice in my mind was oddly, terrifyingly, mingled with Ray's: Why not? You don't have much to stick around here for.

But now I did, and I knew what it was.

"I've no desire to throw away what we have together. But—I've made terrible mistakes in the past, Ray, grabbing senselessly for what I thought would make me happy. I can't make such mistakes again." I looked over at him; he was slumped deep in his chair, staring at nothing. "It would end up harming both of us. If I were to go against my better judgment and return to Chicago—well, not only would I end up regretting it for my own sake, but it would be a most grievously unfair thing to do to you. Can you see that?"

He looked up at me, hesitated, and slid, implausibly, even lower in his chair. "Look," he finally said. "Is part of this about—I mean, I know I've been saying all along I'm OK with this, but—"

"This?"

He flicked his hand impatiently between us, that gesture he characteristically used to denote our relationship. "This. Us. Which is something that even though I've been saying I'm OK with it, and acting like I was OK with it, I have also sometimes lately acted like a real jerk to you, and maybe you were thinking I wasn't really. OK with it, I mean. And maybe that's part of what you're thinking here, that I—uh—that I'm not happy with this." He swiped a hand over his face. "And maybe sometimes, total honesty here, maybe sometimes I was kind of weirded out by the whole thing. But—Fraser—" He was intent; I could feel the care with which he was choosing his words. "You have to understand something, I have really, totally, achieved okayness with this. I am on board. You know?" He hesitated just a moment, and then said flatly, "I love you." It was the first time he'd said those words outside of bed. "I love you, and I don't want to fuck this up. OK?"

Having gotten it out, he looked up at me, and I could see in his eyes the intensity of the wish—let this change things, let these be the magic words that make everything right.

"Oh, Ray." My hands shook with the desire to reach across to him, but I held them back; to do so would be an act of unkindness. "That was never the issue. I never truly doubted how you felt toward me. But—sometimes, love isn't the point."

I could see him take that in; as an act of penance, I made myself endure the pain of watching, as hope crumbled within him.

He got up, slowly, moved around the kitchen with no apparent aim, until he stopped at the sink, planting his hands on the rim, leaning over it, shoulders sagging.

"OK, then. Say it." His voice was rough. "Just—suck it up and say it. You don't need me."

If there could only be magic words to make it all right—but there was no right to be made here, in this wreckage, and no magic in any words of mine. All I had left to give that was worthy of him was simple honesty, simple truth. "There are things I need more."

He nodded. I kept watching him, blinking through the blur in my eyes. I had known the pain of failure before, of loss, but never pain quite like this. Get used to it, I told myself. You should feel this for the rest of your life.

For a long minute there was no sound but the clock ticking, and his ragged breathing. Then he pushed himself upright, strode past me without a glance, grabbed his jacket, and headed for the door.

"Ray?" I had to clear my throat. "Where are you—"

The only answer was the slam of the door behind him.


And after that ... well, I had expected further exchanges; remembering his conduct with Stella, even after their divorce was final, I'd braced myself for confrontations, arguments, pleas. But it was as if a door had been slammed, locked, and bolted between us. He slept on the sofa; he got his meals at odd intervals, when I wasn't around. He seemed to take pains to be out in the evenings, and to return only after I was in bed. There were, inevitably, some conversations—hurtful and bitter ones—but he made no attempt to plead with me, to change my mind.

There was the day when I came home to find a message on the answering machine: "Stanley? Honey, I just wanted to say that your dad and I are going to talk to the man at the bank on Monday, we should be able to cash out one of our CDs and send you the money, so you can go ahead and order your ticket, and don't worry about paying us back, sweetie, we're just so glad you're coming home safe. We've missed you so much." There was a day when I came home to find the living room full of boxes, piled full with his compact disks. Then, a few days later, the boxes were gone, along with his stereo equipment, and the shelves stood bare and empty.

As for me—the day after my conversation with Ray, I phoned Stansfield, and then spoke again with the clerk at Human Resources. A week later, I placed the transfer request on Gammell's desk, and waited while he read it through. All he said was, "I'm disappointed in you, Benton," before he initialed it and dropped it in his outbox, dismissing me.

Each day I worked from early morning until well into the night, clearing my cases, organizing and re-organizing my files. I ordered a winter's worth of supplies and provisions to be shipped to Holman. I negated, as tactfully as I could, Darlene's plan for a going-away party.

I had a conversation with Dief, one evening when he'd stayed home rather than going out with Ray. "It's your choice," I said to him, as he stared back at me across the width of the living room floor between us. "I can't promise you anything but a hard life in Holman, and I know that Chicago gave you a taste for the creature comforts." I stopped and took a breath, as he gazed at me steadily. "I know that you and Ray have formed a bond. It's possible—I can't speak to this with any authority, but it's possible his need is greater, at this point. And, as you know perfectly well, I have no claim on you." I swallowed, watching him for some sign. "All I can say is that—I'd be glad of your company, as I always have been. But I leave the choice to you."

A long moment passed, as we watched each other silently. Then he stood, stretching, yawned, as if bored with human histrionics, and walked over and settled at my feet, pushing his muzzle against my leg. I slid off the sofa and sat on the floor beside him, wrapping an arm around him, burrowing my fingers into the warmth of his fur. "Thank you," I whispered, and he grumbled softly back at me.

I pushed on through the days, head down, counting off the hours as they passed. The sun made its final few glimmering appearances on the horizon, and then disappeared into the long darkness. The deep cold arrived, settled in, and as I moved through it on my daily duties, I felt it as a comfort, the numbing pain it brought an antidote for the pain inside me. It felt familiar; it felt like home.


Once, Ray, back in Chicago, a woman sat down across from me in a cafe, apparently seeking conversation and company. She asked me where I was from, and when I told her, she embarked on a rambling exegesis of the compass directions and their spiritual significance. "Every direction has its element, its color, its time of day, its symbols," she said, waving around her clove-scented cigarette. (I'd asked if she'd mind extinguishing it, since we were seated in a nonsmoking section, but she'd simply said, "I know the owner." That seemed beside the point to me, but she'd started talking again, so I let it go.)

"North," she'd told me, "is the most powerful direction. Its element is earth, and it represents the center of the earth. Its color is black. Its time is midnight. Its season is winter. North represents silence, and the power to keep secrets. It represents death, the ending of things, as well as their rebirth. And—" She pointed at me with her cigarette. "North is the home of the great cauldron, where all of us go at death to be melted down, and to be reforged as something new. The place of transformation."

I thanked her, inquired about her own home (it turned out that she was from Waukegan originally) paid my bill, and took my leave. At the time I merely thought she was just a slightly unbalanced young person who'd gotten a muddled version of the Wiccan cosmology in her head. Now—well, I still think she may have had the symbolism confused, but no matter. Now I think that she did know something about the north that I had never clearly understood; that it is the place that will unmake and remake you; that to survive here you must allow it to melt you down and recast you as its creature, its creation.

I have no idea who I might have been had I been born elsewhere. Perhaps I would have been someone with more elasticity, more give in my nature. Or perhaps not; you, born in Chicago, have as much iron in your soul as I. If all the grief of these past months has proven one thing, it is that. Deep inside, you have something harder than iron, something shaped by the steel mills and cement sidewalks, the piece that will not be melted down, that could never be recast by this place, any more than I ever was by yours.


 

And life continues.


Overhead, the loudspeaker crackles on, pulling me out of my reverie, back to the present. "Canadian North flight 444 from Edmonton is now arriving at gate 3. Those of you waiting to depart on flight 445 back to Edmonton, our apologies for the delay. Just give us a few minutes to get everyone unloaded and clean the cabin, and we'll be ready to board. Again, we thank you for your patience."

All around me is a rustling commotion as people straighten in their seats, gather up belongings. I sit up, look around, and find Ray standing at the window, watching the straggling line of passengers as they disembark and cross the tarmac, their breath rising in small clouds.

He turns, abruptly, to find me watching him, and I expect him to turn away again, but instead he holds my gaze for a moment, then walks slowly over to where I sit, rubbing his face. He no longer looks combative, fierce—only tired, like a man at the end of a long journey, rather than one just setting off.

"So." He drops into a chair opposite me, and leans forward, arms resting on his knees. "This is it, I guess."

I nod, wishing I could find something to say, but there are no words left. We've talked them all out, the last two weeks, in those outbursts of bitterness, anger, regret.

But Ray, as it turns out, has a few words left. "Fraser ... I just wanted to say—while I still had a chance here, I wanted to say thanks."

That startles me so much that my head jerks up. "Thanks? For what?"

"For, uh, helping me figure some stuff out." He's staring down at his hands, twisting them together. "Not that that was what you thought you were doing, I guess, but—and not that I've got it figured out, y'know, but at least now I got a clue about what it is I need to figure out."

He gives me a swift glance, then drops his head again, speaking so softly I can barely hear him over the bustle around us, the greetings and embraces of friends and families reuniting. "I never got it with Stella, 'cause—slow learner, I guess." He lifts a hand and thunks his knuckles against his skull. "But I think I got it straight now—y'know, that I can't put any of this off on anyone else. Not on you, not on her, not on anyone. That just isn't ever gonna work." He scrubs at his eyes with the back of his hand, but he doesn't seem in any danger of tears. I suspect he has wept at times, these past weeks—lord knows I have—but he's never let me see it.

In that moment, I feel that I'd give anything to start over, to go back to the very beginning (but where would that be, after all?) and do it all over, differently. But even as I think that, I realize how foolish it is. We are who we are, he and I both. I say slowly, "Perhaps it's I who should be thanking you, Ray. For the same thing."

He looks up at me, tries a smile. "Yeah? You think?" For just a moment, there's a last flicker of that connection between us, that bond that carried us up against death itself and back again together.

Then the loudspeaker hums overhead: "All right, ladies and gentlemen, we're ready to begin boarding flight 445. Please have your boarding pass ready, and we thank you again for your patience."

Ray jumps to his feet, grabs his bag and slings it over a shoulder. "OK. Um. So, this is it, I guess." But instead of moving, he stands awkwardly, looking nervous. Then, shifting his bag, he sticks out his hand toward me. I'm too surprised to react for a moment, and then I reach out, take it in a hard grip, hold it. In that moment, I can't even meet his eyes; instead, I look down at his hand in mine, Ray's hand, which has touched me in places and ways no one else ever has, ever will again. And, as if that contact cracks something in his self-control, he lunges forward, grabbing me, and I wrap my arms around him in an embrace. It was how we'd met; the first moment we'd seen each other, he'd hugged me, two strangers, neither of us really knowing a thing about the other. Now we knew everything we'd ever know, and in that embrace I feel the click of a circle closing.

Then Ray pulls away, turns, joins the line of passengers. In a few minutes, he's out the door, sprinting across the icy runway and up the ramp, not looking back.

I stand and watch as the other passengers board, as the ramp is wheeled away and the door made fast, as the engines roar to life and the plane shudders into motion, rolling slowly down the runway. I stand as erect and unmoving as I'd stood all those hours outside the Consulate, a statue, nothing touching me, and watch, as the plane taxies, turns, gains speed, and parts from the ground. It arcs up into the sky, a swift straight slice of motion through the air, as sure and confident as Ray had always used to be in his movement through life. As he will be again, someday. The plane grows smaller, its running lights fainter, until it vanishes, arrowing toward the sun's dim glow in the south, and the vapor trail it left has dissipated in the frozen air.

By force of habit, I try to sort out what I'm feeling, make sense of what I'm thinking, find some conclusion. But I have no answers, not yet. The only words that come to me aren't mine at all, but my father's, the last thing he said, the last words he gave me, before he too turned and left my life forever: Nothing's permanent, son. Nothing's permanent. Our journey together is over, and yet we have no choice but to keep traveling, each of us on our separate roads.

Finally I turn and make my way out of the noisy terminal, into the darkness and the cold. Somewhere behind me, Ray is flying south, toward the sun; but the glow that guides my own steps is the shimmer of the aurora borealis, and it lights my way as I head north, toward my home.

 

End