Author's website: http://purna.aukestrel.com
Disclaimer: No money made. I don't own these guys.
Author's Notes: Big thanks to Beth H., who read an early draft of this story. Her keen comments made me sit down and listen to what Fraser was trying to say. Enormous thanks also go to Sihaya Black, who tamed the adverb monster and whose excellent suggestions were invaluable. And finally, thanks to Kalena, chief handholder, bestest friend, who read this thing in countless incarnations and was unfailingly supportive.
Motion caught my peripheral vision, even through the lustful fog that filled my brain. I turned my head slightly, not pulling my mouth from where it teased Ray's ear. Our reflection had caught my attention, captured in the large mirror bolted to Ray's closet door.
My mouth went dry. Ray's back and side were reflected -- lithe muscle tensing then relaxing, the hint of a darkened smudge of nipple. The image was a seductive confusion, his lean, golden thigh draped over the paleness of my hip, a tattooed arm nestled over my own. A moan escaped my lips and a shiver ran through me.
His long fingers tugged my face away from his ear. "What is it?" he asked, his voice breathless and ragged.
"Look." I nodded toward the mirror, my eyes caught once more by our reflection, framed by the arms of Ray's flight jacket draped over the closet door.
He blinked for a wordless moment, then twisted his head around. I felt his chuckle start before I heard it, then he turned back toward me. His cheeks were flushing a bit, but his eyes held mine for long seconds, a smoldering, challenging gaze that held more than a hint of wildness.
I let out a ragged breath, then dropped my lips to his shoulder. The taste of him, the feel of his skin under my tongue and teeth, stimulated a deep, visceral swell of emotion -- a confused combination of tenderness and possessiveness. My lips traced a damp trail along his collarbone. I was lost in the sensation, so lost that the feel of the ridged slickness of scar tissue below his collarbone took me by surprise.
I pulled my mouth from his skin, all traces of arousal deserting me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the inevitable reaction rising within me. Terror, guilt, the horror of so nearly losing this man who had become central to my existence. It was a chilling reminder that being here, now, with Ray, was a gift that I should never take for granted. My sudden stillness and the harsh exhalation through my nose must have alerted Ray. He scanned my face with narrowed eyes and then dropped his head with a sigh.
"Shit," he muttered, "not again." His gentle fingers soothed through my hair, and he pressed my face against his neck. His arms wound around my shoulders in an almost painfully tight embrace.
"It's okay, Ben, I'm here. We're good, jeez, please you gotta let it go a little."
"I'm sorry, Ray." My voice was strangled. "I know you hate it."
"I hate you tormenting yourself, that's all. I know you gotta let it out sometime, but I hate seeing you tear yourself up about it. Victoria's gone, we put her away. She's not gonna hurt anyone ever again."
I lay there for a long time, the stillness broken only by the soothing motion of Ray's hand across my back. That intimacy, the quiet reassurance of that familiar hand, allowed my breathing to calm. I let myself relax into his embrace.
Ray sighed, then spoke, his voice low and throaty. "Better?"
The brush of lips behind my ear sent another shiver through me. I nodded, a motion that Ray probably felt more than saw, then settled myself more closely against him.
Even within the quiet sanctuary I'd found here in Ray's arms, though, thoughts of Victoria threatened to engulf me, break through my control. I clung to him like a talisman, staving off those dark memories with thoughts of Ray.
In that uncanny way of his, Ray seemed to read my mind. "Think about the first time we met, Ben."
I pulled him closer yet and sighed. "I liked you from the start," I murmured. "Standing on the tarmac."
"By the old Cessna," Ray prompted.
I smiled, dark memories pushed aside for now. "Yes, Ray, by the old Cessna."
Long, long, afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1809-1882)
The new pilot waited by the Cessna. Sally McLean, who worked the charter service ticketing and flight scheduling desk at the small Fort Howell airport, had breathlessly confided he was an American. "From Chicago," she continued with some dismay and a keen sense of dramatic timing, "the mob city."
I hadn't let on that what she told me wasn't news to me. Her brother Doug and I had already discussed his new pilot, a conversation during which we had somehow avoided any mention of organized crime altogether. I'd learned with interest that Doug's newest pilot had been a Chicago police officer and looked forward to meeting him.
I approached the American, holding out a hand. "I'm Ben. Ben Fraser. You're piloting me this trip, I presume."
He stepped forward and took my hand in his.
"Ray Kowalski. Call me Ray," he said around the lollipop stick that he held in his mouth. Ray was tall and wiry, with a somewhat frenetic handshake. I watched his vigorous and prolonged shaking of my hand with some bemusement then looked up. His eyes met mine without wavering. His was a warm changeable hazel-blue gaze that I found oddly compelling.
"We're headed for Skagg Lake, right?"
"Yes," I replied, "I'm visiting my sister Maggie. She has a cabin there."
He shook his head and whistled. "Talk about remote. Your sister doesn't mind being so far from town?"
"On the contrary, she prefers it. She raises sled dogs."
Ray nodded, and his lanky body fairly hummed as he shifted his weight from foot to foot. It surprised me that someone with his boundless energy seemed to have no problem with the long, still hours in the pilot seat.
The awareness of the lack of a certain furry shadow made me swing around. Oh, dear. Dief was no doubt still begging for a doughnut from the plate Sally kept on the counter. I looked toward the low metal building as Dief exited the glass doors, trotting smugly across the tarmac while licking his muzzle with lupine glee.
"Dief, you know what the doctor told you about doughnuts." I glared at him, but he dropped to his haunches and refused to look at me, pointedly ignoring me.
"Hey, Dief? Is that his name?" Ray asked. At my nod, he called Dief.
All his claims at deafness to the contrary, Dief responded to Ray's overture and gave an excited yip.
"I'll warn you that he periodically exhibits deafness, although Maggie has told him that there's nothing wrong with his ears. She thinks perhaps it's," I mouthed the word 'psychological' -- Dief violently objected to the word. "She dismisses his claims at rudimentary lip-reading abilities."
Dief let out an irritated growl. "See, you heard that, didn't you? Recalcitrant wolf."
Looking a little bemused at this exchange, Ray crouched down beside Dief, running long fingers through the thick double coat. The breeze caught bits of the fluffy undercoat dislodged by Ray's hands. Dief moaned softly and his eyelids drooped. When Ray stopped his petting and started to get up, Dief sighed and pressed his head against Ray's leg.
Thumping Dief's side with a final hearty pat, Ray straightened.
I laughed. "I think you've a friend for life, Ray. Usually the way to Dief's heart is through his stomach, but when he's blowing coat, all it takes is a good grooming, it seems."
Ray smiled and rubbed his hands together, brushing away the wispy fur.
"You ready?" He gestured toward the plane's interior. "We're good to go," Ray continued. "I just finished the pre-flight, so we're all set. Want to sit up front, Ben?"
I nodded, pleased at the offer.
"Know how to navigate?" he asked with an amused twist to his lips, as though he wasn't expecting much.
My hackles rose. "As a member of the RCMP, I've had extensive training in navigation. And, I might add, a great deal of applied experience."
He made a calming gesture with his hand. "Mountie, huh? Don't get your shorts in a knot, just asking. We might be in for some bad weather, wouldn't mind you playing co-pilot for me, if you could."
"Ah. I'd be honored," I said, mollified, and absurdly warmed by the request.
Dief entered the padded crate set up for him, the very picture of offended dignity. I bit my lip to keep from laughing. I twisted myself into the co-pilot's seat and strapped in while Ray pulled the doors shut. He folded his long legs into the pilot's seat as I was adjusting my headphones.
He worked with the radio, flicking switches on the instrument panel. "It's not terribly difficult, is it?" I asked. "Flying a light plane? I've always wanted to have a go at it."
"Never took lessons?"
"No, although I once read a flight training manual in my grandmother's library. There were a couple of pages missing, but I'm sure nothing vital. And I'm guessing that there are a lot of similarities between a Sopwith Camel and your Cessna."
Ray's hand hung suspended in the air above the instrument panel for a long minute and his head swiveled so that he could look straight at me.
"Har, de har, har. Very funny." He stared at me until his humor faded, an incredulous expression spreading over his face. "Christ on a crutch. You're serious. Are you unhinged?"
I stiffened. "What do you mean? Do you consider a priori knowledge inherently less valuable than a posteriori knowledge? It's an interesting point to debate . . ."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, there, my friend. Save the philosophy lecture, all right? I'm telling you right now -- you are not flying my plane. See, you need to have this little piece of paper, it's called a pilot's license, okay?"
"Hmmpf." Why did I sound like my grandfather when I felt sulky? "That's what Doug said, actually."
"There ya go," Ray said, and started flicking switches and checking dials again.
As I was arranging the maps clipped onto the lap board Ray handed me, he rooted around in his jacket pockets.
"Lose something?" I asked.
"Nah, got 'em right here." Ray pulled out a pair of eyeglasses with chunky black plastic frames from an inner pocket and slipped them on. With a rueful smile, he admitted, "Don't see too good without the old B.C. glasses. Wouldn't want to have a blind pilot, would we?"
"Yeah, you know, birth control. Downtown geeksville, I can tell you, really wows the roughnecks down at the Boot."
I spoke without thinking. "On the contrary, they're quite fetching." I felt a flush creep up my face, but Ray merely looked at me, a dubious expression on his face.
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Certainly not. They look fine." The pitch of my voice wavered a little; I cleared my throat.
It was true. Ray's glasses would have been unflattering on anyone else, but somehow they only made him look younger and appealingly bookish.
Ray shook his head, but he was smiling. "Don't take this wrong, but you're a freak, you know that?" He pulled on his headphones.
I paused, wavering between offense and amusement. Then I smiled. "Understood."
He nodded and winked, as if I had passed some strange test. I shook my head. Americans.
The flight was long. I helped navigate and chatted a bit with Ray over the headset until the weather began to worsen, per his prediction. As winds battered the aircraft, Ray fell silent, his hands white-knuckled on the controls. I glanced back into the cabin where Dief was a furry huddle curled up miserably in his crate. I hoped he was weathering the turbulence; he was prone to motion sickness.
Ray sighed his relief when I pointed out the field Maggie used as an impromptu runway. When the plane bumped to a stop, his shoulders drooped and he let out a long breath. I studied Ray with concern, noting the unsteadiness of his hand when he reached out to flip a switch on the instrument panel.
I pointed out the windscreen at the ominous clouds gathering on the horizon.
"You're not going anywhere in this mess. Stay over with us until the weather clears. I'm sure Maggie won't mind."
Ray stared out at the rapidly darkening sky, and hesitated. "It'd sure beat bunking down in the plane. You don't think she'd mind?"
We were interrupted by a thump on the side of the plane. I smiled at Ray. "That'd be Maggie. She's not the patient type."
We clambered out, and I found my arms full of Maggie. I turned to introduce Ray, but he'd ducked back in the plane to free Dief from the crate. Dief tottered unsteadily but soon found his land legs again. He danced around Maggie, who laughed and crouched next to the wolf to greet him properly.
"Maggie, this is Ray Kowalski, Doug McLean's new pilot. Okay if he stays over, waits out the weather?"
She stood up and shook Ray's hand. "I was just about to suggest that. The forecast looks pretty ugly." The wind blew long strands of her hair across her face and she batted at it impatiently. "I think we need to get inside or we're going to get wet, guys."
"I should radio Doug to let him know the score. We gotta tie down the plane, too."
"I'll help you," I volunteered.
"And you can use the radio up at the house," Maggie said. "Come on up when you're done. I have to check on dinner."
Working together, we quickly lashed down the plane with straps Ray pulled from a storage locker. We rushed to the cabin, the first pounding drops of rain catching us at the front door.
Maggie caught me up on her latest breeding program after she showed Ray the radio. I followed her into the kitchen, where she was cooking something that smelled delicious. "Mom's venison stew recipe?" I asked with a smile.
She chuckled. "And I even manage not to burn it now. It'll be ready in a second. You might want to set up the cot in the your room, so Ray can bunk in with you."
After Ray used the radio to check in, we set up the guest room, my own room whenever I visited. I looked up from spreading blankets over the cot to see Ray peering about with myopic interest.
I dumped my pack next to the cot. "Take the bed, Ray. The cot suits me fine." That started a polite disagreement over who should have the bed, but in the face of my insistence, Ray finally caved in and dropped his bag on the bed.
Ray's stomach growled, and he laughed. "Whatever your sister's making smells good."
I waved him ahead of me. "After you, then."
Maggie was spooning the stew up into bowls, and we sat down at the table.
Startled, I glanced at Ray, who was staring down at the table, his face pale. He swallowed hard, and quickly looked away. A book lay beside his bowl, a grisly body displayed on the cover. Ah. I'd seen that photograph before. It was the disinterred and mummified remains of a Franklin expedition crewmember.
Ray turned to Maggie, an embarrassed flush on his face. "Sorry, Maggie. I wasn't really expecting to see . . . you know, a dead guy."
"The lead poisoning hypothesis?" I paused, raising a questioning brow at Maggie. "I thought you hated the idea."
"Lead poisoning?" Ray asked warily.
I took a breath. "Have you ever heard of the Franklin expedition, Ray?"
His brow knitted. "Looking for the Northwest Passage, right? Doug talked about it once, I think."
Maggie brightened and put down her spoon. I bit back a smile and hoped Ray's interest survived Maggie's focused intensity. She clasped her hands and leaned over the table.
"The expedition was lost in 1845. Some of the crew died fairly early on and were buried." She tapped the book's cover. "Like that poor fellow."
Ray's eyes darted away from the book, and I winced. I picked the book up and tossed it onto the counter behind me, and Ray smiled almost shyly.
Maggie continued. "The book is about the work that's been done on those remains by the University of Alberta. They've linked lead used in the solder of tin cans to the failure of another Arctic expedition in 1883. The men on that particular expedition became afflicted with what they called 'tin-poisoning,' becoming disabled and violently ill." Maggie leaned back in her chair for a moment, wiping her mouth with a napkin thoughtfully.
Ray's eyes were wide, although not yet glazed. I had to suppress a smile; I'd found that reaction not entirely uncommon when faced with a Fraser at his or her most pedantic.
She sighed. "It's a compelling theory, but I find it unsatisfying emotionally. The mythic adventure of the Franklin expedition a bust, people dead because of some stupid tin cans." She stabbed at her stew with the spoon and took a bite.
Ray's face was somber. "I get where you're coming from, but it doesn't really surprise me. I've seen it happen myself. The dumbest things get people killed sometimes." His face tightened and he pressed his lips together, obviously made uncomfortable by his own revelation.
The pause that followed was too long to be anything other than awkward. Grasping at a less morbid part of the story, I said, "The thing I always find most poignant is how one promise changed history." It was pretty pathetic as a diversionary tactic, but it was a part of the story I could never resist myself.
Maggie shot a sharp glance from Ray to me, then settled herself more comfortably in her chair.
I fell into my "story-telling" voice, as Maggie calls it, strictly as one pedant to another. This was a story I could tell in my sleep. "The ships Erebus and the Terror were originally under the command of Sir James Clark Ross, who discovered the Ross Sea and explored the Antarctic ice shelf with them."
Ray whistled, and the corners of his lips curled up. "Exploring. That woulda been the life, huh? Going to places nobody ever saw before?" He looked over at us blindly, as though he were seeing those long-dead explorers instead of the room in front of him. "Those guys would have had adventures."
I smiled, glad to have distracted Ray, and continued the story. "Before that, Ross had been on several unsuccessful missions to find the Northwest Passage and had spent four years marooned in the Arctic, during a mission that found the north magnetic pole. He was offered the command of the expedition first, before Franklin, but declined the offer because he'd promised his wife. Sir John Franklin was then chosen."
Maggie frowned, staring down at her hands. "And so Lady Jane Franklin, not Lady Ann Ross, ended up the wife who never knew the fate of her husband." She looked up. "Jane was a real go-getting lady, though, a woman after my own heart. She prodded the British, the United States, and Russia to send help, and spent a fortune of her own money when that stopped working."
Ray asked, "But no one ever really found out what exactly happened? That's sad."
"Yes, it is," I agreed, feeling a little down. I glanced over at Maggie, who seemed depressed herself. When I forced myself to be completely honest, I recognized that our mutual obsession with Franklin bordered on the morbid. It had started when we were first old enough to understand that dad wasn't ever going to return from his own Arctic mission.
I stirred, shaking off the melancholy. "Why don't we get set up for the night, Ray? I'm sure you must be tired."
"I'm pretty wiped," he agreed. We said our goodnights to Maggie and headed to the guest room.
Ray looked up from unzipping his bag. "Your sister sure knows a lot about the Franklin expedition."
I smiled thinly. "She was ABD -- all but dissertation, I mean -- in a doctoral program in history in Toronto. Her concentration was Canadian colonization and the clash of European and native culture. Arctic exploration was sort of a sideline for her."
"So why didn't she finish?" Ray asked curiously. "She seemed really into it just now."
I looked down. "She split up with her husband right around then, another student. It was a pretty nasty divorce -- just wasn't meant to be, I guess. A semester off worked wonders for her, and she ended up helping out an old family friend, Innusiq, with his sled team. She liked it so much she never went back. I think her ex-husband is now earning a six-figure salary. Corporate law or something."
Ray studied my face with knowing eyes. "You didn't like him." It came out more statement than question. I raised my eyebrows: it seemed the American reputation for bluntness was not unwarranted in Ray's case, at least.
"Let's just say they were meant for different paths. Their goals in life ended up utterly at odds. I'm sure you've seen it happen yourself." I was curious, hoping he'd open up about himself. This competent, street-wise man, who'd traveled from police officer to pilot, piqued my interest.
Ray blew out a rough sigh. "Been there, done that, got the damn T-shirt. My ex and I ended up wanting totally different things out of life, too. I wanted kids. She wanted me to drop dead." The sound he made was too much of a bark to be a laugh.
I looked at him until he flushed and looked down at his hands. His voice was quiet when he continued. "Couldn't ever seem to be on the same page about anything at the end." He trailed off and rummaged through his pack, pulling out clothing, his head cocked.
"Doug said you were a police officer?"
His face creased into a rueful smile. "Used to be. Long time ago, it feels like now. Almost another life." He draped the flannel shirt he'd pulled from his bag onto the bed, his face almost solemn.
"But now you're a pilot . . . " I prodded, a little surprised at my own nosiness. He didn't take offense at my forwardness, however.
A corner of his mouth twisted up and he shrugged. "Blame Stella -- that's my ex -- for that one, tweaked as that sounds. Few years after we got married, she got me these flying lessons. I'd been moping around the house, bugging her like crazy. I was kind of down because a detective I'd worked with on my first big arrest, someone I trusted, had just been implicated in a big cover-up. Almost got a cop's wife convicted of killing her husband, when it was a suicide and he knew it all along."
I made an encouraging noise, gesturing for him to continue.
Ray's boot tapped a nervous beat against the bed frame, until he stopped with a disgusted shake of his head. "Anyway, Stella was a little rich girl, and her dad owned his own plane. Maybe she pictured me hobnobbing with his rich pilot friends, maybe have some of their savoir-whatever rub off on me, socialize with someone other than cops, stuff like that. Who the hell knows? That sure didn't happen. I ended up socializing with the aircraft mechanics, most of them pilots themselves, but not the type she intended."
He gnawed at a knuckle for a moment. "I think Stell thought I did stuff like that on purpose, just to piss her off. I tried to be what she wanted, I really did. I just never expected it; that the first time I'd get in the pilot's seat, it would feel right, you know? Like coming home, like it was something I'd learned a long time ago and had just forgotten. It was weird. My instructor Pete said I was a natural. The pilot's seat was one place where I felt totally in control. Hardest part was the bookwork, but I studied like I'd never studied in college and got through it. Got my private license, started building my hours. Finally got my instrument rating. It was expensive, but Pete and I worked a deal, made it work." The memories made him smile.
The grin faded. "Stella didn't like that I got into the flying in such a big way, said I was having some kind of premature midlife crisis. She said I was getting too distracted, that I'd never make detective. She tried to be supportive, she really did, but I could tell I was driving her barefoot up a wall. We were arguing real bad, she'd leave, go visit her parents for a while, then we'd get back together. I was trying, Stell was trying, but . . . it just wasn't working." He cracked his knuckles, the sound almost startling after the comforting rasp of his voice.
"One night I came home and Stell was waiting for me on the couch, this weird look on her face. I knew right then something was up, Stell never got home that early. She took my hand in hers and looked at me with the saddest eyes. That's when I figured it out. Splitsville."
Ray coughed, and cracked his neck. A vein in his forehead throbbed visibly.
"Then some . . . really bad stuff went down at work. I resigned." The bald, emotionless statement barely hinted at the gravity of what must have been a life-changing event. I wanted to offer sympathy, move closer to him, but I held myself still. I doubted he'd welcome clumsy comfort from a man he'd just met.
"That was the last straw, I think. A banner year for me, that one, screwing up a career and a marriage. I kept flying, though. Pete pulled some strings, found me a job, helped me get my commercial rating. I worked for a Chicago charter service for a few years, but stuff was still getting to me. Stell remarried and I thought I was going to lose it for real. Because even after the divorce went through, I kind of always . . . I mean I still loved her. Used to watch out for her, sometimes."
He caught my narrowed glance and shook his head. "I know, I know, kinda sick. I just wanted . . . to make sure she was okay. Keep an eye on her. One day she caught me and threatened to get a restraining order."
I looked at him wordlessly. He sighed and twisted his neck slightly so that the vertebrae popped. "Okay, okay, maybe it was closer to stalking."
A long silence fell between us. His shoulders were hunched, his jaw working. Finally, he took a breath and continued in a low voice, more chastened than defensive. "It was stalking, all right? It's not something I'm proud of."
His forehead furrowed, and a convulsive tic twitched in his jaw. Without even thinking about it, I reached my hand out and rested it on his shoulder.
His weak smile didn't reach his eyes.
A raspy laugh shook his chest. "So when Pete gets a call from his old airforce buddy Doug, who happens to be in desperate need of a pilot, he naturally thinks of me. Pete told me the change would do me good. An adventure, he called it. When I asked him where the job was, he says, 'North, way north.' Chance to start over, I thought, and said yes."
He sighed. "So here I am. It's been good so far, nice people. It's not Chicago."
"No, I don't imagine it's much like Chicago at all." Ray was yawning. "You're tired, Ray, feel free to turn in."
"I gotta admit, I'm bushed, Ben, hope you don't mind if I just crash on you."
I reached over to turn off the lamp, but Ray interrupted.
"Leave it on if you wanna read or something. It's pretty early yet. Won't bother me."
He pulled off both his sweater and the T-shirt he was wearing underneath, revealing surprisingly muscular shoulders and torso for his whipcord frame. A dark tattoo stood out against the pale skin of his right shoulder. The strong lines of the logo drew my eyes and I realized I was staring. I glanced away, my face heating up, and was glad of the dimness of the room. I turned my back and opened my book.
I looked over a few pages later. He was ensconced beneath his blankets, only the spiky blond tips of his hair showing. I smiled at the top of his head, then returned to my reading.
Some time later, much later if the stiffness in my neck was any indication, I looked up from my book. A sound had broken through my concentration, coming from Ray's bundled-up form, but the shapeless mound was motionless. As I watched, the blankets jerked, and Ray muttered some indecipherable plea.
I spoke softly, "Ray, are you awake?" There was no response; he had been dreaming. I put the book down and stretched, vertebrae popping.
The bed creaked once more with Ray's restless stirrings. A mumbled "No, no," was abruptly followed by a louder cry, almost a scream, and he sat bolt upright, awake, yet still befuddled by his nightmare. He looked wildly around the room, then his eyes fell upon me. Recognition dawned and he relaxed a bit. He pushed his arms free of the bed clothes and leaned forward, elbows on tented knees.
"Shit, that sucks," he said. One shaky hand pushed through the blond wildness of his hair, then scratched at a scar he had on his chest.
"Nightmares do indeed 'suck,' as you so aptly put it."
He laughed, a little raggedly. "Especially that particular one. Bad memory, real bad, and I get to relive it in technicolor some nights at the midnight show. I think I'd prefer 'Rocky Horror.'"
I blinked. "Rocky Horror?"
"It's a movie. You know, mad scientist in drag, gender bending, all that stuff."
"Ah," I said and was silent for a moment. "Gender bending?" I was embarrassingly intrigued all of a sudden.
"Gender bending," he repeated without a twitch. "Damn straight." Upon hearing his own unintentional wordplay, he waggled his eyebrows at me irreverently. I smiled at him, enjoying the banter, especially if it distracted him from his nightmare. He returned a high wattage heart-stopper of a smile that warmed me to my toes. I imagined watching this movie, with Ray, gender bending and all, but reined in the irrelevant thought and the warmth it engendered. It's a burgeoning friendship, nothing more, I told myself. Ray was obviously straight, had even been married, talk of gender bending movies notwithstanding.
Ray yawned, rubbing his eyes.
"I shouldn't be keeping you up. You need your sleep."
"You weren't keeping me up. It was nice to wake up from one of those and have someone to talk to for a change." He coughed and rubbed the back of his neck.
"My pleasure, Ray." The thought of Ray dealing with his troubled sleep, alone and apparently lonely, sent a pang right through me.
I turned off the lamp and stripped down to my boxers. Sliding under the blankets, I lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling.
I turned onto my side. Ray had stretched out once more on the cot and had pulled a corner of a blanket tightly about his face. I smiled at the picture he made.
"Yes, Ray? "
I paused a beat. "You're quite welcome, Ray," I said, and settled in for sleep.
Dief woke me early the next morning, a cold nose pressed against my cheek. "Dief!"
He darted over to Ray and pounced on the bed. "Dief! Ray needs his rest!"
Muttering sleepy curses, Ray stirred. A tattooed arm snaked out from under the blankets, batting at a nonexistent alarm clock. Dief took advantage of the opening, burrowing under the covers with him.
The blankets erupted suddenly as Ray sat up. He pushed at Dief's chest. "Licking! Jesus! Yuck, he's licking my ear! Off me, furball."
"Dief! Over here, now." Dief all but rolled his eyes, but hopped off the bed and joined me on the cot.
"I'm sorry about Diefenbaker, Ray. He's fascinated by blond hair, you see. And your ears, apparently."
Ray snorted and touched his hair. "He's in love with my bed head, huh?"
"But of course." I ruffled Dief's ears, scratching through his thick coat.
Ray tossed and turned for a bit, then flopped on his side, facing me. "Now I can't go back to sleep."
He watched me stroke Dief's fur and sighed. "So how'd you end up with a wolf, anyway, Ben?" Tucking the blankets around him again, he made no move to get up.
I ran a hand over Dief's furry head.
"He saved my life," I said baldly, a little surprised at myself. I rarely told that story to strangers. Then again, Ray didn't feel like a total stranger, for some reason. Ray's pale eyes widened.
"You're shitting me," he breathed. I shook my head.
"I was hiking alone once up in the Northwest Territories." I plucked at the white and gray hairs of Dief's ruff, avoiding Ray's gaze.
"I was there to . . . sort some things out in my head. I was heading back to my camp, crossing a frozen river, when I broke through the ice. I barely managed to get to shore, but couldn't manage to pull myself up. For a brief terrifying moment, I thought it was fated that I'd end up like my dad, done in by the harshness of the arctic environment."
His indrawn breath made me look up, and I caught a flash of sympathetic pain cross his face. "How?" His cautious question trailed off.
I cleared my throat. "Dad was on patrol one winter, up in the Territories. He went out without a partner . . . and never came back. I was ten; Maggie was eight."
"Jesus. That's rough." He coughed. "You went up there to say goodbye to him?"
Mouth open for a moment, I blinked rapidly, before regaining my composure. "I . . . I suppose you're right. To walk in his shoes for a bit, in some way." Ray's question had thrown me, brought the loss to the fore somehow. "But I didn't intend to follow him quite so completely, all the way to the grave, as it were. Dief showed up just in time, pulled me out and pretty much dragged me back to my camp."
Ray was silent for a long time, then he spoke. "Jesus, Ben. Didn't realize that could happen outside of TV, like Lassie or something. I'll have to get him a doughnut or something for keeping you safe."
I flushed at that. "He's stuck with me ever since. He thinks I need a minder, it seems."
Dief looked up at me and whined. I smiled. "And perhaps he's right. He's a willful companion, but we get on pretty well."
"It's good to have somebody around to watch your back like that." Ray looked a little wistful and still sleepy, and I felt something turn over in my stomach. I took a breath, pushing aside the strange sensations he seemed to be inspiring in me.
I dressed with shaky hands. "I'll make breakfast."
"Coffee?" There was more than a hint of desperation to the word.
"I worship you." Ray seemed to be only half-joking, and I laughed.
I went out to the kitchen and started water for coffee and oatmeal.
After breakfast, Maggie and I saw Ray off. I watched the small plane drone off, pulling away until it was a small speck, then turned to Maggie with a smile. She eyed me with a worried frown.
"You like Ray a lot, don't you, Ben?" It sounded half-question, half-statement.
"Yes, I do. He's a good pilot and a good man." It was strange; I rarely warmed to anyone to any real degree, much less as quickly as I had responded to Ray. But while I might have just met Ray, somehow I felt I already knew him, in fact had known him for a long time.
Her brow creased, then smoothed out.
"All right, Ben."
I was silent for a long moment, confused. I looked at her eyes, inviting comment, but she turned away from me. I shook my head. Frasers were a complicated breed, always have been.
"I'll be fine, Maggie. Really." She nodded, but her forehead was still crinkled.
She's thinking of Depot. The ridiculous thought burst upon me fully-formed. I shook my head, don't be silly. She knew about Depot, and Daniel, but I wasn't sure why she might connect that long ago incident to Ray. Of course, she had probably made no sort of connection at all; that illogical feeling was the product of my own paranoia. I pushed aside the speculation; I wouldn't ask her about it, and Maggie was keeping her own counsel for now.
My visit with Maggie was productive. We reroofed the shelter for her sled dogs and I brought her up to date on the goings on of Fort Howell. I caught her staring at me once, with knowing eyes, but she brushed off my questions.
The time came for me to return to Fort Howell, and I awaited the arrival of the plane with almost childish excitement. When the smiling face of Rick Toussant, Doug's senior pilot, greeted me from the plane, I frowned. Dief let out a growl, which I ignored. I shook myself; Rick didn't deserve a sulky passenger.
Upon our return to Fort Howell, I unloaded my bags, and was chatting with Sally before heading back to my apartment.
"Ben! How was your visit?" I swung around with a grin on my face.
"Hello, Ray. It was very nice. I had hoped I'd see you on the return trip." I hoped my voice didn't sound as plaintive to Ray as it did to me.
"Yeah, I asked Doug if I could fly over to pick you up, but I got delayed in Dawson Creek yesterday."
I grinned, then nearly laughed at myself. I had regressed to grammar school child, looking for a new best friend.
Ray cleared his throat, his voice low and raspy. "Hey, Ben, you want to . . . "
"Ray, are you . . . " Our voices overlapped, and Ray laughed.
"Okay, you first, Ben." He waved his hand at me in an elegant gesture, eyes sharp with humor.
"Would you like to go get something to eat with me?" I asked in a rush.
"Reading my mind, Ben, my friend. I gotta talk to Doug right now, but we could meet somewhere."
I barely let him finish his sentence. "Certainly, Ray." Dief growled his agreement as well. Ray smiled.
"Cool. The cafe good? Say in a half-hour?"
"That would be most acceptable."
Twenty-five minutes later, I sat in a booth, with Dief curled at my feet. I'd dropped off my pack at my apartment and come to the cafe almost immediately. I scanned the menu and looked up every time the bell jingled. Ten minutes later and I was looking at my watch once more, when a breathless Ray rushed into the cafe.
He flopped into the seat opposite and ran fingers through already tousled hair. "Sorry, Ben, I didn't get away as soon as I thought I would. Doug was begging for a rematch."
"Quite all right, Ray. 'Rematch'?"
"Yeah, I whipped his butt last Saturday in chess, and he wants a chance to even the score. You ready to order?" He hadn't even glanced at the menu, but at my nod waved the waitress over.
"Cheeseburger with fries and a coffee. I'm starving."
"Sounds good," I said and ordered the same, adding a bowl of water for Dief. A pitiful whine came from under the table. I sighed. "And one of your plain doughnuts, please."
A grateful yip was the response.
I looked over to see Ray smiling. "Let a wolf save your life, and you pay and pay," I muttered. Ray laughed out loud at that.
Dief butted my knee, letting out a low growl. I ignored him.
"So you play chess?" I asked, a bit surprised.
"Yeah, so?" He slid back in his seat and hunched a shoulder.
"Perhaps we could play sometime, that's all."
He relaxed. "Sure. I'd like that. You any good?" His voice held more than a hint of challenge, and I found myself smiling.
"I'm really better at cards, but I've been told I'm not half bad."
Our coffees and Dief's water arrived, and we continued our chess discussion until the food came. Dief snapped his doughnut up in one bite. I shook my head. "No manners whatsoever." Dief made a noise suspiciously like a snort, and Ray eyed him under the table.
"Am I crazy, or does he understand what you're saying?" Dief yipped at that, and Ray's eyes widened.
"While I feel unequipped to judge your mental stability, Dief has managed to acquire an astonishingly large vocabulary. Mostly English, although he's a smattering of Inukitut as well. Again, he claims to be able to read lips as well, but Dief will have his little delusions."
Dief yowled, and I frowned down at him. "Yes, delusions, and I'd hardly say fluent in either, Dief. You are, as I keep reminding you, a wolf, not a linguist."
Ray's burger hovered between his plate and his mouth for quite some time.
"Is your burger cold already?"
Ray shook his head, pursing his lips. "I can't decide whether the stupid Yank is getting his chain pulled again, or if you need to seek some professional counseling."
I cocked my head. "I've been asked before if I have a hole in my bag of marbles for speaking to Diefenbaker as I do. I'm quite harmless, though, I assure you." I kept a straight face by sheer force of will.
Ray was quite still for several seconds, and I held my breath. A high-pitched bray of a laugh spilled out as he bent over, slapping his thigh. He laughed quite hard, leaning back and holding his stomach. He quieted eventually, reaching up to wipe his eyes.
"God," he chuckled. "I hurt. You're a true freak, my friend. Certifiable. But I like it; it suits you."
I grinned back at him warmly for a long time, noting that his eyes looked pure blue in this light. Ray looked away, a faint flush still washing his face, perhaps from his laughter. He peered down at his burger with a degree of concentration that seemed unwarranted.
He took a few more bites of his food, then looked up and cleared his throat. "So Sally told me your birthday is coming up in two weeks."
"That's right, and I have reasons to suspect my co-workers are planning something embarrassing. Maggie's going to come down for a few days. I'll probably take some vacation, spend some time with her."
"I'll fly up and get her, if you want. Okay? Just let me know the dates, and I'll get it set with Doug." He winked, and I flushed.
"That'd be great, Ray. Thank you." Hidden behind his sometimes abrupt, quintessentially American manners, Ray seemed a very thoughtful person.
Ray's warm smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. They were lovely eyes, my rebellious brain noted, but I quelled the thought with ruthless efficiency. That sort of thinking would lead only to trouble. I sighed and took a large bite of my burger.
We continued our meal in amiable conversation. Ray talked about some of the odder charter flights he'd piloted, preceding each story with some variation of, "Oh, you're gonna love this one."
"Now this one'll kill you," he said, and described a charter for a honeymooning couple who wanted to join the mile-high club.
"It was okay until I hit some turbulence. The plane started jostling around, and I heard thuds and 'ow, ow' from the back instead of moans of pleasure."
I couldn't stop myself; I laughed.
Ray gave me a mock-glare. "Hey, turbulence-induced coitus interruptus is no laughing matter."
I choked. "Oh, certainly not." I finished the last bite of burger and looked up. Ray picked at the food remaining on his plate, using a fry to draw lines in the ketchup.
"So, Ben . . . uh, you doing anything special tonight?" His voice was almost inaudible.
"Unpacking mostly, nothing special. Why?"
Ray looked up from his plate, a pensive expression crossing his face. "Just . . . " His fingers drummed the tabletop.
He steeled himself, his lips set in a self-deprecating twist. "You want to come over to my place, play some chess or something?" He peered under the table. "You're welcome to come over too, furface."
I was speechless, and realized that I was grinning. I coughed and tried to sober up a bit. Ray would think me soft in the head.
"That would be nice, Ray." I hoped my face wasn't as red as it felt and was reminded of first grade, when Steve Cromley picked me first for his dodge ball team.
We split the bill and left the cafe.
"Home, sweet home," Ray joked as he unlocked his door. His living room was spartan, featuring some battered furniture, a newish stereo system, and an old TV. A tiny kitchen was attached to the living area, and a half-open door led to what I presumed was the bedroom.
I watched, amused, as he swept a pile of clothing from the back of his couch.
"Sorry, I haven't had a chance to clean in a while." He ducked into the bedroom long enough to toss the clothes inside then returned to stand by the couch. He patted the worn cushions.
"Go on, have a seat. Want a soda, coffee, beer?"
"Water would be fine, Ray."
To my dismay, Dief jumped up on the couch.
"Dief, down. Down." Dief' didn't budge, his eyes following Ray about the apartment. Deaf wolf syndrome. I sighed. "Really, this pretense is most unbecoming, Dief. You just make yourself look foolish."
Ray pulled his head from the refrigerator and gave a lazy wave. "He's fine, he's not going to hurt it. That old thing came with the place."
Dief gave a smug sigh and closed his eyes, at home enough to nap.
"That's my boy," Ray laughed as he returned to the couch. He set a bottled water and a beer on the coffee table, where plastic chess pieces were already set up on a board. I sat on the couch next to Dief and Ray pulled up an armchair closer to the coffee table.
Ray took a swallow of his beer and motioned toward the board. "You're the guest, Ben. Pick your color."
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you that good or are you just being nice?"
Ray opened his eyes wide and pursed his lips. "We'll find out, won't we?" he said with a chuckle and a hint of a wink.
I twisted the top off my water and chose white. I wasn't proud.
"Wow, King's Pawn. Aren't you the aggressive man?" Ray said after the first few moves. I looked over at him, with a reassessing eye. His instant recognition of my opening gambit spoke volumes.
My bold start was to no avail. In an embarrassingly short time, I was beaten. Ray was as skilled as he had implied. Dief opened his eyes in time to see the end, and his bark sounded like laughter when Ray called out, "Checkmate."
Ray laughed and gathered up the empty water container and his beer bottle and walked toward the kitchen. "You can whip my butt at poker sometime, Ben."
The innocent comment provoked not-so-innocent mental images. I coughed and then found my voice. "That . . . that would be nice." I checked my watch and stood up. "I really should be getting back, Ray. I have to get up early for work tomorrow."
Ray returned from the kitchen and ruffled Dief's fur. "You bet. Thanks for the game, Ben. Give me a call sometime, and we can get together again. It'll be fun."
"Dief." Dief was reluctant to leave his comfortable spot. "Dief," I repeated. "Dief!" Third time was the charm. He grumbled a bit, but jumped down.
"See ya, furface," Ray said with obvious affection and patted Dief's neck. He opened the apartment door and clasped me on the shoulder as I passed. "Bye, Ben." Perhaps I imagined it, but he sounded lonely and I vowed to get together with him soon.
"Goodbye, Ray. I had a good time." On the stairs, Dief let out a mournful whine.
"Yes, I like him, too, Dief. We'll see him again soon, don't worry."
During the next few days, I settled back into work. The small Fort Howell RCMP detachment was busy with a heavy summer tourist influx, dealing with stolen hunting rifles and lost fishermen. Two young subordinates were assigned to my detachment, one fresh out of Depot. Constables Paul Barbarin and Sarah Martin were both bright and quick and maturing nicely in their duties. Sarah, particularly, had handled my absence well, assuming command of the detachment during the busy summer season without a hitch.
Ray and I worked together once more the following week, on a search for missing hikers. We were attempting to rendezvous with searchers on the ground, a job made difficult by the unreliability of the communications. The handheld radios of the search party were weak, and the topography caused the signals to cut out regularly. We ended up scanning a gridded search area for a prearranged smoke signal, and were having a difficult time locating it. I provided eyes, while he flew a low, tight search pattern. The tedious intensity of low-altitude flying soon had Ray looking worn and haggard. To make matters worse, the weather was deteriorating. Visibility was rapidly decreasing.
I peered out the plexiglass windscreen. "Perhaps we should go back, Ray. We've been at this for hours and I can barely see anything at all."
"I told you I'd turn around when we need to refuel. I'm not stopping while some scared kids are out there lost, maybe hurt." Ray didn't take his hands from the controls, but he gestured at the expanse of wilderness beneath us with a jerk of his head.
I looked closely at him. He'd flipped up the sun shade clipped onto his glasses, and his shoulders were tense.
My voice was gentle. "Ray, it's not going to help the search if we crash into the side of a mountain because you're tired."
He shot me a level glance. "A little longer, Ben. Please." His voice was low, almost pleading. "I'm good for one more hour at least. The visibility is manageable. Besides, I've got a feeling."
"Ray . . . " I protested.
Ray cut me off. "Work with me here, Ben. Trust me. It's a hunch; it's a feeling."
A feeling, of course. My mouth was open to reiterate my logical suggestion, when I found myself nodding. So Ray tended to think nonlinearly; perhaps it produced results for him. His quicksilver intuitive thinking had triumphed over my own logical progressions of thought in our chess match at least.
"All right, Ray. One more hour it is."
The hour was three-quarters gone, when Ray's feeling came up trumps. I pointed.
"There, Ray, it's smoke. I'm radioing in our position."
Ray scanned the ground. "I see the clearing they're pointing us to. We can go check this out right now."
"Let's do it."
Ray pulled off a bumpily competent landing in the clearing, and we met with one of the search and rescue team, Marie Singleton, who often volunteered her services along with her husband Arthur.
She shook Ray's hand at my hasty introduction and said, "The kid's up there." She gave a vague wave to the north. "Arthur's with him. Come on, I'll show you."
"Maybe Ray should stay with the plane . . . "
Ray interrupted, shooting me a sharp glance. "No way, Ben. I'm coming with you guys. I want to help."
Marie nodded. "Sure, come on, Ray."
I pressed my lips together and sighed. "He's green."
We both ignored Ray's "Hey!"
"He's got to learn sometime, Ben. And he should carry a rifle. Bears," she explained to Ray.
"No!" Ray and I said at the same time. I glanced over, the question in my face.
"I do know how to handle a weapon, Ben." Ray's voice was solemn. "I was a crack shot, certified marksman. I even did time on the sniper team. But I don't feel comfortable carrying." He fell silent, his jaw clenching.
I had touched a nerve somehow and tried to smooth over the awkward pause. "Quite all right, Ray." I hefted my rifle. "Marie, I'll have a rifle. He'll be with me, okay? Just don't wander off alone, Ray. Stick with me."
"I'll stick to you like glue. I am the glue. No way I'm staying behind, Ben." His face was set in stubborn lines.
Marie shrugged when I glanced at her. I nodded. "Shall we, then?"
We were soon tramping through the brush. I was in my element here, as was Marie. Ray was less comfortable, occasionally stumbling over roots and fallen trees. He made no complaint, and kept up better than I had expected.
It wasn't too long before we came upon Arthur, who sat beside one of the lost hikers, a pale young man with dark smudges under his eyes.
His worried eyes sought mine. "Did Lizzie reach you guys? She left this morning to get help after I got sick."
"Lizzie? No, your resort reported you overdue back from your hike." I considered the situation and noticed a trail of a single person, headed east. I pointed.
"She went that way?" David nodded, and I scanned the ground as I talked.
"I'll track her. You guys can get him back to the plane." Marie opened her mouth, but Ray cut in.
"I'm coming with you, Ben. You could use some help." Ray's face was set and Marie was nodding.
I shook my head. "You might need to transport David soon."
"I'm not leaving without Lizzie. Besides, I don't feel so bad anymore. I can wait," David said.
"Arthur and I'll get David to the plane," Marie said. "We'll wait for you two. She can't have gone far."
I nodded, recognizing her good sense.
Soon we were on Lizzie's trail, calling her name periodically. Ray kept up fairly easily, since tracking forced me to slow down.
I fingered a bruised leaf. "I still think you should have gone back to the plane. This isn't really in your job description."
Ray sighed. "No way, Ben. I'm going with you, end of story. So hush up and do your . . . orienting, navigating, or whatever it is you're doing up there."
"Tracking," I said shortly. "It's tracking." I felt guilty, aware that I should have continued the argument. I had given in easily, and it was because having him at my side felt good, felt natural. How curious. I shook myself. Duty, I reminded myself. Lost hiker, get a move on.
Twenty minutes later, we skirted a sharp drop off. "Lizzie," Ray yelled out once more, and we heard a weak cry.
"Down here. Help, I'm over here."
We rushed to the steep slope face and looked over to see a red-coated figure, our lost hiker, wedged precariously on a ledge.
I unslung my backpack and unlaced the ties that held the rope. Anchoring one end around a tree, I gestured to Ray.
"I'll go down and get this tied around her. Then you'll have to help me, pull her up while I lift her. Got it?"
Ray gave me a sharp jerk of a nod, pale eyes calm. "Got it. Got your back, Ben."
Of course, he had been a police officer once, and was a pilot now, neither occupation suited for someone prone to panic. Someone good to have at your back, I thought. I looked over at him for a moment and smiled.
He smiled back and waved a hand. "Go on, go get her, Ben."
I lowered myself down the slope. "Lizzie?"
"Oh, thank God. I didn't think anyone was coming. My ankle popped when I fell, and I think it's broken. I didn't see how I was going to get back up there. Did you find David? Is he okay?"
"He's fine; someone's with him right now. We've got to get you up this slope now though. Let's just tie this around you."
We got Lizzie most of the way up, and I panted with exertion. She couldn't help, one leg dangling, and moving was excruciating for her. She gasped when I jostled her leg, but otherwise pressed her lips together stoically, pale as a sheet.
Ray reeled the rope in, showing a strength unexpected for his lean frame. Lizzie finally managed to crawl over the edge. I was clambering over the edge myself when my foot slid out from its toehold. My hand shot out towards the rope but missed, and I started to fall backwards. Ray's strong hand was on mine then, gripping tightly, bringing me to safe ground.
Gasping, I scrambled up over the edge, and Ray pulled me, as if without thought, into a warm embrace. His wiry arms wrapped around me, and I let out the breath I'd been holding. Here was safety, the hug said, and my throat tightened. I leaned in closer, so that Ray's hard warmth was pressed against me. I felt breathless, and it wasn't all from the climbing.
Ah, God, not now, I thought, as something stirred within me, something I'd thought nearly burned out of me, after Depot and Daniel. I pushed that sobering memory down as far as I could, and pulled away.
He held out a hand as if to stop my withdrawal, then hesitated and placed it on my arm. He smiled that brilliant smile of his, and I felt even more of that uncomfortable stirring within me.
"Told you I had your back, Ben."
A startled, pleased laugh was my only answer. He finally pulled away, and we moved towards our rescued hiker.
"Lizzie Miles, I presume?" Ray asked in a mock British accent as we knelt down beside the her.
She laughed a little tearily. "Yes, but you don't look like a Dr. Stanley."
Ray chuckled. "Actually, I am a Stanley. But I go by Ray. This is Ben. We've been looking for you for a while. Your friend was worried about you."
I examined the ankle she had been favoring. I tried to be gentle, but her gasp told me I wasn't very successful.
"Sorry. I'm going to need to splint this leg before we move you, okay?"
I rummaged through my pack for the first aid supplies and turned toward her once more.
Ray grabbed her hand. "Squeeze when it hurts, Lizzie."
She let out a stifled whimper when I splinted the leg and tied the bandage ends off neatly.
Ray and I settled Lizzie's arms around us, supporting her between us. It was awkward, and Lizzie's gasps reinforced the need to go slowly.
The plane finally came into sight. Arthur and Marie helped us tuck Lizzie into a seat, beside David.
"Lizzie!" He let out a relieved cry and took her hand in his.
Ray got on the radio to inform base of our success. Arthur and Marie were taking care of the hikers, so I went up to the cockpit.
"Let's get these guys home, eh, Ben?" His smile lit up his face, erasing the tired lines, and something turned over in my chest. I closed my mouth, which had been hanging open.
"Okay," I said quietly.
We took off and in short order were back at Fort Howell, where we transferred Lizzie and David to a car for the ride to the clinic. Finally, we reached the clinic and gave them into the care of the doctor there.
The nurse pushed Ray back when he tried to follow her into the treatment area. "We've got them, now. Please wait here."
We gathered in the waiting area. Arthur touched Marie's hand and jerked his head at me. "Ben, we have to head out -- the goats need milking. The hikers are going to be fine. Excellent work, I'd say. And as always, your tracking skills are unparalleled."
"Thank you kindly. It was you who found David in the first place. We'd be lost without volunteers like you and Marie."
"Our pleasure. Bye, Ben. Ray," Marie said.
The couple walked down the corridor hand-in-hand. I watched their retreating backs and sighed. They were a matched set, those two. An idle speculation took my fancy: was finding one's mate pure luck? Fate? Or, as Dief might say, merely pheromones?
Ray slumped into one of the hard plastic chairs and sighed, closing his eyes. Unwatched, I let my gaze rest on his face. Ray often presented a deceptively youthful appearance, but right now his exhaustion made all of his thirty-something years obvious. Exhaustion incurred helping the RCMP, helping me, I reminded myself. He'd put more effort into working with me than many of the official partners I'd had in my career. While our styles of getting the job done contrasted rather astonishingly, we seemed to mesh well together. Logic and intuition, our whole seemed greater than the sum of our parts. We complemented each other in ways I'd never have expected. He 'had my back' as he put it, and it felt strange, oddly freeing, to know that I could depend on someone other than myself.
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of both of my subordinates. "Sir, congratulations."
"Arthur and Marie did most of the work, Constable. And Ray, here. He kept flying when I would have turned around."
Ray gave me a tired smile. "It wasn't anything, Ben. I'm just glad we found them."
A nurse came out then.
"How are they?" Ray asked as we followed her down the hall.
"Lizzie broke her fibia, just above the ankle, and she's a bit dehydrated. She's getting fluids and they've put a cast on. She'll be fine. She's sleeping now. David was very dehydrated, looked like food poisoning."
The hospital room was lit only by the light above Lizzie's bed. Her face was pale, but she was sleeping peacefully, an IV taped to the back of her hand. David sat in a wheelchair beside her bed, with a matching IV. The fingers of one hand were laced with hers.
He looked up as we came in and smiled, then held a finger to his lips. He mouthed a silent "Thank you," then kissed the hand he held.
We quietly went back into the hallway.
"I'm glad they're all right," Ray said in a low voice. He looked over. "I'm too wired to sleep now. You want to come over? Bring Dief?"
I hesitated and Ray said, "But not if you're too tired . . . "
"No, I'll come," I interrupted. "I could use some unwinding after all this."
"I'll see your ten and raise you twenty," Ray said.
I looked over at Ray, grinning. I hadn't felt this happy with someone, just being with him, since Daniel. My grin faded, remembering how that had turned out. I'd been faced with a difficult choice then, between love and doing what was right, and I had not chosen love. Not that time at least.
I shook the memories away, focusing on the cards in front of me.
"Of?" I asked.
"Air, " Ray said. "Twenty of air." The tired lines around his face had relaxed a little and I was glad to hear his humor return.
"Air, hmm. All right, I'll see that twenty and call."
"Whatcha got, Ben? If it's a flush again, I'm strangling somebody." Dief whined. "Not you, furface."
"I guess I'm safe from being strangled, Ray. Full house."
Ray groaned and thumped his head on his kitchen table. "I don't believe it. You know this means you gotta come back tomorrow to get whipped at chess to make up for it."
"I'm afraid it's something of a gift, Ray."
Our cards were laid out on the table, showing the final hands. I cleared my throat noisily, and Ray looked up with raised brows.
"I, uh, I just wanted to thank you. If you hadn't come along with me today, I'd have gotten myself into trouble. You had my back, Ray. Thanks." My eyes caught his for long moments, and he didn't look away.
Ray colored a brilliant red. "Hey, you're welcome. De nada, you know?"
"It wasn't nothing, Ray. We seem to work well together, don't you think?"
He blinked. "Yeah, you're right. That's kind of funny, too, because when I was a cop, I never worked too great with any of my partners. But none of them was like you."
I flushed, at a loss for words, then cleared my throat. "Well, this was fun. But Dief and I should probably head home now. You need to rest."
He nodded. "Yeah, okay."
"After work tomorrow, I was going to go over to check on our hikers. Would you like to come with me?" Ray had an odd look on his face. Perhaps he was tired of my company, and merely wanted some time away from me for a while.
"It's fine if you don't . . . "
He cut me off. "Six or so okay? I should be back from my last flight before then. I'll swing by the station, okay?"
The next day we checked on Lizzie and David, who were both scheduled to be released soon.
The hospital visit turned into dinner at the cafe again, and then another trip to Ray's apartment.
Dief settled on the couch, and we started a chess game. I rolled a captured pawn in my fingers, the black plastic smooth under my fingertips. This getting together at Ray's apartment had become something of a habit for us. It was a habit that I was enjoying greatly. I wondered if perhaps I were enjoying his company too much, taking advantage of his innocence. During moments like this, though, I pushed such thoughts aside, having too much fun to spoil things.
Some time later, I looked over at Ray. Unruly spikes of his haircut had flopped onto his forehead as he leaned forward over the board. I studied how the strands arched, almost touching the elegant curve of his temple, and I wanted to reach out and brush them back, to explore the shape of his skull. I froze and felt a wave of goosebumps wash over me. This urge to touch -- it was very like what I'd felt with Daniel. He moved his bishop and I stifled a groan.
These desires -- it was Daniel who had first shown me what I wanted. And what I wanted was not the clumsy fumblings I'd had at seventeen with June Sayers, my sweetheart since grade eight. It was not the rounded softness of her breasts that I wanted, nor the warm wet slide into her heat. That first time after prom, in the cramped back of the Sayers' Bronco, had been nice. But I'd been left wondering if that was really all there was, this pleasant but hardly electrifying experience.
Electrifying . . . that was Daniel. The memory of that first time with Daniel had been hovering close to the surface since I first met Ray.
Depot. I'd roomed with a tall, friendly youth from Calgary, Daniel Villery. He smiled readily and had been able to penetrate my natural reserve as easily as he breathed. He moved with a dancer's grace and made me laugh. He was . . . beautiful.
I'd told myself that it was artistic appreciation of the human body. Nothing wrong with beauty in all its forms; my grandmother had taught me that. I told myself he was my friend, nothing more.
We were in the deserted gym late one night, sparring. We were practicing for our self-defense class, which was taught by a demanding instructor. He worked us mercilessly, and I was determined to be the best.
Daniel had thrown me, easily, far too many times for my comfort. I was stronger than him, but he was all darting energy, unpredictable fire to my stolidly drilled maneuvers.
For the third frustrating time that session, I found myself on my back with a triumphant Daniel smiling down at me. I glared up at him for a moment, trying to catch my breath.
His smile faded, and he dropped to his knees beside me. He reached out, touched my chest. "You okay, there, Ben?"
"Fine," I started to say, but the word died on my lips. Because the hand on my chest was moving, slowly, the faintest stroking. I looked down: Daniel was transfixed, staring at his hand moving over my body.
"What . . . " are you doing? I meant to say, but the words trailed off. Because Daniel's hand was moving down, down, and I realized that the trembling tension that hovered in my groin was arousal, more intense and electric than any June had ever inspired in me. I couldn't stifle my gasp; something seemed to click into place in that moment. It was a startling mental shift, of the sort that happened when one concentrated on an optical illusion, the moment when the old hag becomes a young woman. This was what I needed; this was what had always been missing with June.
Daniel looked up and our eyes met. His were knowing, needy, and I trembled.
His hand moved on me, more confidently now.
"No, don't," I gasped, a sudden sharp fear rising up. This is crossing a line, I thought, and wasn't sure if I was ready for it.
"You want it, Ben." Daniel's tone was seductive, drawing me in with its warmth. "You know you do."
His hand moved again, making me gasp. "Daniel, please . . . " Daniel's mouth cut off the rest of my words, and his skilled tongue soon had me thrusting up into his hand. Daniel pulled away and looked down at me, smiling.
"Don't stop," I gasped and was lost then, objections scattered to the four winds. I tugged him down for another kiss. He finally pulled away and . . . Oh, god, if someone walks in right now! That panicked thought almost moved me to protest this rash action again. In the end, though, I could only lie there and murmur soft sounds of want as Daniel's hand slipped into my sweatpants.
Daniel's hands were on me, pushing down the pants. His mouth was on me, on my erection. It was harsh, wet and hot and nothing at all like the experience I'd had with June.
His hard hands on my hips pressed me into the floor. My head rolled from side to side, and the faintly moldy smell of the mats beneath us made my nose itch. That minor annoyance was soon subsumed beneath more engulfing sensations, however -- the feel of his mouth on me, deeper and stronger yet. He sucked, wet sounds that had me trembling on that razor edge of sensation instantly.
"God." The word was ripped from me, and then I was coming, desperate spurts that Daniel sucked down eagerly.
I started, the memory fading only reluctantly.
Ray was looking over at me, and I realized he was waiting for me to make my move. I looked at his tousled hair and had to stifle the urge to touch him once more. I bit back a laugh.
"What?" he asked with a quizzical smile.
I didn't reply for a moment. "Just . . . enjoying your company, Ray."
He nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean. This . . . " his wave seemed to include the entire apartment, "all feels pretty good, somehow. Comfortable, you know?"
I blinked, and a guilty flush washed over me. Would he be comfortable if he knew the thoughts he evoked in me? My moves after that were the results of a distracted mind. Not surprisingly, he won yet another game with a mocking "Checkmate."
"You thinking about tomorrow?" Ray put away the chess pieces.
I was accompanying Ray out to Skagg Lake to pick up Maggie. I suspected that Ray and Maggie had planned a birthday party for me but Ray's transparent efforts at secrecy told me it was meant to be a surprise.
"Not really, Ray. I've just been thinking how much I've enjoyed our evenings together," I replied, feeling a little deceptive.
He grinned. "That's cool. Me, too. I guess for friends here, I got Doug and Sally. But I work for them, so it's not like I feel I can cut loose. I don't really know the other pilots that well yet, either, and they're all married, so it's not like they want to hang out with the new guy. But now I got you and Dief to hang with, so it's cool."
He walked me to the door, a warm hand draped casually on my shoulder. I felt my face heat up once more. "I'm glad." I stood in the doorway, reluctant to leave.
"Tomorrow, then, eh, Ben?" Ray paused for a second. "Hey, I said 'eh.' Does that make me Canadian yet?" he laughed.
"It's merely the first, tiny step," I said dryly, then called out to Dief, who was reluctant to leave his couch.
"Oh, wait. You almost forgot this," Ray said, snagging my Stetson off the kitchen table. He tossed it to me. "What's step two, getting a big hat?"
I chuckled, shaking my head. "Tomorrow, Ray."
The next morning, I got into the Cessna and paused, looking at the cargo with some curiosity.
"We just gotta make one stop at a fishing camp to drop that stuff off, then we're good to go," Ray explained.
I looked at him with a raised brow. "What possible use could a fishing camp have for six cases of cucumber-scented bath salts?"
"Hey, last month it was rubber duckies. 'Don't ask, don't tell' is my policy," Ray laughed.
"Oh, really?" The crate lid creaked as I lifted it off.
"Ben! What the hell? Get out of the cargo! Damn it. No, don't . . . Oh, gross!"
"Hmmm. Sodium chloride." I touched my tongue to the white granules once more. Cocking my head, I considered the taste thoughtfully.
"Sodium chloride and magnesium sulfate, with some sort of fragrance." I blinked. "Bath salts."
Ray's grimace faded. "Well, duh."
I frowned at him. "Well, it seems a bit suspicious to me. I'm not entirely satisfied, either. I may ask around at the Dawson Creek detachment, find out what they might know about this camp. Strange behavior often points to poachers. Or drugs."
"Poaching druggies with really soft skin and a rubber duckie fetish?" Ray snorted. "C'mon, that's just silly."
We dropped the bath salts off without incident. I took my cue from Ray and held my tongue when two burly men of no discernable bath salt-indulging persuasion lugged the boxes off. As soon as they were out of ear-shot, we looked at each other and Ray burst out laughing.
"Did they look like poaching druggies, Ben?"
"I can't overlook suspicious behavior, Ray. My detachment covers a vast territory. Ignoring things only makes it get worse."
Something squeaked behind me. It sounded like Ray.
My head snapped around. "What was that?"
"What was what?" Ray's eyes were guileless, but he couldn't hold the straight face. He shook with laughter.
"Really, Ray." I shook my head, but I smiled.
We landed and picked up Maggie without incident.
"Home, James," Maggie teased Ray, and buckled herself into one of the seats. I sat down beside her.
Ray clambered into the cockpit, strapped in, and put his headphones on. He twisted in his seat and looked back at us for a moment.
"Okay?" he mouthed with a smile. At our nod, he gave us a thumbs-up. His eyes paused on mine for a moment and his smile brightened. Then he turned around again, settling himself more comfortably in the pilot's seat.
As I had suspected, there was something planned upon our return. Doug and Sally shuttled us off to the little park area by the lake, where the entire crew had assembled. It seemed half the town was there, as well as some faces unknown to me, tourists perhaps.
The entire RCMP detachment was arranging picnic tables of food. When Constable Barbarin saw me, he started singing "Happy Birthday," and Sarah Martin, Ray, and Maggie joined in right after.
I shook my head, laughing. Their enthusiasm only partially made up for their lack of musical skills.
When the discordant strains of the song faded, Ray pointed. "Hey, what's with the trout?"
Maggie held up the plastic bag containing the fish, then lifted a cabbage from the table as well. "Traditional elements of Yukon birthday party games, Ray. Ben and I used to visit our grandparents up there you know. It's quite fascinating . . . "
"I don't think I want to know," Ray interrupted, shaking his head and laughing.
"I forgot the Twister, Ben, so we'll have to forego that tradition." Dief gave a low sound, as if in agreement.
"Dief had an unfortunate reaction once upon seeing the conclusion of a vicious game of Twister. I don't think he's ever recovered," I said blandly.
Ray's eyes bugged out at that, and I bit my tongue to keep from laughing.
Ray pulled out a small, wrapped box from his pack and placed it with the other presents that were on the table.
"Happy birthday, Ben."
"You didn't have to, really."
He cut me off with a waved hand. "I wanted to. So, are we eating now, or are you opening your presents, or are we going to do something unhinged with that trout first?"
Maggie laughed. "Let's eat, guys. The trout can wait."
We loaded our plates, buffet-style, and everyone sat and ate, enjoying the warmth and sun of the afternoon. I sat between Maggie and Ray at a picnic table, greeting the sporadically offered birthday well-wishes with a smile. Dief lay at our feet under the table, enjoying the food Ray was passing down to him. I turned a blind eye.
Ray was teasing Maggie amiably. I paused for a moment and looked down at my fork. The bench we sat on was short and Maggie and Ray were pressed against me. I could feel their warmth, could smell Ray's grape lollipop. I felt full, complete, and the moment seemed oddly significant. Even with my mother down in Seattle, her spirit seemed here. Some feeling, reminiscent of family and home, was rising in me. The thought was mostly amorphous, but before I could focus on it, bring it into being, Ray started putting presents in front of me.
"I'm too impatient to wait. Open. Now."
I pulled the biggest box towards me.
Maggie glanced over. "That's from mom, by the way. She sent it along in that care package you brought me last time. She and Douglas couldn't leave, too many summer tourists at the inn."
"Your mom owns an inn?" Ray asked.
"Mom stayed at a B & B near Seattle once and liked the place so much she ended up marrying the owner, Douglas. They've only managed to get away from the place a few times since the wedding," I explained.
The ribbon was removed, and the opened box revealed a heavy woolen cable-knit sweater in a rich cream.
"Nice," Maggie said. "Mom's knitting again, I see."
"Very nice," I agreed.
The next present was from Maggie, a wickedly sharp throwing knife, in a leather sheath. I tested the balance.
Maggie watched me heft the knife. "Good?"
"I decorated the sheath myself. See, that's Dief."
I gave her a quick hug. "Thanks, Maggie. It's wonderful."
"We'll have to have a contest, like we had back in scouts." The familiar voice came from behind me. "Maybe we could finally beat Ben, eh, Maggie?"
"Innusiq!" I whirled around, drinking in the sight of my old friend. He was fit and brown, smiling with fine white teeth. I flushed as I looked at him, quashing the old longing ruthlessly. I moved forward and grasped his hands. "It's very good to see you."
Maggie stepped forward and put one hand on Innusiq's shoulder and one on mine. "The scout troop, together again. And we won't beat Ben at knife-throwing, he's gotten even better. Show him, Ben."
I glanced around and spotted a clear area away from the party. I moved out of the cluster of people around the tables, motioning Maggie and Innusiq to follow. I scanned the trees around us for a good target. When I heard the desperate buzz of an insect caught in a spider's web, I located the web, pointing to one of the branches. "Over there."
Ray had wandered over as well. "What? It's a tree?"
"There's a spider web in it. With a victim," I explained.
Innusiq cocked his head, listening intently for a moment. "The target's the fly, right? You make that throw, and I'll concede right now. I can't even see the web."
"Not quite." I hefted the knife, thumb and forefinger pinching the blade in an easy grip. In one swift motion, my arm swung up and out, and the silvery flash of the thrown knife was almost hypnotizing.
It severed the web that trapped the fly, and the desperate buzz ceased.
"Oh, I see him," Maggie said, pointing to the wild flight pattern of the released insect. "He's free. Go, little fly." She made shooing motions with her hands, then looked at us with a trace of embarrassment on her face. "Silly, I know. It's nature."
Innusiq stared at Maggie's face. "It's nice," he said slowly. "Very nice."
Maggie smiled back with the flush still high on her cheeks. I swallowed hard and watched the fly disappear beyond the tress.
Ray touched my shoulder. "Let's get your knife, Ben. Then you can get back to the presents. I got you something too."
I tugged the knife to free it from the bark, and Ray said in a low voice, "That was nice. Spiders creep me out."
I paused cleaning the knife blade and glanced over. His eyes were lit up, and I nodded, suddenly happier.
We wandered back over to the picnic table and sat. Ray's box revealed a set of plastic wings, of the type given out to children by large airlines. I laughed out loud.
Ray snorted. "I'm a dork, huh? Couldn't think of what to get you, Ben. Then I thought you could use a co-piloting badge, for helping me out. Like for boy scouts."
Maggie and Innusiq both laughed. Maggie explained, "Innusiq, Ben and I were all in a troop together one summer when we were visiting our grandparents. Ben and Innusiq both got their cooking badges, but I had a hard time boiling water."
Innusiq nudged her in the ribs. "You can make stew now, though. Good stew."
Darkness crept up on us, and someone built a fire in the firepit. Everyone took advantage of my birthday to cut loose a bit.
I examined the new rifle that Sarah and Paul had presented me. Sally McLean's teenaged son Craig, in typically adolescent male fashion, was fascinated. I ran an appreciative hand over the smooth walnut stock. Sarah pointed out the features of the rifle to Craig, who pleaded to hold it. I handed it over, at a nod from Sally, and promised to show him how to shoot it tomorrow. Next to me on an ice chest turned into impromptu seating, Ray seemed uneasy, his knees jumping convulsively. I narrowed my eyes; he looked unwell, green about the gills, as Grandmother used to say.
Craig worked the bolt, and we were treated to the sound of well-oiled metal moving against metal. Ray started at the sound and let out a muttered curse. I raised my eyebrows at him, perturbed. I wouldn't have thought the mere presence of a firearm would cause a former police officer such distress.
Craig turned toward Ray, holding the butt of the rifle out to him. "Ray, check the action out. Sarah says it's really smooth!"
Ray's face completely drained of color, and he stood, almost falling backwards over the ice chest. When I grabbed his elbow to steady him, he pulled away with a jerk.
"Keep that goddamn thing away from me. Just keep it away from me. Kids and their goddamn guns, what the hell's wrong with this picture?" His voice, low and dangerous at first, had risen to an angry bellow. His jaw clenching, he spun on his heel and stalked off towards the lake.
I hesitated, took in the small ring of shocked faces, then ran after Ray.
I pushed my way through the underbrush, branches catching my clothing as I fought to keep him in sight. When I caught up with him, he was sitting on a log by the lakeshore. The long twilight of summer meant that it was still bright enough for me to see him clearly. His shoulders were slumped, and he staring out at the cold, clear water. I hesitated some distance from him, unwilling to intrude.
"Would you like some company, Ray?"
He sighed and patted the log. "Pull up a branch and sit a while, Ben, if you can stand the company," he said self-deprecatingly. "Sorry about . . . about, you know, back there."
"That's quite all right, and your company is most acceptable, Ray." I sat down on the log next to him and nudged his knee with mine. "Something's bothering you. Would you like to talk about it?"
He was quiet for so long I wondered if I'd overstepped some boundary. Then he started to speak, staring once again into the distance.
"Got a letter from Dad last week. He'd clipped an article out the paper, 'Forgotten Heroes of the Drug War,' or some such crock of shit. Dad meant well. Hell, he was fucking proud of me. But it brought it all back." Ray grimaced. "I thought I'd be leaving all the bad stuff in Chicago. Just leave everything behind, thought it would do me good, clear out my head. Shoulda known better than to think running away would work." He shook his head and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and his chin on his knuckles.
"Running away from what, Ray?" I reached out a hand to his shoulder, ready to pull back if he didn't welcome the touch. If he noticed it, he didn't respond.
"Myself. Chicago. My own fucking screw-ups, everything." He was silent so long I almost prompted him further, then he continued in a hollow voice. "You ever think about dying, Ben?" He turned to look at me with haunted eyes, but seemed only half-listening, his attention focused inward.
"In a general, philosophical sense? Or perhaps you mean my own mortality?" I asked, feeling out the seemingly random turn of his conversation.
"Doesn't really matter. See, when I was a cop, I always tried not to think about pushing up daisies. Seemed kind of like tempting fate, but it sneaks up on you, you know? Especially after Stella and me went splitsville, because I gotta tell you, I was doing some crazy shit."
Concerned by his mood, I looked over at Ray. He held himself gingerly, as though he might shatter with one wrong move.
"I was mad at her, mad at me, mad at the whole damn world. I figured I could handle whatever I got into, 'cause no way anything could make me feel worse than I already did. I was wrong." He stopped, staring down at the ground between his feet. A harsh laugh escaped his lips.
"What the hell am I doing? You don't want to hear this shit." I gave his shoulder a gentle pat, reaching out to him with simple touch.
"What happened, Ray? If you want to talk about it, I'm listening." He looked at me, his expression an odd sort of weary amazement.
"You're really out there, Ben. You mean that, don't you? What's up with that, why do you even give a shit?" His voice held no anger, only quiet bemusement.
"Because I don't like to see anyone in pain, much less someone I've grown to like very much. I'd like to consider us friends, and friends are there for each other." He swallowed hard at that, eyes widening. Then his face hardened.
"Maybe you need to hear what happened before you go deciding you want to be my friend, Ben." He scanned my face, and I didn't flinch from his stare. Suddenly decisive, he nodded.
"This article -- they'd gotten my old Academy photo. I was a cocky son of a bitch back then. I was one of a bunch of uniforms assigned to a narcotics task force. We were serving a search warrant on this crack house. It was owned by a couple of the sleaziest dealers you could want to put down. We're rounding everybody in the place up, things get a little tense, then somebody comes out of the hallway pointing this huge fucking 9 millimeter. All I'm seeing is the pistol, I swear I couldn't see anything but the muzzle of this thing. It's this huge black circle, and somehow all I'm thinking is 'Damn, who'll feed the turtle.'"
Ray took a deep breath. "My pet turtle. I'm about to bite it, and that's what I'm thinking about. Ain't that a kick in the head?" He appeared calm, lost in his story. His anxiety showed elsewhere, though. His fingers twisted furiously in the hem of his sweatshirt.
"I finally tear my eyes from the muzzle, and mother-of-God, it's a kid. Can't be more than twelve, thirteen, wide, wild eyes. I'm shaking my head, don't do this, kid, don't make me shoot a seventh-grader. Kid's face changes, his hand squeezes, then, fuck, I'm pulling the trigger, and all hell breaks loose." He ran a shaking hand through his hair, and I gave his shoulder a squeeze. He shook his head, at either the offered comfort or at his own memories, and let out a loud breath.
"Next thing I know, bullets are flying all over the place. I dunno why, but I don't fire my weapon after I got off that first shot. I'm frozen like in one those fucked-up dreams, don't even try to hit the deck, my body's too heavy to move. Everything just stops, just like that, this weird silence over the ringing in my ears." He stopped suddenly, swallowing. He sent a quick, darting glance in my direction. I tried to look calm and supportive. Something must have reassured him, because he continued.
"My nose is twitching from the powder smell, and my chest hurts like a son of a bitch, and I'm thinking my kevlar must've stopped a bullet. I'm looking around, and fuck, oh fuck, I can't . . . I . . . " His voice broke; he seemed struck dumb by the memory. I listened to his shallow, rapid breathing, and felt a sympathetic tingling in my eyes. I rubbed a palm over his shoulder blade in a futile gesture of comfort.
"Easy, Ray, easy," I murmured.
He covered his eyes with one hand, then kneaded his temple. "Everybody starts yelling and I go over to the kid, hoping, I dunno . . . There's blood all over the place, I'm trying to stop it, but it's gushing from the kid's throat, it's on my hands -- I swear, I can almost taste it. Then I get real dizzy and my chest hurts more, and I can't breathe. I'm on the floor, don't even remember falling; I can't catch my breath." The pitch of his voice had risen higher and higher, hairline cracks in his voice widening. He clutched his hands together tighter and tighter. "Last thing I'm thinking is that at least I won't have to live with a dead kid on my conscience." He looked up at the sky.
"See, I was forgetting that God is a comedian." The voice was deliberate, brittle, and he let out a strangled sound. The shredded sound changed pitch abruptly, and then he was shuddering, half-stifled sobs breaking through clenched teeth.
I hesitated for a brief moment, then gently tugged him towards my chest. He resisted, turning his face away from me.
"Shhh, Ray, let me." Ray didn't resist this time, and even reciprocated the hug, squeezing my ribs almost painfully. The corded muscles of his back were tense under my hands. His grief seemed bottomless. I rocked him, feeling inexplicably protective.
He quieted and lifted his head. Wiping his eyes with the frayed sleeve of his sweatshirt, he gave a half hiccup, half laugh. He whispered, "Sorry about that," and clumsily blotted the teary wetness from my sweater. "You must think I'm a total headcase, losing it like that."
"I think you're a caring man suffering a normal reaction to a traumatic event. You had no choice, you realize that, don't you? And I gather you were injured in the confrontation as well. Would that be where you got the scar on your chest?"
He nodded, startled, automatically bringing a hand up to his chest to touch the fabric hiding the scar.
I continued. "An injury which only heaped more trauma and stress onto an already intolerable situation." He looked down.
"Yeah, kevlar can only do so much against armor-piercing bullets. Cop killer ammo. The bullet came within an inch of an artery, the doctors told me. I guess it just wasn't my time yet."
I shivered, chilled by the thought.
"Ray, I'd say that's further evidence that you had no choice in the situation."
"You sound just like the shrink they made me see."
"But you do see that, don't you? There was nothing you could have done differently. However young he was, the youth was dangerous and armed, with weaponry specifically designed to do as much damage to you as possible." My voice rose in anger at the idea and I stifled the emotion, not wanting to burden Ray with my own feelings.
He closed his eyes. "I do know that. At least in my saner moments, my head gets that. My gut thinks different though. It keeps saying, 'Your bullet, your gun, your finger on the trigger, add it up, Kowalski.' After that, I couldn't even look at a weapon without shaking, much less carry. Hell of a thing for a cop, so I resigned." His voice was emotionless and matter-of-fact.
My throat was tight. It was a crushing burden, taking a human life. And I couldn't even imagine the weight if the life was that of a child. No wonder his first career had become intolerable.
"The shooting investigation team found no fault with your actions, I'd warrant. I'm surprised they didn't award you a citation for bravery."
He looked at me, surprised.
"Yeah, they did. Or tried to. It was going to be this big PR thing for the PD, medal to the brave wounded cop. Fuck that. Doesn't mean much of anything, except that I was dumb enough to get in the way of a bullet on the job."
"I think it means much more than that, Ray. My father received a citation for bravery, posthumously. I'd like to think it meant more than just stupidity." My voice was tight and angry, and Ray flinched.
He froze for long moments, mouth opening soundlessly. He reached out, touched my arm. "That's sad, Ben. And I didn't mean anything by the stupidity comment."
I rubbed an eyebrow, ashamed of my overreaction. "No, no, I can be touchy about it. This sounds awful, but my sister and I went though a stage when we were very angry with dad and the RCMP. Later, when I told my sister and my mom that I was still going to become a Mountie, they were apprehensive. Maggie especially was dead set against my decision. She didn't speak to me for an entire month after I told her."
A frown creased his face, his red-rimmed eyes narrowing. "Yeah, I get that. My dad was so not happy when I told him I was going to the Academy. Told me I'd get a cop stink on me that'd never wash off. I told him I was going whether he liked it or not. Neither of us would budge. We didn't talk again until he and mom came to see me in the hospital."
"I'm very sorry for that, Ray." I sounded stiff and formal. I felt too exposed, too raw and had to swallow hard to press through the tightness in my throat.
"Nah. 'S okay." Ray shook his head and shifted on the log. "I don't need to dump more shit on you right now."
"It's quite all right." I winced at the too hearty sound of my voice.
Ray sighed. "We should get back to camp, I guess. Don't wanna ruin your party, Ben."
My composure was shot, and I welcomed a chance to regroup. "Perhaps we should," I said lamely.
He nodded, not looking at me. "Gotta go back sometime."
We stood. Then he surprised me, pulling me into a hug. My stiffness made him chuckle.
"Thanks, Ben. Again."
"My pleasure, Ray. And thank you as well."
"You're thanking me? For snotting up your sweater?"
"That I am, Ray." He had trusted me enough to tell me his story, and it felt like a gift.
"You're a freak, you know?" His smile turned the word into an endearment.
"That I am, Ray."
Back at the fire, Ray made the rounds, apologizing for his outburst. He sought out Craig first, and although I didn't try to listen to their low-voiced conversation, Craig seemed sympathetic. Most everyone else seemed bemused but accepting. Ray leaned on a table and his quiet but genuine contrition flowed right into a solemn introspection.
The sight of Innusiq with Maggie distracted me from Ray. They were sitting very close together. He faced her, touching her wrist. They were both laughing, and I was caught once again by his fine profile and flashing smile. The old ache twisted my insides. A fruitless ache, I knew. I had always known any Fraser sparking Innusiq's interest would be Maggie.
My face felt hot, and I cleared my throat.
Innusiq tore his eyes from Maggie's face reluctantly and rose from the bench. "Ben, you didn't open my present yet." He lifted a package from the bench, offering it to me.
"Thank you kindly." I returned to my seat on the ice chest.
"It's the new book on the Franklin expedition," he explained as I unwrapped the brown paper. "I know you and Maggie are set on retracing their route."
"Wellington Channel. Then Peel Sound to Franklin Strait," Maggie said to me.
I closed my eyes with a smile, reciting the place names that had been our mantra, a comforting list to dull the pain of our own father's disappearance, for a short while at least. "Cape Felix on King William Island. Then the icy M'Clintock Channel."
Maggie grinned. "Ben and I have our whole route planned out and everything. We'll find that outreaching hand, one day, right, Ben?"
"Always ready to go with you, Maggie. I want to stand on King William Island, exactly where Franklin's men stood. See what they saw. Walk in their footsteps." I blinked, aware that Ray was gazing at me curiously, and cleared my throat. I turned to Maggie. "And we could certainly have a good sled team now, with your animals."
"The dogs are fit. Good stock." She and Innusiq shared a conspiratorial smile. I frowned, feeling excluded from their shared warmth.
"It's summer, so no sledding now." My tone was sharper than I had intended.
Maggie's smile faded, and she blinked at me. I tried to laugh it off, "No snow, no sleds, no quest, right?" .
She shot me a concerned look, but I shook my head helplessly.
"So, how are Vince and Georgia's puppies? They helping you make a great team?" Innusiq asked. He and Maggie were soon deep in sled dog conversation, comparing training regimens and breeding strategies.
Innusiq was focused on Maggie, leaning into her space. Her body language mirrored his, and I felt a stab of envy. I tried to suppress the unwelcome emotion, but it clung to me, weighing down my heart.
Ray plopped down next to me on the ice chest and nudged me with an elbow. "Vince and Georgia?"
I tore my eyes from them and glanced at Ray. "Two dogs that Innusiq gave to Maggie when she first started her own program. Good dogs, great stamina for long treks."
"You guys seriously going off to find this hand thing one day? On a sled?"
"We used to talk about it all the time. When Maggie was in Toronto, we stopped, but after she came back, we pulled out our old maps. Crozier's Landing, Victory Point, Cape Jane Franklin, all those place names -- they're like old friends now. She and Innusiq like to consider what dogs they might put together for the journey."
I stared at the pair once more. Maggie was happier than I had seen in a long time, and my envy faded, replaced by sorrow. Self-indulgent, perhaps, to be sorry for myself, but I could no more suppress this emotion than my previous envy.
"Ben, you okay?"
"What?" Ray's gaze was concerned. "I'm fine, Ray."
"You don't look fine."
"I'm fine. Really."
He subsided, shaking his head, unconvinced
The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. People started saying their good-byes, leaving the fire in a steady stream. When Maggie and Innusiq left together, I stiffened.
"You're not fine," Ray said.
I looked around the fire. Only a few people remained, but it was far too many for this conversation.
I tugged at the handle of one of the ice chests. "Help me haul some of this stuff back to the detachment, okay?"
We had hauled two coolers and a dozen or so emptied food containers back into the detachment kitchen, Ray staring at me the entire time, his face concerned.
"We can start breaking down the tables, too."
Ray balked, crossing his arms. "Ben, this stuff can wait 'til tomorrow. What the hell is wrong? You don't like Innusiq sniffing around Maggie?"
My lips pressed into a hard line at his blunt phrasing. "Excuse me?"
"You said you've been friends for ages. He seems like a nice guy. What's your beef with him?"
"I don't, as you so quaintly put it, have a 'beef' with him." Whenever I felt threatened, I retreated to formality. It was useful, at times. I rather regretted doing it with Ray, however.
"They seem like they'd make a great couple."
"So why'd you get so pissy looking at 'em?" Ray's voice was raised, and I looked about us nervously. By this time, however, the entire area was deserted, and I had all the privacy I could ask for.
I took in a breath, decided to lay it all out for Ray. Pulling him down onto a bench with me, I stared down at my hands for a long time. "Seeing them together . . . it reminds me of what I can't have."
Ray shook his head. "Huh? What can't you have? A girlfriend? Ben, you're a great guy . . ." He trailed off at the look on my face.
I was shaking my head wordlessly.
His face crinkled in confusion. "So what is it? You kept looking at those two like someone had cut out your heart. You think Maggie's not ready for another relationship?"
Again I shook my head.
Ray sounded almost angry, but it was concern I saw in his eyes. "Ben, what's so bad that you're afraid to tell me? Is it Maggie? Jesus, you don't want . . ." My violent reaction cut him off.
"I don't want Maggie," I said quietly.
"Innusiq," I whispered.
Ray's eyes widened. "Innusiq? But . . ."
"I'm gay." I tensed, praying that I had judged him correctly.
Ray blinked, his mouth forming the word.
"Oh," he said shortly. "Gay. Innusiq. You like him, huh? I, uh, I guess I'm a little surprised."
"You're not upset?" Relief rose in me.
"Upset?" His forehead creased. "Why would I be upset?"
"Well, it's a common reaction, when someone or something doesn't match up to one's preconceived notions. And I did hug you earlier tonight. You might construe that as inappropriate behavior on my part."
He rolled his eyes. "Notions, schmotions, Ben. I might be damaged, but I'm no bigot. I don't think you're capable of 'inappropriate behavior.' You're about the nicest guy I've ever met. I think I can tell the difference between a come-on and a shoulder to cry on. 'Sides, I got eyes. People who look like you just don't come on to people like me. I mean, I'm not hideous or nothing, but you look like a movie star."
I shifted on the bench. "I've had a crush on Innusiq from the first time I met him. It's ridiculous, I realize. He's completely straight."
I swallowed and looked Ray right in the eye. "And to be perfectly honest, Ray, I do in fact find you very attractive as well. I guess I have a weakness for straight guys or something." I laughed, a sharp sound with no connection to humor. "But you needn't worry, I won't do anything to make you uncomfortable. Just ask Innusiq."
His eyes widened. "You find me attractive? Get out."
That was it, then. I started to get up, blood draining from my face. He grabbed my arm, pulling me back down on the bench.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! I didn't mean it that way, Ben. It's an expression, you know, get out, I don't believe that."
I relaxed finally, and turned toward him again.
"It's true, though. I find you very attractive." A wistful tone had crept into my voice.
He changed the subject.
"How come a guy like you hasn't already been scooped up yet?" He pressed a hand onto my arm. "Or is that too personal?"
"Seems only fitting since I know about your divorce. It's . . . difficult, partially because of my job."
His lips pursed as he looked at me, seemed to look through me. I blinked, unaccustomed to the vulnerable sensation the look inspired.
"Lemme guess. You got hurt in love young, I bet. And now you're scared people will hurt you?"
Surprised by his acumen, I let out a soft laugh. "You're very sharp, Ray. Daniel Villery. We became . . . lovers." I stumbled over the word. "We were both cadets, roommates at Depot, the RCMP training school. Daniel -- he was sociable, outgoing. Everything I was not but wanted to be."
"What happened?" Ray's voice was soft; he sounded genuinely interested.
I sighed, flicked a nervous thumb over my brow. "He struggled with the classroom side of our training. He was on academic probation -- another failed test and he was out. He broke into the office . . . stole copies of the upcoming tests."
My chest tightened at the memory. "I found out about it. I told him he had to turn himself in, but he refused. I begged him, don't make me choose, but he got angry, said if I loved him I'd keep it secret."
Daniel's face had been pale, his mouth set in an angry line. "You won't turn me in, Ben," he'd said. "You love me, you know you do."
I shifted on the bench and couldn't meet Ray's eyes. "I turned him in. We had been taught to maintain the right. It's our motto. I could do no less, even for him." The cold, clean logic of the decision had seemed pure, indicative of the kind of strength my father's son should have. Only later had the crushing self-doubt started, that I'd done something irreparable. And by then it was too late.
"He was expelled, of course. He hated me then, with all the intensity of what had been our love. After Daniel, I was alone -- always alone. For a long time, I thought he had been my one chance. And I'd thrown it away. For honor."
I cleared my throat. "Maggie with Innusiq -- it's what I'll never have. And it's hard. I knew my feelings would go nowhere. Nothing ever came of it; nothing could come of it. I'm destined to be . . . alone."
"Ben," Ray protested. "You'll . . ."
My raised hand cut him off, and I shut my eyes. "Don't, Ray. Just don't."
I couldn't open my eyes, couldn't look at Ray. "It's late. We should . . ."
"Get to bed?" Ray finished for me. He sighed. "I got an early flight tomorrow," he admitted.
I rose and walked away. Ray's voice followed me, "So, I'll, uh, see you, okay?"
I slowed enough to give him a quick nod, and then hurried on home. My apartment was small and cold, but I cranked up the heat and made tea. I pulled out a book that I knew I wouldn't be able to concentrate on and sat on the couch with Dief for a long time.
Dief let out a low whine. I rubbed his ruff of fur. "Yes, my friend, I do have you." It'll have to be enough.
The next time Ray and I worked together, we transported a prisoner to Prince George. After the revelations the night of my birthday party, I felt a little strange. Our mutual confessions had been almost too intense, a level of intimacy that left me feeling vulnerable by the next morning. I was inhibited, too aware of myself to relax into the level of comfort that I had previously felt with Ray. I imagine he felt the same, as he talked only of the most superficial things even after we'd dropped our prisoner off and were returning to Fort Howell.
Over the next few days, Ray and I resumed our chess matches at his apartment without incident. I relaxed my guard somewhat, allowing myself to touch Ray's shoulder as we walked to the cafe. When Ray smiled and moved into my hand, I knew that our friendship would survive. Our camaraderie had been restored; furthermore, there was perhaps a touch more intensity between us. The instantaneous connection I'd felt with Ray from the very first became even deeper, stronger for that moment by the lake.
One Saturday morning I watched, riveted, as Ray replaced the fuel pump of my jeep. He worked methodically, explaining what he was doing in a quiet voice.
His motions were precise and deft, a meticulousness that seemed an intriguing contrast to callused hands and scarred knuckles. He made one last adjustment, then stepped back and pulled out a cloth. "Go on, give her a whirl."
Getting in behind the wheel, I turned the key. On the second try, the engine started with a rumble, and settled into a smooth idle. Ray shot a victorious thumbs up to Dief, who was sitting nearly on his feet. I cut the engine and hopped out.
"Beautiful, Ray, I don't know what I would have done without you." I watched him work the cloth around his prominent knuckles, then he cleaned around his nails.
Dief's low growl sounded like admiration.
"Yeah, furface, who's your daddy?"
I laughed, and then Ray held his hand up. "High-five, Ben," he prompted.
"Oh, yes, quite right." I hurried to complete the gesture. Our hands met, and a smoldering heat washed through me. I caught his eyes; his pupils had widened, obscuring the irises, and our hands were still pressed together. Seemingly of their own accord, my fingers curled around his. My breath caught. I was torn between excitement and sharp anxiety.
An unreadable expression crossed his face, and I started to pull away.
"I'm sorry . . . I . . . " Stupid, stupid, I berated myself. We'd just gotten comfortable with each other again, and I had to go and spoil it.
He reached out and gently captured my hand between both of his. His fingertips sketched formless tracings over my skin, reading the topography of the back of my hand. The movement felt like a caress, and my breath caught again. His hands moved up to my wrist, gripping tightly for a moment, and then he let go.
"It's okay, Ben. You're good, we're good." He waved a vague hand. "I like you, a lot, you know. A whole lot. I just . . . I mean, I've never . . . "
I nodded. "Even thought about it," I said dryly.
Ray shook his head. "Uh, no, course I've thought about it, who hasn't? And it's not as if I never batted from that side of the plate either, if you count Danny Carmelo and me jerking each other off in the sixth grade. I never did anything more than that, though. Stella was it for me, since I was thirteen, so it's not like I had much opportunity to whatyacallit . . . experiment."
"And if you were given the opportunity to . . . experiment?" The nervous flutters in my stomach belied the calm in my voice.
Silence fell between us, and his hand sketched an impatient gesture. "Hey, I always said I'd try anything. I mean I'd never flown before I took that first lesson. And look at me now. Something good."
"Ah." I sounded breathless. The look on Ray's face was affectionate and intrigued, a flush on his cheeks. Excitement joined the nervous fear in my stomach.
"Yeah, 'ah,' whatever that means." He paused for a few moments more. "Anyway, after Stella, and then me leaving the force, I've been kind of 'reevaluating my priorities,' is how the shrink used to put it. I've been thinking about this, a lot, since your birthday party, and I realized something."
Ray gnawed on his lip. "Spending time with you . . . I gotta admit . . . is important."
He shot me a look from beneath his lashes. "You're someone I can groove with, someone who makes me feel like I'm worth something again, and that can't be anything but a good thing. So what I'm saying is that I'm working my head around this."
"I'll back off then, let you work this out in peace." I started to turn away, my heart sinking in my chest. I was being pushy, and pushing him away was the last thing I wanted.
A hard grip on my shoulder spun me around, and Ray held my hands in an almost painful grip.
"I don't want you to leave me in peace, Ben." His voice was a gentle contrast to the urgency of his tone. "I told you, I like you, I like this, " he squeezed my hands. "I'm . . . I dunno. I'm not saying this right. Just . . . maybe, slow is good."
He grinned, and his brilliant smile left me a breathless. I smiled back and my heart felt suddenly light.
We were still holding hands. Now a little shy, I let him go, and he began putting his tools away.
"Come on." Ray gave a lopsided nod towards the skyline. "Let's take a walk. Get some privacy."
"All right," I said, a little dazed.
"It really is pretty up here," Ray said as we left town behind and walked through a stand of firs.
Dief had followed us and was busy crashing through the brush, chasing something. "Stay away from wolverines, Dief," I called out, and a pained whine was my answer.
I looked over at Ray. "I've always preferred wilderness over cities. Maggie and I spent a lot of time growing up in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, visiting my grandparents. They were traveling librarians, who moved around the far north quite a bit. The tundra -- it's primal."
"Primal? Sounds hot." It was fond amusement, not scorn, in Ray's voice, but I stiffened.
"It's hard to explain. If Maggie and I ever live out the dream -- go looking for the hand of Franklin -- we'll get our fill of tundra, I imagine. My grandmother loved it, though. She said it had secret beauty."
Ray squinted. "Huh, 'secret beauty.' I get that."
We had learned the rudiments of tracking, dog sledding, and wilderness survival during our visits. Grandmother had insisted upon it, and nobody said no to her.
Dief plunged from out of the brush, a pale furry form against the greenery. He danced around us several times, nudging our legs, then took off again, clearly desiring a chase. Ray laughed and darted after the wolf.
He turned his head, "Come on, Ben, move that butt. That wolf is going down."
Laughing, I took up the chase. Ray moved easily ahead of me, long legs eating up the ground. I pulled alongside just as we caught sight of Dief once more. The wolf taunted us. He dashed ahead then circled back to dance around us, tongue lolling, daring us to catch him. Ray feinted to one side, then sidestepped in a catlike move, blocking Dief's path. Dief tried to dodge, but Ray leaned over, arms stretched out like a demented football player.
"Got you now, crazy wolf," he crowed, pouncing in an exuberant, full-body tackle. Eel-like, Dief squirmed free, barking excitedly, sending Ray flying. Dief's compact, but densely muscled body plowed into me. My arms windmilled, and then I was going down, barely managing to twist enough so that my full weight missed landing directly on Ray. Even so, I still managed to knock most of the wind from his lungs in a muffled, "Ooof."
"I'm so sorry, Ray. Are you all right?" I rolled onto my side, leaning up on an elbow. I reached out and touched the spot on his sternum where my elbow had landed with such force.
Ray sucked in a loud gasp. "I'm okay, Ben," he said a little breathlessly, then started laughing. "I think the wolf won this round." I barely heard his words through the merriment.
Ray's laughter quieted, and his eyes had gone thoughtful. He reached up and deliberately pressed his palm onto my hand, where it still rested on his chest. He cocked his head, and then licked his lips, eyes darting over my face.
My eyes moved over his features, admiring the golden stubble and the angular planes of his face. Arousal, affection, and a little bit of fear were all present. A warm melting began inside me, an upwelling of emotion that demanded some outward expression. I lowered my head to his, pausing scant centimeters above his lips. I had to ask the question; this was too important for assumptions.
"Do you want . . . "
His low voice, huskier than normal, interrupted me. "Yeah, Ben. I want." And with a shaky hand, he reached out and cupped the back of my neck, gently pulling me down. My lips brushed his, and abruptly I was intensely aware of my incipient erection. He moved his mouth against mine then pulled back.
"Weird." The terse statement had my stomach in knots.
"You, ah, didn't like it, Ray?" The shake in my voice made me wince.
He smiled and brushed my cheek with his fingertips. "Just not used to stubble, Ben. It was nice. Real nice. But I bet we can do even better."
His hand tugged me down once more. This time the kiss was deeper, hotter, and his lips parted to the probing tip of my tongue. A harsh exhalation escaped through his nose, and he pulled me in deep, letting me explore his mouth to my heart's content. I pressed my tongue over his teeth, smooth and slick, then caressed the roof of his mouth. Heart pounding, I pulled back, taking in deep breaths.
"Oh, yeah, this is good, Ben." His rough whisper went straight to my groin, and I bit back a moan. His eyes had gone heavy-lidded and focused on my mouth, and then he was moving, shifting our positions until I was on my back. I was pinned to the ground by his not-inconsiderable weight on my chest, and he dove in again, plunging into my mouth aggressively. His tongue teased, knowing and experienced. Notwithstanding his utter lack of experience in this particular sexual configuration, a mouth was a mouth, and Ray Kowalski was an excellent kisser.
He shifted, and suddenly I felt an answering erection pressed against my own. My hips pushed up of their own accord, eager to thrust against Ray. He pulled back once more, rolling off me. I looked up, hungry for the press of him against me already, and saw that he was panting, eyes wide.
"What's wrong, Ray?" I touched his arm.
"Whoa, okay, that was a little weird." He looked sheepish. "Sorry, Ben, just having a minor freakout. Dumb, huh? Duh, course you got the same equipment I got, I know that. Startled me there for a second."
Chagrined, I said, "We're going too fast. I should have stopped sooner. You told me to go slow, and I'm afraid I'm not."
His eyes narrowed and his voice came out sharp. "Hey, Ben, that was me jumping your bones just a minute ago. I know I told you slow, but maybe I don't need slow. Mr. Impatient, that's me, so don't go acting all guilty or nothing."
In one smooth, predatory movement, he pounced. Straddling my midsection, he defiantly pressed his hips against mine again. Hot arousal spiked through me and I gasped. He leaned over and covered my mouth with his, capturing my exhalation, sharing breath. The hesitant slide of Ray's hand pushing underneath my shirt to brush against my side brought me to my senses.
I rolled my head to one side and grasped that searching hand in my own, halting its explorations. This clumsy fumbling reminded me of that first time with Daniel. The fear of letting him in, the fear of that unbearable pain, welled up in me uncontrollably. Because having a lover meant having one to lose. A cowardly part of me wanted to stay in the safe realm of friendship, while the rest of me wanted more.
Ray's forehead creased. "Hey!"
"Slow is good, Ray. Don't feel you have to prove something, because you don't." I heard the frantic tone of my voice and winced. Ray would sense my fear, and then he'd know the weakest core of me.
Ray sat up, frowning and rubbing his forehead. "I'm not trying to prove something, Ben. Don't get all pissy, treating me like some idiot kid. I'm good to go, let's ride this pony 'til it falls."
I met his anger with my own, anger born of fear. "I didn't realize 'freaking out' at feeling another man's erection was 'good to go,' Ray." My retort dismayed me. What was I doing? I took a deep breath, held it in, then let it out.
Ray rolled over to his knees, then stood up. His face was pale and set, shadowed eyes hiding unknowable thoughts. He stabbed a forefinger toward me, an aggressive jab.
"Fuck you, man. You really know how to kill a mood, Ben. I was startled, okay? Doesn't mean I wasn't into it. I'm a grown man, I'm not about to do something I don't want to. Jeez, I'd hope you'd give me that much credit."
"You asked for slow, Ray. I don't want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable."
He rolled his eyes and then turned on his heel. "Enough of this crap. You can be boss of your own little show, I'm going back to town."
"Ray, wait," I called out to his back. He didn't pause.
I got to my feet and ran after him, blocking his path. "Ray, I'm sorry. Please, just listen."
"What?" He stood with his arms crossed defensively across his chest.
I looked into his expressive face, at the clear gaze that somehow demanded perfect honesty. "I'm scared," I blurted. Being alone was painful, but it was at least familiar, pain that was known, quantified. Loving Daniel had seemed perfect, but when it ended, the pain had been equally intense. For Ray, though . . . I'd have to try again, take that risk.
"Scared? Why would you be scared?" Ray sounded incredulous and he looked at me with a hard gaze. I held my breath as his eyes held mine for long moments. He seemed to find some explanation there.
"Oh, Ben." His voice was gentle, and his frown softened. His arms uncrossed, and he reached towards me tentatively.
I nodded, wanting, needing the touch. The warmth and pressure of his hand on my shoulder felt wonderful, and the fear no longer seemed quite so sharp. "I'm scared, Ray. Of getting hurt. I'm not handling it well, I know. I'm sorry."
"I know how you feel, Ben. Losing Stella felt like losing a piece of me. It sucks, yeah. But you gotta try again; you can't give up. I want to try again with you. I know you're no coward, Ben. You can do this."
His hot, penetrating stare froze me in place, and I nodded.
He chuckled, slinging an arm over my shoulders. "Now let's go to my place. You Canadians might think rolling around on the ground is romantic, but I can do without the grass stains."
I laughed shakily, relieved.
"Come on, furface, I got some left-over pizza with your name on it."
Dief gave a joyful bark and followed us back to town.
As soon as Ray locked his apartment door behind us, he was on me, hot mouth and eager hands. I felt . . . overwhelmed. My own sexual experience encompassed a limited sampling of partners, and it had been almost half a lifetime since I had one so ready to devour me, taste me so thoroughly.
Ray leaned into me, pressing his mouth to mine again. A doubt struck me -- was he comparing me to his ex-wife -- but I pushed it away. We were together here and now, the past was past. Ray's mouth had my full concentration. My tongue teased open his lips, as Ray's fumbling hands worked at the buttons of my shirt.
I steered him backwards to his couch, but he resisted.
"Unh, unh." He was pulling toward his bedroom.
I took in a shaky breath. "Okay, Ray." My voice sounded strange.
Ray's sheets were rumpled, the bed unmade. He winked at me. "So I'm a slob."
"My slob," I said quietly, so quietly Ray could pretend to ignore it if he chose.
He pushed me over onto the bed, then dove down beside me. His hand moved over the curve of my shoulder, and his face was thoughtful.
"Your slob," he agreed softly.
"Oh." My throat closed up, and I shut my eyes. It was far more than I had expected. It was almost too much, a painful pleasure, rising joy and burning eyes. I swallowed.
Ray's fingers brushed against me as he unbuttoned my shirt, then it was pulled from me, a slow slide that raised goosebumbs. He leaned over, and his warm, wet mouth pressed low on my abdomen. A moan came from me, without my willing it. His mouth pulled off, and a teasing exhalation brushed my belly.
I felt Ray's soft chuckle. He skimmed a palm across my pectorals, and murmured, "I'm not usually like this."
"Nervous. I'm thinking too much. If I'm gonna do something, I usually just dive in. Don't want to mess this up, though."
I tugged at his hand, pressing it against the tent in my jeans. "You're fine, Ray. This is what you do to me. It's good."
His hands trembled as he worked at the button and zipper of my jeans. Long fingers worked their way through the opening, pausing as they brushed against my erection through the fabric of my boxers.
Ray's smile was rueful. "I don't know what the hell I'm doing, Ben. What do you want?"
"Whatever you want. Let's experiment."
I reached out and tugged at the waistband of his jeans.
"Come on, Ray. Get these off. Let me look at you."
"You too, Ben."
I leaned over to untie my boots, tugging them off along with the socks. Pulling my jeans and boxers off, I cupped my hands in front of me without thinking, covering myself. Ray sat on the edge of the bed, shoulders hunched.
I stared down at my bare toes. I wondered if I'd seemed shy to Daniel, that first time in our dorm room with privacy. Daniel had never been shy, his boldness always pushing me. He had moved things along fast enough that this awkwardness never cropped up, moving from mouth on mouth to mouth on other places in breathless moments. Before I had even thought it possible, I'd been on my hands and knees, Daniel buried deeply inside me. I had loved it, loved the fullness of it, the closeness.
I shook off the memories: thoughts of Daniel were necessarily bittersweet. I took a breath, wondering again where this . . . liaison with Ray would lead, and my forehead wrinkled at the thought.
Strong hands running up my sides brought my head up suddenly. "Ray?" I gasped.
His voice was warm, his hands on my skin even warmer. "You thinking again, Ben? I want to do this with you; I thought we settled that. Seems like the next step should be obvious, seeing as we're both naked here, I don't know if you've noticed yet," he said dryly, pressing himself against my back. He was lean and hard, and I moved back into his warmth instinctively.
He breathed softly in my ear, biting the lobe, pushing his tongue inside.
"Ah." I let my head drop back against his shoulder, closing my eyes. His hand moved to my chest, tweaking my nipple experimentally. I shuddered.
Ray chuckled. "I was hoping to have all my fantasies of getting ravished by a buff Canadian Mountie fulfilled, but that's okay. I'm going to get laid here, Ben Fraser, if I have to do the ravishing myself."
Ray moved with startling speed; I found myself on my back, looking up at a smug, laughing Ray. He'd pushed his uncertainty aside for now and straddled me. Exploratory hands ran up my body, and I gasped. A crooked smile was on his face.
"Yeah, Ben. Just like that," he whispered. The rasp went straight to my groin, and I reached up, tugged him down so that his mouth was on mine. It was sloppy and wet, and Ray's tongue seemed to be everywhere at once. He tasted the bow of my upper lip, nipped the soft flesh there. I closed my eyes, and he moved down to the curve of my jaw.
I felt him smile against my throat. "Mmmm," he murmured. "I think I like stubble."
Ray squirmed around, thrusting against me experimentally. The thrill of that sensation finally galvanized my response. I pinned him against the pillows in a blink and set to with a will, determined to explore every rangy inch of him. He was lithely muscled, sinewy but more solid than he looked when clothed.
I tasted Ray's right shoulder, sucked at the crease of his armpit until he squirmed away, giggling. Biting the bump of the clavicle, I smiled at the faint freckles that dusted the top of his shoulder. My mouth moved down to his bicep: the tattoo drew me inexorably. I'd been curious about the heavy black and red of the design on Ray's pale skin at first sight, and here was my chance to explore it thoroughly.
The tip of my tongue chased slowly back and forth across the mark. I closed my eyes to concentrate on the sensation. Ray made a questioning sound. I smiled my astonishment, at identifying the edges of the design from the slightly raised texture of the tattooed skin.
"You like the ink?" Ray asked.
"Um-huh." My answer, although muffled against his skin, was enthusiastic, and I felt his chuckle.
Moving down the line of his bicep slowly, I pulled his arm towards me. The skin on the inside of his elbow was soft under my mouth. I scraped the fragile skin with my teeth, then bit down. Ray stiffened and let out a soft sound.
Ray's body had the lean lines of a dancer. His erection jutted out from his belly, eager for attention. His scent was a mixture of warm skin and sweat with a hint of Ivory soap. It was intoxicating.
I reached over, traced the line of hair from Ray's navel to his groin, and he seemed overwhelmed, frozen in place. The point of his hipbone was perfect for biting, and then my tongue grazed the hollow next to his thatch of pubic hair. Ray gasped, his paralysis broken as he clutched the sheets. He was warm under my tongue, with a hint of salt. I tasted his navel, and he writhed.
My lips painted a wet path over his belly, and I covered his clenched hand with mine. I pried his fingers from the rucked sheet, laced his fingers with my own. "Ray," I said, just to feel the sound in my mouth, and pressed a smile into his chest. My tongue traced the line of his ribcage, fingertips exploring the soft skin on his inner thigh. Ray bucked again, and his hand moved convulsively towards his erection. My hand on his wrist stopped him from touching himself, and he moaned, squeezing the fingers of my other hand, still clutched in his, almost painfully.
"Shh." I soothed.
"Touch me, Ben." Ray's voice made my name a plea. "Touch me, please."
That nearly undid me right then, and I reached out, wrapped my hand around his erection.
Ray shuddered. "Fuck, yeah," he breathed, throwing his head back against the pillows for long minutes as my hand moved on him. He tugged on the hand I held.
"Let go, Ben. I need to touch you," he whispered, gently extracting his hand from mine. He looked down at me with a soft smile, eyes dark. His capable fingers soothed over my temple, threaded through my hair. I had to close my eyes for a second, the better to lock this moment in memory. I wanted to store it up flawlessly, so that later I could take it out and replay this feeling.
I looked down at his penis, erect and darkly flushed against the hand I had wrapped possessively around it. The urge to taste him was a compulsion. I leaned over and breathed on the glans, then gave in to the urge to lick. The tip of my tongue ran along the shaft, tracing his circumcision scar. The masculine scent of his arousal filled my nose, and I ran my tongue up the shaft. Ray made a sound that was more whimper than moan, and my free hand roamed up along his belly, a caress that soothed and promised at the same time.
Ray gasped, and his hands brushed clumsily through my hair. His hands were gentle, but it was obvious what he needed. I took him into my mouth, taking in just the head. Ray jerked and let out a strangled expletive. I froze.
"Don't stop!" With that encouragement, I moved on him again. It had been a long time, and I cautiously took him deeper.
Ray let out a half-strangled sound above me, a desperate moan that I wanted to hear again. I took a quick breath through my nose, and consciously relaxed my throat muscles, sucking him down until my lips touched my hand.
From above, I heard a mixture of barely intelligible sounds wrapped around my name, "Ben, fuck, Ben." It was dark and hot and made me eager to see him wild and open, pushed over the edge by my mouth and hands. My own arousal rose, heat gathering in my groin, but I ignored it. Now was for Ray, all my concentration and effort focused on one thing, giving Ray the most mind-blowing orgasm I could.
I pushed his thighs wider and took him in deeper still, hungry for the fullness of him nudging the back of my throat. The muscles of his legs and belly were quivering, his hands clenching in my hair, tugging with painful strength. I pulled back, taking a deep breath before sucking him down again. Ray convulsed, pressing deeply down my throat. The muscles of my throat spasmed, forcing me to ease off.
"Fuck, Ben, need to . . . " Ray moaned, and I sucked him down again, letting the pitch of his arousal build again. My jaw started to ache, drool escaping my lips. I pushed a hand down between Ray's thighs, until my shaky fingers found his testicles. I pulled on them slightly and his response was electric, a harsh gasp over a full-body quake.
"Jesus!" I would have smiled had I been able to, and my hand pushed further back, stroking the flesh between Ray's buttocks. I hummed, swallowed Ray down as deeply as I could and pressed a fingertip against Ray's anus. The convergence of sensations produced impressive results: he exploded with a scream, writhing under me, filling my mouth. I rode him out, swallowing frantically, softening my mouth on him.
I pulled off, working the kinks from my jaw. Ray was silent for long minutes, then rolled half on top of me. I gathered him into my arms, and he brushed his face against my chest.
"I'm a puddle," he slurred, laughing softly with his eyes still closed.
I had to move, and my erection nudged against his hip.
Ray opened his eyes, blinking at me as he laughed. "Sorry, Ben. Let's get you now." He moved a hand down onto my erection, eyeing my foreskin, then looked back up at me. The question was in his eyes, and I smiled and reached for his hand, wrapping my hand around his about my penis.
Ray smiled as I moved our joined hands, lightly gliding my foreskin up and down. I shuddered, biting my lip. It had been a long time, more years than I cared to remember, since any hands but my own had touched me. Just the thought of Ray's hand on me made my ears ring, and I knew that it was going to be quick.
"Sensitive, huh, Ben?" he whispered and I pressed his hand around me tighter yet, moving faster now. Ray seemed fascinated, staring as our joined hand pulled the foreskin down to coyly expose my glans, then hiding it again on the upstroke.
"Cool," he whispered, then looked up, flushing, and stared at my mouth. I licked my lips, and his breath caught. He moved closer, his mouth parting as it came down on mine, and his hand continued its movement. His tongue thrust into my mouth, mimicking the movement of our hands and a sexual flush washed over my skin. His hand under mine was on me, moving, and his tongue was in me, moving as well. Ray pulled his mouth away, breathing in great gasps. I sucked in deep breaths myself. The air tasted cool and rich, and I realized that my lungs had been starved.
My breath quickened, the sensations building. A strong tug down, just this side of pain, pulled a ragged sound from me. His other hand came up, tweaked my nipple, and his mouth came down on mine again, harsh and demanding. His hand on my erection relentlessly kept up the steady rhythm I had showed him, and my muscles twitched as my orgasm built. Ray's thumb brushed over my glans, and that exquisitely acute sensation sent me right over. A harsh gasp was ripped from me, and all my muscles convulsed. I gave myself over, biting down on Ray's tongue slightly in response. I cried out against his mouth, spraying our hands and bodies with my semen. Long, white-out moments later, I came back to myself, still light-headed.
"Beautiful," Ray said quietly and swiped the sheet over our bellies. I couldn't keep my eyes open and gave in to the lethargy that weighted me down, not sleeping but very close.
Eventually, I pressed my lips to his ear. "Ray," I said into his hair, trying to put into that one word all the emotions welling up in me.
Ray nodded and his fingertips traced patterns over my chest, lightly as though reading Braille. "Ben," he answered, his voice quieter even than mine had been. His fingers slowed, then stilled, pressed against my skin. Ray's face was intent for a moment, then he looked up at me. My breath caught; the expression on his face was tender and so vulnerable that it made my throat ache. His hand paused on my chest, and he seemed to be concentrating. He looked into my eyes and finally spoke. "I can feel your heart beating."
The moment stretched out, and he seemed to see something in my face, nodding his head ever so slightly.
He let his head rest on my chest then. His breath softened into sleep, and I had to close my stinging eyes for long moments. Sleep claimed me then as well.
I pushed open the door to the cafe. Paperwork for a hunter's stolen rifle had kept me at the office for twenty minutes after shift end, and I was late for my date -- I felt a little thrill even to think the word -- with Ray.
"Red." Ray's voice was teasing but almost reverent. He was hunched over one of the cafe's tables, head-to-head in an apparently riveting conversation with young Alison Howe -- and Maggie -- I was startled to note. Dief was under their table, having taken a liking to Ray's company, no doubt swayed by the steady supply of people food.
"That's silly, Ray," Alison said, dark eyes narrowing in derision.
"Silly!" Ray protested. He looked up at me, paused in the cafe doorway. As our eyes met, his face lit up and broke into an incredible smile. My tongue traced the corner of my mouth before I'd even realized what I was doing, and his eyes widened, then traveled up and down my body. A hot, knowing smile crossed his face and he stared at me as he spoke. "It's my new favorite color."
I coughed, the heat of a flush rising above my collar, and stepped forward. "Maggie, I didn't know you were coming to town."
She smiled. "I came in to pick up a new sled harness I'd ordered. Thought I'd surprise you for lunch, and then I ran into Ray here."
I took the chair beside Ray, letting my thigh rub against his. "New sled harness?"
Alison had been gazing up at the ceiling, thankfully unaware of any crosscurrents.
"Alison's trying to think of a name for the Name the Foal contest," Maggie said. "And yes, I'm trying a new harness design. Supposed to be easier on the dogs for long distance trekking."
"Still planning on that hand of Franklin thing, eh, Maggie?" Ray asked. I looked down at the table, where Ray's hand was drumming out an odd musical beat. My eyes were caught by his prominent knuckles and long fingers, and I smiled.
"It's something to strive towards." Maggie reached across the table to touch my forearm. "Ben calls it our dream. Innusiq says it's an epic quest and keeps bringing me maps. Most quests start off with a dream, don't they?"
Ray leaned forward onto his elbows. "You and Ben with your Franklin quest. It's cool. Innusiq really digs your quest, too, huh, Maggie?" The question seemed innocent, but I poked him in the side, provoking an irritated, "What?"
Maggie's puzzled frown faded as she looked from Ray to me. She laughed then. "Yes. Yes, he does," she said slowly.
Alison was still dreaming up names for the RCMP equines. "Romeo." Dief whined dyspeptically. No romantic, that wolf. Or perhaps it was an overabundance of cheeseburger.
Ray snorted, turning towards her. "Now that's a goofy name, Alison." He dropped a hand onto my shoulder. "We should ask Ben. He'll think of a good RCMP name."
I was smiling, I realized, and my shoulder felt warm under Ray's hand.
I shook myself. Alison and Maggie were both staring at me. "What?"
"I need a name," Alison said. "I need a good name for the contest."
I nodded, my brain shaking off the lustful fog. "Ah, of course. You do realize that the contest is unique to the RCMP; it's quite fascinating . . . "
"Ben." Ray had moved his hand down from my shoulder; it was now hidden under the tabletop, and suddenly I felt it on my thigh placed very close to my crotch. I swallowed, losing my train of thought.
Maggie shook her head at my distraction, her lips quirked in a half-smile.
"It's an 'R' year," Ray supplied helpfully, an expression very close to a smirk on his face.
Alison nodded, then a worried line creased her forehead. "It's okay for you to help, isn't it? I mean, it is an RCMP contest."
I coughed and reached down to grab Ray's wrist, pinned its distracting movements. I shot him a quick, warning look. Ray looked from Alison to me, his brows raised in polite interest. Maggie made a sound like a snort, and she smiled at my glare.
I coughed, turning towards Alison.
"As I'm not at all connected to the musical ride, I'm sure it's fine," I reassured. "But it was thoughtful of you, to think of that."
I considered the possibilities for a moment. "How about Ray?" Ray, Maggie, and Alison rolled their eyes as one at that one. "Robespierre? Royal? Rialto? Rudolph?"
Alison looked at me blankly for a long moment, her mouth twitching as though she needed to sneeze, then pushed her chair back. "Well, thanks for the help, Ray, Ben." She pulled on her jacket. "I need to go. Go help my mom, uh, do stuff now."
She darted to the door, letting out a strange sneeze that sounded almost like a laugh. As the door closed behind her, Ray's laughter penetrated my confusion. "What? Ray, why are you laughing?"
Maggie stood, and I turned towards her. "You're leaving too, Maggie?"
She nodded. "I'm supposed to meet Innusiq at the hardware store, to pick up some supplies before Rick flies us back. I'll leave you two to your own amusements. We can talk later, Ben. Bye, Ray."
I waved to her as she left the cafe, and turned to Ray who was still chuckling.
"You're too much, Ben. 'Rialto'!?" he snorted and slapped his thigh. "Hell, 'Rudolph'? The RCMP colts growing red noses now? You shoulda seen the look on your face, Ben."
"Actually, Ray, I was thinking of Rudolph Valentino. My grandmother's favorite actor, you see," I said a little stiffly.
He paused and sobered somewhat, looking over at me. "Ah, don't get ticked, Ben." He moved in closer and licked his lips. "I was thinking about you today. Good thoughts." His hand came up to touch my shoulder, a seemingly innocent gesture, but the rhythmic, caressing movements of his hand sent blood to my groin, making me forget my pique of a moment ago.
"Want to skip dinner for now?" His voice was husky and made me shiver. "We can go play," he paused significantly, "some reindeer games." Ray's right eyelid dipped in a hint of a wink, his teasing grin adding a wash of humor to the heat radiating from his eyes.
This time I joined Ray in his laughter as we pushed our chairs back from the table. Ray steered us towards the register to pay for the coffee he had ordered while waiting for me.
Eve Harper, who was working the cafe counter during time off from UBC, waved us off. "On the house, guys." She made shooing motions at Ray's protest. "Go on, go on," she said with a wink. I blinked, speechless, then obediently followed Ray's tug on my arm to the door.
Ray must have seen something in my face, because he raised his eyebrows as we left the cafe. Dief darted off ahead of us, his tail waving like a furry banner. "What's up, Ben?" he asked as we walked along the sidewalk.
"I . . . " I trailed off, twisting my neck until the vertebrae popped. "Eve could tell. That we . . . "
"That we're doing each other?" Ray's smile faded. His forehead furrowed, and my stomach turned over. Ray stopped me with a hand on my elbow, turning to face me head-on. His eyes darted over my face. "That bug you?"
"We haven't had a chance to discuss . . . "
Ray cut me off. "Ben, if you need to keep this quiet, for work or whatever, that's cool with me. I used to be a cop; I know the score."
My stomach stopped doing acrobatics as I realized that Ray's worry was for my benefit.
"It's not that, Ray. I dislike secrets, and my job is not the issue here at all," I said firmly. In certain postings, it might have at least made things uncomfortable, I realized, but I doubted it'd be a problem here, if I gauged Paul and Sarah rightly. I took a deep breath. "But I like my privacy, as I'm sure you do as well, and I'd really prefer a certain -- circumspection -- in our relations. I'm not going to lie, but my business is just that . . . mine."
Ray looked at me squarely, an earnest expression on his face. "I'm not going to pretend that this," he waved a hand in the air between us, "isn't a big deal. I don't want to pretend about anything between us, Ben. But you're right about the privacy thing. I can get behind keeping things low-key. No prob, okay?"
I nodded, and turned to walk on down the sidewalk. He bumped my hip with his and his arm was over my shoulder. I glanced at him with a raised brow.
"Two buddies walking home here, no biggie. I'm all over low-key, all right?"
I laughed and we walked like that to his apartment, Dief tagging Ray's heels.
We were just inside Ray's front door when low-key was forgotten, the heat that Ray had stirred between us at the cafe flaring up like a wildfire. Ray leaned back against the closed door, his eyes riveted on my mouth. My breathing quickened, a flush stealing across my face, heat in my groin. The urge seemed mutual: Ray pressed against me, his mouth taking mine. He pulled back, panting, and rasped out, "Want you. Now."
Ray was pulling me, or perhaps I was pulling him. I wasn't quite sure which, since coherent thought was deserting me with every touch of his hands and mouth and tongue. We staggered our way towards the couch, a tenderly awkward dance that bounced off Ray's armchair and almost trampled Dief, who trotted away with a grumble. Ray's lithe grace narrowly averted a nasty fall when the coffee table got in our path. He managed to twist us so that we bounced onto the couch, laughing.
I was on top, pushing him down into the cushions, but Ray seemed unfazed by my weight, pulling at belts and buttons and zippers. He was laughing: his hands kept getting in the way of mine and vice versa. I managed to get the upper hand, stripping him efficiently.
"No fair," Ray laughed, twisting wildly as I hit a ticklish spot. He pushed me back. "Get naked, Ben. Now."
He lay on the couch with a hot smile, propped up on an elbow. His avid eyes on me and the light from the window made me a little self-conscious. Ray's over-the-top appreciative sounds as I pulled off my clothing soon had me laughing and aroused. I dropped down next to him, wary of the lack of room. "Better?" I asked wryly.
Ray laughed and one long leg pushed out, sliding the coffee table further from the couch. "Not yet," he said, and rolled us both down onto the dusty carpet.
I let out a surprised yelp, breathless since Ray had landed atop me, straddling me. But then he ground our groins together, and I gasped and pulled him closer still.
"There. Greatness." Ray smiled one of his brilliant smiles. It seemed to glow even in the dim light, and he leaned closer, covering my mouth with his. He sucked on my bottom lip and traced the edge of my lip with the tip of his tongue. Warmth filled me, and then his lean thigh was parting mine and he settled into the space provided. My breath caught. "Ray." I sounded needy and strained, and I felt him smile against my cheek.
We kissed and groped like teenagers on Ray's floor, and I could feel the carpet burn already, but I didn't care. We now had some familiarity with what brought us mutual pleasure, and we reveled in learning each other anew. Ray pulled his mouth from mine finally and sighed.
"Okay?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah," he said, opening his eyes. "It's been so long, you know. You can be starving for touch and not even know it."
A surprised sound of recognition escaped my lips. Oh, yes, I knew the pain of that, the ache.
"Not anymore," Ray said, hugging me fiercely, and I realized I'd spoken the last thought aloud. "Not anymore," he repeated with his mouth against my skin, a muffled whisper this time. I blinked then, biting back the tears that threatened.
Ray's lips moved on me, along the curve of my neck down to my chest, a tongue moving across my pectoral. I arched convulsively at Ray's mouth on me, warm wetness and suction stiffening my nipples and . . . elsewhere as well. His mouth moved down further, to my belly. His tongue dipped into my navel, until I squirmed. Ray moved on then, following the trail of hair low on my belly. I let out a sound, arousal and surprise together.
"Ray?" I asked.
He looked up at me, an uncertain smile on his face. "Lemme, Ben. I want to . . . try. You know, with my mouth."
"God, yes, Ray," I gasped, when I finally found my breath again.
Cautious hands stroked my thighs, and then Ray's warm breath caressed the tip of my penis. I nearly screamed at the first touch of Ray's tongue, a cautious lap up one side. He pulled away, and I bit back a moan. He wrapped a gentle hand around my erection, pulling it to a better angle, then licked up the shaft until I shuddered.
I moaned raggedly as Ray took his first tentative taste of the tip. He did that for long minutes, little laps up the shaft, lips sliding over my glans. The fingers of his free hand explored restlessly, pushing through my pubic hair, pressing on the point of my hipbone.
He pulled off finally, and I looked down at him, desperate. "Ray," I gasped, and bit my lip, hands clawing the carpet. He took a breath and seemed to be screwing up his courage, then, ah, God. Heat and wetness of Ray's mouth over my glans and the press of his tongue on me and I was thrusting without thought, crying out Ray's name.
A scrape of teeth gave me pause, but then I couldn't help pushing deeper still. Too deep, I knew at once. Ray pulled off frantically, fighting his gag reflex, coughing.
I stifled a frustrated groan and tried to pull him up to lie face to face, but Ray shook his head. "Nah, I got you, Ben. Just, let me figure this out." He cocked his head, as if analyzing a tricky chess strategy. The comparison almost made me laugh, chess and fellatio, and I wondered if watching Ray playing chess would forever have erotic significance for me now.
"Pin my hips," I panted. "Use your weight. I'll try not to move so much, but . . ."
"Yeah, it's hard, I know," Ray laughed, and shifted his position. He pressed down with his forearms, and then the delicious warmth and heat were back. I shuddered as Ray's strong tongue clamped around me again. When Ray started sucking, the urge to thrust overcame me, but Ray's weight restricted the movement to something he could handle.
I was moaning nonstop, my world narrowed to the water stain on the ceiling, Ray's mouth on me, his hand grasping the base of my penis almost roughly. Sparks danced on the edges of my vision, Ray's mouth and tongue rousing me higher and higher. Even the occasional scrape of teeth only added to the mix, the sharp almost-pain a counterpoint to the encompassing warmth. My head moved restlessly from side to side with every suck, and I could feel it then, the surge starting in my toes.
"Ray," I tried to gasp the warning, but it came out as an indecipherable plea. He seemed to sense my intent, and pulled his mouth off just in time. Ray's hand moved on me, a strong upstroke made slick by his saliva.
I was gone then, a toes-curling convulsion of pleasure, filling Ray's hand, coming over both of us. A cry ripped from my throat, "Ray!" My hands clawed at the carpet, and my back arched uncontrollably. I flung my head back, hard enough to make an audible clunk against the hard floor, but I felt nothing but the liquid rush of orgasm. The waves of sensation subsided, leaving my limbs still twitching, and I floated in the afterglow for long moments.
Slowly, I became aware of my surroundings again, aware of the throb on the back of my head and the sting of the rough carpet on my buttocks.
"What's that?" Insistent tapping came from the floor below us.
Ray's laugh sounded a little pained. "Mrs. Avery and her broom. Apartment 2F. She gets riled up when I dance too, calls it 'clomping.'"
"Oh, dear." The embarrassment was but a hazy blip on my overall sense of well-being.
He had snuggled close; we lay there on the hard floor with dust from the carpet tickling my nose.
And Ray's as well, judging by his sneezing fit. "Bless you," I said automatically, then looked down Ray's body, blinking. "How'd you . . .?"
Ray glanced down at his now-flaccid penis and let out a sheepish laugh. "Was kinda . . . you know, humping the carpet." He swiped at his nose with the back of a hand and snorted. "Damn thing's gonna have to go now. Dusty and covered in come. Gross."
I sneezed then as well. "I must admit you're right." Another sneeze shook me. "Although I now harbor a certain fondness for it."
Ray scratched at a drying patch of semen on his cheek. I laughed and pushed myself to my feet with a groan, then reached down and hauled Ray up as well.
"Shower," we said at the same time.
"And then bed," Ray laughed, twisting his torso experimentally. "Back can't take too much of the wild and wacky floor show, huh?"
"Bed," I agreed with a smile.
The next day, Ray flew me over to Dawson Creek. I was scheduled to meet with a hunting guide who had information regarding a poaching ring that had recently expanded into the Fort Howell area.
I had thought there might be a connection to the strange cargo that Ray had been delivering lately, but from the little information I could gather, it didn't seem likely. The guide ended up having few solid facts, although I did end up with one or two leads to chase back at Fort Howell. After the interview, Ray and I went downtown for lunch. We had almost finished eating and I was trying to talk Ray into visiting the Mile Zero marker of the Alaska Highway.
"It's just a few blocks down, Ray."
I stifled a laugh as I listened to Ray mutter about "touristy" behavior and gazed out the window at the passersby. A woman hurried past, tall with wild, dark curls. My stomach clenched; I did a double-take. I froze, riveted. She paused for a second, glancing behind her, and I got a better look. Dear Lord. It was her, no mistake, unless I'd lost my mind.
It was a familiar face -- I'd had days to memorize those fine features. They were days that had been terrible and perfect at the same time. The sense memory of her body against mine was burned into me. She had made me feel again, when I had been dead inside. I had thought she loved me, but I had been wrong, very wrong.
Her face was all I could see, and the rest of Ray's sentence was lost. My head felt very light, and the blood drained from my face.
"Victoria?" Her name came out as a croak.
Ray spoke, but I didn't turn my head from the window. "Ben." I was up and out of the restaurant too quickly to reply. Once out on the sidewalk, I paused. I had lost her for the moment; I scanned the end of the block frantically.
I caught sight of her again as she turned a corner far ahead. Pounding after her faster than thought, I nearly knocked people down in my haste. Half a block of running and my breath was already short, the shock of seeing her stealing my wind. I came to an intersection and was about to dart across the street, when hard hands landed on my shoulders. They had me in an unshakeable grip, pulled me back.
Just in time, too. A pickup sped by, so close that the side mirror nearly clipped me.
"Jesus!" The loud cry right in my ear was Ray's voice, Ray's hard warmth against my back. "Ben, what the hell?" he asked furiously, spinning me around to face him. "You go crazy just now? Found your inner death wish?"
"It was . . . " I turned my head, gazing down the street, but she was gone. I swallowed.
"It was a fugitive, Ray. I lost her," I said finally. That was so bare a description of the true situation as to be nearly a lie. Victoria had been a fugitive, yes, but I felt too overwhelmed to tell the whole story now.
"Fugitive." Ray blinked. "You were going to run in front of a truck for a fugitive?" He looked at my face, a wrinkle creasing his forehead. "Lesson one, Ben, my friend." He poked my chest. "Your body, half-ton truck -- not a good mix. Okay?" He laughed shakily and let out a breath.
"Okay?" he repeated. At my nod, he tugged on my elbow. "C'mon, let's go back to the restaurant. They're going to think we ran out on the check."
I nodded, still numb, and he pulled me back to the restaurant. We settled our bill at the register, to the evident relief of our waitress. I turned towards the exit and stumbled.
"Ben?" Ray's hand was on my elbow, steadying me. "You're really pale, Ben. Chill out a second; catch your breath. Then we can report your fugitive, okay?"
I nodded and took in a few breaths. I stiffened my spine then, motioning Ray to the door. "I'm ready."
As we walked, Ray glanced at my face. "You said you got a friend in the detachment. We can talk to him, right?"
My stomach knotted as we entered the glass doors of the RCMP offices. I introduced Ray to my old friend, Edward Ory, who was now second-in-command of the detachment. He greeted Ray warmly and listened to my story.
"Metcalfe. A-L-F-E, right?" he asked, tapping at his computer keyboard. "Just pulling up the salient details from the database." The display of his monitor flickered, a file appearing. "Here we go." His forehead crinkled as he touched the monitor's screen, running a fingertip along one line of text.
"Well, Ben, I've never known you to be wrong, but . . . there's a first for everything, eh? That couldn't have been Metcalfe you saw."
Ray bristled. "What do you mean, 'couldn't'? Ben was positive."
Edward held up his hands palms up, shrugging. "Victoria Metcalfe is dead, Ben. Happened six months ago. "
Text scrolled by on the monitor. "It was a car accident in Alaska." He went silent, reading the screen, and clicked a few more keys. "Sounds like it was pretty gruesome -- went off a cliff. There were third degree burns over 90% of the body."
I couldn't draw a breath, couldn't speak, could barely think. Victoria. Finally dead, and I hadn't known. My sight darkened, specks of light dancing in my peripheral vision.
Ray asked a question that I didn't quite take in. His knee pressing against mine finally brought me back to myself.
Edward was answering Ray. "No need. They had a positive ID by the sister. The body was cremated."
"What was that?"
"Ray was just asking about dental records," Edward said.
"Ah." I could only gaze down at the faux woodgrain of Edward's desk.
Edward's brown eyes were concerned. "Tea, I think. You need some tea, Ben. Break room's down the hall."
Edward was called away after we had settled at the break room table. I wrapped my hands around my mug of tea, warming my hands. Ray dumped sugar in his coffee. I set my mug down and fiddled with one of the sugar packets.
Ray reached over and plucked it from my fingers. "Quit that; you're going to make a mess." He leaned back in his chair, sipping his coffee, and looked at me with narrowed eyes.
I didn't answer, my eyes locked on the table top, avoiding his gaze.
"Ben? You okay?" He reached out and pressed his hand over mine. "Ben, spill. Is it just that you were wrong about the fugitive?" He must have seen my wince and continued with a more urgent tone. "What's wrong?"
I swallowed and looked up finally. Ray's eyes were clear and steady, lit by sunlight pouring through the window. "It was Victoria, Ray. I'm positive." I sighed, rubbing my eyes. "Or maybe I'm going crazy. Chasing a dead woman."
"You're not going crazy, Ben." Ray squeezed my hand once more and then let it go to brush his hand over the back of his head. He stretched, arching his back. "Remember, there was no dental record identification for your Victoria."
"She's not my Victoria," I said sharply, before I could stop myself.
Ray looked at me, astonished, and I shook my head. "I'm sorry. But other than looking closer at the sister, I'm not sure what we can do."
Ray still looked a little surprised at my over-reaction, but his voice was calm. "It's okay, Ben." He took a last sip of his coffee, making a face at the taste. He stood and dumped the coffee in the sink. "We done here? Let's find your friend, then we can head out."
It was late by the time we got back to Fort Howell. We picked up Dief from Sally's care. He seemed happy to see us, and very glad when we headed to Ray's apartment.
Once at the apartment, Ray insisted on heating up lasagna that he pulled out of his freezer. He refused my help, pushing me down into a kitchen chair, while Dief resumed his normal spot on the couch.
I felt better for the meal. After eating, we settled on Ray's couch, and I reluctantly accepted a beer -- "it's medicinal, Ben, drink it."
"It still seems unreal." My voice came out low and rough. Ray looked over at me with worried eyes and nudged my shoulder with his.
"It'll be okay, Ben. Promise."
Dief whined as if in assent, and then Ray was pulling me close to him, slowly as though expecting me to recoil. I sighed and let him wind his arms around my shoulders. Ray's warmth, the solidity of him against me -- much of the dangerous, coiled tension within me bled away.
I closed my eyes, just for a moment. The next thing I knew I was nodding off, resting nearly on top of Ray, using his body as a somewhat bony mattress. "I'm sorry, Ray." I sat up and tried to pull away but his wiry arms held me close. "I should go home." I actually didn't want to move at all, but I didn't want to presume too much.
Ray shook his head. "Nuh uh, Ben. You can stay here tonight. You're beat; let's get you to bed."
I nodded and let him steer me into the bedroom. I sat there as he tugged and pulled at my clothing. I should help, I thought, but didn't have the energy even for that simple task. Finally bare, I leaned back on the bed and let Ray pull the covers up over me.
All was quiet then, and I was drifting off again, when Ray moved close. I roused myself, pressing a kiss to his shoulder. His breath on my skin was warm, and then I heard his rough voice and a hint of amusement.
"Sleep, Ben, just . . . here." He squirmed around a bit, and then I was wrapped tightly in his arms. I could hear his heart beat; that and the feel of his breathing drew me down again, lulled me into sleep.
I awoke in early morning darkness, worry and guilt stealing my sleep. I looked up at Ray's ceiling and tried to lie quietly, but Ray soon lifted his head, blinking up at me. He reached out, touched my forehead as if trying to smooth out the lines that always betrayed my anxiety. Once again, he seemed to read my unhappy thoughts. "Ben, what's the matter? Something about this Victoria chick has you all twisted up."
His warmth was plastered to my side, but the intimacy felt a touch false. I had not told him the full truth of Victoria, and Ray knew it. He had not pushed me about it until now, though, and I was grateful for that. It was a frightening prospect, to tell Ray about . . . her.
Ray brushed my cheek with the back of a hand. "It'll be okay, Ben. Trust me. Tell me."
I nodded. I did trust Ray. But he was an inherently good man, an honorable man, and this story was neither good nor honorable. I was afraid, but he needed to hear the full story.
I started reluctantly. "It seems . . . a very long time ago, now. I pursued Victoria Metcalfe across a frozen wasteland. She and two men had robbed a bank in Alaska. One of them died, one of them fled south, and she came across the border in a light airplane. It was forced down because of weather, and she set out on her own, still trying to elude capture. The chase was long and became desperate after I lost most of my supplies. I caught up with her in a place called Fortitude Pass. She was huddled in a crag on the lee side of a mountain, almost frozen, very near death. So I staked a lean-to with my rifle and draped my coat around it and I held on to her whilst the storm closed in around us. I kept talking to her to keep her from slipping away from me."
My mouth was dry, but I had to finish the tale, here and now.
"Our situation was desperate. We huddled together for warmth when the wind extinguished the fire I'd made. We clung to each other all that day, then through the long night, then another day. I couldn't talk anymore, so I put her fingers in my mouth to warm them. I don't remember falling asleep, but I heard her voice: she was reciting a poem over and over. I remember thinking at one point that she was an angel, and that I must be dead. She put her mouth over mine. We should have died then."
A sigh escaped Ray's lips and I could feel a faint shiver run through him.
"But we survived. The storm broke finally. Battered and half-frozen, we staggered our way to the nearest settlement. I told her to turn herself in, but she refused, and begged me to let her go. 'It's all a mistake,' she told me. 'We've been through so much together. You know I wouldn't do the things I'm accused of.' She asked me to go with her, away, anywhere, somewhere, and kissed me. You see, no one knew that I had found her."
Ray murmured, "And after Daniel . . . " He trailed off at my flinch.
"Yes, I did the right thing with Daniel. The honorable thing. And look what it got me. "
Ray's hand slid over mine, a gentle press that brought a weak smile to my face. I grabbed onto Ray's hand tightly, clutched it like a lifeline. "It seemed like a second chance."
I looked down, hesitating before telling the worst, revealing my darkness, my worst mistake. "So this time, honor lost. I was a fool. I let her go."
"Jesus, Ben." Wide-eyed, he shook his head.
"A week later, she was crossing into the U.S., when a border guard attempted to detain her. She shot him three times, then left him to bleed to death." I stopped then, because Ray had stiffened beside me, had pulled his hand from mine.
"Fuck," he breathed. He sat up in bed, covers tented over his knees, and rubbed at his face with shaky hands.
"Ray?" My voice was desperate.
"Fuck, fuck." The muscles of Ray's back flexed, shudders working through him.
He finally turned towards me, eyes wet. "Christ, Ben. She killed a cop." His voice was rough and almost breaking. He pushed a hand wildly through his hair. "You let her go, and she killed a cop."
I reached out and touched his back, but he flinched away. I closed my stinging eyes and sighed. "His blood is on my hands. I know that, Ray. I told my superior officer what I had done, but he was an old friend of my father. I received no official punishment." My throat was tight; it was hard to breathe. I slid out of bed, feeling claustrophobic. I padded over to the window and pushed it open to let in the cold air.
"I can't ever make up for this, I know. I . . . failed my duty. Utterly. And someone died because of it." I gazed out the window, hugging myself as ice crept into my bones. "Victoria -- dead. I thought I'd feel free, finally. But it changes nothing." It was very dark outside, and the room was getting colder. My shoulders shook with more than the chill.
Long, long minutes passed in silence and cold. I should have known this would happen. I should have told Ray before now. Perhaps the rejection would have been easier then.
"Ben." Ray's soft voice was right in my ear, and I started. "Come back to bed. Come get warm."
I tensed, not turning around. "I don't deserve warmth. Cold can be . . . cleansing."
Ray let out a tired sigh, and his hand on my shoulder blade felt almost hot. "Ben, you didn't know. You were young, right? You made a mistake. I got no right to be a hard ass about mistakes."
"You have every right. A mistake like that . . . it's unforgivable."
Ray wrapped himself around me, warming my body with his. "It's understandable. You punish yourself enough, Ben; I'm not doing that for you. Now close the window. Let's get back in bed, get warm again."
He pushed past me to close the window in one smooth motion. "Ben." There was an edge to his voice.
I sighed, and let Ray pull me back to the bed, where he got us tucked under the covers. Ray was silent for a long time and I glanced over at him. His face was solemn, but an affectionate smile curved his lips as I watched, and when I turned, he leaned over, brushed a soft kiss across my lips. My arms came around him, an almost desperate embrace. He moved in my arms, and I released him reluctantly.
"Shh, it'll be okay, Ben." Ray rolled half on top of me, tucking his head into the hollow of my shoulder. His hair tickled my jaw and I felt his breath on my skin. "Sleep, Ben. Sleep."
I lay there, listening to the sound of his breathing. I let the soothing, rhythmic rise and fall of his chest lull me into sleep.
Ray knocked at the open door of my office as I was hanging up the phone. Dief, tail wagging like a furry banner, ran over and yipped a greeting. I waved Ray in, reading the file I'd pulled up on the computer.
"Coffee, Dief? You want a coffee?" Ray was playfully offering Dief his coffee mug. Dief let out a pained whine, obviously recalling the digestive upset of his last caffeine experience. Ray laughed and gave the wolf's ears a scratch.
Ray cocked a leg atop the corner of my desk, drumming a booted foot against the paneled side of the desk. "Ready for lunch?" He slurped his coffee and took in my absorption in the file. "What's up?"
"I've been doing a little research." I frowned and handed him a stack of printouts. "Victoria Metcalfe's file."
He set the mug down, glancing curiously at the first page of the printouts as I continued. "I wanted to delve further into the circumstances of her death. I couldn't find much information beyond what Edward had already told us, and I haven't been able to get in touch with the sister. So I took another look at the Alaska bank robbery."
Some expression on my face caught his eye, because he leaned closer towards me with a worried frown. "You okay, Ben? You're starting to act . . . well, a little obsessed."
Stung, I let out a breath. "Someone needs to be, Ray. Something strange is going on. I saw Victoria in Dawson Creek; I know it. And don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I will." Ray gave me a doubtful look.
I pointed at the file in Ray's hands. "But read that file and tell me something odd isn't going on. Victoria and her accomplices made off with half a million dollars from that bank robbery, none of which was ever recovered. One of Victoria's accomplices was shot and killed right after the robbery, trying to escape. The other, Jolly Hughes, was eventually caught. Very interesting coincidence -- Hughes lived in Dawson Creek until he was fifteen. He's been in prison, down in Vancouver." I tapped the computer monitor, where the pertinent file was now displayed. "Until two months ago, when he was paroled. And soon after his release, he turned up dead."
His eyes widened. "Fuck," he breathed. "Something to do with that missing loot, you think?"
"Indeed. My guess is that Hughes planned the robbery from the beginning; he was the experienced one according to his rap sheet. So perhaps Hughes intended all along to hide the money, to try to keep it for himself? Someone might kill for that." Victoria might kill for that. My stomach was knotted painfully. Discarding thoughts of inappropriate behavior at work, I reached over to brush the back of a hand against his denim-clad thigh. Ray moved into the touch with a smile, and I sighed.
Ray reached out and gave my shoulder a friendly punch, and some of the knots in my stomach relaxed. "Time to get some lunch, Ben. You can give me the lowdown at the cafe. All right?"
He hustled us out of my office and waved to Paul and Sarah as we passed by their desks. "Kidnapping the boss for lunch, okay?" he called out flippantly as we left the office.
We were settled at a table in the cafe before Ray's curiosity asserted itself again. "So the DB -- his name was Jolly Hughes, you said? Not so jolly now, huh?" Ray rolled his eyes at my quelling look and took a spoonful of his soup before continuing. "So what's the story on this guy?"
"Jolly Hughes, yes. The body was found at the residence of one Ferdinand Lamothe, who works as a prison guard where Hughes had been incarcerated."
Ray winced. "Ferdinand? There's another guy whose parents should have known better." He rubbed the stubble on his cheek. His eyes were trained on the far wall, but he seemed to be envisioning something far away. "Hughes -- he had just been released, paroled, you said?"
"Paroled. After serving eight years for the Alaska bank robbery."
"The crime of robbery would imply a degree of violence." Ray rolled his eyes again, and I sounded a little defensive when I continued, "I only have what's in the computer right now, Ray. I spoke briefly to the investigating officer on the case, but he was headed to court and couldn't talk at length. I'm supposed to call him early tomorrow morning. I'll know more then."
He nodded, rubbing a thumb over his lower lip, then asked, "How much interaction could there have been between this prison guard and Hughes? Was Ferdinand Lamothe the guard on Hughes' cellblock or something? And where does Victoria Metcalfe fit in all this?" Ray's face had maintained an abstracted, considering look, and I was struck anew by evidence of Ray's first career. The Chicago police department had lost a valuable asset in Ray, but I couldn't help being selfishly glad that his path had changed so drastically, so that it brought him here, to me.
I shook my head. "Those are good questions for the investigating officer, Ray." Ray pursed his lips, still caught by the details of the case. "Would you have time to sit in on the detective's call tomorrow? You could provide valuable insights, I think."
The expression on his face was surprised and pleased. "Sure," he said and let out a rueful laugh. "Police work. It must get in your blood. Just tell me to back off if I get obnoxious about it, okay, Ben?"
My smile of agreement faded as thoughts of Victoria, alive and in Dawson Creek, replayed in my head. I rubbed the back of my neck.
Ray frowned and glanced at his watch. "I gotta head back to work, Ben." Pulling some bills from his wallet, he pinned them under the saltshaker, then paused. "You . . . ah . . . you're coming over tonight, right?"
A half-smile quirked his mouth, and he was looking at me from beneath his lashes. I grinned, dark thoughts pushed aside temporarily at least. "If you want me, I'm there."
Early next morning, Ray and I were on the phone with Detective Luis Russell of the Vancouver police. Ray sat on the corner of my desk once again, yawning, but looking thoughtful and more alert with every sip of his coffee.
"Information on the Hughes murder, is that correct, Corporal Fraser?" Even over the tinny and hollow-sounding speakerphone, Detective Russell sounded dubious, perhaps wary of this offer of assistance from out of the blue.
"Yes, that's right; I believe I may be able to shed some light on it. You are the primary on that case, correct?"
"It was my case all right. But your information might be of more interest to me if not for two reasons, Corporal. Would you like to hear those reasons?" Russell sounded a bit sarcastic and didn't wait for my response. "One, we know who killed Hughes. It was Ferdinand Lamothe. I interviewed him myself, and he told me the whole story. Two, it wasn't murder; it was self-defense. We arrested him, yeah. But the Crown prosecutor reviewed the evidence, dismissed the case."
I stared at the phone for long moments, mouth open. Could there truly be no connection to Victoria in this? I had expected . . . I wasn't sure what I'd expected, but certainly not this.
Russell's sarcastic tone had faded a bit. "Lamothe told me that he tangled with Hughes a few times when he was working the prison visitor area. Jolly Hughes was threatening his own attorney; Lamothe intervened. When Jolly Hughes got paroled, apparently he was stupid enough to pay Lamothe a visit. Lamothe said Hughes went nuts, attacked him. Lamothe was forced to shoot him."
Russell continued. "Prison records back up the fact that Lamothe worked the visiting area several times when Hughes was there discussing his parole hearing with his attorney. Lamothe's co-workers confirmed that there was an altercation, since no official report was ever made."
Ray stirred, cocking his head. "Could you fax Ferdinand Lamothe's statement up here, maybe? If we could look it over -- I'm sure that'd settle Corporal Fraser's mind."
The detective sighed. He'd accepted my introduction of Ray as a detachment "liaison," but his patience seemed to be wearing thin. "Fine, fine. I don't see how that could hurt anything. But this case is already solved, Corporal. I don't see any possible connections to this Metcalfe woman you were telling me about."
I rubbed my chin, mind racing. "Lamothe hadn't started seeing someone recently?"
"Lamothe's single. Divorced a while back, his ex remarried. He seems to keep to himself, no girlfriend. His co-workers say he'll go out with them for the occasional beer, always alone."
"What about . . . "
Russell cut me off. "Look, I'm going to have to hand you over to our secretary -- she'll fax up your paper, okay? I've got a meeting with the Captain in about two minutes."
A motherly-sounding woman took over the call. I chatted with her pleasantly for several minutes. Ray jumped off the desk, but paused and kept listening though the call. When I hung up, he gave me a thumbs up, a wicked grin on his face.
"You're just a charming bastard, aren't you?"
I smiled tightly. "Sending up the entire case file is probably easier for her anyway, Ray." My smile faded. "I doubt there's anything there, but . . . "
"It can't hurt," Ray finished my thought and gave my shoulder a thump. "Listen, Ben, I gotta get to work. I'll see you this afternoon, though, okay? I've only got a couple of short flights today, so I'll probably be back by three or so."
Standing to see him out, I nodded. My eyes were caught by the short, fine hairs just above his collar, and I had to restrain myself from reaching out to touch his nape. Paul and Sarah should have arrived for work now; getting caught groping in the workplace would definitely not project a professional image.
He paused in the doorway, looking at me with an affectionate smile on his face. "Yeah, Ben?"
I shook my head. "Never mind. Take care."
After Ray left, my day was occupied by paperwork interspersed with flipping through Detective Russell's case file, which had started pouring out of the fax machine less than a half-hour after Ray's departure. Efficient woman, that secretary.
I laid the file down on my desk, frustrated. Could it really be as open-and-shut as it appeared? Ferdinand Lamothe's fingerprints, his rifle, a psychotic criminal with an ax to grind. It definitely could have been self-defense. But why would someone who had just been paroled from prison risk getting arrested so quickly? I knew of ex-cons who deliberately committed crimes in order to go back to prison, but not with half a million dollars of bank heist money out there somewhere. Something wasn't adding up. And as Ray would phrase it, my gut was telling me that Victoria was the missing part of the equation.
I sighed and picked up the file once more.
"How many times have you read that thing now?"
I looked up at Ray's voice, flushing. "Third time through, just now. How were your flights?"
"Skip lunch?" Ray ignored my question, his eyebrow raised.
At my rueful nod, Ray reached over and closed the file. "C'mon, let's get something at the cafe." He had to pull the last few papers from my hands, tucking them into the expansion folder neatly. "You're hungry, Ben. We can look this over while we eat, okay?"
At the cafe, I asked Eve for the large table in the back. "Room to spread out," Ray noted absently. Eve nodded, clearing off the extra place settings. Finally, we had our food in front of us and the file split between us.
"Any more info from Russell?" Ray asked.
"Unfortunately no. I did call Edward. I talked him into circulating Victoria's picture around the local hotels and resorts."
"He still thinks you were mistaken, though?"
I sighed. "Well, I did see a dead woman, Ray. He reminded me of how unreliable memory can be."
"Eye witnesses are the worst," Ray agreed, squirting ketchup on his fries.
"But not in this case, Ray," I said stubbornly. "I know what I saw."
Ray lifted his hands in a calming gesture. "Okay, Ben, okay. I'm not saying you didn't see her."
Abashed, I took a bite of salad and pulled out some of the blurry faxed crime scene photos. I left the more grisly ones in the folder, not wanting to spoil Ray's appetite. Ray rummaged through his pile of files for a few seconds, then settled on the prison visitors' logs.
After a few minutes filled with the sound of eating and rustling paper, Ray pointed a fry at me. "Last person who visited Jolly Hughes before his release was a Vanessa Mitchell."
"Yes, that's his attorney, working on his parole. She was visiting Hughes at the time of the altercation with Lamothe."
Ray sighed and went back to reading.
One of the photos caught my eye as I shuffled through them. I frowned and held it closer. "That's odd."
I held up the photo that I was currently examining. "What do you see?"
The question made Ray blink, but he obediently looked at the faxed photo. It showed an uninteresting view of the apartment, the body not even captured in the frame.
"It's the crime scene." He looked up, puzzled. "Ben, what are you talking about?"
"Lamothe's apartment -- doesn't it seem awfully neat for a man who lives alone?"
Sighing, he pulled the page over for a better look. He pushed the photo back across the table and shook his head. "Ben, you're reaching. So he's a neat freak single guy. It can happen."
"Sometimes it's what's not there that's most important, Ray." I sounded defensive.
"Yeah, yeah, the dog that didn't bark . . . " Ray mumbled in a dubious tone and went back to his club sandwich.
I looked at the picture for a few more seconds. My shoulders drooped, and I shoved the picture back into the folder. "You're right, Ray. It is, as you say, 'reaching'."
My salad had lost its appeal, and I smoothed my napkin, a little disappointed. I pushed the lettuce around in the bowl with my fork and looked over at Ray again, who was perusing Lamothe's statement with a furrowed brow.
"Find something?" I leaned forward in my chair.
Ray scratched at his cheek, still gazing fixedly at the paper in his hand. "Something's queer. There's something . . . " His eyes darted over the page again, but then he shook his head and looked up. "I'll have to stew on it."
Eve refilled Ray's coffee cup, and I watched him fiddle with the cream and sugar, ridiculously disappointed. I had hoped Ray's quicksilver intuition might glean something from the file that I had missed. My expectations had been unrealistic.
"Come over to my place after work? We could look at this some more," Ray offered.
I smiled. "I'd like that."
"Yes, I understand completely. Thanks." I hung up the phone and rubbed a hand over my mouth.
"Something?" Ray asked, papers from the case file in his lap. He stretched his arms up towards the ceiling, letting out a soft groan.
I blinked, shaking my head. "Ah. Yes. That was a friend of mine in Anchorage. Victoria Metcalfe's sister Vanessa quit her job after her sister's death, hasn't been seen since."
"Indeed. Very suspicious. I'll call Detective Russell tomorrow, I think." I looked down at the file for a moment. "Vanessa," I mused and then snapped my fingers. "The attorney! Her name was Vanessa. Vanessa Mitchell. My God." My head felt light as realization dawned.
"Don't you see? The attorney. Ray, it's Victoria -- she's using her sister's name. V.M., her old initials."
He blinked. "Jeez. Vanessa Mitchell, Victoria Metcalfe." His eyes narrowed. "Could just be coincidence, though. How dumb would she have to be?"
Ray seemed far from swayed, and I stiffened. "Far worse to forget your assumed name. It must be her." His expression was doubtful, and I blew out a sigh. "I'll bring it up tomorrow with Russell."
He nodded and leaned back against the couch cushions, propping his feet up on the coffee table. He rubbed his eyes and took a long pull on his beer. He went back to reading one of the pages in the Hughes' file and absently pushed his glasses back up his nose with a middle finger.
My eyes darted from the prominent knuckle of Ray's finger to the thick plastic of his eyeglass frames. Somehow even these innocuous images sent heat through me, and I shook myself.
"Hmmm." Ray glanced over at me. "Ben, I had my doubts, but you are so not crazy. There's something hinky about Lamothe, too."
"Yes, Ray?" I sounded distracted and forced myself to concentrate.
Ray shoved one of the pages at me. "Could you read this out loud? It's Lamothe's statement to Russell."
The question of where he was going with this was on my lips, but I bit it back. It would harm nothing to let Ray run with his idea.
I was reading aloud and was close to the end of the statement, when Ray suddenly joined in, our voices overlapping. "'He was crazy. He said I needed to pay. He pushed me back, and I hit my head. I barely got to my rifle in time. I had to shoot him. I had to.'"
Confused, I stared over at Ray. He looked triumphant, flushed, pointing at me with his forefinger and pinky outstretched. "You were reading from Lamothe's statement to Detective Russell. But I was reading from Lamothe's initial questioning. When he talked to the responding officers. It's practically a lay down, word for word."
I blinked, mouth opening. Ray scrambled around in the file that was strewn over the coffee table. He seized on another page.
"And this one, it's nearly identical as well. It's from a later interview, when the Crown prosecutor reviewed Lamothe's case. Word for fucking word, Ben. Nobody's story is that consistent. Unless . . ."
"Unless he rehearsed it. And why would he rehearse the truth?" I grinned at him. "Ray, you're a genius." Excited, I grabbed his biceps, pulled him close and planted a kiss right on his lips.
I pulled away, reaching for the phone. "Hey!" Ray protested, touching his mouth mournfully.
"We have to call Detective Russell, Ray."
Ray snorted and pulled the receiver out of my hand, hanging up the phone. "Ben, it's nearly midnight. No way in hell is he still at the office. And you're just going to piss him off if you manage to get his home number. It can wait until tomorrow, okay?" He tugged me towards him. "Now c'mere. I was all over that."
He pulled my mouth onto his again. The kiss deepened, got wetter, until I pulled back to slip off Ray's glasses. I dropped them onto the coffee table with a clatter and went back to Ray's mouth and tongue like a drowning man to air. Something flared between us, emotion and lust, and I found myself frantically pulling at his clothing.
My excitement wasn't merely because of Ray's discovery, I knew. It was the fact that Ray was here, helping me pursue something that he had not believed in at first. Supporting my need to figure this out, sticking by me even after hearing the story of Victoria. Supporting me -- loving me perhaps? The thought deepened my need for him, made my hands eager and clumsy.
Ray grabbed me, and we almost fell off the couch. He laughed and tugged on my hand. "C'mon, we're too old for this couch shit. Bed. Now."
On the way to his bedroom, we managed to overturn the small end table by Ray's couch. He growled, "Leave it," and pulled me along when I would have paused to right it.
"God, yes." I panted when we landed on the bed. "Ray." I sounded needy, desperate, and Ray stared at me for a moment. Then he was finishing what I'd started on the couch, pulling and tugging at our clothing, so that we were finally, wonderfully naked.
Ray seemed . . . adventurous, willing and eager to try new things, explore new places on my body. His mouth was still inexperienced, sucking cautiously at my penis, but his elegant hands seemed to contain a primitive intuition, touching with a confidence and surety that left me liquid.
Strong fingers explored behind my testicles, pulling yet another moan from me, then moved further back. Gently searching, they slipped between my buttocks, circling, then pressing in.
I let out a sharp cry, and Ray's fingers froze. He looked up, pulling his mouth from me. "Too fast?"
My mouth opened and closed for a moment. I shook my head. "It's good," I finally managed. I thought of the lubricant I'd placed in my jacket pocket this morning. At the time, it had seemed wishful thinking more than anything. Now I wanted more, much more, but could I ask it of Ray so soon?
"Ray," I paused, uncertain. Ray's finger caressed tentatively between my buttocks once more, and I felt the burn, the need for him in me, flare yet higher.
"Could we . . . " Ray trailed off, a flush washing over his face and neck. His eyes were filled with a want -- no, a need -- that seemed to mirror my own. I thought I knew just what it was that he needed, and my head felt light.
"Would you like . . . " I paused yet again, trying to articulate my question without profanity, then decided to throw caution to the winds. "Would you like to fuck me, Ray?"
Ray's eyes went impossibly wide, all his breath leaving in a harsh gasp. My heart pounded in my chest as I awaited his response.
"God, yeah," he moaned, and he looked . . . hungry.
The sound I made was an explosive exhalation filled with lust and love and need. I closed my eyes for a second, feeling the heat build inside me. Ray would be with me, in me, and the mere thought of it left me trembling.
"Just a moment." Worming my way to the edge of the bed, I reached down for my discarded clothes.
The bottle slipped from my shaky hands onto the bed. Ray let out a low gasp. "Wow." A wordless moan, and then he was on me, lean hardness draped over me, his tongue in my ear.
In my fantasies of this moment, Ray had always been nervous and trembling, but, as is often the case, reality was different from imagination. Nervous, yes, so that he spilled lubricant all over the sheets, cursing frantically. But his hands had lost none of their confidence, unerringly finding the right spot, the right pressure, the right pace.
Ray's mouth found mine, and his tongue thrust into me, and this potent echo of what I hungered for made me burn. He pulled away and took a deep breath. "Ever do this with Daniel?" Uncertainty underlay the challenge in his tone.
I blinked, stunned. Good Lord. Ray had been jealous, at least to some degree, and I had been oblivious. I gripped his hand and paused for a moment, considering my answer.
"Not like this." It was a low whisper, and it wasn't a lie. I hadn't, never face-to-face with Daniel; it had seemed too intimate, too raw. But I wanted this with Ray, wanted to see Ray, him to see me, when he was inside me.
"Good." Ray breathed, so quietly that I felt the word more than heard it.
The muscles of his back were tense, and I dug strong fingers along his spine, pulling him close. Ray's lips were on me again, slick fingers in me for endless minutes. The sparks of sensation built, melding into a diffuse pleasure that threatened to send me over the edge. I bit the inside of my cheek fiercely to temper the surging pleasure. Not yet, not without Ray inside me.
"Yes, Ray," I whispered against his mouth. Then I leaned back into the pillows and tilted my pelvis, wrapping legs around Ray's waist, drawing his body even closer to mine.
"Now?" Ray's voice was ragged, broken, and my eyes were caught by his, widened with lust and fear. His eyes held mine for long moments, and that unblinking gaze stripped me bare, felt somehow more intimate even than his fingers had stretching me. We were connected already by the heat of our stare, but the hunger for yet more, for him in me, overwhelmed me.
"Now, Ray. God, please." I was begging, but I found I didn't care.
Ray let out a sound, half-cough, half-gasp, biting his lip. He reached down to position himself against me. It was wet heat and pressure and then blunt penetration between my legs, and it had been far too long since I'd felt opened, stretched like this. I closed my eyes for a moment to savor the sensation.
"Okay?" Ray whispered, his movement paused.
My eyelids felt impossibly heavy. I nodded.
My name from his lips felt like a caress, and Ray pushed in deeper, the burn and stretch dragging a moan from my throat. Ray's hands tightened on my thighs, and I felt breathless and full. "Wait," I muttered and Ray nodded, panting. My fingers clenched into the sheets beneath me. I took a deep breath, and then another, trying to breathe out the discomfort.
Ray's eyes were all pupil, and a look of desperation crossed his face. I nodded finally. "Okay, Ray." He sighed and shifted his weight forward onto his arms. I bore down, willing my body to accept the intrusion as Ray pressed in several centimeters more. My eyes followed a bead of perspiration trickling down his temple, and the tip of my tongue worked my lips, eager to taste his sweat.
A moan was pulled from Ray, his eyes dazed, lost in the sensation.
Finally with a last twist of his hips, Ray was there, in me as far as he could go, and his body froze above mine. He looked stunned, eyes blinking. His mouth opened and closed, then his eyes met mine. The seconds stretched impossibly, and I felt myself easing, my body loosening around Ray.
Ray must have felt the change; his breath hitched and then he leaned closer still. He slid against me, sweat from our exertion slicking the space between us, warm wetness trickling down my side. He brushed my lips with his and took more of his weight on his arms. My tongue pressed into his mouth and he opened wide. He sucked my lower lip roughly into his mouth, biting down, drawing a needy sound from deep inside me.
Pulling my mouth from his, I traced an openmouthed kiss over his cheek, until I reached his ear. I bit the lobe, and slipped my tongue in and out of Ray's ear, wet thrusts that made him shudder against me. "Come on, Ray. Do it. Fuck me."
Another shudder, a full-bodied quake so strenuous that for a moment I feared Ray's orgasm had overtaken him already. But he was still there, hard and full in me, and then . . . he was moving, pulling out and pushing himself back home with a smothered grunt.
"Harder, Ray. Please." I needed something . . . more.
Ray gathered himself, shifting his weight, and repeated the thrust, harder this time, so that the bed frame protested. I saw sparks and my back arched. "Yes, Ray! Right . . . there." I gasped as he honed in on the spot unerringly.
"God, it feels . . ." he rasped out. His voice was a counterpoint to the wet sound of his flesh hitting my buttocks, a decadent harmony that left me panting.
My pants turned into sounds -- Ray's name, wordless moans -- driven from me by his relentless drive into me, the wet slide of my penis against Ray's belly. Quicksilver heat built, the throb and stretch of him stroking me from the inside, the pressure of his strong hands roaming over me. Those fingers tweaked my nipples and I arched again, pushing up against Ray with a half-stifled yell.
Ray was panting, pushing vigorously, nearly driving my head into the headboard with every thrust. "Ben," he cried as he drove himself home, firing my insides yet again. Faint shudders shook his arms; we were both soaked in sweat, wet, hot slick of his skin against mine, and it was perfect, Ray and I in this bed, as if this connection -- him in me, me in him -- were somehow preordained, destiny.
It was almost too much, yet not enough, the heat and slide, and -- yes, that spot once again and Ray's gasps. One exquisite sensation rose over the next, an erotic convergence of pleasure and emotion too great to be contained.
"Ray. God, yes, Ray. Love this, love you." My throat ached and I wondered if I'd been screaming or crying, or both. The thought was lost beneath heat and pleasure and sheer whiteout as what felt like every muscle in me seized at once, an enormous convulsion that seemed to catch Ray as well. His cry rang in my head as his arms collapsed. He covered me fully, pressing me into the bed with his weight, the space between us filled with evidence of my orgasm. We shuddered together one last time on sweat and semen-dampened sheets.
We lay there, harsh breathing and cooling bodies. I felt him slip out of me and winced.
"Hurts?" Ray seemed worried, and I had to smile.
"In the best possible way. It was beautiful."
Ray chuckled, rolling off me to slide up against my side. He grimaced at the wetness that was growing clammier by the second. Pulling the corner of the sheet up, he wiped at our bellies with a laugh.
His question jerked me from the near-doze I'd fallen into and I pulled him tightly to me. "Not just yet. Not yet, okay?"
Ray sighed and pressed an open mouthed kiss onto my shoulder. "Okay." Very quietly, so that I might have missed it if his mouth weren't right next to my ear, he said, "Love you, too." I closed my eyes, smiling. We slept then, the peaceful rest of the sexually spent.
A warm damp cloth on me barely woke me later on, although I smiled my gratitude up at Ray when he dove back into bed, joining me under the covers with a laugh. We drifted off again.
I awoke suddenly, sitting bolt upright. I jumped from the bed, stumbling when the sheets tangled around my legs and hurried out to the living room, flicking on the light. I rummaged through the files on the coffee table, sending papers flying onto the floor.
"Ben?" Ray came up beside me, watched me push papers aside. "Ben, you're making a mess. What the hell?" He trailed off when I froze, frantically scanning the page I'd pulled from the mess, the crime scene inventory list. "Ben, what is it?" I kept staring at the list in my hand.
"Ben," he repeated, sounding a little irritated.
I read the entry again. Yes, it was there, no mistake. I looked down at the list fixedly. Dear Lord, how could I have missed it earlier?
"Ben!" Ray's frustrated voice penetrated my absorption. I held the page up for Ray. "This is the inventory list. Everything that was collected at the crime scene is listed here." He pulled the paper from me. "See the fourth entry from the bottom -- the book? It's a volume of poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins?"
"Yeah? Ben . . . "
I interrupted. "Ray, when Victoria Metcalfe and I were trapped in Fortitude Pass, she kept repeating a poem. Over and over, her mouth next to mine, while the wind raged outside. I could never forget those words. I looked them up later. That poem was by Gerard Manley Hopkins."
A silent "oh" framed Ray's mouth, and the page in his hand fluttered to the floor. He looked pale and tousled, hair sticking out in spikes. I pulled him to me, wrapped my arms around him and said in a low voice, "She was there, Ray. God, Victoria was there."
Ray was nodding. "Jesus. She faked her death, swapped places with her sister or something. You were right, Ben." His hands made soothing circles on my back.
"We need to go there," he blurted. "To Vancouver. We need to talk to Russell in person, convince him to reopen the case. I can fly us down; I'll talk to Doug tomorrow, okay?"
Everything seemed to be moving very fast, but I knew Ray was right. "Tomorrow, then," I agreed.
I flushed, suddenly very aware that we were standing stark naked in the middle of Ray's living room. Ray rubbed his hands up and down his arms, goose bumps pimpling his flesh. "C'mon, I'm cold, Ben. Back to bed."
I flipped off the light and followed Ray back to bed again. Tucked under blankets once more, Ray a comforting warmth alongside me, I sighed.
"I haven't thanked you for helping out on this, Ray. I realize how it might be . . . awkward for you."
Ray laughed. "Busted, huh, Ben?" He nudged me with his knee, his face hidden by the darkness. "All right, I'm a little jealous of the people in your past. I'll admit it. You had this look on your face when you were talking about her quoting poetry, kissing you."
"You needn't be jealous, Ray," I said seriously. "Of anyone. Believe me."
Ray ran his hand over my belly, and his breath was on my shoulder. "I know." He paused for several moments and continued in a low voice. "I've seen your face when you look at me, too."
The next day, Ray landed the Cessna in Vancouver, where the weather was typically Vancouver, chilly and wet. Ray secured the plane, and then we looked for a dry spot out of the cold rain. We ducked into the pilots' break room.
"Frankie!" Ray called out, and a slight, bearded man with decorative tattoos all over his forearms looked up from pouring a cup of coffee. "Hey, Frankie, you remember Ben Fraser? Ben, this is Frankie Dusen, the best damn pilot south of Williams Lake. He used to work for Doug, but he kept pining for the bright lights, big city life. He showed me the ropes, then I took his slot when he left."
Frankie laughed. "I never flew the RCMP guys and gals around, Ray. Rick always dealt with detachment business. Having fun up in the wild boonies, Ray?"
Ray looked over at me with a hot smile and a wink. "Oh, it's been a trip and a half, all right." He turned back to Frankie, all brisk business again. "Hey, you flying out today? Got a car we can borrow?"
"You're in luck, Ray. I'm flying to Juneau today, won't be back until day after tomorrow. Moocher," Frankie chuckled and tossed over a set of car keys. "It's a silver Ford Taurus. Can't miss it," he added sarcastically. "You can leave the keys in my box, okay?"
"Owe you big time, Frankie." Ray tucked the keys into his pocket.
"Map's in the glove box. For you country mouse types and all. Don't get lost, eh?"
We threaded our way through the heavy traffic, Ray driving while I navigated. Ray cursed under his breath a few times. "It's been a while since I drove in city traffic," he said sheepishly as he pulled into a parking garage a few blocks down from the police station.
We locked the car and headed down to the sidewalk. "Russell's expecting us, right?" Ray asked.
"Anytime after two, he said."
Once at the station, we waited twenty minutes to see Detective Russell. Ray was muttering about "cooling our heels" in an irritated voice by the time we were shown into Russell's office.
"Corporal Benton Fraser and Ray Kowalski, is that correct?" The nameplate on the desk read Det. Luis Russell, and the man behind the desk sounded brusque and a little tired when he introduced himself.
We had barely settled into our chairs, when Russell started talking. "Corporal Fraser, you realize you're way outside your jurisdiction?" Luis Russell was not happy with us. The detective looked a good ten years older than me, tough and experienced. He was fit and muscular, and his dark eyes had epicanthal folds that hinted at a First Nations lineage. Right now, he was frowning. "The Hughes' case is solved; I'm not sure why you felt compelled to make the trip down here."
Well, that was encouraging. He had agreed to see us, however, so I retained some hope of talking him into reopening the case. I shifted in my seat, aching and a little sore, very aware of my posterior. I was envious of Ray, who seemed alert and fresh, drawing from some boundless store of energy. Ray crossed his long legs and looked over at Russell with a raised eyebrow. His black leather blazer and graceful slouch lent him a vaguely insolent, almost dangerous air.
I held up the faxed sheets with the identical stories. "Lamothe's statements, Detective. And the attorney, Vanessa Mitchell. We spoke on the phone about this . . ."
"His attorney works for a respected law firm, Corporal. Her boss plays golf with the lieutenant. She's not your psycho, I promise you. And the rest of your story? It doesn't make a very convincing argument, Corporal. Maybe Lamothe's just unimaginative, eh? And you keep talking about some missing bank money and a book of poetry -- who are you, Jessica Fletcher? Give me evidence, not this crap about a dead woman still walking around."
I blinked at the reference, and Ray let out a muttered "asshole" beside me. I looked over; Ray's eyes had gone hard. Be good, I begged with a look, but he gave me a noncommittal shrug that wasn't promising anything.
Ray lifted the file from his lap. "What about the fingerprint? You found Lamothe's prints on the rifle, and it says here that a print was also lifted from a shell casing found at the scene. But no results, what's up with that?" Ray's American accent sounded stronger than normal, harsh and slightly nasal.
Russell bristled, flushing as he looked at the file in Ray's hands. "I don't know how you sweet-talked yourself into a copy of my entire damn case file, but it does not please me in the least. Do your superiors know you like to play fast and loose with procedure, Corporal?"
My face whitened, then flushed with anger and shame. "I -- I sincerely apologize for that. I'll put myself on report, I assure you. But what about the print?"
Russell let out a long breath, visibly clamping down on his temper. "The print was a partial and smudged. Came back inconclusive." He rapped the words out and held his hand out. "I'll thank you for that file back, Corporal. Now."
Hesitating, I looked at Ray, who placed the folder on Russell's desk. Russell nodded, then looked up when I spoke again.
"Perhaps we might get that inconclusive print compared to Victoria Metcalfe's? Or perhaps get a print from his attorney?"
Russell's fingers clenched on the file, crushing the cardboard. His voice was dangerously low, almost a whisper when he spoke.
"I have been more than reasonable, with you and your liaison." Russell's eyes darted over to Ray, whose slouch got even more insolent, then pinned me in an unblinking stare. Unspoken but coming through clearly was the question of what the RCMP needed with a skinny American with attitude and unusual hair.
Russell unclenched his hands from the file, gently smoothing the creases. "Corporal, I've asked around about you. You were called in on the manhunt, to track that Metcalfe woman eight years ago, weren't you? You followed her for days, up there on the frozen ass of Canada, and lost her in a blizzard. You almost died chasing her. An officer of the border police did die because of her. But she's dead now, and you don't want to admit she's gotten away from you for the last time."
I flinched. It was the touch of sympathy in those sharp eyes that undid me. Russell continued, his voice emotionless, "I'd say you're far from objective about this whole matter. Obsessed, even."
"Wait just a damn minute!" Ray was practically baring his teeth. He'd surged up from his chair, but I grabbed the back of his jacket and pulled him down again. The leather was soft under my fingers, and I let my hand rest there for a few moments.
"It's okay, Ray," I said quietly.
Russell closed his eyes and sighed, rubbing his temples. "Go home, Corporal Fraser. Go home and get over this. Go see a shrink, hell, go fishing. But don't use my case to try to deal with your problems."
I sat there silent, then levered myself up, the chair legs scraping across the floor. Through the numbness, I managed to shake the hand he offered. "Thank you for seeing us," I forced out through a tight throat.
Almost running through the halls of the Vancouver police station, I garnered curious and angry looks. I didn't stop until I was outside, taking deep breaths of the damp air.
Ray touched my shoulder. "He's wrong. Russell's smart, fucking sharp, but he's wrong."
I closed my eyes. "I know, Ray. We need to talk to Ferdinand Lamothe. He's about my only hope now."
"Let's get a move on then." Ray pulled from his pocket a wadded ball of paper. He smoothed it out and I realized it was a crumpled remnant of the case file. He waved it at me. "Lamothe's info. Let's pay him a surprise visit tonight."
"Thanks, Ray." I smiled. "Although I did have everything memorized as well."
"Freak," Ray laughed and led the way to our borrowed car.
Three hours, two wrong turns, and one call to the prison later, we were sitting outside Ferdinand Lamothe's apartment, waiting for him to get home from work. Ray crunched on some fried wontons, his hot and sour soup cooling on the dashboard. I forced down a few bites of the lo mein that we'd also bought from the restaurant four blocks down. I watched the street and listened to Ray slurp his soup.
"Doug seemed okay with your messing up the flight schedule all of a sudden to help me with this," I said.
Ray grinned. "He likes you, Ben. Don't worry about it. He called it a family crisis." The last two words were said slowly, so that they seemed filled with meaning.
My head snapped around. "Doug knows about us?"
"Hey, don't blame me; I didn't spill anything. But I showed up the other day with those huge hickies, and he'd listened to me talk about you for weeks." He laughed. "Shoulda worn a turtleneck or something. Don't worry about it; he's cool with it."
For Ray's sake, I hoped so. I sighed and turned to watch the apartment again. Now was not the time for distraction.
When we'd finished eating, Ray pushed the containers back into the carryout bag and shoved it all into the back seat. We sat there in comfortable silence after that.
"I see a guard uniform," Ray said.
I compared the face above the uniform to the memory of the photo I'd seen in the files. "That's him." Ferdinand Lamothe was young and had a smooth attractive face, a strong chin and nose. He turned his head, and the slanting sunlight caught his light brown eyes. They made a striking contrast to his dark skin, the color of coffee with just a hint of milk. Despite his youth, Lamothe looked ill and gaunt right now.
"Let's do it," Ray said and was out of the car almost faster than I could follow.
We caught up to Lamothe just as he was unlocking his front door. "Ferdinand Lamothe?" I asked quietly. "I'm Corporal Ben Fraser, RCMP. Could we speak to you for a few moments?"
"It's Joe," Lamothe replied with a wary look. "I go by my middle name, Joe."
Ray laughed, which earned him a sharp glance. "I go by my middle name, too, is all. Otherwise, I'd be a Stanley," he explained with a mock shudder.
Lamothe seemed to relax a bit with that confidence. He let us inside, although I had to talk fast, skirting the truth so much it actually hurt. "I've given my statement a bunch of times already," he protested, plopping down at his kitchen table with a sigh.
"If we could just go over it once more."
Lamothe was young, but he was no pushover. "No, I was the only one there. I told you that already, man," he insisted after I'd suggested for the second time that he was covering for someone.
"You a neat freak?" Ray's rough voice intruded. "This place was spotless the night of the murder . . . shooting," he corrected himself. Lamothe glared. "Sure doesn't look too neat now, though." Ray shook his head at the clutter on the counters. "Is that because it doesn't have a lady's touch anymore?"
"I clean every now and then," Lamothe said evenly.
I sighed and decided to take a different tack. "I know about Victoria. I know about the book of poetry she left. She killed Jolly, didn't she? She killed him for the bank heist money. I know you're lying for her. You think she loves you? You're wrong." My voice sounded harsh. "She's not coming back."
It was the wrong thing to say. Lamothe went pale and silent, eyes squeezed shut. He slammed his hand down on the table. "Shut up! Just shut up. What the hell is with you guys? This is harassment, damn it. The case was dropped; I don't know why you're hounding me like this!"
He must have seen some guilt on my face then. His eyes narrowed, and he reached for the phone. "Are you guys legit? I'm calling Detective Russell."
Ray pulled the phone out of reach and made calming motions with his hands. "Hey, easy, man. We're going; we're going!"
Tugging at my collar, I turned away. A cowardly part of me couldn't wait to get as far away from here as possible. Talking to Joe Lamothe brought the memories back, an inexorable rush of images that made me flush with shame and remembered lust. I was headed towards the door, when my steps paused.
I looked down, closing my eyes. I couldn't leave, not yet. I owed it to Joe Lamothe -- I owed it to myself -- to try again. One more card laid on the table, but it was one I was reluctant to play. It would mean revealing my own experience with Victoria, my awful regret. I looked at Joe's young, young face, already marred by his brush with her, and knew I didn't really have a choice.
"Wait, Ray." That earned me a questioning look, but I was concentrating on Joe Lamothe. I slid into the kitchen chair opposite Lamothe, leaned forward deliberately over the table, and caught those wary eyes with my own.
I made my voice soft, intimate, let my face show my own fear.
"I know you, Joe. I was you, a long time ago."
Joe's mouth was open. "What the hell . . ." was all he got out before I interrupted him.
"I loved her too. I loved Victoria, and I let her go. She was wanted for bank robbery, and I'd chased her for days. A blizzard trapped us together, two against the cold. I'd been alone for so long. She was beautiful and terrible, and I wanted it to be love."
"You're crazy, man. I don't know what you're talking about." His voice trembled, belying his words.
I kept my eyes locked on his, where a nascent understanding was growing. "She devours you so easily. It's heat and blood and pain, but at least you're not alone anymore. Alone was far worse than this. Wasn't it, Joe?"
"Jesus," I barely heard Ray's mutter, but then he fell silent again. All my attention was on Joe's eyes. Something was flickering there, a horrified recognition.
The tough mask started to crumble. He rubbed his mouth, eyes shiny. I kept my voice low, persuasive. "Your first love left you behind, but here's something to fill the ache, you think."
My words were making Ray fidget, but I didn't look away.
"She's a good pain, you think; it means you're bleeding, still alive. During the blizzard, I was aware that I was dying. And then I heard her voice. She was reciting a poem over and over. I could barely make out the words, but I couldn't stop listening. She had the most beautiful voice. It was as though I had known her forever, across a thousand lifetimes. There's death and loneliness on one side and her on the other, and the choice -- there is no choice, is there? She touches you and she's whispering in your ear . . ."
Joe's whisper was barely audible, but it was twin to my own. "'I caught this morning, morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin . . .'"
I drew a breath then. "Don't lie for her, Joe. I did, eight years ago. I let her go, and she killed a man. I've regretted it ever since."
His mouth was open, and he seemed to shrink into himself. He wrapped his arms about his midsection and leaned over until his forehead rested on the table. There was a ragged cut-off sob, and I felt my own throat tightening.
"You're right," he said without lifting his head. "God. You're right."
"She was Jolly's attorney. She was here that night, wasn't she?"
He nodded wordlessly, head still hung low. "I met her working the visitors' area. She was so nice to me, flirted with me."
"She killed Jolly?"
He lifted his head, his face wet. "They were both here when I got home. They were arguing, about money and some place called 'Boon's Cabin.' Jolly went after her. I remember fighting him off. My head hit something. I was dazed, but I saw her lift the rifle. Jolly tried to grab it from her . . . then I heard the shot. Next thing I know, he's dead, and there was so much blood. God, the blood." He trailed off, lost in the memory.
"If I could afford to move, I would. There's new carpet over there." He jerked his head over to the living room. "But I can still smell the blood."
I heard Ray's sharp intake of breath and felt my own stomach turn over.
"She put the rifle in my hands, pressed my finger onto the trigger. I was confused, kept asking if she'd called the police yet. She said she had to go; if I loved her, I'd cover for her, and that she'd come back for me. She coached me, told me what to say when the police came. She left right before they arrived."
He covered his eyes with one hand. "She's not coming back, is she?"
"No, she's not, Joe. I'm sorry." My voice sounded strange, unsteady and tight.
He closed his eyes. "I'm tired," he said with a sigh. "You guys got what you need?"
My hand was reaching out, but I let it drop. "Yes. Thank you, Joe. I'm so sorry." I caught Ray's eye and nodded towards the door. "You will be talking to Detective Russell, won't you?"
Joe sat there for a moment and then nodded. "I'll have to, won't I? To make up for . . . what I did."
"It's the only way, you know. For your own peace of mind."
Ray grabbed my arm when I headed for the door. "Hey! Aren't we hauling his ass in? Take him to Russell? Here's your proof, Ben."
My proof. I stared at the slumped, defeated form of Joe Lemothe, and laughed. It sounded brittle. "We have Victoria's location. Nothing more, Ray. An improperly conducted interview and a confession heard by a warned-off Mountie and his pilot sidekick? No signed statement, no tape. Nothing." I jerked my head to Lemothe. "He'll turn himself in. I know he will."
"I hope you're right, Ben." Ray sounded doubtful as I pulled him out the door. "We could still bring him to Russell ourselves."
I shook my head. "He'll do it on his own. He needs to do it on his own. I've been in his shoes, Ray. I know he'll do the right thing. And we've got to get back up to Fort Howell immediately. Find out about where this Boon's Cabin is located."
We were in the car, nearly to the airport, when I spoke again. "Boon's Cabin. Edward will know where that is, I imagine."
"Hmmm." Ray sounded distracted and shook his head. "Poor kid."
I cleared my throat, but only let out a low sound of agreement.
"She, uh. She fucked him up pretty bad." Ray was darting nervous glances at me.
At my nod, Ray turned his attention back to the road and didn't say anything for another kilometer or so.
"I'm sorry," he said suddenly.
"I didn't really get it before. Didn't realize . . ." Ray swallowed. "I understand now. I'm sorry I didn't understand before. How bad it was."
The road noise seemed very loud all of a sudden. I stared down at my hands. Ray reached over and put his hand over mine, lacing our fingers together. I squeezed his hand, a tactile acknowledgement, since I didn't trust my voice.
"Ben, this thing, this chasing Victoria down. It never was revenge, was it? It's atonement." Ray's voice was gentle.
I took in a deep, shaky breath. "It's a start." We were quiet the rest of the way to the airport.
We parked our borrowed car and dropped off Frankie's keys. Ray got the plane refueled, then did a hurried but thorough preflight check. When the wheels of the plane picked up from the runway, leaving Vancouver behind us, I felt a supreme sense of relief.
Fatigue was setting in by the time we landed in Fort Howell. We caught some sleep at Ray's apartment, but I was restless, waking up with a start every few hours to stare up at the ceiling, thoughts and regrets racing through my head. My movements woke Ray as well, and neither of us got sufficient rest.
The next morning, I swung by the office to pick up my equipment. I made the call to Edward up in Dawson Creek. I didn't tell him why I wanted to know about Boon's Cabin and felt a bit guilty. To Edward, we were still chasing a dead woman; he'd want to wait, wait for Russell and more evidence. I couldn't wait. I'd face her as before, on my own.
I was leaving the office with my sidearm, rifle and a pack, when Sarah Martin walked in.
"Sir?" She backed off from me warily. I wondered what it was she saw in my face that elicited the reaction, but brushed the thought aside. No time to dawdle now.
"You're in charge until I get back, Sarah." I ignored her response and darted out the door.
"Doug said he and Rick cleared this strip for a geology research group they were supplying last summer. It'll put us about two miles from the place, okay? And planes come though here all the time, so she shouldn't suspect anything if she hears us." Ray glanced over at me, his eyes hidden behind his clip-on shades. His fingers were white-knuckled on the plane's controls. He was worried, but I couldn't let that sway me right now.
"I was listening to Doug's directions as well, Ray," I reminded him patiently. We'd gone to Doug for help, trusting to the encyclopedic knowledge he'd collected during years of piloting in the area.
"I'm coming with you." Ray spoke, not looking over. He stared out the windscreen, his face pale. His stubble made him look almost rakish, but his expression was dead serious.
My fervent headshake stopped him. "No and no, Ray. It's too dangerous."
Ray was silent for several minutes, but I could see the muscles of his jaw working.
"Okay, Ray?" I repeated.
His lips twisted angrily. "I got it, Ben. I'm just the chauffeur here. You won't call in the real cops for backup." He held up a hand when I opened my mouth. "I know, I know, chasing a dead woman. I don't get that, but I'll go with the flow. But then you think I can't back you up when it really counts."
I sighed. "You know that's not true, Ray."
Concentrating, Ray peered down at the ground. "Okay, I see it. We're landing, Ben."
The ground got closer and closer. When we had landed and had pulled off our headsets, Ray went into action. He slid out of his seat before I'd even unbelted, and moved over to my pack. "Ray, what are you doing?"
He seemed to steel himself, taking a deep breath, and grabbed the rifle. "Covering your ass."
"No, Ray. I'm not letting you do this." I tried to pull the rifle from him, but he stopped me with a look.
"There's no 'letting' about this. You gonna cuff me to the plane, Ben? Cause that's what you'll have to do, you know." His voice was harder than I'd ever heard it. "I'm coming with you, Ben. Everybody needs backup, okay? Going it alone breaks every rule in the fucking book. Not without a partner, Ben. Not like . . . like your dad." He fell silent then with a cut-off painful-sounding breath.
I froze. I only dimly remembered telling Ray the story of my father's death, but it had stuck with him.
I looked down, unable to meet his eyes. My voice was shaky. "Ray, I promise . . ." I didn't get to finish.
"Fuck this!" Ray's pained shout made me start. He shifted the rifle over to one hand and grabbed my tunic front with the other. A hard tug brought me nose-to-nose with Ray. His voice was strangled. "This is not negotiable. Leave me here and I swear I'll follow you. You're not going up there alone. You're not dying on me. I'm covering your ass. Cause that ass is mine, hear me?"
I pulled away from his grip, a little frightened by the force of his emotion. Ray was wound for a fight, all narrow eyes and muscles tensed, like some threatened alley cat. I set my jaw, about to argue the point until I made him see reason, but then I hesitated. It was the thought of my father's fate and the frantic pain in his eyes that finally swayed me.
"Ray." I touched his arm in a placating gesture. "Ray, you're right; it certainly is yours." My smile was apologetic, but Ray's glare didn't lighten.
I sighed. "You can come along. But you stay back, okay? Let me deal with Victoria."
Lingering anger marred the lines of his face, but he was softening as I looked at him. I stared at him squarely for a long moment, and leaned into his space. It was a firm, rough kiss that was half-gratitude, half-promise.
He pushed me away finally. "Let's go. Time's awasting."
We hiked the short distance to the hunting cabin in short order. It was a low, ramshackle building, with a roof that was in serious need of repair. A battered jeep was parked outside. We paused there and looked at each other wordlessly. Ray jerked his head in the direction of an outbuilding. I hesitated and pointed from myself to the cabin itself. Ray nodded, and we split up.
The door was open, and I walked towards it with butterflies in my stomach. I entered cautiously, gun out, but the cabin was empty. I moved through the bare rooms, noting the evidence of recent habitation, clothing on the cot and foodstuffs on the shelves.
Moving back outside, I circled around behind the cabin. Nothing moving. But wait . . . I cocked an ear and froze. Digging. It was coming from behind another of the outbuildings.
Creeping up to the building, I poked my head around the corner.
I gasped, frozen in place. Victoria Metcalfe. Dear God, it was her. I thought I'd prepared myself for this moment, but it still rocked me. I saw only her back and a quarter profile, but I'd know her anywhere. My insides froze. She was digging, trying to punch through the soil with an inadequate shovel.
Moving closer, I held the pistol straight out. "Hold it right there. Drop the shovel and turn around."
The digging ceased, but she didn't drop the shovel. She turned slightly, so that she could see me.
"What do you want? Who are you?" Her voice was like honey, dark and rich. I knew that voice, remembered her as if it were yesterday, and heat washed over my face.
She looked . . . unchanged, innocent and beautiful, smooth lying face. Her riotous mane of hair remained, and she had left it down, falling into her face. She tucked a strand behind her ear. The gesture was almost flirtatious.
My lips twisted. "Benton Fraser, RCMP. Victoria Metcalfe, you're under arrest. Drop the shovel, now." My voice rose higher at the end, and I swallowed convulsively.
Her eyes narrowed, and she looked at me closely. "You're . . . " She closed her eyes a moment, breathing through her nose. I blinked: it was as if she were somehow testing my scent. Her eyes opened and she nodded. "Ah, yes. Ben, the beautiful constable. A snowstorm." Her gaze sharpened, her eyes more calculating. "We cheated death together. You let me go."
A chill of uncertainty ran through me, but I set my spine. "'Boon's Cabin,' Jolly said. But you killed him before you knew exactly where he hid the money. That was careless. So now you have to dig."
"He was an idiot." She smiled a carefree little smile. It was ghastly. "Help me find it, Ben. We could . . . we could share it, you know. You didn't want to come with me, back then. Here's your second chance." She was smooth, her voice low and persuasive.
I flinched, almost physically sick. "It's my second chance all right. To bring you to justice. You killed that border guard. I let you go, and you . . ." I couldn't finish, biting back rage.
"I do what I have to do, Ben. It's how I survive." With those words, she was moving with feline grace, and the shovel arced through the air. It crashed into my left shoulder with incredible force, numbing it instantly, sending me to my knees. The gun in my right hand went flying.
I scrambled after the gun on hands and knees, but she was too fast for me. The shovel struck again just as I reached it, the blow to my back flattening me. She scooped the pistol up and leveled the weapon on me, her arm steady. Her smooth face was marred by a feral snarl, eyes lit with a furious light. She looked in no way sane, as though some elemental force burned her from within. "Now that was careless, lovely Ben. Don't you love me anymore? We shared so much."
"I didn't love you." I'd let her go . . . let this creature free, all those years ago, and the blood of an innocent man was on my hands because of it. My end would be here, at her hands. Atonement, of a sort, but my regret was for Ray. This would wound him, irretrievably perhaps.
My atonement, my death. Ray had sensed this might happen, his fear of this moment forcing him to pick up a weapon. I was cold all the way through.
The gun in her hand pointed straight at my chest. Ray had once described how large the muzzle of a gun pointed at you seemed. He was quite correct in that. That chill of uncertainty was now outright, nearly paralyzing fear, but I clamped down on it.
My left arm didn't want to respond when I attempted to push myself off the ground again. "Don't try it, lover," she said, cocking the weapon.
"I never loved you. You disgust me."
She laughed merrily, then let out a 'tsk, tsk' sound. "Oh, Ben. That's the wrong answer, you know. You love me. You always love me." She sighed. "It doesn't matter though. You're dead."
Her finger tightened, and I threw my hands out in a futile defensive gesture. Ray's admonition about my needing backup rang in my head, and I found myself aching for him fiercely.
Everything happened very quickly then, almost too fast for thought. A raw cry, Ray's voice, dear God, it was Ray. He came out of nowhere, throwing himself in front of me, rifle leveled at his shoulder. Overlapping shots, deafeningly loud, rang out.
"No!" Victoria had dropped the gun, clutching at her hand. She staggered and held her bleeding right hand with her left. Managing a few steps toward the cabin, she reached down into her boot.
The dull sheen of steel -- she had another gun. Her hand rose towards me, but this time my hand darted to my belt, where Maggie's present hung. I drew the knife and threw it, and was reaching for my boot knife before she could even think about pulling the trigger. My aim would be true, I knew. It always was.
The first knife pierced her right hand, and embedded itself in the cabin wall behind her. The second did the job on her left. She screamed, struggling against the knives, but she wasn't going to escape, not now. I forced myself up off my knees. The numbness in my shoulder had faded and was now a fiery ache, but I ignored it.
I managed an unsteady stagger and closed the distance between us. Her face was twisted with hatred, her bleeding hands outstretched like some crucified martyr. I felt no triumph as I watched her struggle. Pulling out my handcuffs, I stepped close.
"Victoria Metcalfe. I'll say again, you're under arrest."
She kicked out, aiming for my groin, but was no match for my adrenaline-fueled reflexes.
"Murder, attempted murder, assault, resisting arrest -- you'll keep the Crown prosecutor busy, won't you?"
"Fuck you," she snarled.
The handcuff clicked as I closed it around her right wrist, and I tugged the knife free, releasing her hand. Her struggles ceased, and I sighed my relief, though still careful. My left arm was nearly useless; I didn't feel up to subduing anyone.
The calm was a ruse. She managed to rip free as I was cuffing her left wrist and erupted like a wildcat, a scratching, teeth-snapping, kicking fury. My wariness had been for nothing; I couldn't control her with only one hand. Nails raked my cheek, and a booted foot slammed into my shin. I was losing the upper hand quickly.
I bared my teeth. "No!" It was a pained shout, and I took a deep breath. Hauling back a clenched fist, I punched her right in the jaw. A part of me was horrified, but I couldn't deny the sense of dark satisfaction as well. For all its utility, the blow was completely unrestrained. She crumpled. I collected and sheathed the knives, then dragged her still form over to the corral, cuffing her hands through the bars of the gate.
"Ben, you okay?" Ray coughed. I rushed over as he took an unsteady step towards me. I was about to wrap my arms about him when he shuddered, sagging. I caught him as he fell.
"Not bad shooting for a pilot, eh?" he said. Then, "Fuck," when he touched his chest and the hand came away bloody.
"Dear God. Ray! No!" My heart froze.
"Gotta lay down, Ben," he gasped.
I eased him down, wrapping my arms around him carefully. "Dear God," I repeated. "Are you . . . " I didn't complete my question, a gunshot wound being as far from okay as one could get. "Ray!" Blood was soaking through his shirt already.
"Think it missed the lung," he wheezed. "Too high. Breathing okay." His eyes squeezed shut, and he took in a sharp breath. "Fuck, it hurts, though." I moved him enough to pull off my shirt, wadding it up to try to staunch the bleeding.
His eyelids fluttered and his body sagged even more.
"Ray," my voice trembled and I tried again. "Ray! Stay with me."
I held him, held him tightly, talking to keep him awake. I dragged him a few feet, and had to stop. He was ashen with pain, panting. We moved like that, a frighteningly slow pace back to the plane and safety. I thought of the distance we still had to cover and felt like weeping, but stifled the moment of weakness. I am a Mountie. We will do this.
We were halfway to the plane, and Ray's eyes fluttered open. "Can't fly, Ben." He breathed in uneven gasps, grimacing against the pain. Wetness was seeping against my arm, and I knew he was still losing blood. I shook my head. We will do this.
"Radio won't work." Ray's voice was thready.
"I know, the valley will block the signal," I said. "I'll fly us out, Ray. That flight training manual from grandmother's library, remember?"
"Christ, we're dead," Ray moaned.
"We don't have much choice, Ray. You're going into shock." My voice shook.
Unintelligible muttering was Ray's only answer. "Ray? Ray?" I took in a shaky breath. He was out cold. He needed medical attention now.
My head snapped up. Boots crunched on the ground, the sound of voices. It couldn't be.
"Corporal Fraser?" It was Sarah Martin's voice.
"Over here." My voice was a croak. Sarah Martin and Paul Barbarin appeared around a bend in the trail, guns drawn.
I held up a hand. "Stand down. It's clear. Paul, go up to the cabin. Take Victoria Metcalfe into custody. Be careful. I left her cuffed to a metal gate, out cold."
"Yes, sir." Paul trotted off up the trail.
"Jesus Christ," Sarah muttered when she came closer and saw Ray.
Backup had arrived, just when I needed it most.
We ended up at the Dawson Creek hospital. Until Ray opened his eyes after his surgery, I barely spoke a word. For another few days, I held his hand, not leaving his side for more than a few minutes. If my subordinates didn't know how I felt about Ray before, they couldn't have missed it now, but I didn't care. By the time Ray was alert and fully conscious, I was a tired, dirty wreck. Victoria's shovel had fractured my scapula. My arm was in a sling, but I wouldn't move from Ray's room until Paul and Sarah finally forced me to get cleaned up.
I showered and shaved in the bathroom down the hall. Sarah and Paul stopped me on my way back into Ray's room. "Sir, a moment?"
"I haven't thanked either of you properly. I owe you both . . . a great deal. Ray's life, certainly. How'd you . . ."
"How'd we know to swoop in like the cavalry? Good thing, too. Crazy idea, thinking you could fly that Cessna." Sarah's voice was flippant, but her eyes were serious. "Just after you left the office that morning, I answered a call meant for you, from Vancouver."
Paul stepped in. "It was Detective Russell. Joe Lamothe went in and confessed not long after you guys had left. Detective Russell told us about Victoria, that she was still alive. Sarah was frantic; she said that you had left the office that morning looking like death warmed over. We finally put two and two together when we talked to Doug."
"He flew us up to the cabin himself. We were all worried sick." She looked at me with a stern look on her face. "Sir, we must protest your actions. Going after Victoria Metcalfe without backup like that."
I swallowed, chastened. "Yes, I know. It was stupid, and it almost got Ray killed. But I thought official channels were closed to us, since the Hughes' case was officially solved."
Her lips pressed into a thin line. "Corporal Fraser, Paul and I -- we'd have helped no matter what. We're all supposed to be part of a team, aren't we? It's almost insulting." She looked angry, but there was hurt in her voice as well. "Don't you trust us?"
Out of the mouth of babes. I looked down, swallowing. "I hope you'll accept my most sincere apology. I was . . . blind to everything but going after Victoria."
Sarah's face smoothed out a little. "I'm . . . I'm glad you recognize it. I won't keep you from Ray any longer. We will talk later, though."
"Yes, ma'am," I said with only a trace of irony.
Pushing open the door to Ray's room, I moved back to my usual spot beside his bed. He still looked ill, wan and bandaged, but his eyes were alert again. "Ben." His voice was roughened from the tube they'd removed, but I smiled to hear it. He was here, still with me, and that was all I cared about.
I took his hand. "I just got roundly chewed out by Sarah and Paul. I obviously need to work on my team player skills." I smoothed the blanket that covered him. "Seriously, Ray. I'm so sorry. It should have been me."
Ray let out a growl, and his hand shot out, stretching the IV line dangerously taut. He latched onto the part of me nearest to his bed, the sling on my left arm, and hauled me in close. It jostled my shoulder, and I let out a hiss of pain as I stumbled forward. I just managed to stop myself from falling right on top of Ray.
Ray's frowning face was right next to mine. "Good. It should hurt. Maybe you'll remember it then." His face scrunched up in pain, but he didn't let go. "Ben, I'm here. You're here. We made it, and Victoria's going to be behind bars for a long time. Sometimes shit happens. And if that shit affects you, I'm there. I wanted to be there with you. I forced you to take me along. " He touched my scratched cheek with a gentle hand, and then let it fall with a grimace. "Fuck, ow."
"Ray," I said seriously. "It's my fault you got hurt."
He started to shrug but stopped with a wince. "It's Victoria's fault." He sounded very tired.
"In the end, I was responsible, though."
His didn't contradict me this time. His eyes narrowed and when he spoke, he was thoughtful. "Just learn from it, okay? You need backup, Ben. You can depend on other people. Me. The baby Mounties." He grinned .
"They're hardly babies, Ray. If they hadn't shown up, I hate to think what might have . . ." My throat closed up, and Ray's hand squeezed mine.
His face lightened. "They saved my Cessna from you. I owe 'em big time." Ray finally nodded, his amusement tempered with a sober gratitude. "They came through in the end all right."
"You managed to . . . handle a weapon again." Ray's face fell, and I was sorry that I had mentioned it.
A voice behind me spun me around. "You need to take better care of my pilot, Corporal Fraser."
"Doug!" Ray said, looking pleased. I looked at Doug's face nervously, but he winked at me and I relaxed.
"Ah, you look spry. You'll be up and outta here in no time. In the meantime, I'll be nice -- may even let you win the next time we play."
"Let me win? You're delusional." Ray's laugh cut off abruptly as he winced.
Doug frowned. "Okay?"
"I'm good." Ray's face was pale but his eyes were very bright.
The rest of Doug's visit went well. We filled him in on the details of Jolly's murder, Victoria and Joe Lamothe.
"So there's half a million dollars up there somewhere?" Doug asked.
"Once it's found, it'll be turned over to the bank, of course," I said firmly.
Ray snorted, and Doug chuckled. "Yes, sir, Corporal Fraser."
Flushing, I cleared my throat. Doug put a bag of chocolate candy on Ray's bedside table and smiled over at me. "Sally's been giving Dief a steady supply of doughnuts. He'll be one spoiled wolf when you get back." I groaned. Good Lord, Dief would be insufferable after this.
He glanced at his watch. "I gotta go now, Ray. I'm taking your schedule until you're back fit. Don't worry about it," he added, seeing Ray's reaction. "Just get well."
When Doug was gone, Ray looked down at his blankets, face somber. I pressed my hand over his. He laced our fingers together, gripping my hand. "What you were saying before, about me using a weapon. I'm going to be seeing somebody about , okay? Getting shot again, and . . . everything. The doc here recommended a shrink."
I let out a relieved sigh. "That's good, Ray."
Ray looked up again. "So you said Detective Russell's getting all the credit for Victoria's arrest. What about Joe? Was he okay when you called him this morning?"
I refrained from telling Ray that Russell had threatened to charge us both with obstructing justice. It had been mostly bluster anyway. The detective obviously hated being wrong. At least he hadn't taken it out on Joe Lamothe.
"Joe's testimony against Victoria was enough to let him off the accessory charges. He said that once the trial is over, he won't be staying in Vancouver. Too many bad memories. He was thinking of Winnepeg, staying with his brother for a while. With enough distance and time -- maybe he can heal." The memory of Joe's lonely sorrow haunted me still.
"And us, Ben? We good?"
I glanced around at the room, noting the vacant hall outside. I leaned over and kissed him soundly. "We're good. I was completely wrong, Ray, about the backup. I need you beside me always, okay?"
His eyes crinkled. "Told ya so, Ben. It's good. It's greatness."
Maggie saluted us as the dog sleds pulled away. Ray wrapped his arm more tightly about me, and we both waved our good-byes.
"Innusiq know what he's doing, right?" Ray frowned, then said fiercely, "He better take care of her while they're looking for the hand of Franklin."
"They'll take care of each other, I'm sure. It's amazing: she's finally doing it, looking for that out-reaching hand." I smiled. "And he does know what he's doing. We learned our survival skills together, in my grandmother's scout troop. She taught us well."
His face cleared. "If you're okay with it, I guess it's fine. They really like each other, huh? You're okay now with . . . you know . . . Innusiq?"
My snort made him laugh. "I have you, Ray."
His forehead creased. "It'll be dangerous though, won't it? It scares you a little."
I glanced down at the snow, marked by our tracks. "It'll be an adventure, Ray. It'll be dangerous. But she's wanted to do this . . . for as long as I can remember. It's her adventure. I couldn't begrudge her that, the fulfillment of her dream."
"It was your dream, too, wasn't it? 'Cape Felix on King William Island,' you said. You wanted to walk where they walked, see what they saw. You okay with staying behind? Aren't you giving up your dream, your chance to do all that?"
I smiled, a little surprised but pleased that Ray remembered so exactly what I'd said. I pulled Ray into an embrace, a hug with the comfort and the thrum of arousal that I never failed to experience with him.
"Everything I need is right here, Ray. I've got my dream already."
The sun on the snow made everything a blinding white. I closed my eyes, but Ray's mouth on mine was just as blinding, bright and white and fierce joy.
palimpsest noun, from Latin palimpsestus, from Greek palimpsEstos scraped again, from palin + psEn to rub, scrape; akin to Sanskrit psAti, babhasti he chews 1 : writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased 2 : something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface (Merriam-Webster OnLine)
Additional Story Notes: Lines of dialogue from various episodes were adapted for use in this story (North, VS, Odds, Easy Money, MOTB). Lines were also quoted from "The Windhover," by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
End Palimpsest by Purna: email@example.com
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