Inspector Meg Thatcher sat at her desk, absently rolling a pen between her fingers, and looked out the window at the falling snow. She let out a long sigh and watched as water dripped off the eaves and slid slowly down the glass panes. The pen slipped from her fingers, dropping onto the half-filled-out transfer form and rolling to the edge of the crisp sheet of paper.
The Hearst field office was usually orderly and straightforward, but it was late in the afternoon and evening was edging into the grey sky, bringing with it a faintly depressing sense of the routine. The officers under her supervision were out on various errands; one had gone home earlier that day with a likely case of the flu, and now Meg was not feeling quite herself, either. Her dark eyes were dull and the sides of her mouth drooped slightly, and there were shadows on her face that expensive cosmetics could not really hide. She took a deep breath and looked back down at the paperwork lying before her.
It was the third transfer form that she had tried to finish in the last month. The other two had been started, but she was afraid that Ottawa would only see her as a discontented Inspector wanting a transfer out of yet another position. She had sent them through the shredder and put them out of mind for a few days. It was not a bad place out here, but she felt an unmistakable sense of being shoved into an out-of-the-way closet under a pile of old paperwork and left to collect dust.
She had once, when she was younger, thought that she was doing pretty well for herself. She rose quickly in the ranks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and achieved the rank of Inspector when she was only thirty-one. This achievement was even more noteworthy because she was one of a very few women who had become a commissioned officer at all. Her thoughts soured very quickly though, when she remembered the circumstances surrounding her promotion. It had been that same day when her career had begun to slip, quietly, into the background, despite all outward appearances. Even the promising opportunity in the Intelligence division had been a demeaning experience, and when given the opportunity to return to a diplomatic position, she had welcomed it.
Frustrated, she looked down at the blank space under the 'Reason for transfer' section, and frowned. What could she say? Feeling dissatisfied was not an adequate explanation; her men respected her, the paperwork was turned in on time, the incident reports were typical for a small town. She was efficient, competent, exact, capable, and organized. Only last month her office had received a commendation for its effectiveness in the district. The town's board was on good terms with the office; she ate dinner at the Selectmen's houses, and on occasion, exchanged recipes with their wives and received a bottle of wine at Christmas. She and her men marched in the August parade every year. They carried the standards and shot the salute, and then distributed the ice cream among the kids and the high school band members when it was over.
She sat alone at her desk now, remembering warm summer parades and hordes of shouting children, and drew herself back to the present with a thumb tapping slowly on the paper. She stilled it and looked back down at the sheet again. She abruptly growled, balled it up, and threw it in the trash can beside her desk. She put a hand to her forehead. The pen had rolled to a stop on the desk calendar, and she noticed the day that it lay on. There was a small notation written on it: Caryn due.
She crossed her arms and looked down at her precise writing. It was a reminder of Caryn Cooper, her freshman roommate. She occasionally exchanged letters with Meg, usually at Christmas, but also sometimes at odd and unpredictable times throughout the year. Meg had decided to leave college after only a year and had gone to the RCMP Training Academy in Regina. Caryn had remained at the school and had gotten a Master's degree in forestry and tundra ecology. This suited her perfectly, since any small excuse for her to spend her time living out in the woods talking to the trees was worth pursuing. Caryn had moved often, her work taking her on long trips across the provinces and territories, and she usually was the one to initiate the letters, putting her current return address on the envelope for Meg to write back to. No matter where Meg went, Caryn addressed her letters to the RCMP headquarters in Ottawa, and they were always routed to her current post.
It was a sporadic relationship, but the letters lacked nothing for it; Caryn's exuberance drew Meg out, and they exchanged thoughts on countless things. The writings followed Caryn across the expeditions, through a few relationships, and into her marriage and family. She had met a land surveyor several years ago and was living out in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territory, on the edge of the MacKenzie Mountains near Fort Liard, with him and their two young children. She had published two books on tundra ecology and was in the process of working on her third when she had written Meg to tell her that she was pregnant with another child.
Meg sighed and looked at the date again. It was a little more than a month away, on a Friday. Caryn had known somehow; she had read between the optimistic lines of Meg's last letter, and had seen that her friend needed a change of pace. She had invited Meg to come and help her with the new baby for a couple of weeks: to get away and take a vacation. Meg was sorely tempted; they had not seen each other for more than ten years, and she really did want to see her friend again, to laugh about the small things and to forget about the wet snow that was falling down in a depressing grey slush outside of her window. Her life felt grey in more ways than just the weather. She knew that she had more than enough vacation time coming to her. Here she was, nearing forty, not an unattractive woman, outwardly successful in her career, sitting at a solitary desk in a lonely office.
Perhaps she would write Caryn back. Yes. One month should suffice to travel out to Fort Liard and prepare for the birth, and to assist for a short while afterwards. It would do her good to live out in the open north again for a while, and to live with a whole family. She had spent her childhood on the edges of Lake Athabasca; it had not been a particularly pleasant childhood, and in trying to avoid the solitude and silence of the frozen landscape, she had run to the city. She had realized not long after that it was just as lonely, if not more so, in the middle of a bustling humanity that never seemed to care. She had avoided the knowledge by concentrating on her responsibilities and on her position with the police force. She succeeded for a while, putting her faith in the high ideals that she had sworn to protect. But these ideals were later bitterly crushed, leaving behind a hard cynicism and a desperately lonely existence.
Fort Liard would be a pleasant change of pace: the population was under five hundred, and it was situated in a two-river valley, so far from the politics of Ottawa and the bureaucracy of the RCMP to put them out of mind completely. She took in a deep breath, feeling slightly better for having reached a decision, and searched in her desk for a leave-of-absence request form. There had to be one in here—ah. She lifted a sheet out of one of the folders and quickly filled it out. She definitely felt better now.
She got up from the desk and made her way over to the fax machine in the copy room to send it before she had the chance to talk herself out of going. The reply from the province office would come in by tomorrow, she was certain.
"There," she said, watching the form slide through the machine. She felt a definite spring in her step, one that had not been there a few minutes ago. Sergeant Frollard could take over her duties temporarily, and there were no pressing issues that needed to be addressed with any outstanding case reports. She had served well in the past years and a few weeks off were long overdue. The response would hopefully be in the office tomorrow morning when she arrived. A whole month, no obligations, no responsibilities, no RCMP...
That last thought was almost frightening. She had lived nearly her entire adult life defined by her position and responsibility in the police force, and thinking of leaving it behind made her wonder how much of herself was just the role of an Inspector. She wanted to spend the month suspended from her duties, free of them completely. Perhaps, in that time, she would find more of herself than just what her position defined her to be; something that she had left behind long ago.
She went back to her desk and filed the form in a drawer, then gathered up her coat and hat from the coat-tree by the door. Taking one, last look at the quiet office, she turned off the light and locked the door.
Constable Evans was posted by the front entrance on sentry duty. She made her way down the slush-wet steps and stopped on the sidewalk.
"At ease, Constable."
Evans turned his head and looked at her.
"You're dismissed, Evans."
He paused for a moment and then relaxed.
"Go home to your family, Constable. It's a grey evening, and there's a chance of sleet," Meg pulled the collar of her coat more snugly around her neck.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Please see that the steps are cleared by tomorrow morning."
Meg nodded to him, and he touched his hat.
"Have a good evening, ma'am."
Meg smiled back and walked to her car, where it was parked on the side of the building. She spent the time on the drive home deciding what to write in her letter back to Caryn.
"My wife wanted me to let you know that we have a visitor coming into town in a few days, and she'll probably need an escort out to our place," David Cooper said to Fraser, pulling up a seat beside him in front of the coal stove. He took a small sip of his tea. Fraser nodded without turning to look at him.
"Thanks for the tea, Onsten," Dave said, aiming his comment at the man behind the small store counter, who was diligently working on a week-old crossword puzzle.
"Hmm..." Harold Onsten responded, in a distracted tone. "Anyone know a three-letter word for a...a perennial Japanese plant, first letter is 'u'?"
"'Udo'," Fraser answered, a little distantly. "Who will be coming?"
"Oh, a college friend of hers, a woman named Meg. She said the woman sounded a little blue, thinks a bit of open air will do her good, and invited her to come help..." he paused and took another sip, "...with the baby."
"Ah," Staff Sergeant Benton Fraser nodded, watching the orange flames crackle behind the blackened panes of the coal stove. "How's Caryn doing?"
"Oh, fine, fine—peanut butter!" Dave twisted around in the chair, suddenly remembering the original purpose of his errand into town. "Onsten, you have any more peanut butter?"
The storekeeper shook his head and didn't look up from the crossword puzzle. "You cleaned me out last week, Cooper. The last five jars—thought they'd tide her over a while yet. She finished 'em already?"
"Yeah," Dave sunk back in his chair, a little deflated. "You sure you don't have any more?"
"Absolutely," Onsten answered. "Next shipment doesn't come for a week."
"Oh dear," Fraser said drily, letting the side of his mouth curve up into a wry smile.
Dave sat back, shook his head, and smiled into the tea. "She'll just have to make do with the last of the strawberry jelly, I suppose."
"How's the bitch, Fraser?" Marc Andulak asked from the across the room, whittling a piece of wood. "She doing well?"
"Lira and the pups are in fine condition," Fraser answered, a hint of pride in his voice. "She and Dief have done admirably, again. Six healthy young, growing quickly."
"My Andy has been pleading with me for one of them, ever since he found out they'd been born; Ell's not so excited about it, but I figure, if you're willing to part with them, then I'm more than willing to give my son his own sled dog, and a good one at that. It's time he learned to train one," Andulak said, smiling.
"He is, of course, welcome to come by and see them at any time."
"I'll tell him that—thanks."
"It's no trouble."
"So who's the mystery lady?" Onsten asked, and then mumbled something and filled in a few letters on the folded newspaper.
"I don't really know much about her; Caryn mentions her on occasion and seems a little sad when she speaks about her. I gather that she's not an extremely happy person."
"Know any details?" Andulak asked.
"She's not married—evidently had a bad experience once and left it at that."
Silence hung in the air for a long moment.
"I think Caryn asked her to bring a case of peanut butter, in her last letter," Dave said, rolling his eyes.
"She's that desperate, eh?" Andulak asked in a dry voice.
Dave nodded and took another long swallow.
"I believe I have half a jar left," Fraser murmured distractedly, still watching the flames.
Meg lifted the last of the peanut butter jars into the small compartment under the snowmobile seat and swung the seat cover closed. She looked up at the sky, shading her eyes from the glare of the sun. The flight had arrived at Fort Nelson at ten in the morning, and then processing her baggage and the case of peanut butter had taken another half-hour. She had spent some time finding a rental agency and making sure that she had bought enough gas for the half-day ride. She had brought only a few changes of clothing in the pack that was now strapped to the side of the vehicle. It was more than one hundred and sixty kilometres to the Fort Liard centre of town—or as close as an isolated outpost got to being the centre of anything. Assuming that she followed the road markings and compass heading without any problems, she would probably make it there by mid-afternoon.
She checked over the rented snowmobile and the fastenings on the packs strapped to the back. She pulled the helmet on and tightened the strap under her chin. There was a storm predicted for that evening, but the weather was variable. It could blow in a few hours early or not arrive until the next morning. Either way, she needed to start moving. She swung her leg over the seat and adjusted her position to the bars. She hadn't driven a snowmobile in a while, but—there, she had remembered without a problem, as the engine roared to life.
"You'll be fine, fine," the rental agent said, standing beside her. "Just remember, it must be in the same condition when you return it, or you pay for it."
"Of course," she replied, somewhat impatiently. "One month from today, it will be back in your yard. Thank you kindly." She dropped the visor down over her face.
"Anything for a Mountie," he grinned at her, half-leering.
Sighing inside the helmet, she let up on the throttle, and the snowmobile shot away, quickly gaining speed over the hard-packed snow, following the tracked highway into the wilderness. Taking a quick look at the compass, she adjusted her speed slightly and flew across the landscape.