Fraser found an All Points Bulletin from the national RCMP headquarters flashing on his computer when he arrived at the outpost the next morning. He read through the report quickly and considered who he might send to search for the escapee. In the midst of absorbing the information and planning, the man's image on the screen suddenly arrested his thoughts and he frowned at the screen.
La Croix... Fraser had encountered him before. This was certainly the month for reunions with old acquaintances, it seemed. La Croix, a Vietnam veteran, had been a trapper and a generally-reclusive resident of the Yukon Territory before he began a private guerilla war against those in power, who encroached on the land he lived in. Fraser had understood his motivation when he first met him, and had even sympathized with him somewhat, but the man's methods of fighting back were illegal, and had eventually resulted in his arrest at the NAFTA summit in Chicago in 1996, largely due to Fraser's ability to track and apprehend him. La Croix, however, had also understood Fraser—well enough to outthink him several times in the course of the pursuit, and to gain the upper hand. It was eventually only good luck and timing that had saved Fraser's life. La Croix was physically stronger than Fraser, and agile, too—though a few years in prison had probably had some effect on his survival skills. He was a man of a dying breed, a breed that Fraser considered himself a part of.
At the thought of encountering him again, Fraser sighed. La Croix was a man who couldn't abide being shut inside a cage; he had taken the first real chance he had gotten, and had escaped into the open country, heading back to where he would be difficult to find. Fraser wondered what had possessed the prison authorities to consider transferring La Croix across the province to a facility farther north. Good behaviour, most likely. La Croix was not exactly an advocate of passive resistance, but he was also not a killer by nature.
Fraser could find him and knew it, but he was not all that sure that he truly wanted to. Some part of Fraser agreed with La Croix's mindset, but another part—the more dominant part—reminded him of his duty as an officer of the law. Fraser began to evaluate the situation.
La Croix would know that the Mounties were coming for him, and he would prepare. He would choose a place and set it up with whatever ramshackle booby traps and scares he could cobble together, and he would do enough damage to escape farther north. If Fraser and his officers did manage to capture him, it would not be without at least some injury, and in addition to that, he could not spare more than three of his men on an open-ended search like this one. Life in the town still went on, and people still needed police presence in case of emergencies. They could not all drop their posts to go find La Croix. A few more officers were being flown in, but despite the RCMP's public image, most of the force did not have significant experience and skill in tracking fugitives across vast frozen landscapes. Fort Liard could send four, and Fort Nelson already had two officers continuing pursuit across the border—they had lost the track, though, which was the reason why they sent a message ahead to him. They were sending two more north to cut off further escape past the Liard River Valley—and somewhere in the middle, all the sparks would fly.
Getting up from his desk, Fraser left the room to make the necessary arrangements.
Under the doctor's orders, Caryn was to remain as relaxed and as quiet as possible, and so she was wrapped in a warm blanket in her rocking chair, padded by two pillows, and she was working on another pair of knitted baby bottoms. As she moved her arm up and gathered another long bit of yarn for the next row, she looked over at her friend. Meg was holding a book, but she hadn't looked at the pages in over twenty minutes; her eyes were fixed on the flames in the stove, but her mind was obviously somewhere else. It did not take much imagination on Caryn's part to guess what occupied her friend's mind. She wondered what had happened the evening before. She had not expected Meg to be home so early in the evening and she hoped things were okay between the two Mounties. Meg had not offered any information, and Caryn—for the moment—had decided not to pry it out of her. She glanced over at the floor behind them and saw that Paul was contentedly drawing something involving a lot of orange. Maggie was down for her mid-afternoon nap; it was blessedly quiet.
"Are you still planning on leaving this Wednesday?" Caryn asked, hitching the last stitch onto the left needle and then going back in the other direction. Meg gave a small start and looked up.
"Are you still going to leave on Wednesday?"
Meg shrugged, and looked down at the open book on her knees.
"We'll have to see; I had expected that you would have your baby by now. Your due date was a week and a half ago."
"Oh, those dates don't mean much," Caryn smiled.
"So I now see," Meg smiled a little and fingered the pages of the book, then looked at the fire. "I wanted to stay until at least a couple days after the birth."
"Would it be a problem if you didn't return on time?"
"Well, yes," Meg laughed. "But I'm not looking forward to going back there and picking right up where I left off. They never tell you about all the paperwork when they recruit you."
"So tell them you had extenuating circumstances and couldn't make it back on time," Caryn said. "Unexpected delays are no surprise out here."
"But how long a delay, that's my concern. Two days, maybe three—yes. More than that, and we'd have to have a massive storm for it to be believable, even for out here."
Caryn crossed herself with the knitting needles, half-jokingly. "Don't say such things...we don't want Him to send something," she smiled, and Meg shook her head.
"I want to stay..." she said, drifting off again.
"So do it."
"So have your baby, already!"
"I'm not the one holding back!"
The incoming-request signal on the radio beeped.
"I wonder who that is," Meg said, getting up from the floor with a slight groan.
"If it's my mother, tell her I'm fine."
"Okay." She walked into the kitchen, picked up the receiver, and flipped the switch. "Coopers' residence, go ahead."
"With whom am I speaking?" An older male voice crackled out of the speakers. Paul walked into the kitchen with his orange crayon in hand.
"Who's that?" he asked. Meg shook her head, not recognizing the voice, though it sounded familiar. It wasn't Jeb or Liven. She pressed the talk button on the handset.
"This is Meg Thatcher, who's this?"
"Sergeant Vern Stoughton ma'am. I've got a message for you."
"All right, what is it?" She frowned, wondering who would be contacting her through the outpost. She hoped that nothing had happened to her father—
"It's from Sergeant Fraser, ma'am. I'm to tell you that he's sorry he won't be able to visit tonight as planned, but that he'll contact you as soon as he returns."
"Returns? Where is he going?"
"Official business, ma'am, but he should be back in a few days," Stoughton's gravelly voice crackled out. Meg frowned. She did not have many days left to spend out here, and she wanted to have more time with Ben before she had to go again.
"What official business?"
"I'm sorry ma'am, but I can't say that at this time."
"Sergeant—" Meg cut herself off, right before she started pulling rank on him. The sergeant did not sound particularly worried, so it was not a matter of great emergency. It was highly unlikely, though, that Fraser would disappear without letting her know in advance, unless it was something unexpected that required a fast response.
"Is the sergeant all right?"
"Yes ma'am, he's fine. It's only a matter of some urgent business."
"Well, thank you, then."
"You're welcome. Please tell Mrs. Cooper that I wish her the best."
"I will," Meg answered, running through all the possibilities in her mind of what would draw Fraser away so urgently. "Have a good afternoon."
"And you. RCMP clear."
Meg put the handset down and switched off the transmitter.
"Where did Sergeant Fraser go?" Paul asked, his eyes wide. Meg shook her head and turned away from the radio.
"I don't know, Paul." She walked back into the den and sat down in the same place as before, still considering a myriad of possibilities.
"Strange that he left without calling here, himself," Caryn murmured, her eyes on Meg.
Meg went back to reading her book, though she was even less able to concentrate than before. The clicking of Caryn's knitting needles punctuated the silence.
They made good time across the landscape, flying down to a small lake which would serve as their drop-off and pick-up point. They planned to follow a course with the sleds that would intercept La Croix's. They had snowmobiles at their disposal, but Fraser preferred dog sleds, due to their comparative silence and the possible advantages of having the trained animals present. With the time that La Croix had had since he was last seen, and his experience as a woodsman, it was likely that he was well over the border into the NWT, possibly up to sixty kilometres farther north. Following two hours on the heels of the Fort Nelson memo another had arrived: a dogsled team and a fair number of provisions were reported stolen from a trapper's cabin near the border.
The RCMP did not know what La Croix's intended destination was; he had been a drifter through the Yukon and the Territories since his return from Vietnam. If he had a known hideaway or cabin they would have swarmed down on it and the path between it and Fort Nelson, but the best they could do right now was establish a search radius and lay out a straightforward manhunt up to the border to the Yukon Territory. The satellites registered no uncharted sources of heat—even something as small as a campfire would register against such a uniformly frozen backdrop—but it was likely that La Croix was aware of this and was using a less obvious heat source. A small portable cook-stove was among the missing items reported.
To Fraser, the fugitive's combat experience was more disturbing than his ability to elude experienced trackers. Fraser was accustomed to tracking fleeing criminals who had few resources and even fewer wilderness skills. Those that he had brought in usually did not present a genuine threat, as they had neither military training nor the ability to exist almost indefinitely alone in the wilderness. La Croix had lived alone in the jungles of Vietnam, separated from his detachment for over a year, and then had lived by himself in the northern wilds of Canada for another twenty. He was not going to go quietly. Fraser certainly would not, if he were in his position.
He closed his eyes, listening to the hum of the small bush plane's engines, and found himself offering up the smallest prayer. He had not truly realized, the first time that he had encountered La Croix, what he had been dealing with. In retrospect, he knew he was only alive now because La Croix had spared his life. He remembered the respect tinged with fear that he first held for the man, and then the cold fear that had gripped him when La Croix had come to his apartment in the night and had crouched by his bed with a drawn hunting knife, speaking of the encroachment of them...with their logging machines and their belching smoke and their discarded beer cans...and he had known that he was at the man's mercy. La Croix could have finished him right there, and slipped away...but he hadn't. Fraser did not want to contemplate killing him; somehow, it almost felt like a betrayal.
"Sir?" a young voice called out, waking him from his thoughts.
"Hey—we'll be landing on the lake in a few minutes," Jeb Mallock shouted, over the humming of the engines. Fraser looked up at Constable Arthur Lecrue's young face.
"I just wanted to let you know that we're nearing our drop point, sir," Lecrue shrugged towards the pilot's seat. Jeb wasn't really part of the operation, and didn't bother following the protocol for addressing the ranking officer. Lecrue, on the other hand, seemed to find it inescapable.
"Thank you, Constable," Fraser nodded. He looked over at the other two men in the cabin, Constables Jack Willis and Hugh Bohner. Both had been in the force for over ten years, and had spent most of that time above the sixtieth parallel. They were reliable and had sufficient experience for this assignment. He had decided to bring Lecrue along as backup, to give him field experience. He was from the southern part of one of the provinces, and had requested a post in the NWT out of a sense of adventure. He had seemed to be doing well up here the last two years, but his tracking skills left something to be desired.
"Jeb!" Fraser leaned forward. Jeb Mallock turned his head sideways, indicating that he was listening. "Drop us on the northwestern edge of the lake, as close as you can."
Jeb gave a thumbs-up, and began to wheel the plane around towards the far end of the open white area beneath them. He flew in a wide arc and aimed the nose down, then began the descent. They flew in, blowing up the top few inches of fresh-fallen snow in a plume behind them, and skimmed across the surface of the lake, then landed on the ice skids and slid halfway to their final destination, finally coming to a controlled pace in the middle and rolling the rest of the way on the wheels, until they reached a point about forty metres off from the tree line.
Bohner pushed the door out and dropped down with his pack, snow shoes, and RCMP-issue rifle, Lecrue close behind him. Willis untied Dief and the rest of the dogs, and they leapt down and trotted off to the side. Fraser and Willis lowered the three dog sleds, a week's worth of provisions, and the harnesses down to Lecrue. Bohner waited until the other two men dropped down beside him, and then he pushed the door closed and thumped twice on the side of the plane. Jeb gave a wave, and slowly turned the plane around, back the way they had just come. They quickly hitched up the dogs and sleds, added the light provisions, and moved to the edge of the lake. After a few minutes, the sound of Jeb's engines had faded away into the cold air. Willis pulled out the map.
"According to this," he said, straightening it out in front of him, "La Croix's projected path is twelve kilometres due west. That's assuming he travels at a high speed in a pretty much straight line towards the Yukon border."
"True," Fraser said, shielding his eyes and looking up at the sun, which was quickly fading behind the clouds. "But he's not going to go in a straight line. He's going to cut in a few different directions, sacrificing speed for less predictability."
"So what do you suggest?" Bohner asked, bending down to secure his rifle onto his pack for easy accessibility.
"That we head due southwest for eighteen kilometres, then pick up the straight-line path and let the dogs go a little ahead of us." Dief, at his left foot, whined in anticipation. He sensed Fraser's conflicting feelings on the hunt they were to begin, but was anxious to get started quickly. The other dogs were also excited, but obedient. Fraser bent down and gave Dief's head a quick ruffle. "Any objections?"
The other men shook their heads, and Willis put away his map.
"All right, then, get HO!" Fraser shouted to his dogs, and struck off into the woods without consulting a compass. After a moment of glancing at one another—and Lecrue checking his own compass—they went after him.
They crossed what was La Croix's expected path and went another four kilometres down it, then overturned the sleds and secured them, and released four of the leading dogs, Dief among them. The dogs knew to search for fresh human scent, and they took off running into the woods as the four Mounties began to set up camp for the evening. It was a simple affair without a campfire, so as not to alert La Croix unnecessarily, and the sleds became makeshift shelters, to protect against the winds. They ate some dried rations and water, and then settled in to wait. Fraser opted for the first alert shift.
At one point, he thought he heard Dief's howl, but the voice faded quickly and did not return. The dogs would be back before morning, and La Croix, even with subtle twists and turns, would make his way farther north. They couldn't be more than thirteen to eighteen kilometres from him, and the Fort Nelson officers were probably closing in from the south. However, if La Croix slipped through their grasp once, it was likely that he could do it again. Fraser hoped that the Ottawa trackers were not planning on landing too close to the fugitive. He would have the area around him booby-trapped at night for just such an occurrence.
Meg was dozing in her sleeping bag when an older man that she thought looked vaguely familiar came over and knelt beside her. He looked weary, but insistent, and he nudged her arm with his hand, and so she started to ask him what he wanted—but he was gone. Her eyes were open, staring at the empty space where he had been.
She sat up with an unformed scream, and felt beads of sweat working their way down her temples. She was hot in the sleeping bag, and so she hurriedly unzipped it and kicked it off her legs, breathing heavily. What was that? Who was that?—He had seemed so real—
Ben, her mind served up, and she suddenly remember where she had seen the man: a few weeks ago, in a picture in Fraser's bedroom. It had appeared to be a picture of the day when Fraser had graduated from the Academy. Two older men in RCMP formal dress stood grinning proudly beside him. One was Buck, a family friend, and the other was Fraser's father, who had died a year before she met Fraser. Inexplicably, this man who had woken her up in the dream looked like Fraser Sr. A cold shiver ran through her, and she could feel her heart pounding in her chest.
She started to calm down her breathing. It was only eight o'clock, but Caryn and the children had already gone to bed, and Dave was in the kitchen, working on something at the table. She got up and went towards the light, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. Dave looked up from his pile of paperwork and smiled tiredly at her.
"You okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Meg laughed weakly and went to the sink to get a glass of water. She poured a bit from the tap and turned around. She leaned against the counter, and took a sip.
"I feel like I have. It was the strangest thing..."
"No..." Meg frowned. "Not really. But it left me feeling unsettled."
"Ben," she answered, taking another sip.
"It's only natural," Dave said, laying down his pen and running his fingers back through his unruly hair. He stretched out his tall frame, wincing from the knots, and then leaned forward and dropped his elbows on top of the paperwork.
"Why is it only natural?" Meg asked, one eyebrow raised in preparation for 'the one you love' speech. Dave was on a different tack though, and he yawned instead.
"What with La Croix and all, I'd probably be mildly worried if I were in your place."
"Yeah, the man he's tracking. You didn't know?" He looked surprised at this.
"No..." The name stirred a small memory in Meg, and she was trying to place it.
"I would have thought you would have been the first to find out. Stoughton said Fraser left a message for you."
"Stoughton wasn't specific when he spoke to me, though I don't doubt that Fraser told him to tell me more," she frowned, putting down her cup.
"Why wasn't he specific? You're a Mountie, too."
"He doesn't know that."
Understanding lit Dave's eyes, and he frowned. "I think you might want to know."
"Who's La Croix?"
"Apparently some old nemesis of Fraser's, if Stoughton made it sound right," Dave said, rubbing the stubble on his chin. The last piece fell into place, and Meg gasped.
"Guerilla, attacked the NAFTA summit and Fraser saved his life!" Meg started to hurry into the den to find some clothes. The dream-image of the old man, insistently nudging her, set her nerves on edge, and it lent an urgency to her movements. Dave came into the den with a questioning look on his face.
"Fraser saved his life? Doesn't sound like much of a nemesis to me..."
"Yes, from the American agent's bullet—"
A loud "Shhhh!" came from Caryn in the bedroom, and Meg lowered her voice.
"—after being used as a body shield while La Croix tried to escape."
"Where are you going?"
"I have to go!" Meg whispered fiercely. "I can't stay here! I'll be of more use down at the outpost. Fort Liard doesn't have enough officers for a full-scale manhunt."
"What can you do down there?"
"Help back him up, make sure Ottawa's sending backups, help in some way!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes!" she answered with conviction, and dashed into the bathroom to change. Dave shook his head and turned away.
"Radio the outpost that I'm coming!" Meg hissed through the door, after opening it a crack, and then she shut it again. Frowning, Dave went over to the radio and began the call sequence.
"Inspector Margaret Thatcher. Brief me on everything concerning this La Croix, now," Meg demanded, walking into the outpost and displaying her badge. The female officer behind Fraser's desk looked up in alarm, and then the radio message the woman had received from the Coopers' home half an hour ago made sense all of a sudden, and she stood to attention.
"Constable Antoinette St. Marie, sir!" she said.
"Constable, I want the full report of the situation and a briefing on the current status of this outpost's officers."
"Yes sir, let me get it for you." She started fiddling with the computer, and a moment later, the printer chugged to life.
"What's all this ruckus about?" growled Stoughton, stomping across the hallway into the small office. He caught sight of Meg towering over the desk and his frown deepened. "Listen here—" he started angrily, but Meg held up the back of her hand in front of him, commanding silence, and continued her barrage.
"I don't need a printout, Constable. I want you to tell me, in three minutes or less, the current status of this situation." Her voice was clear and brooked no questions.
"Listen, young woman, you have no right to come in here and demand information of any kind!" Stoughton said, moving behind the desk with a glower. "You are a civilian, and despite Sergeant Fraser's instructions, I have no intention of divulging classified—"
"Sir," St. Marie said, clearing her throat slightly. "She's, uh—"
"—classified information to anyone outside of this outpost until it has been deemed appropriate by the chain of command," Stoughton plowed on, ignoring the younger woman.
Meg held up her badge, briefly, her face stony, and then efficiently tucked it away in the pocket of her coat. "Mr. Stoughton," she said, emphasizing the address. "You are not currently an active member of the RCMP, and unless you have something useful to contribute to this conversation, I ask you to be quiet."
St. Marie's eyes went wide; apparently Stoughton was not usually addressed in such a tone. Meg straightened up and raised her eyebrow, addressing St. Marie.
"Now," she said. "Let's begin again. Please tell me all the relevant information about La Croix."
"Fort Nelson's sending two of their men up to help us," Stoughton said stonily, when the woman started to respond. Meg chose to ignore his rudeness and still looking at the younger officer, she continued.
St. Marie handed her the printout.