"Do you mind, Dad?" Fraser pulled the door to the shed closed as quickly as he could, just short of slamming it.
"Not a'tall son, not a'tall. I'm dead, you know. Temperature doesn't affect me."
"That—that was completely unacceptable." Fraser paced past the spot where the spectre had materialized, then spun on his heel and frowned at him. "What are you doing here, in any case? I thought you and Mum had gone—" he paused, put one hand to his forehead, "—no, really, finally gone, when you left four years ago."
"Well, things change son, things change. Your mother was concerned about you, you know how she is, always making sure your muffler was on good and snug. Wouldn't want you catching your death of cold."
"Dad, will you please attempt to remain on topic?"
"What is the topic, son? You still haven't made your point."
Fraser just growled. Fraser Sr. hemmed a bit, before shrugging.
"All right, I suppose that it was bad timing. You didn't seem to be moving any closer; just kind of—of hovering there, you know..." at 'hovering', he made a vague gesture in the air, and then trailed off. His son glared at him.
A latch clicked, and Meg opened the door. Fraser spun to look up at her, startled.
"Who are you talking to?"
Fraser stood looking up at her with a vaguely annoyed expression on his face. Well, it wasn't her fault that he'd stormed out of the cabin. If anyone was going to be annoyed here, it was her. She wasn't sure how to react; his behaviour seemed so uncharacteristic of him—well, no, actually now that she thought about it, she could recall similar conversations with him in the past that had seemed to make little to no sense all of a sudden. They tended to occur when there was some tension built between the two of them. She wondered briefly if he was suffering from some sort of mental disorder, and that was why Ottawa had sent him out here.
No. While he was distinctly odd at times, Fraser was most definitely not crazy. This situation took some explaining though, and he had not yet offered anything. He actually seemed to be listening to something she couldn't hear. Maybe he was a little crazy, living out here in the middle of nowhere. He sighed, shook his head, and walked over to the stairs to stand in front of her.
"I'm sorry for startling you and for my rudeness," he said, crossing his arms. The effect produced was a posture that did not convey much apology at all. She didn't know how to respond.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable—" she said, and she crossed her arms, and glared at him.
"It's not your fault," he dropped his arms and started up the steps into the cabin without further explanation. "Let's finish our meal."
The rest of breakfast was uneventful and somewhat tense, and they were both anxious to finish as quickly as possible. They set out shortly after they finished eating. She loaded her snowmobile with her pack and bedroll, and they drove out across the snow. He had to stop by the outpost to get the mail for the families on his route that day, and to check on Stoughton's newest project: a life-size painting of the Queen.
"The man really is quite artistic," Fraser shouted over the rumbling of the engines, as they pulled up to the steps in front of the outpost. They turned off the vehicles, and he got off, removed his goggles. "He's only finished her right hand so far, but it's a truly remarkable portrait already. I never realized how detailed a wrist could actually be."
"Why is he painting a portrait of the Queen? I was of the understanding that all field offices had to have the requisite photo displayed."
"Oh, well, he's quite devoted to her, and I didn't see any harm in having two portraits. They could hang on opposite walls in the foyer."
"I see." She climbed off her vehicle and checked the bindings on the bedroll, then pulled off her gloves and looked up at the modest cabin with the Regimental Badge of the RCMP on the eave over the door. They made their way up the steps, the flag flapping slowly over their heads. Fraser removed his Stetson as he opened the door for her.
The foyer was a small area with a rag-twist rug on the floorboards and single lamp hanging from the ceiling, and it opened into a short hallway with three doors on each side and a bathroom in the far end. The bathroom door stood ajar, and Fraser sighed and hurried down to the end of the hall to close it.
"I apologize, sir, for the apparent lack of propriety. Sergeant Stoughton, ah, lives here, and I'm afraid that he sometimes regards the building as his own home."
"It's all right, I've seen washrooms before, Fraser."
"Yes sir." Fraser walked back towards her, one hand pointing to her right. "My office is the door behind you."
"Ben," Meg said, in a hushed tone, as she followed him into the room, "I'd appreciate it if you'd not refer to me as 'sir', since I don't particularly want anyone here to know my position. If you feel the need to express...ah..."
"Yes, distance. If you feel the need to express distance, 'ma'am' is an acceptable substitute."
"Understood. I apologize." He stood beside the desk holding his hat for a moment, looking at her, and she swallowed, wondering what he was thinking.
"Who's there?" A voice bellowed suddenly, from behind her, and she jumped, spun around. A rather heavyset figure came into sight in the doorway, his suspenders hanging about his knees and a comb in one hand. He stomped in through the office doorway without so much as a pause and stopped short when he realized what she was. "Oh, oh, I uh—"
"Sergeant Vern Stoughton, In—ah, Margaret Thatcher. Ms. Thatcher is the guest expected by Mrs. Cooper," Fraser said dryly.
Stoughton quickly pulled his suspenders over his shoulders and stuck out his right hand, with the comb. Realizing his error, he quickly switched the comb to his other hand and tried again. Meg smiled slightly and shook the proffered hand with some trepidation.
"Pleased to meet you, Margaret."
"And you, Sergeant."
"I'm sorry for my, ah, unkempt appearance. I wasn't expecting a woman to show up here at this time of the morning." He glanced over her shoulder at a decidedly displeased Fraser. He let go of her hand and smiled down at her. "The young man here thinks I'm a disgrace." He winked at her.
"Why?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. Behind her, Fraser shook his head and went behind his desk.
"He thinks my living here presents a dishevelled appearance to this respectable outpost when beautiful ladies stop by in the morning." He leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial stage whisper, "But I'm not afraid of him."
She was tempted to mention that Fraser could have nothing to say, having lived in the Chicago consulate for two years, himself, but restrained herself. One, it would give her position away, and two, it would be impolite for her to show any disrespect to the commanding officer, Fraser though he might be. While he had never presented a dishevelled appearance—quite the contrary, actually—beautiful ladies still somehow managed to be around in the wee hours of the morning. All entirely innocently, of course; he had been a nearly constant source of frustration, then.
"Has the mail drop been sorted yet, Stoughton?" Fraser asked, pulling out a pencil and pad of paper, and otherwise ignoring their conversation.
Stoughton stood back, smiled at her, and nodded over at Fraser. "It was done by six a.m., sir."
"They came by at five-thirty, then?"
"No sir, five forty-seven."
Fraser looked up. "Thirteen minutes? Good man."
"Thank you, sir," Stoughton grinned.
"Where is Constable Lecrue?"
"He's at the Hughley's, replacing the left treads on Tim's snowmobile."
"I see. And Bohner and St. Marie?"
"Is it related to their duties, Sergeant?"
"Ah." Fraser tapped a few keys and read the message on the screen. It was another mass announcement that concerned lanyard maintenance. Was there really such a problem with the issue that a memo had to be sent to every field office? He read it quickly and went on to the next one. Stoughton cleared his throat.
"I finished her forearm, sir. Since you expressed interest in my work, I thought that you'd appreciate seeing the progress."
Fraser looked up. "Of course." He stood up and moved out from behind his desk. "Lead on."
Stoughton turned and headed out of the office and across the hallway. Fraser held out one hand beside Meg.
"After you," he said, inclining his head slightly. She followed Stoughton across the small hallway and into what, apparently, was his office. Her eyes caught across the room on a huge canvas that spanned half the wall. It was entirely blank, except for an incredibly detailed hand and forearm in the lower right centre of the cloth. The small regulation framed picture of Queen Elizabeth sat on an easel beside the huge canvas. They walked up and stood in front of it, and Stoughton stood to the side, beaming proudly.
The artwork on the hand was stunning; it almost leapt off the canvas, every vein in the hand, every wrinkle in the skin was there in vivid, excruciating detail. The cloth on the sleeve looked so realistic that she was tempted to believe that it would feel like satin if she reached out and touched it.
"Wow," she managed.
"This is quite good, Vern. You really have a knack for bringing that simple image to life. What do you plan on painting next?"
"Her elbow," Stoughton replied, in a reverent tone. Meg looked at him.
"Of course," Fraser replied. "And then her upper arm, I'd expect."
"Oh yes," the older man answered, running one hand along the gilded edge of the portrait on the easel.
"Very good. It's in the storage room?"
"Keep up the good work, Sergeant." Fraser reached behind Meg to give Stoughton a pat on the shoulder, then turned and walked out of the small office. Meg stood staring at the canvas for a moment longer, then echoed Fraser's praise. Stoughton did not seem to be listening, since he had suddenly become engrossed with the portrait. She made her escape and found Fraser in one of the back rooms.
"What are you looking for?" She asked, as she walked in. She found him sorting through a cardboard box.
"The mail. The Fort Nelson plane doesn't usually just drop mail, it also drops some medical supplies, but he doesn't seem to realize the difference, and alphabetizes the load by medicine name and surname."
"Oh." Meg watched him pull out packages and bottles. "Do you normally allow your men to enjoy recreational activities while on duty?"
Fraser looked up at her and frowned. "What recreational activities?"
"Oh, that. They're catching and freezing trout for the 'Surf 'N Turf' social next Friday night. The Ladies' League is serving baked trout and moose hock." He went back to picking the mail out of the box.
"The 'Surf 'N 'Turf' social? Since when are Mounties responsible for catching food for social events?"
"Since their wives are the head organizers of the event."
"And you allow it?"
"Strictly speaking, they're serving the community."
There was a crackle of radio static from down the hall, and then two long beeps, a pause, and a short beep sounded in quick succession. Fraser nodded to himself and continued sorting through the box. After a minute, the sound pattern repeated itself.
"Stoughton, could you get that?" Fraser called out.
"I'm busy," the man called back.
Fraser looked up and his hands paused. "Stoughton."
"All right, all right..." Stoughton answered. After a few seconds, Meg heard him walk across the hall and into Fraser's office. A minute later, he came down the hall and stopped in their doorway.
"It's Mrs. Glen, sir."
"Thank you." Fraser stood up, a sheaf of letters in one hand, and a package in the other. Meg stood back as he walked past her, and then she followed him down the hall and into his office. He dropped the package down next to the radio and picked up the handset.
"Ivy, Benton here. What can I help you with?"
"Benton, good morning." An older woman's voice crackled over the speaker. "I was wondering, since you're coming out here today, if you'd mind picking up some lemon juice from Harold's."
"Not at all," he answered. "Any particular brand?"
"No, as long as it's lemon juice and not any of that hideous excuse for a powered drink. John didn't realize that I wasn't asking for lemonade mix, and bought a canister of Crystal Light, the poor man."
"Lemon juice, not lemonade."
"That's right. I'm bringing out my special recipe for baked trout, for the social. A touch of butter, homemade breadcrumbs, and a generous helping of thyme in an original white wine sauce."
Fraser smiled. "That sounds wonderful, Ivy. You'll have to give me the recipe."
"Just stop by and I'll write you up a card."
"Thank you. We'll be there in half an hour."
"Oh! Who are you bringing with you?"
"Meg Thatcher, the friend the Coopers were expecting."
"Does she like pickled carrots?"
Fraser turned around and raised his eyebrow at her. She shrugged.
"I don't think I've ever had any," she answered, amused. He nodded, and turned back to the handset.
"She doesn't know."
"Well then! She'll just have to take a jar with her, then!" The older woman sounded delighted. "Half an hour then, Benton. We'll be looking out for you both."
"Right, then, base clear."
Fraser put the handset back on the hook and picked up the package. He dropped the mail into a canvas bag near his feet and slung it over his shoulder. "Let's go," he said, collecting his Stetson.
"Shouldn't we radio Caryn and Dave to tell them we're coming?"
"I'm sure the Onstens already did that," Fraser replied, dryly.
"How do you know?"
While she puzzled this bit of information over, they went out to the waiting snowmobiles.
"Hello?" Fraser said, pushing the front door open slightly. Meg came in behind him, and saw a cozy kitchen with a Bible lying open on the table. The room was empty. "Ivy? John?" he called out, walking in further.
"Should we be intruding like this?" Meg whispered to his back. He turned slightly, and nodded.
"It's not intruding; they don't mind," he answered.
"Ooh!" A voice said, and then there was a crash and a thud. "I told you those weren't the carrots! Now look what I've gone and done!" They ran over to the pantry door across the room, where the noises were coming from. It stood open a few inches, and Fraser pulled it back to look inside. A small woman in her early seventies was sitting on a three-legged stool, looking at a broken jar of relish that was lying in pieces on the floor in front of her. "I've only the two jars left, and I didn't leave them on the top—Ben! Hello!" She said brightly, when she saw him in the doorway.
"Hello, Ivy. I'll get the paper towels."
"Thank you—oh, and the dustpan is under the sink."
He nodded and went to retrieve the items in question.
"Are you Margaret?"
Meg looked into the pantry, as he moved away. The woman was alone. She supposed that talking to oneself was inevitable, and found some comfort in the fact that she was not the only one who engaged in it.
"It's a pleasure meeting you, Meg—do you mind if I call you 'Meg'?"
"No, actually, I prefer it. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, just had a bit of an argument with him and it resulted in this."
Who? "Your husband?"
"No," Ivy Glen smiled in a way that was somehow comforting and mysterious all at once. Fraser came back with the roll of towels in one hand, and the dustpan and hand-broom in the other. Meg took the paper towels as Ivy stood up and backed away from the slush on the floor.
"Ivy talks to angels," Fraser said, matter-of-factly, as he carefully pushed the bulk of the mess onto the dustpan. "Meg, can you get the trash-basket—"
"Where?" she asked, turning back to look around the kitchen.
"Under the sink—" Ivy looked down at Fraser's sharp intake of breath. "Oh, dear, be careful not to cut your hands."
"Don't worry, it's nothing."
"The vinegar must sting; I'm sorry."
"You don't have to apologize; it's barely a nick."
"Did you find it, dear?" Ivy asked Meg, over Fraser's head. Meg pulled the basket out of the cupboard under the sink and carried it back over to the pantry. Fraser quickly lifted up the dripping dustpan, then paused over the basket.
"What's wrong?" Meg asked.
"Putting glass in a plastic bag—it's not entirely—"
"Don't worry, dear, we'll dispose of it properly." Ivy smiled reassuringly. Fraser nodded, and overturned the slop into the bag. Ivy made her way out past them. They quickly went about mopping up the rest of the mess with the paper towels, and then she cleaned the floor with a bit of soap and a scrub brush, and the pantry was as good as new.
"The pickled carrots are in here somewhere. I only have two jars left, and I think you'll like them. And even if you don't, Ben here will finish them off for you. He's already taken four jars." She walked past him and smiled lovingly; a man who enjoyed her cooking was close to her heart, and he did. He looked a bit embarrassed, and glanced over at Meg, the dark-haired woman who stood near the kitchen table—a good woman, Ivy decided. She was down to earth and willing to help clean up a mess. And Ben Fraser seemed affected by her.
Ivy wondered briefly if there was something between them, but having no desire to pry or to be a busybody, she merely decided to pursue a campaign of casual espionage which, at this stage, just meant discreet observation. She would have to ask John later if he knew anything that might be of interest. Ben seemed so distant sometimes; it wasn't good for a man like him to live alone for so long. He really was a good, honest, and kind person, and Ivy liked him a great deal. However, the Lord ran the world, not her, and so she didn't try to get involved in the management of it.
"I brought the lemon juice, I hope it's what you wanted," Ben pulled a green glass bottle and two envelopes out of the sack he had left on the table. She took them all, nodding.
"It is, thank you very much," she said, putting the jar away. She left the envelopes on the counter and headed back to the pantry. "Now, I know I left the jars on this side..."
"Here, let me help you," Ben followed behind her, and she stopped to let him pass. "Which side?"
"On your right. I think it's on the shelf that's second to the top—oh no, wait, that's where the pickle relish is. Ah...try one shelf down, in the back row?"
Ben bent over slightly and squinted at the labels in the back row, picking up all of the jars in turn, and shaking his head at each of them.
"Isn't it difficult to grow carrots in this climate?" Meg asked.
"Impossible, except for a few weeks during the summer, and even then, things don't thaw out completely." Ivy answered. "John set up a greenhouse in the cellar—we've got a bumper crop going down there."
"A greenhouse in the cellar?"
"Well, as you know, dear, the sub-ground temperature stays pretty constant. It's just a matter of a little extra heat and a few rows of ultraviolet lights."
"I don't think—" Fraser paused, then grinned. "—ah, here's one." He passed it over to her, as she stood in the doorway. He searched for a moment, then pulled a second jar out. "And the other." He held it triumphantly. "Would you like me to leave it somewhere more accessible to you?"
"Would you leave it in the front there—yes, right there. Thank you."
"It's my pleasure." He turned off the pantry light and came out, closing the door behind himself.
"Can you stay for hot chocolate?" She asked, bringing the jar over to Meg.
Meg smiled, looked down at the jar as she took it. "Thank you, Mrs. Glen, but I was hoping that I could get to the Coopers' home as soon as possible. I haven't seen Caryn for a long time."
"That's fine. The offer still stands, if you'd like to come around some other time. We'd love to have you."
"Thank you very much," Meg pulled her gloves on. Fraser slung the mail sack over his shoulder.
"And you. You know you're always welcome," Ivy said, looking over at him.
"That I do," he smiled. He nodded to her, and they turned to leave.
"Oh! Benton—the card. I almost forgot!" Ivy hurried over to the counter and found a small index card. "The recipe you asked for."
"Ah. Thank you kindly," he smiled down at her, and took the piece of paper.
"Have a nice trip. It was nice meeting you, Meg."
"And you, Mrs. Glen."
"Ivy. Thanks again," she waved, and followed Fraser outside.
Tim Hughley was in the shed, snowmobile parts scattered around him, and Constable Arthur Lecrue was sitting on the work shelf dissecting what looked to be the remains of a well-worn snowmobile tred.
"'Morning," Fraser said, poking his head in through the propped-open window.
"Good morning, sir," the young Constable replied brightly.
"Hey Fraser," Tim replied, giving him a small wave with a five-centimetre head wrench. "Those parts come in yet?"
"Yes, actually, I have them right here. May I come in?"
"Sure; hey Art, hand me that pair of pliers, will you?"
Meg stood in the doorway of shed, watching Fraser as he navigated around the piles of metal on the floor and handed Tim Hughley a small cardboard box. Constable Lecrue slid off the work shelf.
"Sir," he nodded respectfully to Fraser, then turned towards Meg and doffed his hat. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma'am," he bent stiffly at the waist and smiled across at her. He was young, couldn't be more than a year out of the Academy, she estimated. He pulled himself back onto the shelf and continued dismembering the length of tred.
"Hey, who's the chick?" Tim looked over at her, grinned, and gave a another small wave from his position on the floor.
"Meg Thatcher; Sergeant Fraser is escorting me out to the Coopers' home," she answered, bristling slightly at the young man's tone. Fraser looked over at her with an mildly amused expression.
"Yeah, I'm sure he is," Tim grinned widely at her and jabbed at Fraser's leg with the wrench.
"I am," Fraser responded calmly, sidestepping the tool. "Is your father home? I've a letter for him."
"Nah, he's out at the river, I think. Mrs. Canbrary wanted him to catch 'er trout."
"Really?" Fraser asked, interested. "Is this some roundabout method of courtship?" He handed the letter down to Tim, who put it on a nearby piece of wood panelling and otherwise ignored it completely.
"I guess so." Tim scowled at the cardboard box, then pulled out a jackknife and started slitting it open. "If it is, she's courting him."
"Yeah, well, I don't."
Fraser gave a short nod, and then turned back to leave. "Try to see it from his point of view."
Tim harrumphed and took the small gear parts out of the box. Meg stood aside as Fraser came out and pulled the door closed behind himself.
"That's an interesting piece of news," he said thoughtfully.
"Fred Hughley is an acknowledged recluse. For him to be willing to fish for a woman— well, he must be really taken with Amanda Canbrary." He swung his leg over the snowmobile and sat down.
"Oh." Meg wondered at Mrs. Hughley's absence; she thought that she could understand some of Tim's discontent, remembering days from her own childhood.
"One more, then we'll reach the Coopers'." Fraser started his engine and sped off, Meg following close behind.