Ray's shoe catches on the edge of the platform and he stumbles, loses the shot. When he recovers and looks up, the train is pulling away and Fraser is gone with it. Victoria's face is unreadable at this distance, but Ray knows it says, "I win."


"Just outside of Britt" is pretty ridiculous, since, Ray has just discovered, there's no "in" Britt; you're outside of Britt before Britt even registers on your mind as a place. From what Ray can tell as he blasts along Highway 69, Britt consists of a gas-station/video store/grocery and three houses strung out in a line along the road. It's possible there's more of the so-called town down the access road, but his instructions say to stay on the highway. Britt exists, Ray figures, because someone has to run the plow in the winter so the trucks can get through, bringing stuff from Toronto to wherever, and from wherever to Toronto, and someone has to sell the guy who runs the plow his videos and bread and gas. He's not sure who the third house belongs to.


Highway 69 weaves its way between frozen swamps and trees and more trees and sheer walls of granite topped with spindly pines and a scruff of bushes that looks like someone's laid down a ratty toupee. He takes the corners fast, cutting close to the walls of stone on the right and drifting into the oncoming lane on the left, a smooth ride, new blacktop and bright white lines shining in the headlights.  He got tired of chasing radio stations and so there's no sound but the hiss of tires and the rumble of the engine and Dief panting in the passenger seat, eyes front like he's watching for the sign for the motel. If they miss it, Ray figures, they'll tip off the Canadian Shield into Hudson Bay or something. He's not too clear on the geography. Everything seems improbably far apart, and he feels like he's driving into a broad expanse of nothing. On the map it was pink. Rule Britannia, yadda yadda. In real life, it's black forest against black sky, and weird little oases of light and Petrocan signs on tall poles that would be seen for miles if the road didn't keep snaking around outcrops of rock too big to blast through. The whole landscape feels contingent, like it never forgot what it was like to be scraped away by glaciers, like it's waiting to be scraped away again.


"Britt," he says and Dief, predictably, ignores him. Ray hates the name "Britt," if only because it's been stabbing at the inside of his head for the last 10 hours.


Sleep's trailing them, swirls in the darkness that folds in after the car to block the way back. He wants coffee. The note in the pocket of his parka is written in black felt marker on a piece of paper with a ghosted illustration of The Big Nickel in the background. It's a date, a time, and "Crescent Moon Motel just outside of Britt" in familiar handwriting. The "R" on "Ray" looks like a weapon. "In the diner," it says. They'll have coffee there. He keeps thinking about the coffee waiting for him and Dief reads the road signs.


The Crescent Moon hotel is painted an unlikely shade of pink and it seems to hover in the cold glow of the mercury vapor lamp like some kind of mirage. There are nine units, but only one window is lit up with yellow lamplight and, in the corner, with a flickering neon vacancy sign. A similar sign in the window of the diner offers beer. The motel is backed up against one of those little mountains of pink and grey rock--maybe it's supposed to be camouflaged, then--which rises beyond the halo of light and blocks out the stars. The crescent moon is hooked in the top of a tree like a Christmas ornament, just like on the sign swinging in the rising wind next to the road.  On the other side of the sky, to the west, there's a low-hanging bank of cloud, blue-grey on black and moving toward the motel like someone's sliding a lid onto a box. There are no cars parked in the gravel lot.


The wind hisses close to the ground, sharp, like it's trying to take him out at the knees.  Needles of ice fly sideways against his face. Ray blows his breath down the collar of the parka and claps his gloves together. The sound bounces off the rock face and rabbits for the forest on the other side of the road. Dief runs ahead of him toward the pool of light around the diner and stares through the glass in the door like he's gazing into the wolfish version of heaven. Ray figures he's caught sight of a candy machine.


Some wolf.


At least he doesn't spend the nights howling anymore, though, so there's that.


Dief howled every night after Ray took him home from the vet, until finally, Ray stormed out of the house at 2 a.m., drove him across town and followed him up the three flights to Fraser's apartment, ducked under the crime scene tape he'd left up to keep the looters out, and said, "There. See for yourself." Dief paced every inch of the place, then sat down and watched while Ray drank Glen Fiddich in two-finger shots until the bottle was empty and he puked in Fraser's sink. When he left the next morning, Ray took Fraser's trunk, two dress uniforms and one regular duty uniform folded inside. Mr. Mustafi, grim-faced and sweating, helped him drag it down the stairs. People from the building stood on the sidewalk and asked where the Mountie was. Ray tipped his head toward Dief and said, "You tell 'em." Then they drove away and never went back.


Ray rubs at the corner of his eye and stares up at the blank, hollow place in the sky where the little mountain blocks out the stars. The wind tries to pull his pantlegs out of his snowboots and ice pellets stutter against the back of his coat like shrapnel.


Dief does a little dance of impatience and Ray says, "Evolve, why don'tcha?" waggling his opposable thumbs at him before opening the door. A string of reindeer bells clatters against the glass. Dief grunts something that probably isn't a thank-you and dashes past Ray's legs into the heat and light of the diner.


Inside there's a long, grey and chrome Formica counter with stools in front, a row of booths along the windows and across the far wall. The place seems empty, like a set from some cancelled 60's TV show. He half-expects Rod Serling to step into the foreground and say, "Witness if you will, a diner halfway between someplace and someplace else, on the border of the Twilight Zone." Somewhere in the back a TV is whispering. News, weather, sports. He can't tell. A truck blows by on the highway and the napkin holders rattle against the syrup pitchers.


"No dogs," a voice says from the kitchen. The saloon doors swing open to let a round little woman pass through. She's got glasses like portholes in a submarine and her eyes are enormous behind them. Her greying hair is held back with barrettes decorated with poodles. Her name tag says Ina.


"He's not a dog. He's a wolf."


"No wolves, either." She leans down so her face is close to Dief's and says, "No. Wolves."


Dief licks her nose.


Ray rolls his eyes. Once upon a time Dief had some shame. But it's gotta be a hundred below outside and Dief smells the doughnuts on the tray behind the counter, so Ray cuts him some slack.


"All right. Don't tell, though." One of her giant eyes winks at Ray.


Ray makes a show of turning around in the empty diner. There's probably nobody around for a thousand miles, except for the three guys in Britt, and they probably sit their dogs up at the table for dinner conversation.


"What can I getcha?" She points over her shoulder. "Cook's gone, but I can do eggs. Or there's chili."


"Coffee. And I'm looking for someone." Ray pulls the photo from his inside pocket. Dief's peering around the end of the counter, just the tip of his tail wagging. He whines, high-pitched, plaintive. "You seen him?" Ray slides the photo across to her.


"Nope. And I'd remember that face." She picks the photo up and tilts her head, puts a fingertip in the dimple on her chin. She whistles, low and admiring. "Oh yes, I'd remember that face." The whining distracts her long enough for Ray to pry the picture from her hand. "Your wolf going feral? I don't want any of that in here."


"He's not my wolf."


Ray goes to the end of the counter to see what the hell Dief's gone squirrelly about.


It's not surprising that Ina got it wrong. Ray almost doesn't recognize him, either.


He's in a booth around the corner, hands folded on the Formica table. It's his jacket, the one he had on when he jumped onto the train, so Ray believes it's him. But it's not the guy Ray knew. His hair hangs to his collar. His eyes are dark with exhaustion, his face gaunt. He's been gone nineteen months. It might as well be nineteen years.


Dief's whine is thin, a little panicky. He's shivering against Ray's knee.


"Hello, Ray," Fraser says, not happy, not sad. He turns up a hand to invite Ray to sit down opposite him. There's dirt under his fingernails, worn into the creases of his palm.


"Fraser. Long time no see." Ray doesn't sit down. Behind his ribs there's a hot stone of anger. But it's not for this man. This guy is just an echo, or some kind of collateral damage, the one person Fraser couldn't save. Or didn't try to. Damn him.


"Please, Ray."


Damn you, Fraser. Ray doesn't say it out loud, but Fraser nods slightly, accepting it with that down-turn of the mouth that's not a frown.


He folds his hands again, says, "About your house--"


"Forget the house. I lost it. It's gone."


It's a sucker-punch that surprises Ray more than it does Fraser, who just blinks a few times while the stone in Ray's chest gets hotter, lighter: mean triumph and shame. Another nod, and Fraser lifts his hand to run his thumb across his brow, and for a second Ray believes that it's that same old gesture, the one that in someone else would lead to a sinking, an exposing of some inner despair. Fraser always recovers it, pulls back, straightens, denies. But that Fraser is gone, and this one doesn't pull back and he doesn't straighten and he sinks, and Ray's frozen there beside the booth while Fraser sobs once, behind his hand.


A second shadow falls across the table. Fraser drops his hand like he doesn't care who sees him, and Ray's anger swerves suddenly. He aims it Ina. He's opening his mouth to say, "What, you never saw a man cry before?" but she's looking at Ray, her head tilted, frowning in a way that becomes a sympathetic smile without changing shape at all. She slides a cup of coffee and a doughnut onto the table.


"It's on the house.  Cherry filling," she says with a pat on his arm as she turns to go.


"What about him? Doesn't he get any?"


She disappears around the corner. "Just because I let him in, don't mean I have to feed him."


Scrubbing at the back of his head below his wool cap, Ray sighs and then slumps into the booth. He nudges the doughnut in Fraser's direction, but Fraser just shakes his head.


"No thank you."


"She said she can do eggs."


"No, thanks. Really. I'm fine."


The patent absurdity of that statement makes Ray bark out a laugh and lean back to press the heels of his hands to his eyes while the urge to strangle Fraser builds and crests and sizzles away. By the time he lets his hands fall to the table again, he's got a grip. A bit of a grip. He goes for steely-eyed regard, finds something hard in his voice. "She dead?"


Only the slight twitch of his eyelid. Otherwise, Fraser's composed his face, too, out-steely-eying him. "In all the ways that matter, yes."


"But not in the way that matters to me."


"No. Not that way."


Suddenly Ray feels tired, but not like the weariness is his own. It's like he's caught in some kind of undertow. "So." He pulls out the note and studies it for a second, puts it on the table and looks at the second sheet. Same paper, same hokey drawing of the Big Nickel (what is it with big things in this country, anyway?), only on this one is a long list: names, dates, dollar amounts. He's about to ask about it but Fraser starts talking.


"She's going to cross into the States at Niagara Falls."




"She's on her way there now."


Ray holds the note up so Fraser can see it. "So why drag me all the way up here to the butt-end of no place? Why not just turn her in?"


This time the contrast between Fraser's composed face and his broken voice is enough to make Ray feel sick. It takes Fraser two tries to say, "I can't."


"Then why aren't you with her?"


"She found out that I was planning to contact you. That I'd sent the note."


In Ray's imagination, being right had always felt better than this. "And she ditched you."


He's surprised when Fraser cracks a grin, looks up over Ray's head and shrugs a little. "Yes, I suppose you could put it that way."


"You're lucky she didn't blow your damn head off."


The grin is gone, leaving no trace on Fraser's face that such a thing could have been there. "Maybe."


"She'll change her plans.  She won't trust you not to tell."


A sharp shake of the head. "She's meeting someone on the American side.  If she completes this deal she'll be able to disappear forever." His tongue darts across his lip. "And she's not worried about me."






"Then she's stupid."


Fraser has no response to that. Instead, he describes the make and model of Victoria's car, recites the license number, and Ray writes it on the back of the Big Nickel notepaper before pushing himself to the edge of the booth to stand up.  He points a finger at Fraser. "Stay."  Then he redirects the finger at Dief. "He tries to leave, you bite him in the ass, got it?"


Dief groans a protest but Fraser says, "It's your duty," and Dief settles reluctantly down on the floor on Fraser's side of the booth.


After some grumbling from Ina that he silences with a flash of his badge--too quick for her to see he's about a million miles out of his jurisdiction--Ray commandeers a phone and relays the information to Welsh.  He tells the Lieutenant that he's coming straight back, but while he's talking, Ina purses her lips and shakes her head, pointing vigorously to the TV winking away on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen. 


"Storm's coming.  At least thirty, forty centimeters.  They're calling for white-outs."  She points emphatically at the TV again, where, in the fittingly snowy picture, a weatherman is calling for white-outs.


Ray lets his head fall forward until he's buried up to his eyebrows in his parka collar and whispers all the curses he knows. Then he emerges and tells Welsh he's gonna take in the sights here in Britt until the storm passes, head back in the morning.  He looks out the window over the half-curtains where he can see only blackness etched by nearly horizontal lines of white snow.  "I'll bring you a souvenir."


"Maple candy," Welsh says and the line goes dead.


While Ina rummages around under the counter for a key and the guest book, Fraser and Dief come to join them. Dief has a cherry-filling grin on his face that makes him look like he's just come from a minor goring.  Ray scowls at him and Dief nonchalantly scratches behind his ear.


"So, thirty, forty centimeters.  You divide by eight and multiply by five, right?"  Ray squints up at the ceiling to do the math.


"That's for converting kilometers," Fraser corrects him mildly.


"Okay! Fine!" Ray picks up Ina's pen and stabs his name into the register. "Then you tell me:  thirty, forty centimeters.  Are we talking hip-wader deep or knee-sock deep?"


"Knee-sock," Ina  answers.  "And white-outs."  She gives him the key.  "Number three.  You got to jiggle it a little."


Number three smells like a cigarette butt soaked in Lysol, but it's tidy and Ray's been in worse. He has to put his shoulder to the door to keep the wind and half a ton of snow from muscling in after them. Even in the dark the bedspread writhes with paisleys, which is good enough reason to keep the lights off, in Ray's opinion.


Pausing on the way to the john, he says, "I'm not going to have to handcuff you to the headboard, am I?"


Fraser doesn't even blink at the unintended innuendo. He raises his hands like he's surrendering, but ends up studying them instead. "No. I don't think so."


"Yeah, well don't give me any crap about how you're not a flight risk, because you said that last time. Right before you sprouted wings."


"I'm sorry about that, Ray."


"Quit apologizing, will you? You're giving me a headache."


When Ray comes out of the bathroom, he thinks at first that Fraser has flown the coop but, as his eyes adjust to the dimness, he finds him leaning against the wall near the window staring out through the gap in the curtains. His face is just a single illuminated curve at his too-sharp cheekbone, and one eye gleaming where it catches the harsh light of the mercury vapour lamp. The rest of him is barely there. He's watching the snow fall.


"It snowed for a day and a night... and a day."


Ray stands still and waits for the rest, but whatever story this is, it's an abandoned one.


The silence gets heavy, layering down over them like the snow outside, and suddenly Ray can't hold it up anymore. With a groan, he flops back onto the bed in his coat and feels the tension of the ten-hour drive ebb out of him, leaving him empty. He kicks off his boots and they thunk one at a time onto the floor at the end of the bed, the second taking his sock with it. His foot's cold but it's too far away to be rescued. He can hear Dief turning in circles, making an imaginary nest in an imaginary forest.


Sleep's almost caught up to him when Fraser starts talking. The cadence of his voice is the same one he uses to tell other people's stories, parables from way up at the top of the world.


"I thought that somehow I could take care of us. I believed that I could take us beyond the need for other people, what they have, what she wanted from them. A knife and a length of fishing line, and we'd be beholden to no one, and she could be who she really was. But there's a great deal of civilization between Chicago and..."


Another inch of snow falls. "Between Chicago and where?" Ray tries to keep his eyes open, but he's not too good at it. Each blink lasts longer and Fraser's voice starts painting slowly flowing pictures in Ray's head.


"Nowhere. It took me months to see it, because she was there in my eyes all the time, beautiful, a shimmer of reflected light." There's a faint rustle as he shifts his weight, and Ray lifts his heavy eyelids to see Fraser hunching inside his jacket, hands in his pockets like he's braced against the cold. "It took me months to see that she was herself all along, and that the place I'd been navigating toward doesn't exist. Or if it does, only in a snow-bound lean-to in Fortitude Pass where a lovely voice recites a poem whose words I will never clearly hear." He looks up and the light catches in his eye again. "We needed money. We had to eat. We had to travel." Fraser's voice crumbles. "I lacked the necessary skills."


Ray fingers the sheets of folded paper in his pocket and hates everything Victoria did, what she took, and what she made.


"I've sent a document to the consulate."


Ray closes his eyes tight enough to brighten the darkness with stars.


"My father's land should bring you a good return. I hope that you'll use the money to make restitution on my behalf. The list I sent you includes everyone I can remember. There may be others. But you can start with yourself. Your house--"


"Forget the house. Francesca's husband bought it. The family's still in it."


"But not you."


"No. Not me."


There's a pause. "Is he a good man?"




"Francesca's husband."


In Ray's memory, a train pulls out of the station, disappears. "Once she learned that there's no such thing as Mr. Right, she settled for Mr. At Least He Doesn't Knock Me Around." Even though he can't see Fraser's face, he regrets the jab. "He's a decent guy. Bad taste in shirts, but a decent guy."


"Good," Fraser says softly. "Good." He shifts his weight again, and in Ray's mind it's the sound of a train sliding out of light and into shadow. When Fraser finally speaks, it's from that distant place, and, just a step ahead of sleep now, Ray can barely catch the thread of his voice. "Raven, who made the world, still didn't know all there was to know about his creation, so he traveled in his kayak on the sea. He came to a great whale and wanted to learn what was inside him, so he paddled his kayak into the great whale's mouth and then walked onward to the centre of the whale's body. There he found a beautiful girl dancing. When she danced quickly the whale raced across the sea and when she danced slowly the whale moved with ponderous grace. The girl was so beautiful that Raven wanted to have her, and he took her in his arms and carried her out of the whale. But as soon as they were under the sky again, the whale thrashed and died, and the girl dwindled and was gone."


The distance between Ray and the train grows wider.


"Raven danced in sorrow. Raven sang in sorrow. This was the first dance and the first song."


If Fraser goes on to tell Ray the moral of this story, Ray doesn't hear it. When Ray opens his eyes again, the light has changed, gone gently grey like the inside of an oyster shell. Fraser is at the window, watching him, and his eyes are the same colour as the narrow band of sky visible between the curtains. He says, "The storm's over."


It takes a few seconds for Ray to place himself and when he does, he throws an arm over his eyes and mutters, "Right. Britt." Then he sits up and leans down at the end of the bed to retrieve his sock. He's stiff from sleeping for hours in the same position and he can almost hear his bones creaking as he makes his way to the bathroom.


When he comes out, Fraser is gone.


"Shit!" Ray whirls around in the middle of the floor, but Fraser's not hiding in any shadowy corner. Swearing again, Ray stomps his feet into his boots and opens the motel room door.


Snow cascades into the room from the knee-high drift. The world is somehow both sharply pristine and shapeless after the storm, and the parking lot is a perfect blank of even white, except for the generally Riviera-shaped mound sitting in a puddle of lavender shadow near the diner. No footprints leading away from Number Three. Not one.


Ray turns around and glares back into the room. No windows in the back but the tiny one in the bathroom, and Ray was in there and nobody went by him. He turns around again, with his eyes closed, counts to three to give the universe a chance to shape up and fly right, and then opens them. Still no footprints. He's standing there with his mouth hanging open when the phone starts ringing. It rings five times before Ray comes unstuck and goes to snatch up the receiver.


"Yeah! Yes, sir," he says as he steps backward and drops down on the edge of the bed with the phone on his knee.


Welsh tells him that they've picked Victoria up crossing the Rainbow Bridge. She was alone.


Ray stares out the open door at the snow until Welsh says, "She had a .22, two rounds missing, GSR on her coat sleeves," then he bows his head and breathes out a curse. Over by the open door Dief makes a low sound that rises and grows, and throws his head back to unfurl the howl across the new, empty snow.


When Welsh asks about Fraser, Ray shakes his head and swallows the lump in his throat so he can say, "He wasn't here." Maybe Welsh is asking him how, if that's true, Ray got the tip about Victoria, but Ray's dropped the receiver on the carpet and is rising slowly. The phone tumbles off his lap as he heads for the door.


The red coat is almost blinding against the white. Boot-top-deep in the snow, Fraser casts no shadow. He turns as Ray shuffles out to him. Dief takes the easy route and follows along in the wake Ray leaves behind him.


"Hello Ray."


He's smiling. Shaved and pressed and polished.


Ray nods and keeps nodding while he finds his voice. "I'm gonna nail her to the wall for this, Benny."


The smile fades as Fraser nods, too. "Because it's the law," he says.


"Yeah, Benny," Ray answers with an ironic grin. "Because it's the law." He wipes his face on his sleeve because he's not convinced his tears won't freeze solid on his eyeballs. When he looks again, the sun has climbed to the top of the little mountain and the snow is lit up pink. "I guess the Glen Fiddich episode was a little premature, huh?"


"It would seem so, yes."


"You think they sell Glen Fiddich at that little store in Britt?"


Fraser tilts his head and narrows his eyes at Ray in mild disapproval. "You know you can't buy alcohol in grocery stores in Canada."


Ray growls and lifts his hands to appeal to the forest across the road. "Canada! How do people survive in this stupid country?"


"I suspect I'm not the most appropriate person to answer that question."


The reminder stabs Ray in the chest, but when he looks over at him, he can see Fraser grinning at his own joke under the brim of his Stetson.


Standing in the pink snow beside a pink hotel under a pink mountain, Ray laughs.





--the end--

Warnings: Character Death

Notes: This story is dedicated to thepouncer who shares my philosophy of paying it forward. Thank you, O Bouncy One! Many thanks to Destina for beta and jenlev for encouraging feedback. The story of the Raven and the Whale is a traditional tale as retold by Laura Simms, and can be found here.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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