Sergeant Robert Fraser RCMP, had his back pressed up against a tree when it came, the rough bark of the pine snatching with a thousand tiny hands at the nap of his jacket and his breath hard in his chest, when it came. When the angel came. At first there was just a glimmer of light, as if someone had dragged one of the spotlights from the hockey pond in Inuvik and set it amongst the trees. Impossibly shining in the half dark of the unelectrified forest, the unnatural strange amongst the natural world that Bob Fraser called his home and had done for many long and solitary years.
But there was nothing unnatural about this light as it moved steadily towards him and raised an unaccustomed joy in his deceitful blood. As it slowly began to bleach out everything, the trees sculpted by the fierce winds of the North, into sinuous testaments to the power of boreas, the trees faded from sight completely and all that was left was the snow and as the radiant light encompassed its coldness, even that was gone, the only reminder of its presence being the crisp crunch beneath the Mountie’s feet.
And he looked into the light, for there was precious little else to do, and began to entertain thoughts of hypothermia, or perhaps snow blindness, disconcerted by the fact that he couldn’t see the snow that the soles of his feet and the chill in his bones told him was there. This was it, he considered, Robert Fraser hero of the RCMP, falls not to a poacher’s bullets, but to the oldest enemy of all, the cold that characterised this land, and let that be a lesson to all those wet-behind-the-ears kids they turned out of the Depot these days, you are not invincible, nothing endures. Nothing endures, not heroism, not partnerships, not marriage. In the end there is nothing but yourself, and then not even that, just the memory of you.
Then he noticed something in the light, something getting slowly closer, and his revolver moved up in his hand, a preconditioned response mixed with adrenalin, but he knew it was futile, something big enough to carry such powerful lamps, was probably some metal contrivance. Yet how could a jeep, yet alone a helicopter get through the tightly packed trees of the forest? His blood went cold, an aeroplane crashing down through the trees, he should move, get help, try and rescue the wounded; but the fireball was already consuming the plane and perhaps him as well.
Now he could see more clearly, there was a figure in the cold golden light, moving towards him as if on wires, but a hundred times more gracefully than that time he and Buck ended up sliding down that telegraph wire, and even then his hands were raw for weeks. This fellow seemed to be having none of the trouble, and was moving way too slow for all that.
The light had burnt nearly all the features away, leaving but a silhouette of light, its head surrounded by a corona of hair that Robert fancied was golden, if only he could see properly.
“Robert Fraser, I have been sent unto you on a matter of great import, as is my wont as an angelic messenger,” the shadow of light intoned, its voice strangely hollow, as if, perhaps bored by this routine, or maybe that was just what he sounded like, or most likely, screamed a small part of Bob’s mind that wasn’t subsumed by the light burning into his soul spreading a serene accepting calm, he just liked the sound of his voice, there were people like that, he had a sergeant like that before he’d married.
And with that he woke up, woke up from the what, the mesmerism that had him entrapped like a fly in pine sap, “Now you’ve picked the wrong son of a librarian to go bothering, young man, I know that angel merely means messenger, and unless you’re my back-up from HQ, which is unlikely since they don’t have the damn faintest idea where I am nine times out of ten, can’t track and they call themselves Mounties, will you kindly get out of my way.”
The angel had frozen rigid, the light had paled somewhat and the Mountie could make out the features on his face now. So very young, he hardly looked any older than the kids sent out from Depot these days, young and full of enthusiasm and totally unprepared for the realities that life would bring. “But, Sergeant Fraser, I have been sent to tell you something really important.”
Benton, the angel reminded him of Benton, that same unknowing quality, a refusal to accept the world as it is, rather concentrating on what, when you came down to it, it is not. All lofty ideals and not a jot of common sense, the same refusal to face reality, and here reality could get you killed. In heaven, he didn’t know, somebody had to wash all those white frocks. White is terrible for stains like that, and attracts polar bears if you’re not careful. “Look, son, there are times when you can’t do your duty, when you can’t follow your orders or your heart, and, yes, those times hurt, but you get over them, you move on to the next thing and do your goddamn best never to look back.”
“I have come, Robert Fraser, to offer you a second chance at life, to take another path…” The angel sounded as if he were reciting a spiel, albeit one that he believed in absolutely, and with every word he sounded more and more like Benton, like when they were on that case together, the one where afterwards they could look neither each other or fresh syllabub in the face again. When Benton had been giving the malfeasant his rights, he had sounded like that, serene, as if all were right in the world and all he had to do was read the lines.
All hadn’t been right with the world for quite some time, if ever. “Son, I know you’re new to all this, but I only know one path, and that’s duty, and if you’ll excuse me, one professional to another, I have to fulfil mine, and I am the senior officer here.”
The angel looked away and the snow began to melt beneath the Mountie’s feet, and the angel’s voice was distinctly hollow sounding when he declaimed, “Where you’re wrong is your assumption that you have any choice in the matter. However, no time will have passed here if you choose to return.”
“Choose to return? Choose to return! I don’t know what you’re up to you trumped up feather-duster but you can put me back right this minute”
“I’m offering you a choice, a very simple choice, Robert Fraser, and an opportunity, an opportunity to put things right,”
An opportunity to put things right, the words echoed in Bob’s mind, before slipping downward and making the journey to his heart; and he felt the ice there melt momentarily, “You mean I can save Caroline? Stop Muldoon before he even came close? Look in the right place for him?”
It was as if he were flying on silver wings of hope as they lifted him high into the stratosphere, towards the sun. And then the wings melted, like ice, like that snowman Benton and Caroline had made for his homecoming, as if they were never there at all, as if she had never been there at all. “No, that was fate, destiny if you will, what I offer you is a different choice, behold!” The angel waved his arms gracefully as if that could put things right, as if that made any difference.
Children. He could hear children laughing and calling. He could hear them running in the snow before he could see them, the snow was different here, finer and more thinly laid, town snow, maybe even city snow. There they were, a hauntingly familiar dark-haired boy, around nine at his estimation, and a blonde toddler the like of whom he’s never seen before. Between bursts of giggles the girl cried, her pigtails flapping behind her in the wind, “Give it back, Benton, give it back.”
A strangely familiar voice was carried along by the wind, preceding the speaker’s presence, “Benton, son, give whatever it is back to your sister.” And before Bob could even contemplate the “sister”, she looked so like Benton it was incredible, she looked so like Benton before Caroline had died, before that could sink in, he found himself facing a man with a rather familiar moustache. He knew the moustache because he’d shaved it off himself, when he’d started going grey, he wasn’t one for vanity. And beside this man was…
“Elizabeth McKenzie” He never really thought he would see her again, she looked so very alive, the way young mothers tend to look, if not exhausted, like Caroline. So very like her, yet not.
“Your wife, your daughter and neither one sacrificed upon the altar of duty. You’re deputy in command at the detachment here, your rise through the ranks has been quite amazing, nobody particularly cares that it was only seven months between the wedding and young Maggie, here”
“Maggie,” Bob said, as if trying the name out for size, “She does look like a Maggie, as if she’s going to be a sensible if high spirited type.”
The man with the moustache was separating Benton from some imaginary object and handing it back to his daughter with all due care.
“Her name is Margaret Caroline Fraser, you don’t forget, you shouldn’t think of it as a betrayal but rather a continuation, a new life to take the place of the old, and yet never replace it in your heart, there’s room enough there for three special ladies,” the angel said in low dulcet tones, whispering in the Mountie’s ear as he looked on aghast as he wrestled with his son in the snow.
And then it all faded away again. “What are you doing? Have you only come to torment me?” Bob shouted in confusion as his lovely daughter playing with her invisible rabbit in the snow dissolved before his very eyes, to be replaced by an office. The office, the one he’d always dreamed of having, a log cabin made homely by a roaring open fire, a stag’s head hanging from the wall joined with the RCMP crest, and his coat by the door. He was for a moment bemused by the two desks on the floor, until he saw Benton leave what must obviously be the kitchen, that strange wolf of his trailing at his feet, awaiting a biscuit.
The Benton-phantom put his mug down on his desk. Bark tea, vile stuff, Bob could smell it; god only knows where the boy got the taste for if from. Boy, yes, this Benton was slightly younger than he remembered, only slightly, but enough to make a difference. Benton was sitting there, filling out forms on his typewriter diligently, if a little fast for Bob’s taste.
And then a man rushed in, slamming the door behind him. At least, he assumed it was a man, it was hard to tell under the obscene amount of clothing and the fluffy parka hood, “I’m looking for a guy name of Fraser,” Bob sighed, a Yank, it had to be a Yank in a get-up like that.
It seemed that he was disappointed with this lack of immediate response and began, soon raising his voice to an impassioned shout, “I came here on the trail of the bozos who totalled my GTO, and the idiot in Toronto said I needed to come here and talk to a guy called Fraser ‘cause he’s the one who specialises in weird shit like this.”
“There is no need for language like that, son,” a voice cried from the kitchen, a voice that Bob recognised as his own, if he could speak to this interloper right now, he’d say something much stronger than that. Had he gone soft here, in this office?
“If this is somebody’s idea of a joke, sending me to find some guy who doesn’t exist, tell me now, so I can kick the moron who sent me in the head. Sending me all the way out here to the Northwest Areas and all” this Yank seemed to become more agitated with every passing second and was hoping from foot to foot as he pulled back his parka to reveal the most ill-suiting pair of spectacles Bob had seen since he took in Opthalmic Ozzy the quack optometrist of Lake Ontario. And that was to say nothing of the hair.
“Which Fraser do you want?” a voice, his yet not his floated from the kitchen.
Benton butted in quickly before the Yank could get his head round that one, “What my father means is which of us do you require?”
“That’s your old man?” the Yank said, clearly slow on the uptake, “You work with your dad in a police station in the Artic fricking Circle?”
“Affirmative, now how can we possibly aid you?” It was Benton alright, Bob opined, polite and civil in the face of anything, the Yank could learn from that.
“Let me just translate that into normal English,” the Yank paused in a manner clearly intended to be dramatic, “You must be Benton Fraser right? The really weird one.”
“Yes,” said Benton tentatively letting the insult flow off his back like water off a duck, it was clearly a sort of filter-down insult, the Yank not knowing any better than to repeat the comment of some town-boy Mountie, who wouldn’t recognise a Malamute if it ate his dinner, particularly if it were Benton’s under-trained monster.
“Greatness. Ray Kowalski, Detective, Chicago PD. And I am offering you, Mountie mine, the golden opportunity to track down the llama smugglers that have gone to ground up here in the snow, following some serious property damage and bail-jumpin’ back in Chicago…”
At least that promises to be interesting, thought Bob, as it all faded away once again, and then resigned himself to the fact that he’s be left managing the detachment of two if Benton and the Yank had swanned off to deal with bail breaking llamas. Maybe something had been lost in translation.
At last, somewhere he truly recognised; the parade ground at Regina. And he was sitting in the front row, after the cadets had first fallen out after graduation, “Hey, dad! You’re a sight for sore eyes, you are,” it must be Maggie, still with the pigtails but now wearing the Serge of her ceremonial uniform, “Sore feet too, you’d think after twenty odd weeks of drill practice, I’d have broken these things in.”
“If I might interrupt, it’s all about the proper treatment of the leather, neet’s foot oil is deeply helpful in that respect, as is substituting them for your house slippers for a month or so,” Benton’s leaning in close to his younger sister, smiling that odd smile of his, the one that reeks of sincerity but never quite reaches his eyes, Bob has seen it countless times before.
“Hi, bro! It’s nice to see that you haven’t changed one bit,” and then she turns to her father, and Bob finds that it’s like looking in a mirror, a slightly fuzzy old one with proper silvering like his mother used to have, sure some of the wrinkles are gone, or elsewhere, but it’s still him. The thought leaves him somewhat cold and slightly perturbed as Maggie continues, “You’re just waiting for me to get back home and rescue you from him, aren’t you? He still hasn’t grown out of licking things, has he?”
What was it the French said, plus ça change… some things never really change, though Bob is still more than baffled where the boy picked the habit up from, it wasn’t him that was for sure, licking things must be unsanitary, particularly given some things Benton has licked over the years. He wonders for a moment whether that includes contraband llamas here. Thinking of Benton, that strange smile is still on his face, as if he knows something, but won’t tell.
Elizabeth’s there too, basking quietly. She’s aged well, she’s a handsome woman, maybe he should look her up sometime, stately as a galleon, but he can just tell that she’s bursting with pride inside. That’s where she’s different from Caroline, with Caroline this would never have happened, she didn’t want Benton to be a Mountie, and back then, lying in her arms while Benton was asleep in his crib, he dreaded a day like this, the day he knew would come. Frasers became Mounties, why couldn’t Caroline understand that, when she understood him so well?
And then some young man ran up, and through him and the angel, and that was an experience Bob never wanted to repeat in his life, being run through by some young whipper-snapper as if you weren’t actually there. So, Bob might not be actually there, but rather standing in front of himself, but he didn’t really see that as an excuse for poor manners. He was holding a camera, a professional model to match the supernumerary pockets on his vest, all lenses and infinitesimally small buttons, “Ah, I have found the legendary Frasers, now officers and lady, it would be wonderful to have a picture of a new Fraser joining that great dynasty for the RCMP newsletter.”
And they all formed up, with Maggie corralling a rather reluctant Elizabeth, until she stood in the centre with her husband. The line was ready and the photographer, who had redeemed himself in Bob’s mind with the extremely polite address which belied his youth somewhat, had his finger on the trigger, when there was a resounding crash behind them.
It was the Yank. Somehow, he had managed to entangle himself in one of the folding chairs and was trying fruitlessly but noisily to shake it off his foot and succeeding only in dragging it across the parade ground toward them, “Hey, Fraser,” three Mounties turned to look at him, “okay, if you want to play it that way, hey, Ben. Why is it the one time I drag my ass up to Inuvik for my vacation, you are actually in Saskatchewan? Can you even wreck your own surprises, as well as my car? Not that it’s much of a decision between you and my car…”
Maggie quickly interrupted the rambling American, “Ray, what matters is you’re here with Benton. Now come over here and get your picture taken,” and then turned to the photographer and said more softly but no less authoritatively, “this is my weird brother’s crazy boyfriend, he’s a cop from Chicago and somehow they make all that long-distance relationship junk work.”
“Nah, it’s just because Ben can’t stand my slovenly American lifestyle. I’m not gonna steal your thunder like that, Maggie, this is your big day and all.” And then Benton leans over and whispers something in the Yank’s, Ray’s, ear and he’s all laughter and smiles, and standing with the rest of them, trailing that chair like that boy in those newspaper cartoons with a blanket.
Bob isn’t sure what to think, he didn’t know, dear Lord, that Benton was… was… like that, that way inclined. For a moment, he’s happy that this is just a possibility, wants to get back to the forest as quick as a flash, and make the angel take this cursed knowledge away. But then he sees Benton’s smile.
That smile changes everything, it is the first real smile, the first smile that wasn’t all icy politeness, the first smile that wasn’t just convenient face furniture out of storage because he was expecting people, it’s the first honest-to-God smile that he’s seen on Benton. The first smile that actually reaches the boy’s eyes, the first he’d seen since Caroline died, since he’d tucked Benton up in bed the night before and promised him another story about how he and Buck defeated criminals across the great white north the following night. Benton never heard that story, or another really, his heart was too cold for that then, and then, then it was too late.
And that smile was the last thing he saw before everything dissolved itself into light once more and resolved back into the snow and the wood. He could feel the tree behind his back, he had felt it the whole time. The whole time he had been thinking about this, about second chances, he had been here.
And the memory of that smile still played across his mind.
But the angel was waiting, its indistinct face tilted as if awaiting the answer he had to give. It seemed wrong to disappoint the boy.
Yet, there are times when duty is more important than smiles and snowflakes, “No. I’ve got plenty of time to catch up with Benton. If there’s anything I ever taught my son it’s the importance of duty, not only to orders but to your nature. I’ve got no truck with phantoms, with might-have-beens, and wonder-ifs. I have my duty, I believe in finding out why these caribou keep ending up dead, and more than that, I believe these gentlemen have all the answers I need.” And with that Robert Fraser stepped out of the dream and back into the forest, and looked down to once again see the snow crunch beneath his boots.
And the angel looked down, down at the blood glistening on the snow, more precious than rubies and more radiant, and the angel wept for the futility of duty.