Caroline had just curled up in her favorite armchair by the fire with a book in her hand when there was a stamping on the porch and a knock on the door.
"Caroline? Would you see who it is?" her mother called from the kitchen.
"I will," she said with a sigh, getting up again. She would never be finished with her book at this rate. But instead of a neighbor, or her aunt, she found Bob and Buck outside the door, still brushing snow off their clothes and boots. Her face lit up with a wide smile.
"We were in the neighborhood, and..." Bob began, but Buck elbowed him in the side.
"In the neighborhood, indeed. You don't want to know how many extra miles we sledded to get to this neighborhood."
Bob gave him a black look, and Caroline tried not to smile. She took hold of the sleeve of his parka and firmly pulled him inside. "Come in, both of you. You're letting in the cold."
She kissed Bob on the lips, and he blushed, to a most charming effect.
"Ooh, you lovebirds," Buck muttered, and Caroline felt herself blushing, as well.
"What, us?" Bob said. "Hey, I saw you making eyes at that girl in Red River." Buck didn't deny it.
By now, her mother had come out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dish towel. "Oh, hello, Constable Fraser, Constable Frobisher." She nodded at them. "I'll put on some tea, shall I?"
"Thank you kindly, Mrs. Pinsent," Bob said.
They took off their layers until they were down to flannel shirts and trousers, while Caroline helped her mother set the table.
"Oh, there was no need..." Buck said when he saw the bread and cold meat and pound cake they had set out, but he trailed off, looking longingly at it.
"Nonsense," her mother said. "Sledding gives you an appetite, I know that for a fact."
They both ate heartily, while Caroline drank her tea and made herself a sandwich. Bob's hand sought out hers under the table and pressed it. She ran her thumb along his warm solid fingers, and her stomach flipped over. Then she let go, trying to look innocent. She could take Buck's good-natured ribbing, but she wasn't about to try anything more under her mother's sharp eyes.
Not that she had anything to hide—they were engaged, after all.
"Do you need a place to sleep tonight?" her mother asked. "We only have one sofa, so one of you would have to sleep on the floor, but you're welcome to stay."
"No, we have business at the detachment, and they have a few cots. We'll stay there. But thank you kindly for offering," Bob said, with an earnest politeness that Caroline suspected was entirely for her mother's benefit.
"Where are you heading tomorrow?" Caroline asked.
Bob and Buck glanced at each other. Then Buck sighed. "All right. I suppose we should tell them."
"Tell us what?" Caroline asked. "Is anything the matter?"
Bob cleared his throat. "There's trouble up in Aklavik. And since it concerns, well, your people, we thought you should know."
Her mother put down her tea cup with a sharp clink. "What kind of trouble?"
"Folks are saying that you, well, they, ah..." Bob said.
"The shifters," her mother filled in impatiently.
"Yes, well. That they're stealing game from the traps. And one of the, ah, shifters has been killed. It was blamed on a hunting accident, but we think it might not have been an accident. We're going up there to take a look."
Caroline felt a chill go down her spine. "Doesn't Aklavik have its own RCMP detachment?" she asked.
Bob and Buck looked at each other again. "It's only a small one," Buck said.
"And they're not particularly interested in looking into the death of a shifter who was shot as a wolf," Caroline's mother finished grimly. Neither of the men contradicted her.
"Well, thanks for warning us," Caroline said.
Before they left, Caroline managed to get a few words alone with Bob. "You be careful," she said.
"No, you be careful," Bob said. "We'll be all right. But that shifter who was shot could have been you."
Caroline squeezed his hands. "I haven't heard any rumors of game-stealing here. And I've got my parents, and my aunt. Don't worry about me." She brought one of his hands up to her mouth and kissed the knuckles. This made him smile, as she had thought it would.
"Bob? Were you planning to stay here after all?" Buck called innocently from the door.
"I'm coming! Hold your horses," he called, then muttered, "Or dogs, rather." He gave Caroline a quick hug and went to put his outdoor clothes and boots on. She watched from the doorway as they left, tipping their hats at her and then urging the dogs on.
Caroline's family had moved in to town the summer before last. Her mother's broken leg had shown them all too well how vulnerable it was to live in an isolated cabin, especially with her father away so often on trapping expeditions. Fort McPherson was safer, although it was harder to hide what they were among so many people. Of course, her father wasn't a shifter, but he'd thrown in his lot with them.
As they cleared away the dishes, her mother frowned. "I'm worried about what they told us. Did you know that Susan went up to Aklavik yesterday?"
"No. What is she doing there?" Caroline asked, worried. Her aunt Susan was a shifter, too, and part of their pack.
"We have a cousin living up there, and her husband has died. Susan went to help her take care of the children and arrange for the funeral."
Caroline was instantly suspicious. "Was her husband one of us? How did he die?"
Her mother nodded. "That's what I'm wondering, too. I know he was one of us."
Caroline sat down on a chair, trying to think. "What should we do?"
"Susan might not know the danger she's in. We have to help her." The bonds of a pack were strong, and no shifter would leave a pack member in danger.
"I'm coming with you," Caroline said.
"There's no need for both of us to go. I wish your father were home. But still, it's safer for you to stay at home—he'll be coming home soon."
"No. I'm pack, too." Caroline felt the beginnings of a growl rise in her throat. "And my fiance is up there. I want to be where he is."
Her mother turned to face her, with an answering growl. They stared at each other. Caroline wasn't about to back down, though, and finally her mother nodded. "All right."
Caroline felt a surge of satisfaction. Her mother was still alpha, but she could hold her own.
It was the first heavy snow of the winter, and Bob slogged on behind the sled so as not to add to the dogs' burden. Not a breath stirred in the forest except for his and Buck's, and the panting of the team. The branches of the trees were covered in round little cushions of powdery snow, turning the dark spruces into white lacy confections.
Perfect for tapping at an opportune moment, for example when one's partner was standing underneath. Bob pictured Buck spluttering as cold snow fell down his neck, and smiled.
They reached the more heavily trafficked route between Red River and Aklavik, and the dogs pulled with new strength as they felt the packed snow hold their weight. Bob jumped up on the runners with a huff of relief. He was fit enough, but wading through powder snow could take it out of anyone.
"Lunch?" Buck called out behind him.
"Can't take it any more?" Bob called back innocently.
"No, I thought you needed to lighten your load."
Ha. As if the consumption of some tea leaves, pemmican and biscuits would make any difference. Nevertheless, they stopped the sleds and heated water on their little stove, letting the dogs roll around in the snow and then settle into round little balls of fur. They knew to take rest when they could.
Buck blew on his tea. "It's a bad business, up in Aklavik."
Bob grunted in assent, busy with the biscuit tin.
"Do you suppose there's any truth to that story about the shifters poaching the game?" Buck asked.
"Game is scarce everywhere—there's no need to blame it on them."
"True. And even if they were poaching, murder isn't the way to stop it. Not that we know for sure it was murder."
"My guts are telling me it was."
"No, that's your gut wanting more pemmican." Buck grinned. "Can't tell the difference?"
"The nerve of you. The only thing your gut produces is flatulence."
Buck laughed. Having thus brought the conversation to the lowest possible level, they both finished their meal in companionable silence, and set off again for Aklavik.
"How will we travel?" Caroline asked.
"On foot, of course. It will be the quickest way, and besides, your father has the sledding team," her mother said. Shifters were often reluctant to travel in human shape in the wintertime—why expose oneself to the cold and the weariness of walking on two legs when one didn't have to?
"But do you know how to find Susan when we get to Aklavik? I mean, what if someone sees us?" They would be naked as the day they were born when they transformed back into human shape, and Caroline knew from experience that it was best to think about these things while you were still a human. Wolves didn't much care about such things.
Her mother frowned. "Hmm. I don't know my cousin well, and I've never been to Aklavik before. But I do know that their house is on the outskirts of town. It would almost have to be, since her husband was one of us."
Caroline nodded. That was good enough for her. "All right, let's go, then."
They took their clothes off and folded them neatly on the sofa, left a note to Caroline's father to explain what had happened, then closed the front door behind them. It was bitterly cold, but they didn't feel it for long. Soon, there was nothing left at the cabin but two sets of wolf tracks in single file, heading north.
As she ran through the snow, Caroline felt something that was almost the exhilaration of the hunt. She was going to rescue her pack. More, she would be with her mate. She would help him catch those who threatened the pack.
If she had been in human shape, she might have called it an adventure, but that was a concept foreign to the wolf mind.
That night, Caroline and her mother hunted together. They had done so ever since Caroline had first changed, a gangly thirteen-year-old girl turned into an awkward half-grown puppy, and her mother had taught her how to read the scents on the wind and on the ground.
The rabbit was white in its newly-grown winter coat, and still fat from the autumn. Caroline drove it into her mother's waiting jaws, and they tore at the meat, swallowing down the guts and worrying at the remains until there was only a patch of red snow and a few bones and slivers of fur left. Then they lay down to sleep under the branches of a spruce, turning around to flatten the snow to a comfortable nest.
The houses of Aklavik came into view suddenly, hidden by the trees until they were right upon them. They were closed in on themselves, wrapped in snow as if to keep their precious warmth inside. Wood smoke from the chimneys rose nearly straight up in the windless air.
"Right, where do we start?" Bob asked, stopping to let Buck pull up beside him on the road, which was broader than the track they had come along. Immediately, the dogs started bickering.
"Stop that, you mangy excuses for huskies!" Buck called, then turned to Bob. "The detachment, I suppose? They must have done at least some work on the case. And the widow of the victim, of course. Although perhaps that should wait until we get a feel for the case."
"Yes. And the Company store. Seeing as it's about trapping, if they don't know anything about it, I'll eat my hat."
"So many times you've said that, and you still have your hat." Buck shook his head sadly.
"That's because I'm always right, you ninny."
"You just go on believing that."
They pulled up at the detachment and staked their dogs in the back, carefully keeping them apart from the team already there. There was a dreadful din as the Aklavik dogs almost barked their heads off defending their territory.
An officer came out to see what all the noise was about. "Hey! Where did you come in from?"
"South. Fort McPherson was our latest stop."
"Come on in. I'll make you some tea and you can tell me your business." He shivered a little in the freezing air and quickly disappeared indoors again.
When they had told Constable Wright why they were there, he wasn't best pleased. "We can handle the case on our own. No need to bring in outside help."
Bob glanced at Buck. Neither of them were particularly good at diplomacy. Buck cleared his throat. "I'm sure you've done a good job. But it's a bit of a sensitive case, you know. Could be good to have an outside opinion on it."
"Who sent you here?"
"Inspector Carson, in Red River," Bob said. To be more specific, he'd sent them after Bob had pestered him about it and he'd given in, so it wasn't exactly a lie.
Constable Wright looked resigned. "Well, investigate all you want. Not that there's much of a case, anyway. A man sees a wolf that looks threatening, he's got the right to fire in self-defense."
Bob was surprised by the sudden tightening of his gut in anger. He'd never have reacted like that before he knew Caroline, and he bit his lip to keep the sharp words back. Wouldn't to do make an enemy of the man.
It turned out that Constable Wright, who was indeed the officer in charge of the case, didn't know much. He'd taken the shooter at his word, and seeing as Constable Wright was a newcomer to the area, he didn't know much about the local community. His superior, Sergeant Fortier, was due in tomorrow, and there were two more officers at the detachment, but they were on patrol for a week.
"Well, thanks for nothing," Bob muttered as they closed the door of the detachment behind them. "He couldn't investigate his way out of a paper bag."
Buck snorted. "That's why we're here. The Company office next, I suppose?"
"Right you are."
The fur trade with the Hudson's Bay company was in decline, but it had been the major institution in the area for so long that it was still simply called "The Company". The senior official was one of the old breed, a man in his sixties who looked like he'd been there since the 19th century. Maybe he had.
"Good afternoon, sir," Bob said, taking off his hat as they came into the office. His mother had taught him well, and anyway, courtesy could pay off. "We'd like to consult with you about a case, if you have the time."
"John Howett." The man shook hands with them both, and gestured for them to sit down. "Well, I'll do my best to help you. I know this area like the back of my hand."
"What do you know about the shifters in this area?"
Observing him closely, Bob thought he saw a slight wariness in his face. "Not much. They keep themselves to themselves, if you know what I mean. They're pretty close-mouthed. Oh, there's one or two that's an open secret—everybody knows they're shifters, even if they don't talk about it. But there are shifters that nobody knows about, you can be sure of that." He laughed. "Hell, I could be one for all you know."
To humor him, Bob laughed along with him. Buck asked, "What's the attitude towards them?"
"Well, if they don't trust us, we don't exactly trust them, either." Bob noted the "us" and "we". Howett continued, "I suppose you're here over that unfortunate hunting accident. Well, it was an accident, make no mistake. How's a man to know one wolf from another?" He shrugged.
Trying another tack, Bob asked, "How's the trapping in this area? Game scarce?"
Howett sighed. "Scarce and getting scarcer. I remember the good old days, when a trapper could bring in twice as many skins in half the time. There was profit in the business, then. But times are changing."
"You think the shifters are to blame?" Buck asked.
The wariness came back. "Well, there's no denying they kill some game. And some say they've found chewed-off remains of animals in their traps."
They asked a few more questions, but they couldn't get much more out of Howett. As they left the Company offices, Buck gestured backwards with a thumb. "He knows something, I could bet on it."
"No bet," Bob said. "I think ýou're right. But he's an old fox—won't let anything slip unless he wants to."
Buck grunted in agreement, and they headed towards the general store, to sound out the mood there.
Long before they reached Aklavik, Caroline could smell a hint of the wood smoke from its hearths, sharp and acrid in her nose. It was evening, and the forest was stirring with the life that woke with the setting of the sun. An owl flew above on almost soundless wings, looking for smaller prey than wolves.
They ignored it, as well as their own empty stomachs, and read the scents written in the snow. This area belonged to a different pack, and they were uneasy trespassers. But they saw no one, neither shifter nor human, while they circled the outskirts of the town. Nose to the ground, the messages were clear. Someone had marked territory here, an alpha male. Another had fed here, or passed along the trail there. Doubtless there were other tracks, too, buried by the heavy snow. Anyway, it was clear that these were the marks of their own kind—wild wolves would not come so close to a town.
Suddenly, her mother whuffed and raised her head. Caroline trotted over, and smelled the tracks of Susan, a few days old. They followed the tracks to a cabin marked by another shifter, their eyes and ears and noses alert for danger. But the markings were old, made at least a week ago.
There was light in the cabin windows, and Caroline jumped up with her paws to the wall to look inside. She blinked against the light, and then saw Susan by the kitchen table, with another woman she didn't know.
Her mother scratched with her paw on the door. The porch vibrated with steps coming closer, and then the door opened.
"Goodness!" a woman's voice cried out, but before she could say more, they both piled in the door and shifted into two naked heaps on the floor.
"Anne!" Susan exclaimed. "What on earth are you doing here?"
The unknown woman went to get them blankets and some clothes to borrow. Caroline's mother stood up. Wrapping herself in the blanket, she said, "Someone in this town seems to be out to kill shifters, and I came to warn you about the danger."
The strange woman flinched at the mention of killing shifters, and Caroline realized she must be her mother's cousin, who had been married to the shifter who'd been killed. But Susan and her mother were already in a full-blown argument.
"And you just rushed off? What made you think it was a good idea to just appear on someone's doorstep like that? What if there had been other people in the house?"
"Well, there weren't any, were there?" her mother said in the reasonable older sister tone that always set Susan off even more. Caroline ducked into the kitchen. She knew from experience that it was best not to come between her mother and aunt when they were like this.
The woman whose cabin they were in was sitting at the table, looking worn out. Caroline said, "I'm so sorry to barge in on you like this. I'm Caroline."
The woman smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "I'm Rita. You must be Anne's daughter; I've heard about you. Are you hungry? There's soup on the stove. Susan made it—it's very good."
Caroline would have politely declined if she hadn't been so very hungry—she felt like enough of an intruder as it was. But she thanked Rita and ladled up a bowl of soup. She tried to eat slowly and savor the food, but it was hard. Shifting back to human shape always left her ravenous.
When she had finished the food, she looked around to see if she could do anything to help. She would gladly have washed the dishes, but felt uncomfortable doing so in someone else's home. Her mother and Susan had sorted out their argument by now—Susan had a temper, but it usually flared up quickly and was gone again soon. She was talking quietly with Rita, her arm around the other woman's shoulders, and her mother was eating.
There was a door ajar to another room, and she was startled to realize that someone was looking at her through the opening. It was a small boy. He was wearing a pyjamas, and he was silent, his eyes wide. Perhaps the argument had woken him.
Caroline quietly got to her feet, kneeling down before the boy. "Hello. I'm Caroline, your second cousin." Or at least she supposed he was Rita's son. "What's your name?"
"Timmy. Shouldn't you be in bed? Do you need something?"
"It's dark in here. Where's daddy?"
Oh, no. She didn't know how to handle that question. "I don't know, Tim. I'll come in and stay with you, if you want."
He nodded, and she took his small hand in hers. Poor child, she thought as she watched him in the dim light that came from the kitchen. She stroked his forehead. "You just close your eyes, and I'll keep watch, all right?"
He obediently closed his eyes, but kept hold of her hand. Caroline wondered if she would have children of her own one day. She hoped so. Then she thought of the way this boy's father had died, and shivered. Bob was a Mountie, and would often be in danger.
No, she couldn't think like that. Instead, she began to hum a lullaby under her breath, and kept at it until Timmy's fingers had loosened around hers and his breath was low and even. Then she tiptoed out of the room and closed the door. Rita gave her a grateful look.
The next evening, the shifters of Aklavik held a meeting together for the first time. They all knew of each other, of course, but there were two different packs, and they didn't easily mix. To begin with, there had been one native pack and one that had come with the white settlers, but over the years both packs had become part native and part white, as the settlers married into the community and had children. Still, packs were always territorial, and it was best to keep your distance to avoid fights. But the situation was serious, and they all knew it.
Rita had not been included at first, because she was not a shifter. But she had stood up for herself in a way Caroline had not expected, given her quiet weariness yesterday.
"He was my mate," Rita had said, eyes challenging. "And I know I'm not one of you, but my father was, and my cousins are, and my son might be. We're gathering because Jim is dead, and I've a right to be here."
No one had denied her after that. Out of courtesy, the Fort McPherson pack was allowed as well, after they had assured everyone that they were not out to encroach on the territory of the Aklavik packs.
The alpha male of Jim's pack spoke first. He was an Inuk in his late sixties, with grey streaks in his black hair. "It won't ever be the same as before the white people came. Before that, we could be more open about who we were. But now, there are many who will never understand us. I think we have become too visible. We must hide better, take care never to be seen, and make our kills farther from the town."
Some nodded, but a middle-aged woman who looked to be of mixed heritage shook her head, her lips in a flat line. She looked as if she was trying not to make a sharp retort. With almost formal politeness, she said, "I don't agree, Elder. There's so little game, and even if we keep hidden, they're going to blame it on us, even though we're so much fewer than they are. It's they who are hunting too much."
Caroline guessed that she belonged to the other pack—perhaps she was the alpha female. Different packs usually avoided each other, and when they met, there was a lot of care taken not to spark a conflict.
The Elder said, "That may be true, but what do you suggest we do about it, if not hide better?"
"We're in the modern age now. Why don't we appeal to the authorities?"
Despite the formality of the meeting, there was a hubbub as several people tried to speak at once.
"How can you even suggest such a thing?" one woman cried, and a man shouted, "My father was kept in a mental hospital until he died of it! That's what comes of telling the authorities!"
The Elder stood up and raised his hands for silence, and the noise died down. "One at a time, please."
Rita stood up. "Jim is dead," she said. "We all know who killed him, and I want that murderer in prison for the rest of his life. That means calling in the police."
She wasn't the only one who mourned Jim—there was pain on the faces of his pack members. But the Inuit elder was slowly shaking his head. Before he could reply, Caroline's mother stood up, to Caroline's surprise. She herself wouldn't have spoken up—this was for the Aklavik packs to decide.
"There are two RCMP constables in town to investigate the murder," Caroline's mother said. "One of them will be married to Caroline next year, and they're both good men. They know about us," she gestured towards herself and Caroline, "and they've always treated us well. I'm sure they would help you."
There was a moment of surprise, and then another burst of talking. But at the end of the day, nothing was decided. The habit of hiding ran too deep for the packs to be able to agree on trusting to officers of the law, even if they were vouched for by two of their own.
Caroline was cooking breakfast the next day when her mother asked Rita, in her forthright way, "Do you know who did it?"
Rita took a deep breath. "Yes. We all know. It was Neil Howett. The bastard is stealing from other people's traps and blaming us. His brother works for the Company, and I'm sure he knows, or at least he doesn't ask too many questions about the furs he buys." Her fists were clenched around the spoon she was holding.
"Mommy, are you angry?" Timmy said, catching his mother's mood.
Rita caught him up in her arms and held him tight. "Not at you, dear. Not at all. I'm angry at the ones who made daddy go away."
"I'm sorry about all the bother we've brought you, staying here all three of us," Susan said, coming with the rest of the bowls for the oatmeal. "Would you rather we left?"
"No, you've been a great help. Even if you do eat more than anyone I know except..." She broke off and then continued, "Well, except Jim. I keep thinking about him like he's still here. Anyway, I don't want to be alone. There are some people here that, well, I thought they were my friends, but..." She looked down and didn't say any more, but Caroline could guess. When Jim had been killed, word had gotten out that he was a shifter, and people kept away. And Jim's packmates would help her, but they might be afraid of exposing themselves.
"You could move back to Fort McPherson," Caroline's mother said. "You know you'd be welcome there with us."
"I'll think about it," Rita said. "I moved up here for Jim, and I don't regret it, but now...Well, we'll see." She leaned her head down over Timmy's.
Later that day, Caroline volunteered to go over to the general store to buy some food, so that they wouldn't empty Rita's cupboards entirely, and to send a telegram home to their father to assure him they were safe. She'd been itching for an excuse to get out. Where were Bob and Buck? Did they know about the man who had killed Jim?
Caroline walked past the RCMP detachment on her way to the store. She glanced around the back and let her nostrils widen, picking up the scent of the dogs. Yes, those were definitely Bob and Buck's teams. Perhaps she could just see if they were there. She knocked on the door of the detachment, and it was opened by a constable a few years older than Bob and Buck.
"Ma'am? Can I help you?"
"I wonder if Constable Fraser and Constable Frobisher are here?"
"No, I'm sorry. They're out." He was clearly curious as to what she was doing here and how she knew the visiting officers. "Shall I give them a message?"
"No, that's all right. Thank you kindly."
Well, no luck there. Perhaps she could find something out at the general store. She got curious glances there, too, and some weren't too polite to ask outright.
"Are you staying with Rita Pitseolak?" a middle-aged woman asked.
"Yes, I'm a relative of hers, come to help her with the funeral," Caroline said.
"Oh, that's nice of you. She must be having a difficult time, with that little boy and all," the woman said. Caroline could practically smell the falseness of her sincerity. The onlookers were listening intently, even if they were pretending to mind their own business.
Caroline nodded and smiled politely, and did not volunteer any more information. She headed home with the flour and beans and oats and other necessities, frustrated that she hadn't heard anything about Bob and Buck. She was wary of asking too many questions—there was no telling who was listening.
As she walked down the trampled snow path that led to the outskirts of the town where Rita lived, she heard voices ahead of her, low but distinct.
"...meddling outsiders. Think we can't handle our own business." The two men were walking some distance ahead, far enough that an ordinary human couldn't have heard them talk.
"I guess we should teach them a lesson, then," the other voice said.
Caroline's heart gave a lurch, thinking at first that they were talking about the Fort McPherson pack, but the next words made it clear that wasn't the case.
"I heard they were off to question Neil."
"Right. He's out on the trapline to the west, eh?"
"Yes. Get your gun and your dog, and we'll head out." The men turned aside onto a side trail.
Her mate was in danger. Caroline tried to keep on walking at the same pace as before, while her heart pounded as if she were running. A gun? Did they mean to attack them? Kill them?
"Considering we know who shot the man, this is a harder nut to crack than I thought it would be," Buck said, finishing off his tea.
Bob nodded. "We can't very well arrest the man unless we know that he knew it was a shifter. What's the motive? Just plain fear of the shifters? Or something else?"
They'd questioned many people in the town, hoping to get a feel for the case before they approached Neil Howett. They'd visited the cabin of Jim Pitseolak's widow yesterday night, but she'd been out. When they'd questioned other people, there had been guarded ignorance from most of them. But the priest at the church thought shifters were the devil's own spawn, and hinted darkly that maybe they'd had right idea back in the Middle Ages when shifters were burned at the stake. Jim's parents were clearly frightened, and when asked outright, they denied being shifters or knowing anything about Jim's death. They might be right, for all that Bob knew—Caroline had told him that it could skip a generation.
"I guess it's time to question Neil, then."
"Right you are," Bob said and finished the last bite of his sandwich.
Neil's brother, John Howett at the Company, had told them that Neil was out on one of the western traplines. It wasn't far enough out to take the sleds, so they got their snowshoes out. No snow had fallen since they had arrived, so the tracks were clear enough to follow—not even a newly enlisted cadet could mistake the prints of a pair of snowshoes.
The sun was still above the horizon, but had begun its slow decline towards sunset. Even so, the moon was almost full, so there would be light enough. The forest was quiet, with only the occasional chirp or flutter from a chickadee to break the silence.
Then there was the figure of a man ahead. But it didn't seem to be Neil, if one went by the man's Inuit features. He was cleaning out a ptarmigan, staining the snow red with blood.
"Good afternoon," Bob called out. "Have you seen Neil Howett?"
All three of them knew that the man had no business hunting on someone else's trapline. The man straightened defiantly. "Got to have food on the table. And besides, you know these traplines go against the old treaties. These are our hunting grounds."
"Not here to enforce hunting regulations," Bob said. Besides, the man was right. "We didn't see anything, did we?"
"Not a thing," Buck said. "We're here to investigate the murder of Jim Pitseolak."
The man seemed to relax a little. "Right. Besides, I'm not the only one doing a little hunting on the side."
"Well, you ask Neil Howett when you see him where all his furs are coming from."
"Where are they coming from?" Bob asked.
"I didn't tell you."
"Of course not. We didn't even see you."
"Right, then. Well, it's not the shifters taking game from other people's traps. You sure might think so from the bite marks, but maybe you should look twice." The man took his ptarmigan and raised his hand to bid them farewell. They watched him tramp off through the forest.
"First person to speak up in this town," Buck muttered. "About time, too."
They found Neil Howett after another mile or so, checking one of his traps.
"Good afternoon," Buck called out. "Any luck with the trapping?"
The man looked up, startled. His eyes narrowed. "No. What's your business here?"
Bob held up his badge. "Constable Fraser, RCMP, and this is Constable Frobisher. We're here to investigate the death of Jim Pitseolak." No use trying to dissemble—the whole town knew why they were here by this time.
Neil nodded shortly. It seemed like he wasn't about to contribute any information.
"Did you kill him?" Buck asked.
"I killed a wolf," Neil said. "He was threatening me, showing his teeth. Probably after the hare in my trap. How was I to know it was one of them shifters, eh? He's got himself to blame, if you ask me."
It sounded like a story he had told before. Jim was dead, and there was no way to know if the story was true or not. Maybe it was time to try another tack.
"You say he was after the hare," Bob said, accepting Neil's story for now. "We've heard people say the shifters are taking game from the traps. Do you think it's true?"
"Oh, sure. I've seen it—just the legs left in the trap, gnawed bloody. And the prints of a wolf leading away, bigger than you ever saw on a real wolf. It's them for sure." Neil was growing expansive, gesturing with his mitten-clad hands to indicate the size of the tracks.
Bob nodded, playing along. "And there's been less game caught lately?"
"Yeah, it's the worst year in decades. We're all feeling it." Neil shook his head.
Time to call his bluff, if it was a bluff. Maybe they should've waited to get all the facts, but Bob was going on his gut. Well, his gut and what that hunter had told them. He glanced at Buck to warn him, then said, "Then how come you've caught more game this year than anyone else, and more than you've ever done before?"
Neil opened his mouth and said nothing. He cleared his throat. Bingo.
Then his eyes shifted, focusing somewhere behind Bob, and he smiled unpleasantly. The hairs on Bob's neck prickled, and he whirled, as quickly as one could whirl on showshoes. Two men were standing there, holding them at gunpoint.
At the side path where the men had turned, Caroline pretended to drop an onion. Stooping down, she sniffed the snow. Not much of a trail, and others had walked there as well. Still, it was something.
She walked on to Rita's house and put the groceries down beside the door as quietly as she could. Listening, she heard her mother and Susan in a loud discussion. Good, they wouldn't have heard her. Caroline sneaked off again, stooping down when she passed the windows so they wouldn't see her.
It was dusk, and the moon was rising, almost full. She could feel it singing in her blood, and it mixed with the excitement of the chase. No one was going to hurt her mate, not if she could help it. She didn't have a plan, not really, but there had to be something she could do. If nothing else, she was sure she could follow those men in the dusk without being seen. And after all, it wasn't the first time she got mixed up in one of Bob and Buck's cases.
No one was in sight as she turned aside to follow the two men. She passed a couple of cabins, giving them a wide berth, and examined the tracks leading out. Theirs were easy enough to find, as there were the fresh prints of a dog with them, and she slipped behind a spruce to undress, tucking the clothes underneath the skirt of branches.
She slipped into wolf shape easily. This was her time. The moon overhead was full and round and almost as bright as day to her sensitive eyes. Silent as a shadow, she tracked the men. She was lucky—they were upwind of her, and the dog wouldn't smell her. She could soon see the men ahead. One of them turned to say something to the other, and she froze, caught between the urge to flee and the urge to attack. But he didn't see her. She dropped back and slowed down her pace, more cautious now.
Through the trees, Caroline heard the sound of voices. There, was that...? Yes, it was. Bob was there, and Buck. Her heart beat faster, and she wanted to rush ahead. Patience, she had to have patience or she would be discovered. She had to stalk them as carefully as she might a grazing deer, step by step.
But then things happened very quickly. The men rushed forward and raised their guns, the dog barked, there was talking in loud angry voices.
The guns. It was the guns that were dangerous, not the gestures or noises or anything else, and she followed their movements intently and crept closer.
One of the men raised his weapon, and she leapt up, knocking him into the other man. They both went down in a heap beneath her, and she snarled, snapping at the arms that tried to fend her off.
But then another furry body slammed into hers, barking furiously. They rolled over in the snow, and Caroline desperately tried to find her footing. She twisted away from the teeth that sought her neck, and snapped her own jaws together, trying for the throat but slashing open the shoulder instead. The taste of blood filled her mouth.
Dimly, she was aware that other things were happening around her, but the dog was rushing her again. She tried to leap to the side, but he caught her squarely in the flank, and she yelped as the air was knocked from her lungs. He was above her, and she twisted to protect her vulnerable belly. As she did so, there was a sharp pain in her head. But it only enraged her, and she snarled and tried again to reach his throat. She would kill him.
For a moment, she stiffened in alarm, and so did her opponent. Then another gunshot, and there was blood on the snow.
Bob forced himself to remain calm in the face of the guns. It was all in the confidence, and he even smiled a little, letting the men think he was cool as a cucumber. And deep down, he supposed he did think he'd get away with it all. After all, he'd had a gun pointed at him dozens of times and survived.
He was young, and he wasn't going to die yet.
"Come now, you don't think you're going to shoot a Mountie," he said.
"You got no call to go meddling in our business," one of the men said, raising his gun threateningly.
"Of course we do. It's our job. We're just trying to see justice done."
Buck stood almost back to back with him, watching Neil Howett. Two against three—it wasn't impossible odds.
He kept talking, eyeing their opponents for possible signs of weakness. "How do you think you'll get away with it? Constable Wright knows where we are. He's sure to miss us."
"Well, you're going to die, after all, so I might as well tell you." This was Neil Howett, behind him, and the skin on Bob's neck crawled. But he knew Buck had his back, and he shook it off.
"Remember that game you asked me about, from the other traplines?" Neil continued. "The game everyone thought was taken by the shifters? Well, let's just say my friend's dog there won't mind tearing your throat out after we shoot you."
Of course: that was how it had been done. The two men in front of Bob raised their guns, getting ready to shoot. Maybe he could rush them? No, they were too far away. If he tried, they'd gun him down while he ran.
Time slowed while he looked into the muzzles of the guns. So this was it, after all—he was going to die here. In that instant, he fully believed it.
Then a grey shape, blurred with speed, slammed into the two men, knocking them over in the snow. Bob didn't question his luck, but instantly seized the advantage, rushing forward. The men's dog was attacking the grey creature—what was it, another dog?--and they were rolling around in the snow.
But he had no time to spare for looking at the fighting dogs. Bob grabbed hold of one man's gun, using it as a bludgeon to hit him on the head, and kicked the other man's gun away. Then, as the other man tried to rise, Bob aimed his own service revolver at him, trusting it more than the other man's gun.
Belatedly, he wondered about Neil Howett. But then he heard Buck's voice. "Bob? You all right?"
"Right as rain," Bob said. There was the clicking sound of cuffs being closed somewhere behind him.
"Keep the gun on your man, and I'll come and cuff him, too," Buck said. As he did so, Bob turned to see what had become of the dogs.
They were fighting still, and there were bloody marks on the snow. The dog the men had brought was large and black, and the other dog, the one that had saved them, was a light grey and not much smaller. They were moving fast, and he couldn't quite make them out. But there was something about that second dog. He frowned.
Then suddenly he knew. Bob thought his heart might stop.
He acted without thought, firing his gun in the air. The two fighting shapes stopped for an instant, and in that instant, he shot the black dog. Its blood colored the snow red—had he killed it? He couldn't bring himself to care.
Bob was just about to rush to Caroline's side, call out to her, anything, when Buck elbowed him sharply in the ribs.
"Bob," he said in an undertone. "Pull yourself together, man!" Then he turned to Neil, who was lying cuffed in the snow. "Lucky thing my dog followed us, eh? Or maybe not so lucky for you."
He whistled and called out. "Kiki! Come here!"
Caroline stood up. Her ear was bleeding, dripping blood on the snow. Bob watched, struck dumb, as she blinked, and then responded to Buck's call. He'd never been entirely sure how much human thought remained when she was in her wolf shape, but apparently it was enough for her to grasp Buck's intent.
To see her sitting there at Buck's side was almost more than Bob could bear. He'd almost exposed her—would have, if Buck hadn't been so quick-witted. Perhaps she'd have been better off with him, after all.
Neil's voice shook Bob out of his self-recrimination. "Looks like a wolf to me."
"Half-wolf, I think," Buck said, shrugging. "One of my bitches got loose when she was in heat." He scratched Caroline's ear, the one that wasn't bleeding. "Good dog. We'll get that ear patched up."
They made it back to town, but Bob didn't remember much of how they managed, especially with three suspects, one of them injured. All he could think about was why on earth Caroline was here at all. How had she gotten mixed up in this business?
Bob felt a chill running down his spine. If she hadn't gotten mixed up in it, he wouldn't be alive to wonder.
Caroline hadn't understood Buck's plan at once, intent as she had been on the fight. But she had known Buck's voice. He wasn't one of her pack, but still, she trusted him, and went to him when he called.
And then, when she saw the men lying in the snow, and heard them speak, an instinctive wariness took over. They made her want to turn her ears down flat and show her teeth in a growl.
She didn't. Neither did she rush to Bob, to reassure herself with sight and smell and touch that he was all right. Instead, the instinct of survival took over, and in this case, survival required neither fight nor flight, but being crafty. So she let Buck scratch her ear and call her a good dog, although her skin crept with uneasiness at being so close to the men who had wanted to kill her mate.
Returning to the town, she could not slink away without the prisoners noticing. So Caroline continued to play the obedient dog, trotting along at Buck's heels on the main street of Aklavik.
Bob said something to Buck as they got closer to the house where Caroline could smell the dog teams, and Buck took the prisoners inside. Bob called to Caroline and went around the back of the house.
The dogs began to bark, and Bob shouted at them. They quieted down, and Caroline showed her teeth at them. She might smell of blood and wolf to them, but they were just dogs. Besides, they were tied up.
Bob kneeled down in the snow and took her head between his hands. "What are you doing here? Why? You almost..."
She understood his words, if she focused. But most of all, it was the tone in his voice and the grip of his hands that she responded to, and she licked his face. He let her, and caressed her head, carefully avoiding the painful ear.
"Well, I suppose I won't get any answers out of you like this," Bob said. "Come back here when you've changed, all right?" Caroline whuffed in reply.
It was dark, and she got out of town and made a large circle around it to avoid the houses and humans. She found her way to the spruce where she had left her clothes. With the ease of the full moon overhead, she slipped into human shape again. Shivering, she pulled her clothes on. The full impact of what had happened seemed to strike her with the cold, and she found her hands trembling slightly as she tied her boots. When she touched the side of her head, her fingers came away bloody.
Caroline took a deep breath. She sucked the blood off her fingers and started for Rita's house.
When she got there, only Rita was home. "Where on earth have you been? We were worried sick. Your mother and Susan are out looking for you. And what's happened to you? You're all bloody."
Caroline made a face. Her mother was not going to be pleased.
"They've got him," she said. "Bob and Buck, that is, they've got Neil Howett, and I don't think he'll get out of it this time."
"What? How do you know that?"
"I was with them," Caroline said, but before she got a chance to explain further, her mother nudged the door open and went straight for Caroline, not even stopping to shake the snow off. Caroline instinctively sat down on the floor. Shifters in wolf shape mostly didn't like it when you stood up to look down on them, and alphas even less so.
Her mother began to lick her face, almost bowling her over with the force of it. She found the bloody ear and growled slightly, licking it clean with an attention to detail that made Caroline bite her lip with pain.
Then, as Caroline knew she would, her mother shifted. No wolf could say the things that she wanted to say, and before she even got her clothes on, she said, "Where have you been? Who has hurt you?" Her tone was sharp and worried.
Caroline drew a deep breath. Of course, she could lie and say she hadn't gone off on her own, but that would come back to bite her later. "I went after Bob and Buck. They were in danger."
"What? You could have gotten yourself killed!" The sharpness in her mother's voice was anger now. Caroline set her jaw in a stubborn way that her mother might have recognized, if she had been in a mood to do so, and she told her story. Her aunt came in while she was telling it, and she had to start over, while her mother and aunt interrupted with questions.
When she'd gotten the whole story out, more or less, her mother said in an ominous tone, "Why did you go off by yourself like that? You should have come back to tell us about it!"
"It was my mate in danger!" Caroline said. "Don't say you wouldn't go off by yourself if Father was in danger."
"That's different! I'm your mother, and you're still living under my roof."
"But I won't always be. I'm getting married soon." Caroline glared at her mother, and she glared back.
Susan said, "You've got to let go some time, Anne." The glare was turned on Susan, but then her mother huffed out a sigh and muttered, "Well, I don't have to like it. She's growing up so fast."
She turned back to Caroline. "Besides, that was rash and you know it."
To anyone else but her mother, Caroline would probably have admitted it.
Rita came over to wash Caroline's ear with peroxide (she didn't seem to trust wolf spit on a wound) and bandage it. She said quietly, "Are you sure he won't get away with it? Neil Howett, I mean?"
"I'm sure. I heard him confess. And besides, they were trying to kill two Mounties. No way would they get away with that."
"Good." There was a vindictive gleam in Rita's eyes.
Caroline had promised (well, in her head she had) to come back to the detachment, and she didn't want Bob and Buck to worry about her. So despite the lateness of the hour, she borrowed Rita's heavy parka again to head out into the cold.
"Well, all right, but I'm coming with you," her mother said.
"Time enough to be worried now," her aunt muttered, which earned her an annoyed look.
"All right," Caroline said. She knew when to give way and when to insist, and this didn't really matter.
The night was clear, and she felt the cold more than she did as a wolf. Caroline drew her scarf up over her nose so that the cold air wouldn't sting her nostrils. Her mother walked beside her. They were both silent, but still, it wasn't an oppressive silence. With her mother, it was always best to have things out in the open.
The detachment looked closed down and dark, except for one room in the back which had a lamp burning in the window. Caroline took off her mitten and knocked on the glass. At once, Bob's face appeared in the window, and he jerked his thumb towards the front door.
"You came back," he said when he opened the door, sounding relieved. Then he saw her mother, which he clearly hadn't expected. He made an aborted gesture with his hand, as if to take off a non-existent hat. "Mrs. Pinsent."
"I've told you; call me Anne." She had told him to do that before, but Caroline didn't think he ever would.
"Come in, please." He stepped back to let them in. Buck poked his head out of the back room. "Oh, there you are! Glad you're all right."
Bob threw a glance at Buck, and something clearly passed between them. Then Buck said, "Mrs. Pinsent, can I offer you some tea and biscuits?"
She hesitated, but politeness won out. "Thank you, that would be nice."
Caroline followed Bob into the back room, while Buck engaged her mother in conversation. Caroline suppressed a smile. She had to admit that was good teamwork—no wonder they worked well as partners.
Once inside the room, though, Bob's serious expression took the smile off her face. "What were you doing out there? Why are you in Aklavik at all?"
She told him the whole story, but carefully didn't reveal the identities of the shifters of Aklavik. That wasn't her secret to tell.
"Don't tell your mother so, but that was a bit of a hare-brained scheme," he said when she had finished. "What if you'd gotten shot when you got close to Aklavik?"
"What, and you're never in danger? What about you almost getting yourself shot out there?"
"That's different! It's part of my job," he began, but then he trailed off. He bit at his bottom lip.
"You saved my life," he finally muttered. "And Buck's."
They were standing some distance apart, and Caroline couldn't help but compare that to how he had held her close and taken her head between his hands when she was a wolf. She stepped closer and put her hand up to his cheek, which was rough with stubble.
He put his arms around her and hugged her, so hard that she almost lost her breath. "I thought you--when I saw you--" he whispered into her ear. Her nose was in his neck, and with her strong sense of smell she drew in the scent of smoke and sweat and wool and him .
"Yes," she murmured, hugging him back just as hard. He was only a little bit taller than she was, and she turned her head to kiss him. His lips met hers and parted. She tilted her head to deepen the kiss, and he made a small sound and pressed closer. Caroline felt a rush of warmth run through her.
Then she heard her mother's voice behind the closed door. She reluctantly pulled apart from Bob and glanced at the door meaningfully. He nodded, although he was looking as flushed as she felt.
She cleared her throat. "Ah, should we...?"
"Well, I suppose so," he said. Caroline smoothed her hair back, and they went out into the front room. Buck raised his eyebrows at them meaningfully, and Bob glared at him.
"Are you leaving now?" Caroline asked, to distract them. "I mean, now that you've solved the case."
Buck nodded. "I think so. The local detachment can take it from here."
"Besides, we should get back to our ordinary patrols, or we'll hear about it from our sergeant," Bob added. "And you?"
Caroline glanced at her mother, who put down her teacup. "Yes. We'll have to make sure Rita is all right—that is, Jim's widow—but then we'll be going home." Neither of the men asked how they would get home.
"Well, we'll be seeing you, then," Bob said politely. Caroline wanted to kiss him again. She smiled at him, hoping he would see it in her eyes. She couldn't wait until they were married.