“I got you a book, Ray, to read on the plane.” Fraser announced as he slid into the shotgun seat of the GTO, after putting his one suitcase in the trunk along with Ray’s three bags.
“Another book? What’s this one? ‘The Northwest Areas – For Fun and Profit’?”
Fraser regarded the book in his hands. The actual title was ‘Dawson City – Then and Now’. “I just thought you’d want to learn about the north before we got there.”
“No, see, Fraser, this is another thing that’s wrong with you. If we’re going up there anyway you don’t have to give me a bunch of books about it. I’ll see it when I get there. Why spoil the surprise?”
“You should still read up, Ray. You might find something you want to see or do that I don’t know about.”
Ray snickered. “Something in your own home town you don’t know about? I’m marking today on my calendar. Red letter day. March the 4th. The day the Mountie admits there might be something he doesn’t know.”
“It’s already a red letter day, Ray. I’m taking my good friend and partner to see my home. Well, not my actual residence. That would be my dad’s cabin. But Victoria burned the cabin down, so strictly speaking I don’t have a home as such. Still, in the larger sense . . .
Ray gunned the engine and drowned out the rest. He was investing two weeks of his time in a northern vacation, more to make his friend happy than for any other reason, so he figured it was fair that at least he didn’t have to listen to the rest of that sentence.
Ray ended up reading ‘Dawson City – Then and Now’ on the plane anyway. The movie on the Air Canada flight was lame: some Canadian comedy about curling. Fraser also slipped his earphones off ten minutes into the feature and settled back for a nap instead.
“I could do better,” was his comment.
Ray skimmed over the history of the opening of the Canadian north and the days of the Klondike gold rush and read with more attention the list of tourist attractions, such as they were, that were available in Dawson. The list wasn’t impressive. He came upon a particular item that caused him to declare, “Ewwwwwwww.”
Fraser opened an eye. “Did you say ‘ewwwww’, Ray?”
“Look at this. Did you know about this?” He handed the book to Fraser and pointed to a paragraph. Fraser opened his other eye to focus on it.
“Oh, the Sour Toe Cocktail. We can certainly arrange to have that. I happen to know the man who sells it quite well.”
Ray groaned. “Newflash. I said ‘Ewww’. That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard of. Putting a piece of a dead body in a drink.”
“You’re misunderstanding this, Ray. Captain Bill keeps a human big toe in a jar of salt to preserve it. It’s called Sour Toe as a play on the word ‘sourdough’, which is a common kind of baking in the north. The toe, itself, I suppose, can’t be considered alive but the person who donated it would have been alive at the time. Bill told me once he had to get a new toe every couple of years. They get swallowed.”
Ray had some trouble keeping his airplane chicken dinner down at this point.
“People donate toes – frozen off, an accident, they lose them for different reasons, but never does he take one from a dead body. That would be illegal.”
“So, let me understand this,” Ray really couldn’t believe what he was reading and hearing. “You go to this hotel bar. You order some booze. This Bill guy puts the toe in your drink. And you drink the drink while the toe’s in it. That’s how it works?”
“It’s supposed to be a test of your resilience,” Fraser explained. “Your lips are supposed to touch the toe while you are drinking.”
“And I thought it was just you that went around putting disgusting stuff in your mouth.”
Fraser figured there was no way an American could understand the appeal of the Sour Toe Cocktail, so he just went back to sleep.
Ray discovered that Dawson in the far north had a frontier feeling very much like the Old West might have had. The sidewalks were wood, the roads mud. Many of the people who came and went on the street worked in tourist attractions and went around in Klondike costume. The clapboard facades of the buildings in the downtown area were brightly painted. Strangest of all was lack of darkness – it was mid-June at the height of the midnight sun season. Unable to sleep, Ray sat on the rustic wooden porch of the hotel at midnight on their first night there and read a newspaper.
Fraser explained that his friend Bill, the toe-guy, was called ‘Captain’ because he operated tour-boat expeditions for his day job. He had a paddlewheel boat that could accommodate 50 or so tourists whom he took up and down the Dawson River, four hours at a time. Three nights a week he hung around the bar at the Yukon Hotel with his Sour Toe Cocktail gear: a briefcase containing brochures, other promotional material and the toe itself in the jar of salt.
The second morning, Fraser took Ray down to the dock for a ride in Captain Bill’s boat. Ray was expecting a gnarled old seadog, but Bill looked in his late thirties and perfectly normal. He recognized Fraser as they came aboard.
“Benton! You son of a gun! (In this frontier setting, he didn’t actually say ‘gun’ but this is a G-rated fic.) Whatcha doing these days? Whatever it is, it agrees with you, you’ve put on weight. You still a cop?”
Fraser was a different man on his home turf, Ray was noticing. He was more relaxed and his voice was louder. Even his stride was different – longer and slower, as though his legs were operating differently on their native soil. He answered Bill so heartily that Ray barely believed it was Fraser talking.
“I’m more than a cop now. I’m a freaking diplomat.” Fraser didn’t actually say ‘freaking’ (this is a G-rated fic, remember?) and Ray’s eyes went wide at the word Fraser DID use. “Got myself a cushy job at a consulate in Chicago.”
“The States? What’s it like there?”
Fraser pushed Ray forward, “Ask my friend Ray. He’s a gen-u-ine American.” Fraser made a proper introduction and they all three chatted until sailor came up and told Bill all the passengers were aboard and they were ready to shove off.
“Gotta get to work. You guys just settle back and enjoy the ride. This’ll be pretty tame for you, Benton, but Ray here should find it interesting. You’ll both have a toe later, eh?”
“What time do you come over to the hotel?” Ray asked. Fraser raised his eyebrows, since he knew Ray was less than enthusiastic about the whole toe deal.
“Right after my last evening tour. We bring them back about eight, clean up the boat and by ten-ish I get over to the hotel. I’ll meet you guys at the bar.”
“You stop off home and get the toe?” Dawson was small enough that it didn’t take long to cross it from one end to another.
“Naw. I keep it onboard. Sometimes the passengers want to see it. But I can’t do the drink-thing here. My boat’s not liquor licensed. Gotta run. See you later, Benton. You too, Ray. Nice-ta-meetcha.” He hurried off.
For all that the ride was tame, Fraser enjoyed sitting on a bench on deck, breathing the clean air and watching the green hills drift by on the riverbanks.
“I’m getting seasick,” Ray complained and got up to go below.
“We’re on a river, not a sea.” Fraser called after him, “And you’ll feel better out in the fresh air.” But Ray ignored him, so Fraser allowed him his privacy. Ray was indeed looking queasy.
After about a half hour Ray returned and seemed much steadier. He pluncked himself down on the bench beside Fraser.
“Feeling better, Ray?”
“Oh yeah. I’m a lot better now.”
“Well enough to take on a toe later?”
Ray only smiled. Fraser took that as a yes.
After the boat trip they stopped at the tourist office beside the dock and read up about bears: the difference between black and brown bears and what to do if attacked by each kind. (Apparently you were supposed to fight back against a black bear but drop to the ground and play dead if a brown bear took offense to your presence.) Then Fraser took Ray on a hike in the surrounding hills. Ray endured these occupations, making no complaint. Furthermore, he happily downed the caribou stew Fraser ordered for dinner at the hotel restaurant. They took their time over dinner and at ten drifted over to the bar to wait for Captain Bill to arrive.
Bill came about quarter after ten. As they waited, Fraser explained to this Ray as he had to the other, that things move at their own pace in small places. Upon Bill’s arrival, Fraser greeted him with a string of hearty, uncharacteristic obscenities. Bill responded with a number of good-natured but physiologically unlikely observations about Fraser’s parentage. Once the pleasantries were over, the three men sat down at a table.
A waitress came over. “What’ll it be, gentlemen?” When she noticed Bill she said, “Oh, you’re doing the toe. Yukon Jack all around, then?”
Fraser and Bill both nodded. Ray paused.
“It’s a kind of liquor, Ray. Special to the north.” Fraser explained.
“And you’re going to drink liquor? You?”
“You wouldn’t want to have a toe in anything but alcohol, Ray. It serves as a disinfectant, and it also kills the salt taste.”
Ray’s gorge began to rise, but he managed to control it. “I’ll have that Jack stuff too, I guess.”
The waitress returned presently with three squat glasses of amber liquid. Fraser dug into his pocket but Ray waved dismissively at him. “This round’s on me, fellows. Bill – show me your toe.”
Bill put his briefcase onto the table, opened it and rummaged around inside. He started to look worried. “Strange” he muttered (although he used a word that meant the same but was much more colourful) “I don’t seem to be able to find it.”
He looked some more and then looked up at Fraser. “It’s gone. The whole jar and everything, it’s not here.”
Fraser moved his chair over and the two men emptied the briefcase, examined all the contents and satisfied themselves that the briefcase was quite toe-less. “It’s flipping gone!” declared Bill, but using another descriptor.
“Where did you last see it?” A policeman’s inflection had crept into Fraser’s voice.
“Night before last. Right here. I distinctly remember putting it back in the jar and putting the jar in the briefcase before leaving.”
“Do you keep the briefcase locked?” Fraser continued his line of inquiry.
“You’ve been in the States too long, Benton.”
“I’m with Bill on this one, Fraser. Who would steal a toe?”
Fraser rose majestically. “I intend to find out,” he announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention please?”
Everyone in the bar looked up.
“I’m Constable Fraser, RCMP. There’s been a robbery and the missing goods may be on the premises. May I have your co-operation for a search?”
All the women in the bar jumped up eagerly, as did two or three of the men, and insisted that Fraser search them on the spot. Then he and Ray made a thorough examination of the bar, the corridors and the lobby. There was no sign of the missing digit. Fraser suggested that they retrace Bill’s steps back to the boat.
“Shouldn’t we do that in the morning?” Ray asked, “It’s not like the toe’s going to walk away by itself.”
“Ray, Ray, Ray, the trail is fresh now.”
“Well, I’m not. I’m going to bed and try to get some sleep.” He left the Canadians to their own devices and headed towards his room.
Ray and Fraser had adjoining rooms. Fraser came back around two in the morning and opened his door as quietly as any experienced tracker, but Ray wasn’t managing to sleep anyway. He listened for sounds of a mattress creaking, indicating Fraser had gone to bed, but heard none. Feeling sorry for his friend, he rapped on the wall between their rooms.
“Hey, Fraser. How’d it go?”
A groan was the response. Ray got up, put on a robe and slippers and presented himself at Fraser’s door. Fraser let him in and then dropped into a chair.
“This is so humiliating,” he complained. “Here I bring you to Canada where I’m a real policeman and what happens? A crime under my very nose and I can’t solve it. You must think I’m hopeless.”
Ray snickered. “I always thought you were hopeless. Didn’t have to come to Canada for that.”
The familiar teasing didn’t manage to cheer up the despondent Mountie. He sighed loudly and dropped his head into his hands.
“Come on, let’s go for a walk,” Ray offered. “I can’t sleep anyway. Too much damned light.”
Fraser followed Ray back to his room and waited while Ray slipped on some clothes. Unlike Fraser, Ray was not modest about stripping in front of another man. Years of traipsing around the locker rooms of boxing establishments had left him oblivious to dressing and undressing with other men around. He slipped easily out of his pajamas and put on his shorts, jeans and T-shirt first then sat down on the bed to put on socks. Last of all he slipped his feet into a pair of shoes. Then he slid them out again and went to the closet to take out a different pair of shoes.
“What’s wrong with the sneakers, Ray?” Fraser wanted to know. “You were wearing them all day.”
Ray cleared his throat. “Well, um, that’s just it. I’ve been wearing them all day. I need a change.”
“Isn’t that what a vacation is for? To have a change?”
Fraser couldn’t deny the truth of this homey bit of philosophy but he was suspicious now.
“Ray, let me see those shoes.”
Ray held out the loafers he had just retrieved from the closet.
“Not those. The sneakers.”
Ray tried to save the situation. “What’s the matter with you, Fraser, you got a foot fetish? You didn’t get a toe so now you want to get off on my footwear?”
Ray moved quickly to scoop up the sneakers before Fraser could get to them but Fraser was closer to them as well as faster. He grabbed the sneakers and felt inside the right one first. He drew Captain Bill’s missing toe out of it and held it up in front of Ray’s face.
“Ray, how could you?”
Now Ray was sheepish. “I would have given it back when we left. I just had to make sure you didn’t make me drink it.”