Dead by Dawn by Paul Doiron: New Excerpt
By Crime HQFebruary 17, 2021
The hill is steep here, and there is no guardrail above the river. I think I am being careful, keeping a light touch on the wheel, feathering the brakes. But then I come around the curve and see the spiked objects scattered across the asphalt in my headlights. They look like barbaric versions of children’s jacks. Or medieval caltrops laid on battleﬁelds to maim horses—except that these hunks of metal have been welded from box nails and placed here for the malign purpose of blowing out automobile tires.
The front wheels of the Jeep run over the ﬁrst of them before I can react, and the sound is like two muskets being ﬁred in tandem. The wolf-dog in his enormous crate in the rear lets loose a strangled yelp. And now the back tires are bursting, too, and the steering wheel tugs one way, then the other, and when I pump the brake pedal nothing happens because I’m going too fast. I am over the edge before I can exhale.
I feel the drop in my stomach. The high beams touch the frozen river a microsecond before the vehicle itself does, crashing into and through the ice with such violence that the engine block lurches under the hood. The airbag bursts like an outsized puffball in my face. My lungs let go of their oxygen. And icy water rushes up around my legs to pierce my groin.
The cold delivers a body blow, the assault ﬁercest upon my heart. My breathing becomes rapid-ﬁre, insufﬁcient to my lungs’ needs.
Because fear moves faster than thought, I experience the panicked recognition of what has happened—of what is happening—as scalding heat along my scalp. Then neurons ﬂash inside my brain. And I am fully awake to my predicament.
My ﬁrst thought is of Shadow, trapped inside his kennel.
The danger to me registers as a secondary concern—except as a scolding voice inside my head.
Bowditch, you idiot.
I’d taken the blind curve too fast. Should have known better than to pump the brakes when the tires detonated. Shouldn’t have tried steering through the blowout. Not that my mistakes mattered now.
Another nanosecond passes before I realize that the upended Compass hasn’t broken entirely through the ice but is stuck, half in and half out of the Androscoggin River. I am staring down, past the bobbing airbag and the spiderweb cracks in the windshield, into shimmering brown water illuminated by halogen bulbs.
Cold crushes my chest. I slam my left ﬁst on the controls in the door to bring the windows down, but I am too late. The electrical system shorts out, and darkness ﬂoods in as absolute as the river.
Just sounds now: the water sloshing, the thrashing of Shadow in his cage, the crunch of ice, my own overloud heart.
At a course I took with the Michigan State Police—part of my continuing ed—the students practiced escaping a sinking vehicle. But I was surrounded by rescue divers that day, and the water was as warm as a bathtub. It surprises me that memories of that distant exercise still reside in my muscles. I’m not making decisions exactly. My hand ﬁnds the seat belt release button. The buckle snaps back, and I fall forward into the ﬂood.
Half blind, I twist and turn, trying to get my legs out from under the airbag and steering wheel, and knock my kneecap on something hard. I ﬁnd my face above the surface for the briefest of moments. Sinuses burning, I snort out water.
The Jeep is settling as the ice cracks beneath its weight. I glance overhead at the lift gate and see a grayish haze. I am looking through the back window into an unaccountably pale sky.
I grab the headrests and pull myself backward, halfway between the front seats, but something catches at my waist as I try to kick-swim through the gap.
The gun in its holster on my belt.
I use most of the muscles in my upper body to push against the seats, feel something give, and then I am through, the rising tide close behind.
High-pitched barks alternating with snarls—cries of fear and rage.
Shadow’s enormous kennel is made of rotomolded plastic, double-walled and crushproof. I bought it on the strength of an internet video that showed the box resisting a shotgun blast from a distance of ten feet. It has lived up to its warranty. The walls are intact; the gate remains shut. Despite the violence of the fall and Shadow’s desperate efforts to break free, the straps securing it to the frame haven’t given an inch.
Climbing into the back, across the folded-down seats, requires awkward contortions. The same web belts that kept the crate from coming loose during the impact have become an actual web, blocking my passage. I reach for the folding knife in the front pocket of my jeans.
The Gerber 06 Auto is no gentleman’s folder but a massive hunk of machined metal: an aluminum and steel bar containing a razor-sharp switchblade for use in combat. It weighs 7.1 ounces. The drop point blade, serrated at the hilt, is forged from S30V steel alloy and measures 3.6 inches from tip to ﬁnger guards. My friend Billy Cronk carried this knife on his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and survived while thousands of his fellow warriors perished. Although Billy never said so, I believe the blade may have taken lives. He gave it to me as a gift on my thirtieth birthday. His nickname for it was “The Beast.”
When I push the oversized button on the handle, the blade swings open. It doesn’t spring from the tip like a switchblade from a 1950s movie. The serrations are sharper than wolf’s teeth; I saw easily through the nylon straps.
But now the untethered box lurches. One hundred and forty pounds of drowning canine causes it to move. And at ﬁrst I can’t get past. Then the crate bucks again, creating an opening, and I seize my chance to swim through.
I reach down for my sidearm to blow out the back window. My ﬁngers slap my side expecting to close around the grip of my SIG. But I ﬁnd—nothing. Straining to squeeze between the seats, I have dislodged the paddle holster. It was designed to slide in and out of my waistband without my having to remove my belt.
The light inside the Jeep is all but gone. The last pocket of air is closing. I need to break the glass.
Then it hits me: I’ve been holding the tool I need the whole time. Opposite the blade of the tactical knife, at the end of the pommel, is a strike point, which is a fancy name for a window smasher.
Now I am completely underwater, and my lungs are burning like I’ve inhaled chlorine. I drive the strike point into the window. The glass explodes into shimmering bits that catch light as they drift past in the coffee-dark current.
As soon as I undo the latch, the wolf bursts though the door of the kennel. Swimming, a foot catches my hand, and I feel a searing pain as his curved claws rake my skin.
I let out a gasp and the last of my precious air bubbles away.
For an instant, I am paralyzed again, unable to think or act. The lack of oxygen is popping my eyeballs from my skull. I don’t recognize the black ribbons before my eyes as the blood from my hand.
I manage a few lame kicks, and I am sucked through the broken window as if by the current, although it’s just the weight of the Jeep descending to the rock-tumbled bottom.
Training to become a game warden, I learned that a corpse will sink before it rises, that the human body loses buoyancy after our last breath leaves us. Somehow I ﬂoat. With almost no help from my dangling arms and legs, I rise toward the surface, only to knock my skull against the drifting ice. I have been carried past the hole made by the Jeep.
All day, I’d been following the half-frozen Androscoggin, observing the wide river with no expectation of having to rescue myself from it. I recall stretches of open water disappearing and reappearing from beneath vast silvery sheets of ice. I recall steam rising, because the air is so much colder, through the ragged gaps.
I’m trapped and out of oxygen and caught by the current.
Swept along by the river, I repeatedly bump my head against the impenetrable ceiling. Even if I had the strength to scramble along, feeling for a hole to admit me into the December night, I probably wouldn’t ﬁnd one.
This is the way it ends for me, I think.
Maybe Shadow found his way out. It makes it easier to believe he did.
My eyes close.
My bobbing skull strikes the ice again, bounces off, rises one last time. And somehow my face has found its way above the surface. I choke out river water, take the biggest breath I have ever taken, and look up at snowﬂakes blowing like feathers across the sky.
Early that morning, my best friend brought his daughter to my house to see the wolf.
Billy Cronk lived with his large family in a small house down the road from mine, in Ducktrap Village. I had asked him to help me load the crate into my Jeep because it was a two-man job. I had also wanted to ask his advice about a sensitive personal matter. He had surprised me by bringing along little Emma.
When I’d ﬁrst met Billy years ago in the black forest of Down East Maine, I was convinced I’d run into a lost descendent of the Norsemen who had brieﬂy invaded North America during the time of Leif Eriksson. He stood six feet ﬁve inches tall with a golden beard and blond braids. And he possessed some of the weirdest eyes I’d ever seen in a person—the disquieting ice blue of a sled dog. That day like most days, he’d worn a hunting knife in a sheath on his belt that could have served most people as a machete.
The uneasiness I’d felt in his presence was more than a reaction to his intimidating appearance. Billy had served as a light infantryman during some of the most brutal battles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and carried himself with the perpetual alertness of a professional soldier. He was a man who had killed other men, and violence followed him like a shadow. I’d watched a barroom packed with drunk loggers and hunting guides—some of the meanest brawlers in the North Woods—fall silent when he stepped through the door. Some of these roughnecks even slipped out the rear exit rather than cross his path leaving.
Billy Cronk was no gentle giant.
The man was brutal against anyone who threatened his family or his friends. A year after we’d become close, I had occasion to witness the violence of which he was capable, and what I’d seen had chilled me to the marrow. Based in part on my testimony, he’d gone to prison for the crimes I’d watched him commit. He was only free thanks to a questionable pardon issued by our blowhard ex-governor.
Which wasn’t to say that there was no gentleness in the man.
He wrote heartfelt (if poorly composed) poems about summer sunrises and migrating monarch butterﬂies. He wept openly when he listened to Cape Breton ﬁddle music. He made a quiet practice of rescuing and rehabilitating injured animals. His current charge was a blue jay, blind in one eye, he’d nicknamed Racket.
Given this secret tenderness, it was hardly a surprise that his youngest child, his only daughter, had made him her slave.
Emma was even blonder than her father, platinum-white, with her mom’s rosy complexion and thoughtful gaze. While her four brothers were all husky for their ages, Emma Cronk was almost elﬁn in her smallness. The fairy-like quality was reinforced by her current obsession with the Harry Potter books. This morning, she was wearing a black wizard’s robe her mother had sewn for her out of fabric bought from one of the local dollar stores. Pink snow boots peeked out from beneath the salt-stained fringe.
Upon entering my drafty, unswept house, she announced, “You don’t have a Christmas tree!”
She wasn’t any blunter than other kids. It was just that as an unmarried man of thirty-one, I found most children to be discombobulating.
“I’ve been busy, Emma. I haven’t had time.”
“But you don’t have any decorations at all, Uncle Mike.” She emphasized her words with the wand Billy had carved for her. “How will Santa leave you presents if you don’t have a Christmas tree?”
It was December 21, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The holiday was less than a week away. It seemed too late for a tree, especially since I would be traveling for Christmas—although I wasn’t yet sure of my destination. That particular conundrum was what I’d wanted to discuss with Emma’s father.
“I don’t want presents,” I said, squatting down to her height. “I have everything I need.”
Her eyes bugged out. “What?”
Emma Cronk delighted in gifts. She delighted in making lists of gifts she wanted. She delighted in tearing open gifts with puppy-like eagerness. She delighted in unwrapping other people’s gifts, not always with their permission.
“Uncle Mike will get a tree,” said Billy in his bearish growl. “Don’t you worry, Emma.”
“Well, he’d better!”
I moved to ease her dismay by making a cup of hot chocolate. “Your dad and I need to talk outside for a few minutes,” I said. “Would you like me to put on the TV?”
Emma, in her tiny voice, said she’d prefer to write, thank you. She produced a little journal and pen from the pocket of her robe.
“What are you writing?”
Billy and I took our coffee mugs onto the porch, overlooking the wooded enclosure where the wolf lived.
“Do her spells work?” I asked him.
“The crazy thing is I think they do,” he said, breathing steam from his mouth. “Aimee had the ﬂu, and it went right away after Em cast one of her ’chantments. Now she’s working on making it snow for Christmas.”
The dawning sky was clear enough that I could see Venus. “There’s none in the forecast.”
“Those weathermen have no idea what they’re up against in Emma.”
It was past seven, but the sun hadn’t cleared the treetops. The understory was a study in sepia: drab alders, gray maples, fossil birches. We’d scared a ﬂock of pine siskins from the feeder tray, and the birds now chided us from the nearest branches, their calls hoarse and buzzing.
The morning air had a snap to it, but Billy didn’t seem to feel the cold, any more than a grizzly would. He wore only a shawl-neck sweater over a ﬂannel shirt, blue jeans, and his usual neoprene hunting boots. And that long knife on his belt, of course.
For my part, I’ve always subscribed to the maxim “There’s no bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
My outﬁt consisted of a hooded down-ﬁlled parka over a commando sweater, over my government-issue ballistic vest, over a merino wool base layer. Beneath my blue jeans (admittedly not a good choice for a day with a forecast high of twenty-ﬁve degrees), I wore merino long johns and heavy wool socks. My boots were specially designed by L.L.Bean for use by Maine game wardens in all weather: waterproof, hard-toed, insulated with PrimaLoft, and fashioned with the stickiest lug soles I’d ever worn.
On my belt I wore my badge on a clip and my service weapon, a SIG Sauer P239, in the paddle holster. I’d dropped a couple of magazines in the pockets of my parka almost without thinking. As always, I wore my father’s Vietnam dog tags around my neck and carried the push-button knife Billy had given me.
I ﬁgured I would be spending the day in the Jeep and had little need for gear beyond what I carried in the government vehicle.
I leaned against the porch rail. “Maybe she can try bewitching my new neighbor.”
“The lawyer who bought the land across the river? Mr. Purple Polo? I thought he was just a summer complaint.”
It was an impolitic term for a second-home owner. The downside to living in Vacationland was that we year-rounders found ourselves outnumbered during the warmer months—and forced to reckon with the economic carrots and sticks wielded by our fairweather neighbors.
“He claims no one told him when he bought the place that there was a wolf across the river,” I said. “He and his wife came up for leaf season and heard Shadow howl, and it just about froze their blood. The sheriff explained the situation, but it didn’t satisfy Mr. Purple Polo. He and his wife showed up here last week in their BMW X5 to have a look at the beast and threaten me with a lawsuit.”
Billy scratched his beard, which might have been woven from gold and copper wires. “Shadow’s not a beast. He’s a dog.”
“He’s a wolf-dog. Recently living in the wild.”
A brave siskin returned to the feeder and cracked a sunﬂower seed with his sharp bill.
Billy lowered his voice to keep from scaring off the songbird. “Shadow doesn’t budge when you go inside his pen. He lets you scratch his ears.”
I didn’t mention that every time I reached out to pet the wolf, I wondered if I would draw back a bleeding stump.
“He’s not tame, Billy. Maybe he was once, but he won’t ever be again. I made a commitment to take care of him, no matter what. I heard at the Lincolnville General Store that my neighbors have a history of suing people who irritate them. They know most of us locals can’t afford the cost of hiring attorneys— ”
My friend rested a hand on the hilt of his knife. “Do you want me to go see them for you?”
“No!” I said, frightening off the siskin.
“So what did you want to discuss with me if not your neighbors?”
“I don’t know what to do about Christmas.”
“You’re having Christmas Eve supper at our house.”
“I mean the day itself. I’ve got two invitations. Usually I go up to Sixth Machias Lake and spend the evening with Charley and Ora. Their daughter Ann comes from Bath with her husband and kids. I think Charley likes having me there as a buffer against his son-in-law. The problem, this year, is Stacey will be there, too.”
“Meanwhile Dani wants me to break from tradition and go to her mom’s house in Pennacook.”
Stacey Stevens was Ora and Charley’s younger daughter. She was a wildlife biologist, a bush pilot, a wilderness EMT, and my old ﬂame. We had lived together for three years—almost gotten engaged—before things fell apart. She had recently returned to Maine after self-imposed exile in Florida.
As for Danielle “Dani” Tate, I was no longer sure what to call her. She was a former game warden, now a state trooper, and six months earlier I would have referred to her as my girlfriend. And yet since the summer, we spoke less and less and saw each other rarely.
I should’ve realized that Billy was the wrong person to ask for relationship advice. He and Aimee had been sweethearts at Machias Memorial High School. As a couple, they were an advertisement for wedded bliss.
“You’re kind of running out of time to make a decision,” he said.
“Tell me about it.”
He scratched his bearded chin. “Isn’t Pennacook where you’re going today?”
“Shadow’s vet, Dr. Holman, has her practice there.”
“Two hours is a long drive for a check-up.”
Elizabeth Holman had removed a crossbow bolt from the wolf’s side—acquired in his last hours as an escapee in the wild—and nursed him to health. He had suffered ligament damage from the arrow, however. The injury prevented him from running at full speed, which meant he would never chase down prey again, if I had considered re-releasing him into the Maine woods, which I hadn’t.
Now he lived behind my house in a compound roughly an acre and a half in size, with chainlink fences ten feet high, impossible to scale. The fence extended below ground into a concrete foundation so he couldn’t escape by digging his way out, either. I had made sure he had bushes and trees where he could hide and an exposed ledge where he could sun himself, but there was no denying the fact that his pen was still a jail yard.
Dr. Holman had made house calls for her ﬁrst exams. She’d brought along a dart gun with ketamine-ﬁlled projectiles to tranquilize the wolf, but Shadow had learned to ﬁnd redoubts in the trees that made it impossible for Lizzie to get a shot at him.
“I still don’t understand how you think you’re getting Shadow into a crate,” Billy said. “That animal is smarter than 80 percent of the guys in my prison quad and 90 percent of the guards.”
Now it was my turn to smile. “You know me. I’ve always got a plan.”
I pointed at the frozen ground where a snaking length of orange extension cord twisted and turned from the house all the way to Shadow’s enclosure. I had positioned the kennel just inside the fence. The electrical cord led to the box and disappeared though one of the air holes on the side.
“Try not to make any noise,” I whispered as we descended the stairs.
Billy could move through the underbrush as silently as a deer.
Of course, I was the one who stepped on a twig.
The sound didn’t cause Shadow to bolt. His snoring continued from inside the crate.
I had tied a length of Kevlar cord to the open door of the kennel. Now I gave it a hard yank and the gate swung shut, and there was a click of the latch fastening. Shadow arose inside the box and growled, but he didn’t ﬁght against his sudden conﬁnement. That had been my biggest worry—that he would injure himself trying to escape.
“I put an electric blanket in there last week. He started sleeping inside a couple of nights ago when that polar vortex came through.”
Billy let out a laugh that frightened the remaining siskins from the trees. “Did Charley suggest this?”
“I’m capable of coming up with my own harebrained schemes without Charley Stevens’s input,” I said with false affront. “Besides, a scheme is only harebrained if it fails.”
“This one worked.”
“I can’t take full credit for it, though. Shadow is smart. I think he remembers what this crate means—that he’s going for a ride someplace. Maybe he senses there’ll be a chance to make a break for it.”
“This place isn’t a jail, Mike. I can say that from personal experience. You’ve given him a good life here.”
I could easily have refuted Billy’s assertion. How many tunnels had Shadow started over the past sixteen months? All those holes dug in vain.
“I need your help getting the kennel into the Jeep.”
Nearly all wardens drove trucks, investigators included, but my superiors had leased the Compass Trailhawk for me so I could sneak down Maine’s scofﬂaw peninsulas without word getting out that a game warden had been spotted.
Billy gestured toward my personal vehicle. “Why aren’t you taking your Scout?”
“Because I have warden business, too. A woman in Stratford wants to meet with me. Her father-in-law drowned while duck hunting in the Androscoggin River four years ago. She doesn’t think the case should have been closed so quickly and has issues with how the wardens treated her.”
“And you’re going to go listen to her whine?”
“What can I say? I’m a masochist.”
Shadow growled a few times, but he didn’t make the job of moving him impossible by shifting his weight. The vet had prescribed some medicine to put in his food—Gabapentin and Trazadone—to mellow him out.
I left Billy in the yard while I went inside to fetch my briefcase. Emma was still scrawling away in her little grimoire. She blinked foggily, as if returning from someplace deep.
“Wait!” she said. “Did I miss Shadow?”
“He’s still here. Your dad and I put his crate in the back of my Jeep. You can go talk with him now.”
The junior wizard snatched up her journal and her wand and was out the door with a whoosh of her handmade robe.
On my desk I found the note from the woman I’d told Billy about, three sheets of beautiful blue script, signed by a “Mariëtte Chamberlain (née Van Rooyen).”
Dear Warden Bowditch,
I have read about you in the Sun Journal and the successes you have enjoyed investigating cold cases, and for this reason, I wish to speak with you, in person, about my father-in-law, Professor Eben Chamberlain, whose name you must recognize, but if not, he is the eminent man who died under suspicious circumstances while duck hunting along the Androscoggin River in Stratford four years ago this month. Despite an “exhaustive” investigation, his demise was insufﬁciently explained by the members of your service about whose commitment, competence, and professionalism I continue to have doubts. I have written to the governor and the attorney general and your own colonel with no result. Because you did not participate in the failed examination of my father-in-law’s death, your reputation remains unsullied in my estimation, and therefore you are my last remaining hope.
The rest of the document was written in the same ﬂorid style and provided details of her father-in-law’s initial disappearance and the rescue mission that became a recovery mission, as happens in many such cases. I knew the story better than she thought—I’d followed the search from afar—and saw no way to help her. But she had reached out to me with such desperation, I felt I owed the grieving woman the courtesy of a meeting.
Billy Cronk, it seemed, wasn’t the only softy in Ducktrap.
I dropped the letter along with the Warden Service’s ofﬁcial report into my leather attaché.
Outside, I found Billy crouched with his arm around Emma, looking from a safe distance at the wolf in his crate. Shadow stared at them through the cage with his inscrutable sulfur eyes. The sight of father and daughter prompted an odd sensation: longing.
I was closing in on thirty-two. Children were not a near-term prospect in my life. Nor even a medium-term prospect. This vision of the Cronks ﬁlled me with a feeling of my life slipping away.
As I was reaching to close the lift gate, Emma said, “Stop!”
“What is it, Em?”
She produced her wand, directed it at the cage, and moved her lips soundlessly, while twirling the tip.
Billy had told me that she was insistent he ﬁnd a rowan, or mountain ash, from which to carve her magic stick. The ﬁnished result resembled a unicorn’s twisted horn.
“What spell did you cast?” Billy asked.
“Protection. So Shadow will be safe on his journey.”
“What about Uncle Mike,” said Billy with gruff affection. “Doesn’t he deserve a spell, too?”
She nodded her blond, braided head. “Don’t move!”
I stood in place as the little girl waved her rowan wand and mouthed the silent words to keep me safe against whatever dark forces I might encounter that day.
Copyright © 2021 by Paul Doiron.
Mike Bowditch is fighting for his life. After being ambushed on a dark winter road, his Jeep crashes into a frozen river. Trapped beneath the ice in the middle of nowhere, having lost his gun and any way to signal for help, Mike fights his way to the surface. But surviving the crash is only the first challenge. Whoever set the trap that ran him off the road is still out there, and they’re coming for him.
Hours earlier, Mike was called to investigate the suspicious drowning of a wealthy professor. Despite the death being ruled an accident, his elegant, eccentric daughter-in-law insists the man was murdered. She suspects his companion that day, a reclusive survivalist and conspiracy theorist who accompanied the professor on his fateful duck-hunting trip—but what exactly was the nature of their relationship? And was her own sharp-tongued daughter, who inherited the dead man’s fortune, as close to her grandfather as she claims? The accusations lead Mike to a sinister local family who claim to have information on the crime. But when his Jeep flies into the river and unknown armed assailants on snowmobiles chase him through the wilderness, the investigation turns into a fight for survival.
As Mike faces a nightlong battle to stay alive, he must dissect the hours leading up to the ambush and solve two riddles: which one of these people desperately want him dead, and what has he done to incur their wrath?