Dead Man’s Wake by Paul Doiron: Featured Excerpt

Game Warden Mike Bowditch's engagement party is interrupted by the discovery of a gruesome double murder in this new thriller from Edgar Award-winning author Paul Doiron. Start reading an excerpt here!

1

It’s a wonder that all marriages don’t end in murder-suicides,” said my stepfather’s new wife, Jubilee.

Neil, my stepdad, nearly spit out his decaf.

It was the evening of Stacey’s and my engagement party.

In the five years since my mom had died, Neil Turner and I had drifted apart. We had never been close to begin with, but he and Jubilee had decided to have a celebratory dinner for us at their lake house in central Maine, over the Labor Day weekend. They had invited Stacey’s parents, Charley and Ora Stevens, who had flown down from the North Woods in their Cessna 182 bush plane. Now the six of us were gathered in the great room, enjoying our blueberry pie and coffee while a warm breeze ruffled the curtains.

“You might want to have another look at your will, Neil,” Ora Stevens said apropos murder-suicides.

“He has nothing to worry about,” said Jubilee. “I told him, after he proposed, that I wasn’t after his money or his last name.”

Jubilee Batchelder had been christened Julie, but the name hadn’t been fabulous enough for her adult self. (It was a judgment with which I happened to agree, based upon our brief acquaintance.) And so, in college, she had become Jubilee.

She worked as a yoga teacher and massage therapist—she had met Neil on her table—and was closer to my age than his: a fact that had troubled me at first and still did to some degree. She was an attractive if not conventionally beautiful woman, lean from hot yoga and a pescatarian diet. Her most striking feature was a mass of honey-blond hair that would not be contained.

I guessed that Jubilee had been the creative force behind the design of this modernist mansion, as my stepfather was a bright but thoroughly conventional man, a graying tax attorney who dressed in ironed polos and pressed chinos and played a lot of golf.

Somehow the topic had gotten onto the dreaded 9-1-1 calls that cops termed domestics. Jubilee hadn’t realized that Maine game wardens—which Charley had been before his retirement and which I still was—had the same arrest powers as sheriffs, that we served as an off-road police force when no other officers were available in rural corners of the state. We saw a lot of shit, in other words. When a warden rolled up on a house fully involved in a conflagration of violence, you could never predict the outcome.

“Finish your story, Charley,” Ora instructed her husband. Stacey’s mother sat, as always, in her wheelchair, cupping a tumbler of scotch on her blanket-draped lap. She wore her snowy-white hair in a shoulder-length bob. Her daughter had inherited her high cheekbones and almond-shaped green eyes that, in Ora, were even paler and more captivating.

“It happened just up the road when I was a tenderfoot warden,” said Charley, who never needed encouragement. “The Belgrade Lakes region was my first district, you see.”

Stacey’s dad was a wiry man with white hair clipped close to his head and a rugged face I’d heard described as “halfway between handsome and homely.” As usual, he was dressed from head to toe in green, as if he’d spent so many decades in uniform—first as an army pilot in Vietnam, then as a warden in Maine—that it was impossible for him to imagine wearing any other color.

“One night,” he continued, “I got a call from the dispatcher that a man was beating up his new wife over in Skunk Hollow. He gave me some lip when I arrived, but I wrestled him to the ground easily enough. But as soon as I slapped the cuffs on the husband, the wife began punching me!”

Neil was still off-balance from Jubilee’s joke about all marriages going bad. “I’m not sure this is an appropriate conversation for an engagement party.”

“I haven’t reached le dénouement,” said Charley, who had learned French from Québécois loggers when he was a boy in the lumber camps. “The kicker was that the wife hit harder than her man! And then, when I had them both restrained, the newlyweds began making out.”

Everyone but me laughed at the punch line.

I was distracted by an intermittent noise coming through the screen doors. Some idiot on a Jet Ski was still buzzing about the lake. There were other boats racing around, too, but the whine of the two-stroke engine annoyed me as when an unseen mosquito is moving about a darkened room.

“You’re not working tonight, babe,” my fiancée whispered knowingly.

“It’s illegal to run a Jet Ski or WaveRunner after dark.”

“This isn’t your district. It’s not your job.”

“If he crashes, it will be.”

Sensing the need for a change of subject, Jubilee said, “I’d hoped you’d bring your wolf with you tonight, Mike. I’m so eager to meet him.”

“Shadow isn’t the best houseguest,” Stacey said, tucking several strands of long brown hair behind one ear.

I felt obliged to add, “He’s actually a wolf hybrid.”

“A high-content wolf hybrid,” Stacey said, “meaning he’s basically a wolf. You’d never know to look at him that he has any domestic dog genes in him.”

“Who’s watching him while you’re away?” Neil asked.

“A friend’s son who wants to be a wildlife biologist. They get along 

great.”

“Shadow has another new friend,” said Stacey. “A raven’s started visiting his enclosure. It just perches in a tree and quorks at him conversationally. We don’t know if it’s a male or a female, but we’re calling it ‘Gus.’ Show them the cute picture, Mike.”

I was reaching for my cell phone when the Jet Ski revved its engine not fifty feet from Neil and Jubilee’s dock.

“I need to step outside,” I said, rising with difficulty from a sectional sofa that looked and felt like a roasted marshmallow.

Stacey sprang up, too. “I’m coming with you.”

The night was humid. The smell of the lake wafted across the blue lawn and through the towering pines. We crossed the patio and proceeded down the granite steps between fading viburnums until we’d entered the shadows beyond the house lights.

The Jet Ski had zoomed off by then. But I could still hear its motorcycle engine up the channel.

We had made it to the end of the dock and were gazing at cottages strung like Christmas lights along the far shore. I fancied that above the odor of the pines and the lake, I could smell the smoke from the fireworks that had been exploding at irregular intervals in celebration of summer’s last hurrah.

The lake had served as the inspiration for the play—and later the movie—On Golden Pond, and it retained some of the quaintness that summer people treasured and lobbied hard to defend against the realities of modern life. For instance, a mail boat continued to deliver letters and packages (now mainly from Amazon, I suspected) to mailboxes at the ends of docks.

“I have to say,” Stacey said, “Jubilee isn’t what I expected. When you said she was only forty and taught hot yoga—”

“I expected Neil had found himself a trophy wife, too.”

“Instead, she’s perceptive, funny, and altogether awesome. Oh, Mike, I know how much you wanted to hate her.”

“I have it on firsthand authority from the Brothers Grimm that all stepmothers are supposed to be wicked.”

Stacey affected her father’s Maine accent. “Well, Jubilee is wicked—wicked cool!”

A loon announced itself in the near darkness. Its yodeling was at once comical and haunting. Farther out, several watercraft were racing about as if the lake were paved with wet black asphalt. One of the speedboats sounded positively rocket-powered. There were very few shoals or ledges at the center of Great Pond, but a fast-moving boat always risked striking a submerged log, especially when the vessel had the horsepower to outrun its own bow lights.

The Jet Ski was coming back. In the weak starlight, it was utterly invisible except for the pale, shimmering rooster tail ejected by the impeller from the rear nozzle. I feared for the safety of the loon we’d just heard.

But the personal watercraft turned sharply before it came within range of the dock lights, made a tight ninety-degree turn, and zipped off toward deeper water. It was headed for a humpbacked shadow a half mile or so out. Neil had earlier identified the wooded islet as Mouse Island.

I held my breath, waiting for the wake to arrive. When it finally reached us, the waves caused the floating dock to buckle so that we staggered against each other like the drunken newlyweds from Charley’s story.

The fenders cushioning the pontoon boat from the dock rubbed and squeaked. In my peripheral vision, I saw Charley’s moored float-plane rocking. It was an amphibious model, equipped with both floats and retractable wheels, that could land as easily on water as on land.

“Let it go, Mike,” Stacey said as I glared at the retreating Jet Ski. “For me.”

“OK.”

She took my arm as if we were preparing to walk down an aisle. “If we don’t go back inside soon, they’re going to wonder if we’re shtupping.”

Shtupping?”

I allowed myself to be pulled back to our party. We’d made it down the dock and had reentered the festive glow of the house when we heard the collision on the lake.

 

2

The noise was more of a percussive thump rather than the explosion of fiberglass and metal you might expect from a motorboat striking a hard object at fifty miles per hour. If Stacey and I hadn’t spent so much time on the water, we might have failed to read significance in that vague thud.

She turned back toward the lake. “One of them hit something!”

“A log, maybe?” I began striding toward the end of the dock. “I just hope it wasn’t a loon.”

The Jet Ski was nowhere to be seen, but it had no running lights to reveal its location. As far as I could discern, there was only a single motorboat in the middle of the lake, due south of Mouse Island. Its navigation lights were barely visible, but I could tell it was slowing to a stop.

“Could that boat have hit the Jet Ski?” Stacey asked.

“The crash would have been louder. Both boats would’ve gone spinning, and the Jet Ski would have broken apart.”

I worked in the Wildlife Crimes Investigation Division of the Maine Warden Service. My cases involved everything from busting poaching rings to solving hunting homicides to reconstructing boating accidents.

But before I’d become a warden investigator, I’d patrolled Sebago Lake, and one of my responsibilities was to police the considerable boat traffic that clogged the waters in the summer. I spent July and August writing dozens of tickets for speeding, safety violations, and boating while intoxicated.

Once I’d watched an Allison Grand Sport go airborne after it crashed into a swimming float off Frye’s Leap. This was in broad daylight: visibility unlimited. The driver tumbled into the water, none the worse for wear, being as loose as a marionette from drink. But his speedboat lodged in a stand of pines on Frye Island. It hung suspended in the branches ten feet in the air, with the engine still running. I remember looking up at the spinning prop and the vibrating bottom of the V-shaped hull. The state didn’t pay me enough to climb up there to switch off the ignition. That damned boat took forever to run out of gas.

I squinted now at the distant speedboat. “They’re turning around to have a look at whatever they hit.”

“Your eyes are so much better than mine.”

“There it is,” I said. “Proof of guilt.”

“What?”

“They just turned off their running lights. They know they hit something. They’re hoping to slip away in the dark.”

I took off at a sprint toward the house, my footsteps loud on the aluminum- framed dock.

“Where are you going?” Stacey called.

“To fetch the keys to Neil’s boat.”

When I slid open the door to the great room, I was met by four startled, slightly puzzled faces.

“We heard a noise out on the lake,” I explained. “One of the speedboats struck something. It circled back and immediately turned off its lights.”

Charley just about vaulted from the chair. “I’d call that suspicious.” I looked at my stepfather. “I need to borrow the Leisure Kraft.”

“I’ll take you out there,” he said, smoothing his polo as he rose to his feet.

I could hardly kick Neil off his own boat, especially after he’d given us a tour of the pleasure barge earlier, showing us its many amenities. The rectangular vessel reminded me more of a floating living room than a proper watercraft. It had padded seats, a dry bar, a sound system, even a refrigerator.

“Do you have an idea where the crash happened?” he asked.

“Half a mile due west of us. Near Mouse Island.”

“That rock is no bigger than a fleabite—barely enough acreage for a house and a fishing cabin,” said Charley.

Ora pulled a phone from the pocket of her white cotton shirt. “I am going to call 9-1-1 to tell the dispatcher to alert the local warden.”

Neil was an attorney and cleared his throat as if preparing to address the court. “We don’t have a warden here, I’m afraid.”

“What’s that?” Charley asked.

“This district doesn’t currently have a game warden assigned to it,” I explained. “The last one retired unexpectedly in May—throat cancer. And we couldn’t get a deputy warden up to speed in time.”

“And neither Belgrade nor Rome have municipal police officers,” added Neil, meaning the neighboring municipalities, not the great cities of Europe. “The elected town councils pass ordinances, but no one enforces them. That’s why the lakes association came up with the money to hire a constable.” He, too, now reached for a cell phone. “I think I have Galen’s private number in my contacts.”

“Galen?” I said.

The name was unusual enough that I knew I’d encountered it before. I couldn’t recall the circumstances. But the initial association was negative.

“Galen Webb is the lake constable we hired,” Neil said. “The Kennebec County sheriff made him a part-time deputy so he could enforce state laws on the pond. If you call 9-1-1, he’ll be the one they send out to investigate. Galen’s a solid young man. Very polite and responsible. We’ve received few complaints about him all summer.”

The Warden Service brass talked a lot about the importance of practicing courtesy, but it was my belief, having dealt with dozens of Maine’s mouthiest scofflaws, that a law enforcement officer  who receives no complaints whatsoever can’t be doing their job responsibly.

“I need to get some things from my Scout,” I said.

Before I could exit the room, Jubilee rose fluidly like the yoga teacher she was. She was wearing loose-fitting pastels and had a gardenia tucked behind her left ear.

“Is it possible someone was injured out there?” she asked with blunt perceptiveness. “A swimmer, maybe?”

She had given voice to a fearful possibility I hadn’t permitted myself to speak aloud.

“We need to go,” I said, leaving the question unanswered. “I’ll meet you all at the boat.”

“Are you staying here, Ora?” asked Jubilee. “If so, I’ll stay with you.”

“They don’t have room for extra ballast, dear.”

I was grateful that Stacey’s mother recognized this was potentially a rescue—or worse, a recovery—mission and not a moonlight cruise. I had been afraid the whole party might want to tag along.

As I headed out to my vehicle, a vintage International Harvester Scout, I assessed the situation. The Leisure Kraft was propelled by a single 115-horsepower Suzuki engine. We wouldn’t be engaging in any high-speed pursuits in that party barge.

I almost literally ran into Stacey in the dark outside. She was returning from the Scout with her medical backpack. She was an emergency medical technician, among other things, and always traveled with her trauma kit in case we came upon an accident.

“I would have brought your sidearm, too,” she said. “But I don’t have a key to the lockbox.”

“That’s all right. Can you see if Neil has a mask and snorkel. Flippers, too?”

“Will do.” Light from the house touched part of her face. “I have a bad feeling about this, babe.”

 

Copyright © 2023 by Paul Doiron. All rights reserved.

About Dead Man’s Wake by Paul Doiron:

On the evening of their engagement party, Maine Game Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch and Stacey Stevens witness what seems to be a hit-and-run speedboat crash on a darkened lake. When they arrive at the scene, their spotlight reveals a gruesome sight: a severed arm floating just beneath the surface. As day breaks, the warden dive team recovers not one but two naked corpses: a dismembered man and the married woman with whom he was having an affair. Mike begins to suspect the swimmers’ deaths were not a senseless accident but a coldly calculated murder.

Meanwhile, the hunt is on for the mysterious boater. Suspects abound on the lake, nicknamed “Golden Pond,” including the violent biker husband of the murdered woman who may have taken vengeance on his wife and her paramour; a strange woman who claims to have witnessed the crash, but then changes her story; a very aggressive realtor and his wife who were determined to catch trespassers; and the lake’s earnest young constable whose eagerness to help may hide darker motives…

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