Hatchet Island by Paul Doiron: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQJune 14, 2022
Every night, no matter how many drinks he’d had or joints he’d smoked, he would awaken to the screams of birds. For an instant, he would think he was back on the island. Then his hand would find the lamp beside the bed and the light would expose the messiness of his dorm room.
The odd thing was he’d never had trouble sleeping on Baker Island, where the chatter of gulls and keening of terns had lasted from dusk to dawn. The night terrors had only started afterward—once he’d returned to the mainland. Now insomnia was short-circuiting his central nervous system.
Through the fall and winter, he’d shuffled around campus until the administration and his mother had decided it would be best for him to return home to Maine. He had pretended to agree with their judgment, but the truth was he had lost the will to fight.
Then one morning in March, for reasons he could only guess at, he awakened to find that he’d slept through the night. He’d risen with a clear head and an appetite for real food, and now he was driving north on Route 1 with the window cracked and music blasting. Someone on the Maine birding listserv had reported a rare boreal owl in Bar Harbor, he’d told his mom, and he had decided to “twitch” it in the hopes of getting photographs.
“What time will you be home?” she asked, thrilled to see him showered and dressed in clean clothes.
“That depends if I see it!”
“It depends, Mom.”
On the passenger seat beside him was the expensive camera she had given him for Christmas: a Nikon D5 with a Nikkor super-zoom telephoto lens. It amused him to think that the setup was worth more than his beater Subaru with its leaking head gasket.
One reason he felt better was because he’d finally replied to Maeve. Since well before Thanksgiving, she had been sending emails pleading with him to return to Baker Island for another summer internship. The woman was, if nothing else, relentless, and the seabird colony was, without question, his favorite place on earth. Maeve understood he wasn’t himself but swore everything could be cured by holding a puffin chick again in his hands.
The weather was also acting as a balm on his spirit. Maine was enjoying one of its freakish thaws that make March such a roller-coaster month. Officially, spring was still a week away, but with the streams choked with runoff and pussy willows budding, a person could fool himself into believing winter had been banished and it would never snow again.
He’d been watching for early migrants, as he always did behind the wheel, but had seen nothing of note. The most interesting thing, from an ornithological standpoint, was a lone raven lingering beside a massive bloodstain in the road, the remains of a deer or possibly a young moose whose carcass had been crushed to bonemeal. Ravens weren’t usually so bold as to scavenge in traffic.
He’d taken the coastal route from Brunswick to Belfast, thinking it would afford him good views of the sea, forgetting that the road consisted mostly of commercial strips between gray stretches of woods. Occasionally there would be a seaside village, still hibernating. Lots of “see you in the spring” notices on signboards. He’d desperately wanted to see the ocean again and felt cheated.
He was trying not to think of Maeve or the refuge, but the scenery wouldn’t permit him a moment’s peace. Every few miles, he would pass another random business named for the comical little bird she had helped bring back to Maine. Puffin Plumbing, Puffin Pizza, and most absurdly, the Huffin’ Puffin cannabis dealership. He used to find these things funny.
Past Belfast, dark clouds spread across the sky, and he found himself fidgeting, unable to get comfortable in his seat. Wasn’t that the same black BMW behind him since Rockland? It was March, there was almost no traffic on Route 1, and how many black BMWs were there with tinted windshields and Maine plates?
In the distance now, he glimpsed the two towers of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge rising above the evergreens. But his gaze kept returning to the mirror. The BMW wasn’t tailgating him exactly, just keeping pace. When he sped up, it sped up. When he slowed down, it slowed down and refused to pass. After the morning’s reprieve, he felt the familiar anxiety returning like someone had cranked up the voltage in his nerves.
If he could just get across the bridge, he would be safe, he thought. What story did that come from? The one with Ichabod Crane. If he could just get across the bridge, he would be safe from the Headless Horseman.
He saw a sign for a scenic turnout ahead and made his decision. Without signaling or slowing down, he turned sharply into the unpaved pull-over. The driver of the BMW kept going straight without a single beep of his horn.
Meanwhile, his heart was throbbing, and he felt dizzy enough to pass out. He tasted bile in his throat. He threw open the door and leaned against the car until he could recover himself. While he’d been driving, the wind had turned, or maybe it was because he’d stopped on an exposed hillside above the Penobscot River, frigid with snowmelt. But it felt as if winter had returned with full force.
He waited for the BMW, but it didn’t reappear, and, shivering, he made his way to the information kiosk at the head of the turnout, mostly because he had never stopped here before. A weathered sign advertised the observatory atop the western tower, but the viewing platform was closed until June, just his luck. He leaned down to read the smaller print that explained the spectacle before him:
The only observatory bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the tallest in the world . . . the observatory is, at 420 feet, 42 stories, the tallest occupied structure in Maine. The design of the obelisk towers pays homage to the local granite industry which harvested granite from—
He could read no more. He tore his eyes away from the sign to the man-made cliff blasted in the bedrock across the road. The rock was jagged and orange with iron oxide, as rusty as the western face of Ayers Island, where it looked across the sea at Baker.
Again, he felt dizzy.
“Excuse me. Would you mind taking our picture?”
It was an older woman, somewhere between his mother’s age and
Maeve’s, and a silent, uncomfortable-looking man who kept his hands in his pockets and had to be her husband.
Virginia license plate. Tourists. What were they doing in Maine in March?
“Sure,” he said. “Happy to.”
She handed him a smartphone that had been state of the art a decade earlier. He coaxed them into position against the backdrop of the bridge as if portraits were his passion instead of wildlife photography. And he snapped three photographs to be safe.
“That’s so sweet of you. You’re so sweet to do this for us,” the wife said with a slight drawl.
People always called him sweet. People always called him a kid. Because he had a baby face. Because, even with blond stubble on his chin, he looked like a high school freshman.
Now he was back in the car and heading north again. There was a stoplight before the bridge. There were just two lanes separated by a concrete barrier in the center where the suspension cables held the structure aloft and a pathetic four-foot-tall rail on the sides above the water. He idled at the stoplight, staring down the long, straight chute before him. When the light changed to green and he didn’t move, the trucker behind him leaned on his horn, and he started to laugh.
He had just remembered the lie he had told his mother. There never was a boreal owl.
He stamped on the gas and drove halfway across the bridge. Then he hit the brakes just as hard, forcing the box truck behind him to do the same. Leaving the engine running, he swung open the door and got out, looking downstream at the river and the bay and the vast ocean beyond.
He felt well again. Better than well. Ecstatic.
He would have no need of his grandfather’s revolver, hidden beneath the passenger seat.
Behind him, he heard a man speak. It must have been the trucker. “Kid? Kid? Don’t do it, kid.”
Then other voices from the vehicles behind the box truck.
“No! Please! Don’t!”
But he was already vaulting the rail.
With cries of horror in his ears, he spread his arms like wings, taking flight.
The sound of a gunshot will travel miles over open water—especially when the bay is as calm as it was that morning.
“What was that?” Stacey said.
She paused in her paddling and let one blade hang above the surface, trailing a reddish-brown tendril of rockweed. The length of her tanned neck shone with perspiration although we’d only left East Boothbay twenty minutes before. She had managed to stuff most of her hair under a faded Red Sox cap and had secured her ponytail through the adjustable fastener. There was gray in the brown now, just a few strands of spider silk.
“Probably a lobsterman shooting a gull,” I said.
“It’s a little early for an execution, don’tcha think?”
An effervescent mist that was already burning off in the July heat was all that separated our kayaks. I had to dig in hard with my own paddle to prevent a rear-end collision. Our seagoing boats were sixteen-foot Lincoln Seguins and not made for tight turns.
My momentum carried me forward. As I slid alongside her, Stacey took hold of the grab-handle on my bow to keep us from drifting apart. I caught a whiff of coconut-scented sunscreen from her outstretched arm. The rising sun was a pale smudge behind her, like a yellow thumbprint left by a painter on a wet gray canvas.
“Didn’t you used to shoot gulls when you were an intern on Baker Island?” I asked. “Because that’s where it sounds like the shot came from.”
“Yeah, but we had a dispensation from the feds. It was the only effective method we had to protect the puffin and tern chicks from predators. We all hated it. The gulls were just doing what they evolved to do.”
“Maine lobstermen believe their dispensation comes from a higher authority.”
As if on cue, we slid past a fluorescent yellow buoy. The float was attached by a groundline to a lobster trap—or possibly a string of traps—that was resting on the bottom, fifteen fathoms below. It was just the suction of the outgoing tide, but the buoy seemed to be straining to pursue us the way a leashed dog might follow you on a sidewalk.
Near the Thread of Life Ledges, a sloop, running on its engine because there was no breeze, overtook us. A young family was on board. Stacey waved to a little girl, four or five years old, sitting beside her dad at the tiller, and she called back in a squeaky-toy voice.
“We’re going sailing!”
“You’re going to have so much fun!” Stacey replied as the boat’s wake sent us rocking.
I knew how nervous she was—about where we were going and what we might find there—and I admired how she’d been able to fake cheerfulness for the little girl’s sake.
“What did Kendra say exactly in her email?” I asked. “Tell me again.”
Kendra Ballard had been Stacey’s college roommate, and they had also worked together on Baker. She served now as Dr. Maeve McLeary’s project manager, overseeing the Maine Seabird Initiative’s restoration efforts on Baker Island. She collected the survey data, managed the project’s two interns, and almost never left the island between May and August, after the birds migrated offshore.
“It was short,” Stacey said, then recited: “‘Stevens, I don’t know what to do. Maeve has gone missing. She’s been away for two nights, and we have no idea where she went or why she isn’t checking in. Other weird shit is happening, too. Some lobstermen who were hassling us are getting more aggressive. Can you please come out here tomorrow with Mike? Make sure he brings his badge and gun.’ ”
The fact that she had memorized the email told me how rattled she was.
“Did you try calling her to find out more?”
“Baker Island is in a dead zone. On clear days, the researchers can sometimes get texts or send emails, but you know how spotty coverage is offshore. The nearest cell tower is on Ayers Island, but there’s a hill in the way and no line of sight.”
“The researchers don’t have a satellite phone?”
“Maeve must have taken it. Otherwise, Kendra would have used it to call.”
“But there’s a marine radio?”
“I tried to raise the island last night on my neighbor’s VHF, but Kendra and the others must have already turned in. The staffers sleep on tent platforms scattered around the cookhouse. I thought it would be easiest to head out at dawn and see the situation first-hand.”
“Maybe we should have taken my boat.”
“We had the kayaks all packed for our camping trip, and I’d reserved our site on Spruce Island. The irony is that I’d already been thinking of stopping at the seabird colony on our way out. I must have had a premonition that we would be needed on Baker.”
The statement would have sounded silly if it didn’t happen all the time. I had never believed in clairvoyance until I’d met Stacey Stevens and her mother, Ora.
“Did Maeve ever do anything like this?” I asked. “Did she ever disappear the summer you were an intern?”
“No! She was super-conscientious and hands-on. I guess you’d call her a micromanager, but I was nineteen and didn’t mind being bossed around for the cause. She was the most brilliant person I’d ever met. Steve Kress rightfully gets the credit for bringing puffins back to Maine, but Maeve McLeary established a larger colony, using different methods. The big-name ornithologists said the birds would never breed as far south as Baker Island. But she proved those men wrong.”
Another gunshot echoed across the water.
Trying to see through the mist was like peering through layers of gauze. The indistinct shape of a forested island loomed ahead and to port. The big ball compass on my deck said we were headed southwest, which meant that vague mass of land was Ayers Island since we’d already passed Thrumcap. Sounds do strange things at sea, but my meager powers of echolocation told me the shooting was coming from the seabird colony on Baker Island, two miles farther south.
“It has to be a lobsterman shooting gulls,” said Stacey, but with diminished conviction.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Maeve McLeary had a rule that we couldn’t commit ‘the daily murder’ until the last puffin-watching boats had left for the day. She didn’t want us to be photographed killing gulls.”
“But Maeve isn’t there, according to Kendra.”
Stacey had no answer except to increase her strokes until she had once again pulled ahead of me.
The wind was forecast to rise later, turning onshore in the afternoon, but so far, the air remained breathless. The sea was a sheet of hammered platinum. Every stir of my paddle brought the fecund smell of the ocean into my nose and mouth. It was as if I could taste the teeming life in the depths: the phytoplankton and the zooplankton, the oyster beds, the shoals of mackerel, and the deep-diving seals. The sensory stimulation left me feeling intoxicated.
It wasn’t just the sea air, either.
Despite all odds, I’d found myself back together with Stacey Stevens after more than two years apart. Our break, when it occurred, had seemed irreparable, absolute, and it had shattered the hopes of her parents, Charley and Ora, who were mentors and friends to me. Now the wheel of time had come full circle, and somehow, I was again courting the woman who had been my live-in girlfriend and almost my fiancée. From my perspective, our relationship was simultaneously thrilling, familiar, awkward, and terrifying. We had become different people during the hiatus. Intimate strangers.
We’d been planning this kayaking trip for weeks. I had thought it would give us the chance to take our relationship to the next level. But that was before Kendra called for our help.
The sound of a motorboat, approaching us at a high speed in the fog, caused me to sit upright, which in turn caused the kayak to wobble. I steadied myself by pressing my hips into the seat and bracing my paddle against the water.
“They’re in a godawful hurry,” I said. “They must be going thirty knots. I’m glad we’re not in the channel or they might run us over.”
“Godawful? You’ve been spending too much time with my dad. Fortunately, Parson’s Ledge is between us and the boat lane. But their wake is definitely going to drench us, so get ready.”
Just then, the bow of the boat broke through the fog, a hundred yards to starboard. Strangers to Maine might have mistaken it for the working lobsterboat it had once been. But the white paint job was too perfect, and there were no traps stacked on the deck. Mainers called these remodeled vessels picnic boats because their owners took them island-hopping for lunches and cocktails. This one was towing an inflatable dinghy that was practically skipping like a stone across the water.
I got only the briefest glimpse of the speeding boat before it lost all detail in the haze. Because of the windscreen, I couldn’t make out the foolhardy person at the helm other than that she seemed to be a woman. But I did catch the name of the vessel on its transom.
In this fog, at that speed, they might kill someone, I thought.
“Get ready!” said Stacey. “Turn your bow into the wave or you’ll be swamped.”
We watched the massive wake crash over the barnacled peaks of Parson’s Ledge, the sound as loud as a thunderclap.
Soon Stacey’s kayak began to rise and fall on the approaching swell. Then I felt a stomach-lifting sensation as I climbed my first real wave of the day. The front half of the boat seemed to hang suspended for an eternity, then it went crashing down into the trough. Icy water washed up the spray skirt all the way to my chest. I pushed with my left foot on the pedal that controlled the rudder until the wake had moved past.
“Thanks a lot, Selkie,” I said.
Stacey whipped her head around. Polarized sunglasses hid her jade-green eyes, but I could feel the alarm that had come into them. “What did you say?”
“The name of that boat was the Selkie.”
“Are you sure?”
“Because the Selkie is Maeve’s boat.”
“You mean we found her?” I said, incredulous. “That was easy.” “It would be if we had a clue why she isn’t answering Kendra’s hails or where she’s heading at warp speed.”
Copyright © 2022 by Paul Doiron. All rights reserved.