The Bone Orchard by Paul Doiron is the fifth mystery set in Maine featuring Game Warden Mike Bowditch (available July 14, 2014).
In the aftermath of a family tragedy, Mike Bowditch has left the Maine Warden Service and is working as a fishing guide in the North Woods. But when his mentor Sgt. Kathy Frost is forced to kill a troubled war veteran in an apparent case of “suicide by cop,” he begins having second thoughts about his decision.
Now Kathy finds herself the target of a government inquiry and outrage from the dead soldier's platoon mates. Soon she finds herself in the sights of a sniper, as well. When the sergeant is shot outside her farmhouse, Mike joins the hunt to find the mysterious man responsible. To do so, the ex-warden must plunge into his friend's secret past—even as a beautiful woman from Mike's own past returns, throwing into jeopardy his tentative romance with wildlife biologist Stacey Stevens.
As Kathy Frost lies on the brink of death and a dangerous shooter stalks the blueberry barrens of central Maine, Bowditch is forced to confront the choices he has made and determine, once and for all, the kind of man he truly is.
When I think of Jimmy Gammon now, I remember the way he was before the war: a redheaded, freckled-faced kid with a body like a greyhound, all arms and legs, with a jutting rib cage he’d gotten running up and down the hills of midcoast Maine.
Jimmy had just graduated from Dartmouth, the alma mater of his father, James Sr., and, like his father, he was planning to make a career in the law and politics. The elder Gammon had been decorated for bravery as an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam and belonged to a generation that believed military service was a necessary prerequisite to holding higher office. Maybe it still was. In a state with the highest percentage of Afghanistan war veterans in the nation, having worn a uniform overseas carried an undeniable political advantage.
On his father’s advice, Jimmy had joined the Maine Army National Guard. He chose the 488th Military Police Company, which I find odd, considering what I came to know about his gentle temperament. I was the new game warden in the district, less than six months on the job, and I met the father and son one autumn day in the field. The Gammons were hunting for grouse and woodcock in a pocket of woods outside their estate and both had bagged their limits when I came upon them. We spent a few minutes comparing notes. I marveled at their handmade European shotguns and the sleek springer spaniel that James Sr. had brought over from the UK: honestly the best-trained hunting dog I’d ever seen.
Their estate occupied something like a hundred acres of rolling fields and broadleaf forests in the Camden Hills. There were birch groves and fast-flowing streams, apple orchards and hard granite ridges like the fossilized spines of dinosaurs protruding through the turf. From the hilltop above the Gammons’ palatial farmhouse, you could watch the sun rise over the ink blue waters of Penobscot Bay.
To his credit, Jimmy knew how wealthy his family was. You might even say he possessed an overdeveloped sense of noblesse oblige, or he never would have volunteered to go to Afghanistan as an E4 enlisted man. He could have avoided the conflict entirely, the way most men of my generation had. As I myself had done.
In college, I had decided that the best way for me to serve my country, given my own interests and abilities, was by becoming a cop. More precisely, I chose to become a game warden, which in the state of Maine is pretty much the same thing.
Game wardens here are full law-enforcement officers, with all the powers of state troopers. They are the “off-road police,” in the language the service uses to market itself to new recruits. This special status comes as news to many urban and suburban people who mistakenly equate the job with that of a forest or park ranger. While wardens are charged primarily with enforcing hunting and fishing laws, the rural nature of the state means that a warden is often the nearest officer to any given crime scene. Call a cop in Maine, and you just might get a game warden.
It was just as well that I’d steered clear of the military. In the years since I’d joined the Warden Service I’d learned a number of uncomfortable truths about myself, the first of which was that I am a malcontent by nature. I was certain I would have been a troublemaker as a soldier, even more than I was as a warden, and it was unlikely I would have had as forgiving a field training officer as Sgt. Kathy Frost to save me from the stockade.
I admired Jimmy Gammon for his readiness to put himself at risk for the good of the country, though.
My last memory of him was shortly before he shipped out for six months of basic and police corps training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The Gammons had invited me to the private pheasant club they’d helped create on some scrubland over near Sebago Lake. Consisting of twenty acres of trails and coverts, it was a place designed to hold birds whose sole purpose in life was to be spooked into the sky and shot with twenty-gauge shotgun pellets.
On the hunt, Jimmy let me borrow his over-and-under. He told me that a British gun maker had handcrafted it out of walnut and steel. I had never handled such an exquisite firearm. I was hesitant to hold the gun after Jimmy told me the price his father had paid for it—more than three times my yearly salary—but when the springer flushed a pheasant out of the alders, instinct took over. I brought the butt up to my shoulder, squeezed the first trigger, and watched as the bird fell, limp and lifeless, from the air.
“Great shot!” said Jimmy in a high voice that would intimidate none of the Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners being held at the Bagram prison.
As a prospective military policeman, he viewed me as a colleague of sorts, a fellow officer only a little older than himself—and potentially a friend. It was a time in my life when I wasn’t making friends, and so I was willing to put in the effort, although I had my doubts about the Gammons.
“You should join our pheasant club, Mike,” he said.
The idea was ridiculous. As a rookie warden, I was hard-pressed to pay my college loans and the rent on the ramshackle house I was sharing with my girlfriend at the time. “It’s a little rich for me.”
“What if I told you we have a special rate for law-enforcement officers, Warden Bowditch?” said his father, studying me through yellow shooting glasses.
I found James Sr. to be an imposing presence. He was a lobbyist now but had served in two Republican administrations in mysterious positions that seemed to come with basement offices in the Pentagon. He had the bushiest red eyebrows I had ever seen and a foxlike grin that suggested he could read my thoughts at will.
“We’re serious, Mike,” Jimmy said.
“I’ll save my pennies for when you get home.”
“Jimmy’s going to Harvard Law after his deployment,” James Sr. pronounced, as if his son’s admission was a foregone conclusion, which it was probably was.
“You’re going to have lots of stories to tell there,” I said.
“He certainly will,” said his father.
The truth was, I was worried about Jimmy Gammon. It wasn’t just his voice, a boyish tenor that seemed ill-suited to breaking up riots in a war zone; it was his absolute inability to gain muscle no matter how many barbells he lifted. His resemblance to Howdy Doody didn’t help matters, either. I had just gotten to know the family, but I’d already begun wondering if joining the MPs had been the father’s idea of toughening him up for a future in bare-knuckle politics.
That evening, Jimmy and I exchanged e-mail addresses over glasses of Macallan on the south-facing porch of their home back in Camden. We watched his mother train a Morgan horse in the darkening field below. When the sun had finally set behind Bald Mountain, we went inside to eat the pheasants we had shot, prepared by a woman the Gammons hired to cook for special occasions.
Jimmy later sent me a few messages from Bagram. I still have one of his first e-mails, telling me that he had been stationed at Camp Sabalu-Harrison and his duties were different from what he’d imagined:
Thirty days in-country and I haven’t set foot in the prison! I figured I’d be guarding terrorists. To be honest I’m glad I’m not.
I’m part of a Quick Reaction Force, or QRF. We’re in charge of perimeter security around the prison. There are three of us in the M-ATV. Donato is the CO, Smith is the gunner, and I’m the driver. The truck weighs 40,000 pounds! It makes a Humvee look like a frigging Matchbox toy. Some days it’s like driving an eighteen-wheeler through a maze with all the T-walls and Jersey barriers, and there’s basically nothing between us and the Afghans.
The guys in my truck are all first-class. Donato is a correctional officer at the Maine State Prison. Smith is a potato farmer up in The County. The guy’s the size of André the Giant. Our interpreter calls him “Monster.” He’s an E4 like me.
We just had a missile attack, and I’m kind of on edge. Also, my back is all fucked-up from the weight of my kit. Helmet, Kevlar vest, plus ceramic plates, M4, full combat rounds (210), Beretta M9 with three clips, boots, etc., etc. Even with all the armor, you feel exposed out there. There’s this garbage pile across from one of our battle positions. Every day we have to go out there and break up a riot because the people fight over whatever we throw out. Not just food, but bits of plastic—anything they can use.
The best part of the day is the time we get to spend with the dogs. We use them at the entry-control posts and sometimes for crowd control. I envy the dog handlers, wish I could be one, but they’re all contractors. The Afghans are terrified of dogs, for some reason. My favorite is Lucille. She’s a Belgian Malinois.
Playing with the dogs is the only “normal” thing we do here at the camp.
I miss all the normal stuff.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, right?
Take care, bro.
I remember thinking that it was meaningful that he’d signed his name “Jim” instead of “Jimmy.” The war was already turning him into a different person.
I wrote him back a few times, telling him about the ten-point buck I had shot on my day off, the five night hunters I’d arrested in a single evening, the lost child whose body we searched for but were unable to find because we believed the abusive father had expertly dismembered and hidden it. My then girlfriend, Sarah Harris, encouraged me to keep sending Jimmy messages “to keep his spirits up.” But they failed to have the desired effect. His e-mails in reply became shorter and edgier—laced with profanity he had never used in my presence—and then, finally, he stopped responding altogether.
We lost touch six months after he deployed, and I never heard about the explosion that left him without a nose, scarred across his face and shoulders, and half-blind in one eye.
The truth was, I was too busy circling my own drain.
While Jimmy was busy patrolling the twenty-foot walls outside the Bagram prison, the Maine Warden Service saw fit to redeploy me as well. After two years stationed in Sennebec, my supervisors politely encouraged me to swap my pleasant coastal district for a rugged outland on the border with the Canadian Maritimes. It was a transfer that I viewed (correctly) as a punishment for various insubordinate acts, not the least of which was going AWOL after my father was accused of committing a double homicide.
The reassignment was painful, since it meant leaving a landscape I had grown to know and love, as well as a supervisor who was a friend and mentor to me. I owed my career—such as it was—to Kathy Frost, who had been my first sergeant and defended my habitual misbehavior for reasons that baffled both of us. My supervisors had long viewed me as a know-it-all and a meddler. They had pushed me to rethink my choice of professions, and after nearly four years of being resented and criticized, I got tired of pushing back. I had made the decision they’d always hoped I would make.
And so, on the night in question, I was nearly two hundred miles away, making a halfhearted attempt to study for the LSATs while raindrops ricocheted like BBs off the hard metal roof of my cabin.
At the time, I experienced no premonitions. When the people we love are in danger, we like to think psychic powers will kick in and that we will somehow sense their peril. Maybe this is true of mothers and children—my own mom claimed she’d felt a jabbing pain in her chest the day I was shot in the line of duty—but Kathy Frost wasn’t a blood relative. In some ways, she was as close to me as a family member, though, which is why I can imagine so clearly how events must have unfolded on the night of the shooting.
The Gammons’ farm, for instance.
On that rainy evening in late May, a curtain of falling water must have hung between the road and the distant farmhouse as Kathy’s patrol truck turned onto the quarter-mile drive. The long stretch of wet weather had brought with it a plague of frogs, which hopped every which way through the blurred beams of the headlights. Earlier, Kathy and her passenger, Warden Danielle Tate, would have slowed to avoid the amphibians—I can imagine Kathy making biblical jokes—but the mood in the truck would have turned serious after the wardens received the call from the Knox County dispatcher:
An Afghan war veteran, a former military policeman, had barricaded himself inside a horse barn and was threatening to blow his head off with a shotgun.
Frost and Tate were the first to respond.
The two wardens were soaked to the skin from having spent a bug-bitten day checking turkey hunters who were either too determined or too dumb to let the rain keep them from setting up their blinds and decoys, often illegally on posted property. They’d had a bad encounter with a man from Maryland—a military contractor—who had claimed any criminal conviction would jeopardize his government clearances. They had written half a dozen summons and been on duty for close to twelve hours.
Physically, the women were a study in contrasts. Kathy was past fifty, although she looked ten years younger, and was tall enough to have played college basketball. She wore her sandy hair cut in a shoulder-length bob and was considered attractive by male wardens, not because she was good-looking in any conventional sense, but because of her good humor and sheer likability.
Danielle “Dani” Tate was newly graduated from the Advanced Warden Academy, and she was half Kathy’s age. At five-four she was also the shortest warden in the service. Her body was solid and square, and her shoulders were as wide as her hips. It was rumored that she held a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. She had flat gray eyes and a flat face that rarely displayed any emotion except seriousness of purpose. Every morning, she shined her patrol boots before zipping them up and pulled her blond ponytail through the hole in the back of the brimmed service cap all wardens are required to wear.
In the rain, the lighted windows of the farmhouse must have looked fuzzy, as if seen through smudged eyeglasses. The clapboard building had been erected in the mid-nineteenth century, but the original structure was unrecognizable beneath the extensive renovations and additions that James Gammon had made when he’d purchased the property. The four-car garage was entirely new, as was the barn where Lyla Gammon kept her Morgan horses and taught riding lessons to the wealthy children of Knox and Lincoln counties.
She was waiting for the wardens behind the misted glass door, a skeleton-thin silhouette around which the interior light had gathered like an angelic aura. As the patrol truck pulled up, Lyla Gammon stepped outside, wearing a waxed-cotton Barbour raincoat, riding pants, and knee-high wellies. Despite the rain gear, the wardens could see that she was thoroughly drenched.
Kathy checked the time on the clock and radioed in that they had arrived at the scene. Then both wardens pulled up the hoods of their olive jackets and climbed out of the truck for the hundredth time that day into a raging downpour.
“Thank God you’re here!” Lyla Gammon said. She’d come from Virginia originally, and she spoke with a Tidewater accent that was as out of place in midcoast Maine as the Chanel cosmetics smeared across her face.
“You’re Mrs. Gammon?” Kathy asked.
“I’m Jimmy’s mom. Yes.”
“We received a report that your son was threatening to harm himself,” Kathy said. “Where is he now?”
“Still in the barn.” Lyla stretched out her arm to indicate the long red structure behind the house. Its external floodlights had been turned off, and there was no glimmer visible through the windows. The double doors in front were both shut. “He locked himself in with the horses.”
The two wardens exchanged glances. The bitumen smell of rain falling on asphalt hung in the air. The night was neither particularly warm nor particularly cold—just unrelentingly wet.
“We understand that he is armed,” Danielle Tate said.
“I believe so.”
Kathy wiped her forehead. “You don’t know for certain?”
“I found the case he keeps his shotgun in open on the dining room table. It was empty.”
“Do you know what kind of shotgun it is?”
Kathy wanted to know if they were dealing with a single-shot firearm or a tactical weapon capable of firing nine shells without being reloaded.
“It’s a Royal,” said Lyla.
The pouring rain made it hard for the wardens to hear; it must have been like trying to have a conversation while standing under a showerhead.
Danielle Tate blinked water from her eyes. “A what?”
“A British model—an over-and-under twenty-gauge made by Holland & Holland.”
Meaning that the gun held two shells. But a person needs only one shell to blow his brains out—or those of somebody else.
“Is it possible he has another gun with him?” Kathy asked.
The mother gathered her raincoat at the throat and clutched the waxed cotton tightly. “I checked the safe, and the Royal was the only one missing.”
“Why do you think Jimmy might be suicidal?” Danielle Tate asked.
It was an important question, but Kathy would have known not to phrase it bluntly when his mother was already so distraught.
“He was badly injured in the war. He’s been drinking all day. And he’s on pain medications. He’s not supposed to mix them.”
“Is anyone else at home?” Kathy asked.
“My husband is driving back from the airport. He should be here soon.”
Kathy studied the darkened building. “How many doors does the barn have?”
“Three,” Lyla said. “There’s another set of doors at the far end and a smaller door around the corner on the right that we use to enter the building.”
“How do you know Jimmy is in there now?” Kathy asked.
“Because that’s where he goes when he is sad,” his mother said. “Jimmy loves the horses.”
* * *
In the statement she made to the state police, and in subsequent interviews she gave to the media and the attorney general, Lyla Gammon recounted what (according to her) happened after the wardens arrived.
The two women conferred for a minute or two, and then the taller one—the sergeant, Kathy Frost—told the mother to wait inside the house. Lyla wanted to go with them to the barn. She thought she could help calm her son down, but Sergeant Frost said that they needed to assess the situation first.
Lyla believed the wardens had her son’s best interest at heart, or she never would have returned to the house. Sergeant Frost appeared to be a competent and experienced officer. The younger one, Tate, seemed nervous, although she didn’t say or do anything to confirm that impression; it was just a vague feeling Lyla had as a mother.
She went into the house, where the dog—Winston Churchill, or “Winnie”—was whining anxiously at the door. Jimmy usually took the springer with him everywhere he went on the property. The two had been inseparable since her son was released from the hospital. But on this night, the young man had locked the brown-and-white spaniel in the house when he made his way through the torrential rain to the barn. That act alone had frightened his mother.
Lyla didn’t pause to remove her raincoat or boots. She left a trail of water from the foyer, through the dining room and kitchen, to the mudroom, where a row of windows faced the barn.
Through the rain, Lyla watched two silhouettes approach the darkened building. She couldn’t tell if the wardens had drawn their service weapons. She tried wiping the fogged glass with her sweater sleeve, but the condensation re-formed almost instantly. One of them went to the side door, while the other disappeared around the back. The sense of panic she’d felt before returned, as if her lungs were folding like black wings around her heart.
It was then the cell phone rang. Her husband was on the line, driving home from the airport in Portland. He had just turned off the numbered rural route and onto the country road that led through the green hay fields that were the last remaining evidence of Camden’s agricultural past.
“What’s happening?” he demanded.
“The game wardens are here.”
“Game wardens? Where the hell are the Camden cops?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “The wardens were the first to arrive. There are two of them—two women.”
“Who are they? Do you know them?”
“Fucking hell.” James tended to curse more after his visits to D.C., and Lyla assumed it was something he picked up there: a way people had of establishing their hierarchies in the halls of power. “Is Jimmy still in the barn?”
“I think so.”
“What does that mean?”
“The wardens wanted me to wait in the house while they tried to talk with Jimmy.”
“I need you to do something for me, Lyla,” James said. She always took comfort in her husband’s absolute confidence, the quick way he arrived at decisions. “I need you to go out there and call them back from the barn. I don’t want them talking to Jimmy until I get home. Tell them I’m only five minutes away.”
“But what if they—”
“Tell them he’ll listen to me. They just need to wait. Everyone just needs to wait.”
“Just do what I say. I can take care of this.”
Lyla opened the mudroom door, and the springer tried to push past her leg, until she shoved his head down. The sound of the rain was a constant roar. The water gushing from the house’s roof drains was louder than if she’d been standing beside a rushing stream.
She took several steps toward the barn, crossed half the distance from the house to the double doors, when a scream brought her up short. It was one of the Morgans. Lyla had grown up with horses and recognized when an animal was terrified.
The next thing she remembered were the shots: two of them, back-to-back. And then all the horses were screaming, panicked by the echoes, and she was running to the side door, which was standing open now, the rain slanting in.
An arm caught her as she stepped inside, holding her fast. It was the young warden, Danielle Tate. Their eyes met for a moment, and Lyla saw the other woman’s surprise and fear. The barn smelled of gunpowder in addition to the usual hay and manure. Tate was gripping a pistol.
Sergeant Frost loomed over Jimmy’s fallen body. She was holding a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other. The tiny blue beam was the only illumination in that huge space, and it shone straight down on the disfigured face of her son: a face that had once seemed beautiful to Lyla because of its resemblance to his father’s, but which was now the texture and color of melted tallow, as fake-looking as the red wig the young man had worn in public after he returned from the war.
Blood pumped from the hole in his neck and flowed across the rubber mat between the stalls. Even from the doorway, Lyla saw that his eyes were open, but they were fluttering, losing focus. In horror, she watched Kathy Frost kick the shotgun away from Jimmy’s clawlike hand, as if her dying son could possibly pose a danger to anyone now.
It was only when the sergeant raised her eyes to Lyla that the mother found her voice. “What have you done?” she cried, louder than the horses. “What have you done to my boy?”
Copyright © 2014 by Paul Doiron
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Bestselling author Paul Doiron is a native of Maine, who attended Yale University and holds an MFA from Emerson College. His first Mike Bowditch crime novel, The Poacher’s Son, won the Barry award, the Strand award for best first novel, and was a finalist for both Edgar and Anthony awards. He is also a Registered Maine Guide, who specializes in fly fishing and lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine.