In Paul Doiron’s riveting follow-up to his Edgar Award–nominated novel, The Poacher’s Son, while on patrol, Maine game warden Mike Bowditch receives a strange call for help. It’s a cold evening in March, and a woman has reportedly struck a deer on a lonely coast road. Arriving on scene, Bowditch finds blood—but both the driver and deer have vanished.
Seven years earlier, a jury convicted lobsterman Erland Jefferts of the rape and murder of a wealthy college student, sentencing him to life in prison. But when the missing woman is found, brutalized in a manner suggesting Jefferts may have been framed, Bowditch receives an ominous warning from state prosecutors to stop asking questions.
His clandestine investigation reopens old wounds between locals and rich summer residents, strains the relationship he’s carefully rebuilt with his girlfriend, and puts both their lives in danger. But doing nothing is not an option. As Bowditch closes in on his quarry, he discovers how far his opponents will go to prevent him from bringing a killer to justice.
I found the wreck easily enough. It was the only red sedan with a crushed hood on the Parker Point Road. In my headlights, the damage didn’t look too extensive. The driver had even managed to steer the car onto the muddy shoulder, where it had become mired to its hubcaps.
I switched on my blue lights and got out of the patrol truck. My shadow lurched ahead of me like a movie monster. Right off, I saw the dark red pool of blood in the road— there must have been quarts of it, every ounce in the animal’s body spilled onto the asphalt. I also noticed bloody drag marks where someone had moved the roadkill. But the deer itself was nowhere to be seen. The red smears just stopped, as if the carcass had been snatched up by space aliens into the night.
Flashlight raised high in my left hand, I approached the wrecked car. The air bags had inflated, but the windshield was intact. So where was the driver? Someone had phoned in the deer/car collision. The keys were still in the ignition. Had the driver wandered off with a concussion— or just gotten tired of waiting for a delinquent game warden to arrive? It was damned mysterious.
No driver, no deer.
I was all alone on the foggy road.
The call had come in an hour earlier, near the end of a twelve- hour shift.
My last stop of the day was supposed to be the house of a very tall and angry man named Hank Varnum. He was waiting for me in the foggy nimbus of his porch light: a rangy, rawboned guy with a face that always reminded me of Abraham Lincoln when I saw him behind the counter of the Sennebec Market.
To night he didn’t give me a chance to climb out of my truck. He just let out a snarl: “Look what those bastards did, Mike!”
And he started off into the wet woods behind his house.
I grabbed my Maglite and followed as best I could. When you are a young Maine game warden—twenty- five years old and fi t— there aren’t many occasions when you can truly imagine being old, but this late March evening was one of them. My knees ached from a fall I’d taken earlier that day checking ice- fishing licenses on a frozen pond, and the mud sucked at my boots with every step. Varnum had to keep waiting for me to catch up. The grocer walked like a turkey— long- legged, neck slightly extended, head bobbing as he went. But I was too exhausted to find it humorous.
Hank Varnum owned something like seventy acres of woods along the Segocket River in midcoast Maine, and he seemed determined to lead me over every hill and dale of it. Worse yet, I discovered that my flashlight needed new batteries. The temperature had been hovering around thirty- two degrees all afternoon, and now the thaw was conjuring up a mist from the forest floor. Fog rose from the softening patches of snow and drifted like gossamer through the trees.
After many minutes, we came out of a thicket and intersected a recently used all- terrain- vehicle trail. The big wheels of the ATVs had chewed savagely into the earth, splashing mud into the treetops and scattering fist- sized rocks everywhere. The ruts were filled with coffee- colored puddles deep enough to drown a small child. Varnum thrust his forefinger at the damage. “Do you believe this shit?”
But before I could answer, he’d forged off again, turkeylike, following the four- wheel trail deeper into the woods.
I checked my watch. What ever chance I’d had of catching a movie with my girlfriend, Sarah, was no more. Since she’d moved back into my rented house last fall, we’d been making progress reconciling our lifestyles— Maine game warden and grade- school teacher— or so it seemed to me anyway. Tonight might be a setback.
My cell phone vibrated. The display showed the number of the Knox County Regional Communications Center.
“Hold up, Hank!” I answered. “Twenty-one fifty- four. This is Bowditch.”
“Twenty-one fity- four, we’ve got a deer/car collision on the Parker Point Road.” Most of my calls were dispatched out of the state police headquarters in Augusta, but I recognized the voice on the radio as being that of Lori Williams, one of the county 911 operators.
“What about the deer?”
“The caller said it was dead.”
So why was Lori bothering me with this? Every police officer in Mainewas trained to handle a deer/car collision. Nothing about the situation required the district game warden.
“Dispatch, I’m ten-twenty on the Quarry Road in Sennebec. Is there a deputy or trooper who can respond?”
“Ten-twenty-three.” Meaning: Stand by.
I waited half a minute while the dispatcher made her inquiries among the available units. Hank Varnum had his flashlight beam pointed into my eyes the whole time. “Are we just about there, Hank?” I asked, squinting.
“It’s right around this bend.”
We went on another four hundred yards or so, crossing a little trout stream that the ATVs had transformed into a flowing latrine. Then we turned a corner, and I understood the wellspring of Hank Varnum’s rage. At one time, the trail had run between two majestic oaks— but no longer.
“They cut down my goddamned trees!” The beam of Varnum’s flashlight was shaking, he was so mad.
The stumps stood like fresh- sawn pillars on either side of the trail, with the fallen trees lying, akimbo, to the sides. Yellow posted signs were still nailed to their toppled trunks.
“First, I put up the signs,” Varnum explained. “But they came through anyway. Then I dropped a couple of spruces across the trail. They just dragged those aside. So I said, ‘All right, this is war.’ And I strung a steel cable between the two oaks. You see how much good that did.” In fact, the cable was still attached to one of the fallen trees.
I shined my light on the crosshatched tire tracks, feeling a surge of anger at the meaningless waste in front of me. They were beautiful red oaks, more than a century old, and some assholes had snuffed out their lives for no good reason. “Do you have any idea who the vandals are?”
“That pervert Calvin Barter, probably. Or maybe Dave Drisko and that prick son of his. There’s a whole pack of them that ride around town on those fucking machines. I swear to God, Mike, I’m going to string up barbed wire here next.”
Mad as I was, it was my job to be the voice of reason in these situations. “You can’t booby-trap your land, Hank. No matter how much you might be tempted. You’ll get sued. And you honestly don’t want someone to get injured.”
“I don’t?” He rubbed the back of his long neck, like he was trying to take the skin off. “I never had any problem when it was just snowmobiles. It was always fi ne by me if the sledders used my land. They never did any real damage. But these ATVs are a different story. They want to tear things up. That’s part of their fun.” His eyes bored into mine. “So what can you do for me here, Mike?”
“Well, I could take some pictures of the tracks and the trees, but there’s nothing to connect the ATVs with whoever cut down your oaks. If you could ID the riders coming through next time, we could fi le trespassing charges. Snapshots would help make the case.”
“So that’s it?”
I was about to say something about how I couldn’t be everywhere at once, how I relied on citizens to help me do my job, blah, blah, blah, when I heard the roar of distant engines.
“That’s them!” Varnum said.
I motioned him to get off the trail. We extinguished our flashlights and crouched down behind some young balsams and waited. My cell phone vibrated again. Lori told me that a state trooper said he was going to respond to the deer/car collision, so I was off the hook. I turned the mobile off to be as silent as possible. The snow around me had crystallized as it had melted and become granular. It made a crunching noise when I shifted my weight.
The engines got louder and louder, I saw a fl ash of headlights through the fog, and then, just as I was getting ready to spring, the shouts and revving motors began to recede.
Varnum jumped to his feet. “They turned off down that fi re road!” My knees cracked as I straightened up beside him. “Will they come back this way?”
“How the hell do I know?”
In a few weeks, the spring peepers would begin to call, but right now the forest was quiet except for the dripping trees. “Look, Hank, I know you’re angry. But I promise you, we’ll do what we can to catch the punks who did this.”
He didn’t even answer, just snapped on his fl ashlight and stormed off toward home.
I took two steps after him, and then the ground slid out from under me, and the next thing I knew I was lying face- first in the mud. When I finally dug the mud out of my eye sockets, I saw Varnum looming over me, his jaw stuck out, his anger unabated. He pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket and threw it at me. “Wipe the dirt off your face.”
It wasn’t until I’d left Varnum at his door and gotten back to my truck that I remembered I’d turned my cell phone off. Dispatch was trying to reach me on the police radio: “Twenty- one fi fty- four, please respond.”
“Twenty- one fifty- four,” I said.
“Do you need assistance?” Lori sounded uncharacteristically animated. She was a good dispatcher in that she usually kept her emotions in check. That’s an important skill when you deal with freaked- out callers all night.
“No, I’m fine.”
“We couldn’t reach you.”
“Sorry, I had my phone off. What’s going on?”
“Four- twelve had engine trouble. He couldn’t take that deer/car.”
“You mean no one’s responded yet?” I already knew where this conversation was heading. “Can’t a deputy take it?”
“Skip’s dealing with an eighteen- wheeler that went off the road in Union, and Jason’s bringing in a drunk driver.”
It had been at least thirty minutes since the call came through. I was mud-soaked and exhausted, with an impatient girlfriend waiting at home. And now I had to go scrape a deer carcass off the road and take down insurance information. “All right, I’m on my way.”
Parker Point was a narrow peninsula that jutted like a broken finger southward into the Atlantic. It was one of dozens of similar capes and necks carved out of the Maine bedrock by the glaciers during the last ice age. Ten thousand years might seem like an eternity, but in geological terms it was scarcely time enough to cover these ridges with a dusting of topsoil and a blanket of evergreen needles. Nothing with deep roots could thrive on Parker Point, just alders, beach roses, and bristling black spruces that blew over easily when the March winds came storming out of the northeast.
The houses on the point had once belonged to fishing families, but as waterfront real estate prices soared and the codfish stocks collapsed in the Gulf of Maine, these homes had been increasingly sold as summer “cottages” to wealthy out-of-staters. Or they had been torn down and replaced with new shingle- sided mansions with radiant- heat fl oors and gated fences. I could easily envision a time, very soon, when every Maine fi shermen who still clawed a living from the sea could no longer afford to dwell within sight of it.
Because of all those no trespassing signs, the local deer population had exploded. Without hunters to control their numbers, the animals multiplied like leggy rabbits, but their lives were no easier, and they died just as brutally. The difference was that death tended to come now in the form of starvation, disease, or, as in this case, a speeding car.
The fog had gotten so thick, it bounced my headlights back at me. As I drove, I keyed in my home number on my cell phone and readied myself. But when I told Sarah I’d be late, her reaction was not what I’d expected.
“That’s all right, Mike,” she said in a muted voice.
“It’s just that a car hit a deer in this fog,” I said.
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Just the deer. Maybe we can see that movie tomorrow night.”
“Amy said it wasn’t a good film anyway.”
Neither of us spoke for a while. Something was definitely bothering her.
“I’m sorry I missed dinner,” I offered.
“It was just pea soup. You can heat it up.”
I tried lightening the mood. “Why do they compare fog with pea soup anyway? It’s not like it’s green.”
But she wouldn’t play along. “I’ll see you when you get home, all right?”
“I love you.”
“Please be careful,” she replied. It was the way she ended many of our calls.
The night was getting colder, or maybe it was because my uniform was damp. The sensation was that of being wrapped in wet gauze. Shivering, I got on the radio. “Lori, I’m ten- twenty on the Parker Point Road. I’ve located the Ford Focus, but there’s no one here. Who called in the accident— was it the driver?”
“Negative. It was someone passing by. He said he’d stopped and spoken to the young woman who hit the deer. She called a tow company and was waiting for the wrecker. The caller said she was a little shaken up but uninjured. He said he wanted to make sure an officer dealt with the deer in the road.”
“But the caller didn’t identify himself?”
“He said he didn’t want to get involved.”
In my experience, this meant that the guy who’d phoned in the accident was probably driving drunk— or operating under the influence, in Maine lingo. What we had here was the Good Samaritan impulse versus the fear of being arrested on an OUI charge.
“Was the caller on a cell or a landline?”
“He was on that pay phone outside Smitty’s Garage.”
It was an abandoned repair shop located two miles down the road. “Can you contact Midcoast Towing and see if they got a phone call about this from the driver?”
The car, I noticed, was a rental with Massachusetts plates. So where was the driver? I walked up and down the road a hundred yards in either direction, shining my flashlight along the mud shoulder to see if the young woman had staggered off into the trees. But there was no sign of any footprints.
I applied myself to the problem of the missing deer.
There were hunks of hair caught under the fender and more of it fl oating in the viscous pool of blood in the road. This evidence established that the Focus had indeed struck a deer and not some weirdo who happened to be walking in the fog dressed like Daniel Boone.
I wondered if my anonymous Good Samaritan had been the one to help himself to the deer. Under Maine state law, any driver who hits a deer or moose has first dibs on the meat. After that, it’s up to the responding officer to dispose of the carcass as he or she sees fit. Dealing with a hundred pounds of dead but still- warm animal is usually the last thing someone who’s just totaled a car wants to worry about. I routinely brought the remains to a butcher who worked with the Rockland food bank or traded it to my in formants in exchange for tips on local poachers. Other officers passed the meat along to families that were going through tough times.
Sometimes the underprivileged took a more active role in their own nourishment. I knew of some penniless backwoods characters who sat around the cracker barrel listening to police scanners. If they heard about a deer/car accident, they would rush to the sceneto beg for free venison. Half the time, the officer was just glad to be rid of the hassle. Other times, if no cop happened to be present yet, the game thieves would abscond with the roadkill. It was possible the man who’d reported the accident fell into this category of self-help opportunists.
I decided to collect blood and hair samples for DNA evidence.
Pinching someone for stealing roadkill wasn’t at the top of my priority list, but the samples might come in handy if I needed to prove serial wildlife violations someday. Poaching convictions had been won on slimmer bits of thread.
I was squatting on the cold asphalt, tweezing hair into a paper bag, when I heard a diesel engine approaching. On cue, my radio squawked: “Twenty- one fifty- four, Midcoast Towing said they did receive a call.”
“Thanks, Lori. The wrecker’s here now.”
As the truck rumbled to a halt, the driver turned on his flashing amber lights and rolled down his window. I recognized the ruddy, blond-bearded face inside. We often sat at the same lunch counter at the Square Deal Diner in Sennebec, but I couldn’t remember his name. I’d been assigned to the area for only a year, and there were still plenty of days when everyone I met was a stranger.
“Warden Bowditch, whatcha got?” The inside of the truck cab smelled fragrantly of pipe tobacco.
“I was going to ask you that.”
“I heard a lady from Boston hit a deer. I’m supposed to haul off her car. Hey, you look like you’ve been mud wrestling.”
“Yeah, I took a spill. Did the woman say she needed a ride? Because she doesn’t seem to be around here anywhere.”
“Well, I didn’t talk to her myself, you know. That’s not the way it works. But I can find out for you.” He picked up a clipboard from the passenger seat and held it close to his eyes to read the chicken scratch. “Her name is Ashley Kim. What’s that— Korean?”
“My old man fought in Korea,” he said. “He hated that show M*A*S*H, though.”
While the trucker got on the CB to his dispatcher, I ransacked my memory for the blond man’s name. I’d learned all sorts of mnemonic tricks at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to help recall information for my police reports, but for some reason, I never applied these strategies to my personal life. As a result, I was constantly forgetting dentist’s appointments, high school classmates, et cetera. I had a vague recollection that the driver went by some odd nickname.
He swung open the truck door and hopped down: a misshapen man whose legs seemed too short for his torso, as if he’d been cobbled together out of two different bodies, a small and a tall. Just like that, his name came to me: Stump Murphy.
He wore canvas duck pants with the bottoms rolled up, a blaze orange hunting shirt, and a camouflage vest. Curly blond locks escaped from beneath his watch cap, only to be recaptured in a ponytail. On his belt, I noticed a small holster contraption holding a corncob pipe.
“Here’s the scoop,” said Murphy. “I guess Miss Kim said she didn’t need a ride. I don’t know if she was calling her husband or friend or what, but she said she already had a lift. She just wanted the car hauled off. She said she’d contact the rental company later.”
I followed him around to the passenger door. He reached under the flaccid air bag for the glove compartment and groped around until he found the rental agreement. “Here you go, Warden.”
Ashley Kim had reported her address as Cambridge, Massachusetts. Probably she’d been visiting someone on Parker Point.
“Did she leave a cell- phone number with your dispatcher or any way to contact her locally?”
“Does your phone system have caller ID?”
“I have no clue.”
I worked my flashlight beam around the inside of the car, but there were no personal belongings to be seen. Same with the trunk. The situation seemed to be exactly what it appeared. “I need to fill out an accident report.”
“Guess Miss Kim didn’t know she was supposed to stick around,” he said.
“She’s not the first.”
“Maybe she was afraid of the Breathalyzer.”
I left Stump Murphy to refill his pipe and went to start the paperwork. My sergeant, Kathy Frost, jokingly referred to her own GMC pickup as her “office,” but mine was more of a dusty shed. Inside I kept a laptop computer, toolbox, rain gear, change of clothes, personal flotation device, ballistic vest, spotting scope, binoculars, Mossberg pump shotgun, shells and slugs, tire jack, come-along, assorted ropes, flashlights, body bag, fold-out desk, batteries, law books, maps, spare .357 ammunition for my ser vice weapon, a GPS mapping receiver, wool blankets, an official diary, and lots of bags to stuff animal parts in. If I was lucky, I might even find what I was looking for.
I had the interior dome light on and was readjusting the movable arm that held my computer in place above the passenger seat when a state trooper arrived. He pulled up behind my truck and paused awhile inside, as if making a phone call, before he finally got out. Hecast a damned big shadow as he came toward me.
“What’s the story, gentlemen?” He was the size of an NFL offensive lineman: shoulders a yard wide. I’m a big guy—six- two, 180 plus— but he made me feel like one of the Seven Dwarfs. He had on a heavy raincoat and that wide- brimmed Smokey the Bear hat Maine state troopers wear. At first glance, I didn’t recognize him. Murphy broke the news: “A woman hit a deer.”
“So I heard.” He stuck out his hand for me to shake. He could have palmed a basketball with that hand. “I’m Curt Hutchins,” he said by way of introduction.
“Mike Bowditch. You’re the new guy at Troop D.”
“New? I grew up in Thomaston. But, yeah, I transferred over from the turnpike.” His hair had been shaved so close to the scalp that he looked bald, but his face was handsome and boyish, with a big dimple in the middle of his chin. “Sorry, I couldn’t get here sooner. The engine wouldn’t start after I went home for supper.”
“Bad spark plugs.” He pointed at the crash site. “So where’s our unlucky driver?”
I told him the entire sequence of events, from the initial call I’d received from Dispatch, to my belated appearance on the scene, to Murphy’s arrival shortly thereafter and our quick search of the vehicle. “I have this bad feeling I’m having trouble shaking,” I admitted.
“Because somebody stole the deer?”
“Not just that. I’m just wondering where she could have gone.
This is an isolated stretch of road. I’d feel better if I knew where to find this Ashley Kim.”
“She caught a ride,” he said confidently. “She was probably shitfaced and called a friend before the cops showed. I ran the plates just now with the rental company, and her Mass. license says she’stwenty- three. Probably a party girl.”
His characterization of a woman he didn’t even know grated on me. “I’m thinking I’ll poke around in the woods.”
Hutchins didn’t respond.
His silence made me uncomfortable, so I rambled on: “I just want to make sure she didn’t wander off, injured.
He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. I could tell he’d just made a mental connection. “You’re Jack Bowditch’s son.”
Seven months had passed, but I still couldn’t escape the notoriety. No matter what else happened in my life, I would always be the son of Maine’s most notorious criminal. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Nothing. I’d just heard a rumor that you’d left the Warden Service.”
“You heard wrong.”
Without meeting my eyes again, he said, “I’ll handle things here if you want to take off.”
“What about the missing woman?”
“I’ll make a few more calls, take a look around.” Somehow, I doubted his intentions. After mere minutes of knowing him, Hutchins already impressed me as an arrogant asshole who operated with utter disregard for protocol. He wouldn’t be the first cop to fall into that category. My own conduct during my father’s manhunt had made me the poster child for the fuck-the-rules school of law enforcement. “I guarantee you she ran away before we could bust her for OUI,” he said.
Stump Murphy ambled over, trailing a pungent cloud of pipe smoke. “What’s the holdup, fellas? I’ve got other calls, you know.”
“I’ll file the report,” Hutchins said. “It’s a state police matter now.”
I glanced at the wrecked car one last time. I was exhausted, cold, and slathered in mud. An hour earlier, I’d embarrassed myself in front of Hank Varnum. Now this jerk trooper was rubbing my nose in my father’s guilt.
To hell with Hutchins, I thought. To hell with this lousy night.
“It’s all yours,” I said.
I climbed into my truck, started the engine, and turned carefully in the road to avoid the pool of blood.
Paul Doiron is the editor-in-chief of Down East: The Magazine of Maine. A native of Maine, he attended Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in English, and he holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. Paul is a Registered Maine Guide and lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine with his wife, Kristen Lindquist. Please visit his Web site at www.pauldoiron.com.