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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
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 roadthere 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.
Tonight 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 wardentwenty-five years old and fitthere 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 turkeylong-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 lifestylesMaine 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-seven fifty-four. This is Bowditch."
"Twenty-seven fifty-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. "Anyone injured?"
"What about the deer?"
"The caller said it was dead."
So why was Lori bothering me with this? Every police officer in Maine was 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 fine 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 file 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 fl ash-lights 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 flash 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 fire 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 flashlight 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 fifty-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 floors and gated fences. I could easily envision a time, very soon, when every Maine fishermen 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.