“Breathless pacing, dark humor, wildlife, and vivid characters.” —Boston Globe
In this original short story in the Mike Bowditch mystery series, legendary Maine woodsman and bush pilot Charley Stevens tries to convince young Mike Bowditch of the dangers awaiting rookie game wardens.
INCLUDES AN EXCLUSIVE EXTENDED EXCERPT FROM PAUL DOIRON'S KNIFE CREEK!
“Nobody knows the woods of Maine like the rugged individuals who eke out a living by hunting, fishing and cutting timber. And nobody knows the region’s inhabitants like Mike Bowditch, the young game warden in Paul Doiron’s manly mysteries.” —New York Times Book Review
“Paul Doiron is shaping up as the Tony Hillerman of the east. . . . presenting central characters who are brave and brainy but all too human and fallible. . . . [Doiron’s] storytelling is controlled and always enthralling. Just like Tony Hillerman’s.” —Toronto Star
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The Bear Trap
A Short Story by the Edgar Award Finalist Author of Knife Creek
By Paul Doiron
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Paul Doiron
All rights reserved.
The wind moved across the surface of the lake like breath upon a mirror. In the stern of the canoe Charley Stevens dipped a paddle to bring us around again over a submerged field of weeds. We were fishing for early-season pike. Charley was a retired Maine game warden — thirty years in the service — and the best woodsman I'd ever met.
The evening before, I'd happened to remark that I'd never caught a northern pike on a fly rod before. Charley had sat upright in his chair, as if the notion offended his sensibilities, and said I needed remedial schooling if I was going to have any future at all in the Warden Service. It was my first year on the job, and every day I was learning how little I actually knew about my new profession.
And so, here we were, at dawn, on a distant body of water whose name was unfamiliar to me.
"How do you know this place anyway?" I asked.
"Oh, this was my first district when I was a new warden, back from the war." The canoe rocked gently, almost like a cradle. "Of course, it's changed a lot since those days."
I waited for him to go on, but he pressed his lips together and squinted across the lake toward a mistblurred line of trees.
In my experience, retired wardens loved nothing more than to tell tales about their escapades in the North Woods. I was always having my gullibility tested by some gray-haired joker who believed the point of spinning yarns was to see how many lies he could pass off as the truth. Charley's approach to story-telling was to casually mention some brush with death he'd had as if were a humdrum matter of no particular interest. That very morning, on the drive over, I was shocked to hear him let slip that he'd spent months in Vietnam as a prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, in the same cell block as John McCain. I wanted to believe the old geezer, but I had been raised a skeptic.
I reeled in my line. "How has it changed?" He raised the dripping paddle toward a point of land where the pines had been cleared to make way for a cedar-shingle mansion. "Do you see that monstrosity of a domicile? There used to be a boys' summer camp there. I don't know how many nights I spent staked out in the puckerbrush, trying to nab the damned hermit who kept robbing the place."
"Wait," I said. "What hermit?"
He frowned. "I thought you wanted to hook a pike."
"I can't believe you didn't hear about it in warden school. But I guess it's ancient history to the current generation."
"Come on, Charley. Tell me."
He sighed, his breath shimmering in the chilly air. Then he set the paddle across his knees and nodded his head in the direction of the trapper's basket at my feet. "Pour me a cup of coffee from that thermos. I bet it's still hot."
* * *
Charley's field training officer was a chain-smoking ex-Marine by the name of Nash. He was a veteran of Peleliu and Okinawa, who said he could no longer recognize the country he had fought for in this land of psychedelic rock and long-haired hippies. Sgt. Nash believed the men of Charley's generation were soft — why else were they getting their asses handed to them by a bunch of yellow midgets in black pajamas? — and he did nothing to hide his cynicism.
When Charley showed up on the first day of work, not wearing his service revolver, Sgt. Nash threatened to write him up for dereliction of duty. Charley explained that he didn't think Maine game wardens needed to go everywhere armed; some situations called for wearing a gun and others didn't. Mostly, being an effective law enforcement officer came down to being skilled in the art of persuasion, of laying out the choices a man had before him: to make things better for himself or worse. The legendary sheriff Buford Pusser — whose life story had recently been dramatized in the movie Walking Tall — had faced down the Dixie mafia with just a stick. None of these arguments persuaded Nash who told his new warden to strap on his Smith & Wesson or hand over his shiny new badge.
Sgt. Nash spent that first morning subjecting Charley to a lengthy diatribe on the Maine Warden Service's decline in admissions standards while he pointed out his favorite places to spy on scofflaw fishermen. The sergeant never seemed to have met an innocent man. The world he described seemed to be one populated by either empty-headed dope fiends and toothless poachers or by criminal masterminds.
When Nash told his young charge that a bearded wild man was living in the woods of central Maine; that this mysterious figure traveled only by night, venturing out from his hidden lair to rob lakeside camps of their canned goods, propane tanks, and blankets; that he had burglarized hundreds of properties over the years but had only been glimpsed twice, the first time by a couple of amorous teenagers who thought they'd found privacy on a cabin porch, the second time in the headlights of a speeding car that came flying around a bend; and that this backwoods phantom had been eluding authorities since the Eisenhower Administration — Charley had reason to be skeptical.
"Maybe I'll be the one to catch him," said the young warden.
"Keep dreaming." Nash pressed a new cigarette to his lips.
Even after he'd begun patrolling his district alone and started introducing himself around the lakeside villages, Charley wondered if this so-called hermit was a collective joke the community was playing on its new warden. Everywhere he went, he discovered a new piece of the legend. At Grindle's Store, some wag had sketched a wanted poster, depicting a bearded, bespectacled creature named "Sweet Tooth." The reward for the burglar's apprehension was listed as "a cool million" dollars.
"Why do you call him 'Sweet Tooth'?" Charley asked Tom Grindle.
The storekeeper, who had been slicing tomatoes for Italian sandwiches, wiped his hands on his apron, leaving marks like bloody fingerprints. "Well, he has pretty unusual tastes in food," the old man said. "He'll take peanut butter and maple syrup, but he'll leave behind cans of tuna fish and vegetable soup."
"Peanut butter and maple syrup?" Charley peered again at the poster. "Are you sure it's not a bear?" "Oh, he's human all right. People leave notes for him. 'Take all the food or clothing you want, but please don't take the power tools,' and damn if he doesn't oblige. He cleaned me out of paperbacks a few years ago. Tell me what sort of animal reads Travis McGee."
Soon Charley began to receive calls himself from burglarized camp owners, and sure enough, the stories the victims told him were bizarre, if not borderline comical:
"He took all of my husband's underwear and the writing desk of the guest room. When he left, he locked the door behind him."
"He broke the faucet climbing in through the window above the kitchen sink and then ransacked our liquor cabinet. Took everything but a fifth of tequila."
"He stole the batteries out of my camp radio — but then left the radio. I figured he must already have one of his own."
"All he took from our place was a big stack of National Geographic magazines."
In his first year, Charley counted nearly a hundred thefts. Most were reported in the springtime, when the owners returned to Maine to open up their camps and realized that someone had been sleeping in their beds and eating their porridge, so to speak. On each call, he would inspect the crime scene for evidence, but the hermit seemed to wear gloves and walk without ever leaving a footprint. The closest Charley got to him that first summer was when he stumbled across a cache of household goods expertly hidden in a ravine cave. Beneath a green tarp was a neat little dugout area with a dirt floor swept clean of needles and a row of twenty-pound propane bottles rigged together and connected to a propane light. There was a folding director's chair and a plank bookshelf on which were arranged alphabetically a series of books, including an impressive collection of Travis McGee mysteries. Charley decided this must be the hermit's personal library, although the National Geographics were nowhere to be seen.
He spent a few bug-bitten nights lying on his stomach nearby, watching the cave, but only encountered a single raccoon that wandered onto the scene to sniff the propane tanks.
The general consensus, when Charley addressed the members of the lake association at their annual meeting, was that the hermit was a nuisance but not a danger. "Sweet Tooth" never robbed a building while its owner was at home, and he had passed up many opportunities to steal cash, jewelry, and firearms. A few people — newcomers from out of state who had recently purchased their properties — stood up to tell their stories with fear in their eyes or anger in their voices. Charley had the sense that they came from urban neighborhoods where the term "crime wave" didn't provoke smiles. He felt slightly sorry for these frightened city people who carried their fear like so much overweight luggage.
The incident that changed Charley's mind about the hermit was the third time he robbed the boys' camp. It was a damp, drizzly morning in early April, months before the first campers were due to arrive. The director — a prematurely bald young man by the name of Lafontaine — met the warden at the mess hall, with his hands thrust into his raincoat pockets and an expression of utter defeat on his smooth pink face.
"He took everything this time," said Lafontaine.
"Can you be more specific?" said Charley.
The camp director indicated the broken latch where the hermit had jimmied the door. He escorted Charley across the vast echoey cafeteria, with its pine floors and war banners hanging from the rafters, and brought him into the kitchen. He showed off cupboards in which round circles in the dust revealed where huge cans of food had formerly been. He opened the door to a walk-in freezer and waved his hand at the frosted shelves, like a magician's assistant gesturing at an empty box where the magician had just vanished into thin air. "I bought four hundred and fifty dollars' worth of food yesterday, and that bastard got away with all of it. What's he going to do with eight pounds of hot fudge?" Eat it, Charley supposed, but the despair in Lafontaine's voice kept him from making a glib comment. He knew that the camp catered to disadvantaged children from big cities who had never heard a loon before or caught a perch on a worm. It was one thing to pilfer wool blankets from Bostonians who used their second homes for a few weeks a year, if at all. But this was another matter.
Charley committed himself to capturing the hermit. He began by extensively reconnoitering the surrounding woods, figuring that the hermit couldn't have gotten away with such a haul unless he made multiple trips to a nearby hide-out. But when he found no prints in the mud except those of the resident moose, he began to consider the lake. A man could load a canoe with a lot of heavy bags and steel cans. If the hermit had come by water, then he could be living anywhere along the wide, marshy pond.
"I want you to go grocery shopping again," Charley told the camp director. "The hermit will be waiting for you restock your pantry, and I want to lure him back here so I can spring a trap on him."
"I don't have the money to!"
"You're welcome to what I have in my passbook savings. Consider it a donation to the cause."
Lafontaine reluctantly agreed to Charley's offer. The warden even helped him load the shopping cart and pushed it down the warped wooden aisles of the A&P. They returned to the camp, restocked the shelves, locked up the mess with new padlocks they had purchased in Tom Grindle's store, and then drove off the grounds, making as much noise as possible and being sure to give the impression of vacating the property for the evening. Charley hoped the hermit would see their two sets of headlights disappear up the hill into the darkness.
When they reached the asphalt road, Charley told Lafontaine to drive home, to the farmhouse where he lived while the camp wasn't in session, and then the warden hid his truck in some alder bushes. He did his best to camouflage the vehicle and used a pine bough to swirl away the tracks the wheels had left in the mud. He zipped up his rain coat and buckled on his service revolver. Now that Nash was no longer perched on his shoulder, Charley usually kept the pistol locked in the glove compartment. He found the weight of the gun to be oppressive, and most of the time he only wore it for show. Then he took his flashlight and a pair of handcuffs and made his way cross-country back to the mess hall. He moved as quietly as he could, slipping from tree to tree as the Viet Cong had done along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
When he returned to the camp, he kept close to the buildings until he reached the bunkhouse across from the mess. He had noticed that there was a porch under which he could hide with a good view of the entrance. The windows were all boarded up so the door was the only way inside. Charley wriggled into his place of ambush, and he waited.
It rained that night. Small ponds formed around Charley's knees, elbows, and bony hips. When dawn came it was still raining, but the hermit had not appeared. Eventually, Lafontaine returned and the two men — the camp director and the mud-soaked, shivering warden — inspected the mess hall, just to be certain the pantry remained untouched. The hermit had seemingly spent his evening out of the rain, feasting on hot fudge.
"He'll be back, though," Charley assured Lafontaine. "I'll bet you a penny he's here tonight."
The warden returned home to take a scalding shower and sleep in his solitary bed, but by nightfall he was back at the camp. This time he positioned himself on the rooftop of the infirmary. He spread himself flat on the asphalt shingles and peered down at the mess hall. He had come to the conclusion that the hermit might have anticipated an ambush from the ground. It didn't rain that night, but a cold wind stirred in the treetops, and he found himself wishing he had worn an extra pair of socks. In the morning he climbed down off the roof with dead pine needles stuck to every part of him, as if glued there by an out-of-control arts and crafts class.
Every evening after that, Charley returned to the camp. He changed hiding places, returning to the damp hollow beneath the porch. He built himself a duck blind in the alders and crouched inside the woven rushes until the sun came up. He tried moving his vehicle a mile up the road in case the hermit had discovered its parking place and was waiting for the game warden to abandon his stakeout before raiding the camp again. Nothing he tried seemed to work. A strange notion began to form in his head of the hermit being some sort of cryptozoological creature, half-man and half-beast, with extraordinary powers of perception. He felt as if he were hunting for Bigfoot.
After a week of sleepless, freezing nights, a crazy idea occurred to him. "I want you to lock me inside the mess hall," he told Lafontaine.
"I've already tried that," the balding director said. "I had my wife padlock the door, and I put down a sleeping bag under one of the tables, but he never showed. Either that, or he sensed somehow that I was in there."
Charley pulled on his chin as he considered the problem from a new angle. "Can you pick me up at my house this afternoon?" When Lafontaine arrived at the little ranch house the Warden Service had provided Charley, he found the young warden dressed for a blizzard. He was wearing a woolen parka, heavy leather boots, and a green hat with ear flaps. He crouched down in the back seat with a blanket pulled over his head while the director drove back to camp. When they arrived at the mess hall, he had Lafontaine unlock the door, and then he quickly slipped inside the building, worried that even ten seconds in the open would alert the hermit to his presence.
"Now what?" asked Lafontaine.
"I want you to lock me inside the freezer."
"You'll freeze to death!"
"I might get a bit chilly, but it will be no worse than the nights I spent in the snow caves I built as a lad."
Charley explained that he thought the hermit had developed a means of determining whether a person was hiding inside the mess hall. Unless he had X-ray vision in addition to his other seemingly supernatural powers, he couldn't see through the stainless steel walls of the Master-Bilt freezer. It was Charley's intention to spring out at the burglar the moment he opened the door, taking him by complete surprise.
"This is the most insane idea I have ever heard," Lafontaine said.
"That is why it will work."
"You'd better hope I don't get in a car accident on my way home tonight," said the director, closing the steel door.
It was black inside the freezer, and Charley began wishing he had brought a blanket to sit on. The cold penetrated through his wool layers into the marrow of his bones. He tried standing up, then crouched on his heels for a while, but found no position that could be described as comfortable. None of them was worse, however, than the postures he had been forced to assume by his North Vietnamese captors.
Excerpted from The Bear Trap by Paul Doiron. Copyright © 2017 Paul Doiron. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Knife Creek Teaser,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was hoping to see what happens next
This book traps your attention from the first paragraph. Very well written..this author has many books published. I'm looking forward to reading them.
Great writing. Short story.