I passed the morgue’s meat wagon on my way up the hill to the prison.
Another inmate overdose, I figured. Maybe a suicide. If it had been a homicide, I would’ve heard about it. Natural causes were always a possibility. So many prisoners, especially those condemned to life behind bars, seemed to give up the ghost prematurely, dying being their only real chance at escape.
I wondered if the corpse belonged to one of the men I’d arrested.
The sun had broken through the clouds, but the American and the Maine state flags hung damp and dripping from a steel pole before the complex of whitewashed buildings. The architect had done a good job disguising the essentially retributive nature of the penitentiary. From the parking lot you could barely see the three sets of razor-wire fences or the guard towers with riflemen in them watching the distant tree line. At night it was different. The misty glow of the klieg lights radiated so high into the sky it illuminated the bellies of the clouds.
I locked my service weapon and automatic knife in the steel box I kept under the seat of my personal vehicle, an International Harvester Scout. Then I made my way across the lot to the gleaming façade, still wet with rain.
“My name is Mike Bowditch,” I told the guard behind the desk, showing him my badge and identification card. “I’m an investigator with the Maine Warden Service. I should be on your list.”
The correctional officer, or CO, was a paunchy, pouch-eyed man I didn’t recognize and whose name tag was obscured by a nonregulation fleece vest. Over the past four years, most of the guards I’d gotten to know had quit or been fired. Prisons never make those best-places-to-work lists. He half rose from his chair to appraise my outfit: waxed-cotton jacket, thermal tee, damp jeans, and muddy Bean boots.
“You been working undercover?” he asked.
“More like underwater.”
“I’ve just come from fishing.”
“Catch anything?” he asked with utter disinterest.
“Some decent-sized salmon. What happened to Tolman?”
“Never heard of him.” He squinted through a pair of thumb-printed reading glasses at his computer. “You’re here to see inmate Cronk?”
“You need to leave keys, coat, spare change, in one of those lockers. Anything that might set off the detectors or conceal contraband.” He slid a pamphlet at me. “Here’s a list of prohibited items.”
“I have it memorized. Look, I drove four hours from Grand Lake Stream to get here before visiting time was over. That’s fifteen minutes from now if I’m not mistaken.”
The guard put down his readers and studied my windburned face. The lobby of the Maine State Prison was this man’s personal fiefdom. He didn’t know me. He could have made me wait.
“Is this visit business or personal?”
“A bit of both.”
He hadn’t anticipated that answer. Or maybe he didn’t care one way or another. He waved me through with the back of his hand.
The two guards manning the body scanners had high-and-tight haircuts and muscles you only get from pushing and pulling barbells. Like the CO at the desk, they wore midnight-blue uniforms with gold badges pinned to their shirts and portable radios fastened at the top buttons.
“How’re you doing today, Warden?” the lighter skinned of the two asked. He was one of those pale-eyed, white-haired, pinkish people who’d missed being born an albino by a flip of the genetic coin. According to the tag on his chest, his name was Pegg.
“How am I doing? That depends if you let me out of here at the end of my visit.”
“I hear that, bro. I ain’t even claustrophobic but sometimes this place makes me feel like I’m in a trash compactor—and I got a motherfucking key.”
Pegg was so white he was translucent, yet he talked as if he’d come straight out of Compton. I sensed he must be a recent hire since he still had a gloss on him that hadn’t been worn off or fouled by the existential filth of his workplace.
“The warden’s good to go, Pegg,” said the other guard, who was as dusky and dark eyed as his counterpart was colorless. He had the permanent scowl of a veteran CO. His ID gave his surname as Rancic.
But Pegg, I had already surmised, was a talker. “You’re here to see Killer Cronk, right?”
“Is that what you’re calling Billy now?”
But Pegg was too busy performing for his older colleague to listen to me. “So maybe you can settle a bet for us, dog. Rumor around B-Block is that Billy was a supersoldier back in the ’Stan. Is it for real he cut out a Taliban dude’s heart after the raghead shot up a school?”
“Sounds like a tall tale to me.”
Not that my friend was incapable of such an act.
Pegg winked at me through pallid lashes. “That means it’s the truth, yo! What did I tell you, Rancic?”
The protocol was for the two COs to take turns guiding in a visitor or group of visitors.
“How about taking the warden in before he runs out of clock?” Rancic sounded eager to be rid of both of us.
Chastened, the white shadow escorted me down the cinder-block hall to the visiting room. He instructed me to have a seat in a gray plastic chair while he went to fetch Billy from his cellblock.
Weak sunlight from the prison atrium shimmered through a window onto the pressed-wood table. It reflected off a teal-blue backdrop in the corner against which inmates could take photographs with their loved ones. It was the only spot where visitors were allowed to take pictures.
Every time I reflected upon this place, a Latin term resurfaced from deep in my memory: civiliter mortuus. The words translate to “civil death.” In common law, the phrase applies to the loss of almost all of a person’s rights and privileges after having been convicted of a felony. By this definition, prisoners could be numbered along with vampires, zombies, and ghosts as members of the undead. No wonder the Puritans had referred to the first jail they’d built in Boston as “a grave for the living.”
I tried to relax, but my lungs were having trouble processing the stuffy air, as if the afternoon’s previous visitors had sucked all of the oxygen from it. I still couldn’t believe that I had been persuaded to leave my vacation to return to this bell jar—and all on the thinnest of pretexts.
* * *
Several hours earlier, I’d been standing in icy, waist-deep water casting Barnes Special streamers to salmon that wouldn’t bite unless you bounced your flies off their noses. That was where Aimee Cronk had reached me. I had tucked the six-weight under my arm to dig the vibrating phone out of my waders.
“Billy needs to see you. He says it’s a matter of life and death.”
“He’s said that before, Aimee.”
“Not like this he hasn’t.”
I could imagine her on the other end: a short, pretty, ginger-haired woman who was plump in all the right places. It sounded as if she was standing in the open air: the parking lot of a Dollar Store, Family Dollar, Dollar General. One of those places. I heard big-engined vehicles downshifting as they passed.
“Admit it, Mike. You’re worried Billy’s going to waste your time with one of his crackpot theories.”
“That’s not true.”
Aimee tended to dress in flannel shirts, elastic-waist jeans, and Keds. More than once I’d seen people literally look down their noses at the mother of five as she pushed her loaded shopping cart up to the register and paid for the groceries with a SNAP card. Isn’t this overweight, uneducated woman ashamed to be living off everyone else’s tax dollars?
I could have told those snobs a few things about Aimee Cronk, starting with how her cart wasn’t full of the processed food they imagined but fresh vegetables, lean meats, and unsweetened cereals—she had no higher priority than feeding her children the best meals she could afford.
I could have told them that Aimee hated taking assistance and only did so to supplement the two jobs she worked, as a part-time receptionist and a part-time waitress, neither of which offered benefits.
I could have told them that the Cronks had been compelled to sell their house to cover Billy’s legal bills and were then forced into bankruptcy when Aimee was diagnosed with a uterine cyst. The treatment would have been covered by Medicaid in most other states but not in Maine, where the governor had opposed the expansion of the program. As a result they were living in a rented apartment in Lubec above a rat-infested warehouse that shipped clams by truck along the Eastern Seaboard.
I could also have warned the snobs that Aimee had read their hateful minds—just as she’d noticed the half-gallon Tanqueray bottles they’d hidden in their carts under bags of quinoa and cases of coconut water. Despite never having graduated from high school, let alone college, Aimee Cronk was the most gifted natural psychologist I’d met. The woman had a bullshit detector so sensitive it registered a lie before it took shape in the back of your throat.
“Whatever Billy’s worked up about, it’s for real this time,” she continued. “Now, what do you have planned that’s more important than helping your best friend in the world?”
“That’s kind of manipulative, Aimee.”
“Darn tootin’, it is.”
And so I had unstrung my fly rod and packed up my wet waders and driven through a snow squall that had become a rainstorm that had become a partly sunny afternoon by the time I reached the Midcoast. Such was the month of April in Maine.
* * *
The security door opened with a click, and in strode Billy Cronk.
I always forgot what a scary son of a bitch my friend was. Six feet five and all muscle. Irises the color of a glacial pool. He wore his blond hair long, occasionally in a braid; his beard was woven of red and gold. Even women who were terrified of him found him sexually compelling—maybe especially the women who were terrified.
“Make it fast, guys,” said Pegg. “You got to be outta here by three-thirty, yo.”
Billy folded his long body into the chair across from me. He wore jeans and a blue cotton shirt, rolled up above his forearms to reveal the war ink tattooed there.
“Thanks for coming.” His voice had always been more of a growl. Imagine a bear with a Down East accent.
“I know it’s been a while.”
“You don’t need to apologize.”
I found myself in no hurry to get to the reason he’d called me here. I feared it would confirm my suspicions that this latest crisis was as bogus as the previous ones.
“The medical examiner was leaving as I was entering the prison. Was it another overdose?”
“Yeah, I didn’t think it could get worse, but six guys have OD’d since the New Year, all fatals. Drugs are easier to score in here than candy bars.”
He began to tap his foot under the table.
I had delayed as long as I could. “Aimee said you have something important to talk with me about.”
He lowered his voice as if a microphone might have been hidden under the table. “There’s a new CO here. A female sergeant. Her name is Dawn Richie. She got transferred over from the Downeast Correctional Facility after the governor closed it.”
“She was lucky. Most of the guards at that prison lost their jobs.”
“She was lucky all right.” He cast a stealthy glance at Pegg, who was standing against the wall, nibbling his nails. “I need you to do something for me, Mike. It’s a matter of life and death.”
“You know I’d do anything for you, Billy.”
“I need you to look into Richie for me.”
“Investigate her. Learn as much as you can about her past. No one can know you’re doing it. You can’t tell a soul. Not even your new girlfriend. Especially not Dani. If word gets out, I’m a dead man.”
My heart had become a dead weight inside my chest. “You want me to secretly investigate a Maine State Prison sergeant?”
“You’ve got to do it fast, too.”
He folded his powerful arms across his chest, showcasing the green dagger tattooed along his ulna. “I can’t tell you that.”
It wasn’t the request that gave me pause. Nobody who knew me—certainly none of my superiors—would have accused me of being a stickler for protocol. The problem was Billy’s overactive imagination. The man saw conspiracies everywhere. More than once he had sent me on a chase for a nonexistent wild goose. At what point are you hurting, not helping, a friend by indulging his make-believe suppositions?
“You need to give me a reason.”
“You want a reason? How about you do it because you owe me.”
For the past four years he had never once uttered those words. I realized now that my reluctance in coming to the prison today was because I had sensed my long-unpaid bill had finally come due.
Billy Cronk was behind bars, separated from his wife and children, because of me.
Four years earlier, two lowlifes had tried to murder Billy and me in a gravel pit in the woods of easternmost Maine. They had almost succeeded. They would have succeeded if Billy, the veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, hadn’t gone into berserker mode. What started as self-defense ended with bloodshed of a kind I’d never before witnessed. When Billy had blown apart a helpless man’s skull with a burst of .223 rounds, he had, in his blind fury, unquestionably crossed a line that I couldn’t ignore and remain a law-enforcement officer.
It was the hardest decision of my life. But I chose to uphold my oath and testified truthfully to what I’d witnessed in the gravel pit. The judge sentenced Billy to seven to ten years in prison for manslaughter.
The searing memory of Aimee Cronk’s sobs in the courtroom made it harder to say what I had to say now. “Billy, there’s no way I can do what you’re asking me to do. I’m a warden investigator, not a PI.”
My refusal—after his having called me on my debt—seemed to catch him off guard. “But you know all the tricks.”
“You know I’d do anything for you, Billy.”
His nostrils flared. “Except this.”
“The last time I was here you accused the infirmary staff of having trustees sneak olanzapine into your food because you refused to take it. Before that was the incident of the ‘stolen’ wedding ring that you forgot you’d hidden. And the time someone was supposedly embezzling funds from your canteen account that turned out to be a math error. Do you want me to go on?”
“You think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“I’m the boy who cried wolf then.”
To avoid disclosing my concerns about his mental state, I trotted out an excuse even I recognized as lame. “What you’re asking me to do today would be against the law.”
When he sneered, his mustache revealed the curl of his upper lip. “Because you never broke the law before.”
He had me there. “This is different.”
“Because you won’t tell me why, for one thing. Who is this woman? Why do you need to know about her background? Is she into something illegal? Is she in mortal danger? What?”
Billy shot to his feet so fast he overturned his chair. Pegg, who had been watching us from a distance, snapped to attention and reached for his radio. He was unarmed, as was standard for correctional officers when in places where they could easily be ambushed by prisoners.
“Is there a problem, Cronk?”
The prisoner burned me with his glare. “Forget I asked.”
“You don’t have to visit again—not for a while.” Then he drove the shiv through my heart. “Tell Aimee I love her.”
Copyright © 2019 by Paul Doiron