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There were two hunting deaths in Maine that day. And the deer season had barely even begun.
In the morning, a grandfather in Berwick, down on the New Hampshire state line, was out hunting with his son and grandson when he stumbled over a stone wall. His finger slipped and the bullet struck the thirteen-year-old boy in the head. Seeing what he’d done, the old man suffered a heart attack, leaving the traumatized father to run through the woods for help. The last I’d heard, the kid was in critical condition, being airlifted to Boston for emergency surgery. The grandfather had died before the first ambulance arrived.
The Maine Warden Service marshaled all the resources at its command—the Evidence Recovery Team, the Forensic Mapping Team, the Aviation Division, the K9 Team—and rushed them to the scene. Nearly every available officer was called upon to assist in the investigation. Something like thirty wardens in all.
As the newest investigator in the service, I was not one of them.
Two hours after the Bangor office had emptied, I was hunched over a computer, inputting numbers into a spreadsheet, when I received a frantic phone call. There had been another hunting-related death, this one halfway across the state from Berwick. A woman had been shot and killed on an island twenty miles off the coast of Mount Desert.
And now—because no one else was available—I was flying out to Maquoit to determine who was to blame for the shooting of Ariel Evans and whether state prosecutors should file criminal charges against the person.
The village constable who called to report the fatality described it to me as a “horrible, horrible accident,” as if bad luck alone were to blame. But accident is not a term we use in the Maine Warden Service. Game wardens understand that even when guns misfire or bullets ricochet, when feet stumble or fingers slip, there is always a trail of causation you can follow that will lead you back to an act of culpable negligence. A human being is dead because someone—the shooter, the victim, maybe both—made a mistake that could and should have been avoided.
Wardens don’t call these deaths accidents.
We call them homicides.
I had been a game warden for six years but a warden investigator for only four months. This was my first hunting homicide. The bubble of nausea rising in my stomach had nothing to do with the shuddering of the small plane. I was anxious—no, afraid—that I might mess up the most important case of my career.
It didn’t help that the pilot of the windblown Cessna was my recently estranged friend, Charley Stevens. The old man had barely spoken to me since his daughter and I had ended our relationship, back in the summer. My impression was that Charley held me responsible for Stacey’s rash decision to flee the state for a new life in Florida.
There is, as I said, always a trail of causation.
There is always someone to blame.
Our brusque meeting at the Hancock County–Bar Harbor Airport had made it clear that a chasm had opened between us. Charley had cordially greeted the two other passengers: my fellow warden Ronette Landry, who had been home with the flu; and a detective for the Maine State Police named Steven Klesko. But my former mentor had only shaken my hand, with pressure but not enthusiasm. There was none of our usual banter. He’d guided Klesko and Landry to their seats in the rear, explained to them that the noise from the propeller necessitated we wear headsets and speak into microphones for the duration of the flight, and offered a few words of warning on the brief but rough ride he was expecting out over the ocean to Maquoit.
“It’s just a fifteen-minute frog hop,” Charley had said in his backwoods Maine accent, “but fifteen minutes is long enough to reacquaint you with your last meal.”
Now that we were airborne, he kept his face forward—his rugged profile like that of some man-shaped rock formation you see up on a mountainside. He was chewing gum so hard the tendons in his neck flexed, as if to excuse himself from having to engage me in conversation.
Nothing else on earth could have made me sadder. Charley Stevens was the closest thing I had ever had to a real father. If I had married his daughter, as I’d long intended to do, he would have become my actual father.
Now what was he?
This day, I supposed, he was just a man flying a plane. Charley had once been the chief pilot for the Warden Service, and although he had retired years earlier, he still volunteered the use of his personal aircraft for emergencies or when the three other planes that constituted our Aviation Division were otherwise engaged. It was happenstance that had brought us together on this blustery November afternoon. The lone available investigator needed a ride to a death scene, and he was the only pilot available to take me.
It took Klesko leaning over my shoulder, his breath sharp with peppermint, to awaken me from my brooding. “Earth to Mike Bowditch.”
“Sorry, Steve,” I said into the microphone. “What were you saying?”
“I was asking what we know about the victim.”
“Her name was Ariel Evans. She was thirty-seven years old. From Manhattan. She was shot in the backyard of the house she was renting. She was hanging laundry.”
“Hanging laundry? So how could someone have mistaken her for a deer?”
“That’s what the investigator is here to find out,” said Charley, speaking for the first time since we’d taken off.
I found his words cheering. Acknowledging me at all seemed a crack in the wall between us. He hadn’t yet explained why he’d withdrawn from my life. I assumed he was harboring a grudge against me on his daughter’s behalf.
“I’m pretty sure she was a stranger to the island,” I said. “And to Maine.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because the constable said she should have known better than to be outside, hanging white underwear from a clothesline on the second day of deer season.”
Hunters often don’t spot a white-tailed deer until it’s running away. They’ll see something white move suddenly and they’ll take a shot at it. We get our expression hightailing it from the way a deer raises his tail as he bolts. The law says hunters are not permitted to fire without identifying their targets first, but it still happens. They get buck fever and start blasting.
“It sounds like the constable is blaming Ariel Evans for being the victim,” Klesko said.
“That happens with every hunting homicide,” I said.
Steve Klesko was the youngest detective in the Maine State Police, a year or two older than me. Some people might have called us peers; others, greenhorns. He hailed from the northernmost reaches of the state and had been a hockey star at the University of Maine before washing out of the minor leagues while his more talented teammates went on to fame and fortune in the NHL. The experience had left him with a dented nose, a dead tooth, and a fierce determination to succeed in his second-choice career as a state trooper. No one outworked Steven Klesko.
He had thick black hair that grew low on his forehead and a single unitary eyebrow. Back at the airport, he’d been dressed in a close-fitting charcoal suit that bulged whenever his biceps and deltoids contracted, but before boarding, he had switched his sharkskin jacket for a leather bomber and a pair of aviator sunglasses.
Despite the heater at my feet, I couldn’t get warm inside the drafty plane. I turned my face to the vibrating window. Droplets from invisible clouds ran like tears along the Plexiglass, but it was a hell of a view. Below us, the stony summits of Acadia National Park were patches of dark gray against the deep greens, rust reds, and softer grays of the late-autumn forest. I could make out the visitors’ center atop Cadillac Mountain—the first place in America to see the sunrise for much of the year—with its tiny tourists scrambling over ledges and its parking lot full of Matchbox toys. November was too late for leaf-peeping along the Maine coast, but the landscape had a raw, russet beauty.
In any season, Mount Desert Island—with its barren peaks, its pristine lakes, its genteel carriage roads—was a wonder to behold.
To my right I could see a long arm of the sea inset with picture-postcard villages. Somes Sound is the only fjord on the east coast of the United States. Other Europeans probably navigated its chill waters before the French explorer Samuel de Champlain “discovered” the island in 1604. Basque fishermen almost certainly dried their netted cod along its cobblestone beaches. Archaeologists have speculated that the Vikings had even made it this far south on their epic voyages. If so, the lonely fjord must have reminded those wayfaring Northmen of their distant homeland. Maquoit Island was also rumored to have been visited by the Vikings. A promontory there was named Norse Rock for its (probably fake) runelike carvings.
Once again, Klesko was forced to drag me out of my dark labyrinth.
“Do we know what she was doing on Maquoit?”
Ronette Landry’s stuffed-up voice came over our headsets: “Ariel Evans was a famous journalist. Her first book was a finalist for the Pulitzer, but her new one is even better. I read it in practically one sitting.”
Ronette came from a big Franco-American family in the former mill town of Sanford. It was une famille, not unlike my late mother’s. Ronette had olive skin, dark curls she seemed comfortable letting go gray, and copper-brown eyes that were always alert with curiosity. Landry was considered the best evidence analyst in the service and would normally have been considered essential to the investigation down in Berwick. I was grateful she’d dragged herself out of her sickbed to help me.
“What’s her book about?” Klesko asked.
Because he was seated behind me, I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I had the impression he was taking notes.
Ronette coughed into a wad of tissues. “Ariel went undercover among these neo-Nazis in Idaho, and she was imprisoned in their compound when they learned she was a reporter. They dry-fired guns at her head, threatened her with rape. The story of her escape was thrilling.”
“So she was probably out on Maquoit writing another exposé,” said Klesko. “It’s not like November is peak tourist season.”
“I can’t imagine the islanders would have welcomed a reporter,” Ronette said. “I’ve always heard the lobster wars are wicked fierce on Maquoit.”
“If you dragged the bottom, I’m sure you’d find ghost traps galore,” said Charley.
In the language of fishermen, a ghost trap is one that has been severed from the buoy that marks its location. Unmoored, it may bounce around on the rocky seafloor or get lost in the kelp forests that grow so thick in the Gulf of Maine. Violent storms, such as the nor’easters that lash the coast from September into April, frequently produce a bumper crop of ghost traps. So also do the equally violent feuds that occur between lobstermen. Some fisherman will take offense at his neighbor, whom he thinks is infringing on his territory. Or whom he suspects is screwing his wife. Maybe drugs are the cause of the conflict. Heroin is as easy to score as tobacco in Maine’s fishing communities, where almost all financial transactions occur in cash.
We were passing over the archipelago south of Mount Desert. I have heard Maine’s islands described as looking like puzzle pieces, but at that moment they resembled nothing so much as the shards of a plate shattered in a fit of rage.
Soon nothing was beneath us but frigid blue water.
I could see the shadow of our plane following us, almost furtively, along the broken surface of the ocean. It seemed to be playing hide-and-seek between the whitecaps. The weak sun hung low in the south. How many hours of daylight did we have left? Not many.
Under normal circumstances a boat would be carrying a contingent of wardens to the scene, but the investigative teams were all downstate. That left Landry and me. Charley, too. My friend and mentor had been a patrol warden before the position of investigator had been created. He’d seen more than his share of fatalities in the woods. And he’d proven in courts of law that many of those deaths were not what they’d appeared to be.
“I’ve never been out to one of these offshore islands,” said Klesko.
“Really?” Ronette Landry was as surprised by this admission as I was.
At least he doesn’t pretend to know more than he does, I thought. Most of the state police detectives of my acquaintance were not humble.
“I’m a farm boy from Aroostook County,” he said. “How many people live out here year-round?”
“I’d be surprised if it was more than a hundred,” said Charley. “All these old fishing outposts are dying off as the groundfish disappear and the oceans warm up. Lobsters are moving north in the Gulf of Maine. Give it a few years and Maquoit will go dead in the off-season, too.”
“That’s it up ahead,” Charley said.
“So soon?” Klesko said.
“The flight’s only fifteen minutes by air, but it’s two hours by ferry.”
Through the trembling windscreen I watched Maquoit grow larger as we approached. It lacked the ridge-backed mountains of Isle au Haut, to the west, and the surf-pounded cliffs of Monhegan, to the south.
What it possessed in abundance was fog. The American Meteorological Society had anointed Maquoit Island the foggiest place on the Atlantic seaboard. Whole weeks would pass without the mist lifting, and the daily mail plane would be unable to land. The constable had told me that the island had been socked in at first light, but the fog had burned off with the rising sun and the coming of an east wind.
Charley tilted the plane so the detective could catch a view of the village on the north and west sides of the island and the lighthouse at the southern tip. Ten or twelve lobsterboats floated in the one sheltered harbor. There was a vast, tweed-colored wetland at the center, dotted with duck ponds. But most of the island was cloaked in forest. The storm that had blown through Maine on Halloween had stripped leaves from the deciduous trees—the maples, beeches, and apples—but the spruces still bristled with dark boughs that concealed everything beneath them from view.
Some places, when seen from the air, look wide-open and exposed. Naked even. With Maquoit it was the opposite: you noticed how much of the island was hidden.
“Are those deer on the beach?” Landry said. “What are they doing?”
There must have been a dozen lithesome animals emerging from the dunes and roaming around the cobbles.
“Eating kelp,” said Charley.
“Have you ever seen that before?” I asked.
“In Alaska once. Never in Maine. Deer only eat seaweed when they can’t get enough of their usual browse.”
Klesko clutched the back of my seat. “Wait a minute. I just realized something. We’re twenty miles from shore. How did deer get all the way out here?”
“It’s a long, sad story,” said the pilot.
But it was too late for that. We had already started our descent.
Copyright © 2018 by Paul Doiron