MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
On my first day as a cadet at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the instructors showed my class the most disturbing video I had ever seen. It was a montage of real-life footage—most of it taken during routine traffic stops—of police officers who had been ambushed in the line of duty. We saw cops being run over, cops being wrestled to the ground by multiple assailants, cops having their service weapons stripped from their hands and used to kill them.
“You only need to get careless once,” our instructor told us. As if we needed to be told.
Five years had passed since I’d seen that video; I was no longer a twenty-three-year-old cadet, no longer a rookie, and yet those horrible images still made regular appearances in my nightmares. Every time I went on patrol, without exception, I would hear my instructor’s warning in my head, and I would wonder if this was the day that some seemingly harmless stranger would smile at me through a window and then shoot me in the face.
I might have called myself paranoid if I hadn’t watched those cops being murdered.
* * *
I had just taken off my gun belt and put a pot of venison stew on the stove to reheat when I glanced out the window and saw the Jeep parked across the road. It was late afternoon in mid-January and already getting dark, but I saw a flicker inside the vehicle that told me someone was lighting a cigarette.
I was all alone in the house.
Earlier that week, I had said good-bye to my girlfriend, Stacey, a wildlife biologist who was headed north to study why moose were dying off in record numbers across the state and what could be done to save them.
My nearest neighbors lived a quarter mile away through the woods in either direction.
So what reason would someone have for stopping here?
The state of Maine doesn’t give out the home addresses of its game wardens, but the location of my rented house was common knowledge around Sebago Lake, especially among the resident poachers, petty criminals, and pill fiends. Hard as it was for me to believe, I had been stationed in the greater Portland area for nearly a year and a half now, more than enough time to make enemies, and I already had a long list of them from my years on the Midcoast and Down East. I could think of plenty of people I wouldn’t have wanted to show up, unannounced and uninvited, on my doorstep.
I strapped on my gun belt again.
Without stopping to grab a parka or hat, I made my way through the kitchen to the back door and out into the frozen yard. The motion-sensitive lights snapped on, revealing my government-issue boat, canoe, and Jet Ski: all the tools of my summer trade stowed beneath cold-stiffened tarps. The people who were renting me the house had also left behind a jungle gym, for which Stacey and I had no use.
I circled through the leafless woods that surrounded the property, my feet punching postholes through the surface crust, and came out onto the road, downwind of the Jeep. There was a bite in the air that made me think more snow was on the way, even though none had been forecast. Even from fifty feet away, I could smell the cigarette.
The Jeep was a lipstick-red Grand Cherokee, neither old nor new, with a Maine plate and a ski rack on top. The shadows made it hard to see through the windows, but I thought there might be just a single person inside. I removed my flashlight from its holster and did my best to stay out of the rearview mirror as I came up behind the parked vehicle.
I rapped hard on the glass and shined the beam of my SureFire straight into the driver’s face.
“Christ!” she said, jumping in her seat.
She was a middle-aged woman with wavy blond hair and blue eyes that were probably beautiful when they weren’t stung with smoke and rimmed red from crying. She was wearing a white puff vest over a denim shirt that matched her eyes. My first thought was that she was stunning; my second was that I had never seen her before in my life.
In my hardest voice, I said, “Game warden. Can you roll down the window, please.”
She had to turn the key in the ignition to get the glass down, and for an instant, I thought she might peel out of there. Instead, she released a cloud of smoke through the cracked window. I wondered why she even bothered wearing perfume if she was going to cure her skin with tobacco fumes.
She turned off the engine. “Is there—is there a problem?”
I moved the light from her face, flashing it around the interior of the Jeep. She had been using a Diet Coke can as an ashtray. Her purse was on the seat beside her. I saw a ski jacket thrown carelessly in the backseat. But no open containers of alcohol, no rifles mounted in a rack, nothing suspicious or illegal.
“Do you mind showing me your license and registration?” My breath steamed, as if I, too, had been smoking.
“What did I do? Did I do something wrong?” She had a jittery way of speaking, as if there was too much caffeine and nicotine in her bloodstream.
The law actually didn’t require her to show me any identification, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. I wanted to know who this strange woman was parked outside my house.
After a moment of hesitation, she reached for her pocketbook and pulled out a wallet. She looked even more attractive in the picture on her driver’s license than she did in the flesh. Her name was Amber M. Langstrom, she was forty-eight years old, and she lived in Bigelow, which was a ski town up north, not far from where I had spent the first nine years of my life, back before my parents divorced.
“I saw you parked out here,” I said, turning the light back on her, “and I wanted to see if you were all right.”
“I just pulled over to make a call,” she said.
“It’s a dangerous place for that. This is kind of a narrow road—especially with these snowbanks—and a car coming around the bend wouldn’t have much time to avoid hitting you.”
She shut one eye. “Can you turn off that light, please? I can’t quite—”
I pointed the beam at the ground. “Is that better?’
“Yes. Thank you.” She blinked a few times to clear the spots away and then brought her face close to the window. She seemed to be squinting to read the name tag on my uniform.
“It says Bowditch,” I told her.
Her lips parted and she gave the faintest nod. Then she laughed for no reason I could understand.
“Are you sure everything is all right?” I asked.
“The real reason I stopped is I’m lost and—this is so embarrassing—I’ve been driving around looking for a place to pee. There are no gas stations or McDonald’s anywhere.” She leaned her forearms against the wheel and smiled wide enough for me to see she was missing a molar. “I don’t suppose—I don’t suppose you live in that house?”
I felt my hand twitch in the direction of the .357 on my hip.
“If it’s not too much trouble, I just wondered—could I use your bathroom?” she asked, with an extra tremble in her voice. “This is so embarrassing, but I drank too much soda, and I really, really, really have to pee.”
“Can you excuse me a minute?” I said.
I retreated back to her rear bumper and took out my cell phone. I hit the auto dial for the state police dispatcher and recited the plate number and driver’s license information.
The answer came back: “No outstanding warrants. No convictions. Record’s clean.”
“Is everything all right there, Mike?” the dispatcher asked.
“I’ll let you know.”
I could see Amber watching me in her side mirror as I approached her open window.
I brought the flashlight beam back to her face. “What are you really doing here, Ms. Langstrom?”
“Your first name is Mike, right? Mike Bowditch?” She smiled quickly, then bit down on her lower lip. The expression was supposed to be friendly, flirtatious. She had a small tattoo of a butterfly, the size of a gem, at the base of her throat.
A breeze lifted the hairs on my scalp. I kept my right hand by my hip.
She smiled harder. “I have a confession to make. I’ve been sitting here trying to get up the courage to knock on your door, and then you just—you just came out of nowhere like a ghost or something. The thing is, I needed to see you, and the Warden Service wouldn’t tell me where you lived. I asked Gary Pulsifer, and he said it was somewhere near Sebago, but he wouldn’t give me your home address. I had to ask around at some of the bars near the lake.”
Pulsifer was the longtime district warden for the Rangeley Lakes region. He and I had a complicated acquaintance that was sometimes cordial, other times close to adversarial. Gary was known in the service for having a uniquely perverse sense of humor. But I had a hard time believing he would have sicced a stalker on me, even one as attractive as Amber Langstrom.
“Why have you been looking for me?” I asked.
“Can we go inside?” she said. “It’s freezing out here, and it’s kind of—well, it’s kind of a long story. And I wasn’t lying about having to pee.”
I gazed into her eyes, but I didn’t know what I should be looking for. If she was truly dangerous—truly a threat to my life—what would be the tip-off?
“Not until you tell me what you’re doing here,” I said.
“It’s about your father.”
The breeze lifted the hairs on my scalp again. “My father?”
“It’s about Jack.”
I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting her to say, but it wasn’t that.
“My father is dead.”
“I know,” Amber said, and her voice trembled again. “That’s why I’m here.”
Copyright © 2016 by Paul Doiron