Authors: Paul Doiron
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For Monica Wood
I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into.
A Farewell to Arms
The last time I saw Lucas Sewall, he left a school notebook under the passenger seat of my truck.
It was a curious document. The boy had drawn disturbing images on the covers—pictures of vampire women and giant owls with bloodstained beaks. The inside pages were crammed with his indecipherable handwriting, words so small you needed a magnifying glass to read them. There were maps labeled with cryptic directions to “lightning trees” and “old Injun caves” and hieroglyphs that might have been messages in secret code or just meaningless scribbles. With a compulsive liar like Lucas, you never knew whether you were dealing with fact or fiction.
The dated diary entries were especially hard to unravel. Between his other weird jottings, the kid had seemingly kept a careful record of the tragic events in Township Nineteen, as if he had anticipated that his eyewitness account might one day prove useful in a court of law. But who knows what was going on in that oversize head of his? In my short acquaintance with him, I learned Lucas Sewall was a deeply damaged child who believed in manipulating adults, settling scores, and tying up loose ends. Sometimes I wondered whether he didn’t see the notebook as his last will and testament, with me in the role of executor.
The first entry was dated three nights before the fatal snowstorm:
Randle came around last night drunker than usual and made us leave the house again so he could get at his stash of drugs without us knowing where he’d hid them.
Ma didn’t want to let him in, but Randle had the Glock he bought off that Mexican in Milbridge and said he’d use it this time if we didn’t wait outside in the dooryard while he got his pills and powder.
We had trouble bringing Aunt Tammi down the ramp on account of her wheelchair not having good grippy-ness on the ice and snow.
Ma said we should at least wait inside the car, where we could run the blower, only she’d forgotten the keys on the kitchen table. That just made her more pissed off than she already was.
We could’ve waited in Randle’s car except that Uncle Prester was passed out in the shotgun seat and he smelt like he’d puked himself, which wouldn’t be the first time.
Randle was inside the house a long time, making shadows behind the curtains. When he came out, Ma said they were broken up forever and she didn’t like him hiding his drugs in her house for the cops to find.
That got Randle all exercised. He said if she ever ratted on him, she’d be sorry, and he said that went double for the Boy Genius.
Randle didn’t figure that I’d already found his stupid drugs stuffed behind the insulation in the sewing room … easiest place in the world to find, on account of the pink dust all over the floor.
He didn’t know what I did to the pills, neither … and wasn’t he in for a wicked surprise when someone swallowed one of them Oxycottons?
I would pay GOOD money to see Randle get his ass kicked.
As it happened, Lucas didn’t have long to wait.
Two days later, his mother’s ex-boyfriend was dead and his uncle Prester lay in a hospital bed with blackened claws where his fingers and toes had once been.
The zebra had frozen to death beneath a pine tree.
The animal lay on its side in a snowbank with its striped legs rigidly extended and its lips pulled back from its yellow teeth in a horsey grimace, as if, in its final moments on earth, it had grasped the punch line of some cosmic joke.
The owner of the game ranch had called the local veterinarian in a last-ditch effort to resuscitate the hypothermic zebra, and Doc Larrabee had brought me along because he needed a witness to back up this crazy story down at the Crawford Lake Club. It didn’t matter that I was the new game warden in District 58 and a flatlander to boot.
Doc knelt in the snow beside the equine. He had removed his buckskin mitten and was rubbing his palm across the dead animal’s thinly haired haunches. The frost melted beneath the warmth of his hand.
“You understand that a zebra is a creature of sub-Saharan Africa?” he asked Joe Brogan.
“Yeah,” the ranch owner said sourly.
“It is well adapted to life on the equatorial savanna—as opposed to the boreal forest of Maine, I mean.”
“I understand that!”
Brogan wore a beaver hat that might once have been fashionable on the streets of Saint Petersburg. His face was also furry. A single brown eyebrow extended across the bridge of his nose, and a luxuriant beard grew thickly down his throat before disappearing, like a shy animal, inside the collar of his wool shirt.
A small crowd of men had met us outside the gate of the Call of the Wild Guide Service and Game Ranch. They were big bearded men wearing camouflage parkas, synthetic snowmobile pants, and heavy pack boots. Now I could see their bulky silhouettes lurking in the shadows of the pines and smell their cigarettes drifting on the crisp February air. The ill will carrying downwind in my direction was as pungent as tobacco smoke.
The guides at Call of the Wild did some conventional outfitting in the fat spruce land outside the ranch’s barbed wire—leading hunters in pursuit of deer, bear, coyote, and moose—but Brogan had built his business on a practice that animal rights activists termed “canned hunting.” He owned miles of fenced timber, which he had stocked with the oddest menagerie of animals imaginable. The sign outside his gate advertised the services offered:
RUSSIAN BOAR, BUFFALO HUNTS, RED STAG, ELK HUNTS, AND FALLOW DEER HUNTS
The zebra hadn’t survived long enough to make it onto the sign.
At Call of the Wild, hunters paid thousands of dollars to sit on thermal fanny warmers in protected tree stands and take potshots at exotic creatures. According to a strange loophole in Maine law, what happened on game ranches was generally not the concern of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, for which I worked; rather, it was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. The state basically viewed these places as farms and the foreign animals as livestock. In my mind, the entire setup was a disgrace and an embarrassment to sportsmen.
The Warden Service had just transferred me from midcoast Maine to the unpeopled hinterlands of Washington County. I’d gotten into some administrative trouble down south the previous spring and summer—not the first time for such things, and unlikely to be the last. My commanding officer never came right out and said I was being exiled to Siberia, but when you are reassigned to the easternmost county in the United States—a place known for its epidemic drug abuse, multigenerational unemployment, and long tradition of violent poaching—it’s pretty clear your career isn’t on the rise.
While Doc Larrabee examined the carcass, I documented the travesty with my Nikon.
“What are you taking pictures for?” Brogan asked.
“Souvenirs,” I said.
Brogan and I had already locked antlers a week earlier. I’d issued a criminal summons to one of his coyote-hunting guides, a meathead named Billy Cronk, when one of his clients discharged a firearm within a hundred yards of a residence on posted property. Given the unemployment rate in these parts, losing your commercial guiding license was a pretty big deal. On the other hand, Cronk’s customer could’ve killed the old woman who lived in that house, and in my book, that was an even bigger deal.
I glanced around at the cigarette-lit faces. “Where’s Billy tonight?”
Brogan spat a brown stream of tobacco juice at my feet. “None of your fucking business.”
My former supervisor had given me some advice before I was transferred to the boondocks. “Play it tough,” Sgt. Kathy Frost had said. “When you’re assigned to a new district, you need to come on strong, or people will think you’re a pussy. Especially way Down East, where they eat wardens for breakfast.”
Everywhere I’d gone for the past three weeks, people treated me like a leper.
Doc Larrabee was one of the lonely exceptions. Maybe he felt sorry for me, or maybe, as a recent widower living alone in an isolated farmhouse, he thought that hanging around with the hated new game warden would be the cure for midwinter boredom.
“Well, obviously the animal has expired,” said Doc.
“Obviously,” said Brogan.
“I would attribute the official cause of death to freezing its ass off.”
Larrabee was a slope-shouldered man in his early sixties. He wore round eyeglasses, which were constantly fogging over, requiring him to wipe away the moisture with a handkerchief. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, he wore an Amish-style beard: a fringe of hair along the jawbone, with no mustache to match. He was dressed in green coveralls and tall rubber boots fit for wading through all kinds of manure. His work as a large-animal veterinarian kept him busy in the outdoors—delivering breached foals and tending to sick cows—and he had the healthy glow of a person who breathes a lot of fresh air. On the drive over, he’d told me he was working on a book of his misadventures titled
All Creatures Sick and Smelly.
“So that’s it, then?” the ranch owner said.
“Unless you have a musk ox or a greater kudu you’d like me to examine.”
Brogan moved the wad of tobacco in his mouth from one cheek to the other. “You’re one hell of a comedian, Doc.”
The veterinarian rose, stiff-kneed, to his feet. “I’m going to have to report this incident to the Animal Welfare Department, Joe,” he said, no longer grinning.
Brogan narrowed his eyes beneath his hairy brow. “What for?”
“Aggravated cruelty to animals is a Class C crime,” I said.
“I didn’t know it was going to freeze to death.”
“It’s a zebra, Brogan,” I said.
“We’ve got all kinds of animals here—African ones, too,” he said. “They all handle the cold fine.”
“Brogan,” I said. “It’s a zebra.”
“The guy who sold it to me said it was hardy. He misrepresented the animal. He’s the one you should be harassing.”
“I’m sure the district attorney will agree,” I said.
“Fuck you and your attitude,” Brogan said.
I heard murmuring and snow crunching in the shadows around me. My right hand drifted toward the grip of my holstered .357 SIG SAUER.
Two years earlier, when I’d been a rookie fresh from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and full of self-righteousness, I would have welcomed a confrontation with this jerkwad. But I had made strides in managing my anger, and besides, there was no urgency here: The zebra was dead. I would hand over my notes and photos to the Animal Welfare Department, and that would be the end of my involvement in Brogan’s bad business.