In this Edgar Award-nominated short story in the Mike Bowditch mystery series from bestselling author Paul Doiron, Mike is drawn into the story of a gruesome case from his mentor Charley Steven’s past.
Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch accompanies his old friend and mentor, retired bush pilot Charley Stevens, as he pays a visit to a mysterious woman, the widow of a Vietnam vet, living in isolation in the Maine wilderness. Many years earlier, she had called Charley, then a young game warden himself, for help. She claimed that her badly bleeding husband had been attacked by a rabid bat. But in the succeeding days, despite her husband's increasingly erratic and aggressive behavior, his wife resisted Charley's attempts to help, arousing his suspicions that more was going on than met the eye. Was the husband the victim of rabies, or was he suffering from post traumatic stress disorder? The situation finally erupted into horrific violence, leaving everyone involved deeply scarred. In the devastating finale to RABID, Charley reveals to Mike how he uncovered the awful truth about what actually happened in their home so many years before.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"I have a stop to make," said Charley Stevens.
It was one of those warm June evenings when you can feel the earth pivoting from spring to summer. The sun had just set behind the ridge, and now the sky was the color of purple lupines.
I kept my left hand on the steering wheel and reached down to lower the volume on the police radio. "Does it have something to do with that box?"
When the old man had loaded the big brown package in the bed of my patrol truck that morning, I had assumed it was something he'd intended to mail. But he hadn't mentioned the box again all day, and now the post offices were closed for the night.
Charley had a thick head of white hair that just about glowed in the dark. "The Boss asked me to drop it off for her."
The Boss was what he affectionately called his wife of forty-odd years. Her real name was Ora, and she had the biggest heart of anyone I had ever met, even after an airplane crash had left her paralyzed below the waist. The situation couldn't have been any sadder: her husband had been teaching her to fly his old Piper Cub, and she had lost control of the fragile plane. A life spent in the wilds of Maine had left Charley's face weathered, but I suspect guilt accounted for more than a few of the lines across his forehead.
"So where are we going?" I asked.
"You know that fire road off the Snake Lake Road — the one where we saw that sow bear and her two cubs? Drive all the way to the end."
Even for a man of his advanced age, Charley had an unusual way of speaking that was more than just a thick Maine accent. He had grown up in North Woods lumber camps and retained a peculiar dialect that had mostly died out with the last of the river drives. Sometimes I thought he hung onto it out of pure impishness.
He had been riding along with me on patrol all day. The retired game warden did that a lot back then, when I was stationed Down East. He seemed to miss the excitement of wearing a badge and gun and was living vicariously through his young protégé. He still yearned for the daily surprises that come with being a law enforcement officer — he what-the-heck occurrences that make you realize how endlessly inventive human beings are at screwing up their lives.
As directed, I made the turn Charley had indicated. I was unaware that there was even a house at the end of this particular dirt road. I was under the impression it just petered out at the edge of one of the vast wet peat bogs that soak up the rain and fog in easternmost Maine. It had gotten dark enough that I needed my headlights to avoid the lurking rocks and ruts.
Charley's uncharacteristic silence as we drove gave me a strange, almost sick feeling in my stomach. By nature, the man was a talker. He spun yarns like Rumpelstiltskin spun gold. Falling into any kind of reverie was unlike him.
"How's your love life these days?" he asked out of nowhere.
"Slow," I said.
My prior romantic entanglement had involved a beautiful recovering drug abuser who had slipped back into addiction before my eyes. I'd gone on a couple of dates afterward with a sultry Romanian waitress who had come to the US on a student work visa but had found we had nothing in common beyond the physical. I would never have confessed this to my friend, but the woman I was secretly infatuated with was his younger daughter, Stacey, a green-eyed wildlife biologist.
"Slow is good," said Charley patting my knee. "It's best to take your time before you get hitched. People don't understand that a marriage is a living thing. It can grow and blossom, but it can wither, too — become diseased even."
I wasn't remotely close to getting married, so I had no clue where this had come from.
We passed a small duck pond still swollen with spring rain. I knew it would shrink to half its size as summer made tinder out of the surrounding pine forest. Several small silhouettes flitted against the sky above the quicksilver water. They were bats chasing the insects that hatched at night.
My headlights struck a reflective, diamond-shaped sign that hung from a chain across the road. NO TRESPASSING. I slowed to a stop but kept the engine idling.
"Is this it?" I asked.
Instead of opening his door, he remained buckled in with his big hands braced against the dash — almost as if he dreaded making the delivery.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"I need you to wait here. I know this sounds mysterious, Mike."
He almost never called me by my first name. It was always "young feller" or "son," although he was nothing like my own late father. I could see the strain in his tanned face. He wanted so much to tell me about this mysterious errand.
"Look, Charley. You don't have to tell me anything you promised to keep secret."
He let out a defeated sigh. "Does the name Hussey mean anything to you?"
"Not unless you mean a fallen woman."
My quip didn't seem to sit well with him. "I'm talking about the Hussey family. I thought you might have heard the rumors or whatever you'd call them. The local kids dare each other to come out here, like it's a haunted house, only this one has a real person living inside it. Not yet a ghost."
I turned the off the ignition and settled in for the tale. "What happened here, Charley?"
"Did you see the bats over that pond back there?"
"Because it all started with a bat."
Later, I got Ora's version of the story, which was mostly the same, but different in key respects. If anything, it was even more horrifying. As is often the case when you hear two accounts of a tragedy — especially when those accounts come from a husband and wife — you should probably begin by assuming that the truth lies somewhere in between.
* * *
Back in the mid-1980s, Charley was the game warden for this very same district. The area around Machias then was much like it is now: a wild, underpopulated region of blueberry barrens and blasted heaths. Washington County was a land of evergreen forests webbed with shadows, and of forgotten farms sinking back into the sandy soil: a place with many dark corners where you could hide from the world.
Charley enjoyed his four-wheeled patrols, but flying was his great love in life, and he had recently put in a request for a transfer to the aviation division. Every time the phone rang he answered it eagerly, hoping it would be good news from Augusta, telling him he had been approved to become Maine's newest warden pilot.
That January night, however, it was a frantic woman on the other end of the line speaking in fractured English. "Is this game warden?" "Yes, ma'am. Warden Charles Stevens."
"We have emergency here!" The woman had a distinctive accent that he identified, from his multiple tours of duty in southeast Asia, as Vietnamese. "How quick you get over to Fire Road Three?" Charley caught the eye of Ora, who understood without being told that work was taking him from the family again. She rose to her feet and removed his bowl of venison stew from the table to reheat later.
"What kind of emergency?" he asked.
"My husband been attacked," said the caller.
"By a human or an animal?"
"By a bat! He bleeding from face. We at end of Fire Road Three. New house. Name Hussey."
Suddenly, Charley heard a man's voiced raised in anger on the other end of the line: "What are you doing? Who are you talking to?"
Then came the slam of the receiver back into its cradle.
Ora returned from the kitchen with a worried expression. She had high cheekbones and deeply set green eyes that often made him wonder if her ancestors had been kings and queens in the age of the Vikings.
"You need to go over there, Charley," she said after he'd recounted the full conversation.
"To catch a bat?"
"To check in on that woman to make sure she's all right."
He knew she was right. Ora always was right. And so the warden kissed his wife and his two little girls goodnight, put on his red wool coat over his green uniform, and got the engine of his Chevrolet C/K started.
The snow was deep, and he began to wonder if he might have been better off taking the Skidoo, but when he finally reached the fire road, he was startled to find it perfectly plowed, almost obsessively so, nothing but straight edges and right angles all the way down the hill. He noticed the POSTED signs tacked along the perimeter, too.
But there was no chain across the road back then. That came later.
At the bottom of the hill, he spotted security lights glowing intensely through the trees. Then he saw the house. Although it was clad with deeply stained clapboards, the rectangular home had all the charm of a barracks: corrugated metal roof, rows of square windows, and a concrete foundation painted fatigue green. A new Ford pickup, equipped with a professional-grade plow, was parked in the dooryard. Beside it was a cabover Peterbilt tractor unit. So the man of the house drove a big rig, the warden deduced.
The door opened even before Charley had climbed out of his Chevy.
On the threshold stood a wiry man with a flushed face. He looked to be in his thirties but aged beyond his years. His hair was so blond it was almost white, while his skin was as red as a bullfighter's cape. The man had affixed a fairly large bandage under his left eye. He wore a sweatshirt with the sleeves scissored off and stonewashed jeans.
"You can turn around and go home!" said the man in a ragged voice. "We don't need any help here."
"Your wife said you had a bat problem."
Charley glanced at the windows hoping to see signs of the wife. He walked purposefully toward the door with a disarming grin on his face. "You wouldn't mind if I came inside for a bit to warm up, Mr. Hussey? The heater in the old chariot is throwing out nothing but cold air. I think I've lost all feeling in my generative organ."
"Are you talking about your dick?"
The guy held a bottle of Molson beer in his hand, which bore a tattoo across the knuckles spelling out the word DEATH. The other hand had the word LIFE stretched out so the four letters could fill five knuckles.
The wife called from inside the house. "Let poor frozen man inside, John!" And then she rattled off something fast in Vietnamese that Charley — who understood the language from his time as a prisoner of war — didn't entirely catch. Maybe it was: "He came here to help you, and you're treating him like an intruder!" John Hussey lurched free of the door frame, barely allowing the warden room to pass.
The inside of the house had a familiar smell that sent Charley spinning backwards in time: aloeswood incense. He hadn't encountered the resinous perfume since he'd left Saigon on a stretcher.
The decor was Vietnamese as well — bamboo mats on the floor, mint-green walls, carved teak furniture, and a heavy crucifix on the wall. The wife was small and pretty with heavy makeup that made her age indeterminate. She was dressed in a traditional ao dai: a silk tunic and pants.
Removing his cap out of politeness, he said to her: "Ngôi nhà cua ban là dep."
The woman smiled. Her teeth were crooked and had a grayish tint. "Cam on ban."
"You're welcome, ma'am," said the warden. "But my Vietnamese is rusty. Maybe we should stick with the vernacular. My name is Charley Stevens. And you are ...?"
"Giang," the woman said.
The husband stepped between them. "You were in Nam?"
"What outfit?" Hussey's pupils were swollen, almost animal-like, not usually a side effect of alcohol.
"212th Combat Aviation Battalion."
The drunken man seemed to consider offering a handshake but held onto his beer. "First Battalion, Ninth Marines."
Charley knew all about the 1/9s. "Khe Sanh?"
"Nah. I didn't join the Walking Dead until '71."
Charley had expected that having the war in common might soften the man's aggression, but the retired Marine still looked like he was one harsh word away from throwing a punch.
"Do you ever stop in to the VFW in Harrington?" the warden asked, already knowing that he had never seen John Hussey there — or at the American Legion in Machias, or anywhere else for that matter. Charley knew most everyone in Washington County; he was a people person by disposition and had a near-photographic memory for faces.
"Why would I want to listen to a bunch of hairballs whining about how the war fucked them up?"
Charley had all sorts of questions. Most of them were for Giang starting with, how had an elegant quy bá ended up in this frozen wilderness? But he didn't feel welcome to pry into her personal life under the circumstances, with the husband looming.
"Your wife told me you were bitten by a bat?" the warden said.
John Hussey touched his blood-soaked bandage. "In my daughter's room. I don't know how the hell it got in there. Flying rat."
"It's probably been hibernating since the fall. Sometimes they find spaces behind curtains or even shelves. They'll come out if the room gets warm enough, thinking it's spring. How many children do you have?" "One daughter," said Giang.
John Hussey rounded on his wife again. "I told her to keep the goddamn screens closed."
"Can I have a look at the bat?" Charley asked.
"Why? What for?"
"I should take it to be tested."
"I threw it into the wood stove."
Giang peeked around her husband's shoulder. "Tested for what?"
"Rabies," Charley said. "It's a serious disease. Fatal."
She clapped a hand to her mouth. She had long painted nails decorated with beautiful flowers. "You need get shot," she told her husband.
The man just about swatted her away. "The bat didn't have rabies!"
"We can't be sure," said Charley. "You're going to want to go to the hospital and get a vaccination."
"To hell with that."
Charley tried again, working hard to keep a smile. "The size of the needles are greatly exaggerated, as Sam Clemens might have said."
"You think I'm afraid of needles?" The drunk man seemed to interpret everything as an assault on his manhood.
"Maybe it would be best if I spoke about this with your missus."
Hussey's face grew redder. "You want me to leave you alone with my wife?"
Charley worked his knit cap back onto the top of his head. "Mr. Hussey, I can't make you do anything you don't want to do, but I'd highly encourage you to visit the hospital tomorrow morning and tell the doctor you were bitten by a potentially rabid bat." Then he turned his attention to the wife — so small behind her Marine husband. "Chúc ngu ngo. Good night, ma'am."
"You speak Vietnamese language very well."
"I had a lot of teachers," he said, remembering the faces of his torturers.
* * *
What Ora remembered about that night was her husband's discomfiting silence when he returned home. It took a barrage of questions to get the story out of him. That had never occurred before in their marriage.
"Do you really think the bat was rabid?" she asked.
He stood with his back to the wood stove, warming himself. Steam rose in shimmers from his wet clothes as they dried. "Probably not."
"Then why did it bite him?"
"The poor critter was just scared. I'd be scared having a leatherneck chase me around the house."
"But it's possible the man might have gotten infected?"
"Possible enough that he should get a shot. But he won't, the fool."
Then Charley turned away from Ora to warm his front at the stove.
She watched him. As often happened when her husband became lost in thought, he started to feel with his fingers the injuries he had suffered during the war, the bone in his leg that had broken when he'd been shot down and then repeatedly re-broken by his captors; the shoulder they had dislocated that still ached on rainy days; the crooked fingers of his left hand; the smooth burns like baby's skin on his back; the pock marks of cigarettes extinguished on his flesh.
Ora arose from the sofa and embraced him from behind, tucking her head against his damp collar.
"It's because he's a vet, isn't it?" she said. "Seeing him has really gotten under your skin."
"It wasn't seeing him. It was seeing her. If I'd come upon an orchid blooming out there in a snowbank, I couldn't have been more surprised."
Ora knew what a chivalrous man her husband was, always ready to rescue a damsel in distress. She also knew how some women affected distress to get would-be knights to do their bidding. From Charley's description of Giang Hussey, Ora didn't know what to think of the Vietnamese wife except that she didn't much sound like a delicate flower.
John Hussey, on the other hand, was a type she knew too well. So many of the Vietnam veterans Charley had introduced her to seemed to have nitroglycerin running through their veins instead of blood. And not one of them had suffered the tortures her husband had endured in the H?a Lò Prison.
She could feel her forearms growing warm around him from the wood-fired stove. "I just don't understand it, Charley."
"Don't understand what, Boss?"
"How you went through hell on earth and came out a good man. So many others came back ruined."
Charley took a long time answering, as if the question had never even occurred to him. "I guess I was just lucky is all."
"Lucky? You were tortured. You spent years in a jail cell."
"I'm lucky I am the man that I am."
Blessing her own good fortune, she hugged him harder.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rabid"
Copyright © 2018 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,
Also by Paul Doiron,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Being a hunter, I related to a lot of the background interwoven into the plot. Plan to read more of your works. Thanks, Phil, Dallas TX