In this thrilling entry in Edgar Award finalist Paul Doiron's bestselling series, a deadly attack on one of Maine's last wild wolves leads Game Warden Mike Bowditch to an even bigger criminal conspiracy.
While on vacation, Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch receives a strange summons from Billy Cronk, one of his oldest friends and a man he had to reluctantly put behind bars for murder. Billy wants him to investigate a new female prison guard with a mysterious past, and Mike feels honor-bound to help his friend. But when the guard becomes the victim in a brutal attack at the prison, he realizes there may be a darker cover-up at play—and that Billy and his family might be at risk.
Then Mike receives a second call for help, this time from a distant mountain valley where Shadow, a wolf-hybrid he once cared for, has been found shot by an arrow and clinging to life. He searches for the identity of the bowman, but his investigation is blocked at every turn by the increasingly hostile community. And when Billy’s wife and children are threatened, Mike finds himself tested like never before. How can he possibly keep the family safe when he has enemies of his own on his trail?
Torn between loyalties, Mike Bowditch must respond in the only way he knows how: by bending every law and breaking every rule to keep his loved ones safe and the true predators at bay.
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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 CO 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.
Pegg, for all his hours in the gym, looked like a Munchkin by comparison.
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're busy with your new job. I get it."
"That's no excuse."
"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."
"Look into ...?"
"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. Only the symptoms you described — hyperactivity, insomnia, paranoia — are the opposite of the effects produced by that drug. 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."
The pain I felt at refusing him came out as petulance. "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."CHAPTER 2
I left the prison in a daze.
What was I going to tell Aimee Cronk?
"I'm sorry, but I can't help your husband because his acute paranoia has become chronic?"
I knew that the correctional system dealt with "problem" prisoners by handing out mood-altering medications like biscuits to begging dogs. But to the best of my knowledge, Billy had never taken any prescriptions, not even the antidepressants we had encouraged him to try during the first dark days of his incarceration. If anything, he looked healthier just now than he had in ages.
I could still recall Billy Cronk's first months in prison, when, out of despair and disgust, he had stopped exercising and told the barber to shave off his hair: a voluntary Samson. His regimen of self-punishment didn't stop with letting his muscles go soft. He'd also allowed himself to be battered and bloodied by inmates he could have knocked cold with a single punch. Every time I visited him, he seemed to have a fresh bandage, a new set of stitches. He lied to me about how he'd received them, just as he lied about the incident that sent him to the Supermax the first time. He'd claimed he defended himself from a new prisoner looking to show his hardness by coldcocking the largest guy in the pod. The real story was far more disturbing.
Because Billy had taken beatings without fighting back, he acquired a reputation as a punk. Inevitably some of the wolves had gotten it into their heads to gangbang the cowardly new fish. Submitting to rape by a trio of likely HIV-positive thugs was one punishment Billy refused to accept. All three of his attackers ended up in the intensive care unit. One never recovered his sight.
And Billy had landed in the Supermax. He did months in solitary confinement.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Almost Midnight"
Copyright © 2019 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
Part 1. A Civil Death,
Part 2. All Stories Are About Wolves,
Part 3. The Wild, Cruel Beast,
Also by Paul Doiron,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent read. Could not put down.
Another great installment in the series. I loved having Shadow back. Can't wait to see what the next story brings.
Mike is on vacation when he receives an urgent call from his friend Billy, who is in prison. Billy is worried something bad is happening at the prison, but won’t give Mike any details. After an attack on the guards in the prison in which Billy saves a guard, the governor announces he will pardon Billy. Meanwhile, Mike hears that the wolf-hybrid he saved once before has been shot and may not survive. Mike is determined to find out who shot him and look for the wolf’s mate. In this book, Mike is older and beginning to mature. He tries to curb his impulsive nature and wants to reach out to his friends. I love the people and the wild Maine settings of this series. The mysteries are well-crafted and it’s nice to see Mike’s growth through the series. You could read this as a stand-alone, but do yourself a favor and read the series.
From beginning to end
Love, love, love this series - and this, the 10th book, certainly does nothing to change that enthusiasm. Game Warden Mike Bowditch is in fine fettle - even if he's dithering a bit in his relatively new relationship with Maine state trooper Dani Tate. I've said this in other reviews, but Mike reminds me of author C.J. Box's game warden Joe Pickett, and in this book I picked up some tinges of Michael Lister's former prison chaplain John Jordan as well. But make no mistake: Mike is his own person - and a very capable, likable one at that. Mike is an investigator with the Maine Warden Service, and as this story begins, he visits old friend and prison inmate Billy Cronk. Cryptically, Billy tells Mike that the new prison CO, Dawn Richie, needs to be investigated - but he stops short of explaining why. Mike is skeptical, but he also feels responsible for Billy's being in prison and somewhat reluctantly decides to look into the matter. Not long after his visit, Mike learns of a prison fight, during which both Billy and Dawn are injured. As it turns out, Billy was credited for saving the day (and Dawn's life), and now the governor says he'll issue a pardon. Meantime, Mike - who's on vacation at the moment - must deal with a mystery of a very different sort; a wild wolf-dog with whom Mike once had a relationship of sorts has been shot with a wicked crossbow arrow and is expected to die. Both sad and furious, Mike vows to track down the archer. He uses his remaining free days to head for the deep backwoods, where some nasty characters and (surprise!) a group of Amish are ensconced. With help from an old friend, Mike even makes a rustic home for himself in the middle of a very scenic nowhere. Billy's issues and the search for the wolf-killer run side by side for most of the book, coming together near the end when Billy's wife and children, who are trying to hide from some baddies who want to do them and Billy serious harm, take shelter in Mike's backwoods shack. At that point, all heck breaks loose - and readers are treated to a literal bang-up ending that happened way too soon to suit me. Another terrific series entry is in the can - one thoroughly enjoyed by me as expected. Many thanks (once again) to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy.
Almost Midnight – Paul Doiron Years ago, Maine State Warden Mike Bowditch was forced to provide testimony that landed his best friend, Billy Cronk, in prison. Now he receives a message from Billy’s wife, stating that Billy desperately needs to see him. Billy is asking him to investigate the background of a new prison guard, telling Mike that it’s a matter of life and death. Mike is reluctant to do so, and Billy ends the conversation telling his friend not to come back. Feeling a bit guilty, Mike does a cursory search on the prison guard, finding little information on her and heads back to the prison, only to learn that Billy is now in the hospital after being stabbed by another inmate. Upon arrival, he learns that Billy saved the life of the guard he had asked Mike to research and is in surgery. As Mike begins to learn of the events leading up to the stabbing, he feels that something is off with the situation. Meanwhile, he receives an early AM call from an old Warden friend, Gary Pulsifer, who calls to tell Mike that Shadow, a wolf-dog hybrid that he’d had as a pup, has been mortally injured. Shadow had escaped confinement as a pup and has been running free in the woods of Maine for years. The vet fully anticipates Shadow’s death is imminent and gives Mike the crossbow that she removed from his body, Mike wants answers, and is hopeful that he can track the female wolf Shadow’s been seen with, to ensure her safety. As Mike attempts to locate Shadow’s shooter, he meets resistance at every turn. He also manages to get on the bad side of the town terror, Gorman Peaslee, who wants nothing but revenge. Then Billy, who is awaiting a pardon from the governor, suddenly escapes prison, and Mike knows that there’s only one reason why – because his family is in danger…. As Mike rushes to protect the Cronk family, he puts himself right in the crosshairs of a dangerous gang that will stop at nothing to silence Billy – and Mike… This is my second book in the Bowditch series, and I am hooked! I love Mike’s character and having spent some time in Central Maine, I love re-visiting that time in my life with all the familiar landmarks! Mike is a bit of a backwoods Lucas Davenport, mixed with a little Jack Reacher! Great read! You will NOT be disappointed!! I was fortunate to receive this book as an Advance Reader Copy from Netgalley, in exchange for an objective review.