PROLOGUE: DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS
DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS
The deer in the headlights wore a red flannel shirt. A lanyard hung around its neck and, attached to it, a silver whistle. Benny reached down to the cab seat.
“You’re not going to shoot it,” Jess said.
“I’m going to take its picture. Don’t move. It can’t see us behind the windshield, but...”
He left the ‘but’ hanging, found his phone, and raised it slowly to the glass. Jess tensed. This would pretty much spell the end of any romantic notions she had planned for the night. She stared at the deer in disbelief. It stood no more than ten or twenty feet in front of the pickup, frozen knee-deep in meadow grass, a tawny statue in L.L. Bean plaid. Its black eyes shone in the glare of the truck’s high beams. Benny took the picture with both hands. It was blurry and washed out, light having reduced the animal to a near-white fog against a black background.
“It must be someone’s pet,” Jess said.
“Crazier than that,” Benny replied. “We got a nutcase in lock-up at the station, says he chased this deer last week. Flannel shirt, silver whistle on a string.” He studied the picture on his phone, willing it to improve in quality. “Claims it’s really a kid.”
Jess looked at him, confused.
“Kids are goats. You mean, fawn?”
Benny shook his head, thought about the gun in his holster. He shifted the phone to his right hand. His butt edged left along the torn upholstery.
“No, kid kid. Missing persons kid. Seventeen-year-old. Guy says he turned into a deer. Don’t move. I’m going to try and open the door, see if I can get a photo without glass in the way. Risser’s not gonna believe this. We all figured the guy’s insane.”
“You think he dressed the deer?”
“Stay still. Don’t make any noise.”
Benny reached for the door handle, pulled the latch, started to shoulder the door open in slow motion. The deer twitched an ear. Benny stopped, waited. A cold night, but he felt sweat on his palm. The heater was on, needed to be to keep Jess from complaining. He thought it wouldn’t be heard over the sound of the engine. The scene outside the truck remained inanimate as a painting on velvet.
It was a young buck, two points on each antler. The shirt hung across its back, unbuttoned, sleeves over forelegs. The dangling whistle took the headlights’ glare and reflected it back at the truck, a tiny, wavering beacon against brown breast. Benny’d said when they pulled off the dirt road, driving blind, “Watch this. Soon’s I turn on the high beams, you’ll see twenty deer all frozen, looking right at us.” He’d predicted wrong. There was only the one deer, but what a deer it was. Like something out of a fairy tale.
A boy turned into a deer. Some kid from Massachusetts reported missing, and some nutcase in a cell raving about “End times” and “Wonders.” They’d arrested him for unloading a firearm within a hundred feet of the fire chief’s house, found out he was running a deer farm without a license, then discovered wallet, clothing, and an old frame backpack belonging to the missing kid in the guy’s shack in the woods. The guy had gone off on some looney rant about not touching the kid (so far, no one had found a body) and the kid turning into a deer overnight. It was without doubt the worst claim of innocence the county’s chief investigator had ever heard. Next thing they’d have addicts recounting their adventures with little green men in the woods.
(Then again, the lockdown at the Fryeburg Fair and a woolly mammoth down in Grafton Notch were already pushing reality over the brink of believability. Was the impossible resurrection of some long extinct mammal any weirder than a deer in a shirt?)
Benny had to get a better picture of this deer. They’d think it was some kind of prank otherwise, just Benny trying to one-up Max, who photographed a UFO over Umbagog that turned out to be his daughter’s Frisbee. He opened the door another couple of inches, waited to see if the deer got spooked. Jess found she was holding her breath. Cautiously he lowered a Timberland boot through the opening, touched ground. Opened the door another couple of inches. Eased his way between the door and the frame, sliding the phone into the space above the side mirror. The deer remained motionless. Maybe it really was blinded by the light, couldn’t see the man slipping from the vehicle.
The phone made only the barest of clicks, but the sound returned the deer to consciousness as sure as releasing a trigger. Both big deer ears flipped wide. It bounced into the air, an almost vertical spring, and turned in mid-leap. A moment later it was all rump, white tail upright and waving like a flag as it bounded off into the dark. Benny had his hand on his Rugar before he knew he’d reached for it, pulled, raised, and fired off a shot.
Jess screeched, “Benny!” in alarm, but the shot grazed nothing but stars. The field erupted in a blur of motion as several deer hitherto unseen burst from the tall grass and sailed off into the night, a confused flapping of white flags signaling retreat. None of them, as far as Benny could tell, wore red flannel shirts. He opened the door the rest of the way, leaned forward, and, elbows propped between the door and the frame, watched the last of the herd disappear.
Jess slid across the cab seat, using the wheel to steady herself. She reached for his arm.
“You could have killed it,” she said.
He snorted, continued staring into the dark.
She ran her hand along his forearm, stopping short of wrist and Rugar, “It’s not season for another three weeks.”
“I’m off duty,” he said. He shifted his weight back onto the seat, settled in beside her.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I dunno it has to mean anything.” He lowered his arm, had to nudge her aside to return the gun to its holster. He pulled the phone back into the cab. “Damn, still outa focus. The thing was already moving.”
They studied the image on the screen. Benny shook his head.
“Some fruitcake survivalist announcing the end of the world, babbling about ‘signs’ and ‘self-reliance.’ I guess he wasn’t lying about the deer though.”
“Why would anyone put clothes on a deer?”
“The kid’s mother’s supposed to be here tomorrow.” He regarded the photo dubiously. “Maybe she can identify the shirt.”
“That’ll be awful for her.”
He pulled his leg into the cab, closed the door. The overhead light went out but she was still visible by the lights on the dashboard. She looked shaken. She took the phone from him and stared at the screen.
“Why would that man put the kid’s shirt…?”
She looked at Benny, unnerved. He was a cop. He’d seen bad things.
“I don’t even want to guess,” he said.
“You need to take me home.”
“Yeah. Move over.”
She did and he shifted into reverse, backed out onto the road.