Borderlines (1990)


The Plot

Set entirely in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, an isolated, thinly populated part of the state, Borderlines tells of Joe Gunther’s temporary assignment to the local State’s Attorney’s office, which he has taken on in part to get away from Brattleboro, and from his girlfriend, Gail Zigman, with whom he’s had a fight. Set in the fictional town of Gannett, the story soon shifts to the discovery of a man’s body, and the possible involvement of a back-to-nature cult that owns half the real estate in town. Juggling his own personal problems, jurisdictional disputes with the state police, an escalating animosity between cult members and townies, and a growing number of homicides, Joe moves as fast as he can before events reach a critical mass and overwhelm him.

 An excerpt from Borderlines

I only half-saw it at first, a slight movement of brown against brown. I was also far away, so to have noticed it at all was sheer luck. I took my foot off the accelerator and let the car slow down on its own. A glance ahead and into the rearview mirror confirmed I was the only one on the interstate.

The deer hesitated at the edge of the bank leading down to the southbound lane, parallel to my own. Its hide was just slightly darker than the frost-killed grass at its feet, its rack intermixing with the grayish-brown bare branches of the small trees behind it. I rolled the window down, letting the cool November air flush out the car’s stale, warm interior.

The deer shifted its weight and sniffed suspiciously at the breeze, weighing its own inbred caution against whatever was tempting it to cross both broad lanes and the grassy median in between.

I took the engine out of gear and continued rolling until I ran out of momentum, coming to a stop in the breakdown lanes as gently as a leaf striking the ground. The deer barely glanced at me. It took two tentative steps away from its cover and froze again.

It had good reason to be fearful. It was November-hunting season-and the antlers on this buck’s head testified to a past ability at staying alive. I moved my own eyes across the distance he had to travel before gaining the trees on my side of the road, wondering, if I were him, whether I’d run the risk.

I decided I wouldn’t but he stepped forward, placing his forefeet on the pavement. I looked around slowly, checking for other signs of life. I didn’t see a thing, not even a bird. Still, I fought the urge to get out of the car, even to press the horn, and instantly end the debate.

The sun, just inches above the low, rounded, dark purple mountains in the distance, had caught him fully now, revealing the subtleties of his coat, the glistening of his twitching nose. I abandoned any notions of becoming his guardian angel and scaring him away. He-and all of nature’s dominance in this isolated area-was one of the reasons I was up in this sparse northeastern corner of Vermont. Aside from the intrusion of this road and its kin, and a few towns along the way, this was his country, thinly populated, covered with trees, thrust up like a hilly plateau against an omnipotent and often querulous sky. I was the useless outrigger here-far be it from me to tell him what to do.

He moved purposely now, head high, his white-winged tail flipping back and forth. I could see the tension in his tapered legs, but he kept his poise, as if on parade. He would not give this road the satisfaction of his undignified flight.

The rifle shot came as if in a church-intrusive, heart stopping, sacrilegiously loud and startling. The buck froze, its eyes wide with wonder, and then it glanced back at its own hind legs, which were collapsing as if on their own. A second shot rang out as I leapt from the car and began to run toward him. He saw me then, perhaps blamed me as his head fell back and his antlers rattled against the hard, cold, surface of the road.

I stopped beside him, breathing hard, the vapor from my lungs encircling my head. The deer was very still, the only movement being the steaming blood slowly spreading from its open mouth. Its eyes were wide open, still registering my image, I thought.

I looked around. No one was going to appear now. What had happened was flagrantly illegal-discharging a weapon in proximity of an interstate highway. The hunter would wait for me to leave. I wished I had the strength to lift this huge beast into my car and deliver him to a game warden to deprive its killer of the satisfaction of possession and of later tall tales of peerless hunting.

But I couldn’t.

I bent over, reached out and touched the warm, smooth hide with my fingertips, reminded suddenly of my own losses-real and imagined. If only I’d given warning when I’d thought none was necessary.

I stood up again slowly, anger replacing shock. The location of the wounds indicated that the shots had come from the same side as the deer, but farther south. I began to walk in that direction, cutting diagonally across both lanes of the interstate, my eyes glued to the treeline above the road bank, watching for any movement, listening for any sound. I knew, as if I could actually feel them, that another unseen pair of eyes was watching me come.

I was on the southbound lane’s divider line when I saw it-a flash of fluorescent orange-accompanied by a hunter’s heavy boots crushing the brush underfoot as he moved.

“Stop where you are. Police.” I began running the rest of the distance to the treeline, straight to where I’d seen that one bright flicker of color.

Just before I entered the woods, I glanced back to see the two parallel blacktop ribbons, my car, its exhaust pluming smoke in the crisp cold air, and the body of the deer. From this angle, the animal must have presented an almost irresistible target, its muscular outline highlighted against the black of the road and the pale horizon, a temptation only decency and sportsmanship might have stilled, and obviously had not.

I hadn’t walked ten feet into the woods before I was utterly enveloped in its dense, dark embrace. I stopped, listening. The hunter had bolted late in my approach, and could only have covered a short distance before I’d reached this spot. I scanned the dark curtain of trees before me, aware of only the absolute stillness, and the sound of my own heart beating from the exertion of the run.

“I’m a police officer. You’ve already broken one law; don’t add resisting arrest. Come on out.”

The vapor from my tinny-sounding words hovered briefly about my face and then vanished in the answering silence.

I looked to the forest floor, hoping to see some tracks, but tracking wasn’t one of my strengths, at least not in the woods. All I could see was a tangle of twigs, rotting leaves, and frozen brush.

The sudden, blinding combination of a third rifle shot and the explosion its bullet made in the tree trunk next to me threw me to the ground before I could think, my Korea-bred instincts suddenly as keen as they had been many years earlier.

With my face to the ground, breathing in the damp mustiness of the near-frozen earth, I waited for the ringing in my ears to fade. Behind it, fading also, I could hear a body crashing away through the forest.

It had been a warning from a hunter whose initial purpose had not been sport. That deer in the road had not been shot for a trophy and some bragging, as I’d imagined. It had been meat, a hedge against the winter, a hungry and self-sufficient man’s necessity for survival, as he saw it. He had not missed killing me; he had warned me to back off.

I got up slowly and brushed myself off. Ahead of me, some one hundred and fifty feet away, I saw an orange hunting jacket hanging from a tree branch-a single bright beacon in an ever-darkening, cold and silent world. It was another warning: he was a hunter no longer, but a man with a gun, dressed to blend into his chosen environment. He could now stand with impunity next to a tree, invisible beyond fifty feet, and fill his rifle scope with my chest.

I was now in Vermont’s so-called Northeast Kingdom-poor, isolated, thinly populated by people who had chosen to put their independence and wariness of the rest of the world above the hardships of living here. The man watching me had no interest in killing me, but he did want it known that he would if he had to.

I stood absolutely still, watching, listening, aware now that my movements were my only relevant spokesmen. A line had been drawn. I could die defending the rights of a dead deer, or I could retire and leave the field to my unseen opponent and his more ancient, instinctive code of moral right and wrong.

I returned to my car, as depressed as I’d been angry when I’d left it. It had been a short and violent reminder of the limitations of legal authority. Here, in this high, cold country, the law had less to do with rules and more with personal honor. Often, they were one and the same, but not always.

I got back behind the wheel, drove around the carcass, and continued north.

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In Category: Joe Gunther Series
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