Leo’s Birds – Chapter One

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Chapter One

She dreamed her husband had been laughing at her, dreamed her daughter had been crying in his arms.

She awoke cold to the thin cry of a distant car approaching, the taste of bitter midnight heavy on her tongue. Frost would come before morning, maybe snow. She pulled tight the too-small nylon jacket. There were no mosquitoes, no flying insects, only creeping things—she could almost hear them below her, almost smell them burrowing in the soil. The whine grew louder. Course weeds jabbed at her thighs through her stolen jeans and she shifted, knelt to better watch for headlights above the dry field stand.

The car came steadily from the west, a police cruiser, the eleventh she’d seen, and passed two hundred yards from her refuge. As its tail lights faded, her attention focused on the distant orange glow above Lawrence to the east. She must move soon, she knew. Keep moving, that’s the key. She was tired, so tired, yet she found herself reluctant to sleep at night. At night, I move. She gathered her backpack—the one she’d stolen from the farmhouse—and started off east along the road.

They would find her. Her nightmares had found her and she just knew that no matter what she did, they would find her as well. Tears of shame overwhelmed the undercurrent of anger again, coming in waves like the wind on the wheat field where she had spent the last few exhausted hours, laying in a trampled-down depression made by a deer or some other animal. In the far distance to the south, along Interstate 70, semi-trucks made their way between Denver and Kansas City.

No previous experience had prepared her for this. Split-second decisions she could handle. Problem-focused action had always been her forte. But she little understood fear and anger. Shame was foreign. Only the intermittent pulse of crackling adrenaline seemed familiar, the hyper-vigilant throbbing of her blood every minute since she made her escape.

. . .

Luck was on her side three days before at the Mobley courthouse—she made the jump from the first floor bathroom window without spraining an ankle. Heart thumping, she walked as casually as possible away from the courthouse and turned left on Madison Street and into the back seat of Mrs. Salazar’s ancient green Dodge Dart.

Most people in Mobley, Kansas, knew her by sight. The short walk was the most worrisome part of the plan. Mrs. Salazar—dear Mrs. Salazar, who knew she was innocent, who provided encouraging words while she was in jail all those months—had come to her with the plan. The night before, at great personal peril, the cleaning lady had unsealed the wire-laden window in the women’s bathroom. Maria had been allowed to use this bathroom on many occasions while the trial crept forward. A female officer had always accompanied her inside but the officer came up pregnant and quit. By then, her bathroom breaks had become routine and taken for granted.

So when Maria opened the car door and got in, and Mrs. Salazar drove slowly away without a word or even a look, Maria breathed a sigh of relief. She was past the riskiest part of her escape. Immediately, she laid flat on the back seat. There, on the car’s floor atop an old sweatshirt, was a newspaper. She was shocked to see the headline: JURY STILL OUT IN SANCHEZ-KLINE MURDER TRIAL. She hadn’t seen a newspaper since her arrest four months ago. She could see the date: September 3, 1999—yesterday. The picture of a woman—herself—with long, dark, straight hair walking handcuffed through the courthouse halls next to her Stetson-wearing lawyer covered half the page below the headlines. She resisted the urge to pick it up and read it. She told herself to focus.

When the car reached the western edge of Mobley, Mrs. Salazar turned several times and then pulled over to the curb. Maria took a big breath and, as they’d planned, got out, walked east a half block, and went into the 7-Eleven—the very 7-Eleven where Fred Jespers had collapsed—the same Fred Jespers whose death had started this whole mess.

There was no one at the counter—the store was empty. She waited by the register. After a few seconds, the clerk, Harold Crenshaw, came through the double swinging doors and stopped dead in his tracks, a wide-eyed look of recognition changing to indecision on his face. Immediately, she turned and quickly exited, and walked at a fast clip up the street, west again, until she was out of Harold’s sight behind a white house. There, she re-entered Mrs. Salazar’s waiting car through the back door and again laid flat on the seat. Though her heart was pumping a thousand times a minute, neither she nor Mrs. Salazar spoke. It was as they’d arranged. In the distance across town, sirens blared.

Slowly—painfully so—Mrs. Salazar reversed her course and drove back east across town and then south to the interstate. For another three hours, Maria lay in back, worried that at any second the Kansas State Patrol would surround the car. Just past Manhattan, Mrs. Salazar pulled off the interstate and went north along a deserted highway. A half an hour later and after several more turns, she pulled to the shoulder and came to a stop.

“This is as far as I can go, doctor,” the woman said. “My sister lives in Wamego. We are just east of Wamego, on Old Highway 24. Follow this road east. There is little traffic.”

Maria got out. She turned back to nod to the woman who’d risked her own freedom for hers. She was surprised when the woman held out a handful of rolled up cash.

“I can’t take that,” Maria said. “You’ve helped me so much already.”

“No, no, doctor. You saved my son’s life. I can never repay you enough. You take it. You will need it.”

She did so. The woman was right. “Gracias.

“I pray for you,” the old woman said, her car already in motion.

. . .

For three nights Maria had been walking, hiding as best she could when cars came. A hundred fifty miles to the west lay the small town of Mobley, Kansas, population three thousand. It was there that Dr. Maria Sanchez-Kline had come to doctor the citizens two years before. She’d completed a prestigious program in a residency and then spent the next three furious months shuttling around the country interviewing, looking for just the right practice location. Mobley, though a small and isolated town, seemed so much like her own home town in Puerto Rico that she convinced her husband, Parker—after much pleading and arm-twisting—to pick up stakes and move.

She and her stock-trader husband with their then nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, had purchased their first home there. The town had welcomed her at first, bent over backwards to make her feel at home. The pleasant Family Realty woman found them a sprawling brick turn-of-the-century ranch house on nine acres north of town, and right away, she and Elizabeth planted a spring garden in the backyard. The mayor of the previously doctor-less town had taken them on tours to meet the movers and the shakers who greased the wheels and kept the small town economy going. Parker had gotten on famously with the mayor. In fact, Maria often thought, Parker had been accepted completely by the town’s elders. Only later did it become apparent to Maria that she—the young doctor—had just been tolerated.

As a Hispanic woman, she’d consciously made efforts to connect with the community as she was instructed in medical school to do, joining the chamber of commerce, the rotary club, and contributing to various city council meetings. If Parker had gotten on famously, she felt only fractious acceptance, despite her best efforts, her best intentions. Now, in the dark of furious night, she was convinced every man, woman, and child of Mobley was out here looking for her, stalking her like a wild animal, like a criminal.

I am a criminal, she thought. Suddenly, before she could take a single step eastward, heavy weariness beset her. After a look at the empty horizon, she lay down again, wrapped her jacket about herself, and drifted into an uneasy sleep where hazy, wobbling dreams lived.

. . .

It had been a glorious spring day five months ago. A benevolent April sun shined down on the small Kansas town. Only Dr. Kline seemed out of sorts. A mild flu-like illness had caught up to her. It had happened throughout her training and she accepted that it would continue to happen for a while when she finally settled down into practice. Ultimately, she would acquire the local immunity better than any other citizen but until then, there was a price tag.

She’d hoped by two years of practice it would be over and done with, and to tell the truth, each successive illness—bronchitis, sinusitis, viral cold—had become milder. And this flu, though bothersome, didn’t keep her from her duties at her clinic. As the morning drew on, though, she found she needed something to settle her queasy stomach.

Despite her profession, she eschewed pills herself. Her mother had always given her herbs and potions when she was young, and the old-fashioned ways never fully released their hold on her. She could have taken one of the many medications that lined her pharmaceutical sample closet, but instead, she found herself at noon walking through the door of the 7-Eleven seeking a tonic—a Sprite preferably—to ease her gastric disquiet.

She passed an obese, sweating man she didn’t know, thinking he might very well show up in her waiting room that afternoon. She made her way to where the coolers lined the back wall. As she was reaching for a green plastic bottle, she heard the clerk, Harold Crenshaw, call out in alarm.

“Fred! Fred, what’s wrong? Dr. Kline, help up here. Dr. Kline!”

She hurried to the front. Halfway there, she saw the man go down, heard a crash of counter displays that dragged down with him. She found him sprawled on the floor, drool emanating from his lips in a nest of scattered candy bars and beef sticks. As she bent to him, the man began jerking violently.

“Call 911,” she barked at the scrawny clerk who was backed up against a rack of cigarettes. Maria held the man as he shook, keeping his head from banging on the floor. Then there was blood—splatters of blood flying through the air, landing on her, on the counter side, on the floor, everywhere. She looked for a wound and saw with some relief that the blood was coming from the man’s nose. She reached for his neck and found a pulse. The man was taking gasping breaths. There were secretions gathering. He would need suction when the ambulance crew arrived. After a minute, his violent tremors stopped as suddenly as they started, and he lay still in Maria’s lap, gurgling with every breath.

His color is reasonable, she thought. Not pink but not too blue. Oxygen levels are probably okay.

The ambulance crew crashed through the door.

“We need suction here,” she shouted. “And get a monitor on him. He’s had a seizure.”

Derik Gallager and Mark Logan, both veteran EMTs, bent to the task. “This is Fred Jespers,” Logan said to Maria. He knelt and yanked the man’s work shirt up over his protuberant belly. “Diabetic. Check his glucose, Derik. And he’s got a pacemaker.” Logan pointed to the mound of flesh on the man’s upper left chest.

The paddles were applied and Maria saw a regular rhythm. “Sinus at about ninety,” she said. Her own heart, she knew, raced along near one twenty.

“Sugar’s two forty-seven,” said Gallager, who’d applied a test strip to the blood on the man’s nose.

She grasped the man’s jaw and shook it back and forth. “Fred!” Maria said. “Fred, can you hear me?”

There was no response. She pried open his eyelids. One pupil was small but the left pupil was more dilated. This, she thought, does not look good.

“BP’s ninety over sixty,” Logan said. “Start a line now, doc?”

Maria mulled this over for a second only. “No, let’s transport. We can start one en route.”

In a matter of minutes they had the man on a gurney, slid him into the back of the ambulance, and as Logan drove, Maria and Gallager went to work with the Infusa-set, trying to find a vein in the man’s forearm. Logan switched on the siren and Maria remembered with sudden clarity her first ride in an ambulance as a new resident at Broward General. Then, as now, it was the wailing siren that made it real, the siren that penetrated the cloud of surreal that surrounds events happening too quickly for the mind to follow anything but the tasks at hand.

. . .

The siren grew louder, moving from her dream to her consciousness, and she startled awake. To the west, peering over the tops of the wheat, she made out two cars with flashing lights turn off the highway and come to a lurching stop at the farm she’d just visited—broken into through an unlocked back window. She’d put about a half mile between herself and the farm, but it wasn’t enough now, was it? How had they discovered her?

She scrambled to the side of the small clearing and unzipped the Scooby-Doo backpack she’d taken from the smallest of the bedrooms. She stuffed the empty water bottle into it and noticed the two twenty dollar bills she lifted from the kitchen countertop. Breaking into the farm house had been a risk but she needed water and food and no one was home and . . .

In the distance, now illuminated by floodlights from the vehicles, two figures emerged. For a few seconds, she watched as the figures made their way slowly toward the empty house, their flashlights painting across the facade.

Damn, she thought. Silent alarm? Pushing her way through the dry wheat that stood between her and the highway, she wondered what else she hadn’t considered. Then suddenly she stopped. She turned and reversed her direction, scurried back past her sleeping refuge and out further into the field. Somewhere through the wheat would be a road. The highway, she knew, was certain capture.

Over the last three nights, traveling east, she’d kept to the fence rows along secondary highways and black-tops so she could quickly duck into the fields beyond. Sporadic traffic had passed, and as cars or trucks approached from the distance along the straight and flat pavement, she’d learned how to jump the fence without cutting her hands on the barbed wire. She discovered she had at least two minutes to accomplish the feat, and learned how far into the crop rows she should go to avoid detection.

She’d covered her entry into this field by trudging through an irrigation ditch. Still, they might decide to comb the fields. What if they send a helicopter? What about dogs? Her only hope was that the cops conclude nothing was amiss in the farmhouse. That they not discover her clothes—the courtroom dress she’d discarded there in favor of the jeans and flannel shirt she now wore.

Her ruse to throw off the cops, to make them think she went west—Mrs. Salazar’s idea—must not have worked. And now this.

. . .

Breaking into the farmhouse left her with a bad taste. She was dirty—three days and nights of trudging through dusty farm fields left her with dirt under her nails and matted hair—and for the first time she felt guilty. It was not the victim’s guilt she felt during the arrest and trial, nor the guilt the county attorneys tried to pin her with. This was real guilt that came to her for a real offense.

There was lightning to the north and distant thunder. Since the Monday morning courthouse escape, there had been no rain. Rain would make the going much more difficult, but it might cover her tracks better. Snow, though . . .

Her mind gave her a gift then. She recalled her father helping her put out milk and cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve years ago, when she was eight. Late at night, after the excitement of helping him and her mother wrap presents for her seven little brothers and sisters and tucking them under the tree, her father gently reminded her that Santa had many miles to travel and would need the charity of every little girl and boy to complete his task. And at the farmhouse, though she had not left gifts save her blue dress, she felt something akin to that whole childhood experience. As she pushed through the stand of wheat, she vowed she’d pay those unknowing people back someday, someway.

The crisp night wind made a rustling as it churned through the wheat. The comfortable sound of crickets chirping did little to ease the peril she felt. Somewhere in the distance, a bullfrog belched out rhythmic pronouncements. Maria became aware of the noise her own legs made with each step. The crop was dry, near harvest, and the going had not been too difficult, but soon she found herself tiring. She looked back and could only just make out the house. She guessed she’d put about another mile between herself and the authorities. But would they continue to look to the east?

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