It’s a double dose this week—two chapters of Leo’s Birds for your enjoyment. We’ll be releasing a chapter of the book every week until the October 25 release. Check back every Wednesday for a new excerpt, or subscribe to our blog to be notified as soon as the latest excerpt is released.
“Citizens are asked to call the number on the screen if they have any knowledge of the whereabouts of this woman . . .”
“How do you like that?” Leo said to himself. He was sitting in his recliner with his legs up watching evening television. Billy was asleep in his closet of a bedroom and Vi sat on the old couch, working the Kansas City Star’s crossword puzzle. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Some woman doctor killed some patients and then escaped from jail.”
Vi didn’t look up. “They’ll have her back by morning.”
KSHB News had interrupted ER, Violet Rood’s favorite show, with news of the dramatic escape in western Kansas. A photograph of a pretty Hispanic woman with long, dark hair filled the screen. The cops were canvassing the state, the anchorwoman said. “Dr. Kline is not considered dangerous, although the authorities do not know who might be helping her. Residents are urged to use caution.”
“She doesn’t look like a murderer,” Leo said.
By the time ER came back on, the ending theme music had begun, and within seconds, it was over. Leo reached to the side table next to him and hefted a can of Budweiser. Law and Order was next. Leo didn’t think much of ER, didn’t particularly like doctors, nurses, or medical shows. But Law and Order was another thing altogether. He loved watching bad guys get theirs.
“What does a murderer look like?” Vi asked, absently.
“Oh, you know, tattoos, missing teeth, big shoulders, blank stare, that sort of thing.”
“You mean like Rafe Edwards?”
Leo said nothing. At the mention of Rafe’s name, he knew Vi had a point. His boss, Matterson, had a habit of hiring his construction workers from the half-way house connected to the drug courts. Leo didn’t necessarily agree with the policy, but Matterson said the men worked for nearly free, did all the heavy lifting, and it was his way of helping the community. “No one else will hire them,” he’d said more than once—often in defense when this man or that failed to show for work as scheduled. In Rafe’s case, he’d been re-arrested for possession but to his credit, came back to work to swing his hammer while awaiting the court’s actions. Rafe was no murderer. That was Vi’s point. He was just a big lump of a guy who had an addiction. He had a wife and three kids and was generally a nice guy, did what Leo asked of him. But at first glance, he was way more the picture of a murderer than the pleasant face he’d just seen on the tube.
“I’m going to bed, Leo,” Vi said, closing the newspaper.
“It’s been a long day.” On the way to the bedroom, she leaned over and kissed him longer than usual. “You coming?” She kissed him again.
Leo kissed her back and without looking, grabbed up the remote from the side table and pushed the button. He and Vi had started working on making a younger brother or sister for Billy, and Leo was in a fine mood. The television screen, though, failed to darken. The opening scene of Law and Order kept rolling. Leo tried just then not to read too much into this failing, but it was just one more piece of the immense, intricate puzzle that seemed to be growing before his interior vision.
“I’ll be right there,” he said, unsettled. He pushed the button again.
“Don’t be too long.” A coy smile played at her lips, and as she moved away from him, she allowed her hand to brush across his lap. “Can’t keep a girl waiting,” she said.
By the time Leo heard the bathroom water running, he’d punched every button on the remote, but the crime show continued as if it insisted that he watch tonight’s episode. He stood and walked over to the set, pushed the power button, and finally the screen frizzed and went black. Leo had come to expect things like this in his life. Nothing ever went as planned. He vowed to take the television in to get repaired first thing in the morning. To the extent that he could control things, Leo would.
He stretched in the silence of his house, thought of Vi putting on her filmy red negligee, and felt a growing anticipation. He was twenty-eight and healthy as a horse. And he was moving up. He had wanted to discuss the new house’s fireplaces and the electrical system with Vi, but just now things electric seemed to be taking on a new meaning. Their new house could wait until breakfast. Leo was, he knew, ahead of schedule.
He smiled to himself. “Six more weeks,” he said to Pete. He went about their soon-to-be-vacated, tiny two-bedroom house, turning off the lights. When he came to the door that led down to the basement, he stepped past it without looking. Leo hated basements, though he knew it was irrational.
In the basement were all the boxed-up relics from his past life, things that came to this house boxed up, items he hadn’t the courage to look at long enough to throw out. And thanks to Vi, most of their joint belongings were already packed up as well. Stuck into the grass of the front lawn was a “For Sale” sign with a bright red SOLD sticker. While Leo spent his evenings out at their lot by the river working on their house, Vi had kept busy boxing up all the non-essentials in preparation for the day when the house would finally be at a point where they could move in. And that point, he knew, was coming up soon.
After scanning the kitchen and the back porch, Leo came to the cramped living room again. He noticed Pete staring at him from his upper perch, giving him the eye.
Pete, his constant companion since he was a boy, scraped a talon over the cage bars, making a dull ring, like a telephone under a pillow. Leo walked across the room to the corner. “Yes, Pete,” he said. “Yes, I hear you.” He sniffed the air around the nearly five-foot-tall cage—the parrot spanned nine inches from beak to tail feathers.
Leo had acquired this cage back in July. He cleaned it and changed the papers twice a day, but despite his meticulous efforts, after a few months the bird smell got into the metal somehow. Leo made a note to get to Petco soon. Four times a year, Pete got a new cage.
He checked Pete’s water bottle and took note of the condition of the newspapers that lined the cage’s bottom. Everything seemed in order.
Pete did not say anything. Despite Leo’s best efforts to re-teach words and sentences to the bird, especially early on, Pete had become mostly mute. There was little danger tonight that he would squawk out the few words he did know. Pete only said those words when there was tension in the air, like when he and Vi argued, which, thankfully, was not often.
Leo pulled down the cover of the cage. As he did, Pete eyed him with a cock of his head.
“Fat lot you know, Pete,” Leo whispered. “Pack your bags. We’re moving up.”
Maria walked along the gravel roadside, pacing herself against the growling of her stomach and the undercurrent of thirst—which she tried not to think about—heading in a general eastward direction. There were stretches of road where the farmhouses were miles apart. She’d been walking all night and she was searching for a place to sleep. She easily heard vehicles approaching, but there had only been a few as the warming sun began its ascent into the morning sky. When she did get to the farmsteads, she circled through back fields, avoiding the frontage. It took longer, but she couldn’t risk being seen. A lone woman walking along a country road was too suspicious.
She tried to divert her thoughts from the toil of walking. An image of her father being arrested and taken away from her sprawling and ramshackle home in Puerto Rico came to mind. She had been eight years old and the sight of the policía at her front door at six o’clock in the morning made her cry. Her mother had been crying, too, and pleading with the uniformed men. Her father, however, was calm—he even smiled, she remembered. Despite the handcuffs, he managed to kiss Maria on the top of the head. “Don’t you worry, little one,” he said. “Papa will be back before you know he’s gone.” The other seven children, younger than Maria, were all still asleep. True to his word, her father was back before breakfast.
When she was very little, she told her friends and teachers that her father wrote books. When she got older, her father “made books.” By the time she was ten, when her father and mother were killed in a car accident coming back from the horse races—murdered, she knew, although it could never be proven—he’d been arrested a total of seven times. Each time was for trumped-up charges that the cops couldn’t make stick. And each time he came back home to her and the family. There seemed to be nothing money couldn’t accomplish in Puerto Rico in the sixties.
An ache, a heaviness, gripped her heart, and she cried softly between flares of fierce anger. Her reality began to sink in. She would never go home again.
She’d lived in America now for over twenty years and had thought its justice and laws the best in the world. It was certainly nowhere near the unfair system she’d experienced in Puerto Rico, where money and money alone meant justice. She kicked at the gravel with her loafers. How could I have been so naïve?
Over and over during the last three trudging and fearful nights, she had re-lived the hours of testimony, the arguments, the motions, her attorney’s advice, the judge’s viewpoint, trying to see where she had said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing. She could not come up with anything she would have done differently.
She spit. There were things she should have done differently. It made her all the more angry.
. . .
When they came, they came around the garage side of the house. Maria thought she heard car doors shut but decided it was just the neighbors and went back to work with her small spade, compacting the soil along a row of tiny seeds while Parker prepared the soil ahead of her, pulling out the remains of last year’s weeds. They were sweating, but it was a good sweat.
When they came, she hadn’t understood. The sight of the brown uniforms and holstered guns didn’t register. Then, as she stood and wiped off her knees, she assumed it was about one of her patients, and so she smiled. The two policemen did not smile back. Instead, grimly, they advanced across the lawn until they stood next to her, never once taking their eyes off her.
“Dr. Maria Sanchez-Kline?” asked the tall one.
“Yes?” She recognized the shorter man as someone she’d treated for a nasty bee sting the summer before.
“You are Dr. Maria Sanchez-Kline?”
“Yes, of course, you know . . .”
“You are under arrest for the murder of Frederick Jespers and Annedeine Beach. Please turn around, doctor.”
Maria stood there in disbelief. “This must be a joke?”
“Please turn around. Now!” the officer barked.
She did as she was told, and her left arm was grasped roughly and brought behind her back. She felt the slam of a handcuff and heard the clicking as it closed tightly on her small wrist.
“Your other hand,” the cop commanded.
When she didn’t immediately respond, her right wrist was grabbed and drawn behind her back.
“You have the right to remain silent, doctor . . .”
“What’s this all about?” Parker bellowed. “Maria, what’s going on?”
The officers ignored Parker. “ . . . anything you do say may be used against you in a court of law . . .”
“Murder? Did you say murder?” Maria was dumbfounded. Then it hit her, as sudden and forceful as a head-on collision. The names . . . she remembered the names now. These were names of patients who had died in the weeks before. Then she knew. There was some mistake, some terrible, terrible error.
“Officer, I demand you tell me what is going on.” Parker’s face had flushed deep red and the veins in his neck had puffed up. He was pounding the rake on the ground.
“. . . You have the right to an attorney . . .”
“I didn’t kill those people,” Maria said. “I didn’t murder those people. You’ve made some mistake.”
“. . . if you don’t have the money to obtain one . . .”
“What people?” Parker asked.
“. . . one will be appointed for you by the courts . . .”
“It’s a mistake, Parker,” Maria said. “They’ve got their facts all wrong.”
“. . . You may waive your rights . . .”
“I didn’t kill those people, officer, they died of natural causes!”
“Maria, shut up,” Parker said. “Don’t say anything.” He’d calmed down instantly, his face returning to a more normal color.
The second policeman took Maria by the shoulder and began to pull her forward, his face immobile.
“Do you understand your rights?”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong!” Maria said.
“Do you understand your rights?”
. . .
“Where are you taking her?”
They wouldn’t let Parker come past the entrance room of the jail. As they hurried her ahead, she heard him shout, “Don’t say anything. I’ll be back with a lawyer.”
At the jail, before she endured the humiliation of being fingerprinted, the angular face of the family lawyer briefly appeared through the small window that looked out onto the outer room. Next, though, they marched her down a cold yellow hall and into a small room where she was asked to step up to a white line of tape on the concrete floor. In front of her stood a card table and a chair. On the chair was an overweight black woman in a too-tight brown uniform who glared at her in a malicious sort of way.
“Please remove the articles in your pockets and place them on this table.” The woman slapped the front edge. “Do not step across the white line.”
Maria had nothing in her jeans pockets except a bundle of green plant-ties. She moved to put this on the table.
“I said, do not step across the white line!” the lady in the chair yelled. Maria jumped back.
“Place the articles on the table. Lean forward if you have to.”
Maria did as she was told.
“It’s . . . you know . . . what do they call them . . . twisty ties?”
“No!” the woman spit. “That!”
“That thing . . . that box on your waist. Is it a beeper?”
Maria covered the silver object clipped to her waist. “It’s my cell phone.”
“Take it off and place it on the table. Do not step over the white line. And turn it off first.”
“But . . . my patients. I . . .”
“Turn it off!”
Maria pulled the phone from her waistline, looked at it as if the phone could tell her what to do, then, reluctantly, she pushed the “off” button, leaned over, and put the phone on the table.
A second woman dropped a cardboard box next to her.
“Remove your clothes and put them in the box.”
“What?” Maria was flabbergasted.
“Your shoes and socks, too. And your hair band.”
She kept her eyes downcast as she took off her clothes, first her shoes, then her shirt, her pants. She stood shivering then in only her underwear. She could feel the eyes of the two women on her, looking her up and down. Her own eyes filled with tears.
“Put these on.” The black woman pushed a folded bundle of orange cloth toward the front edge of the table. Maria quickly slipped the jumpsuit on, biting her cheek. The prison outfit resembled her surgical scrubs. Her mind couldn’t focus. How have I come to this? This is impossible!