Wondering how her life could have unraveled so quickly, Kate Caraway waited at baggage claim for British Airways to locate her last piece of luggage. The events of the past few days fogged her mind--no time to make a rational decision, just get the hell out of the country while there was still a chance, before things got really ugly. Her stomach tensed and she drew in a deep breath. Bad coffee and stale peanuts were the only reason she had not passed out.
Tired of watching the same CNN news report for the fourth time, Kate looked over at her husband. Jack had finally dozed off, his chin resting on his chest. She wanted to pull him close, to place his head on her shoulder and make him comfortable, but she dared not wake him. Neither she nor Jack had slept since they left Nairobi forty-eight hours ago. He was snoring lightly, like a child. Kate watched for a moment longer. A gentle pulsing from a small vein in his temple made her smile, but only for a brief second.
How in the hell did I manage to screw things up so quickly? Kate chided herself. Jack had assured her that she had done the right thing. But she had discovered a frightful side of herself and was terrified that it would emerge again the next time she became outraged, the next time she was pushed too far. She could not live with that.
The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls wafted in, bringing with it a feeling of comfort, yet sadness. Her chest ached for home. Since setting up her research camp and moving lock, stock, and barrel to Kenya, Kate had thought very little of what she’d left behind. Kenya had become her home even before the idea for the research camp had taken hold. She’d first gone to East Africa twenty years earlier as part of a work/study program during her second year at the University and remembered an odd sensation as the wheels of the plane touched down at the Nairobi Airport. She felt as if she’d returned home after years--after eons of time--to the place of her birth. Was the home she longed for the place she’d left, or the place to which she’d just returned? That question, she feared, would not be answered anytime soon.
Giving in to hunger pangs, Kate made her way to the food court where a line had formed in front of Cinnamon’s Bakery. She smiled at the thought of that universal sweet smell grabbing hold of travelers and pulling them like a magnet to the counter. She ordered two cinnamons rolls and two cups of coffee. Jack was awake and stretching when she returned.
“I honestly believe you could sleep right out there on the runway,” she said. “Come on. There’s a table by the window. I have breakfast.”
“This isn’t a roll,” Jack said when he opened the box. “It’s a cinnamon mound and I plan to eat every bite. Sorry I dozed off.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m surprised we’re both still standing.”
As Kate cut into her roll, she noticed Jack set his coffee down and lean back in his chair, a puzzling look spreading across his face.
He smiled. “You look...peaceful.”
“That’s what they say about the dead right before they close the lid.”
They finished their meal when they heard their names announced to come to British Airways Baggage claim. “That was close,” Jack said. “We have less than an hour before our flight to Austin.”
“You think we made the right decision, then?” Kate asked.
“About why we left or where we’re going?”
Kate stood to leave and suddenly grabbed her stomach as a sense of terror washed over her. She closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing. Until two days ago, she’d never understood the meaning of panic attacks. Now, they hit frequently and without warning. She felt as if she’d stepped up to the lip of a cliff, and only blackness showed below. It took all her energy not lose control and topple over the edge.
“Kate,” Jack cried. “Sit down.”
“I’m okay. It just...hits.”
“Take it easy. I’ll get you some water.”
“No. Don’t leave me.”
“Try to relax. Once we get to the ranch, you can rest.” He pulled his chair up next to her and waited until her hands stopped shaking and the color returned to her face.
When Kate and Jack landed at Kennedy that afternoon, they debated about where to go next. They talked about spending a few weeks up on Cape Ann where they had often vacationed after baseball season ended. Chicago was always a possibility. It had been their home for seventeen years before they moved to Africa. The old baseball crowd would welcome them back, but they’d be curious, and too quick with questions Kate couldn’t answer. The most logical place was Texas, Kate’s home state, where she was born and lived until she finished college. Although most of her friends had moved, Max and Olga Rodriguez had put down stakes in nearby Wimberley and showed no signs of leaving. They were the closest thing to family Kate had left.
“We made the right decision,” Jack said. “I can’t think of a better place to be than with Max and Olga. And you haven’t seen your goddaughter in more than five years.”
“I know. I can’t wait to see them, but I wonder if it might be better to have a few weeks to ourselves. You know how crazy things can get on the ranch. And when I talked to Olga about coming she said that Rosa Linda was up to her old tricks and was giving her father fits.”
Jack laughed. “Well, when isn’t she? Beside, a little distraction right now might be better than having too much time on your hands. Come on. Let’s collect our bags and head to the gate.”
Surprisingly, Kate slept most of the way to Texas, waking only when she felt the cabin pressure change and the plane descending. The muscles in her neck had cramped from leaning in the same position for three hours, but otherwise, she felt an awareness of her body, a feeling of wholeness that offered a little hope.
She smiled at Jack. “Are we there yet?”
“I snuck a sedative into your water,” he said.
Kate gasped and realized he was joking. “Well, I’m grateful to whatever was in my water. I actually feel normal.”
“Enjoy it.” He laughed. “What we’re about to feel is anything but normal. It’s ten in the evening and the temperature at the Austin airport is ninety-three with ninety percent humidity. We’re going to need bathing suits.”
Kate’s heart gave way to tears when she spotted Olga standing by the baggage carousel. She ran over and threw her arms around the woman who was the closet thing to a sister Kate had ever had.
“Welcome home, chica,” Olga said. “If you didn’t come visit soon, I was going to go to Kenya to get you. The bungalow’s ready. I filled the fridge and turned down the AC. Jack, what a sight you are.”
“I hope that’s a compliment,” he said. “You’re as gorgeous as ever. Don’t I get a hug, too?”
“Of course, but don’t look too closely or you’ll see streaks of grey in my hair and, believe me, they’re not due to my age.”
Kate laughed. “Uh oh. What trouble’s my goddaughter brewing up now?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming sooner? I get a call before I finish my first cup of coffee this morning, telling me you and Jack are back in the states. What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
“Nothing a little rest won’t cure,” Jack said, glancing at Kate.
“I’ll tell you the sordid details later,” Kate said.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Olga said, “but don’t expect much peace and quiet. When I left the ranch, Rosa Linda was making plans for you.”
On the drive from the Austin-Bergstorm Airport to the small town of Wimberley west of Austin, Kate sensed another panic attack coming on. She took a few deep breaths and, remembering what Jack said about her needing a distraction, Kate brought up the subject of Rosa Linda.
“Dios mìo. That girl is about to give Max a stroke. It’s her latest cause. Rescuing greyhounds from abusive owners.”
Kate wasn’t sure what she expected, but this was the last thing she needed to hear. Jack reached from the backseat and placed his hand on her shoulder. She squeezed it, reassuring him that she was okay. It had been years since Kate investigated animal abuse cases for the Humane Society in Chicago. Her work was never rewarding and the investigations always ended badly. Sometimes they arrested the abusers, rarely were they convicted, and nine times out of ten, the animals were euthanized.
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Jack said.
“It is, except the man she’s going after happens to be our good friend and neighbor Guy Fordyce. One of Guy’s ranch hands contacted Rosa Linda with some story about the dogs being neglected.”
“You don’t think it’s true?” Kate asked.
“I’m not sure. Max is convinced it’s a bunch of hogwash. It all started when Rosa Linda became involved with a local greyhound adoption program. You know how she is. Once she seizes on something, it’s full steam ahead. Maybe you can talk some sense into her. Lord knows I’ve tried. I don’t want her getting in over her head and causing more trouble than she can handle.”
Jack laughed. “Are you talking about Rosa Linda, your only daughter, the one whose middle name is Trouble?”
“Yeah, I see what you mean. Fat chance she’ll listen to anyone, but I’m sure Katie can make her listen,” she glanced over with a weary smile.
By the time they arrived at the bungalow, it was close to midnight and fatigue had replaced what excitement Kate had felt upon seeing Olga after five years.
“Here’s the key,” Olga said. “Relax and settle in. Max is in Dallas and won’t be back until tomorrow. See you in the morning.”
“I can’t thank you enough for this,” Kate said.
“Then don’t.” Olga laughed. “By the time Rosa Linda gets ahold of you, you’ll wish you were back in Africa.”
They walked into an icy cold room. Jack snapped on the light and sat the bags down. “I’ll never get used to going from extreme hot to cold by simply walking through a door, but then I’m not a Texan.”
“It’s not easy for us, either.”
“You asked me something earlier today.” Jack adjusted the thermostat and turned to his wife. “Now I have to ask you the same question.”
“About making the right decision to come here. An animal abuse case--that’s the last damn thing you need.” He pulled her close. “If you want to change your mind, Olga will understand after we tell her what’s happened.”
“Let’s try to get a good night’s sleep. We’ll have time to talk it over in the morning.”
The morning for Kate came later than usual and, for that, she was grateful. She took her first cup of coffee and stepped onto the porch, disturbing a mockingbird perched on the porch rail. She seated herself in the rocking chair as the bird fussed and flitted over the intrusion.
“Sorry, I’m sure you weren’t expecting visitors, but we’ll be here for a while so you’ll have to put up with us.”
“Tell me you’re not talking to yourself,” Jack called from inside.
“No, just a mockingbird who’s not happy over having his territory invaded.”
“That’s almost as bad. Want some breakfast?”
“As long as you’re cooking, sure.” Kate rose to go inside for another cup of coffee when the sound of a car approaching much too fast caught her attention. Rosa Linda pulled up in front and laid on the horn.
“What the hell?” Jack went to the door. “Hey, young lady. Last time I saw you, you were just learning how to drive. Come here and give your godfather a hug.”
“Later, Jack. Kate, get in. Hurry!”
Kate rushed out. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll explain on the way.”
Kate went inside and grabbed her camera bag.
“What are you doing?” Jack cried.
“Weren’t you the one who said I needed a distraction?”
“Yeah, but not before breakfast. Do you want me to come along?”
“Hurry!” Rosa Linda called again.
“I’ll be fine. If I’m not back by sunset, call in the guard,” Kate joked.
Kate hopped in and before she could slam the door, Rosa Linda gunned the engine, spraying gravel across the drive.
“Do I even get a hello?” Kate said, grabbing for the seatbelt.
“Oh, Kate, I’m so sorry, but when Mom called me and told me you were coming, I was so relieved. I need help and I knew you’d listen to me.”
“Where are we off to?”
The Jeep bounced and skidded down the gravel road and soon they turned into the back entrance of Guy Fordyce’s ranch. Rosa Linda gave no consideration to slowing down over the cattle guards. Kate braced herself to keep from slamming her head against the roof. Along pastures thick with flowering alfalfa, they drove right into the heart of the ranch. Rosa Linda pulled over and stopped on the side of the road.
“We’re suppose to meet Jesús here.” Rosa Linda cut the engine. “Mom told you about the greyhounds on Fordyce’s ranch. Jesús Flores works for Guy. He contacted me a few weeks ago. He said some of the dogs are living in disgusting conditions and they’re treated like garbage. I’ve been trying for days to get onto the ranch to see for myself. Then he called this morning and left a frantic message for me to get to the ranch quickly. Something about having proof. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for.”
“Why didn’t Flores report the abuse to the authorities?”
“And lose his job and get sent back to Mexico?”
“Is he an illegal?”
“No, he has his work visa, but he’s afraid if he causes trouble...well, you know the story. Ever since he first contacted me, I’ve been trying to get the Blanco County Humane Society to investigate, but Fordyce has connections, and I’m not getting anywhere. He’s running for state senator, and he has a bunch of influential good old boys backing him. All I need is evidence and I’m about to get it. Then I’m alerting the authorities and calling the press. I’ll have him arrested--”
“Hold on. You need to take things one step at a time.” Kate knew Rosa Linda well enough to err on the side of caution.
Her hotheaded goddaughter was not beyond overreacting. From her work with the Humane Society, Kate knew the importance of having all her ducks in a row before she made any reports.
“If Fordyce has been racing dogs for years, why has the abuse issue arisen all of a sudden?” Kate asked. “You’d think that he wouldn’t want any bad press, especially now.”
“The Fordyce ranch hasn’t been running all that smoothly lately. Guy’s dog trainer, Diego Gomez, died unexpectedly not long ago. A new guy, Wayne Brody, took over the training. Jesús says Brody also uses live lures, which are illegal.”
“Small animals: rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, and any small mammal they can get their hands on.” Rosa Linda uncapped her water bottle, leaned over, and tossed a generous amount over the back of her neck. She straightened up and let the water run down her back. Standing just under five feet, Rosa Linda’s hundred pounds were tightly packed into a tiny, muscular frame. Her thick, black hair, cropped above her ears, gave her the look of a featherweight boxer. “I plan to do all I can to close down the racing track as well.”
“I know you feel strongly about this, but closing down a well-established racetrack won’t be easy,” Kate said.
“It won’t happen overnight. But it will happen.” Rosa Linda smiled. “You can bet on it.”
Ten minutes later, they still waited. The drone of heat-aroused cicadas pulsating through the air sounded like bacon sizzling in a hot pan. Kate sat on the Jeep’s bumper and pressed the palms of her hands over her eyelids, trying to ward off an approaching headache. Sweat rolled down between her breasts and tickled her sternum. Her jeans stuck to her legs.
“He should have been here by now.” Rosa Linda flipped open her iPhone and punched the numbers. “No answer. I don’t understand. I told him to call if anything went wrong. We don’t have much time to search those pens.”
A shadow sailed across the road. Kate looked up to see a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead, its brick-red tail feathers shining brilliantly in the late morning sun. Kate watched as the raptor dipped and rose, drifting effortlessly on a warm air current. At least someone is enjoying this weather, Kate thought. The bird circled and landed on a utility pole not thirty feet away. It watched its intruders for a few minutes, and then started preening its feathers.
Kate’s patience began to wane. If Jesús’s claims were true, and Guy Fordyce was responsible for the abuse of his greyhounds, she would soon become a major thorn in his side. Right now, all she could do was sit and wait while the window of opportunity slipped away.
“Here he comes.” Rosa Linda jumped down from the bumper of the Jeep and brushed dirt off the seat of her shorts. Kate looked up the road and saw a cloud of dust rising over the hill.
“Damn!” Rosa Linda said. “It’s Garrison, Guy’s brother.”
A banged-up Mercedes sputtered to a stop in front of the Jeep. The car’s once golden color had faded to dirty-shit yellow. The paint on the hood looked as if it had been blasted off in a sandstorm. The man who stepped out looked in worse shape than his car. His scrawny frame and prune-like skin gave the impression of an old man. As he got closer, Kate was surprised to see the youthfulness in his eyes. He could not have been more than forty-five. Kate wondered what misfortunes of life had contributed to his ragtag appearance.
Garrison Fordyce removed his cowboy hat, exposing a crop of sandy hair. The gesture was not an act of chivalry. Instead, he wiped the sweat off his brow. Using his tongue, he shoved a wad of tobacco to the back of his cheek. He propped his foot on the bumper of the Mercedes and draped his shotgun over his knee.
“Well, look who’s here. Little Rosa Linda Rodriguez. Didn’t your daddy ever teach you not to trespass?” He gave Kate the once over, chewed, and spit a brown stream that landed less than a foot from her boot. Kate caught the odor of stale beer mixed with the tobacco and had to swallow hard not to gag.
“I didn’t think Guy would mind if I drove Kate around the ranch and showed her how your brother has improved the place,” Rosa Linda lied. “We stopped to photograph the hawk.”
“Your daddy might be chummy with my brother, but don’t think you can go snooping around the ranch whenever you want. We’ve got expensive breeding stock on this side of the property and if you hit one while cruising around like some damn tour-guide, you’ll have hell to pay.” His warning was cut short when his cell beeped. “Yeah...not yet. I’m on my way.” He opened the car door and laid his shotgun on the back seat. “Besides, little lady, bad things happen to people who snoop.” He got back into his car and drove away.
“Nice guy,” Kate said.
“Garrison’s an asshole. Guy lets him hang out here, since he’s never been able to hold down a job. He tells everyone that he’s the vice-president of Fordyce Enterprises. What a laugh. Rumor has it his third wife left him about six months ago, and took what little money Garrison had. Now he’s sponging off his older brother.”
Knowing that Rosa Linda could very well stay put on this hot, dusty road until the sun scorched the life out of her, Kate suggested they head back to the ranch and formulate Plan B before their efforts resulted in a bullet in the backside. Rosa Linda reluctantly agreed. On their way out, she drove to the top of the next hill to give Kate a view of the Fordyce ranch house and the facilities that sat nestled alongside a lush grove of live oaks.
Kate focused her binoculars on the property.
“Can you see Jesús’s red pickup? He usually parks it next to the bunkhouse, that long white building to the left of the barn,” Rosa Linda said.
“Nope. No red pickup around.”
Rosa Linda turned the Jeep around and they left.
The beauty of the Texas Hill Country never failed to astonish Kate. Old cowboy movies portrayed the Lone Star State as a dry desert, sprinkled with cacti, or with tumbleweeds rolling down a lonely street flanked by wooden sidewalks. Except for a few historic small towns in the remote western region of the state, nothing could be further from the truth. With its lush terrain covering an ancient limestone plateau, this land supports cedars, junipers, big-tooth maples, and record-size live oaks, all vying for water from the streams and creeks that carved canyons through the earth. It was evident to Kate that the dry summer had indeed taken its toll on the pastures. But the native vegetation still flourished, coloring the land in dusty greens.
In the distance, a dirt devil spiraled a mound of dust into the sky. Kate had often seen small whirlwinds near her camp in Kenya. She suddenly realized how similar this area of Texas was to East Africa. The wide-open spaces were just as overpowering. Except in Kenya, red oat grass replaced tall wispy bluestem and acacias substituted for live oaks. And the high altitude at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro brought crisp, cool mornings, which gave way to pleasant afternoons. The late African sun filtered through the dust and painted the sky a faded pink, giving the land an illusion of softness in an otherwise precarious existence. Kate’s first pang of homesickness butterflied somewhere deep inside. Not yet ready to deal with her recent plight, she turned her mind to the situation at hand. Work was always her best painkiller.
Suddenly Kate noticed a flash of crimson down one of the rutted tracks leading off the main road. “Stop!” she shouted. “Is that Jesús’s truck sitting in the ditch?”
Rosa Linda slammed on her brakes. The Jeep skidded sideways, spraying gravel across the hood and windshield before sliding to a stop.
“He’s had an accident!” Rosa Linda cried.
Kate and Rosa Linda left the Jeep in the middle of the road and ran toward the wreck. It looked as if the pickup had plowed through a barbed-wire fence and nose-dived into a utility pole. It rested precariously on the embankment. The front end was smashed in like an accordion, and the right rear-tire hung in mid-air. The driver’s side door hung loose on its hinge.
“Stay here,” Kate said. She climbed down into the ditch and up the other side. The engine was running. Kate looked inside afraid of what she might find. The dashboard had buckled and smashed into the passenger seat. Glass shards that had once been the windshield covered the seat bench and floorboard. The back window was shattered as well, but the front seat was empty. “There’s no one inside.”
Rosa Linda scanned the pasture. “Jesús!” she called. “Why didn’t he stay put and call for help?”
Kate reached inside to cut off the engine. That’s when she saw blood pooled on the floorboard, more splattered across the seatback.
“Give me your cell,” Kate said.
“I’m calling the sheriff.”
“No, Kate. You can’t--”
“Rosa Linda, Jesús did not walk away from this mess. Give me the cell phone.”
© 2017 by Kathleen Kaska