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Paper Birds

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Prologue: Two Years Ago

Sara Tancredi waiting nervously for the man on the other side of the glass door to acknowledge her presence. She knew that he was aware that she was sitting there waiting for him, but so far he hadn’t made an effort to talk to her. It left her alone with her thoughts, not always a good thing. This whole experience had been surreal. Looking back, it was easy to see how she had ended up here. She had had a talent for trouble ever since she was a girl, always doing or saying the wrong thing, usually with someone her father was hoping to impress. This was another in a long list of choices she had made since she’d reached adulthood that made things difficult for the governor. God knows what favors he had had to call in this time, but somehow she had managed to keep a hold of her medical license, albeit with conditions. ‘This is the last time.’ Her father’s words echoed through her mind as she waited. He’d made it clear that she was on her own when it came to finding a place to land professionally. Lucky for her that she’s stumbled across this job after months of struggle. At first she had been sure that she’d land on her feet only to discover not a lot of hospitals were itching to hire a junkie, and one who had stolen drugs to boot. But she was clean now. She told herself that once more. In time she’d be able to prove that she was doing better. And she was doing better. Sure, her relationship with her father was more strained now than ever, but in time, he might come to at least respect her choice. Working at Fox River was certainly one of her better decisions considering her long battle with substance abuse. Maybe one day he would see that, see how much good she could do here. Not that Frontier Justice Frank believed in rehabilitation. When she’d told him about this job there had been a moment where she was sure he regretted leaving the decision in her hands, but she no longer wanted his help, didn’t want to be just another case of nepotism, yet again. He’d been working to give her a leg up her whole life, but now it was time to choose what was best for her. This could be good for her.

A quick glance at her watch told her that she was cutting things a little too close. With a sigh Sara knocked on the door to the office yet again. The man sitting at the desk looked up at the sound but did not make a move to let her in. They stared at each other through the glass for a moment before the man rose with a scowl on his face to emit her. “You were told to wait.”

Sara tried her best to keep a smile on her face. “I have a meeting with Warden Pope in fifteen minutes.”

“What do I owe for the pleasure of your visit to me then?” he asked not even attempting to sound pleased.

So this was Dr. Maxwell, her new boss? When Bellick was telling her about the job she had gotten the impression that not everything was strictly above board with the man standing in front of her. But whatever had happened, she’s gotten no further details. His demeanor made her second guess her choice to come. But she was here, so with a smile that was not returned she pulled up a chair. Uncertain how to begin she let her eyes roam across the desk beside her. “I wanted to come by and meet you.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me?” he said. “It wasn’t enough to roll in and steal my job. Which I don’t understand, by the way. Did daddy think it would engender him to a wider pool of voters to have you working here? That doesn’t quite add up. And now you figure you’ll swing by to rub my nose in my so called mistakes?”

His anger took her aback, the words washing over her but not making any sense. “I’m sorry, I stole your job?” she asked in disbelief. That wasn’t how it had been phrased to her. She’d thought that she was only lending a helping hand.

“Oh don’t play dumb sweetheart; you’re not nearly pretty enough to make it endearing.”

Despite the bad taste in her mouth she struggled to continue. “Look, I don’t know what you think happened, but I had no clue that I was taking someone’s job. I was told that there was an opening, and I applied. My father was properly pissed too. Frankly, you give him a bit more credit than he deserves, always has been more concerned with keeping the base happy than any stunts to reach across the aisle. The way he sees it, this job is just another way for me to make him look bad. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m something of a master at that.” She grimaced at the thought. “But as I was saying, I was told that you needed a break, wanted to cut back your hours. I don’t generally make it a habit of judging other people based on speculation. Clearly I’m in the minority there.”

If his look before had been sour, it was nothing compared to the way he was glaring at her now. “I am more than skilled at collecting facts all on my own. You’re soft, one of those do-gooder types. And a woman to boot. You have no business here. Everyone knows.” He chuckled to himself. “I told the Pope hiring you was a mistake. Knew the second I heard your application came across his desk. If he was going to push me out because of fabricated complaints from some of the lowest lifeforms to walk the planet, he could at least hire someone competent to replace me. But no, he stuck us with you. What can you expect, right? The man’s too soft on the fucking reprobates himself.”

Sara shook her head and rose from her chair. “I thought you were here to revel in my downfall,” Dr. Maxwell spat.

“No, I think I got all I needed to know,” Sara replied as she stormed out of the room.

Her mind raced, unable to stop from coming up with more and more vicious comebacks for the horrible man she had just left as her feet carried her further and further away from him. She has gotten halfway down the hall before she remembered that she had no clue how to get to the warden’s office. Luckily she saw the guard who had escorted her up to the infirmary waiting for her. Another guard stood beside him, and the pair was deep in a conversation that abruptly stopped the second she got closer. “Sorry that took so long,” she said as nonchalantly as possible,

The man gave her a shrug. “No skin off my nose. Maxwell give you a proper welcome?”

His tone was grating. Clearly he had known exactly how she’d be received and had done nothing to forewarn her. Maxwell’s words of warning hit her as she stood there. ‘You have no business here. Everybody knows.’ Was that why this guard had thrown her to the wolves? It took a tremendous effort to keep herself together, to not show weakness. “He was very helpful, in fact. I would have stayed longer, but I’m running late for my meeting with Warden Pope. Do you mind showing me the way? Haven’t quite gotten the layout down yet.”

There was a long pause where she could only guess what the two men were thinking. The one who’d brought her here seemed disappointed that she hadn’t broken, but the other seemed to be sizing her up, reassessing what he believed about this new addition to the prison. It was the second officer that spoke. “I can show you. Jenkins here has business to attend to elsewhere.”

The last comment was pointed enough to be deadly. Sara made it a point to study the pair closely. She had initially taken them for friends from afar, but now that she was closer she thought that one guard must outrank the other. And it wasn’t an easy boss/subordinate relationship either. Jenkins clearly didn’t appreciate being ordered about by the other man. He scowled deeply and left without another word as she made a mental note of all she had observed. “I’m sorry for him,” the other officer said.

“Which one?” Sara asked without thinking.

“Both of them.” She got the impression she was being watched closely by the man and was careful not to react to the scrutiny. “You’ll need a thick skin if you plan to work in this place,” he informed her after a moment.

“I’ve been getting that impression.” She took a moment to weigh her words. “I guess I assumed that would pertain to the inmates more than my coworkers.”

He gave her another once over. “I’m Patterson, by the way. Louis Patterson.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said, taking the hand he held out for her to shake. “I assume that you already know that I’m Dr. Sara Tancredi,” she added as an afterthought.

They shook hands briefly before beginning the journey to the warden’s office. A deep silence spread between them as they walked, and it wasn’t until he arrived that she heard him speak again. “Dr. Tancredi here has a meeting with the Pope,” he said to the woman sitting behind the desk.

The woman looked between the two of them carefully, making Sara think there was something hidden in that gaze she would have to work to figure out. “I will let him know that she’s here. Thank you for give her a tour Louis. We wouldn’t want the young doctor getting lost.” She turned to Sara without a smile. “You may have a seat,” she added in a clipped tone.

Sara did just that, picking a seat far from the secretary’s direct eye line. Officer Patterson gave her a small nod as he left her in the care yet someone else. So far she hadn’t been making a great first impression with her new potential coworkers. Here she was, waiting to meet her boss for the first time, and already at least two of her coworkers were less than thrilled to have her on board. And that was to say nothing of everything that had happened with Maxwell. All in all, she was beginning to question her surety that working at the prison was a good idea. Sara shook her head. Now was not the time to dwell on her doubts. She had already gone through the rigorous Department of Corrections interview process and couldn’t just give up now, not without even try out the job. The secretary’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “You can go in now.”

“Thanks,” Sara muttered with a sideways glance as she rose. The woman wasn’t looking at her. She thought to try for politeness, a better impression. “I’m Sara. It is nice to meet you by the way.”

The look she received was cold. “Don’t you think you’re already late enough?”

Sara gave a little nod and walked to knock on the office door before entering.

The man behind the desk was older than she expected, certainly older than even her father. It took her aback for a moment. She had been expecting someone else from the way the DOC described him. “You must be Dr. Tancredi,” he said pleasantly. He even came around his desk to shake her hand. “Welcome to Fox River. Schmitt said you’d gone through security, and I was starting to fear you’d gotten lost on the way up here.”

“Sorry about being late. I went by the infirmary first.” She worked hard to keep her tone neutral but was pretty sure she was unsuccessful.

The response clearly gave the warden pause. He gave her a long look before responding. “Why don’t we have a seat?” He gestured to a couch and chairs against the wall. It took Sara a moment before she accepted. Once she had sat, the warden took the seat opposite from her and cleared his throat. “I am happy to have you on board. The DOC seemed to think of you highly, but I wanted to have this opportunity to speak with you to make sure that you were a good fit.”

The words made Sara shift uncomfortably. This was what she had been afraid of. She knew that she needed to get through one last interview with this man before she would officially have the job. Even though both Bellick and the DOC had assured her that it was practically a formality, she was still uncertain of her chances. “I appreciate you taking the time to have me come in,” she replied after much consideration.

“Of course.” He gave her a small nod. “So tell me, what brings you here to Fox River?”

“I wanted to help people. I felt like I could really do some good here.” The warden’s expression was unreadable. There was something in the way he looked at her that had Sara struggling to find the words to explain herself. “I guess… I’m not sure how much… We all have… I wasn’t entirely honest with the Department of Corrections about the nature of how I left my past job.” The words were out of her mouth before she could consider them.

The confession clearly had an effect on Warden Pope. He shot her a curious look but didn’t respond. “It wasn’t anything bad. Well, it was bad, but not…” She shook her head. “I had some personal issues that I needed to work through, like I told them, but I did not go into the details of what they were. I may have made it sound like the environment wasn’t the right fit. Honestly, I didn’t think they would recommend you hire me if they knew, and I really feel like Fox River is where I need to be at this point in my life.” She folded her hands together in front of her and tried to look composed.

“Are you seconding guessing that decision?” He gave her a moment before he went on. “Sara, if I may call you Sara,” he said carefully, “when I first saw your application, I wondered if maybe I could guess at what had happened.” He frowned deeply. “When I saw that you had been referred by Captain Bellick, I suspected where the two of you might have met. I don’t make it a habit to discuss other people’s personal business, but in this case I assume that you are already aware that Bellick has some demons of his own. I don’t fault him for them.”

The confession gave her pause. When she didn’t say anything he went on, “You are right that some at the DOC would have been hesitant to hire you under the circumstances, but I have always preached rehabilitation over punishment. Plus, I think, as I suspect that you do, that having you on the staff might be beneficial for some of the inmates. But if you no longer feel that Fox River is the best fit, I don’t want you to do anything that would cause you any issues.” He looked at her intently for a long time. “I try not to pry into the personal lives of my staff, of course, but I have a job where invasion of privacy is the norm. That can make it difficult at times to respect boundaries.”

She sighed deeply. “I’m not in danger of relapsing or anything, if that’s what you’re very carefully trying not to ask.” She laughed nervously for a moment. “I just had a, not a bad day per se. I’m honestly not sure how to explain it. The simplest version is that I have become unsure if I can work here.” She paused uncertainly. “I guess that I wasn’t really clear about what job I was applying for. The DOC said there was another doctor, and I thought that we would be working together, but when I went by the infirmary I got the impression that that isn’t the case.”

“From Dr. Maxwell?” Sara was glad that was the part of her speech the warden clung too.

“Yes. He did not react well to my inquiry. He also eluded to somethings regarding how I came to work there. Some complaints lodged against him. I know that I can’t really ask you to disclose personal information about him to a prospective employee, but I was curious if you could explain to me why um, you are looking to replace him.” Her brow furled as she trailed off.

The question obviously made the warden uncomfortable. He shifted a little in his chair. “Has Bellick said anything to you?”

“No. He only told me there was an opening on the medical staff. Neither he nor the DOC mentioned that I was taking someone’s place. I went by the infirmary to meet what I thought was my direct supervisor. Instead he accused me of trying to steal his job and suggested that I wasn’t qualified to take his place.” She choose in the moment to leave out his insinuation that the same was true of the warden.

Pope frowned. “Obviously, what I can say is limited, as you acknowledged, but there are incident reports that you will be able to access if you take the job.” He looked around the room uncomfortably. “Dr. Maxwell has worked at the prison for a long time. He actually predates me, in fact. He did not have a spotless reputation even back then. A lot of it was grumbling form a discontented few. At least that was how I choked it up in the beginning. The longer I have been at Fox River, the more my opinion has changed.” He looked around the room again. “You have to remember the source. You will hear that a lot working here. And that’s what I was often told when I made my opinions known to my superiors. But inmates are not actually that prone to report staff, and the number of complaints was rising. I began to suggest that maybe we should lighten his load a bit. Maybe he was burnt out, needed some time away. He has often worked seven days a week. That can wear you down over time. I suggested that we hire someone to fill in on the weekends or a couple days a week to give him a break. But funding is short for that kind of thing, and it was difficult to get agreement from the DOC. Still I tried relentlessly. I believe that a large part of my job is protecting the inmates, not just keep them in. So when the incident with Burrows happened, I changed my tactics.”

The name was unexpected. “Lincoln Burrows?” she asked without thinking.

The warden shot her a scrutinizing look. “Yes. Is there a problem?”

“No. No,” Sara said, quick to shake her head as well. “I was just surprised; I had forgotten he was an inmate here. You wouldn’t think they would keep someone like that in your backyard.” She paused at the guarded look Pope’s face. “Infamous, I mean. I just would have thought that they would have put him somewhere else given what he did.”

There was a heavy silence that followed her words. Finally the warden spoke. “You certainly have a point, but his crimes weren’t federal. This place is about the worst they could do at the state level. Though I try to make this place livable. These men have been left in my care, and I do all I can to help them. That is why you’re here. Ultimately, as long as who I hire can pass the DOC vetting process, I can hire and fire whomever I want. Unfortunately I have little cause to fire Maxwell without a suitable replacement. If I do, he could sue; which could get tricky. The complaints against him are all relatively minor. Except for Lincoln. Who won’t talk. And the witness to the incident has chosen to remain anonymous. The DOC warned me there could be issues if he sued, but I cannot sit back and do nothing. In the end, I decided to start looking for someone else despite the risks. He did not appreciate my decision to let him go, especially when he heard I was considering hiring you to replace him.”

Sara took that in. It was all rather more than she thought he would say under the circumstances. She still thought to press her luck. “What exactly happened between the two of them?”

He sighed. “I wasn’t present, so all I can speak to is what ended up in the official report. Dr. Maxwell was performing a routine physical on Burrows. The two of them were left alone in the cell; which was standard. Burrows was in shackles, and he hasn’t shown himself to be violent with staff. There was no reason not to leave the two men alone. Then the two guards that were waiting outside the door heard a commotion and entered the cell. What happened then differs from one statement to another. At first both guards told the same story: that both men were agitated and the meeting ended when they entered the cell. But later one of the guards gave a different story. It followed the original story to a tee but added some details that had been missing. Primarily that it took both himself and his partner to pull Maxwell off of Burrows.” Sara knew she looked appalled at the suggestion. “That is what I thought,” Pope said once he went on. “It was a very serious allegation. He had maybe been a little rough with the prisoners before, but nothing that could have been construed as violent.” They were both silent for a long time. “It wasn’t something that I could ignore even if I wanted to,” the warden said once he finally collected himself. “But it was a sticky situation. I had a witness who refused to go on the record unless his name was kept out of it. Snitches are not popular in prison on either side of the badge. He was not incorrect in his fears. Since nothing was known to anyone but myself, and that includes Becky, the others were forced to guess which one had talked. One of them was not particularly popular before, and he became the scapegoat. He no longer works for the prison. His choice to leave was taken as further proof of his guilt, but he wasn’t the one who talked.”

Sara thought about that. “I take it that he never told anyone that it wasn’t him.”

Pope shook his head. “I have no doubt about that.” He settled back into his chair thoughtfully. “I suspect that he wanted to come forward but didn’t have the guts to do so. He covered up that act of cowardice by not telling on the person who was brave enough to talk.”

“Honestly, I don’t fully understand how Maxwell has a job at all under the circumstances.” She tried to keep the accusation out of her voice. “Why is he still here?”

“The inmates still need medical care while I’m looking for a replacement. It is a great regret of mine that I haven’t been able to send him packing,” the warden replied sadly. “Without the officer making his statement public, the DOC made it clear that without evidence I didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. There was a big speech about being able to confront your accuser if I recall. They suggested that I get a statement from Burrows. Which I had been reluctant to do, because I knew how that would go. As I suspected, he did not wish to say anything, did not wish to press charges.”

“He couldn’t,” Sara cut in.

Pope nodded. “I attempted to explain that to the DOC, but they felt that if he wanted to talk he would have. Without his statement, my hands were tied. But when I saw him, I knew. I knew. So I did the best I could, I have limited Maxwell’s exposure as much as possible in the meantime. He’s going quieter than I suspected he would. I had hoped the DOC would be more help, but they are more afraid of a wrongful termination lawsuit than protecting a man on death row. I tried to make them see that he was a liability, that next time it might be someone who would garner more sympathy.” His mouth opened and closed as he struggled for words. He looked completely at a loss for how to go on.

Sara sat there in the silence. The idea that she had even considered trying to back out of the job. He seemed to realize what she was thinking. “But I don’t want you to think that you have to take the job if you feel like you shouldn’t. You’ll need to be sure this is something you can do.”

She turned the idea over in her mind. “No. I’ll be fine. I was just a little rattled.”

“You’re sure that you’re fine?” he asked.

She nodded, her smile for sure feeling like a grimace now. “I’m sure everything will be okay.”

Her hands shook a little despite her words. “You have to be sure. If you think that Dr. Maxwell was unpleasant, you might not be up to the task. I don’t say that to be patronizing. I am sure that you are more than capable, but there are realities of this job that you might not be ready to handle. The inmates, for example. They will be inappropriate with you; that I am certain of. You are an attractive woman, and there are not a lot of women here. That will play into how they treat you. Some of the guards may not be pleasant either. Know that you can come to be with any concerns and complaint. I will do whatever I can, but there are limits to what I can do. An inmate gets violent, that I can rectify, but if one of them makes a comment that isn’t appropriate, that I have little control over.”

She weighed her words carefully. “I understand that.”

He watched her for a moment. “I think that you could really help some of the men here, but you should be prepared.”

Sara knew that this was her last chance to back out. “I have a thick skin,” she said even if it wasn’t entirely sure. “I can handle it.”

The warden smiled uncertainly. “Well then, welcome aboard. Becky will give you all the details.”

As soon as she stepped out of the office she made it a point to smile to the secretary. “You must be Becky,” she said as sweetly as she could. “Warden Pope told me to see you about what I need to start work.”

There was no mistaking the sour look the woman behind the desk gave her before she carefully plastered a smile on her face that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Of course,” Becky said. “I’m the source around here after all.” Her words had an ominous ring to them.