33

Achill ran through Angelica’s body. All around her people were dying, but she hadn’t expected to hear Hamilton’s name in that context. True, she and Hamilton hadn’t been husband and wife in more than seven years, but she still felt a connection to him.

The phone call from her brother left her numb. Hamilton had been murdered. The details were sketchy, but it was believed that another inmate had done the deed. Her brother would fill her in as soon as he was able to obtain more information. There was nothing left for Angelica to do but head to North Carolina. Hamilton was her ex-husband, and she still considered herself family.

Angelica wasn’t sure how she was going to get to North Carolina. It was too expensive to catch a flight on such short notice, but she was going to find a way. Rubbing her temples, it came to her. She would drive, but she needed to get a car. She knew the person to call. Ari would get her what she needed, but it would be up to her to get beyond Santiago’s net. And she would run away for a second time from the demon that made her life a living hell. She decided to call Ari tomorrow, as soon as Santiago left the house, but now she looked for something to wear.

Going to the restaurant was the last thing she wanted to do, but she pushed her present emergency to the back burner. The one thing she didn’t want to happen was for Santiago to get wind of her mood so that he would start asking a lot of questions. Hamilton’s death was her secret passage out of the house and away from him.

A knock on the door took her out of her reverie. She smoothed down the fabric on her black dress that hit just above the knee and then went to the door and unlocked it. Santiago stood there looking handsome in all black, setting off his fine Latin features, especially his coal-black wavy hair. Angelica pretended not to notice.

“You look amazing,” Santiago said as he stood in the hallway while his eyes roamed the length of her. “We may have to go somewhere swanky with the way you look.”

“Oh, I can change if I’m overdressed,” Angelica said, not wanting to extend her evening with Santiago beyond dinner.

“No need to change. I’ve got to tend to a little business with Uncle Jorge, and it might take awhile.”

Her ears lifted at that bit of information. Angelica wondered what type of business Santiago had with his uncle, especially since his relatives had been running a successful restaurant for over thirty years. If her heart weren’t so heavy with Hamilton’s death laying on it, she’d probably do some investigating of her own.

“Well, I’m ready whenever you are.”

A brisk wind met them as they stepped out into the late spring night. Angelica adjusted her wrap and stood quietly next to Santiago as they waited for Niko to bring the car around. He was not alone. Hamilton’s two goons were in the car-one sat in the front, the other in the back. Both were dressed in black leather jackets with turtleneck sweaters and slacks underneath. They had a sinister look about them, and they tipped their heads when Angelica got in, careful not to let their stares linger too long.

Santiago uttered something to them in Spanish and then introduced them to Angelica. “This is Sammy,” Santiago said of the man sitting next to Angelica, “and up front is Dominic. Old friends of mine.”

Angelica leaned over and whispered to Santiago, “I thought we were going to dinner alone?”

“Sammy and Dominic are catching a ride. They have other business in town,” Santiago responded. Satisfied, Angelica sat back with her hands on her lap.

Light rain began to fall. The pitter-patter of the raindrops pierced the silence in the car.

“Something on your mind?” Santiago asked Angelica a few minutes later. “You’re distant, too quiet. I like my women noisy.” Angelica remained silent while the goons laughed at Santiago’s lame joke.

The drizzle became buckets of water, and cautious drivers slowed their vehicles on the slippery asphalt. Another Spanish conversation between the three men resumed. Santiago caught Niko stealing glances at Angelica. “Keep your eyes on the damn road,” Santiago shouted at Niko as the tire hit a wet pothole and the car swerved to the left. Niko recovered and pulled it straight into the lane.

“Hell, what you trying to do, Niko? Get us killed? I’m gonna…”

“Chill out, Santiago,” Sammy said. “Give the boy a break. It’s nasty outside. We want to get to where we’re supposed to be safely. Everything’s cool, man,” he cautioned.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Santiago said, releasing a huge sigh.

Santiago looked from Sammy to Angelica. He laid his hand on Angelica’s thigh and patted it, and while she wished she had a fork to pierce his hand, she played along because plans for her getaway were formulating in her mind. She didn’t want to give Santiago any cause not to trust her.

Twenty minutes later, they pulled up alongside El Conuco. Niko pulled the car to the curb, but left the motor running. Sammy and Dominic stayed behind while Santiago and Angelica got out of the car. Maybe Angelica was wrong about his being involved in some unscrupulous activity, but nothing explained the twelve-thousand-square-foot house Santiago lived in that sat on a few prime acres of land. She had yet to determine what his real occupation was because he never appeared to be going anywhere fast or at any given time. Whatever he was up to, she wanted no part of it.

Before they entered El Conuco, the scent of food flooded their nostrils and spicy Latin music met their ears. Angelica was suddenly hungry, and a good homegrown meal would satiate her stomach and keep it still while she internalized her grief. Regardless of what Hamilton had done to her, she was unable to imagine him lying out on a cold slab in somebody’s mortuary.

To Angelica’s amazement, the place was full. It was a Wednesday night, but it proved that people either didn’t have time to or preferred not to cook. Angelica faked a smile when Aunt Maria hugged her and Uncle Jorge showed all thirty-two pieces of porcelain in his mouth. They seemed to be a nice couple, and it was quite obvious they adored their handsome nephew.

“Whatever the lady wants,” Santiago said, placing a juicy kiss on Aunt Maria’s cheek. “She needs some cheering up…hasn’t gotten used to the Hamptons.”

“We got what she needs,” Aunt Maria said. Angelica’s eyes bulged. Was that Aunt Maria speaking halfway decent English?

Aunt Maria continued with an accent, “Girl, what’s not to love in the Hamptons? I go over once a week and clean the house for Roberto, and then I go out and sit on the deck, if the weather permits, and catch the sun. Sometimes I stay over if I drink too much tequila and can’t make it back to town. When Roberto is gone, Jorge and me housesit for him; and we have the run of the house. That’s the only time the oven gets turned on, except when we’ve catered a party or two.”

Angelica listened intently. It explained why she hadn’t seen any domestics at the place, although she hadn’t seen Uncle Jorge or Aunt Maria either. Santiago always brought food home or took her out. She pondered this. Santiago relied on them for a lot of things, but she’d bet her last dollar they relied on him as well. There was nothing thicker than blood.

“His place is beautiful,” Angelica said. “I love the view of the ocean and the spaciousness of it all, but lately I’ve been missing my family, and I’m feeling lonely.”

“Her cousin was murdered a month ago, and she’s been under the weather,” Santiago said, watching Angelica out of the corner of his eye. “I’m going to see to it that she gets what she needs to make her happy again.”

“Well, let me take your order,” Aunt Maria said with a wide smile. Uncle Jorge tapped his finger like Angelica had seen Santiago do earlier, and then he disappeared.

Santiago took the liberty to order their food and then excused himself. Angelica watched him go through a door off the kitchen-the same one Uncle Jorge had disappeared through. She played with a book of matches that had El Conuco written on it, tossed it in her purse, and gazed around the room.

There were two waitresses who saw to it that everyone was taken care of. People chatted around Angelica as if they had no cares in the world. A snappy number rolled over the loudspeaker, and several couples hopped on the floor in the rear of the restaurant. Their bodies were engaged in a salsa dance that included smooth fancy footwork. Other patrons joined in, clapping their hands to the spicy Latin beat.

Angelica was sipping on a Margarita when she noticed a black man in braids dart into the restaurant and out the back where the others had gone. There was something different…strange, like he didn’t belong there, yet familiar. She sat up straight and searched her brain for why he aroused her curiosity. Sitting back in her chair, Angelica caught her breath. He wore an old Army field jacket that was too big-it was the man who got on the bus outside of Central Prison.

What would he possibly be doing at Santiago’s family’s restaurant, of all places? Was he working for Santiago? Maybe he was following her, but why?

Angelica felt sick. Her food had not come yet, but she had to get out of that place. She didn’t know what was going on at El Conuco, but she was getting the hell out of there.

She scrambled from her seat, went to the counter and asked the waitress to get Aunt Maria. Aunt Maria was flying from the kitchen uttering something in Spanish when she saw Angelica. “What is it, Angel?” Aunt Maria asked.

Angel? Did Aunt Maria know I worked in a strip joint? Angelica dismissed it.

“Would you please let Santiago know that I’m sick and that I need to go home now, please?”

Maria looked at Angelica as if she were a nurse, trying to determine the cause of her illness. “Wait a minute, Angel. I don’t think he can come right now. Diego,” Maria called to the cook and then uttered something in Spanish. Maria turned to Angelica, “I’ll be right back.”

Maria returned and told her the driver would meet her outside in five minutes. Angelica thanked Maria and offered her apologies about dinner. She went to the table, grabbed her things, and headed out the door.

Headlights blinded her as she stood near the curb, but the car stopped and Niko got out and opened the door for her. They road back to the Hamptons in silence. All the while, Angelica’s brain processed what she had observed. Something was not right, but her mind wouldn’t let her find any order to her mishmash of discoveries.

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