Back to Red: Part One

Please click here (Back to Red: Prologue) to read the first post in this series. Part Two has been posted.

And here Cassandra was, laying on her kitchen floor staring at a clump of dog hair she had somehow missed whenever the last time was that she had swept. What have you done, Cassandra? What have you done? It wasn’t Zoraida’s voice that she heard echoing within her thoughts, but rather her own.

Giving Cassandra a moment to collect herself, Anzhelina folded in the blade of her knife and tucked it back into its hiding place. Satisfied that she had put her sister in the right frame of mind to receive the message, the blonde stepped forward and began snapping her fingers in front of Sandra’s face.

“Hey, hey! Focus.” Angie’s tone was indifferent to the writhing going on underneath her.

It hurt a lot less than Sandra expected. However, it did surprise her that the assault had such an impact on her breathing. Her chest was left feeling as if it was hydrolocked like one of the many poor souls who foolishly forged ahead on a flooded Bayshore Boulevard. The risk of danger had looked deceptively minimal. Was she bleeding into her chest cavity? Was the increase in fluid preventing air from filling and expanding her lungs? Is that what was happening? Thunk-thunk, thunkthunkthunk. The arrhythmia pounded against the inside of her ribs and triggered a half cough seizing her lungs again as she struggled still to breathe. Could blood be pouring out of her that quickly? Maybe she was already in shock. Her arms felt so heavy, like lead really. The buzzing tingle that swept over her shoulders, down those languid limbs, and ended in her fingertips almost made it feel like there had been an assault on her nervous system. She had to question whether she had any control whatsoever over them, yet somehow she managed to pull them in tighter around her midsection.

Kandajha. What was Angie going to say to her? Not the truth, obviously. Would a total lie about the nature of her death be any less painful so long as she never learned the truth? A home invasion gone wrong versus a suicide? That’s what this was, wasn’t it? A suicide? Sandra had engineered a situation with Anzhelina in hopes of bringing about her own demise. Just because it was implemented at the last second didn’t change the truth of it. She didn’t have the fortitude to do it herself so here they were. Her sister was the replacement for the gun Sandra, herself, never had the courage to use. Or in this case, the knife.

It wasn’t so much about not wanting to live. Cassandra was just tired of carrying around the weight of her grief. And while a large part of her felt empty after the separation from Dante, she knew that she was grieving many relationships beyond the one she had with the letter writer. The deaths of her father and brother during her teen years and the ensuing power struggle with her mother meant there would be no happy holidays for what remained of the Boledi family. A chasm opened up that was so wide and cut so deeply that any form of reunification would never be in the cards for the two sides. It ultimately took putting the Atlantic ocean between Cassandra and her mother, Lahja to keep the peace.

The death of her family’s counsel just a few years after she graduated from law school was shocking and destabilizing not just to Sandra personally, but also to the law firm. It now meant that at the age of thirty she would be required to step into Jackson Profeta’s role and become more involved in negotiations and decisions about family business. This transition would mark the beginning of the end of her relationship with Dante. Not long after, their plans together would collapse under the weight of her obligations to an organization she had begun to resent almost as much as he did. Eventually, time would prove him to be right that it was changing her into someone else – a person he had no desire to be around. Dealing with those situations required Cassandra to shift into a different emotional space and it was taxing on her home life. Though she had been successful up to this point in weathering the family and the firm through the monumental shifts impacting their power and influence, she wound up paying the price personally.

It would be a good ten years after Dante’s departure that Zoraida’s battle with her health would come to an end leaving Sandra entirely alone at the top. Cicero checked out a couple years prior having decided to drown his despair in Scotch rather than be present for his wife and son. But if one was honest in their assessment of his sobriety, his rise as the next leader began to slow following Profeta’s passing, something he refused to discuss. It highlighted the fact that all of them – her mentor, her uncle, the men who gathered weekly, and even Cassandra herself – were foolishly operating as if time and consequences could not catch up to them.

The people who had guided her, protected her, propped her up, were now nowhere to be found. There was no back up counsel now that Cicero was M.I.A. and though Gray Parrino had proved to be on side during certain confrontations, she wasn’t entirely sure of his true intentions. It was unlikely she would ever admit it outside of these four walls, but Cassandra had been consulting with Anzhelina on every major decision since things began falling apart. She wasn’t farming out the tough calls to the blonde. Instead it was about having recognized that Angie held a truly unique perspective on matters. She was as unattached and unbiased as a person could be. The blonde represented facts, logistics, and the numbers of it all. But when it came right down to it the tie-breaker between Angie’s black and white take and Cassandra’s sentimentality was always going to be Cassandra’s choice, whatever that wound up being.

More than any other time in their history, the family was now vulnerable. Vulnerable financially and also as it related to their safety. The weight of the responsibility to run interference for Anzhelina and protect the youngest of the family, Asher and Kandy, was overwhelming. There was even the issue of Cicero and Zo’s son, Carmelo, who had a promising pitching career in baseball. Being a rising talent in sports meant certain eyes were on him, and with that came certain risks at this stage. Cassandra’s sphere of influence was far more localized than her uncle’s and because of that her ability to protect her nephew would be severely hampered if he signed to another city.

Anzhelina’s loud clapping startled Sandra and she rolled back over onto her side. “Open your eyes.” If anything, the brunette squeezed them shut tighter whilst trying not to vomit.

Cassandra was fully aware that there was a finite amount of time she could sleep away in that incredibly comfortable albeit half empty bed upstairs. Years and years of mourning and regret had needed to be addressed at some point, but still she marched on shoving it all down deeper and deeper. Distraction after distraction, project after project, case after case, Sandra did her best to keep it in containment. However, that bottled up pain eventually found the cracks in her emotional quarantine and was now bleeding into all areas of her life. Cassandra just didn’t believe she was ready. But is anyone ever when it comes to the transfer of power from one generation to another?

How the fuck did we get here?Her arms loosened from her flanks as her body finally relaxed onto the tile. She had prodded the Mako and the Mako bit. Angie and her unintentional sense of irony would no doubt stage her death in such a way that it would be ruled as ‘Death by Misadventure’. Kandy didn’t need to inherit yet another house where yet another member of her family died in yet another kitchen. Maybe the Mako had enough empathy for the girl she watched over in her spare time to take that into consideration when disposing of Sandra’s body. Would it even occur to her to move her body at least to some other room in the house? Surely it would. Hopefully.

But what about Kandy? The girl was so free and vibrant until Death kicked in her door. It was hard to decide who Karma had cheated worse: Zoraida by leaving her to die on a kitchen floor rather than peacefully in her own bed or Kandy by cursing her with the horrible image of watching the woman who was essentially her mother struggle to take her last breaths. Closing her eyes, the memory of Kandy crying softly in the corner of the empty surgeon’s consultation room began to play across the backlit screen that was Cassandra’s eyelids. It started from the same perspective Sandra had had whilst standing in the doorway of the Emergency Room entrance. The brunette shivered on her own kitchen tile as the images rolled on.

***

Despite being such a beautiful day, the triage area of the Trinity-area Emergency Room was bustling with patients. More than half of the beds were still full from that Saturday night with a blend of misfortune and misery. It was hard to forget the feeling of how cold it was in there. Just like a meat locker. The attending physician in his mint green scrubs was standing on one side of a table whilst Kandy sat on the other holding her folded legs to her chest. Anzhelina was leaning against the wall and listening outside of the seemingly claustrophobic chamber. It struck Cassandra how similar the space looked to the dozens of interrogation rooms she had been in whilst seated next to her clients. If that corridor had been a mile it would’ve felt like a shorter distance than what she had to walk to reach the two.

Just as Cassandra was about to call out to Angie, who still hadn’t noticed her, the blonde turned suddenly and kicked a rolling cart of supplies into a nearby gurney. The loud clattering caused Sandra to jump before the realization set in. Her grey eyes left her sister, who had slid down the wall to the floor to put her head in her hands, and refocused on Kandy. The twenty one year old simply placed her cheek down on her knees and closed her eyes. Layers of multicoloured curls had fallen over her face like a veil obscuring it from view. And as the sorrow seared through her, Cassandra could only turn around and stare at the doors to reception from where she had entered. Both hands clamped over her mouth in a vain attempt to suppress the sound of her own sobbing.

The comfort Zoraida had provided them and so many others was now absent. The sun at the centre of their universe had burnt out. Even though the news had been known for less than a minute, it already felt as if they were spiralling out of orbit from the sudden loss of the woman’s gravitational pull. Would they ever sense her in the ether? Feel the warmth of her support even in the most ethereal of ways? If any spirit had the power to reach out, it would be Zoraida’s. She was more spirit than most even when she was still walking this planet.

***

Slowly, Sandra’s grey eyes swirled over to the knee high black leather boots with the three inch metallic wedge heels that rested mere centimetres from her face. Are those Ferragamos? They sure look like Ferragamos. They look like my Ferragamos.

Growing impatient again, Angie’s free hand came to rest on one of her hips whilst glaring down at Sandra. “I didn’t stab you, you dumb bitch. I only hit you. Jesus Christ.” The testy tapping of a boot heel made Cassandra uneasy.

The brunette lifted her hands from her torso expecting to see them coated in blood and part of her entrails dripping down her arms. Instead, there was nothing but clean skin. Without thinking, she sighed with relief and thwacked the back of her head down against the floor.

“For fuck’s sake.” She reflexively reached to massage her scalp by rubbing her fingers in circles through the mess of soil coloured layers.

“You look a little green around the gills, sis.” Angie sneered and Sandra glared at her through a wave of nausea.

Coming around to the other side to face the battered brunette more directly, the blonde tossed the box of treasured mementos carelessly into the sink behind her. Cassandra heard the shattering of glass and assumed it was the tiny fragrance bottle that had smashed against the thick wood wall of the box’s interior. The watch was probably okay, but the perfume was likely to have soaked a good number of the letters. She sighed in a resigned fashion now staring at the Yellowtail Snapper mounted above the window that overlooked the tiled courtyard separating the house from the two storey car garage. It was a gorgeous silver with near fluorescent yellow spots, fins, and a long stripe that split to cover the whole tail. When alive, it must have weighed close to ten pounds.

Interested in what her sister was staring at, Angie followed Sandra’s gaze up to the brightly patterned fish. The pair admired it silently for a few minutes.

“The guy did a really good job with them, didn’t he?”

“Too bad he can’t stop racking up DUIs.” The attorney muttered under her breath and Angie snorted.

“Mm.”

“She caught all three of them.”

“She did.” Anzhelina nodded matter of factly.

Sandra narrowed her gaze on the mounted Snapper, one of a trio that Zoraida had hooked just hours before she passed. Each of the women had one. While Kandy kept hers in her bedroom, the other two opted to hang theirs in their kitchens. Though the shared motivation went unspoken, both took a stand against bereavement opting to drive it out of the very heart of their homes where Zoraida’s spirit was likely to be felt strongest. The woman they honoured had fed so many people who came into her life, their souls starving for both nourishment and healing. It was only right that they reclaimed the room where memories full of love and laughter were made.

Cassandra twisted just enough to look over at the blonde who seemed to have softened somewhat whilst lost in thought over the fish, “Kandy told me you were the one who saved them.”

It took a second or two for Cassandra’s statement to register before Anzhelina blinked her sight back into focus and looked down at her. The blonde sighed and cupped a section of her platinum hair, which had fallen out of the misaligned ponytail, back behind an ear.

“I wanted her to see it,” One slender hand lifted to gesture up to the Snapper, “and only think about being at the beach, on the pier with Zo. Not how it all ended.”

Sandra noticed how bony Angie’s fingers were and how similar her own were to them. Not much different than those of any depiction of the Grim Reaper she had seen. Reflexively, she folded hers under her palms briefly wondering if they both had inherited those hands of death from their mother. A Scorpio no less, the blonde was in the most literal sense Death walking. But somehow she also always managed to be around to facilitate some form of rebirth, whether it was in herself or others. Angie was constantly shedding her skin and evolving. Still, the surprising admission of sentimentality was enough for the brunette to take another long look at her half sibling.

Glancing over to Sandra and noticing her meditative expression, Anzhelina smirked. “Sometimes, I think all of you would rather believe that I really am just a machine.”

“Sent by Skynet?”

Much like a wolf confused by a command it heard, Angie cocked her head to one side. She was looking to Sandy for clarification.

“You haven’t seen Terminator?” Dark brows lifted questioningly.

Silence. A blink.

An agitated eye roll. “Mother Mary. You really need to watch more films.”

An unbothered shrug. With that, Angie pulled out the basic looking flip phone again and tediously typed out a text message to her son using the number pad.

Perking a brow, Sandy watched her and the curious use of the non-Qwerty mobile. What is with that clamshell?

Once more, Anzhelina caught Sandy staring with that look on her face, but this time at her phone. “I don’t like how intrusive smart phones are.” She volunteered before going back to repetitively pressing numbers to select the proper letters, muttering somewhat to herself. “I would have thought a defense attorney of your calibre would be even more paranoid about fucking smart phones.”

“I didn’t say a word.”

With a loud clack of the screen shutting against the keys, the phone was tucked back out of sight. Both were looking up at the fish again. Cassandra thought about where in the universe Zoraida’s spirit was visiting as Anzhelina wondered if reeling in three rather sizeable fish had been the match that lit the cardiac bomb that killed the woman. Both sighed in unison.

“Do you think she’ll ever sing again?” Sandra wondered aloud not expecting a reply from the blonde.

“I have a little pot going that her father is going to call and try to do some charity single with her. He hasn’t charted in a while. You want in?”

The mention of Kandy’s father, Berkant, made Cassandra sigh. He was just as immature and self involved as the girl’s mother. Nobody ever lied to Kandy about the nature of her parents’ relationship – a one night stand after Berkant managed to charm Lola in a Miami club he was deejaying at for the holiday. But a group of them had agreed not to discuss the particulars of how the girl wound up spending most of her childhood in Miami with her father’s parents before having to divide time between Spain with them and Florida with her mother’s side of the family later on. Kandy would never see the dates and details of the adoption paperwork or be read into what transpired when her maternal grandmother had discovered the pregnancy that Cassandra and Lola worked so hard to keep hidden from her.

“When I finally left Russia, there was a period of time that I didn’t take on any projects.” Anzhelina began to explain whilst looking down at her feet again. Sandra always marvelled with a healthy dose of despisement at her sister’s ability to employ phrasing that white washed the reality of who she was and what she did. “Couldn’t focus. Lost my discipline. I just wanted to be left alone. I remember being so tired. Like I hadn’t slept in decades.”

“He always knew where you were until then. Of course you hadn’t slept.” Another curious arching of a brow as Sandy glanced over to Angie, “It was depression.”

“Is that what it was?” The blonde shrugged.

“Sounds like it.”

“Whatever.” A dismissive gesture of that skeletal hand before she continued. “Sandulf knew I was trying to get out and he did everything he could to try and tighten the reins.”

“This is when you went to Italy?”

Cassandra caught the small smile that creased Angie’s lips before she nodded, “Yea. I’m going to take Asher there one day. You know how he loves the sea.”

It wasn’t just Asher who loves it. Sandra smirked to herself and watched as Angie drifted off a little bit in her thoughts. What was she thinking about? Her time spent living on a boat and working at some small little cafe on the coast of Italy? The father of her child who ran a charter boat business? All the times she dragged Kandy out of the house to go fishing with Asher? Sometimes Cassandra wondered if living in a house was more about maintaining a conventional appearance than the reality of where Angie truly wanted to be. How could she not see something so obvious to everyone else? If she wasn’t in the kitchen of her catering business or on another job, the blonde was on a boat spending time with Asher and usually also his father, Julian. Maybe the Mako just didn’t want to admit to herself that there was indeed a certain type of blissful domestic life that appealed to her after all.

“After a while – once I was settled – I guess I got bored and started to miss it. So,” A sigh and casual shrug, “I took a job.”

Becoming distracted by how much Anzhelina sounded as if she was talking about rediscovering the joy of painting, Cassandra’s stomach began to turn. It was sickening how normalized Angie’s lifestyle and habits had become between them. This was the hardest aspect of their relationship for Sandra to truly accept. As Gray Parrino often framed it, Angie was a necessary evil. Anzhelina possessed a brutality that had no redeeming value whatsoever. She was unrepentant. While it was true that the blonde followed certain rules that governed which jobs she would accept, Cassandra doubted they were put in place to appease a higher power of some sacred belief system. Anzhelina suffered from no such holy hang-ups her sister surmised. Instead, it was a far more practical and straight forward principle that underpinned it. If she murdered someone’s child then all bets were off on Asher’s safety.

But couldn’t they just have one conversation that started normally, carried through normally, and ended normally? Why couldn’t she just be the single mum with the young baseball-playing son and the catering company known for its miniature gourmet desserts? It was hard to reconcile the notion that she shared DNA with a woman who hand crafted tiny intricate baking moulds for her clients’ whimsical parties when she wasn’t out dispassionately killing people for money. Cassandra caught herself. She doesn’t really do it for the money now does she?

“And haven’t looked back?”

A shake of her head, “Not even once.”

One of the more compelling dynamics in the relationship the two shared was how fear flowed between them. The pair understood implicitly that the only thing that would come of informing on one another to law enforcement would be the end of both of their lives. For the blonde and the brunette, neither one would ever make it to see the inside of a prison regardless of however weak the indictment was that came down or whichever way the jury voted or whatever sentence a friendly judge was likely to impose. The men who met like clockwork at Tampa’s oldest restaurant would step in to ensure their fate.

But the one trump card Sandra believed she had that kept her from being entirely powerless in this dynamic was taking guardianship of her nephew. She had both the access and the expertise to wrench away Anzhelina’s son, a process that could easily be started with the upload of a few documents to the clerk’s office followed by an emergency hearing with whichever judge was on call. A pick-up order on the ex-parte motion would be signed and issued to law enforcement before Angie could grab their passports. It was the nuclear option, mutually assured destruction. But if she ever found herself in a situation with Angie where the blonde wasn’t listening to reason, this was a way to coerce her back into the right head space. The intent would not be to send Angie to prison or destroy her relationship with her son. It would simply be a way, potentially the only way, to get her back on track if the structure created to support her discipline and focus started to deteriorate.

Being around Anzhelina was a lot like being around a wolf. Though she accepted there would always be an element of risk, Sandra felt more confident as time went on that she knew where Anzhelina’s loyalty lay; and that place was at the feet of her pup. It would be unfair not to acknowledge also the time and effort Angie had been dedicating to looking after Kandajha. It was unexpected, yet promising in terms of Anzhelina’s progress. Still, there were conditions under which the brunette knew to back off or remove herself entirely. Had their exchange been unnerving? Absolutely. But Cassandra was more disturbed by her own behaviour than by Angie’s.

“Who did you think of?”

Anzhelina’s region-less American accent sounded in Sandra’s ears pulling her back into the present. “What?”

“When you were on the floor, who were you worrying about?”

Cassandra was quiet for a few minutes and then smirked. “Kandy.”

The brunette from Hertfordshire wasn’t fooling the blonde from Moscow. The time she took in answering gave her away. That was the thing that so confounding about Sandra. As accomplished as she was and as much as she had lived through, Angie couldn’t understand why Sandra continued to let her pride so strongly influence her decision making. It was just the two of them in her home. Why couldn’t she just admit that the man made an appearance in the video that was her life flashing before her eyes? She frowned and sighed whilst considering that maybe all the times she spoke so negatively about their relationship ultimately discouraged Sandra from being honest. But they made it so easy for Angie to pick at them because of all the stupid ways they kept hurting each other. A frustrated eye roll followed.

“You know, Sandy,” Anzhelina folded her arms back across her stomach after taking a seat on the counter next to the rather large farmhouse sink, “His plate is full. Let him deal with his life how he wants to.”

Those storm coloured eyes focused in on the blonde, “Is that something you learned in therapy?” It was stunning and even a bit irksome to hear her sister offer up something resembling compassion for a man she never cared for.

“Guerrant makes me read that Dear Prudence advice shit.” Up went those fingers, though instead of curling around triggers, this time they were instead flexing into air quotes. “In an effort to build empathy and understand different perspectives that are possible within interpersonal relationships.” Her ash brows danced as she recited the explanation her psychiatrist gave her.

“The internet column? You’ve got to be joking.” There came another eye roll though this time it was chased with a much milder urge to vomit.

“There’s more to it than that. It’s just like my –” Angie paused for a moment and then cleared her throat, “It’s my homework.”

Turning quiet, Sandra squinted whilst considering the content of the posts. “Is it working?”

The blonde raised her brows again giving a rather contemptuous look to her older sibling, just like a cat. “Has anyone died lately?”

Cassandra gestured incredulously to her own stomach where she had previously believed Anzhelina had stabbed her.

Angie grumbled, “Oh, don’t be so dramatic.”

“Me?! You’re telling me to not be so dramatic? Get fucked.”

“Hey,” That sharp pointer finger unfurled toward the brunette and she visibly winced over the impending chastisement, “you pulled a knife first. Over nothing. I came all the way over here with good intentions. You’re not returning phone calls. You’re not opening your mail. No-one has seen you. I get here to talk some sense into you and you were ready to throw away everything over nothing.”

The playful lilt that skipped through the relatively calm tone with which Anzhelina was speaking rattled Cassandra almost as much as her unsettling leering from earlier. However, the anger that began to creep back through her veins stemming from the familiar hurt over her feelings being dismissed shoved away any trepidation Sandra might’ve had in quarrelling with her. “Over nothing!? So all of this is nothing? The home I tried to make. I never seemed to be good enough. And the fact I tried doesn’t even seem to matter.”

“Man, your ego is a fucking joke.”

Cassandra looked around the room as if trying to determine what dimension she had crossed through to, “My ego? My ego?! Are you fucking mental? How is my ego in any way a part of this?”

“His behaviour has nothing to do with you. But that’s the problem, right? That’s why you’re so torn up? Because he doesn’t seem to see anything special in you any more? He didn’t make you the exception after all. He didn’t let you in again. You’re now just like everybody else: kept on the outside. He didn’t change for you. He didn’t change to save your love, your life together.” It was the light little laugh at the end that really sharpened the edge on her words.

A hand fell to Cassandra’s stomach far above where Anzhelina had kicked her. Try as she might to block out her sister’s voice her words still poured in and burned like acid. Nausea resurged though this time it had nothing to do with her hitting her head. It was the kind that only sudden forced awareness could conjure. Gingerly, the brunette swallowed trying to drive back the urgency she felt to scramble over to the rubbish bin a few feet away and empty into it.

“Jesus Christ, put down the bag of bricks or you really are going to drown. Let him handle his shit so that you can handle yours. Did you even tell him Zo died?”

Though the brunette had turned quiet during Angie’s lecture, her silence was like an invisible coffin around her body. Her features were just as expressionless and unreadable as the faces painted on the outside of those discovered in the deserts of foreign lands. The rigidity now obvious in her posture spoke volumes.

Angie continued, “You did, didn’t you? I know he didn’t come to the funeral. Did he ask if you needed him to?”

Nothing. Not even a blink as Sandra retreated into her shell. Anzhelina stopped talking and watched her sister as she lay still on the floor just a few feet away.

In a gentler tone that surprised even herself, Angie asked, “Did he even call you back, Sandy?”

On that wretched Sunday, Cassandra had had no interest in returning to her empty home in South Tampa. Instead, she had driven out across the bridges to Clearwater Beach after returning from Port Charlotte. It took what felt like an eternity of circling that BMW M6 Gran Coupé to find a parking spot kerbside, but patience eventually paid off. Sitting there on the white sand of one of America’s most beautiful beaches with her bare feet buried and the Gulf waters lazily rolling in, she typed out a short email to the address Dante had used over the years. After the first two or three drafts, Sandra finally settled on saying it as simply as she could.

Eventually, the notification chime came alerting her of his reply as the last streaks of orange and red stretched across the darkening sky. Reflecting back on their correspondence, he had been kind. Her world had been up-ended and the text on the screen he sent her somehow still felt comforting. For half their lives, they had been intertwined. But Cassandra was unwilling to the limits of where is compassion for her might end. She was never really in the habit of putting people she loved in situations that forced them to prove (or disprove) how much they cared about her in return. Rooted in a strong belief that they would never come through, it was better to let her relationships with others go on untested than push and be proven right. The saddest part of this cycle of her thinking was that the behaviour projected to people the image of someone who was invulnerable and unfazed. Clearly, both sisters were oblivious to the ways their respective behaviour perpetuated their own unique forms of self-imposed emotional isolation.

“We talked regularly during that time.” Her clarification had her sounding like one of those witnesses trying to finesse their way out from under a cloud of suspicion at a deposition. Vague and non-committal, it made Angie scoff.

Angie was right about that specific detail: there were no phone calls. Cassandra had long ago erased the only phone number she had for him and was unwilling to ask for it again. Her rationale was that if he cared enough to all her, he would. But he never did. The content of the daily exchanges in emails were kept to the surface. Nothing more than pleasant chitchat. Eventually the contact between them began to dwindle. That’s how it worked. Even though it felt like she was being pulled under, he didn’t reach for her. She had to learn to swim back to shore on her own. The one point she always made in defending him to others during his absences was that she firmly believed he would be there if she really needed him. She had really needed him and he was there the most that he could be.

A nonchalant shrug of the blonde’s shoulders, “I showed up.”

And there it was. No dodging that atomic bomb of an observation. The morally bankrupt, empathy deficient executioner had not only showed up, but stayed shouldering a lot of the weight much to her own detriment in the aftermath of Zoraida’s death. More than a year on and the two of them were still working on putting the family back together as best they could. Now, Cassandra felt like someone had driven a stake straight through her heart. Her hands went to her face to cover it from view as her sister callously snatched back the shade of denial. If quizzed about it, Angie would’ve likened it to ripping off a band-aid. Put simply, it needed to be done.

“Shut up, Angie. Just shut up.” Pushing her palms up over her eyes, Sandra’s fingers went into the front of her unkempt hair and clenched a swath of the unclean roots. “Weren’t you the one who so kindly went about reminding me that life is complicated and people have limits of what they can do and when?”

“I bet you probably pre-empted the conversation by telling him he didn’t need to come, right?” The slim and graceful killer teased the attorney now gesturing back and forth between different part of the kitchen. “Don’t think I didn’t know what you were doing when you had me against that wall just a few minutes ago.”

She caught Sandra rolling her eyes and continued, “What, were you thinking I’m just some fucking animal you can manipulate into action whenever it suits you? The game of musical chairs that you play with your moral code is really fucking impressive.”

A minute or two passed and still Sandra refused to respond to anything Angie had said. The blonde’s patience was running out. “Fuck you. Fuck you for being a coward. Fuck you for not owning your shit. And fuck you for being so God damned weak!”

Riding that tsunami of indignation, Cassandra had had enough and shot back rather venomously, “You want to talk about denial? Let’s talk about it then. Tell me, do you really think that after all the devastation you’ve caused people that your son is going to live a happy life? You want to stand here preaching to me about how I stand here staring at empty cups and your focus being solely Asher, but all the while you still take those jobs? The sick and deranged things you’ve done. And still do! There are people on this planet who do not give a shit that he’s a child, Angie. They could not care less that the only wrong thing that kid ever did was have you as his mother. Anybody can be touched, Anzhelina. Anybody. And you seem to have forgotten who it is that stands between you and the wolves you’ve been trying to hide from.”

“Careful Cassandra.” The familiar taunting intonation crept back into Angie’s voice lightening it up enough to dull the sharpness of the unspoken consequence of continuing to discuss her son’s safety. But there was more to Anzhelina’s annoyance than just Sandra reminding her of her influence. “And you seem to have forgotten who has kept that group of old fucks from putting you and the rest of us six feet fucking under! They are sick of waiting for you to wake up from your personal soap opera. Every time they summon me to that God forsaken restaurant, it’s about whether you’re still in bed and if Cicero is still in the bottom of a bottle.”

Sandra was getting a little bit annoyed over being unable to argue against Angie’s points. She hated it when the blonde sounded more reasonable than she did. A huff, “When was the last time you saw them?”

That was a question Angie wasn’t too excited to answer. Instead, her green eyes returned to the fish mounted high above them on the other wall. Sandra looked over at her after noticing the silence and thought about whether she was praying to it.

“When, Angie?” Sharper in her tone, Cassandra wanted an answer.

Nails curled down against the side of her throat to satisfy an uneasy itch, “Yesterday evening.”

Cassandra smirked and shook her head. Silence retook the kitchen as both women avoided looking at each other for an extended period of time. Angie was considering her takeaway options for dinner after leaving whilst Sandra was busy wishing she could roll over and bury her face in Dante’s neck. The clean woodsy scent of his aftershave mixed with a hint of petrol was such a comforting fragrance that just thinking of it made her sigh.

“You know,” Sandy gently cleared her throat and Angie already knew where this was going, “if they ever want it done, they’re going to ask you to do it first.”

“I know.”

Angie patiently waited for her half sister to get up the courage to ask the million dollar question. If it had been an option, she would have been pouring them both a drink at that very moment. Unfortunately, Sandra found herself in a very familiar space, but now with Angie. Though they cared about and protected the same group of people, their relationship to each other was very undefined. How much loyalty really existed from Angie to Sandra was a big unknown. And as much as she tried to conceal it, Cassandra had grown to care about Angie having been by her side with Zo throughout her pregnancy with Asher. Though she had a similar experience with her older sister for Kandy, there was not the same level of emotional bond. The moment Lola delivered Kandy in Miami whatever warmth or tenderness she had demonstrated toward Cassandra disappeared. The narcissist got back her investment and what she wanted. It was time to divest and exit stage left.

In contrast, Angie’s position within the family slowly evolved into that of a guardian. She was the one who showed up knocking on your door telling you to get your act together after first making sure you were still alive. In unpleasant circumstances she was often present in the back observing silently for any indication she might be needed. And as Angie pointed out earlier in their conversation, she shows up. But still, Sandra instinctively knew there was a limit to Angie’s loyalty.

She knew Cassandra couldn’t bring herself to ask, so she volunteered. “They haven’t, yet.”

Sandra felt her mouth turn dry and that buzzing sensation return to her arms and shoulders. “Soon?”

A single nod, “Rather than later.”

The weight of Angie’s response felt like a tonne of bricks resting on Cassandra’s chest. She had let this go for too long despite knowing what she was risking in the long term. Unwilling to lay in the dirt any longer, Sandra gingerly sat up on the tile floor and rested her arms on her knees. For the moment, she was focused on pacing her breathing in an effort to slow the squeezing feeling that was working up her flanks to her throat like she was a tube of toothpaste.

Angie was dying for a cigarette, but sighed once she remembered the pack she had left in the center console of her truck out front. Add on top of that the usual lecture from Sandra and the blonde was no longer in the mood for a cancer stick. Instead, she reached for the fruit bowl and began squeezing the citrus and apples that had been left to rot. The bananas were beyond black. The lightest touch and they’d probably collapse into a pile of ooze. There was one Granny Smith that still looked a healthy shade of green. It didn’t give like the others, but had a small mushy place on the bottom from where it had sat for God knows how long. Stepping back to the sink, Angie rinsed the fruit under a stream of cold water that partially flooded the perfume soaked cigar box. Sandra didn’t seem to notice.

“Have you thought about what you wanna do?” Angie nonchalantly inquired whilst she went about slicing off what looked to be an edible section of the apple.

Naturally, she used the same knife that she had held to Cassandra’s skin. Perniciously, the blonde used the point of the blade to spear the piece of fruit like an impromptu fork after loudly flicking open the weapon. A short lived frown of disappointment creased her features seeing that the brunette didn’t jump at the recognizable sound. After a few chews, the mealiness was too much for her palate and Anzhelina spat out the rest in the sink before ducking her mouth under the tap for a few quick swallows of water.

Sandra smirked and blurted out her answer before considering what she was truly saying, “I want out.”

Turning back around to face Sandra, Angie took a moment to wipe her mouth with the nearest and cleanest looking dish towel. That was a pretty heavy statement. Angie had been doing her best to convince all involved that Sandra was still committed and here she just admitted to the opposite. Even just knowing that Cassandra was considering walking away was enough to put her and her son’s safety in jeopardy. It was starting to look like the guidance she had received outside of the notorious restaurant the night before was going to come in handy after all. This heavy dose of reality all on its own was enough to make Angie reconsider sprinting out to the truck to grab the much needed items to smoke.

***

“That’s a hell of a bike.” Gray Parrino, three time mayor and the only real ally Sandra had in that group of ageing power players, was smoking the last of his cigar as he wandered over toward Anzhelina.

The platinum blonde had already commandeered a section of pavement between two benches in front of Mudlark’s in downtown Tampa for the sole purpose of parking her matte black and gold trimmed Ducati 1198S. Standing next to it in her typical uniform of a slim fit black t-shirt, a stretchy lightweight pair of riding breeches, and an Alexander McQueen motorcycle jacket, Angie was seemingly oblivious to the set of valet attendants who were about to inform her of proper parking etiquette. The truth of it was she knew who they were, where they were, and how soon they’d get close enough to be a problem. She just didn’t give a shit.

It didn’t matter what day of the week it was, once the courts closed and the office buildings began to empty out, the line to Mudlark’s would start to grow. Sitting right at the mouth of the Hillsborough river, it was a prime spot to enjoy what was arguably the most sophisticated Italian cuisine the Tampa Bay Area had to offer. Their bar was just as notorious for it’s quality live jazz and peculiar cocktails, but neither part of the establishment held a candle to what was on the other side of the red door at the far side of the bar. A thickly upholstered red leather door with brass trim was the portal between the customer’s every day experience and the VIP status that lay beyond. A slide that opened for just a few seconds was the only opportunity to offer up the right credentials to pass through. Mudlark’s was so deeply ingrained in the politics and society matters of Tampa that it was next to impossible to find an individual involved in government, law enforcement, real estate development, and local business that hadn’t sat for a meeting behind the notorious door. For the uninitiated, their time was coming if they cared at all about being successful at whatever venture they were pursuing.

Parrino waved off the valet captain with a gesture of his cigar-holding hand and the group fell back to their fan-cooled podium. Angie had taken a moment to smooth down her angled bob after hanging her helmet off the front of the motorbike. She was making him wait and that was enough to get him to smile. Not a lot of people in this town still pulled something like that. But he was fine to quietly stand there and admire the bustling traffic moving south on Ashley and west on Kennedy. He loved his city as much as he loved his scotch, cigars, Panama hats, and linen suits. And it still very much was his city. Everybody always asked whether he had another run in him. Maybe yes, maybe no.

Turning on the wedge heel of those riding boots, Angie got straight to it. “What do they want?”

“They want Cicero to retire and your sister to get her head out of her ass. Same as last week.” He answered before turning to the side and extending a polite hand off in the direction of the main entrance.

The blonde smirked and stood there for a moment staring at the elegant oak and glass sculpted doors. Everything from the handles to the bar incorporated a wavy pattern. Most assumed it was some reference to water whether it be river, bay, or gulf. But if they took the time to look close enough, as Angie typically did, they might notice that the waves really looked more like wings. The black and white palette of the interior design was another reference to the bird that was subtly referenced throughout the establishment owned by the Fisher family.

Sensing that she wasn’t quite ready, he took another puff of the hand rolled Ybor City cigar, “Is she still in love with the cop?”

“He’s not a cop any more.”

“He’s not?”

She shook her head whilst pulling out a pack of cigarettes and then shaking one loose, “Resigned not long after he transferred out.”

“So you know where he is.” The instant she placed it between her red lips, Gray fired up his monogrammed lighter and lit the end of whatever foreign brand she was ready to smoke. “Does Sandy?”

Leaning in, Angie cupped her hands over his to help the ignition process before stepping back to take a few deep drags. As she tilted her head up to exhale smoke, those jade green eyes rolled down to watch the very tan old man who had just returned from the Bahamas.

“No to both. When he transferred out to Pensacola, I figured it was because of family.” A shrug and another puff before she went on, “His brother died at some point, he left his job, and then maybe went back to Georgia. He’s not working for any type of law enforcement. It’s been years and his certifications have all lapsed. Even the firearm shit.”

Gray stood next to the blonde taking in the information silently save for the occasional wave or nod to a passer-by who shouted out a friendly greeting to the former Mayor. Finally, “Do you think he’s dead?”

The truth of it was that Anzhelina knew every city Dante had lived in up to and including where he was currently, but she had no intention of telling anybody especially not Sandy or these old fucks. Her sister had one weakness when it came to keeping in check and concealing her emotions and that was Dante. Those who had an agenda that did not line up with the Boledi family would no doubt extort as much as they could from her by threatening that relationship. And now that he was no longer a detective, what little protection he had was forfeit.

“I doubt it. Haven’t seen any changes in the remaining family. Business as usual for them.” A bony finger flicked the end of the cigarette a few times as she watched his reaction to her answer. “I think he just got fed up with all of it and decided to live in some stupid cabin somewhere.”

He nodded a few times and crossed his arms over his chest, his expression entirely unreadable. “Are you going to tell Sandy?”

She suddenly turned and looked at him as if he had said the dumbest thing she had ever heard, which wasn’t far from the truth. “Why the fuck would I?”

Seeing his confused expression, Angie sighed heavily, “The last fight was over you and your merry band of geriatric fucks. He asked her to quit and she wouldn’t. Plus I think you guys were probably somewhat heavy handed with that whole: ‘Oh by the way, your father was just as corrupt as we are and that’s why he’s dead. But hey, join us any way. The benefits are great!’ offer.”

Parrino looked thoughtfully down at the small stub of a cigar that remained and immediately wished it had been a freshly poured Chivas. It was true that they had bungled the meeting and had ignored his advice about how to approach Dante. It blew up in their faces. For whatever reason, they were unable or unwilling to see that the determined, straight shooting detective would only plant his hooves deeper into the Earth after that pathetic attempt at arm twisting. In a strange and unexpected turn, the group had lucked out as Dante had for some unknown reason opted not to use those horns of his. For over a year, they hunkered down and waited for word that an investigation had been opened. In fact, not a single question had ever been put to them about the matters they hoped Dante would cooperate on. Ten years had ticked by and there was never any indications that he had so much as had a conversation with a squirrel about that night. Angie was likely correct in her evaluation that he had thrown up his hands and walked away from all of it.

“If he’s not a cop, why would there still be conflict over things?” The former mayor had his own theory, but he was curious as to La Squala’s take. For someone often referred to as an endlessly-swimming and never-sleeping predator of the sea, Angie could be very astute in her assessments of the motivations of others.

The blonde shook her head before dropping the spent cigarette to the pavement for a quick crush and twist by her boot. “It still offends him – the dishonesty and unfairness. He was such a morally superior fuck.”

Parrino had to laugh at how Anzhelina sneered, “Not a fan of your former potential brother-in-law?”

Those green eyes somehow darkened as her gaze cut over to the People’s Mayor. “We never got along.”

“I wonder why.” Despite enduring her Mako-like scowl, Parrino still managed a good-natured smile. He had a way of making the relaxed island vibes of his snorkelling trips last. When the breeze shifted, Angie would swear she could catch the scent of coconut oil, the salt air, and some rum-based cocktail. “Have you considered the possibility that telling her might goad her into a different direction?”

The blonde shrugged and then considered this for a moment or two before looking questioningly back to Gray, “Have you ever seen Sandy mad?”

“No, I haven’t.”

Angie was not a big fan of unknowns. But at this stage of the game with everything and everyone hanging in the balance, they couldn’t continue on with what Sandy was giving them for very much longer.

“She bottles that shit up. Takes it out on herself.”

“It could wind up being a big enough match.” A casual shrug as he planted the seed. “If there isn’t a Boledi sitting at the head of that table, things are bound to get ugly.” And watered it.

The aroma of fresh Focaccia tumbled out to their corner of the valet queue every time someone opened the large doors to the restaurant. Angie closed her eyes for a moment to appreciate the scent of the brick oven baked treat with roasted garlic, onions, tomatoes, and mozzarella. However, the mouth-watering food didn’t distract her from what was really a polite threat to encourage her to adopt a more assertive style with her sister.

She countered with her own that cut quick and deep. “If they’re all dead, she gets the job by default.”

“If they all turn up dead, Miami will come calling. Or worse, New York. And your sister doesn’t have the power right now to keep them out. Do you really want someone who doesn’t know us and can’t appreciate how we do things down here to come in? I highly doubt you’ll want to genuflect to one of those grease balls from up north. Though maybe you think you’ll be right at home with the Laganas.”

A brow arch, “Oh, ‘we’, huh?”. Anzhelina was under no illusions about the conflict of her parentage. She was not a member of the family, blood or otherwise, and would never be considered one. If anything, the fact that she was the by-product of an affair between the wife of a Boledi and an outsider who would eventually be a thorn in their collective side put Angie in a very precarious position. The dig about the clan of Calabrians that had expanded south to Miami from Canada didn’t go unnoticed either.

He shrugged gently, “All hands on deck.”

“I wanna be home when my son gets back from practice.”

“You really need to start looking for the silver lining, Angie.” Having dumped what remained of the cigar in a rubbish bin, Mr. Parrino stuffed his hands in the pockets of his ivory suit and began strolling toward the restaurant’s entry way. “Your father doesn’t seem to be interested in moving in to get a piece.”

Just as Angie began to follow behind the man, she heard the reference to the parent she left behind all those years ago in a foreign land. If a woman as pale as Angie could turn paler, she did in that instant. Dead in her tracks she stopped and stared at Gray until finally he turned around to look at her expectantly. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter much that Sandra’s mother had had an affair and Angie was the result. The valuable information was who her father was and that was something Angie had worked her whole life to keep as contained as possible. It began with a carefully constructed identity including a new name and personal history that she had started establishing years before making her great escape to the United States. The home she lived in with her son had been well hidden by Sandra’s real estate holdings up until the year before. And the very existence of her son was kept from his maternal grandfather up until that point as well. But now it felt like things were slowly beginning to slide out of control again.

“You can’t tell me it didn’t cross your mind that they’d find out and use it.” He watched her carefully as she came to accept that the hypotheticals that had been tossed around were now very much a reality. “They’re going to use Asher. And Julian.”

“They can try.”

He sighed, “You have nothing to offer them. You have nothing to bargain with.”

Angie remained quiet and very still. Her head spun with ideas and possible solutions. The first was to walk into that meeting, grab the first steak knife off the table and pirouette around it slicing all of their throats. A ridiculous notion. If she wound up killing one, she’d have to kill them all. What about sending a care package to the Feds? The risk of it blowing back on Sandra or even herself was too great. It was beginning to seem like the only option to ensure the safety of her family – that being her son, Asher, his father, Julian, Cassandra, and Kandajha – was to remove her father from the equation. As if she needed another reason. But if she were successful, it might be enough to get the group to back down.

Gray could see her working through her options and was grateful that when she did finally look at him it wasn’t with one of the two expressions he had heard described by others. It was hard to pick what was more terrifying, when Angie’s violence was controlled and deliberate or wild and visceral.

As a breeze swept through the high rises towering around them, Gray smoothed down his tie whilst walking back to her. “They are very committed to that strategy despite your reputation. Your father makes a lot of money even after paying his taxes to that short, shirtless, horse-riding thug. The only thing worse than Lagana absorbing us or New York setting up shop is doing a deal with Sandulf. I know you have some first hand experience with that.”

As much as she wanted to rest a hand for support on the cement pillar coated in vines to her right, Angie forced her body to stay as rigid as possible in spite of the weakness plaguing those slender yet strong legs of hers. Parrino was not the group’s emissary and she knew this. He stood with her giving her the time she needed to breathe and collect herself. Now it was time to walk in there and hear it all over again.

“Anzhelina, I would strongly encourage you to get Cassandra to come around sooner rather than later. For everybody’s sake. Now, shall we?”

Closing her eyes briefly, Angie rolled her head around to release the tension built up in her neck muscles before finally looking over at Gray, “Let’s get this shit over with.”

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