Back to Red: Part Two

**Be sure to read both the Prologue and Part One in this series.**

Anzhelina sighed. “They’re gonna kill you, Sandy.”

Cassandra remained quiet as she stared at her now folded hands. With some reluctance she pulled her arms back just enough to separate her fingers from each other and examine her slender digits. A flex of her joints and all ten curled like claws before they were relaxed back into a natural position with a slight curve in their pose.

“Just for saying that, they’re gonna kill you and then Cicero.”

Nothing.

“And then me and then Asher and then probably Kand–”

“I don’t intend on telling them.” A quicker tighter clenching of her grip formed fists for a few seconds before she released them and looked over at her half-sister, “Do you?”

Up went those ash brows, the blonde was quite surprised that Sandra managed to ask the question. This was the woman who didn’t dare ask for help or admissions of loyalty from anyone. The potential refusals or silence itself would have been too much for her. Yet here she was in her kitchen asking her sibling to finally pick a side. And to do so convincingly. A remarkable shift.

“Gray said they may be considering doing a deal with Sandulf.” Angie’s hands ran through her own hair to smooth down some of the sections before she retied her bob into a short ponytail. “You know what that means for me and for Asher.”

That wasn’t exactly the answer Cassandra was looking for, but it would work for now. Angie knew that once the group opened the door to her father they wouldn’t have any power to protect her son and they would gladly offer her up to sweeten the deal. Even on the outside, Sandra still could still give her son some measure of safety and security. For the blonde, that was enough.

“What is it that they think he has for them? I don’t see them having decided to move major weight or guns.”

Angie smirked. “It’s about money. They think they can keep it transactional. Looks good on paper. Boosts the accounts. Gives them access to guns if they need it. If they give me to him, which probably is pretty high on his list, that will be enough.”

“That’s really what they think? Doing a deal will keep your father on side. That’s their plan?” It was well known that Sandra rarely agreed with what she considered the short-sighted and antiquated thinking of the group. It went beyond a generational thing and even beyond gender. They were stuck in their simplistic ways of doing things based off tradition. The world was faster and far more complicated when it came to organized criminality. The ultimate consequence wasn’t getting left behind, but instead being swallowed up.

“That’s really what they think.”

“Everything else they do over there is tech-based. Stocks, insurance, hacking, tele-scams. Half of the wankers sitting at that bloody table can’t even text a photo to their grandchildren properly, but they think they can manage this? We’d be fucked. Unless they want to stick to car accident and body shop bullshit, which I doubt Sandulf is going to entertain.”

“No, they’ll do what they always do. They’ll put one of our people in charge to make sure Sandulf isn’t skimming and then when they find out that that guy started skimming because Sandulf gave him a choice between watching his children be burned to death or taking the cash they’ll send me to kill that guy. After that is when they will again send me – and it absolutely will be me that they send – to demand that my father pay back the money. And he’s gonna fucking laugh. That’s when we’re fucked.”

“Properly.”

Having reconnected with the lower half of her body, Cassandra stood herself up from the floor and leaned back against the kitchen island across from Anzhelina. A hand gently rubbed her lower abdomen where the blonde had kicked her earlier. Her head tilted back and she stared up at the fish mounted over the sink again.

“How did we get here, Angie?”

“That doesn’t matter as much as this is where we are now. And we need to handle this before our options are taken away.”

Sandra nodded and was staring down at the tile floor now drifting in her thoughts. Angie watched for a few seconds to see whether or not the Brunette would or even could pull herself out of it. The clock was ticking and there wasn’t any time left for emotionally masochistic self-indulgent trips down memory lane. Green eyes narrowed as Sandra sink deeper.

A round of sharp clapping startled Sandra back to the present. The woman looked – and smelled – horrendous. “Suck it up and go take a shower. I’m gonna order some food. We need to sit down and figure this shit out.”

The brunette nodded and began shuffling out of the kitchen.

“Brush your teeth twice, please.”

Up came a hand with two fingers sharply extended for Angie before Sandy rounded the corner and disappeared upstairs.

***

It had taken a solid ten minutes of saturating her hair in conditioner and slowly combing it out before Sandra could actually start washing those thick locks. Though there were several times she considered cutting off the bulk of it, she kept at it working her fingers carefully up from the ends toward her scalp. The brunette couldn’t remember the last time she had brushed her hair. Probably whenever was the last time it had been washed, which was another thing she couldn’t quite recall. Orange blossom, vanilla, and chamomile filled the steamy bathroom as she finally was able to begin using soap.

Try as she might to keep focused on the problems currently on the agenda, her mind kept drifting back to that Sunday afternoon. Turning her face into the stream of warm, clean water, her fingers gently rubbed small circles over her forehead, around her eyes, down her cheeks. As the exfoliation would continue from head to toe, hopefully with it would go some of the residual pain from the past.

***

The first call Sandra placed was not to Dante, but to Detective Bernard Hayward. Not only had he and Zoraida formed a decades old friendship from their work in community outreach and public policy, but his family also owned the funeral home that would be coming to collect Zoraida from the hospital. She had made the arrangements a few years prior after the doctors had revised her prognosis. This was something only Sandy had been read in on. The brunette knew the reality of Zo’s health situation, but agreed to keep it from the rest at Zoraida’s urging. As far as anyone else knew, the focus was simply maintaining the status quo rather than preparing for what was expected to inevitably happen. On the car ride home from that particular visit to the doctor, the woman ordered Cassandra to keep the last of her time alive from being one long drawn out funeral. She was still alive, heart still beating, smile still radiating. It wasn’t something the brunette could refuse, nor did she want to.

The conversation on the phone to make arrangements lasted not longer than a minute or two. Bernard always cut straight to the point in a conversation whether it was during an interrogation when he was sharing his theory on motive to spook a suspect into confessing or delegating who was going to cook and bring what to a holiday dinner. While many found this quality to be gruff and off-putting, Sandra had appreciated his military-esque style of communication in this situation. Notifying the rest of Zoraida’s family was going to take a lot more than ninety seconds of emotionally disengaged conversation.

With the clear plastic drawstring bag containing Zo’s belongings in the sculpted leather seat beside her, Cassandra rolled up to the traffic light at the intersection of the hospital’s entrance and State Road 54 in Trinity. The long sleek hood of the BMW M6 Gran Coupe was bathed in crimson as the four door crept closer to the zebra crossing allowing its driver to peek out at the eastbound traffic. Anzhelina had long since left with Kandy to head back to Sandra’s Hyde Park home in South Tampa. Within the limo tinted cabin of the German sedan all Sandra could hear was the rush of the chilled air pumping through the vents. The darkened windows were still no match against the Spring Florida sun as the car had been left parked in a distant aisle for over an hour. The recently built medical facility was in a high traffic in-between area of the three Tampa Bay counties of Pasco, Pinellas to the west, and Hillsborough to the south east. With three lanes for both west and east, it wasn’t too bad of a drive to get from the coastal areas in the north end to back down to downtown Tampa via the Veteran’s Expressway and I275. Everyone was seemingly motivated to just get to where they needed to go.

Except it wasn’t that easy for Sandra. As the light turned green, she accelerated away from the hospital in a wide arching right turn onto the empty road. The twin turbo eight cylinder engine responded to her firm, but smooth inputs and took off without hesitation carrying her away from that God awful place. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, the signature orangey-red needles of the car’s instrument cluster sailed effortlessly across the crisp typeface. She wanted to just run. And run. And run. Eighty, ninety. Reaching to the center console, her fingers felt for the air conditioning controls and switched off the fan before all four windows were made to disappear down inside the muscular sheet metal. In a flash, the light that was red ahead of her mercifully snapped green. The heated wind swirled into the car’s two tone white and black interior and her eyelids dropped closed for a few seconds. One hundred. Having heard how long the transmission was holding the shifts, she had a good idea of how fast she was going. Cassandra didn’t care. All she was focused on was being anywhere but here. Out of Pasco county. Away from the fields, farms, trees, horses, and wide open spaces. She needed the forced engagement of navigating the busy city streets filled with university students and hard-working citizens.

Finally, her foot eased off of the accelerator letting the engine’s revs settle as the M6’s speed was scaled back to a more acceptable range. Kissing sixty miles an hour, the windows rolled back up sealing her in and the air conditioning returning to caress her sun-warmed skin. Passing through a pair of S-bends and gliding sedately past a parked Florida Highway Patrol cruiser, Sandra realised that the faster she drove the quicker she’d have to tell another person that Zoraida was dead. A frustrated sigh and tightening of her hand’s grip around the steering wheel.

After trying a handful of times whilst still in the hospital, Cassandra was getting nothing but voicemail when calling her uncle, Cicero’s mobile phone. Zoraida was his second wife and the only one that was ever able to get him to walk away from alcohol and toward a more fulfilling life. But, sobriety could be fleeting. The bearded criminal defense attorney was seemingly unshakeable when it came to squaring off in the courtroom, but outside of it was a different story entirely. Everyone has their demons and the decisions they regret. He had out lived his younger brother, Sandra’s father and his childhood mate, Jackson Profeta. The signage on the firm’s building still read Boledi, Boledi, & Profeta and the one corner office was left untouched as a reminder to all the others who worked there.

In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to find Cicero in his deceased partner’s darkened office passed out on the leather sofa with an empty bottle of scotch clutched against his chest when family situations turned complicated or the past spoke too loudly in his dreams. Being the one who lived the closest to the blue glass building in downtown Tampa, Sandra was usually sent to check Jackson’s office after getting the call that Cicero hadn’t made it home. He’d be left to sleep it off after she stashed the keys to his Lincoln some place out of his reach. Knowing where he was and that he was safe were what mattered most to Zoraida. They both knew that the weight of being head of the Boledi family, a role he inherited following the passing of his own father, had been taking its toll for a while. It had claimed many of the Boledi men over the years. Zoraida, when she was healthy, could only stop the bleeding for so long.

One last try. Cassandra highlighted the number again in the contact list on her phone via the car’s integrated system and gave Cicero’s phone another ring, She also knew he often drank when out of town on business, whether it was for court or family business. Zoraida probably knew as well, but neither woman brought it up to the other.

Voicemail. Her palm slammed harshly down onto the car’s dashboard. Impatiently, she waited for the tone as she negotiated merging onto the expressway. If Cicero was going to be incommunicado, then Sandra needed to get down to Carmelo, Cicero and Zoraida’s son, who was in Port Charlotte for spring training with the Threshers.

Shaking her head, cruise control was set as she did her best to keep her tone soft while recording the message, “It’s Cassandra. I really need you to ring me back as soon as you get this.” The idea that he might already be drinking down at the bar stopped her for a second. He often left his mobile phone in the car or up in the hotel room when he went to a bar. “It’s important.” There was so much more she could have said, wanted to say, shout about really. But instead, she ended the call with a button tap on the steering wheel.

He should have been home. If he hadn’t have been so fucking selfish, so focused on his drinking, Kandajha wouldn’t have been alone. He should have been there. How many games in Carmelo’s professional career had he missed that were just an hour away? I made it to those games. How many times had Zoraida been in the car driving around town looking for that stupid bloody Lincoln, praying not to find it off in a drainage ditch or crumpled into a tree? Sandra could feel the rush of anger surge through her veins and the BMW charge ahead as she took the car back from cruise control.

Though storms had been building inland off to her left, the two hour drive down to the baseball team’s spring training facility was uneventful. If anything, it had proven to be the longest two hours of Sandra’s life. Her resolve was melting as the tears were beginning to spill over her lower lashes again. She had cycled over and over through the local radio stations trying to find anything to distract herself from replaying the scene at the hospital. It was all advertisements, political spots, and unexpectedly nostalgic songs. Satellite was no better as the Key West vibes of Zoraida’s favourite station had somehow adopted a different undertone – one of regret.

Cassandra dialled Hilary Easley’s phone number as she neared the training field after taking in a steadying breath. Hailing from Los Angeles, Hil was the cheeky and dishy wife of the Team Manager, Herbert. Their friendship started in the early days of the franchise when Hilary began organizing team sponsored charity events in the community. As a season ticket holder, Sandra had been a staple at home games and often participated in any attempt to grow the young franchise’s brand. It was only about five years ago that Herbert was hired on as Manager away from Baltimore and relocated to Tampa. Sparks flew between the quiet, grounded head coach and the talkative and spontaneous local news anchor. While her mouth had gotten her into tricky spots, more times than not Hilary was just as successful at getting unmired because of it.

Along with Triana Upton, the head of Public Relations for the team, the trio had formed a sisterhood that often extended to the wives and girlfriends of players transferring in. It was this close-knit, family-like atmosphere and other area projects that the three women believed set the Threshers apart from many other teams in the league. They had the highest percentage of home-state sourced talent and players’ families were encouraged to develop businesses and organizations within Tampa Bay to strengthen ties to the community. Whether it was devoting a few minutes prior to the start of a home game to acknowledge the loss of loved ones in the large military population or helping to ease the stress of spouses finding employment and children enrolling in schools, the three women, backed by the front office, were dedicated to elevating the team and growing their fan base. Zoraida, with her background in social outreach and skill at grant-writing was often consulted in putting together a plan to get these efforts off the ground. Now it was time for Cassandra to be the one to ask them for help.

“Hey girl, your cousin is throwing so much fire down here today some of the locals might start spraying him with holy water!”

Sandy couldn’t help but snort at the greeting. While the laughs were appreciated as always, the buoyant effect of Hilary’s good humour didn’t last long. “Hey.” She tried, but her tone fell a rather bit flat.

“Cassandra?”

She had had just over two hours to work out how she was going to break the news to Carmelo, but forgot entirely about what she’d say to Hilary and Herb. When it was Sandy’s turn to speak, it felt like she couldn’t. Silence filled the open line.

“Are you in trouble?” The Surfer Girl playfulness quickly washed out of Hilary’s tone. Though Cassandra was seven years younger, the pair often celebrated their birthdays together as Sandra’s was the 12th of July and Hilary’s was the 13th. The girl from California always saw the beauty in life, in everything from the building summer thunderheads that looked as if they were gilded in gold when backlit by the Florida sun to the endearing videos of sea life that she often reposted on social media.

Cassandra admired Hilary for living so openly with such a huge capacity for empathy. It took a special kind of courage to continually fight for the causes and people Hilary believed in. This was a woman who devoted her extra time to animal rescues across the state and helped to implement paediatric health initiatives in conjunction with Hillsborough Bay General. In the sharpest of contrasts, Sandra had receded into her shell and all but buried herself beneath the sand, away from anything and everything that might have reminded her just how deep her own emotions ran. The number of games Sandra had attended began to dwindle in recent months prompting Hilary to check in on the brunette with a weekly phone call.

“No, no. Nothing like that.”

“What’s going on, Sandy?”

A longer pause and Sandy cleared her throat, “I need to talk to Carmelo and I need you to tell Herb what’s going on. He needs to be there and you as well.” Another breath and then finally she blurted the rest out, “For when I tell Melo about his mom.”

“Oh, Sandy.” Hilary could hear the wavering in her friends voice despite the determined attempt at a very matter-of-fact delivery. She was sitting on the stands proudly wearing a chic Thresher’s baseball cap trimmed in purple that was a part of their recent campaign to bring awareness to domestic violence. With her trainers propped up on the empty seat in front she leaned forward to look over in the dugout to try and spot her husband. “Does anybody else know?”

“Keeping a tight circle on it until I can reach everybody.”

“How’s Cicero taking it?”

A scoff rolled through the line, “Can’t be reached at present.” While Hilary sat in stunned silence watching as Carmelo continued to warm up on the mound, Cassandra felt a pang of guilt over her rather harsh tone. Leaning against the side of her door and propping her chin on her hand, she felt the warmth of the sun through her tinted driver’s side window. Her motion was interrupted by the traffic control device that was now a solid red and she nervously waited for her feelings to catch up with her again. “I’m almost there. See you in a minute.”

***

Cassandra stood quietly at her bathroom sink, her right hand was thoroughly cleaning her teeth with a cinnamon toothpaste covered brush while her left gave a quick pass of the comb through her now untangled, clean, and well-conditioned hair. Turning to the side, grey eyes followed the rather impressive length of her tresses as the weight of water from the shower was still enough to stretch out their wave pattern. Pointed ends danced at her waist while she gave her roots a little shake. More time had passed than she originally thought. More than just a couple months, more like six or longer. She winced. Where had it all gone? Is this really how she had spent it?

After a quick swish of Listerine, she gently pat her lips with a hand towel and leaned her hips back against the front of the counter. Hands retightened the belt of her robe before her arms folded themselves across her stomach. From her position, Sandra could take in the full bathroom and a good portion of the master bedroom. Both the sight and smell of the state the house was in made her skin crawl. This had been how she was living up until fifteen minutes ago.

Sprinting from the tile to the carpet, a large University of Miami gym bag was pulled from under the massive king sized bed. Tossing it up onto the mattress covered in less-than-fresh linen, Cassandra immediately began shoving clothes and the necessities into all the various compartments and zippered pouches. On went a pair of denim shorts and a t-shirt covered in various shades of paint, polish, and primer. At this point it looked more like an abstract pattern from a designer than something she wore to slide under a car. Retrieving her phone from the floor, Sandra yanked its charger from the wall, and shoved them both along with her passport into one end of the bag. Turning around in a huff, she stared at the bathroom with her hands on her hips. Rolling her eyes, the decision was made to simply pick up fresh toiletries wherever she landed rather than having to come back upstairs and collect them after everything had dried.

Hanging the strap of the now rather heavy bag on her left shoulder, Sandra took a moment to look back at the room as she stood in the doorway. Feeling the familiar ache in her chest start, she stepped back across the threshold from the carpet and onto the wood floor of the hallway.

Once she shut the door, she sighed and rested her forehead against the white painted surface. It was time to go.

***

The Alpine White painted BMW had been idling outside of an employee entrance on the backside of the field for fifteen minutes until finally a member of security walked up and tapped gingerly on the glass. The engine was on, but the driver was unresponsive. In fact, Sandra was sitting with her arms folded over the arch of the gauge cluster just behind the steering wheel. With her cheek to the enamel of the BMW badge, she was looking over at the baseball team’s logo painted on the metal locking door. It wasn’t her seatbelt that was keeping her from exiting the vehicle. Instead, it was a mountain of dread.

Just as the suited security employee went to grab the driver’s door handle, Hilary hopped out of the doorway Sandra had been watching.

“I’ve got it Marcus. It’s fine.” In her figure-flattering athletic wear, Hilary jogged around to slip in between the man built like a brick wall and the equally well-muscled luxury car. Easing open the door, she offered Cassandra her hand. “Come on, Sandy.”

Seeing the look on the brunette’s face when she finally took notice of Hilary, he quietly backed off and radioed an updated report about the car. It would be left where it was for now.

After unfastening her belt, Sandra switched off the car, but hesitated when she picked up her phone. Staring at it, she saw the multiple entries of her unanswered calls to Cicero. Spitefully, the phone was tossed onto the passenger seat and left behind. If he wasn’t going to answer when he was needed, then fuck him.

With a swipe of her badge, Hilary led Cassandra through the corridors heading for one of the training fields in the complex. The first of the spring training games was scheduled for Thursday, the day after what was expected to be Zoraida’s funeral. Carmelo had been the team’s closer for the last two years, but there had been growing interest in the off-season. He had no interest in signing to another team considering his mother’s deteriorating health and instead agreed to a three year deal with only average pay. In their short trek to the dugout, Sandra wondered how long it would be before the vultures would find out and begin circling for him. And what if a deal was presented? Would Carmelo jump at it? He might. The Boledi tend to be runners. Cassandra couldn’t hold it against him, she’d probably leave and never look back if in his shoes. It was something she was actively considering with every step she took. Just how difficult would it be to liquidate? How long? The brunette wouldn’t need to sell everything, or even anything, to fund her relocation. But if she was going to leave, why not leave completely? Kandy. Asher. Angie. A sigh.

Standing there in the shadow of the benches, Cassandra watched Carmelo and his teammates run through different exercises and exchanges. There was a dance-like quality to baseball. It required a level of team-wide synchronicity that was absent from other sports. While many might complain that baseball was a slow and even boring game, Sandra enjoyed its pace. Sometimes you foxtrot, sometimes you waltz.

“What do I say to him, Hil?”

With her hands tucked into the rear pockets of her capri running pants, the tanned California girl could only shrug. “Just – give it to him straight.”

Heavy footsteps were coming up from behind them and Hilary gently squeezed Sandra’s hand, “I’ll be right here, okay?”

“Ready?” Herb’s deep baritone rolled through as he came to stand with an arm around his wife’s slender waist pausing to kiss her temple.

Herbert was one of less than two dozen African American men who have held the position of Field Manager for a major league team and Tampa’s first. Drafted out of high school in South Carolina by Baltimore, he played nearly twenty years with the team as a third baseman and Designated Hitter before transitioning into coaching. With both an impressive number of franchise and league records as well as Hall of Fame status, Herb more than had the qualifications, experience, and temperament to helm a big league team. Though he enjoyed working with players as the team’s hitting coach, he knew he ultimately wanted to move on to bigger digs. But, for decades the phone was silent. While diversity was growing exponentially in player ranks all across the league, it was still lacking at the managerial and executive level.

Coming off the worst two seasons Tampa had seen in franchise history, heads were rolling. From the General Manager on down to coaching staff and public relations, the Strand family cleaned house. The goal was to turn things around just enough over the next couple of years to sell the team and get out of the baseball business entirely. But they, like a considerable portion of the Tampa population, had underestimated Herbert Easley. While Herb was winning hearts and minds, the team was winning pennants and titles. Attendance was up and the Threshers’ brand was on the rise.

Herb and Hil were a dynamite team. She handled the politics and everything outside of the game allowing him the freedom to focus on his dream. The events hand picked for Herbert introduced him to the right people along the Gulf Coast and helped to strengthen his negotiating power within the organization. Though this was an aspect of the job that he had always avoided throughout his career, Herb came to accept that nurturing these relationships could ultimately protect and serve him later on down the line.

“No, but let’s get this over with.” Sandra took a moment to tidy up her long mane of wind teased waves. Twisting the messy locks into a rope, they were pulled around in front of a shoulder. On went those mirrored aviators she had nicked from Anzhelina’s truck before sending her and Kandy off from the hospital.

Following after Herbert who was in his clean team uniform, Sandra hated the fact that she was showing up in denim shorts and a tank top covered in primer and car paint. At least she had had sense enough to grab a long sleeved plaid shirt that served as a makeshift jacket to cover her shoulders. What was the proper attire for this? Lace over her hair? Black head to toe? It certainly wasn’t flip-flops and a wifebeater. Pulling the two sides of the longer shirt together, she folded her arms over the top to keep the material closed against her torso.

Carmelo Boledi was the tall, strapping son of Cicero and Zoraida. Measuring just about six feet four inches with broad shoulders, he had two of the most lethal arms in the league. If the players at bat weren’t intimidated by his physical presence then his ability to pitch left and right handed often did the trick. With the thick dark hair and stature of his Sicilian father and the hazel eyes and honeyed complexion of his Cuban mother, he could have been mistaken for the starring actor in the next international espionage thriller. He tossed an up-nod to his skipper and took a few steps off the mound toward him.

It was when Herbert waved off Claude Bouchard, a starting catcher, and Orson Kemp who was trotting over from first base that Carmelo first caught sight of Cassandra. Though her eyes were shielded from his view by the eyewear, she still looked away and it was at that moment he knew. Immediately, his body froze, holding in his breath, holding back the rush to his head that threatened his balance.

Hilary was leaning against the railing in the dugout watching at a distance, her teeth gripping the tiny gold cross hanging from a dainty chain around her neck that she had worn since she was a young girl. She eventually realized that the only words she could hear were her own voice reciting the prayers she thought she had forgotten decades ago. The instant Melo’s shoulders began to quake after he hid his face in his mitt, Hil was unable to watch any more. Tears poured from those doll-like hazel eyes as she closed them. The last she saw was Melo walking off into the outfield with Orson following close behind.

Herb wasn’t surprised that Cassandra was the one who showed up. It was rare for Carmelo’s father to make an appearance at a play-off game much less make the trip all the way down to the Spring Training facility. Even in this unexpected and unpleasant set of circumstances, he was relieved that it was Sandra doing the notification. The relationship between father and son had fallen apart long before Carmelo had gone pro and only worsened when Cicero drank heavily at the games he did choose to attend. Based off his demand to know where Cicero was, Carmelo probably would have taken a swing at the man had he been the one standing in front of him and not Cassandra. A family fight breaking out on any field was something Herb wanted to avoid as much as possible.

“Let him go. He’ll be all right.” Holding his cap in one hand, Herb gave a gentle and reassuring squeeze to Sandra’s shoulder. “We’ll make sure we get him back up there. Just give Hil the where and when after you get it nailed down.”

All Cassandra could do was nod as she stood there watching Carmelo pounding the side of his fist against a section of the outfield wall while Orson stood at his friend’s side trying to console him.

“Where the fuck was he, O? It was just Mom and Kandy. He knew she was sick! It’s a fucking Sunday, where was he?!” Turning and slumping down against the green panel, Carmelo threw his mitt to the side.

Crouching down, Orson took a seat next to him and sighed. “Look man, let’s be real. What was he gonna do for her by being there anyway? At least he stayed away so she wouldn’t have to see him drunk off his ass all the damn time.”

Carmelo smirked and hung his forearms on top of his bent knees, “But Kandy was there alone. She was telling us since Christmas that something wasn’t right, but none of us fucking listened.”

“She had the best doctors, man. You know that.”

“I’d ask and all she’d ever say is things were the same. Nothing to worry about.” Carmelo sighed and shrugged looking back up at the now cloudy sky. “Sandy said it was her heart.”

“Melo, how it happened don’t even matter now. You need to be there for Kandy cause your Pops probably ain’t even gonna be able to be there for himself.” Orson hooked an arm around Carmelo’s shoulder and gave him a light jostle, “You know we all got your back here. You, Kandy, all you guys.”

“I knew Kandy was right. I could see it when she would get so tired.” Carmelo buried is face in his hands again. “I should have spent more time at home.”

***

Dashing down the stairs to the front door, Sandra pulled a pair of well-worn and equally stained trainers out from under the table in the foyer. Slipping her feet in one by one and working them in to avoid having to untie the laces, she began looking for her keys to the BMW and wallet. Moving around pairs of sunglasses and older piles of mail, she finally found the fob for the M6 Gran Coupe and the small clutch handbag she had been using. The sound of movement in the dining room just around the corner made her freeze and listen closely to try and determine Angie’s direction. Avoiding her and an argument about leaving was the main goal as she awkwardly stood there with her bags and keys.

What is she doing in there? Squinting, Cassandra was trying to place the rather rhythmic set of sounds she was hearing from the other room. It wasn’t until the fragrance finally floated into the front of the house that she realized what was going on. Angie was mopping. She was cleaning the kitchen and dining room. Those bags suddenly felt like they weighed a thousand pounds. A frustrated sigh. There was no way she would be able to sneak around to the back of the house and back the BMW out of the garage into the alley. Angie would no doubt hear the motorized door and she would definitely notice the start up of the twin turbo eight cylinder.

To get out of there, Sandra was going to need at least a decent head start. Fingernails of her one hand lightly scratched at her brow bone as she worked through her problem of not having immediate access to transportation. She only lived a handful of blocks south of Swann Avenue. It wouldn’t take too much to duck into one of the restaurants, grab some food, and wait for an Uber. Her sister probably wouldn’t even think to look for her in the burger joint or the bakery or the Italian cafe or one of the other couple dozen of eateries and designer clothes shops in the exclusive shopping district of Hyde Park Village.

But where was she going to order the Uber for? The bank. She needed cash. And then where? The airport. A wave of dread washed through her at the thought of running into her other sister or getting a call from their mother if she went back to England. Australia, Italy, and Germany were off the list because of the Calabrians’ reach. Fleeing to Miami was absolutely not an option considering that her father’s house would likely be the first place Angie would look. Maybe Shay knew some place she could go. A safe little island tucked away somewhere. He’d probably laugh and tell her to go visit the Land of Saints and Scholars, his beloved Emerald Isle.

What am I going to tell Kandy when she calls? With her hand on the door knob, Sandra found herself sighing and shifting her weight against the wood and glass. She had closed one door and desperately needed this one specifically to open. So what if those bastards took over finally? So what, let them have the rest. We have enough. She could send for Kandy after getting settled somewhere and the two could start over away from everything. Maybe Spain. The girl never failed to enjoy the time spent there with her paternal grandparents. It’s time for everybody else to handle their own problems. Angie would finally get her chance to deal with her father the way she always wanted and she had Julian to help with Asher. That was the life Angie chose after stealing back her freedom and the consequences of that life were not unknown to her. And fuck the firm. I will never set foot inside of that place again. While the staff of Boledi, Boledi, & Profeta offered legal representation of the highest quality to whoever was able to afford them, the firm was also the instrument by which the Powers That Be helped to maintain balance and preserve the rather unique Tampanian way of life that went back more than a hundred and twenty years.

Cicero can’t protect Carmelo, and you know that. Cicero will be dead the moment they find him. As tempted as she was to bang her forehead against the door, Sandra resisted to avoid making any noise that might alert Angie to her breakout. Carmelo will sign somewhere away and it will start with something simple. Just a little bit of information amongst friends. You know what they’re going to do. The Endicotts are decent people. The hotel will be taken from them and run into the ground. Orson’s restaurant. Zoraida’s foundation. Like locusts, they’re going to destroy everything. What if they find out about Dante? What if they realize Asher’s value in negotiating with Anzhelina’s father? Whether it was New York, Miami, the Russians, or a combination of all three, Tampa would wind up worse than Miami. Nothing would ever be the same again. The one place that felt like home — is your home — would never be the same again.

Cassandra wanted to stand there screaming, smashing the door with her fists until it splintered off its hinges. But, she couldn’t. All that rage and frustration boiling in her veins could never make it to the surface, could never be seen by others. Staring out through the etched glass panels, she looked at the black amorphous blob that was probably Angie’s truck. Sandra set the bags she had down next to her feet and then placed both palms against the inside of her front door. If the luggage had been a gas can instead, the bright yellow house with white trim would have been burning to the ground. It was a delusion in its own right. No matter what the reality was around her, Cassandra had been clinging to this house. Now all it was was a museum of her failures.

“Saaaaan—deeee!”

Anzhelina’s sing-songy call of her name not just startled Cassandra from her thoughts, but also turned out to be one of the creepiest things she would ever have the misfortune of hearing. From the noises the blonde was making, it was clear she was still in the kitchen area of the house.

“The food is getting cold, Sandy. Come on!”

Pushing off her shoes and leaving the key to the BMW behind on the foyer table, Cassandra sighed and made her way back to the kitchen. Angie was standing in the dining room, which was spotless, taking the plastic lids off of the feast of Italian cuisine she had ordered from a nearby restaurant. Coming to a stop at the head of the table, Sandra quietly waited for the blonde to notice her. When Angie did, she offered Sandra a clean plate.

“We need to get rid of your father.”

Holding the plates against the front of her torso with her folded arms now, Anzhelina walked closer to the brunette and assessed her silently. Sandra stared right back into the exquisite jade green eyes of the Mako. The blonde was standing so close that Sandra could smell the faint yet distinct scent of the black foreign cigarettes she enjoyed smoking. Though she would have been naturally inclined to step to the side to maintain her personal space, the brunette instead didn’t move an inch.

Finally, a nod from Angie. “Let’s do it.”

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