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Hidden Truths: Chapter 1

Angelina

Three days ago

There are exactly eleven pieces of meat and twenty-three french fries on the plate. I have counted them at least twenty times since Maria brought the food two hours ago. It was harder to resist while the food was still warm, filling my nostrils with its aroma. But even now, my mouth waters and my gut clenches.
The second day was the worst. I thought I would lose my mind, so I started counting the pieces of food and imagined I was eating them. It helped. Somewhat. Maybe it would have been easier if the meat wasn’t cut into small pieces, each one taunting me. I could have taken just one, and no one would have noticed. I don’t know how I prevailed that day.
I’m on the fifth day of my hunger strike. They bring me food and water three times a day, but I don’t touch anything except water. I would rather die of starvation than willingly marry my father’s killer.
The door on the other side of the room opens and Maria walks in. We were best friends once. Until she started fucking my father. I wonder when she decided to switch to Diego Rivera—my father’s best friend, business partner, and as of five days ago, his killer.
“There is no point in this, Angelina,” Maria says and comes to stand before me with her hands on her hips. “You will marry Diego one way or another. Why choose the harder way?”
I cross my arms and lean against the wall. “And why don’t you?” I ask. “You are already fucking him. Why stop there?”
“Diego would never marry a servant’s daughter. But he will continue fucking me.” She gifts me one of her particularly condescending looks. “I doubt he’ll want to touch you now, Manny Sandoval’s daughter or not. You were never anything special, but now you look half dead.”
“You could ask him to let me go and have him all for yourself.”
I can’t imagine how she stomachs having that pig touch her. Diego is older than my father was, and he stinks. I will always associate the smell of stale sweat and bad cologne with him.
“Oh, I would. Gladly.” She smiles. “If I thought it would work. Diego believes that taking over your father’s business contracts will go much smoother with the Sandoval princess as his wife. He will wait a day, maybe two more. Then, he’ll drag you to the altar. He has been incredibly patient with you, Angelina. You shouldn’t test him much longer.” She takes the plate with the untouched food and leaves the room, locking the door behind her.
I lie down on my bed and watch the curtains billow on the light evening breeze. I’ve been feeling dizzy since this morning, so falling asleep is no longer as hard as it was a few days ago. There are also no more tears left.
I still can’t believe that my dad is gone. Maybe he wasn’t the best father on the planet, but he was my father. Work always came first for Manuel Sandoval, which wasn’t unusual. No one expected the head of one of the three biggest Mexican cartels to spend a day playing hide-and-seek with his kid, or anything like that, but he loved me in his own way. A sad smile forms on my lips. Manny Sandoval might not have come to my recitals or helped me with homework, but he made sure I knew how to shoot almost as good as any of his men.
Male laughter reaches me from the patio, making me shudder. That lying bastard and his men are still celebrating. It wasn’t enough that he killed my father, the man he did business with for more than a decade. Oh, no. He took over his home and his business contracts. And now, he wants to take his daughter as well.
I close my eyes and recall the day when Diego came to our house. Nobody suspected anything because for years he had visited my father at least once a month. When we realized what was happening, it was already too late.
I shouldn’t have attacked Diego that day. The only thing it bought me was a blow across the face that made me see stars. When I saw my father’s body lying on the floor, with blood pooling on either side, I couldn’t think straight. Killing the asshole was the only thing on my mind. Instead of waiting for a better opportunity, I completely disregarded his two soldiers, took one of the decorative swords hanging on the office wall, and lunged at Diego. His men caught me before I even came close to their boss. And laughed. And then they laughed some more when Diego slapped me across the face, almost dislocating my jaw.
I’m amazed he hasn’t come to fuck me already. He’s probably busy raping the girls he’s brought and locked up in the basement before he ships them off to the men who bought them. I wonder if he’ll sell me too, or if he’ll just kill me when he realizes I’d rather die than have anything to do with him.
I bury my face into the pillow.
* * *
The sound of someone’s rushed steps wakes me from my sleep. Slowly and without opening my eyes, I reach under the pillow and wrap my hand around the armrest of the chair I disassembled three days ago. I placed my makeshift weapon there for when Diego finally decides to visit me.
“Angelinita!” A hand grabs my shoulder and shakes me. “Wake up. We don’t have much time.”
“Nana?” I sit up in the bed and squint my eyes at my childhood nanny. “How did you get in?”
“Come on! And be quiet.” She grabs my hand and ushers me out of the room.
They’ve kept me prisoner in my room, and I haven’t eaten for five days straight. My feet drag as I try to keep up with my old and frail nana, who practically drags me along the hallway and down two sets of stairs until we reach the kitchen. Diego doesn’t post guards inside the house, and the other staff leave around ten. It must be well into the night, then, since we don’t run into anyone.
Nana moves me to stand in front of the glass door that leads to the backyard and points with her finger. “See that truck? They’re leaving in twenty minutes. Diego is sending drugs to the Italians in Chicago, and he told me to send one of the girls with the cargo as a present.” She looks up at me. “You’re going instead.”
“What? No.” I put my hand on her wrinkled cheek while leaning myself on the wall with the other in case my legs give out. “Diego will kill you.”
“You are going. I won’t let that son of a bitch have you.”
“Nana . . .”
“When you get to Chicago, you can stay with some of your American friends from your studies. Diego won’t dare cross the border to come after you.”
“I don’t have any papers or a passport. What will I do when I get there?” I skip mentioning that I don’t have that many friends there either. “And the driver will recognize me.”
“He probably won’t, you look terrible. But we’ll make sure, just in case.”
She reaches into the drawer, takes out scissors, and starts cutting my shorts and T-shirt in a couple of places. When she’s done, there is barely any cloth left to cover my boobs and ass. Just like Diego likes it.
“Now, the hair.”
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and turn my back to her. I don’t let the tears fall as Nana shreds my waist-long hair until it barely reaches my shoulders in slightly uneven strands.
“As soon as you reach Chicago, contact Liam O’Neil,” she says. “He can help you get the papers and a new passport.”
“I don’t think that’s wise, considering the situation. What if O’Neil tells Diego I’m there?” My father did business with the Irish for the past year, but he was never a fan of their leader. He called Liam O’Neil a “tricky bastard”.
“You have to risk it. No one else can get you forged documents.”
I stare at the floor where black strands of hair lie around my bare feet. It’ll grow back . . . if I live to see that happen.
Nana taps me on the shoulder. “Turn around.”
When I do, she grabs a flowerpot with her favorite agave plant from the table, takes a handful of soil, and starts smearing the dirt over on my arms and legs. She takes a step back, looks at me, then spreads a little bit of it on my forehead as well.
“Good.” She nods.
I look down at myself. My hip bones are protruding, and my stomach looks sunken. I was always on the thin side, but now my body looks like someone sucked every piece of flesh from it, leaving only skin and bones. I definitely resemble the girls Diego locked away in the basement. When I look up, Nana is watching me with tears in her eyes.
“Take this.” She grabs a bag that has been hanging on the chair and thrusts it in my hands. “Some food and water. I didn’t dare to put money in, in case the driver decides to check it.”
I wrap my arm around her, bury my face in the crook of her neck, and inhale the smell of powdery fabric softener and cookies. It reminds me of childhood, summer days, and love. “I can’t leave you, Nana.”
“No time for that.” She sniffs. “Let’s go. Head down and don’t speak.”
Outside, holding on to my upper arm, she drags me toward the truck parked in front of the service building.
“It’s about time, Guadalupe,” the driver barks and throws his cigarette on the ground. “Get her in the back. We’re late.”
“You don’t want to get near her.” Nana pushes me around the driver. “The bitch vomited all over herself. She stinks.”
I keep my head down and try not to trip as I jump inside the back of the truck. My legs are trembling from the strain of trying to hold myself upright. I duck behind one of the boxes and turn to look at Nana Guadalupe one last time, but the big, sliding door drops down with a bang before I can catch a glimpse. The dark is complete, and a minute later, the engine roars to life.

Sergei

The phone in my back pocket rings. I send the knife I’ve been holding in my right hand flying, then reach for the phone and take the call.
“Yes?”
“The Italians’ shipment just left Mexico,” Roman Petrov, the Bratva’s pakhan says from the other side. “I need you to go with Mikhail when the men head out to intercept it tomorrow night.”
“Oh? Does this mean I’m allowed in the field again?”
When I joined the Russian Bratva four years ago, I started as a foot soldier, and during these past years, I climbed the ladder to the pakhan’s inner circle. I handled the field duties until a year ago when Roman banned me from them.
“No. This will be a one-time deal. Anton is still in hospital, and we’re short-handed, or I would never send you.”
“Your motivational speeches require serious work.” I fling the next knife through the air.
“When you’re motivated, the body count tends to climb through the roof, Sergei.”
I roll my eyes. “What do you need me to do?”
“Rig their truck and blow the thing. It will have to be while the driver stops to sleep, because our intel says that there’s a girl on the truck with the drugs. We need to get her out first. Mikhail will call you later with more details.”
“Okay.”
“And make sure it’s just the truck that gets blown up this time,” he barks and cuts the call.
I throw the last of my knives, turn on the lamp, and walk toward the narrow wooden board mounted on the opposite wall to inspect my hits. Two of the knives landed a little below the target. I’m getting rusty. I pull out the knives and stroll back across the room. Focusing on the white line painted horizontally along the wooden board, I turn off the light again.
* * *
Twenty minutes later I leave my room and head downstairs to look for Felix.
“Albert!” I shout.
He hates it when I call him that, so I make sure I always do. Serves him right since he decided to play my butler instead of spending his retirement at a sea cottage like he should have done when the military let us leave. He never told me exactly how he managed to get us released from our contracts.
“Albert! Where did you put our C-4 stash?”
“In the pantry!” he yells from somewhere in the kitchen. “The box below the crate with potatoes.”
I snort. And they say I’m the crazy one. I circle the stairs and open the pantry door. “Where?”
“Eleven o’clock. Watch your head!”
I turn to the left and smack my skull on the golf equipment bag hanging from the ceiling. “Jesus! I told you to keep your crap in the garage!”
“Not enough room,” Felix says from behind me. “Why do you need the C-4?”
“Roman needs me to blow up some shit tomorrow.”
“Another Italian warehouse?”
“A truck with their drugs this time.” I remove the crate with potatoes and reach for the box. “You can’t store explosives with food, damn it. I’m taking this to the basement.”
“I need the day after tomorrow off,” he calls after me. “I’m taking Marlene to the movies.”
I stop and look him in the eyes. “You don’t work for me. You’re a pest I’ve been trying to get rid of for years—one who won’t leave. I live for the day you finally move in with Marlene and get off my back.”
“Oh, I won’t be moving in with her anytime soon. It’s too early.”
“You’re seventy-one! If you wait much longer, the only place you’ll be moving into is the fucking cemetery!”
“Nah.” He waves his hand as if it’s nothing. “My family is known for longevity.”
I close my eyes and sigh. “I’m doing okay. You don’t have to babysit me. Marlene is a nice lady. Go live your life.”
The carefree mask vanishes from Felix’s face as he grinds his teeth and fixes me with his gaze. “You are far from okay, and we both know it.”
“Even if that’s true, I’m not your responsibility anymore. Leave. Let me deal with my shit alone.”
“You sleep through the night, the whole night, three days in a row and I’ll leave. Until that happens, I’m staying put.” He turns and heads to the kitchen, then throws over his shoulder, “Mimi knocked over the lamp in the living room. There’s glass everywhere.”
“You didn’t clean it?”
“I don’t work for you, remember? If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen. We’re having fish for lunch.”

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