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Hidden Truths: Chapter 16

Angelina

I open the bag of dog food and reach for Mimi’s bowl as arms wrap around my waist, and a kiss lands at the top of my head.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” Sergei asks and rests his chin on my shoulder, watching as I pour dog chow into the dish.
“You barely sleep as it is.” I look at him sideways. “When are you planning to start sleeping in bed?”
It’s been almost a month since we slept together for the first time. Every night since, we’d cuddle up together in bed, but when I wake up, Sergei would be dozing on the floor. I tried to convince him to stay with me, but he only shook his head, waited for me to fall asleep, then moved to his sleeping bag on the floor next to the bed.
“Is Felix around?” He always changes the subject when I start talking about this.
“I haven’t seen him,” I answer.
“He’s probably at Marlene’s. Let’s go walk Mimi before breakfast.”
Sergei whistles, and Mimi comes running around the corner. She lifts her head for Sergei to scratch her neck, then turns to me and licks my palm. I still find it hard to believe that such a scary-looking dog would have such a mild personality. Felix once said that Mimi can kill a man in under a minute, but looking at her as she runs around us, first nudging Sergei and then me with her nose, I wonder if he was just teasing me.
* * *
“I know what you and Felix did before you joined the Bratva,” I say as we’re walking down the sidewalk, making Sergei stop in his tracks.
“He told you?” he asks through his teeth. “When?”
“Some time ago.” I don’t mention that most of it I got from the pakhan, and Felix only filled in the gaps.
“I’m going to kill him.”
I squeeze his hand. “How was it? The training, I mean. I know you can’t talk about the missions.”
Sergei takes a deep breath, wraps his arm around my middle, and leads us toward the park. “Believe it or not, I liked it,” he says. “I wasn’t in a good place when they brought me in, and they offered me purpose. A sense of belonging, in a way. It felt good. In the beginning, at least.”
“How were the other guys in the group. Were you friends?”
“I can’t say we were friends, exactly.” He shrugs. “But we were in it together, so it created a sense of comradery.”
“Do you know where they are now?”
“One died on a mission early on. David. He was a good kid. The other one, Ben, I killed,” he says and looks down at me, waiting for my reaction. It was probably the guy Felix mentioned, the one who attacked him while Sergei was zoned out. I stare right into his eyes without blinking.
“And the others?” I ask.
Sergei watches me for a few seconds, then looks away and continues walking. “Kai and Az. Kai was an extremely deranged guy. Violent. Aggressive. When he got fixated on something, no one was able to get whatever it was out of his head. They had to restrain him a couple of times. Az was the complete opposite. Withdrawn. A recluse. Over all the years we spent together, I think he spoke less than twenty sentences to the rest of us.” He smiles. “He played mean poker, though. Not even Felix, with all his cheating, could beat him.”
“Az?” I ask. “That’s an unusual name.”
“It’s a nickname. No one knew what his real name was. He wouldn’t tell. Kruger, the guy who ran the unit, tried to beat it out of him. He collected him from the street with no documents, and when they ran Az’s prints, they didn’t get anything. But even when Kruger broke his arm, Az wouldn’t say his name or anything. So, he ended up being just Az.” He chuckles. “Crazy motherfucker.”
“What happened to them?”
“I assume Kai is still working for the government. Az vanished six months before Felix and I left.”
“Like lost on a mission?”
“Nope. Just disappeared.” Sergei looks over at Mimi, who’s running between some trees, and whistles. “There was a traffic accident. Az’s wife was killed by a drunk driver. The following day, they found his house burned to ashes. No sign of Az.”
“Jesus. Someone burned down his house?”
“He torched it himself.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Everybody in the unit had a specialty. I was usually sent in when there was a need to clear a place of multiple hostiles. Az handled undercover missions, and when they needed someone dead without raising suspicion it was a hit. His favorite technique was burning things so thoroughly that the forensics team couldn’t find shit.”
“Do you think he’s still alive?”
Sergei smiles. “Az is extremely hard to kill. He’s alive.”
We’re just entering the house when Sergei’s phone rings. The moment he looks at the screen and sees the number of the caller, his posture changes from relaxed to rigid. His arm comes around my waist, pressing me into his side as he lifts the phone to his ear.
“Diego,” he says, and I stiffen. “What can I do for you?”
I can’t hear Diego’s reply, but from the way Sergei’s arm around my middle relaxes, it’s nothing bad. I exhale. For a moment, I was afraid he somehow found out where I am.
“Alright. Tonight, at ten. I’ll send you the coordinates.” Sergei cuts the call, “I’m meeting Diego’s men tonight. Too bad he’s not coming.”
“He would never risk coming to the States personally,” I say. “Do you think he knows I’m here?”
“I doubt it. He would have insinuated something if he did.” He lowers his head and places a kiss on my cheek. “Don’t worry, I’m ending that son of a bitch the moment an opportunity arises.”
“Sergei, no.” I grab his hand and turn him toward me. “He has too many allies. If you do anything to Diego, one of them will kill you.”
“They can try.” He smiles, but it’s not a smile I’m accustomed to seeing on him. It’s calculated and chilling. A smile of a predator who has his prey in his sights.
* * *
Every time I see Sergei in a suit, I’m amazed at the transformation. Gone is the scary-looking guy with disheveled hair and covered in ink. In his place, stands a businessman, someone who could pass as a company CEO or a politician.
I brush the nonexistent speck of dust from his jacket. “Where are you meeting Diego’s men?”
“In one of the warehouses. Pasha won’t let me use the clubs anymore.”
“Why not?”
“I made a bit of a mess last time.”
“What? You got drunk or something?”
He laughs. “I never drink, baby. I’m already crazy as it is.”
“No.” I press the tip of my finger over his lips. “You are not crazy. And I want you to stop saying that,” I chide, and the corners of his lips lift like I’ve said something funny. “Wake me up when you come back, okay?”
“I won’t be back before two or three. Diego’s men like to talk.”
“Doesn’t matter.” I rise up on my toes to lightly kiss his lips, but he wraps a hand around my back and presses me against his body, then attacks my mouth.
Behind me, Felix clears his throat. “Sergei. You’ll be late,” he says.
“Fuck you, Albert,” Sergei mumbles into my mouth, then resumes devouring my lips for five more minutes. He brushes my cheek with the back of his hand before he leaves.
“Were there more episodes?” Felix asks the moment Sergei closes the door behind him.
“No. Not during the past couple of weeks.”
“Good.” He walks toward the cupboard beside the fridge and pulls out his laptop. He carries it to the dining table and starts connecting cables.
“Do you plan on watching the meeting?”
“Yes.” He nods. “There are two cameras in the north warehouse.”
“Do you always do that?”
“Nope. But I have a bad feeling about this meeting.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know. I just do.” He powers on the laptop. “Can you take Mimi out to do her business? I have to set up the connection.”
“Sure.”
The moment I take the leash off the wall hanger, Mimi rushes to my side and starts nudging my hand. I clasp the lead on her collar, knowing that it wouldn’t do much if she decided to take off. She outweighs me by at least forty pounds. Good thing she’s well-behaved, unless there are flowers around. I’ll have to make sure to keep away from old Meggie’s garden.
I initially planned on taking a short walk, but it’s a beautiful night. Instead of staying close to home, I take Mimi toward a thicket of trees a few blocks away. We’re almost to the edge when I notice a woman walking down the sidewalk and looking our way. She seems vaguely familiar, probably a neighbor we may have passed before. I lift my hand in a casual wave. The woman watches me for a second, looks at Mimi, then waves back and continues down the path.
I take a step toward the trees, but Mimi stays rooted to the spot, observing the surroundings, and letting out a strange low-key growl. She doesn’t move, even when I pull on the leash, until the woman disappears around the corner.
“Not a fan of redheads, huh?” I mumble.
* * *
I spend almost an hour strolling around the neighborhood with Mimi. By the time I walk up the steps to the front door of Sergei’s house, I’m ready to crash. The moment I open the door, however, Felix’s raised voice wakes me up immediately. He’s sitting at his laptop, talking with someone over the phone, but when he sees me, his head snaps up.
“Come here!” He motions with his hand and continues talking into the phone. “Try to approach him from behind and put the phone to his ear. Be careful, Yuri. He might not recognize you.”
I rush into the kitchen and round the table so I am standing next to Felix. I open my mouth to ask what’s going on, but when my eyes fall to the laptop screen, the words die on my lips. The video feed shows Sergei standing next to a man sprawled on the hood of a car. Sergei’s right hand is around the man’s throat as he bangs the guy’s head against the vehicle. To the right of him, two more men are lying on the ground, neither of them moving. The one closest to Sergei has his head turned at an unnatural angle, while the other is facedown, with a pool of blood on either side of him. As I watch, a dark-haired man in a white shirt approaches Sergei from behind, holding a phone in his extended hand.
“Talk to him.” Felix thrusts the phone into my hand.
I press the cell to my ear, but it takes me a few moments to collect myself enough to form the words.
“Sergei?” I choke out, not moving my eyes off the screen. He doesn’t react. “Sergei!” I yell into the phone.
Sergei’s head snaps to the side. He stares at the phone being held by Yuri for a heartbeat or two, then reaches out and presses it to his ear.
“Lisichka?” he asks, his voice perfectly calm, as if I caught him while he was drinking his morning coffee. “Is something wrong?”
I look at Felix, who nods and motions for me to continue. I just stare at him. What does he expect me to talk about?
“I . . . I was walking Mimi and she ate something. I didn’t see what. She started coughing and then vomited.”
Felix closes his eyes and nods.
“Maybe we should take her to the vet,” I continue. “Can you come home?”
“Is she still vomiting?”
I look over at Mimi, who is sprawled over the sofa in the living room, snoring, then move my eyes back to the screen. Sergei still has his left hand wrapped around the guy’s throat. “Yes. Can you please come?”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.” He lets go of the man and starts walking toward the other end of the warehouse where his car is parked. “Go get Albert so he can help until I get there, just in case. The old bat is probably asleep, wake him up.”
He throws the phone to Yuri, gets into his car, and a few moments later leaves the warehouse. I lower the phone to the table and turn to Felix, who is slumped in his seat, shaking his head.
“What happened?” I ask and drop down onto the chair across from him.
“Diego Rivera sent his men to deliver the message that he’ll be raising prices by twenty percent.”
“Sergei went ballistic over that?”
“No. He just informed them that we won’t be getting any more product from them.” He sighs. “But when they told him Diego now holds a major market share after killing Manny Sandoval and taking his daughter, Sergei snapped.”
“Jesus.” I put my elbows on the table and press the heels of my palms to my eyes. “Does this happen often?”
“No. I think the mention of Rivera holding you triggered him. How much does he sleep?”
“I don’t know. Four hours, maybe five.” I shrug. “He usually goes to sleep after me, so I can’t be sure.”
“Do you two sleep in the same bed?”
“He waits until I’m asleep, then gets his sleeping bag and spends the night on the floor.”
“Good. Keep it that way.”
“I will most certainly not keep it that way,” I say. “I’ve been trying to convince him to sleep in bed with me for weeks.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
I cross my arms in front of me and pin Felix with my stare. “Did it ever occur to you that, maybe, if everyone stopped treating him like he’s a wild animal, he may get better?”
“Did you see what happened there, Angelina?” He points to the laptop screen. “Do you know how much time he needed to overpower three armed men? Fifteen seconds!” he barks. “I think Roman and I made a mistake by putting all this on you. A girl as sheltered as you can’t possibly understand what some people are capable of.”
I tilt my head to the side and glare at him. “Do you know how they treat snitches in the cartel, Felix? Or thieves?”
“No.”
“Then let me explain to you how very sheltered I’ve been.” I lean back in my chair and look out the window at the garden. “There was this big tree not far from our house, just behind the flowerbed I loved playing around. I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but it had very long and thick branches. Durable,” I say. “When someone was caught giving intel to the authorities or other cartels, they would hang him from one of the lower branches. Hanging people was my father’s favorite way of punishment. I was usually advised not to go to that part of the garden when the tree was occupied.”
“Jesus fuck.” Felix stares at me, his eyes wide. “They did that with children around? What if some of them saw the bodies?”
“Oh, we saw the bodies for sure. Everyone was present when someone was hanged. It was mandatory. A warning of sorts. My nana didn’t want me to go there because of the smell.”
“The smell?”
“Yeah, they sometimes left the bodies for a day or two. The stink was so strong, that even after they removed the corpses, the scent remained in my nose for days.” I shrug. “Then, there was the hunt. That was used for thieves mostly.”
I find it rather funny, the way Felix gapes at me, like he’s seeing me for the first time. I’m pretty sure he knows what kind of hunt it was, but I continue anyway.
“My father’s people would tie the thieves’ hands behind their backs and send them barefoot into the forest. A twenty-minute head start was what they usually got. Then, they would take the guns and go hunting. Sometimes, when there were multiple thieves being hunted, it would last the whole night. I would lie in my bed and listen to an occasional gunshot, wondering if it was a hit or miss.” I put my palms onto the table and lean forward. “So don’t you dare draw conclusions about what I can or can’t deal with, Felix.”
I get up and walk to the fridge, grab a can of Coke, then head into the living room to wait for Sergei.
“When Sergei comes, we’ll pretend nothing happened,” I say in passing.
“Angelina?”
I stop and look at Felix over my shoulder. “Yes?”
“Does this mean that you’re staying?”
“Yes, it does.”

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