F O R T Y - E I G H T
“For god’s sake, shut the damn thing off!” Ralph hollered, stomping his way to pick up the remote and smashed it against the wall. I understood his rage, the seething burn, and the hapless state he found himself in, and I’d been around my father long enough now to recognize the signs.
“Like that’s going to make everything disappear,” I whispered.
Closing my eyes, I propped against the headboard. I needed a moment: a quiet, long moment with myself because at the end of the day, only I was going to save myself from this hell.
“I am going to have a talk with Al. This has to disappear! Until then, if you want to leave Chicago—”
My eyes flashed opened. “And run away with my tail between my legs?” I shook my head. “How honorable will that make me look, pa?”
I watched Ralph settle himself on the edge of the bed as I shifted to accommodate him. He took my hands in his and kissed them like he was trying to trap his fury and translate it into paternal affection.
“Let me talk to Dominic once,” I implored. Whatever came down between us, I still wasn’t ready to write him off yet. And I had to laugh at the irony because once upon a time we were at each others’ throats.
“Sure cara, once I cut off his tongue, you can talk to him all you want.”
“Don’t you think I should hear his side of the story?” I countered.
“There is no side in this, Lilliana!” His fingers tightened around my wrists as if to chasten some sense into me. “It’s his stupidity and inability to keep it inside his pants that led to this nonsense. Honestly, I don’t even care how stupid he is, as long as he keeps you out of the collateral damage.”
“You are getting in all wrong!” For a Mafioso, he was either too emotional or way out of his game to see this through. “It wasn’t for Dominic alone; it was for me as well. It was a message of FUCK YOU in capital letters, courtesy Sophia Moretti.”
“Then he should have protected you better!”
I threw up my hands in frustration. “I am not a damsel in distress!”
Literally, I was, but not in a way I needed saving from a bitch I could strangle to death. Besides, death would be a nasty move at this point. It suddenly reminded me of the earlier conversation with Ralph this morning.
“Did you find anything about Carlos?” I asked quickly, steering away from the topic altogether.
“What?” Ralph looked at me like I was speaking in Aramaic. It took a long beat to bounce back. “Oh, yeah,” he replied disinterestedly. “My informers found something, along with his pictures. Apparently, his father worked for Medellin Cartel, but we found nothing that connects him to any criminal activity in America.”
I practically jumped up. “Can you have your men send over the details?”
“Why, tesoro? Why deal with these parasites now?”
I offered him a closed-lipped, sullen smile. “I need to concentrate on something that wouldn’t drive me crazy, not as much as the footage they are playing all over the news. Please?”
I didn’t need to ask twice or resort to pleading because Ralph agreed in a heartbeat. He dialed a number, and within ten minutes, a man was at the door to handle him a thin file. Soon after that, my father excused himself, and I busied in glossing over every tiny detail I could find in those papers, news articles, and photographs that would prove my suspicions right.
An hour later, I was more than sure that the presence of Carlos Sanchez at the engagement party to pick up Sophia wasn’t fortuitous. I could even go out on a limb and say that he was involved with the fake video footage incident as well, except I could not connect the dots leading to it.
Just then, a knock on the door had my attention. When I glanced up, Marco walked in.
“Are you okay?” he asked sympathetically and settled on the seat across mine.
In my short stay here, I came to realize that Marco wasn’t a man of many words, but he was a robust support system when you need one. He was also a man who has high respect for personal life just as likely as the man guarded his own.
“Define okay,” I let out with a sigh.
“I understand.” He gave a small nod and attempted to have a conversation that didn’t involve my complicated life. But the truth was, Marco and I had very little to converse beyond the realm of Romano family because, like it or not, our lives were orbited around them.
His phone rang for the fourth time in the duration of half an hour and I watched him snap the call grudgingly and turned it off.
So I had to ask. “Is that Dominic?”
Marco gave a reserved nod. “He is blasting my phone like a lunatic, demanding to speak to you. I take it that you haven’t spoken to him yet?”
“Ralph wouldn’t let me.”
He let out a dry, humourless chuckle. “You and I, we both know that’s a lame excuse. You are not fifteen, Lilliana.”
“Right now, I feel fucking fifty and tired.” I threw my head back, kneading my strained neck and felt the tightness of the muscles. It ached everywhere. “I don’t know what to tell him even if I pick up the phone,” I said honestly. “Tomorrow, I was supposed to walk down the aisle to marry him. But the wedding is called off now, and I am sitting here, watching the entire world laughing at my expense. My relationship is a bloody joke, and I look like a lovesick fool for defending him. All of this happened because one vindictive, low-life bitch couldn’t swallow the bitter pill of rejection.”
I ended the furious rant with a closed-eyes sigh. Every cell and tissue in my body was tangled in emotions to the point I wanted to both cry and yell.
Marco rose softly came to my side. “I am so sorry. This shouldn’t have happened.”
“Well, too bad it did,” I muttered.
A short but heavy silence descended between us, allowing me to devise the next course of action. I could charge headfirst at Sophia, but she would exactly want that and see coming from a miles away.
“I need a favor, Marco.”
He nodded without hesitation. “Name it.”
“Something tells me that Sophia wasn’t alone in this. Yes, she is spiteful, bitter, and jealous to the core, but she doesn’t have so much grey matter in her head to pull this off alone, or that kind of resources for that matter.”
He blinked as he processed my words. “Okay. So you think there’s someone else?”
I gave a quick shake of my head. “I am sure there’s someone else and that someone is her uncle, Carlos Sanchez.” Reaching out, I grabbed the stack of papers from the file I was earlier skimming through and handed a few to him, along with some pictures.
Marco scanned through the papers and photographs as I continued to explain. “Ralph’s men didn’t find much dirt on him, except his father’s link to Medellin cartel in the ’80s. But look at the tattoo on the back of his hand – cobweb and spider.”
He gazed up. “What about it?”
“When I was young, Dante would never let me out of the room if anyone was visiting the safe house. But obviously, my nine-year-old self was too nosy for my own good. So I would peek out of the keyhole and would often see this particular tattoo.”
It was stretch to assume that he was the same man, but right now, I would surely bet on my gut.
“Do you remember anything about their conversation?” he asked after a long minute, and I wanted to roll my eyes.
“I don’t have that kind of super memory. But I do remember the tattoo clearly because I saw it quite often.”
He flipped pages after pages, slipping into the professional mode and pointed out the tiniest of details about Carlos Sanchez that I had earlier missed. It only told me that I have chosen the right man because Marco must have done this a hundred times.
“Do we have an address anywhere?” he asked, filtering through the papers and photographs.
I handed him the photocopied page of a passport. “Yeah. Here.”
“Garfield Park.” He folded the page as he rose and then tucked it into the back pocket. “Fine, I’ll look into it.”
“I am coming with you.”
“Hell no,” came the dismissal even before I could plead.
He paced towards the door, but I somehow managed to block his path. “Then I am going there alone,” I threatened and immediately realized how stupid it was. He stood there—unmoved and deadpan, and I had to try again—a little differently. “Marco, please, I can’t sit back here and keep losing my mind than I already have.”
His expression slackened after a long, thoughtful moment. “Okay. But, first, I need to go to a safe house to secure a shipment. Viktor was supposed to do that, but thanks to Sophia, the media is hounding them.”
“Of course,” I grunted.
Marco gave me a pointed look. “And you need to stay in the car. After that, we will pick up Sanchez and deal with him accordingly.”
I agreed at once and held the door open for him. “Sounds like a party I wouldn’t want to miss.”
** ** ** **
In truth, it was a party in hell. Even though I managed to match a few jumbled pieces based on suspicions, I didn’t know how to connect the dots from Carlos to the nasty, faux sex tape. At best, Marco or Dominic has to beat it out of him.
“Could they trace the original source of the video?” I asked once we were in the car, en route to some safe house. The Romanos, I knew, have every kind of arsenal in their pockets, and they wouldn’t hesitate to launch them in times like these.
“Well, they are trying. Viktor has a pet leprechaun who’s looking into it. Given the right motivation, he is quite useful.”
“Pet leprechaun?” I gave him a look. “Seriously?”
Marco’s face with scrunched up but his eyes trained were ahead. “More like a clown, but yeah, he is resourceful. How do you think we tracked down Andrew the first time without a picture or a name?”
Yes, they did, ruining all my plans at the time.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to salt old wounds. It just slipped out.”
I didn’t realize that I zoned off until I heard his soft apology. “No, no, it’s fine.” I gave a small laugh. “My life isn’t exactly a tale I would narrate in a TED talk, but I am glad where I have landed, minus the present circumstances.”
After a profound silence, my brother, not by blood or kinship and more by choice, decided to ask what seemed like a million-dollar-question. “Do you trust Dominic?”
“I do,” I replied unwaveringly, knowing the sanctity these very words’ I-do′ were going to define the rest of our lives I was fighting to defend.
Marco didn’t revert, forcing me to read between the lines. “Is there something you want to tell me?” I pressed.
He gave me a brief, hesitant glance. “The moment I saw the news, I called the club manager and had the CCTV footage sent over. Obviously, there’s no camera in the private rooms, but Sophia did enter the club late at night. They talked for a while over drinks before strolling towards the third floor.”
The sting of his information hurt. However, irrational or illogical, there was a part of me that has repeatedly chosen Dominic against all the odds. “Even then, it proves nothing. The video is utter fake,” I told him with conviction. “Maybe that’s one mistake Sophia did while fabricating the video; she forgot to work on the details.”
“I am not sure what you are talking about.”
I had to clear my throat and lower my tone. “I am going to put it mildly and say that Dominic’s version of a quickie is a lot…different.”
We had to smile at that.
“I am going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“Thank you,” I stifled a grin and turned to look outside the window as the sky began to change its colour to accommodate the arrival of the dusk.
The car came to a stop in a neighbourhood that was too quiet for the Chicago standard. Marco mirrored a similar confusion. “Stay in the car,” Marco warned again before shoving a spare gun into my hand and opened the door.
“Is something wrong?”
I knew the reply was evasive and a lie, but he was already crossing the street and advancing towards a small house. His steps were too cautious, so I had my eyes on him like a hawk and a hand on the door, just in case.
Turned out, it wasn’t enough.
A screaming screech of tires stole my attention, and in those two seconds, my world came to another crashing halt.
The black SUV charged at Marco, and before I could hurdle out of the car, it rammed into him.
I think I screamed my brother’s name, but the sound was deaf to my ears.
The car went into reverse, only this time I aimed and opened fire until the mag emptied. Even though the precision was lacking, it was enough to shatter the windows and make them flee.
Life, once again, fucked me over.
** ** ** **
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The updates are slow, I agree, but currently, I am residing in a place battered and devastated beyond imagination due to a super cyclone Amphan. The situation is beyond my reach. I hope you all will understand. Thank you for your patience.