“Where are our friends?” She made emphasis on the last word.
“They’re all around us.” Ninel smiled, confirming Pudica’s suspicions on the guests’ identities.
The Fanjul women should have been nervous unless their composure meant they normally dealt with these culprits. But who relaxed with criminals if not lawbreakers themselves? Coming to Florida might have not been the best idea. The more minutes passed in the backyard, the least safe it became.
Pudica glanced toward the bar. Uncle Robert had been drinking the same cocktail since he sat on the stool. She was glad to see a trusting face but she would have felt safer with Oliver.
“How’re you liking the celebration in your honor?” asked Mrs. Fanjul.
“It’s overwhelming in a good way.” Pudica faked a smile. “Didn’t think it’d be these many people since you said it was a family and friends thing.”
“Oh.” The girl frowned.
A waiter interrupted the conversation to show them a round tray of cheesy appetizers. The nearby spectators attacked the food.
“Delicious.” Ninel chewed and aimed a treat at Pudica.
“I haven’t seen you eat. Something wrong?” Mrs. Fanjul addressed Pudica’s decline.
“Uh, I’m just not hungry,” replied Pudica.
The big man swallowed a last piece and addressed her. “You should still eat.” He sucked on his fingers. “In some cultures it’s rude to turn down food.”
“In my eyes, this is great. For once, I applaud you for starting a diet,” said Ninel.
Pudica sighed at her sister’s impolite praise, but losing weight was a great excuse, so she replied, “Thank you. It hasn’t been easy.”
“If you puke, you can eat all you want,” said Yali.
“Ay, Dios, don’t talk about gross stuff,” Mrs. Fanjul reprimanded her daughter.
Pudica winced at the most dysfunctional family she had met. Even if they were the nicest people on Earth, she wanted nothing to do with them. When the imaginary clock handles move, she would pack her belongings and speed out of Palm Beach with her husband.
The mansion’s butler presented another tray. This one had a yellow beverage and a letter beside it.
“Mrs. Fanjul, at your request, I’ve brought you the envelope at a quarter to eight.”
Yolanda picked up the contents and brandished her hand at him. “All right, Gut, I’ll call you if a problem arises.”
The half-sister yanked the letter from her mother’s hand and ripped its corner. Pudica panned at the guests to see if they were as dumbfounded as she was.
“So?” Mrs. Fanjul addressed her daughter.
Ninel scrutinized the document then nodded at her mother with a smirk. Mrs. Fanjul lowered her chin, sending Pudica a menacing look.
“How I wish Francisco was here, so I can shove this paper in his mouth,” said Mrs. Fanjul.
“What’s that?” asked Pudica.
The angered widow grabbed the page from Ninel’s hand and shoved it against Pudica’s chest. “That money does not belong to you.”
The girl flattened the sheet which had an official seal, and signatures printed everywhere. It comprised a table with letters and numbers under the word “results,” capitalized. At the bottom, a paragraph summarized the contents with a prominent sentence:
Probability of paternity is zero percent.
“This can’t be real.” She searched for signs of deceit within the faces of the crowd. Upbeat music played, but no one danced.
“It’s a legal document, so yeah, it’s legit,” Ninel said mockingly.
“It proves your mother was a gold-digging whore,” said Mrs. Fanjul. “I knew it the moment she showed up at Ninel’s quinceañera with you, begging Francisco to buy you shoes.”
It couldn’t be true. Mr. Fanjul being Pudica’s dad was just as the sky is blue and the Earth orbits the Sun. Melba and Betsy gained nothing from lying to her about her father.
“You’re making this up.” Pudica crumpled the paper and tossed it at Mrs. Fanjul.
The middle-aged woman grunted, prompting her daughter to swing her palm at Pudica’s face. A defenseless Pudica staggered to the side but kept her balance. She held her stinging cheek in astonishment.
“I foretold your reaction, so Ninel, here, came up with this party to lighten the mood.” Mrs. Fanjul and her daughters cackled, making the men laugh.
Smooching sounds broke the woman’s speech. Pudica turned right.
“What did I miss, mi amor?” A bald man devoured Ninel’s lips inappropriately. His saliva ran down the side of the lover’s mouth.
The beginnings of a mustache and beard covered his jaw area, but Pudica recognized his accent and mannerisms as the Cuban gangster who kidnapped her at the grocery store. His two associates walked behind him.
Where’s Robert? Pudica dashed toward the bar, but her uncle wasn’t there. The fat one pulled her elbows behind her back and hauled her back to the Fanjuls.
“Pudica, meet my husband, Yoandre Zayas,” said Ninel, pointing five fingers at the bald man.
“Let me guess. His friends’ names also start with `Y.’” Faking bravery, Pudica spat on Ninel’s chest. Sweat caught in the zipper of her dress. Her insides wanted to break free from her body.
“You still think this is a game?” Ninel wiped herself and whisked her hand at her husband.
Yoandre flung his fist at Pudica’s left temple, catapulting her over the fat man. Before her eyelids surrendered, Mrs. Fanjul’s heels crushed the DNA test results.
Dim light flickered once. Dry blood below Pudica’s eyebrows added to the arduous job of opening her eyes. Fingers and toes wiggled, checking for functioning limbs. No more muscles twitched as she watched Ninel’s bare feet barge through a door. Her husband’s boots left mud particles on the carpet.
“Te ayudé porque te amo, coño, pero te volviste loca.” The man paced in front of a desk.
Pudica took short, quiet breaths and closed her eyes.
“I’ve given you everything you want. I told Papi to make you his right hand, and this is how you thank me.” Something clinked when Ninel threw a small object across the room.
“Hey, those earrings cost me more than a fucking house.” Yoandre shouted, stomping on the beige carpet. “Did you not hear me? I’ll say it in English for you. I helped you because I love you, but you’ve gone crazy.”
“You’ve done terrible things for less when you were a low level rat, Yoandre.”
“Yes, credit card fraud, white-collar crimes, but I ain’t never killed a bitch.”
“Pay our bodyguards to do it.” Ninel walked closer to Pudica’s torso. “Look at her. You already knocked her out. It’s not like you have to chase her. One bullet in the forehead, dump her in the Everglades, done deal.”
Pudica’s body quivered unwittingly. They were debating her fate in front of her and she couldn’t call for help.
“Did you forget if she dies, Oliver Darling gets everything? You know we’re not really from the Cuban mafia, right?” said Yoandre.
A third set of footsteps scurried into the room. Yolanda mewled nervously, circling the immobile body.
“What do we do? We killed her,” she said. “Betsy was about to go downstairs and Gut stopped her. What if she wants to check on Robert or Poopoo?”
“Shut up, Yolanda. Pudica’s not dead, for now,” said her daughter, turning back to Yoandre. “Let’s take care of her husband, first, then. He got the COVID, so it should be easy. We can poison him.”
“Saint Mary of Charity!” Mrs. Fanjul gasped.
“You’re mental,” said Yoandre.
“Me? Mental!” Ninel screamed. “I’ve been working my ass off while you bathe in my money. I had to burn their house and do a drive-by shooting all by myself because you and your dickless friends were too scared to do it.”
There was a silence, then a quick rubbing of carpeted flooring.
“I—I might—I might have an idea.” The women followed Yoandre outside.
With no squandered minutes, Pudica stumbled up and hurried toward a glass window. She tried unlocking it and sliding the panel, but the thing stood in place.
Tunnel vision worsened with tottering. She approached the desk, bestrewing its surface with objects. The picture frame wasn’t heavy enough to break the glass. The pens were too small.
Within the contents of the drawers, there had to be something sharp, so she scavenged through them like a hound. As she swept documents aside, she discovered an opened envelope with Betsy’s name on it.
The girl straightened her back and stood still for too long. She didn’t forget about her captors, yet the envelope might contain answers.
I should have penned this letter two decades ago, but you must forgive me as I was a man enveloped by jealousy. Here, in my office, the walls carry your tears as you said you were pregnant. I thought you’d finally forget Robert and stay with me. I was ready to leave my wife and give you everything you’ve always wanted. Then you told me you loved your husband and I just—God! I had all these things to tell you, but remembering burns my skin alive.
I still love you, Betsy. Please, believe me. Have that in mind while you read this.
Through my dealings, I’ve gained several grateful acquaintances. One of them worked at the hospital where you gave birth. They took a blood sample from your baby, whom I strongly felt was mine. The day I got the results, I tried drinking myself to death. I was angry, but I couldn’t hate you. I longed for you to be with me, but I wanted you to suffer, so I kept quiet.
Now, I’m getting old, and flashes of my fatherless youth haunt me. Señor Fanjul, is what they called him; it’s all I got from multiple trips to Cuba to find him. If he would’ve stayed, I would’ve been a better man.
I thought about your little girl while I raised Yolanda’s daughters. The woman’s never been sincere, but I’ve always known not even Ninel has my blood.
You can tell Melba, just as she found her peace, I’m looking for mine, hence I write to inform you, Pudica is Robert’s daughter and not a Fanjul. You deserve the truth and she, a father.
Nothing I do will God see as redemption, but if I can make you both a little happy, I am meeting with a lawyer tomorrow to craft a new will and testament which ensures Pudica receives my estate upon my death.
Forgive me, my dear, for never letting you go.
I will love you, always,
Pudica fell on the desk chair behind her and popped off her high heels. She folded the letter five times and slipped it under her bra. An image of Robert’s face ingrained in her mind. She had to tell him, or at least tell somebody before she met her gruesome end. Under a deep breath, her shadow loomed over the door and she bolted out of the office.
Luckily, only Gut saw her in the hall, and he was too old to go after her. Her toe kicked the edge of the staircase, and despite the pain, she kept running. The butler had assigned the first bedroom to Betsy and Robert. As she found it empty, she went into the next one and locked the doorknob.
Thank goodness. Oliver was still on the bed. Ninel talked about poisoning him. Pudica listened for his heart and ensured his nostrils expelled warm air. The temperature of his body was hotter than when she left him to rest.
“Ollie.” She tried to awake him.
Then someone called from behind the door. “Come out peacefully and we’ll let your family live,” Ninel said in a soft tone.
Pudica saw herself lost for solutions. Ninel’s promise to leave her family alone was a lie. Something terrible had happened to Betsy and Robert, she was certain.
It was over for her and Oliver, but she couldn’t die before her last confession.