I got held up at work on that Friday. Usually, I worked only until four instead of seven, but this time, there was an emergency with the tablecloth for a small wedding Wayla was managing that night, and I had to make sure a true crisis would be avoided.
It was close to six when I finally got my exhausted ass out of work and took the tram home. Peter had texted me earlier that he would be back later tonight, since he had a group study with some of his classmates until late for the upcoming finals, and so I was looking forward to an empty apartment and a nice, quiet evening to take my head off of everything.
But the moment I walked down the street that would lead me to my apartment building and saw the familiar silhouette of a man leaning against the street light right outside the entrance door, I knew that all of my plans were about to go down the drain.
Stopping a few feet away from the man, I fought for composure and said, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
Diego straightened and turned to face me. He was wearing a trench coat again, paired with jeans and combat boots. His dark brown hair was wildly tousled over his head, he had a few-days stubble, and his dark eyes were peering at me with determination. “I’m here to talk,” he said, “got your address from Oz, the guy I apparently told you to call even though I can’t remember it. Tried to come up to your apartment first, but nobody was home, so I chose to wait here.”
It was if he tried to cover any and all questions I had about his sudden appearance here, which only served to piss me off. “You’re lucky my brother wasn’t home,” I hissed, “he would’ve castrated you if he’d caught sight of you.” And also me, since I didn’t tell him I’d encountered Diego again in that wine shop. Because Peter might’ve kept his promise not to tell Patrick about my saving Diego the other night, but he would’ve told him that, and I didn’t want to have a row with either of them.
Diego didn’t like to hear that, I knew, because his eyes flashed with temper. However, he seemed to hold back his tongue and said instead, “Let’s go somewhere else, then.”
My rage lurched up with such a force, I almost staggered. “I’m not going anywhere with you,” I said vehemently, “in fact, I don’t want to talk to you. Didn’t you listen when I said we should pretend like we barely know each other?” And wasn’t that an irony, considering I didn’t know anything about Diego at all. I’d thought I was beginning to understand him after what had happened in Connecticut, but, like the time that had come before, I was proven to be wrong about everything.
He studied me for a few moments, and then said, “It seems that we do need to talk, whether you want to or not.”
I swear I growled at that. “Don’t you try to dictate what I should or shouldn’t do!” I snapped. “It’s not up to you to decide!”
He was suddenly in my space, only a few inches away, his tall, muscular body looming over me. “Are you still in love with me?”
Everything stopped. I stood there, freezing, my eyes round with shock, my mouth agape. Even my heart was quiet, as if it stopped beating. “What?” I somehow uttered out.
His eyes narrowed and he stepped closer to me. “I asked,” he said quietly, “if you are still in love with me.”
The nerve… The fucking nerve of this guy… “What the fuck, Rivero?!” I sniped, disbelief coating my voice. “In love with you? Me?! When have I ever been in love with you, you fucking asshole?!”
A sudden grin spread through his face. “God, I missed you,” he said in a low murmur, and took another step toward me.
But enough was enough. I stepped back from him, shaking my head. “You stay right there or I’m leaving.”
He stopped. “Does that mean we’re going to have that talk now, or do you simply want me to assume you still harbor feelings for me after all this time?”
My anger spiked again. “I don’t know what feelings you’re talking about,” I lied almost too easily, “and I don’t see what’s there for us to even talk about - “
“I wanted to protect you.”
His voice was grave, dead-serious, and it made me close my mouth. His eyes looked at me with somberness I had never seen in them before, and as if a switch was turned off inside me, my anger, my rage, were all pushed aside. “I don’t understand,” I said, my voice blank.
He gave me a pointed look. “Are you ready to talk now?”
I knew it was a bad idea, that I should’ve said no and gone back home to that quiet, relaxing evening I’d planned for myself, but this… Imagine dreaming about something, yearning for it for so many years, and then, out of the blue, you’re finally presented with it on a silver platter. You know it’s not good for you, you know it’s the worst decision you could ever make, but you have to have it, just so that stupid yearning would finally, blessfully disappear.
And so I gave him a muted nod, my stomach filled now with both dread and an insummerable amount of thirst for answers that had to be pushed away to the back of my mind for far too long.
We’d stopped by a juice bar, where I got myself my favorite oreo bubble tea, while Diego got some black coffee for himself. We were quiet as we did that, paying separately, and no were were here, sitting on a bench in an empty playground a few blocks away from my apartment.
There was a charged silence between us now that we were alone, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be the one to break it. He was the one who’d insisted on having this walk, so he should be the one to start it.
And eventually, after I’d already drunk a third of my bubble tea, he finally did. “Do you remember that I told you my family moved from San Francisco to Queens when I was seventeen?”
I tensed, my eyes planted on the swings, and forced myself to relax. “Yes.”
From the corner of my eyes, I saw him leaning back against the bench, getting comfortable. “There was a reason for that.”
Glancing at him, I saw he was staring straight ahead, sipping his coffee, his eyes distant, as if he was recalling certain memories he didn’t really want to recall. “When I was fifteen, much like your younger brother, I got myself into some serious illegal shit with the bad sort of people.”
I returned my gaze to the swings, feeling my heart beating more quickly than before.
He continued. “I was an angry kid,” he said, voice low and somber. “My life was shit, so I chose to rebel in all the wrong ways. I joined a group of kids who were mixed in that shit, and they got me through to the ringleader of the area. And so I started earning money by doing deliveries, much like your brother did with his friend.
“But I only did that for a couple of months before the ringleader decided I was meant for greater things than that,” his voice turned dark, heavy. “I’ve always been athletic, liked to play sports and keep myself in shape, and at fifteen, I already finished growing to my full height, and already looked older than the seniors in my high school. The ringleader believed I should start doing dirtier work for him with the promise of a better pay.”
He paused, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Did you get paid?”
When he didn’t reply, I glanced at him, and saw his eyes were on me, full of those shadows I remembered seeing all those years ago. “I did get paid better,” he said quietly, “but the things I had to do to get paid… They were not good.”
I could only imagine what he meant by that. He didn’t elaborate, though, and returned his gaze ahead. “Two years I was in that shady shit. It affected my studies. It affected my entire life. When I wanted out, the ringleader threatened to go after my family. He didn’t want to lose me, you see. I was his best fighter. I always got the job done. Always.”
The bitterness in his voice was not lost on me. “So how did you get out?”
He didn’t answer for a few long moments, in which I thought he might’ve regretted telling me anything at all, when he said in a flat, monotonous voice, “I told my dad. He got my family packing and we moved to the other side of the country. To Queens.”
There was more to it, I could tell, but Diego was already moving on. “But those people have connections everywhere, and in the major cities, they have their bases. San Francisco was one, NYC was another, and there are Seattle, Chicago, Houston, Boston… You get the idea.” He took a deep breath. “The NYC ringleader was informed of my arrival to his turf. He tried to get me to work for him, but I declined the invitation, and he let me be.”
“That easily?” I blurted the question before I could stop myself, turning to look at him.
He gazed back at me. “Yeah, that easily,” he said with humorless half a smile. “I was still, technically, the San Francisco ringleader’s property. These people might be a lot of things, but they believe in honor. The NYC ringleader didn’t get a clear agreement from the SF one to have me, and he could only try and persuade me to join him instead, because then he could appeal to have me in his folds in a way that won’t piss off the other one.”
It was so sick and convoluted. “Sounds complicated.”
“Everything about that world is,” Diego said, and he suddenly straightened and looked straight into my eyes. “What happened almost six years ago… I had to play the part of the boy I once was, the cocky, cold prick who didn’t know any better. I had to do that, if I had even the smallest chance to get you and your brother out of there.”
I still had nightmares about that day. Nightmares that haunted me almost every night, in which Diego had the starring role.
He went silent, simply staring at my eyes, as if he was searching for something. But I didn’t know what to feel, what to say. I’d suspected that he’d been involved in all that dark shit, but he’d never actually told me anything, never confirmed it.
“Get out of my room.”
“Why didn’t you tell me anything back then?” I asked, steeling myself against the slam-down that was to come. Because there was a limit to how much Diego could share, and there was a limit to how open he could be with me. I’d learned my lesson, after all. I would be protected against his shut-down. My defenses were the size of America nowadays, and I had no problem erecting them all around me, preparing to flee, to run, to hide.
It was as if he sensed it, because he did the complete opposite. “I knew they would come after me,” he said, voice deeper than before, his eyes locking mine in an unbreakable hold. “They weren’t done with me, not by a long shot. I didn’t just ‘steal’ their property, I also got out of it mostly unscathed legally, and brought the police on their tale. A few of their men got arrested, too. There was no way they would’ve let me off the hook after stirring so much trouble for them.”
My blood ran cold. “Did you join them?”
He gave me a bitter smile. “I did something worse. I spent all of my money, all my savings, to help them get out of the trouble they got in because of me. It meant they could start over doing all the horrible things they did, but at least I was free, right?”
I was shaking now. The small shadows in the stalls of the barn were imprinted in my head. The bodies Patrick had told me about… bodies of children… “Child trafficking,” I bit out the term, wrapping the coat closer around me.
“Yes,” Diego said, his voice cold with anger that I knew was self-directed, “among other things.”
There was silence as we looked at each other, and when I could finally breathe without the threat of breaking apart, I said, “It doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell me.”
“Didn’t you figure it out?” he said, his face suddenly thunderous. “They would’ve come after you, too. Peter was just a new property; they would’ve let him off the hook since he was just a kid. But you…” he took in a deep breath and looked away. “You don’t know what they would’ve done to you.”
“This woman is mine. You know what it means.”
“You’d told them I was your woman,” I recalled, shivering now.
He said nothing, simply nodded curtly. His eyes were gazing ahead, his jaw locked in tight anger.
I understood now what he meant. If I stayed around him, I would’ve become a target. But it didn’t explain everything. “You could’ve told me,” I said quietly, “you could’ve explained. I would’ve understood and left you on my own accord.
He said nothing still, and that made me angry. “You didn’t have to push me away and treat me like a piece of trash who meant absolutely nothing to you,” I said, my voice turning angry, “you didn’t have to leave Boston to get me to stay away - “
“I didn’t leave Boston because of that,” he cut me off flatly. “After I paid the guys, the Boston ringleader made contact with me. Threatened me that I wouldn’t be welcome in the city unless I either paid or worked for him. Since I didn’t want to do either, I had to leave.”
Fucking shit. “Where did you go?” I asked, my hands clenched into fists, so angry about the whole thing.
“Costa Rica,” he said, grimacing. “I had to get out of the country, because I knew I would be hounded no matter where I went, and I have relatives there. Finished my Master’s online from there, too.”
My God, but, despite everything, I felt for him. This was some sick shit. “You should’ve still told me,” I said, but I felt defeated now. What was the point of my rage toward Diego, if he’d had to go through all this? Yes, he should’ve told me, but if I had to be honest with myself for one moment and put myself in his shoes, would I have dont the same thing? If it was Peter who was in danger because of me, wouldn’t I have pushed him away, made sure he resented me, to make him stay away and not come after me? Not reach out for me?
And the ugly answer was yes. I would’ve done the same thing. And it just made me feel worse than before.
“I think you get why I didn’t, though,” Diego said, and our eyes met again. His were dark and full of bitterness, while mine were just… sad. “I couldn’t risk you getting hurt. I couldn’t risk you being more traumatized than you already were.”
So you went and gave me a different kind of trauma instead, I thought dejectedly, but out loud said, “So why are you here now?”
Diego smiled again, but it didn’t reach his eye. “You know why.”
Then it hit me. He was the co-founder of Workeen, along with Marco Suarez. But it just begged a whole lot of questions, and I had a feeling it was a can of worms that shouldn’t be opened. But one question was important for me to know. “The night I found you in that alley.”
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said quietly, looking away again, sipping his coffee before he continued. “Nano, the ringleader, caught sight of me a few days after I landed in Boston for the first time since I left. He and thirty others ganged up on me. Wanted to teach me a lesson.” He leaned back against the bench. “He didn’t care about me or my money; he doesn’t even know I have more than I used to, the fucker. His pride was hurt when I left, refusing his offer to join him, and that was his way to make amends.”
“But you could handle yourself in a fight,” I said, frowning, “I remember everything that happened in that fucking barn. You took on at least eight guards and the ringleader.”
“There’s a limit to what I can do,” he said with a grimace. “Ten was stretching it as it was, but back then, I was ready for the fight. I knew they were coming for me. That night, they ambushed me, thirty against one, and there was no way for me to get out of this on my own.”
He fell silent, and I did, too, trying to process everything. It seemed he’d given me my long overdue answers, answers I’d been craving to have, and the result was cold numbness. As if by gaining what I wanted, I also lost something, but I had no idea what it was.
Something else occurred to me. “Why Jack?” I asked, turning to look at him again.
He finished his coffee. “Short for Crackerjack,” he said, rising to his feet, “from the same family as Jack-of-all-trades.”
Slowly, I rose to my feet, too. “And Rios?” I asked, taking the last sip of my bubble tea.
He turned to me and gave me a small smile, the first true smile he’d given me in the past hour. “I think you know enough about me for now,” he said, and there was gentleness in his voice that hadn’t been there before. As if he was feeling somewhat exposed and naked by the whole conversation.
Which, for someone who never opened to anyone, probably, and least of all to me, must’ve been uncomfortable, to say the least. But, at least… He didn’t shut me out, like he’d done six years ago. He simply let me know that sharing time was over, and I respected that.
Taking a deep breath, I looked into his eyes and said, “Thank you for telling me.” Even though it was six years later.
His smile disappeared and he simply nodded, his face grave. “You deserved to know.”
There was a short silence before I asked, “Are Peter and I safe now?”
His eyes filled with an unnamed emotion. “Yeah.”
I nodded to him, then looked away, feeling a little awkward now that this little chat had come to an end. There was a gazillion more questions that ran through my head, but none of them were relevant anymore. Diego had explained what he felt was necessary to explain, I had listened to him, end of story. Hell, even my life debt to him was paid.
As for the rest of it all... maybe I would finally be able to let go.