Authors: Lili St Germain
Our fate lies in the hands of the things
we love, and sometimes the things we
love are the things that lead us to the
destruction of ourselves.
Of all the things in life, love is the most confusing. The most all-consuming. The reason we breathe, the light in our darkness.
At sixteen, love devastated me, his perfect button nose and sweet-baby smell overwhelming as my father took him from my arms and into the night. At nineteen, love saved me, a dangerous man with a heart that was determined to own mine. At twenty-nine love almost freed me … but in the end, love broke me.
I wish I could tell you that things ended differently — but I’d be lying. I don’t know if he regrets what he did, or if he’s happy, but it doesn’t matter, really.
It doesn’t change the fact that the man who loved me ended up being the same man who would destroy me.
Bogota, Colombia, December 1998
The fucker owed him money.
Emilio Ross paced across the verandah that flanked his brother’s house. Beneath him, the city of Bogota sprawled herself out in a dazzling array of lights, a city peppered with skyscrapers and lush green mountains that rose up in the distance like a protective shroud.
It was beautiful, and he couldn’t wait to fucking leave.
‘How much?’ Emilio asked, sucking on his cigar and letting the smoke leave his mouth with a humph
Julian, his younger brother, uncrossed his legs and set his snifter of brandy down beside him. ‘Thirty.’
Emilio’s fists tightened around his own brandy balloon, a hairline crack appearing in the delicate glass. ‘Thirty?’
‘It was a large shipment, boss.’
Julian always called him boss when they spoke business.
Emilio stuck his cigar between his teeth and attempted to channel a sense of calm. He was the kingpin of the Il Sangue Cartel, the goddamn owner of the coke empire that ran from the depths of Colombia all the way across the gulf, its tendrils reaching into northern California and beyond.
He was Italian mafioso —
— and when he made up his mind, axes fell, and heads rolled. Whether the thugs and mobsters he hired lived or died meant nothing to a man like Emilio Ross.
But family — ah, yes, family was different. There was an unspoken rule between the cartels of South America.
Hands off the family.
was Italian for ‘the blood’, and blood was thicker than water in the cartel. It meant something.
Il Sangue è sacra. Famiglia è sacra
. Those were the words he lived by.
If you crossed the cartel, you got a bullet, simple as that. But your family, your wife and your kids, would go unharmed. At your funeral, a cartel lackey would deliver your wife a couple of hundred bucks to get by on, maybe more if you’d been a long-time employee, and you’d have taken your last breath knowing that at least your family would be okay after you were dead and buried.
But thirty grand worth of coke was a big fuck-up. A royally big fuck-up. Because the thirty grand it cost to produce, package and ship Colombia’s finest white powder would turn into half a million dollars of pure profit by the time it hit the streets of Los Angeles and was divvied up among the small-time dealers and suppliers.
Five hundred thousand dollars in potential profit, and Marco Rodriguez had driven the goddamn truck right into the open arms of the American Drug Enforcement Administration. Emilio’s coke was in lockdown in some government warehouse, the dealers of Los Angeles were screaming for more product to fill the void, and Emilio was down half a million big ones
He cast Julian an irritated look. Julian stopped chewing on the ice cube in his mouth and let it sit on his tongue.
‘Can we get into the DEA warehouse?’ Emilio asked, already knowing the answer.
Julian shook his head, swallowing his ice. ‘Nope.’
Emilio nodded in resignation. ‘Then, you know what we need to do.’
‘Pay Marco a visit?’
Even the mention of the fucker’s name made Emilio want to smash his fists into the man until his eyeballs burst and his teeth shattered.
‘Pay Marco a visit,’ Emilio echoed his younger brother. ‘And his family,’ he added. ‘He has children, no? A wife?’
He was going to teach this fucker a lesson. A big lesson. And then he was going to shoot him and let him bleed out as punishment.
‘Three children,’ Julian said warily. ‘One wife.’
‘Good,’ Emilio said. ‘Tonight, then. We’ll pay them a little visit they won’t soon forget.’
Julian looked troubled.
‘You know what they say about extraordinary times?’ Emilio mused, puffing on his cigar again. ‘They call for extraordinary measures.’
‘You want me to fuck the family up?’ Julian asked.
‘No,’ Emilio replied, smiling so his lips stretched wide, baring his teeth. ‘Leave that to me.’
Este and I were watching fireworks in the clear night sky when the first shot rang out.
Gunshots weren’t that uncommon in Villanueva, the town where I lived. Besides, it was almost impossible to hear a gunshot amid the chaos of the fireworks that marked
Día de las Velitas
, the Celebration of Little Lights that marked the beginning of the Christmas season.
Now, when I say we were watching the fireworks, what I mean is, he had me pinned against the wall of a back alley, my dress gathered around my hips as we made fireworks of our own.
Yeah. We were totally going to get caught at any moment, but damn, did that man make me want to do things I’d never do with anyone else. His lips on mine, the sweet taste of anise and rum mixing in our mouths as we moved in a steady rhythm. I moaned into his mouth as he did something with his hips that really hit the spot. A bed would have been a little more comfortable, but despite me being nineteen my father had forbidden me from bringing my boyfriend back to the house. My father hated my boyfriend.
It just made me love Este more.
I cocked my head to the side for a moment, unsure of what I’d heard.
My heart sank as I pushed Este away from me. I knew what gunshots sounded like, and somehow, this time, I knew the bullets carried my name on them. Este looked confused, but he could obviously see the terror on my face. Instead of protesting, he tucked himself back into his jeans and buttoned up, as I panted and pulled my black sundress down to cover my thighs.
‘Baby,’ I whispered urgently, ‘someone is shooting close by, do you hear?’ At nineteen, I shouldn’t have known what gunshots sounded like, let alone been intimately acquainted with them, but I was no ordinary girl. I had been born into a life of terror and violence. Images of my father suddenly sprang forth in my mind, and my heart rate rose considerably. My father was a complicated man with a complicated life, and when I heard gunshots, it was usually because of something he had done, or something he was punishing someone else for doing.
Este ran a hand through his dark hair, curled at the ends from the humidity, as he bent to pick up the paper lantern at his feet. The candle inside flickered at the sudden movement before settling down again to a steady, even flame. I grabbed my own lantern from the ground beside me and stepped out from the darkness and relative privacy offered by a large air-conditioning unit, peering cautiously down the alleyway. The city street beyond was crowded with people focused on the bright sparks of colour that lit up the night sky.
Este pulled me closer and smiled tightly, his hazel eyes gleaming in the flickers of dim candlelight as he addressed me in Spanish. ‘
No te preocupes, amor. Probablemente es solo un idiota disparando al cielo.
’ Don’t worry, my love. It’s probably just some idiot shooting into the sky.
So long as none of the bullets rain down on us, I silently prayed.
‘Este!’ I chastised. ‘In English! Remember?’
Rolling his eyes, his easy smile soothed me, and the tension was momentarily broken. ‘Baby, you don’t finish university for another three years. We have plenty of time to practise the American language.’ He said each word in English slowly and deliberately, the words rolling off the edge of his bowed lips. Anyone could tell that it wasn’t his native tongue. Esteban hadn’t had the privilege of attending an American school like I had. Esteban hadn’t had the privilege of attending any school once he turned fifteen and had to support his family by going to work. And so, his English was faltering and his Colombian accent thick; unlike me, whose accent was merely a lilt, an intonation that I could turn off completely if required.
I shook my head defiantly. ‘We’re going to get there sooner,’ I said. ‘You’re going to get this scholarship, you’ll see.’ In my head I indulged in my fantasy briefly. I saw the beach, and a pier, and felt sand beneath my feet. I could almost taste the freedom that America offered people like me. Away from the suspicious eyes and the brutal reach of the ruthless cartels, and the meddling of my troubled father.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
My gaze cut to Este’s, and any casual hope was extinguished.
BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG.
I bristled, looking over my shoulder. The shots were getting louder.
‘We should go,’ Este said slowly, his eyes locked onto the street.
Although alarmed, I’d been holding onto the hope that the loud pops were just drunk people shooting at nothing.
When the screaming started, my heart sank. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe properly.
A trio of heavily armed men burst through the crowd at the open end of the alley and I almost fell over. They looked both fierce and bored, if that were possible. Dressed entirely in black, shirts and heavy-duty cargo pants, they held impressive-looking guns. None of the men looked Colombian. In fact, I would have guessed European, with their olive colouring. More specifically, I would have guessed Italian, because somewhere in my brain the puzzle pieces were snapping together.
My knees went weak for a moment; I choked on a breath.
I recognised them.
‘We have to get out of here,’ I said, turning and tugging on Este’s wrist. A shot rang out, much too close to me this time, and suddenly Esteban’s weight was dragging me down, down, down to the ground. I struggled to see what was going on in the darkness. Este’s lantern had fallen, the flame snuffed out, and I held up my own paper lantern to see. I choked as I watched a red stain blossoming on his chest, swiftly soaking through his bright blue t-shirt.
‘Este!’ I screamed, on my knees beside him. I took my hands and pressed them to his chest, trying to stem the flow of blood that rose and bubbled over his sides, gushing onto the slick cobblestones below us.
The shot had probably killed him instantly. That was the rational part of my mind, making an observation, and I pushed it away, horrified. No. He wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead!
Numbness swept through my chest. His glazed eyes remained open and unseeing, and an odd pallor swallowed up any colour from his bronze skin. Fuck. What could I do? How could I fix him?
Anger surged through me as I whirled around to face the bastard who had planted a bullet in the man I’d called my lover for four years. The one.
They’d killed him.
I fought a violent urge to throw up.
We were so close to getting out of this life, away from Colombia, away from my father. So fucking close.
Not close enough.
Shaking, I rose to my feet and balled my hands into fists. ‘You shot him!’ I screamed, my throat aching from the sudden exertion. My rage gave me false bravado as I rattled off a string of obscenities, some in Spanish and some in English, at the three men. They remained largely impassive as they aimed their guns at my chest.
This couldn’t be happening. I locked eyes with the middle shooter and glowered up at him.
‘Come on, tough guy!’ I yelled, pressing my chest against the barrel of his assault rifle. ‘You gonna shoot me, too? Go ahead, pull that fucking trigger,
. What the hell are you waiting for?’
For a moment I thought he might, until he raised the butt of his rifle and brought it down onto my skull with a loud crack. Stars swam in my vision and I crumpled to the floor like a rag doll.
Everything faded around me in slow motion as I melted, unwillingly, into an abyss that was made up only of darkness and agonising pain.
They’d killed him.
And nothing would ever be the same again.