Angel watched the guard approach with the manila envelope full of his possessions. Release day. Two months ago, Angel would’ve expected this to be the happiest day of his life. Now, getting out of prison was somewhat tainted by the fear of imminent death. He knew that Rima and her people had done everything they could to minimize the danger. But minimizing danger and being safe were not the same.
Rima had visited him for six weeks. She played the part of a prisoner’s advocate who had fallen for him, and Angel had told everyone who would listen that he had seduced a stupid blonde with stories of his impoverished past. The guys in the cellblock thought it was hilarious that a gay man had seduced a straight woman. But behind closed doors, Angel and Rima practiced incantations.
And now Angel was about to go out into the real world with a shaky understanding of incantations, a serious lack of any magical artifacts to provide power, and a whole lot of hope that he didn’t get himself dead. Hands down, this was the stupidest scheme he had ever gotten involved in.
“Sign here.” The guard shoved a clipboard at Angel. Angel didn’t bother checking his possessions. What was the point? If one of the guards had stolen something, it wasn’t like Angel was going to stick around and file a complaint. It was time to get the hell out of Dodge. So he signed the paper, folded the envelope over, and shoved it in his back pocket.
“Try to stay out of here,” one guard suggested. He handed Angel the release-plan paperwork Angel had done in the past couple of weeks. He had a city map, a one-day pass for the bus system, and a description of the rules for a local homeless shelter that would take him. It was more than a lot of folks got when they got released, but Angel refused to act grateful for a few crumbs.
Angel was sorely tempted to tell the man off. After all, Angel was a free man. The guards couldn’t write him up for his attitude. No more showering with fifty other convicts or sleeping on a paper-thin mattress. Angel might even give up crime and find a real job to avoid this place.
Instead of mouthing off, Angel kept his attention on the final door that led outside. Freedom. And if the feds knew their business—right into a new type of prison. Angel generally didn’t pray. He disliked the hypocrisy of asking God to help him when Angel ignored so many parts of the Bible, but he sent up a quick prayer this time. He actually meant it when he told the Lord that he’d try to break fewer commandments if God would make everyone ignore him. That was all he wanted.
He finished his prayer as he passed the last guard at the gate and officially walked into the free world. The sky was gray, and rows of lumpy clouds filled the sky as he walked along the outside of the prison building. Tall concrete walls, razor wire, and cameras marked the edge of hell, and cars sped past.
Angel passed a couple of guys who were either homeless or down on their luck. They sat on a concrete bench under a tree and played cards, laying hands out between them. For a second, Angel flashed to an image of him, Mario, Tree, and Darek sitting around the concrete tables in the common room doing exactly the same thing. No fucking way would Angel waste his freedom doing the same shit he could do on the inside. It was time to live.
He had the address for the homeless shelter, but fuck that. If the mafia was watching, he couldn’t stop them. But it was time for him to start making his own plans, and that meant connecting up with a few people from the neighborhood. Maybe someone had a shipment going out of town. If he could hitch a ride with some drugs going out west, he might be able to lose himself in a new city. He’d never been west of Pittsburg, so maybe it was time to explore the country.
And as a bonus, if Angel didn’t know where he was going, there was far less chance that anyone else would be able to predict his movements. He felt a slight twinge of guilt about vanishing on Rima, but she was a capable federal agent, and she could find another piece of bait.
Besides, she claimed that he was useful only if the mafia targeted him, but that she didn’t want him to try to catch anyone’s attention. So he was taking that one step further. He would avoid attention by being in another state. If he could swing it, he’d go to another country, but he couldn’t speak Spanish well enough to hold his own against native speakers, and being a foreigner would make him a vulnerable target.
Once Angel made that decision, he felt a hell of a lot better. Fucking FBI, fucking mafia—they could go fuck themselves. With a bounce in his step, he headed down the street in search of a bus stop.
* * * *
After three different stops, Angel had to admit that he had a problem. Mike didn’t work at the auto shop anymore, Duane was in jail, and now Raoul seemed uniquely uninterested in renewing a friendship. Angel suspected the girlfriend nattering on in the background had something to do with that. Angel couldn’t blame any of them. Before, Angel brought something valuable to the table. He had money, friends, and contacts. He knew where to sell stolen goods and which pawn shops spent a little too much time helping the cops.
Now he was one more ex-con looking for favors.
Angel could still smell the damp concrete and the stink of men, although he’d walked away from the prison building. There were a few more people Angel could try, but these three had been his best options. These were the men he’d grown up with, that he’d let crash on his couch, that he’d picked up off the floor when they were drunk. And they didn’t have five minutes for him.
No wonder Angel hated people. Angel’s phone had been in the manila envelope, but the battery was dead, and he couldn’t get to any of his contacts. Even if he found a place that carried new batteries or new phones, he couldn’t afford to buy one. Angel wondered if he could con the feds out of a few hundred dollars.
The humidity was thick, and Angel stopped in the shade and leaned against a wall that separated Raoul’s apartment parking lot from the sidewalk. A tree was trying to come up between the two concrete slabs. Angel felt like ripping it out by the roots, but he was too hot and sweaty to bother. Shit. Angel might need to steal to get his feet under him.
A few couples wandered through the area, but the heat had driven most people inside. That was why the guy walking purposefully across the street stood out. Maybe he planned to visit someone in the same complex where Raoul lived, but Angel’s gut told him that trouble was coming. Angel didn’t even have a knife to defend himself, so he turned and walked briskly. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but a moving target was always harder to hit.
The man altered his course, and now Angel knew he was in deep shit. The guy looked like a manual laborer, unshaven with a thick body and obvious muscles hidden under the loose gray T-shirt and unfashionable fat. Chances were that Angel couldn’t take him in a fight. So evasion offered the best escape.
Angel headed toward the bus line. If he could get on a city bus, he’d have witnesses and surveillance on his side. When Angel turned the corner, he could see his follower was closing the distance. Angel walked a little faster. A large van pulled out in front of him, and Angel nearly ran right into the side. He slapped his hands against the hot van to avoid slamming his face into it.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” the driver screamed out the window.
“Fuck off!” Angel added a middle finger, but before he could hurry around it, the man behind him had caught up.
Up close, Angel could see the weathered skin even though the man couldn’t be older than midforties. And he was huge. Angel’s genetics were on the Native side rather than the Spanish side of the Mexican gene pool. He was wiry, short, and dark skinned. This guy was as white as French bread and a good six feet. Now that they were in close quarters, running would put Angel at a bigger disadvantage. While Angel didn’t have a knife, he did have a shit-ton of ways to play dirty in a fight. Other men might avoid testicles, but Angel considered them fair game in love and war.
“Angel Zamora?” The accent was Brooklyn or something else working-class New Yorkish.
“Do I know you?” Angel stepped to the left so he could use the painted brick wall to cover his side.
The smile the man offered was like a shark’s—toothy and full of threat. “We have a mutual friend who’d like to see you.”
“Then he can come see me.”
“Or you can come with me.”
A couple came walking down the street, and both Angel and his follower offered polite nods. So neither of them wanted cops involved. That wasn’t a good sign. The man had used the couple’s appearance to move closer to Angel, and when they passed, he threw his arm around Angel’s shoulders. Angel started to shove him away. Then he felt the hard metal press into his side. Angel froze. When he looked down, the stranger had the muzzle of his gun thrust against Angel.
That changed the game. “I don’t want any trouble,” Angel said. And as long as he was unarmed, he even meant it.
“Then don’t make any. Our friend simply wants to have a conversation.” The man pulled Angel closer and leaned back against the wall. To anyone passing by, they’d probably look like a loving couple taking a moment’s privacy on a fairly quiet street to catch a quick grope and tickle. Angel couldn’t count on anyone realizing there was serious trouble, and he couldn’t fight back with a gun pointed at him.
“I don’t know who you think I am, but trust me, I am not important enough to bother with.”
“It’s sad you would say that. My employer believes that you have great potential. Trust me, this is an opportunity for you.” The shark smile reappeared, and beads of sweat ran down Angel’s spine.
Angel glanced down toward the muzzle of the gun. A wound there would make for a slow and sloppy death. “Opportunity
isn’t the first word coming to mind here.”
“Give the boss a chance. He’s got a lot riding on getting you to join up.”
Angel started to argue, but the stranger grabbed Angel’s arm and squeezed hard enough to leave a bruise. He got the hint and shut up. He needed to play nice until he could kill this fucker. Never before had he even considered killing someone, but necessity was the mother of invention, and he was imagining all sorts of ways to gut this son of a bitch.
A black van, one of those SUV-style behemoths that could fit a whole team of little leaguers, pulled up, and the man pushed Angel toward the side door. “If you don’t like the sales pitch, I’ll give you a ride back here,” he said. The door slid open, and the bastard shoved Angel inside and toward the rear where there was a third row of seats. Knowing he couldn’t fight, Angel sat as the gunman closed the door and sat in the middle row. He’d put the gun away now, but the threat hadn’t diminished.
“Why do I doubt that?” Angel asked as the driver pulled away from the curb. The whole kidnapping had taken under a minute.
“You’re too young to be this cynical.”
“I’m too old to be naive,” Angel countered.
The man nodded. “Prison does that. So, how long have you been out?”
Angel crossed his arms. Now the asshole wanted to play nice. That would have worked better without the kidnapping. “If I had a watch or a cell phone that still worked, I’d let you know.”
The man looked down at his watch. “It’s almost four.”
“Then I guess I was
free for about three hours.” Angel wasn’t going to play games and call this anything other than being captured.
The man laughed. “You’re a negative guy.”
“I think of it as realistic. So, now that you have me here, where are we going and who are we meeting?”
“Does it matter?”
“To my cooperation? No. As long as you have a gun and I don’t, I plan to be exceptionally cooperative.”
The man reached back and slapped Angel’s knee like they were old friends. “I like your attitude.”
“Stick around. You’ll change your mind.”
“Just make sure you’re respectful of the boss.”
“And who might the boss be?”
The man gave Angel a hard look, all humor gone. With the masks dropped, Angel could see the danger in that gaze. This was someone who knew how to kill and was calculating the odds that he was going to put a bullet in the back of Angel’s head and dump the body. “The boss,” he said. The hardness of the words made it clear that Angel had better agree, or the situation was going to go downhill quickly.
“Boss. Right,” Angel said with a sigh. He had to stay quiet long enough to find his way free of these fuckers. But on the bright side, prison had taught him to smile and play along. He could sing a chorus of yes, sirs
without blinking an eye, and Angel suspected he might need that ability. He could only hope that Rima had the sort of skills she’d bragged about, because he was up shit creek, and as much as he hated admitting it, the FBI might be his only lifeline.