All warnings, disclaimer, thanks, and so forth can be found in the first couple installments. No need for redundant redundancy. Should anyone get a hankerin to communicate on this here story (eeep!) for any reason, feel free to contact me at: email@example.com
In the bedroom of the guest apartment, Jennifer sat bent at the waist on the edge of her narrow cot and vigorously toweled dry her damp hair.
The shower had been pure bliss. It hadnt occurred to her how much shed been craving just such a refresher until the first blast of hot water had rolled across her face and shed felt nearly weak in the knees at the glorious sensation. It had also served to bring home how utterly exhausted she was. Shed been running on instinct and adrenaline for darn near 48 hours now and with this opportunity to fully relax came, too, the recognition that she was drained. She wasnt used to any of this. What did she know of Latino gangs and dropping from two story windows and hanging out in random convents for safekeeping? Good grief. If anyone had told her beforehand the events of these past two days she would have...would have...what? Not come? Called Father Hector to tell him hed made a mistake? Left Resa alone in the apartment to fend for herself as shed been instructed?
She paused. No. Being totally honest with herself she realized, in fact, if the Fates granted her the gift of definitive foresight about these two days past she would have changed nothing...okay, maybe the getting shot at part she would have eliminated, but really nothing other than that. The truth of the matter was these past two days had been the most exciting of her life and, as crazy as it seemed, a part of her was having...fun. So much so that deep within her sparked a quiet yet irrefutable voice that longed for more.
She sat up quickly and flipped her long hair back, fitting the towel between her shoulders and the slightly wet tresses. Oh, God, that was just nuts. She was running for her life; by all rights she should be a bundle of distress and neuroses.
Yet she wasnt.
And she knew the lions share of responsibility for this lay with her companion throughout these misadventures. Resa Gustavez made her feel protected. Safe. When Jennifer reflected on the events in the abstract, she wondered at herself for this bit of outlandish confidence she placed in a woman about whom she knew so little. Yet still it felt like the most natural course of action. Logically she knew she should have gone to the police long ago but Resas reasoning was grounded in common street sense and to that she would defer. Many would not understand and indeed even she had to admit her behavior since her meeting with the charismatic Father Hector had been highly unusual. Perhaps thats why Im having such a good time, she reflected with a perverted sense of self-awareness. It made her smile.
Through the closed bathroom door linked to the bedroom she heard the muffled sound of the shower shut off and the faint click of the shower door opening. Resa was done.
Upon being escorted to the visitor quarters by the ever hostile Sister Stephanie, the first thing both women did was flip a coin for dibs on the shower. Even though Jennifer was almost dead certain shed lost the toss, Resa insisted otherwise, thus allowing the younger woman to go ahead of her. It was behavior such as this that made her admiration for the former gang leader grow. Yesterday she told herself shed liked Resa even though she didnt quite know why; now she knew what before shed sensed and was pleased shed decided to stay with the injured woman when reason dictated -- no, screamed -- she should have left without a look back.
The bathroom door opened and Resa emerged. Jennifer tossed a glance over at her then did a double-take which she probably would have found amusing had she even been aware shed done it.
The former gang leader wore the same type of shapeless, wheat-colored linen nightgown that the nuns had provided for her but somehow it didnt look nearly as frumpy on the taller woman as did Jennifers own. And with Resas wet ebony hair slicked back from her face in a casual fashion she looked -- even sans makeup -- thoroughly stunning. Which caught the college student completely off guard.
Jennifer must have inadvertently gasped for Resa stopped to regard her warily.
"You," she answered with complete sincerity. "Have you ever considered being a model?" Even as the words tripped over her lips she realized how ludicrous they sounded and inwardly cringed. What the --?
A wry smile pulled at Resas mouth as she continued further into the room. "Yeah, sure. It was a tough decision...Gangsta, international model, gangsta, international model..." She sat on the bed opposite Jennifers cot and started to towel dry her own wet hair. "But then I realized as a model Id probably have to do all those George Michael videos so I went with gangsta." She favored the college student with a full, teasing smile that rolled into a laugh and somehow left her even more unbelievably gorgeous.
Jennifer joined her in the laughter even as she felt the heat of a blush steal over her face at her own faux pas. She suddenly felt like the High School nerd who had unexpectedly garnered the favor of the Prom Queen and shook her head at the notion. Shed been many things back in the day -- over-achiever, class valedictorian, editor for the school paper -- and while shed never describe herself as Most Popular, she most definitely had never been The Nerd. So why did she suddenly feel this sense of awkwardness? This sudden, disconcerted rush?
"You never fail to surprise me," Jennifer murmured, working to recover.
Resa gave her a bemused look. "Why do you say that?"
"Just when I think I have you figured out you do something like that, you say something...well, funny."
The other woman cocked a dark brow. "You figured I didnt have a sense of humor?"
"No. Just...you seem so incredibly serious. So...focused most of the time."
Resa considered this for a moment, then nodded faintly. "Im focused when I need to be, which," she acknowledged with a grin. ". . is most of the time. But you gotta have a good sense of the ridiculous with the kinda life Ive lead."
"And what kind of life is that?" Jennifer asked with a genuine curiosity and was surprised at how quickly the light of humor was extinguished from Resas face. Blue eyes that had seconds ago radiated the warmth of common mirth now seemed as cold as December snow and Jennifer hurried to clarify. "Look, I didnt ask the question because I plan to write about you; I got the message on that loud and clear. I just--" She paused as she fumbled over her words. "I only asked because I wanted to know more about you. Thats all."
Slowly but unmistakably Resas walls of protection lowered again though her jovial mood did not return with equal speed. Instead she sighed, her own exhaustion naked in her every aspect.
"I know," she said softly. "I...Im just used to being defensive."
"And Im used to being totally open," the college student replied.
The two women faced each other for a long moment, each equally aware of the disparate nature of their pairing. Truly they could not be more different, in both appearance and disposition, yet there was still the draw of fascination between them. And Jennifer felt with a certainty, it was something of which Resa was also cognizant.
Resa tossed her towel over the bedpost and leaned back on one elbow. Jennifer saw the faint flicker of pain dart across her eyes and immediately moved to the nearby chair where shed set the small, plastic bag of supplies that Dr. Marcus had earlier given them.
"We need to change the bandages before you go to bed," she said and was pleased when the other woman didnt argue.
She removed the supplies and returned to kneel before Resa. The former gang leader unbuttoned the dainty two buttons at the top of her demure nightgown and pulled the opening over in an attempt to provide ample access to her wound, only to realize it wasnt sufficient. Jennifer drew a breath with the idea of offering an alternative when strong hands reached up to rip the fabric along the shoulders seam.
"Or, we could just do that..." she said instead.
Resa glanced at her. "Ill sew it up later."
Jennifer blinked twice in astonishment. "You sew?"
The twinkle returned to her eyes. "I can do many things."
"Of course you can," the younger woman countered drolly then concentrated on the careful removal of the old, slightly damp gauze. With gentle fingers she slowly pulled off the thin white medical tape that held the gauze dressing in place and peered at the wound.
"Wow," she said in surprise.
Jennifer tipped her head to meet Resas eyes. "It looks so much better. The swelling is all but gone."
Resa shrugged a little. "I heal quickly. Always have."
"Convenient." Off Resas look, "Given your past and all. Not
that Im asking you about your past," she hastened to add. "Because
Im not. Does it still hurt?"
"Not much," the dark-haired woman answered.
Jennifer eased the tip of her index finger around the edge of the tightly sewn wound where the fiery red distention from last night had already replaced itself with the healing darkening of a bruise which, by all rights, shouldnt have happened for days after the initial injury.
She accidentally pressed a degree too hard and heard a quick intake of breath before strong fingers suddenly snatched back her hand with the speed of a cobra strike.
"That hurt," Resa hissed. The grip was punishing and Jennifer cringed a little whereupon Resa instantly released her, almost contrite. "Sorry...Its instinct."
Jennifer rubbed her knuckles and wiggled her fingers. "No problem. I have two hands," she said dryly. She pointed to the bullet wound. "Going back to work now, okay?" Resa nodded, a little sheepish. "But I promise to warn you before I press anything," Jennifer added, just to be on the safe side.
They were both silent for a long moment after as Jennifer removed the used gauze, stained with blotches of old blood, and tossed it in the nearby trashcan. She soaked a cotton square in the hydrogen peroxide provided by Dr. Marcus then held it up for Resa to see.
"This is going to sting."
Resa nodded and Jennifer applied the cold hydrogen compress to the edge of the wound, which produced not even a flinch from the other woman. Ahhhhh, forewarned is forearmed. Jennifer tore two fresh gauze squares from their sterile packages and was in the middle of adhering them to Resas skin when a lock of her hair fell across her eyes. She groaned in frustration, hands too busy to deal with the irritation, when unexpected fingers reached up to tuck the errant strand behind her ear. She glanced up to find Resa watching her.
"Thanks," Jennifer said, referring to the hair.
Blue eyes regarded her with more warmth than before. "I should be thanking you. For helping me like this."
Jennifer smiled. "Well, its the least I can do since you got shot trying to help me." She resumed her task but continued speaking. "Actually, this sort of reminds me of when I was growing up. I used to have this indoor/outdoor tomcat named Noodles who was always getting into scrapes. Hed come home with nicks in his ears or scratches or once without a tooth! But it was always the bite marks that were the worst. Theyd get infected if I didnt clean them up so I quickly learned how to keep him calm while I cleaned his little wounds. My Mom always thought Id end up being a vet."
"Why didnt you?"
"Too soft hearted. I cant walk past a pet store without wanting to cry. Can you imagine what Id be like having to put an animal to sleep? Huh-uh. Couldnt take it."
"Its too bad," Resa murmured. "You have a great touch...previous pressing aside."
"Thanks," she said, a wave of shyness blushing her skin.
A bit of a pause followed and, oddly, Resa was the first to break it with, of all things, a question. "So what made you want to be a writer?"
"I dont. I want to be a journalist. But I have to take this class in The Novel," she said the words in a deep, mocking voice. "As part of my degree and part of that includes the actual writing of one. A big part, which I didnt clue into until, oh, last week."
"When you met Father Hector."
"Yep." She sat back and smiled. "All done."
Resa reached up to investigate Jennifers handiwork. "Feels good," she said with satisfaction.
"Nothing like learning on the go." She collected the paraphernalia back into the bag to use for the morning, then glanced at Resa. "Can I ask you a question? A simple one. No strings. Just because Im curious?"
"Jennifer, you can ask me questions. Its only fair; Ive asked about you."
"I just dont want to make you uncomfortable."
"Ill let you know if you do."
"Okay. Did you grow up in East L.A.? I wondered because you dont have much of an accent."
Resa pulled her torn gown back up her shoulder. "Yeah. I was raised here but Ive always been good with languages."
"One of your skills?" Jennifer offered, lightly teasing and handed her a tiny safety pin.
Resa took the pin. "You could say that." She turned her head at an awkward angle as she attempted to fasten closed the gaping fabric until Jennifer automatically took it from her fingers and did the job herself.
"Perhaps you should try your hand at acting," the younger woman said as she slid the pin closed and sat back again on the floor. "This is the town after all."
"Maybe. After my stint on the catwalk," Resa lightly gibed.
"Ha, ha," Jennifer said in a dry voice but both women grinned.
"Actually," Resa offered after a few beats, her tone a bit more serious. "Ive been thinking of taking some classes at a Junior College."
Jennifer read the slight hesitation in the other woman and proceeded with a feigned casual attitude. "Really? On what?"
Resa suddenly became fascinated with drawing her finger along the simple pattern that adorned the bedspread beneath her. "Astronomy."
Now, with the possible exception of couples therapy or circus performing, this was the last area in which Jennifer would have anticipated the former gang leader to express an interest. But her natural reaction was one of excitement. Here, at last, they had something in common.
"I love astronomy!" Jennifer exclaimed.
Resas blue eyes brightened a bit. "You do?"
"Yeah. My parents gave me a telescope for my birthday two years ago. I havent used it much since coming to LA due to the light pollution but I used to use it all the time back home. Hey, have you ever been to the planetarium up in Griffith Park?"
Resa nodded with a smile. "Used to go every chance Id get when I was a kid." She paused for a moment, her expression a tad wistful. "I always wanted a telescope growing up. I used to climb up on the roof of the apartment building and fall asleep trying to look at the stars and imagine " Her words trailed off and her eyes grew suddenly sad.
"What?" Jennifer gently prodded.
The other woman was silent a moment before finishing, "I was somewhere far away..."
Jennifer felt a melancholy mood start to descend over her companion and reached out to take her hand in a gentle but firm hold of support.
"I think everyone with imagination wishes for that at some point," she said. "I know I did." Blue eyes locked with hers and prompted her to continue. "Growing up in the Bible Belt can be a pain in the ass when you have a liberal heart. I used to get into arguments all the time with people whod tell me I was going to Hell because I hadnt been saved into their religion or want to subvert my life to be a dutiful wife and mother. But I just couldnt imagine doing that. Not when theres a whole world to see."
"So you got out," Resa finished, more than a trace of admiration in her voice.
"That was brave of you."
"Not at all. Staying would have killed me."
A distant expression stole across Resas face. "I know what you mean," she said softly and Jennifer instinctively knew she was thinking about her situation with the Vartans. But before Jennifer could press her any further -- as she soooo wanted to do -- Resa abruptly changed the subject. "You hungry?"
Jennifer blinked twice. "Uh, yeah. Sure." Then actually thought about the notion and realized, "Im starving."
"One of the Sisters brought us some of the leftovers from dinner while you were in the shower. Theyre in the kitchen. Cmon."
Resa held down her right hand to offer Jennifer assistance to her feet, which the younger woman accepted, and both headed out of the bedroom.
As the Mother Superior had warned, the visitor apartment was small, essentially the size of a typical bachelor. There was a living room and what could technically be referred to as a kitchen though it had little more than a hot plate, microwave, and cube-shaped refrigerator. One person could stand in the space with a lesser degree of claustrophobia; two people could fit only if they were doing the Lambada, so Jennifer hung back a bit while Resa stepped within.
Jennifer leaned her forearms against the corner of the counter and noted a bowl of fruit, a loaf of wheat bread, and a plate of herb roasted chicken covered by saran wrap had already been laid out. It was to the latter she immediately went, grabbing a drumstick and nibbling away, not bothering with a plate. How the fact that she was this hungry had escaped her notice these past hours was beyond her but now that she had food, she could think of little else.
"Catch," Resa said and Jennifer had a split-second to react as she grabbed whatever it was the other woman had tossed to her. She glanced down to find an apple, big and red and juicy. Jennifer swallowed her bite of chicken before she took a big one out of the fruit.
"Franx," she mumbled with her mouth full and Resa laughed at the site of her standing there, drumstick in one hand and apple in the other.
"When was the last time you ate?" she asked, mildly incredulous.
Jennifer considered this for a moment. "This morning. I had a hardboiled egg." She had to laugh as Resas eyes widened a bit in horror. "Well, I had planned to go get something more for lunch but..."
"But the Vartans arrived," Resa finished, her voice tinged with irony.
She took up a handful of grapes and leaned against the counter opposite Jennifer, her blue eyes now rich with contemplation and curiosity. "How much did Father Hector tell you about my involvement with the Vartans?"
Jennifer felt her heart skip but knew it was best to remain neutral in her response, almost as if dealing with a skittish colt, though the statuesque woman before her displayed no outward signs of agitation.
"Not much, really," she replied with a casual shrug. "Just that theyre a Cuban street gang and you were their leader for a while until you decided to leave."
"Thats it?" She sounded surprised.
"Essentially. He probably expected you to tell me the rest."
"Hmmm...probably...Theres a little more to it, of course."
The dark-haired woman was quiet for a few more beats, as if weighing her options before coming to a conclusion. She folded her arms across her chest and her features relaxed into a more reflective expression, eyes slightly hooded.
"I joined the Vartans when I was fourteen," she said evenly. "Until then Id always sworn I didnt want to have anything to do with gangs." She chuckled a little. "Believe it or not, I was something of a goody-goody when I was young. I made straight As and Id even planned to go to college."
"What happened?" Jennifer asked.
Resa sighed. "A war of sorts. Between the Vartans and the 12th Street Paidas. They used to be one of the Mexican gangs," she clarified.
"Used to be?"
"Theyre not around anymore," she said succinctly and Jennifer picked up on the underlying implication. They werent around anymore because of Resa and though the idea was not the least bit surprising, it still chilled her. "Nobody knows how it started for sure. Some say a Paidas vatos went after one of the Vartans girls, some say it was the other way around. Doesnt matter, really. End result is the same; lotta people dead for no good reason." She reached for a grape and plopped it in her mouth as memories pushed inexorably forward. "I never really thought about what was going on much. A gang war seemed so far away to me then. I was here, in the Sacred Heart and I felt isolated...invulnerable...Until they killed Luis."
"Who -- ?"
"My younger brother," she said her voice strangely matter-of-fact.
Jennifer sucked in her breath and took an unconscious step forward into the kitchen. "Oh, Resa," she murmured with heartfelt empathy but Resa didnt respond. Instead, her eyes were dispassionate and distant as one whod managed to disassociate oneself from an unimaginable pain only after considerable effort.
"The irony was," she continued. "Luis wasnt even a member of the Vartans. He was only twelve. But he was hanging out with a Vartan when a Paidas gang saw them and just started shooting. Witnesses say it didnt last more than ten seconds. And then he was dead."
"Im so sorry," Jennifer said, desperately wanting to offer comfort in some way but without the slightest inkling how. Resa projected such an unapproachable air, despite the slow warming she sensed occurring between them, she feared her attempts would surely be rebuffed...wouldnt they? After all, it was one thing to casually grab the other persons hand in a show of support but to chance a more overt gesture would be more than she was willing to risk. So she chose a safer route and asked, "Were you close?"
Were they close?
"Resa! Im gonna kill you!" Luis says furiously, his pre-adolescent voice still high pitched but crackling just enough to know puberty is just around the corner. It is noon and they are in his bedroom. She is home on break from the Sacred Heart and, as usual, only she and Luis are present in the apartment.
She laughs at Luis and holds the small, stuffed bear high above her head, well out of the younger boys reach. She is fourteen but already closing in on five foot ten. Eventually Luis will be even taller than she, but while she has the advantage, she is darn well going to use it. And does.
She watches his face flush with anger and embarrassment as she taunts him with the potentially humiliating object. He is twelve. He is a boy. He is not supposed to still sleep with an old, stuffed bear named Mr. Goyo. Not if he is going to still hold his head up when he goes out in the neighborhood that is.
"Resa! Cut it out!!" He futilely jumps up one last time, his ebony curls falling in front of dark eyes framed with eyelashes that would be the envy of every woman. Then he stops, his lips pursed in fury, and proceeds to draw back one fist to strike his sister in her exposed midsection. She lets out a rush of air and drops her arm out of pure reflex. Luis grabs hold of the bear in a death grip, desperate to pry loose the incriminating object from his sisters fingers before she shows it to all his friends and destroys his reputation. But Resa is stronger than he and is now more than a little pissed. She refuses to release the bear and, in fact, holds onto it even tighter, knowing she has the physical upper hand.
Suddenly their struggles cause them to lose their balance and crash to the bedroom floor, with Luis falling across her stomach more of an irritation than a source of pain. But what stills them both is the distinct sound of old fabric ripping and the unexpected appearance of cotton stuffing across her cheek. She glances at Luis and meets dark eyes round with shock. Her younger brother holds up the severed arm of Mr. Goyo.
"Oh, Luis," she whispers, her hand to her mouth. Luis cannot help it. He knows he is a man, he knows he must be strong and that this is only a silly stuffed bear...but he cannot control himself. His brown eyes brim with tears as he beholds the ruination of the one object he has carried with him throughout his childhood. The one link he has with his Grandpoppy.
Immediately she forgets all about their fighting and feels nothing but shame. "Luis, dont cry. I-I can fix this. "
"Shut up!" he wails.
"No, no, really. I can sew this back together, good as new."
"I hate you!!" He hurls the tattered bit of fabric at her and runs from the room.
She sits up, more than a little stung but also aware she has brought this on herself. She only meant to tease him a bit. She didnt mean for it to come to this. But it has and she feels a growing queasiness in her stomach. She knows too well how much this simple toy means to her younger brother. Her glance falls to the torn bear in her hand and she reaches for the bit of arm. Determination replaces her anxiety. She loves her brother. She has caused him pain. She will make this better.
That night when Luis gets ready for bed, still wracked with a sorrow he can share with no one, he pulls back the sheets and stops. There before him is Mr. Goyo, his arm stitched back, not exactly good as new, but close enough. And in a sweet touch, he even wears a little blue sling as one would get from the hospital to denote his injury. Delight, unreasonable and glorious, alights his smooth, round features as he takes hold of the silly, stupid bear that to him means the world. He spins around to find his older sister peering through the crack of the doorway, watching him with penitent blue eyes. He knows she is sorry; he can see it and he accepts her silent apology with a wide, beautiful smile that she cannot help but return.
Were they close?
The question hung in the air long enough that Jennifer wasnt certain the other woman intended to answer. But when she did, Jennifer detected the first real crack of emotion since the account began. "He was the only real family I had."
Jennifer felt a stab in her heart as she unconsciously absorbed some of the other
womans unspoken pain. "God," she whispered. "I cant imagine
what that must have been like," she said, shaking her head. "What did your
parents do?" Then a thought occurred to her. "Or are you an orphan?"
Resas chuckle was flat and devoid of humor. "Not technically." Her jaw clenched and her face grew hard. "My mothers a whore and the best guess is my father was one of her johns. Some white guy is the general consensus." She gestured to her sky blue eyes and Jennifer felt a little piece of the puzzle fall into place. So that was why she looked so different, almost exotic. And the bitterness in her voice in describing her mother did not escape Jennifers notice. Father Hector had mentioned Resas relationship with her family was less than ideal but she hadnt pictured something quite this dramatic. She should have known better.
"I have an older brother. Tarquin. He was in a Junior College at the time and went right back after the funeral. I remember overhearing him tell someone that seeing Luis in the casket like that just made him that much more determined to leave this Hell hole for good...and he succeeded. I havent spoken to him since."
"Since the funeral?" Resa nodded. "But thats -- "
"Jesus," she breathed in shock. "Do you have any idea where he is?"
"Last I heard he was in Reno, Nevada, working at a car dealership. But that was a while ago."
"Are you in contact with...anyone else?"
"There is no one else. Just the three of us."
"Have you --"
"No," she cut her off sharply. "I havent spoken to her. I dont know where to find her and I wouldnt even if I could." Her harsh demeanor and tone left no room for discussion on the subject of her mother and perhaps that was best for now.
"I see," she murmured, hesitant to push forward knowing how the other woman could be on the subject of her past but unable to deny the powerful urge to know more. She gambled and asked, "So, did you join the Vartans right after...?" Her voice trailed off but Resa knew what she meant and much to her relief, she wasnt moved to anger. Instead she seemed remarkably inclined to talk.
"No. That didnt come until later. After Luis death...everything changed." She stopped and focused on Jennifer for the first time since shed begun talking. Her eyes narrowed as if deciding upon something -- how much to tell perhaps? -- before she nodded once to herself and continued. "Id gotten an academic scholarship to the Sacred Heart when I was just in Elementary School and even though I lived in the bario, I honestly never paid much attention to what the gangs were doing. Until this...And then...then I felt a rage come over my soul that...blinded me to everything but this need for revenge. I hated, truly hated, for the first time in my life. And I became convinced the only way to relieve this feeling that was eating me alive was to kill the Paidas bastard responsible for taking Luis from me. I knew there wouldnt be justice otherwise. The police didnt care. They marked my brothers death as yet another Latino boy in the wrong place at the wrong time and even if he hadnt done anything illegal yet, it didnt mean he probably wouldnt in the future. Saved them the trouble of having to arrest him later was how they looked at it."
"Do you really believe that?" Jennifer asked.
Resas expression was hard with conviction. "I know it."
They locked eyes and Jennifer backed down. Shed always been raised to respect authority like the police but she came from a completely different perspective than Resa. She was white, she was upper middle class, and when it came to the law she had never had more than a parking ticket with which to contend. Resas experiences with the justice system were so totally foreign from her own as to be from another planet. And once again the dissimilarity of their upbringings was made glaringly apparent. But the contrast only served to heighten Jennifers desire to learn more.
"So what did you do?" she pressed forward but with care.
"I did what I thought I had to do. I got my revenge. It wasnt hard to find out the name of the Paidas responsible for killing Luis. Pedro Cajigas." The name rolled off her tongue as if it was vile to the taste and Jennifer wouldnt have been surprised if shed spat. Thankfully, she refrained. "He was the younger brother of the gangs leader and a ruthless son of a bitch. Most of the Vartans were too scared to go against him...so I did it myself." Her voice was smooth as honey but Jennifer noted how flinty and cold the other womans eyes had grown as she continued and she felt as if she were being given a glimpse into the ruthless creature of Resas past. "I got a gun, found out where Cajigas lived, and called him out."
Getting the gun is never difficult. In fact not having a gun is far more unusual. Her mother keeps an automatic pistol under her mattress in case things get dicey which is not uncommon. She takes the gun even as her mother sleeps in the bed. She is not worried about waking the unconscious woman; the stench of gin fills the stale bedroom air and she knows not even a heard of buffalo can wake her when she gets like this.
She checks to make sure the gun is loaded then, once assured, sets the safety and tucks it into the top of her plaid skirt. She takes a moment to regard her mothers sleeping form and is disappointed with herself when she feels a twinge of sorrow. This is likely the last time she will see this woman and even though she has never been anything close to resembling a good parent, she, in the end, is still her mother. How she wishes otherwise, how she wishes that even this tiny emotion did not exist within her for this woman but obstinately it does. If she thought she had more time she would resolve to make a stone of her heart but she knows that today will in all likelihood be her last upon this earth. The aberrant sentiment she is experiencing compels her to impulsiveness and she leans forward to lightly kiss her unconscious mother upon the temple, almost as if she loved her. Then she straightens and exits the room without a backward look.
She leaves the apartment and zips up her thin cotton jacket to cover the butt of the gun. It is not cold but she shivers nonetheless as she stands at the corner, waiting for the bus. She wills her mind clear. She must not be distracted by anything on her way to achieving her objective. She will complete it or die trying. Perhaps both. Likely both.
Pedro Cajigas lives thirty blocks from her neighborhood in a low rent house with only his older brother, Diego. Her neighbor and Vartan Blood gang member, Ricardo Estaban, has told her that Pedro and Diego often have homeboys over to stay with them so she knows the chances of finding Pedro alone are slim. That does not concern her. She is not embarking on this with hopes of survival. Indeed, she has no vision of what will take place beyond the act itself.
When she arrives at Cajigas house there are three Paidas homeboys hanging out on the steps, smoking and playing the radio at a deafening level. She receives only a cursory glance from one of the men as she approaches and it annoys her. She knows they do not perceive her as a threat but a perverse part of her wishes they did. With steady fingers she reaches up to unzip her jacket as she stands a few feet in front of the nearest Paidas.
"Wheres Pedro," she shouts, her young voice barely carrying above the deep base beat of the Latin rap song.
"What?" the shortest guy asks, not even bothering to turn down the music.
"I said, Im here to talk to Pedro Cajigas. Is he here?"
"What do you want with him?" one of the others asks, crushing out his cigarette beneath the heel of his brand new Nikes.
"Thats between him and me. I suggest you get him."
The three Paidas exchange looks at her tone and start to laugh. She can see what they are thinking; bossy thing, aint she? And she is. She takes a deep breath, about to reiterate her demand when the front screen door opens and a young man with squat features and close cropped hair steps out. She instinctively knows he is her target and a rush of satisfaction races up her spine.
"Pedro Cajigas?" she asks, just to be certain.
"Yeah? Who the fuck are you?" he asks, brown eyes regarding her with scorn.
She draws in a deep breath and meets his gaze with a steady one of her own. There is no going back; it is here and it is now. "My name is Resa Gustavez. Two weeks ago you killed my brother Luis and now Ive come here to kill you." With that she reaches to pull out her pistol from the band of her skirt, flips off the safety and points it directly at Cajigas. The other three Paidas on the porch immediately scurry like cockroaches out of her line of fire but Pedro just starts to laugh.
Resa shook her head. "Ill never forget the way he just stood there...looking at me...laughing. The last thing he said was:
"Who the fuck does this kid think she is?" Pedro says, holding his sides from his uncontrollable mirth, tears starting to run down his cheeks. His buddies stop their retreat and glance back at him, each suddenly embarrassed for having run so quickly from a girl, despite the fact it is a girl with a gun. The three glance at each other and one starts to giggle, as if he is not scared even if the others are. Then the remaining two join in and soon all four are convulsed with laughter at the sight of this girl in her plaid Catholic uniform and gun. It is too funny.
Resas gaze does not deviate from Pedros face. She hears the laughter of his friends and knows that they do not believe her capable of going through with her threat. They think she is bluffing. And perhaps there has been a tiny part of her doing just that. But now, in the face of their derision, she commits herself fully and that final ember of her humanity at last dies out.
Resa aims carefully between Pedros eyes and...
"...I shot him. Point blank...He was dead before he hit the ground..."
The crack of the single shot echoes throughout the air, frightening birds from nearby trees and inducing rabid barking from several neighboring dogs. Blood and bone explode from his forehead. Pedros three buddies are shocked as they watch the body of their former homeboy pitch face forward off the porch and collapse into a lifeless heap.
They are also scared. She can see it in their eyes as they look at her. They do not know what she will do...but she does. If any of them go for their guns, she will shoot them, too, without hesitation. And maybe they realize this for none of them are foolish enough to dis her twice. Rather they quickly turn to scatter to the far winds while she stands her ground, suddenly infused with a sense of power the likes of which she has never before experienced...
"...but there was also this feeling of emptiness...it was like..." She struggled to find the right words. "...a part of me...evaporated...just left...and I was suddenly empty. Just this shell... I remember looking at Cajigas body, lying there and feeling nothing. Not even hatred."
She swallowed hard and lowered her eyes to the ground. The drop of a pin would have sounded like thunder in the silence that followed as Jennifer watched a somberness descend across the other womans strong features.
"Cops came. Arrested me. I got hauled downtown, booked, printed, and thrown in a cell just like an adult. But I wasnt an adult. I was a fourteen-year old kid with an unblemished record and, in the words of the court-appointed psychiatrist, grief stricken. I didnt know what I was doing at the time." Blue eyes met hers. "But of course I knew; I just didnt care."
"Did you go to jail?" Jennifer asked softly.
Resas lips twisted in derisive grin. "No. I plead temporary insanity which, because I was a minor, landed me a years worth of intense counseling for, among other things, anger management." She rolled her eyes and had to laugh at that. "I only went twice. Scared the shit outta my counselor and never went back. I figured I already knew how to manage my anger pretty well. I channeled it into ripping the heart outta every last Paidas that I could find. It became my mission. And I used the Vartans to accomplish it."
"So thats why you joined them." Jennifer was beginning to feel as if she better understood this mysterious woman before her.
"Actually, it was more like they came after me." Contempt stole across her face. "Or, I should say, Alfons came after me."
Alfons. Jennifer remembered Resa mentioning the name yesterday -- was it only yesterday? -- in Palos bar. Shed said it to Manny as he was leaving. Say hello to Alfons. Or something like that.
"Whos Alfons?" she asked.
An odd look passed through Resas eyes, not quite a grimace but something less than a sneer.
She trails her mother as they enter their apartment complex. It is over. She has been punished in the eyes of the judicial system that does not hold her fully responsible for her actions. The truth of the matter is the police have wanted to get rid of Pedro Cajigas for years; she just helped them accomplish their goal and they do not consider her a threat.
How her mother has convinced the judge she is a fit parent still boggles the mind of her only daughter but they typically do not discuss this. The door closes behind her and her mother heads up the flight of stairs to their second story apartment. She does not bother to glance back at her daughter who suddenly stops in her tracks.
Resa senses his presence before she sees him and allows her mother to continue out of sight before she looks down to the ground floor.
He steps out of the shadows from beneath the stairwell, his eyes already on hers. She takes him in with one glance. Tall. Strong. Handsome. His hair reaches his shoulders in a wave of dark, thick curls and his brown eyes fairly twinkle when he smiles. As he does now.
Her back stiffens and she instinctively knows this man is trouble but finds she is captivated nonetheless. It is as if she is a snake looking into the eyes of a charmer.
"Hello, Resa," he says and she does not question that he knows her name. It seems wholly appropriate that he should.
"Hello," she says, watching in hypnotic fascination as he places one large yet graceful hand on the banisters edge and tilts his head to one side to regard her.
"Do you know who I am?" he asks in a manner almost courtly. She shakes her head, not trusting her voice. "My name is Alfons. Alfons Vega and I owe you a debt of thanks."
He nods, his eyes not leaving hers. He does not even blink. "You took out my enemy when all others around me whimpered in the corner like dogs. Youre brave and strong. I like that. I like that a great deal." He turns the corner and is now at the base of the stairs. "I see in you a great potential." He starts up the stairs. "Youre quick." She watches his approach. "And determined." She feels a strange heat wash over her body. "And you have the heart of a warrior." He stops before her and reaches up one hand to gently stroke the long, dark hair that spills over her shoulder. He is close enough for her to feel the warmth of his body and smell the leather of his jacket. She is tall and he stands two steps below her but, in a way, they still meet eye to eye. "And "
"And," she interrupts at last as she takes a step away in an attempt to break the spell. "Im fourteen years old." But she is unaware how her eyes flash at him or how her cheeks have flushed. Yet he sees this. Quite clearly.
He smiles, completely unfazed. "Yes, I know. But that will change...with time."
"Alfonso Esteban Vega is a Cuban immigrant and all around bastard. He was an officer in Castros army who left because Fidel wouldnt cut him in on enough of the profits for their, shall we say, less than legal enterprises. He slipped into America through the backdoor, immediately got into business doing what he does best and flourished."
"Among other things. He never really discriminated. If it was illegal and made money, hed do it."
Jennifer shuddered. "He sounds despicable."
"He is." She met Jennifers gaze with an unflinching one of her own. "He was also my lover for years."
Jennifer felt her eyebrows shoot up in surprise before she had a chance to stop herself. "Oh," she said in a small voice and cringed a little. "Whoops."
Resa shrugged. "No whoops. He was no less evil but he was also the leader and to be by his side had...advantages I wasnt about to pass up at the time. I learned a great deal from him about power and how to control people. He nurtured me every step of the way and helped make me...inhuman."
She stands behind him and silently faces the two South American men seated on the opposite couch. She is seventeen now and stands just below six feet tall. An air of detached danger and composed strength surround her but so, too, does a remarkable degree of feminine sensuality. And though every man in the room may want her, she allows herself to belong to only one. For now.
He makes certain she is beside him during business transactions because he trusts her. He also enjoys her presence. She brings with her a certain air of unpredictability that excites him as no one else he has ever known. They have been together for three years now and lovers for almost two. In the end it had been Resas decision to move their relationship beyond the mentor stage, as, indeed, Alfons had predicted and he has taught her well in this regard, too. Together they make an indomitable team and have taken the Vartans beyond the street gang realm. They are on the pathway to an empire.
Alfons leans forward to examine the briefcase laid open before him on the mahogany coffee table. She glances at the contents and sees that the case is filled with thirty bricks of Columbias finest. She cannot see his face, but she knows by the manner in which he holds his shoulders that he is pleased.
"Its top grade," Miguel, the bigger South American, says and Resa notes how he seems to shift each time he speaks. It puts her instantly on the alert and her gaze shifts over to Miguels silent, younger partner whose name she does not know. He is as still as a stone but she notices the white of his knuckles and her gut instinct tells her that something is amiss. Then the younger man peers up at her through thick, dark lashes and her breath catches in her throat. He looks like Luis. It is only for a fraction of a second and then the younger man looks away but the impression is startling. She releases her breath. It is the first time she has been reminded of her brother in longer than she can recall and it leaves her shaken.
Alfons cuts open a plastic brick and dips the tip of his pinkie into the white powder. This is not something he would normally do but he knows there is no way these two would be so foolish as to poison the cocaine when they are so decidedly surrounded. He tastes the cocaine and leans back in his chair, thoroughly relaxed.
"Excellent," he says, pleasure evident in the timbre of his voice.
Miguel smiles, a little too broadly perhaps, and nods. "Carlos brings only the best," he says and shifts yet again.
Alfons raises his right hand and flicks his fingers. Within seconds one of the Vartans brings in a second, identical briefcase and gives it to Miguels young companion.
"As promised," Alfons says. "Feel free to check to make certain its all there."
"No, no," Miguel says. "Carlos trusts your name as if it were his own...I assume there is no more business to which we should attend?" Alfons shrugs and both of the South American men stand. "Well, then, Senor Vega, I must say it has been a pleasure doing negotiations with you."
"Send Carlos my regards," Alfons says.
"Of course." And with that both men start to leave.
"Hold it," Resa says in a voice low with command and all eyes turn to her. She steps past Alfons to the briefcase still open on the table and proceeds to remove the first two rows of bricks. She can feel the two South American men tense.
"What is the meaning of this?" Miguel asks in an impressive display of indignation as she moves to the third layer, buried deep in the briefcase, and extracts a brick. "Senor Vega, would you have this bitch insult us in this way?"
"Shut up," Alfons says in his most polite voice but turns eyes more curious than reproving to her. "Resa?" he says but she ignores him. Instead she removes a small knife from the side of her boot to split open the plastic and scoops out a sample.
"Senor...!" Miguels voice cracks.
She tastes it and immediately spits it back out as she meets Alfons inquiring gaze.
"Worthless," she says simply. He nods and before either of the two men can utter more than a syllable he withdraws his snub-nosed pistol from his jacket pocket and shoots Miguel square in the face. His body crumples to the floor.
Alfons frowns at the blood. "Thatll be hell to get out of the carpet," he murmurs, then glances up at Miguels terrified young companion.
"This," the young man says in a shaky voice. "This was his idea!" He suddenly throws the briefcase at Alfons and runs like hell for the door. He does not reach it.
Resa is on him in less than four steps and cuts his legs out from beneath him with a simple kick. He trips, falls and immediately cowers into a ball as she stands over him in total domination.
"Oh, God," he whimpers, his voice tenuous with fear and he suddenly seems very young indeed, not much older than she.
"Here," Alfons says and gently tosses her his pistol. "Smaller caliber so he wont bleed as much."
She stares at the gun then meets the young mans dark eyes as he looks up at her in pure terror and is seized by an unexpected wave of hesitation. The image of Luis flashes across her mind and her mouth goes dry. Alfons senses something awry within her and though he does not know the cause, he will not allow for it to stand.
"Do it, Resa," he says. "Now." There is no mistaking the direct order in his tone and Resa feels a grim weight upon her shoulders. Alfons rarely gives her a command, especially not in front of any other Vartans, but she knows he is right. She must not be perceived as hesitant or weak, especially because she is female. Sentiment is the death of someone like her. Before she can think twice, she closes off her mind and her soul and shoots the defenseless young man.
She turns away without bothering to look at what she has done and meets Alfons dark, approving eyes. Two other Vartans rush past her to attend to the slain body before the blood does too much damage to Alfons den but to them she pays no heed. She sees only Alfons and the warmth of his smile. Her gaze does not waver as she moves to enter her lovers outstretched arms and is enfolded into his embrace.
Jennifer could not speak for a long moment. Realistically, she had known Resas background must surely contain many stories of this brutal nature yet hearing the specifics from Resas own lips left her a bit nonplussed. This woman standing less than two feet from her had killed a person. Had likely killed several people. Without provocation and in cold blood...and yet such a concept was still difficult for her to wrap her mind around. Of course she remembered yesterdays encounter with Manny and the other Vartans and the magnificent manner in which Resa had handled herself and, yes, it all fit with what shed heard. But still...that was not the woman into whose eyes she now peered. That was not the Resa Gustavez who stood before her, emotionally naked and vulnerable despite her best efforts to appear otherwise.
My God, what she has gone through, what she has had to overcome, she thought and it took every ounce of restraint Jennifer possessed not to cross the tiny space that separated them to draw her into a comforting hug.
"I suppose you think Im pretty despicable, too," Resa said and Jennifer frowned.
"Not at all," she responded at once. "I think youre very brave."
Blue eyes flashed with surprise. "Brave?"
Jennifer nodded, utterly sincere. "Yes. Brave. Youve been through things I couldnt even imagine and yet you still have the strength to overcome it all." She inclined her head in admiration. "I may have left my home to come here but I still have ties to my family. I will always have the comfort of knowing that no matter where I go or what I do, if I fail, I have something to fall back on, somewhere to go. But you...youve left everything youve ever known for an uncertain future. Youve acted with no safety net and that makes you far braver than Ill ever be."
Resa regarded her with incredulity. "I just told you Ive killed people."
"Doesnt that bother you?"
"Yes," she answered. "I cheated on a couple of my algebra tests my freshman year in high school; does that bother you?"
"Its hardly the same thing."
"Only by degree. Both are wrong and we cant change them, no matter how bad they may make us feel about ourselves. But all that happened a long time ago and I know if I continue to berate myself over my past mistakes then Ill have missed the opportunity to learn from them and to grow." She reached out to entwine her fingers with Resas, comfortable, at least, that the other woman wouldnt totally reject such a simple gesture. Which she didnt. "It can be the same for you, if youll let it."
Resa just stared at her for a long time, then shook her head in amazement. "Do you see the good in everything?" she asked, only in partial jest.
"I try," Jennifer replied.
"Yes," Resa said in a voice soft with wonder. "I believe you do."
Exhaustion claimed both early and they fell asleep with remarkable ease. But somewhere around three oclock in the morning Resa was awakened (by what she did not know) and found she could not so easily return to her slumbers. Instead she lay in the darkness and tried to allow her mind to relax but instead found herself distracted by the soft, even breathing of her companion. It wasnt that the young woman was loud -- on the contrary, she was barely audible -- but it had been quite some time since Resa had slept in the vicinity of another human being and she found it mildly disconcerting.
She propped herself up on her right elbow, careful to keep all pressure off her left side, and glanced across the scant distance between their two beds to where Jennifer lay sleeping. Moonlight flooded through the high, unadorned window and cast the college seniors serene features in variations of pale blues and grays. For a long moment, Resa was content to just examine the young woman, to really see her for perhaps the first time.
Jennifer astonished her. She had felt for certain that when she revealed details from her past the warm glow would dim from the college seniors eyes and yet the exact opposite had happened. It had been a long time since shed been given this level of acceptance. Not even Father Hector had made her feel this way but, perhaps, that had more to do with the nature of his calling. He was a professed man of God; the care for others was his responsibility. But Jennifer had no such duty to fulfill. Her compassion was freely given and consequently had greater meaning. At least for Resa.
Ahhhh, but the niggling question remained whether she would feel the same degree of compassion when she heard the truth in its entirety...how then would she react?
The younger woman stirred in her bed, her lips parting slightly and Resa was reminded of the slightly stupefied look that had crossed the college seniors expressive face when she had emerged from the shower. It was terribly cute and more than a little flattering and she had only just caught herself from reaching over to ruffle the girls long, blonde hair.
She decided she really liked the kid. Liked her more than shed liked anyone in a very long time and that realization confounded her. This inexplicable fondness for the college senior not only made her lower her defenses but it made her want to lower her defenses and that was unheard of. Trust had never come easy for her. It had always been something to be earned over time and given after careful consideration to a chosen few. Yet here she was, having known this girl for less than two days and she was already revealing some of the most closely guarded, private moments of her life. Without hesitancy or regret. Why? What had possessed her to talk as she had last night, to tell her about Luis? About Alfons? Even Father Hector didnt know that much about Alfons.
Maybe it was the way the kid listened. It seemed as if she truly cared and wasnt faking a bunch of bullshit. She couldnt put her finger on it...perhaps there was no explanation...but this kid was definitely getting under her skin in record time. And she couldnt detect even an inkling of hesitation within herself at the notion.
Jennifer stretched in her sleep and caused part of the blanket to fall off her shoulder. Her hand made two clumsy, unconscious attempts to find it again before falling back to the mattress. Resa smiled to herself and reached over to set it straight again with the ease of one whod done such things a thousand times before. She let her hand linger lightly on the girls arm for a fraction of a second, absorbing the warmth and surprising strength, before withdrawing it back to her side and then wondered to herself not why shed done that, but why it had felt so natural.
Her reverie was broken by a muffled noise from outside and she instantly stilled to listen, her senses on full alert. For several long moments no other sound reached her ears and she was starting to think she had imagined it when a womans high pitched scream sliced through the night.
Resa was out of the bed and across the room in a second, vaguely aware of Jennifers sleepy start of confusion but knowing there wasnt enough time to explain. In a flash she was through the front door and into the small, stone courtyard that separated the visitor apartment from the chapel. She quickly determined the sounds had come from the house of worship and headed there without a second thought, the flagstone cold beneath her bare feet and her breath visible in the night air.
Resa reached the chapels outer doors and gritted her teeth in frustration when she discovered they were locked. But she knew this place well and remembered there was more than one entrance. Another set of doors was located in the back, behind the altar, and she hastened there. On her way she noticed a sizable hole in the lower part of one of the stained glass windows, big enough for a person to fit through but there were shards of glass on the ground and she had no protection on her feet. Entering from there was impossible for her. Instead she picked up her speed and rounded the corner to reach the chapels back doors. Which were also locked. But Resa had been a mischievous child and finding ways to sneak into the chapel as a student had been one of her specialties. Now such a dubious talent would come in handy.
She reached her hand through the small hole located under the porch steps, hoping against hope that it was still there after all these years, that no one had discovered her little stash. And luck was on her side that night for indeed it was still there. Tucked under one of the steps brick outcroppings, coated with rust and who knows what else. But there.
Resas fingers curled around the flat-head screwdriver, withdrew it and wasted no time shoving it in the tiny space between the double doors. Three agonizing seconds later, the lock clicked open and she was plunging into the short, narrow hallway behind the altar.
She heard the sounds of mens angry whispers but could not make out what they were saying or their specific location. She crouched down in the darkness as she edged around a corner and found herself behind the tall, wooden pulpit that traditionally stood on the left of the Catholic altar. She glanced into the darkness of the chapels interior and immediately saw two sets of flashlights held by two shadowy figures standing in the center aisle between the rows of pews. She also heard the rattle of metal clanging against metal. The voices, while still hushed, were more distinct and she could tell both were men.
"Dude, leave her the fuck alone," one whispered.
"Shes un-fucking-conscious," came the raspy reply.
"I dont fucking care! We gotta get the fuck outta here now!"
"Shes a fuckin nun for Christs sake!"
"I dont give a fuck."
"Yeah? Well I do. Theres such a thing as fuckin Karma, man, and leavin a nun unconscious gets you all kinds of bad."
"Oh, and robbin from nuns gets you all kinds of good?"
"Fuck you, Joey."
"Fuck you, too. Im outta here."
The first figure moved away from the second and scurried in the direction of the broken stained glass window.
Resa still had the screwdriver in her hand and briefly considered using it, then stopped herself. Only if there was no other choice. Such a weapon could easily be lethal and she had vowed to herself never to use such measures again unless there was no alternative which, in this case, there was.
She set the tool aside and took hold of a nearby tall, wrought iron candelabrum. It felt heavy in her hands and that was just what she needed. With the stealth of a cat she moved off the altar and approached the unsuspecting figure as he hefted a large shape a bag? through the hole in the stained glass.
She was a few feet away from him when suddenly the front doors of the chapel were thrown open and the overhead lights flooded the interior.
Resa blinked against the unexpected illumination and glanced at the front of the chapel just as Sister Stephanie entered, followed closely by Jennifer. The sight of the two women entering such a dangerous situation greatly alarmed Resa and her first instinct was to protect them from possible harm by the second thief. But the former gang leader was also left exposed by the unforeseen light and found herself face to face with the hulking, ski-masked first thief.
Who was greatly displeased.
He got in the first blow, a right cross that connected with the left side of her face and immediately produced the metallic taste of blood in her mouth. But shed been punched before, by stronger men than he and recovered in an instant. She felt a dangerous smile creep across her face and made a slight tsking sound.
"Now, now. . dont you know its not nice to hit girls?"
With that, she spun around behind him and brought the wrought iron bar down hard against his lower back, aiming specifically for the kidney area. He shrieked in extreme pain and arched backwards even as he stumbled forward. Evidently she found her mark.
But, big strong guy that he was, he immediately scrambled back to his feet and turned for her. She was ready. She jabbed the candelabrum into his diaphragm, knocking out his breath and, before he could react, brought the heavy, iron base up against the lower part of his jaw. His head snapped back and he crashed to the ground, the sound of his skull striking the marble floor leaving no doubt hed have a big ol bruise in the morning. She watched him a second until she determined he was truly out cold then, ignoring the flare of pain in her upper left shoulder, spun back in Jennifers direction.
Both the college senior and Sister Stephanie were engaged in a struggle with the lanky second thief as he struggled to escape. Resa leapt onto a pew, still holding the candelabrum, and dashed across the wooden surface in their direction.
The ski-masked Second Thief saw her coming and doubled his efforts at escaping. He shrugged off Sister Stephanie but had a more difficult time freeing himself from Jennifers strong hold. He glanced again at Resa, now less than twenty feet away, and, in a panic, head butted Jennifer to secure his freedom.
The dazed young woman fell backwards and the Second Thief ran through the open chapel front doors. Resa had a choice: Go after him or check Jennifer.
There was no hesitation.
She tossed aside the candelabrum and leapt down beside the college senior who lay sprawled in the center aisle, her head smack against the end of a pew.
"Are you all right?" she asked with concern, brushing blonde bangs from the younger womans forehead.
Jennifer nodded, then cringed. "Hes getting away," she said even as she cupped the back of her head.
"Let him. We have the other one and he isnt going anywhere." Resa searched the younger womans face and immediately noted the red welt above her right eye. 100% future bruise. She cringed a little at the thought.
"Oh dear God!"
Resa and Jennifer both immediately turned in the direction of Sister Stephanies distraught cry and saw the young nun kneeling behind the back of the pews, though the nature of what exactly had upset her was unknown.
Resa sprung from Jennifers side and raced over to see what it was had distressed the woman so and was startled at what she beheld; before her Sister Therase lay unconscious upon the ground, her face a pale mask of death.
Sister Stephanie glanced at Resa. "Her heart..." but she could say no more as emotion choked her words and tears filled her brown eyes.
Jennifer reached their side and gasped at Sister Therase, shock rippling across her young face.
Resa knew there wasnt much time. She grasped Sister Stephanie by the shoulders and firmly, but not without sensitivity, moved her out of the way. "Call the paramedics," she commanded to Jennifer then, as the college student dashed off, focused her attention on Sister Therase.
She put her ear first to the smaller womans mouth then chest and determined quickly that she was not breathing. And, worse, that her heart was not beating or beating so faint as to be beyond detection.
Resa at once began to perform CPR, as the very same nuns of the Sacred Heart had taught her long ago. She placed crossed hands over Sister Therases heart and, keeping her arms stiff, began pumping with all her might despite the intense pain it caused her own injured shoulder. One, two, three...pause...one, two, three...pause...one....and so on for how long she did not know. She glanced back at a stunned Sister Stephanie whose attention was riveted on Sister Therases still face.
"Do you know mouth to mouth?" she barked the question at the nun.
Blank brown eyes met hers but then comprehension dawned and Sister Stephanie jumped forward. She took Sister Therases head -- now unadorned by the wimple and somehow seemingly more vulnerable -- in her hands, arched it back, and opened her mouth. She checked to be certain the unconscious nun had not swallowed her tongue, which was a step many forgot when performing this procedure, then pinched closed Sister Therases nose, covered her mouth with her own and with all her might blew air into her dying friends lungs.
* * * *
Their efforts failed.
The head paramedic pronounced Sister Therase Maria Montoya, only thirty four years old, dead at the scene and as her body was removed a solemn silence descended over all now assembled in the chapel.
Resa stood apart from the cluster, near the pew closest to the altar, and watched the proceedings with a strangers perspective. There were at least thirty people gathered between the police, paramedics, and dazed knot of sisters. Resa had already given one statement to a young police officer whom, when he didnt react at her name or question her presence in a place such as this, she wryly determined to be a rookie. Time would tell if talking with the police would have repercussions but, given the circumstances, she had no real choice. At least in this situation she was secure in the knowledge shed committed no offense for which she could be questioned. Unlike earlier.
The Mother Superior was speaking with Sister Stephanie and a large, balding man in a bad tan sports coat who appeared to be the lead detective on the case. The police had already surmised that Sister Therase had likely died of a heart attack brought on by the fright at encountering the two thieves in the middle of robbing the chapel. Sister Stephanie had explained that it was not uncommon for her late friend to visit the house of worship in the middle of the night when she had difficulty sleeping, which, apparently, had been the case this night.
The First Thief, awake but still groggy, had been hauled away by a couple of blue clad patrol officers but not before Resa got a good, clean view of his face. Shed never seen him before and the confirmation brought an inner sigh of relief. In the back of her mind she couldnt help wondering if all this was somehow connected to her presence here and a part of her half expected the men to be Vartans. But they werent. They were strangers whod come to rob the chapel and the events would have transpired unimpeded had she not been here. It brought some measure of comfort on this somber occasion.
Resa unconsciously searched the crowd for some sign of Jennifer. The college student had gone with a detective into another room to give her statement and had yet to return. She hadnt had the opportunity to speak with her since Jennifer had left to call for help and she was a bit worried for how the young woman would react to the news of the nuns sudden, shocking death. She could tell the kid was given to strong emotions and something of this nature would not fail to affect her.
Out of the corner of her eye a bit of motion caught her attention and she glanced over just as Jennifer re-entered the chapel. She watched her scan the room until she locked on her and immediately headed in Resas direction. As the younger woman approached, she could see she was close to crying but valiantly struggling to keep herself in check. That all fell apart, however, as she neared and tears welled uncontrollably in her green eyes. Resa drew in a breath to speak but didnt have the opportunity as Jennifer suddenly wrapped her arms around her waist, planted her face squarely in the corner of Resas right shoulder and began to quietly cry.
At first the former gang leader didnt quite know what to do. She stood there, stiff, arms at her side, a bit befuddled at the situation and glanced around self-consciously. To say she wasnt a touchy-feely person was something of an understatement but shed sensed already that Jennifer was and she tried to accept this. Still, this was something of a first for her, being someones source of comfort and all and she feared she was handling it badly. So she awkwardly raised one hand to pat the center of Jennifers back and, with a mental self-chide, forced herself to relax. After several moments, a strange sense of compassion seeped into her body as she slowly absorbed the younger womans anguish and, much to her surprise, found herself naturally easing into the act of soothing another persons grief. By the time the younger woman drew slightly back, Resa had shed her awkwardness entirely and used the cuff of her nightgowns sleeve to wipe the tears from Jennifers cheeks.
"Im sorry," Jennifer mumbled and sniffed.
"Dont worry bout it," Resa replied with a tender smile.
"Its just...so senseless, you know?" She raised red-rimmed and swollen green eyes to meet Resas and the former gang leader felt as if a knife had been plunged into her chest. The sight of such overwhelming sadness in Jennifer was suddenly intolerable and without a second thought she pulled her back into a strong, comforting hug which the younger woman welcomed with appreciation.
"I know," she murmured as she stroked the back of the younger womans blonde head and like that another well-crafted, seemingly indomitable defense fell.
Jennifer hugged her arms around Resas lithe waist, sighed, and felt every muscle in her body wail in exhaustion. But at least now she knew she was safe. Being awakened by Resas dash from the room had left her disconcerted yet that was nothing compared to the shock of what was to follow. She wondered again why she was allowing this to agonize her so. Unexpected death was always traumatic, to be sure, but she had only just met Sister Therase; she shouldnt be this upset...and yet she was...terribly, terribly upset and sad and angry and confused at the pointless loss of life.
But seeing Resa again helped. Merely spotting her unmistakably dominant figure across the chapel had brought a powerful surge of relief and she couldnt make her way to the other womans side fast enough. The hug had been spontaneous and, for her part, greatly needed. Shed been too emotional to take into full account Resas normal air of reserve or the discomfort her actions might bring the other woman and instead had been consumed by her own desperate need for a safe haven in which to retreat. Now as composure returned with it came the clarity of mind to marvel a bit at Resas receptive response and at her own lack of embarrassment at her actions. But Resa hadnt rejected her, had even seemed to willingly accept her weepy embrace, which she would never have anticipated.
Her head throbbed and she drew back enough to touch the sore area above her eye where the escaped thief had struck her.
"Youre gonna bruise," Resa said, squinting a little as she inspected the injury.
Jennifer glanced at the other woman and noticed the red blotch on the left corner of her mouth.
"You, too," she said as she gently touched an index finger to the small, dried flecks of what could only be blood on the edge of her lower lip. "You should put some ice on that before you go to bed."
"Yes, Mom," Resa murmured wryly.
A hint of amusement pushed past Jennifers depression. "Hows the shoulder?"
Resa shrugged a little. "Fine." Off Jennifers look: "Yes, its a little sore but nothing ripped."
"Are you sure?"
"Okay," Jennifer said and sighed as she finally disengaged herself from the other womans hold. "God, what a day." She sank down in the near-by pew and rubbed a hand over tired eyes.
"You gonna be all right?" Resa asked.
Jennifer nodded, appreciating the other womans concern. "Yeah. Im just sad and exhausted."
"I hear ya," Resa said, leaning against the pews edge and watching the younger woman closely. "That was some kind of crazy you did, taking on the thief like that."
Jennifer met her blue eyes. "You did it, too. Alone. At least I had some help."
"Yeah, but Ive been in sticky situations before. Im used to it."
"Well, I appear to be getting used to it," she answered dryly.
"Hopefully not," came a firm voice behind Resa. "Violence is never the answer."
The former gang leader turned to see the typically stern Mother Superior approaching them with Sister Stephanie trailing not far behind. Both women wore modest, cotton robes over their plain sleepwear which were quite different from the formality of their vestments and cast them in a different light; they seemed suddenly quite human. The Reverend Mothers hair was a dull gray and cut in a short, simple style that, while not even remotely attractive, was suitable for a woman of her age and vocation.
Sister Stephanie, on the other hand, was beautiful. Jennifer, of course, had seen her without her habit when they met outside the front doors of the chapel before entering the fray but had been too caught up in the excitement of the events to pay attention to the younger nuns appearance. Now, however, she did. She noted Sister Stephanies hair was an unexpected wheat blonde and fell in soft curls around her chin level. Jennifer also noted the younger nuns emotionally ravaged but presently composed countenance and felt a swell of compassion for the woman who had been nothing less than acrimonious at every turn.
Jennifer stood and focused her attention on Sister Stephanie. "Im so sorry about Sister Therase," she said with deep feeling.
Pained brown eyes rose to meet her own and there was a flicker of recognition at the heartfelt sincerity of the young womans condolence. She silently acknowledged the words of solace with a faint nod, then again lowered her eyes and tightened her lips.
"Thank you, Jennifer," The Mother Superior said, her voice crisp as she took control of the situation. "Tonight has indeed been a tragedy. Sister Therase was beloved by many and her presence will be missed." She turned her attention to Resa. "Its my understanding, Resa, that you played an active role in all this."
Jennifers defenses immediately went up. She didnt understand a whit of the underlying animosity between these two women but she wasnt about to allow the Mother Superior to infer Resa was anything but innocent in these events.
She took a step forward.
"She broke up the robbery," Jennifer said swiftly. "And captured the First Thief single handed. She was very brave."
Jennifer felt all eyes turn to her and a minor twinge of embarrassment warmed her skin but she held firm her ground.
The Reverend Mothers gaze swept over her with a trace of amusement. "Yes, I am aware. Sister Stephanie has filled me in on both your actions and your efforts to save Sister Therase. I wanted to express my appreciation. It was, indeed, very brave."
It was only because she was already growing adept at being able to read Resas cryptic expression that she noticed the trace of bewilderment but the former gang leader conceded the praise with,
"I only wish we could have saved Sister Therase."
"Yes...If only..." The Mother Superior nodded gravely. "But I have come to learn over the years that there are often events which make no sense at the time yet much later become clear as we mature enough to gain a better perspective. Sister Therases death will be one such event."
Sister Stephanie clenched her hands and though she did not speak up, the Mother Superior picked up on the tension.
"Do you disagree, Sister?"
Sister Stephanie raised her head to meet the Mother Superiors gaze. "Therases death is pointless," she said in a hard voice. "Now, a month from now, a year it will still be pointless."
The Mother Superior stiffened. "Youre upset. It is to be expected."
"Of course Im upset. My friend is dead for no reason and no amount of platitudes or worldly wisdom will conjure one up," Sister Stephanie exploded.
"Sister," the Mother Superior spoke sternly. "We will discuss this later."
There was no mistaking the underlying mandate in the older womans tone and Sister Stephanie visibly struggled to comply, her jaw clenched, her eyes lowered...but not before Jennifer caught a glimpse of lingering defiance in their brown depths.
Jennifer glanced at Resa who watched the two women through hooded eyes. She caught Jennifers gaze and sent her a look as if to say Isnt this interesting.
With unflappable composure, the Mother Superior faced them. "I came to thank you and as your need to have a place to stay may last longer than the allotted time we discussed, I would like to extend to you both the offer to stay here as long as you find necessary."
Now Resas eyes widened in visible surprise. "Thats -- very generous," she said. "But we shouldnt be here too long."
"We accept, though," Jennifer piped up with a small smile. "Thanks." She glanced at Resa to see if her taking up the offer for both of them produced a reaction and was relieved when the former gang leader showed no objection.
"Youre quite welcome," the Reverend Mother replied then, with a glance at Sister Stephanie, "I believe we are all suffering from shock and exhaustion and should try to get in a little rest. Tomorrow will be a trying day for everyone." She targeted her last point to the young nun by her side who didnt bother to look at any of them before she turned to head out of the chapel. The Mother Superior watched her depart, hazel eyes unable to fully mask her concern, then she nodded to Jennifer and Resa, said, "Good night," and followed after her subordinate.
By all rights Resa should have slept in until noon. But nature had long ago decreed her to be an early riser and, despite the traumatic events of only a few hours earlier, she nonetheless awoke the moment the rays of the morning sun kissed her skin. This time she didnt even bother trying to fool herself back to sleep. Instead she tossed aside her covers, sat up in bed, and swung her legs over the side. Bare feet touched the chilly, hardwood floors and she curled her toes into little fists, a habit of hers since childhood, then determined herself to be ravenously hungry.
She glanced at Jennifer who was still peacefully cradled in the arms of deep repose and decided to let the kid sleep. She needed it. Maybe even more than she needed breakfast. Resa, however, needed food more. After that she would get to work on her plan to get them out of this place and to safely return Jennifer to her normal life.
She stood and quietly exited the bedroom, careful not to make a noise that might accidentally awaken her companion. In the living room she found the two piles of clothes the nuns had delivered the night before along with the plates of food. While the outfits both Resa and Jennifer had worn yesterday were being cleaned, the nuns had offered up some of the clothes donated to them for charitable purposes. The Sisters had guessed an approximation of their respective sizes and brought several selections from which the women could determine what to wear. Due to her height, Resa had only mens clothes from which to choose but that didnt bother her; she had often been forced to wear her older brothers hand-me-downs while growing up due to budgetary restraints and her mothers laziness about shopping for her children.
She picked out a long sleeved denim dress shirt -- front pocket torn off -- and a pair of black jeans. With the barest glance at her reflection she decided the ensemble would do, then brushed her teeth and hair, acknowledged her lower lip was indeed a bit puffier from the punch she sustained (though the ice pack Jennifer had made her put on her jaw before going back to bed had clearly helped to keep the overall swelling down) and, with a final peek at the still unconscious college senior, slipped out the front door in search of the convents kitchen.
She never even got close. Instead she made it ten feet outside the visitor quarters and was rounding the corner of the chapel when she nearly collided with a fast walking and intensely focused figure. The woman barely acknowledged her with a curt, "Excuse me," before continuing forward on her path around the other side of the visitor apartment.
It took Resa a second to recognize the woman before she passed out of sight and her brows rose in surprise. Sister Stephanie. Dressed in civilian clothes. And looking angry enough to do battle.
Now Resa was not nearly as inquisitive by nature as her young collegiate companion however this scenario intrigued even her. Her gut instinct told her something was either already wrong or on the verge of becoming wrong and so she shelved the idea of an early breakfast to instead follow after the young nun.
Resa turned the corner around the visitor apartment in time to see Sister Stephanie quite some distance away in the middle of opening a side door located in the outer wall that surrounded the estate. Without a glance back, the nun exited through the vine-covered boundary.
Resa frowned. Curiouser and curiouser.
Resa jogged up to the door right before it closed and slipped out onto the street where the real world, with its aggressive sights, smells, and sounds -- juxtaposed to the relative peace of the convent -- hit her like a slap in the face.
She caught sight of Sister Stephanie at the street corner, entering into the crosswalk with a group of other pedestrians. Resa quickened her step after the young woman, just making it across the street before the light turned red. The small crowd of people with whom Sister Stephanie had traversed the intersection dissipated and Resa suddenly found herself face to face with none other than the young nun herself. Who was, naturally, pissed off.
"What are you doing?" Sister Stephanie demanded.
"Following you." Resa replied bluntly, seeing no need to lie.
"Well stop it."
"I dont think so."
"You dont think -- ?"
"When was the last time you were outside the convent?
"That is none of your business."
Resa deftly chose to ignore that. "Im guessing its been a while. Maybe longer than even you can remember...And Im also guessing it would take something pretty important to get you to break the Orders rules like this." Sister Stephanies only response was to stare daggers at Resa who continued in measured tones. "Why dont you tell me whats going on?"
Sister Stephanie was silent a long moment, every muscle in her face clenched with tension and hostility. But beneath the surface there was something else, too. Something greater that Resa sensed and Sister Stephanie would be loath to admit to...and that something was vulnerability. Fundamental, human vulnerability. And with it came the need to unburden and connect with another person...even if that person was Resa Gustavez.
Sister Stephanie exhaled sharply in exasperation. "Fine," she said curtly. "The police called this morning. They identified the man in custody as a Joseph Randolf but they still dont know the identity of the Second Thief who got away. Mr. Randolf, apparently, has a history of petty theft and burglary and they think his accomplice might be someone he met while in prison or through his present job." Sister Stephanie indicated to the half-completed apartment building to her right. "Which just happens to be as a worker with Teague Construction."
On the chain-link fence that surrounded the buildings site a sign read in big, bold letters: RENOVATIONS COMPLETED BY SPRING OF 1999. BROUGHT TO YOU BY J.P. TEAGUE & SONS; HELPING BUILD A BETTER L.A. SINCE 1974.
The building itself was at least seven stories tall and wasnt far enough along in its construction to fully determine the final architectural style but at least one thing was for certain there was a great deal of activity taking place within the site itself. Trucks, cranes, dozens of workers all buzzed about like bees around a hive.
Sister Stephanie pointed to the top story that was completely exposed. "From the higher floors anyone can see right into our yards, see almost every part of the Sacred Heart which has been a problem ever since construction started a couple months ago," she continued. "Some of their workers have been grossly obnoxious, particularly when the older, female students have been around. The Reverend Mother eventually had to call up J.P. Teague himself to demand they keep a tighter reign on his employees."
"Did it work?"
"Mostly. The lewd remarks and whistles have stopped. But they still watch. It feels like this constant presence anytime any of us venture outside during the day. We try to ignore it and some have greater success than others. But, you always know theyre there." She paused. "It just cant be a coincidence. Mr. Randolf working here and then getting caught stealing from our chapel. He must have gotten the idea from looking in on us all this time."
"Sounds reasonable," Resa agreed. "But what are you planning to do? Go in there and ask every man you see if he helped rob a convent last night?"
"Of course not. Im going to talk with the Foreman, ask him some questions and see what I can find out."
"How very Laura Holt of you," Resa said drolly. "But dont you think thats something better left for the detectives?"
Sister Stephanie furrowed her brow. "I dont know who this Laura Holt is but I think I have the right to make inquiries into Mr. Randolfs behavior. He is, after all, responsible for my friends death." There was a catch in her voice as she spoke the last words, evidence that her grief was still raw.
Resa didnt feel she could argue with her on this point but also instinctively knew having the young nun plow alone into a male bastion such as this was, perhaps, not the greatest of strategies.
"When was the last time you were on a construction site?" Resa asked even though she already knew the answer.
Sister Stephanie shifted her feet and twitched her mouth. "Well, never," she had to admit. "Ive never been."
"Have you been on one?"
Resa had to laugh. "Sister, Ive been practically everywhere." Then she sighed and moved forward toward the gap in the fence that acted as the sites front entrance. "Cmon."
Sister Stephanie didnt move. "What do you mean?"
Resa looked back at her. "I mean come on, we might as well get this over with."
"We," she said with distinct emphasis. "No offense, Sister, but this isnt exactly a good place for someone like you to go into all alone."
Sister Stephanie looked for a moment as if she were about to argue the point when a loud bang of something immensely heavy dropping to the ground made her jump. A second later from within the site a mans disembodied voice boomed out,
"Goddammit all to Hell, Lefty! Why dont ya look where youre droppin things, you stupid sonuvabitch!"
Which was followed by, "Ey, fuck youz!"
To which the first voice replied, "No thanks, yer not my type." And after this brief bit of witty repartee came a round of deep, self-satisfied laughter.
Sister Stephanie cleared her throat and avoided Resas eyes. "Fine."
Resa hid her grin and headed for the opening in the gate.
An aura of organized chaos greeted them as they entered the heart of the construction area where the air was thick with the smells of powdered cement and hot tar. Resa lead the way across the heavy wooden planks that covered the deep plumbing trench running across the front of the site. She spied a silver trailer that no doubt acted as the main office and headed in that direction.
Her instinctive reaction was to ignore the strange looks they received upon passing through the entrance but then remembered who she was escorting and glanced back. Sister Stephanie was only a couple feet behind her, her eyes darting around and taking in everything she saw, almost like a tourist torn by a sense of curiosity at her new surroundings and anxiety at the potentially hostile environment.
"This way," Resa said to her, pointing to the trailer.
Sister Stephanie nodded tensely and followed. For a moment Resa thought they might actually make it across the site without overt acknowledgement from any of the crew. But such was not to be. The first whistle reached her ears as they were mid-way to their destination and she rolled her eyes. After that, the rest of the guys got into the act until a cacophony of catcalls filled the air. Resa looked over at Sister Stephanie and saw the young woman was rigid with discomfort. Shed clearly never been in such a situation before.
Resa felt sorry for her. Oh, she hadnt forgotten all the brutal things the young nun had said to her -- after all, it was just yesterday -- but she derived no pleasure from seeing her like this. Still, she hadnt the first idea how to reassure her.
What would Jennifer do? she wondered then caught herself. What an odd thought...and yet, extraordinarily enough, just asking that question brought about the answer as if the workings of Jennifer Logans mind were eternally familiar to her. She would drape an arm around the other womans shoulder to let her know she wasnt alone.
Which, of course, was something Resa would never do.
Instead, she gave the nun a look of support.
"Dont let em know it bothers you," she said. "It just encourages them."
Sister Stephanie stared at her a moment, then nodded and struggled to comply.
Resa moved forward and was within twenty feet of the trailer when the door opened and two men stepped out. It was obvious at a glance they were brothers. The similarity -- light gray eyes, square jaws, hawk shaped noses -- was too great to be coincidence and Resa determined the one closest to them to be the elder of the two. She guessed both mens ages hovered somewhere around the late twenties, early thirties mark.
She noticed something else as well; the moment the two men appeared the heckling ceased and the construction crew immediately returned to their tasks at hand.
The older of the two men glanced back at the younger and said something just out of Resas earshot before moving forward to greet them. The younger man hung back to scrutinize the two women for a beat or two longer, then headed in the opposite direction.
The first man smiled as he reached them and Resa noticed that his glance darted appreciatively in Sister Stephanies direction.
"Hi there, ladies. How may I help you?" he asked in a most pleasant manner.
Resa took charge. "Are you the Foreman here?" she asked.
"No, this is my brothers site but I run the company thats doing the building. My names Phillip Teague of Teague Construction." He extended his hand and Resa accepted it, noting the restrained strength and relative lack of calluses on his palm.
"Resa Gustavez," she said. "And this is Sister Stephanie of the Convent of the Sacred Heart."
In that moment, Resa decided that coming along had been worth it just to see the dumfounded start on Phillip Teagues face. Gray eyes swept over Sister Stephanies slender frame again and the smile disappeared.
"Youre a nun?" he asked incredulously.
Sister Stephanie couldnt hide the blush that colored her fair cheeks as she nodded.
"Oh." He frowned, blinked twice then glanced back at Resa. "You?"
"Oh...Well, um, how can I help you?" He asked the question of Resa but she noticed his eyes continued to dart in Sister Stephanies direction.
"Do you have a Joseph Randolf working for you here?" Resa asked.
Phillip Teague looked blank. "I honestly dont know. As I said, this is my brothers site. Im here this morning for a monthly inspection. Judes in charge of hiring all personnel."
"He should find some men with manners," Sister Stephanie bristled, annoyance helping her to find her voice at last.
Phillip regarded her again and his eyes warmed. "Youre absolutely right. I apologize for all that," he said waving his hand in the direction of the building to indicate the catcalls. "I hope it didnt bother you too much."
Sister Stephanie shook her head. "I can handle it."
He smiled. "Im sure you can."
Sister Stephanie blushed again and very nearly smiled and Resa cocked an eyebrow. If she didnt know any better shed swear there was some significant chemistry taking place before her eyes. Curiouser and curiouser indeed...
"May we speak with Jude?" Resa asked.
Phillip shrugged. "Sure. Hes around the other side of the complex right now checking on some things but hell be back here in about fifteen minutes." He paused and frowned a little. "Is something wrong?"
"Yes. But I dont think we should discuss it out here in the open."
Phillips frown deepened. "I see...Then lets find some privacy." He stepped back and indicated the trailer behind him. "After you."
* * * *
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