Free Fiction on the 14th: Play the Right Cards

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PLAY THE RIGHT CARDS
by M.L. Buchman
-a Delta Force romance story-

Ramiro dreams a simple dream: become a great chef to capture the heart of the best cook he ever met. Now, in just-next-door restaurants in their old neighborhood—the barrios of Medellín, Colombia—he brings a modern twist to catch her attention.

Estela’s worries center on the last gasp of the drug cartels that still haunt her neighborhood. When a pair of American Delta operators start a card game in Ramiro’s restaurant, she wonders if she  too can PLAY THE RIGHT CARDS.

 

1

The flash of white-gold drew Ramiro’s attention from the mote de queso.

It was a soup he’d lifted from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast and was adapting to the Medellín palate—with his own modern style of course. The thick hard cheese had been transformed to tiny floating islands that would catch in every spoonful. The sweetness of yam now came from roasted and juiced corn, and the coconut milk base was reconstructed from goat milk and white chocolate.

It was close. So close. It needed more roasted-corn milk—and, he tried not to sigh, less salt. Nowhere in Colombia was there a love for the salt and sweet together as there was in Medellín, but the balance was wrong. The only way to put less in was to start over and he’d already been nursing this soup along for two days. Any distraction was welcome.

The flash of white-gold was a man’s pale blond hair. Not exactly common in the heart of the Santo Domingo district of Medellín. It belonged to a big guy. Tall and incredibly broad of shoulder. The man who followed him in was darker, but no smaller. They looked like two tanks rolling into his restaurant. Ramiro didn’t need to be brilliant to spot American drug-war military.

Buenos días, amigos. Welcome to my restaurant.” He worked hard on his English hoping for just this moment. American military liked to think they were adventurous, but they rarely were. It had taken three months for one to walk in here. If he could make a good impression, they’d tell their friends and then he’d be made. The barrio’s locals were fine, but money came from the Americans. Also if the Americans came, then the trendy Paisas from lower Medellín would start riding the tram or the escalator up into the barrio and they too had money.

“Hey there.” The blond man offered one of those odd, meaningless American greetings as they looked around.

The barrio of Santo Domingo had changed so much since the days when Pablo Escobar’s drug money had ruled here, that the neighborhood of his youth was almost unrecognizable. There were still alleys and streets that even he didn’t walk into, but no longer did everyone spend whole days cowering out of sight as gun battles raged along the Fronteras Invisibles that had divided the drug militias’ territories. With new parks, libraries, civic centers, and even massive outdoor escalators that climbed right up into the hills of the upper comunas, the neighborhoods had slowly quieted and were regaining cohesion, like a fine sauce.

It wasn’t done yet, but gunfire was now less common than bombs had been the year when six thousand had died in this city alone. The lower city was far safer and the hill neighborhoods were following.

Ramiro had done his best to make his restaurant fit the modern times. The walls were white, with paintings of local vistas—cheap ones from street artists but with a sharp, modernist eye. The tables were topped with black Formica and dark blue linoleum covered the old wood floors. The chairs he’d selected for comfort over style. This restaurant was his very breath, and his future.

“Would you like some lunch, my friends?” Please let them be his friends. He moved out to escort them to seats. There were ten tables and only two were occupied, so where they sat didn’t matter; the secret was to get them sitting.

“Sure. Duane says he’s ready to eat a horse. Me, I’m fine with just a small cow or two.” Their Spanish was very good, though strangely regionless. It didn’t matter, it made his life easier. He still had to concentrate to get English syntax organized in his head before he spoke.

When he tried to hand over menus, the blond guy waved them away. “You’re the chef, you choose. We’re not picky eaters.”

I’m not,” ‘Duane’ grumbled out in a voice that sounded little used. “Chad’s got this thing against aji chombo sauce.”

“Only because the last time you said ‘Try it, you’ll like it,’ it burned a hole in my tongue that came out through the bottom of my boots. I liked those boots.”

“He likes wearing ballet slippers.”

Ramiro knew it was bad form to laugh in a customer’s face—especially one he wanted to turn into a repeat customer—but he couldn’t help himself.

“That’s ballet dancers. Those girls bring a whole new meaning to flexible. And I won’t mention Duane and his bunny slippers,” blond ‘Chad’s’ smile forgave Ramiro his laugh.

Ramiro wasn’t sure what “bunny slippers” were. He wondered if they used their real names. Probably. Duane’s tan was dark enough, but Chad would never pass as undercover anything in Colombia. Time to get back to the food.

“The reason you don’t like the aji chombo is because you eat the Venezuelan sauce.” Venezuela was just another confirmation of who they were as it was a border that was not very comfortable to cross right now. “You must try my aji picante Colombiano. It is hot, but it is not simply hot with peppers. It is hot with flavor. It is hot with the spirit of Colombia.”

“Bring it on, brother.” Duane turned to his friend, “You got the cards?”

“You were supposed to— Shit, bro.” He turned to Ramiro. “Do you have any playing cards?”

Ramiro went to look, but all he found were a pack of My Little Pony cards his niece had left behind on her last visit from Bogota.

“Sorry, all I could find, my friends.”

Chad fanned the deck. Ramiro should have told them he couldn’t find anything. They’d take offense at these silly pink cards and walk away.

Brightly colored cartoon ponies adorned them. The suits were made up of hearts, diamonds, rainbows, and more. A “three of butterflies” flew around the image of Fluttershy, a beige pony with hot pink hair. A “seven of balloons” floated above the wild-eyed party pony Pinkie Pie with her hot pink hair. He and Marie had played the game for endless hours. Those days had gone by far too fast. No little girl of his own to raise. No little boy to follow in his footsteps. Not yet anyway, but Marie made him wish.

But these military men were not eight-year old Marie.

It was a disaster before he’d even served the first plate. They’d never come back. He—

Chad quickly chucked aside the eights, nines, and tens, then began shuffling the deck. Truco? Two American military men were going to play a vicious, cut-throat game like Truco with My Little Pony cards.

They seemed to forget about his existence, so he slowly eased away and almost landed in Jesús Rivera’s lap, which would have been very bad. He’d known Jesús since they were kids, but his was the last major drug militia still working Santo Domingo. He’d become so hard over the years that Ramiro had barely recognized him when he returned from his apprenticeship and cooking school in Bogotá.

Ramiro hurried back to the kitchen.

 

2

Estela had watched the Americans stroll past the front of her restaurant without thinking anything of it. But when news had spread—as quickly as everything in the barrio did—of a noisy two-person game of Truco in Ramiro’s Restaurante de Medellín, she had her suspicions. When Marla came in for an order of chicharrón with a side of beans and rice to take to her ailing father—who had made a profession of ailing ever since his daughter had married well enough to support him—and asked how it was possible for hair to be so close to white on a young and handsome man, it only confirmed what Estela already knew.

The Americans wanted to eat at Ramiro’s? It was their loss. It wasn’t authentic Colombian food. It was barely food according to some of her customers. She didn’t need more customers. Even Ramiro returning from the big city with his big city ideas and moving in next door hadn’t worried her.

The Paisas of Medellín—the real locals—knew real food. She and Cara could barely keep up with the crowded tables. Those who had to wait were always offered a jugó of iced juice mixed with coconut milk. She knew the feeding and keeping of customers far better than Ramiro with his fancy molecules and espuma that he dropped in frothy little piles as if a person could be satisfied with air and bubbles.

He knew nothing.

Then why did the Americans eating there irk her so?

She paused in the kitchen long enough to drink a lime and coconut jugó herself as the thin-sliced plantain patacones fried for the second time. Her restaurante was warm compared to Ramiro’s chilly moderno nonsense. The wood walls had been placed here by her grandfather. Her grandmother had fed the people of Santo Domingo at these same wooden tables. Even when Pablo Escobar and the other murderous drug scum had ruled the streets, people still had to eat.

She had learned that lesson to her very soul on the day that a bomb killed her mother as she walked along the street with a basket of chicken and potatoes. The explosion had also killed the children of a police captain. It was the day that Estela’s schooling and childhood had ended. She and Nana had run the restaurant from the very next day, because the people they must eat, si? Now this place was hers. No, it was her. She and her restaurant were one and the same. It was something else she had learned from Nana.

She didn’t need Ramiro. She didn’t care about his food that wasn’t food. And she certainly didn’t miss the few people who went to his restaurant when hers was crowded for hours every mealtime.

“What’s on the menu today, Estela?” She knew the voice without turning.

“Nothing for you, Jesús Rivera. Ever. I told you not to come in here.” She rattled the basket in the frying oil.

“Why don’t you like me, Estela? I can show you a very good time. Take you away from all this sweaty work. All these people.” All these people was precisely why she was here. She loved serving traditional, hearty food to the Paisas of Medellín.

She had told him a thousand times no. They had all grown up together here: her, Ramiro, Jesús, and so many others. Many were dead in the drug wars, some had left, very few had come back like Ramiro. She had thought him long gone and wished him well away. It was only after he left that she’d come to miss him. He had been a young man of dreams.

Jesús had just become a runner for the local drug militia back then—still called Pablo’s Domingo Guerrilleros even after Escobar’s death. Jesús’ compañeros, though, had boasted loudly of killing the police captain’s children. All of her begging had brought no police to the barrio seeking justice. She had even gone to Jesús as a friend. At the age of fourteen, he had tried to set the price for helping her as having his way with her. When she had refused, he had slapped her face so hard that it had hurt for a week. She’d given him his first knife scar in payback. Jesús was now the Guerrilleros’ leader.

He would be leaning on the small service counter that separated her kitchen from the crowd. Everyone would be watching, of course. The rapidly quieting restaurant all remembered how she and Jesús had run together as children.  She wondered how much money had changed hands over the years betting on if, or when, Jesús would bed her.

Not now. Not ever.

She dipped the empty wire basket deep in the frying oil and tipped her head for several seconds as if considering how to respond to him. The restaurant was stone silent now in anticipation of her answer, but that couldn’t be helped.

Yanking the basket from the oil, she tapped it once to clear the drips before whirling on him to hold it less than an inch from his smug face. His smugness disappeared fast enough.

“The answer, Jesús, is that there is nothing on the menu here for you. Not me, not a bowl of mondongo soup, not a glass of juice. If you come in my restaurant again, you will wear a seared print of this basket on your face until the end of your days.”

He held her gaze and she wondered how crazy a risk she’d just taken.

They held each other’s glare until a single drip of hot oil fell from the basket onto the back of his hand where it rested on the counter.

His yelp of surprise and jerk backwards elicited a laugh from the gathered diners. Jesús gave her a look darker than the ancient iron of her grill and stalked out the door. A hubbub of speculations among the diners washed across the tables. Some thought it was the next step in an on-going courtship. Others felt that it was proof that it was all decided for now and ever. Only one or two eyed her with caution.

Yes, if they were smart, they would stay away for a while. There was no doubt in her mind, the worst was yet to come.

As she returned to her cooking, she considered her options, but they were few and far between. She was alone now. Oh, she had many friends in the community, but most of those were smart enough to still fear Jesús Rivera and the remains of the Domingo Guerrilleros. Her grandmother had died of old age, her father during an accident in the oil fields, and her mother by that bomb.

Who could help her?

The scene with her and Jesús complete, at least for now, conversation slowly shifted back to speculating about the two men eating at Ramiro’s. They fit none of the standard tourist stereotypes except for being American and where they chose to eat. That implied they were US military.

There was no question, at least not in the hilltop barrios of Medellín, that it had been America’s Delta Force who finally took down Escobar. The trademark sharpshooting  was proof enough, even without what those on the street had seen. The Colombian police had tried—at least the ones not too afraid of retribution had tried—but the shot to the head as Pablo had raced across uneven roof tiles was too neat, too perfect. And the small American team who had been haunting Medellín for months had disappeared that night.

The two Americans. They weren’t merely US military. Delta Force was back in Santo Domingo. If there was anyone to stop Jesús, they were the men to do it.

How to get their attention?

She was pretty enough to get any man’s attention—Jesús had only been one of the many who followed her about in their youth and since. But there was a far more reliable way to get any man’s attention, especially the kind of attention she wanted.

 

3

“Hey, Ramiro. You still got that girlie deck of cards?”

Ramiro looked up in delight. He hadn’t expected the Americans to come back the very next day. And for dinner, which was even better than lunch. His ploy had worked. He had cooked for them like he’d never cooked before—though he wished he hadn’t given in to the temptation to serve his salty soup. It was the only dish they had neither remarked on nor finished.

“Dickhead forgot them again,” Chad hooked a thumb over his shoulder, but no one was there. Duane must be outside, maybe with more of their friends.

“Sure, here you go, mi amigo.” He tossed the pack over the counter.

“Thanks. I’ll get them back to you.”

Ramiro could only gawk in surprise as Chad strode back out the door. Ramiro hurried past the few diners lingering over dessert and looked out just in time to see Chad turn into Estela’s restaurant.

No! Imposible!” He couldn’t breathe against the pressure in his chest. How had that woman bewitched his Americans? The same way she’d bewitched him and every other person in all Santo Domingo since she’d learned to walk. He’d become a cook to impress her. And when that hadn’t worked, he’d left and studied to become a chef. He had taken over the building next door to hers so that he could show her just who could cook now. Not that she seemed to be succumbing to his grand plan.

But to steal his Americans was beyond unfair.

Cara, her waitress, stepped out the front door to set some folding chairs and a card table on the sidewalk in front of Estela’s restaurant. With the hot sun setting, it would be as cool and inviting here as the inside of her restaurant had always been. The Garcia family stepped out of the restaurant and sat at the table—all seven of them crowded together. That would be a nice ticket, even at Estela’s low prices. He glanced in through the small window. The place teemed with people. His Americans were in a corner near the kitchen, completely out of reach, wielding his niece’s My Little Pony cards as if they were weapons of war. Their game of Truco now had numerous spectators.

Estela came out balancing great platters of empanadas and salsas for the Garcias. Only as she finished serving them did she turn and see him.

“Ramiro,” she offered him one of those amazing, friendly smiles that made him forgive her everything.

Except this time.

He steeled his inner resolve, but could only manage one word.

“How?” he waved a hand toward the window.

Her lovely brow furrowed for only a moment. “Oh. The Delta Force men.”

“They’re not—” But Estela had always been the smartest chica in school, until the day she had to leave to work here. If she said that’s what they were, they must be. “Si. Them.”

“I offered them each one of my obleas for dessert when they left your restaurant yesterday, then invited them to come back the next time they were hungry.”

“That’s not fair, Estela.” Nobody made an oblea as good as Estela. Each wafer was bigger around than the tips of his spread fingers and thinner than a whisper. She built them in layers of jam, then wafer, then salty white cheese, another wafer, thickened cream, and so on until they were an inch thick. Sweet, salty, thick, crunchy—it was every possible flavor and texture in each delicate bite.

She gave him an unreadable look.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” And he stalked back to his own restaurant. If it was war she wanted, he’d bring it and bring it hard.

 

4

Estela watched Ramiro go and tried not to feel the ache in her heart. He had been so strange since his return that in some ways she no longer knew him. Where was the boy whose eyes had followed her even when he himself hadn’t dared? It had taken her until he had left to understand that perhaps the quiet boy was the good one and the ones who were so brash and confident—especially those waving about their drug wealth—were not so kind. But now?

Now Ramiro would barely speak with her. And somehow, her seeking the protection of the Americans was yet another offense. She would have to do something about that—when she didn’t have a restaurant crowded with customers and Jesús to worry about.

The dinner service ran by so fast as it always did when she was busy. She was outside in the soft twilight, cleaning up the dishes when a hand grabbed her wrist forcing her to drop a plate that shattered on the rough street. She knew it immediately by the long, thin cruelty of the fingers that her cheek still remembered from all those years ago.

“It’s time, chica,” Jesús breathed in her ear as his other hand clamped about her waist from behind. “It is time you finally gave me what is mine.”

She was helpless against his whipcord strength.

His hand shifted over her mouth. She tried to bite it, but he was expecting that and merely wrenched her neck harder as he forced her to walk ahead of him down the street.

He was going to rape her in some back alley. And she was going to fight until he was forced to kill her to do so. For all her struggles, she might as well have been a fly to be shooed away from a hock of raw lamb.

Tears began to stream down her face. To end like this was too horrible for thought. If she could die right here, right now, shredded by a bomb like her mother, she would take that over what awaited her at Jesús’ hands.

Then, by some miracle, it happened. She was slammed down onto the street. But she wasn’t dead. Her ears didn’t bleed from the blast of the bomb.

At the sound of the snarl behind her, she rolled over and saw Jesús’ back. And beyond him she saw the two Delta men.

“Looky here, buddy,” the blond one had his hands tucked into his back pockets. “We’ve got someone who isn’t playing nice. He’s trying to take away the chef before we get another one of her obleas.”

“Doesn’t seem right,” the darker one agreed. There was a gun in his hand, but he was holding it oddly. More as if he’d snatched it out of Jesús’ waistband than if he’d pulled his own from some hidden spot. With three gestures so fast that she couldn’t follow them, he separated the gun into four pieces. He pocketed one piece, threw a pair of them into a garbage can, and chucked the last into one of the neighborhood’s brand new storm drains where it rattled away.

Jesús yanked out a knife and flicked it open. She wanted to warn them, he was an expert knife fighter, just as his father had been when he was one of Escobar’s actual bodyguards. But the cry caught in her throat. She had scarred Jesús’ face with that knife when she was twelve. And now he was going to carve up these men whose help she needed but hadn’t had time to ask.

And then he was going to carve her.

“Aw, ain’t he cute,” the blond one had no idea the danger he was in. “He’s got a pig sticker.”

“More like a guinea pig sticker,” the darker one answered.

“Maybe it’s a mouse sticker.”

Neither man had the sense to reach for a gun. If they really were Delta Force, they must have guns.

The next moment happened so fast, she could never quite make sense of it.

“Pitiful, dude,” the blond one sounded bored and walked by Jesús as if he wasn’t even there. He bent down to offer her his hand with his back to the most dangerous knife fighter in the barrio, perhaps in Medellín.

Jesús moved to take advantage.

Before she could scream a warning, the darker one stepped forward. One moment Jesús was lunging with his knife. The next he was pinned with his back against the wall, his feet off the ground, and the only sound in the night was his knife clattering down upon a stone. His knife hand was clutched tightly in his other hand as if it was in great pain.

“Little boys shouldn’t play with knives,” the blond one winked at her as he helped her to her feet, only then turning to see what had happened.

With no apparent effort, the darker one lifted Jesús clear of the wall, then tossed him into the same garbage can where parts of his gun had been thrown.

The blond one picked up the blade and inspected it carefully.

“A gift from Escobar to his father,” she told him.

“A custom Terzuola. One of his early designs. Make for a good souvenir.”

“He was generous with his men.” There were still people who worshipped Escobar. He had brought the first lights to a Medellín soccer field so that the locals could play at night. He gave gifts to his adherents so that they lived like kings. And threw lavish parties for “his people”—the Paisas of the barrio.

“And lethal to his enemies.” The blond folded the blade back into the handle with a practiced flick then offered it to her.

She shook her head. “I want no part of the past. Medellín is better with his death. The narco-tourists—they should all live as I did. All die as my mother did. Then we would see if they think it is so fascinating.”

He nodded, instead tossing her the deck of brightly cheerful cards they’d been using to play Truco. “Could you make sure these get back to Ramiro?” They walked her back to her restaurant, waved, and disappeared into the night.

Estela was done with the past. In so many ways.

She looked in, saw that Cara was almost done cleaning the restaurant. When she waved through the window, she received a cheery wave back. No one was the wiser for tonight’s events, which was a blessing.

The bright lights still streamed out onto the rough pavement from Restaurante de Medellín. She stepped into that bright light, then into Ramiro’s restaurant. She had never actually been in here. She didn’t understand the stark colors and sharp edges, but she’d seen his prices and his clientele dressed in their expensive clothes.

“Is this the future?” She wondered aloud.

Ramiro twisted around from where he was resetting a last table, making sure the linen tablecloth—an actual tablecloth—was arranged just so.

 

5

“One version of it.” Ramiro could feel the bitterness in his voice, but it was hard to feel it when he looked at her. She wore the simplest of clothes, a voluminous red skirt in her grandmother’s village’s pattern that she made beautiful rather than mundane. Her white blouse, its collar and sleeves embroidered with tiny red roses, hung loosely over her generous figure until it gathered in the skirt at her trim waist. Her long dark hair framed a face so lovely that Prieto might have painted it, if Estela hadn’t so brought so much life to it herself.

Her eyes seemed a little wider than usual, as if she’d just been running and was surprised to find herself breathless.

“Feed me your food, Ramiro. Show me what it is you do.”

In a dream, he pulled aside a seat for her and held it out.

She shook her head, her hair now loose rather than in the generous ponytail he’d seen earlier, she moved up to the counter facing the kitchen to sit at one of the stools. She made a show of placing two napkins—one in front of her and one at the stool beside her, then set down the deck of My Little Pony playing cards.

“They’re gone?”

She nodded.

He searched for anger, but couldn’t seem to find it.

He started with the soup he had rebuilt from scratch. It was still young—two more days simmering and the broth would truly meld—but the salt and the sweet, the fruit and the cheese were finally in the right balance.

She tasted. With her soft sigh as encouragement, he moved on to rock shrimp steamed in hearts of palm with a pineapple foam. Shaved New York strip served on yucca bread with liquid nitrogen crystalized guacamole shards and seared discs of chicharón. She said nothing, but she finished everything down to the last fork-clattering scrape of the plate. The meal stretched long into the night as he made only one course and two plates at a time, then sat to share it with her. Only when they were done, did he rise to start the next course.

Finally he made dessert—his version of an oblea.

The wafer was seasoned with fine-grated candied ginger and the tiniest shreds of dark-roasted habanero and red bell pepper so that it almost sparkled with color. He had deconstructed the elements of salt and sweet, savory and umami, crema de leche and merest slivers of aged ham. He had stayed up through the night using all of his skills to create it, to win the Americans back from Estela. Never in a thousand years had he imagined that he would be making it for her instead. He served it on a clean white plate in neatly sliced pie sections rather than the traditional full round wrapped in foil.

When he served it on the single plate and set it between their places, it felt as if all the life had gone out of him. He couldn’t even find the energy to lift a slice for himself. Instead, he sat and watched as Estela bit off the end of one of the slices with her perfect white teeth. She closed her eyes as she chewed and, he hoped, savored.

She set it down after only the one lone bite.

“You don’t like it.” She had always been the best cook he’d ever known. They had sung his praises in Bogotá, but none of that mattered. What mattered was what Estela thought. And she had set it down after one bite.

Then she slipped a finger under his chin and forced him to look up at her. It might be the first time they had ever touched.

“How?”

How had he failed? He didn’t know. “I was trying—” foolishly “—to impress you. That was always why I cooked. You remember how my father would beat me, but I never let you know why. It was because I wouldn’t join a cartel and take the easy drug money, instead I cooked. For you.”

Her thumb brushed his cheek so gently.

If he was any less of a man, he would cry. But he had his pride, and that didn’t include crying in front of Estela. He would leave. He would take the remains of his meager savings and go back to Bogotá. There he would open a restaurant in the finest neighborhood where they understood him, rather than some barrio where he no longer belonged.

Her kiss was flavored with his oblea.

Estela’s lips were softer and warmer than he’d ever imagined. They were like her cooking, so complete and perfect that he didn’t know why he’d ever even tried to compete.

She eased back ever so slightly, but still her hand was on his cheek.

“It was amazing, Ramiro. You captured the flavors of the Paisa—the flavor of the people—but somehow you brought it a new life without losing the heart of the food. And I will never make another oblea when I could have one of yours instead.”

“It was all for you, Estela. You’re the only thing I ever wanted.”

She smiled. “I understand that now.” And she leaned back in for another kiss.

He closed his eyes just as their lips met and—

A hand grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and tossed him aside. He crashed into the line of stools and landed in a painful tangle on the floor.

“Don’t be taking what’s mine, Ramiro. You know better than that.”

Jesús Rivera tipped up a stool and dropped into it beside Estela. He reached out with a hand and grabbed a fistful of Estela’s hair, but hissed with pain as if she had spikes in it.

“Hand hurting, Jesús?” Estela’s sarcasm earned her a sharp slap across the jaw with the back of his other hand.

“No Americano here to protect you now.”

And Ramiro understood.

Estela hadn’t been trying to steal his Americans. She had recognized Delta Force operators and gambled that they were the only ones skilled enough to take on Jesús. He had not become the leader of Pablo’s Domingo Guerrilleros with his gentle ways—he’d left a trail of the scarred, the crippled, and the dead in the wake of his success.

But they weren’t here now.

Ramiro tried to move silently, but was too tangled in the stools.

“Get me something to drink.” Jesús didn’t even bother to turn. Neither did he release his fistful of Estela’s hair.

Ramiro could feel Estela’s eyes on him as he stepped through the gap in the counter and found a bottle of Aguardiente. Ramiro of the past would have served it in a glass. Would have scurried away and tried not to think about what Jesús did to his women.

But that was a Ramiro he no longer knew. Estela had kissed him. Had told him without words that she loved his food. And that maybe, just maybe she had real feelings for him.

He uncorked the bottle and set it on the counter by Jesús. He could see Estela’s eyes die a little as Ramiro backed away. As Jesús would expect.

Backed away, while Jesús twisted Estela’s head cruelly one way and another. Backed away until his hand landed exactly where he intended, on the ten-inch chef’s knife that he always put in the same precise spot on his counter.

By shifting behind Jesús, he blocked Estela’s view of him. Then, lunging through the server’s gap in the counter, he plunged the knife into Jesús’ back. It was like plunging it into stone. The shock slammed up his arm as Jesús roared in fury. He spun on Ramiro as the small stream of blood ran down from his shoulder blade.

Stupid. He should have thought about a man’s anatomy. Where were you supposed to stab a man? How would he know? In the kidneys might have been good if he had thought of it in time. Instead his knife had bounced off Jesús’ shoulder blade and only infuriated him.

His punch slammed Ramiro back against his stove; the pain such an explosion that he could only collapse to the floor.

Jesús was also screaming in pain, holding his hand close to his chest. But his face was almost black with rage. Jesús bent down to pick up the knife that the force of Ramiro’s attack had knocked out of his hand. There was no question he was about to die on his own blade.

Unwilling to witness his own death, he squeezed his eyes shut against the coming blow.

Then he heard a deep voice. “Thought we told you that little boys shouldn’t play with knives.”

Jesús’ roared with fury. Ramiro opened his eyes and managed to lean far enough to look through the counter’s gap. The Americans caught Jesús’ charge as if he was a butterfly on one of the My Little Pony cards.

“Didn’t realize you were Jesús Rivera,” Chad continued. “Been looking for you for a bit. Might have saved these folks some trouble if you’d bothered to introduce yourself earlier. Excuse us.” He offered both Estela and him pleasant nods as if they were passing each other on the street.

They marched Jesús out the door and into the night.

Rumors sprang up of magnificent final gun battles or dark American prisons, but no one ever saw Jesús Rivera again.

Ramiro and Estela had kept their thoughts to themselves.

Months later, Ramiro could only wonder at Estela’s brilliance. She had been right as usual. He had wanted to cut a wide arch between their restaurants, but Estela had only let him cut a window between their kitchens. It was enough of an opening that he could see her cooking whenever he wanted to, but not so much that their restaurants would merge as their lives had.

She’d insisted that what he did was art compared to her simple food. But he never doubted that comfort food was what kept a Paisa happy. “To protect your art, there must be a wall between us,” she’d insisted. But it was the only part of their lives that stayed separate. She had married him and soon they would have their first child.

And the Americans had come. Sometimes to one restaurant, sometimes to the other. They often brought their friends, which had attracted others, both military and from the city center. Their restaurants had thrived.

But there were only two things that ever passed through the small window between their kitchens.

Estela had insisted that he provide a constant supply of his “magnificent” obleas for her customers as well as his own.

And the deck of My Little Pony playing cards, depending on which restaurant the Americans came to eat and play wild games of Truco.

You can buy it here if you want to own it: 

Copyright © 2018 by M.L. Buchman
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2018 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

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