A lone, mud-spattered Land Cruiser sat in Manuela’s parking lot. It seemed the universe was attempting to tell me something, or at least expose all of my scabbed-over wounds. I think I might have moaned, because Anthony patted my back in a frail attempt at sympathy.
“You’ll be all right,” he said. “I swear that being my secretary is not a dangerous job. It’s Demetria, and she’s not dangerous. Leave her to me.”
“I’m sure that will make you happy. Will you park in the back, please?”
“Whatever you want.”
“What I don’t want is to see the person who drives that Land Rover. Pedro will let us in through the kitchen.”
Anthony chugged the truck to a stop by the dumpster. “Is he your ex?”
“He’s the one who wrote me the letter. The one behind Sor Juana.”
“That must have been an important letter for you to hide it behind a nun. I’m surprised he’s your ex, but, then, I’ve never understood women.”
“Just because he writes a good letter doesn’t mean he’s not a complete jerk.”
We trudged through the grease and refuge sludge that smelled of rotting garbage, of cigarettes and old lettuce and stale grease. The back door was already open, and the kitchen music filled the night air. For Pedro, that meant Radio Lobo and Mexican music. The music in the eating portion was a stale mix of country and pop and, if the patrons were lucky, the management would allow us to play the New Mexican station, with local musicians such as Al Hurricane.
“Pedro!” I called out over a delicious mix of cumbia and accordion. I felt like I was back at home for the first time in days.
“Ella, mi querida!” Pedro threw off his apron and hugged me as though we were long lost lovers. “You look like you’ve been through hell. What’s happened to you? Your nose is . . . really messed up.”
“Somebody broke into my apartment.”
“Que chinga’o. Did you call the police?”
“Unfortunately. I need to stay with Angelica. Is she around?”
Pedro looked suspiciously at Anthony, who hovered behind me, his arms folded over his chest. “Yeah, she’s out front, trying to get rid of your ex.”
“I saw. That’s why I’m hiding in the back. What’s he doing here?”
“He’s asking questions about you—what you’re doing, where you’re working, who you’re seeing. Angelica hasn’t told him anything, I swear.”
“There’s nothing to tell.” My voice was a little defensive, maybe even a little gruff, but that was the lack of sleep. “I’m living in the same apartment, and I’m not seeing anyone. Why should he care, anyway? He’s the one who broke up with me.”
“That’s strange, because Angelica told him you were seeing a really hot detective. Those were her words, not mine. I would have reversed it, said that the detective thinks you’re hot, or something like that. But that was before I saw your nose.”
“The nose does kind of ruin your look. Sorry about that, Ella,” said Anthony, and he squeezed my shoulder.
I brushed Anthony’s arm away. It was Pedro’s kind eyes I wanted to see. I’d always been half in love with him, but mostly because he was a great cook. It was too bad he was already married with three children. “You said she didn’t tell him anything.”
“She was just trying to shut him up.”
My ex, Victor, had played the on-again, off-again game for years. After he’d made certain that he was the only man I could love, he left me, then baited me again, then left again. It was an endless cycle for him. For my part, I was done with him. Maybe I was ready to fall in love with a hot detective, even if only in a fictional sense.
“Will you tell Angelica I’m here? I need to stay at her place. I’ll wait for her to get off, whatever she wants. Oh, and Pedro, will you make us chile-cheese fries? I need some chile, and I miss yours so much.”
“Green or red?”
“Green. Anthony, what do you want?”
“That’s o.k. I’m not really hungry. Can I have a Coke?”
“Sure, why not?” Pedro tied his apron back on and banged the bell at the counter to get Angelica’s attention. “Hey, Angelica, get me a Coke, o.k.? And then come back in the kitchen for a minute. When you get a chance.”
“You don’t have to stay,” I told Anthony. “I can wait for Angelica to get off, and I’ll go home with her. I’m used to these hours. As long as you don’t want me to get up too early.”
“Ella, are you joking? I don’t want to get up early. Give me a call when you’re ready to go through those boxes with me. If you still want to work for me.”
“I don’t know. I’m too tired to think about it. It feels like it’s too late to back out. How can I ever sleep peacefully in my apartment again?”
“Call me,” he said, and then he scrutinized me for a moment. Anthony’s eyes weren’t gentle like Pedro’s, but they weren’t unkind, either, and he left me wondering what exactly he wanted from me.
I turned around and headed into the safety of the kitchen, where Pedro cooked hash browns and bacon, while the latest kitchen help, a young man I didn’t recognize, sent my potatoes into the deep fat fryer. And then Angelica walked in the kitchen with Anthony’s drink, which he had apparently forgotten about ordering.
“Ella!” she said. “What are you doing here? What happened to you?”
I was ready to spill out my story to her, but, Victor, with his impeccable timing, decided to find out why his order was taking so long. His hand was poised on the kitchen bell when he saw me. My hands flew to my face, to cover my nose, and he stood there, speechless, behind the coffee counter as if he belonged there.
I hated him, but his face was beautiful. He was caught, speechless, in the kitchen window, his brown skin almost pale, his clear blue eyes wide open, and a look of love on his face.