Worlds collide, laced with layers of corruption, as deception permeates places, events, and relationships across generations in the first book of this adventure series. River of Angels, set on a tropical island in the Caribbean, reveals the multiple facets of life condensed within a small town. The story examines individuals caught between the world of conventional society and the world that speaks to an individual’s true self. Through the lives of a prostitute, a healer, an entrepreneur, a beggar, and two elders, the reader reflects on the intricacies of human nature. Rolnick spins an intriguing tale of intertwined relationships and clashing elements of culture on the island of Puerto Rico, where the characters strive, sometimes struggling within themselves, to make a life. Monica, a prostitute by choice, controls every aspect of her life, until her world crumbles. Rosie, a professor and healer, forsakes the comfortable role of teacher and wife to unravel the mystery of her father's past and discover a cure for her own malady. Carlos, a successful entrepreneur, witnesses his certainty dissolve and his beliefs questioned. Pide, the beggar, brings wisdom, humor, and friendship to those he watches. Abuelita and Don Tuto, the elders, lead others to safety as they resolve history's hold on their lives. Contemporary issues of social justice, environmental destruction, crime, and avarice act as a backdrop for the inner story of relationships. The characters take you into two worlds, the surface world society accepts and the underground world of caves where the unacceptable thrive. The story blends two worlds and the hope of possibilities that keeps these characters forever in the reader's heart.
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Monica hurried down the cobbled road with the sun's rays on her bare shoulders. She smiled, listening to the chaotic rhythms of the streets. Music blared from storefronts, and vendors at each corner offered up helado — shaved ice with flavoring. Her new home wasn't that different from New York, less tidy but just as crazy. She still wasn't used to the openness of the police toward drinking cerveza outside of restaurants or bars. Different laws, different customs.
As she turned down the street past the financial district of one bank, and the old courthouse and permit building, the mood shifted. Men and women lined the narrow sidewalks, spilled out into the streets with signs demanding justice. Stop the Corruption. Vote for Independence. Drug Lords Govern. Stop the Bombing. Monica had thought she was the only one who didn't shrug off the nightly US bombing practice on a nearby deserted island.
A publico, filled with young girls, drove through the streets, nudging along behind the protestors. The passengers yelled from their open windows, "You can't make us disappear!"
Monica adjusted her sunglasses, straightened her posture, and began her sensuous strut meant as a distraction. She feared for these young girls. They were playing with fire. No amount of protest would stop men from being men. This wasn't the first time that she had witnessed protests since she had arrived on the island, but today's demonstration frightened her. Two of her lady workers were out in daylight, looking for business. Granted it was on their time, but soon Monica needed them at her bar, not behind bars.
A ruckus broke out, and policemen carted off two young boys, still in their school uniforms. Their painted sign said, Stop the Raping of Women and Beaches. A hush, and then a man yelled, "Be careful, you'll be the next desparecedos! Who knows where they will take you."
Monica edged her way through the crowd to enter her bar. She pulled her sunglasses off and shut out the outside world. The bar's dim lights, after the glare of the sun-kissed tropical day, were a welcome reprieve for the patrons who came from the sugarcane fields and financial offices. Her bar offered an escape from the heat, a way to ignore the emptiness in their hearts.
As her eyes adjusted, Monica surveyed the room. She felt tension, perhaps remnants from the protest outside. She needed to transition quickly into the Madam, the bright star who shone through the dark moods of the patrons. She'd chosen her dress to do just that — a rich blue silk dress cut low at the neck and tight around the hips.
Monica didn't consider herself beautiful, but her voluptuous body promised physical gratification and delight in its softness. She became all things for those who fantasized in sexual exploits, offered strength for the abusive and warmth for those who sought mothering.
She turned her strut into a dance and wove her way among the small round tables. The nonexistent aisles became part of her design, a purposeful tightness to push her patrons in the way of her body. Slight touches, a pat, a pinch, a glance, all created a sense of familiarity, cloaked in the forgiving dimness.
People spilled into the bar from the protest, many of them recipients of the protestors' taunts. She recognized the businessmen, the bankers, the government officials. Monica watched as money changed hands. One interaction stood out. The owner of the Banco de La Gente rushed into the bar, his face flushed, the pockets of his pants askew. His hands shook as he slipped a wad of money into the hands of a government official. Monica recognized the official by the name of Pedro.
Soon afterward, Señor Modesto, the bank owner, left with one of Monica's younger helpers. They headed up the back stairs for a private rendezvous. Monica noted his puppy dog behavior, as did all the patrons in the bar. One called out, "There goes Modesto. He is paying for his pleasure with my house payment."
For the most part, everyone tolerated the banker's self-indulgent behavior. He was a good tipper and not too demanding. Monica predicted he'd be down for another drink in less than an hour and that the bank's coffers would suffer accordingly. She wondered who here would be the lucky recipient of a loan after his latest foray upstairs.
Of more concern were the two borrachos sitting in the corner. Payday brought in the men from the field, and the woes of these two escalated as they drank. With raised voices, their insults became bolder and the swearing nastier. Monica sidled in closer as she heard the ultimate in swear words, Como tu madre. To talk of another's mother begged for a fight.
Monica slid her body between the two jibaros and signaled for the music to be turned up. She danced the salsa, undulating her body to the rhythm of the music, first facing one, then the other. When two young, attractive dancers tapped the men on the shoulders, she made her exit.
Monica could almost predict the future absence of one of these men. After years of hosting in bars, in New York or here on the island, she knew all men were the same. The boasts, the drinks, and the inner turmoil would intensify and lead to irreconcilable differences over a bet or a woman, usually money. The outcome would be settled forcefully, with words of intimidation, pressure from families, or brute force. One of two men would go missing, and no one would say anything. Monica preferred to give them a chance with the natural rhythms of music and the warmth of a woman. She offered her patrons a sense of security, which didn't exist outside her doors.
As Monica surveyed the room, her gaze fell upon a young man seated in the farthest corner. Blond hair and tanned but light skin spoke of gringo, while the gestures of the hands and the rapid movement of the lips marked him as a Latino. She'd seen him sporadically each month for the last year at the bar. This local businessman owned a coconut farm, traveled, had lots of friends, and ignored her. Today, Carlos was all business.
Two men Monica didn't recognize sat with Carlos. She watched as they shook hands and patted each other on the back. A deal had just been sealed, but the men still appeared ill at ease. As the two searched the room, only half listening to Carlos, their suits and ties announced their stature as foreigners. Their roving eyes betrayed their impatience.
Normally the bar was where her customers dropped their pretenses, acted less formal, and revealed themselves. She sensed something amiss, and for this reason, she listened to their comments: "We can start on the condominium project as soon as you get the release papers signed, and then we can get access to the land."
Carlos nodded. "Not a problem, I'll have everything in order by the end of the week."
The two men barely acknowledged Carlos's assurances. After their handshake, they carefully scanned the bar again. Monica noted a short pause, their stares fixed on her newest hire, Carmen, dancing. Carmen's steps faltered, missing the salsa beat. Her face paled, became ashen and stricken with fear. Carmen turned, looked at her dance partner, glanced at the door.
Monica felt something awry. Carmen hid behind her partner's large frame, as Carlos's business associates made a hurried exit. Carlos seemed content, and within minutes, Pedro sat down at the table. The two drank and laughed, and all appeared normal. Just two friends ending a day of work the easy way, a few beers to wash away bad decisions and delay the return to their home life. Monica shrugged. Her services wouldn't be needed. Their laughter and easy talk was enough to carry them through the night.
From the other side of the bar came a familiar call, "Listen, my sweetness. Come here."
Monica turned slowly and flashed a smile. "Mi amor, take it easy. No hay prisa." No, she wasn't in any hurry to rush over to Jesus, a frequent customer. Tonight, the big man seemed agitated. Without the liquor, Jesus was a decent man. Based on the constant flow of girlfriends that continued to encircle him, Monica suspected that behind his macho act was a caring person. All she really knew about him was that he worked on the fincas de coco, scaling the coconut trees and dropping the fruit.
She walked up to Jesus and placed her arm around him. "Jesus, que pasa? How goes the coconut business?" "Mal, mi hija, mal. Come with me and help me forget it all."
"Why do you worry so, Jesus? You are the keeper of the land. If one season is bad, there is always another."
"You, my honorable Monica, know lots about men, but nothing about coconuts. Coconuts grow on sandy soil. Without sand, there are no coconuts. Everybody wants cement, but you can't eat cement."
"The rumors are true? They sold the farm?"
"Monica, come help me forget."
Monica leaned in and whispered into Jesus's ear, "Look, I can't, but Carmen wants to be with you. I've seen her try to get your attention." Bending over just enough to reveal the top of her breasts, she gently kissed Jesus on the top of the head. He smiled appreciatively and patted her buttocks as she motioned Carmen over. The young woman still seemed oddly agitated.
Making her way toward the counter, Monica perused her potential customers. She couldn't afford to turn down any more clients. This was a business, and she had her reputation to maintain. The men remembered refusals and gossiped. Gossip, or chismas as they called it here, was a way of life. Once a rumor spread, it wasn't easy to dispel. Looking for some amusement, she sat down at her usual stool at the counter, close to the table with the blond Carlos.
Here she retained a good view of the entrance to the bar and the stairs leading up to the secluded rooms, but she could relax, out of the main fray. She noted Carmen's exit with Jesus. Arms entwined at the elbow, they walked out like brother and sister. Nursing a glass of water on the rocks, Monica remained attentive to her patrons but hoped for a conversation that went beyond petty gripes. Even as she kept the peace, she craved a mental challenge. Careful not to appear an eavesdropper, she listed to Carlos's conversation.
Their laughter had dissipated as their faces sobered. Pedro's insistent voice: "Carlos, don't worry so much. She will return. She thinks too much about your business."
Studying his drink, Carlos took his time with his answer. "Este es el problema. She says I think more about making money than making love. Pedro, that is what I do."
Monica sensed an opportunity for her services but also a sadness. She could score with Carlos, but another woman would lose out on love. Being in the business had hardened her, yes, but deep down she was a romantic. As Carlos and Pedro continued talking, Monica realized they had switched to English. Perhaps they thought no one could understand them.
"My thoughts are consumed with work, and when she asks me what I'm thinking, I tell her, 'Nothing.' It's as if she is too smart. And if I do share my thoughts, she wants to discuss a business transaction as if it weren't already a fact. Pedro, she has even questioned this last deal with the farm." Shaking his head, Carlos looked both baffled and hurt.
"It's true, she's a difficult woman. Buy her a gift with the money you make from the sale."
Monica became impatient. How silly these men were. Whoever this woman was, she wanted to be treated like a person who counted. She was asking to be real, to voice an opinion. It dawned on Monica that the coconut farm that the men talked about was the same farm that Jesus oversaw. Abruptly, she got up from the counter, appeared to slip, and dumped her drink on Carlos. "Perdóname! Excuse me for my clumsiness. Let me dry your pants."
Briskly massaging his wet pant leg with a napkin, Monica looked up. She hadn't expected his eyes to be so blue, or that he would be surprised. Caught off guard, she spoke in English, "I'm really sorry. I don't know what happened. I lost my balance. Can I get you something dry to wear?"
Before Carlos could answer, the doors to the bar burst open. The light from outdoors was blinding, but not enough to block the horror that walked in — Carmen, Monica's young friend, covered in blood. She fell forward, knocking down a stool, and collapsed across Carlos's lap. Bending over her, Monica felt the silence of the bar, saw the movements to the door as patrons rushed to leave. She noted with anger that Jesus's table was still empty. He must have savagely attacked her "girl." It was Monica's fault, she knew, for not taking on Jesus herself and suggesting that Carmen wanted to be with him. Who knew what Jesus was capable of if he was drunk and upset?
In despair, Monica lifted Carmen's head and whispered, "Carmencita, I love you. I'm guilty of this. I'll take care of you."
Carmen only moaned in response. Monica cringed. It was bad enough that Carmen had been attacked, but even worse, she couldn't take her to the police or hospital. They lived outside of the law. Laws didn't exist for them. The officials of the town begged for her services, but they refused to soil their hands with the immigrant women they favored. They didn't want to dirty their lives at home.
Cradling Carmen's head, Monica shook her own in disgust. "Cowards, all of you. You are so afraid to show compassion. Run back to your safe lives."
* * *
Carlos cleared his throat, shifted slightly to settle the injured woman, and whispered, "I might be a coward, but I'm in no position to run, as your friend is bleeding on my lap. It's none of my business, I don't know you, but you need help. I have a woman who might be persuaded to come to your aid."
The Madam looked up at Carlos. "Who is it?"
Carlos's thoughts switched back and forth in two languages. He chose to answer the Madam in English just in case some of the locals' ears stretched their way. With a sense of pride and embarrassment, he answered, "She's my wife. She's different, a healer of sorts."
"She won't turn us in to the police? Carmen is here without paperwork. She's my responsibility, and I can't afford to let her or the other women down."
"You'll be able to trust my wife, more than anyone on this island. But you don't have to trust me, just make a decision." Carlos looked around the bar. Most of the patrons had left. The woman on his lap lay almost motionless. "Decide, Señorita."
"Okay, vamanos. Let's go, I don't have time to question your motives. Please hurry."
With a head nod, Carlos signaled Pedro to help him. They pulled a tablecloth off one of the empty tables, wrapped Carmen in a tight roll, and carried her outside to the back alley, to Carlos's parked truck.
Pedro hissed, "Carlos, what are you doing? Estas loco. You haven't seen your wife in weeks, and you're bringing her this? She's a great healer, but how can you be so sure that she'll do this for you?" Carlos ignored Pedro's questions as he helped the Madam into the truck bed with Carmen. He swallowed hard, gulping the air around him. His chest felt tight, as if his own life were being squeezed out of him. For some reason, the blood of a woman made him sick.
With the women settled in the back of the truck and Pedro up front, Carlos turned and whispered, "This is beyond my experience. Women should stay at home, not on the streets, not getting hurt. Rosie will know what to do."
The truck crept along narrow, bumpy roads. They headed toward los campos, up in the hills where the old folk insisted that the roads were made to follow the cows' paths. Carlos looked in his rearview mirror to check on his passengers. They were sliding from side to side as the road twisted. Worried that the bumps and twists would do more damage, he pulled off to a flat and wider area of the road. "You okay back there?"
Words lashed out, "Carmen hasn't opened her eyes. She's got blood around her mouth, and I've used the bottom of my dress to soak up blood that won't stop oozing. I don't know what possessed me to come with you."
"No choice. I was your only option. Rosie would tell you to listen to the coquis. You hardly ever see the tiny frogs, but their songs soothe. It's the best I can do. I'll hurry."
Within minutes they rounded a steep hill, and Carlos abruptly stopped the truck. Rosie's small cabin sat on the knob of the hilltop. She had come here often in the past, but now she had taken up residence here instead of at their home. A lone light shone from the back window. Rosie at work, Rosie unaware of his world. Carlos told Pedro to wait outside. As Carlos left the truck, a cool breeze rippled through, bringing smells of banana trees. He ran to the cabin, hesitated, then knocked and slipped inside.
Annoyed that Rosie didn't answer his knock, he headed for the lit room, the kitchen, where his wife tinkered with medicinal herbs, strange juices. She stood small behind the kitchen counter. A teakettle steamed in the background, guava skin and fibers piled up alongside a pitcher of juice. Carlos stood, silent.
Rosie finally turned. "Carlos, I expected you earlier. I'm making a healing potion."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "River of Angels"
Copyright © 2018 Abbe Rolnick.
Excerpted by permission of Sedro Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Protest,
Chapter 2: Cabin Hideaway,
Chapter 3: Sugarcane,
Chapter 4: Abuelita — Doña Teresa,
Chapter 5: Pigeon Coop,
Chapter 6: Don Tuto's Inner Space,
Chapter 7: Spiraling Down,
Chapter 8: Stations and Deliveries,
Chapter 9: River of Angels,
Chapter 10: Showdown,
Chapter 11: Shadow Spells,
Chapter 12: Chambers and Caverns,
Chapter 13: Seeing Is Believing,
Chapter 14: The Wrong Hands,
Chapter 15: Patience Equals Power,
Chapter 16: El Colmado,
Chapter 17: Lies and Omissions,
Chapter 18: Meandering,
Chapter 19: La Punta de Vista — Viewpoint,
Chapter 20: The View from Behind,
Chapter 21: Living in Dying,
Chapter 22: Powder Keg,
Chapter 23: Trapped,
Chapter 24: Floating,
Chapter 25: Finding the Way,
Chapter 26: Sunrise,
Chapter 27: Ceiba's Embrace,
Chapter 28: Ask and You Shall Receive,
Reading Group Questions,
Preview of Color of Lies, Book Two in the Generations of Secrets Series,