Happy publication day to Richard Lange’s ANGEL BABY! In Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Lange’s explosive new thriller, a woman on the run, a brutal crime lord, and three desperate men collide. Praised in Mystery Scene as “a truly great read [with] the momentum of rolling thunder,” raved in Kirkus as “sharply calibrated and affecting,” and hailed by Ron Rash as “suspenseful and surprisingly moving,” Lange’s newest is a major step forward for the already much-lauded author. But don’t take our word for it–take a sneak peek at the opening pages of ANGEL BABY below…
Luz didn’t think things through the first time she tried to get away. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. One night Rolando beat her so badly that she peed blood, and the next morning, as soon as he and his bodyguards left the house, she limped downstairs and out the front door, across the yard, and through the gate in the high concrete fence that surrounded the property.
Barefoot and wearing only panties and a black silk robe, she stumbled down the street, trying to hail a taxi. The drivers slowed and stared, but none would stop. Tears of frustration blurred her vision. She tripped and fell but got quickly back to her feet. Scraped knees and skinned palms wouldn’t keep her from Isabel’s third birthday party. She was determined to be there, no matter what. She’d appear at the front door with a giant pink cake and an armful of gifts and, oh, wouldn’t Isabel be surprised to see her?
Maria, the housekeeper, stuck her head out of the gate and shouted for her to stop. Luz tried to run, but the pills that got her through the day back then made her feel like she was slogging through mud. Maria caught up to her before she reached the corner and grabbed her by the hair. Luz fought back, kicking and clawing, but then El Toro, the house guard, was there too.
“Help me,” Luz called to a man on a bicycle. “Please,” to a woman pushing a stroller, but they, like the taxi drivers, ignored her. This was Tijuana, see, and if you valued your life and the lives of your family, you minded your own business. El Toro and Maria dragged her back to the house. They locked her in her room and laughed at her vows to get even.
Rolando killed her dog when they told him that she’d run away. He stormed into the bedroom and yanked Pepito from her arms, placed the heel of his boot on the toy poodle’s head, and crushed its skull. Then he forced Luz to the floor, twisted her arms up behind her back, and raped her there on the white shag carpet.
“Why do you make me do these things?” he screamed at her when he finished. “Why do you make me hate myself?”
It will be different this time. In the year since she last made a run for it, Luz has been putting together a plan, and now, finally, she’s ready. Isabel turns four next Tuesday, and Mommy will be there to watch her blow out the candles on her birthday cake, or Mommy will die trying.
She pretends to be asleep when Rolando comes out of the bathroom. He squeezes her foot through the sheet.
“Hey, Sleepy, time for breakfast.”
“Mmmmm,” Luz says. “Give me a minute.”
He’s dressed for business in a dark suit, white shirt, and shiny black cowboy boots. Luz has consulted the calendar on his desk and committed today’s schedule to memory: An 11 a.m. meeting at Las Rocas Resort with Mr. Volkers from San Diego to talk about opening another KFC franchise. Lunch at the same place with Alvarez, his attorney, then on to Ensenada to see Flaco. Though it says on the calendar that they’ll be discussing horses, the real topic will be a shipment of heroin from Apatzingán. Luz has been listening closely to her husband over the last year and has learned all of his nicknames and code words. So Flaco and the dope, and afterward dinner with the whore he keeps down there. This means he won’t be home until at least nine.
When he goes downstairs, Luz crawls out of bed and walks into the bathroom to wash her face. The room still reeks of his shit. She brushes her long black hair until it shines, lifting it off the back of her neck to glance at the words tattooed there, Angel Baby. She convinced Rolando to let her get the tattoo by telling him it was her pet name for him. In reality, it’s the title of a song she used to sing to Isabel during the year they had together. She’s been careful never to let Rolando find out about the little girl because she knows he’d use anything she loved as a weapon against her or a chain to bind her more tightly to him.
Wrapping herself in a white robe, she leaves the bedroom. Her footsteps echo in the two-story foyer as she walks down the marble staircase. On the street Rolando is known as El Príncipe, the Prince, and this is his palace. A four-thousand-square-foot house with five bedrooms, six bathrooms, faux granite and gold leaf everywhere, leather and stainless steel. Everything is expensive but nothing goes with anything else. Rolando decorated by pointing at pictures in magazines. A fake Picasso hangs above a scorpion made of rusted iron. A $10,000 couch from Milan sits between two La-Z-Boy recliners with massage motors and heated cushions. And the house itself is so poorly constructed, new cracks appear in the walls every day. It’s a stucco-and-laminate fantasy that won’t last much longer than Rolando does.
He stands and pulls out a chair for her when she enters the dining room. Such a gentleman this morning. It’s because she let him fuck her last night and even went to the trouble of thrashing and moaning as if she were enjoying it. She wants him to think everything is perfect between the two of them when he leaves today. She fumbles with her napkin, yawns, and looks somewhat confused about exactly where she is, playing the stoned princess to the hilt. It’s an act she’s perfected in the six months since she managed to wean herself off the pills, the Xanax and Valium, Vicodin and Oxycontin, that used to keep her from adding up her sins and hanging herself in the shower.
She threw away the dope because she needed a clear head to plan her escape and because she didn’t want to be strung out when she finally got free, but she’s kept Rolando thinking that she’s using. He’d become suspicious if he discovered she’d stopped, and besides, he likes her high. It makes him feel superior.
He returns to his chair across the table from her, and she smiles and asks in a sleepy baby voice when he’s going to take her shopping for the shoes she showed him on TV the other night.
“Shoes?” he says. “You think I have time to think about shoes?”
She plays the game, scrunching her face into a pout and whining, “But you said, Papi. You said I could have them.”
“You know you did. But when?”
“How about when we fly to Acapulco this weekend?”
“Acapulco!” Luz exclaims and claps her hands.
It wasn’t easy quitting the drugs. In fact, to this day there are moments like this when her mind and body beg for the distance they provided. When this happens, she conjures the face of her daughter and prays to it as fervently as a primitive supplicating the only star in a pitch-black sky.
Maria bustles in from the kitchen carrying a platter of pan dulce and a bowl of fruit salad.
“Good morning, señora,” she says to Luz, sweet as can be. They’ve made peace since Luz tried to walk away, or at least Maria thinks they have. Luz has done her best to convince the housekeeper that she barely remembers that day, but she still can’t tell if she’s bought it. The woman is hard to read.
Maria lifts the carafe from the table and fills Luz’s cup with coffee. The sleeve of her blouse slides up to reveal a scar on her arm. It’s from an injury she got in prison, where she did time for fencing stolen goods. She was the mother of one of Rolando’s boyhood friends, a kid named Gato who was killed early in Rolando’s rise. Gato made Rolando swear he’d take care of his mother if anything happened to him, and Rolando kept the promise by hiring the woman to oversee his household.
“Do you need anything else, señora?” Maria asks Luz.
“No, gracias,” Luz replies.
“No, Maria. Gracias,” Rolando says.
The woman returns to the kitchen, and Rolando spoons fruit salad onto a plate and hands the plate to Luz. One of the parrots he keeps caged in the living room squawks, “My name is Gladiator! My name is Gladiator!”
“Where are you going, all dressed up?” Luz says.
“To fight a bull, what do you think,” Rolando says, then bites into a pastry.
Luz pokes at her fruit. Her stomach is tight with anticipation and worry, but she manages to swallow a piece of pineapple, makes sure Rolando sees her eating.
“And you?” he says with food in his mouth, the fucking pig. “Let me guess: a massage? A manicure?”
“Both,” Luz says with a laugh. “Why not?”
“It’s a good life, no?”
“A good life,” Luz says, the words burning her tongue. She reaches across the table and takes one of Rolando’s hands in both of hers.
Rolando lifts a red rose from the vase on the table and slips it into her hair above her ear. He smiles and starts to say something tender, but then his phone rings, and his eyes go ice-cold. The human thing is all an act. He can turn it on and off like that. What he is inside is a monster, a shark, something soulless and ravenous. He stands and walks out of the room, barks “Qué?” into the phone.
El Toro, the guard who helped drag Luz back last year, lumbers in and grabs a sugary concha off the plate of pastries. Luz can feel the man’s contempt for her, the boss’s dope-fiend whore of a wife, has always felt it.
“Tell El Príncipe the car is ready,” he says before walking back to the kitchen.
Luz passes the message on to Rolando when he finishes the call. He kisses her on the forehead and leaves without another word. She watches from the window as he climbs into the Escalade with Ozzy and Esteban. El Toro opens the heavy iron gate and gives a quick wave as the truck drives out.
And, so, it’s time.
Her first stop is the bedroom, where she turns on the television and crawls between the sheets again like she does every morning. Today, though, her fists are clenched and sweaty, her legs tensed to run.
At 10:15 there’s a knock at the door.
“Yes,” she croaks, making her voice froggy.
Maria pokes her head in. “Any laundry, señora?”
Luz motions to the bathroom without looking away from the TV and ignores Maria as she walks in and empties the hamper into a plastic bag and walks out again. She begins counting to thirty after the housekeeper closes the door but only gets to ten before she can’t stand it anymore and pops out of bed.
She has fifteen minutes to make her escape. She knows Maria’s and El Toro’s schedules as well as she knows Rolando’s: Maria will be in the laundry room at the back of the house, and El Toro sneaks off to the garage every day from 10 to 10:30 to watch a soap opera on a little TV he keeps out there.
She dresses quickly in jeans, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes. No makeup, no jewelry. A fleece jacket and a pink baseball cap, nothing more, go into a zebra-striped backpack, something a child would carry to school. She’s traveling fast and light. Anything else she needs she can pick up when she reaches the U.S. Heart pounding, she opens the door and checks the hall, then quietly descends the stairs. A radio plays in the room where Maria is sorting clothes, the DJ telling a dirty joke.
When she reaches the ground floor, she hurries to Rolando’s office and slips inside. On the walls are shelves of books the man has never read, the heads of animals somebody else shot, and paintings of sailing ships and knights in armor bought in bulk by a decorator. The only personal addition is a large framed photograph of a dark-haired woman lying nude on a bed, legs spread wide. Rolando likes to tell people that it reminds him of Luz.
As soon as the door closes behind her, Luz relaxes a bit. She’s been in here on numerous dry runs during the past few months, and now it’s only a matter of following her plan. She goes to the big wooden desk and picks up the letter opener, a German World War II dagger with a swastika engraved on the handle, and uses it to pry open the lock on the top drawer. Inside is a fluorescent green Post-it with the name Angelina and a phone number scrawled on it. Angelina is the name Rolando’s mother gave to a daughter who died more than twenty years ago, the one the whole family now reveres as a stillborn saint, and the number, entered backward, is the combination to the wall safe, which is hidden behind a painting of a wolf hunt: men with fur hats riding in sleds, rifles, bloody snow.
Luz sets the painting on the floor and punches the numbers into the safe’s keypad. The lock clicks, and the safe swings open. Inside are stacks and stacks of rubber-banded U.S. currency, hundreds and twenties, and a shiny silver gun, Rolando’s custom-engraved, silver-plated Colt .45. Snakes twine around skulls on the barrel, and an image of Santa Muerte is carved in ivory on the grip. Luz transfers the money, all of it, to the backpack and lays the gun on top. Bowing her head, she murmurs a childhood prayer, and God’s name is still on her lips as she grabs the pack, stands, and opens the office door.
“You dropped this, señora,” Maria says, holding out the rose that Rolando stuck in Luz’s hair at breakfast. “Out here, in the hallway.”
El Toro stands behind the woman, a mean grin on his ugly face. He’s looking forward to hurting her. Both of them are. And then Rolando will finish the job.
Luz backs up and reaches into the pack for the .45. Rolando taught her how to use it on the house’s basement firing range. At first he had to force her, because she couldn’t stand the sound and the thump in her chest when the gun went off, but over the past year, thinking it was a skill that might come in handy during her escape, she’s practiced whenever she could and become a pretty decent shot.
She racks the slide and points the .45 with both hands, doesn’t flinch at the BOOM BOOM BOOM when she squeezes the trigger. Maria flies backward into El Toro, a jagged black hole under her left eye, a bloody volcano erupting out of the back of her head. The other two rounds hit El Toro in the chest and throat. He and the housekeeper go down together, tangled in death.
The horror of what she’s just done paralyzes Luz for an instant, like an icy hand suddenly gripping her neck. When she can move again, she drops the gun into the backpack and steps over the bodies, being careful not to look down at them. There’s only one thought in her head: Isabel. When the big front door doesn’t open on the first try, she panics and jerks the knob a few times before realizing that the deadbolt is engaged. A second later she’s on the porch. Four seconds later she’s out the gate and on the street. Ten seconds later she’s gone, another scrap swept up in the noisy, stinking whirl of the city.
Richard Lange is the author of the story collection Dead Boys, which received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the novel This Wicked World. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his fiction has appeared in the Best American Mystery Stories 2004 and 2011. He lives in Los Angeles.