A Justice Hustlers Novel
She’s beautiful, unpredictable—and on the run from dangerous men. But this
ex-side chick is ready to risk everything to help others in trouble . . .
Fed up with her married Miami boyfriend, savvy Dulce has no problem stealing his drug-dealer stash and fleeing to her family in the Caribbean. But when she gets bored in rural Santo Domingo, she escapes on a sugar daddy adventure to Puerto Rico. Her new life is one endless party, until she's caught in Hurricane Maria—and witnesses the brutal collision of colonization and climate change, as well as the international vultures who plunder the tragedy for a financial killing, making shady use of relief funds to devastate the island even more. Broke, traumatized, and stranded, Dulce’s only chance to get back to New York may be a sexy, crusading journalist who’s been pursuing her. But is she hustling him or falling for him?
Meanwhile, New York-based mastermind thief Marisol already has her hands full fleecing a ruthless CEO who’s stealing her family’s land in Puerto Rico, while trying to get her relatives out alive after the hurricane. An extra member in her crew could be game-changing, but she’s wary of Dulce’s unpredictability and reputation for drama. Still, Dulce’s determination to get justice draws Marisol in, along with her formidable Lower East Side Women’s Health Clinic’s heist squad. But their race-against-the-clock plan is soon complicated by powerful men who turn deadly when ex-side chicks step out of the shadows and demand to call the shots . . .
Praise for Aya de León and her novels
“Staking out space for women of color in the heist-fiction genre, Aya de León’s smart, sly writing is a knockout.”
—Andi Zeisler, Bitch magazine
“This well-written and enjoyable installment in de León’s unique, feminist, urban crime-fiction series . . . infuses satisfying power in both plot and character.”
—Booklist on The Boss, STARRED review
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Several months earlier ...
Dulce Garcia crept toward the back door of the nightclub's VIP room on the balls of her stiletto sandals, trying not to wake her boyfriend. He lay, splayed back on the leather couch, in a post-orgasmic half-doze. She spat into an empty beer bottle, and tiptoed to the room's back door. She tried to push it open with her free hand, but it was too heavy. She needed two hands for this.
She stuck the knot of money down into her cleavage, and pushed with both palms flat. The large metal door creaked against rusty hinges. In the humid Miami climate, cheap metal springs like these always rusted. This back door, required by the Florida fire code as a secondary exit, was rarely used. She tried to close it quietly behind her, but the metal was too heavy, and it tipped her forward in the six-inch gold heels.
The slam of metal on metal woke her boyfriend. As she crept away down the dank, concrete hallway, she heard him call to her. His voice was usually loud, but it sounded faint through the thick slab of steel: "Dulce? Where'd you go, mami?" She tiptoed down the hallway to the outer door that would lead to the back alley.
But the steel could not contain the roar of rage when he realized his money was missing. She had felt a second bulge in his pants when she unzipped his jeans. As she went down on him, she had slipped the wad of bills out of his front pocket, and palmed it after he finished.
Through the metal, she could hear the slam of the VIP room's other door. He had assumed she'd headed back into the club. She grinned as she pulled the handle for the alley exit, expecting to cut around the corner and hail a cab for a quick getaway. Uber was out of the question. It was his credit card on the account.
But the alley door was locked. She pulled with all her strength, but it wouldn't budge. Either locked or rusted shut. She looked around frantically, afraid she would be trapped. She couldn't retrace her steps through the VIP room — in case he came back looking for her. She ran now, not even trying to be quiet. As she sprinted toward the other end of the hallway, there was a second door that led through a storage room. Either way, she'd need to find her way out through the club. The club where her Dominican drug dealer boyfriend would be assembling his crew of boys to find her, the side chick turned "fucking bitch" who'd stolen his take for the night.
* * *
Although Dulce hung with him in the club regularly, she only knew how to get to the different dance floors and VIP rooms. She didn't know behind the scenes. It turned out that the storage room didn't lead back into the club. At least not directly. Dulce hurried past dusty stage props of sparkling palm trees and faded life-size cardboard cutouts of different celebrities to pose with for selfies. Outside the other end of the room was a different hallway with a trio of doors to locked VIP rooms. At the far end of the hall was a stairwell. She knew that this club was really two buildings cobbled together. If she went up to the sixth floor, there was a walkway that led across to the main building where she had come in.
She needed to hustle, so her boyfriend didn't get his crew to cut her off, trapping her on this end, away from the front entrance.
Dulce ran up the stairs. The first four flights were easy, fueled by adrenaline. But by the last two flights, she began to lag. Dulce's heart beat hard, and the bustier squeezed her ribs like a vise. Between the fourth and fifth floor, she had slowed to a walk, trying to catch her breath.
A stairwell door opened a couple floors below.
"I ain't seen the bitch," a loud man's voice echoed off the concrete. "He just said we need to find her and bring her to him." Dulce froze.
The voice continued: "Sent me down to look for her on the first floor, the last place he seen her."
Dulce pressed herself against the wall, her heart hammering in her chest as the sound of the man's footesteps receded.
When she heard the downstairs door open and close, she faltered for a second. Then the terror turned to adrenaline, fueling her sprint up the final flight. On the sixth floor, she twisted the knob of one of the VIP room doors hoping for a large party she could blend into. But the room was sparsely populated. A trio of bored looking girls were sitting around drinking champagne, while two guys were doing coke at the high table. They barely looked up at her, as she walked quietly across the room, staying in the shadows. One of the girls on the couch followed Dulce with her eyes.
She walked through and slipped out the door on the far end. In the hall on the other side of the VIP lounge was a coatrack. A blonde bobbed wig hung next to a leather coat and a silver scarf. Dulce grabbed the wig and scarf and ducked into the stairwell to put them on. She pulled her long hair into a loose braid. Fortunately, she'd blown it out for her date tonight, otherwise, she'd never have gotten the wig over the tight curls of her natural hair. As it was, the braid stuck out, too thick to tuck underneath. She wore the silver scarf like a shawl, covering her shoulders and her long braid at the nape of her neck. She crisscrossed the scarf in the front to reveal her cleavage, while concealing the distinctive turquoise-sequined bustier of her dress. It was an ombre fabric, which darkened to navy at the above-the-knee hemline.
Now, she could walk openly through the hallway, peeking out from under the bangs of the bobbed blonde wig. She spotted one of her boyfriend's crew, heading right toward her. Her heart hammered in her throat. Hopefully, he was looking for a brunette in a lighter blue dress, not a blonde in silver and navy.
As he approached, he looked her up and down mechanically.
The door to the VIP room behind her opened, and the movement caught his eye. In the split second he was looking beyond her, she picked up her phone and used it to shield her face. She had gotten the oversized version of the smartphone, and it covered her well.
When he looked back at her, he saw nothing but blonde hair and the Dominican flag phone case, as unremarkable as her caramel skin.
As he walked past, she could smell the mint on his breath as he chewed gum with his mouth open. And under the mint smell was a slight hint of weed.
Behind her now, he was asking the folks in VIP if they'd seen a girl come through.
"Yeah," a woman's voice said.
Dulce didn't dare turn around, but used her phone like a mirror to look over her shoulder.
"I think she went that way," the woman said, pointing in the other direction.
"Where's my scarf?" her friend asked, as Dulce crept around the corner to the walkway between the buildings.
The moment she was on the walkway, she yanked off her stiletto sandals and took off running, the silver scarf flying half-loose behind her like a superhero cape.
She opened the stairwell in the other building, and began to run down. But on the landing two floors below was a couple going at it.
The woman had her dress hiked up and his pants were below his hips as he pounded between her thighs.
They were blocking the stairwell, and she wouldn't be able to get past. She stepped into the fifth floor hallway to take the elevator. There was another VIP room on that floor. Dulce grabbed a cheap faux leather jacket hanging on the rack outside the VIP room. As the elevator dinged, she shrugged off the scarf and put on the jacket, tucking her braid beneath the collar. Then she quickly slid her feet back into her stiletto sandals. The elevator doors opened, and she pressed in with a group of women wearing ten different clashing perfumes.
The knot of cash was starting to itch her cleavage. Dulce had plenty of time to hunch under the coat and adjust it, as the elevator stopped at every floor.
A pair of drunk guys got on one floor down and proceeded to hit on all the women in the elevator. On the second floor, the guys blocked the women from exiting and kept pressing the door open button, demanding to get their phone numbers.
"We've got a fucking hostage situation," one of the girls said.
"Pendejos," another woman mumbled under her breath.
Dulce pulled a lipstick out of her pocket.
"I'll give you my number," she said. "I think you're hot," she said to one guy. "And I have a girlfriend who would love you," she said to the other. "But you better fucking call me." She recalled the phone number for the pizza place down the street from her apartment, and wrote it across his forearm.
"Don't give me no fake number," he said. "I'm a call you right now."
He dialed the number.
Dulce's felt the panic rise in her chest, but she stayed cool, and turned to the timer app on her phone. She hit one of the sounds, and her phone made the sound of a strumming guitar.
"So suspicious," she said. "Who broke your heart?"
She laughed and grabbed his phone, hitting the end call button. Only the girl next to her heard the faint woman's voice: "Hello, Mariana's Pizza."
"And now I got your number too," Dulce said. "So pick up when I call."
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Mariana," Dulce said, and followed the crowd off the elevator.
The doors opened out onto the dance floor, where the DJ was spinning Latin techno.
Up ahead, she saw two members of her boyfriend's crew, looking around. She pulled out her phone and peered down at it, letting the straight blonde bob fall over her face.
Glancing up from time to time, she turned toward the far wall, away from the two thugs. She weaved between standing tables with people yelling in each other's ears to be heard.
Up ahead, she saw another one of her boyfriend's crew, scanning the room. There was yet another one of his boys near the front door.
She felt a tug on her jacket. "Hey Mariana, wanna dance?" it was the guy from the elevator.
"I was just leaving," she said. "Walk me out?"
"Maybe we could go home together," he suggested.
"Not tonight, baby," she said. But she leaned into him as they walked past her boyfriend's crewmember. She flipped the blonde hair in front of her face and pressed her hip against him as she passed. " 'Scuse me," she said.
The drunk guy from the elevator's hand was slipping down her hip towards her ass.
"Don't get too friendly," she said shaking his hand off.
"I like the way it feels when you move," he said, his breath hot in her ear.
"Really?" she said. "Maybe I can't wait. Maybe you should meet me in the unisex bathroom."
"For real?" he asked.
"Only if you want a little taste," she said.
"Hell yeah," he said. "Let's go now."
She looked down, coyly. "I don't want anyone to see us going in together," she said. "Wait for me. I'll be there in five minutes. I'll knock twice."
"Okay," he said. "Oh fucking kay. I like a woman who knows what she wants."
And then, to seal the deal, she ran her hands from his mid-thigh up to his navel. "Oh, I know what I want. Get in that bathroom."
"Sí, señora." He turned on his heel and headed toward the restrooms.
That gave her ten minutes to get out of there. Fifteen at most, before she had another outraged man looking for her, and he would be searching for a blonde.
She turned the corner past the coat check and saw her boyfriend pacing by the door.
Her heart started to hammer in her chest. She turned and leaned over the coat check half door. A bored, butch woman was leaning against the wall, looking at her phone.
"Which is the ladies' night?" Dulce asked. "Too many dudes in here."
The woman smiled. "I could make it ladies' night for you right now, mami."
"But ladies' night is Wednesday," the woman said.
"I'll be back," Dulce said. "These guys are too aggressive. That guy at the door was hassling me earlier," she said. "I wanna leave, but I don't want him trying to grab my ass."
"Well he's got good taste, but bad manners," the woman said. "He's a sort of big fish in this small pond. He's used to women saying yes to him."
"Tell me about it," Dulce said.
"I got an idea," the woman said. She pulled a heather gray hoodie from the coat check.
"I thought you all didn't allow athletic gear," Dulce said.
"This is mine," the woman said. She put it on Dulce and pulled the hood over her hair and low on her face. Then she put a possessive arm around her and walked her out of the club, right past her boyfriend.
Dulce could smell his cologne, and the scent of sex still on him. She felt a confusing rush of both nostalgia and fear. When things had been good between them, he was intoxicating. He was sexy, had money, and liked to lavish it on her, at least at first. But lately he'd stopped calling every day. He mostly came over for sex and didn't take her out as much. He got texts while they were together, from some new girl whose name she didn't recognize. And he always took time to text the girl back. Dulce didn't want to hang on til he got tired of her. But she had nothing of her own. He'd paid all her bills but never gave her any cash. She'd felt the knot of money and seen her chance to get out with something.
Dulce swallowed hard as she walked past with the coat check woman. He sized them up at a glance and kept looking around.
"So, can I get your number?" the woman asked when they'd gotten out of his range.
Dulce didn't like to lie to women. "No, but thanks for being so chivalrous."
"Okay," the woman said. "Come by one of these Wednesdays."
"I just might," Dulce said, and turned toward the street. She had money now, so a cab would be no problem. There was usually a line of them out front at this hour.
"How come it's no taxis out here?" she asked the guy at the door.
"Ball game just let out," he said.
"Shit," she said.
"It's about fifteen minutes for Uber right now," he said.
Dulce looked around. The club was in a warehouse district. Nothing around and not safe to walk. Especially when there were no cabs to catch. She had a friend who worked nearby. Maybe she could come get her.
As she called her friend, she kept her eyes on the club.
The number at her friend's job was ringing.
Her boyfriend appeared in the doorway with a few of his crew.
Finally, someone picked up after eight rings. She waited while they located her friend.
One of her boyfriend's crew had something in his hand. An iPad?
Wait! He paid for her phone. Did that mean he could locate her with the phone itself? She hung up quickly and powered the phone off. She dumped it in a trash can on the sidewalk.
Would they be able to find the last place she was?
She hurried up to a pair of girls piling into a Lyft.
"I'm sorry to bother you. My boyfriend is getting really abusive. If he finds me, I swear he'll try to kill me."
"We got you, mami," the shorter girl said. "Come on in here with us."
"Oh my god, thank you so much," Dulce said. "I got cash to pay you back for the ride."
The three of them squeezed into the back of the car.
"Sorry," the driver said. "You all requested carpool. Only two passengers."
"What?" the shorter girl asked.
"Do you have another passenger yet?"
He shook his head.
"Well then take me," Dulce said. "I have cash."
"It doesn't work that way," the driver said.
"Oh my god," the taller girl said. "I'll request a ride." She put the request into the app, and they waited.
From outside the car, they heard a girl yelling. "Get your fucking hands off me!"
Dulce turned to see her boyfriend holding the arm of a girl who looked a lot like her. His boys were standing behind him.
"Sorry," he said. "I thought you were someone else."
"That's assault, bitch," the woman said. "You're lucky I'm not pressing any charges."
"Who you calling a bitch?" her boyfriend asked, reaching under his coat.
"Enfócate," one of his boys said. "She was just out here."
Dulce found her voice. "That's him," she hissed to the girls. "That's my boyfriend."
"Coño," one of the girls said. "I'll get out and get another car."
"Mil gracias, mami," Dulce said, handing her a twenty off the knot in her pocket.
As the girl gathered her purse, Dulce saw her boyfriend walk by the car on the sidewalk. He had one hand on the gun in his waistband, the other hand on the phone at his ear.
As the girl got out on the street side, Dulce could hear her boyfriend through the slightly open window. "You see her anywhere?" he asked into the phone. "My wife's gonna fucking kill me."
"Oh shit," the girl still in the car said. "He has a gun?"
The moment the door closed, the driver took off.
"Is my friend gonna be okay?" the girl asked.
"Definitely," Dulce said, her hand on the knot in her pocket. "He's only dangerous to me."CHAPTER 2
The girl was going to the Miami airport. She and her friend worked graveyard shift, and liked to go to the club for a couple hours beforehand.
"Where you headed?" the girl asked in Spanish. Her friend had texted that she was safely on the road, as well.
"To the Dominican Republic," Dulce said. "Thanks for being my ride to the airport."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Side Chick Nation"
Copyright © 2019 Aya de León.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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