This is some back story for Carlos & Tereza’s story in my Gilbert, Co series.
Carlos Armas dropped the silverware into the bus pan on top of the rest of the dishes. He gathered up the rest of the trash the diners had left and balled it together so it would be easier to throw away back in the kitchen. His shoulders itched, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. People were watching him. He took a deep breath before lifting the pan and turning from the table.
It was nothing. People could look all they wanted. It didn’t mean a damn thing. He’d heard the whispers for himself. They saw his tattoos, automatically assumed they knew everything about him. He must be some kind of thug, had probably done prison time, was likely dangerous and shouldn’t be working here.
He just wished it wasn’t all true.
Carlos shouldered his way into the kitchen, dropping the pan on the shelf beside the door for the dishwasher to get to. The kid beside the sink jerked his head at Carlos in greeting, but he only grunted back. Tomorrow their duties would be switched, with Carlos lifting and lowering the doors on that dishwasher.
He’d only been here for three weeks. And he knew it hadn’t been the strength of his experience or references that had gotten him the job. Only one reference had really mattered. Roman’s. If it wasn’t for him, Carlos probably would have spent more than that month in jail, and he wouldn’t have this, or probably any, job. He wasn’t going to screw up that chance, even if it was only to clear tables and wash dishes.
He turned and reached for a clean tub so he could go clear another table but didn’t see the man coming toward him until they collided. His immediate reaction was to slam a fist in his face and pull his knife. The first would get him fired, the second, if he even had it on him, sent back to jail. He couldn’t afford either option. So, he only let his lip curl at the tattoo of the wild cat on the man’s bicep. Fuckin’ Pumas.
“Sorry,” Carlos muttered, grabbing the tub that he’d dropped during the collision. He wasn’t really. But, their boss had strict rules about fighting in the kitchen. They could both be fired, no matter who had started it.
“Just like a cowardly coyote,” the other man said, sneering at him.
Carlos bristled at the words. But, he kept walking. It wasn’t worth it. He needed this job, needed this new start. The pumas had taken enough from him. He couldn’t let them take this as well. So, he ignored the words meant to taunt him and walked back to the dining room to clear another table.
Carlos stepped out of the restaurant and saw the three boys waiting for him. Romello, the server he’d bumped into earlier, stood right in the middle of them. Great. Just great. Looked like they were going to be fighting about this after all. He could always run, but he’d never done that before. And they’d catch him anyway.
So, he balled his fists and took a step forward. “What do you want? I was just goin’ home.”
“To your hovel, you mean?” Romello scoffed.
Carlos doubted the other man’s place was much, if any, better, so he let the words pass. “I don’t have any beef with you. I’m just trying to start a new life, like you. I just want to be left alone.”
Romello sneered at him. “You’re nothing like me. You’re a Coyote.”
“Not anymore.” The words felt like a lie. Sure, he didn’t run with the gang any longer. But, he wasn’t sure he’d ever stop feeling like a part of it.
Romello’s lip curled further, until he was nearly snarling. “You still ain’t washed the stink off.” Then, he was swinging his fist.
Carlos ducked the first punch, but the second caught him in the shoulder. He stumbled back but found his footing quick enough. But, then the other two were on him as well. He hit the ground once but jumped right up again. He wasn’t going to go down without one hell of a fight. He wouldn’t just give up on this new life he’d been given.
Then, he hit the ground again. He tried to get back up, but a boot connected with his ribs. All the air left him as more hits connected. Then, sirens split the air and the other men scattered. Carlos got his knees under him and grabbed onto a sign nearby to drag himself to his feet. Then, there was a hand on his arm and metal snapping around his wrist. His head was spinning too much to resist even if he’d planned to.
“You’re damn lucky they held you instead of taking you right to booking.”
Carlos held his pounding head in his hands. He didn’t feel too lucky about anything right now. They’d slapped a Band-Aid over the cut on his forehead, but that was about it. They hadn’t given him anything for the pain coursing through his body. The only thing that felt lucky was that Romello and his two buddies weren’t in the same cell as him.
“I didn’t start the fight, Roman. Romello and his buddies were waiting for me outside. He’s always baiting me.”
“That’s why you ignore him. I thought you wanted this job.”
“I do!” he cringed as saying the words brought more pain to his head. And it wasn’t so much the job he wanted as the chance it gave him. “And I know, I probably lost it now.”
“If there weren’t witnesses who gave the same story as you, that would probably be true.”
A guard stepped forward and unlocked the cell door. The loud whine of it opening nearly had his head exploding, though. “Come on,” Roman said. “I’ll take you home. You’ll have to talk to Aberto in the morning about the job.”
Carlos couldn’t think too much about that right now. Not when it felt like his head was splitting right open and his ribs were on fire. Aberto’s place was known for giving released cons a second chance. He wasn’t known for giving ones for breaking his rules, though.
Carlos just hoped he’d make an exception this time.
Carlos stepped into the restaurant and winced at the bright lights. Roman had taken him by the hospital after leaving the police station the night before. He’d gotten some medicine for the headache and had his ribs wrapped up. But, it only helped so much.
Aberto would be waiting for him. Roman had already talked to him. Now, Carlos just had to plead his case. He knocked on the doorframe of the office even though the door was open and his boss was looking right at him. No point in taking any chances. Not this morning.
“Come in, Armas.”
Carlos stepped into the office and licked his lips. “Mr. Aberto-”
His boss held up a hand, and Carlos came to an instant stop. He shoved his hands in his pockets to hide their trembling. He didn’t need to show just how nervous he was right now.
“You know I don’t allow fighting in or around my restaurant.”
“Yes, sir.” Carlos wished his tongue didn’t feel so thick. “I can explain.”
“No explanation needed.”
Carlos’ shoulders drooped at that. That was it, then. This was all over for him.
“I’ve seen the way you and Romello have been. And I’ve seem how you’ve handled it. I also talked to the person who reported the fight last night and said you were the one assaulted. I imagine you didn’t see any way around the fight.”
Carlos shook his head. “Figured if I ran, they would’ve just chased me down.”
Aberto nodded as if he’d expected that. “Charges have been pressed. Romello will no longer have a job here.”
Carlos swallowed hard. “And me, sir?” If he lost this job, he wasn’t sure what he’d do.
“Well,” he said, his lips curling up slightly, “I’m going to have an open position for a server. I’ve seen you’re a hard worker and seemed determined to make your place here.”
Carlos couldn’t quite believe it. And he wasn’t sure he could believe it was actually happening. “Why?” he asked even thought he knew he shouldn’t be questioning it.
“I see something in you,” Aberto said. “And I believe in the things I see. I believe in you, Carlos. Now, get on home and rest up. We can start your waitstaff training tomorrow.”