by Bryan Veldboom
Felix’s head snapped sideways at the sound of the conversation. Spanish always made him nervous. Doing what he did, Felix heard it a lot and it usually meant trouble. He looked over at a trio of Mexicans gathered around a high table, watching them empty their pockets to an aging waitress who forked over three shot glasses of identical brown liquor. Tequila. Even from this distance he could make out its sharp, distinctive tang. He felt a small twinge of excitement jolt up his arm, but he stuffed it down, taking a long sip off his ginger ale instead.
Slaughterhouse laborers. They had all the telltale signs, the restlessness, the empty eyes, as if their occupation were stamped upon their foreheads.
He wasn’t happy being back here. Greeley was a special kind of awful: dirty, bleak, and dangerous. The smell was the first thing you noticed, long before it was even in sight, that stink was all around you, drawing deep into your pores, as if marking you.
Back then it had given him headaches. His cousin Fabian had told him not to worry, that eventually you got used to it. But he never had, not in three long years.
Felix’s left hand moved instinctively over his missing fingers. Sticker had been his title back then. In a lot of ways, it still fit.
He grappled for a distraction and found it seated along the runway in fringe pants and a cowboy hat, a thick mustache stretched out over a shit-eating grin. Andrew Phillips was his name, a plant manager for Barnsfeld Beef. This was the man that had brought him 600 miles. This was the man who’d brought him home.
But Phillips wasn't like the others. Usually someone handed him a thick wad of money, a brief set of instructions, and a name. Sometimes they gave you a photo, other times not. But this had been different somehow. Something about the look in the old woman’s eye, the exhausted curve of her spine. She was his people and that meant something even if he was at a loss to explain it.
Felix took another pull off his drink as the music kicked in, the bass rattling through a set of tinny speakers. The dancer stepped out from behind a tattered curtain, a rail spike of girl with light brown skin and dark hair that hung there like a dead thing. The lights were just low enough to conceal the track marks he knew lined both arms. You could see it in her face, if anyone had bothered looking, but her face was sadly the one part of her body suffering regular neglect.
Felix turned back to Mr. Phillips, currently working through his third Maker’s Mark. He had been watching him for a day and a half, but already he had noticed some promising habits. Mr. Phillips had a weakness for women, whores specifically, and commanded a considerable expense account that did little to explain his presence in dives like this.
Mr. Phillips seemed a man who enjoyed getting his hands dirty. The worse his surroundings, the happier he seemed. A prized pig wallowing in shit.
For a moment Felix let the old hate overwhelm him. He swirled it around, building it up in thick clouds of dark steam. If Mr. Phillips felt like slumming that suited him just fine. It gave him options, options he ordinarily didn’t have. With Phillips, he wouldn’t have to be quick or clever, but he would still have to be careful. Arval Romingo Castillo was known around these parts. They were bound to have his prints on file and there were still plenty of people around who remembered his face.
Of course, it wasn’t Arval anymore. That had changed the day he passed over the wall. Arval Romingo Castillo became Arval Romingo. Then it changed again, this time to Felix Meyers, something anonymous, something safe. No more Arval Romingo Castillo, no more tequila, and no more Spanish either.
Mr. Phillips turned, forcing Felix’s eyes to the stage. The copper-skinned coat rack was finishing her set, shaking her small mound an inch from some hillbilly’s face. He brought an open palm down across her ass, the sound of the slap ricocheting off the joint’s thin walls.
The woman whirled around on him, curses exploding from her quivering lips, but the man just shoved her back onstage, eliciting cheers and laughter from his drunken friends. The fight was finally broken up by a broad-shouldered Mexican, who dragged the furious dancer backstage as the music grew even louder.
Felix was taking this in as the next act stepped out, a sad little thing no different from the last. Thin waist, shrunken stomach, protruding ribs, his eyes swept across her face, stopping suddenly as something spun itself sideways into his gut.
The name came out like a reflex. They certainly looked alike, but it was purely coincidence. His niece was a student at community college; Young and bright, nothing like this wasted husk. Still, he couldn’t stop looking.
The dancer spun around, offering a look at an immense tattoo covering the majority of her lower back, a hungry looking wolf’s head that filled Felix with a special kind of dread.
He looked over at the other patrons, meeting every stare, wincing at their taunts. He turned to the hick with the busy hands, watching for the slightest offense, but the man had turned to conversation, sated by his last bit of mischief. The only one paying her any attention at all was Mr. Phillips.
And that’s when it began to fall away. His composure, the all-consuming calm; he felt the discipline of the last three years melt away in a single breath and beneath it, something fierce and familiar, electric, restless, and ready to strike.
He moved to the bar, waving over the barkeep in clammy desperation. The glass was filled and money exchanged without Felix registering a moment. Throughout it all, his focus remained rooted to the glass before him, the dark liquid calling out to him like a long lost friend. He knocked it back and swallowed hard, shuddering at the familiar sting. He ordered another, riding it down that deep, dark hole, as the blood beat against his ears like a drum. He felt his lips break into a horrible grin. It was a good feeling, warm and quiet, like the calm before some terrible storm.
Felix was on his third shot when he heard him, hooting and hollering like a man possessed. He turned expecting violence, but turned to find something worse. Mr. Phillips stood bent over the dancer, lining her thong with crumpled bills.
Felix knocked back the rest of his drink. His teeth ground together as the dancer dropped to all fours, offering her hindquarters with practiced indifference. The music cut out and she strutted off like some tawdry peacock, bills swaying behind like dirty feathers.
Felix got to his feet and made his way for the back, an unmarked door a few feet from the stage. The Mexican stood there like a goalie, arms crossed over his thick chest, but Felix silenced him with a fifty-dollar bill and tersely worded,
Inside he found himself in a dressing room. It was dimly lit and home to a number of old vanities. He found her bent over one of them, reapplying her makeup.
“Make yourself comfortable, I’m just--Wait who’re you?”
“Anna?” he said, “Anna Martina?”
He saw her eyebrows rise just slightly.
“My name is Tina. I got a date right now. You want some, you gots to talk to Jimmy.”
“Anna, it’s me. Arval.”
She leaned in, squinting to get a better look. Her eyes lit up in recognition, then pulled back in anger.
“It is you, isn’t it? Anna?”
“That’s right,” she said, giving him a little pirouette. “Like what you see?”
“What are you doing here? Is this what you do? You dance around like a whore?”
Anna’s teeth clenched into a wicked grin.
“I’ve got news for you, dancing ain’t the only thing I do.”
Then something boiled up inside him, something he hadn’t felt since that horrible night three years ago. His bad hand lashed across her face, sending her sprawling to the floor.
“Where’s your mother?” he said through a sneer of disgust.
When she didn’t answer, he pulled her up by a fistful of hair until their faces were inches apart.
“I asked you a question,” he said.
Anna broke off her gaze to look at the wall.
“She’s dead, all right?”
“What? What do you mean dead?"
“What do you care? You took off. Left us by ourselves. What makes you think you can come in here after all this time demanding answers?”
“Anna. I didn’t-”
Anna broke away, crawling over to lean against the wall. For a long time she was silent. When the words finally came, they were like a recording, dull and devoid of sentiment.
“She joined the cleaning crew, over at the slaughterhouse. After you left, it was all she could get. One day, she was cleaning a blood collection tank. She climbed in and inhaled too many chemicals. That was two years ago.”
Anna broke away from him to look at herself in the mirror.
“You know,” she said, “I heard some things about you. About what you’ve been up to. Eduardo said you killed some guy down in Austin.”
“I’m getting you out of here.”
That’s when Felix heard the squeak of the door. He turned and found himself face-to-face with Mr. Phillips.
“Oh,” he said taken aback, “This a bad time for you sweetheart? Jimmy said you’d be free.”
“It’s fine,” said Anna, “he was just leaving.”
For a moment the two men stood there staring, until Mr. Phillips had had enough.
“You heard the lady,” he said placing a hand on Felix’s shoulder, “Think it’s time you left.”
The moment it was in his hand he knew he’d made a mistake, but he didn’t care. Something in the man's voice, that sharp, dismissive tone sent it all tumbling back. He pressed the blade to Philip’s throat and with a practiced flick of the wrist, slit his throat like a piece of twine.
The wound was quick and complete. Mr. Phillips collapsed to the floor, blood emptying through his hand down the front of his shirt, his face frozen by the weight of his own mortality.
All at once Felix felt hot and light-headed. He looked at the stained knife, at the blood on his shoes and he was back there again, back on the kill floor, slitting throats eight hours a day until the sweat was coming off him in sheets.
He looked over at Anna who gaped back at him like a dying fish, mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out.
He made a move and she flattened herself against the back wall. Felix struggled for the words, but all he could say was,
It was like waking from a dream.
“Anna? Anna, please, I’ve got to...”
That’s when he heard the crash of the door. This time it was the bouncer, standing there with his arms across his chest, responding to a scream Felix wasn’t conscious of having heard.
The man took in the heap on the floor, then surged toward Felix with his arms outstretched, encircling him in his massive grip. He outweighed Felix by a good hundred pounds, but he was just another steer, just another slab of beef. Back in the plant you had to be careful. The cattle swung by on chains and if you weren’t looking they’d send you sprawling to the ground.
Felix still held the knife, but his arms were pinned. He shifted left, then right, spinning them around until his arm broke free. He buried the blade in that massive gut, dropping to his feet as the man howled in pain.
Felix brought the knife across his throat, but his hands were shaking, unsteady and he missed the cut. That happened a lot on the floor. The exhaustion, the stress, not to mention the pills. Pills were big on the line. Sometimes you needed something just to get you through the day, but they made you unsteady, clumsy, like the day he lost his fingers.
The bouncer was screaming even louder now, clutching desperately at the cut on his chin. Felix pressed his advantage, lunging with the knife, but the man kept up his defense, batting him away with his one free hand.
The man was retreating back towards the door. In the background Felix could hear the driving thump of the bass. It reminded him of the captive bolt stunner, pulsing in time as the cattle went limp.
The big man was feet from the door, inches from freedom, when his legs slipped out from under him, landing him hard on his back. That happened a lot too. It was slippery there on the floor, what with all the blood. You had to remember to watch your step.
Felix sat there catching his breath, watching the bouncer’s blood mingle with Phillips’. He thought of his sister on the cleaning crew, hosing off messes just like this and from somewhere deep inside came the tears. They trailed down his cheeks, mingling with the filth on the floor.
“Anna,” he said quietly, “It’s time to go.”
He found her trembling like a puppy, flat against the wall with a gun in her hand.
“Get away from me!” she said.
Felix took a step toward her.
“Anna, please.” he said, “The police, they be here soon.”
But all she saw was a trembling mass of blood and pain, the last link to her family soiled. There was a twitch of her finger as the gun went off, a wild shot that caught Felix just above the belt.
Anna crashed to the floor unsure whether she had meant it or not, knowing only that she was killing the past and perhaps it was better that way.
Felix lumbered out into the main hall. It was long since deserted, but the music played on, echoing into the cold, empty night. He wandered out into the lot, slowly retracing the path to his car.
He collapsed into the front seat, leaned back, and listened to the sound of the approaching sirens. He should have come back sooner, should’ve checked in more often.
He blinked hard as the numerous lost possibilities blazed to life before him, like tributaries of some great river. He tried examining them all, tracing each to its logical conclusion, but the stain was spreading across his abdomen and it was getting harder to think. His vision began to die and as unconsciousness rushed to overtake him he made one final leap for the past, trying to remember what had brought him here those many years ago. His mind seized on the answer and he let loose in bitter laughter as he remembered; it had paid better than picking strawberries.