Drunk patrons jostled against the bar counter, competing for the bartender’s attention. A flickering row of fluorescent bulbs cast bluish and orange lights over the patrons making them look ashen. The air was heavy with the smell of liquor.
A band was playing the usual rock and roll cover band stuff, oppressive to the ear. No stage in this bar so they were just set up in a corner.
Two seemingly drunk ladies were really getting into the music and kept approaching the band, occasionally singing into the mics, playing air guitar or drums along with the band members.
People laughed, hugged and kissed. Some men whooped and whistled at the ladies, while others drunkenly swore at each other.
There was always that moment when one felt “something terrible” could actually happen in this club. And it had always been that way from its inception.
How could this be anyone’s idea of fun? Denali wondered.
The parking lot outside the club was full when Denali got there. Across the street was a two-story parking garage. It, too, was full. He parked his rental car along the street and walked into the club.
Even for a town with only five bars, three of which changed owners every couple of months, Regent’s Club, in downtown Bryan, Texas, had earned its bad reputation. Prostitutes were everywhere, and a drug deal seemed to be going on in every shadowy corner. Young idiots trying to win first dates went to this club. Cops were there every night of the week and sometimes repeating visits on the same shift. There were only three murders reported in the town the entire seven years Denali lived there and every one of them was linked to Regent’s in one way or another.
Denali, a tall middle-aged man in an outdated turquoise business suit that complemented his black skin, elbowed his way towards the bar, raised a hand and yelled “Howdy!” at the bartender, a short man with a look of exasperation on his face.
A seemingly distraught blonde lady approached the bar with a strut and ordered a long island iced tea, and then out of the blue began telling Denali that her ex-boyfriend had defiled her little girl but she still loved him despite him being in jail.
“What can I get for you?” the bartender shouted to draw Denali’s attention just as another guy staggered up to the bar and slurred out “can I have a scotch and coke” towards the bartender.
He seemed really drunk so the bartender offered to give him a glass of water instead. Angry, the guy turned back and began making clumsy passes at every woman in the bar before a bouncer made him leave.
“What have you got?” Denali asked, and then leaned near the bar as the bartender replied, “We have pretty much everything. All kinds of beer. Whatever you want. Here’s our menu.”
“Bud Light. Tall,” he said without looking at the menu.
“Got it,” the bartender replied. “Are you ordering food as well?”
After some banter back and forth while sipping their drinks at the bar counter, the blonde started telling Denali about her work as a hooker.
Suddenly, someone shoved her.
“Hey, stop pushing me!” she snarled at the guy who had bumped into her while pushing his way toward the bar counter. Then turning to Denali, she said, “Oh man, my vagina hurts right now. I took a pounding.”
Unsure of how to respond to that, Denali asked why. Turned out she was a call girl. She told him how three men had drugged her the day before and since Denali was listening, she kept going on about how many other men she had slept with earlier in the day prior to coming to the bar.
“Excuse me miss, I need to ask this guy something,” Denali interrupted the blonde, then turning to the bartender, he shouted, “Hey, is Diego Costa in today?”
The bartender shot Denali a suspicious look and shouted back, “Does he expect you?”
Denali reached into his hip pocket, fished out his bureau ID and flashed it at the bartender, and in a firm tone, said, “No appointment. I need to talk to him about Grace Mamito.”
“Grace Mamito. Strips here. Or used to. She went by the name ‘Mercedes.’”
The bartender shook his head. “I don’t know her.”
“Doesn’t matter. Diego Costa knows her…er…knew her very well.”
“I need to ask him a few questions regarding Mercedes.”
“What does she look like?”
“Tall, like me. Round face. Dark skin with black eyes. Her complexion is a matte deepness of black. Tattoos on all fingers. African accent.”
“Oh, was she from...um…Where was she from again?” the bartender asked.
“Oh yeah. That’s right.”
“Do you know her?”
The bartender’s eyes widened. “Yes. I remember her now. I haven’t seen her for over two weeks though. I believe the last time w—”
“Two weeks, huh?” he cut the bartender.
Denali had to be tactical now.
“Mmmh. You’re a cop!” the blonde began to engage Denali again.
Denali ignored her.
Known by his colleagues as someone who never played by the rules when lives were at stake, Denali wasn’t going to stop at anything until he found his sister. His no-nonsense character was a product of his upbringing, education, as well as long military and political career in Kenya.
The blonde nudged Denali on the shoulder and said, “Hey! I’m needed somewhere,” looked at her tiny gold-nugget Seiko watch that sparkled with diamonds, then stood up, winked at him and added, “Nice meeting you,” as she placed her glass on the bar counter.
“Be safe,” he shouted after her as she walked away, then turning to the bartender, he said, “I need to talk to Diego.”
“I think he’s in the back,” the bartender replied.
“Through that door,” the bartender responded, pointing to a door marked ‘Exit’ at the back of the bar. “Go all the way to the back. It’s the last door on the right. Says ‘Staff Only.’ Just knock. Someone will let you in.”
“Thank you,” Denali replied, then placed his glass on the bar counter before turning and pushing through the crowd as he made his way toward the exit door, opened it, and stepped into a dark hallway—unnervingly dark. It felt condemned, with no proper lighting.
The only window at the end of the hallway had blinds.
He turned right onto the only passageway that had some glow of light, suddenly came face to face with two shadowy people slumped against the wall. Both demurely gowned from neck to ankle with dark-colored robes, fear crept up Denali’s chest.
Not liking what he was seeing but trusting his training to protect himself, Denali approached the duo.
“I’m here to see Diego!” he told them, wondering—for the thousandth time—what could possibly have led Grace to such a den.
“And who are you?” one man asked and moved to block Denali’s path, while the other simply looked on, stone-faced.
Up close, Denali saw that despite their gowns, they both were burly but sturdy-built, their faces broad and high-boned, with their skin the warm ocher of ripe pears. Those features, together with the accent, reminded him of his Latina friends. These two were probably from Central or South America given the noticeable indigenous traits.
“Diego’s business partner,” he responded, adopting his default lie.
“Okay. Straight, then turn right through the double door.”