The lack of bars, especially ones frequented by biker’s, in and around the community of Bowness, narrowed Brand’s search. He had little trouble locating the particular establishment Phil described.
On the edge of a rundown strip mall, on a street forgotten in the neighbourhoods revitalization, tucked away from the steady pace of the northwest communities busy business district, a flickering sign, half its neon bulbs long dead, stood sentinel above the front entrance. Esmeraldas Bar and Grill.
The parking lot was next to empty. Brand pulled the truck into a space close to the door. A few other vehicles stood out front, three were motorbikes. The rain continued lashing down. He rushed from the dry confines of the truck cab to the awning drooping over the front door. Shaking off rainwater that collected on his coat, he crossed the sidewalk, hesitated, and then pushed into the dimly lit bar.
The smell of stale beer and even staler air assaulted his nose. An old Skynyrd song played above the din of the bar. A Southern man didn’t need him around anyhow, the words floated to his ears.
He stood in the doorway and looked around the interior of Esmeraldas. In the seventies, even early eighties, this bar was probably a happening place. Now, it was run down and dated. The atmosphere was depressing. Stained wood trim and discoloured paneling covered the majority of the walls. The cracked, faux leather booth seats had seen better days and the Formica tabletops were peeled and pitted. The carpeting was mashed with gravel from the parking lot and looked like it needed changing more than cleaning.
Straight ahead stood a long wooden countertop, shelves of bottles displayed behind it. Brand brushed more rain off his jacket sleeves and sauntered over to the bar, his sight roaming over the rest of the decrepit bar. A few tables near the pool table were occupied with tough looking men in biker garb.
Signalling the bartender, he ordered a rye and coke, no ice. Brand dug in his wallet for a twenty while the bartender fixed his drink. He laid the money on the counter and looked over the selection of liquor displayed on the glass shelves, the bottles reflecting off the mirrored wall behind the shelves.
The bartender set his drink down and took several steps back toward a cash register to change the bill. Brand lifted the glass sipping the drink, his head forward, his eyes casually checking the room behind him, the mirrored wall allowing him to watch without turning around.
Farther down the bar, an older gentleman sat flipping a coin. The man mumbled into his beer. Brand watched the man twirl the coin on the top of the bar. Something about that coin struck him as familiar. Brand stared, his glass half lifted to his lips. He’d seen a coin just like the gentleman’s, the memory just out of grasp.
When the bartender returned with his change, Brand asked him if he knew a Dave Halperson. The bartender stared blankly back. Brand pulled his phone out and showed the picture on the screen, repeating the question. A slight change in the bartender’s eyes betrayed the man. Digging in his wallet, Brand removed another twenty and slid it toward the barkeeper. When the man still refused to answer, Brand parted with another twenty.
“The older guy, Jerry, I know, don’t remember the younger guy, though.” The bartender spoke while pocketing the money.
“They’ve come here together I’m told.” Brand said. The bartender shook his head.
“Nope. The face doesn’t ring a bell, but Jerry, he’s a regular. Knows most of the staff here by name.” The man volunteered and turned to pour draft beer for a waitress standing at the till. The bartender lifted a rag from behind the counter and wiped the top of the bar. The forty-dollar conversation obviously over, Brand turned his attention back to the coin flipper.
Brand drained his glass, signalled the bartender for a second, and then moved down the bar toward the man twirling the coloured coin.
“Excuse me. Where’s that coin from?” Brand asked. The man ignored the interruption and continued toying with the coin. Is everyone in this bar deaf, Brand wondered? He was of no mind to pull more cash out of his pocket to get an answer to his question, so he waited.
Seizing the opportunity, he snatched the coin off the tattered counter as it was sent spinning again. Lifting it to his eyes, he scrutinized the coin, flipping it front and back. Millennium Casino, stamped in raised gold lettering ran the perimeter on both sides of the coin, the number, one hundred, stamped in the middle.
Brand set the coin back down in front of the man, mumbled an apology and lost in thought, stepped away, stopping in front of his drink. He raised his glass, absently sipping the rye, his eyes resting on the mirrored wall behind the assorted spirits.
Movement from the far tables brought his mind back in focus. Four bikers pushed back their chairs, looked in Brand’s direction and after a hushed discussion, ambled across the floor. The men walked with their chests puffed out and their heads held back, pushed past the few tables blocking their path and spread apart as they strode closer.
Brand studied the bike patches on their vests. The writing appearing backwards in the mirror but one word was easily decipherable; Hell, then the word Warrior became clear. Signalling the bartender, he ordered a shot of tequila then went back watching the mirror as the bikers approached. The bartender glanced at the advancing group of men and then back at Brand, hesitated a moment and then poured the shot as requested.
Brand reached for the shot glass as one of the bikers spoke to him.
“You a cop or something, buddy.” The speaker asked. Brand remained watching the men in the mirror.
“Nope.” Brand answered.
“We’re wondering what business you got coming in here and harassing these people?”
Brand shrugged. “I’m just a curious guy I suppose.”
“Well you know what curiosity can get you.”
“Man, don’t say cats…I hate cats.” Brand replied as he lifted the shot of tequila his mouth and felt the burn as the fiery liquid slid down his throat. He pulled a ten out of his wallet and laid it on the bar in payment for the shot. “I suppose I had better leave then.” He said as he waited for the bartender to grab him his change.
“You’ll leave when we say you can leave.” One of the other bikers joined the conversation. Brand pivoted away from the bar to face the group, looking each man in the eyes, the shot glass still clutched in his hand. The one who had spoken first, he presumed, was the leader of the group, if anything started, Brand knew that that man was going to be the first he dealt with. He slowed his breathing, his fingers playing with the glass in his hand.
The leader looked at the other three men, and then turned his attention back at Brand. Watching, Brand prepared for inevitable. He noticed the man’s eyes shift as the guy took a step closer. With out any hesitation, Brand closed his hand around the shot glass and drove his fist into the man’s throat. The force of the blow staggered the man, sending the leather-clad biker reeling back into a table.
The wounded man’s three pals rushed. Brand spun on his heels, grabbed the man closest and threw him heavily into the bar. The collision upsetting glasses and bottles perched on the counter. He then drove his hand, open palmed, the shot glass still clutched tightly, into the jaw of the third man; bones broke before blood came seeping from the torn flesh where the glass entered.
A bottle crashed behind him. Brand spun. Another of the bikers stood holding a broken beer bottle, the jagged edges pointing at his head. The remnants of liquid ran from the bottle. Brand backed up as the bikers swung the broken bottle at his face. The bar impeded his retreat, the brown, sharp edge threatening as it sliced through the air. Twisting his head clear, the glass slashed his clothing, tearing a red smear from his shoulder to his stomach.
Brand rolled to the side, a table behind him stuttered across the carpet as he bumped into it. Reaching with one hand he got a firm grasp on a loose chair and pulled it in front of him, then with both hands he swung hard, the momentum of the chair gaining speed. With all his power, he crashed the chair into the side of the biker. The man stopped, the bottle fell to the floor, the force of the blow sending the man collapsing onto a table.
Three of the bikers were down. One gasping for breath from a crushed larynx, another moaning while trying to stop the bleeding where the shot glass penetrated his cheek and the third lying in the middle of a table, knocked out from the force of the chair. The only one remaining in the fight was the one who had collided with the bar.
Brand spun to face the man. The last standing biker swung for the bleachers. Brand threw his arms up to block the man’s swing, the power in the man’s fist toppling Brand backward, off balance. His motion carried him into an overturned table, his feet became tangled in the legs of an errant chair, his body lurching haphazardly as he fell to the floor.
The biker growled and yelled as he lashed out with a foot aimed at Brand’s head. Brand scrambled his arms in front to prevent the foot from connecting and causing serious damage. Desperately he gripped the man’s foot and with a surge of force pushed the biker back, knocking the man off balance and back into the bar.
The two men rose, the biker throwing a round house aimed at Brand’s jaw. Grabbing the out stretched arm, Brand pulled the biker toward him, and off balance. He raised his knee and drove it into the man’s stomach. The biker doubled over, his breath quickly exiting his mouth. Brand clasped his his hands together and brought them down, hard, onto the back of the biker’s neck, driving the man head first into the gravel packed carpet. The biker hit the floor, the last bit of air escaping through his lips.
Bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing deeply, he surveyed the four downed bikers. Two things came to mind as he fought to fill his burning lungs. One, he probably wasn’t going to be served another drink, and two; he realized the significance of the coin he had watched the man twirl earlier. One of the detectives, he was certain, played with a similar coin at the precinct when he was interrogated and now, another coin in this bar, an obvious Hell’s Warrior hangout. The coincidence would make the Millennium Casino his next order of business.
Catching his breath he straightened up, told the barman to keep the change from the ten he set on the bar before the fight started and walked out into the pouring rain. He stood by his truck letting the steady downfall of rain wash over the gash across his stomach, the water feeling cool and refreshing after the tussle in the bar.
A half block from the bar, through the intermittent, wiper cleared windshield, he watched a car rush past his truck, revolving flashing lights of red and blue on the cars dash, preceding it down the street. He caught a glimpse of the two detectives, Walgreen and O’Brien partially screened by the rain-splattered windshield as the pair raced by. Slowing, he kept an eye on the trucks mirror. The unmarked sedan skidded off the street and into the bars parking lot.
An odd thought pinged Brand’s brain. The dynamic duo certainly arrived on the scene quickly. If the detectives were to continue their relentless tailing, he might as well suggest they all ride together in his truck. Car-pooling. Save the environment and all that crap.
Brand stepped out of the hotel shower and stood in front of the mirror. The broken bottle had left a nasty little cut, not bad enough to require stitching, but a nuisance none the less. He unrolled a bandage purchased on the way back to the hotel and dabbing at the bleeding wound, he dried a small amount of blood before carefully centering the bandage’s padding over the nasty red streak torn across his skin. Pulling a clean t-shirt off the bed, he dressed and left his room. Walked to the elevator and down to the lobby where the hotel’s restaurant waited.
Seating himself, he dwelled on the casino chip while waiting for the waitress to take his order. He shifted, trying to sit comfortably without tearing the bandage free of the wound. Within minutes the waitress returned with a cup of steaming black coffee. A rye would have been preferable, but his evening wasn’t over yet and an alcohol-dulled mind didn’t fit with the plan.
His thoughts kept returning to the coin from the bar. The last few days were a jammed together collage of memories; the coin placement took two cups of coffee to recall. Draining the last of his coffee, his mind traced his movements back to the police precinct the night his house was attacked. One of the two detectives was playing with a coin similar to the one he noticed at the bar, but was it O’Brien or Walgreen. Which one, he couldn’t be certain but he was sure that that was where he saw it.
How personally involved were the pair of the cities finest. Was this investigation on a professional level of were outside motives in play.
The Millennium Casino was obviously his next stop. Something Roy had said about the casino trading gambling debts for favours, hung with him and the warning that some members of the police department did favours for the Warriors. He wondered if one or possibly both of the cops were tied to the gang running the casino, and did it involve gambling debts, definitely something to keep in mind. Might even explain the pair’s sudden fascination with him.
Back in his room, Brand removed his t-shirt and pulled on a button down shirt. Tucking his shirt into his jeans, he walked over to the front closet and pulled on a pair of scuffed cowboy boots. Grabbing a Panama hat off the closet shelve, he left the room and made his way through the hotel and to his truck.
Mid afternoon, the sky remained clouded and dark. The rain was still lashing down with no signs of ending. Traffic was light as he threaded his way across town. The traffic was light on 16 ave. and the lights worked in his favour. A string of green escorted him through the intersections and pointed him toward the mountains.
The Millennium Casino stood on the west edge of the city, just beyond the city limits, at the bottom of a hill, on the north side of Highway One. Finding a stall in the crowded parking lot, Brand studied the outside of the casino from behind his windshield, his truck still running, the defrost fighting against the excess moisture coming down outside.
He watched a group of people huddled around each other trying to enjoy their smokes while hiding under roof of the casino extended portico and out of the rain. Not being a big fan of casinos, Brand rarely stepped inside of them. This one he had been in before. He and his friend Sara had taken in a concert by an old rock and roll band a few months back. Not that he was looking, but he didn’t recall any signs the casino was home to an outlaw biker gang.
He watched the comings and goings of casino patrons for a few minutes before locking his truck and rushing across the parking lot for the protection of the front entrance. Brushing raindrops off his jacket and tapping his hat into his leg to remove the water, he opened one of double entrance doors and headed for the bells and whistles of the gaming room.
Pulling the brim of his hat down to partially screen his face, Brand walked past a security guard at the casino entrance and stopped a few steps inside the door while slowly looking over the interior. Rows upon rows of gaming tables ran the length of the brightly lit room. A large bar was situated in the middle of the vast space, TV’s suspended from the ceiling ringed the bar.
He turned his attention to the banks of slot machines stacked back-to-back to the side of the floor, lights flashing and bells ringing, people standing and sitting in front of electronic bandits, feeding a supply of coins and bills. The rain was good for business he assumed. Mid afternoon and the place appeared to be doing a fine bit of business. He had imagined the casino would be fairly dead this time of day, the crowd of people surprising him.
Brand walked straight to the bar and waited in line to order a drink. Passing the girl behind the bar a ten, he told her to keep the change when she handed him a drink.
Reaching into his pocket for his phone, he brought up the screen with the picture of his two friends and showed the bartender the picture.
“Do you recall seeing either of these guys in here before?” He asked.
She took the phone from Brand’s hand and had a closer look. “Sure…the older one …Jerry, he comes in here regularly. He usually sits at the bar and has a few drinks before he wondering away to gamble for the evenings. The night’s he wins, he stop back here and gives me a nice tip. Why, did something happen to him? Is he in trouble?” She asked Brand as she returned the phone.
“No.” He said shaking his head. “Jerry’s a friend of mine.” And led with another question, “how about the younger guy? Have you ever noticed him in here?”
Taking the phone again, the bartender studied the picture closer and then looked back at Brand passing back his phone. “Don’t recall seeing him before.” She said and turned away to serve another customer putting and end to Brand’s inquiries.
Brand slipped his drink off the counter and walked toward the gaming tables. He knew that you had to have cash to lay the slots, thus eliminating anyone from running up a huge debt. He strolled down the line of Black Jack tables, stopping every now and then to watch a few hands being played. In all honesty he didn’t know exactly how he would be able to discover any more information but he came prepared to spend a few hours and see what presented itself.
Nursing his drink, he wondered from one game of chance to another studying peoples faces. Most had blank looks as they concentrated on the games of chance. Every now and then a scream or a whoop floated up and filled the room as some lucky gambler hit it big.
Mingling among the crowds, Brand alternated between wearing his hat and carrying by his side it for a change of look. Less suspicious he hoped; take longer for the casino security to notice him loitering while he roamed among the gamblers. Another drink ordered and hours later he continued to watch the throngs of gamblers giving and taking money at the tables.
His reconnaissance of the gaming floor proved fruitless. Unless it was an off night, nothing among the roulette tables or blackjack, even the craps table failed to turn up anything he would deem attention worthy. Strolling to the side of the large, noisy floor, he turned his attention to a room partitioned off at the side of the casino. A pair of glass doors separated this room from the rest of the gaming floor. ‘Poker Room” was stencilled on the dual glass doors. Brand sauntered past a bouncer stationed at the door and stood to the side watching the action at table only steps inside the room.
He studied the players. The stack of chips growing in front of some gamblers, shrinking in front of others. With each loss, he studied the card players faces for tell tale signs of anxiety. Remaining at the table while a couple rounds were dealt, he moved to a different angle and a second table fell under his observation. He noted the player’s manners as they placed bets, waited for new cards and either folded or pushed more chips into the pile.
The large amount of chips that flowed back and forth across the table was the one place a person, under the right circumstances, could end up owing the casino a small fortune. He was too far away to read the small writing on the poker chips, but the colours matched the chip he had seen in the biker bar earlier.
After hours of milling around the room, Brand’s eyes kept retuning to a middle age man dressed in a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a tattered ball cap pushed back on his head. The man’s face showed the kind of night he was having. The man’s wife, if he had one, would not be impressed by the looks of the man’s fortunes, Brand predicted. This guy could possibly be the type of gambler Brand was searching for if, and that was a big if, if the guy’s fortunes remained going down the toilet.
Brand wondered around a while longer, bought himself another drink and returned to view the poker room. A few more hours passed and the man Brand kept an eye on, looked like he was sweating money.
Late evening, one of the room’s security guards walked over to the man, whispered in his ear and then waited as the man stood up before escorting the man to a door at the back of the poker room. Brand made a note of what the security guard looked like for later reference. With his concentration trained on the door where the two men disappeared, Brand failed to notice a different security guard approach him from behind. A hand touching his shoulder made Brand aware of the guard’s appearance.
“Buddy, you here to gamble or you watching to see which players leave with money so you can fleece them in the parking lot?” The guard asked. “I think you’ve seen enough. Maybe now would be a good time for you to leave.” The guard requested.
Brand looked the man in the eye. He was about to give some snap answer and then had second thoughts. Placing his hat back on his head, he let the guard escort him off the gaming floor. Setting his unfinished drink on a table at the exit door, he walked outside and stood under the casino entrance. Cupping his hands around a cigarette, he sucked the smoke deep into his lungs, his mind working out his next move. Tossing several options around, he shrugged deeper into his coat and walked through the steady onslaught of rain to his truck.
Firing up the engine and turning the defrost fan on high, Brand sat behind the wheel. From where he was parked, he had an excellent view of the casino doors. He dialled the trucks exterior lights off hiding the running vehicle among the parked cars. The rain pounded off the truck’s roof, as he waited, eyes straining through the raindrops splattering the windshield, staring at the casino entrance. With no where to be, he decided to wait and to see if the unlucky poker player tired of losing and decided to leave.
Brand lowered the driver’s window a crack and then fished in his pocket for his pack of smokes, dug one out along with his lighter. Blowing a mouthful of smoke at the opening at the top of the window, he returned his gaze back to peer through the steady beat of rain. The cab of the truck warmed, the defroster winning the battle against the dampness. Weary eyes trained on the casino entrance, a movement at the side of the building brought him alert.
Dragging his eyes away from the front of the building, he watched two people exited a side door and slowly walk toward the parking lot. As the pair ventured closer to his truck, Brand saw the men’s faces. Walking in front, a man Brand hadn’t seen before, the second person, the losing poker player, hunched over against the rain, with the lack of fortune lady luck had shown him etched on his face.
The second man walked with purpose, his head held high in the rain, and a serious almost mean look about him. The man also had the look of someone well suited for this type of job, if Brand’s take on the man was correct. Tiny and the lonesome loser, Brand nicknamed the unlikely duo.
The gambler’s escort was just smaller than enormous; a leather vest fit snuggly over a black t-shirt, biker style, the man’s massive body barely restrained by the clothing, and arms the size of tree limbs swung at his side as he slowly moved through the parking lot.
Brand watched the two stop at an older model Ford pick-up truck, a couple rows in front of where he sat parked. The men climbed into the truck, the large man climbed into the driver’s seat and started the truck’s engine, the down on luck poker player hesitated at the passengers door, probably weighing his options before reluctantly climbing into the passenger seat.
Brand swore softly. He had planned on talking to the gambler, but seeing that wasn’t going to happen, he backed his truck out of its spot. Keeping a short distance back of the older truck, he followed as the pair entered the late evening traffic.
Read more Brand Coldstream exploits in Going Silent and Silent Crusade. Both available at on-line bookstores world wide.