Daniel Escobar eyed the row of tequila shots on the chipped and gouged wood table before them.
Nothing good would come of this.
“Don’t be such a fucking pussy,” Eli Boden, one of his best friends and now co-worker, chided. “You’re working for the Contego Agency now, so buck the fuck up and take your shot.”
The man had long blond hair he kept back in a braid most of the time, but tonight it was in a loose ponytail, and all the passing women stopped to run her fingers through it. They were in a biker club bar run by Eli’s dad, who also happened to be the president of a local motorcycle club, and a bad ass motherfucker who loved Daniel like a son. This probably explained why everyone was leaving them alone as they sat together for a victory toast. So, while this wasn’t the cleanest or safest bar Daniel had ever been in, right now, being here with his buddies made him feel like he’d finally come home.
It was also nice to be in a bar where he didn’t get stared at for always wearing his sunglasses. People either tended to think he was a psycho or a douche, not realizing he wore them because he’d almost gotten blown up by a fucking suicide bomber. Omar said it made Daniel look like the singer Pittbull’s bastard son with a leprechaun. He did know one thing for sure, those glasses made it insanely easy to pick up chicks, just not the kind he would bring home to Mom, that is, if his mom wasn’t a dead junkie.
Bitterness flowed through him and he forced himself to relax using some deep breathing bullshit the therapist taught him. It actually seemed to work. One of the prerequisites when working at the Contego Agency was mandatory time with the shrink. He had to be on his game every second that he was on duty as a bodyguard, because sometimes they dealt with some pretty gruesome shit. People didn’t need protection when things were going great. The people who contacted the Contego Agency needed them to be in top form when shit hit the fan and they had no one else to turn to. Knowing he was making a difference with his job went a long way toward helping Daniel find a purpose in life outside of the military. And the big fucking paychecks would certainly help.
Across from Daniel sat his friend, Omar, a big, heavily muscled black man built like a bull. He grinned at Daniel then puckered up his lips. “Aww, do you need us to get you some salt and lemon or for us to water it down first so you can swallow it easier, sweetheart?”
“Speaking of swallowing,” Daniel replied with a lofty air and a smile of his own, “how’s your Mom doing?”
All three men busted out laughing. Talking shit with each other had been one of the few things that kept Daniel sane when he was stationed in the Middle East with the Marines. He’d been in some truly frightening situations, real crap your pants type affairs, only to find himself fighting laughter as Boden and Omar talked shit to each other in whispers.
Boden shook his head while a curvy brunette in a bikini top and daisy dukes rubbed his back. She was one of the biker club’s sluts. Normally, Daniel wouldn’t use that word, but these bitches would open their legs for anyone friendly with the club, and it showed. As Boden liked to say, the women who worked here had been rode hard and put away wet. Daniel had no idea why they did it, but there never seemed to be a shortage of women around the bar. Daniel knew most of the club members and the thought of sticking his dick anywhere near a woman who’d slept with those nasty motherfuckers made his stomach clench. Still, they were females so he did his best to respect them even if they didn’t respect themselves.
Omar pounded the table with one giant fist. “Take your fucking shot like a man. Jesus Christ, do I need to massage your clitty a little first?”
“Fuck off. Just because your dick is the size of a clit doesn’t mean the rest of us have your issues.”
“Ladies, ladies,” Boden chided. “The night is getting old. Time to drink up or shut up.”
All three of them laughed again and a fond memory of drinking with his rather foul-mouthed uncle flashed through Daniel’s mind. The man had a way of taking a fucking tequila shot Daniel would never forget. That shit had hurt, made his eyes water and his nose run in addition to thinking he was going to die. He couldn’t wait to see Boden and Omar take one.
“You wanna take it like a man, fine. Try this shit on for size, bitches. My uncle taught me this and swore it would get me wasted.” He swallowed hard at the memory. “It sure as fuck did.” He motioned to the girl leaning on Boden. “Sweetheart, could you go get me some of the spiciest wing sauce you have? Or some Tabasco sauce? I want the hottest shit you’ve got.”
Her eyes grew wide, but she nodded and ran off, her butt working her shorts in a way that made every man in the room take notice. Unfortunately, she was a club girl, meaning her pussy had more miles on it than a Greyhound bus. Too bad, she seemed nice, and he knew better than to try to talk her into finding another way to fill her Saturday night. He’d learned a long time ago that you couldn’t save someone who didn’t want to be saved.
Boden had fallen silent, and Omar gave Daniel the stern look that made more than one brand new, fresh off the bus Marine recruit piss himself. Omar had been a drill instructor and, as a result, his voice was totally blown the fuck out. When he spoke, it was so raspy some people had a problem understanding him. “What the fuck are you up to?”
“Nothing good can come of this,” Boden agreed.
The girl returned with a water glass half full of some red sauce. “I mixed the Tabasco with some of our habanero and ghost pepper wing sauce.”
She gave him a disbelieving look as she handed him the glass but shrugged her shoulders and went back to standing behind Boden. With the other two men watching intently, Daniel calmly poured a little bit of the sauce in each drink. “Gentlemen, to quote Ronald Reagan, ‘Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. Marines don’t have that problem.’”
All three of them grabbed their shot and downed it. The alcohol and pepper sauce hit his tongue and burned away the bad memories from past battles that tried to surface. The fun part of taking a shot like this was you knew instantly you’d fucked up big time. Before he could react, the shot slid down his throat like lava, burning him from the inside out. Tears sprang to his eyes as he exhaled and his nose burned from the fumes in his mouth.
“Welcome to the Contego Agency,” Boden managed to wheeze. “Thank god we have good fucking insurance because I think I need to go to the hospital.”
Daniel immediately reached out for the stack of napkins he’d placed near himself, shoving them over his face to control his running eyes and nose. Boden made some kind of weird gasping sound, and Omar choked out a steady stream of obscenities as only a man who’d been in the Marines for the last twelve years could do. Daniel would have laughed, but right now he was trying to figure out if he was dying.
With a sick lurch, his stomach tried to reject the shit he’d just poured down his throat, but he swallowed hard and continued to wipe his face. All around them, people were laughing and Boden was promising he was going to fuck up every motherfucker he could identify by voice.
Daniel let out a burp that felt as if it came from a blast furnace.
Omar roared out like a wounded bear, “Someone get me a goddamn napkin and a pitcher of milk!”
Boden started to hiccup. “I’m gonna fuck your world up, Skeetez. I can hear you laughing, you hunchback bastard!”
After what seemed like an eternity of suffering, their guts finally quieted enough so they could breathe. They were getting pretty toasty, and the bartender sent over two pitchers of beer on the house.
It was close to closing time, but all three men were crashing at the huge apartment above the bar. Boden lived there, and he’d made it into a luxurious flat that rivaled anything Daniel had seen in the movies. The Contego Agency paid well, and if Daniel was smart with his money, he could retire at fifty and spend the rest of his days living someplace where the lifestyle was slow and easy, the weather was warm, and girls wore string bikinis in neon colors that glowed against their dark, perfect skin.
There were less than a dozen people in the bar now, most of them women who were older, hard-looking females who seemed to radiate despair. They’d been used and abused, and knew they weren’t going to be able to coast by on their looks anymore with nothing to show for their years spent servicing the motorcycle club members.
In a fucked up way, they reminded him of his mom.
Daniel looked away and focused back on his beer. “It’s really weird being back here, seeing how much my old neighborhood has changed.”
Boden nodded sagely, more than a little shitfaced. “That’s right. Didn’t you grow up in the ghetto off of Seven Mile?”
He thought back to the shitty apartment his mother had rented because it was close to her drug dealer boyfriend. It seemed like things got worse with each move they made until Daniel started to wonder if he’d be homeless before he had a chance to graduate high school. The only good thing about the move to Detroit was that he got a scholarship to a private Catholic school. He wasn’t actually Catholic, his mother had lied about that, but he was thirsty for knowledge and wanted to get the fuck out of the downward spiral his mom was dragging him into.
A maelstrom of discontent swept through his mind as he took a sip of his beer, drunk enough to think about the time in his life when he’d been the happiest. “Yeah. It was a total shit hole. When we moved in, my mom had to keep the lights on at night or bugs would’a crawled all over us.”
Omar shook his head, an unusually grave expression on his face. “I hear ya, man. I grew up in Chicago. That place made Afghanistan look like home.”
Someone turned on the jukebox and a classic Led Zeppelin tune came on. They sat in silence, each caught up in their own thoughts. One of the women came over and smiled flirtatiously with them. “Anyone wanna have some fun?”
All three men shook their heads and she shrugged then wandered off to the next remaining group of men.
Boden made a disgusted face. “Such a fucking waste. I remember her from when I was a kid. She’d make me cookies and watched me while my dad did club shit. Used to be a nice lady then she got hooked on meth and turned into a zombie.”
Leaning on his forearms, Omar shook his head. “It seems like all the decent women are gone.”
Daniel scoffed. “What’re you talking about? You sleep with a different woman every day of the week.”
Omar frowned. “I’m not like that anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
Twirling his half empty beer glass, Omar shrugged. “No matter how many women I fucked, it never felt the same as making love to someone you care about.”
“Amen to that,” Boden said in a rough voice. Daniel felt pity for his friend. Boden’s wife had died from a brain aneurysm while they were overseas. They’d been out on a high risk, top secret mission, so Boden didn’t find out until five days after it had happened.
Omar looked over at Daniel. “What about you? You ever been in love?”
Daniel actually had to swallow hard to keep tears from pooling in his eyes. Fucking tequila turned him into a maudlin drunk every single time. “Once. A girl I knew from high school.”
“You haven’t loved anyone since high school?”
“Not like that.”
He took a deep breath, memories of his ex-girlfriend, Hope, rushing through him. He remembered how his tanned hand looked against the dark cinnamon tone of her smooth belly, how she’d trusted him completely, and how he’d almost gotten her killed. No matter who he’d been with since then, none of them stood up to Hope.
Too bad she hated him. How fucking pathetic was that? The one woman he loved couldn’t stand him, and yet he just couldn’t fucking seem to be able to move on. Something was always holding him back from committing all the way to a woman.
He was going to spend the rest of his life alone, mourning the one who’d gotten away.
Depressed and shocked by how much it still hurt to think about Hope, he chugged the rest of his beer. Yeah, he’d pay for this in the morning, but whenever he thought about Hope he always dreamed about her. Good dreams where they’d been kissing each other for hours out in a field while lying on a thick quilt. He’d actually be able to smell the grass mixed with Hope’s sweet perfume and sun-warmed skin. Then he’d wake up with the feeling of the rough texture of her braids still brushing against his face and his heart would break anew.
He said a quick prayer that no matter where Hope was, she was happy with the man she’d chosen to marry while Daniel was in boot camp. Not that he blamed her for getting engaged, he’d fucked her world up so badly he knew she could never forgive him. She was better off without him.
He was bad luck, had been since the day he’d been born. Daniel’s mother had said that to him so often he could hear her voice like she was standing in the room next to him instead of dead from a heroin overdose. A cold chill skated up his spine and he poured himself another beer, begging for one night where he wasn’t haunted by his past.