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Hot, humid—no, make that wet—air clung to her like a second skin. Kate Collier dabbed a tissue along her brow, over her cheeks, then her upper lip. The second she stuffed the tissue back into her black purse, perspiration popped out on her face again, putting a new layer of dampness on top of the old.
Where is the Blue Dolphin?
She scanned the street—if she could call the pothole-riddled single lane of packed dirt a street. She was beginning to think she needed a guide to find the guide the hotel had given her directions to over a half an hour ago. It wasn't as though this place was a major city. Probably no more than two thousand lived here, if that. But she had wandered the streets of Mandras, Brazil, and was going to have to admit she was lost. Like her brother. That thought spurred her on. She needed help.
Turning the corner, going farther away from the more civilized parts of Mandras—and that was a generous usage of the word civilized—she saw the sign at an angle, barely held up by a rusted chain at one end. Blue Dolphin Bar. Bar? The hotel hadn't said anything about her going into a bar.
Oh, my! This would never do!
She stood outside the seedy-looking building that had patches of what had once been yellow paint still clinging to parts of the wooden structure. It housed a bar on its lower floor, and she wasn't sure she really wanted to know what was in the top story. She gnawed on her bottom lip while she tried to decide what to do. She had never been in a bar in her whole thirty-eight years. Never. Not once. If she went inside, she could imagine the horror on the faces of the people back home at the church where she was the secretary if they knew. She could imagine the horror on her own face!
She fortified herself with a deep breath and nearly choked on the scent of rotting fish and decaying plants with just a hint of stale...beer? Releasing the breath, she hiked the strap of her purse up on her shoulder and hugged it close to her. From inside, the sounds of loud voices and laughter drifted out to her. The man called Slader, according to not just the manager at the hotel, but anyone else she had contacted, was the only one who would take her to where she needed to go. She had no choice.
Lord, please protect and guide me. Tell me what I should do. I have to find my brother. I know he isn't dead. Please help me to get through the next few minutes—alive!
Still undecided, Kate scanned the area and realized for the first time that there were not many people out and about, which made her situation even more precarious. Being in the middle of the afternoon, there was little traffic on the street and certainly not anything that looked even remotely like a taxi to take her back to her hotel. And worse, not far from this street she could see the river and jungle, a wall of various shades of green with a ribbon of brown running through it.
A group of men, all scruffy looking, as though they had just been let out of prison, suddenly exited a tin-roofed building across the street and headed toward her en masse. Her heart began to pound so fast that the images before her tilted and spun. Clutching the post next to her, she squeezed her eyes closed for a few seconds, hoping she was seeing things that weren't there.
Someone jostled her, sending her into the main stream of men. Their rancid odor, a mixture of sweat, unwashed bodies and something unidentifiable, engulfed her. Her eyes snapped open. Someone else bumped into her from behind. Before she realized what was happening, the eight men swept her along with them into the bar, their cackles and snickering remarks causing her ears to burn. Thankfully she had no idea what they were saying, since she didn't speak Portuguese, or more than her ears would be burning. Which brought her to another problem. What if no one spoke English? How would she find Mr. Slader, especially if he wasn't here?
"Excuse me," she squeaked out to the nearest man. He twisted around and glared at her.
Her mind went blank while her full attention glued itself to the long, ugly red scar that slashed down his face from hairline to chin.
"What's a lady like you doing here?" one of the other men said in broken English, followed by some more Portuguese, then a round of laughter, the deep belly kind, as though she was the punch line of a joke.
Heat that had nothing to do with the soaring tropical temperature scored her cheeks, even though now that she was away from the scorching sun it was cooler in the bar by a few degrees. She started to speak to the man who had spoken a semblance of English, but visions of her foolhardiness for even being in this place flashed before her. Nothing would come out of her mouth.
The men parted and ambled toward the scarred bar to order their drinks or to join others at the tables scattered around the room. Several threw her one last look and dismissed her as unimportant—probably downright unattractive, therefore not worth their time.
Left alone in the middle of the bar, she bristled at how they had walked away. Didn't they see she needed help? That thought brought her up short. She hadn't wanted their attention, so why was she upset at not getting it?
Kate, you are losing it.You are definitely out of your element. She should have been ecstatic that she was plain and unappealing to men. But still, what was she going to do about finding Mr. Slader without assistance?
Ignoring her lapse in logic, she went about doing what she had set out to do with or without anyone's help—find Mr. Slader and hire him as her guide. In the dim light she surveyed the patrons of the bar, trying to decide which one was the man in question, that was if he was even at the bar. But the hotel manager had claimed that Mr. Slader would be here if hewasintown. She'd thought the manager had meant this was Mr. Slader's office and the Blue Dolphin was the name of the building or even the name of another hotel. What a mistake!
Then she saw the man who had to be Mr. Slader, from the manager's description, at the end of the long bar that ran the length of the room. He toyed with a glass full of a golden brown liquid, never picking it up. Lifting his gaze, he stabbed her with penetratingly dark eyes that bored into her and nearly pinned her to the swinging doors several feet behind her, such was the power behind his regard.
With all the courage she could muster—which she decided was puny at best—she started forward, caught in his snare. He straightened when she headed toward him, a deep frown carving lines into his tanned features. That movement pulled her attention to the breadth of his wide shoulders and the muscular arms that rested on the counter. The manager had said he was a large man, but that description really didn't depict him adequately.
When her focus returned to that face hardened by the sun's rays, she gasped at the arch of his brow and the amusement lighting the dark brown depths of his eyes. He cocked his head and turned slightly. That was when she lit upon the scar that ran from his left ear across part of his cheek. It conveyed a toughness that she wasn't used to.
He was the second man with a scar whom she had seen in the past five minutes. In the heat she shivered and, by the lift of his eyebrow, knew he had seen her reaction. The amusement in his expression grew.
Please let me be wrong. Don't let him be Mr. Slader. The bar's constant noise decreased in volume to a few murmurs. Most of the patrons paused and waited to see what transpired at the end of the bar, between her and the man with black hair longer than hers pulled back and tied with a leather strap. She caught a sympathetic look in one man's eyes that sent panic bolting through her.
Run now before it's too late, her sensible side screamed. Then she remembered her brother and knew she couldn't, no matter that every alarm bell in her mind pealed a deafening toll.
Why did Mr. Slader have to be the only guide available?
She should have asked the hotel manager why he insisted Mr. Slader was the only one available, but in her eagerness to begin her search for her brother, she'd flown out of the shabby lobby and in the direction the man had indicated, only remembering fifteen minutes later that she was lousy at following directions. She could get lost in Red Creek, her hometown of ten thousand people.
She stopped a few feet from the large, muscular man, swallowed several times and opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Her mind emptied while he again pierced her with his arrowlike stare, his mouth pressed into a look clearly meant to intimidate.
A minute ticked into two.
Finally one corner of his mouth lifted. "Yes?" Words slowly filtered back into her mind. "Are you Mr. Slader?"
"Can we go somewhere to talk?" She glanced around, trying her best not to let her distaste show in her expression and voice. She was afraid she hadn't succeeded, especially if the curl of his lips was any indication.
"Pull up a chair."
"Do you have an office where it's—" again she looked around "—where it's quieter?"
He chuckled. "There's no point in wasting good money on a place I'd rarely frequent. Whatever you have to say can be said here."
His grammatically correct English should have reassured her. It didn't. An education didn't guarantee he was a gentleman. "Then, can we talk over there?" she asked, aware that the man on the other side of her openly listened to every word they exchanged. She waved her hand toward a vacant table at the back of the bar that offered a bit of privacy. She could tell by the tightening about Mr. Slader's hard mouth that he was going to refuse to move. She hurriedly added, "Please."
With a frown, he shrugged and slid from the stool, allowing her to go first.
Kate wove her way through the bar to the empty table, feeling as though she were walking farther into the den of iniquity where darkness prevailed, which in actuality was correct. The back part of the bar wasn't well lit. Only two single bulbs, no more than forty watts each, dangled from the ceiling. One fan barely stirred the hot, damp air laced with that rancid smell of sweat and uncleaned bodies pressed closely together.
Mr. Slader slipped into one of the chairs, his face hidden in the ever-present shadows. Again, a shiver rippled down her spine as she dusted off the wooden seat and eased down onto it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him watch her every move, his mouth hiking up in a lopsided grin. She perched on the edge, the hammering of her heart like the beating of a jungle drum, its tempo quickening the longer she stayed. A bead of perspiration rolled down her face. She brushed at it.