This is a work of fiction and any references to real people, products, and/or organizations are only included to lend a sense of authenticity. All the characters, whether central or peripheral, are wholly the product of the author's imagination, as are their actions, motivations, thoughts and conversations, and neither the characters nor the situations which were invented for them are intended to depict real people or events. Manchester, England, is a real place - not as scary as the rumours, but just as wet.
Copyright © Emily Duncan 2001. All rights reserved. The original fiction works contained herein are the property of the author and are subject to copyright laws, as well as other laws, including, but not limited to, other applicable state, federal, territorial and international laws and treaties. You are granted permission to print these pages or save to a file on your computer for personal use only. No other use is permissible, except where otherwise specified in writing or where the author's prior express written consent has been obtained. Any other use of the materials, including, but not limited to, distribution, modification, reproduction, publication, transmission, participation in the transfer of or sale of, performance, creation of derivative works, or in any other way, the use of which results in the exploitation of any of the materials, in whole or in part, for uses other than those expressly permitted herein, is strictly forbidden.
The content depicts love and a variety of sexual relationships between consenting adult women. There will also be violence (a death is depicted) and bad language. If it is illegal for you to read work of this nature, then please do not continue.
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You can also find this story at ForevaXena and more work by Emily in the archive at her site www.emilyduncan.com.
by Emily Duncan
What a night.
It was the start of the new millennium, and in a small, dark bar in the centre of Manchester, a small blonde woman was leaning on a barstool. She didn't think she'd ever have the strength to get up. Her limbs felt like jelly – far too tired to support even her own slight weight. However, despite the fatigue, a deep sense of satisfaction was fighting its way through the fog of the "morning after".
She smiled a little weakly.
Not bad for a night's work, Nia…even though you're saying it yourself.
She was right. Last night's New Year celebrations had gone exceptionally well – regulars and newcomers appreciating the easy ambience that marked the place apart from Manchester's trendier offerings. Their enthusiasm - and alcohol consumption - had brought in takings that were more than enough to appease the ever-looming Powers That Be. But festivities over, the dirty work was beginning in earnest. The January rain was falling in buckets, drenching the streets outside and running into the gutters as the clean-up operation got underway within.
Damn place looks like a bomb's hit it.
The manager glanced about her, and baulked as she surveyed the filth saturating her small territory.
It was in quite a state. Broken glasses and bottles littered the whole vicinity, along with a liberal scattering of cigarette ends. The chairs and tables looked as though they'd been dug out of a coal mine. And to top it all, the entire area was slick with spilled beer and champagne, sticking feet to the floor and snatching tacky footprints that would be horrendous to get off.
Still, if we all pull together it shouldn't take too long to return to some semblance of normality…she thought, as she breathed in the buzz that permeated the air. Ten of the bar staff had dragged themselves out of bed before noon on New Year's Day to come and clear up - and Nia reflected that they were doing a pretty decent job of it, despite the seemingly impenetrable mess.
These were a good lot. The financial rewards for giving up your New Year's Eve to work were considerable, especially since this was the start of the new millennium – but the staff had given more than their money's worth and worked the shift with patience and good humour, dealing efficiently with the casualties that were a side-effect of cheap champagne and free shots of vodka.
The bar manager tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, and grinned to herself as she remembered one of the evening's more amusing incidents.
The place was filling up fast, and although it was only ten o'clock, many of the customers were dancing. Some of them were criminally drunk, Nia realised, as a besuited young man almost fell into a table in his efforts to cut a move. While observing his antics, she spotted one of her staff elbowing her way in and out of the crowd, collecting glasses cavalier fashion - thin-lipped and methodical, fixated on her task.
The manager smiled in appreciation. Lizzie was a petite, attractive young woman, and her appearance belied a feisty little tiger that could definitely take care of herself. The only clue to the fire that lay within was a certain something in the cut of the profile, a determined nose and angular jaw that jutted defiantly regardless of what mood the barmaid was in. Nia had often wondered what it would be like to take the brunette to bed, imagining Liz to be as much of a handful in the sack as she was in the workplace...and routinely had to shake herself for thinking about one of her employees in such a manner.
She shook herself again, and deep green eyes focused on the figure approaching the bar, with arms full of glasses and an ill -concealed look of annoyance on her face.
Liz set the pile down and gave her boss a tense grin.
"Everything OK, Liz?" Nia enquired, stifling a smirk in case it prompted an outburst from her quick-tempered employee.
Replied the brunette abruptly, before turning to face the man who was dancing behind her, and pinning him to the nearest wall with an icy glare that carried a notable amount of menace, despite her size.
"Listen, mate. The next time you grope me while I'm collecting glasses, you're heading for a broken arm. And if you don't believe I can do it I'd be happy to demonstrate."
Nia choked back a bark of laughter. Stunned, the customer attempted to speak - failed, and sloped off into the crowd, sheepish and visibly embarrassed by the fact that this diminutive barmaid had thwarted his advances so effectively…and publicly.
Meanwhile, Liz turned back to her manager, triumph and apology mingling in her face as she met the blonde's eyes.
"Was it acceptable to do that? I mean, you always say that sexual harassment's not part of the job, but..."
Her voice trailed off, betraying a little uncertainty. Nia was a fabulous boss, normally granting her staff a considerable amount of freedom, but everyone knew there was a line that was not to be crossed with the gentle blonde or there would be hell to pay. Liz wasn't sure whether she'd just crossed it.
But the golden-haired manager just chuckled and patted her on the arm.
"You're a little warrior at heart, aren't you?" She quipped, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"I like it, Liz. I'd have done exactly the same thing in that situation. Next time, let's tackle him together. I don't think he'd survive if we pooled our resources. That might be fun."
With a wink, Nia moved off to put change in the tills, leaving an admiring Liz gazing after her.
"She's something else, isn't she?" She muttered, to no-one in particular.
A few seconds later, she gave vent to a snort.
"Who's she calling a warrior?"
A disgruntled male voice dragged Nia back to the grime and chaos of January 1st.
"What's the matter, Tom?"
She craned her neck to reply to the hefty lad towering over her. Nia didn't have many men on her staff, finding that communication was much easier with an all-female team - but as she'd reflected when she'd hired Tom and Pete…you have to keep some boys on the premises to do the heavy lifting and the muck-work.
Tom wrinkled his nose in disdain.
"Some customer got pissed as a newt last night – barfed all over the men's toilets - where do we keep the bleach?"
Nia swallowed a laugh at his description.
"I think it's in the cupboard next to the cellar, Tom." She said, solemnly.
"But you'd best check with Max just in case. Here, take my keys."
She threw the large bunch to the boy, who caught them deftly and sloped out, scowling and grumbling to himself. Nia grimaced and decided to leave her assistant to deal with the fall-out from that one.
Although to say that Maxine was Nia's assistant manager would be to grossly understate the case - within the bar's insular community she was more akin to right hand, henchman and familiar. By now Nia had lost count of the times Max had given far more than her job was worth - and perhaps her reasons were less than straightforward, but it was appreciated all the same.
Maxine was definitely the most obvious dyke on the staff at Fire and Ice - a short, stocky character with a neatly shaved head and several tastefully designed tattoos. She rode to work on a Harley, which was about the only thing that would ever have convinced Nia to sleep with her – since the blonde had a well-hidden fetish for girls in leather. And Max had almost pulled off the desired romantic encounter through dint of sheer persistence. Things had become pretty intense, and fearing the loss of a trusted friend and her most valuable employee, Nia had eventually been forced to tell her to back off. The hurt in those big brown eyes had almost torn her apart. Max looked like a stricken animal - shocked, dismayed and unsure of how to handle the twisting in her guts that was almost tangible, it was so vehement.
But much to Nia's relief, the butch had gathered herself up, turned on her heel, and left the office, returning to work the next day with a slightly set look on her face and a pleasant but distant demeanour that lasted a couple of weeks.
Things seem pretty much back to normal now…Nia mused as she reached over and pulled out the Z-read, studying it with a frown puckering her normally placid countenance.
"Hey!" She shouted over the din of the glasswasher.
"Did anyone ring in 40 bottles of champagne by mistake? I've got a transaction record here that says so, and I'm positive we didn't even sell that many in total last night."
She nestled the cash drawer against one hip, one finely arched eyebrow lifting as she waited for a response.
One of the newer staff members put down her broom and looked a little apprehensive.
"I couldn't really see what I was doing...I meant to tell you...sorry," she repeated, staring at her feet.
Nia waited patiently until the shamefaced girl made eye contact, and then quirked a reassuring smile.
It's always the way. They never take responsibility for their mistakes, because they think they're the only ones who ever make them. If only they'd realise that a mistake can be fixed, as long as I know about it.
"Sarah, it's no big deal. But next time, please remember to put a note in the till straight away. It saves a lot of bother."
She continued to smile at the girl until the hangdog look vanished, and returned to the cashing up.
Tom was making noise enough for an army of foot soldiers as he mounted the stairs with a bucket full of bleach and water, spilling the mixture all over his shoes as he went. And as he re-entered the bar he paused for a second, confronted by the sight of his young employer behind the cash register.
I still can't decide whether she's pretty or not...he ruminated.
So he looked more closely, coaxing himself to regard his manager with the dispassionate glance of a tomcat on the prowl. But frustrated, he found that he could not – and the longer he stared, the more stubbornly his perceptions resisted all attempts at impartiality.
He sighed. Nia was like that – nobody granted the privilege of the small woman's company could deny that she was complex. And this complexity was the key to her charm. To reduce the whole to a single part was impossible. There was nothing obviously outstanding about her – but in combination, the qualities and characteristics the small bar manager possessed produced something absolutely extraordinary. There was an open artlessness about her, and a quiet wisdom that created beauty – without it, there would have been allure, but the whole package was truly breathtaking. Nia's physicality was truly the least of her merits.
She wasn't a tall woman - her chin was about level with Tom's chest - but her lean, elegant build made her appear taller than she actually was. And she moved with the poise of a dancer, making it a standing joke among most of the long-standing members of staff that watching Nia make a cocktail was like being at the theatre. The lad chuckled, remembering the transfixed expressions at the last team meeting, as male and female, straight and gay, they all glued their eyes to Nia's graceful body while they were supposed to be learning how to make a Martini.
Tom squinted as he considered Nia's face, framed by a couple of locks of the strawberry blonde hair that was always falling into her eyes.
Not attractive in the classical sense of the word…he thought. Definitely not.
But there was something about it that was undeniably bewitching
He decided it was the eyes...large, oval shaped pools of a colour he'd never seen before. A little bit of green, a sprinkling of hazel, the hues of murky dishwater, really - but in Nia's face they sparkled like precious stones, and she unconsciously used them to draw people in. He'd seen customers mesmerised by those orbs from the other side of the bar, and he didn't blame them. When Nia smiled, which was frequently, her whole face was illuminated and those remarkable eyes seemed to twinkle just for you.
The lad released a heavy sigh.
She's so feminine…I don't understand it. Max definitely looks the part, but how can Nia be...?
"No point in standing there gawking, Tom."
Liz briskly finished his train of thought.
"When will you boys get it through your thick skulls that she bats for the other team?"
She slapped Tom on the back of the thighs with her broom, and departed to tackle the tables next to the DJ box. After a moment, Tom pulled a face at her and shuffled off to clean up the vomit in the toilets.
By noon, they were finally ready to open. The last of the New Year streamers and champagne corks had been swept away, glasses had been polished, pipes had been cleaned and barrels had been changed. Nia reflected with contentment that her normally pristine bar was almost in its usual state.
"Are we ready?" She enquired of her small team.
On receipt of a unanimous thumbs up and a nod from her manager, Liz threw open the doors to the sound of the daily downpour, along with the rumble of the buses crawling up and down the main road and chugging out carbon monoxide as they went. And a healthy number of customers immediately surged through the opening, seeking respite from the wind and rain in the warmth and comfort of Nia's small venue.
All ordering Bloody Marys, I'll bet. She snickered to herself as she descended the stairs into her office. Hair of the dog never fails to cure a hangover.
"I'll be downstairs if you need me." She shouted in Maxine's direction, waiting for the answering grunt before removing herself from the public eye.
Ignoring the mess on her desk, the manager settled into her swivel chair, surveyed the takings and prepared for some serious number crunching. This was the only element of the job she really disliked – although she wasn't a stupid woman, something about accounting drove her almost to distraction. Nia survived more than adequately using a delicate blend of willing empathy and shrewd instinct, and the hard logic of mathematics often jarred her senses, making her feel as though she must be insane.
She flinched as she remembered that it hadn't always been like this. Once, there had been someone by her side who could commute between her sensibilities and the cold rationality that seemed so foreign to them.
"Well, sweetie - if you just take the numbers in that column from the next one, then you've got your stocks remaining, and you can check that off against the other sheet using the lookup table. Remember the lookup table I made for you?"
Nia gazed up at the woman who was leaning over the back of her chair, chin resting on her shoulder, patiently giving her the advice she needed.
"I do. Thanks. You know, I'd be really stuck if you weren't here to help me with all this stuff."
She smiled at her partner, enjoying the pleasant warmth that was always evoked by the sight of the woman she loved. She and Paula had been friends for years before deciding that it might be more than agreeable to take their relationship to the next level, and the groundwork they'd already put in made their love affair relatively trouble-free, which was a new experience for both of them. "Friends before lovers" had become their motto and their code, and it seemed to work remarkably well.
Paula was a charming-looking girl. Small yet perfectly formed, her auburn hair fell just below her shoulders in a cascade of riotous curls. And the face behind the mane was the sweetest thing Nia had ever seen...big brown eyes poking out through a thick fringe of dark lashes, a rosy flush on her cheeks that was echoed by the darker shade highlighting her lips. She bent down to give Nia a quick kiss before returning to the monitor, wrinkling up her pretty nose in what looked like frustration.
"I don't quite know what you've managed to do here...how did you get that figure as a total?"
Nia sighed, ready to throw the spreadsheet in the bin and set fire to the whole bloody thing without remorse.
"I don't know. I really don't. Do you want to give up for a few minutes, and make a pot of tea?"
The bar manager jerked herself out of reminiscence and turned to the matter at hand...the year-end report. But she couldn't concentrate – her rebellious thoughts continually lapsed to the emptiness that had been sitting in her gut for as long as she could remember.
God, where did it go wrong with her? We were perfect together. Most people would kill for a lover like that…and we were the best of friends, too. So why did I feel something was missing? Why did I send her out of my life?
What was it that she just couldn't give me?
She remembered nights spent in Paula's embrace, the tiny redhead giving all she had and more – and Nia finding it increasingly difficult to take it. A shadowy figure lurked just on the edge of her consciousness - dark, powerful and proud, making her heart skip a beat and cruelly stealing her attention from the sweet, loving woman she was with. The image had begun to dominate her thoughts, and the shout had grown louder and louder, reaching a crescendo that told Nia it was time to be honest.
Paula's parting shot had hurt, born of the redhead's anguish but baleful all the same.
"Whatever it is you're looking for, Nia, I damn well hope you find it. Because I don't believe it really exists."
Nia released a long breath, tossing her head vigorously to dislodge the painful memories, and turned back to the numbers, screwing up her face in concentration.
An hour later, she was rescued by the sound of her direct line.
Sighing once more, the blonde wondered whether to answer the ring, knowing full well who would be calling her private line at this time on a Bank Holiday. But she knew she had to pick up. She really had no other option.
"Nia." Came a muffled growl.
"Hello." She repeated, wearily.
"We need to make a drop-off, tonight, around 6-ish."
"Make sure everything's in the right place, will you? Thanks." The line went dead.
The bar manager rested her head in her hands for a long moment, fighting the tears that threatened to get the better of her.
Surely this isn't part of my job description? It's more than my job's worth, that's for sure.
But making a stand is pretty much impossible.
All was quiet until 6pm when Nia's phone rang again - but this time it was her line in to the bar. She wondered how on earth something could have gone wrong this early in the evening, but remembering her responsibilities, she set her jaw and answered the call of duty.
Lizzie's voice sounded unusually flustered as it drifted down the line into her ear.
"There's…a customer here who was in last night. Did we pick up a phone?"
Nia wedged the handset between her ear and her shoulder, and rifled through her drawers for the lost property box. Tugging it out by the corners, she discovered a watch, a handful of earrings and a rather scuffed-looking shoe…as well as a mobile phone.
"Yep - It's here in the office, Liz." She confirmed.
"Well, she's just on her way back from the bathroom now - can you pop it up? I'm a bit scared to keep her waiting – she looks as though she might turn out to be difficult."
"Hang on a second - I'll come straight out." The bar manager told her employee.
Just what I need…she reflected a little bitterly. Another problem to deal with.
At the top of the stairs, she paused and pushed open the bar doors with caution, speculating on what kind of trouble this customer must be causing in order to make Lizzie lose her cool.
And was stopped dead in her tracks, by a face she recognised as the one that had haunted her dreams the previous night. Piercing blue eyes shone in the centre of ridiculously chiselled features, framed by a thick crop of raven hair.
Nia wavered on the last step uncertainly, feeling as though she was going to tumble all the way back down, but unable to tear herself away from those eyes that seemed to see into the depths of her soul.
Oh, I remember you...she thought.
In fact, this woman had been the only thing to pique her interest on New Year's Eve. If Nia was anything, she was fair, and she always took her turn behind the bar on busy nights so that the staff could rotate their breaks. She didn't mind this kind of work, being a congenial, friendly sort - but talking to most of the customers in Fire and Ice left her cold and more often than not with a distinct taste of sleaze in her mouth. So she tended to do the job on autopilot, not meeting anyone's gaze directly and certainly not bothering to engage any of the punters in conversation.
But during her hour on the bar on New Year's Eve, she felt those bright blues focusing on her, sending shivers down her spine before she even turned around. And when she did, she found herself staring into a face almost familiar, which was so striking it took her breath away. Her heart threatened to leave her body via her mouth when the tall, dark and handsome stranger eventually approached the bar.
"What can I get you?"
Nia didn't even dare look up for fear that this fascinating woman would see she was already blushing.
"Vodka and tonic, please." Came a deep, husky growl.
Nia managed to prepare the drink without spilling or dropping anything, which was quite a feat considering every limb she owned was shaking. The woman tipped her generously, lightly brushing Nia's fingers with her own as she did so, before disappearing into the crowd just as suddenly as she had come, leaving Nia gasping and searching the room for another glance.
But she didn't see the dark, mysterious beauty again…until the very end of the night. The evening was almost over, the bar was shut, but customers and staff continued to soak up the party spirit, and Nia decided to let her kids have their fun as the reward for a long evening's hard work. She doled out a welcome round of staff drinks, and joined forces with Maxine to accomplish the majority of the cleaning up around various members of her team, who were now dancing on the bar.
The blonde manager was weary, and it was all she could do to engross herself in the task of swilling out glasses under the hot tap, stacking them neatly in the dishwashing tray ready for the next load. And although she was almost ready to drop, she couldn't help dancing as she did it - her lower body swaying gently to a bassy hip hop number that was one of her favourites. She was completely oblivious to the fact that she had an audience. In fact, Nia continued her dance uninterrupted for about ten minutes until she became aware of candid eyes boring into the top of her head. A little embarrassed, she looked up - into the same chips of electric blue that had captivated her earlier.
The woman looked at her for a long time. Nia froze, wondering whether it was right for her to speak, desperate to know more about this stranger who made every nerve in her body feel alive. Then she received the ghost of a grin, and what she could have sworn was a wink - and the charismatic visitor did an about-turn and strode off purposefully into the early morning sounds of the city.
Leaving Nia standing there with a pint glass in both hands, heedless of her surroundings, completely spellbound.
The woman was staring at her again now, barely hiding a look of mild amusement as Lizzie noticed her boss's lack of composure and timidly touched her arm.
The femme pulled herself together and made a feeble attempt to look like a manager instead of a fifteen year-old schoolgirl in the throes of her first crush.
"You...you came to collect your phone?"
The dark stranger looked at Nia for a long time.
Her gaze was keen and intense, but also conveyed an arrogant disinterest – it blistered and chilled in equal measure. Torn between needing to run and wanting to be devoured, Nia shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. She felt like a rabbit caught in a trap - by the sexiest huntswoman she'd ever clapped eyes on. And although her intellect rebelled against the imminent surrender, she sensed that she was already ensnared.
The enigmatic visitor gave the blonde a nod that was curt, yet not unfriendly.
"I came for my phone, yes. Left it here last night."
A woman of few words, I see.
Nia looked down at the phone in her hand.
It was one of the latest models, a petrol coloured pocket-sized thing, with a flip-top.
I wonder what she does for a living? Must be well paid, whatever it is.
She took in the woman's expensively casual attire with a swift, knowing glance.
She certainly seems to have the image well worked out.
"So, can I have it back?"
The woman's deep, husky voice broke through Nia's speculations. Her face was deadpan, but there was a twinkle hiding in those bright blue eyes that caused the blonde to flush as she handed the piece of equipment over.
Nia found herself blushing even harder as their fingers disengaged, and mentally slapped herself in an effort to keep her cool. The mystery caller was making her more flustered with every second that passed. Trying to ignore her nerves, she lifted her chin, cleared her throat, and forced herself to appear professional.
"I need you to sign this item out for our lost property records. The forms are in my office - would you like a coffee while I get somebody to find one?"
The guest settled herself on a stool, with one booted foot propped up on a nearby chair and the other long leg dangling.
"Black, one sugar." She grunted, in the direction of her host.
Nia tried not to take offence at the terse instruction – it was given in the tone of one used to being in command, which was guaranteed to get her back up. Biting down on the tart remark that rose to her lips, she nudged open the swing door to the bar and grabbed two cups.
"Liz, could you do me a favour?"
She motioned to the small barmaid, who'd been hanging back during the brief exchange and inspecting them both with more than a hint of curiosity creeping on to her pert, pretty features.
"The red box file in the office has the lost property sheets in it. I'd be very grateful if you could fish one out and bring it up here."
Although Nia was always impeccably civil when asking anything of her small team, this request sounded almost affected in its politeness – and she knew she was secretly hoping to remind the dark woman of her own manners. A spark of challenge had been ignited between them, and it did not go unnoticed by either. Blue eyes held green for a split second, until the bar manager looked away.
Handing her keys to her employee, she set the espresso machine running. She turned her back to the tall woman as she did so, and heaved a silent sigh of relief at the few seconds' respite from the interaction. Her insides were churning in response to the charismatic guest, and she wondered how the woman managed to be so uncomfortably close and coldly distant at the same time.
It felt like the only sound in the small bar was the steady drip of boiling water through steel filters.
Nia knew that the potent cerulean gaze was still riveted on her, even though her back was turned. Her hands were shaking. She swivelled slowly as the cups began to fill, and faced the vivid stare once more.
"I'm Nia, by the way. And you are?"
The answer was brief but not brusque. And those eyes seemed to be reading her thoughts even better in the cold light of day than they'd done in the dark.
"Jake. That's an interesting name. What's it short for?"
The bright blue began to mellow.
"The cups are overflowing, Nia."
Well done, Nia. You're really managing to keep your cool with this one.
Why does this always happen to me?
The blonde dove for the "off" switch, and watched in slow motion as coffee dripped towards the edge of the bar, sliding down the door of the fridge and collecting in a pool on the floor. She refilled the filters silently and mechanically and made two more cups, managing to put Jake's down in front of her without spilling the dark liquid again.
The woman gave her a nod of thanks but said nothing. She'd barely strung a full sentence together since she arrived, and the hush was becoming almost unbearable for the bar manager, whose life was usually propelled by the chat and laughter of her sociable profession. Nia felt vulnerable and exposed in the face of Jake's silence. But she also intuited depths in the stillness that she knew she craved – promises that were drawing her in with inexorable force.
"We were really pleased with the way last night went. Did you enjoy yourself?"
Clamping down on her tumultuous emotions, she attempted to make small talk.
"Well, there were a couple of interesting moments."
Jake met Nia's gaze directly and finally granted her a smile, revealing teeth that were unusually white for a coffee-drinker, and leaving the blonde in no doubt about which moments she was referring to.
The small woman's guts turned themselves inside out - and she gulped a couple of times, unable to reply. Thankfully, the prolonged period of eye contact that resulted from the dark stranger's bold statement was interrupted by the return of Liz, waving a form and a biro at their guest.
"Here you go." She said, brightly.
Jake's eyes wandered briefly across Lizzie's body before she held her hand out for the paper and pen, and Nia felt an irrational pique, watching this new acquaintance appraise a member of her staff in such a casual manner.
She was immediately irritated with herself for it.
Why on earth does that bother me? She thought.
It's not like I know her. She only just told me her name. And Lizzie's an attractive girl – I've looked at her like that more than a few times myself.
Oh, sod it.
"Liz, I don't think we've stock-checked this week. Can you go down to the cellar and write a list of what we need?"
And with that, she sent the diminutive barmaid packing.
Trying to curb her satisfaction at this neat dismissal of the competition, the bar manager turned once more to her guest - just catching the remnants of the brunette's raised eyebrow. There was comprehension showing, and what she could have sworn was a glimmer of respect - so she grinned slightly and raised her own in response, before returning to the matter at hand with a tinge of triumph colouring her clear voice.
"I just need your address details...here. Phone number is optional. I can complete the rest."
Nia watched as the dark visitor filled the boxes with bold, angular strokes of the pen. She found herself fascinated by the woman's fingers - they were as large as a man's, but graceful rather than ungainly. A sovereign ring sat on the fourth finger of her right hand, and there was a plain silver band on the middle - not the wedding - finger of her left.
Paula's hands were nothing like that...she mused, her thoughts drifting towards her distant ex-lover while she appreciated the long, supple digits of the woman lounging on the stool before her.
They were small, and delicate, and white...and she had such perfectly manicured nails. Her touch was so incredibly relaxing.
Nia looked once more at Jake's powerful hands, imagining their strength covering her body, pinning her against the wall as the tall woman bore down to demand a kiss. This picture was definitely not a relaxing one - and she squirmed in her seat, involuntarily catching her breath as her visitor looked up.
"You've got my address. Is that it?"
The hands went back in the pockets of the biker jacket, giving Nia no time for another glance.
"Yes...I suppose so."
Feeling hot and extremely bothered, she fought an uncharacteristic urge to ask the woman to stay for another coffee. And if she was aware of the bar manager's internal battle, Jake didn't show it. Instead, she drew herself up to her full height and gave the blonde a measured and neutral nod.
"Well then, I'll be off. Thanks again for picking up the phone."
And she strode away, disappearing rapidly in the smog and drizzle of the main road, the grey clouds gathering her to themselves as though she belonged amongst them.
Alone with her thoughts, Nia gave vent to a sigh.
I suppose you win some and you lose some.
But a feeling of melancholy that she couldn't quite account for washed over her, like the January rain, as she watched the retreating figure.
And it was only after a few more cups of coffee, as she tripped back down the stairs to the realm of the dreaded accounting, that she looked at the lost property form in her hand.
There it was, right beneath the postcode - a Manchester telephone number. Scrawled underneath it, in inordinately tiny lettering, were five little words.
Squinting, she managed to make them out -
"Call me - if you want."
Well, well, well.
"So, have you called her yet?"
Rachel asked her best friend, noting the fear in Nia's eyes with some amusement.
She just doesn't realise what a catch she is.
"I dunno, Rach..."
Nia curled her feet beneath her and settled back into the armchair.
"I'd be too nervous...I mean, I told you what happened with the coffee. I can't even begin to imagine what a blithering idiot I'd turn into on a date."
"Nia, come on." Rachel laughed.
"You're just a little clumsy - It's not a crime. And anyway, didn't you spill the coffee BEFORE she gave you her number?"
Rachel levered herself off the sofa and ambled into the kitchen, point made.
"More wine, dear?" She grinned.
Rachel was the blonde's closest friend, and had been since both girls were about 7 years old and Nia's parents had moved into Rachel's street. They'd grown up together, albeit in very dissimilar ways, and had come through a few rough patches and periods of no contact relatively unscathed. By now they knew each other inside out - and although Nia had plenty of other friends, Rachel was the only person she felt she could really trust. Mostly because Rachel was able to match her strength.
Many of Nia's friends stuck around because she was counsellor and Mum rolled into one, carrying them through their worries with her empathy and wisdom and asking little in return – and at the age of twenty-six, her bond with Rachel was the only one that was truly reciprocal. They were as different as chalk and cheese - Rachel was heterosexual and a computer programmer, for a start - but the connection they shared was deepened by the disparity between their characters. Rachel's strict rationality was the perfect foil during Nia's most emotional moments, and the passionate nature of the bar manager encouraged her friend to enrich her experiences by letting go when it was appropriate.
Nia watched Rachel pour the wine and smiled inwardly as she remembered the day she "came out" to her best friend.
She'd been absolutely terrified about what Rachel would think - her friend was straight and had experienced little or nothing of the gay community during her short life.
"What if she can't handle it? What will I do then? What if she thinks I have a crush on her? What if she tells my parents?"
As was her habit, Nia drove herself mad with the "what if's" until she decided she just couldn't stand it any more - she was going to tell Rachel the truth and deal with the consequences, no matter how devastating they were. And she received the biggest shock of her life. Nia could have sworn that Rachel actually looked AMUSED when she turned around and said, "Christ, Nia...I thought you were going to tell me something really interesting! I've known you were gay since we were kids...I've probably known longer than you, you dope."
Nia felt both gratitude and affection whenever she remembered the episode, and she smiled quietly as she regarded her best friend, now standing in front of her with a glass of red wine.
"Penny for your thoughts, Nia?"
The blonde tipped her a wink, and conceded.
"I think I'm gonna call her."
Sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine…seventy.
Jake loosened the foot straps and slid off the rower. One foot behind the other, she stretched her calves, then brought her head to her knees and groaned in pleasure as her hamstrings tugged.
Five days had passed and the manager of Fire and Ice still hadn't called.
Why am I so het up about this?
She blew out a breath.
It's not as though there's a shortage of pretty little blondes around...she reasoned, rocking back on her heels.
But somehow, she felt as though Nia promised more than the average golden-haired bit of fluff she was used to. She seemed intelligent, for a start, but it was more than that - the woman had an honesty about her that threatened to make the butch feel all at sea without a rudder. She chuckled as she remembered the blonde's nervous blunders during their conversation, her complete lack of guile making the interest immediately obvious. Jake was used to games and machinations in her personal relationships, and Nia's sincerity was refreshing and frightening all at once. It was a strength differing greatly from Jake's own, and it seemed to demand a matching authenticity that she didn't know if she could deliver.
It had taken the dark woman years to amass a battery of self-defence mechanisms, cementing them together with bitterness and resentment and building a fortress that by now was almost impenetrable. In contrast, Nia projected a gate that could be opened with a gentle push. It had drawn Jake in, fascinating her like the peculiar calm that follows a thunderstorm – serene, but at the same time alive with electricity. She was dimly aware of the quiet might that allowed the blonde to hold the door open – and had already sensed that it was greater than what was required for the maintenance of her own barricade. Nia knew only too well that vulnerability and understanding were necessary bed-partners, and her gentle nature gave her the power to marry them.
Jake stood up to her full six feet and stretched her arms above her head. She'd spent the past few days staring at the phone, checking her messages over and over – and had eventually decided that she needed to get over it. She rarely wasted time worrying about problems she could do nothing to change, and the fact that her thoughts seemed to be insistent on dwelling on the small Bar Manager was irritating to say the least. Working out was a tried and tested method of disposing with pent-up energy and frustration, so she had thrown some gym clothes in a bag and made her way out of the house – hoping to leave all vestiges of the blonde behind when she closed the door.
It wasn't working.
If she was honest with herself, the main reason for her chagrin was that her pride had been hurt by what she interpreted as a rejection. The butch was not accustomed to giving her home number to women she'd just clapped eyes on, preferring instead for them to come to her. And come they did – with unerring frequency. Pulled by the power of her physique, her piercing blue eyes and the air of mystery and authority that was the trademark of her potent yet very private personality.
But not, it seemed, the blonde bar manager.
Jake grinned at her reflection in the mirrored walls of the gym.
Your ego's working overtime…admit it. You wanted her to chase you and she didn't. Get over yourself.
Sucking at her bottle of water, she surveyed the machines. Jake was a regular visitor to this particular gym, preferring to come during the day when most people were at work - it was quiet, usually accommodating just a couple of dykes pumping iron to impress their new girlfriends. She watched these visitors with amusement, recognising the frailty beneath the machismo that fluctuated between being exasperating and endearing, depending on who the conduit was.
"Well, I normally push more weight than this, but I'm having an off day."
A voice carried over from the bench-press and the butch shook her raven head.
I wondered when Avril would show up. She doesn't have a hope of endearing anyone.
Avril was a dead ringer for the dyke your mother would have warned you about, if she'd been hip enough to consider the possibility. She cultivated a public face that caricatured the misogynist masculinity of the seventies sitcom – her staple line being, "Come on, baby...I know you want me…don't be such a tease."
Jake sniggered like a schoolboy behind the exercise bikes, remembering the numerous times she'd seen Avril end up with a hefty measure of gin and tonic in her face after pulling that particular trick.
People like her never learn.
Nia would give her short shrift… she thought. The bar manager was an innocent looking girl, yes - but one glance into those malachite eyes and you knew she didn't suffer fools gladly.
Why can't I get her off my mind?
The dark woman stomped over to the low pulleys, moved the pin up a few notches, gritted her teeth, and began to lift in furious frustration.
Jake took a quick shower in the women's changing room, crammed her tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt into her bag, and slipped into her jeans. Visions of strawberry blonde hair and green eyes swimming relentlessly through her mind as she towelled her own dark crop.
Nia serving behind the bar…Nia's hips swaying as she washed glasses in the sink…Nia blushing as she spilled the coffee, a little pout gracing her lips as she dispatched that cute little brunette Jake had been shamelessly checking out...
"Long time no see, big boy." Came a familiar voice.
Jake slipped the towel around her neck and flashed a wide and genuine smile.
Thank God. Just the person to take my mind off this before I go nuts.
Covering the length of the changing room in a few short strides, she pulled her friend into a hug.
"It's great to see you." She whispered, into the girl's dark hair.
Kim and Jake had been friends for a little over three years, after meeting on the Internet on a discussion list for butch-femme lesbians. They had begun corresponding privately almost straight away, both relieved to find a sensible person in a forum that was mainly devoted to the discussion of makeup and power tools as people desperately tried to appropriate a role. The conversation had become quite flirtatious, and both were holding out a degree of hope that the relationship would turn into something passionate...until their first meeting.
It wasn't that Kim was unattractive - on the contrary, she was an extremely pretty girl, perhaps a little too pretty for Jake, who appreciated a little character in a face. Rich brown tresses sporting the latest cut framed her porcelain skin, and her small, delicate features almost looked like those of a doll. Jake wasn't surprised when Kim told her she used to earn her living as a model.
The body wasn't bad either, Jake had reflected on their first meeting, when they'd finally taken the plunge and decided to move their cyber-friendship into "real time". Kim was slender, perhaps a little on the skinny side, but shapely none the less.
In short, the pair made a stunning couple when they got together for a few drinks in a bar near the house Kim shared. And the initial meeting had gone remarkably well, with conversation flowing and very few awkward pauses. However, the sexual chemistry both had been hoping for staunchly refused to put in an appearance. After three or four drinks Jake made a half-hearted attempt to take Kim's hand across the table, and both subsequently sat in silence, staring at each other, unsure of what to do next.
Luckily, the irony of the situation won the day, and much laughter ensued.
"It's just not going to happen, is it?"
Kim disengaged her small hand from Jake's large one and looked at her with amusement.
Try as she might, Jake couldn't prevent a snort escaping her at their unfortunate lot.
"I'm sorry." She sighed.
"I didn't mean to come on too strong. It's just that it's nigh on impossible to meet feminine lesbians on this scene. It's shaved heads and combats all the way - I've been bemoaning it for years. And now here I am sitting across from one of the most womanly women I've ever met, and something just doesn't feel right."
Kim giggled in derision and a little shared exasperation.
"You don't need to pay me compliments if you're not trying to get into my knickers, Jake."
The retort was wry, but her beautiful face soon settled into a more serious expression.
"I don't think it's me you're looking for." She said, softly.
Jake sighed again.
"Perhaps you're right. Looks as though we're destined to be friends."
And firm friends they had been ever since. Once the speculation regarding the sexual aspects of the relationship was over both found it easier to open up, and their friendship had gone from strength to strength. Jake appreciated Kim's gentle interest in her life, and as a result began to share some of her concerns with another person for the first time. In return, she became very protective of the bright, beautiful girl, watching over her in a manner akin to that of an anxious older brother.
Kim appraised the outline of her friend under the harsh light of the locker room.
"Well. Nice to see you're still tall, dark and handsome, Jake. Where were you on New Year's Eve? We missed you. Can you spare an hour to come home for a cup of tea and a chat with your neglected old friend Kim?"
Kim warbled along with the radio as she waited for the kettle to boil, smiling affectionately as she passed the open kitchen door and caught a glimpse of Jake on the sofa with one of her cats.
"Gabriel still loves you." She commented.
"I know." Was the modest reply.
Jake's friend chuckled, and poured water over the herbal tea.
She's so charismatic...even animals can sense it. She thought.
It's amazing. There's always been something so...primal...about her. It seems even more obvious than usual today. She seems almost ready to explode.
Wonder what that's all about?
Frowning, she gave the tea a stir.
I can see I'm going to have to do some digging. Jake doesn't give anything away for free.
The dark woman winked at Kim as she glided through the opening, and continued to scratch the ginger tom behind the ears, grinning when he wriggled with pleasure.
"I don't really understand I'm getting all this attention, though – doesn't he normally like men? It must be those testosterone pills I've been taking."
"He can sense your masculine energy."
The femme stated in a solemn tone, handing her friend a mug of steaming camomile tea. Jake chuckled and took it. Their battle over the dark woman's caffeine intake was long-running, and had wound up with Kim absolutely refusing to serve her friend a cup of coffee in her own house. The butch knew when she was beaten. And to her credit, she'd taken the defeat gracefully – after a short battle between pride, self-control and cognizance of the femme's good intentions, she'd given up the effort to argue.
"Would you like to stay for dinner?" Kim asked, curling her feet beneath her in the chair.
That ought to do it. She congratulated herself, as the butch shrugged and nodded.
I'll wheedle it out of her before the evening's over.
"So we're in this stately home at the back of beyond, and we can't leave. We're all shepherded into a darkened room, and as you can imagine, we're wondering what's coming next. You'll never believe what happened after that."
Kim's housemate Al had returned from a weekend away at a "stress-busting" workshop that sounded so bizarre it was bordering on the insane, and was recounting her experiences nineteen to the dozen. Jake and Kim were sitting at the kitchen table amongst remnants of cannelloni, Greek salad and Rioja, providing a captive audience and obliging the story-teller with mouths agape.
"What?" Asked Kim, indulgently.
"She put some rock music on and asked us all to express ourselves."
"She didn't!" Now the femme was genuinely aghast.
"She did. It was the middle of the day and I was stone cold sober. I don't think I've ever been so mortified."
"Whatever made you go, Al?" Jake asked, staring at the slices of cucumber she'd left on her plate.
"Long story. Condensed to the absolute basics – my damn libido."
Peals of laughter ensued as the listeners voiced their disbelief.
"You mean you went through all that just for a crush?"
Kim began clearing the plates away and filling the sink with hot water and detergent.
"Yep. Although I think after seeing her gyrate like Tina Turner I'm over those desires."
"But did you get any?" The dark woman only just managed to bury a grin.
"Nope. Big fat waste of time."
As Al dragged herself upstairs to bed, singing at the top of her voice and slightly off-key, Kim turned to Jake with contrition and amusement mingling on her beautiful features.
"Sorry about her." She muttered.
"She's a great girl, but she tends to forget that those around her get bored of being her audience after a while. She's an only child - she expects to be the centre of attention."
Jake's friend finished wiping the large pine table with a soft cloth, and sat down. Looking expectant, she patted the seat next to her until the butch complied and took it.
"Anyway, my sweet…now that my beloved housemate has retreated to her boudoir, it's time for us to get down to business. There was a reason I asked you to stay and eat with us, you know."
Kim concluded the brisk change of subject with a mock glare that was nonetheless penetrating. The brunette's perceptive nature was legendary amongst her friends, along with her ability to keep her finger on the pulse of exactly what was going on in their small community. However, despite her feminine tendency to gossip, those closest to her respected her unusual tact and ability to draw the line between harmful and idle chatter - as a result she never forfeited their trust when it came to more important information.
"Why?" Jake idly wondered whether she'd done anything recently that was worthy of note.
"You know why. Who is she, Jake?"
Shit. She's good...
Although she was aware it was fruitless, Jake elected to feign ignorance and glowered at her friend.
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Who is who? You're hallucinating...have you been smoking those funny cigarettes again, Kimmy?"
"Very funny." Was the retort.
"Denial won't work, Jake - you're too mean and moody to ever make a spectacle of innocence."
Jake stared at her boots to hide her discomfort.
She's right - I can't pull this off. She's going to get it out of me, and sooner rather than later.
Reading the butch's body language with one shrewd glance, Kim grinned and continued.
"Do you remember when we first met and I said you looked as though you were waiting for something?"
Eyes still glued to her boots, the dark woman granted her friend a minuscule nod.
"Well…now you look as though all your buses have turned up at once – but you can't remember where you put the damn ticket. So spill it."
Well, that was quite the interrogation... the butch observed as she fiddled with her key in the front door of her flat. Glad to see Kim hasn't lost her touch.
She chuckled as she let herself in.
I'm so pathetic - a pretty girl bats their eyelashes at me and I turn to jelly.
Still musing on that insight, she flicked the switch on the answerphone and began setting her sparse living room to rights as she listened. The first two messages were work related, and promised no end of hassle. She was pouring herself a cup of coffee when the tape reached the beginning of the third.
"Jake...It's Nia. I'm sorry I didn't call you before...stuff came up at work...but I'd like to go out for a beer or two sometime next week if you're still up for it. I hope you are...my home number's 458 0221...give me a call...OK...bye."
Jake sugared her coffee, set it down on the table, and played the message again before seating her long frame on the low couch.
Well, she called. So what now?
The dark woman realised that she'd been so busy speculating about whether Nia was going to ring or not that she hadn't even considered what her next move would be if she did.
And it suddenly hit her that she was more than a little nervous about calling the blonde bar manager who had dominated her thoughts for the past few days. In fact, she felt decidedly vulnerable - and that was a feeling she didn't enjoy one little bit.
Playing hard to get never hurt anyone, did it? She thought.
I don't want her to think I've been waiting by the phone.
She kept me cooling my heels for long enough - two can play at that game.
She pressed "delete" on the answering machine until the green light stopped flashing. She didn't bother to write the bar manager's number down.
Nia almost jumped out of her skin...and her bed...when she heard the phone ring.
It's 6:30 in the bloody morning! What sort of a freak would call me at this time?
Surely it can't be Jake...can it?
Grumbling and wrapping the duvet around her ears to drown out the sound of the driving rain, she lifted the handset and spoke.
She groggily tried to make her voice sound bright, just in case it was the tall, handsome woman who had persisted in inhabiting the forefront of her mind for the past week.
"Hi there, Nia!"
It wasn't Jake's voice that replied.
"Sam?" She whispered, as her heart sank into the floor.
Sam was...to put it mildly...a blast from the past. A relic from Nia's college days, when she had experimented with men in an attempt to satiate her desire for a firm hand, the thrill of yin and yang, the attraction of opposites. Before the revelation that was a long time in coming, when her senses and sensibilities had finally joined forces to tell her she was attracted to masculinity, alright - but men just didn't cut the mustard. Nia wasn't a man-hater by any means, and she'd had several meaningful friendships and a couple of very pleasant relationships with members of the opposite sex - but she'd eventually reached the point where she had to accept she was looking for that special person in the wrong place.
Sam had been 28 and Nia was 18. He was the DJ at the bar she was working in to make ends meet while she finished her education, and was a vivacious sort of chap - the life of every party. As a subdued and slightly skittish youth, Nia had been drawn to his charisma, and things had progressed to the point at which their attempts at a sexual relationship had made it apparent that Sam's magnetic energy was all a front. He'd only been interested in having a pretty girl he could control – and she'd become nothing but an accessory, a perk of his glamorous lifestyle. They'd gone their separate ways soon after, Nia moving to Manchester and making sure she didn't leave him a forwarding address.
Nia shuddered at the vision of her ex-lover hovering over her, moaning and grunting and never noticing the bored look in her eyes.
How on earth did he get my number?
"How are you, Nia?" Her old flame began to prattle, nineteen to the dozen. "I've never been better. I moved to London. I've got a new job - presenting at breakfast on Capital Radio."
"That's great." The bar manager vainly attempted to muster some enthusiasm for his news. "How's the show going?"
His reply made her wish she'd never asked.
"You tell me." He said. "You're on it."
"I'm sorry…what did you say?"
Nia lowered herself into a chair, for fear she might fall down.
"You're live on the radio, my darling. As we speak, the whole of London is listening. I thought you could help me to entertain them - I've told them all about my little Barbie girl."
Please, tell me I'm dreaming. This is just about the worst stunt he's ever pulled.
Sam had pulled these tricks all the time while Nia was at college. He had a spot on the university radio station, and made a habit of calling her while he was on air. She was expected to be dumb blonde or doting girlfriend as the mood suited - it gave him something to talk about when they went to industry parties, and it made him look virile, smart, and in control. It was beyond frustrating – being forced to play appendage in front of everyone she knew.
Nia choked back her anger. It was just like Sam to call her unannounced after years had passed, and expect her to put up with the same old shit.
Sorry Sam - I'm nobody's plaything any more. Find some other little blonde to harass.
She hung up, and put the answering machine back on.
I'm so pathetic.
Nia chastised herself as she put the kettle on.
I only answered the phone because I thought it might be Jake.
She threw two teabags in a small blue teapot.
I left that message over a week ago - why hasn't she called?
The kettle began to whistle.
Shit. I wish I'd called her earlier - she probably thought I was playing some stupid game.
But the truth of the matter was her planned phone call to Jake had been delayed for a very good reason - events at Fire and Ice had taken a remarkably unpleasant turn since Nia first met the fascinating, dusky butch.
It was the day after Jake's visit, and she'd been sitting in her office completing the spirit order when two large men barged in without knocking.
"Hi there, sexy."
Fuck…she thought. Why can't they just come here, do what they have to do, and leave me alone? I don't need this in my life.
"Is there a problem?" She asked, politely. "Everything's in the usual place. Or has the panel in the Gents come loose again?"
"Oh everything's just fine." The larger of the two sneered.
"We just thought we'd drop in and see our favourite bar manager."
"Well, you've seen me now...is there anything else you want?"
Nia desperately tried to talk the aggressors out of her office, wondering if there was anyone upstairs who would hear her if she yelled.
"Well, now you come to mention it..." snarled the smaller, weasel-like companion,
"Perhaps there is something you have that we want."
The men advanced on Nia's desk, smirking at the terrified look in her eyes. One of them grabbed her wrist and held on to it tight, leaning so close to her that she could feel his hot breath in her ear and smell the stale sweat and cigarette smoke on his clothes.
"Come on, sweetheart...do yourself a favour."
Nia really thought it was going to happen this time. This sort of intimidation was a fairly frequent occurrence on the part of the controlling gang who were the best kept secret of the bar, but it had never gone far enough to make her believe they would actually do what they promised.
Until today, that is.
"Take your hands off me, moron." She plucked up all her courage and looked the nearest man directly in the eyes.
"You cheeky bitch!"
He backhanded her across the face and sent her sprawling from her chair.
"What are you, a dyke or something?"
If only you knew...Nia thought.
She looked up from her prone position to see both men bearing down on her, anger fuelling the lust in their eyes. The one who had slapped her unzipped his trousers.
"I think it's time to show you who calls the shots around here, sweetheart."
Nia closed her eyes to stop the tears from falling.
I've had nightmares about this…she thought miserably.
But when the chips were down, Nia was no shrinking violet. So she retained her self-possession, lifted her head and met their eyes without flinching – which just seemed to enrage them even more. You could have heard a pin drop as all three occupants of the office stared each other down.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
The most welcome voice in the world broke Nia first. She yelped with relief and jumped to her feet, diving straight for her assistant who was standing in the doorway, hands balled into fists, furious.
"I think you'd better leave - NOW!"
Max's face was purple with emotion.
"Before I call the police." Nia added, a little shakily.
Both men straightened up and headed for the door.
"Just a bit of fun." One of them spat, turning around. "No need to make a big drama out of it."
"Fucking dykes, the pair of you." Hissed the other. "And you know you can't call the cops."
Nia waited, face set, until the door was safely shut, then burst into tears and collapsed into Max's waiting arms.
Understandably, these events had pushed the all-important phone call out of the Bar Manager's mind. And the aftermath was almost as stressful as the attack itself. Max had kicked off big time, telling Nia she had to go to the police.
"Nia, if you don't report them, they're going to keep doing it!"
Nia sighed and fingered the rapidly darkening bruise on her cheek.
"Yes, I know - but if I do, then I'll lose my job, and put myself at risk of losing everything else, as well. You know it's true, Max."
She regarded her assistant with sad green eyes.
"The only reason they keep up this intimidation is to make sure I won't tell anybody. It's part of the system and you know it. They depend on my fear. And I am afraid. Two men, fully prepared to barge into my office and rape me in broad daylight. What else are they capable of?"
"Dammit, Max! I can't even resign because that would make things worse. They'd never leave me alone if I left this place – they'd be too scared of who I might talk to. They'd have to make certain I wouldn't tell a soul. I'd be on the run."
"Well, why don't you speak to Matt about it?"
Max eventually asked, knowing that the manager was ready to snap and desperate to make some sort of suggestion.
"Come on, Nia - I'm sure he wouldn't be happy about his employees throwing their weight around like that."
Matt was the head of the drug cartel who owned the bar, and Max was right - he had a strict code of honour. "The murderer with manners", as Nia had christened him, was always perfectly pleasant and polite, unlike the thugs he hired to do his dirty work for him.
It was always the way...she reflected. Where there are bars, there are drugs. And where there are drugs, there are always thugs.
"But if I speak to Matt, they're going to know it was me who told him. What's to stop them coming after me and finishing what they started to get their revenge? I can't win, Max." A tear dripped from the end of the Bar Manager's nose.
"It frustrates me beyond belief that I can't handle this. I try not to let them get to me, but it's just so hard…"
Max drew Nia into a hug.
"Nia, this would test anyone's strength. And for what it's worth, you deal with them remarkably well. You never let them see how much they upset you, and I admire you for that."
Nia's assistant paused and looked at her boss. The sheer panic she saw in those usually cheerful features thrust straight at her heart.
"We'll put our heads together and work out a way to get you out of this mess...even if it means I have to deal with them myself."
Nia didn't like the sound of that.
People are strange.
From her seat at the back of the bus, Nia idly wondered why the crowd standing up at the front, squashed together like sardines in a tin, didn't do the sensible thing and spread backwards. Especially since there seemed to be nothing for them to hang on to. Plus, the bus was lurching from one side of the road to the other when the driver spotted a puddle in the road close enough to a group of students on the pavement for them to get soaked when he drove straight through it.
Students made up about fifty percent of Manchester's population, and the other half, resentful of the fact that their space was being invaded by ever increasing numbers, made their feelings known with a vengeance. Not that Nia blamed them. She'd been at Manchester University herself, but even during her own student days had rapidly lost patience with the proliferation of "champagne socialists" who seemed to be the stock-in trade of the industrial North's premier institution. The kind whose after-dinner repertoire consisted of bemoaning the lot of the proletariat with quotations lifted directly from the writings of Karl Marx - but who, much like that celebrated German philosopher, had barely done an honest day's work in their lives. They were an insult to the hallowed halls...well, the red-brick...in which they studied. Slaves to fashion, they could be spotted a mile off - wearing authentic Dutch clogs because they were the latest on the catwalk, supplemented with the genuine mohair poncho they'd purchased in their year out between A'levels and University, while trekking through Nepal on Daddy's Trust Fund. Incidentally, this acquaintance with the different cultures of the world not only enhanced their wardrobe, but also made them feel well travelled and worldly-wise enough to patronise their peers at every opportunity. Even when you knew that their time abroad had not been spent immersing themselves in history and tradition but smoking weed, having public sex and creating litter.
Absently studying the headline "Albanian Sex Workers Flood the Streets" splashed over the front page of the paper being read by the woman opposite, Nia chuckled at the memory of numerous such characters who'd populated her degree course in Political Science. Most of this politically correct society were now gainfully employed in the City as stockbrokers and advertising agents, spending their Friday nights in theme pubs moaning about how much of their 6-figure salary went to the taxman.
Ironic, isn't it? Oh well…how does the old saying go? If you're not a Marxist at 21, you've got no heart. If you're still a Marxist at 31, you've got no money. Ain't that the truth.
Nia had been a very high achiever during her own college days. Her position at the top of the class owed more to her way with words than to her ability to retain information, but she had impressed the academics enough to prompt them to ask her to stay on for postgraduate study. Unfortunately, money was an issue: government funds were tight that year and Nia was determined not to ask her parents for any more help, so she had been forced to follow her head instead of her heart. She increased her hours at the bar she'd been working at, and started saving for the future while she looked for a more permanent position. Her ultimate plan was to make enough money to pay her way through a doctorate. It was starting to look more and more like a pipe-dream - but as was her nature, she stubbornly hung on to it and refused to let it go.
Then the manager's vacancy had come up at Fire and Ice, and Nia had applied. At that time she had little experience with the ins and outs of running any kind of establishment, and was surprised to say the least when she was hired after the first interview. Of course, with hindsight she realised that she'd been taken on precisely because of her inexperience – Fire and Ice was already a buzz word for gang activity on the grapevine of Manchester's recreation circuit, and Matt was in desperate need of a puppet - someone who was naïve enough to jump in head first with no thought of the risks or consequences because she had no idea what she was getting into. Nia had been that someone. And the gentle, trusting blonde had grown up fast during the first difficult months of her new position.
I definitely learnt the hard way...Nia reflected bitterly, as the bus swerved round a corner and passengers were flung against the windows. The next stop was the University, and many of those standing at the front were dispatched, leaving a little old lady to get on.
Nia took a quick look around the bus - all the seats were taken. So she slipped out of hers and motioned for the pensioner to take it.
"Thank you, dear." The old lady warbled, with a weak smile that lacked nothing in warmth.
"Nobody gets up for old folks any more...kids today are too busy dealing drugs to respect their elders."
Shooting a glare at the nearest available teenager to make her point, she settled herself on the seat with a heavy sigh.
Nia looked at her blankly for a moment.
If only she knew...my hands are probably dirtier than those of anyone else on this bus.
I'm such a sham.
I give up my seat for an old person, but I'm part of the system that makes her scared to leave her house alone at night.
"You're welcome." She eventually managed, regaining her composure – while grabbing at the back of a seat to retain her footing as the bus started up again.
Swaying gently with the vehicle's movements, she continued her reverie.
The biggest disappointment of Nia's short life had occurred when she'd been ensconced as Manager of Fire and Ice for a couple of years. Although she'd gotten used to the job and the troublesome connection it afforded her with Manchester's rotten underbelly, she was feeling bored and disgruntled with a daily routine that didn't even come close to challenging her abilities. And right on cue, as though they knew she was longing to begin studying again, the university wrote to offer her another postgraduate place – but this time with full government funding.
"We assume that you will want to develop your academic abilities in the future." The letter said. "We would like you to consider a career at this University as opposed to elsewhere."
Nia had been terribly excited. At last, a chance for her to get a foot on the first rung of the academic ladder without crippling herself financially. She decided that it was time she followed her heart – and feeling as though she was in clutching distance of her dreams, she accepted the place.
However, when she handed in her resignation at Fire and Ice she was in for a nasty shock. Matt, the owner of the bar and head of the forbidding group who controlled the clandestine business behind it, paid the golden-haired manager a visit that crushed all her tender hopes. As usual, he had been painstakingly polite and respectful, but had left Nia with no illusions about the extent to which her life was – or wasn't - her own. From this point she had no doubt that she was trapped. She was convinced that she'd gotten herself into a situation that nobody ever got out of. It was also at about this time that Nia realised nobody had ever mentioned what happened to the previous manager of the bar. Feeling sick to her stomach, she decided not to ask.
"You see, Nia…I think you're great." Matt had given her a pleasant smile that almost succeeded in concealing the threat implicit in his words.
"You and me, we have an understanding. I don't want to have to look for someone else. It could take me ages to find someone I can trust. And if you leave, then I'm going to have to worry about you…do you see what I'm saying?"
Nia nodded mutely. She knew Matt was afraid she'd talk, and she also knew that she'd picked up enough information to put him and not a few of his cohorts behind bars. This would make her extremely dangerous if she managed to escape the range of his purview.
She made a last-ditch attempt to grasp the freedom that was slipping through her fingers. But a sick feeling told her nothing she could say was likely to make any difference. If she stepped out into the light she automatically became a liability that might illuminate Fire and Ice in the process.
"Matt, what if I gave you my word that you absolutely will not have to worry about me? I think you know you can trust me on that."
Even as the bar manager said the words, she knew they were lies. If she quit her job she would no longer be under surveillance, and her keen moral sense would certainly lead her to risk danger in the cause of the greater good. She wondered if Matt had already worked this out. She was pretty sure that in a roundabout way he was trying to protect her – Matt was known in gangland as someone who only used violence when it was absolutely necessary, but many of his associates were not so restrained. She had experienced their brutality first hand - and had heard rumours of other, more heinous crimes that sent chills up and down her spine. If she left Fire and Ice, there would be a price on her head, and they both knew it. She also knew that Matt couldn't keep an eye on all his people all the time – keeping her on the job was the only way he could personally ensure her safety.
Nia looked up at the imposing man who was perched on the edge of her desk. He smiled, but there was regret shadowing the corners of his eyes as he shook his head.
"It won't do, Nia. You see, I'm a worrier - always have been. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night without you here, where I can look after you, and you can look after my bar. Stay put…alright?"
Nia understood that this wasn't so much a request as an order. With a weary nod, she said goodbye to her dreams and commended her future to Fire and Ice.
The bus screeched to a halt outside the bar, almost throwing Nia through the front windscreen.
"I'm not a student any more, you know." She joked with the driver. "No need to try and kill me."
Inside Fire and Ice, most of the staff were already busy preparing for the monthly Friday night event. Nia didn't really enjoy these late opening nights – they were usually a recipe for trouble. Nevertheless, they were certainly a money-spinner. Manchester's young professional set, fresh paycheques burning holes in their pockets, would happily stump up a door fee in order to carry on with their start of the weekend alcohol consumption for another few hours. The trouble was that punch-ups ensued as a matter of course when some amorous lad attempted to chat up someone else's girlfriend because the booze had convinced him he was Casanova. At that point the bar staff were usually treated to a display of just what a little spitfire Nia could be when she got going. Applause often followed her skill at breaking up a fistfight and throwing the contenders out on to the main road.
"Hi guys." Nia yelled as she opened the door, getting little more than a grunt from most of her employees.
Glad to see they're about as enthusiastic as I am...she smirked as she made her way down to the office to grab some floats for the tills.
"Nia." Liz shouted after her.
"Ricky's waiting for you downstairs."
The five words stopped the manager dead in her tracks.
That doesn't sound good.
Ricky was one of her regular bouncers, and usually manned the door over the weekend with his brother, Harry. Both were friendly, decent blokes with connections enough to know whose favour Nia needed to cultivate and who she could stand up to with impunity. Their protective advice had considerably eased her dealings with the dark world behind the doors of Fire and Ice. But for one of them to show up to speak to her before the night began normally meant trouble.
Nia reached the bottom step and almost bumped into the man who was leaning against the wall, hands stuffed in the pockets of a huge black bomber jacket with his registration number on the sleeve.
"Hi Ricky." She said, with some apprehension.
"Nia." The tall, hefty man grasped her arm affectionately, pushing a couple of stray dredlocks away from his eyes so he could see her better.
"I need to have a word. We've got some news about tonight that isn't going to make you very happy."
Nia drew the bouncer into her office and shut the door.
What did I ever do to deserve this? She asked whoever might be listening as her heart dropped into her shoes.
"What?" She whispered.
And when Ricky started speaking, Nia really wished she hadn't asked. Apparently Fire and Ice was in for some serious gang action tonight. One of the bigger collectives from the Moss Side area, identifiable to those in the know by their distinctive blue baseball caps, were planning on visiting the bar en masse for a show of strength. This was typical gang activity – if a bar looked to have rich pickings for the dealers, MC's or romancers then the whole group would mark it out as their territory. This involved the entire pack showing up to drink, smoke, take drugs and cause trouble as a sign of their dominion. Of course, everyone in the underworld knew Fire and Ice was already owned and run by a drug cartel, but members of Matt's own entourage were forbidden to visit the bar socially for fear of raising police suspicion. Matt actually encouraged Nia to let members of other gangs have a presence, since this functioned as a red herring that took the heat off him and his people. However, he had warned the manager on numerous occasions never to allow the gang presence to loom too large for fear that the cops would start keeping tabs on the place as a matter of course. Most of the Vice Squad could be – and had been – bought off, but the last thing Matt wanted was to alert the attention of the bobbies on the beat.
With this in mind, the incumbent mass visit was promising no end of risk. Nia's mind was already whirring nineteen to the dozen as she tried to work out how on earth she was going to protect her staff from having to endure the worst excesses of a gang call, while trying not to draw too much attention to the place. For some reason, her thoughts kept returning to the dark, mysterious butch - the woman hadn't returned her call and Nia had given up all hope of seeing her again - but she felt instinctively that if Jake had been around, she would know exactly what to do.
I screwed up there. I left it too long before I called...she probably thought I was playing some dumb game.
"Well, thanks for the warning, Ricky." She said quietly as she followed the bouncer back up the stairs.
"It's no problem. You know Harry and myself will always look out for you, Nia. Try not to worry about it too much."
"Yeah." She made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
"Oh, well...perhaps my handsome prince will choose this evening to show up and carry me away on a white horse. Or do you think pigs might fly instead?"
Nia pulled her chair closer to the small table by the door of the bar and gingerly sat down. She'd decided that her presence on the door was probably in order at the beginning of the night, to avoid any of the staff having to deal with the main influx of fat-headed gangsters who were bound to think they owned the place. She was dreading it, knowing that it would require all the strength she could muster to maintain her self control and refrain from telling these arrogant pigs exactly what she thought of them and their attempts to assert territorial privileges over her and her bar.
"Are you OK, Nia?" Ricky's brother Harry placed a huge hand in the small of her back, sympathy and concern showing in his large, kindly features.
Breakbeats began to pump as the DJ cranked up the sound system. She knew this was her cue. Her eyes swept around the room, taking in each member of staff, all patiently waiting. Their faces betrayed the apprehension she felt, and she realised they'd been affected by her mood.
That's not good. I don't want them all to be scared shitless without knowing the reason why.
Pull yourself together, Nia.
The small, golden-haired Manager concocted a big smile and spread it across her face, adding a wink for good measure, and then waited until the group visibly relaxed.
That's better. What they don't know will protect them…poor kids.
She turned back to the burly doorman at her side. "I'm fine, Harry. You can open the doors now."
It'll be over soon - keep your chin up, remember you're the Manager, and keep your staff out of trouble.
"You can handle this, Nia."
Harry gave her a reassuring rub between the shoulder blades, and threw the double doors open. Letting in plenty of Manchester smog, a little acid rain, the rumble of the buses, and the first few customers.
Nia had been stationed on the door for about 45 minutes before the action began. Gangsters were never early, or even on time, for an event like this – it was far more streetwise to roll in late and then refuse to pay. She'd been desperately scouring the line of incipient customers for a scarred face, big jacket and bad attitude pushing prospective customers out of the way and striding to the front of the queue…and all had remained quiet so far.
But not for long.
Nia knew when the first had showed up because she received a barely perceptible nod from both brothers standing just in front of her. As if she couldn't tell from the dark blue baseball cap that almost obscured the man's features.
Perhaps that's a good thing…she mused. I'll bet he's scary when he takes that off.
Predictably, the scary individual in question jumped the queue and approached the door with an uneven swagger and a half-shadowed sneer.
"That's five pounds, please." Nia said, quietly. It was important to maintain the appearance of order, even though she knew circumstances would go rapidly downhill.
"I don't pay." Came the surly response.
"Of course not." The blonde tried to keep an even tone. The first act of forced surrender was making her flesh creep – she knew she had no choice but to roll over and let them take what they wanted.
The gangster kissed his teeth and strutted inside, taking a seat at one of the stools at the bar and motioning with an imperious wave of the hand for Liz to serve him.
Despite the churning in her guts, Nia almost chuckled at that.
I'll bet that'll go down well with our resident gender-terrorist …she thought wryly.
I hope she doesn't do anything stupid.
The remainder of the gang followed in close quarters. Nia desperately tried to work out which was the alpha male – she knew if she stayed on the right side of the leader, he would be inclined to keep the others in check. But she had no luck in finding out, and the connections of her doormen had not proved extensive enough to be of help.
"They all look the bloody same." She complained to Ricky and Harry, who stood rock solid and immovable on either side of the doors.
When they estimated that most of the faceless mob were inside, Nia motioned for Liz to take her position and made her way to the bar. As was her habit in these situations, she was determined to invite the onus on to herself - to put herself on the front line, so she could take the brunt off her staff.
I wonder how long before they start yelling "jump!" and expecting me to ask "how high?"
"Brandy and coke!"
It began immediately.
Eight men lined up on barstools, all sporting matching dark blue caps, made a pretty imposing group. Nia made the drink mechanically and set it down in front of the one who had ordered.
"It's not for me, it's for him." The churlish piece of work gestured with a thick hand, smirking at Nia's confusion.
"Fine." She slid the glass past each grinning face, until she was at the end of the line.
"Three pounds, please." She knew she had to appear to be charging, or other patrons would start asking questions. And she was grimly aware that if she made the conquest too easy, the gang would start to think she was a pushover - which would not bode well for her, her staff or her bar.
"I don't pay."
Of course he doesn't.
None of them pay, do they? Despite the fact that they take home my yearly salary every week in drug and protection money.
If they were classy gangsters they'd hand me a fifty-pound note and tell me to keep the change.
But instead the little weasels refuse to pay, and take pleasure in seeing me squirm.
"Are you deaf? I said I DON'T PAY!!!!" The shout shattered her resentful thoughts.
Nia gathered herself up and looked the Blue Cap straight in the eyes, holding the hooded stare until she had his full attention.
"I heard you the first time, thanks. You don't pay. I get the picture."
Shock registered on the gangster's features.
"Who the fuck do you think you are, little girl? Do you need me to come over there and show you who's boss around here? Where's your boss, anyway?"
The Blue Caps at the bar sneered as one man, looking at Nia with a contempt that made her either want to cry or scratch their eyes out in blind fury.
But she did neither. Instead, she drew herself up to her full five feet and six inches and spoke quietly and firmly.
"Actually, I am the boss. I manage this bar."
Silence fell, as the line of men digested this information and Nia's steely gaze. But she knew this was only a temporary reprieve. In fact, she'd probably made things a great deal worse for herself – but self-respect was refusing to let her sacrifice her dignity by being at the beck and call of these hideous specimens who thought she was their territory.
Why don't they just pee on the floor in a circle around me and have done with it? She thought, miserably.
They look like chimps lined up at the zoo waiting for someone to throw them a banana.
Unfortunately, they're chimps with friends in the police and hands big enough to break my neck.
For an hour Nia manned the bar mechanically, with one eye on Liz at the door – so far the feisty brunette had managed to keep her temper in check. Probably because nobody had refused to pay her – the most she'd had to deal with was a few pissed-up lads who couldn't afford the door fee. Thankfully, they were easily dispatched by a flash of Harry's biceps.
So far, so good.
The blonde looked at the clock.
Only a few more hours to go.
Keep it together, Nia - you're doing fine.
And she was – the buffoons at the bar had been pretty quiet after realising she was the Manager and probably had Matt's protection, and the lighter atmosphere that resulted meant that most of the staff were getting on with their work, oblivious to the dark undercurrents around them.
Perhaps the rest of the evening will be uneventful, as long as I manage to keep everyone happy. The bar manager thought, hopefully.
But a sudden commotion by the door burst this pleasant bubble.
I obviously spoke too soon.
Shaking her golden head, Nia hurried over to investigate.
It wasn't pretty. Ricky and Harry were restraining Liz by the elbows, the barmaid looking as though she was about to fly at the Blue Cap in the doorway.
"What does he mean, he doesn't pay? This is a bar, not a soup kitchen. Besides, he doesn't look short of a bob or two!"
"Let it go, Liz." Ricky growled, grabbing her arm even tighter.
"No! I won't let it go! This is ridiculous! I'm getting Nia."
"I'm right here, Liz." Nia interrupted, gently.
"Just let it go, sweetheart. Please."
Liz was taken aback, and opened her mouth to argue - but immediately shut it when she saw her Manager's face. It betrayed little emotion other than sympathy, but there was a familiar "no-nonsense" look in those green eyes that told the small barmaid it was time to blindly obey.
"Ok. I'll let it go." She stood back to let the man pass.
"You'll be sorry you messed with me." He spat. And after shooting a last menacing glare across the whole group, he strode off to join the conglomerate of primates at the bar.
For once, Nia failed to find Liz's high spirits amusing.
God knows what we're in for now.
She motioned for Max to come and take Liz's post. Her assistant was the only person she trusted with any information about their iniquitous visitors, knowing that the less the staff knew the safer they'd be. But Max was different – they were friends – and Nia knew that the butch would never forgive her if she shouldered the burden alone.
Max took her seat at the door, giving Nia's arm a supportive squeeze as she did so. The blonde let the anguish show in her eyes for a few seconds as she looked at her friend, before forcing her face to return to neutral as she drew an enraged Liz over to the bar.
"Nia, what's going on? Why did you let him in without making him pay?"
"I can't explain that, Liz. It's too complicated. Stay here and help me behind the bar."
"But…" Liz began.
"No. No buts. Just do it." Nia's patience was finally beginning to run out.
And when she spoke in that tone of voice, nobody dared gainsay her.
"Brandy and coke!"
Sighing, Nia poured another one, and forced her hands to stop shaking. The Blue Caps were getting rowdier and even more arrogant as the brandy loosened their tongues and fed their egos, and she was on her own behind the bar, having stationed Liz at the other end to wash glasses. She no longer trusted the belligerent little barmaid to deal with these boorish customers without getting herself - and everyone else – in trouble. And she felt instinctively that worse trouble was brewing.
"What's her problem, then?" An element of the aforesaid trouble gestured towards Liz.
"She's fine. She's just having a bad day." Nia replied, shortly.
"Oh. Bad day, is it? That's a shame. Mouthy little half-pint, isn't she? I don't think she has a right to abuse paying customers just because she's got PMT."
The blonde sighed again.
Here we go. I think someone's spoiling for a fight. I could just sit here and let him tell me how to do my job, or...
"But you don't pay." The retort slipped out before she had a chance to bite her tongue.
And the anger that rose in her opponent's countenance made her wish she'd put her brain in gear before she spoke.
"You think you're smart, don't you? Right, little Manager. I think it's time we had a word in private."
That was clever.
The blue cap that now over 6 feet off the ground, as its owner rose to his full height. Nia tried not to panic, as she racked her brains for the best way to placate him.
"Hey, it was a joke. Sit down, have another drink. I was just playing, honestly."
She watched the cap travel to the left until her adversary was blocking the swing doors at the end of the bar.
"Well I'm not playing any more. I've had enough of you. I said, I want a word."
Nia realised she was close enough to be in grabbing distance, but started back too late. The man had her by the arm, and to her horror, she felt a blade digging into her back.
"Come on, little lady. Let's have a chat."
The blonde wondered if it would do any good to scream. She reasoned that the man wielding the knife wouldn't be stupid enough to use it in front of a bar full of witnesses, but she also knew that if she made a scene, questions would be asked after the commotion had died down. Not least by the staff, who would then be targets by virtue of the information they possessed. And it would probably make the papers. Matt would be absolutely furious at all the unwanted publicity, and Nia knew instinctively that rousing the ire of her polite, sinister ally would probably be the last thing she ever did.
Feeling sick to her stomach, she nodded and followed the man through the door down to the cellars.
Nobody saw them leave.
Liz was swilling out dregs of brandy and cigar butts from an endless stream of glasses when she became aware of Tom's presence beside her. He'd been in the cellars bottling up, and having finished his task, had decided to go back upstairs and ask Nia if there was anything she needed. The scene he returned to was very different to the one he'd left.
"What the hell is going on?" Wide-eyed, he surveyed the chaos.
Men in dark blue baseball caps occupied the length of the bar, thwarting the attempts of other customers to order drinks and shouting random curses at members of staff and each other. He watched as one took a mirror and a small bag of cocaine from his pocket, and used a credit card to methodically cut a line.
"Liz?" Tom began to panic.
"I don't know! All these idiots came in, refused to pay on the door, and Nia just let them in! There's something up, Tom, and I don't like it one little bit."
"They're doing drugs. Do you think they're gangsters?"
"Gangsters? Are you serious? Come on, Tom - Fire and Ice isn't that sort of place...is it?"
Tom's face betrayed a trepidation that threatened to turn into hysteria. "Where's Nia?"
"I don't know." Liz replied, miserably.
"Maybe she ran away."
Max, still watching the door, had also noted the manager's absence. Every nerve in her body was frozen solid and it took her all the strength in her limbs to train them to the seat and not jump out of it and start searching the bar, knowing she'd create a potentially disastrous panic if she did. She looked blankly ahead, frightened and hunting for an answer.
And she was greeted by a ferocious vision in black motorcycle leathers, piercing blue eyes afire as she sped through the door with no heed to the bouncers, pushing a couple of caps aside to hit the bar with a resounding thud.
"Um…I dunno." Liz couldn't even meet the flashing, truculent gaze.
"But I'm sure she's here somewhere, perhaps she…"
She hadn't even finished the sentence when Jake dove down the stairs at a run.
Nia pushed open the door to the cellar and wondered if this was it.
He could murder me down here, leave quietly, and nobody would be able to prove a thing. She thought helplessly.
You're so dumb, Nia.
Why didn't you just move out of his way? Or better yet, keep your mouth shut?
Nobody even knows where I am.
"I think you know who we are." The Blue Cap was still irate.
The blonde bar manager nodded mutely.
"I don't appreciate the attitude of some of your staff. What we say goes around here. We don't pay, we always get a seat, and we don't get any lip. Or you will live to regret it, my love."
The endearment, spat from thick, snarling lips, made Nia lightheaded with fear.
This is pretty hopeless.
Even if someone did notice I was gone and was stupid enough to come down here and try and save me, it would probably make things worse. He could take me and any of my staff…I hope to God Max doesn't come diving in.
"So, do we understand each other?" The Blue Cap was towering over her now, and she wondered whether there was going to be violence.
Nia shuddered, remembering the scene with Matt's bruisers in her office. She nodded again, biting her lip hard to keep it from trembling.
"Lovely. Let's kiss and make up then, blondie. I'm not going to hurt you."
The man patted her on the behind, and she felt something inside her snap.
"No!" She yelled, kneeing him in the groin as hard as she could, almost knocking him down and leaving him reeling.
"You BITCH!!!" He roared, doubled over in pain and stumbling towards her. Nia steeled herself for the blow she knew would come. Perhaps he'd stop short of beating her to death – but part of her welcomed the impending violence. It was a far better option than the other threat she constantly dreaded.
"Stay away from her."
The words were calm, but the intent behind them was unmistakably deadly.
Nia and the Cap both wheeled around to find Jake standing in the doorway, with face set and savagery glittering in her ice blue eyes. A small, malignant grin began to grace her features as she saw fear rise in the Blue Cap's face.
This time it was the turn of Nia's tormentor to be struck dumb. His eyes were riveted on Jake as he cautiously stepped backwards towards the door.
"She yours?" He asked, pausing with his hand on the doorknob.
"None of your damn business. Now get out, and take the rest of those morons with you."
Nia's vision was tunnelling, and her legs buckled underneath her. She collapsed next to one of the kegs, only to be caught in strong arms before she hit the barrel. At this point she lost her self control and sobbed, half sitting, half standing, into the leather-clad shoulder.
"Nia." Jake whispered, after a few minutes had passed.
"We need to sit you down and get you a glass of water. Did he hurt you?"
"Mmmph…jusaminute…" Nia mumbled. Despite the traumatic events of the evening, the smell of leather had invaded her senses in a way that made dizziness feel quite pleasant.
She shook her golden head vigorously.
"Have to go upstairs…see if everything's alright…and the staff are safe."
"Nia." Jake repeated, taking her by the shoulders and regarding her with warm blue eyes.
"The Blue Caps have gone, and they won't be bothering you any more. Your staff will be fine, I promise."
The reassuring words hit her as she began to come around – but despite Jake's attempts at comfort, the events of the past ten minutes were whirring round in Nia's head nineteen to the dozen.
"How did you know I was in here?"
"Lucky guess, I suppose. I…just popped in to see you."
"But that man seemed to know you. How did you get him to leave like that, no questions asked?"
Jake shrugged easily.
"I was just in the right place at the right time. That's all. I caught him in the act – he was shocked and confused and decided to run. He was just a coward."
"Yes, he did seem scared." Nia couldn't quite make sense of it all.
"But those bastards aren't scared of anything, and he looked at you with fear in his eyes…almost as if you were…mmmmph!"
The words on her lips suffered the same fate as the thoughts in her head as Jake took her by the chin and kissed her long and hard.
Continue on to Part Four