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.
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