by Emily Duncan
"I couldn't bloody well believe it."
Nia was pacing about the sitting room in Rachel's flat, recounting the events of the previous night to her friend in tones that were heated to say the least. And despite her intimate knowledge of the usually gentle blonde, Rachel found herself flinching at the scorching anger rolling off her small friend.
Damn. She's really furious. She thought.
"One minute she's rushing through the door like a conquering hero, swaggering about and intervening in what could have been a hairy encounter with a customer, and the next she's helping me clean up - actually helping me clean up! She went from lion to lamb in a matter of minutes. And then she left. Just like that, without a word. Isn't that dreadful?"
"Well." Rachel began a half-hearted attempt at reason, although she knew all to well that this generally served to fan the flames when Nia was wound up.
"Did she have any good reason to leave? Did Max say something to put her off? Sounds pretty suspicious to me. What do you know about this woman? What happened that night, anyway? Sounds like there was trouble."
Nia stopped her nervous circuit of the room, thrown by this tirade of queries from her friend. Since being hired as manager at Fire and Ice, she'd tried to shield Rachel from the grim realities of her position, knowing that if her friend became involved in her affairs she would never be able to guarantee her safety.
Sensing the blonde's discomfiture, Rachel raised one eyebrow and folded her arms, a signal that she was anticipating a far fuller explanation than the one she'd been given.
"Yes, there was trouble, and no, Max didn't say anything." Nia muttered, hoping that this would stave off the inquisition she'd invited upon herself.
The blonde was sorely tempted to go against her own better judgement and tell Rachel about the hideous machinations that went on behind the scenes at Fire and Ice. It drove her mad that she had nobody, except Max, to turn to for support. And something about the situation didn't sit well with her - she was certain that Matt's sudden appearance was connected to Jake's hasty departure, and she was desperate to voice her hunch in front of a disinterested audience. Otherwise, she knew she'd just end up jumping to conclusions that were sensational in the extreme. Nia had trouble thinking clearly when her passionate spirit was in control of her agile mind, and Rachel's detached, unsentimental way of handling anything personal - a way that less understanding friends had called heartless on occasion - would come in very useful in her current frame of mind.
"Well, do you know who this woman is? Did you ask her anything about herself before she kissed you?" Rachel persisted.
She was determined to ferret some sense out of her small friend, even if it killed her. How Nia expected her to give useful advice without any of the particulars, she just didn't know. Rachel loved the blonde bar manager like a sister, but found her infuriating beyond belief when she was letting her emotions blur her vision. It was a weakness the computer programmer couldn't fathom, no matter how hard she tried.
Nia owned, frantically trying to quench the tinge of embarrassment that crossed her pretty features as she watched Rachel process this information and wondered how she'd react.
Rachel had told her to call the woman, sure, but Nia was certain that she hadn't been expecting her to get in so deep in such a short time. Her friend was what you'd call conservative - and some of Nia's wilder impulses often left her a little shocked and more than a little scared. But to the blonde's surprise, the computer programmer rolled her eyes and went on with the questioning.
"What was all the trouble about? You don't think Jake had anything to do with it, do you? Do you think that's why she cut and ran?"
Nia knew that the ice she was walking was getting thinner by the minute. In fact, if she looked down, she could just about see a couple of cracks beginning to sprout underneath her shoes.
My dear, smart friend is going to put two and two together one of these days. And she'll come up with sixty-eight.
And what's worse, she'll probably be right.
The bar manager miserably wondered what Rachel would do when she finally found out that she, Nia, who'd been top of her class all through school and of whom everyone had harboured such high hopes, was now beholden to Manchester's Mafia.
But surely Jake couldn't be mixed up with them as well? If the dark woman was one of Matt's inner circle Nia was certain she'd know it - he always made sure she was kept informed of the identity of local personalities, so that she knew who she had to curry favour with and who would become impotent if she stood her ground.
Max and Rachel are right about one thing, though.
Jake is suspicious.
And I almost gave it up in that cellar without knowing the first thing about her. That was clever, Nia. What were you thinking?
Nia squirmed again, at her own question this time. Because she knew she hadn't been thinking at all - she'd been a more than willing participant in the dark, dusty cellar - in fact, she hadn't been in control of any of her own reactions. Max's appearance had been the only thing in the way of her shedding her clothes and allowing the dark woman to take her in every way that was humanly possible. And now that Jake was nowhere to be seen, Nia's dignity was suffering some extremely harsh blows.
I can't believe I did that.
Maybe that's why she left - I was too easy and she just got bored. I don't blame her.
God, when I was dating men I used to make them wait at least two months before I even let them see me in my underwear. In a matter of minutes, this woman had reduced me to a quivering heap.
What on earth is wrong with me?
"What on earth is wrong with you?" Asked Rachel. "You seem so injured by all this."
The bar manager turned to the friend who'd been part of her life for so long now they could communicate without words. Rachel had begun to regard her with genuine concern, instead of the long-suffering, patient expression she often wore when she was waiting for Nia to calm down. This in itself was enough to start tears forming behind the bar manager's beautiful green eyes.
"It's not really the end of the world, is it? Talk to me, Nia. What's going on?"
A long silence followed as the small blonde avoided eye contact and furiously fought the urge to tell her friend everything. Absolutely everything, with no holds barred.
"I don't know." She eventually replied, in a small voice.
"I realise I'd only ever clapped eyes on this woman twice before, called her once, and let her kiss me in a cellar before she disappeared."
She sighed, knowing full well that what had gone on in the cellar was much more than a kiss. In fact, she doubted whether she'd ever meet another woman who could so effortlessly light her fuse.
Rachel put a hand on her friend's arm, mutely encouraging her to carry on. Nia wiped away a few tears with the tips of her fingers and looked helplessly at the computer programmer.
"I just can't seem to forget about this and chalk it up to experience. And I don't know why. I feel...hurt. And I've really no reason to be. I barely know her. But I just can't stop thinking about the way she left."
She searched Rachel's face with sad green eyes, pleading for an answer from her ever-practical friend.
And she got one.
"It seems to me that you need an explanation."
Nia nodded, slowly.
Rachel took the bar manager's hand.
"I said this the first time, Nia, and I'll say it again...call the woman. It's the only way."
"But Rachel, I called her before and she didn't even bother to call me back. I'm starting to feel like a stalker. Surely it's right to wait for her to make the first move?"
The computer programmer heaved an exaggerated sigh. Nothing was ever simple with her sweet, sensitive friend - she saw the politics in everything. Even when they weren't really there.
"Yes, Nia. A self-respecting woman wouldn't dream of picking up the phone. Not in a month of Sundays. But you want to know what her game is. So put your pride in your pocket for the time being, and give the woman a call. You can worry about making a fool of yourself later."
"I'm sorry, Matt." Repeated Jake for the third or fourth time.
"I left my phone in Fire and Ice on New Year's Eve, and met Nia when I went back to pick it up the next day. It was by no means an intentional acquaintance, I can assure you."
She was leaning against the wall in her sparse flat, a cup of coffee rapidly going cold on the small table in front of her, listening with a growing sense of apprehension to the gang chief's complaints. She knew she wasn't at risk - and anyway, she'd probably rise to the challenge of living her life with a price on her head - but the gruff voice at the end of the line carried a familiar sinister note that made her fearful for Nia.
I shouldn't have gone there in the first place.
I should have ignored my impulses when I found out the Caps were planning a visit.
I've probably made the situation even worse for that poor girl. She berated herself.
Face it, Jake - your help is the last thing in the world she needs right now.
The growl was becoming deeper and more ominous by the minute - and although Matt always kept his voice scrupulously quiet, it made the dark woman flinch.
"I don't care who you are or who you think you are, but Nia ought to be off limits. Not only because she already knows far too much, but also because I don't want her put at risk. I'd have a hell of a time finding someone else to manage my bar, and she's a damn good manager. Do you get my drift?"
"Yes, I do." Replied Jake.
I wonder how he keeps her there? She thought.
Simple threats or something a little more sophisticated?
I hope to God he's learned from the mistake they made with the last guy.
She shook her head sadly at the memory, as Matt continued.
"However," he said, "Now you've started this friendship with my little blonde, I think the best thing for you to do is to maintain it - otherwise she's going to start to smell a rat. And loath as I am to reconnect you with the operation at Fire and Ice, I need to keep Nia's mouth shut."
The dark woman blinked a couple of times as she considered this line of reasoning.
I suppose that's logical enough. Because Nia will have already assumed that if I'm connected with Matt, I won't be coming back. If I show up, then I'm in the clear.
It's the classic double bluff.
And now he's going to tell me that if she blabs I have to "take care of it". He's so predictable.
"I think you should stay in close contact with Nia, so that if she's tempted to blab, at least I know you can take care of it. It would be a shame if you had to, don't get me wrong - but I need to have you near her, just in case. And if she has no idea who you are, that gives us the advantage."
Jake suppressed a snort of laughter as the head of Manchester's gangs played his part to perfection.
He ought to be careful. He's in danger of becoming a parody of himself.
"I have to keep an eye on her, after the scare she had on Friday." Matt said. "She's likely to snap, and I need you to be there if she does. I'd consider it a personal favour, Jake."
And for his final trick, he pulls out the loyalty card.
"So, what do you say?" the Chief finished.
The question hung in the air, delicately, for a moment. But Jake already knew what her answer would be. She was uncomfortably aware that Nia's future rested in her large, powerful hands. The head of Manchester's gang scene was playing on her protective instincts to get what he wanted, and she had no choice but to play along. If Matt gave the task of watching Nia to anyone else, she'd probably end up dead.
I'd much rather saddle myself with this job than give it to someone else who might actually be compelled to follow orders, and I think he knows that.
But I hope she keeps her mouth shut, for my sake as well as hers
"No problem, Matt. I can do that for you."
She sighed, as her reply put both women in a predicament that was going to be potentially explosive. She knew they were going to end up in bed. She just hoped it wasn't going to turn out to be a fatal attraction.
"So, have you seen Nia since Friday night?" The gangster asked, lightly.
Jake replied briefly, deciding at great speed that she wasn't going to mention the irate message Nia left on her machine demanding to know what she was playing at.
"I suggest you see her again soon, Jake." Matt said. "She'll be suspicious as hell if you're nowhere to be seen after what happened on Friday. And that's the last thing I want."
Little does he know that I've already done the disappearing act. Jake thought. How am I going to talk my way out of that one? I get the feeling that Nia's not going to be fobbed off too easily.
"Okay, Matt." She automatically acquiesced to the Chief's demands. "I'll do it."
"All right, Jake. See ya."
Jake leaned her head against the wall as she replaced the handset. The chilly, unyielding feel of the paint against her skin did little to assuage the feeling of guilt that was becoming overwhelming.
What a mess.
Not only have you gotten yourself in trouble, but that beautiful, innocent girl is mixed up in it as well.
Nice one, Jake.
When are you going to get out of all this shit for good?
She gulped down the remnants of her cup of coffee, stone cold now, and stood with her back to the wall, staring out at the pounding rain, for a very long time.
"The Albanian trade in illegal drugs has stepped up recently, taking advantage of the chaotic border situation resulting from the Kosovo conflict. This development has been combined with a large rise in the movement of immigrants and asylum-seekers to countries across Western Europe and threatens to cause trouble all over the continent."
"A little bit higher, Tom!"
Nia yelled over the news broadcast, holding a barstool steady as it shook precariously with the young man's weight. She'd recently revised the menu at Fire and Ice, and Liz, the resident artist, had written up the new selection on a blackboard that normally sat on a high shelf behind the bar. Now it was the task of Tom and his long arms to set the board back in its place.
"Drugs became an integral part of the Albanian black-market economy under the communists, and during the disorder and violence following the stockmarket crash of 1997 the forces of the underworld began to cement their influence. By 1998 the country was home to more than 10,000 drug addicts."
"Left a bit! Don't fall over!" Shouted Liz from the other side of the room, where she was unstacking tables and chairs in preparation for opening time.
These audacious remarks earned her nothing but a scowl from her good-natured colleague, who almost lost his balance as he poked out his tongue in reply.
"Very amusing, Lizzie!" Was his retort. "You're just jealous 'cos you're too short to be able to reach."
"Farmers who used to provide groceries are now finding it more profitable to grow marijuana. Cocaine refining laboratories are thriving in the South of the country, and some of these drugs leave the country via the border with Greece. The rest is transported via Macedonia, an easy gateway towards the West due to the unstable state of this particular region. European integration has meant that border checks in most of the states throughout the European Union are very limited."
Is this OK, Nia?" Tom swivelled from the waist so he could see his boss, an awkward position that nearly threatened to send him tumbling down on top of her.
"That's perfect! Thanks. You can get down now."
After helping her employee down from the stool, Nia surveyed their handiwork. The blackboard looked pretty. Now she only had to check that the food would do it justice.
The bar was due to open in half-an-hour, but there was very little left to do that the staff couldn't handle. Turning off the radio, the small manager noticed Liz coming up behind her with a "can I help you?" look on her pert, pretty face.
"We'll open at about midday." She told the brunette. "I think we're close to being ready, but can you get some beermats out and check the glasses? Send someone down to me in about ten minutes and I'll bag up some change."
The small barmaid nodded at her boss, and Nia gave her a grateful smile before making her way downstairs to check up on the chef.
She was halfway down the stairs when the ambient sounds of her favourite CD drifted into her ears.
Well that's a bit of a contrast to the hubbub that seems to be going on down here...she grinned, as she prepared to brave the disorder of the kitchen.
An unusual lurch in the recesses of her gut almost caused Jake to sway against the door of Fire and Ice as she pushed it open and stepped out of the rain.
Not nervous, are you, Jake? She chided herself.
What's she gonna do, beat you up?
Bracing her broad shoulders, she pushed her nerves down into the pit of her stomach and prepared to approach the nearest member of staff with her customary self-confidence.
But as she navigated her way past the tables occupied by the first few customers of the day, the woman who could cut off someone's breathing with one powerful hand found herself admitting that this situation was making her a great deal more apprehensive than she'd ever imagined. Under circumstances such as the Caps' raid of Friday night, Jake could deploy herself with self-possession and an intimidating presence that meant nobody could get under her skin. But she knew that when it came to truthful, personal communication, the shield she habitually erected would wind up as little more than dust on her steel-toed boots. Jake didn't care too much for too many people - but somehow, Nia had managed to join the ranks of the privileged already.
Sucker for a damsel in distress...that's my trouble.
And a few harsh words from this particular damsel would probably smart a lot more than somebody's fist in Jake's face.
What a mess.
She sighed inwardly as the bar came into view, and she realised that the member of staff who was manning it was the feisty brunette who'd been mouthing off on Friday night.
Great. Let's hope she's less outspoken during the day, shall we?
The dark woman advanced a little shakily, and cleared her throat in order to get Lizzie to turn around. She wondered if she'd be met with open hostility or something a little more subtle - but in her heart there was no doubt that she was about to be given her marching orders.
After the stunt I pulled on Friday night, I don't deserve any better...she thought, sadly. Well, at least if I get it in the neck from her first it'll cushion the blow.
She was convinced that Nia's suspicions and her own subsequent failure to return the manager's phone call would mean that the staff would be instructed to throw her out on sight - to play it safe with reference to Matt, as much as anything else. Whether she was connected to him or not, playing host to her at Fire and Ice would be a very dangerous move. She was suspicious, and she probably had "great big risk" painted all over her now, as far as Nia was concerned.
She must have been going through hell trying to work out what to do.
I'm such a rat.
But to the dark woman's surprise, Liz turned around with a beaming smile, and her greeting betrayed barely veiled interest rather than righteous indignation.
"Good to see you again! How are you?"
Interesting. Jake thought.
Looks as though Nia's been keeping it all in. This girl has no idea.
Wonder if any of them have any idea about what went on in here on Friday? And do they even know that Fire and Ice is run by a gang? Nia's been hiding a great deal to protect these kids, I think.
"Liz, is it?"
She responded, combining a non-committal tone with a subtle perusal of the brunette's trim body.
Liz dropped her eyes slightly, and Jake saw the hint of a blush just below the lashes.
I've still got the knack...she thought, suppressing a chuckle.
"Are you here to see Nia?" The barmaid asked, regaining her composure and picking up the internal handset attached to the wall.
The dark woman's smirk faded, as though she'd forgotten why she was really there. And as she nodded, she remembered that this encounter was highly unlikely to be as pleasant as the last. Her heart leapt straight into her mouth.
She's going to pretend to be out. I know it.
Liz, about to dial, looked on with amazement as the enigmatic visitor went from smooth operator to gawky teenager in a matter of seconds. It seemed like an age to both - but it was probably only ten seconds or so before Jake blurted out,
"Could you not tell her it's me?"
Gritting her teeth and hoping fervently that the little brunette wouldn't demand an explanation. All the carefully erected barriers had come down momentarily as the dark woman tried desperately to find a way to bring Nia upstairs to speak with her.
Liz seemed almost as surprised by Jake's sudden loss of control as the dark woman was herself. Looking slightly askance, she hit the speed dial on the phone without another word.
"Hi, is that the kitchen? There's someone here to see Nia. I don't know who it is, just tell her she has a visitor. And tell her to come straight up."