Nia leaned back in her swivel chair, pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and smiled quietly to herself.
What she really felt like doing was purring like a cat.
Or standing on top of her desk and giving three cheers.
If the staff hadn't all been downstairs setting up for the lunchtime rush, she might have done just that.
She sighed contentedly.
The past few weeks had been some of the happiest of her life. For once, everything was right with the small woman's world. On the surface, nothing appeared to have changed - but underneath, a strange sense of clarity was edging its way into the midst of the usual confusion. And the strangest thing about it was that the reason for this new peace was the dark, mysterious stranger who'd walked into her life less than three months ago and who had, paradoxically, brought her a flash of light. And even more marvellous, after the first flash the brightness had decided to remain, transmuting itself into a warm glow that filled them both with joy.
The two women had since laughed - albeit a little nervously - about the blonde's initial conviction that Jake spelled trouble. Because it had turned out that since their first confrontation and the butch's mad dash into the bar to try and patch things up, their relationship had gone from strength to strength.
That afternoon had been one neither would ever forget. After the worst of the emotional storm abated, they sat in Nia's small office for hours, the dark butch holding her lover tight against her chest as the first waves of discord broke over them...and passed. They talked a little, trading stumbling, incoherent declarations and confessions - and had eventually realised there was no more need for words. Their understanding was already becoming deep and instinctive, and was born from a few core similarities that transcended their dramatic differences. They were as unlike as night and day - but seemed to come together in the half-light that united the two.
The bar manager smiled to herself again.
She was starting to feel very, very lucky. For the first time in her life, she felt as though everything was going her way.
If she'd wanted proof of the butch's burgeoning attachment, she had certainly been given it with the appearance of the dark woman at her door that day - eyes full of regret and trouble, voice breaking with the fear that she'd really screwed up this time. The blonde's resolve to stand firm against any efforts to charm her chagrin had not been able to withstand the image that confronted her - the butch was genuinely distraught that conflict had broken out so soon between them and was clearly desperate to put it right - something that the femme could sense was not usually the case with her proud companion. So Nia had taken a deep breath - and decided to trust. And she was starting to realise that this was the best decision she'd ever made. Just a month later, the feelings of security and safety she experienced were new...and also staggering. The sense could actually be described as tangible, she reflected - she could actually put her finger on it - in short, it was real.
For a start, the two women were becoming friends. Not just acquaintances who enjoyed each other's company in the bedroom as well as outside it - her usual, empty experience - but real, firm friends. It was far and away the closest and most fulfilling friendship to have touched her short life...and her new friend also happened to make her weak at the knees. This was a phenomenon as far as the bar manager was concerned. Or perhaps, she could more accurately term it a miracle. Sex and communication had been sadly disparate entities in her life thus far, since once one began, the other tended to disappear. In her shakier moments, she feared that the novelty would wear off with this newest and most precious acquaintance, the little voice of doubt whispering that Jake was bound to get bored and stop making the effort eventually. But deep in her heart Nia was sure that these new feelings were too solid to be frightened away. They filled her mind, and were beginning to gain purchase on her heart.
Sometimes, the blonde felt almost pitiful in her gratitude, ashamed to admit that nobody had been interested in her before. But nobody really had. She hadn't been beneath notice - scores of people had sought her out, all wanting something they knew she could offer - but this attention had waned once the desired prize had been granted, leaving Nia with a full and hopeful heart that was destined to be disappointed. The loneliness had eventually become too much, and in reaction, she locked the most precious parts of herself away, no longer able to risk the rejection that threatened to crush her with each new neglect. But with every day spent in the dark woman's presence she increasingly felt as though she was the subject of a true and genuine attention. And as this impression was cemented over the course of picnics, dinners, coffees and plenty of whispered bedside confidences, the two women related many of their experiences and aired feelings that had barely before seen the light of day. The mutual risk-taking this involved was slowly but surely forcing Nia's fears to dissipate. When first confronted with the strength and power of her new companion she found it hard to divorce her feelings from the self-absorbed brutality that had come at her from her previous lover and the thugs who dominated her life. The pain she'd endured had taken its toll, and the resulting scars were deeply etched - not manifesting themselves in bitterness and resentment, but in skittishness and an inability to meet the butch's eye. But these misgivings were gradually beginning to slip away. Nia knew her new lover was dangerous. Probably deadly, in fact. Nobody admitted to the privilege of her company could come to any other conclusion. But somehow, in the presence of the small blonde the dark woman became milder, her impulses for competition and aggression unable to withstand the bar manager's sweet, empathetic face. She found herself wanting to be unusually gentle - because before she even knew it, her heart was sweetly and gently possessed. It was an inadvertent surrender by the primeval force that had terrorised Manchester's underworld for so many years. And as Jake put her heart on the line and took Nia's small hand in her own, it became almost impossible for the blonde to hold back.
Nia remembered waking up in the middle of the night not long ago, to find the butch resting on one elbow, watching her, with a smile on her face and a strange light in her eyes.
"What are you doing, Jake?" She murmured, sleepily.
The butch smiled sheepishly - and Nia caught her breath at the look her companion bestowed upon her. There was admiration there, and tenderness - and something else that she could not define.
"Just looking." The dark woman replied, searching the blonde's eyes with her own, before reaching out with a gentle hand to smooth a strand of fair hair away from her face.
Nia smiled and heaved a drowsy sigh, and as her head began to nod she felt herself being pulled close by strong, steady arms. She fell asleep on the butch's chest, to the sensation of her back being gently scratched and her lover breathing in her ear.
Jolted from her thoughts, Nia looked up rather apprehensively as Max entered the room. The two exchanged a nod that was polite, but sadly lacking their usual camaraderie.
Things had been...difficult...of late.
As her relationship with the dark woman had grown more serious, Nia had become increasingly concerned about her assistant's feelings. At first she'd tried - albeit unsuccessfully - to curb the joy of her new romance in her friend's presence. She hung her head to hide her flushed cheeks and shining eyes, made feeble excuses for rolling in late to work, and became unusually withdrawn as she attempted to restrain the desire to share her bliss with all and sundry. But instinct and good sense both told her that this solution would be transient at best. That apart from the fact that she was a lousy liar, feelings would be hurt, sooner or later, if she continued to dissemble. Respect for new lover and old friend had eventually driven her to come clean - she knew the budding relationship that occupied her waking hours, and most of those during which she should have been asleep, was not going to prove to be a flash in the pan. And as well as being anxious to grant this fact due recognition, she also felt the futility of any effort to spare her assistant immediate pain, when this was bound to lead to greater upset in the long run. Nia preferred to take action and make herself responsible for the earlier hurt, rather than let inaction invite a later one. And although she cherished her friendship with the small butch, she was reluctant to pander to the fear and guilt that weighed on her mind, because she knew that the omissions that made her blameless would also break Max's heart eventually.
So, she had resolved to lay bare her connection with the dark stranger who had filled her assistant with such dismay on their first meeting. She was heartened by the possibility that if she did so, her friend would eventually decide to find some other object for her attentions. Frankly, Nia felt that it was a terrible waste - Max had a capacity for love the like of which she'd never seen. To squander that on someone whose feelings would never be mutual seemed senseless, as far as the bar manager was concerned. She had told her assistant the whole truth - she'd spoken quietly and clearly and tried with all her might to break the news as gently as possible - but she had also been candid and direct, refusing to mince any words. And the selflessness of the butch's devotion had been revealed in her response - cognisant of the fact that her misgivings had already been voiced, she had kept her mouth tightly closed and offered nothing but her support. Nia had come away from the conversation with an unshakeable conviction that no matter what happened, Max would be behind her all the way. It was a gift for which she could find no words of adequate thanks.
However, adjusting to the new situation in practice rather than in theory was another matter. Previously, Nia's status as a singleton had put her fairly constantly at her friend's disposal, and Max was not accustomed to being anything but first on the bar manager's social list. So she veered between being sulky and melancholy, or angry and critical, depending on her mood - and despite all their best efforts, relations between the two friends had become extremely strained. Max was dealing with her tumultuous emotions as best she could, and Nia was feeling ready to plummet, as her friend finally began to chip away at the pedestal on which she'd sat for as long as they'd known each other.
Shuffling past her manager's desk, Max sat down at her desk without a word.
Nia sighed, and turned back to her work. Fire and Ice felt alien and strange without their usual banter. The easy rapport she'd developed with her assistant had brought them through periods of stress and boredom alike - and its absence had been noted by both. It was upsetting. They'd reached a point where they'd begun to work in miserable silence - and neither was able to get anything done because of it. It was pretty intolerable, Nia reflected, as she looked down at the order summary she'd been filling in for the past hour and shook her head.
Gotta get over it, Nia - or this place is going to go to pot. You've got a job to do.
And as the femme turned back to her task with renewed concentration, the butch looked up from hers. Her assistant had been thinking, Nia could tell - there was a familiar furrow creasing the broad brow that signified something was about to happen. And a moment later, with a brief, decisive nod of her head, Max held out the paper she'd been reading.
"Hey, have you seen this?" She asked, a little awkwardly.
Nia quirked a tentative eyebrow - having caught a glimpse of the headline, 'SWAGGERING INTO SOFT-TOUCH UK' - and held out her hand.
She knew she was accepting more than the paper, as her assistant passed it across the desk towards her - it was a conciliatory gesture, made in the only way Max knew how. It looked as though they were going to have their first argument in weeks.
"What is it?" The blonde asked, hiding a grin.
"Oh, the Mail are being xenophobic again. Apparently, we're letting in millions of asylum-seekers through an 'open door' in the Balkans."
Max informed her, with a familiar look in her eye. She was being provoked, Nia knew it - and inwardly rejoicing, she decided to take the bait. Smiling to herself, she gave the article a quick skim.
"God, I wish they'd give those people a break!" She said, with genuine anger colouring her voice.
"Isn't that part of being a developed country? Don't we have a duty to provide refuge to citizens who aren't so lucky?"
"I don't know, Nia..."
Max began, automatically - words that were bound to goad her friend into a full-blown rant. It was a pattern as old as their friendship - they'd been interacting this way ever since they first met - and after the enmity of the past weeks, the bickering was inordinately comforting to both.
"No, really...I'm serious."
The bar manager sat bolt upright in her chair as she began to get into her stride, and her assistant unsuccessfully tried to conceal her glee. Max was fond of playing 'devil's advocate' where her small friend was concerned, willing to make statements that were outrageous and basically untenable, in order to see Nia get on a roll. It was pretty spectacular, as most of their staff would agree. A keen intellect, plus a passionate belief in justice and an often-ridiculed belief that wrongs could be righted, made the bar manager a formidable opponent in any discussion.
"We should take a leaf out of Sweden's book, Max - the first thing they do with newcomers is explain their rights. The first thing WE do is try and work out how soon we can send them home! And anyway, I'd rather make room for two billion asylum-seekers than all the drugs that seem to be slipping to us through the Balkans these days."
"I don't know, Nia..." Max demurred again, in a tone she calculated would be non-committal enough to stir a further burst of indignation.
"Who let the Daily Mail into this bar, anyway?" Nia scowled, playing - as both knew she would - straight into her assistant's hands.
"Bloody Nazis, all of them. Honestly, Max - all the journalists probably have copies of Mein Kampf and The Fountainhead jostling the pens for space in their desk drawers. It's disgusting."
She let out a disdainful snort.
"And the people who read it are almost as bigoted - the sort who start every sentence with, 'I'm not racist, but...' You know that's bad news."
"Please don't buy it, Max - it upsets me." She finished, a little more mildly.
"But the sports pages are good."
The butch eventually managed to object, elated with the knowledge that resistance was futile.
Looks like I'll have to start reading another paper. She grinned wryly to herself. Trying to change Nia's mind once she'd made it up was about as easy as trying to stop a steamroller.
The two exchanged a genuine smile, before Max went upstairs to put change in the tills, giving Nia's shoulder a friendly rub before she went.
The daily downpour had started, and the sound of the rain against the small windows of the office was strangely comforting to the blonde woman. Manchester felt eerily silent without the rain - not quiet, but somehow empty. The rumble of the buses and the screeching of the trams carried on regardless, but the buildings and streets looked perversely greyer in the sunlight - the sheeting water that usually covered the city softened the concrete tones and dulled the sharp silhouettes.
Somewhat mollified by her conversation with Max, Nia turned back to her work with renewed vigour. The silence that had fallen between herself and her assistant had been a source of great distress over the past weeks, and after the friendly interaction her heart felt considerably lighter.
I really thought I was going to lose a friend over this...she thought. Looks as though I underestimated her. That was pretty unfair, Nia.
Feeling a little guilty, she opened the drawer at her feet and began to rifle through the hanging files. An old member of staff had written to complain about a missing paycheque, and Nia had promised to sift through her records in order to get to the bottom of the problem. It was going to be no small task. Pulling out a wad of papers and setting them down in her lap, she began to thumb through, skimming the names and photographs with a practised eye.
While she did so, she resumed her contemplations. Her relationship with the dark woman was in its infancy, it was true - but there was already an understanding between them, a genuine bond, that was as rare as it was precious. Beyond their initial, physical attraction, the two women had discovered that they just plain liked each other - a luxury Nia had never experienced as part of her relationships in the past. She reflected wryly that had she met many of her previous lovers in different situations, they probably would not have even warranted her interest as friends.
A couple of weeks ago, Nia had decided that she wanted to do something to show her appreciation for this new friendship - so she invited the dark butch over to her flat for dinner. She was determined the meal was going to be a masterpiece - and had slaved in her tiny kitchen all day long, in order to create a dish worthy of a true culinary virtuoso. The desire to impress her new lover had also driven her to shop for the occasion, and before Jake arrived, the small blonde slipped into her latest secret weapon - a dark blue cocktail dress cut so low in the back that she blushed at herself in the mirror. But her fight with her inhibitions proved more than worthwhile, when she saw the look of stunned appreciation on her guest's face.
"You look...beautiful." Managed the butch, stooping down to confer a kiss that almost left the bar manager breathless.
The Thai curry Nia had lovingly created was almost left to blacken in the pan after this - and it was only the memory of the day's efforts that motivated the blonde to stay her partner's wandering hands long enough to serve up her creation with a couple of large glasses of wine.
Excitement had put a damper on the bar manager's hunger; and she did little more than chase her portion around her plate, watching lustfully as her guest devoured the meal and bestowed praise that made her verdant eyes sparkle in the candlelight.
"This is wonderful, Nia." Jake said, and the blonde beamed with delight.
After a few mouthfuls, the butch sat back in her chair, taking a long swig of wine. Rather too long, Nia thought...noticing a suspicious pucker at the corners of Jake's mouth.
Her own plate remained untouched...and tentatively, she put the first forkful in her mouth. It took all her self-control not to spit it straight back into her napkin. The curry was unbearably hot - leaving an unpleasant aftertaste that Nia found somewhat reminiscent of sour milk.
"My God!" She exploded. "This is disgusting!"
She met the butch's eyes, and saw relief mingle with embarrassment between the shades of blue.
"It's kinda...spicy." Jake admitted.
"But I'm enjoying it." She said earnestly, trying to placate the mortified chef.
"Nobody could enjoy eating that, Jake." The blonde snapped back, overcome with discomfiture at her failure. "It's horrible. I must have got the proportions wrong, or something."
Looking down at her feet, Nia fought the urge to cry. Her plans for the perfect evening of seduction had gone sadly awry - and she found herself uncharitably wishing that her guest would just take her leave, and leave her alone with her misery.
However, Jake had no intention of doing anything of the sort. Nia suddenly found herself looking into a kind, sympathetic face, as the butch got down on her knees before her.
"Nia, the meal was perfect. It really was." She said, softly. "Because you made it...for me."
Despite a strong compulsion to sulk, to show the butch the door and to berate herself after it closed in her face, a smile tugged at the bar manager's lips.
"I never thought a tough guy like you would be such a sweetheart." She confessed. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Returned the dark woman. "Now can I please have a glass of water?"
The meal was finished with a hearty laugh and some grilled cheese sandwiches - and for Nia, a feeling of real intimacy that she'd long been deprived of. With KJ, any small mistake had been treated as a crime - and had usually been accompanied by a torrent of abuse. The small blonde had laboured under the image her partner had projected upon her since the day they first met - and it turned out to be an impossible set of instructions, designed to make her feel as though any minor imperfection was a disaster of heinous proportions. Being allowed space to screw up was certainly new to her experience.
Jake would have eaten that whole plateful of curry, rather than hurt my feelings...she thought, amazed. I can't believe anyone would do that for me.
Her thoughts snapped back to the missing paycheque, as she caught sight of a familiar face on one of the staff files. Examining it more closely, she noticed the job title 'Manager', and realised that she must be looking at a picture of her predecessor. A clean-shaven man with deep-set, merry eyes - Nia idly wondered where she'd seen the face before. And as she stared at the small passport photo paperclipped to the foolscap wallet, a beard began to grow in her mind...getting longer, coarser, and more bushy...until the face confronting her was that of Pete, Jake's homeless friend.
She blinked a couple of times in disbelief.
It can't be. Pete used to manage this place?
I wonder what happened to him?
She unclipped the picture and held it up to the light to study it more closely.
Jake said he got addicted to crack. No...she said that someone 'got him' addicted. That means Matt and his gang were probably responsible.
And with a sinking feeling, Nia knew she couldn't put this kind of cruelty past her aloof, inscrutable boss. She'd long known that Matt's distant manner and cool detachment were merely a veneer assumed to hide an implacable, noxious ferocity. To assume that the man adhered to any kind of moral code would have been foolhardy to say the least.
She stared at the picture again. It was unmistakably Pete - the face was clean of muck and streetwise stubble, but the eyes - kindly, almost ingenuous - were the same eyes that had filled with tears when she wrapped her scarf around his neck on that cold night, almost a month ago.
So how does Jake know him? Her mind turned rapidly from one possibility to another. And it was testament to the bar manager's growing bond of trust with the dark woman, that the obvious answer was not uppermost in her thoughts.
But suddenly...the penny dropped.
"Oh God, no!"
Nia felt sick to her stomach. The photograph slipped from her limp fingers, and disappeared under the desk as she collapsed against it. She retched, holding on to the back of her chair for support, as the betrayal hit her with full force.
Jake's involved with Matt, after all.
The blonde closed her eyes, unable to keep her balance as her brain turned in circles around her, accelerating from zero to five hundred miles an hour, in about a millisecond. What little she already knew of the dark woman told her with certainty that if Jake was caught up in gangland activities, she wouldn't just be a small-time thug. She wouldn't be one of Matt's satellites, she'd be his right-hand man - the jewel in his crown, glittering black and fierce beside him.
I don't believe it.
Grisly details began to flood her senses, threatening to overwhelm Nia's troubled mind as she called up snapshots of gangland legends she'd heard people whisper about - one of these a vengeful fiend who was at once boy and girl but also neither - and who invariably disappeared into the night leaving death in her wake.
She fell to her knees beside her chair.
Remembering Jake's appearance in Fire and Ice on New Year's Eve, and on the dot of six O'clock on New Year's Day - and realising with a sick feeling that these had both been scheduled times for drug pick-ups. Recalling the terror on the Blue Cap's face when the dark woman surprised him in the cellar, Matt's shocked expression when he first clapped eyes on her, and her subsequent hasty exit from the bar. Recollecting her equally hurried and inexplicable departure from Al's party - which had occurred at about the same time as the clientele began to look shady, and the cocaine began to flow.
And also thinking back to the incident in the Ladies' bathroom...when Jake's masculine appearance had thrown suspicion upon her right to be there. And as the pieces clicked into place, the odd moments of disquiet the blonde had been suppressing over the past few weeks suddenly gained significance.
Of course...she thought.
The drugs are always left behind a panel in the Gents'. Matt uses that system in all the bars he owns.
Jake's looks are a perfect cover - she's probably been one of Matt's pick-ups for years.
She can slip into the Gents' unnoticed, but if the police call in, the fact that she's a woman is the ideal alibi. They always search the men first.
Why didn't I think of that before?
Nia could have kicked herself.
Blinded by my emotions and my libido, that's why. I should have listened to Max.
I'm such a fucking idiot.
And now, not only am I involved with a gangster...I'm sleeping with one of the most dangerous people in this city.
As comprehension dawned, Nia also realised that if Jake was associated with Matt, then any relationship that developed between the two women after the night in the bar would have to be under his orders.
He probably told her to watch me in case I 'talked'...she thought, miserably.
And she decided to bed me into the bargain. What better way to gain my trust?
Nia's burgeoning bond with the dark woman dissipated in the bitterness of her reflections, as she looked back upon the development of their friendship with new-found cynicism, and found in her anger a respite from the pain.
This whole thing has just been one big charade. I've been so stupid. I was taken in again.
I almost...fell in love...with her.
This last revelation was almost too painful to bear.
Need to find Max...was Nia's only coherent thought, as she rushed towards the door.
But before she could even grab hold of the handle, the reality of Jake's treachery hit her once more, and with full force. She slid down against the doorframe, tears pouring down her cheeks, unable to move.
It was here that Max found her, over an hour later.
Shock registered on Max's face as she stumbled across the wreck of her friend, sobbing uncontrollably, her breathing coming in fits and gasps. Saying nothing, she crouched down and opened her arms - and Nia fell straight into them. The blonde was shaking with grief, and Max found herself immediately assuming who was to blame.
I bet Jake's done something to upset her. She thought. I knew she was no good. I warned Nia, too - but God forbid she should ever listen to me.
A little embarrassed by the bitterness of her reflections, she pushed a strand of hair away from the bar manager's face, and shifted her focus to her friend's obvious pain. Nia was calmer now, and looked up at the butch with red-rimmed, watery green eyes as Max asked the obvious question.
"What's going on, Nia?"
A stifled sob escaped the back of the blonde woman's throat.
"Jake's involved with Matt." She delivered the bombshell.
Max found it extremely difficult to be surprised at this news, given her lively suspicions during the past month. However, she managed to manufacture a look of shocked sympathy, and gave her friend's back a supportive rub. Nia leaned her head against her assistant's shoulder, drawing comfort from the strong, solid muscles, as she sat amongst the debris of the little world that for the previous weeks had made her so happy. Now, she knew it had all been based on lies - and it made her sick to think of how easily she had been taken in, and how willingly she had given herself to the dark woman, without once suspecting the truth.
"How did you find out?" Asked Max, gently.
"Well, I met this guy when I was out with Jake, and he was homeless...and he said he used to manage a bar...and then Jake told me the reason he was on the streets was because someone got him addicted to drugs...and then I was looking through the files for Tony's missing cheque, and I saw his picture."
The blonde paused for breath, and looked at her friend for signs of comprehension.
"I'm confused." Max was having trouble keeping up. "Whose picture did you see?"
The butch continued to look puzzled.
"The homeless man...his name's Pete. He used to be the manager here." Nia elaborated.
My God. The pieces finally began to click into place for Nia's assistant. So that's what happened to the last guy.
"And then I thought, so how does Jake know him? And how does she know how he ended up on the streets? She must have been involved, Max." Finished Nia, a little breathless.
"It does look that way, yes." The butch said, thoughtfully.
"And then I got to thinking about how we met, and I realised that it's all been a big lie. It's got to be, Max. If she's connected with Matt, she wouldn't come near me unless he told her to."
"So after things kicked off with the Blue Caps, he asked her to watch you..."
"In case I talk." Whispered the small bar manager. The tears welled up again, and she voiced her hurt to the only person in the world she felt she could trust.
"I thought she was interested in me...because of me."
As she wrapped her arms more tightly around her injured friend, Max fought to gain control of her anger. She knew that a ranting, raving butch was not what Nia needed - she needed comfort, not another dose of angst. But inside, the assistant manager was furious.
What a thing to do.
I knew Matt must've had some way of keeping his managers in post - he couldn't get Nia addicted to drugs, so he intimidated her instead. And then when he got scared that wasn't going to be enough, he decided to get one of his lowlife thugs to bed her.
She's in love with that woman. I can tell.
The small butch's jealousy of Jake turned rapidly into outright hatred, fuelled by the suffering that was written all over her friend's face, and her own concerns for Nia's safety. If Jake was capable of using someone in cold blood, it was certainly a possibility that she'd come after the bar manager, when she found out Nia knew the truth. So hours later, when Nia had gone home to rest her weary head ...Max picked up the phone.
"I'd like to speak to the Sergeant in charge, please. I need to file a formal complaint."
It was only after she'd confessed everything to the police that Max realised she'd probably just opened Pandora's Box.
Nia woke the next morning with a raging headache. She groaned, and squinted in the spring morning sunlight - the brightness felt unbearably at odds with her disconsolate mood. For a moment, she considered the idea of turning over and going back to sleep. But then anger began to seep into the edges of her depression, tensing her muscles and making her feel more than ready to jump out of bed.
She didn't even remember how she'd gotten home the previous night. After her conversation with Max, she'd wandered the hostile streets for a while, blindly getting on a bus when the cold became excruciating. Her movements after that had been automatic, she was sure - and she had finally fallen into bed, exhausted by her tears and emotional distress. After KJ, the young bar manager had resolved to never again let her heart be so easily touched - to hold back and hide the most precious parts of herself, until the next suitor proved worthy of the gift. But her feelings for the dark woman had tolerated no restraint, and now here she was, alone and picking through the ruins of a broken heart...again.
I can't believe I was so damn stupid...she thought, for the umpteenth time.
I probably fell for every line in the book.
Shuffling into the bathroom, she inspected her face in the small mirror hanging on the wall. Her eyes were red and puffy from the previous day's crying, and behind them swelled an emptiness she knew all too well. During the past few weeks, the void had begun to retreat - now, it gaped and sent shooting pains into her heart, as she stared into her own vacuity.
She practically ran into the small kitchen, unable to bear the sight of her own reflection. Fresh tears fell into her morning cup of tea, as she remembered how she and Jake had gazed into that mirror together - fair and dark, day and night, blending in satiated contentment. They'd spent many lazy mornings in Nia's flat, leading to plenty of raised eyebrows amongst her staff, as she left Max to open the bar and turned up in time for the lunchtime rush, looking flushed and dishevelled. Insulated by the passion of her new romance, she'd ignored the whispers - now, she doubted whether she could ever face her employees again. She knew that word of Jake's betrayal would spread rapidly, and she'd already contemplated taking an extended holiday while the gossip died down. But this would have to be authorised by Matt - and she had an uncomfortable feeling that once he found out she knew the truth, he'd want to keep her in a place where she could be watched.
There's nowhere for me to run...she thought, miserably. And nobody I can really trust.
The realisation was stark, and she collapsed on to the sofa, hiding her head in her hands to shield herself from the pain. She'd long ago learned to live with her loneliness. But knowing that someone could use her so unfeelingly was something quite different. It felt as though one of Jake's large, powerful hands had wrapped itself tight around her heart, squeezing relentlessly until Nia's lifeblood ran dry through her strong fingers.
She didn't know how long she sat there. It could have been as much as an hour or as little as a minute. But she was stirred by the sound of the telephone.
The blonde woman looked at the machine as though it was a bomb. She knew who would be on the other end of the line. For a moment, she contemplated letting the caller ring off - but her hands seemed to have a life of their own, as she picked up the receiver and held it to her ear.
"Hi, darlin'." Came the familiar, husky voice. Nia choked back a sob, resolving to harden her heart.
"You've got a nerve, calling here." She said, quietly.
There was stunned silence on the other end of the line at this - during which Nia fought the urge to scream.
"What's going on?" Jake's voice sounded wary.
"I should probably ask you the same thing." Was the blonde's chilly reply.
"Nia, what are you talking about?"
"I know the truth, Jake." Said the bar manager, dully. "About Pete. You've been working for Matt all along."
The butch said nothing for a very long time - her silence confirming Nia's suspicions, provoking her ire and dissolving her decision to remain calm and aloof.
"Don't you have anything to say?" She asked, sharply.
Jake sighed, and the soft sound launched spears through the blonde woman's soul. "Not really, no." She said.
Nia took a deep breath, and held her courage in both hands.
"Well, I suggest you leave me alone from now on. I don't want to see you again. Not ever. Do you understand?"
The line went dead.
Kim regarded her sullen friend with sad grey eyes.
"Aren't you going to go and explain?"
"What's the point, Kim?"
Jake sighed heavily.
"She hates my guts. I'll only embarrass myself if I go crawling back. She's already made up her mind that I'm a good-for-nothing. I'm not going to beg her to change it."
The butch folded her arms and slouched in the armchair, daring her friend to defy her. Kim almost let loose a yell of frustration.
"Jake, you can be so irritating! She doesn't expect you to beg, you idiot. She just wants a reason to believe in you again."
"Why should I give her a reason? She should believe in me anyway. She should have trusted me, instead of jumping to conclusions." Came the glowering response.
Wow...thought the femme. Jake's really offended. I haven't seen anyone get to her like this before.
"Do you care about Nia?" She asked, quietly.
"Yes." The butch grudgingly admitted. She started intently at the cuffs of her leather jacket, turning them between her fingers, as she contemplated her feelings.
I really do care about her. When she told me she didn't want to see me again, it felt as though the sun went out.
"Well, are you going to let her go without a fight?" Asked Kim, in a reasonable tone.
"You can't just sit back and let life happen to you like this, Jake. Go and see her, and try to explain. Isn't the possibility that she might understand worth the risk of putting your pride in your pocket?"
"I suppose." The dark woman allowed.
"But she didn't seem willing to show me any understanding on the phone, Kim. She just assumed the worst and told me to leave her alone."
"So you're going to?" Kim took one of the butch's hands in both her own.
"That's what she wants." Said Jake, managing to meet her friend's eyes. The hurt and rejection Kim saw written all over her friend's features slammed straight into her heart.
Sometimes she looks like a bewildered child...she thought. Like an orphan who knows she's not wanted, but doesn't understand why.
"Jake, that's not what Nia wants at all." The femme said, gently. "She's hurt and confused, and doesn't know who she can trust. How can you expect understanding from her if you haven't even deigned to try and explain?"
"This isn't a novel, sweetheart." Kim gave Jake's hand a comforting squeeze. "Life isn't that simple. Sometimes, it doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong - as long as somebody makes the first move. You have to go and say sorry, or risk losing her."
A wave of pain crossed the butch's face.
"I don't want to lose her." She whispered. "I don't...I don't think I could handle that."
For a split second she looked inside her own heart, and was overwhelmed by what she saw there.
For the most fiercely independent inhabitant of the North's most inhospitable city, this was an admission of gargantuan proportions.
"So go get her." Said Kim, gesturing towards the door.
There was a moment of silence, as pride warred with emotion inside the dark woman's head. But she rose suddenly, looking fierce and resolute.
"You're right." She said.
"It was silly of you not to tell the truth from the start." The femme said softly, as the butch made a move to leave. "But being too proud to tell her what's going on now would be an even bigger mistake."
Jake gave her friend a single, grateful look before she closed the door.
The dark woman contemplated Kim's words as she trudged through mud and rain towards the bar. She'd thought about telling Nia the truth hundreds of times - but the truth always seemed too complicated for her to communicate.
How would she have reacted if I'd told her how vicious I used to be? She thought, bitterly.
That I used to break arms, legs...and necks...for a living?
Would she really have been interested in the fact that I've changed?
The butch had been afraid the game was up when the two women had stumbled upon Pete.
The homeless man had been nothing but a puppet while Fire and Ice was being bought and set up, and Jake had watched as her remorseless colleagues got the poor chap addicted to every narcotic under the sun. But she'd done nothing about it. She'd felt too secure and important in her position at Matt's right hand, indispensable as his mainstay and troubleshooter, to want to jeopardise that with something so feeble as sentiment. She waited until the bar manager broke down and ended up on the streets - and that had been her catalyst for change. Something shifted inside the proud, dark butch when she saw what Pete had been reduced to - wrapped in a blanket, grubby and starving, out of his head. A little intimidation on behalf of a powerful drug dealer was one thing - playing God with the lives of innocent people was quite another.
So she decided she needed to get out. And Matt knew better than to argue - he'd seen enough of Jake's strength and ferocity to know he couldn't hold her against her will. But the gang chief had one last card to play - the dark woman was well aware that her boss had enough information to put her in jail for a very long time, so he let her go on one condition - that she would help him out if he needed a favour.
Jake had been paying off a dual debt ever since, beholden to the Mob but also putting her heart and soul into her new field of work, as an outreach worker for the homeless, drug-dependent and disenfranchised. She paid her dues and alleviated her guilt in her own way, working day and night in the service of the people whose lives she felt she'd helped to ruin - and tried to forget her old habits as she left them behind. But when Matt and his cronies wanted something from her, she had no choice but to acquiesce.
The last phone call she'd received had been on New Year's Eve. A massive shipment of heroin and cocaine had been successfully smuggled in from the Balkans, but after the drugs were past Customs and safely stashed on British soil, the police had been unusually quick on the draw. Matt needed to shift his portion fast - and Jake was the only person he felt he could trust. He needed someone who could sneak in to Fire and Ice on its busiest night, and pull off a pickup. He told the dark woman that nobody else would do.
Jake realised ruefully that had probably sealed Nia's fate.
I should have stayed away from her...she thought. The last thing she needs in her life is someone like me.
But she kept on walking.
As Jake strode purposefully towards Fire and Ice, Nia wandered aimlessly around the town. Eventually, her troubled meanderings brought her close to one of her favourite places to walk and think - St Peter's Field, the site of a famous massacre of working-class radicals over a hundred years ago, and now home to the Free Trade Hall. The grey city contained few oases of green, and St Peter's was one of the prettiest - poignant in its loveliness, because it reminded all who visited it of both the beauty and the frailty of life. For the bar manager, it was a gentle reminder that no matter how hard she struggled, she always had something to be grateful for.
After her disastrous telephone conversation with Jake, she'd decided to let Max open the bar alone, feeling too distressed and vulnerable to face the outside world just yet. But after an hour spent moping around her tiny flat, she realised that idle solitude was doing nothing to ameliorate her gloom. So she got dressed and braved the cold - hoping to make it to Fire and Ice before midday, so she could make herself scarce in time for the arrival of most of her staff.
Rarely in her short life had Nia felt quite so alone. With her quiet, cheerful disposition and air of confidence and capability, the small blonde was never short of friends or people to spend time with - but strangely, this jovial network seemed to disappear whenever trouble was afoot, leaving her with the distinct feeling that there was nobody left to turn to. Rachel was normally her prop and mainstay during testing times - but the shady dealings that went on behind the scenes at Fire and Ice were not something Nia wanted to share with her best friend. Not as long as she valued both their lives, she thought, as she traipsed through the mud covering the well-worn path to the park.
The small blonde paced the grass restlessly, followed by a significant number of admiring glances. Although she was well bundled up in scarf, gloves and winter coat, the gloss on her golden hair and the soft shine in her eyes couldn't fail to attract attention. She epitomised the effortlessly stylish city girl that was Manchester's most famous export - but inside, she felt like an open wound. Tripping over carelessly strewn litter as she walked, she wished she could double up inside to relieve her pain. So she groped her way to a park bench and sat down, feeling helpless in the midst of an unhappiness that seemed insurmountable.
The hardest thing to bear, she reflected, was that she was beginning to blame herself.
Immediately after telling the butch to leave her alone, Nia had started to regret her words. Because with the click of the receiver as Jake hung up, the bar manager realised she'd said goodbye to any hope of an explanation.
I'll never find out the truth, now...she thought, desperately.
I know I told her to get lost. But I didn't really expect her to take me at my word!
And I can't be very important to her, if she's prepared to just walk away.
The blonde woman stared blankly into space, contemplating the futility of her situation. She'd told Jake to leave her alone - so she couldn't really blame the woman for doing what she asked. And she was already painfully well-acquainted with the dark woman's pride - she knew the butch would never return after being told she wasn't wanted.
Shit. She shook her golden head at her own stupidity.
I've really messed this up. I should have given her the benefit of the doubt and let her explain, before I went off the deep end.
Her eyes dropped to the grass at her feet as she spotted a tiny form moving close to her shoes. It was a wagtail - a cheeky, black and white bird - and it cocked its head at her as it hopped close, seemingly unafraid. Nia was fixed for a second by its beady stare, before the bird spied a crumb, snatched it up in its beak, and flew away. And as it alighted on the monument that commemorated the Peterloo massacre, Nia's world began to seem brighter.
Life goes on, Nia...she chided herself.
This isn't a novel, and you're not a tragic heroine.
You got over a broken heart once before. That means you can do it again. Now get to work, and get on with it.
The bar could have been a beacon, even in the stark grey light of midday - glowing with flames and billowing smoke into the cold air. The smell of the fire mingled with the smog of the city, sending a horrendous, warning stench into the atmosphere.
Both women rounded opposite corners at the same time. Unable to see each other through the dense curtain of smoke that surrounded the building, they stared at the wreck of Fire and Ice in stunned and separate disbelief.
Nia...thought Jake, breaking into a run.
"MAX!!!" Screamed Nia, as she dashed towards the blaze.
Jake reached the burning building first, and unaware that the bar manager was following close on her heels, dove straight in with no thought for her own safety. She felt too sick to think - with images of the death and carnage of her past flashing before her eyes - except this time, the bleeding and tortured victims she pictured all had blonde hair and Nia's face.
On rounding the corner, the totality of the blaze had told her this wasn't a mere accident. It had the look and feel of arson about it - and in her gut, she knew Matt and his gang were tying up loose ends. She wondered if Nia had finally cracked and gone to the police. That could be the only explanation for a total destruction like this - the operation was imploding, and Matt needed to dispose of the evidence. And that included his bar manager. She knew there would be a gruesome price to pay for the blonde woman and anyone else who happened to be in the way, when the gangsters came to finish the job. She also knew she had probably arrived too late.
Pulling her handkerchief over her mouth to keep out the dense black smoke, she picked through piles of chairs and tables and made her way towards the bar. So far, the blonde woman was nowhere to be seen.
Jake looked fearfully towards the office.
If the bar manager was down there, the chances of getting her out alive were going to be slim - judging by the crashes coming from the direction of the stairs, timbers were already beginning to fall in the basement.
Stifling the urge to cough, the butch headed for the staircase. From the amount of smoke puffing out of the stairwell, she'd rapidly worked out that the fire had started downstairs - and gritting her teeth, she strode purposefully towards it. Perilous and foolhardy it might be - but she had to try and find Nia if she possibly could. Even if just to reassure herself that the bar manager had perished in the inferno, and hadn't been dragged away by Matt's thugs, to be used and abused for their express amusement.
She felt queasy at the thought - and pushing her dour speculations aside, she concentrated on navigating the stairs.
I hope to God the cellar hasn't caught yet ...the dark woman thought grimly, as she gingerly stepped upon creaking wood. Once the barrels caught alight, she knew it was only a matter of time before they blew, causing an explosion that would destroy everything in its wake.
She also knew that if she didn't get out soon, she'd be blown to bits.
Bent over from the effort of trying to breathe, Jake cautiously pushed open the door to the office, and winced as a cloud of smoke hit her squarely in the face. It was almost impossible to see through the angry black haze, but it didn't take a genius to work out that the construction was already starting to buckle.
She took a frenzied look around - and gasped with shock as she saw a body in the corner of the office, trapped under a timber.
Oh, please. It can't be her. She thought, desperately.
Jake practically dove across the piles of mess and rubble until she could squat down beside the prone figure.
And the face that confronted her - bloody, bruised and covered in soot - was not that of the bar manager.
It was Max.
Even as she lifted the timber that was wedged across the butch's chest, Jake knew Max was dying. Blood trickled slowly from one corner of her mouth - a sure sign that ribs had been broken, and had probably punctured the assistant manager's lungs. Judging from the harsh rasping sounds the barely conscious woman was making, the smoke was fast taking over her breath.
Jake winced in sympathy as she took the butch in her arms - careful not to cause any more damage, even though there was probably no chance of saving her. Max's head lolled on the dark woman's shoulder, and Jake feared that she was already dead.
But two tiny words escaped the small butch's lips as they mounted the stairs.
"Try not to talk." Jake replied, grimly. She didn't want to think about where the bar manager could be. Matt and his associates never left a job half-finished - if Nia had been on the premises when they arrived to start the fire, she was likely to be found in an even worse state than her assistant.
Once I've gotten Max out, I'll go back in ...the dark woman told herself. But the reassurance was empty - on her way out she'd seen flames licking at the door of the cellar, and she knew it wouldn't be long before the building blew. Going back would be certain suicide - with no guarantee she was going to find the blonde bar manager in one piece.
As they left the burning building, the street was already being evacuated. Jake heard the sirens of the approaching fire engines, and desperately hoping that an ambulance was also on the way, she continued to walk with the dying butch in her arms, carrying her beyond the police barricades and past the gathering crowds.
The dark woman stripped off her jacket, and slipped it under Max's head as she set her on the ground. The smaller woman was already beginning to turn blue - and her voice was almost a whisper, as once again, her friend's name crossed her lips.
"Nia..." She coughed weakly, spattering blood over Jake's shirt.
The tall butch took the assistant manager's hand in her own, and met her eyes for a brief moment. For the first time, an understanding passed between them.
"I'm going back in to get her." She said, quietly.
Max heaved a shallow sigh, and her eyes began to close.
Leaving the fading butch lying on the street, Jake covered the distance back to the bar in a few short strides. Amidst the commotion of firefighters, police and bystanders, she was able to slip through the front door unnoticed.
She knew she probably wouldn't be coming back out.
Taking one last look at the scene outside, she shoved her face back into her handkerchief and began to clear a way through the gathering rubble. She was dreading what she knew she would find - a charred body, visible only by a shock of strawberry blonde hair.
In fact, she could almost see it - and she dashed the tears away from her eyes with an impatient hand. She had no time for anguished hallucinations - she had to find the bar manager's body, no matter what state it was in. But when the mist cleared, the image was still there - and she blinked a couple of times as she registered the figure, leaning over the bar, perfectly still.
Jake numbly wondered how she could have missed Nia's body the first time...when the blonde head moved.
Without a word and with a few swipes of her powerful arms, the dark butch forced a way through to the blonde bar manager's side. Nia was doubled over from a violent fit of coughing - but apart from the smoke inhalation, she looked relatively unscathed. Supporting the fainting woman with an arm around her waist, Jake drew her towards the door.
Nia's head began to clear in the fresh air, and as her wits revived, she struggled against Jake's bracing arms.
"No..." She murmured, fretfully. "I have to go back..."
She freed herself from the dark woman's embrace - although she was still on the verge of collapse, she was determined to start back towards the burning bar.
"I can't leave her in there." She said, resolute.
"Nia." The urgency in Jake's voice halted the blonde in her tracks.
"The building is going to blow. We need to get away."
Nia looked at the dark woman, tears welling up in her eyes.
"Max is in there." She sighed.
The bar manager's face crumpled in distress when Jake showed her the bloody figure of her assistant.
"Oh my God...Max." Tumbling down on to the kerb, Nia eased her friend's head into her lap.
"Someone call an ambulance!" Her voice cracked as she feverishly looked around her.
"No...no." Max rasped, weakly. Her breath was coming in uneven gasps, but she managed a small smile as she looked at her friend. "Glad...you're...here."
Nia's eyes swam with verdant grief as she looked up at Jake. And in answer to the bar manager's unspoken question, the dark butch forced a slow nod. Max's chest was filling - she was going to be unconscious in a matter of minutes, suffocated by her own blood. The only thing they could do was leave her be - any attempt to resuscitate her would crush her chest completely, and the cavity would certainly give way under their helping hands. Either way, she was sure to die.
Blue eyes held green for a long moment, and Nia drew strength from the dark woman's sympathetic face before she turned back to her friend. She knew that Max needed her at this moment more than ever - and her slumped shoulders straightened, as she put her own pain aside to do what little she could.
"What happened, Max?" She asked, gently. "The fire alarm went off - why didn't you get out?"
"Looking...for...you." Coughed the butch. "Then...I don't...remember."
She coughed again, spraying Nia's face with the blood that bubbled up from her throat. There were just minutes left - and the blonde squeezed Max's hand with her heart in her mouth.
"I'm...scared..." Max whispered.
"I know." Nia replied, softly.
"I'm here. I won't let you go."
Max's eyes closed, and a tear stole its way down her face.
"I...thought," she gurgled, "when...someone...dies..." she paused for another cough that made her whole body shake. "their angel...comes to get...them."
She opened her eyes again for a last look at her friend.
"I'm...leaving...mine...behind." She choked, through the bar manager's stifled sobs.
Jake turned her face away, ashamed of the hot tears that poured down her cheeks.
It took ten more minutes for Max to die. There were no more words after this - she slipped in and out of consciousness as Nia held her close, whispering tender incoherences that she hoped would ease Max's passage. The bar manager wasn't really sure when the small butch drew her last breath. She felt as though she was waking from a dream, when the paramedics arrived and she watched them take Max's body from her and load it into the van.
Only then did she allow herself to cry. Standing alone on the pavement, she let out a wail - groping blindly around her for something to hold on to.
And for the first time in her life, she found it. As Nia sobbed on Jake's shoulder, Fire and Ice exploded, sending tremors down the length of the Oxford Road.
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