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I sensed it was about to happen before I felt it. The entrance to the little cellar was small and cramped and there was no other way to manoeuvre out the next barrel without awkwardly bending over and yanking it out on its rim. I snapped my hand round my back to catch the offending fingers that seemed to think that pinching my backside was acceptable, but instead just succeeded in letting go of the beer keg and letting it drop heavily onto my protesting foot.
Shrieking suddenly in pain, I sprang backwards, colliding with my would-be attacker. He let out an exhaled ooph and staggered backwards whilst I spun around on one foot, trying to ignore the sharp throbbing hurt in my other one. I grabbed hold of his grubby shirt collar and shoved him against the wall. It was Derek, one of the regulars.
“What the f**k are you playing at?” I leaned closer to him and snatched his fingers with my right hand, squeezing them hard, and keeping hold of his shirt with my left.
He breathed out again, a cloudy breath of stale beer covering my face. I moved my face to the side in disgust and tightened my grip further.
“Jaysus, sweetheart, you need to chill out,” he gasped.
The heat inside me rose. Taking liberties with roving hands was one thing, but calling me sweetheart was something else entirely different. “Chill out? Chill the f**k out? Watch me chill you out, sweetheart.” I let go of his hand and reached over to snatch the half-empty glass of ice and whiskey that he’d been clutching in his sweaty paw, scooping it up in one swift motion and then upturning it over his head. I dropped the glass dramatically on the floor and it shattered into several pieces. Derek wrenched away from both me and the wall, hands immediately running up to his head in an attempt to shake off the ice and droplets of booze from his face and hair.
He lashed out with one hand but I was faster than that and easily sprang out of his way, even within the confines of the small cellar.
“You f**king bitch.”
I smiled, deciding I preferred that to sweetheart. Derek, meanwhile, turned back towards me, fist raised. I put my hands on my h*ps and raised my eyebrows, daring him on. This was going to be fun.
‘What exactly is going on here?” A calm voice edged with steel interrupted my plans. Bugger.
“This arsehole,” I spat the word, “thinks that my body is fair game. I was merely abusing him of that notion.” I turned to face Arnie, who was looking at me unhappily.
He threw a dishtowel at Derek and motioned to me to back off. “Oh come on, Arnie, it was him! I didn’t…”
“Enough.” He gently pushed Derek outside back to the bar and shut the cellar door so that the two of us were alone. The offending keg offered little room but he kicked it away to the side and peered at me in the dim light. “You can’t do this, Jane.”
“Can’t do what? Defend myself?” I was getting hotter by the second.
“Can’t assault our best customers,” he replied calmly.
“Assault? But he…” I tried to protest but Arnie just put a finger to his lips. Falling silent, I opted for glaring at him instead.
“You’re a barmaid. This is part of the job – it’s unsavoury, I know but you should have learnt how to deal with situations like this by now. And this is a job which, I’m afraid, you no longer hold.”
I was momentarily dumbstruck. I hadn’t done anything – well, hardly anything anyway. I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out.
“I’m sorry, Jane. If you can’t keep your temper, then I can’t keep you. I’ll pay you till the end of the week but you need to go. Now.”
The bottom suddenly dropped out of my world. Shit. I needed this job. Without proper identification and references, it had taken me ages to find someone who would take me on. And even then the best I could manage was this dive of a bar. I tried to backtrack. “Arnie, I’m sorry. I blew things out of proportion. I’ll apologise. I’ll even let him feel me up if that’ll help. You can’t do this, I need this work.”
He shook his head at me sadly and stepped out of the cellar. I sat down on the upturned keg and massaged my swollen foot, trying not to let the prick of tears behind my throat get the better of me. I’d worked my arse off for that bastard – unsociable hours, basic minimum wage, no benefits other than the odd pack of pork scratchings. It wasn’t fair! I had the right to defend myself for f**k’s sake. I kicked angrily at the fallen keg and it thudded dully against the wall before rolling back and crunching over the broken shards of glass. Bending over, I turned it upright but caught my knuckle on one of the splinters. It pierced my skin and sent out a small shiver of pain. Bastards. Bastard Derek and bastard Arnie and bastard Anton and…I pulled out the glass fragment with my fingernails and watched a drop of iron rich blood ease its way from my hand and splash onto the floor. It was that stupid blood that had made me end up here in the sticks of Scotland in the first place. Bringing my knuckle to my mouth, I sucked the wound and allowed the heat inside me momentarily take over, blanking out my more rational thoughts.
After a minute or two, I sniffed and squared my shoulders. Worse things happened at sea. If I could get through John’s death, get through being thrown out of my home by a homicidal werebear, get through living in close quarters with the very shifty and very scary head of the Brethren, then I could get through losing a lousy job like this. I pulled the pieces of my shattered pride back together and steeled myself to face the music.
Standing up, I limped through the cellar door. Derek was looking at me triumphantly, with a sneer all over his ugly pock-marked face. I threw him the nastiest look I could, feeling some remote satisfaction at the fact that he was still dabbing at his neck with the dishtowel. The other bar patrons were staring at me in a hushed silence, but looked away awkwardly when I turned to them challengingly. Without warning, the jukebox’s random music selection kicked in with the entirely inappropriate notes of Shania Twain’s Man I Feel Like A Woman. I tried to avoid rolling my eyes. Arnie wordlessly handed me over a brown envelope and raised his eyebrows so, sighing heavily and over-dramatically at the injustice of the world, I reached down behind the bar to grab my bag. Then I left.
My brief wave of bravado deserted me when I got outside and felt the cold night air wash over me. I really didn’t know what I was going to do now. Trudging back to my little bedsit, I mulled over the possibilities. I could stay here, in Inverness, and try my luck at getting work in some of the few places I’d not already tried. The nearest pack was over in Aberdeen and, whilst I didn’t have a large enough ego to imagine that every shifter in the country was doing nothing other than trying to find one supposed little rogue, I wanted to keep as far away from them all as possible. But that meant that my options were fairly limited in terms of where I could go. Thrusting my hands in my pockets to stave off the cold, I hunched my shoulders. I searched inside myself to find a spark of fire that I could warm my own insides with, but there was nothing there. Fat lot of good all this dragon blood was if it was always going to be completely uncontrollable and never there when I needed it.
I stopped to cross over at a set of traffic lights and realised that gazing steadily at me from the gloom of the other side of the road was a dark shape. I stiffened immediately, tensing. Whoever it was, they were wearing an old-fashioned trilby and overcoat, but their features were hidden in the shadows. I wasn’t in the mood for any fun and games. Squaring my shoulders, I stepped off the kerb to confront them, and almost got run over by a huge lorry thundering through and driving too fast through the quiet street. The driver slammed on his horn making me jump almost completely out of my skin. I gestured rudely after him and looked back at the shadowy figure. However, in the time the lorry had taken to pass me by, the other pavement had become completely deserted again. A wave of uneasiness ran through me and I hurried home.
Back in the relative comfort of my little room, I sat heavily down on my bed cum sofa and rubbed my eyes. This was not good. The morning paper lay unread on the table so I picked it up and flicked through to the classified section. There were scant few jobs being advertised. I ran my finger down the column. An office junior post – paperwork, yuck; a cleaner’s position at one of the big chain hotels – they’d demand background details that I couldn’t provide; a couple of labouring positions and very little else. I’d have to hit the streets tomorrow and try to cold call the local businesses to see if I could drum anything up. I leaned over to the small kettle and flicked it on to brew a cup of strong coffee, then reached for the battered laptop that had cost me far more than I could afford. Turning it on and heading straight to the Othernet, I cursed myself for my weakness.
When I’d been part of the pack, I’d hardly ever had cause to bother with the Othernet, the supernatural world’s equivalent of the internet, but now that I was an outcast I found it hard to keep away. I found myself scouring its sites daily, checking that everything was safe in Cornwall, hoping for some news somewhere that would tell me how Tom and Betsy were getting on now that they had joined the ranks of the Brethren. And, on occasion, looking for gossip about Corrigan. I told myself that it was just self-preservation. He’d sworn that he would find me in his last Voice communication so it was important that I kept track of where he was. Just in case he was in the area and I had to run away and hide of course. I browsed around for a while but there was nothing new to be found. The Ministry of Mages were hunkered down trying to deal with the waves of applications that they were receiving now that they had opened up their recruitment procedures again and apparently there was some trouble over in Wales with some sprites hustling sheep. Nothing about the Brethren, other than an old photo of some of them at some kind of shifter ball that I’d already seen a dozen times. Corrigan was there, wearing a tuxedo that almost seemed to be sprayed onto his muscular frame, with some shapely brunette hanging off his arm and Staines was typically lurking in the background. There was no sign of either Tom or Betsy.
I resisted the urge to click on the link for the Pack’s own website. The last time I’d done that there had been a photo of myself staring back and a caption asking that if anyone saw me they were to call the London number with information. It hadn’t even been a terribly good photo; in fact it had been taken in the great hall after John and I had felled a particularly nasty spriggan that had taken to attempting to steal away a couple of local children. It had been a long chase and I was hardly looking coiffed and groomed. The photo itself had been cropped to leave off John but if you looked closely you could see his hand loosely wrapped my shoulder. That was just painful to look at.