As Gideon stalked off to the bathroom, Jinna turned to Mia. “Where,” she said, “did you dig that one up?”
Mia turned her gaze from Gideon’s retreating back to her friend’s disapproving face. “He was supposed to be a mark,” she admitted. “But things got twisty.”
“He was a mark?” Disapproval gave way to amazement. “And how much of your fagin’s booze did you down when you marked him?”
Which seemed to Mia to be an overreaction. “It was the fagin’s call,” she said. “And I know Gideon don’t look like much—”
“I’ll tell you what he looks like,” Jinna cut in darkly. “He looks like trouble.”
“He’s a bit ragged, yeah, but—”
“I could give a comb for his looks, he’s trouble because he’s a convict.”
“Shocking! Specially as I’m such an upright citizen,” Mia said with a grin, then looked in the direction Gideon had gone. “Anyway, how d’you know he’s been in the nick?”
“I know because I have eyes. Didn’t you see the back of his hand? The right one?”
“His hand?” Mia squinted her eyes as she tried to picture either of Gideon’s hands, but all she could picture were the map of scars over his torso, the scary shade of blue his lips had been before she and Elvis got him breathing again, and the way his eyes could sometimes seem hollow, as if only a part of a person were still living in that battered body. His hand, not so much. “What about it?”
“Keepers, Mia, he’s got the Morton Barrens ident tattooed on the back of it,” Jinna let out an exasperated huff. “I don’t know how you could have missed the thing.”
Well, first the man was drowning, and then he was attacked by some female with a gun, and then we were running, so maybe I missed a wee detail, Mia thought. “It’s complicated,” she said.
Jinna’s eyebrows rose. “It’d have to be.”
“Still, comin’ out of Morton, he must be more badass than he looks,” Mia surmised, impressed.
“That would be how you’d see it,” Jinna sighed and, seeming to remember the teapot in her hand, started to pour out. “He’s lucky he was with you. If that man had come in here on his own, I’d have been greeting him with the toasting fork.”
Mia started to laugh, but Jinna seemed to be serious. “Does being pregnant make a person into an arse kicker?” she asked.
“It makes a person careful,” Jinna said, and though her eyes remained serious, there was a softening to her expression that Mia found interesting. “Speaking of careful,” she looked towards the back, but, as there was no sign of Gideon returning, she sat down opposite Mia, “has your fagin been giving you any more trouble?“
“No more’n usual,” Mia said.
“The usual is bad enough,” Jinna said, nodding towards the bruising on Mia’s cheek. “It’s not right, the way he treats his dodgers.”
“Is it right for Liam’s dad to be after you and your babe?” Mia countered, and immediately regretted it. Liam, the baby’s father, had been killed in action not two months hence. “Sorry. I’m sorry for that.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” her friend assured her. “And it isn’t right for Killian Del to be after my baby. Even if Liam and I had planned a future together, it wouldn’t be right.” One hand came to rest on the swell of her child. “But we didn’t plan anything, obviously.”
Mia, who’d yet to understand why any two sensible people would get up to what she knew they got up to, tried to look sympathetic. “Have you told his dad that? That you weren’t promised?”
“Only every other day.” Jinna shrugged. “But you know how it is with the ristos. He’s rich, and powerful, and deaf to whatever he doesn’t want to hear, so I suppose I’ll be telling him up to the point this little one is in university.”
“I just don’t think it’s right, him hounding you.”
“And I don’t think it’s right for you to stick with a fagin who’ll give you the back of his hand whenever he’s in a mood.” Jinna brought the argument back round to her original point.
“It’s not the mood that does the striking,” Mia muttered, addressing the teacup, which, at least, didn’t argue back.
Unlike Jinna, who was just getting warmed up. “You’re almost of age,” she was saying. “Old enough if you wanted to opt out of your shares and leave the hive, I could maybe get Sol to hire you on here with me. And my flat has room for—wait,” she paused at the sound of something scraping the diner’s glass door. “What was that?”
Mia looked up and saw that it had started to rain again. “I bet it’s Elvis,” she said, sliding from the booth. “Must be getting lonely out there.”
“Elvis?” Jinna followed Mia to the front door. “Like the king from Earth?”
“Not exactly.” Mia opened the door, letting in a rush of rainy wind and one exceptionally grumpy draco.
“Then who, exacl—eee!” Jinna gave a delighted squeal, spinning to watch as Elvis flapped his way into the diner, coming to rest on the counter, where he flapped the water from his wings and chittered angrily at Mia.
“Jinna, this is Elvis, Gideon’s draco,” Mia said.
“Of course he is,” Jinna said, still staring.
“He don’t like rain,” Mia added.
As if to prove it, Elvis gave a vigorous shake and then looked around, circling himself like a cat as his eyes skimmed the diner, before coming back around to face Mia, to whom he gave a questioning chirp.
“If you’re looking for Gideon, he’s gone to the loo,” Mia told him, pointing to the rear of the diner. “That way.”
The draco apparently understood, because, with a last flutter to dry his wings, he jumped up, flapped in the direction she’d pointed, and swooped around the corner.
“Cor, that’s a smart reptile,” Mia murmured.
“Maybe he needs the loo, too,” Jinna quipped, then sighed. “All right, take this.” She handed Mia the teapot she’d been holding all this time. “Let me close the place up, and then we’ll put together some dinner for your surly convict and his friend.” She waved in the direction Elvis had flown.
Mia took the teapot, and headed towards the counter pass-through while Jinna flipped over the window sign to the “Closed” side.
The door slammed open, again.
“I’m sorry,” Mia heard Jinna say, “but we’ve closed for… for the night.”
The hesitation in her friend’s voice had Mia turning to see who’d entered, and found Jinna faced by three men and a woman.
Two of the men and the woman were tall, blonde, broad shouldered, and known to Mia as Rolf, Ulf and Freya Ohmdahl.
The Ohmdahls, fraternal triplets, were veterans from the Stolichnayan army who’d emigrated to Nike with their mother two years back.
Now the three made their living by hiring out to anyone with enough of the ready to keep the family in vodka and Mama Ohmdahl’s kissel. This meant they traveled in much the same circles as Mia.
The difference being, where Mia’s jobs required a certain level of finesse, the Ohmdahls’ collective size, and freedom from an overage of higher thinking, got them hired for situations which benefitted from the sheer force of their presence.
No one who saw the wall of Ohmdahls coming their way was inclined to quibble over—well, anything, really.
Which, Mia thought, likely meant they’d come to make certain Jinna didn’t quibble over whatever the third man—an older fellow whose slightly stooped shoulders and silvered hair were at odds with the hunger in his eyes—wanted.
“I’m sorry, as well,” the man told Jinna in a tone so supercilious, it set Mia’s teeth on edge. “Sorry to hear you’ve refused, again, my offer of a comfortable home for my grandchild.”
So this, Mia thought, is Liam’s father.
Looking at the man, she couldn’t fault Jinna for wanting nothing to do with him.
“So sorry that you’ve brought help to convince me?” Jinna was asking, her voice arctic with disdain.
“I believe,” Del replied, “we are far past persuading.” He gestured to the three Ohmdahls, and Ulf and Rolf took the cue to spread out into the diner, while Freya remained at the door.
Mia looked up, and further up, as Rolf planted himself near her. “Hallo, Rolf,” she said. “How’s your mum?”
“Mia.” He nodded to the dodger in recognition. “Mother is being good.” He glanced at his employer of the moment, then at Mia. “But maybe you should be going now?”
“Yes, you should indeed be going,” Del said, his dark, almost black eyes fixing on Mia. “This is a private matter.”
“No, it isn’t,” Jinna said. “Anything you have to say to me you can say in front of witnesses, and then those witnesses,” she jerked her chin up at Ulf, who’d settled into full looming posture at her side, “can mark me telling you, as I have told you nearly every swarming day for the past four months, you are not taking my child.”
“Which is why,” Del said with a smile Mia found genuinely disturbing (which, given her years with Ellison, was saying something) “I’m simply going to take you. No need to fear,” he said as Jinna began to protest, “you’ll be well-cared for, as would any guest of my family. So well, in fact, I’m confident that by the time you come to term, you’ll accept what’s best for the child.”
Now he nodded to Ulf, and Ulf reached for Jinna.
To Ulf’s surprise, he missed, because Jinna had already moved, ducking under his arms and darting into the main dining area.
Ulf froze, momentarily confused.
“Move, you idiots,” Del said.
They moved, Ulf following Jinna into the seating area, and Rolf lumbering past Mia, clearly meaning to cut Jinna off at the far end of the diner.
Which was when Mia remembered that she was holding the teapot.
She remembered she was holding the teapot because, quite suddenly, it was flying through the air in the general direction of Rolf Ohmdahl’s head.
“Sorry,” she said as the pot shattered against Rolf’s skull, the apology as automatic as the attack. “Really, really sorry,” she added as Rolf, shedding tea and pottery, turned in her direction.
“That was not so nice,” he said to Mia.
Further down the room, Jinna was leading Ulf a merry chase through the tables, tossing cutlery, napkin dispensers, and once a deadly squirt of mustard right into Ulf’s eye.
“It was instinct,” Mia said, backing into a stool while on the other side of the room, Ulf gurgled in pain. She was distantly aware of a shadow overhead, and Freya’s bellow of surprise.
“I don’t know what is instinct,” Rolf said, “I only know job, and you are being in the way of job.”
Then the shadow descended on Rolf in a flurry of wings and talons, and Freya’s surprise turned to fury.
Across the diner, Ulf thudded backwards like a poleaxed aurochs to reveal Gideon, standing in front of Jinna, and holding the broken remains of a chair.
“That,” Gideon said as he stepped over the groaning Ulf, half a chair in his hand, “is instinct.”
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