Truly helpless, p.6
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       Truly Helpless, p.6

         Part #10 of Nature of Desire series by Joey W. Hill
 

  She had no problem taking the opportunity to observe him when he didn't think he was on anyone's radar, however. He was dressed in jeans and a dark blue T-shirt that etched out his upper torso damn well. Jeans did a good job of it, too, defining an ass as tight with tension as the rest of him. When he threw his gym bag in the back and put himself into the front seat, the car rocked from the door slam.

  Still angry, though he also seemed deep in his head. He was staring through the windshield. His hands appeared on the top of the steering wheel. From the flex of his shoulders, he was gripping it as tightly as he could, fighting whatever was going on within him. He pressed his head back against the seat. Tattoo beat, one, two, three.

  The grip on the wheel showed external anger. Who to blame. Tyler, her, Alex, Siren. But the head beating thing, she believed that was self-frustration. Loss of control. Deep inside, he must have known taking it so far would have bad consequences, especially after three warnings. But that was how a self-destructive personality worked. They just couldn't help themselves.

  She'd been developing a theory since she'd felt that energy vibrating off him when she lowered his chains. She believed he hadn't intended to go as far as he had with Siren. If he was truly as detached as he tried to appear, he could have called himself back. But maybe the true submissive's need under all the shit had pushed him forward, convincing him he could get there, could get where a Mistress wanted him to go.

  Then that other side of him took over again, blew it all up and caught everyone, including himself, in the shrapnel. Another sub would have come out of such an experience dazed, craving a nurturing form of aftercare. He'd come out angry, closed and defensive, unwilling to accept good or bad shit from anyone.

  He was not going to be an easy project.

  "You better be ready to see this one through, Regina," she advised herself. "You go at this half-assed, he'll cut you to ribbons. He might do it anyway, but if you're all the way in, you'll have your hand on the same knife."

  Regina jumped when he erupted into motion. Marius hit the wheel with a closed fist, surprising her with the vehemence. One sharp blow, two. Then he rummaged in the glove compartment and produced what looked like a cheap flip phone. After dialing, he spoke to whoever answered in short terse sentences. A nod, and he tossed the phone on the seat before turning over the engine.

  When he put the car in drive, his set countenance suggested he had a destination in mind.

  Well, she had a free evening, didn't she? She'd see where he went to blow off steam.

  As she navigated through traffic, she didn't have trouble keeping him in sight. He drove decently close to the speed limit and he didn't drive like an angry man. After he'd made the phone call, he'd settled. Or maybe he'd channeled his aggression toward a different target.

  Since The Zone had to accept the same zoning restrictions as much seedier adult businesses, it was on the fringes of the less desirable side of Tampa. Marius was headed deeper into that area. After a few miles, she followed him down a narrow, dark street that in crime shows would have had men huddled over oil drums of burning trash, the flames and their figures throwing eerie shadows up against the brick. Well, if it wasn't a balmy Florida night.

  Regardless of her dramatic imaginings, only homeless people or those with criminal intent would be wandering this area without purpose. Marius took a right and disappeared down another alley. She waited a moment and then followed, making sure her doors were locked. If there was nothing down here but darkness, she was prepared to reverse and end her sleuthing days before they began. She had no desire to be carjacked.

  The alley dead-ended at a boarded-up, abandoned warehouse, a backdrop that would have confirmed her concerns, except for the type of vehicles in the parking lot. Whereas the asphalt was so cracked it might as well be gravel, a variety of shiny, expensive cars mixed with upscale SUVs were parked upon it. Directly in front of Regina, a man circled the front of a red Ferrari to hand out a woman from the passenger side. She wore a white sparkling dress that barely passed legal in either direction. Her blond hair was as white as the dress, except for a vivid blue streak down the right side that matched the sapphires on her neck and ears.

  Marius had pulled past all the flashy vehicles, and been waved into a roped-off area on the side of the building where more modest cars were parked. He exited his and entered the building through that side door. As Regina pulled into the lot, intending to follow him, she was intercepted by a ponderously built man approaching her car. He was dressed in an impressively well-cut suit and looked enough like a security detail to give her confidence he didn't have murder on his mind when he gestured to her to lower her window.

  Yet since his responsibilities could include protecting a drug lord, she put her hand on the Glock she kept tucked into the cushioned pocket between seat and console. Better safe than sorry.

  He leaned forward and gave her a thorough appraisal that would have been rude if it didn't appear more functional than appreciative of the view, though he managed to work in the latter in an inoffensive way. "Hot lady looking for a hookup with the fight talent?"

  Fight talent. She thought of the fading bruises on Marius's body, the abrasions on his knuckles. Covering her sinking feeling, she raised a brow. "Is that what I look like?"

  He gave her an easy grin. "No man in the car, and nothing about you says show pony. You looking for a show stud if you're here. Or got some serious money riding on the action."

  From the steady look in his brown eyes, she expected her answer was going to get her in or kicked out. She chose honesty. "I'm not betting on anyone. I followed a guy I want here. Though I do think he's one of the fighters."

  He hadn't gotten in the door by placing big money bets with bookies, like she expected the people in fancy clothes and stepping out of their Ferraris and Porsches had. His entrance fee was paid by his fists. And blood. She took a breath.

  "In fact, I'm pretty damn sure of it."

  Chapter Three

  The man gave her another close look, then shrugged. "Boss says sexy women are always welcome at our fights, even if they don't have anything riding on the action. Park over there." He pointed. "Entrance and exit are where you see the people going in. You'll be searched for recording devices and wires and you have to check your phone, so if you don't want anyone handling that, leave it in the car. First fight's already started, so you're going to have to work to get a good seat. Tell them Freddie said to take care of you and you'll be able to see."

  "Appreciate it."

  "My pleasure."

  When she parked, she noted a handful of men similar to Freddie strategically placed around the lot. They appeared to be providing the same courteous guidance and sharp-eyed new guest vetting that he had for her.

  She guessed if the police came by, those responsible for that possibility would be armed with paperwork and answers to questions that would neatly skirt any probable cause to search the premises. She came to that conclusion because they didn't look ready to scramble like cockroaches at the first hint of trouble, the way members of a corner drug deal would. And from what she knew about illegal betting events, the key was making sure all the big money transactions happened elsewhere.

  Who said working in a prison couldn't be educational?

  She'd learned as much from that job as she had from the engineering classes the work had funded. Plus, the skills she'd acquired there had neatly dovetailed into her pursuits as a Mistress. She was a very well-rounded person. Glancing down at her curvaceous figure, she chuckled. "In more ways than one, hot lady."

  She sobered. She was about to attend an underground, illegal fight. Well, if it was raided, she hoped the attendees faced less stringent consequences than the organizers. Regardless, she knew who to call for bail. While she'd rarely used Tyler's private cell number, she did have it, and since he was partly responsible for why she was here, she wouldn't hesitate to get his ass out of bed to come get her. He'd offered to watch her back, right?

&nbs
p; Based on the snazzy dress and enthusiasm of those converging on the nondescript door, it was as if she was entering an exclusive nightclub. Expensive cars, expensive people. They probably had thousands riding on tonight's fights. She wondered how much of that Marius got if he won. Probably not anywhere as much as the bookies and their bosses would.

  Most of the attendees were probably carrying wads of cash to do some side betting with friends. She thought she had enough on hand to cover a two-drink minimum, because she was very certain they wouldn't be handling credit cards.

  But Lord, she hoped they had some alcohol. She was going to need it. She wasn't squeamish, but as she approached the entrance, she picked up the tang of violence in the air. It had her pulse beating high in her throat, particularly as she thought of why Marius might be here. Yes, he'd engaged her interest, but she hadn't expected to feel this level of concern. A reaction clearly too precipitous for this stage of their non-relationship. A nice fiery drink to her gut might settle that down.

  Her lip curled at her self-chiding. She nodded to the doorman, a wiry guy with a knit toboggan hat pulled low over what she suspected was his cue ball smooth head. He looked like a fisherman from a shrimp boat reality show, but he pulled open the graffiti-covered steel warehouse door with a flourish, like the bellhop at a pricey hotel. His dancing hazel eyes made her smile and relax a little more. She was used to handling men in a lot of volatile situations, both professionally and personally. Though she was obviously stepping into an illegal situation, these men weren't a threat to her. As Freddie had made clear, she was a commodity they wanted here for repeat business. Also like at an exclusive nightclub, a woman with the right looks and attitude was always welcomed and pampered.

  Inside, tall panels had been put up to filter people past the security check, but behind the panels she could hear an excited crowd, a tidal roar of sound punctuated by shouts and cries, people watching a sporting event in progress. The air was saturated with heat.

  A man with skin so dark he almost blended into the shadows, thanks to a matching black suit, shirt and shoes, scanned her with a device she expected was checking for electronics of any kind. She was patted down thoroughly by a female counterpart to him, though she was fair Irish, her red hair sparkling with glitter. The festive look didn't detract from her ice-cool eyes.

  With this investment of manpower and security equipment, she wondered that they didn't have the event in more posh surroundings, perhaps at the mansion of a sympathetic mogul's estate. They probably did move the event around, but part of the allure was this kind of setting. A warehouse with a concrete floor, exposed metal rafters. Raw, unfinished surroundings to match the nature of the spectator sport.

  After being searched, Regina was directed politely to a ticket window to hand over a fifty-dollar cover charge, something Freddie had neglected to mention. There went her drink money.

  "Let me stamp your hand, love." That came from a man next to the cashier's booth. His broad Australian accent was complemented by spiky bleached hair, earth green eyes and a scar that ran across his nose and left cheekbone like a bold underscore to that eye. The cut had come close enough she suspected the bottom lid had needed suturing and his eyeball had been in danger of rolling right out. "You new to us?"

  At her nod, he grinned. "I could tell. Welcome to the show."

  He had cauliflower ears, she noticed, and big gnarled hands that would give him arthritis as he aged. Perhaps already, since he appeared to be in his forties.

  "You look like a fighter yourself."

  "Semi-retired," he confirmed. "Sometimes they'll match me up with someone in my condition, an old geezer opening workout to make all those aging Viagra blokes in the audience feel virile by association." He winked. "But I got myself a lovely girl, and she put an end to it the night this happened, the straw that tipped over this aging camel." He tapped the scar. "Bastard I was fighting put a razor blade between his knuckles." He made a fist and did a gentle pantomime of a swing before her nose. "He was trying to open up my forehead to get blood in my eyes, but he misjudged. Or I was too slow or too quick."

  "Is that kind of thing allowed?" she asked, her heart kicking up into her throat.

  "If I couldn't tell it's your first time, that would have proved it. Though it's also your scent and look. Fresh and lovely. A bit wide-eyed, which I expect isn't a look you have too often." He chuckled, eying her appreciatively. "Not too sure what it is you've stepped into, eh? But don't worry none. We're the upper scale of this type of independent enterprise. All the women who come here are safe. Good for business as well as just plain good. Men like to come with someone on their arm. If she's not comfortable, she's not coming back. We've got some female high rollers, but men are our staple."

  "Like strip clubs."

  "Just so. It's entertainment that gets their dicks hard. Some of them don't make it out of the parking lot before they're already all over their show pony of the night." He spoke matter-of-factly, not as if he were attempting to shock her with the crudity. It didn't offend her, though she didn't care for the image he'd conjured, of fight groupies crawling all over Marius in the parking lot, wanting to taste the sweat off his muscles.

  "There aren't many rules," he continued. "You can't bring a knife, but the occasional razor blade? That's just initiative. We got all styles of fighting, but it can get down to brutal street brawls for any of them, if they want to win bad enough and their opponent is just as tough. That's really what most of this crowd pays to see. Like the ones who go to Daytona to see the race cars wreck."

  She arched a brow. "Why are you telling me this? I could be one of the bloodthirsty ones."

  He ran his gaze over her. Her sex appeal had never been assessed by so many in such a practical way. "No. You're not here for the fighting. You're here for someone. Which one?"

  "I don't know if he's using his real name, so I don't want to betray his privacy." Hell, she didn't even know if Marius was his real name at The Zone, come to that. She wondered if Tyler would include that in his email. "He has short, dark hair, a bit spiked, and blue-gray eyes. He's not as tall as I am in these boots, but he's built solid so he looks bigger, like..." A fighter.

  At the flicker of humor in her listener's craggy visage, she realized she was giving him nothing useful, unless he wanted to know how closely she'd studied Marius from head to toe and how often. She wasn't usually caught being sentimental. "He has a tattoo on his left shoulder that looks like there's battle armor under his skin," she said briskly.

  "Just so." His gaze cleared as he repeated the phrase. "That's Rabid. He's my boy."

  At her raised brow, he grinned. "No, not my son. Pretty sure he was spawned by wolves. I manage him, much as he'll let anyone. Set up his fights. I'm Tal. You've come on a good night. The bookies stopped taking straight bets on him winning or losing, because no money in it. He always wins. Unless they come up with a new twist to make it a bigger challenge, you can only bet on how far in he'll be when he'll take down his opponent, or what kind of blow will do it. When he's down and getting the shit kicked out of him? That's when he's the meanest and most dangerous. Hence, Rabid. A rabid animal backs down from no one."

  Because the animal is suffering so much pain, he turns savage, Regina thought.

  "He takes pain and uses it like rocket fuel," Tal said, unwittingly confirming her thought. "But they'll make money on him tonight, because he's agreed to something he hasn't done before. Three consecutive fights, no breaks except to haul his previous opponent out of the ring. They've lined up a trio of our best against him."

  As her gaze darted toward what the panels concealed, he misconstrued her alarm. "Don't worry, you haven't missed him. He's third in tonight's line-up. They're still on the first bout." He gave her a considering look. "I'm fond of the tough little bastard, so I'm going to put you in a choice place, right where he'll be able to see you. Don't worry, you should stay clean. Blood spray doesn't usually hit the catwalk. Better to put you there anyway. You might be too dist
racting to him on the ground level, in his direct line of sight."

  Regina wondered if she should ask how close the nearest restroom would be, since she thought she might be sick. Once she accepted the escort Tal assigned to her, and that man positioned her in a front row position on the wide metal catwalk with a good view of the fighting ring, she was certain of it.

  As a correctional officer, she'd faced the simmering potential for violence every day. That was her work environment, and it kept her on full alert through her shift. Her pep talk from her boss when she was hired had run along the lines of, "Stay focused at all times. They watch for a careless moment. You have one, that's when you'll get injured, raped or killed. Have a nice first day."

  Her job was as much to maintain calm and order, to keep the inmates on the same even keel, as it was to be ready if that calm and order was disrupted. Even though rationally she knew this was different, the edgy excitement of the crowd, their anticipation of danger and the forbidden, had a similar tenor. She felt like she was back at the prison, particularly on the handful of days when there'd been rumors of an impending riot, usually started and provoked by rival gangs.

  She'd had a variety of coping mechanisms. Breaking things down into logical pieces was one of them. This is an organized fight, she reminded herself. Illegal, yes. Out of control, no.

  Remembering the cut under the Aussie's eye, she wondered how much of a lie she was telling herself. One thing she knew for sure, though. Based on what she'd felt from Marius earlier in the night, this was an even worse place for him to be than a BDSM club.

  The atmosphere was smoky, dirty yellow light illuminating the crowd, the spotlights on the cage style ring throwing their shadows on the high walls like dancing flames. Despite the large space, it was hot.

  The man emceeing the fights was a dwarf in a green velour top hat with a purple feather. With his jaunty strut, he reminded her of a character in a Dickens novel.

  She guessed she was well and truly committed to figuring Marius out. Else she wouldn't be staying in place now, watching two men hammer on each other with thuds against meaty flesh, their grunts hitting her ears like thunder. The sweat spraying off them from the punches reminded her of children stomping into puddles. The crowd shouted in delight when a blow made solid contact, and even louder when a follow up knocked the man to one knee. There was no referee to call the opponent back. When the man went down, his combatant was on top of him, punching, kicking and hammering. The other man somehow managed to throw him off and get back to his feet, but she thought he was on borrowed time.