Jessica fastened her jacket. 'Are you prepared, William?'
'I've been in a good many places worse than this in my time. Steady wits and ready fists.'
'And no unnecessary risks,' said Jessica.
They walked on in silence. The fog had lifted, but the sky was the bruised purple of dusk. Rickety buildings leaned above them on either side, giving the alley a gloomy atmosphere which the few flickering gaslamps did little to brighten.
The Trap slumped against the brick pillar of the viaduct as if the building itself was drunk. Light flickered from behind ragged black curtains and Jessica could hear shouting and laughter, as well as the tuneless battering of a mistreated piano. She glanced at Atsu and nodded, then followed Flint towards the door.
There were around twenty people inside, most slouched at two long benches in the middle of the room. A man who looked older than the Empire itself sat at the piano, his fingers stumbling over the keys. Scowling women with too much paint on their faces circled the room, some carrying armfuls of bottles and mugs, others prowling between the tables like she-wolves in search of prey.
A few of the patrons looked up as they entered, but quickly glanced away. Despite the place's reputation, it appeared that nobody was looking for trouble. An overweight bald man with forearms like a pair of hams was slowly making the greasy surface of the bar even dirtier by rubbing it with a filthy rag.
Flint fished a coin from his pocket and slapped it down on the bar. The man carried on wiping, ignoring him.
'A stout and a whisky and a jug of eyewater for this pair.' Flint thumbed over his shoulder at Jessica and Atsu. The barman slid the coin into a pocket in the front of his apron and reached down under the counter.
'Not from round here, are you?'
'Who is?' Flint downed the whisky as soon as it was placed in front of him. 'Another.'
The barman shrugged and refilled Flint's glass. He pushed the jug of gin towards Jessica and Atsu without looking at them.
'You should find yourself a better piano player.' Flint rubbed his stubble, nodding towards the elderly musician in the corner.
'Old Frank? Deaf as a post.' The barman grinned, his single tooth dangling proud from swollen gums. 'Right enough though, he makes the rest of us wish we were too sometimes.'
Jessica and Atsu had agreed on a signal: the girl would cough twice if she'd picked up anything which might prove useful. She was silent, her head lowered.
'How much did this pair of pretties cost you?' The barman leered at Jessica, his face a scarlet web of burst veins.
'More than you make in a month, friend.' Flint pushed another coin across the bar. 'Here, have a drink yourself.'
'Don't mind if I do.'
'There's another in it for you if you could answer me a couple of questions.'
'What do I look like? A bloody blower?'
'You look like a sensible man to me.'
'Then you've obviously had too much of the rotgut, mate. Maybe you should be thinking of joining that there Temperance Society.' The barman's eyes narrowed, almost disappearing into the folds of his doughy face. 'Might keep you out of trouble.'
Jessica glanced at one of the benches. A man she hadn't noticed earlier was sitting with his back to them. He was dressed in a light grey morning suit and a matching top hat, a silver-tipped cane lying on the bench beside him.
'Please yourself,' said Flint. 'I'm sure there are others who will be only too glad to relieve me of my money.'
'In here?' The barman spat onto the floor beside him. 'Nearly everyone you'll meet... and some you'll never even see.'
'Cutpurses and cutthroats, you mean?'
'Aye... and worse.'
Flint took another coin out his pocket and twirled it between his fingers. 'Worse?'
'Listen mate, you seem alright. I'd take your lady friends and find somewhere else to wet your whistle if I was you.'
'You don't want our custom?'
The barman was about to answer when Atsu's coughing disturbed him. Jessica groaned. She had told the girl to be discreet. Instead, Atsu sounded like she was choking to death.
When Jessica turned round, it looked as if that's exactly what Atsu was doing. Her eyes were bulging beneath the cowl of her hood, both hands clutching at her throat. 'Atsu! Are you alright?' The girl shook her head, her face scarlet.
'What's up with her?' The barman leaned across the counter, scowling. 'She better not be about to throw up.'
The man in the grey suit still sat with his back to them. Jessica noticed his hand was clenched around a glass, his knuckles whitened with the pressure. Atsu was now making alarming gurgling noises, her hands frantically flailing at her neck. Slowly, the glass began to crack.
Jessica snatched the jug of gin from the bar. She pretended to stumble, let out a cry and flung the contents onto the seated man's back. He roared with anger and whirled round, the glass in front of him toppling onto its side. Atsu collapsed, falling into Flint's arms.
The man's eyes were obscured by spectacles, the lenses completely black. He reached down and picked up his cane, brandishing it in his hand like a sword. 'You stupid bitch,' he said, his voice a hiss of rage.
Jessica stood her ground. The man snarled, curling back his lips.
Then, as he rapped the floor with the tip of his cane, the place erupted.
Flint ducked as a glass soared through the air towards his head. It smashed into the shelves behind him, sending the barman diving for cover as jugs and bottles crashed to the floor.
Old Frank hammered even more tunelessly at the piano as everyone in the room got to their feet.
Jessica held a yell from behind her, then started as a wiry man in a filthy brown jacket thumped to the floor beside her.
She turned to see Flint rubbing his fist and grinning. His eyes widened. 'Behind you!'
Jessica spun just in time, managing to dodge the punch aimed at her head. She sidestepped and grabbed the woman's arm, twisting it sharply at the elbow. Her attacker screamed in pain and fell to her knees, nursing her broken limb.
The music continued, the pianist thumping down on the keys as a trio of heavy-set men clambered over the bench towards them.
'A welcoming committee,' said Flint, cracking his knuckles. 'Really, gentlemen, you shouldn't have.'
The first man toppled, felled by a sharp kick to the stomach. Flint crouched, readying himself for the other two assailants. 'Get out of here, Jessica.' He beckoned the men forward. 'I'll take care of our friends here.'
Atsu was leaning on the bar, her hands still at her throat. Jessica caught sight of one of the painted strumpets, rushing up behind Flint with a chair leg brandished above her head.
'If it's all the same to you,' said Jessica, vaulting the closest bench and kicking the woman in the face with her boot, 'I'll stay around a little longer, William.'
'Very well.' Flint ducked down quickly, jabbing his fists upwards into the groins of his two opponents. They crumpled to the floor, screaming in pain. 'On reflection, it is probably for the best.'
The rest of the patrons hung back, wary. One of them picked up a heavy green bottle and smashed it on a table. Another removed a thin blade from inside his jacket. One of the women reached down between her breasts and drew out a snub-nosed revolver.
'No need for any further trouble now.' Flint drew his own gun, aiming it at the woman. 'If we're quite finished here, ladies and gentlemen, we'll just be on our way.'
'William, wait!' Jessica had drawn her sword from its concealed sheath in her parasol. As she held it before her, she noticed everyone in the bar was smiling. Even the pianist had ceased playing and was now staring at them with a maniacal grin on his face. She turned, a sinking feeling in her gut.
The barman had Atsu gripped round the throat with one massive arm, a stained meat cleaver gripped in his hand.
'Drop your weapons,' he said. Flint and Jessica glanced at each other, then at Atsu's terrified face. Jessica laid her sword on the floor; Flint dropped his revolver beside it. The mob behind them cackled and jeered.
'All of you.' The barman released Atsu, who ran to Jessica. 'Drop them.' He raised the cleaver above his head. 'This here's a respectable place and we've had enough trouble for one night.'
'Go boil your balls, Frogg.' The man holding the broken bottle stepped forward. His black greasy hair was plastered across his scalp and a livid red scar next to his mouth made his grin appear unnaturally wide.
A glint of metal as the cleaver sliced through the air, then a thud as it embedded itself deep into wall inches from the man's head.
'I won't tell you again.' Frogg now had a rifle in his hands, slowly moving the barrel from one person to the next. 'I've had my fill of this. Get the hell out of my bar and don't come back, the lot of you.'
With much muttering and cursing, the group began to disperse, picking up hats and coats and trooping out of the bar.
'You'll regret this, Frogg.' A woman, prettier than the others, sneered at the barman, her long black hair shining like silk.
'Your kind don't scare me.' Frogg pulled the cork from a jug with his teeth and poured the clear contents into a streaked glass. A flicker of fear twisting the woman's features as he thrust the tumbler towards her. 'Care for drink, dearie?'
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