It was an unremarkable chop house in an unremarkable street. The gas lamps hissed, the waitstaff hustled, and the ‘companions’ of both sexes cruised the room like hungry alligators. In the darkest corner, two people sat at a table eating pie and mash of the day. The man was handsome, in a narrow-featured sort of a way, and his well-pressed city clothing might have marked him out for a chiv in the ribs had he not been well known in these parts. His companion was less remarkable, if you discounted the scar that marred the smoothness of her face, drawing down the left-hand edge of her eye and twisting her lip into a permanent sneer.
She pushed her chair a little back from the table. “Lovely though it is to see you, Louis the Lip, I’m pretty sure you never asked me here for old home week.”
His smile was humourless and didn’t reach his fish-cold eyes.
“I might have a job for you, Marta.”
“Go to hell, Louis. I ain’t forgot where the last job you talked me into got me.”
He showed her his teeth. “Do this one and you can forget you ever owed me a debt.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“I did. But you never done the job, did you.”
She reached across the table and bunched her fist in the snowy whiteness of his shirt.
“Careful Louis Boy. You know what that train wreck cost me.”
He couldn’t meet the cold anger in her eyes, instead he tried and failed to pull his shirt out of her hand. He gave up and grabbed her wrist exerting all the pressure he could, but she was immobile. He tried another tack.
“Be reasonable Marta. That weren’t none of my fault.”
She let go of his shirt and snarled deep in her throat.
“No. But I bet you enjoyed it. You’re the sort of son-of-a-bitch that’d take pleasure in that kind of carnage.”
He snarled and snatched for the pistol that hung at his side, but his hand never got there. Marta laughed, though it was a sound as cold and smooth as the skin of a winter rattlesnake. Louis looked towards the sound and found himself staring into the twin hexagonal ‘eyes’ of a short-barrelled flintlock.
“Don’t move, asshole. If’n that’s your idea of a fast draw, it’s a wonder you managed to survive this long. You want to be careful or you’ll end up in the ground with a cross at your head and a stone at your feet.”
Louis put his hands on the table and a big red-headed man in the next booth laughed.
“Smart Mouth Louis. Died of a case of the slow.” He mocked.
Louis’s neck went puce with anger, but he knew not to push his luck any further. At the moment the clientele of the chophouse was amused, but if he drew down on Marta after being beaten fair and square he knew he could expect to wind up as full of holes as his cooking cousin’s best colander.
She looked at him and the contempt in her face might have seared his conscience if he possessed such a thing.
“Frag off Louis, and don’t forget to pay for the food.”
He leaned towards her. “You owe me.”
“Louis. If we’re talking about owing, I think the shoe’s on the other foot.”
“Oh, yeah. Who paid your hospital bills?”
“The same man that bought my arm, Louis. And it warn’t you.”
Marta stripped the thin leather glove off her right hand to expose the contraption of brass and wire that was her arm from the elbow down.
“Yes, Louis. Arm.”
He stared, mesmerised and she crooked a brass finger at him.
“Why don’t you come a bit closer? Let me get these fingers around your throat.”
He reared back as if he had been stung.
“Marta. Please.” He sounded desperate. “It’s a bodyguard job for Lyonette Firedrake. Just for one journey. She wants you and her daddy already paid me.”
“Then you’re gonna have to pay him back ain’t you.”
“I can’t.” His anguished voice rose towards falsetto. “I don’t have the money no more.”
Marta lifted a shoulder. “I should care.”
“What about what I done for your man?”
He only just managed to leap back in time to avoid her grasping hand.
“Don’t you mean what you done to him, if it really was you. If you’re telling the truth for once in your miserable life you better be afraid because when I catch you, I’ll rip your head off and shove it up your arse.”
The cover is designed by Ian Bristow, you can find his work at Bristow Design.