A Christmas with the Dodger, Charlton’s latest novel, is OUT NOW on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords, priced at only 99c/ 77p. It would make a great Christmas read, or gift for someone you know.
The overcast sky could not dampen the natural cheer that constituted the habitual mood of Reg Dawkins. As a young gentleman of dubious status, Reg often enjoyed a little amusement by presenting himself in the city dressed in more costly attire than would be considered normal for a common craftsman, and certainly for an apprentice of journeyman standing.
Lily’s good influence had dictated that most of Reg’s wardrobe had been acquired through honest means, with a little help from the haberdashery skills that Jack had learned as a young Australian exile of even more dubious position. Some of these skills had been taught to his young adopted progeny as a matter of expedience and Reg had eagerly developed his natural nimbleness in the art of turning an ordinary pre-made article of clothing into a perfectly tailored garment that gave the impression that the wearer had paid dearly for bespoke items on Savile Row.
Despite the value of dexterity with a needle and thread, Reg occasionally supplemented his wardrobe with the odd garment that might have been left lying unattended in the wrong place at the wrong time. With winter growing colder in the last days before Christmas, Reg had it in mind that he should acquire a good, warm overcoat by one method or another and decided to keep his eyes open when he entered the Old Bell Pub in Holborn, where he was reasonably sure that he would find Jack sitting back with his boots on the table, regaling his usual associates with stories of mischievous exploits in a young life that he had never actually known. While the true stories of Jack’s youth might have been far more interesting, the erstwhile pickpocket preferred to fictionalise a lesser criminal past that might be less likely to end with his neck in a noose.
The old pub had been attached to a hotel until the year before when the greater part of the building had been demolished, but the tavern carried on under the friendly ownership of a certain Mister Treadaway. Walter, as his friends knew him, played host to many of the area’s business owners who found time in their busy schedules to hobnob with others of their perceived class of an afternoon at the Bell. Having learned the art of bookkeeping over a year’s employment with a certain Mister Brownlow and having a natural affinity for transferring ownership of goods, Jack Dawkins had developed an enterprise whereby foreign articles, most often silks and tobacco, were received as occasional deliveries to a rented warehouse and subsequently sold at a substantially higher price to local merchants during Jack’s daily afternoon walk about town.
Jack and Reg shared an understanding of Jack’s time ‘at the office’. It had taken some considerable influence from the woman he loved for Jack to go straight at all, but as a man accustomed to answering to himself alone and spending his time as he saw fit, he had fallen into a pattern of leaving the house during what would be considered as normal office hours, including half day Saturday, and after attending to whatever small amount of actual activity that was required to keep the business running, Jack spent whatever time remained at his own leisure.
Reg entered the main room of the Bell without drawing undue attention, but to his surprise, Jack was not to be found at the back table, though some of his local business associates populated the usual bench. Reg stepped quietly back onto the street and aimed his steps towards the warehouse where Jack kept his acquisitions. He speculated that Jack might have been required to receive a delivery, or to collect some merchandise or other for despatch to one of his regular connections. The distance was not far, but Reg walked at full speed in an effort to reduce the time he would have to spend in looking for his adopted guardian. He was acutely aware that Lily was waiting.
Reg maintained a key to the warehouse in case Jack should require the younger man’s assistance with transporting goods. This Reg produced when he arrived at the designated property and he let himself inside just before a light rain began to fall. The scent of spices and tobacco immediately assaulted his nostrils, as well as a distinctive sweet aroma that Reg recognised all too well. He looked over the crates of goods, neatly stacked against the walls and in rows, and wondered which of them contained a new shipment of opium.
It wasn’t that Reg had any objection to the intoxicant, so long as Jack didn’t make too much of a habit of skimming his wares, but the acquisition of it was invariably at the expense of the infamous East India Company, from part of a shipment gone astray for a slightly higher profit, and was far too easily identified as stolen goods. Whether it was the loss of the goods or the import taxes that might have been collected was neither here nor there. The East India Company was notorious for its methods of eliminating competition and interference in permanent and sometimes messy ways.
‘Jack!’ Reg called out to the slight echo of the room. There was no reply and no sign of any other occupant. Reg searched through all the rows of stacked boxes briefly, then went to the office space that was attached to the larger warehouse room. Still no Jack was to be found. Reg took a moment to think. Nothing had been disturbed. The papers on Jack’s desk were in neat piles, a habit Jack had developed during his employment with Oliver Brownlow’s company.
There was no sign of a struggle or anything amiss and the dubious merchandise was still in its place, therefore, Reg surmised, there had been no visit from the East India Company as they surely would have reclaimed the opium at least, and probably some of the other wares that fell within their remit. Jack was simply not where he was expected to be, but had gone out somewhere in the city of London for his own purposes.
Reg stopped to admire some particularly attractive silk in an open crate of fabric bales. The dark, plum colour suited his taste and the tiny stitches of red, green and gold embroidery somehow worked with the dark background in a very attractive design. Reg made a mental note to ask Jack if he might pinch a bit of the silk for a waistcoat, then went outside and locked the warehouse up securely. The light shower had abated and the air smelled a little fresher for it, though the afternoon fog still carried the stink of the city.
Jack often brought home the roast for Sunday dinner on a Saturday afternoon, so Reg walked down High Holborn towards Smithfield Market in Farringdon and Long Lane. A busy market place had always been good hunting grounds for a boy pickpocket. Reg smiled at the thought of Jack doing the weekend shopping like any honest citizen, now that he had a bob or two to his name and could afford to keep his family in Sunday roasts.
Reg glanced around as he passed the fish and poultry markets, just for the sake of being thorough. Jack was still small of stature and could easily move unobserved through a crowd, but Reg could usually recognise him by his movement, unless he was leaning somewhere and keeping still while observing the multitudes for himself. Reg had been known to find Jack in such repose, looking for all the world as if he might be assessing the best marks within the distracted throngs. Some habits never died.
The sound of a cleaver chopping through a thick bit of meat drew Reg’s attention, and there behind the butcher he saw him. Jack was still as a statue, his eyes on the menacing sharp implement that had just dismembered the leg of a large animal with a single powerful stroke. The look of cool assessment in Jack’s eyes was very familiar to Reg. There was no mistaking it, Jack was on the game.
Reg considered Lily’s prospective reaction briefly, then decided that there was no point in wasting a properly misspent youth. The butcher would make for a dangerous opponent if Jack should be caught, even without the threat of the razor edge on the tool of his trade. Those powerful arms, should they get hold of a man, especially a small man like Jack, could easily squeeze the life out of him before the brute even realised that he was applying too much strength in his attempt to prevent a thief from escaping before the constabulary could be summoned.
What Jack needed was a distraction; something that would command the butcher’s full attention for a moment or two without drawing the additional awareness of the other vendors. Reg sauntered up to a row of suckling pig carcasses hanging from metal hooks just inside the man’s market stall.
‘I say,’ Reg began in his most genteel put-on accent. ‘I dare say the flies have had their way with these today. Can you offer a discount for late afternoon trade?’
The butcher turned to Reg with an expression of suppressed irritation, but the words he spoke sounded as pleasant as the man’s lower class accent could produce.
‘They be two shillings, same as they was this mornin’.’
‘But the sign says one and six!’ Reg declared with shock, indicating a plainly displayed sign with 1S 6d, or one shilling and six pennies, clearly indicated.
‘That be for the lit’ler ones, all gone now.’
The butcher was beginning to show his impatience with the prissy would-be customer. That he had deliberately raised the price when he saw the cut of Reg’s fine, silk waistcoat was not lost on the observant young man. A sarcastic retort and an accusation that the man was trying to cheat him rose to Reg’s lips, but the gleam of mottled light that fell on the edge of the cleaver gave him pause. There was no sign of Jack or of the fine cut of pork roast that had previously occupied the chopping block, so Reg decided it was time to make a discreet exit.
‘Well, perhaps tomorrow then. When you have more of the smaller piglets in the morning.’
With that, Reg tipped his hat and walked swiftly in the direction away from the chopping block, so that by the time the butcher had turned and found himself bereft of a choice pork loin, Reg had disappeared round the corner. After dodging down a few small streets to cool his trail, just out of habit, Reg guessed that Jack would be boldly taking the most direct route home, confident that there was no pursuit and that only Reg would know which direction he had gone.
His guess proved correct. Reg spotted Jack walking leisurely up Farringdon Road as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
‘Took your time, mate,’ Jack said in his old vernacular. He winked as Reg trotted up beside him, eyeing the neat parcel under Jack’s arm, wrapped in butcher’s paper as if it had been bought in the traditional manner. ” ‘Ad to slow me steps to let you catch up.’
‘I thought it might be prudent to keep his attention for a while,’ Reg returned. ‘Is this where our roasts have been coming from all along?’
There was no judgement in Reg’s query, only curiosity.
‘I’ve been known to drop the odd coin in the market,’ Jack explained. ‘If only to make the vendors recognise me as a paying customer. But a man ‘as to keep ‘is ‘and in.’ Jack winked again. ‘Needless to say, we don’t mention a thing to Lily.’
The last sentence was delivered in the cultivated accent that Jack had practiced since his return to London nearly fifteen years ago, when he had spent a considerable amount of time and effort to make himself fit in among a class of people who were as wealthy as his old friend, Brownlow. Teaching Reg the value of such an affectation as the young orphan had grown up was one of the accomplishments of his life in which Jack felt the most pride.
‘Not a word,’ Reg promised, returning the conspiratorial wink. With that accord agreed between erstwhile miscreants, Jack and Reg soon arrived home, their heads held high and the Sunday roast presented as if they had bought the fare in the way of any respectable citizens.
Reg, however, secretly smiled to himself, feeling vilified of his occasional excursions into the practices of his reprobate childhood.
Charlton Daines is an academic and an afficionado of fine Literature. As such, he has sought to add to the collective of world Literature with the occasional selection that might appeal to those with a love of Classics and Historical Fiction.
The occasional spot of Humour or flights of fancy are likely to slip into this all too serious catalogue of self-indulgent scribblings.
Charlton Daines was born in London, but currently lives in the middle of England with his family, which includes an odd selection of common and pedigree cats.
Thanks, Charlton, for stopping by my blog today! I really enjoyed this excerpt from your book, Jack Dawkins. You can connect with Charlton on his blog, on Facebook, and you can tweet to him on Twitter. You can also find him on Pinterest, and on GoodReads. Most importantly of all, if you want to get your hands on his book (and it would make a fab gift for Crimbo!), you can buy it on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
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