In which we meet our hero and the hero meets an orphan of the storm and comes face to face with Mister Charlie, a gentleman known as a bit of a scribbler
The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellows for supremacy in the air and waiting to splash down. It was a deluge. The drains and sewers were over- flowing, throwing up — regurgitating, as it were — the debris of muck, slime, and filth, the dead dogs, the dead rats, cats, and worse; bringing back up to the world of men all those things that they thought they had left behind them; jostling and gurgling and hurrying toward the overflowing and always hospitable River Thames; bursting its banks, bubbling and churning like some nameless soup boiling in a dreadful cauldron; the river itself gasping like a dying fish. But those in the know always said about the London rain that, try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were appropriately dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.
A fancy two-horse coach wallowed its way along the street, some piece of metal stuck near an axle causing it to be heralded by a scream. And indeed there was a scream, a human scream this time, as the coach door was flung open and a figure tumbled out into the gushing gutter, which tonight was doing the job of a fountain. Two other figures sprang from the coach, cursing in language that was as colorful as the night was dark and even dirtier. In the downpour, fitfully lit by the lightning, the first figure tried to escape but tripped, fell, and was leaped upon, with a cry that was hardly to be heard in all the racket, but which was almost supernaturally counterpointed by the grinding of iron, as a drain cover nearby was pushed open to reveal a struggling and skinny young man who moved with the speed of a snake.
"You let that girl alone!" he shouted.
There was a curse in the dark and one of the assailants fell backward with his legs kicked from under him. The youth was no heavyweight but somehow he was everywhere, throwing blows — blows that were augmented by a pair of brass knuckles, always a helpmeet for the outnumbered. Outnumbered one to two as it were, the assailants took to their heels while the youth followed, raining blows. But it was London and it was raining and it was dark, and they were dodging into alleys and side streets, frantically trying to catch up with their coach, so that he lost them, and the apparition from the depths of the sewers turned around and headed back to the stricken girl at greyhound speed.
He kneeled down, and to his surprise she grabbed him by the collar and whispered in what he considered to be foreigner English, "They want to take me back — please help me ... " The lad sprang to his feet, his eyes all suspicion.
On this stormy night of stormy nights, it was opportune then that two men who themselves knew something about the dirt of London were walking, or rather, wading, along this street, hurrying home with hats pulled down — which was a nice try but simply didn't work, because in this torrent it seemed that the bouncing water was coming as much from below as it was from above. Lightning struck again, and one of them said, "Is that someone lying in the gutter there?" The lightning presumably heard, because it sliced down again and revealed a shape, a mound, a person as far as these men could see.
"Good heavens, Charlie, it's a girl! Soaked to the skin and thrown into the gutter, I imagine," said one of them. "Come on ... "
"Hey you, what are you a-doing, mister?!"
By the light of a pub window that could barely show you the darkness, the aforesaid Charlie and his friend saw the face of a boy who looked like a young lad no more than seventeen years old but who seemed to have the voice of a man. A man, moreover, who was prepared to take on both of them, to the death. Anger steamed off him in the rain and he wielded a long piece of metal. He carried on, "I know your sort, oh yes I do! Coming down here chasing the skirt, making a mockery of decent girls, blimey! Desperate, weren't you, to be out on a night such as this!"
The man who wasn't called Charlie straightened up. "Now see here, you. I object most strongly to your wretched allegation. We are respectable gentlemen who, I might add, work quite hard to better the fortunes of such poor wretched girls and, indeed, by the look of it, those such as yourself!"
The scream of rage from the boy was sufficiently loud that the doors of the nearby pub swung open, causing smoky orange light to illuminate the ever-present rain. "So that's what you call it, is it, you smarmy old gits!"
The boy swung his homemade weapon, but the man called Charlie caught it and dropped it behind him, then grabbed the boy and held him by the scruff of his neck. "Mister Mayhew and myself are decent citizens, young man, and as such we surely feel it is our duty to take this young lady somewhere away from harm." Over his shoulder he said, "Your place is closest, Henry. Do you think your wife would object to receiving a needy soul for one night? I wouldn't like to see a dog out on a night such as this."
Henry, now clutching the young woman, nodded. "Do you mean two dogs, by any chance?"
The struggling boy took immediate offense at this, and with a snakelike movement was out of the grip of Charlie and once again spoiling for a fight. "I ain't no dog, you nobby sticks, nor ain't she! We have our pride, you know. I make my own way, I does, all kosher, straight up!"
The man called Charlie lifted the boy up by the scruff of his neck so that they were face-to-face. "My, I admire your attitude, young man, but not your common sense!" he said quietly. "And mark you, this young lady is in a bad way. Surely you can see that. My friend's house is not too far away from here, and since you have set yourself up as her champion and protector, why then, I invite you to follow us there and witness that she will have the very best of treatment that we can afford, do you hear me? What is your name, mister?
And before you tell it to me, I invite you to believe that you are not the only person who cares about a young lady in dire trouble on this dreadful night. So, my boy, what is your name?"
The boy must have picked up a tone in Charlie's voice, because he said, "I'm Dodger — that's what they call me, on account I'm never there, if you see what I mean? Everybody in all the boroughs knows Dodger."
From Dodger by Terry Pratchett. Copyright 2012 by Terry and Lyn Pratchett. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Children's Books.