“Read all about it! Read all about it! Spring-Heeled Jack spotted right here in London! First sighting! Read it here! Come and get it!” A shilling landed at the boy’s feet in his hat, and he nodded his thanks. His long black fringe flopping over his eyes, “Thank you Kindly sir,” He handed the gentlemen a newspaper, with the headline on the front and he took it without a word of thanks and began reading as he walked, not even looking Jack in the eye. It had not been a good shift so far. Despite the bustling crowds, no one seemed interested in the papers he flogged for the newsagent. They all flocked and rushed about like flies on a stinking pile of manure, which was, as far as Jack Dawkins was aware, exactly what London smelled like. The Thames was only a few streets away and its toxic stench was potent even over here. Not that the bustling bluebottles of London seemed to care.
Jack Dawkins was 7 years old, without parents or siblings, wore tight clothes he had been wearing for almost two years and a waistcoat that no longer buttoned up (which it wouldn’t have done even if it still had buttons). The boy been selling newspapers to pay his rent this last year, and had been told if he didn’t make enough, he’d be on the street. Jack had not been tempted by travelling north to the coal mines, nor had he been tempted by kings shilling or a workhouse. He liked London, even though it stank of shit. The braying horses, black hansom cabs, carts, rickety stalls, screaming peddlers, glass fronted shops that he was shoed away from, coppers with shrieking whistles, the depraved and the deluded, the rich and the poor. It was home, and that was that.
He had just opened his mouth to once again cry to the Londoners about his headline when a horse and trap clattered past him sending hard dirt chips into his face and splashing mud across his wares and already ruined pair of shoes. Raging, he yelled and cursed at the cab driver, running into the street and shaking his fist but there was no way anyone was going to hear him over the dim of a busy London street. He returned to his stand with a tired sigh knelt down to try and salvage what papers he could from the heap of mud that had been thrown on them. There was no way he would sell any of these now. Unless a generous soul tipped him handsomely for a paper, he would be going back hungry tonight.
“How much for a Times my lad?” Crooned an old sounding voice. Jack looked up into the face of an elderly gentlemen, with a wispy white beard, tufts of thinning white hair and a black-toothed smile stretched across his jaundiced face. He was dressed in ill-fitting rags like a tramp with a battered trilby on his head and a tailed coat that hung around his spindly limbs like a limp flag on a crooked pole. Yet despite this he conducted himself as if he were any other well-to-do gentlemen like the ones that buzzed around on the street behind him, his back straight, hands on his lapels and his tight boots together. “It’s a shilling Sir,” Jack replied thumbing through the papers trying to get the man a clean one. When he pulled one free though, the man was patting his pockets with a confused expression on his face, “Oh… I am sorry my lad,” He began, “I don’t seem to…” He paused mid-sentence, a doughy, watery expression overcoming his eyes as if transfixed. Jack frowned up at the man and was about to speak when the elderly man’s spindly, spidery fingers wriggled into frenzied life as a tall man in a frockcoat breezed by, a book in his hand. The gloved hands moved like two darting swallows between the eaves of high-rise buildings, diving into the pocket of the passing man before withdrawing a purse, so fluid and smoothly that the poor man kept walking, totally unaware.
The whole moment had taken less than a breath, a breath that was currently caught in young Jack’s throat as the tramp calmly opened the purse and inspected it with sharp blue eyes. He raised his eyebrows in praise and picked out a few coins with delicate pinching motions, “Lined,” He mused to himself, “Lovely workmanship.” He handed Jack half-a-crown, “Keep the change,” He purred his whole face alight with promise. “Sir! You are a thief!” Jack hissed standing bolt upright and glaring at the man. “I shall take no such charity from you. A criminal! A bounder! A dodger! A blighter!”
“Hush now boy,” The man said firmly, pocketing the coins smoothly and waving the purse in the lad’s face. “Well, you have a tongue in your snout and no mistake! My art is no more honest that the trade you’ll find among the highest paid members of the bank of England. Mark my words. You want an honest living? You’ve got to be a little more… dishonest.”
“I’m not a filthy pickpocket!” Jack hissed back at him, his little hands shaking and his face fierce.
“Never said you were my lad,” The man said innocently. “But if you’re so honest.” He held out the purse. “Why don’t you return it?” Fired up with vehemence, Jack Dawkins yanked the purse out of the mans grubby, grasping fingers. “I will.” He stormed past the thief to catch up with the man in the frocked coat. He was lithe and nimble, and the thief watched him with great intrigue as he caught up with the wallet’s owner in a heartbeat. “’Scuse me sir!” Jack said, his voice barely audible over the London din, he tugged at the man’s coat and when he turned held out the wallet with a smile. The man had a clean shaved, pointed jaw, and a sharp hooked nose making him look rather like a raven. His beady eyes snapped from the boy, to the wallet, then back again. The wallet was snatched out of Jack’s hand and the shaven man’s book, came crashing into his face with a “Whump!” Dazed, the boy fell to the ground with a cry, looking up at the gentlemen with hurt and tears in his eyes. “Dirty beggar! Keep your hands off what’s not yours!” He planted his polished boot on the boy’s chest and kicked him into the cobbled road “Next time, I’ll fetch my bloody stick!”
He whirled around, his long coat whistling and whipping, and disappeared into the crowd, leaving a stunned Jack nursing his stinging cheek on the floor. He glared after the man still in a daze when a sudden shout caught his attention, and he turned to see and trample of hooves advancing on him closely followed by rolling, wooden wheels, crushing litter ruthlessly. “Below there! Get out the way!!” The boy scrabbled to run but his ruined shoes slipped on the waste-slick cobbles and before he knew it, he was inches from the hooves of four black snorting shires.
A hand grabbed him by the collar and dragged him out of the road and out of the path of the fruit cart pulled by the champing horses, the hooves clashing down onto the spot where Jack’s chest had just been. The thief deposited him out of harms way by the kerb and looked down at him, his blue eyes full of knowing charm. “Got to be a bit more subtle than that lad.” He said calmly, “Especially if you’re going to master the art.”
“I’m not mastering anything!” Jack spat bitterly, and he tasted blood in his mouth. The thief turned away with a shrug “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two my lad.” The gentlemen plucked a couple of apples from the passing fruit carts, taking a bite out of one, and tossing the other to Jack’s feet. “I’ll see you again soon.”
Jack picked up the apple and turned the dusty bruised fruit over in his fingers before looking up at the fading thief. “Who are you?” He asked. His saviour stopped and turned around sharply, his long-tailed coat, coiling around his knees like two serpents. He returned to Jack’s side, took his hat off and gave a deep bow. He looked into Jack’s face, his lopsided smile releasing a breath stinking of gin and apple. “You can call me Fagin my lad. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”