“Charlie Pondicherry ain’t got no mum!”
Charlie cringed. There would be a rock. There was always a rock.
“What are you talking about, Skip? Charlie Pondicherry ain’t even got a dad! Charlie Pondicherry’s a toenail fungus; that’s why he’s always got that goop smeared on him!”
Skip, Mickey, and Bruiser followed Charlie down the Gullet. Charlie was sure the three boys had just waited in the alley for him to come out. Charlie’s shoulders slumped.
He hunched down lower over the basket of dirty laundry he was carrying. Sooner or later, there would be a rock.
“A fungus . . . ha-ha! A fungus!”
That was the rock. It hit Charlie between the shoulders. He stumbled, but kept his feet.
He wanted to turn and stand like a ship’s captain, letting the pirates have it with both pistols . . . but he’d soil the laundry. Plus, they outnumbered him three to one, and any captain knew those weren’t great odds. Charlie gritted his teeth and hoped they’d give up.
The steam clouds that surrounded Lucky Wu’s Earth Dragon Laundry billowed just ahead. Behind him he heard the sucking sound of the other boys’ feet in the mud.
“Where you going, fungus? Get him, Bruiser!”
Bruiser grabbed Charlie by his jacket and shoved him against the brick wall. Charlie gripped tight with both hands; he managed not to drop any of the laundry.
“You got any brass, fungus?” Mickey sneered. Mickey had ears like jug handles and teeth too big for his head. He spat when he talked.
Charlie glared at the bigger boy. “Do I ever have any money?” Charlie’s bap--his dad, the other boys would have said, but Charlie’s father was from the Punjab, in India, and insisted Charlie call him Bap--never gave him money.
“What you think we are, stupid or sumfing?” Skip shouted. Skip had a loose lower lip that flapped down and almost covered his chin. Also, Skip smelled terrible.
“Stupid or sumfing!” Bruiser echoed, and he laughed. Bruiser was a big boy, with man-sized knuckles.
“Going to Fathead Wu’s again, yeah?” Mickey spat. “What, you ain’t got a bit of brass to pay old Fathead?”
“Are you an idiot?” Charlie snapped. He was shaking, but he might as well speak his mind; whatever he said, he was going to get punched. “I always go to Wu’s. And I never have any money.” Charlie wished he were bigger. He’d pound Mickey and his friends flat. Maybe then Bap would let him out of the shop more. “Clock off!”
“How many times we gotta teach you this lesson?” Skip jeered.
Bruiser pressed Charlie against the wall with one hand and curled up his other fist. His big hand hung in the air like a wrecker’s ball.
Charlie laughed. “You’re slow learners, I guess.” He smirked to distract them from his hands while he shifted his grip on the basket and made a fist inside one of his bap’s shirts. He was Captain Charlie Pondicherry, priming his pistols.
Bruiser didn’t know when the joke was on him. “Slow learners, ha!”
Mickey looked at Bruiser, irritated.
Charlie threw the basket of dirty laundry at Bruiser’s face.
“Huh?” Bruiser shouted, and swung his fist--
Pow! Bruiser’s fist plowed right into the top of Mickey’s head.
“Ow!” Mickey staggered back.
Charlie hurled his fistful of shirt at Skip’s face and turned to run, but the shirt missed and Skip knocked Charlie down.
Charlie hit the mud in a rain of dirty laundry.
What was he thinking? He couldn’t really run away and leave the laundry. He couldn’t really fight, either. There were three of them and only one of him, and they were bigger. Best to just take a quick beating and not drag it out.
Charlie wasn’t aboard a sailing ship in search of treasure, and he was no adventurer.
“Hit him, Broo!” Mickey showered Charlie with spittle.
Bruiser dropped to one knee and punched Charlie in the stomach.
It hurt. Charlie jerked his knees up to protect himself.
“Ow.” Bruiser shook his hand.
“What’s the matter, Bruiser?” Skip giggled. “Charlie Pondicherry too hard for you? He hurt your precious hand?”
“Hurt my hand, huh, yeah . . .” Bruiser chuckled slowly.
Mickey stepped deliberately on two shirts and a pair of Charlie’s trousers, squashing them all into the filth with the heel of his square-toed shoe.
Charlie stayed down, grinding his teeth. His stomach hurt. Overhead, hundreds of yards above the rooftops framing the Gullet, he saw an airship drift slowly past. The craft had a hull like an oceangoing ship’s, copper-bottomed, and it hung beneath three oblong balloons. Steam puffed from a funnel at the back. The airship’s motion was calm and graceful, and Charlie desperately wanted to be on it.
Or on the saddled neck of a vengeful dragon, blasting his tormentors with fire.
“Yeah, well, Charlie, it’s been fun,” Mickey said. “We got other customers to see, so we have to leave you now.”
“Fun, ha-ha!” Skip kicked Charlie in the shoulder. The kick hurt less than the punch, because the sole of Skip’s boot hung loose and flapped just like his lip. Still, it knocked Charlie over. Charlie sighed, shook his head, and stared holes into their backs until the three boys disappeared down the Gullet.
Then Charlie climbed to his feet.
He spat mud and gathered up the laundry. Only a few pieces had escaped getting trampled, and the pair of trousers Mickey had trodden upon looked as if they’d been worn by a pig wrestler at a Sunday fair. Charlie had read about pig wrestlers, and about Sunday fairs.
Lucky Wu was not going to be happy.
Charlie moved quickly, worried he was running out of time. He heaped all the clothes back into the basket and trudged into the steam. The clouds jetted from the mouths of brass dragon heads guarding the front of the shop. Standing in the dragons’ breath was a little like taking a bath, so Charlie lingered and wiped mud off his face. What with the white creams his bap put on his skin, the black mud, and the steam washing both off in rivulets, he expected he must look like a zebra caught in a rainstorm.
Finally Charlie pushed in through Lucky Wu’s door, out of one cloud of steam and into another.
Hyoo-hyoo-hyoo-whee-up, hyoo-hyoo-hyoo-whee-up! chirped the little brass sparrows perching over the door. There were three of them, fixed on tiny pins, so they were forever flying in a circle around their brass nest, beaks open. Charlie smiled at the birds. They didn’t move; they didn’t do anything but sing when the door opened so that Wu would know he had customers. Still, Charlie’s bap had made the sparrows, so they were Charlie’s friends.
Not really, of course. Really, they were just a bit of clockwork.
“You stupid inbred sack of meat!”