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SunLit Excerpt: Family matters complicate a John Pickett historical mystery

In this volume from her humorous mystery series, "Brother Can You Spare a Crime?" author Sheri Cobb South reveals the relationship that powers the narrative

Editor’s note: This installment of the John Pickett series, set in 1809, reveals a boy — 10-year-old Kit — to be involved in a robbery witnessed by one of the Bow Street Runners, the first professional police force in London. When that constable is murdered, the plot thickens and protagonist and fellow Bow Street Runner Pickett realizes the boy is, in fact, his half-brother pulled into a criminal gang.

“Roger Thorne, I presume,” Pickett said in as cool a tone as it is possible for one to take while pinioned to the wall with one cheek pressed against the soot-stained brick. The trickle of blood from one nostril suggested that while his nose might have been spared the worst of the impact, it had not gone entirely unscathed. “I mean you no harm. I only want to talk to you.”

Roger gave a skeptical snort. “Aye, prig-nappers are always after me for the pleasure of my conversation.”

It was not a promising opening, but the pressure of Roger’s weight eased, and Pickett was no longer pinned against the rough brick. He turned to face his attacker, and Roger’s fist slammed into his belly, a blow so unexpected that it doubled him over and left him gasping for breath.

I’m going to die here, Pickett thought. He’s going to beat me to death, and no one will lift a finger to stop it. On the contrary, any spectators would be far more likely to form a circle around them from which they could observe the combatants unimpeded, placing wagers and cheering on their favorite. Pickett knew instinctively that he would not like their choice of champion.

As if in confirmation of this statement, Sarey bellowed in the direction of the second-floor window, “Lookee here, Lucy, that pretty lad of yours is about to get his face rearranged!”

“Give him another one, Rog’!” shrieked the new arrival, confirming Pickett’s suspicion that here was the woman whose favors Roger had been sampling only moments earlier. If that were indeed the case, then the man would have expended considerable energy already. If he could only stay alive long enough, perhaps the constable would come along. At the moment, he would even welcome Maxwell’s arrival.

All he had to do was stay alive. His brother’s life depended on it.

Taking as deep a breath as he was able, he pressed his hands to the wall at his back and pushed off, straightening upright so that the crown of his head drove into Roger’s chin, snapping his head back so hard that Pickett could hear the man’s teeth clack together.

Alas, it had been a very long time since Pickett had been obliged to defend himself with his fists. He contrived to land the odd punch or two, and took a great deal of satisfaction in the grunts that these elicited from his opponent, but the end was never in doubt. With a sigh of something akin to relief, Pickett—bleeding copiously from his nose, and with his right eye rapidly swelling shut—sank, insensible, to the pavement.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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“There’s something I need you to pick up,” Roger informed Jud bluntly, entering the house and swiftly bolting the door shut behind him. “I left it at the end of Lombard Court, where it joins Tower Street.”

Jud grimaced. “Lud, Roger, you’ve never offed another one!”

Roger scowled fiercely at him, then shot a quick glance at the boy. “He’s still alive. Leastways, he was when I left him.”

The significance of that glance was not wasted on Jud. Lowering his voice, he asked, “Is it true, then, what the brat says?”

“Has to be. He’s as like the boy as be-damned.” He glowered at the back of the boy’s head. “The little bastard failed to mention that the fellow’s a Bow Street Runner.”

What?

“You heard me. He came to the bawdy house in Lombard Court, asking one of the girls about me. I was in the next room. Heard every word.”

Jud let out a long, low whistle.

“I jumped him from behind,” Roger continued, “but I can’t be sure he didn’t get a good look at me. That’s why I need you to fetch him. So he can’t go carrying tales to Bow Street.”

“You, er, you want me to finish him off?” Jud inquired delicately.

Roger shook his head impatiently. “It might be better to keep him here, just to make sure the brat behaves himself. After this last job, well, we’ll have no need of either one of ’em.”

Jud did not have to be told twice. He fetched the wheelbarrow from its usual corner and left the house without protest.

Jud returned a short time later, still pushing the wheelbarrow, which was now piled high with what appeared to be secondhand clothes.

Roger glanced down at the wheelbarrow’s load. “Still alive?”

“Aye. Leastways, he was when I found him.” Jud hesitated for a moment before adding, “Er, what was you wanting me to do with him?”

“I don’t know how much longer we can count on him being out. Before he comes ’round, I’m gonna need you to help me tie him up. First, though”—he turned toward the door to the back room and raised his voice—“Come here, boy! Your Uncle Jud has a present for you!”

“He’s not my uncle!” retorted the boy, appearing in the doorway nonetheless.

Roger chose to ignore this outburst. “You know how you’re always going on about that brother of yours?”

He inched cautiously forward, his brown eyes, too large for the pale, thin face, growing suddenly wary. “What of it?” 

“Come pay your respects to your brother John,” Roger said, and Jud, obeying some unspoken signal, tipped the wheelbarrow forward to disgorge its burden onto the floor.

It was no pile of castoff clothing, but a man—that much, at least, was readily identifiable, although little else could be determined from his face, so battered and bruised it was. The nose was caked with dried blood, and a thin line of blood still trickled from one nostril, its crimson trail impeded somewhat by the fact that one side of the mouth was swollen. More swollen still was his right eye, so much so that he could very likely not open it at all.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, he thought desperately. His brother John was supposed to be big and brave and strong. This was only a quite ordinary fellow, no more capable of standing up to Roger than he was himself.

“Is he . . . dead?”

The words had been scarcely more than a whisper, but as if in answer, the figure on the floor emitted a soft moan.

“He’s coming ’round,” Roger said briskly. “Better step lively. Jud, you take his feet and I’ll take his shoulders. Boy, go into your room and set that straight chair in the middle of the floor. I’ll take no chances on him laying his hands on anything that he might use as a weapon.”

The rickety straight chair usually stood against the wall opposite the door, right next to the boarded-up window. Kit dragged it away from the wall, around the foot of the straw-filled pallet where he slept, and into the center of the room. Apparently Roger intended for him to share his sleeping quarters with the new arrival. Kit wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that. It might be nice, not being completely alone anymore. And yet there the fellow would be, bruised and broken, a constant reminder of how his own desperate hopes had been dashed.

At that moment, Roger entered the room, backing through the doorway with Jud close behind and the unconscious man slung between the two of them like a hammock. They plopped their prisoner down onto the chair, then Roger ordered Jud to hold the fellow in place while he fetched a rope. For one horrifying minute, Kit feared they intended to string the poor man up from an overhead beam—two such beams were clearly visible, thanks to decades of crumbling plaster—and kick the chair out from under him. Alone or not, he had no desire to have a corpse for company, be he brother or no. But Roger returned with several short lengths of rope and soon had his prisoner trussed firmly to the chair on which he sat.

“There!” Roger pronounced with a final tug to the knot securing Pickett’s left ankle. “That should hold him.”

“What—what are you going to do with him?” asked Kit, finding his voice at last.

Roger rose slowly to a standing position, looking down at the boy from his superior height. “Depends on you. You want him left alive, you’d better toe the line. Right now I’m for bed.” Upon reaching the doorway, he turned back to issue one final order. “He wakes up and tries to make any trouble, you let me know, you hear?”

Kit nodded in agreement, but knew all the while that he was lying. If the prisoner did wake up, he intended to ask him a few questions.

With any luck, maybe he would discover that this battered and bloody excuse for a man was no relation of his, after all.

Kit was awakened abruptly in the middle of the night, although he could not identify exactly what it was that had awakened him. He couldn’t see anything, but this fact alone wasn’t very helpful; no moonlight penetrated the boarded-up window even when the moon was at the full. Suddenly he heard a faint groan, and realized that this must have been what had awakened him: sounds of stirring from the man he still could not believe was his heroic brother.

“John?” he called softly into the darkness.

“I’m . . . sorry.” The answer came somewhat breathlessly, as if it hurt him to speak. “Did I waken you?”

“Yes, but I don’t mind. Is—is your name John, then?”

“It is . . . John Pickett, at your service,” he answered, and it seemed to Kit, incredibly, that there was a hint of humor in the words. “I would bow, but I can’t seem to make my arms or legs move.”

Yes, certainly a hint of humor, but Kit recognized the trace of panic underlying the words; he’d felt it, too, the fear that must be concealed lest he give Roger another weapon to use against him.

“That’s because Roger and Jud have you trussed up like a Christmas goose.” Not that Kit had ever actually seen a Christmas goose, but he’d heard the expression.

“Oh. I see. That’s a relief.”

In the darkness, Kit’s brow puckered. “It’s a relief, being tied up so’s you can’t move?”

“It’s better than being paralyzed, anyway.”

“Oh.” Kit was silent for a long moment, then the question he could no longer hold back came out in a rush. “Johnareyoumybrother?”

“I think so.” The voice came cautiously out of the darkness, and Kit wished he could see him, bruises and all. “Is that all right?”

“What do you mean, is it all right? You either are my brother, or you aren’t.”

“Actually, I’m your half-brother. We have the same father, but different mothers.”

“Oh, I knew that.”

Now it was Pickett’s turn to be confused. “You knew about me? How?”

“My mum. She got drunk once—”

“Only once?” Pickett said, and instantly regretted it. This was, after all, the boy’s mother he was talking about.

Kit, however, appeared to take no offense. “She likes the Blue Ruin, all right, but there was only one time she got to talking about you. She started off like usual, about how my da—your da too, I expect—got sent off halfway ’round the world leaving her with nothing but two great hulking lads to feed, and both of ’em—us—good for nothing but eating our heads off. I’d never heard of another one, so I asked her who was the other one, and she said there was an older one named John, but he was gone now.”

“I see,” Pickett said thoughtfully. “What else did she tell you?”

“Nothing! I asked her again next day when she was sobered up a bit, but she just clapped her mummer shut and wouldn’t tell me anything. I thought maybe you was dead, and so she didn’t like talking about you, but then Dick Robbins—he’s what you might call my stepda—he said it was no such thing, only she was just jealous and didn’t like to think of Gentleman Jack—my da—I guess he must be yours, too—having a brat by no other woman.”

“Kit—it is Kit, is it not?—Kit, if you could—look, can they hear us up there?” Pickett jerked his head in the direction of the floor above their heads, knowing quite well that Kit could not see this gesture.

The boy, however, had no difficulty in interpreting this somewhat cryptic query. “I don’t think they can, so long as we’re quiet.”

“Good.” Pitching his voice low so as not to be overheard, Pickett asked, “If you could—escape—from Roger, would you want to go back to Moll—to your mum?”

Kit gave a bitter little laugh. “What, so she could send me back to him, or sell me to somebody even worse?”

And that, Pickett thought, was the saddest thing about the children of the rookery. It wasn’t the poverty or the hunger—at least, it wasn’t only the poverty and hunger—it was the fact that one could be so cynical at only ten years old, so utterly devoid of hope, as if life would never offer them anything better than it did right now. And in most cases, they were very likely right.

“Kit, I would like very much for you to come and live with me,” he said as gently as possible through lips so swollen that they struggled to form the words. “If I can get you out of here, would you be willing to do that?”

It was everything he’d hoped for from the time he’d first learned of his brother’s existence, everything he’d dreamed of from the time Roger had taken him from his home, and that with his mother’s full cooperation. And it came, not from the heroic figure of his imagination, who would have made very short work of both Roger and Jud (very likely at the same time, blindfolded, and with both hands tied behind his back), but from one who was just as much at the mercy of Roger as he was himself. 

Kit, to his shame, felt hot tears gathering behind his eyelids. Don’t let anyone see you cry. Don’t give them a weapon to use against you. “You couldn’t even save yourself from Roger,” he said scornfully. “What makes you think you could save me?”

And so saying, he rolled over on his pallet in the hopes that the crackling of the straw beneath him would drown out the sobs he could not quite suppress. 


Sheri Cobb South is the bestselling author of more than 25 books. Her John Pickett series of humorous historical mysteries, excerpted here, has been widely praised and has won several awards. Her novels have been translated into half a dozen languages. A native of Alabama, she has lived in Colorado since 2011.


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