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Authors: Sheri Cobb South

Tags: #Regency Mystery Novella

Waiting Game

BOOK: Waiting Game
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Another John Pickett Novella


Sheri Cobb South


Chapter 1


In Which John Pickett Receives an Invitation,
or Possibly an Order


As the hands of the big clock over his bench inched toward the vertical, magistrate Patrick Colquhoun pushed back his chair and heaved himself to his feet.

“That’s it,” he announced to the half-dozen men assembled within Number 4 Bow Street, all of whom had spent the last half-hour watching the clock with various degrees of imperfectly concealed impatience. “Mr. Dixon?”

A grizzled man only a few years younger than the magistrate stepped up to the bench in answer to the summons.

“A happy Christmas to you, Dixon,” Mr. Colquhoun said, shaking him warmly by the hand.

“Thank you, sir, and the same to you,” replied the most senior Runner on the Bow Street force, looking down at the palm of his hand with every appearance of pleasure.

“Mr. Marshall? Mr. Griffin?” One by one, each man received holiday greetings from the magistrate before taking himself off for home. Soon only two men remained. “Mr. Foote?”

Mr. Colquhoun shook hands with Mr. Foote, a man in his mid-thirties with straw-coloured hair, cold blue eyes, and a perpetual sneer. “This probably seems a bit paltry to one who just pocketed a tidy thirty pounds for recovering the Blakely jewels, but I daresay you won’t despise it.”

“No, indeed,” Mr. Foote said, his sullen expression lightening somewhat. “I’m sure I’ll find a good use for it.”

“I don’t doubt it. A happy Christmas to you, Mr. Foote.”


Mr. Foote touched a hand to his forelock in acknowledgement and headed for the door, leaving the magistrate alone with a tall young man whose curling brown hair was tied at the nape of his neck in an old-fashioned queue.

“That leaves only you, Mr. Pickett. Happy Christmas.”

John Pickett approached the bench and shook hands with his magistrate. Having been forewarned by the reaction of the other Runners, he was not surprised when something small, round, and metallic was pressed into his hand. He was, however, considerably taken aback when he looked down to find a gold coin resting in his palm.


“But me no buts, Mr. Pickett. It’s no more than I gave any of the others, so you need have no scruples in accepting. Now, tell me, what are your plans for tomorrow?”

“Er, well, I—” In fact, he had no plans. There had been a time when, as apprentice to a coal merchant, he had received a new set of clothes on Boxing Day, along with a penny to spend any way he wished—an orange from the fruit sellers in Covent Garden, or perhaps a Punch and Judy show—and before that, on those rare occasions when his father had allowed it, he had joined one of the bands of children traveling from door to door singing carols in the hopes of being rewarded in coin (or perhaps paid to go away and plague someone else, depending on the level of musical talent on display any given year). But by the time these riches were divided amongst the singers, the gleanings were small—too small, in his father’s opinion, and therefore a waste of time. Since then, he had never thought about Christmas much. It was something other people celebrated. “That is, I—”

“Just as I suspected,” Mr. Colquhoun interrupted. “Why not come and take your mutton with me?”

“You’ll want to celebrate with your family,” Pickett protested.

“True, but I daresay my Janet can find a crust of bread for you. In any case, she’ll see you don’t go away hungry.”

It was too galling, the idea that Mr. Colquhoun might have issued such an invitation out of pity. “It’s very kind of you to offer, Mr. Colquhoun, but if this has anything to do with—with that other business, I can assure you I’m quite all right.”

“I’m pleased to hear it, but why that necessitates your eating your Christmas dinner alone quite escapes me.”

Pickett glanced at Mr. Foote—who appeared to have slowed his progress toward the door in order to hear their conversation—and lowered his voice. “And yet you didn’t extend such an invitation to any of the others.”

“No, because they have all made other plans. Mr. Marshall will want to spend the day with his wife and children, and Mr. Dixon will be having dinner with his daughter and grandchildren. The others all have family, as well.”

“Mr. Foote doesn’t.”

“No, but I daresay he’s got some dolly-mop in mind whose hospitality won’t go unrewarded. Still, if you prefer to spend your holiday with him—Mr. Foote!”

The magistrate’s raised voice halted Mr. Foote on the threshold. “Sir?”

“Sir!” echoed Pickett in a very different tone, his brown eyes widening with something akin to panic.

Mr. Colquhoun regarded Pickett with raised eyebrows and, upon receiving a beseeching look in return, addressed himself to Mr. Foote. “A happy new year to you, Mr. Foote.”

“Thank you, sir,” Foote said with mingled bewilderment and suspicion, and pulled the door closed behind him.

“We shall expect you at three,” the magistrate informed his most junior Runner. “Mind, I don’t like to be kept waiting while my dinner grows cold,” he added sternly, albeit with a twinkle lurking in his blue eyes.

“Yes, sir,” conceded Pickett with a sigh, recognizing a losing battle when he saw one.


Chapter 2


In Which John Pickett Celebrates Christmas


And so it was that, at half past two on Christmas Day, Pickett donned the black tailcoat he usually reserved for court appearances at the Old Bailey—not very festive, perhaps, but it was the best he owned—wrapped a knitted muffler about his neck for protection against the sharp December wind, and set out on foot for the town house that was his magistrate’s London residence.

His first impression upon being admitted to the house was the sharp scent of evergreens; his second was the babble of noise that appeared to be coming from the room on his right. As he surrendered his hat, muffler, and gloves to the butler (being careful to place the right glove over the left, the better to conceal the hole in the left thumb), he recognized the source of the fragrant smell. Evergreen boughs were everywhere, from the long garlands twined about the banister of the curving staircase to the ball of greenery tied with red ribbons and hung above the door leading into the room on the right. This last he had no difficulty recognizing as a kissing ball: when he was seventeen years old and apprenticed to a coal merchant, his master’s pretty and flirtatious daughter had been relentless in her attempts to catch him underneath a similar ornament fixed over the parlour door—not that he had put up much of a struggle, as he recalled.

But although he had only glimpsed them at second-hand, he could not remember Christmases at the Grangers’ house ever being so—well, so
. Then the butler led him to the doorway adorned with the kissing ball, and the reason for the din became immediately apparent: more than a dozen people were squeezed into what appeared to be a drawing room. Four men were engrossed in a lively card game at a small table in one corner of the room, while an equal number of ladies sat conversing before the fire. Two of the women held infants on their laps, and when a third rose to exchange a word with one of the card players, it was obvious that one more Colquhoun grandchild would be added to the mix in a matter of months. At least half a dozen older children sprawled on the floor playing at jackstraws, all seemingly united in accusing one of their number of cheating.

“Mr. John Pickett,” the butler announced over the din.

Out of the sea of humanity, one familiar face emerged. “Good man!” declared Mr. Colquhoun, setting a tiny girl off his lap so he could rise to shake his guest’s hand. “I’m pleased to see you. I’ll admit, I more than half expected you to balk at the last minute.”

“I wouldn’t do that, sir, not when you and Mrs. Colquhoun were expecting me,” Pickett protested, his bemused gaze drifting past the magistrate. He had met his magistrate’s wife once or twice over the five years since Mr. Colquhoun had brought him to Bow Street, and recognized her now as the plump, matronly lady dandling an infant on her knee. The others were all strangers, however, although one of the card players bore such a striking resemblance to the magistrate that he could only be Mr. Colquhoun’s son. The others, Pickett assumed, must be the three Colquhoun daughters, their husbands, and their children. And so
children! Pickett had never seen Mr. Colquhoun
en famille
before, and was fascinated by this new and unexpected facet of his magistrate’s character.

“Come along, then, and let me introduce you.” Raising his voice to be heard over the squabbling jackstraw players, he addressed them in the same tone Pickett had heard him use many times from the bench. “If the lot of you can’t stop quarreling, you’ll be eating your dinner in the schoolroom and going to bed early.” As a guilty silence fell over the younger set, he performed the introductions. “This is my young colleague, Mr. Pickett. John, you’ll remember my wife. This is my son, James; my eldest daughter, Isabella, and her husband, Edward; my middle daughter, Mary, and her husband, Arthur; and my youngest daughter, Fanny, and her husband, Robert. As for the children, I can’t remember their names half the time myself.”

The twinkle in his eye as he made this disclaimer, along with the howl of indignation from the younger set, gave Pickett to understand that Mr. Colquhoun was in fact a doting grandfather. But as he struggled to match couples with the correct spouses, Pickett was more concerned with the adults of the party; it would not do for him to inadvertently offer some insult to his magistrate’s family. That they had all been warned in advance about himself and his presence in their midst became clear, for no one seemed even slightly disturbed by the presence of a shabbily dressed stranger several years their junior. In fact, they were warm in their welcome, and Pickett began to feel almost glad he had allowed himself to be coerced into accepting Mr. Colquhoun’s invitation.

His arrival had apparently made the party complete, for as soon as the introductions were finished everyone repaired to the dining room, where they were greeted by the mouthwatering aroma of roast goose. Mrs. Colquhoun directed Pickett to the place at her right, just as if he were the guest of honour, and Mr. Colquhoun carved the bird himself and gave him the first portion. Still, Pickett was very much aware of his status as an outsider. Most of the dinner conversation was beyond his comprehension, much of it apparently referring to old jokes and oft-repeated stories. The bachelor status of the only son appeared to be a favourite topic, and one to which James Colquhoun submitted with resigned good humor.

“After all, you’re nearly thirty,” chided the woman called Isabella, who seemed to feel her status as the eldest gave her license to manage her younger siblings. “And don’t say you can’t afford a wife. That excuse won’t wash any longer.”

“James only recently took a post as private secretary to Viscount Melville,” Mrs. Colquhoun explained proudly for Pickett’s benefit.

A viscount, Pickett thought, an individual of so lofty a position that it was considered an honour for even a son of the prosperous Mr. Colquhoun to be at his beck and call. And yet he, John Pickett, son of a transported felon and himself a former pickpocket, dared to hope that the widow of just such a personage might stoop to marriage with him! Banishing this unproductive train of thought, he congratulated Mrs. Colquhoun on her son’s good fortune, then turned his attention to James Colquhoun’s laughing defense of his single state.

“Better to remain single forever than to rush into marriage with the wrong woman,” the younger Colquhoun insisted. “Am I not right, Mr. Pickett? You are a fellow bachelor, are you not?”

Thus entreated, Pickett turned crimson. “You—you are quite right, Mr. Colquhoun,” he stammered, choosing to address the former question and ignore the latter altogether.

“Oh, call me James, otherwise we shall never keep Papa and me straight,” protested the younger Colquhoun. “Besides, we have something in common, you and I. We must unite in our efforts to resist the attempts of our female relations to marry us off.”

The three Colquhoun daughters vehemently denied this charge, and Pickett breathed a bit easier, finding himself on more solid ground. “I have no female relations, but I do have a landlady eager to sing the praises of her unmarried niece.”

Mr. Colquhoun, no doubt aware of his protégé’s ambiguous marital status, pushed back his empty plate and changed the subject. “If we’re going to have any snapdragon before the young ones’ bedtime, we’d best get started.”

Pickett had no idea what snapdragon was, but that it was eagerly anticipated was abundantly clear by the eagerness with which the table was cleared. Even the children helped stack the dirty dishes, which were then removed by the servants.

“A bottle of the ‘82, Simmons,” Mr. Colquhoun instructed the butler. “And you may crack open another for the servants to share.”

BOOK: Waiting Game
11.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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