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IX. The Great
THERE are supercilious critics who sneer at Scotland Yard. They are quite unofficial critics, of course, writers of stories wherein figure amateur detectives of abnormal perspicuity, unravelling mysteries with consummate ease which have baffled the police for years. As a matter of fact, Scotland Yard stands for the finest police organization in the world. People who speak glibly of "police blunders" might remember one curious fact: in this last quarter of a century only one man has ever stood in the dock at the Old Bailey under the capital charge who has escaped the dread sentence of the law.
Scotland Yard is patiently slow and terribly sure.
Angel in his little room received a letter written in a sprawling, uneducated hand; it was incoherent and stained with tears and underlined from end to end. He read it through and examined the date stamp, then rang his bell.
The messenger who answered him found him examining a map of London. "Go to the Record Office, and get E.B. 93", he said, and in five minutes the messenger came back with a thick folder bulging with papers.
There were newspaper cuttings and plans and dreadful photographs, the like of which the outside world do not see, and there was a little key ticketed with an inscription. Angel looked through the dossier carefully, then read the woman's letter again ...
Vinnis, the man with the dead-white face, finishing his late breakfast, and with the pleasurable rustle of new banknotes in his trouser pocket, strolled forth into Commercial Road, E. An acquaintance leaning against a public-house gave him a curt nod of recognition; a bedraggled girl hurrying homeward with her man's breakfast in her apron shrank on one side, knowing Vinnis to her sorrow; a stray cur cringed up to him, as he stood for a moment at the edge of the road, and was kicked for its pains.
Vinnis was entirely without sentiment, and besides, even though the money in his pocket compensated for most things, the memory of old George and his babbling talk worried him.
Somebody on the other side of the road attracted his attention. It was a woman, and he knew her very well, therefore he ignored her beckoning hand. Two days ago he had occasion to reprove her, and he had seized the opportunity to summarily dissolve the informal union that had kept them together for five years. So he made no sign when the woman with the bruised face called him, but turned abruptly and walked towards Aldgate.
He did not look round, but by and by he heard the patter of her feet behind, and once his name called hoarsely. He struck off into a side street with a raging devil inside him, then when they reached an unfrequented part of the road he turned on her.
She saw the demon in his eyes, and tried to speak. She was a penitent woman at that moment, and hysterically ripe for confession, but the savage menace of the man froze her lips.
"So," he said, his thin mouth askew, "so after what I've said an' what I've done you follow me, do you. Showing me up in the street, eh!"
He edged closer to her, his fist doubled, and she, poor drab, fascinated by the snakelike glare of his dull eyes, stood rooted to the spot. Then with a snarl he struck her once, twice and she fell a huddled, moaning heap on the pavement.
You may do things in Commercial Road, E., after "lighting-up time" that are not permissible in the broad light of the day, unless it be Saturday, and the few people who had been attracted by the promise of a row were indignant but passive, after the manner of all London crowds. Not so one quiet, middle-aged man, who confronted Vinnis as he began to walk away.
"That was a particularly brutal thing to do," said the quiet man.
Vinnis measured him with his eye, and decided that this was not a man to be trifled with.
"I've got nothing to say to you," he said roughly, and tried to push past, but an iron grip was on his arm.
"Wait a moment, my friend," said the other steadily, "not so fast; you cannot commit a brutal assault in the open street like that without punishment. I must ask you to walk with me to the station."
"Suppose I won't go?" demanded Vinnis.
"I shall take you," said the other. "I am Detective-Sergeant Jarvis from Scotland Yard."
Vinnis thought rapidly. There wasn't much chance of escape; the street they were in was a cul-de-sac, and at the open end two policemen had made their appearance. After all, a "wife" assault was not a serious business, and the woman well, she would swear it was an accident. He resolved to go quietly; at the worst it would be a month, so with a shrug of his shoulders he accompanied the detective. A small crowd followed them to the station.
In the little steel dock he stood in his stockinged feet whilst a deft jailer ran his hands over him. With a stifled oath, he remembered the money in his possession; it was only ten pounds, for he had secreted the other, but ten pounds is a lot of money to be found on a person of his class, and generally leads to embarrassing inquiries. To his astonishment, the jailer who relieved him of the notes seemed in no whit surprised, and the inspector at the desk took the discovery as a matter of course. Vinnis remarked on the surprising number of constables there were on duty in the charge room. Then
"What is the charge?" asked the inspector, dipping his pen.
"Wilful murder!" said a voice, and Angel Esquire crossed the room from the inspector's office. "I charge this man with having on the night of the 17th of February... "
Vinnis, dumb with terror and rage, listened to the crisp tones of the detective as he detailed the particulars of an almost forgotten crime. It was the story of a country house burglary, a man-servant who surprised the thief, a light in the dark, a shot and a dead man lying in the big drawing-room. It was an ordinary little tragedy, forgotten by everybody save Scotland Yard; but year by year unknown men had pieced together the scraps of evidence that had come to them; strand by strand had the rope been woven that was to hang a cold-blooded murderer; last of all came the incoherent letter from a jealous woman Scotland Yard waits always for a jealous woman and the evidence was complete.
"Put him in No. 14", said the inspector. Then Vinnis woke up, and the six men on duty in the charge room found their time fully occupied.
Vinnis was arrested, as Angel Esquire put it, "in the ordinary way of business." Hundreds of little things happen daily at Scotland Yard in the ordinary way of business which, apparently unconnected one with the other, have an extraordinary knack of being in some remote fashion related. A burglary at Clapham was remarkable for the fact that a cumbersome mechanical toy was carried away in addition to other booty. A street accident in the Kingsland Road led to the arrest of a drunken carman. In the excitement of the moment a sneak-thief purloined a parcel from the van, was chased and captured. A weeping wife at the police station gave him a good character as husband and father. "Only last week he brought my boy a fine performin' donkey," An alert detective went home with her, recognized the mechanical toy from the description, and laid by the heels the notorious "Kingsland Road Lot."
The arrest of Vinnis was totally unconnected with Angel's investigations into the mystery of Reale's millions. He knew him as a "Borough man," but did not associate him with the search for the word.
None the less, there are certain formalities attached to the arrest of all bad criminals. Angel Esquire placed one or two minor matters in the hands of subordinates, and in two days one of these waited upon him in his office.
"The notes, sir," said the man, "were issued to Mr. Spedding on his private account last Monday morning. Mr. Spedding is a lawyer, of the firm of Spedding, Mortimer and Larach."
"Have you seen Mr. Spedding?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. Mr. Spedding remembers drawing the money and paying it away to a gentleman who was sailing to America."
"So far as I can gather," said the subordinate, "the money was paid on behalf of a client for services. Mr. Spedding would not particularize."
Angel Esquire made a little grimace.
"Lawyers certainly do queer things," he said dryly.
"Does Mr. Spedding offer any suggestion as to how the money came into this man's possession?"
"No, sir. He thinks he might have obtained it quite honestly. I understand that the man who received the money was a shady sort of customer."
"So I should imagine," said Angel Esquire.
Left alone, he sat in deep thought drawing faces on his blotting-pad.
Then he touched a bell.
"Send Mr. Carter to me," he directed, and in a few minutes a bright-faced youth, lingering an elementary moustache, was awaiting his orders.
"Carter," said Angel cautiously, "it must be very dull work in the finger-print department?"
"I don't know, sir," said the other, a fairly enthusiastic ethnologist, "we've got"
"Carter," said Angel more cautiously still, "are you on for a lark?"
"Like a bird, sir," said Carter, unconsciously humorous.
"I want a dozen men, the sort of men who won't talk to reporters, and will remain 'unofficial' so long as I want them to be," said Angel, and he unfolded his plan.
When the younger man had gone Angel drew a triangle on the blotting-pad.
"Spedding is in with the 'Borough Lot'", he put a cross against one angle. "Spedding knows I know," he put a cross at the apex. "I know that Spedding knows I know," he marked the remaining angle. "It's Spedding's move, and he'll move damn quick."
The Assistant Commissioner came into the room at that moment.
"Hullo, Angel!" he said, glancing at the figures on the pad. "What's this, a new game?"
"It's an old game," said Angel truthfully, "but played in an entirely new way."
Angel was not far wrong when he surmised that Spedding's move would be immediate, and although the detective had reckoned without an unknown factor, in the person of old George, yet a variety of circumstances combined to precipitate the act that Angel anticipated.
Not least of these was the arrest of Vinnis. After his interview with old George, Spedding had decided on a waiting policy. The old man had been taken to the house at Clapham. Spedding had been prepared to wait patiently until some freak of mind brought back the memory to the form of cryptogram he had advised. A dozen times a day he asked the old man
"What is your name?"
"Old George, only old George," was the invariable reply, with many grins and noddings.
"But your real name, the name you had when you were a professor."
But this would only start the old man off on a rambling reminiscence of his "munificent patron."
Connor came secretly to Clapham for orders. It was the night after Vinnis had been arrested.
"We've got to move at once, Mr. Connor," said the lawyer. Connor sat in the chair that had held Jimmy a few nights previous. "It is no use waiting for the old man to talk, the earlier plan was best."
"Has anything happened?" asked Connor. His one-time awe of the lawyer had merged in the familiarity of conspiratorship.
"There was a detective at my office today inquiring about some notes that were found on Vinnis. Angel Esquire will draw his own conclusions, and we have no time to lose."
"We are ready," said Connor.
"Then let it be tomorrow night. I will withdraw the guard of commissionaires at the safe. I can easily justify myself afterwards."
An idea struck Connor.
"Why not send another lot of men to relieve them? I can fix up some of the boys so that they'll look like commissionaires."
Spedding's eyes narrowed.
"Yes," he said slowly, "it could be arranged an excellent idea."
He paced the room with long, swinging strides, his forehead puckered.
"There are two reliefs," he said, "one in the morning and one in the evening. I could send a note to the sergeant of the morning relief telling him that I had arranged for a new set of night men I have changed them twice already, one cannot be too careful and I could give you the necessary authority to take over charge."
"Better still," said Connor, "instruct him to withdraw, leaving the place empty, then our arrival will attract no notice. Lombard Street must be used to the commissionaires going on guard."
"That is an idea," said Spedding, and sat down to write the letter.
The night of the great project turned out miserably wet.
"So much the better," muttered Connor, viewing the world from his Kensington fastness. The room dedicated to the use of the master of the house was plainly furnished, and on the bare deal table Connor had set his whisky down whilst he peered through the rain-blurred windows at the streaming streets.
"England for work and Egypt for pleasure," he muttered; "and if I get my share of the money, and it will be a bigger share than my friend Spedding imagines, it's little this cursed country will see of Mr. Patrick Connor."
He drained oft his whisky at a gulp, rubbed the steam from the windows, and looked down into the deserted street. Two men were walking toward the house. One, well covered by a heavy mackintosh cloak, moved with a long stride; the other, wrapped in a new overcoat, shuffled by his side, quickening his steps to keep up with his more energetic companion.
"Spedding," said Connor, "and old George. What is he bringing him here for?"
He hurried downstairs to let them in.
"Well?" asked Spedding, throwing his reeking coat off.
"All's ready," answered Connor. "Why have you brought the old man?"
"Oh, for company," the lawyer answered carelessly.
If the truth be told, Spedding still hoped that the old man would remember. That day old George had been exceedingly garrulous, almost lucidly so at times. Mr. Spedding still held on to the faint hope that the old man's revelations would obviate the necessity for employing the "Borough Lot," and what was more important, for sharing the contents of the safe with them.
As to this latter part of the program, Mr. Spedding had plans which would have astonished Connor had he but known.
But old George's loquacity stopped short at the all-important point of instructing the lawyer on the question of the cryptogram. He had brought him along in the hope that at the eleventh hour the old man would reveal his identity.
Unconscious of the responsibility that lay upon his foolish head, the old man sat in the upstairs room communing with himself.
"We will leave him here," said the lawyer, "he will be safe."
"Safe enough. I know him of old. He'll sit here for hours amusing himself."
"And now, what about the men?" asked the lawyer. "Where do we meet them?"
"We shall pick them up at the corner of Lombard Street, and they'll follow me to the Safe Deposit."
They turned swiftly on old George, who with his chin raised and with face alert was staring at them.
"Safe Deposit, Lombard Street," he mumbled. "And a most excellent plan too a most excellent plan."
The two men held their breath.
"And quite an ingenious idea, sir. Did you say Lombard Street a safe?" he muttered. "A safe with a word? And how to conceal the word, that's the question. I am a man of honour, you may trust me." He made a sweeping bow to some invisible presence. "Why not conceal your word thus?"
Old George stabbed the palm of his hand with a grimy forefinger.
"Why not? Have you read my book? It is only a little book, but useful, sir, remarkably useful. The drawings and the signs are most accurate. An eminent gentleman at the British Museum assisted me in its preparation. It is called it is called " He passed his hand wearily over his head, and slid down into his chair again, a miserable old man muttering foolishly.
Spedding wiped the perspiration from his forehead.
"Nearly, nearly!" he said huskily. "By Heavens! he nearly told us."
Connor looked at him with suspicion.
"What's all this about the book?" he demanded. "This is the second time old George has spoken like this. It's to do with old Reale, isn't it?"
"Come," said Connor, looking at his watch, "it's time we were moving. We'll leave the old man to look after the house. Here, George."
Old George looked up.
"You'll stay here, and not leave till we return. D'ye hear?"
"I hear, Mr. Connor, sir," said old George, with his curious assumption of dignity, "and hearing, obey."
As the two men turned into the night the rain pelted down and a gusty northwesterly wind blew into their faces.
"George," said Connor, answering a question, "oh, we've had him for years. One of the boys found him wandering about Limehouse with hardly any clothes to his back, and brought him to us. That was before I knew the 'Borough Lot,' but they used him as a blind. He was worth the money it cost to keep him in food."
Spedding kept the other waiting whilst he dispatched a long telegram from the Westbourne Grove Post Office. It was addressed to the master of the Polecat lying at Cardiff, and was reasonably unintelligible to the clerk.
They found a hansom at the corner of Queen's Road, and drove to the Bank; here they alighted and crossed to the Royal Exchange. Some men in uniform overcoats who were standing about exchanged glances with Connor, and as the two leaders doubled back to Lombard Street, followed them at a distance.
"The guard left at four o'clock," said Spedding, fitting the key of the heavy outer door. He waited a few minutes in the inky black darkness of the vestibule whilst Connor admitted the six uniformed men who had followed them.
"Are we all here?" said Connor in a low voice. "Bat? Here! Goyle? Here! Lamby? Here!"
One by one he called them by their names and they answered.
"We may as well have a light," said Spedding, and felt for the switch.
The gleam of the electric lamps showed Spedding as pure a collection of scoundrels as ever disgraced the uniform of a gallant corps.
"Now," said Spedding in level tones, "are all the necessary tools here?"
Bat's grin was the answer.
"If we can get an electric connection," he said, "we'll burn out the lock of the safe in half "
Spedding had walked to the inner door that led to the great hall, and was fumbling with the keys. Suddenly he started back.
"Hark!" he whispered. "I heard a step in the hall."
"I hear nothing," he began, when the inner door was thrown open, and a commissionaire, revolver in hand, stepped out.
"Stand!" he cried. Then, recognizing Spedding, dropped the muzzle of his pistol.
White with rage, Spedding stood amidst his ill-assorted bodyguard. In the searching white light of the electric lamps there was no mistaking their character. He saw the commissionaire eying them curiously.
"I understood," he said slowly, "that the guard had been relieved."
"No, sir," said the man, and the cluster of uniformed men at the door of the inner hall confirmed this.
"I sent orders this afternoon," said Spedding between his teeth.
"No orders have been received, sir," and the lawyer saw the scrutinizing eye of the soldierly sentry pass over his confederates.
"Is this the relief?" asked the guard, not attempting to conceal the contempt in his tone.
"Yes," said the lawyer.
As the sentry saluted and disappeared into the hall Spedding drew Connor aside.
"This is ruin," he said quickly. "The safe must be cleared tonight. Tomorrow London will not hold me."
The sentry reappeared at the doorway and beckoned them in. They shuffled into the great hall, where in the half darkness the safe loomed up from its rocky pedestal, an eerie, mysterious thing. He saw Bat Sands glancing uncomfortably around the dim spaces of the building, and felt the impression of the loneliness.
A man who wore the stripes of a sergeant came up.
"Are we to withdraw, sir?" he asked.
"Yes," said Spedding shortly.
"Will you give us a written order?" asked the man.
Spedding hesitated, then drew out a pocket-book and wrote a few hasty words on a sheet, tore it out, and handed it to the man.
The sergeant looked at it carefully.
"You haven't signed it or dated it either," he said respectfully, and handed it back.
Spedding cursed him under his breath and rectified the omissions.
"Now you may go."
In the half-light, for only one solitary electrolier illuminated the vast hall, he thought the man was smiling. It might have been a trick of the shadows, for he could not see his face.
"And am I to leave you alone?" said the sergeant.
"Is it safe?" the non-commissioned officer asked quietly.
"Curse you, what do you mean?" cried the lawyer.
"Well," said the other easily, "I see you have Connor with you, a notorious thief and blackmailer."
The lawyer was dumb.
"And Bat Sands. How d'ye do, Bat? How did they treat you in Borstal, or was it Parkhurst?" drawled the sergeant. "And there's the gentle Lamby trying hard to look military in an overcoat too large for him. That's not the uniform you're used to wearing, Lamby, eh?"
From the group of men at the door came a genuinely amused laugh.
"Guard the outer door, one of you chaps," said the sergeant, and turning again to Spedding's men, "Here we have our respected friend Curt Goyle."
He stooped and picked up a bag that Bat had placed gingerly on the floor.
"What a bag of tricks," the sergeant cooed, "diamond bits and dynamite cartridges and what's this little thing, Bat an ark? It is. By Jove, I congratulate you on the swag."
Spedding had recovered his nerve and strode forward. He was playing for the greatest stake in the world.
"You shall be punished for this insolence," he stormed.
"Not at all," said the imperturbable sergeant.
Somebody at the door spoke.
"Here's another one, sergeant," and pushed a queer old figure into the hall, a figure that blinked and peered from face to face.
He espied Spedding, and ran up to him almost fawning.
"The Safe Deposit in Lombard Street," he cackled joyously. "You see, I remembered, dear friend; and I've come to tell you about the book my book, you know. My munificent patron who desired a puzzle word "
The sergeant started forward. "My God!" he cried, "the professor."
"Yes, yes," chuckled the old man, "that's what he called me. He bought a copy of my book two sovereigns, four sovereigns he gave me. The book what was it called?"
The old man paused and clasped both hands to his head.
"A Study a Study," he said painfully, "on the Origin of the Alphabet. Ah!"
Another of the commissionaires had come forward as the old man began speaking, and to him the sergeant turned.
"Make a note of that, Jimmy," the sergeant said.
Spedding reeled back as though he had been struck.
"Angel!" he gasped.
"That's me," was the ungrammatical reply.
Crushed, cowed, beaten and powerless, Spedding awaited judgment. What form it would take he could not guess, that it would effectively ruin him he did not doubt. The trusted lawyer stood self-condemned; there was no explaining away his companions, there could be no mistaking the meaning of their presence.
"Send your men away," said Angel.
A wild hope seized the lawyer. The men were not to be arrested, there was a chance for him.
The "Borough Lot" needed no second ordering; they trooped through the doorway, anxious to reach the open air before Angel changed his mind.
"You may go," said Angel to Connor, who still lingered.
"If the safe is to be opened, I'm in it," was the sullen reply.
"You may go," said Angel; "the safe will not be opened tonight."
"Go!" thundered the detective, and Connor slunk away.
Angel beckoned the commissionaire who had first interrogated Spedding.
"Take charge of that bag, Carter. There are all sorts of things in it that go off." Then he turned to the lawyer.
"Mr. Spedding, there is a great deal that I have to say to you, but it would be better to defer our conversation; the genuine guard will return in a few minutes. I told them to return at 10 o'clock."
"By what authority?" blustered Spedding.
"Tush!" said Angel wearily. "Surely we have got altogether beyond that stage. Your order for withdrawal was expected by me. I waited upon the sergeant of the guard with another order."
"A forged order, I gather?" said Spedding, recovering his balance. "Now I see why you have allowed my men to go. I overrated your generosity."
"The order," said Angel soberly, "was signed by His Majesty's Secretary of State for Home Affairs" he tapped the astonished lawyer on the shoulder "and if it would interest you to know, I have a warrant in my pocket for the arrest of every man jack of you. That I do not put it into execution is a matter of policy."
The lawyer scanned the calm face of the detective in bewilderment.
"What do you want of me?" he asked at length.
"Your presence at Jimmy's flat at ten o'clock tomorrow morning," replied Angel.
"I will be there," said the other, and turned to go.
"And, Mr. Spedding," called Jimmy, as the lawyer reached the door, "in regard to a boat you have chartered from Cardiff, I think you need not go any further in the matter. One of my men is at present interviewing the captain, and pointing out to him the enormity of the offence of carrying fugitives from justice to Spanish-American ports."
"Damn you!" said Spedding, and slammed the door.
Jimmy removed the commissionaire's cap from his head and grinned.
"One of these fine days, Angel, you'll lose your job, introducing the Home Secretary's name. Phew!"
"It had to be done," said Angel sadly. "It hurts me to lie, but I couldn't very well tell Spedding that the sergeant of the commissionaires had been one of my own men all along, could I?"