IN a long sedate road in suburban Brockley lived a man who had apparently no fixed occupation. He was tall, thin, somewhat cadaverous, and he was known locally as a furtive night-bird. Few had seen him in the daytime, and the inquisitive who, by skilful cross-examination, endeavoured to discover his business from a reticent housekeeper learnt comparatively little, and that little inaccurate. Policemen on night duty, morning wayfarers had seen him walking up Brockley Road in the early hours, coming apparently from the direction of London. He was known as Mr. J. G. Reeder. Letters in that name came addressed to him—large blue letters, officially stamped and sealed, and in consequence it was understood in postal circles that he held a Government position.
The local police force never troubled him. He was one of the subjects which it was not permissible to discuss. Until the advent of Emanuel Legge that afternoon, nobody ever remembered Mr. Reeder having a caller.
Emanuel had come from prison to the affairs of the everyday world with a clearer perception of values than his son. He was too old a criminal to be under any illusions. Sooner or later, the net of the law would close upon Jeffrey, and the immunity which he at present enjoyed would be at an end. To every graft came its inevitable lagging. Emanuel, wise in his generation, had decided upon taking the boldest step of his career. And that he did so was not flattering to the administration of justice; nor could it be regarded as a tribute to the integrity of the police.
Emanuel had "straightened" many a young detective, and not a few advanced in years. He knew the art of "dropping "to perfection. In all his life he had only met three or four men who were superior to the well-camouflaged bribe. A hundred here and there makes things easier for the big crook; a thousand will keep him out of the limelight; but, once the light is on him, not a million can disturb the inevitable march of justice. Emanuel was working in the pre-limelight stage, and hoped for success.
If his many inquiries were truthfully answered, the police had not greatly changed since his young days. Secret service men were new to him. He had thought, in spite of the enormous sums allocated to that purpose in every year's budget, that secret service was an invention of the sensational novelist and even now, he imagined Mr. Reeder to be one who was subsidised from the comparatively private resources of the banks rather than from the Treasury.
It was Emanuel's action to grasp the nettle firmly. "Infighting is not much worse than hugging," was a favourite saying of his, and once he had located Mr. J. G. Reeder, the night-hawk—and that had been the labour of months—the rest was easy. Always providing that Mr. Reeder was amenable to argument.
The middle-aged woman who opened the door to him gave him an unpromising reception.
"Mr. Reeder is engaged," she said, "and he doesn't want to see any visitors."
"Will you kindly tell him," said Emanuel with his most winning smile and a beam of benevolence behind his thick glasses, "that Mr. Legge from Devonshire would like to see him on a very particular matter of business?"
She closed the door in his face, and kept him so long waiting that he decided that even the magic of his name and its familiar association (he guessed) had not procured him an entry. But here he was mistaken. The door was opened for him, closed and bolted behind him, and he was led up a flight of stairs to the first floor.
The house was, to all appearance, well and comfortably furnished. The room into which he was ushered, if somewhat bare and official-looking, had an austerity of its own. Sitting behind a large writing-table, his back to the fireplace, was a man whom he judged to be between fifty and
sixty. His face was thin, his expression sad. Almost on the end of his nose was clipped a pair of large, circular pince-nez. His hair was of that peculiar tint, red turning to grey, and his ears were large and prominent, seeming to go away from his head at right angles. All this Emanuel noted in a glance.
"Good morning, or good afternoon, Mr. Legge," said the man at the desk. He half rose and offered a cold and lifeless hand. "Sit down, will you?" he said wearily. "I don't as a rule receive visitors, but I seem to remember your name. Now where have I heard it?"
He dropped his chin to his breast and looked over his spectacles dolefully. Emanuel's expansive smile struck against the polished surface of his indifference and rebounded. He felt for the first time the waste of expansiveness.
"I had a little piece of information I thought I'd bring to you, Mr. Reeder," he said. "I suppose you know that I'm one of those unfortunate people who, through the treachery of others, have suffered imprisonment?"
"Yes, yes, of course," said Mr. Reeder in his weak voice, his chin still bent, his pale blue eyes fixed unwaveringly on the other. "Of course, I remember. You were the man who robbed the strong-room. Of course you were. Legge, Legge? I seem to remember the name too. Haven't you a son?"
"I have a son, the best boy in the world," said Emanuel fervently.
There was a telephone receiver at Mr. Reeder's right hand and throughout the interview he was polishing the black stem with the cuff of his alpaca coat, a nervous little trick which first amused and then irritated the caller.
"He has never been in trouble, Mr. Legge? Ah, that's a blessing," he sighed. "So many young people get into trouble nowadays."
If there was one person whom Legge did not want to discuss it was his son. He got off the subject as well as he could.
"I understand, Mr. Reeder, that you're doing special work for the Government—in the police department?"
"Not in the police department," murmured the other. "No, no, certainly not—not in the police department. I scarcely know a policeman. I see them often in the streets, and very picturesque figures they are. Mostly young men in the vigour and prime of youth. What a wonderful thing is youth, Mr. Legge! I suppose you're very proud of your son?"
"He's a good boy," said Emanuel shortly, and Mr. Reeder sighed again. "Children are a great expense," he said. "I often wonder whether I ought to be glad that I never married. What is your son by occupation, Mr. Legge?"
"An export agent," said Emanuel promptly.
"Dear, dear!" said the other, and shook his head. Emanuel did not know whether he was impressed or only sympathising.
"Being in Dartmoor, naturally I met a number of bad characters," said the virtuous Emanuel; "men who did not appeal to me, since I was perfectly innocent and only got my stretch—lagging—imprisonment through a conspiracy on the part of a man I've done many a good turn to—"
"Ingratitude," interrupted Mr. Reeder, drawing in his breath. "What a terrible thing is ingratitude! How grateful your son must be that he has a father who looks after him, who has properly educated him and brought him up in the straight way, in spite of his own deplorable lapses!"
"Now, look here, Mr. Reeder." Emanuel thought it was time to get more definitely to business. "I'm a very plain man, and I'm going to speak plainly to you. It has come to my knowledge that the gentlemen you are acting for are under the impression that my boy's got to do with the printing of 'slush'—counterfeit notes. I was never more hurt in my life than when I heard this rumour. I said to myself: 'I'll go straight away to Mr. Reeder and discuss the matter with him. I know he's a man of the world, and he will understand my feelings as a father Some people, Mr. Reeder "—his elbows were on the table and he leant over and adopted a more confidential tone—"some people get wrong impressions. Only the other day somebody was saying to me: 'That Mr. Reeder is broke. He's got three county court summonses for money owed—"
"A temporary embarrassment," murmured Mr. Reeder. "One has those periods of financial—er—depression." He was polishing the stem of the telephone more vigorously.
"I don't suppose you're very well paid? I'm taking a liberty in making that personal statement, but as a man of the world you'll understand. I know what it is to be poor. I've had some of the best society people in my office,"—Emanuel invented the office on the spur of the moment—"the highest people in the land, and if they've said: 'Mr. Legge, can you oblige me with a thousand or a couple of thousand?' why, I've pulled it out, as it were, like this."
He put his hand in his pocket and withdrew it, holding a large roll of money fastened with a rubber band.
For a second Mr. J. G. Reeder allowed his attention to be distracted, and surveyed the pile of wealth with the same detached interest which he had given to Emanuel. Then, reaching out his hand cautiously, he took the note from the top, felt it, fingered it, rustled it, and looked quickly at the watermark.
"Genuine money," he said in a hushed voice, and handed the note back with apparent reluctance.
"If a man is broke," said Legge emphatically, "I don't care who he is or what he is, I say: 'Is a thousand or two thousand any good to you?"
"And is it?" asked Mr. Reeder.
"Is what?" said Emanuel, taken off his guard.
"Is it any good to him?"
"Well, of course it is," said Legge. "My point is this; a gentleman may be very hard pressed, and yet be the most solvent person in the world. If he can only get a couple of thousand just when he wants it—why, there's no scandal, no appearance in court which might injure him in his job—"
"How very true! How very, very true!" Mr. Reeder seemed profoundly touched. "I hope you pass on these wise and original statements to your dear son, Mr. Legge?" he said. "What a splendid thing it is that he has such a father!"
Emanuel cursed him under his breath.
"Two thousand pounds," mused Mr. Reeder. "Now, if you had said five thousand pounds—"
"I do say five thousand," said Emanuel eagerly. "I'm not going to spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar."
"If you had said five thousand pounds," Mr. Reeder went on, "I should have known that three thousand was 'slush,' or shall we say 'phoney'—because you only drew two thousand from the City and Birmingham Bank this morning, all in hundred pound notes, series GI.19721 to 19740. Correct me if I'm wrong. Of course, you might have some other genuine money stowed away in your little hotel, Mr. Legge; or your dear boy may have given you another three thousand as a sort of wedding present—I forgot, though, a bridegroom doesn't give wedding presents, does he? He receives them. How foolish of me! Put away your money, Mr. Legge. This room is very draughty, and it might catch cold. Do you ever go to the Hilly Fields? It is a delightful spot. You must come to tea with me one Sunday, and we will go up and hear the band. It is a very inexpensive but satisfactory method of spending two hours. As to those judgment summonses,"—he coughed, and rubbed his nose with his long forefinger—"those summonses were arranged in order to bring you here, I did so want to meet you, and I knew the bait of my impecuniosity would be almost irresistible."
Emanuel Legge sat, dumbfounded.
"Do you know a man named 'Golden'? Ah, he would be before your time. Have you ever heard of him? He was my predecessor. I don't think you met him. He had a great saying—set a 'brief' to catch a thief. We called a note a 'brief 'in those days. Good afternoon, Mr. Legge. You will find your way down."
Legge rose, and with that the sad-faced man dropped his eyes and resumed the work he had been at when the visitor had interrupted him.
"I only want to say this, Mr. Reeder—" began Legge.
"Tell my housekeeper," pleaded Reeder weakly, and he did not look up. "She's frightfully interested in fairy stories—I think she must be getting towards her second childhood. Good afternoon, Mr. Legge."