Room 13

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Chapter 20

WALKING down Regent Street one morning, Johnny Gray saw a familiar face—a man standing on the kerb selling penny trinkets. The face was oddly familiar, but he had gone on a dozen paces before he could recall where he had seen him before, and turned back. The man knew him; at any rate, his uncouth features twisted in a smile.

"Good morning, my lord," he said. "What about a toy balloon for the baby?"

"Your name is Fenner, isn't it?" said Johnny with a good-humoured gesture of refusal.

"That's me. Captain. I didn't think you'd recognised me. How's business?"

"Quiet," said Johnny conventionally. "What are you doing?"

The man shrugged his enormous shoulders.

"Selling these, and filling in the time with a little sluicing."

Johnny shook his head reprovingly. "'Sluicing' in the argot indicates a curious method of livelihood. In public wash-places, where men strip off their coats to wash their hands for luncheon, there are fine pickings to be had by a man with quick fingers and a knowledge of human nature."

"Did you ever get your towelling*?"

[*Flogging]

"No," said the other contemptuously and with a deep growl. "I knew they couldn't, that's why I coshed the screw. I was too near my time. If I ever see old man Legge, by God I'll—"

Jimmy raised his fingers. A policeman was strolling past, and was eyeing the two suspiciously. Apparently, if he regarded Fenner with disfavour, Johnny's respectability redeemed the association.

"Poor old 'flattie'!" said Fenner as the officer passed. "What a life!"

The man looked him up and down amusedly.

"You seem to have struck it, Gray," he said, with no touch of envy. "What's your graft?"

Johnny smiled faintly.

"It is one you'll find difficult to understand, Fenner. I am being honest!"

"That's certainly a new one on me," said the other frankly. "Have you seen old Emanuel?" His voice was now quite calm. "Great fellow, Emanuel! And young Emanuel—Jeffrey—what a lad!"

There was a glint in his eyes as he scrutinised Johnny that told that young man he knew much more of recent happenings than he was prepared to state. And his next words supported that view.

"You keep away from the Legge lot. Captain," he said earnestly. "They are no good to anybody, and least of all to a man who's had an education like yours. I owe Legge one, and I'll pet him, but I'm not thinking about that so much as young Jeff. You're the fellow he would go after, because you dress like a swell and you look like a swell—the very man to put 'slush' about without anybody tumbling."

"The Big Printer, eh?" said Johnny, with that quizzical smile of his.

"The Big Printer," repeated the other gravely. "And he is a big printer. You hear all sorts of lies down on the moor, but that's true. Jeff's got the biggest graft that's ever been worked in this country. They'll get him sooner or later, because there never was a crook game yet that hadn't got a squeak about it somewhere. And the squeak has started, judging by what I can read in the papers. Who shot him?" he asked bluntly.

Johnny shook his head.

"That is what is known as a mystery," he said, and, seeing the man's eyes keenly searching his face, he laughed aloud. "It wasn't me, Fenner. I'll assure you on that point. And as to me being a friend of Jeff"—he made a wry little face—"that isn't like me either. How are you off for money?"

"Rotten," said the other laconically, and Johnny slipped a couple of Treasury notes on to the tray. He was turning away when the man called him back. "Keep out of boob," he said significantly. "And don't think I'm handing round good advice. I'm not thinking of Dartmoor. There are other boobs that are worse—I can tell you that, because I've seen most of them."

He gathered up the money on the tray without so much as a word of thanks, and put it in his waistcoat pocket.

"Keytown Jail is the worst prison in England," he said, not looking at his benefactor but staring straight ahead. "The very worst—don't forget that. Gray. Keytown Prison is the worst boob in England; and if you ever find yourself there, do something to get out. So-long!"

The mentality of the criminal had been a subject for vicarious study during Johnny's stay in Dartmoor, and he mused on the man's words as he continued his walk along Regent Street. Here was a man offering advice which he himself had never taken. The moral detachment of old lags was no new phenomenon to Johnny. He had listened for hours to the wise admonitions and warnings of convicts, who would hardly be free from the fusty cell of the prison before they would be planning new villainies, new qualifications for their return.

He had never heard of Keytown Jail before, but it was not remarkable that Fenner should have some special grudge against a particular jail. The criminal classes have their likes and their dislikes; they loathed Wandsworth and preferred Pentonville, or vice versa, for no especial reason. There were those who swore by Parkhurst; others regarded Dartmoor as home, and bitterly resented any suggestion that they should be transferred to the island prison.

So musing, he bumped into Craig. The collision was not accidental, for Craig had put himself in the way of the abstracted young man.

"What are you planning, Johnny—a jewel robbery, or just ringing the changes on the Derby favourite?"

Johnny chuckled.

"Neither. I was at that moment wondering what there was particularly bad about Keytown Jail. Where is Keytown Jail, by the way?"

"Keytown? I don't remember—oh, yes, I do. Just outside Oxford. Why?"

"Somebody was telling me it was the worst prison in England."

"They are all the worst, Johnny," said Craig. "And if you're thinking out a summer holiday, I can't recommend either. Keytown was pretty bad," he admitted. "It is a little country jail, but it is no longer in the Prison Commissioners' hands. They sold it after the war, when they closed down so many of these little prisons. The policy now is to enlarge the bigger places and cut out these expensive little boobs that cost money to staff. They closed Hereford Jail in the same way, and half a dozen others, I should think. So you needn't bother about Keytown," he smiled bleakly. "One of your criminal acquaintances has been warning you, I guess?"

"You've guessed right," said Johnny, and advanced no information, knowing that, if Craig continued his walk, he would sooner or later see the toy pedlar.

"Mr. Jeffrey Legge is making a good recovery," said the detective, changing the subject: "and there are great rejoicings at Scotland Yard. If there is one man we want to keep alive until he is hanged in a scientific and lawful manner, it is Mr. Jeffrey Legge. I know what you're going to say—we've got nothing on him. That is true. Jeffrey has been too clever for us. He has got his father skinned to death in that respect. He makes no mistakes—a rare quality in a forger; he carries no 'slush,' keeps none in his lodgings. I can tell you that, because we've pulled him in twice on suspicion, and searched him from occiput to tendo achilles. Forgive the anatomical terms, but anatomy is my hobby. Hallo!"

He was looking across the street at a figure which was not unfamiliar to Johnny. Mr. Reeder wore a shabby frock-coat and a somewhat untidy silk hat on the back of his head. Beneath his arm he carried a partially furled umbrella. His hands, covered in grey cotton gloves (at a distance Johnny thought they were suede), were clasped behind him. His spectacles were, as usual, so far down his nose that they seemed in danger of slipping over.

"Do you know that gentleman?"

"Man named Reeder, isn't it? He's a 'busy'."

Craig's lips twitched.

"He's certainly a 'busy 'of sorts," he said dryly, "but not of our sort."

"He is a bank-man, isn't he?" asked Johnny, watching Mr. Reeder's slow and awkward progress.

"He is in the employ of the bank," said the detective, "and he's not such a fool as he looks. I happen to know. He was down seeing young Legge yesterday. I was curious enough to put a man on to trail him. And he knows more about young Legge than I gave him credit for."

When Johnny parted from the detective, Mr. Reeder had passed out of sight. Crossing Piccadilly Circus, however, he saw the elderly man waiting in a bus queue, and interestedly stood and watched him until the bus arrived and Mr. Reeder boarded the machine and disappeared into its interior. As the bus drew away, Johnny raised his eyes to the destination board and saw that it was Victoria.

"I wonder," said Johnny, speaking his thought aloud.

For Victoria is the railway station for Horsham.

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