"HALLO, Johnny! Running for the compensation stakes?"
"You mean the maid? She is rather pretty, isn't she?"
"Very," said the other.
Had he heard? That was a question and a fear in Johnny's mind. The marble bench was less than six feet from the bush where Peter Kane stood. If he had been there any time—
"Been waiting long for me, Peter?" he asked.
"No! I just saw you take a farewell of Lila—very nice girl, that, Johnny—an extraordinarily nice girl. I don't know when I've seen a nicer. What did you find to talk about?"
"The weather, dicky-birds and the course of true love," said Johnny, as Kane took his arm and led him across the lawn.
"Everything variable and flighty, eh?" said Peter with a little smile. "Come and eat, Johnny. These people are going away soon. Marney is changing now. What do you think of my new son-in-law, eh?"
His old jovial manner held. When they came into the big reception-room, and Peter Kane's arm went round his son-in-law's shoulder, Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God he did not know! He had sweated in his fear of what might follow a discovery.
Thirty-six people sat down in the dining-room, and, contrary to convention, Marney, who sat at the head of the table, was wearing her going-away dress. John shot a quick glance at her as he came in, but she averted her eyes. Her father sat on her left; next to him was the clergyman who had performed the ceremony. Next came a girl friend, and then a man, by whose side Johnny sat.
He recognised the leathery features instantly.
"Been away, Johnny?" Detective-Superintendent Craig asked the question in a voice so carefully pitched that it did not reach any farther than the man to whom he spoke.
The chatter and buzz of conversation, the little ripples of laughter that ran up and down the table, did something to make the privacy of their talk assured.
As Old Barney bent over to serve a dish, Craig gave a sidelong glance at his companion.
"Peter's got old Barney still—keeping honest, Barney?"
"I'm naturally that way," said Barney sotto voce. "It's not meeting policemen that keeps me straight."
The hard features of the detective relaxed.
"There are lots of other people who could say that, Barney," he said, and when the man had passed to the next guest: "He's all right. Barney never was a bad man. I think he only did one stretch—he wouldn't have done that if he'd had Peter's imagination, Johnny."
"I'm not referring to his present imagination, but the gift he had fourteen—fifteen years ago. Peter was the cleverest of them all. The brilliant way his attack was planned, the masterly line of retreat, the wonderful alibis, so beautifully dovetailed into one another that, if we had pinched him, he'd not only have been discharged, but he would have got something from the poor box! It used to be the life ambition of every young officer to catch him, to find some error of judgment, some flaw in his plan. But it was police-proof and foolproof."
"He'd blush to hear you," said the other dryly.
"But it's true, Johnny! The clever letters he used to write, all to fool us. He did a lot of work with letters—getting people together, luring 'em to the place he wanted 'em and where their presence served him best. I remember how he got my chief to be at Charing Cross under the clock at ten-past nine, and showed up himself and made him prove-his alibi!" He laughed gently.
"I suppose," said Gray, "people would think it remarkable that you and he are such good friends?"
"They wouldn't say it was remarkable; they'd say it was damned suspicious!" growled the other. "Having a drink?" he said suddenly, and pulled a wine bottle across the table.
"No, thanks—I seldom drink. We have to keep a very clear head in our business. We can't afford to dream."
"We can't afford anything else," said Craig. "Why 'our business,' old man? You're out of that?"
Johnny saw the girl look toward him. It was only a glance—but in that brief flash he saw all that he feared to see—the terror, the bewilderment, the helplessness. He set his teeth and turned abruptly to the detective.
"How is your business?" he asked.
"I'm sorry to hear that," said John Gray with mock concern, "But trade's bad everywhere, isn't it?"
"What sort of time did you have—in the country?" asked Craig, and his companion grinned.
"Wonderful! My bedroom wanted papering, but the service was quite good."
"Ah well, we live and learn," he said heavily. "I was sorry about it, Johnny, very sorry. It's a misfortune, but there's no use grieving about it. You were one of the unlucky ones. If all the people who deserved prison were in prison—why, there wouldn't be any housing problems. I hear there were quite a lot of stars there," Craig went on. "Harry Becker, and young Lew Storing – why, old Legge must have been there in your time. And another fellow—now, what's his name? The slush man—ah. Carper, that's it. Ever see him?"
"Yes; he and I were once harnessed to the same cart."
"Ah!" said Craig encouragingly. "I'll bet you heard a few things. He'd talk to you."
Craig bent toward him, lowering his voice.
"Suppose I told you a certain party coppered you, and suppose I said I've reason to believe that your copper is the man I want. Now couldn't we exchange confidences?" he asked.
"Yes, we might squeak together, and it would sound like one of those syncopated orchestras. But we won't. Honestly, Craig, I can't tell you about the Big Printer. Reeder ought to know all about him!"
"Reeder!" said the other scornfully. "An amateur! All this fal-de-lal about secret service men gets my goat! If they'd left the matter to the police, we'd have had the Big Printer—ever seen him, Johnny?"
"No," said Johnny untruthfully.
"Reeder, eh?" said the thoughtful detective. "They used to have an office man named Golden once, an old fellow that thought he could catch slushers by sitting in an office and thinking hard. Reeder isn't much better by all accounts. I saw him once, a soft fellow on the edge of senile decay!"
Craig sighed deeply, looked up and down the happy board with a bleak and grudging glance, and then: "Just for a little heart-to-heart talk, I know where you could get an easy 'monkey,' Johnny," he said softly.
Johnny did not smile.
"It would have to be a monkey on a stick, Craig—"
"We're both men of the world," interrupted the detective imploringly.
"Yes," said Johnny Gray, "but not the same world, Craig."
One last despairing effort the detective made, though he knew that, in angling for a squeak, he might as well have tried Peter himself.
"The Bank of England will pay a thousand pounds for the information I want."
"And who can afford it better?" said Johnny heartily. "Now, shut up, Craig; somebody's going to make a speech."
It was a mild and beatific oration delivered by the officiating clergyman. When it came to its machine-made peroration Craig, who was intensely interested in the sonorous platitudes, looked round and saw that his companion had gone from his side—later he saw him leaning over Peter's chair, and Peter was nodding vigorously. Then Johnny passed through the door.
Somebody else was watching him. The bridegroom, twiddling the stem of his wineglass between his fingers, saw him go, and was more than ordinarily interested. He was sufficiently curious, at any rate, to catch the eye of the pretty maid and look significantly at the door. At that signal Lila followed Johnny Gray. He was not in the hall, and she went out into the road, but here saw no sign of the man she sought. There was, however, somebody else, and she obeyed his call to her.
"Tell Jeff I want him before he starts on that honeymoon of his," snarled Emanuel Legge, glaring at her through the glasses. "He's been talking to that girl—I saw her face. What did he say?"
"How do I know?" she Snapped back. "You and your Jeff! I wish to the Lord I'd never come into this job. What's the graft, anyway? That flash crook knows all about it, Legge."
"Wh—Johnny Gray? Is he here? He did come, then?"
"What do you mean—'he knows'?"
"He knows Jeff—recognised him first pop," said the girl inelegantly, and Emanuel Legge whistled.
"Have you told Jeff that he has been recognised?"
The harsh features of Emanuel Legge were drawn and tense.
"What is the use of asking me? I haven't had a word with him. He's so taken up with this girl—"
"Forget it," said Legge with a gesture. "Tell me what this Johnny Gray says."
"I'll tell you one thing that amused me," said the girl grimly. "He said he'd throttle me if I squeaked! And he's got a fascinating pair of hands. I shouldn't like to play rough with that fellow—there's no use in tut-tutting me, Emanuel. I've told you all he said. He knows Jeff; he must have seen him before he went 'over the Alps'."
The old man was thinking, his brow furrowed, his lips pursed.
"It's pretty bad if he guesses, because he's sweet on the girl, and there's going to be trouble. Get Jeff out quick!"
"If you stay here, Peter will see you," she warned him. "Go down the lane and turn into the private path. I'll send Jeff to you in the lower garden." Nodding, he hurried away. It took her some time to find an opportunity, but presently she signalled the man with her eyes, and he followed her to the lawn.
"The old man's waiting down in the lower garden," she said in a low voice. "Hurry."
"What is wrong?" he asked quickly, sensing trouble.
"He'll tell you."
With a glance round Jeff hurried on to the terrace just as his father reached the rendezvous.
"Jeff, Gray knows."
The man drew a quick breath. "Me?" he said incredulously. "He didn't so much as bat a lid when I met him."
"That fellow's hell cool—the most dangerous crook in the world. I was in the Awful Place with him, and I know his reputation. There's nothing he's afraid of. If he tells Peter… shoot first! Peter won't be carrying a gun, but he's sure to have one within travelling distance—and Peter is a quick mover. I'll cover you; I've got two boys handy that 'mind' me, and Johnny… well, he'll get what's coming."
"What am I to do?"
Jeff Legge was biting his nails thoughtfully.
"Get the girl away—you're due to leave by car, ain't you? Get her to the Charlton Hotel. You're supposed to stay there a week—make it a day. Clear to Switzerland to-morrow and atop her writing. I'll fix Peter. He'll pay."
"To get his girl back; forty thousand—maybe more."
Jeff Legge whistled.
"I didn't see that side of the graft before. It's a new variety of
"It's what I choose to call it!" hissed his father. "You're in fifty-fifty. You can have the lot so far as I care. You make that girl eat dirt, d'ye hear? Put her right down to earth, Jeff… Peter will pay."
"I promised Lila… " began the other, hesitant.
"Promise your Aunt Rebecca Jane!" Emanuel almost screamed. "Lila! That trash, and you the big man, too—what are ye running? A girls' refuge society? Get!"
"What about Gray?"
"I'll fix Gray!"