He is somewhat over fifty, a long-faced gentleman with sandy-grey hair and a slither of side whiskers that mercifully distract attention from his large outstanding ears. A high and flat-crowned bowler hat matches and yet does not match a frockcoat tightly buttoned across his sparse chest. His boots are square-toed, his cravat is ready-made. In short, he seems to be a rather harmless, somewhat eccentric gentleman. But it is fatal to underestimate Mr. J.G. Reeder ...
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The Poetical Policeman
The Treasure Hunt
The Stealer of Marble
The Green Mamba
The Strange Case
The day Mr. Reeder arrived at the Public Prosecutor’s office was indeed a day of fate for Mr. Lambton Green, Branch Manager of the London Scottish and Midland Bank.
That branch of the bank which Mr. Green controlled was situate at the corner of Pell Street and Firling Avenue on the ‘country side’ of Ealing. It is a fairly large building and, unlike most suburban branch offices, the whole of the premises were devoted to banking business, for the bank carried very heavy deposits, the Lunar Traction Company, with three thousand people on its pay-roll, the Associated Novelties Corporation, with its enormous turnover, and the Lara-phone Company being only three of the L. S. M.’s customers.
On Wednesday afternoons, in preparation for the pay days of these corporations, large sums in currency were brought from the head office and deposited in the steel and concrete strong-room, which was immediately beneath Mr. Green’s private office, but admission to which was gained through a steel door in the general office. This door was observable from the street, and to assist observation there was a shaded lamp fixed to the wall immediately above, which threw a powerful beam of light upon the door. Further security was ensured by the employment of a night watchman, Arthur Malling, an army pensioner.
The bank lay on a restricted police beat which had been so arranged that the constable on patrol passed the bank every forty minutes. It was his practice to look through the window and exchange signals with the night watchman, his orders being to wait until Malling appeared.
On the night of October 17th Police Constable Burnett stopped as usual before the wide peep-hole and glanced into the bank. The first thing he noticed was that the lamp above the strong-room door had been extinguished. The night watchman was not visible, and, his suspicions aroused, the officer did not wait for the man to put in an appearance as he would ordinarily have done, but passed the window to the door, which, to his alarm, he found ajar. Pushing it open, he entered the bank, calling Malling by name.
There was no answer.
Permeating the air was a faint, sweet scent which he could not locate. The general offices were empty and, entering the manager’s room in which a light burnt, he saw a figure stretched upon the ground. It was the night watchman. His wrists were handcuffed, two straps had been tightly buckled about his knees and ankles.
The explanation for the strange and sickly aroma was now clear. Above the head of the prostrate man was suspended, by a wire hooked to the picture-rail, an old tin can, the bottom of which was perforated so that there fell an incessant trickle of some volatile liquid upon the thick cotton pad which covered Malling’s face.
Burnett, who had been wounded in the war, had instantly recognised the smell of chloroform and, dragging the unconscious man into the outer office, snatched the pad from his face and, leaving him only long enough to telephone to the police station, sought vainly to bring him to consciousness.
The police reserves arrived within a few minutes, and with them the divisional surgeon who, fortunately, had been at the station when the alarm came through. Every effort to restore the unfortunate man to life proved unavailing.
‘He was probably dead when he was found,’ was the police doctor’s verdict. ‘What those scratches are on his right palm is a mystery.’
He pulled open the clenched fist and showed half a dozen little scratches. They were recent, for there was a smear of blood on the palm.
Burnett was sent at once to arouse Mr. Green, the manager, who lived in Firling Avenue, at the corner of which the bank stood; a street of semi-detached villas of a pattern familiar enough to the Londoner. As the officer walked through the little front garden to the door he saw a light through the panels, and he had hardly knocked before the door was opened and Mr. Lambton Green appeared, fully dressed and, to the officer’s discerning eye, in a state of considerable agitation. Constable Burnett saw on a hall chair a big bag, a travelling rug and an umbrella.
The little manager listened, pale as death, whilst Burnett told him of his discovery.
‘The bank robbed? Impossible!’ he almost shrieked. ‘My God! this is awful!’
He was so near the point of collapse that Burnett had to assist him into the street.
‘I—I was going away on a holiday,’ he said incoherently, as he walked up the dark thoroughfare towards the bank premises. ‘The fact is—I was leaving the bank. I left a note explaining to the directors.’
Into a circle of suspicious men the manager tottered. He unlocked the drawer of his desk, looked and crumbled up.
‘They’re not here!’ he said wildly. ‘I left them here—my keys—with the note!’
And then he swooned. When the dazed man recovered he found himself in a police cell and, later in the day, he drooped before a police magistrate, supported by two constables and listened, like a man in a dream, to a charge of causing the death of Arthur Malling, and further, of converting to his own use the sum of £ 100,000.
It was on the morning of the first remand that Mr. John G. Reeder, with some reluctance for he was suspicious of all Government departments, transferred himself from his own office on Lower Regent Street to a somewhat gloomy bureau on the top floor of the building which housed the Public Prosecutor. In making this change he advanced only one stipulation: that he should be connected by private telephone wire with his old bureau.
He did not demand this—he never demanded anything. He asked, nervously and apologetically. There was a certain wistful helplessness about John G. Reeder that made people feel sorry for him, that caused even the Public Prosecutor a few uneasy moments of doubt as to whether he had been quite wise in substituting this weak-appearing man of middle age for Inspector Holford—bluff, capable and heavily mysterious.
Mr. Reeder was something over fifty, a long-faced gentleman with sandy-grey hair and a slither of side whiskers that mercifully distracted attention from his large outstanding ears. He wore half-way down his nose a pair of steel-rimmed pince-nez, through which nobody had ever seen him look—they were invariably removed when he was reading. A high and flat-crowned bowler hat matched and yet did not match a frockcoat tightly buttoned across his sparse chest. His boots were square-toed, his cravat—of the broad, chest-protector pattern—was ready-made and buckled into place behind a Gladstonian collar. The neatest appendage to Mr. Reeder was an umbrella rolled so tightly that it might be mistaken for a frivolous walking cane. Rain or shine, he carried this article hooked to his arm, and within living memory it had never been unfurled.
Inspector Holford (promoted now to the responsibilities of Superintendent) met him in the office to hand over his duties, and a more tangible quantity in the shape of old furniture and fixings.
‘Glad to know you, Mr. Reeder. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you before, but I’ve heard a lot about you. You’ve been doing Bank of England work, haven’t you?’
Mr. Reeder whispered that he had had that honour, and sighed as though he regretted the drastic sweep of fate that had torn him from the obscurity of his labours. Mr. Holford’s scrutiny was full of misgivings.
‘Well,’ he said awkwardly, ‘this job is different, though I’m told that you are one of the best informed men in London, and if that is the case this will be easy work. Still, we’ve never had an outsider—I mean, so to speak, a private detective—in this office before, and naturally the Yard is a bit—’
‘I quite understand,’ murmured Mr. Reeder, hanging up his immaculate umbrella. ‘It is very natural. Mr. Bolond expected the appointment. His wife is annoyed—very properly. But she has no reason to be. She is an ambitious woman. She has a third interest in a West End dancing club that might be raided one of these days.’
Holford was staggered. Here was news that was little more than a whispered rumour at Scotland Yard.
‘How the devil do you know that?’ he blurted.
Mr. Reeder’s smile was one of self-depreciation.
‘One picks up odd scraps of information,’ he said apologetically. ‘I—I see wrong in everything. That is my curious perversion—I have a criminal mind!’
Holford drew a long breath.
‘Well—there is nothing much doing. That Ealing case is pretty clear. Green is an exconvict, who got a job at the bank during the war and worked up to manager. He has done seven years for conversion.’
‘Embezzlement and conversion,’ murmured Mr. Reeder. ‘I—er—I’m afraid I was the principal witness against him: bank crimes were rather—er—a hobby of mine. Yes, he got into difficulties with moneylenders. Very foolish—extremely foolish. And he doesn’t admit his error.’ Mr. Reeder sighed heavily. ‘Poor fellow! With his life at stake one may forgive and indeed condone his pitiful prevarications.’
The inspector stared at the new man in amazement.
‘I don’t know that there is much “poor fellow” about him. He has cached £ 100,000 and told the weakest yarn that I’ve ever read—you’ll find copies of the police reports here, if you’d like to read them. The scratches on Malling’s hand are curious—they’ve found several on the other hand. They are not deep enough to suggest a struggle. As to the yarn that Green tells—’
Mr. J. G. Reeder nodded sadly.
‘It was not an ingenious story,’ he said, almost with regret. ‘If I remember rightly, his story was something like this: he had been recognised by a man who served in Dartmoor with him, and this fellow wrote a blackmailing letter telling him to pay or clear out. Sooner than return to a life of crime, Green wrote out all the facts to his directors, put the letter in the drawer of his desk with his keys, and left a note for his head cashier on the desk itself, intending to leave London and try to make a fresh start where he was unknown.’
‘There were no letters in or on the desk, and no keys,’ said the inspector decisively. ‘The only true part of the yarn was that he had done time.’
‘Imprisonment,’ suggested Mr. Reeder plaintively. He had a horror of slang. ‘Yes, that was true.’
Left alone in his office, he spent a very considerable time at his private telephone, communing with the young person who was still a young person, although the passage of time had dealt unkindly with her. For the rest of the morning he was reading the depositions which his predecessor had put on the desk.
It was late in the afternoon when the Public Prosecutor strolled into his room and glanced at the big pile of manuscript through which his subordinate was wading.
‘What are you reading—the Green business?’ he asked, with a note of satisfaction in his voice. ‘I’m glad that is interesting you, though it seems a fairly straightforward case. I have had a letter from the president of the man’s bank, who for some reason seems to think Green was telling the truth.’
Mr. Reeder looked up with that pained expression of his which he invariably wore when he was puzzled.
‘Here is the evidence of Policeman Burnett,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you can enlighten me, sir. Policeman Burnett stated in his evidence—let me read it:
‘Some time before I reached the bank premises I saw a man standing at the corner of the street, immediately outside the bank. I saw him distinctly in the light of a passing mail van. I did not attach any importance to his presence, and I did not see him again. It was possible for this man to have gone round the block and come to 120, Firling Avenue without being seen by me. Immediately after I saw him, my foot struck against a piece of iron on the sidewalk. I put my lamp on the object and found it was an old horseshoe. I had seen children playing with this particular shoe earlier in the evening. When I looked again towards the corner, the man had disappeared. He would have seen the light of my lamp. I saw no other person, and so far as I can remember, there was no light showing in Green’s house when I passed it.’
Mr. Reeder looked up.
‘Well?’ said the Prosecutor. ‘There’s nothing remarkable about that. It was probably Green, who dodged round the block and came in at the back of the constable.’
Mr. Reeder scratched his chin.
‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘ye–es.’ He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Would it be considered indecorous if I made a few inquiries, independent of the police?’ he asked nervously. ‘I should not like them to think that a mere dilettante was interfering with their lawful functions.’
‘By all means,’ said the Prosecutor heartily. ‘Go down and see the officer in charge of the case: I’ll give you a note to him—it is by no means unusual for my officer to conduct a separate investigation, though I am afraid you will discover very little. The ground has been well covered by Scotland Yard.’
‘It would be permissible to see the man?’ hesitated Reeder.
‘Green? Why, of course! I will send you up the necessary order.’
The light was fading from a grey, blustering sky, and rain was falling fitfully, when Mr. Reeder, with his furled umbrella hooked to his arm, his coat collar turned up, stepped through the dark gateway of Brixton Prison and was led to the cell where a distracted man sat, his head upon his hands, his pale eyes gazing into vacancy.
‘It’s true; it’s true! Every word.’ Green almost sobbed the words.
A pallid man, inclined to be bald, with a limp yellow moustache, going grey. Reeder, with his extraordinary memory for faces, recognised him the moment he saw him, though it was some time before the recognition was mutual.
‘Yes, Mr. Reeder, I remember you now. You were the gentleman who caught me before. But I’ve been as straight as a die. I’ve never taken a farthing that didn’t belong to me. What my poor girl will think—’
‘Are you married?’ asked Mr. Reeder sympathetically.
‘No, but I was going to be—rather late in life. She’s nearly thirty years younger than me, and the best girl that ever—’
Reeder listened to the rhapsody that followed, the melancholy deepening in his face.
‘She hasn’t been into the court, thank God, but she knows the truth. A friend of mine told me that she has been absolutely knocked out.’
‘Poor soul!’ Mr. Reeder shook his head.
‘It happened on her birthday, too,’ the man went on bitterly.
‘Did she know you were going away?’
‘Yes, I told her the night before. I’m not going to bring her into the case. If we’d been properly engaged it would be different; but she’s married and is divorcing her husband, but the decree hasn’t been made absolute yet. That’s why I never went about with her or saw much of her. And of course, nobody knew about our engagement, although we lived in the same street.’
‘Firling Avenue?’ asked Reeder, and the bank manager nodded despondently.
‘She was married when she was seventeen to a brute. It was pretty galling for me, having to keep quiet about it—I mean, for nobody to know about our engagement. All sorts of rotten people were making up to her, and I had just to grind my teeth and say nothing. Impossible people! Why, that fool Burnett, who arrested me, he was sweet on her; used to write her poetry—you wouldn’t think it possible in a policeman, would you?’
The outrageous incongruity of a poetical policeman did not seem to shock the detective.
‘There is poetry in every soul, Mr. Green,’ he said gently, ‘and a policeman is a man.’
Though he dismissed the eccentricity of the constable so lightly, the poetical policeman filled his mind all the way home to his house in the Brockley Road, and occupied his thoughts for the rest of his waking time.
It was a quarter to eight o’clock in the morning, and the world seemed entirely populated by milkmen and whistling newspaper boys, when Mr. J. G. Reeder came into Firling Avenue.
He stopped only for a second outside the bank, which had long since ceased to be an object of local awe and fearfulness, and pursued his way down the broad avenue. On either side of the thoroughfare ran a row of pretty villas—pretty although they bore a strong family resemblance to one another; each house with its little forecourt, sometimes laid out simply as a grass plot, sometimes decorated with flower-beds. Green’s house was the eighteenth in the road on the right-hand side. Here he had lived with a cook-housekeeper, and apparently gardening was not his hobby, for the forecourt was covered with grass that had been allowed to grow at its will.
Before the twenty-sixth house in the road Mr. Reeder paused and gazed with mild interest at the blue blinds which covered every window. Evidently Miss Magda Grayne was a lover of flowers, for geraniums filled the window-boxes and were set at intervals along the tiny border under the bow window. In the centre of the grass plot was a circular flower-bed with one flowerless rose tree, the leaves of which were drooping and brown.
As he raised his eyes to the upper window, the blind went up slowly, and he was dimly conscious that there was a figure behind the white lace curtains. Mr. Reeder walked hurriedly away, as one caught in an immodest act, and resumed his peregrinations until he came to the big nursery gardener’s which formed the corner lot at the far end of the road.
Here he stood for some time in contemplation, his arm resting on the iron railings, his eyes staring blankly at the vista of greenhouses. He remained in this attitude so long that one of the nurserymen, not unnaturally thinking that a stranger was seeking a way into the gardens, came over with the laborious gait of the man who wrings his living from the soil, and asked if he was wanting anybody.
‘Several people,’ sighed Mr. Reeder, ‘several people!’
Leaving the resentful man to puzzle out his impertinence, he slowly retraced his steps. At No. 412 he stopped again, opened the little iron gate and passed up the path to the front door. A small girl answered his knock and ushered him into the parlour.
The room was not well furnished; it was scarcely furnished at all. A strip of almost new linoleum covered the passage; the furniture of the parlour itself was made up of wicker chairs, a square of art carpet and a table. He heard the sound of feet above his head, feet on bare boards, and then presently the door opened and a girl came in.
She was pretty in a heavy way, but on her face he saw the marks of sorrow. It was pale and haggard; the eyes looked as though she had been recently weeping.
‘Miss Magda Grayne?’ he asked, rising as she came in.
‘Are you from the police?’ she asked quickly.
‘Not exactly the police,’ he corrected carefully. ‘I hold an—er—an appointment in the office of the Public Prosecutor, which is analogous, to, but distinct from, a position in the Metropolitan Police Force.’
She frowned, and then:
‘I wondered if anybody would come to see me,’ she said. ‘Mr. Green sent you?’
‘Mr. Green told me of your existence; he did not send me.’
There came to her face in that second a look which almost startled him. Only for a fleeting space of time, the expression had dawned and passed almost before the untrained eye could detect its passage.
‘I was expecting somebody to come,’ she said. Then: ‘What made him do it?’ she asked.
‘You think he is guilty?’
‘The police think so.’ She drew a long sigh. ‘I wish to God I had never seen this place!’
He did not answer; his eyes were roving round the apartment. On a bamboo table was an old vase which had been clumsily filled with golden chrysanthemums, of a peculiarly beautiful variety. Not all, for amidst them flowered a large Michaelmas daisy that had the forlorn appearance of a parvenu that had strayed by mistake into noble company.
‘You’re fond of flowers?’ he murmured.
She looked at the vase indifferently.
‘Yes, I like flowers,’ she said. ‘The girl put them in there.’ Then: ‘Do you think they will hang him?’
The brutality of the question, put without hesitation, pained Reeder.
‘It is a very serious charge,’ he said. And then: ‘Have you a photograph of Mr. Green?’
‘Yes; do you want it?’
She had hardly left the room before he was at the bamboo table and had lifted out the flowers. As he had seen through the glass, they were roughly tied with a piece of string. He examined the ends, and here again his first observation had been correct: none of these flowers had been cut; they had been plucked bodily from their stalks. Beneath the string was the paper which had been first wrapped about the stalks. It was a page torn from a notebook; he could see the red lines, but the pencilled writing was indecipherable.
As her foot sounded on the stairs, he replaced the flowers in the vase, and when she came in he was looking through the window into the street.
‘Thank you,’ he said, as he took the photograph from her.
It bore an affectionate inscription on the back.
‘You’re married, he tells me, madam?’
‘Yes, I am married, and practically divorced,’ she said shortly.
‘Have you been living here long?’
‘About three months,’ she answered. ‘It was his wish that I should live here.’
He looked at the photograph again.
‘Do you know Constable Burnett?’
He saw a dull flush come to her face and die away again.
‘Yes, I know the sloppy fool!’ she said viciously. And then, realising that she had been surprised into an expression which was not altogether ladylike, she went on, in a softer tone: ‘Mr. Burnett is rather sentimental, and I don’t like sentimental people, especially—well, you understand, Mr.—’
‘Reeder,’ murmured that gentleman.
‘You understand, Mr. Reeder, that when a girl is engaged and in my position, those kind of attentions are not very welcome.’
Reeder was looking at her keenly. Of her sorrow and distress there could be no doubt. On the subject of the human emotions, and the ravages they make upon the human countenance, Mr. Reeder was almost as great an authority as Mantegazza.
‘On your birthday,’ he said. ‘How very sad! You were born on the seventeenth of October. You are English, of course?’
‘Yes, I’m English,’ she said shortly. ‘I was born in Walworth—in Wallington. I once lived in Walworth.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty-three,’ she answered.
Mr. Reeder took off his glasses and polished them on a large silk handkerchief.
‘The whole thing is inexpressibly sad,’ he said. ‘I am glad to have had the opportunity of speaking with you, young lady. I sympathise with you very deeply.’
And in this unsatisfactory way he took his departure.
She closed the door on him, saw him stop in the middle of the path and pick up something from a border bed, and wondered, frowning, why this middle-aged man had picked up the horseshoe she had thrown through the window the night before. Into Mr. Reeder’s tail pocket went this piece of rusted steel and then he continued his thoughtful way to the nursery gardens, for he had a few questions to ask.
The men of Section 10 were parading for duty when Mr. Reeder came timidly into the charge room and produced his credentials to the inspector in charge.
‘Oh, yes, Mr. Reeder,’ said that officer affably. ‘We have had a note from the P. P.’s office, and I think I had the pleasure of working with you on that big slush case a few years ago. Now what can I do for you? ... Burnett? Yes, he’s here.’
He called the man’s name and a young and good-looking officer stepped from the ranks.
‘He’s the man who discovered the murder—he’s marked for promotion,’ said the inspector. ‘Burnett, this gentleman is from the Public Prosecutor’s office and he wants a little talk with you. Better use my office, Mr. Reeder.’
The young policeman saluted and followed the shuffling figure into the privacy of the inspector’s office. He was a confident young man; already his name and portrait had appeared in the newspapers, the hint of promotion had become almost an accomplished fact, and before his eyes was the prospect of a supreme achievement.
‘They tell me that you are something of a poet, officer,’ said Mr. Reeder.
‘Why, yes, sir. I write a bit,’ he confessed.
‘Love poems, yes?’ asked the other gently. ‘One finds time in the night—er—for such fancies. And there is no inspiration like—er—love, officer.’
Burnett’s face was crimson.
‘I’ve done a bit of writing in the night, sir,’ he said, ‘though I’ve never neglected my duty.’
‘Naturally,’ murmured Mr. Reeder. ‘You have a poetical mind. It was a poetical thought to pluck flowers in the middle of the night—’
‘The nurseryman told me I could take any flowers I wanted,’ Burnett interrupted hastily. ‘I did nothing wrong.’
Reeder inclined his head in agreement.
‘That I know. You picked the flowers in the dark—by the way, you inadvertently included a Michaelmas daisy with your chrysanthemums—tied up your little poem to them and left them on the doorstep with—er—a horseshoe. I wondered what had become of that horseshoe.’
‘I threw them up on to her—to the lady’s windowsill,’ corrected the uncomfortable young man. ‘As a matter of fact, the idea didn’t occur to me until I had passed the house—’
Mr. Reeder’s face was thrust forward.
‘This is what I want to confirm,’ he said softly. ‘The idea of leaving the flowers did not occur to you until you had passed her house? The horseshoe suggested the thought? Then you went back, picked the flowers, tied them up with the little poem you had already written, and tossed them up to her window—we need not mention the lady’s name.’
Constable Burnett’s face was a study.
‘I don’t know how you guessed that, but it is a fact. If I’ve done anything wrong—’
‘It is never wrong to be in love,’ said Mr. J. G. Reeder soberly. ‘Love is a very beautiful experience—I have frequently read about it.’
Miss Magda Grayne had dressed to go out for the afternoon and was putting on her hat, when she saw the queer man who had called so early that morning, walking up the tessellated path. Behind him she recognised a detective engaged in the case. The servant was out; nobody could be admitted except by herself. She walked quickly behind the dressing-table into the bay of the window and glanced up and down the road. Yes, there was the taxicab which usually accompanies such visitations, and, standing by the driver, another man, obviously a ‘busy.’
She pulled up the overlay of her bed, took out the flat pad of bank-notes that she found, and thrust them into her handbag, then, stepping on tiptoe, she went out to the landing, into the unfurnished back room, and, opening the window, dropped to the flat roof of the kitchen. In another minute she was in the garden and through the back gate. A narrow passage divided the two lines of villas that backed on one another. She was in High Street and had boarded a car before Mr. Reeder grew tired of knocking. To the best of his knowledge Mr. Reeder never saw her again.
At the Public Prosecutor’s request, he called at his chief’s house after dinner and told his surprising story.
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