THE KNAVE OF CLUBS
They picked up the young man called "Snow" Gregory from a Lambeth gutter, and he was dead before the policeman on point duty in Waterloo Road, who had heard the shots, came upon the scene.
He had been shot in his tracks on a night of snow and storm and none saw the murder.
When they got him to the mortuary and searched his clothes they found nothing except a little tin box of white powder which proved to be cocaine, and a playing card--the Jack of Clubs!
His associates had called him "Snow" Gregory because he was a doper, and cocaine is invariably referred to as "snow" by all its votaries. He was a gambler too, and he had been associated with Colonel Dan Boundary in certain of his business enterprises. That was all. The colonel knew nothing of the young man's antecedents except that he had been an Oxford man who had come down in the world. The colonel added a few particulars designed, as it might seem to the impartial observer, to prove that he, the colonel, had ever been an uplifting quantity. (This colonelcy was an honorary title which he held by custom rather than by law.)
There were people who said that "Snow" Gregory, in his more exalted moments, talked too much for the colonel's comfort, but people were very ready to talk unkindly of the colonel, whose wealth was an offence and a shame.
So they buried "Snow" Gregory, the unknown, and a jury of his fellow-countrymen returned a verdict of "Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown."
And that was the end of a sordid tragedy, it seemed, until three months later there dawned upon Colonel Boundary's busy life a brand new and alarming factor.
One morning there arrived at his palatial flat in Albemarle Place a letter. This he opened because it was marked "Private and Personal." It was not a letter at all--as it proved--but a soiled and stained playing card, the Knave of Clubs.
He looked at the thing in perplexity, for the fate of his erstwhile assistant had long since passed from his mind. Then he saw writing on the margin of the card, and twisting it sideways read:
"JACK O' JUDGMENT."
"Jack o' Judgment!"
The colonel screwed up his tired eyes as if to shut out a vision.
"Faugh!" he said in disgust and dropped the pasteboard into his waste-paper basket.
For he had seen a vision--a white face, unshaven and haggard, its lips parted in a little grin, the smile of "Snow" Gregory on the last time they had met.
Later came other cards and unpleasant, not to say disconcerting happenings, and the colonel, taking counsel with himself, determined to kill two birds with one stone.
It was a daring and audacious thing to have done, and none but Colonel Dan Boundary would have taken the risk. He knew better than anybody else that Stafford King had devoted the whole of his time for the past three years to smashing the Boundary Gang. He knew that this grave young man with the steady, grey eyes, who sat on the other side of the big Louis XV table in the ornate private office of the Spillsbury Syndicate, had won his way to the chief position in the Criminal Intelligence Department by sheer genius, and that he was, of all men, the most to be feared.
No greater contrast could be imagined than that which was presented between the two protagonists--the refined, almost æsthetic chief of police on the one hand, the big commanding figure of the redoubtable colonel on the other.
Boundary with his black hair parted in the centre of his sleek head, his big weary eyes, his long, yellow walrus moustache, his double chin, his breadth and girth, his enormous hairy hands, now laid upon the table, might stand for force, brutal, remorseless, untiring. He stood for cunning too--the cunning of the stalking tiger.
Stafford was watching him with dispassionate interest. He may have been secretly amused at the man's sheer daring, but if he was, his inscrutable face displayed no such emotion.
"I dare say, Mr. King," said the colonel, in his slow, heavy way, "you think it is rather remarkable in all the circumstances that I should ask for you? I dare say," he went on, "my business associates will think the same, considering all the unpleasantness we have had."
Stafford King made no reply. He sat erect, alert and watchful.
"Give a dog a bad name and hang him," said the colonel sententiously. "For twenty years I've had to fight the unjust suspicions of my enemies. I've been libelled," he shook his head sorrowfully. "I don't suppose there's anybody been libelled more than me--and my business associates. I've had the police nosing--I mean investigating--into my affairs, and I'll be straight with you, Mr. Stafford King, and tell you that when it came to my ears and the ears of my business associates, that you had been put on the job of watching poor old Dan Boundary, I was glad."
"Is that intended as a compliment?" asked Stafford, with the faintest suspicion of a smile.
"Every way," said the colonel emphatically. "In the first place, Mr. King, I know that you are the straightest and most honest police official in England, and possibly in the world. All I want is justice. My life is an open book, which courts the fullest investigation."
He spread out his huge hands as though inviting an even closer inspection than had been afforded him hitherto.
Mr. Stafford King made no reply. He knew, very well he knew, the stories which had been told about the Boundary Gang. He knew a little and guessed a lot about its extraordinary ramifications. He was well aware, at any rate, that it was rich, and that this slow-speaking man could command millions. But he was far from desiring to endorse the colonel's inferred claim as to the purity of his business methods.
He leant a little forward.
"I am sure you didn't send for me to tell me all about your hard lot, colonel," he said, a little ironically.
The colonel shook his head.
"I wanted to get to know you," he said with fine frankness. "I've heard a lot about you, Mr. King. I am told you do nothing but specialise on the Boundary enterprises, and I tell you, sir, that you can't know too much about me, nor can I know too much about you."
"But you're quite right when you say that I didn't ask you to come here--and a great honour it is for a big police chief to spare time to see me--to discuss the past. It is the present I want to talk to you about."
Stafford King nodded.
"I'm a law-abiding citizen," said the colonel unctuously, "and anything I can do to assist the law, why, I'm going to do it. I wrote you on this matter about a fortnight ago."
He opened a drawer and took out a large envelope embossed with a monogram of the Spillsbury Syndicate. This he opened and extracted a plain playing-card. It was a white-backed card of superfine texture, gilt-edged, and bore a familiar figure.
"The Knave of Clubs," said Stafford King lifting his eyes.
"The Jack of Clubs," said the colonel gravely; "that is its name I understand, for I am not a gambling man."
He did not bat a lid nor did Stafford King smile.
"I remember," said the detective chief, "you received one before. You wrote to my department about it."
The colonel nodded.
"Read what's written underneath."
King lifted the card nearer to his eyes. The writing was almost microscopic and read:
"Save crime, save worry, save all unpleasantness. Give back the property you stole from Spillsbury."
It was signed "Jack o' Judgment."
King put the card down and looked across at the colonel.
"What happened after the last card came?" he asked, "there was a burglary or something, wasn't there?"
"The last card," said the colonel, clearing his throat, "contained a diabolical and unfounded charge that I and my business associates had robbed Mr. George Fetter, the Manchester merchant, of £60,000 by means of card tricks--a low practice of which I would not be guilty nor would any of my business associates. My friends and myself knowing nothing of any card game, we of course refused to pay Mr. Fetter, and I am sure Mr. Fetter would be the last person who would ask us to do so. As a matter of fact, he did give us bills for £60,000, but that was in relation to a sale of property. I cannot imagine that Mr. Fetter would ever take money from us or that he knew of this business--I hope not, because he seems a very respectable--gentleman."
The detective looked at the card again.
"What is this story of the Spillsbury deal?" he asked.
"What is that story of the Spillsbury deal?" said the colonel.
He had a trick of repeating questions--it was a trick which frequently gave him a very necessary breathing space.
"Why, there's nothing to it. I bought
the motor works in Coventry. I admit it was a good bargain. There's no law against making a profit. You know what business is."
The detective knew what business was. But Spillsbury was young and wild, and his wildness assumed an unpleasant character. It was the kind of wildness which people do not talk about--at least, not nice people. He had inherited a considerable fortune, and the control of four factories, the best of which was the one under discussion.
"I know Spillsbury," said the detective, "and I happen to know Spillsbury's works. I also know that he sold you a property worth £300,000 in the open market for a sum which was grossly inadequate--£30,000, was it not?"
"£35,000," corrected the colonel. "There's no law against making a bargain," he repeated.
"You've been very fortunate with your bargains."
Stafford King rose and picked up his hat.
Transome's Hotel from young Mrs. Rachemeyer for a sum which was less than a twentieth of its worth. You bought
Lord Bethon's slate quarries for £12,000--their value in the open market was at least £100,000. For the past fifteen years you have been acquiring property at an amazing rate--and at an amazing price."
The colonel smiled.
"You're paying me a great compliment, Mr. Stafford King," he said with a touch of sarcasm, "and I will never forget it. But don't let us get away from the object of your coming. I am reporting to you, as a police officer, that I have been threatened by a blackguard, a thief, and very likely a murderer. I will not be responsible for any action I may take--Jack o' Judgment indeed!" he growled.
"Have you ever seen him?" asked Stafford.
The colonel frowned.
"He's alive, ain't he?" he growled. "If I'd seen him, do you think he'd be writing me letters? It is your job to pinch him. If you people down at Scotland Yard spent less time poking into the affairs of honest business men----"
Stafford King was smiling now, frankly and undisguisedly. His grey eyes were creased with silent laughter.
"Colonel, you have some nerve!" he said admiringly, and with no other word he left the room.