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by David Hume








Many members of the public look upon criminals as people with markedly limited intelligence, violent antisocial complexes, and an overwhelming desire to wear drab clothing, embroidered with sundry arrows. Maybe those with such fixed views had never flung their contemplation beyond a simple recognition of small-time crime. Perhaps, for instance, they had never met a person like Joey Chapman. He certainly would not have fitted into any of their mental patterns. His brain was warped but considerable; his regard for the conventions of an established social life was definitely fixed in his mind; and his taste in sartorial equipment far out-shone the best convict’s uniform ever handed out. Added to other peculiarities, Joey was looked upon as a nonpareil among safe-breakers, a devoted husband, and the conceited father of an idolising family. Each time a local constable met the illustrious Joey Chapman he waved a cursory salute, felt proud to recognise acquaintanceship with him. Of such stuff is greatness made!

Had anyone suggested to Chapman that he belonged to the twilight world of crime he would have been staggered by their effrontery. To him, crooks were to be discovered among pickpockets, first-storey men, third-class housebreakers, card-sharps and such-like. But safe-breaking he looked upon as a highly skilled and closely confined profession, a line of activity far removed from men of average intelligence, a manner of life calling for true genius, scientific ability, no nerves, dextrous hands, an expert’s knowledge of metallurgy and explosives, a professor’s skill in handling gases, and an uncanny talent for scenting trouble before it arrived.

It was almost two o’clock on a summer’s morning when he stood before the door of the vault in the offices of the Empire Building Society in Leadenhall Street. Joey pulled on a pair of rubber gloves with some show of conceit, with exaggerated nonchalance. As a “peterman” bordering on the fringe of genius he considered any display of speed as an exhibition indicating degrading incompetence, sure evidence of frayed nerves. For a while Chapman regarded the steel door before him as a connoisseur might study a work of art. Actually, his examination of the solid block of manganese steel was a pose. Joey never had cause to scrutinise a safe before he brought his gear into operation. Every stroke he “pulled” had been “cased” with complete thoroughness before he used his hands. So it was with the vault door in Leadenhall Street. Joey had thought of the design for hundreds of hours, could have instructed the maker of the vault as to the possible flaws, the resistance powers, the weight, width and depth of the door. As he looked at the massive obstacle he viewed it no longer as a steel door. It became a deliberate challenge to his own ability as a cracker of the best safes ever made. Many times when communing with himself—and he rarely communed with anyone else—Joey had asserted that the day someone invented a “peter” that he could not tear wide open he would shoot himself as a sign that his day had been and gone. After all, he had some professional pride to sustain!

His beady eyes followed the movements of the other man in the partially lighted room. Chapman chose his assistants with the meticulous care an epicure might devote to a menu—only more so. He scarcely looked as the man staggered across the room with the first instalment of the gear, placed the oxygen tank at the right of the vault door, padded out of the room again, the rubber soles and heels deadening all sound. Three or four minutes later he returned with the acetylene cylinder, placed it with care beside the oxygen tank. Joey moved each of them a fraction of an inch: To many the action would have appeared unnecessary. But Chapman was a stickler for detail. That was why he sat on top of the dump as a peterman.

“Anything else you want me for before I get down again?” asked the man.

Joey opened the small case lying at his feet, and shook his head.

“No, thanks. You get down and front the place. Don’t get startled if you see a policeman. Now that we’ve put the night watchman to sleep I’m not worrying. I don’t want to be disturbed unless it is vitally important. I reckon this job will last me for three or four hours. See that nobody gets near the truck. I don’t want to leave any of this gear behind. All right.”

The man sidled out of the room. Joey drew a pair of heavily shielded glasses from his case, fastened them over his eyes. The sides of the glasses were flanged to fit tightly on the face. One direct stare at such a powerful light would ruin the eyesight for ever. Then he uncoiled a length of hose, fastened it to both cylinders. He tested the burner for a few seconds, turned on the taps, placed a hand on the nozzle of the burner to ensure that he was getting the correct force and power. Then he struck a match, flicked it across the nozzle, and smiled as he heard the sudden hiss, saw the pencil of flame spurt out. He wasted no time, turned the flame instantly on the edge of the combination lock, saw the manganese steel commence to seep away like melting butter. Exactly three-quarters of an hour later he turned off the torch, picked a pair of pliers from his case, thrust the lock through the vault door, and started without delay to work on the electrically operated bolts. In half an hour they also had fallen behind the door. Joey glanced at his watch and smiled. Everything was running according to schedule. This vault, to him, was a sitter!

It was four o’clock when he burned through the compensated bottom lock, placed his shoulder against the eight-ton door, swung it back. He dragged the oxygen and acetylene tanks into the vault, readjusted his glasses, took a glance at the nozzle of the hose to ensure that it had picked up no dirt, and started work on the safe before him. For a moment he wondered whether he should try to force back the spindle with a shot of nitro-glycerine, decided that the torch would be more effective. Sweat was pouring down his face as he cut out the last of the three locks, and a quarter of an hour later he smiled grimly and triumphantly. The last bolt had just fallen inside the safe.

Joey was in no hurry. Before he glanced inside the safe he dragged out his two cylinders, took off his glasses, disconnected the hose, replaced them in the case, and then walked slowly back to the safe. Chapman was not excited. There was no need for him to wonder whether the contents of the safe would compensate for the trouble he had taken. He knew they would. Joey never worked on a “peter” unless he knew what he was going to find. Only a blind fool, he reckoned, would work on a lay like that. The Empire Building Society should have rather more than ten thousand pounds in notes tucked away in that safe. And Joey knew where he could find a most comfortable home for them!

All the same his eyes sparkled when he saw the five bundles of notes. He knew that there was stuff in the safe worth a hundred thousand, but Joey had no ambitions beyond securing the notes. Deeds to properties, and such securities, are not much good to a peterman. Chapman carried the five bundles into the office outside, bent down to arrange them carefully in his case. And it was at the instant that something happened which was very, very far from being according to schedule. Joey heard a soft voice: “Isn’t often I catch a safe-breaker red-handed. Hoist those mitts!”

Chapman wheeled round with a muttered curse. Two men were facing him. He had never seen them before. The speaker was in the early thirties. His face was hard and angular, the lips thin and compressed. His companion was an older, more bulky person. Joey batted his eyelids, and for a moment his brain refused to act. He couldn’t work out any arrangements. As he stared at the men he frowned. Neither held a gun. Surely they were fools to take such chances. And what had happened to the man outside the place.

“What’s the big idea?” asked Chapman. “Mind telling me why you’ve broken into my party? And have you left your armaments at home?”

“It isn’t usual in this country for splits to carry guns. It’s about time you knew that. Step towards me.” The man was clipping his words.

“Splits, eh?” Joey frowned again as he enquired plaintively: “Mind telling me who put in the squeal? Looks as though you’ve got me on the floor.”

“It certainly does. Hold out those hands. I’m going to smack the bracelets on you. Stand away from that case, and no funny stuff.”

Chapman tried to stall for time while he struggled to find an outlet.

“The least that you can do is to show me your warrant cards,” he said.

“With pleasure.” The younger man bowed with mock deference, handed over his card. Joey looked at it, and groaned. For twenty years he had deluded himself that no detectives would ever be clever enough to pin a rap on him. And now he’d had the ground cut from beneath his feet.

“You heard me the first time, Chapman. Hold out those hands.”

“Chapman, eh? How’d you come to know my name? I’ve never seen you before.”

“Maybe not. But we’ve seen plenty of you, and for a helluva while we’ve been waiting for you to take one step too many. You’ve taken it.”

“It certainly looks that way,” remarked Joey. He could see nothing to be gained by bouncing his head against a brick wall, might as well reconcile himself to the fact that he was well in the cart, and couldn’t get out of it. He held out his hands, grimaced as the handcuffs were pinned on his wrists. Chapman thought he knew all there was to be known about steel, but this was the first time he had been manacled. The younger man seemed to read his thoughts, smiled maliciously as he clicked the cuffs, said:

“I know you can do everything with steel except drink it. So you can try your hand at blowing this pair of steel mitts off your wrists.”

As he spoke the older man walked over to the case, picked up the five bundles of notes, tucked them under his arm like lumps of waste paper. Joey sighed heavily as he watched the performance. It was a tough break after hours of hard work. He made a last attempt to break out of the position:

“There’s ten thousand quids’ worth in those bundles. What about making a three-way split, and calling it a day? You’d each get as much as ten years’ pay. Worth thinking about, isn’t it?”

“Heavy metal,” said the younger man. “We know that. But our main ambition is to see you tucked away for about seven years. Charlie, we’ll leave all the gear here, and then send a van round for it later. Let’s do a drift.”

Joey stared at the handcuffs, sighed again. The future didn’t look so good. Chapman was bordering on fifty, was wondering whether he would live to come out. The men took him by the arms, bundled him out of the room. The first light of dawn was seeping through the windows as they headed him towards the door at the back of the premises.

“Might as well make an exit in the same way you made your entrance,” said the older man. “Thanks for forcing the lock on this door for us. It saved us quite a lot of trouble. You’re a considerate little soul.”

“I’m glad to think so,” remarked Joey. He asked casually: “By the way, which station do you come from? I’d be curious to know.”

“Why ask, Chapman. Naturally, we’re from the Yard. Use your head.”

Joey took another three paces. Then he stopped abruptly. He had used his head! He wheeled round to scrutinise the younger man as he snapped out:

“Who the hell d’you think you’re taking up the garden path? I wasn’t born yesterday, mister. The only splits who’d be collecting me would be those swines from the City Police. If you belong to the Mets you’re right off your beat. Let me take another look at those warrant cards.”

The man’s lips became more compressed. He looked at his companion for an instant. Before he could speak Joey Chapman blazed forth again:

“This is a screwy rap, and I’m not failing for it. You pair are no more splits than I am! Take off these mitts and we’ll talk business.”

The thin faced man nodded his head slowly, winked at his companion, said:

“This little fellow is trying to be clever a little bit too late in the day. I’ve got an idea that he might cause trouble on the way to the station.”

“I had that thought in my mind,” remarked the other man. “I think we ought to quieten him somewhat before we take him out. I don’t want any trouble.”

Joey’s lips quivered. He knew only too well what the men meant, could realise what he had coming to him. The younger man released Joey’s arm, eyed him with mock sympathy as he plunged a hand into his pocket. When the hand came out the man was holding a short truncheon. And it certainly was not a staff of regulation type. As it soared in an arc the man said:

“Sleep well, little one. And thanks for the ten thou. We can find a nice home for it. And you’d better wake up with a bad memory. So long, my friend.”

Joey jerked back his head. The effort was futile. The truncheon caught him at the side of the ear. The small man’s eyes glazed, his body swayed back, and then lurched forward. His face crashed on the stone floor. He was still, out to the wide. Both the men smiled contentedly.

“That’s saved us dumping him outside,” said the burly one. “Now all I want between myself and this place is a helluva lot of space. Let’s get going.”

They did not even glance at the unconscious man as they hurried out of the building. In the side passage they had to step over the stiff form of the man who had been deputed to “front” the offices for Joey Chapman. He, also, had fallen for their story. He didn’t realise his mistake until he saw the rising arm, the flaying truncheon. And by then it was too late. The burly man stacked the wads of notes inside his waistcoat. They fitted tightly, quietly securely. Then they sauntered across the road into Saint Mary Axe. At the far end a small saloon car was parked against the curb. A policeman stood beside it. His presence did not seem to cause the two men any concern.

“This car has been parked here for over an hour,” said the constable. “You can’t get away with that sort of thing. Let’s be seeing your licence, and your insurance particulars. I’m going to report you.”

The younger man yawned as he pulled the papers from his pocket, gave him to the constable. The officer scribbled in his notebook, asked the man if he wanted to make any statement.

“I’ve got no excuse, officer, except that we’ve just been finishing a quarter’s stocktaking, and the time went by quicker than we thought.”

“Damned carelessness,” said the policeman. “You will leave your car once too often, mister, and find that it has been hoisted when you come along to collect it. This should teach you a lesson.”

The men were smiling as they waved their hands to the officer, drove away to the north. There were two good reasons why they should feel amused. In the first place, he had warned them that their car might one day be stolen. And only a couple of hours before they had stolen it themselves! And he had laboriously written down the name, address, and particulars of a man who was lying unconscious in Victoria Park! They had taken his papers from him before they threw him over the railings! So, all told, they had no right to feel disconsolate. Nor did they.

They were smoking, chatting merrily as they passed along Kingsland Road, swung to the left at Dalston Junction, turned north again, swung to the right, and parked the car a few yards away from Mildmay Park railway station. Some few minutes later they caught an east-bound train, alighted at Homerton, trailed through a network of side streets. There were moments when one or the other looked round. But they were not being “tailed.” They arrived outside a dingy house, looked both ways along the road, and then the younger man pushed a key into the lock, opened the door, headed for the semi-darkened stairs. On the second landing they stopped outside another door while the man fumbled for his key.

“I’m not sorry that the job’s finished,” he said. “It came off a lot easier than I expected. Now we can grab an hour’s sleep.”

He pushed back the door, stepped into the room. The burly man followed him. As he entered he stretched out a hand for the electric light switch. As the room was flooded with light both men swayed back on their heels. There was every reason why the reception should stagger them. A man stood with his back to the small fireplace. One elbow rested on the mantel. He seemed quite at ease. But there were two most disconcerting features about the unexpected caller. In the first place his face was swathed in a black crêpe mask; in the second place his right hand gripped an automatic with assured easiness, with the confidence of one who had handled guns, many, many times before! The new arrivals gaped as they looked at the slim figure, the smartly tailored suit. Both gasped a little.

“Take it easy, boys,” said the stranger. “Just keep your heads. That’s the only way in which you can manage to live. Of course, you know why I’ve made the call? Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s be having it—right now!”

“I dunno what you’re talking about,” said the younger man. “You must be mad to think that blokes like us are worth sticking up. Think we’d live in a dump like this if we had any dough? I reckon it’s about time you made a start, and used whatever you call a head. Or d’you reckon it is real fun to stage a dramatic drop on a couple of paupers? It don’t make sense.”

“Don’t make me smile. Not long ago Joey Chapman pulled a real stroke on a safe in Leadenhall Street. You waited until he had finished the job, and then you took the entire bunch of dough from him. I reckon it came to best part of ten thou. Well, that’s why I’m here. Maybe ten thou. Doesn’t seem to you blokes like real money, but it means a lot to me. Don’t try any sort of a stall. I’ve been waiting too long in this damned room already. I want that money—and I’m not particular about robbing corpses. Hand it over and live, or die and I take it. It all means the same thing to me.”

The men looked at each other. This was hi-jacking with a vengeance!

“Make it snappy,” said the stranger. “Lay that dough on this table, or I intend to drop both of you. So if you wanna die just say so. I’ll oblige.”

The stout man shrugged his broad shoulders helplessly, unfastened his waistcoat, laid the money on the table. The man with the gun nodded his approval, dipped a hand into his pocket, pulled out a muslin bag, threw it on the table. His tone was curt as he snapped out viciously:

“Pack the dough in that bag, and then get along against the far wall.”

They made no attempt to argue. An automatic in a determined hand can be very persuasive! The man picked up the bag, started to back towards the outer door. He paused for an instant on the threshold, called out softly:

“Sam, come and hold a gun on these blokes while I get a clear start.”

Another man appeared in the doorway. He had been tucked away in the dark passage outside. He was masked. He also held a gun. The first man vanished.

“Make any sort of a move in the next ten minutes,” said the newcomer, “and I’ll see that you never move again. A couple of clever devils like you pair ought to know that stomachs are made for meals—not bullets.”


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