THE TWISTED TRAIL OF THE FORTY FAKES
Story taken from The Wizard issue 1793
There’s a saying, “Set a thief to catch a thief.” I wouldn’t say that we follow it very often in the police, but there was one occasion when a little sneak-thief called Slippy Shearman did give us a helping hand. I’m Detective-Inspector Jellicoe, and Slippy Shearman had been one of my “clients” for some time.
He wasn’t what you’d call a king of crime. In fact, he was nothing more than a slag, which is about as low as you can get in the underworld. Slippy would steal milk bottles off doorsteps, and do similar great feats of daring and cunning. Well, one night Slippy decided it was time he had some more money in his pocket. Naturally, it didn’t occur to him to go out and work for some. Instead, he set out on the prowl for anything that wasn’t nailed down or chained up. He did quite nicely, and the next day his pockets were bulging with money. Slippy set off on a little spending spree, feeling that he was entitled to a treat. He popped into a corner shop and bought himself some cigarettes. Having a sweet tooth, he ordered a few bags of assorted sweets as well. It cost quite a bit, and Slippy counted the money out on the counter. He paid the whole bill in shillings and pennies. The shopkeeper picked the money up and dropped a shilling. He lifted it up and rang it on the counter. Then he bit it. “Hey, this is a dud!” he said. “Sorry!” replied Slippy, hurriedly pulling another shilling from his pocket and giving it to the shopkeeper. “So’s this one!” snapped the shopkeeper. He began to rummage through the money that Slippy had given him. “Half these shillings are phoney!” he exclaimed. “What’s the game?” Slippy didn’t stop to argue. He ran for the door and hared off up the street. The shopkeeper hurried after him. “Stop that man!” yelled the shopkeeper. There was a young copper patrolling the street and he raced after Slippy. The chase didn’t last very long. Slippy was weighed down. His pockets were bulging with shillings and pennies. He was puffing before he’d gone fifty yards, and the copper’s heavy hand descended on his shoulder. In due course, Slippy was brought into my room, looking very sorry for himself. Sergeant Potter, my assistant, stacked up piles of shillings and coppers on my desk. “These were all found on the accused, sir,” said Potter to me. “About forty of the shillings are snide!” Snide means counterfeit. I gave Slippy a stern look. This is something new for you, Slippy,” I said. “I didn’t know you were in the dropping game.” Dropping is what crooks call passing counterfeit money. That sort of thing was usually right out of Slippy’s class. “I haven’t been dropping, Mr. Jellicoe,” he said. “Honest, it’s all a mistake! I’ve been cheated!” “Cheated?” I said. “Suppose you explain how you laid your hands on all this lot?” Slippy hesitated, then shrugged. “All right,” he said. “Gas meters!” Potter and I exchanged glances. This sounded more like Slippy’s style. “So you emptied a few meters, and found yourself with a fistful of snide shillings?” I said. “I didn’t know they were snide,” said Slippy. “I wouldn’t have tried to pass them if I had known!” I had a look at one of the fake shillings. It was certainly well made, and it would pass as a real one at a glance. “Isn’t it shocking what some people will do?” said Slippy. “Imagine trying to swindle the gas company like that!” “This looks a bigger job that just trying to get some free gas,” I said. “I’d like to know all the houses where you went prowling last night, Slippy.” “All of them?” said Slippy. “You can’t be sure which gas meter held these snide shillings, I suppose?” I said. “No,” said Slippy. “I just scooped the stuff up and got out as fast as I could.” “Then you’ll have to take us round and point out all the houses you entered,” I said.
We put Slippy in a police car, and away we went. The way I worked it out, Slippy had stumbled on a place where coiners were at work. They were probably minting a good pile of the stuff before trying to pass it. It was my guess that they planned to be away before the gas company man arrived to empty the meter and discover that the money was fake. The coiners hadn’t reckoned on Slippy calling first. “Have any complaints come in of gas meters being broken open?” I asked Potter. “Not so far,” said Potter. Slippy looked pleased with himself. “I do a good job!” he said. “You can’t hardly tell the meter’s been opened, unless you look close!” We kept on driving around, and Slippy pointed out one or two houses where he thought he had broken in. We made a note of the addresses, but we didn’t hang around. A police sticks out like a sore thumb, and I didn’t want to alarm our birds before we were ready for them. We radioed the addresses back to headquarters and asked for a check of the occupants. Soon the details started coming in over the car radio. All the addresses that Slippy had given us so far seemed to be occupied by ordinary, law-abiding citizens. “Think again, Slippy,” I urged. “Where else did you go?” Slippy scratched his head. “There was another street,” he said. “Just round the corner here.” We turned the corner, and there was one of those long streets with rows of terraced houses, all looking exactly alike. “Well?” I said. “Search me, Mr. Jellicoe!” said Slippy. “I nipped into one or two, here and there, but I couldn’t point them out to you now.” “OK, let’s try to work it out,” I said. “Coiners need a furnace to melt the metal, right? That’s probably why they started popping snide shillings in the meter. A gas furnace runs away with the money. Now, they’d want a chimney for the furnace. I squinted up at the chimneys in the street. It was a warm day and there were no fires lit in the houses. I couldn’t see any smoke from the chimneys. I told our driver to go slowly down the road. About halfway along I spotted something. There was a sort of shimmer above one chimney pot, like a heat haze. “This could be it,” I said. “Do you recognise the house, Slippy? Did you break in there last night?” “They all look alike to me, Mr. Jellicoe,” sighed Slippy. “OK, then you come along with me and the sergeant and we’ll find out,” I said. The three of us went up to the door of the house I suspected. I banged on it, and there was a pause. Then a chap in shirt-sleeves looked out. His jaw sagged open when we told him who we were. “Sorry to interrupt you,” I said, “but you might be able to help us in a case of breaking and entering.” I pointed to Slippy. “This man has been charged with robbing gas meters. We have reason to believe he may have robbed yours. “Mine?” muttered the fellow. “No, I don’t think so.” “We’ll just have a look, sir, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I must make sure.” I pushed my way in, and Potter shoved Slippy after me. The other chap blinked at us all. “Would you mind showing me the gas meter, sir?” I said. “It’s in the cellar,” the man gulped. Another man’s voice called from the back room. “What’s up, Ernie?” he asked. “It’s the police!” answered Ernie. There was a deep silence that I thought the fellow in the back room must have fainted. But he answered at last in a strangled voice. “What do they want?” “Checking on the gas meter!” said Ernie. That seemed to reassure his pal, who came out to meet us. He was a big fellow. His face red, and looked as if he’d just been doing a really warm job. “The gas meter?” he said. “Isn’t that a job for the gas company?” “Not when the meter’s been robbed,” I said. “Can I have a look at it?” The two fellows looked at each other, then showed me down the cellar steps. I found the meter in the corner. It looked all right until I peered closer. Then I saw it had been broken open. I saw something else, too. The meter was ticking away merrily. “You use a lot of gas,” I said. “What have you got on now? It wouldn’t be a furnace, would it?” The chap called Ernie made a run up the steps. Potter got him by the leg and heaved him back. The other fellow tried to get away and I had to clout him. At last order was restored and the two suspects decided to behave themselves. “Let’s have a look in that back room,” I said. All of us, including Slippy, trooped into the back room. It was a proper coiner’s den. There was a furnace, with its flue going up the chimney. There were moulds and pots of metal. Stacked on a table were heaps of gleaming shillings, florins and half-crowns. That about wrapped the case up. I sent the two counterfeiters off in the car, with Potter and the driver to look after them, and waited for another one to come and collect Slippy and me. “Thanks for your help, Slippy,” I said. “I’ll put in a good word for you when you come before the magistrate.” “Glad to have been of service, Mr. Jellicoe,” replied Slippy in a mournful voice. “Now hand that lot over,” I went on. “What lot? Asked Slippy, trying to sound puzzled. “That lot,” I retorted, tapping Slippy’s pocket. Slippy sighed. Out of his pocket he pulled the handful of snide half-crowns that he’d just pinched from the counterfeiters’ table!
© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd
Vic Whittle 2003