Read The Case of the Baited Hook Online

Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner

Tags: #Legal, #Perry (Fictitious Character), #Mystery & Detective, #Mason, #General, #Crime, #Fiction, #Suspense

The Case of the Baited Hook

BOOK: The Case of the Baited Hook
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Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case Of The Baited Hook

1

TWO PERSONS IN THE CITY HAD THE NUMBER OF PERRY Mason's private, unlisted telephone. One was Della Street, Mason's secretary, and the other Paul Drake, head of the Drake Detective Agency.

It was early in March, a blustery night with rain pelting at intervals against the windows. Wind howled around the cornices and fought its way through the narrow openings in the windows to billow the lace curtains of Mason's apartment into weird shapes which alternately blossomed into white ghosts, collapsed, and dropped limply back against the casements.

Mason fought off the heavy lethargy of that deep sleep which comes during the first part of the night, to grope for the ringing telephone.

The instrument momentarily eluded his sleep – deadened fingers.

Mason's right hand found the chain which dangled from the light over his bed. At the same time, his left, reaching for the telephone, became entangled with the cord and knocked the instrument to the floor.

Now thoroughly awake, he retrieved the telephone, placed the receiver to his ear, and said, "My gosh, Della, why don't you go to bed at a decent hour?"

A man's voice said, "Mr. Mason?"

Surprised, Mason said, "Yes. Who is it?" The voice said crisply, "You are talking with Cash."

Mason sat up in bed, bolstering himself against the pillow. "That's nice," he said. "How's Carry?"

For a moment the voice was puzzled. "Carrie?" it asked. "I don't know to whom you refer."

"Come, come," Mason said amiably. "If you're Cash, you must know Carry."

"Oh, a pun," the voice said with the offended dignity of a man who has no sense of humor. "I didn't understand at first."

"What," Mason asked, "do you want?"

"I want to come to your office."

"And I," Mason said, "want to stay in bed."

The man at the other end of the line said, carefully clipping his words, "I have two one – thousand – dollar bills in my wallet, Mr. Mason. If you will come to your office and accept the employment I have to offer, I will give you those two one – thousand – dollar bills as a retainer. I will also arrange for a further payment of ten thousand dollars whenever you are called upon to take any action in my behalf."

"Murder?" Mason asked.

The voice hesitated for a moment, then said, "No."

"Let me have your full name."

"I'm sorry. That's impossible."

Mason said irritably, "It only costs ten cents to put through a telephone call and talk big money. Before I go to the office I want to know with whom I'm dealing."

After a moment's hesitation, the voice said, "This is John L. Cragmore."

"Where do you live?"

"5619 Union Drive."

Mason said, "Okay. It'll take me twenty minutes to get there. Can you be there by that time?"

"Yes," the man said, and added courteously, "Thank you for coming, Mr. Mason," and hung up the telephone.

Mason scrambled out of bed, closed the windows, and picked up the telephone directory. There was no Cragmore listed at the address given on Union Drive.

Mason dialed the number of the Drake Detective Agency. A night operative said in a bored monotone, "Drake Detective Agency."

"Mason talking," the lawyer said crisply. "I have an appointment in twenty minutes at my office. The man will probably drive up in a car. Put an operative at each end of the block. Check the license numbers of any cars that park anywhere in the block. Get all the dope you can, and have it ready when I call. I'll drop in at your place just before I go to my office."

Mason hung up the telephone, stripped off his pajamas, and hurriedly pulled on his clothes, noticing as he dressed that his wrist watch gave the hour as ten minutes past midnight. He ran a comb through his tangled mass of hair, struggled into a raincoat, gave a hasty look about the apartment, and paused to telephone the night clerk to have the hotel garage deliver his car. He switched off the lights, pulled the door shut, and rang for the elevator.

The Negro elevator boy looked at him curiously. "Rainin' pow'ful hard, Mista Mason."

"Cats and dogs?" Mason asked.

The boy flashed white teeth. "No, suh. Ducks and drakes. You goin' out some place, suh?"

"There is," Mason announced, "no rest for the wicked."

The boy rolled his eyes. "Meanin' you's wicked?" he asked.

"No," Mason said with a grin, as the elevator slid to a smooth stop at the lobby floor. "My clients are."

He greeted the night clerk on duty at the desk, said, "You got my message through to the garage man?"

"Yes, Mr. Mason. Your car will be waiting. Pretty wild night."

Mason nodded absently, tossed his key to the desk, and strode across to the stairway which led to the garage, the skirts of his raincoat kicked about by the long strides of his legs. The clerk watched him curiously, the extent of his interest shown by the manner in which he weighed Mason's key in his hand before placing it in the proper receptacle.

The lawyer acknowledged the greeting of the garage man, slid in behind the wheel of his big coupe, and sent it roaring up the spiral ramp of the garage. As he left the shelter of the garage, the wind swooped down upon him. Sheeted rain beat solidly on the body of the car, streamed down the windshield. Mason turned on the windshield wiper, shifted cautiously into second, and eased the wheels through the curb – high flood at the gutter.

The headlights reflected back from miniature geysers of water mushrooming up from the pavement ahead. Mason eased the car into high gear and settled down to the chore of driving through the rain – swept, all but deserted, streets.

He noticed that there were no cars parked in the block in front of his office building. Over in the parking station, where Mason rented a regular stall, were two of the nondescript cars of the Drake Detective Agency, and no others. He parked and locked his automobile, and stepped out into the storm. Rain beat against his face, cascaded in rivulets from his raincoat, spattered against his ankles. Mason, who detested umbrellas, shoved his hands down deep into the pockets of his raincoat, lowered his head against the force of the storm, and sloshed through the puddles which had collected in the parking place, to push against the swinging door in the lighted lobby of his office building.

Streaks of moisture which seemed fresh indicated that others were there ahead of him. He paused at the elevator, rang the night bell which summoned the janitor, and waited for a full minute before the sleepy – eyed Swede, who had charge of the basement and night elevators, brought a cage up to the lobby floor.

"Some rain," the janitor said, and yawned.

Mason crossed over to look at the register which persons entering the building at night must sign. "Anyone for me, Ole?" he asked.

"Not yet," the janitor said. "Maybe she rain so much they don't come on schedule."

"Someone down from Drake's office a few minutes ago?" Mason asked.

"Yah."

"Still out?" Mason inquired.

"No. He comes back oop."

"No one else been in in the meantime?"

"No one."

The janitor missed the floor by six inches with the elevator, and Mason said, "That's good enough, Ole."

The sliding doors rolled smoothly back, and Mason stepped out into the semi – darkness of the long corridor. He walked rapidly to where the corridor made a T, but in place of turning left to his own office, turned right toward the oblong of illumination which marked the frosted glass door of the Drake Detective Agency. He pushed open this door and crossed a small waiting room just large enough to accommodate an open bench and two straight – back chairs.

Behind an arch – shaped, grilled window marked "Information," the night switchboard operator looked up, nodded, and pressed the button which released the catch on the swinging door.

Near a radiator, an undersized man was trying to dry the bottoms of his trousers. A soggy felt hat and a glistening raincoat hung on a rack near the radiator. "Hello, Curly," Mason said. "Did you give up?"

"Give up," the operative asked, looking ruefully down at his wet shoes. "What do you mean, give up?"

"Ole says no one came up."

"Yeah," the operative said. "What Ole doesn't know would fill a book."

"Then someone came in?"

"Yeah. Two of 'em."

"How did they get up?' "The man," Curly said, "pulled out a key ring, unlocked the door of one of the elevators, switched on the lights, and whisked himself and the woman up here just as neat as a pin. By the time I got up, the cage was there with the door locked and the lights out."

"Did Ole notice it?" Mason asked, interested.

"No. He was too sleepy. He's having a hard time keeping his eyes open."

"Then there's a man and a woman on this floor?"

"Uh huh."

"How long ago?"

"They've been waiting about five minutes. Gosh, I wish you'd pick clear nights for your shadowing jobs. I felt like a guy trapped in a sunken submarine."

"Where did you pick them up?" 'They came in a car. The man was driving. He dropped the woman in front of the lobby. Then he drove on and turned the corner. I figured he was parking the car, so I took it easy, tailed him into the building, and up to this floor."

"How about the automobile?"

"I got the license number and checked on the registration. It's owned by Robert Peltham of 3212 Oceanic. I checked up on him in the telephone directory. He's listed as an architect."

Mason thoughtfully took a cigarette case from his pocket, scraped a match on the side of the radiator, and began smoking. "How about the girl?"

"There's something funny about her," Curly said. "I call her a girl. I don't know. She was a jane. That's all I know. She's all bundled up in a big black raincoat. She walks like her shoes were two sizes too big for her feet, and she kept a newspaper over her face."

"A newspaper?" Mason asked.

"Uh huh. When she got out of the car, she put a newspaper up over her head as though to protect her hat, but I noticed she had the newspaper held over her face when they went up in the elevator. And that's the last I've seen of them."

"They're on this floor?"

"The cage is."

Mason said, "Find out all you can about Peltham."

"I'm working on it," Curly said. "Got an operative on the job now. Do you want me to report at your office?"

"No," Mason said. "I'll get in touch with you. In about fifteen minutes you'd better come in my office and get a drink of whiskey-unless Paul keeps a bottle in his desk." 'Thanks a lot, Mr. Mason. I'll be in."

Mason said, "I'll do better than that. I'll put the bottle on a desk in the entrance room, and leave the door unlocked."

"Gee, that'll be swell. Thanks."

Mason's heels pounded echoes from the silent walls as he marched down the corridor toward the end of the passage where he had his office.

He saw no one, heard no sound save the pound of his own footfalls. He unlocked the door of the reception office, left it unlatched, and walked on into his private office. He opened the drawer of his desk, found a pint of whiskey, and was just placing it on the desk used by the information clerk when the door opened and a thinnish man in the late thirties said, "Mr. Mason, I presume?"

Mason nodded.

"I'm Peltham."

Mason raised his eyebrows. "I thought the name was Cragmore," he said.

"It was," Peltham observed dryly, "but several things have caused me to change it."

"May I ask what those things are?" Mason asked.

Peltham smiled, a frosty gesture of the lips. "To begin with," he said, "I was followed from the time I parked my car. It was cleverly done-but I was followed just the same. I notice that the office of the Drake Detective Agency is on this floor. After you came up in the elevator, you went down to that office and were there for some five minutes. I notice that you are now placing a bottle of whiskey on your desk where it can be picked up. Under the circumstances, Mr. Mason, we'll abandon our little subterfuge. The name is Peltham, and we won't bother beating around the bush. You've won the first trick rather neatly-but don't overbid your hand."

BOOK: The Case of the Baited Hook
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