Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Legal
Perry Mason yawned ostentatiously.
"Oh, hell," the detective said, "you're taking all the romance out of my young life – just when I was beginning to think my youth hadn't entirely vanished."
"It isn't youthful romance, it's the mush of senility," Mason said. "For God's sake, get it through your head that I've got a murder case on my hands and I want facts. You give me the facts and I'll hang plenty of romance on them when I dish them out to the jury."
"The hell of it is," Drake said, turning to Della Street, "that when the Chief gets this sketch he's going to feel just the same way about it I do. He's like a bride's biscuit – he puts up a hard-boiled exterior, but when you bust through him he's all soft and mushy on the inside."
"Half-baked is the word you're groping for," Mason told him. "Come on, Paul; let's have the stuff."
"One day," Drake said, "Brunold got a letter from Sylvia. That letter told him they couldn't put off getting married any longer."
The half quizzical smile faded from Perry Mason's face. The impatience left his eyes. His voice showed quick sympathy.
"Like that?" he asked.
"Like that," the detective said.
"What did Brunold do?"
"Brunold got the letter, okay."
"And ducked out?" Mason asked, in cold, hard accents.
"No, he didn't. It was a small burg and he didn't dare to send a telegram because he didn't want the telegraph operator to know anything, but he hopped a train and started for Sylvia. That's where fate took a hand. Those were the days when railroad beds were like you found them. My God, I can remember one time when I took a trip on one of those hick lines that I tossed around in an upper berth like a bunch of popcorn in a corn popper on a hot stove…"
"The train was wrecked," the lawyer interrupted. "I suppose Brunold was hurt."
"Cracked his dome, punctured his eye, and gave him a loss of memory. The doctors took the eye out, put him in a hospital and gave him a nurse. I found the hospital records and was lucky enough to locate the nurse. She remembered the case because when Brunold got his memory back she surmised something of what must have been in the back of his mind.
"He put in a person-to-person call for Sylvia and got a report back that Sylvia had disappeared. Brunold was like a crazy man. He had a relapse and was delirious. He talked in his delirium. The nurse figured it was a professional secret and she wouldn't tell me much, but I think she knew."
"Sylvia?" Mason asked, and there was no longer any banter in his tone.
"Sylvia," the detective said, "had been fed up for months with stories about the city slickers, about the women who paid and paid and paid. It was the age of literature that got fat on putting erring daughters out in snow storms. Sylvia's parents had been good at dishing out this sort of dope. When Brunold didn't show up, Sylvia figured there was just one reason. So she busted her little savings bank and beat it. No one knew how she left town. There was a little junction on another road three miles away. The kid must have hoofed it and got a milk train. She went to the city."
"How do you know?" Mason asked.
"I got a break," Drake told him. "I'd like to make you think it was just high-class detective work, but when she got married, and in connection with the boy's adoption, she gave some data that enabled me to check back."
"She married Basset?" Mason asked.
"That's right. She came to the city and took the name of Sylvia Loring. She worked as a stenographer as long as she could. After the child was born she went back to the office. They'd held the place open for her. She worked there for years. The boy kept getting to be more and more of an expense. He needed an education. She met Hartley Basset. He was a client in the law office. His intentions were honorable. She didn't love him – at least I don't figure it that way. She'd never loved anyone except Brunold. She figured Brunold had taken a walk-out powder, so she was off of men."
"And she made Basset adopt the boy?"
"That's right she didn't marry him until he'd legally adopted the boy. The boy took Basset's name and apparently proceeded to hate his step-father with a bitter hatred, probably because of the way Basset treated Sylvia."
"What was wrong with it?" Mason asked.
"All I know is servants' gossip," Drake said, "but servants' gossip can be pretty reliable at times. Basset was a bachelor. He hadn't been an easy man to work for. His idea of marriage was that a wife was a species of ornament in public and a servant in private."
"And," Mason said slowly, "by reason of the adoption, Dick Basset would have inherited a share of Hartley Basset's property."
Drake nodded his head slowly and said, "That's the way Edith Brite figures it. She's a housekeeper. Only she doesn't figure there was any idea of gain in connection with it. She feels the boy was doing his mother a good turn."
"She thinks Dick killed him?" the lawyer asked.
"That's right. I had to get her crocked, but when she got in vino veritas she babbled a lot. Sylvia had been through hell. The boy knew it. Hartley Basset was just one of those things. She thinks the boy bumped him off."
Della Street said, "Wait a minute, Paul, you haven't finished with the romance. How about Brunold? Did he find her or did she find him?"
"He found her. He'd been searching ever since he left the hospital. He didn't know how to go about such things and for a while Sylvia had kept herself pretty much under cover."
Perry Mason hooked his thumbs through the arm holes of his vest and started pacing the floor.
"Did Dick know Brunold had found his mother and know who Brunold was?" he asked.
Drake shrugged his shoulders. "I'm a detective," he said, "not a mind reader. Your guess is as good as mine. Apparently Sylvia Basset figured she'd made her bed and was going to lie in it. Brunold wanted her to leave, that's a cinch. The fact that she didn't walk out right then and there shows that something was holding her. From the slant I can get on Hartley Basset's character, it may have been his threat to set aside the adoption proceedings on the ground of fraud, brand Dick as illegitimate, make a big stink generally. Or it may have been that he wouldn't give her a divorce and she wouldn't join Brunold unless she could marry him, on account of the kid."
Mason, still pacing the floor, said, "Where's Mrs. Basset now?"
"She ducked out and went to a hotel somewhere."
"See if you can find her," Mason said. "You shouldn't have any great difficulty. She's the type who would go to one of the better class hotels. There weren't a great number of unescorted women who registered at the better class hotels after midnight last night. You've got pictures of her, I presume."
"All right, run her down."
"This other stuff going to help you?" Drake asked.
"Very much, I think," Mason told him.
A buzzer gave the signal that Della Street was wanted in the outer office. She glanced at Mason, who nodded.
"Were the eyes okay?" Paul Drake asked.
"I think they'll do the work all right, although I'm afraid we got them a little late."
"I was wondering about that when I heard about the bloodshot eye that was clutched in Hartley Basset's right hand."
Mason said cheerfully, "Oh, well, it'll all come out in the wash."
Drake uncoiled himself from the chair and moved toward the exit door.
"You don't want anything else except putting a finger on Sylvia Basset, is that right?"
"That's all for the present. And that was good work, Paul, tracing that stuff down with the limited time you had."
"There wasn't so much of it," the detective said, "except a lot of detail work. The newspaper men had pumped the servants dry. Brunold had left a wide open trail. It was a cinch to chase him down, and, in the adoption proceedings, Sylvia Basset had given the true date and location of the boy's birth. By that time, I guess, she figured it didn't matter much. It happened that I was able to locate the doctor, and the doctor put me in touch with the nurse. The nurse remembered that there had been a pile of love letters, tied with the conventional ribbon, in the girl's suitcase. They'd been addressed to Sylvia Berkley, and she'd read of the disappearance of Sylvia Berkley in the newspapers."
"And kept her mouth shut?" Mason inquired.
The detective nodded. "Nurses," he said, "see quite a few of those cases. They don't see as many of them now as they did twenty years ago."
"Has she ever got in touch with her folks?" Mason asked.
"I don't know. I haven't been able to find that out."
"Are her folks living?"
"I'll have the dope on that this afternoon. I didn't know just how much attention you wanted to attract, so I'm making my inquiries about them in rather a round-about manner."
"Good work, Paul," the lawyer said.
The door from the outer office opened and Della Street walked through, closing the door carefully behind her. She went to Perry Mason's desk and stood waiting.
The detective said, "Okay, Perry, I'll get that stuff for you early this afternoon. If I get the party located in one of the hotels, I'll give you a ring. I should be able to cover the principal ones within the next half hour."
He opened the door and took the precaution of thrusting out his head and looking up and down the corridor before he stepped out into the hallway, letting the door click shut behind him.
Perry Mason turned to Della Street.
"Well?" he asked.
"You've got to help them," she said.
"You mean Brunold and Mrs. Basset?"
"We don't know the facts yet."
"You mean about the murder?"
"Apparently," Della Street said slowly, "she's never had the breaks. The cards in life have been stacked against her. Why not give her a break now?"
"Perhaps I will," Mason said slowly, and then added. "if she'll let me."
Della Street motioned toward the outer office.
"The McLanes are out there," she said.
"Harry and his sister?"
Mason nodded his head. "Show them in, Della."
"We read about it in the papers. Is it going to make any difference?"
"It will make this much difference," Mason said slowly; "the estate will be handled by an administrator or an executor. If Sylvia Basset handles the estate, she'll be friendly. If some other person handles it, the probabilities are there will be trouble. We can't square it now. If there should be a will contest, or something, and a temporary executor should discover the shortage…"
Her eyes had grown wider as he talked. Now she interrupted him, saying, "Good heavens, don't you know what happened?"
Perry Mason stopped talking and stared steadily at her.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice and manner wary.
She turned to the boy.
"Tell him, Harry."
Harry McLane said, "I paid him off."
Mason stared thoughtfully at the boy.
"Paid him off."
"Paid who off?"
"Every damned cent – three thousand nine hundred and forty-two dollars and sixty-three cents."
"Did you," asked Perry Mason, "get a receipt?"
"I didn't need a receipt. I got back the forged notes. That was all the receipt I needed."
"When did you pay him off?"
"At exactly what time?"
"I don't know. It was around eleven o'clock, I guess, or perhaps a little later."
Mason tried to hold the boy's eyes, but McLane looked toward his sister, then out of the window.
"It's all okay now," he said. "We just thought we'd let you know. Come on, Sis, I guess there's nothing else we can do here."
"Wait a minute," Mason said. "Look at me."
Young McLane turned his eyes to the lawyer.
"Now keep looking at me," Mason said. "Don't move your eyes from mine. Now tell me. You read the newspapers this morning."
"Yes, that's why we came here – to find out if it would make any difference."
"Just how long," the lawyer asked slowly, "before Hartley Basset was murdered did you pay that money to him?"
"I don't know, because I don't know when he was murdered."
"Suppose that he was murdered at around midnight?"
"I must have paid it to him a little while before he was murdered, then… Maybe someone stole the money from him."
"You paid him in cash?"
"Cold, hard cash."
"Where did you get the money?"
"That's my business."
"Did you win it gambling?"
"What do you care where I got it? It isn't important."
"It may," Mason told him, "be very important. Do you realize that… But never mind. Let me ask you a few questions first. Hartley Basset gave you back the forged notes?"
"These forged notes were the only things that he held against you in the line of evidence, is that right?"
"Now, where did he get those forged notes from? In other words, where were they?… No, young man, don't look away. Keep your eyes right on mine… Where did Hartley Basset get those forged notes?"
"From a locked note file that he had on his desk."
"Where was the key to that file?"
"On his key ring, of course."
"Do you realize," Mason asked, "that when Basset's body was found and searched there wasn't more than twenty-five dollars in actual currency in his pockets and that the police haven't discovered any large sum of money either in the safe or in the room where he was murdered?"
"Perhaps," Harry McLane suggested, "the motive of the murder was robbery."
Perry Mason thumped the desk slowly with his fist, giving emphasis to his words.
"Young man," he said slowly, "do you realize that there wasn't anything on God's green earth to have prevented you getting admission to the room where Hartley Basset was working by telling him that you had come to pay off the money, that, when you were once in that room you could have killed Hartley Basset, that you could have taken the key from Basset's key ring, opened the note file on his desk – a file with which you are thoroughly familiar because of your employment with Basset, taken out those forged notes which represented the only evidence against you, placed a fake suicide note in the typewriter, and left the house… No, don't interrupt – and keep looking at me… That the only thing on earth that will prevent you from having to answer questions to the police predicated upon such a theory of what might have happened, is an ability to show exactly where you got the money that you paid Hartley Basset and being able to account for your whereabouts at the exact time the murder was committed?"
"Why!" Bertha McLane exclaimed. "You're accusing Harry of murder! Harry wouldn't ever have done…"
"Shut up," Mason said, without looking at her. "Let's hear Harry's story first."
Harry jumped up from the chair, turned and walked toward the window.
"Aw, nuts," he called over his shoulder. "You know who killed the old buzzard. You ain't going to make me the goat."
"Come back here," Mason said.
"The hell I will!" McLane said, standing with his back to them, looking out of the window. "I don't have to come back and sit in a chair and let you bore our eyes into mine and frame me, so you can get the breaks for some other client of yours."
"Can you," Mason inquired, his face flushing, "show where you got the money that you paid to Hartley Basset?"
"No… Perhaps I could, but I'm not going to."
"You've got to."
"I don't have to."
"I've got to be able to give the police that evidence, Harry, or they're going to arrest you."
"Let them arrest me, then."
"It's more serious than that. If you can't show that you paid this money and secured legitimate possession of those notes, the police are going to think that you secured possession of them illegally."
"To hell with the police."
"It isn't what the police think; it's what a jury's going to think. Remember, young man, that the evidence would show that you were an embezzler. The prosecution would claim Basset was going to send you to jail – you killed him to keep him from doing so."
"Aw, nuts," Harry McLane said again, but kept looking out of the window.
Mason shrugged his shoulders and turned toward Bertha McLane.
"I'm simply telling you," he said.
"Do the police know about those embezzlements?"
"No, but they will."
Harry McLane turned from the window.
"Listen," he said, "don't let this guy kid you, Sis. He knows who killed Basset, or, if he doesn't, he's a damn fool, but he'd like to make a nice fee for himself putting me on the spot. We're finished with this guy right now. The more you let him talk to me the more of a frame-up he's going to pull on me."
Mason said slowly, "Listen, Harry, you've pulled that line two or three times. You know it's a lie. But if you've got any sense, you must know that you've got to have the answers to these questions before the police find out about you."
"Don't worry about the police," the boy sneered. "You tend to your knitting and I'll tend to mine."
"You paid Basset in cash?" Mason asked.
"What did he do with the cash?"
"Put it in the pig-skin wallet he carries in his coat pocket. You ask his wife about it. She'll tell you he always had the wallet in his pocket."
"It wasn't there when the police found the body, Harry."
"I can't help that. It was there when I paid him the money."
"And you didn't get a receipt?"
"There was no one present?"
"No, of course not."
"And you can't tell us where you got the money?"
"I can, but I won't."
"Does anyone know that you had that money?"
"That's none of your business."
Perry Mason's telephone rang. He scooped up the receiver. Della Street said, "Paul Drake's on the line. He's got some information that I think you should have."
Mason said, "Yes, Paul. What is it?"
The detective's voice said, "I'm going to talk low, Perry, because I don't want anyone else in the office to hear what I'm telling you, and telephone receivers sometimes play tricks when a chap talks too loud… Now, listen… The police are getting ready to pull a whole bunch of fast ones. They've found out a lot of things. Your man, Brunold, has been spilling information. They've had experts check up on the typewritten note that was in the machine on Basset's desk.
"Now, you know typewriting is just as distinctive as handwriting. The police criminologists say the message on the piece of paper which was in the typewriter on Basset's desk hadn't been written on that typewriter. They've been looking the house over, to find the typewriter that it was written on. They located it, in Mrs. Basset's bedroom. It's a Remington Portable that she used for personal correspondence.
"What's more, the experts can tell, by the even impression the letters made, that the thing was written by someone who used a touch system – a professional stenographer. You remember what I told you about Mrs. Basset having been a secretary."
Perry Mason frowned thoughtfully at the telephone transmitter.
"Have you located her yet, Paul?" he asked.
"Not yet, but I picked up this information from one of the boys who had been in touch with a newspaper man. I thought you should have it."
"Yes," Mason said, "I'm glad you gave it to me. Try and locate her just as quickly as you can."
He dropped the receiver back into place and turned to stare moodily at young McLane.
"Harry," he said, "you told me that someone who was very close to Hartley Basset was going to intercede to keep you from going to jail."
"Oh, forget it!" McLane said.
Mason turned to Bertha McLane and said, "I gave you a paper with my telephone number on it – the number of my apartment, where you could reach me after office hours. What did you do with it?"
Harry McLane took a quick step forward and said, "Don't…"
"Gave it to Harry," she said.
Harry McLane sighed. "You didn't have to tell him that," he said.
Mason turned back to the young man. "What did you do with it, Harry?"
"Kept it in my pocket for a while."
"And then what?"
"I don't know. Why the hell should I remember all those little things? I threw it away, I guess. I didn't have any more need to call you after I paid the old buzzard off. There wasn't any reason why I should carry your telephone number around with me. What did you want me to do, seal it up in a pickle jar so it would keep?"
"That piece of paper," Mason said, "was found in the corridor in front of Mrs. Basset's bedroom."
Sheer surprise twisted young McLane's face into a spasm of expression. "It couldn't have been," he said, then, after a moment, with a look of cunning in his eyes, said, "Well, what if it was?"
"When I went out there," Mason went on, entirely disregarding young McLane's comment, "Mrs. Basset tried to intercede for you."
"Did she?" Harry asked tonelessly.
"Did you know she was going to do that?"
"Of course not. I'm not a mind reader."
"Mrs. Basset likes you, Harry?"
"How do I know?"
"Did you see her last night, before you saw Hartley Basset?"
Harry McLane hesitated and said, "Why?"
"You might as well tell me that," Mason said. "The police certainly can find out that much. The servants were in the house and…"
"I'm not going to tell you any more about her. Leave her out of it."
"Had you ever been in her room?"
"Sure, on business."
"Was there a typewriter in her room?"
"I think so."
"A Remington Portable?"
"I guess so."
"Had you ever used it?"
"Sometimes when I was working there and she had social letters to get out she'd dictate them to me."
"Did Hartley Basset suggest that she do that?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do, Harry. Tell us the truth."
"Hartley Basset didn't know anything about it."
"Why did you do it, if it wasn't a part of the duties of your employment?"
"Because she was a good scout and I liked her, and because old Basset was grinding her down."
"So you sympathized with her?"
"And wrote letters for her?"
"Yes, sometimes she'd have neuritis in her right arm."
"Was there a portable typewriter on the desk in front of Hartley Basset when you called on him?"