Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Legal
He broke off as the telephone bell on his private line rang insistently. He scooped the receiver to his ear, and heard Della Street's voice on the other end of the line.
"There's a Miss Bertha McLane here, Chief. She has a younger brother with her – a Harry McLane. They seem to be pretty much excited. She won't tell me the nature of her business. She's been crying, and the brother is surly. They look promising. Will you see them?"
"Okay," he told her; "I'll see them in a minute," and dropped the receiver back into position.
Brunold, half-way through the door, said, "I left my hat in this other office. I'll have to go out that way."
He turned toward the outer office, stiffened suddenly and said, "Hello, Harry; what the devil are you doing here?"
Mason crossed the office in four swift strides, caught Brunold by the shoulder of his coat, jerked him back. "You wait here," he said. "This is a law office, not a club room. I don't want my other clients to see you, and I don't want you to see my other clients."
He pushed his head through the door and said, "Della, bring this man his hat."
When Della Street brought in Brunold's hat, Mason signaled her to close the door.
"Who was it?" he asked Brunold.
"Just young McLane," Brunold said, trying to be casual.
"Know he was coming here?"
"Know his business here?"
"Then what made you turn pale?"
"Did I turn pale?"
"I don't know why I did it. Young McLane is nothing to me."
Mason put his hand on Brunold's shoulder. "Well," he said, "you can go out this way, and… Good heavens, man, you're shaking like a leaf!"
"Just nervousness," Brunold said, breaking away and lunging through the door to the outer corridor. "That McLane boy means nothing to me, but the sight of him brings up certain ideas that…"
He stepped into the corridor, stopping abruptly in mid-sentence. The door slammed behind him.
Perry Mason turned to Della Street.
"Get Paul Drake," he said, "of the Drake Detective Bureau, right away. Keep those two people waiting until after I've had a chance to see Drake. Tell Drake to come down to the corridor door and knock. I'll let him in."
She slipped through the door to the outer office, saying to the waiting couple, "Mr. Mason is busy, but he'll see you in a few minutes."
Perry Mason lit a cigarette, started thoughtfully pacing the office. He was still pacing up and down when a tap sounded at the exit door which led to the corridor. Mason threw back the spring lock, opened the door, and nodded to a tall individual with glassy eyes, and a mouth which was twisted into an expression of droll humor.
"Come in, Paul," he said, "and get an earful of this."
The lawyer took from his pocket the glass eye which Brunold had given him, and passed it over to Paul Drake.
The detective examined it curiously.
"Know anything about glass eyes, Paul?"
"Not very much."
"Well, you're going to know a lot in the near future."
"All right, shoot."
"Go to the Baltimore Hotel, engage a room, look through the classified directory and pick someone who's a wholesaler of artificial eyes. Ring him up. Tell him you're a dealer from out of town; that you've got a customer who wants half a dozen bloodshot eyes to match an eye you're sending over by messenger. Give a phoney name. Say you come from some outlying city, and that you're just starting in business.
"The wholesaler will have a bunch of eyes in stock. They won't be as good as the eyes that are made to order by experts. From all I can gather, it's about the same difference as getting a tailor-made suit, or one of the cheaper ready-mades. But the wholesaler can match this eye and then bloodshot the duplicates."
"What do you mean – bloodshot the duplicates?" Drake inquired.
"Putting veins on the outside of them. They do it with red glass. They'll make a rush job of it for you if they think you're going to be a good future customer. Impress that on them, that you're a new dealer from some outlying town."
"How much will the eyes cost?"
"I don't know – ten or twelve dollars apiece, probably."
"You don't want me to go around there and talk with the dealer personally?"
"No. I don't want him to know what you look like. I don't want him to be able to trace you. Register at the hotel under a phoney name. Give the dealer the phoney name. Keep out of sight as much as possible. Don't tip the bell boys too much or too little. Don't have too much baggage and don't have too little. Be just an ordinary customer of the type that no one will remember if anyone starts checking up on you later on."
Paul Drake's dubious eyes stared steadily at the lawyer.
"Will someone check up on me?" he asked.
"Am I violating any laws, Perry?"
"Nothing that I can't get you out of, Paul."
"Okay. When do I go?"
Drake slipped the eye in his pocket, nodded and turned toward the door.
Perry Mason picked up the telephone and said to Della Street, "All right, Della; I'll see Miss McLane and her brother."
Mason indicated chairs.
"You're Miss Bertha McLane?" he asked.
She nodded, turned toward the younger man.
"My brother, Harry."
Mason waited until they were seated, then said, in a kindly voice, "What was it you wanted to see me about?"
She held him with eyes in which there glinted a vigorous determination.
"Who," she asked, "was the man who just left here?"
Perry Mason raised his eyebrows.
"I thought you knew him. I heard him speak to you."
"He didn't speak to me. He spoke to Harry."
"Harry can tell you who he is, then."
"Harry won't tell me. He says it's none of my business. I want you to tell me."
The lawyer shook his head, and smiled. After a moment he said, in a kindly voice, "What was it you wished to see me about?"
"I've got to know who that man was."
The smile left the lawyer's face.
"After all," he said, "this is a law office, you know, not an information bureau."
For a moment there was flashing anger in her eyes. Then she controlled herself.
"After all," she said, "perhaps you're right. If anyone came into my office and tried to find out something about who the man was who was just going out, I'd… I'd…"
"You'd what?" Perry Mason prompted.
She laughed, and said, "Probably lie to him, and tell him I didn't know."
Mason opened a cigarette case and offered her a cigarette.
She hesitated a moment, then took one of the cigarettes, tapped it on her thumb-nail with a practiced hand, leaned forward to the flame of the match which Mason held for her, and inhaled deeply. Mason offered a cigarette to Harry McLane, who shook his head in silent refusal. Mason, himself, lit a cigarette, settled back in the chair and looked from the young man to the young woman, then kept his eyes on Bertha McLane, as though expecting her to do the talking.
She adjusted her skirt, and said, "Harry is in trouble."
Harry McLane shifted uneasily in his chair.
"Tell him about it, Harry," she pleaded.
"You tell him," Harry McLane said, speaking in that mumbling undertone which he had used before.
"Did you," she asked the lawyer, "ever hear of Hartley Basset?"
"Seems to me I've heard the name over the radio. Doesn't he make automobile loans?"
"Yes," she said, with feeling in her voice; "he does. He makes all sorts of loans. The automobile loans he makes, he advertises over the radio. He makes other loans that he doesn't advertise so much, and he isn't above buying a piece of stolen jewelry, or financing an expert smuggler."
The lawyer raised his eyebrows quizzically and started to say something, but puffed on his cigarette instead.
"You can't prove all of that stuff," Harry McLane said, in a surly undertone.
"You told me."
"Well, I was just guessing at lots of it."
"No, you weren't, Harry. You know that you were telling the truth. You've worked for him, and you know the kind of business he's running."
"What sort of trouble is Harry in?" Mason inquired.
"He embezzled something over three thousand dollars from Hartley Basset."
The lawyer's eyes shifted to Harry McLane. Harry McLane met his gaze defiantly for a moment, then dropped his eyes and said, in a voice so low that it could hardly be heard, "I was going to pay him back."
"Does Mr. Basset know about it?" Mason inquired.
"He does now."
"When did he find it out?"
"Just how did the embezzlement take place?" Mason inquired, turning to the young man. "Was it over a long period of time? Was it in one sum, or was it in smaller sums, and what was done with the money?"
Harry McLane looked expectantly toward his sister. She said, "It was in four separate amounts – almost a thousand dollars each."
"How was it done?"
"It was done by substituting forged notes for original ones."
The lawyer frowned, and said, "I don't see just how that would be an embezzlement, unless the original notes were negotiated."
Harry McLane, raising his voice for the first time since he had entered the room, said, "You don't need to go into all those details, Sis; just tell him what you want done."
"What do you want me to do?" Mason inquired.
"I want you to return the money to Mr. Basset. That is, I want you to arrange it so I can return the money to Mr. Basset."
"All of it?" Mason asked.
"Eventually, yes. I've only got a little over fifteen hundred dollars to give him now. I'll give him the balance in installments."
"You're working?" Mason asked.
She flushed and said, "I don't think it's necessary to go into that, is it?"
"It might be," he told her.
"We can go into it later if we have to. I'm secretary to an important business man."
"What salary do you make?"
"Is it necessary to go into that?"
"So I can decide how much to charge for my services, for one thing," Mason told her.
"It isn't as much as it should be, considering the work I'm doing. The employees have all had to take substantial reductions."
"How much?" Mason asked.
"Forty dollars a week."
"Anyone dependent on you?"
"Living with you?"
"No, in Denver."
"How much do you send her?"
"Seventy dollars a month."
"You're her sole support?"
"How about Harry?"
"He hasn't been able to send anything."
"He's been working for Hartley Basset?"
"How much salary," Mason inquired, "did Harry get?"
Harry McLane said, "I couldn't help Mother out on what I was getting."
"How much was it?"
"A hundred dollars a month."
"It takes more for a man to live than a woman."
Bertha McLane said.
"How long did you work for Basset?"
Mason studied the young man, then said curtly, "And, in that time, you made something over seven hundred and fifty dollars a month, did you not?"
Sheer surprise caused Harry McLane's eyes to widen.
"Seven hundred and fifty dollars a month!" he exclaimed. "I should say not. Old Basset wouldn't give anyone a decent salary. He paid me a hundred dollars a month, and hated like hell to part with it."
"During that time," Mason said, "you embezzled something like four thousand dollars. Added to your salary, that makes your monthly income around seven hundred and fifty dollars a month."
Harry McLane's lips quivered at the corners. He said, "You can't figure it that way," and lapsed into silence.
"Any of that money go to your mother?" Mason asked.
It was Bertha McLane who answered the question.
"No," she said, "we don't know where it went."
Mason turned again to the boy.
"Where did it go, Harry?"
"I tell you it's gone."
"I want to know where it went."
"Why do you want to know that?"
"Because I've got to know it if I'm going to help you."
"A fat lot of help you're being."
Mason pounded his fist on the desk with slow deliberation, beating time to his words with the pounding of the fist.
"If you think," he said, "that I'm going to try to help you without knowing the facts of the case, you're crazy. Now, are you going to tell me the facts, or are you going to find some other lawyer?"
"He gave the money to someone," Bertha McLane said.
"A woman?" Mason inquired.
"No," Harry said, with a flash of something like pride. "I don't have to pay women money. They're willing to give me money."
"Whom did you give it to?"
"I gave it to someone to invest."
"That's something I'm not going to tell."
"You've got to tell."
"I'm not going to tell. I'm not going to rat on anyone. That's one of the things you can't make me do. Sis has been trying to make me squeal. I won't squeal. I'll go to jail and stay there until I die before I'll turn rat."
Bertha McLane turned toward him.
"Harry," she said, in a pleading voice, "was it that man who was just here in the office – the man who spoke to you there in the doorway?"
"No," Harry said defiantly; "I just met that bird once."
"Where did you meet him?"
"None of your business."
"What's his name?"
"Leave him out of it."
She turned to Perry Mason, and said, "He had some accomplice, someone who was bleeding him for the money, someone who helped him to rig things up so that he could get the money without being caught."
"How did he get the money?" Mason asked.
"He had charge of the note file. Basset charges exorbitant rates of interest. People don't borrow money from him except as a last resort. He gets whatever security he can, and all the interest the law will allow. Sometimes people find that they can raise money from other sources. When they do, they rush in to pay off the notes in order to stop the excessive interest.
"That's what happened in these cases. People came in to pay off the notes. They paid the money to Harry. Harry took the money and gave them back their notes. Then he forged notes with their signatures, and put the forged notes back in the note file. Whenever Mr. Basset checked up on the note file, it seemed to be all right, because these forged notes were in there. And Harry kept the interest paid on the forged notes."
"How was he detected?" Mason asked.
"One of the notes came due. Harry couldn't get the money to meet the note immediately. He thought he'd have a few days. He stalled along, but Mr. Basset happened to see the man who'd given the note at a golf club. He dunned him for the money, and the man told him he'd paid off the note four months ago. He had the original note, marked 'Canceled,' to prove his claim. So Basset made a complete investigation."
"What makes you think Harry had an accomplice?"
"He's admitted that much to me. It was the accomplice that got the money. I think he was taking it to gamble with."
"What sort of gambling?"
"All sorts – poker, roulette, horse racing, and lottery, principally horse racing and lottery."
"If the old fool had just sat tight, I'd have got him his money back – all of it," Harry McLane said. Perry Mason turned to Bertha McLane, studied her with level, appraising eyes.
"The fifteen hundred dollars," he said, "represents your savings?"
"It's money that I have in a savings bank – yes."
"Money you've saved out of your salary?"
"You've got to keep on sending your mother seventy dollars a month?"
"You want to pay this amount off so Harry won't have to go to jail?"
"Yes; it would kill Mother."
"And then you intend to make payments out of your salary?"
"Harry is out of a job," Mason said; "you'll have him on your hands to support."
"Don't worry about me," Harry McLane said. "I'll get by all right. I'll get a job and pay Sis back every cent of it. She won't have to pay anything out of her salary. I'll get it all back to her inside of thirty days."
"Just how," asked Perry Mason, "did you intend to get it back?"
"I'm going to get it back. I'll make some investments. I can't run into bad luck all the time."
"In other words," Mason said, "you intend to keep on gambling."
"I didn't say so."
"What are the investments you had in mind?"
"I don't have to tell you what my investments are going to be. You just go ahead and get this thing fixed up with Basset. I'll handle my affairs with Sis."
Mason's tone was final.
"I'll give you my advice right now," he said. "Don't pay Basset one cent."
"But I've got to; the money was taken from him."
"Don't pay him a single thin dime."
"He's given me until tomorrow night to get the money for him, and then he's going to put the thing in the hands of the district attorney," Harry McLane said, as though the lawyer had failed to comprehend the situation.