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Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner

Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Legal

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BOOK: The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
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"Jail," Mason said, "is the proper place for you, young man!"

Bertha McLane's eyes widened.

"I've been in the law business a long time," Mason told them. "I've seen them come and I've seen them go. I've seen men of this type before. Their first crime is usually a small crime. Someone covers it up, with a great deal of sacrifice. Now, I'm willing to bet you ten to one that this isn't the first time you've had to make good for Harry – is it?"

Harry McLane blurted, "That's got nothing to do with it. Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?"

Perry Mason did not take his eyes from Bertha McLane's face.

"Is it the first time?" he asked.

"I've had to cover a check or two," she said slowly.

"Exactly!" he told her. "Your brother is sliding. You're doing your best to keep him from it. He knows that he's got you back of him all the time. He started out giving a bum check. You made it good. He was sorry and promised you he'd never do it again. He talked big. He was going out and get a job. He was going to do this and he was going to do that. Talk is cheap. But, it's the only coin he's got with which to pay anyone anything. He hypnotizes himself into believing that he's going to do what he says he's going to do. But he hasn't got guts enough to go out and do it. He doesn't intend to get a job. He intends to get some more money from you in order to play a 'sure thing.' Then he thinks he'll make a 'big killing' and come in with his pockets lined with money.

"He's one of those fellows who want to be 'big shots.' He hasn't got guts enough to go out and do it by hard work. Therefore, he does it with talk and by trying to take short cuts. When things go wrong, he feels sorry for himself and wants someone to listen to his tale of woe. When he has a little spurt of good fortune, he patronizes all of his friends and starts to strut. Then the next time he gets a body blow, he caves in and crawls all over the place, trying to put his head in your lap and sob out his troubles, while you run your fingers through his hair, tell him you'll protect him and that it will be all right.

"The thing this young man needs is to be forced to live his own life. He's been dependent on women too long. He's a younger brother. You've fought his battles. I presume his father's dead and you put him through school. Right?"

"I put him through business college. I made a stenographer and bookkeeper of him. That was the best I could do. Sometimes I blame myself. I think I should have tried a little harder to give him a better education. But, after Father's death, I had Mother to support and…"

Harry McLane got to his feet.

"Come on, Sis," he said. "It's easy enough for a guy who collects big fees to sit in a swivel chair and read lectures to a bird who's had all the breaks against him. We don't have to stick around and listen to it."

"On the contrary," Perry Mason told him, "you do."

He got to his feet and pointed to the chair.

"Get back there and sit down," he said.

Harry McLane stared at him with sullen defiance. Mason took a quick step toward him and McLane dropped into the chair.

Mason turned back to Bertha McLane.

"You wanted to get legal advice," he said. "I'm giving it to you. You can't cover up this embezzlement, with the understanding that Basset isn't going to prosecute your brother, unless you compound a felony. Moreover, from the income that you have at your command, you can't hope to keep up regular monthly payments to Basset, support your mother, pay your own living expenses, and, at the same time, pay out the money that your brother will be nicking you for every month in order to keep up with his gambling.

"I'll try to get this young man probation. But, in order to get probation, he'll have to cut out all of his gambling associations. He'll have to tell the court who got this money and what was done with it. He'll have to quit acting the part of a spoiled kid with an indulgent sister, and learn to stand on his own two feet, and it may make a man of him."

"But you don't understand," Bertha McLane said, in a voice that seemed perilously close to the breaking point. "I've got to pay back the money anyway. It was embezzled by my brother. I wouldn't care whether he went to jail or whether he didn't. I'd turn over the money to Mr. Basset just as fast as I could get it."

"How old are you?" Mason inquired.

"Twenty-seven."

"How old's the boy?"

"Twenty-two."

"Why should you be obligated to pay off his embezzlement?"

"Because he's my brother. And then, there's my mother to be considered. Can't you understand she's not at all well. She isn't young. Harry is the apple of her eye."

"Her favorite?" Mason asked.

"Well," she said slowly, "of course, he's the man of the family. Ever since Father died, he's been the man – that is, he's been…"

"I know," Perry Mason said. "He's been the one you've slaved for and given all the breaks. Can't you explain the facts to your mother?"

"Good Lord, no! It would kill her. She thinks Harry is a big business man; that he's been Mr. Basset's right-hand man; that Mr. Basset is one of the biggest financiers in the city."

Perry Mason drummed on his desk.

"And you're going to pay the money whether Basset prosecutes or not?"

"Yes."

Mason stared down at Harry McLane.

"Young man," he said, "you say you've never got the breaks. When you go to bed tonight, get down on your knees and thank God that you've got an invalid mother. Because, I'm going out against my better judgment and try and compound a felony. But I'm going to keep in touch with you, and I'm either going to put some manhood in you, or I'm going to bust you wide open."

He picked up the telephone on his desk, and said to Della Street, "Get me Hartley Basset. He's in the loan business."

He held the receiver in his hand, turned to Bertha McLane, and said, "You're going to have trouble with Hartley Basset. He's going to want you to give him everything you've got, including your soul. He's the type who will drive a hard bargain."

Harry McLane said, "Don't worry about Hartley Basset. You make him the best kind of a proposition we can make, and Basset is going to accept it."

"Where do you get that noise," Mason said scornfully. "The best proposition we can make."

"Well, it's Sis and I together," McLane said. "I'm going to pay her off."

Mason nodded his head, and said, "You may not think so now, but you are. I'm going to see that you do. But what makes you so confident Basset will accept your proposition?"

"He's got to. There's going to be pressure brought to bear on him."

"By whom?"

"By someone that's in his house, who's friendly to me."

"You are the type who makes fair-weather friends," Mason told him. "A man who hasn't any more character than you have doesn't make friends who stick by him."

"That's what you think," McLane said defiantly. "You're going to be fooled. You'll find that there's someone who can make Basset do anything, who's going to be sticking up for me. You just make your proposition and don't pay any attention to what Basset says at the time. He'll probably tell you no, but, within an hour, he'll ring you up on the telephone and tell you he's reconsidered, and that he's willing to accept it."

Perry Mason, staring down at the young man, said in slow, measured words, "Have you been playing around with Mrs. Basset?"

Young McLane flushed and started to answer. The telephone made sounds, and Mason put the receiver to his ear.

"Hello," he said, "Basset?… Is this Mr. Hartley Basset? Well, this is Perry Mason, the lawyer. I've got a matter I want to take up with you. Can you come to my office?… All right, I'll come to yours. Sometime this evening?… Yes, I can make it this evening all right. I'd prefer to make it this afternoon… Well, this evening will be all right. You have your office at your house, you say? I'll be there at eight-thirty… Oh, you know what it's about, then… Very well, eight-thirty."

Perry Mason dropped the receiver back into position.

"How did Basset know that you were going to come here?" he asked.

Harry McLane, his manner filled with assurance, said, "He knew it because I told him."

"You told him?" Bertha McLane asked.

"Yes," Harry said. "He was doing a lot of talking about sending me to jail and all that stuff, and I thought it would be a good plan to throw a scare into I him. I told him that Perry Mason was going to be my lawyer, and he'd better watch his own step, or Perry Mason might see to it that he was the one who went to jail."

Mason stared at Harry McLane in silent dislike.

Bertha McLane crossed to him, put her hand on his arm.

"Thank you," she said, "ever so much. And remember that I'll do the very most that I can for Mr. Basset. I'll pay him off just as quickly as possible – the whole amount and interest. I'll execute a note for it. He can charge interest at the rate of one percent a month. That's what he charges on his notes, you know."

Mason took a deep breath, and said slowly, "As far as Hartley Basset is concerned, I'll talk to him." He took from his desk a blank piece of white bond paper, scribbled a number on it in pencil, handed it to Bertha McLane and said, "This is the telephone number of my apartment. You can reach me there whenever I'm not at the office if anything important should develop. I think your brother's going to talk. When he does, I want to hear what he says."

"You mean about his accomplice?"

"Yes," Mason said.

Harry McLane, his manner now showing brazen self-assurance, contented himself with one comment.

"Nerts," he said.

Bertha McLane pretended not to hear him.

"Your fees," she asked, "how much will they be?" Mason grinned at her and said, "Forget it. The man who just went out of the office paid me enough for his case and yours, too."

Chapter Three
A SEPARATE door, marked. "BASSET AUTO FINANCE COMPANY. WALK IN" was immediately to the right of the door on which a brass placard bore the legend:
HARTLEY BASSET RESIDENCE

Private

No Peddlers or Solicitors

Perry Mason opened the door which led to the office, and walked in. The outer office was deserted. A door marked "PRIVATE" was at the further end. Above an electric push-button appeared the words, "RING AND BE SEATED."

Perry Mason rang.

Almost immediately the door opened. A deep-chested man, with a close-cropped gray mustache and a thick shock of hair which had grizzled at the temples, stared at him with light-gray eyes, from the centers of which pin-pointed black pupils held a hypnotic fascination.

Moving with quick virility, he shot out his left wrist so that he could stare at the wrist-watch.

"On time." he said. "to the minute."

Perry Mason bowed, said nothing, and followed Hartley Basset into a rather plainly appointed office.

"Not here," Basset said. "This is where I collect money. I don't want it to look too prosperous. Come into the office from which I make my big loans. I like it better in there."

He opened a door and indicated an office sumptuously furnished. From a room beyond came the sound of a clacking typewriter.

"Work nights?" Perry Mason asked.

"I'm usually open for a couple of hours during the evening. That's to accommodate people who have jobs. A man who isn't working and wants to borrow on an automobile isn't as good a risk as the man who has a job and needs money."

He indicated a chair. Mason dropped into it.

"You want to see me about Harry McLane?" Basset asked.

At the lawyer's nod, Basset pressed a button. The typewriting in the adjoining office ceased. A chair made a noise as it scraped back. Then a door opened. A narrow-shouldered man, about forty-five years of age, with grayish eyes, peered owlishly from behind horn-rimmed spectacles.

"Arthur," Basset said, "what are the exact figures on the McLane embezzlement?"

"Three thousand, nine hundred and forty-two dollars and sixty-three cents," the man in the doorway said, his voice husky and without expression.

"That includes interest?" asked Basset, "at the rate of one per cent a month?"

"Interest at the rate of one per cent a month," the man affirmed, "from the date the money was embezzled."

Basset said, "That's all."

The man in the doorway stepped back and closed the door. A few seconds later, the clack of the typewriter sounded with mechanical regularity. Hartley Basset smiled at Perry Mason, and said, "He's got until tomorrow afternoon."

Mason extracted a cigarette from his cigarette case. Basset pulled a cigar from his waistcoat pocket. Both men lit up at virtually the same time. Mason extinguished his match by blowing smoke on it, and said, "There's no reason why you and I should misunderstand each other."

"None whatever," Basset agreed.

"I don't know the facts of the case," Mason went on, "but I'm acting on the assumption that McLane embezzled the money."

"He's confessed to it."

"Well, let's not argue that point. Let's assume that he did embezzle it."

"Saving the point so you can defend him in court?" Basset asked, his eyes growing hard.

"I'm simply not making any admissions," Mason said. "If my clients want to make admissions they can do so. I never make admissions."

"Go ahead," Basset remarked.

"You want your money."

"Naturally."

"McLane hasn't got it."

"He had an accomplice."

"Do you know who the accomplice was?"

"No. I wish I did."

"Why?"

"Because the accomplice has the money."

"What makes you think so?"

"I'm virtually certain of it!

"Why doesn't the accomplice pay it back then?"

"I don't know all of the reasons. One of them is that the accomplice is a gambler. He has to have a roll in order to gamble. You dig into Harry McLane's mental processes deeply enough, and you'll find that he's figuring on staging a big comeback. He's got sense enough to know that if he and his accomplice pay back all the money Harry embezzled, they won't have any operating capital. A gambler needs something to gamble with.

"Not that I blame them particularly," Basset said, "if they can get away with it. But they can't get away with it. Not with my money. They're either going to kick through, or go to jail."

"I presume you realize," Mason said, "that you're compounding a felony."

"I'm doing nothing of the sort. I'm getting my money back."

"You're offering embezzlers immunity from prosecution if they make good the money embezzled."

"Let's not be overly technical about it," Basset remarked. "You know what you want. I know what I want. I'm talking plainly to you. I might not talk as plainly elsewhere. I want my money."

"And you think McLane has it?"

"No, I think his accomplice has it."

"But don't you think if McLane could get it from his accomplice, he'd have done so already?"

"No'" Basset said. "They stole money to gamble with. They lost some of it. They want to keep on gambling. McLane's sister will put up money to keep McLane from going to jail. That will leave the pair money to gamble with."

"Well?" Mason asked.

"The girl hasn't all of the money," Basset said. "She's got a little over fifteen hundred dollars. McLane's accomplice has about two thousand left. I'll get the girl's money and then I'll find out who the accomplice is and get what money he's got."

"Suppose," Mason asked, "it doesn't work that way?"

"It will."

Mason said slowly, "I can get you fifteen hundred dollars in cash and monthly payments of thirty dollars. I'm representing the sister."

"Her money?" Basset asked.

"Yes."

"All of it?"

"Yes."

"The boy hasn't kicked through with any of it?"

"No."

"I'll take the fifteen hundred cash and a hundred a month from the girl," Basset said.

Mason flushed, sucked in a quick breath, controlled himself, puffed on the cigarette, and said tonelessly, "She can't do it. She's supporting an invalid mother. She can't live on what would be left of her salary."

"I'm not interested," Basset said, "in getting my money back in small installments. Monthly payments of one hundred dollars will get the principal reduced reasonably so that Harry McLane may get a job in the meantime. He can pass the loss on to his new employer."

"What do you mean," Mason inquired, "by passing the loss on to his new employer?"

"He can work out some scheme of embezzling from his new employer to pay me off my losses."

"You mean you'd force him to theft?"

"Certainly not. I'm simply suggesting that he pass on the burden. He embezzled from me. I held the sack for a while. Let someone else hold it for a while now."

Mason laughed. "You might find yourself an accessory before the fact in that new embezzlement, Basset."

Basset stared coldly at him and said, "What do I care. I want my money. I don't care how I get it. There's no legal evidence against me. The moral aspect of the case leaves me completely indifferent."

"I gathered it did," Mason told him.

"That's fine. It eliminates misunderstandings. I'm not going to talk with you about the morals of your profession and you're not going to talk with me about the morals of mine. I want my money. You're here to see that I get it. The sister doesn't want the boy to go to jail. I've given you my terms. That's all there is to it."

"Those terms'" Mason told him, "won't be met."

Basset shrugged his shoulders and said, "He's got until tomorrow."

Knuckles sounded in a gentle knock on the panels of the door, which almost immediately opened. A woman, between thirty-five and forty, glanced at Perry Mason with a quick half smile, and turned solicitously to Hartley Basset. "May I sit in on this, Hartley?" she asked.

Hartley Basset remained seated. He regarded her through the smoke which twisted upward from the cigar. His face had no flicker of expression.

"My wife," he said to the lawyer.

Mason got to his feet, surveyed the slender figure appreciatively, and said, "I am very pleased, Mrs. Basset."

She kept her eyes fastened apprehensively upon her husband.

"Please, Hartley, I'd like to have something to say about this."

"Why?"

"Because I'm interested."

"Interested in what?"

"Interested in what you're going to do."

"Do you mean," he asked, "that you're interested in Harry McLane?"

"No. I'm interested for another reason."

"What's the other reason?"

"I don't want you to be too hard if the money is coming from his sister."

"I think," Basset said, "I'm the best judge of that."

"May I sit in on your conference?"

The eyes were cold and hard. The voice was utterly without emotion, as Basset said, "No."

There was a moment of silence. Basset did nothing to soften the curtness of his refusal. Mrs. Basset hesitated a moment, then turned and walked across the office. She didn't leave through the door by which she had entered, but went, instead, into the adjoining office, and a moment later, the sound of a closing door announced that she had gone through it to the reception room.

Hartley Basset said, "No need for you to sit down again, Mason; we understand each other perfectly. Good night."

Perry Mason strode to the door, jerked it open, called back over his shoulder, "Good night, and good-by."

He strode across the outer office, slammed the door of the reception room behind him, and crossed the porch in three swift strides. He crossed to the left side of his coupe, jerked open the door and was just sliding in behind the wheel when he realized someone was huddled at the opposite end of the seat.

He stiffened to quick vigilance, and a woman's voice said, "Just close the door, please, and drive around the corner."

It was the voice of Mrs. Basset.

Mason hesitated a moment. His face showed irritation, then curiosity. He slid behind the wheel, drove around the block, stopped, and switched off lights and motor. Mrs. Basset leaned forward, put her hand on his sleeve, and said, "Please do what he asks."

"What he asks," he said, "is humanly impossible."

"No, it isn't impossible," she said. "I know him too well for that. He'll get blood out of a turnip. He'll get the last drop of blood, but he'll never ask for something that's impossible."

"The girl's supporting an invalid mother."

"But surely," Mrs. Basset said, "there's charitable aid for such people. After all, the girl doesn't have to do it. People don't starve to death in civilized communities, you know. If the girl should die, you know, the mother would be taken care of some way."

Mason said, savagely. "And you think the girl should try to live on sixty dollars a month, and cut off her mother without a cent; all in order to pay back your husband money that's been embezzled from him by a no account kid?"

"No," she said. "Not to get him back his money. To keep him from doing what he'll do if he doesn't get his money back."

Mason said slowly, "And you sneaked out here to tell me that?"

"No," she told him; "to ask you something. I just mentioned about that embezzlement incidentally."

"If you want to consult me," he told her, "come to my office."

"I can't come to your office. I never get away. I'm spied on all the time."

"Don't be foolish." Mason told her. "Who'd want to spy on you?"

"My husband, of course."

"Do you mean to say you couldn't come to a lawyer's office if you wanted to?"

"Certainly I couldn't."

"Who would stop you."

"He would."

"How would he do it?"

"I don't know how. He'd do it. He's utterly ruthless. He'd kill me if I crossed him."

Mason frowned thoughtfully and said, "What was it you wanted to ask me about?"

"Bigamy."

"What about it?"

"I'm married to Hartley Basset."

"So I understand."

"I want to run away and leave him."

"Go ahead."

"I have another man who wants to support me."

"Swell."

"I'd have to marry him."

"Then you could get a divorce from Basset."

"But I'd have to marry him at once."

"You mean you'd go through a marriage ceremony without getting a divorce from Basset?"

"Yes."

"Then this man doesn't know you're married to Basset?"

"Yes," she said slowly; "he does."

"He wants to become a party to a bigamous marriage?"

"We want to fix it so it isn't bigamy."

"You could," Perry Mason said, "get a quick divorce by going to certain places."

BOOK: The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
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