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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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"What's that?" he asked.

"Is it any of your business?"

"Yes."

"It's something I picked up in the hallway," Colemar said.

"When?"

"Just now."

"What part of the hallway?"

"The head of the stairs, right by Mrs. Basset's room, if you must know. But I don't know what right you've got to…"

"Forget it," Mason said, stepping forward, picking up the paper and folding it and putting it in his pocket. "You're going to be a witness. I'm a lawyer. I might be able to help you."

"Help me?"

"Yes."

Colemar's eyebrows rose in surprise.

"Good heavens," he said, "what am I a witness to, and how can you help me?"

"You saw a woman who had been injured lying on the couch down in Mr. Basset's reception room just a few minutes ago."

"I couldn't tell whether it was a woman or a man. Someone was lying on the couch. I thought it was a man, but Edith Brite was standing in front of the couch and Mrs. Basset was very anxious that I shouldn't go near the couch. She kept pushing me away. If you're at all interested, you might care to know that I'm going to report the matter to Mr. Basset in the morning. Mrs. Basset has no right in those offices and I have. She had no right to push me away."

"Overpowered you, did she?" Mason asked sarcastically.

"You don't know that Brite woman," Colemar retorted. "She's strong as an ox and she does everything Mrs. Basset tells her to."

"You'd been out?" Mason asked.

"Yes, sir, to a picture show."

"When you came back you saw someone running down the street?"

Colemar straightened with such frosty dignity as can be mustered by a man whose shoulders have been bent over a desk during years of clerical work.

"I did," he said ominously.

Something in his tone caused Mason's eyes to narrow.

"Look here, Colemar," he said, "did you recognize that man?"

"That," Colemar said, "is something which is none of your business. That is something which I shall report to Mr. Basset. I don't wish to seem disrespectful, but I don't know your connection with Mrs. Basset and I don't know what right you have to invade my room without knocking and ask me questions. You said I was going to be a witness. What am I going to be a witness to?"

Mason heard the sound of a siren as a car rounded the corner with screaming tires. He didn't wait to answer Colemar's question but jerked the door open, sprinted down the hallway, took the stairs two at a time, jerked open the door to the porch, and crossed to the other door just as a touring car slid in close to the curb.

Mason shoved the door open. Dick Basset and his mother, engaged in a whispered conversation, jumped guiltily apart.

"Okay," Mason said, "here are the cops. Don't say anything about any trouble either one of you might have had with Hartley Basset. That line isn't going to go over so good under the circumstances. Do you get me?"

Mrs. Basset said slowly, "I get you."

Feet pounded on the porch. Knuckles pounded imperatively against the door.

She opened it, and two broad-shouldered men pushed their way into the room.

"Okay," one of them said. "What's going on here?"

"My husband," Mrs. Basset said, "has just committed suicide."

"That wasn't the way we got it over the radio," one of the men said.

"I'm sorry," she told him. "My son was hysterical. He was laboring under a misunderstanding. He didn't know what had happened."

"Well," one of the men said, "what has happened?"

She motioned toward the door.

"How do you know it's suicide?" the other officer asked.

"You can read the note he left in the typewriter."

The men opened the door. One of them produced a flashlight and sent the beam slithering about the room. The other found a light switch, pressed the button and stood staring at the scene which was disclosed as the lights clicked on.

"How long ago did you find him?" he asked.

"About five minutes ago," Perry Mason said, answering the question.

The men turned to him.

"Who are you, buddy?" one of them asked.

The other one gave a sudden start of recognition.

"It's Perry Mason," he said, "the lawyer."

Perry Mason bowed.

"What are you doing here?" the first man asked.

"Waiting for you to get done with the formalities in connection with this suicide," Perry Mason said, "so that I can discuss certain matters with Mrs. Basset."

"How did you happen to be here?"

"I came here to see Mr. Basset on business."

"What kind of business?"

"Not that it makes any difference," Perry Mason said, smiling affably, "but it had to do with the affairs of a young man who had been employed by Mr. Basset. There'd been some misunderstanding between them, and I wanted to get it straightened out."

"Humph!" the officer said, and stood staring down at the corpse.

"Anyone hear the pistol shot?"

No one answered.

"Evidently used the blanket and quilt to muffle the pistol shot," the officer said. "There's the gun that did the killing."

Perry Mason followed the direction of his pointing finger. On the floor, in plain sight, lay a gun, a.38 caliber Colt, Police Positive, very apparently the gun which he had taken from young Basset.

One of the officers stepped to the corpse, picked up a corner of the blanket and raised it.

"Say, look here!" he called in an excited voice. "Here's another gun under this blanket. How the devil could a man commit suicide with two guns?"

The second officer pushed the spectators toward the doorway.

"Get out of here," he said, "and let me use the telephone. I'm calling the Homicide Squad."

Mason stared at Mrs. Basset. "Two guns," he said. She made no answer. Her lips were bloodless, her eyes dark with terror.

Chapter Five
THE witnesses sat in a huddled group in the outer office. The members of the Homicide Squad busied themselves in the death chamber.

Perry Mason leaned toward Mrs. Basset.

"What did you mean by planting that gun?" he whispered.

"Will it make trouble?" she asked.

"Of course, it'll make trouble. Why did you do it?"

"Because," she said slowly, "there couldn't have been a suicide, without the gun being found there. I didn't think there was any gun. You know, we couldn't see any when we were in the room. We didn't move the blanket, and…"

"But why," the lawyer demanded, "did you put that gun there?"

"I had to," she said. "There had to be a gun there. Otherwise it wouldn't have looked like suicide. It would have looked like murder."

"Don't ever kid yourself," Mason said grimly, "that it wasn't murder, and that was Dick's gun you left there."

"I know," she said rapidly, "but that's all right. Dick and I fixed that all up. We'll say that Hartley borrowed the gun from him more than a week ago and that Dick hasn't seen it since."

"But," Mason said, "the gun is empty. There couldn't have been a suicide with…"

"Oh, no," she said. "I put shells in it before I left it in the room."

"The same shells I took from Dick, including the empty cartridge?"

"Yes."

"Did you ever know," Mason asked, "that the police can tell from an examination of bullets whether a bullet has been fired from a certain gun?"

"No, can they?"

"And did you ever know that the police can develop latent finger-prints on that gun, and that when they do, they will find yours and Dick's and mine?"

"Good God, no!"

"You," Mason told her, "are either one of the cleverest women I've met in a long time, or one of the dumbest."

"I don't know about criminal matters," she said. "I wouldn't know anything about them."

"Look here," Perry Mason said, staring steadily at her, "did you think that Hartley Basset had gone out, or did you know that he was lying in there dead?"

"Why, I thought he'd gone out, of course. I tell you I saw him run out… I thought it was he."

"Now, this girl is your daughter-in-law?"

"Yes, she married Dick. But you mustn't say anything about that marriage."

"Why not? What's wrong with it?"

"Please," she said, "don't ask all those questions now. I'll tell you later."

"Now, listen," Mason said grimly, "there's going to be a lot of questions asked you tonight. Are you ready to answer them?"

"I don't know… No, I can't answer questions."

"Why?"

"Because I don't know what to say."

"When will you know what to say?"

"After I've talked with Dick again. I must talk with him once more."

Mason tapped her knee with his forefinger.

"Did you kill him?" he asked.

"No."

"Did Dick?"

"No."

"Why do you want to talk with Dick then?"

"Because I'm afraid they'll find out who did kill him… Oh, I can't talk about it. Please leave me alone."

"Just one question," Mason said, "and tell me the God's truth. Did you kill him?"

"No."

"Can you prove you didn't if it comes to a pinch?"

"Yes. I think so."

"All right. There's only one way to keep the police and the newspaper people from turning you wrong side out. Tell them you are too upset to answer questions. They'll go right ahead and ask them anyway. Then you start in getting hysterical. Tell them any, thing. Contradict yourself every few minutes. Say you saw your husband an hour before the shooting, then say it was a week before the shooting – that you can't remember having seen him for a month. Make wild statements. Say there were voices that warned him that the serpent said he would be killed.

"In other words act crazy. Let your voice get more and more shrill. Keep telling them absurdities. Make a nuisance of yourself. Scream, shout, laugh, have hysterics. Do you understand?"

"Yes'" she said; "I think I do. But won't it be dangerous?"

"Of course, it'll be dangerous, but not half as dangerous as trying to explain things and getting caught in a police trap. Remember now, don't do this unless you're innocent and can prove yourself innocent if it comes to a show-down. And don't be conservative in your statements. Make them sound so absurd you'll seem either drunk or crazy, and throw in a lot of screams and laughter.

"In that way they'll figure you're a nuisance and you'll rate a hypodermic. After they've once drugged you, you play possum. When you wake up, pretend to be groggy. Talk thick. Slur your words together, close your eyes and drop off to sleep between words.

"That'll stall 'em along until I can get a line on…"

The door opened. Sergeant Holcomb of the Homicide Squad jerked his head to Perry Mason.

"You," he said.

Mason strolled nonchalantly into the room.

"What do you know about this?"

"Nothing very much."

"You never do," Holcomb said wearily. "Suppose you tell us how much 'not very much' is?"

"I came out here," Perry Mason said, "to take up a business matter with Hartley Basset."

"What was the business matter?"

"It related to a matter of accounting between Basset and a former employee."

"Who was the former employee?"

"My client."

"What's his name?"

"I'll have to get his permission before I can tell you that."

"What did you do when you got here?"

"I found a scene of some excitement."

"What was the matter?"

"You'll have to ask the others; I don't know. It seems there'd been some friction between Hartley Basset and his son, Dick Basset, and there was a young lady who had been hurt."

"What had hurt her?"

"Someone had struck her, she said."

"Oh, hot" Holcomb said. "Who struck her?"

"She didn't know."

"How did it happen she didn't know?"

"She'd never seen the man before."

"What became of her?"

"I took the liberty of sending her to a place where she could be quiet until morning."

"You did what?"

Perry Mason lit a cigarette and said easily, "Sent her some place where she could be quiet."

"You had a crust, doing that."

"Why?"

"Did you know there was a murder case here?"

Perry Mason raised his eyes and said in surprise, "Good heavens, no!"

"Well, you know it now."

"Why," Mason said, "who was murdered?"

Sergeant Holcomb laughed mockingly.

"For a guy that's been around as much as you have, you have to get hit over the head with a club in order to recognize a murder when you see one."

"Hartley Basset shot himself," Perry Mason said.

"Oh, yeah?" Sergeant Holcomb countered. "You're telling me, I suppose."

"Didn't he?" Mason inquired.

"He did not."

"But the note that was in his typewriter said he did."

"Anyone can write a note on a typewriter."

"He put a blanket and a quilt around the gun, so as to muffle the sound of the shot."

"Why?" Holcomb asked.

"So as not to disturb the household. I suppose."

"And why didn't he want to disturb the household?"

"Consideration, I suppose."

"Baloney! A man who's committing suicide knows he's going to be discovered. He doesn't care. A man who's committing murder is the one who cares about having an opportunity to get away before he's discovered. And a man who's killing himself doesn't use three guns to do the job with."

"Three guns!" Mason exclaimed.

"Three guns," Sergeant Holcomb said. "One on the floor, in the open, one concealed under the quilt and blanket, one that Basset was carrying in a spring holster under his armpit. And that gun hadn't been disturbed. If Basset had wanted to kill himself, why wouldn't he have used his gun, instead of going to the trouble of getting another gun to do the job with?"

"Which gun did the killing?" Mason asked.

Sergeant Holcomb smiled patronizingly.

"Naughty, naughty," he said. "I'm asking the questions."

Mason shrugged his shoulders.

"Where did you send this jane that got rapped over the head?"

"Where she could be quiet."

"What place?"

"If I told you the place," Mason said. "it would cease to be a place where she could be quiet."

"Listen," Holcomb said, his voice almost choking with rage, "this is a murder case. Does that mean anything to you?"

"Yes," Perry Mason said; "I think it does."

"You bet it does," Holcomb told him. "We want to question that girl. It may mean discovering the identity of the murderer. Now, you kick through, brother, and tell me where she is, and make it snappy. You've got just one chance."

"She's at my office," Mason told him.

"Why did you send her there?"

"Because I thought she needed an opportunity to collect herself. At the time, I didn't have an idea Basset had been murdered. I thought, of course, it was suicide."

"And is that very efficient secretary of yours at your office?" Holcomb asked.

"Why, of course," Mason said; "someone had to be there to let the young woman in."

Holcomb's face darkened. "In that way," he said, "you get a chance to get a statement from the only material witness before the police even have a chance to question her."

Mason shrugged his shoulders and said evenly, "And if you'd got to her first you'd have locked her up so no one could ever have found out what her story was until she was put on the witness stand. That is the way you like to play the game. But I assure you, my dear Sergeant, I only sent her where she could be quiet because I thought it was a case of suicide. As soon as you told me it was murder, you'll have to admit I gave you her location."

Someone snickered.

Holcomb whirled to one of the men.

"Telephone headquarters," he said, "and tell them to pick up that girl at Perry Mason's office. Smash the doors down if you have to. She's a material witness. Tell them Mason's getting a shorthand report of her story. Give that secretary ten minutes more with her and there won't be any case."

Perry Mason said with dignity, "Have you chaps any more questions to ask of me?"

"What time did you get here?" Holcomb inquired.

"Shortly after midnight – perhaps twenty minutes after twelve."

"Basset was dead when you got here?"

"Apparently. I was in the outer office all the time and I heard no sound from this room. Mrs. Basset went in here to get something, and she discovered the body."

"Did you notify the police?"

"We discovered it just as the police were coming in the door. They'd been summoned in connection with the attack which had been made upon Miss Fenwick."

"Who's Miss Fenwick?"

"The young woman who was attacked."

Sergeant Holcomb stared moodily at Perry Mason.

"Is she your client?"

"No, not at present, anyway."

"Had you ever seen her before?"

"No."

"How did it happen you wasted so much time talking with these people in the outer room?"

"I came out here," Mason said, "to see Basset."

"How did it happen you wasted so much time chewing the fat, if you came out here to see Basset?" Sergeant Holcomb demanded.

"Because there was a lot of excitement in connection with the attack on the young woman, and I suggested the police be summoned."

Holcomb said, "That's the second time you've mentioned about the police and both times you've said the police were to be sent for, or words to that effect." Mason exhaled cigarette smoke and said nothing.

"You keep putting it that way," Holcomb went on, "which is a funny way of expressing it. Now then, I'm going to get to the bottom of this. Never mind telling me the police were sent for, but tell me who sent for the police."

"I did."

"Did you tell them who you were?"

"No; I told them I was young Basset."

"Why did you tell them that?"

"Because I wanted to get some action. I was afraid they'd think it was a stall if I told them who was talking, and I didn't have time to make a lot of explanations."

Sergeant Holcomb sighed wearily. "You win," he said; "you always have an answer." He waved his hand toward the door. "Okay, you can go now. And if you think you can get to your office before the boys from headquarters do, you're just an optimist, that's all."

BOOK: The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
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