Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Legal
"What were you running for?"
"I was in a hurry."
"Because I knew Sylvia – Mrs. Basset – had telephoned for you. I didn't want to be anywhere around when you came."
"Look here," Mason said; "could you stand up to a rigid questioning and cross-questioning by the police?"
"Of course, I could."
"You didn't stand up under my questioning very well."
"The police aren't going to question me."
"Because they don't have any idea I'm connected with the Bassets in any way."
"Someone coming," Della Street said.
Shadows hulked on the frosted glass of the door. The knob twisted, the door pushed open. Sergeant Holcomb and two of his men stood on the threshold. They looked over the occupants of the office with wary, watchful eyes. Sergeant Holcomb stepped forward.
"Peter Brunold?" he asked.
Brunold nodded and said belligerently, "What's it to you?"
Sergeant Holcomb grabbed Brunold's shoulder, at the same time flipping back the lapel of his coat, showing his gold badge.
"Nothing," he said, "except that I'm arresting you for the murder of Hartley Basset, and I'm warning you that anything you say may be used against you."
He turned to Perry Mason with a supercilious smile.
"So sorry to interrupt your conference, Mason," he said, "but people have rather a nasty way of disappearing after they've talked with you, and I wanted to get Mr. Brunold before he decided a change of climate would be good for his health."
Perry Mason ground his cigarette end in the ash tray.
"Don't mention it," he said. "Come back again sometime, Sergeant."
Sergeant Holcomb said ominously, "If the district attorney feels the same way I do about what happened to that witness, I will come back. And when I leave here, I won't leave alone."
Perry Mason's manner was urbane.
"Glad to see you any time, Sergeant."
Brunold turned toward Perry Mason, and said, "Look here, Counselor, you've got to…"
Holcomb nodded to the two men. They jerked Brunold to the door.
"Oh, no, you don't," Holcomb said. "You've had your little chat."
"You can't keep me from talking with a lawyer!" Brunold bellowed.
"Oh, no," Sergeant Holcomb said; "after you've been booked and placed in jail, you've got a right to call for a lawyer – but a lot's going to happen between now and then."
The men pushed Brunold through the door. He hung back and tried to struggle. Handcuffs flashed. Metal clicked. Brunold was jerked forward. "You asked for it," one of the men said.
The door hanged shut.
Sergeant Holcomb, left behind, glowered at Perry Mason.
Mason yawned, and covered the yawn with four polite fingers.
"Pardon me, Sergeant," he said, "if I seem to yawn. I've had rather a strenuous day."
Holcomb turned, jerked open the door, paused in the doorway, and said, "For one whose methods are so damned cunning, you get rotten results."
He slammed the door.
Mason grinned at Della Street cheerfully.
"How about looking in on one of the late night clubs before you go home?"
She glanced down at herself and said, "If I took this fur coat off I'd be arrested. Remember, you told me to dress in a hurry. This coat covers a multitude of sins."
"Then you're going home," Mason said firmly. "At least one of us should keep out of jail."
Her eyes were worried.
"Chief, you don't mean he's going to get you?"
He shrugged his shoulders, bowed, and held the door open for her.
"One never knows," he said, "just what Sergeant Holcomb will do. He's so blunderingly ubiquitous."
"Feeling all right after your late hours?" he asked.
"Like a million," she said. "I see the papers play up Hartley Basset's murder, but say nothing about Brunold."
"The newspaper boys don't know anything about Brunold," he told her.
"Because Holcomb didn't take him down to headquarters. Brunold was taken to some outlying precinct where they could sweat him."
"Wasn't there anything you could do about that?"
"I might have got a habeas corpus, but I didn't want to show my hand – yet. I don't know the facts. Brunold may be better in than out. The police would have all they wanted out of him before I could have had the writ issued."
"How about Mrs. Basset?"
"I telephoned her as soon as I got to my apartment."
"Talk with her?"
"No. She staged hysterics after I left. Holcomb couldn't get anywhere with her. The son called a doctor and then he pulled a fast one. He said he was taking her to a hospital, but she didn't show up at any of the hospitals. The boy won't tell where she is. He says he'll produce her whenever it's necessary."
"He wouldn't even tell you where she was?"
"How did it happen Holcomb let him get away with that?"
"Holcomb came rushing up to get Brunold. That left young Basset his chance. He took it. But it's a cinch the dicks were watching the place. They know where she is. They may not be letting young Basset know it, but they do."
"Then," she said, "all Dick Basset did was to fix it so you couldn't reach his mother, but the police could. Is that it?"
"That's about the size of it."
"Then Mrs. Basset doesn't know about Brunold's arrest?"
"When will she find it out?"
"When she comes down to earth and acts human. I told young Basset to have his mother get in touch with me at the earliest moment; that it was a matter of the gravest importance."
"And she hasn't telephoned?"
"But couldn't you have found her?"
"What's the use? It's a cinch the police have her under surveillance. If I had gone trying to force my way into the case, they'd have had me in a tough spot, and I may not be in any too good a spot as it is."
"My finger-prints may be on that murder gun."
She made little designs on the corner of her shorthand notebook with a sharp pencil.
"This is the most peculiar murder case you ever got mixed up in," she said. "We haven't any clients in this murder case yet – that is, we haven't any retainer except Brunold's."
He nodded slowly and said, "I wish I had known where I could have reached Bertha McLane last night. She didn't leave us any address, did she?"
"No, only the boy – Harry McLane – and that, I think, is the number of a pool room."
"It probably would be. See if you can get him on the telephone. Ring the number he gave, and see if they can give any other number where we can reach him right away."
She nodded, made a note on her shorthand notebook and asked, "Was there anything else?"
"Yes," he told her, "ring up the Basset residence. Tell Dick Basset I'm still trying to get in touch with his mother and that it's very important. And, by the way, see if you can…"
The telephone bell rang. She picked up the receiver, said, "Yes, who is it, please?" listened a moment, then cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and stared at Perry Mason with eyes that held a glint of amusement.
"Know where your car was found?" she inquired.
"Parked in front of the police station. The traffic department's on the line. They say the car has been in front of a fire plug ever since two o'clock this morning. They're inquiring whether it had been stolen."
Perry Mason winced.
"That," he said, "is once they've got me dead to rights. Tell them no, that the car wasn't stolen, that I must have inadvertently left it parked in front of the fire plug."
She took her hand away from the mouthpiece, passed the information into the telephone, then once more cupped her hand over the mouthpiece.
"And," she said, "it's in a twenty minute parking zone. They've been putting tags on the car at twenty minute intervals ever since nine o'clock this morning."
Mason said. "Give one of the boys a blank check. Send him down to square the thing and pick up the car. Tell him not to do any talking. Can you imagine the crust of the little devil? Taking the car down and parking it directly in front of the police station!"
"Do you think she did it, or do you think the cops picked her up and had her drive down to the station?"
"I don't know."
"If they did," Della Street went on, "it's a great joke on you, because they parked it in front of a fire plug and in a twenty minute parking zone, knowing that you wouldn't dare to claim the car had been stolen – not after you gave the girl permission to drive it away."
He nodded and strode toward his private office.
"It's all right," he said. "Let them laugh. The bird who laughs last is the one who laughs longest… Have you got those eyes?"
"You mean the eyes that Paul Drake had for us?"
She opened a drawer in her desk and took out the box of eyes.
"It sure gave me the willies," she said, "to look at them."
Mason opened the box, picked up a couple of eyes, slipped each into a vest pocket and said, "Put the other four in the safe. Keep them locked up where no one else can find them. These eyes are just a little secret that you and I are going to share between us."
"What are you going to do with them?"
"I don't know. It depends on what Brunold's next move is."
"What should his next move be?"
"Telephone me and ask me to act as his lawyer on the murder charge."
Her forehead showed a pucker of worry.
"How about the way you're getting mixed into this, Chief?" she inquired solicitously. "Will Sergeant Holcomb be back with a warrant?"
"Not unless they identify my finger-prints on the gun, and they can't do that until after they've taken my fingerprints. They haven't any record of them down at headquarters. They'll probably be peeved about Hazel Fenwick disappearing, but they won't have anything to pin a charge on. We've got a new district attorney now, and I think he's inclined to be a square-shooter. He wants to get convictions when he's certain he's prosecuting guilty people, but he doesn't want to convict innocent ones."
"You want me to write up the things Brunold said last night?"
He shook his head as he passed into his inner office.
"No," he called over his shoulder, "let that go. We'll see whom we're representing before we take any definite steps." He dropped into his big swivel chair, picked up the newspaper and was reading the account of Basset's murder when the telephone rang and Della Street said, "I got Harry McLane on the telephone. He was very independent, but I got a number out of him where I could talk with his sister. I talked with her, and she says that she must see you right away. She's bringing her brother with her, if she can get him to come. She said that she'd wait all day in your reception room if she had to, but that she simply had to see you."
"Did she say what about?" he asked.
"No, she didn't say… I've sent one of the boys down to pick up your car. Paul Drake telephoned and wants to see you at your convenience."
"Tell Paul to come on in," Mason said. "Let me know as soon as Bertha McLane gets here. If the police haven't got the Fenwick girl, she'll probably call up sometime today. She may use a phoney name. So if any mysterious woman tries to get in touch with me, be sure that you take the message and get the lowdown on it. You can be tactful but insistent.
"Tell Paul Drake to come directly to my private office. I'll let him in. When I buzz for you, come in and take notes."
He slipped the receiver back into place, read half a column in the newspaper, and then heard a tapping on the door which led to the corridor. He opened it, and Paul Drake, his face set in its fixed expression of droll humor, entered the room.
Mason looked at him shrewdly and said, "You look as though you'd had a good night's sleep last night."
"Well," Paul Drake told him, "I got darn near twenty minutes."
"Where did you get it?" Mason asked, pressing the buzzer summoning Della Street.
"In the barber's chair this morning. I wish you'd get your brainstorms during office hours. You always want your rush stuff put through at night."
"I can't help it," Perry Mason told him, "if murderers insist on claiming their victims after office hours. Did you find out anything?"
"I found out lots," Drake said. "I had twenty operatives working on the thing at one time, chasing down different angles. I hope you've got a client with long purse strings."
"I haven't, but I'm going to have. What's the dirt?"
"It's quite a story," Drake told him; "one of those human interest yarns."
Mason indicated the big over-stuffed leather chair.
"Sit down and spill it."
Paul Drake jack-knifed his long length into the chair, sliding around and sitting sideways, so that his back rested against one of the arms, while his knees draped over the other arm. Della Street came in, smiled at the detective and sat down.
"It goes back to one of these romantic betrayals of the mid-Victorian Era."
Drake lit a cigarette, puffed out a cloud of smoke, waved his hand in an inclusive gesture and said, "Picture to yourself a beautiful farming community, prosperous, happy and narrow-minded – accent on the narrow-minded."
"Why the accent?" Mason inquired.
"Because it was that sort of a community. Everyone knew what everyone else did. If a girl turned out in a new dress, there were a dozen different tongues to wag in speculation on where she got it."
"And a fur coat?" the lawyer asked.
Paul Drake threw up his hands in a gesture of mock dismay and said, "Oh, my God! Why blacken a girl's character that way?"
Mason chuckled and said, "Go on."
"A girl lived there named Sylvia Berkley – rather a pretty girl – trusting, simple, straight-forward, clear-eyed."
"Why all the niceties of description?" the lawyer asked.
"Because," Drake said seriously, "I'm for that kid in a big way. I've got a description of her. I've even got photographs."
He searched in his pocket, brought out an envelope, took from it a photograph and handed it over to Perry Mason. "If you think it didn't take engineering to dig out that photograph at four o'clock in the morning, you've got another think coming."
"Where did you get it?"
"From the local paper."
"She made the headlines then?"
"Yes; she disappeared."
"Abducted, or something?"
"No one ever found out. She just disappeared."
The lawyer looked searchingly at the detective and said, "You've got the story behind that disappearance, haven't you?"
"All right, go ahead and tell it to me."
"If I seem to get romantic or poetic or something, it's because I've been up all night," Drake told him.
"Never mind that; get down to brass tacks."
"There was a traveling man who was selling dry goods. His name was Pete Brunold."
"He had one eye?" Mason inquired.
"No, he had two eyes at that time. He picked up his artificial eye later on. That's one of the reasons I'm a little mushy about them."
"Where does it start?" Mason asked.
"I guess it starts with Sylvia Basset's folks. They had ideas. You know, the type that stood so straight they leaned over backwards. Traveling salesmen were slickers from the city. When Brunold started to take the girl out, the folks hit the ceiling.
"There was a little movie house in the burg. You know, there weren't any radios in those days. The movies were just graduating from the galloping cowboy stuff. The town wasn't big enough to get many of the old stock melodramas, and…"
"Forget the community," Mason said impatiently. "Did Brunold marry her?"
Drake, in his slow drawl, said, "I can't forget the community without forgetting the story. No, he didn't marry her, and, brother, this is my yarn and I'm going to stick to it."
The lawyer signed, gave Della Street a half humorous glance and said, "Okay, go ahead with the lecture."
"Well, you know how a high-strung girl does things. The town thought she was going to hell fast. Her folks wanted her to give Brunold the bum's rush. She stuck up for him, and I guess perhaps she had ideas buzzing around in her bonnet – ideas of living her own life. You know, Perry, it was along about that time that girls were just commencing to break away from the kind of stuff that had been drilled into their noodles for generations."