Read The Case of the Sleepwalker's Niece Online

Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner

Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Legal, #Mason; Perry (Fictitious character)

The Case of the Sleepwalker's Niece

BOOK: The Case of the Sleepwalker's Niece
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Erle Stanley Gardner
The Case Of The Sleepwalker's

Niece

In "The Case of the Sleepwalker's Niece," Perry Mason makes his eighth appearance in novel form. He's engaged by beautiful young Edna Hammer who's worried that her uncle, Peter B. Kent, is sleepwalking again. Last time he was sleepwalking, he carried a butcher knife, and his then-wife Doris Sully Kent felt he was trying to murder her. She since filed for divorce and left the household. But Peter Kent is up to his old tricks again, and young Edna is afraid that his business partner Frank B. Maddox is the new intended victim. Perry agrees to expidite the divorce so Peter Kent can marry his nurse Lucille Mays. That should put his mind at rest, and end the sleepwalking. But before the plan can be executed, there's murder in the Kent mansion. And you know who's going to be blamed! Yup, Peter Kent is the obvious murderer. But did he do it intentionally or while sleepwalking? Or did he do it at all? It's another great Perry Mason mystery in which Perry pulls his usual courtroom tricks. Returning in their recurring roles are Della Street, Paul Drake, law clerk Jackson, and district attorney Hamilton Burger. There's an unnamed receptionist on the telephones; could this be Girtie? Guess we'll just have to wait and see when her character is introduced to the series.

March, 1936.

Cast of Characters IN THE ORDER

OF THEIR APPEARANCE

Jackson, Perry Mason's law clerk

Della Street, Mason's secretary and most ardent fan

Edna Hammer, a client who takes a curious interest in her uncle's sleepwalking habits

Peter B. Kent, the uncle, whose somnambulistic walks take him down some dark and devious paths

Doris Sully Kent, Kent's alimony-loving ex-wife

Lucille Mays, a nurse with matrimonial ambitions

Frank B. Maddox, a crack-brain inventor; Kent's business partner

John J. Duncan, Maddox's lawyer

Philip Rease, Kent's half brother, a hypochondriac

Gerald Harris, Edna Hammer's fiance, Hollywood's gift to women

Helen Warrington, Kent's loyal and devoted secretary

Dr. James Kelton, a neurologist

Paul Drake, a private detective, Mason's aide-de-camp

Arthur Coulter, a butler who knows more than he tells

Bob Peasley, Helen's fiance', in the hardware business

Detective-sergeant Holcomb, of the police

Sam Blaine, Assistant District Attorney

Hamilton Burger, District Attorney

Judge Markham, presiding and PERRY MASON

CHAPTER I
PERRY MASON paced back and forth across his office, thumbs hooked through the armholes of his vest, forehead puckered into a frown. "You said two o'clock, Jackson?" he asked his law clerk.

"Yes, sir, and I told her to be prompt."

Mason consulted his wristwatch. "Fifteen minutes late," he said irritably.

Della Street, his secretary, looking up from the page of a ledger, asked, "Why not refuse to see her?"

Mason said, "Because I want to see her. A lawyer has to wade through a lot of uninteresting murders to get something exciting. This case is a natural. I want it."

"Can murder ever be uninteresting?" Jackson asked.

"After you have had so many of them," Mason said. "Dead men are always uninteresting. It's the live ones who count."

Della Street, watching Mason with solicitous eyes, observed, "This isn't a murder case – yet."

"It's just as fascinating," Mason said. "I don't like being called in after the facts have crystallized. I like to deal with motives and hatreds. Murder's the supreme culmination of hatred, just as marriage is the supreme culmination of love. And after all, hatred's more powerful than love."

"More interesting?" she asked, regarding him quizzically.

Without answering, he resumed pacing the floor. "Of course," he observed, in the mechanical monotone of one thinking aloud, "the thing to do is to prevent the murder, if that's what's in the wind, but my legal training can't help appreciating what a wonderful case it would be if a sleepwalker actually killed a man, knowing nothing about it. There'd be no malice, no premeditation."

"But," Jackson pointed out, "you'd have to convince a jury that your client wasn't putting on an act."

"Couldn't the niece do that?" Mason inquired, pausing to plant his feet far apart and stare belligerently at his clerk. "Can't she testify her uncle walked in his sleep, picked up a carving knife and took it to bed with him?"

"That's what she could testify," the clerk said.

"Well, what more do you want?"

"Her testimony might not convince a jury."

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

"She's peculiar."

"Pretty?"

"Yes, she has a stunning figure. Believe me, she dresses to show it."

"How old?"

"Not over twenty-three or twenty-four."

"Spoiled?"

"I'd say so."

Mason flung out his hand in a dramatic gesture. "If a pretty, twenty-three-year-old girl with a swell figure can't cross her knees in the witness box and convince a jury her uncle's a sleepwalker, I'll quit trial work." Mason shrugged his shoulders as though dismissing the subject, turned to Della Street and said, "What else is in the office, Della?"

"A Mr. Johnson wanted you to handle the Fletcher murder case."

He shook his head. "Absolutely nothing doing. That was a cold-blooded murder. Fletcher has no defense."

"Mr. Johnson says there's a chance you can plead the unwritten law, emotional insanity, and…"

"To hell with it. Suppose his wife did play around with the dead man. Fletcher's been quite a playboy himself. I've run across him in night clubs with red-hot mammas on his arm, half a dozen times in the last year. This breaking-up-a-home business is a good cause for divorce and a damned poor excuse for murder. Anything else?"

"Yes, a Myrna Duchene wants you to do something with a man who became engaged to her and skipped out with all of her savings. She now finds it's a racket with him. He's a super-sheik who makes a specialty of swindling women."

"How much?" Mason asked.

"Five thousand dollars."

"She should see the district attorney, not me," Mason remarked.

"The district attorney would prosecute him," Della Street pointed out, "but that wouldn't get Miss Duchene her money back. She thought you might be able to shake him down."

"Thought you said he'd skipped out."

"He did, but she's found where he is. He's going under the name of George Pritchard, registered at the Palace Hotel, and…"

"She a local girl?" Mason interrupted.

"No. She came here from Reno, Nevada. She followed him here."

Mason squinted his eyes thoughtfully and said, "Tell you what, Della, I won't take any money from Miss Duchene, because there's only one thing for her to do, and she can do that a lot better than a lawyer can. You can give her the advice with my compliments: If this is a racket with him he'll use the coin he got from her to make a play for bigger stakes with some rich woman. He'll sink that five grand in clothes and atmosphere. Tell her to keep watch on him, and about the time he's sinking his hooks in some wealthy woman, show up and shake him down hard."

"Won't that be blackmail?" Della Street asked.

"Sure it'll be blackmail."

"Suppose they arrest her for it."

"Then," Mason said, "I'll defend her and it won't cost her a damn cent. My God, what's the world coming to if a woman can't pull a little justifiable blackmail when she's victimized! You tell her…"

The phone rang. Della Street said "Hello," as she picked up the receiver, then cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and said to Mason, "She's in the outer office."

"Tell her to wait," Mason said, "I'll keep her waiting five minutes for discipline's sake… No, damned if I do. I want to talk with her. Send her in. You stay, Della. Jackson, you can work on that reply brief in the traction company case."

Della Street said in an icy voice, "Tell Miss Hammer she's eighteen minutes late for her appointment but she may come in."

Jackson, tucking a pad of yellow foolscap under his arm, quietly left the office. A moment later the door from the entrance office admitted a blonde young woman in a knit sport outfit which showed the contours of her figure almost as plainly as though it had been a swimming suit. She smiled at Perry Mason, and said, so rapidly that the words almost ran together, "Oh, I'm so sorry I was late." She glanced from the lawyer to Della Street. Her lips remained smiling, but her eyes ceased to smile.

"My secretary, Miss Street," Perry Mason said. "Don't look like that. It won't do you any good. She stays, and takes notes. You needn't worry. She knows how to keep her mouth shut. Sit down. You wanted to see me about your uncle, didn't you?"

She laughed. "You quite take my breath away, Mr. Mason."

"I don't want to. You'll need it to talk with. Sit down and start in."

She tilted her head slightly to one side, half closed her eyes in arch appraisal, and said, "You're a Leo."

"Leo?"

"Yes, born sometime between July 24 and August 24; that's under the sign of Leo. It's a fiery, executive, magnetic sign. You're ruled by the sun. You have a robust constitution. You glory in danger, but you're susceptible to…"

"Forget it," Mason interrupted. "Don't waste my time telling me about my defects. You'd be here all afternoon."

"But they're not defects. It's a splendid sign. You're…"

Mason dropped into a swivel chair, said, "Your name's Edna Hammer? How old are you?"

"Twenty – twenty-three."

"Does that mean twenty-three or twenty-five?"

She frowned and said, "It means twenty-four, if you're going to be accurate."

"All right. I'm going to be accurate. You wanted to see me about your uncle?"

"Yes."

"What's his name?"

"Peter B. Kent."

"How old is he?"

"Fifty-six."

"You're living in the house with him?"

"Yes."

"Your parents are dead?"

"Yes. He was my mother's brother."

"How long have you been living in the same house?"

"About three years."

"And you're worried about your uncle?"

"About his sleepwalking, yes."

Mason picked a cigarette from the case on his desk, tapped the end on his thumbnail, raised his eyes to Edna Hammer. "Want one?" he asked, and, as she shook her head, Mason scraped a match on the under side of the desk, and said, "Tell me about your uncle."

"I don't know just where to begin."

"Begin at the beginning. When did he first start sleepwalking?"

"A little over a year ago."

"Where?"

"In Chicago."

"What happened?"

She squirmed in the chair and said, "You're rushing me off my feet. I'd prefer to tell it my own way."

"Go ahead."

She smoothed her knitted dress across her knees and said, "Uncle Pete is generous, but eccentric."

"Go on," Mason said; "that's not telling me anything."

"I'm trying to tell you about his wife."

"He's married?"

"Yes. To a hell-cat."

"Living with him?"

"No. She was getting a divorce. Only now she's changed her mind."

"What do you mean?"

"She's living in Santa Barbara. She sued for a divorce after the first sleepwalking. She claimed Uncle Pete was trying to kill her. Now she's going to have the divorce set aside."

"How?"

"I don't know; she's clever. She's an alimony hound."

"Apparently you don't like her."

"I hate her! I hate the ground she walks on!"

"How do you know she's an alimony hound?"

"Her record proves it. She married a man named Sully and bled him white. When he couldn't keep up the alimony payments and his business overhead, she threatened to have him thrown in jail. That alarmed his creditors. The bank called his loans."

"Do you mean," Mason asked, "she deliberately killed the goose that was laying her golden eggs?"

"It wasn't deliberate. You know how some women are. They think it's a crime for a man to quit loving them and that the law should inflict punishment."

"What happened after Sully went broke?"

"He killed himself. Then she married Uncle Peter, and sued him for divorce."

"Alimony?"

"Fifteen hundred a month."

"Your uncle's wealthy?"

"Yes."

"How long did she and your uncle live together?"

"Less than a year."

"And a judge awarded her fifteen hundred a month?" Mason asked.

"Yes. You see, she knows how to go about it. She puts on a swell act, and it's easy for a judge to be generous with a husband's money."

"What's her first name?"

"Doris."

"Did your uncle really try to kill her?"

"Certainly not. He was sleepwalking. He went to the sideboard and got a carving knife. She rushed back to the bedroom, locked the door, and telephoned for the police. The police found Uncle Peter standing in his nightshirt in front of the bedroom, fumbling with the doorknob, a big carving knife in his hand."

Mason made gentle drumming noises with his fingertips on the edge of his desk. "So," Mason said thoughtfully, "if it ever comes to a show-down, it would appear your uncle had tried to murder his wife, that she'd locked the door and called the police, and he'd claimed he'd been walking in his sleep, but the judge hadn't believed him."

Edna Hammer tilted her chin upward and said defiantly, "Well, what of it?"

"Nothing," Mason said. "What happened after this sleepwalking episode?"

"Uncle Pete's doctor advised a complete change, so Uncle just left his business in the hands of his partner and came back here to California where he'd always maintained his legal residence."

"And kept up his sleepwalking?"

"Yes. I was worried about him and kept watch, particularly on moonlight nights. You see, sleepwalking is connected with moonlight. Sleepwalkers become more active during the full moon."

"You've been reading up on it?" Mason asked.

"Yes."

"What have you been reading?"

"A book by Dr. Sadger, called, Sleepwalking and Moonwalking. He's a German. I read a translation."

"When?"

"I have the book. I read it frequently."

Mason said, "I take it your uncle doesn't know he's been sleepwalking again?"

"That's right. You see, I locked his door, but he got out somehow. I sneaked into his room the next morning to make certain he was all right. I saw the knife handle sticking out from under the pillow. I grabbed it and didn't say anything to him."

"The door was unlocked when you went in?"

"Why, yes. I hadn't stopped to think of it before, but it must have been, because I walked right in. I knew he was in the shower."

"Go on from there," Mason said.

"Uncle's coming in to see you."

Mason said, "You fixed that up?"

"Yes. At first I wanted you to put him under treatment without his knowing anything about it. Then today at lunch I fixed things so he'd consult you. He's coming in sometime this afternoon. You see, he wants to get married and…"

BOOK: The Case of the Sleepwalker's Niece
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