Hamilton Burger, the district attorney, had the build of a huge bear. He was a broad-shouldered, deep-chested, thick-waisted individual with a manner of dogged determination, short restless arms which moved with well-muscled swiftness as he made gestures. He looked across the desk at Perry Mason and said, "This is rather an unexpected pleasure." His voice showed the surprise, but not the pleasure.
Mason said, "I want to talk with you about that Branner case."
"What about it?"
"Where do I stand in it?"
"I don't know."
"A man told me today," Mason said, "that a warrant was going to be issued for my arrest."
Burger looked him squarely in the eyes and said, "I think it is, Perry."
"Not until I've made a complete investigation."
"What's the warrant about?"
"Assault and battery, grand larceny and conspiracy."
"Want me to explain?" Mason asked.
"You don't have to," Burger told him. "I know pretty much what happened. You were shadowing Janice Seaton's apartment. You wanted her in the worst way. A couple of private detectives were also on her trail. She showed up and went to another apartment. The other side got there first. That didn't suit you. You busted in and tried to pull a fast one and it came to a show-down. You smashed a guy's nose, stole his evidence against Julia Branner, pulled a gun on his partner, spirited the Seaton girl out and hid her. That may be your idea of the way to win lawsuits, but it's my idea of a way to get in jail."
"Want to hear the facts?" Mason asked.
Burger studied Mason for a moment and said, "You know, Perry, I've always had a great deal of respect for you, but I've always known that some day your methods were going to get you in trouble. You can't pull the stuff you do and get by with it. You've been lucky as hell, but there was bound to come a day of reckoning. It looks like this was it. I'm not going to persecute you, and I'm not going to give out any information to the newspapers until I know definitely just where we stand, but I'm inclined to think you've just about finished your professional career, and it's a damned shame.
"You know, I've always had a horror of prosecuting innocent men. I want to be certain a person's guilty before I bring him into court. You've got a wonderful mind. There are times when you've unscrambled some mighty tough cases which would otherwise have resulted in the escape of the guilty and the conviction of the innocent, but you simply won't keep within ethical limits. You won't sit in your office and practice law. You insist on going out to try and get hold of evidence, and whenever you do, you start matching wits with witnesses and pulling some pretty fast plays, altogether too damn fast."
"Finished?" Mason asked.
"No, I haven't even started."
"Then let me interrupt," Mason said, "to tell you something."
"Perry," Burger said, "I've fought you in court. A couple of times you've made me seem pretty damned ridiculous. If you had come to me with some of the evidence you had in those cases I'd have co-operated with you. You chose to grandstand in court. That's your privilege. Now I'm called on to prosecute you. I'm going to do my duty. I don't think I hold any malice, in fact I like you personally, but you were bound to get it sooner or later. You're a pitcher that insists on going to the well too often. Therefore, I want you to understand me when I tell you that anything you say can be used against you, and it will be. There's going to be nothing confidential about this interview."
"All right," Mason said. "A couple of smart dicks come snooping into your office with a lot of stuff about me, and you fall for it without even giving me a chance to explain where I stand."
"It happens," Burger said, "that one of those smart dicks, as you call them, had some very tangible and incriminating evidence involving Julia Branner. He'd communicated with me about it and was acting under my instructions."
"All right," Mason said grimly, "here are the facts. You were right when you said I was looking for Janice Seaton, but I didn't find Janice Seaton. I wanted to find her, and I wanted to find out who the two men were who were sticking around waiting for her to show up. They weren't your men, and they weren't mine. I took a chance that they didn't know Janice Seaton, but only had her description. Her outstanding characteristic was a bunch of red hair, so I got Della Street, my secretary, to dye her hair, show up in the Seaton girl's apartment, check out and go to another apartment, where I'd rented a place directly across the hall so I could watch the door. I'd told Della that when anyone came in she was to string them along and find out who they were and what they were after. If the party got rough, she was to blow a whistle.
"All right, Della went to this apartment. This guy Sacks busted in on her. She was going to leave the door open. Sacks locked it. I heard something which didn't sound just right and busted in the door. I was just in time to keep Sacks from murdering Della Street. He was trying to smother her. He pulled a gun on me. I took it away from him and smashed his nose."
Burger's face showed surprise. "And it wasn't Janice Seaton at all?"
"No. It was Della Street."
"Sacks claims to have had plenty of evidence against her to convict her of several felony charges. He claims he was trying to call the police and she jumped on him, that he tried to take her in custody and you busted in."
"He choked her," Mason said, "and was trying to smother her with bedclothes when I busted in the room… Does that mean anything to you?"
The district attorney nodded. "Yes," he said, "it means a lot."
Mason got to his feet. "All right, I just wanted to tell you."
"That," Burger said, "doesn't explain a lot of other things."
"What, for instance?"
"I don't want to give away my case against the Branner woman," Burger said slowly, "but Sacks met her and posed as a mobster. She offered him a big reward to kill Brownley. She gave him the key to her apartment. That key was evidence. It corroborates the story Sacks told me. When you beat him up you took everything from his pocket. You had no right to do that, Perry, under any circumstances. Among several other things, you took that key. I want it."
"I haven't got it," Mason said.
"Where is it?"
"I can produce it a little later on," Mason told him. "Have you anything except the word of this man that it really is the key to Julia Branner's apartment?"
"Yes, I have," Burger said. "But when you return the key, if it isn't the right one, I won't have anything except your word that it's the same key you took from Sacks. That's going to put you in rather an embarrassing position, because Sacks swears he went up to call on Julia Branner at about three o'clock in the afternoon and used the key, and Victor Stockton was with him and corroborates everything Sacks says."
"Why did Sacks go there?"
The district attorney said, "That's part of my case. I don't intend to disclose it. I'll tell you what I'm going to do, Perry. I'm going to hold a prompt preliminary examination in the Branner case. If you want to co-operate with me in having a complete investigation of that case, you can walk into court at ten o'clock tomorrow morning and we'll start examining witnesses. If you do that I won't have any warrant issued against you or say anything about my warrant being issued until after the evidence is all in and I know more where we stand."
"That's rushing things pretty much," Mason said. Burger shrugged his shoulders. "I could demand more time than that," Mason said. Burger lit another cigarette and said nothing. "Do I understand," Mason said, "that if we don't go into court tomorrow morning you'll order a warrant for my arrest?"
"No," Burger said slowly, "I don't want you to put it that way. I'm not trying to force you. I'm simply telling you that I want to investigate the circumstances thoroughly before a warrant is issued. I'm offering you one way of assisting that investigation. If you don't want to take it, I'll make an independent investigation."
"And order a complaint filed and a warrant issued?" Mason asked.
"That," Burger said, "will depend on the result of the investigation."
Mason stared steadily at the district attorney and then said bitterly, "You're giving me a hell of a break! A couple of private dicks that you don't know anything about show up with a cock-and-bull story, and you swallow it hook, line and sinker. I tell you that they're crooks, that the guy tried to kill Della Street when he thought she was the Seaton girl, and you promise to make an investigation. You're worked up a lot more over my busting the guy's nose than over his trying to kill Della Street."
Burger shook his head and said patiently, "You make it sound pretty bad, Perry, but that's not a fair statement."
"Why isn't it?"
"Because when you assaulted this man you took some of the evidence that I was relying on to help you get a conviction in the Branner case. Of course, it might have been just a coincidence, but the fact remains that these two chaps had a piece of evidence which was going to put your client in bad and you met up with them, smashed the chap's nose and took the evidence with you. Asking me to believe that's just a coincidence is, on the face of it, a lot."
"How much value could you put on evidence like that?" Mason protested. "It would be an easy matter for those chaps to get a key to the apartment. Give me twenty-four hours and I'll get you a key to any apartment in the city."
Burger said doggedly, "That's not the point, Perry, and you know it's not the point. That key may be trivial in itself and standing by itself, but it doesn't stand by itself. It's simply one link in the chain of evidence against your client. It's all right for you to claim it's a weak link, but that doesn't explain how you happened to assault a witness and take that bit of evidence away from him. That makes it look as though you knew it was a most important bit of evidence. I'm not taking their word against yours; I'm telling you frankly that I'm going to make an investigation and I'm not going to do anything until I've concluded that investigation. But these men are asking for a warrant. The story is going to get out to the newspapers that you beat up one of them, pulled a gun on the other and stole a piece of corroborating evidence which a jury might regard as a considerable importance. If you think I'm going to sit back and take that, you're mistaken. I've told you what I was willing to do, and that's all I'm willing to do. That's absolutely definite and absolutely final. You can either accept my proposition or not, just as you see fit."
Mason pushed back his chair and said, "Let me telephone you a little later on, can I?"
"I think we can decide the matter now," Burger told him.
"I'll telephone you within ten minutes."
"Very well," Burger said.
Mason didn't offer to shake hands. He left the office, stepped into a public telephone in the corridor, called Paul Drake and said, "Paul, did you try that key?"
"Yes," Drake said. "It fits."
"Absolutely. I opened both the outer door and the apartment door. Where does that leave you, Perry?"
Mason said, "I don't know, Paul. These dicks have hypnotized Burger. That key was evidence against Julia. It was pretty weak evidence before I took it, but my grabbing it made it loom like a ferry boat in a fog. It was a tough break. I'll be seeing you." He hung up the telephone, stepped back to the district attorney's office and said to the girl at the information desk, "Please tell Mr. Burger that Perry Mason will agree to hold the preliminary examination of Julia Branner at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. We can stipulate away all the red tape."