Midnight rain, lashing down from a sodden sky, and borne on the wings of a whipping south wind, moistened the leaves of the shrubbery about Renwold C. Brownley's Beverly Hills mansion. The headlights of Mason's automobile reflected from the shiny surfaces of the green leaves as his car swung in a skidding turn around the driveway.
The lawyer stopped his car under the protection of a porte-cochere. A butler whose countenance was as uncordial as the weather opened the door and said, "Mr. Mason?"
The lawyer nodded.
"This way," the butler said. "Mr. Brownley is waiting for you." He made no effort to relieve Mason of his coat or hat. He ushered Mason through a reception hall into a huge library paneled with dark wainscoting. Subdued lights illuminated tiers of shelved books, deep chairs, spacious alcoves, inviting window seats.
The man who sat at the massive mahogany table was as unrelentingly austere as some fabled judge of the Inquisition. His hair was white and so fine that the eyebrows were all but invisible, giving to his head a peculiar vulture-like appearance, making his scrutiny seem a lidless, cold survey. "So you're Perry Mason," he said, in a voice which held no trace of welcome. It was the voice of one who is inspecting for the first time an interesting specimen.
Mason shook moisture from his rain coat as he flung it from his shoulders and dropped it uninvited over the back of a chair. Standing with his shoulders squared, feet spread slightly apart, the soft shaded lights of the library illuminating his granite-hard profile and steady, patient eyes, he said, "Yes, I'm Mason, and you're Brownley." And the lawyer contrived to put in his tone exactly that same lack of sympathy which had characterized the voice of the older man.
"Sit down," Brownley said. "In some ways I'm glad you came, Mr. Mason."
"Thanks," Mason told him. "I'll sit down after a while. I prefer to stand right now. Just why is it you're glad I came?"
"You said you wanted to talk with me about Janice?"
"Mr. Mason, you're a very clever lawyer."
"Don't thank me. I'm not paying you a compliment. It's an admission. Under the circumstances, perhaps, rather a grudging admission. I have followed your exploits in the press with a feeling of amazement. Also with a feeling of curiosity. I'll admit that I've been interested in you, that I've wanted to meet you. In fact, upon one case I even thought of consulting you, but one hardly places matters of, shall we say financial importance, in the hands of an attorney whose forte seems to be mental agility rather than…"
"Responsibility?" Mason asked sarcastically as Brownley hesitated.
"No, that isn't what I meant," Brownley said, "but your skill lies along the lines of the spectacular and the dramatic. As you become older, Mr. Mason, you'll find that men who have large interests tend to fight shy of the spectacular and the dramatic."
"In other words, you didn't consult me."
"And since you didn't elect to avail yourself of my services I am at perfect liberty to offer those services to people who are on the other side."
The ghost of a smile twitched the lips of the man who sat a the mahogany table surrounded by the environments of his wealth, entrenched in an aura of financial power as though it had been a fortress. "Well put," he said. "Your skill in turning my own comments back on me is well in keeping with what I've heard of your talents."
Mason said, "I've explained to you generally over the telephone what brings me here. It's about your granddaughter. Regardless of what you may think, Mr. Brownley, I'm not merely a paid gladiator fighting for those who have the funds with which to employ me. I'm a fighter, yes, and I like to feel that I fight for those who aren't able to fight for themselves, but I don't offer my services indiscriminately. I fight to aid justice."
"Are you asking me, Mr. Mason, to believe that you only seek to right wrongs?" Brownley asked in a thinly skeptical voice.
"I'm not asking you to believe one Goddamn thing," Mason told him. "I'm telling you. You can believe it or not."
Brownley frowned. "There's no call to get abusive, Mr. Mason," he said.
"I think," the lawyer told him, "that I'm the best judge of that, Mr. Brownley." And with that he sat down and lit a cigarette, conscious that the super-composure of the financier had been considerably jarred. "Now then," Mason went on, "whenever a man has something which other men want, he's subject to all sorts of pressure. You have money. Other men want it. They try all sorts of schemes to get you to give up that money. I have a certain ability as a fighter and men try to impose upon my credulity in order to enlist my sympathies.
"Now I'm going to put my cards on the table with you. The whole chain of events leading up to my interest in this matter has been very unusual. I'm not certain that it hasn't been an elaborate build-up in order to gain my partisan support. If it has, I don't want to lend any such ability as I may have to perpetrating an injustice or bolstering a fraud. If, on the other hand, the chain of circumstances isn't part of an elaborate stage-setting, but represents a genuine sequence of events, there's a very great possibility that the person whom you believe to be the daughter of your son Oscar and Julia Branner isn't related to you."
"You have some authority for making this assertion?" Brownley asked.
"Naturally." Mason paused to regard the smoldering tip of his cigarette, then, letting his eyes meet the lidless scrutiny of the other man, said, "I have it on the authority of the only surviving parent, Julia Branner herself."
There was no sign of emotion upon Brownley's face. His smile was distinctly frosty. "And may I ask," he inquired, "who in turn has identified Julia Branner?"
Mason held his face in rigid immobility. "No one," he admitted, "and that is why I came to you. If there is any fraud on my side of the case, you are the person to expose it."
"And if I convince you that such fraud exists?" Brownley asked.
Mason made a spreading gesture with his palms and said, "The case will no longer interest me. But understand, Mr. Brownley, I must be convinced."
"Julia Branner," Brownley said, "is an adventuress. My detectives have gathered things concerning her past life before she met my son. It is rather an extraordinary compilation."
Mason conveyed his cigarette to his lips, inhaled deeply, smiled and spoke as he exhaled, the cigarette smoke clothing the words with a smoky aura. "Doubtless," he said, "there are many women whose pasts, if viewed under the microscopes of such investigation, would appear checkered."
"This woman is an adventuress."
"You are referring now to the Julia Branner who married your son?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then," Mason pointed out, "the fact that she is an adventuress has nothing whatever to do with the legal status of the child she bore."
Brownley wet his lips, hesitated a moment, then went on with the cold, relentless manner of a banker analyzing the defects in a financial statement: "Fortunately for all concerned, the child she bore was removed from her influence at an early age. I don't care to divulge exactly how that happened nor where it happened. That information was gathered for me by men who were exclusively and entirely in my employ, and who were actuated solely by a desire to protect my interests. I happen to know, and doubtless you can verify, that Julia Branner herself made futile but nevertheless expensive efforts to secure this same information for herself. It happened that, because of the added facilities at my command, I was successful where she had failed."
"Has Julia ever sought to capitalize upon her connection with your family…? I am asking you now to set aside your prejudices and give me a fair answer."
Brownley's face was grim. "She has never sought to capitalize," he admitted, "because I have forestalled any such effort on her part."
"I take it," Mason said, "you are referring to the fact that you were able to place her in the position of being a fugitive from justice."
"You may interpret my statement any way you wish," Brownley said. "I am making no admissions."
"I think it only fair to warn you that if I interest myself in this case," Mason pointed out, "I shall endeavor to protect the interests of my client all along the line, and if it appears that she became a technical fugitive from justice because of influence which was brought to bear by you, I shall seek to make you pay for having exerted that influence."
"Naturally," Brownley said, "I would hardly expect Perry Mason to fight half-heartedly, but I don't think you are going to interest yourself in Julia Branner's behalf. In the first place, I have every reason to believe that the real Julia Branner is dead and that you are the one who has taken up with an impostor."
"Nothing which you have said," Mason pointed out, "in any way proves that the young woman whom you have recognized as your granddaughter is in fact the daughter of Julia Branner, wherever Julia Branner may be. On the other hand, I have some evidence which leads me to believe you have been the victim of either a fraud or a mistake."
Brownley said slowly, "Mr. Mason, I am not going to divulge my defenses to any claims which you may make."
"In that case," the lawyer said emphatically, "you can do nothing to convince me I shouldn't take the case."
Brownley sat for several seconds in frowning concentration. At length he said, "I will go this far and this far alone, Mr. Mason," and his long, thin fingers took a sealskin wallet from his pocket, opened it and extracted a letter. Mason watched the man with interest as he calmly and deliberately tore the printed portion of the letterhead from the stationery and then, after a moment, tore off the signature.
"You will understand, Mr. Mason," Brownley said, fingering the mutilated letter speculatively, "that when I made an investigation I made a most complete investigation. I had certain irrefutable facts which I could use as base lines in making my survey. The nature of those facts are highly confidential, but I employed the best investigators money could buy. I believe you are being victimized. I am morally certain the woman who has presented herself to you as Julia Branner is not the woman who married my son. I know that the person who will be produced by her as her child will not be the daughter of my dead son, and I have reason to believe that your own interest in the matter has been excited largely because you feel a certain person whom you consider above reproach, and who should be in a position to have accurate information, had interested himself in the person who seeks to become your client. Therefore, I am willing to show you this letter. I will not tell you whom it is from, but will merely state that I consider the source to be above reproach."
Brownley extended the letter. Mason read:
"As a result of our investigation, we feel that we can state definitely an attempt will be made to discredit the real Janice Brownley and substitute in her place an impostor. The parties who will be interested in doing this have been fully conversant with the situation for some months and have been carefully awaiting the most auspicious time to launch their activities. In order to be successful, they will have to interest some attorney of ability who will be able to finance the fight, and in order to convince such an attorney, it will be necessary to have some influence brought to bear upon him.
"These parties deliberately waited until Bishop William Mallory, of Sydney, Australia, took a sabbatical year. He announced his intention to spend this year in travel and study and, to safeguard himself from interruptions, kept his itinerary a closely guarded secret.
"Our investigator has established an inside contact with these parties and we are, therefore, in a position to inform you that a clever impostor will pose as Bishop Mallory, contact some attorney, who has been carefully selected well in advance, and persuade him to act in the matter. This spurious bishop will appear upon the scene only long enough to impress the attorney. He will then disappear.
"We are advising you of this in advance so you may take steps to apprehend this impostor if he remains in contact with the parties long enough to enable you to have a warrant issued. In any event, you may anticipate that some aggressive attorney, of sufficient financial responsibility to handle the case on a contingency basis, will interest himself in the matter. We would suggest you consult with your attorney in order to anticipate this situation and map out your own plan of campaign. We will have additional facts to report within the next few days.
"Very truly yours,"
"Doubtless," Mason said, his face not changing expression by so much as the motion of a muscle, "this letter carries weight with you?"
"It doesn't with you?" Brownley asked, watching him shrewdly, his voice showing some surprise.
"I paid money to get that letter," Brownley said. "When you know me better, Mr. Mason, you'll know that whenever I pay money for anything, I get the best. Permit me to state: That letter carries great weight with me."
"The letter might have carried great weight with me," Mason told him, "if I had seen it as a letter. But you chose to tear off everything of value, leaving nothing but an anonymous communication, and I, therefore, regard it as such-merely an anonymous letter."
Brownley's face showed his irritation. "If you think," he said, "that I'm going to divulge the identity of my fact-finding organizations, you're mistaken."
Mason shrugged his shoulders and said, "I think nothing. I merely placed certain cards on the table and asked you to match them. So far you haven't done it."
"And," Brownley announced with finality, "that's just as far as I'm going." Mason pushed back his chair as though to rise. "Not going, Mr. Mason?" Brownley asked.
"Yes. If you have given me all you have to offer, you have fallen far short of convincing me."
"Has it ever occurred to you, Mr. Mason, that you are not the one to be convinced?"
Mason, who was standing with his knuckles resting on the edge of the table, the weight of his broad shoulders supported by his rigid arms, said, "No, it hasn't. For the purpose of this interview, I'm the boss. If you can't convince me you're in the right, you've got a fight on your hands."
"Spoken like a good business man," Brownley conceded. "But I'm going to show that you're checkmated before you start."
"Checkmated," Mason said, "is an expression of considerable finality. I have been in 'check' many times; I have been checkmated but seldom."
"Nevertheless," Brownley said, "you're checkmated now. It happens, Mr. Mason, that I don't want my granddaughteris name dragged through a lot of court proceedings. I don't want a lot of newspaper notoriety focused upon my private affairs. Therefore, I am going to keep you from engaging in any fight for this spurious grandchild."
Despite himself, Mason's voice showed surprise. "You're going to keep me from doing something I want to do?" he asked.
"Exactly," Brownley said.
"It has been tried before," Mason told him dryly, "but never with any great degree of success."
Brownley's lidless eyes twinkled with frosty merriment. "I can well understand that, Counselor," he said, "but since you have investigated my family, you may have investigated me and if so, you have doubtless learned that I am a ruthless fighter, a hard man to cross, and one who always gets his own way."
"You are now speculating," Mason said, "upon the out come. Your statement a moment ago was to the effect that you were going to keep me from starting proceedings."
Mason's smile of polite incredulity was a sufficient comment in itself.
"I am going to keep you from doing it," Brownley said, "because you are a businessman. The other side have no funds with which to fight. Their only hope lies in interesting some attorney who has ample finances of his own, who will be willing to gamble upon a contingency. Therefore, if I can show you that you have no hope of winning, you are a good enough business man not to start."
"It would," Mason told him, "take a mighty good man to convince me I had no hope of winning a lawsuit. I prefer to reach my own conclusions on that."
"Understand," Brownley said, "I am not foolish enough to think that I could prevent you from seeking to establish the legitimacy of a spurious grandchild, but I do feel certain that I can show you it won't do you any good when once you have established your claim. Being my grandchild means nothing to anyone. The girl is of age and under any circumstances there would be no obligation on my part to support her. The sole advantage to be derived from establishing the relationship would be the expectancy of sharing in my property after I have gone. Therefore, Mr. Mason, I am making a will in which the bulk of my property is left to my granddaughter, Janice Brownley, and I particularly provide in that will that the person to whom I refer as my granddaughter is the one who is at present living with me as my grandchild; that it makes no difference whether the relationship is authentic or not; that she is the beneficiary under my will. Now then, I know that you might try to set such a will aside. Therefore, tomorrow morning at nine o'clock I shall sign conveyances which will irrevocably convey to the person who is living with me as my granddaughter a full three-fourths of my property, reserving a life estate to myself. The remaining one-fourth will be similarly transferred to my other grandchild, Philip Brownley."
Brownley's steady, cold eyes stared triumphantly at the lawyer. "Now, Counselor," he went on, "there is a perfectly impossible legal nut for you to crack. I think you are too smart a man to butt your head against a brick wall. I want you to understand that in me you have found an adversary as ruthless as yourself. There's nothing at which I will stop when I have once made up my mind. In that way, I am, I think, much like yourself. But it happens that in this matter I hold all of the trump cards, and I intend to play them with every bit of cold blooded efficiency at my command. And now, Mr. Mason, let me wish you good night and tell you that I have enjoyed meeting you." Renwold Brownley wrapped long fingers about Mason's muscular hand, and Mason found those fingers as cold as steel.
"The butler," Brownley said, "will show you to your car." And the butler, doubtless summoned by some secret signal noiselessly opened the library door and bowed to Perry Mason.
Mason stared at Brownley. "You're not a lawyer?" he asked.
"No, but I have the benefit of the best legal talent available."
Mason turned, nodded to the butler and picked up his rain coat. "When I have finished with the case," he said grimly, "you may have changed your mind about the efficiency of your lawyers. Good night, Mr. Brownley."
Mason paused at the outer door long enough to let the butler assist him into his coat. Rain was beating down in torrents whipping the surface of the driveway into miniature geysers. The branches of the wind-lashed trees tossed about like grotesque arms, waving in surrender to the storm. Mason slammed the door of his car, switched on the ignition and headlights, snapped the gearshift back into low gear, and ease in the clutch. The car purred out from the shelter of the porte-cochere into the full force of the storm. He had shifted to second, and was placing a cautious foot upon the brake pedal to slow down for a curve in the graveled driveway, when his headlights picked out a figure which stood, braced against the beating rain.
Against the black background of the shrubbery, the figure was etched into white brilliance by the headlights, a slender young man, a rain coat turned up about his neck, a hat pulled low down on the forehead, water streaming from the brim. He extended his arms, and Mason kicked out the clutch and slowed the car to a stop. The young man walked toward him.
Mason was conscious of the white pallor of the face, of the burning purpose in the dark eyes. Mason rolled down the window of his car.
"You're Mr. Mason, the lawyer?" the young man asked.
"I'm Philip Brownley. Does that mean anything to you?"
"Grandson of Renwold Brownley?" Mason asked.
"And you wanted to see me?"
"Better get in out of the rain," Mason said. "Perhaps you'd like to drive to my office with me."
"No. And my grandfather mustn't know that I've talked with you. Tell me, you talked with him?"
"I'd prefer that you made your inquiries from your grandfather," Mason said.
"It was about Jan, wasn't it?"
"You know, Janice-my cousin."
"After all," Mason told him, "I don't feel free to discuss the matter, particularly at present."
"I might make you a valuable ally," Philip offered.
"You might," Mason admitted.
"After all, our interests are somewhat in common."
"Do you mean by that," Mason inquired, "that you feel the person living here in the house as Janice Brownley isn't the daughter of Oscar Brownley?"
"I meant," Philip repeated, "that I might make you an ally."
Mason said slowly, "I don't think there's anything I'd care to discuss with you at present."
"Is it true that Grandfather is going to tie your hands by conveying all of his property to Janice and reserving only a life estate for himself?"
"That's also something I'd prefer not to discuss right now. But I'd like very much to talk with you at a more propitious time. Suppose you come to my office tomorrow morning at about ten o'clock."
"No! No! I can't. But don't you understand what's happened? Grandfather hired a firm of detectives to find Janice. He offered a bonus of twenty-five thousand dollars if they'd find her. They couldn't find Janice, but they weren't going to pass up twenty-five thousand dollars, so they faked the whole business. She's been living here for two years and she's hypnotized him utterly and completely. Morally, I'm entitled to just as much of the estate as she is, even if she's genuine. But she's hypnotized him into giving her the bulk of the property. She's an unscrupulous, scheming adventuress. She wouldn't stop at anything. She…" Philip Brownley's voice choked with indignation. For several seconds the only sounds were those of the storm, the rain drumming on the roof of the closed car, the tossing branches of the trees, the rush of the wind.
Mason, staring steadily at the young man, said, "So what?"
"I want you to stop it."
"I don't know how. That's up to you. I just want you to know you can count on my support-but it must be secret. Grandfather must never know it."
"Can you come to my office?" Mason asked.
"No. He'd find it out."
"How do you know she's a fake?"
"The way she's gone about wheedling her way into his affections."
"That's not evidence."
"There are other things."
Mason said, "Look here, young man, when you first talked about her, you referred to her as 'Jan.' That's sort of a pet name. Now you may be trying to help me, and you may be trying to pump me to find out what I plan on doing. I've offered you a chance to come to my office with me. You won't. You won't even meet me. You can't tell me your grandfather keeps you under such close supervision. Moreover, anyone who might be watching from that house can see I've stopped my car to talk with you…"
"Good Lord!" the young man interrupted, "I never thought of that!" He whirled and dove for the shadows of a hedge.
Mason waited a few minutes, then kicked the car into gear and stepped on the throttle. He drove directly to a branch office of the Western Union. Standing at the counter, with rain trickling down from the skirts of his coat, he wrote a message to be sent by wireless: BISHOP WILLIAM MALLORY S.S. "MONTEREY" EN ROUTE TO SYDNEY AUSTRALIA VIA HONOLULU-IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENTS MAKE IT IMPERATIVE YOU VOUCH FOR IDENTITY OF WOMAN CLAIMING TO BE JULIA BRANNER WHO CALLED ON ME THIS EVENING SHORTLY AFTER YOUR BOAT SAILED.
He signed the message, paid the charges, and stepped into the telephone booth, where he closed the door and called the number Julia Branner had given him. A woman's voice, thin, toneless, and self-effacing, answered the telephone. "Is this Julia Branner?" Mason asked.
"No. This is her friend, Stella Kenwood. Is this Mr. Mason, the lawyer?"
"Just a moment, Mr. Mason. She'll talk with you."
After the thin, reedy voice of Stella Kenwood, Julia Branner's resonant, throaty tones seemed to flow over the wire and fill the confines of the telephone booth, in which the warmth of Mason's body, evaporating the moisture from his woolen garments, made the atmosphere close and stuffy. "What did you find out?" she demanded. "Tell me quickly!"
Mason said, "Nothing encouraging. Brownley's a man of considerable determination. He's planning to make a will leaving the bulk of his property to the girl who's been living there in the house as his granddaughter. He's also planning to convey her most of his property outright, leaving only a life estate in himself."
"He's done that already?" Julia Branner said.
"No. He's going to do it in the morning."
Mason could hear her inhale a quick breath. "Is there anything we can do between now and morning?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Unless we could show he was incompetent, we couldn't stop him from doing as he pleased with his property at any time he pleased. But we have a remedy he hasn't thought of. I'll explain it to you in the morning."
There were several moments of silence during which Mason could hear only the buzzing of the wire. Then Julia Branner's voice said. "Do you think there's anything you can do. Mason?"
"I'll talk it over with you in the morning," he said.
"It sounds very discouraging to me," she insisted. "I think he has us licked, unless…"
"Unless what?" Mason asked, after she became silent.
"Unless I do something that I didn't intend to do except a last resort."
"What?" he asked.
"I think I have one way of convincing Renwold Brownley," she said. "It all depends on whether he wants something which I have badly enough to do exactly what I tell him to."
Mason said, "Now, listen. You keep out of this and sit tight. I'll talk with you in the morning. You can't force Brownley do anything. He's shrewd, obstinate, and ruthless." When there was no answer to what he had said, Mason tapped transmitter with his knuckles and said, "Did you hear me?"
"Yes. I heard you," she said in a noncommittal tone. "What time can I see you in the morning?"
"Ten o'clock," he told her, "at my office," and hung up receiver.