The first faint rays of dawn were turning the street into a drab rain-lashed canyon as Perry Mason parked his car across the street from a three-story frame stucco building which bore the name "Sunset Arms Apartments-214 West Beechwood." Mason turned up the collar of his rain coat and stepped out into the downpour. No lights were showing in the front of the building, but Mason reconnoitered to find an oblong of illumination half screened by lace curtains on the third floor at the back of the building. He walked to the entrance of the apartment house, tried the outer door and found that it was locked; but the well-worn slot for the key readily admitted the blade of Mason's penknife and, under a gentle pressure, the bolt clicked back and the door opened. Mason shook his rain coat and climbed the stairs. His feet squished water from his shoes at every step.
On the third floor he could hear a sound of snoring from one of the apartments, the beat of rain on the roof, the sound of wind moaning around the corners of the building. He walked the length of the corridor and tapped gently on the door from beneath which appeared a faint ribbon of golden light. A woman's voice, sounding thin and frightened, said, "What is it?"
"A message from Miss Branner," Mason said.
There were several seconds of silence while the woman on the other side of the door seemed to be debating whether to accept this statement at its face value. Then Mason heard the sound of shuffling motion, and a bolt clicked back. A thin woman, clad in dressing gown and slippers, her hair done up in curlers, her somewhat sallow face devoid of make-up, contemplated Mason with anxious eyes.
"May I come in?" Mason asked.
She stood in the doorway saying nothing, watching him with a strained anxiety which showed only too well the state of her mind.
Mason laughed reassuringly and said, "After all, you know, I can't give this message to the whole apartment house, and I'm afraid the walls of this corridor are rather thin."
The woman said tonelessly, "Come in."
"I am wondering," Mason said, as he entered the room, "if you're the woman to whom I was to give the message. Would you mind telling me just who you are?"
"If Julia Branner gave you a message," the woman said, "it's for me. I'm Stella Kenwood."
"Oh, yes," Mason said, "you've known Miss Branner for some time, haven't you?"
"Know anything about her past?"
"I know all about it."
"For how far back?"
"Ever since she came to the States."
"Know anything about her life in Australia?"
"Some. Why do you ask?"
"Because," Mason said, "I'm trying to help Miss Branner, and I'll want you to help me, and for that I'll have to know just exactly how well you know her."
"If she gave you a message for me," Stella Kenwood said, making an attempt to assert herself, "you can give it to me. There's no need for any questions."
"Unfortunately," Mason said, "the situation isn't quite that simple. You see, I'm afraid Julia's in trouble."
She gave a quick gasping intake of her breath, then sat down in a chair and said weakly, "Oh."
Mason made a quick survey of the apartment. It was a single-room affair with what was evidently a wall bed on the side to the left of the door. It was a bed which pivoted on a mirrored doorway, and now the full-length mirror was in place, indicating either that the bed had not been slept in or that the woman had arisen, made the bed and raised it into place before Mason had knocked. The apartment was heated by a gas heater molded in the form of a steam radiator covered with aluminum paint, but containing no vent. The atmosphere of the room was warm, steamy and devitalized Coming in from the open air, Mason was keenly conscious of the close, stale atmosphere. Moisture filmed the windows and the mirror. "Had the radiator going all night?" he asked. The woman said nothing, but stared at him with faded blue eyes in which her anxiety showed all too plainly. She was, Mason decided, somewhere in the late forties. Life had not been particularly kind to her, and under the impact of adversity she had learned to turn the other cheek until her manner showed an utter non-resistance. "What time did Miss Branner leave here?" Mason asked.
"Who are you, and why do you want to know?"
"I'm trying to help her."
"That's what you say."
"It's the truth."
"Who are you?"
"I'm Perry Mason."
"The lawyer she went to see?"
"Then I answered you when you called on the telephone last night?"
She nodded without any particular emphasis.
"Where's Julia now?"
"She went out."
"She went out right after I telephoned, didn't she?"
"Not right afterwards."
Mason stared steadily at her and she avoided his eyes.
"When did she go out?" Mason asked.
"Not until around quarter past one o'clock."
"Where did she go?"
"I don't know."
"How did she go?"
"In my car. I gave her the key to it."
"What kind of a car is it?"
"What did she go out for?"
"I don't think," Stella Kenwood said, "that I should be talking to you like this." But her voice failed to carry conviction and Mason merely waited expectantly. "You know something, don't you?" she went on. "Something's happened. You're keeping it from me. Tell me."
Mason pressed his advantage by saying, "I'll tell you what's happened as soon as I know how you stand. I can't tell that until after you've answered my questions. Why did Julia go out? What did she want?"
"I don't know."
"Did she have her gun with her?"
The woman gasped, placed a thin hand to her throat. The blue veins showed in a corrugated network over the skin.
"Did she have her gun?" Mason repeated.
"I don't know. Why, what's happened? How did you know about her gun?"
"Never mind that. Answer my questions. You stayed here waiting for her?"
"Why didn't you go to bed?"
"I don't know. I was worried about her. I kept thinking she'd be coming in."
"Do you know why she came out here from Salt Lake?"
"Yes, of course."
"You know. Why should I tell you?"
"I want to see if she told you the same thing she did me."
"If you're her lawyer, you'd ought to know."
"I know I should," Mason said grimly. "Why did she come?"
"About her daughter and her marriage."
"You know that?"
"Oh, of course."
"How long have you known about it?"
"For some time."
"Julia Branner told you about her marriage to Oscar Brownley?"
"Yes, of course." The woman seemed to warm to the subject. "You see," she said, with the first sign of spontaneity she had shown, "we lived together in Salt Lake three year ago. She told me all about Oscar Brownley, all about the tricks the old man played getting Oscar away from her, and all about how she'd fixed things so the old man could never steal her daughter. You see, I had a daughter of my own just about the same age as Julia's girl, and I could appreciate how she felt. Only, of course, I knew where my daughter was. I could write to her and see her once in a while. Julia didn't even know whether her daughter was still alive…" Her face clouded as she averted her eyes and said, "My daughter died since then, a couple of years ago. So now I know just how Julia must have felt, not being able to see or hear from her loved one."
"Did Julia tell you why she couldn't come back to California?" Mason asked.
"Because of the manslaughter charge."
"All right," Mason said, "let's get down to brass tacks. I want to know why Julia sent a message to Brownley to meet her down at the waterfront."
Stella Kenwood shook her head blankly.
"Don't know?" Mason asked.
"I don't want to talk with you about Julia's affairs."
"You do know," Mason charged, "and that's the reason you're sitting up here waiting for Julia to come back. You've had that gas radiator going ever since before midnight. You haven't been to bed. Come on now, tell me the truth and tell it fast. We haven't got all day."
Her eyes faltered away from his. She twisted her fingers nervously. At that moment Mason heard the sound of rapid steps in the corridor. He stepped swiftly to the left of the door standing where he would be concealed for the moment from anyone entering the room.
The doorknob turned. The door opened, then closed. Julia Branner, wearing a white rain coat which stretched almost to her ankles, her shoes soggy with water, her hair, as it showed beneath her hat, stringy and wet, clinging to the back of her neck, the curl completely removed, said in a high-pitched, almost hysterical voice, "Christ, Stella, I've got to get out of here! I'm in an awful jam. Let's get my things together, and you can drive me to the airport. I'm going back to Salt Lake. The most awful thing happened, I…" She broke off at what she saw in the other woman's eyes and whirled to stare at Perry Mason. "You!" she exclaimed.
Mason nodded and said calmly, "Suppose you sit down, Julia, and tell me just what did happen. It may help a lot if I know."
Mason said, "Sit down, Julia, I want to talk with you."
"Listen, I'm in a hurry. I haven't any time to waste talking to you. It's too late for you to do any good now."
"Why is it too late?"
She tossed her handbag on the table, fumbled with the buttons at the neck of her rain coat. Mason stepped forward, picked up her handbag, weighed it judiciously and said, "What happened to the gun you were carrying?"
Her face showed surprise. "Why, isn't it in there?"
"Listen," Mason told her, "if you want to waste time playing guessing games with me, that's your funeral, but Renwold Brownley was shot tonight by some woman wearing a white rain coat and driving a Chevrolet automobile. I think the police have a pretty good description of the automobile. Now, do you want me to try and help you, or do you want to play wise?"
Julia Branner stared at him speculatively, but Stella Kenwood gave a low moan and said, "Oh, Julia! I knew you'd do it!" and began to sob softly.
Mason met the hard-eyed defiance of Julia Branner's eyes and said, "Speak up."
"Why should I talk to you?" she asked, her voice bitter.
"I can help you," Mason told her.
"You could have helped me," she said, "but you didn't do a very good job of it and now it's too late."
"Why is it too late?"
"You know-but I don't know how you know."
Mason's voice showed his impatience. "Now listen, you two, seconds are precious and you're yapping around here like a couple of boobs. Snap out of it and get down to brass tacks. I'm going to help you, Julia."
"Why?" she asked. "I've got no money, not more than one hundred and fifty dollars altogether."
Stella Kenwood half rose from her chair and said hopefully, "I've got two hundred. You can have that, Julia."
"Let's forget about the money right now," Mason said. "I'm going to help you, Julia, but I must know what happened. I figure there's a lot to be said on your side of this thing no matter what you did. Brownley was absolutely cold and utterly remorseless. He'd framed a charge of manslaughter on you and held it over your head for years. He'd broken up any chance for domestic happiness you might have had and wouldn't give you even a thin dime. You had to work your way through life and there's a hell of a lot to be said on your side of this thing, but I want to know how bad it is. I won't guarantee that I'm going to stay with you all the way, but I'm going to start. Now go ahead and give me the lowdown. Did you kill Brownley?"
"I don't know."
"You saw him tonight?"
"Down near the waterfront."
"Tell me what happened."
She shook her head and, in a voice which sounded suddenly flat and weary, said, "What's the difference? You wouldn't believe me. No one will believe me. Cut out the sobbing Stella. I'm going to beat it. It's my funeral. You're not mixed up In it."
Mason said irritably, "Snap out of it! Tell me what happened. If anyone can help you, I can."
Julia Branner said, "Well, if you've got to know, I tried to bring some pressure to bear on Brownley."
"There was a watch he'd given Oscar when Oscar graduated from high school. The case was a family heirloom. Renwold had had new works put in it. He thought the world of it. I had the watch. I was carrying it the day Oscar skipped out to go back to his father The old man wanted that watch about as much as he wanted anything on earth. I sent him a message by a cab driver and told him I wanted to talk with him for ten minutes, that if he'd come alone and at once to a certain place down at the beach and let me talk to him for ten minutes without interrupting me, I'd give him the watch."
"You thought he'd come?"
"I knew he'd come."
"You didn't think he'd have you arrested?"
"No. I told him the watch would be hidden, that the only way he could get it would be by playing square with me."
"So what?" Mason asked.
"How did he know the place?"
"I drew him a little sketch map and told him where I'd meet him. I told him he'd have to come alone."
"Then what did you do?"
"Drove down to the harbor so I'd be there to meet him."
"What were you going to talk to him about?"
"I was going to make the only argument he'd ever have listened to. I was going to prove to him that my daughter had been the dead image of her father, that if he cared anything at all for Oscar he'd see that Oscar's flesh and blood didn't want for the good things of life. I was going to tell him that I didn't care what he did to me, with me or for me, that all I wanted was a square deal for Oscar's child. I was going to tell him that the girl who was pretending to be Oscar's child was an impostor."
"Why did you make him go all the way down to the waterfront?"
"Because I wanted to."
"Why the water-front?"
"That's got nothing to do with it."
"Was your gun a.32 caliber Colt automatic?"
"What became of it?"
"I don't know. I missed it early this evening."
"Don't pull an old gag like that. It won't get you any place."
"It's the truth."
"And if you didn't kill Renwold Brownley, who did?"
"I don't know."
"Just what do you know?"
"I met him down by one of the yacht clubs," she said. "I told him to drive around a couple of the side streets to make certain he wasn't followed, then to come back to me. He drove around, came back and slowed down. He was about half a block away from me when some woman wearing a yellow rain coat made like mine ran out toward the car. Naturally, Brownley stopped. She jumped on the running board, and started to shoot."
"What did you do?"
"I turned and ran just as hard as I could."
"Where did you run to?"
"My car was parked about a block away."
"You jumped in it and drove away?"
"I had some trouble getting it started. It had been raining and the engine didn't go immediately."
"Did anyone see you?"
"I don't know."
"Where did you get the automobile?"
"It was Stella's car. I borrowed it."
"And that's the best story you can tell?"
"It's the truth."
Mason said slowly, "It may or may not be the truth. Personally, I don't think it is. One thing is certain: No jury would ever believe it. If you tell a story like that, you'll be stuck for first degree murder just as sure as you're sitting here. Pull down that bed, turn off that damned gas heater, open the windows, ditch that rain coat, undress and get into bed. If the police call for you, don't say a word. Don't make a single statement, no matter what they ask. Simply tell them you're not going to answer any questions unless your lawyer tells you to, and tell them I'm your lawyer."
She stared at him. "You mean you're going to stand by me and help me?"
"For a while, yes," he said. "Go on now, get your clothes off and get into bed. And you, Stella, don't you say a word. Simply sit tight and keep quiet. Do you think you can do that?"
Stella Kenwood looked up with pale, frightened eyes and said, "I don't know. I don't think so."
"I don't either," Mason told her, "but do the best you can. Stall things along as long as you can in any event, and remember, Julia, don't you say a word, not to anyone. Don't answer questions and don't make any statements."
"You don't need to worry about me," she told him. "That's one of the things I'm good at."
Mason nodded, jerked the door open, stepped out into the corridor and, as he closed the door, heard the creak of springs as Julia Branner, calmly competent, pulled the wall bed into position.
Mason noticed that the rain had slackened to a cold drizzle. There was enough daylight to show low-flung clouds raising up from the southeast. The smell of a cold, wet dawn was in the air. He had just started the motor on his car when a police machine swung around the corner and slid to a stop in front of the Sunset Arms Apartments.