Frank Locke sat in the editorial office and shred at Perry Mason.
“I understood that they were looking for you,” he said.
“Who was?” asked Perry Mason carelessly.
“Reporters, police, detectives. Lots of people,” said Locke.
“I saw them all.”
“No, last night. Why?”
“Nothing,” Locke replied, “except that they may be looking for you in a different way now. What is it you want?”
“I just dropped in to tell you that Eva Belter had filed a petition for letters of administration on her husband’s estate.”
“What’s that to me?” asked Locke, his milk-chocolate eyes on Perry Mason.
“It means that Eva Belter is running things from now on. You’re going to take your orders from her,” said Mason. “And it means that, inasmuch as I’m representing Eva Belter, you’re going to take some orders from me. One of the first things you’re going to do is to kill anything about that Beechwood Inn affair.”
“Is that so?” said Locke, sarcastically.
“That,” said Mason, with emphasis, “is so.”
“You’re what they call an optimist.”
“Maybe I am. Again, maybe I’m not. Just take down the telephone and ring up Eva Belter.”
“I don’t have to ring up Eva Belter, or anybody else. I’m running this newspaper.”
“You’re going to be like that, are you?”
“Just like that,” Locke snapped.
“I might talk with you again if we went some place where I was certain that I could talk without too many people listening,” Mason remarked.
“You’d have to make better talk than you did the last time,” said Locke, “or I wouldn’t be interested in leaving.”
“Well, we might take a stroll, Locke, and see if we could come to some terms.”
“Why not talk here?”
“You know the way I feel about this place,” Mason told him. “It makes me uneasy, and I don’t talk well when I’m uneasy.”
Locke hesitated for a minute, finally said, “Well, I won’t give you over fifteen minutes. You’ve got to talk turkey this time.”
“I can talk turkey,” Mason remarked.
“Well, I’m always willing to take a chance,” Locke said.
He got his hat and went down to the street with Mason.
“Suppose we get a cab and ride around until we find some place that looks good, where we can talk,” said Locke.
“Well, let’s walk down the block here, and around the corner. I want to be sure that we get a taxi that isn’t planted,” Mason said.
Locke made a grimace. “Oh, cut out that kid stuff, Mason! Be your age! I’ve got the office wired so that I can tune a witness in on the conversation when I want to, but don’t think that I’ve gone to all the trouble of arranging a bunch of stuff on the outside, so I can hear what you say. You could have yelled anything you said before from the tops of the skyscrapers, and it wouldn’t have made a damned bit of difference.”
Mason shook his head.
“No,” he said, “when I do business, I do it in just one way.”
Locke scowled. “I don’t like that way.”
“Lots of people don’t,” Mason admitted.
Locke stood still. “That’s not getting you anywhere, Mason. I might as well go back to the office.”
“You’ll regret it if you do,” Mason warned him.
Locke hesitated, and then finally shrugged his shoulders.
“All right,” he said, “let’s go. I’ve come this far. I may as well see it through.”
Mason walked him down the street until they came to Sol Steinburg’s place.
“We’ll go in here,” said Mason.
Locke flashed him a glance of instant suspicion. “I won’t talk in there,” he said.
“You don’t have to,” Mason told him, “we’re just going in here, and you can come right out.”
“What kind of a frame-up is this?” Locke demanded.
“Oh, come on in,” Mason said, impatiently. “Who’s getting suspicious now?”
Locke walked on in, looking cautiously about him.
Sol Steinburg came out from the back room with his face wreathed in smiles, rubbing his hands. He looked at Mason, and said, “Hello, hello, hello. What do you want? You back again?” Then his eyes rested on Frank Locke.
Seldom is there a Hebrew who hasn’t an instinct of the dramatic and an ability to portray emotions.
Sol Steinburg’s face ran through a gamut of expressions. The smile gave place to an expression of startled recognition. The expression of startled recognition gave way to one of fierce determination. He raised a quivering forefinger, pointed it directly at Locke, and said, “That’s the man.”
Mason’s voice was incisive. “Now, wait a minute, Sol. We’ve got to be sure about this.”
The pawnbroker became voluble. “Ain’t I sure? Can’t I tell a man when I see him? You asked me if I could tell him when I saw him, and I told you, ‘yes.’ Now I see him, and I tell you yes again. That’s him! That’s the man! What do you want to be sure about more than that? That’s him. That’s the man. You can’t be mistaken about that. I know that face anywhere. I know that nose, and I know those colored eyes!”
Frank Locke swung back toward the door. His lips were snarling. “Say,” he said, “what kind of a double-cross am I getting here, anyway? What sort of a frame-up is this? This won’t buy you anything. You’ll get the works for this!”
“Keep your shirt on,” Mason told him, then turned to the pawnbroker.
“Sol,” he said, “you’ve got to be so absolutely certain about this that you can go on the witness stand and no amount of cross-examination can shake your testimony.”
Sol waved expressive palms under his chin. “How could I be more certain?” he said. “Put me on the witness stand. Bring me on a dozen lawyers. Bring me on a hundred lawyers! I’ll tell the same story.”
Frank Locke said, “I never saw this man in my life.”
Sol Steinburg’s laugh was a masterpiece of sarcastic merriment.
Little beads of perspiration were showing on Locke’s forehead. He turned to Mason.
“What’s the idea?” he said. “What sort of a flim-flam is this?”
Mason shook his head gravely.
“It’s just a part of my case,” he said. “It checks up, that’s all.”
“What checks up?”
“The fact that you bought the gun,” Mason said, in a low voice.
“You’re crazy as hell!” Locke yelled. “I never bought a gun here in my life. I never was inside the place. I never saw the store. I don’t carry a gun!”
Mason said to Steinburg, “Give me your gun register, will you, Sol? Then beat it. I want to talk.”
Steinburg passed over the booklet, waddled to the back of the store.
Mason opened the book to the place where the 32-automatic Colt had been noted. He held the palm of his hand casually, so that the number of the gun was partially covered. With his forefinger, he indicated the words “32-Colt automatic.” Then he moved over toward the name which was on the margin.
“I presume you’ll deny that you wrote that?” he asked.
Locke seemed trying to tear himself away, yet to be held by some impelling curiosity. He leaned forward. “Certainly I deny that I wrote it. I never was in the joint. I never saw this man. I never bought a gun here, and that isn’t my signature.”
Mason said, patiently, “I know it isn’t your signature, Locke. But are you going to say that you didn’t write it? You’d better be careful, because it may make quite a difference.”
“Of course I didn’t write it. What the hell’s eating you?”
“The police don’t know it yet,” said Mason, “but that gun is the one that killed George Belter last night.”
Locke recoiled as though he had been struck a blow. His milk-chocolate eyes were wide and wild. The glint of the perspiration on his forehead was quite evident now.
“So that’s the kind of a dirty damn frame-up this is, is it?”
“Now, wait a minute, Locke,” Mason cautioned. “Don’t fly off the handle. I could have gone to the police with this thing, but I didn’t. I’m just working it my own way. I’m going to give you the breaks.”
“It’ll take more than you and a Jew pawnbroker, to frame anything like that on me,” Locke snarled. “Just for this I’m going to blow the lid off!”
Mason’s voice remained calm and patient. “Well, let’s go out where we can talk a bit. I want to talk where we won’t have any witnesses.”
“You just steered me in here on a frame-up. That’s what I get for going with you. Now you can go to hell!”
“I steered you in here so Sol could take a good look at you,” Mason told him. “That’s all. He told me that he’d know the man if he ever saw him again. I had to be sure.”
Locke backed toward the door.
“What a sweet frame-up this is,” he said. “If you’d gone to the cops with a story like that, they’d have made you put me in a line of men, and seen whether or not this kike could have picked me out of the line. But you didn’t do that. You brought me in here. How do I know that you haven’t slipped this fellow some money to pull this stunt?”
“If you want to go down to police headquarters and get in a line of men, I’ll take you down there. And I guess Sol can pick you out,” he said.
“Of course he can, now that you’ve put the finger on me.”
“Well,” Mason said, “we’re not getting anywhere with this. Come on, let’s go outside.”
He took Locke’s arm and piloted him through the door.
In the street, Locke turned to him savagely, and said, “I’m finished with you. I’m not saying a damned word. I’m going back to the office, and you can go to hell!”
“That wouldn’t be a very wise course of procedure, Locke,” Mason said, holding Locke’s arm. “You see, I’ve got a motive for the crime, opportunity, and everything.”
“Yes?” sneered Locke. “What’s your motive? I’m interested in that.”
“You have been embezzling funds from the Extraordinary Expense Account,” said Mason, “and you were afraid of discovery. You didn’t dare to cross Belter because he knew too much about that Savannah affair. He could have sent you back on a murder rap. So you went out there and had an argument with him, and killed him.”
Locke was staring at Mason. He had ceased walking, and stood stock-still, his face white, his lips quivering. A blow in the stomach would not have jarred him more. He tried to speak and could not.
Mason was elaborately casual. “Now I want to be fair Locke,” he went on. “And I think the Jew is on the square. If it is a frame-up they won’t convict you. You’ve got to prove that a man’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, you know. And if you can raise even a reasonable doubt, a jury is duty bound to return a verdict of not guilty.”
Locke found his voice. “Where do you come in on this?” he asked.
Mason shrugged his shoulders. “I’m counsel for Eva Belter,” he said. “That’s all.”
Locke tried to sneer but it didn’t get across very well. “So she’s in on this too! You’ve teamed up with that two-timing broad!”
“She’s my client, if that’s what you mean.”
“That isn’t what I mean,” Locke said.
Mason’s voice became hard. “It might be a good plan for you to keep your mouth shut then, Locke. You’re attracting attention. People are looking at you.”
Locke controlled himself with an effort.
“Listen,” he said, “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m going to spike it right now. I’ve got an absolute ironclad alibi for last night at the time when that murder was committed, and just to show you where you stand, I’m going to spring it on you.”
Mason shrugged his shoulders.
“Okay,” he said, “spring it on me.”
Locke looked up and down the street. “All right, we get a taxicab.”
“Fine,” said Mason, “we get a taxicab.”
A cab caught Locke’s signal, pulled into the curb. Locke said, “Wheelright Hotel,” climbed in and settled back in the cushions. He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief, lit a cigarette with a hand that trembled, and turned to Mason.
“Listen,” he said, “you’re a man of the world. I’m going to take you to a young lady’s room. I don’t want her name brought into this. I don’t know what your game is, but I’m just going to show you how little chance you’d stand of making this frame-up stick.”
“You don’t need to prove that it’s a frame-up, you know, Locke. All you’ve got to do is to raise a reasonable doubt. If you could raise a reasonable doubt, why, there isn’t a jury on earth that would convict you!”
Locke slammed the cigarette to the floor of the car. “For God’s sake, cut out that damned talk! I know what you’re trying to do, and you know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to break my nerve and get my goat. What the hell’s the use of beating around the bush? You’re trying to pin something on me, and I don’t propose to stand for it.”
“What are you getting so worked up for if it’s a frame-up?”
“Because,” Locke said, “I’m afraid of some of the stuff you might bring up.”
“You mean that Savannah stuff?”
Locke cursed, turned his head so that Mason couldn’t see his face, and looked out of the cab window.
Mason sat back, apparently entirely absorbed in the crowds on the sidewalks, the fronts of the buildings, the window displays.
Locke started to say something once, but changed his mind and lapsed into silence. His milk-chocolate eyes were wide and worried. His face had not regained its color. It showed white and pasty.
The cab drew up in front of the Wheelright Hotel.
Locke got out and indicated Mason to the cab driver, with a gesture of his hand.
Mason shook his head.
“No, Locke,” he said, “this is your party. You wanted the cab.”
Locke pulled a bill out of his pocket, tossed it to the cab driver, turned, and started through the entrance of the hotel. Mason followed.
Locke walked at once to the elevator, said, “Ninth floor,” to the operator.
When the cage stopped, he got out and walked straight toward Esther Linten’s room, without bothering to see if Mason was following. He knocked on the door. “It’s me, Honey,” he called.
Esther Linten opened the door. She had on a kimono which opened in the front sufficiently to reveal pink silk underwear. When she saw Mason, she pulled the kimono abruptly about her, and stepped back, her eyes large.
“What’s the meaning of this, Frank?” she asked.
Locke pushed on past her. “I can’t explain things, Honey, but I want you to tell this fellow where I was last night.”
She lowered her eyes, and said, “What do you mean, Frank?”
Locke’s voice was savage. “Oh, nix on that stuff. You know what I mean. Go on. This is a jam, and you’ve got to come clean.”
She stared at Locke with fluttering eyelids. “Tell him everything?” she asked.
“Everything,” said Locke. “He ain’t a vice squad. He’s just a dumb boob that thinks he can work a frame-up on me, and get away with it.”
She spoke, in a low voice, “We went out, and after that, you came here.”
“Then what happened?” pressed Locke.
“I undressed,” she muttered.
“Go on,” said Locke. “Tell it to him. Give him the whole business. Speak up so he can hear you.”
“I went to bed,” she said slowly, “and I’d had a couple of drinks.”
“What time was that?” asked Mason.
“About eleven-thirty, I guess,” she said.
Locke stared at her. “What happened after that?” he demanded.
She shook her head. “I woke up this morning with an awful headache, Frank. And I knew, of course, that you were here when I went to sleep. But I don’t know what time you went out, or anything about it. I passed out after I got into bed.”
Locke jumped away from her and stood in a corner, as though he were guarding himself against a physical attack from both of them.
“You dirty, double-crossing…”
Mason interrupted, “That’s no way to talk to a lady.”
Locke was furious. “You damn fool. Can’t you see she ain’t a lady?”
Esther Linten stared at him from angry eyes. “That’s not going to get you anywhere, Frank. If you didn’t want me to tell the truth, why the hell didn’t you tell me you wanted an alibi? If you’d wanted me to lie about it why didn’t you tip me off, and I’d have said anything you wanted me to say. But you told me to tell the truth and I did.”
Locke cursed again.
“Well,” said the lawyer, “it’s very evident that this young lady is dressing. We don’t want to detain her. I’m in a hurry Locke. Do you want to go with me, or do you want to stay here with her?”
Locke’s tone was ominous as he said, “I’ll stay here with her.”
“Fine,” Mason remarked, “I’ll put in a telephone call from here.”
He walked over to the telephone, took down the receiver, and said, “Police Headquarters.”
Locke watched him with the look of a cornered rat in his eyes.
After a while Mason spoke into the transmitter, “Get me Sidney Drumm, will you? He’s on the Detective Force.”
Locke’s voice rasped out in agony, “For God’s sake, hang up that receiver, quick.”
Mason turned to survey him with mild curiosity.
“Hang it up!” yelled Locke. “Damn it, you’ve got the whip hand. You’ve worked a frame-up on me that I can’t buck. Not that the frame-up isn’t crude as hell, but I don’t dare to have you go into the motive. That’s the thing that cooks me. You put on evidence about the motive and a jury would never listen to anything else.”
Mason slid the receiver back on the hook, turned to face Locke.
“Now,” he said, “we’re getting some place.”
“What is it you want?” asked Locke.
“You know what I want,” said Mason.
Locke flung out his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“All right,” he said, “that’s understood. Anything else?”
Mason shook his head. “Not right now. It might be well to remember that Eva Belter is the real owner of the paper now. Personally, I think it would be a good plan to consult with her before you publish anything which might be distasteful to her. You come out every two weeks, don’t you?”
“Yes, our publication day is next Thursday.”
“Anything may happen between now and then, Locke,” Mason told him.
Locke said nothing.
Mason turned to the girl.
“I’m sorry we disturbed you, Miss,” he said.
“That’s all right,” she said. “If the damn fool wanted me to lie, why didn’t he say so? What was his idea in telling me he wanted me to tell the truth?”
Locke whirled on her. “You are lying, Esther. You know damned well you didn’t pass out when you went to bed.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Maybe I didn’t,” she said, “but I can’t remember anything. Lots of times when I get plastered, I can’t remember what happened all during that evening.”
Locke said meaningly, “Well, you’d better get over that habit. It might prove fatal.”
She flared at him. “I should think you’d have a bellyful of having friends who had things fatal happen to them!”
He went white. “Shut up, Esther. Can’t you get the sketch?”
“Shut up yourself, then! I’m not a girl that you can talk to that way.”
Mason interposed. “Well, never mind, it’s all settled now, anyway. Come on, Locke, let’s get going. I think you’d better come with me after all. I’ve got some more things I want to say to you.”
Locke walked to the door, paused, looked at Esther Linten with his mild brown eyes gleaming malevolence, and then stepped out into the corridor.
Mason stepped up behind him without even looking back at the girl, and closed the door. He took Locke’s arm and piloted him toward the elevator.
“I just want you to know,” said Locke, “that that frame-up was so damned crude that it wasn’t even funny. It was this Georgia business that you mentioned that bothered me. I don’t want to have anybody go into that. I think you’ve got the wrong idea about it, but it’s something that’s a closed chapter in my life.”
Mason smiled, and said, “Oh, no, it isn’t, Locke. Murder never outlaws, you know, and they can always bring you back for another trial.”
Locke pushed himself away from Mason’s side. His lips were twitching, and his eyes were filled with panic. “I can beat that case if they try me in Savannah. But if you spring it here in connection with another murder case, they’d make short work of me, and you’re just smooth enough to know it.”
Mason shrugged his shoulders. “Incidentally, Locke,” he said, “I presume that you’ve been embezzling money from the accounts to keep this thing going,” and he jerked his thumb back toward the room they had quitted.
“Well,” said Locke, “guess again. That’s one place where you can’t do a damn thing. Nobody on earth knows what my understanding was with George Belter, except George Belter. It wasn’t in writing. It was just an understanding between us.”
“Well, be careful what you say, Locke,” Mason warned, “and remember that Mrs. Belter is the owner of the paper now. You’d better have an understanding with her before you pay out any more money. Your accounts will have to be audited in court now, you know.”
Locke swore under his breath. “So that’s it, is it?”
“That’s it,” Mason said. “I’m going to leave you when we get out of the hotel, Locke. Don’t go back and try to beat up that woman, because anything she might say wouldn’t make a particle of difference. I don’t know whether Sol Steinburg is right in identifying you as the man who bought the murder gun in this case or not. But, even if he isn’t, all we need to do is to simply pass the word to the Georgia authorities, and you go back for another trial. Maybe you beat the rap, maybe you don’t; but you’re out of the picture here.”
Locke said, curiously, “Listen, you’re playing a hell of a deep game. I’d like to know what it is.”
Mason looked at him innocently.
“Why no, Locke,” he said, “I’m just representing a client, and sort of messing around here, trying to find out something. I had some detectives who chased down the number on the gun. I guess we got it a little bit in advance of the police, because they are going about it as a matter of routine. And I did some single-shooting on it.”
Locke laughed. “Save that,” he said, “and tell it to somebody who appreciates it. You don’t fool me any with that damned innocent stuff.”
Mason shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, Locke,” he said, “I’m sorry. I may get in touch with you later on. In the meantime, I’d be awfully careful about mentioning anything at all about Mrs. Belter’s business, or about my business, and that goes double for anything connected with this Beechwood Inn business, or Harrison Burke.”
“Hell,” said Locke, “you don’t need to rub it in. I’m off of that stuff for life. I know when I’m licked. What are you going to do about that Georgia business? Anything?”
“I’m not a detective or an officer. I’m simply a lawyer. I’m representing Mrs. Belter. That’s all.”
The cage dropped them into the lobby of the hotel, and Mason went to the door and signaled a taxi.
“So long, Locke,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”
As the cab drove away, Locke was standing in the doorway, leaning up against the building for support. His face was pale and his lips twisted into a frozen smile.