Perry Mason sat in his office looking very tired.
Della Street sat across the desk from him and avoided his eyes.
“I thought you didn’t like her,” Mason remarked.
She kept her eyes averted.
“I didn’t,” she admitted, “but I’m sorry that you had to be the one that made the disclosure. She relied on you to get her out of trouble. You turned her over to the officers.”
“I didn’t do anything of the sort,” he denied. “I simply refused to be the goat.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I’ve known you for five years,” she said, slowly. “During that time your clients have always come first. You didn’t make the cases, and you didn’t make the clients. You took them as they came. Some of your clients got hung. Others got free. But, while you represented them, you never went back on any of them.”
“What is this,” he asked, “a sermon?”
“Yes,” she said, shortly.
“Go on, then.”
She shook her head.
He got up and walked over to her, and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Della,” he said, “I’ve got one thing to ask you.”
“What is it?”
“Please have confidence in me,” he said, humbly.
She looked up and met his eyes then.
He nodded his head.
“She isn’t convicted,” he said, “of a damned thing until a jury brings in a verdict finding her guilty of something.”
“But,” said Della Street, “she won’t have anything more to do with you. She’ll get another lawyer now, and she’s confessed. How are you going to get away from that confession? She repeated the confession to the police and signed it.”
“I don’t have to get away from it. You’ve got to convict them beyond a reasonable doubt. If a jury has a reasonable doubt, it can’t convict. I can get her free yet.”
She scowled at him.
“Why couldn’t you have let Paul Drake tip off the police to ask her certain questions?” she said. “Why did you have to tell them?”
“Because she’d have lied her way out of any questions the police could have asked. She’s clever, that woman. She wanted me to help her, but she figured that she’d throw me to the wolves any time the pack got too close.”
“So you threw her instead?”
“If you want to put it that way, yes,” Mason admitted, and took his hand from her shoulder.
She got up and walked toward the outer office.
“Carl Griffin is out there,” she said, “and Arthur Atwood, his lawyer.”
“Send them in,” Mason told her in a flat, dispirited tone of voice.
She opened the door to the outer office, held it open and beckoned to the two men.
Carl Griffin’s face showed traces of his dissipation, but he was perfectly poised, very suave, and very much of the gentleman. He bowed his apologies to Della Street for walking in front of her as he passed through the door, smiled courteously and meaninglessly at Perry Mason, as he said, “Good afternoon.”
Arthur Atwood was a man in his late forties, with a face that needed sunlight. His eyes were sparkling, but shifty. His head was bald from the forehead to the top where a fringe of hair ran around and down to his ears, making a fuzzy halo for the back of the head. His lips were twisted into a perpetual, professional smile, which was utterly meaningless. The face had taken on lines from that smile, deep calipers running from the nose to the corners of the mouth, with crow’s-feet radiating out from the eyes. He was a man who was hard to judge, except in one thing—he was a dangerous antagonist.
Perry Mason indicated chairs and Della Street closed the door.
Carl Griffin started talking. “You will pardon me, Mr. Mason, if I seemed to have misunderstood your motives in this case earlier in the game. I understand that it was your clever detective work which is largely responsible for the confession of Mrs. Belter.”
Arthur Atwood interposed affably, “Just leave the talking to me if you will, Carl.”
Griffin smiled suavely, bowed toward his counsel.
Arthur Atwood hitched a chair up to the desk, sat down, looked at Perry Mason: “All right, counselor, we understand each other, I take it.”
“I’m not certain that we do,” said Mason.
Atwood’s lips twisted in his perpetual smile, but his sparkling eyes showed no trace of humor.
“You’re the attorney of record,” he said, “for Eva Belter’s contest to the probate of the will. Also for her in her application for letters as special administratrix. It would simplify matters very much if you would dismiss both the contest, and the application—without prejudice, of course.”
“Whom would it simplify matters for?” Mason asked.
Atwood waved his hand in the direction of his client. “Mr. Griffin, of course.”
“I’m not representing Griffin,” Mason answered curtly.
Atwood’s eyes now joined in the smile of his lips.
“That, of course, is true,” he said, “at the present time. However, I may state candidly, that my client has become very much impressed with the rare ability which you have shown in this matter and with the spirit of fairness which has characterized you throughout. It is, of course, a painful and embarrassing combination of circumstances all around. It comes very much as a shock to my client. However, there can now be no question as to what happened, and my client, in carrying on the business of the estate, will require plenty of competent counsel, if you understand what I mean.”
“Exactly what do you mean?” Mason asked.
“Well,” he said, “if I must speak frankly, or I might say, crudely, inasmuch as we are all here together, just the three of us, it is quite possible that my client will find that the operation of the publication, Spicy Bits, is something which will require very specialized attention. I, of course, will be busy representing the balance of the estate, and he has suggested to me that he might like to secure the services of some competent attorney to advise him, particularly with reference to the publication. In fact, to take over the publication during the period that the estate is in probate.”
Atwood ceased speaking, and gazed significantly, with his beady, glittering eyes, at Perry Mason. Then, as Mason said nothing, he went on, “The matter would call for some expenditure of time. You would be well compensated, very well compensated, indeed.”
Mason was blunt. “All right,” he said. “Why mince matters? What you want me to do is to dismiss the contest all the way along the line and leave Griffin in the saddle. He’ll see that I make some money out of it. Is that the proposition?”
Atwood pursed his lips.
“Really, counselor, I would hesitate to commit myself upon so blunt an expression of policy, but, if you will think over the statement that I made, I think you will find that it keeps within the bounds of professional ethics, and yet is sufficiently comprehensive to cover the case.”
“To hell with all that hooey,” Perry Mason said. “I want a plain understanding. I’ll talk plainly even if you won’t. You and I are on opposite sides of this fence. You’re representing Griffin, and trying to get control of the estate, and keep control of it. I’m representing Mrs. Belter, and I’m going to throw that will out of court. It’s a forgery, and you know it.”
Atwood’s lips continued to smile, but his eyes were cold and hard.
“You can’t get away with that,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference whether the will’s a forgery or not. She destroyed the original will. She admits that in her confession. We can prove the contents of that destroyed will, and take under it.”
“All right,” said Mason, “that’s a lawsuit. You think you can. I think you can’t.”
“Moreover,” said Atwood, “she can’t take any of the property because she murdered him. It’s against the policy of the law for a person to inherit property from one he or she has murdered regardless of any will or other instrument.”
Mason said nothing.
Atwood exchanged glances with his client.
“Do you question that?” he asked of Mason.
“Hell, yes,” said Mason, “but I’m not going to argue it with you here. I’ll do my arguing when I get in front of a jury. Don’t think I was born yesterday. I know what you want. You want to be assured of convicting Eva Belter of first degree murder. You think I can help you show premeditation by giving proof of a motive. If you can convict her of first degree murder she can’t take any of the property. That’s the law a murderer can’t inherit. But if she’s not convicted of murder, even if she should be convicted of manslaughter, she could still inherit. You’re after the property and you want to bribe me. It won’t work.”
“If you persist in this course, counselor, you may find yourself in front of a jury.”
“All right,” said Mason, “what’s the English translation of that, a threat?”
“You can’t keep us out of the saddle,” said Atwood. “And when we get in the saddle, we will have several important decisions to make. Some of them may affect your activities.”
Perry Mason got to his feet.
“I don’t like this business of talking around in circles,” he said. “I come out and say what I have to say.”
“Well,” said Atwood, still speaking suavely, “exactly what do you have to say?”
“No!” snapped Mason, explosively.
Carl Griffin coughed apologetically.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “perhaps I might say something which would simplify the situation.”
“No,” said Atwood, “I’m doing the talking.”
Griffin smiled at Mason.
“No hard feelings, counselor,” he said, “it’s a matter of business.”
“Please,” said Atwood, his eyes staring steadily at his client.
“Oh, all right,” said Griffin.
Mason motioned toward the door. “Well, gentlemen, I guess the conference is over.”
Atwood tried again. “If you could only see your way clear to dismissing the applications, counselor, it would save time. As it is, you must admit that we have a perfect case, but we didn’t like the time and expense necessary to present it.”
Mason stared at him stonily. “Listen,” he said, “you may think you’ve got a perfect case, but right now I’m in the saddle, and I’m going to stay in the saddle.”
Atwood lost his temper. “You’re not in the saddle firmly enough to stay twenty-four hours!”
“You think not?”
“Permit me to remind you, counselor,” Atwood remarked, “that you might be considered an accessory to the murder. The police would doubtless be guided by our wishes in the matter, since my client is now the legal heir.”
Mason moved over toward him. “Any time I need you to remind me of where I stand, Atwood, I’ll call you up.”
“All right,” said Atwood, “if you want to be disagreeable about it, we’ll play that kind of a game.”
“That’s fine,” Mason told him, “I do want to be disagreeable about it.”
Atwood signaled to his client, and both men walked to the door.
Atwood strode through it unhesitatingly, but Carl Griffin paused with his hands on the knob, acting very much as though he had something he wanted to say.
Mason’s manner, however, was not encouraging. Griffin shrugged his shoulders and followed his attorney out of the office.
When they had gone, Della Street came in.
“Did you reach some kind of an agreement with them?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Can’t they beat us?” she asked, avoiding his eyes.
He seemed to have aged ten years. “Listen, Della, I’m fighting for time. If they’d given me a little time, and some elbow room, I’d have worked this situation out all right. But that woman had to go and drag me into it in order to get herself out. That left me with only one alternative—to get her in so that I could be on the outside, where I could do some good.”
“You don’t need to explain, chief,” she told him. “I’m sorry if I seemed to criticize you. It was all so unexpected, and so totally unlike you, that it surprised me. That was all. Please forget it.” But her eyes still avoided his.
“Sure,” he said. “I’m going down to Paul Drake’s office. You can reach me there if it’s anything important, but don’t tell anybody where I am.”