The four men pushed their way up the steps of the BelterMansion.
Sergeant Hoffman frowned at Mason. “Now listen, no funny business. I’m trusting you on this.”
“Just keep your eyes and ears open, and if you think I’m uncovering something, go ahead and follow up the lead. Any time you think I’m trying to give you the double-cross, you can walk out.”
Hoffman said, “That’s fair.”
“Let’s remember one or two things before we start,” cautioned Mason. “I met Mrs. Belter at the drug store down at the foot of the hill. We came up together. She didn’t have her keys with her, and she didn’t have her purse. She’d left the door unlocked when she came out so she could get back in. She told me that the door was unlocked. When I tried the door it was locked. The night latch was on.”
Drumm said, “She’s such a liar, that if she told me a door was open, I’d know it was locked.”
“That’s all right, too,” Mason said, doggedly insistent, “but remember that she didn’t have her keys with her, and she went out in the rain. She was bound to figure on getting back in some way.”
“Maybe she was too rattled,” Hoffman pointed out.
“Not that baby,” Mason remarked.
“All right, go on,” said Hoffman, interested. “What’s next?”
“When I went in,” said Mason, “there was an umbrella in the stand, which was wet. There was a pool of water which had drained down from it on the floor underneath. You probably noticed it when you came.”
Sergeant Hoffman’s eyes narrowed.
“Yes,” he said, “come to think of it, I did notice it. What about it?”
“Nothing,” said Mason, “yet.” He reached out his finger and pushed the bell button.
After a few minutes the door was opened by the butler, who stared at them.
“Carl Griffin home?” asked Mason.
The butler shook his head. “No, sir,” he said, “he’s out. He had a business appointment, sir.”
“Mrs. Veitch, the housekeeper’s here?”
“Oh, yes, sir; of course, sir.”
“And her daughter, Norma?”
“All right,” said Mason, “we’re going up to Belter’s study. Don’t say anything to anybody about the fact that we’re here. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” said the butler.
Hoffman stepped inside the door, and looked searchingly at the hall stand in which the umbrella had stood the night of the murder. His eyes were very thoughtful.
Drumm was whistling nervously in a low, almost inaudible note.
They climbed up the stairs, and went into the suite where Belter’s body had been found. Mason switched on the lights and began a minute search of the walls.
“I wish you folks would take a look,” he said.
“What are you looking for?” asked Drumm.
“A bullet hole,” said Mason.
Sergeant Hoffman grunted and said, “You can save your time on that. We’ve gone over every inch of these rooms, and had them photographed, and mapped. A bullet couldn’t have gone through here without leaving a hole we’d have seen, and there’d have been plaster chipped loose.”
“I know,” said Mason. “I made a search before you got here looking for the same thing, and couldn’t find it. But I want to make one more search. I know what must have happened, but I can’t prove it, yet.”
Sergeant Hoffman, suddenly suspicious, said, “Look here, Mason! Are you trying to clear that woman?”
Mason turned and faced him.
“I’m trying to show what actually happened,” he said.
Hoffman frowned. “That doesn’t answer my question. Are you trying to free the woman?”
“That lets me out,” said Hoffman.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Mason. “I’m going to give you an opportunity to get your pictures all over the front pages of the papers.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Hoffman. “You’re clever, Mason. I’ve looked you up.”
“All right, if you’ve looked me up, you know I never go back on my friends. Sidney Drumm is a friend of mine. I got him in on this. If it had been any kind of a frame-up, I’d have got somebody I didn’t know.”
Sergeant Hoffman admitted grudgingly, “Well, I’m going to stick around a little while, but don’t try any funny stuff. I want to know what you’re getting at.”
Mason stood staring at the bathroom. There were chalk-lines on the floor, marking the position in which the body of George Belter had been found.
Suddenly Mason laughed aloud.
“I’ll be damned!”
“What’s the joke?” asked Drumm.
Mason turned to Sergeant Hoffman.
“Okay, Sergeant,” he said, “I’m ready to go ahead and show you something. Will you send for Mrs. Veitch and her daughter?”
Sergeant Hoffman looked dubious. “What do you want with them?”
Mason said, “I want to ask them some questions.”
Hoffman shook his head.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think I want you to—not until I know more about it.”
“This is on the level, Sergeant,” Mason insisted. “You sit and listen to the questions. Any time you think I’m getting off the reservation, you can stop me. Hell’s fire, man! If I wanted to slip over a fast one, I’d run you in front of a jury and then pull my stuff as a surprise. I certainly wouldn’t go out and take the police in on the ground floor of what my defense was going to be.”
Sergeant Hoffman thought a minute.
“That’s logical,” he said. He turned to Drumm. “Go on down and round up the two women, and bring them up here,” he said.
Drumm nodded and left the room.
Paul Drake stared at Mason curiously. There was not the faintest trace of expression on Mason’s face, nor did he say anything during the few minutes which elapsed after Drumm left the room and the time when shuffling steps were heard outside of the door. Then the door opened, and Drumm bowed the two women into the room.
Mrs. Veitch was as sombre as ever. Her dull black eyes stared incuriously at the men in the room. She walked with her peculiar, long, flat-footed stride.
Norma Veitch wore a tight fitting dress, which accentuated the curves of her figure. She seemed proudly aware of her ability to catch the masculine eye as she stared from face to face, with a half smile on her full lips.
Mason said, “We wanted to ask you a few questions.”
Norma Veitch said, “Again?”
“Mrs. Veitch, do you know anything about your daughter’s engagement to Carl Griffin?” asked Mason, ignoring Norma’s comment.
“I know they’re engaged.”
“Did you know that there was any romance there?” asked Mason.
“There’s usually a romance when people get engaged,” she said, in her husky voice.
“I’m not talking about that,” he told her. “Please answer my question, Mrs. Veitch. Was there any romance between the pair, that you know of, prior to the time that Norma came here?”
The dark, sunken eyes shifted for a moment toward Norma, then came back to Mason’s face.
“No,” she said, “not before they came here. They got acquainted afterwards.”
“Did you know your daughter had been married?” asked Mason.
The eyes stared full in his face without any change of expression.
“No,” said the woman wearily, “she hasn’t been married.”
Mason shifted quickly to Norma.
“How about it, Miss Veitch? Were you ever married?”
“Not yet,” she said. “I’m going to be. And I don’t see for the life of me how that’s connected with the murder of George Belter. If you folks want to ask questions about that, I presume we’ve got to answer them, but I don’t see that that means I have to go into my private affairs.”
“How could you marry Carl Griffin when you were already married?” Mason asked.
“I’m not married,” Norma Veitch said, “and I don’t have to stand for these insulting comments.”
“That isn’t what Harry Loring says,” Mason told her.
The girl’s face didn’t change expression by so much as the flicker of an eyelash.
“Loring?” she said, in a calmly inquiring tone. “Never heard of the man. Did you ever hear of a man named Loring, Mumsey?”
Mrs. Veitch puckered her forehead. “Not that I can recall, Norma. I’m not very good at remembering names, but I don’t know any Loring.”
“Perhaps,” said Mason, “I can refresh your recollection. He’s a man that lived in the Belvedere Apartments. He had apartment 312.”
Norma Veitch shook her head hastily, “I’m certain there’s some mistake.”
Perry Mason pulled the copy of the summons and complaint in the divorce action from his pocket. “Then perhaps you can explain how it happened that you verified this complaint, in which you swore on your oath that you had gone through a marriage ceremony with Harry Loring.”
Norma Veitch flashed one quick glance at the paper, then shifted her eyes to her mother. Mrs. Veitch’s face was quite expressionless.
Norma spoke rapidly.
“I’m sorry that you found that out, but since you did, I may as well tell you. I didn’t want Carl to know anything about it. I was married and had trouble with my husband and left him. I came here and took my maiden name. Carl met me, and we fell in love with each other at first sight. We didn’t dare to do anything about announcing our engagement because we knew that Mr. Belter would be furious. But, after Mr. Belter died, there wasn’t any reason why we should keep it secret.
“I found out my husband had another wife living. That’s one of the reasons we separated. I talked to a lawyer. He said the marriage wasn’t any good. He told me I could get an annulment. I was going to do it quietly. I didn’t figure that anybody would know a thing about it or connect the name of Loring with that of Veitch.”
“That isn’t what Griffin says,” Mason told her.
“Of course not,” she said. “He doesn’t know anything about it.”
Mason shook his head.
“No,” he said. “You see, Griffin has confessed. We’re trying to check up on his confession, trying to find out if you’re criminally responsible as an accessory or if you were just the victim of circumstances.”
Sergeant Hoffman moved forward. “I think,” he said, “that right here is where I’m going to stop the show, Mason.”
Mason turned on him. “Listen for one more minute, Sergeant,” he pleaded. “You can stop the show then if you want to.”
Norma Veitch looked swiftly and nervously from one to the other. Mrs. Veitch’s face was a mask of weary resignation.
“What happened,” said Mason, “is that Mrs. Belter had an argument with her husband, and fired the shot at him. Then she turned and ran, without waiting to see what had happened. Woman-like, she supposed, of course, that because she had shot at a man, she had hit him. As a matter of fact, at that distance, in her excitement, the chances were very strongly against her hitting him.
“She turned and ran down the stairs, grabbed a coat, and went out into the rain. You, Miss Veitch, heard the shot and you got up, dressed, and came to see what the trouble was. In the meantime Carl Griffin had driven up to the house, and had come in. It was raining and he had put his umbrella in the rack, and went upstairs to the study.
“You heard Griffin’s voice and Belter’s voice, and listened. Belter was telling Griffin about how his wife had shot at him, and that he’d uncovered proof of her infidelity. He mentioned the man’s name to his nephew and asked his nephew what should be done about it.
“Griffin became curious as to the shooting, and got Belter to stand in the door of the bathroom, just as he’d been standing when Mrs. Belter shot at him. When Griffin had him in that position, he raised the gun and shot Belter through the heart. Then he put the gun down, ran down the stairs, out through the front door, jumped in his car, and drove away.
“He went out and got himself good and tight, so that he could put up a better front, let the air out of one tire, so as to account for his delay in getting here, and drove up, after he knew the police had arrived. He pretended that it was the first time he’d returned since he went out in the afternoon. But he forgot about his umbrella which was in the hallway, and he overlooked the fact that he’d found the door open when he came in, and had put the night latch on it when he went upstairs.
“He shot his uncle because he knew that he was going to inherit under the will, and he realized that Eva Belter thought she had shot him. He knew that the gun could be traced to her and that the evidence was all against her. The purse in which Belter had found the incriminating evidence, which connected her with the man who was trying to keep his name out of the scandal sheet, was in Belter’s desk.
“You and your mother talked over what you had seen, and decided that it was a fine opportunity to make Griffin pay a good price for silence. So it was agreed that he was to have his alternative of being convicted of murder, or making a marriage which would be advantageous to you.”
Sergeant Hoffman scratched his head, and looked puzzled.
Norma Veitch flashed a swift glance to her mother.
Mason said slowly, “This is your last chance to come clean. As a matter of fact, you’re both accessories after the fact, and, as such, you’re liable to prosecution, just as though you were guilty of murder. Griffin has made his statement, and we don’t need your testimony. If you want to try to keep up the deception, go ahead. If you want to cooperate with the Police Department, now’s your time to do it.”
Sergeant Hoffman interrupted. “I’m just going to ask you one question,” he said, “and that’s going to stop this business. Did you, or did you not, do what Mason says, or substantially what he said?”
Norma Veitch said, in a low voice, “Yes.”
Mrs. Veitch, roused at last, whirled on her with fury snapping in her eyes.
“Norma!” she screamed. “Shut up, you little fool! It’s a bluff! Can’t you see?”
Sergeant Hoffman moved toward her. “It may have been a bluff, Mrs. Veitch,” he said slowly, “but her statement and your comment have spilled the beans. Go ahead and tell the truth. It’s the only thing left for you to do; otherwise I’m going to figure you’re accessories after the fact.”
Mrs. Veitch ran her tongue along the line of her lips, and burst out furiously, “I should have known better than to trust the little fool! She didn’t know anything about it. She was asleep, as sound as a log. I was the one who heard the shot and came up here. I should have made him marry me, and never taken my daughter into my confidence. But I thought it was a break for her, and I gave it to her. That’s the gratitude I get!”
Sergeant Hoffman turned and stared at Perry Mason.
“This,” he said, “is a hell of a mess. What happened to the bullet that missed Belter?”
Mason laughed. “Sergeant,” he said, “that’s what had me fooled all along. That wet umbrella in the rack, and the locked door bothered me. I kept figuring what must have happened, and then I couldn’t figure out how it could have happened. I’ve been over this room carefully, looking for a bullet hole. And then I realized that Carl Griffin had sense enough to know that he couldn’t have pulled the crime if there had been that bullet hole. Therefore, there was only one thing which could have happened to that bullet. Don’t you see?
“Belter had been taking his bath. It’s an enormous bath tub, and holds over two feet of water when the bath water is drawn. He was furious with his wife and was waiting for her to come in. He heard her come in when he was in his bath, and jumped up and flung on a bathrobe, yelling for her to come up.
“They had their fight, and she shot at him. He was standing in the door of the bathroom, just about where the body was subsequently found. You can stand over there by the door and figure the line of fire by pointing your finger. When the bullet missed him, it went into the bath tub, and the water stopped the force of the bullet.
“Then Carl Griffin came home, and Belter told him what had happened. That’s when he unwittingly signed his own death warrant. Griffin saw his opportunity. He got Belter to stand in just the position he had been when the shot was fired, and then Griffin picked up the gun in his gloved hand, pointed it at Belter, fired one shot through the heart, picked up the second empty shell, which had been ejected, put it in his pocket, dropped the gun and walked out. That was all there was to it. It was that simple.”