Frank Locke had coarse, mahogany skin, and wore a tweed suit.
His skin didn’t have the tanned appearance which comes from outdoor sports, but looked rather as though it had absorbed so much nicotine that it had become stained. His eyes were a mild brown, the color of milk chocolate, and absolutely without sheen. They seemed dead and lifeless. His nose was big, and his mouth weak. To a casual observer, he seemed utterly mild and innocuous.
“Well,” he said, “you can talk here.”
Perry Mason shook his head. “No, you’ve got this place rigged up with all sorts of dictographs. I’ll talk where I know that you’re the only one that’ll hear what I’m going to say.”
“Where?” asked Frank Locke.
“You can come to my office,” said Mason, without hope or enthusiasm in his tone.
Frank Locke laughed, and his laugh was gratingly mirthless. “Now I’ll tell one,” he said.
“Okay,” said Mason. “Put on your hat, and start out with me. We’ll agree on some place.”
“How do you mean?” asked Locke, his eyes suddenly suspicious.
“We’ll pick a hotel,” said Mason.
“One that you’ve picked out already?” asked Locke.
“No,” said Mason, “we’ll get a cab and tell him to drive us around. If you’re that suspicious, you can pick the hotel yourself.”
Frank Locke hesitated a minute, then said: “Excuse me a moment. I’ll have to see if it’s all right for me to leave the office. I’ve got some things that I’ve been working on.”
“Okay,” said Mason, and sat down.
Frank Locke jumped up from behind the desk and left the room. He left the door open as he went out. From the outer offices came the clack of busy typewriters, the hum of voices. Perry Mason sat and smoked placidly. His face held that expression of absorbed concentration which was so typical of him.
He waited almost ten minutes. Then Frank Locke came in, wearing his hat.
“All right,” he said, “I can leave now.”
The two men left the building together, hailed a cruising cab.
“Drive around the business section,” said Perry Mason.
Locke regarded the attorney with those chocolate brown eyes of his, which seemed to contain no expression whatever.
“Maybe we could talk here,” he said.
Mason shook his head. “I want to talk where I don’t have to yell.”
Locke grinned and said: “I’m used to being yelled at.”
Mason said, grimly: “When I yell, I mean business.”
Locke lit a cigarette, with a bored air.
“Yeah?” he said casually.
The cab turned to the left. “There’s a hotel,” said Mason.
Locke grinned. “I see it,” he said. “I don’t like it because you picked it out, and because it’s too near. I’m going to pick the hotel.”
Perry Mason said: “Okay. Go ahead and pick one. Just don’t tell the driver where to go. Let him drive around and you can pick any hotel that he drives by.”
Locke laughed. “Getting cautious, ain’t we?”
Perry Mason nodded.
Locke tapped on the glass. “We’ll get out here,” he said, “at the hotel.”
The cab driver looked at him with mild surprise but braked the car to a stop. Mason flipped him a fifty cent piece, and the two men walked into the lobby of the cheap hotel.
“How about the parlor?” asked Locke.
“Suits me,” said Mason.
They walked across the lobby, took the elevator to the mezzanine floor, walked past the manicurist’s room, and sat down in chairs that faced each other, with a smoking stand in between.
“All right,” said Locke, “you’re Perry Mason, an attorney. You’re representing somebody, and you want something. Shoot!”
Mason said: “I want something kept out of your paper.”
“Lots of people do,” said Locke. “What do you want out?”
Mason said: “Well, let’s discuss procedure first. Are you willing to talk a straight money proposition?”
Locke shook his head emphatically.
“We’re not a blackmailing sheet,” he said. “We sometimes extend favors to our advertisers.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it?” said Mason.
“That’s it,” said Locke.
“What would I advertise?” asked Mason.
Locke shrugged his shoulders. “We don’t care,” he said, “you don’t need to advertise anything, if you don’t want to. We sell you the space. That’s all.”
“I see,” said Mason.
“Okay. What is it you want?”
“There was a murder at the Beechwood Inn last night. That is, there was a shooting. I don’t know whether it was a murder or not. I understand that the man who was shot was trying to hold up the joint.”
Frank Locke turned his dispassionate milk-chocolate eyes upon the attorney.
“Well?” he asked.
Mason continued: “I understand there’s some mystery about the thing. That is, the District Attorney is going to make quite an investigation.”
Locke said: “You still haven’t told me anything.”
“I’m telling you,” said Mason.
“Okay. Go ahead.”
“Somebody told me,” continued Mason, “that the list of witnesses that was handed to the District Attorney might not be complete.”
Locke stared at him.
“Who do you represent?” he asked.
“A possible advertiser in your paper,” said Mason.
“All right. Go on. Let’s hear the rest of it,” Locke invited.
“You know the rest of it,” said Mason.
“Even if I did, I wouldn’t admit it,” Locke replied. “I don’t do anything except sell advertising space. You’ve got to come out in the open. You’re the one that comes all the way. I don’t budge an inch.”
“Okay,” Mason said. “As an advertiser in your paper, I wouldn’t like to see it mix into that murder too closely. That is, I wouldn’t like to have it mention the name of any witness who might have been there, but whose name wasn’t included on the list which was given to the District Attorney. I would particularly dislike to see your paper come out with the name of some prominent witness whose name had been omitted from that list, and ask why he was not summoned as a witness and questioned. And, still speaking as an advertiser, I would dislike very much to see any comment made in any way about this witness having a companion with him, or any surmises as to the identity of that companion. Now then, how much is advertising space going to cost me?”
“Well,” said Locke, “if you’re going to dictate the policies of the paper, you’ll have to take quite a bit of advertising. It would have to be handled under a contract. I would draw up an advertising contract with you, and agree to sell you the space over a period of time. The agreement would contain a clause for liquidated damages in the event you broke the contract. Then, if you didn’t want to take all the advertising, you could pay over the sum of liquidated damages.”
Perry Mason said: “I could pay over that sum just as soon as I broke the contract?”
“Sure,” said Locke.
“And I could break the contract just as soon as it was drawn up, eh?”
“No,” said Locke. “We wouldn’t like that. You’d have to wait a day or two.”
“There’d be no action taken while I was waiting, of course,” said Mason.
Mason took out a cigarette case, fished out a cigarette with his long, capable fingers, lit it, and surveyed Locke with eyes that were cold and uncordial.
“All right,” he said. “I’ve said everything I came to say. Now I’m listening.”
Locke got up from his chair and took several paces up and down the floor. His head was thrust forward, and his chocolate colored eyes blinked rapidly.
“I’ve got to think this thing over,” he said.
Mason took out his watch and looked at it. “All right, you’ve got ten minutes to do your thinking in.”
“No, no,” said Locke. “It’s going to take a little while to think it over.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Mason.
“I say it is.”
“You’ve got ten minutes,” insisted Mason.
“You’re the one that came to me,” said Locke. “I didn’t come to you.”
Mason said: “Don’t be foolish. Remember that I’m representing a client. You’ve got to make a proposition to me, and I’ve got to see that it’s transmitted to my client. And it isn’t going to be easy to get in touch with that client.”
Locke raised his eyebrows. “Like that, eh?” he said.
“Like that,” said Mason.
Locke said: “Well, maybe I could think it over in ten minutes. But I’ve got to call the office.”
“Okay,” said Mason. “Go ahead and call your office. I’ll wait right here.”
Locke went at once to the elevator and went down to the main floor. Mason strolled to the railing of the mezzanine and watched him cross the lobby. Locke did not go to the telephone booths, but left the hotel.
Mason went to the elevators, pressed the button, went down to the lobby, straight through the door, and crossed the street. He stood in a doorway, smoking and watching the buildings across the street.
After three or four minutes, Locke came out of a drug store and walked into the hotel.
Mason crossed the street, entered the hotel a few steps behind Locke, and followed him until he came abreast of the telephone booths. Then Mason stepped into one of the telephone booths, left the door open, thrust out his head and called: “Oh, Locke.”
Locke whirled, his chocolate brown eyes suddenly wide with alarm, and stared at Mason.
“Got to thinking,” explained Mason, “that I’d better telephone and see if I could get in touch with my client. So that I could give you an immediate answer. But I can’t get a call through. Nobody answers. I’m waiting to get a nickel back.”
Locke nodded. His eyes were still suspicious.
“Let the nickel go,” he said. “Our time’s worth more than that.”
Mason said: “Maybe yours is,” and stepped back to the telephone. He jiggled the receiver two or three times, then shrugged his shoulders with an exclamation of disgust, and left the telephone booth. The two men rode together in the elevator to the mezzanine floor, and returned to the chairs they had occupied.
“Well?” said Mason.
“I’ve been thinking the thing over,” said Frank Locke, and hesitated.
Mason commented, dryly: “Well, I presumed that you had.”
“You know,” said Locke, “the situation that you’ve brought up, without mentioning any names, might have a very important political angle.”
“Again,” said Mason, “still without mentioning any names, it might not. But there’s no use you and me sitting here trying to kid each other like a couple of horse traders. What’s your price?”
“The advertising contract,” said Locke, “would have to have a proviso that in the event it was breached, a payment of twenty thousand dollars would be made as liquidated damages.”
“You’re crazy!” exclaimed Mason.
Frank Locke shrugged his shoulders. “You’re the one that wanted to buy the advertising,” he said. “I don’t know as I’m anxious to sell it to you.”
Mason got to his feet. “You don’t act as though you wanted to sell anything,” he remarked. He walked to the elevator and Locke followed him.
“Maybe you’ll want to buy some advertising again sometime,” Locke said. “Our rates are somewhat elastic, you know.”
“Meaning that they’re going down?” queried Mason.
“Meaning that they may go up, in this case.”
“Oh,” said Mason, shortly.
He paused abruptly, and whirled, staring at Locke with cold, hostile eyes.
“Listen,” he said. “I know what I’m up against. And I’m telling you right now that you can’t get away with it.”
“Can’t get away with what?” said Locke.
“You know damned well what you can’t get away with,” said Mason. “By God! You fellows have run a blackmailing sheet here and made people eat out of your hands long enough. I’m telling you right now where you head in!”
Locke regained something of his composure, and shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ve had fellows try to tell me that before,” he said.
“I didn’t say I was trying to tell you,” said Mason. “I said I was telling you.”
“And I heard you,” said Locke. “There’s no need of raising your voice.”
“Okay,” said Mason. “Just so you know what I mean. By God! I’m starting after you fellows right now.”
Locke smiled. “Very well. In the meantime, would you mind pressing the elevator button, or else get out of the way, so that I can press it.”
Mason turned and pressed the button. They rode down in silence, walked across the lobby.
When they reached the street, Locke smiled.
“Well,” he said, his brown eyes staring at Perry Mason, “there’s no hard feelings.”
Perry Mason turned his back.
“The hell there ain’t,” he said.