Harrison Burke was a tall man who cultivated an air of distinction. His record in Congress had been mediocre, but he had identified himself as “The Friend of the People” by sponsoring legislation which a clique of politicians pushed through the house, knowing that it would never pass the upper body, or, if it did, that it would be promptly vetoed by the President.
He was planning his campaign for the Senate by adroitly seeking to interest the more substantial class of citizens and impress them with the fact that he was, at heart, conservative. He was trying to do this without in any way sacrificing his following among the common people, or his reputation as being a friend of the people.
He looked at Perry Mason, his eyes shrewd, and appraising, and remarked: “But I don’t understand what you’re driving at.”
“All right,” Mason said, “if I’ve got to hand it to you straight from the shoulder, I’m talking about the night of the Beechwood stick-up, and your presence in the Inn with a married woman.”
Harrison Burke winced as though he had been struck a blow. He took a deep breath that was a gasp, then deliberately set his face in lines that he doubtless thought were wooden.
“I think,” he said in his deep, booming voice, “that you have been misinformed. And inasmuch as I am exceedingly busy this afternoon, I will have to ask you to excuse me.”
Perry Mason’s expression was a mixture of disgust and resentment. Then he took a step toward the politician’s desk and stared down at the man’s face.
“You’re in a jam,” he said, slowly, “and the quicker you get done pulling that line of hooey, the quicker we can talk about getting out of it.”
“But,” protested Burke, “I don’t know anything about you. You haven’t any credentials, or anything.”
“This is a case,” Mason answered, “where you don’t need any credentials except knowledge. I’ve got the knowledge. I’m representing the woman who was with you on that occasion. Spicy Bits is going to publish the whole thing and demand that you be taken before the Coroner’s Jury and the Grand Jury and made to tell what you know, and who was with you.”
Harrison Burke’s face turned a sickly gray. He leaned forward on his desk as though he wanted support for his arms and shoulders.
“What?” he asked.
“You heard what I said.”
“But,” said Burke, “I never knew. She never told me. That is, this is the first I knew about it. I’m sure there must be some mistake.”
“All right,” said Mason. “Guess again. There isn’t any mistake.”
“How does it happen that I hear of this through you?”
“Because,” said Mason, “the lady probably doesn’t want to go near you. She’s got herself to think about, and she’s trying to work her way out of it. I’m doing the best I can, and it takes money. She’s probably not the kind that would call on you for a campaign contribution. I am.”
“You want money?” asked Burke.
“What the hell did you think I wanted?”
Harrison Burke seemed to be getting the full significance of his predicament in a series of waves which penetrated his consciousness, one at a time.
“My God!” he said. “It would ruin me!”
Perry Mason said nothing.
“Spicy Bits can be bought off,” continued the politician. “I don’t know just how they work it. It’s some kind of a deal by which you buy advertising space and then don’t live up to the contract. They have a clause in there for liquidated damages, I understand. You’re a lawyer. You should know about that. And you should know how to handle it.”
“Spicy Bits can’t be bought off now,” said Mason. “In the first place they wanted too much money. And in the second place, they’re out for blood now. It’s a question of no quarter given, and no quarter asked.”
Harrison Burke drew himself up. “My dear man,” he said, “I think you are entirely mistaken. I see no reason why the paper should adopt that attitude.”
Mason grinned at him, “You don’t?”
“Certainly not,” said Burke.
“Well, it happens that the power behind the throne in that paper, the man who really owns it, is George C. Belter. And the woman you were out with is his wife, who was contemplating suing him for divorce. Think that over.”
Burke’s face was the color of putty.
“That’s impossible,” he said. “Belter wouldn’t be mixed up in anything like that. He’s a gentleman.”
“He may be a gentleman, but he owns the sheet,” said Mason.
“Oh, but he couldn’t!” protested Burke.
“Well, he does,” Mason repeated. “I’m giving you the information. Take it or leave it. It’s not my funeral. It’s yours. If you get out of this, it’ll be because you play your cards right and have some good advice. I’m ready to give you the advice.”
Harrison Burke twisted his fingers together. “Exactly what is it that you want?” he asked.
Mason said, “There’s only one way I know of to break that gang, and that’s to fight it with fire. They’re blackmailers, and I’m going to do some blackmailing myself. I’ve got some information that I’m trying to chase down. It’s costing money. The woman is out of money, and I don’t intend to finance it myself.
“Every time the hour hand on that clock makes a circle, it means that I’ve put in more of my time, and that other people have put in more of their time. Expenses keep running up. As I see it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be called on to do your share.”
Harrison Burke blinked. “How much do you think it will cost?” he inquired, cautiously.
“I want fifteen hundred dollars now, and if I get you out of it, it’s going to cost you more.”
Burke wet his lips with the tip of his tongue. “I’ll have to think it over,” he said. “If I’m going to raise any money, I’ll have to make some arrangements to get it. You come back tomorrow morning, and I’ll let you know.”
“This thing is moving fast,” Mason told him. “There’ll be a lot of water go under the bridge between now and tomorrow morning.”
“Come back in two hours, then,” said Burke.
Mason looked at the man and said, “All right. Listen, here’s what you’re planning to do. You’re going to look me up. I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll find. You’ll find that I’m a lawyer that has specialized in trial work, and in a lot of criminal work. Every fellow in this practice cultivates some sort of a specialty. I’m a specialist on getting people out of trouble. They come to me when they’re in all sorts of trouble, and I work them out. Most of my cases never come to court.
“If you look me up through some family lawyer or some corporation lawyer, he’ll probably tell you that I’m a shyster. If you look me up through some chap in the District Attorney’s office, he’ll tell you that I’m a dangerous antagonist but he doesn’t know very much about me. If you look me up through a bank you won’t find out a damned thing.”
Burke opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it and was silent.
“Now maybe that information will cut down the amount of time you’re going to take to look me up,” went on Mason. “If you call up Eva Belter, she’ll probably be sore because I came to you. She wants to handle it all by herself. Or else she’s never thought of you. I don’t know which. If you call her up, ask for her maid and leave some message with the maid about a dress or something. Then she’ll call you back.”
Harrison Burke looked surprised.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“That’s the way she gets her messages,” said Mason. “Mine’s to tell about a dress. What’s yours?”
“About the delivery of shoes,” Harrison Burke blurted.
“It’s a good system,” Mason said, “providing she doesn’t get her wearing apparel mixed. And I’m not so sure about her maid.”
Burke’s reserve seemed to have melted.
“The maid,” he said, “doesn’t know anything. She simply delivers the message. Eva keeps the code. I didn’t know that she had any one else who used that sort of a code.”
Perry Mason laughed.
“Be your age,” he said.
“As a matter of fact,” said Harrison Burke, with dignity, “Mrs. Belter called me on the telephone not over an hour ago. She said that she was in serious difficulties and had to raise a thousand dollars at once. She wanted me to help her. She didn’t say what the money was for.”
“Well,” he said, “that makes it different. I was afraid she wasn’t going to make you kick in. I don’t care how you come through, but I think you should help carry the load. I’m working for you just as much as I am for her, and it’s a fight that’s running into money.”
Burke nodded. “Come back in half an hour,” he said, “and I’ll let you know.”
Mason moved toward the door. “All right,” he remarked, “make it half an hour then. And you’d better get the money in cash. Because you won’t want to have any checks going through your bank account, in case there should be any publicity about what I’m doing or whom I’m representing.”
Burke pushed back his chair, and made a politician’s tentative motion of extending his hand. Perry Mason did not see the hand, or, if he did, he did not bother to acknowledge it, but strode toward the door.
“Half an hour,” he said, on the threshold, and slammed the door behind him.
As he put his hand on the door catch of his automobile, a man tapped him on the shoulder.
The man was a heavy-set individual with impudent eyes.
“I want an interview, Mr. Mason,” he said.
“Interview?” said Mason. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Crandall,” said the man. “A reporter for Spicy Bits. We’re interested in the doings of prominent people, Mr. Mason. And I’d like an interview with you as to what you discussed with Harrison Burke.”
Slowly, deliberately, Perry Mason took his hand from the automobile door catch, turned around on his heel, and surveyed the man.
“So,” he said, “that’s the kind of tactics you folks are going to use, is it?”
Crandall continued to stare with his impudent eyes.
“Don’t get hard,” he said, “because it won’t buy you anything.”
“The hell it won’t,” said Perry Mason. He measured the distance, and slammed a straight left full into the grinning mouth. Crandall’s head shot back. He staggered for two steps, then went down like a sack of meal.
Passing pedestrians paused to stare, and collected in a little group.
Mason paid no attention to them, but turned, jerked open the door of his machine, got in, slammed the door shut, stepped on the starter, and pushed the car out into traffic.
From a nearby drug store, he called Harrison Burke’s office.
When he had Burke on the line, he said, “Mason talking, Burke. Better not go out. And better get somebody to act as a bodyguard. The paper we talked about has got a couple of strong arm men sticking around, ready to muscle into your business in any way that’ll do the most damage. When you get that money for me, send it over to my office by messenger. Get somebody you can trust and don’t tell them what’s in the package. Put it in a sealed envelope, as though it might be papers.”
Harrison Burke started to say something.
Perry Mason savagely slammed the receiver on the hook, strode out of the telephone booth and into his car.