Perry Mason reached the front door and stood there, waiting on the porch for what seemed to him to be two or three minutes before he heard Eva Belter’s step and the click of the lock. She opened the door and smiled at him.
There was a light burning in the entrance hall, a night light which illuminated things vaguely, showing the dark stretch of stairs which led up to the upper floor, the furniture of the reception hallway, a couple of straight back chairs, an ornamental mirror, a coat rack, and umbrella stand.
There was a woman’s coat on the rack, two canes, and three umbrellas in the stand. A trickle of rain water had oozed from the bottom of the stand where the umbrellas were kept, and made a puddle which reflected the rays of the night light.
“Look here,” said Mason in a whisper. “You didn’t turn out the light when you went out?”
“No,” she said, “it was just like this when I left.”
“You mean that your husband let some one come in this door to see him without turning on any lights except that night light?”
“Yes,” she said, “I guess so.”
“Don’t you ordinarily keep a brighter light burning over the stairs until the family has retired?”
“Sometimes,” she said, “but George has his upstairs apartment all to himself. He doesn’t bother the rest of us, and we don’t bother him.”
“All right,” said Mason. “Let’s go on up. Turn on the light.”
She clicked a switch, and the stairway was flooded with light.
Mason led the way up the stairs and into the reception room of the suite where he had first seen George Belter.
The door through which Belter had entered on that occasion was now closed. Mason turned the knob, opened the door and stepped into the study.
It was a huge room, done in much the same style as the sitting room. The chairs were huge and heavily upholstered. The desk was twice the size of an ordinary large desk. There was a door open which led into a bedroom, and, within a few feet of that door, was the door which led into the bath. There was also a door from the bedroom to the bathroom.
The body of George Belter lay on the floor, just inside the doorway from the bathroom to the study. It was wrapped in a flannel dressing gown, which had fallen open along the front and showed that underneath the gown the body was entirely nude.
Eva Belter gave a little scream and clung closely to Mason. Mason shook her off, strode to the body, and knelt down.
The man was quite dead. There had been but one bullet, and that had penetrated directly through the heart. Death had apparently been instantaneous.
Mason felt the inside of the bathrobe and noticed that it was damp. He pulled the bathrobe together over the corpse, stepped over the outstretched arm, and into the bathroom.
Like the other rooms of the suite, the bathroom was built on a massive scale, for a huge man. The bathtub, set down below the level of the floor, was some three or four feet deep and almost eight feet long. A huge washbowl occupied the center of the bathroom. There were towels folded on the racks. Mason looked at them, then turned to Eva Belter.
“Listen,” he said, “he was taking a bath, and something caused him to get up and get out. Notice that he flung on his bathrobe, and didn’t dry himself with a towel. He was still wet when he put the bathrobe around him, and the towels are all folded, and haven’t been used.”
She nodded slow acquiescence. “Do you suppose we had better moisten a bath towel and crumple it as though he had dried himself?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I just wondered.”
“Listen,” he told her, “we get to faking evidence here, and we’re going to get into serious difficulty. Now listen, and get this straight! Apparently, no one besides yourself knows what happened, or when. The police will get sore if they aren’t notified right away. They’ll also want to know how you happened to telephone to a lawyer before you telephoned to them. It makes it look like a suspicious circumstance as far as you’re concerned. D’you understand?”
She nodded again, her eyes wide and dark.
“All right,” he said, “now get this, and get it straight, and keep your head all the way through. Here’s what happened. You’re going to tell exactly the truth, just as you told it to me, with one exception. And that is about your coming back upstairs after the man had left the house. That’s the thing that I don’t like about your story, and that’s the thing that the police won’t like about it. If you had presence of mind enough to go up the stairs and look around, then you would have had presence of mind enough to call the police. The fact that you wanted to call an attorney before you called the police, is going to make the police think that you had a consciousness of guilt.”
“But,” she said, “we can explain to them that I had consulted you on this other matter, and that it was all so mixed up together that I wanted to talk with you before I talked with the police, couldn’t we?”
He laughed at her.
“What a sweet mess that would be. Then the police would want to know all about what that other matter was. And before you got done, you’d find that you had given them the best kind of motive for you to kill your husband. That other matter can never come into the thing at all. We’ve got to get hold of Harrison Burke and see that he keeps his mouth closed.”
“But,” she protested, “how about the paper? How about Spicy Bits?”
“Has it ever occurred to you,” he asked, “that, with your husband’s death, you are the owner of that paper? You can step into the saddle, and control the policy right now.”
“Suppose he left a will disinheriting me?”
“In that event,” he said, “we’ll file a suit contesting the will and try and get you put in as a special administratrix, pending the determination of the suit.”
“All right,” she said, swiftly, “I ran out of the house, and then what happened?”
“Exactly the way you told it to me. You were so panic-stricken that you ran out of the house. And remember that you ran out before the man who was in the room with your husband ran down the stairs. You dashed out of the house and out into the rain, grabbing up the first coat that you came to as you went past the hall stand. You were so excited that you didn’t even notice that one of your coats was there, but picked a man’s coat.”
“All right,” she said, speaking in that same swift, impatient tone of voice, “then what happened?”
“Then,” Mason continued, “you ran out into the rain, and there was an automobile parked out in the driveway, but you were too excited to notice the automobile, what kind it was, or whether it was a closed car or a touring car. You just started running. Then a man dashed out of the house behind you, jumped in the automobile, and switched on the headlights. You plunged into the shrubbery because you were afraid he was chasing you.
“The car went on past you down the drive and down the hill, and you started running to follow it, trying to get the license number, because, by that time, you realized the importance of finding out who this man was who had been with your husband when the shot was fired.”
“All right,” she said. “And then?”
“Still just the way you told it to me. You were afraid to go back to the house alone, and you went to the nearest telephone. Remember that all of that time you didn’t know that your husband had been killed. You only knew that you had heard a shot fired, and you didn’t know whether it was your husband who had fired the shot and wounded the man who escaped in the automobile, or whether that man had fired the shot at your husband. You didn’t know whether the shot had hit, or whether it had missed, whether your husband was wounded, slightly, seriously, or killed, or whether your husband had shot himself while this man was in the room. Can you remember all that?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“All right,” he said. “That accounts for your reason in calling me. I told you that I would come right out. Remember that you didn’t tell me over the telephone a shot had been fired. You simply told me that you were in trouble and afraid and wanted me to come.”
“How did it happen that I wanted you to come?” she asked. “What excuse is there for that?”
“I’m an old friend of yours,” he said. “I take it that you and your husband don’t go around together much socially.”
“That’s fine,” Mason said. “You’ve been calling me by my first name once or twice lately. Begin to do it regularly, particularly when people are around. I’m going to be an old friend of yours and you called me as a friend, not particularly as an attorney.”
“Now the question is, can you remember all that? Answer!”
“Yes,” she said.
He gave the room a quick survey.
“You said you left your purse up here. You’d better find it.”
She walked to the desk and opened one of the drawers. The purse was in that. She took it out. “How about the gun?” she asked. “Hadn’t we better do something with the gun?”
He followed her eyes, and saw an automatic lying on the floor, almost underneath the desk, where the shadows kept it from being plainly visible.
“No,” he said, “that’s a break for us. The police may be able to trace this gun, and find out who it belongs to.”
She frowned and said, “It seems funny that a man would shoot and then throw the gun down here. We don’t know who that gun belongs to. Don’t you think we had better do something with it?”
“Do what with it?”
“Hide it some place.”
“Do that,” he said, “and then you will have something to explain. Let the police find the gun.”
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in you, Perry,” she replied. “But I’d a lot rather have it the other way. Just the dead body here.”
“No,” he said, shortly. “You can remember everything I told you?”
He picked up the telephone.
“Police Headquarters,” he said.