Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Legal, #Mason; Perry (Fictitious character), #Large Type Books
DELLA STREET – Confidential secretary to Perry Mason, and, confidentially, his bride in a mock honeymoon…
CHARLES ASHTON – Caretaker, who has a shriveled leg, a crabby disposition, and a Persian cat… and thereby hangs a tale…
NATHANIEL SHUSTER – A shyster with a hot temper and air-cooled teeth…
SAMUEL C. LAXTER – Grandson of the late Peter Laxter and executor of the will…
FRANK OAFLEY – The other grandson, who went digging in the night, and is in love with the nurse…
PAUL DRAKE – Detective, whose popeyes popped even more at Mason's deductions…
WINIFRED LAXTER – Disinherited granddaughter, who really doesn't care. In love with Douglas Keene…
DOUGLAS KEENE – Budding architect, who is that way about Winnie, million or no million…
WATSON CLAMMERT – A character who isn't himself…
EDITH DeVOE – Attractive redhead, nurse to Peter Laxter, at first afraid to tell what she knows…
HAMILTON BURGER – District Attorney, who is a little leery of Perry Mason's methods…
DR. JASON – Who plays a leading role in a ghoulish scene…
TOM GLASSMAN – Chief investigator for the D.A., who is more than a little puzzled by developments…
JAMES BRANDON – Who acts as chauffeur and butler – as well as a few other things…
SERGEANT HOLCOMB – Who leads a flock of reporters to Perry Mason's office, but is no lamb himself…
Mason held in his hand a typewritten memorandum.
"About a cat, eh?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," Jackson said. "He insists upon seeing you personally. He's a crank. I wouldn't waste time on him, sir."
"Shriveled leg and a crutch, I believe you said," Mason observed musingly, consulting the memorandum.
"That's right. He's about sixty-five. He said he was in an automobile accident about two years ago. His employer was driving the car. Ashton – that's the man who wants to see you about the cat – got a broken hip and some of the tendons in his right leg cut. Laxter, his employer, had his right leg broken just above the knee. Laxter wasn't a young man himself. I think he was sixty-two at the time of his death, but his leg healed up okay. Ashton's leg didn't. He's been on crutches ever since.
"I suppose that was one of the reasons why Laxter was so careful to make provision for the caretaker in his will. He didn't leave Ashton a sum of money outright, but stipulated that the beneficiaries under his will should give Ashton a perpetual job as caretaker so long as he was able to work, and furnish a home for him when he was no longer able to work."
Perry Mason said, frowning, "That's an unusual will, Jackson."
The young lawyer nodded agreement. "I'll say it's an unusual will. This man, Laxter, was a lawyer. He left three grandchildren. One of them, a girl, was completely cut off by the will. The other two divided the property share and share alike."
"How long's he been dead?"
"About two weeks, I think."
"Laxter… Laxter… wasn't there something in the paper about him? Didn't I read something about a fire in connection with his death?"
"That's right, sir, Peter Laxter. He was said to be a miser. He certainly was eccentric. He had a mansion here in the city and wouldn't live in it. He left this man Ashton in charge as the caretaker. Laxter lived in a country house at Carmencita. The house caught fire at night, and Laxter was burned to death. The three grandchildren and several servants were in the house at the time. They all escaped. Ashton says the fire started in or near Laxter's bedroom."
"The caretaker there at the time?" Mason asked.
"No. He was in charge of the city house."
"The grandchildren living there now?"
"Two of them are – the two who inherited. Samuel C. Laxter, and Frank Oafley. The granddaughter, who was disinherited, Winifred Laxter, isn't there. No one knows where she is."
"And Ashton is waiting in the outer office?" Mason inquired, his eyes twinkling.
"Yes, sir. He won't see anyone except you."
"Specifically, what's his trouble?"
"Sam Laxter admits he's obligated, under the will, to furnish Ashton with a job as caretaker, but claims he isn't obligated to keep Ashton's cat in the house. Ashton has a big Persian cat. He's very much attached to it. Laxter's served notice that Ashton can either get rid of the cat, or it'll be poisoned. I could handle it, only Ashton insists on seeing you or no one. I wouldn't take up your time with it – only you insist upon knowing all about the clients who come to the office and won't let any of us handle their cases."
Mason nodded, and said, "Right. You can't ever tell when something seemingly trivial may develop into something big. I remember the time Fenwick was trying a murder case and a man came to the office and insisted on seeing him about a battery case. Fenwick tried to turn him over to a clerk and the man left the office in a rage. Two months after Fenwick's client had been hanged, Fenwick found out the man wanted to see him about having the prosecuting witness in the murder case arrested for assault and battery growing out of an automobile accident. If Fenwick had talked with that man he'd have found out the prosecuting witness couldn't have been where he said he was at the time the murder was committed."
Jackson had heard the story before. He nodded with courteous attention. In a tone which showed very plainly he thought the troubles of Mr. Ashton had occupied far too much of the time allotted for the morning conference, he inquired, "Shall I tell Mr. Ashton we can't handle it?"
"Has he any money?" Mason inquired.
"I don't think so. Under the will he was left a perpetual job as caretaker. That job pays him fifty dollars a month, and his board and room."
"And he's an old man?" Mason inquired.
"Reasonably so. An old crank, if you ask me."
"But he loves animals," Mason remarked.
"He's very much attached to his cat, if that's what you mean."
Mason nodded slowly, and said, "That's what I mean."
Della Street, more familiar with Mason's moods than the assistant attorney, entered the conversation with the easy familiarity of one who works in an office where there is but little formality.
"You just finished a murder case, Chief. Why not let the assistants handle things while you take a cruise to the Orient? It'll give you a rest."
Mason regarded her with twinkling eyes. "Who the devil would take care of Ashton's cat, then?"
"Mr. Jackson could."
"He won't see Jackson."
"Then let him find some other attorney. The city is overrun with attorneys. You can't afford to take your time to bother with a cat!"
"An old man," Mason said, almost musingly, "a crank… probably friendless. His benefactor is dead. The cat represents the only living thing to which he's attached. Most lawyers would laugh the case out of the office. If some lawyer took the case, he wouldn't know where to begin. God knows there's no precedent to guide him.
"No, Della, this is one of those cases that seems so trivial to the lawyer, but means so much to the client. A lawyer isn't like a shopkeeper who can sell his wares or not as he chooses. He holds his talents in trust for the unfortunate."
Della Street, knowing what was to come, nodded to Jackson and said, "You may ask Mr. Ashton to step in."
Jackson gave a half-hearted smile, gathered up his papers and left the room. As the door clicked shut, Della Street's fingers closed about Perry Mason's left hand.
"You're only taking that case, Chief, because you know he can't afford to pay any other good lawyer to handle it."
Mason, grinning, replied, "Well, you must admit that a man with a shriveled leg, a crabby disposition, a Persian cat, and no money, is entitled to a break once in a while."
The sounds of a crutch and a foot alternated in the long corridor. Jackson held open the door after the manner of one who, having counseled against an unwise act, is very definitely keeping clear of the consequences.
The man who entered the room was wizened with age. He had thin lips, bushy white eyebrows, a bald head, and unsmiling features. "This is the third time I've been in to see you," he said irritably.
Mason indicated a chair. "Sit down, Mr. Ashton. I'm sorry. I've been trying a murder case. What's the name of your cat?"
"Clinker," Ashton said, sitting down in the big, overstuffed, black leather chair, standing his crutch straight in front of him, holding it with both hands.
"Why Clinker?" Mason asked.
The man's lips and eyes remained unsmiling. "A bit of humor."
"Humor?" Mason inquired.
"Yes, I used to have a job firing a boiler. Clinkers get in the way and clutter things up. When I first got the cat, I called him Clinker because he was always in the way – always cluttering things up."
"Attached to him?" Mason inquired, in a voice which was elaborately casual.
"The only friend I've got left in the world," Ashton said rather gruffly.
Mason raised his eyebrows.
"I'm a caretaker. A caretaker doesn't really work. He just keeps an eye on things. The big house has been closed up for years. The master lived in a place at Carmencita. All I did was just putter around the big place, keep up the yard and sweep off the front steps. Three or four times a year the master had the place thoroughly cleaned; the rest of the time the rooms were all shut, locked, and the shutters drawn."
"No one lived there?"
"Why didn't he rent the place?" Mason asked.
"It wasn't his way."
"And he left a will providing for you?"
"That he did. The will keeps me in my job while I'm able to work and takes care of me whenever I can't work."
"The heirs are two grandchildren?"
"Three. Only two are mentioned in the will."
"Tell me about your troubles," Mason invited.
"The master was burned to death when the country home caught fire. I didn't know about it until they telephoned me the next morning. After the death, Sam Laxter took charge. He's a nice boy to look at, and he'll fool you if you let him, but he doesn't like animals and I don't like people who can't get along with animals."
"Who was in the house at the time it burned?" Mason asked.
"Winifred – that's Winifred Laxter. She's a granddaughter. Then there was Sam Laxter and Frank Oafley – they're grandsons. Mrs. Pixley was there – she's the housekeeper. And there was a nurse – Edith DeVoe."
"Anyone else?" Mason asked.
"Jim Brandon, the chauffeur. He's a smooth one. He knows which side of the bread his butter's on, all right. You should see the way he toadies to Sam Laxter."
Ashton pounded on the floor with the tip of his crutch to emphasize his disgust.
"Who else?" Mason asked.
Ashton checked off the people he had named on his fingers, then said, "Nora Abbington."
"What's she like?" Mason asked, very evidently enjoying seeing these various characters through Ashton's cynical eyes.
"A big cow," Ashton said. "A docile, trusting, good-natured, big-eyed clod. But she wasn't there when the house burned. She came in and worked by the day."
"After the house burned there was no more work for her?" Mason inquired.
"That's right. She didn't come any more after that."
"Then I presume we can eliminate her from the picture. She really doesn't figure in the case."
"Wouldn't," Ashton said significantly, "if it wasn't that she was in love with Jim Brandon. She thinks Jim's going to marry her when he gets money. Bah! I tried to tell her a thing or two about Jim Brandon, but she wouldn't listen to me."
"How does it happen you know these people so well if you were in the city house and they were out in the country?"
"Oh, I used to drive out once in a while."
"You drive a car?"
"No, it's one the master kept at the house for me so I could drive out to see him when he wanted to give instructions. He hated to come to the city."
"What sort of a car?" Mason inquired.
"Your bad leg doesn't keep you from driving?"
"No, not that car. It has a special emergency brake on it. When I pull up on that brake lever the car stops."
Mason flashed an amused glance at Della Street, turned back to the wizened, bald-headed man. "Why wasn't Winifred provided for in the will?" he asked.
"No one knows."
"You were in charge of the house here in the city?"
"What's the address?"
"3824 East Washington."
"You're still there?"
"Yes – and so're Laxter, Oafley, and the servants."
"In other words, when the house burned at Carmencita, they came to live in the city house. Is that right?"
"Yes. They'd have moved in anyway as soon as the master died. They're not the sort who like country life. They want city stuff and lots of it."
"And they object to the cat?"
"Sam Laxter does. He's the executor."
"Specifically, what form has his objection taken?"
"He's told me to get rid of the cat or he'll poison it."
"Has he given any reason?"
"He doesn't like cats. He doesn't like Clinker especially. I sleep in the basement. I keep the basement window open. Clinker jumps in and jumps out – you know how a cat is – you can't keep him shut up all the time. With my leg the way it is, I don't walk around much. Clinker has to get out some. When it's raining, he gets his feet dirty. Then he jumps in through the window, and gets my bed muddy."
"The window is over your bed?" Mason inquired.
"That's right, and the cat sleeps on my bed. It has for years. It hasn't bothered anyone. Sam Laxter says it runs up the laundry bill, getting the bedspreads all mussed up… Laundry bills! He throws away enough in one night at a night club to pay my laundry bills for ten years!"
"Rather a free spender?" Mason asked good-naturedly.
"He was – he isn't so much now."
"No?" Mason inquired.
"No, he can't get the money."