Read The Case of the Sulky Girl Online
Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Legal, #Mason; Perry (Fictitious character)
The secretary gently closed the door and the girl selected an old fashioned, high-backed, black leather chair. She sat down in it, crossed her legs, pulled her skirt down over her knees, and sat facing the door. After a moment, she pulled the skirt up for an inch or two, taking some pains to get just the effect she wanted. Then she leaned back so that her spun-gold hair showed to advantage against the shiny black leather of the big chair.
She looked pathetic and helpless as she sat in the big office, dwarfed by the huge proportions of the leather chair. And yet there was something about her which gave the impression of having deliberately brought about that effect. There was a hint of feline efficiency in the care with which she had placed herself, in the very perfection of her helplessness.
Judged by any standard, she was beautiful. Her hair was silken, her eyes large and dark, the cheekbones high, lips full and well formed. She was small, yet perfectly proportioned, and well groomed. Yet there was a studied immobility of expression; an effect of complete detachment as though she had surrounded herself with a protective wall.
The door from an inner office opened and Perry Mason walked into the room. He paused when he had advanced two steps from the door, surveying the girl with patient eyes that seemed to take in every detail of her appearance.
She bore the scrutiny without change of position or expression.
"You're Mr. Mason?" she asked.
Mason didn't answer until he had walked around behind the flat-top desk and dropped into the swivel chair.
Perry Mason gave the impression of bigness; not the bigness of fat, but the bigness of strength. He was broad-shouldered and rugged-faced, and his eyes were steady and patient. Frequently those eyes changed expression, but the face never changed its expression of rugged patience. Yet there was nothing meek about the man. He was a fighter; a fighter who could, perhaps, patiently bide his time for delivering a knock-out blow, but who would, when the time came, remorselessly deliver that blow with the force of a mental battering ram.
"Yes," he said, "I'm Perry Mason. What can I do for you?"
The dark eyes studied him warily.
"I," said the girl, "am Fran Celane."
"Fran?" he asked, raising his voice.
"Short for Frances," she said.
"All right," said Perry Mason, "what can I do for you, Miss Celane?"
The dark eyes remained fastened on his face, but the girl's forefinger went exploring around the arm of the chair, picking at irregularities in the leather. There was something in the probing gesture which seemed an unconscious reflection of her mental attitude.
"I wanted to find out about a will," she said.
There was no change of expression in Perry Mason's steady, patient eyes.
"I don't go in much for wills," he told her. "I'm a trial lawyer. I specialize in the trial of cases, preferably before juries. Twelve men in a box – that's my specialty. I'm afraid I can't help you much on wills."
"But," she told him, "this will probably be a trial."
He continued to watch her with the emotionless scrutiny of his calm eyes.
"A will contest?" he asked.
"No," she said, "not exactly a contest. I want to know something about a trust provision."
"Well," he said with gentle insistence, "suppose you tell me exactly what it is you want to know."
"A party dies," she said, "and leaves a will containing a clause by which a beneficiary under the will…"
"That'll do," said Perry Mason, "don't try that line. This is a matter that you're interested in?"
"Very well then," he said, "give me the facts, and quit beating about the bush."
"It's my father's will," she said. "His name was Carl Celane. I'm an only child."
"That's better," he told her.
"There's a lot of money coming to me under that will, something over a million dollars."
Perry Mason showed interest.
"And you think there'll be a trial over it?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I hope not."
"Well, go ahead," said the lawyer.
"He didn't leave the money to me outright," she said. "He left it in a trust."
"Who's the trustee?" asked Mason.
"My uncle, Edward Norton."
"All right," he said, "go on."
"There's a provision in the will that if I should marry before I'm twenty-five, my uncle has the right, at his option, to give me five thousand dollars from the trust fund and to turn the balance over to charitable institutions."
"How old are you now?" asked Mason.
"When did your father die?"
"Two years ago."
"The will's been probated then, and the property distributed?"
"Yes," she said.
"All right," he told her, speaking rapidly now, "if the provision in regard to the trust was carried through in the decree of distribution, and there was no appeal from that decree, there can be no collateral attack, except under exceptional circumstances."
Her restless finger picked at the arm of the chair, and the nail made little noises as it dug into the leather.
"That's what I wanted to ask you about," she said.
"All right," said Mason, "go ahead and ask me."
"Under the will," she said, "my uncle controls the trust moneys. He can invest them any way he wants, and he can give me whatever money he thinks I should have. When I'm twenty-seven he's to give me the principal if he thinks that the possession of such a large sum of money won't spoil my life. Otherwise, he's to buy me an annuity of five hundred dollars a month for life, and give the balance to charity."
"Rather an unusual trust provision," said Perry Mason, tonelessly.
"My father," she said, "was rather an unusual man, and I was just a little bit wild."
"All right," said Mason. "What's the trouble?"
"I want to get married," she said, and, for the first time her eyes dropped from his.
"Have you spoken to your uncle about it?"
"Does he know that you want to get married?"
"I don't think so."
"Why not wait until you're twenty-five?"
"No," she said, raising her eyes again, "I want to get married now."
"As I understand your interpretation of the will," ventured Perry Mason cautiously, "there's complete discretion vested in your uncle?"
"Well, don't you think that the first thing to do would be to sound him out and see how he would feel about your marriage?"
"No," she said shortly, clipping the word out explosively.
"Bad blood between you and your uncle?" he asked.
"No," she said.
"You see him frequently?"
"Do you talk with him about the will?"
"You go to see him on other business then?"
"No. I live in the house with him."
"I see," said Perry Mason, speaking in that calm expressionless voice. "Your uncle is intrusted with a whole lot of money, and given a discretion which is rather unusual. I take it that he's under bond?"
"Oh yes," she said, "he's under bond. As far as that's concerned, the trust fund is perfectly safe. My uncle is meticulously careful – too careful. That is, he's too methodical in everything he does."
"Does he have money of his own?" asked the lawyer.
"Lots of it," she said.
"Well," said Mason, with just a trace of impatience, "what do you want me to do?"
"I want you," she said, "to fix it so I can get married."
He stared at her for several seconds in silent, meditative appraisal.
"Have you got a copy of the will or of the decree of distribution?" he asked at length.
She shook her head.
"Do I need one?" she asked.
The lawyer nodded.
"I can't very well give you an interpretation of a legal document until I've seen the document."
"But I told you exactly what it said."
"You gave me your version of what it said. There may be a great deal of difference."
She spoke swiftly, impatiently. "I understand that conditions in a will which prevent a person from marrying can be set aside."
"That's not correct," he told her. "Generally speaking, a condition by which a party is prevented from marrying is considered against public policy and void. But that's subject to certain qualifications, particularly in the case of crusts of the type which are known as 'spendthrift' trusts. Apparently the trust which was created under your father's will was one of this nature.
"Moreover, you note that there is no restriction upon marriage after you have reached the age of twenty-five. As a matter of fact, your uncle seems to be given a wide discretion in the matter, and the provisions of the will as you have given them to me, merely indicate the circumstances under which he is to exercise his discretion."
She seemed suddenly to have lost her protective poise. Her voice rose, "Well, I've heard a lot about you," she said. "They say that some lawyers tell people what they can do and what they can't do, but that you always fix things so a person can do what he wants to."
Mason smiled, the smile of wisdom garnered from bitter experience, of knowledge amassed from the confidences of thousands of clients.
"Perhaps," he said, "that's partially true. A man can nearly always think his way out of any situation in which he finds himself. It's merely a paraphrase of the old saying that where there's a will there's a way."
"Well," she told him, "there's a will in this case. I want the way."
"Whom do you want to marry?" he asked abruptly.
The eyes did not waver, but stared steadily at him in dark appraisal.
"Rob Gleason," she said.
"Does your uncle know him?"
"Does he approve of him?"
"You love him?"
"He knows of this provision in the will?"
Her eyes lowered.
"I think perhaps he does now. But he didn't," she said.
"What do you mean he didn't?" asked the lawyer.
There could be no question now that the eyes were avoiding his.
"Just an expression," she said, "I didn't mean anything by it."
Perry Mason studied her intently for a few minutes.
"And I take it you want to marry him very much."
She looked at him then, and said in a voice that was vibrant with feeling: "Mr. Mason, don't make any mistake about it. I am going to marry Rob Gleason. You can take that as being final. You have got to find some way by which I can do it. That's all! I'm leaving that end of it up to you. I'm putting myself in your hands. I am going to get married."
He started to say something, then paused to study her carefully before he spoke.
"Well," he said, "you seem to know pretty much what you want."
"I do," she flared.
"Suppose then, you come back at this time to-morrow morning. In the meantime I will have looked up the court records."
She shook her head.
"To-morrow morning," she protested, "is too long. Can't you do it this afternoon?"
Perry Mason's patient eyes dwelt steadily on her face.
"Perhaps," he said. "Will four o'clock suit you?"
"Very well," he told her, getting to his feet. "Come back then. You can leave your name and address with my secretary in the outer office."
"I've already done that," she told him, arising from the chair and smoothing the line of her skirt. "I'll be back at four."
She didn't look back as she walked across the office, opened the door and swept out into the outer room.
Perry Mason sat at his desk, narrowing his eyes in thoughtful appraisal, as he watched the door through which the young woman had gone.
After a moment he extended a sturdy forefinger, and jabbed a button on the side of his desk.
A young man with unruly hair, and a face that seemed pathetically eager, popped his head through the doorway leading from a law library, then entered the room.
"Frank," said Perry Mason, "go up to the court house and find the papers in the Celane Estate. A Frances Celane was given property amounting to more than a million dollars in trust. The name of the trustee is Edward Norton. Check the decree of distribution, and also the will. Make copies of the trust provisions, then get back here as soon as you can."
The boy blinked his eyes swiftly, twice.
"Celane?" he asked.
"Yes," said Mason. "Carl Celane."