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Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe

Chapter 1

As the first big drops of rain splashed to the sidewalk, Perry Mason cupped his hand under Della Street’s elbow and said, “We can make it to the department store — if we run.” She nodded, held up her skirt with her left hand, and ran lightly, her weight forward on the balls of her feet, her stride long and easy, with lots of knee action. Perry Mason, long-legged as he was, did not have to hold back on her account.

The first forerunners of the shower had caught them on a side street where there were no protecting awnings. By the time they reached the corner, the eaves were sluicing rain. The portico of the department store was twenty yards from the corner. They sprinted for it, while raindrops, pelting like liquid bullets, hit the sidewalk so hard they seemed to rebound before exploding into mushrooms of water. Mason guided Della Street straight through the revolving door. “Come on,” he said, “this rain’s good for half an hour, and there’s a restaurant on the top floor where we can tea and talk.”

Her laughing eyes regarded him from under long lashes in sidelong appraisal. “I didn’t think I’d ever get you into a department store tea room, Chief.”

Mason regarded the drops of water on the brim of his straw hat. “It’s Fate, Della,” he laughed. “And remember, I’m not going to squire you around while you shop. We get in the elevator and go to the top floor. I pay no attention when the attendant says, ‘Second Floor... Women’s fur coats and lingerie, third floor, diamonds, pearl necklaces and gold earrings, fourth floor, wrist watches, pendants, and...’ ”

“How about the fifth floor?” she interrupted. “Flowers, candies and books. You might stop there. Can’t you give a working girl a break?”

“Not a chance,” he told her. “Straight up to the sixth floor — tea, biscuits, baked ham and pie.”

They crowded into the elevator. The cage moved slowly upward, stopping at each floor while the girl called out the various departments in a tired monotone. “We forgot children’s toys on the fifth,” Della Street pointed out.

Mason’s eyes were wistful. “Some day, Della,” he said, “when I’ve won a big case, I’m going to get a railroad track with stations, tunnels, block signals and side tracks. I’ll lay out an elaborate electric railway through my private office, out into the law library, and...” He broke off as she tittered. “Matter?”

“I was just thinking of Jackson in the law library,” she said, “looking up some legal point in beetle-browed concentration, and your electric railroad train rattling and swaying through the door, heading for the library table.”

He chuckled, guided her to a table in the tea room, looked out at the sheeted rain which lashed against the windows. “Jackson,” he said, “would hardly appreciate the humor of the situation. I doubt if he ever had any boyhood.”

“Perhaps,” she ventured, “he was a child in another incarnation.” She picked up the menu. “Well, Mr. Mason, since you’re buying the lunch, I’m going to make it my heavy meal.”

“I thought you were going on a diet,” he said, with mock concern.

“I am,” she admitted, “I’m a hundred and twelve. I want to get back to a hundred and nine.”

“Dry whole wheat toast,” he suggested, “and tea without sugar, would...”

“That’ll be fine for tonight,” she retorted, “but as a working girl, I know when I’m getting the breaks. I’ll have cream of tomato soup, avocado and grapefruit salad, a filet mignon, artichokes, shoestring potatoes, and plum pudding with brandy sauce.”

Mason threw up his hands. “There go my profits on the last murder case. I’ll have one slice of melba toast, cut very thin, and a small glass of water.” But, when he glanced up to see the waitress hovering at his elbow, he said firmly, “‘Two cream of tomato soups, two avocado and grapefruit salads, two filet mignons, medium rare, two hot artichokes, two shoestring potatoes, and two plum puddings with brandy sauce.’ ”

“Chief!” Della Street exclaimed. “I was only kidding!”

“You should never kid at mealtime,” he told her sternly.

“But I can’t eat all that.”

“This,” he said, “is poetic justice for lying to your employer.” Then, to the waitress, “Go ahead and start bringing it on. Don’t listen to any protests.”

The waitress smiled and departed. Della Street said, “Now I suppose I’ll have to live on bread and water for a week to keep from putting on weight... Don’t you like to watch people in a place like this, Chief?”

He nodded, his steady, tolerant eyes moving from table to table, appraising the occupants in swift scrutiny.

“Tell me, Chief,” she said, “you’ve seen human nature in the raw. You’ve seen people torn and twisted by emotions which have ripped aside all of the hypocrisy and pretense of everyday life... Doesn’t it make you frightfully cynical?”

“Quite the contrary,” he said. “People have their strong points and their weak points. The true philosopher sees them as they are, and is never disappointed, because he doesn’t expect too much. The cynic is one who starts out with a false pattern and becomes disappointed because people don’t conform to that pattern. Most of the little chiseling practices come from trying to cope with our economic conventions. When it comes right down to fundamentals, people are fairly dependable. The neighbor who would cheat you out of a pound of sugar, would risk her life to save you from drowning.”

Della Street thought that over, then said, “There’s a lot of difference in people. Look at that aggressive woman over there at the left, bullying the poor waitress... and contrast her with that white-haired woman who’s standing over there by the window — the one who has such a benign, motherly look. She’s so placid, so homey, so...”

Mason said, “As it happens, Della, the woman’s a shoplifter.”

“What!” she exclaimed.

“And,” Mason went on, “the man who’s standing over by the cashier’s desk, apparently trying to cash a check, is a store detective who’s followed her in here.”

“How do you know she’s a shoplifter, Chief?”

“Notice the way she keeps her left arm rigidly at her side. She’s holding something under that long tweed coat. I happen to know the store detective. I was in court once when he was testifying on a case... Notice the way the woman’s turned her head. I believe she knows she’s being followed.”

“Will she sit down and start eating?” Della asked, her eyes wide with interest.

“Probably not. She must have quite a bit of stuff concealed under her coat. It would be difficult to eat without... There she goes into the restroom.”

“Now what?” Della Street asked.

“If she’s wise she’s being followed,” Mason said, “she’ll probably ditch the stuff in the restroom... There’s the store detective going over to talk with the colored maid. They’ll try to handle the thing very quietly.”

“I can’t imagine her being a shoplifter,” Della Street protested. “That white hair, the high forehead, the calm, steady eyes, and the sensitive mouth... it just is impossible.”

Mason said thoughtfully, “My experience has taught me that when a person with an honest face has stolen goods in his possession, the face is usually a mask, carefully cultivated as a stock in trade.”

Their waitress brought them steaming, fragrant soup. The maid appeared in the door of the restroom and nodded briefly to the store detective. A moment later, the white-haired woman emerged and walked directly to an adjoining table, which had been set for two, with bread, butter, water glasses, knives and forks in place. She calmly seated herself.

Mason heard an exclamation at his elbow. “Oh, there you are, Aunt Sarah. I lost you.” The lawyer looked up, to see a tallish young woman who moved with quick decision. As he glimpsed her moist gray eyes, his courtroom experience told him there was fear in her voice. The white-haired woman’s voice, on the other hand, showed no fear, only calm poise. “I lost you somewhere in the crowd, Ginny, so I decided I’d come up and have a cup of tea. At my age, I’ve found it never pays to worry. I knew you were perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, calling a cab and going home.”

     

 

2011 - 2018