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Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Lame Canary

Chapter one

Any student of character will concede that outstanding examples of class run contrary to type. The best detectives look like clerks. The best gamblers look like bankers. And nothing in Perry Mason’s appearance indicated that his agile brain, unconventional methods, and daring technique made him the city’s most feared and respected trial lawyer.

Seated in his office, he regarded the young woman who sat in the big leather chair, holding a caged canary in her lap. His steady eyes held none of the gimlet qualities so frequently associated with cross-examiners, but were, instead, filled with patience, touched with sympathy. His rugged features might have been carved from granite.

“That canary,” he said, with the quiet insistence of one who will continue to repeat his statements until he has scored his point, “has a sore foot.”

The young woman shifted the cage from her lap to the floor, as though trying to keep the lawyer from seeing too much. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said, and then added by way of explanation, “he’s a little frightened.”

Mason appraised the youthful lines of her figure, the neatly shod feet, the long tapering fingers of the gloved hands. “So,” he said, “your business with me was urgent enough to make you crash the gate.”

She tilted her chin defiantly. “My business is important. It couldn’t wait, and neither could I.”

“I take it,” the lawyer remarked musingly, “patience isn’t one of your virtues.”

“I didn’t know,” she said, “that patience was a virtue.”

“You wouldn’t. What’s your name?”

“Rita Swaine.”

“How old are you, Miss Swaine?”


“Where do you live?”

“1388 Chestnut Street,” she said, glancing across at Della Street, whose pen was busy making copperplate shorthand notes.

“That’s all right,” Mason assured her, “you needn’t worry about Miss Street. She’s my secretary. Do you live in an apartment house?”

“Yes. Apartment 408.”


“Not in my name. There’s a switchboard service.”

“What do you want to see me about?”

She lowered her eyes and hesitated.

“About the canary?” Mason asked.

“No,” she said hastily, “not about the canary.”

“Do you usually carry a canary with you?”

She laughed nervously and said, “Of course not. I don’t understand why you attach so much importance to the canary.”

“Because,” he told her, “so few of my clients bring canaries to the office.”

She started to say something, then checked herself. Mason glanced significantly at his wrist watch and his action started her talking. “I want you to help my sister, Rossy,” she said. “That’s short for Rosalind. About six months ago she married Walter Prescott. He’s an insurance adjuster, and he married her for her money. He manipulated things so he got most of it and— and now he’s trying to make trouble for Rossy.”

“What sort of trouble?” Mason asked as she hesitated.

“Trouble over Jimmy.”

“Who’s Jimmy?”

“Jimmy Driscoll. She was going with him before she married Walter.”

“And Driscoll’s still in love with her?” Mason asked.

She shook her head emphatically and said, “No. Jimmy’s in love with me.”

“Then why should your sister’s husband—”

“Well, Jimmy wrote her a letter, as a friend.”

“What sort of a letter?”

“Rosalind started it. She wrote to Jimmy and told him she was unhappy, and Jimmy wrote to her, just as a friend, and advised her to break away from Walter. He said Walter had only married her for her money, and that marriage was just like a financial investment, your first loss was your best loss. You see,” she went on with a nervous laugh, “Jimmy’s in the brokerage business and handled Rosalind’s investments for her before her marriage, so she’d understand what he meant by that sort of talk.”

“He didn’t handle her investments after marriage?”


“And Walter Prescott got this letter Driscoll wrote?”

“That’s right.”

Mason’s face showed his interest. “And,” the girl in the pearl-gray suit went on quickly, “I don’t think Rossy knows how Jimmy feels toward me. You see, we never mention his name. But I have some money of my own, and, after Rossy’s marriage, Jimmy kept right on handling my investments, and I went out with him quite a bit.”

“And your sister knows nothing of this?”

“No — at any rate, I don’t think so.”

“What’s Prescott going to do about the letter?” Mason asked.

“He’s going to sue Rossy for divorce, claiming that she’s kept up her old affair with Jimmy. And he’s going to sue Jimmy for alienation of affections because he put in the letter about Walter’s marrying her for her money and told her she’d better leave him.”

Mason shook his head. “I don’t handle divorce cases.”

“Oh, but you must handle this. I haven’t told you everything yet.”

Mason glanced quizzically across at Della Street, smiled and said, “Well, then, suppose you tell me everything.”

“Walter got about twelve thousand dollars from Rossy.He said he was going to invest it in his business and she’d get better than ten percent on her money, and the investment would increase in value. Now he swears he never received a cent from her.”

“Can she prove that he did?”

“I’m afraid not. You know how it is with things like that. A woman certainly wouldn’t ask her husband to give her a receipt. Rosalind had some bonds and she gave them to Walter and told him to sell them and put the money in the business. Walter admits he sold some securities for her, but he claims the money was turned over to her. And George Wray, that’s Walter’s partner — Prescott & Wray in the Doran Building, Insurance Adjusters — says it’s absurd to think that Walter put any such amount of money in the business. He says they’ve been taking money out of the business instead of putting it in.

“So you see what’s happening. Walter’s got that money and he’s trying now to put Rossy in the wrong so he can get away with it.”

“Yes,” Mason told her, “I think you’d better see some good lawyer who specializes in domestic relations and...”

“No. No. We want you. You see— Well, something happened this morning.”

Mason smiled at her and said, “Now listen, young lady, I’m not interested in divorce cases. I like trial work. I specialize in murder cases. I like mysteries. I sympathize with your sister, but I’m not interested in her case. There are hundreds of competent attorneys in the city who will be glad to represent her.”

The young woman’s lips trembled. “I w-w-w-wish you’d at least hear what I have to s-s-s-say,” she said, blinking back tears. But, apparently recognizing the futility of her appeal, she hooked the middle finger of her right hand through the ring in the wire cage, and prepared to arise from the big leather chair.

Mason said, “Wait a minute. I’m interested in that canary. Odd things like that stick in my mind. Now, I want to know why you carried that canary into my office.”

“That’s what I wanted to t-t-tell you. I was working up to it in my own w-w-w-way.”

“Go ahead and tell me,” Mason said, “and then perhaps I can forget it. Otherwise I’ll be wasting the entire afternoon speculating on the thing, trying to uncover some logical explanation.”

“Well,” she said, “I was over at Rosalind’s house this morning, cutting the canary’s claws with a nail clipper. You know, a canary in a cage has to have the tips clipped off his claws every so often. And while I was doing that, Jimmy came — and told me he loved me, and took me in his arms, and the canary got away — and then two automobiles smashed into each other right in front of the house— And I looked up at the window, and there was Mrs. Snoops watching us, and a man was hurt in the automobile accident, and Jimmy ran out, and the officers got his name and license number, and Jimmy will be called as a witness when they try the automobile damage case, and Walter will say that Jimmy came to his h-h-h-house without his c-c-consent, and— And— Dammit! I hate to b-b-b-bawl, and you’ve made me c-c-cry.”



2011 - 2018