"I don't have a warrant yet, Drake, and there is no way I'm going to get one on nothing more than a hunch," Tragg said. After leaving the hospital, Paul Drake had cornered the lieutenant in his office. "I'm going out there on nothing more than a fishing expedition. I'll talk to them and see what I can find out."
"They're too smart for that, Tragg! They'll clam up and you won't have anything. Let me go with you. Maybe you can't search the place, but I can. I'll do it while you're talking to them."
"No. Absolutely not! I know you're used to working with Mason and skirting the law, but I'm not going to let you get this case thrown out before it ever gets filed."
Paul Drake shook his head. "I'm not going to sit idly by and doing nothing, Tragg. This woman tried to kill my best friend and she damn near succeeded. I will do whatever it takes to get the evidence to convict her." His normally placid eyes burned with determination.
"Look, Drake, I know how you feel, but—"
Paul was on his feet and reaching for the door knob.
"Wait!" Tragg called after him. He sighed. "Ok, fine. Come with me." He took a step closer and glared at the private detective. "You can come. But you don't utter a word. Not one word. And you don't leave my sight. Got it?"
Paul started to protest.
"It's either that, or I lock you up for interference," Tragg finished quietly.
After a moment's hesitation, the private detective nodded in agreement and followed the police detective out the door to a waiting car.
"Remember, Drake, you are strictly an observer. Don't touch anything, don't say anything. Got it?" Lt. Tragg spoke as he pulled his unmarked car to the curb outside the Coopers' home in an upscale neighborhood.
"Got it." Paul's voice was grim. He was well aware that any other time, the police detective wouldn't let a private eye anywhere near one of his investigations. But this one was different. Perry Mason was a friend to them both, as much as Tragg might be loathe to admit it most of the time.
Tragg's heavy knock was answered by a housekeeper whose attitude went from chilly to frigid when the policeman showed his credentials. She left them in the hallway and went to notify her employer of her visitors.
Susan Cooper descended the staircase a few minutes later.
"Gentlemen," she drawled after the men had introduced themselves. "My husband isn't home at the moment. What can I do for you?"
"I have some questions for you, Mrs. Cooper. I'm investigating an attempted murder," Tragg said.
"Well of course, Lieutenant. I'll be happy to help in any way I can. Come out to the patio with me. We can talk there." She led them through a sun room to the covered patio. Once they were seated, she offered drinks. Tragg declined for both of them.
"Let's not waste time, Mrs. Cooper. I need to see your keys to the Gideon's Purse offices in the Ashwood Building," Tragg said.
"Your keys." The reply was simple, but grim.
Susan Cooper drew herself up taller in her chair. "Perhaps you'd like to explain?"
Tragg sighed and glanced at his watch. "You don't really need an explanation, do you? And while you're getting the keys, perhaps you'll get the rifle as well and save me the trouble of making a search."
"Now I really must demand an explanation, Lieutenant. What in the world are you talking about?"
Tragg turned to Paul Drake, who, true to his word, had faded into the background. He watched the scene from the sidelines, granite-faced and grim. "Why don't you go out to the car and radio headquarters for me, Drake? Let them know I'm going to need that search warrant after all. You might let them know to alert the papers that we'll be bringing in the suspect."
Paul straightened from his post leaning against the door frame. "You ok with photographers at the jail? The reporters always want to bring the flash-bulb boys," he drawled.
"Fine." Tragg nodded. "They've been clamoring for news." He grinned at Susan Cooper. "They'll eat this up."
"How dare you!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. "I will not have you bullying your way into my home and making threats of putting me on display for the newspapers. Unless you have a warrant, you can leave. Now!"
"Well done, Mrs. Cooper. Well done." Tragg remained seated, seemingly unconcerned by her outburst. "I'd find your indignation convincing if it weren't for one thing."
"What might that be," she asked archly, arms crossed over her chest.
"You've yet to ask me why we're here."
Her eyes widened briefly, but she recovered quickly. "It's obvious why you're here. I do read the papers, you know. And I'm sure Perry Mason's trashy little secretary has told you all about me." She glanced over at Paul, who shifted from where he leaned against the doorframe and now stood, arms crossed, weight balanced on both feet, as he glared daggers at her. "Oh, I'm sure she's batted her eyelashes and you fell for everything she told you. She's that type."
"What type is that?" Paul asked, his voice cold. Tragg gave him a warning glance.
"Gold-digging working girl, planning on sleeping her way out of the typing pool and into the mansion. I've dealt with those women enough to know." She turned back to Tragg. "When I married my husband, he was the one who gained financial and social status, not the other way around. Jason is a financial genius," she continued, "but he didn't have the background to finance his ideas. Father saw his potential. Together they would have made a mountain of money."
"But then Perry Mason started nosing around," Tragg said.
Susan Cooper's features hardened slightly. "Nosing around, telling lies, spreading rumors, doing everything he could to send Jason and my father to prison. And for what? It's not like he was getting anything out of it. Other than whatever satisfaction he took from seeing my family and my livelihood destroyed by his meddling." There was no hiding the bitterness in her voice.
Tragg's eyes narrowed slightly. "I understand your father was never the same once he got out of prison."
"That place broke his spirit," she said, her gaze shifting to one side. "He had no soul, no drive once he was released. Jason tried to take him back into the business, but he..."
"He didn't want any part of the…" Tragg paused, "business?"
"No, he didn't." She seemed to come back to herself, straightening slightly and tugging invisible wrinkles from the hem of her skirt.
"I hear someone had gotten to him – convinced him to dig around in the company books and turn over what he found to the authorities." Tragg's voice was casual.
Susan Cooper laughed derisively. "As if he could find anything. He was just a doddering old man, no longer capable of causing any trouble. And yet someone killed him. And I know exactly who was behind it – that damnable lawyer. He could never get over the fact that he may have won his case, but he never saw a dime from it."
Tragg nodded, as if in complete agreement. "You think Perry Mason had something to do with that? Put someone up to it?"
"I wouldn't know. But it wouldn't surprise me," she replied, her voice rich with cultured venom. "I will tell you this," she said, leaning forward conspiratorially. "You've charged the wrong person, Lieutenant. That stupid little mouse, Millicent James, didn't do it." She smiled coldly and sat up straight again. "My father used to be someone. Someone I could be proud of. After Perry Mason railroaded him into prison, he was nothing. And still Mason wasn't satisfied."
Paul Drake shifted his position by the door, stuffing his hands deep into his pockets. Tragg nodded again, thoughtfully, and let the silence stretch out for a beat. "I've had more than a few run-ins with that lawyer, myself," Tragg said.
"Then you know what I'm talking about," Mrs. Cooper replied. "He's positively unscrupulous! Why, just this week, he came to my office and threatened me – me!" Her voice rose and lines deepened around her mouth and the corners of her eyes.
"Threatened you?" Tragg sounded slightly shocked. "Threatened you about what?"
"He asked all sorts of stupid questions and then said he'd subpoena me to testify." She drew herself up straighter. "I've no intention of letting that man drag me into a courtroom. And he won't destroy my life a second time. I've worked to hard and too long to let him—"
Tragg interrupted her. "So who murdered your father?"
She blinked, surprised at the interruption. "I told you – Perry Mason put him up to it."
Susan Cooper sighed. "I'm not going to say any more about it, Lieutenant. If you want to know who killed my father, then you go ask Perry Mason about it. He's the one behind everything. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Mason had my father killed as a means of revenge against me and my husband."
"So you shot him," Tragg said abruptly.
"Of course not!"
"You shot him," the Lieutenant repeated, "while your husband covered himself with a handy alibi."
"Jason doesn't need an alibi. And neither do I. Regardless, we were both here at home, together." Her eyes shown with triumph. "He's at his office, shall I ring him? He'll tell you the same thing – we were together all afternoon and evening."
Tragg's eyes narrowed. "You didn't know your husband was with Mason's secretary?"
"No, Jason would never-! He wouldn't have gone anywhere near that woman! He was with me!" She was becoming hysterical. "You're lying! He was with me – the whole time."
"Saw him with my own eyes," Tragg said calmly. "I guess maybe he's already on the lookout for someone to fill your shoes since it appears that this time you'll be the one doing the stint in prison. He didn't tell you about his little heart-to-heart with Della Street? No? I guess he would want to keep that sort of thing a secret as long as he could."
Susan Cooper stared at him open mouthed for a long moment. "Get out!" she snarled. "Get out of my house – now!" She turned and stormed out of the room.
Paul watched her go and whirled on Tragg. "You're just letting her walk away? Arrest her!"
"I don't have a warrant. Yet. And I don't have the evidence to pick her up without one." Tragg got to his feet. "The DA should be willing to give me a warrant after I tell him about this conversation, though. Let's get back to headquarters."
Drake nodded and followed the policeman back through the interior towards the front door. The housekeeper was waiting and all but booted them out onto the sidewalk. The door was closing behind them when they heard the shot.
Perry Mason lay back on the pillows and looked expectantly at Arthur Tragg. Tragg glanced at the court stenographer, who indicated with a nod that he'd finished recording the attorney's words.
"I guess that's it, Mason," the police detective said, getting to his feet. "This case is closed."
"It can't be, Lieutenant!" Della Street exclaimed. She had been seated on the end of the hospital bed, facing Perry as he gave his statement but now turned to face Lt. Tragg. "You haven't arrested Jason Cooper. Aren't you charging him?"
"I'd love too," he replied, glowering at her. "I'd love to slap the cuffs on that mealy-mouthed double-dealer myself. But I've got nothing that will stick to him."
"He manipulated his wife into trying to murder Perry!" Della's voice conveyed her disbelief. Mason, his eyes betraying his tiredness, reached for her hand.
"You know that and I know that, Miss Street," Tragg said kindly, "but I have no solid proof. I've found papers and notes with all sorts of cryptic messages that make it obvious Susan Cooper thought Paul Blanton was working for your boss and they were conspiring against her. She thought, rightly so, it turns out, that Blanton murdered her father. Unfortunately, she thought Perry Mason put him up to it." Tragg nodded towards Mason. "Did Jason Cooper plant that idea in her head and water that seed until it grew into full-blown paranoia? Not a doubt in my mind. And not a shred of proof to be had."
Della appeared unconvinced.
"I thought I might get something from the housekeeper," Tragg continued. "She had been with the Simpson family for years and was loyal to Susan Cooper, rather than her husband. Unfortunately all she could do was confirm her employer's rather fragile mental state. Like us, she thinks Jason Cooper is responsible, but he's been to slick to leave behind any sort of proof."
"So he's going to get away with murder?" Della demanded, hotly. "First, Cooper starts this fraudulent mining scheme with Paul Blanton." She held up a hand, ticking off the points on her fingers. "Second, Blanton catches George Simpson poking his nose into things and kills him. No doubt Jason Cooper approved. Third, Cooper convinces his wife that Blanton killed her father because he worked for Perry. Fourth, he makes her believe that Perry is trying to destroy them, and she decides to shoot him."
When she paused, Tragg said, "Don't forget fifth: she took potshots at Blanton when you were all at the mine. I got word from the sheriff this morning – they've recovered Blanton's body. Don't know yet whether he died from a gunshot wound or the cave in."
"All of that – he's behind all of that, and you're going to sit there and tell me nothing can be done?"
Tragg gestured impatiently. "Don't think that I like this any more than you do."
Before Della could reply, Perry squeezed her hand, drawing her attention.
"It's the way the system works, Della," he said quietly. "It may not be perfect, but it's the best there is. We're working for justice, not vengeance," he continued, cutting off any protest. "The provisions in the law that let Jason Cooper avoid prosecution are the same provisions that protect all of us from the whims of an ill-informed majority. This is the law. It's the best law on earth, and I will go to my grave fighting to uphold that law and seek out justice." He paused, the smiled grimly. "And don't worry, the universe has a way of evening things out. Cooper may not see justice served in a courtroom, but he will get what's coming to him, somehow, some way, some time."
Della looked him in the eye for a long moment. "You really believe that's true, don't you?" she said, her voice softer than before.
Mason returned her gaze, and shifted his hand on the bed, weaving his fingers into hers. "I know it's true. I know it."
Tragg sighed and got to his feet, motioning to the stenographer. "Let's get out of here. These two are going to get all hearts-and-flowers on us and I just can't stand that kind of thing." He pulled the door open and glanced back at the patient before leaving the room. "You're one in a million, Perry. Glad you survived. And glad you'll be laid up for a while and staying out of my hair!" With that, he closed the door on the sounds of laughter.
As Tragg and the stenographer walked down the corridor, the elevator doors opened and Millicent James stepped out onto the floor. She adjusted the vase of red roses she carried and proceeded down the hall to the room Tragg had just vacated. The policeman stopped and addressed her as she swept past.
"Afternoon, Miss James. You're looking well." He tipped his hat politely.
"Lieutenant," she replied, her voice less than friendly.
"I hate to have such a lovely young woman upset with me. I hope there are no hard feelings."
Millicent James thawed visibly. "You were just doing your job, I'm sure."
Tragg grinned. "Yes, but I'm glad to have been wrong." He stuck out his hand. She took it and fluttered her eyelashes at him. "Aren't you sweet?" she said. "I'd love to stay and chat, Lieutenant, but I really must run. I've not been able to see Perry yet, and I'm sure he's been worried about me." She smiled and withdrew her hand.
Tragg glanced back towards the hospital room he'd just left, then back at Millicent James. "Now might not be the best time," he said, remembering the way Perry and Della looked into each other's eyes as he'd left, but Millicent was already walking away.
"Oh, don't worry – Perry won't mind. Goodbye, Lieutenant!" With that she sailed down the hall.
Tragg shook his head and turned back towards the elevator. "He won't mind, but you might," he muttered, pushing the button. The doors opened and Tragg stepped aside allowing the stenographer to enter ahead of him. He followed and faced the hallway as he pressed the button for the ground floor. He could see Millicent knock and open the hospital room door in one swift motion, not awaiting a reply from within. As the door closed, Tragg heard the sound of the vase crashing to the floor as Millicent James exclaimed "Oh, Perry! How could you!"
Tragg chuckled all the way down to the lobby.
After a forced convalescence that lasted far too long for his liking, Perry Mason faced his first full day back in the office. Della Street had extracted a solemn promise from him that he would take it easy. So, seated in his favorite booth in Clay's Grill, nursing a cup of steaming coffee, he did his best to keep the promise. Perry was waiting for his secretary to meet him so they could have a late breakfast together. Della had some taken some paperwork to the court house to be filed first thing that morning. He hadn't seen her since the previous evening.
When Della insisted on going back to her apartment the night before, she cited the need for a good night's sleep. He'd pouted and promised to be good if she would just stay. The look in her eyes made him weak in the knees when she said "You're not the one that that's the problem."
Perry knew that was only part of the reason why she wouldn't stay with him last night. She didn't want to be seen coming to the office with him this morning. Della was big on propriety. He understood her reasons. The secretary sleeping with the boss – it was a stereotype and Della didn't want to be seen as the stereotypical fortune-hunting, social-climber. And, to be perfectly truthful, he didn't want to be the flip side of that coin – the powerful man able to take what he wants from a woman and then pay her off to avoid a commitment.
Even though they were both single and supposedly free to do what they wanted, tongues would wag. The city ran on gossip and he knew it was only a matter of time before their relationship became fodder for the columnists. Everyone already assumed they were sleeping together.
And they were right.
'So what's the point in trying to hide it?' he mused. Unfortunately his lover didn't share his unconcern for the concerns of society, and so they had begun a façade of separation.
Before they parted ways the previous evening, she agreed to his suggestion of breakfast at the diner. Now he stirred sugar and cream into his coffee while he waited. The coffee was a soft chocolaty brown by the time he had it just right. He ought to just give up and order hot cocoa, he mused, given the amount of cream and sugar he took in his brew. 'Cocoa. Hmm. Haven't had that in years,' he thought. 'Not since I was just –.'
"Hello, Mason," a familiar voice interrupted his reverie.
Perry glanced up at the man standing next to his table. "What do you want?" he asked.
Without waiting for an invitation, Cooper slid into the seat across from Perry. "Just happened to be passing by," Cooper said.
"Not likely," Mason intoned.
Cooper shrugged. He leaned back against the seat cushion. "Maybe I'm here to see you. Didn't want you to forget about me."
"That's not likely to happen," Perry replied. "Now that you've reminded me, why don't you hit the road? Give me a chance to test my memory."
"I'm here to meet with a probate lawyer," Cooper told him. "My wife came from a wealthy family. I'm her only heir. Looks like I don't have to worry about my business any longer. I'll have plenty of money to do whatever I want."
"Good for you," Perry said and raised the coffee cup to his lips, smiling as he tasted the bittersweet concoction.
"You don't get it, do you?" Cooper asked, frustration coloring his voice. "I've won. I beat you. You can't touch me and I have everything I could ever want."
Perry raised his eyebrow in surprise. "You really think so?"
"Of course! I'm wealthy and successful. You've tried twice to put me out of business and you've only succeeded in making me wealthier." Cooper laughed, a frenzied little sound. "I've got it all and you can't touch me!"
Perry took another sip of his coffee and put the cup down. His eyes and attention were focused on the building entrance.
"It really bothers you doesn't it?" Copper gloated. "The great Perry Mason has been bested - beaten - by the better man!"
The lawyer just smiled and shook his head.
"Admit it!" Cooper insisted. "You can't stand to lose!"
Mason's smile widened as he saw Della exchange a swift greeting with the doorman. "I didn't lose. And you didn't win." His eyes followed the lithe form crossing the lobby, imagining the click of her heels against the polished marble floor tiles as her quick steps brought her to him.
"Of course I did! Have you lost your mind?" Cooper's face was turning red.
"Quite possibly," Mason said casually as he motioned to Della who'd just entered and was scanning the booths for him. She smiled and slithered down the narrow aisle towards him, avoiding the waitresses carrying plates and coffee pots as she drew soft leather gloves off of her elegant hands. Mason watched her appreciatively, totally ignoring his companion.
"Good morning, Perry," she said brightly as she approached the booth. "How are-"
She stopped abruptly at the sight of Perry's dining companion. Perry reached out and took her hand, pulling her down to sit next to him. Della looked back and forth between the two men. Cooper was obviously angry. He didn't deign to acknowledge her presence and seemed inordinately preoccupied with the cuffs of his shirt sleeves.
"Hello, Darling," Perry said. Della smiled at him, her eyes questioning.
"Mr. Cooper just dropped by to tell me what a wonderful time he's having, getting his hands on his wife's money," Perry explained.
"I see," Della answered cautiously.
"He wants me to know that he's won this war," Perry continued. "That color looks really wonderful on you, by the way," he said indicating her navy-blue suit. "Anyway, I think he is pretty excited about not going to prison."
"Really?" Della asked, catching the spirit of Mason's conversation. "I'd be pretty happy about that, too, if I were him. Don't you suppose he should be careful, though? I mean, rumor has it the Securities and Exchange Commission wants to look over his business records and they are nothing if not thorough."
Cooper laughed derisively. "Let them come! I'm untouchable! I-"
"That's a good point, Della," Perry said gravely, completely ignoring Cooper. "He also seems pretty happy not to be tied up in the bonds of matrimony any longer."
"Is that so?" Della asked. "Do you suppose he already has some sweet young thing waiting in the wings who is going to be perfectly happy to help him spend his money?"
"I'm sure," Mason said.
"You two think you're funny," Cooper snarled. "Go ahead and kid yourselves. But no one is laughing."
Mason looked at Cooper for the first time since Della's arrival. "You're the one who's doing the kidding, Cooper. You think you've had some kind of triumph. Well, who do you share it with? Who is happy for you? Who is it that is happy that you've gained some success Cooper? When you come home in the evening from doing whatever it is that you do, who is waiting for you? Now that you've got this wealth, who will you spend it on?" Mason leaned closer to his adversary, keeping his voice low and intent. "Who wants you to be happy? Who takes pride in your success? Who worries about you when things go wrong? Who?" He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Who loves you, Cooper?"
The other man stared at him, open-mouthed.
Mason waited a beat. His eyes flashed as he held the other man captive with his gaze. "If you can't answer those questions with a name - one name - without even having to think about it, then you haven't won, Cooper. You haven't won a god damn thing." Cooper glanced over at Della, who was watching Perry, pride shining in her eyes.
"You're crazy!" he exclaimed. "Just plain delusional." With that he struggled out of the booth and exited the diner. He tried slamming the door behind him, but the automatic door check took all the oomph out of the gesture.
The diner was silent for a heartbeat or two before the patrons returned to their own concerns. Perry looked at Della. "Pancakes?"
Della watched him for a moment longer, her smile wistful. Then she shook her head. "Bacon and eggs. We're taking a deposition this morning and I need protein to stay awake."
Mason gestured for the waitress and made the order. When he finished, he glanced over at his secretary surprised by the intense look on her face. "What?" he asked, gruffness covering emotion.
She started to say something, then just shook her head and smiled. "That was quite a speech you just made, Counselor."
The lawyer shrugged, suddenly very interested stirring his coffee. "I meant it," he said solemnly.
Della squeezed his arm, causing him to look over at her. "He didn't win as much as either of you think he did."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you remember what you told me, when you were still in the hospital? You said the universe has a way of evening out injustice."
Mason nodded. Della continued, "Well, I picked up a little gossip in the Clerk's office at the courthouse. The estate's attorney has just filed Susan Cooper's will for probate. She cut him off. Left everything to her charity. He doesn't get a dime - not even the house," she finished, smiling broadly. "He's broke, but the SEC will probably make sure that he's got room and board for the next few years."
Mason gave a small laugh, his eyes resting on her lips. "It doesn't matter. I couldn't care less about what's-his-name." His hand caught hers under the table and he looked into her shining eyes. "I've got a life – a great life – to get back to."
For a heartbeat they stared at each other, communicating only with their eyes. Then Della took a deep breath and drew her hand out from under his. "Deposition at ten," she said, briskly. "New client appointment at 11:30. Don't make any plans for the afternoon. You've got paperwork to catch up on."
The lawyer groaned and started trying to talk his way out of the afternoon's paperwork duties. The waitress brought their breakfast. And life returned to normal.
Or as close to normal as it ever got.