Well, here it is finally, the end of my saga of how Perry unloaded Laura and how Della untangled herself from Rodger. Thank you all for being patient and reading and commenting while each chapter was edited between family weddings, birthday celebrations, fall bird migration, a new job, and my team's unbelievably exciting run for the pennant. - D

Chapter 18

Ronald and Raylene Avery were surprised and pleased that Perry Mason and Della Street dropped by unexpectedly. Mrs. Avery fussed about the untidiness of the old-fashioned but spotless living room, barking orders at her husband to straighten accent pillows on the sofa and close the magazine he had been reading. She insisted upon serving snacks, declaring that her English grandmother had served tea at about this time of day, and bustled herself into the kitchen to "lay out" a plate of sweets. Ronald Avery clucked to himself and indicated two side chairs for Mr. Mason and his secretary to seat themselves. Della surreptitiously removed her steno notebook from her purse and tucked it between her leg and the arm of the engulfing wing chair, just in case. Mr. Mason had been frustratingly close-mouthed about this surprise visit, choosing instead to parry her inquiries with a bit of teasing and stories about the attorneys she had met in court as the taxi deposited them in the parking garage so he could drive himself to the Avery home.

Ronald Avery leaned forward, swinging his oversized head from side to side, satisfying himself that his wife was out of hearing range. "You must follow my lead in what to eat," he said urgently. "Raylene fancies herself a good cook, but bless her heart, she can't boil a decent egg."

Perry Mason smiled and shot a glance at Della, who merely raised her eyebrows smugly.

Raylene Avery returned shortly with an ornate tray laden with a china tea pot, delicate pink tea cups, and a matching platter upon which had been arranged a multitude of cookies and little cakes. "Those women Ronnie works for brought over so much food we can't possibly eat it all," she chattered. "I don't understand why they brought food at all. Ronnie hardly eats anything." She patted his knee affectionately. "I'm afraid he'll blow away in a stiff breeze."

Della carefully watched what Ronald Avery selected and duplicated his choices exactly. She noticed that Mr. Mason purposely selected items in defiance of their client's warning, and sat back with an amused smirk at the expression on his face when he bit into a slice of what could have been banana bread that crunched.

They passed a few moments idly discussing nothing in particular, until Perry Mason set his plate down on the oval Queen Anne coffee table and leaned his arms on his knees, eyes slightly brooding and remorseful.

"Mrs. Avery, why did you kill Wilson Garners?"

Della nearly choked on her tea as Ronald Avery gasped audibly and dropped his plate of sweets, which broke into two pieces as it made contact with the edge of the serving tray. "Mr. Mason, how dare you come into our home and accuse my wife of something like that?"

"Because he was going to ruin Ronnie," Raylene Avery replied in a steady, matter-of-fact voice. "Ronnie is a nervous soul, always has been. Mr. Garners was using Ronnie's disposition against him, setting him up as a fall guy to cover up for his rotten son." She sat perfectly upright on the sofa, hands clasped in her lap, her considerable size incongruous next to the bird-like physique of her twittery husband.

"Raylene!" Ronald Avery screamed, two pitches above his normal voice. He jumped to his feet and ran to stand behind Della's chair.

Raylene Avery regarded her husband with sad, adoring eyes. I don't blame you for running away from me, Ronnie," she said. "I didn't mean to kill him. He just wouldn't listen to reason. I told him about the baby, how we've dreamed of having a family for so long, and how he was destroying our miracle. He laughed. He said his son meant more to him than the son of an insignificant man like Ronnie. There was a fancy engraved knife on the edge of his desk. I picked it up and jabbed him with it. He collapsed to the floor, clutching his chest, and I walked out of his office. I called the police from a phone booth and tossed the knife into a street drain somewhere."

Della had opened her notebook and begun making frantic pothooks on the blank page, the words she was hearing automatically transcribed by her stunned brain and transmitted to her hand. Raylene Avery killed Wilson Garners? She was having a baby? Preston Garners embezzled the money from his father's company?

"Raylene," Ronald Avery breathed.

Raylene Avery turned to Perry Mason. "Would you drive me to the police station? Ronnie doesn't drive."

Della had been waiting in Mr. Mason's car just shy of one hour, parked at the curb outside of Police Headquarters. The ride from the Avery house had been sad and silent, except for Ronald Avery's quiet sobbing and a slight slapping noise as Raylene Avery patted her husband's hand occasionally. When Mr. Mason looked at her inquiringly as he assisted Mrs. Avery from the car, Della had shaken her head, preferring to remain alone in the car and let the highs and lows of the day settle around her.

She went over everything she knew about Mr. Avery's case and couldn't for the life of her figure out why Mr. Mason had decided to drop in on the couple this afternoon, how he had decided that Mrs. Avery had stabbed Wilson Garners. He was a challenge, nakedly honest one moment, tight-lipped and secretive the next as he wrestled with his thoughts. She realized that as little events had piled up in her life, Mr. Mason had been battling his own pile of events, as well as keeping a handle on the legal fates of his clients. He had made it clear he wanted her to remain in his employ, and she felt guilty about her earlier dramatics and the worry she had caused him.

Sixty-one minutes after leaving her in the car, Mr. Mason reappeared and slid behind the wheel wearily. She remembered how tired he had looked the night of Mr. Avery's detention, and was shocked that he looked every bit as weary now.

"Do you have any plans for the evening?" he asked, starting the car.


"Would you take a drive with me? I'll buy you dinner." He eased the big car into traffic.

"I'll stay as long as necessary. You don't need to bribe me with food."

He smiled but did not take his eyes from the road. Two blocks from Headquarters he suddenly pulled over and jumped from the car without a word, returning in a few minutes with a box tied with string, which he handed to Della. "For later, if you get hungry," he explained.

She set the box on the seat between them and studied his profile as he skillfully piloted the car through the congested streets of Los Angeles in an easterly direction. At the outskirts of town he headed north, and she settled back to enjoy the barren landscape so different from metropolitan Los Angeles.

Twice his hand crept across the seat in search of hers for a quick squeeze of reassurance, and then retracted to once again grip the steering wheel. She rolled down the window and breathed deeply of the late afternoon air, letting the breeze ruffle her hair, releasing curls from the carefully arranged waves. She didn't notice that he took his eyes off the road momentarily to smile at her.

Nearly two and a half hours later, outside of Barstow, he slowed the big car and pulled off on a side road not much more than a two-track. He killed the engine, heaved a sigh, and opened the door.

Della let him be alone for a few moments before opening the passenger door and making her way over the parched ground to where he was leaning against the car, staring at the edge of the Mojave Desert.

"I couldn't breathe in Los Angeles," he admitted, still not looking at her. "You can breathe out here and clear your head."

"It's wonderful. I've never been to the desert."

He looked at her then, incredulously. "You live in California and you've never been to the desert?"

She laughed. "I've only lived in California for a year. My aunt has a house in Bolero Beach and doesn't like to stray too far from the water. I don't have a car, so I've been reliant on public transportation or the kindness of friends with automobiles, who prefer the beach as well."

"I'm glad I've broadened your horizons."

She joined him in leaning against the car, drinking in the warmth and dryness of the clear desert air. "What will happen to Raylene Avery, Chief?"

He didn't answer immediately. "I'm going to represent her," he said quietly. "She's forty-one years old and pregnant for the first time. They've been married for eighteen years. Wilson Garners threatened her miracle and she reacted to protect her dream."

"How did you know it was her?"

"She mentioned the anonymous phone call that day she came to the office. The police didn't release that bit of information, and requested that I keep it quiet. If I had been doing my job properly, I would have caught it immediately. The police would have figured it out eventually and botched the job of arresting her. I'm glad I could make it peaceful."

"It's so sad. What about the knife she used?"

He snorted. "Paul Drake had been hearing about some explosive piece of evidence the police were working on. Turns out the knife was a gift from his son, a hunting knife he'd had engraved with his father's name. Some kids found it in a drainage culvert and turned it in. Young Garners was afraid he would be accused of the murder if it became clear he was the embezzler. He didn't admit giving his father the knife until confronted with signed affidavits from the store clerk and the engraver."

"I'm glad you've agreed to represent Mrs. Avery," Della told him.

"So am I," he answered. "I'm hungry. How about you?" He opened the car door and reached for the box. Inside was a large sandwich, a crunchy dill pickle, and an apple. He opened the thick paper wrapped around the sandwich, and handed Della half. "Hope you like roast beef and horseradish."

"Just about my favorite thing on earth," she replied.

The ride back to Los Angeles wasn't quite as quiet as the trip to the desert. Perry turned on the radio and they chatted aimlessly about nothing in particular, occasionally about pending cases, sometimes about the passing scenery, rarely about the events of the past few days.

He found himself watching Della, struck anew by her beauty, by her graceful movements. Her nimble mind and wicked humor fascinated him, and he let her talk without interruption often, simply enjoying the sound of her voice. By the time the lights of Los Angeles were visible, conversation waned to an unselfconscious silence intruded upon all too quickly by the noisy activity of the city. Della rolled up her window and smiled at him.

"I don' know if I'll ever get used to the noise," she admitted.

"I've lived here for several years and I'm still not used to it," he told her. "That's why I need to escape to the desert every once in a while. But I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. There is a liveliness to Los Angeles that isn't present in any other city."

"I've heard New York is pretty lively," she commented.

"New York is hectic. Los Angeles is simply alive."

Della nodded in complete understanding. "I lived my entire life in a small town with virtually no palpable pulse. I wanted more than white picket fences, church picnics, and waiting for a new movie to be booked into the local theater every month." She laughed a trifle nervously at exposing a glimpse of her life before moving to Los Angeles. "I guess most small-town girls dream of a more exciting life. I was fortunate enough to make that dream a reality."

"Don't you think one day you'll pine for those church picnics and picket fences?"

Della stared out the window as neon signs flashed by. "Possibly. But right now I'm happy to be exactly where I am."

"I'm happy you're here, too," he said.

She smiled. "You're very nice."

"No one's ever accused me of that before."

She laughed, which made him smile. "I won't tell anyone. It'll be our little secret."

He turned the big car onto the boulevard where her apartment house was located, and his mood deflated. In a few moments he would deposit her at her door and head back to his own apartment, to a silence not as electrically charged as that shared with Della, to the stark reality of life without Laura, to private thoughts about forty-one year old pregnant women who committed murder to protect life-long dreams.

But that was why he had decided to remain in Los Angeles – to find his way without Laura, to defend the Raylene Avery's of the world, but mostly to share those companionable silences with Della.

She handed him the keys to her apartment after a quiet ride up four floors in the elevator, each lost in thoughts they couldn't or wouldn't verbalize. He unlocked the door and stood aside. The desert wind had tousled her short hair into soft curls and he brushed one errant lock from over her right eye. "I already can't remember what you looked like with long hair," he said, and pressed gentle lips to her forehead near the part in her hair. He turned and walked briskly toward the elevator before she could slap him.

"Chief," she called after him.

He waited a beat before turning to face her.

"I'm sorry about Miss Cavanaugh. But I'm very glad you decided to stay in Los Angeles. Raylene Avery needs you." She slipped inside her apartment and closed the door.

Perry Mason smiled as he stepped into the elevator, his mood no longer quite as deflated.

Her middle name was Katherine.

Her birthday was in April.

Her telephone number was now committed to his memory.

She liked roast beef and horseradish sandwiches and was willing to fight nearly to the death for a deli dill pickle.

Shared silence with her in a car was more satisfying than any conversation he had ever had with anyone any where.

He closed the personnel file labeled "Street, D. K." he had removed from the cabinet earlier that morning and opened another labeled "Singleton, A. M." while pulling the phone closer. He dialed the number listed and when a sleepy voice answered he nearly hung up. But the thought of Della looking over her shoulder even once in fear of her safety overrode sensibility.

"Mrs. Singleton? Perry Mason. I apologize for phoning so late and awakening you. I wanted you to know that Della Street doesn't intend to press charges for what you did to her. But Mrs. Singleton, if you come within ten feet of her ever again, I will press charges on her behalf and you will have to deal with me personally." He listened for a moment. "I'm not threatening you, Mrs. Singleton. I'm telling you what will happen if you don't stay away from my secretary...Go ahead and call the police, Mrs. Singleton. I'm sure they will be very interested in where you were Friday night. Good-bye." He hung up the phone, closed Alice Singleton's personnel file and placed it along with Della's in the hidden pocket of his briefcase.

He then picked up a scrap of paper from the telephone table and stared at it.

A new Denver telephone number.

He folded the scrap of paper, opend the drawer of the table, and placed the folded scrap beneath his address book.

This was not a telephone number to be committed to memory.