Writer's note: While writing this very first story of The Appellate Years I couldn't help thinking of the many fine actors and actresses whose lives were cut short by all the ills of cigarette smoking. We regret their passing and miss them all.
All the usual disclaimers apply.
A special thanks to my beta who wishes to remain mysterious and exotic.
The Appellate Years
Trials & Tribulations
The contrast of cool darkness and bright lights triggered memories buried just beneath the surface.
His footsteps echoed in the dark empty office as he pushed open the door. Beneath a desk light, a figure lay on his side across the desk, head reclining on an extended arm.
'There's no rest for the wicked, Paul.'
Laughing, he reached out and shook his sleeping friend and watched his head lull from side to side.
'Come on, Paul; show me the Bryant report so we can all go home.'
Only cool, empty, silence filled the room. The smile disappeared as he moved around the desk chair and bent closer to inspect his long-time friend. The familiar eyes stared vacantly at the report on the desk.
In another place and time he stared into the cool light overhead and inhaled the faint odor of disinfectants and heard the distant drone of a male voice. The words registered in his analytical brain while at the level of his emotional subconscious a flash of heat spread through his body like wildfire.
A draft of cold air moved across his bare skin in the stark white room as figures in scrubs moved around him and yet the chill still failed to extinguish the intense heat that radiated from within. Logically he heard the deep distant voice, but emotionally…..he felt his life coming to an end.
Slowly he turned to stare into a familiar face and heard his words with clarity.
'Well, Perry, I've been your doctor for many years and the advice I've given you is never easy. If you recall I've been to you for legal help on several occasions. I remember you gave me a straight legal answer whether I liked it or not. Now you're here and I've given you medical advice whether you like it or not,' Dr. Willmont stated.
'So that's it Carl,' he snapped. 'Whether I like it or not.'
"Your honor," the young woman behind the lights and camera called. "Judge Mason!" she called again trying to gain Perry Mason's attention as he sat staring ahead.
Slowly, Mason turned his attention to the photographer and softly answered. "Yes."
The woman stepped to the side of her camera and moved into the circle of lights, into his field of vision.
"Your honor, I know you're not thrilled to be here, but I need you to turn slightly and I promise it won't take much longer."
The lawyer's broad shoulders shrugged as he spoke. "Thrilled is not the word!" His head jerked in the direction of the large leather case on a chair in a corner of the small photo studio. "See that briefcase over there? I have two court transcripts and briefs to review this evening in preparation for oral arguments tomorrow. So no, Ms. Bernini, I'm not thrilled."
Heaving a weary sigh, she returned to her camera and sat down. On a stool close by, a file folder lay open and newspaper and photographs were fanned out. Smoothing back her short wavy hair, she stopped to look down at the handsome face that stared back. Beneath the newspaper photo the caption read, "Prominent attorney testifies at grand jury on perjury charge". Thick dark hair, penetrating eyes, and a handsome face, time had been good to the attorney she thought. Silver gray hair haloed his handsome face, a neatly trimmed beard streaked with gray, his presence was older and more robust, but the eyes had not changed, they were still mesmerizing. She looked up at the jurist seated beneath her lights in his dark flowing robe and smiled.
Standing, she softly instructed her reluctant client, changing the angle of the shot, stepping back behind her camera and continued.
Staring at the leather briefcase Mason contemplated the two briefs and court transcripts he would read tonight as well as all the other rulings he had delivered over the last eighteen months. He didn't just read the court transcripts he found himself living them, battling for the client, battling for the defense. Details, strategies, and questions flooded his mind while examining witness testimony, evidence and cross examinations presented in the transcripts. He grew restless when listening to the prosecutor's examination of witnesses and resisted the urge to rise for an objection. He jotted notes on paper, only to crumple them in frustration when he realized he couldn't hand them to Della or Paul for their immediate attention. Subduing his instincts he remained firmly focused, focused on errors and procedural rulings in regard to the federal and state constitutions and statutes. The appeal could not be based on his idea or opinion, but should be based on whether the trial court properly interpreted the law and used the correct procedures when considering the case. The appeal would determine the 'fairness' of the trial.
'Fairness,' he thought. 'What could be fair about a boy growing up without his father and a wife facing the world alone without her husband?' No, life was not fair and with each ruling he aspired to correct life's unfairness.
Life was not fair. Reaching out, he pressed his fingertips to the side of Paul's neck. The skin was cool to the touch and the eyes remained fixed and open. He knew…. Heaving a giant gasp, he dropped in the chair beside the desk, bent, and buried his face in his hands. Breathing heavily, his mind and heart in feverish turmoil, he finally surrendered to sporadic sobs.
That night he held Della in his arms and felt her pain as well as his own. During the war he had seen friends die. The living, the survivors- were left with guilt and a hollow numbness. He felt that way again as he held her in his arms along with the guilt of surviving. He didn't have a child or a wife, why couldn't it have been him in that empty office? Paul was gone, and their magic threesome was gone forever. And Della…he couldn't hope to erase Della's pain and could scarcely fathom the depths of her despair if it had been his own demise. His only hope….he would spare her from the ultimate loss.
Dr. Willmont, his own doctor, stood and watched his patient finish buttoning his dress shirt and stepped away from the stainless steel table. "Well, Perry?"
Pursing his lips, eyes moving in thought, the attorney paused. "Thank you, Carl for being frank. It's not going to be easy but I know what I have to do."
He loved Della more than anything in the world and couldn't bear to see her grieve for him. Paul's death was looking into the mirror of his own mortality and the fear she would find him…..find him like Paul. He had to set her free…..free to live …..free to love.
The photographer stopped and watched the jurist staring at the leather case and wondered. Was it the court transcripts that occupied his mind… or something more profound? Returning to the folder she gingerly took her fingertips and pulled out a clipping. The photo was taken in the hallway outside a courtroom, court reporters lined the margins and in the center, the tall, handsome attorney and the beautiful woman on his arm, had stopped, turned and were looking at each other. The photographer smiled, she knew the look and knew the look was 'priceless'.The caption identified the couple as the prominent attorney, Perry Mason and his confidential secretary, Della Street. Looking back at her subject beneath her studio lights, she quickly unclipped the Polaroid of a painting from the folder and inspected it one more time before stepping out and speaking with her reluctant client.
"Well, your honor- Judge Mason, we're finished."
As though waking from a nap, his eyes blinked, turned to face her and faintly smiled. "That's splendid, Ms. Bernini."
"I'm sorry it's taken us this long to get your portrait for the courthouse gallery. Your schedule is rigorous and I'm glad you were able to come this evening."
Perry Mason stood and stretched as the photographer moved to a switch and turned on the lights in the small photography studio. Slipping off the robe, he placed it in a zippered garment bag and pulled on his gray tweed topcoat with water droplets still clinging to its surface. The large leather briefcase grew smaller as the lawyer drew it near his broad chest.
Tall and slender, Valentina Bernini moved with the grace of a ballerina and stretched out her arm to usher him from her photography studio. Talking and walking on the jurist's arrival they had passed quickly through her art studio and gallery without notice and immediately began the photo session. Leaving the photography studio she turned on the indirect lighting to guide their passage through her collection of framed photos, paintings and work space. Along the length of the room, a series of large windows faced out on Richardson Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay. The house clung to a hillside in Sausalito and provided a spectacular view of the distant city lights of San Francisco.
Their pace slowed as Mason inspected the photographs he had missed on his hurried arrival. Valentina stood to the side and watched his observant eyes.
"I love taking photos of people and exotic places. Candid shots are my favorite. You learn so much from watching people, their looks, their manner, the story of their life. I try to capture it in my photos…..the story of their life."
"I can see why you were selected for our portraits." Mason's eyes critically moved over each candid shot of people on the street, in parks, sitting on docks, in café's any location where a candid moment could be captured. The photographs revealed the careful attention to detail by the photographer's eye. The people, landscapes and architectural views were from all over the world. The night scenes with streaks of red and white lights from moving cars and motorcycles coupled along with young women and men at the peak of their existence captured the raw energy of night life.
Moving beyond the display of photographs Mason stepped near the large window and looked out on the magnificent panoramic view and recognized familiar landmarks, the tip of Tiburon, Angel Island, Alcatraz and the distant shape of Treasure Island. The San Francisco city skyline twinkled on the horizon. Amidst the outline of towering buildings he could almost recognize the outline of the Paramount apartments, a forty three story structure near the heart of the city and a stone's throw from the appellate courthouse. Narrowing his eyes further, he focused on the outline of the Paramount and imaged the location of his own apartment in that structure. From his floor to ceiling window in his living room he had the same magnificent view of the bay, Alcatraz, Angel Island, and the houses clinging to the hillside in Sausalito….even the house on 15 Madrona Avenue.
"Thank you, Mr. Mason," she replied, watching the big man with the garment bag slung over his shoulder and leather case pressed to his chest. Lightly touching his arm, she gestured to another work area. A table covered with fresh canvases, containers of paints and brushes stood near a wooden easel and a large collection of painted canvases, some on the floor and other perched on their own stands.
"I also paint."
Slowly Mason moved through the canvases looking at the exotic locations…. the tropics, Europe and the middle-east. A bright, festive painting caught his eye and he focused on the street and recognized the Paris location. Spring, in all its glory with trees vibrant and green, flowers bursting with color along a café lined street captured the romance of the city. In the lower right corner an unusual signature marked the artist. The lawyer bent and examined the unique inscription. A key ring with two old fashioned keys, their shafts crossed, their distinctive blades displaying a union of symbols.
Valentina moved to his side and watched his face for emotion. Pointing to the corner she announced. "That's my signature." She allowed her graceful fingers to trace around the key ring and stopped at the old fashioned keys. "I've fallen in love with circles….rings….a symbol of eternity. The keys symbolize a perfect and unique union between the lock and its key. They work together-the lock and the key…..like lovers. Sometimes they open- for sharing …. or close-to protect."
Mason nodded his head and shifted the garment bag on his shoulder. "Very interesting, Ms. Bernini," he casually commented while studying the keys and the painting. The photographer took a breath and for a brief moment was disappointed in his response. But then she remembered all the lawyers ….the justices who had passed through her door. They all hid their feelings, their deception behind their poker faces. The lawyer turned and continued along the path they had taken earlier in the evening. Stopping at the door to the side entrance to her home, Mason paused, turned and studied the photographer with renewed interest as though they were meeting for the very first time. In the soft glow of the hall light he found her to be a striking woman and older than he first observed. A small streak of silver flowed through the unruly dark wavy hair that surrounded her face with a freedom and restlessness matched only by the worldliness of her paintings. He found dark intense eyes studying him and full lips that pulled into an easy smile.
"I'm glad we were finally able to make the connection. I understand how busy you are and appreciate your time."
Mason merely nodded in agreement as he opened the door allowing a gust of misty rain to enter, blowing his top coat and filling the hallway with the smell of the sea.
Suddenly he felt her hand on his arm.
"Mr. Mason," she began with a subtle urgency. Stopping, pulling the door closed, he felt her presence close to him and looked down into nervous dark eyes. "This may seem bold, but I can't let you leave without asking. You said you could see why they selected me for the photographic portraits of the justices. I have an eye for detail, an eye for capturing what's just below the surface in my photographs and paintings. To put it bluntly, I'd like to paint your portrait."
A soft chuckle and a slow smile appeared as Mason shook his head. "You are pressing your luck, Ms. Bernini," he announced firmly. "My calendar is packed. Reading briefs, court transcripts, writing opinions, listening to oral arguments and endless reviews and debates, I'm sorry, I couldn't possibly take the time."
Lowering her head in resignation, she sighed, then looked up again with a wistful smile. "Well, I had to ask. But then I do believe in the power of circles and if you should change your mind you can return again at this time next week."
The jurist shook his head and chuckled. "Good night." Mason pulled open the door allowing fresh air to blow passed him as he stepped into the darkness and disappeared.