"Who is Bart?"
At the sound of his secretary's voice, Perry Mason leaned through the washroom doorway. "Did you say something?" He retracted into the small washroom and turned off the faucet. "Della?"
She appeared suddenly in the doorway. "I said, who is Bart?" She was holding a sheaf of small slips of paper in her hand, telephone messages handed off from Gertie, the receptionist. Several long days in court and the messages had piled up.
He splashed cologne onto the palm of one hand, and lightly slapped his cheeks, shaking his head at the slight sting. There. Nothing he could do about his bloodshot eyes, but he felt moderately more human after a string of sleepless nights and endless tedious hours in court, culminating in the dramatic confession he had extracted from his client's unscrupulous business partner. He turned to face Della, who still looked fresh and crisp in her tweed pencil skirt and sublime cashmere sweater, despite the fact she had been at his side for the better part of seventy-two hours, chasing stubborn witnesses by night and efficiently organizing his thoughts and notes during the day in court. He marveled at her stamina, how she always looked put-together and clear-eyed, pacing him in those flattering but impractical heels. Which were currently not on her feet. He smiled.
"Stinker. That's what I'm asking you. There are seven messages from simply 'Bart'. Since there is no last name, no return phone number, and no message, I'm assuming Bart is someone you know quite well."
Perry switched out the light in the washroom and squeezed past Della on his way to his desk. "You should never assume, Della. I know no one named Bart quite well."
"For crying out loud, Chief, just answer me."
He lifted the humidor lid, extracted a cigarette, lit it, and made a big production out of settling himself in his chair wearily. "Bart could be my brother."
Della's eyes widened in shock. "Your brother!"
"I told you I had a brother."
"Once. In passing. Then you clammed up."
He shrugged. "Not much to tell. I have a brother named Bart. End of story."
She moved around the desk and leaned her hip against it. "Older or younger?"
"How much older?"
"Enough to be annoying."
"Where does he live?"
"In a house."
She kicked at his shin lightly with her stockinged foot and he looked up at her in surprise. "Stop it."
He leaned forward and reached around her to stub out his cigarette in the ashtray. "He's seven years older, lives in Utah, his wife's name is Valerie, and they have three boys."
"You have three nephews? Why have you never told me any of this?"
He tried to take another cigarette from the humidor but she patted his hand away. He glared at her. "Yes, I have three nephews."
"Do you know their names?"
His glare became an expression of affront. "Of course I know their names. Larry, Moe, and Curly."
"You are dangerously close to not having a dinner companion tonight, Mr. Mason."
"I'm sure Paul can come up with a suitable young lady who would be more than thrilled to have dinner with me," he shot back, exhausted nerves rebelling with a life of their own to her comment. Instantly regretting his words and hating himself for putting that hurt look in her eyes, he tried to take her hand, but she pushed herself away from the desk and walked swiftly across the carpeted floor toward the connecting door to her office.
He didn't catch up to her until she was a mere step from the door, grabbed her wrist as she reached for the handle, and pulled her around to face him. "Della, I didn't mean it. You know I didn't mean it." He could offer no excuse for the hurtful words because she would accept no excuse.
She stood stiffly in the circle of his arms, unwilling to respond to his embrace. "Let me go, Chief," she requested quietly.
"No. Not until I apologize properly and you accept my apology." He hugged her tighter.
"Squeezing me to death is not an apology. Let me go." She squirmed in his arms.
He didn't relax his hold one bit. "My nephew's names are Bartholomew Jr., Bradley, and Brett."
Della stopped squirming. "Bartholomew Jr.? Your mother named her sons Bartholomew and Perry?"
Perry grinned. "Lyla was unusual."
"She certainly was." She let her hands come up behind him to rest beneath his shoulder blades. "Why am I just learning about this after a year and a half?"
"You haven't exactly been a font of information about your family," he reminded her, moving his mouth close to the curls at her forehead.
She frowned slightly. "Touché. But at least I told you my brother's name and relative age. Are you going to call him back? Seven phone calls in two days sounds like an emergency to me."
His lips softly trailed across her forehead. "I'll think about it. There's no emergency."
The code knock of Paul Drake sounded on the door leading to the back hallway. Perry smiled ruefully down at Della and reluctantly released his hold on her just as the detective swung open the door.
"C'mon kids," he said impatiently, "the champagne is getting flat." He took in the sight of Perry and Della standing so close together at the opposite end of the office, knowing that he had interrupted one of those little private moments attorney and secretary seemed to be sharing with regularity lately. "Put your shoes on, Beautiful. Can't dance barefoot at the Adirondack."
The celebratory dinner Perry's client had planned for eight grew exponentially as acquaintances of both client and attorney chose that Friday night to visit the Adirondack. By nine o'clock, harried busboys had pushed together no less than ten tables to accommodate the crowd, and waiters were hard-pressed to keep the champagne buckets stocked.
The evening had started out to Perry's liking – cocktails and a steak dinner, a few dances with Della – but as more and more well-wishers, friends, and even complete strangers joined the celebration he grew moody as his preferred partner always seemed to be dancing with someone else. He tried to keep the chair next to him unoccupied whenever he was between dances with the bevy of women in fussy dresses with fussy hair-do's who asked him to dance, but was frustratingly unsuccessful. For most of the evening he seemed to be staring across the table at Della in her decidedly un-fussy clothes but still the most beautiful woman in the room, as she held court with obvious admirers, including his good friends Fletcher and Everett McGreavey, who should have known better than to flirt with his secretary. He wanted to spend time with Della, not watch every man in the nightclub spend time with her. He could tell Della was having a marvelous time. She thrived in social situations like this. A slight scowl landed on his face and remained.
Near midnight, with the party showing no signs of winding down, Perry was involved in an unsatisfying conversation with a platinum-haired woman poured into a sparkly pink dress when he felt a tug at his suit coat. Della was behind him, eyes bright with enjoyment and champagne, smile alight with a dazzling mischievousness. She crooked a finger at him and disappeared into the crowd rimming the dance floor. Hastily excusing himself from the openly disappointed young lady who thought she had captured his full attention, he set off in search of his secretary. As he elbowed his way through the partiers, alternately excusing himself and accepting congratulations on the satisfying conclusion of the trial, he caught sight of Della at the far end of the dance floor. She crooked her finger once again and glided through a door marked "EXIT". His feet couldn't carry him to that door quickly enough.
Beyond the door was an alley that ran between the Adirondack hotel and the office building next to it. It was poorly lit, meant for daytime deliveries and a convenient pass-through for traffic, deserted at this time of night. "Della," he whispered urgently as the heavy exit door closed behind him.
"Right here." Her arms slid around his waist from behind and he jumped what seemed like several feet vertically. She laughed delightedly.
He pulled her around to face him. "What are you doing out here?"
"I'll take that apology now." She leaned into him, palms flat against his shirtfront, head tilted upward.
"What apology?" Even in the darkness of the alley he could see how her eyes sparkled. This was the boldest she had ever been. He liked it, but…
"That proper apology you owe me. I'll take it now." Her arms slid up his torso to wind around his neck.
"I'm afraid an apology would be lost on you in your current condition." He nearly gasped as she pressed herself closer to him. How much of this behavior was her and how much was the champagne?
"My current condition is ripe for an apology," she declared. "What's your problem?"
"I'm afraid you won't remember the apology, kiddo." Why couldn't he just accept her advances and let her lead them to where he wanted to be?
She made a small exclamation of frustration. "I'm perfectly fine! If I wasn't, I'd be demoralizing myself on the dance floor begging for an apology instead of concocting this brilliant plan to lure you out here." She flung herself away from him and took off up the alley toward the boulevard at an impressive speed.
For the second time that evening he ran after her and gathered her into his arms. But this time he quelled her struggling by pressing his mouth to hers and gently but firmly seeking entry into its enticing depths. How he kissed her, what his wicked mouth did to her was hardly proper. But she accepted it, reveled in it, lost herself in it.
Perry was breathing hard and wobbly-kneed when she finally pulled away. This facet of their relationship was relatively new, blooming naturally from office necking and slow deep kisses at her door following evenings out dining and dancing. They hadn't acknowledged the shift, each content with the progression, unwilling to verbally analyze or categorize what they were doing. It made him dizzy and giddy and happy, but filled him with trepidation all at the same time.
"I'm sorry," he said with a tiny smirk.
She yanked the handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped lipstick from his mouth. "Hush. Don't spoil it."
He grinned while she folded the hanky and returned it to his pocket. "I'm going to be a bad boy more often just so I can apologize."
She stamped her foot. "I told you not to spoil it, Chief."
He grabbed her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. He found the difference in their hands fascinating. "Let's go back inside. We can hide at the back of the dance floor where no one can see us and cut in."
She didn't budge. "We can't get back in," she told him. "The door locks from the inside."
He stared at her in the darkness. "I'd say that was a huge flaw in your plan, baby."
Her smile was slow and sly. "Not if the plan wasn't to go back inside. I called for the car ten minutes ago."