These characters are not mine. They just keep occupying my mind. :) This story was triggered by a little detail mentioned in the end (while I'm actually writing a ruthlessly romantic PMDS story) and spiced up by OldEnglishD's mention of one of my favorite peeve characters, Eva Belter. Thanks for that, dear. And Happy Thanksgiving everybody!
It was a knock that woke him, persistent and loud. A bang-bang-bang on his apartment door, a fist that harassed his ears sensitive from sleep. Perry Mason opened his eyes, his head was pounding to the rhythm of the noise. He dropped his left arm from his forehead, released the grip from a file that was lying on his lap and pushed the blanket off his legs. Another bang and a voice now barking his name.
"Mason," the voice shouted gruffly. "C'mon, open up."
The lawyer was stiff all over as he got up from the couch. He adjusted his PJ pants and closed his bathrobe over his naked chest. His voice was low when he opened the door to welcome his intruder, to let him in.
"Lieutenant," Perry Mason growled in a sleepy voice. "Thanks so much for waking me up."
"You're welcome, counselor," Tragg answered with a grumpy grin and gestured Lieutenant Anderson to hand him the envelope he held in his hand.
"A warrant?" The attorney accepted the paper to study it, then closed the door and followed the policemen into the privacy of his living room. "What's going on?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," Tragg answered as his eyes scanned the room. "Where is she?"
Perry slit his hands into the deep pockets of his fluffy robe and glared at the men standing across from him. "Who do you mean?" Mason asked deadpan serious and watched how Tragg started searching the room for clues of a lady visitor.
"Oh, you know," the Lieutenant replied busily. "Tall, curly hair, dark eyes. The secretary kind."
Mason narrowed his eyebrows and stood painfully erect. "What makes you think you would find her here?"
"We tried her home," Tragg turned around and shot Perry Mason a challenging smirk. "She wasn't there."
"It seems you've put quite an effort into finding her," The attorney remarked stone-faced.
"There's been a murder," the Lieutenant offered reluctantly.
"What's that got to do with Della?" Mason queried, unwilling to mask his discontent.
"A witness has placed her at the scene of the crime," Lieutenant Tragg answered with a mix of regret and delight.
"Tall, curly hair, dark eyes, is that how the witness described her?" The lawyer grumbled. "A rare find in small-town L.A., I must admit."
"The description was pretty accurate," Tragg replied, not really taking pleasure in the conversation as it continued.
"I ask again, what makes you think you'll find her here?" Perry Mason returned in his courtroom voice.
"You can answer me or I'll start opening doors, Perry." Tragg almost snarled, secretly dieing to expose the obvious. "Where is she?" He added gruffly.
Perry Mason glared at him and simply stood. His face grim, unreadable.
"Look, Mason," The Lieutenant continued. "We were asked to come here and arrest you if necessary."
"On what grounds?" The lawyer asked in his usual gruff calm but almost laughed.
"For obstruction of justice," Lieutenant Tragg answered and lowered his head. He knew he wasn't walking on solid ground.
"Do you really think the testimony you got is valid?" Mason asked annoyed and shook his head. "Anyone who reads a paper could describe my secretary and me."
"You've been in the papers a lot recently, haven't you?" Tragg remarked with a stony smile. "Restaurant openings, dance floor mishaps at the annual bar function."
"I didn't know you paid attention to gossip columns, Lieutenant," Perry Mason answered flatly and eyed Andy Anderson who was scanning the room for evidence of Della Street's presence.
"Look, Mason, Hamilton Burger considers Della a suspect because we found her fingerprints at the scene. She knew the victim," Tragg tried to reason with the lawyer who seemed to clench his fists in the pockets of his bathrobe. "Do you really want us to search your apartment and find her, compromising your reputation?"
"I ask again: what makes you think you would find her here?" Perry raised his voice, now openly annoyed, then turned his head to the sound of her sleep-fogged voice.
"What's going on?" Della yawned as she exited the bedroom. She tiptoed towards them on naked feet, Perry's extra bathrobe tightly tugged around her slender form, endearingly shrinking her size, a collar sticking out from underneath matching the color and pattern of Perry Mason's PJ's.
"Having a sleep-over?" Tragg remarked quickly, unable to resist caressing Ms Della Street in her unusual attire, her hair a curly mess.
"Go back to bed, Della," Perry said tenderly, his eyes fixed on hers in an urgent plea, his back turned to Tragg and a now embarrassed Lt. Anderson who quietly apologized to Mason's secretary, stunned by her poise in the middle of the night. Perry Mason smiled ruefully. "The Lieutenants were just about to leave."
"Actually," Arthur Tragg cut in straightforwardly. "We were not."
Della looked at Perry to ask a question he answered by shaking his head. "What's wrong, Lieutenant?"
"We are looking for you," Tragg replied with a tad of guilt as he studied the natural beauty of her sleepy face.
Della stared at him with a small smile as she walked up to stand by Perry's side. "Should I be worried that you came here to find me?"
"We're here to check your alibi," Tragg coughed out as he watched her inching closer to her employer, so obviously fitting with him.
"My alibi?" Della exclaimed and looked up at Perry who moved his arm around her shoulders in a reassuring embrace.
"A witness has claimed to have seen you at the scene of a crime," Perry Mason answered, his voice gentle as he caressed his answer into her ear.
"Who died?" Della asked faster than Lieutenant Tragg could cut in to elaborate on Mason's remark.
"Eva Belter," Lieutenant Anderson replied, matter-of-fact.
Della Street's eyes went wide in shock, her pair of deep brown locked with Perry's blue, instantly looking for backing.
"What?" She gasped and saw the color draining from Perry's face for a second while his grip on her shoulders became possessive.
"We know you had a little incident with her at the bar function last night," Tragg said and exchanged a look with Andy who cleared his throat, suddenly uncomfortable with the situation.
"We had a little disagreement," Della admitted, vividly recalling Eva Belter's snappy remarks at her arrival with Perry Mason – his arm holding on to her elbow like he always did. His suit matching the color of her dress, without intention, just by coincidence.
"There was nothing to it," Della gilded the truth, well aware of Perry's quiet unrest so close beside her.
"As I understand it," Lt. Anderson tried to press her on the subject. "Mrs. Belter made insinuations about the nature of your relationship with your employer."
"She owns a tabloid," Della agreed with demure simplicity. "Certain things are to be expected."
Arthur Tragg smiled to himself. He had to hand it to Ms. Street, she knew how to face any given situation with a backbone most other people he knew lacked.
"And it didn't irk you to be the central topic of conversation for an entire evening?" Andy continued his questions, always expecting Mason to cut him off with an angry voice. But instead, the lawyer stood and held his secretary who seemed to soothe him with an almost invisible squeeze of her hand.
"It became tiring halfway through the appetizers," Della answered honestly, her face a mask of innocence and grace.
"Is it true Mrs. Belter threatened you?" Lt. Anderson went on, noticing his colleague's admiration for Perry Mason's girl Friday.
"That's ridiculous," Della Street answered calmly. "Our conversation may have bordered the unpleasant, but it came nowhere near a threat."
Perry recalled the strained look on Della's face when he had spotted her at the other end of the room, involuntarily involved in a conversation with one of the few people she had told him thoroughly displeased her. He had observed how she had forced herself to smile, how Della had removed Eva Belter's hand from her own and sought her distance, fighting the temptation to just run towards him and hide in his embrace. How she had then tripped on the dance floor only to land in his arms, adding fuel to a fire Eva Belter had started to get back at him for not reacting to her advances.
"Did Mrs. Belter show you pictures of you and Mr. Mason? Pictures she planned to include in the next issue of Spicy Bits?" Andy asked, his voice gentler than usual.
"She did nothing of the kind," Della replied in a painful whisper, unwilling to let Perry know what Eva Belter had actually said with a condescending expression on her face. That she had called her a mistress, a sorry case of a secretary who served her employer's every need until he found himself a respectable companion to marry.
"Then what did she have on you to stir up the gossip, to lure you to her apartment long after the party was over?" The young Lieutenant tried to pierce her eyes with his own but failed. Della simply looked at him with a polite smile on her lips, the kind of smile Tragg had once described to him as a mixture of innocence and sin.
"I did not go to her apartment, Lieutenant," Della said, not leaving any doubt that she really hadn't. "Not last night at least."
"And who can vouch for that?" Andy finally asked although he already guessed the answer.
"I can," Perry answered sternly.
"Eva Belter was killed between midnight and 3am," Anderson addressed him seriously. "We have witnesses who swear they saw you two leave the function around 11pm. Are you sure you can support Ms. Street's testimony, counselor."
"Ask Paul Drake if you don't trust me," Perry answered without hesitation, his hold on Della more intimate now than he usual. "We met him at the office to go over an ongoing case."
"At the office?" The Lieutenant asked through jealous teeth as he witnessed Mason and his secretary's natural familiarity.
"Yes, Lieutenant," Della replied and flipped her eyebrows at the unspoken remark. "Do I have to remind you how often you've commented on the odd hours we tend to work?"
"Well, Ms. Street," Lieutenant Tragg said quietly and gave her a knowing smile. "Please pardon my bluntness but I understand Mrs. Belter's impression if these are the circumstances of your working late." His eyes caressed her bathrobe-covered body so closely tucked away in Perry's arms. "I didn't know your job description included staying over night."
"I know what you are thinking, but you are wrong," Della started but was interrupted by Perry who dropped his protective arm from her shoulder to her waist for silent support.
"Am I, Ms Street?" Tragg replied seriously.
"Do you always end up spending the night when it's getting late?" Lt. Anderson cut in and got a stare from Perry Mason that could have intimidated him if he had cared.
"To get back to your question," Della confirmed her previous statement and ignored the insinuations thrown her way. "Perry and I were working late. At the office. With Paul Drake."
She suddenly paused, then went on. "Don't you want to write that down?"
"For future reference?" Andy flashed her an audacious smirk.
"I'd really want you to get the names right," Della quipped and challenged his smile with one of her own.
"I think I'll be all right." Anderson shot back while Arthur Tragg shook his head at the sight before him. Perry Mason in his usual gruff calm and Della Street with sparked up poise, both in matching outfits, the attorney's arm flung around his secretary to comfort her, challenging them about the propriety of the situation.
"When did you leave the office?" The Lieutenant quickly asked before Mason could add a remark that was written all over his stern face.
Della pondered for a second and met Perry's gaze. "Around 1am," she said and triggered a reluctant nod.
"I'm sure Paul can give you the exact time," Perry Mason added affirmatively. "He's rather thorough when it comes to documenting his working hours."
"And then you drove home," Tragg continued the interrogation, ignoring the attorney's comment.
"Apparently not alone," Andy couldn't resist.
"Perry drove me if that's what you're asking," Della returned, now unamused.
"And dropped you off when?" Tragg went on as Andy finally took the notes Della had urged him to scribble down.
"I was home around 1:30," Della shot Perry an uncertain smile.
"Can you confirm that?" The Lieutenant glared at Mason who still stood unmoved.
"1:35, if you want to know the exact time," the attorney offered.
"Checked your watch, counselor?" Tragg raised his eyebrows.
"I did." Perry Mason's answer was scanty yet precise.
"Why the hold-up?" the Lieutenant asked and narrowed his eyes to hear Ms Street's answer.
"There was no hold-up," Della answered and shifted her feet uncomfortably.
"Isn't it only fifteen minutes from the office to your home, Ms. Street?" Tragg asked and noticed the secretary's unusual unrest. "In light traffic."
"That's right," Della replied and lowered her head.
"Then how come you arrived so late?" Arthur Tragg tried to push her for an explanation.
"What does it matter, Lieutenant?" Mason interrupted him with a quiet bark.
"I just want to make sure Ms. Street has an airtight alibi," Tragg returned gruffly. "Maybe you can help providing that by answering my question. Why did it take you twenty minutes longer to get home last night?"
The lawyer glared at him and felt Della's hand caressing his chest to soothe him or ask a wordless question, Arthur Tragg couldn't tell.
"Well, Ms Street?" The Lieutenant tried to press for an answer from a woman whose body language had strangely changed. "Where did you go?"
He watched how she played with her pinky ring, nervously spinning it around. Now Tragg knew that something else was going on.
To his surprise, Della suddenly entwined her hand with Perry's, then looked at the attorney for reassurance. She arched up her eyebrows and sighed as Mason gave her a small smile.
"Della came home with me," Perry finally said, leaned down and placed a loving kiss onto her head.
Tragg was startled by the open display of affection for a moment, then cleared his throat and continued his questioning. "Is that true, Ms Street?"
Della nodded and rested her eyes on Arthur Tragg's notepad, avoiding his gaze.
"So you didn't go home but spend the night with...," Lieutenant Anderson determined, then coughed. "Spend the night at Mr. Mason's apartment instead."
"No," Della corrected him gracefully. "I mean, yes."
Tragg looked at her in mild confusion, then followed her finger pointing to Andy's pad.
"You may want to get the names right after all," the secretary said in a smooth voice. "It's Mason."
Anderson glared at her and almost chuckled. "Thank you, Ms. Street, but I'm familiar with your names." Then he showed her his notes and underlined the letters that composed their names. "But see for yourself."
Lieutenant Tragg exchanged a quick look with Perry and suddenly noticed a detail he had always missed before. Tragg glared at Della then back at the ring she had played with before. It was a perfect match to Perry Mason's ring on his own pinky. Such an obvious sign and yet so subtle.
"It's Mason," Della repeated and met Andy Anderson's widening eyes. "As in Mrs."
From all the possible truths this night, that one the Lieutenants hadn't seen coming.