Perry Mason

The Collision

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! I'm not sure where this story idea came from, but I thought it would be an interesting experiment. Sometimes I have moments where I crave interaction between two particular characters. And when I came up with this, I wanted to see more of Della and Hamilton. I've tried to throw in a few little Perry/Della tidbits for the shippers. There are also extensive references to season 6's The Weary Watchdog, a fan favorite. What Della wonders is something I've wondered myself.

It was the liquid trickling over his eye that awakened him, he supposed. He stirred, groaning under his breath when consciousness brought with it an intense, matter-of-fact pain. Why did his body throb all over? What had happened?

Forcing his eyes open was almost an impossibility. They wanted to stay shut, where awareness and light could be kept out. But he was far too awake now to pass out again. He managed to pry his eyelids apart, reaching to brush away the cold substance as he did.

It was red coating his fingers when his vision came into focus. He frowned, digging through his pocket for a handkerchief. He still did not remember what had happened. But he was in the car. Could it have crashed?

He wiped his fingers and then dabbed the cloth across his face. Yes, he had crashed. Fragments of memory were starting to come back to him. There had been another car, a cab, coming from the opposite direction. Now he could see it in front of him. The vehicles had T-boned, with his car having slammed into the driver's side of the other.

He stared in horror. The cab driver was slumped over the steering wheel. If he wasn't dead, he looked close to it. And it looked like he had a passenger in the back seat. . . .

Fumbling with the glove compartment, he managed to get it open and remove the portable first-aid kit he had previously stowed inside. Then he struggled with the door and stumbled outside onto the concrete. He was dizzy, and he supposed he might have a concussion, but overall he seemed to be in pretty good condition, all things considered.

He made his way around the front end of the cab and to the front passenger door, which he pried open. "Hey!" he called to the driver as he leaned inside. "Are you alright? Can you hear me?" His voice was raspy and pained and he received no response for his efforts. The cabbie lay against the wheel, entirely still.

A quick examination left him feeling sick. The man was dead. The crash had been the cabbie's fault; he had suddenly sped out from a side street without checking for traffic. In the next instant the cars had collided. But knowing that there was nothing he could have done did nothing to make him feel any better. He rocked back, climbing slowly out of the car. Would the passenger be dead too?

A slight stirring from the back brought his hopes up. But as he pulled open the rear door the color drained from his face.

"Perry?" the brunette woman moaned. "Perry, are you here?"

"Della," he gasped in horror. Was she badly hurt? It looked like some blood gathered at her right temple. She must have struck the window in the collision.

He leaned inside, swiftly examining her for broken bones. There were none that he could tell, but she definitely had a head wound. He needed to call for help.

His cellphone, however, was dead. His eyes narrowed in frustration at the remembrance. He had intended to charge it as soon as he got home.

Maybe Della had a workable phone. Her purse was on the floor next to her. Some of the contents had spilled out, but there was no phone amongst them. He pulled the bag out, searching through the remaining items.

Before he could finish, a shaking hand fell on his wrist. "Perry?" Della asked again. Her eyes were half-open and bleary. From what he could see, her pupils looked normal. He knew, however, that did not mean she didn't have a concussion.

"No," he said in reply. "I'm not Perry. He's not here. I'm sorry."

Della did not let go. "Where is he?"

"I don't know."

At last he drew out her phone. Flipping it open, he moved to dial 911 but stopped. Something was wrong; the screen was completely black. Either this phone needed a recharge too or it had been damaged in the crash.

He dropped it back in the purse. "Of all the rotten luck." What was he going to do? Go for help? He could not leave Della. And what if she could not be moved?

"Mr. Burger?"

He looked up with a start. Della's eyes were clearer now, albeit she still looked dazed and hurt. But she recognized him and that was definitely a good sign.

"Yes," he said, the relief obvious in his voice.

"Why do you have my purse?"

He set it on the seat with a sigh. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was looking for your cellphone to call for help. My phone is dead."

Della looked to it, idly running her hand over the dark leather. "Did you find it?"

"It isn't working either." He straightened, weary from bending down, and leaned on the roof of the car. "Do you remember what happened?"

"There was a crash. . . ." Della perked up, staring in alarm at the shadow in the front seat. "Mr. Burger . . . !"

"He's dead," Hamilton quickly interjected. "Please, don't look."

Della did not need coaxing. She turned away, a shudder going up her spine. "I had a feeling he was going too fast," she lamented. "I tried to tell him to slow down, and then we hit the other car. . . ." She looked at him again, for the first time noticing his disheveled appearance. Her eyes widened in sudden realization.

"It was my car," he confirmed.

"Are you hurt bad?" Della gasped. "You're bleeding."

"Oh, I'm alright," he hurried to assure her. "Actually, Miss Street, you're bleeding too."

"I am?" Della raised her hand to her head, her fingers swiftly finding the sticky crimson. "Is it bad?"

"I hope not." He opened the first-aid kit and took out an antiseptic wipe. Gently he began to dab at the wound. "Does this hurt?"

Della flinched. "Yes," she admitted, the pain twisting her voice.

"Well, maybe that's a good thing," Hamilton said as he worked. "You were delirious a few minutes ago."

Della stiffened. "What did I say?"

Hamilton hesitated before he replied. "You were asking for Perry."

"Oh." Della closed her eyes. "What are we going to do, Mr. Burger? Are we stranded here?"

Again Hamilton hesitated. "I don't see a pay phone around. It looks like the cab's two-way radio is broken too. But somehow we have to either call for help or go find help ourselves." He gave her a searching look. "Do you think you can walk?"

"I . . . I'm not sure," Della stammered. She slowly drew her legs out of the car and to the ground. "I can try."

"I'll help you," Hamilton hurried to say. He reached to steady her as she exited the car, wobbling from the sudden change in gravity. Although she tried to stay standing she swayed, stumbling into him.

Her cheeks flushed in her embarrassment. "Oh, I'm sorry," she exclaimed.

"It's alright," he told her. He drew an arm around her waist to support her, at the same time praying that he would not suddenly be afflicted with vertigo and send them both to the ground. At the moment he felt alright, but a great deal of movement could change that.

And there would probably have to be a great deal of it. They had crashed in an old business district. Most buildings here were either closed for the night or permanently. Some no longer looked very pleasurable. Who knew how many vagrants or crooks might be holed up inside.

"There has to be a pay phone around here somewhere," Hamilton muttered in frustration.

Della peered at their surroundings. "It's not such an inviting neighborhood."

"I know." Hamilton sighed. "But if you can walk, we'd better get going."

Della nodded. "I'll do my best, Mr. Burger."

If she found she could not go far, perhaps Hamilton could carry her a while. But he was not sure that would work either. At least, it was not likely to if he became dizzy.

Hopefully that would not happen. Especially in this area. And surely they would not have to travel for long before finding a phone.

He cast a disdainful look at Della's purse and the unhelpful cellphone inside. Sometimes modern technology was not all it was cracked up to be.

xxxx

Paul sat on the edge of Perry's desk, watching as the renowned lawyer paced up and down the floor. "Perry, come on!" he protested at last. "Give it a rest. Sit down!"

Perry paused, glancing over at him. "Paul, Della said she would call when she got to Janet's. She hasn't. And I haven't been able to reach her on the phone."

Paul shrugged. "The cellphone battery could be dead," he suggested. "They always run down on me at the worst times."

"Yes, I know. They do that for everyone." Perry sighed. "I suppose it's foolish to worry. But she should have been there over two hours ago."

The phone rang. Paul reached over for it. "That's probably her now," he declared. He picked it up. "Hello?"

He stiffened at the sound of Janet's worried voice. "Is this Perry Mason's office?"

"That's right," Paul said. Perry was right here now, hovering by his shoulder. Paul shook his head, letting Perry know it was not Della.

"Della Street isn't still there, is she?" Janet sounded both unsure and hopeful.

"Nope." Paul frowned. Okay, maybe now it was time to worry.

Perry gestured for the phone and Paul handed it over. "It's Janet Brent," Paul said.

Perry brought the phone up to his ear. "Hello, Ms. Brent? This is Perry Mason. Have you heard from Della at all? She left almost three hours ago to drive to your house."

"I heard from her once, Mr. Mason," Janet said. "She said she was getting into a cab outside your office building. And that must have been about three hours ago, as you said. I've tried several times to reach her since then, but I haven't had any luck. Mr. Mason, do you think something is wrong?"

Perry was frowning deeply. "I'm afraid something might be. Are you in a position where you could drive around and look for her? Paul and I are going to look out here."

"Yes, I could look," said Janet. "Oh, I hope nothing's wrong!"

"So do I," Perry said. "We'll check back with you in thirty minutes." He hung up the phone. "Let's go, Paul."

Paul got off the desk, following Perry to the door. "What do you think could have happened?" he exclaimed.

"I don't like to guess," Perry said. He walked purposely through Della's office, trying not to think about how empty and lonely it looked. "It could be any number of things. Or it could even be something as simple as Della's cellphone dying and the cab stalling somewhere."

Of course that was what they would both prefer to think rather than any of the possible alternatives.

But which was more likely?

xxxx

Hamilton was tense and worried as he and Della tried to make their way down the sidewalk towards civilization. The buildings they were passing were mostly the abandoned and ominous ones. Some even sported broken windows. It was certainly one of the least desirable business parks in Los Angeles County. He had no doubt that some of the least desirable people were in some of them.

And that was not the only problem. The sky was overcast and the temperature was cold. Rainstorms had been forecast for tonight. Hamilton was certain that the scent of rain in the air was not just his imagination. If the sky opened up, then what?

Della was having trouble walking, too. She stumbled again now and he hastened to support her. She needed to rest and be examined by a doctor, not be roaming the streets this late at night.

The bursting thunder overhead confirmed one of Hamilton's concerns. The lightning flashed almost immediately afterwards.

Della looked up in alarm. "It's going to rain!" she exclaimed.

"I know." Hamilton looked to the building at their side. "We're going to have to try going there for shelter."

Della regarded it in dubiousness. "Isn't it locked?"

"It might be," Hamilton said. "But there's no getting around it; there aren't any other buildings close by."

Della finally nodded. Not that they had much choice. "Alright," she said slowly.

The rain started to pelt them even as they turned to make their way to the building. Even hurrying as fast as possible, they were all but drenched when they reached the door. And Della was clutching at her head again. The physical exertion had not helped her condition any. She pressed herself against the floor-length glass windows, hoping that the rain would not reach them here.

Hamilton struggled with the doors. They were both closed tight and locked. And the glass was thick enough that he doubted he could break it even if they had something to throw.

He heaved a sigh. The building looked like it had been vacant for at least a year or two, maybe even more. It was against all of his better judgment and sense of ethics, but now he was seriously considering trying to pick the lock. They could not stay out here. The way the wind was blowing, the rain would reach them even under the small roof over the entrance. And Della was looking very ill again.

"Miss Street," he said after an uncomfortable hesitation, "do you have a hairpin?"

She looked at him with bewildered and bleary eyes. "I think I do," she managed to say. She fumbled, but finally got one out and handed it to him.

"Thank you." He bent it open and stuck one of the ends into the lock.

Della watched him in amazement. "I didn't know you knew how to pick locks, Mr. Burger."

"I really don't," Hamilton said in all awkwardness. "The only time I ever had to do this was one time I got locked out of an old car I used to have." He frowned at the door. "This lock is quite a bit different. And this might not work anyway; most businesses these days have deadbolts on their doors."

"That's true." Della shivered, pulling her coat closer around her. The wind was howling, the rain was pounding, and the trees were bending back wildly with all the commotion. It felt more like a tsunami rather than a simple rainstorm. But maybe that was just because her head was screaming. She placed her hands on her temples as she sank against the window.

It should have been just a simple, uneventful trip to talk with Janet Brent. Perry had offered to drive her. But she had known that he was working on a big case and did not have time to do something like that. So she had insisted on taking a cab and that he should keep working.

If she had accepted his offer this would not likely be happening. Perry was a good driver, much better than the unfortunate cabbie. And she had rode with Mr. Burger before and knew that he was also a good driver. If he could have helped it, he would not have crashed into the cab. It had shot out much too fast to avoid it.

She was not aware that she was moaning, but she was, and sinking to the cold asphalt. Somewhere in the background she could hear that Hamilton was still trying desperately to unlock the doors.

"It won't work," she mumbled. "Please, just stop." She slumped against the window. "Perry," she thought she was whispering. She wished he were here now. She wished it so much.

She had slipped into a strange, sluggish state, not really conscious and yet not completely senseless, by the time strong arms pulled her close and tried to offer some extra warmth in the chill of the night. She sank into the embrace. "Perry?" she asked, her voice laden with pain. "Are you here?"

"No," came the regretful reply. "He's still not here. It's just me."

"Mr. Burger. . . ." Della tried to smile amid the searing agony. "You've been a good friend."

"I've tried." Mr. Burger sounded both uneasy and worried.

"I'm glad you're here."

Hamilton was silent. Then, "Please try to stay awake, Miss Street."

"I'm trying." Della attempted a feeble shift, but quickly gave up the effort. "Help me."

Now Hamilton was at a loss. What to say? What to do? Somehow he had to keep Della awake and talking, at least until the rain stopped and he could continue the search for a phone, perhaps while carrying her if necessary.

"Tell me how you met Perry," he said at last, in desperation.

Through her foggy mind, Della fought to process and focus on the request. "It's really not that much of a story," she said. "I saw that Perry was hiring a confidential secretary and I applied for the job. We got along wonderfully right from the start. And he liked my work. So, he hired me."

"What about Paul?" Hamilton persisted.

"Perry already knew Paul by then. But you . . . I don't think he'd met you yet. . . ."

"No, he hadn't. We knew about each other, but we didn't meet until I was elected district attorney. He knew Tragg, though."

"You've known Tragg for a long time, haven't you."

"Why, yes. Ever since I joined the district attorney's office as an assistant. I met Tragg on my first trial case."

Della tried hard to grasp the words. Mr. Burger was right; she needed to stay awake. But knowing that and managing to do it were two very different things. "He thinks a lot of you."

"And I him. He's a good man."

"He's been on the force over twenty-five years. He's eligible for retirement now, if he wants to leave."

Hamilton chuckled. "He doesn't. He was grumbling about it one day recently and wondering what he'd do all day if he didn't have that job to go to. I said there are other jobs, but his first love is being a police officer. I can't feature him giving it up any time soon."

Della smiled a bit. "Some people just seem born for certain careers. I can't imagine you or Perry as something other than good lawyers."

She could sense Hamilton's surprise at that remark. "You think I'm a good lawyer?"

"Of course," Della mumbled. "No one keeps Perry on his toes the way you do."

"I used to think you mostly felt hostile towards me because of that."

Della felt a twinge of guilt. "Maybe I did, at first," she admitted. "And maybe it was when I realized that Perry liked you that I decided I should try to see things more from his point-of-view."

"Well . . . I guess I should thank Perry then." Hamilton still sounded surprised, perhaps a bit gently relieved.

"Yes, you should." Della was slurring her words now. Consciousness was growing fuzzier.

Hamilton tensed, panic swiftly rising to the surface of his emotions. He gripped her shoulders. "Della! Della, please, you have to hold on longer. If I have to take you out in all this . . ." He looked up at the still-tumultuous weather. He might have to chance it. If Della passed out, she might not wake up again. And then on the other hand, she could become more ill if he took her through the pouring rain. But it showed no signs of letting up. Waiting much longer could be the worse alternative.

Of course, there was also the chance that he would not be able to carry her far before he would get dizzy and collapse. He worried about that, too. He supposed, however, that he would have to have faith that such a thing would not happen. And then try to force his body to cooperate. He had been dealing with a headache and other various pains of his own, but had tried to push them aside and focus solely on Della.

And Della seemed unable to hold out any longer. She sagged farther against him, her head turning limply to the side. "Hamilton," she choked out. It was the first time he had ever heard her call him by his given name. The sheer fear and helplessness in her voice sent a chill up his spine.

That was what made up his mind. "I'm going to get you out of here, Della," he vowed. He buttoned her coat as far as it could go, at the same time berating the fact that he had not brought one today himself. He could have given it to her for added warmth. She was going to need it, especially when he stepped out into the bluster. Gathering her limp form up into his arms, and trying his best to shield her, he stumbled to his feet.

The sudden movement sent a round of dizziness over him. He fell back against the wall, clutching ever tighter to Della as he prayed for the sensation to pass. His heart raced wildly. This was the sort of situation where nothing seemed the right choice. He had to pick what would be the best and try for it.

At last his plea was answered; his vision cleared. Holding Della close to him, he moved into the rain as fast as he dared.

The determined water stinging her face startled Della back to a greater semblance of awareness. "Mr. Burger?" she gasped, gripping at his shoulder. "What are you doing?"

"The rain isn't letting up," Hamilton replied, even as relief swept over him to hear Della speak. "We can't wait for it any longer; you're getting worse."

"But . . . you're hurt too." Della weakly bunched the cloth material in her hand.

"I'll be alright," Hamilton insisted.

"You're shaking," Della said. "I can feel it."

Hamilton was very aware of it. But he was determined to push it aside and keep going. There was no turning back now.

Della faded in and out of consciousness as Hamilton roamed the business park. It was not until they were almost out of the area that he saw a pay phone at last. He stumbled over, blinking back his own dizziness. Dialing 911 while somehow managing to awkwardly continue holding Della was going to be a challenge—to say nothing of taking out the needed change. Maybe he would have to set her down.

She seemed to have no intention of moving. She gave a weak moan, burrowing against his shoulder as she held onto him. Hamilton did not have the heart to pry her away without at least attempting something else first. Trying to balance her with one arm, he somehow succeeded in reaching into his pocket for a quarter. He slipped it into the phone and dialed.

The waiting was torture. "Hello?" he exclaimed in desperation when there came a click.

"This is 911," the dispatcher replied. "Please state the nature of your emergency."

"I've got a woman here who was hurt in a car crash," Hamilton said. "I think she has a concussion. It happened several blocks back and we've been trying to find a pay phone." He glanced at the street as he spoke, seeking some indication of where they were.

Della perked up slightly as the conversation continued. He had found a phone at last. Maybe now they would be rescued.

Would they both be able to last until then? She could already feel the pull of unconsciousness coming over her again. And Hamilton was not aware of how pale and ill he looked. He had been trying so hard to look after her that he had ignored his own injuries. She had not been in any condition to help him, either.

She said a silent prayer that they would be able to hold out until help arrived.

Hamilton hung up the receiver, his hand trembling. "They're sending an ambulance," he said. "I could only give them an approximate location, but they traced us by the telephone number. They should be here in ten or fifteen minutes." Possibly longer, if the storm delayed them.

"That's not so long to wait," Della mumbled.

Hamilton moved over to the nearest building. "We'll wait here," he mumbled in return. He was feeling sluggish all over. Once they were under the minuscule and unprotective roof above the locked doors he sank to the ground, Della on his lap. It was further awkward, but at the moment neither of them could bring themselves to move even if they could. They were too exhausted. And they were both simply grateful for the added warmth.

"Mr. Burger, I'm so sorry about this," Della quavered. She was shivering all over.

"It's not your fault, Miss Street," Hamilton answered. "I'm sorry too."

"Well . . ." Della managed a weak smile. "It isn't any more your fault than mine." She could see he was fighting for consciousness. He did not know if he could hold off the inevitable any longer. And he was likely colder than she. He did not have a coat. If he had, she would probably be wearing it.

She laid her hand over his. "Thank you. For everything you've done and tried to do."

Hamilton colored a bit. "Yeah," he said. "Sure."

He looked out at the rain. There was just a little longer to wait, if their luck held out. Then the ambulance would come and they would be rescued. "You'll be back with Perry before you know it," he said.

Della stiffened. "He must be worried sick!" she gasped in sudden realization. "Janet too."

Hamilton frowned. She was right; he was sure they were. But he doubted he could make himself get up and go back to the booth to place any other calls. Maybe he could call from the hospital. "They'll know what happened soon enough," he said.

"I suppose so." Della certainly did not want to ask him to try to make the extra calls right now. After trying and failing to sit up straighter, she sank back against him with reluctance.

Hamilton tried to perk up even as his body screamed for rest. "This would certainly make a sensation if a newspaper photographer came along about now," he remarked.

Della gave a weak chuckle. "I can just see the tabloid headlines. 'Secretary of prominent defense attorney found in the arms of rival prosecutor.' Oh goodness, what a scandal."

When she did not receive an immediate reply she looked up with a worried start. "Mr. Burger?" He was slumped against the locked door, but at the sound of her voice he fought to rouse himself.

"What?"

Della laid a hand on his shoulder. "Mr. Burger, you have to stay awake," she said. "The ambulance will come soon. It has to," she added, much quieter.

Hamilton blinked and massaged his eyes. Della was right, of course. He had told her the same thing, earlier. "It's funny how all of your energy seems to mysteriously evaporate when there's nothing left to do but wait," he remarked.

"Oh, you were probably hurt worse than either of us realized," Della fretted. "And you've had yourself under such a strain because of me. That probably made it so much worse."

"I'm alright, Miss Street," he tried to reassure her. Or was he trying to reassure himself? He felt so spent. And even whatever was left of the fifteen minutes seemed an eternity to force himself to remain conscious.

Della could see that all too well. And her own state was not much better. How would they ever last? She said a desperate, silent prayer for their strength to endure. Somehow she had to keep the conversation going, for both of their sakes.

"Mr. Burger, it's strange," she said.

"Huh?" He looked at her, his own eyes growing glassy now. "What's strange?"

"How you and I keep encountering each other when I'm helping Janet Brent." She clutched at his suit coat. "You . . . remember Janet, don't you?"

"How could I forget?" Hamilton mumbled. "How is she doing these days?"

"A lot better," Della said. "I hope. We were meeting because she wanted my advice on something. She didn't want to talk about it over the phone."

"Well, I hope neither of you end up involved in any more murders." Hamilton sighed. "Della, I don't want to have to prosecute you, as an accessory or otherwise."

"I know." Della paused. "There's something I've wondered about that case."

"Oh really? I thought everything was cleared up." Vaguely Hamilton wondered where that ambulance was. Surely it had been longer than fifteen minutes now. Maybe they were having trouble finding the spot. Or maybe the storm was holding them up.

He really had called for it, hadn't he? It wasn't just a delusional fantasy of his sick mind?

Della's voice jolted him back to the present. "You kept sending Andy with messages for me, warning me that you would have to charge me as an accessory if Janet was convicted of murder. Why didn't you tell me yourself?"

Hamilton averted his gaze. "I . . . I don't know," he said. The awkwardness was coming back. "I was very busy. The case was a mess. And there was no guarantee that you'd be charged." But he was not saying the real reason. Both of them knew it. And he was not even sure he knew the real reason to begin with.

"I knew how hard that case was on you. And I was upset that you'd gotten yourself into such a mess. I don't know . . . maybe I was afraid that if I saw you myself I'd blow up at you."

"You've never lost your temper with me before, Mr. Burger," Della said. The conscious realization of that was only coming now, as she spoke.

"I know," he said. "But I thought I might then. You'd never put yourself in a position like that before.

"I was relieved when that case was solved and Janet was proven not guilty. Prosecuting Paul was a nightmare. I never wanted to put any of you through something like that again."

"I certainly didn't want you to have to either," Della said. "Seeing it happen with Paul and then Janet was much too close for comfort."

Hamilton nodded but looked far away. Della watched him with new concern. All of the talk had wearied him further. And there was still no sign of the ambulance. They were left to their own devices for Heaven knew how much longer. She doubted she could keep the discussion going. He did not look to be in any state to do so, either.

But he made one last effort. "I guess Janet will have to wait until tomorrow for the advice she wanted."

Della gave a wry smile. "At least until tomorrow," she said. "And it will probably take quite a while to explain to her and Perry why I was so delayed and didn't call."

"They'll understand," Hamilton slurred.

"Well, I certainly hope so!" Della returned. "And you'll have to call your office. I can't imagine you'll be able to go in tomorrow."

Again there was no immediate reply. A chill went up Della's back. "Mr. Burger? Mr. Burger!" He had slumped against the glass once more, his eyes closed and his face filled with the final traces of his struggle and the pain. His grip on her was loosening.

Della woke up more, grabbing at both of his shoulders. "Mr. Burger, wake up!" she pleaded. "The ambulance will still come. We'll be alright. But you have to stay awake, Mr. Burger! Oh please. . . ." In sheer panic and desperation she gave him a shake. It did no good.

She rocked back, staring at him. In her current state she was much more prone to irrational thoughts and emotional outbursts. And this was a nightmare she did not know how to fix.

Tears tugged at her eyes, encouraged by the pouring rain all around them. "Mr. Burger . . . Hamilton . . . please wake up." She slumped against him, her shoulders quaking with her helpless sobs. "Oh Perry, I don't know what to do. I don't know what . . . to do. . . ."

Her voice lowered and trailed off as the last of her strength wore out. At last oblivion claimed its other victim.

xxxx

"Della? Della, can you hear me?"

Della stirred at the familiar voice. Her fingers curled, to her surprise wrapping around a strong hand. To say anything took great effort, but she fought to make it. ". . . Perry?"

"Thank God. Yes, Della, I'm here."

Della forced her eyes open. She was lying in a bed, most likely in the hospital. Perry was standing over her, her hand resting in his. "Perry, how . . ."

"The doctor called as soon as you were brought in and identified," Perry said. "Paul and I came right down. Janet's on her way too." He shook his head. "We were frantically tearing the county apart looking for you."

As awareness slowly began to more fully return, Della gripped tighter at Perry's hand. "I wasn't alone," she said. "Mr. Burger, he . . . he was with me."

"Don't you worry about Mr. Burger," Perry interjected. "Paul's checking on him down the hall. But we already know he's going to be fine. Both of you are."

Della relaxed into the pillow. "Oh, thank goodness. I was so worried."

"You and he must have quite a story to tell," Perry said. "But don't try now," he added quickly as Della opened her mouth. "We can wait to hear it. Tonight you need to rest."

Della was agreeable to that. She ached all over. But there was one other thing she wanted to know first. "The ambulance," she said slowly. "It was supposed to come, but it didn't. When did it . . ."

"I'm not sure how long you were left waiting." Perry was completely sober now. "It could have been thirty minutes or more. From what I was told, the paramedics got into trouble with a large tree branch in the road. When they finally got around that, it took them some time to find the old business park where you and Hamilton were, and still more time to pinpoint your exact location. You were both unconscious when they arrived. They couldn't revive either of you at the time. So, they hurried to bring you here."

"We were trying so hard to stay awake," mumbled Della. "We talked about all kinds of things—even when Janet was arrested. But Mr. Burger had overexerted himself trying to help me. He just couldn't hold out any longer. And then I must have . . ." She trailed off. "I need to talk to him again, to make sure he's alright and thank him for what he did."

"We both owe Hamilton a great deal," Perry said quietly. "If all goes well, you and he should both be free to go tomorrow. You can see him then." He straightened. "Right now, Della, you really must try to sleep."

"I know." Della watched as he dimmed the lights and stepped back. Now one other thought had occurred to her. "Oh, Perry?"

Perry paused. "Yes?"

"Did the paramedics say how they found us?"

An eyebrow rose in Perry's surprise. "What do you mean?"

"I mean the position we were in."

"Why, I believe they said you were . . . quite close together."

"What did you think about that?"

"I assumed you were trying to keep warm," Perry said. "And that perhaps Hamilton had collapsed while trying to carry you somewhere."

"You didn't have any other thoughts at all?" Della persisted.

Perry smiled at her. "None." Della gave him a Look, but he only added, "Goodnight, Miss Street," as he turned, heading for the door.

Della watched him go. He knew what she had really meant. He had used the tone and smile he always did when he was aware that he was being presented with a loaded question. And he had neatly sidestepped it.

With a quiet sigh and a resigned half-smile, she sank back into the pillow.

xxxx

By morning Della still ached, but had been declared able to leave—provided she took things easy for the next couple of days. Grateful to be able to go home, she had readily agreed. She dressed and left her room; Perry was going to pick her up.

It was not much of a surprise when she stepped into the hall and found Mr. Burger hurriedly exiting his room up ahead. She smiled a bit in both fond and relieved amusement. He looked like he was even more eager to leave than she was.

She headed down the hall to catch up with him. "Mr. Burger!"

He started and turned. "Why, Miss Street." He nodded to the nurses' station up ahead. "I was going to find out if you'd left yet. Perry told me last night that you should be able to leave today."

Della nodded. "He told me the same thing about you." She smiled. "I'm so glad to see you're doing well."

"Likewise. Is Perry coming for you?"

"That's right," Della said. "I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you rode with us."

"Thank you, but Mignon's coming."

Della supposed she should have guessed. "She must have been so worried about you," she said. "Perry and Paul didn't know you were missing too, not until they got the call from the doctor."

"She was worried, yes."

They stopped near the doors to wait for their respective parties. The silence of running out of conversation was both awkward and disconcerting. Della hesitated before plunging into what she really wanted to say.

"Mr. Burger, I . . . I want to thank you for everything you did," she finally said. "I don't know what would have happened to me if you hadn't been there."

He looked to her again. "Well, I guess it's a good thing that if your cab had to crash into anyone's car, it was mine." More seriously he added, "I'm glad I was able to help."

Della nodded. "So am I. But Mr. Burger, did you find out what happened with your car? Can it be fixed?" She clutched at her purse. "I know the collision wasn't my fault, and yet I feel responsible for it, since it was because of me that the driver was going down that street."

Hamilton regarded her in surprise. "Della, you don't have to worry about that," he declared. "Anyway, the cab company's insurance is going to see to all repairs, if an investigation can establish that it was the cab driver's fault and not mine."

"I'll be happy to testify, if you need me," Della said.

"Thank you," Hamilton said. "I probably will; you're the only witness."

"Then just let me know." A movement outside brought Della's attention to the glass doors. "Perry's here," she announced.

"And there's Mignon too." Hamilton glanced back to her. "I suppose this is where we part ways, at least for the time being. Goodbye, Miss Street."

"Goodbye, Mr. Burger." Della held out her hand. "I'm proud to call you my friend."

Hamilton smiled and accepted the gesture. "I feel the same about you," he agreed, with a firm shake of her hand.