All the usual disclaimers apply. A special thanks to my beta who likes to remain exotic and mysterious for her extra eyes and words of encouragement.
"Pas de deux"
pas de deux, a dance for two performers.
A continuation of Trials & Tribulations
Gloria Steiner, listening to the young clerks' discussion in the background, stopped filing, leaned against the cabinet and felt a sense of déjà vu. Just a few hours earlier she and Nelsa Keetan, Senior Clerk Administrator in charge of managing and distributing the division's caseloads, had been enjoying lunch at their favorite eatery, a little mom and pop establishment. What the restaurant lacked in ambiance it more than compensated with good service and delicious food. Settling in their cozy private booth far from public scrutiny they were free to vent, let their hair down and share each other's company.
Nelsa Keetan continually griped and groaned about her ex-husband, Bernie. and even though the couple had been divorced for fifteen years and lived their separate lives, the combative duo managed each year to put aside their differences long enough to plan some global adventure together. And each time Nelsa would nod and pretend to listen to the never ending saga of Nelsa and Bernie.
Déjà vu, she thought today at lunch as Nelsa described the annual trip she and Bernie were taking to Costa Rica. Ever the dutiful friend, Gloria nodded, pretended to listen and thought of her own pathetic love life.
When they weren't discussing Bernie, their noontime escapes would shift and jump over a wide range of topics, always mindful to leave the courthouse business behind. But many months earlier the temptation to discuss the forbidden had been too much to resist.
Nelsa leaned back in the booth, flipped her short blonde hair behind her ears and cast her piercing blue eyes at her friend. Stifling a wicked chuckle, she scrutinized her friend over a cup of apricot chai tea; a tea she swore increased her libido.
"So what's he like?" Nelsa asked.
"You know…." Nelsa encouraged, leaning across the table.
Gloria's eyes narrowed, knowing all too well the 'who'.
Rolling her eyes with exasperation, Nelsa pleaded, "Come on, Gloria, you know-him!"
Stringing her friend along, letting the seconds pass, building the drama to maximum intensity, she eventually answered, "You mean the 'new' justice?"
"Yes, dammit! Good lord, Gloria, who else would I be talking about!"
An easy, sly smile tugged at the corner of the secretary's lips at her friend's mounting frustration.
"'Your' new justice for heaven's sake!" Nelsa repeated in an irritated tone and again waited for what seemed a century.
"We're adjusting," Gloria finally answered.
"Adjusting!" the clerk exclaimed, taken by surprise. "That's all you can say-'we're adjusting'. If the new justice were someone like Curtis Sheridan or Anderson Powell, they're competent and nice gentlemen, well, I could understand your nonchalance, but we're talking about 'the' Perry Mason here."
"Yes, so….." Nelsa mimicked, turning on a smile, she continued. "Remember how the papers played up Mason's high profile and colorful career. I believe the papers described his legerdemain in the courtroom as 'legendary'." Rolling her eyes as though visualizing information from newspaper text, she continued. "Mason's fast paced detective work kept L.A. finest constantly on their toes. And oh, yes, when District Attorney Hamilton Burger and Perry Mason faced off in the courtroom, the stakes, the drama and the legal fireworks were guaranteed to be at their highest." Nelsa paused, eyed her friend carefully.
The secretary sat passively, arms folded, listening to her friend's colorful description, watching the elegant hand gestures and thought of the new justice. She recalled the first day she and Perry Mason were formally introduced. Immediately, they both began to study and 'size up' the other.
It didn't take long for Gloria to 'size up' the lawyer. She found Mason to be a man of action, who was used to thinking on his feet and working on the run. In his new role as justice, Mason reminded her of a caged tiger with anxious eyes and a restless nature. Each time she walked into his chambers, his expressive eyes would look to her with hope-a hope that she would deliver some novel case to stimulate his curiosity. Delivering only the routine, she could sense his disappointment and restlessness as he resumed his judicial duties.
Unfortunately the atmosphere of the court was methodical and steady with occasional moments of high drama when a highly publicized case reached their division. She wondered, why a man like Mason would choose to be on the court? Like any legal cowboy, she picked Mason as a lawyer who would die with his boots on-certainly not one who would spend hours reading briefs and writing opinions. Of course everyone has their reasons, she mused. Eyes narrowing, she knew all too well that some reasons were not always the obvious ones.
Leaning back against the cushions, Nelsa shook her head. "I can't believe all you can say is 'so'." Releasing a gentle sigh, Nelsa decided to sweeten the deal. "And that's not all."
Gloria's face remained expressionless while gently stroking the ceramic handle of her peach oolong tea.
"Mason had a secretary."
"Nelsa, that's hardly earthshattering news," Gloria finally spoke.
The clerk leaned forward, cupped her hands around her libido in a cup and continued to share. "Mason's secretary was a twenty-four/seven."
Gloria's eyebrow twitched slightly to an arch. Nelsa grinned, seeing she had penetrated the cool veneer of her friend's inscrutable manner.
The clerk continued. "Let's just say she was his secretary at work….and at play."
Nelsa paused, enjoying the buildup to her story, watching, waiting for Gloria to contribute some juicy information. When she found her friend idly toying with her cup, she continued.
"During Mason's confirmation they ran an old newspaper photo from back in the day. The photo was taken of Mason and his secretary in the hallway as they prepared to enter the courtroom. They were looking at each other and it wasn't one of those 'did you remember to bring this or that' look." Leaning back and delivering a wicked grin, Nelsa toyed. "Gloria, this was one of those 'a picture is worth a thousand words looks'." To Nelsa's dismay the secretary remained unfazed, but the clerk remained persistent. "From what I understand the L.A. tabloids were constantly on Mason's trail, trying to gather little tidbits about his personal life. Every now and then they'd stumble across the lawyer and his secretary dining and dancing after hours-and of course, all while working on a case."
"Interesting," Gloria replied, eyes narrowing in thought.
"I'll say. I heard back in the day one gossip columnist even had them in Las Vegas getting married of all things. Of course, it was just gossip. Turns out they were just following a lead in one of Mason's headline cases, but it certainly was the talk of the tabloids for a while."
"I bet it was," the secretary replied again.
"Well, I'm sure you'll have an interesting time as Mason's 'new' secretary," Nelsa said pointedly, raising her eyebrows. "Who knows, maybe your love life will improve after all-maybe a little dining and dancing will be in order."
The secretary slowly shook her head at her friend's vivid imagination. "Honestly, Nelsa, you've been watching way too many soaps. Your imagination is running wild."
Pointing her finger at the clerk's tea, Gloria added, "Maybe it's the apricot chai, you know, the libido in a cup talking."
Nelsa delivered a throaty laugh and settled back in her seat.
Gloria sighed, "After all these years you should know me by now. I can't help it; I'm a nurturer, Nelsa. I can't help but take them under my wing-new clerks-new justices."
Nelsa delivered a sigh of resignation. "Yeah, I know you; you're a nurturer and one tough cookie to crack."
With that comment, both women softly laughed.
Yes, lunch was certainly a case of déjà vu. Turning, Gloria watched the two young women at their work table. Yeah, I'm a nurturer. Amy Hart, Justice Caldwell's clerk, had delivered the research she had gathered in the form of several leather bound books, the California Appellate Reports, their pages book marked with colored paper. The clerk's topic of discussion-the new forms and format for writs and briefs. She caught their furtive looks in her direction, the two hesitating whether to interrupt her filing to ask their question. Gloria sensed their need for help and began to offer assistance when a knock sounded at the door. Andy, the custodian on their floor, peeked around the edge of the door and was motioned in by the secretary. Instantly the room became silent as the large flat cardboard box was wheeled in.
"Ms. Steiner, I'd appreciate a quick inspection of this parcel for any damage and then your signature on this form for the guy downstairs." With that request out of the way, the custodian tucked the delivery form away, and began to loosen the large staples on the edge of the box.
Casually Gloria walked over to the table to take charge. The mysterious package, half the size of their conference table, had seized their attention and all three women stood with their hands on their hips while Andy took his time, relishing his brief moment of high drama in an otherwise routine day at the courthouse. Peeling back the cardboard, he theatrically unveiled the contents inch by inch until the full length of the picture frame was revealed. All stood speechless until Leslie Marks broke the silence.
"Wow!" she exclaimed.
"Yeah, wow!" Amy Hart, Justice Caldwell's clerk agreed.
"Man, that's really good," the custodian chimed in
Gloria stood silent, dark eyes critically inspecting every detail of the large painting while those around her freely shared their opinions. Noting the older woman's silence they slowly lifted their eyes to the secretary and noticed her misty eyes.
The large canvas was full of lush colors, stylish architecture and throngs of humanity flowing along a busy Parisian street lined with outdoor cafes. Amidst the lively social scene, one café in particular stood out, Café Lacombe. At the café a woman sat alone at a corner table, elegantly attired, face hidden by the black netting of a hat while the tables around her were filled with patrons.
Gloria's eyes couldn't leave the lone figure and felt drawn to the fashionable woman. She remembered the sound of his voice. 'My darling,' he whispered. 'Meet me at Lacombe.' She had waited and waited- the promise of a rendezvous-broken. The attention and voices of those around her seemed miles away. In silence she extended her hand in the custodian's direction and beckoned for the form. He wordlessly pulled out the paper and pen for her signature.
Nodding toward the form, Andy added. "There's an invoice in there for Judge Mason."
"Thank you, Andy," Gloria stated coolly, signed the delivery form and returned it to him.
"I'll be glad to come back when his Honor decides where he wants to hang his painting. You tell him it won't be any problem at all," he cheerfully volunteered as he slipped the cart from the painting and headed for the door.
Gloria nodded and was thankful. The vibrant colors and images of the painting had provided a welcome distraction for her companions. The two clerks examined the painting pointing out minute details in the artwork. The older woman was thankful for the reprieve their distraction allowed. Turning, she discreetly wiped the tears that clung to her lashes.
The Fairness and Expediency Committee meeting was drawing to a close. Agendas, case load spread sheets and other related data were still spread across the large conference table. Perry Mason's leather binder lay open, his fingers gracefully guiding his pen across the paper, his mind easily falling back into his courtroom mode of multi-tasking.
Mason understood the need for the committee but found its process exceedingly mundane, on par with answering mail, a task for which Della Street had proven to be a relentless taskmaster. How he yearned for the challenges of a mystery, a puzzle-a game of cat and mouse-an adventure of life and death proportions. He wanted to be on the move outside the office, matching wits with an able adversary, or feeling the adrenaline of the courtroom.
To his disappointment, C. C. Caldwell was not on the committee or he would have gladly flashed her, his 'just kill me look' and with that thought he released a faint smile.
The discussion continued while he listened and focused on the notes his pen created. He had honed the multi-tasking ability to a fine art, the art of listening to courtroom testimony while jotting down notes for Paul and Della. Paul and Della...each day they were in his thoughts - a constant reminder of his 'other' life. The presentations were completed and Mason joined the other five justices in the final decision, the vote was unanimous; the new case assignment system would be implemented.
Papers shuffled, chairs glided, their mahogany handles tapping as the senior clerk administrator, Nelsa Keetan and judges rose from their seats, their voices relaxed and conversational. Mason remained seated, his pen now making elegant loops on portions of his calendar, the artistic loops highlighted one particular day of the week—Thursday. The justice on Mason's left remained seated.
"The wives are playing bridge tonight. Some of us are catching a few at Logan's later, would you care to join us?"
Mason noted the justice's leather binder had been rearranged and a copy of a National Geographic magazine had slipped from beneath his agenda revealing the photograph on the cover. A stately matador, back arched, left arm gracefully swirling a red cape over a bloodied bull's massive head and body as the animal grazed by the matador's slender hips and charged at the photographer's lens. Pausing, Mason recalled seeing the original photograph.
"Perry?" Associate Justice Curtis Sheridan cocked his head to the side and studied his fellow justice. Larger than life, Mason filled any gathering with his presence and yet the man remained an enigma. Despite the attorney's well-known and envied public record, he had managed to maintain an equally private and inscrutable personal life.
Mason smiled urbanely, his attention still drawn to the bloodied bull charging from the shiny cover of the magazine. "Thanks, Curtis, but I have plans for the evening."
Sheridan followed his colleague's gaze and pulled out the magazine. "It's an old copy. During our next break Joy has her heart set on visiting France, Spain and Portugal. I don't know about this bullfighting stuff, though." The justice angled the magazine around; the bull's wild bulging eyes seemed to follow the viewer as it charged from the page. "The photographer must have been gutsy or just plain crazy to be in the path of this crazed beast."
Gently rubbing his fingers through his beard, Mason thoughtfully replied, "Yes, the photographer was very gutsy."
Noting Mason's intent interest in the cover, he finally offered. "Here, Perry, I'm finished with the magazine. You're welcome to have it."
Taking the National Geographic, Mason smiled. "Thanks Curt, maybe some other time on Logan's."
Curtis pushed back his chair. "Sure, Perry, maybe some other time. Later."
Mason nodded as Curtis Sheridan moved to join the others.
A few justices remained near the door leading to the hallway. Sheridan glanced back at Mason's broad shoulders as the remaining justices joined the others who had slipped out the door and into the hall.
Mason thought, Yes, very gutsy. Without words she had invited him into her home on 15 Madrona Avenue. Her slender frame moved gracefully at his side while strong fingers touched and moved him, the air and space between them sparked with energy as she guided him through her studio. In sotto voce she requested he not remove his coat-not wanting to break the spell between them.One moment he braved the swirling fog, the next he sat in his trench coat studying the artist as she feverishly worked in a variety of artistic media. He understood her feverish state, the focus required to capture details and seize the essence of a complex puzzle. When working a case, organizing details, looking for connections in a broad complex picture, planning strategy, he often felt the same. Sleeping, eating became secondary to his primary goal. Not many people could understand his 'feverish state'. Despite his own physical limitations, his mind yearned to feel that 'feverish state' again, he yearned for adventure.
The flamenco guitar, reed flute and drums faintly played in the background. The position of the lights cast contrasting shapes of light and dark all around them. While she worked he took the liberty to study the talented and focused Valentina Bernini. Her animated facial expressions were so familiar. Relaxing, he admired the way the tight jeans outlined her long muscular legs and the graceful way her agile body twisted and moved as she worked. While she was focused on capturing his essence, he was free to let his mind wander, recalling another captivating mystery and the day 'she' waltzed into his life.
How could he forget the tall, slender brunette with the splendid figure and long graceful legs who stood adjusting his hat on the bust of Justice Blackstone? It was late and he was tired, but the sight of her made his heart beat with a newfound energy. Her looks brought pleasure to his eyes and he managed to feast only briefly before she brought her full attention to him and smiled. What a wonderful interplay between her sparkling brown eyes and smiling full lips-they captured him with their seductiveness.
There was a moment of stillness between them before she smiled and greeted him. Easily his fingers slipped around hers and felt their softness and surprising strength when she introduced herself-'Della Street'. Pressed in the book tucked neatly under his arm was the letter from Laura Donaldson, a letter pleading with him to join her in Denver.
The irony was not lost and for a moment he broke from his pose and faintly smiled. Funny. In one split second he knew….the letter quickly forgotten. He wouldn't be making that trip, not then, not ever. He had found his dance partner-for a pas de deux.
Valentina's motions slowed from her feverish pace and released a gentle sigh. She leaned back on her stool and studied her work and the figure before her. Pleased, her features softened. As she moved, she felt him watching, studying her as much as she studied him…... a mental pas de deux.
"Are you disappointed?" She softly asked, speaking to him for the first time since his arrival. She looked for the slightest hint of emotion in the charged silence that hung between them. The artist's serene features could not mask the intense fire in her sparkling brown eyes.
A hint of a smile played at his eyes and lips as he analyzed all her verbal and visual cues.
"No," he answered simply. Tilting his head, eyeing her critically, he countered. "Are you surprised I'd find the time?"
Enjoying their little dance, her lashes fluttered slightly, a subtle smile on her full lips. "No," she replied.
"It's more than a portrait isn't it?" Probing further he asked, "I'm curious, what's the real reason for asking me here?"
For a moment she lowered her eyes, then a Mona Lisa smile appeared and her eyes rose seductively to meet his. Mason felt his heart quicken at her uncanny resemblance to Della Street.
"Is it really more than a portrait, Your Honor? It is a mystery isn't it. I do wonder. What reason could possibly cause a busy judge who couldn't spare the time to suddenly drop everything to come here tonight?"
He softly chuckled. How he loved the twists and turns of their little dance.
The conference room had emptied leaving Mason time to open the National Geographic and turn to the beginning of the feature story; the raging bull from the cover again appeared to leap from the page. Below the photo in small print the photographer's credit revealed-Valentina Bernini.
15 Madrona Avenue, Sausalito
Gently plucking the strings, adjusting the tension, Valentina listened carefully for the tonal quality of each note. Sitting on the edge of her bed, looking at her reflection in the dresser mirror, she watched her fingers move over the strings on her small Ibanez acoustic guitar. The natural finish was well-worn from the movement of her hand and fingertips. Around the mahogany neck and back were nicks and scrapes from the instrument's travels and adventures from around the world.
Staring at the framed photograph on her dresser she began to play.
They had been traveling all day north of the Guadalquivir River into the foothills of the Sierra Moreno Mountains. The three young men who were her escorts wore the typical vaquero uniform, short jackets and wide brimmed hats. Smiling and joking, they rode along astride beautiful crossbred horses. The horses, a mix of the American thoroughbred, Andalusian and Arabian horses were fabulous animals capable of speed, stamina and athletic ability. The young vaqueros were very proud of their horses and kept their mounts and equipment in excellent condition.
The little caravan of riders and pack animals traveled away from the small village with its white washed buildings, red tiled roofs, and scattering of olive groves and vineyards on their way to the massive ganaderia, a cattle ranch specializing in the 'toros bravos', the fighting bulls. Along the trail she managed to stop and snap photographs of the grand vision of endless azure skies and the sprawling Guadalquivir River valley flanked by jagged red peaks forming the backbone of the Sierra Moreno Mountain range. She noticed her young companions becoming excited as a cloud of dust boiled just over the next rolling hill. Kicking their horses, they hastened their pace to reach the top of the rise. Spread out in the valley a herd of cattle grazed in the distance. The auburn cloud of dust was far from the contented herd. Men on horseback were careening and galloping in the swirling storm.
Trotting their animals into the camp, the weary riders dismounted and watched the distant commotion and the loudly cheering throng of vaqueros gathered near a make-shift finish line. Checking her camera, Valentina walked with her guides toward the group of men. An older man, who appeared to be in charge, turned to her and politely tipped his hat in greeting.
"Senorita de bien dia!"
"Bona dias!" she greeted and looked around. "Hablas ingles?
"Ah, si, Senorita."
"I'm the photographer. I'm supposed to meet a writer here. National Geographic Magazine. Is he here?"
The older man smiled and nodded in thought. "A writer," he repeated. "I think he'll be here very soon."
Suddenly the sound of yelling and cheering became deafening. Valentina moved to the edge of a group that had gathered near the crude finish line. Looking in the distance at the giant red cloud of dust that churned like a tornado, she could make out horses and riders who appeared to be spinning and moving in and out of the man-made vortex. Raising the camera she snapped scene after scene. Speaking loudly to the older man while following the action through her view finder she asked, "What are they doing?"
"Correr el gallo! The 'chicken race', Senorita."
"Chicken race," she repeated, "Correr el gallo!" Snapping more pictures, the sound of the auto wind whirring in her ear she muttered to herself, "Where's that damn writer! After all this is the National Geographic!"
Suddenly a rider broke free of the turbulent cloud, followed by a clot of riders in hot pursuit. The lone rider leaned over his horse in full gallop, reins in one hand, a football sized object tucked protectively in the crook of his arm as he rode full force in the direction of the finish line. The young men in frantic pursuit spurred their mounts and waved their arms trying to catch the break-away rider. The men at the finish line jumped, whooped, screamed and waved their arms.
Feeling their excitement, Valentina positioned herself on the finish line, zeroing in on the galloping horse and rider; the pursuing mounts for the moment were out of focus in the background. Focal rings were twisted and turned as photos were snapped in quick succession, the auto wind groaned to keep up with the speeding mount's journey to Correr el Gallo glory.
The screaming and yelling grew louder, almost drowning out the voice of the older man who wisely warned. "Senorita, you should not be on the finish line! Move away from the line!"
Seconds passed as the lead horse grew larger, its black mane streaming, nostrils flaring and its hooves striking the ground like pistons. Beneath her feet the ground rumbled from the thunderous hooves of the approaching horses. The lead horse, the gray gilding and his rider, fully entered her viewfinder. Agile fingers skillfully brought the rider's face into view, a handsome face with a black mustache and dark wavy hair flowing in the wind, his denim shirt flapped revealing his bare chest. Despite the chaos behind him the mustached man's face was calm, focused and filled with purpose as he homed in on his final goal.
Dropping to one knee, she steadied the camera and moved the lens in and out of range while keeping the approaching horse and rider in focus. Using her camera lens she diligently tried to discover the object pressed to his bare chest. Closing in, the object stirred and thrashed revealing the blood red comb and twisted beak of a listless rooster. Startled for a moment, she continued taking photos, the charging animal now close enough to reveal the blazing white star on its forehead and the man's face and eyes filled the viewfinder—eyes the color of blue sapphires. A tingle of excitement pulsed through her as she steadily knelt on the line clicking frame after frame of the approaching storm.
Through her viewfinder the mustached man's eyes grew wide with surprise at the sight of a kneeling woman in his path. His hands frantically tried to pull and turn the reins of his powerful mount. The large gelding fought the bit and continued on its course like a missile hell bent on the finish line. For a terrifying moment their eyes locked through the viewfinder. Like a gazelle she sprung from her position on the line and felt the air from the charging gray missile swirl by.
Within a split second the pursuing horses blew by and the crowd of men went wild. The mustached man, his bare skin covered with red dust swung down from the horse with the pageantry of a conquering hero, then tossed the weary rooster to the cook. The challenging vaqueros had dismounted, slapping the dust from their hair and clothes as they laughed and playfully pushed and shoved each other. One young man with a bandaged ear approached the mustached man and gave him a manly hug. Valentina captured all the revelry on film.
The older man slowly moved to her side and watched the excitement. "You asked about your writer. Well, Senorita, your writer has arrived."
Still behind her camera, she captured the scene on film taking frame after frame of the bare chested man with the sapphire blue eyes who boldly held court like the 'king of the vaqueros'. Suddenly in the midst of the merriment Valentina meet the intensity of his gaze and the intimacy in his look through the lens of her camera.
The older man continued. "The vaquero with the bandaged ear….. in a chicken race….. a horse bit it. Your writer… he sew it back on….very handy man, your writer."
Suddenly he was gone from her viewfinder and appeared in front of her. Lowering her camera, she casually inspected the dark hair covering his barrel-chest and broad shoulders before resting on his handsome face. He had the aura of a conquering hero-'a conquistador'.
Hands on his hips he glared down at her and in a baritone voice loudly scolded. "You could have been killed doing that!"
Squaring her shoulders, chin elevated, she met his glare with steely resolve and defiantly replied. "I could say the same about your riding."
"You have a lot of nerve!" he stated hotly.
Eyes narrowed, her hands dropped from her camera to rest on her hips, duplicating his stance and coolly replied, "And so do you!"
There was a moment of stillness between them despite the wild laughter and celebrating of the vaqueros behind them. They stood transfixed and glared at each other with equal ferocity. Watching him, she noticed his eyes darting over her, inspecting her. The muscles around his nicely formed mouth begin to twitch; the movement grew more pronounced while his eyes softened and suddenly released a boyish grin.
With equal bravado she didn't hide her own inspection of all his physical attributes. Slowly she allowed her full lips to pull into an easy smile.
Valentina's pick struck the final cord and let the sound resonate through the guitar for several seconds. The photograph on the dresser, filled with frenetic energy, a charging horse, a struggling rooster, riders in pursuit-they all seemed seemed surreal. It was the mustached man's captivating blue eyes that stole the scene-eyes that were filled with mystery and adventure. Beneath the photograph she had simply written- "The Conquistador".
A special thank you to the You Tube video-Jim Stubblefield playing, "The Conquistador' for inspiring this portion of the story.