Disclaimer: Characters by Erle Stanley Gardner. This is nonprofit fan fiction.
Notes: Bookverse for character descriptions.
Lieutenant Tragg wasn't quite sure what brought him to that bar of all the bars available. He could have looked for the missing informant in any disreputable establishment in the area, but he chose the small, neatly kept place that Johnny Delancio wasn't likely to habit. Delancio was made for parlors filled with people and smoke and steady ripples of conversations, and seldom broke the pattern. Perhaps Tragg, subconsciously but diligently, saw the opportunity to have his lunch break while still advancing the ongoing investigation. Efficient and thorough as usual—Tragg took pride in the merits attributed to him. First, however, he settled to having a word with the proprietor.
"No, sir. I haven't seen him," the bartender said as he studied Delancio's photograph from police records. "We don't get his kind here."
"What kind is that?" Tragg said, interested.
"Well, you know..." The bartender shifted uncomfortably. "A police officer from Homicide comes asking questions, and you automatically assume—"
"Never mind," Tragg said dryly.
"We really don't get many drifters here, sir," the bartender said, handing the photocopy back. "I don't mean vagrants—I mean people who switch around a lot. We have mostly regulars and quiet people who mind their business. Like that guy. He's here almost every day. Takes his drinks and never talks to anyone."
Tragg took a look and said sharply, "Has he been giving you grief?"
"No, no. That's what I'm saying. Just has something to drink, usually not even alcohol, and just sits there. Never meets anyone, never has any visitors. He's never given me trouble."
"All right, all right. You've been very helpful. Now, I'd like a serving of your soup of the day and a glass of wa— Actually, make that a cup of coffee. Just a cup of coffee." At the bartender's perplexed expression, Tragg said wryly, "Even police officers have to watch their figures."
The bartender grinned, but Tragg's interest had already veered to the far-off corner. He left the man to tend to his order and moved past the few patrons to the corner with a single occupant. He stopped next to the man. "Is this seat taken?"
The slightly stiffened shoulders told that he had been made, but he received no other reaction, adverse or favorable. After a while, Tragg heard, "It's not."
Tragg took the stool next to the man and nodded an impatient thanks to the bartender. His taste of the coffee was shallow at best.
"How are you, Mr. Drake?"
Drake was gaunt; he hunched in his seat and allowed the scrutiny without resistance. Clothes hung on him almost inconsolably. Tragg was almost sure he wasn't going to get any answer, but then Drake shrugged.
He hadn't seen Paul Drake in close to five years. Maybe a glimpse here and there before Drake had vanished from the scene. Over time, he had stopped expecting a chance encounter. He hadn't wondered why there were none because he knew what had happened. Tragg touched his hair consciously; he had gotten the first grays at the time.
"You don't do detective work anymore."
There was nothing to gain. At the trial, Perry Mason had a witness cornered. While the prosecution was only a whisper into realizing the truth, the man knew Mason had found him out and was minutes from drawing them a diagram. The charge would be first-degree murder and the sentence, capital punishment. There was no out for him, but there was payback for the lawyer who had uncovered the frame-up.
The scene was still so lifelike, and Tragg felt still as powerless. The man had pulled a gun. Mason, never faint of heart, had reacted with nerves of steel. He hadn't taken the slug lying down. Paul Drake had been the closest, and he had been mid-leap too late.
They had caught the man fresh. It made no difference to him whether the death penalty came from one or two homicides. It was all for vengeance.
A lesser man would have gone on the spot, but Mason had fought like the devil, and they had wanted to believe he could best one, too. He had held on for six hours.
A trial ensued, of course. Even though Mason had been on the other side of the adversarial system, Tragg took care to stay out of the way of District Attorney Hamilton Burger and his cold fury that sealed the conviction. With anyone but the District Attorney, Tragg would have suspected a personal retribution.
Tragg remembered the funeral. He remembered his shock at the empty gathering. With all the lives Mason had saved, he had expected a crowd. There was none. He had assumed Mason wasn't married, but it disturbed Tragg to see no family. Della Street huddled to Paul Drake; they kept to each other and pointedly refused contact. On the other side, Lieutenant Tragg and Hamilton Burger had come to lay a wreath, more as a personal acknowledgement than an official statement.
The unwillingness to believe had been too much—Tragg had stayed on, even after Hamilton Burger had cleared out. He had to believe there was more, that someone would come.
Someone had come. A young woman, hair like wild honey, taking hesitant steps down the soggy lawn, had looked for Mason's grave and laid a posy of flowers on it. Della Street had known the woman and clearly hadn't been able to believe her eyes. The woman had left after a halting look at the headstone. Beleaguered by curiosity, Tragg had gone to the bouquet in her wake and picked up the card. The contents hadn't put him wise. The card was signed simply "Fran." She had started down the hill to a man waiting by the car, holding two small boys by the hand—the husband, no doubt.
Tragg cleared back into the present day. "Quit?"
"What good's a detective that can't detect?"
The Drake Detective Agency had shut down some time after Mason's death. He had always figured it was because Mason's office had produced the bulk of the work. Tragg frowned uncomfortably until Drake turned to face him. His eyes had always been glassy, but they were empty now.
Tragg opened his mouth to speak and had nothing to say. Paul Drake had always been a mystery to him. Despite their frequent, oftentimes involuntary association, he had never gotten into Drake's head. Mason drew the fire. Even when he had addressed Drake, Drake had always taken the backseat and let Mason do the talking.
"Everything's still the same at the precinct," Tragg said, and instantly felt like he had told a half-truth. It was the same now, but it hadn't been. Right after it had happened, it felt like they had gotten cautious. The police ran everything twice; the district attorney didn't want to prosecute unless there wasn't a shadow of doubt. Without Mason around, no one wanted to make fatal mistakes. "As much as anything ever can be."
Drake reached for his glass. Tragg eyed the drink shrewdly, but it looked non-alcoholic and probably thin as the deuce on calories. It was a juice or some such thing. He thought he detected a faint tremor, but it could have been a sympathy nod; his own hand twitched when it brushed against the hot coffee cup.
"I miss Mason," Tragg said, and Drake jolted visibly. "There isn't challenge in the game. The lawyers now sit at their desks and wait for everything to be handed to them. He was one of a kind. An extraordinary man."
Drake hedged a sideways glance, but it was the most eloquent response Tragg had elicited from him.
"How is Della Street?"
"All right. She works for some businessman. Confidential secretary."
"No," Drake said shortly, and Tragg knew the subject was closed.
The lovely Della Street had been there, at the trial. Sure, she had been at the funeral, but she had been at the trial when it happened. Paul Drake had been the closest, and...
With a sense of epiphany, Tragg straightened in his chair. He blinked a little, but there was no rush to proceed; the silence was well-tolerated. He ran the words in his mind and tried to formulate an approach. "In this profession, you get used to losses," he started conversationally. "It goes with the trade. You believe you can save lives, and when you realize you can't control everything, you get the first shock of police work. Not everyone can handle it, but those who stay on find a way. Accept that things are beyond our control. You learn to accept that bad things happen, but you never get used to it."
Drake held the glass at the length of his hands. His tone was pained. "What would you have me say?"
"Guilt is a terrible burden, Mr. Drake, even when it isn't for a reason. It consumes you and gives nothing in return."
It looked, for a while, that the detective was going to crack, but then all he said was, "I'd know all about it."
The silence pended between them heavy as death. Tragg hesitated, but he laid his hand on the counter and patted it, just as he would have a shoulder.
There was nothing further more to do. The lieutenant paid for the coffee he hadn't touched.
Round-shouldered and grim, Tragg took his leave. As he stepped out of the bar, he felt he had gained another five years.
"Fran" is Frances Gleason, née Celane (The Sulky Girl).
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Many thanks to Gypsie (Gypsie Rose) for the proofreading!
Published August 25, 2012.