"Quid pro quo"

Trials & Tribulations

Chapter 1

Thursday

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Perry Mason stepped out of the shower and began to dress. Sliding the closet door to the side his hands trailed over familiar textures before encountering incredible softness buried deep in the corner behind layers of shirts -a pink cashmere sweater with matching pearl buttons. Pulling it from the recess, he continued to enjoy its softness and brought the sweater to his face and inhaled. Was it his imagination or did he detect a fragrance?

Why did he have the sweater? Despite the icy silence separating them they had been able to dismantle their conjoined lives. The sweater could have easily been returned then-but it wasn't. Instead, the sweater along with memories had traveled to San Francisco. It didn't take a detective's logic to understand the sweater's significance. Even the lawyer knew…his last thoughts on earth would be of Della Street.

Relishing the feel of the fine wool and the thoughts of the woman who wore it, he heaved a jagged sigh and tenderly replaced the sweater and continued to dress. Slipping on black dress pants, a comfortable navy sweater and gray jacket, he stepped to the mirror, ran a comb through his hair and returned to his kitchen.

A large insulated delivery container from Gilberto's sat on the counter along with the copy of National Geographic. The magazine was open to the photo of the charging bull and graceful matador. During his ride from the courthouse he had managed to peruse the remaining photographs.

The photo spread was quite spectacular focusing on Andalusia, Spain and its magnificent Guadalquivir River Valley and Sierra Moreno Mountains. The writer meticulously describes the life of a vaquero-a life of hard work and hard play on a grand ganaderia. The photographer captured the young vaqueros at work using lances to control and maneuver the fighting bulls and then at play when riders and horses create a swirling vortex in a game of bravery and skill called the 'Correr el gallo, or 'the chicken race'.

Mason smiled and recalled his own youthful adventures on horseback. He and Max, a beautiful smoky gray gelding with black mane and tail had grown up together. Pressing the envelope at every opportunity he and Max had dared to race and jump obstacles other riders would not dare. Mason chuckled softly and allowed his fingertips to gently trail over the young men on horseback, feeling their energy and excitement. Yes, Max was an amazing animal.

The gelding would prance and pull at the bit, and enjoyed the thrill of racing as much as his youthful rider. Both were eager and willing to take chances and had learned the recipe for success-move fast, take chances and keep one jump ahead of competitors. Feeling a deep sense of remorse he took a deep breath and used the back of his hand to sweep across moist eyes at the memory of his beloved, Max.

Mason turned to another full photo. Against a veil of darkness a bright orange campfire burned and dark silhouettes clapped and danced to the sounds of a flamenco guitar. The caption explained how the writer played for the young vaqueros who had become his compañeros. Mason's eyes intensely studied the man with the guitar. Glancing up in thought, he noticed the time and realized he needed to leave. He closed the magazine and slipped it inside his binder. Retrieving his coat and the Gilberto's container Mason headed for his car.

Minutes later Mason was traveling through pockets of fog in the wooded areas of the Golden Gate Park and the Citadel. Out of habit the lawyer pressed down on the accelerator causing tufts of fog to race through the beams of his headlights. To his right the lights of the San Francisco skylight appeared to wink on and off. Feeling a sense of déjà vu the lawyer turned his attention to the passenger seat.

The lawyer pressed down on the accelerator causing the speedometer needle to quiver into the high numbers as the Cadillac swept through the foggy night. He was in a jam, a legal conundrum and time was of the essence. The steady pulse of the street lights rhythmically illuminated the interior giving Mason a chance to steal glances at Della Street in the passenger seat.

'Damn he hated that look.' He had seen the look before-the ram-rod straight posture, pursed lips, eyes shiny and on the verge of tears and her stolen furtive glances watching him all while trying to maintain a stoic veneer.

Things were bad- he knew it- and Della knew it. He could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. 'Damn he hated that look!'

"You'll feel better when we eat," he said.

Della's eyes shot to Mason's in disbelief, as though saying how could you think of food at a time like this.

In the backseat, the sleeping Paul Drake shuffled, turned, and mumbled to those in the front, "Did you say we're eating!"

Glancing over her shoulder at the reclining detective, Della snapped, "No, Paul, we're not eating! Go back to sleep!"

"Anything you say, beautiful," Paul replied, oblivious to the irritation in her voice, as he returned to his comfortable spot in the backseat.

Turning her attention to Mason, she fought back tears. "That little blonde hustler, I knew she was trouble the first time I saw her and now she's got you in a major fix, accessory to murder, tampering with evidence."

The lawyer glanced ahead, tapped the brakes and swerved around a stopped car in their path, then jerked his head in her direction. "I don't like it any more than you do," he snapped.

Facing away from him, she moistened her lips and secretly wiped away a tear, stalling, gathering the strength to face him. "You'll be disbarred. You could go to jail, you know that."

"Damn right I know it, Della." Pressing down on the accelerator, the streetlights and cars whizzed by, the lawyer pursed his lips, controlling his anger, while his eyes moving in thought.

Turing to face her, he managed to capture her eyes with his, held her attention and in a voice thick with emotion, he pleaded, "I've asked you to trust me before."

Della's eyes broke away for a moment and answered softly. "I want to trust you. It's just that….. it's not easy… you take too many chances."

"That's the way I'm made, that's who I am." Mason stated matter of factly before releasing a sly smile. "You can't have your cake and eat it too."

"Hey, are we eating?" Paul called again from the back seat.

"No, Paul!" Della's eyes rolled in exasperation. "Go back to sleep!"

With heavy lidded eyes, the detective's face hovered above the back seat, and asked, "But I know I heard cake!"

Lips pursed, Mason shook his head, looked in the rear view mirror and waited for the detective to grow drowsy and resume his slumber.

Slowly the car grew silent again, only the groan of the engine and the rhythmic snoring of the detective could be heard.

"You can't have your cake and eat it too," He repeated softly. "Della…..you can't tell me you don't enjoy a break from the mail, the daily routine, that you don't enjoy the thrill…. the action… the mystery as much as I do." The lawyer maneuvered the car into an illuminated side street nearing their destination.

Leaning into the turn, Della's eyes swept up to meet his and whispered, "You know I do."

Mason's eyes softened at her acquiescence. "You can't have me both ways; I'm either one or the other."

The lawyer noticed her hands toying with her handkerchief and reached over with his right and slipped his fingers protectively around hers giving them a reassuring squeeze.

"I've never tried a case in my life where I didn't leave myself open to attacks-that's the way I play the game. I know it's not easy, but please take me as I am."

Feeling the strength and gentleness of his fingers she managed a weak smile and looked into his face.

Managing a boyish grin, Mason continued. "Because if you don't take me as I am my dear Della, you might find I could be guilty of the greatest sin of all-being uninteresting!"

Della's heart was in her eyes. In one smooth motion the car moved to the curb and stopped, Mason leaned across the seat, and slipped his fingers beneath her chin for a long loving kiss.

Feeling the car stop, Paul Drake stirred and slowly rose to the rear window and looked out. Through bleary eyes he studied the buildings for familiar landmarks. "Hey, folks, I thought we were stopping to eat!"

Hearing the detective's voice, they immediately slipped free of their embrace and turned to their confused passenger as he looked back and forth between the side and rear windows.

Leaning into the lawyer, Della softly whispered, "You…..being uninteresting." Mason's eyes narrowed with fascination as she continued. "Now that would certainly be a crime."

Mason stopped his vehicle in the driveway of 15 Madrona Avenue and couldn't remember the drive from his apartment. Eyes moving in thought, he stared at the empty seat beside him and thought of Della's words. Was it possible? Am I guilty of being uninteresting?

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15 Madrona Avenue, Sausalito

Carefully one foot, then its mate slipped through the mist of the shower and padded across the tiles of the bath. In one fluid motion the towel became a ceremonial shawl. Eyes closed, the towel twirled and swirled to the flamenco music playing in her head. Gracefully her slender feet moved to the staccato rhythm of the guitar and dreamed of the dancing vaqueros.

The campfire created a wall of orange upon which the dark silhouettes danced and stomped their feet in time with their homemade castanets. Their strong fingers snapped shells or hard wood held together with strips of leather and matched the fiery rhythm of the guitar and make-shift drums. Their compañeros cheered and the group moved like an undulating wave around the writer who worked his magical guitar. Scurrying through the dark, she snapped image after image of the celebration and the writer who had become one of them.

As the night deepened and the music and dancing began to fade, the campfire became a mound of glowing ashes. Carefully, she worked her way through saddles and bedding on her way to her tent. A large, low slung tent was setup not too far from her own provisions. Pausing, she studied the design and recalled seeing similar tents used by the Bedouins. A single lamp illuminated the interior and slowly she bent beneath the edge of the tent and stepped into a circle of light. Semi-reclined in a sea of provisions, the guitarist busily wrote in his journal. The metamorphosis was amazing, groomed and free of dust, dark wet hair neatly combed, a pair of wire rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose, coupled with a tweedy sweater and pair of gray corduroy jeans, the guitarist was transformed and could have easily passed for a college professor writing at his desk. He glanced up, deep in thought, eyes focusing on some distant object before turning his attention again to his journal. The acoustic guitar lay amidst the gear, its magical qualities no longer needed.

Stepping further into the tent she began to look around. Spilling from a black paramilitary-style raid sack were Nalgene water bottles, a crank charged flashlight/radio, two pints of Johnny Walker Black, a UV steripen and Katadyn water filter, duct tape, baling wire, books and journals. A plastic box resembling a fishing tackle box lay open and contained medical gear and a pharmacopeia of drugs, antibiotics, deworming serum, antimalarials, analgesics, syringes, scalpels, suturing needle and thread, gauze and tape, the box was filled, ready for any medical emergency. A leather suitcase, partially opened, revealed modest clothing, a pipe, a pouch of tobacco, the barrel of a revolver, and the leather hilt of a hunting knife. Surrounding them were more cases containing gear necessary for travel anywhere in the world.

The man who leisurely reclined before her was more than a writer; he was an adventurer. And like a chameleon he would blend and assimilate with the people and things about which he would write.

Staring at the barrel of the revolver peeking from beneath his clothing, she wondered if he had ever had the opportunity to use it.

"Its health insurance," he said flatly, not looking up from his journal.

He was either able to read her mind or was watching her like a hawk from his peripheral vision, either way, she smiled and found his comment amusing.

"Used one?" he asked simply, continuing to fill the page with elegant cursive writing.

Staring at the barrel of the revolver, brows knitted in thought she recalled her dad's instruction on the proper use of a pistol. Under his tutelage she finally lost the fear of the weapon and remembered she wasn't an Annie Oakley. She finally replied. "Yeah."

Seconds passed as a gentle breeze flowed through the tent rustling papers and canvas.

"Could you pull the trigger?" he asked in an eerily calm voice that belied the intensity of the question. His eyes left the paper and for the first time he looked at her.

The question was brief, but expressed volumes. Photographic assignments around the world could be dangerous. In certain locations and situations well-laid plans could easily go sideways in a heartbeat and then what?

Could she pull the trigger? Controlling emotions, thinking logically, she had honed these skills to a fine art while taking photographs under dangerous circumstances. But could she control emotions and think logically in a life and death struggle?

Could she protect herself or someone she loved? Could she pull the trigger?

Slowly the ceremonial shawl lowered and her feet stopped moving. His question filled her thoughts. 'Could you pull the trigger?' he asked. Not a day passed that she did not think of that question or of the day she would be tested.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the chimes of the doorbell. A visitor? It was after all Thursday and she did have a standing appointment. But that was for later. Checking the time while pulling on a robe and running her fingers through her hair, she hurriedly moved through the house to the side door. Peering through the peep hole, she shook her head. What an ironic surprise-the judge who could barely find the time had arrived early.

As the door opened cool misty air rushed in, swirling the edges of her silken kimono revealing a pair of trim, shapely legs. Mason couldn't help but appreciate the titillating view as he held his binder and insulated bag outside her door. Valentina noticed the justice's appreciative eye and pulled the kimono a little closer.

"You're early," she announced, holding her kimono and struggling with a moist lock of hair that insisted on falling across her forehead.

Looking down at his packages, Mason smiled. "I hope I haven't intruded."

The artist shook her head and stepped aside so he might enter.

"I brought along dinner; that is if you haven't already eaten."

"Eaten," Valentina replied as though the thought was a novel idea.

Mason followed, admiring the elegant wisteria print kimono and graceful woman who wore it.

The artist moved through her studio, leading her visitor to the kitchen and dining room while making idle conversation. "No, I haven't eaten and it is Thursday." She laughed nervously.

"You can set your food there." She pointed to a kitchen counter. "I'll just change and then…..well…." She paused and stared at the insulated container from one of San Francisco's top rated restaurants and felt momentarily overwhelmed. "Dinner, you're so thoughtful, Your Honor."

The judge released an urbane smile and took in the neat and orderly kitchen and dining area. "I hope I haven't inconvenienced you."

Shaking her head, Valentina replied, "Oh, no, not at all. I'll change, just make yourself at home."

As the artist disappeared through the door to her bedroom, Mason turned his attention to his surroundings with a detective's eye. In every direction were paintings and photographs on display along with knickknacks from around the world. Nothing went unnoticed, the storyteller doll from New Mexico, a brass Buddha from Tibet, several puppets from Indonesia, an agate paperweight, a bone letter opener, and a collection of assorted Japanese netsuke. Even the number and style of dishes and glassware sitting near the sink and the variety of spices and cooking utensil, all were carefully observed. But the large spacious windows facing out on the bay commanded his attention. Slipping off his topcoat and draping it over a stuffed chair, he slipped his hands into his pockets and moved around. Glancing around the house it soon became apparent the panoramic windows were the epicenter of the house, the design, and layout, all artistically focused on this one breath-taking view.

Turning full circle, Mason observed the neatness and precision, like the order and detail of a French Garden. Nothing was left to chance in this orderly world. Surrounded by clues, each strategically placed all forming connections. Was it intentional or by accident? Or did the clues rely on the eye of the observer? Mason's eyes narrowed in thought as he turned and studied the distant city skyline taking shape in the darkening shadows. Lights formed the outline of buildings; even the light from his own window was easily viewed.

On the shelf below the windows were neatly arranged photo albums. On their spines, the year, place and National Geographic issues were neatly labeled. Removing his hand from his pocket, he allowed his fingertips to trail over the soft leather binding of an album. The soft leather albums, the view, the light of his apartment from her window were details, clues, connections.

After their first meeting it was ironic. When standing by his window, out of all the lights in Sausalito, he knew which light was hers and had the strange sensation she was standing at this same spot looking at him.

"Do you believe in fate?" Tom Robertson asked years ago when he described his fateful encounter with Bull Johnson and his young protégé on a Colorado trout stream. He could have been practicing law in Colorado. Then years later he and Robertson were united again over a missing wallet and enigmatic zeroes on a check. It was true, fate had brought them together. And even though Robertson was a son of a bitch, he did have a point, there were moments 'fate' had shaped his life. Perhaps this was one of them.

Looking up, he casually surveyed the room and heard muffled sounds coming from what he presumed was a bedroom. A sly smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He couldn't resist and allowed his fingers to glide across the album cover, opened it and turned to the first photo.

So absorbed in the album the lawyer did not realize the bedroom door was ajar. Fully dressed Valentina watched the broad-shouldered man with the intense blue eyes turn page after page of the photo album. Leaning against the doorframe she watched, waited and daydreamed.

The wind snapped the edges of the Bedouin tent and the structure gently swayed. Stretching his leg, then his back, his thoughts, like water, had stopped flowing and became mere drops as the writer's hand began to slow. Patiently she had watched, waited and thought while he wrote. They needed to talk and coordinate their story, she was anxious to start her assignment with the Geographic. Obviously the magazine had been satisfied with the expertise of this writer and had paired them for this assignment. She was no novice; she had worked on other assignments and understood the process and knew the next step would be the challenge of bringing them together to make a team.

Finally as his pen paused above his paper, she broke the silence. "We need to talk."

Without looking up, he looked across the tent as though trying to envision his thoughts in print and replied, "You're talking now."

Instantly annoyed, her hands moved to her hips. She caught herself rolling her eyes and stopped, trying to remain calm and composed.

"No, 'we' need to talk. National Geographic expects this story to be interesting; it has to be more than just beautiful photographs!" she blurted out.

The transition was startling. Forcefully he shoved the pen between the journal pages and was on his feet.

"Interesting! Just beautiful photographs!" he repeated indignantly, hands on his hips, chin held high. "It has to be more than about photographs!" He repeated in disbelief and took a step toward her. His movements and words startled her as she realized this was not the kind of talk she had envisioned.

Blue eyes blazing, he declared, "I've never written an uninteresting story in my life!" His eyes darted over her. "Photographs! Is that all you think people want from the National Geographic-photographs?"

"Well," she began slowly, his response taking her by surprise. "I've never taken an uninteresting photograph in my life either," then hotly added, "And yes, people do think of photographs and the National Geographic!" She stepped closer in defiance, their faces so close she could feel his breath and the heat from his body. An eerie silence descended, the sound of their breathing magnified. Who would blink first?

During their intense moment she marveled at the clarity of his blue eyes and their remarkable expressiveness. It became immediately obvious, not only was he an adventurer, he was also man of passion. This was definitely a man who knew what he wanted in life and a man who would do whatever it took to be successful. This was not what she had in mind when she stated she wanted to talk, but it was a start. Finally, she broke the standoff.

"Well…" she started slowly. "It's safe to say we firmly agree on this story-it will not be an uninteresting one."

A slight movement resembling a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth while his blue eyes he studied her. "I can agree to that," he boldly agreed.

He was definitely not uninteresting, she mused. Valentina's hand slipped inside a tan file thick with newspaper clippings, photographs and magazine stories that rested on the dresser by the door. Taking the first newspaper story, she gently folded it and placed it in her pants pocket, then resumed her watch through the crack in the door.

Mason glanced over his shoulder and listened before resuming his surreptitious survey of the album. Page after page of photographs- it became obvious the photos were destined for the Geographic. Majestic sand dunes, frenetic camel races, colorfully dressed Bedouin women weaving woolen blankets, children playing in the sand, herds of sheep and goat, - the camera had captured all aspects of the nomadic life on film. All the photographs were crisp, detailed and professional. With care and precision the time and descriptions were listed below each photograph and the issue of the National Geographic where the photographs appeared.

The following pages were markedly different; the photographs lacked the professional quality. Why the change in quality? Because the eye behind the camera had changed and the focus of the camera had shifted. These were photographs that would never grace the pages of the National Geographic. The camera angles were playful and the center of attention became obvious. Mason's perusal slowed and the lawyer pulled a pen and notepad from his breast pocket and methodically began to write down all the National Geographic issues of all the photo albums on the ledge beneath the window.

The poses and shots were amateurish and silly. The center of attention in each photograph-Valentina Bernini. An entire series of photographs chronicled Valentina in various stages of mounting, riding and falling off a cranky camel, and the pursuit of the camera lens playfully sticking her tongue out as the lens zoomed in capturing close-ups of the offending raspberry. Mason smiled and thought of the light-hearted moments in his own life. Finding the pages highly addictive he continued his search and found the photographs becoming more private. Mason shifted his feet, growing uncomfortable with his voyeurism as the eye behind the camera lens descended into a realm of greater intimacy.

Caught by surprise, a startled face looked into the lens from a translucent sea of blue; a languid pool fringed with meager vegetation and powdery sand-an oasis. The water's surface only slightly distorted the shapely body of the nude swimmer. Mason stopped, and checked to make sure he was alone.

The next photo- the interior of a Bedouin tent, low slung, carpeted, and filled with golden light. In a nest of pillows Valentina lay prone with her hands cradling her face. Hair tousled and eyes heavy from sleep or lovemaking she looked into the camera. The photographer boldly snapped photo after photo capturing the artist's dusky smile and the golden light playing lustrously over the smooth skin of her bare shoulders, back and hips as she lay amidst the pillows. Mason realized he was not just looking through the eyes of the photographer; he was looking through the eyes of her lover. At the bottom of the photo in an elegant script was written- "Musen". Mason removed his pen and notebook and copied the inscription. Musen? he mused, thinking of his time in Europe, Danish, perhaps. Musen?

The sound of the door closing caused the lawyer to release the cover of the album, and slip his hands back into his pocket. Casually turning, he found Valentina moving through the kitchen pulling out eating utensils and napkins.

"You know this is really quite a pleasant surprise, Your Honor," she said taking down a pair of wine glasses from the cabinet.

Mason nodded and began to unzip the insulated bag containing Gilberto's famous Chilean Sea Bass.

"It's the least I could do for the painting that arrived in my chambers."

The painting displayed on his chamber wall was quite expensive and the token invoice made the painting a purchase rather than a gift. Pulling an envelope from his pocket he added. "And with your invoice I've included my ten dollar check, payment in full. You could go broke charging those prices," he chided good-naturedly.

Valentina skillfully popped the cork from a chilled bottle of wine. "I'd rather go broke, Your Honor, than be responsible for an investigation into your ethics."

Mason nodded in agreement and removed the covered dishes from the insulated carrier. "I remember when Gilberto first came to the United States and worked as a sous chef in L.A. I always knew he had potential and now look at him; he owns one of the top rated restaurants in the city."

It was obvious the jurist was a special customer once the plate covers were removed. The Chilean Sea Bass and grilled spring vegetables were served on the restaurant's fine china with a full silver service. In just a few minutes the table had been elegantly set, the view of the San Francisco skyline spreading out before them. Valentina pouring the wine, hesitated, and looked up at the seated jurist, waiting for his permission to fill his wine glass. Mason nodded, and ignored the protest of his inner voice and rationalized it was only one glass.

Placing the napkin across her lap, Valentina looked up and surveyed her companion seated quietly across from her, who watched and waited for her to sample the entrée. Gracefully she maneuvered her fork along the edge of the grilled fillet, removed a flake and brought it to her lips for a taste. The artist's eyes lowered, savoring the rich full flavor. "Umm," she declared as she opened her eyes. Gesturing with the tip of her fork she added, "Do I detect a hint of Bourbon?"

It was the lawyer's turn to lower his eyes and smile mischievously. "Gilberto uses a special Bourbon marinade."

Bringing the napkin to touch her lips she shook her head. "Oh, you are so bad, Your Honor."

Mason's eyes narrowed, appreciating her keen feminine intuition and how it was hidden beneath such a captivating facade. The beautiful and easy going veneer was a mask for a cunning and calculating mind capable of reading the slightest and most minute detail and nuances.

"Yes, I'm bad, bad, bad," he agreed. "So you like it?"

Another flake reaches her lips and she purred. "It's delightfully decadent, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." Mason's eyes darted to the easel in the far corner near the panoramic window. The easel held his soon to be completed portrait. A feeling of dread spread through him at the thought of its completion and the termination of his visits. Glancing back at his companion he finds she's studying him while aimlessly nudging the food around on her plate with her fork.

"Please give Gilberto my best," she said softly.

Mason nodded and for the first time notices above her shoulder a framed photo on a shelf near the kitchen cabinets. Funny, he didn't recall seeing it there earlier, a horse and rider galloping across what seems to be an endless rolling plain of golden grasses haloed by an azure sky. Looking down, taking another bite of his meal, he manages to steal another look.

"Your Honor," she began. The jurist turned his attention to her.

"Have you always wanted to be a judge?" she asked. And for a moment Mason found himself speechless as he stared at the framed photo.

The golden grasses swayed majestically with the wind, only the sound of screeching and clattering through the open window hinted of tragedy. The dozer had arrived early at the request of his father. Nasty business he heard his father say on the phone to the dozer operator. Eyes rimmed in red he stood stoically in the den by his father's desk and watched the older man write a check, a check for services rendered. Tall, athletic, dark wavy hair and eyes, sporting a thin Clark Gable moustache, his father, always the businessman, shook his head and repeated again. 'Nasty business, yes, nasty business.'

The young man fought back tears and stared out the open window recalling the thunder and lightning that had danced across the sky in the early morning hours. Numbly, he turned his attention to his father's den, the hunting rifles in the solid oaks cabinet, the fly fishing rods hanging across the mantle, the floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books and near the fireplace a chess set, a game in progress, was placed on small table for two. He was being trained, he would be his father's son. Yet he managed to break away from that training for a moment in the kitchen when he allowed his mother's arms to circle his waist as he shed tears on her shoulder.

'Perry,' his father's stern voice forced him to meet the older man's eyes. "Now don't go soft on me, son.' Looking at the young man's red rimmed eyes, he shoke his head and added, 'I suppose that's your mother influence.'

Yes, it was his mother's influence. Looking away, he remembered the phonograph playing, their arms intertwined as his mother gave him dance lessons. One, two, three, they moved awkwardly around the upstairs bedroom, practicing and laughing as they worked to perfect the Cha Cha, Foxtrot, Paso Doble, Quickstep, Rumba, Samba, Waltz and their favorite—the Tango. A gentlemen needs to know all the dances his mother insisted. 'And you are a gentleman, Perry', she said softly straightening the collar on his shirt. 'You'll be the kind of gentleman any woman would find irresistible'.

The young Mason felt the muscles of his jaw tighten at his father's comment.

'But these things happen, son. Life is precious and fleeting and it all can be snuffed out in seconds. A man needs to live each day to the fullness. To survive a man has to be tough, a fighter. And for those weaker than you, well, you must fight for them. There will be many moments like this and you can't give up, you have to keep moving, keep going. You'll be a fighter when I'm finished with you.' Leaning back in his chair the older Mason looked at his son and marveled at how his body was changing, taking on the build of a prize fighter. The elder Mason leaned forward and removed the check from the book and studied it.

'Perry, you have what it takes to be whatever you want, but you'll find the best place for a fighter is the courtroom. You have what it takes to be a helluva lawyer.' The elder Mason paused and placed his index finger at his temple, then lowered to point to his heart. 'You have the brains and the heart to know what is right. Someday….. yes, someday I hope you'll be a judge, not any judge…..but a judge on the highest court in the state, the California Supreme Court.'

The screeching and clattering became louder as the dozer's engine groaned to perform its duty just over the crest of the hill. The younger Mason's eyes grew moist at the thought of his kindred spirit disappearing beneath the soil. Suddenly the check was handed to him and reluctantly he took it between his fingers and held it.

The elder Mason leaned back in his chair and studied his son. 'Perry, I want you to give Frank the check for his services.'

The check in his hand suddenly seemed heavy, heavy with Max's spirit. Once the check left along with the dozer, the golden grasses would cover the disturbed soil and Max would be gone forever. Numbly he turned to carry out his mission and was stopped by his father's voice, holding the door he turned to face the man who gave him life.

His father now stood by the window, head lowered, his back to him. His voice was revealing. 'And Perry…..why don't you prepare a few words…..I think it would be only fitting.'

The artist remained silent and patient, the fork gracefully held between her fingertips waiting for the jurist to speak. He didn't know how long she had waited or how long he had been staring at the framed photo of the galloping horse.

"Have you always wanted to be a judge?" she had asked.

"No," he finally answered.

Valentina received his answer with cool detachment and immediately he found her response intriguing encouraging the jurist to counter with his own question.

"And have you always wanted to be a portrait photographer?" he asked.

The artist remained silent, an eyebrow arched up slightly while the fork remained poised as she thought.

""Look at Val's photos!" the young boy shouted as he pushed the photographs across the counter toward his parents. "I found these in her room."

Both parents moved closer and the more they saw the more excited they became. Their fingers frantically moved and fanned out the four by six photographs until all the photos were arranged on the countertop.

"Oh my God, Anthony, what has she been doing?"

"I don't know, Angie, but we've got to get to the bottom of this!" her father said, before yelling. "Valentina! Valentina come here right now!"

Racing in from the other room, the sixteen year old photographer stopped and looked on in horror. "What are you all doing with my pictures?"

Turning to her grinning brother, she balled up her fist and slugged him. "You little rat bastard, you've been in my room again."

Grabbing his arm in pain, he yelled back, "Well, thanks a lot, Val. Somebody had to tell before you killed yourself."

"So this is really you?" her parents asked in unison.

Stepping to the counter, she slowly turned and looked with pride at the photographs she had taken as she dropped ten thousand feet. "Yeah, that's me."

"Oh, my God, Anthony, she really did jump out of a plane!" her mother gasped and clung to the edge of the kitchen counter for support.

Valentina serenely smiled and toyed with her fork before answering. "No."

The two dinner companions looked across the table at each other with faint all-knowing smiles, tasting and moving their food around on their plates as they both contemplated their responses. Valentina took the time to refill their wine glasses, then brought her glass to her lips, and used the time to study the man across from her.

Satisfied, she lowered her glass, touched the tip of her napkin to her lips and stated. "I understand you had a very interesting legal practice in southern California. Some might say you were a celebrity. I've heard enough of a celebrity to sign autographs like they do in Hollywood."

Mason's face remained poker hard as he felt a tightening in his chest and lowered his silverware and leaned back from his plate. The muscles in his jaw flexed as his eyes took on a steely resolve.

"Celebrity lawyer, signing autographs," he repeated in an eerily soft voice. Suddenly his hands were on the table as he leaned forward, the intensity building inside his broad chest, only the gentle rhythmic tapping of his fingertips on the table seemed to safely release his building energy.

In a stentorian courtroom voice, Mason stated, "My legal practice specialized in murder and I can assure you, Ms. Bernini, a client facing the gas chamber would not find comfort having some light-weight Hollywood celebrity lawyer representing him or her in court. This isn't some Hollywood plot; we're dealing with the reality of life and death-life in prison or death in the gas chamber." Mason paused. What he saw was not a look of consternation at his response, or the indignation required for an argument, he found only a face filled with calm and a trace of amusement playing around her eyes and lips. Mason leaned back in his chair and smiled. "But then you knew all of that didn't you?"

Coyly she brought the wine to her lips and appraised him over the rim as she sipped.

Amused, Mason chuckled.

Lowering her glass, her eyelashes fluttered as she raised her eyes to his before smiling. "But I do love a man of passion. It certainly makes life more interesting."

"Interesting," the lawyer repeated softly.

"Yes, interesting," she agreed.

A thoughtful silence fell between them. The lights of the city skyline winked in the distance and filled the panoramic windows. Indirect lighting illuminated the easel in the far corner and Mason's eyes were drawn to it once more. Valentina followed his gaze.

"The portrait will be finished soon…."Mason began.

"And then….." she said.

"Then this will be over," he replied.

"Do you want this to be over?" she asked staring thoughtfully at the easel.

"Do you?" the lawyer countered.

"You said at the beginning this was more than a portrait. Do you still feel that it's true?"

Mason's brow arched up thoughtfully, then elicited a sly smile. "I think you know the answer to that question."

Valentina's dark eyes left the easel and turned to meet the lawyer's. "I could prepare dinner the next time; that is if you have the time."

"And I'll bring the wine and…." The lawyer smiled, his voice trailing off, sensing the time was right, reached down to the binder by his chair and removed the National Geographic and unfolded it on the table.

Valentina looked down at the raging bull and grim faced matador. Mason's attempt to read the expression on her face drew a blank, only a subtle fluttering of lashes revealed any response.

"And if you have the time…" the artist's voice trailed off as her hand slipped in her pocket, removed the newspaper story and smoothed it out on the table.

Mason stared down at the title, 'Mason summoned before the Grand Jury'. Accompanying the story was a stock photo taken outside the courtroom of a young and dark haired Perry Mason. Valentina's attentive eyes studied the lawyer's face and watched the blossoming of an amused smile.

The magazine and newspaper story were placed side-by-side. Their eyes meet and the artist's smile joined the lawyer's.

"Well," Mason began. "This should be interesting."

~~~tbc~~~