A special thanks goes out to my beta who wishes to remain exotic and mysterious! You are a great set of second eyes!

"Quid pro quo"

Trials & Tribulations

Chapter 5

Thursday

Perry Mason leisurely drove the car down the city streets; he was in no hurry for the evening to end. Each time the glow of the street lights bathed the interior he took the opportunity to admire his companion, the crossed slender legs, and the way the tip of her shoe moved to the song she hummed. Mason smiled, he had been hearing the same song in his head as they drove along and glanced to his dance partner and noticed how her shoulders gently swayed to the rhythm as though still seated by the dance floor.

At that moment the lawyer had never been happier.

He had to admit he had found the perfect companion, someone who enjoyed a puzzle, a mystery and the sense of adventure as much as he did. Over the months their time together had grown more and more enjoyable. If practicing the high stakes nature of criminal law were like cake, his secretary, Della Street, would certainly be the icing. In her interview, Della had been right-they were a team. Their efforts moved as one and he had grown to rely on her solely. Della was definitely the icing on that legal cake-intelligent, intuitive, and beautiful. And now their time together was coming to an end, they were seconds away from her apartment.

Slowing the car, he turned onto her street, and experienced two conflicting emotions-regret and excitement. Regret that their evening of dinner and dancing was coming to an end and the excitement of their last moments together for the evening as he walked her to her door. With the passage of time their relationship had grown and changed from boss and secretary-to friends, friends who enjoyed and shared the same goals and adventures.

Pulling the car to the curb in front of her building, he brought the car to a stop.

"You know, Perry, I can believe our dinners are a business expense," Della softly stated as she gathered her purse, and added with a throaty chuckle. "But I'm not sure about the after dinner dancing."

Mason flashed his secretary an all-knowing smile before leaving the car to begin his gentlemanly ritual.

As he opened her door, the lawyer knew he would be rewarded with a flash of shapely legs as Della Street stepped out onto the sidewalk and smoothed down her skirt. Pausing, she waited for him to protectively cup his hand around her elbow for their walk to the front of her building.

He had lost count of the number of times the ritual had been completed, the walk to her door, the reward of her radiant smile as she thanked and bid him good-night. Each time he would linger on the steps and watch her fit the key in the door and wait till she was safely inside. Leaning on the rail, his feet positioned to leave or to stay, he waited and hoped that someday she would move beyond their friendship and ask him to stay, to come upstairs to her apartment for coffee. Like Romeo beneath Juliet's window, he would look up with growing love and adoration, with the hope that someday they might be more than friends.

Again the ritual was complete, the smile, the thank-you for a lovely meal before she turned to the door. Taking his place on the steps he watched and waited for her to remove her keys when she hesitated and closed her purse. Beneath the glow of the outside light she stood at the top of the steps and looked down upon him. Mason took a deep breath and tightly gripped the railing as he watched her turn.

Slowly, with an easy grace she moved down the steps until she stood eye-to-eye with the lawyer. Della immediately noticed the disarray in his breast pocket and raised her skilled fingers to neaten it. Arranging his handkerchief had become a ritual, part of her attention to detail. With the same eye for order she organized the office, their documents for court and with the same care, the neatening of the lawyer himself. He had become accustom to her critical eye and had grown to rely on it. And so the evening would not be complete without this final gesture. Artfully she arranged and straightened the fold to her satisfaction as the lawyer's appreciative eyes looked on. What would he do without her?

While watching this final gesture the lawyer's mind and heart were racing as he contemplated all the possibilities the night could hold. As she completed the final adjustment of his handkerchief her nimble fingers trailed along the top of his pocket before gliding along the edge of his lapels. Mason watched her efforts slow then pause. What was she thinking? Bringing his full attention to the beautiful face bathed in light he looked for a clue. Her fingers continued their journey to smooth his lapels before bringing her dark eyes to meet his.

Using all his talents of observation the lawyer looked for understanding. He had made the complete study of his secretary a top priority; her likes, dislikes, mannerisms, everything. But he had to confess, she still remained a beautiful mystery. He had only scratched the surface and had only mastered the superficial. He detected the slight furrowing of her brow and the pursing of her lips. He had seen the look before as she mulled over a complicated problem. Their silence amplified the sounds of the city streets as she paused.

Della allowed a single manicured nail to trail along his lapel as she broke the silence. "You said dinner was…."

"…..business," Mason finished her sentence.

"And the dancing?"

A faint smile and a dimple bloomed on the lawyer's face.

"Well, the dancing…."Mason looked to the side and raised expressive eyes, eyes haloed with thick lashes. "…I believe this is where business meets pleasure."

Della's lips formed a perfect circle expressing her complete understanding. Her single finger transformed to a full palm that gently rested on the lawyer's chest as she leaned closer. "And walking me to my door?"

"What do you think?" Mason asked, toying, enjoying their moment of closeness and an evening filled with possibilities. The answer to her question seemed clear, and yet her eyes seemed filled with hesitation and doubt. What was she thinking, his beautiful mystery? Why did she hesitate? How could she have doubt? He waited for her answer.

Valentina Bernini studied the lawyer's expressionless face over the edge of her wine glass. Earlier he had been savoring the wine, the leg of lamb, sauté vegetables, and now, the jurist was lost in a daydream. Staring over her shoulder, the jurist still held his fork with a bite of lamb. Swirling the fragrant liquid she studied her guest and admired his attire. He was not casually dressed as his last visit. Tonight he wore a neatly tailored navy three piece suit with a rich burgundy vest and a striking paisley tie to match. As always, his hair and beard were impeccable, face freshly shaven, his nails neatly manicured. He had taken her invitation for dinner very seriously. A smile toyed at the corner of her lips as she thought. Who was she to talk? Hours earlier she had looked through her own closet, tried on four different garments before settling on an azure blue silk dress with white pearls. Looking in the mirror, she liked what she saw-sleek, simple, elegant-a look she knew her guest would appreciate.

On her bed beside the garments lay a sea of newspaper clippings, and magazine articles. She had clustered them not by date, but by content and interest. Skimming them all, she had made mental notes as she placed them into groups, cases, clients, characters, and dramas. Most of the cases she was certain had some unique or unusual quality that had attracted the lawyer's attention, and had guaranteed them a spot on the front page of many newspapers. She was confident she had skimmed only the surface with her small, but ample collection of clippings and articles. Mason's career had spanned decades and seemed destined to continue on. There were no rumors that she could find that indicated the defense attorney, known for his courtroom theatrics and legal adventures, was considering a career-altering change. In Valentina's mind it would be like a prize winning quarterback, known for skill and ingenious plays suddenly deciding one day to take to the sidelines, to become a referee. The judgeship was that kind of move. Instead of being the quarterback, Mason became the referee, someone who observes and makes sure the rules of the game are properly played and enforced. Valentina found the career change puzzling.

The puzzle did have possible answers. One newspaper photo in particular caught her eye and held it. Throughout her life and her career she had developed an affinity for details and uncanny ability to read between the lines. As a photographer, she appreciated a moment caught in time-a moment when the young, dark haired Mason and the tall, slender brunette at his side entered the hallway outside an LA courtroom. The couple paused briefly for the photographers; their faces turned not to the camera, but instead, to each other. Their knowing looks were captured on film.

She pulled out a magnifier for closer inspection. Very seldom did her subjects pause like this. Most of her images were captured on the sly as she moved silently and stealthy in their environment. Immediately her instincts took hold. The question about what transpired between Mason and his secretary after the hallway photo was no mystery. The answer was quite clear; they entered the public courtroom and performed their jobs. The real story, the real mystery was not in their public image. As a photographer, Valentina knew how she would tackle the story. She would aim for the events leading up to the hallway photograph, the events that created those knowing looks. She would aim to capture what had happened between them during their private ride in the service elevator? Or the time they had shared in the lawyer's office earlier that morning? Of one thing she could be certain; there was definitely a story behind their visual communication?

She moved from the bed and its sea of clippings to the dresser and the photograph of the galloping horse and the rider, Tomas Bardem. Carefully, she positioned the newspaper photo on the frame and stepped back. Taking a deep breath, she observed out loud, 'Yes, there's definitely a story behind every photograph.'

Placing the wine glass on the table, Valentina turned and followed the gaze of her dinner companion. It took only a few seconds to know what had captured his interest, a framed photograph on the shelf to her right. Earlier in the evening she had removed the photo of the beautiful gray gelding that glided across a flowery meadow along the Guadalquivir River and had exchanged it for another. The new photograph was another favorite.

Despite what she considered to be the jurist's expressionless courtroom visage she had managed to notice something he was not concealing so well-his attention. But perhaps that's his intent, she mused. A man like Mason was not one to do anything unintentionally. Slowly, she folded and placed her napkin on the table and moved to retrieve the framed photo.

"Perhaps you'd like a closer look, Your Honor?" She asked, holding the frame closer for his inspection.

The jurist's broad-shoulders shrugged as he chuckled. "Yes, it is very nice, Ms. Bernini."

Turning the frame in her hand, she took a second look as she returned to her seat and casually placed the photo on the table between them so they could continue admiring the striking black and white photograph.

"Where was it taken?" Mason casually asked as he wiped his lips with his napkin.

Resting her chin on her fist, Valentina's eyes narrowed in thought. "It's a local picture, somewhere in the Mission district, I don't recall the street." The photographer paused, waiting for her guest to further comment and was disappointed when he remained silent. Instead he took another bite of lamb, and casually smiled as though his daydream earlier had meant nothing.

"You can imagine being a photographer I've taken thousands of photographs. But I do have my favorites. I print, frame them, and move them around where I can enjoy them. They bring back fond memories."

"So this is one of your favorites?"

"Yes," she replied simply, watching her guest finish the last of his wine and noted with surprise- they had consumed the bottle.

Mason's eyes softened as he admired his hostess and her transition from casually clad artist in jeans and sweaters, to a woman of classic elegance sheathed in silk and pearls. So their dinner together was special after all.

Tilting his head to the side, Mason inquired, "So why is this a favorite of yours, Ms. Bernini?"

For a moment she paused, recalling the events. She always enjoyed roaming San Francisco at night, capturing the nightlife in black and white. Quietly moving along the streets, staying in the shadows, the click of her camera easily masked by the sound of music, laughter and urban noise, she managed to capture countless unguarded moments and an occasional mystery.

"When I work at night, I often use black and white. I like the sharp contrast between light and dark. It seems to bring out more detail, more textures than color film. Most of the time I work from the shadows, watching, waiting. In this case, I was heading back to my car when I happened to stumble upon this couple. I guess I'm being presumptuous when I say a couple."

Valentina paused again, looking at the framed image of the entry to an apartment building. The light over the entrance created a black and white study of a man and woman positioned on the steps to the building. It was an energy filled Friday night and most of her film had been exhausted capturing the fast and furious action of San Francisco. Her camera had one shot remaining. Seeing the couple on the steps she slipped into the shadows.

"So why did this man and woman attract your attention?" Mason asked, studying the artist rather than the art.

The photographer tilted her head and reminisced. "I guess it was the way they were dressed that caught my attention. After all it was a Friday night; they weren't dressed like the couples at the clubs or any of the other social events I had encountered. Their dress was more for the office, the man for example was wearing a business suit…..and the women as you can see has on a nicely tailored business suit and is carrying a briefcase. I couldn't resist a mystery. I slipped into the shadows, raised my camera and waited. Through my lens I was able to study them up close, their facial expressions and their physical closeness." Valentina's voice and manner softened at the memory. "I remember the man positioned himself on the rail in such a manner where he could easily leave or stay. I could see them speaking to each other, I couldn't hear their words, they were too far away. I assumed they were saying good-night. The young women turned to leave when she seemed to have second thoughts and returned to the top of the stairs." The artist softly laughed. "It took only an instant for the man to pivot and resume facing her. Slowly she moved down the stairs toward him. I was focusing and waiting, waiting for what might happen next between them. The night grew so still, my breathing seemed so loud, I was afraid they might hear me in the shadows, might hear the whine and click of my camera as I took their photograph."

Valentina reached out with the tip of her finger and touched the image of the couple. "You can see how his face turns up to hers, full of hope at where the evening might lead. In contrast the woman looks down; she's touching him, tentatively, as though she's thinking about asking him to join her upstairs. She's torn, full of doubt. Is it the man or is it something in her past that causes her to hesitate? She's conflicted. It made me wonder what was between them. I only had film for one shot; I had to make it count. So this is what you see. "

Mason waited till her attention returned to him. "I'm impressed with your resourcefulness, Ms. Bernini, being able to capture a candid and intimate moment like that takes skill and stealth. By slipping into the shadows," the lawyer paused, amusement playing in his eyes, "you were moving as quietly as a mouse, a musen." A 'musen'. Yes, my darling musen, the lawyer thought, recalling the scrapbook and the sultry photograph of the reclining Valentina and the handwritten inscription below.

"Thank you," Valentina replied as her fingers reached for the stem of her wine glass and nervously turned it.

"Yes, as quiet as a musen," Mason said, his eyes and lips smiling.

"Musen….what a strange word, what does it mean?" she asked with her own sweet smile, a smile she hoped would mask her own feelings.

"A hunting friend of mine used the word to describe the mouse residing in our cabin. He called the pesky little devil 'musen', he said it was Norwegian for mouse."

"How interesting! Musen, that's certainly a clever name. And yes, I guess I am resourceful."

Taking the frame in his hand, Mason turned it toward him. He thought of the artist's tropical and Parisian paintings hanging in his apartment and office and his memories of the smoky gray gelding from their previous dinner. They were more than mere coincidence-they had a connection. "Yes, Ms. Bernini, not only resourceful, but also very intuitive, very intuitive indeed."

Valentina Bernini felt the power and intensity of her dinner quest. She was feeling first-hand the lawyer's size and presence and could easily imagine witnesses wilting under his penetrating gaze.

"If you'll excuse me, I'll refresh our wine," she said, sliding back her chair, retrieving the empty bottle and moving into the kitchen all the while his voice softly whispered to her, my darling musen. Tears began to gather in her eyes. Opening the refrigerator allowed her the opportunity to regain her composure and secretly wipe away any tears. She selected another bottle of wine, began to open it stopped and recalled the reason why she had taken the photo of the couple on the stairs.

The sound of their shoes echoed on the tiles in the empty hallway. Back in civilization and the London field office of the National Geographic, they had just completed their final meeting with their editor. Their story would be appearing in the next issue of the magazine and technically they were finished with their collaboration and each would be soon receiving their new assignments.

Together they walked down the hallway. Their time together was coming to an end. Head bowed, hands shoved into his pockets, Tomas Bardem was unusually quiet. They had not spoken since they had closed the editor's door. The silence between them was unusual, they were constantly communicating. To a passing stranger it might appear they were arguing, but in reality it was the heated and passionate brainstorming of two creative and strong-willed minds. Breathless and smiling they would eventually reach an agreement or sometimes an amiable truce. In the hallway even their uneven footsteps soon became synchronous and sounded as one.

Valentina was brimming with emotions-excitement over her photograph, the bull and matador, gracing the cover of the next issue of the Geographic. And then there was the strange feeling she couldn't quite place. Usually at the end of an assignment she felt a sense of completion and anticipation, she was always looking forward to a new assignment, a new adventure. This feeling was unique-it was a feeling of deep loss.

They slowed and stopped at the end of the hall as apposing stair cases descended to separate streets. Tomas stopped and looked back and forth at the stairs going off in two directions and understood its symbolism.

"Congratulations on your front page," he said.

Valentina released a wan smile and nervously fingered the fastener on her leather bag. "Yeah, I guess it's a pretty big deal having a photograph on the cover. Of course, people don't just look at the Geographic for its picture, right?"

Tomas shuffled slightly, chuckled and sarcastically replied, "Yeah, right and Russians don't love vodka. Of course they look for the pictures! It is a big deal!"

The photographer bit her lip to suppress her laughter, enjoying one of their private moments. She also resisted the urge to reach out and touch him, to adjust his twisted collar, to continue their physical connection.

"You know, Tom, my photo wouldn't be on the cover if it weren't for your story."

The writer self -consciously shrugged it off and glanced at his watch. "I guess it's time for us to move on, to head our separate ways. So take care of yourself."

"You too."

Both turned to head in their separate directions, when they both paused as though experiencing an afterthought. And then as if on cue, they both turned and covered the distance, their arms folding around the other in an embrace. Valentina fought back what she was sure were tears and enjoyed the smell of his cologne and pipe tobacco one last time. For a moment she thought she felt him quiver beneath her touch when abruptly they parted. Feeling as though life were being sucked from her, she turned, inhaled and quickly descended the stair leaving the writer behind.

"Valentina!" She heard him call her name.

Abruptly she stopped and turned. He was standing at the top of the stairs looking down.

"I'm off to Borneo," he called. "They want me to cover the mangroves of Sabah."

She leaned against the rail and waited. Why was he prolonging their parting? Why did he have to make this so difficult?"

"Orangutans, proboscis monkeys, mudskippers, you know, that sort of thing," Tomas said as he slowly descended the stairs and stopped on the step above her.

His clear blue eyes glistened and sparked with renewed energy as he spoke of his upcoming adventure. "I wasn't sure just now, where we stood, you and me."

It was all she could do to hold back tears and he too glanced away for a moment, as though gathering his thoughts.

Funny, Tomas Bardem at a loss for words, she thought, holding her up her head, trying to remain in control.

Turning back, he released a boyish smile. "I can't believe I'm at a loss for words."

"Yeah, like a Russian doesn't like vodka," Valentina softly laughed.

"What I'm trying to say is…..I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing when I spoke to Nigel. I may have made a terrible error in judgment. Perhaps I'm being presumptuous."

Not able to stand his twisted collar any longer, Valentina reached up and straightened it. Tomas was caught off guard by her actions and awkwardly nodded his appreciation for her efforts.

"Presumptuous?" she asked incredulously as she stepped back.

"Yes, I wondered if I was being presumptuous when I asked Nigel if you'd be available for the Borneo assignment."

"Yes, you were being presumptuous!" Valentina laughingly replied. "You're always, presumptuous, Tomas Bardem."

The writer's eyes grew wide, confused. "I didn't know if you would be interested!"

"Interested?" she asked, toying with him, feeling elated. "Why would I not be interested?"

"I don't know. I just wasn't sure."

"Well, if you insist, Tom."

The writer moved to stand next to her on the step. "Well, of course, I insist," he replied, confidently squaring his shoulders and adjusting the strap of the bag casually slung over his shoulder. "I think we should discuss how we will approach this story."

"I'm hungry, Tom. I can't think until I've had some food."

"Of course, we'll have dinner, and I'll bring along my maps."

"And I'll bring along my manuals. Mangroves, you know I do have some interesting underwater photographic techniques I'd like to try."

"Splendid," Tomas replied as they continued their discussion step by step.

Valentina stood holding the bottle of wine and released a gentle sigh. 'Yes, there's definitely a story behind every photograph,' she thought.

While his hostess popped the cork on a fresh bottle, Mason finished the lamb on his plate with relish. The muted lights, cool silence and the flavorful wine had created an atmosphere of total relaxation. He was enjoying the company of this beautiful woman with the complete understanding that he was not looking for a romantic relationship. But despite his best intentions, he did find he was attracted to her and to her life in an unexpected way. He was attracted to her adventurous and intuitive nature. An evening with Valentina was as though he were looking in a mirror.

Valentina returned to the table, refilled their glasses and quickly gathered their plates.

"I can't recall when I've had a more delicious meal," the lawyer complimented. The artist paused, then smiled as she walked into the kitchen and slipped the dishes into the sink. Drying her hands on a towel, she returned to the table and her dinner guest.

"Thank you, Your Honor. I'm flattered. I'm sure Chilean sea bass is quite delicious. But I had a feeling you might enjoy lamb for a change, you impressed me as a meat and potatoes kind of man. I guess I was correct."

"Was I that obvious?" Mason chuckled.

Valentina tilted her head and released a sly smile. "Perhaps it was the adventure of bending the rules that you relished so much?"

Mason smiled, sipped his wine, enjoying their little game.

The photographer's eyes grew dreamy and recalled her own day in Piombino, Italy.

The view from the kitchen window was spectacular. The Isle of Elba seemed to float on the horizon surrounded by deep blue seas and billowy white clouds. The harbor below the apartment was filled with boats of every description. She had removed the leg of lamb from the oven and while it rested she used a spoon to dip and pour the succulent juices over the crisp and seasoned skin. The preparation, the baking and now the basting were all a labor of love-for leg of lamb was his favorite. Looking out the window at the street below, she anxiously watched and waited for his return.

Suddenly, strong arms encircled her, a pair of lips and a beard nuzzled her neck. Alarmed, she dropped the spoon into the hot juices, and instinctively struggled.

"My darling, musen, how I've missed you," he whispered in her ear bringing a sigh of relief to the struggling artist. Relaxing, she leaned back into his arms.

"Oh, Tom, you frightened me," she exclaimed, rubbing his cheek with her hand. Turning her in his arms, he passionately kissed her, pulled her near. "It's good to be back, and what is this?" he asked looking over her shoulder, spying the roasted lamb on the counter.

"Oh, that's a little treat for you."

The writer released her from his embrace but held possession of her hand and gently kissed it as he inspected the roasted prize.

"And here I thought you would be my only treat tonight."

Valentina chuckled and kissed him on the cheek as his free hand plucked a loose piece of lamb and sampled it.

"Your flatter me," she said, circling his waist with her arm. "So what did they say, where are we going?"

"Oh, it will be quite the adventure, my darling musen; we're off to the llanos of Venezuela in search of Senora Monstra, the largest anaconda in the world."

Mason noticed his dinner companion drifting off in her own daydream and asked, "Adventure, bending the rules, isn't that what makes life worth living?

Valentina slowly turned her attention to the lawyer. "I suppose. You like the adventure, the bending of rules."

Relaxed, learning forward in his chair, the jurist smiled and nodded. "And you?"

She released a coy smile and also nodded. Mason raised his glass for an informal toast and gestured in the direction of the black and white photograph. "To an easy friendship."

"To an easy friendship," she replied raising her glass to meet his, gently touching the rim, as they enjoyed the wine and the company.

Valentina pointed toward the young woman in the photo whose hand rested on the man's chest. "I wondered about their friendship. Was he a co-worker…or maybe her boss? I wonder…did they move beyond friendship."

The lawyer tilted his head, inspecting the man and woman again. "Hmm, an interesting question."

"Co-worker, boss, there was definitely something between them."

"You were there. What happened next?"

Valentina softly laughed as she stretched and leaned back in her chair, and ran the tips of her fingers through her wavy hair. "I wish I could tell you. Only seconds after I snapped this photo, someone across the street stepped outside to walk their dog. Their outside light came on, the dog began to bark and jump. I was no longer in the shadows so I immediately left. I'm afraid the future of our couple will remain a mystery."

"Hummph." Mason said shaking his head.

An easy calm fell between them as they sipped their wine and enjoyed their own thoughts. Valentina released an audible sigh. "You know that's the magic of a single moment captured on film. A moment that is part of a larger story, and whoever views that single moment, like you and I, we add our own memories to that moment to form an even larger story."

"Like the magic of your paintings."

Immediately the Parisian Café and Jamaican beach came to mind and the artist released an all-knowing smile. "Yes, like the magic of my paintings."

Mason's eyes narrowed as he contemplated the significance of the photographer's words and how their lives and memories were somehow intertwined. What a tantalizing mystery you are?

"Speaking of magic moments, I wonder if you might share another one of your adventures with me?"

The lawyer shook his head and chuckled with amusement as he reached in his breast pocket and retrieved his reading glasses. "And what new adventure do we have this week?"

Removing the first clipping from beneath her placemat, she turned it so the jurist could see. The L.A. Inquirer had chosen to use a stock photo of a youthful, dark-haired Perry Mason to accompany a news story.

Mason leaned in for a closer look, and quickly frowned. "Where do they get these photos?"

"Oh, Your Honor," Valentina chided his frown. "It's a handsome face!"

The jurist shrugged his massive shoulders, shaking his head, he began to protest, when she gestured him to silence.

"It's still a handsome face," she stated firmly, chin raised defiantly. With an elegant turn of her hand she pointed to the portrait in the far corner. "I must remind you, Your Honor, that I have spent a great deal of my time studying every inch of your face. In my artistic opinion I think it is a very handsome face."

Learning back in his chair, Mason laughed with amusement, eyes twinkling with mischief. "So it's your artistic opinion?"

Valentina brought her wine glass to her lips, paused, then coyly added, "It's also a personal opinion as well, Your Honor."

Suddenly Mason leaned across the table, the intensity of his blue eyes and the sheer power and proximity of his presence took her by surprise. "Your Honor, Your Honor! Such formality! I think it's time you and I moved on, don't you? I believe it's time you called me, Perry."

The photographer's eyes widened slightly as she slowly lowered her glass, and used the tip of her tongue to remove any traces of wine from her lips. Softly, she replied, "Very well…Perry it is."

Looking down at the clipping, she allowed her finger to glide along its surface, stalling while she gathered her thoughts. To an easy friendship, he had toasted, and she had raised her glass in agreement. After all she was quite familiar with men like Perry Mason, men who were used to getting what they wanted and the thought excited her.

"In that case, feel free to call me, Valentina," she began, "or my friends call me, Val." Glancing down at the clipping, she could easily imagine a young, virile Perry Mason, with broad shoulders, a deep voice, intense blue eyes, a man who oozed charisma. Attractive, successful, he was a man who could have had any woman he wanted and yet….. she could find only one woman who seemed to hold his attention. The thought still intrigued her as she looked up at the older, wiser and still very charismatic Perry Mason.

"Well, Perry," she started. "Please share this adventure with me." Turning the newspaper clipping so they both might see, she continued. "The Inquirer ran a story concerning the sale of a young woman's personal diaries. Apparently she was the stenographer for an eccentric millionaire who dabbled in primate research. And while on his yacht off the coast of Catalina the young woman disappeared. Was she the victim of a horrible accident, a suicide, or was it something more sinister."

Mason took the article and studied it for a moment. Why out of all my cases would she select this one? He thought. "My, my, you do find the interesting ones. The diaries were sold at an auction at the Public Administrator's office. The story made it to the newspapers." Mason adjusted his reading glasses and gestured to the other clippings. "What other cases do you have?"

It was Valentina's time to smile. It appeared she had struck a nerve. Why was he so quick to gloss over this case? Holding firm, she continued looking at the clipping. "I think the papers were anxious to run this story because it seems the dead woman's diaries were purchased by Perry Mason's confidential secretary, Della Street. It caused quite a stir because everyone seems to think she purchased them on your behalf. Did she, did she buy them on your behalf?"

Mason eyed the clipping critically, his fingertips running through his beard stroking the angle of his jaw. "No," he said reluctantly. He remembered the case well and openly shared the reasons behind the purchase. "Della didn't buy the diaries on my behalf, the purchase was her idea. She always had an eye for a mystery. I could count on her to find new and novel cases. She was always good at reading between the lines, she was very intuitive. Della knew there must be clues hidden in Helen's entries and if she possessed those diaries she might find something that would explain the young woman's disappearance."

"You sound as though you didn't approve of her purchase."

The lawyer looked off a moment. It wasn't the diaries, or the purchase. It was something far more complicated. Looking back, he realized this was the first tiny crack in their fracturing relationship. The moment was burned into his memory.

The day had been rough and tedious. He was exhausted and couldn't wait to leave the courthouse, when Della Street rushed up to him in the hallway. Fresh from the auction, bubbling with enthusiasm, Della couldn't wait to show him her newest purchase. Turning on the charm she began to present her case and all the possible reasons why 'they' should look into it.

All he could see was another case, an added responsibility, an additional burden to an already burdensome caseload. Why is she doing this to me? he groaned. Why can't she see how frustrated I am? Judge Randall had already ruled against him earlier in the morning and he was in no mood for another case.

"Let's just say the timing was off." Mason finally responded. "But as we took the diaries back to my office and my secretary began to read through them, she was able to convince me the young woman's disappearance from the yacht wasn't a suicide as some papers reported. We were also contacted by the newspaper concerning my secretary's purchase and I decided to grant them an interview. It always pays to be on good terms with the press."

Mason paused, eyes narrowed, and faintly smiled at the memory. Huddled around the office table, almost cheek to cheek, they read through the young woman's diaries. He recalled slipping his arm around Della's waist, enjoying their closeness, bringing back memories of earlier times in their lives when every case was a new adventure for them. He recalled how Della's eyes would widen as she read a passage, then exclaim, 'Look at this, Perry!' Together they would re-read the passage. For a moment he joined her excitement and shared her energy.

"Your secretary, a Miss…"

The jurist was pulled from his thoughts and slowly replied, "Miss Street, Della Street."

"Yes, Della Street. I have to admire a woman who loves a good mystery," Valentina nodded, watching her companion, enjoying their little game. She removed another clipping. "But that wasn't the end of it, was it?"

Still holding the paper, Mason ran his fingertips across his lips as he thought. "No, there was a shyster lawyer named, Fallon, Nathan Fallon. He showed up at my office offering five dollars for the diaries. Fallon was Benjamin Addicks' attorney."

"Addicks was the millionaire, the one who studied primates and Helen's' boss?"

Mason nodded. "It didn't take long for me to determine Fallon had ulterior motives when he eventually offered to pay one thousand dollars for the diaries."

Valentina's brows rose with surprise, "So did he get the diaries for one thousand dollars?"

"Hardly," Mason chuckled, "I threatened to physically throw him out of my office."

The photographer laughed.

"We decided there must be more to these diaries, so 'we' began to read them."

"We?" she asked.

"Yes, my secretary and I."

"Della Street?"

"Yes, Della."

"So I guess the timing wasn't off after all."

"No, I suppose not."

Valentina continued to pull clippings from beneath her placement. "I was rather surprised that Helen's diaries had caused such a stir. And then after the diaries there's the housekeeper, Mrs. Kempton. She claimed Mr. Addicks had unjustly fired her and was trying to keep her from gaining employment. It says here she's trying to sue her ex-boss. I can see why the newspapers loved this. A curvaceous stenographer who disappears off a millionaire's yacht and leaves behind her personal diaries. Then the diaries are purchased by Perry Mason's secretary. And of course we have the eccentric millionaire with a collection of primates who the press claimed were being used for bizarre mind control experiments. It says here that Addicks was trying to hypnotize and train them. And apparently they first thought a homicidal gorilla had killed Addicks, but then they charged the housekeep, Mrs. Kempton."

Mason finished the wine in his glass and smiled. "It certainly was an interesting case."

"Do you remember the details of all your cases?"

The lawyer leaned back in his chair and contemplated her question. "Let's just say that some are more memorable than others, like your Geographic assignments."

Valentina nodded. "Point taken."

"How do you keep them all straight?"

"We would usually find a suitable name for them, perhaps a unique characteristic." Mason's eyes softened, remembering a detail. "Usually my secretary would manage to create a clever alliterative title."

"Alliterative titles," Valentina repeated, watching her companion closely. "So it was usually Della. So what was the name for this one?"

"The Case of the Grinning Gorilla."

Mason glanced over at the black and white photograph of the couple on the steps and recalled a bittersweet moment during the case.

While Paul Drake ran a lead, they found the time to slip into a little Chinese restaurant for dinner. Leaning back in the booth, Mason looked across the table at Della Street and felt a moment of nostalgia. Where had the years gone? He was certainly feeling the effects of time, but not Della. The lawyer's eyes softened as he admired her. No, Della continued to be a timeless beauty and blessed with boundless energy and enthusiasm. From the shadows a server appeared, placed fresh teacups and two fortune cookies on the table, politely bowed then disappeared.

Della took one, opened it, read it, smiled, folded the paper and began to place the slip in her coin purse when the lawyer spoke.

"Wait," Mason said and frowned. "You didn't share your fortune."

Della's cheeks blushed as she shook her head.

"Why, Della," Mason chided, "You normally don't keep secrets from me."

"Well, this is different."

"Why?"

"I'm sorry," she said as her blush deepened. "It wouldn't have been so bad if I had shared it right away, but now it seems awkward."

With that explanation out of the way she dropped the slip of paper in her coin purse.

Mason took out a fortune, cracked it open.

"What's yours?" she asked as she sipped her tea.

Mason abruptly folded the fortune and slipped it in his pocket.

Della chuckled. "Why Perry, you didn't even read yours. Now who's keeping secrets?"

The lawyer grinned, removed the fortune and read it out loud.

'The fortune says: To reach your goal, remember that courage is the only antidote for danger.'

Both nodded, satisfied, they resumed sipping their hot tea.

"Do you believe in fortunes?" Della finally asked.

"No, of course, not," the lawyer quickly replied and dismissed the notion with a brush of his hand. "They print these things up by the hundreds. I don't know how many different fortunes they use, but I'm sure there are a hundred or so."

"Then do you believe in fate?" Della countered.

Mason could see the sincerity in her eyes. "The Chinese do to an extent. With a hundred different messages, it would be fate as to the one you might select."

"Well, I believe in fate. I think your fortune has a personal message just for you," Della stated matter-of-factly.

Again, the lawyer smiled, his curiosity peaked by Della's mysterious fortune. "I think what you're really trying to say, Della, is that you hope the fortune you selected has a personal message just for you."

Della stared off to the side for a moment and crossed her arms. Through years of close association he knew he had touched a sore point and quickly apologized.

"I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were serious." He reached across the table and took her hand.

"Do you want me to call, Paul?" she asked, changing the subject.

Gently, his fingers stroked her hand, trying to repair the damage. "No, you stay here and drink your tea. I'll go call, Paul."

"I'm not angry. I'm…"

Mason's eyes softened, lovingly stroking her fingers, he noticed how her eyes averted his. Finally she agreed, "All right, go ahead. Call Paul."

Mason's attention was pulled from the couple on the stairs by the appearance of yet another newspaper clipping retrieved from Valentina's placemat. Yes, there's certainly a story behind every photograph.

"And now, Perry," Valentina began, enjoying the more intimate use of his name. She did agree, they had moved on. "So tell me about the incident at Stonehenge, Benjamin Addicks' estate. From the newspaper accounting it sounds like quite a fiasco. But then I suppose income tax evasion, embezzlement, family betrayal, and an undivorceable insane wife would definitely create the climate for at least one murder, and possibly another."

Mason took the article from her and glanced over it. "Yes, it was a fiasco," he recalled. He remembered during the ride to the estate he had shared some, but not all, of his ideas concerning the case with Della Street.

In a soft, but firm voice, he explained, "If I'm successful in getting a look around the house, I want you to keep away from me."

"What?" Della asked in disbelief.

"To keep away from me."

Puzzled by his request, she asked for clarification. "How far away?"

"Some distance away. And under no circumstance are you to try to cope with any unexpected situation which may arise."

Della's eyes and mouth were open wide. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"If we should find another gorilla, a hypnotized gorilla, I don't want you to try to help me. No matter what happens, I want you to get out of there, jump in the car and drive to the nearest phone and call the police."

Mason slowed and pulled the car through the gates of Stonehenge. With the turn, Della Street slipped across the seat and grabbed his arm and leg, any physical contact in an effort to make him slow or stop the car. "Perry, I don't like this, you think there's another hypnotized gorilla? We shouldn't go in there; we should call the police now!"

Still remaining calm, Mason continued slowly, "I think there's a key clue which has been overlooked. I think that if you're with me, and are in a position to escape, we may learn what that clue is. However, if you stay too close to me, we may both be trapped."

"But what will happen to you?"

A boyish smile spread across the lawyer's face, "Remember the fortune, courage is the best antidote for danger."

The expression on Della's face showed her displeasure.

"Tell me about the fiasco, Perry," Valentina asked, pulling him from his thoughts.

"Well, it turns out Benjamin Addicks had faked his death in Australia and left his brother, Herman Barnwell behind to face the police and a murder charge. As you've read in the paper, there was no love lost between the two brothers. All of Addicks' business transactions were completed in cash to avoid paying income taxes. Because the books were cooked, Hershey, Addicks' business partner and Fallon, Addicks' lawyer, had a great deal of freedom with his money. The two decided to siphon off large amounts of cash. Then Herman Barnwell, Addicks brother, contacted the two embezzlers and offered them a deal they couldn't refuse.

"To make a long story short, Hershey, Fallon, and Barnwell decided to make it look like a gorilla had killed Addicks, with Barnwell dressed in a gorilla suit and Mrs. Kempton as a witness. But events went wrong, and Mrs. Kempton was cast in the role of a murderess. By the end of the case, they knew they would like to dispose of me. I was getting too close, putting too many of the pieces of the puzzle together."

Valentina listened attentively, enjoying the excitement in his voice as he relived the moment. "So they decided to attack you."

Mason nodded, staring down at the article. "I knew if they could kill me under such circumstances where Della Street could actually see the gorilla, a strange, menacing grinning gorilla, and run to the police, her story of a murderous gorilla might be believed. It would confirm Mrs. Kempton's story of a murderous gorilla the night Benjamin Addicks was killed."

"Tell me about it, Perry."

Mason looked off for a moment, visualizing the event.

"Della and I were invited into the house by Barnwell and Hershey. Barnwell offered drinks and set the stage by excusing himself to a private bar in another room where he changed into the gorilla suit. He then appeared in a doorway long enough for Della to get a look at him and screamed. Barnwell then fired several shots, and then reappeared in the doorway with a knife."

Valentina's eyes widened and leaned closer to the jurist. "You must have been frightened."

Mason's eyebrows danced as he laughed. "I'll say, but by then it was too late, I had played my hand. They knew I would turn to run, and good old Hershey was there to pretend he was assisting me by yelling and running from the beast, while in reality he was hindering me, pulling me down by grabbing my coat tails so the gorilla could close the distance. This was the time they hoped Della would see the menacing gorilla, turn and run to the police. They figured when Della returned with the officers they would find two badly shaken men, both whom would swear they had seen a gorilla who had escaped through the grounds and that the gorilla had killed me. Depending on whether the knife or the gun had ended my life, Hershey could explain it either way. The gorilla killed me with the knife, or as they fired the gun to kill the gorilla, I was accidently shot and killed."

The photographer's chin rested on her closed fist and marveled at his life. "You were certainly taking chances. So if Hershey was grabbing you, trying to slow you down, then how were you able to stop the gorilla?"

Mason paused, and recalled their exchange on that day.

The gunshot roared through the house. Somewhere a chair overturned. Della Street ran toward Mason.

"Get back, get back!" he barked at her. "Do as I say!"

Della stopped suddenly with a hurt look as though his words had literally slapped her in the face.

Suddenly a large, hulking gorilla filled the doorway leading from the kitchen. The gorilla's eyes stared ahead with a grin fixed on its features.

"Good Lord!" Hershey yelled, then turned to run, and paused to check the primate's progress. The gorilla moved toward Mason with one hairy knuckle resting on the floor, the other holding a gleaming carving knife.

Hershey continued to shout and stumbled over a chair and by doing so grabbed at the lawyer's coat tails in an effort to pull him down. The business partner then rose from the floor and produced a revolver and fired three shots from a kneeling position.

The gorilla's eyes were focused on Perry Mason as it moved forward.

Della Street moved further into the room. "Perry, I can't leave you!" From across the room their eyes meet. Mason could see the look of eternal love in Della's eyes, a look he would never forget, a look that told him she would gladly die with him rather than live without him.

Hershey began to babble incoherently as he tried to stumble against Mason in an attempt to throw him off balance. The lawyer knew his time was running out and called to her, "Della, please, go!"

And with those words, Della swiftly turned and ran from the room.

Mason inhaled deeply, regaining his composure and his thoughts. "How did I stop the gorilla? I used my skills from the service, the skills I used during the war. I disarmed the beast by side-stepping, grabbing the arm with the knife, twisting it sharply until the knife dropped. I could feel the muscles in Barnwell or the gorilla's arm twitch and go immobile. I think it was from the shock of being overwhelmed. I took advantage of that moment of surprise to deliver a punch to the mid-section followed by a knee lift to the face. I suppose Hershey was concerned and fired another shot. That one whipped past my head and crashed into the wall. By that time the big gorilla had collapsed and toppled onto the floor. I turned my attention to Hershey, anticipating another shot. The business manager raised the gun again and was taking aim, ready to pull the trigger…."

Unexpectedly, the lawyer stopped and Valentina, leaning closer, following every word, and almost fell forward thinking she had missed something.

"Oh, Perry, you can't stop now. What happened? Did Della bring the police?"

Mason, paused, bowed his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingertips. Valentina could feel the emotion and reached out and covered his free hand, enjoying their connection. "An easy friendship, remember," she said softly.

The jurist straightened, lowered his hand and let it rest on top of hers. Slowly, he allowed his fingers to caress her fingers, noting their softness and their strength. The room became quiet, seconds passed. Finally Mason heaved a weary sigh, looked off with eyes growing moist. Smiling wanly, he turned to his dinner companion and found sympathetic eyes.

"Hershey pulled the trigger," Mason slowly continued. "But the hammer clicked. In an instant Hershey backed away and hurriedly began shoving fresh cartridges into the cylinders. I lunged toward Hershey to stop him and fell over the outstretched arm of the gorilla. As Hershey shoved the last cartridge home I was at his mercy on the floor. The barrel of the gun was lowered and I could see the sights aimed directly at my forehead."

Mason paused and looked away. Valentina reached out with her other hand and covered his, joining him. "I'm listening, Perry," she spoke softly, leaning closer.

Slowly the jurist turned and resumed his story. "Suddenly I could see Della in the doorway, a stone image in her hand. I thought she had gone for help, but there she stood, carrying this massive figurine. Then with all her strength, she rushed forward and brought it down on the back of Hershey's head, the gun dropped and he fell forward. I scrambled and grabbed the revolver."

Mason faintly smiled and glanced off at the couple on the steps. "I couldn't begin to describe what I felt that day. Fear, relief, anger at her stubbornness for not following my instructions, but most of all, I felt an overwhelming feeling of…." His voice trailed off.

Valentina finished his sentence inside her head…..love, an overwhelming feeling of love.

"Della saved your life that day didn't she?"

Mason nodded still staring at the framed couple and recalled the moments after their celebration in his office and his call to Helen Cadmus. Earlier in the day he had stopped and picked up his change from the Chinese restaurant along with Della's missing coin purse. Opening the purse, he spied the slip of paper, the mysterious fortune. For a moment he hesitated. Should he respect her privacy, or succumb to his own need to read the mysterious fortune? What would Della do? He smiled and in an instant knew the answer. Della could never resist a good mystery. He pulled out the slip.

Smoothing out the paper, he read the fortune: If you marry him you will be very happy and present him with a man child who will be very like his father.

Della's reasons for concealing the fortune became very clear. He understood her reluctance. And later, when he handed her the coin purse she swore she had placed the fortune inside. It must have fallen out when you pulled out your notebook he offered and noticed the look of relief on her face. Little did she know the fortune rested in a place where it would remain safe for years to come. Even now as an Appeals Court Justice, the fortune remained securely tucked inside his wallet. It was a fortune he wished they could have made come true.

"Yes, Della saved my life that day," he agreed. Later that night as they slept, he gingerly allowed his fingertips to move over the soft curve of her shoulder and thought of their life together and how quickly it could have all ended. He couldn't begin to count the number of times they had argued about his risk-taking or the times he had fumed over her stubborn refusal to follow 'all' of his directions. But tonight as he held her close, he could only remember her look of eternal love when she declared she couldn't leave him. My brave beautiful, Della, my bravery is nothing compared to yours.

"You're a lucky man to be alive," Valentina said, gently slipping her hands from his. "And you're an even luckier man to have had such an extraordinary secretary as Della Street." The artist glanced over at the framed couple. "I don't know of many secretaries who would go to such lengths for their boss."

Mason followed her eyes to the frame and shook his head. "Yes, I agree." Raising the glass of wine, the lawyer offered a mock toast. "So there you have it, the case of the Grinning Gorilla."

**Author's Note: at the end.**

Valentina joined his mock toast as they sipped their wine. With their toast out of the way, Mason reached down and pulled from his binder an issue of the National Geographic. Valentina followed the magazine with anxious eyes.

"Now that we've 'shared' my adventures, it seems only fitting that we should 'share' one of yours. Remember, quid pro quo."

"Of course," the photographer agreed sweeping back a lock of hair from her face. "Well, Perry, which wonderful adventure did you select?"

"It seems we have a theme of dangerous animals," the lawyer announced as he placed the magazine between them, and allowed it to fall open to a massive, gapping pink mouth with its rows of backward facing teeth.

"The Monster Snakes of Venezuela," Mason grandly announced.

Of all the Geographic stories, why would he select this one? She thought. Glancing in the direction of the binders, she wondered if he might have another one.

Mason noticed her furtive glances and thought. So this was a good choice after all.

Valentina gracefully nodded and decided to quickly gloss over the story. With a cool efficiency she described the llano, a flat watery plain, similar to America's Everglades. Vast and flooded, they had waited till the dry season to more easily find the anaconda, a constrictor that lived freely in the marshy plain. Pointing to page after page of photographs, of vast vistas, underwater views of the massive head of the constrictor and finally, a two page spread showing the engorged body of one large serpent.

Mason leaned closer and finally asked, "What has it eaten?"

The photographer leaned in and pointed to the massive middle. "That was once a young capybara. The capybara are the largest rodents in the world. They can reach one hundred pounds. This youngster was probably close to seventy-five pounds."

The lawyer shook his head in amazement. Valentina continued. "We encountered snakes over twenty feet long and weighing four to five hundred pounds. The researcher we traveled with had been able to identify almost all of them by their distinctive black and white checked belly markings near their tails. We found the females are the largest while the males are relatively small."

They both paused as Mason flipped through the story. Valentina sipped her wine and seemed relieved his questions were relatively easy, but then she noticed the lawyer had paused over a section of the story. He had even bookmarked the section with a slip of paper.

"I noticed the writer, Tomas Bardem, has briefly mentioned his near death experience with an anaconda. And if you look over here in this photo he's covered with mud. Would you mind explaining what he meant by near death experience, Valentina?" Slowly, the lawyer slid the magazine across the table, folded his hands and waited.

So this is how it must feel to be on the stand. She could imagine Mason leisurely walking around the witness stand casually asking easy questions, while the witness relaxed, thinking all is going well, when out of the blue, he places the photo and the caption 'near death' on the stand in front of you and asked the loaded question, 'Would you mind explaining this 'near death experience?' Then with his penetrating gaze he would wait for a reaction and your response.

Valentina shrugged her shoulders. "Well, being in the field can be dangerous. The locals tell stories, stories about seeing the giant constrictors coiling around their victim, seeing the animal struggle, gasping for air and with each gasp the coils tighten. They even claim to hear the animal's ribs cracking beneath constrictor."

She looked away for a moment, and recalled their heated argument following the near-death incident. Standing behind their horses, away from the others, they heatedly argued about risks and Tom's growing preoccupation with 'El Monstruo''. As Tom wiped water and mud from his face, he had countered the incident had not occurred because he was preoccupied with 'El Monstruo' and besides he wasn't the only person willing to take unnecessary chances. Little did Mason know the anaconda incident was just the beginning in a long series of events and pursuits that would eventually threaten both of their lives.

"With that being said, Valentina, how did the writer escape from the anaconda's death grip?"

Valentina could not meet his gaze, those penetrating blue eyes. It was her turn to feel the intensity of life and death emotions. Slowly, she began. "We were traveling with the researcher and her assistants by horseback across the dry portions of the llanos when we received a radio call of a sighting. A very large snake was on the move. We hurried to the area and proceeded to wade into the marsh with sticks to poke and prod the mud and vegetation. I had my camera ready. When Tom yelled out he had something. He reached down into the vegetation and proudly pulled up the tail of a large female. The others hurried toward Tom. I was close to Tom holding my camera taking photos, when suddenly the anaconda wreathed to the side, pulling Tom into the vegetation."

Struggling, she looked to the side and bit her lip and glanced at her companion and found his sympathetic eyes. "I'm listening,' he said softly.

"I was shocked, Perry. One minute he's in my viewfinder and the next second I see the massive body writhing up and encircling his chest. He's down in the water and the others are frantically trying to get to him. I can't bear to look at those photos, even now."

Mason reached out and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, a symbol of his understanding of what she had experienced.

Weakly, Valentina smiled, appreciating their easy friendship and continued the story. "The researcher, the men who traveled with us were all tugging and pulling, trying to keep his head above water and free him from the snake's deadly embrace. Deep down in my heart I knew they wouldn't be able to save him. I had to do something, I had to think fast."

Eyes moist, she looked to the side, gathered the strength to finish. "And then I saw it-clamped in the jaw of one the assistants, a large glowing Cuban cigar. Pushing my way forward, I jerked the glowing stogie from his mouth and jabbed the hot end against the soft underbelly of the serpent. Feeling the pain, the snake jerked and twitched. I continued to jab the hot end along the tender underbelly until I could see the snake's grip had loosened. Finally, they were able to pull Tom free and the giant spasmodically turned and disappeared into the water."

"So you saved Tom's life." Mason stated, noting the similarities in their stories.

Valentina nodded, unable to speak.

"Sometimes adventures, and bending the rules, are not always easy," Mason stated without expecting an answer.

Again, Valentina nodded.

The lawyer sipped his wine and ran his thumb along the crease in the magazine and expertly flipped the pages to the section in the back, the section marked, 'Behind the Scenes'.

Slowly, Mason began to describe the story he had read in 'Behind the Scenes'. "It seems the writer, Tomas Bardem, has expressed his moral outrage concerning the smuggling of endangered species. He was a witness to the violations of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Upon meeting their contact at the Caracas International Airport they had witnessed first-hand the atrocity of international wildlife smuggling. A suitcase had been confiscated before being loaded on an international flight out of the country. As they stood by, the suitcase had been forced opened revealing what appeared to be at first, neatly packed clothing. But on closer inspection the rows of black socks were hard and stiff. Carefully they were removed and the fabric peeled back. Inside the socks were the bound bodies of a dozen Yellow-eared Parrots, an endangered species found only in the Venezuelan cloud forests. All twelve of the endangered parrots had died from suffocation during their hours of transport. The writer declared his determination to find and bring to justice the elusive ringleader who proudly boasted of being able to deliver the most desired and endangered creatures in the world to anyone- for a price. Bardem referred to the ringleader as 'El Monstruo' or 'The Monster'."

Valentina stared at the magazine and recalled every moment at the Caracas International Airport. Despite the best efforts of the authorities, word had quickly spread through the black market community. Contacts in Venezuela and around the world were aware of the break and possible threat in the trade. The trip from the airport to the remote research site had been a quiet one. Anxiously she watched as Tom stared out the window of the vehicle in brooding silence. She knew well to leave him alone. Their first night in camp was an uneasy one. They had checked and rechecked their equipment and had settled in their tent. Through the screened entrance the view of a million stars spread out over them. In the dim moonlight she could recognize Tom's profile, he was wide awake. The cool air swirled through the tent and she instinctively moved closer to him and felt his arm circle her shoulders and pulled her near.

"Tom," she said, slipping her fingers between the folds of his shirt, touching the smooth skin of his chest.

"Yes," he replied, taking her fingers and holding them.

"Are you really going to search for 'El Monstruo', bring 'El Monstruo' to justice?" She could feel his body stiffen, bristling at her question. Pulling from his embrace, she sat up and stared down at him, hoping they could discuss his growing preoccupation.

"And I suppose you don't approve?"

She could hear and feel the coolness in his tone and immediately felt the threat to their fun and adventurous Geographic lifestyle. But it hadn't always been fun and game for Tomas Bardem. Before joining the Geographic he had been a war correspondent. She had seen the graphic wounds and scars on his body, each with their own gut wrenching story. 'El Monstruo' had tapped into Tom's war correspondent psyche. The civilian victims Tom had encountered were now being replaced by helpless endangered wildlife.

"What if the Geographic doesn't approve your project?" she countered using the magazine as a foil.

"Then screw the Geographic," Tom said angrily. She could detect movement in the shadows, and knew he was turning to face her. "Do you approve?"

Suppressing tears, Valentina gently closed the magazine. "If you're wanting to know, did Tomas Bardem pursue 'El Monstruo', the answer is yes. Before joining the Geographic he was a war correspondent. You know all about the war, don't you, Perry?"

Mason solemnly nodded.

Valentina took a deep breath and continued. "Tomas Bardem became obsessed with 'El Monstruo'."

"And what about you?" Mason asked. "Were you obsessed?"

Valentina firmly met the lawyer's gaze. "What do you think?"

Mason's face was expressionless, then slowly, he slid the magazine from the table and into his binder. Turning back to his companion, he released a bittersweet smile. "I think we both know the answer to that question."

Suddenly, she leaned toward him, eyes searching. "Do you really understand?"

Mason reached out and took her hand and smiled. "Yes, Valentina, I do."

The artist released a sigh and allowed the lawyer to pull her to her feet. Nervously, she stood and felt a moment of uncertainty, was it the moment or the wine, she couldn't tell. Either way, she felt relief from his reassuring presence and his steadying hand on her elbow.

Mason checked his watch and switched to an upbeat tone. "It's rather late, Valentina, may I suggest we postpone the portrait to another evening."

"Of course, Your….." she quickly caught herself as they walked along to the door. "Of course, Perry, we can always work another time."

"Splendid," Mason replied, dropping his binder on a table and stopping at the hall tree by the door. Valentina retrieved his top coat and helped him slip it on, straightening the shoulders. The lawyer turned and out of habit, Valentina continued to smooth down the lapel and collar. In the dimly lit entry, Mason looked down at the dark hair and nimble fingers and without thinking stated, "What would I do without you, Del…..". As quickly as he spoke, he caught himself. Valentina looked up and shared a knowing look with the jurist and continued to smooth down the front of his coat, when he took her hands in his.

"It's been quite an evening," the lawyer stated, staring down into glistening dark brown eyes.

"Yes, it has,' she agreed, feeling both the softness and strength in his touch. "And next Thursday?"

Mason's eyes looked off for a moment, thinking of all the unanswered questions. "I believe next Thursday is my turn for dinner."

"Oh," Valentina's eyebrows peaked and lips pulled into an 'o'.

"I know a restaurant I think you'll like," Mason said, enjoying the surprise in her eyes.

"Is this a date?" she asked without thinking.

Mason brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. "I'll let you decide." The lawyer turned, picked up his binder, and opened the door allowing the swirling mist to blow in.

"Good night," he said softly, and closed the door.

~~~tbc~~~

**Author's Note: I have taken great liberties with TCOT Grinning Gorilla. For those of you familiar with both versions, the series and ESG's books, you will note the mingling of both storylines. I love the fortune cookie and the showdown with Della saving the day at Stonehenge in ESG's books. In the series, TCOT Grinning Gorilla did not appear till the latter half of Season Eight. I couldn't help but notice a cranky Perry and a perky Della. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I have combined the two and hope I haven't created a monster, but something that can be enjoyed, at least in the context of this story.