Thanks to everyone who reads, comments and discusses these characters with me. You feed my ego, improve my writing and sometimes smack me upside the head. It's all good. These aren't my characters, but I have a lot of fun with them.

Perry Mason pushed his way into the hotel room with an exasperated sigh. He dropped his jacket on a chair near the door, then dropped himself on to the deep sofa. Elbows on knees, head lowered, he stared morosely at the carpet pattern.

"Damn," he muttered. "Damn it all to hell!"

The evening had not gone according to plan. Not at all.

After several minutes, he got to his feet and shed his tie and suit coat on the way to the bathroom. The small buttons of his white dress shirt slowed his progress, but within a few minutes needles of hot water beat his body. Palms flat against the still cool shower tiles, head bent forward, he breathed the steam and let the water run down his hair, into his face. For a moment it seemed as if he could hear her voice. Eyes screwed tightly shut to keep the water from getting in or out, he willed that fantasy out of his mind.

He stood like that a long while, then soaped his body and shampooed his hair. Enveloped in fragrant steam as he finished, he felt more relaxed. The mirror reflected eyes slightly reddened with shadowy circles beneath. The tangled mess of hair was still dark but with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper throughout. Perry rubbed his palms across his cheeks - the new beard had started to soften.

The facial hair was a response to his current secretary's commentary - a disapproving harrumph - the Friday he came in unshaven after a long night of research in the law library. She had a talent for subtle censure and her reaction motivated him to forego the activity for the entire weekend. By Monday morning the beard filled in enough to transition from seedy to purposeful. Noticeably more grey than his hair, he hoped it rode the right side of the fine line between distinguished and just making him look older.

'What does it matter?' he thought. 'I am old. Might as well look the part.' The few extra pounds he carried - the beginnings of a middle-aged spread - were at least partially masked by a sizeable frame. The broad shoulders and lean hips ensured his physique rivaled that of a younger man. But the stress of age shown in the lines at the corners of his eyes.

Once combed and dressed, Mason put in a call to room service. As he spoke, he noticed an earring lying on its side, next to the phone. Rolling it in his hand he contemplated the gemstone. He knew the earring well. He'd bought it himself - the first major purchase on a line of credit opened years ago with one of Rodeo Drive's best jewelry designers. His choices, while not extravagant, had always been elegant, classical. Each one marked some special point in his shared life with Della Street.

It had been a long, long time since he'd bought anything there.

Something about the earring niggled at the back of his mind but before he could pin it down Mason's reverie was interrupted. A young man knocked on the door and produced a tray carrying a bottle of expensive whiskey and two glasses. Perry dropped the earring on the table and proffered a sizable tip.

As the door closed behind the departing waiter, Perry contemplated the mated whiskey glasses with a malevolent gaze. He pushed the extraneous glass to one side and filled the other with two fingers of the amber liquid. One swallow emptied the glass, then he smacked it down on the tabletop and settled back into the couch cushions. For a few moments he stared at the opposite wall, then reached for the bottle again. A piece of paper on the floor next to the telephone table caught his eye. He slid down to the end of the couch and retrieved it.

The writing was all too familiar. The cryptic note made far too much sense.

"2387 - 11:00 a.m. N-S to SFO". Years of reading her notes made this one easily decipherable. A reservation for flight 2387, leaving at 11:00 a.m., straight to San Francisco, no stops.

Now he knew what bothered him about the earring - it shouldn't be there. Della had worn the pair at dinner tonight and still wore them when she got into the cab to go home.

He refilled his glass. She had a key to the suite and had been in and out of it several times while they worked on her case. What were the chances that she'd use the key tonight, just in time to catch the call from the concierge confirming the flight reservation he'd requested upon returning from dinner? That would have been all the confirmation she needed that he had no intention of renewing their relationship. Once she'd heard that, there'd been no reason for her to stay, had there?

The more he thought about it, the more it angered him. She'd left as quietly as she had arrived, slipping out before he had a chance to speak to her. She didn't stay to explain her late night visit, much less stick around to talk him out of leaving. Evidently his travel plans suited her just fine. No doubt she'd be glad to be rid of him.

Muttering an unfinished thought about 'reading her damn mind', Perry began to pace. After only a few trips back and forth across the carpet, he dropped onto the couch once more. He knew better - knew her better - than that. Fate had conspired to keep them apart again. Maybe he should take the hint. Maybe Della knew better than he did. Maybe she accepted that they just weren't meant to be together.

He eyed the bottle speculatively. Tonight he was going to get drunk. Given that 11:00 a.m. was the earliest flight he could get with an open seat, he'd have plenty of time to pack and get to the airport in the morning. It had been a long time since he'd given in to the temporary oblivion provided by good Kentucky whiskey. Tonight he needed it.

He crumpled Della's note and tossed it into the empty glass.

Although the end of the evening was taking on the character of a wake, tonight was supposed to have been a celebration. Della Street was safe. She'd been acquitted that morning - cleared of all charges in the murder of Arthur Gordon. He'd walked away from his life in San Francisco in order to defend her, and done so with no regrets. He couldn't deny that a spark of hope flared when she called. Hope that maybe time spent working together would change things between them.

She'd been overwhelmed when they met that first morning in jail. She held herself together until convinced her he had no intention of allowing anyone else to handle her case. He watched the relief flood through her, conquering her reserve. Instinctively she leaned on him, physically and emotionally. Despite the awful circumstance, he delighted in the simple joy of holding her close once again. All too soon the moment passed and the business of securing her release began.

Downing his second drink, Mason remembered meeting Della in Paul's office the next morning to begin work on the case. Her warm but subtle expression of happiness at seeing him again - working with him again - caught him off guard. He wished he'd swept her into his arms right then and made her promise never to leave him. Instead, he bit his tongue and turned away, burying himself in his task for fear of saying the wrong thing.

He could face a thousand jurors and a hundred judges and never stumble on a word or a thought. But he couldn't tell the woman he loved how much she meant to him.

'And whose fault is that?' the voice in his head demanded. 'You damn fool.'

Inside the glass, the dregs of the amber liquid swirled and glinted in the lamplight. He thought back over the past few years of their relationship, or lack thereof. Della had been right - right when she said he needed to slow down, right when she said he was going to end up like Paul Sr. if he didn't stop living at breakneck speed.

It pained him to remember that time. Della made it clear that she needed to do something different. Their lives had been wrapped up together for so long that she needed to make sure of her individual existence. He understood that. She made some vague noises about moving in a different direction and getting involved in business. Her natural acumen for the field far outdistanced his. But that wasn't the real reason she accepted the offer from Gordon Industries.

Perry had seen the signs in the weeks and months leading up to their separation. He just didn't know what to do about it. As he poured a third drink a wry smile crossed his face. 'Who would have thought that of the two of us, Della would be the one to have a mid-life crisis?'

He left the glass on the coffee table and leaned back against the cushions, eyes closed and fists clenched at his sides. 'It should have been temporary.'He thought if he gave her space, gave her time to 'find herself' again, then she would come back to him.

They tried to continue their relationship after she left his office, but neither of them was willing to push aside a demanding career to concentrate on repairing the rift between them.

The mutual respect, admiration and hot-blooded sexual attraction their relationship was built on didn't lend itself to lachrymose posturing. He didn't cajole or beg or otherwise try to convince her they belonged to each other. Unfortunately, he also never told her how much he missed her insight and advice... never told her how much he missed her.

True to form, he consoled himself with work. Within a few short months of Della's professional relocation, a call from the governor's office announced an untimely death which left a vacancy on the Court of Appeals. The open seat was his if he wanted it.

The night he intended to tell her about the new job offer she called him first to tell him she was moving - she'd bought a house. The excitement in her voice as she described the perfect California bungalow caused him to swallow his invitation to come to San Francisco. He tried to be happy for her, but the thought of how much she appeared to thrive in their separation broke his heart. The chance to relocate, both personally and professionally, seemed all too timely.

With barely a thought, he accepted the governor's offer and within a week he'd been appointed to the bench, necessitating a move to San Francisco. Della graciously sent her congratulations along with a bottle of the very whiskey he was gulping down tonight.

Time dulled the pain, but being with her again, working together, brought back the feeling with a vengeance.

He took a drink, then slumped deeper into the cushions.

His life had been on hold for years. He didn't hate his job. The legal puzzles captured his imagination and he enjoyed the hunt for precedence and legal justifications. But when the phone rang and she asked for his help, he'd dropped everything - his job, his obligations, everything - and come running like a labrador puppy, ready and willing to do anything in the world for her.

'You are pathetic.' He glowered into the whiskey glass.

What was he going to do now? Would he really just pack up and return to San Francisco? If he did, he knew he couldn't go back to being her long distance friend - just a voice on the telephone and flowers on her birthday. If they weren't together, he had to make a clean break of it this time. He'd have to force himself to get on with life alone.

'Get on with my life?' He snorted derisively at the thought. 'What am I going to do - date?' He couldn't think of anything he'd rather do less. If he couldn't spend his life with Della, he'd just as soon spend it alone. Even in the darkest recesses of his mind he couldn't make himself believe that there would ever be anyone else for him.

'Paul got it right,' he mused. 'Die with your boots on. They'll find my dead body in the law library some day, in the middle of a stack of law books and a pool of cold coffee.' The mental picture was not particularly appealing and he washed it away with the last of his third drink.

The thought was immediately replaced with the memory of Paul lying on the pavement, struck down by a heart attack as they sought information on a case he no longer recalled. Paul, gasping for breath, using the last of his strength not to pass on the details he'd learned, but to soothe a tearful Della, asking her to watch over his wife and young son.

In that moment, none of them cared about the case, or the work they were doing. Paul's love for his family and the love between the three friends were the only things that mattered. Everything else was just dust.

Dying with his boots on suddenly lost its already limited appeal.

'Maybe getting drunk wasn't such a good idea.' He sat his empty glass on the tray then held his head in his hands. He was so tired. Tired of being alone, tired of hoping, tired of everything. He closed his eyes and lay back on the couch, thoughts drifting back to dinner earlier in the evening.

A private celebration of Della's acquittal took place at a secluded table in one of LA's finer restaurants. Lunch with Paul Junior immediately following court turned into a bit of a circus when they'd been spotted by a group of reporters who left the courthouse for a lunch break of their own. PIctures and interviews followed, encouraged by Perry who felt the acquitted sometimes don't get their day in the press after their successful day in court.

The dinner party was one member short since Paul 'claimed' he was already committed to an extended session at the jazz club with his band and couldn't join them.

Della's insistence on meeting him at the restaurant since it was located between her house and his hotel countered Mason's carefully crafted intention to pick her up and was just another sign of her damned stubbornness. Hovering at the hostess' station with ill-concealed impatience, Perry found himself at a loss for words when she finally arrived.

Della Street looked gorgeous. Gone were the frumpy business suits in drab colors. Now she wore a satin dinner dress in a ravishing cranberry color - wide in the shoulders, narrow at her waist, with a plunging v-neck that held his gaze prisoner. Instead of the low-key, muted make-up she'd worn lately, her face was vibrant and the deep color of her lipstick accentuated the curve of her sensuous mouth.

At that moment he realized something he should have noticed a long time ago. Della had been dressing down - emphasizing aptitude and proficiency rather than showcasing her vitality and charm. It wasn't a look she'd adopted just for the trial. She'd worn this mask for the past several years of working for Gordon Industries.

Mason pondered the reasons behind it as they began their meal. Della, more lively and rested than earlier, peppered him with questions about San Francisco and his job on the bench. Still dumbstruck by her appearance and more than a little threatened by his own visceral response to it, he managed only marginal participation in the verbal intercourse.

Conversation slowed after a while and the silences lengthened. Eventually the waiter approached with a bottle of very fine champagne. He presented it to Della with a small flourish and said "From the gentleman," indicating a table in a far corner.

Della smiled welcomingly at the man seated there while the waiter poured two glasses. The man rose and made his way to their table. Perry recognized him as Roger Westmoreland - a titan of the Los Angeles business community.

"Della!" His voice was warm as he greeted her. "Congratulations! I was so relieved when I heard the news."

"You think YOU were relieved," she quipped. She introduced him to her lawyer and graciously accepted his compliments before offering him a chair. He sat, much to Mason's displeasure. Westmoreland all but ignored the attorney and focused his attention on the woman.

"Acquittal agrees with you," he said with a grin. "You look fantastic, Della." She smiled her thanks.

"I know this is may not be the best time, but I wanted to speak to you before you make any plans." Westmoreland's voice was smooth as a luxury car salesman's. Della merely raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "There is a place for you in my company, Della. I know the calibre of work you did for Gordon. I want you in my organization." Della started to demure, but he leaned forward, catching her eye. "And there is no 'Paula Gordon' for you to placate in order to keep your job."

Mason tensed, unconsciously tightening his grip on the flatware. His angry gaze followed his rival's, waiting for Westmoreland's leering appraisal of Della's physical attributes before jumping to her defense.

It didn't happen. Westmoreland's eyes stayed locked on Della's, his expression seemed to ooze understanding and persuasiveness.

"Honestly, Roger," her use of the man's first name did not slip by unnoticed by her dining companion, "I haven't had a chance to make any plans since Arthur Gordon died. I'm really not sure what I want to do."

Mason was busy glaring at the other man and almost missed her glance in his direction. She paused for a beat, almost as if waiting for him. But before he could react, she continued, "I promise to think about this and give you a call later on."

"I'll hold you to it," Westmoreland said, getting to his feet. "You still have my number?"

Della tapped her forehead. "Still got it." He laughed and gave her shoulder a friendly pat.

Mason released his death grip on the butter knife but scowled at Westmoreland's well-tailored back as he returned to his table. The fact that Della had the man's number committed to memory and the effortless way Westmoreland parsed the reason behind Della's recent fashion choices left the attorney seething.

As he replayed the incident in his head, the intensity of his reaction surprised Perry. He'd wanted to ask her to come home with him. To stay with him. But the words wouldn't come. Was jealousy the reason? Or was it fear that she would say no?

Della certainly hadn't given him any indication of her feelings towards him or Westmoreland after the encounter. Her social skills rivaled those of the Queen Mother and she managed their conversation the rest of the evening without pause or awkwardness. She kept him engaged in light-hearted small talk, but made sure nothing very personal passed between them.

Instead of speaking up when he had the chance or smashing her carefully constructed social barriers, he'd kept quiet and now he sat in a lonely hotel room, working on a smashing hangover.

'This is not right.' He drew in a deep breath, hoping to brush away some of the cobwebs. 'It's not right, and by God, it's not going to end this way.' Perry scrambled to his feet and grabbed the phone.