Thank you, Michelle!
It took them some time to reach the secluded wing where the private hospital room of Vicento Nardone was located. Reporters from every newspaper and magazine in the city had found their way into the hallway, anxious for the slighest bit of news or a glimpse of the famous mafioso. For a lack of excitement and news from Nardone, the reporters and photograhers yelled questions and took pictures of Mr. Mason and Miss Street, as they made their way through the crowd in front of the glass doors that seperated the busy hospital lobby from the hall way leading up to the private rooms.
" Mr. and Mrs. Mason are here to see Vicento … " They were stopped by two impressively big body guards, as their arrival was announced through walkie-talkies.
" Come with me, pronto … " One of the two big men waved at them, and lead the way through the glass doors. " I'll check if he can see you now. " Quickly he opened the door to the room and yelled. " Sono arrivati … "
" Eh? "
" Mr. and Mrs. Mason. "
" It's actually Miss … " Perry tried as the door closed in front of them, but Della laid a hand on his chest to stop him. " I do know they are referring to me, really. " She tilted her head slightly. " Truth is, Perry, I do like the sound of it. "
" Oh. " Invisible from the crowd now, he thought it safe to look down at her lovingly, and press a tender kiss to her forehead. " You do? " From the look he gave her, she saw the joke coming. " Having second thoughts about something, Miss Street ? "
" Oh, you … " Her throaty laughter sounded all the way through the hall way to the entrance, where the bodyguards turned. " No. " But she leaned her head sidewards momentarily resting it on his broad shoulder .
Seconds later, the door to the private room swung open, and they were invited to walk inside. Vicento Nardone, obviously feeling much better, sat by the window in a wheelchair, his dark suit a sharp contrast to the crisp white shirt. The bitter, thick white smoke of his cigar crinkled through the air, as Nardone was obviously not disturbed by the hospital rules not to smoke inside the premises. Though his sun glasses covered most of his cheeks, his extensively wide grin was visible and seemed to be bigger than his face.
" Ah … Well, my lady … signorina … " Nardone held out his hand to her, as they walked to him.
" Mr. Nardone. " She brushed his hand with a quick light touch and pulled back before he could grasp her fingers, leaving him surprised, but still grinning all the way.
He is a mobster, no matter how nice he seems, stay away from him, and don't let him get to you. Remember, there is always a possibility that he is actually playing a game. Don't ever trust him. Mafia is mafia.' Perry's words were still fresh and echoed in her mind.
" Did you tell him, my lady ? " Nardone's Italian accent rolled out the 'll' into 'him', which made it sound as if 'tell him' was one word. It made her laugh and feel very awkward at the same time, because it reminded her of times long gone.
She just nodded, very briefly, then sought for Perry's eyes with her own. Mason shook hands with Nardone, smiling politely. He believed there was no use in drawing things out elaborately and just bluntly asked one of the questions that were uppermost on his mind. " What is it that we will be blackmailed about, Nardone ? "
Nardone's grin was wide again. " Right to the point, eh ? I'm not sure you will be blackmailed, Mason, but I just wanted to make sure that it is not possible. "
" Not a chance. " Mason shook his head. " How did you know about the pictures? "
" Well, you know my world is a lot different than yours, Mason. We all know things about each other, some things nice, some things … eehm, well, not nice. " His hands went up in the air, as a jolt of pain shot through his wounded shoulder. He moaned softly. " It sometimes helps to do business if you know things." Nardone tilted his head. " It makes things easier, you know. "
" How did you know about the pictures? " Mason repeated his question, as he gave Della a knowing look. He is a mobster.
" Ask your friend, Frank Halloran. "
" He's not my friend. " It was a statement.
" He was, when the pictures were taken, hmmm ? "
" Yes. " Mason nodded thoughtfully.
" You were vulnerable, eh? You were weak then, no ? "
" What do you mean? "
" Things like that happen, if you don't pay attention. If you are too weak to pay attention. "
Mason shrugged. " I don't agree with that. Things like that just happen. It's part of the job. People take pictures whenever they like it. Sometimes they just end up being in the wrong hands. "
" My hands are not the wrong ones, Perry Mason. Remember that. " Nardone exchanged a serious look with the big man in front of him, then turned his attention to Della again.
" My lady ? You were beautiful in that red dress Friday … "
" So you said … " Della just gave him a small smile.
" It could be another dress arrives very soon. When another dress arrives, tell me the colour, please. "
" Why? " She looked at him quizically.
" Oh … think. Signora. " He shook his head slowly and the next words came out as if he were singing them. " You should know … Miss Street, you should know. " His face was very serious now, and for the first time ever, he addressed her as 'Miss Street'. As if to underline a serious statement.
" Why don't you just answer the question, Vicento ? " Mason's voice thundered through the room.
" Listen. You know I like you, Mason, I admire your work. I like your lady, she is beautiful and smart. I would not want anything to happen to you, you know that. "
" I'm not sure I believe you, Vicento. "
" Alloco. Ottuso. Idiot. Find out for yourself, Mason. " He pointed at his guests frantically with his index finger. " Make sure, you stick together. " Nardone pointed at Della. " Protect her, Mason. And think-who else was there at this Charity Ball to have a good look at your beautiful lady? Hmmm ? Have you taken a good look around you? "
" No. " I only had eyes for her.
" Because you should have. Now go. Leave. "
" I had hoped to find some answers here, Nardone. "
" As I said to you before, your world is a lot different than mine. A lot. Now leave. "
As they left the private room, an awkward feeling washed over Perry Mason. Feeling as if he really had missed out on something important, he drew his lady close, and tightly wrapped an arm around her shoulder.
" That was odd. " She looked at him, quizically, her statement echoing his thoughts.
" He's warning us about something, Della. And he obviously can't speak in other ways than he did. Something's up. " He watched her closely. " And we're going to find out what it is. "
" Where do you want to start, Perry? "
" We should check out who was at the Charity Ball last Friday. More specifically, we should figure out who was there uninvited. "
" I'll ask one of the reporters who are here if they or the photographers have pictures of the guests that attended the party. "
" And we should get a list of invited guests."
" And we should get Paul Drake in the office this afternoon. And Ken Malansky."
" And that means we also have to order in some delicious food … "
And so, though dinner this Sunday night was supposed to be enjoyed in companiable silence at their own quiet kitchen table, Della Street and Perry Mason had a quick take out dinner in their office, accompanied by the two young men as they all went through the pictures and the guest list.
It was Paul Drake who first broke the silence. " My …"
" What, Paul? " Ken Malansky looked up from his pile of papers.
" I just found out who my date of the evening really was … No wonder she didn't want to tell me. "
" And? "
" She is Pauline Castellano, granddaughter of Big Paul Castellano, you know, the big mafia boss from New York ? "
" But the Castellano clan had fallen apart, after Big Paul died, so she is not attached to the mafia, right? " Ken assured Paul.
" Yes. So it should be safe to still date her I suppose. "
" Was she on the guest list? " Della asked, supressing a smile.
" Yes. " Paul blew out a big breath.
" Good. " Della looked at Paul.
" Bless you. " Mason added playfully.
" Well, thanks. You've been very helpful. I'm just glad I can still date her, okay ? "
" Sure. And I think your dad would have been proud of you dating a girl without knowing her name. " Mason said softly, as Della treated all three men to a brilliant smile.
" Yeah, yeah, yeah … " Paul turned his attention back to the papers in front of him and a few minutes later, broke the silence again.
" My … "
" What Paul ? "
" I'm checking out a picture of another guest, Judge Eleanor Haroldson … I have to say, she looks rather nice without the glasses, and her hair hanging loose, wearing a dress now in stead of a judge's robe. I'd say she is almost good looking that way… check this out, Ken … " He held out the picture to show it.
" Yeah. Amazing, hmm ? Who else have you got on your pictures ? " Ken queried.
" Honourable Judge Alexander Nelson, D.A. Michael Reston, Mrs. Laura Robertson … " Drake paused there, and threw a short look at Della.
" What ? " She looked up at her godson.
" What what ? "
" Why are you looking at me like that? "
" Just sayin' … Mrs. Laura Robertson. "
" Oh Paul, please … " She shook her head.
" Well, I don't like her, Della, and I don't like what she does to … him. " He pointed at Perry with his chin.
" You can't say that, Paul, because you don't really know her. And what is it she does to … him? " Della made the same gesture with her chin towards Perry, who was obviously too concentrated or pretended to be too concentrated to hear them.
" I have seen her, remember? I know what she did to her husband at the Robertson case, framing him for the murder of Luke Dickinson. I don't like her. And, she makes Perry act like a complete idiot. His tongue is on his shoes when she is around … "
Ken chuckled as he envisioned this.
" Wrong tense, Drake. " The loud courtroom boomer unexpectedly sounded from behind the desk. " And my tongue cannot be on my shoes anymore. I'm too old for that. " Perry snorted. " And too big. " He added softly.
" So, what does she look like anyway, Drake, this Mrs. Robertson ? " Ken peeked over Paul Drake's shoulder to have a good look on the woman he had heard so very much about. His eyes widened. " Oh. Her. God, she is … "
" Yeah … " Drake just confirmed sarcastically without looking.
" Just how old is she? " Ken queried.
" Sixty-two by now. " Perry answered lazily and without thought, thumbing through a copy of the guest list he had just taken from Della.
" Sixty-two. Really ? Well, I wouldn't say that, she looks much younger. "
" Let me see it. " Mason held out his hand.
Obviously too concentrated on the sight on the pictures in front of him, he didn't notice that Della had silently left his office. The moment he became aware, he sighed. " Oh, damn. "
" Could you two get lost for a minute …" he addressed Ken and Paul.
" Sure … "
" I think we'd better be heading for this bar across the street, and you're paying the drinks, you know, Drake … " Ken patted Paul Drake's shoulder.
" Yeah, right. Why ? "
" Because … " the rest of the answer was lost on Perry Mason as the two young men left quickly and closed the door behind them with a loud bang.
Perry yelled after them. " You have to be back here in ten minutes, so don't drink alcohol, it's Sundaynight, we just … "
" What's this about, Perry? " Della interrupted him, as she walked back into the office again. " Why did you tell them to go? "
" Because … " Mason picked up two photo's from the pile Paul and Ken had left on his desk, and stood up. " … I've been meaning to ask you something. Now, look at these … "
" Mmmm-mmm. " She took the pictures from him.
" … and now you tell me … " his eyes were gentle and wide open while looking at her " … why I love you and not her …"
" Oh. " Her shoulders sank in and she sighed deeply. " I know that … Besides, we don't have time for this, Perry. "
" Yes, we do. I just made time. "
" Why ? "
" Because, my lady … signorina … " She smiled at his charming imitation of Vicento Nardone. " You're still not convinced. " He took her empty hand in his, and pulled her to him. " I can't believe that after thirty-five years, you still don't believe me. "
" Who's counting ? " She chuckled at him playfully.
" I am … " He kissed her lightly on her lips, and moved behind her as she turned her attention to the two photo's, one of her and one of Mrs. Robertson.
" Now tell me … "
" You really want me to do this, don't you? " she looked at him sideways, as he laid his chin on her shoulder.
" Yes. "
She sighed, leaning back to him. " Well, I'm smiling, she's not. I'm wearing red, she's wearing silver. I'm at Paul Drake's arm, she has one of her juniors with her and she doesn't look to pleased with him … "
" It's her eyes, baby, look at her eyes … And look at her body language … "
" Her eyes are … " Della hesitated " … cold, a bit insecure, unfocussed. She looks tense. "
" It's not just that. And it's not tense. She looks untouchable, there's no emotion, Della. Don't you see that ? The young man on her arm gets no attention at all, it's like her arm is there by coincidence. As if she needed some sort of support and he just happened to be there. "
" What is it you want to tell me? " She laid the pictures on Perry's desk and turned towards him.
" You want to hear me say it, hmm ? "
" Yes. " She wrapped her arms around his neck, as his hands travelled to her waist, then lingered down to her hips all the while lightly caressing her soft curves.
" I have never loved someone more than I have loved you. "
" Oh, I like the sound of that. Go on … "
" And I don't ever want you to question my love for you, baby. " His voice was impossibly low, and soft.
" I don't doubt you. " She reached for his mouth with her own, allowing him to enter and deepen the kiss. After he obliged, she whispered against his lips. " It's like something you said yourself this morning, which goes for me too. I can not not trust you. I can not not believe you. And, I just can not not love you. "
" You still look like twenty-five to me. " He moaned softly as he allowed his hands to wander free. " And, you still feel like twenty-five to me. "
" You are a flatterer. "
" I've had a lot of practice. " His grin was dimple deep.
" Oh. " She slapped his chest, before turning to pick up the pictures again. Concentrating hard, she narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her forehead into a frown. " Perry ? "
" Do you finally see what I mean? "
She shook her head. " No. That's not what I'm looking at now. Look at this. Look at that young man behind her … "
He took the photo from her. " I'll be damned … "
" Is that … ? " Her eyes queried his serious face.
" Yes. Yes, it is. It's Jeffrey Sorrento. "
" Things are getting a little complicated now, aren't they? "
Mason was about to answer as Paul Drake entered the office again, quickly followed by Ken Malansky.
" Ten minutes sharp. Anything uhm … exciting happened? "
" We just found a surprising guest who was at the party, and I guess he wasn't invited … " Perry showed the picture and pointed at the young man that stood behind Laura Robertson. " Jeffrey Sorrento. "
" Yeah, Johnny Sorrento's son. " Ken explained to Paul. " From the Sorrento case last year. You know when Frank Halloran turned out to be the killer. "
Ken Malansky thumbed through the list of invited guests " You're right, Perry. He wasn't invited. He wasn't on the list. "
As the evening wore on, none of them could figure out why Jeffrey Sorrento had attended the Charity Ball, apart from the obvious reasons. Also, there seemed to be no one else in the pictures who wasn't invited. Realizing there was nothing more they could do that evening they decided to leave the 'puzzle solving' for the following days.
Of course, Vicento Nardone's warning was still on their minds, but the information that really sent shivers down the great Perry Mason's spine, came to him the following Monday evening, right after dinner.
" Come in Paul, " Mason yelled as he heard the coded knock on his office door. He smiled. Paul Jr. used the same typical rythm as his father used to do, and he probably didn't even realize it.
" Della in ? " The young man's eyes searched the office.
" No. " Mason sensed there was something wrong. He watched silently from over the rim of his glasses, as Paul moved restlessly around his office, searching for something he obviously couldn't find. " What have you got, Paul ? What did you find ? "
The way Paul Drake sat himself down on the edge of Mason's desk did nothing to reassure him. At all. In fact, it made him worry more. " I'm not really sure you're going to like it, Perry. I pretty much don't like it myself. " He sighed deeply.
" Try me. " Mason sat back and pursed his lips.
" You know I'm still investigating the red, heavy satin dress Della received, the one she wore last Friday? Nardone had made some comments about it, you know, about the colour and all? "
" Yes. "
" My ehm … date that evening … "
" The redhaired beauty … ? "
" She indeed was Big Paul Castellano's granddaughter, Pauline. "
" Yes. We already figured that out. "
" So, I spoke to her again today, we had lunch together, and I asked her about Nardone, and his … uhm … hobbies … "
" Seriously, Perry, Pauline told me something I didn't know and sure as hell don't like. We talked about these dresses, mafia, and her origins. She said that it wasn't a coincidence that Nardone has this passion to design and make dresses. She said that in the twenties and thirties, you know, when you guys were born … "
Mason made a dismissive gesture. " Yes, yes, we're old … I know … go on … "
" … the actual colour of dresses had a meaning. It was a way to pass on messages from one family to the other. "
" Yeah, I remember that, it was called 'the colour code'. They used it to comment about each other's ways, or exchange warnings without actual words. "
" Yeah. "
" So, the colour of Della's dress was meant to communicate something? That's hard to believe, Paul. "
" Yeah, well, there's something else, Perry. You see, the actual colour of the dresses was important, but in the West, especially throughout Califonia, Oregon and Idaho, there was also something particular about the ladies wearing them. " He scratched the back of his neck at the frown of the big man behind his desk. " They only allowed certain women to wear these so called 'communicating colours'. "
" Certain women, Paul? "
" Yeah. "
" Meaning … ? "
Paul Drake was silent. Standing up, he coughed, drawing his upperlip into his mouth. He cleared his throat and sniffed. " They were … "
" Talk to me. " Mason barked impatiently while he hit his desk, palm flat against the surface.
" They were mafia sweethearts. " It was almost inaudible. Drake cleared his throat again.
" Mafia sweethearts ? "
" Yeah. Not the big bosses' lawfully wedded wives, but their girlfriends. Because they weren't married and part of the family yet, these women could be 'used' so to speak, to pass the messages on. "
" So, what you are saying, is that these certain women were ganster's sweethearts and wore dresses in a certain colour that held a message. " Perry was writing it down. Maybe if he wrote it down, things were going to make sense. At this point, it made no sense at all.
" Yes. " Drake tried to straighten his composure as he paced through the office. " Now, Pauline asked me if I was referring to a certain event or someone specific. I didn't say it of course, but she guessed it was about Della. And so she suggested … "
" ...yes … "
" She suggested I find out a little more about Della's past to see if she maybe … " Drake paused.
" What ? " Perry snapped. Because, he slowly became more and more aware of the reason why he was not going to like this. At all.
" Maybe she … I don't … You know … " Suddenly Paul Drake blew out a big breath, turned and walked straight to Perry's desk, leaned forward over it, looking straight into the lawyer's eyes. " Perry, this red dress was sent specifically to Della, at the right convenient moment, just before the Charity Ball and just before Nardone came to Denver and was attacked here. At the exact moment Frank Halloran escapes from prison. At the very moment Jeffrey Sorrento, also mafia, shows up at a party he wasn't invited to. "
" What are you saying, Paul? "
" Maybe we should consider ehm … investigating this. What and where was Della before she came to L.A. ? Do you know that? "
" Well, I had her backgrounds checked before she came to work for me of course, your father did that … forty years ago. And we didn't … " He stood up. The moment he became aware of what he was doing, he turned and hit his desk with his fist. " No!. " In answer to Drake's gaze, he fumed. " It's Della, Paul. It's Della we're talking about here. " His loud voice reached the other side of the office.
" Just sayin'. It's a suggestion. "
" I don't want you to just say it. Or just suggest it. "
" I'm not saying she's aware of anything, or that she is part of it on purpose, Perry. I'm just saying that she might be used by someone, because of her past or whatever, without knowing, or without anyone having told her. "
" No. "
" Perry, it is a possibility. You have to look into it. We don't know what she did before coming to L.A. What she did when she was young … " He swallowed before he tried to joke in spite of himself " … and stupid like me. "
Mason ignored the joke. " No. "
" Yes. "
" Damn it! No! " He sat down behind his desk again, holding his head in his hands.
" Yes, Perry. Remember, I was there when you found out about Della's engagement to this Domino guy, or whatever his name was. I don't know if you knew about the engagement before, as it was none of my business of course, but have you ever checked him out afterwards? Have you ever fully investigated his alledged connections to the mafia ? "
" His name is Domenico, Paul. Michael Domenico, and yes … " Perry sighed " … I knew about him before. That act at the Tony Domenico trial was meant to cause distraction back then, to buy us some time, and to lead the prosecution away from finding evidence against Tony. " He sighed again. " I've always known about Della's engagement to Michael Domenico. That's why I asked her to testify as a character witness. "
" Was Michael a mafioso? " Ashamed, because he deliberately asked a question he already knew the answer to, Paul sat down in front of Perry's desk, avoiding his gaze.
Mason nodded slowly, rubbing his beard, watching Paul Drake thoughtfully. " Yes. "
" Did Della know ? "
" Yes. " Mason's eyes drifted off to the door in his office that lead to Della's desk. His eyes lit up for a few seconds, then softened, but Paul missed it since he still wasn't able to look up. " That's why they broke off their engagement. She didn't want to be part of it. She didn't want to be part of the family. "
" What happened to Michael Domenico, do you know? "
Mason stood up and stretched out his large frame. He turned to look out of the office window. " Michael Domenico died twenty-four years ago in a hit and run accident. But no one actually ever believed it was an accident. And, no one ever really found out what happened. " He spoke softly over his shoulder towards Drake. " Della and I went to his funeral … It was quite spectacular really. Lots of sunglasses. "
" So, what if I very discretely investigate this, Perry? Maybe something comes up that explains why she is being used now, to wear this dress and to pass on a message. Whatever the message is. "
" Oh. " The big man sighed very deeply, shaking his head.
" She doesn't have to know, Perry. I'll be very prudent. "
" What, I can be prudent and discrete. "
" I know, Paul. I'm just laughing at you using that word. "
" I'll be very cautious. She'll never notice it. "
" I'm going to see Nardone about this information. " Then he answered Paul's question, before he could ask it. " Alone. "
" Now, you investigate what you told me. Do it, and do it discretely and be careful. " Perry's voice was deep and soft. " And Paul, you can't make her not notice it. " The large hand on his shoulder made Paul look up into the serious face of Perry Mason, as the resistance to this statement died on his lips. In his peripheral sight, he noticed the form of Della Street.
" Oh, Della … " Drake turned enough to see her. " How long have you been standing there ? "
" Long enough." Her small frame leaned backwards against the door. She shook her head slowly. " How did I get into this again? I can't believe this is happening, Perry. "
" Neither can I. " Mason opened the door to Malansky's office. " Kenneth? " His voice was insistent.
" Yes, Perry? " He stood next to the big man immediately. Once Perry Mason started to use his full name, something serious was going on. " Could you take Della home, please. "
Perry took Della's coat and gently and slowly helped her into it, while she desperately tried to control her hands from shaking. His voice was soft as he spoke to her. " I need to make some phonecalls together with Paul, and I want to go to the hospital afterwards to speak to Nardone about this information. "
He took her hands in his and kissed her forehead, before looking into her eyes. " Now, you go home with Ken, and later we'll talk about this, and what this might mean. I have to find some more information first. It might be nothing, but we have to know for sure. "
" Yes. " She looked at him lovingly.
" Baby … " He lifted her chin and kissed her lightly. " Take care of her. " He addressed Ken, who nodded before offering her his arm.
As they arrived at the house, and Ken was finally allowed to enter after being thoroughly searched by the officers in charge, Della stopped him from taking off his coat.
" Thank you for taking me home safely, but you really can leave now, Ken. You don't have to stay. "
" Are you sure? " He laid his hands on her shoulders gently.
" I just want to be alone for a while, take a shower, read a book … Perry will be here soon. " She took in the features of his worried face. " Oh, Ken, things will be fine, you know the security men check in here every fifteen minutes. "
" It doesn't feel right to leave you here on your own. I mean, I do know you're not alone with these guys outside checking on you every now and then, but … "
" Go home, Ken. Get some sleep." She took his hands from her shoulders and squeezed them lightly. " I'll be fine, just fine. "
And although the big, powerful Perry Mason himself had warned Ken more than once about the very dangerous and false 'fine, just fine'-ness of Della Street, Ken Malansky went home because she told him to do so.
But she shouldn't have sent him away.
She really shouldn't have done that.