After a wild ride through the back street of Los Angeles following Ellen Payne to her parent's Brentwood home, Della took a deep breath and counted the cars parked in front of the formidable French inspired home of Ed and Joyce Nowicki. "It appears we're too late, Chief."
Perry expertly navigated the big Cadillac behind a pristine Bentley he recognized as belonging to Old Bullshit himself, Bellamy Simms. Great. Peachy. Socko. "I'll go inside with Ellen while you knock on doors until someone lets you telephone the police. Then I want you to get back in this car, lock the doors, and wait for me."
"But..." Della protested, frightened from stem to stern, inside and out.
"No buts, Della," Perry warned grimly. "I don't want you anywhere near what could happen in that house."
He had one leg out of car but pulled it back in to nest her chin in his hand. "Please, baby. Do as I say and don't give me anything else to worry about." With that he exited the car, running to where Ellen was impatiently waiting for him next to overly manicured topiaries guarding a brick paver walkway. She grabbed Perry's hand as they hurried toward the front door.
Della let herself out of the Cadillac and with a concerned look in Perry's direction began running toward a massive, vine-covered Tudor next door.
Immediately upon discovering the door unlocked and entering the home on stealthy feet, Perry Mason could feel something undeniably wrong. The air was charged with an alarming sense of fear, and eerily silent. While Ellen quietly closed the door and put a finger to her lips, Perry cast his eyes around to get the lay of the land.
The two-story foyer was grand, with eight foot tall cased openings on either side leading into a formal living room on the left and a den on the right. Both rooms were empty. Ahead was a wide hallway that led underneath a curving staircase, terminating at a wall with framed 11" x 14" photographs of four teenagers, two boys and two girls, positioned over a walnut console table with a black granite top. He recognized Glenda Nowicki immediately in her senior high school portrait, young, blonde, her smile bright and carefree. He briefly wondered what her future smiles might look like if today turned out badly.
Ellen reached for his hand once more as they tip-toed toward the photographs, discovering two more cased openings to a kitchen on the left and a dining room on the right. It was to the left from which palpable terror emanated in waves. They paused and strained to listen for the slightest sound.
After a few seconds of only a slight rustling and a small cough, Steven Sutton's voice cut the inert silence loudly and clearly. "Ten seconds, Janek. You have ten seconds left to admit in front of a judge and all these witnesses what your step-father did to my mother and agree to grant her an annulment or I swear to God I'll kill you."
A woman began to cry. There was more rustling, urgent whispers, and the crying quieted.
"Time's up!" Steven announced.
Perry looked inquiringly at Ellen, who was staring intently into the kitchen even though they were unable to see anything. Where were the police? He wondered if Della was having trouble convincing a neighbor to make the call. Dammit, they should have called from her apartment before they left on this mission of foolishness. If Ellen hadn't been so insistent about them being at the house before the police arrived he wouldn't be crouched outside the Nowicki family kitchen, fearful of making any kind of noise lest it bring on certain tragedy.
"Get up, you coward," Steven commanded.
"Now wait a minute, boy," a voice whined, "this isn't a trial. Any first-year lawyer could get him off on the technicality his confession was coerced."
Well, well, well, Perry thought. OBS was actually applying law in an attempt to diffuse the situation.
"I don't think so, Uncle Bellamy", Stevie sneered. "Get up, Janek, and face what you deserve like a man."
At that moment Ellen gave a strangled cry and lunged past Perry into the kitchen before he could grab her. "Stevie, stop!" she shouted, flinging herself at her youngest brother, hands frantically grasping at the pistol trained on a slightly built stranger with sad eyes and thinning blonde hair seated in a straight-backed chair.
Startled, Steven jerked his arm and the pistol went off. The women screamed, covered their faces, and scurried away in opposite directions as the men dropped to the floor, all except for Kate and George Sutton, who went down in a heap together. Perry dashed into the kitchen at that moment and yanked the gun from Stevie's hand. Ellen got to her feet by grabbing fistfuls of her brother's suit and wrapped her arms around him in a fierce bear hug. "Stevie," she wailed, "what have you done you dumb kid?"
Perry quickly pressed the hammer spur, opened the cylinder, and unloaded the revolver, shoving five unfired bullets in his pocket before turning his attention to seven terrified people huddled together near the breakfast nook. "Is anyone hurt?"
Bellamy Simms was the last man to stand up, helped in no small part by a well-padded woman in a navy print dress and sensible black shoes, iron grey hair rolled and tucked up under a fussy feathered hat. His Honor immediately slumped onto a tufted bench in the nook and wiped his sweaty face.
"Is anyone hurt?" Perry asked again, louder.
"I-I don't think so, Mr. Mason." It was Glenda who replied, pointing. "Looks like the bullet hit the wall above our heads."
Perry followed the direction of her finger and located damage to the plaster just as the wail of a siren and screeching tires could be heard outside the house. It was then every person in the room, except Janek Izworski, began speaking at once. Bellamy Simms hefted himself up from the bench and unsteadily advanced on Stevie Sutton. "You!" he screamed shrilly, "You little bastard, I'm going to see to it you're locked up for attempted murder of an officer of the Court!"
Everyone began speaking at once again, shouting if truth be told, as Glenda burst into tears and ran toward her brand-new husband, pushing Ellen Payne roughly out of the way and grabbing him in an even tighter hug than his sister's. Stevie buried his face in his wife's neck and rocked her back and forth.
No less than six uniformed police officers pounded into the room at that moment. Instantly recognizing Perry Mason, the highest ranking officer, a lieutenant, made a bee-line to him. "What's goin' on here, Mr. Mason?" He shouted above the din.
Perry gravely handed the unloaded gun to the officer. "I can tell you what went on in the last five minutes, but you'll have to ask the rest of them what went on before then."
"That bastard tried to kill me!" Bellamy Simms shrieked, pointing toward the young couple who were now both sobbing as they clung together. "I want him arrested immediately."
"He did not try to kill you," a soft voice disagreed, cutting through the cacophony of so many people talking at once. "He wasn't going to kill anyone. The gun went off by accident."
All eyes shifted to Janek Izworski, speaking in defense of the man who had moments earlier held a gun to his head. He stood still, hands clasped in front of him, completely calm.
"He did too! He did too try to kill me! That bullet whizzed right over my head. He knew I wouldn't allow him to marry my niece even if his mother's marriage was annulled. You can't undo sin." He stared at Kate and George Sutton with unconcealed distaste. The couple, arms around each other for moral support, stared back at him steadily.
"Uncle Bellamy!" Glenda cried in horror. "You're wrong! A canon attorney told us annulment only concerns the spouses, not the children of a marriage! You're a judge, you should know that."
Bellamy Simms' gaze never left the Suttons or lost its ferocity as he adjusted his waistcoat unnecessarily over his considerable girth. "I am a judge," he agreed imperiously, "but I am a Catholic first and foremost, and I believe in the absolute sanctity of marriage. This woman abandoned a valid union without cause, which was upheld by the tribunal multiple times. She had no right to marry again when a sacred impediment existed, and especially no right to procreate. Her second marriage is not recognized by the Church, and therefore I will not recognize her son as legitimate. No one in this family will marry the offspring of a sinner."
"Well, this member of the family did," Glenda revealed triumphantly. "Steven and I got married in Vegas two days ago." She swung around to face her parents. "Really married," she emphasized.
Joyce Nowicki, a slender, attractive woman raised by a taciturn, emotionally bereft father, and married to an equally over-bearing man for three decades, was accustomed to holding her tongue around both her husband and older half-brother. They knew what was best for the family, and it was her duty to obey her husband, as he often reminded her. Glenda was her daughter, her beautiful baby girl, and the thought of her married to such an unsuitable boy was too much to bear. Her hand flew to her mouth to cover a horrified gasp as her knees buckled.
There was much commotion as Ed Nowicki literally dragged his wife to the banquette and laid her down awkwardly on the bench. Martha Simms bustled over to the distraught woman, shoving her husband's brother-in-law aside roughly, to begin patting Joyce's hands.
The lieutenant, whose name badge read 'Hartman', removed his hat and rubbed a hand over crew-cut salt-and-pepper hair. "She okay?" He turned to the officers lined up behind him, awaiting orders, hands still hovering over their weapons. "We have an ambulance coming?" All five nodded in unison.
"She's as good as she can be after a shock like that," Mrs. Simms muttered.
"What'd you say?"
Martha Simms stood up and turned toward the officer, hands on ample hips. "I said she's had a shock and is understandably upset. We don't need an ambulance. All we need is kids with sense."
"Well, there's an ambulance on the way just in case."
Ed Nowicki spun around to confront his defiant daughter. "See what you've done to your mother? How dare you marry this boy after we forbade you to continue seeing him. You are ruined in the Church, and in this family I might add."
Bellamy Simms put his hand on Ed's arm. "The marriage will be annulled, Ed. The Tribunal simply can't deny how inappropriate the boy is. He took her across state lines – and if the marriage was indeed consummated we've got him on the Mann Act."
The grin Glenda Nowicki Sutton gave her uncle and father was glowingly triumphant. "We consummated the marriage after we came back to California."
Perry was highly alarmed when Glenda actually winked at him, and genuinely appalled when he felt warmth creep over his cheeks. While neither he nor Della could conclusively corroborate what had transpired in the law library, if his motive for locking them in were to be questioned, the answer could prove troublesome.
The lieutenant again took off his hat and ran his hand over his prickly hair. "All of this is about these two kids gettin' married? We heard a gunshot, a woman fainted, and none of you is makin' sense. Who's going to tell me what the hell happened here?"
As Perry opened his mouth to respond, Janek Izworski held up his hand. "I'll tell you what happened, officer," he said in the same calm, quiet voice as before. "It's my fault. I did something unforgivable a long time ago and instead of being a man about it I was a coward and hurt a lot of people. What you see now is the result. This young couple wanted to get married, but because of what I did her parents wouldn't allow it. They're small-minded, ignorant people."
"Why you..." Ed Nowicki began, taking a menacing step toward Janek while Bellamy Simms harrumphed. Lt. Hartman stiff-armed Ed Nowicki in the chest.
"Hold it, mister. Whatever you have to say can be said right here."
"I'll tell you what I have to say, all right! That boy is unsuitable for my daughter. He is the son of a sinner and I'll not allow him to sully my good name or standing in the Church."
Lt. Hartman yet again removed his hat to rub his head. "Son of a sinner, you say? You mean to tell me you've been arguin' about sin?"
"My good man," Bellamy Simms re-entered the conversation, "it is a canon of the Catholic Church that you must obtain an annulment through the diocesan tribunal before marrying again. His mother," he screeched a sudden, causing everyone in the room to flinch, "did not. She wantonly entered into an unsanctioned marriage while still married, and produced children. This boy is one of those children. He is the issue of sin and illegitimate. We have our family names and reputations to protect, and warned him numerous times to stay away from my niece."
What a supercilious ass, Perry thought, not for the first time and likely not the last. This fiasco with Ellen's family was shaping up to be several court cases for which he would be subpoenaed to testify. On the other hand, it could work in his favor if Bellamy Simms would be forced to recuse himself from all trials in which he was involved for the duration of his time on the bench as a result of Stevie's misguided attempt at solving his problem. However, he wasn't convinced if never having to deal with the odious man was worth all the vexation of the past few days.
"With all due respect, Your Honor," Lt. Hartman declared without much respect evident in his tone, "but I happen to know a bit about canon law. You see, I married a shy, pretty young thing who turned out to be Beelzebub's favorite daughter. We tried to get an annulment, but the tribunal refused, so we got a civil divorce. I'm married again and have three grown kids and a bunch of grandkids that are legitimate as they come. So why are you tellin' everyone this boy is the son of sin?"
"Because he is! According to canon law, his mother is still married to that man." Bellamy swept his arm dramatically toward Janek Izworski. "And you, Lieutenant, are still married to Beelzebub's favorite daughter."
Perry stepped forward and knocked the judge's hand down. "Your Honor, you are a horse's ass. These kids have every right to marry whomever they want without you interfering and misrepresenting the law." He turned back to Lt. Hartman as His Honor gaped at the attorney's audacity. "I would like you to speak to a canon attorney who has stumbled across some interesting facts about annulments and the tribunal right about the time I suspect your application was denied. Would you be willing to be deposed?"
Both Ed Nowicki and Bellamy Simms were beet red with rage, His Honor enraged at being taken to task by Perry Mason of all people. Why was that shyster even there? He would have the man disbarred and it would be the crowning glory in his distinguished legal career. Ed Nowicki appeared to be having trouble breathing.
As everyone assembled exchanged glances of fury, sadness, contempt, and annoyance, the only sound in the room was ashen-faced Joyce Nowicki, who still lay flat on her back, moaning in distress until Ellen Payne abruptly demanded, "Where the hell is Bert?"