Chapter 9 - 56897531
Dinner was a quiet affair that evening. Neither Perry nor Della actually enjoyed the excellent meal the chef had prepared for them. Both felt the effect of the exhausting couple of days that lay behind them. Grief and the relief of having caught a murderer mixed with their other, respective worries.
Perry watched Della, who returned her dessert with a forced friendly, but determined smile. She seemed as absent-minded as he was and he had a nagging suspicion about the reason. During the whole evening he had wanted to approach the subject named Robert and so far he had failed.
Robert and the mysterious number for a doctor's office. Was it his? Robert, whoever he was to her. Robert, who sent her flowers and his love. Robert, the man she had never mentioned to him before.
He didn't know how to touch the delicate subject without sounding like a jealous, old fool. He was definitely losing his touch when it came to Della and his feelings for her. He wished he could invite Robert into the courtroom to crossexamine him like some usual suspect in a murder case.
Why are you sending flowers to a woman who is obviously not…. not what? Not yours? Your question is irrelevant and immature, Counselor.
"Excuse me, Ma'am." A waiter was interrupting his thoughts, which was perhaps best.
"Yes, please?" Della asked.
"There's a phone call for you. It seems quite urgent."
"Oh… okay…" She looked at Perry, smiled, and shrugged. "I'll be right back. Don't you leave without me."
"I wouldn't dare," he answered with a smile that didn't reach his eyes.
Was Robert now calling her when she was having dinner with him? Annoyed with himself, he shook his head. He was not only jealous, but truly paranoid.
When Della returned to the table five minutes later, her exhaustion had completely vanished. Her smile was wide and her eyes glistened with excitement.
"Anything serious?" He practically barked at her, annoyed about her change of behaviour.
"Not exactly serious. Let's say it was uplifting."
"Good. Can we go now?"
"As you wish," she answered, a little amused about his darkening mood.
On their way to the elevator they passed the reception. As every evening, Della asked if someone had left a message for them. The receptionist handed her a letter with no sign of a sender.
"This is becoming a habit," she remarked dryly and gave it to Perry who slipped it inside his breast pocket.
"It's from Laura," he said. "I've recognized her handwriting."
Now Della was the one whose mood was going down the drain. "Another mystery solved."
He opened the letter after they had returned to his suite. Della busied herself with opening a bottle of soda while Perry scanned the few lines. "It's an invitation," he said. "For both of us."
"How considerate. And what's the occasion?"
"A small dinner party tomorrow evening."
Della almost dropped the bottle and the glas she was holding. "A dinner party?!"
"As a thank you gift."
"Tell her we rather accept a check instead."
He chuckled. "Aren't you curious?"
"Not in the least," she answered and he didn't doubt she was wholeheartedly honest about this. He dropped the note on the desk and said. "Well I am curious," he admitted. "But certainly not about Laura's motives for giving a party."
"And why are you curious, Counselor?" Della asked and offered him a glass.
"I am curious about that phone call from just now. I am curious about a strange man who sends you flowers and I am curious because you hide his card from me."
I am tired of games, he added silently and he could read from the expression written all over her face that she was, too.
"Will it satisfy your curiosity when I tell you that there's basically no reason to be curious?" She slowly crossed the room, sank down on the couch, and patted on her empty space next to her.
He followed her invitation and occupied the seat next to her. He waited for her to make the start, but she took her time. She toyed with the glass in her hand, but didn't drink while she searched for the right words to begin her story. "Before we came to Denver I went for an annual medical check up. The doctor's an old friend of the family… of my brother to be precise. Robert Nichols's been my physician for over twenty years now and he was there for me at a time when no one else was."
"Are you ill?" He asked aghast. The idea took his breath away. She shook her head. "I know now I'm not, but I was ill… about fifteen years ago, after you left for San Francisco I was diagnosed with cancer. Kidney cancer."
Speechless upon the reveal he reached out to take her hand. She caught it and squeezed it. "I had surgery. They removed the affected kidney and I recovered quickly, but I was alone and I made a mistake."
"What mistake?" he asked hoarsely.
"I allowed Robert to become a little more than just a friend, although I knew I didn't love him and never would."
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, ignoring every thought of Robert.
"Because you had chosen San Francisco over me, because I thought you were having a child with Laura, a child you hadn't told me about. I was hurt and I wanted to protect myself. A bit selfish, wasn't it?"
He didn't dare to look at her. Deeply ashamed of himself, he stared down to his hands. Guilt flooded him and he didn't know how to breathe. He hadn't been there for her, because she hadn't trusted him.
"I'm sorry." It sounded lame, powerless. He didn't know how he should ever digest the information she had just delivered him.
"It's over, Perry. I'm fine. It turned out that the laboratory made a mistake. They switched my sample with someone else's. That was what the phone call was all about. Yesterday morning I went to a doctor here for some additional tests and they found out that the samples didn't match at all."
"Sometimes I wonder why you're still here," he said. He felt her fingers on his neck, as she tenderly massaged his tense muscles. He couldn't stand her touch, because he felt so undeserving of it. Her low chuckle reached his ear. "For the same reason you're still here. I want to - even when I falter at times."
"Not your concern. He was just worried about me. Hiding the card was more of a reflex than an attempt to betray you. I should have told you earlier what was going on, but I wanted to find out what happened to Stefan and why and my health problems would have distracted you and Stefan deserved your full attention."
Perry turned his head and placed his hand on her knee. "I should take better care of you."
"But isn't it my job to take care of you?" she wondered.
"I think it's time we made it our job to look after each other, don't you think?" he asked.
"I won't argue with that." She rested her forehead against his and closed her eyes. A sense of relief washed over him, but he didn't know how long it would take him to fully understand how wonderful the woman by his side truly was. He had known her for a lifetime by now and yet she never ceased to amaze him with her grace and her dignity.
"I called the phone number on the card yesterday morning, you know."
"Yes, but you had already left the office. How did the nurse phrase it again? She was already here…. It was the moment when I realized that Laura had always been in her own house. You gave me the hint I needed."
She seemed utterly puzzled. "So?"
"I'm kind of lost without you."
"I know. That's why you won't get rid of me so quickly." She chuckled and kissed him tenderly.
"And don't you forget that."
When Della and Perry entered Laura's house, the other guests had already arrived and had been served their drinks. The only person who hadn't gathered in the living room was Laura herself. Perry inspected the illustrious group that consisted of Ellen and her husband, as well as Glen, Audrey Pratt, and Monsignore John Silver. Why Laura had invited the priest was a complete mystery to him, but he was sure Laura had her very own reason for the move.
"Where's our hostess?" Perry asked Raven who had been talking to Glen and Will.
"She's upstairs," Ellen answered. "Rebecca is back at Manderley and wants the big stage."
"Don't be so nasty," Will said to his wife. "You promised this would be a peaceful evening."
Ellen crooked her eyebrow. "I promised to behave if she behaves, which isn't quite the same."
A maid offered Della and Perry a glass of champagne and Della took it, grateful to have something to hold on to. She hadn't been keen to attempt and she still wasn't. Laura's turf ways her turf and she would never like it.
"I'm glad you're here," Silver said as he joined them. "We need to talk, Mason."
"What about?" Perry asked puzzled.
"About 56897531," Silver answered. "Little Miss Sunshine here thinks I lied about it."
Perry drew a deep breath and looked at Della. "We did some digging and found a service record that fits the number."
"It's like Laura said," Della continued. "The man's dead. He died in Vietnam during the war."
"In Vietnam?" Raven asked in disbelief.
"Yes, in 1971," Della confirmed. "His name was John Brooks. Major John Brooks."
The disappointment on Ellen's face was unmistakable. "Why would she make such a song and dance about an ordinary officer who died in Vietnam?"
"That's the question." Silver shifted from one foot onto the other. "It sounds too easy, but the other big question is, can someone lie under hypnosis?"
"Perhaps the number means something entirely else," Della suggested. "Perhaps it's a bank account or a safe deposit box…"
The conversation suddenly died down when Laura appeared on the staircase and slowly waltzed down to them. With annoyance Della noticed that Laura's outer appearance had completely recovered from the kidnapping. Even the bandage on her temple had vanished. Only a small bruise was left of her injury, the rest about her was magnificently sparkling.
"It's about time. I'm hungry and I can smell dinner," Ellen complained with a reproachful glance at her watch.
"You'll survive, if you wait a few minutes longer," Laura scolded her and took the champagne the maid offered her. "I'm so glad, you're all here this evening."
She made a toast that no one returned. "May we ask why we're all here?" Glen asked curiously.
"Well, I thought that's obvious, dear. It's my thank you gift to all of you."
"Oh well, there's no reason to feed us," Silver quipped as he reached out for another glass of champagne. "I think I speak for all of us when I say that all we need is the name of a certain person."
Laura smirked. "As I've told Emmet Michaels yesterday, there's no reason for me to give you a name, because he's dead."
"Why do I feel this isn't the truth?" It was a rhetoric question from Ellen.
"Because you're too suspicious for your own good," Laura answered nonchalantly.
"We checked the service number," Perry said. "And we know the soldier died in 1971."
"You see." Laura grinned, satisfied with herself.
"And it turned out the man's record was completely clean," Della continued. "He didn't even have a parking ticket."
"And that's of concern why?" Laura returned, her eyes sparkling.
"It's too convenient," Della replied smoothly.
"Maybe for you, but then I doubt you ever got a parking ticket," Laura snapped.
"Ladies, please," Will intervened, before the exchange could get out of hand. "I have an idea… You, Mister Silver stole the file from his house, didn't you?"
"Let's say I borrowed it."
Ellen scoffed, but Will placed his index finger on her mouth to keep her silent. "Well, Laura already felt threatened by the threats she received from Emmet Michaels. She thought Ellen was sending them." He looked at Perry. "What would you do to make sure no one gets hold of the crucial information in the file?"
"I would forge it," Perry answered promptly.
Ellen's mouth opened. "That's brilliant, Will. I always forget you're a writer."
"I have my moments," Will admitted, proud of himself.
"So you faked the number and all of us...," Ellen pointed at the whole group. "Went on a wild goose chase - again."
"The only thing on a wild goose chase is your imagination," Laura said. "You wanted the truth, I told what happened and that's all there is to it."
"Can't we just have dinner?" Audrey, who hadn't said anything until now, asked. "When Laura says she told you everything, she has."
"Oh please." Ellen rolled her eyes. "But yes, let's have dinner. I didn't dress up for nothing."
Two and half hours later, Perry and Della sat in the limousine that took them back to their hotel. With their hands intertwined they retrospected the memorable evening.
"Did you believe Laura's story?" Perry asked Della.
"Not a word," she admitted. "Whoever Ellen's father is must be someone she's either truly scared of or she's protecting him."
"I think so, too."
"Perhaps it's best that Ellen doesn't know. In the end Laura is probably protecting her."
Perry smirked. "I've never heard you this indulgent when it came to Laura."
She playfully slapped his arm. "Don't you dare judge me, Counselor."
He laughed and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. "Not in a million years, young lady."
Inside Laura's house Will and his father had retreated to the library to give mother and daughter the space to talk.
And so it came that the two women, mother and daughter, sat next to each other on the big sofa, side by side, yet without touching each other.
"So that's your final word?" Raven asked. "You won't tell me who my father is."
"Must be some guy..." her voice trailed off.
"Believe it or not, but I'm protecting you. Just as your Mr. Silver was protecting you when he stole the file."
Raven scoffed. "Aren't you just protecting yourself?"
Laura slowly shook her head while her eyes scanned the big, empty house around her. "What is there left to protect?" she wondered. "You have no idea how wonderful my life used to be... I had the perfect life... a wonderful husband, money, a career and then it all just fell apart - mostly because of you. What happened? How did I lose it all? I still don't know how any of this could happen."
"Don't blame me. You lost it all when you hit someone's head, because he threatened you. Your last deal was a foul one." Ellen answered. "And now you pay your debts."
"I'm so unhappy... are you happy now?"
"I'm not unhappy," Raven answered and smiled at her mother. "And I won't give up... you can't hide the truth from me. Not forever at least."
"We'll see about that. I can be very determined if I want to," Laura said, trying to hide her pride, because she suddenly realized how much her own daughter resembled her. Not only in her looks, but also in her personality, her wit.
"So the game is on, Mother."
With that Ellen rose and left the room while Laura remained on the couch all alone.
"The game is always on, Darling," Laura said once Ellen was out of sight. Tonight she had wanted to prove herself that she wasn't alone in the world, but she had been fooling herself. All she had left was her secret. She had protected it for the last thirty years and she would continue to do so until she drew her last breath. Perhaps this would turn out to be the one good deed of her life.
In case you wonder who Ellen's father is. I know who he is. I know what he did and why Laura wants to keep his identity a secret, but that's the plot for another story - sometime. Thanks to everyone who took their time to read and comment :-)