Della Street shrieked awake. She grabbed her heart, catching her breath and staring in the darkness. She had heard the noise, a loud, lonely click somewhere in the darkness that stretched down the hall to the living room. Swinging her legs off the side of the bed, Della thought about inspecting. Fear stopped her. There was no way out except through the front door. And if the noise was a person, he was somewhere directly in line between where she sat and her escape.
She groped around the end of the bed, feeling her housecoat and wrapping it around her. I'm being silly, she told herself. Her ears, perked like a beagle's, had heard nothing else. She could feel someone, though, feel him advancing to the back of the apartment and toward her. His silent steps pressed the wooden floor that connected the front of the flat to her bedroom.
Perry had asked if she was frightened when he dropped her off. They knew that the killer knew they were on his trail. But Della had laughed, the way women do in the daylight, forgetting that soon it would be night. And now she sat on the edge of her bed, draped in the darkness of the early morning, dazed from sleep and jolted from panic. Her home was not hers now, but a strange, terrible place belonging to an intruder who existed, perhaps, only in her tired imagination.
Della waited for several seconds, expecting a dark man to leap from the shadows and attack her. When he didn't, she smiled to herself. This was not the Della Street she knew herself to be. Would she tell Perry tomorrow? Spooked by a passing car outside, maybe, or just the scratch of a limb against the shingles. The stuff nightmares are made of. She remembered a shadow that appeared on her bedroom wall when she was a child. Awaking one night, she saw the profile of a witch hovering over her and ran, screaming, into her parents' room. The next day her father trimmed the tree outside her bedroom and the witch disappeared. Della returned to her bed, but the terror of that instant, of waking to horror, stayed with her even thirty years later.
She thought of that witch as she slid her feet into house slippers. Silence. She stepped out into the hall, one foot, then the other. A floor panel creaked and she screamed. Paralysed against the wall, she pressed her eyes shut, gasping, knowing it was only her, but unable to look anyway. Stupid, she told herself, if there were someone in here and he had been after me, he couldn't have made it a yard down the hallway without a noise.
Della's heart pounded into her fingertips. There was no use trying to sleep for a while. She'd make a cup of tea and finish the novel she'd fallen asleep reading. Perry would laugh if he could see her. She had almost asked him to stay tonight, but something, the same thing every time, really, had kept her from telling him what she wanted. Maybe tomorrow, she thought, as I'm describing what a ridiculous night I had, I'll mention that I would have felt safer if he had been here. She sighed. Of course she wouldn't tell him that. He's a man, for Heaven's sake, not a German Shepherd. A man may want to protect a girl from the world, but she knew that being a teddy bear to turn to after a nightmare was not his idea of how to spend an evening in her bed.
Della switched on the dim light over the stove and filled the tea kettle with water. She did wish he were here. Not simply because she still shook from a fading fear, but because she knew she loved him. Sometimes she awoke in the night, with many things to say or perhaps nothing at all, but just wanted to reach over to him and put her hand on his chest. To feel him pull her into his arms, where she could settle and fall asleep. He'd once told her that celebrities can't be cowards. She scoffed at him. Della Street a celebrity? Maybe a line or two in the gossip columns occasionally. She didn't mind and even liked scanning the morning rag to see if they'd made it. But now, in the middle of her dark apartment, her feet cold against the linoleum on the kitchen floor, she remembered a line from a musical Perry had taken her to last summer. Bravery is cold in bed.
Della hummed the tune, waiting for the whistle of the kettle. She picked up a magazine she'd half read and then tossed on the table. And then she heard a squeak. Her mouth dried. Someone had just stepped into the hallway behind her. He couldn't have been in the hall while I was there, she realized, but he could have been standing in the study, which was adjacent to the bedroom.
The kettle spouted a short whistle. I could scald him, she told herself, I'll throw the water in his face. She clutched the handle. That would never do. Unless she was tall enough to pour out on his head, there was no way she could throw near boiling water from a kettle on anyone but herself. Tears crept up her throat and she steadied herself against the countertop. She spotted the block of knives by the stove. I'll stab him, she thought, reaching for the largest knife. Knowing it was a long shot, she raised it from the wooden slot. She'd been in court dozens of times when Perry proved that a woman didn't have the strength to drive a blade into a man's chest. But maybe adrenaline would be on her side.
Pressing the handle into her palm Della turned to face her intruder. She jolted at the emptiness of the living room in front of her. She let go the knife and backed away from it, watching to fall into the sink, uneasy at her plot to kill someone merely seconds before. Turning off the stove, she picked up the kettle and poured water into a cup. That's twice in a night, she told herself, that you behaved like a teenager who's seen too many scary films. A nagging thought pierced the logic of her mind. Of course no one was there. Murderers do not wait until their victim arms herself before pouncing. She slid the knife back into the wooden block, chuckling. Wouldn't Perry have been proud? Her mind read the headline. "Secretary Thwarts Plans of Homicidal Maniac."
She didn't want tea anymore. Sleep was completely out of question, and even though she knew that no one was there, the ache of fear hung on her chest. Della's eyes darted to the kitchen clock. Twelve-twelve. Make a wish. The doorbell would ring, and Perry would be on the other side.
She walked into the living room and picked up the phone. There was no need to even turn on a light, she smiled, dialing his number in the dark. Maybe he would be asleep, but probably not. Even if he is, she said to herself, we'll call it even for all the midnight calls I've had from him. The phone rang four times. A tiny, stabbing thought told her he wasn't home. The fear arose in her again. What if someone had been here, she wondered, and I couldn't reach Perry? She was about to hang up when he answered, mumbling hello.
"It's me," she said. "I'm sorry to bother you so late."
"Della?" he asked.
But she didn't say anything. Her mind struggled to wind itself around what her ears told it. A squeak of a floor panel, the brushing of cloth against the wall. Then from the darkness behind her, a hand crept onto her shoulder. A half asleep Perry Mason heard Della Street scream, then the line went dead.