Della Street didn't especially like winter. That was one of the reasons she came to southern California in the first place. Winter in Los Angeles was practically non-existent. And there was no hint of autumn. If asked, she would have to admit that she did miss that season. Back home, the slow change from summer to winter showcased the rolling, wooded landscape. In Los Angeles, the weather changed little. Winter was a short season and that suited Della just fine.
The wind was blowing harder than usual when she left the office at 5:00. She felt somewhat antsy, but blamed it on the change in the weather. Della's employer hadn't returned to the office when she left. He was still meeting with a client. Perry Mason called her from a drugstore on his way to the client's house and told her to go on home. He had no idea how long he'd be and he didn't want her waiting around needlessly. She'd done as he asked, but as she put the cover back on her typewriter, switched the phones over to the answering service, and turned out the lights, an unexplained wave of melancholy wash over her.
The drive home helped to clear her mind, even though Della didn't really know what was wrong. Perhaps it was just the fact of winter approaching that had her feeling down. Grey clouds were rolling slowly across the sky and the sun was completely obscured by the time she pulled into the parking lot of her apartment building.
The lobby was bustling with residents returning from their stores and offices. Della stopped in front of the mailboxes, rummaging through her purse for the key. Lost in thought as she retrieved her mail, she was unaware of the appreciative glances from her male neighbors. She smiled briefly at the man with the mailbox next to hers who tried to strike up a conversation, but didn't engage in any small talk.
Still somewhat distracted, Della gathered her mail and crossed the lobby to the elevator. Her next-door neighbor, a recent widow who worked at the city library, entered the car ahead of her and held the door open for Della.
"Home so soon after closing time, dear? That's unusual!" she teased the sidetracked secretary.
Della smiled wryly. "I guess it is, at that. Nothing major going on today."
"And your attorney friend didn't need anyone to accompany him to dinner?"
"He's perfectly capable of dining on his own, Lorna," Della laughed.
"I'm sure he is. But he certainly seems to prefer your company, rather than just his own, these days," Lorna said, arching her eyebrows at Della. "There was a picture of the two of you in this evening's paper. You're leaving a night-club together."
"Oh, that must have been The Eldorado. Mr. Mason was just finishing a meeting with a client," Della explained. "It didn't mean anything."
"To you, maybe," Lorna said with a grin. "But the camera caught something in his expression that says otherwise." She reached down into her purse and removed a copy of the newspaper as the elevator doors opened. "See for yourself."
Della took the newspaper, conveniently folded to the society page. She stared at the photo as she walked the short hallway to her apartment. The photographer had snapped the picture as she and Perry waited at the curb for the valet to bring the car around. Della smiled demurely at the camera, but Perry appeared oblivious to its presence. His arm was wrapped around her shoulders and he was looking down at her. He was smiling, too, but it was obvious his attention was captured by her rather than the camera. Della supposed it was the sense of intensity in her employer's eyes, coupled with the tenderness in his smile that had struck Lorna as having some sort of meaning. Della wasn't nearly as sure.
Della was so engrossed she didn't see Lorna's indulgent smile as the older woman unlocked her apartment door and stepped inside. Instead, she stood in the hallway a moment longer, staring at the photo, then took a breath and turned towards her friend's doorway, evidently intending another denial, but no one remained in the hall save herself. Her expression thoughtful, Della finally unlocked her own door and went inside.
The newspaper ended up face down on the coffee table. After depositing her coat and purse in the closet, Della changed out of her work clothes and wandered into the kitchen to peruse her pantry. She'd briefly considered knocking on Lorna's door and inviting her down to the diner on the corner, but decided against it. Instead, dinner consisted of a bowl of soup and crackers. Della despised cooking, especially for one.
As she poked the bits of chicken and noodle with her spoon, Della let her thoughts travel back over the past few months. Work had been increasing steadily in the year that she'd worked for Perry Mason. Although office hours remained the same, there was seldom an evening that the two of them left the office at 5:00. More often than not, they used the quiet time after the phones were forwarded to the answering service to work on complicated research or legal briefs. Sometimes they simply worked their way partly through the ever-present pile of business correspondence until Mason became bored and suggested dinner and dancing instead.
Admitting how much she'd come to enjoy those evenings - to rely on his company - didn't make her feel any better. She used to be very good at being on her own. Now she craved company. Maybe she should consider getting a cat. Somehow, sitting there alone, not lonely but not happy either, a cat seemed rather fitting.
After eating, she washed up the handful of dishes and then watered the houseplants. Disposing of a yellowing leaf from a pot of ivy, Della mused that the only downside to apartment living was the lack of gardening space.
Della sighed and considered her options for the rest of the evening. She really needed a hobby. Other than gardening.
Eventually, she made herself comfortable on the couch with the latest Mickey Spillane novel. Paul Drake had loaned it to her. He loved Spillane. Della was quickly learning why. The antics of a hard-boiled private eye who had all the bodies he could handle, both dead and alive, was a sure winner with her lanky detective friend. Della wasn't quite so enamored with it. It was an enjoyable story, but the one-dimensional characters, especially the secretary, left her cold.
She wondered what Perry would make of it. He'd probably find fault with the detective's conclusions while totally missing the story between the P.I. and the secretary. That thought made her smile. She laid the book down and noticed for the first time that rain had begun to fall.
A soft hiss accompanied the opening of the sliding glass door to her balcony. Della stepped outside and breathed deeply, reveling in the smell of rain on the pavement. A solitary car drove past on the boulevard below. City lights glistened on the wet sidewalk. Looking out across the wet rooftop of a nearby building she could see the park a few blocks over.
A smile crossed Della's features and she took a deep breath before going back inside. She changed her shoes, then took her raincoat and umbrella from the closet.
Darkness had enveloped the city for a quite a while when Della returned home from her walk. It hadn't been raining hard when she set out on foot to stroll through the park. She'd circled the park several times, keeping to the well-lit sidewalks as the cloud-covered sun slipped below the horizon, then chanced fate and sat down on a secluded bench, watching the raindrops destroy the placid surface of a small pond. By the time the rain intensified she was completely relaxed and ready to head home.
It was pouring straight down by the time she reached her building, but she didn't hurry. The bottoms of her pants were soaked, but otherwise she remained dry and toasty warm.
Something about the rain made the seediness of a city at night less intense and Della walked the darkened sidewalk without fear. She wasn't even afraid when the hand grabbed her arm. Instinct took over and instead of turning to face her attacker, she stepped back into the assailant, throwing her weight into him even as she drove her elbow deep into his gut. Then she stomped on his foot, aiming for the instep, but managing to smash his toes beneath her heel.
"Del-ugh!" he grunted.
She lifted the umbrella to look into his face. "Chief!"