Chapter One

The process of writing briefs bored the living daylights out of Perry Mason. Had he fully understood the mind-numbing drudgery of the process during his education, he might not have become a lawyer.

But since his new secretary Della Street had assumed the responsibility of organizing his notes and pulling cited volumes from the law library, he found himself oddly energized. The brief he was working on, the fifth in three weeks, was nearly ready to dictate.

Dictation, once another abhorred chore, was becoming his favorite pastime, primarily because it afforded him the opportunity to admire Della Street's competent efficiency up close, among other things that deserved to be admired.

At this point, nearly five weeks into her employment, Della had competently dispensed with an appalling amount of documentation oversights in the chaos left behind by her predecessor. She had quickly assessed the backlog, drawn up a chart, and generally made a nuisance of herself until each task was completed. There were two briefs being typed by Mary and Alice and the one he was working on currently should be completed by Thursday, freeing him up for a social obligation on Friday. Relieving stress in his personal life would allow him to fccus more on Della - on the running of his practice, that is.

Perry was seated at his desk, deeply engrossed in one of several volumes Della had pulled from the law library. He finished writing notes on a particular point and reached for a cigarette from the humidor. After lighting it and taking a deep drag, he pulled a neatly organized client file in front of him and had just begun writing additional notes on a yellow legal pad when the connecting door between his office and Della's was flung open and she burst into the room.

"Mr. Mason!" She was slightly breathless and unusually unkempt, curls in disarray and a smudge of dust across one cheekbone. She was holding a woman's shoe in her left hand.

He jumped a bit at her noisy entrance, and then settled back in his chair to observe her through the trailing smoke of his cigarette. "Miss Street," he drawled. Normally calm, level-headed, logical, and supremely efficient, Della had on occasion displayed a fair-minded temper that he found utterly charming. When irked, she became transformed, eyes snapping, piercing words thrown at him as direct challenges that he gleefully volleyed.

"Did you know that Gertie hasn't had a vacation in a year?" With the back of the hand that held the shoe she pushed at a curl that had fallen over one eye. "And that Mary and Alice both have taken ten days each paid vacation in the past six months? Not only that, they refuse to help me cover the switchboard so Gertie can have a break. That poor girl could wind up in the hospital with a burst bladder." She paused to take a huge breath, and continued more calmly. "You can't run a professional office with such disparity among the employees. I'll give you a pass on the backlog of paperwork, but how could you be so blindly uncaring toward your staff?"

Perry smiled with amusement at his secretary. It was indeed deplorable that Gertie's good nature had been abused, but he enjoyed when Della pointed out his myriad shortcomings and couldn't help but smile. Preoccupied with personal problems, he had handed over control of his practice to a secretary who disguised her incompetency with elaborately constructed lies and assurances that everything was "just fine", until it became painfully, embarrassingly clear that things definitely weren't fine. Having lost sight of the fact that it was his name alone on the office door, it was time he took control again to salvage his once thriving practice. Enter capable, hard-working, lovely Della Street, willing to tackle the most onerous tasks in an effort to right his perilously off-kilter legal firm. She was gold, a priceless treasure he was determined to keep as comfortable and as satisfied in this position as possible.

"What do you propose we do to rectify the situation, Miss Street?"

She was becoming accustomed to receiving questions to her questions, and had an answer at the ready. "You could make it official that the typists and Gertie report directly to me."

Perry nodded his head in agreement. "Done. And I'll throw in supervisory authority over Jackson as well as a bonus. I've been considering expanding your responsibilities, so your willingness to take on the administrative staff is welcome." In truth, he had decided to request that she begin to attend court with him, but he reluctantly admitted that could wait. Acting on advice he now recognized as being given with suspect intentions, he had ignored the administrative staff, holding them at great distance, unforgiving in his criticism and stingy with his praise.

Della shifted from one foot to another, her indignation replaced by the aura of calm efficiency that had attracted him to her the moment she entered his office for an interview. Her calmness had played a large part in his decision to hire her. He hadn't experienced calm in too many years to count. He continued to regard her silently for quite some time before she cleared her throat.

"All right. I'll set a staff meeting for tomorrow morning first thing," she announced and turned to leave, affording him quite a lovely view of her backside.

"Della," he called, "is there anything else you'd like to talk to me about?"

She looked at him over her shoulder from the doorway. "Not at the moment, Mr. Mason. I'd planned to leave you alone with the brief since you have no more appointments today. We can go over the mail that requires your personal attention tomorrow after the staff meeting and before your first appointment."

"Are you sure you have nothing else for me, Della?"

She looked a tad exasperated. "I'm quite sure, Mr. Mason."

He sat forward and stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray. "You have a shoe in your hand," he pointed out.

She had totally forgotten about the shoe! She walked back into the office. "I certainly do," she confirmed with a smile. "The credenza in my office was crooked to the wall, so I moved it away and this fell to the floor." She placed an expensive black satin pump with a crystal-encrusted heel on top of an open law book on his desk. "Gertie wants me to look behind all the furniture immediately for the mate."

Perry studied the shoe with narrowed eyes. "It is quite a nice shoe, and looks brand-new. You might want to find the mate for yourself."

She shook her head. "Wrong size for me," she said. "I told Gertie we should contact Miss Getty, but no one has her telephone number and she's not in the directory. I can't imagine why she hasn't discovered it's gone and contacted us."

Perry picked up the shoe and turned it over slowly in his hands. "Miss Getty left rather abruptly and not in the most amicable of circumstances," he explained. "I'll keep it in case she does call." He leaned down, opened the bottom drawer of his desk and dropped the shoe in. He then sat back in his chair and smiled at Della. "Let me know if you plan to move furniture again."

"No more furniture moving today, despite Gertie's pleading. But I will be talking to the building manager about the cleaning woman. It was filthy behind the credenza."

"Ah, that explains the smudge of dust on your face."

"I'm sure I'm a mess," she agreed with a chuckle, reaching up and fluffing her hair away from her neck with long, slender fingers.

He liked that she laughed easily and kept vanity in check. Most women would have been mortified to be told by a man they had a smudge of dirt on their face. He found himself smiling at her, comfortably pleased with her unaffected mien.

"Do you want me to stay and help with anything on the brief?" She offered.

"No, I've got it handled for now. If you have a free moment, why don't you hammer out an agenda for tomorrow's meeting."

She flashed a smile that told him an agenda was already half completed, and exited through the connecting door. He continued to stare at the door long after it clicked shut. Finally, with a great sigh, he reached down and retrieved the crystal-encrusted pump from his bottom drawer and placed it on top of the open client file in front of him. He pulled his desk phone over and dialed a number. On the third ring his call was picked up at the other end.

"Hi," he said, his eyes dark and brooding as they rested on the shoe. "It's me. Guess what turned up today?"

Perry Mason's role in the staff meeting at 9:15 the next morning was brief. He announced that Della Street had complete administrative authority effective immediately, then excused himself from the meeting at 9:20 after a few words of appreciation and encouragement, leaving Della to address the remainder of the agenda with her wide-eyed staff. He needed to get in a few minutes on the brief before his first appointment at 10:30, and he knew Della was determined to have him dictate responses to correspondence too long ignored. If he could clarify one point of the case before she wrapped up the meeting and entered his office with today's dictation, it would go a long way toward dispelling the out of control feeling that had been with him since awakening entangled in scented satin sheets.

The previous evening had not been enjoyable, scented satin sheets aside. Too much alcohol, too many cigarettes, too much arguing, not enough sleep. He hoped Della's sharp eyes wouldn't catch the fact he was wearing the same suit as yesterday. His lack of grooming was a small price to pay for peace of mind that the distractions of the past few months would loosen their perfectly manicured grasp on his body, mind, and soul.

He detoured to the washroom off his private office to splash cold water on his face, slap on cologne, and comb his hair. Feeling a bit more suitable to face the day, he dropped into his big leather chair and immediately began writing notes. He was able to complete his thoughts on the salient case point and move on to the next before Della entered from her office with a cup and saucer in one hand, stenographic notebook and a stack of letters in the other, a pencil held sideways in her mouth. She crossed to his desk with sinuous grace, and placed the cup and saucer before him. Removing the pencil from between her teeth, she smiled.

"No rest for the wicked," she announced.

Perry took a welcome sip of coffee. Perfect as usual. "Referring to me or to you?"

Her face held an expression of utter innocence as she arched one sublime eyebrow at him. "I'm not the one wearing the same suit of clothes as yesterday," she replied airily, slapping a stack of five letters in front of him before circling the enormous desk and taking her seat.

How bold of her! "Nooooo, you aren't," he agreed slowly. "May I present my defense?" Despite the impudence, he was actually perversely glad she had noticed.

She carefully closed her notebook and leaned back in her chair. "Is it necessary to put on a defense, Mr. Mason?"

He was suddenly too aware of her, of her impeccable turn-out and the wonderful light scent of her perfume, of the way her curls fell about her face and rested upon her shoulders. She wore a long straight skirt today, periwinkle blue and grey tweed paired with a silver blouse. Grey open-toed pumps afforded him a tantalizing peek at coral toenails. Small brushed silver discs dangling from her ears were her only jewelry. He felt disheveled and guilty, like a naughty teenager caught sneaking back into the house at dawn after a night of adolescent debauchery.

He reached for a cigarette from the humidor and lit it. Leaning back in his chair to mimic her posture, he smiled lazily. "Due to the relative newness of our working relationship, Miss Street, I do feel compelled to defend, but not to explain, my appearance." After taking only two small drags on the cigarette he stubbed it out. "As you well know, I've allowed my personal behavior to negatively impact my professional obligations for far too long. Last night I dealt with a certain circumstance that will no longer interfere with this practice."

She leveled frank hazel eyes at him. "Neither defense nor explanation was required."

Her gaze didn't waver as he regarded her with level-lidded appraisal. "Do me a favor, Della, and always be this forthright. I need a good kick in the pants every now and then, and I think you have the ability – not to mention the willingness – to do it."

"As long as you promise to be equally forthright about my job performance and kick me in the pants if I need it."

Perry blinked, then grinned. "I think, Miss Street, we are going to have some kind of fun."

The telephone on his desk rang shrilly. Della scooped the receiver to her ear. "Yes, Gertie? That's fine, I'll be out in just a moment." She dropped the receiver back into the cradle. "Well, you've been given a reprieve from the mail. Your 10:30 has arrived early and is insisting upon seeing you immediately." She started to rise, but Perry waved her down.

"I'll greet Mr. Phillips myself. He can be rather testy. Why don't you spiff up the desk and stick around to take notes." He pushed himself up from his chair and strode across the office.

Della stood and moved behind his abandoned chair. When the door clicked behind him, she quickly bent and yanked open the bottom drawer of his desk.

The crystal-encrusted shoe was gone.