Erle Stanley Gardner may or may not have had a backstory for how our favorite couple met. The characters Perry Mason, Della Street, Paul Drake and Gertie Lade are his.
This is my version and all other characters are mine.
The Case of the Savvy Secretary
By E. Wallace
"All he sees is a secretary! I'm not even sure he knows I'm female!"
Della Street paused in applying her lipstick to glance at the speaker. It wasn't hard to pick her out, even in a courthouse restroom crowded with secretaries and clerks at the beginning of a lunch break.
Two sinks down stood a leggy, curvaceous blonde in an exquisite olive linen suit with jewelry that seemed rather expensive for a secretary. She was clearly the leader of a group as two brunettes and a redhead hovered around her.
'I wonder if she would trade jobs with me,' Della thought, evaluating her own reflected image for a moment. After a mere five months, working for a man who always noticed she was female was getting tiresome.
"Maybe you should give it a little more time," the redhead offered in a placating tone that didn't sound the least bit convincing.
The blonde wasn't interested in any independent thinking. "I've already wasted four years! If he was going to make a play, he would have done it by now."
'That nixes the trading jobs idea.' Della's boss already had a wife... and an ever changing string of girlfriends. It didn't sound as though this young lady was interested in being part of a harem.
"Besides, I'm tired of him calling at all hours of the night, dragging me out to who knows where to help some good-for-nothing who doesn't know how to stay out of trouble."
"But he pays well, right?"
"What good is that if I hardly have time to spend it?" Her gaze darted away from her friends to focus on her reflection. "Anyway, I gave my notice this morning."
That flustered her entourage, whether at her audacity or that they hadn't been privy to the decision wasn't clear. "You didn't! What did he say?"
The blonde faltered before answering with forced nonchalance. "Not much really, asked if I was unhappy with the job."
Della heard several coughs from other listeners in the crowded room - coughs that sounded suspiciously like smothered snickers. It seemed she was known to more than just her group.
"What did you tell him?"
"I couldn't exactly say I was tired of waiting for him. Just said I'd had another offer. He didn't even ask where. Well, he's got two weeks to make up his mind." The blonde stepped back from the mirror, smoothed her skirt down over her hips, and crouched just a bit to double check her hair.
Everybody wore their height differently, and Della had always felt comfortable with her five foot five and a half inch stature - with the occasional elevation to an even five foot eight, depending on her shoes - but once in a great while she would feel a flash of envy toward women who didn't spend their days at eye level with chins and necktie knots.
The group swept out the door, Della trailing in their wake. She watched them head for the cafeteria before turning in the opposite direction to the elevators.
Della's own job never took her beyond the County Clerk's office on the first floor or the Probate offices on the second floor. She only breathed the rarified air of the upper levels, specifically the criminal courts on the fifth floor, when she could sneak up there to sit in on a trial or when she had lunch plans with Elaine Nelson.
She had her hand on the doorknob of Judge Helton's chambers only to have it pulled out of her grasp as the door swung inward. She stepped aside on the chance that an irate DA, lawyer or defendant was about to come bursting out. It had happened before.
She found herself looking up into the most amazing pair of blue eyes that went from startled to charming in a split second.
"Sorry, I didn't know you were there." The whiskey smooth baritone was a perfect compliment to his handsome features.
"It's quite all right," she replied, pleased that her own voice didn't quaver.
He let her enter then closed the door behind him as he left. She gave it a moment's thought but had to shake off the feeling that he was somehow familiar when nothing came to mind.
"Hi, kid; I'll be ready in just a minute."
Della didn't think twice about the nickname. Elaine was always professional at work, but her greeting to Della rarely changed, no matter where she was.
"No rush, I'm a bit early. Hello, Judge Helton."
"Miss Street," the portly man acknowledged her with a smile. "Things going well at the firm?"
"Just fine, sir."
"Glad to hear it. You girls enjoy your lunch."
"We will," Elaine replied. She liked working for her boss as much as Della disliked working for hers. "We'd better get downstairs so we can get a table."
Judge Helton watched them leave. Given who she worked for, he was always impressed with the Street girl's professionalism... but he didn't doubt for a minute that Elaine got an earful nearly every time they were together.
Despite a two year age difference, Elaine and Della had been best friends growing up, the sister neither had. Toddler Della was inconsolable the day Elaine went to first grade without her. Elaine, feeling very grown up, began calling Della 'kid' to prove her superiority. In less than a week, the superiority was forgotten but the nickname stuck, becoming almost an endearment. They traded chicken pox, mumps and measles as children; clothes, shoes and make up as teenagers. They had secrets from their parents and their brothers but never from each other.
Outgoing girls who did well in school academically and socially, they admired their mothers for being happy wives and homemakers, but they were both aware that the world was changing and alternatives were opening up every day. It wasn't that they were looking for something better, just... different. Marriage and children were always possibilities, but they weren't the only option.
In search of that elusive 'different', the girls combined Elaine's idea of attending business school after high school with Della's suggestion of specializing in law since she had a preference where Elaine didn't.
By the time Della was taking her first business courses, the age difference played in their favor. Elaine was working for a local firm and convinced them to give Della a summer internship with a small stipend. Upon graduation, Della was given a full time position earned on her own merit.
Things, of course, didn't always run according to plan. With unspoken misgivings, Elaine watched Della get engaged to a perfectly nice guy for all the wrong reasons. She was equally silent a few weeks later as she sat outside in the car while Della gave Michael Dominico his ring back.
A particularly cold Midwest winter led to a discussion of warmer climes that was quickly narrowed down to sunny Los Angeles. Weeks of clandestine preparation, followed by an equal amount of time spent cajoling, convinced their parents to give their reluctant approval. It helped that Della's Aunt Mae already lived nearby and they could stay with her until they got jobs and an apartment.
Within a month of their arrival, they were hired by the same law firm. While Della joined the secretarial pool, Elaine's additional experience in criminal law worked in her favor when the firm's leading attorney was in need of a new confidential secretary. He was appointed to a judgeship a year and a half later and took Elaine with him.
Della joined the cafeteria line while Elaine scouted out a table. Lawyers and judges went to restaurants; clerks and secretaries ate in the cafeteria and had to be back at their desks before those lawyers and judges returned so the line moved quickly. The clatter of trays and dishes and glasses punctuated the general burble of voices.
Della chose a roast beef sandwich, potato salad, a large fudge brownie and two coffee cups. She and Elaine could split a lunch but neither was willing to skimp on coffee.
"Afternoon, Della; you lose the toss today?" the cashier teased as she counted back the change.
"No, it was just my turn," Della replied with a smile, dropping the coins in her pocket. "Thanks, Sadie."
Steadying the tray, Della scanned the room for Elaine, finally locating her two tables over from the quartet she had seen earlier in the ladies' room.
Since Elaine knew all the good courthouse gossip, Della couldn't resist asking, "Do you know them?" as she nodded toward the group.
Elaine didn't need to look, having spotted them when she sat down. "The queen and her court? Yeah, the brunettes are Edwina Gregory and Martha Lawrence, but I can never remember which is which; they both work in Jury Selection. The redhead is Ruth Kincaid; she's somewhere in Family court. Her majesty, the blonde," Elaine gave a haughty toss of her head to emphasize her distain, "is Carol Fremont; she's confidential secretary for Perry Mason. She thinks the whole 'working-for-a-private-attorney' deal gives her royal status, and the others fawn over her for no reason I can understand. Honestly, I haven't seen a clique like that since the seventh grade. Why?"
Della chuckled at the all too appropriate allusion. "I saw them in the ladies room. Carol Fremont was telling them and anyone in earshot - which was everybody - that she had given her notice."
Elaine swallowed wrong at the unexpected news. "She quit?" she mumbled into her napkin. "Are you sure?"
"I don't know what upset her more," Della sipped her coffee, "that he never saw her as anything more than a secretary or that he wasn't bothered to hear she was leaving."
"You should apply for that job, Della."
"Sure, I'll get in line behind all those other girls who heard her."
Elaine waved off the objection. "Don't worry about them. There might be one or two, but the ones who are happy with their jobs won't think of changing and the others just want what Carol wants."
"To marry a lawyer, not work for one; and since she's already declared he's not interested in her, none of them will think they have a chance with Mr. Mason either if he could resist Miss Tall, Blonde and Willing."
"She doesn't come from money?"
"No, she's pretty much like you and me. Why?" Elaine replied, not quite understanding the purpose behind the question.
"Her clothes are high quality and her jewelry is superb even for paste. They passed me in a group but I'm pretty sure the expensive perfume I smelled was hers," Della explained slowly as she readjusted her perceptions of the woman. "One of her interchangeable friends made a comment about Mr. Mason paying well so it must be true if he's not supplementing her income on the side - and if he was she wouldn't be quitting."
Elaine trusted Della's evaluation. She herself didn't wear perfume, and she would have an entire closet of identical suits in black and navy if it weren't for the fact that she always went shopping with Della and bought whatever her friend suggested she buy. Della could identify most perfumes with a single whiff, had an innate sense of style and the self-confidence to make rags look like haute couture. She was also an excellent judge of people.
"I don't know what he pays, but he makes her work for it. Last week I heard her complaining about being out late the night before. She's not even terribly appreciative that Mr. Mason buys her dinner most nights."
"No wonder he's not upset about her quitting; she doesn't seem to grasp the confidential part of confidential secretary."
"She must be good enough if he never fired her."
Della took a bite of her half of the brownie. "If she's seriously husband hunting like you say, I wonder why she hung around for four years when he wasn't interested."
"You got a good look at those eyes, why do you think?" At her friend's puzzled frown, Elaine added, "That was Mr. Mason leaving the office as you came in."
Now Della knew why he seemed familiar. She had seen his picture in the paper several times, usually on the front page but occasionally in the gossip columns. He looked different in person and without a caption.
"What's he like?"
"Brilliant, you know that from the papers, but he's not that way in person." When Della giggled, Elaine couldn't help but join her. "Okay, that didn't come out right. What I mean is he's confident, not arrogant. When he wins a case, he never gloats about it."
"Carol Fremont must want to catch a husband pretty badly to give up a job with a paragon like that." Della checked her watch. "And speaking as a girl who doesn't work for a paragon like that, I've got to get back to the office before Mr. Hays returns from lunch."
They cleared their table and left the cafeteria making way for other hungry patrons.
Waiting by the elevators, Elaine tried one more time. "Think about that job with Perry Mason, please? You'll never get anything like it at Murphy and Young."
"All right, I'll think about it," Della conceded. "I'll call you tonight."
Della's trips to the courthouse were always dependant on the amount work to be processed and the importance of the clients on Mr. Hays' schedule.
She had friends in both the County Clerk's office and the Probate office who let her leave several documents at a time without having to wait around for them so she could observe various cases in progress. She never sat in on a case being handled by any attorney from her own firm. The majority of them wouldn't recognize her outside their common context of the office, but she couldn't take the chance of something being said to Mr. Hays.
Today, she managed to catch about twenty minutes of Perry Mason in action.
The phone began to ring as Della slipped her key into the lock of her apartment door.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," she muttered, juggling her purse and the bag of groceries she had picked up on her way home. Grabbing the receiver on the fourth ring, she gasped, "Hello?"
"Hi, kid. I can't talk long; I'm on my way out to meet Elliot at a club in the valley." Elliot Moreland was Elaine's boyfriend. A Julliard trained bass player, he had discovered he preferred playing in a jazz quartet rather than a symphony orchestra. Della was a better judge of other things, but she still knew he was talented.
"What's so important?"
"Carol Fremont was in late this afternoon. She said it was her last day and after some half decent acting on my part I got her to confide that Mr. Mason told her he would still pay her but it wasn't necessary for her to work out her full two weeks' notice. You have to go for this, Della. You're more than a match for any secretary actually interested in the job."
"A job that provids the possibility of adventure at all hours, good pay and a boss who keeps his hands to himself?" Della would never forgive herself if she didn't try.
"Okay, okay, you convinced me. I'll see if I can set up an interview."
"Good, now write this down." Elaine rattled off a phone number.
Della read it back to her before asking, "Whose number is this?"
"How did you get that?"
"I call law offices all the time about cases and schedule changes. I checked after lunch on Monday to be sure I had Mr. Mason's on file. Now you have no reason to chicken out and not call. Let me know how it goes."
Della spent the day at the main branch of the library looking at microfilm of newspaper stories about the famed attorney.
Newspapers again provided the source for Della's research as she checked the employment section of the major publications to verify that Perry Mason had placed an ad. None had his name on them, but she recognized MA5-1190 as his phone number. She admired the move, understanding that he wanted applicants interested in the job not the employer.
Della called Perry Mason's office first thing to inquire about the open position. The receptionist, after a long and unapologetic wait, gave her an appointment for 1:00 on Wednesday.
Then she set about learning everything that wasn't in the newspaper stories.
Much of the public information was easy to get from the California Bar Association. Back in her secretarial pool days, she had used the resource to find out about opposing counsel in cases Murphy and Young handled. It always amazed her that a group who would risk jail to protect the confidentiality of their clients was so eager to talk about their own members.