Perry Mason sat back in his commodious leather chair, placed his interlaced hands behind his head and sighed with contentment. It was three months since his one-time inamorata Laura Cartwright had departed for a prestigious new job with a top law firm in Denver, and had he missed her? Not one whit! There had been phone calls, of course. Almost daily at first, then maybe twice a week, then weekly - and now only occasionally. She had tried her hardest to persuade him to come with her, to give up his practice in Los Angeles and set up in business with her and her new associates. He had thought long and hard, and in the end had decided that what he had in Los Angeles far outweighed what he was being offered in Denver. His law practice was flourishing. He loved criminal law and defending justice. With Laura's new firm he would have been swallowed up in the world of corporate law which he found unutterably boring. Here in L A he had a dedicated staff whom he would miss beyond measure if he relocated: Della Street his confidential secretary, Paul Drake the best PI in the business, Carl Jackson his conscientious law clerk, Gertie Lade his perky receptionist, Peggy and Claire the two office typists.
Della…always his thoughts drifted back to Della. As his feelings for Laura had cooled, he began to see Della in a new light. She had come to work for him six months before. He was aware of how attractive she was, of course: the willowy figure, the chestnut curls, the amazing hazel eyes and dazzling smile, the fluid grace with which she moved, the warm personality which set nervous clients at ease and soothed him when stress threatened to overwhelm him, the calm efficiency with which she ran his office and organised his professional life. All this he had appreciated from the beginning, but while he was involved with Laura he had given no thought to Della as a woman. But now…he sighed again. Now, he felt his breath catch if her fingers brushed his when handing over a document. He found he could not take his eyes off her whenever she was in his office. He had never been one to ogle women; he had no need to. From his teenage years his charm and good looks had got him any woman he wanted. Yet now he found his eyes devouring her shapely figure and slender legs, his mind wandering to what lay beneath the demure, professional attire she wore to work. And when she leaned over his desk to point out something in her notes or present a letter for his signature and her body lightly touched his, his pulse raced and he felt the stirrings of desire. He lived for that dazzling smile which brightened every dark morning. He finally admitted it to himself; he was in love with her.
He could refuse her nothing, so when she had tentatively asked for five days' leave to attend her cousin's wedding in a small town near Chicago, he had readily agreed. The prospect of five days without her terrified him, but it made up his mind for him. When she returned he would tell her how he felt, woo her gently and pray that she felt the same. He had no way of being sure, but he noticed she did not avoid the 'inadvertent' touches, the meeting of eyes, the knowing smiles. She did not resist when he gripped her arm to lead her through the hordes of journalists waiting for him at the courthouse. She did not flinch as he held her in an increasingly close embrace when they danced together. Hope blossomed in his heart. Yes, when she returned he would tell her.
He looked at his watch. She would be in the air now, well on her way to Chicago. He had picked her and her Aunt Mae up at her apartment earlier in the day and dropped them off at the airport on his way to the office. She had smiled one of her dazzling smiles at him as he helped load her bags on to a luggage trolley and had turned and waved as she and her aunt entered the terminal building. That picture burned itself into his heart. Five days, then he would tell this amazing woman how he felt about her, beg her to become so much more than his secretary, even perhaps ask her to marry him. Good God! He had never contemplated matrimony before. What had this woman done to him?
His reverie was interrupted as the door to his private office opened to admit his best friend Paul Drake.
"Hi, Paul!" he began, then stopped, seeing the look of utter devastation on the detective's handsome face. "What's wrong? Has something happened?"
Paul stood before him, ashen-faced and trembling slightly. "Perry….You haven't heard? I've been listening to the radio. There was a news flash. A plane crash….The 9.30 flight from LA to Chicago."
"Don't be ridiculous, Paul," said the attorney. "That's Della's flight. You're getting confused. You must have made a mistake."
"No, Perry. I'm sorry. It was the Chicago flight. There's no mistake."
Perry's heart was pounding. "Get on to the airport, Paul. Find out where they've taken the passengers. We have to make arrangements for Della and Mae to get home!"
"Perry!" For the first time in his life the usually loquacious detective couldn't find the words he needed. "Perry, according to the news reports, the plane caught fire and exploded when it hit the ground. There….there are no survivors. I'm so sorry."
"NO!" The word reverberated across the office and ricocheted off the walls. "No, it's not true! It can't be true! Not Della! Not my precious Della!" The usually indomitable attorney let out a keening sob and buried his face in his hands. Paul Drake was at a loss how to react to his friend's distress. "I'm so sorry, Perry. I know how much she meant to you."
"No you don't!" The lawyer almost spat out the words."You have no idea how much she meant to me. I love her. I love her and I never told her. Why didn't I tell her, Paul. Why? She's gone and I never told her…..She never knew…" and at this the big man's shoulders heaved and he began to sob.
While his friend wept, Paul Drake took control of the practicalities of the situation. He gently explained what had happened to Jackson and the rest of the shocked staff, instructed them to cancel all Perry's appointments and close the office till further notice. Then he went back to his friend who was huddled in a crumpled heap in his chair.
"I don't know what to do, Paul," Perry's voice was trembling. "Help me. I don't know what to do." Gently Drake grasped Perry by the arms. "I think you should go home, pal. There are too many reminders of her here for you to cope with at the moment. C'mon, I'll take you home."
Ten o'clock that night and Paul Drake was watching his best friend sprawled on the sofa in the living room of the lawyer's spacious apartment. Perry's immediate recourse on reaching his home had been to reach for the bourbon, anything to blot out the reality of what he now faced. Life without Della. He had thought about putting a call through to her parents in Illinois to express his condolences, but Paul had gently dissuaded him with the suggestion that he was in no fit state to speak to a grieving family. They had watched television reports about the crash, but the sight of the blazing inferno had driven Perry straight to another drink. At last he had fallen into a drunken sleep and barely stirred when the telephone rang.
Paul Drake picked up the receiver. "Hello!" he said quietly, not wishing to disturb his friend.
"Who is this? I wanted to speak to Perry Mason," said a voice, a woman's voice, a voice low and husky and tantalisingly familiar.
"This is Paul Drake speaking," replied the detective. "Perry is..unavailable at the moment."
"Paul! It's me! Della!"
"Della! I don't understand. We thought you were…. How…..how did you escape the plane crash?"
"We weren't on the plane, Paul. When we were checking in, there was a young couple desperately trying to get a ticket. Her father in Chicago had had a heart attack and wasn't likely to survive. The flight was full and the only thing the airline could offer them was a connecting flight via Kansas City. It would take four hours longer. Since we weren't in any particular hurry, Aunt Mae and I decided to offer them our tickets and we would take the connecting flight. Oh, Paul! We sent that young couple to their death!"
"Della, it wasn't your fault. Just be thankful you're still alive. Perry has been out of his mind with grief."
"Where is he? I wanted to speak to him."
"Just hang on" said Paul. "I'll see if I can get him."
Laying the phone down, Paul went over to the sleeping attorney and shook him vigorously. "Perry, wake up! It's Della on the phone. She's alive, Perry. She's alive."
Groggily Perry Mason opened his eyes and stared uncomprehendingly at his best friend. As succinctly as he could, the detective explained what had happened and handed Perry the phone.
"I'm ok, Perry. I'm at my parents' house now. Everything got held up because of the crash. It was chaos. I've only just got here. I thought you might be worried so that's why I phoned."
"Thank God you're all right," he said. "I was out of my mind when I thought that you were…" Even now he couldn't say the word. "Thanks for letting me know."
"I have to go now. It's very late here. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, my…Goodnight. God bless!"
He put the phone back on its cradle and he began to tremble from head to toe as tears streamed down his cheeks, but this time they were tears of unutterable joy. She was safe. His love was safe. Silently he did what he had not done since he was a little boy. He gave thanks to a God he had thought he no longer believed in.
The next morning Perry Mason made up his mind. Shrugging off the symptoms of a massive hangover, he showered, shaved, packed a bag and headed for the airport where a private plane was waiting to fly him to Chicago. He had to see her. He didn't care what it cost or what her family thought. All he wanted was to take her in his arms and tell her what he had failed to tell her before. He loved her. He could not contemplate life without her. At long last he brought the car he had hired at the airport to a halt in front of an unpretentious but comfortable-looking suburban house. He jumped out of the car, walked up the well-kept front drive and rang the doorbell. After a few moments, the door opened to reveal the familiar figure of Della's Aunt Mae.
"Perry! What on earth are you doing here?" she exclaimed.
"I have to see her, Mae, to see if she's ok."
The elderly lady stood aside and pointed to a door just off the hallway. "She's in the living room. She'll be surprised to see you."
Tentatively he pushed open the door to a comfortable living room. Della was seated on a couch, her legs folded under her, reading a newspaper. She looked pale and drawn, but to Perry's eyes she was the most beautiful woman on earth.
"Good morning!" he said quietly, trying not to startle her. She looked up, and in an instant was on her feet. He held out his arms and with a sob she came to him and he enfolded her in a tight embrace.
"Oh my darling," he whispered, burying his face in her hair. "Thank God you're safe! My life would be over if anything happened to you. Oh my precious love."
She looked into his piercing blue eyes. "You've come all this way just to see me?" she asked.
"Where else would I be?" he whispered as his lips found hers. "I came to tell you I love you."
"And I love you. So much. Please, Perry, let's find a hotel and make love."
He saw the frantic hunger in her eyes and heard the urgency in her plea. Holding her at arms' length, he regarded her with incredulity. "Della, where has this come from?"
"I think it's the realisation that nothing in life is certain. That it can all be taken away in the blink of an eye. I've been in love with you for so long, Perry. I almost lost you before I could show you how much I love you. Please take me to bed. I want you to make love to me. Today. We could be dead tomorrow. Please…"
"Are you sure? Once we cross that line, there's no going back."
"I'm sure," she said. "I've never been surer of anything in my life. I love you. Let's seize the day."
And they did.