Read After Midnight Online

Authors: Helen Nielsen

After Midnight

BOOK: After Midnight

He watched the woman through the plate glass doors. She had two sailor pickups with her and she was still drinking.

For a small woman—hardly more than a girl—she had an amazing capacity. She had been at the drink for two hours, shyly at first and then with an enthusiasm that surpassed the sailors.

Sick, sick, sick,
he thought, and yet the woman was lovely … and he wanted her.


By Helen Nielsen

a division of F+W Media, Inc.


For my favorite sister

Table of Contents


Title Page



















A Killer in the Street

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Business was good on Sunday at The Cove. It was late: September at the beginning of the heat that would continue until the winter rains. Before the rains there would be false storms—sudden squalls coming in off the Pacific with great sound and fury and possibly even an occasional shower—but most of the time there would be only the relentless heat and its human victims fleeing to the beaches for relief. When the sea was still there was sometimes the strong smell of fish—as if these were Mexican waters rather than the coast of Southern California—and on such nights the beach would be dotted with sleeping bags and blanket rolls, and, in areas where they were not prohibited by law, the bright orange fingers of bonfires which could be seen by diners in The Cove. Situated on the land end of a private pier with one entrance leading to the parking area and the other providing the sole access to the pier itself, The Cove was a bar and grill with a juke box, a dance floor and a patio for sun-worshipers. But at six-thirty in the evening the patio was deserted except for Charley Becker, the tattooed ex-Marine who owned the establishment and was taking a much needed cigarette break.

Charley leaned against the wrought-iron balustrade that discouraged junior patrons from plummeting to the rocks below and scanned the horizon. The fog rolling in from the sea had the smell of rain in it, and the waves that churned against the pilings reached higher with each surge. The two large fishing boats were already moored on the far side of the pier, and all of the small rentals except the new white job with twin outboards were safely anchored. Charley scowled at the sea. The new outboard had put a dent in his credit rating—he didn’t want to lose her. And then his ears picked up the sound of motors and he caught a glimpse of white nosing through the waves like a filly heading for the feed bag. Charley dropped his cigarette and turned back toward the bar. The boat was safe, but more than the weather would be ugly this evening.

He watched the woman through the plate glass doors. She still had two sailor pick-ups with her and she was still drinking. For a small woman—hardly more than a girl—she had an amazing capacity. She had been at the drink for two hours, shyly at first and then with an enthusiasm that surpassed the sailors’. They were all kids—none over twenty—and it might have been just clean fun except for the way she clung to her glass.
Sick, sick, sick
, Charley thought, and yet the woman was lovely. She had an innate innocence that the liquor, the shocking pink Capris and the wild silver blonde hair-do couldn’t conceal. Her orange lipstick was too pale and her eye make-up too bold, but under the cosmetic rebellion was a frightened child, and Charley fought back an uncharacteristic father impulse to rush in and tell her it was time to head for the ladies’ room and douse her face in cold water because, in about five minutes, the man who had taken her out to sea with him in the white boat early in the day would be back and wouldn’t like a little bit what she was doing now. After all, he was her husband.

But Charley Becker did nothing of the sort. He watched the double outboard dock and the tall, suntanned young man who had quitted her stride up to the pier. He looked like a TV actor—no hips, no waist, wide jersey-clad shoulders and dark, curly hair sticking out in damp tufts beneath the blue yachting cap. He carried an expensive deep sea fishing rig and a package wrapped in heavy paper, and Charley didn’t do a thing but slip back inside the building and take a position behind the bar just as if he hadn’t been outside the place all afternoon.

The man with the fishing rig came in through the patio bar and walked directly to Charley.

“Beer,” he ordered.

“One lager topside,” Charley said.

He knew the brand. This was ritual. One Sunday of every month for the past four months Roger Warren had come to The Cove with his deep sea fishing equipment and his young bride, Wanda. He had rented the white twin motor outboard and taken Wanda with him as far as Commander Warren’s yacht, which now rode at anchor somewhere beyond the fog line. The Commander—United States Navy, retired—was Roger’s father, and whatever else Charley Becker knew or speculated about that relationship wasn’t an over the bar conversation piece. But on this particular Sunday the ritual had been varied drastically. Wanda usually returned with her mate. Today she had come back two hours ahead of him—dripping wet—in a small single outboard the sailors had rented half an hour earlier. They had their first drinks on the patio while she dried her hair and let the sun shrink the pink Capris and top to the dimensions of a second skin and then moved inside to a booth where the party got livelier.

Charley opened the bottle of beer and slid it across the counter.

“Good fishing, Mr. Warren?” he asked.

Roger Warren picked up the bottle and drank half of it before setting it down. He ignored the question.

“Where’s my wife?” he asked.

“Didn’t she go with you, Mr. Warren?” Charley asked.

The sound of innocence didn’t impress Roger. “Don’t give me that cool bit, man,” he said. “You know damned well she jumped ship! She’s not on the yacht and she couldn’t get ashore without coming through here!”

“Maybe she drowned,” Charley said.

He was playing for time. He hoped the kid would get her face out of a glass long enough to see who was leaning on the bar and take herself out of the place, but it wasn’t Charley’s lucky day. Somebody had been feeding the juke box for the last half hour. Now, of all times, the music lover ran out of coin. Silence was a cue for trouble because now, cutting through the silence, came Wanda’s too sharp laughter. Roger heard it and swung around to face the booths. What he saw was Wanda, her head bent forward to catch something the younger sailor was saying—then raised quickly in a burst of merriment so wild it verged on hysteria.

Charley Becker saw Roger’s fingers tighten on the beer bottle as he walked slowly to the booth. He didn’t speak. He watched his wife for several minutes before she became aware of him. Once she did, her laughter stopped and the sailors’ laughter, too.

“Anchors aweigh,” Roger said curtly.

The sailor nearest the floor came angrily to his feet.

“Listen, stranger,” he said,
with the lady—”

“I’m not a stranger,” Roger answered, “and this is no lady. This is my wife.”

It was amazing how a simple declarative statement could clear the booth so quickly. The navy pulled out without a parting shot. Roger sat down opposite Wanda and deliberately drained the bottle of beer before speaking.

Finally he said: “What happened?”

“I got fed up with your father’s insinuations,” she said.

“My father is an officer and a gentleman,” Roger parried. “A gentleman never insults a lady—unintentionally.”

“He despises me!”

“That’s not true. It’s me he despises—you’re incidental. But that’s beside the point. The point is that you humiliated me before my father. I told you to stay on the yacht while I went fishing in the small boat.”

“And I asked you to take me with you!”

“I couldn’t take you with me—you get seasick! Now what I want to know is why you didn’t stay on the yacht! Why did you jump overboard and get those sailors to take you ashore? Why did you deliberately disobey me in front of my father—”

“Disobey?” Wanda echoed.

“—and why have you been sitting here drinking like a cheap little barfly?”

Charley was right. The weather inside was getting ugly, too. When someone mercifully fed the juke box again he lost track of the argument until, several customers later, he looked back at the Warrens’ booth in time to see Roger slap his wife’s face. It was a hard, sharp blow that snapped her head back and left a bright red bruise on her cheek. Charley dropped the towel he was using to clean the bar and charged around the end of the counter. He went directly to Roger Warren.

“I think you better leave now, Mr. Warren,” he said.

“Mind your own damn business!” Roger snapped.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing—minding my business. I run a high class place here—nice customers. I intend to keep it that way. If you want to slap your wife around, you do it someplace else on your own time.”

“It’s all right, Charley,” Wanda said. “It was all my fault.”

There was a little-girl catch in her throat. She resembled a naughty child who had been publicly spanked and was trying not to cry, and her plea to remain troubled Charley. But he gave her his deaf ear and glared at Roger.

“Outside!” he insisted. “I know you’re Commander Warren’s son. I know you drive a six thousand dollar automobile and think you can do anything you like with anybody you like—but not in my place! Outside!”

The kind of fight in Roger Warren wasn’t for a man the size of Charley Becker. He stood up and took Wanda’s arm.

“This place is getting crowded,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

“But we haven’t had dinner—” she protested.

“We’ll get dinner some place on the way. Come on!”

Roger Warren pulled his wife to her feet, and then he picked up the fishing tackle and the package and led the way. Charley watched them leave with a queasy feeling in his stomach. A guy who would slap his wife around in public—what might he do to her at home? And she had almost begged to stay…. But Charley was a businessman with property to protect. He couldn’t afford to borrow trouble. He walked back to the bar while the juke box played a slow, Latin-beat love song that sometimes came as a welcome respite from the go-go madness and pushed the Warren affair out of his mind. The outside storm was more interesting. He might even have to close the storm shutters and spoil the view all the nice customers were enjoying of the sea and the beach and the distant mound of glittering lights that was the city of Marina Beach.

Marina Beach was a development. There is a subtle difference between a development and a resort. A resort is a community designed primarily for the pleasure and exploitation of tourists and the wealthily retired. A development is something quite different. A by-product of the Freeways, it is a suburb for working commuters—a gaudy collection of plate glass structures of the Libby-Owens school of architecture serviced by fantastic shopping centers with hundreds of acres of parking space. A development is the child of abundance and mobility, and it rises Phoenix-like from the ruins of abandoned cultures dating back to the mid-twenties or—as attested by the survival of one picturesque Victorian mansion on the highest rise above the beach—an even more ancient civilization.

The Warrens lived on Seacliff Drive—one of the newer areas where identical stucco houses with dissimilar façades hung high on a rocky ledge, with plate glass walls like so many giant size television screens focused seaward. It was a quiet street except for an occasional rear patio party and the Warrens. Their ceaseless battling, verifiable by every resident within earshot, attested either the greatest love affair in the history of sex or the most wretched of marriages.

It was after midnight when Roger’s red Mercedes roared to a stop in the driveway of 2712. The motor died at the turn of the ignition switch, but nothing could lower the volume of their voices.

“All right, get out!” Roger cried. “Or are you so stinking drunk I have to carry you?”

“I’m getting out—but my shoe! I lost a heel!”

Wanda was groping about on the dark floor of the car. Roger reached past her and opened the door, giving her a deliberate shove for encouragement.

“What do you expect?” he taunted. “You wear spike heels to a fishing pier and that’s what happens…. And those pink pants! You don’t even let a man use his imagination!”

“You sure use yours!” Wanda protested. “And while we’re discussing imagination—what did you imagine I was going to do with myself on the yacht all afternoon while you were fishing? Just sit and listen to your father win the Battle of the Coral Sea for the ninety-ninth time?”

The wind was wild. The weather Charley Becker had sniffed on the pier six hours earlier was approaching a climax. Roger quitted the car by the door on his side and went quickly to the house. All of the new homes on Seacliff had identical floor plans: lower level garages and entry stairs, upper level living quarters. Ignoring the garage, he unlocked the front door and turned on the light switch. When the wind took the door and slammed it back against the side of the house, a wide shaft of light spilled out over the driveway where Wanda, shod in one gold spike heel slipper and clutching its heedless mate in her free hand, was tugging at the paper wrapped parcel in the jump seat.

“Leave that stuff alone!” Roger shouted. “Get in the house! I’ll take care of the gear!”

“I just thought I would help—”

“You’re always trying to help, aren’t you? Daddy’s little helper—”

Roger returned to the car and grabbed the package from her hand. She staggered, partly from intoxication and partly from the roughness of his act.

“Daddy’s little helper,” he repeated sarcastically. “That’s not what I married you for, understand?”

“No,” she sobbed, “I don’t understand! I don’t understand why you married me at all!”

“Not for thinking—that’s for sure!”

In a futile gesture of contempt, Wanda hurled the broken slipper at his head. The wind caught it and spiraled it off into the blackness of the adjoining lot, and she fled for shelter beyond the bright doorway. Roger, the package securely tucked under his arm, hauled the tackle box and fishing gear from the jump seat and started to follow, and then, for a reason not quite known to himself, he stopped and stared up at the house next door. It was dark. The windows that stared down at him from the upper level were windows to the living room and dining area and it had seemed, for just an instant, that one of the white drapes moved. The glass louvers were open—it was the wind, he decided. He shifted the weight of the package and hurried into his own house.

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