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Authors: Helen Nielsen

After Midnight (2 page)

BOOK: After Midnight
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The quarrel continued. Roger never did get back downstairs to put the car in the garage or close the front door that was now locked against the wall by the press of wind, and nobody remembered to turn out the entry lights. Spasmodic shouts of anger and peevish accusation rose above the sound of the storm. At the dark windows of the house next door the drapes stirred again, and it wasn’t the wind. A man stood behind the window and stared down at the Warren house. He was a summer tenant and his name was Frank Lodge—a quiet man who occasionally sunned his pale body on the patio and once had gone so far as to splash idly for a few minutes in the surf, although negotiating the many steps from Seacliff Drive down to sea level seemed a painful task. If the day workers who serviced the houses on Seacliff had been questioned, they could have supplied additional information that Frank Lodge possessed an inexpensive portable typewriter and wrote business letters to a machine parts manufacturing plant in Alameda, and that he once left a letter in the machine which was addressed to “Dearest Mae” in which he explained that the sea air was doing him a world of good but he missed her and the home neighborhood and would be happy when the prescribed rest was over and he could get back into harness. In postscript he added: “The people next door are at it again. It sounds like somebody’s getting killed, but I guess that’s none of my business.”

Frank Lodge watched the Warren house and listened. Occasionally a recognizable word drifted up through the noise of the storm—a curse or a shriek of anger. Once there was a sound of breaking glass or china followed by a shouted threat:

“I don’t have to take that from you, Roger Warren! I wouldn’t have to take your insults even if your father was God!”

And Roger indifferently answered:

“What did you do with that kitchen knife? I want to cut the string on this package.”

Lodge had heard enough. The wind took the door of the Warrens’ house and slammed it shut. Momentarily, the shaft of light on the driveway vanished and then a second gust pulled the door back and banged it against the side of the house. Lodge located the crank of the louvered windows and pulled them shut. The fresh rain smell of the night was gone but so was the noise. Wearily, he picked up a small alarm clock that stood on the lamp table and peered at the illuminated dial. It was twenty minutes past midnight…

Elmer Cranston’s mobilized bakery reached Seacliff Drive early in the morning. Most of the residents in the vicinity were early risers. Commuters who took the Freeway to the city had to get started before the rush, and vacationers were paying too much rent to waste the sunlight hours indoors. Roger Warren didn’t fit into either category, but he still had to make a nine o’clock opening in a local haberdashery, and Mrs. Warren had a standing order for two prune Danish every morning. Elmer had them done up neatly in a paper bag when he walked to the front door at 2712. He was surprised to see the red Mercedes in the driveway. Last night’s wind had blown up a quick, hard shower and Mr. Warren was very particular about the car. He’d never before left it out in the rain with the top down.

Elmer’s second surprise was the front door. It was open. Normally the door was locked. He would ring the bell and Mrs. Warren would come down with the money and get the pastries. Mrs. Warren was the bright spot in Elmer’s morning. He suspected that she kept a Hollywood make-up artist in her dressing room because she always came down with her hair brushed and her eyes mascaraed, wearing a filmy negligee that made him wonder how Mr. Warren ever found time for breakfast. Moreover, she exuded a kind of breathless wonder that another day had dawned in her vibrant young life. Elmer Cranston wrote short stories in his spare time and had garnered eighteen rejections from girlie magazines.

But this morning the door was open and the hall light still burning. Elmer Cranston rang the bell and waited. Moments passed. He rang again … then again.

“Mrs. Warren—”

He didn’t like to leave without delivering the pastries. He knew how these Seacliff houses were constructed—the bedrooms were to ocean side and when the sea was rough, as it was this morning, the sound of the surf could kill the sound of a doorbell. He could put the pastries on the stairs, but a neighbor’s dog might pick up the scent and help himself, and closing the door was risky because of the possibility that one of the Warrens had gone out and left it open as a guarantee against lock-out. He listened to the echo of his voice come back and decided that the best solution was to climb the stairs and leave the bag on the handiest table. It wasn’t as if he were housebreaking with the door standing open that way.

The stairs were carpeted. Elmer Cranston took them two at a time and emerged directly into the living room, where only a partial partition screened the entrance. He called once more and received no answer. He placed the bag on the nearest table—as planned—and started to withdraw, but the table had a lamp on it and the lamp was lighted. He looked about. The bar was lighted, the hall was lighted and light was coming from the bedrooms. Suddenly Elmer was afraid. He walked gingerly across the deep-carpeted floor toward the bar and then stopped. From this vantage point he could see Roger Warren slumped in a low Scandinavian chair facing the bar. He wasn’t asleep. His eyes were open and fixed on a gold-plated tennis trophy that stood amid a pile of wrapping paper and cut cord on the bar top. There was no knife with which to cut the cord, but there was a very large stain on Roger Warren’s jersey clad chest that had to be blood. There was blood on the carpet too—a trail of blood leading into the bedroom.

Elmer didn’t think any more. His eyes told him Roger Warren was dead but there seemed to be no direct connection between his eyes and his reasoning faculties. Trance-like, he followed the trail of blood into a bedroom where the coved lighting displayed Wanda Warren stretched out on the bed. She was wearing bright pink Capri pants and bra, and one gold slipper dangled from the toes of the foot extended over the edge of the bed. Her breathing was deep and regular, and she might have been Sleeping Beauty except for the overpowering odor of liquor and the blood-stained kitchen knife that rested on the unused pillow.

TWO

On the highest bluff above the new growth of Marina Beach, in what eager realtors called The Highlands, sat a relic of an earlier age of irresponsibility: a two storey Victorian mansion that had been fully restored and modernized to the extent of indoor plumbing, electric lighting and a marble-topped bar wired for sound—AM and FM. A converted carriage house garaged one 1926 model Rolls Royce painted red with black velvet upholstery and one 1965 Jaguar XK-E painted black with red leather upholstery. Inside the mansion, pronounced “The Mansion” to all local residents, resided Simon Drake, part-time lawyer and full-time bon vivant, a dedicated bachelor of thirty-five. Simon was cultured, wealthy and ruggedly handsome—a dangerous combination for one determined to avoid marital encounters—but he wasn’t without moral support. With him, cast in the dual role of housemother and guardian of his free and unwedded soul, lived Hannah Lee. In 1926, when the Rolls was new, Hannah Lee needed no introduction even to Ziegfeld. She was an internationally famous actress, dancer, song stylist and a raving beauty. But in 1931, on the eve of transferring her talents to that sensational innovation—the talkies, she was involved in a love nest shooting and retired to a wheel chair for the next several years. A hardy soul, she eventually graduated to crutches and thence to a cane—a magnificent ebony and gold-handled model which she carried with the arrogance of the queen she was. It was Hannah who had discovered the mansion and moved in with an entourage of servants, but inflation and taxes eliminated the latter and when Simon, flush with early success, appeared with a checkbook and a pride of ownership glint in his eye, Hannah was in no financial condition to resist. But somewhere between the down payment and the completion of escrow a love affair developed. The untouchable heart of Simon Drake melted and he acquired both the mansion and Hannah as its perennial hostess. She could out-drink and out-swear him, and, having slept in the most active beds on six continents, regale him with more tales than Scheherazade. She was a rarity among human creatures: one who had supped extravagantly at the banquet of life and found none of the feast without its peculiar pleasure.

At eleven o’clock on the morning Elmer Cranston discovered Roger Warren’s body, the Rolls was parked outside City Hall—an expensive architectural mistake donated by the taxpayers to enhance the reputations of local politicians. City Hall was the headquarters for all civic matters from wedding licenses to the morgue, and it was here that Simon had driven Hannah on one of her frequent crusades for municipal reform. The issue in question was rubbish collection which Hannah, brandishing her cane, angrily denounced as a function not being practiced in The Highlands.

“If you don’t get a truck up there within the week,” she vowed, “I’ll stock goats and pigs on the estate and then you can answer to the realty board!”

She would do it, too. Hannah was a realist. “Hit ‘em where they bleed!” she tutored Simon. “Hit ‘em in the pocketbook and you’ll get results every time!”

Hannah invariably took her own advice and no one else’s. Mission accomplished, she hobbled down the corridor in search of Simon who had wandered off during the hottest part of the argument and was now eavesdropping outside the open door of the District Attorney’s office. At the sound of her determined cane on the marble corridor, he motioned her to silence. She approached more quietly and peered over his shoulder. Inside the office a tall, white haired man with a military bearing and heavily tanned skin was burning out another public employee.

“I don’t care what condition Mrs. Warren is in!” he bellowed. “I’ve come in from my yacht to see that murdering she-devil, and I’m not leaving this building until I do!”

Hannah edged closer to Simon.

“Who,” she whispered, “is the understudy for God?”

“Commander Richard Roger Warren, the second,” he answered, “United States Navy, retired.”

“I should hope so!” Hannah said. “And who is the murdering she-devil?”

Simon turned away from the doorway and regarded Hannah with solemn brown eyes. Very brown eyes. Whenever Simon regarded Hannah in that manner she regretted her game leg and sixty-odd years. It was the pensive look of the protective male—step one.

“Wanda Warren,” he said, “the commander’s daughter-in-law.”

“Who did she murder?”

“According to the commander, her husband, who was his only son.”

Simon Drake was a sleeper. He gave the impression of being a handsome, well-dressed social bum, but every dime of his fortune, and even Hannah wasn’t aware of its dimensions, had been earned by his own wits. He never wasted time listening at open doors without a motive. Hannah did some fast mental arithmetic. The commander was retired but he was the type who married late. His son would have been a young man and his daughter-in-law even younger.

“—and very pretty,” Hannah mused aloud.

Simon wasn’t listening.

“She’s frightened,” he said.

“Oh, no!” Hannah groaned. “Not the trembling fawn type!”

Simon took Hannah by the arm and gently led her down the corridor. Commander Warren didn’t know it, but he’d gone to the wrong office searching for his son’s wife. Police headquarters were in the south wing and there, through a doorway marked “Homicide,” they found Wanda crouched small and waif-like in a chair facing Detective Lieutenant Franzen’s desk. She had changed from the pink Capris to a dark blue cotton sheath and pumps. Her blonde hair was carefully brushed but the lipstick was gone, and the mascara job left over from the previous day was badly in need of repair. She had been crying and still held the handkerchief clutched tightly in both hands as if it were a lifebuoy some kind soul had tossed to her in a stormy sea.

Nobody noticed when Simon and Hannah entered the office. Detective Franzen was too intent on questioning his suspect and in adjusting the black-rimmed glasses through which he studied her reactions. He wore them awkwardly with the gnawing suspicion that they made him appear effeminate. They were his first pair and came along with the touch of gray at the temples that his wife assured him added distinction.

“Mrs. Warren,” he insisted, “you must remember
something
that happened last night. When was it that you and your husband returned home from the fishing trip?”

Wanda gave the handkerchief another twist. Her voice was small and throaty from too many tears.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It was late. Everybody had gone to bed.”

“Everybody?”

“Everybody on the street. There were no lights in any of the houses.”

“And you say that you can’t remember anything that happened after you went into the house because you and your husband had been drinking?”

“I said that I had been drinking. Roger had a beer.”

“Where, Mrs. Warren? Do you remember that?”

“Yes. At The Cove. You know—out on the pier.”

“I know.” Franzen nodded.

“At The Cove,” Wanda repeated, “and later at a restaurant where we stopped for dinner.”

“What restaurant, Mrs. Warren?”

“I don’t remember. Roger did all of the driving.”

“Had you been quarreling?”

“Yes, but we always did. There was nothing unusual about that.”

Wanda’s voice was little more than a whisper. Now it broke completely and she caught up the handkerchief to her mouth. Hannah shifted her weight on the cane and tugged at Simon’s sleeve.

“Perfect timing,” she whispered. “She’s a real trembling fawn!”

“What do you prefer?” Simon whispered back. “An iceberg killer?”

“But she’s too innocent to be true!”

“Innocent? Hannah, do you realize that her husband was found in the living room with his chest opened up like a carved roast, and the carving knife was found on the pillow where Wanda was sleeping off a drunk?”

“A trembling fawn lush!” Hannah marvelled. “Let’s go home, Simon. I’m expecting a garbage truck before sundown.”

Simon wasn’t ready to go. He knew what Franzen was trying to do. The blackout routine was too pat. Some of the girl’s lack of recall could be attributed to shock—but shock had other uses. It could loosen a tongue as well as silence it.

“Did your husband threaten you?” Franzen asked.

“I don’t think so. I don’t remember.”

“Did he brandish a knife?”

“Brandish?”

“Menace you with the knife. Pick it up and come toward you.”

“I don’t remember.”

“Where did the knife come from?”

“I don’t know—Yes, I do!” Wanda brightened exactly as if lights had been turned on behind her eyes. She was either suffering from a genuine mental relapse or was an accomplished actress. “I remember that I got it for him from the kitchen drawer. He wanted it to cut the cord on the package he brought back from his father’s yacht.”

“What was in the package?”

Wanda sat quietly for several seconds. So quietly her fingers forgot to bother the handkerchief.

“I don’t think I saw Roger open the package,” she answered. “I felt sick. I went to the bathroom.”

“And left your husband with the knife in his hand?”

“Yes.”

“The knife that caused his death?”

“Yes. I mean, that’s what they say caused his death.”

“But you don’t remember lying down on the bed?”

“No.”’

“And you don’t remember placing the knife—the
blood-stained
knife—on your husband’s pillow?”

“No!”

The volume of Franzen’s voice rose to match the girl’s.

“And of course you don’t remember plunging that knife into your husband’s chest?”

“No! I didn’t! I couldn’t!”

“What did he say? Did he criticize you for drinking? Did he call you a dirty name? What sparked the murder, Mrs. Warren?”

“I don’t know! I’ve told you—I don’t remember!”

“But you do remember getting the knife. You remember getting sick and going to the bathroom—but wasn’t that after you killed your husband, Mrs. Warren? Wasn’t it the sight of blood that made you sick? His blood flowing out of the chest wound … dripping down on the carpet … the nice, new carpet?”

Simon had heard enough. He walked into the office and planted himself in front of Wanda Warren.

“Mrs. Warren,” he said quietly, “you don’t have to answer these questions.”

Franzen’s head came up so quickly the glasses slid halfway down his nose.

“Simon Drake!” he sputtered. “What the devil are you doing in my office?”

“I came down to the hall on personal business,” he answered, “and then I picked up some gossip in the corridor. What are you doing here, Lieutenant? Is this young lady being charged with murder?”

Wanda was staring at Simon. The shock was genuine. Her brain was slowly trying to place him in this macabre nightmare. In the doorway behind, Hannah tapped sharply with her cane, but Simon was beyond heeding danger signals.

“Mrs. Warren has a right to counsel,” he insisted. “Didn’t you tell her that?”

“Now look here, Drake—” Franzen leaned heavily across the desk intending to project a degree of menacing authority. He failed miserably with the glasses riding half-mast on his nose. “—are you soliciting business?” he demanded.

“I’m volunteering information,” Simon said. “Somebody had to apprize the young lady of her rights. She doesn’t have to answer any more questions until she’s seen a lawyer.”

“She’s not answering questions!” Franzen protested. “That’s the problem. There’s more to this than you know, Drake. Now—” he swung back toward Wanda “—do you have any idea, Mrs. Warren, how that knife could have found its way from a dead man’s body into your bedroom and onto your pillow?”

“She put it there herself,” Simon said sarcastically. “As soon as she got through being sick in the bathroom over the sight of blood, she put the knife on Roger’s pillow so she would have pleasant dreams.”

Franzen was outclassed. Pleadingly, his eyes sought Simon’s.

“Please, Mr. Drake,” he said. “I’m not really trying to browbeat the witness. I have a murder investigation on my hands, and I’m trying, with what limited mentality I have, to learn how Roger Warren was killed.”

There was an immediate response—but not from Simon.

“He was killed with a kitchen knife inserted into his heart by direct thrust with no evidence of struggle.”

The words were delivered in clipped, bullet-like diction. Commander Warren had come into the room. Ignoring both Hannah and Simon, he strode to Franzen’s desk and glared at the eyes behind the rimmed glasses.

“With no evidence of struggle,” he repeated, “because he was taken by surprise by someone he knew and trusted.” The commander swung about to face Wanda. “Why don’t you stop pussyfooting and arrest this murdering adulteress?” he added.

Wanda reacted as if to an electric shock.

“That’s not true!” she cried. “I never—I never cheated on Roger!”

“You told my son that you did!”

“Only to make him jealous! But I never did anything—
real!”

Commander Warren wasn’t accustomed to being rebuked. The surprise threw him momentarily off guard. “Not the act, perhaps,” he conceded, “but you’ve been unfaithful in every other way. If it’s motive you need, Lieutenant, I can supply that, too. Loose morals, alcoholism, extravagance—this wretched little brat only married my son for his money. Yesterday she actually jumped overboard off my yacht in the harbor and swam out to a small boat manned by a couple of apprentice seamen—complete strangers! Spent the rest of the afternoon getting drunk with them—”

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