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Authors: Helen Nielsen

After Midnight (8 page)

BOOK: After Midnight
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And so they had made the full circle and come back to where they were in the beginning. Wanda turned away from him and studied the juke box. She would always be unpredictable. She would always do unusual things at unusual times. Now, as if it was the most important act of her young life, she ran one finger down the selector bars until she found the title wanted; then, soberly, she deposited a coin and watched a disc emerge from the stack and slide over to the turntable. Simon watched her, wondering soberly if there was any possible way of knowing when this strange child was lying.

The music began to play—low, throbbing, sensuous. Her body swayed slightly and she hummed a few bars and then Simon, listening, asked sharply:

“What is that song?”

She stopped humming. “It’s called ‘Infidelity,’” she said. “They give songs such silly titles, don’t they?”

“But why are you playing it?”

“Why?”

“Why that particular song? Where have you heard it before?”

He couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice, and she couldn’t understand why it was there.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Yes, I do know. It’s a song Roger sang in the shower a lot. That’s where I heard it before.”

“Infidelity,” Simon mused.

He was reaching far out, but the music throbbing from the box wasn’t a teen-age hit. It was rare and off-beat, and the only other time he had heard it was on the player in Nancy Armitage’s room.

EIGHT

When the record stopped playing. Simon took Wanda by the arm and walked her back to the police car. They drove out Skyway Road to the Ramshead Inn. It was Monday and the inn was closed, so they drove back to Marina Beach City Hall and Simon redeposited his client with a steely-eyed matron who looked as if she had been weaned on filet of brontosaurus. Wanda looked back wistfully as she was being led away and held out the limp violets.

“They’ve wilted,” she said.

“Don’t worry about that,” Simon answered. “I’ll get fresh ones tomorrow. Remember, it’s still the first week in April.”

He gave her a big, confident grin and then walked out into a chilly September evening.

Simon Drake liked women. He liked various kinds of women for various reasons, but the only woman he cared to live with was Hannah Lee, because Hannah troubled him not. She wanted nothing from him but the license to cheat at poker, and the only interest she had in his career was that it be as profitable as possible with the minimum exertion—which had put them in perfect rapport until his shocking display of benevolence harnessed him with the defense of Wanda Warren.

Hannah was eager to hear his report of the long day’s journey into nowhere.

When he finished, she said, “I like it, Simon. I like old-fashioned triangles—not these complicated psychological ones with one healthy person and one schizophrenic.”

Hannah, fortified with enough Drambouie, could rise to brilliant heights.

“That could be the answer,” Simon reflected.

“What do you mean?”

“Nancy Armitage—the Honor Girl Scout with romantic dreams. Everything I’ve learned about her verifies the dutiful nurse role, but that doesn’t explain the glamorous wardrobe and the spine-tingling record. I checked the local distributor. ‘Infidelity’ is on an independent label with very poor distribution. The Cove and a couple of dives in the Mexican district are the only places where the disc can be found in juke boxes. I haven’t had time to contact the local stations, but I don’t think Armitage was introduced to the music by a radio. It’s too intimate. I think it’s something she shared with someone—or am I being too sentimental?”

“That’s beside the point,” Hannah said. “Go on.”

“Then I’ll reach way out because, when you’re nowhere to begin with, way out is the only place to go. Try this for coincidence. Roger Warren warbled a no-hit tune in his shower. Nancy Armitage, who has this same no-hit record on her turntable, is the sole witness to the murder Roger’s wife can’t remember committing.”

Hannah shifted her weight painfully. She was seated in a high-backed lounge chair—the one complete violation of Victorian elegance in the mansion aside from Simon’s den. The night air sometimes crept into her game leg, and at such times her hand knotted tightly over the top of the cane in the only outward evidence she ever gave of pain.

“I told you that I liked it,” she said, “and I told you earlier what I thought of that dutiful nurse routine. I can’t stand a Goody-Two-Shoes.”

“She could be living in two worlds,” Simon reflected. “You used the word—schizophrenic.”

“And you could be living on a pink cloud piloted by a dreamy-eyed widow! Try the story this way, Simon. The nurse is a perfectly normal woman who prefers a career to domesticity. But she has natural urges and is having an affair with a married man. Some of the gals prefer them that way. Personally, I never cared for hand-me-downs, but that’s beside the point. Now the married man’s wife learns what’s going on and, being young, vulnerable and hag-ridden by her no-status background and a pompous old fool of a father-in-law, reacts to the situation with typical lower class dramatics and kills her husband exactly as advertised by the prosecution. The mistress is then left with nothing but a big, unquenchable burn unless she can get satisfaction by avenging lover boy. Oh, yes, Simon, we ladies do have such indelicate feelings. And so love’s labor lost comes to you with a story the wife can’t contradict. Her only defense is the ancient ‘everything went black’ bit with variations.”

“Hannah, please!” Simon pleaded. “Your imagination can ruin me. I’m defending Wanda Warren!”

“Then play it cool. Living in two worlds! That eager Florence Nightingale knows what she’s doing. Break her!”

“And the dreamy-eyed widow?”

Hannah beamed malevolently. “You’ll find out what she really is in the process,” she predicted.

With his back to the wall, Simon had no choice but to play his hunches. Only a few hours remained until he had to defend a highly unpopular young woman against a highly prejudiced jury. Patriotism, in its highest sense, was one of the finest of man’s emotions. But the times were explosive and only God, and the perspective of time, could define the line between objective justice and subjective anxiety. It was too late for subterfuge. He chose to play Nancy Armitage’s game—frontal attack.

He left Hannah nursing her last Drambouie and drove the Jaguar to the house on Pacific View. All of the windows were dark except Nancy’s. A guilty conscience could keep a woman awake the night before she gave damaging testimony in a courtroom.
I
am prejudiced
, Simon’s subconscious argued.
Hannah’s right. I’ve been prejudiced from the moment I saw Wanda Warren
. But I’m defending a client against indictment for murder, his conscious mind answered, and I intend to win. He rang the bell at Nancy Armitage’s door.

The nurse was not only wide awake, she was instantly at the door. It opened just enough for her to recognize Simon and then held firm.

“I can’t talk to you,” she said. “Not tonight—before the trial. It wouldn’t be right.”

Simon didn’t know who had coached Nancy on legal ethics, but he had come prepared for resistance.

“You must talk to me,” he said. “You gave me fair warning. I’m returning the favor.”

“Warning?” she repeated.

It was too chilly to stand there arguing, especially when Nancy Armitage was attired in nothing but a surprisingly feminine nightgown and chiffon robe. He gave a direct answer.

“Miss Armitage,” he said, “how will you answer me at the hearing when I cross-examine—and you will be under oath, remember—and ask you to tell the court where you were between the hours of four-thirty and seven p.m. on the Sunday Roger Warren died?”

She was nobody’s fool. She listened, reflected for about ten seconds, and opened the door.

Simon stepped inside.

“Thank you,” he said.

Nancy Armitage quietly closed the door behind him without once taking her eyes from his face. It was a quiet room separated from Mrs. Rainey’s section of the house by a wide hall. There were no street sounds at this hour, and Pacific View was high enough above the beach to escape the roar of the surf. But the drapes on the windows facing the sea were open, and the blackness that now made one of the surf and the sky was broken only by serpentine lights edging the shoreline like a bright necklace from which a few beads were missing. A long couch sat below the windows. On it was an open book. Simon wasn’t asked to sit down, but he was curious as to what reading matter kept the nurse from her bed on the night before a grueling day. He crossed the room quickly and glanced at the title. The star witness for the state had been reading from the collected poems of A. E. Housman.

“Your taste runs to bittersweet, I see,” he remarked. “And it’s an old edition, too.”

“What does that indicate?” she challenged.

“That you’re still romantic. You’ve kept your illusions a long time.”

“We always keep our illusions,” she answered. “In my profession, I’ve seen many people die, Mr. Drake. In the end, the illusion is all that we do keep. If I were a philosopher, I might even say that illusion is the only reality.”

“You go right ahead and be a philosopher,” Simon said. “I’m a lawyer. My realities are more basic.”

She was nobody’s fool. She was alert and wary.

“Lawyers talk,” she said. “Talk more, Mr. Drake.”

“All right, I will,” Simon answered. “I have a client. She may or may not be guilty of killing her husband. She hasn’t denied the crime. In fact, she’s almost too willing to believe in her guilt. But she had guilt instilled in her by a hell-fire and brimstone preaching father whose personal disapproval still frightens her more than the gas chamber. For Wanda Warren the acceptance of guilt is easy.

“But, in spite of all the prodding Duane Thompson—and myself—have been able to do, she can’t break through the block and make a full confession.”

“If you were in my profession it would be easy for you to understand that,” Nancy Armitage said. “It’s a defense mechanism—”

“It’s a damned lie!” Simon said.

The words came out strong—so strong he didn’t believe them himself. But a lawyer had to be a salesman, and a salesman had to push his product. Before the nurse could recover from the shock of the accusation, he hit her again.

“I believe in Wanda Warren’s innocence even if she doesn’t,” he said. “I believe in her innate honesty in spite of the bilge she’s been taught. She comes from a miserable background. She has none of your middle-class advantages or your classic tastes, but she did one thing I can understand. She had the mating instinct, found a man and married him—everything out in the open, win, lose or draw.”

“Or die,” Nancy Armitage added.

“Or die,” he admitted. “But now let’s get back to another woman—Nancy Armitage. I checked out your story, as I promised I would. I learned a great deal about Nancy Armitage. I know that she’s efficient, reliable and well-recommended by her employer. But I didn’t learn much about Nancy Armitage, the woman. I know she exists. I’ve seen her fancy dinner gown and her slippers and smelled her French perfume—”

Nancy Armitage took two long strides to the coffee table. She picked up a cigarette box and got her own light from a table lighter. She straightened up and met Simon’s eyes from a distance of no more than two feet. She was angry but under perfect control.

“I heard from Mrs. Rainey that you found it necessary to search my room,” she said. “I didn’t realize that your mind was at such a low level, Mr. Drake.”

“It’s not a level I consider low,” Simon answered. “It’s the way some others feel about it that disturbs me. You have no men callers according to Mrs. Rainey.”

“That’s not true,” she said. “I gave my report to the Kinsey people some years back.”

“Touche! It lives, it moves, it breathes and fights back! And there is a man, isn’t there? You saw him the day Roger Warren was murdered.”

It wasn’t a question; it was a statement. There was no time left for questions. He watched her reaction. The cigarette in her hand was forgotten. Under the surface calm, pressure was rising.

“Even if that were true,” she said tightly, “it has nothing to do with what I saw through Wanda Warren’s window.”

“Miss Armitage,” Simon answered, “you are free and—according to my investigation—thirty-one. You’re entitled to a private life. You may think it would hurt you in your profession to give an accounting of those two and half hours, but the world is a sophisticated place these days. I don’t think anyone will be shocked or offended.”

She didn’t comment.

“Have you ever testified in court?” Simon asked. “Do you know what it’s like? The district attorney’s questions will be easy enough to handle. You’re his witness and he’s a capable man. He’ll protect his witness. But I’m a capable man too, Miss Armitage, and my job will be to break down and discredit your testimony by any and every means the law allows. And there’s the press to contend with, and the television cameras. This affair has already interested the big city papers. It has a glamorous personnel—a war hero’s son, a beautiful wife, a surprise witness. Reporters know what people like to read. There’s frustration and venom and society-stifled violence in the world, and some reporters know how to meet that twisted need by writing the news with all the choice tidbits unfit to print tucked away in the narrow spaces between the lines. Anything I miss, they’ll find and embellish. And then there’s the matter of crank mail and telephone calls—”

Nancy Armitage remembered the cigarette when the hot ash reached her fingers. She stopped quickly and snuffed it out in the ash tray.

“I had heard that you were a brilliant lawyer, Mr. Drake,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was that kind of brilliance.”

“I’m only trying to prepare you for a new phase of reality. There has to be some reason why you didn’t tell me where you went when you left the house the day of Roger Warren’s death. Is the man married?”

“I didn’t say there was a man!”

“But I did. Is he prominent, Miss Armitage? Is that why you won’t talk? Are you afraid of hurting him? … Or is he beyond being hurt any more?”

The last question surprised her. On the verge of an angry retort she stopped.

“Beyond—?” she echoed.

“Is he dead, Miss Armitage? Was your lover murdered?”

Now she stared at him until the question at last made sense.

“Roger Warren—” she said. “You think that he—!”

She turned away quickly and stared out of the window at the black sea and the broken necklace of lights. After a few seconds, she said:

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