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Authors: Helen Nielsen

After Midnight (9 page)

BOOK: After Midnight
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“You have a vivid imagination, Mr. Drake.”

“Until you fill in those two and a half hours—yes.”

She hesitated.

“Who was the man?”

“There was no man!”

“Miss Armitage,” Simon insisted, “you left this house wearing a heavy raincoat on a warm, dry day. You carried a small bag that still reeks of your cosmetics. I think you wore a dress under that coat—the dress I found in your closet. I think you went out to meet someone and when I get you on the stand at that preliminary hearing I won’t stop questioning until I learn who it was!”

And then Nancy Armitage stopped him with a burst of sudden laughter—high, nervous laughter, an edge away from hysteria.

“All right, Mr. Drake,” she said, “I’ll confess. I lied to you. I didn’t see Wanda Warren kill her husband.”

It came so much easier than Simon had expected.

“Why did you tell me—and Thompson—that you did?” he demanded.

“I don’t know. Yes, I do know.” She turned and faced him. “Because she’s guilty!” she said. “You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that—but she’ll go free. She’s young and lovely. She married a handsome, rich young man who gave her everything—a home, his name, a wonderful life! But she killed him. Some people never have any of those things, but she had them all.”

“And that makes you the judge and the jury?”

“She
killed
him! She shouldn’t get away with murder!”

“Where did you go Sunday afternoon?” Simon asked.

“To dinner,” she said.

“Where?”

Nancy Armitage was silent for several seconds, and then she told him a strange story.

“Sometimes on Sunday,” she said, “I play a game. I pretend that I’m a woman and am loved. I put on my dinner dress, my costume jewelry and my French perfume. I cover it with my raincoat and carry my uniform in the bag you found in my closet. Then I go out on a case, but I don’t really go—not right away. First I go to a nice hotel—on that particular Sunday it was the Bay View. I check the bag and raincoat in the lobby, and then I go into the dining room and order a fine dinner with a cocktail before. I live my illusion, Mr. Drake. For a few hours I live my illusion. It’s silly, I suppose, but no sillier than the illusion a businessman lives when he goes on a hunting trip in the mountains or on one of those fishing cruisers out of The Cove. I don’t know what your illusion is—that old Victorian mansion in the Heights is a part of it—but I’m sure you have one. Everybody does. Then, when it’s time—and I sometimes have an after dinner brandy, too—I go to the lounge and change into my uniform. After that I’m ready to go out and take care of some crippled, cantankerous old man who smells of approaching death. I change his bedding. I bathe him. I close my eyes to his pain and my ears to his curses—”

She broke off abruptly and was silent again. Then she answered the question she knew he would ask.

“On the Sunday night of Roger Warren’s death,” she said, “I left the Aaronson house on Cox Road at a quarter past twelve. I had meant to walk home on Seacliff Drive because I enjoy walking near the sea at night, but the air smelled of rain and I didn’t want to get wet. Instead, I turned north on Palm Drive. I walked the distance of two blocks and saw an ambulance parked in front of one of the houses. I went to investigate and see if I could be of any assistance, but it was too late. A man—I think his name was Hobson—had just died of a heart attack at 2649 Palm Drive. He was taken away in the ambulance at twelve twenty-five—the time I should have been passing the Warren house if I hadn’t changed my plans. You can check that out with the ambulance service, Mr. Drake.”

Nancy Armitage had concluded her story. She turned away from Simon a second time and stared out at the black sea. She was now remote and completely alone, and she didn’t move again even when Simon left her.

NINE

There was one ambulance service in Marina Beach, and it operated on a twenty-four-hour basis. Simon wasted no time checking out Nancy Armitage’s revised story. The evidence was complete. Arnold Hobson, 62—occupation, music teacher—had been officially certified by the Coroner of Marin County as dead on arrival at the Marina Beach General Hospital at 12:39 a.m. on the night of Roger Warren’s murder. Mr. Hobson’s residence was at 2649 Palm Drive. Cause of death: coronary thrombosis.

Nancy Armitage didn’t appear at the pre-trial hearing. Her confession rocked the community, blazed across the headlines of a suddenly aroused press, and then dissolved in whispered rumors of fraud when she repudiated herself. Cheated of a sensational trial, public sentiment swung against the false witness and made Wanda an overnight victim of conspiracy. Simon rode the crest of the favorable title. After the brief delay Thompson requested and won, Simon brought into court a quiet, tense and recognizably frightened client and adroitly played her off against the glowering belligerence of Commander Warren, whose battered ego still craved a scapegoat for his disappointment in his only son.

In spite of the nurse’s withdrawal, the charge remained unchanged. Simon hammered mercilessly at the facts. Yes, Mrs. Warren and her groom had quarreled bitterly and incessantly—the state placed four neighborhood witnesses on the stand to verify that fact. But what newly wedded couple didn’t quarrel—particularly under the pressure of parental disapproval of the marriage? Simon could feel approval in the courtroom. People still believed in love. And yes, Mrs. Warren was a heavy drinker—admittedly too drunk the night of the murder to recall everything that happened. But had she been a drinker prior to her marriage? Under oath, Wanda testified that she came from a home where total abstinence was the rule and had taken her first drink the night of her first date with Roger Warren. Why? Because she was shy and sensitive in the company of worldly people. Because it was the thing to do in Roger’s social set and she wanted to please her date. From his seat in the courtroom, Commander Warren growled disapprovingly. Once on the witness stand, he proceeded to torpedo the portrait of victimized innocence Simon had so carefully painted.

“She’s a climber,” he said. “She married my son thinking that she would catch herself a fortune. Well, I took care of that! When she learned Roger wasn’t getting another cent out of me, she took to drink to drown her grief. A climber—that’s all she ever was!”

It was opinion, not evidence. Simon let the commander rage. Rank prejudice could only add fuel to the undercurrent of sympathy now flowing for Wanda. When the tirade was over, Simon confined his cross-examination to a few terse questions.

“Commander Warren, on the Sunday on which your son died did you hear him quarrel with his wife?”

“They were always fussing about something,” the commander said.

“But specifically on that
particular
Sunday did you hear them quarrel?”

“I heard Mrs. Warren whining.”

“Whining? What about?”

“She wanted to go out in the fishing boat with my son.”

“Why didn’t he take her?”

“Why? Because she got seasick in the small boat when it was out for several hours. Besides, a man has to get away from his wife once in a while.”

“Even when he’s been married for a matter of months?”

“Even when he’s been married for a matter of hours! That’s the trouble with modern women. They wear pants like a man, but they’re all a lot of clinging vines. The only place a man can go without them is the head!”

Simon ignored the outbrust and got the commander back on course. On the day of the murder, he queried, was there any specific incident that might have led to murder? Commander Warren was still angry but now he became wary.

“I’m not an eavesdropper,” he said. “And how does anyone know what one person says to another to spark a murder? It’s relative. All relative.”

“Then there was nothing unusual in the relationship between your son and his wife on the day of the murder?”

Commander Warren side-stepped the trap.

“She jumped ship and went off with some sailors. That was unusual.”

“Why did she jump ship, Commander?”

“How should I know?”

“Are you sure you didn’t say anything to upset her? Something derogatory?”

Thompson objected, but Commander Warren liked to hear himself talk.

“I told her what I thought of the clothes she was wearing,” he said. “Tight pants—pink like skin. A strip of cloth across her—well, her torso and the rest of her body exposed. She looked cheap.”

“Did you use that word?”

“I may have!”

“Then it wasn’t very pleasant for Mrs. Warren aboard your yacht, was it, Commander? Why did you invite your daughter-in-law to spend all those Sundays with you—to torture her?”

Commander Warren drew up stiffly in the chair. “Absolutely not!” he answered. “It was all Roger’s idea. He thought he could use that sexy little wife of his to win me over. He thought I would forgive the mess he’d made of his life and restore his allowance. He thought I would break down and say that all was forgiven—but I didn’t!”

And then the proud façade crumbled and fell. The room was silent and an old man—suddenly a very old man, bereft and lonely—sat solemnly in the witness chair pondering his Pyrrhic victory.

“I didn’t—” he repeated, hollowly.

Simon waited for the commander to retrieve his fallen dignity. Grief was an awkward emotion anywhere—particularly in a courtroom. But Simon’s job was still to free Wanda Warren.

“Did your son know a woman named Nancy Armitage?” he asked.

The question was unexpected. The commander stirred and then galvanized to attention.

“How the devil would I know the women my son knew?” he challenged.

“Did
you
know a woman named Nancy Armitage?”

“No! I did not!”

“Then you have no idea why Nancy Armitage publicly stated that she saw Wanda Warren kill her husband—and then withdrew the statement before she could be placed on oath at this hearing?”

“How could I? I never laid eyes on her until the day she came into the courthouse with her story! What are you trying to insinuate?”

Simon paused. The room was absolutely silent. He let everybody absorb the commander’s words to the full extent of their various imaginations and then quietly added:

“No more questions.”

A seed had been planted. Simon returned to Wanda with a confident smile. She was still frightened, but it was difficult to tell which was greater—her fear of indictment or her fear of Commander Warren.

“It’s me that he hates,” Wanda whispered, “—not Roger.”

“Being a perfectly normal human being,” Simon observed, “it’s probably himself. Don’t worry about it.”

Deprived of Nancy Armitage’s blockbuster testimony, Thompson was forced to bear down on circumstantial evidence. He put Clarissa Valle on the stand to recall the early hours of the Wanda Call-Roger Warren courtship. She was attired in a plain but excessively form-fitting black dress, her heels too high and earrings too gaudy, and the visual impact alone was damaging. Marina Beach was a smug, snobbish community. Merely establishing that Mrs. Warren worked with Clarissa was enough to influence the jury. Simon wondered if Thompson had supervised the wardrobe.

Clarissa’s story was briefer than her publicity-prone soul desired. She was allowed to establish that Simon’s client worked with her in the Club Mobile as a dancer, that she was moody and hot-headed and unpredictable.

“I mean, like her marrying Roger Warren so soon after they met,” Clarissa said. “Wanda wasn’t planning to marry. She wanted a career.”

“As a dancer?” Thompson asked.

“As an actress, I think. Anyway, a career. She told me once, ‘I’m tired of being the kind of girl men take home to mother—and then go out on the town with somebody else.’ Naturally, I didn’t figure her for the domestic bit for years!”

“Until Roger Warren drove up in his six thousand dollar automobile and swept her off her feet,” Thompson concluded.

Simon objected. The judge ordered a deletion from the records. Thompson yielded and Simon cross-examined.

He was brief.

“Miss Valle,” he said, “do you remember the day Wanda met Roger Warren?”

“Of course I do!” she said. “She told me all about it.”

“What did she tell you?”

“That she met a handsome man on the beach and he tried to buy her a Coke, but he’d lost his wallet, or something, and so she had to buy it for him. It was real cute.”

“Did she seem to like him?”

“Sure, she liked him. She flipped for him. She talked about nothing else.”

“Did she tell you his name?”

“She called him Roger—that’s all she knew. I mean, she’d just met him on the beach. She didn’t know his other name until—”

Clarissa Valle wasn’t an intellectual, but the satisfied smile on Simon’s face told her she had talked too much.

“—until he called for her in a six thousand dollar automobile,” Simon concluded.

Thompson had only one big gun left: Frank Lodge. Unlike his predecessor on the stand, Lodge was miserable in the limelight: Mr. Average Citizen grimly doing his duty. Tensed on the edge of his chair, glancing repeatedly at his wristwatch—as if hopefully awaiting the next train out of town—he badly needed the confidence Thompson tried to instill. In the warming atmosphere of official approval, he haltingly told his story of the events viewed from the front window of the house next door on the night of Roger Warren’s death. Then he faced Simon Drake’s cross-examination.

“Mr. Lodge,” Simon asked, “are you a married man?”

Lodge glanced at his watch, fingered his tie and whispered:

“Yes, sir.”

“You sound unsure,” Simon suggested. “You aren’t unsure, are you?”

Lodge now answered in a voice loud enough to be heard in the outer hall.

“No, sir. I mean, I
am
a married man.”

“Do you ever quarrel with your wife?”

Lodge was confused. The warmth of approval was gone.

“No, sir,” he said.

Simon looked shocked. “You
never
quarrel with your wife? You must be a very unusual couple, Mr. Lodge. I congratulate you.”

He was making the witness look ridiculous. Lodge wasn’t too confused to realize this. He forced a smile and said:

“Oh, I suppose we do quarrel once in a while. I might be tired—”

“—irritable, upset, short-tempered after a hard day at the office. Is that what you mean, Mr. Lodge?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“—or worried about finances because you’re spending more than you’re taking in.”

“But I’m not!” Lodge protested.

“No, you’re not, but Roger Warren, from all outward appearances, was. And Roger Warren was young and hot-blooded. His wife was young and emotionally upset at the cool reception she received from her father-in-law. There was nothing unusual about their quarrels and nothing unusual in their returning from a Sunday’s outing intoxicated and in a bad humor—”

“There was plenty unusual about what the bakery man discovered at the Warrens’ house the morning after that Sunday outing!” Lodge insisted.

“So there was,” Simon agreed, “but let’s recapitulate. You, of all the neighbors in the vicinity, witnessed the battling Warrens’ homecoming on the night of Roger’s death. According to your testimony, you were awakened by the sound of their car in the driveway, and kept awake by the sound of the notorious Warrens’ battling. You went to close the window of your living room and heard some of the quarrel between Roger Warren and his wife. You heard Warren ask—” Simon paused to consult his notes. “—’what did you do with that kitchen knife? I want to cut the string on this package.’ Now, Mr. Lodge, do you think this question affords any proof—or, to be more specific, any
indication
that Mrs. Warren killed her husband?”

Lodge was surprised.

“He was killed with that knife,” he said.

“With that knife—yes. But did you
see
Mrs. Warren kill him?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Did you see any cut string in the Warren house when you entered it the day after his death?”

“Cut string?” Lodge’s shocked reflexes came slowly into focus. “Yes, there was some string—or cord—on the bar.”

“And some wrapping paper?”

“Yes, some wrapping paper. Warren carried a package into the house with him when he came home. I saw the wrappings on the bar the next day.”

“And did you see this tennis trophy?” Simon removed the trophy from the table of exhibits and held it before Frank Lodge’s eyes. “This trophy,” he repeated, “which Roger Warren took from his father’s yacht the day of his death.”

“Yes,” Lodge admitted. “It was on the bar, too.”

“Was the package you saw Roger Warren carry into the house large enough to contain this trophy, Mr. Lodge?”

Lodge was uncomfortable. He looked pleadingly at the district attorney for succor—none came.

“Yes, it was large enough,” he said.

“And so, when Roger Warren asked for the kitchen knife to cut a string there was actually a string to cut!”

Now Thompson objected, but the trophy was in Simon’s hand and Lodge was forced to admit there was nothing sinister in his neighbor’s request for a kitchen knife. In fact, under the circumstances, it was a perfectly logical request.

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