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Authors: William Bernhardt

Midnight Before Christmas

BOOK: Midnight Before Christmas
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The Midnight Before Christmas
A Holiday Thriller
William Bernhardt

A MysteriousPress.com

Open Road Integrated Media

Ebook

For all our friends at St. Dunstan’s

Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

“I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”


Harry Emerson Fosdick

1

H
E JUST COULDN’T STAND
it anymore. He cocked his arm back, clenched his fist, and propelled it on a line drive toward the other man’s jaw.

His fist connected with a sickening thud. The other man’s body crumpled to the front lawn like a hand puppet without a hand.

Bonnie screamed. “Frank!
Frank!”
She pressed her hands against her cheeks, seemingly paralyzed with shock and fear. “Carl, what have you done?”

She crouched beside the stricken man, cradling his head in her lap, brushing her hand over his closed eyes. “Frankie, are you all right? Speak to me!
Please!”

Carl stepped back, somewhat subdued now that his opponent was out of commission. “I didn’t think I hit him that hard.”

“You maniac!” Bonnie shouted. “He’s unconscious!”

Carl inched forward. “Let me take a look at him.”

“Get back! Stay away! Help!
Help!”

Neighbors began to emerge from the Federal-style homes lining the streets. Women in aprons stood in elaborate fan doorways, men burdened with packages huddled beneath porticos, all of them wondering what the commotion was about. A crowd gathered at the closest corner.

Carl grabbed Bonnie by the arms and jerked her to her feet. “Stop yelling!
Stop!”
He raised his hand as if to slap her.

“Help me!” Bonnie continued. “Someone
please
help me!”

Out the corner of his eye, Carl could see some of the neighbors cautiously moving forward. One woman was dialing a cellular phone.

He lowered his hand. “I just want to see my son!”

“You can’t. He’s mine!”

“He’s ours, Bonnie.”

“The judge gave him to me.”

“The judge gave you custody—”

“And he gave you nothing!”

“Bonnie, please. I have to see Tommy. I
need
to see him.”

“Why? So you can beat him up, too? I’m not letting you anywhere near him!”

Carl clenched his teeth. “I have to see him, Bonnie. He’s my son!”

“Over my dead body!”

Carl’s face became grim. “Don’t say that, Bonnie. Don’t say that.”

Frank, the man sprawled across the front lawn, stirred. He propped himself up on one arm, blinking rapidly.

“Frankie!” Bonnie ran to his side. “Are you all right?”

Frank rubbed his jaw. “I … think I’ll live. But there’s an off-key symphony playing in my head.”

“Frankie, go into the house.”

“I’m not going to leave you here with—”

“Frankie, please. It’s for the best.”

Frank hesitated, as if itching to disagree, but finally relented. With some effort, he pulled himself to his feet and hobbled toward the front door of the house.

Bonnie whirled back on Carl. “You could’ve killed him!”

“I wish.” Carl pounded his fists together. “That sorry SOB sees more of my boy than I do.”

“That’s because Frank doesn’t lose his temper.” She drew in her breath. “And he doesn’t drink.”

Carl’s face seemed to dissolve. “Bonnie …” He stretched out his hand. “I’ve been going to meetings.”

“Save it for your parole officer, Carl. I can smell your breath from here.”

“Bonnie, please—”

“I don’t want you hanging around, Carl. I don’t want you stalking us, harassing us. And I especially don’t want you anywhere near Tommy.”

“But, Bonnie, it’s Christmas Eve!”

“I don’t care, Carl. I can’t trust you. I can’t take the risk.”

“But it’s Christmas Eve! A family should be together.”

“The family
is
together, Carl. Me, Tommy, and Frank.”

“I’m
his father. Not—”

“You don’t know what being a father means, Carl. You never did.”

“Bonnie, I’m begging you—”

“It’s time you learned that no means no, Carl.”

A few of the braver neighbors were edging closer, crossing the street. “I can’t take this anymore. I can’t take being scared all the time, worrying that you’re going to do some permanent damage. I want you to go away and never come back.”

“Bonnie!”

“You heard me, Carl.
Go away!”

His fists tightened like tiny balls of super-concentrated energy. Rage boiled through his body, coursed through his veins. “I can’t accept that, Bonnie. I won’t.”

“You don’t have any choice.” She ran through the front door of the house and slammed it between them.

“No!” Carl rushed forward, his face flushed with anger. He pounded on the front door, beating it so hard it splintered the wood. “Let me in! Let me
in
!”

One of the neighbor men ran forward, grabbing Carl around the shoulders, trying to pull him back. “C’mon now, Carl. Let’s calm down.”

Carl whirled around and shoved the neighbor against the chest. The man stumbled backward, tripping on the front steps. He tumbled down, cracking his head against the concrete sidewalk.

“I want in!” Carl roared. “Do you hear me, Bonnie? I want in!”

“Go away!” she shrieked from the other side of the door. “The police are on their way!”

“I
will
see my boy!” He pounded the front door again and again and again, sending paint chips flying in all directions, making the whole frame of the house shudder. He was making a dent, but even in his rage, he knew he would never get in this way.

He jumped over the hedge and azaleas and crossed to the front window just to the left of the door. “I want in, Bonnie!” he howled.

“No!”

Carl reared back his fist and sent it sailing through the window. Glass shattered all around him as his fist broke through to the other side. The harsh insistent beep of the security alarm began to pulse. Blood dripped across his arm and down the windowpane.

Carl cried out in pain. His hand was sliced in more places than he knew, and it hurt. But he didn’t let that stop him. He twisted his fingers around and reached up to unfasten the window lock.

Bonnie appeared on the other side of the window. “Stop it, Carl! Stop it!”

“All I want is to see my boy.”

“I can’t let you do that, Carl. I can’t take the risk.”

“I’m coming in. And you can’t stop me.” His fingers touched the window lock.

“No,” Bonnie whispered. She grabbed his protruding hand.

“Leave me alone!” Carl bellowed.

“I can’t.” She took his fist in both of her hands and jerked his arm upward, impaling it on a jagged piece of broken window glass.

Pain coursed through Carl’s arm, then his body, like the ripple of sheet lightning. He screamed, then jerked his hand back through the window, clutching it close against his chest. Blood gushed from the open wound.

His face was spotted with blood and sweat. “You can’t stop me,” he said, gasping. “No matter what.”

“He isn’t here,” Bonnie said, tears spilling from her eyes. “Tommy isn’t even here. Please go away.”

The sound of a police siren cut through the morning air. It was still several blocks away, but moving closer at top speed.

Carl pressed his wounded arm against his mouth. He clamped his other hand down on it, trying to stanch the flow of blood. “This isn’t over,” he said, gazing at his ex-wife through the spiderwebbed windowpane. “I’ll be back.”

He turned and raced down the street, barreling through a chain of spectators, ducking into the backyard three houses down.

Even after he had disappeared from sight, Bonnie’s breathing didn’t slow down. Her heartbeat didn’t settle, and she couldn’t stop clutching herself. Because she knew what he had said was true. She knew this wasn’t over.

She knew he would be back.

2

M
EGAN MCGEE READJUSTED THE
rearview mirror so she could get a better look at her beard. It wasn’t easy. There was barely enough room inside her tiny two-door Toyota for herself, much less an English bulldog. There was absolutely no room for primping. Still, she wanted to look her best when she knocked on the door, although why it mattered to her she couldn’t imagine. Certainly no one back at the law firm cared. No one at Santa’s Helpers was watching. And God—well, best not to get her started on that subject.

The English bulldog squatting in the passenger seat, Jasper, made a grunting, spitting noise. A stream of gas emitted from his hindquarters while a sheepish expression crossed his squashed English face. He stretched forward, rubbing his very wet nose against Megan’s hand. A pool of drool spilled out of his mouth and dripped down her arm.

For the record, Megan reminded herself, I hate this dog.

Perhaps hate was too strong a word. Perhaps it was sufficient to say she didn’t particularly much care for the beast. She had never wanted the dog, never wanted any dog. She had inherited him from a neighbor who was moving to Hawaii, where the quarantine laws were quite strict. They couldn’t bear the thought of poor Jasper being cooped up in a cage for a year or more, they had said, so would Megan please please
please
take care of him for them?

Just imagine. They go off to Hawaii while she’s stuck in Oklahoma City with the Hound of the Baskervilles. It wasn’t enough that he was the worst, most plug-ugly creature she had ever seen in her life. He was also a finicky eater, and usually dripped and dragged his food all over her apartment. What’s more, he needed digestion medicine two times a day, which required her to open his slime-lined mouth to deliver the goods. And that wasn’t even mentioning—this was the topper—doggie suppositories. Every day without fail.

She had thought about taking him to the pound or putting him to sleep, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. So here she was, tootling around town on Christmas Eve, with the Pet from Hell.

What a life she led.

Megan gazed up at the steely gray sky. Last night’s predictions of snow might still come true, she realized. Which would be good for those trying to get into the Christmas spirit, although bad for those—like Megan—who still had driving to do.

She slid out of the car and tried to smooth the pronounced wrinkles in her borrowed suit. Red faux fur with white lining. A red-and-white stocking cap. And of course, the full white beard. Wasn’t she just the cutest Santa that ever was?

Probably not, Megan thought, sighing. When she’d picked up the suit at Santa’s Helpers, she had noticed a new associate from Crowe Dunlevy who definitely outstripped her in the cute department. What did she expect, for Pete’s sake? She was thirty-seven and not getting any younger or prettier. Especially not with a bushy white beard on her chin.

Oh, please, she told herself, don’t get started on that again. You have a job to do. And an important one at that. Cookie deliveries. Meals on Wheels, the Christmas edition. Ho, ho, ho, and here’s a little something sweet to get you through the night. That was her mission. Bringing a little sunshine into the lives of the poor, the elderly, the lonely.

Jeepers, she thought. She should be making a delivery to herself.

She carefully removed her blue plate from the backseat and took it out of the protective bubble wrap. She loved this plate. She’d bought it in England several years before, when she had been in Canterbury for the St. Dunstan millennial birthday celebration. It was nineteenth-century Spode, with a blue-etched scene of bucolic British country life. It had cost her a small fortune, but she loved it dearly. One of the best things about these cookie deliveries, as far as she was concerned, was that she got a chance to show off her plate.

She grabbed the giant bag of cookies, poured some onto the plate, arranged them as artfully as she could manage, and headed for the door, trying not to trip. As she had learned at her last several stops, her agility was considerably hampered by having her feet encased in shiny black boots about three sizes too big.

She rang the doorbell and waited. She heard some shuffling on the other side of the door, but she had learned not to get impatient. According to the fact sheet, the woman inside, one Teresa Tucker, was eighty-four years old, living alone and managing quite fine, thank you. Let her take as long as she wanted.

At last the door creaked open, and a wizened face appeared in the opening. “Yes?”

“Ho, ho, ho!” Megan said, in the deepest voice she could muster. “Merry Christmas!”

“I’ve already given,” the woman replied. She began to close the door.

BOOK: Midnight Before Christmas
8.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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