The Midnight Before Christmas

The Midnight Before Christmas

by William Bernhardt

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Thirtysomething lawyer Megan McGee is facing a quiet Christmas with her bulldog when Bonnie Cantrell, a battered wife, comes looking for legal protection from her violent ex-cop husband, Carl. In a recent bout of rage, Carl vowed to kill their seven-year-old son, Tommy, rather than be separated from the boy. It's no idle threat, either—as Bonnie assures Megan: "He's tried before."

And when Tommy's school unwittingly allows him to leave with his father, Carl gets his chance to try again. Now, with the town all but shut down for the holiday, Megan races against time—and terror—to keep Carl's Christmas Eve jaunt from turning into a slay ride.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345428110
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/28/1999
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,116,141
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

William Bernhardt made his debut as a novelist with Primary Justice. His subsequent novels include Blind Justice, Deadly Justice, Perfect Justice—which won the Oklahoma Book Award and led The Vancouver Sun to dub the author "the American equivalent of P. G. Wodehouse or John Mortimer"—Double Jeopardy, Cruel Justice, Naked Justice, Extreme Justice, and Dark Justice. As an attorney, Bernhardt has received several awards for his public service, and in 1993 he was named one of the top twenty-five young lawyers in the nation. He lives in Tulsa with his wife, Kirsten, and their children, Harry and Alice.

Read an Excerpt

He 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."


"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.


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.

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