Read an Excerpt
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1986 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
"Nora," the father said to his daughter, fighting to keep a lid on his temper, "why did you break that vase?"
"I didn't," the blond-haired, dark-eyed little girl replied, meeting her father's steady gaze with an unwavering stare. "I told you. It just fell off."
"The vase just fell off the stand? All by itself?"
"Yes sir. I was just walking by and it fell off."
The father sighed heavily. It had been a long day. The ride from the city to home had taken longer than usual, the commuters packed in like little canned fishies for much of the way. Then the drive from the station to home. A woman with a station wagon full of kids almost broadsided him, running a stop sign. Then she shot him the bird. He didn't need this immediately after opening the door. He was glad it was Friday. It had been a good but frustrating week at the law offices of Baxter, Sobel, Turner, and Weiskopf. Now this crap. Again.
Phillip Baxter stared in unbelieving silence at his daughter. As a parent, he knew perfectly well she was lying. She lied constantly. She lied even when the truth would serve her better. But as an attorney, he knew he couldn't prove she was lying.
"All right, Nora," he said. "Pick up the pieces, and don't cut yourself doing it."
"Why should I pick them up?" she demanded. "I didn't break the vase."
"Don't argue with me, Nora!" He raised his voice. He calmed himself. "I'm not in any mood for it. Just do as I say."
"Let the cleaning woman do it."
"The cleaning woman, Nora, is gone until Monday. Now do it!" he snapped at her.
The child smiled, sensing in some small way she had bested her father, winning the verbal battle. Again. "Yes, father. Of course." Smugly.
He almost slapped her. He had never struck the child and prayed he never would. But this time he came very close. It was all Phillip could do not to hit her.
Phillip turned away and walked into the den of the large, two-story home, located just off the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. Phillip loved the old house, which had been completely restored, but that trip to and from the city sometimes was a pain in the ass.
And so was Nora.
Phillip simply could not get close to his daughter. He couldn't reach her. And God knew he had tried; but he just couldn't understand her. There was something about the girl — literally about — her; she had wrapped some invisible cloak around her. And Phillip could not unwrap that deception.
Deception, he thought. Interesting description. But very apt.
"What was all that noise in the hall?" his wife asked.
"Nora broke the vase your aunt gave you and then lied about it."
"I did not!" the girl screamed from the hall. "It fell off. Stop picking on me. Leave me alone. You're always picking on me."
Jeanne Baxter looked at her husband. "If Nora says it fell off, it fell off. Accidents happen, Phillip. Why do you always doubt what she tells you?"
Phillip walked to the bar, loosening his tie as he walked. Here we go again, he thought. Ol' dad is the bad guy. Again. He fixed a drink and turned around, looking at his wife. "Because she lies, Jeanne. Nora ..." He paused, detecting a slight movement by the archway separating hall from den. Nora was eavesdropping. Again. She was the sneakiest kid Phillip had ever seen. "Take the broken pieces and put them in the garbage, Nora."
"And be careful, darling," Jeanne called. "Don't cut yourself."
When Nora was gone, carrying the dustpan as if it contained wet dog droppings, Phillip said, "She lies all the time, Jeanne. I've caught her countless times. I'm getting tired of it. The child has a problem, and we'd better be doing something about it. Before it's too late."
"That's ridiculous, Phillip. She's just a little girl."
There was no arguing with Jeanne — not about Nora. Nora was the baby, and there would be no more children. After a very difficult pregnancy and a rough time of it in the delivery room, the doctor had told Jeanne that was it. No more.
In Jeanne's mind, Nora was perfect. Faultless. Phillip picked on her, demanded too much of her. Jeanne could not see that the child was driving a wedge between husband and wife. Deliberately driving the wedge, Phillip thought. And the breech was widening.
Daddy Bad Guy.
"Go easy on the liquor," Jeanne cautioned him. "We're going out tonight."
Phillip had looked forward to a hot shower, several drinks, an early dinner, and a slob evening and weekend. Jesus Christ! he thought. "Where to now?" he asked wearily.
"The Gipsons. The party's been on for two months. I reminded you about it this morning, Phillip."
"I forgot. OK? So how about Nora?"
"A sitter is coming over."
Another one? he silently parried with her. How many does that make? The kid has run off more sitters than there were Indians at Little Big Horn.
Phillip tuned his wife back in. "... better shower and change."
"Right, Jeanne." The drive to New Canaan was not bad; it was Matthew and Judy Gipson that Phillip could not abide. Matthew was an overbearing jerk. About five feet seven, he wore the Little Man syndrome on his shoulder like a badge of honor. Matt always had something to prove, was always challenging the other guy's statement. Phillip had come very close, several times, to jacking Matt's jaw. Judy was just a plain out-and-out bitch. Period.
"Try to be civil this evening," Jeanne said, knowing what her husband was thinking. "Judy is my friend. In case you've forgotten."
"How could I forget? Both of you keep reminding me."
Jeanne rose from her chair. A tall, graceful, very pretty woman in her late thirties. Five years younger than Phillip. Short, honey-blond hair. A great figure. She could wear the same clothes she'd worn in high school, and did not have to work at keeping her figure.
Phillip, on the other hand, had to work to maintain a constant weight. But he had begun to believe it a losing battle. As the troubleshooting partner and head of the law firm, he had to travel extensively and was unable to keep any sort of regular schedule at his health club. Stocky to begin with, if he didn't work at exercise he would end up looking like a butcher's block. His thick hair was a light brown. Dark eyes. Big hands, more like a dock worker than a very successful lawyer.
"Are we about to have another of our famous semiserious discussions?" she asked.
"Not if I can help it," he said.
A loud crash came from the direction of the kitchen. Jeanne rushed from the room. Phillip used that time to freshen his drink. Jeanne returned and said, "The coffee maker fell off the counter. I cleaned it up."
Phillip knew he shouldn't say it. But he did. "The coffee maker fell off the counter? All by itself?"
"Nora said the coffee maker fell off the counter. I believe her."
"Right. Just ... fell off." Ignoring the dark looks from his wife, Phillip took his drink and walked out of the den, trudging slowly up the stairs to their bedroom. He tossed his shirt and T-shirt to the floor, knowing it would irritate Jeanne. He deliberately sat his drink on the dresser, without a coaster. He kicked off his shoes like an angry child, the shoes sailing in opposite directions.
"Just fell off the goddamn counter. Jesus!"
Naked from the waist up, Phillip looked at himself in the mirror. He was still, at forty-three, a powerfully built man. He had boxed in high school and college, in the heavyweight division, and had given some thought to turning pro.
"The Fighting Lawyer," he said aloud, the old memories smoothing out his disposition, tempering his anger. He smiled as he looked around the room. He picked up what he had tossed on the floor and placed a coaster under his glass. It wasn't Jeanne's fault, but Nora was putting a big strain on a pretty good marriage.
He closed the bedroom door and stripped, stepping into the shower. He hit the cold water for a full minute, then cut it to hot, soaping away the grit and grime and tension of the city. He went back to cold, the hot and cold waking him, refreshing him.
Drying off, he dressed in underwear shorts and stood for a moment, wondering if this party was the jacket-and-tie type. "Hell with it," he muttered. He dressed casually in slacks, shirt, and sport coat. He chose a shirt he could wear a tie with, if it came to that. He turned as a knock came at the door.
Phil Jr. stuck his head in and grinned at his father. "Sharp, dad. Sharp." The boy was built just like his father, right down to his big hands.
Phillip returned the grin. "Yeah. Pretty spiffy for an old man, hey?"
The boy groaned. "Spiffy, dad?"
"How about a cool dude?"
"Go back to spiffy."
"What do you have on tap for this evening, Phil?"
"Nothing that spectacular. Just going up the street to Alec's for a party. Spending the night. His parents are going to the same place you and mom are going."
"OK, boy, you know the rules. No boozing and no left-handed cigarettes."
"Few beers, probably," the boy admitted. "But the only one there with a car will be Jimmy, and he doesn't drink."
Phillip grinned. "Anymore," he said.
Jimmy Hoover was sixteen, a year older than Phil. Jimmy had taken his mother's station wagon out joyriding when he was fourteen. The wagon and two six-packs of beer. He had plowed into a store front and ended up in the meat department, with lamb chops hanging from his ears and rolls of wieners around his neck. He had been very lucky; he was not seriously injured. Except for his butt when his dad got through with him. Jimmy was president of the local chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving.
"OK," Phillip said. "You know I trust you. And you know I'm not going to lecture you about drinking and driving when I'm going to be doing that very thing this evening."
"Yeah, but you're cool with it, dad. Dad? Have you ever been drunk?"
"Oh hell, yes. We'd come off patrol in Nam and get blasted."
"Over there I'd say you had a good excuse for doing it. How about in college?"
"One time. And that's the truth. Where is this line of questioning going, Phil?"
"No place in particular. I was just curious. Seems we don't get much chance to talk like we used to. Back when I was a kid."
Phillip didn't smile at that, even though he found it amusing. "Yes, and I'm sorry about that. I don't know why I work as hard as I do. I've got all sorts of junior eager beavers at the office who could be doing that. I've been very fortunate, Phil. You know that, don't you?"
"I guess so. You mean like at the office? Financially?"
"Yes. We've built a very profitable law firm in fifteen years. But I've been away from home about as much as I've been home. I promise you, though, we'll spend more time together next year." If I'm alive, that is, he thought.
Now why would I think that?
"Lookin' forward to it, dad. You and mom have a good time tonight."
"Same to you, boy."
Phillip went downstairs, meeting Jeanne on her way up
"They going to feed us at this shindig?" he asked.
"Party foods, lots of hors d'oeuvres. Things like that."
"Well then, I'd better fix a sandwich. You want one?"
"No. I haven't been drinking."
He watched her climb the stairs and wondered why so many cheap shots had been flung about between them — from both sides — over the past two years. Hell, he knew why: Nora. He shook his head and went to the kitchen, fixing a huge sandwich and a glass of milk. He knew that alone would cut way down on his drinking. He could not drink after eating.
Phil left just as the sitter arrived. She looked as though she had something to tell him, and Phillip had a pretty good idea what it was about: Nora. He had lost count of the numbers of sitters that had come and gone over the years. Just as the girl was about to speak, Jeanne came down and Phillip waited while the girl received her instructions on how to handle darling precious Nora.
Stop it! Phillip silently berated himself. You are the girl's father. You burped her and changed her diapers, held her while she puked, and loved her all the time. Stop thinking of the child as a kind of monster. You've just got to convince Jeanne the child needs some sort of counseling, and see to it that she gets it.
Yeah, he thought. Good luck.
On the drive to the Gipsons', Jeanne was silent for several miles. She finally broke the silence. "Nora is convinced you hate her."
"Are you serious, Jeanne?"
"That's ridiculous, Jeanne. Good Lord! You don't believe that. Do you?"
"I don't know what to believe," She was honest in her reply. "I know only that Nora is a little girl and you want her to behave as an adult. That is very unfair."
Going to be a swell evening, folks, Phillip thought. But if we have to hash it out, fine, let's do it, and to hell with the Gipsons. Both of them.
"Jeanne, that is just not true. I want the girl to stop telling lies. Honey, face up to something — please? Nora has no friends. None. The other kids don't like her."
"Of course not. That's because she's so much smarter than they."
"Are you serious?"
"Certainly. Nora is brilliant."
"Aw ... come off it, Jeanne!" Phillip lost his fragile hold on his temper. "Both our kids are bright, yes, but not exceptionally so. Phil maintains a good grade average, sure, but he's no genius. And neither is Nora. Both their IQ's are above average, yes. But Nora's grades are terrible. Dammit, Jeanne, the girl needs some help."
"What are you suggesting?" she flared at him, her words icy.
"Nothing more than she see a good child psychologist."
"So now you think she's retarded!"
"I didn't say that, Jeanne."
"There is nothing wrong with Nora!" she screamed at him, her words bouncing around the closed car.
Phillip drove on in silence. There was no point in pursuing the matter any further. Maybe Nora would grow out of it. Perhaps it was just a stage she was going through. But Phillip didn't believe that. Not for a minute. He had never told Jeanne about the time he'd found Nora torturing a bird that had some how been injured and landed in their backyard. She was enjoying it, laughing as she tormented the bird. By the time Phillip's revulsion had passed and he reached the child, the bird was dead. He had never confided in his wife that he was sure Nora had been the one who had poisoned their dog, old Lucky. Lucky had never warmed to Nora. Something about the girl caused the dog to shy away. Phillip had never told his wife about the rumors that persisted: the other kids didn't like to play with Nora because she was cruel and domineering and arrogant.
There would have been no point in talking with Jeanne about it.
She would not have believed him.
But something had to be done, for the child's sake. Only question was: What?
* * *
The party was a raging dud. With the exception of Carl Tremain, Alec's father, it appeared that Matt and Judy had invited everyone that Phillip could not abide. But he forced a party-goer's smile and struggled through the evening, making inane conversation and keeping his alcoholic intake very low. Phillip felt the tension between he and Jeanne was going to hit the breaking point before this night was over. And he certainly was not looking forward to that.
The party — if that was what all the social posturing and jockeying for attention could be called — finally began to wind down. Phillip and Jeanne left as soon as it was socially acceptable to do so.
Jeanne opened on him before he had backed out of the Gipsons' drive. "What do you want to do, Phillip?"
"What are we taking about?"
"There is nothing wrong with us, Jeanne. We've been married for eighteen good years. I have never been unfaithful, and no one could ever convince me you have. The problem is Nora. You want to hash this out now?"
"We may as well."
"All right. You've got to face up to the fact — and it is a fact — that Nora needs a little bit of help. It isn't some dreadful illness, baby. But it could develop into something very serious. I firmly believe that. Honey, Nora is a human being, and all human beings are very complex. I have my faults, you have your faults, Phil has his. Why can't Nora be flawed in some minor way? You know she tells lies, Jeanne. You know it. She lies to me, to you, to her brother, to her classmates — notice I didn't say friends, 'cause she doesn't have any — and she probably lies to herself. So let's find out why she lies, and do something about it. That's all I'm asking."
Excerpted from Jack-in-the-Box by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 1986 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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