AUTHOR: Sharon B.
TITLE: “Jack Dare’s American Freefall”
GENRE: Legal Suspense novel (partial)
SYNOPSIS/LOGLINE: An idealistic young attorney resigns his small-town law practice to pursue a future in 1970s boomtown Houston and becomes the target of revenge — ultimately standing trial for a crime he did not commit. A mysterious tale of murder, mental illness, love, loss, ruin and reclamation.
COMMENT: A question for readers: Would you read more if you could?
Jack Dare’s American Freefall
a novel (partial) by
November 28, 1977 – 5 p.m.
Jack waited until after five o’clock. That way, the women would be gone. No reason they should be in the line of fire.
He glanced at his watch. The price of time was far exceeding the cost of working here another minute. Twelve years was long enough. He tossed his coat over his arm, hoisted his briefcase and walked into the clerical room where Guillory stood riffling through file cabinets. Guillory didn’t look up.
He mumbled into a file drawer. “See you tomorrow, Jack,” When Jack didn’t move toward the door, Guillory kept talking.
“Hey-uh, how was Houston? What the hell kind of case did Ed Carpenter drag you down there for? Must be a good one.”
Jack thrust his hands in his pockets and said nothing.
“. . . and, by the way, how’s ‘ole Ed these days?” Guillory chuckled. “Bet the poor bastard’s completely bald by now.”
Keep it up, Guillory. Chew the fat about Ed’s shiny pate, and then go into your speech about the thick head of hair God gave you. Jack stepped closer. “Ed’s doing great. Didn’t have a case for me, though—”
Guillory jerked his head up. “What? You mean that sorry S.O.B. called you all the way to Texas and didn’t give you any business?” His cheeks flushed.
Jack put down his briefcase and coat. “I left with business, all right—but not the kind you think.”
Guillory slammed the file door shut, his eyes locked on Jack.
“Ed offered me a job, and I took it. We’re moving after Christmas. Laura has to be in her new school by the first of the year.”
Guillory narrowed his gaze and stiffened his lips. Two files slipped through his fingers and dozens of sheets of high-rag paper—the quality Guillory demanded for his correspondence—floated gracefully to his feet, across the wood plank floor. Most of it slid under the stenographer’s desk.
Wonder how she’ll feel about picking up Guillory’s mess in the morning?
Guillory howled. “Look what you made me do!” His hands trembled as he pointed to the empty folders strewn on the floor. He proceeded to kick the paper with the ball of his foot – as if he were engaged in some sort of stupid dance. Shh-wush. He sent a sheet of paper sailing. The crackle of grit grated on the bottom of his shoe.
“Who the hell do you think you are you asshole? Right out of law school, I took you in. You didn’t have one fucking nickel to your name. I loaned you two hundred dollars so you could feed your wife and get the lights turned on—”
“Get off it Guillory.”
Guillory caught his breath, backed against a file drawer. It shook. “You had one suit, and let’s face it, that fucking get-up looked like Sears and Roebuck. The only reason you could buy a house is because my father and I walked you over to the bank and introduced you to the president. We put our word –our good name –on that mortgage.”
“I will always appreciate that accommodation. You’ll recall I refinanced it in my name within a year. ”
Gillory kicked more paper.
Jack folded his arms and curled his lips around his teeth, waiting . . . waiting . . . for Guillory to satiate his inner wrath. In the meantime, he noticed a ragged scratch etched across the right toe of Guillory’s prized python loafers—proof, if ever there was any, that Guillory had lost it again.
He muzzled a laugh. “Look at you, Jack Dare. Mr. Big City boy with all the right moves.” He pointed to the waiting room. “At least your riff-raff won’t stink up my office anymore.”
“That riff-raff’s done well by you and me,” said Jack. He moved closer, but out of Guillory’s kicking range.
“Shit, Guillory. You know goddamn good and well we don’t have a contract. Never did. You didn’t want one. I owe you nothing. You don’t me nothing. Gentlemen’s agreement, that’s what we had. Fifty-fifty, no strings attached. ‘Stay as long as you want. If it’s ever not working for you, go your way,’ that’s what you said. And I’m telling you . . . It’s not working anymore.”
Guillory hiked his leg up and tried to brush the scratch off his shoe.
“Things change, for all of us,” Jack said. “I’m moving on, no strings. It’s been a good ride. But the fat lady sang. It’s over.”
“Don’t preach to me, you ungrateful son-of-a-bitch. You have no right. No right.”
His weapon of choice had always been his searing eyes and acid tongue. So, it came as a surprise when Warren Guillory—who was ten years older, nine inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter—sprang for Jack Dare like a poodle on a bear.
Jack caught Guillory’s wrists and walked him backwards, step . . . by . . . step. Then he jammed his back and arms flat to the wall until they bounced, and held them there. Guillory tried to kick him. Jack jumped out of the way.
“Stop it! Stop it you motherfucker . . . You’re asking for it.” Jack slammed his arms again. Guillory yelled out and tried to break free. “Want a knee?” Jack asked.
Guillory went limp. Jack yanked him up, turned him around and flung him backwards against the Xerox machine. Within a hair’s breath, the copier tuned up and roared like a jet ready for take-off. Lights blinked red and yellow and paper poured onto the tray.
Guillory caught his fall and moaned. “Aw, fuck.” He looked back at Jack, hate smeared across his face. He straightened up as best he could and stumbled back to his office, rubbing his arms and wrists.
Jack reached over and punched the machine off, then headed for the door. But not before Guillory belched out a threat.
“I’ll ruin you, Jack Dare. I promise you I will. If it’s the last thing I ever do.”
November 28, 1977 – 5:40 p.m.
On the drive home, Jack reeled from the brawl in the office. He had no illusions that his resignation would evoke a convivial meeting of minds— Guillory didn’t think that way. But damn, the last thing he expected was that crazy skirmish. Not to mention Guillory’s threat on the way out the door.
Jack stomped on the brake. Some kind of problem up ahead. He hadn’t seen this much traffic on Chapman Highway since Henry Gloger’s open-air trailer broke loose from his pickup and splattered five hundred pumpkins on the asphalt. What’s going on?
Jack slowed from fifty to a creep of five miles per hour. He craned his neck to check the number of cars in front of him. Maybe six, maybe seven. Who could tell on a moonless night as black as the bottom of a well? He looked in the rearview mirror. More cars stacked up behind him. The red pickup ahead hit the horn twice. An explosion of horns followed.
The guy in the camper two cars up shook his fist and shouted. “What the hell’s going on up there? Pull over you idiot!” Further up, somebody yelled, “Outta the way!” The horns didn’t stop. Even Earl Lastor’s livestock grazing in the pasture added their two-cents worth.
Jack’s driveway was only a few car lengths away. Soon, he could escape this fiasco, or who knows, offer help to the poor sucker who created the traffic jam.
The lead car continued to creep until it came to an abrupt stop. One bumper kissed another. Two cars pulled out and passed the offending driver. Then the next car and the next. Jack counted eight cars zip past, until it was just Jack and the stalled car. His first chance to size up the driver,
A ‘75 Buick Park Avenue. My god, that car looks familiar . . . Silver . . . no, not silver, maybe it’s . . . hell, it’s too dark to see the color. Fresh dent in the fender—perpetrator well down the road by now—Greenhaven/Go Mustangs bumper sticker on the windshield. Missouri plate GH24908. Wait a minute. What? G-H-2-4-9-0-8. Indeed, he knew the owner. He was the owner. Rather, Diane was.
Hackles rose on the back of his neck. His throat rattled and his temples throbbed. He rubbed his face. His gut felt the same way it always felt when she blindsided him – like puking.
What’s going on? Why the hell is she stopped in the middle of the road? Not even a year since she totaled the last car. Good job. Good job, Diane. Set another record.
Jack pulled to the shoulder and got out. His face collapsed in fury. The cool night air whipped his tie against his chin and mouth. He smacked it away like a fly. An 18-wheeler roared past and the ground trembled. Jack ducked his head to fend off the gust. He marched full tilt to the Buick’s driver-side window. Without a flashlight, all he could see was someone bent over on the seat.
He tried to open the door. Locked. “Open up. Diane, it’s me—Jack.”
He didn’t knock on the window; he beat on it until his palm stung. “What’s going on? Open up! Now . . . Diane, look at me – open the door.”
Two dump trucks and a compact car sped by. The car had to be doing ninety. Shit, he was gonna get wiped out. She moved her head, hunched down further and looked the other way. She’s sure as hell wasn’t sick. All she has to do was reach over and click the damn lock. It was as if someone who could not hear or speak took up residence in the Buick.
“Diane, open the door – open it now.” No response.
He walked behind the car. Maybe he had a key to the Buick. He fumbled through the right pocket, then the left. Loose change and a pocketknife. Everything jingled. Then he remembered. She took his key when she lost her own.
He stepped to driver’s side and tapped the window. She jerked her head and looked up. Eye to eye. Scared as a puppy that just wet the carpet.
What? Laura, driving a car? On Chapman Highway, at night? What the – Diane, where was she? Why was a 10-year-old in the driver’s seat? He looked through the window just in case Diane was sequestered in the backseat. Hell no. Then, a staggering thought crossed his mind. What if – oh God no, she wouldn’t—what if . . . no, no. What if—
His brain spit it out. What if Diane threatened to kill herself and Laura was looking for help? He couldn’t count the number of times she’d posed that threat to him. In the early years, she was successful at getting her way. All she had to do was bring up the S word.
Suicide? Jack wanted no part of it.
What’s wrong honey?
I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, dear.
Don’t ever talk that way again, sweetheart.
What do you want, Diane? What do you need, Diane?
The door lock snapped. Progress.
He walked back to the driver-side and opened the door just as a four-horse trailer streaked past. The stench of manure and hay grabbed the air. He slipped inside and glanced over at Laura. At least she wasn’t hiding her face anymore.
First things first, Jack. Get the damned car off the road.
He let the motor warm for a few seconds, then maneuvered a wide right turn onto the asphalt drive. He pulled up fifty feet and shoved it into park.
Silence. Long silence.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she whispered. Shamefaced, sheepish, sorry. Her blue eyes rolled every which way inside her head. This was a hellava note. You’d think the worst thing she’d done was fail to practice her spelling words or stay up past bedtime to watch some Partridge teenybopper on The Tonight Show. Who would guess this drama centered on a 5,000-pound machine a child took for a drive down a dark highway, by herself, for God-knows-what-reason? The glow from the dashboard revealed tears pooled on her lower lids. For god’s sake – she’s a baby!
Okay, down to business.
“Laura, where’s your mother?”
“In the house.”
“Is she sick?”
“No.” Laura seemed surprised at the question.
He could wipe that fear off the list. Or could he? Depends on how you define sick.
“Does she know you took her car out?” He measured his words and the tone of his voice. That, or he might explode. He rolled the window down. Fresh air.
Laura jerked her head away and whimpered – a little at first, then a lot. She rubbed her eyes across the sleeve of her jacket.
“Tell me, honey. I need to know. . . . Does your mother know? Did she know you took her car?”
Laura dissolved into anguished sniffles. She tried to talk, but every word turned to a wheeze and every wheeze to a cough, so loud she roused the damned dog from one of his hiding places. There he was howling, nose to the sky. Then the horses started in. Pretty soon, the cows across Chapman.
Jack put his arm around her and pulled her tight under his arm. He wiped her face with tissues he found in a box buried beneath the seat.
“Now, look what you’ve done, sweetheart,” he said, smoothing back her hair. “You woke up the whole neighborhood.”
She smiled in spite of herself. She grabbed a Kleenex, blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes.
“We don’t live in a neighborhood.”
“What do you mean? It’s our neighborhood—only the neighbors have four legs apiece. To each his own, that’s what I always say.”
Laura turned and faced her father. “Daddy, if I tell you, will you promise not to get me in trouble?”
“If you tell me what?”
“If I tell you the answer to your question, will you promise not to get me in trouble?”
“Since when have I given you trouble for telling the truth?”
“Just tell me, Daddy. I have to know.”
Crap. What in the hell is this negotiation all about?
“The only trouble you’ll get from me is if you don’t tell the truth. And I may ask a lot of questions.”
She rushed the words. “Mom knew I was driving.”
“Say that again?”
“She knew it.” He heard her, but barely.
Jack felt his gut move . . . again. He stared ahead and said nothing. Why in the hell was he surprised?
Laura fidgeted, crossing one ankle over the other, back and forth.
She tapped his arm. “See, I wasn’t supposed to tell you she taught me how to drive. She said you wouldn’t like it, you didn’t need to know. You weren’t supposed to catch me driving. She told me to be back before you got home from work. It’s my fault. If I’d been quicker . . . if I hadn’t been afraid to make that turn . . . if it wasn’t so dark . . . and it wasn’t dark when I left . . . I’ve never driven in the dark before . . . and all those cars started honking . . . all at me. . . and all those men yelling . . . I just sat there and tried to figure out how to make that turn without landing in the ditch.”
He stared out the window. “Who taught you to drive?”
She looked at him as if he was automatically supposed to know. “Well, Mom did.”
“Last summer. We drove around on old country roads.”
Yeah, like Chapman Highway.”
”She said I was mature for my age. I might as well learn now.”
“Why? Why, Laura?”
“She wants help running errands. She needs help.”
“Yes . . . she does.” Jack smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand.
Laura’s face was transfixed on the floor mat. It was quiet now. No dogs, no horses, no cows, no horns.
“Did she tell you it’s illegal for you to drive?”
“She said it’s legal for kids who live on a farm and to be sure and park where people won’t see me. And I do that every time. I don’t want my friends or my teachers to see me. That might be embarrassing.”
Jack rolled his eyes and nodded slowly. This is bigger than both of us.
“What about the sheriff, what about Sheriff Blackbear? What do you think he’d do if he caught you?”
She brightened at the chance to answer. “Mom said don’t worry about that. You’re a lawyer and Sheriff Blackbear is your friend.”
“But honey, I’m the guy who isn’t supposed to know.”
October 17, 1977 – 6:25 p.m.
Jack expected a reaction from Diane when he and Laura walked in the house at the same time. Surely, she’d put two and two together and realize her secret was out. How could she miss the dog, the horses, the horns and the commotion outside?
She didn’t look up. She was paying bills, oblivious to everything but the envelopes, pens and paper spread before her on the kitchen table.
Laura dropped the Buick keys in Diane’s purse, laid the sack on the counter, then headed to her room. She wasn’t through the doorway before Diane spoke up.
“Laura – wait.”
Laura froze in place.
“Laura . . . my stamps?” Diane snapped her fingers.
In an instant, Laura thawed. She grabbed the sack and dropped it in her mother’s outstretched hand, her fingers still clicking away.
Only 10-years-old and gifted at reconnaissance and recovery, Jack thought. With her mother, those skills came in handy.
Jack wasted no time once Laura left the room. He seated himself in the chair to Diane’s left and leaned as far in her face as he could.
“Why the hell did you send her out in the car?” He spoke slow and firm. Just asking the question made him numb. She ignored him.
“What is it you don’t understand about the danger of putting a fifth-grader behind the wheel of an automobile? Are you too crazy to grasp that?”
Diane stared ahead, rigid.
Protecting Laura from her mother was Job One, almost from the day she was born. But the older she got, the harder it was to do. Only ten years on the earth, and already Laura was useful as an unwitting accomplice to her mother’s delusions. Jack felt like a general forced to do battle on all fronts—at the same time. He couldn’t be everywhere at once, yet he was still responsible for the carnage.
“I could have bought stamps on the way home, why didn’t you call?
“You would forget them. I needed them now.”
“Oh, that makes perfect sense. A fucking roll of stamps for Laura’s life. What a deal. You’ve outdone yourself, Diane. I have to hand it to you.” He paced back and forth in front of the sink. “I can hardly believe I’m having this conversation. Communicating with you is like talking to a goddamn wooden Indian.”
He raised his voice and pointed to the ceiling. “If I hadn’t happened along and helped her, she could have been arrested . . . robbed . . . raped . . . murdered . . . that enough? He jerked at his fingers as he counted off the possibilities. Hey, and that’s not counting the hell you and I would go through. You’re an idiot, Diane.”
She licked a stamp and pressed it on an envelope. Still, she hadn’t looked at him. She picked up a box of envelopes and slapped it back down on the table. “Well, I can believe we’re having this conversation. You’re always blaming me for something. Always . . . something. And of course, once again, you’ve shown the world you’re the superior parent, which you aren’t. Besides, if you hadn’t accepted that Houston job I wouldn’t be rushing around like a chicken with my head cut off tying up loose ends.”
“Nothing like changing the subject. What in the hell does moving to Houston have to do with risking our daughter’s life by permitting her—excuse me, demanding—that she drive a car to buy you a roll of stamps, for god’s sake?”
“I’ll have you know I didn’t want Laura out there anymore than you did. But she’s independent. Just like me. You can’t hold her down.”
Jack’s eyebrows shot up.
“I guess I value independence in children more than you do.” She wasn’t finished. “Against my better judgment, she drove the car to the drugstore. Mind you, she knew I needed stamps so, whatever you do, please don’t come down too hard on her. The child has a heart. She was only trying to help—”
Jack stood slack-jawed. Did she really think he would buy her fiction?
“Do you hear yourself, Diane? Really, do you? You just threw your daughter under the bus.” He pointed toward the family room. “You called her a liar. Bet you wouldn’t say that to her face, or maybe you would.” He cradled his forehead between his thumb and forefinger. “Quit trying to rearrange my brain—okay? It won’t work, not anymore.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She patted her foot and raised her chin to the ceiling. “All I know is, we were getting things done and you came along and stirred the pot. You’ll drive her away, Jack. Mark my word,” She looked over her shoulder on the way out of the room. “I won’t take your crap.”
Jack sat at the table, leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He dropped his head in his hands. On the floor, next to his right shoe, he spotted an envelope, addressed to him. He grabbed it. The return address: Mildred L. Hennessey, R.N., executive director, Avondale Geriatric Center. The nursing home where his mother lived. No, where she suffered. Delirious with Alzheimer’s. He ripped it open and . . . what? A dun notice? Two months behind? “If not paid immediately,” Mrs. Hennessey wrote, “. . . regretfully, we will be forced to transfer your mother to a government-supported facility.” Her correspondence ended with a handwritten postscript. “I’ve wondered why you never returned my phone calls. I left at least three messages with your wife.”
How could this be? On second thought, he knew precisely how this could be. What other bills had Diane failed to pay?
He flipped through the statements. One after another, unpaid. Utilities. Doctor, dentist, milkman, feed store—almost all in arrears. It’s a wonder the water and electricity still functioned. He found another bill from Woolf Brothers in Kansas City. This had to be a mistake. We don’t shop in stores like this.
Maybe he didn’t.
“Dear Mr. Dare. Thank you for being one of the many valued Greenhaven, Missouri customers who shops at Woolf Brothers. Fifteen-hundred dollars, custom-designed.”
Sweat welled up behind Jack’s ears and trickled down the back of his neck. He closed his eyes and muttered, “No . . . no, no.”
“Why are you nosing in my business?” Diane stood over him, hands on hips.
“Wait a minute. One more time. Did you say your business? I really want to know how that works.” He waved the Woolf Brothers bill in her face. “ . . . ‘Jeweled belt buckle. Diamonds, Rubies.’ And that’s small stuff compared to this.” He slammed his hand on the nursing home bill.
“This . . . my mother. They’re ready to kick her out and you’re buying diamond belt buckles? She’s 77, Diane. Can’t talk. Can’t walk. Can’t even think.”
Diane stepped back as if distance would eliminate his accusations. “I’m only wearing it once to the horse show banquet. Then I’ll return it. Gold and diamonds do not wear out.”
“You need to return it before you wear it—I believe that’s the way it’s done. Except for this.” He pointed to the bill. “See this little word?”
Diane turned her head and stood motionless.
“What about the phone calls? You sure as hell never told me Mrs. Hennessey called me three times.” He lowered his voice to a near-threat. “Diane, where did the money go?”
Diane yelled towards the family room. “Laura, come in here, now. Now. And bring your jacket. We’re leaving.”
Jack was incredulous. “You’re what?”
“I said we’re leaving. You catch on quick. By the way, don’t wait up.”
“What the hell are you talking about? It’s her bedtime. She has to get up early, go to school. You’ve lost your mind.”
Laura walked into the kitchen, a jacket over her arm. She looked from one parent to the other as if they were bizarre performers in a freak show.
Diane’s voice rose. She jerked out commands. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon . . . hurry.”
“But Mom. I don’t . . .”
Laura’s eyes begged for answers. Four fingers trembled between her lips. She wiped away a tear.
Jack moved fast to the door and backed flat against it, arms eagle-spread.
“Diane, your daughter. Listen to her.” His voice was like a whiplash. “She doesn’t want to go. You go on. Leave Laura—”
“Out of my way.” she shrieked as she tried to push past Jack and open the back door.
He stood steadfast, ashamed that Laura was witness to this pathetic encounter. She sniffled and said nothing. He would not—could not—let Diane take her out that door.
Diane fumbled through her purse and pulled out a black plastic cylinder. “Don’t worry, we won’t use the backdoor.” She held the cylinder in front of his face, no more than three inches away, and pressed the button twice.
Jack slapped his cheeks and cupped his fingers around his eyes. He wailed a painful cry and collapsed to the floor.
Laura screamed. “No-o-o . . . no-o-o. Daddy . . . Mom . . . Mommy, help Daddy! He’s dying! What did you do to him?” Laura darted across the room and threw herself across his chest. “I’ll help you. I’ll help you,” she whimpered. “You’ll be okay.”
Diane stepped over Jack and pulled Laura to her feet. A trace of Chloe brushed the air and footsteps scurried through the kitchen and across the plank floor in the dining room. Diane’s heels clicked on the marble tile in the foyer and Laura cried.
The front door slammed.
Jack rubbed his eyes. The burn got worse. He tried to move but couldn’t. Outside, he heard Diane shout at his daughter. “Get in! Get in!” She gunned the motor. The tires squealed and Sparky barked.
October 17, 1977 – 7:35 p.m.
“Gasoline poured all over my face, and then she lit it . . .”
Later that night, this is how Jack described to Abe Blackbear how it felt to have mace sprayed into his eyes. Blindness overwhelmed him. In fits, he gasped and coughed, and slammed his arms and feet against the wall and the floor. His throat swelled to the point of suffocation, cutting off all but life-support breathing.
Laura’s cry that ‘Daddy is dying’ swept through his mind. For a minute, he thought she was right. Then he decided he was only blinded. He struggled to understand what happened. Then he remembered the small, black plastic aerosol cylinder Abe gave him last spring. Three- inches long, one inch around.
“Something new in law enforcement,” Abe said. “Perfect for controlling unruly punks. Kansas City police are using it. We’re giving it a try here in Comfort County.” Abe held up the device as if he was spraying something. “Goes right in the guy’s face – then he’s wilted for thirty to forty-five minutes. After that, back to normal. Here, take one. Could work like a champ on your neighbor’s dog – that mongrel bitch that stirs up your horses.”
Jack put it in his top dresser drawer and forgot about it. He also forgot that he explained the curious little weapon to Diane. He would never have believed she would . . .
For five minutes, he lay prostrate while the noxious chemical smoldered in his eyes. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t put breath and strength together to make it happen. He inched toward the sink on his stomach, snaking along the way babies do before they figure out how to get off their haunches and crawl. Six inches and he stopped to cough and sniffle and wipe his eyes. He couldn’t open them, and he had five more feet to go. He clenched his jaw. His stomach made a nasty knot. He felt something hard on the floor under his chest. Not painful, just annoying as hell. Every time he moved, the object moved with him. He shifted and squirmed and extracted the offending item. Ken, from Laura’s Barbie collection. He summoned the energy to hurl it across the floor where it slammed into a wall.
When he felt the facing beneath the cabinet, he nudged a cabinet door open and rummaged inside. Coarse, gritty, wiry. Brillo pad. Thin, tall box. Dishwasher soap. The sink was directly above. The journey between the door and the sink sapped him. He managed a deep breath, and then caved face-first onto the floor. Sweat dribbled down his scalp and onto his ears and neck.
He reared up three times before his hand caught the inside of the sink. Slowly, he pulled himself to one knee, then the other. His eyes seared in pain and every time he touched them, the fire reignited. He gave out a deep groan as he rose to his feet. He reached for the faucet and flipped on the cold water, full force. He moved his head until the water found his eyes. So cool. The burn was still there, but not as much. Using the countertop for support, he staggered four feet to the wall phone and ran his fingers across the sharp, square buttons. He pressed one. Dial tone, then silence. He pressed another. Nothing. He tried again.
“Operator . . . I need Sheriff Blackbear, right now.”