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By William W. Johnstone, J.A. JOHNSTONE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Thanksgiving, Springfield, Illinois, eight months later
"I'm just saying that the system is broken and it's time we tried something else, that's all."
"Damn right the system's broken! If it wasn't, the country wouldn't keep electing presidents who hate America!"
"You can want America to be better without hating it."
"Not if what you mean by better requires changing everything that made this country great in the first place. My God, Robbie, do you really think less than half of the population can go on carrying everybody else forever?"
"If all the rich people who can afford it will just pay their fair share —"
"Fair share? You mean, everything they have? Because even if they did that, it wouldn't keep this country from going farther in the hole for even one day! Not one. Damned. Day."
Ashley looked over at Tobey, shrugged slightly, and mouthed the words I'm sorry.
He gave a tiny shake of his head to let her know it was all right. He was used to hearing her father and brother argue. It went on at every gathering of the Parker family, and Tobey had assured her he considered it a feature, not a bug.
Norm Parker was an electrician, an old-school guy who would have been right at home as a member of the Greatest Generation. His youngest son Robbie was a computer whiz who made three or four times the money his dad did, a fact of which Norm was quite proud. Politically, however, they were poles apart.
Emily Parker, Norm's wife and Robbie's mother, said, "Speaking of one day ... Can't you two stop fighting for one day? It's Thanksgiving, for goodness' sake!"
"Holidays never stopped them before, did they, Mom?" Ashley asked. "We always have to sit at the dinner table and listen to those two butt heads."
Tobey said, "Hey, you shouldn't call your father and brother names like that."
Ashley burst out laughing.
Her ten-year-old niece Danielle said, "I don't see what's so funny."
"Hush, dear," Danielle's mother Betsy said. "Eat your cranberry sauce."
"Don't like cranberry sauce," the little girl said, pouting.
"I'll take it!" her twin brother Danny said.
Betsy slapped his reaching hand back and told him, "Eat your own food."
Family life, Tobey thought dryly. Wasn't it wonderful?
Actually, he answered his own question; it was. Annoying at times, but it still beat the alternative.
He looked around the long table, Norm at one end, Emily at the other, him and Ashley and Robbie on one side, Ashley's older brother Jeff, his wife, and the twins on the other side. Growing up, Thanksgiving dinners had consisted of Tobey and the old man eating whatever they could find at the grocery store off of old-fashioned folding TV trays that had been in the family for generations, while they sat in front of the TV watching football. The old man, Tobey's grandfather, chain-smoked cigarettes and drank beer, and by evening he'd be drunk and half-asleep. But there was always food, always a roof over their heads, and Tobey hadn't been one to complain.
His home life sure didn't give him any reasons not to enlist, though, once he'd stuck it out for a couple of years of junior college. He didn't want to go on with his education. Maybe in a few years, after he got out, he'd told himself.
Well, he was out now, and it was time to start thinking about those things. And a lot of other things as well, the most important being the beautiful, blond young woman sitting beside him.
Norm said, "Seriously, Tobey, can you believe the way the media and the politicians have brainwashed this kid?" He waved a fork at Robbie.
"I'm not brainwashed, Dad," Robbie said. "I just know how to think for myself."
"Think for yourself ? You believe every lie those lefties spout! Haven't you ever learned anything about history? Don't you know that communism is responsible for more evil and more deaths than anything else in the history of the world?"
Robbie rolled his eyes and said, "You can't just yell about Communist boogeymen and refuse to see how income inequality and the tyranny of the one percent have ruined this country. True socialism has never been tried —"
"Sure it has, and it always turns into a dictatorship. Ever hear of the Soviet Union? Ever hear of Cuba?" Norm grimaced and shook his head. "Oh, that's right, they don't teach anything in the universities anymore except how those places were workers' paradises. They leave out all the stuff about gulags and mass executions. Wouldn't want to upset any of the students or hurt their delicate little feelings! I guess they should start posting trigger warnings in all the delivery rooms, so babies can start learning to be victims as soon as they're born!"
Robbie waved his hands and said, "Now you've just gone off into madness. Why don't you save your rants for another time, Dad? We're trying to eat Thanksgiving dinner here."
"Yeah, well, I'm not sure there's much to give thanks for in this country anymore."
The genuinely bitter edge in Norm's voice shut down conversation around the table for a few minutes. The only sounds were the clink of silverware against china. Finally Danny said, "Can I go watch the football game?"
"The Bears aren't playing," Norm said. "What does it matter?"
"Nobody's going to watch football yet," Emily decreed. "Nobody leaves the table until we've all had pumpkin pie."
"That sounds like a pretty good rule to me," Tobey said. "I remember one Thanksgiving over in Iraq, we always had turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie, and there was a rocket attack but we stayed right where we were until we'd finished Thanksgiving dinner."
"An immoral, unjust war based on lies," Robbie muttered.
Tobey let it go. He could have argued the point, but it would have been a waste of time and energy and he knew it. You couldn't explain some things to a guy like Robbie.
He'd never had pure evil staring him in the face, wanting nothing more than to kill him, the way Tobey had.
Betsy changed the subject by saying, "I hear that they're expecting record crowds at the mall tomorrow."
They all knew which mall she was talking about: the American Way Mall, the biggest and best in the entire country, sprawling over acres of what had once been farmland just outside Springfield. People came from all over the country to shop there.
"You couldn't pay me enough to go to the mall on Black Friday," Emily said. "I don't care how good the deals are."
"Rampant consumerism," Robbie said under his breath.
Norm shook his head and said, "Eh, I don't like crowds."
"I have to work," Jeff said. From the look on his face, Tobey thought he was adding silently, Thank goodness.
"I was thinking we might go," Tobey said.
"Really?" Ashley asked with a slight frown. "You didn't say anything to me about it. I know how you hate crowds and shopping."
"I don't hate shopping. I'm just more the sort of guy who likes to go into a place, get what he's after, and then leave."
"Oh? Are you after something in particular? Is that why you want to go to the mall?"
"Maybe," Tobey said.
He wasn't going to tell her what he had in mind. Not yet.
But he remembered how she had been there for him when he got back, the way she had helped him through months of rehab on his leg, giving him the strength to keep working at it when he was so disgusted he wanted to quit. He was back to normal now, and he knew he had her to thank for it.
She had been there for him as well when he woke up yelling and shaking at night, reliving the ambush that had cost Sagers's life and nearly cost his. He saw all those terrible sights, heard that murderous cacophony, in his dreams, and when they jolted him back to reality, Ashley was there to hold him until his pulse slowed down. If he was ever going to be right again, she was the path to normalcy.
So, yeah, damn right he wanted something at the mall. He was going to the jewelry store there so he could get her the best engagement ring he could afford. Come Christmas Eve, he would pop the question and ask her to marry him.
Because more than anything else, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Ashley Parker, and nothing would stand between him and that goal.CHAPTER 2
"You can't be a security guard," Calvin Marshall's mother said. "You're too young."
The no-nonsense tone of her voice allowed absolutely no room for argument.
"Actually, you only have to be eighteen," Calvin told her. "And I just turned nineteen last week."
He tried not to sound smug about it, because he knew that would annoy her faster than anything else. And once his mother was annoyed about something, she tended to dig in her heels and refuse to be budged.
She gave him a superior look and said, "I think I know how old you are, young man. I gave birth to you, after all. Eighteen hours of labor —"
"Yeah, I think the boy's heard that eighteen-hours-of-labor story a time or two," Calvin's father Eddie said. "Look at him." Eddie pointed at Calvin. "College boy."
"I'm in college for now," Calvin said. "Until the end of this semester."
"We'll come up with the money to keep you in school," his father promised. "Don't you worry about that."
"Yeah, but it would be a lot easier if I could carry some of the load myself. That's why I applied for that security guard job at the mall. I can work overtime these next three days and make quite a bit, and then go on working part-time after that and still keep up with my classes."
"But they'll give you a gun," Christina said. "I don't like the idea of my boy carrying a gun."
Calvin shook his head. "No, they won't. Some of the guards are armed, but not all of them. I won't be. Hey, I'll just be there to be a body in uniform, to discourage shoplifters and such. They don't really expect me to, I don't know, fight crime."
"Are you sure about that?"
Calvin nodded solemnly and said, "I'm sure. The only dangerous thing about it will be the risk of getting trampled by hordes of bargain-hungry shoppers when they open the doors in the morning."
Christina looked worried and opened her mouth to respond when Eddie said, "The boy's joking."
"Oh. I knew that." She frowned at Calvin. "But those crowds really are pretty bad. I've gone shopping a few times on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and I thought I was going to be crushed! You'll need to be careful." She sighed. "That is, if you're really going through with this."
"I am," he said. "It's all set up. I'm supposed to be there at six o'clock in the morning. The mall opens at eight."
Calvin went back to eating. Instead of turkey and stuffing and all the trimmings, his mother always made chicken and dumplings for Thanksgiving. The meal was always delicious, so this was a holiday tradition he was just fine with. Maybe she had started doing it because it was cheaper, back in the early days of their marriage when they didn't have much money and it had taken most of the wages Eddie made as a mechanic to pay the mortgage on this house in a decent part of town. Eddie had worked a lot of overtime back then, too.
Calvin knew his pop wasn't just an average mechanic. He was really, really good at what he did, and so the jobs and the wages had gotten better over the years. Not so good, however, that the family could be considered well-to-do. But they always got by.
For a time, when he was in junior high, his father had hoped he would be good enough at sports to get a scholarship to a decent college. Calvin had played football, basketball, and baseball, and he'd run track, to boot. He was always good enough to make the team, but never good enough to get much playing time or stand out when he did manage to get on the field or the court. Nor were his grades outstanding enough to garner an academic scholarship, although he had passed all his classes without any trouble and graduated in the top half of his class.
Still, his parents were determined that he should go to college and make something of himself, so when the time came, they had borrowed money, and along with grants and student loans, it was enough for right now.
But they were skating on the thin edge of financial disaster, and it wouldn't take much to push them over. One large, unexpected expense would do it. That was why he was determined to make some money and help out.
That was why he had gotten the security guard job at the American Way Mall.
He knew his mother was worrying needlessly. Other than the enormous crowds, nothing much was going to happen at the mall this weekend.CHAPTER 3
Jake Connelly picked up the tray from the kitchen counter and double-checked to be sure he had everything on it he was supposed to. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy on one plate. Adele didn't like stuffing or cranberry sauce. Green bean casserole on a saucer. A slice of pecan pie on another saucer. A cup of decaf. A glass of water and a little paper cup beside it that held all her meds.
Yep, Jake thought. Happy Thanksgiving.
He carried the tray out of the kitchen, through the dining room and the living room, then down the hall to the master bedroom.
Some days, Adele spent in the recliner in the living room, the recliner so big it was more like a bed than a chair, she had said when he bought it for himself a few years earlier. So big it almost swallowed her, now that she'd wasted away to nothing, propped up by pillows and swaddled by blankets. Now that she was so thin, she was always cold. He kept the heater up high enough that he went around with his sleeves rolled up most of the time, but she still needed the blankets.
The chair was comfortable, though, and that was his main concern these days, keeping her comfortable. This morning, however, she'd said she was too tired to make the trip down the hall to the living room.
"We can use the wheelchair," he had told her. "You don't have to use the walker. I thought you might like to watch the parade." He paused. "You always loved the Thanksgiving Day parade."
Adele had sighed and nodded, then said, "I know, dear. But I just don't feel up to it this year. Maybe next year."
"Sure," Jake had said, the crack in his heart widening just that much more. Both of them knew good and well that she wouldn't be here for next year's parade. There was a good chance that her cancer-ravaged body wouldn't last even until Christmas.
Neither of them spoke of that. Acknowledging the inevitable did no good. They just took things a day, an hour, a minute at a time. What else was left?
Her eyes were closed when he came into the bedroom. He paused just inside the door and wished it was a little brighter in here. The thick curtains shut out most of the weak November sunlight. Jake stood there for a moment, silent and unmoving, the fear that was always with him rising inside his chest, until he was able to detect the faint rising and falling of her chest under the covers.
The relief that went through him then was strong enough to make him weak in the knees. This wasn't the first time he had felt such a reaction, and he knew that it wouldn't be the last.
"I'm not asleep," she murmured as he crossed the room with the tray. "I'm just resting." She opened her eyes, and her voice was a little stronger as she said, "Oh, Jake, you fixed Thanksgiving dinner. How sweet of you."
"I told you I would. They have lots of stuff in the stores now that make it easier for guys like me who are no great shakes at cooking. It's not as good as what you would have fixed, but ..."
"But you did." She sighed as she looked up at him. "You shouldn't have to waste your time taking care of me, Jake"
"Hey, you took care of me all those years."
She scoffed and said, "You were a big, tough cop. You didn't need any taking care of."
"That shows how little you know. I would've been a mess without you, kid."
"I'm afraid it's been a long, long time since either of us could be called a kid."
"What're you talkin' about? I look at you and that forty years goes away, just like that."
"It's nice of you to say so, but there are so many other things you could be doing ..."
"Better than spending time with my best girl?" Jake shook his head. "I don't think so. Now, stay there. I'll go get my food and be right back."
"All right. Thank you, Jake."
He pointed a thick, blunt finger at her and said, "Don't go anywhere."
She smiled and said, "I'll be right here."
He had fixed another tray for himself and left it in the kitchen. Whenever it was possible, they ate their meals together. For so many years their schedules had been pretty hectic, what with him on the job and her working at City Hall, and they had missed out on a lot of meals together.
Excerpted from Black Friday by William W. Johnstone, J.A. JOHNSTONE. Copyright © 2016 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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