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The breakthrough, p.4
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       The Breakthrough, p.4

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 

  Then she burst into laughter and gathered Boone in. “I can’t stay mad at you!” As she drew close to his ear, she whispered, “But you know exposin’ one of his best friends in the department liked to break his heart.”

  “I know.”

  She backed away and glared at Jack. “Now you I can stay mad at, mm-hm.” But she quickly dissolved again and hugged him. “Y’all get out there and keep Chef Boyardee company.”

  “One stip-a-lation,” Fletcher said as he greeted everyone. “Nobody be telling me how to cook meat. If there’s one thing I know . . .”

  Dorothy showed the women her flower and vegetable gardens while the men huddled around the grill. “You been to Stateville at all?” Jack said.

  “To see Pete? You kiddin’? Hard enough knowing he’s there, much as he deserves to be. Don’t know if I could take seeing it with my own eyes. Plus, what would I be saying by going? He spit on everything both of us built our careers around.”

  The three men stood nodding sadly until Jack mimicked what friends would ask him Monday. “So, how was it seeing your old boss? What’d you talk about? Have a good time?”

  That made them all chuckle. “Yeah,” Fletcher said, “enough with the doom and gloom. Looks at these brats.”

  “Everything smells great,” Boone said. “Can’t wait.”

  “Ain’t seen you since you became all high and mighty,” Fletcher said. “I ever congratulate you?”

  “Yes, sir, you sent a nice card. Appreciated it.”

  “Well deserved. Two of my best guys top cops now. Feels good. Almost makes up for Pete. Still can’t figure that one out. But hey, we were trying to change the subject. Tell me about the new squad.”

  “Well, we handle certain cases of aggravated assault, burglary, murder, rape, robbery, and—my favorite, ’cause it gives us so much latitude—any other crime that constitutes a threat to the city.”

  “How do you stay out of Homicide’s way?”

  “We don’t. They resent us.”

  “Doesn’t surprise me.”

  “That’s not true, actually,” Jack said. “Boone’s being modest. Yeah, things started rocky, but he took the bull by the horns.”

  “Yeah, and I found out there was more bull than horn.”

  “Fletch,” Jack said, “Boone pulled together the two squads and told ’em that he knew Homicide had all the experience and the authority and the jurisdiction. He said Major Case would take only those murders assigned from the superintendent’s office, and even then, he would work closely with Homicide’s best people. It really calmed things down.”

  “Smart,” Fletcher said.

  “It’s not perfect,” Boone said. “There are still turf wars and squabbling over who gets the credit. But I don’t care about that stuff. Get the bad guys off the street, I say. Who gets the collar doesn’t make that much difference.”

  “My man.”

  When it came time to eat, the six sat at a picnic table situated on a slab of concrete that served as a patio. The table was more suited to four, and with the men on one side and their partners on the other, Fletcher said, “Don’t one side be gettin’ up without the other. Whoever’s left is gonna tip over and have all the food in their laps.”

  “That’s not all bad,” Jack said.

  “Hope y’all don’t mind if I say grace,” Fletcher said.

  Everyone nodded, but Boone was stunned. He hadn’t ever come to any conclusions about Fletch’s spiritual life, but he had certainly never heard the man pray.

  “I jes’ like this little poem,” Fletch said. “Dear Lord, ‘For food that stays our hunger, for rest that brings us ease, for homes where memories linger, we give our thanks for these.’ Lord, make us truly thankful for these and all other blessings. I ask this in Jesus Christ’s name; amen.”

  Margaret added her own loud amen and reached to take Fletcher’s hand. “Thank you, sir. That was wonderful.”

  “You know,” Dorothy said, reaching for a huge bowl, “when I made my joke about y’all’s cholesterol, I wasn’t kidding. So if you have a problem with it, you probably don’t want much of this potato salad. I even looked it up, and a couple of scoops of this stuff will add up to about a hundred grams of cholesterol. If I wasn’t on my pills, I couldn’t have any of it. And if Fletch hadn’t behaved all week lookin’ forward to this, he couldn’t either.”

  “This is why I work out,” Jack said.

  “Me too,” Boone said.

  It didn’t seem much later that Boone was stuffed to where he could hardly breathe. The potato salad, greens, fruit salad, and especially the charcoal-grilled meats were irresistible. “Jack, we’re going to have to work out two hours a day for a month.”

  “Or jog to Colorado.”

  “This is how we keep you here longer than you planned,” Dorothy said. “I know you want to run off soon, but you can’t.”

  “Because we can’t move?” Boone said.

  “Well, that and you’ve got to wait a while before you can enjoy my pie. Rhubarb and apple today, and there’ll be no doggie bags leavin’ this establishment. And you can say all you want that you couldn’t eat another bite, but you don’t want to offend me that bad. Give it a few hours, and you’ll find your appetites again.”

  6

  Ranger

  Florence began setting serving bowls on the table in her tiny kitchen, smiling at the laughter coming from the next room. Haeley’s brother sure seemed to be enjoying SpongeBob, or Max, or both. “Time to shut that down now, you two!” she called out. “Dinner in two minutes.”

  “C’mon, little buddy,” she heard Alfonso say. “Let me show you how Rangers wash up for chow.”

  When they joined her at the table, Alfonso’s eyes were wide. “Whoa, man! Look at this feast. We never saw anything like this overseas, and I haven’t been back long enough for my mama to feed me.”

  “You haven’t seen your mama?” Florence said.

  “Just for a minute. I came back through Fort Benning in Georgia, then hitched my way home to pick up my car. Drove all night to get here.” He grabbed Max’s shoulder and rocked him in his seat. “Didn’t want to wait another minute to meet this guy. Didn’t it surprise you a dark-haired girl like Hael would have a blond kid? You can see where he gets it.”

  “I sure can!”

  “And Haeley doesn’t even know I’m stateside, let alone here, so Mama and Daddy are sworn to secrecy.”

  “I assume you’re a believin’ man like your sister,” Florence said.

  “Yes, ma’am, washed under the same blood you are.”

  “Then would you mind askin’ the blessing?”

  “Honored.” He reached out and the three of them held hands. “God is great, God is good, now we thank Thee for our food. Amen.”

  “Amen!” Max shouted. “I got to learn that prayer!”

  “I can teach you,” Alfonso said as they passed bowls and dug in. “But first I want to teach you the Ranger creed. Know what that is?”

  Max shook his head.

  “Well, it might take me a while, because I’m going to be eating at the same time, but I’ll get through it.” He cut himself a large bite slathered in sweet red sauce and filled his mouth. Florence cut Max’s meat while Alfonso chewed.

  “What is this, by the way, ma’am?” he said, reaching for his iced tea.

  “Pigs’ knuckles.”

  Alfonso laughed. “I’m glad I tried it before I knew that! It’s good! I like it.”

  Florence beamed. “I’m tickled. I had a feelin’ they’d be new to you. And how about you, little one? You like pigs’ knuckles?”

  Max nodded and said with his mouth full, “But I didn’t even know pigs had fingers.”

  After helping clear the picnic table and schlepping things into the kitchen, Fletcher Galloway suggested everyone congregate in the basement rec room, “where it’s cooler and the Cubs game in LA will be coming on.”

  “Okay if Boone and I join you in a few, Mr. Galloway?” Margaret sai
d. “We just need to chat.”

  “Suit yourself,” he said. “We got no agenda.”

  “Still okay with you, Haeley?” Margaret said.

  “Sure,” she said with a sigh. “I think I’d better lie down awhile anyway.”

  “You okay, hon?” Boone said. “Eat too much?”

  “She hardly ate at all,” Dorothy said. “Don’t think I wasn’t watchin’.”

  “Sorry, Mrs. Galloway,” Haeley said. “Everything was delicious. I’m a little under the weather is all.”

  “Just teasin’,” Dorothy said. “You take a load off. You don’t have to watch the Cubs.”

  “Oh, I’m a fan, but I’m afraid I need a little peace and quiet, just for a little while.”

  “You do look pale.”

  “Do I?”

  “You do, babe,” Boone said. “Would you rather I take you home?”

  “Oh, no! If I can only rest a bit.”

  “Let me show you to the guest bedroom,” Dorothy said.

  “Is right here all right for us, Boone?” Margaret said, nodding at the picnic table.

  They sat across from each other, the sun toasting Boone’s head, shining off Margaret’s hair, and baking the concrete.

  “You know I’m more’n twenty years older than you, right?” she began.

  “Never thought about it, but yeah, I guess.”

  “Sweet. C’mon, you know I’m an old lady.”

  “You don’t play old; I’ll say that.”

  “Old enough to be your mama.”

  Boone shrugged. “Where you going with this?”

  “Just sayin’. I’m going to tell you about my mistakes. I knew better, and I take full responsibility, but I need you to give me the respect due your elder. Can you?”

  “I told you once; you’re not going to get any judging from me. I’m not about to tell anybody how they should live.”

  “But you can’t deny you were surprised to find out I was a Christian. There I was, livin’ with your boss, carrying on, and I tell you I was raised just like you. Made you curious, didn’t it?”

  Boone cocked his head. “That’s fair.”

  “Well, my story’s a lot like Haeley’s, only I went further and stayed in the muck longer. Plus I’ve got former husbands.”

  “Why do you feel you need to tell me all this?”

  “I want to tell you what happened ’cause I consider you a brother in Christ.”

  “I am that.”

  “Then let me.”

  “The Ranger creed is an acronym,” Alfonso said, “Know what that is, little buddy?”

  Max shook his head.

  “Well, ’course you don’t. It just means that every line of the creed starts with a different letter, and all the letters spell Ranger. Understand?”

  “We don’t do spelling yet.”

  “Well, let me run ’em down for you anyway. Someday you can memorize the creed like I did.” He glanced up at Florence. “He’ll understand some of this, won’t he?”

  “I ’spect he will. He’s a smart boy.”

  Alfonso continued to eat throughout his recitation. “Okay, the first one, which starts with R because Ranger starts with R, is: ‘Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers.’”

  Florence saw Max’s eyes glaze over before he looked away. She said, “That jes’ means he signed up for that job of being a Army man, so he’s gon’ do it with all his might.”

  Max nodded.

  “That’s right, ma’am. Then, ‘Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move farther, faster, and fight harder than any other soldier.’ Can you make that one simple for him?”

  “Rangers are the best, so he’s got to be faster and tougher.”

  Alfonso was beaming as he chewed, and Florence could see Max was following now.

  “‘Never shall I fail my comrades,’” Alfonso said. “‘I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight, and I will shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be, one hundred percent and then some.’”

  “That means the other Army men can count on him.”

  “‘Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress, and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.’”

  “He’ll never forget to act like a gentleman.”

  “‘Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle, for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy, and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.’”

  “Your Uncle Alfonso will always do his best and never give up.”

  “‘Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.’”

  “Even if he’s the last one alive, he’ll show guts.”

  “Couldn’t have said it better myself, Aunt Flo,” Alfonso said. “Great job. And great barbeque.”

  “I want to be a Ranger!” Max said.

  “Everybody should, little man.”

  7

  Revelation

  The sun was so unrelenting that Boone made a visor of his hand, despite that he was already wearing sunglasses. Margaret was doing the same, her pale skin reddening and her freckles darkening before his eyes.

  “I’m gonna keep this short for both our sakes,” she said. “What turned me was abuse. Both my first husbands knocked me around, and to tell you the truth, I never did understand that. Thought it was my fault at first. I was raised in a good, Christian family. My daddy was a little standoffish, but he was the real deal. Maybe I didn’t get enough hugging and I-love-yous, but I never doubted he loved me, and he was good to my mama and all of us. Problem was my first husband only pretended to be a Christian, and by the time I found out I’d been hornswoggled, we were already on the skids. He was drinking and beatin’ on me, wouldn’t go to counseling, and I wouldn’t take any more, so that was that.”

  “Sorry,” Boone said. “That’s rough.”

  “Not as rough as how my family treated me after that.”

  “Blamed it on you?”

  “Divorce is wrong and a sin—bam, done.”

  “Like it was your fault.”

  “They thought I coulda done more, and maybe I could have. But I wasn’t gonna live with anybody that hurt me. Guess I coulda just separated and got his attention and made him do what was right, but I didn’t. All of a sudden I’m more alone than I could imagine. Divorced and without a family.”

  “They abandoned you?”

  “Wouldn’t even speak to me. Still won’t. ’Course, brilliant me, I jump right into another romance. Found me a man who didn’t pretend nothin’. Wasn’t even a churchgoer, but nice, quiet, gentle, showed me lots of attention. And he didn’t drink.”

  “But you say he hit you too?”

  “Says I drove him to it. Maybe I did. Bunch of stuff worked together to kill that marriage. He proved to be boring. Didn’t want to do anything. Didn’t even wanna talk much. I was still young, wanted to go out, see people. He thought I was a flirt. Maybe I was. I’ve always been friendly, look you in the eye, smile. And when your husband pays you no mind, maybe you do look for other connections. I wasn’t looking to cheat on him, but he thought I was. Only thing I got out that marriage, ’sides a fat lip and a black eye, was my daughter.”

  Boone looked up and squinted. “I didn’t know you had kids.”

  “Just the one. She’s in heaven.”

  “Sorry.”

  “The one thing I did right. Told her about Jesus.
Took her to church. Got her saved before she got sick and died on me. Spinal meningitis when she was eleven. I gotta tell ya, Boone, that put me in the dumper. I was no good to anybody for years, except the guys I persuaded to keep me warm at night. Drugs, booze, and more men than I care to count.”

  She paused as if for a response, but Boone found himself speechless. Margaret seemed such a precious woman. Friendly, outgoing, selfless. Yet wounded. He shifted position and found the exposed wood of the picnic table blistering.

  “Still listenin’, son?”

  “You know I am.”

  “Curious ’bout what brought me to where I am today?”

  “Right again.”

  “One more marriage. I was in a bad, bad spot, totally away from the Lord, goin’ to AA but still smoking dope. We were unfaithful to each other almost from the beginning, and it didn’t last long. That brings me up to just a few years ago, before I met Jack. Somehow I got my act together except for me and God. Decided I didn’t want to grow old alone. Kicked my addictions, got me a job—”

  “You were working in an old-age home when you met Jack, weren’t you?”

  She nodded, digging a floppy hat out of her bag and plopping it on. “Stop grinning, child. You know you’re jealous. You want to find a cap?”

  “I’m all right, but you do look goofy.”

  “’Least I won’t have a sunburned scalp. At least slap some sunscreen on yours.”

  She rustled in her bag again and squirted a dollop into his palm. He rubbed it onto his head with both hands as if washing his hair.

  “Now who looks goofy? Anyway, one thing I always knew: a girl didn’t ever have to be out of job if she was willin’ to work. Just do what nobody else wants to do, and the money will follow.”

  “That’s what you found at the—?”

  “You betcha. Lotsa people want to push the old-timers around in their wheelchairs, but not many’ll bathe them and change their diapers.”

  “You liked that?”

  “I know it sounds weird. Part of me did, yes. I mean, that stuff wasn’t on my bucket list, but the Lord put something in me—empathy, I guess—that made me want to live out the Golden Rule with these people. They deserve dignity, and they deserve dry clothes and a clean body.”

 
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