Dillon Gosling bit his lip anxiously, running a nervous hand through his tangle of chocolate curls, his eye on the clock on the dashboard, as he hovered outside what was probably one of the only two remaining empty spots in the entire mall lot. Well, not quite empty, but any second now it would be. It had been an incredible stroke of good parking karma that he’d been trawling the row just as the pair of package-laden, stroller-pushing women had begun trundling assorted toddlers and infants into their matching SUVs, laughing and talking to one another. That had been seven minutes ago. It had taken them forever to load everything and everyone in; eight drivers behind Dillon had given up in disgust and put their money on circling instead. Idiots. Only two weeks until Christmas, this time of day; no way would they find spots. Finally they pulled out, one after the other. Hallelujah! Dillon sighed in relief and pulled into the leftmost spot, careful to leave a generous amount of space between him and the car on his left.
Dillon patted the steering wheel affectionately, repeating his daily ritual. “That’s it, Angel. You can rest now. Just two more weeks and I’ll be able to give you that tune-up and whatever else it is you need, like I’ve been promising you. Just please start for me when I get back tonight, OK?” he pleaded. With a silent prayer to whatever guardian angel might be listening, he shut off the ignition. The engine of the ten year old battered white Toyota Camry didn’t stop immediately. It ran on for a few moments and then died with the same coughing, lingering sputter Dillon had been hearing with increasing dread for the past three weeks.
Dillon exited his car and stopped cold when the man in the beat up red pickup truck now idling behind him called out to him in a very deep, deceptively soft and even Texan drawl, “Excuse me. Can you park your car within the lines so I can get mine in?” he asked politely. Dillon heard as clearly as if he’d spoken the words aloud the implied hail of, “Yo, asshole,” and the closing words, “Before I kill you?” The truck was at least as old as his Camry, a real working man’s truck with a full bed with metal bars over it, and Dillon could clearly see the gun rack in the passenger cab, behind the hulking denim clad shoulders of the driver. The gun rack was empty, of course; this was California, not Texas, but still. He was so dead. Hard, impatient blue eyes stared at him from a strong, tanned face beneath a stark blond crew cut. The man was older, but then almost everyone was - Dillon was only eighteen and this guy looked to be twice his age. He would be handsome, if he didn’t look so intimidating, if he were smiling. If he ever smiled.
Dillon swallowed, looking at the right side of his car. Sure enough, he was just enough over the line to make it impossible for the big guy and his even bigger truck to park. He turned back to the driver. “Um. I’m sorry, but I can’t,” Dillon said, continuing on in desperation before the guy could begin to argue the point. “I had to park like that because my passenger-side lock is jammed and I can only get into the car from the driver’s side, and when I don’t leave enough room and the car I park next to pulls out and someone else parks too close, I’ve had to wait sometimes for hours to get in and…” Dillon trailed off, realizing he was babbling and the stranger could care less about his problems. “Look, I’m really, really sorry,” he said sincerely. “I’d risk it and move him anyway, even though I’m already late for work, but he won’t start again right now. He hasn’t been feeling well, I mean, running right, and he won’t start now until the engine cools off enough; it’ll take at least fifteen minutes. I swear.”
The big guy was glaring now. “If you work in the mall, why aren’t you in Employee Parking?” he asked. “There’s gotta be at least twenty open spaces there,” he accused.
“I know,” Dillon agreed sympathetically, nodding vigorously. “I’d kill to be able to park there, it’s not like I mind the walk or anything, but I’m only a seasonal hire and we don’t get Employee Parking Permit stickers. If I parked there, I’d get ticketed just like you would and I can’t afford to pay a parking ticket. I could barely afford the gas to get here. Look, honestly, I can’t move my car and I have to go now, or they’ll fire me, and then…” He looked from the driver back to Angel and to the driver again, broadcasting a silent message for mercy. If he came out and his tires were slashed or the guy had taken some other kind of revenge he was screwed, but he had to risk it. “I’m really, really sorry,” Dillon said again. Then he turned and ran. Forget gas and car repairs, if he lost this job he’d lose his apartment as well as any hope of buying groceries, let alone anything special for Christmas dinner. At least for now he still had a roof over his head and a loaf of bread for toast when he got hungry. No, just the bread. The toaster had caught fire this morning and was currently still soaking in the sink, just to be on the safe side; the last thing he needed was his apartment to burn down while he was here. He’d used up the last of the peanut butter last week. He’d been so sick of it; it was the only protein he’d been getting for over a month. Dillon never realized he would miss it until it was gone. He couldn’t even grab a couple of slices of bread to eat on the way to work since he was down to two meals a day and those slices were his dinner. If he lost this job he’d be out on the streets, living and eating at one of the overcrowded homeless shelters he passed by every day. He had no illusions about how well that would turn out; he’d end up another statistic. He ran faster.
Gabriel D’Angelo watched the small, slender, curly haired brunette, Mr. 4NGL266 old model white Toyota Camry, take off like a frightened rabbit. Shit. He hadn’t meant to scare the poor kid that badly. He’d pegged him for an inconsiderate college asshole or a self-absorbed flake. It was amazing how in the month before Christmas the IQ level of the general populace dropped geometrically in direct proportion to their proximity to a shopping mall. Gabe had been working undercover for two weeks now as mall security, trying to help bust the ring of thieves that had been hitting Electronics Barns in malls across six counties. This mall store was huge, the flagship superstore, the first one, the one that launched the chain of forty-six stores some thirty years ago. It was nearly a third the size of the rest of the mall. They’d used it as the anchor store for the mall, which was built ten years after the electronics store opened.
This was one of the four possible stores they expected would be the last hit. Word on the street was the black market supply of stereos would be drying up soon. The ring was ready to fold; it had been getting too hot. If only they didn’t cave before one final score, they’d have a chance to nail these bastards. The Electronics Barn chain had lost over a million and a half dollars of merchandise. Worse, their insurance company was withholding settlement because they suspected an inside job. So did the police. That’s why Gabe was here, undercover, with back-up scattered nearby. But so far they had no real leads. They’d run records on everyone in mall security and the Electronics Barn employees, including the seasonal hires, but nothing and nobody stood out. That kid… He looked familiar. Definitely not a security type. Maybe a seasonal hire at the store? He’d swing by later and take a look.