The Brightons are just an ordinary, small-town, law-abiding family—until somebody else's mistake uncovers the truth. Jake and Carolyn Brighton are the FBI's two most wanted fugitives. Jake and Carolyn have lived a lie for fourteen years to protect themselves. But now they have to protect their thirteen-year-old son.
Their only chance is to return to the hellish scene of an unprecedented crime and collect the evidence that may finally set them free. But can they elude a massive manhunt long enough to get there?
“Gilstrap has ingeniously twisted his simple premise six ways from Sunday. Does for families what Nathan’s Run did for preteens—puts them through endless rounds of entertainingly action-packed pursuit.” —Kirkus
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At All Costs
By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1998 John Gilstrap
All rights reserved.
The previous body shop manager at Marcus Ford — "The Best Deals in Dixie" — was fired for wearing a coffee-stained shirt to work. That the stain hadn't occurred until after he'd been on the job for two hours didn't matter. Old man Marcus had an image for his employees, by God, and they'd better live up to it.
Jake Brighton had no idea how many of the stories about Marcus's tirades were true, but in his current position as spear-catcher du jour, the tales weighed heavily on his mind as he sat stranded in shift-change traffic from the Zebra Plant. It just didn't seem right that a town the size of Phoenix, South Carolina, should have a rush hour. He checked his watch one more time and sighed. Eight o'clock, straight up.
According to the sign on the door, Marcus Ford's body shop opened for business at 7:00 A.M., six days a week. As manager, Jake made it a point to be at his desk by six-thirty, to greet the tradesmen as they started trickling in around six forty-five.
Jake knew from his interview five months ago that Clint Marcus couldn't abide tardiness, but he was reasonably sure the seventy-year-old widower would look the other way just this once. Two months ago Jake had given a leg up on the waiting list to Lucas Banks, an obscenely wealthy local attorney whose family vacation had been threatened by a fender-bender. According to the letter of praise sent to Marcus, "Jake Brighton and his team are the best in the business, and you can count on me as a devoted customer forever."
The letter had stretched Marcus's scowl into a rare smile. "It's about time we got a decent man in this slot," he'd said at yesterday's weekly employee meeting. "Keep this up, Jake, and you'll have one hell of a future here." High praise, indeed, from a man known to roast managers for sport.
The sound of the applause still rang in Jake's ears. Sure, Jake knew that his coworkers' enthusiasm was as mandatory as the attendance, but he'd seen genuine pride in their faces, and the feeling it brought to his gut was the kind that made all the bullshit seem worthwhile. Even though he was the one singled out for credit, he'd made it clear during his impromptu speech that the letter wasn't about him but the team he'd assembled. It was truer than it was false.
His spirits had been floating so high last night that he took off a half hour early to celebrate with his family.
Ah, well. The best laid plans of mice and men ...
Titles aside, the one who really ran the shop was Mae Hooper, Jake's spherical, seventy-six-year-old office manager, who'd managed to outlive two husbands and three of her five children. The bet was two-to-one among the body men that full-time exposure to Mae's nagging had simply sucked away her family's will to live. After twenty-two years at Marcus Ford, though, the woman had forgotten more about the body shop business than Jake would ever learn, and he knew better than to cross her.
Finally, he arrived. By parking his Subaru on the street, alongside the chain-link fence, he left the few spaces out front for customers. Old man Marcus didn't like seeing what he termed "Jap crap" parked in his lot, anyway.
As Jake climbed out of his car into the fifty-degree morning air, he offered up a little prayer that his wheels would still be waiting for him at the end of the day. In this western corner of Phoenix, a vehicle left out on the street was always vulnerable, but as long as he had it inside before sunset, he thought he'd be okay. Any later, though, and the odds plummeted. Just three weeks ago the Exxon station on the corner had been robbed in broad daylight by three gang-bangers in ski masks. No one was hurt, but the bad guys were still on the loose, and as far as Jake was concerned, any crook brazen enough to point shotguns at people in the middle of the day wouldn't think twice about boosting a car.
So much for the tranquillity of small-town America.
Jake stepped inside quickly and shoved the door closed, the slap of sleigh bells against the glass announcing his arrival. It was autumn now, and the body men had already warned him that Mae Hooper hated drafts. It was one thing if a customer was a bit slow with the door — they escaped with a pointed reminder — but a coworker committing the same offense received a withering rebuke. To compensate for the inevitable lapses, Mae kept the thermostat in the lobby cranked to seventy-five, with a ceramic heater at her feet, year-round, set on broil.
The temperature shock took Jake's breath away, and he quickly stripped off his jacket. "Jeez, Mrs. Hooper," he said. "Can't we get some heat in here?"
Mae missed the irony entirely. She simply gave a sympathetic shrug and produced a cup of coffee for her boss. "Here you go, Jake. Cream and three sugars." Those eight words had been her morning greeting every day for nearly five months now.
After hanging his jacket, he gratefully accepted the cup. "Thanks. Hey, the lobby looks great."
Somewhere between the time when he left last night and returned this morning, Halloween had arrived at the shop. A display of cornstalks and pumpkins stood where an end table used to be, and a paper string of interlocking ghosts and witches drooped along the front of Mae's receptionist station. The place looked great; homey, even. Jake was beginning to think that maybe the renovation work they'd just completed hadn't been a waste of money, after all.
Mae gave him one of her condescending, grandmotherly smiles. "Well, somebody has to take care of this place."
For years, Clint Marcus had resisted the trend among shops to make themselves look more like doctors' and lawyers' offices. According to the experts, you had to appeal to the tastes of women these days. Torn sofas and dusty end tables just didn't cut it anymore.
Marcus finally fell in line, but not until his competitors had started face-lifting their own shops and siphoning away his customers. He'd gutted the place. New, bright-white Sheetrock replaced the dingy old paneling, and he authorized new office space for both the manager and Mae, even fulfilling her request to have a sliding window between the two. That way, she could nag without leaving her seat. The old man had even installed a little play area to keep the kids entertained while mom and dad conducted business. When it was all done, the place looked great. Now, with the addition of Halloween decorations, it was downright cheery.
"When did you do all of this?"
Mae combed through a file, pretending to search for something. "I was busy decorating while you were busy being late."
He smiled. "Well, it's appreciated. You've got quite the touch."
She waved him away with a little huffing noise and quickly changed the subject. "So how was last night? Was Carolyn surprised to see you?"
Jake scoffed and rolled his eyes. "Relieved is more like it," he said. "Travis got into another fight yesterday. At school. Seems some kids were razzing him in the cafeteria, and he took it personally."
"Was it that 'trailer park' crap again?" At one level, Mae was everybody's mother, and she'd been tracking Travis's rocky adjustment to the eighth grade very closely.
"What else? According to Travis, the kids from 'Snob Hill' just won't let up on him. Yesterday the Lampier kid unloaded on him in front of some girls. When they started giggling, Travis stood up and punched him in the face." His features lightened as he shared a bit of Travis's pride. "By all accounts, it was a one-punch fight."
"Well, what was he supposed to do?" Mae protested, making a face. "Just stand there and be a wimp?"
"Well, according to the principal, Mr. Menefee" — Jake said the man's name as if it smelled bad — "wimpy is in these days. Getting along is more important than being right."
"And that's exactly what's wrong with this country!" She shook her head in disgust.
Jake suppressed a smile. Mae had a knack for turning every little injustice into evidence of civilization's collapse. "Well, it didn't end there," he went on. "While Travis was on his way home, the Lampier kid's older brother got the drop on him and beat him up pretty good."
"Nothing broken, fortunately, but he's pretty sore. This morning he didn't want to go back to school out of protest. Seems he doesn't think anyone will discipline the Hill kids who beat him up. He came around, though, when Carolyn finally remembered that this is field trip day."
"I don't blame him for being upset," Mae agreed, ignoring her ringing telephone. "It's just not fair anymore. You know, when I was a little girl —"
Jake interrupted by pointing to the phone. "You gonna answer that?" He hated to be rude, but he'd already heard all he cared to about Mae's childhood. She took the hint, and as she reached for the receiver, he disappeared around the corner into his office.
No sooner had he sat down than Mae's face appeared in the window, smiling a snaggle-toothed grin. "Dr. Whittaker's on line one for you. You know, the Mercedes?"
Jake made a show of grimacing. "Already? I just talked to him last night."
She laughed. "Surely, you don't think this is the first time he's called this morning. I think he wants to bargain some more."
Two weeks ago the good doctor had run his Mercedes into a concrete drainage ditch at better than thirty-five miles an hour, busting everything forward of the fire wall. Now he was furious that his car wasn't ready yet. He was a cardiologist, don't you know — way too important to be without his preferred transportation.
Jake reached for the blinking extension, but movement outside drew his attention to the front windows. People seemed to be gathering, even as they tried to stay out of sight. One of them had a gun.
The lobby doors exploded open, releasing a flood of heavily armed men into the reception area. Jake instinctively jumped to his feet and yanked open the top right-hand drawer of his desk, snatching out his snub-nosed .44.
"Federal officers, don't move!"
The words boomed like a cannon. Jake jumped as his stomach fell. He moved to drop the revolver back into the drawer but hesitated. Then it was too late.
He watched in horror as a dozen submachine guns swung around to bear down on him.
Mae shrieked as men in blue windbreakers pushed her to the floor and assumed shooting positions, aiming their stubby weapons through the Plexiglas window at her boss. Jake just stood there, unmoving, with his chrome-plated magnum pointing at the ceiling.
"Put it down!" the lead gunman commanded.
The voice startled Jake almost as much as the command itself. Somewhere under that helmet and SWAT gear was a woman.
Two of the cop's cohorts darted out to flank their target and get a better angle. "Put the gun down! Now! Let me see those hands! Now!"
He didn't know what to do. His stomach cramped with fear. If he tried to shoot, they'd drop him in an instant. Ultimately, his hands decided for him. As he gently laid the weapon on his desk, he wondered how they'd found out.
"That's it," the leader encouraged him. "Right. On the desk, just like that. Now keep your hands where I can see them, and come to the door."
Jake faced his palms forward at elbow height, his fingers splayed wide, as he sidestepped from behind his desk and toward his office door. Slow, deliberate movements were his single best insurance policy against a catastrophic trigger-pull.
"There you go," the cop urged. "Just keep moving. Right. Just like that. Good man. Just like that."
The instant Jake crossed the threshold, he was gang-tackled by three SWAT team types: the two he'd seen flanking their boss, and a third who'd escaped his notice altogether. They took him down hard, first to his knees, then face-first into the carpet, driving the breath from his lungs. From the other room, Mae screamed again. Someone put a knee on his face to keep him from moving, while the others bent his arms until the backs of his wrists touched behind him.
Jake didn't fight. Arrest was a given at this point. The only true variable now was the number of bruises he'd sustain in the process. He felt the ring of the handcuffs against his skin and winced in anticipation of the pain he knew was next. They didn't let him down, ratcheting the bracelets tight.
"Stay put," somebody told him.
No problem, Jake thought. As he lay on the brand-new maroon carpet — not yet four months old — the acid stench of the fibers irritated his nose. He fought back the urge to sneeze and tried to make the pieces fit in his mind.
We've been so careful.
A pair of black combat boots appeared in front of his face, obliterating any other view. "You Jake Brighton?" Jake strained to look up at the lady cop who'd threatened to shoot him only a minute before. "Yeah. Who are you?"
"I'm Special Agent Rivers with the FBI. We're here to search your premises for illegal contraband." She'd stooped down to display the warrant, but Jake stared right through it.
His mind reeled. What the hell ...
"And you are under arrest for assaulting federal officers."
Oh, this wasn't right at all. He craned his neck to get a better look at his captor, then abandoned the effort. "You mind if I sit up?"
A hand around Jake's biceps helped to bring him to his feet and over to a visitors' chair in the waiting room. Jake couldn't believe the number of cops who continued to swarm into his shop. There had to be fifty of them, split evenly between FBI and DEA, with a few locals thrown in. The place seethed with activity. Beyond the heavy fire door at the other end of the waiting room, he could hear the feds rousting the body men and painters out in the shop.
Maybe the situation wasn't as bad as he'd initially thought. DEA meant drugs.
Rivers started to walk away, but Jake called after her, "What the hell's going on here?"
Her lips bent into a humorless smile as she lifted her Kevlar helmet off her strawberry-blond hair. "This is what you call a drug raid."
Mae gasped, clasping both sides of her face with sausage-like fingers. "Oh, my goodness! Drugs! Here?" From the look on her face, she'd rather have believed that Eleanor Roosevelt was a prostitute. "That's not possible! You tell her, Jake! That's just not possible!"
He smiled uncomfortably. Mae had lived here in Phoenix since 1920, and despite her overall dyspeptic attitude, she still saw green grass under the sooty streets and happy families among the homeless bums on the corner.
"You think I'm involved in drugs?" Jake asked, bewildered.
"Are you? I think a lot of people who work for you are." Rivers picked up the warrant and riffled through the pages. "I've got a Martinez, a Willis, a MacGonegal, and a Hummer. You know them?"
He nodded. His whole goddamn paint department. He should have guessed. "Selling or using?"
Shit. The paint crew was the one part of his team he'd regarded as a sore point. There wasn't a man among them he hadn't threatened to fire in the past five months. You name the offense: short attention spans, sloppy work, irregular hours. Classic druggie behavior. How could he have missed it?
Mae still didn't get it. "Well, why is Jake under arrest?"
"Because he tried to shoot me," Rivers answered coolly — gleefully almost.
Mae rolled her eyes. "If he'd tried to shoot you, you'd be dead now."
Jake closed his eyes and sighed. "Um, Mrs. Hooper —"
"I'm serious," the old woman persisted. "I haven't shot a gun in fifty years, but at this range, even I couldn't miss."
Rivers glared at her. "Maybe your boss didn't like what would happen after he shot me." She nodded at a grim-faced, machine gun–bearing DEA agent standing a few feet away.
"Oh, come on, Rivers," Jake objected. "Take a look at this neighborhood, will you? Wouldn't you be a bit on edge if a thousand people rushed into your office with automatic weapons?" Without even thinking, he'd stumbled upon his defense.
Rivers measured him with a glare. "We identified ourselves."
"And that's why I didn't shoot." He winced a little, cursing himself for pushing too hard.
She chewed on her cheek and regarded him one more time. "I'd like to believe that, but you know what? You hung on to that weapon just a little longer than I liked." She started to say something more, then stopped. She had more pressing matters to attend to. "Now, you just keep your butt planted while we do what we need to do. We'll be transporting you and the others shortly."
Excerpted from At All Costs by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 1998 John Gilstrap. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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