When Bobby and Susan Martin come across a dirty, shivering child at their campsite, the last thing the childless couple expects is to be drawn into an unthinkable crime. But when one of the boy's kidnappers comes out of the brush waving a gun, Bobby is forced to react. In one chaotic, explosive moment, the predator is brutally murdered. But was he a criminal or a cop?
With a vicious crime ring closing in on them, and unsure of whom to trust, Bobby and Susan desperately plunge into the heart of danger to save the boy and themselves.
John Gilstrap's Even Steven enhances his reputation as an ingenious and innovative contemporary thriller writer.
John Gilstrap is the acclaimed author of Nathan's Run and At All Costs, both of which were selections of the Literary Guild. A former firefighter and EMT, he is an explosives-safety expert and an environmental engineer. He lives with his wife and son in Virginia.
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Bundled tightly against the cold, the young couple lay on an outcropping over the Catoctin River, looking up at the cloudless sky, and wondering which of the countless millions of stars was truly the one that delivered wishes.
"You asleep?" Bobby whispered.
"Not yet." Susan's throat still sounded thick.
He pulled his bride of five years even closer and kissed the top of her head. "Happy anniversary."
Susan snuggled in, burying her face in his jacket.
The calendar had lied. After such a brutal winter, he liked to think that April would have brought warmer temperatures. Out here in the mountains, though, where West Virginia reached closest to God, the air still smelled of February. He'd never been so ready for spring.
This wasn't at all how he'd planned it. The spot was perfect, yes; and the night beautiful, but he'd hoped the sadness would have dulled by now. There had to be a way to make the pain go away. There had to be. If he were a better husband, he'd know what it was. Susan's thick brown hair invisible in the darkness felt warm and soft against his hand as he gently massaged lazy circles on her scalp. She liked it when he did that.
"We'll just try again," he whispered, hoping she didn't hear the tremor in his voice. "And again, if we have to. And again and again and again."
Susan just burrowed her head deeper. Her anguish felt like razor blades in Bobby's gut. He pursed his lips and stared at the sky, desperately trying to hide the little hitch in his breathing. His role required strength. If she sensed that dimples had formed in his armor of optimism, he wasn't sure how either of them would hold up.
They'd come so close last time; they'd let themselves believe. As much as he craved children, Bobby wasn't sure he could handle the cycle of hope and disaster anymore. He wasn't sure that anyone could. His tear tracks turned cold quickly in the night air.
It had been a week since the doctor had pronounced Susan's internal plumbing to be healthy and normal, and this was to be their weekend of healing. The tears were all a part of it, he supposed, as was the pain, but he worried about the anger. Sometimes when he was alone only when he was alone he raged about the injustice of it all, cursing God and Susan and himself for denying them the one blessing that would make their marriage whole. The anger ate at him sometimes, and on nights like these, as his best friend succumbed to wave after wave of grief, he wanted to hurt something just to exorcise the rage.
Time was the answer. He knew this, both from experience and from the advice of others, but it was the one element in the world that he could not manufacture.
Time heals all wounds. What a crock.
The river ran fast and loud just below them, swollen by melting snows. Every now and then, a few drops would rain down on them from an errant eddy that had slapped against the vertical face of their rock ledge. The thunderous noise of the water filled the void of the night, bringing to Bobby a momentary glimpse of the peace he'd hoped they'd find out here. What is it about water, he wondered, that settles the soul?
On a different night, he might never have heard the rustling in the bushes that bordered their secluded outcropping. It was a tentative sound, too random to be the wind, but bigger than a coon or a possum. Out in these parts, there was only one reasonable thought when you heard a sound like that.
"Oh, my God, it's a bear," Susan breathed, speaking their common fear. And it stood between them and their campsite.
Bobby was way ahead of her. Rolling quietly to his side, and then onto his feet, he rose slowly.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm gonna scare him off," he said.
"You're gonna piss him off. Just be still."
Bobby had never actually encountered a bear in the woods, but the common wisdom agreed that they had no real interest in people. As long as they didn't feel cornered, and their cubs weren't in jeopardy, they'd much rather run away from a noisy human than face him down.
"Go on!" Bobby shouted at the top of his voice, waving his arms. "Get out of here! I see you there in the bushes! Get out! Run away!"
Susan pulled at his pant leg. "Bobby!"
As the rustling stopped, Bobby turned in the cold moonlight and flashed a grin. "See?"
Then it charged. Squealing like a frightened pig, the beast bolted out of the trees, coming straight toward Bobby at first, then breaking off to the right, across the rocks toward the river.
Only it wasn't a bear.
"Oh my God!" Susan yelled. "It's a little boy!"
And he was scared to death. Screaming, he ran in a blind panic toward the edge of the rocks, and the roiling waters below.
"No!" Bobby shouted, and took off after him. "No! Don't! Come back!" But the kid moved like a water bug, darting with amazing speed but no visible effort, turning at the last possible instant away from the water, and back toward the woods, screaming the whole way.
"I didn't mean it!" Bobby called. "Stop! Really! I didn't mean it!" His words only seemed to make the boy move faster.
Finally, an old-growth oak tree ended the footrace. The boy looked over his shoulder long enough to see if Bobby was closing in on him, and he slammed into it; a glancing blow on his shoulder that might have killed him if he'd hit it head-on, but instead sent him ricocheting into a sapling, then onto the hard ground.
Bobby closed the distance in eight strides.
At first the little boy just sat there, stunned, and then the pain kicked in and he started to cry a wailing sound that went beyond pain, combining fear and anger and frustration. He simply gave himself up to it, rolling over onto his tummy and sobbing into the leaves on the ground.
Bobby just stood there. He had no idea what to do. He stooped down and hesitantly reached out a comforting hand. "Hey, kid, settle down, okay? I didn't mean any harm."
"Here, let me in." Susan shouldered Bobby out of the way and scooped the boy into her arms. He fought at first, but then he looked into Susan's face, and he liked whatever he saw. He seemed to meld with her, clamping down hard with his arms and legs, his face burrowed into her shoulder.
Susan shot a look to Bobby, but he didn't know what to say. The boy looked tiny maybe three years old and he was filthy. Dirt caked his hair and his ears; his skin was crusty with it. He wore only a pair of footy pajamas, with little red choo-choo trains stenciled on the flannel. The toes on his left foot protruded through the tattered cloth.
"What do you think?" Bobby whispered.
"I don't know. He's so small. And he's freezing. You should feel him tremble."
Bobby looked around, hoping to see a terrified parent somewhere, but all he saw were woods and sky and water.
"Hey, little guy, what's your name?"
The sound of Bobby's voice made the boy cringe and pull himself even tighter against Susan.
"He's going to break my back," she grunted.
Bobby stripped off his down jacket and wrapped it around the boy's shoulders. "Here you go, tiger. Let's get you warm." To Susan, Bobby added, "Let's get back to camp."
During the walk back, Susan tried to talk to the boy, asking him his name, and how old he was, but all he'd do was cry and hang on.
"This is bad, Bobby," she said softly. "What's he doing out here without clothes in this kind of cold?"
Bobby shrugged. "Maybe he wandered away from his campsite." What else could it be?
"But how did he get so dirty? I mean, look at him. This isn't just a little dirt. This is weeks of dirt. Months, maybe, and even then, he'd have to live in a garden."
She had a point. There's dirt, and then there's dirt. This kid looked as if he'd been rolled in mud.
In two minutes, they were back at their campsite, such as it was. Primitive was the name of the game here. Their Explorer was parked a good mile away, at the bottom of the trail. What little they had in the way of creature comforts they'd packed in on their backs. The campfire, built for aesthetics and warmth rather than cooking, had burned down to a pile of shimmering red embers.
"I'll build this back up," Bobby said, peeling off from the others.
Susan went straight to their igloo-like dome tent, and the warmth of the sleeping bags inside. She stooped to her haunches outside the little doorway and tried to pry the boy's hands from around her neck, and his feet from around her waist. He grunted and instantly reattached himself.
"No, no, sweetie, you're okay now. You're safe. We'll make sure you get back home, okay?"
No, it wasn't okay. It wasn't okay at all. He remained glued to her, and the more she tried to pry him away, the more desperate he became to hang on.
"Why don't you sit with him for a while inside, Sue?" Bobby suggested, drawn back to the tent by the noise. "Wrap him up in a sleeping bag and just hold him until he settles down. He must be scared to death."
Bobby's eyebrows twisted. "I don't know. I guess we hike out with him in the morning and take him to the ranger station. They'll decide what to do with him from there." Bobby stayed in the doorway for a moment, watching the two of them settle into a sleeping bag. "Tell you what," he proposed after they were lying down. "Why don't I make some hot chocolate? If nothing else, maybe it will loosen his tongue a bit."
At the sound of the phrase hot chocolate the kid's eyes lit up, but as soon as Bobby shifted his gaze to meet them, the boy quickly looked away and remelded with Sue.
Having put the cooking equipment away hours ago, Bobby had to reassemble it all from scratch. The camp stove was a single-burner job, fueled with white gas, and it took all of about three minutes to put it together, the satisfying blue flame telling him that he'd done it correctly. He poured water from his canteen into an aluminum pot, put it on the burner, and set about the business of resuscitating the campfire. He carefully stacked what remained of the kindling they'd collected in the daylight and knelt low, so that his elbows were on the ground, and his face nearly touched the dirt. From there he blew on the embers, a thin stream of air that made them flare orange before finally blossoming into a satisfying yellow flame.
He added larger pieces of wood, and within minutes, it burned freely, the flames reaching a good foot above the pile of sticks.
This whole thing had him spooked. Why in the world would a toddler be wandering around the woods in his pajamas? If he'd indeed been separated from his parents, where were the teams of rangers and police that should be out here looking for him? Where were the helicopters and the dogs? A sense of foreboding prickled his skin and he found himself obsessed with the notion that someone was watching him.
A loud snap drew his attention up ahead and to the right, toward the darkness that lay beyond the illuminated circle cast by the campfire. What was that? Most likely, just his imagination.
But he heard it again. Whatever it was whoever it was was approaching cautiously. Bobby closed his hand around a club-sized piece of firewood and stood casually, keeping it hidden as best he could behind his leg as he moved to the edge of the light circle.
"Bobby?" Susan asked from inside the tent. "Is something wrong?"
"Shh. I don't know. Be quiet for a second."
There it was again, only this time a rustle of leaves preceded the snap, and again the movement stopped, as if someone were attempting a stealthy approach and getting frustrated.
"Hello?" Bobby yelled. His words seemed five times louder in the silence of the night. "Who's out there?"
Exclusive Author Essay The Best Things Come in Small Packages: A Message from John Gilstrap
March 1, 1995, was a big day for me. That's the day when North American rights for my first novel, Nathan's Run, sold for more money than I had seen, cumulatively, in my entire life. The next day marked the first of what turned out to be 16 foreign rights sales, and on the day after that, the movie rights sold to Warner Bros. after an auction that at one point had seven production companies competing.
Critics and colleagues have been very kind in their assessment of my work, often alluding to the emotion that drives my stories. One of my favorite reviews came from Publishers Weekly, which wrote, "Gilstrap mixes sentiment and suspense with a wizard's touch." Pretty cool, huh? I like sentiment. When I turn out the lights at night, the reason I sleep well has little to do with my job or my house or the thousands of details that occupy so much of everyone's time during the day. I sleep well because my best
friend in the world is lying next to me, and my son and the dog are down the hall. For me, the greatest pleasures in life truly are the smallest ones.
But what would happen if those bedrocks of our lives were threatened? What if, during the course of a routine day, random events combined to endanger our families? These are the themes that dominate my fiction. All of my characters are normal people, just like you and I, who find themselves suddenly over their heads in danger, facing stakes that are devastatingly high. They survive not by special skills or commando training, but rather by force of will and instinct.
In my most recent novel, Even Steven, Bobby and Susan Martin have everything they ever dreamed of except the one blessing that would make their marriage whole: a child. As the book opens, they're trying to cope with the latest in a series of tragic miscarriages when, in the midst of a restorative camping trip to the mountains of West Virginia, a terrified two-year-old boy
dashes out of the woods, followed by his would-be kidnapper. Confused and frightened, Bobby struggles with the kidnapper and kills him, only to find that the man is carrying a badge. Will anyone believe that Bobby killed a cop in self defense? And how do Bobby and Susan return the child to the proper authorities without confessing to the homicide? For Susan, the answer is obvious: God sent the boy in answer to her prayers; He wants the Martins to keep him.
Meanwhile, a hundred miles away, the boy's real mother, April Simpson, discovers that a ruthless drug dealer has kidnapped her son as collateral against money stolen by April's worthless husband. If she calls the police, the child will die, she's told. It's that simple. But the kidnappers no longer have the child. One of them lies dead in the forest, and his surviving brother is desperate to retrieve the child from the Martins in order to keep himself alive. Over a tense 24-hour period, Even Steven propels these three story lines on a collision course that explodes in a terrifying climax (if I do say so myself).
Okay, I can hear some of you now: "No! I don't like child-in-jeopardy stories!" Hey, relax, okay? Without giving anything away, let me assure you that I believe in happy endings -- or at least satisfying endings. I understand how my characters become very real for readers -- they're real for me, too, remember -- and I would never willingly break the trust that bonds a writer to his fans.
My goal is to write a story that makes you want to sit quietly for a few moments when you're done, relishing the adventure we've just experienced together...but only after I've denied you sleep for a couple of nights because you couldn't put the book down.
For those of you who are already fans of my novels, thanks for all the support over the years. For those who are giving my work a look for the first time, welcome aboard. Either way, I'd love to hear from you. If you get a chance, visit my web site at www.johngilstrap.com and drop me a line.
Even Steven 3.9 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
I love the way he writes but $16.75 for a nook book published in 2003 is a bit much.
More than 1 year ago
This is the 12th Gilstrap book I've read, each one as well-written and suspense-filled as the last. The man knows how to grip your heartstrings well as build tension with expert pacing and intriguing characters.
I've loved every book he's written and look forward to his next release.
Even Steven is Gilstrap at his best.
author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain
More than 1 year ago
never a dull moment - this was a fun read
More than 1 year ago
It was a page turner starting with the first chapter. I could not put it down. I hated it when I finished the book.
More than 1 year ago
I've been a Gilstrap fan ever since Nathan's Run hit the shelves. I didn't think he could beat that debut, but he knocked it out of the park with At All Costs, and now, with Even Steven, he raises the bar even further. As Bobby and Susan Martin mourn the loss of their stillborn child, out of the woods comes the answer to their prayers: a terrified little boy who is the victim of a bungled kidnapping plot. A half hour later, their lives are turned upside down, and there seems to be no way out for any of them. Gilstrap is the master of putting ordinary people in terrifying situations, and I found myself glued to the page late into the night on this one. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and we find ourselves rooting not only for the good guys, but for some of the bad guys, too. Nobody writes suspense like Gilstrap. I loved it, loved it, loved it.
More than 1 year ago
They say, ¿Time heals all wounds¿, but whomever they are they never explained that to Bobby and Susan Martin. To escape their grief as much as to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the depressed duo goes camping high in the West Virginia Mountains. However, a man frightening a little boy interrupts their idyllic time. Bobby intercedes until the man pulls out a gun. In the resultant battle, Bobby kills the man, who turns out to be a cop. They flee taking the child with them, as Susan believes this is an act of God. The dead man¿s brother swears vengeance for failing to help his sibling. A Pittsburgh drug dealer has abducted April Simpson¿s toddler in an attempt to collect a debt her spouse owes the man. A desperate April is arrested robbing a store trying to gain money for her child¿s release. FBI agent Russell Coates struggles to retain his current status. He is able to see the link between the Martins and the Simpsons, but will justice be served if he enforces what he knows? The story line is faster than the Barry Allen Flash as it moves forward at an incredible clip requiring readers to use seat belts. All the charcaters, even the anguished Martins, are never fully develop as the action simply overwhelms the cast. For readers who enjoy hyperspeed, EVEN STEVEN is the novel to take you there. For those who relish deeper characterization and a more leisurly plot, John Gilstrap¿s latest tale is a pass. Harriet Klausner
More than 1 year ago
Bobby and Susan want nothing more than to have a child of their own. Unfortunately a series of miscarriages has left them childless. Until the day when they are camping, and out of nowhere a naked, dirty, terrified little boy runs to them for help. Immediately afterword a threatening armed man shows up, demanding the boy. Things escalate and the next thing you know, Bobby and Susan are speeding away from the body of the man that Bobby has shot. Who, by the way, turns out to be a cop. They leave with the boy. Who turns out to have been kidnapped. Should they go to the police and come clean? Will Bobby get fair treatment if he's killed a cop? Then—Susan begins to call the boy Steven, which is what they had planned to call their son when they had him. She seems to believe that he belongs to them and becomes outraged when Bobby points out that he isn't.
The other storyline is that of the boy's mother, whose husband has pretty much let him be kidnapped in order to by himself some extra time to pay off debts. April tries to pay off the debts to save her son before he is killed—but the kidnappers have no intention of returning him alive.
April is doing whatever she can to get her son back, including making a pact with the biggest and worst criminal in her town. He battles with the kidnappers—who don't actually know that the boy has escaped. Bobby and Susan are being investigated by the FBI for the dead body found at the campground, while trying to hide Steven. And the FBI and the police are trying to solve the crime.
Great book with lots of twists and turns. The bad guys are super bad, the good guys are well developed and appealing. Enjoyed very much!!
More than 1 year ago
Decided not to finish this hideous book.
More than 1 year ago
I have read all of John Gilstrap's books and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. In my opinion he is without a doubt one of the best thriller writers in the business, if not the best. You don't have to read more than a few pages of his books to get hooked. I've had several late nights reading his books because once I started, I couldn't put them down until I finished. I am eagerly awaiting John's next book. If John Gilstrap writes it, I'm going to read it!
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