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John Gilstrap

At all costs

CHAPTER ONE

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.

Damn.

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.”

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