The Ideal Man (Buchanan-Renard 9)

Page 4

“Must be bad,” Ben said. “The look on your face when you were reading . . . like you wanted to kill someone.”
Max nodded. “Then I nailed it.”
Ben rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s bad, huh?”
“Want me to read about her now?”
He shook his head. “No need.”
Ben pushed his chair back. “Does Hughes expect us to file our reports tonight?”
Max said, “How long have you been an agent, Ben?”
His partner laughed. “Long enough to know that I just asked a dumb question. Still, I always hold out hope.”
“Hope for what?”
“That we get finished at a normal time.”
“Are you in a hurry to get back to the hotel?”
Ben was going through the drawers in the desk. “No. I’m in a hurry to eat. I’m starving.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Candy, gum, anything.” He shut the last drawer and shook his head. “Maybe we should move Sullivan’s interview to tomorrow.”
Max stood. “No, we need to talk to her tonight while it’s still fresh in her mind.”
“I’m betting she won’t be forgetting what happened for a long while.”
“Doesn’t matter. We need to do it tonight,” he countered, walking to the door.
Ben trailed behind. “Okay, so here’s what we do. We talk to her quick, grab something to eat, then come back here and finish our reports. Right?”
“The interview will be quick, won’t it? She’s not one of those arrogant, obnoxious doctor types, is she? If she is, we could be there for hours before we get the information we need. You know what I’m talking about. Some of those older, crabby doctors have the superiority complexes, and they have to impress you with their knowledge before they’ll answer questions. I hate that type. Is she one of those?”
Max remembered Ben hadn’t met Ellie yet. He had been stationed on the other side of the park when the shooting started, and Max hadn’t felt the need to tell him about her. It was going to be really interesting when he did meet her.
“Is she that type? Ah, hell, she is, isn’t she? We’ll be there till morning.”
Max didn’t answer but was smiling as he tossed the car keys to Ben.
Ellie’s home was a sparsely furnished studio apartment a block west of Cranston and Glenwood. Just five miles from the hospital, it was an easy commute. Her apartment was on the second floor of a redbrick building that sat between two similar structures on a quiet, tree-lined street. Built in the 1940s, it still maintained some of the charm of a bygone era when even the smallest apartments were constructed with high ceilings and intricate moldings. For a studio, it was large and spacious, but it didn’t offer much of a view. Her living room window overlooked the Dumpsters in the back alley.
There wasn’t anything luxurious about the place, but it was home, and she was comfortable there. Each tenant needed a key to get into the front door of the building, and there were strong dead-bolt locks and peepholes on all the apartment doors. The super had keys to each apartment and each dead bolt, which meant he could walk into any apartment anytime, so without asking permission, her father had installed a second dead bolt that only she had the key to unlock.
If anyone were to ask her to describe her home, she could do it with one word: safe. Or better yet, two words: minimalistic and safe. Almost everything in the apartment was the uninteresting yet soothing color of cream. The walls, the down-filled, oversize sofa she’d purchased for forty dollars from a pampered housewife in Chesterfield who had grown tired of it just six months after she had bought it, the oversize chair she’d thrown in for free, the drapes, the blinds—all cream. The only break in Ellie’s furniture color scheme came from a swivel chair a friend had given her. It was beige.
There were hardwood floors throughout, which was one of the reasons she had rented the place. The faded and worn-out floors were in desperate need of refinishing, but Ellie loved them because she felt the flaws gave them a lovely patina. They were also much easier than carpet to keep clean.
She did try to give her place a little personality. She bought a couple of brightly colored pillows from Macy’s midnight madness sale, and she thought they added a little cheer. She would have loved to have covered the walls with beautiful contemporary paintings, but she couldn’t afford them. She shopped at Goodwill, not Neiman Marcus.
The desk she had purchased from Goodwill had cost only fifteen dollars. One leg was considerably shorter than the other three, but a brick she found when she took the trash out was the exact size needed to balance the desk perfectly. She also purchased a pretty red lacquered tray for two dollars that was only slightly chipped on two corners, and a seriously battered coffee table that cost seven dollars. Added up, she spent less than a hundred dollars to furnish the living room and twice that much to have the sofa and chair cleaned.
She had no dining room, which was just as well since she had no dining room furniture. A wide, arched doorway separated the living room from the bedroom. Ellie splurged and bought a gorgeous dark cherry, queen-size sleigh bed and a new mattress and box springs. The bed took up most of the space in the tiny alcove disguised as a bedroom and faced the front door, and since it was the first thing a guest saw when he or she walked inside, Ellie decided to blow her budget on a beautiful duvet, a down comforter, and designer sheets. She found a sale and saved 60 percent on the bedding, including four pillows. Ellie thought it humorous that, because of the sale, the only color left on the shelf was cream. The bed did look gorgeous, though, and she loved slipping between the soft cotton sheets.
The bathroom was surprisingly large, but the galley kitchen was so narrow, only one adult could work in it. Ellie had to stand to one side of the burners to open the oven door. The appliances were new when she moved in, and there was enough counter space to suit her needs.
Max had told Ellie to stay home, and she planned to do just that after she stopped at Whole Foods to get groceries. She was in the mood for stir-fry with chicken and mounds of vegetables. Just thinking about food made her stomach grumble, and no wonder, she hadn’t eaten anything since the PowerBar and orange juice she’d inhaled at breakfast.
She ended up with three large bags of groceries. She emptied the contents onto her kitchen counter and reached for an apple to eat while she checked her answering machine for messages. There were only two, neither of which required quick attention. Ellie hadn’t wanted to spend money on a landline, but her father had insisted. He didn’t trust cell phones. What if the charge was low and she got into trouble? How could she call for help? Ellie let her father win the argument because she wanted to give him peace of mind.
After she checked the time, she showered, blew her hair dry, and put on a pair of faded jeans, a pink T-shirt, and flip-flops. She even took the time to dab on some perfume and add a little lip gloss before starting dinner. She made enough for six meals, munching on salad while she worked. The two agents arrived just as she finished eating.
Ellie silently lectured herself on the way to the door. Okay, you’re not a teenager, she reminded herself. This time she was going to take it all in stride or, rather, take him in stride. No heart palpitations, no breathlessness, just an ordinary “Hi, how are you doing?” Normal, she thought. She was going for normal.
The best-laid plans . . .
She opened the door, and boom, her heart started pounding. It really was the most amazing thing, having absolutely no control over her physical response to him.
His expression didn’t give her a hint as to what he was thinking, yet she was certain he wasn’t having the same crazy, heart-pounding reaction to her. But then, why would he? If she weren’t a potential witness, he probably wouldn’t have given her the time of day.
“Something smells good,” Max remarked as he walked past her.
“I just made stir-fry.”
that smells good, too.”
Ben heard the comment and rolled his eyes as he followed Max into the apartment.
When Max turned around, Ben was staring at Ellie, spellbound. Ben shook his head and shot an accusatory look at Max, who responded with a satisfied grin. Maybe he should have told Ben about her, but seeing the expression on his partner’s face was priceless. Ellie looked amazing with her hair down around her shoulders. The snug jeans and T-shirt hugged her slender body and long legs and showed the curves that had been hidden by the scrubs. The woman was just about perfect.
He glanced around her apartment and liked that, too. It was simply furnished, but there were a couple of bright touches that made it feel warm. He smiled when he spotted the brick wedged under one of the legs of the desk. A couple of packing boxes sat in the corner, and neat piles of papers were stacked on the desk and a chair.
Ellie shut the door and automatically flipped both dead bolts. She offered her hand as Ben MacBride introduced himself. He wasn’t as tall or as muscular as Max, but he had an athletic build and a nice smile that instantly put her at ease.
Ben turned back to Max and shook his head.
“What?” Max said.
“You could have mentioned . . .”
“Mentioned what?” he asked innocently.
Ben decided to be blunt. “That she was frickin’ beautiful.” He quickly turned to Ellie to add, “You remind me of my wife. She’s beautiful. At least I think she’s still beautiful.”
Ellie gave him a quizzical look. “You don’t know?”
“Every time I see her, she’s in the bathroom throwing up. But, yeah, I’m sure she’s still beautiful.”
She laughed. “She’s pregnant.”
He nodded. “Yes. Man, it does smell good in here.”
“Stir-fry,” she repeated. “There’s plenty left, and it’s still hot. Would you like—”
She didn’t bother to finish her question because both Max and Ben were already in her kitchen. Max looked for plates as Ben sampled a piece of chicken. While they devoured every bit of the stir-fry, Ellie straightened up her living room. Her desk was covered with stacks of papers, and there was another stack on the swivel chair that she needed to go through and decide to either shred or pack for storage. She quickly moved the papers from the chair to form another stack on top of the desk. It looked a bit precarious, but as long as no one bumped the desk, the papers should stay put.
The two agents set their empty plates in the sink and joined her. When they were standing in her living room, the small area seemed even smaller. Ellie went to the sofa and sat down. Ben took the swivel chair and turned it to face her.
“Thanks, Ellie,” he said. “The food was great. I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” she replied.
Max moved around the room as though he were inspecting it. He seemed uptight, unlike the man she had met earlier who appeared to be so relaxed.
“Is there something you need, Agent Daniels?” she asked.
“Max,” he reminded her. “No, I just noticed you don’t have anything on your walls.”
“No, I don’t.”
“How come?”
“Everything I like is too expensive, and I don’t want to put up posters. I had enough of those in college.”
“So you’re poor,” Ben said.
She laughed. “Yes.”
“I thought doctors made a lot of money.” Max made the comment.
“Some do,” she agreed. “But, like many of my colleagues, I have substantial student loans.”
“Don’t they pay you at that hospital?” Max snapped the question.
“Yes, they do.”
“Must not be much.”
“No, it isn’t.”
He slowly circled her living room, acting like a caged animal searching for a way out. Ellie had the feeling he was angry about something and trying to keep it in check.
“What about photos? I know you have family. Don’t you like them?” Max asked, frowning.
“I like some of them, and, yes, I do have photos. They’re packed away.”
“Why are they packed away?” he demanded.
“I’m finished at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Tuesday.”
The rapid-fire questions continued until she began to feel like a suspect, not a witness. Irritated, she started to answer just as rapidly.
“Those boxes in the corner by the window have been sitting there a long time. There’s dust on top of them. Why is that?”
“I’m a bad housekeeper,” she said with a straight face.
“You never unpacked them?” He made the question sound like an accusation.
“No, I never did.”
“Why not?”
“I like to be ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Ready to pick up and leave at a moment’s notice,” she snapped back.
“Where are you going?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He stopped pacing and was now standing over her, making her extremely nervous. How could she have ever thought he was relaxed? She was beginning to think she should confess something just to get him to stop interrogating her.
Ben was watching the exchange, astounded by Max’s aggressive behavior. Had he been alone with his partner, he would have asked him what in God’s name was wrong with him. He was acting as though he were about to pounce on her.
“You must have some idea where you’d like to go,” Max challenged.
“No, I don’t,” she answered sharply. “Is there any other personal information you need?”
Seeing Ellie’s indignation and suddenly realizing he’d sounded as though he were grilling her, he said, “I guess I’m not very good at small talk.”
That was small talk?
“No kidding,” Ben drawled.
Max could see the scowl deepening on Ellie’s face, and he could almost feel the fire flashing from her eyes. He would have laughed had she not looked so annoyed. When he’d first met her, his opinion of her had been rather indifferent. Of course, he’d noticed that she was a beautiful, sexy woman he would love to take to bed. Nothing unusual about that. But then he’d watched how great she was with Sean Goodman. She was so calm and reassuring as she worked on him. Maybe it was all part of her job, but her kindness seemed genuine. Then, when she went back to the hospital to perform Sean’s surgery, Max’s impression of her expanded. Not only did he want to go to bed with her, he admired her as well. And when she gave him a little attitude in the stairwell and let him see her sense of humor, he realized he actually liked her . . . and wanted her. Nothing unusual about that.
He saw everything in a different light, however, when he’d checked into her background. Not quite everything, he qualified. He wanted her in bed—that didn’t change—but he was filled with an overwhelming need to protect her. After reading her file, which was only a small portion of what she had gone through, Max felt great empathy for her. She had been powerless back then, with no control over what happened to her. He knew all about that, and that was why he wanted to help as much as he could. Ellie had been through enough. She didn’t need more heartache. And if she testified . . .
Max didn’t respond to Ellie’s question. Instead, he surprised her by sitting down next to her on the sofa. He was so close, if she moved, she’d be glued to him. Ellie was confused. What was he doing? There was a perfectly good overstuffed chair he could have taken, and yet he chose the sofa. What did that mean? Ellie didn’t know how to react. Should she move away? She didn’t want to, but should she? Just as she was questioning his motives, Max took a digital recorder out of his pocket. Oh. Now she understood. He had to sit next to her so that the recorder could pick up the conversation. Bummer.
“Ben, are you ready to get started?” Max asked.
“Sure,” he replied. “I’m the less experienced agent,” he explained to Ellie. “By eleven months.” He turned in the swivel chair and accidentally
knocked the desk, starting an avalanche of papers to the floor.
Ellie rushed to help pick up. “It’s a mess, I know, but I haven’t had time to go through everything. Most of it can probably be thrown away.”
“I’ve got this, Ellie. Go sit.” He scooped up several papers, straightened them, and made a pile against the wall. “They can stay on the floor, right?”
She smiled. “Right.”
Max grabbed another stack of papers that was headed to the floor and put a heavy anatomy book on top to keep them from falling again.
“What’s this?” Ben held up several sheets that had been stapled together.
“What is it?” Max asked.
“Restraining order.”
“Yeah?” Glancing at Ellie, Max walked around the desk and took the papers from Ben. Just as he expected, they were orders against Evan Patterson. He quickly flipped through them and handed them back to Ben.
Ben looked over the documents while Ellie remained silent, hoping he wouldn’t read through them.
“Who is Evan Patterson?”
“Oh, those papers are old,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” Ben agreed. “Who is he?”
She had the feeling changing the subject wasn’t going to work. Ben was FBI, which meant he was trained to get people to answer questions, but she wished he’d leave this alone. The subject of Evan Patterson was very difficult for her to talk about or even think about. She wanted the nightmare to stay in the past.
Ellie settled back on the sofa and pulled a pillow onto her lap. “I went to Sacred Heart High School for two years. He was there.”
“Did he leave high school, or did you?” Ben asked, curious.
“I was the first to leave . . . it was a long time ago.”
Ben glanced at Max, knowing that he had also picked up on Ellie’s reticence.
“Where did you go after that?” Ben asked, thinking she had either transferred to another high school or perhaps been homeschooled to get away from Patterson.
Ellie hesitated before answering. “I was in college.”
Ben tilted the chair back. He could see her embarrassment.
“So you’re smart, huh?”