The Ideal Man (Buchanan-Renard 9)

Page 12

“There are terrible rumors about what happened, and Ava believes that if you are in the wedding, people will know it was all a misunderstanding.”
“Rumors? Not rumors . . . the truth, Mom. She can’t rewrite history.”
“She thinks she’ll be humiliated if you don’t—”
“Is that why you insisted I come home for the wedding? So Ava won’t be humiliated?”
“Of course not,” her mother said. “It’s just that people talk, and—”
“I’m not going to be in the wedding. I’m not even sure I can make myself go.”
“You don’t have to worry about finding a bridesmaid dress,” her mother continued. “They’re all wearing long black dresses, and each one is different. Any black dress will do.”
“Mother, you need to listen to me. I am not going to be in that wedding.”
Her father stopped the argument. “Come on, Ellie. We’ll go to the hardware store to get a dead bolt, and then the grocery store to get you set up in the apartment.”
“I’ll have dinner on the table in an hour and a half,” her mother said. She was shaking her head at Ellie and looking pitiful. Ellie expected her to dab at her eyes next.
“See you later, Mom,” Ellie said as she dutifully kissed her on the cheek. Then she whispered, “Guilt doesn’t work on me, Mom. I’m not going to change my mind.”
Her mother whispered back, “We’ll see.”
Max and Ben had one last meeting with Agent Hughes to go over the details of the Landry case before they headed home to Honolulu.
“Greg Roper pointed right at them,” Hughes told Max. He sounded giddy. “No one helped or guided him to their photos. Isn’t that right, Ben?”
“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed.
“So we’ve got an honest-to-God real witness,” Hughes said. “I won’t put him on the list yet. This stays with us now, all right?”
Max nodded. Hughes was getting smart. As soon as he gave the name to the prosecutor, a whole lot of people would have access to the information.
“Maybe we should get some protection for him,” Ben suggested.
“Once he’s been identified as a witness, we will,” Hughes assured.
“What about Sean Goodman? The Landrys don’t know whether he got a good look at them. Will you keep someone with him?”
“As long as he’s in the hospital,” Hughes answered. “There are too many people coming and going there, and security isn’t the tightest. Just look at what happened with that gangbanger the other night.”
“The police claim he didn’t fit the profile of a gangbanger,” Max said. “Has he been identified yet?”
Ben shook his head. “There wasn’t any identification on him, and no one at the hospital admitted to knowing him. I talked to the detectives this morning. They’re looking at all the hospital surveillance tapes, trying to see if someone dropped him off or if he had a car.”
Max was not ready to dismiss the shooting as gang related just yet. “Maybe we ought to be sure before we head to the airport.”
“Be sure of what?” Hughes asked.
“That he was a gangbanger—”
“He was,” Hughes interrupted.
“But if he wasn’t,” Max continued as though he hadn’t been interrupted. “Then I’ve got to ask . . .”
“Uh-oh, he’s doing the what-if’s,” Ben said.
“Yeah, I am,” Max replied. “And I’m asking, what if he wasn’t there to take out a rival gang? What if Sean Goodman was the target, and that rookie policeman stopped him before he could get to his floor?”
Ben took his cell phone from his pocket. “Let me give the detective I talked to a call. See if they’ve found anything yet.”
The conversation was brief, and when Ben ended his call, he turned to Max. “The cameras showed him getting out of his car. It was parked in the hospital’s back corner lot. Nebraska plates. When they pulled up the plates, they found it registered to a George Cogburn.”
Max looked at Hughes. “You know the name Cogburn, don’t you?”
Hughes nodded. “Yes, I do, though I haven’t heard it in a long while. When the Landrys lived in Omaha, there was a Willis Cogburn who did some dirty work for them.”
Ben went to a computer and, after typing his ID and password into the database, entered Willis Cogburn’s name. A mug shot appeared on the screen. “Willis just got out of prison,” he told them. “Looks like he could be back in action.”
“The car was registered to a George Cogburn, though,” Hughes reminded.
Ben did a search and pulled up George’s driver’s license. “Same address. He resembles Willis, too. I’d guess they’re brothers or maybe cousins.”
Max nodded. “The question now is, where’s Willis? If his brother was working for the Landrys, too, then he was at the hospital to go after witnesses. Maybe Willis doesn’t want to go back to prison, and he sent his little brother to do the job for him.”
Hughes had not been listening to their last exchange. He was busy on his cell phone. With the phone still to his ear, he told them, “Willis checked in with his probation officer last Thursday. He doesn’t see him again for a month. That’s plenty of time for him to do some side work.”
Ben said, “Okay, so we now know that George Cogburn was after Sean Goodman. If that rookie hadn’t seen the gun—”
Max interjected, “Maybe it wasn’t just Sean he was after.” His jaw tightened as he thought about what this meant. “It looks like the Landrys aren’t going to wait for an indictment this time. It’s pretty obvious, they’re looking for witnesses now.”
“The only reliable witness we have is Greg Roper, and if we keep him under wraps, they won’t get to him,” Hughes assured.
“What about Ellie Sullivan?” Max asked. “They were feet away from her on that track. They could be going after her, too.”
“She isn’t going to be listed as a witness,” Hughes insisted. “They don’t even know who she is.”
Max’s temper was rising. “Don’t know who she is? Are you serious? One trip to the hospital, and they’d know. Everyone’s still talking about what happened. Ten minutes, Hughes. That’s all it would take to get Ellie’s name. George Cogburn went into that hospital to take out a witness, and Willis Cogburn could go after her next. I’ll be damned if I’ll let that happen.”
Hughes put his hands up. “Look, I hear you. I’ll see that someone warns her and that the hospital security is advised to be on the alert.”
“She’s not at the hospital,” Max said. “She’s gone back to her hometown in South Carolina to see her family.”
“That’s good, then,” Hughes said.
“That’s not good,” Ben countered. “You know as well as we do that the Landrys will stop at nothing to save themselves. Right now, we don’t know where they are, and we don’t know where Willis Cogburn is.”
Max was adamant. “Ellie Sullivan needs protection.”
Hughes started to argue, “But if she’s not—”
“And she needs it now,” Max demanded. “You’re the lead agent on this case, but if you won’t order it, I will.”
Hughes relented. “Okay, I’ll call the field office in South Carolina and see what I can do.”
A couple of hours later, Ben and Max were on their way to the airport to catch their flight back to Honolulu. Despite Hughes’s assurance that Ellie would be guarded, there was a gnawing apprehension in the pit of Max’s stomach.
He was about to go through security when his cell phone rang. It was Agent Hughes.
He didn’t waste time on pleasantries.
“Just got word from Omaha that Willis Cogburn hasn’t been showing up at his apartment. They got inside for a search and found a note in his trash can with the names Sean Goodman and Dr. Ellie Sullivan on it.”
“Tell me you’ve got someone on the way to her now,” Max demanded.
“I did what I could, but we can’t get anyone to Winston Falls for a
couple of days, maybe even a week. Everyone at the nearest field office is tied up with cases, and they’re understaffed. I’ll talk to the locals down there. See if they can watch over her until she leaves.”
“They weren’t any help in the past when Ellie’s family needed them. I don’t trust them to do more than send a car by a couple of times a day. I’m guessing they’re a pretty small operation.”
Hughes’s frustration came through loud and clear. “Look, I’ll find someone. It’s just going to take some time. Dr. Sullivan needs to be warned. I’ll call her and caution her to be careful until we can get her some protection or until we’ve got a handle on where all the players are.”
Max immediately thought of the stress Ellie and her family were already feeling from the Patterson threat. “Don’t call her,” he said.
“There’s not much choice here. She needs to be warned,” Hughes argued.
“I’ll go,” Max blurted.
“What?” Hughes asked, surprised. “You can’t go. You have to be back in Honolulu to work on the case there.”
“I’ll take personal leave,” Max said. “Just for a week, until Ellie gets back home. Ben’s got our end of the case under control. He can consult with me by phone. I’ll make all the arrangements with the Honolulu office.”
He ended the call before Hughes could say another word.
She wasn’t happy to see him. In fact, she nearly had heart failure when Max pulled into the driveway. She was painting Annie’s old bedroom on the second floor, and she happened to look out the window just as Max was getting out of his car.
She was so rattled, she dropped the paintbrush. Fortunately, it landed on the tarp she’d put down on the hardwood floors.
What was he doing here? Had something happened? Of course something had happened, she decided, answering her own question. He wouldn’t be here otherwise.
Maybe he found out where Evan Patterson was hiding and wanted to tell her. No, no, if that was true, he would have picked up the phone and called her.
Oh Lord, her father was home. He was probably sitting on the front porch reading the news on his laptop. He was already stressed out. A federal agent stopping by could send him right over the edge.
Dressed in a pair of old shorts, a sleeveless blouse spotted with lavender paint, and flip-flops, she dashed down the stairs, flew through the living room, and ran outside. She passed her father without saying a word and came to a screeching halt about a foot in front of Max.
She couldn’t seem to catch her breath, but it wasn’t because she was out of shape. It was because of him. When he saw her, a huge smile spread across his face. That dimple in his cheek could cause foolish women to go weak in the knees. She wasn’t a foolish woman, she reminded herself.
He looked sexy as sin. Damn it.
Her greeting wasn’t polite. “What are you doing here?”
Max was looking past her. “Is that your father? He looks like he’s going to pass out. Ah . . .”
“Ah, what?” she asked, frowning.
“He’s staring at my gun.”
“Great,” she whispered. “Just great.”
“I’m so happy you could make it,” she said loud enough for her father to hear. She then leaned up and kissed Max on his cheek.
He couldn’t resist. He pulled her into his arms, told her she had paint in her hair, and kissed her on her mouth. It was quick but amazingly thorough. “That should put some color back in his face,” he said.
She put her arms around his neck and whispered into his ear, “I haven’t told my parents about the shooting in the park . . . or about Sean Goodman . . . you know . . .”
“Got it.”
Side by side they walked up the porch steps to where her father waited, and Ellie made the introductions.
“Dad, this is my friend Max Daniels.”
“William Sullivan,” her father said, stepping forward to shake his hand.
“It’s good to meet you, sir.”
Never one to mince words, William said, “I notice you carry a gun.”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“And a badge,” Ellie nervously interjected. “He carries a badge, too. Max is an agent with the FBI.”
Frowning intently now, her father asked how the two had met. It was obvious he was suspicious.
“The hospital,” she rushed to answer before Max could say a word. “We met in the hospital. His friend needed surgery.” She added nonchalantly, “Routine stuff.”
She was nodding vigorously, even as she tried to calm down. This wasn’t the Inquisition. Why was she so nervous? She knew the answer to that one. She was a frickin’ basket case because Max had astounded her, showing up the way he did.
Max could see the worry in her father’s eyes, so he casually took hold of Ellie’s hand and pulled her into his side. “Ellie did the surgery,” he said proudly.
She nodded again. She was beginning to feel like a bobblehead doll. “Yes, I did, and Max and I started seeing each other.”
She felt terrible lying to her father, but she justified her actions by reasoning that her motives were good. If she told him the truth, he would dwell on all the possibilities of what could have happened to her.
Her father visibly relaxed. “I’m very happy to meet one of Ellie’s friends. Why don’t we go inside and get something cool to drink. You must be parched.” He motioned for them to go in ahead of him.
Ellie’s mother came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a frilly apron. “William, dinner will be ready in—” She stopped mid-sentence as soon as she saw Max, and her reaction was almost identical to her husband’s when he’d first noticed the gun.
“Claire, this is Max Daniels,” William said. “He’s a friend of Ellie’s.”
“A friend?”
“Yes, Mother,” Ellie said. “A friend.”
“Oh,” she said as she nervously patted her hair. Her gaze bounced back and forth between the pair.
Max smiled as he took her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“My goodness, you’re handsome.” She laughed after making the comment. “You’re staying for dinner, of course.”
“I’d love to.”
Her mother beamed with pleasure. What had come over her? Ellie wondered.
“Why don’t we sit in our hearth room just off the kitchen,” her father suggested.
Where they could grill him, Ellie thought. And she was right. The questions began, one on top of the other.
Ellie didn’t know whether Max liked sweet tea or not, but the glass was offered, and he accepted. She stood by the kitchen island, watching, and had the most amazing revelation: Max could be charming. And her mother? She was so excited and flustered, she was blushing. Was her behavior because her daughter had finally found another man? That possibility riled. Or was her mother acting strange because Max was so adorable . . . with her, anyway.
“Ellie, why don’t you go upstairs and change before dinner,” her mother suggested.
“I’m almost finished painting the room. I just have the trim to do.” And one wall, she silently added. “When is dinner?”
“In an hour.”
“I’ll help paint,” Max said.
Ellie was all for that. She couldn’t wait to get him alone and find out why he had come all this way.
“No, you’re a guest,” her father said.
“He likes to paint,” Ellie rushed to say.
“How long will you be staying?” her father asked.
“No time at all,” Ellie answered for him.
Neither parent paid any attention to her.
“William, Max is Ellie’s plus one. He’ll be staying at least until after the wedding. Won’t you, Max?”
“He’s my what?” Ellie asked.
“Your plus one, dear.”
“No, he’s not—”
“I’ll be leaving when Ellie leaves,” Max said, and the look he shot her suggested she
not argue.
“You’ll be flying back with her?”
“That’s right.”
Ellie was shaking her head at Max. Her parents ignored her protest and so did he.
“Our daughter couldn’t be in safer hands, with her own FBI agent at her side,” William said. “Have you checked into one of the motels or the hotel yet?” he asked Max.
“No, sir, I came directly here.”
“Good,” he replied. “You’ll stay in the apartment over the garage. It’s not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it’s very comfortable, isn’t it, Claire?”
“Oh yes, it is.”
“I’m staying in the apartment,” Ellie said.
“Yes, dear, you are,” her mother agreed.
“There are two bedrooms,” her father reminded her.
“And you’re both adults,” her mother added.
Ellie was speechless. It was so unlike her father to be lackadaisical about sleeping arrangements. Yes, she was an adult, but until this minute, her father had never treated her as such. And her mother’s attitude was even more shocking. She was always so prim and proper, a true Southern lady, who tended to worry a little too much about what other people would say. She apparently didn’t give a hoot about them now, though.
“I’ll admit I’ll sleep easier knowing you’ll be watching out for her,” William said. “Has Ellie mentioned Evan Patterson to you?”
Max nodded. “Yes, sir, I know all about him.”
He sighed with relief. “My daughter keeps things inside. I wasn’t sure whether she’d shared her past with you, but I’m very pleased she did. Now you understand why I’m happy you’ll be staying with us.”
“Dad, Max didn’t say he could stay—”
“I’d love to stay here.”
“Good,” William said. “Do you think after dinner we might sit down and talk about Patterson for a minute?”
“Of course,” he answered.
“I’d love to find out about you two,” her mother said. “How long you’ve been seeing each other and how—”
“Later, Mom,” Ellie interrupted. “After dinner you may ask all the questions you want. The paintbrushes are going to dry out. Come on, Max. You offered to paint. Let’s go.”