The Ideal Man (Buchanan-Renard 9)

Page 17

“They know how to blend in,” Max assured her. “But I’ll meet with them ahead of time, and we’ll work out a game plan.”
Her frown had eased a little, but Max could tell she was still thinking about possible problems. He tilted his head toward the desk. “See that new book?”
“Which one?”
“The big one. It’s your dad’s new math book. He can’t wait for you to work the problems.”
Her shoulders slumped. “I hate math,” she whispered.
He laughed. “I know.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
He grabbed her and pulled her onto his lap. “I saw how you grimaced when he was telling the story about the visiting professor. Why didn’t you tell him?”
“He loved doing math with me, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
He slipped his arm around her waist. She pushed his hand away as she stood. “My father is in the next room,” she whispered. “Tell me what Ben said.”
“Ben is going to sit in on the interview with Cal Landry. When he’s finished with him, he’ll tackle his wife, Erika.”
“Which one is the weak link?” she asked.
“Neither one,” he answered. “They’re both hard as”—he started to say a crude word but substituted—“nails.”
“Have they said where they’ve been? Or did they admit they were there at the park?”
“No,” he answered. “They insisted they’ve been on their yacht, cruising from island to island. They have several witnesses who will vouch for them.”
“Do they know about the eyewitness? Greg . . .”
“Greg Roper,” he reminded her. “And no, not yet. We’re keeping quiet about him.”
“Ellie, can you go?” Her father poked his head into the library.
“Go where?” Max asked.
She quickly explained she’d offered to pick up the new thermostat. “It’s a beautiful day, and I really would like to get out.”
Max didn’t have any problem leaving as long as she didn’t take any chances and listened to what he said.
They were on their way minutes later. Ellie grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator on the way out the door, tossed her purse on the floor of Max’s SUV, and put her cell phone next to his in the cup holder.
Her father knocked on her window, and when she rolled it down, he said, “You remember how to get to 26, don’t you? If you pass the exit for Mays Hill, you’ve gone too far. You might want to cut over on 223, then turn back on 168. That will take you right into the north side of Lipton. It shouldn’t take you more than an hour to get there. Stop at the Goose for lunch,” he added. “Great food.”
Max drove down the street, turned left, and then said, “Did you get any of that?”
“Yes, directions,” he said.
“No. Did you?”
“I wouldn’t have asked . . .”
“I know where Highway 26 is,” she said cheerfully. “I can get you that far.”
Max programmed the GPS to locate Lipton, and they were on their way. It was a pretty day, but the heat was rising. Ellie wished she could roll all the windows down, but she knew the humidity would make her miserable in no time at all.
She checked the weather app on her phone. “It’s supposed to be in the mid-eighties,” she said. “Seems hotter to me.”
A half hour into the trip, the GPS indicated that they should turn off at the next exit and that Lipton was just twelve miles ahead. Max took the turn and said, “Why did your dad make it so complicated?”
“Maybe he didn’t know about this exit.”
They drove for a couple of miles on a two-lane road, and the GPS gave them another order to take a left at the next intersection. Fifteen minutes later, they were bumping along a dirt road with few signs of habitation in view. The GPS announced that it was recalculating the route, and Max looked as though he wanted to empty his gun into it.
“Maybe we should have paid attention to Dad,” Ellie said. She could have sworn she saw Max’s jaw flinch as he turned the SUV around on the narrow road and headed back in the direction from which they had just come.
Several miles and several turns later, they ended up on a road lined with construction signs but no construction equipment or workers.
“Is anyone following us?” she asked with a straight face.
They hadn’t seen a single car or person in the past half hour.
Max was trying to turn the car around without sinking a tire in one of the multitude of holes.
“Not funny,” he said. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere.”
He picked up her bottle of water, took a swig, and handed it over to her. He finally got the SUV turned around, and they backtracked to a somewhat decent two-lane road. It took another half hour before they found 168. Ellie wanted to laugh, but she didn’t dare, so she rode in silence the rest of the way.
As they finally passed the sign proclaiming they had arrived in Lipton, Max grumbled, “Damn GPS.”
Ellie couldn’t help herself. She burst into peals of laughter.
Other than giving her a vexed look, Max didn’t respond.
He slowed the car as they pulled into the town, which was tiny and quaint. There was a main street two blocks long with shops lined up on both sides. Cars were parked in front of most of them. Toward one end of the street was the hardware store, and at the other end was the Goose restaurant. Max noticed the first storefront they passed had SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT etched on the glass above the door.
He stopped the car in front of Waid’s Hardware Store, and they walked inside. Odors of leather and wood shavings and paint and engine oil greeted them. The old hardwood floors creaked when they stepped on them. A man wearing a carpenter’s apron stood behind the counter waiting on two young men. As Max and Ellie entered, they all turned toward the door, raising their eyebrows when they saw the strangers.
Ellie assumed they had noticed the gun at Max’s side. Max knew they were all noticing her.
After finishing his transaction with the two men, the clerk addressed them. “I know what you’re here for,” he said as he pulled the thermostat from a shelf behind the counter. He dropped it in a paper bag and handed it to Ellie.
Back outside, Max locked it in the car, and they headed down the street to the restaurant.
A cartoon caricature of a goose, who apparently was a close cousin to Donald Duck, was painted on the large front window of the establishment. It was a narrow space with a cash register at the front door and red vinyl booths along the walls. The lunch crowd filled most of the seats. Max spotted an empty booth toward the back, and they were heading for it when Ellie stopped suddenly.
“I don’t believe it,” she said.
Max looked over at her. She was standing dead still and staring wide-eyed. When he turned back to see what had caught her attention, he saw a tall, burly man walking toward them. He wore a baseball cap with the word SHERIFF embroidered above the brim.
Ellie ran to him and threw herself into his arms.
Max was right behind her. He wanted to peel her off the sheriff but decided on diplomacy first.
“Let go of him,” he snapped.
She ignored him. “Oh my God. I knew you’d either end up running from the law or becoming the law. I’m so happy to see you.”
A huge smile spread across the man’s face. “Ellie Sullivan. Where have you been?”
She finally let go of him and introduced him to Max. “This is Spike Bennett . . . Sheriff Spike Bennett,” she corrected.
“You sure grew up nice,” Spike said.
They were standing in the aisle, and a waitress was patiently waiting to get past. Ellie slid into a booth, and Max sat beside her across from the sheriff.
If Spike hadn’t been wearing any identification, Max would have thought there was a possibility he’d just been paroled from prison. Both his arms were covered with tattoos, and there were a couple of scars near his elbows.
A larger scar ran from his hairline down to his right eyebrow. It made him look dangerous.
His affection for Ellie was apparent.
“How do you two know each other?” Max inquired.
“We were in school together,” Spike said. “Are you married, Ellie?”
She shook her head. Max had the insane urge to put his arm around her shoulders and haul her into his side. Was he trying to mark his territory? Jeez, he was acting like a caveman.
“What about you? Are you married?” she asked.
“Yes, two years now,” he answered. “I met my wife in college,” he added. “You’d like her.”
“I’m sure I would,” she said. Turning to Max, she said softly, “Spike saved me from Patterson. That’s how he got the scar on his forehead.”
“Tell me about it,” Max said to Spike.
“It was a long time ago,” Ellie said.
“Yes, it was,” Spike agreed, “but I remember every minute of it as though it happened yesterday. It was lunch hour, and I was hiding behind that big oak tree by the chapel. Remember that tree, Ellie?”
She nodded. “Kenny Platte climbed it and fell. He broke his arm.”
“Why were you hiding?” Max asked, curious.
Spike grinned. “I was trying to get the matches to work to light a cigarette I had stolen from my uncle. I had a plan. Once I got it lit, I was going to stroll past the principal’s office puffing away. I figured smoking would get me kicked out of school no matter how much money my father had. The matches were wet, though, and I never did get the cigarette lit.”
“Spike had a bad-boy image to keep up,” Ellie explained.
“Yes, and it took work,” he admitted. “So there I was behind that tree when I heard you screaming. I ran around the corner to see what was happening, and Patterson was trying to drag you away.” Turning to Max, he said, “The guy was built like a bull, and was at least six feet. By the time I got to him, he was on top of Ellie, using his fists. She was curled up in a ball on her side, so her shoulders and her legs took most of the beating. Sister Mary Frances tried to pull him off, but he knocked her down and—”
“He hit Sister Mary Frances?” Ellie was appalled.
“You don’t remember?”
She shook her head. “I just remember you jumping on top of him.”
“That’s right. I did get him off of you, and I shouted for you to run, but you wouldn’t.”
“I thought I could help you.”
“It was crazy,” Spike said. “Soaking wet, you probably weighed fifty pounds back then,” he exaggerated. “And it all happened so fast. I got in a couple of good punches, but Patterson shook those hits off like a dog shaking water off, so I decided to choke him. I was squeezing his neck for all I was worth, but it didn’t faze him. To this day, I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. Not crazy eyes,” he stressed. “Evil . . . mean.”
“What did he cut you with?” Max asked.
Spike touched the scar on his forehead. “A penknife. It was on his key chain.”
“You became my hero that day,” Ellie said.
His neck turned pink. “I’m no hero. I just got to him before anyone else could. It took three big seniors to pull him off me and pin him down until the police arrived.”
“We both went to the hospital,” Ellie interjected. “Sister Mary Frances rode in the ambulance with you.”
He nodded. “The nuns called me the town terror, and if it hadn’t been for my dad’s donations to the school, they would have thrown me out, but after that day, they all but sainted me.” He laughed and said, “My bad-boy image was ruined.”
He turned serious again, shaking his head. “I’ve seen Patterson’s record, and I can’t understand why he didn’t end up in prison. Any one of his assaults should have been enough to lock him away, but it looks as though he had some pretty shrewd attorneys who convinced the court he needed treatment not incarceration.” He looked at Ellie with genuine compassion. “I’m really sorry for what happened to you. Your dad did everything right with the restraining orders, but I know Patterson didn’t stop. After he kidnapped you and nearly killed you, we heard you were in critical condition and they airlifted you to Harrisburg. My dad promised he’d take me to see you as soon as you were awake, but you disappeared. No one knew where you were.”
The waitress interrupted to give them menus, but talk of Patterson had soured Ellie’s appetite. She ordered a salad. Max looked over the offerings and decided on the specialty of the house, the Paul Bunyan. The menu boasted it was the largest barbecue beef sandwich in the state. Ellie decided she didn’t have to worry about Max’s dangerous profession. Cholesterol would get him before any bullets did.
“There was talk that you’d moved in with a relative in Los Angeles and you had become an actress,” Spike continued. “But years later I heard you were an attorney in Miami. There was even a rumor floating around not too long ago that you were working on the space shuttle in Houston.”
The waitress smiled at Spike as she placed three iced teas on the table. He nodded to her and took a drink.
“Your dad was smart to hide you from that lunatic.”
“Do you know where Patterson is now?” Max asked.
He shook his head. “I’ve got a couple of suspicions, but nothing concrete. He got out of the last institution about six months ago, and then he up and vanished. His parents swear they don’t know where he is.”
“You asked them?”
“Yes, I did. I wanted to know if I could expect more trouble. My concern was that he’d latch onto another girl or try to hurt someone else.”
“His parents still live in Winston Falls?” Ellie asked.
“Yes, they do. In the same house.”
Ellie got goose bumps and leaned into Max’s side. “Four blocks over and three down from my house,” she said. “That’s how far away he was. Is he wanted for anything now? Was he supposed to report in to anyone?”
Spike shook his head. “He’s not wanted for anything, and no one’s looking for him—at least not officially. When he was released, it was recommended that he continue his therapy. That’s all I know.” He sighed as he added, “Everyone thinks he’s crazy.”
“From what I’ve read and heard, when it comes to Ellie, he’s certifiable.” Max made the comment.
“You’re right about that. She’d been in the same school, but he hadn’t paid any attention to her until they were at a science camp together. He saw her there, and he instantly wanted her. The fact that she was only eleven years old didn’t matter to him. He couldn’t let her go. And he certainly couldn’t accept rejection. I believe that, if he saw her today, he would attack her.”
Max handed Spike one of his cards. “If you hear anything about him, please contact me. Day or night.”
“If you’ll do the same,” Spike said, giving Max one of his cards. “I’ve been watching the Patterson house whenever I get over that way. It’s a big Victorian house, and I swear one afternoon I saw the curtains move in the third-story attic dormer. I had seen Patterson’s parents leave a few minutes before, so it couldn’t have been them up there. A couple of kids were walking past his house, and I happened to be at a stop sign adjacent to the street. No one in the house could have seen me.”
“You think he might be hiding in the attic?”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “Keep in mind, Patterson’s parents insist they haven’t seen Evan, and the father threatened to bring harassment charges if I kept bothering them. I did a little experiment, though. Several times during the last month of school I made a point to watch the house just about three o’clock in the afternoon. Kids walk past the Pattersons’ house every day. I saw the curtains move once more. Just once more, though. So, yeah, it could be him hiding up there.”
“Living in a house for six months and never going out, never being seen?” Ellie said. “I don’t know about that.”
“There’s another problem you should know about,” Max said, and for the next te
n minutes he talked about the Landrys and the shooting Ellie had witnessed.
“I think it’s going to be Willis Cogburn coming after her,” Max said. “I have to consider the possibility that the Landrys could send someone else, but they like working with Cogburn.”
“He’s been in prison, so he’s in the system. I’ll pull up his photo when I get back to the office.”
“What’s your cell phone number?” Max asked. “I’ll send the photo to you now.”
Less than a minute later, Spike was looking at Cogburn’s face. “Okay,” he said. “What can I do to help?”
“I’d like to get Ellie out of here today, but there’s this party . . .”
“My parents pleaded that I stay for Ava’s garden party,” Ellie explained. “If Max can make it safe.”
“I can help you with that,” Spike said. Turning to Ellie, he said, “You can’t catch a break, can you?”
Trying to stay positive, she said, “Everyone has their ups and downs . . .” She stopped when she noticed their incredulous expressions. “I don’t know,” she said, shrugging.
“Let’s talk strategy later,” Max suggested after seeing how pale Ellie’s face had become. He knew this had to be difficult for her, but she was handling it with courage.
“Good idea,” she said. She didn’t want to talk about the Landrys or Patterson any longer and asked Spike to catch her up on all the people she remembered. By the time their food arrived, her appetite was coming back.
“What about you, Ellie? What are you doing these days?” Spike asked.
“Looking for a job,” she answered.
“Would you ever consider moving back here?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I could.”
“Even if Patterson was living somewhere else?”
“Even then. All my memories revolve around him. I just don’t think I could do it. What about you?” she asked. “What made you decide on law enforcement?”
“After I helped you, I kinda liked doing some good, I guess, and after college I decided this is what I wanted to do and this is where I wanted to live.”
Spike asked a few personal questions about her life away from Winston Falls, but Max wouldn’t let her answer. He was smooth about it. He skillfully deflected the questions or changed the subject. Ellie realized what he was doing when he put his hand on her knee.