Ellie understood what she wanted to know and decided not to mince words. “I do, too, but . . .”
“He’s not looking for anything long-term.”
Ellie was walking out the door when Annie said, “One last question and I won’t nag you about him again.”
“Are you in love with him?”
She sighed. “Yes.”
Her parents walked Ellie and Max to their car. Ellie had lipstick on both cheeks from her aunts’ kisses. They thought they would be seeing her at the wedding, and she didn’t tell them she wouldn’t be back that soon.
Max backed out of the drive, and Ellie watched her parents’ faces as they waved good-bye.
“They look relieved,” she said.
Max had to agree. “They don’t have to worry about Patterson any longer.”
“That’s true, but they also don’t have to worry about me ruining Ava’s wedding.”
“Now that Patterson is out of the picture, how could you ruin it?” he asked. He turned the corner and headed for Highway 169.
“I don’t know. Something would happen, and she’d blame me,” she said. “Max, when we get to St. Louis, will you go back to Honolulu?”
“Yes. I have to get back right away. Are you going to miss me?”
“No, I’ll be too busy.”
Ellie thought she’d handled herself okay. Her voice hadn’t quivered when she’d asked him if he would be leaving, and she thought she’d been very calm and collected after he’d answered. She was getting a little too good at not telling the truth.
THIRTY – TWO
When Willis Cogburn had first arrived in Winston Falls he thought he’d found the perfect spot for the ambush. It took several days to convince him otherwise.
He’d come prepared with a high-powered rifle, a couple of his favorite guns, and his surveillance equipment in the trunk of his rental car. It hadn’t taken much finesse to find out that Dr. Sullivan was going to Winston Falls for a wedding. As soon as he’d gotten the information, he’d rented a car under a fake name and started driving.
Once he reached the small town, he checked into the Rosewood Inn under another false name and slept ten hours. Then he got down to business. He located where Dr. Sullivan’s parents lived and spent the better part of the day sitting in his car a block away watching the house. He didn’t see any sign of her until a car pulled into her driveway, and she came running out. She obviously knew the man who got out of the car. She threw her arms around him. At first, Cogburn thought he was her boyfriend, but then he saw the gun at his side. And when the man walked up the porch steps and turned slightly, Cogburn saw the badge clipped to his belt. He didn’t need his binoculars to know that badge. It belonged to an FBI agent.
A text gave Cogburn answers a few minutes later. It told him that an FBI agent was on his way to Winston Falls to guard Ellie Sullivan.
Cogburn knew he had to find a way to get her alone, and that wasn’t going to be easy with an FBI agent shadowing her. He needed time to think about it and to come up with a plan. He started his car and drove around the town for a little while, then stopped in a fast-food place for a hamburger.
He needed to get the lay of the land first, he realized. He started his car and drove back to her neighborhood, looking for possible places to hide, spots where he could get a good shot. Nothing satisfied him.
Baseball cap low on his forehead, he parked the car at the corner of the Sullivans’ block and got his surveillance equipment out of the trunk. He wasn’t worried he’d be spotted using it because it was just a small earpiece. Anyone walking by would think he was using a Bluetooth. It was the first time he’d used this new earpiece, and he was impressed. According to the literature, he should be able to hear whispers as far as two blocks away. The ad hadn’t exaggerated. Willis adjusted the magnification, sat back, and sipped on a limeade while he listened. A woman carrying a grocery bag walked up the sidewalk toward him, so he dropped his head and pretended to be talking. She smiled as she continued on.
For the first hour, Willis was able to catch only snippets of the conversation inside the house. He was thinking about getting some dinner when he got lucky. An upstairs window in the Sullivan house was open, and the voices of the people inside began to come through loud and clear. He heard an older man’s voice talking about the falls and how Ellie should take Max to them. Cogburn assumed Max was the FBI agent because he knew Sullivan’s first name was Ellie.
All right, he was in business. He hadn’t found a place to hide near the Sullivan house, but maybe he had discovered something even better. Now he just needed to find out where the falls were.
The people of Winston Falls were proud of their town. Each time he stopped for gas and food, he was asked if he’d had time to visit the falls yet. “Everyone does,” he was told. “Why, you can’t come to Winston Falls and not go to the crystal clear water.”
Willis promised all the friendly townspeople he met that, yes, he would go to the falls.
He made good on his promise. It turned out the natural wonder was everything he’d been told and much more, for it was at the falls that he found the perfect spot for the ambush.
He expected Dr. Sullivan and the FBI agent to appear at any moment. She’d want to show him the town’s pride and joy, right?
Wrong. For two long days and nights Willis sat cross-legged in the brush with his high-powered rifle in his lap, waiting. He wasn’t alone. Hundreds of gnats and mosquitoes kept him company. There were also hordes of teenagers taking turns having sex behind the waterfall. Willis guessed the kids believed the water hid them from view, and he wondered why they hadn’t realized that, if they could see out, anyone walking by could see in. One teenage boy brought two different girls to the falls, at different times, of course.
Willis felt as though he were watching porn, bad porn, with lots of grunting and groaning. He would have left and formulated another plan if the spot he’d chosen hadn’t been the perfect place to kill someone. The noise from the water crashing down into the pool below would mask the sound of the rifle. And he was well hidden. Three teenagers walked right past him and never saw him.
He had a lot of time to think while he waited, mostly about his little brother, George. He missed the stupid kid. He’d told the Landrys that George was too young and not to entice him into their dirty business. They’d ignored him, and George was so eager to impress and so foolishly impatient, he’d gone and gotten himself killed.
George and he had such grand plans. They’d wanted to start some kind of business together. Nothing big, maybe just a pack-and-ship kind of place, but something legit. A stint in prison had been hard on Willis, and he didn’t think he could go back inside again. George would never have made it inside. He was too soft, too childlike.
Going straight proved to be impossible now. Once the Landrys had their tentacles around him, he couldn’t get away. They knew the day he was released and contacted him that evening. “Welcome back,” Cal Landry had gushed.
The money was too good to pass up. A hundred thousand to pop the doctor. Who could turn that down?
He thought it would be so easy, but the second day of being eaten alive by bugs changed his plans. He had to find another way to get her. But where? He knew he could get the doctor in St. Louis, but why wait? Why not get her here in her hometown where there was less law enforcement? He’d come to the conclusion that he might have to kill the FBI agent assigned to her as well, and that thought gave him chills. He’d get the needle in his arm for sure if he got caught.
Prison had changed him. It hadn’t hardened him; it had made him fearful.
Willis finally came up with a new plan. He went over it several times until he was satisfied it would work, then he got up, zipped the rifle in the duffel bag with his two guns, and headed for his car. It was time to get his audio surveillance equipment out again. He’d driven around the area enough times to know that there was only one road anyone could take fro
m Winston Falls to the airport. Now he just needed to find out when they’d be on it.
His cell phone chirped indicating he had a text. “Number unknown,” he read, and that meant the Landrys. It was a one-word text: “Cancel.”
He sat in the car for several minutes while he considered his options. The Landrys had already put half the money in the secret account. They’d want it back, and that just wasn’t fair. After all the preparation he’d done? Then there was George. Cal and Erika had gotten his brother killed. Hell, no. He wasn’t going to give them any money back. As far as he was concerned, he hadn’t seen the text. He’d do the job and keep the money.
THIRTY – THREE
Ellie watched the scenery out of her side window as Max drove around the curves of the worn two-lane road.
“Do we have plane tickets? Clark told me he was taking care of it, but—,” Ellie began.
“Yes, we do. You’ll be sleeping in your own bed tonight.”
Max saw a glint of steel out of the corner of his eye when they rounded another curve.
“We’re near the falls,” she said. “If there were time—”
“Down! Get your head down!”
Max shouted the command as he swerved the SUV to get out of the line of fire. Cogburn leapt onto the road, lifted his rifle, and fired two shots. Max recognized the high-powered rifle as he swerved again. “The son of a bitch is trying to hit the gas tank. Must think he can blow us up.”
Ellie was amazed at how calm he sounded. The side of her face rested on his thigh. She was trying not to knock the gearshift.
The third shot hit the left back tire, and at the speed they were going, it was nearly impossible to control the vehicle.
“Hold on, sweetheart. We’re going off-road.”
The SUV was spinning, and Ellie thought they were going to roll, but Max knew what he was doing. Within seconds the SUV had righted itself, and they were headed into the woods.
He slammed on the brakes, got Ellie’s seat belt off and his own, and said, “Let’s go.”
Max threw his door open and pulled her out behind him. They both ran flat out, ducking under branches and leaping over scrub. Max stopped suddenly, motioned for Ellie to get down, and then pushed her back so that the branches concealed her. He put his hand up to tell her to stay still. And then he waited, crouched in front of her, listening to every little sound.
Ellie tried not to make any noise and to control her breathing. If Cogburn followed their tracks, he would find them. She remained motionless and silent.
How long had they waited? She didn’t have any idea, but her legs were going numb, and she was trying to ignore the knot in her calf. How could Max stay in this position without moving a muscle for so long?
A twig snapped. Where had the sound come from? She thought the left, but Max sprang up and fired to the right, three shots in rapid succession as he moved forward, running toward his target.
He got Cogburn with the third shot. The hit man tried to get back to his car, but he had only made it to Max’s SUV when he collapsed and began to scream. He wasn’t given any sympathy. Max grabbed the rifle and tossed it into the back of the car, then squatted down next to Cogburn. “You’re in a hell of a fix here,” he said.
“I need a doctor,” Willis cried. “I’m bleeding bad.”
“You just tried to shoot a doctor.”
Ellie ran to the car and got gloves out of her purse, nudged Max out of her way, and knelt down beside the man who had wanted to kill her. Willis’s eyes were wide with terror as Ellie pushed his hands away to check the damage.
“The bullet went through,” she said.
She got up and went back to the SUV to find something she could wrap around the wound until Willis could get to a hospital. She ended up using an old T-shirt and the only dress she had left. She wadded the shirt into a ball to apply pressure, then tore the dress into strips to hold it in place.
“There isn’t any more I can do for him.”
“I’m dying?” Cogburn began to wail.
Ellie knelt behind him now and was about to answer him when Max said, “You’d better hope you’re dying because, if you’re not, you’re going away for life.”
“No, I can’t go back to prison. I can’t.”
“How about a deathbed confession?” Max asked. He was still so angry, he wanted to kill the bastard with his bare hands. He doubted Ellie would let him get away with that.
“This is all the Landrys’ fault. It’s because of them my brother’s dead, and now I’m gonna be dead, too.”
“The Landrys didn’t fire that rifle. You did.”
Ellie pulled off her gloves and reached for her cell phone. She was going to call 911, but Max gave her another number.
“Hershey should still be in Winston Falls. Tell him to send an ambulance.”
The agent answered on the first ring. He told her he was at the hospital with the sheriff’s deputy and Evan Patterson, and that he would send the ambulance right away.
“Did you know he was at the hospital?” Ellie asked. She bent over Willis and checked his pulse. She didn’t try to comfort him.
“Patterson was complaining of chest pain.”
“What . . . ?”
“And they’re required to provide treatment.”
Ellie’s shoulders sagged. “So I’ll have to see him again.”
“You’re not going near him.”
“Has he been there all night?”
Max nodded. “Handcuffed to a bed in ICU.”
Willis started crying again. “I can’t go back to prison. I just can’t.”
“Will you testify in court, tell the judge the Landrys hired you to kill Dr. Sullivan and Agent Goodman?”
“No. They hired my brother to kill Goodman. I was supposed to kill the doctor.” He looked up at Ellie. “It’s nothing personal.”
“Yes, it is,” she snapped. “It’s very personal.”
“I can’t testify against them. I wouldn’t last a day.”
“Then you’re going to prison.”
Willis started screaming again. “This hurts bad.”
Max got up and pulled Ellie to her feet. He had to raise his voice to be heard over Willis’s sobs. “I’m going to change the tire. You’re coming with me.”
“The SUV is ten feet away.”
“You’re still coming with me. I don’t want you close to him.”
“I want to make a deal. I want a deal,” Willis pleaded.
Max looked down at him with disgust in his eyes. “What can you give me?”
“There’s a shipment coming in from Singapore. Over a thousand guns with enough ammo to cover Iowa. Grenades, too. All sorts of crap. Cal had me on speakerphone, and I heard him tell Erika how big the buy was going to be. Cal likes to brag. I think he forgot I was still on the line. Maybe, anyway. But I know where it’s going down. Get me a deal. I want witness protection.”
Max kept his reaction contained. Son of a bitch, he thought. Maybe they could get the Landrys once and for all. If Cogburn was telling the truth.
“You don’t talk to anyone about this,” Max ordered. “You understand?”
“Okay, I won’t,” he groaned. “You better not talk to your people either. There’s a leak, and if the guy running the investigation hears about me, someone in his office will tell the Landrys, and I’m a dead man.” He started crying again. “I want something for pain. Can I get a deal?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Willis was curled up in a fetal position. His gasps were pathetic as he moaned, “You don’t have to worry about the doctor. Landrys called off the hit. I was going to act like I didn’t get the text because I knew they’d want their money back, and I could never get away from them. I was going to use the money to run. Honest.”
“They paid up front?”
“Half,” he said. His voice was getting weaker. “I can’t take this pain. It’s hurting bad.”
A few seconds later, Willis passed out.
Ellie had just pulled the jack from the back of the SUV but dropped it on the ground and ran back. “What did you do to him?”
Max shook his head. “I didn’t do anything. He passed out.”
“The wound isn’t bad,” she said. “He’ll be in and out of surgery in under an hour.”
“If he was in a trauma center, maybe, but this is Winston Falls.”
“I’m sure the surgeons here know what they’re doing. There’s probably one on the way to the hospital now.”
As it turned out, the small hospital had several surgeons on staff, and one was waiting for Willis. It did take longer than an hour to repair the damage, but not by much.
Max had signed Willis in under another name. As soon as Clark got word of the shooting, he had turned around and come back to Winston Falls. He and Hershey stood guard outside recovery while Max explained what Cogburn had told him.
“Are you sure he was telling the truth?” Hershey asked.
Max handed him Willis’s cell phone. “See for yourself.”
All of them were concerned about the leak. “Do you think it could be Hughes?” Clark asked.
“Wouldn’t that be something? He’s been acting like a maniac going after the Landrys,” Hershey said.
“I think it’s someone in his office. He checks in all the time to update them.” Clark made the comment.
“We’ll let Hughes find out who the leak is after we trap the Landrys. Until then, we can’t take any chances. No one in Hughes’s office can know about the shipment,” Max cautioned.
“Not even Hughes,” Hershey added, nodding.
“Speaking of maniacs, where’s Evan Patterson?” Clark asked.
Ellie had been sitting in the surgical waiting room for the past hour. Max had ordered her not to move while he went to check on Cogburn, but she couldn’t wait any longer. She had to find out what was going on. Max saw her looking out and motioned for her to join them.
Hershey knew she’d heard their conversation about Patterson. He looked concerned when he said, “Being in the same hospital with him has to make you nervous.”