Witness Betrayed A Will Novak Novel #3 by Linda Ladd
Genre: Mystery/Thriller Pub Date: 10/2/18
Mardi Gras whips New Orleans’ French Quarter into a whirlpool of excess, color, booze, noise, motion. So the woman in the sights of Will Novak’s binoculars stands out. She’s bruised, barefoot, wearing a man’s raincoat. And she’s looking right at him.
In a moment she’s fleeing into the crowd, but Novak knows she’s not gone for good. When she comes back, it’s with a gun to his head—and a story about crony politics, a crooked judge, a kidnapped whistleblower, and children in deadly danger. Novak can’t let this one slide.
Through the grit of Houston’s underbelly to the grime below Beverly Hills’ glamor, a trickle of rot connects the powerful to the desperate and corrupts the men and women who are supposed to stand against it. Deceit is everywhere. If he’s going to do right, Novak is going to have to do it alone . . .
Below Will Novak’s balcony, the final day of Mardi Gras was in full swing. Crowds walked along the narrow width of Bourbon Street, laughing and talking and enjoying the famous New Orleans celebration. The French Quarter was alive with excitement and good cheer, which put police on alert for inevitable drunken altercations. That’s why Novak was watching. From where he sat in a chair drawn close to the wrought-iron rail, he could see several drunks stumbling around inside the crowd and others who looked well on their way to inebriation. His apartment was at the top end of Bourbon Street, so the riotous mass moved down the street in one direction like ants headed to a piece of pecan pie. Across the street, a jazz band was playing, filling the late night with the sounds of saxophone, piano, and bass fiddle.
Novak enjoyed the music, thinking the band was pretty good, as he swept his binoculars over the boisterous crowd as it moved along the ancient street with its old-fashioned lampposts and multitude of bars and novelty shops. The New Orleans Police Department had hired him on a temporary basis to spot probable troublemakers and report their locations to street cops. He’d been at it for a long time. Glancing at his watch, he found it was almost midnight. Eventually all the fun going on now would wane and the people would gradually disperse, but not yet. Maybe in another hour or two. He hoped so. He was dead tired.
Late February in south Louisiana was sometimes chilly; he had put on a leather jacket because of the nip in the air. The cold was not bothering anybody else, who kept warm by drinking beer and the sheer exhilaration of the moment. Unfortunately, nobody was calling it a night yet. Pushing, shoving, and hair-trigger, testosterone-fueled fistfights had been a regular occurrence all week long. At such occasions, Novak always watched first for the glint of steel. Knives were easily hidden under coats. This late hour was when either guns or knives were apt to be whipped out and innocent passersby hurt. Novak wasn’t the only observer on the street. There were many others just like him with bird’s-eye views of the action. He leaned back in his chair and adjusted his earpiece and microphone headset.
Loud shouts caught his attention, and he swung the glasses to a commotion starting up right across the street. A young woman stood high on a second-floor balcony opposite him. She looked as if she was smashed but didn’t know it yet. She was having a good old time, giggling and waving at the men below her on the street. A crowd had already gathered, mainly because she kept pulling up her sweatshirt and showing her bare breasts. The guys below hooted and clapped and sent forth all manner of encouragement. She obliged their fervor by whipping the sweatshirt off over her head and shimmying for anybody inclined to take a look.
Skin shows were not unusual during Mardi Gras week. The guy standing on the balcony with her didn’t appear to mind much, flinging off his own shirt in a show of support. His hairy chest didn’t garner as much interest. Both leaned over the railing, blowing kisses and tossing strings of colorful beads to their drunken admirers, which immediately caused fights for possession. People were just damn stupid sometimes, but no real harm was done with something like that. He called in the incident. A two-team unit was dispatched to break up the crowd below, and then they’d have to climb the narrow interior stairs to the woman’s apartment and order her to cover herself or go to jail. They had already warned the same woman earlier that evening. They might arrest her this time. Novak didn’t care much, one way or the other. He riveted his attention back on the street. Many people carried red Solo cups so they could guzzle beer while they walked. Mardi Gras had always been a big drunken party and a giant headache for the NOPD. Tonight was no exception.
Novak was working solo. He hadn’t been on a gig by himself in a while, not since he’d signed up with Claire Morgan’s private investigation firm. His partner was unavailable, off to Italy with her husband, Nicholas Black. They had been tied up in Rome for days now, fighting Italian government red tape as they tried to adopt a ten-year-old boy named Rico. His parents had been murdered during a particularly bad case that Novak had been involved in, and since it had wrapped up, Claire and Black had given the kid a good home. They wanted him to stay there.
They were due back soon, though, and Novak was glad. He missed Claire. She was quite a woman, all things considered: tall, natural blond, athletic, good-looking, and sexy without knowing it. More important, she was a damn good detective and a damn good friend. He could count on her when things got sticky. Compared to most of their cases, tonight’s gig was a breeze. Sitting in his own apartment watching people having fun was something he didn’t usually mind.
Say Your Goodbyes
A Will Novak Novel #2
SAY YOU’RE DREAMING
When a scream wakes Will Novak in the middle of the night, at first he puts it down to the nightmares. He's alone on a sailboat in the Caribbean, miles from land. And his demons never leave him.
SAY YOUR PRAYERS
The screams are real, though, coming from another boat just a rifle’s night scope away. It only takes seconds for Novak to witness one murder and stop another. But with the killer on the run and a beautiful stranger dripping on his deck, Novak has gotten himself into a new kind of deep water.
BUT DON’T SAY YOUR NAME
The young woman he saved says she doesn't know who she is. But someone does, and they're burning fuel and cash to chase Novak and his new acquaintance from one island to the next, across dangerous seas and right into the wilds of the Yucatan jungle. If either of them is going to live, Novak is going to need answers, fast—and he's guessing he won't like what he finds out . . .
Novak stretched back out on the padded bench under the dark blue awning. Behind his boat, a billion stars spread out in a spangled canopy, vast and glittering, but also cold and distant and unfathomable.
He stared up at the heavens, always awestruck by the clear, impossibly vivid spectacle of the universe when so far out at sea. In the west, a falling star streaked for several seconds and burned itself out. Sometimes Novak felt like that meteorite, like he was burning out. Sometimes he just wanted to burn out, end his mental suffering,
end the memories of a life that had been so good, so perfect, but was now dead and gone forever . . .
Novak cursed his maudlin thoughts and stood up. He leaned down and pulled a cold beer out of the ice. He’d been sailing due south, away from his home deep inside the bayous of Louisiana. Wanting solitude. Wanting to mourn for all he’d lost. He thrust one hand into the cooler and brought up ice to rub over his sunburned face. Then he just froze, with the ice still held against his skin. A woman had just screamed. He’d heard her clearly—far away from the boat, but resonating in the silence around him. Frowning, he put down the beer and peered out over the water. Then she cried out again. A long, hysterical scream.
Novak held on to the gunwale and steadied himself. Those screams were not figments of his imagination. No way. Another scream came. Novak strained his eyes, searching the inky black night. He still saw nothing, just endless, restless water. He rubbed his eyes and scanned every direction. He wished he hadn’t drunk so much. He felt a little sick. A full moon was climbing up the sky, easing through the myriad of bright stars and out from a thick cloud bank. Moments later, a glittering trail of white moonlight stretched across the sea. That pale lunar gleam was all he could see. The sky and ocean melded into black nothingness on the horizon. Then he caught sight of a light. Maybe a hundred yards off his port bow. Just a momentary flash. A boat’s spotlight, maybe.
Novak grabbed a rifle out of the rack beside the helm, the Colt AR 7.62 NATO. He’d had the gun for years. It felt good when he wrapped his fingers around it. He brought the high-powered scope up to his eye, blinked away some of his grogginess, and adjusted the knob. The dull green night vision screen reacted and slowly pulled
the distant lights in close. A large motor yacht was out there. It wasn’t running, just floating in the darkness. Predominantly white.
One stripe down the side. Sleek, modern, expensive. A honey of a boat, all right, and big, probably sixty, seventy feet, at least. Dim lights glowed softly along the main deck, probably from the staterooms and lounge, illuminating the waterline and the silhouette of the vessel. It looked as if it was anchored, maybe, the captain taking advantage of the coral reef. No screams now. Just quiet.
Novak moved his crosshairs slowly up the length of the boat, up to the bow, where he spotted another light shining in a large plateglass window. He twisted an adjustment and picked up a couple of dark figures moving around in the bow. One was small; looked like a woman or child. Probably a woman. She was hightailing it back
toward the stern, moving at a full run. He could pick up shouting now. This time it sounded like male voices. Loud. Angry. Sounded like they were speaking in Spanish. Novak was fluent in Spanish, but he was still too far away to hear what they were yelling. Then Novak saw a man chasing the woman. He was small, too, didn’t
look much taller than she did, but he had a gun in his hand and he was almost on her. She screamed shrilly when he grabbed her from the back. She was in big trouble.
Another guy darted out of nowhere, taller, bigger, and thrust the struggling woman behind him, trying to shield her from the little guy.
They were all arguing and shouting at each other. Then the little guy raised his arm and fired the handgun at the tall man. Shot him right in the face. Point-blank. That’s when the woman went crazy, screaming her head off, her shrieks echoing out over the water to Novak. After that, she put up one hell of a fight with the killer, kicking
and scratching and trying to wrestle his gun away. While Novak watched, she twisted loose and made another mad dash down the gangway toward the stern.
Novak shifted his scope down to the waterline and picked up a small Zodiac inflatable boat bobbing at starboard stern. All he could see was the end of it, the rest hidden behind the boat. That’s where she was heading, all right, but she only made it a couple of yards. The little guy grabbed the back of her shirt, swung her bodily around to face him, and then slammed his pistol butt hard against her forehead. She went down like a felled tree. Her assailant went down after her.
To Novak, cowards like that guy on that boat were the scum of the earth. Misogynists and bullies and abusers irked the hell out of him. He did not like men who shot unarmed victims in the face for trying to shield a woman, either. Both things he had just witnessed were big triggers for Novak. To him, that kind of behavior labeled them as black hats destined to be put down, and without a doubt. He liked to take them down hard and make it as final as he could. End them. So he calmly and methodically lined up the crosshairs on the little man who was having fun bludgeoning the scared lady. The bully had already jerked the woman back up to her feet.
He hit her again, with his fist this time, so hard in the right temple that she went back hard, slammed up against the port rail, and went backwards over the side. The guy followed her movements, leaning against the gunwale above where she was floundering in the choppy swells. When he started taking potshots down at her, Novak shifted his finger to the trigger. Enough’s enough, tough guy.
Slowly building anger was coursing through Novak’s bloodstream and had been since the first time that guy had hit the woman. Maybe her attacker was a hijacker and was forcibly commandeering the luxury yacht, most likely to sell it on the marine black market. Bulletin alerts from the Coast Guard had been coming in daily about
modern-day pirate bands operating in the Gulf and off the Mexican coast. They targeted small and undefended pleasure vessels. He had been on the lookout for them himself. Almost wished they would attack so he could put them down. He was heavily armed and knew how to use weapons. He was going to use one now.
He sat down, held his rifle nice and steady, the barrel propped atop the canopy rigging, gauged the rocking of his hull and the force of the breeze, and set his aim. Slowly, carefully, no hurry, he sighted on the killer and squeezed the trigger. The bullet burst out into the darkness, followed seconds later by a deafening retort that echoed thunderously out across the water. If the killer had not chosen that exact moment to move left, he would have died where he stood, a bullet in his head. But he had moved, bending forward to take another shot down at the girl in the water. The slug might have nicked him; Novak wasn’t sure. The guy had disappeared behind the rail
and stayed down. So Novak waited for him to stand up again, his finger on the trigger, ready to fire—his version of whack-a-mole.
Novak expected the guy to return fire, be it haphazardly out into the blackness around him, shooting aimlessly at an unspecified target in an unspecified area. No way could he see Novak. No way could he know who was firing at him, or why. Patiently, left eye shut, right eye fastened on the scope, Novak waited for him to pop up again. But nothing happened. Maybe the guy was smarter than Novak thought.
Within moments, a faint whine started up in the distance. Sounded like the man was in the Zodiac. If so, he had wasted no time and crawled back there in a big hurry. Not so stupid after all. He knew when to run. Novak kept the scope focused on the part of the Zodiac that he could see, but he couldn’t get off a shot before the guy pulled
it back behind the stern. Then Novak heard it roar to full life, and it was retreating at full speed in the opposite direction. The guy didn’t know his enemy, couldn’t ascertain how many there were or what kind of weaponry they had. He had made the right decision. Under those circumstances, Novak might have retreated. But that didn’t mean the little killer wouldn’t come back, loaded for bear, and with equally deadly reinforcements.
Novak edged the scope back down to the waves around where the girl had gone into the drink. He couldn’t see her anymore, just dark, restless water, spotted with whitecaps as the wind picked up. The guy had just left a seriously injured woman out there to drown. She might be dead already, probably too weak to stay afloat. At best, she was unconscious, or soon to be. Whoever the hell the shooter had been, he was a cold-blooded bastard. Novak wished he’d gotten him with that bullet.
Novak stood up, keeping the rifle gripped tightly in his right fist as he took the helm at stern. If she was still alive, he had to fish her out. In any case, he needed to retrieve her body and take it in to the nearest authorities. She was somebody’s wife or mother or daughter.
So he weighed anchor, fired up the powerful engines, and steered the Sweet Sarah directly at the abandoned yacht. He increased his speed across the deep but kept his eyes glued on the dim light thrown off by the receding Zodiac, now far away to the west. Once he was sure the guy was not circling back, he estimated where the girl had taken the plunge. Wasn’t easy, not in the dark, not on choppy seas. Not out in the middle of nowhere at midnight. He didn’t have much time to find her, either, before she sank to the bottom and became shark bait.
Once he got closer, the boat’s name became legible, painted across the stern escutcheon in big black letters: Orion’s Trident. Cancun, Mexico. He motored to the port side of the vessel where she’d gone overboard. He cut the engines. He grabbed the laser spotlight and swept it back and forth across the water’s surface. The killer’s boat was now just a speck of light, heading away as fast as he could make it go. He wasn’t coming back. Not now, in any case.
It took Novak several more minutes to find the girl—way too long, he feared, but then a big wave crested over her, and he caught sight of her head bobbing in the water. Looked like she might still be alive.
Yes, weak as hell, but now she was flailing her arms, trying to keep her face above water. Maybe twenty yards out from him. He focused the spotlight on her. Blood was all over her face. The head injuries were bad—he could tell that from where he stood. She wasn’t going to last much longer. He brought the Sweet Sarah up as close to her as he safely could, cut the engines, and then tossed out a roped life buoy. She just bobbed up and down and seemed oblivious to it.
“Pull it down over your head!” he shouted to her, his voice reverberating out over the water. He was pretty sure he was going to have to go in and get her. He kicked off his canvas boat shoes, but then, somehow, she seemed to come out of her stupor enough to grab the life ring. She clung to it with both arms for dear life. Relieved, Novak slowly started towing her in, hand over hand on the rope, careful not to jerk it out of her grasp. She was too weak to hold on much longer.
When he got her up against the hull, he dropped to his stomach and reached down as far as he could. He managed to grab her shirt, then got up on his knees and hauled her bodily up out of the water and onto his deck. She was conscious, but barely. She was groaning and strangling and coughing and choking. Novak laid her out flat on her back and knelt down beside her. She was bleeding heavily.
He found two deep gouges, one at the top of her forehead, the other on her right temple. Her nose was bleeding, too, and the blood kept running down into her mouth and causing her to choke.
She kept gasping for air and groaning, but that lasted only seconds before her eyes rolled back into her head, and she was out for the count.
Novak quickly turned her onto her side so she could breathe better. He put his mouth down close to her ear. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m trying to help you. Can you hear me? You’re safe now. He’s gone.”
She must have heard his voice because her eyelids fluttered slightly in response. Then they closed again, and she didn’t move.
Bad Road to Nowhere
A Will Novak Novel #1
Not many people know their way through the bayous well enough to find Will Novak’s crumbling mansion outside New Orleans. Not that Novak wants to talk to anyone. He keeps his guns close and his guard always up.
Mariah Murray is one selfish, reckless, manipulative woman, the kind Novak would never want to get tangled up with. But he can’t say no to his dead’s wife sister.
When Mariah tells him she wants to rescue a childhood friend, another Aussie girl gone conveniently missing in north Georgia, Novak can’t turn her down. She’s hiding something. But the pretty little town she’s targeted screams trouble, too. Novak knows there’s a trap waiting. But until he springs it, there’s no telling who to trust . . .
Once Novak was satisfied with his efforts, he hoisted himself back up and straddled the rail. He raised his face, shut his eyes, and felt the fire of the sun burn hot into his bare skin. He was already sunburned from his time out on the drink, his skin burnished a deep, warm bronze. After a few minutes, he shifted his gaze down onto
the slow, rippling bayou current. It was good to be back home, good to be sober, good to be able to think clearly. He had wrestled his demons back under control, at least for the moment. He left his perch, stooped down, and pulled a cold bottle of Dixie beer from the cooler. He twisted off the cap and took a deep draft, thirsty and tired from a full day of hard physical labor. That’s when he first heard the sound of a vehicle, coming closer, turning off the old bayou road and heading down through the swampy woods to his place.
Grimacing, annoyed as hell, not pleased about uninvited guests showing up, he lowered the beer bottle, shielded his eyes with his forearm, and peered up the long grassy field that stretched between the bayou and the ancient plantation house he’d inherited from his mother on the day he was born. He had not been expecting company
today. Or any other day. He did not like company. He did not like people coming around his place, and that was putting it mildly. He was a serious loner. He liked to be invisible. Anonymous. He liked his privacy. And he was willing to protect it.
The sun broiled down, the temperature probably close to ninety, humidity hugging the bayou like a wool blanket, thick and wet and heavy. Drops of perspiration rolled down his forehead and burned into his eyes. Novak grabbed a towel and mopped the sweat off his face and chest. Then he took another long drink of the icy beer. But he kept his attention focused on the spot where his road emerged from the dense grove of giant live oaks and cypress trees and magnolias.
The sugar plantation was ancient and now defunct, but it was a huge property, none of which had ever been sold out of his family. It took a lot of his effort to keep the place even in modest repair. The mansion on the knoll above him had stood in the same spot for over two hundred years. And it looked like it, too, with most of the white paint peeled off and weathered to gray years ago.
Once upon a time, his wealthy Creole ancestors, the St. Pierre family, had sold their sugar at top price and flourished for a century and a half on the bayou plantation they’d named Bonne Terre. They had been quite the elite in Napoleonic New Orleans, he had been told. They still were quite the elite, but mostly in France now. The
magnificence with which they’d endowed the place was long gone and the house in need of serious renovation. Someday, maybe. Right now, he preferred to live on his boat where it was cooler and more to his liking.
Minutes passed, and then the car appeared and proceeded slowly around the circular driveway leading to his front gallery. It was a late model Taurus, apple-red and shiny clean and glinting like a fine ruby under the blinding sunlight. Probably a New Orleans rental. He’d never seen the car before. That meant a stranger, which in Novak’s experience usually meant trouble. Few visitors found their way this far down into the bayou. Ever. That’s why he lived there.
Claire Morgan was the exception and one of the few people who knew where he lived, but he trusted her. She was a former homicide detective who’d hired him on as a partner in her new private investigation agency. But it wasn’t Claire who’d come to call today. She was still on her honeymoon with Nicholas Black, out in the Hawaiian Islands, living it up on some big estate on the island of Kauai. They’d been gone around eight weeks now, and that had given Novak plenty of time to do his own thing. Especially after what had happened on
their wedding day. The three of them and a couple of other guys had gotten into a particularly hellish mess and had been lucky to make it out alive. Novak’s shoulder wound had healed up well enough, but all of them deserved some R & R. Other than Claire, though, only a handful of people knew where to find him. He didn’t give out his address, and that had served him well.
Novak wiped his sweaty palms on his faded khaki shorts and kept his gaze focused on the Taurus. Behind him, the bayou drifted along in its slow, swirling currents, rippling and splashing south toward the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the car left his field of vision, he headed down the hatch steps into the dim, cool quarters belowdecks.
At the bottom, he stretched up and reached back into the highest shelf. He pulled out his .45 caliber service weapon. A nice little Kimber 1911. Fully loaded and ready to go. The heft of it felt damn good. Back where it belonged. He checked the mag, racked a round into the chamber, and then wedged the gun down inside his back
waistband. He grabbed a clean white T-shirt and pulled it over his head as he climbed back up to the stern deck. Picking up a pair of high-powered binoculars, he scanned the back gallery of his house and the wide grassy yard surrounding it.
Nothing moved. He walked down the gangplank and stepped off into the shade thrown by the covered dock. He moved past the boatlift berths but he kept his attention riveted up on the house. The long fields he’d mowed the day before stretched about a hundred yards up from the bayou. The big mansion sat at the far edge, shaded by a
dozen ancient live oaks, all draped almost to the ground with long and wispy tendrils of the gray Spanish moss so prevalent in the bayou.
The wide gallery encircled the first floor, on all four sides, twelve feet wide, with a twelve-feet-high ceiling. No wind now, all vestiges of the breeze gone, everything still, everything quiet. He could see the east side of the house. It was deserted. The guy in the car could be anywhere by now. He could be anybody. He could be good. He could be bad. He could be there to kill Novak. That was the most likely scenario. Novak sure as hell had plenty of enemies who wanted him dead, all over the world. Right up the highway in New Orleans, in fact. Whoever was in that Taurus, whatever they wanted, Novak wanted them inside his gun sights first before they spotted him.
Taking off toward the house, he jogged down the bank and up onto a narrow dirt path hidden by a long fencerow. Then he headed up the gradual rise, staying well behind the fence covered with climbing ivy and flowering azalea bushes. He kept his weapon out in front using both hands, finger alongside the trigger. Guys who were after him usually just wanted to put a bullet in Novak’s skull. Some had even tried their luck, but nobody had tried it on his home turf. He didn’t like that. Wasn’t too savvy on their part, either. When he reached the backyard, he pulled up under the branches of a huge mimosa tree. He crouched down there and waited, listening.
No thud of running feet. No whispered orders to spread out and find him. No nothing, except some stupid bird chirping its head off somewhere high above him. He searched the trees and found a mockingbird sitting on the carved balustrade on the second-floor gallery.
Novak waited a couple more minutes. Then he ran lightly across the grass and took the wide back steps three at a time. He crossed the gallery quickly and pressed his back against the wall. He listened again and heard nothing, so he inched his way around the corner onto the west gallery and then up the side of the house to the front
corner. That’s when he heard the loud clang of his century-old iron door knocker. He froze in his tracks.
Directly in front of him, a long white wicker swing swayed in a sudden gust of wind. He darted a quick look around the corner of the house. Three yards down the gallery from him, a woman stood at his front door, her right side turned to him. She was alone. She was unarmed, considering how skin-tight her skimpy outfit molded
to her slim body. While he watched, she lifted the heavy door knocker and let it clang down again. Hard. Impatient. Annoyed. She was tall, maybe five feet eight or nine inches. Long black hair curled down around her shoulders. She was slender and her body was fit, all shown to advantage in her tight white Daisy Dukes and a blackand- white chevron crop top. She turned slightly, and Novak glimpsed her impressively toned and suntanned midriff and the lower curve of her breasts. She was not wearing a bra, and her legs were naked, too,
shapely and also darkly tanned. White sandals with silver buckles. She looked sexy as hell but harmless.
On the other hand, Novak had known a woman or two who’d also looked sexy and harmless, but who had assassinated more men than Novak had ever thought about gunning down. Keeping his weapon down alongside his right thigh but ready, he stepped out where she could see him but also where he’d have a good shot at her, if all was not as it seemed. The woman apparently had a highly cultivated sense of awareness because she immediately spun toward him.
That’s when Novak’s knees almost buckled. He went weak all over, his muscles just going slack. His heart faltered mid-beat. He stared at her, so completely stunned he could not move or speak.
Then his dead wife, the only woman he had ever loved, his beautiful Sarah, smiled at him and said in her familiar Australian accent,
“How ya goin’, Will. Long time no see.”
Linda Ladd is the bestselling author of over a dozen novels, including the Claire Morgan thrillers. She makes her home in Missouri, where she lives with her husband and old beagle named Banjo. She loves traveling and spending time with her two adult children,two grandsons, and granddaughter. In addition to writing, Linda enjoys target shooting and is a good markswoman with a Glock 19 similar to her fictional detectives. She loves to read good books, play tennis and board games, and watch fast-paced action movies. She is currently at work on her next novel.