The cove, p.10
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       The Cove, p.10
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         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  “Or maybe he knew something and couldn’t stand it. He killed himself to protect someone.”

  “Where did that come from, Ms. Brandon?”

  “I don’t know, Sheriff. It’s all just hideous. Amabel told me after we found that poor woman that nothing ever happened here, at least nothing more than Doc Spiver’s cat, Forceps, getting stuck in that old elm tree in his back yard. What will happen to the cat?”

  “I’ll make sure Forceps has a new home. Hell, I’ll just bet one of my kids will beg me to bring the damned cat home.”

  “David,” Quinlan said, “why don’t you just break down and call her Sally?”

  “All right, if you don’t mind. Sally.” When she nodded, he was struck again at how familiar she looked to him. But he couldn’t nail it down. More likely, she just looked like someone he’d known years ago, perhaps.

  “Maybe James and I should leave so nothing else will happen.”

  “Well, actually, ma’am, you can’t leave The Cove. You found the second body. There are so many questions and just not enough answers. Quinlan, why don’t you and I make Sally some tea?”

  Sally watched them walk out of the small living room. The Sheriff stopped by one of Amabel’s paintings, this one of oranges rotting in a bowl. Amabel had used globs of paint on those parts of the oranges that were rotting. It was a disturbing painting. She shivered. What did the sheriff want to talk to James about?

  David Mountebank watched Quinlan pour water in the old kettle and turn on the heat beneath it. “Who are you?” he asked.

  James stilled. Then he took down three cups and saucers from the cabinet. “You like sugar or milk, Sheriff?”

  “No.”

  “How about brandy? That’s what I’m putting in Sally’s tea.”

  “No, thank you. Answer me, Quinlan. There’s no way you’re a PI, no way in hell. You’re too good. You’ve had the best training. You’re experienced. You know how to do things that normal folk just wouldn’t know.”

  “Well, shit,” James said. He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open. “Special Agent James Quinlan, Sheriff. FBI. A pleasure to meet you.”

  “Hot damn,” David said. “You’re here undercover. What the hell is going on?”

  10

  JAMES POURED A finger of brandy into the cup of tea. He grinned when the sheriff held out his hand. “No, hold on a second. I want to give this to Sally. I want to make sure she’s hanging in there. She’s a civilian. This has been incredibly tough on her. Surely you can understand that.”

  “Yes. I’ll wait for you here, Quinlan.”

  James returned after just a moment to see the sheriff staring out the kitchen window over the sink, his hands on the counter. He was a tall man, a runner, rangy and lean. He was probably only a few years older than James. He had a quality of utter concentration about him, something that made people want to talk to him. James admired that, but he wasn’t about to talk. He was beginning to like David Mountebank, but he wasn’t about to let that sway him, either.

  Quinlan said quietly, not wanting to startle him, “She’s asleep. I covered her with one of Amabel’s afghans. But let’s keep it down, all right, Sheriff?”

  He turned slowly and gave Quinlan a glimpse of a smile. “Call me David. What the hell’s going on? Why are you here?”

  Quinlan said calmly, “I’m not really here to find out about Marge and Harve Jensen. They’re just my cover. But their disappearance remains a mystery. And it’s not just them. You were right. The former sheriff sent everything off to the FBI, including reports on two more missing persons—a biker and his girlfriend. Other towns up and down the coast have done the same thing. There’s a nice fat file now on folks who have simply disappeared around here. The Jensens were the first, evidently, so I’m just sticking to them. I’ve told everyone I’m a PI because I don’t want to scare these old folks. They’d freak if they knew an FBI agent was in their midst doing God knows what.”

  “It’s a good cover, since it’s real. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what’s really going on?”

  “I can’t, at least not right now. Can you be satisfied with that?”

  “I guess I’ll just have to be. You discover anything yet about the Jensens?”

  “Yeah—all these respectable old folk are lying to me. Can you beat that? Your parents or grandparents lying through their teeth over something as innocuous as a pair of old people in a Winnebago probably coming into town just to buy the World’s Greatest Ice Cream?”

  “Okay, then. They do remember Harve and Marge, but they’re afraid to talk, afraid to get involved. Why didn’t you come talk to me right away? Tell me who you were and that you were undercover?”

  “I wanted to keep things under wraps for as long as possible. It makes it easier.” Quinlan shrugged. “Hey, then if I didn’t find anything, well, no harm done and who knows? I just might discover something about all these old folks who have disappeared.”

  “You would have succeeded in keeping your cover from me if two people weren’t dead. You’re just too good, too well trained.” David Mountebank sighed, took a deep drink of the brandied tea James handed him, shuddered a bit, then grinned as he patted his belly. “That’ll put optimism back in your pecker.”

  “Yeah,” Quinlan said.

  “What are you doing with Sally Brandon?”

  “I just sort of hooked up with her the first day I was here. I like her. She doesn’t deserve all this misery.”

  “More than misery. Seeing that poor woman’s body banging up against the rocks at the base of those cliffs was enough to give a person nightmares for the rest of her life. But finding Doc Spiver with half his head blown off was even worse.”

  David took another drink of his tea. “I sure won’t forget this remedy. You think that by any wild chance these two deaths are related in any way to the FBI missing persons files, to this Harve and Marge Jensen and all the others?”

  “That’s far-fetched for even my devious brain, but it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

  He was doing it to him again, David thought, without rancor. He was smooth, he was polite, he wasn’t about to spill anything he didn’t want to spill. It would be impossible to rattle him. He wondered why the devil he was really here. Well, Quinlan would tell him when he was good and ready.

  David said slowly, “I know you won’t tell me why you’re really here, but I’ve got enough on my plate right now, so I don’t plan to stew about it. You keep doing what you’re doing, and if you can help me at all, or I can help you, I’ll be here.”

  “Thanks, David. I appreciate it. The Cove is an interesting little town, don’t you think?”

  “It is now. You should have seen it three or four years ago. It was as ramshackle as you could imagine, everything run-down, only old folks here. All the young ones hightailed it out of town as soon as they could get. Then prosperity. Whatever they did, they did it well and with admirable planning.

  “Maybe some relative of one of them died and left a pile of money, and that person gave it to the town. Whatever, the place is a treat now. Yep, it shows that folk can pull themselves out of a ditch if they put their minds to it. You’ve got to respect them.”

  David set his empty cup in the sink. “Well, I’m back to Doc Spiver’s house. I’ve got exactly nothing, Quinlan.”

  “If I uncover something, I’ll call.”

  “I won’t hold the lines open. I just realized that these two deaths have got to be real hard on the townsfolk. Here I am, just about accusing one of them of holding the woman prisoner before killing her. Hey, I was even thinking those four old men already knew that Doc Spiver was dead when you volunteered to go fetch him for Hunker Dawson, that maybe they’d had something to do with it. That’s just crazy. They’re good people. I want to get this cleared up as soon as possible.”

  “As I said, I’ll tell you if I find something.”

  David didn’t know if that was the truth, but Quinlan sounded sincere enough. Well, he should. He
d been trained by the best of the best. David had a cousin, Tom Neibber, who had washed out of Quantico back in the early eighties, only gotten through the fourth week out of sixteen. He’d thought his cousin had what it took, but he hadn’t made it.

  David turned in the kitchen doorway. “It’s funny, but inescapable. Sally wasn’t expected here. Whoever killed Laura Strather was already holding her prisoner. If Sally hadn’t heard the woman scream that first night she was here, you can bet no one else would have—but that’s exactly what happened. If you and Sally hadn’t been out there on the cliffs, that woman’s body would never have been found. There would never have been a crime. Nothing, just another missing persons report put out by the husband.

  “Now, Doc Spiver, that’s different. The killer didn’t care if Doc was found, just didn’t care.”

  “Don’t forget, it could be suicide.”

  “I know, but it doesn’t smell right, you know?”

  “No, I don’t know, but you keep smelling, David. I do wonder that nobody heard a blessed thing. Hardly seems possible, does it? People are just too contrary to all agree with each other. Now, that must smell big time to you.”

  “Yeah, it does, but I still think the old folk are just afraid. I’ll be around, Quinlan. Take care of Sally. There’s something about her that makes you want to put her under your coat and see that nothing happens to her.”

  “Maybe right now, but I imagine that usually if you tried that she’d punch your lights out.”

  “I get the same feeling—probably she would have some time ago, but not now. No, there’s something wrong there, but I fancy you’re not going to tell me what.”

  “I’ll be talking to you, David. Good luck with that autopsy.”

  “Oh, yeah, I got to call my wife. I think she can forget me being home for dinner.”

  “You married?”

  “You saw my wedding ring first thing, Quinlan. Don’t be cute. I even mentioned one of my kids. I’ve got three little ones, all girls. When I come through the front door, two of them climb up my legs and the third one drags a chair over to jump into my arms. It’s a race to see who gets her arms around my neck first.”

  David gave him a lopsided grin, a small salute, and left.

  No one could talk about anything else. Just Doc Spiver and how two outsiders had found him lying in his rocking chair, blood dripping off his fingertips, half his head blown off.

  He’d killed himself—everyone agreed to that—but why?

  Terminal cancer, Thelma Nettro said. Her own grandpa had had cancer, and he would have killed himself if he hadn’t died first.

  He was nearly blind, Ralph Keaton said. Everybody knew he was pleased because when they got the body back, Ralph would lay him out. Yeah, Ralph said, Doc couldn’t stand it that he wasn’t really an honest-to-goodness doctor anymore.

  He was hurt because some woman rejected him, Purn Davies said. Everyone knew that Amabel had turned Purn down some years before and he was still burning with resentment.

  He just got tired of life, Helen Keaton said, as she scooped out a triple-dip chocolate pecan cone for Sherry Vorhees. Lots of old people just got tired of living. He just did something about it and didn’t sit around whining for ten years until the devil finally took him.

  Just maybe, Hunker Dawson said, just maybe Doc Spiver had something to do with that poor woman’s death. It made sense he’d kill himself then, wouldn’t it? The guilt would drive a fine man like Doc Spiver to shoot himself.

  There were no lawyers in town, but the sheriff found Doc Spiver’s will soon enough. He had some $22,000 in a bank in South Bend. He left it all to what he called the Town Fund, headed by Reverend Hal Vorhees.

  Sheriff David Mountebank was surprised when he was told about the Town Fund. He’d never heard about such a thing. What effect would this Town Fund have had on people’s motives? Of course, he didn’t know yet if someone had put the .38-caliber pistol in Doc’s mouth and pulled the trigger, then pressed the butt into Doc’s hand.

  Premeditated murder, that was. Or Doc Spiver had put the gun in his own mouth. Ponser called David at eight o’clock that evening. He’d finished the autopsy and now he was equivocating, damn him. David pushed him, and he ended up saying it was suicide. No, Doc Spiver didn’t have any terminal illness—at least Ponser hadn’t seen anything.

  Amabel said to Sally that same evening, “I’m thinking you and I should go to Mexico and lie on a beach.”

  Sally smiled. She was still wearing Amabel’s bathrobe because she just couldn’t seem to get warm. James hadn’t wanted to leave her, but then it seemed he remembered something that had made him go back to Thelma’s. She’d wanted to ask him what it was, but she hadn’t. “I can’t go to Mexico, Amabel. I don’t have my passport.”

  “Alaska, then. We could lie around on the snowbanks. I could paint and you could do—what, Sally? What did you do before your daddy got killed?”

  Sally got colder. She pulled the bathrobe tighter around her and moved closer to the heat register. “I was Senator Bainbridge’s senior aide.”

  “Didn’t he retire?”

  “Yes, last year. I didn’t do anything after that.”

  “Why not?”

  Vivid, frenzied pictures went careening through her mind, shrieking as loudly as the wind outside. She clutched the edge of the kitchen table.

  “It’s all right, baby, you don’t have to tell me. It really doesn’t matter. Goodness, what a day it’s been. I’m going to miss Doc. He’s been here forever. Everyone will miss him.”

  “No, Amabel, not everyone.”

  “So you don’t think it was suicide, Sally?”

  “No,” Sally said, drawing a deep breath. “I think there’s a madness in this town.”

  “What a thing to say! I’ve lived here for nearly thirty years. I’m not mad. None of my friends is mad. They’re all down-to-earth folk who are friendly and care about each other and this town. Besides, if you were right, then the madness didn’t begin until after you arrived. How do you explain that, Sally?”

  “That’s what the sheriff said. Amabel, do you really believe that Laura Strather, the woman James and I found, was brought into town by a stranger and held somewhere before he murdered her?”

  “What I think, Sally, is that your brain is squirreling around, and it’s just not healthy for you, not with everything else upside down in your life. Just don’t think about it. Everything will be back to normal soon. It’s got to be.”

  That night, at exactly three o’clock in the morning, a blustery night with high winds but no rain, something brought Sally awake. She lay there a moment. Then she heard a soft tap on the window. At least it wasn’t a woman screaming.

  A branch from a tree, she thought, turning over and pulling the blanket up to her nose. Just a tree branch.

  Tap.

  She gave up and slid out of bed.

  Tap.

  She didn’t remember that there wasn’t a tree high enough until she’d pulled back the curtain and stared into her father’s ghastly white, grinning face.

  Amabel found her on her knees in the middle of the floor, her arms wrapped around herself, the window open, the curtains billowing outward, pulled by the wind, screaming and screaming until her throat closed and no sound came from her mouth.

  Quinlan made a decision then and there. “I’m taking her back to Thelma’s. She’ll stay with me. If something else happens, I’ll be there to deal with it.”

  She’d called him thirty minutes before, gasping out her words, begging him to come and make her father leave her alone. He’d heard Amabel in the background telling her she was in no shape to be on the phone to anybody, much less to that man she didn’t even know, to put down the phone, she was just excited, there hadn’t been anyone there, it had just been her imagination. Just look at all she’d been through.

  And she was still saying it, ignoring Quinlan. “Baby, just think. You were sound asleep when you heard the wind making strange noises against
the window. You were dreaming, just like those other times. I’ll bet you weren’t even awake when you pulled the curtains back.”

  “I wasn’t asleep,” Sally said. “The wind had awakened me. I was lying there. And then came the tapping.”

  “Baby—”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Quinlan said, impatient now, knowing that Sally would soon think that she was crazy, that she’d imagined it all. He prayed to God that she hadn’t. But she had been in that sanitarium, for six months. She’d been paranoid, that’s what was in the file. She’d also been depressed and suicidal. They’d been worried that she would harm herself. Her doctor hadn’t wanted her released. Her husband had agreed. They wanted her back. Her husband was first in line. He wondered about the legalities of getting a person committed if that person didn’t volunteer.

  Why hadn’t Sally’s parents done anything about it? Had they believed her to be nuts too? But she was a person with legal rights. He had to check on how they’d gotten around it.

  He said now, “Amabel, could you please pack Sally’s things? I’d like all of us to get some sleep before morning.”

  Amabel had pursed her lips. “She’s a married woman. She shouldn’t be going off with you.”

  Sally started laughing, a low, hoarse, very ugly laugh.

  Amabel was so startled that she didn’t say anything more. She went upstairs to pack the duffel bag.

  Thirty minutes later, after four o’clock in the morning, Quinlan let Sally into his tower room.

  “Thank you, James,” she said. “I’m so tired. Thank you for coming for me.”

  He’d come for her, all right. He’d been off like a shot to get her. Damnation, why couldn’t anything turn out the way it was supposed to, the way he’d planned? He was in the middle of a puzzle, and all he had was scattered pieces that didn’t look like they would ever fit together. He put her to bed, tucked the covers around her, and without thinking about it, kissed her lightly on the mouth.

 
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