The cove, p.12
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       The Cove, p.12
 

         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  Thelma ate one of her fat sausages, wiped the grease off her chin, and said, “Well, let me see. There’s that dilapidated little shack just up on that hillock behind Doc Spiver’s house. But I tell you, boy, I’d have to be real desperate to hole up in that place. All filled with dirt and spiders and probably rats. Nasty place that probably leaks real bad when it rains.” She ate another sausage, just forked the whole thing up and stuffed it into her mouth.

  Martha came up beside her and handed her a fresh napkin. Thelma gave her a nasty look. “You think I’m one of those old ladies who will dribble on themselves if a handmaiden isn’t right on the spot to keep her clean?”

  “Now, Thelma, you’ve been twisting the other napkin around until it’s a crumpled ball. Here, take this one. Oh, look, you got some sausage grease on your diary. You’ve got to be more careful.”

  “I need more ink. Go buy me some, Martha. Hey, you got young Ed back there in the kitchen? You’re feeding him, aren’t you, Martha? You’re buying my food with my money and you’re feeding him just so he’ll go to bed with you.”

  Martha rolled her eyes and looked at Sally’s plate. “You don’t like the toast? It’s a little on the pale side. You want it better toasted?”

  “No, no, it’s fine, truly. I’m just not hungry this morning.”

  “No man wants a skinny post, Sally,” Thelma said, taking a noisy bite of toast. “A man’s got to have something he can hang on to. Just look at Martha, bosom so big young Ed can’t even walk past without seeing her poking out at him.”

  “Young Ed has prostate trouble,” Martha said, raising a thick black eyebrow, and she left the dining room, saying over her shoulder, “I’ll buy you some black ink, Thelma.”

  “I’m coming with you.”

  “But—”

  Sally just shook her head and walked across the street toward the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop. She was limping only slightly today. A bell tinkled when she opened the door.

  Amabel, dressed like a gypsy with a cute white apron, stood behind the counter, scooping up a French Vanilla double-dip cone for a young woman who was talking a mile a minute.

  “. . . I heard that two people have been murdered here in the last several days. That’s incredible! My mama said The Cove was the quietest little place she knew about, she said nothing ever happened here, that it had to be one of those gangs from down south come up here to stir up misery.”

  “Hello, Sally, James. How are you this morning, baby?”

  As she spoke, she handed the cone to the young woman, who immediately began licking and moaning in ecstasy.

  “I’m fine,” Sally said.

  “That will be two dollars and sixty cents,” Amabel said.

  “Oh, it’s wonderful,” the young woman said. She alternately dug in her wallet and ate the ice cream.

  Quinlan smiled at her. “It is excellent ice cream. Why don’t you just keep eating and I’ll treat you?”

  “Taking ice cream from a stranger is okay,” Sally said. “Besides, I know him. He’s harmless.”

  Quinlan paid Amabel. Nothing else was said until the young woman left the shop.

  “There hasn’t been another call,” Amabel said. “Either from Thelma or from your father.”

  “He knows that I’ve left your house,” Sally said thoughtfully. “That’s good. I don’t want you in any danger.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous, Sally. There’s no danger for me.”

  “There was for Laura Strather and Doc Spiver,” Quinlan said. “You be careful, Amabel. Sally and I are going exploring. Thelma told us about this shack up the hill behind Doc Spiver’s house. We’re going to check it out.”

  “Watch out for snakes,” Amabel called after them.

  Which kind, Quinlan wondered.

  Once they were rounding the corner to Doc Spiver’s house, Sally said, “Why did you tell Amabel where we were going?”

  “Seeding,” he said. “Watch your step, Sally. You’re not all that steady on your ankle just yet.” He held back the stiff, gnarly branch of a yew tree. There was a barren hill behind the house, and tucked into a shallow recess was a small shack.

  “What do you mean, seeding?”

  “I don’t like the fact that your dear auntie has treated you like you’re so high-strung no one should trust what you say. I told her that just to see if perhaps something might happen. Then if it does—”

  “Amabel would never hurt me, never.”

  He looked down at her and then at the shack. “Is that what you believed about your husband when you married him?”

  He didn’t wait for her to answer him, just pushed open the door. It was surprisingly solid. “Watch your head,” he said over his shoulder as he stooped down and walked into the dim single room.

  “Yuck,” Sally said. “This is pretty bad, James.”

  “Yeah, I’d say so.” He didn’t say anything else, just began to look around as he imagined the sheriff had done only days before. He found nothing. The small space was empty. There were no windows. It would be pitch black when the door was closed. Just plain nothing. A modicum of hope, that was all he’d had, but still, he was more than a modicum disappointed. “I’d say that if Laura Strather was kept prisoner here, the guy holding her was very thorough cleaning up. There’s nothing, Sally, not a trace of anything. Well, hell.”

  “He’s not hiding in here, either,” she said. “And that’s what we’re really doing here, isn’t it?”

  “Both, really. I have a feeling that your father wouldn’t lower himself to stay in this place. There aren’t even any free bathrobes.”

  * * *

  That afternoon they ate lunch at the Hinterlands. This week Zeke was serving Spam burgers and variations on meat loaf.

  They both ordered Zeke’s original-recipe meat loaf.

  “The smells make me salivate,” Quinlan said, inhaling enthusiastically. “Zeke puts garlic in his mashed potatoes. Breathe deeply enough and no vampire will come near you.”

  Sally was toying with the curved slice of carrot in her salad. “I like garlic.”

  “Tell me about that night, Sally.”

  She’d picked up the carrot and was chewing on it. She dropped it. Then she picked it up again and slowly began eating it. “All right,” she said finally. She smiled at him. “I might as well trust you. If you’re going to betray me, then I might as well hang it up. The cops are right. I was there that night. But they’re wrong about everything else. I don’t remember a thing, James, not a blessed thing.”

  Well, hell, he thought, but he knew she was telling him the truth. “Do you think someone struck you?”

  “No, I don’t think so. I’ve thought and thought about it and all I can figure out is that I just don’t want to remember, can’t bear to, I guess, so my brain just closed it down.”

  “I’ve heard about hysterical amnesia and even seen it a couple of times. What usually happens is that you will remember, if not tomorrow, then next week. Your father wasn’t killed in a horrific way. He was shot neatly through the heart, no muss, no fuss. So, it would seem to me that the people involved in his death shook you so much that’s the reason you’ve blocked it all out.”

  “Yes,” she said slowly, then turned around and saw the waitress bringing their plates. The smell of garlic, butter, roasted squash, and the rich aroma of the meat loaf filled the air around them.

  “I couldn’t live here and stay trim,” James said. “It smells delicious, Nelda.”

  “Catsup for the meat loaf?”

  “Does a shark have a fin?”

  Nelda, the waitress, laughed and set a Heinz ketchup bottle between them. “Enjoy,” she said.

  “Nelda, how often do young Ed and Martha eat here?”

  “Oh, maybe twice a week,” she said, looking a bit startled. “Martha says she gets tired of her own cooking. Young Ed is my older brother. Poor man. Every time he wants to see Martha, he has to endure Thelma’s jokes. Can you believe that old woman is still alive, writi
ng in that diary of hers every day and eating that sausage?”

  “That’s interesting,” James said when Nelda left them. “Eat, Sally. That’s right. You’re perfect, but I’d be worried for you in a strong wind.”

  “I used to run every day,” she said. “I used to be strong.”

  “You will be again. Just stick with me.”

  “I can’t imagine running in Los Angeles. All I ever see is pictures of horrible fog and cars stacked up on the freeways.”

  “I live in a canyon. It’s got healthy air and I run there as well.”

  “Somehow I can’t imagine you living in Southern California. You just don’t seem the type. Does your ex-wife still live there?”

  “No, Teresa is back east. She married a crook, interestingly enough. I hope she doesn’t have kids with the guy. Their genetic potential is hair-raising.”

  She laughed, actually laughed. It felt as wonderful to her as it felt to James hearing it.

  “You have any idea how beautiful you are, Sally?”

  Her fork stilled over the meat loaf. “You’re into crazy freaks?”

  “If you ever say anything like that again, you’ll piss me off. When I get pissed off I do strange things, like take off all my clothes and chase ducks in the park.” The tension fell away from her. He had no idea why he’d told her she was beautiful; it had just slipped out. Actually, she was more than beautiful—she was warm and caring, even while she was living this nightmare. He wished he knew what to do.

  “You said you didn’t remember about that night your father was killed. Do you have other gaps in your memory?”

  “Yes. Sometimes when I think about that place, very sharp memories will come to me, but I couldn’t swear if they are truly memories or just weird images stewed up by my brain. I remember everything very clearly until about six months ago.”

  “What happened six months ago?”

  “That’s when everything went dim.”

  “What happened six months ago?”

  “Senator Bainbridge retired suddenly, and I was out of a job. I remember that I was going to interview with Senator Irwin, but I never got to his office.”

  “Why not?”

  “I don’t know. I remember it was a sunny day. I was singing. The top was down on my Mustang. The air was sharp and warm.” She paused, frowning, then shrugged. “I always sang when the top was down. I don’t remember anything else, but I know I never saw Senator Irwin.”

  She said nothing more. She was eating her meat loaf. She probably didn’t realize she was eating, but he wanted her to keep at it. He guessed he wanted her to eat more than he wanted her to talk. At least for now. What the hell had happened?

  James paid their bill and walked outside while Sally went to the women’s room. He wondered how he was going to keep his hands off her when they got back to his tower bedroom.

  12

  HE HEARD A whisper of sound that didn’t belong in that small narrow space beside the Hinterlands. He turned around, wondering if Sally had come out of the cafe without his seeing her. That was when he heard it again. There it was, just a whisper of sound. He pivoted quickly on his heel, his hand inside his jacket on the butt of his German SIG-sauer, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol that fit his hand and his personality perfectly. He was at one with that pistol, as he’d never been with any other before in his professional life. He was pulling it out, smooth and quick, but still, he was too late. The blow struck him just over his left ear. He went down without a sound.

  “James?” Sally stuck her head out the door of the cafe. There was no one around. She waved to Nelda, then turned back. Where was James? She frowned and stepped down. She heard a whisper of sound that didn’t seem like it belonged. She wheeled about to look in that sliver of space beside the building.

  What she saw was James lying on his side on the ground, a trickle of blood trailing down his cheek toward his chin. She yelled his name and skidded onto her knees beside him, shaking him, then drawing back. She sucked in her breath. Gently she laid her fingers on the pulse in his throat. It was strong and slow. Thank God, he was all right. What was going on here? But then she knew.

  It was her father, he’d finally come to get her, just as he’d promised he would. He’d hurt James, probably because he’d been protecting her.

  She looked up for help, praying to see anyone, it didn’t matter how old he was, just anyone. There was no one around, not a single soul.

  Oh, God, what should she do? She was leaning down to look at the wound when the blow crashed directly down on the back of her head and she crumpled over James.

  She heard the sound. It came at short intervals. It was water, one drop after another, hitting metal.

  Plop.

  She opened her eyes but couldn’t seem to focus. Her brain felt loose, as if it were floating inside her head. She couldn’t seem to think, she could only hear that plop. She knew something wasn’t right. She tried to remember but couldn’t quite make her brain fasten onto something that would trigger a thought, any thought, anything that happened to her before she was here, wherever here was.

  “You’re awake. Good.”

  A voice, a man’s voice, his voice. She managed to follow the sound of his face. It was Dr. Beadermeyer, the man who had tormented her for six long months.

  Yes, she remembered that, not all of it, but enough to have it burn through her sleep and terrify her over and over in nightmares that still brought vivid pain.

  Suddenly she remembered. She’d been with James. Yes, James Quinlan. He’d been struck on the head. He was lying unconscious on the ground in that small sliver of land next to the Hinterlands.

  “Nothing to say, Sally? I cut back on the dosage so you could talk to me.” She felt a sharp slap on her cheek.

  “Look at me, Sally. Don’t pretend you’re off in outer space. I know this time you can’t be.” He slapped her again.

  He grabbed her shoulders and shook her hard.

  “Is James all right?”

  He stopped shaking her. “James?” He sounded surprised. “Oh, that man you were with in The Cove. Yes, he’s fine. No one wanted to take the risk of killing him. Was he your lover, Sally? You only had him a bit over a week. That’s moving fast. He must have been desperate.

  “Just look at you, all skinny and pathetic, your hair in strings, your clothes bagging around you. Come on, Sally, tell me about James. Tell me what you told him.”

  “I told him about you,” she said. “I had a nightmare and he helped me through it. I told him what a piece of slime you are.”

  He slapped her again, not too hard, but hard enough to make her shrink away from him.

  “You’re rude, Sally. And you’re lying. You’ve never lied well and I can always tell. You might have dreamed, but you didn’t tell him about me. You want to know why? It’s because you’re crazy and I’m so deep a part of you that if you were to tell anyone about me, why, you’d just collapse in on yourself and die. You can’t exist without me, Sally.

  “You were away from me for just two weeks, and look what happened. You’re a mess. You tried to pretend you were normal. You lost all your manners. Your mother would be appalled. Your husband would back away from you in disgust. As for your father, well—well, I suppose it’s not worth speculating now that he’s shuffled off his mortal coil.”

  “Where am I?”

  “Ah, that’s supposed to be the first thing out of your mouth, if books and TV stories are to be believed. You’re back where you belong, Sally. Just look around you. You’re back in your room, the very same one decorated especially for you by your dear father. I’ve kept you under for nearly a day and a half. I let up on the dosage about four hours ago. You took your time coming to the surface.”

  “What do you want?”

  “I have what I want; at least I have the first installment of what I want. And that’s you, my dear.”

  “I’m thirsty.”

  “I’ll bet you are. Holland, where are you? Bring some water to ou
r patient.”

  She remembered Holland, a skinny, furtive little man who’d been one of the two men to stare through the small square window while he was hitting her and caressing her, humiliating her. Holland had thinning brown hair and the deadest eyes she’d ever seen. He rarely said anything, at least to her.

  She said nothing more until he appeared at her side, a glass of water in his hand.

  “Here you are, Doctor,” he said in that low, hoarse voice of his that lay like a covering of loose gravel in all those nightmares, making her want to be drugged so she wouldn’t realize he was around her.

  He was standing behind Beadermeyer, looking down at her, his eyes dead and hungry. She wanted to vomit.

  Dr. Beadermeyer raised her and let her drink her fill.

  “Soon you’ll want to go to the bathroom. Holland will help you with that, won’t you, Holland?”

  Holland nodded, and she wanted to die. She fell back against the pillow, a hard, institutional pillow, and closed her eyes. She knew deep down she couldn’t keep herself intact in this place again. She also realized that she would never escape again. This time it was over for her.

  She kept her eyes closed, didn’t turn toward him, just said, “I’m not crazy. I was never crazy. Why are you doing this? He’s dead. What does it matter?”

  “You still don’t know, do you? You still have no memory of any of it. I realized that almost immediately. Well, it isn’t my place to tell you, my dear.” She felt him pat her cheek. She flinched.

  “Now, now, Sally, I’m not the one who tormented you, though I must admit that I enjoyed the one tape I saw. Except you weren’t even there, you were just flopping back, your eyes closed, letting him do what whatever he wanted.

  “You didn’t have any fight in you. Why, you were so out of it, you barely flinched when he hit you. But even then you weren’t afraid. I could tell. The contrast, at least, made for fascinating viewing.”

  She felt gooseflesh rise on her arms as remnants of memories flooded her—the movement of his hands over hers, the pushing and slapping, the caressing that turned to pain.

 
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