The cove, p.17
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       The Cove, p.17
 

         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  She’d sensed the festering anger in her father at her interference, but his position, more highly visible by the year, his absolute horror of anyone finding out that he was a wife beater, kept him in line, at least most of the time. As it turned out, she found out that if he was pissed off, he would beat her mother as soon as Sally left to go back to college. Not that her mother would ever have told her.

  On one visit she’d forgotten a sweater and had gone quickly back home to get it. She’d opened the front door with her key and walked into the library, in on a screaming match with her mother cowering on the floor and her father kicking her.

  “I’m calling the police,” she said calmly from the doorway. “I don’t care what happens. This will stop and it will stop now.”

  Her father had frozen, his leg in mid-kick, and stared at her in the doorway. “You damned little bitch. What the hell are you doing here?”

  “I’m calling the police now. It’s over.” She’d walked back into the foyer to the phone that sat on the small Louis XVI table, beneath a beautiful gilt mirror.

  She had dialed 9-1- when her hand was grabbed. It was her mother. It was Noelle, and she was crying, begging her not to call the police, begging, on her knees, begging and begging, tears streaming down her face.

  Sally had stared down at the woman who was clutching at her knees, tears of pain grooving down her cheeks. Then she’d looked at her father, who was standing in the doorway to the library, his arms crossed over his chest, his ankles crossed, tall and slender, beautifully dressed in cashmere and wool, his hair thick and dark, with brilliant gray threading through it, looking like a romantic lead in the movies. He was watching her.

  “Go ahead, do it,” he’d said. “Do it and just see what your mother will do when the cops get here. She’ll say you’re a liar, Sally, that you’re a jealous little bitch, that you don’t want her to have my affection, that you’ve always resented her, resented your own mother.

  “Isn’t that why you’re coming home all the time from college? Go ahead, Sally. Do it. You’ll see.” He never moved, just spoke in that intoxicating, mesmerizing voice of his, one that had swayed his colleagues and clients for the past thirty years. He’d kept a hint of a Southern drawl, knowing it added just the right touch when he deftly slurred the word he wanted to emphasize.

  “Please, Sally, don’t. Don’t. I’m begging you. You can’t. It would ruin everything. I can’t allow you to. It’s dangerous. It’s all right, Sally. Just don’t call, please, dear God, don’t call.”

  She’d given her mother and her father one last look and left. She had not returned until after her graduation seven months later.

  Maybe her father was beating her mother less simply because Sally wasn’t coming home anymore.

  Funny that she hadn’t been able to remember that episode until now. Not until . . . not until she’d gone to The Cove and met James and her life had begun to seem like a life again, despite the murders, despite her father’s phone calls, despite everything.

  She must really be nuts. The damned man had betrayed her. There was no way around that. He’d saved her too, but that didn’t count, it was just more of the job. She still marveled at her own simplicity. He was FBI. He’d tracked her down and lied to her.

  She huddled down even more as she neared the library windows. She looked inside. Her mother was reading a book. She was sitting in her husband’s favorite wing chair, reading a book. She looked exquisite. Well, she should. The bastard had been dead for a good three weeks. No more bruises. No more chance of bruises.

  Still, Sally waited. No one else was in the house.

  “You’re sure she’s going home, Quinlan?”

  “Not home. She’s going to her mother’s house. Not her husband’s house. You know my intuition, my gut. But to be honest about it, I know her. She feels something for her mother. That’s the first place she’ll go. I’ll bet you both her father and her husband put her in that sanitarium in the first place. Why? I haven’t the foggiest idea. I do know, though, that her father was a very evil man.”

  “I assume you’ll tell me what you mean by that later?”

  “Drive faster, Dillon. The house is number 337 on Lark. Yeah, I’ll tell you, but not now. Let’s get going.”

  “Hello, Noelle.”

  Noelle St. John slowly lowered her novel to her lap. Just as slowly, she looked up at the doorway to see her daughter standing there, wearing a man’s jacket that came nearly to her knees.

  Her mother didn’t move, just stared at her. When she was younger, her mother was always holding her, hugging her, kissing her. She wasn’t moving now. Well, if she believed Sally was crazy, then it made sense. Did Noelle think her daughter was here to shoot her? She said in a soft, frightened voice, “Is it really you, Sally?”

  “Yes. I got away from the sanitarium again. I got away from Doctor Beadermeyer.”

  “But why, darling? He takes such good care of you. Doesn’t he? Why are you looking at me like that, Sally? What’s wrong?”

  Then nothing mattered, because her mother was smiling at her. Her mother jumped to her feet and ran to her, enfolding her in her arms. Years were instantly stripped away. She was small again. She was safe. Her mother was holding her. Sally felt immense gratitude. Her mother was here for her, as she’d prayed she would be.

  “Mama, you’ve got to help me. Everyone is after me.”

  Noelle stood back, smoothing Sally’s hair, running her hands over her pale face. She hugged her again, whispering against her cheek, “It’s all right, sweetheart. I’ll take care of everything. It’s all right.” Noelle was shorter than her daughter, but she was the mother and Sally was the child, and to Sally she felt like a goddess.

  She let herself be held, breathed in her mother’s fragrance, a scent she’d worn from Sally’s earliest memories. “I’m sorry, Noelle. Are you all right?”

  Her mother released her, stepping back. “It’s been difficult, what with the police and not knowing where you were and worrying incessantly. You should have called me, Sally. I worried so much about you.”

  “I couldn’t. I imagined that the police had your phone bugged. They could have traced me.”

  “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the phones. Surely they wouldn’t dare plant devices like that in your father’s home?”

  “He’s dead, Noelle. They’d do anything. Now, listen. I need you to tell me the truth. I do know that I was here the night that he was murdered. But I don’t remember anything about it. Just violent images, but no faces. Just loud voices, but no person to go with the voices.”

  “It’s all right, love. I didn’t murder your father. I know that’s why you ran away. You ran away to protect me, just as you tried to protect me for all those years.

  “Do you believe me? Why would you think I’d know anything about it? I wasn’t here myself. I was with Scott, your husband. He’s so worried about you. All he can talk about is you and how he prays you’ll come home. Please tell me you believe me. I wouldn’t kill your father.”

  “Yes, Noelle, I believe you—although if you had shot him I would have applauded you. But no, I never really believed that you did. But I can’t remember, I just can’t remember, and the police and the FBI, they all believe I know everything that happened that night. Won’t you tell me what happened, Noelle?”

  “Are you well again, Sally?’

  She stared at her mother. She sounded vaguely frightened. Of her? Of her own daughter? Did she think she would murder her because she was insane? Sally shook her head. Noelle might look a bit frightened, but she also looked exquisite in vivid emerald lounging pajamas. Her light hair was pinned up with a gold clip. She wore three thin gold chains. She looked young and beautiful and vital. Perhaps there was some justice after all.

  “Listen to me, Noelle,” Sally said, willing her mother to believe her. “I wasn’t ever sick. Father put me in that place. It was all a plot. He wanted me out of the way. Why? I don’t know. Maybe just plain reve
nge for the way I’d thwarted him for the past ten years. Surely you must have guessed something. Doubted him when he told you. You never came to see me, Mama, never.”

  “Your father told me, and you’re right, I was suspicious, but then Scott broke down—he was in tears—and he told me about all the things you’d done, how you simply weren’t yourself anymore and there hadn’t been any choice but to put you in the sanitarium. I met Doctor Beadermeyer. He assured me you would be well cared for.

  “Oh, Sally, Doctor Beadermeyer told me it would be better if I didn’t see you just yet, that you were blaming me for so many things, that you hated me, that you didn’t want to see me, that seeing me would just make you worse and he feared you’d try to commit suicide again.”

  But Sally wasn’t listening to her. She felt something prickle on her skin, and she knew, she knew he was close. She also knew that her mother wasn’t telling her the truth about the night her father was murdered. Why? What had really happened that night? There just wasn’t time now.

  Yes, James was close. There was no unnatural sound, no real warning, yet she knew.

  “Do you have any money, Noelle?”

  “Just a few dollars, Sally, but why? Why? Let me call Doctor Beadermeyer. He’s already called several times. I’ve got to protect you, Sally.”

  “Good-bye, Noelle. If you love me—if you’ve ever loved me—please keep the FBI agent talking as long as you can. His name is James Quinlan. Please, don’t tell him I was here.”

  “How do you know the name of an FBI agent?”

  “It’s not important. Please don’t tell him anything, Noelle.”

  “Mrs. St. John, we saw the car parked on Cooperton. Sally was here. Is she still here? Are you hiding her?”

  Noelle St. John stared at his ID, then at Dillon’s. Finally, after an eternity, she looked up and said, “I haven’t seen my daughter for nearly seven months, Agent Quinlan. What car are you talking about?”

  “A car we know she was driving, Mrs. St. John,” Dillon said.

  “Why are you calling my daughter by her first name? Indeed, Sally is her nickname. Her real name is Susan. Where did you get her nickname?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Quinlan said. “Please, Mrs. St. John, you must help us. Would you mind if we looked through your house? Her car is parked just down the street. She’s probably hiding here in the house waiting for us to leave before she comes out.”

  “That’s ridiculous, gentlemen, but look to your hearts’ content. None of the help sleep here, so the house is empty. Don’t worry about frightening anyone.” She smiled at them and walked with her elegant stride back into the library.

  “Upstairs first,” Quinlan said.

  They went methodically from room to room, Dillon waiting in the corridor as Quinlan searched, to ensure that Sally couldn’t slip between adjoining rooms and elude them. When Quinlan opened the door to a bedroom at the far end of the hall, he knew immediately that it had been hers. He switched on the light. It wasn’t a frilly room with a pink or white canopied bed and posters of rock stars plastering the walls. No, three of the walls were filled with bookshelves, all of them stuffed with books. On the fourth wall were framed awards, writing awards beginning with ones for papers she’d written in junior high school on the U.S. dependence on foreign oil and the gasoline crisis, on the hostages in Iran, on the countries that became communist during Carter’s administration and why. There was a paper that had won the Idleberg Award and appeared in the New York Times, on the U.S. hockey win against the Russians at Lake Placid at the 1980 Olympics. The high school awards were for papers that ran more toward literary themes.

  Then they stopped, somewhere around the end of high school—no more awards, no more recognition for excellent short stories or essays, at least no more here in this bedroom. She’d gone to Georgetown University, majored in English. Again, no more sign that she’d ever written another word or won another prize.

  “Quinlan, for God’s sake, what are you doing? Is she in there or not?”

  He was shaking his head when he rejoined Dillon. He said, “Sally isn’t here. Sure, she was here, but she’s long gone. Somehow she knew we were close. How, I don’t know, but she knew. Let’s go, Dillon.”

  “You don’t think her mother would have any idea, do you?”

  “Get real.” But they asked Mrs. St. John anyway. She gave them a blank smile and sent them on their way.

  “What now, Quinlan?”

  “Let me think.” Quinlan hunched over the steering wheel, wishing he had a cup of coffee, not good coffee, but the rotgut stuff at the bureau. He drove to FBI headquarters at Tenth and Pennsylvania, the ugliest building ever constructed in the nation’s capital.

  Ten minutes later, he was sipping on the stuff that could be used to plug a hole in a dike. He took Dillon a cup and set it near the mouse pad at his right hand.

  “Okay, she’s got the Oldsmobile.”

  “No APB, Dillon.”

  Dillon swiveled around in his chair, the computer screen glowing behind his head. “You can’t just keep this a two-man hunt, Quinlan. We lost her. You and I, my friend, lost a rank amateur. Don’t you think it’s time to spread the net?”

  “Not yet. She’s also got my wallet. See what you can do with that.”

  “If she keeps purchases below fifty dollars, chances are no one will check. Still, if someone does check, we’ll have her almost instantly. Hold on a minute and let me set that up.”

  Dillon Savich had big hands and large, blunt fingers. Quinlan watched those unlikely fingers race over the computer keys. Dillon hit a final key and nodded in satisfaction. “There’s just something about computers,” he said over his shoulder to Quinlan. “They never give you shit, they never contradict you. You tell ’em what to do in simple language and they do it.”

  “They don’t love you, either.”

  “In their way they do. They’re so clean, Quinlan. Now, if she uses one of your credit cards and there’s no check, then I’ve got her within eighteen hours. It’s not the best, but it’ll have to do.”

  “She might have to use a credit card, but she’ll keep it below fifty dollars. She’s not stupid. Did you know she won a statewide contest for a paper she wrote about how much credit card crooks cost the American public? You’d better believe she knows she’s bought eighteen hours, and she might figure that’s just enough, thank you.”

  “How do you know that? Surely you had other things to talk about with her? Jesus, you had two murders in that damned little picturesque town, and the two of you found both bodies. Surely that’s enough fodder for conversation for at least three hours.”

  “When I was in her bedroom I saw that the walls are loaded with awards for papers, short stories, essays, all sorts of stuff that she wrote. That credit card essay was one of them. She must have been all of sixteen when she wrote it.”

  “So she’s a good writer, even a talented writer. She’s still a rank amateur. She’s scared. She doesn’t know what to do. Everyone is after her, and we’re probably the best-meaning of the lot, but it didn’t matter to her. She still poked your own gun in your belly.”

  “Don’t whine. She has around three hundred dollars in cash. That’s not going to take her far. On the other hand, she got all the way across the country on next to no money at all riding a Greyhound bus.”

  “You don’t keep your PIN number in your wallet, do you?”

  “No.”

  “Good. Then she can’t get out any more cash in your name.”

  Quinlan sat down in a swivel chair beside Dillon’s. He steepled his fingers and tapped the fingertips together rhythmically. “There’s something she said, Dillon, something that nearly tore my guts apart, something about no one she’d been around cared about anybody but himself. I think she trusted me so quickly because something inside her desperately needs to be reaffirmed.”

  “You’re sounding like a shrink.”

  “No, listen. She’s scared just like you said, but she need
s someone to believe her and care about what happens to her, someone to accept that she isn’t crazy, someone simply to believe her, without reservation, without hesitation.

  “She thought I did, and she was right, only, you know the answer to that. She was locked up in that place for six months. Everyone told her she was nuts. She needs trust, complete unquestioning trust.”

  “So who the hell would give her unconditional trust? Her mother? I can’t believe that, even though Sally went to see her first. There’s something weird going on with Mrs. St. John. Sure as hell not her husband, Scott Brainerd, although I’d like to meet the guy, maybe rearrange his face a bit.”

  Quinlan got out her file. “Let’s see about friends.”

  He read quietly for a very long time while Dillon put all systems in place to kick in whenever Sally used one of the credit cards.

  “Interesting,” Quinlan said, leaning back and rubbing his eyes. “She had several very good women friends, most of them associated with Congress. Then after she married Scott Brainerd, the friends seemed to fade away over the period before Daddy committed her to Beadermeyer’s charming resort.”

  “That cuts things down, but it doesn’t help us. You don’t think she’d go to her husband, do you? I can’t imagine it, but—”

  “No way in hell.”

  There was a flash and a beep on the computer screen. “Well, I’ll be swiggered,” Dillon said, rubbing his hands together. He punched in several numbers and added two more commands.

  “She used a credit card for gas. The amount is just $22.50, but it’s their policy to check all credit cards, regardless of the amount. She’s in Delaware, Quinlan, just outside of Wilmington. Hot damn.”

  “Wilmington isn’t that far from Philadelphia.”

  “It isn’t that far from anywhere, except maybe Cleveland.”

  “No, that’s not what I meant. Her grandparents live on the Main Line just outside of Philadelphia. Real ritzy section. Street name’s Fisher’s Road.”

  “Fisher’s Road? Doesn’t sound ritzy.”

  “Don’t let the name fool you. I have a feeling Fisher’s Road will wind up being one of those streets with big stone mansions set back a good hundred feet from the road. Gates too, I’ll bet.”

 
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