The cove, p.28
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       The Cove, p.28
 

         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  “I’ll call Dillon—he’s a computer nerd at the bureau—and get him going on it. Tell me which bank and the account number, David. Sally and I will be staying here. Just give me a call, and I’ll get to Dillon.”

  “Is that Dillon Savich?” Corey Harper asked, looking up.

  “Yeah, he’s a genius with a computer, but don’t tell him that because he’ll just think you’re sucking up.”

  “I know. I did tell him that when I was in training at Quantico. He gave a couple of great lectures, and yeah, he probably did think I was sucking up.”

  “I’ve never heard of Dillon,” Thomas Shredder said. “Who cares about a computer nerd? They’re fine in their place, but this is the real world. What we do here is what really counts. Let’s get back to why we’re here in this godforsaken place.”

  David said slowly, “Regardless of whether or not the missing persons are somehow involved in these murders, what you’re implying in a very subtle way is a tough pill to swallow, Quinlan. I’ve known these people most all my life. They’re a bunch of tough old birds, they’ve had to be to survive all the economic disasters we’ve had. Jesus, just realizing that one of them is a murderer curdles my breakfast. More than one of them murderers? No way.”

  “It’s more than a tough pill,” Thomas Shredder said with a goodly dose of sarcasm. “You’re paranoid, Quinlan. That’s nuts.”

  Quinlan just shrugged. “This town looks like a Hollywood set. I remember that was my first thought when I came here. I want to know why and how that happened.”

  “All right, we’ve got a lead,” David said, leaning forward, “I’m going to check more closely into Doc Spiver’s bank account. Now, I’ve gotten together all the accounts for all the missing persons reported in this area for the past three years.” David drew a deep breath. “There’s about sixty.”

  “Jesus,” Corey Harper said.

  “James is wrong about this,” Sally said. “My aunt has lived here for more than twenty years. She couldn’t be part of a murder conspiracy of this magnitude. She couldn’t.”

  “I hope I am wrong, Sally,” he said as he took her hand. It was cold. He poured her some coffee and put the fragile china cup between her hands to warm them. “But there’s lots of questions here. I can’t think of another way to go on this.”

  “I can’t either,” David said.

  “Well, I can,” said Thomas Shredder, rising to stand in front of the fireplace. He struck a pose, looking like Hercule Poirot ready to deliver his solution. All he needed was a mustache to twirl.

  “I hope this is good, Thomas,” Quinlan said. “We’ve paid our admission. Now on with the show.”

  “Pinning these murders on several of the townspeople just doesn’t make sense. As to tying it to all David’s missing persons, let’s just forget about that.”

  “But, Thomas,” Corey began, but he raised a hand to silence her.

  “It’s a theory, nothing more. What we’ve got is solid fact. Let’s get specific. I looked into Reverend Hal and Sherry Vorhees. They’ve lived here for twenty-seven years, true, but before that, they were in Tempe, Arizona. They had two little adopted boys. The two little boys ended up dead within a year after they came to the Vorheeses. One fell out of a tree and broke his neck. The other one got himself burned to death when he turned on the gas stove. Both were accidents, at least that’s what was reported and accepted. Everyone felt real bad about it, said the Vorheeses were the nicest people, and he was a reverend, and why would God take both their children?

  “But there were questions. It seems a couple of other children had accidents during the time the Vorheeses lived there. Then the Vorheeses left and came here. There weren’t any more children. Who the hell knows?”

  He waited for applause and he got it.

  “That’s something,” David Mountebank said. “Good going, Thomas. You got any more?”

  “There’s also some history on Gus Eisner, the old guy who fixes everything on wheels in this town. Turns out his wife, Velma, isn’t his first wife. His first wife was murdered. He was accused of the crime, but the DA never had enough evidence to bring him to trial. One month later Gus marries Velma and they move here. From Detroit. Hell, we’ve got to check on every single soul in this town. Corey’s checking on the Keatons.”

  “Yeah, you’re right. We’ve got to check on all of them,” Quinlan said, at which the other man stared at him, utterly surprised, a flicker of pleasure in those dark eyes of his. “I hope it’s one or the other. But it still doesn’t feel right.”

  “Look, Quinlan,” Thomas Shredder said. “Since the doctor was murdered, we looked all through his background.”

  “Well, Thomas,” Corey Harper said, interrupting him, “actually David ran all the checks on him.”

  “Yes,” David said, sitting forward. “He came here in the late forties with his wife. She died in the mid-sixties of breast cancer. They had two boys, both dead now, one in Vietnam, the other in a motorcycle accident in Europe. There was a rich uncle who died. That’s all I could find out, Quinlan.”

  “We’ll see, won’t we? If the money didn’t come from Doc Spiver, then it had to come from someplace else.”

  An ancient throat cleared in the doorway, grabbing their attention.

  “Well, now, you’re back, Sally, and you, Mr. Quinlan. I hear from Amabel that the FBI has nearly everything cleared up back in that capital of ours, that foul den of iniquity.” She paused a moment, shaking her head. “Goodness, I’d sure like to visit there.”

  Thelma Nettro had opened the door and was standing there, leaning on her cane, beaming at all of them, the pumpkin peach lipstick smeared, some of it on her false front teeth.

  “Hello, Thelma,” Quinlan said and rose to go to her. He leaned down and kissed her cheek. “You’re looking like a French model. How’s tricks?”

  27

  “YOU’VE GOT A smart mouth on you, boy,” Thelma said in high good humor. She patted Quinlan’s cheek. “Help me to my chair and I’ll tell you all about my tricks.”

  Once Quinlan had her settled, she said, “Now, what’s this I hear on CNN—that Sally’s father killed a man he’d paid some plastic surgeon to make look like him? He locked you up, Sally? Then he skipped out?”

  “That’s about it, Thelma,” Sally said. “My father is still free, more’s the pity, but they’ll catch him. His face has been all over the TV. Someone will spot him. He didn’t leave the country, his passport isn’t missing.”

  “He could have gotten another passport,” Thomas Shredder said. “That’s never a problem.”

  “Shit,” Quinlan said. “Excuse me, Thelma. I didn’t think of that. You’re right, Thomas.”

  “I’ve heard worse things than a little shit in my lifetime, Quinlan. So, you got some more FBI agents here. You want to solve those murders, huh?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Corey Harper said.

  “We all thought Doc had killed himself, but that woman from Portland said it wasn’t so.”

  “The medical examiner,” David said. “I was lucky she’s so well trained and was available. Otherwise it might have passed as a suicide.”

  “Poor Doc,” Thelma said. “Who’d want to stick a gun in his mouth? It isn’t civilized—you know?”

  “No, it isn’t.”

  “As for that young woman with the three children, well, that was a pity too, but after all, she wasn’t one of us. She was from that wretched subdivision.”

  “Yeah, Thelma, she lived all of three miles away,” Quinlan said, seeing his irony floating gently over Thelma’s head. “Fact is, though, she did die right here.”

  Quinlan sat himself back down beside Sally on the brocade sofa. When he spoke again, Sally immediately recognized that voice of his, low and soothing, intimate. That voice would get information out of a turnip. “Now, did you ever meet that rich uncle of Doc Spiver’s, Thelma?”

  “Nope, never did. I don’t even remember where he lived, if I ever did know. But everyone knew about hi
m and how he was older than God and how if we could just hang on a bit longer then he’d croak and Doc would get the money.

  “Of course, I have money, but not as much as that rich uncle had. We were all afraid that the old codger would use it all up on nursing homes, but he just died in his sleep, Doc said, and then Doc got that big fat check. More zeros than anybody in this town had ever seen before, I’ll tell you.”

  “Thelma,” David said, “do you know of anyone in town who could have met this uncle?”

  “Don’t know, but I’ll find out. Martha!”

  The screech hurt Sally’s ears. She winced even as she smiled because Corey had jumped and dropped her pen and notebook.

  “Healthy set of lungs,” Quinlan said.

  Martha appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron.

  “What are you making for dinner, Martha? It’s getting on toward four o’clock.”

  “Your favorite eggplant parmigiana, Thelma, with lots of Parmesan cheese on top and garlic bread so snappy it will make your teeth dance, and a big Greek salad with goat cheese.”

  “The uncle, Thelma,” Quinlan said easily.

  “Oh, yes. Martha, did you ever meet Doc Spiver’s rich uncle?”

  Martha frowned deeply, then slowly shook her head. “No, just heard about him for years. Whenever things were looking real bad, we’d talk about him, discuss how old he was, what kind of ailments he had, try to figure out when he’d pass on. Don’t you remember, Thelma? Hal Vorhees was always telling us we were ghouls, that it surely had to be a sin to discuss that poor old man, like we were holding prayer meetings for him to die.”

  “We were,” Thelma said. “I’ll bet Hal did a little praying when none of us were around. Well, I wasn’t praying for myself because I wasn’t poor like the rest of the town, but when Doc got that check, I was shouting along with everyone else.”

  “You’ve lived here since the forties, haven’t you, Thelma?” David asked.

  “Yes. I came here with my husband, Bobby Nettro, back in 1945. We already had grown kids, and we were rattling around in that big old house in Detroit. Came out here and decided this was the place for us.” She gave a lusty sigh that sent a whistling sound through her false teeth. “Poor Bobby, he passed on in 1956, right after Eisenhower was re-elected. He died of pneumonia, you know.

  “But he left me well off, real well off. I got Martha to come live with me in the late sixties, and we did just fine. She was teaching school down in Portland, and she didn’t like it, all those hippies and drugs and that free love. Since I knew her mama before she passed on, I also knew Martha. We all kept in touch. But you know, Quinlan, I did fail her mama. I still can’t find Martha a husband, and I promised her I would. Lord knows, I’ve been looking for more years now than I’ve got teeth.”

  “You don’t have any teeth, Thelma,” Martha said. “Why don’t you just chew on that nice pumpkin peach lipstick and think about that eggplant Parmesan?”

  “Well, I used to have a healthy set of choppers. I’ll tell you, Quinlan, it don’t seem to matter how horny she gets and how much she sticks her bosom out there for the old codgers to ogle. Now, take poor Ed—”

  Martha rolled her eyes and left the room.

  “Well, actually, could you tell us about your kids, Thelma?” Quinlan asked.

  “Two boys, one died in the war—the Big War, not Korea or Vietnam. The other one, well, he lives back in Massachusetts. He’s retired now, has grown-up grandkids, and they got kids, and that makes me so old I can’t bear to think about it.”

  Sally smiled as she stood up and walked over to kiss Thelma’s soft, wrinkled cheek. “I’m going to see Amabel now, Thelma, but James and I will be staying here in the tower room.”

  “You still taking advantage of him, huh, Sally? Poor little boy, he doesn’t have a chance. The first time I saw the two of you together I knew you’d have his pants off him in no time at all.”

  “Thelma, have a piece of my New Jersey cheesecake.”

  Thelma turned to frown at Martha, who had just come back into the room with another tray of her cheesecakes.

  “You’re such a prude, Martha, such a prude. I’ll just bet you’re frigid and Ed has to beg you for every little favor.”

  “I’ll see you later,” Sally said, grinning back at the two dumbstruck special agents from Portland, James, and David Mountebank.

  “I’ll be along shortly, Sally,” Quinlan said. He was already asking Thelma more questions when Sally went out the front door of Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast.

  The day was beautiful, warm, just a slight nip in the air, the salty tang swept in from the ocean soft as a bird’s wing on her face.

  Sally breathed in deeply. Sherry Vorhees was standing in front of the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop. Sally waved, and Sherry waved back. Helen Keaton, whose grandmother had invented the ice cream recipe, came out of the shop behind her, looked over at Sally, and waved herself. Such nice women. Surely they couldn’t know anything about the murders or those missing people.

  “Our flavor this week is banana walnut cream,” Helen called out. “Do come and try it with your Mr. Quinlan. My granny didn’t exactly make it, but I like to try new flavors. Ralph loves the banana walnut, says it’s so good it’s got to be real bad for you.”

  Sally remembered that Ralph Keaton was the undertaker. She saw old Hunker Dawson, the World War II veteran, who always wore his two medals across the pocket of his flannel shirts. He hiked up his baggy pants and yelled, “You’re famous, Sally Brainerd. We didn’t find out until after you’d left that you were crazy. But now you’re not even crazy, are you? I think the news media were pissed about you not being crazy. They like crazy and evil better than innocence and victims.”

  “Yeah,” Purn Davies called out, “the media all wanted you to be crazier than a loon and out offing folk. They sure didn’t want to report that you weren’t crazy. Then, though, they got your daddy.”

  “I’m glad they finally did,” Sally called.

  “Don’t you worry none about your daddy, Sally,” Gus Eisner yelled. “His face has been shown more times than the president’s. They’ll get him.”

  “Yeah,” Hunker Dawson yelled. “Once the media get their hooks in him all right and proper, they’ll forget everything else. They always do. It’s always the grossest story of the day for them.”

  “I sure hope so,” she yelled back.

  “My wife, Arlene, was wavering on her rocker,” Hunker shouted matter-of-factly, tugging on his old suspenders. “Wavering for years before she passed over.”

  Purn Davies yelled, “Hunker means she was a mite off in her upper works.”

  “These things happen,” she said, but probably not loud enough for them to hear her.

  The four old men had suspended their card game and were all looking at Sally. Even when she turned away, she knew they were watching her as she walked down that beautiful wooden sidewalk, the railing all fresh white paint, toward Amabel’s cottage. She saw Velma Eisner, Gus’s wife, and waved to her. Velma didn’t see her, just kept walking, her head down, headed for Purn Davies’s general store.

  Amabel’s cottage looked fresh as spring, with newly planted beds of purple iris, white peonies, yellow crocus, and orange poppies, all perfectly arranged and tended. She looked around and saw flower boxes and small gardens filled with fresh flowers. Lots and lots of orange poppies and yellow daffodils. What a beautiful town. All the citizens took pride in how their houses looked, how their gardens looked. Every short sidewalk was well swept.

  She wondered if The Cove now had a sister Victorian city in England.

  She thought about what James had said about all those missing people. She knew the direction of his thoughts, but she wouldn’t accept it.

  She just couldn’t. It was outrageous. She stepped onto Amabel’s small porch and knocked on the door.

  No answer.

  She knocked again and called out.

  Her aunt wasn’t home. Well, she’d do
ubtless be back soon.

  Sally knew where she wanted to go, had to go.

  She stood in the center of the cemetery. It was laid out like a wheel, with the very oldest graves in the very center. It was as well tended as the town. The grass was freshly mowed, giving off that wonderful grass scent. She laid her hand lightly on top of a marble headstone that read:

  ELIJAH BATTERY

  BEST BARTENDER IN OREGON

  DIED JULY 2, 1897

  81 RIPE YEARS

  The lettering grooves had been carefully dug out and smoothed again. She looked at other headstones, some incredibly ornate, others that had begun as wooden crosses and had obviously been replaced many times. Those that hadn’t weathered well had been replaced.

  Was nothing in this town overlooked? Was everything to be perfect, including every headstone?

  She walked out from the center of the cemetery. Naturally, the headstones became newer. She finished with the 1920’s, the 1930’s, the 1940’s, all the way into the 1980’s. The planners of the cemetery had been very precise indeed, working outward from the middle so that if you wanted to be buried here in the 1990’s, you’d be nearly to the boundaries.

  She found Bobby Nettro’s grave, on the fourth circle out from the center. It was perfectly tended.

  As far as she could tell, they’d kept to this wheel plan since the beginning. There were so many graves now. She imagined that when the first townspeople decided to put the cemetery here they’d considered the plot of ground they were setting aside to be immense. Well, it wasn’t. There was little space left, since the west side of the cemetery was bounded by the cliffs, and the east and north were bounded by the church and someone’s cottage. The south nearly ran into the single path that led along the cliff.

  She walked to the western edge of the cemetery. The graves here were new, as well tended as the others. She leaned down to look at the headstones. There were names, dates of birth and death, but nothing else. Nothing clever, nothing personal, nothing about being a super husband, father, wife, mother. Just the bare information.

 
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