The cove, p.31
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       The Cove, p.31
 

         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  “Do you think they’re going to keep us here for the next ten years?”

  “I hope not,” Quinlan said. “They’re all so old they’d be dead themselves by then. I’d hate to be forgotten.”

  “You’re not funny, Quinlan.”

  “Maybe not, but I’m trying.”

  “Keep trying,” Corey said. “I don’t want to fall into a funk. We’ve got to think. First of all, who did this to us?”

  “That’s pretty damned obvious, isn’t it?” Thomas said. “That damned old relic. She probably had Martha bring her the Amaretto and she put something into it. I was out like a light the second I lay down on my bed.”

  “Where’s Sally?” Corey asked suddenly.

  “I don’t know,” Quinlan said. “I don’t know.”

  He’d prayed she was locked up with them, still unconscious from the drug. “Everyone stretch your legs out in front of you. Let’s see how big this shed is.”

  Quinlan could just barely touch Thomas’s toe.

  “Now lean to one side and then the other.”

  Quinlan got a pinch of Corey’s blouse.

  No Sally.

  “Sally isn’t in here with us,” Quinlan said. “Where’d they take her?” Oh, Jesus, why had he asked that question aloud? He didn’t want to hear what Thomas had to say.

  Thomas said, “Good question. Why would they bother to separate us anyway?”

  “Because,” Quinlan said slowly, “Sally’s Aunt Amabel is a part of this. Maybe she has Sally. Maybe she’ll protect her.”

  Thomas sighed. To Quinlan’s surprise, he said, “Let’s pray you’re right. Damn, my head feels like a drum in a rock band.”

  “Mine too,” Corey said. “But I can still think. Now, Quinlan, you think the whole town is part of a conspiracy? You think the whole bloody town has killed at least sixty people in the past three to four years? For their money? And then they buried all of them in their cemetery?”

  “It shows respect,” Quinlan said. “Can’t you just see all those old folk, stroking their chins as they look down at an old couple they’ve just offed, saying, ‘Well, Ralph Keaton can lay ’em out, then we’ll bury ’em really nice and Reverend Vorhees can say all the right words.’ Yeah, Corey, the whole bloody town. What other possibility is there?”

  “This is nuts,” Thomas said. “An entire fucking town killing people? No one would believe that in a million years, particularly since most of them are senior citizens.”

  “I believe it,” Quinlan said. “Oh, yeah, I believe it. I’ll just bet it started with an accident. They got money from that accident. It gave them—or maybe just one of them or a couple of them—an idea of how to save their town. And it grew and grew.”

  Corey said slowly, “The way they lure victims here is that big advertising sign on the highway.”

  “Right,” Quinlan said. “The World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop. By the way, it is the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten.”

  He had to make jokes, he had to or else he’d go nuts. Where was Sally? Could Amabel really be protecting her? He had to doubt it.

  “Come in and buy your last ice cream cone,” Thomas said. “That’s the bottom line.”

  “What about that woman who was murdered? And Doc Spiver?” Corey said.

  Quinlan said, even as he was working furiously on the ropes at his wrists, “The woman must have heard something she shouldn’t have heard. They held her prisoner for at least three nights, probably more. She must have gotten her mouth free, because Sally heard her screaming that first night she was here in The Cove. Then, two nights later, she heard her screaming again. The next morning Sally and I found her body. My guess is they had to kill her. They didn’t want to, but they did. They knew it was either the woman or them. No choice really. They killed her. They must have been pissed—they just threw her off that cliff, didn’t bother laying her out or burying her in their precious cemetery.”

  “What about Doc Spiver?” Thomas said. “Damn, these ropes are strong. I can’t get even a micron of play in them.”

  “Keep working on them, everybody,” Quinlan said. “Now, Doc Spiver. I just don’t know. It’s possible he was a weak link. That as a physician, all the killing had turned him. Maybe the woman’s murder was the last straw. He just couldn’t stand it anymore. He cracked. They shot him in the mouth, trying to make it look like a suicide. Again, they saw it as they had no choice.”

  “Jesus,” Corey Harper said, “do you guys know that most FBI agents never get close to the deep shit we’re in now? Some of them never even draw their guns. They spend their whole careers interviewing people. I’ve been told that quite a few agents, when they retire, become psychologists—they’re that good at getting information out of people.”

  Quinlan laughed. “We’ll get out of this, Corey. Believe it.”

  “You think you’re so bloody smart, Quinlan. How the hell are we going to get free? And a swarm of little old people are going to show up any minute. Do you think they’ll form a firing squad? Or just beat us to death with their canes?”

  Corey said quietly, “Don’t, Thomas. Let’s get loose. There’s got to be a way. I don’t want to be helpless when someone comes, and you both know they’ll come.”

  “What, dammit?” Thomas shouted. “What the fuck can we do? The ropes are too tight. They even tied us to the wall so we couldn’t get to each other. We’re in the dark. So what the hell are we going to do?”

  “There’s got to be something,” Corey said.

  “Just maybe there is,” Quinlan said.

  Sally’s jaw hurt. She opened and closed her mouth, working it until the pain eased to a dull throb. She was lying in the dark, the only light coming through the open doorway from the hall.

  She was alone. Her hands were still tied in front of her. She lifted her hands to her mouth and began to tug with her teeth on the knot.

  She was concentrating so hard that she nearly screamed when a quiet voice said, “It’s really no use, Sally. Just relax, baby. Don’t move. Just relax.”

  “No,” Sally whispered. “Oh, no.”

  “Don’t you recognize where you are, Sally? I thought you’d know right away.”

  “No, it’s too dark in here.”

  “Look toward the window, dear. Just maybe you’ll see your dear father’s face again.”

  “I’m in the bedroom just down the hall from yours.”

  “Yes.”

  “Why, Amabel? What’s going on?”

  “Oh, Sally, why’d you have to come back? I’d give anything if you hadn’t shown up on my doorstep that day. Jesus, I had to take you in. I really didn’t want you involved, but here you are again, and there’s nothing I can do.”

  “Where are James and the other two agents?”

  “I don’t know. They’re probably in that little tool shed behind Doc Spiver’s cottage. That’s a sturdy prison. They’ll never get out.”

  “What are you going to do to them?”

  “It’s really not up to me.”

  “Who is it up to?”

  “The town.”

  For a long moment, Sally couldn’t breathe. It was true. The whole bloody town. “How many people has the town killed, Amabel?”

  “The first old couple, Harve and Marge Jensen, the ones Quinlan was supposedly here to look for, they were both accidents. Both of them keeled over with heart attacks. We found cash in their Winnebago. Next there was this biker. He started hitting on poor old Hunker, and Purn cracked him over the head with a chair to protect Hunker. It killed him. Another accident.

  “Then the biker’s girlfriend realized he was dead. Sherry Vorhees had no choice but to kill her. She slammed her over the head with an industrial blender.

  “It got easier after that, you know? Someone would spot a likely old couple or just someone who looked rich. Or maybe one of the women who was working in the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop saw a whole lot of cash when the person pulled open his wallet. Then we just did it. Yes, it got easier
. It got to be nearly a game, but don’t misunderstand me, Sally. We always treated them with the greatest respect after they were dead.

  “You’ve told me how beautiful the town is now. Well, it was a run-down mess before. But now, our investments are doing well, everyone is quite comfortable, and many tourists come here not just for the World’s Greatest Ice Cream but also to see the town and buy souvenirs and eat at the cafe.”

  “How wonderful for you. More people to choose from. You could discuss it among yourselves. Did that couple look richer than that one over there? You played Russian roulette with people’s lives. God, that’s disgusting.”

  “I wouldn’t put it so crassly, but as we’ve gotten to be more of a tourist attraction we’ve been able to be more selective. But we’ve killed only old people, Sally. They had all had a full life.”

  “That biker’s girlfriend didn’t.”

  Amabel shrugged. “It couldn’t be helped.”

  Sally was just shaking her head back and forth on the pillow, believing but still incredulous. “Jesus, Amabel, you’ve killed people. Don’t you understand that? You’ve killed innocent people. It doesn’t excuse anything that they were old. You’ve robbed them. You’ve buried them in the cemetery—what? Oh, I see. You buried them two to each grave. Only you used just a man’s name. Does one of you have a list identifying who’s really in each grave?”

  “No, but we left identification on the bodies. Don’t sound so appalled, Sally. We were dying here. We desperately wanted to survive. We have. We’ve won.”

  “No, everything’s coming down on your heads now, Amabel. There are three FBI agents here, and Sheriff David Mountebank knows everything they know, maybe more. You kill the agents, and you’ll all be in the gas chamber. Don’t you understand? The FBI is involved!”

  “Oh, Sally, here you are, going on and on about something that really doesn’t concern you. What about yourself, baby? What about your father?”

  “He’s not my fucking father, thank God. At least I found that out.”

  “Good, there’s anger there. I was afraid you were still trying to believe he was a nightmare come back to haunt you.”

  “You’re saying he’s here with you, Amabel? You want him here?” She knew the answer. But she didn’t want to hear it.

  “Of course, Sally.”

  She stared beyond her aunt to the man illuminated in the doorway. Her father. No, not her father, thank God. It was the bastard who’d raised her, the bastard who’d beat the shit out of her mother and locked her away in Dr. Beadermeyer’s sanitarium, the bastard who’d beat her just because it pleased him to do so.

  “So how does our little bastard feel, Ammie?”

  Ammie? What was this?

  “I’m not the bastard. You are.”

  “Sally, I hesitate to hit you in front of your aunt. It bothers her, even though she knows what a vicious mouth you have, even though she knows I’ve got to do it to control you.”

  “Amabel, why do you have him here with you? He’s a murderer. He’s a traitor to our country.”

  Amabel sat down beside her. Her fingertips were light and soft as they drifted over Sally’s forehead, pushing her hair behind her ears, lightly smoothing her eyebrows.

  “Amabel, please. When I was here before, I know it was him on the phone to me. He admitted that he’d looked in through the bedroom window.”

  “Yes, dear.”

  “Why was he here, Amabel?”

  “He had to come here, Sally. He had to take you back to the sanitarium. He hoped to make you doubt your sanity with the phone calls and his face at the window.”

  “But how could he possibly know I was even here?”

  “I called him. He was staying at a small inn in Oklahoma City. He took the next plane to Portland, then drove here. But you knew even as you asked that question, didn’t you, Sally?

  “Ah, but you didn’t doubt your sanity at all. That was due in part to Quinlan. That man. His being here made everything more difficult. Isn’t it strange? Quinlan made up that story about coming here to try to find a trace of those old folk? All he wanted was you. He didn’t care about any missing old people. Just you. He thought you’d either killed your father or were protecting your mother.

  “I’ve always been amused by the ways of fate. Well, I’m not amused now. There are big problems now.”

  “Now, Ammie, do you think it was fate that brought all those nice old people here to buy the World’s Greatest Ice Cream so you could then kill them and steal all their money?”

  Amabel turned and frowned at him. “I don’t know, and neither do you, Amory. Now, I don’t care what happens to Quinlan and the others, but I don’t want Sally hurt.”

  “He doesn’t agree with you, Aunt Amabel,” Sally said. “He hates me. You know he’s not my father. He has no latent tender feelings for me. As for my mother, did you know that he forced Noelle to stay with him?”

  “Why, of course, Sally.”

  Sally gaped at her. She couldn’t help it. On the other hand, why was she so surprised? Her world had flipped and turned more times in the past seven months than she could cope with. It seemed she’d never known who she really was or why things were the way they were. And she’d hated her mother for her weakness. Oh, God, she’d felt contempt for her, wanted to shake her herself for letting her husband knock her around.

  “Who’s my father?”

  “Now she wants to know,” Amory St. John said, as he strolled into the small bedroom, his hands in his pants pockets.

  “Who?”

  “Well, dear,” Amabel said, “actually your father was my husband. And yes, he was my husband before he met Noelle and the two of them fell in love—”

  “In lust, you mean, Ammie.”

  “That too. Anyway, Noelle was always rather stupid, and Carl wasn’t all that much of this earth himself. Knowing both of them as well as I did, I had difficulty figuring out who got whom into bed. But they must have managed it. She got pregnant. Fortunately she was seeing Amory at the time, and things got worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.”

  “Not to my mother’s.”

  “Oh, yes, she was thrilled that she wouldn’t have to abort you, Sally. She would have, of course, if it meant no husband as a cover.

  “I brought my Carl out here to The Cove so he could paint and spend the rest of his meaningless little life doing landscape oils that sell at airport shows for twenty dollars, and that includes their vulgar gold-painted frames. Carl never roamed again. In fact, he begged my forgiveness, said he’d do anything if only I wouldn’t leave him. I let him do quite a bit before he died twenty years ago.”

  “You didn’t kill him, did you?”

  “Oh, no. Amory did that, but Carl was already very ill with lung cancer. He never would stop smoking unfiltered Camels. Yes, it was a blessing for Carl that his brakes failed, and he died so quickly. Thank you, Amory.”

  “You’re welcome, Ammie.”

  “So how long have you been lovers?”

  Amabel laughed softly, turning to look at the man who was standing in the doorway. “A very long time,” she said.

  “So you don’t mind him beating the shit out of you, Amabel?”

  “No, Amory, don’t!” Amabel walked quickly to him and put her hand on his arm. She said over her shoulder, “Listen to me, Sally. Don’t talk like that. There’s no reason to make your father angry—”

  “He’s not my father.”

  “Nevertheless, mind your tongue. Of course he doesn’t hit me. Just Noelle.”

  “He hit me too, Amabel.”

  “You deserved it,” Amory said.

  Sally looked from one to the other. In the dim light she couldn’t see either of them clearly. Amory took Amabel’s hand, pulled her closer to his side. The shadows seemed to deepen around them, moving into them, drawing them into one. Sally shivered.

  “I thought you loved me, Amabel.”

  “I do, baby, indeed I do. You’re my husband’s child and my niece
. And I agreed with Amory that you were better off in that nice sanitarium. You weren’t doing well. He told me how erratic you’d become, how you were cheating on your husband, how you’d gotten in with the wrong people and were taking drugs.

  “He said that Doctor Beadermeyer would help you. I met Doctor Beadermeyer. An excellent doctor, who said you were doing nicely but that you needed complete rest and constant supervision by professionals.”

  “That was all a lie. Even if you don’t want to believe he’s such a monster, just think about it. You’ve read the papers, seen the news. Everyone is looking for him. Everyone knows that many of the patients in Doctor Beadermeyer’s sanitarium were prisoners, just like I was.”

  “Oh, baby, don’t do this. I don’t want to put a gag in your mouth, but I will. I won’t let you talk about him like this.”

  “All right, but didn’t you wonder about how crazy I was when he showed up here, knocked me over the head, and drugged me? When he nearly killed James?”

  Amory St. John pulled away from Amabel. He walked to the bed and stood there, staring down at Sally. “In this dim light I can’t tell if you’re going to be bruised or not.”

  “You really hit her that hard, Amory?”

  “Don’t fret, Ammie. She deserved it. She spit on me. Over the years I learned exactly how hard I could hit Noelle to get a certain kind and color of bruise. But everyone’s skin is different. We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?”

  “You’re nuts,” Sally said. “You’re fucking nuts.”

  “I would have whipped you if you’d ever said that when you lived under my roof.”

  “It doesn’t matter, Amory. She’s frightened. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her.”

  Sally said, “I know exactly what’s going to happen to me. He doesn’t have Doctor Beadermeyer to hold me prisoner for him anymore. No, he’s going to kill me, Amabel. You know that as well, otherwise you wouldn’t have admitted everything to me. No, don’t deny it. You’ve already accepted it. But I don’t really count. What will bring both of you down is hurting the FBI agents. You try killing James, and all hell will break loose. I know his boss, and you can count on it.”

 
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