The cove, p.33
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       The Cove, p.33

         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  “No, not now. Well, just not this exact minute. You know what, old man? Noelle looks utterly beautiful. I’ll bet she’ll be going out again very soon. She’ll have any man she wants.”

  “She won’t dare. She’d know I’d kill her if she even looked at another man. Yes, I’d kill both of them.”

  “You aren’t going to kill anybody,” Sally said, eyes mean and bright, joy in her voice. “You’re going to jail for the rest of your miserable life.” She patted his face. “You’re an old man. Think of how much faster you’ll sag and wrinkle in prison.”

  “I won’t go to prison. God, I’m going to get you. I played with you for six months. I should have strangled you.”

  “Just try it, you old bastard.” She smiled down at him, lifted her foot, and landed it square in his groin.

  He screamed, clutching himself.

  “Well done, Sally,” Quinlan said. “You sure you don’t want to shoot him?”

  There was a shot from upstairs.


  QUINLAN STRUCK AMORY St. John hard on his jaw.

  One down, he thought, as St. John’s head lolled to the side. They had only one weapon—Quinlan’s gun, taken off old Purn Davies, the one that Quinlan had pressed to Amory St. John’s temple.

  When Thomas had gone upstairs unarmed, Sally hadn’t thought, hadn’t imagined that her aunt could shoot someone.

  Suddenly Corey moved like lightning, throwing herself into the shadowed recess just to the side at the base of the stairs.

  They watched in silence as Thomas, his arm bleeding rivulets through his fingers, came down the stairs, Amabel behind him with a pistol to the back of his head.

  “Throw that gun toward the living room, Mr. Quinlan.”

  Instead, Quinlan slid it across the highly polished oak floor right toward the spot where Corey was crouched.

  “You don’t have such a good aim, do you? No matter. Now, move away from him. That’s right. Go stand by Sally.

  “You, sir, keep moving or I’ll shoot you in the back of your neck. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”

  “No,” Thomas said, sounding dazed, “I wouldn’t like that at all.”

  “You’re bleeding all over my floor. Well, who cares? I doubt we’ll ever come back here anyway. Now, Mr. Quinlan, you and Sally just take two more steps back. Good. Don’t try anything. You’re always bragging about FBI agents, but this one’s just like you, Mr. Quinlan, he’s just a man. Look at all that blood—and it’s only a little wound in his arm. He’s not whining, I’ll say that for him. Now don’t move.” She looked down. “Amory, you can get up now.”

  There wasn’t a sound from Amory.


  She waved the gun and screamed at Quinlan, “What did you do to him, you bastard?”

  “I coldcocked him, Amabel. Real hard. I don’t think he’ll be coming around anytime soon.”

  “I should shoot you right now. You’ve been a pain ever since you set foot in this town, ever since you first saw Sally. No, Sally, just keep your mouth shut. My future is with him, and I intend to have it. I know the town will fall, but I won’t. No one will catch us, not even your precious FBI.”

  She shoved Thomas to the bottom step. She must have sensed something because she quickly moved back up two steps. “You try to turn on me, boy, and I’ll blow your head off.”

  “No, ma’am,” Thomas said. “I won’t do anything. Can I go on down and let Quinlan wrap a handkerchief around my arm? I don’t want to bleed to death. I don’t want to ruin your pretty floor and carpets.”

  “Go on, but try anything and you’re dead.”

  Thomas was pale, his mouth drawn thin with pain. He was holding his arm tightly. Blood still dripped slowly between his fingers.

  “Come here, Thomas,” Quinlan said, motioning him forward with his hand. “You got a handkerchief?”

  “Yeah, in my right coat pocket.”

  Quinlan pulled out a spiffy blue handkerchief with the initials TS in the corner and tied up his arm. “That should do it. Too bad you guys killed Doc Spiver, Amabel. Thomas could use his services right about now.”

  She had to come down those three remaining steps. She had to. Just three steps. Come on, Amabel, come on.

  Sally said suddenly, her voice loud with shock. “There’s blood coming from his mouth.” She was pointing wildly at Amory St. John. “And something white, oh, my God, I think it’s foam. He’s foaming!”

  “What?” Amabel came down the last three stairs, slowly, trying to keep her attention on the two agents and Sally and see what was wrong with Amory. “All of you, bunch together, there. Sit on the floor. Now.”

  They all sat.

  Just a bit further, Quinlan said to her silently. Just a bit further. He saw Corey poised in the shadows, his SIG-sauer at the ready in her hand.

  Just then Amory St. John groaned. He jerked up, then fell back. He groaned again, then opened his eyes.

  “Oh, God,” Sally shrieked, “there’s blood in his eyes. James, you hit him that hard?”

  In those precious seconds when all of Amabel’s attention was focused on Amory, Corey leaped from her left side, a lovely training move taught at Quantico, her right fist going right into Amabel’s side, her left fist straight into her neck.

  Amabel turned, but not in time. The gun went spinning out of her hand.

  Corey said, “I’m sorry, Sally,” then hit Amabel square in the jaw. She crumpled to the floor.

  Amory St. John groaned again.

  “Corey,” Thomas said, “please say you’ll marry me. Like a reformed smoker, I’m now a reformed sexist. I’ll become a feminist.”

  Sally laughed from sheer relief. Quinlan told Thomas to stay where he was on the floor. He rose and shook hands with Corey and hugged Sally to his side. “Now we’ll just wait for the cavalry to arrive.”

  “I smell smoke,” Thomas said, stiffening as he sniffed the air. “Jesus, Quinlan, there’s smoke coming from under that door.”

  “It’s the kitchen,” Sally said, dashing to it.

  “No, Sally, don’t open it. It’ll just suck the flames in here.”

  Amory St. John moaned again and lurched to his side.

  “God, more flames,” Corey said. “Someone’s set us on fire. Jesus, the old folks have set the place on fire!”

  “I’ll carry St. John. Corey, you get Amabel. Sally, can you help Thomas? Let’s get the hell out of here.”

  “Whoever set the fire will be waiting for us,” Sally said. “You know it, James.”

  “I’d rather risk being shot than burn to death,” he said. “Everyone agree? There’s no other way out except through the kitchen, and the door’s already burning. It’s got to be the front door.”

  “Let’s go,” Corey said, as she shoved the SIG-sauer in her belt. She heaved Amabel over her shoulder.

  Quinlan, with St. John over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry just like Corey’s, kicked the cottage door open. The sun was just rising, the dawn sky streaked with pink. The air was crisp and clean, the sound of the ocean soft and rhythmic. It was a beautiful morning.

  There were at least thirty people standing in front of the cottage, all of them armed.

  Reverend Hal Vorhees shouted, “Throw down your gun, Mr. Quinlan, or we’ll shoot the women.”

  Well, damn, Quinlan thought. At least the old folk hadn’t automatically shot them down when they’d come out of Amabel’s cottage. All the bravado about preferring a gunshot to a fire—was bullshit. Nobody wanted to die. Now they had some time—at least he prayed they did.

  Quinlan nodded to Corey. She threw his SIG-sauer right at Reverend Hal Vorhees. It landed close to his feet.

  “Good, now lay that madman down, Amabel next to him. We don’t care what happens to him. He’s evil and a blight. He’s nothing more than a filthy traitor. He made Amabel turn on us. Come on now, the four of you come with us.”

  “We’re going to a church service, Reverend?”

  “Just shut up, M
r. Quinlan,” Hunker Dawson said.

  “A helicopter will be arriving in just about five minutes, Hal,” Quinlan said after he’d dropped St. John to the ground, landing him in the middle of Amabel’s daffodils.

  “We called the FBI office in Portland from Doc Spiver’s cottage. Sheriff David Mountebank’s deputies will be here soon as well.”

  Actually the deputies should have been here long ago. Where the devil were they?

  “No, we took care of the deputies,” Gus Eisner said. “Come now. We don’t want to waste any more time. You’re lying about that helicopter. Besides, it don’t make no difference. You’ll be gone by the time the Feds arrive.”

  “You’ll never get away with this,” Sally said. “Never. Don’t you have any idea at all what you’re dealing with?”

  “Look at us, Sally,” Sherry Vorhees said. “Just look at all these nice old people. We wouldn’t even kill mosquitoes, now would we? Who would deal with us? Why, there’s nothing to deal with. I’d invite them all in for some of the World’s Greatest Ice Cream.”

  “It’s gone far beyond that now,” Sally said, stepping forward.

  Reverend Hal Vorhees immediately raised his gun higher. “Listen, to me,” Sally went on. “Everyone knows that James and the other agents are here. They’ll mow you down. Another thing, they’ll dig up every grave in the cemetery and they’ll find out those are all the missing people reported over the past three years. It’s all over. Please, be reasonable about this. Give it up.”

  “Shut up, Sally,” said Hunker Dawson. “All of you, enough of this bullshit. Let’s go.”

  “Yes, sure thing, Hunker,” Quinlan said. They had more time. How much more, he had no idea. But even one more minute meant hope.

  They walked like condemned prisoners in front of the mob. He was aware of the unreality about the whole situation even as he felt fear seeping deep into him.

  Quinlan said over his shoulder, “What will you preach on this Sunday, Hal? The rewards of evil? The spiritual high of mass murder? No, I’ve got it. It’ll be the wages of trying to bring justice to people who were brutally murdered for the amount of cash they carried.”

  Quinlan staggered from the blow on his shoulder.

  “That’s enough,” Gus Eisner said. “Just shut up. You’re upsetting the ladies.”

  “I’m not upset,” Corey said. “I’d like to pull out all your teeth and listen to you scream.”

  “I don’t have any teeth,” Hunker said. “That ain’t a good punishment for this group.”

  What to say to that? Quinlan thought and winked at Corey. She looked furious. Thomas was walking on his own, but Corey was helping him. His arm wasn’t bleeding so much now, but the blood loss was taking its toll, that and shock.

  Sally was trudging along beside him, looking pale and very thoughtful. He said out of the side of his mouth, real low, so maybe all those old people wouldn’t hear him, “Hold up, Sally. We’ll figure out something. Hell, I could take at least a dozen of the old guys, no problem. Could you pound the old ladies?”

  That made her smile. “Yeah, I could pound them into the dust. But I want to go back and get Amory St. John. They just left him and Amabel there, James, both of them. They’ll get away. My aunt, well, I don’t know, but she’s not quite the aunt I’d hoped she was.”

  An understatement, Quinlan thought. Another blow for her, another person she’d believed she could trust had betrayed her. Thank God her mother had come through for her. He thought he just might come to like Noelle St. John a lot in the future. If he had a future.

  Quinlan said, “Maybe the calvary will arrive before St. John and your aunt get their wits back together and can get away. But even if they do escape, we’ll get them sooner or later.”

  To Quinlan’s surprise, they were herded up the wide, beautifully painted white steps and into Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast. He guessed he had thought they’d be taken to the Vorheeses’ house.

  “I’ll be damned,” Quinlan said as he got a poke with a rifle, shoving him into the large drawing room. There was Thelma Nettro, sitting on that chair of hers that looked for all the world like a throne. She was smiling at them. She was wearing a full mouth of false teeth and her pumpkin peach lipstick.

  She said, “I wanted to join in the fun, but I just don’t get around as well as I used to.”

  There was Purn Davies sitting on one of the sofas, looking white and shriveled. Good, Corey had whacked him hard.

  “Why are we here?” Quinlan asked, turning to Reverend Hal Vorhees.

  “You’re here because I wanted you here. Because I ordered my people to bring you to me. Because, Mr. Quinlan, I’m going to tell you all what we’re going to do with you.”

  They all stared at Martha as she moved from behind Thelma Nettro’s chair. There was nothing soft and bosomy about her now. There were no pearls around her neck. Her voice was loud and clear, a commander’s voice, not her gentle cook’s voice announcing an incredible meal. Jesus, Quinlan thought, what was going on here?

  “Martha?” Sally said, bewildered. “Oh, no, not you too, Martha?”

  “Don’t look so surprised.”

  “I don’t understand,” Sally said. “You’re a wonderful cook, Martha. You go out with poor Ed. You take grief from Thelma. You’re nice, damn you. What’s going on?”

  Quinlan said slowly, “I knew there had to be a ringleader, one person with a vision, one person who could get all the others to fall in line. Aren’t I right, Martha?”

  “Exactly right, Mr. Quinlan.”

  “Why didn’t you just let them elect you mayor?” Sally said. “Why murder innocent people?”

  “I’ll let that go, Sally,” Martha said. “Oh, poor Mr. Shredder. You, Corey, set him down in that chair. Too bad Doc Spiver fell sick of cowardice and remorse. He drew the straw and had to kill that woman who’d overheard a meeting we were having. We caught her on the phone, dialing 911. Poor bitch. She was different. We didn’t know what to do with her. She wasn’t like those tourists who came into town for the World’s Greatest Ice Cream. No, we wouldn’t ever have picked her. She was too young; she had children. But then, we didn’t know what to do with her either. We couldn’t very well let her go.

  “When she got loose that first night and screamed her head off—you heard her, Sally, Amabel told us the next day—we put a guard on her. But then two nights later she got loose again, and that time Amabel was forced to call Hal Vorhees over, because of you, Sally. There was no choice. Since it was Doc’s fault that she got loose, since he’d been her guard, we all decided that she had to die. There was simply no other choice. We were sorry about it, but it had to be done, and Doc Spiver had to kill her. He just couldn’t stomach it. He was going to call Sheriff Mountebank.” She shrugged.

  “Fair is fair. Yes, we’ve always been scrupulously fair. Helen Keaton drew the straw. She put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. If it hadn’t been for that sheriff and that medical examiner down in Portland, it would have been declared an accident. Yes, that was a pity. Amazingly unfair.”

  It was remarkable, Quinlan was thinking, that every criminal he’d ever known had loved to talk, to brag about how great he was, how he was smarter than everyone else. Even a little old lady.

  “Yeah,” he said, “a real pity.”

  Martha was fiddling with her glasses, since she wasn’t wearing her pearls, but her voice was calm and assured. “You don’t appreciate what we’ve done, Mr. Quinlan. We turned a squalid little ghost town into a picture postcard village. Everything is so pristine. Everything is so beautifully planned. We leave nothing to chance. We discuss everything. We even have a gardening service for those who don’t enjoy tending flowers. We have a painting service that comes in every week. Of course, we also have a chairperson for each service. We are an intelligent, loyal, industrious group of older citizens. Each of us has a responsibility, each has an assignment.”

  “Who selects the victims?” Corey asked. She was standing beside Thomas,
her hand on his shoulder. He was still conscious, but his face was white as death. She’d wrapped a hand-crocheted afghan around him. It looked as if a grandmother had spent hours putting those soft pastel squares together.

  Quinlan stared at that afghan. Then he stared at Martha. He’d be willing to wager that she had knitted the afghan. No accounting for grandmothers. Martha was a vicious cold-blooded killer.

  Martha laughed softly. “Who? Why all of us, Ms. Harper. Our four gentlemen who play gin rummy around their barrel? Yes, they look over everyone who drives in for refreshment at the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop.

  “Zeke down at the cafe eyes every tourist from his window in the kitchen. When he’s too busy, then Nelda pays attention when folk take out their wallets to pay.

  “Sherry and Della run the souvenir shop in that little cottage close to the ocean cliffs. They check out tourists there. As you can imagine, we must make decisions very quickly.” She sighed. “Sometimes we’ve erred. A pity. One couple looked so very affluent, drove a Mercedes even, but we only found three hundred dollars, nothing else of any use. All we could do was send Gus to Portland with the car to sell it. It turned out it was leased. That was close. As I recall, Ralph refused to lay them out, didn’t you, Ralph? Yes, that’s right, you said they didn’t deserve it. And we all agreed. They weren’t honest with us. They lied.”

  “Exactly right,” Ralph Keaton said. “I just wrapped them each in a cheap sheet, the dirty liars. Helen wanted the name Shylock on their grave marker, but we knew we couldn’t be that obvious so we changed it to Smith, so nondescript it was like they’d never even existed.”

  “This is amazing,” Sally said, looking at each one of those old faces. “Truly amazing. You’re all mad. I wonder what they’ll do with all of you. Put you all on trial as mass murderers? Or just chuck you into an insane asylum?”

  “I hear a helicopter,” Reverend Hal Vorhees said. “We’ve got to hurry, Martha.”

  “You’re going to shoot us?” Corey asked, stepping away from Thomas. “You honest to God think you can get away with killing all of us?”

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