The cove, p.4
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       The Cove, p.4

         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  “I don’t remember any old folk named Harve and Marge,” Amabel said. “I’m going in the back to change now, Sherry. Ring out, okay?”

  She was the best liar yet. He tamped down his dratted curiosity. It didn’t matter. Sally Brainerd was the only thing that mattered.

  “How’s your little niece doing, Amabel?”

  Amabel wished Sherry wouldn’t drink so much iced tea. It made her run off at the mouth. But she said pleasantly, “She’s doing better. She was just so exhausted from her trip.”

  “Yes, of course.” Sherry Vorhees continued to sip out of that big plastic tumbler and smile at James. That English actor’s name was Timothy Dalton. Beautiful man. She liked James Quinlan even better. “There’s not much to do here in The Cove. I don’t know if you’ll last out the week.”

  “Who knows?” James said, tossed his napkin into the white trash bin, and left the ice cream shop.

  His next stop was Amabel Perdy’s house, the small white one on the corner of Main Street and Conroy Street. Time to get it done.

  When he knocked on the trim white door, he heard a crash from inside. It sounded as though a piece of furniture had been knocked down. He knocked louder. He heard a woman’s cry of terror.

  He turned the knob, found the door was locked. Well, shit. He put his shoulder against the door and pushed really hard. The door burst inward.

  He saw Susan St. John Brainerd on her knees on the floor, the telephone lying beside her. He could hear the buzz of the dial tone. Her fist was stuffed in her mouth. She’d probably terrified herself when she screamed—that or she was afraid someone would hear her. Well, he had, and here he was.

  She stared at him as he flew into Amabel’s small living room, huddled herself against the wall like he was going to shoot her, jerked her fist out of her mouth, and screamed again.

  Really loud.


  “STOP SCREAMING,” HE yelled at her. “What the hell’s the matter? What happened?”

  Sally knew this was it. She’d never seen him before. He wasn’t old like everyone else in this town. He didn’t belong here. He’d tracked her here. He was here to drag her back to Washington or force her to go back to that horrible place. Yes, he could work for Beadermeyer, he probably did. She couldn’t go back there. She stared at the big man who was now standing over her, looking at her strangely, as if he was really concerned, but she knew he wasn’t, he couldn’t be, it was just a ruse. He was here to hurt her.

  “The phone,” she said, because she was going to die and it didn’t matter what she said. “It was someone who called and he scared me.”

  As she spoke, she slowly rose and began backing away from him.

  He wondered if she had a gun. He wondered if she’d turn and run to get that gun. He didn’t want this to turn nasty. He lunged for her, grabbed her left arm as she cried out, twisted about, and tried to jerk away from him.

  “I’m not going to hurt you, dammit.”

  “Go away! I won’t go with you, I won’t. Go away.”

  She was sobbing and panting, fighting him hard now, and he was impressed with the way she jabbed him with her knuckles just below his ribs where it hurt really good, then raised her leg to knee him.

  He jerked her back against him, then wrapped his arms around her, holding her until she quieted. She had no leverage now, no chance to hurt him. She was a lightweight, but the place where she’d gotten him below his ribs really hurt.

  “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said again, his voice calm and low. He was one of the best interviewers in the FBI because he could modulate his voice just right, make it gentle and soothing, mean and vicious, whatever was necessary to get what he needed.

  He said now, in his easy and soft tone, “I heard you cry out and thought someone was in here with you, attacking you. I was just trying to be a hero.”

  She stilled, just stood there, her back pressed against his chest. The only sound breaking the silence was the dial tone from the telephone.

  “A hero?”

  “Yeah, a hero. You okay now?”

  She nodded. “You’re really not here to hurt me?”

  “Nope. I was just passing by when I heard you scream.”

  She sagged with relief. She believed him. What the hell should she do now?

  He let her go and took a quick step back. He leaned down and picked up the telephone, dropped the receiver into the cradle and set it back on the table.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, her arms wrapped around herself. She looked as white as a cleric’s collar. “Who are you? Did you come to see Amabel?”

  “No. Who was that on the phone? Was it an obscene caller?”

  “It was my father.”

  He tried not to stare at her, not to start laughing at what she’d said. Her father? Jesus, lady, they buried him two days ago, and it was very well attended. If the FBI weren’t investigating him, even the president would have been there. He made a decision and acted on it. “I take it that he’s not a nice guy, your father?”

  “No, he’s not, but that’s not important. He’s dead.”

  James Quinlan knew her file inside out. All he needed was to have her flip out on him. He’d found her, he had her now, but she was obviously close to the edge. He didn’t want a fruitcake on his hands. He needed her to be sane. He said very gently, his voice, his body movements all calm, unhurried, “That’s impossible, you know.”

  “Yes, I know, but it was still his voice.” She was rubbing her hands over her arms. She was staring at that phone, waiting. Waiting for her dead father to call again? She looked terrified, but more than that she looked just plain confused.

  “What did he say? This man who sounded like your dead father?”

  “It was my father. I’d know that voice anywhere.” She was rubbing harder. “He said that he was coming, that he’d be here with me soon and then he’d take care of things.”

  “What things?”

  “Me,” she said. “He’ll come here to take care of me.”

  “Do you have any brandy?”

  Her head jerked up. “Brandy?” She grinned, then laughed, a small, rusty sound, but it was a laugh. “That’s what my aunt’s been sneaking into my tea since I got here yesterday. Sure, I’ve got brandy, but I promise you, even without the brandy I won’t get my broomstick out of the closet and fly out of here.”

  He thrust out his hand. “That’s good enough for me. My name’s James Quinlan.”

  She looked at that hand, a strong hand, one with fine black hairs on the back of it, long fingers, well-cared-for nails, buffed and neat. Not an artist’s hands, not like Amabel’s, but capable hands. Not like Scott’s hands either. Still, she didn’t want to shake James Quinlan’s hand, she didn’t want him to see hers and know what a mess she was. But there was no choice.

  She shook his hand and immediately withdrew hers. “My name’s Sally St. John. I’m in The Cove to visit my aunt, Amabel Perdy.”

  St. John. She’d only gone back to her maiden name. “Yes, I met her in the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop. I would have thought she lived in a caravan and sat by a campfire at night reading fortunes and dancing with veils.”

  She made a stab at a laugh again. “That’s what I thought too when I first got here. I hadn’t seen her since I was seven years old. I expected her to whip out some tarot cards, but I was very glad she didn’t.”

  “Why? Maybe she’s good at tarot cards. Uncertainty’s a bitch.”

  But she was shaking her head. “I’d rather have uncertainty than certainty. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. It can’t be good.”

  No, he wasn’t going to tell her who he was, he wasn’t going to tell her that she was perfectly right, that what would happen to her would suck. He wondered if she’d killed her father, if she hadn’t run to this town that was on the backside of the Earth to protect her mother. Others in the bureau believed it was a deal gone sour, that Amory St. John had finally screwed over the wrong people. But he didn
t believe that for a minute, never had, which was why he was here and no other agents were. “You know, I’d sure like some brandy.”

  “Who are you?”

  He said easily, “I’m a private investigator from Los Angeles. A man hired me to find his parents, who disappeared from around here some three years ago.”

  She was weighing his words, and he knew she was trying to determine if he was lying to her. His cover was excellent because it was true, but even that didn’t matter. He was a good liar. He could tell his voice was working on her.

  She was so thin, her face still had that bloodless look, the color leached out by the terror of that phone call. Her father? He was coming to take care of her? This was nuts. He could handle sane people. He didn’t know what he’d do if she flipped out.

  “All right,” she said finally. “Come this way, into the kitchen.”

  He followed her to a kitchen that was straight out of the 1940’s—the brownish linoleum floor with stains older than he was. It was clean but peeling up badly near the sink area. All the appliances were as old as the floor, and just as clean. He sat down at the table as she said, “Don’t lean on it. One of the legs is uneven. See, Aunt Amabel has magazines under it to make it steady.”

  He wondered how long the table had been like that. What an easy thing to fix. He watched Susan St. John Brainerd pour him some brandy in a water glass. He watched her pause and frown. He realized she didn’t know how much to pour.

  “That’s just right,” he said easily. “Thank you.” He waited until she’d poured herself a bit, then gave her a salute. “I need this. You scared the bejesus out of me. Nice to meet you, Susan St. John.”

  “And you, Mr. Quinlan. Please call me Sally.”

  “All right—Sally. After all our screams and shouts, why not call me James?”

  “I don’t know you, even if I did scream at you.”

  “The way you gouged me in the ribs, I’d give up before I’d let you attack me like that again. Where’d you learn to do that?”

  “A girl at boarding school taught me. She said her brother was the meanest guy in junior high and he didn’t want a wuss for a sister so he taught her all sorts of self-defense tricks.”

  He found himself looking down at her hands. They were as thin and pale as the rest of her. She said, “I never tried it before—seriously, I mean. Well, I did, several times, but I didn’t have a chance. There were too many of them.”

  What the hell was she talking about? He said, “It worked. I wanted to die. In fact, I’ll be hobbled over for the next couple of days. I’m glad you missed my groin.”

  He sipped his brandy, watching her. What to do? It had seemed so simple, so straightforward before, but now, sitting here, facing her, seeing her in the flesh as a person and not just as his key to the murder of Amory St. John, things weren’t so clear anymore. He hated it when things weren’t clear. “Tell me about your father.”

  She didn’t say anything, just shook her head.

  “Listen to me, Sally. He’s dead. Your damned father is dead. That couldn’t have been him on the phone. That means that it must have been either a recording of his voice or a person who could mimic him very well.”

  “Yes,” she said, still staring into the brandy.

  “Obviously someone knows you’re here. Someone wants to frighten you.”

  She looked up at him then, and remarkably, she smiled. It was a lovely smile, free of fear, free of stress. He found himself smiling back at her. “That someone succeeded admirably,” she said. “I’m scared out of my mind. I’m sorry I attacked you.”

  “I would have attacked me too if I had burst through the front door like that.”

  “I don’t know if the call was long distance. If it was long distance, then I’ve got some time to decide what to do.” She paused, then stiffened. She didn’t move, but he got the feeling that she’d just backed a good fifteen feet away from him. “You know who I am, don’t you? I didn’t realize it before, but you know.”

  “Yes, I know.”


  “I saw your photo on TV, also some footage of you with your father and your mother.”

  “Amabel assures me that no one in The Cove will realize who I am. She says no one besides her has a TV except for Thelma Nettro, who’s older than dust.”

  “You don’t have to worry that I’ll shout it around. In fact, I promise to keep it to myself. I was in the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop when I met your aunt. A Sherry Vorhees mentioned that you were visiting. Your aunt didn’t say a word about who you were.” Lying was an art, he thought, watching her assess his words. The trick was always to lean as much as possible toward the exact truth. It was a trick some of the town’s citizens could benefit from.

  She was frowning, her hands clasped around the glass. Her foot was tapping on the linoleum.

  “Who is after you?”

  Again she gave him a smile, but this one was mocking and underlaid with so much fear he fancied he could smell it. She fiddled with the napkin holder, saying while she straightened the napkins that had dumped onto the table, “You name someone and he’d probably be just one in a long line.”

  She was sitting across from one of those someones. Damnation, he hated this. He’d thought it would be so easy. When would he learn that people were never what they seemed? That smile of hers was wonderful. He wanted to feed her.

  She said suddenly, “The strangest thing happened the first night I was here, just two nights ago. I woke up in the middle of the night at the sound of a person’s cry. It was a person, I know it was. I went into the hall upstairs to make sure something wasn’t happening to Amabel, but when the cry came again I knew it was from outside. Amabel said I’d imagined it. It’s true that I’d had a horrible nightmare, a vivid memory in the form of a dream, actually, but the screams pulled me out of the dream. I know that. I’m sure of it. Anyway, I went back to bed, but I know I heard Amabel leave the house after that. You’re a private detective. What do you make of that?”

  “You want to be my client? It’ll cost you big bucks.”

  “My father was rich, not me. I don’t have a cent.”

  “What about your husband? He’s a big tycoon lawyer, isn’t he?”

  She stood up like a shot. “I think you should leave now, Mr. Quinlan. Perhaps it’s just because you’re a private detective and it’s your job to ask questions, but you’ve crossed the line. I’m none of your business. Forget what you saw on TV. Very little of it was true. Please go.”

  “All right,” he said. “I’ll be in The Cove for another week. You might ask your aunt if she remembers two old folk named Harve and Marge Jensen. They were in a new red Winnebago, and they probably drove into town to buy some of the World’s Greatest Ice Cream. Like I told you, the reason I’m here is because their son hired me to find them. It’s been over three years since they disappeared.” Although he’d already asked Amabel himself, he wanted Sally to ask her as well. He’d be interested to see if she thought her aunt was lying.

  “I’ll ask her. Good-bye, Mr. Quinlan.”

  She dogged him to the front door, which, thankfully, was still attached to its ancient hinges.

  “I’ll see you again, Sally,” he said, gave her a small salute, and walked up the well-maintained sidewalk.

  The temperature had dropped. A storm was blowing in. He had a lot to do before it hit. He quickened his step. So her husband was off-limits. Was she scared of him? She wasn’t wearing a wedding band, but the evidence of one had been in that thick white line on her finger.

  He’d really blundered—that wasn’t like him. Usually he was very cautious, very careful, particularly with someone like her, someone fragile, someone who was teetering right on the brink.

  Nothing seemed straightforward now that he’d met Susan St. John, that thin young woman who was terrified of a dead man who had called her on the phone.

  He wondered how long it would be before Susan St. John discovered he’d lied through his t
eeth. It was possible she would never find out. Just about everything he knew was in the file the FBI had assembled on her. If she found out he knew more than had ever been dished out to the public, would she take off? He hoped not. He was curious now about those human cries she’d heard in the middle of the night. Maybe her aunt had been right and she had dreamed it—being in a new place, she had every reason to be jumpy. And she had admitted to having a nightmare. Who the hell knew?

  He looked around at the beautiful small houses on either side of the street. There were flowers and low shrubs planted just about everywhere, all protected from the ocean winds with high-sided wooden slats on the western side. He imagined that storms off the ocean could devastate just about any plant alive. The people were trying.

  He still didn’t like the town, but it didn’t seem so much like a Hollywood set anymore. Actually it didn’t look at all like Teresa’s hometown in Ohio. There was an air of complacency about it that didn’t put him off. He had a sense that everyone who lived here knew their town was neat and lovely and quaint. The townspeople had thought about what they wanted to do and they’d done it. The town had genuine charm and vitality, he’d admit that, even though he hadn’t seen a single child or young person since he’d driven in some three hours before.

  It was late at night when the storm blew in. The wind howled, rattling the windows. Sally shivered beneath the mound of blankets, listening to the rain slam nearly straight down, pounding the shingled roof. She prayed there were no holes in the roof, even though Amabel had said earlier, “Oh, no, baby. It’s a new roof. Had it put on just last year.”

  How long could she remain here with Amabel? Now that she was safe, now that she was hidden, she was free to think about the future, at least a future of more than one day’s duration. She thought about next week, about next month.

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