The cove, p.5
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       The Cove, p.5
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         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  What was she going to do? That phone call—it had yanked her right back to the present, and to the past. It had been her father’s voice, no question about that. A tape, just like James Quinlan had said, a tape of a mimic.

  Suddenly there was a scream, long and drawn out, starting low and ending on a crescendo. It was coming from outside the house.

  She ran toward her aunt’s bedroom, not feeling the cold wooden floor beneath her bare feet, no, just running until she forced herself to draw up and tap lightly on the door.

  Amabel opened the door as if she’d been standing right there, waiting for her to knock. But that wasn’t possible, surely.

  She grabbed her aunt’s arms and shook her. “Did you hear the scream, Amabel? Please, you heard it, didn’t you?”

  “Oh, baby, that was the wind. I heard it and knew you’d be frightened. I was coming to you. Did you have another nightmare?”

  “It wasn’t the wind, Amabel. It was a woman.”

  “No, no, come along now and let me help you back to bed. Look at your bare feet. You’ll catch your death of something. Come on now, baby, back to bed with you.”

  There was another scream, this one short and high-pitched, then suddenly muffled. It was a woman’s scream, like the first one.

  Amabel dropped her arm.

  “Now do you believe me, Amabel?”

  “I suppose I’ll just have to call one of the men to come and check it out. The problem is, they’re all so old that if they go out in this weather, they’ll probably catch pneumonia. Maybe it was the wind. What woman would be screaming outside? Yes, it’s this bloody wind. It’s impossible, Sally. Let’s just forget it.”

  “No, I can’t. It’s a woman, Amabel, and someone is hurting her. I can’t just go back to bed and forget it.”

  “Why not?”

  Sally just stared at her.

  “You mean when your papa hit your mama you tried to protect her?”

  “Yes.”

  Amabel sighed. “I’m sorry, baby. You did hear the wind this time, not your mama being punched by your papa.”

  “Can I borrow your raincoat, Amabel?”

  Amabel sighed, hugged Sally close, and said, “All right. I’ll call Reverend Vorhees. He’s not as rickety as the others, and he’s strong. He’ll check it out.”

  When Reverend Hal Vorhees arrived at Amabel’s house, he had three other men with him. “This is Gus Eisner, Susan, a fellow who can fix anything with wheels and a motor.”

  “Mr. Eisner,” Sally said. “I heard a woman scream, twice. It was an awful scream. Someone was hurting her.”

  Gus Eisner looked as if he would have spat if there’d been a cuspidor in the corner. “The wind, ma’am,” he said, nodding, “it was just the wind. I’ve heard it all my life, all seventy-four years, and it makes noises that sometimes have made my teeth ache. Just the wind.”

  “But we’ll look around anyway,” Hal Vorhees said. “This here is Purn Davies, who owns the general store, and Hunker Dawson, who’s a World War II vet and our flower expert.” Sally nodded, and the reverend patted her shoulder, nodded to Amabel, and followed the other men out the front door. “You ladies stay safe inside now. Don’t let anyone in unless it’s us.”

  “The little females,” Sally said. “I feel like I should be barefoot and pregnant, making coffee in the kitchen.”

  “They’re old, baby, they’re just old. That generation gave their wives an allowance. Gus’s wife, Velma, wouldn’t know a bank statement if it bit her ankle. But things balance out, you know. Old Gus is night-blind. Without Velma, he’d be helpless after dark. Don’t mind their words. They care, and that’s a good feeling, isn’t it?”

  Just as she opened her mouth to reply, there was a third scream, this one fast and loud, and then it ended, cut off abruptly. It was distant, hidden, and now it was over.

  Sally knew deep down that there wouldn’t be another scream. Ever again. She also knew it wasn’t the damned wind.

  She looked at her aunt, who was straightening a modern painting over the sofa, a small picture painted in patternless swirls of ocher, orange, and purple. It was an unsettling painting, dark and violent.

  “The wind,” Sally said slowly. “Yes, no more than the wind.” She wanted to ask Amabel if Gus were night-blind, what good would he be out searching for a victim in the dark?

  The next morning dawned cool and clear, the sky as blue in March as it would be in August. Sally walked to Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast. Mr. Quinlan, Martha told her, was having his breakfast.

  He was seated in isolated splendor amid the heavy Victorian furnishings in Miss Thelma’s front room. On the linen-covered table was a breakfast more suited to three kings than just one man.

  She walked straight to him, waited until he looked up from his newspaper, and said, “Who are you?”

  5

  IT HAD NEVER occurred to him that she would confront him, not after he’d seen her huddled on the floor when he burst into her aunt’s living room. But she had tried to knee him and she’d also punched him just below the ribs. She had fought back. And here she was today, looking ready to spit on him. For some obscure reason, that pleased him. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want his prey to be stupid or cowardly. He wanted a chase that would challenge him.

  How could she have found out so quickly? It didn’t make sense.

  “I’m James Quinlan,” he said. “Most people call me Quinlan. You can call me whatever you want to. Won’t you sit down, Sally? I assure you there’s enough food, though when I finish one plate Martha just brings in another one. Does she do the cooking?”

  “I don’t know. Who are you?”

  “Sit down and we’ll talk. Or would you like a section of the newspaper? It’s the Oregonian, a very good paper. There’s a long article in here about your father.”

  She sat down.

  “Who are you, Mr. Quinlan?”

  “That didn’t last long. It was James yesterday.”

  “I have a feeling that nothing lasts very long with you.”

  She was right about that, he thought, as he had a fleeting image of Teresa laughing when he’d whispered to her as he’d come inside her that if she ever had another man she would find out what it meant to be half empty.

  “What other feelings do you have, Sally?”

  “That you love problems, that you get a problem in your hands and shape and mold and twist and do whatever you have to do to solve that problem. Then you lose interest. You look for another problem.”

  He stared at her and said aloud, though he didn’t realize he was doing so, “How the hell do you know that?”

  “Mr. Quinlan, how did you know my husband is a lawyer? That wasn’t on TV. There was no reason for it to be. Or if he had been shown, they certainly would have had no reason to discuss his profession or anything else about him.”

  “Ah, you remembered that, did you?”

  “Delaying tactics don’t become you. What if I told you I have a Colt. 45 revolver in my purse and I’ll shoot you if you don’t tell me the truth right now?”

  “I’d probably believe you. Keep your gun in your purse. It was on TV—your good old husband escorting your mother to your dad’s funeral. You just didn’t see it.” Thank God he’d heard Thelma and Martha discussing it yesterday. Thank God they hadn’t really been interested. Washington, D.C., was light-years from their world. “If you think there’s anything private about you now, forget it. You’re an open book.”

  She had seen it, she’d forgotten, just plain forgotten. She’d made a mistake, and she couldn’t afford to make any more. She remembered eating that wonderful ham sandwich the first day she’d arrived, sitting with Amabel, watching her black-and-white set, listening and watching and knowing that Scott was with her mother. She hadn’t watched TV before or since. She prayed she wasn’t an open book. She prayed no one in The Cove would ever realize who she was.

  “I forgot,” she said and picked up a slice of unbuttered toast. She bit into it,
chewed slowly, then swallowed. “I shouldn’t have, but I did.”

  “Tell me about him.”

  She took another bite of toast. “I can’t afford you, remember, James?”

  “I sometimes do pro bono.”

  “I don’t think so. Have you discovered anything about the old couple?”

  “Yes, I have. Everyone I’ve spoken to is lying through their collective dentures. Marge and Harve were here, probably at the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop. Why doesn’t anyone want to admit it? What’s to hide? So they had ice cream—who cares?”

  He pulled up short, staring at the pale young woman sitting across from him. She took another bite of the dry toast. He lifted the dish of homemade strawberry jam and handed it to her. She shook her head. He’d never in his life told anyone about his business. Of course, old Marge and Harve weren’t really his business, not really, but then again, why the hell had everyone lied to him?

  More to the point, why had he said anything about that case to her? She was a damned criminal, or at least she knew who had offed her father. If there was one thing he was sure of, it was that.

  Whatever else she was—well, he’d find out. She had come to him. Confronted him. It saved him the trouble of seeking her out again.

  “You’re right. That doesn’t make any sense. You’re sure folk lied to you?”

  “Positive. It’s interesting, don’t you think?”

  She nodded, took another bite of toast, and chewed slowly. “Why don’t I ask Amabel why no one admits to remembering them?”

  “No, I don’t think so. I’m the private investigator here. I’ll do the asking. It’s not your job.”

  She just shrugged.

  “It’s too early for the World’s Greatest Ice Cream,” he said. “Maybe you’d like to go for a walk on the cliffs? You look pale. A walk would put some color in your cheeks.”

  She gave it a lot of thought. He said nothing more, just watched her eat the rest of that dry toast that had to be cold as a stone. She stood, brushed the crumbs from the legs of her brown corduroy slacks, and said, “I need to put on my sneakers. I’ll meet you in front of Amabel’s house in ten minutes.”

  “Excellent,” he said, and meant it. Now he was getting somewhere. He’d open her up soon enough, just like a clam. Soon she would tell him all about her husband, her mother, her dead father, who hadn’t called her on the phone. No, that was impossible.

  She also seemed perfectly normal, and that bothered him as well. When he’d found her hysterical and frightened yesterday, it had been what he’d expected. But this calm, this open smile that, to his critical eye, held no malice or guile, made him feel he’d missed the last train to Saginaw.

  When he met her in front of her aunt’s house, she smiled at him. Where the hell was her guile?

  Fifteen minutes later she was talking as if there wasn’t a single black cloud in her world. “. . . Amabel told me that The Cove was nothing until a developer from Portland bought up all the land and built vacation cottages. Everything went smoothly until the sixties, then everyone just forgot about the town.”

  “Someone sure remembered, someone with lots of money. The place is a picture postcard.” He remembered old Thelma Nettro had told him the same thing.

  “Yes,” she said, kicking a small pebble out of her path. “It’s odd, isn’t it? If the town died, then how was it resurrected? There’s no local factory to employ everyone, no manufacturing of any kind. Amabel said the high school closed back in 1974.”

  “Maybe one of them has discovered how to tap into the Social Security computer system.”

  “That would only work in the short term. The fund only has money for, what is it? Fifteen months? It’s scary. No one would want to count on that.”

  They stood on the edge of a narrow promontory and looked down at the fierce white spume, fanning upward when the waves hit the black rocks.

  “It’s beautiful,” she said as she drew in a deep breath of the salt air.

  “Yes, it is, but it makes me nervous. All that unleashed power. It has no conscience. It can kill you so easily.”

  “What a romantic thing to say, Mr. Quinlan.”

  “Not at all. But I’m right. It doesn’t know the good guys from the bad guys. And it’s James. You want to climb down? There’s a path just over there by that lone Cypress tree that doesn’t look too dangerous.”

  “I don’t want you fainting on me, Quinlan, if you get too close to all that unleashed power.”

  “Threaten to knee me and I’ll forget about fainting for the rest of my life.”

  She laughed and walked ahead of him. She quickly disappeared around a turn in the trail. It was a narrow path, strewn with good-sized rocks, snaggled low brush, and it was too steep. She slipped, gasped aloud, and grabbed at a root.

  “Be careful, dammit!”

  “Yes, I will be. No, don’t say it. I don’t want to go back. We’ll both be very careful. Just another fifty feet.”

  The trail just stopped. From the settled look of all the brush and rocks, there’d been an avalanche some years before. They could probably climb over the rocks, but Quinlan didn’t want to take the chance. “This is far enough,” he said, grabbing her hand when she took another step. “Nope, Sally, this is it. Let’s sit here and commune with all that unleashed power.”

  There was no beach below, just pile upon pile of rocks, forming strange shapes as richly imagined as the cloud formations overhead. One even made a bridge from one pile to another, with water flowing beneath. It was breath-taking, and James was right, it was a bit frightening.

  Seagulls whirled and dove overhead, squawking and calling to each other.

  “It isn’t particularly cold today.”

  “No,” she said. “Not like last night.”

  “I’m in the west tower room at Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast. The windows shuddered the whole night.”

  Suddenly she stood up, her eyes fixed on something just off to the right. She shook her head, whispering, “No, no, it can’t be.”

  He was on his feet in an instant, his hand on her shoulder. “What the hell is it?”

  She pointed.

  “Oh, my God,” he said. “Stay here, Sally. Just stay here and I’ll check it out.”

  “Oh, go to hell, Quinlan. No, I don’t like Quinlan. I’ll call you James. I won’t stay put.”

  But he just shook his head at her. He set her aside and made his way carefully through the rocks until he was standing just five feet above the body of a woman, the waves washing her against the rocks, then tugging her back, back and forth. There was no blood in the water. “Oh, no,” he said aloud.

  She was at his side, staring down at the woman. “I knew it,” she said. “I was right, but nobody would listen to me.”

  “We’ve got to get her out before there’s nothing left of her,” he said. He sat down, took off his running shoes and socks, and rolled up his jeans. “Stay here, Sally. I mean it. I don’t want to have to worry about you falling into the water and washing out to sea.”

  Quinlan finally managed to haul her in. He wrapped the woman, what was left of her, in his jacket. His stomach was churning. He waved to Sally to start climbing back up the path. He didn’t allow himself to think that what he was carrying had once been a living, laughing person. God, it made him sick. “We’ll take her to Doc Spiver,” Sally called over her shoulder. “He’ll take care of her.”

  “Yeah,” he said to himself, “I just bet he will.” An old man in this one-horse town would probably say that she’d been killed accidentally by a hunter shooting curlews.

  Doc Spiver’s living room smelled musty. James wanted to open the windows and air the place out, but he figured the old man must want it this way. He sat down and called Sam North, a homicide detective with the Portland police department. Sam wasn’t in, so James left Doc Spiver’s number. “Tell him it’s urgent,” he said to Sam’s partner, Martin Amick. “It’s really urgent.”

  He hung up and watched Sally
St. John Brainerd pace back and forth over a rich wine-red Bokhara carpet. It was fairly new, that beautiful carpet. “What did you mean when you said you knew it?”

  “What? Oh, I heard her scream last night. There were three screams, and at the last one I knew someone had killed her. It was just cut off so quickly, like someone just hit her hard and that was it.

  “Amabel thought it was the wind because it was howling—no doubt about that, but I knew it was a woman’s scream, just like the one the first night I was here. I told you about that. Do you think it was the same woman?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Amabel called Reverend Vorhees and he came with three other men and they went on a search. When they came back they said they hadn’t found anything. It was the wind, they said. Reverend Vorhees patted me again, like I was a child, an idiot.”

  “Or worse, a hysterical woman.”

  “Exactly. Someone killed her, James. It couldn’t have been an accident. I heard her scream the night I arrived—three nights ago—and then last night. Last night, they killed her.”

  “What do you mean, ‘they’?”

  She shrugged, looking a bit confused. “I don’t know. It just seems right.”

  The phone rang and James answered it. It was Sam North calling him back. Sally listened to his end of the conversation.

  “Yes, a woman anywhere from young to middle aged, I guess. The tide washed her in, and she’d been battered against the rocks for a good number of hours. I don’t know how long. What do you want to do, Sam?”

  He listened, then said, “A little town called The Cove about an hour or so southwest of you. You know it? Good. The local doctor is looking her over now, but they have no law enforcement, nothing like that. Yes? All right. Done. His name is Doc Spiver, on the end of Main Street. You’ve got the number. Right. Thanks, Sam.”

  He said as he hung up the phone, “Sam’s calling the county sheriff. He says they’ll send someone over to handle things.”

  “Soon, I hope,” Doc Spiver said, walking into the small living room, wiping his hands—an obscene thing to be doing, Sally thought, staring at those old liver-spotted hands, knowing what those hands had been touching. There was a knock on the front door and Doc Spiver called out, “Come along in!”

 
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