The cove, p.6
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       The Cove, p.6
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         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  It was Reverend Hal Vorhees. On his heels were the four old men who spent most of their time sitting around the barrel playing cards.

  “What the hell’s going on, Doc? Excuse me, ma’am, but we heard you’d found a body at the bottom of the cliffs.”

  “It’s true, Gus,” Doc Spiver said. “Do all of you know Mr. Quinlan and Sally, Amabel’s niece?”

  “Yes, we do, Doc,” Purn Davies, the man who’d wanted to marry Amabel, said. “Now what’s happening? Be quick telling us. I don’t want the ladies to hear about it and be distressed.”

  “Sally and Mr. Quinlan found a woman’s body.”

  “Who is she? Do you recognize her?” This from Hal Vorhees.

  “No. She’s not from around here, I don’t think. I couldn’t find anything on her clothes either. You find anything, Mr. Quinlan?”

  “No. The county sheriff is sending someone over soon. A medical examiner as well.”

  “Good,” Doc Spiver said. “Look, she could have been killed by anything. Me, I’d say it was an accident, but who knows? I can’t run tests, and I haven’t the tools or equipment to do an autopsy. As I said, I vote for accident.”

  “No,” Sally said. “No accident. Someone killed her. I heard her screaming.”

  “Now, Sally,” Doc Spiver said, holding out his hand to her, that hand he’d been wiping, “you’re not thinking that the wind you heard was this poor woman screaming.”

  “Yes, I am.”

  “We never found anything,” Reverend Vorhees said. “We all looked a good two hours.”

  “You just didn’t look in the right place,” Sally said.

  “Would you like something to calm you?”

  She stared at the old man who had been a doctor for many more years than her mother had been alive. She’d met him the previous day. He’d been kind, if a little vague. She knew he didn’t want her here, that she didn’t belong here, but as long as she was with Amabel, he would continue being kind. Come to think of it, all the folk she’d met had been kind, but she still felt they didn’t want her here. It was because she was a murdered man’s daughter—that had to be it. She wondered if they would turn her in now that she and James had found the woman’s body, the woman Sally had heard screaming.

  “Something to calm me,” she repeated slowly, “something to calm me.” She laughed, a low, very ugly laugh that brought Quinlan’s head up.

  “I’d better get you something,” Doc Spiver said, turned quickly, and ran into an end table. The beautiful Tiffany lamp crashed to the floor. It didn’t break.

  He didn’t see it, James realized. The damned old man is going blind. He said easily, “No, Doc. Sally and I will be on our way now. The detective from the Portland police will tell the sheriff to come here. If you’d let them know we’ll be at Amabel’s house?”

  “Yes, certainly,” Doc Spiver said, not looking at them. He was on his knees, touching the precious Tiffany lamp, feeling all the lead seams to make certain it wasn’t cracked.

  They left him still on the floor. All the other men were silent as death in the small living room with its rich wine-red Bokhara carpet.

  “Amabel told me he was blinder than a bat,” Sally said as they stepped out into the bright afternoon sunlight. She stopped cold.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “I forgot. I can’t have the police knowing I’m here. They’ll call the police in Washington, they’ll send someone to get me, they’ll force me to go back to that place or they’ll kill me or they’ll—”

  “No, they won’t. I already thought of that. Don’t worry. Your name is Susan Brandon. They’ll have no reason to question that. Just tell them your story and they’ll leave you be.”

  “I have a black wig I wore here. I’ll put it on.”

  “Couldn’t hurt.”

  “How can you know they’ll just want to hear my story? You don’t know what’s going on here any more than I do. Oh, I see. You don’t think they’ll believe I heard a woman screaming those two nights.”

  He said patiently, “Even if they don’t believe you, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that they’d then have a murdered woman on their hands, does it? You heard a woman’s screams. Now she’s dead. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of other possible conclusions. Get a grip, Sally, and don’t fall apart on me now. You’re going to be Susan Brandon. All right?”

  She nodded slowly, but he didn’t think he had ever seen such fear on a face in all his years.

  He was glad she had a wig. No one could forget her face, and the good Lord knew it had been flashed on TV enough times recently.

  6

  DAVID MOUNTEBANK HAD hated his name ever since he’d looked it up in the dictionary and read it meant boastful and unscrupulous. Whenever he met a big man, a big man who looked smart, and he had to introduce himself, he held himself stiff and wary, waiting to see if the guy would make a crack. He braced himself accordingly as he introduced himself to the man before him now.

  “I’m Sheriff David Mountebank.”

  The man stuck out his hand. “I’m James Quinlan, Sheriff Mountebank. This is Susan Brandon. We were together when we found the woman’s body two hours ago.”

  “Ms. Brandon.”

  “Won’t you be seated, Sheriff?”

  He nodded, took his hat off, and relaxed into the soft sofa cushions. “The Cove’s changed,” he said, looking around Amabel’s living room as if he’d found himself in a shop filled with modern prints that gave him indigestion. “It seems every time I come here, it just keeps looking better and better. How about that?”

  “I wouldn’t know,” Quinlan said. “I’m from L.A.”

  “You live here, Ms. Brandon? If you do, you’ve got to be the youngest sprout within the town limits, although there’s something of a subdivision growing over near the highway. Don’t know why folks would want to live near the highway. They don’t come into The Cove except for ice cream, leastwises that’s what I hear.”

  “No, Sheriff. I’m visiting my aunt. Just a short vacation. I’m from Missouri.”

  Sheriff Mountebank wrote that down in his book, then sat back, scratched his knees, and said, “The medical examiner’s over at Doc Spiver’s house checking out the dead woman. She’d been in the water a good while, at least eight hours, I’d say.”

  “I know when she died,” Sally said.

  The sheriff merely smiled at her and waited. It was a habit of his, just waiting, and sure enough, everything he ever wanted to hear would pop out of a person’s mouth just to fill in the silence.

  He didn’t have to wait long this time because Susan Brandon couldn’t wait to tell him about the screams, about how her aunt had convinced her it was just the wind that first night, but last night she’d known—just known—it was a woman screaming, a woman in pain, and then that last scream, well, someone had killed her.

  “What time was that? Do you remember, Ms. Brandon?”

  “It was around 2:05 in the morning, Sheriff. That’s when my aunt went along with me and called Reverend Vorhees.”

  “She called Hal Vorhees?”

  “Yes. She said he was just about the youngest man and the most physically able. He brought over three elderly men with him. They searched but couldn’t find anything.”

  “That was probably the same group that’s over at Doc Spiver’s. They were all just sitting around looking at each other. This kind of thing hits a small town like The Cove real hard.”

  David Mountebank took down their names. He said without preamble, without softening, “Why are you wearing a black wig, Ms. Brandon?”

  Without pause she said, “I’m having chemotherapy, Sheriff. I’m nearly bald.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “That’s all right.”

  At that moment, Quinlan knew he would never again underestimate Sally Brainerd. He wasn’t particularly surprised that the sheriff could tell it was a wig. She was frankly ludicrous in that black-as-sin wig that made her look like Elvira, Mistress of th
e Dark. No, she was even paler than Elvira. He was impressed that the sheriff had asked her about the wig. Just maybe there’d be a prayer of finding out who the woman was and who had killed her. He could see that David Mountebank wasn’t stupid.

  “Doc Spiver thinks this is all a tragic accident,” the sheriff said, writing with his pencil on his pad even as he spoke.

  James said, “The good doctor is nearly blind. He could have just as easily been examining the table leg and not the dead woman.”

  “Well, it appears the doctor admitted that readily enough. He said he just couldn’t imagine who could have killed her, not unless it was someone from the outside. That means beyond Highway 101A. The four other fellows there didn’t know a blessed thing. I guess they were there for moral support. Now, Mr. Quinlan, you’re here on business?”

  Quinlan told him about the old couple he was looking for. He didn’t say anything about the townspeople lying to him.

  “Over three years ago,” the sheriff said, looking at one of Amabel’s paintings over Sally’s head, this one all pale yellows and creams and nearly blueless blues, no shape or reason to any of it, but it was nice.

  “Yeah, probably too long a time to turn anything up, but the son wanted to try again. I’m using The Cove as my headquarters, checking here first, then fanning out.”

  “Tell you what, Mr. Quinlan, when I get back to my office I’ll do some checking. I’ve been sheriff only two years. I’ll see what the former sheriff had to say about it.”

  “I’d appreciate that.”

  There was a knock at the front door. Then it opened and a small, slender man came into the living room. He was wearing wire-rim glasses and a fedora. He took off his hat, nodded to the sheriff, and bowed to Sally. “Sheriff, ma’am.” He then looked at Quinlan, just looked at him, like a little dog ready to go after the mastodon if his master gave the command.

  Quinlan stuck out his hand. “Quinlan.”

  “I’m the medical examiner. We’re removing the body now, Sheriff. I just wanted to give you a preliminary report.” He paused, a dramatic pause, Quinlan knew, and grinned. He’d seen it many times before. Medical examiners hardly ever had the limelight. It was their only chance to shine, and this man was trying his best to light up the room.

  “Yes, Ponser? Get on with it.”

  That wasn’t as good a name as Mountebank, but it was close. Quinlan looked over at Sally, but she was staring at her shoes. She was listening, though; he could see the tension in her body, practically see the air quiver around her.

  “Someone strangled her,” Ponser said cheerfully. “It’s pretty obvious, but I can’t say for sure until I’ve done the autopsy. Perhaps the killer believed it wouldn’t be evident after she’d been in the water, but he was wrong. On the other hand, if the tide hadn’t washed her in, then her body would never have been found and it would have been academic.”

  “That’s what they wanted,” Sally said. “They didn’t want her found. Even with the tide washing her up, how many people ever go down there? They’re all old. It’s dangerous. James and I finding her, that was just plain bad luck for them.”

  “Yes, it certainly was,” the sheriff said. He rose. “Ms. Brandon, could you try to pinpoint the direction and the distance of those screams you heard? Were they from the same direction and distance both nights?”

  “That’s an awfully good question,” Sally said slowly. “It would help, yes, it would. Both nights the screams were close, that or she really screamed loudly. I think they came both times from across the way. It was close, so very close—at least I think it was.”

  “Ah, there’s a nice long row of neat little cottages lining the street across from this house. Surely someone must have heard something. If you remember anything else, here’s my card. Call me anytime.”

  He shook Quinlan’s hand. “You know, what I can’t figure out is why someone was holding the woman prisoner.”

  “Prisoner?” Sally said, just staring at the sheriff.

  “Naturally, ma’am. If she wasn’t being held against her will, then why would you have heard the screams two different nights? The killer was holding her for some reason, a reason so powerful he only killed her that second night when she got loose and screamed again. But I’ve gotta ask myself, why keep someone prisoner if you’re not planning on doing away with her anyway? Or maybe he was thinking of ransom and that’s why he kept her alive. Maybe he was planning on killing her all along. Maybe he’s a real psycho. I don’t know, but I’ll find out. I haven’t heard a thing about anyone missing.

  “Questions, I’m filled with them. As soon as we can get a photograph of the woman, then my deputies will be crawling all over the subdivision like army ants. I hope she’s local, I really do.”

  “It would make your job a whole lot easier,” Quinlan said. “Give me a relative or a husband any day and I’ll find you a dozen motives.”

  “Yes, Mr. Quinlan, that’s surely the truth.”

  “Nothing like a good mystery to stir a man’s blood.”

  “I prefer mine to yours, Mr. Quinlan. Finding two missing people after three years isn’t likely. Well, I’ll be on my way now. A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Brandon.”

  He said to Quinlan as they walked to the door, “Now, this murdered woman, I’ll find out who was holding her and then we’ll see what kind of motive we’ve got for a brutal murder. I wonder why they threw her body over the cliff?”

  “Instead of burying her?”

  “Yeah. You know what I think now? I think someone was furious that she got loose and made a racket. I think someone was so furious he killed her and just threw her away like so much trash. I want to catch him badly.”

  “I would too, Sheriff. I think you might just be right.”

  “You in town long, Mr. Quinlan?”

  “Another week or so.”

  “And Ms. Brandon?”

  “I don’t know, Sheriff.”

  “A shame about the cancer.”

  “Yes, a real shame.”

  “She gonna be all right?”

  “That’s what her doctors believe.”

  Sheriff David Mountebank shook Quinlan’s hand, nodded back at Sally—who’d heard everything they said, even though they’d been speaking low—and took his leave.

  Sally wondered why her aunt had left before the sheriff came. Amabel had said only, “Why would a sheriff want to talk to me? I don’t know anything.”

  “But you heard the screams, Amabel.”

  “No, baby, you did. I never did think they were screams. You don’t want me calling you a liar in front of the law, do you?” And with that, she took off.

  Sally said now to Quinlan, “The sheriff isn’t dumb.”

  “No, he isn’t. But you got him, Sally, with that chemo business. Where is your aunt?”

  “I don’t know. She left.”

  “But she knew the sheriff would be here.”

  “Yes, but she said she didn’t know anything. She said she didn’t hear any screams and didn’t want to make me look bad if she had to tell him that.”

  “You mean like a hysterical girl or a liar?”

  “That’s about it. When she does talk to him, she’ll probably lie. She loves me. She wouldn’t want to hurt me.”

  But she hadn’t loved her enough to lie for her this time, Quinlan thought. Strange family.

  “Any more phone calls?”

  Sally shook her head, her eyes going automatically to the telephone, sitting next to a lamp on an end table.

  “But someone knows you’re here.”

  “Yes, someone.”

  He dropped it. He didn’t want to push anymore, at least not right now. She’d been through quite enough for one day. But she hadn’t lost it. She’d hung in there. “I’m proud of you,” he said, without thinking.

  She blinked as she looked up at him. He was still standing by the front door, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. “You’re proud of me? Why?”

  He shru
gged and walked over to her. “You’re a civilian, but you didn’t fall apart.”

  If only he knew, she thought, as she rubbed where that ring had been, so tight on her finger, paralyzing her.

  “Sally, what’s wrong?”

  She jumped to her feet. “Nothing, James, nothing at all. It’s lunchtime. You hungry?”

  He wasn’t, but she had to be, if that single piece of dry toast was all she’d eaten so far today. “Let’s go back to Thelma’s and see what’s cooking,” he said, and she agreed. She didn’t want to be alone. She didn’t want to be in this house alone.

  The old lady was sitting in the dining room slurping minestrone soup, her diary open and facedown in her lap, the old-fashioned fountain pen beside her plate. What the hell did she write in that diary? What could be so bloody interesting? When she saw them, she yelled, “Martha, bring me my teeth. I can’t be a proper hostess without my teeth.”

  She shut her mouth, not saying another word until poor Martha hurried into the dining room and slipped the old lady her teeth. Thelma turned, then turned back, giving them a big porcelain smile.

  “Now, what’s all this I hear about you two finding a dead body?”

  James said, “We’re hungry. Any chance for some of your soup?”

  Thelma yelled, “Martha, bring two more bowls of your minestrone!”

  She waved them to two seats across from her. She stared at Sally, who was no longer wearing her wig. “So you’re Amabel’s niece, are you?”

  Sally nodded. “Yes, ma’am. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

  The old lady snorted. “You just wonder why I’m not dead yet. But I’m not, and I make sure I see Doc Spiver every day to tell him so. He pronounced me dead three years ago, did you know that?”

  Quinlan did. He imagined everybody did, many times over. He just smiled and shook his head. He reached beneath the table and squeezed Sally’s hand. She went rigid, then slowly he felt her relax. Good, he thought, she was beginning to trust him. Then he felt like a shit.

 
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