The cove, p.7
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       The Cove, p.7
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         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  Martha set two places in front of them, then served two bowls of soup.

  “Martha always had men hanging around her, but they were rotters, all of them. They just wanted her cooking. What did you do with young Ed, Martha? Did you cook for him or demand that he go to bed with you first?”

  Martha just shook her head. “Now, Thelma, you’re embarrassing poor little Miss Sally here.”

  “And me, too,” Quinlan said and spooned some of the soup into his mouth. “Martha,” he said, “I’m not a rotter and I’d surely marry you. I’d do anything for you.”

  “Go along, Mr. Quinlan.”

  “A big man like you embarrassed, James Quinlan?” Thelma Nettro laughed. Sally was thankful she was wearing her teeth. “I think you’ve been around several blocks, boy. I bet I could take off my clothes and it wouldn’t faze you.”

  “I wouldn’t bet on it, ma’am,” Quinlan said.

  “I’ll bring in the chicken parmigiana,” Martha said. “With garlic toast,” she said over her shoulder.

  “She keeps me alive,” Thelma said. “She should have been my daughter but wasn’t. It’s a pity. She’s a good girl.”

  This was interesting, Quinlan thought, but not as interesting as the soup. They all gave single-minded concentration to the minestrone until Martha reappeared with a huge tray covered with dishes. The smells nearly put Quinlan under the table. He wondered how long he’d have a hard stomach if Martha cooked all his meals.

  Thelma took a big bite of chicken parmigiana, chewed like it was her last bite on earth, sighed, then said, “Did I tell you that my husband, Bobby, invented a new, improved gyropilot and sold it to a huge conglomerate in San Diego? They were hot for it, it being the war and all. Yep, that’s what happened. I know it made airplanes fly even more evenly at the same height on a set course than before. With that money, Bobby and I moved here to The Cove. Our kids were grown and gone by then.” She shook her head, smiled, and said, “I’ll bet that body was a real mess when you found it.”

  “Yes,” Sally managed to say, reeling just a bit. “The poor woman had been thrown over the cliff. Evidently she was caught in the tide.”

  “So who is she?”

  “No one knows yet,” Quinlan said. “Sheriff Mountebank will find out. Did you hear a woman screaming, Ms. Nettro?”

  “You can call me Thelma, boy. My sweet Bobby died in the winter of 1956, just after Eisenhower was elected died—he called me Hell’s Bells, but he always smiled when he said it, so I didn’t ever get mad at him. A woman screaming? Not likely. I like my TV loud.”

  “It was in the middle of the night,” Sally said. “You would have been in bed.”

  “My hair curlers are so tight, I can’t hear a thing. Ask Martha. If she’s not trying to find herself a man, she’s lying in bed thinking about it. Maybe she heard something.”

  “All right,” Quinlan said. He took a bite of garlic toast, shivered in ecstasy at the rich garlic and butter taste, and said, “The woman was screaming close by, perhaps just across the way from Amabel’s house. She was someone’s prisoner. Then that someone killed her. What do you think?”

  Thelma chewed another bite of chicken, a string of mozzarella cheese hanging off her chin. “I think, boy, that you and Sally here should go driving some place and neck. I’ve never before seen a girl in such a twitter as poor Sally here. She’s a mess. Amabel won’t say anything except that you’ve had a rough time and you’re trying to get over a bad marriage. She said none of us were to say a word to anybody, that you needed peace and quiet. You don’t have to worry, Sally, no one from The Cove will call and tell on you.”

  “Thank you, ma’am.”

  “Call me Thelma, Sally. Now, how much does either of you know about that big-time murdered lawyer back in Washington?”

  James thought Sally would faint and fall into her chicken parmigiana. She looked whiter than death. He said easily, “No more than anybody else, I suspect. What do you know, Thelma?”

  “Since I’m the only one with a real working TV, I know a world more than anybody else in this town. Did you know the missing daughter’s husband was on TV, pleading for her to come home? He said he was worried she wasn’t well and didn’t know what she was doing. He said she wasn’t responsible, that she was sick. He said he was real concerned about her, that he wanted her back so he could take care of her. Did you know that? Isn’t that something?”

  She wouldn’t faint into the parmigiana now. Quinlan felt her turn into stone. “Where did you hear that, Thelma?” he asked mildly, even as he doubted he ever wanted another bite of chicken parmigiana in his life.

  “It was on CNN. You can find out everything on CNN.”

  “Do you remember anything else he said?”

  “That was about it. He pleads real well. Looked very sincere. A handsome man, but there’s something too slick about him. From what I could tell he’s got a weak chin. What do you two think about that?”

  “Not a thing,” Sally said, and James was pleased that her voice didn’t sound scared, though he knew she had to be.

  Thelma didn’t seem to realize that her audience had stopped eating. She cackled, saying, “I like James. He’s not all soft and smooth like that poor girl’s husband. No, James doesn’t put all that mousse in his hair. I bet that poor girl’s husband wouldn’t use that nice big gun James has under his coat. No, he’d have one of those prissy little derringers. No, he’s too slick for my tastes.

  “Now that James is here, Sally, I recommend that you use him. That’s what my husband always said to me. ‘Thelma,’ he’d say, ‘men loved to be used. Use me.’ I still miss Billy. He caught pneumonia, you know, back in 1956. Killed him in four days. A pity.” She sighed and took another bite of chicken parmigiana.

  “I feel like I just swallowed five cloves of garlic,” Quinlan said after they managed to escape, Sally pleading a stomachache.

  “Yes, but it was delicious until Thelma mentioned Scott.”

  “He wants to take care of you.”

  “Oh, I’m sure he does.”

  He wished she’d tell him about her husband and what he’d done to her. The fear in her voice wasn’t as strong as the bitterness. When she’d gotten that phone call from someone pretending to be her father—now, that was fear. She turned to face him. She looked paler, if that were possible, and pinched, as if the life were being drained out of her. “You’ve been kind to me and I appreciate it, but I’ve got to be leaving now. I can’t stay here any longer. Now that he’s gotten on TV about me, someone will have seen it. Someone will call. I’ve got to leave. And you know what else? Thelma knows. She was just playing with me.”

  “No one will call because no one saw him. If he’d offered a reward, then I’d bet on Thelma calling up in a flash, cackling all the while. Yes, Thelma knows, but she’ll stop at enjoying the hell out of taunting you. Look, Sally, no one else knows who you are. All you are is Amabel’s niece. I’d even wager that if anyone did find out they wouldn’t say a word. Loyalty—you know what I mean?”

  “Actually,” she said, “I don’t.”

  Dear God, he thought as he stepped along with her, what the hell had her life been like? He didn’t remember a TV in his tower bedroom. He hoped there was one. He wanted to see Scott Brainerd pleading to his wife to return to him.

  “Don’t go,” he said to her when they reached Amabel’s cottage. “You know, it isn’t all that hard to be loyal if it doesn’t cost you anything. There’s no need to. Let things spin out, just stay out of it. Besides, you don’t have any money, do you?”

  “I have credit cards, but I’m afraid to use them.”

  “They’re very easy to trace. I’m glad you didn’t use them. Look, Sally, I’ve got some friends back in Washington. Let me put in a couple of calls and see what’s really happening, okay?”

  “What friends?”

  He smiled down at her. “I can’t put a thing over on you, can I?”

  “Not when it hits me in the nose,” she said, a
nd smiled back at him. “It doesn’t matter, James. If you want to talk to some people, go ahead. Just remember, though, I don’t have any money to pay you.”

  “Pro bono,” he said. “I hear even government agencies do some work for free.”

  “Yeah, just like they use our taxes to pay for midnight volleyball.”

  “Basketball. That was a while back.”

  “Your friends work for the feds?”

  “Yep, and they’re good people. I’ll let you know what’s cooking—if they know anything, of course.”

  “Thank you, James. But you know, there’s still the person who called me pretending to be my father. That person knows where I am.”

  “Whoever comes, if he comes, has my big gun to contend with. Don’t worry.”

  She nodded, wished he could touch her hand, squeeze it, pat her cheek, anything, to make her feel less threatened, less hunted. But he couldn’t, she knew that, just as she knew she didn’t know him at all.

  So he was her protector now, Quinlan realized, shaking his head at himself. He would protect her from any guy who came here wanting to drag her back or hurt her.

  That was a good joke on him, he thought, as he walked back to Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast.

  He was her main hunter.

  7

  WHEN THE PHONE rang, Sally was in the kitchen slicing a turkey breast Amabel had brought home from Safeway. Her aunt called out, “It’s for you, Sally.”

  James, she thought, smiling, as she wiped her hands. She walked into the living room to see Martha with her aunt, the two of them smiling at her, saying nothing now, which was only polite since they’d probably been talking about her before she’d come into the room.

  “Hello?”

  “How’s my little girl?”

  She froze. Her heart pounded fast and painfully hard. It was him. She remembered his voice too well to believe now that it was someone pretending to be Amory St. John.

  “You don’t want to talk to me? You don’t want to know when I’m going to come get you, Sally?”

  She said clearly, “You’re dead. Long dead. I don’t know who killed you, but I wish I had. Go back to hell where you belong.”

  “Soon, Sally. I can’t wait, can you? Very soon now I’ll have you with me again.”

  “No, you won’t,” she screamed and slammed down the receiver.

  “Sally, what is going on? Who was that?”

  “It was my father,” she said and laughed. She was still laughing as she walked up the stairs.

  Amabel called after her, “But Sally, that couldn’t have been someone trying to make you believe it was your father. That was a woman on the line. Martha said she sounded all fuzzy, but it was a woman. She even thought it sounded a bit like Thelma Nettro, but that couldn’t be. I didn’t know of any woman who knew you were here.”

  Sally stopped on the second step from the top. The steps were narrow, the distance between the steps too steep. She turned slowly and looked back downstairs. She couldn’t see her aunt or Martha. She didn’t want to see them. A woman? Maybe Thelma Nettro? No way.

  She ran back down the stairs into the living room. Placid Martha was looking distressed, her hands clasping and unclasping her pearls, her glasses sliding down her nose.

  “My dear,” she began, only to stop at the ferocious look of anger on the girl’s face. “Whatever is wrong? Amabel’s right. It was a woman on the phone.”

  “When I answered it wasn’t a woman on the phone. It was a man pretending to be my father.” It had been her father. She knew it, knew it deep down. She was so scared she wondered if a person could die of just being scared, nothing else, just being scared.

  “Baby,” Amabel said, rising, “this is all very confusing. I think you and I should talk about this later.”

  Sally turned without another word and walked slowly upstairs. She was leaving now. She didn’t care if she had to walk and hitchhike. She knew all the stories about the dangers of a woman alone, but they didn’t come close to the danger she felt bearing down on her now. How many people knew she was here? The man pretending to be her father, and now a woman? She thought of that nurse. She’d hated that nurse so much. Sally couldn’t even remember her name now. She didn’t want to. Could it have been that nurse?

  She stuffed her clothes in her duffel bag and then realized she had to wait. She didn’t want to fight with Amabel. She heard Amabel lock up the cottage. She heard her walk up the stairs, her step brisk and solid. Sally got quickly into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin.

  “Sally?”

  “Yes, Amabel. Oh, goodness, I was nearly asleep. Good night.”

  “Yes, good night, baby. Sleep well.”

  “All right.”

  “Sally, about that phone call—”

  She waited, not saying a word.

  “Martha could have been mistaken. It’s quite possible. Her hearing isn’t all that good anymore. She’s getting old. It could even have been a man disguising his voice like a woman’s just in case you didn’t answer the phone. I can’t imagine that it could have been Thelma. Baby, nobody knows who you are, nobody.”

  Amabel paused. Sally could see her silhouetted in the doorway from the dim light in the corridor. “You know, baby, you’ve been through a lot, too much. You’re frightened. I would be too. Your mind can do funny things to you when you’re frightened. You know that, don’t you?”

  “Yes, I understand that, Amabel.” She wasn’t about to tell Amabel that Thelma knew who she was.

  “Good. You try to sleep, baby.” She didn’t come in to kiss her good night, for which Sally was grateful. She lay there, waiting, waiting.

  Finally, she slipped out of bed, pulled on her sneakers, picked up her duffel bag, and tiptoed to the window. It slid up easily. She poked her head out and scanned the ground as she’d done earlier. This was the way out. It wasn’t far to the ground, and she knew there was no way she could get down those stairs without Amabel hearing her.

  No, she’d be just fine. She climbed out the window and sat on the narrow ledge. She dropped the duffel bag and watched it bounce off the squat, thick bushes below. She drew a deep breath and jumped.

  She landed on James Quinlan.

  They both went down, James rolling, holding her tight against him.

  When they came to a stop, Sally reared up on her hands and stared down at him. There was a half moon, more than enough light to see his face clearly.

  “What are you doing here?”

  “I knew you’d run after that telephone call.”

  She rolled off him and rose, only to collapse again. She’d sprained her damned ankle. She cursed.

  He laughed. “That’s not good enough for a girl who didn’t go to finishing school in Switzerland. Don’t you know some down and dirty street curses?”

  “Go to hell. I sprained my damned ankle and it’s all your fault. Why couldn’t you just mind your own damned business?”

  “I didn’t want you out on the road hitchhiking with some lowlife who could rape you and cut your throat.”

  “I thought of that. I’d rather take that risk than stay here. He knows I’m here, James, you know that. I can’t just stay here and wait for him to come and take me. That’s what he said. He said soon he’d be here for me.”

  “I was reading a newspaper when Martha came in all worried and told Thelma about a woman calling you, a woman you said wasn’t a woman but your father. She said you were really distressed. She didn’t understand why you’d be so upset to hear from your father. I knew you’d probably try to run, that’s why I’m here, having you crush me into the ground.”

  She sat there on the ground next to him, rubbing her ankle, just shaking her head. “I’m not crazy.”

  “I know that,” he said patiently. “There’s an explanation. That’s why you’re not going to run away. Now that’s crazy.”

  She came up on her knees, leaning toward him, her hands grasping his jacket lapels. “Listen to me, James. It was my father. No
fake, no imitation. It was my father. Amabel said it could have been a man disguising his voice as a woman’s if I hadn’t been the one to answer the phone. Then she turned around and told me how much strain I’d been under. In other words, I’m crazy.”

  He took her hands in his, just held them, saying nothing. Then he spoke. “As I said, there’s always an explanation. It probably was a man. We’ll find out. If it wasn’t, if it truly was a woman who asked for you, then we’ll deal with that too. Trust me, Sally.”

  She sat back. Her ankle had stopped throbbing. Maybe it wasn’t sprained after all.

  “Tell me something.”

  “Yes?”

  “Do you think someone could be trying to gaslight you?”

  What did he know? She searched his face for the lie, for knowledge, but saw none of it.

  “Is it possible? Could someone be trying to make you crazy? Make you doubt your sanity?”

  She looked down at her clasped hands, at her fingernails. She realized that she hadn’t chewed her nails since she’d been in The Cove. No, since she’d met him. They didn’t look so ragged. She said finally, not looking at him, because it was awful, what she was, what she had been, perhaps what she still was today, right now. “Why?”

  “I’d have to say that someone’s afraid of you, afraid of what you might possibly know. This someone wants to eliminate you from the game, so to speak.” He paused, looking toward the ocean, fancying he could hear the crashing waves, but he couldn’t, Amabel’s cottage was just a bit too far for that. “The question is why this someone would go this route. You’re about the sanest person I know, Sally. Who could possibly think he could make you believe you were nuts?”

  She loved him for that. Loved him without reservation, without any question. She gave him a big grin. It came from the deepest part of her, a place that had been empty for so long she’d forgotten that it was possible to feel this good, this confident in herself, and in someone else.

  “I was nuts,” she said, still grinning, feeling the incredible relief of telling someone the truth, of telling him. “At least that’s what they wanted everyone to believe. They kept me drugged up for six months until I finally got it together enough to hide the medication under my tongue and not swallow it. The nurse always forced my mouth open and ran her fingers all inside to make sure I’d taken the pills. I don’t know how I managed to keep the pill hidden, but I did. I did it for two days, until I was together enough. Then I escaped. And then I got the ring off my finger and threw it in a ditch.”

 
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