The cove, p.8
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       The Cove, p.8
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         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  He knew she’d been in a sanitarium, a very expensive posh little resort sanitarium in Maryland. All very private. But this? She’d been a prisoner? Drugged to her gills?

  He looked at her for a long time. Her smile faltered. He just shook his head at her, cupped her face in his hand, and said, “How would you like to come back to Thelma’s place and share my tower room with me? I’ll take the sofa and you can have the bed. I won’t make any moves on you, I swear. We can’t just sit here for the rest of the night. It’s damp and I don’t want either of us to get sick.”

  “And then what?”

  “We’ll think more about that tomorrow. If it was a woman who put the call through, then we need to figure out who it could have been. And I want to know why you were in that place for six months.”

  She was shaking her head even as he spoke. He knew she regretted spilling it to him now. After all, she didn’t know him, didn’t have a clue if she could trust him or not. She said, “You know, I have another question. Why did Martha answer Amabel’s phone and not Amabel?”

  “That’s a good one, but the answer’s probably just as simple as that Martha happened to be standing next to the phone when it rang. Don’t get paranoid, Sally.”

  He carried her duffel bag, his other hand under her arm. She was limping, but it wasn’t bad, not a sprain, as she’d feared. He didn’t want to haul her over to Doc Spiver’s. Only the good Lord knew what that old man might do. Probably want to give her artificial respiration.

  He had a key to the front door of Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast. All the lights were out. They walked to his tower room without waking Thelma or Martha. James knew there was only one other guest, who had come in just today, an older woman who’d been nice and smiling and had said that she was here to visit her daughter in the subdivision, but she’d always wanted to stay here, in one of the tower rooms. Thank God, she’d said, that there were two. Which meant she was on the other side of the huge house.

  He switched the bedside lamp on low only after he closed the venetian blinds. “There. It’s charming, isn’t it? There’s no TV.”

  She wasn’t looking at him or the window. She was moving as fast as a shot toward the door. She knew she didn’t remotely love him anymore. She was afraid. She was in this man’s room, a man she didn’t know, a man who was sympathetic. She hadn’t known sympathy in so long that she’d fallen for it without thought, without question. James Quinlan was quite wrong. She was as nuts as they came.

  “Sally, what’s wrong?”

  She was tugging on the doorknob, trying to turn it, but the door didn’t open. She realized the key was still in the lock. She felt like a fool.

  He didn’t make any movement of any kind. He didn’t even stretch out his hand to her. He just said in his calm, deep voice, “It’s all right. I know you’re scared. Come now and sit over here. We’ll talk. I won’t hurt you. I’m on your side.”

  A lie, he thought, another damned lie. The chance of his ever being anywhere near her side were just about nil.

  She walked slowly away from the door, stumbled against a small end table, and sat down heavily on the sofa. It was chintz with pale-blue and cream flowers.

  She was rubbing her hands together, just like Lady Macbeth, she thought. She raised her face. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be dumb. Now, would you like to try to sleep or talk a while?”

  She’d already told him too much. He was probably reconsidering his comment that she was the sanest person he knew. And he wanted to know why she’d been in that place? God, she couldn’t bear that. Thinking about it was too much. She couldn’t imagine talking about it. If she did, he’d know she was paranoid, delusional.

  “I’m not crazy,” she said, staring at him, knowing he was in the shadows and so was she, and neither of them could read the other’s expression.

  “Well, I just might be. I still haven’t found out what happened to Harve and Marge Jensen, and you know what? I’m not all that interested anymore. Now, I called a friend at the FBI. No, don’t look like you’re going to dive for the door again. He’s a very good friend, and I just got some information from him.” Lies mixed with truth. It was his business, his lies having to be better than the bad guy’s lies.

  “What’s his name?”

  “Dillon Savich. He told me that the FBI is looking high and low for you, but no sign as yet. He said they’re convinced you saw something the night of your father’s murder, that you probably saw the person who killed him, that it was probably your mother, and you ran to protect her. If it wasn’t your mother, then it was someone else, or you.

  “Your dad wasn’t a nice man, Sally. Turns out he was being investigated by the FBI for selling weapons to terrorist countries on our No Way List, like Iraq and Iran. In any case, they’re convinced you know something.” He didn’t ask her if it was true. He just sat there on the other end of that chintz sofa with its feminine pale-blue and cream flowers and waited.

  “How do you know this Dillon Savich?”

  He realized then that she might be scared half out of her mind, but she wasn’t stupid. He’d managed to say everything that needed to be said without blowing his cover. But she hadn’t responded. She still didn’t trust him, and he admired her for that.

  “We went to Princeton together in the mid-eighties. He always wanted to be an agent, always. We’ve kept in touch. He’s good at his job. I trust him.”

  “It’s difficult to believe he just spilled all this out to you.”

  Quinlan shrugged. “He’s frustrated. They all are. They want you, and you’re gone without a trace. He was probably praying that I knew something and would tell him if he whetted my appetite.”

  “I didn’t know about my father being a traitor. But on the other hand, I’m not surprised. I guess I’ve known for a very long time that he was capable of just about anything.”

  She was sitting very quietly, looking toward the door every couple of seconds but not saying anything. She looked exhausted, her hair was ratty, there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek from her jump and a huge grass stain on the leg of her blue jeans. He wished she’d tell him what she was thinking. He wished she’d just come clean and tell him everything.

  Then, he thought, it might be a good idea to take her to dinner.

  He laughed. He was the crazy one. He liked her. He hadn’t wanted to. He’d only wanted to see her as the main piece to his puzzle, the linchpin that would bring it all together.

  “Did you tell this Dillon Savich anything?”

  “I told him I wouldn’t go out with his sister-in-law again. She’s always popping bubble gum in her mouth.”

  She blinked at him, then smiled—a small, tight smile, but it was a smile.

  He rose and offered her his hand. “You’re exhausted. Go to bed. We can deal with this in the morning. The bathroom’s through there. It’s a treat, all marble and a water-saver toilet in pale pink. Take a nice long shower, it’ll help bring down the swelling in your ankle. Thelma even provides those fluffy white bathrobes.”

  He had let her off the hook, even though he guessed he could have gotten more out of her if he’d tried even a little bit. But she was near the edge, and not just with that damned phone call.

  Who the hell was the dead woman they’d found being pulled in and out by the tide at the base of the cliff?


  THEY WERE EATING breakfast the next morning, alone in the large dining room. The woman who’d checked in the day before wasn’t down yet, nor was Thelma Nettro.

  Martha had said as she took their order, “Thelma sometimes likes to watch the early talk shows in bed. She also writes in that diary of hers. Goodness, she’s kept a diary for as long as I can remember.”

  “What does she write in it?” Sally asked.

  Martha shrugged. “I guess just the little things that happen every day. What else would she write?”

  “Eat,” Quinlan told Sally when Martha placed a plate stacked with blueberry pancakes in front of h
er. He watched her butter them, then pour Martha’s homemade syrup over the top. She took one bite, chewed it slowly, then carefully laid her fork on the edge of the plate.

  Her fork was still there when Sheriff David Mountebank walked in, Martha at his heels offering him food and coffee. He took one look at Sally’s pancakes and Quinlan’s English muffin with strawberry jam and said yes to everything.

  They made room for him. He looked at them closely, not saying anything, just looking from one to the other. Finally he said, “You’re a fast worker, Mr. Quinlan.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “You and Ms. Brandon are already involved? Sleeping together?”

  “It’s a long story, Sheriff,” Quinlan said, then laughed, hoping it would make Sally realize how silly it was.

  “I think you’re a damned pig, Sheriff,” Sally said pleasantly. “I hope the pancakes give you stomach cramps.”

  “All right, so I’m a jerk. But what the hell are you doing here? Amabel Perdy called my office real early and told me you’d disappeared. She was frantic. Incidentally, your hair sure grew back fast.”

  No black wig. Face him down, she thought, just face him down. She said, “I was going to call her after breakfast. It’s only seven in the morning. I didn’t want to wake her. Actually, I’m surprised Martha didn’t call her to tell her I was here.”

  “Martha must have assumed that Amabel already knew where you were. Now what’s going on here?”

  “What did her aunt tell you, Sheriff?”

  David Mountebank recognized technique when he saw it. He didn’t like to have it used on him, but for the moment, he knew he should play along. For a simple PI this man was very good.

  “She just said you’d gotten an obscene phone call last night and panicked. She thought you must have run away. She was worried because you don’t have a car or any money.”

  “That’s right, Sheriff. I’m sorry she worried you all for nothing.”

  Quinlan said, “I rescued the damsel, Sheriff, and let her sleep—alone—in my bed. She liked the tower room. She ignored me. Have you found out anything about the murdered woman?”

  “Yes, her name was Laura Strather. She lived in the subdivision with her husband and three kids. They thought she was visiting her sister up in Portland. That’s why no missing person report was filed on her. The question is, Why was she being held a prisoner over here in The Cove and who the hell killed her?”

  “Have your people checked all the houses across from Amabel Perdy’s cottage?”

  The sheriff nodded. “Depressing, Quinlan, depressing. No one knows a thing. No one heard a thing—not a TV, not a telephone, not a car backfiring, not a woman screaming. Not on either night. Not a bloody thing.” He looked over at Sally, but couldn’t speak until Martha delivered his pancakes.

  She looked at each of them, then smiled and said, “I’ll never forget my mama showing me an article in The Oregonian written by this man called Qumquat Jagger way back in the early fifties. ‘The Cove sunsets are a dramatic sight as long as one has a martini in the right hand.’ I’ve long agreed with him on that.” She added easily, “It’s too early for a martini or a sunset—how about a Bloody Mary? All of you look on edge.”

  “I’d love one,” Sheriff Mountebank said, “but I can’t.” Quinlan and Sally shook their heads. “Thank you, though, Martha,” Quinlan said.

  She checked to see that they had everything they could possibly want, then left the dining room.

  After David Mountebank had eaten half the pancakes, he looked at Sally again and said, “If you had called me about hearing that woman screaming, I’m not certain I would have believed you. I would have searched, naturally, but I’d probably have thought you’d had a nightmare. But then you and Quinlan found a woman’s body. Was she the woman you heard screaming? Probably so. You were telling the truth then, and all the old folk in this town are deaf. Either of you have any ideas?”

  “I didn’t even think about calling a sheriff,” Sally said. “But I probably wouldn’t have. My aunt wouldn’t have wanted that.”

  “No, probably not. The folk in The Cove like to keep things to themselves.” The sheriff grinned at her then. “I don’t know if you’re my best witness in any case, Ms. Brandon, since I find you’ve slept in Quinlan’s tower room. And you lied to me about your hair.”

  “I have several wigs, Sheriff. I like wigs. I thought you were impertinent to ask me, so I said I had cancer to guilt you.”

  David Mountebank sighed. Why did everybody have to lie? It was exhausting. He looked at her again. This time he frowned. “You look familiar,” he said slowly.

  “James tells me I look like his former sister-in-law. Amabel thinks I look like Mary Lou Retton, although I’m nearly a foot taller. My mom said I was the image of her Venezuelan nanny. Don’t tell me, Sheriff, that I remind you of your Pekinese.”

  “No, Ms. Brandon, be thankful you don’t look like my dog. His name is Hugo and he’s a Rottweiler.”

  Sally waited, trying not to clench her hands, trying to look amused, trying to look like she was all together and not ready to fall apart if he poked his finger at her and said he was taking her in. She watched his frown smooth away as he turned to James.

  “I checked the files from the previous sheriff. Her name was Dorothy Willis, and she was very good. Her notes on those missing old folks were very thorough. I made copies and brought them to you.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a thick envelope.

  “Thank you, Sheriff,” Quinlan said, not knowing for several moments who the hell David Mountebank was talking about. Then he remembered Harve and Marge Jensen.

  “I read over them last night. Everybody believed there was foul play, what with their Winnebago being found in a used car lot in Spokane. It’s just that nobody knew anything. She wrote that she spoke to nearly everybody in The Cove but came up with nothing. Nobody knew a thing. Nobody remembered the Jensens. She even sent off the particulars to the FBI just in case something like this had happened elsewhere in the country. That’s it, Quinlan. Sorry, but there’s no more. No leads of any kind.” He ate another helping of pancakes, drank his black coffee down, then shoved back his chair. “Well, you’re all right, Ms. Brandon, so at least I don’t have to worry about you. It’s strange, you know? Nobody else heard that woman scream. Real strange.”

  He shook his head and walked out of the dining room, saying over his shoulder, “You look best with your own hair, Ms. Brandon. Lose the wigs. Trust me. My wife says I’ve got real good taste.”

  “Sheriff, what happened to Dorothy Willis?”

  David Mountebank stopped then. “A bad thing, a very bad thing. She was shot by a teenage boy who was robbing a local 7-Eleven. She died.”

  When Thelma Nettro made her appearance some ten minutes later, looking for all the world like a relic from Victorian days, her teeth in her mouth, white lace at her parchment throat, the first words out of her mouth were, “Well, girl, is James here a decent lover?”

  “I don’t know, ma’am. He wouldn’t even kiss me. He said he was too tired. He even hinted at a headache. What could I do?”

  Old Thelma threw her head back, and that scrawny neck of hers worked ferociously to bring out fat, full laughs. “Here I thought you were a wimp, Sally. That’s good. Now, what’s this Martha tells me about how a woman who was really your dead daddy called you at Amabel’s last night?”

  “There was no woman when I got on the line.”

  “This is very strange, Sally. Why would anyone do this? Now, if it had been James on the phone, well, that would have been another matter. But if he gets all that tired, well, then maybe you’d just best forget him.”

  “How many husbands did you have, Thelma?” Quinlan asked, knowing that Sally was reeling, giving her time to get herself together.

  “Just Bobby, James. Did I tell you Bobby invented a new improved gyropilot? Yes, well, that’s why I’ve got more money than any of the other poor sods in this place. All because of B
obby’s invention.”

  “It looks to me like everyone has money,” Sally said. “The town is charming. Everything looks new, planned, like everyone put money in a pot and decided together what they wanted to do with it.”

  “It was something like that,” Thelma said. “It’s all barren by the cliffs now. I remember back in the fifties there were still some pines and firs, even a few poplars close to the cliffs, all bowed down, of course, from the violent storms. They’re all gone now, like there’d never been anything there at all. At least we’ve managed to save a few here in town.”

  She then turned in her chair and yelled, “Martha, where’s my peppermint tea? You back there with young Ed? Leave him alone and bring me my breakfast!”

  James waited two beats, then said easily, “I sure wish you’d tell me about Harve and Marge Jensen, Thelma. It was only three years ago, and you’ve got the sharpest mind in town. Hey, maybe there was something interesting about them and you wrote about it in your diary. Do you think so?”

  “That’s true enough, boy. I’m sure smarter than poor Martha, who doesn’t know her elbow from the teakettle. And she just never leaves those pearls of hers alone. I’ve replaced them at least three times now. I even let her think for a while that I was the one who called Sally. I like to tease her, it makes life a bit more lively when she’s twisting around like a sheet in a stiff wind. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember any Harve or Marge.”

  “You know,” Sally said, “that phone call could have been local. The voice was so clear.”

  “You think maybe I called you, girl, then pretended to be your daddy? I like it, but there’s no way I could have gotten a tape of your daddy’s voice. Who cares, anyway?”

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