The cove, p.9
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       The Cove, p.9
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         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter

  “So you admit you know who I am?”

  “Sure I do. It took you long enough to catch on. No need to worry, Sally, I won’t tell a soul. No telling what some of these young nitwits around town would do if they found out you were that murdered big-shot lawyer’s daughter. No, I won’t tell anybody, not even Martha.”

  Martha brought in the peppermint tea and a plate filled with fat browned sausages, at least half a dozen of them. They were rolling on the plate in puddles of grease. Sally and Quinlan both stared at that plate.

  Thelma cackled. “I want the highest cholesterol in history when I croak. I made Doc Spiver promise that when I finally shuck off this mortal snakeskin, he’ll check. I want to be in the book of records.”

  “You must be well on your way,” Quinlan said.

  “I don’t think so,” Martha said, hovering by Thelma’s left hand. “She’s been eating this for years now. Sherry Vorhees says she’ll outlive us all. She says her husband, Reverend Hal, doesn’t have a chance against Thelma. He’s already wheezing around and he’s only sixty-eight, and he isn’t fat. Strange, isn’t it? Thelma wonders who’s going to do her service if Reverend Hal isn’t around.”

  “What does Sherry know?” Thelma demanded, talking while she chewed on one of those fat sausages. “I think she’d be happier if Reverend Hal would pass on to his just reward, although I don’t know how just he’d find it. He might find himself plunked down in hell and wonder how it could happen to him since he’s so holy. He’s reasonable most of the time, is Hal. It’s just when he’s near a woman alone that he goes off the deep end and starts mumbling about sin and hell and temptations of the flesh. It appears he believes sex is a sin and rarely touches his wife. No wonder they don’t have any kids. Not a one, ever. Fancy that. It’s hard to believe, since he is a man, after all. But still, all poor Sherry does is drink her iced tea, fiddle with her chignon, and sell ice cream.”

  “What’s wrong with that?” Sally asked, thinking that the Mad Hatter’s tea party couldn’t have been weirder than Thelma Nettro at breakfast. “If she were unhappy, wouldn’t she just leave?” Yeah, like you did, but just not in time. Some of the grease around the sausages was beginning to congeal.

  “Her iced tea is that cheap white wine. I don’t know how her liver is still holding up after all these years.”

  Sally swallowed, looking away from those sausages. “Amabel told me that when you first opened the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop, you stored the ice cream in Ralph Keaton’s caskets.”

  “That’s right. It was Helen’s idea. She’s Ralph’s wife and the one who had the recipe. It was her idea that we start the ice cream shop. She used to be a shy little thing, looked scared whenever she had to say anything. If Ralph said boo she’d fade behind a piece of furniture. She’s changed now, speaks right up, tells Ralph to put a sock in it whenever she doesn’t like something he does. All because of that recipe. She’s really blossomed with her ice cream success.

  “Poor old Ralph. He needs business, but none of us will die for him. I think he’s hoping the husband of that dead woman will ask him to lay her out.”

  Sally couldn’t stand it anymore. She rose, tried to smile, and said, “Thank you for breakfast, Thelma. I’ve got to go home now. Amabel must be worried about me.”

  “Martha called her and told her you were here with James. She didn’t have a word to say to that.”

  “I’ll thank Martha,” Sally said politely. She waited for James to join her. It was raining outside, a dark, miserably gray day.

  “Well, damn,” James said. He walked back into the foyer and fetched an umbrella from the stand. He said as they walked down the street, “I’ll bet you the old men are playing cards in Purn Davies’s store. I can’t imagine them missing the ritual.”

  “Sheriff Mountebank will realize who I am, James. It’s just a matter of time.”

  “I don’t think so. He probably saw your picture on TV, but that would have been last week at the latest. He won’t make the connection.”

  “I’m sure the authorities would have sent photos out to everyone.”

  “This is a backwater, Sally. It costs too much to fax photos to every police and sheriff office in the country. Don’t worry about it. The sheriff doesn’t have a clue. The way you answered him polished it off.”

  His eyes were as gray as the rain that was pouring down. He wasn’t looking at her, but straight ahead, his hand cupping her elbow. “Watch the puddle.”

  She took a quick step sideways. “The town doesn’t look quite so charming in this rain, does it? Main Street looks like an old abandoned Hollywood set, all gray and forlorn, like no one’s lived here forever.”

  “Don’t worry, Sally.”

  “Maybe you’re right. Are you married, James?”

  “No. Watch your step here.”

  “Okay. Have you ever been married?”

  “Once. It didn’t work out.”

  “I wonder if any marriages ever work out.”

  “You an expert?”

  She was surprised at the sarcasm but nodded, saying, “A bit. My parents didn’t do well. Actually . . . no, never mind that. I didn’t do well, either. That’s just about one hundred percent of my world, and it’s all bad.”

  They were walking past Purn Davies’s general store. Quinlan grinned and took her hand. “Let’s go see what the old guys are up to. I’d like to ask them firsthand if it’s true that nobody heard anything the night that poor woman was murdered.”

  Purn Davies, Hunker Dawson, Gus Eisner, and Ralph Keaton were seated around the barrel, a game of gin rummy under way. There was a fire in a wood-burning stove that looked to be more for show than for utility, a handsome antique piece. A bell over the door rang when Quinlan and Sally came through.

  “Wet out there,” Quinlan said, shaking the umbrella. “How you all doing?”

  There were two grunts, one okay, and Purn Davies actually folded his cards facedown and got up to greet them. “What can I do for you folks?”

  “You meet Amabel Perdy’s niece, Sally St. John?”

  “Yep, but it weren’t much of a meeting. How you doin’, Miz Sally? Amabel all right?”

  She nodded. She just hoped she could keep her fake names straight. Brandon for Sheriff Mountebank and St. John for everyone else.

  There was more than polite interest in his question about Amabel, and it made Sally smile. “Amabel’s just fine, Mr. Davies. We didn’t have any leaks during the storm. The new roof’s holding up really well.”

  Hunker Dawson, who was sitting there pulling on his suspenders, said, “You had us all out looking for that poor woman who went and fell off that cliff. It was cold and windy that night. None of us liked going out. There weren’t nothing to find anyway.”

  9

  SALLY’S CHIN WENT up. “Yes, sir. I heard her scream and of course I would alert you. I’m just sorry you didn’t find her before she was murdered.”

  “Murdered?” The front legs of Ralph Keaton’s chair hit hard against the pine floor. “What the dickens do you mean, murdered? Doc said she must have fallen, said it was a tragic accident.”

  Quinlan said mildly, “The medical examiner said she’d been strangled. Evidently whoever killed her didn’t count on her body washing back up to land. More than that, whoever killed her didn’t even consider that if she did wash up there would be anyone around down there to find her. The walk down that path is rather perilous.”

  “You saying that we’re too rickety to walk down that path, Mr. Quinlan?”

  “Well, it’s a possibility, isn’t it? You’re certain none of you heard her scream during the night? Cry out? Call for help? Anything that wasn’t just a regular night sound?”

  “It was around two o’clock in the morning,” Sally said.

  “Look, Miz Sally,” Ralph Keaton said, rising now, “we all know you’re all upset about leaving your husband, but that don’t matter. We all know you came here to rest, to get your bearings again. But you know, that
kind of thing can have some pretty big effects on a young lady like yourself, like screwing up how you see things, how you hear things.”

  “I didn’t imagine it, Mr. Keaton. I would think that I had if Mr. Quinlan and I hadn’t found the woman’s body the very next day.”

  “There is that,” Purn Davies said. “Could be a coincidence. You havin’ a dream because of you leaving your husband—that’s what Amabel told us—or hearing the wind howling, and the woman jumping off that cliff. Yeah, all a coincidence.”

  Quinlan knew there was nothing more to be gained. They’d all dug in their heels. Both he and Sally were outsiders. They weren’t welcome, just tolerated, barely. He thought it was interesting that Amabel Perdy seemed to have enough control over the townspeople so none of them had revealed to the cops that Sally was here, no matter how much she was obviously upsetting them. He prayed that Amabel’s hold on them would last. Maybe he should tone things down, just to be on the safe side. “Mr. Davies is right, Sally,” Quinlan said easily. “Who knows? We sure don’t. But, you know, I just wish you’d remember something about Harve and Marge Jensen.”

  Hunker Dawson turned so fast he fell off his chair. There was pandemonium for a minute. Quinlan was beside him in an instant, making sure that he hadn’t hurt himself. “I’m a clumsy old geek,” Hunker said, as Quinlan carefully helped him to his feet.

  “What the hell happened to you?” Ralph Keaton shouted at him, all red in the face.

  “I’m a clumsy old geek,” Hunker said again. “I wish Arlene were still alive. She’d massage me and make me some chicken soup. My shoulder hurts.”

  Quinlan patted his arm. “Sally and I will drop by Doc Spiver’s house and tell him to come over here, all right? Take two aspirin. He shouldn’t be long.”

  “Naw, don’t do that,” Ralph Keaton said. “No problem. Hunker here is just whining.”

  “It’s no problem,” Sally said. “We were going to walk by his house anyway.”

  “Well, all right, then,” Hunker said and let his friends lower him back into his chair. He was rubbing his shoulder.

  “Yes, we’ll get Doc Spiver,” Quinlan said. He shook open the umbrella and escorted Sally out of the general store. He paused when he heard the old men talking quietly. He heard Purn Davies say, “Why the hell shouldn’t they go to Doc’s house? You got a problem with that, Ralph? Hunker doesn’t, and he’s right. Listen to me, it don’t matter.”

  “Yeah,” Gus Eisner said. “I don’t think Hunker could make it over there, now could he?”

  “Probably wouldn’t be smart,” Purn Davies said slowly. “No, let Quinlan and Sally go. Yeah, that’s best.”

  The rain had become a miserable drizzle, chilling them to the bone. He said, “None of them is a very good liar. I wonder what all that talk of theirs meant?”

  All that he was implying blossomed in her mind, and she felt more than the chill, damp air engulfing her. “I can’t believe what you’re suggesting, James.”

  He shrugged. “I guess I shouldn’t have said anything. Just forget it, Sally.”

  She couldn’t, of course. “They’re old. If they do remember the Jensens, it’s just that they’re afraid to admit it. As for the other, it was harmless.”

  “Could be,” James said.

  They walked in silence to Doc Spiver’s house, and Quinlan knocked on the freshly painted white door. Even in the dull morning light, the house looked well cared for. Just like all the other houses in this bloody little town.

  No answer.

  Quinlan knocked again, calling out, “Doc Spiver? It’s Quinlan. It’s about Hunker Dawson. He fell and hurt his shoulder.”

  No answer.

  Sally felt something hard and dark creep over her. “He must be out with someone else,” she said, but she was shivering.

  Quinlan turned the doorknob. To his surprise it wasn’t locked. “Let’s see,” he said and pushed the door open. The house was warm, the furnace going full blast.

  There were no lights on, and there should have been, what with all the dull gray outside. It was just as gray inside the house, the corners just as shadowy, as it was outdoors.

  “Doc Spiver?”

  Suddenly James turned, took her by the shoulders, and said, “I want you to stay here in the hallway, Sally. Don’t budge.”

  She just smiled up at him. “I’ll look in the living room and dining room. Why don’t you check upstairs? He’s just not here, James.”

  “Probably not.” He turned and headed up the stairs. Sally felt the impact of the heat. It was hotter now, almost burning, making her mouth dry. She quickly switched on the hallway light. Odd, but it didn’t help. It was still too dark in here. Everything was so still, so motionless. There didn’t seem to be any air. She tried to draw in a deep breath but couldn’t. She looked at the arch that led into the living room.

  Suddenly she didn’t want to go in there. But she forced herself to take one step at a time. She wished James were right beside her, talking to her, dispelling the horrible stillness. For God’s sake, the old man just wasn’t here, that was all.

  She tried to take another deep breath. She took another step. She stood in the open archway. The living room was just as dim and gray as the hallway. She quickly switched on the overhead lights. She saw the rich Bokhara carpet, the Tiffany lamp that Doc Spiver had knocked over because he hadn’t seen it. It wasn’t broken or cracked, as far as she could tell. She took a step into the living room.

  “Doc Spiver? Are you here?”

  There was no answer.

  She looked around, not wanting to go further, to take one more step into that room. She saw a blur, something moving quickly. She heard a loud thump on the hardwood floor, then the raucous sound of a rocking chair. There was a loud, indignant meow, and a huge gray cat leaped off the back of the sofa to land at her feet. Sally shrieked. Then she laughed, a horrible laugh that made her sound crazy. “Good kitty,” she said, her voice so thin she was surprised she could breathe. The cat skittered away.

  She heard the rocking chair moving, back and forth, back and forth, creaking softly now. She stifled the scream in her throat. The cat had hit the rocking chair and made it move, nothing more. She drew a deep breath and walked quickly to the far side of the living room. The rocker was moving slowly, as if someone were putting pressure on it, somehow making it move. She walked around to the front of the chair.

  The air was as still and dead as the old man slumped low in the old bentwood rocker, one arm hanging to the floor, his head bowed to his chest. His fingernails scraped gently against the hardwood floor. The sound was like a gun blast. She stifled a scream behind the fist pressed against her mouth. Then she took several fast breaths. She stared in fascination at the drops of blood that dripped slowly, inexorably, off the end of his middle finger. She turned on her heel and ran back into the hallway.

  She yelled, her voice hoarse with terror and the urge to vomit, “James! Doc Spiver is here! James!”

  “One wonders—if you weren’t here, Ms. Brandon, would there have been two deaths?”

  Sally sat on the edge of Amabel’s sofa, her hands clasped in her lap, rocking gently back and forth, just like old Doc Spiver had in that rocking chair. James was sitting on the arm of the sofa, as still as a man waiting in the shadows for his prey to pass by. Now where, David Mountebank wondered, had that thought come from? James Quinlan was a professional, he knew that for sure now, knew it from the way Quinlan had handled the scene at Doc Spiver’s house more professionally than David would have, the way he had kept calm, detached. All of it screamed training that had been extensive, had been received by someone who already had all the necessary skills—and that easy, calm temperament.

  Quinlan was worried about Sally Brandon, David could see that, but there was something else, something more that was hidden, and David hated that, hated the not knowing.

  “Don’t you agree, Ms. Brandon?” he asked again, pressing now, gently, because he didn’t want her to collapse. She wa
s too pale, too drawn, but he had to find out what the devil was going on here.

  She said finally, with great simplicity, “Yes.”

  “All right.” He turned to Quinlan and gave him a slow smile. “Actually, you and Sally arrived at nearly the same time. That’s rather an odd coincidence, isn’t it?”

  He was too close, James thought, but he knew David Mountebank couldn’t possibly know anything. All he could do was guess.

  “Yes,” he said. “It’s also one that I would have willingly forgone. Amabel should be back soon. Sally, would you like some tea?”

  “His fingernails scraped against the hardwood floor. It scared me silly.”

  “It would scare me silly, too,” David said. “So, both of you were there just because Hunker Dawson fell off his chair and hurt his shoulder.”

  “Yes,” James said. “That’s it. Nothing sinister, just being good neighbors. Nothing more except what a couple of the old men said when we were leaving. Something about it didn’t matter. That Hunker shouldn’t go. To let us go, that it was time.”

  “You aren’t saying that they knew he was dead and wanted you and Sally to be the ones to find him?”

  “I have no idea. It doesn’t make any sense, really. I just thought I’d pour out everything.”

  “Do you think he killed himself?”

  Quinlan said, “If you look at the angle of the shot, at how the gun fell, at how his body crumpled in, I think it could go either way. Your medical examiner will find out, don’t you think?”

  “Ponser is good, but he isn’t that good. He didn’t have the greatest training. I’ll let him have a go at it, and if it turns out equivocal, then I’ll call Portland.”

  Sally looked up then. “You really think he could have killed himself, James?”

  He nodded. He wanted to say more, but he knew he couldn’t, even if the sheriff weren’t here. He had to rein in all the words that wanted to speak themselves to her. It was too much.

  “Why would he do that?”

  Quinlan shrugged. “Perhaps he had a terminal illness, Sally. Perhaps he was in great pain.”

 
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