The Cove
Page 21

 Catherine Coulter

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“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 the 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.”