The cove, p.3
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       The Cove, p.3
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         Part #1 of FBI Thriller series by Catherine Coulter
The sidewalks looked brand-new and the road was nicely blacktopped. No ruts anywhere to hold rain puddles.

  All the parking spots were marked with thick white lines. Not a faded line in the bunch. He’d seen newer houses on the drive in, apparently all built very recently. In town there was a hardware store, a small Safeway barely large enough to support the sign, a dry cleaners, a one-hour-photo place, a McDonald’s with a very discreet golden arch.

  A prosperous, quaint little town that was perfect.

  He slipped his keys into his jacket pocket. First thing he needed was a place to stay. He spotted a sign reading THELMA’S BED AND BREAKFAST right across the street. Nothing fancy about that sign or title. He pulled his black travel bag out of the back seat and walked over to Thelma’s big white Victorian gingerbread house with its deep porch that encircled the entire house. He hoped he could get a room up in one of those circular towers.

  For an old house, it was in immaculate shape. The white of the clapboard gleamed, and the pale blue and yellow trim around the windows and on cornices seemed to be fresh. The wide wooden porch planks didn’t groan beneath his weight. The boards were new, the railing solid oak and sturdy.

  He announced himself as James Quinlan to a smiling lady in her late fifties whom he found standing behind the antique walnut counter in the front hall. She was wearing an apron that had lots of flour on it. He explained he was looking for a room, preferably one in the tower. At the sound of an ancient cackle, he turned and saw a robust old lady rocking back and forth in an antique chair in the doorway of the huge living room. She was holding what appeared to be a diary in front of her nose with one hand, and in the other she held a fountain pen. Every few seconds she wet the tip of the fountain pen with her tongue, a habit that left her with a big black circle on the tip of her tongue.

  “Ma’am,” he said, and nodded toward the old lady. “I sure hope that ink isn’t poisonous.”

  “It wouldn’t kill her even if it was,” the lady behind the counter said. “She’s surely built up an immunity by now. Thelma’s been at that diary of hers with that black ink on her tongue ever since she and her husband first moved to The Cove back in the 1940’s.”

  The old lady cackled again, then called out, “I’m Thelma Nettro. You don’t have a wife, boy?”

  “That’s a bold question, ma’am, even for an old lady.”

  Thelma ignored him. “So what are you doing in The Cove? You come here for the World’s Greatest Ice Cream?”

  “I saw that sign. I’ll be sure to try it later.”

  “Have the peach. Helen just made it up last week. It’s dandy. So if you aren’t here for ice cream, then why are you here?”

  Here goes, he thought. “I’m a private detective, ma’am. My client’s parents disappeared around this area some three and a half years ago. The cops never got anywhere. The son hired me to find out what happened to them.”

  “Old folk?”

  “Yeah, they’d been driving all over the U.S. in a Winnebago. The Winnebago was found in a used car lot up in Spokane. Looked to be foul play, but nobody could ever find anything out.”

  “So why are you here in The Cove? Nothing ever happens here, nothing at all. I remember telling my husband, Bobby—he died of pneumonia just after Eisenhower was reelected in 1956—that this little town had never known a heyday, but it just kept going anyhow. Do you know what happened then? Well, I’ll tell you. This banker from Portland bought up lots of coastal land and built vacation cottages. He built the two-laner off Highway 101 and ran it right to the ocean.” Thelma stopped, licked the end of her fountain pen, and sighed. “Then in the 1960’s, everything began to fall apart, everyone just upped and left, got bored with our town, I suppose. So, you see, it doesn’t make any sense for you to stay here.”

  “I’m using your town as a sort of central point. I’ll search out from here. Perhaps you remember these old folk coming through, ma’am—”

  “My name’s Thelma, I told you that. There’s lots of ma’ams in this world, but just one me, and I’m Thelma Nettro. Doc Spiver pronounced me deader than a bat some years ago, but he was wrong. Oh, Lordy, you should have seen the look on Ralph Keaton’s face when he had me all ready to lay out in that funeral home of his. I near to scared the toenails off him when I sat up and asked him what the hell he was doing. Ah, yes, that was something. He was so scared he went shouting for Reverend Hal Vorhees to protect him. You can call me Thelma, boy.”

  “Maybe you remember these old folk, Thelma. The man was Harve Jensen, and his wife’s name was Marge. A nice older couple, according to their son. The son did say they had a real fondness for ice cream.” Why not, he thought. Stir the pot a bit. Be specific, it made you more believable. Besides, everyone liked ice cream. He’d have to try it.

  “Harve and Marge Jensen,” Thelma repeated, rocking harder now, her veined and spotted old hands clenching and unclenching on the arms of the chair. “Can’t say I remember any old folk like that. Driving a Winnebago, you say? You go over and try one of Helen’s peach ice cream cones.”

  “Soon I will. I like the sign out there at the junction of 101 and 101A. The artist really got that brown color to look just like rich chocolate ice cream. Yeah, they were driving a Winnebago.”

  “It’s brought us lots of folk, that sign. The state bureaucrats wanted us to take it down, but one of our locals—Gus Eisner—knew the governor’s cousin, and he fixed it. We pay the state three hundred dollars a year to keep the sign there. Amabel repaints it every year in July, sort of an anniversary, since that’s when we first opened. Purn Davies told her the chocolate paint she used for the ice cream was too dark, but we all ignored him. He wanted to marry Amabel after her husband died, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He still isn’t over it. Pretty tacky, huh?”

  “I’d say so,” Quinlan said.

  “You tell Amabel that you think her chocolate is perfect. That’ll please her.”

  Amabel, he thought. Amabel Perdy. She was her aunt.

  The stocky gray-haired woman behind the counter cleared her throat. She smiled at him when he turned back to her.

  “What did you say, Martha? Speak up. You know I can’t hear you.”

  Like hell, James thought. The old relic probably heard everything within three miles of town.

  “And stop fiddling with those pearls. You’ve already broken them more times than I can count.”

  Martha’s pearls did look a bit ratty, he thought.

  “Martha, what do you want?”

  “I need to check Mr. Quinlan in, Thelma. And I’ve got to finish baking that chocolate decadence cake before I go to lunch with Mr. Drapper. But I want to get Mr. Quinlan settled first.”

  “Well, do it, don’t just stand there wringing your hands. You watch yourself with Ed Drapper, Martha. He’s a fast one, that boy is. I noticed just yesterday that you’re getting liver spots, Martha. I heard you got liver spots if you’d had too much sex when you were younger. Yes, you watch what you do with Ed Drapper. Oh, yes, don’t forget to put walnuts in that chocolate decadence cake. I love walnuts.”

  James turned to Martha, such a sweet-looking lady, with stiff gray hair and a buxom bosom and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She was tucking her hands in her pockets, hiding those liver spots.

  James laughed and said, knowing the old lady was listening, “She’s a terror, isn’t she?”

  “She’s more than a terror, Mr. Quinlan,” Martha said in a whisper. “She’s a lot more. Poor Ed Drapper is sixty-three years old.” She raised her voice. “No, Thelma, I won’t forget the walnuts.”

  “A mere lad,” James said and smiled at Martha, who didn’t look as if she’d ever had any sex in her life. She was tugging on those pearls again.

  When she left him in the tower room, which gave him a panoramic view of the ocean, he walked to the window and stared out, not at the ocean that gleamed like a brilliant blue jewel beneath the full afternoon sun but at the people below. Across the street, right in
front of Purn Davies’s store, he saw four old geezers pull out chairs and arrange them around an oak barrel that had to be as old as James’s grandfather. One of the men pulled out a deck of cards. James had a feeling he was looking at a long-standing ritual. One of the men arranged his cards, then spat off the sidewalk. Another one hooked his gnarly old fingers beneath his suspenders and leaned back in the chair. Yes, James thought, a ritual of many years. He wondered if one of them was Purn Davies, the one who’d criticized Amabel’s chocolate because she’d refused to marry him. Was one of them Reverend Hal Vorhees? No, surely a reverend wouldn’t be sitting there spitting and playing cards.

  It didn’t matter. He’d find out soon enough who everybody was. So there’d be no doubt in anybody’s mind about why he was here, he would talk to this group too about Harve and Marge Jensen. He’d talk to everyone he ran into. No one would suspect a thing.

  He would bet his next paycheck that those old geezers saw just about everything that went on in this town, including a runaway woman who just happened to be the daughter of a big-time lawyer who had not only gotten himself murdered but who’d also been involved in some very bad business. A woman who also happened to be Amabel Perdy’s niece.

  James wished Amory St. John hadn’t gotten himself knocked off, at least not until the FBI had finally nailed him for selling arms to terrorist nations.

  He turned from the window and frowned. He realized he hadn’t cared at all about Harve and Marge Jensen until ancient Thelma Nettro, who’d been pronounced dead by Doc Spiver but had risen from the table and scared Ralph Keaton shitless, had lied to him.

  Investigating the fate of the Jensens had just been a cover that one of the assistants happened to find for him to use. It was a believable cover, she’d told him, because the couple really had mysteriously disappeared along a stretch of highway that included The Cove.

  But why had the old lady lied? What reason could she possibly have? Now he was curious. Too bad he didn’t have time. He thrived on mystery. And he was the best of the best, at least that was what Teresa had told him in bed time and again before she’d run away with a mail bomber he himself had hunted down and arrested, only to have her defend him and get him off on a technicality.

  He hung up his slacks and his shirts, laid his underwear in the top drawer of the beautiful antique dresser. He walked into the bathroom to lay out his toiletries and was pleasantly surprised. It was huge, all pink-veined marble, and totally modernized, right down to the water-saver toilet. The tub was huge and was curtained off so he could take a shower if he preferred.

  Old Thelma Nettro was obviously a hedonist. No claw-footed tubs for her. He wondered how the devil she could make enough money off this place to modernize the bathrooms like this. As far as he could tell, he was the only guest.

  There was one restaurant in The Cove, a pretentious little cafe called the Hinterlands that had beautiful red and white tulips in its window boxes. Unlike the rest of the buildings that lined Main Street, the Hinterlands forked off to one side, faced the ocean, and looked painfully charming with its bricked walkway and gables, which, he was certain, had been added merely for decoration.

  They served cod and bass. Nothing else, just cod and bass—fried, baked, poached, broiled. James hated all kinds of fish. He ate everything the small salad bar had to offer and knew he was going to have to live at the Safeway deli. But, hell, the Safeway was so small he doubted it even had a deli.

  The waitress, an older woman decked out in a Swiss Miss outfit that laced up her chest and swept the floor, said, “Oh, it’s fish this week. Zeke can’t do more than one thing at a time. He says it confounds him. Next Monday you come in and we’ll have something else. How about some mashed potatoes with all those greens?”

  He nodded to Martha and Ed Drapper, who were evidently enjoying their fried cod, cole slaw, and mashed potatoes. She gave him a brilliant smile. He wondered if she recognized him. She wasn’t wearing her glasses. Her left hand was playing with her pearls.

  After lunch, as James walked toward the four old men playing cards around the barrel, he saw at least half a dozen cars parked out in front of the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop. Popular place. Had the place been here when Harve and Marge came through? Yeah, sure it had. That’s when old Thelma’s rheumy eyes had twitched and her old hands had clenched big time. He might as well get to know the locals before he tracked Susan St. John Brainerd down.

  He wasn’t quite certain yet just what he was going to do with her when he found her. The truth, he thought. All he wanted was the truth from her. And he’d get it. He usually did. Then maybe he’d work on the other mystery. If there was another mystery.

  Ten minutes later James walked into the World’s Greatest Ice Cream Shop thinking that those four old men weren’t any better liars than Thelma Nettro. Unlike Thelma, they hadn’t said a word, just shook their heads sorrowfully as they looked at each other. One of them had spat after he repeated Harve’s name. That one was Purn Davies. The old man leaning back in the chair had said he’d always fancied having a Winnebago. His name was Gus Eisner. Another one of the men said Gus could fix anything on wheels and kept them all running. The other old man wouldn’t meet his eyes. He couldn’t remember the names of those last two.

  It was telling, their behavior. Whatever had happened to Harve and Marge Jensen, everyone he’d met so far knew about it. He was looking forward to trying the World’s Greatest Ice Cream.

  The same older woman he’d seen upon his arrival was scooping up what looked to be peach ice cream for a family of tourists who’d probably seen that sign on the road and come west.

  The kids were jumping and yelling. The boy wanted Cove Chocolate and the girl wanted French Vanilla.

  “You’ve just got the six flavors?” the woman asked.

  “Yes, just six. We vary them according to the season. We don’t mass-produce anything.”

  The boy whined that now he wanted blueberry ice cream. The chocolate looked too dark.

  The older woman behind the counter just smiled down at him and said, “You can’t have it. Either pick another flavor or shut up.”

  The mother gasped and stared. “You can’t act like that toward our son, why he’s—”

  The older woman smiled back, straightened her lacy white cap, and said, “He’s what, ma’am?”

  “He’s a brat,” the husband said. He turned to his son. “What do you want, Mickey? You see the six flavors. Pick one now or don’t have any.”

  “I want French Vanilla,” the girl said. “He can have worms.”

  “Now, Julie,” the mother said, then licked the ice cream cone the woman handed her. “Oh, goodness, it’s wonderful. Fresh peaches, Rick. Fresh peaches. It’s great.”

  The woman behind the counter just smiled. The boy took a chocolate triple-dip cone.

  James watched the family finally leave.

  “Yes, can I help you?”

  “I’d like a peach cone, please, ma’am.”

  “You’re new to town,” she said as she pulled the scoop through the big tub of ice cream. “You just traveling through?”

  “No,” James said, taking the cone. “I’ll be here for a while. I’m trying to find Marge and Harve Jensen.”

  “Never heard of them.”

  James took a lick. He felt as though sweet peaches were sliding down his throat. The woman was a good liar. “The lady was right. This is delicious.”

  “Thank you. This Marge and Harve—”

  James repeated the story he’d told to Thelma and Martha and the old men. When he finished, he stuck out his hand and said, “My name’s James Quinlan. I’m a private investigator from Los Angeles.”

  “I’m Sherry Vorhees. My husband’s the local preacher, Reverend Harold Vorhees. I have a four-hour shift here most days.”

  “A pleasure, ma’am. Can I treat you to an ice cream?”

  “Oh, no, I have my iced tea,” she said and sipped out of a large plastic tumbler. It was very pale iced tea.
  “You know, I’d like some iced tea, if you don’t mind,” Quinlan said.

  Sherry Vorhees winked at him. “Sorry, sir, but you don’t want my kind of iced tea, and we don’t have any of the other kind.”

  “Just ice cream, then. You’ve never heard of this Marge and Harve? You don’t remember them coming through here some three years ago? In a Winnebago?”

  Sherry thought he was handsome, just like that Englishman who’d played in two James Bond films, but this man was American and he was bigger, a lot taller. She really liked that dimple in his chin. She’d always wondered how men shaved in those tiny little holes. And now this lovely man wanted to know about these two old folk. He was standing right in front of her licking his peach ice cream cone.

  “A lot of folk come to The Cove for the World’s Greatest Ice Cream,” she said, still smiling at him. “Too many to remember individuals. And three years ago . . . why, at my age I can barely remember what I cooked Hal for dinner last Tuesday.”

  “Well, you think about it, please, Mrs. Vorhees. I’m staying at Thelma’s Bed and Breakfast.” He turned as the front doorbell jingled. A middle-aged woman came in. Unlike Martha, this one was dressed like a gypsy, a red scarf tied around her head, thick wool socks and Birken-stocks on her feet. She was wearing a long skirt that looked organic and a dark-red wool jacket. Her eyes were dark and very beautiful. She had to be the youngest citizen in the town.

  “Hello, Sherry,” she said. “I’ll relieve you now.”

  “Thanks, Amabel. Oh, this is James Quinlan. Mr. Quinlan, this is Amabel Perdy. He’s a real private detective from Los Angeles, Amabel. He’s here to try to find out what happened to an old couple who might have come through The Cove to buy ice cream. What was their name? Oh, yes, Harve and Marge.”

  Amabel raised her dark gypsy eyebrows at him. She was very still, didn’t say anything, just looked at him, completely at ease.

  So this was the aunt. How fortunate that she was here and not at home, where he hoped to find Sally Brainerd. Amabel Perdy, an artist, an old hippie, a former schoolteacher. He knew she was a widow, had been married to another artist she’d met in Soho many decades ago. His art had never amounted to much. He’d died some seventeen years ago. James also knew now that she’d turned down Purn Davies. He noted she didn’t look anything like her niece.

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