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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.”
“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.”