It's 1972, but the Neanderthal editors of reporter Bev Wikowski's newspaper don't have a clue. They've assigned her to the Women's Pages and put her desk near the door so she can greet newsroom visitors. It's a wonder they haven't asked her to make coffee.
Then Bev meets a buddy of the infamous hijacker DB Cooper. Cooper has sent him to gather a posse to find and dig up the loot he buried in the Cascade Mountains. Would Bev like to join the group?
Suddenly, Bev's looking at the possibility of a front-page story on every newspaper in the nation—and maybe a Pulitzer Prize. A young widow whose husband died in Vietnam, she leaves her four-year-old daughter with her parents, hides her work identity, and joins the group. But it doesn't take long before an even bigger challenge demands every ounce of her strength: Survival.
|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.66(d)|
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On a drizzly November night in 1972, Bev Wikowski drove her VW Beetle onto a gravel lot, where Beer Here in frosty blue letters blinked like a beacon. Although she didn't want a beer or any other drink, she parked near the entrance and peered at the Spar Pole Saloon, so weathered it looked like it had been built shortly after Lewis and Clark paddled by on the Columbia River.
Brown planks pocked with paint blisters and spots of bare wood glistened beneath the buzzing neon sign. Rain dribbled off the roof over the entry. From nearby pulp mills, an odor like rotting asparagus climbed into her car.
She picked up her yellow notepad and squinted through four pages of notes from her interview with June Harrison, a Kelso High School basketball player who'd scored forty-three points two nights ago. After flipping to a blank page, she hung a Pentax 35mm camera on a strap around her neck and stepped out of the car into an ankle-deep puddle. Cold water sloshed over the top of her black platform shoe and drenched her sock.
"Shit!" She hopped backward.
The puddle spread in front of her like a small pond, and she giant-stepped to the far side. It was only twelve feet from her VW to the Spar Pole's boot-scuffed white door, but if it kept raining, she'd have to snorkel to get back to her car. She looked again at the notepad, already damp. Did she really need it? Would it get in the way of what she wanted to do?
She leaned forward, tossed the notepad back inside, and hid the camera under the front seat. She closed the door, almost losing her grip and falling face first into the water.
Inside the Spar Pole, a tinge of whiskey wafted through fumes of beer and cigarettes. The only man sitting at a bar that stretched left to right made no effort to assess who'd walked in as Waylon Jennings sang on the jukebox.
Opposite the bar, a thirty-something cocktail waitress with slightly Asian features and shaggy brown hair raised an eyebrow at Bev before lifting a tray of beers and walking out to the right side of the room. She stopped at a cluster of people leaning toward someone sitting in a chair with his back to the wall. Out the left side of the bar in an adjoining room, two pool tables stood, one empty and the other abandoned with eight balls remaining.
Bev tapped a finger against the side of her skirt. If she was going to finagle the quote she wanted for her story, the man at the bar was her only option. She could park next to him, bat her eyes, show a little leg. Hey, mister. You heard about what June Harrison did, right? What do you think, a girl scoring like that? Bumping and sweating and breathing hard like she was a boy?
She'd get her lascivious quote. Instead of a news article, she'd write a little commentary in her weekly column. Her readers would understand exactly what she was saying.
Or she could drop her idiotic idea and write the story straight up and it would be fine. What a girl, this June Harrison. Forty-three points in a game. Wow.
Over at the group, the waitress had squeezed next to a middle- aged man wearing a black cowboy hat with a gold band. Someone in the huddle shifted, opening a gap through which Bev could better see the speaker, a man with dark hair hanging to his shoulders and a black beard thick with corkscrew curls that obscured most of his face and drooped to his chest. He noticed her through the same gap and nodded while continuing to talk. At the same moment, Waylon's hollered lamentations ended in a fade-out, revealing the speaker's voice — low-pitched, calm, like a captain addressing his crew.
The waitress must have noticed the man's nod, because she turned from the group and locked her eyes onto Bev, and before Bev could escape, she called out to her.
"Pardon me, honey." She strode toward Bev. "I just got hooked into what that man was saying."
Bev tapped on her leg again. "Who is he?"
The waitress came closer, glanced at the man at the bar and lowered her voice. "He says he knows DB Cooper."
Bev's whole body lit up like the Beer Here neon sign — and just as quickly faded dark.
Yeah, sure. Cooper's buddy. Along with a thousand other crackpots.
"I never seen him before, but he seems to know a lot about the ..." The waitress stopped herself, pressed her lips together.
"The hijacking?" offered Bev.
"Yeah, and more than that."
Bev suppressed a guffaw. The waitress seemed so earnest, so gullible.
And yet ...
What if ...
"What're you drinking tonight?" asked the waitress.
"I'm not sure." Her right foot soaked and her sock squishy, Bev walked to the group and filled the gap close to Beard-Face. One step behind her, the waitress squeezed next to Cowboy-Man again.
Beard-Face eyed a short thin man with a cleft chin and thick eyelashes. "It's not even close to where the FBI's been looking." He exhaled smoke onto the table, where a large Forest Service map lay partially open, with a smaller topographic map next to it.
Cleft-Chin placed his index finger in the middle of a large circle drawn on the Forest Service map. "I'm not jumping out the door tomorrow morning to go bushwhacking with the likes of you after a bunch of money no one else could find. What a load of horse shit."
He put a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth and walked away.
"Suit yourself," said Beard-Face. "I can't take all of you with me anyway. All I need is a half dozen volunteers."
Bev shifted to the spot left by the vacating man. "For what?" she asked.
The others diverted attention her way, annoyance in their eyes.
Beard-Face stood, set his cigarette on an ashtray, and offered a hand. His eyes suggested the goodwill of a man comfortable in his ability to whup anyone's ass. He had crow's feet off the sides of his eyes and puffy skin below them, and the wrinkles across his forehead suggested a forty-year-old accountant more than a flower child. Bev shook his hand.
"Name's Andy O'Brien," he said. "I'm here on behalf of the man people call DB Cooper. I know him, and I know approximately where he hid the money, because he told me."
The neon sign flashed again. That would be a hell of a story. Front page. Not just her newspaper, the Portland Morning Chronicle, but The New York Times.
On the other hand ... this guy was probably a nut job.
"You're saying the money's still out there?" She tried to keep the cynicism from her voice.
"The army, the cops, the FBI, and everybody's uncle combed the woods, and none of them found a trace."
"That's because they were looking in the wrong places. Cooper — we might as well call him that — had quite a few chuckles hearing where they put all their manpower. I had no clue, because I didn't know he was him, not until a week ago. He fooled them in every way. Fooled me, too."
"Why doesn't he just go get it himself?" Bev asked.
"We already asked that." A man with crewcut blond hair spat tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup. Garbed in blue jeans with red suspenders over a long-sleeved blue shirt, he looked far too young to be in a bar. "He said DB figures he'd get busted. But the feds won't bother with a bunch of loonies pokin' around."
O'Brien sat down and continued relating what he claimed DB Cooper had told him.
"It was dark and it was raining when he hit the ground. Everyone knows that. He built a small fire and waited out the night. It was cold, but nothing like what he and I endured in Korea. He wasn't sure exactly where he was, just that it was in the mountains south of where they'd think he landed, and he was damn lucky he didn't have to cut himself loose from the top of a tree.
"In the morning he walked south. When he hit a logging road, he followed it to a bigger dirt road that eventually connected to another road pointing south. He spent another night in the woods, and the next day he hit a gravel road, and a Forest Service sign told him where he was."
"He must have been hungry," said Bev.
"He had C-rats," said Under-Ager impatiently, his eyes still fixed on Andy.
"Tanya," a male voice called from behind them. The waitress stepped back, picked up her tray, and moved toward the bar.
"What, he just stuffed them in his pockets?" asked Bev.
Under-Ager rolled his eyes. "He had a knapsack."
"A knapsack?" Bev didn't remember reading anything about DB Cooper having a knapsack. The reports — the whole nation had been fascinated — depicted him having a briefcase with a bomb that was probably fake. Dressed in a white shirt and a black clip-on tie, he was polite, paying for his bourbon and water and offering a tip. They landed in Seattle and after several hours, the airline's owner personally delivered a duffel bag containing $200,000 in a hundred bundles of twenty-dollar bills. They gave him a choice of parachutes.
"Let me go backwards for a second." O'Brien took a drag from the half-smoked cigarette. "Cooper had a knapsack. It was in an overhead bin several rows in front of him."
"And I suppose he told you that, too?" Bev pressed her lips together to rein what would have been a mocking grin.
"He did," said O'Brien, his voice unruffled.
Under-Ager spun toward her so fast she thought the spittle might slosh from his cup. "Ma'am, some of us want to hear the story. You don't want to listen, you go back to wherever you come from."
She met his glare with an impassive face. At least she didn't need a fake ID to get inside. At least she knew how to ask questions, instead of swallowing whatever load of crap some too-old hippy decided to blather.
O'Brien's beard widened with a half smile, and his eyes gleamed.
What if he were right, and he knew how to find the money, and she wasn't there when she could have been?
She reached into her jacket pocket and retrieved a cigarette from her pack of Salem 100s.
"Once he knew where he was," O'Brien resumed, "he backtracked the dirt road what he guessed to be about three miles. He came to a smaller road that cut into the woods, overgrown, like a logging road that hadn't been used in years. He cut a certain mark on a tree, and he took the road and walked a while, switchbacking up a mountain. When he came to a creek that crossed under the road, he marked a tree, and then he went off the road, going uphill and marking trees along the way. He found a spot he liked, marked three trees to form a triangle, and he used a folding spade to bury almost all the money. Buried the clothes he wore on the plane, too."
"Most all the money?" asked the man in the black cowboy hat.
Behind them, on the other side of the saloon, a thwack indicated that the rack of balls on the second pool table was now broken.
"Later that winter, he buried a couple of bundles in a place where he figured someone would find them. I have no idea where that was. Fact is, he never told me anything 'til last week, and I was just like you, miss" — he nodded toward Bev — "thinking he was bullshitting me. By the way, you want a beer or whatever, just let Tanya know. Everything's on my tab."
"Well, hell," said Under-Ager. "If it's all marked and you know which road, you could find it yourself."
"That's what he thought, and that's what I meant to do yesterday. But I ran into some difficulty. First off, the bigger logging road ended up very, very rocky. It reached the point where I had to get out and walk. The mark's not easy to find, and there are several logging roads with green gates. Once I found the right one, I didn't get more than a quarter mile up it, and guess what I ran into?"
He paused. Bev leaned forward to flick her cigarette over an ashtray next to the maps. She glanced at the circle someone had drawn — it encompassed a lake and a town named Ariel in tiny lettering. When she leaned back she noticed O'Brien watching her.
"Don't go tellin' us Bigfoot," said Under-Ager.
O'Brien shook his head. "A fucking clear-cut."
Cowboy-Man chuckled until a coughing fit choked away the amusement.
"No shit. When I got back last night, I called Cooper, and he started laughing, too. All that planning he did, risking his neck to pull it off, staying the hell away for a solid year, and for what? A bunch of loggers cut most all the trees that marked the path. But it looked to me like the back end of the clear-cut wasn't as far as he said he'd hiked before he buried everything, and so I kept going on the little logging road. I crossed four culverts beneath the road from one side of the clear-cut to the other."
"And any one of them could've been where he marked the next tree," said Under-Ager.
O'Brien took another drag from his cigarette. "Now you know why I'm here. Cooper said to find myself a down-to-earth tavern and see who I could round up. Said to split twenty-five percent among our little search party, and I'm supposed to bring him back seventy-five percent. If we find it. First big snow of the season is supposed to hit Saturday night, so we'll have Thursday and Friday and then maybe that's the last anyone's going to be digging around in there 'til spring. Cooper — you know that's not his name, right?"
Bev and the others nodded.
"Cooper said he knows for a fact that he walked at least half a mile off the logging road into the woods, so it wouldn't be in the place they clear-cut."
"People think they're walkin' a straight line when they're in the trees, but they're not," said Under-Ager.
"I suppose that's right," said O'Brien. "Anyway, this morning I called the company that owns it, the Cowlitz Lumber Company, and they told me they're going to start logging next spring where they left off."
"Not if I buy it." Cowboy-Man removed his hat and wiped a hand across the top of his head as though he'd forgotten he'd lost almost all his hair. Wide-shouldered, with a slight paunch, he wore one of those black cowboy shirts with snaps instead of buttons, and swirly lines below the shoulders.
O'Brien gave Cowboy-Man a questioning look and waited.
"Ted Martin." He extended a hand, which O'Brien shook.
Martin returned the hat to his head. "I'm in town to negotiate the purchase of the Cowlitz Lumber Company. I'm meeting with the owners on Monday. I've been scouting their land for three days."
"Best of luck to you," said O'Brien.
"Two hundred Gs. That'd help pay for the purchase. And it'd be my land it's buried in. Maybe I'd let the rest of you split twenty-five percent. How 'bout that, Andy?"
O'Brien nodded. "How many miles of logging road you figure you're buying? I'd guess pretty near all of it's on a hillside. How much of it have they logged in the last year?"
"So good luck to me, huh? I've got a question for you, too, Andy. Suppose my brother's a county sheriff?"
O'Brien made a show of considering the possibility, then nodded. "I suppose we could let him join us, anyway."
Tanya stepped next to Bev. "What can I get you?" she asked.
"A screwdriver, and tell your bartender not to water it down."
"You're going to have to show me some ID, honey."
"I'm twenty-three years old."
"You're going to have to show me."
Bev sighed. Her wet toes were freezing, and she wanted a drink. She deserved a drink. The others eyed her as she extracted her license from the wallet in her purse. Tanya peered at it and nodded, but she stayed with the group.
Under-Ager, whom Bev guessed would never pass the ID test, broke the silence. "You're goin' to be my new boss. I'll be one of your worker bees. I'm a choker. Jim Rossi."
Martin kept his eyes on O'Brien. "Well, Jim, everybody's got to start somewhere. Both my boys worked as chokers. Even now they don't set foot in the office. As for my brother, his jurisdiction is two states away. None of this is his business."
"Then why'd you bring it up?" asked Andy.
"I don't like con artists."
Andy showed no anger. "How smart would it be for a man to lead folks into the woods looking for marked trees and digging holes, and all of it's a scam? All he'd get is a bunch of pissed-off people."
"Maybe you do think you know where the loot is, but maybe you're a crackpot and all this talk about knowing DB Cooper is just your way of finding a bunch of fools to help you out."
"No one's twisting your arm, Ted. You're free to go. I'll still pick up the tab for your beer. Hell, have another one and go shoot some pool."
"Now, wait a minute. Who said I'm not interested?"
"What a riot," said the woman by the wall. Bev's age or maybe younger, she had a narrow face and a pointed chin, flaxen blonde hair that flowed halfway down her back, a necklace of polished wood beads, and a lavender turtleneck sweater. She wore the kind of knee-high glossy brown boots that Bev would never ever buy even if she could afford them. The man she had her arm around towered above the rest of the group, at least six foot four, with tightly coiled dust-colored hair and a close-trimmed beard. He wore the de rigueur blue paisley bandanna headband above a pair of bloodshot eyes that pronounced him a bona fide Hippie Guy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cooper's Loot"
Copyright © 2019 Rick E. George.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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