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It took Hank Cooper almost eight hours to get from Virgin River to Thunder Point, Oregon, because he was towing his fifth wheel, a toy hauler. He pulled to the side of the road frequently to let long strings of motorists pass. Just prior to crossing the California/Oregon border, he stopped at a redwood tourist trap featuring gardens, souvenirs, wood carvings, a lunch counter and restrooms. Skipping the garden tour, he bought a sandwich and drink and headed out of the monument-size trees to the open road, which very soon revealed the rocky Oregon Coast.
Cooper stopped at the first outlook over the ocean and parked. His phone showed five bars and he dialed up the Coos County Sheriff's Department. "Hello," he said to the receptionist. "My name is Hank Cooper and I'm on my way to Thunder Point following a call from someone saying my friend, Ben Bailey, is dead. Apparently he left something for me, but that's not why I'm headed your way. The message I got was that Ben was killed, but there were no details. I want to talk to the sheriff. I need some answers."
"Hold, please," she said.
Well, that wasn't what he expected. He'd figured he'd leave a number and eat his lunch while he waited.
"Deputy McCain," said the new voice on the line.
"Hank Cooper here, Deputy," he said, and in spite of himself, he straightened and squared his shoulders. He'd always been resistant to authority, yet he also responded to it. "I was hoping to speak with the sheriff."
"I'm the deputy sheriff. The county sheriff's office is in Coquille. This is a satellite office with a few deputies assigned. Thunder Point is smallthere's a constable but no other local law enforcement. The constable handles small disputes, evictions, that sort of thing. The county jail is in Coquille. How can I help you, Mr. Cooper?"
"I'm a friend of Ben Bailey and I'm on my way into town to find out what happened to him."
"Mr. Cooper, Ben Bailey's been deceased for more than a couple of weeks."
"I gather that. I just found out. Some old guy Rawley someonefound a phone number and called me. He was killed, Rawley said. Dead and buried. I want to know what happened to him. He was my friend."
"I can give you the details in about ninety seconds."
But Cooper wanted to look him in the eye when he heard the tale. "If you'll give me directions, I'll come to the Sheriff's Department."
"Well, that's not necessary. I can meet you at the bar," the deputy said.
"Ben's. I guess you weren't a close friend."
"We go back fifteen years but this is my first trip up here. We were supposed to meet with a third buddy from the Army in Virgin River for some hunting. Ben always said he had a bait shop."
"I'd say he sold a lot more Wild Turkey than bait. You know where Ben's place is?"
"Only sort of," Cooper said.
"Take 101 to Gibbons Road, head west. After about four miles, look for a homemade sign that says Cheap Drinks. Turn left onto Bailey Pass. It curves down the hill. You'll run right into Bailey's. When do you think you'll get there?"
"I just crossed into Oregon from California," he said. "I'm pulling a fifth wheel. Couple of hours?"
"More like three. I'll meet you there if nothing interferes. Is this your cell number?"
"It is," he said.
"You'll have good reception on the coast. I'll give you a call if I'm held up."
what was it?"
"McCain. See you later, Mr. Cooper."
Cooper signed off, slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and got out of the truck. He put his lunch on the hood and leaned against the truck, looking out at the northern Pacific Ocean. He'd been all over the world, but this was his first trip to the Oregon Coast. The beach was rocky and there were boulders two stories high sticking out of the water. An orange-and-white helicopter flew low over the watera Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin, search and rescue.
For a moment he had a longing to be back in a chopper. Once he got this business about Ben straightened out, he might get to the chore of looking for a flying job. He'd done a number of things air-related after the Army. The most recent was flying out of the Corpus Christi port to offshore oil rigs. But after a spill in the Gulf, he was ready for a change.
His head turned as he followed the Coast Guard chopper across the water. He'd never considered the USCG. He was used to avoiding offshore storms, not flying right into them to pluck someone out of a wild sea.
He took a couple of swallows of his drink and a big bite of his sandwich, vaguely aware of a number of vehicles pulling into the outlook parking area. People were getting out of their cars and trucks and moving to the edge of the viewing area with binoculars and cameras. Personally, Coop didn't really think these mountainous boulders, covered with bird shit, were worthy of a picture, even with the orange chopper flying over them. Hovering over them
The waves crashed against the big rocks with deadly power and the wind was really kicking up. He knew only too well how dicey hovering in wind conditions like that could be. And so close to the rocks. If anything went wrong, that helicopter might not be able to recover in time to avoid the boulders or crashing surf. Could get ugly.
Then a man in a harness emerged from the helicopter, dangling on a cable. That's when Cooper saw what the other motorists had seen before him. He put down his sandwich and dove into the truck, grabbing for the binoculars in the central compartment. He honed in on a boulder, a good forty or fifty feet tall, and what had been specks he now recognized as two human beings. One was on top of the rock, squatting to keep from being blown over in the wind. The other was clinging to the face of the rock.
Rock climbers? They both wore what appeared to be wet suits under their climbing gear. Thanks to the binoculars, he could see a small boat bouncing in the surf, moving away from the rock. There was a stray rope anchored to the rock and flapping in the breeze. The man who squatted on top of the boulder had issues with not only the crosswind but the helicopter's rotor wash. And if the pilot couldn't keep his aircraft stable, the EMT or rescue swimmer who dangled from the cable would slam into the rock.
"Easy, easy, easy," he muttered to himself, wishing the crew could hear him.
The emergency medical tech grabbed on to the wall of the rock beside the stranded climber, stabilized himself with an anchor in the stone, and held there for a minute. Then the climber hoisted himself off the wall of the rock and onto the EMT, piggyback to the front of the harnessed rescuer. Both of them were pulled immediately up to the copter via the cable and quickly yanked within.
"Yeah," he whispered. Good job! He'd like to know the weight of that pilot's ballsthat was some fancy flying. Reaching the climber was the hard part. Rescuing the guy up top was going to be less risky for all involved. The chopper backed away from the rock slightly while victim number one was presumably stabilized. Then, slowly edging near the rock once more, hovering there, a rescue basket was deployed. The climber on top waited until the basket was right there before he stood, grabbed it and fell inside. As he was being pulled up, motorists around Cooper cheered.
Before the climber was pulled all the way into the chopper, the boat below crashed against the mountainous boulder and broke into pieces. It left nothing but debris on the water. These guys must have tried to anchor the boat to a rock on a side that wasn't battered by big waves, so they could climb up, then back down. But once the boat was lost, so were they.
Who had called the Coast Guard? Probably one of them, from a cell phone. Likely the one on top of the rock, who wasn't hanging on for dear life.
Everyone safely inside, the helicopter rose, banked and shot away out to sea.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes our matinee for today. Join us again tomorrow for another show, Coop thought. As the other motorists slowly departed, he finished his sandwich, then got back into his truck and headed north.
It was a good thing Cooper's GPS was up-to-date, because Gibbons Road was unmarked. It was three hours later that Coop found himself on a very narrow two-lane road that went switchback-style down a steep hill. At a turnoff, there was only a sign that read Cheap Drinks, and an arrow pointing left. Very classy, he found himself thinking. Ben had never been known as what Cooper's Southern grandmother had called
From that turnoff, however, he could see the lay of Thunder Point, and it was beautiful. A very wide inlet or bay, shaped like a U, was settled deeply into a high, rocky coastline. He could see Ben's place, a single building with a wide deck and stairs leading down to a dock and the beach. Beyond Ben's place, stretching out toward the ocean, was a completely uninhabited promontory. He sat there a moment, thinking about Ben's patrons taking advantage of those cheap drinks and then trying to get back up to 101. This road should be named Suicide Trail.
On the opposite side of the beach was another promontory that reached out toward the ocean, this one featuring houses all the way to the point. Cooper could only imagine the drop-dead-gorgeous view. There was a marina on that promontory, and the town itself. Thunder Point was built straight up the hill from the marina in a series of steps. He could see the streets from where he was parked. Between Ben's place and the town was only the wide, expansive beach. Looking down, he could see a woman in a red, hooded jacket and a big dog walking along the beach. She repeatedly threw a stick; the dog kept returning it. The dog was black and white, with legs like an Arabian colt.
The sun was shining and Cooper was reminded of one of Ben's emails describing his home. Oregon is mostly wet and cold all winter, except for one part around Bandon and Coos Bay that's moderate almost year-round, sunny more often than stormy. But when the storms do come into Thunder Point over the ocean, it's like one of the Seventh Wonders. The bay is protected by the hills and stays calm, keeping the fishing boats safe, but those thunderclouds can be spectacular
Then he saw not one but two eagles circling over the point on Ben's side of the beach. It was a rare and beautiful sight.
He proceeded to the parking lot, not entirely surprised to find the Sheriff's Department SUV already there and the deputy sitting inside, apparently writing something. He was out of the car and striding toward Cooper just a few seconds later. Cooper sized him up. Deputy McCain was a young man, probably mid-thirties. He was tall, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, broad-shoulderedabout what you'd expect.
Cooper extended a hand. "Deputy."
"Mr. Cooper, I'm sorry for your loss."
"What happened to Ben?"
"He was found at the foot of the stairs to the cellar, where he kept the bait tanks. Ben lived herehe had a couple of rooms over the bar. The doors weren't locked, but I don't think Ben ever locked up. There were no obvious signs of foul play, but the case was turned over to the coroner. Nothing was missing, not even the cash. The coroner ruled it an accident."
"But the guy who called me said he'd been killed," Cooper said.
"I think Rawley was upset. He was kind of insistent that Ben couldn't have fallen. But Ben had had a couple of drinks. Not nearly the legal limit, but he could've tripped. Hell, I've been known to trip on no alcohol at all. Rawley found him. Ben kept the money in a cash drawer in the cooler, and the money was still in its hiding place. The one strange thing is," the deputy said, scratching the back of his neck, "time of death was put at two in the morning. Ben was in his boxers, and Rawley insisted there's no reason he'd get out of bed on the second floor and head for the cellar in the middle of the night. Rawley might be rightexcept this could have been the night Ben heard a noise and was headed for the beach. Just in case you're wondering, there is no surveillance video. In fact, the only place in town that actually has a surveillance camera is the bank. Ben has had one or two characters in his place over the years, but never any real trouble."
"You don't think it's possible someone who knew the place decided to rob it after midnight? When Ben was vulnerable?"
"Most of Ben's customers were regulars, or heard about the place from regularsweekend bikers, sports fishermen, that sort. Ben didn't do a huge business, but he did all right."
"On bait and Wild Turkey?"
The deputy actually chuckled. "Bait, deli, small bar, Laundromat, cheap souvenirs and fuel. I'd say of all those things, the bar and deli probably did the lion's share of the business."
Coop looked around the deputy's frame. "Fuel?"
"Down on the dock. For boats. Ben used to let some of his customers or neighbors moor alongside the dock. Sometimes the wait at the marina got a little long and Ben didn't mind if people helped themselves. Since he died and the place has been locked up, the boats have found other docksprobably the marina. Oh, he also had a tow truck that's parked in town, but he didn't advertise about it. That's it. There was no next of kin, Mr. Cooper."
"Who is this Rawley? The guy who called me?"
The deputy scrubbed off his hat and scratched his head. "You say you were good friends?"
"For fifteen years. I knew he was raised by his dad, that they had a bar and bait shop here on the coast. We met in the Army. He was a helicopter mechanic and everyone called him Gentle Ben. He was the sweetest man who ever lived, all six foot six of him. I can't imagine him standing up to a robbernot only would he hand over the money, he'd invite the guy to dinner."
"Well, there you go, you might not have the more recent facts, but you knew him all right. That's the thing that makes everyone lean toward accident. That, and the lack of evidence to the contrary. No one would have to hurt Ben for a handout. You don't know about Rawley?"
Cooper just shook his head.