Young reporter Bev Wikowski happens upon a man who claims to know where the infamous hijacker DB Cooper buried his loot. He’s got a half dozen patrons at the Spar Pole Saloon enthralled with the tale of the missing $200,000–but is he a nutcase? Bev takes out a cigarette and settles in with the group. If he’s telling the truth, she’d have one of the biggest stories of 1972.
“You’re saying the money’s still out there?” Bev tried to keep the cynicism from her voice.
“Exactly.” O’Brien nodded his head for emphasis.
“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.”
He channeled smoke up over his face. Shallow wrinkles etched his forehead, and he had bags beneath his eyes. But the eyes, deep brown like mahogany, struck her as ageless.
“Why doesn’t he just go get it himself?” Bev asked.
“We already asked that,” said a man with crewcut blonde hair who looked too young to be in a bar. He spat tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup. “He said DB figures he’d get busted. But the feds won’t bother with a bunch of Looney-Tunes poking around.”
O’Brien sat down. Counting the waitress, three females and three males comprised his audience.
“It was dark and it was raining when DB hit the ground. Everyone knows that. He told me 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 turned to her and scowled. “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 a mocking grin that threatened to show itself.
“He did,” said O’Brien, his voice unruffled.
Under-ager scowled again. “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 unload.
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 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, almost all of it switch-backing 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. “It’s all marked. He knows 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 and grinned. 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 mark 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 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 poking 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.”
Under-ager swirled the cup of spittle, gazing at it as though considering a sip. “People think they’re walkin’ a straight line when they’re in the trees, but they’re not,” he said.
“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,” said cowboy man. He stood over six feet tall, wide-shouldered with a slight paunch, bald atop his head, with thin black and gray hairs forming a horseshoe around the sides and back.
O’Brien gave cowboy a questioning look and waited.
“I’m Ted Martin,” proclaimed cowboy, reaching a hand which O’Brien shook.
Martin lifted his hat an inch and set it back on 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 G’s. 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 widened his smile. Bev noticed she wasn’t the only one shifting her eyes between the two men.
Tanya stepped quietly next to her. “What can I get you?” she asked.
“A screwdriver, and tell your bartender not to water it down.”
Tanya nodded, but she stayed with the group.
Under-ager filled 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 O’Brien, still smiling.
“I don’t like con artists.”
Next week: A man in a cowboy hat claims he’s going to buy the land where a too-old hippy says his war buddy buried $200,000. Is this going to be a big news scoop for Bev–or a matter of lunacy?