Thunder Point Book # 1
March 26, 2013
From Robyn Carr, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the popular Virgin River novels, comes Thunder Point—the highly anticipated new series that will make you laugh, make you sigh, and make you fall in love with a small town filled with people you’ll never forget.
Nestled on the Oregon coast is a small town of rocky beaches and rugged charm. Locals love the land’s unspoiled beauty. Developers see it as a potential gold mine. When newcomer Hank Cooper learns he’s been left an old friend’s entire beachfront property, he finds himself with a community’s destiny in his hands.
Cooper has never been a man to settle in one place, and Thunder Point was supposed to be just another quick stop. But Cooper finds himself getting involved with the town. And with Sarah Dupre, a woman as complicated as she is beautiful.
With the whole town watching for his next move, Cooper has to choose between his old life and a place full of new possibilities. A place that just might be home.
Cooper stopped at the first outlook over the ocean and parked. His phone showed five bars, and he dialed up the Sheriff’s Department. “Hello,” he said to the call taker. “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, and there were no details. I want to talk to the Sheriff. Preferably, see the Sheriff when I talk to him. I need some answers.”
“Hold, please,” she said.
Well, that wasn’t what he expected. He 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’m a friend of Ben Bailey and 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 someone —found 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 it is?”
“Only sort of,” Cooper said.
“101 to Gibbons Road, head west. About four miles down Gibbons, 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.”
“Thanks, Deputy….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, and this was his first trip to the Oregon coast. The beach was rocky, and there were two-story boulders sticking out of the water. A low flying orange and white helicopter flew over the water—a Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin, search and rescue.
For a moment he had a longing to be back in a chopper, surprised it was only a moment. 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 to off-shore oil rigs out of the Corpus Christi port. That job had really soured for him after an oil spill. He hated the thought of going back to work for an oil company.
His head turned as he followed the Coast Guard chopper across the water. He’d never considered the USCG. He was more inclined to avoid off-shore storms than to fly 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 all these mountainous boulders covered with bird shit 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 that boulder, a good forty or fifty feet tall, and what had been two specs he recognized as two human beings. One was on top of the rock, squatting to keep from being blown over in the wind, the other clinging to the face of the rock. And now, thanks to the binoculars, he could see a small boat was floating away from the rock.
Rock climbers? They both wore what appeared to be wet suits under their climbing gear. 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, that EMT or rescue swimmer who dangled from the cable could start to swing and slam into the rock.
“Easy, easy, easy,” he muttered to the crew.
The emergency medical tech grabbed onto 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, piggy back to the front of the harnessed rescuer, both of them pulled immediately up to the copter via the cable. They were quickly pulled within.
“Yeah,” he whispered. Good job! He’d like to know the weight of that pilot’s balls—that was some fancy flying. And that 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 pulled inside and presumably stabilized. Then, slowly edging near the rock once more, hovering there, a rescue basket was deployed. The climber on top waited until the basked was right there before he stood, grabbed it and literally fell inside. As he was being pulled up, motorists around Cooper cheered.
Before the climber was pulled all the way into the chopper, the small craft that had gotten away from them crashed against the mountainous boulder and broke into pieces. It left nothing but debris on the water. These guys must have taken a small boat out to the rock, tried to anchor it on a side that wasn’t battered by big waves so they could climb up, then climb back down to their boat. Once the boat was lost, so were they.
Who called the Coast Guard? Probably one of them, from a cell phone. Likely the one on top who wasn’t hanging on for dear life.
Everyone safely inside the helicopter, it rose, banked, and shot away out to sea.
Cooper found himself thinking, And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes our matinee for today. Join us again tomorrow for another show. As the other motorists slowly departed, Coop finished his sandwich, then got back on 101 heading north.
It was a good thing Cooper’s GPS was up to date and followed the deputy’s directions, because Gibbons Road was unmarked. It was a very narrow two lane that went switchback style down a steep hill. It then hit a turn off, but there was only a sign and arrow pointing left, Cheap Drinks. Very classy, he found himself thinking. Ben had never been known as what Cooper’s southern grandmother had called “High Cotton.”
From that sign, however, he could see the lay of the land, and it was beautiful. It was a very wide inlet or bay that stretched like a U 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. Stretching out toward the ocean beyond Ben’s place was a completely uninhabited promontory. On the opposite side of the beach was a marina and a town. There, too, was a promontory that stretched out toward the ocean. However, there were houses all the way out to the point with what Cooper could only imagine to be a drop dead view. The town was built from the marina straight up the hill in what appeared to be steppes. He could see the streets from where he was parked. That would be Thunder Point. Between Ben’s place and the town, 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 big, black and white and had legs like an Arabian colt.
He sat there a moment, thinking about anyone taking advantage of those cheap drinks and then getting back up to 101 on this road. It should be named suicide trail.
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, but there’s one part around Bandon and Coos Bay that’s moderate almost year round, sunny more often than stormy. But when the storms come into Thunder Point over the ocean, it’s like one of the Seven Wonders. The bay is protected by the hills and stays calm, keeping the fishing boats safe, but those thunder clouds 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—this was a young man, probably mid-thirties. He was tall, sandy-haired, blue eyed, broad shouldered—about what you’d expect.
Cooper extended a hand. “Sheriff.”
“Sheriff’s Deputy, actually. The County Sheriff’s office is in Coquille. This is a satellite office with a few deputies assigned. Thunder Point is small, coastal, and there’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. And, Mr. Cooper, I’m sorry for your loss.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was found at the foot of the stairs to the cellar, where he kept the bait tanks. Ben lived here—he 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 take a fall, but he’d 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, and the money was still in its hiding place. Ben kept the money in a cash drawer in the cooler. It was intact. The thing is,” the deputy said, scratching the back of his neck. “Time of death was put at two a.m., 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. And Rawley might be right—except 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 over the years, but never any real trouble; never been robbed.”
“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 it from regulars—weekend 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. Oh, he also has a tow truck that’s parked in town, but he doesn’t advertise it. Since he died and the place has been locked up, the boats have found other docks—probably the marina. 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 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 robber—not only would he hand over the money, he’d invite the guy to dinner.”
“Well there you go, you might not have had 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.
“A vet with some challenging PTSD issues that Ben came across and gave work. Rawley Goode is around sixty, lives down the coast where he takes care of his elderly father, sort of. He’s not real good around people. He helped out here, cleaned, stocked, ran errands, that sort of thing. He could serve if no one expected conversation; people around here were used to him. I think he might’ve been homeless when Ben met him, but his father has lived around here a long time. Interesting guy, not that I can say I know him. So—Rawley found Ben and there wasn’t anyone to contact.”
“Are you sure Rawley didn’t push him down the stairs?”
“Rawley’s a skinny little guy. The coroner didn’t find any evidence to suggest Ben had been pushed. And Rawley. He was dependent on Ben. Don’t worry—the town gave Ben a decent send off. He was well liked. There are better bars around here to hang out in, but people liked Ben.”
“Yeah, I liked him too,” Cooper said, looking down. “There must’ve been a will or something. Rawley wasn’t the most articulate guy on the phone, but he said Ben left something for me. Could be old pictures from our Army days or something. Who do you suppose I should see about that?”
“I’ll make a few calls, check into that for you.”
“Appreciate it. And maybe you could suggest a place to hook up the fifth wheel?”
“There are several decent spots along the coast for tourists—Coos Bay is a nice area. You planning to hang around?”
Cooper gave a shrug. “Maybe a few days, just long enough to talk to some of the folks who knew Ben, pick up whatever he left for me. I want to pay my respects, just want people to know—he had good friends. We didn’t get together a lot and it sounds like I didn’t get a lot of inside information from Ben, but we were always in touch. And since I came all this way, I want to hear about him—about how people got on with him. You know?”
“I think I understand. The place is locked up—no one would care if you sat here for a while, while you look around at other possibilities. No hook up for your trailer, but you’d be fine for a couple of days.”
“Thanks, maybe I’ll do that. Not a bad view.”
The deputy put out his hand. “I gotta run. You have my number.”
“Thank you, Deputy McCain.”
“Roger McCain, but hardly anyone remembers that. Folks tend to call me Mac.”
“Nice meeting you, Mac. Thanks for helping out with this.”
Sarah walked with Hamlet, her Great Dane, down the street to the diner. She looped his leash around the lamppost and went inside, pulling off her gloves. This was one of the things she loved about this little town, that there was always somewhere to stop and chat for a few minutes. She wasn’t well known around here, had only lived here a few months, but by the way she was treated by her new and casual friends, it was as if she’d been here quite a while. If she wasn’t working, she liked to take Ham down to the beach and stop off at the diner on her way home. Apparently she wasn’t the only one—there was always a large bowl of water for dogs by that lamppost. Twin benches on either side of the diner’s front door frequently seated one or two old guys, passing time.
Gina James was behind the counter; Gina took care of almost everything at the diner except the cooking. There was another waitress at night and a couple of part time girls, but it was a pretty small shop. Gina’s mother, Carrie, was sitting on a stool at the counter, her friend Lou McCain seated beside her. Carrie owned the deli across the street and Lou was a school teacher who helped out with her nephew’s kids when she wasn’t teaching. Two of the said kids were in a booth eating fries and drinking colas, an after school treat.
Sarah said, “Hey,” and all three women said, “Hey,” right back.
“Something to drink? Eat?” Gina asked her.
“Could I have a water, please? And how is everyone?”
“What can I say, it’s Friday,” Lou said. “I won’t be seeing the little bast— er, darlings, till Monday morning.”
Sarah laughed at her. “You’re going to heaven for it.”
“If I died and went to hell, they’d have me teaching junior high,” Carrie said.
“You have a day off?” Gina asked Sarah.
“For Landon’s football game. I’m sitting alert Saturday and Sunday, that’s the price I pay for it.”
“But no one gives you any trouble about it, do they?”
“Nah. They like weekends off as much as anyone. And I’ll gladly fly weekends if I don’t have to miss Landon’s games. It’s not as though I have any other social life.”
Carrie leaned her elbow on the diner. “Wish I was something exciting, like a pilot.”
“Tell me about it,” Lou said.
Before Gina could weigh in the door to the diner opened, the bell tinkling to announce Ray Anne in her version of the Realtor’s business suit — too short, too tight, too much boobage. She scowled. “Sarah, that dog should be on a leash!”
“He is, Ray Anne.” She leaned back on her stool to look out the glass of the door. “He’s all hooked up.”
She wiped at her purple skirt. “He still managed to get me with that awful mouth of his.”
“Well, Ray Anne, you’re just so edible looking,” Lou said.
“Ha ha. Well, you’ll never guess what I just saw! The most gorgeous man—out at Ben’s place. He was built like a brick you know what—worn jeans, torn in all the right places, plain old T-shirt under a leather jacket. One of those flying jackets, you know, Sarah. Driving one of those testosterone trucks, pulling a trailer . . . . Handsome face, maybe a dimple, scratchy little growth on his cheeks and chin. He was talking to Mac. It was like an ad for Calvin Klein.”
“What were you doing out at Ben’s?” Lou asked.
“I wasn’t out there. I was checking on a rental up the hill two blocks. You know—that old Maxwell place.”
“Then how’d you see the tears in his jeans and his stubble?”
Ray Anne dipped a manicured hand into her over-sized purse and pulled out her binoculars. She smiled conspiratorially and gave her head a toss. Her short blond hair didn’t move.
“Clever,” Lou said. “Man watching taken to the next level. How old is this hunk of burning love?”
“Irrelevant,” Ray Anne said. “I wonder what he’s doing here. I heard Ben had no next of kin. You don’t suppose cuddly old Ben was hiding a handsome brother? No, no, that would be cruel.”
“Why?” Sarah asked.
“Because Ray Anne would love a shot at selling that property of Ben’s,” Carrie said.
“That’s not true,” Ray Anne protested. “You know me, I only want to help if I can.”
“And bag a single man or two while you’re at it,” Lou said.
Ray Anne stiffened slightly. “A purely heterosexual notion, Louise,” she said. “One you might not be familiar with.” And as the Sheriff’s Department patrol car passed slowly down the street, Ray Anne said, “Oh, there’s Deputy Yummy Pants—I’m going to go ask him what’s going on. If I can get past the dog!”
And out the door she wiggled.
“Deputy Yummy Pants?” Sarah asked with a laugh in her voice.
“The teenage girls around town call him that,” Lou explained drily. “I don’t recommend it. He hates it. Gets him all pissy. I should tell you what kind of pants Ms Realtor of the Year has. Maybe Busy Pants.”
Carrie’s lips quirked. “She suggested you don’t quite get the whole heterosexual pull. Louise.”
Lou had a sarcastic twist to her lips when she said, “If she turns up dead, can I count on you girls for an alibi?” Then she turned and called to her niece and nephew. “Hey, kids. Let’s make tracks.” To her friends she said, “I’m going to beat Yummy Pants home. Betcha I get more out of him that Busy Pants does.”
Once home, Sarah Dupre hung her red slicker on the peg in the mud room just in time to see her younger brother, Landon, coming toward the back door with his duffle full of football gear. “Hey,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you.”
“I came home to get a couple of things and grab a sandwich,” he said. He bent to pet the dog. He didn’t have to bend far—Ham was tall. “Gotta get going.”
“Wait a sec,” she said.
“What?” he asked, still petting the dog.
“For Pete’s sake, can you look at me?” she asked. And when he straightened, heavy duffle over one shoulder, she gasped. There was a bruise on his cheekbone.
“Practice,” he said. “It’s nothing.”
“You don’t practice on game day.”
“Yeah, well, I hope I don’t get in trouble for that. A couple of us went out to run some plays, some passes, and I got nailed. It was an accident.”
“You were practicing without a helmet?” she asked.
“Sarah, it’s nothing. It’s a small bruise. I could’ve gotten it running into an open locker. Lighten up so you don’t make me look like a girl. Are you going to the game?”
“Of course I’m going. Why couldn’t you be into Chess or something? Choir? Band? Something that didn’t involve bodies crashing into each other?”
He grinned at her, that handsome grin that had once belonged to their deceased father. “You get enough sleep without me boring you to death,” he said. “Why couldn’t you just be a flight attendant or something?”
She took a breath. He had her there. She flew Search and Rescue with the Coast Guard. There were those occasions that were risky. Edgy. And admittedly, that was part of what she loved best about it. “I trust you’ll be wearing your helmet tonight?”
“Funny. It should be a good game. Raiders are a good match. They’re a good team.”
“Does it hurt?” she asked, touching her own cheek.
“Nah, it’s really nothing, Sarah. See you later.”
She suppressed the urge to beg him to be careful. He was a big kid, already six feet and muscled at sixteen; he was a beautiful specimen. She was his guardian and family. It was just the two of them. She sometimes wanted to just enfold him in her arms and keep him safe, yet when she watched him play, the thrill made her scream. He was a great athlete; she’d heard he was the best quarterback they’d seen in a long time here in Thunder Point.
For the millionth time she hoped bringing him here had been a good decision. He’d been happy in the North Bend high school last year, had barely found his footing, his friends, when she moved them. She just couldn’t bear the same town with her ex, in the home they had shared.
She’d moved them so often . . . .
She put out her arms as if to hug him. Retracted her arms—he didn’t want mush now. Not now that he was a man. Her arms lifted toward him of their own accord and she held back.
“All right,” he said, patiently. “Get it over with.”
She wrapped her arms around him; he gave her a one-armed hug back. Then he grinned at her again. He had absolutely no idea how handsome he was, which made him even more attractive.
“Play your little heart out, bud,” she said. “And do not get hurt.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fast.”
“You going out after the game?” she asked.
“I dunno. Depends on how tired I am.”
Sarah laughed. “When I was your age, I was never too tired to go out. So, if you go out, midnight would be nice. No later than one, for sure. Are we on the same page here?”
He laughed at her. “Same page, boss.”
But as she knew, he seldom went out after a game.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.