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D.B.: A Novel
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D.B.: A Novel Hardback - 2004

by Elwood Reid


From the publisher

A stunning fictional imagining of legendary American folk hero D. B. Cooper's daring hijacking and its aftermath, by one of the toughest, most distinctive voices in American fiction.
On the day before Thanksgiving 1971, just as a Seattle-bound 727 from Portland, Oregon, was taking off, a man calling himself D. B. Cooper handed a note to a flight attendant that said: "I have a bomb in my briefcase." Touching down in Washington State, where airline officials and FBI agents met his demands--$200,000 and several parachutes--the passengers were released, and Cooper ordered the pilot to chart a course for Mexico City. But somewhere over the dense Pacific Northwest woods, Cooper jumped. No trace of him was ever found. This gutsy exploit made D. B. Cooper a legend and a folk hero, and it is the starting point for Elwood Reid's powerful examination of ways of living in America. Reid poses the question: Is it better to do one great thing in life or to grind out a righteous life? In Reid's version, D. B. Cooper is a Vietnam vet named Fitch, a man fed up with the timid course of his life and determined to do something about it. By pulling off the hijacking, he proves to himself that he is a man of destiny, capable of greatness. Or so it seems. He floats across the border to Mexico, drifting and lounging in the company of similar refugees and flotsam from the 1970s counterculture.
In a parallel narrative, newly retired FBI Agent Frank Marshall has been cut adrift and now faces decades of purposelessness. Tempted to embark on an affair with a female witness he's been protecting, bored by leisure, and haunted by cases he couldn't solve, Frank agrees to help an eager young agent to look into the still-open D. B. Cooper case. When Fitch/Cooper, after years of cunning, exile, and silence, makes the mistake of falling for the wrong woman in Mexico, he is forced to return to America and the scene of his crime, and the two narratives intersect.
The clean, taut prose that has become Reid's hallmark and his profound understanding of what work means and what the dream of escaping work really entails, make "D.B." a unique and profound work of fiction.

Details

  • Title D.B.: A Novel
  • Author Elwood Reid
  • Binding Hardback
  • Edition First Edition
  • Pages 368
  • Language EN
  • Publisher Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York, New York, U.S.A.
  • Date 2004-07-13
  • ISBN 9780385497381

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE



1984



On the Saturday before his retirement party Frank Marshall's wife, Clare, told him he looked tired and urged him to take a nap instead of going fishing. He decided to ignore her and waited until she went to show a three-bedroom ranch to a couple from Spokane before leaving a note and changing into his fishing shirt, a tattered chamois button-up with torn pockets and fish scales fused to the fabric. It had rained for three straight days and as Frank loaded his rod and tackle box into the car the sun warmed the damp pavement and the air filled with the rich smell of earthworms soft boiling in shallow sidewalk puddles.

He drove out of town until he came to the abandoned haul road that led down to the small mountain lake where he kept an aluminum johnboat and a lawn chair chained around a tree trunk. A few other men fished the lake and sometimes he'd run into one of them coming or going and they'd exchange words in the glib and crafty manner of all fishermen--a bit of misinformation about what the fish were biting on, followed by a quick exit wink and tip of the cap. He fished to get away and so the truly good days were the ones when he had the lake all to himself and he could fish and drift without any of the petty competition that arose from the sight of another man hauling in fish left and right.

Frank had reached mandatory retirement after twenty years as an FBI agent and six before that as a deputy in the sheriff's department, a make-do job he'd taken after an abortive stab at grad school. Although happy with the retirement package offered by the Bureau, he found himself increasingly bothered by the fact that the Bureau and its massive bureaucracy had done nothing to prepare him for what came next--the end of his career, or what the other agents referred to as being put out to pasture with the civies.

During his career he'd traveled to Quantico dozens of times for training seminars on hostage negotiating, crime-scene photography, defensive tactics, skip tracing, rudimentary forensics, drug purity determination, criminal profiling, wiretapping, and the Bureau's code of conduct. He'd seen bodies rotting in fields and men in lab coats hovering over them with instruments, measuring and marveling at the embarrassing riches of the dead. He'd always assumed that there would be one last call to Quantico or perhaps a closed-door sit-down with a special agent in charge to discuss retirement--the real purpose of which would be to strongly discourage him about talking to the press concerning any ongoing investigations or writing a tell-all book in the hope of making the talk-show circuit when people wanted answers as to why some normal, well-liked man from the Midwest had started stuffing little boys under his floorboards or feeding old folks ant poison and doing strange things with severed body parts and dog skulls. But there had been nothing and as he approached his last day, the retirement party looming like some wake, he found that all he wanted to do was pick up one last case and feel that electric thrum of fresh information, the swirl of events coming together as he built the file, sought suspects, weighed theories in anticipation of that moment when he would enter gun-first through a splintered door, his blood ripping around his veins, eyes beating with adrenaline as he drew a bead on the accused or maybe just tricked him into cuffs with his nice-guy act. Instead he'd been put to shuffling paper and answering tip hot lines. It was, he supposed, an undignified but necessary way to wind things up, meant to painlessly transition him to humdrum civilian life. But none of it seemed to help the impending sense of internal collapse Frank Marshall felt pressing down on him as his days dwindled. In fact, the more phones he answered and reports he filed the worse he felt because, now that he had time to look around, he'd noticed how much the Bureau had changed.

During these last few months he found himself seeking refuge on the quiet lap of the lake. He'd boiled the whole thing down to a sacred ritual, packing his gear the exact same way and always parking under the same crooked pine and then walking out to stretch and take a look at the water before dragging the boat out and setting it in the shallows.

Today was no different. He parked and unloaded, stopping every so often to watch the mist dance and curl through the cattails and trees that ringed the lake. Fish dimpled the surface, delicately sipping at caddis flies as swallows swooped from the trees and a deer bucked away through the heavy undergrowth, its shocking white tail triggering several other deer he'd not detected.

At the water's edge his own reflection startled him, in particular the bloom of gray in his dark curly hair that had grown wider and deeper these last few months. He examined the blunt topography of his face, pleased that his chin had not softened into the well-fed wattle of other men his age. He noted his crooked nose, courtesy of a bank robber named Pierce Hyde whose m.o. was to walk into a bank and blast away with a semiautomatic before demanding money from the terrified tellers. Hyde was quick and on a roll, and he'd gone interstate.

Frank and several other agents worked the case hard after the last jolt, a bank in Spokane where Hyde had critically injured a guard and walked with $29,000 before heading south into Oregon, where he quickly hit three more banks.

A week later they received a tip that Hyde was holed up in a Howard Johnson ordering shrimp salad, leaving trash in the hallway, and demanding that fresh bars of soap be delivered to his room. Frank had been the first one through the door, his revolver drawn, shouting, "FBI! FBI!" the room thick with dope smoke, shower steam, and some kind of piney cologne.

When Hyde saw what was happening he dived off the bed and began pelting Frank and the other agents with full cans of beer, the last one snagging Frank square in the face. Frank heard the crunch of tiny bones and tasted blood but kept charging, the pain causing his finger to tense around the trigger until he was on Hyde, mashing him into the dingy shag carpeting, the gun buried in the guy's throat like a sword. For a moment he'd wanted to pull the trigger and watch the man's neck explode, but when he looked into Hyde's eyes he saw his own fear coming right back at him tenfold until agents Jeffers and Stillman dragged him away and cuffed Hyde, giving Frank the easy-buddy eye.

In the weeks following the arrest he tired of telling the story and took to staring at the younger agents, many of whom underestimated Frank because of his size but at the same time feared him. Yes, he was large and had trouble finding clothes to fit his broad shoulders and he was, by his own admission, baffled by computers, his unwillingness to rely on them to help solve crimes a mark of his age and another small sign among many that the Bureau was passing him by. Because of this some of the newer agents made the mistake of assuming that Frank was somehow less discerning or perceptive when it came to casework. In fact, he did everything to encourage this prejudice, moving filing cabinets for the secretaries and hauling boxes of tractor feed paper, two at a time, from the dank basement. Part of the job was knowing when to pull out the smoke and mirrors. The rest was cop work--twenty years and that was all he knew.



He poked at the reflection and waited for the water to reassemble his face, minnows twirling through the muddy shadows like bullets. Then he unchained the boat and loaded his gear into the hull. The boat bobbed and accepted his weight as he pushed off and rowed out into the middle of the clear blue water. After ten minutes of steady rowing he felt the warm hum of exertion radiate up his shoulders and down his lower back. He knew there would come a time when he'd be forced to break down and buy one of those tiny electric trolling motors, but for now he relished the honest burn of rowing, the ache and creak of muscles being called upon once again.

A slight wind luffed off the water, rattling a band of cattails at the south end of the lake, where he rarely fished. He found his spot and locked the oars before picking up a rod and dropping his line, enjoying the flutter of monofilament as it sped to the bottom. When the lead sinker hit the soft muddy lake floor he cranked it up a few turns and set the pole against the gunwale. He picked up his casting rod and flipped out a long smooth cast, watching the Panther Martin crash silver and chartreuse against the pond surface. He waited and then retrieved it, jerking the rod tip left and then right, thinking, Hit it, hit it now.

As the boat drifted he kept up a steady rhythm, casting and retrieving, waiting for that first smack of a fish. He rarely caught much although when he did he'd slide the gasping fish back into the water and watch it disappear through the blue to the black bottom of the lake. Sometimes he'd gill one and be forced to keep the fish or else watch it roll belly up and float around the boat, its white stomach taunting him and ruining the rest of the day.

Lately, being out on the lake brought back the woman he'd found all those years ago on a cold and rainy Thanksgiving Day during the hunt for the man identified as D. B. Cooper.

How her bones had ended up in the millpond, shoved down between two rotten pilings, remained a stubborn mystery. Officially she was Jane Doe and the file on her, now a zero file, had gone cold and dead, buried along with the thousands of other unidentified bodies. The file consisted of a few scant entries--phone calls logged, searches run on the missing persons' data bank, random tips from concerned citizens, a letter from a local psychic who said the killer was now happily married and had children and was living in Tacoma, fiber analysis of the purse, and a list of stores (too many) that sold such models. The coroner's report noted little more than her approximate age and position of the bones and the fact that she'd broken her leg, perhaps in childhood. There were grainy photographs of the pond and surrounding woods and a disappointing forensic facial reconstruction. The clay-and-wax rendering reminded him of the Neanderthal women in National Geographic, who were always shown hunched around small fires clutching bones, waiting for their heavy-browed men to drag some fresh mastodon home, and not of some young woman snatched away and murdered too young. The rest of the file was blank and waiting.

He had long since ceased wondering why, of all the thousands of cases he'd handled, she should be the one to haunt him. The victim had been found and then lost in the wake of the Cooper skyjacking, a small pile of bones and nothing more, her death made special and brought to his attention only because a man had hijacked an airplane and disappeared near where the Jane Doe had spent what Frank imagined to be the last long minutes of her life. She came back to him especially when he was out on the lake staring down into its sunless bottom, wondering if there were bodies waiting to be discovered everywhere--an army of the dead and gone, the vanished.



The day after the skyjacking Frank had been one of hundreds of agents combing the tangled underbrush for any sign of the man they were now calling D. B. Cooper. It was one of those cases that he knew was white-hot by the way the higher-ups were jockeying for position and scrambling to affix motives and theories that would shape the search protocol. Already there were agents following the skyjacker's back trail, interviewing witnesses, dusting the plane for prints, canvassing the airport as they built a profile of the sort of man it took to hijack a plane and then parachute out the day before Thanksgiving. It smacked of protest and un-American sentiment, and although there'd recently been an alarming surge in hijackings, Cooper had pulled off his crime with a minimal amount of complication, a truckload of cool, no discernible political agenda, and zero violence.

Even though the weather had turned to shit over the search area--rolling, heavily timbered hills and soggy bottomland--there was hope among the searchers that his body would be found wrapped shroudlike in his failed parachute, dangling from one of the towering Douglas firs, the money fanned out below on the forest floor. But as the rain and snow worsened and the light started to fade over the mountain tops, Frank Marshall began to entertain the idea that perhaps the guy had gotten away with it and that maybe this time the FBI would not get its man, and he was surprised to find himself privately rooting for Cooper to remain at large. While resting against a wind-downed tree he allowed himself to imagine what it would feel like to take that jump with $200,000 strapped to his back and hit the ground ready to run away from everything in his life that seemed less than perfect. The fantasy kept him plodding over hill and valley until he was soaked to the bone, tired and hungry, thinking only occasionally of the roast turkey and candied yams being passed around the dining room table without him.

He walked under the thwock of helicopters and small planes buzzing back and forth in search grids, and from time to time he caught glimpses of other agents moving through the woods. He heard them cursing as they struggled over deadfall, plucking prickers and raking burrs and sticktights from their pant legs.

At the top of a low rise Frank scanned first the canopy above and then the thick ground cover for a telltale flash of white or some sudden movement. It had been twenty minutes since he'd stepped off his assigned search path and veered south toward a stand of tall fir trees where he hoped the walking would be easier. Out of some macho nod to his late father, a timber scout for Georgia Pacific, he'd left his gloves in the car and now regretted the decision as he struggled to keep his hands warm and dry. The rain gave way to large snowflakes that landed on his face, melting into his hair and neck, mixing with sweat. He could have easily marked off his spot and made his way back to the logging road, where idling vans waited and inside there would be ham sandwiches and hot coffee. But the idea that he was breaking new ground propelled him forward. It wasn't that he was eager to find and arrest Cooper but more that he wanted to know why a man would resort to such a reckless act. The radicals he could understand, but this Cooper? Of course there was the money, but it still didn't seem to Frank reason enough to leap out of a jet.

Media reviews

"Reid writes some of the nastiest, fiercest, funniest, edgiest sentences around, and D.B. is one of the best novels I've encountered."
Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried and July, July

"D.B. is brilliantly modulated between swagger and caress, moving and drop-dead funny. Read this book."
Mark Richard, author of Fishboy

"Elwood Reid's D.B. is raunchy, seamy, cocksure, perversely juicy, and so surprising in its vivid convolutions of plot and character."
Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall and Off to the Side

"D.B. is the road trip of your dreams--Hunter Thompson does the driving, but John Steinbeck holds the map."
--Mark Costello, author of Big If

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