Friday, April 29, 2011

A Cop With A Blue Ferrari

Ferrari Daytona

They left for Pittsburg shortly before 10:00, in Grant’s Ferrari.

Google tried to send them straight through the Delta on Highway 4 because it was the most direct route, but Grant knew better than to listen to Google. He had driven that route once and knew it ran through every Podunk town in the Delta; there were a thousand stop signs, traffic lights, and train crossings. He stuck with the major highways and state routes.

“How fast does this thing go” Amber asked, when they were on I-5.

“Usually five miles over the speed limit, unless I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. Then it might go 120.”

“Do people try to race you?”

“Sometimes. Idiots driving Lexuses or Corvettes see ‘Ferrari’ on an old car and think they can take me.”

“Do they?”

He smiled. “Ever see a Lexus do 140?”

“I thought you said you might do 120.”

“Depends on which idiot needs his ass kicked.”
Then later, when talking to two bored sheriff deputies assigned to guard an empty canal:
The canal ran a mile before it reached the pumping station. The first thing Grant noticed was, the canal was empty. He also thought it strange such a big waterway wasn’t lined with concrete; the bottom was mud and rocks. The second thing he noticed was the blown-up pump building. He said, “Wow. They blew it the hell up.”

“Sure as shit did,” Sawyer said. “Takes a damn big bomb to do that kind of damage.”

The other deputy joined them. He was six inches shorter than Sawyer, had dark close-cut hair, a pointed nose and chin, and was smacking and popping his gum. He introduced himself as Jim Lopes, shook hands with Amber and Grant, and never cracked a smile.

Lopes said to Grant, “What’s Modesto cops doing here in Byron? And how come you got a Ferrari? What’re they paying you in Modesto?”

“I do a little investing on the side,” Grant said to Lopes.

"No shit? This is a $300,000 dollar car. You give seminars?”

“Ah, it didn’t cost anywhere near that much.”

“You stole it from someone, then. Wasn’t that the car Tubbs and Crockett drove on Miami Vice?”

“Well, they drove a Corvette made to look like a Daytona. A fake.”
 And finally:
He hummed through light traffic, had just gone through an intersection when a motorcycle cop appeared and flashed his lights at him. Grant had a hard time liking the guys who drew motorcycle duty; the ones he knew were dicks.
Grant pulled over and the cop took his time. He bent to talk to Grant, and Grant flashed his badge.
The cop, who looked forty-five and had the jowls of a basset hound, frowned and said, “Oh, sorry detective.”
Grant put his badge away. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before. I’m Grant Starr.”
“Bert Crappen,” the cop said, folding his ticket book. “I transferred here from Sacramento last month.”
“Sacto to Mo Town? Not much of a transfer.” Grant wondered what school might have been like for a kid named Crappen.
“Yeah, well,” Crappen said, “things were getting kind of stale there. Needed to see some new faces, get a fresh start. Where you headed on a Sunday, Grant? And how’s a cop get a Ferrari? You selling drugs out of the evidence room?” Crappen grinned, revealing a mouth packed with too many teeth.
“Got lucky with some investments, and I’m headed for the Don Pedro Dam.”
“Lucky? Winning the lottery is lucky.” Crappen squinted at him. “Aren’t you the guy in charge of the murders on Monday?”
“How’s that going?”
“Can’t say it’s going great. We almost got them in La Grange, but we were a hour late. How’d you get Sunday morning church duty?”
“Real reason I moved here was, I got a divorce and was running into the ex all the time. Sorta sucked. Alimony takes a big bite out of my check, I’m just pickin’ up extra shifts.”
“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”
“Have a nice drive.”
“Nice to meet you, Bert.” Grant fired up the Ferrari.

If pushed, I’d have to admit I’m a little envious of Grant.

I wanted to make my main character, Detective Grant Starr, stand out, but not in an outlandish way. Owing a 1970 Ferrari Daytona isn’t outlandish, is it? Perhaps it is for a cop, but at least he earned it: he’s got a talent for short-selling stocks and securities. He won’t say how much it cost, but we suspect it set him back at least $200K.

He’s a rich cop, about to get richer in the follow-up to THE MIGHTY T when he sells the software developed from his algorithms. He doesn’t flaunt the Ferrari or chase anyone in it, or even use it to get girls. He might do all of those things in the next book, but the Ferrari is low-key for now.

Ferrari launched the front-engined 365/4 Daytona coupe in 1968. It earned its name by winning the 24-hour race of the same name. 365 denotes the capacity of each cylinder and 4 reflects the number of camshafts. Who knows what all that means? This is what’s important:

Top speed is 174 mph in 5.4 seconds.

About 1,400 were made. And Grant has one.

Cool video:

The Ferrari used in Miami Vice was a faux Daytona Spider built on a Corvette C3 chassis. The replica was built by Tom McBurnie, of Thunder Ranch, in El Cajon, California. You can read about here

Picture Source:

Monday, April 25, 2011

Colorful Characters and Purple Flip Flops

Purple Flip Flop

At 5:10, Chuck Grossman sauntered into the La Grange Market for his four-hour shift.
The owner, Billi Jones, barked at Chuck, “You’re ten minutes late again!”
“Sorry, Billi. I got stuck in traffic.” He snickered.
Billi shook her head. “You don’t start showin’ up on time, I’m gonna fire your ass.”
Be doin’ me a favor, Chuck thought.
Billi collected her things and went home for dinner. She would return when the store closed at 9:00 to collect what little cash there would be in the drawer and to lock up.
Chuck helped himself to an Orange Crush from the fountain and a bag of peanuts, settled in behind the counter. He glanced at the list of things Billi wanted him to do, set it aside and turned on the TV. He watched a baseball game for a few minutes, got bored and flipped through the channels.
When he got to a local channel, he set the clicker down and stared at the screen: the hot chick from yesterday, the best looking chick he ever saw in La Grange, or anywhere else for that matter, had her face plastered across the TV.
He turned the volume up: she was wanted for murder and was considered armed and dangerous. A phone number flashed across the screen, but disappeared before Chuck thought to write it down.
“Holy shit.” The bell on the front door jangled, startling him; it was rare for him to get more than two or three customers on a Thursday night. He turned and saw Wizzy, a local whose last name he didn’t know, and whose first name probably wasn’t Wizzy.
“Hey Wizzy.” Wizzy nodded, shuffled to the beer cooler and pulled out two quarts of malt liquor. He wore a pair of bright purple flip-flops, two sizes too big. Wizzy flip-flopped the beer to the counter.
“You’ll never believe what just happened,” Chuck said, wanting to share his news with someone. Nothing had ever happened to Chuck.
“You won the lottery,” Wizzy said as he put the bottles on the counter and reached into his grubby jeans to dig out a few dollars.
“I wish. You’d never see me again, that’s for sure.” Chuck took Wizzy’s crumpled money and gave him fifty-two cents change.
“Be too soon for me.” Wizzy licked his dry lips and waited for Chuck to bag his booze.
“Check this out.” Chuck turned and pointed to the TV, which now was showing a drug commercial. “A hot chick came in here yesterday…”
“Bullshit. They ain’t no hot chicks in La Grange. You gonna bag my beer?”
“No kidding, Wizzy. She came in yesterday and bought some ice cream and a Coke. And she flirted with me.”
“Bullshit. Come on, Chucky. I’m thirsty.”
Chuck bagged the bottles. “I just saw her on TV. She’s wanted for murder.”
“Bullshit.” Wizzy grabbed his bag and shuffled to the door, stopped and said, “Is there a reward fer turnin’ her in?”
“They didn’t say.”
“No sense callin’ the sheriff then.” Wizzy flip-flopped out into the heat.
Chuck grinned and picked up the phone. He had never called the sheriff before.

Chapter 4, THE MIGHTY T 

THE MIGHTY T has a lot of violence in it—bad guys like John Lightfoot do bad things: People die. Stuff gets blown up. There’s a lot of suffering in the book because he’s a violent man hellbent on getting what he wants. 

You don’t want a whole book of that, though. You gotta have a break from the intensity. Literary types have a word for this, I’m sure, but I just call it “Gimme something to smile about now and then.”

Wizzy is a color-character, with his malt liquor and purple flip flops. NEW purple flip flips. They contrast nicely with his grubby clothes and the rundown town he lives in, La Grange. His role was to get Chuck to think to call the sheriff after he saw Mindy’s picture on the news. (Mindy’s a psychopathic member of Lightfoot’s gang.) Chuck wouldn’t have done it on his own.

Chuck’s call is the cops’s first break in the case. They’ll get some good fingerprints off a steel garage the gang used to build and hide their truck bombs in. And, because the gang destroyed their shack with an incendiary bomb, the bomb tie-in will help the cops get Homeland Security to cough up what they know.

Chuck gets interviewed by the cops, so he gets a few more lines, but Wizzy has served his purpose and gets only a mention when he’s seen standing with a group of gawkers. Wizzy gets to finish his booze, though. I wouldn’t do that to him.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lightfoot Makes Them Pay For What They’ve Done

Old Photo of Jones Pumping Plant, circa 1958

Tonight, before they drove their bomb to the Jones Pumping Plant, Lightfoot felt the need to tell them why the pumps had to go. Again.

He stood next to the river, his back to the water, in his Indian getup, lecturing: “The salmon fed the Miwuk for centuries. They caught enough to dry…”
The rest of the gang sat on the ground and swatted at mosquitoes, which were plentiful and so aggressive they pushed through the thick layer of repellant the gang had slathered on. The pests seemed to ignore Lightfoot, much to the other’s disappointment; they were sure he wouldn’t be so long-winded if he was being eaten alive like they were.
“Then the white man came. He dammed the Tuolumne in 1923 and 1926, and once more with the New Don Pedro Dam in 1971. And he thought, in his arrogance, he could ‘manage’ the Tuolumne, improve on Nature’s perfect wisdom.”
Donaldson tuned Lightfoot out and mentally reviewed his part in tonight’s mission: he was to drive the truck bomb. Driving the bomb wasn’t dangerous, it wouldn’t explode unless it was detonated, but if the cops pulled him over he’d go to prison for a long time while the others went free.
“The mighty and noble salmon might have survived the white man’s dams, but when the white man decided to send water from the Tuolumne to southern California, they sealed the salmon’s fate.” Lightfoot’s face filled with grief that quickly morphed to rage.
“In 1951, the white man installed six 25,000-horsepower pumps near Tracy. These killer pumps siphon the Tuolumne out of the Delta and push the water through 15-foot-diameter pipes at a rate of 768 cubic feet per second.” He spat the numbers out.
The numbers meant nothing to Roberts, who was also trying to ignore Lightfoot’s ranting. How much water was in a cubic foot? He didn’t know and didn’t care. Lightfoot had him riding in the truck with Donaldson, to keep an eye on him. “If he suddenly grows a conscience, shoot him and drive the truck yourself. If he gets sick or has a heart attack, push him out and take over.” Lame.
“The pumps draw water from the Delta and lift it 197 feet into the Delta-Mendota Canal. There’s no salmon in the Delta-Mendota Canal. Do you know why? Because the pumps cut the salmon to pieces!!!
The group had heard the speech so many times they were ready for Lightfoot’s outbursts; no one flinched. The first time Lightfoot delivered the Pump Talk, Griffith did some fact-finding research—for all the shack didn’t have, it did have a broadband Internet connection.

He learned the California Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that operated the Jones Pumping Plant, which they would hopefully blow up tonight, went to great lengths to stop fish from getting sucked into the intake canal that took water to the gigantic pumps. Various types of fish-screening devices were used and were, for the most part, fairly effective. A fish had to be less than one and a half inches long to make it through the screens.

So Lightfoot’s speech about the salmon getting cut up in the pumps was bullshit. When he told this to the others, everyone except Danny, they had all had a good laugh.

What Griffith didn’t tell the others was that while the small immature fish—the babies—couldn’t get through the screens, they often couldn’t get away from them either: the screens cut the fish up, not the pumps. Lightfoot was right, his timing was just off.

* * * * *  

Thankfully for the gang, the end of Indian Class is seconds away. Do you think Lightfoot’s “sermon” sounds rehearsed? It does, for a good reason: He’d typed and memorized it before giving it the first time. And he’s no Winston Churchill.

Lightfoot blames the decline in Tuolumne River Chinook salmon on the two dams controlling the river and the massive siphon pumps in the San Joaquin Delta. But the dams didn’t build themselves, and the pumps didn’t drop out of space and land in the Delta like some piece of space junk: humans were responsible, so humans had to pay for what they’d done.

The O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy was constructed and is operated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The Don Pedro Dam belongs to the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts. Lightfoot targets the three utilities for revenge, specifically, their general managers.

THE MIGHTY T begins when Danny, a member of Lightfoot’s gang who’s crazy-good with a sniper rifle, and just plain crazy, targets one GM from the top of the twelve-story DoubleTree Inn in Modesto. He hits his target and empties the rest of the clip into the plaza below. (Read Chapter 1 to see what happens to Danny when he’s no longer useful to Lightfoot.)

The pumps in Tracy are run by the State of California; far too big a target for Lightfoot. Who would he send his gang to kill, the governor? Turning the 150-foot-long pump building into rubble will have to suffice. Those pumps won’t be killing salmon for years after he’s done with them.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Genesis of John Lightfoot’s Motivation

The bomb was ready and everyone was well rested; time for Indian class.

Lightfoot led the others down a narrow pathway to the banks of the Tuolumne River, as he had done almost every night since they’d arrived in La Grange. He was wearing stereotypical Native American garb: a headband with a few turkey feathers, vest and chaps made of faux cowhide, and makeup he applied under his eyes and on his cheeks.

He wore the Indian getup every day now, which made the others nervous even though, so far, he only wore it on their property and by the river. He didn’t want Mindy out and about in La Grange because she might attract attention, but he could wear a cheap Indian outfit?

At first, Lightfoot had simply wanted to show the others the river, thinking that when they saw how low the water was and how few salmon there were, they would understand why certain things needed to be done, why some people had to die for the sins they’d committed against the river, and more importantly, the salmon.

But one night became two, two became three and three a week, a week a month, two months, then six.
Night after night, he lectured on the Tuolumne band of Miwuk Indians, whom he said had lived peacefully along the Tuolumne River for thousands of years, on the Tuolumne River itself, and on the salmon that returned each year to spawn.

It was here at the river he first told the others he was part Miwuk. “Bullshit,” Griffith told Roberts and Donaldson later. “If he’s part Indian, I’m an Eskimo.”

* * * * * 

This is one of my favorite scenes in THE MIGHTY T. I call it “Indian Class.” John Lightfoot, the bad guy, leads his gang to the banks of the Tuolumne River and delivers a sermon they’d heard a hundred times.

They’d murdered eleven people in two days and planned to blow up some gigantic water pumps in the San Joaquin Delta early the next morning. Then, come the following Monday, they planned to… We learn all about why in this scene: the genesis of Lightfoot’s motivation.

We also get to peek inside the gang member’s minds, to see what they really think of Lightfoot. They’ve got him figured out, but he’s got them by the short-hairs; they’ll do anything he tells them. (Find out why in Chapter 6.)

Chinook salmon
Image credit:

Lightfoot is obsessed with the declining Chinook salmon population in the Tuolumne River. Sure, the rest of us are concerned about the salmon, too, especially the salmon fishing industry. But are we willing to kill thousands to fix the problem? Lightfoot is.

Who can know why he’s so obsessed with the salmon? Why do YOU become obsessed with odd things? Something in your brain clicks and there you are, washing your hands for the hundredth time today. His was the salmon. Strange, I know.

At the end of the excerpt you learn Lightfoot claims to be part Miwuk. He’s not, but he’s convinced himself he is. You’re naturally curious why: In his mind, it gives him legitimacy. The Miwuk lived along the Tuolumne for centuries, until they signed a treaty giving their land up in exchange for a reservation.

If he’s Miwuk, the river and the fish are his, and he has an obligation to protect them. Watch out.

Oh, and John Lightfoot’s not his real name. It’s not even a Miwuk name.

In the next post, you’ll learn who’s to blame for the poor salmon’s plight. Boy, do they pay.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Local Settings Make for Easy Research

My novels, CANALS and the soon-to-be-released THE MIGHTY T, are set in or around my hometown, Modesto, California. I've always been interested in how authors get ideas for their books, and I bet you are, too. You'll read about the genesis and writing of my novels in future posts, so stay tuned.

Setting your book locally makes for easy, or easier, research. In CANALS, an alien monster is living in the irrigation canals running through and around Modesto. I drive by and over these canals every day; it was nothing to stop and look, and snap some pictures.

You can do the same if you live near or visit your settings. Then, when you write scenes set in these locations, you can whip out a photo or look at a digital image and make your writing more precise and realistic.

You can also make everything up. However, I find descriptive writing less mentally taxing than creative writing; electricity and I have something in common: we seek the path of least resistance.

Visiting or having pictures of your locations saves precious creative energy for plotting and dialog, where it's really needed. Daily creative time is finite, is it not?

I ventured further out of town for THE MIGHTY T, but still could drive to my locations to snoop and take photos. This is the O'Shaughnessy Dam:

O'Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy

See that room-like outcropping in the middle of the dam? Wait until you read what happens there!

Dams are magnificent and immensely useful structures. They're also controversial; good fodder for fiction. THE MIGHTY T deals with controversy surrounding this dam and the river it controls.

The O'Shaughnessy Dam made a lake out of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which is part of Yosemite National Park. That it was built in the first place is tragic, but there it is, and only two hours away.

Seeing gates and buildings, and the dam itself, and having photos of them, helped tremendously when I wrote the novel. And saved brain-energy for biting action and dialog. (No people or animals are actually bitten in the book, but people are certainly harmed. It's a thriller, after all.)

You can look at other photos of the dam and lake here, if you so wish.

The second dam in THE MIGHTY T is the New Don Pedro Dam:

New Don Pedro Dam

The New Don Pedro Dam is an earth-and-rock-fill dam and is the setting for the exciting conclusion of THE MIGHTY T. John Lightfoot attempts to... Later, Everett!

One scene took place in front of the dam, where nosy, plotting visitors aren't allowed, so no photos were possible: Google Earth came to the rescue. I relied on Google Earth quite a bit, at both locations. It shows elevations, allows you to measure distances, and lets you nose around in places the authorities don't allow. Again, making the action more accurate while preserving creative energy.

I feel sorry for you poor science fiction authors, who have to make everything up! My brain would ooze from my ears if I had to do that.

A parting shot of the O'Shaughnessy Dam, in proper perspective:

The Dammed Hetch Hetchy Valley

A beautiful setting, no?